It was late when they'd finally left the prison, and Harriet had apparated back to the office. Hermione had been tempted to follow, but she knew she should head home, as uncomfortable as it was to be there right then. But the joke shop was quiet, and the flat they lived in above it was empty. The only sign of anything was the note Ron had left on the table.
Gone to Burrow for dinner
No invitation, just information. Normally that would have made her happy, a chance not to be the subject of subtle digs by Molly, but this time it cut. Because normally he would have entreated, or said…something, anything. Sighing, Hermione crumpled the note and cast an incendio on it – minor catharsis.
She had just bothered to put some lettuce in a bowl for dinner when the crack of apparition surprised her. Considering so few had the ability to do that into their flat, Hermione expected to see Ron when she turned around. Instead it was Fred she found poking around the tiny living room, before flopping on the couch. Confused with his presence, she leaned against the doorway that bordered on the kitchen, watching him. Odd too, because this was the first time they had been alone together since he'd come back alive. Conversations had been pretty much filtered through George, save a few initial celebratory hugs.
"Mum's cooking's better than that," he said, waving his hand towards her rather pathetic dinner preparations on the table behind her.
"Worked late," she said by way of explanation, "didn't want to interrupt."
Fred hoisted himself to his feet. "Figured as much, why I offered to come find you and drag you to the Burrow if need be, even if you were at the Ministry. Can't have a big family dinner without the love of ickle Ronniekins life, and the hero of the moment. Course I think mum's got a complex – she kind of had the monopoly on giving life to me before you and George got into the mix."
"You're supposed to be in hiding until you can leave," Hermione admonished, as he started to look around at everything in their flat. "Not asking to get found out."
He shrugged, "Benefits of having an identical twin brother, don't you know." Fred shot her a grin. "Tell them I'm George trying out a new prosthetic ear if need be, though haven't been seen yet. They would never consider the possibility of anything different."
"But the risks…"
"Relax Hermione," Fred walked up and put his hands on her shoulders, "I'm not going to fuck it up. I know the chance you and George took, and I'd rather cut off both ears than make life harder for either of you. Besides, I rather like being alive again, in case you haven't been able to tell."
Hermione felt a smile warring on her face, "And we rather like having you back."
"We?" He raised his eyebrows, "Don't tell me the esteemable Miss Granger actually missed me?"
"Hardly," she retorted, "I did this solely for your family. You've got a face and personality only a mother could love." But the smile was wide now.
Of course she wasn't exactly joking around because her reasons for bringing him back – well, helping to bring him back – weren't personal in any way. But that didn't mean she hadn't missed the tolerant amusement. The way he had been always able to make her laugh in spite of herself. It might have been for his family's sake, but that didn't mean she wasn't glad outside of that. They'd never been friends, never had the opportunity, but she rather though they could have had a relationship unto themselves, instead of just through Ron.
"Speaking of said family," Fred smiled as he patted her shoulders once, before letting his hands drop, "I think we're having dewberry pie for dessert."
That was enough to make the smile on her face tense and Hermione turned and headed back for the kitchen where her own dinner preparations awaited. "It's a family reunion, I don't want to intrude." The best excuse she could think of. "You should head back – I've got work to do anyways, and the flat's nice and quiet."
Instead of apparating out though, Fred followed her into the kitchen. He didn't address the issue of her reasons for not wanting to come, because maybe he understood – or maybe he just didn't think she had any outside of what she had offered, and slid into one of the chairs at their miniscule kitchen table. "So you live here with my younger brother? And not a pair of shorts, or a sweat stained shirt, in sight. Notorious he was, for leaving that sort of thing strewn about. Must have trained the prat well." He smirked, "Course you've got the sort of tool Mum never had."
Hermione was happier to joke about Ron than discuss anything more serious. She was sure things with the Weasley family, and with him, would smooth over soon enough. But for now, she didn't want to force her presence on anyone both for their sake, and for hers. Rolling her eyes, she continued to go about making dinner, tossing a few pieces of tomato onto the lettuce. "He's not a child Fred." Even if he often acted like one, talked like one, thought like one, and wanted her to take care of him like one. "Perfectly capable of keeping house on his own." Even though he never did. More often than not, her life had become about defending Ron to others, and to herself as well. "I don't have to deny him sex just to get him to pick up."
"Must have just threatened to hex his bullocks then," Fred said with a laugh.
She tossed a tomato at him, and he ducked it, letting it splatter all over the ground before cleaning it up with a wave of his wand. "But I find myself surprised you're not more than an honorary Weasley given how long it's been. Merlin, think the same about Harry. Swear he would have married Gin even if she was a boy just for Mum if nothing else."
Ah, there was a topic she didn't want to talk about either, their unmarried status. "I'm too fond of 'Granger' to let it go," Hermione said with a shrug, more content to focus on the aspect of Harry, "And, phrase it differently, please. But I understand, don't worry, I've seen it too. He might be desperate for a family, but he loves Ginny. And you can jump on the protective brother bandwagon if you like, but I think from Bill down to Ron they have it covered in spades."
"Nah," Fred shrugged, "Ginny's bat bogey hex is more than capable of taking care of Harry. But you are evading the question."
Hermione raised her eyebrows, as she tossed the last of the ingredients onto her salad. "Were you this much of a gossip before? I must have blocked it out."
"It's not gossip," he retorted, "it's searching for facts. Besides, there's got to be a reason Mum's up in arms about you."
She gave a slightly bitter laugh, "Despite the fact I lured her pure and precious son into practising dark magic? But really Fred, it's not a very interesting story. A lot of facts that all come down to the fact your mum's entirely too obsessed with grandchildren and marriage. And I'm….not."
"An attitude I fully support," Fred nodded, "given I don't plan on procreating anytime soon." He cast a thoughtful look up towards the corner. "Wonder if I can. I've never quite got the hand of those condom do-hickeys Angelina always used to insist on, so it would be handy if I didn't have to worry about them."
The look in his eyes made it obvious he was trying to goad her, to get a blush to her cheeks. It was one of his favourite pastimes before, and it had always been relatively easy given her relative innocence and prudish attitude. But she was hardly that any more – though Ron did accuse her of being a prude when she wouldn't attempt certain things in bed. Hermione cast a pointed look at Fred's groin. "Wonder if you can even get an erection. After all it was something made nearly entirely for procreation, and if you're not capable….." At his crestfallen look she only shook her head, "Again – Fred, you're alive. Completely and utterly alive. You can cast spells….fuck as often as you want," still, worldly though she considered herself to be, she stumbled over the word, "whatever you want. So long as it's not in England."
"Yes, Hermione, we'll be going," Fred rolled his eyes, "you don't have to slip the warning into every single conversation."
She waved her hand in imitation of apparating, "Speaking of going…."
Fred pretended to be affronted, "Back only a few days and you're already tired of my company?"
"You were at your parents, you prat. Family reunion type dinner. Ringing any bells?"
He waved it off, "I'll head back soon. Seems vaguely pathetic, you eating alone."
She rolled her eyes, but didn't object, sliding into the chair across from him at the table. In truth, she was glad of amicable company. She wasn't getting it from her boyfriend, nor the family that had nearly become her own. And work friends were just that…work. And besides, she enjoyed Fred. Frustrating, occasionally annoying, but enjoyable. And though she had no right to any monopoly, she wouldn't have any chance to talk with him once he and George left the country. It took simple encounters like this to remind her how much she well…liked him. Not just as Ron's brother. She'd forgotten in his absence, his death, because she'd been so preoccupied with Ron in the interim. The flush of new relationship had distracted her from a lot of things.
"Got a new wand yet?" she asked, forking some of the salad and beginning to chew. His old had stayed in the coffin he had been buried in.
He shook his head, "No. I want one that's right for me, and that means I can't just send George to Ollivander's. I will when we're out of the country. Borrowed his to apparate over here. Gets bloody annoying, you can't imagine, not being able to do any magic."
"Gives you an appreciation for how the muggle half lives," Hermione said, pointing her fork at him.
He shrugged, "Nah, see, those poor buggers don't know any different. They're content with their fellytones without knowing they could floo. They're happy with their…hairflanes when they don't know about portkeys. This is just miserable. Mum made me wash the dishes by hand yesterday."
Fitting in. At least Molly really was accepting of him, even if Hermione was ostracized. But thoughts in that respect were cut off when his hand reached out, brushing the corner of her mouth. And then the moment was over as soon as it had began, his hand dropping back to the table as he leaned on his elbows. "Lettuce, stuck there," he explained, showing how trivial it had been. But that didn't explain away the slight, inexplicable, flutter in her stomach.
But thoughts on that were cut off by the pop of apparition beside him – both turning to see Ron standing there.
"Mum was wondering where you went," he explained to Fred, his eyes glancing over them both.
The elder brother got up with a heavy sigh. "Coming back from the dead is such a heavy burden. Presence is always in demand, don't you know." But she knew he was anxious to get back too, when he'd missed his family, and would be moving away from them – as evidenced from his quick departure.
For a moment she thought Ron would head back immediately afterwards, but he paused, shuffling his feet.
She said nothing, waiting for him to speak.
"Why didn't you tell me?" He blurted suddenly, "You were planning all along – and never a bloody word."
Her features softened. "It wasn't that I didn't trust you Ron. I didn't even decide I was going to help until you left for France. Before I was thinking about how I could convince George it was a bad idea."
"And you couldn't tell me during that time what was going on?"
Ron had a point. But it had never occurred to her to discuss it with him somehow, to get his input – at least in more than an oblique fashion. She couldn't quite understand why that was. But she supposed so much of it was that most decisions she made were unilateral, and Ron wasn't the talking type, not exactly good as a sounding board. But that was a cop out, and she knew she was completely and utterly in the wrong for not having done so.
"You shouldn't have done it either," he said, looking everywhere in the room but her. "Don't get me wrong, I love Fred, and I'm so bleeding happy he's home, and I wouldn't change that now that he is. But he…he shouldn't be Hermione. You were always the smart and sensible one, talking me and Harry out of things we shouldn't do. Merlin, if I'd contemplated something this nutters you'd have lectured me for a week and twisted my ear off, and then possibly killed me. And you were always the one so set on the dead staying dead, during all that Hallows stuff. Never would have thought it of you." His face turned stubborn, like a petulant child. "You shouldn't have brought him back Hermione – it can't not be dark arts."
Of course part of the reason she'd not discussed it was this, the possibility he'd judge.
She felt her ire rising. "You never had problems with me doing…questionable things when it was on behalf of you or Harry. There was no judgement then. You had no problems skirting the edge then, when you were involved." She hated too, that the decision was being thrown back at her, with some of the same qualms she'd had herself, and had to overcome. "Besides, it's not dark magic Ron, really, it's not. Even if it should stay a complete secret." The words sounded completely contradicting when she said them.
They argued back and forth for nearly an hour after that. It was all tied up in so many things, all of which now lay between them. His disapproval of the act – but that wasn't the biggest thing. The largest problem Ron had with the whole situation was that he hadn't been included, or consulted – everything else was secondary. Of course Hermione realized that after the fact, not while they were in the heat of the argument, having nothing to temper his disapproval with. Instead she used the opportunity to say every hurtful thing she'd ever thought about him, every doubt she'd ever had about the relationship, and he returned the favour. And, after that, there was no going back.
And when they were all worn out, breathing heavily and just so bloody tired, and nothing left to say to say to each other, Hermione asked the important question she stared out the window, looking anywhere but him. "Where do we go from here?"
And Ron gave the answer that mirrored what she felt. "I don't know."
But when he apparated out, going to spend the night at the Burrow with his family, she thought she had a good idea.
A part of her had been hoping Ron would come home contritely in the morning, tail between his legs in apology so they could work it out, but when he apparated in still hurt and bitter before she left for work she had to admit it didn't surprise her.
Surprised her even less when he said the words they should have said the night before, ending things officially between them.
You couldn't call your boyfriend an 'immature idiot who would never amount to anything" – and mention you had only moved in with him out of obligation, and he couldn't call you "a self righteous swot who was as frigid as an ice cube" and expect things would just go back to normal in the morning. So Hermione didn't fight it when he told her in a haltingly quiet voice that he didn't think he could do 'them' anymore, just sipped her tea and watched him, knowing when she did that it made him nervous and prone to babbling. A petty revenge, but revenge none the less. But she had stayed sitting at the kitchen table long after he left, simply staring into her cup of tea – hurting, wishing things were different, but refusing to cry and moan about it all the same.
She loved Ron, would always love Ron in a way. but…maybe it was for the best. That it had all come out now, rather than later. Because if they really felt that way about each other, they never would have lasted anyway.
Hermione knew they would never understand at the Ministry if she'd given the real reason, so she'd owled in to tell them she was sick and would be taking the day off. That at least sounded like a plausible excuse. But it wasn't so much taking the time for a pity party, she wanted to be moved out by the time Ron came back later. He'd not said anything, but it was implied, that she was the one who would be moving out. The funny thing was, if she told George, Ron would be the one out on his arse. But it was his family, his job, and the shoppe he was going to inherit the management of when George and Fred moved out of the country. They weren't going to get into a custody battle over a tiny little flat she didn't much like anyway. So she packed the essentials, and then went searching for a place to live, leaving a note for Ron she'd return for the rest later.
A meager Ministry salary wouldn't pay for much, but the realtor she'd contacted found a few options when Hermione explained the urgency.
So after deciding she didn't want to spend every day of her life running into Ron, Hermione found herself in a tiny little cottage in the country. Not quite her dream house, or very close to work or anything really – but it was close enough she could apparate in. And far enough she could have privacy. Especially because it seemed these days like she was going to be having a lot of privacy. So she'd taken it on the spot once she'd seen it. For it was serviceable, the grounds were pretty enough, and she was desperate enough that it would do. The rashness wasn't like her, but she couldn't stand to spend the night sleeping on the couch, or lying restless while Ron did. She just wanted out.
The rest of the day was spent getting it set up, and figuring out how she was going to tell her parents. Because she figured Ron would take care of everybody else.
When she heard the crack of apparition outside the door, Hermione put aside the box she'd just brought over, and opened it – expecting to see Harry. On the occasions that she and Ron had fought before, it was he who came to play peacemaker between the two of them. Reassuring both that they were each his friends, and it hurt to see them like this, and they were meant for each other – on and on ad nauseum until they decided to get back together. And this time she didn't relish the visit, because she was going to have to reassure Harry that it was done, that there was no taking him back. Yes, they normally fought, and it didn't mean anything in the end, but this time was different. This time there was no taking it back.
But it wasn't Harry who was standing on her doorstep, holding a bottle of firewhiskey.
It was the twins.
"Heard you weren't a neighbour anymore," George said.
"And were a single woman," Fred continued the thought, as they herded her back until all three were in the cottage.
"And likely celebrating that fact and kicking up your heels," his brother continued, "contemplating how you put up with that prat all these years."
Fred waved his wand, opening the bottle George carried. "But lonely, because you haven't bothered to notify anyone of your new residence. Egregious error, that. Took some damn fine detective work to find you."
"And," George's voice turned more serious as he transfigured a few pieces of paper into drinking glasses and poured generous helpings of the firewhiskey into it, "all because of us."
Hermione had been distracted by her own troubles for long enough to feel amusement and satisfaction in the fact they were finishing each other's thoughts again, but George's mention brought it all back. She waved away the drink, not in the mood for drowning her sorrows. "Nothing that wasn't a long time in coming I suppose, and it's precipitating cause nothing that I didn't agree too willingly. Nothing to feel guilt over."
"Ah, but I don't think you can stop that," Fred said – his words teasing, but his tone serious.
"I'm not upset," she insisted, though in a way she was. But it was more a loss of the familiar, and the constant, everything she had known since she was young, not the deep abiding pain of lost love. But that didn't make it any less a loss. "Fine, maybe a tad, but shouldn't you be siding with your brother in this matter? Blood thicker than water and all that? Over there consoling him about how he doesn't need a bitch like me. Telling him he did the right thing in ending it when he did. How you never liked me anyway. How he is better off?"
George rolled his eyes. "Haven't you been listening to a word we said Hermione? He broke it off because of something I got you involved in…"
"…but we are infinitely grateful for…" Fred interjected.
"….so honour demands we side with you. And even if it was because of something that had nothing to do with us, that hardly matters…"
Fred finished, "…because we like you better."
But his voice was quiet and earnest for a moment in a way George's wasn't, and Hermione found herself struck by that. Even as George carried on, making innuendo laced comments about 'comforting her' in her hour of need, it wasn't him that she was paying the closest attention to, or feeling drawn too. It was Fred's eyes when he'd made that last comment that stayed with her, and made him stay with her - because it caused the oddest little flutter in the pit of her stomach.
But when George's voice got more serious, offering her an honest chance to talk, her attention was broken and she turned away. In that moment, they were the closest thing to girlfriends that she had, and every breakup needed a post-mortem.
But life went on even when everything else seemed to go into the toilet personally.
She still might not be on 'friend' terms with Ginny, even if they were fake friends for Harry's sake. That was one relationship Hermione would have thought would equalize faster, and had hoped it would, but it hadn't. In reality, it was probably the most fractured since they had been closer before. But some of the problems with the other woman stemmed from similar issues Ron had been having, Hermione knew that. That and she had this odd little moral code Hermione had never encountered before – with her having never truly been 'in' on the trio's activities. It was the same old story as with so many of the other Weasleys right then. They liked the end, but they condemned the one who had provided the means to get there. In fact the only one outside the twins who seemed to be all right with her was Percy, continuing the same acquaintance they'd shared before – including one day in which he'd allowed himself a few minutes of weakness and thanked her. And Arthur was nice enough if they encountered each other in the Ministry lift. So she supposed that was something. After all, she had been dumped by his son.
But as hard as it was to adjust to life alone, and as much as she'd lost some of the people close to her, she still had to show up for work, and she still had to be effective.
Occasionally Harry stopped by, but due to Ginny the visits were few and far between. Most of their acquaintance came at work, which was unfortunate, but she'd come to accept it. The only visitors she got at home were Fred and George, and she still couldn’t decide if it was pity and obligation, or actual friendship. They were making arrangements to move to some small city in Canada – the Ministry there having enough old ties to the British Ministry that Arthur could make some arrangements for them without having any eyebrows raised. She knew from Fred's conversation that Molly kept crying, and knitting sweaters whenever she had a free moment, scared of her babies freezing to death. Apparently the 'd' word was less of a taboo now. But they were staying for awhile yet – though the family had been pushing for Christmas, Fred and George had been sane enough to know they should go sooner given the propensity for visitors and the like during the season. Fred was going stir crazy as it was, only allowed out for very planned and careful occasions 'as' George. So they were going to leave mid-December, using Percy's birthday as a cut off.
She might have pressed them for earlier, but she knew it would give time for Arthur to make better arrangements for their cover without being found out. And, besides, she was selfish enough to enjoy their company – more than she even had in the past. Especially Fred, who came around the most. She couldn't tell if his excuse of family smothering was just that – an excuse – or not, or if it was simply her place was the only safe escape he had from the Burrow, or….something else. But, regardless, she was happy when he came by, always at the most random times. She might have never believed it of Fred, but he was capable of sitting in companionable silence – fiddling with product inventions while she did her own work, which never seemed to end, books from the Ministry library covering her table every night. There was no end to the knowledge the law enforcement department needed – but this case of the Death Eaters who were trying to come to power again wouldn't seem to go away, even though they kept along in the same avenue.
They'd found a semi-sentient inferi in Devon one day, leading to the idea they were continuing trying to raise their own little army.
And that they were closer then the Ministry had thought.
It was encroaching upon ten, Hermione still at the office – with no plans to go home anytime soon – when there was a knock on her door, and Harriet Fillengeny slipped in, looking downright scary with the anger that graced her face. For a brief moment, Hermione was scared that she'd found out about Fred, that they'd all found out, but it took only moments to realize the anger wasn't directed at her. The elder witch stood forbiddingly in front of her desk, and Hermione had to fight the ingrained urge to stand in respect.
"Gormley escaped Azkaban," she said tersely, arms crossed. "Hit wizards running the place found what they thought was a loyal dementor to give him the kiss, and ended up allowing his escape."
Hermione felt the pit of her stomach drop. "Merlin's shorts!" She blushed mildly at the expletive that was so tame in comparison to what the others usually offered.
Harriet gave a bark of laughter. "To put it mildly. I've got all our field agents out looking for him right now, but I don't know what good it's going to do. Never thought they'd plan an organized escape for that insignificant wanker. Though not so insignificant little wanker now, is he? With the information we've empowered him with? Never should have allowed or planned on…"
She broke off, rubbing her hand over her face in frustration, shifting her eyepatch, even as she seemed to remember that she was talking to a subordinate in front of whome one should never admit mistakes or weakness. "Anyway, Granger, wanted you to know. He knows you. You, me, and Potter and Smergeon who brought him in. Not sure if it means anything, but it's a name for them to latch onto, and him for revenge if nothing else. Make sure your flat is well warded, just in case."
"My cottage is," Hermione said with a nod, grateful she had taken the precautions already. And she hadn't exactly been broadcasting her change in living arrangements the past few weeks, and Harriet and she were hardly chummy, so the other woman didn't know, "I've got them triggered to that save for a few certain people I weaved recogntion of into the magic to allow in freely, nobody else can get in without my direct invitation."
"Good enough, I 'spose," Harriet sounded slightly derisive. But then again she was the paranoid type. It was enough to make Hermione feel delinquent in her own safety arrangements. But she hadn't been active enough in cases yet to incur enemies. Though she had a tendency to forget the enemies of the past fairly quickly, for they were there, as a helper of Harry if nothing else.
The other woman nodded, and broke for the door, "Come – you can come to me with Azkaban. We probably won't find him, but we can figure out how the bloody hell he got out of there. We have to be able to house fucking prisoners somewhere without them walking out with so much as a by your leave in the end." And with that she strode out of the room, expecting Hermione to follow. With a sigh, Hermione grabbed her cloak and wand quickly and hurried after Harriet. The other woman didn't seem to understand that most of her time, she was happy in her books. She didn't relish the idea of promotion to capture and killing as much as the usual relative rookie in the department.
It was nearing daybreak when Hermione apparated home, tired, and ready to commune with her bed for a few scant hours until she had to be back at the Ministry again.
And after Harriet's admonition of possible danger, when her first sight was of a lone figure sitting on her doorstep, it was enough to make her heart catch and grab her wand in fear and readiness. But it took only a few seconds to realize that it was Fred, and a few more to realize he had a trunk sitting beside him.
"Took you long enough," he said in irritation, standing up and brushing his arse off. "I've been waiting around for hours – and whether or not you were kind enough to allow me unfettered access onto your property, no spell was enough to get me into your house, and kicking down the door only works in those muggle movies Katie used to show us on her muvee player. Don't you ever sleep Granger?"
"Only when I'm lucky," she said with raised brows, not bothering to correct him. "What are you doing here Fred?"
He let out a sigh, motioning to his trunk. "Seems you're going to have a roommate for awhile."
Confused, Hermione none the less asked. "Uh, why? And don't I get a say in that?"
"No," Fred said decisively. "It's you, or Shell cottage, or Harry and Ginny's – and they're all too disgustingly in love. Besides, have to watch my language around Victoire. Suppose Percy's is always an option, but…well, as much as I love the wanker now that the stick up his arse has shifted at least, us living together is a recipe for murder. So, no Hermione, you don't get a choice."
She rolled her eyes, walking around him, and using the simple muggle key to open the lock she'd installed on the door that was impervious to alahomora. "And even if I agree, we still haven't got to the why you're sitting on my doorstep at four in the morning with a trunk."
"To be fair," Fred argued, "I showed up 'round ten, expecting you to be making tea before bed, but you weren't here." At her tired and angry look he continued, "Fine fine, the why. Unfortunately as chance would have it, George has fallen ill. Took a bite from a furngle, bleeding idiot. Should be allright, but he's layed up in St. Mungo's for the time being – they put him into a coma while the venom works it's way through hus body. And, mum's got her stitch and bitch group coming over for their monthly meeting tomorrow, and Aunt Muriel is inviting herself for the week to the Burrow – and I can't even pretend to be George considering there's about a thousand hospital employees who know of his whereabouts – so to make a long story somewhat short, I had to leave. And my first inclination was of course your warm and hospitable cottage." He finished with a wide grin, holding his arms out wide.
Hermione might have made a few sarcastic remarks, bantered a little, but in the end she knew she was going to let him stay, and she was just so bloody tired.
Besides, she was already disliking that time at every visit when he went to leave. But that was a thought that slipped in only because of the exhaustion, and she didn't allow herself to analyze it.
"Linens are in the cupboard at the top of the stairs," Hermione sighed, waving her hand in vague direction, "You know where the spare bedroom is. Don't leave your pants strewn about, don't touch my stuff, and we might get along allright."
Without another word, she shuffled over to the couch that lined the west wall and collapsed onto it fully clothed – just needing sleep as soon as possible. Her eyes and closed, and her brain had turned off, and within moments of the act – fell nearly into a deep slumber.
And she hardly heard his chuckle as he bent over, picking her up and carrying her to her proper bed.
Days with Fred slipped into easy routine, carrying well past their supposed departure date as George recovered slower than expected, approaching Christmas. In fact, it seemed like he had always been there. Their running joke was that he was a husband without the benefits, for he always had dinner waiting when she got home, and nagged her when that time wasn't early enough, and they spent every night together. But, it was more her joke than anything, because it caused a curious look to come over his face whenever she used it, though he did join in. Hermione couldn't quite figure it out. The two of them kept apprised of George's status through a combination of Percy, and Hermione's own visits – usually overlapping with Angelina who came daily - Fred chafing at the fact he couldn't go.
"You're coming home at six tonight," Fred had said decisively at breakfast one morning, one of their little domesticities that they shared daily.
Hermione had hid a smile behind her hand as she sipped at a cup of coffee. "You can't just dictate…"
"I can and I will," he had told her, throwing a flake of his cereal. "Hermione, you've not been home before ten all week, and when you have been you sit at the kitchen table doing research till damn near dawn. It's Friday, you are going to have a proper weekend with me whether you like it or not – there might actually be sleeping in. And I've owled Harry to say he's going to physically evict you from the premises if you don't do it yourself – and yes, using your owl to avoid detection, don't worry – and he can take you, you know he can. You fell asleep during my best joke yesterday, and that must be an indication you're too bloody knackered to function.
"No, just means I've got a discerning sense of humour," she had retorted, which had earned her a bowlful of cereal tossed her way.
But she had to admit that Fred had a point. For all that she was oddly happy and at peace, she was working herself too hard. She just didn't like to own up to that fact. It was mostly self imposed after all, the other members of the department being able to find the balance between home and work life, especially since their most pressing case had shifted into a state of monotony, with no real breaks or developments. But it was her nature – and beyond that, she had gotten into the habit once Ron had left her when she needed the distraction, and it was a hard one to break. It had nothing to do with ambition, or need, she was just burning the candle at both ends because that was her. Oh, there were the few obligatory nights when Harriet called on her for a specific purpose, but they were few and far between. So she planned on being home when Fred had, well, dictated.
That and she wanted to spend the time with him. While she still could.
She wasn't entirely dense. Hermione knew there was something more between them that there had been in the past, but she was fairly certain it was just friendship, nothing more. Because she liked being with him. She liked living with him. She'd never liked living with anyone before – not the dormmates at Hogwarts, and certainly not Ginny for the disastrous few months they'd tried rooming together, nor Ron after that. Well, the last one was a bit of a rewrite of history because she hadn't disliked living with Ron, it just had felt…lacking maybe. And, Merlin, she even liked the way he teased her – never thought she would ever say that.
What it came down to was, she really didn't want him to go, even if she would never stand in the way. She knew all too well why it was necessary, and she had been the one to dictate the terms.
But still, she was packed up at the Ministry and ready to go by half past four, chafing to go home. The oddest sensation.
Walking in the door was as it was every day, and Hermione laughed at herself. From Fred's words, she'd been under the assumption that he'd been meaning something special to occur. But she'd been a simpleton. He just was stressing the hour, not any special occasion. Still, as she shrugged out of her cloak, it was enough. For once the dinner on the plates was actually warm, not just kept that way by virtue of a charm.
"It's beans on toast, your favourite," Fred's voice came from behind her as he swept down the stairs, giving a quick ruffle on the top of her head, and she swatted his hand away.
"It's not my favourite," she retorted. "At all really."
He shrugged as he slid into the chair nearest the stove, and grandly motioned her down across from him. "Well, 'spose not, but it's my specialty. And I burned the chicken parmigiana you do actually like, so….yeah"
Hermione raised her eyebrows – impressed, and touched. Both that he remembered when she'd mentioned it, and that he had tried. "I hardly think my being home on time for once warrants so much effort."
Taking a bite of the dinner, Fred pointed a fork at her, "Ah, but it's part of the weekend of fun that I somewhat alluded too. Well…relaxation at the very least. Now, ask me what we're going to do later."
She rolled her eyes, but obliged, parroting him. "What are we going to do later?"
Fred gave a wide grin, bounding to his feet and pulling a few bottles from the cupboard. "Courtesy of my baby sis at my request – who you'll be happy to know graced your doorstep for once. We're going to get you completely smashed."
Hermione knew she should have said no to the firewhiskey.
And she knew she should have said no to the bottle of wine.
But the chance to relax was too appealing, to just let go for once. Besides, Fred could be very convincing when he wanted to be. And she had a niggling suspicion that he kept refilling her glass without her even noticing. But still, she was only tipsy, and it was a pleasant sensation. She hadn't let herself even be thus since the celebration after the Battle of Hogwarts, and she'd forgot what a nice buzz could do.
And, unfortunately, she'd also forgotten how it could loosen her tongue. More effective than veritaserum, alcohol was.
"Come on," Fred was urging as he sipped at his own drink. "If you had to shag one of the professors, who would it be?"
Hermione stuck out her tongue. Merlin she'd stuck out her tongue, and she laughed at herself after answering. "None of them you prat - what a question."
It was like some demented form of truth or dare, except there was no dare, only truth. Only random question that each had to answer. That had started around the fifth drink, and had started getting more risque and random around the seventh.
"Forced choice," Fred retorted. "You have to pick one."
Hermione gave a heavy sigh, giving in. "Fine, Snape. You happy now?"
He made a face, "The greasy git. Hardly. What on earth would make you choose him?"
"I don't know," Hermione laughed, "you made me choose someone! What were you expecting? McGonnogall? Maybe Hagrid? Besides, that whole tortured soul thing has it's appeal."
Fred still looked disgusted. "So long as you don't go around deciding to bring him back from the dead."
Hermione rolled her eyes as he went on to lament the poor qualities of the former potions professor, and tapped her chin in thought as he finally ran out of atrocious crimes against Weasley the man had committed. "Don't think I'm going to be asking you the same question," she warned, "don't think I'd like to hear the reasoning behind why you'd choose Binns."
Fred laughed as he shifted up beside her where they were sitting side by side on the couch, Hermione's legs tucked beneath her. As his hand rested on her knee, Hermione found herself momentarily distracted, but came back to herself when Fred said. "Don't have to ask – Umbridge all the way." He shot her a look. "Bet that demented witch likes it kinky in bed." And he broke out laughing as she hit him, disgusted with the response.
"Best memory," Hermione decided on her question finally. "Out of everything in your entire life."
Fred grew quiet for a moment, thinking it seemed, taking her question rather seriously. "First year at Hogwarts," he finally decided, "George and I boarding the train. One of the upper year Slytherins – Flint maybe, who knows – started trying to pick on me." He puffed out his chest. "Not always so built up as I am now of course. Just words until the prefects went by on their rounds, and then the physical. And George came into the car where we were – he'd been stuck with Percy lecturing him – and caught my eye. And he came up low behind Flint, and I pushed, and that bastard went tumbling back over him. By that point of course we'd got others attention, and there was a crowd to witness the humiliation, pointing and laughing as the cocky Slytherin floundered on the floor. Then George starts going on about how he better not mess with the Weasley twins." Freed coughed, seemingly embarrassed, and wouldn't quite look at her. "Stupid, I know, but just one of those things. To know that you always have somebody standing there beside you, and you'll look out for each other."
Hermione found the story endearing, but the look on Fred's face dared her to say anything, so she contented herself with patting his shoulder wordlessly, though she knew she had a small smile on her face.
"Favourite sexual position," Fred said quickly, shooting out the trivial to equalize things again after something so serious.
She didn't smack him as was her initial inclination, but answered, "All of them." A complete fabrication, but there was something in the way his pupils dilated at the answer.
Hermione shot her question quickly back. "Favourite…I don't know, flower? Yeah, yeah, I know men aren't supposed to notice things like that, but I know they do."
"Roses," Fred shrugged the answer, not ashamed of it. "Yellow roses, if you want the truth of it. Of course if you spread it around, I'll hex you, but yellow roses. Mum used to grow them when she had a spell of 'serious' gardening. They were just such a….happy flower. And sometimes I'd go pick them and take some to my room…." That admission came from the alcohol, and it did embarrass him, and she was amused as he coughed to cover it up.
And so it went for hours after that, the two of them asking random questions back and forth. Everything, from the funny, to the absurd, to the deeply meaningful. Hermione learned more about him in the span of one night, at least so much as you could from words, than she knew about most people in an entire lifetime. The alcohol was forgotten around midnight, but that didn't stop them from talking either – just not having the healthy buzz as the excuse for everything they were sharing. Hermione knew she should go to bed, try and get that much needed sleep, but she really didn't want to – the feeling of contentment on the couch with him too seductive. And the hours rolled on, finding her leaning back against the arm of the couch, legs sprawled across his lap. The tone had turned more somber, and everything they asked more meaningful.
"What was it like?" Hermione asked the question quietly, resting her head against the back of the couch as she tilted it to the side. It was a question she had wanted to ask since he'd come back. "Death I mean. What comes after it? If anything comes after it, I suppose."
Fred didn't answer right away, his hand absent-mindedly rubbing the bare skin of her leg. For a moment he seemed like he hadn't heard the question, but then he spoke. "It's the weirdest thing, it feels wrong somehow to answer that question. Not like I was obliviated, but at the same time, some underlying feeling that I shouldn't be talking about it – keeping it a mystery of life. I wonder if that's internal, or if they're just so unused to this being back from the dead thing the powers that be don't know what to do about it."
"Either way," Hermione nudged him with her foot, cutting off the theorizing, "I would like an answer."
He paused again then shrugged. "You want the honest to Merlin truth Hermione? I can't remember. It's not that the memories are gone, it's all just a haze in my mind. I remember being happy - blissfully happy – but I don't remember why or how. There was this moment, after my death – it was like a crossroads, but even that is an indistinct memory. Just warm fuzzy feelings after that though."
Hermione's hand fisted into the comforter for a moment, thinking deeply. What she'd wanted to hear in a way in one respect – that there was something behind the end of the body, though she'd assumed as much since they could summon the soul. At least she wanted to assume that, rather then believe it might be a soul still trapped in the lifeless body. But, still, the admission of what it had been like for him prompted another train of thought in her mind, one that wasn't so easy to take as she started to draw conclusions she hadn't before. "We never asked you know," she said quietly, "if you're all right with this. Really all right with this. Blissful happiness to a flawed earth with flawed people who hurt you, where unhappiness runs rampant and you're tested every day. It can't be easy."
The hand that was on her leg stilled, and Fred's look at her was incredulous. "You think I regret being brought back?"
"I just thought…" she began, but he cut her off.
"Hermione, I've never been so grateful to anyone in my entire life as I am to you for helping George. Is this easy? Merlin no, of course not. But it's life, and I wouldn't trade that for anything. Blissful happiness isn't nearly the same thing, as the agony and pleasure possible – so yeah, I'm perfectly all right with being back. Especially since I had a brother, walking around, without that team. Without me to look out for him, and to have his back. And, from all reports, not in a good place because of that. That alone would be worth it, even if this was incomparable. And I have a family that I love, never got to say goodbye to. And a bunch of things that I never got to do, a life that I never got to live. I've got that back now, and I'm ecstatic about it." Fred seemed almost frustrated with her.
But his expression softened, and he shifted her so she was sitting closer, confusing her for a moment. "Besides Hermione, there's different kinds of blissful happiness, so to speak."
Hermione was still confused until his hand slid up to cup her cheek, and his head started to bend towards her. But even then, once she understood, she didn't back away. Just sat there quietly, expectantly, her lips soft and pliant as Fred touched his to hers. It was a quiet kiss, a chaste kiss, but it shifted something with her all the same. It was the culmination of everything that had passed between them, and the feelings that had started to bloom. Feelings she could now accept weren't just simple friendship.
"Wanted to do that for so long," he murmured against her cheek, face rubbing against hers. "Even in Hogwarts, had a thing for the uptight little friend of my brother's. But that was a crush, and crushes pass. This," he ran hands along her sides, under the curve of her breasts, slowly stroking, "I don't think this will."
Hermione gave in for a moment, not letting outside thoughts intrude, allowing herself to accept his touch, his lips as they slid back to hers – because it felt so bloody right. That element of romance that she'd never felt before. Oh, it wasn't the words themselves, though they were oddly poetic for Fred. The 'romance' was a feeling. It wasn't just another kiss that felt comfortable, felt safe. It felt terrifying, dizzying, and all the more real because of it. His lips on hers wet her knickers in a way caresses didn't used to, and she had a moment of gratitude for the fact that they'd laid off the bottle awhile back so not a moment of it would be dulled.
But a thought like that allowed the rest of them to intrude: that maybe it wasn't such a good idea; that maybe it wasn't real, only transference; that she'd been living with his brother only weeks before; that it was so damn quickly; that he was someone she had brought back from the dead; that he was moving away in a short while; that his family hated her – and Hermione pulled away quickly, scrambling to her feet.
Her mouth opened to say something, to explain – but she found she couldn't. "I have to go to bed," she said, in what sounded like a completely dumb tone.
Fred sat there, looking up at her, mouth agape. But, after a moment, he only nodded, the expression on his face falling slightly. Hermione didn't need any more permission than that before she turned and bolted out of the living room, heading up the stairs to her escape.
In the morning she almost didn't come out from her room.
Of course beyond the fact she hated to appear the coward, it was more out of necessity when she finally did.
She could hear Fred puttering around in the kitchen as she took a piss, brushed her teeth, showered – all the morning activities that she was drawing out as long as she could. Merlin, she even applied moisturizer to nearly every bare inch of skin she could find – a luxury reserved for only the rarest of times – just to avoid going down too quickly.
It wasn't like something horrible had happened between them, but what had was enough to have kept her lying awake in bed for a long time after she had escaped to her room. Hermione wasn't quite sure why she had ran – well, she knew the reasons, but not quite why they mattered so much. Two consenting adults with nothing standing between them, not really, except worries about the future, or possible lack thereof. Oh, it was definitely complicated – very complicated – but Hermione was used to dealing in complicated. Of course not usually so much in her personal life, but still. It was unexpected though, thought maybe it shouldn't have been. Not with how much she had come to enjoy his company, how much she had come to like him, and how much he made her stomach flutter with a simple touch. That logical and much too analytical part of her wanted to point out that maybe it was just that it was newness, that thrill that came with the start of something. But something deeper inside her knew that there was something there that hadn't been with Ron. Or, at least that there was the potential to be something there.
After she had run out of things to occupy her time, still unclear on everything, Hermione headed down the stairs.
Fred was utilizing her stove to heat his cauldron, a fact which amused her because it was a solution to brewing at home without a lab she'd never thought of. When he caught sight of her, he smiled, but didn't say anything for a moment – concentrating on stirring the potion carefully five times before he lowered the heat and let it simmer, much to her amusement. Like cooking, but…not. Her cottage had been filled with a variety of Wheeze's possible innovations since he had been there, and it never failed to amaze her exactly how creative he was in that respect. It wasn't just selling a product, it was inventing a product.
"I'm sorry" the words burst forth before she could stop them.
Fred looked slightly bemused. "For what?"
She shot him an annoyed look. "For being a tease last night. I just…I wasn't expecting it….and I might have overreacted. But there are a lot of reasons I should have pulled back."
"Is one of them that you don't like me in "that way"?" Fred punctuated the words with air quotations.
"Well, no," Hermione responded, startled. She felt like she should elaborate on that, qualify it, but he didn't give her a chance before continuing. But it wasn't the problem, she felt the attraction for him – both physical and otherwise – and that had been bleeding obvious last night, at least to her. Though she supposed running away after a simple kiss might suggest to him that it might be part of what was going on.
"Then I don't really see the problem," he shrugged, but a smile was widening his face at the admission from her.
Hermione's voice got a little bit terse. "Then, you're just a bit obtuse. Fred, I mean…ignoring the fact I brought you back to life which is a whole tangle in itself….I have a significant past with your brother….you're moving away in a very short while." Her other concerns she left off, because she felt those were significant enough in themselves.
"Then we should take advantage of all the time we have," Fred had slipped the cauldron off the burner and shutting it off, slipping over to where she stood as he spoke.
"It's not that simple," she retorted, but felt her resolve weakening as his hands slid onto her shoulders.
Hermione wanted to talk about it, because that was what she did. Logic it out, made sure it made sense. Oh, she'd given into impulse the first time she'd kissed Ron that night at Hogwarts, but that had been years in the making. And it had been expected if never spoken that they would end up there. But this, this was different. It was like they were doing a one night stand, and she didn't do those. And even if she did, there was something more between them, the promise of possibilities and something greater than she had ever known – so attempting the casual made it seem all the worse. It seemed a cop-out to just forget that there were issues here. It was all going around in circles in her mind, not making sense as she jumped from one thought to another, but Fred didn't seem to be concerned with anything as one hand tangled in her hair, and started to nudge her closer to him.
"It is that simple," he said, working around her objections.
Hermione gave in, in that moment, and decided to let whatever happened, happen. "You'd say anything just to get into my knickers."
"Maybe," Fred's voice was a smile a hair's distance away from her lips. "But I'm not."
Then he kissed her, lazily, lips mingling together and separating, then coming back together. It was slow and languid, luring her in, and Hermione reached out, hand fisting in the material of his jumper and bringing him closer. She had to stand on the tips of her toes just to allow the position to work, and had to rest her body against him. "You're just hard up after not being with a proper bird for years now, and I'm the only one you see outside of your mum, sister, and sister-in-law."
Fred didn't bother to dignify that with a response, save angling his body against hers, so she could feel exactly how much he was wanting her right then – and deepening the kiss to cut off all speech, hands fisting in the curls of her hair, not playing around so much any more. As Hermione let her lips moved against his, tongues mingling, she felt him begin to move them, angling towards the kitchen, instead of the stairs – but she wasn't paying that close attention. She was lost in the kiss, in the moment, in him. She'd never felt this mindless during the physical before – she'd enjoyed it, but her mind had always been going, thinking a mile a minute, thinking about what she should be doing, and what she should saying, feeling – just thinking. But from the moment his lips started moving over hers, her mind shut off, and self consciousness was lost.
Therefore it was a surprise when the back of her legs hit the edge of the table, bumping against the crest of her arse.
"Bedroom," she said – her voice both a confused question and a suggestion.
Fred nuzzled his nose against the curve of her neck, as he urged her back. "Do you really want to wait that long Hermione? Bloody hell, I don't want to."
"Besides," he continued, as he waved his borrowed wand from George, "every night while we sit here, during dinner, over breakfast, I've had this fantasy of seeing you spread out across this very table – just for me."
Hermione felt a blush heat her cheeks. But she offered only token resistance as he pushed her back onto the table. She'd never been very adventurous during sex – though if she ever told anyone that she considered even this risque, she'd be laughed off. She didn't think it was frigidity, no matter what Ron claimed, it was just her nature. So even though she was giving in now, she had to force herself to some level of relaxation, because as soon as he stopped touching her, she started thinking again. She tried the technique of regulating breathing, doing anything to distract herself, but then he started peeling down her slacks, dragging the tiny knickers she wore beneath with them, and her mind stopped its barrage of worries about how ridiculous she looked, and how she wasn't sure she could find it arousing.
And when he grinned, licking his lips, and lowering from her immediate gaze – there was a little panic mixed in with the anticipation.
"What are you doing?" she asked, knowing her voice was a little higher pitched than normal.
"Do you really have to ask?" Fred's voice was muffled by her own body, and as he lightly bit her inner thigh, she supposed she didn't.
Hermione gasped as his teeth nipped on the other side, then his tongue sliding along the crux where thigh met torso. "You don't have to do this," she said in what she thought was a reasonable tone, but knew deep inside that she really didn't want him to stop. She didn't know if she was comfortable with it, but her body arching against his teeth and tongue without so much as a by your leave suggested she might like to find out. That she might like to find out exactly what a nice orgasm she was capable of if he would shift his mouth just a little bit to the right.
"Want to," he murmured, and his voice was a vibration against her folds as his lips pressed there in an intimate kiss – and then his tongue was sliding, licking, lapping; teasing along the edge of her center, and dipping teasingly into it as fingers splayed to open. It seemed to be everywhere, and Hermione let out a loud gasp, hands slapping against the wood of the table in an attempt to hold onto something.
It was like the world was spinning, and something was building up inside her that spoke of the most primal tension. She knew the sensation for what it was, but didn't recognize it intimately, because it was different, oh so very different this time. This wasn't companionable, wasn't comfortable. It might be fun, it might be Fred, but it wasn't simple, it wasn't easy. This was the kind of feeling that made her want to scream, made her feel like she was being wound up so tightly that she just might explode at any moment. What she'd felt before was nice, it was great, but it wasn't this.
And when his teeth bit lightly on the nub, she came apart, everything seeming to explode within her.
There was no scream, though she had the inclination, no big yell that would have to be muffled. It was an incomprehensible moan that came from her mouth, almost guttural, that she never would have recognized as coming from her. And Hermione shuddered against his mouth, as he continued to lap against her in her climax, fingers dipping almost bruisingly into her hips and bringing her closer to his mouth. "Oh…Merlin," she swore, things seemingly swimming before her eyes, and she closed them for a moment as she came back to earth.
Hermione didn't even care that he leaned up over her then and kissed her, the taste of her orgasm fresh upon his lips, and a smug smile gracing them as he did so.
And she lay there, languidly, happily – not even caring that she was still spread wide to him, and he could see everything. Rather after the fact anyway, when he had already kissed and touched everything.
"Have to have you," Fred muttered, hands already at the button of his trousers as he pulled back from the kiss. And she only smiled in amusement at his urgency, when she was already so sated – knowing she would return the favour, but not having the energy just yet.
But then the trousers were down around his ankles, and he was driving her into hard enough to slide her back on the table, and Hermione forgot all about being tired.
The weekend passed in a haze after that. They alternated between making love, talking – then sleeping. Then repeating it all over again. The only time they bothered with food was some fruit – and Hermione had another first when they ate it off of each other. But as much as she loved the sex, reveled in the sex, it wasn't her favourite part of the weekend. Her favourite part came lying in his arms, sharing everything. The physical, it was amazing, but it was easy. The rest was what she loved. Getting to know him, learning him – and sharing everything of herself that she usually held back. It wasn't her doing it just because she knew there wasn't going to be much of a future, it was because she wanted to. She wished there were tomorrows, that this was going to be more than shared secrets that meant nothing in the end. She wanted to see if they could last, could become something real. Hermione thought there was a great potential, they were half way there, but…there just wasn't enough time.
So for the moment she was taking what she could, and enjoying it.
Something totally foreign to her nature.
And then Sunday hit, and the owl came.
Dinner at the Burrow. Be there! Both of you.
At least it wasn't a howler, though the urgency was the same. And Hermione was surprised to find herself included in the invitation. Padding back to bed with the sheet wrapped around her she had put on to grab the owl, she collapsed back on the bed beside Fred.
"You could go by yourself," she said with a sigh.
Fred poked her in the side, "Stop being such a bleeding martyr. They were going to need time to accustom themselves to it, you should have realized that. Not exactly about progression, my family. Though you still have that strike against you, still no Mrs. Weasley title, and still no Weasley babies popping out."
"Ah," Hermione raised a finger, "but with no more Ron, there's no expectations at least of that."
"But there's me," he pointed out.
That took her aback for a moment. Hermione bit her bottom lip without realizing it, a nervous gesture customary of her that Fred had kissed off her many a time already when it had threatened to appear. She didn't know how to ask the question, because she hadn't really thought beyond the two of them. "Are we going to tell them then?"
He shrugged, though it was obvious he wasn't taking it too lightly. "Dunno, are we?"
It was a question Hermione had no answer too. If this dinner hadn't popped up, she would have likely said no. Oh, George would have found out in the end, the twins told each other everything, but nothing beyond that. But it wasn't like she was ashamed of it, and it wasn't like she wanted to lie. Though the one reason not to say anything was because it just complicated matters there again. Maybe some of them seeing betrayal of Ron, questioning her motives once again in bringing him back but in a different way, and it wasn't like they were getting married or anything. They were just enjoying each other until he moved. It wasn't like they would know her mind was traitorously thinking of ways that she could arrange for frequent and logical trips across the pond without raising suspicion.
"Stop worrying Hermione," Fred rolled his eyes as the thought splayed across her face in the form of stress, and bent down to place a kiss to the creases of her forehead. "We'll play it by ear."