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In Front of Me

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Author's Note

I got the idea for this story from JK Rowling. She said "the uptight Hermione had a real weakness for a funny man." I've never found Ron to be all that funny, while the Weasley twins are hilarious. I don't think circumstances were ever right in the books for Hermione to seriously consider either of them as a potential love interest, especially considering how immature she often found them, but that's what this story is hopefully about - setting the stage and all that.

This will start as a Hermione/Ron fiction then gradually become a Hermione/George romance. I won't deliberately bash Ron either.

Chapter one contains the events that take place immediately following chapter 6. A couple people have messaged me to ask why I chose to start with this chapter. The reason is that while you can pretty much guarantee that none of the events in this story actually take place in the book, it wasn't until the moment Hermione took Harry to George's flat that anything actually deviates from canon for certainty. So I decided to start this story with the first true change, then work through why it changed and go from there. I'm sorry if this is a rough transition for anyone. If it's easier, wait and read this after I post chapter 6 and start with chapter 2 instead. I hope you will still consider reading this anyways.

Please forgive any spelling or grammar errors. Thanks for giving this story a shot. I hope you enjoy, let me know what you think!

PS I don't own anything... unfortunately!

Chapter 1

December 1997

WWW

The stale, warm air and suffocating blackness were the only indicators that I had Apparated us inside and not back outside in the woods somewhere on this cold snowy night. I immediately froze, listening for evidence that we weren't alone.

I had no idea where we were. When Voldemort appeared—flying in, I panicked, thinking only of safety as I Disapparated from Godric's Hollow with Harry. I was shocked I'd managed to get us away without Splinching myself; I had no idea if Harry fared as well.

The small room was completely dark. Harry had already fallen unconscious before we left, but now I struggled to keep an arm around his dead weight as I fumbled with the door in the dark. My wand nearly slipped from my sweat-slicked grasp. I feared the potential dangers should I lose it; the horrors of the previous moments still too fresh in my mind.

There were two wands clutched in my hand. I couldn't quite piece together how I'd managed to get a hold of Harry's, but from the feel of it, it was undeniably broken - possibly beyond repair. I pocketed it, knowing it wouldn't be much help right now. I'd worry about it later. Besides, I was too busy trying to physically support Harry at the moment. I really couldn't keep hold of a broken wand and do that at the same time, particularly while also trying to locate a door to the room that was becoming increasingly more coffin-like every minute I spent trapped within it.

I finally managed to locate the elusive door handle.

It was locked, and the faint sparks that shocked my hand also meant that it was warded against the Alohomora charm.

That revelation was enough to clue me in to where we were.

"I solemnly swear I am up to no good," I panted, staggering against the door in an effort not to crumple under Harry. He was much heavier than he looked, even half starved as he currently was.

I heard the lock release and I turned the handle just enough to free the door. Trying to take a step forward, I stumbled and fell through to the hallway floor, landing half buried beneath Harry's leaden form.

"George! Fred! Help - someone HELP!" I screamed, hoping they were in their flat as I shifted Harry off of me. Being cut off from the wizarding world for so long meant I had no idea if Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes was still open and operating. And given the date, there was every possibility that the twins were at the Burrow with their family right now, what with it being Christmas Eve and all. But George had said to come here if I ever needed help, and right now, I was desperately in need.

At least when Ron was hurt, I knew Harry was there to help and watch our backs while I looked after him. If I'd gone back to a forest, we've have been helpless while I was forced to choose between looking after Harry or setting up protective wards.

When George first showed me the secret room the twins had set up for the family, I never thought I'd actually use it. Yet here I was. Hopefully, he could help me now since Ron wasn't available.

I stifled a cry, desperate to maintain what was left of my composure as I began checking Harry over. It didn't look like he'd been Splinched, but he'd obviously been bitten by Nagini if the hole in his arm was any indication. I hadn't realized it before we left. Though it was hard to judge how bad the damage was beneath the blood seeping from the wound, surging forth in great bursts every time his heart beat.

He was drenched in sweat and his face was contorted in pain. I pressed against his wound with my free hand, attempting to stanch the flow of blood, but his back bowed, contorting painfully as he screamed.

"Please, help!" I called again when I heard what sounded like a Bludger being set loose in Snape's Potions class, crashes and yelps filtering up from downstairs.

Harry began shaking, mumbling nonsense. He jerked free from my hold and his hands clawed uselessly against his chest, alerting me to the presence of the locket.

The concealing door at the end of the hallway swung open with no warning to reveal nearly identical panicked faces. Instinctively, I raised my wand, ready to fend off an attack, before it registered through the haze of terror that the twins were finally here.

"Quickly - help me with him," I demanded, lowering my wand.

"Hermione? What are you doing here?"

"Where's Ron?"

"What's happened?"

"Is Ron -"

I heard the questions as the two men approached, but I was too busy trying to get at the locket to pay them any heed.

"Where's Ron?" George asked again as he knelt beside me, grabbing my shoulders to force me to face him.

"Never mind that now. Help me!" I ordered, jerking free and reaching for Harry again. He was still mumbling fretfully, but the words were still gibberish. Blood loss was turning him dangerously pale.

George reached to help tear open Harry's shirt while Fred moved to press the torn and jagged side to Harry's bleeding arm opposite us.

The locket wouldn't budge. It was scalding, and I felt my fingers and palm blister where I touched it. I yanked and tugged, but nothing happened. It looked as though it had fused with his skin, the tissue surrounding it an angry red and sickeningly puckered, obviously burned.

"Here, let me - " George started to say, but I ignored him, raising my wand.

"Diffindo," I said, casting the severing charm to cut the tainted metal from his abused flesh.

"Hermione!" Fred yelled as fresh blood gushed forth from the wound when I finally succeeded in prying the locket off Harry.

There was so much blood, and he'd already lost too much from the snake bite. For a moment, I was frozen, uncertain how to help as I looked into Fred's astonished face. Harry's pained whimpers weren't helping me focus. Then the moment passed, and I was frantically searching for something to stanch the flow of blood.

But George was already there, covering the wound with what looked like a conjured blanket as he pressed it firmly against Harry's scarlet, blood-soaked chest.

"Fred -" George said.

"On it," Fred muttered, already standing and striding quickly out of the secret hallway.

I took over applying pressure to Harry's injured arm. Glancing up at George, I caught sight of his missing ear. The hole formed by the cursed wound actually closely resembled the puncture wound I was currently treating. Luckily, Harry's shouldn't scar quite so badly.

Fred was back almost at once carrying a tube and a stoppered potion vial. George removed the blanket for Fred to spread some of the ointment on the locket-shaped hole on Harry's chest. New skin visibly formed beneath the brownish gel-like substance, while greenish smoke rose lazily from the site.

It looked like the twins had taken Dittany and made it into some sort of paste. I was momentarily intrigued by the idea, and the ease of application the alteration allowed. The distraction only lasted the briefest minute before I refocused on Harry. Regardless, the wound was now closed, leaving behind smooth pink skin. He did the same to Harry's arm, then together, Fred and George worked to force Harry to swallow the contents of the vial.

At my curious look, Fred explained, "Blood-Replenishing Potion."

It wasn't until Harry's pitiful moans quieted and his pained expression eased the slightest bit that I relaxed, hunching back against the wall utterly exhausted.

"What's happened to -" Fred began.

"Where's our brother? Why isn't Ron here too?" George interrupted to ask, worry creasing lines into his face. I didn't have the energy to get into it right now, but I knew I at least owed them some sort of explanation - something in response to their concerns.

"He left us. Weeks ago. It was all too much for him… and he left us," I said wearily, closing my eyes and letting my head fall back against the wall. I was too tired to even cry at the memory of the fight we'd had when he abandoned us.

No one said anything for several minutes. I assumed Fred and George were engaged in some of their silent communication, but I was content to sit and listen to the sound of Harry's deep breathing, grateful he was still alive and healing after everything that had gone wrong this evening.

"Too much for Ickle Ronniekins, you say? Well, so sorry we couldn't provide something better in the midst of a bloody war! When I -" Fred said nastily, surprising me into sitting up to look at him.

"Fred!" George reprimanded, cutting in before his twin could say anything more, but honestly, he looked just as angry. "You haven't heard anything from him since he left?" George asked, aiming the question at me.

"I don't know where he is... or if he's even alive," I admitted, knowing and regretting how hard that would be for them to hear. They might give Ron a hard time, but at the end of the day, he was their brother and they loved him. They'd willingly die for him without a moment's hesitation.

"What happened tonight?" George finally asked, gesturing at Harry and my own bloodied form with a nod of the head as he and Fred worked in tandem to move Harry further into their flat and onto the sofa. George covered him with a freshly conjured blanket.

I followed dutifully behind, feeling more like a mindless zombie than a living, breathing, thinking person.

"We went to Godric's Hollow. He found us. I'm not really sure… Harry's wand broke… "

"You're lucky to be alive. That's all that matters right now," George said, studying me carefully. It made me feel unaccountably self-conscious, knowing just how awful I must look if his expression was anything to go by.

"Does he know where you went?" Fred asked in concern, looking towards the door as though expecting it to be blown open at any moment.

"No. I don't think so… I'm so sorry. You're in danger n-" I said, realizing just what I'd done by bringing Harry here.

"We've been in danger for months - years really. Perks of supporting Harry, you know. Don't worry about it. Fred -" George said, waving a hand dismissively.

"On it," Fred announced, echoing his earlier words then heading out the door that led down to the shop below.

Glancing out the window, I found I barely recognized the sight before me. I thought at first something was wrong and I was seeing a view into the poorest section of Muggle London, not the once most thriving shopping district in wizarding Britain. It was definitely not the Diagon Alley I had grown up visiting. Half the shops were either boarded up or showed signs of obvious vandalism. This might have been the middle of the night, but everything still seemed more washed-out and devoid of color than it strictly should be or normally was. What was even more alarming was that there were what appeared to be homeless people and beggars making their homes in the gaps between buildings across the street. That had never been the norm in the wizarding world before Voldemort's supposed efforts to make a superior society.

George coaxed me into the kitchen after that, sitting me at the table while he fixed a quick sandwich for me. I stared at it incomprehensibly for several seconds, before the gnawing hunger of the last several months descended with a vengeance and I fell upon the food with ravenous enthusiasm. I barely even gave myself time to taste or appreciate the deliciousness of what I ate. George watched me with an unreadable look the entire time, not prying, but silently concerned regardless.

Every few seconds I looked at Harry. I could see him from my seat at the table, but I had to force myself to remain where I was and not go to check on him again. He was going to be alright. Everything indicated that he would be, but the previous terror and stress was insidious, plaguing me with continued doubts. I wasn't certain I would have been able to handle everything that had just happened if Fred and George hadn't been there to help.

It should have been Ron.

This wasn't the first time he'd let me down either. There were too many times to count over the years that I'd needed him and he wasn't there. Towards the end of the summer it had seemed like things were finally changing; that he was growing up. Then this happened, and now it was just one more time he'd let me down. Except this was a million times worse. We were literally fighting for our lives, and he abandoned us - me - the moment it got too hard. I feared that this might just be one time too many. My trust in him was broken - possibly beyond repair. What's more, with the way things were going, we might not ever get the opportunity to set things right.

"When was the last time you or Harry ate anything?" George asked abruptly when I'd nearly finished.

"Earlier," I said vaguely in between bites.

"I meant," George clarified, pausing before emphasizing with unusual seriousness, "a decent meal."

"We look that bad?" I asked, slightly amused that he wasn't coming right out and saying it. Tact wasn't typically something any of the Weasley men excelled at.

"My mother raised me to never insult a lady, but yeah, you really do," he said shifting from overly dramatic and innocent to candidly blunt so quickly I couldn't help but burst into amused laughter.

"I think that's the first time I've laughed in months," I said once I'd gotten control of myself again. It was such a relief after the stress and strain of the recent grueling hours.

"That bad?" he asked, rubbing his face tiredly before leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest.

"I can't -" I broke off, unable to articulate the range of pain, fear, heartbreak, monotony, and frustration that I'd experienced since seeing him last. I'd been so on edge for so long, that I knew letting my guard down now would equal a complete breakdown, and that just wasn't something I could afford to do right now. I settled for shaking my head helplessly.

George reached across the table to squeeze my hand reassuringly, letting me know he understood. Judging from the state of Diagon Alley, at least what I'd managed to glimpse from the flat's window, he really did have a pretty good idea. Knowing how involved he and Fred were with the war, he'd likely felt much the same as I did.

"You can sleep in my room. I'll bunk with Fred while you guys are here," George offered suddenly.

"Harry -"

"He can stay on the couch," he suggested, then sensing my hesitation, added, "or I can set up a cot in my room for him." I sighed in relief at the second option.

Perhaps it was ridiculous, but I wanted Harry close in case anything happened. I didn't think it would, but it had become habit to look after him - especially during these last few months.

Once Harry was settled, I looked at the man hovering uncertainly in the doorway. His concern was so easy to decipher.

"George… " I began, trailing off when I realized I didn't know where to start in order to thank him.

"What made you come here?" he asked into the silence.

"I didn't… Or I didn't consciously choose to. I just needed to get Harry out of there. I needed somewhere safe, and I just Disapparated. I didn't really have somewhere specific in mind, but we somehow ended up here," I admitted.

"You are - safe here. Well, as safe as anywhere I guess. Fred and I will look after you two while you rest, and for as long as you want to stay here," he promised.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Review response: A guest left a review about Harry and not believing about him getting bit by Nagini because it wasn't as bad as Mr. Weasley's bite had been. If you look in book 7, it does say he got bit and that Hermione healed it in the woods. That is canon. I'm assuming it was a dry bite, meaning no venom was released, since the venom was what kept Mr. Weasley's wound from closing. The same thing happened here.

Chapter 1 is set between chapters 6 and 7. This chapter jumps back 6 months and chapters 2-6 show how they got to that point.

Chapter 2

June 1997 - 6 months earlier

Hermione's Childhood Home

"Hermione? Dear? Are you still asleep?"

The words absently registered, muffled and slow, like so much static. It wasn't until they were followed by the sound of a precariously perched pile of books unceremoniously crashing to the floor that my eyes opened to the painfully bright morning light streaming in through my bedroom window. The glowing shafts of light pierced my eyes, making them water as I blinked rapidly before squinting to see if Crookshanks was the culprit for my abrupt awakening.

"What is all this? You only just unpacked three days ago, and now it looks like you're packing to leave again already."

I turned to the voice, sitting up quickly in the process as I remembered why I was so tired and disoriented this morning. I'd stayed up late sorting through my belonging, trying to determine what to take with me and what to leave behind. I wasn't exactly certain what I would need this year since I wasn't returning to Hogwarts. What if it turned out I needed Hogwarts, A History as I unexpectedly had during second year? I intended to finish packing today, and leave as soon as tonight after my parents went to bed. There was so much that needed to get done before I went with Harry this year, and talking with my parents yesterday made me realize I couldn't prepare properly if I stayed here. It just wouldn't be possible.

Plus, I had a feeling Harry would want to leave sooner rather than later. If we couldn't convince him to wait, I needed to be ready whenever that time came. Part of that meant being wherever he was, or would be in the near future.

Dumbledore's funeral was less than a week ago. I'd only been home for a short while, but already I'd noted how strange my parents were behaving. They were hovering more than they ever had previously, and asking probing questions. Not just about what I'd been up to, but about other people I'd mentioned over the years and about the wizarding world in general. Their curiosity had a peculiar undertone that had never been there before. Looking Mum over now made me realize that something tense and unspoken had her on edge.

"I'm just sorting out what I don't need anymore. I wanted to sell some of it in Diagon Alley this summer - get some money from second-hand stores for some new books. That's all," I said evasively, careful not to look Mum in the eye as I improvised something relatively believable.

"Hermione Jean Granger, don't you lie to me!" she scolded, and I winced, feeling properly chastised by the use of my full name. It was rare that I gave her reason to use it in such a manner.

"Sorry, Mum," I mumbled. It was extremely unusual for her to be upset with me, but I knew she was right now. Worse, she was hurt.

It wasn't until this very moment that I realized how much older she looked. I'd seen her at Christmas, just a few months ago, but in that time she had aged years. My parents weren't young when they had me, but they weren't terribly old either. Yet, there were noticeable wrinkles bracketing Mum's eyes and mouth where the skin had been smooth and youthful as recently as a year ago.

The most obvious sign, however, was apparent in the numerous strands of silvered hair scattered throughout the dark chocolate bun at the nape of her neck. I had my father's hair, and had always admired and longed for my mum's richly colored, and silky hair instead. Though never before had it contained so many signs of her stress and age. And right this moment, it seemed that every one of the metallic hairs was shimmering in the morning light, mocking me for my part in giving them to her.

She'd been so excited yesterday, making plans for all the things we'd do together this summer. Now here I was, ruining everything.

"Why are you packing now? Where are you going? What about France and Spain?" Mum asked, eyebrows pinched in confusion, and arms crossed defensively over her chest.

Yesterday, she told me about the plans she and Dad had made for us to go on another family vacation this summer. She'd been so excited, pointing out that this would be our last chance to do a big trip as a family because I'd be starting work full time next summer when I graduated from Hogwarts. She and Dad had even saved up their vacation days and had a two week trip planned to visit Paris, tour the walled city of Carcassonne, as well as Barcelona and Granada in Spain. Most of their friends went to southern Portugal or Sintra, but they were more interested in showing me southern Spain, including a few wizarding establishments in Barcelona that they'd taken the time to research and had discovered that they were designed by Gaudi and accessible only to wizards. I truly longed to go investigate them for myself, but this simply wasn't the time.

"I was going to stay with the Weasleys, so I could study more. It's nice having Bill and Mr. Weasley available to answer questions, and some of the books they have… It's just, this is my last year. My grades will determine what jobs I'm eligible for… " I tried to explain, trailing off as I watched her cheeks redden more with each word I spoke.

"You're saying you can't even spare two weeks? We barely see you! You spend all of your holidays at the castle or with your friends. Is it really so awful being with us?"

"No! Of course not! I love seeing you and Dad -"

"Are you ashamed to have M-Muggles for parents?" she asked, voice cracking as she referred to herself with the unfamiliar word, and I felt my heart wrench.

I embraced my heritage, and would never allow myself to feel like less because of it. Honestly, I believed it gave me more perspective than purebloods and was actually an asset. I couldn't believe I'd ever caused my mum to think any differently. I felt awful that I'd been so careless and negligent.

"Never! That's not it at all. It's just easier at the Burrow to study since I have access to more resources. I swear that's all it is," I insisted adamantly.

"I don't want you going. I've seen the news. All of the strange things that have been happening. That has to do with magic, doesn't it? I mean it must, nothing else makes sense, would it?" she asked, sounding distrusting and scared as she wrung her hands together. Her thin fingers, perfect for her work as a dentist, were woven to tightly interlock and were squeezed so hard that her knuckles had turned white. She turned to look out the window, then suggested, "Maybe it'd be better if you didn't go back at all. You could go to uni instead."

"I can't do that. I'm a witch. I have to finish my education," I said firmly, alarmed that she'd even dare suggest otherwise. A good education had always been a sacred thing to my family. For her to dare even suggest I drop out early and not finish… She must be much more worried than I'd initially realized.

"Then maybe you should put some distance between yourself and Harry," she said tentatively, visibly preparing herself for the inevitable fight to come as she squared her shoulders and faced me head on.

"Mum -"

"No, Hermione, I need you to listen to me," she said, cutting me off so forcefully, I was stunned into silence, too shocked to speak.

I waited impatiently, yet no words were immediately forthcoming.

"But… "

For a moment, I tried to figure out where this was coming from, but I couldn't wrap my mind around it or vocalize my questions. That didn't matter though, because she continued in the wake of my silence, her next words raining upon me like blows from a sledgehammer.

"We got a letter from your school that the headmaster was dead - killed at Hogwarts, no less. Something you failed to mention when we talked a couple days ago. But you did say that your headmaster and Harry were working together to defeat that evil wizard. That's what got him killed, wasn't it? A fully trained and respected wizard, murdered at a school full of children - a school that's meant to be a safe place to send my daughter. You said that man was trying to kill Harry, that he's been trying for years. I don't like it - any of it. It's too dangerous. What if something happens to you because he's after Harry?"

"Mum," I breathed, barely able to make the word audible. "You can't mean that. You've always taught me to stand up for what I believe in," I said, disbelief that we were even having this conversation waring with my need to defend Harry and insist that I stand up for what's right, no matter the cost.

My parents were both highly educated and fiercely independent people. They'd raised me to be the same. I didn't understand where this was coming from now. It went against everything they'd ever taught me.

But at the same time, it wasn't as though I could deny any of what she was saying either.

"That was before I realized you were risking your life! You're seventeen. A child - my child, my only child! I don't think I could stand it if something happened to you," she said, beginning to cry heartbreaking sobs, the tears coming faster with each word.

I sprung forward immediately to embrace her. My legs were still tangled in my covers as I crawled awkwardly forward to wrap my arms around her shaking shoulders, and pull her down to join me in sitting on my bed. I couldn't recall ever before witnessing her break down, and that alone was enough for it to register how truly terrified she was of something awful happening to me while she was helpless to prevent it.

I wondered now if her earlier comment about being a Muggle steamed more out of her own fear of being unable to help me because of her lack of magical powers than it did because she truly believed I was ashamed of her and Dad.

"Please don't cry. I'm sorry. I'll be careful, I swear. Nothing will happen to me," I muttered, repeating the words again and again as I hugged her.

Eventually, her sobs quieted. She didn't say anything else about cutting Harry off, but I knew that was probably only because she knew how stubborn I could be.

It also probably didn't help that we were both aware of the emptiness of my promise. There was no way I could guarantee such a thing and my mum had just realized the truth of that.

My first day back, I'd confessed nearly everything that had happened this last year, just as I'd done every summer. There was very little I'd edited out or told with a little creative alteration. It hit me with dawning horror just how much she actually knew and how much of a liability that knowledge was. Voldemort could use her to get to me. Worse, he could use my parents to get to Harry. Then the war would be over and we would lose.

I couldn't take back telling them about everything, but I could make them forget what they knew.

"Why don't we go out for lunch? We can talk about what we're doing this summer. You're already late for work, so why don't you head in now, and I'll come to the office around one. We can go to that shop just around the corner that you and Dad like so much," I offered after she wiped her eyes and released a final shuttered breath.

With a worried glance at her watch, she nodded to my suggestion and left without arguing further. I assumed she was late to meet a client or she'd have insisted on finishing the discussion now. Lucky for me, I now had time to get things in order for what I'd need to do.

I headed to the Burrow as soon as I was certain she'd left for work. I wanted to talk to Remus about how to alter their memories, but an owl would take too long. Plus, it might put him in danger to receive one if he was on a mission. Someone at the Burrow would likely know the best way to get in touch with him quickly.

Now that the decision had been made, I wanted to get started immediately. I had always been this way, rarely second guessing myself once a course of action was set, like in first year once we decided to go after the Sorcerer's Stone or second year when I stole potion ingredients from Professor Snape. Not to mention the fact that I wanted my parents and Harry safe as soon as possible. There was no sense forcing them to worry longer than necessary.

Arriving at the Burrow was like stepping into another world. Some of my happiest memories had been made here the summer before fourth year. That was when Ginny and I had really started becoming friends. Before that I hadn't realized quite how much I needed a female friend. There were some things I just couldn't talk to Ron and Harry about. Particularly when one or both of the two boys was the subject of discussion.

That had also been the summer that Ron and I had fought the least. I'd noticed him watching me more and inviting me to spend time with him and Harry when they were flying. Prior to that summer, Harry had always been the one to invite me along. Ron usually only sought me out when he needed help with whichever homework assignment he had been procrastinating working on until it was too late to do it on his own. That summer, Ron had even gone so far as to help me with my flying technique. I secretly hoped it was because he wanted the excuse to spend more time with me, though Ginny insisted that he was only doing it because he enjoyed feeling superior to me, since it was one of the only areas where he was better at something than I was.

That was the summer when I first dared to hope that eventually Ron would return my feelings; that he would grow up enough to be ready for a relationship someday. All I had to do was wait for it to happen. That was easy enough, and definitely something I was willing to do. Ginny pointed out that it was a good thing I was willing to wait, because if not, the only way to get Ron to notice me, would be to go chasing after him and start agreeing with everything he said. I certainly wasn't going to lessen myself and pretend to be something I wasn't just to make a guy like me - even Ron. I had more self-esteem than that. At the time, waiting hadn't seemed like it would be that hard. But honestly, I really hadn't thought that it would take this long either.

I stopped along the path to look out at the apple orchard. From here, I could just make out someone zipping around on a broomstick. The lack of a streaming banner of scarlet hair following behind clued me in to the identity. Some things never changed. I could barely wrap my head around how he could forget everything so easily, but he had always been that way. Even while preparing for a wedding and a war, Ron had found time to fly and procrastinate. Evidently, I still had some waiting ahead of me.

Sighing fondly, I continued toward the Burrow's faded and paint-peeling brown door. The entire place was desperately in need of a new coat of paint, but that was hardly the most noticeable thing about the house.

I had a tendency to seek out quiet and peaceful places, like ancient libraries and lonely window seats, when left to my own devices. The Burrow was the complete opposite, yet it was equally welcome. So while it might not be my usual scene, somehow the hustle and craziness still offered the warmth and welcome of a maternal embrace.

A chicken that had obviously escaped it's coop was wondering across the front path as I walked towards the leaning, ramshackle house. The piecemeal assembly reminded me of a child's haphazard Lego construction. It was fragile and magical all at once, but most obvious of all - it was built with love and careful effort.

Hestia answered the door when I knocked. I had only met her a couple times, but the kind and reserved witch had always been very polite. At my inquiring look, she explained, "We're using this as headquarters for the Order since Grimmauld Place is compromised."

"Right, because of Professor Snape," I said, frowning.

"I still can't believe it. Albus was so certain. For him to be so wrong… " Hestia said hesitantly, trailing off with an inquiring look. She knew I was close to Harry, and I assumed she hoped I had more details that I could share with her.

"Yes, it is unusual," I agreed simply. Hestia likely already knew everything I did anyways.

"When Harry told us what happened… Well, I never would have guessed. After all this time," she said, and this time I picked up on a flicker of doubt. From what I knew, she had never been friends or enemies with Professor Snape at school, so she would have more reason than Remus to trust Professor Dumbledore's opinion of Professor Snape.

"Me neither," I admitted.

That whole situation still didn't sit right with me. Something about it just seemed off, though I had yet to figure out what exactly was wrong with it. Perhaps it was merely the fact I was reluctant to believe the worst about any of my professors. Or many it was that Professor Dumbledore had always had such unwavering faith in the man he trusted to spy for him. His position as head of the Order must have meant he was privy to more information than the rest of us. Surely that meant he was better informed to make decisions about trustworthiness?

Regardless, my doubts and uncertainty couldn't hold up in the face of what Harry witnessed. It was more important now than ever that I trust and support him. That meant Severus Snape's guilt was unquestionable.

"Well, I was actually just heading out, unless you need me for something?" Hestia asked when I didn't say anything further. I shook my head, not wanting to bother her considering she was bound to be busy juggling her everyday life with Order business. "Ron is flying out back, Ginny is still in bed, and Molly is in the kitchen. Goodbye, Hermione."

I headed further into the house. The place was more of a controlled chaotic disaster than it usually was. There were boxes of what obviously contained wedding decorations stacked in every open space throughout the entryway and family room. Boxes of fancy crystal goblets were open on top of ones containing ribbons and flowers, if the bits spilling out were anything to go by. Then there were other boxes with dozens of fancy china dish settings stacked six deep. It looked like most of the boxes had been sitting in the attic, untouched for years, judging by the accumulation of dust clinging to outsides.

There were raised voices coming from the kitchen as I cautiously approached, weaving expertly through the assembled wedding preparations.

"I wouldn't go in there if I were you," George said when he spotted me as he came down the steps leading to the bedrooms upstairs. He had a small box tucked under one arm. "You might end up as the main course for the wedding."

"I take it wedding plans aren't up to Fleur's high standards?"

"Something like that. Bill is in there playing referee, but he's still not a hundred percent, and that's just making things worse."

"More ammunition for the two women to fight over?"

"Spot on," George said, agreeing with my guess and nodding a bit.

I hesitated, not sure if I should wait or try back later. The raised voices were currently mentioning something about the menu not including enough authentic French cuisine.

"How come you're here? Who's running the shop?" I asked instead, using his presence as a means to delay making a decision.

"Fred and Verity. Came back for this," he said, lifting the box a little. "Luckily mum didn't throw it out."

"What is it?"

"Faulty trial products for a lie detection gag," he said, wincing and rubbing his lightly freckled nose as if in memory.

"How was it supposed to work?"

"Made your nose grow every time you lied," he said, grinning.

"Like Pinocchio?" I guessed.

"Exactly! It was supposed to be wooden and everything, but it just ended up making the person sneeze leaves and twigs," he said, face wrinkling in frustration.

"Sounds painful," I said absently and looked back at the kitchen. I could hear Mrs. Weasley screeching now and she didn't sound particularly inclined to welcome a disruption. I bit my lip, silently going over my options. Experience had taught me that she could go on for hours, and I didn't have that much time, only about four hours before I needed to meet with my mum and I still needed to talk to Remus as well. George stood watching me debate, amused at my dilemma if his smile was anything to go by. I scowled at him and he chuckled.

"Anything I could help you with?"

"Do you know the best way to get in touch with Remus?"

"No, actually," he said with a frown before smiling roguishly. "He and Tonks disappeared right after they made sure Harry was settled in with his aunt and uncle. No one has seen or heard from them the last couple days," he finished with a shrug.

"Has no one bothered to check on them?"

"They just got together, Hermione. Officially, that is," he said, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. "They needed a little privacy to reconnect after a year of fighting," he added in case his meaning hadn't been crystal clear already.

"Yes, thank you, George. I understood perfectly," I said primly.

"Oooo, little Hermione is all grown up now, is she?"

"At least one of us is," I shot back.

He'd been joking, offering his typical light-hearted teasing as he chuckled at his own joke, but he stopped and looked at me after a moment. Something about the frank appraisal caused me to flush. I crossed my arms defensively across my chest and settled for glaring at him. He seemed as surprised as I was, and gave me a rueful grin when he realized I'd noticed what he was doing and was now shooting daggers at him. Thankfully, he left it at that.

"But seriously, what did you need from him?"

"I need him to recommend a book on modifying memories," I said, grateful for the subject change.

"I have a good one you can borrow," he offered, shifting the box under his arm a bit.

"You do?"

"You wound me with your disbelief! As surprising as it is, I can read. And product research extends to a variety of diverse subjects," he said, the teasing edge to his words was cuttingly sharp.

"Sorry, I didn't intend… Well, I mean -"

"Don't hurt yourself there," he said dismissively, brushing off my flustered apology. "It's fine. Book's at the shop. Want to pop over and get it now? I'm heading back there anyways."

"Thanks," I said, relieved. This would actually be perfect if the book had the right spells in it. Then I wouldn't even need to bother Remus.

"Mind Side-Along Apparation? We have a secret room inside our flat," he said, leading me back outside.

I took his arm and closed my eyes as the still unfamiliar feeling of being squeezed through a too small tube surrounded me. It only lasted a moment, but I doubted I would ever get used to it. It was just too unnatural. Though I had to admit the speed was a definite perk.

The room was black, no light at all. I lit the tip of my wand and cast a curious glance around as George fumbled towards the door. The room was larger than expected and completely empty, except for a large shelf high up on the wall in the back corner. There was something heavy sitting on it, causing the middle of the wooden shelf to sag dangerously low in the middle. I was too short to properly see what was on it, and before I could ask, George began speaking.

"Door's warded against Alohomora," he explained. "You can tell because the handle shocks you when it's touched. Not painful, just a gentle warning."

"What happens if someone tries to get out using the charm?"

"Let's just say they'd be in for a nasty surprise - don't try it. Fred rigged something up a few weeks ago when we installed this room," he warned.

"Why did you install it?"

"Just in case one of our homes' gets attacked. This is a safe place to rally and hide in, especially if it's the Burrow. You'd never know this was here if you didn't know to Apparate directly inside and the outer wall is camouflaged to avoid detection. Only the family, Lee, and Angelina know about it. And now you too."

"Clever," I said, impressed by the thought they'd put into this.

"High praise indeed," he teased. "You're welcome to use it too if you, Ron, and Harry are ever in trouble," he offered, knowingly. I hoped it never came to that. I really didn't feel comfortable putting anyone else in danger and I had a feeling Harry would feel the same way. "I'm actually glad I got a chance to show you since I know I won't be able to show Harry, and Ron might forget and panic if you guys get in trouble. It leads into our flat, but this can just be a hidden room too."

"How do you open the door?" I asked.

"There's a phrase you have to say to activate the door. Any guesses?"

"The Weasley twins are the greatest pranksters of all time?"

George laughed loudly at my droll suggestion. "We should have gone with that, but alas, no. What if I said we got the idea from some other master pranksters that you may be familiar with?"

It only took a few seconds from the answer to come to me. "I solemnly swear I am up to no good," I said, repeating the words Harry had shared that would reveal the Marauder's Map - the map of Hogwarts that he had gotten from the twins and used to sneak around the castle. A map they had used to play pranks and venture outside of school. A map originally written by Remus, Sirius, James, and Peter. The twins had probably even used the same spell on the door to activate it that the original creators had used on the map.

The Weasley twins' flat was probably the most unexpected place that I had visited in the entire wizarding world. The place was immaculate and honestly, a bit conservative. It looked better suited to my parent's house than it did for two of the most vibrant and outlandish wizards I'd ever met.

They had a massive overstuffed couch that was probably very comfy with an afghan draped over the back, likely something knitted for them by Mrs. Weasley. The whole place was done in shades of brown with accents of red and gold, clearly a nod to their Gryffindor roots. From what I could see of it, the kitchen was immaculate - not a dirty dish in sight. The giant roaring fireplace was bracketed by floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed full of books. I itched to get my hands on them.

One wall featured a large picture window that let in both natural light and flashing colors from the lights on the shop below. The central location of the flat meant the window looked out at familiar sights from all around Diagon Alley, and they were visible from anywhere in the room. It seemed the twins had saved all of their poor decorating taste for the shop and their wardrobe, perhaps as some elaborate marketing scheme.

"It's so neat!" I exclaimed, turning to take everything in in wonderment.

"You were expecting otherwise?" George asked, sounding quite bemused.

"No! Well, it's just your room at the Burrow…"

"Right. That. Keep in mind that there were two of us in that small room, plus our entire shop - including products in all stages of development - and we were trying to keep out nosy siblings, and a mother intent on destroying all of our products," he said, emphasizing each point as he ticked them off on his long, freckled fingers.

"I guess -" I started, but he quickly cut me off.

"Besides, we aren't teenagers anymore with Mum around to clean up after us. We are successful businessman now, and we are actually capable of looking after ourselves, you know," he finished, effectively making his point.

I flushed at the gentle reprimand. That was twice now that he'd felt the need to do so, and both times because I had underestimated him or continued to see him as the trouble-making student I was forced to discipline while at Hogwarts.

"Mind if I look over your books while you find the one you mentioned?" I asked contritely.

"Help yourself," he offered graciously, heading over to search the bookcase on the left of the fireplace while I moved to the right one.

After a moment of looking, I was surprised, not just by the number of books they had, but by how different the topics were - it looked like my bookshelves at home. I refrained from commenting on the fact.

"Found it!" George called suddenly several minutes later from the floor. We'd switched places at some point.

I didn't even bother to look over, too engrossed in skimming through the book I'd pulled down on protective warding spells. I wondered if the twins had used this to invent any new products like the shield cloaks. There were likely some spells in here that could benefit us in the coming months - or years - while we were hunting Horcruxes.

"Told you I could read," George teased from right beside me. I hadn't noticed his approach, but I blushed now, slightly embarrassed. Looking up, I caught sight of his grin and it forced a surprised chuckle from me as well.

"Can I borrow this one as well?" I asked as he handed over the originally sought after book on memory modification.

"Sure," he said with an easy shrug. "What do you need these for anyways?"

"My parents. I need to make them forget everything they know about Harry - and me," I said, swallowing painfully. The reality of my situation was beginning to weigh heavily on me. I wasn't second guessing my decision. I knew it was the best option. But the inevitable consequences hurt all the same. George looked unusually solemn as he studied me.

"Let's grab a Butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron," he suggested suddenly.

"What about the shop? Don't you need to be getting back to it?" I hedged, feeling uncertain. That did sound inviting, but I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about my family problems with George of all people. He'd never been my first choice of Weasley confidants before.

"Fred can handle it. Business is always slow at the beginning of summer. Come on," he said, dragging me downstairs determinedly.

The shop was everything I remembered it being. An explosion of noise, color, and scents that bombarded the senses. It was hard to decide where to look first considering how busy the entire place was with all the different products available and on display.

George apparently had some sort of homing beacon that allowed him to navigate the shop directly to Fred, because it seemed like we had only stepped one foot inside before we'd found him, complete with his brilliant magenta robes. George, on the other hand, was decked out in far more subdued robes of glittering navy blue. It reminded me of a night sky.

"Did you get it? Oh, hello, Hermione. Fancy finding you here! Looking for something from our WonderWitch's line?" Fred asked with a devious grin as he weaved his way through leaning towers of products pushed to the sides of the aisle to get to us.

"No -" I huffed, slightly offended by his provoking assumption.

"We're grabbing a quick drink. Be back in an hour, and yes, I did," George cut in before Fred and I could really get going.

Fred's eyes rounded at the words, but the surprise was quickly replaced with curiosity. He and George exchanged silent words in their incomprehensible twin language, and after a moment, Fred shrugged.

"See you in a bit then. Bye, Hermione," Fred said, turning to help a customer that had just entered the store since Verity was behind the register.

With that, we headed to the pub that concealed the secret entrance into Diagon Alley from Muggle London.

The normally bustling spot was vastly different from my previous visits. It was nearly empty today, which was actually a relief. The bartender, Tom, looked tense and shot me a suspicious look before catching sight of George and relaxing just a fraction. I guess everyone was becoming paranoid at the state of things lately.

After George procured Butterbeers for each of us, we sat in uncomfortable silence for several minutes, neither certain how to broach the sensitive topic we'd come to discuss. This was probably the most time I'd ever spent with George one-on-one without scolding him, and it was a little strange - for both of us it seemed.

"So why did you have a book on memory modification anyways?" I eventually asked, curious despite the awkwardness.

"We were trying to come up with a candy you could eat that would help you retain what you were reading for twenty-four hours. It'd sell great come exam time," he answered, relaxing a bit as he settled into familiar territory.

"But wouldn't that violate Gamp's Laws of Elemental Transfiguration regarding knowledge?"

"Yes, well, we were hoping that putting a time limit on it would help get around that. Plus, the witch or wizard would still have to take the time to read the information they wanted to remember in the first place, so it wasn't really learning something without any effort at all. We were just trying to temporarily enhance the brain's memory," he explained.

I was pleasantly surprised that he'd researched the topic so thoroughly before attempting to create one of their products. Ron had always made it seem like they just threw things together until they managed to get results, headless of the risks or consequences. After seeing some of their books and hearing him now, I knew that couldn't be true - especially considering how accurately he was able to explain things on the spot. It was obvious he understood the concept and the process involved in manipulating it.

"Interesting… " I muttered, thinking about how that might actually work. "Obviously you were using charms and not potions. Were you at all successful?"

"Correct. And no, not yet, but we'll keep trying," he said, amusement coloring his expression.

"I'd love to see your research sometime," I said enthusiastically. The prospect of new information had excitement crackling through me like tiny sparks of electricity.

"'Course - but only if I get to hear you call me brilliant again," he joked.

"I never said you were brilliant -"

"No, you're right. What was it again? Oh, yes! That our products were 'extraordinary magic'," he said, placing a hand over his heart and batting his eyes at me.

I huffed exasperatedly, then asked, "You remember that?"

"It's not every day that you dole out compliments to immature trouble-makers. That comment was quite memorable when Fred told me about it," he said, remarkably serious all of a sudden.

I felt a bit remorseful for always being on the twins' case while in school. I still thought it was extremely irresponsible of them to test their products on unsuspecting first years, but many of their creations did display a staggering amount of innovation and intelligence.

"It's true, you know. Many of your products are rather extraordinary," I admitted.

"Quit, please! You're making me blush," he said so dramatically that I burst out laughing. By the time I'd stopped, he looked serious again. "Are you planning on erasing yourself from their memory entirely?"

"No, just enough so they can't remember me," I whispered, biting my lip nervously. What would he think of what I planned on doing to the people that raised me? Would he judge me as I'd always done to him and his choices?

I waited anxiously, mentally preparing for his shock or condemnation. But it didn't come. Instead, he nodded thoughtfully, seeming to ponder the decision and the repercussions before silently agreeing that it was a sound idea. I let the breath I'd unconsciously been holding out in a long, relieved gust.

"Okay, but you realized even if you did erase them completely, a powerful wizard would be able to rip their minds wide open and get at the information," he said, spotting a glaring flaw in my plans.

He was right. If Voldemort did go after them, he'd certainly be capable of recovering their missing memories. He'd done so with Bertha Jorkins, after all. He wouldn't even care that doing so would likely destroy them in the process. Though he'd probably kill them without a second thought regardless. Even if they didn't remember, they'd still be targets. And as Muggles, they'd be defenseless. I wasn't sure what the Order planned to do for Harry's family, likely offer some sort of bodyguard protection like Kingsley was doing with the Muggle Prime Minister, but I couldn't ask for the same from them. They already did so much for me, and I wasn't the Chosen One.

"You don't think modifying their memories' will be enough?"

"I think… even if you do - they'll still be in danger. Changing their memories might not be enough to protect them, or you three," he said, confirming my thoughts.

"You're right. I need to make them leave the country too. Get them far away and living a new life," I said, closing my eyes against the thought. That would make it so much harder to take back once the war was over. How would I even go about finding them if I did that? And what if they didn't want to come back even if I did find them?

"You're Muggle-born. This war was going to be hard for you regardless, but being friends with Harry… "

"I don't regret it. Not for a moment," I said quickly, worried he'd think I resented Harry and the position I now found myself in. But when I opened my eyes, I saw him nodding, a soft understanding smile curving his lips upwards.

"'Course. It's the same for us. There's just something about him - you just can't help but want to fight beside him. Be in the thick of it, you know?"

"I don't think my conscience or beliefs would have let me stay on the sidelines either way, but yes, he does seem to make himself into a rather effective figure to rally around."

"But that doesn't mean the sacrifices involved with being his friend aren't sometimes difficult," he acknowledged, voicing the truth of the situation quite succinctly.

I know he was referring to my parents, but it also reminded me of the fact he and Fred had ended up banned from Quidditch their last year at Hogwarts. The two loved playing, but had been targeted by Umbridge because of their friendship with Harry. They likely weren't good enough to play pro - besides they'd rather have their joke shop regardless - but they hadn't once complained or blamed Harry for being the reason they lost out on their last chance to play in real games.

"Well, aren't you the master of the understatement," I finally said.

"I do what I can," he said with mock humility.

"Have any of you made plans already to account for Ron's absence?"

"You three are definitely taking off then? To go after him? We assumed, but..."

"Yes," I confirmed after a quick glance around to make sure no one was eavesdropping.

"Now that you mention it, no, we haven't. Ron hasn't said a word to any of us, and I doubt he's made plans himself," he said, frowning. "I'd best talk to dad about that when he gets home tonight."

"Let me know if you need any help coming up with something," I offered. "V-Voldemort will certainly target your family if he realizes Ron is with Harry since he won't be able to get to Ron directly. He knows that would be the best way to hurt Harry and dishearten him, especially considering how well it's worked in the past."

I was a little frustrated that Ron hadn't already come to this same conclusion and begun taking steps to look after his family. He wasn't a child anymore. Instead of spending his days flying and whining about having to help his Mum, he should be focusing on trying to protect them. He always waited until they were already in danger or it was shoved in his face to remember to worry about them. It was selfish and immature, and more than a little annoying right now. His little habits that had seemed charming only this morning were much less so right now.

"Harry really does wear his heart on his sleeve, poor sappy bloke," George said, shaking his head in fond exasperation, and bringing my attention back to the present. "Thanks for the offer. Hopefully, we can have things sorted by the weekend."

"You've changed since leaving Hogwarts," I said suddenly, the words slipping out without preamble and catching me as off guard as they appeared to have surprised George.

"Not really. Maybe you're the one that's changed. Maybe you're just finally ready to see past all the rule breaking and get to know me - the man behind the joke," he said, only the barest hint of mockery coloring his tone. There was something else though, something elusive and something else - challenging, maybe? Whatever it was, his look was unreadable, and after a minute I gave up trying. I had enough on my mind without trying to take on another, non-life threatening, inscrutable mystery.

"Maybe," I said, leaving it at that. He chuckled and started pulling out a few sickles to pay for our Butterbeers, waving me off when I pulled some out too.

"I hope Ron knows how lucky he is," he muttered under his breath, and I frowned. What was that supposed to mean? The Butterbeer seemed to shift unsteadily in my stomach, heavy and warm, definitely unsettling.

"I'd best be heading home. I need to get started on this," I said instead of acknowledging his comment, and nodded to the books I'd borrowed as I got up to leave. "Thanks for everything today."

It took just over three days to get everything figured out and organized. It'd only been a week since I'd come home from Hogwarts. While they were at work, I'd arranged plane tickets, passports, official documents and papers to verify their new identities. I'd even put the house on the market without their realizing it and set it up with a real estate broker so that the funds from the final sale would be deposited directly into their accounts.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't also savor every moment I had with my parents when they weren't working over the last few days. I was trying to make as many memories as possible to last me the coming months - possibly forever.

The hardest part was going to be performing the spell. That, and the knowledge that the modified memories could be permanent. The mind was delicate and didn't take well to having magic manipulate it the way I was planning on doing. That truth did nothing to alter my course of action. It was a risk I'd have to take.

I cast the memory charm the morning of their flight to Sydney, Australia. Not once did I hesitate once I'd begun performing the spell, modifying first my mum's, then my dad's memories. There was some disorientation after the fact, and during that time I used magic to pack their bags.

They were just coming out of the magical haze when I slipped silently from the house, shoulders set with determination and an innate stubbornness preventing me from looking back or second guessing. My own belongings, everything I had left from my former life, were stored safely in a lilac beaded purse that hung suspended from my wrist, swinging carelessly. The rest of my things had been heartbreakingly vanished, so as to leave no trace of my presence for my parents to accidentally discover.

Apparating to the Burrow, I ran into Mrs. Weasley on my way upstairs after letting myself quietly in. I'd hoped to avoid having to speak to anyone for a little bit. I felt fragile, like glass blown too thin then submerged into cold water while still hot. I was bound to shatter any moment and I desperately wanted privacy when it happened. Apparently, I'd have to grasp my tattered composure together for a few moments longer.

"Hermione! I didn't expect to see you here so soon this summer," Mrs. Weasley said warmly, seeming more frazzled than truly surprised. Her carroty hair was frizzier than mine on my worst day and she seemed distracted as she attempted to balance several wobbling baskets of linen napkins that were hovering before her.

"Well, my parents are quite busy this summer. I thought I could help with the wedding if I came here. Give me something to do," I said vaguely, hoping she didn't detect the way my voice wavered.

"Oh, how thoughtful! That's wonderful to hear. We have so much to do, your help would be so appreciated," she said, directing matching tablecloths into the overflowing baskets and barely managing to land a couple successfully on top of the napkins.

"I'm just going to run my things up to Ginny's room," I said, already turning to the stairs and leaving her to her task.

Ginny was still in bed when I entered her room. It was obvious she'd been crying; her many freckles had all but vanished into the splotchy redness darkening her face. Her breakup with Harry must be doing a number on her. I wondered how often she'd been in this state since returning home. With everything happening with my parents, I'd only managed to send her one owl and it wasn't until just now that I realized she'd never responded to it. If I had to guess, she was trying to get her grief out now, so she could put on a brave face once Harry got here. The last thing she'd want to do would be the cause of extra stress and guilt for him.

She took one look at me, then lifted the covers. I crawled in beside her and finally let myself acknowledge and mourn my loss.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 3

June 1997

The Burrow

It was lunchtime before I finally had myself under control and was ready to face reality again. It was more a desire to see Ron that finally coaxed me out of bed than any genuine hunger. I hoped seeing him would take my minds off things. But when Ginny and I finally made it downstairs, it was apparent that Mrs. Weasley hadn't yet told Ron that I was here and planning to stay with him for the rest of summer, or at least until Harry was ready to leave for our mission.

Empty plates were scattered at the different place settings around the long wooden dining table; one for each of Mrs. Weasley's children, even if they weren't here and had no plans to make an appearance. As overbearing as she could be, I had always loved how Mrs. Weasley made it clear that her family and their friends would always be welcomed here. She kept busy all day long taking care of everyone around her, yet she never let any unexpected arrivals feel like they were unwelcome or an extra burden.

This was even more apparent by the heaps of overflowing food laid out down the middle of the stained and gauged surface of the rectangular table. There were plates of ham and swiss sandwiches as well as turkey and pepper jack, and extra tomatoes in a bowl beside it for Ron since he always wanted triple the slices that others wanted. A dish with chicken thighs and breasts seasoned with rosemary and something undefinable was there as well. Then there were bowls of different types of vegetables, garlic brussel sprouts, mint and ginger peas, and cheesy broccoli. The only side dish that seemed to have a noticeable dent in it, was the chips. That bowl have been nearly cleaned out already. Good thing my dentist parents had instilled in me the habit of skipping sweet and unhealthy food at meals. Being around Ron and the other Weasleys would have meant missing out more often than not if I did have the inclination to indulge.

The food smelled incredible, and it wasn't until the scents reached me that I realized I was actually quite hungry. Despite that, I headed straight for Ron, desperate to lean into his familiar warmth and take comfort from the way it never failed to make my nerves sing and heart race.

He looked incredible, his broad shoulders stretching his too small shirt across his chest in a way that made my breath catch. His brilliant red hair, a few shades lighter than Ginny's, was adorably messy. If I had to guess, I'd say he just came in from flying, especially since his cheeks and nose were wind burnt. Only the freckles dotting his neck were visible, extending downward until the cinnamon flecks disappeared beneath the collar of his shirt.

I'd just rounded the corner of the kitchen table, the magnetic pull of him drawing me rapidly forward, when he caught sight of me.

"What are you doing here?" Ron asked bluntly, partially chewed bits of his turkey sandwich falling from his mouth as he spoke with his mouth full, making me grimace in disgust and stop short of actually approaching him. Bread crumbs and a piece of cracked pepper were stuck all around his lips. His distinct lack of excitement at seeing me swiftly destroyed my own joy at seeing him. He didn't pay any attention to my disappointment.

There were times when I was so certain that he returned my feelings, then others when he crushed any hope I had that he would ever wake up and realize what was right in front of him. The worst was that he didn't even pause in his eating, more interested in his food than hearing my response or reuniting.

"Honestly," Ginny muttered from beside me, giving Ron a pitying look, before moving to her own seat on the other side of the table and quickly filling her plate. She didn't dig in though. Instead, she began idly playing with her food, obviously lost in thought. Forlorn and heartbroken. Those words summed her up as succinctly as the bags and rumpled bed clothes she donned.

"What?" Ron asked, glancing from Ginny to me with a look of sheer bafflement when I didn't move and Ginny didn't elaborate. When we both remained silent, he finished his last bite and reached for some chips off Ginny's plate. "Are you going to eat any more of these?"

"Never mind that now," I said quickly, refusing to let his actions hurt me. I was used to it by now anyways. Ron just shrugged and reached for more of Ginny's food only to get his hand smacked by his annoyed sister's Chaser reflexes.

After discreetly checking that Mrs. Weasley was otherwise occupied in the kitchen, I began telling him about my parents and what I'd been forced to do to protect us. He stared at me in open astonishment.

"Blimey, Hermione. You really are scary sometimes," he said, shaking his head as he gaped at me.

I frowned, not understanding what he meant by that. I'd expected sympathy, understanding, and concern; it's what George, Ginny, and likely Harry once he learned of it, gave me. Instead, I got terrified awe. I tried again to ignore the hurt, knowing this was just how Ron was, but it was painful all the same. And again, Ron was completely oblivious to how his words and actions made me feel.

"Such a charmer," Ginny muttered, getting up to go help her mum in the kitchen. I grinned when Ron frowned at her in confusion. His bafflement made him look like a cartoon troll in a red wig.

"What'd she mean by that?" he asked, loading his plate with more food and making it clear he had no intention of going to help the others out. It never failed to amaze me how much food he was able to put away at every meal - and in between.

"George said he was going to talk to your dad about doing something for you too. Do you know if they came up with anything yet?"

"Oh, yeah. He and Fred came up with a brilliant idea. We're going to make the family ghoul look more like me and give it spattergroit. It'll be like I'm stuck quarantined here in the house. That way they won't expect me at Hogwarts or anything because it's so contagious. Only don't talk about it - Mum's got no clue," he said, lowering his voice with each word until he was whispering the last bit while shooting furtive looks at the kitchen. Obviously he was worried about her finding out.

"Clever," I whispered, mimicking him. I was surprised despite myself. "Should have known they'd come up with something like that."

"Wait a minute, when did you talk to George?" Ron asked, frowning.

"Oh, well… I stopped by the other day to talk to Remus and ran into him instead," I explained, feeling unexpectedly guilty. That didn't make any sense though. I hadn't done anything wrong, after all. Shrugging the strange feelings off, I rushed on to ask, "Is it all already taken care of?"

"Yeah, they sorted it out last night actually, so I'm good to go anytime Harry wants," he said with a shrug.

"What about the wedding?" I hissed, shocked that he'd be so willing to miss it.

"Oh, right! Guess we can't go till after it's over. Mum would murder me for sure if I missed it," he said sheepishly having obviously completely overlooked the entire thing.

"Especially considering you'll already be missing one brother," I pointed out.

"Don't even get me started on Percy," Ron groaned loudly. The sound seemed amplified after the previous quiet and he quickly cut himself off.

"He's definitely not coming then?"

"He returned the invitation - unopened. He has to know about it though. The Prophet did a little article since Fleur was a Triwizard Champion, and Percy has always read the Prophet. He puts great stock in what they say, if you remember."

"What are you two whispering about?" Mrs. Weasley asked, eyeing us suspiciously as she entered the room to collect Ron's dishes.

"Nothing, Mum!" Ron said immediately. He glanced out back and started to get up as if planning to bolt, but his mum anticipated it and headed him off, easily maneuvering between him and the door that lead to an afternoon of freedom.

"Right. Ron, I need a basket of apples from the orchard for a pie I'm making. Hermione, be a dear and help box up the last of the twins' things in their old bedroom. We need the room available for wedding guests and the boys are coming by for dinner this weekend. They can take the boxes with them then," Mrs. Weasley ordered.

The next few weeks Mrs. Weasley kept us too busy to talk at all during the day, and I was staying up late going through the book I'd borrowed from George at night. It had a number of excellent concealment charms and protective wards that we'd be able to use while hunting Voldemort.

When I wasn't reading that book, I was combing through the Dark texts I'd secretly lifted from Professor Dumbledore's office. Luckily, I was now staying in Percy's old room until either the Delacour's or Harry arrived, so I didn't have to worry about Ginny seeing the books. Given her past, I doubted she'd be very receptive to knowing what I was reading about.

I really wanted to talk to Ron about what I'd managed to learn so far, but Mrs. Weasley was a pro at keeping us busy. She seemed to have an endless list of things that needed done around the Burrow before the wedding.

The other day I had spent the morning transfiguring chairs into various shapes and designs, all in gold, so Fleur could decide which she liked best, and since then I've been kept busy making more of the chosen design for the rest of the wedding guests. And that was just one of many tasks Mrs. Weasley had set for me. She was taking full advantage of me saying I was here to help.

One night, I was so fed up with waiting to share everything with Ron, that I tried sneaking up to his room after everyone else had gone to bed, but I heard thunderous snoring through the door before I even reached the landing. Who knew snoring that loud was even physically possible? How in Merlin's name did Harry handle sharing a room with him? Reluctant to wake him, I ended up just going back to bed.

It wasn't until the first week of July that anything changed at all - between Ron and I, and around the Burrow in general. There was going to be an Order of the Phoenix meeting tomorrow night after dinner, and it was ultimately decided that Ron and I would be allowed to attend. Remus and Kingsley had both advocated for us to be in attendance, while Mrs. Weasley had been adamantly opposed to the idea at first. But Mr. Weasley, in a rare show of obstinance, insisted that we be allowed considering the topic was Harry's safety and it had been suggested that we, or more likely our knowledge, might be needed to help with it, so we might as well hear everything firsthand. And once Mr. Weasley was on board too, Mrs. Weasley finally caved - reluctantly, very reluctantly. She was very verbal about her opinion on the matter too.

I was hesitant to argue with her myself though, considering she had taken me in with no warning or protest, but the woman was smothering me. I was nearly eighteen and she still treated all of us staying at the Burrow like we were eleven. I'd seen mummies with looser bindings than the ones she kept on us.

Ron had a tendency to exacerbate the situation too. He enjoyed being taken care of, and took advantage of her willingness by encouraging her to take care of his every need instead of asserting some independence and initiative. He could be so unbelievably lazy that it infuriated me. What was worse, was that he didn't see his part in it. He was willfully blind to this obnoxious and irritating fault. Plus, it seemed to make Mrs. Weasley think that since she was still doing everything for him, that should also include making his decisions, and by extension - mine.

The difference in her treatment for her children was extremely apparent whenever Bill or the twins were around. Since they'd moved out and were acting like adults, Mrs. Weasley respected their decisions, and didn't question them - for the most part. While Ron, on the other hand, was constantly told what to do. It was a fact Ron had taken to constantly bemoaning, yet he refused to do anything to change it.

Remus and Tonks were early for the Order meeting. The twins, Bill and Fleur, and those that actually lived in the Burrow were the only ones present at that point. We were still eating dinner when the couple came hurrying in. I'd heard from Mr. Weasley the day after I started staying here that Tonks had returned from her "sick" leave, so I'd stopped worrying, but this was the first time I'd seen either of the pair for myself.

"We got married!" Tonks cried, stumbling into the table and knocking over Mrs. Weasley's goblet as she rushed forward. Her face was set in the biggest grin I had ever seen another person wear. I wondered if she'd morphed to allow it to grow bigger than normal. She was bouncing slightly on her toes in her excitement, and was nearly as flushed as her pinkish-red hair. It looked like she hadn't been able to choose between Weasley red or one of her favorite shades of pink, and had ultimately ended up with something in between for the shoulder length hairstyle. "Sorry! Oh, Molly! I didn't mean to, but I just had to -"

"It's fine, Dear. Congratulations!" Mrs. Weasley reassured the bumbling young woman, only slightly put out, as she moped up the spilled pumpkin juice with her wand. "Of course you were eager to share your news - it's simply wonderful! Oh, Arthur, you must get a bottle of the Elf-made wine set aside for the wedding. We simply must toast them!"

Her words were nearly lost as the other assembled Weasleys began shouting out their own congratulations, Ginny going so far as to run to Tonks and grab her hand in order to verify the presence of the ring for herself and scrutinize it. The two exclaimed loudly and giggled in a way that reminded me strongly of Lavender and Parvati.

I remained seated while offering my own felicitations, willing to wait until everything died down to ask for details. Besides, I wasn't exactly eager to leave my place beside Ron. His leg was pressed firmly against mine on the short bench we were sharing, and its presence caused little jolts of warmth to radiate from the spot every time he moved.

Remus wandered over to where we were sitting after the glasses were filled and passed around. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't tell Harry about this. I'd like to share the good news with him myself," Remus murmured shyly.

"Of course!" I said at once, and Ron nodded enthusiastically.

"He'll be thrilled," Ron added.

"Do you think so?" Remus asked, sounding young and uncertain. He looked worriedly at Tonks, but after a moment he smiled, the wrinkles on his scarred face smoothing out perceptively. His happiness evident, and honestly, making him look years younger. "We're only telling friends and family just now. Hopefully, it will be a little while before the rest of her extended family catch wind of it. They're sure to raise a fuss."

Other Order members started arriving soon after, trickling steadily in for about ten minutes. Tonks joyously shared her news with each new arrival, shouting it at the newcomer before they'd even managed to open the door fully. Her enthusiasm was catching, apparently, and Remus was even laughing and joking with Bill and Fred after a bit. George had cornered Mundungus the first chance he got, and the two were exchanging small packages off to the side of the room, out of Mrs. Weasley's keen sight. Mad-Eye was the last to enter, and as soon as he did, he got us started.

I hadn't realized Mad-Eye had taken over for Professor Dumbledore, but obviously he had. I suppose he was the obvious choice - experienced Dark wizard catcher, fought in two wars, good friends with the former creator and often Dumbledore's right-hand man. Yet somehow, it still seemed like Kingsley might be the one best suited for a leadership role. Mad-Eye was a bit too paranoid and temperamental for the job, in my opinion.

Looking around at the assembled crowd was more disheartening than expected. It was a small group, composed mostly of Weasleys and the few remaining survivors of the last war, with just a couple people that didn't fit into one of those two categories - namely Tonks and Kingsley. Others that I remembered meeting at Grimmauld Place, such as Emmeline and Aberforth, didn't show up because they were either dead or had given up with Professor Dumbledore's death. It was alarming to realize Dumbledore had trusted so few new members this time around when I knew there were those out there, like Lee Jordan and Angelina Johnson, that were willing to fight. I understood his reluctance after what happened with Peter Pettigrew, but it was hard to deny that we could have used a little more help in the fight right now.

"Hagrid won't be coming. He and Grawp are setting up additional protections in the Forbidden Forest for the students next year," Professor McGonagall said, answering someone's question. "Since Albus… Well, things needed to be reinforced there and he was best suited."

"Let's get right to it then. We need a way to move Potter from Privet Drive. Need a couple volunteers to keep the Muggles until the war's over too. Anyone got any ideas?" Mad-Eye asked the room at large.

"I can stay with Harry's family, make sure no harm comes to them. I have a place in Hastings we can use that I inherited from my aunt. It'll be like a vacation by the sea," Hestia said kindly.

"Good luck with that," George said with a pitying chuckle, shaking his head at her. Her brow wrinkled in confusion. Guess she hadn't heard much about what they're like. "I'd rather face a horde of raging hippogriffs myself."

"Definitely brave - willing to take them on. But don't worry about them, just keep Voldy from being able to use them against Harry," Fred added.

"Thank you for your support boys," Remus said dryly, making it clear how little he appreciated their comments, regardless of how much he might agree with them. "And Hestia, I'm sure Harry will appreciate your help. We can set up wards later this week if you have time," Remus said and she nodded in agreement.

"I can stay with them too!" Dedalus Diggle offered excitedly. "How wonderful to hear stories of when he was younger!"

Ron and I exchanged looks at that. He'd definitely be in for a surprise if he truly thought he'd be hearing anything positive from Harry's family. Ron chuckled and I elbowed him to make him quiet down when Mrs. Weasley spotted us with her eagle eyes.

"Now that that's out of the way - how do we move Potter?" Mad-Eye asked gruffly.

"The Floo is definitely being watched?" Dedalus asked, though he looked like he already knew the answer.

"Yes. I tried to get to someone in that office, but everyone is either too scared or under the Imperius Curse. The Ministry is definitely infiltrated. It's no use," Kingsley said, sighing and shaking his head in the negative. He looked exhausted, despite the neatly pressed Muggle suit he wore.

"What about Apparation?" Mundungus asked like it was an obvious and easy solution. And it would be - if Harry was already seventeen and the Trace was gone. But the protection spells would be broken then and he'd be attacked before he'd even have time to blink, let alone Apparate while also protecting his family. Because Harry would protect them, no matter how awful they'd treated him through the years. No, they'd all need to leave at the same time, and before the spell ended.

"Same problem,. The original plan was for Mad-Eye to take him Side-Along-Apparation, but they'll be monitoring for that," Tonks said, still smiling brightly, though she seemed focused on the task at hand as she leaned against Remus.

"Well 'course it is. We talked about it last time. Nothing's changed -" Mad-Eye growled, frustration turning his words sharp as a knife.

"Alright, back to new suggestions," Remus interrupted, obviously attempting to diffuse Moody's anger. I noted Tonks giving his hand a squeeze when he did.

"Portkey?" Fleur suggested, though she did so without much enthusiasm. Probably figured all of the traditional modes of transportation would have already been considered, but that she might as well suggest it anyways. I wondered if that method was as closely regulated in France. I'd have to ask Fleur about it sometime or see if there were any books about it once everything was over.

"Can't. Not from his place at least. Casting the Portkey spell is monitored, as is the location the Portkey leaves from and its destination. We'd still have to get it approved to go from Potter's house or whoever casts the spell will be arrested, and that'll never pass. Plus, they'd know for sure where he was going. Right now they only suspect we'll move him to any one of our homes," Kingsley explained.

"We could Portkey him from somewhere else," I said, the idea coming to me suddenly and quickly taking shape. I'd spoken without thinking, and most everyone was looking at me now. I swallowed uncomfortably at the attention. Generally, I liked to have my thoughts better organized before sharing. Taking a deep breath to stall for the few moments I needed, I released it then explained further, "They don't monitor who uses the Portkey, just the creation of them. He could Portkey from somewhere else to here. The wedding is the perfect cover for a friend to Portkey here a few days beforehand."

Several people looked considering, but I noted a couple shaking their heads, dismissing the idea for whatever reason though most were starting to nod.

"But how do we get Harry to somewhere not being watched?" Bill asked, voicing the most obvious issue with my suggestion.

"We flew last time, and that worked," Remus said, though he was frowning and sounded doubtful. Things were nowhere near as dangerous then, and Harry's movements weren't as restricted.

"We could try that, but double the number in the Advance Guard," Mr. Weasley said, looking around. I wondered if it occurred to him that it would mean putting most of his family in danger since they were all likely to volunteer as members of that Guard.

"We're still likely to get ambushed. It'd be risky," Tonks said and Kingsley nodded in agreement.

"So we don't wait for Harry's birthday and the charms to break," George said suddenly.

"Move him a couple days early. Then old Snake face won't know what day we're doing it, and won't have his minions waiting there. It'll be easy to move him then he can Portkey here," Fred added, his thoughts following the path of his brother's with ease.

"We already told Harry we were moving him as soon as possible when Kingsley and I visited at the start of summer," Mr. Weasley said, adding, "I can send a note tomorrow to give him the exact date and let him know to expect Hestia and Dedalus, so they'll all be packed and ready. We can wait and tell him the new plan when we see him, in case he doesn't immediately agree."

"What about using a decoy too?" Hestia asked. "For when we move him."

"That's not a bad idea - two is always better. Right, George?" Fred joked.

"You said it!" George grinned, bumping Fred's shoulder as he laughed.

"Boys!" Mrs. Weasley scolded, silencing them with a single word.

"How would you get a good enough decoy?" Bill asked.

"Polyjuice Potion," I said, knowing immediately how well it would work. But it wouldn't matter.

Elphias Doge spoke up before I could say more, saying, "Sounds dangerous - whoever agrees to take it will have an enormous target on their back."

"Now you know how Harry feels," I said sharply. His comment annoyed me. I know he didn't mean for it to sound the way it did, obviously he was willing to risk his life to fight for what he believed in since he was here and this was the second war he was fighting in. But didn't he realize how insensitive he sounded? Harry never had the option of avoiding that target he mentioned so carelessly.

"And he's been dealing with it since he was born," Ron added.

Between the two of our comments, Elphias looked mortified. He opened and closed his mouth twice, preparing to stammer out an apology I guessed, but it didn't seem necessary. We were all ready to do our part to help and I knew how much he admired Harry, likely in thanks to his friendship with Dumbledore.

"Besides, Harry will never let someone take that kind of risk for him," I said, getting back to the subject at hand.

"She's right," George said, and both Ron and Fred nodded.

"I think I can handle forcing him, Girly," Mad-Eye said.

"He won't like it," Ron warned.

"He doesn't have to. But he does have to live long enough to get this war finished," Mad-Eye said harshly.

"Hey -" I yelled, and was echoed by several other's protests.

"That's enough. I know we're all a little on edge right now, but let's please stay focused on how best to keep Harry safe," Remus said, attempting to defuse the volatile situation.

"You might be onto something with this. Have two groups, get the Death Eaters to split up. It'd make outrunning them a bit easier," Tonks said in response.

"Two is good, but wouldn't… say… seven - seven Potters - be even better?" Mundungus suggested, speaking up for the first time. I'd almost forgotten he was there. It was like he'd been hiding, or sleeping, in the corner where he'd been propped up against the wall in, his droopy dog eyes only barely open.

Several people looked at him in surprise. I doubt any one of us was expecting anything useful from him. I wondered if he'd ever positively contributed in a plan before now. It really was a good suggestion though, particularly because it would be seven. I'd read all about the magical properties that Bridget Wenlock documented regarding the number seven. It was the most powerfully magical number. It was why Voldemort had picked it when making his Horcruxes, after all.

"They'd have no way of knowing which one is the real Harry, and they could all head in different directions - Portkey here from various safe houses registered as early wedding guests like you said earlier," Kingsley said, nodding to me as he jumped on the idea. "We won't have enough for each to have an Advance Guard, but each decoy could be paired with a protector."

"So who's willing to go traipsing about masquerading as the most wanted wizard alive?" Mad-Eye asked, apparently approving of the idea.

"I will," I volunteered immediately. Fred, George, Fleur, and Ron also agreed or signaled to Mad-Eye that they were willing. Ron looked at me, deep furrows carving hills on his freckled brow.

"There's no guarantee we won't get attacked, Hermione. I think you should stay behind," Ron said condescendingly.

"I understand that, Ronald. But it's not up to you. I'm not an idiot, and I'm not going to sit out just because it might be dangerous!" I hissed angrily. How dare he think to make decisions for me - or imply I wasn't capable!

"You could get hurt!" Ron shouted, his face turning a more violet shade than his hair, almost puce.

"Perhaps this isn't -" Remus tried to intercede, sighing tiredly and obviously sick of playing referee already.

"I'm perfectly capable of defending myself - it's not like I've not done so before!" I shouted, ignoring Remus entirely. Any embarrassment I might feel over making a scene was completely lost and overwhelmed by Ron's innate ability to spark my temper and make me lose all sense and composure regardless of where we were and the company we were in. It had always been this way.

"Now really, kids. I must insist -" Mr. Weasley said hesitantly, tiredly rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses.

"And you've always wound up getting hurt," Ron said, also ignoring his father. He looked smug as he spoke, as if he'd flung the decisive, final accusation that would support his stance. He even crossed his arms and smirked. As if this was anywhere near over!

"So have you!" I shouted, furious that he was trying to act like he was the more skilled and that only I had ever been hurt helping Harry. He'd been hurt every time, same as I had.

"Sometimes, sure, but I'm -"

"Don't you dare finish that sentence, Ronald Weasley. If one of us shouldn't be going, it's certainly not -"

"ENOUGH!" Mad-Eye hollered over the tail end of my sentence. "The plan is set. All of those that volunteered are going. Mundungus, you can be the sixth decoy since it was your idea anyways - NO, I don't want to hear it. And no one else gets to say otherwise," Mad-Eye growled with a pointed look at Ron where he slumped back with a mutinous expression on his scarlet face. "Now, who wants to act as a Guard?"

For one of the first times in my life, I tuned out the conversation around me, noting only that I was to be paired with Kingsley. I didn't hear a word of the rest of the meeting. Usually, I was completely invested, intent on learning everything I possibly could, so that I'd be as informed as possible. But right now, I just couldn't focus. Ron just had this way of getting under my skin and riling me up more than anyone else. He rattled me. More often than not, it seemed it wasn't even in a good way.

Ron and I needed to finish having this out. I couldn't believe he'd pulled that in front of the entire Order. He'd provoked me to the point that I was behaving like a first year throwing a temper tantrum. It was mortifying.

As soon as the meeting ended, I tried to corner him, but Fred waved me off, saying he and George needed some alone time with him. Before I could protest, they'd whisked him off to their flat. I waited for nearly half an hour before giving up and heading up to bed. At least I could get some research done. Even when I was mad, I could often lose myself in a book, and find solace in learning new information. Books never let me down, not the way people did.

Ginny was waiting for me when I entered the room. For a moment, I assumed she was waiting for me to spill about the meeting, but then I spotted the end of an Extendable Ear dangling from her pocket. Mrs. Weasley must not have cast Imperturbable Charms on the downstairs. I guess Ginny had figured I'd need to talk after what she'd overheard. She wasn't wrong.

She'd been doing better since I got here. We'd talked several times. I was slightly surprised that she wasn't more angry with Harry. She had such a fiery temper, that I was certain she'd be ranting and railing about the whole thing, but instead, she just wished circumstances were different and that this burden hadn't been forced on Harry. If he'd pulled the same thing with me, I'd be furious. But she understood. That didn't mean she liked it - or that she agreed - but she did understand, and therefore, didn't hold it against him. I suppose that was part of what made them so perfect together. Harry was difficult to get close to, and not many saw more than his fame or talent on the Quidditch pitch. Ginny though, she really got him, and she still managed to think of him romantically after that. I was fairly certain I understood him as well, but the thought of ever kissing him was about as appealing as the thought of kissing Umbridge or Filch. He was just too much like a brother to me.

"My brother is a world class git," Ginny began with no preamble.

"No argument here," I said, sighing and flopping down onto the bed beside her.

"Please tell me you're getting over him," she said. My head snapped up to stare at her in shock. She had to be joking, but one glance at her screamed just how serious she was.

"Ginny…"

"I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. You've always given me advice - even when it was hard for me to hear it, so now it's mine turn, and I hope you are willing to hear it too." She paused, waiting for some form of acknowledgement. After a moment, I nodded. "There's no denying the chemistry - you two are volatile enough to ignite an explosion - but you need more to back it up," she said, her words adamant, each one a silent plea for me to listen. But she wasn't making any sense. Ron and I had been friends for years. What more did she expect us to have?

"What are you talking about?"

"How much do you really have in common?" she asked carefully, almost sadly.

"Tons!" I immediately insisted, not hesitating for even a second.

She looked at me critically. For several minutes, neither of us spoke. I could see that she was collecting her thoughts and bracing herself to say something I wouldn't want to hear. It made me reluctant to interrupt or say more. Ginny was typically quick with her retorts, and even faster in flinging her opinions around during a fight. So for her to be taking her time, she likely had something important to say that she'd been sitting on for a while.

"Name five things - and Harry, Voldemort, and Hogwarts don't count," she said at last. It didn't make sense though. Those were the things that made up our history, the foundation of our friendship, the things that had shaped us into the people we were today. How could she expect me not to count those things?

"Why don't they?" I asked, simplifying my argument, curious to hear her reasoning despite completely disagreeing.

"You won't always be at Hogwarts. I mean, are you even going back? Nevermind. I know you won't tell me, but eventually real life will replace school and -"

"Yes, all right, that's true enough. But we'll always -"

"Seriously, Hermione, hear me out. When you leave school, you three won't be spending every minute together like you have in the past. One day you and Ron will need to be able to function without Harry's mediation if you actually want a relationship with him. And the war because, even though you've shared all these life changing experiences, you will have to move past them. We won't always be in life and death situations, and the emotions those situations generate won't exist anymore."

"Yes, but it's so much more than that." Obviously Ginny didn't understand how much potential I saw in Ron, beyond his attractiveness. He could achieve so much after the war if he wanted and tried. The glimpses I'd spent the last six years seeing had proven that. I wanted that future man I knew he was capable of becoming, and I was still willing to wait. One day he'd catch up to me.

"I get it. You're attracted to each other. Everyone sees that and freely acknowledges it, except the pair of you, of course. But what else is there?"

"I… He could be -"

"Could and is aren't the same thing. And could is no guarantee. I'm sorry. I know this wasn't what you wanted to hear. But one day you might have to admit that the situations you've been in, fighting Voldemort and protecting Harry, have been the glue holding you together. Without all that, you two just might not be able to make it work. You probably wouldn't have even stayed friends for so long if it weren't for Harry. Ron might never grow up enough or change enough to be a good fit for you."

I heard what she said, but it was totally unfathomable. My mind was molasses, thick and sluggish. I could hardly process her words, let alone determine their truth or justify claiming their falsehood. All I could comprehend, was that Ginny didn't support the idea of me ever dating Ron.

"So you don't want me to be with your brother?"

"No, I'm not saying that … Just, prepare yourself, because it might not work out the way you hope with Ron."

"I think I might love him," I whispered, admitting it aloud for the first time.

"I know," she said with a long heavy sigh. "But just think about whether you are good for each other or not…"

"It might not even matter. At this rate, he might never admit that he feels anything romantic for me," I said, acknowledging a fear I'd long had.

"I love my brother and I want both of you to be happy. So even if he does, please don't be with him if you guys both aren't happy while you are," she said, biting her lip uncertainly. She opened her mouth to say more, then abruptly closed it.

Why wouldn't we be happy if we finally managed to get together? If we did get to that point, and all that she'd mentioned about not having anything in common turned out not to matter, why wouldn't it be perfect? That fairytale dream come true, like it had been for Ginny and Harry. Why would she even suggest that we wouldn't be good for each other?

"What is that supposed to mean?" I asked defensively, crossing my arms to glare at her. She was holding back. It was obvious she wanted to say more, but wasn't.

"Nothing. Nevermind. I should let you get some sleep. It's late."

That night I barely slept, Ginny's words stuck in my head like an obnoxious jingle playing over and over again. I didn't know what to think, but at the same time, I couldn't stop overanalyzing everything even when the thoughts were ultimately insensible. My mind, once over the shock, had tumbled head first into overdrive. Despite that, I was no closer to a logical, acceptable conclusion than I was earlier.

The idea that she could be right didn't sit well. How could I not have seen it myself? I was usually so good at understanding people's emotions and reading situations. The only time I'd ever seriously misjudged a relationship was when Harry kissed Cho and I'd assumed he'd want to again. It had seemed logical considering how long he'd been pining after her, but Ron had spent weeks rubbing my nose in the fact he'd picked up on Harry's reluctance for a repeat performance when I hadn't.

By the time breakfast started, I felt sleep deprived and anxious - not my best combination. I was nervous about seeing Ron. Was what Ginny said obvious to everyone else as well? Is that why Harry never encouraged me to pursue things with Ron, even after he'd broken up with Lavender? I'd assumed it was because Harry didn't want to get caught in the middle or get stuck being the third wheel. But what if it was something more?

It was even harder to figure things out because I couldn't forget how angry I was at his high handedness during the Order meeting. He had no right to dictate my life or make decisions for me. His attempt to act superior, and make my accomplishments seem less, infuriated me. A sleepless night probably hadn't helped make the incident seem any less awful either.

Trudging slowly downstairs, I was reluctant to see Ron. Probably the most I'd felt since he'd been dating Lavender.

The feelings disappeared the moment I saw him though, because of the lopsided smile he directed at me as I descended the stairs. He looked like he'd been waiting for me, and his clean plate indicated he hadn't even started eating yet while he waited.

"Sorry," Ron mumbled, though he was looking directly at me. The blue of his eyes was bright, intense. I froze, staring in disbelief, my foot hovering an inch over the step I'd been about to step on. If he'd ever apologized as sincerely before, I couldn't recall it happening.

"I'm sorry too," I said, finally continuing down the stairs. After all, I might have overreacted a little and helped make the situation worse. If Ron could admit to being wrong, so could I. He nodded to the seat beside him, and I quickly moved to sit there.

"Want some eggs?" he asked.

"Sure?" My answer was more of a question than I intended, but I was confused until he started serving some onto my plate. It took effort to keep my mouth from hanging open. He'd never done anything so considerate before. "T-Thanks," I stammered out and began eating when he looked at me expectantly. He looked immensely pleased with himself. It was a look I'd seen before - after he'd kissed Lavender for the first time, and after he'd helped Gryffindor win the Quidditch Cup.

"How'd you sleep?" he asked between bites.

"Very well, thanks. You?" I lied, uncertain where this imposter had come from. He was being polite, considerate, and completely different from normal.

"Not bad. I was thinking of flying a bit before Mum treats us like Hou - er - helpers. Want to come with?"

"Okay," I said, feeling ever so pleased by the unexpected turn of events.

If that first morning was a revelation, the following weeks were the uncovering of a whole new Ron. The first surprise, was when Ron complimented my hair. I'd run out of shampoo and borrowed some from Ginny. She had some fancy product from a shop in Diagon Alley that the twins had gotten her. It did wonders for combating the frizziness of my hair without needing gobs of Sleekeazy's. While I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected results, I hadn't expected Ron to notice, much less comment on it. So when he did, I'd ended up blushing all morning.

That wasn't the only compliment I received either. During Bill and Fleur's rehearsal dinner a few days before we left to get Harry, Ron said I looked, "very pretty," in the blue and pink flowered sundress I'd worn. Then he'd taken my hand to pull me over to the spots he'd saved at the table for us. Once seated, he'd continued holding my hand under the table. Eating one handed had been awkward, but totally worth it. We were both red faced the entire meal, but no one teased us or commented, which was nearly as surprising as the hand holding had been.

In addition to the compliments, he'd served me food a few more times, continued asking about how I was - including how I was coping with my parents, and offering to help me with things like moving wedding preparations outside where a temporary shed had been hastily constructed just to store them until the big day.

The reason behind his sudden personality shift was a mystery, but I appreciated it all the same. It was a step in the right direction. We weren't together, and we hadn't directly talked about what was happening, but it was happening all the same.

Part of me was hesitant to believe it, and even more hesitant to rush in. Each time he did something kind, or showed some affection, Ginny's warnings would sound in my head. Her little voice warning that something was off, that it "wasn't a good fit", that the "real" Ron "wasn't good for me", or that he might be forcing himself to be what I wanted, instead of himself. If I didn't want to change to be what he wanted, what right did I have to expect him to do that for me? I suppose only time would tell if this was a true maturing or something artificially imposed on him.

Ginny and I hadn't really talked anymore about what she'd said that night, expect to tease me a bit after the first time she saw Ron serving me, saying, "he's probably just under a spell - must be the twins trying out a product on him." Aside from that, nothing. But I knew her focus had shifted from my love life to worry over Harry and her family. Tonight was when we'd be impersonating him, and practically every member of her family was involved and would be putting themselves in danger shortly.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 4

July 1997

4 Privet Drive

Harry had reacted about as well as expected when told about the plan for several of us to pretend to be him. He looked uncomfortable and worried, not to mention a touch resentful about his protests being ignored, as Mad-Eye passed out the eggcup-sized glasses with the bubbling, bright gold potion.

The change was nothing like what I'd experienced the first time I'd attempted to use Polyjuice Potion. I didn't know if that was because I'd mistakenly used a cat hair when it wasn't intended for animal transfiguration, or because I was changing into Harry and his potion was so much more pure; a true reflection of the essence of him. It even tasted like a bit like Butterbeer rather than something more unpleasant like overcooked cabbage or rancid tuna the way it had last time.

My insides writhed and twisted while my skin bubbled and skittered as every bit of me seemed to painfully expand outward like a blown up balloon. I hadn't realized just how much taller and broader Harry was until I was suddenly taking up so much more room and looking around from a greater height. I felt stronger too. His oversized clothes and robes were hiding a great deal of unexpected muscle. Though he was still more wiry and lean than the twins, he had a bit more bulk than Ron. Must be from all the flying. It took extreme coordination and muscle control to balance on a broom while playing Quidditch. Ron might be significantly more enthusiastic about the sport and fly more than the others combined, but truthfully speaking, he wasn't all that good. And he certainly lacked the others' coordination.

By the time the change ended, I felt like a sausage stuffed into too tight clothing. My scalp was left tingling and itchy where my hair had receded back into my head. It felt like ants were crawling all over it. And looking around was yet another unwelcome surprise. I knew Harry needed his glasses, but he really was extremely myopic. I couldn't see much clearly beyond the twins to my left and the table to my right.

A table that had a second, unused and still completely full, flask of Polyjuice Potion sitting abandoned on it. Having some could be extremely useful while hunting Voldemort. I doubted I'd have the time or resources to brew any myself. I bit my lip, silently debating, and felt a prodding nudge in my side. No one seemed to be watching, except George, and it was just sitting there…

Glancing at George, he winked, then turned to Fred, and in unison, the two said, "Wow - we're identical!"

Their comment earned a few chuckles from the assembled group and provided an excellent distraction. I grabbed the flask with one hand and used my wand to whispered, "Geminio."

"I dunno, though, I think I'm still better-looking," Fred said, making several laugh as I tucked the stolen flask inside my jacket and returned the newly created fake to the table.

My heart was racing, certain Mad-Eye would have seen with his magical eye and was ready to tell me off, but he seemed too busy passing out properly fitting clothes. I took the offered clothes and avoided looking him in the eye. Hopefully, when he discovered the empty flask later, he wouldn't suspect me. Maybe he'd assume Mundungus nicked it to sell or something like that.

Harry looked mortified when everyone started changing, but I doubted he was anywhere near as embarrassed as I suddenly was. I'd forgotten that there would be a need to change this morning when I'd gotten dressed, so I was currently wearing a lacy red bra and miniscule matching panties that my mum had gotten me last Christmas in France. She'd insisted on getting me fancy undergarments since I "was all grown up now" and because I "would appreciate them sooner than I realized". Except, I could feel that Harry didn't quite fit inside them and I definitely needed to change into something roomier if I'd be expected to ride a thestral and fight. Oh Merlin! The lace, which had only barely covered all of me, was digging painfully into a body part I hadn't previously had and I had no desire to touch, even to fix my current discomfort. And thanks to the many eyelets and tiny size of the fabric, it would be no help at all in concealing Harry's anatomy from the rest of the room - myself included when I changed.

Determined to switch shirts as quickly as possible, it still wasn't fast enough to avoid drawing Fred and George's attention.

"Harry in a bra - that's a sight I could've lived without," Fred chuckled, faking a disgusted shiver. "Even such a fetching one."

"Wonder if we could design -" George said thoughtfully.

"Might be onto something there! We'll get on that first thing tomorrow," Fred agreed, grinning deviously. "Who knew that's what she was hiding," he added in a startled whisper that nonetheless carried in our close proximity. Luckily, George didn't comment, though his eyes were much wider than usual, not to mention unblinking, as he stared at me.

I unbuttoned my pants, then hissed, "Do you mind?" when they were still staring at me. George started laughing when he saw the peak of matching red lace at my hip, but at least he did look away then. Apparently, his curiosity didn't extend to wanting to see that much of Harry's bits.

I'd be lucky if I could ever look Harry in the eye again after this.

Fred picked up my discarded bra, holding it up by the tip of a finger and said, "Don't forget to pack this - you'll be missing it later!"

I snatched it from him, shooting him a dirty look, then quickly stuffed it in the rucksack Mad-Eye had handed me.

Refusing to acknowledge the twins laughing beside me, I hurriedly added the glasses and muttered, "Harry, your eyesight really is awful."

Once everyone was situated, Kingsley offered a hand to hoist me into an awkward perch behind him on the winged skeletal horse that remained invisible to me. Despite everything I'd been through, I had yet to witness death firsthand. I looked into what appeared to be empty air beneath me and grimaced. How was I expected to stay on top of something I couldn't even see?

As if sensing my discomfort, Kingsley said, "Hold on tighter."

I reluctantly wrapped both my arms around his waist and clutched handfuls of his purple robes, then sighed and asked, "What if I need to fight?"

"Here - I've got an idea," he said, conjuring a thin rope that looped around both our waists and held us loosely together. "This should keep you with me, but free up your hands if necessary, and help you keep your seat. It's reinforced with spells that will prevent you from falling."

"Thanks," I breathed, relaxing my death grip on the back of his cloak just a bit.

"We're headed to my flat in London. It's one of the closest. The flight shouldn't take too long," he told me, turning his head just enough that the fading daylight winked off his earring and shiny bald head.

"The Death Eaters will expect Harry to be with the strongest Aurors. That means they'll likely target Mad-Eye and us. I know you've fought before, but if it comes down to it - don't be afraid to do what you must, understood?"

"Y-yes," I said uneasily. I felt less confident masquerading as Harry. My movements and control of my limbs was much clumsier and sluggish. Kingsley turned around a bit more and reached to pat my hand reassuringly. I cleared my throat, sat up straighter, and said, "I've got this."

Moody sounded the countdown, then we were off, shooting straight upward into the sky at twilight along with the six other pairs.

They were waiting for us.

The ring of Death Eaters formed a large circle, completely surrounding Harry's childhood home. I gasped, gripping Kingsley tighter as they converged en masse, jets of deadly green light coming from everywhere at once.

"Hang on!" Kingsley yelled, diving lower to narrowly avoid two spells that collided right where we'd just been. The sparks exploded outward along with the smell of burning hair.

Catching sight of a Death Eater gaining on us, I yelled, "Right! He's on the right!"

"Thanks," he gasped and veered off to the left.

Several Death Eaters broke off to follow close on our tail. Kingsley was guiding the thestral in a complicated series of faints and zigzags through the air that left my stomach churning and dangerously close to expelling the meal I'd hastily consumed at the Burrow this afternoon. All I could do was hang on while he tried to dodge the spells cast our way.

"Cover us!" he shouted, leveling out a bit so I could twist around and take aim at our pursuers.

"Immobulus!" I cried repeatedly, trying and failing to stop at least one of the Death Eaters from following. But again, and again, I missed. At least they were too busy ducking my spells to send many our way.

"How many?" he asked, focused on outmaneuvering our pursuers and trusting me to keep us from getting hit.

"Five!"

Suddenly, one broke off and came at us from below.

"REDUCTO!" he shouted, aiming a Reductor Curse at the thestral we were riding.

"Protego!" The shield charm only barely formed in time to block the spell that would have sent Kingsley and I falling to our deaths.

"Well done," he praised. "Now hang on," he warned before swerving around to fly straight at the startled Death Eaters.

The unexpected move distracted them enough that Kingsley was able to hit one as we flew straight through the center of their line. I didn't know what spell he used, but his target dropped back, giving up the chase. Kingsley turned the thestral upward, arching back over the scattered Death Eaters as they struggled to reform their line and continue their advance.

"Aim a bit in front of your target," Kingsley instructed.

"Right," I said, grateful for the advice.

This was much more difficult than anything we'd practiced in the DA back when Harry had been teaching us how to defend ourselves. Here, half my mind was preoccupied with staying atop my invisible mount, despite what Kingsley said about the rope doing that for me. Plus, the additional obstacles of an unfamiliar body and the awkward, twisted perch I was stuck in made it even more challenging to hit my targets.

We were flying higher than ever now, and my head spun dizzily everytime I caught a glimpse of the ground so very far below. Last time I'd ridden a thestral, it had directed itself, and the ride had been fairly smooth. This time, however, Kingsley was steering, and it was like being on a boat during a hurricane.

"Descendo," I cried, trying to send one of the broom riding Death Eaters back to the ground and away from us. That time I managed to hit his leg, and the Death Eater's broom dipped towards the ground, flying downward for several feet, before he corrected his flight path and rose back up to follow us. So much for that idea.

While I'd been watching the one I hit, another had conjured a magical rope. It seemed to glow with electrical sparks of blue light flickering along it. He was lazily circling it through the air above his head like a lasso that I assumed he hoped to ensnare us with.

"Diffindo!" I shouted, aiming to cut the rope with the Severing Charm, but again I missed. Except this time I hit the Death Eater - right in the neck. A long slice opened up across his throat and a massive fountain of blood sprayed in a several foot arc through the sky. Each of the remaining Death Eaters even paused to watch the surging scarlet fireworks.

He wasn't wearing a mask. His brown hair, the color of mud, was short, buzzed close to his head. Eyes as dark coal stared accusingly at me. Menace and shock contorted his bearded face. The hand holding the rope fell to his side, the conjured rope vanishing as if it had never existed. His fingers fluttered, as if he wished to reach for his neck, to stop his life from gushing outward with every beat of his heart, but they never made it to their destination.

"No," I whispered, horrified by what I was seeing. Kingsley turned to look as well, and even the thestral seemed to slow his flight as the scene unfolded before us.

One second. Two. Then the injured Death Eater slumped to the side and plummeted off his broom, falling rapidly towards the ground. Drops of ruby rain seemed to sprinkle steadily from the sky on his way down. None of his cohorts went to his aid.

"I just… Is he…"

"Focus! Don't think about it just now. We still need - Voldemort!"

"What?" I squeaked.

"He - he's flying…"

"How is that even possible?"

"Target the others - I'll take him," he ordered, ignoring my question. The deep tones of his voice centered me.

There wasn't even time to worry or find acceptance in the fact that this - Voldemort targeting us - would likely mean my death. But at least if Voldemort was distracted with us, Harry would have a chance to get away.

Kingsley turned the thestral to face off with Voldemort while I aimed spell after spell at the three remaining Death Eaters, shooting more Freezing Charms as fast as possible.

The next minute or two was a blur of color and light and adrenaline. I could feel and hear moving behind me, but I was too focused on blocking the multitude of spells being shot at us to witness Kingsley's duel. One of the Death Eater's hoods had fallen off, and I distantly realized that he strongly reminded me of Sirius. He had the same hollow-eyed, gauntness and skeletal appearance. As well as the limp matted hair that came with years of poor hygiene or a stint in Azkaban.

Voldemort retreated, suddenly and without warning. I only knew he was gone because Kingsley had momentarily paused, yet I could still feel him breathing behind me.

Alarmed, I shouted to Kingsley, "What's happening?"

Voldemort had only barely arrived, and he certainly hadn't accomplished what he targeted us to do. I was still breathing, after all.

The other Death Eaters rushed to follow before Kingsley even had a chance to respond. Kingsley took advantage of their hasty departure to fire a final shot from over my shoulder at the slowest, the one without a hood, hitting him in the arm. I could see blood dripping as he pulled his arm in to cradle against his chest, and he headed to ground instead of following his master.

"They're gone," Kingsley said, sounding just as baffled as I felt.

"Yes, but why?"

"I don't know. Let's get out of here. The Portkey should activate soon."

We quickly resumed our course to Kingsley's flat and arrived only a few minutes later. It was surprising just how much ground we'd covered during the fight. Hopefully no Muggles had caught sight of us or the others. The last thing we needed was to have the Ministry on our cases over this with legitimate evidence against us.

"They knew," Kingsley said after quickly ushering me into his sitting room. He'd paused outside only long enough to send the thestral back to Hogwarts.

"It does seem likely," I admitted, moving to look outside and check that no Death Eaters had followed us or were lurking outside, just waiting to ambush us.

Kingsley sighed heavily and moved to stand behind me. I looked back towards him, but he was quiet, his brow wrinkled with puzzling or unpleasant thoughts. I didn't know him well enough to be able to decipher his expression.

I busied myself with taking in the room while I waited for him to speak. It was nearly empty, a sofa and coffee table the only items in the room. No pictures adorned the walls and nothing was left out on the table top. Somehow I doubted he'd cleaned just because I would be here for a few minutes. It seemed much more likely that he was simply a workaholic and hadn't seen any reason to waste time decorating when he was rarely home. And aside from his earring, he didn't really seem the type to waste effort on anything outside of the bare necessities.

"There's no other explanation for them being ready like that," he finally said.

"You think someone told them? That someone… " I said trailing off at the implication.

Obviously it was none of the Weasleys. They were right there, each one of them risking their lives. Besides, they all loved Harry too much to ever even consider selling him out. Same with Lupin and Tonk. Of all the others… Mundungus was rather shady. But it had been his idea to have seven Harrys, and he was far too cowardly to risk his own life by coming along if he had told someone.

The only other explanation was that someone might have let something slip accidently. It was possible. Hagrid had done so on more than one occasion in the past. He did so with alarming frequency if I were being entirely truthful. It felt disloyal even thinking it, let alone voicing the thoughts, but that didn't change the past. Perhaps it really was dangerous and careless to continue trusting him with sensitive information - especially when there were lives at stake.

"Yes."

"Deliberately? But -"

"Are you injured?" Kingsley asked, cutting me off. He looked angry, and very disinclined to discuss his worries or suspicions at the moment.

"No. You?" He shook his head, giving a disbelieving little huff. As though our luck was completely unbelievable. Honestly, it truly was. Voldemort and five Death Eaters came after us and we were both completely uninjured.

"You're not a bad fighter. Mad-Eye was right to put you with me."

"How so?"

"I told you early. They were going to target the strongest, thinking Mad-Eye or I would be the most likely to have Harry. The idea was to keep everyone alive, meaning I needed someone who could hold their own paired with me."

Part of me wondered if he was only saying that because he'd witnessed my fight with Ron during the Order meeting the other week. Regardless, it was nice to hear. Then I remember what had happened during the fight.

"Did you recognize the man I hit?"

"I can't be sure," he said at last, though his hesitation made me suspect that he wouldn't tell me even if he did know.

"Is… I mean, could… Well, is there a chance he survived?" I asked, haltingly. Then begged, or more accurately - demanded, "Be honest. Please."

After all, I still hadn't been able to see the thestral I was riding by the time we'd landed. Though that could have been because he hadn't died until he'd landed. Or it could have been support for a theory I'd read about that said there was a lag between witnessing death and actually being able to see the thestrals. Some had even documented the lag as lasting as long as three months before.

"It's possible, but highly unlikely. Not with that much blood loss." I closed my eyes against the burning sting of unshed tears, shame and nausea swelling within me.

"Please don't tell the others! Harry would never understand," I pleaded.

I'd tell him one day, Harry and I didn't really have secrets, but not until all of this was over. He had more important things to worry about right now. Besides, I needed to figure out how to handle living with myself, and how to handle my feelings on the matter first. There was no way I'd be able to handle dealing with anyone else's emotions or opinions about my actions until I had come to terms with it myself.

"It wasn't intentional. You were fighting for your life," Kingsley assured, attempting to justify my actions.

"That won't matter. Harry is too… noble. He'd never sink to their level. And that's precisely had he'd see this." Actually, he'd probably understand that it had been an accident, but he'd second guess me after this and he'd probably be disappointed. The very idea of letting Harry down was painful to even think about.

"This is a war."

"That doesn't make it all right. And if Harry knew… He wouldn't look at me the same. I need him to trust me - now more than ever," I explained, needing him to understand something I could only barely articulate myself.

"Because of Albus's mission?"

"Yes. Harry will need my help," I answered cautiously. If he pressed for details…

"What is it you three are doing?"

"I can't say. Professor Dumbledore said to keep it secret," I ventured, hoping he'd drop it.

To my relief, he did. Nodding, he said, "All right."

Kingsley checked the time, then left the room only to return with an old, bent coat hanger made of wire a minute later.

"Portkey," he say by way of explanation then surveyed me intently. "Just a few more minutes." I took hold of the hanger with him, but when I didn't respond, he added, "I know it truly was an accident."

"It was a man's life. One I ended," I said shortly.

"You can't dwell on it. Or let it fester inside you. It seems you and Harry have been fighting for so long, that sometimes I forget just how young you still are. If you need to talk, I understand how you're feeling," he said meaningfully. I supposed as an Auror he'd been forced to take a life in the past as well. "Tonks and Remus would both understand as well if you'd feel more comfortable speaking with one of them."

With a flash of blue, the Portkey activated, saving me from having to respond. The spinning sensation reminded me of a carnival ride, only far less fun and entertaining. It seemed quite possible that I'd unintentionally left my stomach back in Kingsley's flat.

The Polyjuice Potion was nearly worn off by the time we landed in the back garden of the Burrow. I had to reach higher, and my hair was longer and bushier by the time I'd thrown my arms around Harry in relief. To see him standing there safe and whole was like taking a deep breath after nearly drowning. The plan had worked. It had all been worth it.

In less than a minute, Kingsley and Remus had briefed one another and we were back to waiting. Endless waiting. My emotions were on a rollercoaster. On one hand, I was grateful to Kingsley for keeping my secret, that I'd been the one to kill a Death Eater, on another, I was worried about George after hearing about his injured ear, and on yet another - and yes, I knew I didn't even technically have three hands - I was terrified something had happened to Ron. My anxiety over Ron kept me rooted in place. So while I was surprised by my desire to check on George and see for myself that he would be all right, I couldn't bring myself to move until I saw Ron here, safe and alive, for myself.

Harry left me after a couple minutes to check on George himself, and Kingsley and Remus excused themselves to discuss potential traitors. I wasn't even upset about being left out of the conversation because I was "too young" and "not in the Order".

As a result, I was alone when Mr. Weasley and Fred arrived.

"Everyone else back already?" Mr. Weasley asked, far too calmly for someone fresh from a battle.

"Mr. Weasley, George was hurt," I said cautiously. He took off running for the house at once, but Fred remained immobile, staring intently at me, waiting for more. "He's alive," I reassured.

That was enough to send Fred off in his father's wake. He caught up quickly when it appeared that Mr. Weasley had been stopped at the door.

After some commotion they were let inside and I remained waiting, alone, for Ron.

I refused to consider any possible explanation for why he wasn't back yet that didn't involve Ron eventually showing up. He must have been distracted and missed his Portkey. It wasn't possible that he wouldn't appear at any moment. He was just late. That was all this was. He wanted to make an entrance after getting to fight in a battle.

At least waiting was keeping my mind occupied and off other, rather unpleasant, memories.

After a few minutes Harry joined me in my silent vigil. Others might have come out as well, but I was past noticing.

When Ron and Tonks finally landed, I only had eyes for Ron. It was as if I couldn't get my arms wrapped around him quickly enough. And once my arms were there, I held on as tightly as I physically could. I heard his breath catch for a instant before he spoke.

"You're okay," Ron murmured, squeezing me back just as tightly. I burrowed closer, needing to feel that he was safe, alive, here.

"I thought - I thought -" I gasped, only barely able to acknowledge the fear that had gripped me for the last half hour or so while I waited.

"'M all right. 'M fine," he said, his hand roughly patting my back, awkward yet real.

"Ron was great. Wonderful. Stunned one of the Death Eaters," Tonks said. I idly wondered if he'd felt the remorse I did. If the Death Eater had fallen, he might have accidentally killed someone as I had. But they were both beaming, so maybe another Death Eater had scooped up their falling friend. It was rather unlikely that we'd both accidentally killed someone. Tonks continued, "straight to the head, and when you're aiming at a moving target from a flying broom -"

"You did?" I asked, eager to hear about his heroics from him. He'd always loved being in the spotlight and telling his side of events. Right now I just wanted to hear his voice, hear for myself that he was fine.

"Always the tone of surprise," he huffed, pulling free and turning away. And just like that I had been dismissed. " Are we the last back?"

He didn't comment or even look at me as Kingsley shared an edited version of our escape. Still he ignored me as Bill and Fleur, the last to arrive, came with the heartbreaking news of Mad-Eye's death. Even when we went to confront Harry about leaving, he simply followed me out without once saying a word to me. So much for the progress we'd made over the last couple weeks. And now, when I could have used his support to cope with what I'd done.

The Burrow was finally quiet, everyone falling into their beds exhausted after the evening's events. I could hear snoring coming from multiple rooms.

After hearing Harry talk about leaving, just when he'd arrived, I knew I'd have to be ready to go in an instant or he'd leave us behind. We'd tried to talk him out of going immediately, but it was obvious how impatient he was to get started. If we hadn't guilted him, he'd already be gone now. All of my stuff was packed, and repacked after the latest book sorting, so the only part left to do was add Ron and Harry's things to my beaded purse.

Ron had some clothes in the wash downstairs. Considering I couldn't sleep anyways, for fear of nightmares about what I'd done tonight, I doubted Mrs. Weasley would notice if I slipped down and nicked them before they made their way up to Ron's room. She'd probably think she'd delegated the task to one of us if she did find them missing.

We'd recently admitted that the three of us would be dropping out of Hogwarts, and Mrs. Weasley had taken the news about as well as expected. Denial. Or anger. I guess it depended on the moment, but those were the best words to describe her state of mind regarding the issue. Then there was the mission itself. Remus and Mr. Weasley had dropped the subject and let it be after just a question or two, same as Kingsley had, but Mrs. Weasley was a whole different matter. She just wouldn't let it drop. Every few minutes it seemed she -

"You need to learn to be stealthier."

I gave a startled squeak and jumped about a foot out of my skin when the voice came unexpectedly from the living room.

"I heard you coming all the way down and I only have one ear."

"George!" I breathed, the startled exclamation coming out barely louder than a sigh. "Merlin's pants, you scared me," I scolded. A tiny fire flared up, dim, but enough to see George's outline reclining on the sofa.

"Such colorful language. How delightfully unexpected," he teased, chuckling quietly.

"What are you doing down here all alone?" I asked, sitting beside him. His bandages looked fresh, though scarlet bloomed in the middle like a little starburst.

He looked away, shoulders slumping a little before he took a deep breath and answered, "Couldn't sleep. Potions aren't working."

"Because it's a Dark Curse," I said knowingly. "How much pain are you in?"

"A fair bit, but I'll manage," he said with a careless shrug, then winced.

I reached to touch the bandage, noting the size of the starburst had grown, but stopped just short of actually touching him. Not only did I not want to cause him pain, but it was rather presumptuous of me to assume he'd welcome my touch. His breathing was short and fast, and more than a little ragged. "Sorry," I muttered, letting my hand drop quickly back to my lap.

"I must look a sight. So much for being the better looking twin," he said disparagingly.

"It makes you look rather dashing if you ask me," I said. The words were out before I realized what I'd intended to say.

"Into the missing body parts look, are you?" The question was mocking, and full of obvious disbelief.

"It's a visible sign of your bravery. Not many fight a war and come out unscathed," I said seriously, adding, "Besides, with your shaggy hair, you'll barely see it."

"Most witches' stomachs will turn when they get a good look at the gaping hole in my head," he said, sounding more vulnerable than I'd ever heard before. It was startling. His eyes were intense, seeking an honest answer to a worry that his family would likely brush off entirely given their relief that he'd managed to survive.

"If it does, then she isn't for you. Would you really want someone that doesn't understand everything you've done to stand against Voldemort? Someone that didn't fight beside you?"

"No."

"Then as I said, it doesn't matter. Besides, I was telling the truth. It's really nowhere near as hideous as you seem to think it is. Seeing the reminder of your heroism just makes you more attractive in my opinion," I said honestly.

"You think I'm attractive?" He asked in genuine surprise.

"Well… I mean…"

I had no idea how to respond to that. The truth was that I found him very attractive. I'm not entirely certain I'd ever realized it before now, but he truly was. He and Fred were probably the most attractive of the Weasley brothers. He was a little shorter than Ron, but still fairly tall at six feet. His hair was a touch darker, the same vibrant shade as Ginny's instead of the orangey one the other Weasleys' sported. He was more obviously fit too. Ron was lanky, all arms and legs and angles and bones. George had muscle. He was strong, his biceps seemed carved out of marble, while the outline of his chest and abs were visible beneath the tightly stretched grey shirt he was wearing.

My mouth was dry. I tried and failed to swallow twice before looking back up to his face, and into his hazel eyes. The blue and brown swirled together in an interlocking abstract pattern. They were so much more unusual than Ron's clear blue ones. Never before had I noted their intricacy.

He was a frozen statue, letting me look my fill without saying a word. Waiting to hear if I meant what I'd said, or if I'd just been being kind due to his injury.

Discomfort swamped me. Appearance had never really mattered to me before, aside from Lockhart, but right now I was just like any other teenage girl. It felt inappropriate to think of him this way though. Worse, now that I'd had the realization, I worried I wouldn't be able to stop thinking about it.

"Use it as a prop," I finally said, taking the cowardly way out by avoiding the question altogether. He looked disappointed, but I continued before he could say anything more about it. "You've devoted your life to making people laugh. If you're worried about people pitying you now, make jokes about it like you did tonight."

"That was for Fred's sake. I knew how worried he was."

"But it made everyone laugh, not just him," I pointed out, relieved that he let the subject change without pushing it.

"It's just such a shame about all of Fleur's Veela cousins!"

"You poor thing," I said dryly, making him laugh.

"George, are you -" Fred said worriedly, hurrying down the stairs. He stopped when he saw us, looking back and forth twice before asking, "What's going on?"

There was an undeniable amount of suspicion in the question, and I reacted at once, stammering, "He - he couldn't sleep. I was just keeping him company. His ear… "

"Thanks. I can take over if you want to get some sleep," Fred said, dismissing me entirely to focus on his brother. I didn't understand why I felt so uncomfortable, but I did. I hesitated for only another few seconds before heading towards the stairs.

Fred was too busy giving George an intense look to notice when I left.

I paused on the steps to look back at the brothers. They were in the middle of a tense conversation. George was shaking his head as Fred spoke. I caught only one word - Ron. It was enough to send me flying back upstairs feeling unaccountably guilty.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

Merry Christmas! I don't normally beg for reviews since I write more to get a story out of my head than anything else, but if you have time, it'd be a nice Christmas present to hear what you think - thanks! :)

Since Harry was just guessing Gabrielle's age during book four, I'm taking the liberty of making her a couple months older than he thought, and going into 2nd year rather than 1st for the sake of this story. According to what I've found online, this might technically be possible and not actually a deviation from canon. Thanks for understanding.

Also, I don't want to retell JK Rowling's story because she already did a much better job than I could ever dream of doing to tell Harry's story. I just want to tell (rewrite) Hermione's story and only hit the important points for her story along the way. As a result, some things that happened in the book will be skipped if they don't serve a purpose in advancing her story. It is assumed that you've read Deathly Hallows and will remember the missing moments.

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 5

August 1997

The Burrow

The morning of the wedding was more chaotic than I expected it to be. After everything we'd taken care of over the last several weeks, I would have insisted that there wasn't anything left to set up except ourselves, but Mrs. Weasley seemed to find countless tasks for us to do regardless. Though I wondered how much was just to keep her occupied since Percy really hadn't shown up. Fred and George had rallied around her when she'd started crying, and for once they offered to help her with little things as a distraction instead of insulting Percy as they usually did. It seemed they'd finally learned that wasn't the best way to help her.

I'd been in charge of moving the reception centerpieces and horderves outside. In the process, I'd come across more of Mad-Eye's Polyjuice Potion. Assuming it was the same Harry would be using during the wedding, I'd smuggled out as much as I dared without getting caught the moment Mrs. Weasley stepped out of the kitchen.

We'd started final preparations before the sun was even fully up and Ginny, Gabrielle, and I were only just starting to get ready ourselves now that it was half past one and the wedding was less than two hours away. Fleur had been allowed to sleep in and get started already since she was the bride and it would take her the longest.

By the time I was attempting to fix my hair, I was nearly as anxious as Fleur seemed to be. Though she seemed more impatient as opposed to my nervousness. She was so beautiful, it nearly hurt to look at her when she smiled. Her Veela magnetism seemed magnified a hundredfold, and she wasn't even trying. Gabrielle kept scolding her sister goodnaturedly whenever Fleur would try to sneak peaks of Bill out the bedroom window.

Fleur, Ginny, Gabrielle, and I were getting ready together. Since there wasn't really room in any single room for all of us, Mrs. Weasley and Mrs. Delacour had set one room on the second floor up for makeup, and another for hair. The two mums insisted on fixing each of us up, and I was grateful when Mrs. Delacour took pity on me and helped sort out my hair. She ended up using a charm, that in tandem with Ginny's shampoo, worked wonders at combating its natural frizziness with minimal effort. I'd have to start using it daily. It'd be much easier to manage and it looked so much nicer.

The whole process reminded me of the Yule Ball in fourth year. I'd tried so hard to look pretty that night, and was thrilled when everyone seemed to think my efforts had paid off. Wasting time on my appearance when there were other much more important things happening had never been a priority, but once in a while I did feel the girlish tendency to get dressed up and have the bloke I fancied notice. It was nice getting seen as more than just a bookworm. That night had been wonderful. At least until Ron ruined everything by starting a fight. I still didn't know what he thought of how I looked then. Hopefully today he'd actually notice.

It may be ridiculous, but just once I wanted Ron to see me and think I was as pretty as Parvati, instead of seeing me as one of the guys or the person with the answers. I wished I didn't care so much. My self-worth shouldn't be based on a guy's opinion, but with how different he'd been lately, I still hoped to have that experience just once.

Though if Auntie Muriel's opinion counted, that wouldn't happen - not that I put much stock in it. She'd come in to give Fleur her Goblin-made tiara a few minutes ago, taken one look at me and dismissed me because of my "Bad posture and skinny ankles". She hadn't much appreciated it when I'd snorted and shrugged, unable to withhold my ineloquent response. If those were the worst of my flaws, I was probably doing fairly well.

"You look like a princess with that tiara," Gabrielle said giddily, grinning as she helped Fleur into her wedding dress without messing up the bun of pinned up curls at the nap of her neck or the delicately perched diadem. She was every bit Fleur in miniature, down to the palest blue eyes and shining sheet of glossy, silvery-blonde hair.

"I feel like one," Fleur exclaimed, looking down at the smaller version of herself with a dazzling smile. "I'm marrying my prince charming," she added conspiratorially. Mrs. Weasley sniffed weepily from where she was finishing up Ginny's hair. I was all ready to go, just waiting on her before heading down.

"I want to fall in love too," Gabrielle said wistfully. "It sounds so perfect and exciting."

"One day, I shall be helping you with your wedding," Fleur said as Gabrielle fastened the tiny row of lace covered buttons along the back of her wedding dress. The cap-sleeves of the dress were lace, as was the bodice of the long A-line keyhole gown while the rest was layers of chiffon that flowed down from the empire waist. There was an oval cutout in the back that bared the skin between her shoulder blades, and a small train that pooled around her long slender frame. It was simple, elegant, and a tad vintage. It matched her natural beauty perfectly, enhancing rather than competing with it. "You will be as happy as me!"

"I can't wait to dance," Gabrielle giggled. With a dreamy sigh, she added, "It's so romantic to be swept around the room in the arms of the man you love."

Gabrielle might be eleven and only a week away from turning twelve, but right now she sounded closer to the nine-year-old girl I'd first met during the Triwizard Tournament during fourth year. It was hard to believe she'd be starting her second year at Beauxbatons this fall. Though living with Lavender and Parvati should have prepared me for her antics.

Ginny caught my eye in the mirror and dramatically rolled her own, patience thin. Gabrielle had been sharing her whimsical and fairytale fantasies almost nonstop since yesterday morning when the wedding party had done a rehearsal after the men from Millamant's Magic Marquees had erected the massive white tent out in the orchard.

At first, when Mrs. Weasley started talking about the rehearsal, I'd been confused. We'd already had what she'd called the rehearsal dinner, but apparently that had just been her way of having a fancy celebratory dinner with only the Weasley family and a few close friends. They'd waited until yesterday to actually do a run through because they'd needed Gabrielle here, and they'd wanted the huge marquee set up so they could get everything right.

Harry and I had taken the opportunity to discuss some potential places to stay while on the run. It was the first time in nearly two days that we'd gotten a chance to speak alone without fear of being caught by an angry Mrs. Weasley since she was preoccupied with the rehearsal outside. Ron was busy outside as well, having been roped into helping the twins set up some decorations. Harry was brooding over what Ron had said about him and Ginny. I tried talking to him about it, but he just said there was no point when talking didn't change the circumstances or outcome. I was busy brooding over what had happened with the nameless Death Eater myself, so I uncharacteristically let it drop without pushing too hard.

My reluctance to dwell on the incident didn't prevent my thoughts from straying to it frequently throughout the day. It was like living with a ghost. I'd catch a glimpse of his face in the mirror and have to look twice before realizing it was a hallucination. A flash of red out of the corner of my eye would bring to mind the image of bloody droplets falling like so much rain or a ruby spray dancing like a ribbon floating in the wind. I knew it was an accident. That I'd been fighting for my life. But that didn't stop the knowledge that a person no longer existed because of something I'd done. Like any child, I longed for my parents' reassurance, but that was impossible. And there was no time to come to terms with any of it since we'd probably be leaving tomorrow.

"You will be able to dance today, Gabby," Fleur assured her sister, turning to show everyone the results of their efforts. She was beautiful. Bill would be thrilled.

"I'll dance with Harry!"

"No," Ginny said cooly. When the sisters both turned to her, she elaborated, "He's disguised, remember? He's not supposed to draw attention to himself today."

I masked a chuckled at her easy maneuvering. She was very determined to keep Harry's interest firmly situated on her even if she could be with him herself just now. Not that she had anything to worry about. Anyone with half a brain knew she was it for him. Besides, he was too uncomfortable and baffled by female attention to know how to handle anyone but her.

"Then I shall just have to dance with Ron instead," Gabrielle said easily. I frowned, less than thrilled by the idea, but lacking a similar excuse to the one Ginny had employed to keep the two apart.

Twice in the last two days Gabrielle had kissed Harry's cheek in thanks for something or another. Both times he'd stood there dumbfounded. And both times, Ron had piped in that he'd helped too and had earned himself a kiss on the cheek from the beautiful part Veela girl as well. I knew she was just being like Parvati and Lavender, a little boy-crazy with an overdeveloped, though harmless, romantic streak. But I was furious with Ron for encouraging and desiring her attention. Why did he always have to seek out the prettiest girls and make it clear that he desired them and wanted them to desire him? If we ever did get together, how would I know he'd stay with me if a "better" option ever became available?

"If you just told Ron how you felt, he might ignore her in favor of you," Ginny whispered while Fleur laughed at her sister pretending to waltz around the cluttered room with an imaginary partner.

"I thought you were against the idea of Ron and I together," I reminded her, still a little stung. Ginny shook her head sharply.

"It's not that - I promise. I just can't see it working out, and I don't want either of you getting hurt. I'm sorry I said anything. Just have fun today, okay?" I didn't say anything else on the subject, but I did give her a questioning look when she tugged the neck of her golden dress down to expose a startling amount of cleavage. "What? I want Harry's eyes on me today - not anyone related to Phlegm. I might as well use what I've got," she finished with a wink. Ginny might be extremely athletic and very fit as a result, but she was her mother's daughter and had the curves to prove it - curves Harry seemed to find quite fascinating.

I was still thinking about what Ginny had said when I met up with Ron and Harry out back. Harry looked so like Ron, red-haired, freckled, and stuffed into too small robes that I was forced to smother a laugh at the sight. Well, he'd always wanted to be part of the family.

"You look great!" Ron said, eyes bugging out of his skull. He resembled a Muggle stress ball that'd been squeezed too tight.

"Always the tone of surprise," I tried to tease, deliberately using his words from the other night. He failed to catch the reference. We seemed to constantly be underestimating each other. On top of that, it hadn't been nearly as rewarding to hear him say that as I had anticipated. It felt the way it would if Harry had said it, nice, but not flattering beyond belief. Maybe I was still annoyed that he hadn't said so the last time I'd put this much effort into getting ready. Or it could be that I was still be a bit angry about the other night and all the unsaid things since then. We seemed to have an unspoken truce going for Harry's sake.

The day after Harry arrived, Ron had gone back to his newly considerate self, as if hadn't shut me out the moment he took offense at something I'd said. Except now, it seemed forced because he was only doing it when Harry was around. Part of me couldn't help but think he was only doing it to try and one up his friend. I hated even considering that his actions had ulterior motives, but how could I not? Surely he knew I didn't have feelings for Harry, nor Harry for me. He had to know that, right?

Fred and George had joined us and we were laughing over Fred's story of Uncle Bilius's antics when Viktor unexpectedly joined us.

"You look vunderful," he said, bushy eyebrows drawn together and dark eyes directed solely on me, completely ignoring the others gathered.

"Viktor!" I exclaimed, so flustered by his unexpected presence that I fumbled and dropped my purse. "I didn't know you were - goodness - it's lovely to see - how are you?" I stammered, stunned as he stepped even closer, invading my space. He was just as large and intimidating as ever. The air of confidence he exuded was overwhelming and left me tongue tied. No wonder girls were constantly throwing themselves at him.

He reached out to hug me, his muscular arms sliding low around my waist and pulling me flush against his broad chest. Tilting his head, he whispered,"I've missed you. Perhaps ve can get reacquainted later?" He didn't wait for a response before letting go, but his hand lingered as he stepped back, pausing to squeeze my hip meaningfully. He struck up a conversation with the others as if he hadn't suggested anything then followed the disguised Harry to his seat.

I stood, unblinking and taken entirely aback as my heart raced. Stunned. That was the only word to describe my feelings at his forthrightness.

We'd lost touch over the last year, my letters taking longer and longer to send. And they'd gradually become filled with more and more pleasantries, as opposed to his declarations of intense feelings and longings to spend more time together. After the dozenth time I'd made excuses for why I couldn't visit, he'd finally asked if there was any hope I'd ever feel as strongly for him as he did for me. That response had been one of the hardest things I'd ever had to do. It had been so tempting to say maybe. The devotion and fervent desire he so openly confessed to experiencing was a balm to the wounded pride and hurt feelings that Ron kept inflicting.

In the end, I couldn't string him along. It just wouldn't have been fair of me. We lived in different countries, and honestly, I didn't want to be the girlfriend of a famous Quidditch star. There were too many important things I planned to do with my life. I wouldn't have the time, energy, patience, or temperament required to act as his trophy wife.

"You're still into Vicky!" Ron accused as soon as Harry had led him inside. He looked furious, face scrunched up and splotchy with red patches. My equilibrium was too unbalanced to properly defend myself against the unfounded verbal attack.

"Calm down Ronniekins," Fred said, taking pity on me for once.

"He was the last guest. Better take our seats," George said, forestalling any further complaints from Ron, and ushering us ahead as he brought up the rear.

Any displeasure I felt with Ron evaporated the moment I caught sight of Fleur walking down the aisle. She looked radiant, and when she joined Bill at the front, he did as well. Their joy at being united was evident in every look and gesture. Gabrielle's enthusiasm didn't seem quite so overdone anymore.

This was the first wedding I'd ever been invited to, but already it looked more amazing than any I'd seen on Muggle films, thanks in large part to the use of magic. Everything just seemed more elaborate and shinier and perfect than it would have without the extra help the use of spells gave.

I watched Mrs. Weasley dabbing at her eyes and wondered if my parents would ever have the opportunity to see my own wedding someday. I wondered if they'd even recognize me by the time the war was over even if I could restore their memories. Their beloved daughter - the thief, liar, and murderer.

One of the Birds of Paradise from the popping balloons fell onto my lap at the end of the ceremony, and after adding a preserving charm, I tucked it into my purse. It must have taken Fred and George ages to make all of the various decorations they had supplied for the wedding. I knew some, like the bell and flower balloons, were their own inventions. I hadn't realized that they'd extended their creativity beyond jokes and pranks, but they really were clever. It was quite thoughtful of them too.

When Ron's jealousy drove him to ask me to dance, I was initially thrilled. However, less than two minutes into the dance, I was thoroughly annoyed. He was too busy glaring at Viktor to even remember we were supposed to be dancing.

"Ouch," I hissed for the third time when Ron stepped on my toes once again. The heels I'd worn were already serving as miniature torture devices. The last thing I needed was Ron inflicting further damage to my toes. But he was too busy scowling at Viktor to even realize what he'd done - again.

"Sorry," he muttered insincerely.

"Ron can you please watch -"

"Does he honestly think that little beard looks good?" he asked, steamrolling over my request like it was so much dandelion fluff.

"Probably," I said, not caring the least bit and trying to convey how ridiculous I found discussing facial hair to be with the single word. My efforts were in vain though.

"Girls only like it because he's famous," he continued, nonplussed.

"I'm sure -"

"It's not like he's good at anything besides Quidditch," he continued. The poison green of his envy and insecurities weighing heavily on each word.

"He wouldn't have been a Triwizard Champion if that were the case," I argued despite the fruitlessness of it. Ron was far beyond hearing reason at this point.

"Right. I forgot, perfect Vicky -"

"Are you quite finished yet?" I asked, jerking free of his confining hold. I couldn't take anymore. I wanted Ron to want to dance with me because he wanted to be with me - not because he wanted to keep me from enjoying myself with someone who was actually interested in me.

"What are you on about?" he asked, sounding truly baffled. How could anyone be so thick-headed?

"You didn't have to ask me to dance just to get away from Viktor," I explained, speaking to him as if he was a misbehaving three-year-old.

"That wasn't -"

"Well, it certainly wasn't because you actually wanted to!"

"Now wait just a -"

"No. I'm going to congratulate your brother. If you ever decide you want to dance with me because you actually want to, come find me," I huffed, spinning and stalking away from him.

I ended up with Ginny, where she was keeping an eye on Harry off to the side of the cake. If I didn't know better, I'd say she'd had a few firewhiskeys. Everyone had gotten louder in the last few minutes as drink trays floated around the tables faster and faster, and I wondered if she'd managed to sneak some under her mum's nose.

"Fred," she said by way of explanation when I eyed her speculatively. I gave her my best disapproving frown, but she just shrugged and grinned impishly. "Take it things didn't go so well with my brother?"

"I'd rather not discuss it," I said, sighing at the proof she'd been trying to convince me of.

"Sorry. I really was hoping I was wrong," Ginny said, reaching over to squeeze my hand comfortingly. I would miss her this year. She was the only real girlfriend I'd ever had.

"Promise you won't take any unnecessary risks this year," I suddenly begged her, undeniably worried.

"You're leaving soon, aren't you?" she asked, her face losing some of its haziness as she sobered with the new line of conversation.

"Very likely. I'm actually surprised Harry agreed to wait this long."

"Do you know where you're headed first?"

"Nice try. Your promise, please," I said, redirecting the conversation back to my initial concerns.

"I won't sit back and do nothing," she said fiercely. Fire sparked in her eyes, making them glow as bright as her flaming hair.

"I never thought you would," I sighed, struggling with how to explain my fears to her.

"I know we all have our parts to play in the coming months," Ginny said vaguely. What did she mean by that? What was she planning to do? Didn't she realize that if she put herself in any danger that Harry would be useless? He needed to know she was safe if he had any hope of staying focused on the task Dumbledore had set for him.

"Just don't do anything that makes Voldemort decide he should single you out," I finally said.

"You don't think he is already?"

"No, actually. At first I thought… Well, I'm not sure why Professor Snape hasn't told him you mean as much to Harry as you do, but he hasn't or Death Eaters would have already come for you to try and draw Harry out. Mad-Eye even mentioned that he'd had plenty of time to tell everyone all about Harry the day we went to Privet Drive," I explained.

It was something that had been weighing on me for a while now. Snape knew they'd dated. He'd watched Harry risk his life for Ginny when they weren't even really friends. And he'd been in Harry's head enough to understand how much more devoted Harry was to someone he actually had feelings for. There was no way Snape would buy them breaking up as Harry losing interest. He had to have known it was because he was trying to protect her. So why hadn't he told Voldemort? It didn't make any sense. Voldemort clearly wanted Harry, and he knew Harry's weakness for being heroic. The only thing that made sense was if Snape hadn't said a word.

"After what he did to George - my brother - you don't honestly believe Snape has protected me, do you?" Ginny asked hotly, feathers ruffled as she puffed up indignantly. She'd never resembled her mother more than she did right then.

"It's possible. He always paid so much attention to Harry and wanted to punish him. Hurting you would be a way to do that, but it hasn't happened. It doesn't make any sense," I tried to explain, unwilling to back down when I knew I was right about this.

"You just can't admit another one of your teachers ended up being the bad guy," she fired off, crossing her arms angrily.

"That's not -"

"Why aren't you two dancing?" George asked as he and Fred came to an abrupt stop in front of us.

"I insist you let me take you for a spin," Fred said, tugging gently on my hand.

"Yeah, Gin. Take pity on your poor mangled brother and give us a dance," George added, scooping up his giggling sister and spinning her around in erratic, reckless circles.

The four of us joined the few other couples, including Bill and Fleur who were oblivious to everyone else as they whispered quietly to each other and swayed in the middle of the floor. Their dance didn't match the music at all, but it was sweet and I smiled at them as Fred spun me past them.

I loved dancing and didn't even mind Fred's exuberant style as he spun me wildly around until I was laughing crazily. He overemphasized the waltz, moving us around in large stride-eating steps.

"You look gorgeous today," he said with unusual seriousness. I flushed at the unexpected compliment.

"Thank you," I said, just as sincerely.

"I noticed you and Ron didn't have much luck on the dance floor," he commented with blatant curiosity. Fred was the last person I had any intention of discussing that tragedy with.

"I noticed you've your pick of Veela cousins," I said, turning the tables to see how he liked the prying.

"Touche," he said, chuckling.

"So what tricks have you got planned for today? Any foods I should avoid?"

"You wound me! Do you honestly think I would do such a thing at my eldest brother's only wedding?"

"Yes!" I exclaimed, then gasped when he dipped me unexpectedly.

"Rest assured, the food is safe," he promised.

"And the champagne?" I asked. "All other drinks?"

"Smart girl - covering all your bases, but I swear they're all fine too," he said, steering me towards the far side of the room.

"But you do have something planned?"

"I'll never tell," he said, then yelled, "Switch!" as he spun me so hard and fast that I lost my grip on his hand and went carrening, only barely avoiding Ginny, who George had done the same thing to.

I crashed into George's chest, his strong arms catching me easily around the waist.

"Alright there?" he asked, grinning happily.

"Yes," I said, breathless from giggling, and Fred's enthusiastic dancing.

"Looked like you needed saving," he teased.

"I'm certainly not complaining," I replied, enjoying myself more than I thought possible. It was such a relief to let loose and take a break from the stress and strain of the war. I hadn't realized how much I needed it until just now.

"Having fun then?" he asked, locks of vibrant red hair curling over his forehead attractively as he looked down at me. Even with my heels he was half a head taller than me.

"Yes. Are all wizarding weddings so fun?"

"Only when Weasleys are in attendance," he grinned wider, lifting me up in a twirl as he had Ginny earlier. My breath caught in surprise before I let my head fall back to laugh up at the ceiling.

"I'll bare that in mind," I said as he set me back on my feet.

"I'm always available to serve as escort," he offered, then added, almost as an afterthought, "That's assuming Ron can't, for whatever reason."

"Oh… well… thanks. Sounds like a plan," I said uncertainly. We'd slowed down and were nearly standing still. I felt my brow crinkle as I tried to understand what he'd meant by that and why he was staring so intently at me. His usual mischievous grin was back after a moment and he resumed leading me about the dance floor. "Speaking of… I heard you and Fred had something planned for this one. Any hints?" I asked to change the subject and help restore our previous lighthearted atmosphere.

"You'll just have to wait and see," he said vaguely then hinted, "It'll be a memorable send off - that's all I'm saying." When the song ended, he tugged me closer and asked, "Another dance?" When I nodded, he lead me about at a much more leisurely pace than we'd been dancing before.

"I'm surprised you're not too busy with Fleur's family to dance with me. I saw you with one earlier," I said, curious about why he'd already seemed to have abandoned the beautiful French girls to spend time with Ginny and me instead. "You did mention something about Veela cousins, right?" I asked, grinning as I teased him.

"No, I'm leaving them for Fred," he said, giving a fake pout.

"All of them?"

"He needs the variety," he answered with an indifferent shrug.

"How generous," I said drily.

"Fred needs a rebound since Angie dumped him last week," he explained after a quick glance at where his brother was now talking with one of said Veelas, having left Ginny in her earlier spot.

"Truly? But they've been together since… "

"The Yule Ball? Yeah, so a couple years off-and-on," he said sadly.

"What happened?"

"She asked him to stop taking so many unnecessary risks," he confided.

"Like what?"

"The You-Know-Poo signs, being so vocal about being in the Order, that kind of thing."

"But she's fighting too," I countered, confused. Angelina had always been brave. She was in the DA and had made her anti-Voldement sentiments very clear. So why would she end things now, just when most people were taking chances and clinging tighter to the person they cared most about?

"'Course. But she's doing it without putting a target on her back," he said, emphasizing the difference. "She doesn't want to risk losing him and she's certain its only a matter of time at this rate."

"Why are you two so willing?" I asked, realizing Angelina did have a valid point.

"If it helps keep the focus off you - and Harry, and my baby brother - it's worth it," he said, steel and determination underlying his words.

"I stand by what I said before. You've changed since Hogwarts," I said, amazed by his maturity and willingness to potentially sacrifice himself if it meant helping Harry succeed. He really was remarkable. How had I not seen it before?

"Well, I know I've grown even more ruggedly handsome, but it's always nice to hear anyways. Just make sure you aim all compliments to my right and all complaints to my left," he said, injecting levity back into the dance as easily as a flick of his wand.

Another spin and I was laughing once again. It was amazing how much things had changed over the years. Never would I have believed I'd one day be laughing and joking and enjoying myself with George rather than telling him off and scolding him for being irresponsible.

War was terrible. It often involved needless loss and heartache, unnecessary trials and suffering. But war also had the potential to make some people shine, to provide opportunities where a person could rise up and do remarkable things. It provided a backdrop for a person's true character to emerge.

"I think I might start looking for something serious once the war is over. I'm over meaningless flings now that respectability has settled in," George said suddenly, and I got the impression he was completely serious.

"Have someone in mind already or is this just -"

"Mind if I cut in?" Ron asked, appearing at our sides and looking incredibly nervous. My heart skipped a beat as I took him in. Did this mean he actually wanted to spend time with me? I bit my lip to hide my grin and mask my excitement. Seeing him standing there was like a dream come true, my very own fairytale happy ending.

""Course. I was just filling in," George said, stepping away at once and releasing his hold on me without an instant of hesitation. His voice sounded off, and I immediately missed the warmth of his calloused hand when it was gone, but the thought only lasted the briefest moment, flitting through my head like a shooting star, there and gone - burned up - before it'd even really registered. Then my focus was entirely on Ron.

It was awkward and clumsy where George, and even Fred, had been surprisingly smooth and graceful. Nonetheless, it was fun. This time I was the entire focus of Ron's thoughts. The only time he looked away from me was to watch his feet. Apparently, he'd learned his lesson and didn't want to trod all over me again. When I laughed, he gave me a disgruntled look.

"I'm not laughing at you, promise," I said soothingly.

"Then why?"

"Because I'm having fun, Ronald. Relax and enjoy yourself too!"

We didn't talk anymore after that. It seemed safer to just enjoy the moment, instead of provoking one another. Time became meaningless as we danced song after song together. Eventually, my feet were throbbing too much to continue. I needed a break.

Looking around, I saw Gabrielle and Luna both nearby. Gabrielle was the last person I wanted Ron dancing with, so I said, "There's Luna - why don't you go dance with her. She looks lonely." Indeed, she was swaying and waving her arms around in elaborate gestures that I suppose could resemble dancing… Everyone was steering clear of the area immediately surrounding her so as to avoid accidental injury.

Ron frowned at me then glanced over at her. "Why would I dance with her? The crazy bint looks like she's having a smashing time all on her own," he said, laughing in a rude, mocking manner.

"Honestly, Ronald, you can be such an insensitive git at times," I sighed.

"What?"

"She's our friend - stop making fun of her!"

"Don't tell me what to do. 'Sides, I was being honest - she does look fine on her own - and it's not as if you're any nicer to her yourself!"

"I need a break and something to drink," I said, exhausted by our inability to get through a single conversation without it deteriorating into a fight.

"I'll get us some Butterbeers then," he said, looking just as mad.

"Fine," I said in a clipped tone. "I'm going to sit with Harry."

Grimmauld Place

Less than an hour later...

"Severus Snape?" Mad-Eye's voice boomed from the darkness and I leapt away, unaccountably frightened of the disembodied voice belonging to a dead man.

"We're not Snape!" Harry croaked.

My heart was still racing from our near escape at the wedding, then again at the diner, and now this. Death Eaters had attacked just after I joined Harry and we'd been forced to flee. Then we'd been attacked just after at the diner when the Death Eaters had found us again. It didn't make sense and there wasn't time to think about it now. We'd ended up seeking sanctuary at Grimmauld Place, but I'd forgotten about the safety measures that had been put in place since it had been compromised with Dumbledore's death.

I was about to warn the boys about Mad-Eye's protective spells, when my tongue suddenly seized up, rolling into the back of my throat. I panicked, scrabbling at my mouth and neck with my fingers until my tongue loosened to properly fill my mouth again.

"That m-must have b-been the T-Tongue-Tying Curse Mad-Eye set up for Snape!" I explained, finding comfort in logic and facts. They helped calm and center me. I was in desperate need of regaining my focus.

When the ghostly, distorted figure of Dumbledore rose up, approaching us, I backtracked, desperate to leave and get away. My back slammed painfully into the door. My hand scraped and groped uselessly for the handle, missing it repeatedly before I slide down to the ground, my legs failing to support me.

Superimposed over the dusty amalgamation of Dumbledore was the face of the Death Eater I'd accidently killed. His accusing eyes were locked onto me, and his face was contorted in a grimace of pain. Half of his wiry beard look like it'd rotted off and several of his teeth were missing. One side of of his face was flatten… as if… as if he'd fallen from a great height…

Closer and closer it came. It's broken and crooked arm lifted, pointing directly at me - his murderer. I threw my arms up protectively to ward him off, unable to breathe or scream or beg.

Then it was over. Ron patted my shoulder roughly and Harry was staring at me, but I couldn't get the image out of my head.

For over an hour now terror and adrenaline had been coursing through me. It was too much. I was terrified. I never had the chance to apologize to Ginny for our spat. What if something happened to her before I could? What if something happened to one of the other Weasleys? This was supposed to be a day of celebration! Now we were standing inside a waking nightmare of a house, with both the past and present out to get us, apparently in danger no matter where we went, and we had no idea what to do next.

On edge didn't being to describe my current state of mind.

The boys had started moving further into the house, unconcerned, when additional danger didn't immediately present itself, but I stopped them, and said, "Before we go any farther, I think we'd better check. Homenum revelio."

"Well, you've just had a big shock. What was it supposed to do?" Ron asked stupidly. I glared, irrationally annoyed by his lack of magical knowledge. Professor Flitwick taught us that spell last year and he'd already forgotten it - worse, he'd never bothered to learn it in the first place! What made it even worse, though, was the fact Ron had been raised as a wizard, yet he knew woefully little. He never bothered to pay attention in school, so he didn't even know all the various spells we'd been taught while attending Hogwarts, let alone all of the others out there that existed. Apparently, that was entirely my job.

"It did what it was meant to do! That was a spell to reveal human presence, and there's no one here except us!"

"And old Dusty," Ron joked, completely oblivious to me internal rant about him, and unintentionally reminding me of what I'd just seen. My eyes sought out the place my tormentor and victim had vanished without my permission.

"Let's go up," I said, squeezing my eyes shut and internally cringing when I'd been unable to hide the terror from my voice. The uncontrolled wobble and lump in my throat made it impossible.

That fear was still riding me hard when I lectured Harry about the dangers of letting Voldemort into his mind. It was so frustrating to just sit there and watch Harry let it happen. He didn't even try to block him! Harry had decided he was rubbish at Occlumency - probably just to spite Snape - so there was no point even trying. It was a completely illogical argument. Dumbledore had repeatedly reminded him how important it was to keep Voldemort out of his head. Dumbledore wasn't here anymore to issue his warnings, so it was left to me. Except Harry wouldn't listen. How could he forget what happened before? Didn't he understand the danger?

The thought of being alone tonight after everything was unbearable. I was relieved beyond words when Ron agreed that we could use the sleeping bags and stay in the drawing room together. The Death Eater's spectur was certain to visit me in my nightmares tonight. Part of me longed to confess to the boys, to seek solace and forgiveness. But an equally large part knew that it wasn't up to them to provide it. Part of my atonement involved suffering under the weight, guilt, and isolation that the knowledge of my actions caused.

While Harry was in the bathroom, I studied Ron. The message from his father had eased the tension in him greatly. "I'm so relieved that everyone is all right," I said, going to sit beside him.

"Yeah. Yeah. Everyone," he said, shaking his head in amazement.

"Ron… at the diner… You pushed me aside. You protected me," I said, the memory coming back to me all of a sudden. His first instinct had been to protect me - not defend himself, or even Harry.

"Oh, well, yeah… guess I did," he said, blinking a few times and swallowing nervously as he looked at me. "Instinct."

"Thank you," I said, infusing the two words with as much emotion as possible and hugging him. He held me tightly for several minutes. Neither of us seemed all that interested in letting go until a thud sounded from the bathroom. With another rough pat, Ron released me.

"'S fine. Harry'll -"

"Right. I better go check on him."

Every time Ron did something that made me second guess my feelings for him, he'd turn around and do something to remind me why he'd become my first love. He'd talked about killing the Death Eaters almost casually in the diner, proving he didn't understand the weight of such actions. When only moments earlier, he'd dived across the booth to shield me from their spells. Still, this wasn't exactly the best time to be initiating a relationship. We had far more pressing things to focus on now that we'd officially begun our mission. For once I was grateful he was so slow and reluctant about starting things with me. We'd have all the time in the world for that after the war was over - assuming we both survived.

Harry was pacing all over the house while he waited for Kreacher to return. Finally tired of trying to keep up with him, Ron and I had retired to the drawing room. Harry would let us know once Kreacher turned up with news about Mundungus and the locket.

Nightmares had plagued me throughout the night just as I'd feared. At some point, however, Ron had reached out to take my hand. The comforting warm it provided had been enough for me to finally doze off for an hour or two of semi-restful sleep. Any questions or awkward conversations about what the action meant for us was forestalled and overshadowed by worry for Harry and where he'd gotten off to when we woke up. Since then, we hadn't had a chance to talk once the discovery had been made that R.A.B. was Regulus, and that Kreacher had the locket here in Grimmauld Place. At least until Mundungus had stolen it.

"Can't believe Harry gave Kreacher that locket," Ron said once we were alone in the room. I frowned. How was it possible he still didn't see house-elves as beings capable of emotion and feelings?

"I think it was a kind gesture," I said stiffly.

"Yeah, but he acted like it was a sack of Galleons," he said, clearly baffled.

"Money isn't the only thing of value to some people," I explained, speaking to him like I would to a two-year-old when explaining why you can't just take someone else's toy without permission.

"I'm just saying it was a bit much," he said defensively.

"Let's not fight. We need to stay focused on the locket," I said, sighing. I just didn't have the energy to get into a moral debate or shouting match after the strain of the last twelve hours.

"If we destroy the locket today, there'll only be three left. Recon we'll be done by Christmas at this rate," Ron said cheerfully. I looked at him in confusion. Did he honestly think it would be that simple?

"I'm not sure it'll be as easy as all that. We don't even have a way to destroy the locket once we get it," I said carefully. I didn't want to burst his bubble, I'd always enjoyed being around him when he was this happy, but we did need to be realistic about the whole thing.

"Can't be that hard. 'M sure you'll find something in one of your books," he said dismissively. I noted his word choice and was not flattered by his belief in my ability to come through for us as I was always just expected to.

"Thanks for the confidence," I said waspishly. So much for trying to avoid a fight. I was already teetering on the edge and his words just served to push me over. It wasn't like he couldn't look for an answer himself. He didn't even pick up on my annoyance.

"'Course. You know you're brilliant," he said, attempting to sound charming as he stepped unexpectedly close. What was he doing?

"Thank you," I said, retreating a half step. "I do think finding the other Horcruxes will take some time though. We don't have any definite theories about what they are or where they might be located."

"I'm sure Dumbledore told Harry. 'Sides, it's sort of nice being together without Mum breathing down our necks all the time," he said, reaching for my hand. It dawned on me that this was him finally making a move. Now - when he didn't even notice that I was annoyed with him. Here - in the house of horrors. Today - the very morning after I'd come to the practical realization that now would be the very worst possible time to start anything.

I crossed my arms to keep him from being able to take it. His face closed off at once.

"Now isn't the right time, Ron." I tried to explain, desperately hoping he would hear me out as I explained my reasoning. When he didn't speak, I continued, "Harry needs us -" Apparently, that was the wrong thing to say, because he cut me off.

"Right. Harry always comes first."

"He's our best mate! He's put everything aside, given up everything to make fighting this war his priority! It's only right that we do the same!"

"'Course. What was I thinking?" he asked rhetorically, already turning and striding quickly from the room.

"Ron, wait! Don't be like that," I begged his departing back, horrified by what was happening. How how it gone so wrong so quickly?

"No, Hermione, it's fine. I get it. You're picking Harry like always," he said, not even pausing as he left.

"Ron -" I tried, moving to the open doorway, but it was too late. He'd already bounded up the stairs and was out of sight.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

Happy New Year!

This is the only chapter where George doesn't at least make an appearance, but it's still important for the story progression.

I went back and posted this at the start of the story, but if you are just seeing it, here you go: Chapter one contains the events that take place immediately following this chapter. A couple people have messaged me to ask why I chose to start with that chapter. The reason is that while you can pretty much guarantee that none of the events in this story actually take place in the book, it wasn't until the moment Hermione took Harry to George's flat that anything actually deviates from canon for certainty. So I decided to start this story with the first true change, then work through why it changed and go from there.

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 6

October 1997

Northern England... yet another forest...

Our routine was truly ingrained by the time fall was in full swing. Once we'd obtained the locket from the Ministry, and been forced to abandon Grimmauld Place thanks to Yaxley grabbing hold of me as I Disapparated, the days began blurring into one another with very little happening to break up the monotony.

We'd get up. Ron would complain about not having a decent breakfast. Harry or I would go out and try to scout for something then the other would cook what was brought back. Ron would call us gits for insisting we pay for it. He never went himself because he didn't have any money to spend, and the one time I offered him some that I'd brought with us, it had turned into our most brutal row ever. We'd ultimately come to a tentative agreement that we wouldn't fight anymore until this whole thing was over, but neither of us was particularly happy with the other. And it was getting harder and harder to stick to our truce as the thin ice we were treading on melted dangerously more each day.

After breakfast, I'd research, Harry would brood or repeat himself, and Ron would complain - about food, being bored, how long it was taking, the lack of progress - you name it. His negative attitude was a cancer poisoning us all. He was acting like a spoiled brat. He was acting like Draco Malfoy, if I were honest. It was not endearing.

All in all, life was miserable.

The worst by far though, were those twelve hour increments when it was my turn to wear the locket. The depression that descended during those hours left me with the notion that I was drowning, dying slowly, suffocating; all with no hope of it ever getting any better.

On the run, we had nothing to do for hours at a time. Idleness was my enemy, and I was left to think about what happened all too often, especially while the locket encircled my neck - my very own millstone.

More than that, when the locket was around my neck, I'd hear a devious little voice whispering to me. It hadn't taken much for me to realize it was the conjured voice of the Death Eater I'd killed. It sounded gravelly, broken and gritty as it vocalized every secret fear I had. It was as though it could see into my head and knew precisely what to say to inflict the most pain and torture me with guilt and recriminations, reservations and shame.

The chaos and warmth of the Burrow had kept me too busy and unconditionally accepted to dwell overly much on what had happened. That was all gone now. I was stripped bare of all of that, and worse, because I still refused to tell the boys about it, I was completely isolated in my suffering. Each time I considered sharing the events of that day, the voice would whisper my darkest doubts, all the secret fears I harbored that they wouldn't understand or forgive me, and I'd rethink the decision.

Then there were the nightmares. It didn't matter if I was wearing the locket or not, I had them regardless. The locket provided all the fuel my overactive mind needed to torture me through the night and there was never a long enough break in between turns for the guilt to be dispelled and worked out. Each night, at least the ones I was actually able to fall asleep on, I would relive the event. Except it never happened in quite the same way. I didn't know if this was because the moments just after were hazy and even now I had trouble recalling them, or because I was trying a million different scenarios hoping for a different outcome despite knowing how impossible that was. The damage was already done.

Sometimes I would hit my target and the rope would sever as I'd meant it to, but when it fell, the Death Eater would become entangled in it, and it would drag him off the side of his broom causing him to plummet to his death. Other times I'd hit him with different spells - Stunners, Disarming Charms, Impediment Jinxes, Freezing Charms, you name it. It wouldn't matter which spell I used, somehow it would always backfire and he would still end up dead. Dead by my hand.

Then there were the nights I dreamt of the Death Eater's family. I didn't know anything about him, not even his name, but my mind had no problem filling in the blanks and supplying details that plagued me with more and more guilt. He had a family that loved him, despite his loyalty to Voldemort, and I had taken their father from them. He was actually against Voldemort, but trapped under the Imperius Curse. He was actually a teenage boy at Hogwarts that was just confused and misguided. He was being forced to fight to save his family the way Harry said Malfoy was being used. Whatever the situation and circumstances, I would wake up sweaty, shivering and aching, and significantly more tired than when I first went to sleep.

Wearing the locket the first time was like plunging into a frozen lake. Being in such close proximity to the Horcrux, and having the constant reminders of recent events caused me to fear for the state of my own soul. I'd reread all of the books I'd stolen from Dumbledore, and eventually found the answer in Secrets of the Darkest Art. My soul was safe. That was small comfort, but since I hadn't intentionally murdered the man, my soul had not been ripped in two. My remorse also served to ensure it remained intact. So aside from the nightmares, there were few detectable differences between the me now and the one before - at least externally.

One notable difference was that I could only barely cast the Diffindo Charm now. The first time I'd tried after using it on the Death Eater had been at the diner to cut the ropes binding Ron. The word hadn't wanted to come out. It'd stuck in my mouth like a spoonful of peanut butter, and I'd ended up stuttering it like a first year. When it finally did come out, I'd been horrified when it ended up cutting Ron's leg. Harry always teased me that Patronuses were the only charm I struggled with, but now here was another. Apparently, I'd have to rely on the Revulsion Jinx, Relashio, instead now, thanks to the memories associated with the prior spell. At least I was still able to conjure a Patronus so long as I wasn't wearing the Horcrux.

Boredom, in addition to a lack of purpose, was getting to me. It was difficult not to dwell on my fears and insecurities, my regrets and doubts. One of the only things that worked well as a distraction was the book Dumbledore left me in his will. The Tales of Beedle the Bard. It was a mystery. One Dumbledore must have been convinced I could solve, and I was determined to succeed and decipher the hidden meaning. Though so far I hadn't even narrowed down which story I thought Dumbledore was leaving me a message in.

The stories were interesting. I'd always loved any tale with a hidden message about morality. I firmly believed that those sorts of life lessons were glossed over entirely too often in favor of teaching impressionable youths to seek personal gain and learn ways of navigating the system to work in their favor. While personally beneficial, those sorts of behaviors often occurred at the expense of someone else. As a result, I was firmly against encouraging them.

I was in the process of reexamining the thin, worn book while once again reading "The Fountain of Fair Fortune" when Ron nudged me then walked outside. Curious, I followed him out and some distance away from the tent. Harry didn't even glance at us as we walked out. It was his turn to wear the locket and he was too busy scowling at the blank wall of the tent and muttering to himself to notice.

We were staying in Hamsterley Forest in northern England today. The last two or three weeks had seen a turn in the weather, going from chilly to downright cold. The leaves had only been the beautiful array of reds, oranges, and yellows for a couple days before fading to brown and falling in most of the places we'd stayed thanks to the cooler than normal temperatures that the dementors inspired.

Dead and dried leaves crunched loudly beneath my feet as I followed Ron to a tiny nearby tributary. Water gurgled and flowed over current-smoothed stepping stones.

Today, my breath fogged in front of me when I exhaled and my fingers were stiff and numb within moments of leaving the semi-warmer sitting room within the tent. We'd all taken to wearing as many layers as possible in an effort to combat the approaching winter. Heavy winter cloaks had not been available to pack discreetly before our hasty departure, and it was an oversight Ron had repeatedly berated me about.

"What's the plan?" Ron asked once we were far enough away that there was no chance of Harry overhearing our conversation.

"What do you mean?" I asked, not sure if he was referring to food, where to stay tomorrow, or where to look next. Albania had been tentatively suggested a couple weeks ago, but it was looking more and more like it might actually be an option if we couldn't find anything here.

"Harry hasn't got a clue what he's doing. What do you think we should do next to get this over with?" he asked, as if I hadn't already exhausted all of my ideas. I didn't think we'd make any more progress until I decoded Dumbledore's book or Harry remembered some unintentionally forgotten detail.

"He must know something that he's just forgotten," I said, letting a touch of frustration leak into my voice.

I knew it wasn't Harry's fault. He was trying. But he so easily let himself get distracted and fixated on things only he was certain were important, rather than the task at hand. He liked a good mystery and once discovered, was determined to unravel it - even if it meant ignoring what he should be attempting to sort out.

"Too bad he can't just take a peak and -"

"You have to stop encouraging him to see into Vol -" I hissed, annoyed that Ron kept egging on something I could only see resulting in disaster - again.

"Oi! What've I said about saying his name!" Ron interrupted, hollering unnecessarily.

"Fine then - seeing into You-Know-Who's head," I huffed, indignantly.

"What's the big deal? He never sees anything new," he said, shrugging.

I knew he was anxious for news of his family, but encouraging Harry to do something dangerous just to get news wasn't a good idea. Plus, it had the unfortunate consequence of angering Harry when Ron would brush off Harry's attempts to discuss what he'd seen after, even if it was always the same as before. Ron lacked the patience necessary to rehash things, and he wasn't willing to offer a different perspective to help sort things out and sift for clues.

"That's not the point! It's dangerous," I said, exasperated that we were having the same conversation for the umpteenth time.

"Everything's dangerous. You worry too much."

"What if he uses that connection to trick Harry again?"

"Harry won't fall for that again. Besides, seems he's got other things on his mind than tricking Harry."

"But what if -"

"Stop badgering him. We know what you think, but if You-Know-Who planned to do something like that, he probably already would have," Ron said condescendingly, like my concerns were unfounded and overdramatic.

"I think he's waiting until after he's found that person. Then he'll lure Harry out and kill him," I explained, trying once more to make him understand my reasoning.

"Well, I guess it's a good thing he's not having any luck. And Harry'll know if he does find him," Ron said, completely missing my point.

"Harry needs to focus on finding the other Horcruxes." Harry's preoccupation with Voldemort's movements, and his growing obsession with the mystery thief that mirrored Voldemort's own obsession was alarming. Why did Harry even want to see into that monster's head? Why wouldn't he even try to put some distance between them? How could he stand such… intimate contact with the person trying to destroy him?

"Yeah, he's having a lot of luck with that," Ron snarked. "I thought Dumbledore would have told him more," he said, obviously disappointed, frustrated, and borderline annoyed.

"Yes, I'd hoped he'd have a few more ideas," I admitted.

"Why do you think Dumbledore didn't tell him more?" Ron asked, a note of mistrust, or maybe disbelief, in his voice.

"He must have told him what he could. Or given him clues, maybe? He always used to let Harry work things out for himself. We just need to help him figure them out," I ventured uncertainly. It was the only thing that made any sense.

"We've been doing that - fat lot of good it's been," Ron huffed, kicking the ground in annoyance and scattering a pile of leaves.

"You haven't been particularly helpful," I said, angry that he was putting everything on Harry when he'd only been making things worse for us himself.

I'd never imagined living with my best mates would be so uncomfortable. We'd always spent so much time together, so when I got the tent for us, I didn't expect it to be a big deal. It was not at all like what I imagined.

Harry was contained, too contained. He tried to take up as little space as possible and was typically silent. He never left anything out, as if the barest reminder that he existed would be cause for punishment. I didn't think it was because of the Horcrux's influence either. I think it had more to do with the years of child abuse he suffered at the hands of his relatives. Hogwarts and the Burrow were different, and he was able to make a home for himself in the lively places. But this tent was set up like a traditional Muggle house, and I had the sick feeling this was how he behaved at home. Seeing this meek and timid side of him turned my stomach every time I noticed it. I had to fight myself not to hunt down his relatives and deliver them to Voldemort myself. It was even harder to not acknowledge it. That would have only made Harry self-conscious and irritable. He hated anyone learning or mentioning the lasting impact they'd had on him, and he hated being pitied for it even more.

Ron was the complete opposite. Between Mrs. Weasley at the Burrow and the house-elves at Hogwarts, Ron had never been forced to clean up after himself. He didn't even make an attempt to. It was disgusting. He'd leave his dishes on the table and walk off, assuming one of us would pick them up and clean them. He left his dirty clothes on the floor in the bathroom and wet towels on the floor in the sitting room, which was doubling as his and Harry's bedroom. He was a complete and utter slob. He also insisted on talking or putting out the lights while I was trying to research. The distractions meant I couldn't get anything done, and had to keep rereading the same line over and over again.

I wasn't used to the lack of privacy. I'd grown up an only child, and even at Hogwarts where we shared a dorm and bathroom, I was usually afforded enough alone time to decompress and take care of personal needs without others being aware. The tent did not afford such luxuries. The boys had given me the bedroom while they'd set up bunk beds in the sitting room, but Ron often came and went without knocking. I'd taken to changing in the bathroom with multiple locking spells on the door to keep him from accidentally walking in on me. He was inconsiderate and totally oblivious to the fact that he was.

"Not my fault you can't cook," Ron fired back snidely, bringing my attention back to the conversation we were having. My mouth dropped open incredulously. At least I tried! It was more than he was willing to do.

"You could try helping once in a while instead of just complaining!" I screeched, breathing quickly and turning away from him because his comment had fired me up so thoroughly.

We'd agreed not to fight for Harry's sake, to focus on the mission instead, but I seemed to be the only one even trying to stick with our deal. Ron seemed to have given up on our promise altogether, though, whenever it was his turn to wear the Horcrux. Luckily that wasn't today.

Breathing deeply, I had to remind myself of our truce several times before I could face Ron again, slightly calmer. There was so much I wished I could say to Ron right now, but I couldn't. It was one thing I had a lot of practice with over the years - putting Harry's needs first, and doing what I must to protect him.

"I thought we'd have done something important by now," Ron finally admitted, seeming to have calmed down a bit as well. He'd had some pretty unrealistic expectations about what our mission would involve. It was disquieting to discover just how naive he could still be after everything we'd done over the years. It seemed best just to keep placating him though, at least if I truly did want to avoid anymore arguments. "Instead we're sitting around doing nothing. Hogwarts and homework would have been better than this!"

"Sorry to have wasted your time," I finally said with a tired sigh.

"Don't act like you aren't annoyed with our lack of progress too. Harry doesn't have a clue what he's doing," he accused, getting closer as he spoke.

"Y-yes, I am a bit disappointed, and it would be nice to have more to go on - but that's not Harry's fault," I insisted, not liking where this was going. "Dumbledore didn't give him much to go off. It's not fair to blame him for that though."

"Sure. Defend him. He's just worried about that laughing-no-name-thief, but that's all right since it's him wasting time."

"Ron! You're being unreasonable!" I exclaimed, fed up with this seemingly pointless conversation. We were just talking in circles by this point. "Your bad mood isn't helping anyone."

"Stop telling me what to do!" he yelled.

"Then stop making things worse for everyone!" I hissed through gritted teeth.

"It's Harry's -" He cut off abruptly as Harry came into view. Harry paused, looking between us suspiciously. We busied ourselves, trying to make it look like we'd just been out getting water, but part of me suspected that Harry wasn't fooled.

We couldn't go on like this much longer. We were all nearing our breaking point. Something would have to change, and soon if we had any hope of finishing what we'd started.

Another Forest…

The excitement of getting news of the goings-on in the wizarding world from Dean Thomas and Ted Tonks, and of discovering that the sword of Gryffindor could be used to destroy a Horcrux suddenly evaporated like so much smoke.

Harry's temper had completely snapped. Ron's constant baiting had finally driven him over the edge and the two were in the middle of the biggest row they'd ever had. It was a million times worse than any I'd previously witnessed.

As the fight rapidly degraded, I'd forced my way between the two arguing boys, but as both were taller than me, they were steadily ignoring my presence as they continued to yell over my head, insulting each other's family. The low blows were painful to hear and I knew neither meant what they were saying. I pulled out my wand ready to Stun each of them. Maybe a good nap would give them time to cool off a bit before things went too far.

"Then GO!" Harry screamed, flecks of spit spraying outward with the force of the words. I paused, shocked that he'd even suggest Ron leave, amazed that it had ever gotten to that point when the two were usually inseparable - well, aside from fourth year. "Go back to them, pretend you've got over your spattergroit and Mummy'll be able to feed you up and -"

Both boys went for their wands, but seeing as mine was already out, I cried, "Protego!" before either could retrieve theirs. The spell forced each of us back several staggering steps as the invisible wall formed between us.

Once the Shield Charm was in place, I realized I'd placed Ron and I on opposite sides. Something about the action seemed final. The thin invisible barrier was a canyon that could never be crossed now that it had come into existence. My heart broke, shattered really, before the reality of what that meant completely sank in. The pain a knife in my chest and a knot in my throat.

"Leave the Horcrux," Harry said, cold and detached.

Ron angrily threw the hated locket in a chair then rounded on me. I shrank back, closer to Harry as he pinned me with his frosty blue eyes. They were as cold and hard as shards of ice. "What are you doing?" Did he honestly think I'd let him and Harry come to blows?

"What do you mean?"

"Are you staying, or what?" Oh. He thought I'd abandon Harry too just because he was. Then it hit me. He was leaving us. Truly turning his back on us and taking Harry up on his demand. But we needed him. He was my first love even if we hadn't yet truly been together. I loved him even now. Yet he was still going. I might never see him again if he walked out right now. Despite that, the decision was easy. I didn't even need to think about it.

I swallowed thickly, stealing myself before replying, "I… Yes - yes, I'm staying." I flinched at the betrayal I saw on his face. The sharp edge of his frozen gaze piercing me. I tried to explain, to remind him, "Ron, we said we'd go with Harry, we said we'd help -"

"I get it. You choose him." He'd already turned from me and started to leave.

"Ron, no - please -" I said, starting forward, but was knocked back by the shield I'd erected, so I settled for continuing my plea, "come back, come back!"

He didn't. Hastily, I undid my spell and ran out into the pouring rain after him. I spun in a circle, nearly slipping on the muddy ground as I looked for where he'd gotten to.

"Ron! Ron!" I cried, finally spotting him. My trainers squishing in the mud as I chased after him. He was still striding purposefully away, no hesitation at all. "Ron, wait!" The rain continued to pound down, soaking my hair in no time at all. "Please, please wait! Ron, please!"

The cool water soothed my burning cheeks. Not five steps from the tent, I watched, helpless, as he turned on the spot and Disapparated with a final, resounding crack!

"Ron!" I cried again into the empty, sodden night.

I couldn't move. Maybe if I stayed right where I was, he'd come back. Maybe I was imagining the whole incident because of the Horcrux. Perhaps this was some new nightmare it had devised to torment me with.

Salty tears mixed with the clean rain and dripped steadily into my mouth as I gasped painfully, still staring at the spot he'd vanished from. My chest constricted and I struggled to drag in a labored breath.

Minutes ticked by.

Ron didn't come back.

When I returned to the tent, Harry hadn't moved. He was an impassive statue, outwardly unaffected by the last half hour.

"He's g-g-gone! Disapparated!" I said, trying to make him understand what just happened.

But Harry just looked at me blankly, as though he'd expected this all along and wasn't the least bit surprised that Ron had run out.

I collapsed into a chair, sobbing. My entire world had just splintered into tiny shards and irreparable pieces. It was unrecognizable. And that was on top of everything we still had ahead of us. It was too much. I dreaded facing such an uncertain future.

Harry threw blankets over me then went to bed himself as I cried myself to sleep, neither of us saying another word.

Eastern England… abandoned cave

The first day after Ron left I was useless. Harry fed me, Apparated us to a new spot, set up the protective wards, and covered me with a blanket once more. I didn't speak or do a thing for myself that entire day expect pack and repack our stuff as I delayed our departure in the vain hope that Ron would come back if only we waited long enough. And cry. I cried for hours on end, and just when I thought dehydration or the pressure in my head would prevent me from continuing, more burning tears would form, leaking out like a broken faucet.

I was devastated. I couldn't comprehend how Ron could turn his back on us the way he had. It didn't make sense. He was a part of me, yet he'd walked out without once looking back. We were nothing to him - I was nothing to him. He never would have left if that wasn't the case. Part of me was waiting for him to reappear and apologize, but that didn't happen.

When I wasn't shattered, I was furious. What right did he have to quit? He may have been poor, but he'd had a privileged life compared to Harry. And the last few months hadn't exactly been a picnic for me either. He was being selfish and immature, and part of me hated him for his weakness.

It might finally be time to accept that we were broken beyond repair. I'd hung on for so long; living for the moments when he showed such consideration for others, like the Cattermoles during the escape from the Ministry, that it would temporarily outweigh his thoughtlessness. But not anymore. This was one time too many, and one action that went too far.

I was angry with myself for ever loving him at all. Facing reality was not easy or painless. And the reality was that I was an immature child when I'd fallen for Ron. I didn't really understand love, what I wanted, or what I needed. But he was always there, and I'd let a childhood crush develop into something it was never meant to be. Then I'd been too stubborn to acknowledge that truth. Part of me still wasn't ready to face it. Each time I tried, I broke down into fresh tears and would somehow manage to talk myself back into being in love with him. I was exhausted by my yoyoing emotions and thoughts.

Poor Harry. He'd either pretend he didn't see me crying or stare helplessly at me. He really didn't know how to handle me. It was actually a bit of a relief since I wasn't ready to talk about it.

The next weeks were tense and mostly silent. When I wasn't in shock over Ron's abrupt absence, I was engrossed in Dumbledore's book. I'd finally noticed a tiny symbol that Dumbledore, or someone, had inked in over "The Tale of the Three Brothers". Discovering its meaning and remembering where I'd seen it before was suddenly my new obsession. Anything to shut out my unwanted revelations and the voice of the locket.

The voice and nightmares were relentless, but they'd become part of my new normal. It was remarkable what you could learn to cope with when forced to endure it regularly and when there was no other alternative.

During one of the few times I actually spoke with Harry, I finally brought myself to ask something I'd been curious about for some time.

"Ginny said something to me… " I started, uncertain how to broach the topic. Harry's eyes shot to my face, dawning hope and anticipation lighting him up in such a way that was agonizing to see. How could Ron have ever accused Harry of not caring for Ginny? It was so apparent that she was everything good and wonderful in his life. She was whiskey to his alcoholism, food to his starvation. "Sorry -" I winced, continuing, "not about you. About Ron. About Ron and me." I swallowed. Harry's sudden joy had dimmed, leaving him looking nervous and reluctant to hear what I wanted to say.

Eventually, he asked, "What did she say?"

"That maybe we wouldn't work out… that we might not be right for each other… "

"Er… "

"Harry, do you think she might be right?" I asked point blank.

He didn't speak for a long time, studying me speculatively. I waited, tapping my foot in restless impatience.

I was about to repeat my question when he finally spoke, turning the question around on me. "Do you think she's right?"

"Do I - what - no, of course I don't!" I squeaked, protesting more than strictly necessary.

"Then why does my opinion matter?"

"It doesn't! Forget I asked," I huffed, frustrated and annoyed with myself for even trying to bring it up. I wouldn't make the mistake of discussing Ron with Harry again.

Though, that didn't stop me from realizing the fact that his refusal to answer was answer enough.

Godric's Hollow

I couldn't believe I'd let Harry talk me into coming here. I was in Bathilda Bagshot's sitting room, and I'd just let him go upstairs with the aged stranger - alone. What was I thinking? None of this felt right. I shouldn't have let Harry out of my sight. Why couldn't she talk to him in front of me? That didn't make any sense. Honestly, how long did it take to give someone a sword? How had she known it was him despite the Polyjuice Potion? Nothing about this situation was sitting right with me. And how did she know the boy Harry and Voldemort had both been obsessing over?

I stared at her bookcase, looking for a clue as to the boy's identity, but there were none. There were, however, so many titles I recognized, and even more I didn't. Longing seized me to investigate. One unexpected book caught my eye. The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. Why would she have a copy of it? Was Harry right that Rita Skeeter had gotten her information from Bathilda for the book? Picking it up, I debated for half a second then stuffed it into my beaded purse. I was getting really good at stealing. I'd be a regular kleptomaniac by the end of this war. My parents must be so proud, where ever they were. Not that they'd even know me…

Turning away from the books, lest I be tempted to steal another before Harry returned. What was taking so long?

I stood up straighter as I felt the potion beginning to wear off. We must have been in the cemetery longer than I thought. Being here without our disguises really didn't sit well with me. I wished Harry would hurry up before our disguises completely wore off.

Remembering the cemetery reminded me of the mystery symbol. Why had it been carved on the headstone? Had Dumbledore seen it and liked it? Did it have some deeper meaning since three seemingly unconnected wizards all seemed to use it? Did -

A thump and the sound of shattering glass came from upstairs, startling me out of my musings.

"Harry?" I called, worried. He didn't answer, but more thumps came from above. Why did I let us come here? I berated myself as I took off upstairs to find him.

Rushing into the room, I found the snake, Nagini, pinning Harry to the floor. So it was a trap! But where was Bathilda? Had the snake killed her? Was the snake waiting up here for him?

"Relashio!" I cried, firing the jinx at the snake and forcing her to release her hold on Harry.

Once freed, Harry scrambled to his feet, blood streaming down his arm. Nalini, though, turned her massive head to me and lunged. I dove out of the way, barely avoiding the snapping of her poisonous fangs, and fired a Stinging Jinx at her.

Nagini's serpentine form slithered just out of the path of my spell. It hit the window instead, causing it to explode in a shower of broken glass raining upon all three of us. I ducked down and threw my arms up over my head to avoid the cutting spray. Biting stings nipped up and down my arms; though the pain faded almost instantly in the wake of the adrenaline rushing through me.

Dropping my arms, I saw Nagini twisting around, slithering towards Harry again. "Reducto!" I cried, hoping to blast the snake, the Horcrux, apart. It hit her full on, but did nothing more than send her flailing into the air, her swinging tail knocking into Harry on the way and smashing pictures and the many figurines decorating the room.

"He's coming! Hermione, he's coming!" Harry bellowed. There was no need to elaborate on who he was.

Debris flew wildly about the room as the snake's tail batted it about like a baseball player hitting a home run, and I was forced to duck and dodge to avoid being hit.

Harry grabbed my arm and dragged me across the bed, bit of shattered glass sliced across my back, adding more tiny cuts. The burn barely registered. Harry's pulling yanked and wrenched my shoulder, contorting it to a weird angle. He continued his frantic tugging, urging me further across the room. I didn't know where he thought we could go. Nagini was firmly planted between the door and us.

Just as Nagini rear up, ready to strike once more, I shouted "Confringo!" And again, it bounced harmlessly off the protected snake, ricocheting all around the room. I screamed a warning too late as it seemed to hit Harry. His wand flew up and I snatched it from the air, but he was again trying to pull me backwards. I doubted he'd even realized he was missing the wooden magical object in his hast to escape.

It was then I saw that he meant to take us out the window. Voldemort appeared in the destroyed bedroom's doorway just as I wrapped an arm around Harry, and screamed as he seemed to leap out the open window taking me with him.

Except he went limp the moment we were airborne.

Holding Harry tighter, I turned in the air, hoping Disapparating would still work even without a clear destination in mind. The only thing I could think of was red hair, freckles, and a broad chest that felt safe and welcoming - the two things we needed most right now.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

Anything you recognize is from book 7.

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 7

December 1997

WWW

The sounds of distressed moaning woke me slowly from my exhausted stupor.

The first coherent thought that reached me as I exited the fog of sleep was that the bed I was on was softer than usual. The second was that it smelled amazing. Sandalwood, with underlying hints of… I couldn't figure it out, but I breathed deeper, turning to bury my head in the pillow… searching… except - ow!

My shoulder throbbed when I moved as did my back and arms. I didn't know how long I'd slept for, but I doubted it was more than an hour. I was every bit as exhausted as I'd been every day for months now. Plus, dawn hadn't yet lit the sky outside with early light and vibrant colors. Something about where I was didn't seem familiar, but it was hard to sort through my sleep muddled brain to figure out what the problem was. Then I remembered the events of the previous evening. Voldemort had come for Harry, Nagini had attacked, and I'd taken us to George - the twins - for safety. It seemed George had only just given up his room from mine and Harry's use.

Harry was still asleep, and safe, across the room. It hurt too much to move, so I lay still, content to watch him breathe and revel in the fact that we had once again escaped Voldemort nearly entirely intact. So few could say they'd faced the same and survived. Each breath Harry took renewed my hope and determination to see this through and emerge triumphant.

A large part of me wasn't even fighting for myself, or Harry either for that matter. Defeating Voldemort was about so much more than that. It was for all those Muggle-born witches and wizards sent to Azkaban because they'd been falsely accused of "stealing" magic. It was for all the future generations that were born and raised as Muggles, only to discover this whole other world of magic existed. It was so they wouldn't experience what I did when I first got to Hogwarts. I'd been so terrified of not fitting in, of being kicked out for not knowing enough because I was so far behind after having never learned anything before Professor McGonagall came to tell me I was a witch. It was so those future children wouldn't experience being called something as degrading and offensive as Mudblood then be expected to be ashamed of their heritage when it should be considered an asset. We had to defeat Voldemort to put a stop to all of the injustices currently taking place in the wizarding world.

The memory of fighting Voldemort reminded me of something else. Last night, when it really mattered, I'd been able to cast the Severing Charm when I'd needed to. Without stuttering or faltering. I'd used it, and yes, it had hurt Harry, but it had also done precisely what I'd meant it to. That was one less thing to be concerned with at least. Any small victory was worth celebrating at this point.

All at once, Harry began whimpering and shouting, "No… " as though waking from an unpleasant dream. His voice changed, becoming an eerie hissing that caused goosebumps to breakout along my arms and sent terrified chills skittering down my back.

Abruptly it stopped, then just as suddenly he screamed. The sound filled the room and was at once bloodcurdling and agonized, like swallowed glass or an animal being tortured. My previous pain forgotten, I hurried to his side.

"No… I dropped it… I dropped it…"

"Harry, it's all right, you're all right!" I said, urging him to believe me, to wake up fully, to make sense, something, anything really. When his eyes finally opened, I continued, "Harry. Do you feel - all right?" I whispered hesitantly and handed him his glasses. The film of disorientation in his emerald eyes vanished as he blinked and let his eyes adjust to his surroundings.

"Yes. Wait… " he said, sitting up abruptly and looking around frantically. "Where are we? This isn't the tent… Where?"

"We - we're… well, at the shop. The twins' shop - Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes," I said, bracing myself for his reaction. Panic swamped him immediately, he was drowning in it. He clutched my outstretched hand like a life preserver.

"Why would you risk them? The Weasleys… How could you do that to them?" he demanded, trying to get up as if meaning to flee at once and drag me with him. I pushed his shoulder with my free hand, only intending to making him stop and listen, but he collapsed back onto the bed. A startled huff escaped him, and he settled for glaring angrily at me.

"Harry, please -"

"No. This was dangerous and you know it," he insisted. I couldn't exactly argue because he wasn't wrong.

"Yes, I know, but -"

"What were you thinking?" he cut in, not giving me a chance to explain. He was working himself up into a rage and all of my attempts to head it off were ignored.

"Harry -"

"Ron already left because it was too dangerous and he chose to help," he said, his fear readily apparent. But the reference to Ron made me gasp and made me equally furious and heartsore. We'd both been avoiding mentioning our missing "friend" whenever possible. Hearing it now, when unprepared, was jarring. Harry went on, "Now we're putting them in… "

"I know you're scared," I said when he seemed unable to finish. "But please, Harry, listen to me, They understand the risk and they're willing to take it. They aren't Ron. Neither one would turn their backs on us. It isn't your job to protect them. You have to trust that they can take care of themselves and that it's their choice." Seeing his doubt and fear over anyone else risking themselves for him, that anyone would find him worth it after Ron's words and desertion, ripped me apart.

"How do you know?" he whispered, looking away from me as he waited for my answer.

"Oh, Harry. Please don't let Ron's actions determine your self-worth. George - and Fred," I rushed to add, then continued, "are fearless. They graduated a couple years ago and have been fighting in the Order ever since. They understand exactly what they're doing. They've had years to adjust to this war and they aren't kidding themselves. They haven't got blinders on. They're every bit as clear-headed about the situation as you and I are."

Harry considered my words for several minutes before replying, "That still doesn't make it easy to let them put their lives at risk. What we're doing… "

"I didn't tell them anything, and if you don't want me -" I explained, hoping to ease at least some of his concerns.

"No. We can't," he said, preempting my question about if we should trust them with the knowledge of Horcruxes. "Dumbledore said just the three of us," he added a little bitterly. I assumed he wished it had just been him and me at this point since Ron had bailed. Ron was a loose end. If he was caught and gave up the information… Everything we've done could be for nothing.

"All right, Harry. I won't say anything then," I promised, unsurprised by his decision. We sat in silence for a minute or two, each lost in thought. "What happened, Harry? Was the snake hiding somewhere? Did it kill Bathilda?"

"No. She was the snake… or the snake was her… all along."

"W-what?" I asked, confused. How could she have been walking around if she was a snake? She looked just like Bathilda. Could Nagini change shapes?

"Bathilda must've been dead a while. The snake was… was inside her. You-Know-Who put it there in Godric's Hollow, to wait. You were right. He knew I'd go back," Harry explained, all the while staring at what had earlier been a puncture mark made in his arm by Nagini's fangs. We'd been so lucky that it was a dry bite. If the snake had injected venom the way it had when it bit Mr. Weasley… Getting the necessary antivenom would have been impossible. There would have been nothing we could do, not without taking him to St Mungos, and that would have been a death sentence as surely as a fatal bite would have been.

"The snake was inside her?" I asked, horrified by the idea as I realized what Harry had said. It was disgusting. How awful for Bathilda to be used in such a way!

"Lupin said there would be magic we'd never imagined. She didn't want to talk in front of you, because it was Parseltongue, all Parseltongue, and I didn't realize, but of course I could understand her. Once we were up in the room, the snake sent a message to You-Know-Who, I heard it happen inside my head, I felt him get excited, he said to keep me there… and then… she changed, changed into the snake, and attacked."

Of course. Clever really. With her age, I'd just assumed speaking was a struggle for her and that it'd be easier for her to just show Harry what she had for him. But Parseltongue. That made sense; twisted, diabolical sense. Every time I'd hoped we'd be a step ahead of Voldemort, I'd been wrong. We were so clearly outmatched. How were we ever supposed to win against such a ruthless monster?

I didn't know if I should be more horrified by what happened or by Harry once again venturing into Voldemort's head and feeling what he felt. It terrified me when he let himself get so drawn in that he actually experienced what that grotesque, and sorry excuse for a man did. But right now, Harry looked so tortured that I couldn't bring myself to berate him further for his actions.

"It wasn't supposed to kill me, just keep me there till You-Know-Who came," Harry said, looking up at me. He seemed very young all of a sudden, reminding me of the timid, insecure scarecrow he'd been as a first year. The urge to hug him overcame me and I threw my arms around him. Both to comfort him and reassure myself that he was alive and safe.

"But we made it, Harry. We escaped. You-Know-Who didn't succeed. The snake didn't succeed. You're safe - we're safe."

"We can't stay long," he finally said with a sigh, as though he longed to, but understood the consequences all too well.

"I know. Please don't be angry. I had to get you someplace safe. He was there. This is all I could think of to save us. Please… " I begged, trying to explain my actions now that he was in a better frame of mind to hear me.

"We're at the shop?" he asked, looking out the window from his bed, but careful not to move closer lest he be seen from below.

"Yes, the flat above it actually. No one saw us arrive," I reassured him.

"We got away," he said, amazed, offering me a small smile.

"Yes. You were… hurt - ill. Quite ill," I admitted and gestured to his chest and arm. It was too difficult to explain my worry when he'd been injured or concerns when he'd first woken hissing and screaming. He flushed, looking unaccountably ashamed.

"How long ago did we leave?"

"Hours ago. It's nearly morning I think." It was true. The sky outside had taken on a dull, pearly grey hue that was definitely a precursor to sunrise. I might have actually slept a little longer than I first suspected.

"And I've been… what, unconscious?" he asked, obviously confused about the events that lead us here.

"Not exactly. You've been shouting and moaning and… "

"I'm going to check with Fred or George… make sure no one heard I was here," he said quickly, looking embarrassed by the confirmation of his earlier distress. Harry moved quickly from the conjured cot, striding to yank open the door before I could protest that he needed more sleep. The moment the door opened, however, I caught sight of George leaning casually against the wall in the hallway beyond.

"Didn't hear a thing," George said at once, grinning and standing up in a very unhurried fashion when Harry stopped short and looked back at me in alarm. "Fred's downstairs though. Best double check with him that no one's heard you," he added, moving past Harry to come into the room and sit Indian-style on his bed. Harry only hesitated for another second, giving me a meaningful look and urging me to go sit and talk with George about what he might have learned, before heading off in search of Fred.

"Good thing Harry's so happy to see us or that would have made cleaning up all of his blood a lot less fun," George said as he watched Harry's receding back.

"Been listening at doors?" I asked dryly, trying to figure out how much he'd learned and quickly replaying the conversation in my head to see if we'd said anything he shouldn't have heard. Nothing too dire came to mind.

"Me? Never!" he insisted in mock innocence. Then shrugged and continued, "But it sounds like our hero is every bit as noble as ever." The last was said with exasperated fondness. I understood perfectly.

"You were eavesdropping the whole time then?" I verified.

"No… Not quite. Heard yelling and came to check," he admitted. Oh, yes. Harry had screamed as if he were dying just before waking. George had promised protection and had probably been worried after hearing that.

"Thank you." He nodded.

"I take it you won't explain what that was all about? No point in asking?" he queried, and I shook my head before he was even done speaking.

"I'm sorry. Harry -" I said, trying to explain, but he waved me off seeming to understand and not bothered in the least. He and Fred were used to secrets though, so this was nothing new.

"Okay… What about this?" he asked, pulling the locket from his pocket. I gasped, shocked I hadn't even thought of it until I saw it.

"Where did -" I started to ask, reaching to take it and slip the cursed necklace over my head when he held it out for me. The Horcrux's menacing voice began whispering ominously at once, but it was so much softer than it had ever been previously. For once the quiet taunts were easy to ignore.

"You left it in the hallway after cutting it off Harry…" he reminded me. I'd been so frantic to get it off Harry I didn't even remember what I'd done with it earlier. I must have tossed it on the floor once Harry was free of it. Reckless. Such carelessness could get us killed. I couldn't afford to make mistakes like that.

"Thank you," I repeated. He was staring at it, trying to sort something out. I wondered if he remembered it from that summer at Grimmauld Place or if he was worried about it ever needing to be cut from me.

"Should you be wearing it?" he finally asked, suspicious hazel eyes never leaving the tiny uncut emeralds that formed the snake's life-like gaze.

"Yes," I said decisively. No matter how much I hated it, it wouldn't do to leave it lying around with the twins here.

"But Harry… and I felt…" he started, eyes transfixed on the locket, and a worried crease furrowing between his brows. "It's obviously evil," he concluded, apparently more worried than I'd initially suspected.

"I'm sorry. If I could explain…" I said helplessly. My promise to Harry bound me and prevented me from divulging more.

"It's all right. I understand," he said, but his troubled eyes were still on the locket. Perhaps it'd be best to keep it out of sight. I reached to tuck it beneath my shirt, but flinched when raising my arm hurt my tender shoulder. "What about - you're hurt," he said, noticing my involuntary reaction. "Why didn't you say anything when you got here?"

"I… Harry was hurt. It was more important to help him… then I guess… I guess I was just beyond noticing," I admitted. Thinking about it had caused steady throbbing to start up again in all the places I was cut. Each wound a lick of pounding flame and a dull ache.

"What hurts?"

"My shoulder. Back. Arms. Whole upper body really," I confessed feeling slightly abashed. He crawled across the bed to sit behind me. I twisted my head to look over my shoulder and see what he was doing.

He'd reached for the hem of my dirty, grungy shirt - I'd been too tired to change earlier, something I fiercely regretted now - but he stopped just short and met my eyes. With a questioning, hesitant flutter of his fingers, he asked, "May I?"

"Y-yes," I breathed.

Slowly, so slowly, he eased the back of my shirt up to my neck. The shirt was stiff and resisted in places where dried blood had crusted the ruined fabric to my abused and abraded skin. I held the front firmly against me to keep my breasts covered, but still my breathing turned shallow. It felt strangely, startlingly intimate. He remained clinical and gentle as his fingers skimmed over the most painful cut and prodded the exposed part of my shoulder.

"You should have said something sooner. No sense suffering needlessly," he pronounced, still pressing lightly on my shoulder, and reaching to raise my arm a bit as he examined it. "Minor cuts, only one is a little deeper. Dittany should clear it up right quick. Be right back," he said bounding from the bed and leaving before I could reply. Not that I could if I tried. My tongue was too thick and clumsy in my dry mouth.

As soon as he'd realized I was hurt he'd taken charge and known exactly what to do. That decisiveness and intelligence was alarmingly attractive, as was his tenderness. I was still working to catch my breath in the wake of his phantom light touches all across my back. Since when did George inspire such feelings in me? I'd always accused Ron of being the blind one, but was I just as guilty? Or was I transferring my feelings for Ron onto George since he was here? But that didn't make sense - the two were nothing alike, despite being brothers!

George returned before I could continue analyzing my sudden unwelcome feelings. Warmth suffused my cheeks as he returned to his previous position and began rubbing the same ointment he'd used on Harry last night all along my back. He seemed completely unaffected by our proximity and by his actions. I sure did know how to pick a truly fantastic time to let my hormones get the best of me. The events of last night must have shaken me up more than I first realized.

With effort, I focused on the feel of the ointment and the healing wounds rather than George's hands on my back. It tingled slightly, though that could have been from his ghostly touches skating along my skin rather than the dittany.

"I brought some anti-inflammatory cream for your shoulder too. You're moving it around readily enough, so it's not dislocated. This should help with the pain and swelling though," he said, handing me a different tube and easing back to give me some space as I reached beneath my shirt to rub it into my shoulder. It worked fast and in under a minute my shoulder was good as new.

George watched me intently the entire time I applied the cream. It did nothing to slow my racing heart or make me less flustered. He was back to studying me as he had when I'd been eating the sandwich he'd made me last night, and once more I was self-conscious over my appearance. My frizzy hair hadn't been brushed since before the fight in Godric's Hollow, and it was always worse right after sleeping on it. I had to forcibly resist the urge to smooth the wild strands down with my hands.

He was such an enigma. A sphinx. I couldn't tell what was going through his mind at all and I was usually so good at reading people.

"How many times can I thank you in one night without it getting old?" I asked, smiling a little as I looked at him, hoping to defuse the mounting tension. He returned the grin, seeming to relax a bit, and opened his mouth to say something. He closed it just as abruptly, strain and worry quickly replacing his easy going attitude.

"Ron. You said he left. Why? Can you explain that?" George asked suddenly. The subject change threw me, and I scrambled to catch up. What had he been about to say before? Why were we talking about Ron?

Harry walked in then. He looked to me, unspoken questions hanging in the air. I touched the chain of the Horcrux and shook my head to let him know it was safe and that I hadn't told George anything. He gave a sharp nod and sat back down on the cot George had conjured for him.

"Oi! I'd like to hear this myself," Fred said, striding into the room and sitting beside Harry.

Harry's face was a hard mask. His anger was palpable. One look at the twins though, and it was clear how tortured he was over the whole thing. Taking pity on him, I explained, "It wasn't the grand adventure he envisioned. It was difficult and frustrating, and as soon as he figured that out for himself…" I said, pausing to shrug helplessly. "He left… He just took off and left us."

"You don't know where he went?" George asked, expressions of concern and anger warring on him. He scrubbed a hand over his face, temporarily masking the victor - concern. It was the opposite for Fred. In his case, anger definitely won out.

"No. I assumed he'd go back to the Burrow then Hogwarts," Harry said, answering for the first time. The same coldness from the night Ron left edged his words now, and I shivered upon hearing it.

"We were there yesterday helping get everything ready for Christmas - Mum's hosting the Order members tomorrow. He wasn't there and no one mentioned him," George said when he noticed Harry and I exchanging curious looks.

"Right-o. That's another git in the family. Looks like Ron really does want to follow in Percy's footsteps," Fred said with scorn. "First Prefect then abandonment."

"Fred, we don't -" George began, but Fred cut back in.

"Can you think of any worthy reason to be a selfish prick?"

"You haven't heard from him since he left?" George finally asked when no one spoke after Fred's angry question.

"We've been in hiding. He wouldn't have been able to find us again once he was gone," I admitted.

"Who wants him around anyways? Good for nothing prat," Fred said with a cruel grimace directed at Harry. Evidently this was meant to cheer him up. Harry nodded, though it seemed more perfunctory than sincere.

"Where would he have gone if not home?" George said, seeming to ponder his brother's disappearance. "I can't -"

"Can't you?" Fred interrupted. "He's always had a quick temper. This can't really surprise you. Like I said - too much like Percy. Desperate for Mum's approval and unwilling to face down obstacles. He's a coward."

"This isn't the first time he's turned his back on Harry just because he didn't like the situation," George admitted, apparently having come around to Fred's line of thinking.

"Anyways, you two should try and get a bit more sleep," Fred said, looking Harry and me over. "You both look awful," he added bluntly.

"We have to make an appearance at the Burrow for Christmas supper tomorrow or Mum will murder us," George added. "We'll help you get sorted after though."

"We'll need to see if Lee can come if he's still planning to do a Potterwatch broadcast tomorrow. We won't be able to do it here while these two are staying," Fred said to George.

"Potterwatch?" Harry asked before I could.

"Oh, that's right! You wouldn't know about it," Fred said, amazed.

"Hope you don't mind that we named it after you, Harry," George said highly amused by Harry's flush of embarrassment.

"You're our hero though!" Fred exclaimed, batting his eyes at Harry in a way that was reminiscent of Romilda Vane or Colin Creevey's sycophantic worship.

"But really, you inspire hope and that's part of what we're all about," George said a bit more seriously.

"Yes, all right. But what is it?" I prompted, urging them to get on with the actual explanation.

"We've been hosting a radio show to keep everyone informed what's happening," George explained.

"We tell 'em who's missing or dead -" Fred elaborated.

"- have guest speakers to help motivate everyone -"

"- updates on U-No-Poo's movements and sightings -"

"- where Death Eater activity is highest -"

"- news on how our war is impacting Muggles -"

"- advise people on what they should be doing to stay safe -"

"That sort of thing," Fred said easily as if what they were doing wasn't incredible. Risky, yes, but also truly incredible.

"Brilliant!" Harry exclaimed grinning and laughing as I hadn't seen him do in months.

"And dangerous," I sighed, too tired to argue my worries in the face of the others' enthusiasm. Though I had to admire their bravery. They held firm to their beliefs and stood up for what was right. They didn't cower or jump ship just because it wasn't easy.

"Lee's in charge and runs the show. We mostly respond to tips that get sent in and make sure the place is safe while he does the broadcast," George explained.

"When we do go on, we use the code name Rapier," Fred announced proudly. I stifled a giggle at the name. It suited them, but reminded me of the Muggle cartoon character Puss in Boots. The cat was even the same color as the twins' hair.

"We'll tell you more tomorrow or let you listen in if we do one. Best get some more sleep now though," George said standing up. Fred followed suit.

"I'll get - Hermione, where's my wand?" Harry asked suddenly.

"Harry… " I began haltingly, having only just remembered.

"Where's my wand?" he demanded.

I pulled the broken, mangled piece of wood from the pocket of my robes. The red phoenix feather was exposed in the middle where the smooth wood had cracked. Each of the room's occupants made an involuntary noise, two in surprise, one in pained denial. Harry's shaking hands reached out for it and I gave it to him as if I were handing over a newborn baby or mortally wounded animal. He stared in disbelief.

"Mend it. Please," Harry begged, urging it back towards me. I shook my head, looking to George for help. I hated letting Harry down when it was my fault the wand was broken. It had been my spell, after all.

"Harry, I don't think -" George began softly.

"Mate, when it's broken like that -" Fred added, wincing a bit as he spoke.

"Please, Hermione, try!" Harry said, cutting both of them off. I jumped, startled by the loud plea. George shrugged, as if saying, he'll only believe it if he can see for himself.

"R-Reparo," I stuttered, and watched as the wood magically closed up around the precious feather core. It wouldn't be enough despite its seemingly restored appearance.

"Lumos!" Harry said. The tiny spark was gone almost as soon as it formed, and it was nothing like the steady glow of a torch that the spell would usually produce. A sob formed, lodging painfully in my throat. Harry's wand was an extension of him every bit as much as mine was for me. It hurt knowing how much this loss would gut him.

"Expelliarmus!" Harry said, pointing his wand unexpectedly at me as he tried again to use it before I could stop him. My wand jumped, but remained securely within my loose, sweaty grip.

The spell was too much for the damaged wand though. I gasped as the wand splintered and split in two again. Harry looked devastated as he stared at it mutely.

"Wands aren't meant to be repaired if they've been broken," George said gently.

"Don't you remember Ron's during… what was it? Your second year, I think," Fred said.

"I'm so sorry. I think it was me. As we were leaving -" I cried, tears streaming unchecked down my face as Harry continued to stare bleakly at the broken wand.

"It was an accident," Harry muttered, cutting me off before I could elaborate in front of our audience.

"Harry, I'm so -"

"We'll deal with it tomorrow," he said, lying down and rolling to face away from me.

George squeeze my shoulder reassuringly as he followed Fred from the room. The kind gesture helped to hold back more tears in light of Harry's grief.

Despite being utterly exhausted, I couldn't fall back asleep. Instead, I read Dumbledore's story, recorded in the book that I'd taken from Bathilda's house. Seeing the note Rita had left in it infuriated me and made me want to trap her in a spelled jar all over again. The woman was positively horrid!

Harry was brooding over his wand when the twins left for the Burrow, promising to bring leftovers back for us. I debated showing him the book. It didn't exactly cast Dumbledore in the best light, and I worried Harry would take it the wrong way. On the other hand, the identity of the thief was revealed in the book. Harry had been so obsessed over learning who the boy was, perhaps he'd only focus on that if I did show him the book. Surely anything would be better than letting him dwell on the loss of his wand, right?

"Harry… " I said, uncertainly. "Do you mind if I talk to you?"

"No," he said. He'd taken the Horcrux back this morning and was staring at it intently, as though trying to destroy it with only the power of his mind. He didn't even look up at me. "I just wish it hadn't been for nothing. If only we'd found something or killed Nagini, but we didn't."

"Well… strictly speaking, that's not exactly true. That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about," I said, feeling a little better about letting him read the book. He needed to focus on something, anything, else. This seemed as good an opening as any to give him the book.

"What?" he asked, confused and only just seeming to truly notice my presence. I fought not to roll my eyes at him.

"When you went upstairs… I sort of took the book," I began, holding The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore out to him. "That man in the picture… Well, he's in here." Harry stared, open-mouthed, then slowly reached out for the book. He stared at the cover, brow wrinkled as he realized the thief was somehow connected to Dumbledore. Carefully, he opened to the beginning. It wouldn't be long before he had the information he sought. "I'll just leave you to it then."

While Harry read, I thought back to the night before. When I needed help the person I turned to was George. It hadn't been a conscious decision, nor had it been a mistake. He was so far removed from the teenager willing to try potentially harmful products on unsuspecting first years. He was intelligent, brave, and undeniably attractive. I wanted to be near him and I found my thoughts turning to him with alarming frequency over the last couple months.

I had no idea if he regarded me in the same manner. No doubt I would always be the obnoxious Prefect that tried to boss him around. He'd never taken me seriously in school. Even if I did develop feelings for him, I doubted he'd take me any more seriously now. Why would he? He'd forever see me as his little brother's swotty best mate. Or his little brother's crush…

Brother. Ron and George were brothers. That complicated things immensely. Even if George could see me as more, Ron would never forgive either of us. Not that that mattered just now. I was a long way from forgiving Ron for what he'd done, but even so, I was still having trouble moving beyond my long held feelings for him.

I'd been in love with Ron since third year when I realized that was why our fights hurt so badly. He challenged me regularly, often forcing me out of my comfortable shell. He was the only one able to coax me onto a broom when I was terrified of heights or persuade me to spend time outside socializing when I'd otherwise remain hold up somewhere alone with a book. He was one of the only two people my age that I had ever met that was vocal about my worth for a long time. He'd defended me to Professor Snape, and it had meant everything to me. It made me feel special. Harry was the other person, but with him I'd only ever seen a brother figure. Ron, on the other hand, made me feel passionate when he'd provoke me. I'd read stories that left their mark and helped shape my opinions. The sort of volatile chemistry between friends, in addition to his ability to bring out more in me as a person, hidden depths and unexplored avenues, usually meant the couple was destined for a whirlwind romance. When I was young, I became certain that was what was happening between Ron and myself.

For years I had built up expectations and dreams around the idea that Ron and I would end up together. It had become habit to fall back on the memory of loving him whenever I was insecure or scared or uncertain about the future. He was safe, familiar, and it was easy. When I was waiting for him to grow up, I didn't have to take any chances or risk getting my heart broken by someone else. I hadn't let myself feel anything for anyone else in the meantime. What if all it really was, was a defense mechanism? Was it possible I'd mistaken it for love all this time because of some silly, romantic notions? Was I really to face that knowledge if it was?

And now, when I didn't see a way to forgiving Ron for this latest betrayal, new, undeniable paths seemed to be opening up right in front of me. I just had to decide if I was brave enough to risk taking the chance. And decide if I was willing to give up on something I had long believed was a certainty.

Harry was still reading when Fred and George returned. Fred took the extra food into the kitchen to prepare plates for Harry and I while George joined me on the sofa. I'd borrowed another book from the twins' still unexpectedly diverse selection and was reading it in front of the fire.

"Happy Christmas," I murmured, closing my book.

"And to you. We brought some of Mum's food back for you," George announced.

"Trying to fatten us up?"

"Despite what Muggle magazines show, starvation isn't sexy," he said. At any other time I probably would have been offended. But there was such genuine concern in the statement that I let it go. It wasn't as if we'd done it on purpose; our options were just severely limited most of the time.

"How is everyone?" I asked, wishing I could have gone, but knowing it was too dangerous.

"As well as can be expected," he said, leaning back against the armrest. "Remus and Tonks have patched things up. She was beaming brighter than her hair all day. You wouldn't believe the size of her. Fred swears it's twins."

"And Ginny?"

"She's tough. It's been a hard year. She won't tell us anything about what's happening at Hogwarts, but she asked for some products from us. I have a feeling she's mounting her own resistance there," he said proudly.

"Something like what you did during Umbridge's reign?"

"Likely," he said with a reminiscent chuckle.

"She's very like you," I said, surprising myself. Ginny and I got along so well. I can't believe it was only recently that I started to become friends with George too. Sometimes, I was loath to admit, my stubbornness got in the way of what was right in front of me.

"We tried to raise her right," he said with mock gravity.

"Harry misses her. I know he's worried."

"He's about the only bloke good enough for her," he said honestly.

"Are you mad at him for breaking up with her? I know Ron was," I said, but he was already shaking his head before I'd finished.

"No. Not sure I agree with him, but no. He's just trying to do right by her," he said. Then he grinned evilly, and added, "Mind - she can take care of herself, and she'll show him when this is over. Looking forward to seeing that." The image of Ginny putting Harry in his place made me laugh.

"She's good though?" My fight with her at the wedding still weighed on me.

"Yeah. Just missing Harry too. Probably about as much as you're missing Ron," he added unexpectedly.

"Less and less each day," I admitted.

"Hermione -" George said, reaching to tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear, fingers lingering on my cheek. I wondered if he was going to advise me not to be so hard on his brother. Or if he was going to make another joke about not needing the prat. But he stopped when Fred banged a pan in the kitchen, causing an echoing clang to ring through the room. I jumped and squeaked having completely forgotten Fred was even there.

George turned to look into the kitchen and I followed his gaze. Fred was staring his brother down. I never knew so much could be said without once opening your mouth. He'd made his thoughts on Ron pretty clear and I wondered if he was silently telling George to mind his own business.

Regardless, I was welcome for the timely interruption. I hadn't had a chance to sort out my feelings yet, and admitting I was seriously reconsidering my feelings for Ron was probably the last thing I should admit to one, or two as the case may be, of his brothers. Talk about awkward.

Not to mention the fact I had been dangerously close to hitting on George. What was I thinking?

George sat back with a forced smile as if nothing had happened, but after looking back to where Fred was still watching, I settled for asking, "What else have you been doing for the Order?"

George seemed to adjust to the change in conversation easily enough, but I was shocked when I saw the disappointed look Fred was giving me when I looked to see if he was still watching. He shook his head and sighed before going back to preparing meals for Harry and me. But that didn't make any sense. He was the one to interrupt earlier, wasn't he? So was he upset I was essentially flirting with George in the first place, or because I didn't continue?

"Mostly providing protection. We've been making products that can be used as early warning systems that people can put around their homes," George said, studiously ignoring my interaction with Fred.

"We've also been going up and down Britain placing protective spells around Muggle places we think Death Eaters might target," Fred said as he carried over the finished plates for Harry and me. "They wear off or get dismantled, so we have to keep updating them."

I was amazed and awed by their willingness and initiative to look after Muggles. It was easy to see how busy they were running their shop, considering no less than two dozen owls arrived today with orders, and they were always inventing new products. But for them to take the time to seek out and protect potential threats to Muggles was incredible. My admiration for them increased tenfold.

Once Harry joined us, we engaged in easy banter and conversation, though each of us seemed lost in our own thoughts. One bite was all it took to remind me of how much I missed Mrs. Weasley's cooking.

Over dinner, we learned about the Taboo on Voldemort's name and how Kingsley had almost been captured after saying it. Aside from that, conversation was kept light and joking. The twins were good at that.

After dinner, I followed Harry into George's room. Rarely had I ever seen him so troubled. When he picked up The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, I was alarmed by the dark clouds that crossed his face. He looked every bit as angry as he had when Ron left.

"Harry, listen to me. It - it doesn't make very nice reading -"

"Yeah, you could say that -"

"- but don't forget, Harry, this is Rita Skeeter writing."

I tried making excuses for Dumbledore. Harry needed to trust in him now more than ever, but he didn't seem to hear me, and worse, he had counterarguments that were extremely difficult to dismiss or talk around.

I had a hard time believing myself as I attempted to convince Harry that Dumbledore had changed. I'd seen the proof in the book same as him, and it had hurt to learn Dumbledore had ever, even temporarily believed in his "right to rule" Muggles.

Eventually, I had to admit that my arguments were getting me nowhere.

"Harry, I'm sorry, but I think the real reason you're so angry is that Dumbledore never told you any of this himself."

"Maybe I am! Look at what he asked from me, Hermione! Risk your life, Harry! And again! And again! And don't expect me to explain everything, just trust me blindly, trust that I know what I'm doing, trust me even though I don't trust you! Never the whole truth! Never!"

"He loved you. I know he loved you," I insisted, fighting back tears. He was like a dog that had been hit one too many times and was now shying away from the hand reaching to pet him. His trust in authority shattered.

What if he started thinking the same of me. I'd never exactly balked at doing what I believed I must to get things done, be it lying, stealing, or accidental murder. I'd lied and manipulated situations just as Dumbledore had. The ends justified the means far too often. I'd even used others the same way; look how I'd tried to force the centaurs to get rid of Umbridge for me during fifth year. What if Harry lost faith in me too?

"I don't know who he loved, Hermione, but it was never me. This isn't love, the mess he's left me in. He shared a damn sight more of what he was really thinking with Gellert Grindelwald than he ever shared with me."

Not knowing what else to say, I retired for the night, letting uneasy dreams and my woefully familiar nightmares plague me for the next several hours.

"Couldn't sleep?" George asked, coming into the kitchen.

I was sitting at the table, staring blankly at the mug of tea I'd brewed a few minutes prior. I looked up when he entered, surprised by the company. His messy hair looked as if someone had run their hands through it a number of times. I wondered if the fiery locks were warm or soft. Currently, he was rubbing his missing ear and tugging said locks down to cover the gaping hole. I wondered if he was still self-conscious about it.

The sun was only just starting to rise. It had been my turn to wear the Horcrux last night and Harry's doubts had featured in a starring role during several of my night terrors. Eventually, I'd given up on sleep and settled for drinking enough caffeine to compensate for the lack of true rest.

"I don't sleep much anymore," I admitted.

"What happened?" he asked. There was no judgement in the question, and for a moment, I debated confessing everything. In the end, I couldn't bring myself to vocalize the truth. I couldn't say I killed a Death Eater.

George busied himself making a second cup of tea then sat beside me. He didn't ask again and I was grateful. It was enough to sit in companionable silence until Fred and Harry joined us a bit later.

"We should leave this morning. Before Verity comes in for work. This afternoon at the latest," Harry said, interrupting Fred as he told us about Snatchers over the eggs and sausage he'd fixed, and how some had accidentally killed a couple third year Hufflepuffs last week. "I'll need to get a new wand before we go," he added when all three of us looked at him. He was right that staying here would be harder to do undetected with Verity around. Luckily, the shop had been closed yesterday because of Christmas, but they were opening as usual today.

"Planning to stroll right into Ollivander's then, are you?" Fred asked looking amused. It actually sounded like a fairly good idea. We had the invisibility cloak. Harry could just grab a replacement. Any wand would be better than none. A little practice with it and he'd be all right again.

"They've got Death Eaters guarding it 'round the clock," George added, spoiling the plan I was forming in my head. Harry looked as determined as ever though.

"Why? Mr. Ollivander is still missing," I said, confused about why the shop was guarded.

"To keep Muggle-borns that have had their wands taken from getting a hold of new ones," George explained. It reminded me of being forced to sit through those horrible trials at the Ministry of Magic when we'd gotten the locket.

"Only way in is if you're accompanied by a Death Eater," Fred said.

"We saw it at the end of summer just before the new term started," George said when Harry still looked confused.

"It was awful, restricting who can get a wand like that," Fred said angrily.

"I can't fight without a wand. We've got the cloak… " Harry said, looking to me for backup. I owed him, after all, seeing as I was the reason he was without a wand. I nodded, scared but determined.

"It's worth a try. We can provide a distraction to help you out too," George offered.

"New product mishap? Could work," Fred said, seeming delighted by the idea of causing a scene.

"What if the Death Eaters suspect your involvement?" I asked, worried.

"We'll hide in the room we built or go lay low at the Burrow. Dad's talking about putting it under a Fidelius Charm anyways," George said dismissively.

"We're safe regardless. No need to worry," Fred reassured. Harry looked uneasy, but determined to do it regardless. I nodded again when he caught my eye. He'd be a sitting duck without a wand and this seemed the only solution.

"Just before lunch then," Harry said. "When people are moving about Diagon Alley. It will be less suspicious if the store is already open."

After breakfast, George and Fred each hugged me and clapped Harry on the back. I was terrified I'd never see them again.

"Good luck. Wait for our signal then go for it," Fred said, straightening his magenta robes.

"Stay safe. We'll be there for the end," George said. Then the pair were gone and Harry and I were left to wait for a couple hours. I wished I could say something more to George, but I didn't know what the right thing would be, so there was no point trying.

The sounds of a small explosion came about three hours later. Putrid smelling green smoke filled the air and quickly spilled out into Diagon Alley. The smoke was dense, opaque, perfect for moving undetected through, especially since it seemed to expand outward, slowly creeping through the street and past all of the busiest shops.

Then, just as people began complaining and demanding someone clean it up, Fred "accidentally" bumped into the display of Weasley's Wildfire Whiz-bangs. The entire tower seemed to go off at once, most seeming to escape the store as if by magic. It was utter chaos in the streets at that point with everyone fleeing the vicinity.

Harry and I grinned at each other before easing outside and darting towards Ollivander's while safely concealed beneath the cloak. It was almost like a path had opened up in front of us as people ran to avoid getting caught by spinning pink Catherine wheels, fire-breathing dragons, and multiplying firecrackers.

The plan was perfect. Went off without a hitch. At least until Harry reached out to touch the door to Ollivander's. The moment his hand made contact, a loud ear-splitting cry filled the air.

"That's the alarm -" someone shouted.

"- someone's trying to get in Ollivander's -" another replied.

"- set the Anti-Disapparating Charms, QUICKLY -"

"Go!" Harry hissed at once. I'd already grabbed his arm the moment the Caterwauling Charm started to sound, so with a twist and a crack we Disapparated.

"That was too close, Harry," I breathed, heart pounding from fear the moment we were away.

"I know," he sighed, obviously disappointed that he still didn't have a wand.

"We can't take chances like that anymore. Too much is riding on us," I continued and he gave me a quelling look. I handed over my wand for his use as a consolation prize and started unpacking the tent as he began on the protective enchantments.

"Where are we?" he asked instead of acknowledging my concerns.

"The Forest of Dean. I came camping here once with my mum and dad."

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

Anything you recognize is from book 7. Some parts are the same, but most parts have been changed at least a little to better fit this story.

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 8

December 1997

Forest of Dean

"Hermione!" Harry yelled as he came barging into my room in the middle of the night.

"What's wrong? Harry? Are you all right?" I demanded, struggling to untangle myself from the pile of blankets I was using to stay warm. It was positively freezing inside the tent tonight and even though we had only spent two nights there and left just this morning, I missed the twins' flat immensely.

"It's okay, everything's fine. I'm great. There's someone here," he announced as if it would lessen my worry. Someone had found us? Here? But we were in the middle of nowhere. If someone was here then we could be in danger.

"What do you mean? Who -?" I asked, frightened, while scrambling from the bed as quickly as possible.

I'd barely stood before I saw him. Ron. He was back, standing just in front of Harry as though he'd never left. As suddenly as I'd stood, I began moving forward, a magnet caught in his pull. He was really here, shaggy red hair, freckles and all. He was also dripping wet for some inexplicable reason.

There had been nothing but sadness and emptiness when he left. But seeing him now, here, as if no time had passed - every single bit of that endless well of despair was replaced with fury. Blinding fury that beat with the rapid wings of a hummingbird within my chest.

He had the audacity to grin at me and raise his arms as if for a hug. To fucking grin! As if he hadn't ripped my heart out by leaving. I'd been slowly approaching, trying so hard to keep my temper in check, but that smile. That damned smile! As if I would forgive him just because he deigned to return.

Suddenly, I was flying at him, hitting every square inch of unprotected skin I could find. I punched, smacked, and kicked. I felt like a feral cat determine to rip him to shreds then piss on his remains for good measure.

"Ouch - ow - gerroff! What the - ? Hermione - OW!" he screamed as I continued my rain of blows.

"You - complete - arse - Ronald - Weasley! You - crawl - back - here - after - weeks - and - weeks - oh, where's my wand?" I followed Ron as he retreated under my attack. I expected that the physical release of my rage would help channel it from me, but all it did was ignite the fire within. Fury like I'd never known consumed me. I wanted Ron to suffer as I did when he took off.

"Protego!" Harry suddenly yelled, erecting a shield charm - with my wand - so strong it knocked me to the ground. Harry lowered the charm at once, looking horrified. I scrambled to my feet and advanced on Ron once more. If I couldn't curse him, then I'd settle for continuing to inflict physical pain. "Hermione! Calm -" Harry started to say, but I rounded on him so fast, and shot him such a quelling look that he paused mid-sentence to stare at me in alarm.

"Don't you dare tell me to calm down! You know what it was like without him! YOU KNOW!" I screamed at him before returning my fury to its rightful target. "And YOU! I begged you. I went after you and I begged." Never before had I lowered myself to beg anyone for anything, not with such sincerity, but I had for Ron, and it hadn't mattered.

Ron opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off before he could come up with more meaningless excuses.

"No. I don't want to hear another word from you. I begged you and you ignored me. There is nothing you could possibly say that will make me forgive you," I said coldly, stepping back. My rage had iced over. The desire to strike him a frozen weight in my limbs that left me numb and aching. I didn't even want to touch him again.

"I'm sorry!" Ron cried. The apology even sounded genuine, but it wasn't enough.

"Did you honestly think sorry was all it would take?" I asked, moving to sit and glare at him. He quelled, deflating like a balloon before my eyes.

"What else do you want me to say - tell me and I will!" Now he was the one begging. I didn't enjoy seeing it. I'd never appreciated seeing anyone weaker than myself suffering. It was always too much like the time I'd gone to the pound with my parents and seen a family dropping off an unwanted puppy. The beautiful, helpless pet had cried and whimpered, but the family had left the animal despite its pleading, desperate cries.

"I shouldn't have to feed you your lines, Ronald. This isn't class. I'm through having all of your answers for you just because you haven't got enough brains to come up with them yourself." The words were harsh, but honest. I was tired of having to do all of his thinking for him. If he didn't understand that he'd gone too far and that there was no apology for his actions, then that was his problem.

"Hermione! He -" Harry began, chastising me, but again I silenced him with a penetrating glare.

"But I really am sorry!" Ron insisted.

"I don't care! I know better than to trust a thing you say," I said.

"I've been trying to get back to you, though, ever since I left!"

"YOU NEVER SHOULD HAVE LEFT TO BEGIN WITH!" I screamed, feeling something precious and vital shatter within me. He'd left and I hadn't been worth staying to fight for. Not to him.

"Snatchers got me as soon as I left. See Snatchers are -"

"George told us all about Snatchers. No need to explain," I cut in, unwilling to hear his excuses.

"You saw George?" he asked, distracted by his confusion.

"We -" Harry started, but I talked over him, determined that Ron hear what he left us to endure from me rather than Harry's sugar-coated version.

It was obvious Harry had already forgiven Ron. But then, Harry was always afraid that if he didn't make allowances for Ron's insecurities, Ron wouldn't put up with the burden of being friends with Harry. It rankled, but the habit was too ingrained now to break.

"We went to Godric's Hollow and, let's think, what happened there, Harry? Oh yes, You-Know-Who's snake turned up, it nearly killed both of us, and then You-Know-Who himself arrived and missed us by about a second."

"W-What?"

"Harry was injured. I needed someone I could trust to help me heal him."

"So you went to my brother for help?" Ron asked, brow wrinkled as he looked from me to Harry uncertainly. The idea seemingly too much to penetrate his thick skull.

"YOU WEREN'T THERE!"

"George and Fred helped us," Harry said to Ron then turned back to me. "Hermione, Ron just saved my life," Harry interjected hurriedly, attempting once more to defuse my temper. I studiously ignored the effort and the news Harry had almost died tonight. Obviously it hadn't been that harrowing considering he was fine now.

"One thing I would like to know, though, how did you find us tonight? That's important. Once we know, we'll be able to make sure we're not visited by anyone else we don't want to see," I said as nastily as possible, eager to drive the point home that Ron's presence was unwanted and unnecessary.

"This," Ron announced proudly, holding up the Deluminator.

"The Deluminator?" I asked, incredulous.

"I don't know how it works or why, but a couple days ago I heard you."

"Pardon?"

"Your voice came out of this. Something about missing me." George had mentioned something about me missing Ron, but that was when I said I wasn't anymore. I flushed at the idea that Ron had heard me practically flirting with George. Ron continued, obvious to the turn my thoughts had taken. "So I clicked it and this ball of light came out of it… then… Well, it went inside me."

"And it brought you to us?" I asked skeptically. Except, it made sense in a warped way. Dumbledore must have always known Ron would leave us. Typical.

"Well, sort of. It brought me to the forest. Then I saw you, Harry. Well, I saw the doe first, obviously," he said, waving towards Harry as he told his frustratingly vague story.

"Doe? What doe?" I asked, suddenly lost.

The next couple minutes were spent explaining the events of the last hour and the boys' adventure in seeing a doe Patronus, finding and retrieving the sword of Gryffindor, then destroying the Horcrux. Harry handed me the mangled remains of the locket as he and Ron took turns telling me about what happened. The more they talked, the angrier I became. I'd been fundamental to the plan to obtain the locket. And we'd all suffered these last weeks because of the presence of it, yet they'd destroyed it without me. They didn't even seem to realize the slight they'd dealt me. It was too much after everything else.

"Hermione, I swear I will never take off like that again," Ron said into the silence that followed the conclusion of their eventful night.

"And I'm supposed to believe you? You promised before. I trusted you then. I won't make that mistake again," I said with as much finality as I possibly could.

With that, I stuffed the broken, twisted remains of the locket into my purse, then returned to my room. There seemed nothing left to say.

February 1998

Still camping… somewhere just as remote…

Weeks turned to months and each day was filled with the same thing. More dead ends - Xenophilius Lovegood. More obsessions - the Deathly Hallows. More failures - every wizarding village we searched in for a Horcrux and came away empty-handed.

Most trying of all was the ceaseless tension between Ron and me. He tried so hard to force me to forgive him, but I just couldn't bring myself to.

Each time he agreed with me or said something deliberately positive I wanted to snap. I knew I was being irrational and bitchy, but it was irritating me to no end. He was sucking up, hoping that would make me forgive him, but he had yet to earn that forgiveness. I wanted to be mad at him and I hated that he was trying to force the issue to resolve itself unnaturally. We needed time to rebuild any sort of friendship and he wasn't giving us the necessary time and space required.

Not even the relief of finally being free of the Horcrux's influence was enough to lift my mood. While I was grateful to no longer be tormented by the reminder of what I'd done, at least the Horcrux had been a convenient excuse for a bad mood.

And Harry was only perpetuating the problem. He kept encouraging Ron and giving him false hope that I was getting over things. It made me feel trapped. As if I had to fake it to keep them happy. I was over the yelling stage, so I wished they'd just leave me be to silently fume over it all.

Harry had been every bit as hurt as me, but he'd forgiven Ron as if it were as easy as breathing. But I just couldn't do the same. I wasn't nearly as angry as before, but Ron and I weren't okay either. Maybe I'd never trust him again. I'd thought the same thing often enough since he left, but he was back and I still kept thinking it.

Something major would have to happen for any progress to be made.

On top of everything, I missed the ease with which George made me laugh. His witty comments were so refreshing. I could do with some laughter right about now. Worse, the meaning behind the ache from missing him was getting harder to ignore. It was a truth I still wasn't ready to acknowledge.

March 1998

Shell Cottage

Pain fogged my brain and made opening my eyes an impossible task. Cement blocks weighted my limbs and made moving about as easy as fighting a dragon. Scenes from the past hour dueled with the present, each seeking to imprison my mind.

"Do you know what happens to the mind when it undergoes the Cruciatus Curse for too long? You're friends with the Longbottom whelp, aren't you? I did it to his parents. Their screams were like music," Bellatrix whispered nostalgically, her dreamy expression contrasting sharply with the terror her words inspired. "Would you like to experience it for yourself?" Bellatrix asked by my ear, the breathy words moist and eager. My stomach churned violently when I smelled the sour, rancid odor coming from her and I bit my tongue in fear of the threat she issued.

"What 'appened to 'er?" An unmistakably French accented voice asked. The identity of the speaker was there, but just out of reach. As quickly as the answer came, I descended back into the hell I'd just endured, phantom curses delivering nearly as much agony as fresh ones did.

Spinning to glare down at my supine body, Bellatrix screamed, "You are a lying, filthy Mudblood, and I know it!" She leaned down, getting so close her nose brushed my cheek as she continued her rant, accusing, "You have been inside my vault at Gringotts! Tell the truth, tell the truth! Crucio!"

The wrenching agony of a million jolts of electricity frying my cells tore an unwilling scream from the depths of my soul.

"Did the others make it here all right?" A male voice asked, but the owner's name just wouldn't come and my eyes weren't functioning properly to see who it was. My eyelids were pressed shut with glue sealing them for good measure.

I felt like I was floating, which made sense because my legs certainly weren't in any condition to support my weight. But the journey was jarring and bumpy. Someone must be carrying me. I wanted to ask who, but my throat was shredded. Besides, if I opened my mouth, I would be unlocking the trapped screams I was valiantly struggling to contain.

"Where have you guys been?" Another voice, also male and equally familiar, sounded. Though it too was unidentifiable, at the same time it elicited thoughts of family and safety.

"Lies! Now tell me where," Bellatrix said sounding more deranged now. Her hair was a wild tangle of Medusa snakes and her hands began tugging at it while she stared down at me. Just as suddenly, she straightened and smiled. The twisted grimace of welcome was oddly normal, which made it markedly different from her previous insanity. She tilted her head like I was a curiosity. Then she raised her wand to point at me once more.

"No, no, please," I begged.

"Snatchers took us to Malfoy Manor. We only barely made it out." Ron. I'd recognize his voice anywhere. It was as essential to me as breathing. "Hermione… Hermione was… "

"'Ow bad eez she injured?" The melodic French girl asked. Something about the distress so clear in her words eased the ache coursing through my limbs the slightest bit. Enough that I relaxed the slightest bit. Doing so unlocked my jaw, allowing a pitious moan to escape.

"Her arm… Was she tortured?" the second unknown male asked suddenly.

"Do you have somewhere I can put her?" Ron asked, ignoring the question, but after a moment continued, "She'll be fine. She has to be."

"Where's Harry? Didn't Dobby bring him with you?" the first male asked. I thought I should know this voice, but pain masked my ability to recognize it. Even as I tried, the present seemed to slip away.

"He should be right behind us," Ron said faintly. It was harder to make out his words.

I whimpered and tried to scoot away from the people intent on delivering pain. My useless fists found very little purchase on the plush rug, but it was even worse when I finally reached the edge and it gave way to smooth, hard polished marble. My body refused to cooperate, tiny shuttering spasms rocking it when I tried to push upward, determined to crawl if I must. Anything to escape. My fruitless efforts were rewarded by an amused chuckle. How could anyone be so evil? How could anyone enjoy hurting someone defenseless?

"I'll go check," Bill said. That's right. That was the second familiar male voice. I'd heard it so often all summer as I helped with the wedding preparations. But it was so distant now, traversing down a long tunnel and only barely reaching me.

"I'm going to ask you again! Where did you get this sword? Where?" Bellatrix screamed, frustration and impatience overtaking her.

"And Hermione? What did they do to her?" The questions were so faint I couldn't even tell if they'd been asked by a male or female. Then I was reliving a jumbled version of my torture once more.

"Crucio," Bellatrix called with a manic grin.

The pain was sudden, fierce, excruciating. Every muscle in my body seized and twitched, my knees slammed brutally into the marble floor, cracking loudly as my spasming muscles gave out, but I hardly noticed. Everywhere else hurt worse. It lasted for hours, years even, though the first time was actually only a few seconds.

"Crucio," Bellatrix casually called again, almost laughing.

The second time was worse because I knew now just how badly the pain would hurt. It lasted longer too. The third time was the longest yet.

The body is remarkably resilient. It attempts to adjust to whatever it is forced to endure. Not so with the Cruciatus Curse. There is no compensation, no adjusting, only pain. Never ending pain that overwhelms all else.

"Harry's insisting on digging the grave himself," Bill said. Those were the first words I truly registered as the red haze of agony began to dissipate.

"We found it - we found it - PLEASE!" I screamed myself, desperation taking hold as Bellatrix's wand came up again.

Flashes of brutal memory continued to blink behind my closed eyes, but now they were the parts of reality getting fainter.

"CRUCIO," Bellatrix screamed and the power and rage behind the word seemed to amplify the pain.

Grave. Harry was digging a grave. I wanted to ask more, wanted to know who the grave belonged to, but I still couldn't speak.

Someone was rubbing my throat, forcing me to swallow. The taste of raw liver lingered unpleasantly in my mouth. If only I could gag or take a sip of water to rinse away any lingering trace of the foul-tasting potion.

Something else was spread over my arm and I hissed as little stings formed wherever it made contact. My eyes flew open, focusing on a white ceiling as my back bowed. I pulled my arm, trying to dislodge whoever was hurting me again.

"'Old 'er still. It must be cleaned properly or it will get infected," the French girl, Fleur, insisted. Hands immediately pushed down on my shoulders and Ron's concerned face came into view.

"I'm sorry, Hermione. We have to though. It'll be worse if we don't," Ron muttered by my ear. I knew he was right, so I locked my muscles against the pain, clenched my jaw, and forced myself to take slow, even breaths through my nose. The pain was nothing compared to earlier. I could take it.

"Ron," I groaned when the pain had fizzled out a bit. He jumped back startled.

"You're awake! You're all right!" he exclaimed, such joy as I had never seen or heard before. I nodded, trying to confirm. He leaned down to hug me, but I whimpered when he jostled my injured arm. He pulled back so fast it looked like I'd set him on fire.

"Let's give her a bit of space. Let Fleur see to her," Bill said, coming into the room. "Griphook and Ollivander are settled in. Luna is seeing to them. Dean's heading out back to help Harry. Ron, you should join him."

I watched Ron walk reluctantly out. He kept looking back to me, as though waiting for me to ask him to stay. I was still afraid that if I opened my mouth again or tried to form anymore words, nothing but screams would escape me.

Bill studied me as Fleur bandaged my arm and neck. It was hard to believe we were safe. That'd we'd gotten out with nothing more than pain and scratches. At least until I remembered what they'd said.

"Grave?" I forced my abused throat to voice the single word question. Little uncontrollable spasms were still coursing through me periodically and I hardly recognized the sound of my own voice.

"Dobby. He - he didn't make it," Bill explained.

No. Not Dobby. Dobby, who had been tortured and abused for years only to finally have his freedom. Dobby, the progressive house-elf. The one that opened my eyes to the horrific issue of ongoing slavery occurring within the wizarding world. Dobby, with his love of socks. Dobby wearing all of the hats I'd knitted. Dobby, at Hogwarts…

Ginny. She was still at Hogwarts this year. She'd be in danger now. The Death Eaters knew Ron was with Harry. They'd go after the Weasleys to get to him.

But when I opened my mouth to warn Bill, what came out was, "George! Quickly. You have to warn George! They know Ron isn't sick - he's in danger!" A racking shutter went through me, but when Bill didn't move, I shamelessly begged again, "Please, warn him - Ginny and Fred too!"

Bill's scarred face drained of color, leaving his cursed wounds standing out starkly in contrast. He glanced at Fleur then bolted from the room when comprehension finally dawned. I fell back against the pillows, drained and forced to trust Bill would be able to act in time. Hopefully Harry had been right this morning when he mentioned Voldemort was out of the country. That meant we had a little extra time.

"You feel for 'im, no?" Fleur asked, busying herself with straightening my covers after a couple minutes of watching the doorway Bill had disappeared through. It was obvious she was worried and looking for a distraction. I didn't know what she was talking about though. She caught sight of my confusion and clarified with a single word, "George."

"I don't… I don't… "

"I always zink you and Ron, but 'mmm," she said knowingly, a small smile forming as she contemplated it and helped me take another Pain Potion. It took a couple tries and some spilled down my chin, dripping onto my front, when my lips and tongue didn't seem to work the way I was familiar with.

"I don't know," I admitted after Fleur helped me clean up the mess I'd made.

"Ze 'eart wants what it wants. Listen to it and you will be fine," she said, patting my shoulder in a way that suggested she was extremely world-wise and closer to forty, not her true age of twenty.

I was cataclysmically not ready to acknowledge what she was suggesting. Too much else was going on right now. Luckily, we were interrupted and I was spared from answering her.

"They're safe," Bill announced, coming back into the room and rubbing his face tiredly. "We're ready to bury Dobby now," he added sadly.

"Will you help me outside?" I asked, wincing as I tried to sit up. Even with the potions I'd taken it hurt to move. "I want to be there for it," I added when they looked uncertain.

Bill practically carried me outside to the roughly dug grave overlooking the ocean. Tears streamed unchecked down my cheeks when I watched them lower Dobby's miniscule form into the dark hole. I would forever be grateful to Luna for the words she spoke over his final resting place. I was only alive because of him. Thinking about the twisted and depraved things Greyback would have done to me once Bellatrix was finished toying with me made bile coat the inside of my mouth. Dobby's sacrifice meant a welcome reprieve and my survival. The pressure and guilt was enormous. This must be how Harry felt all the time. I wasn't sure I could cope as well as he did.

It fueled my desire to help liberate house-elves when the war ended more than ever before. All of them deserved to experience the freedom Dobby so briefly glimpsed.

After the funeral Bill explained about the family to everyone.

"Thanks to Hermione's warning, we got word to everyone in time. Dad decided not to stay at the Burrow. It's not big enough since the twins will be staying with them too. I went to them first since they're easy to find in Diagon Alley. They grabbed bags - seemed they'd already packed - and we went to tell the others. It's lucky that Ginny's on holiday." That's right. Easter was just around the corner. Where had the time gone? It was hard to believe that ordinarily I'd be spending every waking moment studying for my N.E.W.T.s and planning for the future I'd spent years working towards. Instead, I was hunting bits of a madman's mutilated soul. So much for ordinary. Bill continued, "If she'd been at Hogwarts, they could have taken her before we reached her. Now we know she's safe too." When Harry entered, Bill addressed the next bit directly to him. "I've been getting them all out of the Burrow. Moved them to Muriel's -"

I stopped listening at that point. My relief at knowing the rest of the Weasley family was safe helped ease the last of the lingering pain from my sore limbs.

The rest of the night passed in a blur as Harry revealed his revelations about both Horcruxes and Hallows, and we made tentative plans to break into Gringotts while also learning that Voldemort was now in possession of the Elder wand. The discoveries, on top of helping Luna, Dean, Mr. Ollivander, and Griphook, very nearly made enduring what I had worth it.

My head was swimming in new information, plots, and memories by the time I retired for the evening. This had seemed like the longest day of my life.

"What else did you take? What else have you got? Tell me the truth or, I swear, I shall run you through with this knife!" Bellatrix threatened, waving a dagger with a wicked edge in the air. Light sparked off the tip, reflecting onto the nearby wall where it wavered erratically as she shook the blade. She paused then and considered the knife in her hand, a savage grin twisting her features. "Hold her down," she commanded, nodding to my right arm.

He was suddenly leaning over me. The Death Eater I'd killed. The front of his robes were drenched in a slick film of scarlet blood. Drops fell onto my face and body when he leaned over me. A few landed in my gasping mouth, forcing me to gag reflexively. The stench of decay, rust and copper was thick in the air.

"Now it's my turn to hurt you," he said merrily. The glee in his words a stark contrast to his vicious grimace.

His grip was rough when he yanked my arm outward, exposing my smooth forearm to serve as Bellatrix's blank canvas for the masterpiece she was intent on creating. From my supine position, I could make out chunks of gristle from his last meal caught in his wiry beard.

Once he had restrained my right arm to Bellatrix's satisfaction, she began carving. It was a different sort of pain than that of the Cruciatus Curse. Hotter, more localized to a single point, rather than my whole body. With each slice, I felt the actual beats of my heart more. Each beat propelled a rush of fiery pain radiating outward from the site of her artwork.

"M. What else did you take?" Bellatrix asked, perched across my chest, her weight making it harder to breathe than it already was.

I bit my lip to keep from screaming again, a renewed surge of copper filled my mouth again. But I said nothing.

"Tell her, Murderer. Or don't. I'll enjoy watching you suffer regardless," my victim turned tormentor said as he ran a finger across the new cut. He dug the tip of his nail into the wound, forcing it open further and sparking a fresh wave of pain.

I looked up at him, ready to beg him to stop, but the words caught behind the prison of my teeth. Part of his face had begun to rot. Maggots were crawling in and out of the holes riddling his face where the flesh had already decayed to nothing. I gagged at the sight.

"U. Tell me!" Bellatrix insisted, forcing my focus back to her.

"Nothing," I whimpered, trying to spit the blood pooling in my mouth on her, but my attempt was too weak to succeed and only seemed to enrage her further.

"D. There, mud. The filth in your veins," she said sitting back to admire her effort. Her face hardened. "What else did you take, what else? ANSWER ME! CRUCIO!"

She laughed as I screamed, body seizing and contorting uncontrollably beneath her.

"You deserve this, you know? You aren't the good person you let your friends believe you to be. This punishment is just and you aren't fighting it because you know in your heart I'm right," the nameless man taunted. Part of me wondered if I'd ever be done paying for my actions, if anything would truly make it all right. How could it? Maybe he was right.

"B. How? L. Tell me," Bellatrix coaxed, carving faster, seeming more excited as she hastily wiped the weeping wound so she could see her remaining canvas. The pressure of that almost hurt worse than the actual slicing.

"I can't! We found found it. I swear!"

"So you lie as well as kill. Again I say you're getting what you deserve," the man said. This time he wrapped a meaty hand around my throat, squeezing mercilessly. The remaining strips of rotting flesh dangled from his face, exposing muscle and tendon as well as the bone of his skull. He increased the pressure, his deathly visage twisted in a grin all the while as Bellatrix completed her project. Blackness seemed to creep in from the edges of my vision.

"O. Lies. O. One more chance then I'll give you to the mutt. He'd like sinking his teeth into such soft, tender flesh," she said while making the final cuts. "D. There all done," she said patting it roughly.

Just as the last of my air supply seemed totally depleted, he laughed. The sound startling -

I woke with a gasp, dragging in air like a starving man at a feast. Frantically, I searched the room, looking for the two intent on harming me. But I was alone. No, wait… Ron was asleep in the corner. He was sitting, slumped in a chair by the door. His head was leaned back against the wall, mouth parted slightly, and soft snores coming from his mouth. I'd missed him at first because the room was so dark and my breathing so ragged that it had masked the familiar symphony of his sleep.

It had seemed so real. I'd truly believed I was back in that hell. But it was only a nightmare.

As comforting as it was to realize Ron was here to look after me, I couldn't stand staying in this room a moment longer. It was like bugs were crawling under my skin and I was half tempted to scratch until I bled or rub the offending tissue raw. Anything to remove the leftover taint of that dream.

I was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a glass of pumpkin juice when Bill walked in. He'd obviously just returned and was surprised by my presence.

"Doing any better?" he asked, giving me a once over with the critical eye of someone who cared deeply for my health and well-being. It helped ease a bit of the nightmare's lingering effects.

"Yes. Much," I said, hoping to convince myself as much as him. "Where have you been?" I asked, deflecting attention away from the trauma I'd endured when he looked ready to ask more about it.

"Auntie Muriel's," he said. Tiredness laced the two simple words. I wondered if it was from the events of the day or having to deal with the trying old woman.

"Is everyone okay?" I asked. He'd already been over there earlier. The need for a return visit was concerning.

"Yes, I just wanted to double check everyone was settling in okay, and see about moving Ollivander, Dean, and Luna over soon since Harry is insisting Griphook stay here."

"It is a bit crowded here. Sorry we're imposing," I apologized, wincing. Bill and Fleur were newlyweds and we'd just heaped a load of unwanted guests and problems on them.

"Not a problem," he said, waiving off my concern easily. "But I'd feel better with fewer people around while Harry is staying here. I don't like putting him at risk."

"Your whole family really is remarkable," I said, slightly awed that he'd be more worried for Harry than put out or concerned for his family. The Weasley's were so noble, I couldn't help but admire each of them.

"Speaking of family… George asked me to give you this," he said, pulling a small piece of folded parchment from his robes. He looked considering at it a moment, then handed it over. He clapped me on the shoulder, said, "I'm glad you're all right," then strode from the room and left me to read the missive in private.

I unfolded the paper with shaking fingers, surprised to be receiving a message from George at all. The couple lines were hurried, the writing cramped and rushed as if he'd been pressed for time when composing it.

Hermione,

Thanks for the warning - we're all safe. Quick thinking on your part, though that doesn't surprise me in the least. Bill didn't explain much, only that you were hurt, but would be all right. Oh, and that you, Ron, and Harry are all safe. I hope that's true. Please stay safe - please.

Yours,

George

It was short, but the warmth it evoked was enough to help me face the prospect of trying to sleep again.

Returning upstairs, I was startled to find Ron waking up when I entered the room. He blinked sleepily at me a few times before shaking his head. Concern rapidly replaced sleepiness.

"You all right?" he asked, standing, but not approaching me.

"Just thirsty," I lied.

"You should have woken me. I'd have gotten it for you," he said, smiling hesitantly. He looked so eager to please just then. I returned the smile, relaxing more than I thought I could just then.

"It's okay. Moving around helped. I'm a bit stiff," I explained.

"Can I talk with you?" he asked, taking a step towards me then halting again. I think he could sense I needed a bit of space after the day's events. I appreciated his ability to read me just then. If he got too close I'd break down and that was the last thing I wanted.

"Yes," I said, nervously tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. His crystal blue eyes tracked the movement before sliding down to rest on my bandaged arm.

"No! You can have me, keep me!"

The memory of Ron making such a demand of Bellatrix came unbidden and unexpectedly to me. He'd tried so hard to be the one tortured in place of me, to take that burden on himself. He hadn't thought twice before saying those words.

"I'd give anything for that not to be there," he declared, staring fixedly at the white gauze covering the lasting reminder of Bellatrix's cruelty. I brought it protectively up to my chest as if to hide it from him. "To be the one she tortured instead of you," he added, eyes still glued to my bandage.

"Ron… "

"I couldn't do anything. You were screaming. She hurt you, and I couldn't stop it," he said, the words dragged from the depths of his soul. Tears were falling helplessly down his face. I'd never seen him moved to tears before, and to know they were for me was… gut wrenching. "I couldn't protect you. I failed you," he sobbed.

"I heard you," I whispered. "When she… I heard you calling for me. It helped. It got me through." He nodded, not seeming to know what else to say. Neither did I.

"I'm sorry… for before - leaving like that. I messed up, and I'd take it back if I could," Ron said, voice clear and sincere despite his tears.

"I know."

We stood in silence for several minutes. Eventually, Ron dried his eyes and hesitantly asked, "Do you want me to stay here tonight?"

"Yes," I admitted, afraid of trying to fall back asleep alone in here, even with the comfort George's letter had brought me. He nodded and resumed his seat by the door, guarding me against potential threats.

Tonight had reminded me of every reason why I'd first fallen in love with Ron, or mistaken my feelings for love, whichever. He had such a capacity for compassion and could be so protective of those he cared about.

Just this morning I'd still been mad at him for leaving Harry and me. I wasn't anymore. In the face of everything that had happened since, I just couldn't stay mad.

It would be easy to let today sway me and return to where I'd been before, in love with Ron and waiting for him to grow up enough for us to be together. But I couldn't do that. It wouldn't be fair to either of us. Not anymore. It wouldn't be enough, not when the truth was that those feelings might just have faded into nothing more than a pleasant memory of my childhood sweetheart.

I was too tired to spend any more time dwelling on it right now. I couldn't handle recovering while also sorting through my feelings, and trying to keep Harry on the right path.

April 1998

Shell Cottage

The next weeks were filled with welcoming the newest Lupin, recovering, and most primary - making plans for breaking into Gringotts. Part of me recognized our idea for the madness and insanity it was, but mostly, I just wanted this war to be over.

It was the last day of April before we had everything finalized and were ready to put our plan in action. Ron and Harry had retired early, but I couldn't sleep. Tomorrow I was to assume the identity of the woman who tortured me. The knowledge was playing mind games with me. The thought of having to ingest part of her, to behave like her for any length of time was making my skin crawl.

I'd tired to close my eyes a little while ago, knowing I needed sleep to be at my best tomorrow, but the memory of being stuck partially as a cat for months had opened my eyes right back up. What if I was stuck as her?

I was repacking my purse, a routine I found oddly soothing, when the front door opened.

"George!" I gasped, surprised by his sudden appearance. Was Bill expecting him? He hadn't mentioned anything earlier.

"Fancy finding you here," he said, grinning impishly and plopping down beside me on the sofa.

"What… why… "

"Speechless is a good look on you," he teased, nudging me playfully with his shoulder. I whacked him on the arm and he chuckled. "Heard you're heading back out tomorrow. Just wanted to wish you luck," he explained. So that's where Bill had gotten off to earlier.

"If it works out, maybe you can report it on Potterwatch," I suggested since I knew even if our plan worked, there would be no way to keep what we'd done a secret. The last break-in had been reported within a day and the thief, Professor Quirrell, hadn't even gotten a hold of anything. "If it turns out anything like the Ministry, it might give people hope to hear about it."

"Harry's planning something dangerous then. Do you need help?" he offered, excited by the prospect.

"No thanks," I chuckled, shaking my head a bit. Moments like this reminded me that he'd forever be looking for the next great prank. "It'll be hard enough pulling this off with the three of us and Griphook going," I explained when he looked disappointed, but he perked back up just as quickly.

"You've got a goblin involved? What? Are you planning to rob Gringotts?"

"Something like that," I said vaguely. I had suggested it was something big and he was remarkably intelligent, so it shouldn't really be so shocking that he'd guessed correctly in one go.

"Little Miss Goody-Goody is going to rob a bank? Brilliant!" he exclaimed, leaning back on the couch and laughing.

"Shh! You'll wake the house," I hissed, covering his mouth to stifle the sounds of his laughter. His breath was warm and it tickled my palm pleasantly. "You're alarmingly excited by the prospect," I added drolly as he quieted down.

"I've been waiting years to see your rule-breaking side up close. This is a fantasy come to life," he explained, eyes sparkling with amusement. I was grinning too, worry about actually doing the deed a distant memory.

"Bill's told us stories - be careful, yeah?" he added more seriously.

"I'll be with Harry and Ron. What could possibly go wrong?" I asked dryly. I was pretty sure none of our plans had ever worked out perfectly, yet were still somehow successful, so why change anything now?

"That's right. Ron's back," George said looking around the room as if to find him lurking in the corner. I'd sent Ron and Harry up to take my room for the night, insisting I needed access to the kitchen and saying I'd just keep them up moving around if they stayed down here. They'd jumped on the offer to have a real room again and had gone without further protest.

After the first week, Ron had stopped sleeping by my bed. The nightmares had eased a bit and I knew he was uncomfortable in his upright position. Besides, I needed to learn to cope on my own eventually, might as well get started as soon as possible.

"Yeah… " I said when he looked back at me. He was surveying me intently, looking for something.

"All sorted out then, are you?"

"Getting there," I admitted. Suddenly his brow wrinkled and he reached for me.

"What's on your arm?" he asked, carefully turning my arm to gaze at my exposed forearm. The cuts were as healed as they would ever be, so I'd stopped bandaging it. They still looked fresh. The skin was an angry red that looked sure to start bleeding at any moment. It wouldn't, but it definitely looked hideous and brand new. It was another thing I needed to get used to, and I wanted to start immediately.

He stared at it for several long moments, his fingers gentle where they gripped me. I held my breath as I waited for his pronouncement. Would he be disgusted? Horrified? Saddened?

"Appropriate," he said, looking up with a shockingly satisfied expression. I was thrown. That was not the reaction I was expecting and I didn't understand.

"Excuse me?" I finally asked, barely able to get the two words out in order to demand an explanation.

"You're the brightest witch of your age, yeah?" he asked. I didn't understand the relevance of the question, so I just stared stonily back at him. "Well, aren't you?" he prompted more eagerly.

"It's been suggested a time or two," I said drolly. No need for false modesty since he was simply stating a fact rather than praising me.

"One day pretty soon this war will be over and we'll have to rebuild. I think we both know you'll be right out front helping all those reforms along," he began. When I nodded, he continued, "Some people will be… let's say reluctant to go along with any proposed changes."

He looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to acknowledge what he was saying. He was right of course. It would be a battle to change any laws and get everyone on board with the new changes I had in mind for the future.

"Some of the purebloods or any You-Know-Who supporters that don't end up in Azkaban."

"Exactly!" he exclaimed. "But every time they see you - see that - it'll be a slap in the face and a reminder that they're wrong," he concluded, sitting back with a smug grin.

He was right. Their arguments were always built around the inaccurate premise that Muggle-borns were inferior. But now every time they tried to use that with me, they'd be forced to acknowledge how wrong they were. Everyone, even the Malfoys, admitted I was the smartest in my year and the cleverest by far. Now I could wear the scars as proof of what I endured. It would be as George suggested, a slap in the face, each time I refused to feel ashamed of my heritage while showing them up. Hadn't I said "Mudblood, and proud of it!" to Griphook just the other day?

"I like that," I said, smiling at him.

Ron had viewed my scars as proof of his failure. George saw them as a mark of my survival and strength. I guess that was just one more difference between the two. One more factor that influenced my heart.

"Figured you might. How did… "

"Bellatrix. She wanted information."

"But you held out? Good on you," he said, nodding at the angry cuts spelling out the word Mudblood.

"You understand me so well," I muttered as he made to leave. I almost asked him to stay. It was very late and he seemed to know I needed to get at least an hour's sleep before we got started even if I didn't want to admit it.

He left after the briefest hug and a final plea to stay safe.

I decided not to tell the others that he'd dropped by. This visit would be my secret.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

This chapter and the next cover the final battle. It will have a little overlap with book 7 to serve as a reference for what is happening when, but mostly it will focus on unseen bits or any deviations. Anything that gets glossed over or rushed through happens the same in this story as the actual book. I didn't want to rewrite 200 pages of events that don't change. I hope that helps explain why some things aren't included or described fully here and why you might recognize some parts or dialogue.

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 9

May 1998

Hogwarts

Aberforth's story about Ariana's fate and her accidental death resonated with me while Harry, Ron and I followed Neville from the Hog's Head to Hogwarts. It was impossible not to draw parallels between his own grief at the part he'd unintentionally played in her death and my own story. The two accidents were similar in a way. I hadn't meant to hurt anyone, yet I was left feeling just as guilt ridden and responsible as he obviously still felt. Regret seemed to dictate his life, as it had Dumbledore's. Neither brother truly moved on or got over the incident. I didn't want my fate to mirror theirs, but maybe it was just one of those things you were forced to learn to live with and couldn't ever fully escape.

The longer we walked, and the more I heard, the more my thoughts were torn away from my own predicament to be replaced with outrage for the conditions at Hogwarts this year.

Students - children - were routinely tortured. They were brutalized and tormented; forced to inflict pain on others. All for a pair of depraved Death Eaters' enjoyment. It was sick. Twisted. Those children were sure to experience lasting damage from the experience.

School was supposed to be a haven. A place of safety where knowledge and learning flourished. The Death Eaters, under Voldemort's regime, had completely destroyed everything I cherished most about Hogwarts and what it represented.

Seeing Neville's injuries and hearing him refer so casually to what he and others endured made me nauseous. I thought I'd suffered, but this put things into perspective for me.

I didn't know if I should be amazed at Neville's audacity in standing up to the Death Eaters, or proud of seeing the man he'd turned out to be. He was a far cry from the boy that cowered in Professor Snape's Potions class and let Draco Malfoy bully him for years.

Neville had changed so much since the Lestranges' escape from Azkaban during our fifth year. Bumbling was replaced with determined when it came to defining him with a single word. That year he'd stayed up for hours after everyone else went to bed practicing spell after spell. Often, he'd beg me to stay up with him and help to sort out where he was going wrong. It was a routine we continued throughout our sixth year. I'd never told Harry and Ron about it, and between Quidditch and their own issues, they'd never noticed.

Now here he was using that well-earned knowledge and his own bravery to fight back and inspire others.

Walking into the Room of Requirement was another surprise altogether. I'd always longed for Hogwarts to unify and that was what I saw when I looked around the room. Every house, with the notable exception of Slytherin, was represented equally. The various banners, each decorated in house colors and with their representative animals, were draped throughout the room. Hammocks, brooms, books, and games were strewn all over the place with no clear designations to separate belongings by house.

The use of the house system had always seemed rather limiting and antiquated to me. Each house had different strengths, but wizarding society as a whole would always fail to reach its full potential if all of those different strengths weren't utilized. But it didn't happen because prejudices formed as children often carried over into adulthood - just look at how it impacted Sirius and Professor Snape's interactions!

The next few minutes were a blur. It was obvious Harry was frustrated and struggling to focus. His eyes would glaze over behind his spectacles each time he ventured back into Voldemort's mind, following the monster's creeping progress as he neared ever closer like the shadow of the Grim Reaper.

I was trying and failing to come up with a plan that had any hope of success when Ron shocked me by mentioning Gamp's Law regarding food. I was amazed that he'd listened well enough to remember, let alone remark on it at an appropriate time. Every time I was ready to write him off as hopeless, he'd surprise me by doing something endearing.

Before I could ask him about it, Fred, George, Ginny, and Lee Jordan stumbled unexpectedly into the room. I briefly wondered where the rest of the Weasleys were, but something told me the twins had left, sparing only enough time to grab their best mate, then hurried here, afraid to miss any of the action as soon as they'd heard we were here. Ginny had likely forced them to bring her along. Though I doubted they'd resisted overly much. Those three were definitely the closest of the Weasley siblings.

My eyes locked on George at once. He was excited, energy sizzling through him as he bounced anxiously on the balls of his feet while looking around the room and taking it all in. He looked strong and confident, ready to take on anything.

When his eyes found me his smile grew impossibly wider, but just as quickly froze, becoming brittle and fake when he noted Ron hovering behind me.

"So what's the plan, Harry?" George asked without preamble. Turning abruptly away to address Harry, our uncontested leader.

"There isn't one," Harry said, rubbing his forehead roughly. He was pale and visibly clammy. It must have been taking quite a toll to focus on the present instead of slipping into Voldemort's head.

"Just going to make it up as we go along, are we? My favorite kind," Fred said, grinning conspiratorially at his twin.

When Ron attempted to convince Harry that we should let the others help, I had to agree. I didn't want us to make Dumbledore's mistakes. He'd used and manipulated people to see his plans through whenever he was convinced it would help the most people. I had a habit of doing the same, and honestly, so did Harry, though far less frequently. Here was a chance to break the cycle. I trusted everyone in this room. They were willing to risk their lives fighting against Voldemort and they deserved the chance to help defeat him. Everyone here had suffered in one way or another. This was everyone's fight.

Once Harry had given in and left with Luna to check out the Ravenclaw common room and see what the lost diadem looked like, I sought out Ginny. I was fairly impressed with her easy handling of Harry and her efforts to keep Cho away from him. Cho had made it rather obvious that she regretted ruining her chances with Harry and would welcome a second chance. Poor Harry seemed quite oblivious to it, but Ginny was up to the challenge of fending off Harry's would be suitors.

I passed by Fred and George talking to Ron on my way to her and overheard the twins giving Ron a hard time for his desertion.

"- lucky they're even speaking to you again," Fred scolded, scowling at his little brother.

"I don't see why you guys are more upset than Harry was, and he's the one I ran out on!" Ron said defensively.

George caught sight of me listening and muttered, "Because, Ron, you're better than that. They're supposed to mean more to you than your pride or stomach or temper or whatever else it was that made you act like a prat."

The noise in the room prevented me from hearing Ron's retort, but as I'd recently made peace with Ron, I didn't need to reopen that wound. Besides, I'd reached Ginny. She immediately swooped in for a hug. Part of her scarlet ponytail ended up in my mouth as she smothered me.

"They didn't tell me!" she exclaimed, frustration clear once I'd been released.

"Didn't tell you what?" I asked.

"That you three were at Bill's," she explained, indignant over being slighted. "He just told me he'd heard from Harry when he stopped by and made us move."

"He probably knew you'd have snuck out to come see us if you did know," I said, hiding my amusement.

"Probably," she agreed. Then she rounded on Fred who had come over to join us. "But you and George should have at least said something!" Fred blinked, staring at her blankly before nodding gravely. I was certain he was clueless about the reason she was angry and had decided it best to humor her rather than ask. "They didn't own up to knowing until we were on our way here from Hogsmeade," Ginny finished, directly the last part to me.

Comprehension came to Fred at last and he shrugged helplessly, then slyly said, "Bill said not to say anything! Blame him."

"Ginny," I said seriously, interrupting before more could be said. I'd been waiting months to say this to her and the reminder of Bill prompted me. "I am so sorry about fighting with you at the wedding."

"It's forgotten," she said, easily waving my apology off.

"What you've done here this year… it's amazing!"

"We couldn't be more proud," Fred agreed, wiping a fake tear from his eye.

"Thanks. That means a lot," Ginny said, squeezing my hand. Her attention seemed to snag on something across the room. "Speaking of, I need to catch up with Neville on all I missed since Easter Hols," she said, distractedly hugging me again then rushing off.

"Hermione, you know I love you, right?" Fred said suddenly once we were left relatively alone in the crowded room. I felt my eyes widen as I turned to stare at him dumbly.

"W-What?" I asked, confused.

"You're my family, and I'm glad you'll be my sister-in-law one day," he said, seriously.

"I don't -"

"Just make sure you pick the right brother," he said, taking pains to emphasize his words. He stared at me meaningfully, his hazel eyes so identical to the ones I'd been dreaming about lately. There was no mistaking his meaning or the gravity of this conversation.

"Then why… " I began, thinking back to the Burrow last summer, then again at their flat over Christmas. Both times he'd stopped or interrupted George and me during moments that had the potential to turn romantic.

"Because, Little Sister, if it's really what you want, and I really do hope it is, you need to do it the right way." The term of endearment made my breath catch.

Fred was giving me his blessing and approval to be with George. I hadn't even decided yet if that was what I wanted for myself. The only thing I knew for sure was that Ron and I weren't right for one another. There was too much else going on to properly examine my feelings for George, and as ridiculous as it was, I was scared to face my feelings. It was a lot to consider. George would certainly be an unorthodox choice for me.

I also worried what others would think if they knew I had developed feeling for a different Weasley. It wasn't exactly taboo to like or date brothers, but it was looked down upon in the wizarding world same as it was for Muggles since it was just the sort of thing someone fickle, like Lavender, would do. And while others' opinions had rarely been important to me, it was important that I not do something that would hurt those I cared for as this surely would. At least Fred was apparently all right with it.

"How's that supposed to be?" I asked, wondering what he considered the right way to navigate this situation would be should I chose the more difficult path for my future.

"You and Ron have been dancing around one another for years," he reminded me unnecessarily. "You can't just suddenly get with George without clearing the air first," he advised, squeezing my shoulder.

"Does that mean George… " I breathed, hardly daring to hope. It would be so much easier to take the risk if I knew for sure that he did have feelings for me.

"I suspect so."

"Suspect?" I asked, drawing the word out. Of everyone, Fred was in the best position to know George's heart. The fact that he was uncertain was a tad disquieting and made me doubt that George might actually return the feelings I was just starting to acknowledge. Had I misread things between us? Was it only me that had developed feelings this last year?

"He won't discuss it - trust me, I've tried. It's… because of Ron. He doesn't want to be disloyal to his baby brother," he said sadly. That right there was the crux of the problem. I would be hurting Ron regardless when I let him down and admitted I no longer had feelings for him, but I might also be inciting George to hurt him too. There were bound to be hurt feelings all around as family members took sides if George and I did get together. It was not a welcome prospect.

"You must hate me," I whispered fearfully, cringing a little at the mess I found myself in.

"Didn't I just tell you that I loved you?" he asked reassuringly. "But come on! It's going to be hard on the family. There are certain expectations at this point, you know? I don't want the blame put entirely on George. He doesn't deserve it. And Ron doesn't either. You need to be the one to make the first move and be up front with everyone involved."

"I know I need to talk to Ron, even if George doesn't -"

"He'd be a fool not to," he quipped. "And I've no doubt that your charms would be irresistible if you turned them on him," he said, batting his eyes and wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.

"All right, enough," I demanded, heaving a sigh and rolling my own eyes at his childish antics. "I promise I'll set things right after this is over," I added once he'd stopped and returned to looking at me expectantly.

"Right then. I'll leave you to it," he said with a nod. "Oh, and, Hermione? Be gentle with both of them. We Weasley men might act tough, but secretly we're cream puffs," he said with mock gravity, face turning red as he withheld his laughter.

"Canary creams, maybe," I muttered, giving him an exasperated sign when he cracked up.

"A dragon?"

The sound of the familiar voice had me spinning around to find George grinning at me and shaking his head. He didn't appear to have overheard any of my conversation with Fred - he was far too composed - so I grinned back.

"I was going for memorable," I quipped.

"So it was your idea. I knew it! Fred said it was Harry, seeing as he missed his Hungarian Horntail so much." I turned to look back at Fred, but he'd disappeared, leaving me to his twin.

Subtle.

"I hope you staked a few Galleons on me. My love of flying should have been enough to tip you off," I teased. It felt easy and natural with him, which was unusual given that I was typically more prone to correcting exaggerations and untruths than participating and spouting them. But this light-hearted banter was fun and engaging, and I loved how it made his blue flecked, brown eyes twinkle mischievously each time I added more.

"It's thanks to you I'll be able to open another WWW shop," he boasted playfully.

"Remind me to warn Professor McGonagall," I said, giving a mock shutter that made his grin spread even wider.

"You really robbed Gringotts."

"We really did," I confirmed. Had that really only been this morning? That didn't seem possible.

"Any chance you'd be willing to grab a Butterbeer and share all the details when this is over?" he asked casually, too casually. He was giving me an opening for… something, but I remembered Fred's request, and decided to keep up the banter - at least until I had a chance to sit down with Ron and discuss where we stood.

"If we live -" I broke off abruptly. This was precisely why I didn't usually joke around. I was often too literal, and doing so now would win a prize for most inconsiderate timing. I just couldn't find jokes about dying funny. There was no humor in my friends' deaths.

"We will," George affirmed, sensing my change in mood and adjusting quickly, playfulness evaporating like so much smoke.

"When he gets here… "

"Yeah. It'll be one for the history books," George confirmed, acknowledging the significance of what we were undertaking.

"This is really the end."

"It's been long coming. Wouldn't mind getting a piece of Bellatrix. Pay back," he said, gesturing to my arm and the scars currently covered by my thin burgundy sweater. "Or should I leave her to you?"

"That's rather bloodthirsty," I remarked, slightly taken aback.

"Did you get a good look at the kids around here? Kids. Tortured. At Hogwarts."

"It never should have come to this," I agreed.

"We, well, probably mostly you, will make sure it never does again - afterwards."

That was the second time in as many days that he'd referenced me doing something to actively alter the wizarding world for the better. It was nice to know someone had such faith and certainty in my abilities. I'd longed to do some good in the world for years now, but most of the time when I'd tried, people had laughed or brushed off my efforts. George's confidence was a welcome boost.

On top of that, he displayed such belief that there would be a later. That our side would win, and the war would end in our favor. So certain that we had a future to look forward to. If I put any stock in Divination I'd swear he'd already foreseen the outcome of tonight. Despite my skepticism, I was able to relax a bit in the face of his conviction.

I watched as more and more people arrived. The two of us stood in companionable silence as what turned out to be a group of former Gryffindors, all members of the DA including Angelina Johnson, entered the room. Ginny was immediately there to greet and updated them on the current happenings. Her ability to lead others reminded me of Harry. People naturally rallied around her, and she gained their trust through her own actions, not intimidation and manipulation.

"I can't believe you and Fred brought her with you," I said, wondering how they'd managed to sneak her out while staying at the Burrow with their parents.

"Why not?"

"What's your mum going to say about it?"

"Come off it! You've met Ginny. She's a force of nature, there was no stopping her," he insisted, raising his hands before him as if he'd been nothing more than a helpless bystander.

The portrait opened up again as he spoke, only this time Bill, Fleur, Mr. Weasley, and an obviously worried Mrs. Weasley spilled through. It seemed perfect timing. George's mum, shoulders tense and face alarmingly reddened, was already frantically looking about the room for her missing children.

"Better get ready to defend her then," I said as I watched Mrs. Weasley catch sight of Fred. Locating him only seemed to irritate her fraying nerves as she continued her searching.

George turned surprised eyes to where I was staring and his mouth fell open. The portrait opened again to allow Remus and Kingsley entrance. Apparently the residents of Hogwarts were to be joined by both the DA and the Order of the Phoenix. It made sense if this was to be the end.

"I best be running along then!" George said when Mrs. Weasley looked in our direction. He slipped away through the crowd like water through poorly cupped hands before I could say another word.

Ron appeared to take his place, slipping seamlessly into the gap left by George's departing body as if he'd been waiting for the vacancy all along. It was slightly unsettling and served as a reminder of the unpleasant tasks I had before me.

"Think he'll find it?" There was no need to clarify what he meant. Harry's search for the diadem had been in the back of my mind since he'd left with Luna.

"I hope. But even if he does, how are we supposed to destroy it? It's the same problem as the cup!" I said hopelessly. If only there had been a way to convince Griphook that we needed the sword for just a little longer; some way that wouldn't have involved deceiving him unfairly as Ron had suggested we do.

"Yeah. Yeah, too bad we don't have… Hermione, that's it! Come on," Ron said, grabbing my hand and pulling me towards the entrance leading out into the castle.

"What? What's it? What are you on about?"

"Where are you two going?" Ginny asked suspiciously as Ron led us passed her.

"We - ah - bathroom," he muttered, ignoring her when she tried to ask more. He leaned close to my ear and whispered, "The basilisk is still in the Chamber of Secrets. We just need to go down there, steal a fang, and stab it!"

"Brilliant!" I exclaimed, staring at Ron in amazement. It might have been a bit unfair, but I was shocked that he'd been the one to come up with a solution to our problem. He rarely contributed to any of our plans in the past, having always been more content just to be part of the action and boast about our success afterwards.

"But how are we supposed to get down there?"

"I've heard Harry speak Parseltongue loads of times. I'm sure I know the word for open. Then we can just slide down and grab some fangs," he said, surprising me further.

"Ron," I breathed, utterly amazed. "That's absolutely brilliant! You're brilliant!" I said, hugging him excitedly. We had a way to destroy one, though hopefully two, parts of Voldemort's soul. We might really win!

"Isn't it normally me saying that to you?" he asked quietly against my ear.

I started to pull away, but he caught my waist and urged me back towards him. Off balance, I stumbled, bringing my hands up to his chest. Instantly, I pushed against him, freeing myself.

Ron's face was red and he opened his mouth to speak, but I beat him to it.

"You said it's down. And didn't Fawkes help get you out last time? How are we supposed to get back up without him?" I said, looking around and pretending that hadn't just happened. It was crowded in here. Maybe he'd think I thought I'd been pushed and was just righting myself. I started back for the door again, this time leading the way.

Luckily, he didn't remark on it, but he did tap my arm to stop me. "We'll fly, of course!" he said, and darted over to where some of the students living in here had propped brooms against the wall.

"Of course," I groaned. After the dragon, I'd hoped to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground for a good long while. Once Ron had the "borrowed" broom in hand, I headed out, Ron following close behind.

The castle was silent as a tomb when we exited the Room of Requirement. Neville had mentioned earlier that it let out in different places now. We got lucky and ended up only one floor away from Moaning Myrtle's bathroom and the Chamber's entrance. On the way we had to duck behind a tapestry when Professor McGonagall walked by looking hassled. I longed to dart out and speak to her, but Ron's firm grip on my arm and insistent shake of the head prevented me. He was right. It was too dangerous.

I braced myself before entering the bathroom, not looking forward to dealing with Myrtle's dower mood, but it turned out to be empty.

"Well, that's a stroke of luck," Ron said, sighing in relief when he too realized she was absent. "Wasn't looking forward to the spotty girl hitting on me again."

"She's dead, Ron. Show a little tact," I hissed.

"Come off it. You know you're just as happy she isn't here," he said defensively.

"Where's the entrance?" I asked instead of arguing further.

"This one," he said pointing to the one with tiny snakes etched on the copper taps. Of course. That one had never worked. "Well, here goes… Nalasalee," he hissed. It was a strange sound and gooseflesh broke out when I heard the awful noises coming from him as he formed the foreign word. It reminded me of how Harry had sounded back at the twins' flat in December when he'd been injured so badly.

But nothing happened. The sink remained firmly in place. The entrance remained hidden, just out of reach behind a sink of all things.

"Try again," I urged.

"Nalastayee," he hissed again. This time I shivered and ended up crossing my arms protectively.

Still nothing happened.

"I'm no good at this, Hermione. Maybe we'll need to wait for Harry after all," Ron said with a defeated sign.

"We're already here and this is a good plan. Let's try a few more times - I'm sure you'll get it," I encouraged. He looked hopeful, and after a beat, he nodded.

"Yeah, all right. Let me think… Nalastalye," he hissed again, eyes closed while drawing each part of the word out. Almost at once the faucet and basin began moving, sinking out of sight to give way to a dark, cavernous opening.

"It worked," I breathed, amazed he'd actually managed to do it. He looked a little disgruntled by my awe, but at least this time he refrained from commenting, unlike usual.

"Ladies first?"

"Such a gentleman," I said sarcastically, but forced my legs into the opening anyways. There was nothing left alive down here that could hurt me. I repeated that again and again once I'd pushed off and begun sliding the entire way down the twisting pipe.

It was like the slides I'd rode at the Muggle water parks my parents had taken me to when I was younger, only much, much longer. And instead of ending with a splash into a waiting pool, I tumbled out on the ground and went rolling through things I was extremely grateful I couldn't see in the total darkness. Particularly when I felt something give way with a sickening crunch beneath me, and when my hand touched something lumpy and slimy in the process of standing up.

"Lumos," I said immediately then reluctantly turned to survey my surroundings and search for the way into the Chamber. Disturbing animal bones were scattered everywhere. An unknown graveyard beneath the school.

The sight of the pile of rubble gave me pause. Ron and Harry were lucky they hadn't been buried alive when Lockhart's spell backfired.

I'd already started picking my way up the pile to the gap at the top when Ron landed with a hard thump. "You two were lucky to survive - Ginny too," I muttered.

"Hard to imagine we were only twelve when this happened," he said.

"Seems like a lifetime ago."

The tunnel was long. Much more so than I expected. And the dampness seemed to seep into me, permeating all the way down to my bones. Each time I heard a bone crunch or felt a drop of water land unexpectedly on my head or shoulder I jumped. This place was terrifying and awful, and we weren't even to the actual Chamber of Secrets yet.

We were so far below the castle and the darkness was so thick and oppressive that I was beginning to feel claustrophobic. Breathing was getting harder and I had to force myself to keep them slow and even lest I hyperventilate. Part of me was secretly relieved that I'd been stuck safe in the hospital wing when Harry had come down this way to rescue Ginny.

The smell hit me before I saw the carcass of the deceased basilisk. It had to be close to thirty feet long, though it was hard to judge for certain in the dim light. I'd been spot on before with my thoughts of this being a graveyard. The sealed Chamber had become a coffin for Slytherin's monster. But the dampness and isolation had allowed for some of the castle's less pleasant residents to turn it into a buffet. The remains were half rotted away and in the faint light I saw bugs and rats scuttling over it. I had to swallow back bile. Ron looked green when I glanced at him, though that could have just been the way the dim light was reflecting off the damp, stone surfaces down here.

Stone pillars and carved snakes were all throughout the cavernous space. I felt a shutter rack me when I caught sight of the enormous stone statue of Salazar Slytherin at one end of the room. His judgemental expression, the original source of prejudice at Hogwarts and Voldemort's ancestor, chilled me to the marrow.

Ron, however, was staring, transfixed at the snake. A look of fury and hatred crossed his features, and I reached a hand out to him instinctively. This was the beast that had almost eaten his sister. I'd forgotten that only Harry had faced it the first time around so he was only now getting to see it for himself.

I'd seen a glimpse of it in a mirror during second year and had ended up petrified for it, but I still remembered every detail that I'd seen of poison green scales and bulging yellow eyes. The snake's remains were so far removed now from the beast I'd seen then that it was difficult to imagine that they were one in the same.

Not wanting to stay down here for longer than necessary, I approached the snake's head. It was hard to tell where Fawkes had clawed its eyes out considering how little preserved flesh remained. Ron had followed me over.

"Don't touch it!" I cried when Ron reached to pull a knife sharp fang from the roof of the basilisk's mouth. Ron jerked his hand back at once, and shot me a confused look. "The venom," I explained. I didn't know how dangerous touching the tooth itself was, but it was better not to take chances.

"Oh. Right!" Ron said when comprehension dawned.

Carefully, we used magic to break a few free, then I wrapped the ends in scraps of cloth Ron conjured and ripped into pieces.

"You should do it," Ron said suddenly, handing me a fang once we'd finished securing six of them - two for each of us, just in case.

"Do what?"

"Destroy the cup. You've got it in your purse, yeah? You should be the one to destroy it," he insisted.

"But Harry… "

"He and I have each done one. Seems only right that this time it should be your turn," he explained.

"All right," I agreed, strangely eager to do it.

"It'll fight back," he warned.

"Fight?" The boys hadn't mentioned anything about the locket fighting them the night Ron returned.

"Show you stuff. Bad stuff. Worst nightmare stuff. Things that make you doubt and hesitate," he said with a shrug, looking extremely uncomfortable.

I'd paused in the process of pulling the purse from my sock. Ron looked like he wanted to say more, so I waited, letting him gather his courage.

"It showed me you," he finally said. My mouth fell open in surprise. That was the last thing I'd been expecting him to say.

"I don't understand," I said slowly, trying not to be offended. He still looked like he was wrestling with something monumental. He'd said it showed him bad things then he'd said it was me. It didn't make sense, but I wasn't exactly in a rush to have him explain what he meant by that either. Since when had I become his worst nightmare?

"It was you. Saying you'd never want me. That you wanted Ha - someone else. And that you… well, that you didn't love me," he whispered, looking anywhere but at me.

Oh. That was his worst nightmare. Me not wanting him.

I continued staring mutely at him, mouth still wide open, and felt my stomach turn dangerously. Wasn't that exactly where I was at though? I'd finally admitted, at least to myself, that I no longer wanted to end up with Ron, and here he was finally admitting aloud that he wanted to be together.

"Ron… "

"Best get on with it. Harry's probably starting to worry. I just wanted you to be prepared," he interrupted, not waiting to hear if I'd confirm or deny his fears.

I took the excuse to end the conversation. This was neither the time nor the place. It never seemed to be the time, or maybe I'd just gotten really good at using that as an excuse. Instead, I set about pulling the cup from my purse and laid it down on the wet stone floor.

A figure emerged the moment I picked the yellowed basilisk fang back up. Startled, I dropped the purse I was still holding in my other hand.

It was him. The man I'd killed. He looked as he had in the nightmare I'd had of Bellatrix torturing me, except he had his Death Eater mask clenched in one club-like fist. His throat was slit and blood was oozing down his front. The thick liquid crawled like syrup, sticking to everything it touched. The skin of his face drooped, hanging loosely thanks to the large chunks missing altogether. One of his eyes was bulging, almost like a house-elf's would, except it was glazed over, unseeing. His dark hair was matted, windblown from his fall from the broom.

"You've already failed. This war was lost before it began. You weren't smart enough or clever enough to save your friend - to save anyone… " the twisted reminder of my crimes taunted cruelly. His voice was like nails on a chalkboard. "In the end, they'll all die and you won't be able to save anyone."

"Don't listen to him," Ron urged, moving closer behind me in welcome support. "You're not capable of failing," he added dryly.

My fingers slackened, loosening their clenched death grip on the poisoned fang. It nearly slipped from my sweaty hand altogether. I stared, slack-jawed and horrified at the figure before me as he laid bare the darkest parts of me.

"You're not good enough. You're not who you let them think you are. Such secrets you have. You're much more suited to be one of us - despite your tainted blood."

No. I would never be a Death Eater. To even suggest such a thing, that I could be capable of such cruelty…

"You're one of the bravest and most honorable people I know, Hermione! Don't listen to it," Ron insisted. "Just stab the thing already and we can get out of here!"

"He's wrong. He doesn't know the truth you're keeping from him. You've already messed everything up. You'll only end up hurting everyone around you," the dead Death Eater insisted. The cacophony of his voice mixed with the words he uttered made me long to cover my ears and block it all out.

He was going to tell Ron. He was going to tell him what I'd done - how I'd killed this Death Eater last summer. Ron would never look at me the same. Especially not after I'd kept it a secret for so long. He'd feel betrayed and he'd tell Harry. A vice grip constricted around my chest, preventing me from inhaling fully. Oxygen deprivation was slowly setting in, leaving me lightheaded. I felt unbelievably exposed. I was panicking, but my feet wouldn't move. I could do nothing except shake my head in denial of the apparition's accusations.

"He's lying. You haven't done anything wrong," Ron insisted. Not to Ron at least. Not yet I hadn't, but I would soon.

"Oh, but you have. So many wrong decisions, so many wrong choices," he said knowingly, smug and almost laughing with his secret knowledge. Did he mean my actions that fateful day or my choice of George over Ron? Or was it both? "So many secrets... Would he stand by you and defend you so fiercely if he knew the truth? Should I tell him what you haven't? Yes, yes that would definitely make this more interesting... "

He was so close to saying things outright. His dance had been leading up to this next reveal. The mocking was over, and I couldn't let him say what he intended to. I squeezed the fang so tightly my fingers ached. The pain snapped me from my frozen stupor.

"Always wrong. Look what you did to -" he started to say, but I darted forward and stabbed the basin of the golden cup before he could spill my secret shame to Ron.

The cup… screamed. There was no other way to describe it. I watched, open mouthed as black tar leaked from it and smoke rose in twirling, twisting loops. Then it seemed to melt into a lumpy blob of misshapen gold.

"Who was that?" Ron asked suddenly. I jumped having almost forgotten he was there while I watched the cup… die?

"You saw the mask. He was a Death Eater," I said, busying myself with stuffing the remains of the cup back into my purse and gathering up several of the discarded basilisk fangs.

"I didn't recognize him. Did you?" Ron persisted. "And what did he mean about secrets?"

"I'm so glad that worked. Now we have a way to destroy the diadem ,and Nagini too. Come on, Ron. Don't just stand there! I don't like it down here. Let's go," I rambled quickly, ignoring his questions and heading back out the way we'd come in. Ron had left the broom at the bottom of the enlarged pipe. When he hesitated, likely still waiting for answers, I added, "We need to find Harry."

That was all the prompting he needed to trudge along behind me, and for once I didn't mind flying as we left the ghastly Chamber of Secrets behind.

The castle hallways were significantly different this time when we made the trek between the bathroom and the Room of Requirement. People were hurrying around, barking orders, setting traps, doing whatever they must to prepare for battle. We passed Fleur, who was directing students to different windows where they could fire at enemies on the grounds. Then we saw Susan Bones, Michael Corner and Professor Flitwick, who were busy charming objects throughout the corridors to attack intruders.

I barely noticed any of it, not even when we finally met up with Harry. My mind was too busy thinking on everything the Horcrux had said. It had used my fears against me. But some of my fears were the result of actual events. That made them significantly harder to ignore.

I don't even think I said a word when Harry convinced Mrs. Longbottom, Tonks, and Ginny to leave the Room of Requirement so we could use it to find the hidden Horcrux.

"Hang on a moment! We've forgotten someone!" Ron exclaimed so loudly I was yanked back into the conversation.

"Who?" I asked, baffled.

"The house-elves, they'll all be down in the kitchen, won't they?" Ron asked, obviously concerned.

"You mean we ought to get them fighting?" Harry asked, confused.

"No, I mean we should tell them to get out. We don't want any more Dobbies, do we? We can't order them to die for us -"

Overcome with admiration, I went to throw my arms around Ron in an affectionate hug, but his hand came up to grasp the back of my head and suddenly he was kissing me, devouring my mouth.

My eyes flew wide and my hands fluttered helplessly, uselessly, at my sides, like a butterfly trapped in a glass jar. I caught sight of Harry over Ron's shoulder. He'd had to bend down quite a bit for our faces to line up considering he was right at a foot taller than my five foot four frame. Harry seemed to read the panic in my wide eyes. I silently begged him to do something - anything - to end this awkward moment, but he was just standing there, mouth agape, dumbstruck and uncertain.

I tried to push Ron's shoulder with my free hand, but he didn't notice, too intent on shoving his slimy tongue into my mouth. I knew the only practice he'd had was with Lavender, but surely he realized I wasn't participating.

Harry finally seemed to wake from his stupor when he saw me trying to push Ron away.

"OI! There's a war going on and we've a Horcrux to find!" Harry called. The cry loud enough to tear Ron away from me. I stood, stunned, unsure what to do now that I was free.

I'd waited years for Ron to kiss me, and now that I no longer wanted him to, he did. The worst part, it made me feel like the hopeful fifteen-year-old girl I'd been during the Yule ball when I'd desperately longed for Ron's attention to be on me in a romantic way - not the cantankerous way it had been that night several years ago. I wanted to move forward with my life though, towards something I thought would make me infinitely happier, not backwards to a time when I was miserable more often than not. But I guess that was the problem with habits - they were difficult to break.

"Now or never, right?" Ron said, grinning and puffing his chest out with obnoxious pride.

"Just - just hold it in a bit longer, yeah?" Harry said weakly, then paused, looking confused when he caught my eye. Maybe he still expected me to be thrilled by what Ron had done? There were a dozen silent questions in his look, but I just shook my head in response. Later. I'd explain later.

Ron looked dazed, stoned or high on some hallucinogenic drug as we entered the Room of Hidden Things.

I didn't bother to berate him for taking liberties. After the battle I'd set things straight between us. We could clear things up between us and where we stood. After all, I had told him now wasn't the right time when we were staying at Grimmauld Place. It wasn't his fault that I hadn't cleared that up and told him things were different now and I was no longer interested in a relationship with him, and after his confession in the Chamber of Secrets, I didn't want to get into it right now.

It seemed like it was never the right time to have a personal life this last year. Never time to salvage the tattered remains of my relationships. Or maybe I was still using that as an excuse to avoid doing something unpleasant. What a coward I was turning out to be! Maybe I really had been better suited to Ravenclaw like the sorting hat had originally thought.

Refocusing on the task at hand, I began looking around. Once we'd entered the Room of Hidden Things, we'd split up, each taking a different aisle. I wasn't sure this was the best idea given the fact I had no idea what the diadem looked like, but Harry insisted, so I'd agreed. He'd been right all along about a Horcrux being here, hadn't he?

There were so many broken, useless, and stashed items in this room. It hardly seemed possible that so many students would have reason to add to the assorted collection contained within this room.

I was in the process of searching, carefully picking through odds and ends, when a pile of… junk… tottered and tipped to spill down upon me. With a startled scream, I lunged out of way just in time to avoid being buried beneath the cascade of falling objects, heavy ones at that.

"Harry? Ron?" I called, wondering which of the boys had unintentionally tried to brain me.

Neither answered.

Listening, I heard voices nearby. Several. Sneaking down the aisle, I peeked around the corner only to find Harry facing off against Crabbe, Goyle, and Malfoy.

"- dead anyway, what's the diff -?"

Crabbe was speaking, but I barely registered the words as I sent a silent Stunner at him. The jet of red light missed, but only because Malfoy managed to pull him out of the way just in time.

All four boys, Harry, Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle were focused on me then. I was about to tell Harry to run when Crabbe screamed, "It's that Mudblood! Avada Kedavra!"

I dove aside, crashing into a broken chair and lay dazed. He'd just tried to kill me. If I'd not moved out of the way in time, I'd be dead. Crabbe had been my classmate for seven years. Seven years and he'd still tried to kill me. How was it possible for someone so young to be so filled with hate?

Shaking off the shock, I leapt back up to help Harry. Without me, it was three against one. Harry was a good duelist, but not that good when they were aiming to kill.

Targeting Malfoy, I shot another silent Stunner, but unfortunately missed when he caught sight of me and had time to move out of the way.

Ron suddenly appeared at the other end of the aisle and we were both firing at the Slytherin boys while Harry was occupied with trying to climb up a pile of rubbish. He must have spotted the diadem. Ron and I were both too busy firing spells and dodging the ones aimed at us to help Harry retrieve it.

Finally, I managed to Stun Goyle.

The victory was short lived, however, when massive flames began to consume the contents of the room.

It was Fiendfyre. I recognized it instantly despite never having seen it in person. It had been described in detail in several of the school's library books.

The deadly flames were certain to destroy all of us if we didn't get out of here immediately. It was already evident that whoever had cast the spell had lost control over the blaze - a common occurrence and one of the reasons it was considered Dark Arts to begin with.

Fiendfyre nearly had a mind of its own and was intent on causing destruction and death. It was impossible to satiate. Even as I watched, a dragon opened its great maw of a mouth and blasted the broken remains of a stack of antique trunks. Water would have no effect other than to irritate and enrage it further.

Harry seemed to be paying no attention, instead he turned to face me and yelled, "It's somewhere here! Look for it while I go and help R -"

"HARRY!" I screamed over him as Ron and Crabbe raced towards us, and away from the flame chimeras chasing them.

Seizing up this new threat, Harry abandoned his search and began running towards me, Crabbe and Ron following in his wake. But Crabbe was severely overweight and the exertion seemed too much for him. I watched, horrified, as he tripped over a deflated Quaffle that had fallen into the aisle. He didn't even have a chance to sit up before a flaming serpent seemed to almost lick Crabbe's extended foot with its teasing, flicking tongue. Instantly, Crabbe's body began to blacken and crumble to ash. His face was the last to disintegrate, a grimace of horror the last expression he'd ever don. The whole process took a measly four or five seconds. I'd never have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself.

Harry and Ron were oblivious to what had just occurred as they reached my side, each of us looking around frantically for an opening to dart through. No escape was visible while flames devoured everything in their path as they moved to encircle us in an ever tightening ring resembling a noose.

"What can we do? What can we do?" I screamed, spinning in a useless circle as I failed to come up with a solution. I didn't know how to control the flames. I didn't think they even could be now that their castor was dead.

"Here!" Harry said, tossing an ancient broomstick to Ron. Ron pulled me on behind him at once.

"Oh, I hate this!" I cried, burying my face against his neck to block out the smoke and the sight of the deadly flames burning dangerously beneath us. The heat from the fire was practically cooking the soles of my feet.

"Just hang on. I'll get us out of here," Ron promised. In response, I gripped his waist with all the strength I could muster, my arms like bands of steel. He directed us towards the door, swooping to avoid a diving eagle following close on our tail. "If Harry doesn't get us killed, that is!" Ron complained coming to a stop.

I looked up, trying to see why we were no longer heading towards the door, and smoke immediately stung my eyes until they watered and filled my lungs forcing me to cough uncontrollably.

"- too - dangerous - !" I heard Ron shout between racking coughs.

That's when I caught sight of Harry and realized he intended to save Malfoy and Goyle. But Goyle was still Stunned thanks to the spell I'd cast. "Ron, we have to help. We can't leave them to die!"

With a heavy sigh, Ron reluctantly turned the broom and headed back to Harry. Steering us in a crazy, erratic flight as he avoided darting chimera heads, flapping dragon wings, and dancing serpent tongues.

"IF WE DIE FOR THEM, I'LL KILL YOU, HARRY!" Ron shouted before reaching to pull Goyle onto our broom and between us. I held him firmly as we turned back towards the door.

Seeing Harry starting to turn back a second time, I caught sight of what had distracted him through the haze of heat waves and wafts of singeing smoke, a glittering tiara. It was the diadem - the Horcrux we'd come in here for.

"Leave it, Harry! The flames will destroy it!" I screamed, urging him to follow us instead of taking an unnecessary risk. I could see Malfoy behind him saying something and flailing his free arm wildly about. I couldn't make out the words, but I could guess he was urging him to take my advice.

"You're sure?" he asked, already moving to follow Ron's broom again, trusting me.

"YES!" I cried, and he nodded, flying fast behind us.

We all tumbled to the floor when the brooms crashed into the opposite wall of the hallway, the Room of Requirement's door slamming shut, sealing up, and vanishing with shocking finality.

Malfoy sat, stunned, tears falling steadily down his face as he mourned his lost friend. I'd always assumed he viewed Crabbe and Goyle more as servants or followers than true friends, but seeing his grief now, so honest and vulnerable had me hastily rethinking my opinion. I pitied him then. It was unusual, definitely not an emotion I ever expected to feel for the spoiled brat, but I did regardless. When Ron harshly commented on Crabbe, saying, "He's dead," I thought it unnecessarily cruel.

Harry was staring at the door with a frown and I realized he was still worrying about the Horcrux.

"It really is destroyed, Harry. I promise. That was Fiendfyre - one of the only things that could destroy one. But as you saw, it's dangerous. That's why I never suggested it before, and why I'd never dream of using it myself." Harry stared at me a moment before nodding, then a smile slowly broke out on his face. I was sure he was thinking the same thing as I was. With the cup and the diadem destroyed, only the snake remained. We'd nearly succeeded!

Harry didn't have a chance to respond. Fred and Percy had just rounded the corner to the corridor we were in, and each was dueling a Death Eater. All three of us raced to join, laughing as Fred and Percy joked while fighting.

"Hello, Minister! Did I mention I'm resigning?" Percy called, ducking and casting as he danced around the Minister of Magic, Pius Thicknesse, who was obviously under the Imperius Curse. I nearly cheered when Percy got the upper hand and Thicknesse stumbled. We were nearly to them then.

On some unspoken cue, Harry, Ron and I all sent Stunners at the Death Eater attacking Fred. The masked man fell like a freshly cut tree in the forest.

"You're joking Perce! You actually are joking, Perce…. I don't think I've heard you joke since you were -" Fred's comment was cut off as the world was blasted apart like a shattered mirror.

I was flying, without aid of a broom. Gravity disappeared. I didn't know up from down. Everything blurred. Then there was only pain. Then nothing.

The nothingness was brief. Too brief. Starbursts of light replaced it and threatened to split my head in two. Or maybe someone was hitting it repeatedly with a hammer? I couldn't tell.

With effort, I blinked. My legs and left arm were buried beneath heavy stone debris - part of the castle wall my brain supplied helpfully. My ears were ringing as I sat up. It hurt, but not as much as I'd expected. I saw Harry standing, blood flowing freely down the side of his face, and I struggled to follow suit.

Harry came towards me, then stopped abruptly. I followed his line of sight to see Percy and Ron kneeling over Fred. I still couldn't hear anything beyond a low steady buzz. Harry pulled me up and dragged me stumbling after him as we picked our way through the wreckage and over to the huddle of red-haired Weasley brothers.

That was when the heartbreaking and undeniable truth hit me. Fred was dead.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

This chapter takes us to the end of book 7, minus the epilogue. The rest of this story after this point is all AU and covers the events of next couple years.

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 10

May 1998

Hogwarts

Fred was dead. Dead.

It was impossible. No one was as full of life as Fred. I'd just been talking to him an hour ago. He'd called me Little Sister and welcomed me into his family. He'd wanted me to eventually marry his twin. His other half.

It didn't make sense. Fred couldn't be dead. This had to be a trick. A poorly timed, and wholly inappropriate joke. Just another of his pranks. Fred couldn't be dead. He just couldn't!

But he was. His blank eyes held not a single glimmer of life. And Percy's grief was very, very real. He'd stopped trying to shake Fred awake, and instead, had draped himself across his younger brother, acting as a protective shield, as if hiding the truth from everyone.

Fred looked so like his twin. Terror filled me at the very notion that this would be what George would look like if he was dead. It was possible that even at this very moment he was somewhere in the castle lying dead. So many others were dying here tonight. No one was safe. George could easily be among those already lost. Every cell in my body rebelled against the idea; but seeing Fred, the very image of George, was playing tricks on my brain.

Dead. The word barely had any meaning just now. None of this was real. It couldn't be. Why wasn't he laughing and suddenly sitting up saying something inane like "Gotcha!" - why?

Even as part of me mourned Fred's loss, fear for George was gradually becoming all consuming every moment I continued to look at the body wearing his face.

I stared, stunned, and unable to process what was happening. Part of me realized the battle was still being fought, but all I could see was Fred. All I could think of was George.

Abruptly, Ron and Harry pulled me to the floor, forcing me out of the path of oncoming spells. I hadn't even noticed the fight had continued. Or had I? I couldn't remember. I was in shock. My ever helpful brain supplied the knowledge rather unhelpfully.

Adrenaline smashed into me like a sledgehammer, and suddenly I was back in the thick of battle, reacting on instinct when an enormous, hairy spider wedged its way into our corridor through hole formed during the explosion that killed Fred. I screamed, the sound of it piercing through the lingering buzzing in my ears. While Harry was busy attacking the intruder, I turned back to Percy, who had returned to begging Fred to wake up.

"Please! I need you. Don't be dead," Percy cried. Those were the first words that pierced the din in my cotton stuffed ears. I wished I'd never heard such a heartbroken plea the moment I did. Part of me was tempted to join him, despite knowing it would be useless. "I love you, Freddie!"

Color had returned along with my hearing. Fred was still the color of ashes, but Percy was mottled red. It was like when I watched the Muggle movie The Wizard of Oz with my parents for the first time. I'd never forget the juxtaposition of everything suddenly being in vibrant technicolor after watching the dull, washed-out scenes in black and white.

Crouching beside him, I said, "Percy, come on. P-please. We can't stay here. H-he can't hear you." Tears came unbidden as I watched Percy falling apart. Ever stoic and stodgy Percy - reduced to the equivalent of a teenage girl experiencing her first emotional wreck-inducing incident. I forced myself to acknowledge the horrible truth, and choked the words out passed the painful lump in my throat. "He's d-d-dead."

Then Harry was back, shouting, "Let's move, NOW!" while pulling me up and pushing me ahead of him - away from the tragic place of death and despair.

Ron grabbed my hand, holding on as if that single point of contact was the only thing anchoring him to reality. He watched, transfixed, as Harry and Percy moved Fred. Pain etched deep grooves of agony across his forehead and my heart clenched at the sight. Then he was pulling me, leading me away from the worst of the fighting.

I followed in a daze, unresisting.

Who would tell George? Or would he somehow already know? Fred and George were so close that it wouldn't surprise me if he'd somehow felt it. How would he handle it? Half of him was now gone. Would he ever recover from the loss? Was he even still alive to learn about what happened?

I wanted to search him out. To see for myself that he was unharmed, but the possibility that I would find him as identical to Fred was now as they'd always been previously had me too scared to attempt it.

A bitter part of me also insisted that there was something more important that I had to do first. As much as I longed to ignore the nagging voice, I knew it to be the truth.

The snake. Harry, Ron and I had to continue on. If the three of us died seeking revenge, then this would never end. No one else knew what must be done in order to succeed. Dumbledore had kept his secrets too well. We still had to kill the snake - it had to be us.

I moved through the castle in a fog, trusting Ron to help me avoid the multitude of curses flying passed. We went down several corridors, turning left then right then left again. My mind was so preoccupied and disoriented that I couldn't get my bearings even though I'd walked these hallways a thousand times while I was a student here.

We'd just descended a staircase when Ron shattered, rage rapidly replacing the pain of loss. When Percy took off letting anger fuel him and drive him back into the heart of the raging battle, Ron tried to follow.

I wrestled Ron into an alcove behind a tapestry. It took more strength than I knew I had to succeed. Though it was a temporary victory. He kept breaking free of my hold. I latched onto his waist, pinning one arm against his side. But my feet were sliding across the stone floor as he dragged me forward, valiantly attempting to make a break for the opening that would take him back to the fighting just beyond our hiding spot.

Ron was muttering, but the words were garbled by the intensity of his fury. I was huffing, exhausted and breathless from struggling to restrain him.

"Harry, in here!" I screamed, desperate for help to keep Ron with us. This wasn't over, and Harry and I needed him if we were going to put a stop to this war and finish Voldemort once and for all.

"Listen to me - LISTEN, RON!" I begged when Harry joined us, looking from Ron to me in confusion, but my pleas were falling on deaf ears.

"I wanna help - I wanna kill Death Eaters -" Ron grunted, sounding almost deranged.

"Ron! Ron, please. No! The snake. We're the only ones. If we don't kill the snake this won't end," I cried, shaking him. He looked at me and I could see something broken in his eyes. Nothing of the boy I'd grown up with remained in this moment. It terrified me. I couldn't lose my best mate. Not now. Not when we were so close!

"Hermione," Ron whispered, eyes closing as tears began falling hard and fast. He shook his head, in denial of Fred's death or about what we needed to do, I couldn't tell. "They killed my brother. How am I supposed to think about anything else?" he demanded, breath hitching. He looked so serious, as if I really would have an answer that would satisfy him. When I said nothing, he cried harder.

Seeing the evidence of his grief brought forth a fresh resurgence of my own and I was suddenly crying too. I squeezed Ron tighter, as much to keep him from running off as to offer some small measure of comfort.

"Hermione," Ron breathed again, my name coming out like some sort of benediction. He sagged against me. I caught his unexpected weight as best I could, and held his limp and shaking form in my arms.

"I'm sorry," Harry whispered. He was always so quick to take responsibility for every awful thing that happened to those around him. I could hear him doing that now as he uttered those two quiet words, eyes downcast as though ashamed to look his mate in the eye.

"You'll get your chance to fight, Ron. I swear," I said, even as I continued to offer what support I could. I wished there was time to let him grieve, but there just wasn't. It would have to wait. "We'll have to, to reach the snake! But let's not lose sight now of what we're supposed to be d-doing! We're the only ones who can end it!"

Turning to Harry, I was shocked to see he looked ready to run out and start fighting as well; all previous shame and sadness replaced with rage at the mere mention of fighting. We were so close to the end. Why did it always have to fall to me to keep us on task? We had to stay focused. It was the only thing we could do to make all of the deaths and sacrifices matter. I scrubbed my face clean on my sleeve, salty tears were coating my lips and my nose had started to run nastily.

After convincing Harry to search and locate Voldemort, we headed through the castle and towards the Shrieking Shack, determined to find the snake and put an end to this.

As I predicted, we had to fight a number of times on the way there. The fighting was endless, chaotic, brutal, violet, messy, and disorienting as we moved through the castle and grounds. We were forced to faced Death Eaters, more spiders, giants, and dementors along the way. It took forever and no time at all to reach the Whomping Willow swaying against the backdrop of a starry night just as like always.

I was still bent double, gasping for breath when I teased Ron about being a wizard so we could freeze the violent tree and use the secret passage to the Shrieking Shack. Never before had I run so fast. Looking back across the night swept grounds, I saw dozens of people dueling, and I watched as one of the giants brought his fist smashing into a third floor window. The blow caused not only the window, but the surrounding wall to crash inward, probably burying anyone within that had been nearby. I wondered if it had been a giant that caused Fred's death or if it had been something else altogether. At the time, it had been too sudden to tell.

Watching the fight progress was surreal. We just didn't have the numbers that Voldemort had managed to assemble. As a result, we were losing. Even as I stood waiting, I watched two students fall against the masked Death Eaters they were fighting. For an instant, I wanted to join. To take up the fight and avenge those fallen. This must be how Ron and Harry felt a few minutes ago in the castle. Then I remembered the snake - the only surefire way to end all of this.

A new determination seized me as I followed Harry into the cramped passageway. The tunnel seemed smaller now than it had in third year. The fit was tight and cramped as we waited for Harry to see what Voldemort was up to. Ron and I were waiting, crouched low, a few paces back from Harry since we didn't have the cloak, and the distance was just enough that we couldn't make out any of what was being said in the room beyond. Terror was enough to suppress my curiosity and prevent me from demanding Harry provide a play-by-play.

At first, Harry was obviously just watching through the crack at the entrance, but after a few minutes, he brought his hand up to his mouth and closed his eyes as he delved into Voldemort's mind once again. It took longer this time than it had when he'd first searched him out and I wondered what he was seeing. No matter how much I hated Harry's ability to see into Voldemort's mind, it was extremely useful just now.

Harry's expression rapidly changed. I was again tempted to demand he explain what was happening, but fear was an excellent motivator in keeping me silent. It wouldn't do for Voldemort to discover us because I was impatient and gave away our location.

I was on the verge of risking asking him when Harry bit his knuckles to keep from crying out. Blood ran down the side of his closed fist in a tiny rivulet. I turned to Ron, worried, but quickly returned my focus to Harry.

When Harry's eyes finally opened, I took a calming breath and hissed, "Harry!"

Harry didn't say a word, just darted out into the room and over to something I couldn't see. Ron and I exchanged baffled looks, then followed quickly behind him.

Harry was crouched low over something shrouded in darkness and black cloth. Inching forward, I saw it was Professor Snape. His typically sallow skin was chalky and ashen, and his beady eyes were bloodshot and jaundiced. The shock of seeing him, then discovering the copious amount of blood leaking from him drew me up short.

He was dying. No one could survive that much blood loss and live. It was everywhere. I shook my head in denial. Blood was oozing from multiple places on his body, or was it… memories? The silvery blue fluid flowed out with the blood. I'd never seen memories before, but the substance fit the descriptions I'd read about. What could Snape possible want to show Harry now though? What could be that important that he'd expend the energy to give Harry memories as he lay dying?

Snape grabbed Harry rather abruptly and Ron darted forward ready to pull him off. But it was quickly apparent how unnecessary that would be. The gurgling death rattle coming from Snape told me that he would be gone in moments.

I didn't know how I felt about what was happening. Part of me longed to help him even knowing it would be fruitless. I didn't have the knowledge, skills, or necessary supplies to fix a wound such as his. The venom and blood loss alone were enough to thwart my rather limited experience with such things.

Besides, something held me back. Maybe it was seeing what he'd let Hogwarts turn into this year. He was in charge of protecting the castle residents and he'd failed spectacularly. Maybe it was what he'd done to Professor Dumbledore. Maybe Harry's and Ron's opinions had finally rubbed off on me and the recent months, years really, of listening to them harp over their hatred of the man. Whatever the reason, it was enough to stay my hand. Never before had I sat back and watched someone suffer without helping, let alone a teacher I had grudgingly respected for years, but I did so now.

Then I heard him speak. "Take… it… Take… it… "

Harry continued to just stare at Snape, so I conjured a flask for him to put the memories in. Even if I couldn't save him, it didn't seem right to ignore this dying request. And I had to admit to being curious about what he was so insistent Harry see. It had to be significant.

Then Snape was dead. One moment he was staring transfixed at Harry, then the next his glassy eyes were blank and unseeing. Just like Fred's less than an hour earlier.

I had inadvertently killed someone, and I had been feet away when Fred died. But this, here, was the second time tonight I witnessed someone truly die. First Crabbe and now Snape. This was the second time I watched the last breath slip from someone, and saw the spark of life extinguish in someone's eyes. How many more would I have to see before this night was over?

The very second it was too late to help, I wished I could go back and at least try to save him. I hated myself for not even attempting to help. For standing and watching while someone I knew died right in front of me. I wondered if my passiveness made me every bit as monstrous as the Death Eaters just then. Maybe what the Horcrux said about me had been more accurate than I ever dreamed it could be…

Only the sound of Voldemort's chillingly cold, projected voice was enough to tear my eyes away from the deceased man before me. It amazed me that Voldemort could twist his actions and use them to try and imply that everything he'd done here tonight, all the injuries and death that had resulted from his insanity, were Harry's fault. I could see his words getting to Harry, the impact they had. Harry had always had a too prominent heroic streak, and Voldemort was taking advantage when he said, "You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself." He knew just how such an accusation would torture and torment Harry's sense of honor.

Ron and I both frantically denied the charges Voldemort leveled against Harry and begged him not to listen, but I could see how the manipulation was getting to him.

"It'll be all right," I insisted, though that only made both boys stare at me doubtfully. I think we all knew how ridiculous those words sounded. I carried on anyways. "Let's - let's go back to the castle, if he's gone to the forest we'll need to think of a new plan -"

I cut off before mentioning the snake. My eyes darted to Professor Snape's corpse as if they had a mind of their own, and I was helpless to resist. It didn't feel right mentioning the snake here after Nagini had just killed the man at our feet. Seeing his dead body was also enough to send me retreating to the passage entrance as quickly as possible. I didn't particularly want to spend another moment with the dead potion master's body than I had to. It was too unsettling considering how messed up the controversial man left my emotions.

Returning to the castle was surreal. It was quiet, too quiet - unnaturally so. At first I thought it was deserted, abandoned by all except for the dead.

"Where is everyone?" I whispered when we stopped on the castle steps.

Harry looked just as confused as I did by the empty grounds and entrance hall. Well, aside from the bodies. When we'd first exited the tunnel, I'd been ready to comment on how different the grounds looked after the giants had been stomping around. It had only taken a couple steps though before I realized that what had first looked like fresh mounds of dirt were actually bodies of students, Order members, and the occasional Death Eater. The horror of the situation was enough to silence my tongue.

Harry shrugged in response to my question. Ron, however, seemed to instinctively know. So Harry and I ended up following him as he lead us to the Great Hall.

I hardly noticed the injured being treated at the front of the room on the platform where the professors usually presided over meals. Instead, I focused on the tableau in the middle of the large room. The dead were laid out in a long line with the survivors gathered round their fallen loved ones.

I paused in the doorway, frantically searching out one person in particular while Ron moved immediately to embrace Bill and Percy.

The group of red-heads were impossible to miss, their congregation the largest by far in the hall, and my eyes scanned each quickly, hardly even taking note of the various injuries each sported, before moving onto the next, searching, searching for one -

He was there. George. He was alive, and apparently uninjured, though he looked as pale as a corpse. He looked very much like the twin brother he was kneeling beside.

A lump lodged in my chest and I choked on the next breath I attempted to take. Torn. It was the only way to describe the emotion tearing me apart at the sight. He was alive, but only partially. He'd never be whole again.

I almost went to him, but he looked brittle, fragile as glass. One touch or too loud sound would be enough to shatter him into so many pieces there'd be no hope of ever reassembling him. Then I saw Ginny standing off to the side, alone. She looked up, as if sensing she was being watched, and the pain on her face pulled me forward without a second thought.

I wrapped her in my arms the second I reached her, and as if that single action had given her permission, she began crying. Great wracking sobs shook her slender, petite frame and I held her tighter, afraid if I let up she would burst apart or crumble to pieces. I cried with her, mourning the loss of my would-be brother.

"I'm sorry. I'm s-so s-s-sorry," I muttered in her ear. She held on tighter.

"He's really g-gone," Ginny gasped, the words threaded with stubborn reluctance to acknowledge the truth.

"I know. Shh. I know," I said between her short uneven breaths.

"He and George were always my favorite. I was closest to them. What do I do now?" She asked in a small, youthful voice.

"George will need you. He's just as lost as you," I said, unable to keep my thoughts from straying to the pain he must be feeling just now. I watched him even as I comforted Ginny. He was a hotel with plenty of vacancies, physically here but currently empty. "He'll need you to -"

"It'll never be all right." I had nothing to say to that. She was right. Nothing would ever bring Fred back or make his loss hurt less.

I'd always hated when people tried to use the placating phrase that time healed all wounds. It always felt like they were really saying just give it time and you'll start to forget. Time wouldn't make Ginny or me - or anyone actually - forget Fred. As if there was anything forgettable about Fred. He'd made certain he left a lasting impression on everyone he ever met.

When my grandparents were killed in a car accident and people kept saying that to my dad at the funeral, I'd gotten angry. Mum had tried to explain that it wasn't about forgetting, but finding other things to find joy in and letting those things gradually replace the pain. That was nearly as awful to consider just now. How was George supposed to find joy in anything without the brother he shared everything with around to take part in it? What could possibly be enough to replace the pain?

"I'm sorry," I repeated, rubbing Ginny's back as she continued to sob. There was still nothing else I could say.

It was a long time before her shutters and gasps evened out into helpless hiccups. Eventually, she pulled back, wiping her reddened eyes. I conjured handkerchiefs for each of us, and together we noisily blew our noses. This made Ginny laugh, but it was nothing more than a broken, desperate sound that had both of us wincing.

That was when I saw the bodies laid out beside Fred and I froze, aghast.

How had I missed it? Missed seeing them…

Tonks and Remus.

Tonks and Remus were both dead as well.

Remus, the last of the Marauders. Harry's last true link to his parents.

Tonks, who had only given birth to her son, their son - Teddy - a little over a week ago.

Teddy was an orphan now, like Harry. I wondered how many other orphans there were because of Voldemort's need for control and worship. Because of his relentless desire for power and dominance in the wizarding world. It was awful and heartbreaking. So many families needlessly torn asunder.

If we hadn't insisted Tonks leave the Room of Requirement, she might still be alive and able to return to her son. She'd been such a brilliant Auror - Moody's prodigy even. It didn't make sense that a Death Eater had been able to best her in a fight. But obviously someone had or she wouldn't be lying there still as a sculpture. She would have looked like she'd been carved from marble if it weren't for the bubblegum pink hair she'd kept even in death.

And Remus… He was so skilled. I learned more from him than any other DADA professor. He'd fought in two wars. It hardly seemed fair that he'd make it all the way to the end, only to die at the final hurdle, just before he finally had a happily ever after to look forward to. His life was only just coming together for the first time since his childhood. Once Voldemort was defeated he'd have an opportunity to thrive in a better future. That was all gone now. He'd never see that future or be a part of it.

Before I knew it, I was crying all over again, and this time it was Ginny holding me together. Or maybe we were holding each other together because she was crying again too.

It was a while, too long really, before I could pull myself back together. When I had, my eyes sought out George again, narrowing in on his hunched form and blank expression.

Mrs. Weasley was still draped over Fred's body, crying into his chest just as she had been when I first entered, but one of her hands was now holding George's. Mr. Weasley was on George's other side holding onto him as if reassuring himself that at least one of his twin sons was alive and real. George hardly seemed to notice. His vacant stare was fixed firmly on his twin's lifeless remains. Nothing else in the world existed for him.

I bit my lip, debating on if I should interrupt to speak with him. Something held me back. Some undefinable knowing that told me he wouldn't welcome the intrusion just now. I might be mourning Fred's loss as well, but my grief in no way matched his. I could not properly share his pain.

Then Oliver Wood came in carrying Colin Creevey's tiny body over his shoulder like a sack of flour.

"But… he's not even old enough. He shouldn't have been here at all," I said stupidly. As if age mattered in the face of determination.

"He tried to interview me," Ginny said absently, following my line of sight to watch Oliver lay Colin down gently at the end of the row of bodies. "Several times. What's it's like to be Harry's girl? Is he really the Chosen One? Do you think he'll win? When do you think he'll come back and save us from the Carrows? Will you autograph this photo I took of you guys last year?"

There was disgust in her voice, but instinct and intuition told me it was entirely self-directed. Regret for brushing Colin off all those times when now it was too late to show him the kindness he craved. The same could be said for me. I felt guilty for all the times I'd been too impatient to continue tutoring him when he'd lose focus and turn the conversation around to Harry instead of his Charms or Transfiguration homework.

"Ginny, don't. You couldn't have known," I said, trying to make her forgive herself. She only glowered at me.

"Of course he'd come back to fight! It's what Harry would have done, and he so wanted to be like Harry," Ginny said, shaking her head bitterly. She looked around at her family, then at where Oliver had laid Colin down and took a couple retreating steps back. "I can't just stand here doing nothing."

"There's nothing else -" I started, but Ginny was still backpedaling. "Ginny…"

"I'm going to see if they need help outside."

"What about -" Ginny, however, was already gone, weaving through the crowd as though it were a Quidditch pitch.

Our hour long reprieve was nearly up. I wanted to chase after her, but Kingsley and Professor McGonagall were talking nearby and I moved to join them. We needed to come up with a plan for what to do when the fighting resumed and most of our generals, for lack of a better identifier, were dead or indisposed at this point.

"- fighting moves back inside the castle?" Kingsley asked, his voice a soothing balm for my weariness.

"We will respond as we did earlier," Professor McGonagall replied, tucking her hair back into the tightly confining bun she usually doned.

"And the dead? Should they remain here?" Kingsley asked, glancing around at the roughly fifty individuals that had already given their lives tonight. "This is the largest area off the entrance hall. It would be best to contain the fighting to one area if possible. There are too few of us now to spread out as we were before."

"They'll pick us off one-by-one if we can't help each other," Professor Flitwick squeaked, voicing Kingsley's unspoken worry. The Charms professor was sitting on the floor, tending to his bleeding leg. I'd not even noticed him before he spoke the harsh reality of our situation.

"We will not let that happen," Professor McGonagall said, troubled. Her frown more pronounced now than it usually was when she was discipling wayward students. Her words had lacked any measure of significant confidence.

Looking around, it wasn't had to imagine why. Aside from Kingsley, there were very few left that had any true experience fighting Death Eaters. We were vastly outnumbered and morale was low after losing so many already.

"We haven't much time left. Where can we move… " Kingsley began before trailing off as he looked sadly at where Tonks and Remus lay.

"What about Firenze's classroom?" I asked. The room was just off the great hall and was certainly large enough to lay everyone out. It would be easy to seal it up until the end too.

Professor McGonagall gave a startled jump at the sound of my voice and turned disapproving eyes on me for eavesdropping, all while shrilly exclaiming, "Miss Granger!" I didn't feel the least bit guilty, too anxious to learn what the plan going forward was. Her disapproval quickly morphed to relief as she reached to rest an assessing hand on my shoulder. "You're all right, I see," she concluded brusquely, giving me a once over.

"Excellent suggestion, Miss Granger," Professor Flitwick said, nodding and smiling fondly before moving to stand. I flushed at the praise, despite the inappropriate timing. Pleasing my teachers would forever be a satisfying experience for me.

"I'll spread the word then," Kingsley said, the deep, slow resonance of his voice offered some much needed soothing comfort for the morbid task. The sound an echo of James Earl Jones's iconic voice.

Once the announcement was made, most everyone began collecting the dead and ushering the magically floating bodies into the nearby classroom.

Mr. Weasley scooped Fred up, and insisted on carrying him without any magical help; his stoicism heartbreaking to witness. I was surprised when he managed without any appearance of effort or visible struggle. Fred's burly build couldn't have been light, and Mr. Weasley wasn't in the fittest condition thanks to age, stress, and being overworked for years now.

Once Mr. Weasley and Fred were out of sight, Mrs. Weasley renewed her sobs. Bill immediately moved to embrace her while Percy and Ron went to help move Tonks and Remus.

George didn't move, just remained kneeling beside the spot where his twin had been moments before. Bracing myself, I kneeled beside him.

"George, I -"

I, what? I'm sorry? I'm worried about you? I wish this hadn't happened? I like you? What could I possibly say that would mean anything to him right now? No matter what, it would just be something stupid someone said when people were grieving that didn't mean anything, and only served to make the sayer feel better. Or it would sound selfish and poorly timed.

George watched me struggle for something to say then shook his head, forcefully denying the conversation.

"Don't. I can't. I can't do this with you right now," he said, voice raw and stretched thin as tissue paper.

"Do what?" I asked, confused and wishing I could gather up his pain to be discarded like so much rubbish.

"Anything! Not with you. Not now. Not when -"

"All right," I agreed immediately, not wanting to make him feel worse or increase his sudden agitation. I wasn't sure what I was agreeing to, but it was all I could think to say.

"I can't," he repeated. He stood up abruptly, suddenly restless with his eyes darting quickly around. A caged tiger, feral and wild. It was alarming to watch. I so badly wanted to reach out to him. To promise everything would be all right. But it wouldn't. And I wouldn't lie to him or offer meaningless platitudes.

"George?" I asked, hesitantly. He closed his eyes, pain apparent on his face. "Please, George, promise me you won't do anything stupid. Please! Promise me," I begged. His shoulders slumped, but his hands were shaking, still restless.

"I won't," he said before walking away. I let him go.

"Hermione?" Neville asked, reaching to help me stand. He and Luna stepped in front of me and I lost sight of George's retreating back darting through the crowded room. "You all right?"

"Yes, I just… never mind."

"Where's - oh, there he is. Ron!" Neville called across some people's heads to Ron who'd just reentered the Great Hall. When Ron looked up, Neville gestured him over.

"What is it?" I asked as Ron came over, Ginny with him.

"Sorry to interrupt, but has Harry come back in yet?" Neville asked anxiously.

"Back? Back from where?" I asked uncertain, fear creeping up to clench my heart in a painful vice grip.

"He's not in here?" Ron asked, baffled as he looked around, brows drawn.

"I talked to him out front, but when I came in… "

"Talked to him about what?" Ginny asked, hands on her hips as if preparing to battle the answers out of Neville if it proved necessary. She was the very image of her mother in that moment.

"Neville, what aren't you saying?" I demanded.

"I think he might have gone out to face Voldemort - " Neville whispered low, intending only the four of us to hear, "alone." Then even lower, added, "He mentioned the snake… "

"Harry's missing?" Parvati, who was standing nearby, asked loudly. Apparently Neville hadn't spoken softly enough. Then everyone seemed to be looking for Harry or turning to Kingsley for instructions. Murmurs that Harry took off or that he gave himself up travelled through the room like wildfire.

"He came in with us though, right?" Ron asked urgently as the news spread.

"Yes, of course… " I began. But had he? I'd been so focused on George and Ginny that I hadn't paid much attention beyond them. "I mean he had to, right? Where else would he have gone?"

"I don't know. Gryffindor Tower maybe? You did see him though?" Ron asked.

"I - no. No, I didn't. Did you?"

"No. Not that I can remember," Ron admitted as we were jostled by the people moving around us.

"How could you lose him like this? You're supposed to be looking out for him!" Ginny hissed like an angry cat doused with water. Ron's face turned red and he puffed up indignantly, ready to defend himself.

"Look, let's not fight. Just - just look for him, yeah?" Neville interrupted, playing mediator before Ron and Ginny had a chance to lay into each other. I was immensely grateful to him. I knew they were just scared and lashing out, but bickering wouldn't help find Harry just now.

We split up to look for him as the last few bodies were moved from the hall. Kingsley, who'd moved up front when people started looking to him to act as leader, was issuing directions for when the battle resumed while some were still looking around the hall for Harry, as if he would suddenly appear out of thin air. It was possible, after all - thanks to his cloak.

I ran into Lee on the way out of the Great Hall. "Lee!" I called, inspiration striking at the sight of him.

"Hermione?" His confusion at the summons apparent.

"When the fighting starts back up, will you stick close to George?" I asked. Lee looked at first surprised, then his expression slowly morphed to one you might expect a sphinx to don. "I'm worried about him," I admitted.

"So Fred was right about the two of you? He'd have been thrilled," Lee said wonderingly, a ghostly smile flitting across his face, there and gone in the blink of an eye.

"You will then?" I asked, not ready to discuss that.

"Of course. But you don't need to worry. George doesn't have a death wish - even after losing Fred," he said, shaking his head and sending his dreadlocks swinging about like thick, hairy worms.

"How can you be so sure?" I asked, doubtful after seeing George's devastated state.

"I know my best mate, Hermione. Just worry about yourself - and Harry - and I'll watch George's back."

"Deal," I promised. "You and Fred -" I began, but stopped when Voldemort's chilling, magnified voice projected through the room once more.

"Harry Potter is dead." I heard nothing beyond that. The blood pounding in my ears drown out all other sounds.

I must have heard wrong. There was no way Voldemort had just announced that he'd killed Harry. Harry, The-Boy-Who-Lived. Repeatedly. Time and again Voldemort had tried and failed to kill him. I secretly thought it was impossible. I knew it was naive and wishful thinking, but Harry had always been so lucky when he faced Voldemort.

Everyone froze, looking around at each other, then McGonagall began pushing through the crowd and Ron, appearing at my side, grabbed my hand and we raced out just steps behind her with Ginny beside us and the rest of the fighters fast on our heels.

The world stopped when I saw Harry lying still at Voldemort's feet. There were no words to describe the pain I felt at seeing him, our hope, extinguished.

"Harry!" I screamed, a scream echoed by several others around me. Nothing. He did not respond and Voldemort's smug face became even more so as he witnessed our despair.

When Neville stood up to Voldemort, I was amazed. He demonstrated every bit of the legendary Gryffindor bravery and courage that our house was famed for. My admiration was only barely tempered by my shock and terror when he was lit aflame. Before I could even consider acting, Neville had managed to retrieve the sword of Gryffindor from the school's sorting hat and had killed Nagini with a single arching stroke that severed her head quite decidedly.

Neville had done what we could not. He had succeeded in destroying the last Horcrux. Voldemort's last remaining tie to life. He was mortal now. He could be killed. This was what hope looked like. We could win - even without Harry.

That hope was cemented when reinforcements arrived to aid in the final stand. Where before we were outnumbered and outmatched, now we had five fighting for our side compared to every one fighting for Voldemort's.

"Harry's gone," Luna remarked absently. "He vanished."

Ginny latch onto the statement, and together with Ron, the four of us looked for where he could have gotten to. At least until the press of the crowd and renewed fighting forced us back inside the castle. We were helpless to move against the steady flow of oncomers.

But where had Harry gone?

I didn't see him anywhere, not that it was exactly easy to search for him in the chaos.

"Do you see him?" Ron asked, just as several newcomers moved between us, effectively separating us.

"Ginny?" I asked, moving closer to her so keep for being separated from her and Luna.

"Yeah. Where is he? Did you see him?" she asked frantically.

"No -"

I was barely into the Great Hall when I heard her voice. A voice from my nightmares. Impossible to forget.

"Mudblood," Bellatrix hissed then giggled maniacally. "Now I can finally finish what I started. Avada Kedavra!" she cried. I lunged aside, watching as the deadly jet of green light sailed passed my head, missing by two inches at most.

"Stupefy!" I was back on my feet and firing at her before she had a chance to try and kill me again.

The battle raging around us faded away; a television muted and dimmed. All of my attention narrowed down to the cruel, pitiless woman before me.

"Deletrius!" Ginny called angrily, darting to my side. The spell missed, but managed to completely disintegrate part of the wall it hit behind Bellatrix. There was no time to marvel at the possibilities of what Ginny's spell would have done if it have managed to strike Bellatrix head on.

More spells were fired and Ginny and I ducked and danced out of the line of fire as Bellatrix rattled off killing curse after killing curse, most without even bothering to aim properly. Luna appeared after I lunged out of the way of some unknown silent curse Bellatrix spat at me. Then it was the three of us all dueling Bellatrix, and somehow we remained evenly matched. Her insanity made her fearless and reckless. That recklessness made her bold in a way none of us were truly prepared to be.

"You'll all go the way of my niece! You think - Avada Kedavra - even if three of you pathetic children fight me, that even three of you could match her? You can't! She was my blood, even if she was a foul beast-lover! Avada Kedavra! I'll kill you all just as I killed Nymphadora!"

"Tonks," Ginny gasped. The realization that Bellatrix was part of the reason Teddy was now an orphan hit both of us at once, tripping us up momentarily. Luckily Luna was there to keep her occupied as we recovered from the shock of her revelation.

"Avada Kedavra," Bellatrix hissed, insanity flickering like wildfire in her eyes.

"Colloshoo," Luna said while Bellatrix was turned towards me, but she sensed it and managed to deflect the sticking spell that would have prevented her from dodging curses so adroitly.

It was almost harder facing Bellatrix with three of us, each trying to fight and dodge oncoming spells while staying out of the others' ways. We were forced to spend more time maneuvering around each other, so each of us would end up out of reach of Bellatrix's spells while also not inadvertently putting someone else in the line of fire. And at the same time trying to take down a madwomen intent on killing all of us. It was exhausting, and my Hogwarts education hadn't properly prepared me for the rigors of a real, honest, fight-or-die duel.

"Expulso," Bellatrix cackled while hopping around like a crazed rabbit.

"Petrificus Totalus," I said. The spell passed close enough to ruffle the sleeve of her robe, but did nothing to impede her continued onslaught of spells.

"Stupefy!" Ginny and Luna both fired at once, but Bellatrix conjured a shield just in time to avoid them. It seemed no matter what we tried, she was always just fast enough to avoid getting hit by our spells.

"Avada Kedavra! AVADA KEDAVRA!" Bellatrix screeched, spittle flying from her contorted mouth as she dished out death like a player serving a volleyball.

The last one was so close to hitting Ginny that I froze. It was the worst possible thing a person could do in the middle of a fight for their life, but it happened all the same. Everything slowed down, then it became clearer like frost melting on a glass window on a wintery day.

Luna and I exchanged horrified looks then as one turned to take on Bellatrix once more, but Mrs. Weasley was already running forward, screaming, "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!"

Bellatrix laughed in delight, thrilled by the potential of a new challenge. Ginny, terrified for her mother, jumped up and advanced ready to offer aid.

"OUT OF MY WAY!" Mrs. Weasley shouted, waving us off. "She's mine," she announced furiously, moving faster than I thought her slightly rounded, overweight form possibly could. She was a fire-breathing dragon grown at least three feet taller to tower over those around her.

The next few minutes were a blur as the two women dueled. It seemed all of Mrs. Weasley's grief and rage were channeled into the spells she cast, each more intent on inflicting damage than the last. I'd always known she was fierce; the boys wouldn't truly fear her wrath if she wasn't, but this was something else altogether. It was no wonder she'd managed to produce such skilled children.

Bellatrix's insane joy slowly morphed into feral animosity. She was like a vicious dog, snarling and snapping. Every fiber of my being longed for her to be defeated, but I had no wish to be the cause of another death so I remained where I was. Besides, it was apparent that Molly Weasley, sister to the legendary Prewett twins, needed no additional help to take on one measly Death Eater.

I could see Voldemort now, off to the side dueling McGonagall, Kingsley, and Slughorn, but my focus remain riveted on the duel I had just been a part of.

"What will happen to your children when I've killed you? When Mummy's gone the same way as Freddie?" Bellatrix taunted cruelly.

"You - will - never - touch - our - children - again!" Mrs. Weasley hollered and prepared to delivery a final blow.

"Avada Kedavra," Mrs. Longbottom said calmly, her face a blank mask that was every bit as cooly controlled as the life ending curse she cast. I hadn't even seen her approach, but suddenly Neville's grandmother was there and neatly finishing things. As Bellatrix fell - eyes bulging and mouth caught between a gloating smile and rounded with surprise - Mrs. Longbottom looked at Mrs. Weasley and simply said, "For all our children."

From the sudden whispering that erupted, I wasn't alone in missing Mrs. Longbottom drawing nearer. The low buzzing of voices was quickly overshadowed by Voldemort's murderous, outraged shout.

I'd barely had time to close my mouth after the shock of seeing my torturer fall when Harry suddenly appeared - alive - in the middle of the Great Hall. At once he was facing off with Voldemort. I listened, every bit as riveted as every other person while Harry explained why Voldemort was about to lose.

Harry's confidence was staggering. He was a completely different person for the boy I had grown up with. Never before had I realized just how powerful Harry could be. Not until I witnessed this confrontation just now. He was a force to be reckoned with.

It was amazing to watch Harry counter every argument Voldemort lodged at him. He ticked each point off as easily as if it was a grocery list. And when he tried to save Voldemort's soul, encouraging him to try for some remorse, I felt my mouth fall open in shock. Only Harry would ever have enough compassion to try and help the man that had murdered his parents, and ultimately orchestrated the deaths of everyone dear to him that he had lost over the years.

As Harry began describing why the Elder wand wouldn't work for Voldemort, I gasped in sudden realization. Of course it wouldn't! Harry disarmed Draco at Malfoy Manor. Ginny grabbed my arm, tugging in an attempt to make me explain what I knew since Harry was taking his time, but neither of us looked away from the circling men. I was nearly bouncing on my toes in anticipation by the time Harry finally got around to sharing that bit with Voldemort and I grinned when I saw his furious expression. I never thought seeing Voldemort would give me a reason to smile, but watching Harry and understanding how he had already bested him was certainly a good one. If everything Ollivander had told them was correct, Voldemort really couldn't harm Harry with that wand. Still, I held my breath as each cast their final curse in the duel.

Of course Harry chose the disarming spell. Expelliarmus. Remus was right - it was his signature move. And he caught the Elder wand with ease as the golden flames at the center dissipated.

Mundane. That was the best word to apply to Voldemort's ending. He fell and was just… dead. Withered and deflated like a balloon left too long. There was nothing glorious or memorable about the way his passed from living to dead. It was just over and there was no one left to mourn his passing.

It was really, and truly over. After years of standing against him, he was finally defeated. Harry had done it.

The tumultuous cheering swelled to fill the room. For half a heart beat I stood, frozen, staring at Harry's victorious form, then I was running. I practically flew across the floor, only stopping when I collided with Harry and flung my arms around him. Ron had come from the other side of the room and we met up with Harry at nearly the same instant. The three of us hugged and incandescent joy filled me that my two best mates had managed to survive the war. We had beaten the odds.

The next hour or so passed in an indistinguishable haze. It barely registered who I was hugging or what I was saying. The only clear moment I had was the first glimpse I had of George sandwiched between Mr. Weasley and Lee. It was enough to reassure myself that he was alive. The next thing I was completely aware of was Harry asking Ron and me to leave with him.

I listened in shocked reverence as Harry relayed all that he had discovered from Snape's memories and his choice to willingly die if it would mean the end of Voldemort when he lead us up to the Headmaster's office. Part of me felt vindicated to learn that my professor was every bit as honorable and worthy of the defense I had shown him all these years. The rest of me was horrified that I stood back and watched him died without even attempting to save him. It was one more burden this war would force me to learn to live with. But the knowledge that Harry was even more noble and honorable than I'd ever imagined left me feeling overwhelmed. I couldn't begin to describe my feelings for the boy who had gradually become my friend, and brother in every way except blood.

When Harry made the decision not to use the Elder wand, and to let the power end with him, I couldn't have been prouder. It was humbling to see the respect the former Headmasters and Headmistresses of Hogwarts showed Harry, and I beamed at him so much upon seeing it that my cheeks ached from being stretched so far.

"I could eat a hippogriff," Ron announced as we left the headmaster's office.

"Me too," Harry agreed. "I was just thinking of asking Kreacher for a sandwich when we got to Gryffindor Tower. Hermione, you want one too?" Harry asked at the stairs that would take us to the common room we had shared for six years.

"I think I need a few minutes alone actually. You go on up," I insisted.

As they ascended the staircase, I heard Ron mutter, "Probably going to check that the library is still intact."

I smiled fondly at the assumption as I made my way back to the Great Hall. To them, I would forever be rushing off to the library to check some fact or another.

Most everyone was still celebrating. Neville was still holding court in the center of it all though he looked pleasantly surprised to be there. All in all, it was loud and chaotic, and not at all what I wanted just now, but I really wanted to check on George before I slept for the next twelve hours - at the very least.

It took several minutes to weave through the crowd to where he was sitting, slumped forward with his chin in his hand, staring at the table where he was idly running a finger over a circular knot in the wood surface. He wasn't crying, but he also wasn't celebrating like the rest. He was just there, only not.

Cautiously, I approached him and slid onto the bench beside him.

"It's really over," I said hesitantly, trying to feel him out.

"Hermione?" The sound of my name was flat, unfeeling. "I need time," he whispered, not looking up from the pattern he was so intently tracing.

"Yes. Yes, of course. I understand."

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 11

May 1998

The Burrow

"Are we doing anything… extra?" I asked Bill cautiously.

"Extra?" he inquired, a crease furrowing the skin between his rusty eyebrows and pulling his scars tight across his face.

Bill, Fleur, Charlie, and I were working on the last of the funeral arrangements for Fred. Ginny was sitting with us too, but so far she'd been unable to contribute much beyond the occasional agreement given the topic. The battle had ended yesterday morning, but the Weasleys had decided to have Fred's funeral be among the first to happen. Mostly because the press was already camped out in the yard, eager to get an interview with Harry, and because Fred himself had been loved by many who frequented his shop. The idea was that the sooner the funeral was over and Harry was no longer staying here, the sooner the unwelcome spectators would disperse. To that end, the funeral was to take place tomorrow afternoon.

Mrs. Weasley had taken to her bed once the family, including Harry, Hermione, and Lee had returned to the Burrow yesterday a little after lunch time for some relative peace and quiet. Everyone had been so determined to see Harry that it was impossible to get any rest at the castle and we'd given up trying after only a couple hours. If someone had asked me beforehand, I'd have insisted that I'd be dead to the world and nothing could possibly wake me. I'd have been wrong. It was bound to happen occasionally.

Percy and Mr. Weasley were busy looking after Mrs. Weasley, and Lee had come to help with George. The two boys were currently shut away up in the twins' old bedroom, hopefully getting some rest. Harry and Ron had both crashed only minutes after arriving as well.

When I heard Bill tell Mr. Weasley that he'd handle all of the arrangements, I'd offered to help. Not just to help the Weasleys either. I felt antsy now that everything was done and over, and I dreaded the moment when I stopped and reality set in. Best to keep busy and prolong that moment as long as possible.

"Something with his personality and flare. A prank or the like," I clarified. I wasn't sure if it would be in poor taste or upset Mrs. Weasley unnecessarily, but I just couldn't imagine Fred being all right with the sober affair we had planned. "If it had been George…" I trailed off, swallowing thickly. Merlin, even thinking that was difficult. I started again, "If it had been George, Fred would have insisted on doing something outrageous to honor him."

"She's right," Ginny said quietly, picking the bread of her sandwich apart into little pieces. I don't think she'd eaten any of it before setting about mutilating the offering Fleur had prepared for her. It wasn't even out of spite either; she just wasn't hungry. Grief was as filling as a hearty stew any day.

"That's not a bad idea," Bill said, considering.

"Do you 'ave something in mind already?" Fleur asked.

"Not exactly," I hedged. "I just think he'd want to cheer people up and make them laugh even if he couldn't be a part of it."

Bill nodded, then urging me to spill what I'd been thinking, said, "I'm open to suggestions."

"I was thinking about getting Peeves to come up with one of his songs, and at the end of the funeral, spelling the officiant to sing it, or charming all of the tombstones to do something funny, or set off some of his fireworks. Is that too much? This isn't really something I have a lot of practice with… "

"He'd love all of that," Ginny whispered, smiling wistfully as she imagined his reaction.

"Mum would go ballistic if you did that to the officiant -" Bill began.

"- Even if it would be just the sort of thing he'd have done himself -" Charlie inserted.

"But the other ideas - those could work," Bill finished approvingly. "Thanks for thinking of it."

It was a huge relief that they approved of the idea. I'd thought of it when I remembered Bill's wedding. Fred had been so excited about doing some elaborate prank there. Unfortunately, Death Eaters had crashed the event so he and George hadn't been able to unveil their big surprise. And considering he could no longer do what he'd planned for his own wedding… this seemed like an appropriate consolation prize. It was a bitter thought, but one that came to me just the same.

"Are there any other arrangements left to be made?" Fleur quierried.

"That should be the last of it. Hermione, you're all right taking care of your suggestion?" Bill asked. "I have a meeting with Kingsley I need to be getting to. Fleur, Charlie, you two can handle the rest, yeah?"

"I can set it up this afternoon," I promised while Charlie nodded, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his face tiredly. It had been a really long couple of days. I idly wondered how long Charlie was sticking around for.

When the others left I dragged Ginny back upstairs with me so she wouldn't be left alone.

There was a knock on the door shortly after we entered, as if someone had been waiting for us.

Ginny opened it because I was busy rummaging through my books. I was sure I'd read something about a time delay spell. That would be perfect for cueing the fireworks tomorrow.

"Harry," I heard Ginny say with some surprise while I continued my search. It was in a Charms book, I was certain.

Nothing else was said for a moment. A quick, inquiring glance revealed Harry shifting nervously in the doorway, hair messier than ever. I doubted he'd even tried to brush it after finally waking up. Bruises and abrasions patterned his arms, stretching from beneath his shirt sleeves and visible even from across the room. Most of the cuts, particularly one on his cheek, looked barely scabbed over. Someone really should have insisted that he get looked over by Madam Pomfrey before we left, but no one had really been thinking too clearly right then.

"Ginny, I just wanted -"

"Get in here," Ginny commanded, pulling Harry into the room and shutting the door behind him and crossing her arms as she faced off with him.

"You're mad," Harry stated, eyes focused entirely on Ginny, assessing her with far more care and certainty than I typically expected to see from him. He paused, then added, "At me."

"Well spotted. It's good of you to notice," Ginny said sarcastically. I felt uncomfortable being a spectator to this, but I was loath to interrupt. As far as I knew, this was their first real conversation since last summer and I knew both had been waiting a long time for it to happen.

"I… Well, I'm not any good at this," Harry said, wincing when Ginny huffed at the understatement. "Er… "

When Harry just ran a helpless hand through his hair and looked at her expectantly, obviously hoping she'd guide him through the next steps, Ginny took pity on him and said, "Just try, Harry."

"I don't know what to do. I don't know what you need," he admitted quietly.

"Would you like some privacy for this?" I asked, despite my previous reluctance to intrude. They ignored me, too focused on one another. And they were blocking the doorway, so I couldn't even sneak out if I tried.

"I thought you died," Ginny whispered, shaking her head as she stared at him. "You let me believe -"

"I had to!" Harry insisted.

"I know. I know you did, Harry," Ginny sighed.

"So you get it? We're okay?" Harry asked, looking hopeful.

"We aren't okay, Harry," Ginny informed him, wrapping her slender, freckled arms tightly around her middle. Harry looked as though she'd punched him in the gut instead of telling him something he must have already suspected despite his optimism.

"But -" he began, but her hand was immediately up, the gesture unmistakable as it halted any further words from him.

"No. Shut up and listen. I'm not all right with the decisions you made - decisions that affected both of us, I might add. I'm not all right with you letting me think you had died!" Ginny exclaimed, poking Harry in the chest every few words. He looked startled, eyes rounded and mouth partly open. It reminded me of a fish. Each thing Ginny said made me feel more and more uncomfortable to be witnessing such a private moment, but I was stuck, rooted to the spot as Ginny unloaded on Harry. "I'm not all right that you would sacrifice yourself - that you would let me live in a world where you don't exist! And I'm really, really not all right that you didn't side with me against my family. I know you don't have a lot of experience with relationships, but that's not what you do when you're in one, and trust me - we are. You always take your partner's side when extended family is involved," she explained, pausing to take a deep breath, then continued, "but we'll work on that. We have time now to fix things and figure us out. Because one day… we will be okay. But right now… my brother's dead, and I need you to hold me. I need you to hold me and not let go. Can you do that?"

By the time she'd finished, Ginny was sobbing. I wasn't exactly sure when the tears had begun, but they were certainly there by the end of her rant. They'd likely started about the same time her words had become as scratchy as a sandpaper sweater, each one coming out raspier than the last.

"I - yeah, all right. I can do that," Harry said, reaching to pull Ginny into his arms, head nestled under his chin as he hesitantly stroked her back in what he approximated to be a comforting manner.

Harry glanced at me from over Ginny's shaking shoulders. I could heard her sobs muffled by his chest. Harry blinked, confusion clearing as he realized, evidently for the first time, that I'd been in the room with them the entire time. His cheeks flushed a brilliant shade of red, easily rivaling any of the Weasleys' blushes.

"I'm just going… I'm - I'll see you later," I said awkwardly, likely just as embarrassed. Grabbing my books, I hastily stuffed them into my beaded purse, and Harry shuffled Ginny aside to let me pass.

"Harry, he's dead. He's really gone." I heard Ginny murmur as I shut the door behind me. I could make out the sound of Harry responding, but the actual words were indistinguishable through the door as I left for the cemetery.

It was easier than expected to set everything up, though it did take all afternoon and a quick trip to Diagon Alley for additional supplies. The town was small, so there was no one around the little church and adjoining graveyard. It actually reminded me of the one in Godric's Hollow. Some of the tombstones dated back hundreds of years, all the way back to when the wizarding town was first founded. I recognized many of the family names from the genealogy book I'd borrowed last fall. Muggles that had gradually come to live in the town were also buried throughout the cemetery, but I passed them by without a second thought.

Many of the trees planted along the edges were in full bloom; the heavenly scent of flowers floated on the breeze wafting through the paths. There were stone benches with carvings of animals and children playing scattered throughout the cemetery, offering places for people to sit and remember their deceased loved ones.

I was exhausted by the time I headed back to the Burrow. The sun was just beginning to set and I watched the brilliant bursts of color slash across the sky, every minute altering just enough to remind me of a kaleidoscope with its ever changing patterns. The vibrancy of the colors was incongruous with my current emotions. It should have been a typical overcast British day, dull and decked out in shades of grey.

Kids were playing outside in the distance, probably along main street. Their laughter, the sound of pure, untarnish joy, resulted only in a persistent ache in my chest. And hard as I tried to forget it, it echoed long after I moved out of hearing range.

Fleur was preparing dinner when I entered the kitchen and I immediately went to help. She waved me off having already discovered I was useless at cooking when I'd stayed with her at Shell Cottage.

Harry and I were both staying here tonight and probably tomorrow. He'd offered to let me stay with him at Grimmauld Place for as long as I needed to, and the plan was for us to head there the day after the funeral. My plans were up in the air still as far as my next move after that. I wanted to finish my education, but there hadn't been time yet to contact Professor McGonagall to discuss my options. I knew a letter had come for Harry this morning from Kingsley, but it was still sitting on the kitchen counter, unopened.

"George still isn't talking," Ginny announced, coming into the room just as I began collecting place settings for the table. She went straight over to the counter and started helping Fleur prepare the potatoes.

"'As he spoken at all since… " Fleur began to ask, but trailed off with a sniff and ducked her head to wipe her eyes on her sleeve.

"No. Lee said he hadn't gotten anything from him. Not a word. And I haven't, so I'm thinking he's still in shock," Ginny said, shaking her head sadly.

He'd spoken to me twice, but I didn't particularly want to share the details, so I kept the information to myself.

"'E'll open up when he ez ready. Best not to push, yes?" Fleur said, squeezing Ginny's hand comfortingly. It was interesting to see the two getting along. Ginny had come around a lot in the days leading up to the wedding, but there seemed to be genuine respect between them now. I doubted they'd ever become best friends, the two were just too different, but they'd definitely become family.

"I just hate not being able to help him," Ginny said, hands closed tightly into frustrated fists on the countertop. Ginny was always better when it came to taking action. Having her hands tied now, and being unable to help fix things for her brother and family must be killing her.

"Maybe you could try talking to him, 'Ermione," Fleur suggested. "After dinner perhaps?"

Both witches looked at me expectantly, so I settled for saying, "I can try."

I didn't really want to admit that I already had and he'd basically told me to back off and leave him alone for the time being. I knew he needed time to grieve and figure out how to be just George rather than half of a pair - one half of the inseparable Fred and George team.

Fred had always seemed the more dominant twin, often taking charge with George following his lead. The loss of Fred left George floundering, set adrift without an anchor or heading. It was going to take a while to adjust and regain his bearings.

As much as I desired exploring my developing feelings for him, I wanted to give him that time. If we rushed in and he wasn't ready, we'd be doomed from day one. I didn't want to be the thing he latched onto to help him heal. I didn't want to be a crutch. Everything in me was screaming that George was it for me. We both needed to heal a bit first if we hoped to establish a solid foundation to build a relationship on.

Not to mention the fact I still didn't know for certain if he returned my feelings…

The whole Weasley family gathered around the table for dinner that night. We'd set things up in the garden to accommodate the extra people including Lee, Harry, and me, but it was still a tight fit with the additions on top of having Percy and Charlie here. I ended up sandwiched between Ron and Harry, which wasn't all that unusual. It was the first time I'd seen Ron since returning to the Burrow. He'd been asleep most of the time, and I'd been taking care of things for tomorrow in the hours leading up to dinner.

Conversation was both sparse and subdued, consisting mostly of Mr. Weasley asking after the funeral arrangements and Bill updating everyone about his meeting with Kingsley. Apparently, Kingsley was offering Harry, Ron, and Neville the opportunity to join the Auror department starting immediately.

"You'll still have to pass all the required Auror exams, but Kingsley recons you're already ready to start helping track down the Death Eaters still at large. It'll be a sort of learn on the job deal," Bill explained to the surprised boys.

"When do we start?" Harry asked, and I could already see him mentally sorting through likely places to locate the missing Death Eaters. He got this unmistakable look whenever he was working through problem or solving a mystery.

"In a couple days if you feel up to it. He needs help as soon as possible since he's busy restructuring the Ministry himself. Hermione, the offer is open to you as well," Bill informed me while Harry and Ron started excitedly talking across my lap.

"No thanks," I said immediately. I'd never had any desire to be an Auror and that hadn't changed. Dueling and risking potentially killing another Dark wizard was not something I would even consider for my future.

"Kingsley had a feeling you wouldn't be interested," Bill acknowledged.

"How are we supposed to pass our exams without you?" Ron asked seriously.

I rolled my eyes and huffed before smartly saying, "Perhaps you should try studying, Ronald."

After that, I tuned out. The boys didn't ask why I didn't want to be an Auror. I think Harry already had his suspicions about me going back to school, but Ron was too excited about getting to be an Auror to wonder about it. I hoped he wasn't making a mistake. It wasn't the career path I would have envisioned him pursuing. Part of me believed he only wanted to be an Auror because Harry did, and he was afraid of doing anything without his best mate being a part of it. Too afraid Harry would forget about him or surpass him if they didn't do everything together.

Of course I could never tell him that. He was so jealous of all that Harry had, and he wanted it for himself so much. Pointing out that he was trying to take something of Harry's for himself or be something he wasn't because he was insecure and scared would only result in an argument. It was a life lesson he'd probably have to learn on his own if he were to ever truly understand and believe it.

Aside from that, I spent most of the meal watching George. He was absently eating, mind lost in his own wonderings. Each time he'd go a prolonged period without taking a bite, Lee would discreetly nudge him under the table and he'd resume eating as if nothing had happened. It was hard to see.

My attention returned sharply to the conversation taking place when Ron's fumbling, sweat-slicked fingers clasped my hand beneath the table. His palm was almost sickeningly moist, yet strangely cold, and his grip tightened uncomfortably as he spoke. Startled, I looked around in confusion before his words registered.

"- know how I'd be dealing if I didn't have Hermione."

"What?" someone asked before I could do more than blink and scramble to follow the line of conversation. How was I helping Ron? And why was he holding my hand?

"Now that we're finally officially together," Ron clarified, leaning over to kiss my cheek in front of his entire family.

My mouth dropped open I was so caught off guard. I turned immediately to look at George. His fork had stopped halfway to his mouth, hovering, waiting to hear what would come next, but he did not look at me. His eyes stayed determinedly on his bite of shepherd's pie.

"Oh, Ron! That's wonderful!" Mrs. Weasley exclaimed almost at once, sounding like herself for the first time since the battle started. The smile that grew across her face was very, very real. Alarm bells sounded in my head as I witnessed her joy. "I always knew you two would end up together."

"Yes. Yes," Mr. Weasley said, blinking at Ron then sharing a small, secretive smile with his wife. "I'm very happy for you, Ron - and you, Hermione."

"Oh, another daughter! You'll finally be part of the family - not that you weren't, Dear, but now it's official," Mrs. Weasley added, looking around the table to beam at all those assembled.

"You certainly couldn't do better than Hermione, Ron. Well done - very well done," Percy said rather pompously, even if it was intended as a compliment about me.

Ron took that as encouragement to kiss my cheek again. I idly wondered if his lips felt the way my frozen expression was fixed on my face or that it was every bit as fake and brittle as Rita Skeeter's sincerity.

All the while I continued to stare at George, waiting for him to eventually look at me. He didn't. He set about eating again as if nothing had happened, and as if he couldn't care less about this revelation. I wanted to give him a sign that it wasn't true, but he didn't seem to care one way or another. Maybe he really didn't. Fancying a girl likely paled in comparison to the grief he was drowning in. Of course, Fred hadn't even been able to assure me that George returned my feelings. Maybe he didn't and I was reading meaning into things that wasn't really there. I'd thought it before, but this seemed to be confirmation of that fear.

Besides, how was I supposed to deny Ron's claim when it was making his family happy? To refute his statement would just confuse everyone and upset Ron. Fred's funeral was tomorrow. I had to at least wait until afterwards to talk to him about things. Afterwards. I'd do it after the funeral. I really was getting bad about finding excuses to avoid difficult emotional situations…

I looked around the rest of the table. Harry looked thrilled, his best mates were finally together, after all. He likely hoped this meant the end to all of our pointless bickering. Bill and Ginny were whispering heatedly to each other, neither looking at us. And Lee… Well, Lee's look nearly flayed me alive. He looked as though I'd personally betrayed him and killed his pet tarantula out of spite for good measure. I flushed under the silent censure and ducked my head, letting my curly hair fall forward to shield my burning face. Ron chuckled, probably thinking his announcement and kisses had embarrassed me. Oh, I could just kill him for this!

After dinner, I helped with the dishes, looking for any excuse possible to avoid Ron, and George at this point. The monotonous task actually gave me time to figure out a few things and get my thoughts sorted for how to explain things to Ron. When I went upstairs afterwards, I could hear raised voices coming from Ginny's room. Harry's voice to be specific. I retreated at once knowing they needed this time together.

I ended up sleeping on the sofa in the sitting room when I drifted off while making plans and thinking about the logistics of traveling to Australia to get my parents. This summer would be the perfect time to do it. I would need space from here after I talked to Ron, and George had said he needed time. This would give everyone involved a chance for some breathing room.

The sound of someone Flooing in woke me. I opened my blurry, sleep-crusted eyes to see Charlie, who was staying with Bill and Fleur, stepping aside to make room for the other two to exit the fireplace. A quick look outside showed the sun was already up and it must have been after nine already. I guess weariness from the battle had finally caught up to me. No one else was awake in the Burrow which was rather unusual at this time of day. The absent sounds of Mrs. Weasley puttering about in the kitchen and laundry room was strangely unsettling.

"Hermione? Everything all right?" Charlie asked, looking around worried.

"Yes!" I squeaked. "Yes… I just… uh… fell asleep down here?" My excuse ended up sounding more like a question, and I winced.

"Why?" Charlie asked.

"Where's Ginny?" Bill asked suddenly, suspicion wrinkling his brow.

"Still asleep I'd imagine," I said, quickly standing and moving between the imposing figures the two brothers made and the stairs leading up to Ginny's room where I was betting Harry was still residing. "I'll just go wake her - now."

I'd only taken three steps when Bill mildly requested, "Remind Harry he's supposed to be staying in Ron's room while he's here, would you?"

"Yes… all right," I said cringing a bit. Ginny would strangle me if she knew how badly I'd just fumbled that up for her.

"Let everyone know they need to start getting ready, would you?" Fleur asked. "I'll start breakfast."

It ended up being a long morning filled with tears. Lee spent most of it telling stories and reminding everyone of some of Fred's more renowned antics, some even managed to bring faint smiles to George's face, but the gaping hole where Fred should have been in the gathering was impossible to ignore for long. There was an abnormal stillness in the Burrow. The result of everyone waiting for one of Fred's quips or jokes, no doubt.

Harry and Ginny seemed to have reconciled at some point in the night and there was a new closeness between the pair, some deeper understanding and partnership. Despite the awfulness of the day, I was still amazed when I watched Harry turn to Ginny for comfort when his emotions got the best of him. Leaning on others, depending on someone else to provide strength, those were things he'd rarely if ever felt comfortable doing. It was a relief to see him doing them with Ginny now.

The ceremony was short and mimicked Dumbledore's so closely that I quickly realized the wizened old man performing it was using a template where only the name changed. I supposed it was easier for him, especial for the next couple days when he'd be performing at least fifty, but it was so impersonal that I hated it on principle.

More people than I expected attended. It didn't rival Dumbledore's in attendance, but the numbers far exceeded just friends and family. Fred was extremely well liked. I recognized many of the other Diagon Alley shop owners and both current and former Hogwarts students. Members of the Gryffindor Quidditch team gathered close by the Weasley family, and Angelina cried nearly as much as Mrs. Weasley. It took me a moment to remember that she'd broken up with Fred last summer because she'd feared this being a potential outcome for him. Looks like her fears were justified. I wondered if she regretted missing out on those months they could have spent together or if she was grateful that she'd begun the grieving process early, gotten a head start in living without him. I winced at the harshness of my own thoughts. Grief was not something I'd learned to handle very graciously as yet.

At one point during the funeral, Ron completely broke down. I hugged him and he clung to me as if I was the only solid thing in an endless fogbank. His tears scalded my neck as he folded his lanky frame to contour around my significantly smaller one. I held on fiercely. Even if I couldn't love him romantically anymore, I would always love my best mate and childhood sweetheart. It killed me that he was being forced to experience this degree of pain at all. I'd give anything to spare him, and his family this untold agony.

Just as the officiant was finishing up, I heard murmurs coming from the people on the fringe of the group. Right on cue, tombstones were rearranging their occupant's names and heartfelt messages to display amusing and ridiculous jokes, occasionally even inappropriate or downright dirty, that flashed in continuously changing rainbow colors. By the time everyone was looking around and starting to laugh at the absurdity, Weasley's Wildfire Whiz-bangs had started going off. They exploded to life from each of the cemetery's four corners and showered the mourners in an array of sparks and colors before dancing in and out between the graves.

I watched George the entire time, suspensefully waiting to see his reaction. He was between Percy and Lee. Slowly, ever so slowly, he turned taking it all in. By the time he was facing Fred's grave again, he'd closed his eyes and tears were running down his face, one after another to form tiny endless rivers of sorrow. He knelt forward, gently resting a hand on the smooth mahogany surface of the coffin that would forever house his twin. I momentarily feared he hated it. Then I noted the slight upturn in his lips. It wasn't until then that I began breathing normally again.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Andromeda Tonks had decided to have a small joint funeral for Tonks and Remus just after Fred's. Only the Order and a few others were invited. Everyone, with the exception of George and Lee who'd returned to the Burrow, went there immediately following Fred's. George just wasn't up to being around anyone else just now and everyone understood.

Harry went immediately to meet Teddy, who instantly morphed his hair to match Harry's - complete with untidy pieces sticking up everywhere. I spent most of the service, which was conducted by the same officiant as Fred's, watching the pair of them. Harry was obviously uncomfortable holding an infant. Teddy was likely his first and still very, very young, but Harry spent the entire time cuddling him and whispering in his ear. I didn't have to hear for myself to know he was promising to be everything to Teddy that Harry himself had never had.

After it was over, Kingsley had pulled Harry aside for a quick discussion, likely regarding the letter he had sent and what Bill had already told him regarding becoming an Auror. Harry waved Ron over to join them almost at once and when he looked at me, I shook my head and pointed at Professor McGonagall, letting him know I needed to talk to her and would catch up with him later. We hadn't had a chance to really discuss it more since last night, but I knew he and Ron had no desire to return to school and were thrilled by their stroke of luck. I, however, did.

"I'd like to return to finish my seventh year," I said at once when I approached Professor McGonagall after the service. "Is that going to be possible?"

She smiled fondly before replying, "I was hoping you would. It would be a shame for you not to complete your education and sit your N.E.W.T.s."

"Hogwarts will be reopening this fall then?" I asked, slightly surprised. Part of me had worried that I'd have to wait at least another year. The damage from the battle had been significant.

"We have a few months to set it right and many have volunteered to help."

"Do you need more help?" I asked, wondering if I should offer. After I got my parents I'd have some time on my hands before term started. I was still looking for ways to stay busy so I wouldn't have to think about everything.

"We have the situation well in hand, but thank you," she assured me. "I'll put you on the list to receive a letter with your book lists then."

"Thank you, Professor," I said, beaming at her and feeling happy for the first time all day.

"I'm so relieved to see you alive, Miss Granger," she said suddenly, tears gleaming in her eyes as she gently patted my cheek in a grandmotherly fashion. Before I could reply, however, she added, "Now, I really must be going. There's much that needs doing. I will see you in the fall."

"What are you going to do?" Ginny asked later that night when we were alone in her room. I'd been lying down staring at the ceiling before her question, and I sighed when she asked. I didn't pretend to misunderstand.

"Be honest with him. Tell him the truth," I confessed.

"When?"

"Soon. What happened with Harry?"

"No more secrets," she said bluntly.

"And?" I pressed.

"We're going to talk more, and make decisions as equals."

"Good," I said, leaving it at that sine she obviously didn't feel like sharing more. "I'm going back to Hogwarts with you in the fall," I added.

"I wasn't looking forward to going back… Not with all the new memories. I'm glad you'll be with me," she admitted quietly.

"I'm going to find my parents - soon," I confessed, wondering if she'd be surprised I was taking off and abandoning everyone when things were still difficult here. "I need to restore their memories and explain everything - help them move home. Then figure out if I'm moving back in with them or staying with Harry."

"When are you leaving?"

"Not sure. Maybe… maybe after talking to Ron. Probably in a day or two," I said carefully.

"That might be for the best," she said, equally careful. "Ron won't take it very… maturely."

"I had the same thought."

"Will you - never mind," she said, quickly changing directions. "Night, Hermione."

Ginny and I were having tea in the kitchen the next morning. I was already working on my fourth cup. So far no one had been in the mood for breakfast. The boys were still in bed last I checked, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had gone into town to visit Fred's grave again. I think they wanted some privacy for the visit since so many people were around yesterday.

"Want to play Quidditch?" I heard Harry ask from the other room.

"I thought you were supposed to be trying to cheer me up?" Ron replied gruffly. Ginny and I exchanged amused looks at that. Since when was Quidditch not a sure-fire way to cheer Ron up?

"I am!" Harry exclaimed.

"Quidditch, really? Cause all that really means is - do I want to lose to you? So… no. No Quidditch," Ron said moodily.

"You don't always lose," Harry insisted.

"That's right! I won Hermione," Ron announced. I could picture the smug grin he was likely wearing after saying that. "She picked me over you."

I felt myself expel the air in my lungs in a sudden whoosh as though they'd been squeezed too tight to hold any in at all. Hearing those words had a peculiar effect on me. It was almost an out-of-body experience, almost like I was watching a cloth rapidly unravel, and I could do nothing but watch it happen. It didn't hurt exactly, but it wasn't pleasant either. Even a year ago, I probably would have been devastated. Now, it just reminded me of what I'd been thinking the other night - Ron was once again comparing himself to Harry.

"You did not just seriously refer to Hermione as a prize. Whatever relationship you have with her better not be about trying to one-up Harry like the whole rest of your life has been," George suddenly said. His anger was clear and unmistakable. Ginny gasped, and I looked to see her blinking rapidly. It was the first time she'd heard him speak since the battle, and I didn't know which had surprised her more - that George was speaking or what he was saying.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ron demanded. I could imagine him turning red as he glared at his brother murderously. It was obvious none of the guys knew Ginny and I could hear them.

"She's better than you," George replied quietly. I had to strain to hear the words spoken in that soft tone. "Everyone knows she's better than you. You know she's better than you," he accused, voice like steel. "But since, as you pointed out, she's picking you anyways… you had better treat her like she's the most important thing in your life - not as the means of being more famous… or whatever than Harry."

No one spoke for a minute. Cautiously, I turned to find Ginny smiling sadly. She didn't look the least bit surprised anymore by what we'd just overheard. In fact, she almost looked as though she were gloating, as if someone had just confirmed that she had been dealt the winning hand in a poker game.

"She is the most amazing… " George began, trailing off as if struggling for words. "The most incredible. If I… She - you don't deserve her," George finished. We could hear rustling around, but it was a few moments before George spoke up again. "Tell Mum I went home and not to worry. I'll stop back by in a couple days, but I really need to be alone just now."

There was the unmistakable sound of a door slamming, and I knew George was gone.

"He can bloody well tell her himself! Where does he -" Ron started, but Harry cut him off.

"Ron, he's upset. Don't let it get to you."

"But he said -"

"Ron, come on. He's just hurting. He didn't mean it."

After a long sigh, Ron muttered, "Yeah, I guess. Don't know why he always has to take it out on me though. Don't know what I ever did to him."

"He didn't mean it," Harry repeated, trying to convince Ron.

"I think you were right before. We should grab a game of Quidditch - or at least toss the Quaffle about. You in?" Ron asked with forced lightness, and I imagined a fake smile to go along with it.

When I was certain the two boys had gone, I asked, "Did you know? Is that why you kept encouraging me to give up on Ron?"

"I suspected," Ginny admitted, not looking at all abashed.

"Which part? That Ron was just using me as part of his desire to be the best, or that George had feelings for me?" I demanded, glaring at her. It felt like a betrayal.

"Don't look at me like that! You know I've always been closer to the twins than Ron," Ginny said, visibly frustrated. Then she sighed, slumping in her seat. "Look - I know my brothers and I know you," Ginny said, attempting to explain. "You'll never be happy with Ron, and he'll never be happy with you. But George? He needs you right now - so much more than you realize. And he's already half in love with you - for the right reasons, even."

"You should have warned me. I thought we were friends."

"We are! But you weren't ready to hear any of this. First, because of the war, and lately… Well, it's been a bit much for all of us - in case you hadn't noticed."

"I -"

"Look, stay at Harry's tonight. Come back when you're ready to talk to Ron then go get your parents like you planned. The time apart will help everyone."

"Can we talk?" I asked. Ron looked up from the chess game he and Harry were playing in front of the fireplace in the sitting room. The boys were laying on the floor, directing their troops while Ginny watched from the couch and polished her broomstick.

"Yeah, sure," he said with a grin, jumping up and leaning forward to kiss me. I turned my head so that his lips caught my cheek instead. He pulled back and looked at me with a frown.

"Let's go for a walk," I suggested, looking at the other two. Ideally, this conversation would take place without an audience. Ginny offered a sympathetic smile as we headed out back. "What did Kingsley have to say the other day?" I asked, attempting to ease into the conversation. Ron brightened at once, eager to share.

"Auror stuff. Can you believe Harry and I are going to be Aurors? It's incredible, right? Kingsley said we'd have people in the department working with us so we can pass the tests and all, but we'll get to start right away - tomorrow even!" he exclaimed excitedly, waving his hands about to emphasize his words. He always did that when he was nervous. I smiled fondly as I listened. Pretty soon I doubted he'd want to share this sort of thing with me. "Hey, I looked for you yesterday to talk about it all and see if you'd changed your mind, but I couldn't find you. Where'd you run off to?"

"I heard you," I said quietly. I didn't intend for it to come out as an accusation, but that's what happened anyways. That wasn't even how I'd rehearsed starting the conversation. But when I'd opened my mouth, that was what spilled out like a ripped bag of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. And once the words scattered and rolled across the open space it was too late to take them back. When Ron looked confused, I clarified, "With Harry and George."

"What - oh. You're mad about that?" he asked, genuinely confused. "Come on, Hermione! You know I didn't mean it the way it came out. I just stick my foot in it when you're involved," he explained, giving me a sheepish grin and tucking his hands in the pockets of his pants. He was the very image of contrite.

"But is that why you liked me?" I asked, more out of curiosity than hurt. I really was over Ron.

"What? Why would you even ask that?" he demanded, furious. I noticed he didn't deny it, but that could just have been because he didn't appreciate having his motives called into question. It was easy to give him the benefit of the doubt when his answer wouldn't deal a fatal blow.

"Please don't get mad," I begged. I really hadn't meant to ask, but I was curious despite myself.

"Then why even ask?"

"I want you to be honest - with me and yourself," I said. This wasn't really the point of the conversation, but since he was going to be mad at me regardless… I figured I might as well. Ron turned away, ready to stomp back to the house, but I grabbed his arm to stop him. "No, Ron, listen. You've always been jealous of Harry. I know it's hard for you. In your family, you're just one among many. Then you've also got to compete with your best mate for attention because he's famous for a million reasons that you get overlooked for. I'm not trying to be mean, but you've never really handled getting pushed aside in favor of Harry very well."

"Go on, tell me what you really think," he said nastily, face burning as he glared angrily at me.

"Ron… please. I think you need to hear this, and I have to say it. I care about you and I don't think you'll be happy with yourself until you've dealt with your issues."

"I'm not the only one with issues," he said defensively. He hated having his actions called out, particularly by me.

"I'm already aware of my issues. Thank you, Ron." It was easy to see he wanted to turn the tables and be the one dishing it out, but I persisted. "For so long you've let your self-worth be defined by how others see you. But, Ron, it's not a competition! It shouldn't be about beating Harry! You're a great person all on your own. I wish you could see that for yourself," I said, reaching for his hand.

I expected him to yell at me or deny what I was saying. And for a moment, just one, I thought he would. But then his expression changed as some elusive knowledge suddenly revealed itself to him. He shook his head, backpedaling as far as he could while I still clung to his hand. He tugged, trying to free it, but I refused to release my hold.

"This isn't happening," he muttered, shaking his head and staring down at me in utter astonishment.

"What?" I asked, breathless when my heart lurched painfully in my chest.

It was the moment of truth. Finally. After months of stalling, it was finally here.

"You're breaking up with me!" Ron hollered.

"Ron, we're not together," I whispered, closing my eyes so I wouldn't see the hurt my words inflicted on someone I cared for so much.

"But we kissed!" I decided not to bring up the fact I hadn't responded, and had in fact tried to push him away when he'd kissed me. "I know you've liked me for ages - you were so jealous of Lavender!" he announced smugly, making my eyes snap open to find him grinning. When I didn't say anything his grin faded and a little crease appeared between his scrunched brows. "And the other night at dinner, you didn't say a word when I told my family… "

"I didn't want to embarrass you," I admitted.

"You think ending things after a couple days isn't embarrassing?" he huffed, sneering unattractively.

"We aren't together!" I reiterated. Louder than I meant to, I'll admit, but I was getting so frustrated.

He looked startled, like it was finally sinking in that I didn't want to be with him. We stood there, neither speaking for a long time.

"You were supposed to pick me," he eventually whispered in a small defeated voice. "What did I do wrong?"

"Nothing, Ron. I just don't think we're right for each other," I said, trying to explain something he wouldn't really want to hear just now.

"But I've been trying so hard to treat you right and be what you want," he said, almost begging as this time he reached for me.

I stepped back instinctively, and the crushed look that crossed his face made me feel sick. Tears threatened. The pressure building relentlessly behind my eyes, throbbing with a steady thrum. It was then that I remembered what he'd said about the Horcrux. His worst nightmare was me not wanting him - me picking someone else over him. I couldn't tell him I had feelings for George. Not right now. This was already hard enough on him without making him get angry with his brother on top of being rejected. I had to try and make him see that I wasn't what he really wanted, that he'd find someone that was a better fit for him and that he could be himself for.

"It shouldn't be that way. I'm not a shiny prize for you to win, and you shouldn't have to exhaust yourself trying to be something you're not just so I'll want to be with you -"

"Is there someone else?" he demanded, interrupting me. I swallowed, surprised he'd ask so directly.

"N-No," I stuttered. It was immediately obvious that he didn't believe me.

"Is it Harry? You have feelings for Harry - I knew it!"

"No! I have never felt that way about Harry! You're proving my point, Ron. We'll never work. You have to stop comparing yourself to Harry if you ever want to be happy."

"I can't believe you. You spent years fancying me, and now that I actually want to be with you, what, you're over me just like that?" His wording stung more than I expected it to, but I knew he was only lashing out because he was hurt and he wanted to wound me as well.

"I'm sorry," I said, feeling the promised tears finally leak out to slip down my cheeks.

"Right. I'm sure you are," he said callously.

"Ron… You're going to find someone that's better for you. One day -"

"Because I'm not good enough. That's it, right?"

"Please don't say that! I do love you. I-I'm just not -"

"I can't even look at you right now," he said, turning away and starting back for the house.

"I'm leaving. I'm going to get my parents. I-I'll see you when I get back," I said, hoping he'd at least stop for a moment at hearing my news. He didn't even slow down - it was just like when he'd walked out on Harry and me.

"Don't bother," he muttered dismissively.

June 1998

Melbourne, Australia

It took less than a day after I arrived to figure out my parents hadn't remained in Sydney for any significant length of time when they moved here. That made tracking them down much more difficult than I had anticipated. In the end, it had taken three weeks in Sydney, with the help of the Australian Ministry of Magic, to locate them. Kingsley had called in a few favors to get me the help I needed in finding them.

Once I'd arrived in Melbourne, where they had opened a new dental practice, however, my nerves got the best of me. I'd ended up watching them for over a week before I gathered my courage to approach them. Part of me wondered if I'd been too thorough in my spell. They seemed unimaginably happy. They'd always been rather solitary, stoic individuals, content to earn a living and raise an intelligent daughter. They stayed in most every night and usually retired by half past nine. Their idea of excitement was to catch a show once a month or splurge and have a glass of wine with dinner when they did go out for a special occasion. Now, they went out with friends three times in the week I spent following them, danced on the beach under the stars, and generally seemed to love life and be living it to the fullest.

Today I was finally going to talk to them. I asked the server to sit me inside since it was a cool day with a brisk wind. The air was crisp with the scent of salt and tang of ocean on the walk here. It had a freshness that London lacked, particularly when near a water source. My table ended up being very close to my parents, and I waited for a good opportunity when no one was around to speak to them. I planned to introduce myself then quickly cast the reversal spell.

They were talking and it made my heart ache to hear my parents' voices again after so long. I longed for them to be speaking to me. Now that I was finally hear and ready to do it, I wanted to immediately.

"Pardon me, sorry to bother you, but I couldn't help noticing your accents," I said, stepping up to their table. They were eating brunch in a little cafe near the Royal Botanic Gardens. "I'm from Hendon. Where abouts are you from?" I asked.

"That's where we moved from!" my mum exclaimed, smiling in welcome. "You must join us. Honey, move over," she said, urging her husband to reposition his chair and drag another over for me to use. I smiled in thanks.

"Thank you. I'm Hermione," I said, introducing myself and offering a hand for her to shake.

"I'm Monica, and this is my husband, Wendell."

Just before I reached for my wand, the server appeared to seat a couple of giggling teenage girls decked out in all the latest fashions at the table directly beside ours. It wouldn't do for them to see or hear us, so with a frustrated hmph, I settled in for some idle conversation with the "strangers" I had just met.

"How long have you lived here?" I asked, keeping the conversation polite until I had another opportunity to make them remember me.

"Nearly a year. Did you move here as well?" my dad asked, reaching for my mum's hand and smiling at her fondly.

"No, I'm just visiting. What made you decide on Melbourne?" I asked curiously. I'd provided them with everything before sending them to Sydney, including potential properties to live in and start a new practice out of that wouldn't compete with too many others. What had made them change their minds and come here instead?

"We met this lovely couple on the plane ride here. They went on and on about how incredible the area is. Since we didn't really have any firm plans ourselves, we headed here to check it out and fell in love instantly. The city is smaller than London to be sure, but still large enough to appreciate having access to city life," Dad explained.

"What is it you do that allows you to live anywhere?"

"We're dentists. People everywhere have teeth that need looking after." That was when I noticed the pastry my Mum was eating. Never before had I seen my mum consume sweets. She'd always been fanatical about the damage they caused and was intent to avoid it and encourage others to do the same. "Including me," she joked, and took another bite, obviously savoring the sugared frosting and rich, creamy filling. I forced a smile.

These people were barely recognizable as the parents that had raised me. I didn't know how I felt about it, aside from eagerness to get things back to normal. I missed them and I wanted my parents back. So much had happened this last year and I couldn't wait for Mum to hug me and make me feel better about it all. The more she spoke, the more I wanted my mum, not this altered and foreign version.

"Anything I should check out while I'm here?"

"The zoo for sure," Dad said. "Have you been already?"

"No, I've only been to Sandridge Beach so far."

"The Botanic Gardens are wonderful in the afternoon too," Mum added. "And they're very close to the cafe. You should visit when you leave here. Wendell, we can take her! The Ritchies aren't expecting us till four."

The next twenty minutes were spent discussing the best and worst of Melbourne and comparing it to the Hendon area of London we all came from. It was the first time in my life that I'd spoken to my parents as an adult rather than their child. It was the moment every child longed for - the one where their parents saw them as a person with ideas and and thoughts all their own rather than a person that needed to be protected and sheltered from the realities of life. While my parents had always respected my mind and encouraged me to be my own individual, it was never to this extent. It was a dream come true, but all I could think was that I wanted them to be my parents again.

They were so close, I could physically touch them if I wanted to. But at the same time, they were further than ever. They didn't know me. I was a stranger to them.

When the girls finally left, I aimed my wand beneath the table and whispered the reversal spell. It took effect at once. Both of my parents reached for their heads, cradling them as if in pain. My breath caught, terrified I'd made a mistake as I waited for their previous lives and memories to become fully integrated with their new ones, but then my mother spoke.

"Sorry, Hermione, my head is positively pounding. What were you… Wait, what? W-Where are we?" she asked, panic evident as her head darted around like a frightened rabbit cornered by a fox.

"Please stay calm!" I begged, holding out my hands as she continued looking around frantically, breaths getting audibly shorter. "I can explain everything."

"Hermione?" Dad prompted when I bit my lip instead of speaking. "We're… in Australia, yes?"

"Yes," I whispered, feeling small and insecure in the wake of their confusion.

The fog coating their eyes was gradually burning off as they continued to stare at me, first in puzzlement then in anger. Glancing around, I breathed a sigh of relief that there were no other customers, and that the staff were all focused on cleaning and talking to each other.

"What have you done to us?" Mum demanded.

"I temporarily modified your memories?" I asked rather than explained, and winced as their furious glares penetrated me. I wasn't sure I'd ever seen them this angry before. Dad's face had turned a mottled red and his fist was clenched so tightly around his napkin that his knuckles had turned white.

"You did WHAT?" Mum hissed, the screech escaped through her clenched teeth like the whistle on a tea kettle.

"I had to! It was for your protection - and mine and Harry's!"

"H-how could you?" she asked, shaking her head in denial, face twisting into an expression of disgust.

"It was the only way. Too much was at stake," I insisted, trying to justify something they could never really begin to understand. They hadn't been a part of it, not really. I'd sheltered them from the truth of how dangerous everything was as much as possible while still being as honest as I could. They'd never really understood what I'd been facing before.

"How could you do that? You played with our minds - like we were just toys for you to manipulate. You made us forget our entire lives - forget our friends, you, even our own names!" Mum raged.

"It wasn't like that!"

"It was exactly like that! We weren't given a choice."

"But i-i-it's all b-back now," I stuttered.

"That's not the point," Dad said, shaking his head and looking away from me as if he couldn't bear to look at me another moment.

"Dad?" I asked, feeling like a little girl. He did not look back at me.

We sat in uncomfortable silence for several minutes, none of us knowing the next step to take. I ran through a number of things to say, justifications for why it had been necessary to do it, but discarded each as quickly as it came.

"All?" Mum asked suddenly, breaking into my thoughts.

"What?" I asked, confused by the single word question.

"You said it's all back. Is it? We forgot all about you. Are we still forgetting anything?"

"N-No. I undid the spell," I said, looking at the table. An awful truth starting to sink in.

"How can we know for certain? Did you take something else? Did we have other children?" she persisted.

"What - NO! Of course not. I-I wouldn't do that," I insisted, mouth falling open in shock.

"But you did, Hermione," Dad interjected immediately.

Other children? They thought I'd take the knowledge of a sibling from them! But what were they supposed to think? I'd taken the knowledge of one child from them. They were right to question if I'd taken another. They didn't understand magic, or the situation well enough to think anything else.

What was I thinking coming here and doing it like this? What was I thinking when I erased their minds without even trying to talk to them about it first? It was so easy to see all the mistakes I'd made now - after-the-fact. Now, when it was too late to fix things.

"Let's all take a deep breath and calm down," Dad said as I frantically shook my head in denial of the accusation, and the way this meeting was going.

"John!"

"Monica - I mean, Jean, we can talk about this more in a bit. Hermione, you swear you've returned everything, all of our missing memories?"

"Yes," I said in a small voice as I shrunk further down in my seat.

"Then thank you. I'm sure you need to be heading back to England soon. Why don't we call you after we've talked about this some. I think we all need a bit of time to think about this rationally. Do you have a phone number… or do we need to send an owl?"

"Owl… But -" I broke off, realizing what he meant. "You're staying here?"

"We've built a life here. We have nothing left in London - thanks to you," Mum said harshly. I'd never seen her act like this. Her words hurt, cutting deeper than the wounds Bellatrix had inflicted on my arm.

I watched her, looking back and forth from her to Dad. With dawning horror, the truth I'd been slowly catching onto was revealed. They weren't actually angry with me. They were scared of me. Truly frightened of me. Of what I was capable of. Of what I already did to them and what I could do again. Of the immense power I wielded. In their minds, I was probably just as bad as the Death Eaters.

"I was trying to protect you," I said weakly.

"By not giving us a choice? You messed with our memories, our emotions, everything! You had no right! You -" Mum began, but Dad interrupted.

"Jean," he said, silencing her with a gentle squeeze of her arm. He looked at me, frank and assessing. "Hermione, you altered our reality and manipulated us into leaving the country - all without ever once discussing things. We're the adults. It wasn't your place."

"Do you think you can ever forgive me?" I asked, unable to mask the hope in my question.

"You're our daughter and we will always love you. But I'm not sure we can ever trust you again," Dad admitted.

"We'll be in contact when we can," Mum said, mouth pressed into a tight line as she stood to leave.

I watched them go, whispering to each other and walking quickly. What if they were scared I'd force them to be all right with this? They mentioned manipulating their emotions a couple times. What if they really believed I'd do it again right now just because I didn't like how this had all played out?

As hurt as I was, I couldn't blame them for the way they reacted. I blamed myself for not anticipating this possibility. Knowledge had always been sacred to me. How could I take it from the people I loved and not be surprised when they didn't react well to learning that I had? I'd exercised power over their lives, power I never should have had access to. They were right to be scared of someone who could make them do anything and believe anything - all with a simple wave of the wand.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

This chapter and the next are the two I've most looked forward to writing and the first ones I thought of before writing this story. Right now, there are six, possibly seven, more chapters planned to complete this story. Updates will be a little slower for the next couple weeks because of real life - sorry! Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Review response: A reviewer recently accused me of putting my name on another's work for this story. That would be plagiarism. I am extremely offended by the accusation. I have never in my life plagiarized, nor do I ever intent to. Anything you recognize from this story is from the official Harry Potter books and I've already acknowledged her. Nothing else is taken from another story. I've worked extremely hard to write something of quality that is entirely my own, just as I'm sure other authors do. I would never disrespect someone else by stealing their hard work. I spend hours pouring myself into writing each chapter, picking and choosing each word carefully to convey the scene that plays out in my head just right. Besides, I've never even read another Hermione/George story because I'd never considered pairing them together until JK Rowling mentioned Hermione having a thing for funny guys. That very day I started this story. It was a guest reviewer and I took it down because the person didn't even have the decency to leave a message in a way that would let me discuss his/her unfounded claims and ridiculous complaint or site the supposed story I copied. That said, if you have a problem, speak with me directly, and don't make serious accusations that are completely untrue and insulting. Sorry for the rant, but I was really hurt and upset about it.

Chapter 12

July 1998

Grimmauld Place

"Ginny's on her way over," Harry said. He was nearly thrumming with anticipation.

"She stops by nearly everyday," I reminded him, closing the seventh year Transfiguration textbook I'd been reading in the cosy chair in the library. "And when she doesn't… "

"I know. I go to her," he said, nodding. "But tonight, she's making dinner - er - well, actually she said we were going to make it together," he said, shifting a bit and wrinkling his brow.

Harry wasn't the worst cook, certainly he was better than me. But I doubted Ginny would be overly impressed by the limited breakfast offerings he could prepare with any degree of skill. It looked like the realization had just occurred to Harry as well. I ducked my head so he wouldn't notice my amusement at his expense. Hopefully Mrs. Weasley had taught Ginny a thing or two over the years, and she'd be able to take the lead tonight.

"Good luck. I think I'll head to London or the Leaky Cauldron to grab something for myself," I said, offering a smile.

Tomorrow was Harry's birthday, and I guessed this evening was about the two of them celebrating together - relatively alone - since we were expected at the Burrow tomorrow for an official party. Mrs. Weasley had thrown herself into planning an elaborate affair with all of Harry's friends invited, her way of managing her grief. It would be my first time returning since I'd ended things with Ron. In fact, aside from Ginny, it would be my first time seeing any of the Weasleys again.

The last weeks had been more difficult than I expected. I'd left Australia the morning after my disastrous meeting with my parents, and gone straight to Grimmauld Place. Harry's pitying look at my drained and haggard appearance was enough to have me sobbing and confessing everything that had gone wrong.

That was the moment I finally crashed after the high of battle. I hit rock bottom. Then came days of crying, moping, and learning to deal with the aftermath. I was a disaster, a puzzle with an indistinguishable picture and missing pieces that meant a slow and arduous assembly with any number of false starts and missteps. The moment I'd stopped and there was nothing else to focus on, reality hit me and I was buried beneath all the baggage I'd been letting pile up over the last year. The only upside was that at least the rebuilding and painfully slow process of healing had finally begun.

I had to learn to accept and acknowledge all of the deaths, my own near deaths, and the actions I'd taken to stay alive as well as the consequences. The nightmares were horrible, but my time with the locket had made me a pro at coping with those. But spending time with Harry and Ginny, seeing how they were helping each other, helped me as well. They were my goal, the ideal I used for measuring my own progress against, and a guide for when it came to sorting out my own issues.

If you'd asked me a year ago who would have the most trouble adjusting in the aftermath I'd have said Harry, hands down. But truthfully, he was doing better than just about everyone else. Part of that was certainly Ginny, but I think the Auror work was significantly helping too. He was actively working to fix things and making those responsible pay for the awful and horrible things they'd done. The work gave him an outlet and a focus to pour all of his tumultuous emotions into. It was cathartic for him.

I didn't have anything similar so my healing was a little slower. It would be better once the new school year started.

Probably the hardest part, wasn't the deaths - the friends that were gone forever. No. It was the relationships that were strained or over because of me. The people were still alive, yet no longer part of my life. At least, not as they had been previously.

My parents had owled, just as they'd promised. But it was short, and awkward. A lot of hurt accusations were bandied about in the brief missive. At least they tried. I continually reminded myself of that, even if hearing from them did make me miss them more than ever. It had taken me an entire day to come up with an adequate response. They hadn't replied to that yet, but since it had only been a week, I was hoping this was at least a start to mending what I had broken. Part of me knew it would never be fully repaired, not after all that happened, but I'd settle for at least being on regular speaking terms at this point.

I'd tried owling Ron too, but that was pointless. Ginny admitted, after significant coaxing, that he hadn't even read the letter before burning it. I'd hurt him and he wasn't ready to forgive me yet. He didn't even want to try just now. Hopefully someday we'd work things out…

At least I got regular updates about how he was doing now that he and Harry were working together. Harry informed me that Ron was struggling with the work. He got frustrated any time it was difficult or challenging. I knew Harry was spending quite a bit of time studying at home, but I somehow doubted that Ron was devoting the same amount of effort without someone around to browbeat him into doing it or letting him copy off their work. He just didn't share Harry's passion for solving mysteries and defeating evil.

For the most part, I'd been a hermit since permanently moving in with Harry. Neville and Luna stopped by to visit occasionally, but I didn't go anywhere to visit others and I always declined when they asked me to grab a Butterbeer with them. I knew Ron would be with them, and honestly, our friends had been forced to endure enough of our fights to last a lifetime. No sense making them sit through yet another which was bound to happen if I showed up when Ron didn't want to see me. Term was starting soon enough and I was content waiting until then to truly rejoin the world of the living.

"Harry? Hermione?" Ginny called from downstairs. "Where are you?"

"Library!" Harry called, grinning eagerly. As soon as she appeared, Harry grabbed her up and kissed her thoroughly enough to make me blush.

"Hello," Ginny said breathlessly when he'd released her, the hem of her yellow sundress drifting about her legs like rays of sunlight. Her joy was radiant; it made her glow.

"Missed you," Harry mumbled, ducking his head bashfully. It was adorable to see him acting like a normal teenager instead of one with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"You guys ready to start dinner? I'm anticipating a fight when Kreacher figures out we're invading his territory," Ginny said, looking extremely satisfied after Harry's greeting and eager to stand up to the aged house-elf.

"I'm not joining you," I said. It was nice of Ginny to always try and include me, but I knew they'd appreciate having some alone time.

"Why not? You know you're welcome," Ginny assured me as I knew she would.

"I want to get out of this place for a bit. I'm starting to go a little stir crazy," I lied. It would be my gift to Harry this year.

"In that case… "

"What?" I asked when Ginny trailed off, looking uncertain as she bit her lip consideringly.

"Well… think you could check in on George for me? It's just, Lee's busy tonight, and we've been taking turns looking after him," she explained. I was surprised by the request. It was the first time Ginny had mentioned George since I'd been back. I wasn't sure why she'd been keeping quiet about him, but the longer she did, the more reluctant I became to bring up the subject myself. But here she was offering me an opening. I took it gladly.

"How's he doing?" I asked, concerned.

"Better - mostly," she said, shrugging and leaning into Harry. "He announced today that he's reopening the shop," she added.

"Really? That's huge!" Harry exclaimed, surprised.

"Yeah," Ginny agreed, though she looked a bit troubled. "It was pretty sudden. He's refused to even discuss it before now."

"When is he doing it?" I asked, curious. It must be difficult for him to even contemplate doing considering it had been his and Fred's shared dream for years.

"Next week," she said meaningfully.

"So soon?" Harry asked, voicing my shocked thoughts.

"Back to school sales," she explained. "He said Fred would be furious if he missed this opportunity because he was too busy sniveling like a little girl. I'm worried that now that he's made up his mind to do it, and is rushing in… Well, facing the prospect of actually doing it now that he's officially announced it is probably going to be rough on him. Saying something versus doing it and all that. He could really use some company tonight, I think."

"Of course," I said, attempting to hide my eagerness. I thought about him all the time, and now I had a legitimate excuse to seek him out. "I should get going and let you two have some privacy. Have fun tonight!" I called, heading for the door.

"You should take your own advice," Ginny replied, giving me a meaningful look when I stopped to glance back at her. My face burned and I ducked out the door before she said any more and clued Harry in on my feelings for George. I knew Harry would understand once he got his head around the idea of it, but I didn't want him feeling torn between happiness for me and his loyalty to Ron until there was something concrete to tell him about.

I wiped my hands on my shorts several times before knocking on the purple door to the flat above the WWW shop. Purple, nearly glowing in its extreme fluorescent brightness. It was so very… them. The whole shop, outside and inside, was done up in as many colors as they could find walls and shelves and trim to paint. My nerves were making my palms sweat uncontrollably so I wiped them once more.

Should I knock again? It had been at least a minute already. Though it felt like an hour. Knocking instead of Apparating directly into the secret room seemed like the best idea, less rude than assuming I'd be welcome, but now I wondered if he'd even answer the door. Would he be happy to see me or be upset that I wasn't giving him the space -

The door opened abruptly, swinging wide and interrupting my worrying. And he was there. George. His full lips parted slightly as he stared at me. He was as gorgeous as ever with his bright hazel eyes and cheeks slightly flushed until they masked a large portion of his cinnamon freckles. He was already dressed for bed in a grey shirt and navy blue cotton pajama pants. Probably not expecting company this evening. There was a glass in his hand half full of what I strongly suspected was Firewhisky.

"Hermione," he breathed, blinking a few times. He looked much less zombie-like than the last time I saw him. There was life and heat in his eyes. "You're really here, aren't you?"

"Hello, George." He took a large, audible gulp of the amber liquid. His eyes never left mine.

"Come in," he invited, stepping aside and gesturing to the overstuffed brown leather sofa in the sitting room with the hand holding the liquor. When he noticed me eyeing it, he challenged, "Want one?"

"Yes," I said surprising myself. The jumping beans in my stomach were going wild, bouncing around like a kid hyped up on sugar. Maybe a drink would help subdue them. Certainly couldn't hurt.

"Seriously?" His shock was satisfying to witness. He was typically the one surprising others. I enjoyed getting to see him be the one on the receiving end for once.

"Might as well. In fact, I'll probably have several," I informed him, trying to shock him even more as I settled in against the plush red and gold throw pillows.

George made me want to play, to have fun and cut loose. He made me want to break out of my tight-laced, rule-following shell and go a little crazy. When we spent time together, I laughed. He was the only person alive that made me laugh so much - usually when I least expected to find things funny. The feelings he inspired were addictive, a drug I couldn't get enough of. I had a feeling I would always crave them.

He grinned, genuine and full of suppressed excitement as he went to grab me a glass and pour a good portion for me.

"Looks like we've got a fun night ahead of us then," he said, waggling his eyebrows teasingly and taking a seat beside me. He clinked his glass to mine and sipped, watching me with undisguised anticipation.

I followed his lead and took a small sip, then swallowed back the cough that immediately followed. It wasn't the first time I'd had Firewhisky, though I'd never had more than a couple mouthfuls, and time had definitely dulled the memory of the burn that chased the liquor. The name should have been enough of a hint. I swallowed compulsively to subdue the heat licking my throat like tiny whipping flames, and glared at George when he chuckled at my reaction.

"Ginny told us your news," I said once the burn had relaxed into a pleasant warmth, "about the shop."

"Yeah… " he said forlornly, leaning back and rubbing his face. He seemed to deflate a bit, slumping into himself.

I waited to see if he'd elaborate, but when he didn't, I asked, "Are you having doubts?"

"Yes - no. I don't know," he said, perplexed. He busied himself with swirling the remaining liquid in his glass, watching the miniature whirlpool it created. Eventually, he tossed the contents back and spoke while filling the glass back up, nearly to the brim. "I started doing inventory when I got back a couple hours ago. It was actually my first time going in the shop… "

"Was it a mess?"

"How'd you guess?" he asked with dark amusement.

"After Malfoy Manor," I explained. "I knew they'd come for you."

"They did," he confirmed, nodding as he nursed his drink. "Did a number on the place when they didn't find us. Decimated the store room and wrecked the prep room too. It's going to take a while to clean up, and now I don't have extras to restock with when I run out or the time to make them since it's just me now. Verity got a job at some other shop when we temporarily shut down. There's just - it's too much."

He looked utterly disheartened. Never before had I seen him lacking his trademark optimism when discussing the future or a problem he was attempting to solve. What was it Ginny once said? "The thing about growing up with Fred and George, is that you sort of start thinking anything's possible if you've got enough nerve." That statement pretty much summed up my belief of their, well now just George's, outlook on life. To see him defeated so thoroughly wrenched my heart, twisted and squeezed it mercilessly.

"Hence the drinking. Though it's nice that at least I don't have to do this alone now," he said, raising his glass in acknowledgement of me before taking another healthy swig. I mimicked him and he smiled gratefully.

It didn't burn as much this time. The warmth provided by the drink trailed through my body making all of my fingers and toes tingle like delicate little champagne bubbles were popping along the surface. It was nice. Almost made me want to giggle, despite how inappropriate that would be. No wonder people drank when they wanted to have fun or forget their problems. My head felt light, stuffed full of cotton, and everything that had been weighing on me evaporated faster than water in a sauna.

I returned my attention to George, and away from the new and intriguing sensations flooding my system. He was back to contemplating his drink, a frown wrinkling his brow.

"It's daunting - doing it all alone," I guessed, nodding gravely.

"You have no idea," he agreed, smiling bitterly. "We always split the load. Everything got done faster and it was fun. We had a blast making our gags. The whole process was efficient and fluid and… entertaining. I loved all of it! Half the time it was like we even read each other's minds so we could anticipate what the other needed help with. I know that's not surprising since most of you already picked up on that - not that we really could or anything. But we knew each other so well that it really helped when inventing or making supplies."

"Now it's all a constant reminder of what you've lost," I murmured softly, saddened by how every aspect of his life had been impacted by the loss of Fred.

"It's so tempting to never go back - to not even consider it," he confessed. "Just… I don't know… avoid it all together."

"You'd never do that," I said immediately, certainty filling me.

"Yeah. I can't do that to Fred's memory. He worked so hard to make this happen - it was our lifelong dream. And we made it a reality. Not many get the chance. It'd be doing him a disservice to abandon it."

"I can help - at least for the rest of summer." The words were out without stopping to consider what they meant. I didn't want to take them back though. I wanted to help him through this transitional period. To spend the next few weeks with him and be there to offer support whenever things got too difficult. "The rest of your family would pitch in too if you asked. Percy would probably jump at the chance to patch things up with you by helping out."

"You want to work in a joke shop?" he asked incredulously, latching onto my offer.

"I want to help you," I admitted. Then added dryly, "I know jokes aren't really something I'm known for… but I am rather good with magic. I can certainly spell products for you and brew potions."

"I don't know about all that. You did a good job at the funeral, I have to say," he said appreciatively. I gasped, surprised he'd learned that I was the one to set that up. I hadn't intended to take credit for it. "You're definitely hired by the way! How soon can you start?" he asked enthusiastically, bouncing a bit and jostling me.

I hastily finished my drink to keep from spilling it before replying, "Tomorrow - wait, that's Harry's party. Day after?"

"Done! Let's drink on it," he said, pouring me some more and urging me to drink up.

My body was more relaxed than I could ever recall it being before. Noodles had replaced my bones, and a strange heaviness made my limbs clumsy and sluggish. Once, after fifth year, my mum and I had spent a day at a spa and we'd gotten massages. The lethargic and boneless feeling that resulted from having every knot and kink in my body teased and pressed out was the closest I had ever come to feeling like this.

"Aside from the shop… " I began, alcohol loosening my tongue and bolstering my confidence enough to broach the sensitive subject, "how are you holding up, really?" It really was easily to discuss these sorts of things with the aid of liquid courage.

"I wasn't really sure where my head was at for a while just afterwards," George whispered, looking intently at me. "I think I was a bit lost."

"It's getting better though? You're dealing?"

"Some days are better than others," he said truthfully, "and some I feel like I died with him."

I almost told him how glad I was that he hadn't, but I didn't want him to think that meant I was all right with Fred dying instead. I sipped my drink to keep from saying something stupid. I was almost out again. Where had it gone? Was that two or three drinks already? Or maybe four? That couldn't be right. I frowned at the glass wondering if I was drinking too much or if I should get another. George, noticing me eyeing my glass, decided to be helpful and topped me off, making the decision for me. Probably for the best since he'd just refilled his own as well. It would be rude to make him drink alone when he'd already admitted he was glad to have someone here sharing the experience.

Besides, I was enjoying spending this time with him. This was the longest we'd been able to sit and talk without being pressed for time since one of the days he'd come over to help with wedding preparations last summer before we'd gone to get Harry. He and I had been paired up making table arrangements. He kept messing them up, or making the flowers do silly little pranks or vanishing ribbons just when I'd reach for them. It had ended up taking us hours to get them all finished, and I'd laughed so hard my sides were still sore the next day.

"Does talking about him help?" I asked, curious. I hadn't expected him to be so comfortable talking about Fred yet, but he didn't seem to be having any trouble at all. No stutter or hesitation at all when mentioning his lost half.

"Only if the person already knew him. It feels wrong to talk about him if they didn't. How could I ever sum my twin up in a bunch of meaningless words? Knowing Fred was something that you had to experience if you ever had any hope of understanding him. Does that make sense?"

"He was a force of nature," I agreed, nodding. A ghost of a smile flitted across my face as bittersweet memories of Fred danced behind my eyes, all as vividly intense as their subject had been.

"And I'm the wreckage in the aftermath," George muttered darkly.

"George -"

"Sorry, that was too maudlin," he apologized, masking his pain behind a brittle smile as he faked a quick recovery. "Want to hear a story about Fred?"

"I'd love to," I said sincerely. Hopefully opening up would help him heal a bit.

"When we first moved in, we were fighting over who got which bedroom," he began, slowly warming to the telling. His hand gestures became more expressive and animated with each word. "One has a window looking out over the main street and a door adjoining the loo. The other is smaller, and only has a tiny picture window looking out - you remember?" When I nodded, he continued, "Growing up, we'd always shared, so of course when we moved here we had to fight over who got the best room."

"Of course," I agreed, grinning.

"The first night we flipped a coin to decide. I won, naturally -"

"Well, naturally," I said sarcastically. He chuckled, the last traces of lingering sadness dissipating.

"But when I woke up, he'd charmed the bed covers to trap me! My arms were pinned beneath so I couldn't reach my wand to end the spell."

"Oh no!" I exclaimed, fighting a laugh. I could picture the entire scene in my mind - George struggling uselessly and Fred mocking him - it was very like them.

"Yeah, well, he wouldn't end it till I agreed to give him the room," he huffed indignantly.

"Obviously you gave in," I said, urging him on.

"I really needed the loo," he muttered, flushing a bit. The laughter I'd been smothering broke free, and his affronted glare was enough to have me face-planting into the sofa as I bent double.

He shoved me, repeatedly, until I stopped long enough to sit up and ask, "What happened next?"

"I pretended to give in and let him have the room. That night I put fire ants in his bed," he announced deviously. No wonder Ginny had a mean streak, she learned from him! Not that I was in any position to judge as the word sneak came to mind…

"And?"

"It was bloody brilliant! Took days for him to stop scratching the bites," he said, chuckling a bit at the memory.

"No! How did he get back at you?"

"What makes you so certain he did?" I gave him a pointed stare and raised a single eyebrow. Surely he realized I knew them well enough to know that sort of retaliation wouldn't go unanswered. "Fair enough. After that he - no wait, that came later… hmm… Oh, right! After we switched, he set off so many dungbombs that the smell woke me."

"That's disgusting!"

"Too right. It took three days to clear out the smell. I didn't give up the room the first two nights though. Just used a bubble head charm to block the smell. He wasn't expecting that so he upped the stakes by pouring oil and molasses on all of my clothes - neither of us knew how to do laundry yet and Mum was still mad about the whole dropping out of school thing, so she wasn't an option, but it was enough to have me relinquishing my claim."

"You obviously learned how to do laundry at some point. Who took pity on you?" I inquired, finishing my current drink to keep from laughing at him.

"Dad. Said if we were grown enough to make life-defining decisions, then we were grown enough to look after ourselves right proper," he said with apparent admiration for his father. It was easy to see how much he looked up to and respected him.

"Sounds reasonable to me," I acknowledged. "Your dad is a wise man."

"That he is," he agreed, smiling proudly and pouring the last of the Firewhisky from the bottle.

"Granted, he wasn't too keen on us dropping out either, but he understood well enough."

"He was worried about you." He nodded, looking thoughtful for a moment.

I watched him as he told his story and thought about his family. His lips were shiny from licking stray drops of Firewhisky that had trickled out from between them occasionally. I idly wondered if it would taste even better if I were to lick it from his lips. If only I had that freedom. Where had that thought come from? Must be the liquor. Obviously I had had more than I initially suspected.

"I got Fred back with a Niffler," he said, picking up where he'd left off. "The little beast tore his stuff apart and kept him up all night," he said happily, then smirking, added, "I'd sealed the door up and cast Anti-Disapparating Charms so they were trapped inside together."

"Where did you manage to get a hold of a Niffler?" I asked curiously. It wasn't as if the Magical Menagerie sold them here in Diagon Alley.

"Knockturn Alley. Remind me to tell you about our first foray into there sometime - now that was an adventure!" Of course. I should have guessed. "We kept it all up for a least a month after we moved in. I can't even remember all the things we did - periodic alarm bells in the dead of night, color altered clothes, vanished undergarments -"

"Yours or his?"

"Mine," he said, the tips of his ears turning faintly pink. "Bleach in the shampoo, flashing lights in the middle of the night - I can't remember the rest, there were just too many."

"What elaborate prank finally won out?" I asked, remembering his room from Christmas when Harry and I stayed with him. It had not been the coveted room.

"None!" he exclaimed, clearly exasperated at the memory. Laughing, he floated an unopened bottle of Firewhisky from the kitchen. "Fred eventually got smart and brought Angie over to stay the night. We'd already made a pact not to prank each others' girlfriends. They were off limits unless we were doing the prank together. He realized if she stayed with him, I wouldn't do anything so he just kept having her over night after night! She practically lived here for a while after that."

"Smart," I said admiringly.

"He always was," he whispered.

"Yes," I agreed, reaching to touch his arm lightly, offering a small measure of comfort.

"I miss him. Everyday I miss him. It's this constant ache that never goes away. My insides have all been scooped out." The statement reminded me of a pumpkin at Halloween, emptied before getting carved up into a gruesome and grotesque countenance that quickly withered away and rotted. A shiver overtook me at the bleak prospect. "Never really lessens either," George continued, rubbing his face roughly. "I go to tell him something a dozen times a day - more - only to remember he's dead and I can never talk to him again." His hand was still covering his face, but the catch in his words, and the hitch in his shoulders clued me in on the presence of his tears.

Leaning forward, I hugged him, holding on tightly and whispering, "I'm sorry," repeatedly as he cried into my shoulder.

I rubbed his back; slow strokes that helped ease his jagged, broken breathing. Occasionally, he'd murmur intangible words, but mostly he just cried. Every now and then I'd let go long enough to wipe the dampness from my own face before embracing him again. I held him for a long time. Long past the time when all his tears had dried up. He remained, face pressed into my neck as he mourned.

Eventually, stiff, numb limbs forced us to shift and break apart. He didn't quite meet my eye and I idly wondered if he was embarrassed about breaking down. He had nothing to be ashamed of, but I knew mentioning that would make him even more self-conscious just now.

"Thank you for being here. Listening. I… "

"I'll always be here for you. Anything you need," I vowed.

"Enough about me. What happened when you went to Australia?" he asked, changing the subject unexpectedly. I was a little surprised he knew I'd left, but didn't also know the outcome of the disastrous trip.

"Ginny didn't tell you?" I said, undisguised incredulity coloring my question.

"Ron mentioned you took off when -" he broke off, seeming determined not to bring his little brother into the conversation. So far we'd skirted around that issue quite nicely. "Well, I knew you'd gone, but that's all."

"My parents are afraid of me. Terrified more like. They'll never forgive me for messing with their heads," I confessed as succinctly as possible. It was in the past, no sense dwelling on it now. Besides, I didn't want George to think I was looking for sympathy. He had enough on his plate just now.

"Never is a long time," he pointed out, a touch of his usual optimism present.

"Sometimes… Sometimes it's possible to break something irreparably. Not everything can be mended."

"Don't give up," he urged.

"I won't."

"Tell me a secret," George said suddenly, shifting gears once more. "Something not even Ron and Harry know."

I knew he was trying to take my mind off my parents and lighten things up, but for some reason, I found myself saying, "I killed someone." It was the only secret that came to mind, and part of me was desperate to own up to the worst thing I'd ever done. I wanted him to know. I wanted to see how he'd react. And most of all, I wanted him to see the truth of me.

"What happened?" he asked, calmly sipping his drink. I was grateful that he didn't just assume it had been self-defense even though it had. It made me think he respected me more.

"It was last summer. When we got Harry from Privet Drive."

"Another?" He asked, holding up the bottle. I nodded. The fact that he wasn't prying made it easier to speak, to confess my darkest secret.

"It was a Death Eater. I don't know his name. He had a rope, so I cast a severing charm. Only… it hit his neck. I sliced his throat open," I said, forcing the truth out past my reluctant lips.

"Sounds messy," he murmured, grimacing a little.

He understood. There was no judgement or condemnation on his face. The acceptance was a rare and precious gift I never expected to receive.

I don't know if it was the excess of Firewhisky or the casual response to something that had been tormenting me, but either way, suddenly I was giggling.

It was like a damn bursting within me. Suddenly I was able to relax, to laugh, joke and enjoy myself. I was alive and I didn't need to feel guilty about surviving a war where the very blood in my veins, blood I had been born with, had made me a target.

The next few hours were a bit of a blur. More Firewhisky was consumed along with easy banter, laughter, and stories. I can't ever remember having more fun.

Something heavy was pressing on my stomach. It wasn't actually heavy, but it draped over me, pinning me securely like a Muggle safety belt. The weight wasn't uncomfortable so much as it was unusual. Definitely unfamiliar. And intriguing…

Then I noticed the heat. I was hot. Grimmauld Place was never hot in the mornings. The fires nearly always went out during the night and drafts would leave the place chilly even in the hottest summer months. I could never bring myself to ask Kreacher to relight them during the night. It seemed unfair, and a form of exploitation to impinge on his sleep in such a way.

Confusion clouded my mind, making it difficult to grasp what was happening. But I was also so comfortable that I wanted to drift back to sleep instead of investigating the pressure on my stomach. This mattress was significantly softer than the one I had grown accustomed to in recent weeks. The same one that required Cushioning Charms to be refreshed at regular intervals throughout the week or you were likely to wake up thinking you'd fallen asleep atop a pile of rocks.

My eyelids were too lethargic to lift. Safety and contentment keep me in place every bit as effectively as the mysterious surroundings holding me down and warming me. The heat was actually doing a decent job of lolling me back to sleep.

Sleep. Such a precious necessity. One taken for granted when it came easily and regularly. That had not been my experience with it this last year. Unfortunately…

But last night… Well, last night was the best sleep I could remember having in months - over a year if I were honest. Not a single dream had haunted me. I didn't know if it was because I'd had enough alcohol to pass out in a drunken stupor, or if it had been the freedom that came with finally unburdening myself of the guilt that had been weighing me down for the last year. Probably some combination of the two.

I felt great in fact. It was surprising. Where was the dreaded hangover I'd heard to expect? Where was the dry mouth and splitting headache? If alcohol made -

Something beside me shifted. My eyes flew open and I gasped as invading memories of the night before returned simultaneously.

At first, they came in broken fragments and scrambled flashes that struggled to reorganize themselves into a proper timeline rather than a disjointed puzzle.

I leaned back on the kitchen table as George kissed my bare breast. His scalding lips traced a circle around the puckered peak before taking it into his mouth to suck and nip. The action forced the air from my lungs in a surprised gasp. Amazement stole my words along with my senses.

My legs wrapped around George's waist, almost of their own accord, as he easily lifted me. I giggled helplessly into his neck, peppering the soft skin with light, exploring kisses.

Eager hands traced new territory as I frantically pushed George's shirt up. He pulled back, frantically tugging the offensive garment off, messing his hair in the process. I reached for -

The waterfall of cascading memories were enough to have my head turning the slightest bit to find George, asleep, with his head nestled against my neck. He looked so peaceful. How had I not noticed his gentle breaths fanning against my exposed collarbone sooner?

Exposed. My shirt and bra were most definitely still in the kitchen were we'd left them before ending up in George's bed. I swallowed, carefully thinking back on what all had actually happened the previous night.

How had it even started?

And exactly how much happened?

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 13

July 1998

WWW

The night before…

I'd stepped into the kitchen to grab snacks to go with all the alcohol, seeing as I'd skipped dinner entirely in my haste to visit George, and had since managed to consume a rather large liquid diet of the alcoholic variety instead. But I'd stumbled and spilt my drink all over my feet and the floor. My feet were rubbery and not responding the way they usually did, the way they were supposed to. I laughed. Of course I did. It was funny to think my feet were rubber duckies swimming through the spilled liquor.

"Quack," I giggled. "Quack, quack."

"What are you doing?" George asked, amused as he steadied me. Why was I swaying? Were we on a boat?

"My feet are rubber duckies," I informed him. He stared at me, face completely straight, then nodded, very seriously. "And I think your kitchen is on a boat. Or we're in-on? Yes, on a boat? Not really sure."

"Best make sure then," he said, scooping me up.

I laughed, demanding, "Wait! What are you doing?"

"Putting you in a liferaft. I don't want you to fall overboard and drown," he said, depositing me on the table. When he started to step back, I grabbed his shoulders to balance myself. He was grinning at me. "Now you're safe."

"I'm always safe with you," I murmured seriously. The haze clouding my vision cleared a bit and all I could see was George. George standing before me, strong and steady, an anchor in a turbulent sea. Just then he was the only real thing in the world, and he was very, very real.

"Always," he whispered, tucking a wildly curling strand of hair gently behind my ear. My braid had come undone an hour ago when my long curls had decided they had a mind of their own and the charm I'd started using last summer wore off.

"Mmm," I sighed, not letting go or even blinking as I took him in.

George caught me staring, assessing more like, and his eyes widened perceptively. His penetrating gaze searched mine, looking for… I'm not sure, but he seemed to find it because he reverently whispered, "Hermione."

I reached for him, unable to restrain myself, and he didn't hesitate to crash his lips down to meet mine, responding with equal fervor. Lightning sang in my veins, illuminating every nerve ending. It was bliss on the edge of pain - need, desire… love, all confessed in a single touch.

How had I ever survived nearly nineteen years without experiencing this storm of intensity before now?

"George," I moaned, shivering when his hand slipped beneath my shirt to trail a path above the waist of my shorts. It tickled, and when he felt my shudder, his hand retracted at once. That wouldn't do. Not at all.

Gripping the front of his shirt, I urged it up, pulling a bit harder than necessary, but my hands weren't as nimble as I was used to. Once it was raised nearly up to his chest, I pulled back to see and explore the recently uncovered skin. But the frustrating cotton of his shirt fell right back down when I let go, hiding him and keeping his torso a mystery. Seeing my disgruntled and annoyed expression, George chuckled and reached to hastily discard the barrier himself. He seemed to have relaxed a bit after figuring out I was just as eager as him to see and touch and kiss and lick.

Then we were kissing again and I was on fire. If I thought Firewhisky was pleasant, it had nothing on this. I'd never get tired of tasting his lips. They were sweet as nectar with a hint of burn, singeing and satisfying all in one go.

When his hands returned to the hem of my shirt, he paused, pulling back to seek permission. In answer, I raised my arms to help make it easier to remove. He grinned mischievously and pulled it off it without needing further prompting.

Rational thought evaded me as his lips returned to kiss a trail down my neck and along the lace edge of my bra. I finally understood why my dormmates had always been more focused on boys than learning - this was better than any book I'd ever read!

I gasped and arched my back when his lips captured the peak of my nipple through the pink satin and black lace fabric of my bra. He chuckled at my reaction and I could feel the vibrations from his mouth. Breathing became harder and I struggled to pull in enough oxygen to keep my head from spinning in wild carnival-ride circles. My hands clutched at his broad shoulders, still bulky from years of swinging a Beater's bat, and my nails dug in when he playfully nipped at me.

Curious to see what it would feel like to have his mouth on my bare skin, I unclasped my bra and peeled it off before dropping it atop my shirt on the floor. He smirked up at me, impishly. A gentle push on my shoulders had me leaning back against the table top, my breasts jutting upwards to eagerly await George's attention. He hovered over me a moment, looking very much like a kid in a candy shop, before descending to plant light kisses across my chest.

"George… please… " I begged as he teased me, lips grazing delicately, tantalizingly over my nipples, but never actually giving them the attention I craved.

My hands traced every hard plane and dip along his chest and abs, the ridges and crests defined and without give. He'd been hiding more muscles than I expected, and I longed to trace each with my tongue, but he had me laid out for his own unrelenting exploration and I was helpless to do more than enjoy what he was doing to me and settle for simply touching the places I could reach just now.

He continued his torment for several long agonizing minutes as I continued begging, "Please, please more!" before he finally enveloped the peak.

"Ahhhh," I cried out, nearly panting. The heat from his mouth was scorching. The sensation was so much more intense then it had been with my bra on, especially after the suspenseful teasing. I was unprepared to feel so much.

My wandering hands had made it to the edge of his soft pajama bottoms. I tugged on the string to loosen the sloppy bow, but it stuck. I pulled harder. There was no give. Lifting my head, I could see just enough to realize I'd knotted the fabric. I frowned, frustration knifing through the bliss George was providing. I wanted to feel him, to investigate. I was curious. There was so much about this situation that was foreign and unknown. I craved gaining the new information and experience. Not to mention how exciting this all was.

"Wait - wait. W-We should call it a night," George said breathlessly, pulling back and staring down at me. He looked as if sitting up had been a Herculean task. He struggled to take deeper breaths, chest heaving as much as my own, as he looked down at my reclined form, expression torn.

Part of me was aware I should feel self-conscious, but the burning need and appreciation in his eyes forestalled the emotion. He couldn't tear his eyes away. What's more — I didn't want him to.

"Now?" I asked, incredulous. Propping myself up on my elbows, I shook my head slightly to clear the lust induced haze George had inspired. Confusion was quick to set in. "Why?"

He ran a hand through his hair, tugging distractedly. One hand started to reach for me again, but it stopped, hovering momentarily, before he clasped his hands behind his head. I wondered if he was truly struggling to resist temptation as much as I was. It seemed a monumental effort not to pull him back down and kiss him again, a long drugging kiss that would make both of us forget our names.

"We're drunk," he said, disappointment creeping reluctantly into his words.

"I've never been drunk before," I said, realizing that he was right and I was right now. Was that why it had been so easy to give in to what I wanted and get lost in the moment? Or was it surviving the war? It seemed pointless to waste time after everything. War had at least taught me that much, if nothing else.

"We need to stop now. Before this… " he elaborated, inching back enough that our bodies were no longer touching. Immediately, I missed the contact. I waited for him to finish, but he seemed unable.

"Are you sure?" I asked, sitting up fully.

He groaned, but nodded. "Do you… would you like to stay here tonight?" he asked, the question posed so timidly that I grinned.

"Can I stay with you?" I asked meaningfully.

"Definitely," he replied, instantly moving to scoop me up.

I giggled helplessly, my legs moving to encircle his waist instinctively. He moaned appreciatively when I planted a rain of kisses up and down the column of his neck as he carried me to his bed. I felt like I was floating, drifting on a cloud, light as dandelion fluff drifting in the wind.

"Here," he murmured, pressing a vial he'd retrieved from his nightstand to my lips. When I didn't immediately swallow the contents, he added, "Trust me - you'll be grateful in the morning." Shrugging, I opened my mouth and let him pour the strange liquid into my mouth since my hands were still busy clinging to him like a koala bear. It didn't taste bad exactly, but I much preferred the taste of George.

I kissed him again, eager to replace the taste in my mouth with the taste of him. He clutched me tighter when my tongue traced the length of his. Then his lips were gone. I blinked, looking at his head tilted back while he muttered, "Bad timing, George." Then he was untangling my arms and lowering me onto his bed.

The moment he set me down, drowsiness threatened to drag me under. The whole night had had a dreamlike quality that I longed to grasp and never surrender. But the harder I tried to hold on, the more intangible it became. Then it was gone… Sleep had won in the end.

I came back to the present with a start. Had that really happened? Of course it had. One glance was enough to reveal a faint hickey on the slope of my breast. I'd never had a hickey before. I'd only ever been kissed three times before last night, and those times had been remarkably different.

George was still asleep, head turned towards me. His eyelashes were long and stood out starkly against the crests of his pale cheeks, and his hair was adorably rumpled from sleep and my attentions the night before. He was extremely attractive. It seemed almost impossible to believe he'd be interested in me. But after last night, I knew with cautious certainty that he was. Fred and Lee had been right after all.

Last night probably wouldn't have happened without alcohol, or would it? It was fairly sudden even if we did feel the same way, and it had been a rather emotional night with a great deal of sharing regarding personal and private thoughts. How much of his actions had been fueled by grief? Was I ready -

"Mmm," I moaned, thoughts breaking off at the softest brush against my neck. George's lips grazed the tender skin there again, a little higher, interrupting my worries. They scattered like shadows fleeing the light.

The velvety softness of his lips made me gasp when they brushed a particularly sensitive spot. I rolled closer, clutching his shoulder with my free hand - the other was pinned beneath him. His gentle kisses sparked heat low in my belly. Heat that was quickly spreading.

So far George hadn't said a word, content to lazily taste the skin closest to him. When his hand inched up the length of my torso to cup my breast, my back bowed, arching insistently into the warmth of his hand. The feelings that elicited where overwhelming, and reminded me of the night before and the pleasure I'd only sampled. My nails dug in where my fingers were clutching his shoulder, and my breath hitched when he kneaded the palmed mound.

All at once, he pulled back, shifting to lean over me. His eyes were a little wild, caught between surprise and alarm. He looked ready to bolt and his face, along with his neck and chest, were getting redder by the second as he stared down at me.

"Sorry! I thought I was - uh… well, dreaming," he apologized awkwardly, his hand on my breast flinching slightly, though he didn't remove it.

Those first sleep-driven touches were eye-opening. Last night had seemed to explain why everyone had always been so eager to slip away for a private moment in a broom cupboard or empty classroom at Hogwarts, but this morning had me more curious than ever. The sensations George evoked with next to no effort were significantly more intense than they had been a few hours ago. I wondered how different everything would feel without the dulling effect caused by the influence of alcohol.

When I didn't say anything and didn't release my death grip on his shoulder, his abashed expression slowly morphed, becoming less hesitant and more ardent and full of wonder. As he realized I wasn't pushing him away and wasn't angry, but rather that I was actually enjoying his ministrations, the edges of his lips tipped up. I felt the nail of his thumb lightly scrape my pebbled nipple. A groan was wrenched from me and I took a couple quick breaths. Experimentally, he did it again, this time also plucking it gently, then again with more force as he watched me gasp each time he manipulated and teased my flesh.

"George," I breathed. He leaned forward in answer, lips pausing a tantalizing breath away from mine.

Closing the distance, I kissed him, desperate to convey my eagerness to explore more with him. He rolled over me, pressing close and freeing my arms. My hands began running up and down his back, scraping his scalp and inching lower with each pass until I gripped the roundness of his butt, squeezing the firm muscle.

"Aaah." It was his turn to groan, and he did again, "Mmm," pressing harder against me where ours hips lined up. I could feel him pressed against me and I pushed back instinctively in response. The dance repeated, and the pressure and friction ignited the previous kindling in my center to a full maelstrom of desire.

"Don't stop," I whispered against his lips before tangling our tongues again.

He was an anchor, a tether to reality, and my grip on him was the only thing keeping me from flying out of my skin. I wanted more. This was this first time I felt truly alive since the war ended. It was marvelous to feel with such intensity again, to know without a doubt that I was living and still capable of experiencing pleasure and joy, excitement and need.

"Hermione?" I could hear the question implicit in his tone of voice. In answer, I wrapped my legs around his waist and pulled him even more fully against me.

His hands worked my body, moving smoothly and continually over me, tracing curves and drawing gasps and moans from my lips while I treated him to the same.

Time lost all meaning, all that existed was sensation. That and George. I was lost in passion I'd never known was possible and certainly never felt before. An insatiable thirst for knowledge drove me every bit as determinedly as my hormones, which had obviously overdosed on lust. It was sensation overload and I was definitely caught up in the moment, chasing the mysterious conclusion to our actions.

Long fingers slipped beneath the edge of my khaki shorts then stopped. Why did he keep stopping? Was he trying to infuriate me?

"George," I breathed, arching into him and kissing the skin just below his missing ear. He shuttered and groaned, hand briefly spasming against me.

I touched the bow of his pajama pants cautiously. He'd fixed it since I'd knotted it last night, probably after I'd fallen asleep, but I was scared to fumble untying it again with my clumsy, nervous fingers, so I settled for running a finger over it meaningfully.

"You sure?" he mumbled, his fingers still tracing the button on my shorts, ready to undo them as soon as he had permission.

"I want to be with you," I admitted. impulsively

"Ahh," he moaned, kissing me harder as he hurriedly flicked the tiny piece of metal free to release my shorts and ease them down.

His fingers snagged the sides of my lace panties and dragged them off with my shorts. He sat back on his heels to tug them completely free of my body.

Part of me expected to be nervous, but I wasn't. Curiosity dominated my mind. I was intrigued with the entire process of sex. It was a topic I hadn't had much interest in before last night, but now I was dying to know everything. What would if feel like? How did it happen? Was it just because of George that I wanted to experience it so badly?

I could see him, hard, through his pants and I was immediately fascinated. I wanted to see him, but he was too busy taking in the sight of me to notice.

"George?" His name prompted him to look up and meet my eyes. He grinned sheepishly and quickly discarded his pants. I barely had a chance to see him before he was back over me kissing my lips greedily.

His fingers glided along my thighs and over my core, applying light, tantalizing pressure. A single finger rubbed and dipped, sliding easily inside. Then he began to move the long digit, pumping slowly, agonizingly so. Sparks burst behind my eyes and I wanted more, always more, forever more. Tension was building and… I don't… I needed… something.

Feeling emboldened, I reached to grip his length. It was extremely unexpected. The skin was so soft, velvet covering a steel core. And startlingly hot. I let go, afraid I'd hurt him, and instead ran a single finger along the surface and around the tip. His length jumped and he jerked back, burying his face in the pillow beside my head, groaning.

"Sorry?" I said uncertainly, worried I'd unintentionally hurt him.

"Don't be - you're amazing," he said, turning his head to brush a kiss by my ear. "I want you." he whispered into my ear. "Please, Hermione." I gasped and nodded against his neck, giving him this final permission.

One hand left me and he shifted, reaching for his wand and I heard him mutter the Contraceptive Charm.

I was hardly able to believe what was happening. It was too like a dream. And I was too lost in experiencing and savoring every new sensation to think overly much, which was a new experience in and of itself.

He kissed all along my body, lips tracing every scar, and there were many, with reverence. I felt worshipped. Part of me had always feared being intimate with someone because of the scars. My secret streak of vanity worried that they'd be too unsightly and act as a deterrent. George laid every fear to rest without my having to utter a word. He didn't shy away from the evidence of my ordeals. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I'd helped him learn to accept his missing ear and seeing that didn't bother me; so I should have known my scars wouldn't bother him either.

The skin just around the scar tissue was the most sensitive. Each kiss along the puckered skin made my simmering passion boil hotter. He lingered particularly long over the slash across my chest between my breasts.

"How?" he murmured, lips tickling as he spoke where they were pressed against me.

"Dolohov - in the Department - ugh - of Mysteries - mmm - during fifth year - oh, Merlin!" I explained as he continued to torment me. His lips paused and I took advantage of the respite to catch my breath.

"After we left," he said, frowning up at me. I wondered if he wished he'd gotten to go with us instead of providing the necessary distraction that preceded our decision to go by a few weeks. I couldn't really imagine the twins sticking around the extra time until N.E.W.T.s with Umbridge around though. After a moment, he placed one last kiss on the scar before moving onto the next.

When I tried to do the same to him, he breathed, "Later - next time. I need you too much right now." I groaned, but relented.

Settling over me with his hips nestled between mine, George gently pressed forward. He eased in, entering me very slowly. Carefully, he moved just a little bit before pulling back then pushing in a little more. He repeated the process several times before he was completely nestled inside me.

It hurt. Not significantly or anything like that. But it was hardly the most comfortable feeling in the world either. At least not at first. I'd read a little bit about it, so I expected some pain, and truthfully it wasn't as bad as I'd been lead to believe.

George watched me carefully, though his face was tense as he held himself back. He waited until I nodded before moving again. It still wasn't comfortable, but it didn't really hurt anymore either. He moved slow at first, continuing to let my body adjust to his invasion. Leaning down, he kissed me softly. I returned the kiss, pouring my feelings into it.

Soon enough, my hips rose to meet his almost of their own volition. And not long after that our hips were rocking together. Friction built, and again I was building towards some indefinable point just out of reach. It was pleasurable and intriguing, addictive and consuming.

I'd never done this before, and usually I was uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations when I didn't have clear instructions. This with George felt natural though. He was quick to note my uncertainty and intercept it. He guided me and I easily followed his lead.

I stroked and caressed him, kissing his chest, neck, and face - whatever was closest - and revealed in every shutter and groan I inspired him to release. Particularly the one at the end that had him gasping, "Hermione!"

Afterwards, he held me close against his chest. It was rising and falling rapidly as he caught his breath and I could hear his heart pounding. I was equally breathless. It felt more intimate to remain in his arms, sharing soft, knowing touches, than it had to be joined. That had been primal, intense, a race to experience as much pleasure from the other as possible. This, now, was a true sharing of oneself. It was very nearly too intense. Panic threatened to take hold; I could feel it lingering on the edge of awareness. Never had I behaved so brazenly, so impulsively. The repercussions unknown.

We remained that way, neither speaking for some time. Eventually, George reached behind his head with one arm to prop himself up and look down at me. I met his inquiring gaze. I couldn't read him. Not a bit. He was a sphinx. I held my breath, waiting, wondering what he'd say.

"Do you regret it?" George finally asked. His eyes had closed tight against my response the moment he began speaking.

"No," I said firmly. I didn't. Truly. But that didn't mean I wasn't also floundering a bit.

Waking to find myself in an unfamiliar situation had made it possible to get lost in sensations and bravely act instead of over thinking and planning every moment the way I typically did. When uncertain, research and prepare. That had always been my way. But this morning I'd let my hormones rule and dictate my decisions. I'd been so caught up in the moment, in the way he made me feel, that I hadn't been thinking properly. Now that it was over my head was scrambling to catch up. The race was over and my brain hadn't even heard the starter announce the word go.

He looked sharply at me, hope leaking into his expression. I hated to destroy it, but I wasn't done. "I don't. But… "

"What's wrong?" he asked, hand falling away from its previous position around my waist.

"This isn't supposed to be the way things happen," I tried to explain. It seemed the logical place to start.

"Supposed to happen?" he asked, clearly confused. I was tempted to draw him a flowchart to illustrate the proper order things should be done in.

"We've never even been on a date!" I huffed, sitting up to look at him properly. His eyes briefly dropped to my chest before darting back to my face. He sat up too, pushing the sheet towards me a bit so I could use it to cover myself. He looked resigned to having a conversation instead of continuing to bask in the afterglow, or perhaps like he was mentally preparing to shoot down any argument I came up with. "There's a proper order for these things and we didn't -"

"Hermione, would you like to go on a date with me?" he said, failing to hide his grin.

I smacked his chest, desperately needing him to be serious just now.

He seemed to sense my change in mood. Panic replaced his light-hearted joking. "Hermione -"

"I need to think," I muttered, brushing my hair back. Sweat and sleep had made my hair more unruly than normal, and the frizzing strands were inconveniently tickling my neck. "Can we talk about this later? After I've had time to process everything," I requested. I needed a shower. And some time alone to play catch up. I couldn't do that around him when all I could think about was wanting to kiss him again.

"I understand," he said dully.

"George… I'm sorry. I swear I don't regret this and I'm not sorry it happened, but this was my -"

"Your first time. I know. First time getting drunk and first time with a bloke. Lot of firsts," he acknowledged, reaching to cup my cheek tenderly.

"It's a bit overwhelming," I admitted.

"But you should know - I'm all in with you. I love you, Hermione. I have for a long while now. When you're ready for this, I'll be here."

My breath caught. He loved me. He said he loved me. He'd said it so confidently, so straightforward. No denial or reluctance to acknowledge his feelings. It was a welcome change from my dealings with Ron. I mentally cringed at the comparison. It wasn't fair to do and I hated even having the thought at all. Shame poked me insistently making it hard to focus on the fact he'd said the exact right thing. I wished I had the right words to utter too.

"I'll see you later today," I offered, standing and wrapping the sheet tightly around me.

"Right. Harry's party," George said, pulling his comforter over his lap as I reached for my discarded shorts and panties.

"We'll talk after?" I asked hopefully. I really did want to figure this out and be with him. I just needed a little time.

"It's a da - plan."

Harry had already left for the party when I'd gotten home, so I'd showered and gotten ready quickly before heading over. It was silly, but I took pains with my appearance. George would be there and we had plans for after…

Mrs. Weasley had always tried to do something nice to celebrate Harry's birthday, but this would be the first time he'd get the chance to be surrounded by friends with the focus solely on him and no threat of Voldemort or violence overshadowing the day. So it was a bit of an understatement to say today was long overdue.

People were already arriving by the time I got there, so after a quick hello to Harry, I left him to join Bill and Fleur in the garden out back. A quick scan had already told me George hadn't arrived yet. I should have thought of it sooner, but attending a party was likely to be difficult for him. He'd probably wait until later to show up. If I'd thought of it, I'd have offered to come with him, but my head had been spinning before I'd left. Truthfully, it wasn't much better now.

Bill handed me a Butterbeer, then said, "So." I waited, shifting under his penetrating scrutiny. Could he tell what I'd done this morning? Was it some werewolf sense he got after being scratched? "No happily ever after in store for you and Ron." It was a statement, not a question, and I flushed over my wildly inaccurate assumption.

"No. No, we're not in the cards. I take it he told everyone?" I'd known Harry and Ginny knew, and assumed Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had figured it out when I didn't come by after my trip abroad, but I wasn't sure about the rest of the family.

"Ginny did. Ron was too angry," Bill confirmed, brow wrinkling and making his scars pull tight across his forehead and nose.

"Embarrassed eez more like," Fleur interjected. "It eez for ze best," she added with a knowing smile.

"Have to agree," Bill said, surprising me. "Sorry, but I didn't really see you two working out. Better to get it all over with now. Besides I - omph," Bill groaned when Fleur abruptly elbowed him and hissed something discreetly into his ear.

Fleur smiled brightly when she noticed my suspicious look and said, "Are you excited to return to 'Ogwarts?"

I let the obvious attempt to change the subject stand and we chatted for some time. Others came and went, but I barely registered what we discussed, my mind too preoccupied with the events of this morning.

The only unforeseen difficulty of the day was when Mrs. Weasley gave me the cold shoulder. I approached her to convey my delight about the marvelous job she did putting the event together for Harry and see how she was dealing, but she ignored me, pretending I hadn't spoken when I knew perfectly well that she'd heard me. I tried a second time to speak to her, but this time she went as far as walking away, pretending she was being summoned back to the house when it was clear there was no one calling her. It reminded me painfully of fourth year when she'd snubbed me at Easter because she thought I'd broken Harry's heart after reading Rita Skeeter's articles. Only this was likely to go on longer and be significantly worse considering it was her baby boy that I had hurt. And this time it was true, and I actually had hurt him.

Part of me wondered what she'd say if she knew I was only rejecting her youngest son because I was interested in another. Probably that I was a scarlet woman, or whatever it was Ron said she called women who made romantic decisions she didn't agree with. I'd definitely get called worse if she ever learned about what had transpired this morning.

Typically, I was extremely forward thinking, but the things I had the least experience with, such as relationships, I often let my role models have more influence over my line of thinking. Apparently I'd spent too much time around Mrs. Weasley growing up. My own mum had been rather prudish in her viewpoints as well, and so had Professor McGonagall. Perhaps that was why this morning had done such a number on me. Part of me knew none of them would condone my actions. I knew I hadn't done anything wrong, but it still went against my nature to deliberately act in a way that would disappoint them.

I was still considering that when I saw Ron heading outside. I ducked under the awning that had been set up on the lawn, eager to avoid him. Once I was certain the coast was clear, I headed inside. I really wasn't up to fighting with him today, and he seemed equally willing to avoid me and pretend I didn't exist, so it worked out quite nicely.

It was just after lunch, which had been served buffet style, when I went upstairs for a bit of privacy and hid in Ginny's room. I doubted she'd mind overly much.

"There you are!" Ginny announced, entering the room not ten minutes later and spinning to shut the door quickly behind her. She turned back to me, heading quickly over, but paused misstep, considering me carefully. "Why do you look like you just swallowed a book and are surprised when that didn't help you learn something new?" she demanded, hands on her hips and eyebrows raised inquiringly.

"I slept with George," I stated bluntly. The words were out before I even considered saying them.

"Oh?" she asked - more like squeaked. My mouth dropped open when she plopped down beside me without another word.

"Oh? That's all you have to say?" I demanded incredulously, bumping her shoulder deliberately with mine.

"Ordinarily I'd ask if it was any good… but given that he's my brother… " she explained, pausing to wince before continuing, "I really don't want to know the answer."

"Can we just pretend he's not your brother for a minute here?" I begged.

"I can try," she said, shrugging and moving a bit so she faced me on the bed.

"Was it a mistake? Obviously it wasn't - it was too wonderful, but this isn't how things are done," I rambled, looking to her for her take on things.

"I don't follow… " she said, not bothering to hide her excitement or her confusion.

"We've never even been on a date," I said, repeating my argument from this morning. Ginny rolled her eyes and huffed exasperatedly. I should have known that line of reasoning wouldn't have much of an impact on her. She was much more a person of action than careful thought and consideration. "You're not supposed to get drunk and sleep with someone before you've ever even been on a date or admitted that you have feelings for one another. You're supposed to wait until you're in love," I said, trying to rationalize what I was feeling.

"You got drunk?" Ginny asked, somewhere between amused and incredulous.

"Focus, Ginny!" I demanded.

"Right. Sorry, but you do have feelings for him and you know he's in love with you," she pointed out reasonably.

"But it's just too fast!" I knew the argument was flimsy and contradicted my own thoughts, but it just seemed like I might have rushed things a bit.

"So you're saying that you wouldn't have slept with him if you've been sober - why are you blushing?"

"I slept with him this morning. I wasn't drunk anymore," I confessed. Voicing the confession also forced me to acknowledge the fact that I wanted to again - soon.

"If that's not the problem… What is?" she asked, cautiously.

It was several minutes before I was capable of articulating my true fears. I had to dig deep to uncover them. Facing them was even harder, but I knew I needed to if I was going to move forward.

"I'm scared. I want this to work, to last. But what if it doesn't because we hurried this part too much?"

"There's never a guarantee that a relationship will last. I'm sorry, but that's the truth. It shouldn't keep you from trying. Besides, you've known George for years - it's not like you guys just met and you hopped in bed with him on a whim. Give yourself a bit more credit than that. Part of you must know you did it for the right reasons."

She was right. It wasn't as though we were using each other. There were genuine feelings involved on both sides. And I'd acknowledged the futility of wasting time several times while with George last night and this morning. That was no less true now that I had put thought into action.

Voicing my fears and hearing how ridiculous and pointless they were did much to alleviate them. Each word Ginny said seemed to tug on my mind, dragging it forward until it was inline with my heart.

"I can't believe you've had sex when Harry and I haven't even yet!" Ginny suddenly exclaimed.

"I didn't need to know that," I muttered, unsure if I was more startled or flabbergasted by the revelation.

"And you think I needed to know you'd slept with my brother?" she asked reproachfully. "If I have to hear about that, you have to hear about Harry and me," she insisted.

"Fair enough," I agreed with a sigh. Curious, I asked, "Why haven't you and Harry slept together yet?" I was certain that's what had happened the night I slept on the couch in the Burrow and during at least some of her visits to Grimmauld Place.

She hesitated, weighing her response carefully. "We still have some things to work through… and physical intimacy is hard for him," she said, biting her lip and looking away before adding, "after his childhood and everything."

I knew Harry's childhood had been traumatic, that wasn't news, but hearing this confession made me wonder just how much of a lasting impact it had on his day-to-day life. I'd witnessed some of it firsthand over the years, such as his reluctance to be acknowledged for fear of the attention being negative, but he'd never really opened up or admitted anything to me. Luckily, it seemed he was with Ginny.

Not wanting to pry anymore into the sensitive subject, I ventured, "Ginny, can I ask you something?" When she nodded, I said, "Why did you wait so long after I came back before suggesting I go see George?"

"Promise not to get too mad at me?" she hedged.

"Ginny," I prompted, neither agreeing or disagreeing.

"Part of it was that both of you needed some time to grieve and heal, but I also wanted to make sure," she stated simply. I was lost.

"Make sure of what?" I prompted when she didn't elaborate.

"Make sure that Ron's anger wouldn't convince you to take him back out of some misguided sense of guilt," she said, sighing exasperatedly and throwing up her arms in annoyance. "You know how his temper tantrums can be."

I was a little hurt by her assumption, but I could understand where she was coming from - even if it wasn't justified. I had always stood firm once I had made a decision, and stuck with my beliefs. Honestly, I was more stubborn than Harry, truth be told. I wouldn't be in a relationship out of obligation.

"You should know me better than that," I chided.

"I do! But I didn't want George to get hurt anymore than he already has been if things didn't turn out this way. You are going to be with him, right? Especially after… "

"Yes," I said, giddiness at the prospect suddenly filling me. I had no wish to ever return to feeling half alive, just going through the motions of life. Everything with George was the opposite of that it was worth holding on to. I had been absolutely ridiculous this morning. My only defense was my inexperience in handling all the additional unfamiliar hormones coursing through my body, and my overly analytical brain. "Do you think he's here yet?"

"That was actually why I was coming to find you. He got here just before -"

"Thanks!" I called as I sprung up and hurried back downstairs.

Five minutes of talking to Ginny had done what three hours of thinking alone hadn't managed to accomplish. My head was finally on the same page as my heart. I didn't know if I could tell George I loved him yet, but I knew I wanted to have a relationship with him. I wanted to start building a future with him. And I wanted that to start at once.

I needed to talk to George - now. Immediately.

I found him in the sitting room talking with Percy on the couch before I'd done more than skip down the steps. George appeared to be doing more teasing than talking. Percy's ears were red and he was attempting to lecture his incorrigible brother. George looked more at ease than he'd been last time I saw him with his family even as he nodded solemnly, all the while likely plotting his next act to annoy the pompous prat. I found it harder to forgive Percy for his betrayal than the others seemed to. Though it was also very possible that I was merely projecting my anger at Ron's similar abandonment on the situation. It was easier to stay mad at Percy than Ron given all the events that have happened since.

When George looked up, I caught his eye and nodded towards the stairs I was still hovering beside. His brow wrinkled in question as he pretended to look confused, but I caught the way his lips twitched, trying rather unsuccessfully to mask his excitement. My response was a look filled with as much promise as I could muster given my lack of practice in the art of seduction. It apparently had some effect, though it could have just made him realize I wanted to discuss the events of a few hours ago, because George popped off the couch like I'd prodded his backside with the sharp point of an arrow. I hurried back upstairs, heading for his room this time. He entered less than a minute after.

"This is a surprise. I figured you'd at least want to wait until after the party," he said. His back was against the door, waiting for a signal from me about how this conversation was going to go.

"I don't need to," I said, licking my lips. My mouth was suddenly very, very dry and I attempted to swallow several times without much success.

"Should I be worried about my virtue, what with us being alone up here and all," he teased, but I noted the tenseness he was trying to hide.

"Yes, you should," I said sincerely, biting my lip to stop the conspiratorial grin threatening to break free.

His relief was palpable. In two strides, he'd crossed the distance separating us and caught me up in a fierce kiss. We migrated as he kissed me until the back of my knees hit the edge of his bed, and his hand trailed down to the hem of my dress.

"Not here," I gasped into his mouth, reaching to still his wandering hand. The last thing I wanted was one of his relatives walking in on us. "And I'm a little sore still," I admitted.

"Was I -"

"No! No, you were perfect," I rushed to reassure him. He let out a relieved sigh, relaxing his hold a fraction, though he was still assessing me carefully. "First time. Takes some adjusting for a girl," I explained.

"Right," he said, sudden comprehension registering on his face, though he still looked a little uncertain.

I'd assumed he'd been through this before with a previous partner, but maybe not. It was definitely a conversation we needed to have. Revelations like this, and not discussing our respective histories, was a large factor in why I'd been so concerned earlier. It was important to be safe. I trusted George, but it was still necessary to be responsible if you were going to put yourself in adult situations.

"Are you mad at me for running out earlier?" I asked quietly. It wasn't the most mature way to handle the situation.

"No, I understood. You wouldn't be Hermione if you didn't overanalyze everything to death," he said, giving my sides a playful squeeze and making me jump a little. "Don't worry. I find it a charming quality."

"George!" I hissed, glaring at him for his mockery. He laughed and swooped down for another kiss. I was breathless by the time he pulled back.

"Is that going to be your answer to everything? Kiss me when I yell at you?" I asked, amused despite myself.

"Is there a downside to that option? Because honestly? I just can't find one," he said.

When I open mouth to respond, he kissed me again, and again. For a long time we lost ourselves in the other, content to let the rest of the world fade away.

"Hermione," George said, lips moving against mine, "in the future, can we talk about things when they bother you? I'd rather we work through them together."

His request was made with unusual seriousness and I responded in kind. "Yes, that'd probably be for the best. And I'll expect you to do the same."

"We're really doing this," George whispered, disbelief mingled with hope.

"Think Harry would notice if we left early?" I asked, wanting to spend more time with him, and not have to worry about interruptions.

"Do you care if he does?" he laughed.

"No," I said.

His answering smile was nearly blinding, and he raised a single eyebrow in question before playfully asking, "Can I take you on that date you were so determined to have now?"

"Please do."

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

Sorry for this having several bits that are pretty Ron-centric, but I imagine a romantic situation involving brothers would be a rather delicate situation that would require clearing the air quite a bit to make sure everyone was on the same page. Aside from actually telling the family (which will happen in the next chapter) Ron is in the past.

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 14

July 1998

Sidmouth

"Where are we?" I asked, turning in a circle. We were on a beach partially hidden by some jagged, sea warped rocks. The turbulent grey-blue ocean was in one direction, and a number of small shops, typical of a touristy coastal town, were in another.

It had been enormously risky Apparating during the day to such an open location! What if we'd been seen? Despite that, I couldn't bring myself to berate him, choosing to bite my tongue instead. George was an adult and knew what he was doing. Plus, I'd done the same a number of times during the last year. Little worries like being seen didn't seem as pressing as they once had. It was an easy enough fix if it did happen.

"Sidmouth," George said grinning. He clasped my hand and tugged me towards the streets lined with local souvenir shops and boutiques, and away from the foaming surf's edge and continually shifting sand beneath our feet. We strolled at a leisurely pace, obviously in no hurry to arrive at our mysterious destination.

The moment I'd agreed to a date George had grabbed my hand and Disapparated. Perhaps he'd thought I'd change my mind? Or maybe he figured we'd get stopped on the way out if we'd gone back through the bustling party… Regardless, I had no clue why we'd traveled to a town about ten miles from the Burrow.

"Why did you bring us here?" I asked patiently.

"Ice cream," he said simply.

"You're taking me for ice cream? At a Muggle place?" I asked incredulously, although highly amused. When would he have even had an opportunity to find a Muggle shop when most wizards were content visiting Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour in Diagon Alley?

"It's not just any ice cream," he said, mock scandalized. He rounded on me, hand pressed over his heart.

"I suppose this is the best you've ever had?" I intoned dryly.

"Precisely!" he exclaimed, nodding in agreement. He began walking backwards so he could face me as we spoke.

"How did you ever stumble upon this miraculous find?" I asked, playing along since he seemed to be enjoying sharing this tale.

Several times I was forced to reach out and nudge him one way or another so he didn't accidentally run into a hapless bystander. He maneuvered with ease, following my adjustments without missing a beat.

"Well, since you asked… it was during a grand adventure!" he exclaimed dramatically.

"And I suppose you weren't doing anything wrong during this grand adventure?"

"'Course I was! That's what made it so fun," he said devilishly. Laughter burst from me. He truly was incorrigible!

"Well, go on then - tell me, how did this escapade begin?"

"It was on a summer day," he said, puffing up and flourishing his arms like a master storyteller, "much like this one. Fred and I were bored, as we often were when left to our own devices… "

"Merlin, your poor mum," I interrupted, shaking my head as the image of the identical children intent on making mischief appeared. "What with the pair of you on the loose!"

"You wound me, Hermione, truly!" At my raised brow, he chuckled and continued, "We'd just gotten in trouble with Mum for making her favorite cauldron explode - wasn't our fault, mind you -"

"No. I'm sure it was a couple of the other troublemaking brothers you have… " I interjected, grabbing his arm to stop him from tripping over a broken piece of sidewalk he'd been about to catch his foot on. He brought my hand up and bent over it to place a galant kiss on the back. I sighed exaggeratedly at the show, but secretly felt pleased.

"Where was I? Oh, right, we'd been falsely accused, so we'd headed out back to nurse our grievance. That was when we'd discovered Bill and Charlie had accidently left the broomshed unlocked."

"Truly? Or was this just one of the many times you mastered your lockpicking skills?"

"You know, the exact details are a little fuzzy… hmm… can't say for sure," he prevaricated, expression one of total innocence. He'd certainly had enough practice over the years to perfect the look.

"Of course," I said, going along with his preferred version of events. "So you assumed that their convenient mistake was an opportunity for you?"

"Naturally. We decided to fly as far as we could, which considering we were six at the time… was only as far as Sidmouth."

"Well, for six-year-olds it is ever so far," I acknowledged.

"That's what we thought! So while we were here, we happened upon the most marvelous little ice cream shop. It was hot, being summer, and flying is hungry business. But we didn't have any money… "

"Did you come back to try it?"

"Oh, my dear, Hermione, do you not know us-me at all? We charmed the owner into giving us some for free," he said as if it should have been obvious all along, and knowing the twins, it really should have been. I ignored his slip and subsequent correction, reluctant to bring down his mood when he was sharing a piece of his past with me.

"George!" I said, slightly disapproving. "And I imagine you came back after that looking for more free handouts?"

"Repeatedly," he said, completely unrepentantly. "It's the best, after all. Though it's been a few years since I came here."

"Did you ever end up paying for any?" I asked curiously. I could envision how difficult it would be to turn the Weasley twins away empty handed. They were likely adorable. I'd never seen any pictures. Next time I visited the Burrow, I'd have to look for some. Surly Mrs. Weasley's anger with me wouldn't extend so far as to refuse to show off pictures of her boys. Though it might be better to wait a while before asking…

"Now, now, don't make any assumptions like that," he said, spinning back around and taking my hand again as he lead me into a quaint, sweet smelling shop painted sky blue. I noticed he didn't answer my question.

"Scamp," I muttered. He squeezed my fingers, letting me know he'd heard and didn't disagree with my frank assessment.

After getting our ice cream, boysenberry with chocolate sauce for me and salted caramel for him, we sat outside under the warm summer sun. The wrought iron tables were positioned along the front of the shop, and the place next door had an artist out front currently painting an enchanting view of the nearby cliffs. The breeze off the ocean was pleasantly cooling. We people watched for a while, coming up with elaborate stories and backgrounds for everyone that walked passed, particularly those that looked at the completed paintings the artist had out on display.

Part of me worried that Harry would be hurt if he noticed our absence, but mostly I assumed Ginny would serve as a pleasant distraction if he did pick up on our abrupt departure.

"Have you eaten anything else today?" I asked curiously. He'd completely devoured his dessert, and I knew he'd been late to the party so he likely hadn't had a chance to eat there.

"Just a bit. Are you interested in grabbing a bite after this?" he asked, looking just a touch uncertain as he shifted in his seat. "Or we could do something else, rent bikes or kayaks, whatever… "

"Dinner works," I assured him. I think it was the first time I'd ever seen him look so blatantly nervous. When he sighed in relief, I added, "We're having dessert first. Isn't that a little backwards?"

"You sure are hung up on doing things in the right order," he said meaningfully. I flushed at the pointed assessment. "Sometimes it's nice to get to the good part first - maybe it could be sort of… our thing."

I wanted to kiss him so much just then. There weren't really many people around, but I didn't know if he'd want me to claim him so publically. I bit my lip, staring up at him and searching his expression for a sign that my advance would be welcome. He took the initiative, bending forward to gently kiss me. Once, twice, then softly teasing my lips apart and darting his tongue inside for the briefest caress before pulling back.

It was like I'd finally come home. After the war and everything with my parents, I didn't really have a home anymore. Harry let me stay with him at Grimmauld Place, but that wasn't home - it was just a place to sleep at night. But being in George's arms made me feel like I finally found where I belonged. It was peace and rightness. I never considered that maybe a person rather than a place would be my home, but perhaps it was.

"I've wanted to do that since we got here, but I wasn't sure if you'd want me to," I admitted as he brushed a hand along my cheek.

"I'll always want you to. Don't ever hesitate," he instructed, and we shared a grin.

We walked around for a bit before looking for a place to eat dinner, casually talking and joking. It was relaxing and wonderful. I wished the day could stretch out forever or that everyday would consist of similar experiences.

At one point we passed by a playground and George stopped immediately, eyes lighting up. There were only a few pieces of playground equipment: monkey bars, roundabout, swingset, teeter totter, and slide scattered around a small grass square. Off to one side was a picnic table and a wooden bench, likely for parents to use while their children played nearby. "We have to!" he insisted.

"Seriously?"

"It'll be fun. I haven't been on a Muggle playground in -"

"Don't say years. I'll never believe it," I said, laughing as he pulled me over to the swingset. It was old, and only had two swings. There was a place for a third, but the chain had broken and the rubber seat hung forlornly, dangling uselessly. "I never really spent much time on playgrounds growing up."

"Because it's hard to imitate a monkey while reading a book?" George teased, though he looked genuinely curious to hear what I had to say.

"Am I that predictable?"

It was true. If something interfered with learning, and the time I devoted to pursuing knowledge, I typically avoided it. Learning had always been what I found to be most enjoyable. I excelled at it. Sports and outdoor activities, really anything that required excellent hand-eye coordination were more difficult for me and therefore less enjoyable. I had never been all right with being less than perfect. And the easiest way to ensure I was always the best was to only participate in those things I knew I was certain to succeed in.

"Yes, but it's never too late to learn to enjoy something new," he said, taking the swing to my left and seeing if I would accept his challenge. I did at once, pleased when he smirked and leaned back to get started.

"If anyone has the ability to inspire me to play more, it'll be you," I agreed, pushing hard off the ground and pumping my legs to get going.

It seemed easier to try with him. There was less pressure to excel. It was more about have as much fun as possible, which with George around was easy to do.

I particularly liked that he was trying things that didn't include flying or Quidditch. That had always been one of my fears with Ron. Those were his passions and the only things he truly wanted to do when he had free time. I could watch a game of Quidditch, sure, but I had no desire to participate. And I most definitely didn't want it to consume every free moment I had. Ron and my lack of shared interests had meant we'd never really be able to do anything together that we both enjoyed. Someone was always bound to be miserable. George seemed open to getting me to try new things and find something we'd both enjoy.

I had to stop comparing the two. It left a nasty feeling inside each time I did - however unintentionally. It was almost as if I'd drunk curdled milk and the result was a pressing need to vomit as it roiled and churned in my gut.

"I told Ginny," I blurted suddenly, toeing the worn dirt path beneath my feet. It was the first thought I had that wasn't about Ron, and it spilled out without much forethought.

"You did?" George questioned, his feet scraping the ground as he skidded to a stop. He looked at me for several moments before starting back up at a slow pace.

"Yes. I'm sorry. I know it was private, but -"

"No, it's fine. I'd have told Fred if he were here," he admitted, and I knew it to be the truth. He never would have kept it secret from his twin.

"Thanks," I sighed.

"Not sure I particularly like my baby sister knowing what I'm getting up to though," he added, cringing a bit.

"I'll refrain from sharing too many details in the future," I promised.

"Right then," he said, the matter settled. He launched himself back into the air asking, "How high can you go? I bet I can go higher!"

We spent the next ten minutes seeing who could go the highest and laughing when George would jump just when the swing reached the pinnacle. One time he managed to throw in a somersault and my heart nearly burst from my chest when he stumbled and fell to his knees when landing. He rolled over, laughing up at me, but I was clutching my chest and staring at him incredulously. I'm pretty sure my heart stopped momentarily.

After that, he settled for pushing me as he told me about some of the more daring antics he and Fred did when learning to fly. Because apparently it was easier to do a flip off the broom since it went higher. As someone who hated heights, my stomach pitched unpleasantly just hearing about the crazy things he'd done. He laughed at me and said he'd get me on a broom again at some point in the near future. He seemed not to notice when I hedged instead of agreeing.

We tried to take a spin on the roundabout, but it was old and broken with paint peeling off the worn wood, and rust having eaten through most of metal bars. I tried casting a discreet Reparo, but it didn't have any effect on the gears rusted together after what likely amounted to years of neglect. And when I refused to go down the slide while wearing a dress, even if it was starting to get dark out, George decided it was time to call it a day and grab dinner. I hoped he talked me into doing something similar to this soon.

During dinner, George told me about how Fred had planned to propose to Angelina if they got back together after the war. I think I sat in stunned silence for at least five minutes after that revelation. Fred really hadn't seemed the type to settle down so young, especially not with his first love. I guess I had always pictured him as more wild, more like the stories I'd heard about Bill in the years after he'd graduated and before he'd met Fleur. When I voiced as much, George laughed and agreed, saying it had surprised him nearly as much. He'd also added that Fred had been delighted by the idea that Mum would have conniptions over it, seeing as how young they were. But aside from all that, he truly had loved Angie. I hated Voldemort all over again for all the devastation he'd caused and the lives he'd ruined.

After that, I'd shared my experience camping with Ron and Harry during the last year. He'd already guessed a lot of it when he'd seen me at Christmas, but this time I didn't spare any of the details - including owning up to everything we've been doing and all that our mission had entailed for Dumbledore. He was shocked and disgusted in equal measure when I explained about the Horcruxes. Eventually, I'd have to tell Harry about filling George in, but I hoped he'd understand considering I knew he told Ginny. For me, it was the same thing. George deserved to know everything. He and I needed to be on equal footing moving forward.

We ended the night by George Side-Along-Apparating me back to the square in front of 12 Grimmauld Place. He kissed me tenderly goodnight under the soft glow of the street lights and flashing lightning bugs. The sounds of the distant traffic were muted the moment our lips touched. I promised to see him bright and early the next morning when we went to work on righting the shop.

August 1998

WWW

The first day in the shop was spent cleaning and reorganizing everything to how it had been before the Death Eaters had destroyed the twins' beloved store. The storage room was easy to clean up and only took about an hour since all we had to do was toss the damaged products, salvage items that were intact but needed new packaging, and restack the items that could still be sold as is. Some of the boxes were so badly squished you couldn't even tell what they used to contain. It was the same in the main room of the shop. We finished those before lunch, even with interruptions and frequent breaks for kissing and light fooling around.

It seemed neither of us were capable of keeping our hands to ourselves now that we had the freedom to express our interest in one another. At one point, George pinned me against one of his shelving units in the store room and kissed me until my head was spinning and I was so dizzy and lightheaded from oxygen deprivation that I saw bright bursts of starlight behind my eyelids. He'd looked ever so smug when he eventually released me and went back to cleaning up.

It took longer than I expected, all of the afternoon in fact, to clean and organize the prep room though because some of the ingredients had been spilt, and their sensitive nature meant special means were required for disposing of them properly. Once all of the hazardous material was removed, a number of useful Cleaning Charms would take care of the bulk of the remaining mess.

We'd just gotten started in the prep room when I was looking over a set of instructions for creating the Ten-Second Pimple Vanisher potion. Something about it seemed off. "What were your O.W.L.s again?"

"DADA, Charms, and Transfiguration, why?" he answered without looking up from where he was taking inventory of his remaining supplies.

I looked back at the complicated potion. They'd mixed fluxweed with horklump juice and added a quarter counterclockwise turn after every third stir. I would never have considered that combination. The fluid and transformative properties of the fluxweed were balanced with the healing nature of the horklump juice. And the stirring method made sense if they were trying to isolate where the temporary healing was to occur.

"What were Fred's?" I asked, more like demanded while reaching for another parchment sheet of precise and carefully written instructions, this time for creating a joke wand. This was extremely complex magic with unheard of combinations. The time and research, though more likely simple trial and error in the twins' case, was staggering. No wonder their products were so unique and innovative!

"DADA, Charms, and Herbology. Hermione, you all right over there?" he asked, apparently noticing that I was in awe as I scanned their product recipes.

"No Potions?" I clarified, wondering how it was even possible for them to know what they did without taking the advanced levels of the class.

"Ugh! No way. Two extra years of Snape? Definitely not - even if he did turn out to be a bit less slimy in the end," George said with a mock shutter. I glared at his for disparaging the professor that had given his life for Harry, but refused to be lead off topic.

"You really only got three O.W.L.s?" I questioned, denial and disbelief evident in my quiet question.

"You're horrified, aren't you?" he asked, grinning. He looked thrilled to see me so rattled.

"A little," I admitted. "I mean… you're obviously brilliant! How you ever developed half of this stuff… it-it's absolutely remarkable," I said, shaking my head and waving the parchments I was holding for emphasis.

"Why thank you, Miss Granger," he said, striding over and kissing me softly. "I've been waiting years for you to admit that I'm smarter than you."

"I wouldn't go that far," I huffed, getting lost in the feel of him when his lips tasted mine again. He always tasted sweet, like Butterbeer. I suppose years of going without sugar meant that now I craved it like a fiend - making up for lost time.

"This was more fun than work anyways," he breathed, tilting his head to nibble at the sensitive spot on my neck that he'd recently discovered always made me groan.

"George! I'm serious," I said, drawing back a little to talk to him about his work. "How could you possibly fail the exams when it's clear you have such thorough understanding -"

"We didn't want to pass," he said simply, shrugging as he stood up straight. He seemed to instinctively know I wasn't letting this go until we'd had a proper conversation about it.

"You failed on purpose?" I asked, my heart giving a jerky horrified beat at the very thought.

"We knew Mum would make us take the classes if we passed any others so we deliberately failed to have more time to work on our stuff."

"Hmph," I said, slightly strangled.

"It's really the school's fault," he added, unable to hide his overwhelming joy at seeing me so thoroughly distraught over his decision and disregard for school and the whole education process.

"How ever did you come to that conclusion?" I demanded.

"They don't really offer independent study projects - well, they do, but only for traditional research. There's nothing for experimental study."

"No. I guess not," I agreed cautiously.

"Though Dumbledore did give us a room to use during sixth year so we'd stop causing explosions in the boy's dorm… "

I felt a little better knowing Dumbledore had sanctioned their activities, and knowing that the results had been successful given what I'd seen of their shop. Then another thought occurred to me. "Why did you pick those courses?"

"DADA because of the war. We were both determined to fight so it made sense - even if we rarely had a decent professor. Charms because we were both really good at it, and Flitwick was good about helping us work out kinks with the ones we invented for products, so it was still useful to take from a business perspective. And Fred and I decided Transfiguration and Herbology would also be beneficial for creating products, so we split who would take which. That way we wouldn't both have to waste time - uh - yeah," he finished sheepishly.

"You guys had it all worked out… "

"Yeah… before… " A pall fell over the moment and suddenly George was a solitary figure doing what had once been a shared dream all on his own. He was only ever meant to be one half of the equation. Now he was forced to become everything.

"How are you holding up? Today must have been hard," I said, adjusting to the change in atmosphere.

"It wasn't what I expected. It's… " he trailed off, moving to prop himself against the nearby wall. His hands opened and closed, like he was reaching for the words to give voice to his thoughts, but they wouldn't come. "It's not okay. I'm not okay. But I also know there's nothing I can do about it. I just feel… "

"Helpless," I supplied, and he winced. But then he nodded, looking away and getting back to work without another word.

I had a feeling helpless wasn't an emotion he was overly familiar with. This shop was proof enough that he'd been largely in control of nearly every aspect of his life for a very long time. And it wasn't like he or Fred had ever really let Mrs. Weasley control them. Now he was at the mercy of circumstance. He was holding up better than most, but it was still challenging.

He didn't speak for a long time, and I went back to organizing the workbench.

"Thanks for being here," he whispered. He remained focused on rebottling some spilled powder, so I didn't say anything, but I did note that the tense line of his shoulders relaxed noticeably and we fell into a companionable silence while we worked for the next few hours.

We were nearly finished and just about ready to call it a day when I cornered him, blocking his path to the door. He eyed me brazenly, but kept a nearly tangible bubble of space between us acting as a buffer. Part of me realized he was waiting for me to make the next move, to be the one to decide the next time we were together and initiate it. There had been a great deal of kissing and touching throughout the day, but nothing overly sexual. At least not before now.

"The other day," I began, pausing to swallow nervously. "You promised me something."

He blinked, adorably confused before saying, "Sorry? You'll have to refresh my memory."

"Before we were together, you said… " I trailed off, face flushing uncomfortably. It was harder to voice my desire than I expected. I gathered up a significant amount of my Gryffindor courage and forced myself to boldly continue, "You said I could explore you too - like what you did to me."

The sight of his eager anticipation made my embarrassment worth it. He grabbed my hand and started upstairs immediately to get started, practically dragging me along behind him. We only made it just inside the door before he had both of our shirts off, and both of our hands were seeking as much of the other as possible.

That night he convinced me to stay with him again, and our second time together was as perfect as the first, and significantly more enjoyable. The discomfort had been nearly nonexistent this time.

We'd had dinner in bed afterwards. It felt decadent and hedonistic. George had the ability to make me feel sensual and feminine without having to sacrifice my intelligence. It was a delicate balance I never expected to find, but was nonetheless immensely grateful for.

Over the next couple days, several other Weasleys and Harry had stopped in at one point or another to offer help and donate an hour or two to getting the shop back up and running. Most were surprised by my presence, but brushed it off quickly enough when I pointed out that I had nothing else to occupy my time with this summer since I'd declined Kingsley's offer to become an Auror with Ron and Harry.

Kingsley had also offered me the opportunity to come in and help at the Ministry this summer when I'd gotten back from Australia, but I declined. He was curious when I did, but I explained my refusal by saying, "How can I expect people to take me seriously when I can't back up my intelligence with N.E.W.T. results? I have to finish Hogwarts before I even attempt to take on the Ministry and all that needs doing there." He'd chuckled his deep, soothing laugh and said, "Come see me once the results are in. I'm certain we'll have a job waiting for you."

It was on the sixth day that Ron stopped in. He took one look at me then, in his usual brusk tone, demanded, "Where's George?"

"He had to run an errand," I said, standing uncertainly. Being forced to face him without having time to mental prepare and brace myself was not on my list of things to do today, and definitely not something I wanted to do less than an hour after George had convinced me to participate in a very pleasant round of sex with him in the store room next door.

The last couple days had been eye-opening as I discovered George was as inventive in the bedroom, and out, as he was when it came to pranks. Different positions and a variety of places, not to mention every time of day or night. His creativeness was the perfect balance for my inquisitive nature. I was always eager to learn something new, and he was more than willing come up with new ways to satisfy my curiosity.

"And he left you here alone?" Ron asked suspiciously, cutting into my remembrance of George using one hand to massage my clit while the other used the shelves as leverage as he drove into me from behind. We hadn't even bothered to undress more than the bare minimum necessary before the frantic coupling began. It had been hot and fast, leaving me weak-kneed and panting, my screams muffled against my forearm on the shelf in front of me by the time it was over.

"Yes, Ron," I said, sighing tiredly. I didn't want to defend myself as if I couldn't be trusted without supervision. I was always too blunt or spoke without thinking when Ron provoked me. Today was not the day for that. "Do -"

"Why are you here?" he asked distractedly, looking around at the progress we'd already made.

I hesitated, feeling trapped. George and I hadn't yet discussed telling his family about us. It was still so new. I didn't want the outside world feeling entitled to way in yet. And telling Ron was something I was not looking forward to. I hadn't even figured out if the news would be better coming from George or me yet.

"I'm helping out. School doesn't start for a couple more weeks," I said, settling for an evasive response.

"Right. You're leaving soon," he said, looking back at me. He didn't move. Was he waiting for me to say something? Apologize again maybe? Or did he miss our friendship as much as I did?

I'd never admit it to George, but I missed Ron. I missed fighting with him - as insane as that was. I missing losing chess matches to him. I missed watching him and Harry play Quidditch. I missed someone knowing every detail about me even if that person was typically oblivious. I missed his stupid, infuriating comments. I missed my friend.

I'd been happy, happier than I imagined possible these last few days with George, but I couldn't deny that it'd be even better if I could share my newfound happiness with my friends - not that it wouldn't take a while for Ron to share in my happiness, but that wasn't the point.

When Ron remained, waiting, I ventured, "Did you want to stay and help me?"

"No," he said immediately, frowning at me. Had I said something wrong? "I should be getting back to the Ministry."

"Oh… " I whispered, deflating a bit. He really wasn't ready to forgive me for not wanting him.

"Lunch is almost over - we have a test this afternoon so I really can't stay. Er - sorry," he mumbled, adding, "I just wanted to check on George."

"I'll tell him you stopped by," I offered. He looked confused, brow furrowed as he stared at me, still not leaving. "Ron -"

"Bye, Hermione," he said, turning abruptly to go, the door swinging shut behind him with a deafening click in the silent room. I swallowed back the tears that threatened, resigned to things taking time.

George returned about an hour later, and I was just finishing making all of the Skiving Snackbox products. He'd laughed uproariously this morning after seeing my expression when he'd asked me to make the additional replacement stock of them. I'd lectured him for a good ten minutes on what a bad idea selling the items to misbehaving students was, but in the end I'd conceded and set about making them. He was busy acquiring supplies today, so he'd been in and out too often to help with preparations himself.

A few of the ingredients he needed had been particularly tricky to get a hold of. Knockturn Alley didn't have them in stock just now with the Ministry on the lookout for any suspicious dealings, and Mundungus was no help seeing as someone in the Auror department had arrested him two days ago. I'd asked Harry about it, but all he'd been able to say was that Mundungus was getting a slap on the wrist and wouldn't be serving any time in Azkaban - not that he needed to know that just yet. I don't think Harry minded overly much that Mundungus was apprehended after the trouble he'd caused us, Harry in particular. But I also knew Harry was after true Death Eaters, and Mundungus, for all his faults, didn't qualify. Though he was proving helpful in the meantime by providing information on the whereabouts of some of the at-large Death Eaters that had escaped Hogwarts after the battle.

Regardless, the arrest was making things a bit inconvenient for George and was partly responsible for delaying his reopening.

"It's done," he announced, striding over and offering a kiss.

"Of course it is," I said, amused. "What was it you were referring to again?"

"Oh, right - sorry. Verity agreed to come back. She'll start up again when I open next week," he said, sitting on the table beside where I was working.

"The girl that worked here before?" I asked, the name was familiar.

"Yeah, why? Are you jealous?" he asked, playfully tugging on my braid.

"No. I know I don't need to be," I said, pulling free and turning to smile at him.

It was comforting feeling secure in his feelings for me. I hated thinking it, but I knew if it was Ron, I'd always wonder if he was looking elsewhere hoping for interest from a prettier girl. Ron had never made any secret about how much appearance mattered to him. I could be very pretty when I tried, but I was certainly not a great beauty, and I honestly rarely put the effort in to enhance my looks overly much. As a result, I'd always have been insecure with Ron. George, by contrast, made me feel like I was the only witch in the world he even noticed.

"No, you don't," he confirmed, reaching to slip a hand under my shirt as he leaned closer.

"George, wait," I gasped, the comparison reminding me of his visitor. "Ron stopped in while you were out."

"Oh?" His lips and hands froze, but his face remained pressed against my neck, hiding his expression. "How was that?" he asked carefully.

"He was Ron."

"'Course he was a prat, but are you all right?"

I read the unspoken question and chose to answer it instead. "You don't need to be jealous either. I'm all in," I vowed, echoing his words back to him.

"I know," he said, straightening and grinning cockily. "I just wanted to hear you say it." I smacked him playfully. "But really, was he awful?"

"No. It was much more civil than I expected. I really hurt him."

"I'm sorry," he whispered, ducking his head.

"You didn't do anything wrong. It's not as though you deliberately set out to hurt him, and you didn't try to take me from him or anything. You never even said a word or let me know how you felt until last week, and Ron and I were over by then. We were never actually together. There wasn't ever an opportunity between Lavender and helping Harry and everything else that happened. And by the time there was one… I no longer felt that way about him," I assured George. "But we should talk about when we're going to tell everyone," I ventured.

"I think we should wait," he said. His response came so readily that I knew he'd already been considering it as much as I had. Neither of us wanted to hurt Ron more than necessary, and he needed a bit more time to move on before he heard about this.

"Me too," I agreed.

"That was easy," he said, a wicked gleam in his eye as he pulled me between his parted knees. "I do want to tell Lee though," George confessed, linking his hands with mine.

"I think you should," I said, giving his fingers a gentle squeeze in reassurance. "I might tell Harry too before I go back to school."

"Figured you already had, or Ginny would," George said, pulling me closer. "I'm all right with it. Lee's coming over for dinner. Want to join us? We could tell him then."

It'd be nice getting to know Lee more. He was George's best friend and I'd probably be spending a lot of time with him in the future.

"Next time? I promised Neville I'd meet him and Harry for dinner tonight. I haven't spent much time with them this week… " Ron and I were currently trading off who got to spend time with Harry, and tonight was my turn.

"Hmm, some bloke has been too busy ravishing you," he teased, his hand circling around the back of my neck to tug me close for a kiss, but I evaded him.

"I think I like the thought of me ravishing you more just now," I said, sliding a hand provocatively over his thigh.

"It's like that is it," he breathed, visibly swallowing when my fingers brushed him through the pants he wore beneath his open work robes.

"Yes," I informed him, moving to kneel before him. My hands skated up and down, slowly inching higher on each pass as I scooted closer. George helpfully spread his legs a little wider to give me better access.

"I'm at your disposal. Use me, please," he begged just as I freed his length and wrapped my fingers around the base of his shaft.

Leaning forward, I swiped my tongue over the crown before gently blowing and making him jump and gasp as he twitched in my hand. I repeated the action, eager to watch him respond to the stimuli. This was the second time I'd done this, and I found it fascinating. There was an unpredictable sense of anticipation to it the process - not to mention how it made my heart race to know I was the reason behind George coming so completely undone.

His breathing got heavier when I traced the tip of my tongue over his slit and around the head teasingly. All the while my fingers lightly squeezed and stroked up from the base, never delivering the pressure he craved.

"Please, Hermione. You're killing me here," George begged, hands gripping the sides of the desk so hard his knuckles had turned white making his freckles look even darker by contrast.

His words spurred me forward and I finally took him fully into my mouth, at least as much as would fit. It would take additional practice to accept more of him. Hopefully he wouldn't mind the extra homework.

George moaned and pleaded with me, urging me on and praising me as I greedily licked and sucked his length. He tasted interesting, something I couldn't really find words to describe aside from distinctly male. And the feel of him was the most intriguing of all; the contract between soft and hard, along with the intense heat was fascinating. It all combined to make me nearly as aroused as I was making George.

I felt his fingers card through my hair when he was close, his hand gently cupping the back of my head. "Hermione, I'm - ahh - almost - mmm." His words were barely coherent at this point, but I heard him anyways.

When he reached his climax, I sucked harder and swallowed every drop, lapping at him until he was completely spent. Afterwards, I sat back feeling supremely satisfied with myself. George was flushed and breathing hard. His pupils were still dilated and his mouth was hanging slightly open as he stared down at me.

"That was… " he breathed, shaking his head as words eluded him.

"Better this time?" I asked, though I already knew the answer. He released a single loud laugh, letting his head fall back for a second before looking back at me.

The first time I'd kept stopping to ask questions and make sure I was doing everything correctly. He'd eventually groaned and said flat out that I was absolutely torturing him because he wanted me so much that anything I did felt great, but that if I was so worried, I should repeat the things that invoked the biggest reactions and he'd tell me straight out if I did something he didn't like. That advice had been extremely helpful and easy to follow this time. Each time we were together it got easier to trust his reactions to act as a guide for what I should do.

"Understatement," he confirmed, offering a hand to help me stand. "Lee will be here soon, but I'm sure he won't mind waiting."

"Can't. I'm already running late," I said apologetically. The need burning between my thighs gave a particularly noticeable throb at the idea of being denied.

George glanced down at his still open pants and his semierect cock, then back up at me. "And people say I'm the devious one," he muttered.

"I'll be back later," I promised and laughed, giving him a quick peck before turning to leave, hastily attempting to tuck my loosened, disheveled hair back into some semblance of a braid before joining the boys down the street at the Leaky Cauldron.

Even with the additional help on top of all the time George and I put in, it took the better part of a week and a half before he was actually ready to reopen. Apparently, the twins had spent those last couple months at Hogwarts stockpiling products rather than attending classes. While part of me was horrified, another recognized it as ingenious planning.

We were finishing the last of the flashy, colorful displays in the main room so everything would be ready for the back-to-school shoppers the next morning. It was later than usual, but we were nearly done.

"When?" I asked suddenly. When George glanced at me, I added, "How long?" When he still looked confused, I clarified, "When did you first -"

"When did I first start having feelings for you?" he guessed. I nodded and he flushed, looking away before admitting, "Sixth year."

"When you saw me dressed up for the first time - the Yule Ball?" I assumed, slightly disheartened. Why did I have to wear a dress to get a bloke to notice me? That was when Ron first realized I was a girl too.

"No, actually. It was before that."

"What?" Now it was my turn to be confused.

"When you stood by Harry. After he was named champion and everyone else turned their backs on him - including Ron. You picked Harry's side, despite having feelings for Ron, because you knew it was the right thing to do and that Harry needed you. I found that very admirable… and admiration was quickly followed by lust." He grinned, moving to sit beside me. "Sorry, I am still just a bloke and I was sixteen at the time."

"Really?" I couldn't find anymore words.

He shook his head, seeming to remember something specific. When I elbowed him, wanting to be let in on the secret, he said, "I wanted to snog you silly every time you'd get all fired up and start lecturing or yelling at someone. Every - single - time! You're so passionate - about everything - it's rather stimulating," he finished, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

"I can't believe -"

"Believe it," he insisted.

"That long? Why didn't you ever… " I trailed off when he sighed, rubbing his face tiredly.

"Ron. He's my brother, and I'd never do that to him - especially if he was who you wanted as well. When it looked like he wasn't going to ask you the ball that year, I considered asking you myself. I wanted to so much, but even that felt like a betrayal and I knew he didn't have feelings for you then. But I knew he would one day and that you already liked him. It was so obvious," he said, talking fast as he made his confession. "Then Ginny warned me that you had a date already, so I asked Alicia and well… "

They'd dated the rest of the year. He'd already told me that she'd been the first of two girls that he'd slept with before me. That had been an awkward conversation the other night when I'd finally gotten around to bring the topic up. The other had been a Ravenclaw, Evelyn, a couple years ahead of him at Hogwarts that he'd meet when they'd first opened WWW. He'd figured out pretty quick that they weren't compatible though and it had ended on decent terms. He'd seemed reluctant to talk more about what happened with either girl, but I really wanted to know more.

"I never had any idea," I said, amazed and slightly stunned. If he hadn't told me himself, I never would have guessed or believed it. "Is that why you and Alicia… " I trailed off, hoping he wouldn't mind my prying a bit.

"Partly. It didn't seem right to be with her when I really wanted to be with you." So that was the reason. I felt guilty despite not having done anything wrong.

"And after you broke up?"

"I promised myself I'd move on when you and Ron finally got together. But then you didn't. Again and again - you didn't. Each time I thought for sure you would, you… well… didn't. So I couldn't move on, not really when I was secretly still holding out hope. Then Mum said something about you and Ron when you went back to Hogwarts for your sixth year and I thought it finally happened, but I found out at Christmas that he was dating Lavender. He'd been the one to move on instead so I was back to hoping."

"That was when you and Evelyn broke things off," I guessed and he nodded in confirmation. "And last summer?"

"Was rough. You both still had feeling for each other, but he was being a prat. I even gave him a book to help him try to do better by you -"

"You what?" I demanded.

"Er - it was a book Bill gave Fred and me. We just passed it along. During the Order meeting last summer he was a right git to you. But if he was who you wanted… I wanted you to be happy. So Fred and I tried to help him get it together a bit," George admitted.

"I can't believe you did that. No wonder he started giving me compliments and being overly nice," I said, uncertain how I felt about this newest revelation.

"Obviously it wasn't… well, we're here now," George said uncomfortably. He'd tried to help his brother despite being in love with me himself. If it had worked…

"You're incredible," I whispered, unable to think of anything else to say.

"I'm guessing it hasn't been as long for you," he prodded, redirecting the conversation. He was trying to mask his anxiety over my answer, but I was getting better at reading him, and saw the signs.

"No," I admitted.

He hesitated, almost as if he didn't want to know the answer, but forged ahead anyways, blurting, "How long then?"

I thought about it carefully. The first time I realized I might have feelings for him was when he'd helped me with my parents. But I'd still been so hung up on Ron that I hadn't wanted to acknowledge them. Since we'd gotten together, I'd thought more about it, and I'd been forced to realize that they'd been there for a while before that, just buried deep. It had been too easy to turn to him as often as I had for them not to already exist, even if only subconsciously.

"Before sixth year," I finally said, explaining, "when I saw how successful your shop was." His brow wrinkled, and I wondered if other witches had approached him once they realized how wealthy the twins were becoming. I hurried to add, "I saw how accomplished you were - not your gags or your jokes or your pranks, which truly are remarkable, but your capability to manage the shop. There's so much behind the scenes that goes into being a successful businessman. And when Ron mentioned that you ran that side of things… I think it would be accurate to say I started to admire you," I teased, using his word, and throwing in, "and it doesn't hurt that you have a body that is definitely worthy of a Daydream Charm."

He looked amazed that I had said something he had not expected, but secretly longed to hear.

Nothing more was said on the topic. But that night when we were together it was different. Every touch was achingly soft and deliberate. It was slow, careful… loving. It was the first time we were together and it felt worthy of the expression "making love" rather than a release of passion and desire.

The last few weeks of summer passed in a blur. The grand reopening was a success and a few days after that George began interviewing people to look for an assistant to help him with creating products once I went back to Hogwarts. He wanted to return to the development and business side of things, with Verity in charge of customer service like before, and add someone else to take on the day-to-day production tasks.

We had a celebratory dinner the day he reopened, along with Verity and Lee, who had taken off work to help out with everything. It was fun to watch Lee and George laugh and joke. Occasionally, one would say something and there would be an unusually elongated pause before the other spoke. It was probably the fourth or fifth time it happened that I realized Fred was the reason. They naturally paused to give him time to chime in, only he was no longer around to take advantage. The trio had been nearly as close as Harry, Ron, and I, and certainly more vocal in their friendship. They were still adjusting to being a duo now.

After that, George and I settled into a routine. I continued helping at the store, but only a few hours a day now because I had also returned to my own interests of reading and researching. That was balanced with spending time with George. He'd either take a long lunch or leave early and we'd do something together. I think it occurred to each of us that our days of freely spending time together were limited as September first crept closer and closer.

The other day he'd even gone so far as to take the morning off, letting Verity open solo, so he could take me surfing and coasteering in Pembrokeshire. I'd admitted that I'd never done it and somehow he'd taken that as me confessing a burning desire to learn. It had undoubtedly been an unforgettable experience, and absolutely thrilling when I managed to catch a wave and soar all the way to the water's edge. Definitely better than flying. But I didn't think it was an adventure I planned to repeat on a regular basis. It was a little too outside my comfort zone and I just wasn't coordinated enough to be any good.

Plus the cliff-jumping had nearly stopped my heart. My fear of heights had kept me from jumping myself, choosing just to scramble around on the lower boulders, which was actually quite fun. Cliff-jumping though was too much of a reminder of being forced to jump from a dragon's back mid flight. But I watched as George jumped from higher and higher rock ledges. I screamed while he laughed each time he plummeted towards the crashing waves below.

August 1998

12 Grimmauld Place

A couple days before my return to Hogwarts, Harry cornered me coming home one morning to change clothes. It was rare for me not to stay at George's anymore, but I always came back to Grimmauld Place to change and get ready for the day. George and I had only been together for a few weeks and I wasn't going to ask him if I could start keeping personal items there. Not yet. Part of me hoped he'd offer before it became necessary for me to make the request.

"Did I do something wrong?" Harry asked, fidgeting with his glasses.

"No?" What was he talking about?

"I've looked for you after work the last couple days, but you haven't been around. And I waited up for you last night - you didn't come home. Did I make you think this wasn't your home or something?" Harry blurted, looking forlorn and concerned.

I'd been so caught up with George that I hadn't been making time for my best mate. I couldn't even remember the last time we sat down and talked for any length of time or did anything together. I figured he wouldn't notice because he was doing the same with Ginny before she went back to school and he had his stuff with the Aurors, but apparently he had.

"Of course not! Harry, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you worry. I've just been out lately -"

"There are still Death Eaters out there. It's not safe for you to be alone," he cut in. Something must have happened at work for him to be this worried. He'd already told me he couldn't really talk about what he learned there, so I didn't ask, but knowing Harry as well as I did made it easy to read the concern on his face.

"I'm not, Harry," I said, attempting to reassure him.

"Not what?"

"Not alone," I admitted. Now seemed as good a time as any to tell him. "I've been with George."

"Oh, right. I forgot you've been helping at the store this summer," he said, breathing an audible sigh of relief.

"It's more than that, Harry," I said softly. "We're together."

"Together?" I chuckled at his confusion. Only Harry would misunderstand.

"We're seeing each other - romantically," I explained. Harry's mouth fell open. I feared his jaw was about to unhinge itself.

"You and George?"

"Yes, Harry - George," I reiterated, sighing when Harry's mouth opened and closed twice without any words coming out.

"I don't… " Harry finally began, then stopped before demanding, "What about Ron?"

"I grew up and what I wanted changed, Harry." Harry was staring at me like I'd grown a second head, so I went on. "Ron was my childhood crush, but this last year helped me figure out that we weren't right for each other," I explained, trying not to sound like I was blaming anyone for what happened. It wasn't anyone's fault. Sometimes feelings just change. It's better to acknowledge them than deny them and end up unhappy.

Harry was shaking his head before I finished though. "He loves you," he insisted. It sounded more like an accusation. "He wanted to be with you."

"He left us and I stopped trusting him. I can't love or be with someone I don't trust."

"But - but he came back," Harry said weakly.

"Yes, and what happened at Malfoy Manor helped me forgive him. But the damage was done. I had weeks to get over him, and I did. Once that happened… there was no going back."

"Can't you try?"

"Oh, Harry," I sighed, shaking my head. "I know you always pictured us ending up together. Especially after all the times you got caught in the middle, but even if we had tried, I don't think it would have worked out. We made each other miserable. We fought all the time about everything, and that wasn't ever going to change. He hates how bossy and critical I get, and that's a rather large part of who I am. I can't really shut it off, particularly when I don't agree with his decisions. Honestly, I think I made all of his inferiority issues worse. I don't want to do that to him," I said, unloading everything I had come to understand about the situation after considering it for so long.

"He was trying to get past that, be more of who you wanted him to be though," Harry defended on his friend's behalf.

"We could have tried, but if we had and it didn't end well… I think it would have been worse. Pent up anger and resentment can be impossible to get passed if you let it fester for too long. Besides, he shouldn't have to change. He needs someone that loves him exactly as he is. Or someone that inspires him to be better without it being so forced," I said. Poor Harry. He so wanted everyone to be happy and have everything work out. Sometimes that just wasn't possible. And unfortunately, this was one time Harry couldn't act the hero and fix things.

"But George? Why did you have to pick his brother over him. He's -"

"It wasn't as if I wanted it to happen! I can't help how I feel, Harry," I interrupted, feeling irked and defensive.

"You and George fought in school too," he said, but at seeing my annoyed expression, scrambled to add, "sorry, I'm just trying to understand."

"That was years ago. We're different people. He grew up… became a man I could easily fall in love with," I said simply.

"You're in love with him!" Harry exclaimed, mouth falling open again.

"Yes," I said, feeling as startled as Harry looked by the revelation. Considering it and voicing it were very different. Giddiness swelled within me, terrifying and thrilling all at once.

"When did this happen? How did I miss it?" Harry asked, looking amazed. I felt my brows raise incredulously, and I clamped my jaw shut to hold back a biting retort. When had Harry ever been the master observer when it came to matters of the heart?

"It's been coming on nearly a year -"

"That's why you took us to the twins' when I was hurt," Harry said as if the puzzle pieces had just clicked into place.

"Yes," I agreed. "We only recently worked things out between us, but we are together now," I said, feeling my lips spread into an impossibly wide smile.

"You're happy?" Harry asked, all protective-brother concern now.

"Very," I assured him.

"When are you telling Ron?" he asked, unable to hide his worry.

"I don't know," I whispered.

"Hermione, he's going to be devastated."

I sighed, scrubbing a hand tiredly over my face. "I know. We'll wait until he's had a chance to move on before we break the news," I vowed.

"Is George why you haven't been coming home at night?" Harry asked suddenly, staring at me in a way that spoke volumes. He'd just realized exactly how together George and I were.

"Harry -"

"Never mind!" he interrupted, throwing up his hands as if they had the power to block his ears from hearing whatever else I had to say. "Does anyone else know about this?"

"Just Lee. Oh, and Ginny," I admitted.

"She didn't tell me," he said, slightly hurt.

"It wasn't her secret to tell," I chided.

"Yeah," he said, slowly nodding in acknowledgement. "I never would have guessed," he muttered, understandably stunned. "This is serious, isn't it?"

"Yes," I admitted.

"If this is what you want, I'm happy for you."

"Thanks, Harry."

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 15

October 1998

Hogwarts

The folded paper exploded the moment I touched it. There was no other way to describe the blinding light and enormous BANG!

"AHHHHH!" I screamed, jerking back so hard I tumbled off the bench and onto the floor of the Great Hall. "Omph," I groaned, the landing making my backside smart painfully.

A slender, freckled hand reached shakily down to help me back up. One glance revealed that the cause of Ginny's shaking was suppressed laughter attempting to bubble forth. Knocking her hand aside, I got to my feet and glared at the letter George had sent - the one that tried to kill me. But in its place were at least two dozen lilies in all different shades. There were pure, snowy white ones, orange with violet patches so dark they were nearly black, pink ones edged in white, yellow with orange spots, burgundy the color of red wine with yellow stripes, and many, many more.

I stared, dumbstruck. Girls nearby were cooing and gushing over the elaborate romantic display. My face flushed at being the recipient of such attention and at the pleasure George's surprise gave me. I hurriedly gathered the bouquet up, and Ginny helpfully conjured a vase for me to put the flowers in.

That was when I saw the note.

Hermione,

Did you really think you were safe from pranks just because I love you? Until next time…

Yours,

George

A huff escaped me, part irritation, part amusement. I really should have known to expect something. It was just the sort of thing he'd do, particularly since he knew I was still struggling to adjust to being back at Hogwarts. He always thought a good laugh was the cure.

This last month had been strange. While returning to Hogwarts felt right as far as my education and career went, it was also apparent I didn't really belong here anymore. I already knew all of the curriculum. It was even to the point that a lot of it had became matter of course in my day-to-day life. Nothing was challenging or new, which left me feeling a strange and contradictory combination of frustrated and apathetic more often than not.

It didn't help that we had new Transfiguration and Defense Against the Dark Arts professors either. The Transfiguration professor was a younger male, Professor Michel, who graduated the year before I started at Hogwarts. He was a little pompous, a bit like Percy actually, and had a tendency to get off topic and go on and on without actually imparting anything worthwhile. I wasn't overly impressed with him so far, and I missed having Professor McGonagall. Unfortunately, she was busy with her new Headmistress duties.

The DADA professor was another retired Auror, Professor Avila, that Kingsley had convinced to come here and teach for a few years until things settled down a bit. With the curse on the position broken it would be possible for her to stick around longer than a year. Her agreement to come here had also played a large part in the school board agreeing to reopen the school so soon after what happened here last spring. She was a seasoned Auror with years of defensive magic under her belt, and even better than that, she lacked Moody's paranoid reputation. While she was at least competent, I'd already had enough practice with the seventh years spells that I wasn't getting much out of her lessons.

More difficult than anything, however, was the knowledge that I felt separate from the rest of the student body and didn't really fit in. Nearly all of my friends had already graduated, leaving me the oldest by far, especially since I was already one of the oldest in my actual grade. And with the things I'd experienced this last year, being on my own and in charge of my daily life and schedule, I truly felt like an adult - not a teenager in need of curfew and assigned mealtimes. The rules chafed - quite a bit actually - but I was handling the restrictions better than Harry or Ron would have if they'd returned with me. I never thought I'd be one to find rules confining, but now they were just another reminder of how I'd already outgrown this environment.

On top of that, I missed George. More than I expected to, honestly. It was a dull constant ache in my chest combined with a pressing and persistent desire to talk to him and share all the little things that happened each day. We wrote nearly every day, sometimes long letters, sometimes no more than a single line. Lately, he'd been trying to convince me to sneak out of the castle. I refused point blank to do any such thing. But yesterday Professor McGonagall announced that our first Hogsmeade visit was this weekend. Hopefully I'd have an opportunity to see him then.

I dropped the flowers he'd sent off in my room, cast a Preservation Charm to make them last longer, and jotted a quick response.

George,

Does this mean you're fair game too? As you know, I don't have much experience, but I'm sure I could come up with something given enough motivation…

Yours,

Hermione

PS We have a Hogsmeade visit on Saturday. Any chance Verity can handle the shop alone?

There was just enough time to post it before my first class began. I took the long way up to the owlery just as I always did anymore. My former route took me through the seventh floor corridor that Fred had died in. I couldn't face that place and the nightmare memories, not again.

The first day back, Ginny and I had gone to the owlery together to post our respective letters when we'd mistakenly taken the route that passed through that area. It had been completely rebuilt without a single clue to serve as a marker for what had occurred if you didn't know what to look for, but I'd instantly stopped when recognition hit. Because I did know what to look for. The signs were everywhere, from the new painting to replace the one ripped irreparably apart to the missing suite of armour that had been destroyed and never replaced in the alcove across from the repaired wall. The same alcove Harry and Percy had placed Fred's body in. The entire night played out before me, catching me in a memory that could never be altered or fixed. It was just like my memory of killing the Death Eater. The event was frozen in amber like a trapped mosquito.

Ginny had picked up on my abrupt silence and horrified expression, and immediately known where we were. She'd lost it, crying harder than she had at the funeral. It was the unexpectedness that did it. I don't think she ever planned to visit this place, and if she did, it would've be of her own volition and not because she'd unknowingly stumbled upon it.

Professor McGonagall had found us, and once she comprehended the situation, she'd begun crying too. I couldn't handle witnessing that. It had been too much. Self-preservation instincts had kicked in and I'd fled, leaving the Headmistress to look after Ginny.

That was another reason being here was so difficult. There were reminders around every corner, not just that fateful hall. Places where the new stone was too pristine and lacked the worn smoothness that came with age. Places where the newly mended furniture creaked when used because it was held together with magic and would always be compromised despite the repairs. Places that once housed stone gargoyles were now nothing more than empty niches, the missing presences gaping silent holes in otherwise lively halls.

On top of all that was the disappointment over not being Head Girl. It was an honor I worked six years to obtain. Circumstances interfered, however, and it was decided that I was no longer qualified for the position. It wasn't fair to the current seventh year class. I understood, truly I did, but it was still discouraging. Funny how something so insignificant in the grand scheme of things could still hurt so much. It wasn't even that I wanted the extra responsibility, not anymore, but I'd earned it and I knew I would have been good at it.

George had sent several notes listing all of the reasons I should be grateful. I appreciated his attempts at cheering me up, but they weren't really what I wanted to hear. Despite that, his letters were always a welcome distraction from my new issues with Hogwarts.

His response to my latest letter came first thing the next morning when the Great Hall was packed full of students. The noise was chaotic and distracting, but my focus was narrowed down entirely to the letter before me. After some initial trepidation that it too would explode in my face, I eagerly opened it.

Hermione,

This will sound incredibly cheesy, but I'm already counting down the hours until I can see you again. It really has been too long, and letters just aren't enough. Would it be overly presumptuous to book a room at the Three Broomsticks?

Yours,

George

PS Consider this an official challenge.

My breath caught at his message and my heart started racing in anticipation. Could he do that? Rent a room for us? It sounded scandalous, but I missed the closeness we'd developed over the summer and certainly wouldn't mind getting to experience it again this weekend. Christmas was a long way off, after all. Not to mention it was gratifying to know he desired me as much as I desired him.

Then I noticed the postscript and paused, rereading it to make sure it said what I thought it did. I hadn't really expected him to take me up on the jest about pranking him. That was rather foolish of me. Of course he'd be thrilled by the thought of me being the one trying to get him. I'd have to research something Muggle so he wouldn't expect it, and do it when he wouldn't see it coming…

"Why are you frowning?" Ginny asked, trying unsuccessfully to read over my shoulder. I pressed the letter against my chest and gave her a pointed look, feeling my face flush all the while.

Ginny smirked, evidently coming to her own conclusions - likely correct ones - about why the contents were private.

"George challenged me to prank him," I explained, deliberately steering the conversation back to her original question.

"Good luck with that," Ginny snorted dismissively, making it clear she didn't think I'd actually do it. She returned to munching on her breakfast, grabbing an extra crispy piece of bacon off the tray in front of us and taking a large bite of the crunchy meat. "Did you tell him about Hogsmeade?"

"Yes, he's coming up for it," I said, smiling and feeling flutters in my stomach. It felt like a current of electricity was flowing just beneath my skin only barely contained. George always had the power to electrify my senses. The buzz was addictive.

"Harry is too. Want to have lunch together?" she asked casually, still focused on consuming her breakfast.

I hesitated. George probably wouldn't mind, but it felt strange committing to something on his behalf. Were we at that point? "Yes, all right," I finally said.

It'd be nice spending time together. I missed Harry nearly as much as George. School just wasn't the same without him, even if it was nice not needing to harp on his study habits or proofread his work anymore.

I spent the rest of breakfast composing a reply.

George,

So am I. You've already become such an essential part of my life. The other day one of the Hufflepuffs was using your Bubble machine out by the lake and I couldn't help remembering when you showed me how it worked that night on the roof this summer. I still can't believe I let you talk me into doing what we did outside - though I don't actually remember much talking going on that night.

Ginny wants us to have lunch with her and Harry. I agreed, hope that's all right. She has practice that morning so we'll have some time alone beforehand if you really do want to book that room. I can meet you there at 9.

Maybe after lunch you can check out Zonko's? I heard the building is still for sale. Just a thought. See you tomorrow!

Yours,

Hermione

I'd barely stepped inside the Three Broomsticks before George whisked me upstairs, laughing as he did.

"Now we can have a proper hello," he said, shutting us alone in the room. He embraced and kissed me as if he believed he'd never get another chance. It never ceased to amaze me how he could leave me breathless and wanting with a mere touch.

"I missed you," I murmured into his mouth.

"If you hadn't agreed to this, I would have kidnapped you and Apparated us back to my flat," George muttered, fingers threading through my hair to cradle the back of my head, pinning me in place.

"I'd have let you," I said, mimicking his actions.

"I'll keep that in mind for next time," he said impishly.

Clothes were quickly shed after that, and no more words were spoken as it became a race to see who could make the other climax first.

I lost. But for once I wasn't overly concerned by my failure. The consolation prize was definitely worth it.

The next few hours were spent in a haze of pleasure and intimacy as we reconnected. The frenzied pace of our initial greeting had slowed to a more leisurely exploration and coupling. Every touch and kissed cherished all the more after suffering weeks of yearning.

When lunchtime came, we headed downstairs to meet Harry and Ginny. Harry's eyes widened behind the lenses of his glasses and his mouth formed a tiny oh of surprise when he caught sight of us. He looked hurriedly away and a blush bloomed high across his cheekbones. Apparently we hadn't done a very good job of setting ourselves to rights before coming down. Too late to do anything about it now. I'd have to just brazen it out. Harry was an adult, so he should be able to handle it.

Madam Rosmerta dropped off mugs of Butterbeer for each of us with a smile and a wink then was off without another word, busily seeing to all the other students visiting today. The place was too boisterous to have heard her anyways. The pub was packed, every seat taken and many were just standing around talking as they sipped their beverages and waited for a table to open up.

For a minute no one spoke. It was strange. We were all friends, but I don't think there'd ever been a situation where just the four of us had hung out together, even when we were all staying at the Burrow over the years. None of knew how to navigate this new territory. Not to mention Harry was too busy sneaking appraising glances at me to try.

"How's work going, Harry," I said to break the ice and hopefully distract him from his overly thorough analysis of my person.

"We caught Rodolphus and Goyle Sr. a few days ago," he said, relaxing a bit as he found his footing on the familiar ground.

"How many Death Eaters is that now?" George asked, leaning forward in interest and sipping his Butterbeer.

"Eight," Harry said, sighing. It sounded like a lot considering most had been captured at Hogwarts and they were just hunting down the few that escaped. But I also knew Harry wouldn't be satisfied until all of those guilty of siding with Voldemort were apprehended and paying for their crimes.

"When do the trials start?" Ginny asked, lacing her hand in Harry's.

He gave her a soft look before answering, "After Christmas."

"Will they be public?" I asked, curious if I'd be able to follow the proceedings in the Prophet since I'd still be at school.

"Yes," Harry said, scowling.

"What's wrong?" George prodded, beating me to the question.

"Rita Skeeter announced that she was writing another book covering it. I bet this one has even more chapters harping on about me," Harry explained darkly.

"Kingsley can't do anything?" I asked.

"No. She's not breaking any laws, so he can't ban her," Harry sighed, adjusting his glasses and running a hand through his hair. Pieces stuck up everywhere making him look more like he'd just finished flying than Ginny did. "Besides, I think she'd just make it up and it'd be even worse if she wasn't there."

"Just ignore her," I advised.

"Like you did?" he shot back, and I grinned, giggling at the memory.

"What? What happened?" George asked, squeezing my thigh under the table to prompt an explanation when Harry and I both started laughing in earnest. I hadn't told him about trapping her that summer.

After Harry explained, taking over when I didn't seem to be relishing the telling enough, we settled into light-hearted banter, each updating the others on our lives and the little things that were often overlooked when you didn't see someone on a regular basis. It was comfortable and easy being together. I felt more like myself than I had since returning for my final year. We ended up spending the rest of the day just sitting and talking, trading stories, and enjoying being together.

Harry stopped me before I headed back to school, hands fidgeting nervously. He guided us a little away from George and Ginny. "Am I supposed to be warning George not to hurt you?" he whispered uncertainly, shifting uncomfortably. "I mean… I would have with Ron, but this is George… "

"No need, Harry," I chuckled, shaking my head at his adorable protectiveness. "I can look after myself. And like you said, this is George - different person, different situation."

"If you're sure," he said hesitantly. Warmth swelled within me to know I still had family that cared about me even if it wasn't my parents.

"I am. But thank you for caring," I said gently, not wanting to hurt his feelings.

"Of course. Always," he mumbled, blushing a bit.

November 1998

Hermione,

Looks like I'm going to have to hold off a while longer before expanding to Hogsmeade. Isaac quit yesterday when one of my new products caused his tongue to break out in pustules. It was pretty disgusting when they burst. I think he swallowed a fair amount. But it wasn't as if I didn't warn him the product was still in the testing stage! It had been his idea to come up with the male equivalent to the WonderWitch line, so it seemed only right that he be the first recipient. Unfortunately, he didn't see it the same way…

Yours,

George

George,

I'm assuming hiring someone new isn't an option for some reason? You don't seem particularly upset over halting your expansion. I thought that was what you wanted, what changed?

Yours,

Hermione

Hermione,

Honestly, I don't think I'm ready to expand. I'm still struggling to juggle doing it all alone and not having anyone to bounce ideas off of. I can't wait till you're around more and I can pick your brain over solutions to some of the problems I've been having. I could really use your help. And it'd be nice to talk about other things too. Letters just aren't the same thing as talking in person.

It's also hard to consider trusting someone else to run part of my company. WWW is a part of me - a part of Fred. I can't turn that over to just anyone. It's even harder when I remember how Fred and I had planned to each take one store. It was going to be our way of branching out a bit, and give him a chance to live with Angie without me around.

Then there's the fact that if I try to take it all on alone, I won't have time for new development - or you - and that's not what I want either.

Yeah… so that's it.

Yours,

George

George,

I'm sorry. I should have considered all that. I wish I was there to help you too. You can always send me ideas and problems while I'm here. It won't be as quick, but I'm not exactly drowning in work here, so I have time. Besides, having Hogwarts resources for research might be beneficial.

If now isn't the right time, you can always reconsider it at a later time. I understand your reluctance to trust anyone else. It might be better to wait in that case. You can always hire someone, and take the time to get to know the person. Give it time for the relationship to develop enough to turn over control of your store to someone new.

I miss you, and I'll always be here for you - whatever you need.

Yours,

Hermione

Hermione,

Thank you. Talking about it helped. I just wish we had more opportunities to see each other and talk more. And I promise to always be there for you too. I think about you everyday.

On a different note, have you started thinking about what career you want to pursue after graduation? You said you're not busy, but I find that hard to believe. You always have a dozen projects on at once. I know you're going to do something brilliant after school, but do you have something in mind already? I bet at least one of your projects relates somehow. You avoided the question last summer because you wanted to focus on finishing at Hogwarts first, but I know you. You must have narrowed things down a bit since returning. Let me know.

Yours,

George

PS If you'd only be willing to sneak out to see me, we could have these conversations in person. Just saying…

George,

So far all I know is that I want to improve equality and make things fair. I'm not sure how I'll do it, but I know I don't want anyone else feeling inferior. If you have any suggestions I am most definitely open to hearing them.

Yours,

Hermione

PS I'm not sneaking out! Imagine if I got caught - actions DO have consequences!

December 1998

As usual, I was one of the last awake and doing work. Curfew was in a few minutes. Specifically, I was studying for a Charms test the next day. The only others in the Gryffindor common room were a couple of fifth years trying to get their work done before the weekend set in.

That was another oddity about being at Hogwarts this year. I'd gotten used to people staring at me over the years because I was always around Harry, and everyone knew of our friendship. I figured after my role in the final battle things would remain much the same, and it did - for about a month. Then once everyone figured out I wouldn't talk about it, along with the fact that a number of others were also involved and willing to discuss it, people lost interest in me. It was probably also helped along by the fact I kept to myself more often than not. Certainly more than I had in the past. Luna and Ginny were about the only two I talked to unless a situation required additional interactions. I was here to earn my N.E.W.T.s and graduate, not bask in the limelight of fame or make new friends that couldn't possibly relate to me.

I barely glanced up when someone plopped down beside me on the sofa in the common room. It wasn't until the person chuckled that I even bothered to glance up. George was grinning at me.

"How did you get in here?" I squealed, jumping a bit and dropping my quill as my papers scattered.

"Ginny gave me the password - I saw her out on the Quidditch pitch on the way in," he replied, looking extremely proud of himself.

Gryffindor had their last match of the term this weekend and Ginny was getting fanatical about it, practicing nearly everyday and long into the evenings. She'd even missed curfew a few times recently because she'd stayed out so late. It would probably happen again this evening.

Angelina, who had just signed on as a reserve Chaser for the Appleby Arrows, and Oliver, who was still with Puddlemere United, had both called in favors to get a couple scouts to come watch her play. She was determined to go pro after graduating. She was even willing to let Professor Slughorn reach out to his contacts if it meant getting a foot in the door.

Everyone said she was incredible, one of the best in a long time, so her chances were really good. But after seeing what the twins went through with their parents when pursuing a risky nontraditional choice of employment, she was hoping she could wait to tell them until after she'd already gotten signed and they didn't have anything to worry about. The last few years had been hard enough on them without adding more to stress over.

"George!" I cried, exasperated. "What are you doing here?"

All of the secret passages throughout the castle had been sealed up permanently after the battle. And with the Room of Requirement destroyed, the one into the Hog's Head was gone too. The only remaining one I knew about was the one beneath the Whomping Willow, and it wasn't exactly easy to access. I didn't know if there was any talk of creating new ones, but I know the school board had insisted the current ones be sealed for the students' protection. It was yet another condition of the school reopening this fall.

"I told Hagrid I was here to visit McGonagall over some of my alleged products getting sent here in unidentifiable boxes," he said. Then he whispered conspiratorially, "Seems some little kids here used them to get up to some mischief. Like I would ever enable such a thing!"

"You lied to him?" I asked, surprised by his story. I ignored his joke, already knowing he was guilty of doing precisely that.

"No. I do have a meeting with her about it," he said, pulling me onto his lap. I protested, but gave in fairly quickly. The fifth years weren't paying attention and I did want the closeness. I was shifting to get more comfortable when George added, "tomorrow morning."

"You're a little early," I said, all mock concern.

"How responsible of me," George teased, faking smugness. "But now I have to wait… Guess you'll just have to occupy me until then." He laced our fingers together and kissed my cheek.

"I think I can handle that," I said, happy to have a few hours of time with him. "She really wanted to meet with you about that?"

"I think she misses me. I was her favorite student ever," he declared. I'm fairly certain he was at least partially correct. He was at least in her top five. Professor McGonagall had a soft spot for charismatic trouble makers - particularly ones that were also good at Quidditch and Transfiguration. When I just chuckled, he added, "I might have also suggested a meeting was necessary."

"For your business?"

"For the excuse to see you," he corrected.

"You're such a charmer," I sighed, kissing the skin near his missing ear and relishing his responding shiver. "You can't get upstairs though so we'll have to stay down here."

"So long as I get to see you, I'm all right with it. Or we could find a broom cupboard somewhere… "

"Absolutely not!" I screeched, scandalized. If we were caught that would go on my record. Imagine having potential employers reading about that when they got my resume. The mortification would surely kill me.

"I had to at least try," George said, sighing. I think he was disappointed, but I really couldn't bring myself to even consider it. He made me braver, certainly, but that was on a whole different level. "I also wanted to talk to you in person about your Christmas break plans," George said slowly.

Ginny entered the room, but after a brief glance and wave, she headed upstairs to likely pass out from her grueling training session. Curfew had long passed by now and I idly wondered if she'd been caught sneaking back in. She was pretty good about getting around undetected, but she'd been pushing her luck lately.

"What about them?" I asked once she was out of sight and I remembered his question.

I'd figured I'd stay with Harry again since I didn't want to stay here, and my parents weren't an option. We'd taken to writing once or twice a month, but there had been no conversation about potential visits. I wasn't holding out hope that they'd want to see me for Christmas. Ideally I'd spend most of the break with George though.

"Will you stay with me?" George asked, squeezing my fingers. I turned to look at him questioningly. "The whole time," he added, tucking a stray curl behind my ear.

The light burn in my eyes indicated I'd been staring, unblinking, for a bit too long. George started to frown, but he waited for me to process his offer, or maybe request. My eyelids fluttered as I refocused on him, but the sting persisted a few moments more.

"Are you sure?" I breathed, hardly daring to hope when I finally managed to find my voice. The idea hadn't even occurred to me, but now that he'd said it, I wanted it to happen. "It's two weeks, and what about your family?"

"They don't have to know about it. Or we could tell them when we go to the Burrow Christmas Day - you're invited of course," he suggested, watching me carefully.

I wondered if Mrs. Weasley knew he'd extended an invitation to me or if she'd mind. She'd ignored my birthday in September. Usually I at least got a card from her. It wasn't unexpected, but I'd still found myself looking forward to receiving it, particularly considering how tense things were with my own mum. The ache of disappointment when it didn't arrive had taken days to ease.

"I don't want to tell them and have Christmas turn into a big fight. It's not fair to turn the holiday into being all about us," I said, feeling a bit panicked by the idea. It was already going to be hard on everyone as they realized their family would never truly be whole again. And with Percy missing the last couple years… I'm betting everyone just assumed there'd be time to make amends later, but there wasn't. Reality was cruel and harsh.

"So we act like nothing's going on when we're there. It'll be fine," he said, shrugging like it was no big deal, but I could tell it was. He was hurt by my decision. It must seem like I was rejecting him or trying to keep him a secret. That wasn't what I wanted. It was time to come clean with everyone, and I truly did want to.

I also knew I'd need to start bracing myself for Ron's reaction now. We'd finally started talking again. He didn't write often, but sometimes was better than nothing and we were slowly repairing our friendship. What miserable timing!

I think it helped that he'd started dating. He'd run into Katie Bell at a Quidditch match a few weeks ago and she seemed quite keen on starting something with him. According to Harry, he was smitten and loving the fact a pretty, older girl was pursuing him - and she loved Quidditch nearly as much as he did. Telling him about George and me would be a significant step back in the progress we'd made. That didn't make it any less necessary though.

"What if we told them after Christmas? I'll still be with you for over a week afterwards," I offered, trying to gauge his feelings. I hadn't meant to upset him, I just wanted to tell people at the right time.

"You want them to know?" he asked almost shyly. The emotion out of place on the usually brash and confident Weasley.

"Of course I do! I just don't want to interfere with Christmas and put anymore attention on you. This is the first year without F-the war," I said, stumbling over my words as I realized how insensitive the reminder was.

"It's okay, I know it's going to be hard without Fred," he said so openly I knew it had been weighing on him. He went on before I could ask him about it, adding, "So after Christmas then. And we'll tell Ron first?"

"I think we should tell him together," I said, agreeing.

"Yeah, that's going to be fun," he sighed, "but at least it's a plan."

"It is," I acknowledged and sealed it with a kiss, knotting my fingers in his hair to hold him to me a little longer.

We spent the rest of the night catching up on the little things and watching the fire crackle and dance. Everything was covered from how Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes was doing, how classes were, new product complications, Lee's new girlfriend, to Ginny's Quidditch prospects, basically anything and everything.

The next morning he ate breakfast with Ginny and me in the Great Hall before leaving with a scowling Professor McGonagall. She'd eyed us faux-disapprovingly all throughout breakfast. Apparently Hagrid hadn't informed her of her guest's early arrival.

Exhaustion weighed heavily on me when I sat my exam that morning, but for once I didn't mind sacrificing the extra hours of study and rest. Time with George was currently rare and precious, and most definitely worth the cost.

December 1998

WWW

Christmas had been fine, fun even, despite everyone missing Fred. His absence had cast an undeniable shadow over the day. The subdued joking making it more apparent than ever that the biggest prankster with the darkest humor was gone forever.

On top of that, my appearance was taken as a matter of course and not at all unexpected, which was a relief. It was nice having everyone back together. Ron had even been friendly and I'd gotten to hear all about his exhausting and tedious Auror training from him for once instead of second hand through Harry or Ginny. Apparently it was not at all what he imagined it would be like. I wasn't surprised in the least by that revelation. Our conversation, while initially strained, had eased into familiar territory readily enough.

Too bad that was about to change - again.

The day after Christmas George invited Ron over for dinner. He spent over an hour in the kitchen making all of Ron's favorites. My cooking skills meant I was banned from helping. I almost told George that he was wasting his time. Ron wouldn't want to stick around after we told him. He always stormed off to lick his wounds in private when he was upset. It was a fact I'd picked up on after over seven years of fighting with him. But I didn't. Part of me hoped I was wrong and George's efforts would be appreciated. I didn't want him hurt when we revealed our news. I didn't want Ron to hurt either. He was over me, I was sure of it. I just hoped he could realize it before he said or did something that would inflict unnecessary pain on George.

"What's going on?" Ron asked, stopping just beside the still green flamed fireplace he'd just stepped out of when he saw me.

"Come in, Ron," I directed, stepping aside to let him pass.

"Yeah, have a seat," George said, moving to sit on the sofa and I joined him, deliberately keeping some space between us. Ron stayed frozen by the mantle, eyeing us suspiciously. "Ron," George prodded, sighing tiredly.

Once he was settled in one of the armchairs, I began, "Ron, you've been one of my closest friends for most of my life. You mean so much to me. A-and I thought… well, you deserve to hear… " My words trailed off helplessly. It felt like I was choking on my confession.

I looked to George for help, and he picked up where I left off, saving me. "We're dating," he said bluntly. I winced, wishing he'd put it a little more delicately.

At first it looked like Ron hadn't heard. He didn't say a word and his face was a blank mask. Then he started to change color, his skin becoming a mottled mauve that clashed horribly with his hair.

"Ron… say something, please," I begged.

"You lied to me," he accused.

"Wait, wh -" I started, thrown. That wasn't what I expected him to say.

"Last summer!" he yelled. "I asked you - I asked you if there was someone else," he hissed through gritted teeth.

"I'm sorry!" I cried. "It wasn't like that though. I didn't know how he felt. I wasn't leaving you for him or anything like that."

Maybe I should have been up front when I talked to him, but I hadn't known how George felt and if he didn't feel the same, it would have hurt Ron unnecessarily. The memory of the Chamber of Secrets and Ron's confession of his biggest fear had still been too fresh then.

"You just accidentally ended up with him?" he asked sarcastically.

"No, but -"

"Why him and not me?" Ron demanded.

And that was the crux of the problem, the part he was most upset about. I wanted someone that wasn't him. He'd hated that Viktor liked me and that I might want him back even when Ron hadn't wanted me himself. That was the problem now too. Ron's self-esteem issues drove him. He needed everyone to desire him most. It had no bearing on his own feelings. He just needed to be the central figure in everyone's life that he cared for.

"We've talked about this. We wouldn't have made each other happy," I reminded him.

"Yeah, and you're probably right," he said, hurt shining through, "but did it have to be him?"

"Yes," I said honestly. It was the only truth I could give and there was no sugar coating it.

Ron looked gutted. We stared at each other for a lifetime. A million unspoken words passing between us. It was easy to picture a what if scenario where I had chosen him. The alternative wasn't tempting enough to regret causing Ron this pain right now. He sensed the change and rounded on George, redirecting his hurt and anger.

"And you!" Ron yelled at his new target. "How could you do this to me? I'm your brother!"

"We're not doing this to hurt you. I love her," George said quietly.

"I loved her too!"

"But you don't anymore, do you?"

"That's not the point," Ron insisted stubbornly. "You betrayed me. What you did was -"

"Stop. Please don't say something you can't take back. I know this is hard to hear, but our relationship isn't about you. We're both sorry that our being together hurts you - that was never the intention - but we are together," George informed him calmly.

Ron sputtered, mouth opening and closing several times before he finally muttered, "I'm out of here."

"Ron, please wait!" I called. I was stunned when he actually stopped and looked back at us. Never had he obeyed my pleas. "Can't we talk about this some more? Try and get passed it?"

"There's nothing left to say. I can't even look at you right now - I'm too angry," he said, directing his words at George.

"I understand. I'm sorry, Ron," George said sincerely, shoulders rounded in defeat.

"Right. You're sorry," Ron huffed, disbelief obvious as he shook his head and walked out.

"Thank you," I whispered. "You handled that very well."

"I got the girl - I can afford to be gracious," he said, closing his eyes. Family was so important to George. This must be tearing him up inside. First Percy, then Fred - permanently, and now Ron. Every instinct was screaming at me to shield him from this pain, but it had to happen. Perhaps now that things had been broken they could begin to heal.

"Tomorrow should be easier," I said, leaning against George and relaxing into him when he draped an arm around my shoulder to hold me close.

The Burrow

"Hermione and I are dating," George announced without preamble once nearly everyone was seated for dinner. I pinched his thigh sharply in reprimand beneath the table. It reminded me a bit too much of when Ron had done nearly the same thing, except this time it was true.

"That isn't funny, George! Imagine! If Ron were here you'd have hurt -" Mrs. Weasley started, dropping the bowl of mashed potatoes she'd been in the process of setting down to wave her finger at him. The bowl clattered to the table and a large dollop of potatoes flew out to land with a thick splat on Harry's plate.

"Oi! I wasn't kidding," George interrupted indignantly.

"Son… " Mr. Weasley started, pausing to take his glasses off and clean them on his shirt before replacing them. He looked momentarily confused then he started dishing some baked carrots onto his plate as he added, "Perhaps now isn't the time for a joke like that." He seemed to be falling into his traditional role of mediator, even if he was doing so as absentmindedly as ever.

"Again - not joking," George said firmly.

My hand returned to his thigh, this time to squeeze comfortingly. Did his parents not notice that their reactions were upsetting him? I know it's not unusual for him to say outlandish things to get a rise out of everyone, but surely I wasn't the only person able to distinguish between when he was being serious and when he was joking.

No one spoke for a minute after that, too busy looking back and forth between George and me. Ginny and Harry were the only two not the least bit surprised by the announcement, which made sense because they'd known for a while now. And Fleur actually looked more smug than anything, as if she'd been let in on the secret long ago and was relishing lording it over everyone else.

"Oh!" Mr. Weasley finally gasped, looking up from his food as if the words had just registered.

"How could you be so thoughtless? What in Merlin's name even possessed you to start dating your -" Mrs. Weasley lectured, building up steam with each word. Her face reddening like she was a kettle hung over a raging fire, and if she kept on, I was certain I'd hear a whistle letting me know she was ready to pour.

"We're adults. We can make our own decisions on how to live our lives, and what we do with them," George said defensively.

I couldn't speak. My family never argued while I was growing up. Disagreements were discussed rationally. I'd always felt supremely uncomfortable when I witnessed any of the Weasleys fighting over the years. I didn't like seeing families yell at each other.

I gave George's leg another squeeze to offer support since I was apparently incapable of doing so verbally. His hand moved to cover mine in response.

"It's irresponsible. There are lines that shouldn't be crossed, and for you to knowingly do so… " Percy said, trailing off as he pursed his lips disapprovingly.

"We haven't done anything wrong!" George insisted.

"You have. You're deliberately hurting Ron by going after his -" Percy continued. His words sparked my temper and forced me to find my missing voice.

"I'm not Ron's anything!" I cried, appalled Percy would imply I was a possession that could be snatched up, and not a person that knows her own mind. "Well, aside from his friend," I amended.

Ginny smile reassuringly at us while Bill and Fleur began whispering to one another. I wondered if she'd ever told him about the conversation we'd had after I was injured. I knew Bill agreed that Ron and I probably wouldn't work out, but that didn't automatically mean he'd support my relationship with George.

"Nevertheless, I suspect he'll not take this very well," Mr. Weasley said tiredly. It was easy to see that he disliked the idea of something hurting one of his children, even if it did bring another joy.

"You have told him though, right?" Bill asked, concerned for his youngest brother, but at the same time at least open to offering us conditional support in the meantime.

"Yes - yesterday. And we wouldn't be telling everyone else if it wasn't serious," I confessed. It was easier to answer direct questions.

"How serious?" Mrs. Weasley pressed, hands on her hips as she scowled at us.

"Extremely," George said meaningfully.

Mrs. Weasley's expression shifted, running through a range of emotions from shock to worried to happiness, and finally settling on hesitantly accepting. Now I knew how Fleur felt when she and Bill first got serious. Mrs. Weasley's acceptance would be withheld until she was certain I was the best thing for her child.

I couldn't fault her though. She'd forever been a mother bear protecting her cubs. Losing Fred had only enhanced that quality. George, the other side to that missing coin, would likely be protected even more than the others. Proving I was worthy of him was a challenge I could easily accomplish and didn't mind taking on.

Conversation was awkward and stilted after that though. It was easy to see everyone wanted to ask questions and pry, but it was equally apparent that they were reluctant to do so. The image of people dancing across eggshells came to mind - repeatedly - the rest of the evening.

It would take time, but eventually this wouldn't feel so strange anymore.

February 1999

Hogwarts

It was Valentine's Day. My first one ever with a boyfriend.

Ginny had been talking it up all week, insisting I make some grand romantic gesture for George. At first, I remembered the card I had sent Professor Lockhart during second year and flushed with mortification. Doing that now would be equally embarrassing and produced the same displeasure that consuming a fistful of ashes would. Ginny just rolled her eyes and insisted I think bigger when I put my foot down and said no card.

Then Luna started in on me too. She'd figured out earlier in the year that George and I were together, and agreed to keep quiet until we were ready to tell everyone. It still surprised me how someone so often in a different world could still be insightful and pick up on the things everyone else missed.

So when the two had joined forces in their prodding, I crumbled beneath their urgings. Each time one of them made a suggestion, anticipation welled up within me and the more I wanted to do something myself.

When the topic of sneaking out for a visit came up, I secretly wondered if George had put Ginny up to it. She categorically denied any such thing, but did acknowledge that he'd said something about encouraging me to do it back in the fall. But after that, the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like the perfect way to astound George. He'd never expect it, but he'd certainly get a kick out of it.

That was how I found myself standing in Professor McGonagall's office after lunch that day. It was a Sunday and hopefully with it being a weekend I'd have better luck.

"Good afternoon, Professor," I began, shifting nervously. I still couldn't bring myself to sneak out. The consequences of getting caught were too daunting. But that didn't mean I couldn't seek permission for a visit.

"Miss Granger," she greeted, nodding and gesturing to the straight-backed wooden chairs across from her desk. I sat in one as she asked, "What brings you to my office today?"

"I have a request," I began, watching her carefully as I shifted on the hard seat, "to leave Hogwarts this afternoon. I'd like to visit someone." Her lips parted and her eyebrows rose perceptibly. Surprised. That was the only way to describe what she was feeling. There was no hint of her leanings and if she planned to agree or not.

"I trust you are aware of our policy regarding students leaving school grounds. All ventures off campus must be requested by the student's family," she prodded.

"Yes, Professor," I confirmed.

"I take it this is not a family emergency?"

"No. My family is… unavailable," I reminded her.

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry -"

"It's fine. I made my choice, and it was the right thing to do," I said, waving off her sympathy. I didn't deserve it, and that wasn't the point just now.

"If you know this visit doesn't fall within the list of approved leave, why are you asking?"

"Professor, I understand that I'm asking for special circumstances to be made. Ordinarily I would never ask for favors, but I'll be twenty later this year yet I'm still in school," I said and she nodded, acknowledging the point I made. "I think we can both agree that I am an adult and the rules don't necessarily fit my situation."

"I suppose you have a valid point, but what exactly are you hoping for?" she asked. My heart began pounding as I realized she was at least willing to hear me out.

"It's a holiday and I'd like to spend it with George -"

"Weasley?" she interrupted, asking for clarification. I blushed and nodded. "How… unexpected," she said, studying me as though I was proof that Luna's Nargles truly existed. She opened her mouth to say more, but I went on before she could. Part of me didn't want to know her opinion on my relationship. Enough people had recently voiced theirs.

"Yes. It's our first, and after everything he's been through this last year… well, I was hoping having dinner together would help him," I said, playing on her affection for the twins. It was a tad manipulative, but if it worked…

"Oh, yes. Holidays are always more difficult after suffering personal losses," she agreed. I noted the redness in her eyes and the light sheen across them. I hadn't meant to make her cry. Guilt lodged in my throat, a painful knot.

She turned to look out the window, and I gave her a moment to reminisce before pressing, "Professor?"

"It would have to be a one time only exception. The rules exist for a reason and need to be enforced. Even if you are here under unusual circumstances, other students, and by extension their parents, would be upset if you were held to different standards," she said.

"I won't tell anyone, and I'll be back before curfew, I swear," I promised eagerly. It was really happening!

She let me use her Floo, and I exited into the Leaky Cauldron. A quick trip out back, a few taps on the bricks with my wand, followed by a short walk saw me at my destination only minutes after I'd secured permission. With an infectious grin, I walked into WWW.

Verity was behind the counter, staring vacantly at the nearly empty store. My wave was lost on her as I made my way to the back of the shop where I was betting George was busy working. I wondered if it was usually like this during the school year. George had once mentioned that the Owl Order portion of his business never really slowed down - not even when we were in the middle of a war.

"More love potions?" I asked when I entered the room to find him dispensing a potion into a row of labeled vials. The scent gave away the potion he was bottling.

"Yeah, we just sold - Hermione!" he yelped, spinning to stare at me.

"Surprise," I said, grinning as he continued to stand, unblinking and mouth agape.

"Are you really here?" he asked, setting the cauldron down.

"I know you're older than me, but is your eyesight going already? Should I be concerned?"

"You snuck out to see me," he stated.

"Something like that," I said, moving forward to kiss him. He didn't need to know the specifics. It would surely damper some of his joy at me being here if he knew I didn't actually sneak out. "Happy Valentine's Day." He stopped me when I started to step back, pressing a lingering kiss to my lips.

"How long are you staying?"

"I have to be back by curfew."

"Then we best make the most of the next few hours," he said, casting a Stasis Charm on his work bench and leading me through the shop to his flat upstairs. "Verity, the shop's yours today," he called on the way, not pausing to wait for a response.

Once we were alone in his room, George shook his head, obviously at a loss for words as he took in the sight of me. I was a desert mirage and he was lost and dying of thirst.

"Good surprise then?" I asked knowingly.

"The best. Guess it's time for me to give you your present then," he said, stepping closer. In that moment, I was oil and he was fire. The look in his eyes promised that a single touch was all it would take to set me ablaze.

Gently, he unfastened my school robes, easing them off my shoulders to reveal my uniform. He gave me another once over and chuckled, more to himself than aloud. I almost asked what he found so amusing, but he was already devesting me of the jumper and I promptly forgot.

I'd taken a chance that Professor McGonagall would let me out and transfigured some of my lingerie since I couldn't currently afford to buy anything new. The lace bustier was Gryffindor gold and pushed my breasts so high they were spilling over the top. My nipples were only barely concealed by the demi cups. There was even a little red bow nestled in the middle of my cleavage. "Merlin," George groaned. It was a full minute before he'd drunk in the sight enough to continue undressing me. "Perfection," he uttered when he saw the matching thong with scarlet ribbons tied on each side.

With a tug, the bows came undone and the tiny scrap of lace covering me fell away. George knelt to kiss my navel. His lips inched lower and it was my turn to gasp. Shivers racked me when his tongue traced my protruding hip bone, lightly tickling the sensitive skin. My knees quivered, threatening to give out.

"George," I moaned. "Mmm, yes."

He urged me backwards until the backs of my legs hit his bed and I sat heavily upon it, falling back. George wedged his shoulders between my legs, pushing my thighs farther apart and giving him access to my core. Slowly, torturously so, he kissed and nibbled a path up my thigh, fingers trailing lightly in his wake and teeth scraping the tender skin.

When he reached my center, he used his fingers to part my folds before delicately flicking his tongue over my clit. The weeks apart and the days leading up to this visit had served as unintentional foreplay that heightened my senses. The direct contact now, right where I most needed him, nearly sent me over the edge. It was a bolt of concentrated pleasure that nearly destroyed me.

"Please, George, more," I begged, desperate for more. To reach the ultimate climax.

Need consumed me. My back arched, bowing impossibly high as I practically came out of my skin when his fingers traced my slit.

"You taste so good. I've missed this," he murmured against my folds. He'd barely started, but already I was squirming and twisting, my hips rolling up to meet his clever tongue and the ever increasing jolts of bliss his actions incited.

Then he began in earnest. He tongued me, licking up and down, prodding my entrance and dancing teasingly over the little nub at the apex of my thighs. All the while using two fingers to pump in and out of my slick channel, occasionally curling them just enough to have me withering beneath his ministrations. Pressure pooled in my center, tightening quickly. The momentum of my pounding heart increased and suddenly my neurons were racing, firing haphazard signals that did little to offer actual communication between my brain and my restless limbs.

George was relentless, never letting up. His tongue darted and soothed, swiping over me fast as a snitches fluttering wings. A magnet pulled me closer and higher until I was practically soaring high above the world. The air was thin so high up and I panted, though it did little to bring the much needed oxygen to my pleasure drunk mind.

My fingers weaved through his fiery locks, holding him to me and he chuckled, the muffled hum sending sizzling vibrations against my swollen clit.

"Yes!" I cried, suddenly falling. My stomach pitched dangerously just before I shattered into a million jagged pieces.

George crawled up the bed to lean over me, pressing his body against my oversensitized skin. His weight and movements caused the lace of my bustier to rub tantalizingly against my pebbled nipples, and the rough touch made them bead into even harder points. I was still gasping and shivering when he kissed me, plunging his tongue deep in my mouth. I could taste myself on his lips, but that hardly mattered. In fact, it heightened my rebounding arousal.

When he pulled back, I noted that his pupils were blown wide, evidence of his raging desire. I could feel his steely length pressing insistently against my belly, thick and long.

He sat up to remove his shirt, tossing it heedlessly to the floor and rolled to the side, lying on his back.

I took the invitation and threw a leg over his hips. I reached to remove my bustier, but his hands gripped mine and his words stopped me. "Leave it on," he requested.

With a wicked grin, I did. My fingers dexterously set about working to undo his pants and shove them down his legs. His cock sprang free and I gripped him tightly, lifting my hips up to take him inside me.

"Merlin, Hermione! You feel so good," he moaned. Experimentally, I rolled my hips. His hands shot out to grip my hips, squeezing tightly. "Do that again," he commanded and I complied eagerly.

I repeated the motion, sliding erotically up and down his length. His hips thrust eagerly, bucking helplessly into me. Soon enough we'd set a steady pace with his hip snapping up to meet my downward movements as I rode him. His eyes fastened on my bouncing breasts, the cups of my bustier serving to frame them when they sprang free of the confining lace.

This position was empowering. I loved watching his eyes roll up as pleasure washed over him. And I loved watching the telltale flush creep gradually down from his cheeks and across his muscular torso. My fingers splayed over his chest, bracing myself and using him for leverage as I moved over him. The angle also meant that he hit my g-spot every time, rubbing the sensitive flesh and making starbursts of light dance across my vision.

The pleasure built again, slower than before, but steady. "Oh, yes! You're incredible," I panted when he gave a particularly hard thrust.

His grip on my hips tightened suddenly and he urged me to ride him faster, pushing deeper into me as he pistoned upward. My gaze caught his, locked on his hazel irises like a missile honed in on its target. Any control I had managed to cling to so far was rapidly lost to the overwhelming sensations George inspired.

"I'm close," I gasped, barely able to find enough air to form words.

"Me too," he breathed.

Moments later I climaxed again, shuttering and slumping forward just as his hips jerked erratically and warmth flooded my channel. His arms moved around my back, holding me close as we both endeavoured to catch our breaths. I shivered in the aftermath of such intense bliss and he tightened his hold in response.

We lay recovering for several minutes before I rolled off him. He didn't let me get far though, reaching to wrap an arm around me and pull me back to his side, my head pillowed on his shoulder and my arm draped low over his abs.

George lazily stroked the cursed letters carved into my arm as we lay there, carefully tracing each letter with a gentle fingertip. It was something he often did, as though his touch could soothe any lingering aches or painful memories.

"Mum asked if we were going to foolishly rush into marriage," George said into the silence without preamble. The fact that Mrs. Weasley was asking at all was a pretty good indicator that she was coming around.

"What'd you tell her?" I probed. This was the first time marriage had been mentioned and I was interested to find out where his head was at. I knew where I stood on the subject. Hopefully his stance was similar.

"That we'd wait until we were ready then discuss it like mature, responsible adults," he said, and I felt his shoulder shrug casually beneath my head.

"And you're ready to discuss it now?" I asked knowingly as I sat up and moved to lean against the headboard and slip beneath the covers.

"If you're willing," he said, moving to settle in beside me.

"To get married or talk about when I'd ideally want to?" I pressed, mouth suddenly extremely dry. My fingers curled around the edge of the blanket as I waited for him to answer, needing something to occupy them. When did it get so overly hot in here?

"About when. I already know you don't want to just yet," he said, chuckling. "Is it my imagination or did you just relax your death grip on the blanket?" He reached to brush his fingers lightly over mine, easing the lingering tension. So he had noticed…

I flushed, but ignored his teasing. "I always sort of planned to wait until I'd done something significant with my life," I admitted slowly, almost timidly. It was difficult to confess this secret ambition to someone else, but I trusted George.

"Helping defeat Voldemort wasn't significant?" he asked incredulously. I huffed, glaring at him. He was missing the point.

"I want to accomplish something - something important," I tried to explain, searching for words to express my desire. "I helped Harry, yes. And yes, that was important… But I want to do something lasting that will better the wizarding world. And I want it to be something I did, something I believed in. Does that make any sense?"

"I think," he said carefully, watching me closely. "You're talking something like freeing house-elves," he ventured.

"Yes!" I cried, pleased that he remembered and was taking me seriously. "Or at least enacting some lasting improvement to benefit the wizarding world and all of those a part of it."

"And you want to wait to marry until afterwards?" he verified.

"Yes," I agreed, nodding. I swallowed, reaching for his hand before continuing, "I know that's asking for a great deal of patience, but -"

"No. You don't need to justify it. If that's what you want, I understand."

"And - and you're all right with it?" I asked, cautiously hopeful. "Not that I'm assuming you even want to marry me one day or anything!" I squeaked, suddenly feeling enormously presumptuous.

George reached to cup my cheek with his free hand, kissing me lightly and smiling. "I'll wait."

I returned his kiss, pouring all of the intense emotions he made me feel into it. There weren't words to express what his understanding and acceptance meant to me. The respect within our relationship lent it strength, solidified the foundation we were building our future on.

"Besides, it's not like I don't still get to be with you in the meantime," he said, pulling me down atop him.

"I love you," I whispered against his lips.

"Took you long enough," he teased playfully.

With a jolt, I realized he was correct. It was the first time I'd said it aloud to him. Part of me had been terrified to give voice to the feeling, afraid that the single word couldn't sufficiently encompass all that I felt for this man. I didn't want to trivialize all that he meant to me. Luckily I'd been wrong. It made my emotions swell impossibly larger, and his joy at hearing it was impossible to miss.

"I should also tell you that I want to wait for kids until after marriage," George added. "I'm assuming you want to focus on your career for now anyways so that shouldn't be too big a deal."

"I do. How many kids are you wanting?" I asked nervously. The idea of having a child was slightly petrifying. Having several… well, that was even more frightening to think about. Particularly with the knowledge that any child of George's was bound to be an incorrigible trouble maker.

"You're freaking out, aren't you?" George said, studying me.

"A little," I admitted. "It almost feels like discussing them will make them a reality."

"Do you not want to have kids?" he asked intently.

"I think I'm all right with it, but like you said - I want my career. I've been working towards it for so long. Having kids would change things. A child would have to come first. I'm not ready to make that sacrifice yet," I explained, not bothering to add that I had no idea how to be a mother and I needed time to mentally prepare and research the topic before truly considering it. He'd likely tease me mercilessly if I admitted that aloud.

"Yet?" he questioned.

"In a few years, yes, I think it would be nice," I said, catching my lip with my teeth when he grinned and excitedly bounced a bit. I chuckled, his enthusiasm catching, and added, "You'll make an incredible father."

"Two. Definitely two."

I realized he was answering my earlier question about how many he wanted. "I think I can handle two. It sounds perfect actually."

"Yeah," he breathed, tugging me closer. "Plus we get to spend a few years practicing," he said, actions following words.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

One more chapter after this before the epilogue! I leave for Ireland this week so my next update won't be until I get back - sorry! I really tried to finish this story before my vacation, but it just didn't happen.

I'm also not overly happy with this chapter, but I didn't want to make you guys wait any longer, so here it is. I'll probably go back and edit it once this story is completed. I'll let you know if I do.

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 16

March 1999

Hogwarts

"Ginny… have you heard from George lately?" I asked carefully. The question had been weighing on me for days. It wasn't until after I realized that I'd read the same line three times that I finally just asked.

We were working on our DADA homework in the common room during a break in our schedule, multiple books opened to serve as references on the table before us. We'd commandeered a table an hour earlier, but my mind was starting to wander. It was time for a break. I busied myself with searching for a new pot of ink as I waited for her response.

We weren't alone in our academic efforts. Many others, mostly fifth and other seventh years were busily working as well. Exam anxiety was already escalating. The beautiful spring weather hadn't been temptation enough to draw any outside when there was so much work to be done. I'd made schedules for Ginny and myself. She'd laughed, but after noting how serious I was had shrugged and offered no complaints, content to follow my lead so long as it didn't interfere with her never ending Quidditch practices.

"Not for a couple weeks. Wait - why are you asking? Haven't you heard from him?"

"I wrote him about Easter Hols and I haven't heard anything," I admitted, chewing my lip anxiously. It wasn't like him not to write. But ever since I saw him on Valentine's Day his letters had become more and more sporadic and terse. Something was wrong, instinct told me it was, but I couldn't help him if he didn't tell me what it was.

"Maybe he's caught up in the shop," she suggested, but it was clear she didn't believe her own excuse.

"I've sent three unanswered letters. It's been nearly a week since I last heard from him. I'm worried," I confessed.

"I haven't heard anything. Want me to try writing?" Ginny offered.

"No. I think I might ask Lee to check in on him though," I said, grabbing an extra parchment from the chaotic mess before us. I knew I'd be unable to focus again until after I'd written him.

Lee,

I heard you got the job at the Wizarding Wireless Network. Congratulations! I hope you aren't too disappointed. I know it isn't the Quidditch commentator job you wanted, but at least you'll still get to do what you love. Besides, this will probably help you make some connections so you can try for that job again in the future.

I'm sorry to ask this of you because I don't want to place you in an uncomfortable position, but I think something's wrong with George. He isn't responding to my letters and I'm worried about him. Any chance you've seen him lately or know if something has happened? Thanks.

Sincerely,

Hermione

I dashed off to the owlery to send it immediately, much to Ginny's bemusement. Though I think she was interested in the reply nearly as much as I was. She'd contemplated me the entire time I wrote the letter, brow furrowed.

The next morning I received two letters. I tore into George's first, eager to discover what he had to say and relieved that he'd finally written. This was the longest I'd gone without hearing from him since we got together. Once glance at the brevity of his reply was enough to confirm I would be supremely disappointed no matter what it said.

Hermione,

Of course I want you to stay with me. I assumed you knew that. Thanks for checking, but I'm fine, really. See you Saturday.

George

PS I don't need a babysitter.

I winced after reading the postscript. Apparently he didn't appreciate me having Lee check on him as though he needed a keeper. I couldn't blame him either. If he'd done something similar, annoyed and irritated would be an understatement when describing my state of mind.

With a resigned sigh, I refolded the letter and stuffed it in my bag. Dejectedly, I opened Lee's to see what he had to say regarding my concerns.

Hermione,

No, actually. I haven't seen George in a couple weeks except in passing. He keeps canceling - saying he's busy with the store. I didn't think anything of it until you wrote since he's had busy periods before when developing a new product and he lets the challenge consume him a bit.

I stopped by to see him when I got your note, and he got pretty angry when I mentioned you'd written - sorry bout that. His birthday is tomorrow and we were supposed to go out, but he said never mind if I was going to treat him like "a misbehaving child that needs to be monitored". We've never fought like this before. He kicked me out right after that. Now I'm worried too.

Good thing you'll be here this weekend. Hopefully seeing you will help. We should get together and do something to celebrate his birthday while you're here. Maybe he'll be in a better mood then. Talk soon.

Sincerely,

Lee

Reading Lee's letter only upset me further about the brevity of George's and his obvious dismissal of my valid concern.

I'd nearly forgotten his birthday was this week since I'd been so preoccupied worrying about him. I'd collected his gift back in January when the weather had turned unusually warm one week - a few rare potion ingredients that could only be found in the Forbidden Forest and a some that were just easier to obtain there. Hagrid had helped me get the unicorn hairs. I knew George would love getting to experiment with them for his products.

He obviously didn't want to be hassled, but I jotted a quick birthday message and sent his present despite knowing that it might just irritate him further.

George,

Happy Birthday! I'm sorry I can't be there to celebrate with you, but I'll see you in a couple days. I'm looking forward to spending the next couple weeks together. I love you.

Yours,

Hermione

There was no reply. Not that I really expected one when I'd see him in less than two days, but still…

April 1999

WWW

George had been quiet and withdrawn the entire time I was here, working more than necessary and going out of his way to avoid any serious conversation. In fact, I barely saw him at all, and when I did, he snapped at me every time I spoke or tried to talk about what was wrong with him. I avoided asking him straight out what was bothering him, worried I'd unintentionally provoke him further, but he had to know I was concerned and willing to listen. Worse, each time he delivered his barbed comments, the remarks got darker, the words blackened by bitterness and a mysterious anger.

Today had been the worst day yet. It got so bad that Harry snapped, going off on him in the middle of Teddy smearing his face with chocolate cake. I hadn't seen Harry lose his temper like that since fifth year.

We'd been at Andromeda's house for Teddy's first birthday party. It was already a bittersweet affair with the constant reminder of all that had been lost, but George's attitude put everyone more on edge than necessary. We'd ended up leaving early, just after Harry's explosion.

I wanted to yell at George too. He'd completely shut me out of whatever was going on with him. I didn't know how to reach him. It was like watching a drowning man with no way to help, unable to swim myself and no life preserver to throw.

"I have to go back to school tomorrow," I reminded him, coming to sit beside him on the sofa.

"Hmph," he grunted. My teeth ground at the sound. Frustrated anger roiled within me. I was sick of staying calm and making justifications for his behavior. I hated this!

"Are we going to talk about what's happening? This is the last chance before the anniversary celebration and memorial in a few weeks," I bit out.

Hogwarts was hosting a memorial to honor all who fought and died during the final battle on the anniversary. A monument was going to be unveiled, and Harry and Kingsley were both slated to speak at it. Rumor had it that it was going to be the most attended event in wizarding Britain in the last decade, apart from the Quidditch World Cup.

I was dreading the event. Being back at the castle was enough of a reminder of what happened. The last thing I wanted to go through was another day where the spotlight was focused on my friends and me, and the fresh scabs on all my emotional wounds were ripped off forcing the healing process to begin anew. But I knew how important it was for some, so I would be there to offer them the support they needed.

"I don't want to go," he informed me, eyes still glued to the empty fireplace. Ashes littered the bottom, dull and dead. They were as washed out as his expression.

"And I want you to stop pushing me away and talk to me about what's really -"

"I told you nothing's wrong! Stop pushing already," he snapped, every bit as frustrated as me.

"George, please," I begged. I couldn't stand the thought of leaving with things so strained between us.

"You can't let anything go, can you? No wonder everyone always says you are annoying. I must say I agree just now. Your constant nagging is like nails on a chalkboard," George sneared, lips twisted in disgust. It reminded me of the way Professor Snape had looked at Harry. George had never spoken to me this way before, not even at his worst these last two weeks. I gasped, pain knifing through me. He stood, walking towards his room as he suggested, "Why don't you stay with Harry tonight? He can see you and Ginny off tomorrow."

"You… " I began, but he was already in his room, the door slamming shut behind him.

Stunned, I Apparated to Grimmauld Place on autopilot. Harry answered the door, took one look at me and ushered me inside while I relayed everything that happened, crying hysterically all the while.

"He kicked you out?" Harry asked, dumbfounded.

"Y-yes," I sobbed.

"Do you want me to go have a talk with him?" he asked angrily. I choked on a broken laugh.

"If he won't talk to me, then he's not going to talk to you either. Besides, I think you said enough to him earlier," I said.

"Apparently not. He can't treat you like this," Harry insisted.

"No, Harry, this is our problem. It wouldn't be right to involve you more than I already have," I said, embarrassed over having lain so much of our relationship bare to someone - even if that someone was Harry.

"If you're sure," he muttered, pulling me close for a hug. I broke down again, crying into his shoulder long into the night. Eventually, exhaustion won out and I fell into a restless sleep on the sofa.

When I woke, my head was pillowed in Harry's lap. His head was tilted back, glasses eskew, and he was snoring softly.

My eyes felt puffy and swollen. I blinked, but the action was painful given their dry, gritty state. There was an insistent throbbing in my temples and just above my sinus cavity. Uncomfortable reminders of my breakdown the night before.

Someone, likely Kreacher, had draped a worn, knobby blanket over me. He'd become even more accepting of me since the war ended. I could hear him down in the kitchen moving about. Probably preparing a late breakfast. A glance at the grandfather clock across the room told me I had just enough time to eat and shower before I needed to catch the train at King's Cross station.

George, still in his mussed clothes from the day before, was waiting at the train station when it pulled into Hogsmeade. He was standing, shoulders slumped and head bowed dejectedly beside the line of thestral-pulled carriages. His posture was the epitome of misery.

I walked hesitantly over to him, knowing he would just follow me to the castle if I didn't hear him out. Uncertainty filled me. Why was he here? Hadn't he said all he needed to last night?

It had been a long and exhausting train ride. I'd had a lot of time to think, but I was still mystified over what the real problem was. All I knew for sure was that his words and actions had hurt me terribly. I wouldn't let him treat me that way. It wasn't healthy or mature.

"Can we talk?" he asked, strained and unsure of himself. He didn't meet my eyes. It took a moment to place his expression - ashamed. It was such an unnatural state for him.

"Ginny? Could you let Professor McGonagall know I'll be along shortly," I requested, belatedly realizing she'd approached her brother with me.

"Want me to wait?" she offered, looking back and forth between us. She'd asked on the train what was wrong with me, but I hadn't wanted to discuss it again. It was a private matter and part of me already regretted sharing as much as I had with Harry. I definitely didn't want to spill my guts to his baby sister. I still remembered his expression when I'd admitted to telling her that we'd slept together.

"No. I'm sure that won't be necessary," I declined.

George still hadn't looked at me. He seemed to be waiting for something. It wasn't until the carriages were completely out of sight and the train had departed back to London that he spoke.

"I know I screwed up," he stated, completely owning his mistake.

"Yes, you did," I agreed.

He didn't speak again. Confusion settled like a weight in my chest, slowly asphyxiating me. I was ready to leave him there when he finally looked up. His eyes were as red as my own, readily declaring that he'd been crying too.

"I'm older than him," he said suddenly. Older? What was he talking about? What did that have to do with him kicking me out of his flat? Confusion quickly vanished with his next words. "Fred was born first. He's the elder twin, but I'm twenty-one and he's still twenty. He'll never be twenty-one. I'm older. I was never supposed to be older," George said, sliding to his knees as he completely broke down in the middle of the dirt path leading from the train station to the main street in Hogsmeade. "I don't know what to do."

"George," I breathed, crouching to embrace him.

"When he died… time froze. The world kept moving on, but I-I wasn't. Then I was. With you. And now I'm a year older, and it's proof that he's gone and that I kept living," he cried, gasping his broken and jagged explanation into my neck. He took several heaving breaths. "The worst… the worst part was that even though you tried to be there for me, you weren't. You weren't there each time I had a nightmare or found myself talking to an empty room because he wasn't there either. I was alone. You were both gone. I was all alone."

"I had school, but you could have… " I trailed off, not knowing how to finish.

I had school. He knew how important finishing my education was, and I knew he'd never ask me to give it up for him. That was probably why he'd tried to stick it out on his own. I wouldn't give it up for him either or risk harming my future prospects. I couldn't sacrifice everything I worked for or place him first at my expense, just as I wouldn't let him do that for me either. He likely knew that as well. Guilt set in, despite the somewhat unavoidable situation we found ourselves in.

"I know. It's not your fault. I just - I don't know what to do. It's been almost a year and I still don't know what to do. I can't handle it," he sobbed, rocking back and forth like a child.

"Oh, George," I murmured, squeezing him tighter, trying uselessly to shield him from the pain of his revelation.

"I love you and I'm sorry, but you've been here and I needed you, but you weren't there. I love you, but I've been dealing all alone, and I'm no good at it," he babbled, the words choked out between racking sobs. Warm, wet tears dampened my neck and the front of my shirt making it stick uncomfortably. Then, for a long time, he was beyond words.

I thought over his words as I held him, combing my fingers soothingly through his rumpled hair.

George hadn't handled his grief very well, but then who did? Grief wasn't something that came natural to anyone. There are no set procedures or practices on how to handle it. Everyone had to cope in their own way.

In George's case, it only helped when he had someone there supporting him. That someone was supposed to be me. I was the one he'd come to depend on.

Snippets of conversation and letters from the last year scrolled through my head like banners flying behind a plane.

I wish I could talk to you in person about all of this.

This year has been harder than I ever imagined. When I'm with you though… I know I can bear it.

I can't wait till you're around more and I can pick your brain over solutions to some of the problems I've been having. I could really use your help. And it'd be nice to talk about other things too. Letters just aren't the same thing as talking in person.

Talking to you always helps, but there are so few breaks and Hogsmeade visits. I barely ever get to see you.

I just wish we had more opportunities to see each other and talk more.

Talking to you always helps make things better.

I don't know how to get through this alone.

If you'd only be willing to sneak out to see me, we could have these conversations in person. Just saying…

Nausea made my stomach quiver with regret. I'd failed him. That knowledge was difficult to accept.

He'd tried to ask for help, but I hadn't heard him. I hadn't understood the depth of his need. He had tried to reach out, but I'd brushed the comments off, misunderstanding their significance.

He hadn't handled the situation very well, it was true, but it was not entirely his fault. I'd made him think that I wouldn't be there for him. Repeatedly, he'd asked me to sneak out to see him. And while part of it was just the desire to be close, I now knew an even bigger part have been his desire to have someone there for him. This year had been so hard on him, and I didn't make him feel like he could count on me to be there.

I'm sure if I'd spoken with Professor McGonagall, explained the circumstances, she would have been understanding. I know she'd said Valentine's Day was a one-time-only thing, but if I'd mentioned his birthday and how close it was to break, I knew she would have been lenient and let me leave a couple days early.

George and I had done such a good job communicating about everything else since getting together that I just assumed we'd always excel at it. I should have realized that just like anything worthwhile, it took effort to maintain. We both could have done more before letting things escalate to the point they reached. We'd need to work harder in the future.

I'd have to do better by him in the future. But he'd have to do the same. We'd both messed up I realized again.

"Hermione, he's dead. He's dead," George gasped when his breathing evened out a bit. I refocused on the present at once.

"I know," I soothed, continuing to run my fingers through his hair. He nuzzled his head into my hand like an affectionate kitten before leaning further against me.

"I moved on without him. We've always done everything together, but now… he doesn't get to be part of this," he said, the words muffled by my hair where his head was buried. Survivor's guilt was eating him up.

"Fred wouldn't resent you living - don't look at me like that!" I demanded when he jerked back to glare at me in the day's fading light. "He'd be furious with you if you stopped on his account, and you know it as well as I do!"

"It just hurts so much," he admitted, wiping the latest tears from his face.

"George?" I whispered tenderly. The sun had set and an evening chill was setting in. I didn't see any Hogsmeade residents about, but the late winter wind was making me shiver. "Maybe we should take this inside. I think we have a lot to talk about and it's probably best not to do it outside like this."

He nodded and we slowly made our way to the Three Broomsticks where Rosmerta once again rented us a room. It was the same one we'd had back in the fall, but it was being put to much different use this evening.

I shared all the revelations I'd had when he'd first broken down and he agreed, admitting he could have done a better job letting me know how much he needed me there instead of just hinting at it. I reminded him that this was my first real relationship, and subtlety had never been my strong point. I needed him to be straightforward so I could make the effort to be there when he needed me. I also needed to ask him what he meant when he wasn't being clear instead of just making assumptions. We both had things to work on.

"Don't shut me out again," I commanded once we'd cleared the air a bit.

"I won't," he vowed.

"You have to know I'll always be there when you need me - no matter what," I swore, and he nodded in understanding.

"I want you with me forever. I want you to live with me after graduation," George added, looking uncertain.

"You kicked me out," I said bluntly. I knew we'd both made mistakes, but that one was still hard to stomach.

He winced and said, "I didn't think you'd actually leave."

"What did you think I'd do?" I demanded, crossing my arms huffily.

"Storm after me and have it out. You've always been such a fighter. But all break you were tiptoeing around the problem. I didn't know how to talk about it. I thought… I don't know that I was really thinking, but maybe I figured that I could get you to force me to face things if I pissed you off enough. Real brave and mature of me, right?" he added with self-deprecating chuckle. There was no assumement in it. "I guess I just expected you to confront me and demand to have it out," he explained, staring at his hands where they dangled, clasped between his spread legs rather than at me.

It made sense. He'd spent years watching me fight with Ron over the smallest things. I'd always faced issues with him head-on instead of avoiding, placating, or dancing around them. It had been hard for George to come clean about his struggles this year. I guess he needed the extra prodding, and he'd thought he could provoke me into doing it.

"But instead I left," I whispered.

"Yeah, well, I gave you pretty good reason to."

"You did," I agreed.

"For a couple hours I thought you'd given up on me entirely. But then this afternoon I realized I could actually lose you if I didn't fix things."

"So you showed up to wait for me to arrive," I said, grateful he'd done it and that we were getting to the bottom of things.

He looked up, hearing the change in my tone of voice. "Yeah," he said, eyes scanning my face.

"I'm glad you did," I confessed, offering a slight smile. "Next time I won't let you kick me out," I added so he understood we would have a next time. The tension visibly drained from his stiff posture, his relief nearly palpable.

"It'll be your home too, so I won't have the right," he said, eyeing me to gauge if I was accepting his offer.

"No. You won't," I agreed, teeth catching my bottom lip as I tried to suppress a grin of anticipation. The idea of officially living together made my heart pound loudly and nerves wiggle through my belly.

"You really will then? Even after this?" he verified, appearing to hold his breath as he waited for my response.

In that moment, I chose to trust him knowing he was still learning to cope with everything. It was a learning experience for both of us, and not exactly one with an instruction manual or convenient timeline for managing grief.

"Yes. We're bound to have fights and misunderstandings. That's part of life. We just have to always be willing to work through them if we want this to work."

He grinned. It was the first time I'd seen him smile since Valentine's Day.

We spent the rest of the night hashing things out. It was difficult, and George broke down several more times, but when he walked me back to Hogwarts the next morning before classes resumed and after a quick breakfast of eggs and toast at the pub, I realized we were in a good place once more.

May 1999

Hogwarts

The memorial ceremony itself was a blur. Rows of chairs were arranged before a raised dais on the grounds. Harry and I sat with the Weasleys at the front along with the remaining members of the Order. The surviving members of Dumbledore's Army sat just behind us, and everyone else crowded in behind them.

George stayed glued to my side while he watched the entire thing with hollow eyes. I wasn't sure how much he actually took in, but occasionally he'd grip my hand harder, and I'd lean into him to offer whatever support he was willing to accept. His recent meltdown was fresh in my mind, and I mentally vowed to provide all the comfort I could. I was there for him and I would make sure he knew it.

The presentation lasted hours. After Kingsley and Harry spoke, they'd opened it up for anyone who wanted to say something. Many went up to share stories of things they witnessed or memories of the friends and loved ones they'd lost. I was amazed by so many wishing to pay tribute in such a demonstrative way. It was hard to listen to some of the more horrendous things that happened to Muggle-borns that didn't make it into hiding before the Ministry rounded them up. But some of the stories were inspiring too as people spoke of helping others hide or escape.

At one point I zoned out. Ron leaned around Harry and Ginny to whisper, "Do you remember that?" I blinked at him, surprised, then offered a timid smile and nodded. I had no idea what he was referring to, but he smiled hesitantly back as well.

The formal part of the day concluded not long after, and Ron made a point of having a civil conversation with George and me. A four month hiatus seemed to dull his anger and make him more open to accepting the new family dynamics. Someday things wouldn't be so strained between us. Someday.

I was intrigued by the monument when it was finally unveiled. Nothing had been mentioned regarding the appearance beforehand. It was a tall rectangular column of dark polished marble. On one side, were the names of all those that actively fought in the first war against Voldemort. On another, all those that died during that fight including those that were merely innocent casualties. The remaining two sides mirrored the first, but with the participant names from the more recent war. I was impressed to learn that they'd striven to include the names of Muggles, goblins, giants, werewolves, and house-elves as well on the proper side. Some names, such as Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape were engraved on multiple sides to mark their ongoing and continued efforts to stand up to Voldemort.

I overheard Ernie Macmillan saying how impressed his kids would one day be when they saw his name on it. The thought made my stomach turn. Just picturing explaining the cruelty and challenges I'd experienced made me want to cry. Perhaps pride at standing up for the right side would come when those fictitious children were older, but I couldn't bring myself to anticipate sharing such a tale with an innocent eleven-year-old before that child came here and saw the monument for his or herself.

Distractions came before I could mention the comment to George and get his take on it. Everyone seemed to want a piece of Harry, and he obliged, sparing time to speak with everyone that braved the Weasley horde to seek him out and offer congratulations or thanks. Only those closest to him seemed to pick up on his discomfort. Eventually, when his calm facade began to crack and the grief started showing through, Ginny interrupted, glaring at strangers that tried to approach. It worked, and Harry seemed to relax a bit as he stayed huddled within the protective circle of Weasleys.

Professor McGonagall hadn't been able to bar the press either, but she had made it a stipulation of their attendance that they not speak with any current student or harass anyone that declined to comment. They also weren't allowed inside when we returned to enjoy the celebratory feast the house-elves had prepared. Harry was thrilled given how much he'd been forced to interact with them recently given the ongoing Death Eater trials.

Our rather large group was relatively subdued as we ate at the end of the Gryffindor house table. Fred's absence and George's uncommon silence were weighing on everyone. Mrs. Weasley took up the role of making small talk in an effort to make things a bit less depressing.

"Hermione, dear, have you given any thought to where you'll be living next year?" Mrs. Weasley asked, attempting to get a conversation going and bridge the gap between us. I fervently wished she'd picked any other question to ask though.

"Actually, Mum, she's moving in with me," George answered, saving me the trouble. It was the first time he'd spoken up all day. I'm not sure if everyone found that or his declaration more startling.

Mrs. Weasley looked as though she'd swallowed a lemon as she looked between George and me, eyes rounded. Something about George's expression gave her pause though.

"Well… hmph - if you think that's best," she said, managing to convey her displeasure despite the accepting words.

"I do," George stated with steely resolve.

Mrs. Weasley opened her mouth as though to question him regardless, puffing up with righteous indignation.

But Mr. Weasley placed a restraining hand on her arm and said, "Molly," so sternly that she deflated.

"Yes, of course. You're both adults," she murmured, though she looked far from pleased by the development and there was a lingering tenseness in the assembled group.

"So it's all right if I move in with Harry then too?" Ginny asked innocently.

Harry, who'd been in the process of taking a sip of pumpkin juice, choked and sputtered, spraying his drink in Percy's face. He had the misfortune of sitting directly across from the hero of the day. Harry turned wide, startled eyes on his girlfriend, making it apparent this was the first he was hearing of this while Percy complained and struggled to clean himself up.

"I didn't - we're not - Ginny!" he stuttered, looking around at her family like a frightened rabbit.

"You most certainly are NOT moving in with him!" Mrs. Weasley hissed. "You won't be living with Harry until you're married."

"Okay," Ginny capitulated, winking at George. Nice diversion. I'd have to thank her for it later.

George leaned over to whisper in my ear, "That went better than expected."

"Thanks to your sister," I said, agreeing.

September 1999

"Still at it?" George asked, leaning down to nibble at my neck. I groaned, half in bliss thanks to him, and half in frustration over my work proposal.

"What time is it?" I asked.

When I'd moved in, the two of us had taken over what had once been Fred's room since we needed the extra space. George's former room had been converted into a home office and library for me.

Working at the Ministry was an experience in and of itself, interesting and infuriating by equal turns. Everyday provided new challenges and there was always something happening. It kept me on my toes, and I thrived on the energy and chaos. The infuriating part was in trying to change people's minds. Many of the older Ministry workers were stubbornly set in their ways and refused to see sense even when it was staring them in the face. My alternative viewpoints and experiences allow me to see problems with narrow minded and paranoid wizarding practices more easily - if only others would listen!

Luckily, I was actually getting an opportunity to be heard. I ended up signing on to work at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. The Deputy Head was so impressed with my views and ambitions that he'd approved my creation of a new law proposal that would free house-elves. It likely helped knowing that I was the brains of the famous "golden trio". I hated using my fame, but at least this time it was being used to help others. It seemed manipulative, but I had always been good at pressing an advantage.

I'd spent the last two months coming up with the initial proposal. If it got enough support, he'd agreed that I could form a committee that centered around drafting official laws and overseeing their enforcement. The opportunity was thrilling, though overwhelming. I'd been working night, day, and at least a little during most weekends since taking on the project.

"Late," he said meaningfully.

This was the third night this week I'd stayed up working. The only night I'd taken off had been my birthday at the start of the week when George had planned a relaxing romantic evening on the roof of the shop under the starlit night. It had been a perfect stress free date that effectively took my mind off all the work I'd been so focused on lately.

Since moving in together, we usually had two or three date nights each week, and did something with friends each weekend. George was good for me because he helped me find balance in my life. Without him, I could easily see myself getting entirely wrapped up in work and completely forgetting to have any kind of fun.

It was easier to live with George than I expected. We were both slightly OCD about keeping things cleaned and organized, so there was little friction when it came to things like that. He kept his clutter and chaos confined to his workroom in the shop below. We both had our own interests as well. He let me be when I was reading or working, content to focus on inventing or experimenting downstairs. Some nights though, we'd trade ideas or stories or work through our respective issues together. It was companionable and exciting all at once. I loved everyday with him. I never knew it was possible to be so happy and satisfied with my life.

"I'm sorry. It's just this is due by the end of the work day Monday and I need to make sure it's perfect. I might not get another chance like this in the future. There's only so long my fame will work for me, and I want to take advantage and use it to help others," I admitted guiltily.

"Why don't you share what you've got so far and I'll point out any holes I see," he offered.

We'd talked about work, but so far I typically avoided sharing my viewpoints on house-elves. I didn't want to fight with him and I still remembered the twins' reactions when I'd tried to free the Hogwarts house-elves in fourth and fifth year. Instead, I just let slip tidbits here and there regarding what I was working on.

"Well… "

"A fresh pair of eyes can't hurt," he insisted.

I started explaining the details. I hadn't gotten very far before George spoke up, asking for clarification on a few things. It made a bubble of joy expand in my chest to know he was truly interested in my work.

"You're making the same mistake you made before," George interrupted for the third time to inform me.

"Just because you've always said house-elves shouldn't be -"

"Hang on a second! You remember Fred and I aren't the same person, right? It was him that was always adamantly against you setting all the elves free. I was just against your methods," George said defensively, holding his hands up in a surrendering gesture.

"Because that's so different," I huffed indignantly.

"It is actually. You were being too impatient before. You wanted an immediate solution to a centuries-old problem, and that was never going to work," he insisted.

"What would you suggest then?" I asked, only partially believing he understood the situations well enough to offer something helpful.

"You can't just set them all free and expect them to accept it instantly. They'll be confused and think they did something wrong. It'll end up doing more damage than good - look at what happened to Winky!" he said, pausing to let his point sink in. "Think about it… you pointed out yourself that they've been brainwashed and manipulated for all their lives."

"That's precisely what I want to put a stop to though!" I said impatiently. He gave me a quelling look to silence me and encourage me to just listen to him a little bit more.

"You're trying to set them free immediately then juggle the problems that freedom generates and see to their welfare after the fact. If you really want to go about freeing them, though, then it's going to take several generations to overcome all of their conditioning and allow them to be raised without that being the norm. Stop trying to rush things so much. You need to set up a platform to initiate a series of steps that will ultimately end with them accepting freedom as a matter of course while looking after their welfare in the meantime."

"I can't just ignore all the ones that are suffering now! I mean…they're all suffering - no one should have to endure slavery - but some are like Dobby and actually realize it's happening," I said, feeling pressure building behind my eyes.

Tears always threatened when I thought of Dobby and how he'd given his life to save me. If he hadn't come that day, I surely would have died, if not by Bellatrix's hand, then likely by Greyback's. The fear the knowledge inspired still caused me nightmares - despite both being dead for over a year now.

"So take that into account," George said simply, shrugging like it should be obvious. "Draft a series of laws to be put in place over the course of the next… I don't know… decade maybe? Include options to expedite freedom for those that decide they want it or conditions dictate they need it. Don't just set them free though. You'll need to place them with someone else. You might try having pre approved families that qualify to have a house-elf placed in their charge," he continued. When I started to say something, he rushed on, not letting me interrupt. "Again, this is just a temporary solution until the next generations are raised not believing their only desire is to serve."

"You've given this some thought," I said, surprised.

"Little hard not to with the way you go on and on about it all the time," he teased.

"I never really thought you listened to the details though," I admitted ruefully.

"Well, you're wrong. I heard you. And I did some research myself knowing how important it is to you," he said. I felt a little blown away that I'd already had such an impact on him. But then he went and ruined it by adding, "You're kind of hard to ignore!"

"Thanks," I muttered sarcastically. George chuckled and kissed me.

"Does that mean I can convince you to come to bed now? You know I hate sleeping alone," George complained, leaning forward to initiate a deeper kiss. It was consuming, effectively scattering my thoughts.

When he pulled back, inspiration struck. I knew precisely what I needed to do and include in my new law proposal.

"You're brilliant!" I said, kissing him quickly and jumping up, my mind already focused on rapidly sorting through the resources that would help me.

"Oi! Where are you off to?" he called.

"Ministry!"

"But it's almost two in the morning!"

"I have to get started immediately. I know exactly what to do. Thanks!"

"Love you too," I vaguely heard him groan as I grabbed some Floo powder and headed back to work eager to get started.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

I apologize to anyone who has been to Dunnottar Castle and knows that my description in this chapter isn't quite accurate. I used some of my castle experiences in Ireland to write this, but I wanted them in Scotland so I fudged the details a bit. No offense intended!

Hope it was worth the wait :) Last chapter before the epilogue!

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Chapter 17

June 2003

Hogwarts

Nearly four years. Four years. That was how long it took to write the new laws and get the Ministry to pass them and start enacting them. But it had finally happened. House-elves were free. They still worked, but now they had rights and pay. Ones in abusive situations were removed and placed in new homes first, just as George suggested. That had happened two years ago. I was still working to allow them additional employment opportunities and access to wands - something I was forced to admit that might never happen - but this was real progress!

When the proposal was accepted to create the new laws, an entirely new committee had officially been erected within the department to support their enactment. When my initial proposal was first in the works, I'd been asked to head the new committee, but I'd declined. Instead, I'd switched departments around the same time since it was easier to get those laws passed, as well as additional similar ones while working for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. The change had reminded me of when Minister Scrimgeour had asked if I planned to pursue a career in law. Apparently he'd seen what I hadn't.

Lately, I'd been working on finishing up the initial proposals for new giant, werewolf, and goblin laws that were in the works based on my success with the house-elves. The werewolf law should pass later this year and the others not long after. Kingsley had been particularly supportive of the changes to werewolf rights given his former friendship with Remus. We both wanted Teddy to grow up knowing what a profound and lasting impact Remus had had on the wizarding world.

I found out today that my work had earned me a promotion. Over the last couple years, I steadily worked my way up through the department and earned myself a reputation for being efficient, hard-working, and fair. I was now to be the assistant Deputy Head of the department - the youngest ever to hold such a position.

Kingsley had called me in for a meeting this morning and informed me of my new title as well as the fact that I was also to start working with him a bit on a few projects he had in mind. I'd immediately sent George a letter sharing my news, and he'd replied that we'd have to celebrate tonight.

I'd also told Harry and Ron about it at lunch when we met up, a practice we'd taken to having at least twice a week now that we'd each gone our separate ways in life. Harry said Kingsley wanted to work with me because I was being groomed to be the next Minister when he retired. It was a daunting prospect, but I expected George and my friends to be extremely supportive if I did decide to go down that path. There was so much I wanted to do to improve the wizarding world and being Minister would certainly help me to those ends.

The day had dragged after lunch though. I couldn't wait to see what George had in store for us tonight. Even after nearly five years of being together he always managed to come up with fun and imaginative ways to celebrate our successes or just enjoy a date night together. It helped that he now had help at the store so he had time to dream new things up.

Last spring he'd finally gotten around to buying the shop in Hogsmeade. I barely saw him the first few weeks when he was juggling running two stores and meeting the supply demands. He'd come home in the middle of the night and be off again before I woke to head to the Ministry. The added stress and unwanted time apart had definitely put a strain on our relationship. We'd fought more that spring and summer than any other time in our relationship. It had been stupid and petty disagreements too. My bossy temperament and constant harping on him when we did see each other had made me feel like a harridan, and he'd made it quite clear he didn't appreciate it either. There had been many unnecessary and unasked for jokes about him being grateful he lost an ear so he only had to listen to my harping with the one remaining , and how that was already one too many.

By the time late summer hit and students were doing their back to school shopping he'd figured out for himself that he needed help he could rely on and couldn't put off hiring someone any longer. Harry had actually been the one to suggest he hire Ron to manage the new store. Apparently Ron was finally ready to admit being an Auror wasn't for him and was actively looking for a different job. He was struggling to find something he enjoyed, and Harry thought the joke shop would probably be a good fit for him.

George and I had talked about it for another couple of weeks, debating the pros and cons of having his little brother working for him. Ron had matured considerably from the hot-tempered, insecure teenager he'd so often displayed in school, and would likely excel doing something fun each day. His Auror training also meant he'd improved significantly at Potions and Charms, so he'd be able to handle preparing the store's supply stock. In the end, George had decided it was worth the risk. It had been hard for him to actually go about replacing Fred's position, but he really was desperately in need.

George had asked Ron over for dinner one night and presented the offer. While Ron was initially hesitate, things were still a little strained and uncomfortable when the three of us were together, ultimately he'd agreed.

Ron loved the work and it turned out he was extremely good at it. Customers loved him, and he loved getting to relax and laugh at work instead of doing paperwork or live in Harry's shadow. After nearly a year of working together, the brothers were closer than ever - truly friends for the first time in their lives.

Thursday dinners had become a ritual where Ron would spend the evening in our flat and they'd brainstorm ideas and go over the books together, laughing and joking all the while. Ron had finally learned not to take what George said to heart, and instead, dish it right back much to both's amusement. I usually spent those nights reading or working on my own projects with half an ear listening to them and chuckling to myself.

I think George was truly relieved that he was able to keep his and Fred's dream in the family at the very least. The other day I'd brought up making Ron a full partner rather than an employee, even if it was in the managerial capacity. He was seriously considering it.

Now there were times I completely forgot things were ever any different and that Ron had once been upset over my decision to be with George rather than him.

Ron had had a string of girlfriends over the years. None of his relationships lasted for very long, but he didn't seem to mind overly much. His war hero status meant that he was highly sought after, and he loved the attention that came with being chased and desired by so many witches. The extra income he earned from managing the joke shop also meant he was on his way to being wealthy and that left him more confident than ever before.

Mrs. Weasley despaired over him settling down anytime soon, but I had some suspicions that he was getting serious about the latest witch. The fact that he refused to discuss the relationship or even who he was seeing was the biggest indicator. It was like he was hoarding anything and everything to do with her because she meant so much more than any previous girlfriend.

"Are you ready?" George asked when I got home.

"Are you going to tell me what you are up to? Do I need anything?" I asked, grinning when he bounced anxiously on the balls of his feet. His excitement was nearly palpable.

"Nope and nope," he said, tossing me a warmer cloak. At least I knew we were going to be outside. It could get slightly chilly in the evenings, even in the summers, if the wind picked up.

"Then I guess I'm ready." No sooner had I spoken than George grabbed my hand and Apparated us away.

We were on a cliff by the ocean. Faint echoes of crashing waves below us floated on the briny breeze and ruffled our hair. The sun was just beginning its true descent for the evening, slowly sinking towards the ocean as though hoping to go for a swim. The sky was gilded in shades of gold and orange with long lines of purple and gray clouds suspended low in the air. It made the surface of the water look as though it was lit from below with fire and embers.

There was a path leading to an outcrop of land sitting a little further out to sea. Most spectacular of all though was the castle ruins sitting atop it. Going to Hogwarts and going up in a country with numerous castles and ruins meant I'd seen my fair share. But for some reason being here with George made this one seem more magical and awe-inspiring. Emotion bloomed in my chest, a swelling bubble of wonder. It reminded me of the first time I saw Hogwarts and the way my breath caught at the sheer splendor and miraculousness of it all.

It was nearly half six at night and no one was around. I wondered if we were even supposed to be there ourselves. This was a Muggle site so surely there would be tourists about if it was still open. George didn't seem overly concerned though so maybe I was overthinking.

"Where are we?" I finally asked, realizing I didn't recognize the castle from any I had visited in England.

"Dunnottar Castle," he said. If I remembered correctly that was in Scotland. No wonder I didn't remember it. It also explained the rolling mountains in the distance I could just make out behind us.

"Why are we here?" I asked, chuckling as he continued bouncing on the balls of his feet like a little kid hyped on sugar.

"Race you to the top!" he challenged, flashing me a grin then taking off up the path that lead to the castle ruins.

"George!" I yelled, laughing and chasing after him. He was so much faster and his competitive nature meant that he didn't give an inch as he ran.

He disappeared around a corner when he reached the main ruins, but when I rounded the same spot a minute later it was to find he'd vanished like the stars on a cloudy night - gone without a trace.

"George," I said impatiently. "This isn't funny." Nothing. "George? What are you up to?" Still nothing.

An ancient stone staircase across the room caught my attention and I moved closer, curious to see if it was still intact. The curving structure was, though weathered and moss covered in numerous places after being exposed to the elements for so many years. I followed the twisting path up and ducked beneath the low stone ceiling when it let out at a room still standing one floor up.

There was a window and I crossed immediately to it. The view was incredible. You could see the setting sun and the foaming curl of the water crashing against the rocky shore. That combined with the striking clouds in the background left me stunned speechless.

For several minutes I watched the churning ocean, caught up in it's violent pull. It was at once tranquil and turbulent. The juxtaposition was fascinating and mesmerizing. Eventually, I remembered my missing partner and went in search of him again.

The stairs gave way before reaching the turrets on top, but let out on the top floor. I'd just entered when a pair of hands shot unexpectedly out from the dark alcove beside the door.

"AHHH!" I squealed as I was grabbed. Then I saw that it was George as he hoisted me up before spinning me around in dizzying circles. Through my laughter, I accused, "You disappeared!"

"I told you I'd meet you at the top!"

"I didn't think you meant the very top," I replied when he set me down, but kept his arms looped around my middle.

"Hermione, I always mean what I say. Don't you know that by now?" he answered, far more seriously than I expected. "Especially when it comes to promises I make you."

"Of course," I said, leaning up to kiss his cheek. "This view is incredible," I mentioned, nodding at the window in this room and pulling him over to look out with me at the scene I'd recently been taking in on the lower floor. He rested his chin on my shoulder, brushing a faint kiss on my neck. My eyes fluttered at the tingly sensation generated by the contact of his lips on my skin.

"It is," he agreed, his breath tickling my ear and sending a new rush of shivers down my spine.

After a minute he pulled away. I glanced over my shoulder to find him kneeling behind me, face solemn and… nervous. A gasp escaped my lips as I spun to face him fully, shocked at what was happening.

He swallowed visibly, eyes scanning my face. Then he launched into hurried and rushed speech, each word crashing into the next as he expelled them with extreme haste.

"Hermione, you're bossy and infuriating and I hope you never change because I don't want you any other way. You drive me insane - probably more often than is healthy - but I love you anyways. You've gotten me through the worst time in my life - when I was certain I would crumble, you made me strong. I can only hope to always do the same for you. Everyday you make me a better person, and you make me happier than I ever dreamed possible. I love every breath you take, every command you give, every moment I spend with you. You're my forever and I hope I'm yours as well," he said, pausing to hold up a beautiful vintage engagement ring and taking his first breath since starting. "Will you marry me?"

I was speechless. Again. Words wouldn't come, but tears certainly were. My hand pressed firmly against my lips as I watched him. He looked like he was fighting laughter, all traces of nervousness evaporated. Romantic fantasies had never really been a part of my personality. I wasn't one to gush over boys, but if you'd asked me about how my proposal would go, getting laughed at by the man asking me to marry him probably wouldn't have been a part of it. But as I caught the sparkle in his eyes, I felt amusement taking hold of me as well.

"I never thought I'd see the day where you failed to answer a question," George teased, causing me to choke on my teary laugh. "Seriously, Hermione, this floor is stone… which means it's incredibly -"

"YES! Yes, just shut up already and kiss me!" I yelled, dropping down to throw my arms around him. My unexpected pounce had him falling backwards. His arms came around me and we rolled, laughing, across the hard and uneven ground.

"For a minute there you had me worried," George joked, when we came to a stop, my body draped over him.

I blew out a puff of air, attempting to get my wild curls out of my face. It didn't work. I tried again, reluctant to let go long enough to move them. George, seeing my efforts, reached to tuck the wayward strands behind my ears. I smiled gratefully down at him and he continued to rub a lock between his fingers fondly.

"You doubted my answer?" I asked, flabbergasted when I thought back over what he'd said.

"No - no, but I wondered if I should have prepared a better speech and practiced a bit," he admitted.

"That was off the top of your head?" I felt my eyes widen at the revelation.

"I've been waiting for the right time. Today with the law passing and your promotion… well, it just seemed perfect. I promised years ago I'd wait until you had a successful career and this seemed like proof. I didn't want to wait a day longer."

"I love you," I said quickly, the words tumbling out one on top of the next much as his proposal had been.

George really was perfect for me. Every time he demonstrated his respect and understanding of my wishes and desires it affirmed my decision to be with him.

When my lips found his I tasted promises and love. It was a knowledge that we'd have a thousand, thousand more kisses, each as incredibly earth shattering as the one in this moment. His lips were so soft, gently shifting against mine as his tongue traced the seam of my lips. I granted him the access he sought and moaned, loving how his mouth always held traces of sugary sweetness. He was the most delectable dessert imaginable.

Pulling back abruptly, he said, "If I'd practiced, I'd have thought to add a bit about how hot I get for you every time you get all fired up and passionate."

"George," I hissed, playfully smacking him and flushing at the teasing comment.

Though to be honest he did always get visibly turned on when I got upset. More than once we'd had to leave a function early because he dragged me to the nearest private place he could find to have his wicked way with me when I started arguing with someone. He'd once said my hair was like a live wire, crackling with suppressed desire and passion.

"Ouch! Geez, Hermione, I'm really feeling the love here," he teased. "Would you like your ring now?" he asked, tugging it from his pinky finger where he'd apparently placed it for safe keeping as we went rolling.

"Yes," I breathed, feeling giddy as he slipped it on my left ring finger. The round diamond was surrounded with delicately etched filigree in a white gold band. There were smaller diamonds nestled in among the elegant loops and swirls decorating the area surrounding the central stone. It was dainty and beautiful. "It's perfect."

"Ginny helped pick it out about two years ago. She'll be thrilled to actually see you wearing it."

"You've had it that long?"

"Just waiting for the perfect timing."

I sat up so that I was straddling George and shrugged out of my cloak. He grinned from his position beneath me, reaching to rest his hands on my hips. I tugged my shirt off, heedlessly tossing it beside my cloak. The cool evening air made my nipples pucker into points through the blue and silver lace of my demi cup bra. George's eyes locked on the sight like a missile seeking its target.

"I like where this is headed," George encouraged.

"I figured you might be up for celebrating," I said, biting my lip coyly.

"I always want you, so that's a fair assumption," he said, running his fingers up my torso and cleverly undoing the clasp on my bra.

Just as I reached to grip the hem of his shirt he flipped us so the I was suddenly lying spread beneath him. I gasped at the unexpected shift in positions and glanced up to see George smirking wolfishly, a devilish gleam in his eyes.

He bent to place a teasingly light kiss just below my navel, then he was undoing the slacks I wore beneath my work robes and easing them off without further adieu.

George eased my thighs apart, tracing his fingers up the length of my legs, his lips following just behind in their wake and he moved to place himself between my spread legs. I shivered as the cool air danced along my exposed skin and the damp path his kisses left.

When he reached the apex of my thighs he ran his tongue along the length of my slit then brushed his noses against the little nub of nerves at the top.

"Mmm," I moaned, and he covered the place with his mouth. The fabric of my lace panties scratched enticingly against the swollen flesh as he licked me through the material. "More," I begged, "please!"

He chuckled, the vibrations making me twitch and writhe against him. My hips rocked of their own volition, desperate for more stimulation, but he pulled back, refusing to give me the contact I sought.

"Please, please. I need you," I begged, knowing he loved to hear my wanton pleas.

"Do you want more?" he asked, slipping a finger beneath the sodden fabric and dipping it into my opening. It had only briefly entered me before he dragged it up to flick the pulsing bundle of nerves that had my back arching for him. "Are you sure?"

"Yes!" I breathed then groaned when his hand left me altogether. He chuckled again, but pulled my panties off in one swift, practiced motion. "Yes," I repeated, eager and aching for him.

His mouth returned to fasten over me again, his tongue flicking relentlessly - quick as a hummingbird's wings - before I had a chance to beg for it. Then he eased two fingers into my opening, pumping them deliciously in and out.

Words failed me. Only gasps, moans, and groaned escaped my lips. If I did have words they were nothing but nonsense. George seemed to understand me regardless and kept up his sweet torment.

My climax hit suddenly and without warning. The stress and tension from the day's events making it come on faster and stronger than was typical. It was fireworks and lighting, bursting light and dazzling electricity, sizzling just below the surface of my skin.

"Wow," I managed to say as his mouth released me and his fingers slowly withdrew.

He sat up and looked smugly down at my sprawled form. I couldn't get my limbs to move, not even enough to huff at his obvious arrogance over how easily and beautifully he manipulated my body. I was an instrument he knew how to pluck to create the most perfect symphony - a true masterpiece - and he knew it.

"If you're too worn out… we could always just head home - finish the celebration tomorrow… or this weekend after you've rested up," he teased.

"Shut up and take your clothes off, George," I commanded, a grin stretching my lips as he eagerly complied. His shirt quickly landed beside my head and his hands went to work unbuttoning his pants.

"Oi! What are you doing in here! Place is closed for the night," A voice yelled from the stairwell. George tensed above me and I stared up in alarm. "We've got cameras watchin' the place so I saw you heading up here!"

George reached to grab the nearest clothes, my cloak and his shirt, then wrapped an arm around me and Disapparated with a pop!

We landed in a jumbled heap on the living room floor of our flat. I glanced once more at George's still surprised face and rolled away from him, laughing uncontrollably.

"We - almost - got - caught!" I gasped out between my giggles.

George smiled ruefully, his pants still gaping open, and said, "Now that would have made a great story for the family - very memorable!"

"We left the rest of our clothes," I informed him after noting the too small pile. I felt a flush creep up my neck at the thought of the guard finding the discarded items.

"Finding your bra and knickers will likely be the highlight of his life," George said, smirking.

He stood, letting his pant fall the rest of the way down and revealing that he'd gone without pants beneath. My breath hitched at sight of him jutting out, ready and eager. He stepped closer then swooped down to scoop me up so that I was dangling over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

"George! Put me down!" I hollered, breathless as his steps jostled me and kept me from laughing at my absurd position. He playfully swatted my bottom, chuckling.

Before I could protest again, he dropped me unceremoniously onto the sofa and flopped down beside me.

"Your wish is my command, Fiancee," he said looking over at me delightedly. I hastily swatted my wild curls out of my face as I sat up and swung a leg over his lap so that I was straddling him much as I'd been less than an hour ago.

"You were saying - Fiance?" I asked, rising up only to sink down until I'd taken him fully inside me.

"Hmm," he moaned, eyes closing briefly and mouth dropping open as he relished in the sensation. "Saying? I can speak? What?"

I waited, enjoying the feel of him filling me and stretching my core pleasantly. "Something about wishes… " I prodded, rising up so far that he almost slipped out of my channel then quickly slamming back down to the hilt.

"Merlin, Hermione, you feel so good I can barely remember my own name right now let alone wishes," he said as I kissed down the column of his neck, my nails scratching lightly down his chest causing his own hands to spasm on my hips before gripping me harder and urging me into a steady rhythm we were both familiar with.

"Don't worry. I'll remind you when I scream it in a few minutes," I gasped.

"I'll never get enough of this - enough of you," he declared, slipping his hand between us to brush a fingertip over my clit. "I love you," he declared.

"I love you too," I vowed, pausing to rock slowly on his length, teasing him again and loving how his pupils were blown wide with lust, swallowing up the hazel irises.

For a few moments he let me move leisurely while he took ragged breaths. Then he urged me back into a reckless pace as I rode him faster and harder than I had been before.

All too soon I felt the now familiar tightening in my center, evidence that I was close. George sensed it and captured my lips with his own. The heated kiss mirrored the way our bodies joined together, tongues tangling and seeking the ultimate pleasure.

My body clenched as the first sparks released from the coil low in my belly to streak rapidly outward in all directions. "Yes, oh… OH!" I gasped, lost to the powerful sensation rolling over me.

I felt George tense within me. "AHH," he groaned, warmth coating the fluttering walls of my core as he released, his hips pistoning jerkily.

"George!" I cried, collapsing forward with my face buried in his neck as the final waves of pleasure coursed through my limbs and I felt him push more firmly into me one last time.

"Right - George - that's - my - name," he said breathlessly, hands running up and down my back.

Weakly, I smacked his chest. Part of me was surprised that he had enough presence of mind to remind the joke when I was nothing but a boneless heap of bliss.

"We'll have to go back and explore the castle more one day," George promised some time later, his length still nestled securely within me.

"Mmm, sounds nice," I agreed lethargically.

The Burrow

Weekly dinners at the Burrow were tradition. Now that every child had moved out, Mrs. Weasley demanded that everyone come back at least once a week for the family to get together and catch up. This was the first one since George had proposed a couple days ago and he had asked to be the one to share the news with his family. It had been nearly impossible not to Floo Harry and Ginny to tell them, but somehow I had refrained. It felt like I was near to bursting as I tried to squash the words and swallow them back each time I opened my mouth.

So far this evening things had been too chaotic for anyone to notice the ring on my finger and from the look of George he was thrilled that he'd be able to make the announcement into a big ordeal. I would have preferred keeping things quiet and just telling everyone, but this was what I signed on for when I decided to tie my future to George's so I went with it.

George was watching Molly intently, waiting for the perfect moment. As soon as she took a sip of her drink, George stood up and said, "I have an announcement!"

The room quieted at once, a surprising feat in itself. Then Mrs. Weasley's head was shrinking - no, not shrinking - just… getting younger… and younger until it resembled a toddler's. And it was wailing. Great heaving wails that resounded through the room.

Everyone started talking at once, each loudly demanding either answers and explanations over the noise of Mrs. Weasley's sobs, and making it difficult to tell who was saying what.

"Are you having a baby -"

"You're not even married yet -"

"Harry? What's wrong with you mate?" I picked up on Ron saying across the table from us. I continued listening, but was slightly distracted by Harry's rapidly reddening face. He busied himself with wiping the pasta sauce smeared across Teddy's chin.

"But thez eez lovely! Victoire, Dominique, and this little one need cousins -"

"George! Put your mother back to rights -"

"How far along -"

"NO! No! Sorry, wrong potion," George muttered, waving his hands around to get everyone to stop talking. He looked so frustrated that I almost felt bad for him. "Sorry, Dad! She'll be fine in -"

With a pop! Mrs. Weasley's head was back to normal, though significantly reddened with anger.

"George! I thought you'd stopped these foolish -" Mrs. Weasley began, but stopped abruptly, blinking as a dreamy look came over her face. "Did someone mention a baby?"

She had three grandchildren already and another on the way. Bill and Fleur had two girls, Victoire and Dominique, and Fleur was due to deliver the couple's third in just under a month. Percy and his wife, Audrey, also had a little girl that they'd named Molly.

Bill and Fleur had had Victoire on the second anniversary of the final battle. It had been a difficult day, not as awful as the previous year, but still challenging. We'd all been at the Burrow since Mrs. Weasley was hosting a private celebration for family, a few Order members, and a couple DA members when Fleur went into labor. They'd chosen the name Victoire to honor the day that had become a holiday in wizarding Britain.

Dominique had been born barely a year later. Bill and Fleur were now anxiously awaiting the arrival of their third. The baby was expected towards the end of July and they were hoping this one was a boy. Fleur had already decided this would be their last and Bill had learned not to argue with her over things like this.

Percy had surprised everyone by proposing to Audrey barely three months after the two began dating and were married less than a month later. Their daughter had been born seven months after that. Percy and Audrey both swore they had no idea about the baby until she came down sick during the honeymoon, but George loved to tease them mercilessly about it considering Percy was the least likely to ever find himself in such a situation.

Audrey was good for him though. She was very laid back and good at distracting him when he started in on one of his epic tangents. Percy was definitely easier to tolerate when she was around. It was possible that I might still be nursing a slight grudge over his desertion and his reaction to George and I getting together.

Mrs. Weasley doted on her grandchildren and insisted on babysitting whenever the parents needed a break. It was nice to know that when George and I had children we'd have that built in system and all the support we could ever need.

"Wow. I can't believe you two are having a baby," Ron said, shaking his head and looking as though the idea of a baby was the most baffling thing in the world. It was comforting to see that he didn't look the least bit resentful or angry, just mystified.

"We're not," I rushed to say, shaking my head frantically and meeting the eyes of everyone gathered around the table. "I'm not pregnant," I denied, raising an eyebrow at Ginny after searching her face a second time. She was biting her lip to hide a smile and shifting more than the five-year-old sitting between her and Harry.

"Oh," Mrs. Weasley said, sighing in visible disappointment. I nodded at Ginny.

"But I am," Ginny announced. Harry sputtered, inching closer to Teddy and his wife as if they could protect him from her family learning what he'd done.

"A baby! Oh, how wonderful!" Mrs. Weasley exclaimed. "Oh, he'll be so beautiful," she gushed, rushing over to hug the couple. "Or she of course. You were the cutest ever and I'm sure Harry was absolutely adorable!"

"You knocked up my sister," Ron said, disgust evident.

"Sorry to steal your thunder," Ginny said to George and me over her mum's shoulder.

I shrugged, feeling too happy to care, and said, "Congratulations."

"Yeah, well done," George said, nodding then smirked mischievously. "Knew you had it in you, Harry." Harry sputtered some more and Ron reached over to smack George upside the head for his comment.

"OW! Hey! Everyone was thinking -" George began defensively, but stopped when both Ginny and Mrs. Weasley glared at him.

"What was your news?" Bill asked once the well wishes died down a bit.

"We're getting married," I said, face aching from the wide grin stretching it.

"Mum was supposed to start belting out 'Here Comes the Bride'," George muttered, obviously disgruntled that his prank had gone awry.

"OH! Oh, you'll finally be my daughter," Mrs. Weasley gushed, releasing her death grip on Ginny to move around the table and embrace me.

It hadn't taken Mrs. Weasley very long to come around to the idea of George and I together. She'd never come out and apologized for her initial reaction, but she had made it clear that we had her full support once she'd seen how happy George was with me - especially once we'd moved in together. Mr. Weasley had even sat me down after dinner one night to thank me. I'd been confused at first, but then he explained how different George had been that first year after losing Fred while I'd been at Hogwarts. He and Mrs. Weasley had feared that he would never truly recover from the loss. Then I'd moved in with him and they'd seen a dramatic change. He was more like himself than they had ever dared hope to see again.

Since then Mrs. Weasley had gradually returned to acting as my surrogate mother. She was there for me each time I was disappointed over the new reburkes from my own parents. We also occasionally had tea and talked after a hard day at work when I knew George would be busy with the shop. It was a relief to have her treating me the way she always had Harry.

There were a couple times over the years she even took my side over George's when we'd fight. I think it helped that she understood how trying he could be when he took a joke too far as he'd done a few times. Part of me doubted she'd have done that if I were with Ron. He was her baby boy and she often turned a blind eye to his faults and transgressions.

"It's about time," Percy said loudly. "After all these -"

"I'm so happy for the two of you," Mr. Weasley interrupted, attempting to keep the conversation jovial while Audrey began whispering in Percy's ear to distract him.

The rest of dinner passed in a merry blur of celebration and good-natured ribbing. Afterwards, Ginny and I found seats in the parlor to catch up while Harry, Ron, and George took Teddy out back to practice flying. Harry had recently decided that Teddy was ready to transition from his toy broom to the real thing and was attempting to teach him the logistics of flying higher than a couple feet off the ground and how to land without falling.

Harry had really stepped up as Teddy's Godfather. Teddy stayed at the Potter's at least two nights a week, usually three, and he even had his own room. Harry adored the little boy and went out of his way to watch him whenever possible. When Ginny had still been playing professional Quidditch, Harry took Teddy to nearly all of her games. And the one lycanthropic trait that Teddy inherited from Remus was restlessness and irritability during the night of full moon. Harry always made sure he had that night off so he could stay up with him. Andromeda was grateful for the help and warmly welcomed Harry and Ginny into her grandson's life. Teddy's constant green eyes and messy black hair made it clear that he returned the sentiment and devotion.

"How far along are you?" I asked Ginny.

"A little over two months. I'm due in February," she said, smiling in obvious excitement.

"And you managed to wait this long to announce it?" I asked incredulously.

"It's only recently started to feel like its real. Plus Harry's terrified of the wrong people finding out or something happening to the baby," Ginny confessed, glancing out the back window where the guys could just barely be seen flying in the orchard.

Harry had already gained a reputation as one of the best Aurors in the department. The reputation had little to do with his name or previous accomplishments either. From the very beginning, Harry had acted as though he had something to prove. He'd earned top marks in every exam and had worked tirelessly to hunt down the remaining Death Eaters. Since then he'd had one of the highest success rates of anyone. Lately he'd been compared to Mad-Eye at the height of his career.

Ginny's career was more all over the place. She'd signed on with the Holyhead Harpies her first summer after Hogwarts and had a wildly successful rookie season. Her second season earned her a tryout for England's national team. She'd made it as an alternate, but injured her shoulder in a fall during practice before the season had even started and spent several months in rehab. Even magic had its limits when it came to seven torn muscles.

She'd come back the next year and started for England. They'd made it all the way to the semifinals of the world cup that year with Ginny at the helm. She'd played on the national team again last year and done incredible, but they'd lost in the third round with a major upset. Then, about six months ago, she'd taken a Bludger to the shoulder and re-injured her shoulder pretty severely. She'd finished out the regular season, but instead of trying for the national team again last month she'd announced that she was taking time off to rehab and let it heal properly. Though with a baby on the way now maybe it was going to turn out to be a permanent retirement.

"His happily ever after is still hard for him to grasp," I said knowledgeably.

"True. I don't think he ever thought he'd get the chance to be happy and normal."

"Is this the reason you canceled our lunch plans the other day?"

"Yes. It's been nearly impossible keeping quiet for the last three weeks since I found out," Ginny said, nodding. I mentally did the math and realized the baby wasn't her reason for taking time off Quidditch if she'd only known for three weeks. Then she winced and added, "Plus morning sickness has already started. I was busy throwing up the other day."

"That's unfortunate. I figured you'd be like your mum and never have any," I said sympathetically.

"Me too! I was looking forward to that, but guess I'm not that lucky."

"I'm surprised you're already trying," I admitted. "With Quidditch and your career… "

"We weren't trying, but we also weren't not trying I guess. When I got hurt last winter the Mediwitch said there was a less than thirty percent chance I'd ever get back my full range of motion to play like I used to. This last season was hard enough adjusting and playing through the pain I've had since re-injuring it. Playing just hasn't been the same. I don't really like the idea of continuing if I can't be as good as I was, and those aren't exactly odds in my favor. These last few months already showed me what it was going to be like in the future and it wasn't all that great," Ginny said sadly.

"I suppose," I agreed, biting my lip to keep from suggesting that she could have worked around her injury or tried altering her style to compensate for it. She was an adult and it was her right to make decisions about how she lived her life.

I'd gotten better over the years at not running others' lives or browbeating them into making the decisions I thought best. It was a bad habit I still occasionally fell victim to, but nothing like it had been growing up. Besides, Ginny would likely just tell me off if I tired.

"Besides, I lived my dream. I played professional Quidditch and even got to play for England a couple times," Ginny said happily, her hand resting unconsciously over her flat belly. "Now it's time for a new dream."

"Are you going to focus on raising a family now?" I asked carefully, trying not to let my personal views color my words or let any judgement leak in.

"Hermione, ask what you really mean - don't tiptoe," Ginny commanded, shaking her head exasperatedly. Apparently I didn't do a very good job of hiding my concerns. I noted a slight curve to one side of her lips so I knew she wasn't angry, but then she went on before I could ask as she'd demanded. "Am I going to become my mum and raise a dozen kids? No, definitely not. The likelihood of me getting to continue playing pro is slim though; and Harry and I are both ready to be parents - Teddy's taught us that, and he's been begging for a sibling. It also helps that I got offered a job at the Prophet covering games so I still get to be a part of the sport, and I'll still have a career that interests me. I'm starting part time next month and I can always write from home while on maternity leave if I want, freelance and the like."

"Sounds like you've got it all figured out," I said admiringly.

"Don't you? You always know what you want too," she prodded.

"The last time George and I talked about kids was when I was finishing up my seventh year," I admitted.

"So it's probably not going to happen soon," Ginny concluded. She sounded a bit disappointed. It would be nice for our kids to be close in age, go to Hogwarts together, grow up as close as we were…

"I-I don't know," I said tentatively, already picturing what it would be like.

"Hermione!" Ginny squealed, obviously shocked. Her outburst was accompanied by her enthusiastically grabbing my hand, jostling us and making us tip over on the couch.

"Shh!" I hushed, glancing around nervously, but no one was paying attention to us. "I'm just focusing on the wedding right now. I only know I don't want a long engagement," I said, redirecting the conversation to a safer topic.

"Do you already have a plan?" Ginny asked knowingly.

"Somewhat. I have a few ideas at least," I said vaguely. I had several if I were honest - including a way to honor Fred that I knew George would be thrilled about.

"Let me know if I can help. I let Mum plan most of mine and Harry's, but I have some extra time now," Ginny offered eagerly.

She and Harry had married the spring after she graduated. They'd been very young, but no one could deny how obviously in love they were. I think part of the rush also had to do with Mrs. Weasley refusing to let them live together beforehand. She'd clung to her last remaining child living at home as long as she possibly could, very reluctant to cut those apron strings.

Their wedding had been beautiful, simple, and most notably - private. Only immediate family and a few close friends had been invited. I thought it very fitting. Harry already gave so much of himself to the wizarding world that it was his right to horde this one special event just for himself. Ginny had fully supported the idea, especially since she'd already been on her way to becoming famous in her own right thanks to her Quidditch career.

They'd been married at the Burrow in a temporary gazebo covered in garlands and lily flowers erected in the orchard followed by dinner and dancing. It had been fun. George had spiked the champagne with some of his products so that everyone talked in weirdly accented voices or had their hair periodically flash neon colors. There'd been his trademark fireworks too towards the end of the night, but he'd specialized them so some were glittering and romantic while others flashed scenes from the happy couple's life together - including one that wrote out the words to the Valentine Ginny had made for Harry her first year at Hogwarts. Ron had pretended to tackle Harry the way the "cupid" had and forced him to listen as Bill, Charlie, and George belted out the words. Everyone had gotten a good laugh at that - including a mortified Ginny.

I wanted something similar. I wanted -

"Yesterday Harry brought up names," Ginny said suddenly, bringing my attention back to the conversation.

"I'm betting he already knows exactly what he wants," I said, amused hearing about Harry's enthusiasm over finally becoming a father. He was finally getting a family of his own just like he'd always wanted.

"If it's a boy he does. He suggested James Severus first," Ginny said dryly.

"Does he actually want to be haunted?" I asked, biting back my laughter. Only Harry would consider doing that.

"My thoughts exactly. I vetoed it immediately," she said, shaking her head and smiling fondly. "His next suggestion was James Sirius," she whispered.

"So he wants a mini-George?" I said, amused at the thought. The idea of Harry chasing after a little scamp highly entertaining.

"Probably," she agreed.

"How do you feel about it?" I asked, curious to see if she minded having Harry sort of take over the naming process. All three names he suggested were significant to him and I could see wanting to honor them in such a way, but I wondered if Ginny minded not getting the same input.

I had a feeling I'd be in a similar position if or when I had a son. The idea of naming a child after Fred filled me with unexpected longing and aching promise.

"Honestly? I love it. Sirius and I spent a lot of time talking that summer at Grimmauld Place. He was convinced Harry and I would end up here one day. I'd love to thank him for that conviction and everything he did by naming a son after him," Ginny said, eyes turning glassy. "And James… well, he gave me Harry," she said simply.

I smiled, feeling as though she'd summed up my sentiments for naming a son after Fred perfectly.

Chapter Text

Author's Note

Please forgive any spelling and/or grammar errors. I hope you enjoy, please let me know what you think!

I know this is really short, but I thought everyone reading deserved one last glimpse of their happily ever after :)

PS I'm not JK Rowling, so I don't own anything :(

Epilogue

October 2003

Melbourne, Australia

"Are you worried?" I asked, idly tracing circles on George's muscular abdomen. His eyes were closed and he was sprawled out like a sleepy cat content to laze in the sun complete with his red hair messy and rumpled from our getting acquainted with place we were spending our honeymoon in. We'd only arrived a couple hours ago.

The windows were open and a warm salty breeze blew in carrying the loud cries of nearby seagulls. We were in bed in our beach cabana - well, that was what George insisted on calling it even though it was really more of a condo about a two minute walk from the nearest beach.

My parents had rented the one bedroom place for the duration of our honeymoon for us to stay in as a peace offering since they'd refused to come to the actual wedding. Something about too many people with magic and being too uncomfortable risking such exposure. This was their solution, and it also gave George and I a chance to visit with them in person over the next couple weeks - my first time since reversing their memories.

I was happy they were at least willing to meet George, and he'd already sworn to be on his best behavior and not pull any pranks. I knew he wished he could, but he understood how sensitive the situation was, and I knew he'd respect their need to avoid all things magical during our stay.

Maybe things would change someday. Maybe grandchildren would help cross the divide. Maybe they'd never get past things. Regardless, I was content enough with the family that I'd created for myself along with the one I'd married into. It was all I needed to be happy.

"About?" he asked, hands wandering enticingly south beneath the blanket.

"Leaving Ron in charge for three weeks," I reminded him. "This is the first time you've let someone else run your business for more than a day."

"No. We signed the paperwork at the reception. He's now officially an equal partner and sole owner of the Hogsmeade store. If he screws up while I'm gone then he suffers equally as much - not that he will," George said easily.

"I'm glad you decided to do it," I murmured, placing a kiss on his exposed chest. His grip on me tightened in response.

"Me too. You were right about it needing to stay in the family. I think Fred would have agreed," he said seriously.

"Probably," I agreed. "Well, after he teased him over his failed Auror career," I amended.

"He'd never have let him live it down," George said, smiling faintly. "Oh! Did you see - at the reception?" he asked suddenly, turning his head to catch my eye. He was grinning excitedly, his smile making the freckles on his cheek squish together to look more like a tan than individual pricks of color.

"Him and Gabrielle you mean?"

"Yeah! I thought she was going to swallow his tongue a few times," George said, face twisting in disgust at the memory.

"It was a bit obscene. But I'm happy for him." It had reminded me a bit of sixth year when he'd put his snogging sessions with Lavender on display for all of Gryffindor.

Gabrielle had come to spend the summer after graduating from Beauxbatons with Fleur to help take care of Victoire and Dominique since her sister had been pregnant with her third child and needed the extra hands. Gabby loved kids and was thrilled getting to help with her nieces.

At some point, she and Ron had started dating. But now the summer was over, Fleur had given birth to her son, Louis, and Gabby was still here. Harry had mentioned the other day that she'd applied for a Ministry position and was planning to stay in England permanently. I'd been surprised until I saw her and Ron together at the wedding. Then her reasons had become very obvious.

At first, Gabrielle had been occasionally helping Ron at the Hogsmeade shop when she needed a break from helping with the kids. I'm assuming that was when they started dating since Ron still hadn't told Harry or I much about it - aside from the fact that he was in love with her. He hadn't even shared that much until during the reception when he'd finally come up for air long enough to dance with me. He'd blushed and stammered as he'd admitted it, but he'd been so certain of his feelings. There was a conviction in his confession that I had never known him to possess.

I was immensely happy for him. He seemed to come alive when she was near - at least after he'd blinked away the dazzling effect her beauty and Veela heritage had on him. Somehow it seemed appropriate that he'd end up with someone part Veela given the way he used to fawn over Fleur. I also had no doubt that George planned on giving him hell for falling for Fleur's little sister after he used to have a crush on her and had once asked her out.

The best part, in my opinion, was that Gabby was just as infatuated and in love with Ron as he was with her. She'd never outgrown her overly romantic nature and now looked at Ron as though he was her hero. Honestly, she was impossible not to like though - intelligent, kind, sweet, and beautiful.

I was betting they were married and considering starting a family by this time next year.

"Me too," George agreed. "Even if it does mean we have to witness more of their antics in the future," he added with a grimace.

"At least it was only friends and family there this time," I said soothingly.

I'd remembered Fred's description from Bill's wedding of what he wanted to do, and I'd talked to George about doing that for our wedding. When I'd explained that I liked Fred's ideas and wanted to honor him by using them - no muss, no fuss - George had cried and thanked me. He'd ended up deciding not to have a best man either, reserving the position for his missing twin. Lee had understood. Harry and Ron had ended up giving me away, and Ginny, now very obviously pregnant with James Sirius, had stood with me.

Our wedding had ended up being a little larger than Harry and Ginny's, more friends had been invited. It had felt more like a party than a formal occasion with lots of jokes and laughter. Everyone else seemed determined to prank George as payback for all the stunts he'd pulled over the years and he loved every second of it - particularly when he managed to turn it around on the person trying to get him. Guests had been allowed to wear whatever they wanted, as had the wedding party, and we'd skipped the hassle of decorations. Since it was fall, we'd used a clearing in a forest near the Burrow where the multicolored leaves served as the only ornamentation.

I'd also threatened to put a Full-Body-Bind on Mrs. Weasley until the whole thing was over if she tried to interfere or complain just as Fred had once teased that he planned to do. Mrs. Weasley had bulked at first, but after hearing about Fred, had caved and went along with it. The only thing I'd allowed her to do was prepare the food and let us use the orchard for the small reception we'd had afterwards. The natural beauty of the orchard, as well as the convenient field it contained, served as our dance floor and the backdrop for the celebration.

George and I had stayed up dancing long after everyone else left, long enough to watch the sunrise the next morning. I was utterly smitten with my new husband as he held me close while the sky lit with an array of colors like tubes of acrylic paint exploding onto a pale canvas. I'd loved all of it and George had certainly seemed to as well. The casualness of the entire event relieved a great deal of the pressure and made it more fun than stressful to plan.

"I was thinking," I ventured, tentatively.

"Aren't you always?" George teased.

"George! I'm being serious!"

"Sorry, love. What were you thinking?"

"It might be nice for our kids to grew up friends with Harry and Ginny's," I said quietly, sliding my hands up to rest on his chest, too anxious as I waited for him to sort out what I was really suggesting to continue tracing indefinable shapes on his smooth, taunt skin.

"I'm sure they will. They'll be cousins, after all," he responded lightly, reaching up to lace his fingers through mine.

"It'd be easier if they were close in age," I added.

"Hermione… "

"We're married now... like you wanted. The shop is doing wonderful… And my work is in an ideal place that I could juggle both since my promotion means I'm able to delegate more - or at least I could and probably should," I explained, hoping he'd agree and want them now as much as I did.

"Yes," he breathed. Then louder, yelled, "YES! Let's start trying - now. Right now. Come here," he said, janking me impossibly closer and sliding his talented hands down my sides.

I laughed and eagerly greeted a future that at times had seemed impossible to envision, but one I couldn't image without the man beside me. The one I would always turn to, and knew would always be there for me.

Final Author's Note

If you think Ron and Gabrielle ending up together is icky since Bill and Fleur are married, well… at least they aren't actually related like much of the wizarding world is. And if you think it's icky because of the age difference, well… it's the same difference as between Bill and Fleur, and less than the difference between Tonks and Remus.

Thank you so much for reading this story and sticking with it all the way to the end. I truly hope you enjoyed it and would be willing to share your opinions. While I don't really understand why a few people read this then sent me messages about being anger that Hermione didn't end up with Ron when I told everyone at the start she wouldn't… I do still like to hear your thoughts. Feedback helps motivate and improve so please share :)

I had so much fun writing this pairing, and I may do a couple outtakes later. If you have requests, let me know and I'll see if I can write something - for this couple or any other if I'm a fan of them.

I also have a number of other stories floating through my head that I need to get out. One is a Remus/Hermione time travel story that takes place with an adult Hermione traveling back to during her fifth year. I've never found a fic that does what I plan to do, so hopefully it goes well. I'm also going to write a Bella/Jasper Breaking Dawn rewrite. I'll be writing both at once and they'll be written in third person rather than first so that should be an interesting change. Hopefully you'll enjoy reading one or both of those as well.