It still hurt.
She knew tagging along to the joke shop was a bad idea; she didn’t usually bother stepping foot in it. She wasn’t interested in things like that- give her a good old-fashioned book shop any day. If she’d changed direction and gone into Flourish and Blotts she wouldn’t look like she had gone a round with a mountain troll.
Hermione growled and turned away from the mirror, not wanting to look at the damage the punching telescope had caused to her eye anymore. Of course, she knew why she’d gone; she wanted to share in the happiness that Fred and George had done well for themselves. Despite her misgivings about their antics at Hogwarts, Hermione had to admit that she did miss having him around. Them, she corrected herself. It’s them, and it will always be them. Stop thinking about it. She couldn’t let her mind wander like that- not again. She admired him, that’s what it was. Admiration. Definitely nothing else. Fred Weasley was funny, sure, charming, most definitely- but one thing he was not was anything other than the older brother of her best friend. Ron would never forgive her.
She reached a hand up to her injured eye and winced immediately as the ache shot back into existence. There were no spells she knew of that could fix broken skin, and she didn’t think it a particularly good idea to even attempt one. Mrs. Weasley had looked like she was going to burst a blood vessel when she saw the state of Hermione’s eye, and only a hasty explanation from Fred and George had been able to convince her that Hermione would be perfectly fine and it would heal up in no time. Fred had told her there was an ointment of some kind she could use that would have it gone within the hour, and she’d taken the pot offered to her with shaking fingers, but despite her best efforts it hadn’t done much good. The black eye stood proud against her otherwise unblemished skin. Hermione sighed. She hoped it wouldn’t take too long.
Ron and Harry had already gone to bed, heads full of ideas about Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and though she was sharing a room at the Burrow with Ginny, she had chosen to stay up a little later. She was determined to finish at least one chapter of her new schoolbook, but with only one working eye it wasn’t going excellently. It was propped on a stack of other books on the kitchen table, and though she was trying her best, she was sure she’d read the same passage about Kelpies three times.
She felt her mind wander back to the twins, and whether or not they were serious about the ointment being helpful. When she’d asked if it was safe, Fred had smiled at her, a debonair cocky smile that turned many of the girls around her into idiots, and said it was definitely safe. He wouldn’t have lied to her- would he? Fred wasn’t the type to be outlandishly mean, especially to her. Especially. Hermione glared at the book. “Stop it now,” she said to herself, “just stop. He doesn’t owe you anything, and you’re nothing special. He just puts up with you because you’re his little brother’s friend, that’s all. No special treatment.” She thought that telling herself out loud would make it better, but in the end it just made her feel a whole lot worse.
A noise in the fading light startled her. It was the sound of a whip-crack, something familiar and yet strange to her ears. Someone was Apparating? She frowned and looked to the clock on the wall. Fred and George’s faces were moving from ‘Travelling’ to ‘Home’. She felt her heart leap two spaces back, and cursed herself. She thought that this crush would be gone by now- the fact it was sticking around was not boding well. She turned back to her book and tried to ignore the squirming feeling that had ignited in her stomach. Good. I can give them a piece of her mind about that useless ointment, she thought, that’s why I’m so eager to see them. She could hear the pair talking and laughing before they reached the door, and as they ducked into the slightly too-small-for-them house, Hermione cleared her throat. They froze like guilty children.
“What time do you call this?” she asked.
The twins looked at each other, bemusement on their faces. “George, do you hear a noise?” Fred asked.
“I don’t know, Fred,” his twin replied. “I thought for a moment it sounded like our mother.”
“When did our mother take an aging potion, I wonder?”
“Must’ve been when our backs were turned. Bless. She looks a lot like Hermione, too.”
Hermione huffed. “Cut it out, I just wondered where you were.”
“Weren’t waiting up for us, then?” Fred leaned against the doorframe and grinned at her. There was something in that little smirk of his that left Hermione feeling a little warm. “Weren’t worried about us?”
“No,” she shot back hotly, “I was catching up on my reading.”
“Ron said you’d do that,” George commented, peering over her shoulder at it. “You haven’t even started term yet, relax a little. It wouldn’t kill you.”
“Said the ones who never finished their NEWTs,” she replied icily.
“Ouch,” George remarked. “But you forget-”
“-we finished our OWLs,” Fred finished, “and that’s good enough for us!”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “Anyway, I wanted to talk to you. As you can see, your stupid ointment didn’t work.”
George cringed as he looked at her eye a little close. “Black as the ace of spades,” he said sadly. “Though I’m pretty impressed- those punching telescopes didn’t need much bewitching. They pack a punch, they’ll sell like hot cakes, Fred!” He turned around and waited for his twin to agree with him, but it didn’t come.
Fred was frowning at her, his brows drawn together with clear concern as he walked a little closer. Hermione watched him approach with as much coolness as she could muster, but the look he gave to her sent a small spasm into her stomach. Fred was usually the one who took everything in good humour, the one who did everything before thinking about the consequences, not the one who looked as though he was about to apologise over and over again until the words stopped making sense. He really did look worried, and batted his twin out of the way wordlessly before drawing up a chair to sit in front of her. Hermione gulped. Now was not the time to think about how nicely his suit fitted him… it really wasn’t the right time at all…
Fred was still frowning at her, and she managed to keep her composure long enough to ask, “I-is it really that bad?” in a surprisingly normal voice.
“It got you good, didn’t it?” Fred said, peering a little closer at her. Hermione stared back with what she hoped was cool detachment- whilst inside she was going mad with just how close he was. “Must have been a little stronger than the others… you could need some more of the ointment. Hold on a tick.” And as quickly as he had appeared, he left. Apparated, no doubt, up into his room.
Hermione relaxed, and was close to breathing a sigh of relief if it weren’t for George being there. It was only then that she paid attention to him, and saw that he was watching her from his place on the kitchen top, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“What?” she demanded.
George chuckled, shaking his head. “Nothing, nothing at all. I’m going up to bed.” He walked past her and to the door leading up to the bedrooms, before stopping and turning back. “By the way, we’re moving out in a few days’ time. Thought you ought to know.”
Hermione froze. “W-what?” she said. “You’re moving out? Where to?”
“There’s a flat just above the shop. We figured we’d buy that and save time having to Apparate from there to here and back again.” George shrugged. “Mum doesn’t know yet, we’re not telling her until we’re sure she can’t curse our feet to the floor. She needs to learn to let go, poor woman.” He sighed theatrically.
Hermione couldn’t process it. Fred and George were moving? The thought of them not being there every day at The Burrow, not driving Mrs Weasley insane or annoying Percy or de-gnoming the garden with the others… the thought seemed wrong. Of course, she knew that they would have to move out eventually, but she didn’t expect it to be so soon. She had thought that she would have the remainder of the summer at least to spend time with Fred and finally put her niggling little crush to rest- but now it seemed like even that was being taken away from her. She swallowed painfully. “I… I’m very happy for you both,” she said calmly. “And you’re right, it does make sense.” Even if it does make me feel a little bit more empty on the inside without you around.
George smiled. “Anyway, better get some sleep. The shop opens bright and early tomorrow. Night, ‘mione.” And with that, he left the room, left it to Hermione and her whirling thoughts.
Thankfully, she didn’t have to wait long. Fred Apparated a moment later back in the kitchen and brandished the pot of ointment at her. “Voila, bruise ointment!” he said, not bothering to keep his voice down as he shut the door and sat back in the same chair he’d left before. This time, though, Hermione welcomed their closeness. “It shouldn’t hurt, but if it does let me know.”
Hermione nodded soundlessly and watched him dip his finger into the pot. Fred’s hands weren’t the most elegant of things; they held old scars from experiments gone wrong and mini-explosions he and George had set up in the confines of their room. But still, as he took her jaw in his one hand and tilted her chin down so he could assess the damage, his touch was gentle and precise. Even as he began to cover the bruise in the ointment she waited for the dull pain to come back, but it didn’t. She supposed his gentleness came from handling the more risky of ingredients. “I am sorry, by the way,” he said into the silence, spreading the ointment carefully over the bruised skin he found there. “I would have mentioned that the telescopes punched if I’d seen you.”
“It’s alright… I’ve had worse.” She tried desperately to still her feverish pulse, and she inwardly scolded herself for being such a walking cliché. She couldn’t help marvelling at how gentle Fred was being, and as he reached her eyelid she tried her best not to scrunch her face up too much.
“Suppose so. A punching telescope’s a picnic compared to being petrified, I imagine.” He hesitated. “Insensitive to ask what it felt like, I suppose?”
“A little, especially if you plan on trying to make some sort of petrifying peppermint… or something,” Hermione said curtly.
“Wouldn’t think of it!” Fred grinned mischievously. “You suggested it, not me.”
Hermione tutted, but couldn’t help grinning despite herself. She could feel the ointment at work already; it was warming to her skin, yet not enough to be unpleasant, and the horrid achey sensation was fast leaving her. She smiled weakly. “I’d have to tell your mother,” she said, with little conviction.
Fred faked a look of horror. “Hermione Granger, don’t ever threaten me with something so terrifying. I don’t think I could handle it.”
Hermione laughed. “I can’t believe you’re still terrified of your own mother.”
“You don’t have to live with her,” Fred replied. All humour had vanished from his eyes, and he was becoming more focused in spreading the ointment, making sure that he didn’t miss an inch. Fred was rarely serious, and in the light they were given Hermione thought he’d never looked better. She shook the thought away feebly, but it crept back persistently.
She closed her other eye, breathing softly as she merely let the warming feeling rush over her face and sit there like a blush, before she muttered, “did you make this yourself, too?”
“Yup,” was Fred’s response, and Hermione jumped a little at how close it was. “We had to: what with all the harm we were doing each other when we were making everything. It’s a good think I thought to keep a hold of them, really- they’re selling almost as well as the other stuff.”
Hermione smiled. “See, you could have been a great potions master if you’d wanted.”
“What’s the fun in that? The world can have as many potions masters as they want, but laughter? That doesn’t come along enough.” Hermione frowned a little; Fred really was sounding serious. She listened without interruption as he continued, “With the state of things as they are, it’s getting more and more difficult to laugh. I know mum thinks it’s bonkers of us to do this; throw our ‘education’ away and set up something that just sells things that’ll get kids into trouble. But if we don’t spread a reason to laugh then who will?”
Hermione opened her eye, and found that she could open her other one too. Fred had finished with the ointment; it was lying on the table, the top screwed on. But his hand was still there, cupping the side of Hermione’s face as he gazed at her intently, his eyes flickering ever so slightly like the crackling embers of the fire in the room beyond. Had they always done that? she wondered. To her horror, she felt a heat rise in her cheeks that had nothing to do with the ointment. “I…I suppose you’re right,” she said, trying desperately not to trip over her own words. She avoided his eyes as she added, “Your… your magic really is very good. You have… real talent…”
Fred gave her a little half-smile that made her heart clench in a painful sort of way, and it raced when his thumb stroked her cheek ever so slightly. “Careful. You wouldn’t want me to get cocky,” he said in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
A moment passed between the two of them, a moment that seemed to take forever for Hermione. Her eyes met his, and she recognised a look of hesitance, a look that suggested he was fighting an inward battle with himself and wasn’t sure who should win. She bit her lip, and leaned in closer. She couldn’t help it; every part of her common sense was telling her to stop, to smile politely and leave, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. Their foreheads were touching now, and she could feel the strange warmth of Fred’s laboured breath on her lips. They seemed to open of their own accord, and she let out a soft sigh. “F-Fred…” she began.
“Hermione…for once…ssssh,” Fred replied in a hushed tone, and bridged the gap between them in a heartbeat.
And then she was kissing Fred Weasley.
He started off tentative, the kiss nothing more than a ghost of a breath between them, but when Hermione began to kiss him back his confidence appeared to grow. Hermione hadn’t been kissed by many boys in her life- in fact, she was pretty sure that the simple kisses on the cheek from Viktor Krum in her fourth year didn’t count- but she was certain that Fred qualified as a good kisser. His lips were soft against hers, not crushing or invading, but gentle and exploring, and she couldn’t help reaching out to thread his hair through her fingertips, and like flame its colour rippled under her touch. His thumb continued to stroke her cheek tenderly, the very contact sending shivers through her whole system, and causing her to deepen the kiss further. She had been dreaming childish daydreams about this for months, maybe even years if she let herself remember them, and now it was happening she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Fred broke the kiss first, a slightly dazed expression on his face as he tried to catch his breath, and for one horrifying moment Hermione thought he was going to apologise and leave. But then he leaned in again, and the kiss that followed was so tender it sent quakes rushing through her. Fred’s gentleness surprised her; she had always imagined him as such a passionate sort of person, in everything he did. But still, she relished it, even letting a soft murmur free when he let his hands loose in her own hair, teasing the unruliness into some sort of submission in the same way he toyed with her lips. She felt that he was holding back a little, the hesitation still there no matter how much he tried to rid himself of it, and she valiantly tried to change that by slipping her tongue in his mouth…
The sudden yell from upstairs forced them apart like lightning had struck them. Fred looked wide-eyed at her, and Hermione bit her lip. He was regretting it, she could see it in his eyes…
“Fred, you better get to bed soon or else you’ll be dead in the morning!”
George. It had to be George. Hermione cursed him under her breath as Fred stood up, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. He looked beyond conflicted. “Er… I don’t think we should tell any of the others…”
“I’m sorry,” Hermione said, getting there first. Her chest already feeling like it was made of lead- why not make it feel all that worse? “I…” Words failed her.
“What are you sorry for?”
She looked up at him, not quite believing her ears. “What?”
Fred shrugged. “I’m not sorry. You’re stunning, ‘Mione- I see it as a very nice compliment.”
She blinked. “But… I thought you would be disgusted?”
Fred made a face. “Now, why would I go and do something as stupid as that? Sounds like something Ron’d do.” He smiled. “I like you, Hermione. I really like you. Guess I just assumed you were more of a ‘lanky ginger berk your age’ type.” Hermione was still too stunned to speak.
“Fred!” Came the voice again. “Do I have to drag your arse up here, come ON, I’m tired!”
Hermione frowned. “W-why doesn’t he just sleep?” she asked. He inwardly rolled her eyes at herself; she found her voice to ask a stupid question like that, but not when Fred was confessing his feelings for her? Brilliant.
“Can’t,” Fred answered shortly. “He won’t until he knows I’m there. Anyway, off the point, here.” He handed her a card with a printed address on it. “It’s the address of the flat we’re moving into. Bet George couldn’t keep it quiet, but here’s it is anyway. You can… come visit whenever you like. When Ron’s bugging you and Harry won’t shut up about that Chosen One gag he’s going to pull this year- cus you know he will.” Hermione looked down at it again, and Fred prompted, “this is an honourary invitation for you and you only, mind. Don’t go giving it to any old person.”
She smiled. “Not even Ron?”
“Especially not Ron.” He reached in and brushed his lips against her cheek before murmuring a soft, “Night,” before walking past her with a soft smile and a lazy wave over his shoulder.
Hermione remained sat where she was, clutching the small card in one hand and feeling a great deal better than she had before. So much for getting over her crush.