"Alright, your potion's been brewing for 30 minutes," Fred reads, his voice at a normal volume despite being in the library. It's one of the few perks of the small nook that they are in—Madam Pince can't hear them back here. "You come back to your desk after hiding dungbombs in Snape's office and—"
"—and you add, what?"
He looks up and sees Hermione sitting up straighter, looking into the air in front of her. Her lips move but no sound comes out. He watches as her fingers twitch, once, then twice, until finally she looks to him. "Add one pinch of unicorn horn and then stir twice, clockwise."
"Very good," he praises, reaching over to give her hand a squeeze. He looks down at the book. "After that you add—"
"Two mistletoe berries?" Hermione says, though her voice lilts into a question.
Fred looks up, raising an eyebrow at her. "I don't know, Hermione. Do you add two mistletoe berries?"
"You do," she decides, voice firmer, though he can tell she's still not fully confident. "And then you stir twice anti-clockwise." Fred squeezes her hand again and waits, giving her a moment to think. Hermione looks down at their joined hands, over at the book in Fred's lap, and then to her own lap. "That's it, isn't it? Wave of a wand and it's complete, yeah?"
Normally, Fred might make a person sweat it out a bit. He might do a little dance with his eyebrows, he might make a ticking noise with his teeth, he might shake his head a bit. But looking at Hermione's wide eyes, he can't help but break into a wide grin and squeeze her hand tighter than before. "Might as well call you Potions Master Granger at this rate," he teases.
"It's just an antidote to common poisons," Hermione shakes her head. "You could brew this in your sleep by now."
"Ha!" Fred barks out, thankful once more for the nook's protection from Pince, finally releasing Hermione's hand as he falls back into his chair. He lifts his newly freed hand and brushes his hair out of his eyes and looks at her, shaking his head. "The only reason I can do that is because Georgie and I nearly poison ourselves with our experiments every week."
Hermione opens her mouth, Fred thinks to protest, but she closes it and frowns. Her eyebrows knit together and she looks at the pile of books sitting next to him. "Not every week…"
"Close enough," he shrugs. Ever since they started testing their products, Hermione has made sure they have all of the most basic safety potions at their disposal. Antidote potions, epinephrine potions, bezoars, dittany—everything that they could reasonably buy or brew, Hermione demanded they have it. He appreciated it, really, because Merlin knows George and him weren't looking out that closely for themselves. Hermione, though—Hermione was always looking out for them. Even if she was angry with them, their well-being was always her first priority. That's part of why they spend so much time in the library together. Hermione helps Fred with his products to ensure they're as safe as can be.
Hermione rolls her eyes at his nonchalance but lets it go, anyways. She moves the topic along to her parents' most recent letter from their trip to France, which gets her on the topic of her trip to France last year. Fred listens, asks questions, and watches Hermione light up as she talks about the Wizarding community in France. He has to admit the culture there does sound fascinating, but he doesn't think he'd last very long if he's being honest. He notes that Hermione seems like she'd fare fine.
With the nook that they're in, it's hard for them to be found, but not impossible, especially if you know where to look. Somehow, to Fred's surprise, Viktor Krum knows exactly where to look. When he thinks back, he supposes he shouldn't be surprised, because he's seen Viktor following Hermione around the castle for about a month now, so it's no wonder that Hermione must have shown him this nook at some point. Still, he's never interrupted Fred and Hermione's time together before, and Fred has to remind himself that he has no claim on this time with Hermione before he gets upset about the interruption to their conversation.
"Hello," Viktor greets. Hermione smiles up at Viktor in greeting, and Fred offers a small wave. Viktor nods at Fred, but his sole focus is on Hermione. Without anymore preamble, he asks, "Hermy-own, vould you do me the honor ov accompanying me to the Yule Ball?"
Fred feels his eyebrows raise (and maybe, just maybe, his heart drop in his chest), and he looks from Viktor to Hermione. Hermione looks frozen, and like she's reluctant to answer, "I'm so sorry, Viktor, someone's already asked me."
Fred's jaw nearly drops at that. The Yule Ball had been announced two days ago! Had boys been lining up to ask Hermione to the bloody dance, or—
Fred may not be Hermione's closest friend, but there's no questioning that he is her friend and as her friend he can see the panic in her eyes, clear as day.
She's lying—she's trying to get out of going with Viktor, she doesn't want to say no, but she doesn't want to go and—Merlin, Fred can't believe he's here to see Viktor bloody Krum get rejected and have the knowledge to understand that's what's happening. On top of that it's sweet, always wanting to help Hermione who is doing the rejecting. Which, Fred realizes, she must be doing for good reason.
"Sorry, mate," he jumps in, making Viktor turn to him, and Hermione's head snaps to him as well. "Should've asked her right after it was announced like I did."
Hermione's eyes go wide for a fraction of a second, but before he can read into it, she's looking to Viktor. "I'm really sorry. I'm really looking forward to going with Fred, though."
Viktor looks at her and shakes his head. "No, no need for apologize, Hermy-own. Fred was right. Should haff asked you sooner."
"I'm still really sorry."
"Is okay. I vill talk to you later?"
Hermione bites her lip and nods at him. "Of course, Viktor."
With that, the seeker takes his leave and leaves Hermione and Fred alone again. After a minute, Hermione looks to Fred, stands up, makes her way to the edge of their nook and looks out. When she's obviously pleased with what she finds, she turns back to Fred and deflates her shoulders. "Thank you."
"It's not a problem, 'Mione," Fred says honestly, because, well. Taking Hermione to the Yule Ball really isn't going to be a problem. Really.
"Still, I owe you," she says. She settles back into her seat. "How'd you know, though?"
"The panic," Fred laughs. "You looked like you were about to fall out of your chair."
"Oh, Merlin. D'you think Viktor noticed?"
Fred shrugs. "Maybe, but he might have thought it was more guilt that you had to say no. Which—why did you?"
Hermione leans forward and puts her head in her hands. "Oh—I don't know. He's nice, but. But he's got a fan club and they've been nasty enough to me with me just being friends with him. I don't want to know what would happen if we ended up going to the Yule Ball together."
"Well now you don't have to worry about it," he tells her confidently, reaching across the table to grab her wrist and shake it gently. When she smiles at him, he lets go and sits back in his seat. "Would you like me to prank some of them for being nasty?"
She laughs. "They're not that nasty, but I'll definitely keep you in mind. Though you know I can handle myself, right?"
"Of course I know you can," Fred answers honestly, "but you rarely do."
"It's called taking the high road."
"Wizards have no need for roads, low or high."
Hermione rolls her eyes. "It's called being the bigger person."
She stares at him for a long moment, pout on her face. Slowly, it melts off until she's left smiling at him, shaking her head in exasperation. "Thank you, really."
"Anytime, you know that, right?"
She quirks an eyebrow. "I'm starting to learn."
He doesn't expect it to come up so quick, but when he sits down for lunch with his friends, they're already talking about the Yule Ball.
"We're all going with each other, right?" George asks.
"What do you mean?" Angelina frowns, picking at her croissant.
"You and Fred, me and Alicia, Lee and Katie?"
Fred sits up straighter as he piles his plate with food. "No can do, Georgie. I've already got a date."
The group around him goes quiet, Lee stopping his conversation with Alicia, and Katie turning from the second year that she was helping with potions. "What?" George squawks.
Fred pauses as he reaches for the chicken to grin at them. "You all know the lovely Granger, right?"
George's loud whoop of joy doesn't surprise him, but the weight of his twin falling into him does. "You finally asked the bird out! And she said yes!"
"Aww," Alicia coos, "Freddie's got himself a girlfriend."
"Ugh," Lee groans, "what if they're one of those couples?"
"Now hang on—" Fred tries, leaning forward into the conversation to put an end to their talks.
"Granger is better than that," Angelina shakes her head. "Fred may worship the ground she walks on but Hermione would never let their relationship become gossip fodder."
"You're lucky everyone needs a date otherwise you two would have been the center of attention of the school," Katie says. "Granger and Not-Ron Weasley? Now that's a talking point."
"How did it happen?" Angelina asks, leaning in. "When did it happen? This morning, right? You're always with her on Saturdays."
"Uh—Thursday, actually," Fred says, following the story they'd fed to Viktor. He looks at his friends and rubs the back of his neck. "I need to talk to Hermione before I tell you guys anything else though."
"Yeah," he nods. "I found her after it was announced and asked. But she… we really need to talk before I tell you anything else."
The girls all deflate around him and turn back to their food, and he tries to ignore the look that George is giving him. His twin has every right to be suspicious—if Fred had asked Hermione on Thursday, George would have found out that night. He'd been pressing Fred to ask the girl out for too long, and suddenly Fred doesn't tell him that he had? Fred understands the confusion and perhaps even upset coming from George. But he really, really needs to speak with Hermione because he's fairly certain they were meant to go as friends. How in Merlin's name is he meant to explain that his friends had all jumped to the conclusion that they were dating?
Fred can pretend for the duration of lunch that everything is okay—which.
Unfortunately only lasts the duration of lunch.
When all of his friends are piling their napkins on to their plates and sliding out of their seats, Fred looks down the table to where Hermione is sitting with Ron and Harry. She's fully engaged in conversation with the two of them so it's going to be a challenge to get away without questions from Ron, but—
"I'll meet you guys in the common room in a few, I wanna go talk to Hermione really quick," Fred nods as he stands up from his seat.
"See?" Lee yells. "That couple!"
"I just want to ask her if she can help me research tonight, Lee," Fred says with a roll of his eyes. "I thought of something for the puking pastilles during lunch."
George nods at him and beckons for the others to follow him out of the room. They go without any more protest.
Fred takes his time gathering his bag and placing it over his shoulder. He pulls his hair out of the way so the strap doesn't catch on the long ends and when the strap of his bag is situated, lets it fall freely around his neck and shoulders. He runs an anxious hand through his hair, straightens his blazer, and draws in a deep breath. He can do this. Hermione is brilliant; she'll figure a way out. Of course that means telling her that his best mates all jumped to the conclusion that they were dating, which. Well. He could do with out.
Before he can talk himself out of it, he makes his way down the table and falls into the open seat next to Hermione, across from Ron, who—thankfully—isn't able to hear as Fred leans in and hisses under his breath, as close as he can to Hermione's ear, "they all think we're dating."
Hermione pulls away from him and looks up with shocked eyes. "What?"
"I wanted to see if you wanted to study tonight," he says louder. "I have a question I'm hoping you'll be able to help with."
Hermione blinks. She must understand what his plan is, because she nods and steels her face. "Of course. How's half six? In the library?"
"Sounds great, 'Mione. See you then." With a parting wink, Fred pushes himself to his feet and makes his departure.
Behind him, he hears Ron demand, "what was that about?"
"Nothing, Ronald," Hermione answers, and Fred can hear the exasperation in her voice.
He can't deny the nerves he feels, but he feels like at the very least, Hermione is on his side, and if that's the case, he's in good hands.
"Why would they think we're dating?" Hermione asks as soon as Fred walks into the nook that evening after dinner.
Well. That's not a question Fred really wants to answer honestly, so he shrugs nonchalantly. "I think they all assumed we were going as a group so I must have asked you to go romantically if I chose you over one of the girls."
Hermione's face falls. "Oh, Fred, I'm so sorry, I didn't even think—"
"Don't be sorry, 'Mione. I'm glad to be going with you. We'll have plenty of fun."
"But I'm sure you would have enjoyed it more with your friends—"
"We can still spend time with them," he shakes his head. "Seriously, Hermione. It's fine. I want to do this for you."
She looks up at him through her lashes and he feels his breath catch in his throat. There's a pregnant pause before she nods. "Thank you, Fred. And I want to do this for you, too. So—we're dating now."
"I—I just mean—publicly, not like… not actually," Hermione is quick to correct herself, her face flushing a deep color.
He shakes his head. "I don't want to put that on you."
"It won't be that bad, Fred, honestly. Hand holding, spending time together, cuddling—"
"What if I have to kiss you?"
Hermione's eyes widen. "Why would that have to happen?"
"Like if we're saying good night or good bye?" Fred suggests. He's thankful for his long hair because he can feel the tips of his ears burning. He doesn't know why he brought it up in the first place. That's asking too much of Hermione—it's pushing boundaries and—
"That's fine," she says, and Fred's brain freezes. He's not sure where to go from here, so he keeps quiet until Hermione picks up, "I never knew you were such a doting boyfriend, Fred Weasley. Will you treat me right?"
Back to banter—back to familiar territory. He can do this. "Right. Walk you to class, kiss you good night, won't play any pranks on you…"
"You don't play any pranks on me as is."
"Right, but that's because I'm scared of you, not because you're my girlfriend."
She raises her eyebrows. "You're scared of me?"
"Brightest bloody witch of your age, isn't that what Lupin calls you?" Fred asks with a lilt to his voice. "You're brilliant and you could give back just as good as you got."
"I'm not as creative as you two," she shakes her head.
"I don't believe that for a second, and even if I did, you'd still find some way to get back at us. C'mon—tell me. I've just put a color changing topical in your body wash. You turn blue for the day. What do you do to get me back?"
Hermione frowns. "I really don't know. Charm a howler to repeat itself for 24 hours and follow you around?"
"Now that's bloody cruel, Hermione!"
"What? Why? You turned me blue!"
"So I have to listen to you nagging me for 24 hours? Even in class? Even when I try to sleep?"
"You turned me blue!"
Fred grins. "No I haven't, and you've just proved why I'm not going to."
"So many people could do that, and I'm the one you won't prank?" Hermione asks, disbelieving.
"Many people could, but many people won't. And many people wouldn't think of that in the first place. I've never thought of charming a howler to repeat itself for 24 hours, though it's a brilliant idea. Would get the point across brilliantly."
"I'm surprised your mum hasn't thought of it yet," Hermione admits.
Fred shakes his head. "You're never allowed to mention this to Mum, d'you hear me? You'd ruin my life."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Hermione teases. "I'm keeping this one for myself."
Fred smiles at her, and feels his chest expand as she offers a smile back. It's a feeling he's grown accustomed to over the past year and a half—the pressure in his chest that comes with Hermione's smiles or laughs. There's also the weightlessness he gets when she looks at him a certain way, where he thinks for half a second that she might feel the same. There's the tug in his stomach he gets when she says his name, and the flip in his chest when she's upset. There's a feeling for everything Hermione, but the one he feels the most is the sinking that starts high in his throat and ends low in his gut when she turns away from him and he remembers that all of this that he's feeling is all him, and not at all her.
True to their word, they work on the puking pastilles the remainder of their time in the library. Fred has a concept potion created, but he doesn't have the antidote, so they spend time researching what could counteract the effects of the mixture he's concocted. Hermione proves to be a valuable addition, as Fred knew she would be, as she always is, and by the time they're heading back to the common room, they have a concept antidote created as well.
The common room is quiet when they return, but it's not empty. A few groups are spread around the room, but George, Lee, Angelina, Alicia, and Katie are all sat in the corner of the room, and they look up when the two of them come in through the portrait hole. George waves them over so Fred drags Hermione by her hand and guides her to the empty space at the end of the couch. He takes a seat on the armrest next to her and tosses an arm around her shoulders. "What'd we miss?"
"Not much," Alicia says. "We've been working on homework for the most part but Lee did send his parents a howler about his dress robes."
"They're hideous," Lee moans. "I didn't take them out before tonight because I didn't see any reason to but the pants are two and half inches too long, it's a horrid green color, and it's got ruffles."
"Wait until you see Ron's," Fred smirks. "I saw Mum cleaning them this summer and they've probably got yours beat."
"That's what I said, too," George nods.
"And that's going to be hilarious but it's not going to make mine look any better," Lee says.
"And that's what he told me," George nods.
"I might be able to help," Hermione pipes up. Lee turns to her eagerly and she laughs. "I've modified the lengths of all of my jeans to get them to fit perfectly. I'm sure we could find a spell to change the color of fabric, as well. That doesn't sound difficult at all. I'm not sure what to do about the ruffles though, I'm sorry."
"You're bloody brilliant, has anyone ever told you?" Lee asks. "Thank you, Hermione, really."
Hermione laughs. "It's nothing. We can work on them tomorrow."
"Right, right now we have much more important things to discuss," Katie pipes up from across the couch.
Hermione quirks a brow at the girl as Fred's arm tightens around her shoulders. "Oh?"
"We want to know how it happened," Alicia demands, eyes lit up. "Fred said he asked you but he gave us exactly zero other details so—"
Angelina nods. "He left us hanging with the excuse that he needed to talk to you so—provided you two have talked…"
"Oh," Hermione says. Fred squeezes her shoulder and she looks up at him.
"You can ignore them," he says.
"No—it's fine," she looks back to the girls, and George and Lee who also look interested, and smiles. "He found me Thursday night after dinner and asked if I had been asked yet. When I said no, he asked me."
"Easy as that?" George asks.
"Easy as that," Fred says. "But it's a good thing I asked. Viktor asked her this morning in the library."
"Krum?" Lee gasps, nearly shooting out of his chair. "Merlin, Hermione! Dump Fred, go tell Viktor yes!"
"Gee, thanks, Lee," Fred says.
Hermione laughs. "Thanks for the advice, but I'm quite content with my decision. I do want to head up to bed though, so I'll see you all tomorrow?"
With sounds of agreement from all around the group, Hermione rises from her chair, and Fred follows. She looks up at him, and he flicks his eyes towards the girls' dormitory steps, and takes her hand to lead her there. When they're at the base of the stairs, Fred squeezes her hand and leans down. "Can I kiss you good night?" he whispers, quiet enough that no one else in the room has a chance at hearing it.
Hermione looks up at him with wide, trusting eyes, and nods. He only has a second to think about just how trusting Hermione is actually being before she's the one leaning up to press her lips to his. He presses his lips back against hers and sighs when she draws back. "Good night, Fred," she murmurs.
Fred raises a hand to curl around the back of her neck and tugs her in, pressing a long kiss to her forehead. "Night, 'Mione," he mumbles against her forehead.
He lets her go and watches as she pulls away and turns to head up the stairs. Once she's disappeared around the corner at the top of the steps, he takes a step back and turns back to his friends, all of whom are watching him unabashedly. He glances around the rest of the common room where only a few groups are left scattered around. Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil are collecting their belongings and as soon as Parvati has her last book in her bag, the pair is running up the stairs, giggling as they pass Fred.
So, that's going to be something he has to deal with tomorrow. He feels guilty that Hermione has to face them tonight, all alone.
He makes his way back over to them and takes the seat that Hermione vacated. They're deep in discussion about Puddlemere United's keeper and Oliver's chance at making his Quidditch League debut from the reserves. Fred doesn't bother joining in, just listens as they identify the strengths and weaknesses of Puddlemere's current keeper and what the coach would need to see before bringing Oliver in.
It's not until ten or twenty minutes later that they get back on the topic of the Yule Ball and Lee pipes in, "so if Hermione said no—"
Fred rolls his eyes and teases back, "Viktor's not going to the Ball with you."
"Did you know in the Muggle world they actually study whether men or women are smarter?" Angelina asks, raising her eyebrow at the letter she's just received from her family. "Apparently women learn routes where as men rely on maps." She puts the letter down and looks to Alicia. "Does this mean we're smarter?"
"Rubbish," George calls, breaking off a piece of his toast and throwing it at the girl. "Apparition is easy for everyone once you get it down."
Alicia rolls her eyes. "What if I took away your wand? How would you get anywhere, then?"
"I'd ask someone else with a wand to apparate me," George says. "See? That's what critical thinking looks like, clearly men are cleverer than women."
"They also studied the differences in men and women performing in maths, y'know, if you'd like to show your cleverness," Angelina smirks, turning the letter to face George.
George's smirk drops off of his face and he shakes his head. "Nah, I'll leave that to the professionals to figure out. Besides, I don't need a study to tell me that Granger could out do me any day, I'm no fool."
"I could out do you in what?"
Fred jumps at the sudden noise next to him. He turns and sees her climbing over the bench. She brushes her hand against Fred's shoulder and smiles at him in greeting. They stare at each other for a moment before Fred things—sod it. He leans up and kisses her lightly on the lips. He falls back into his seat and watches Hermione's face color a shade darker. She smiles at him and settles into her seat before looking to George, waiting for his answer.
"You could out do me in maths. And most anything else, really," George shrugs. "What brings you our way?"
Hermione huffs as she shoves her bag under the table and starts loading her plate with food. "Your brother," she hisses.
"Hey, hang on," Fred holds his hands up, "he's not our brother if he's done something to hurt you."
"Right," Hermione rolls her eyes. "Ronald. He overheard Lavender and Parvati asking me about you and he—he—oh! He's being an arse about it!"
"Tell me how you really feel," Lee says.
"Lee!" Katie chastises. "Leave her be!"
Fred ignores the commotion across from them and leans towards Hermione, curling his hand around her elbow. "What's he done?"
"He's just—he's asking me how I could be such a fool to fall for one of your pranks, and saying that this is all just a bit of fun for you and—"
"'Mione," Fred says, his voice coming out more urgently than he means for it to, "you know that's not true, right?"
"I—I guess so. It does feel surreal, but I know you, Fred, and I know you wouldn't do this to me, if only to avoid my howler."
Fred snorts and squeezes Hermione's elbow at that. "It's for reasons beyond your howler, but yes, that would be a factor. You're not just a bit of fun for me, 'Mione—"
"I know," she sighs. "It's not so much that I believe what he's saying as I'm upset that he's saying it. He's meant to be my friend. That means supporting me."
"Of course. I'm sorry he's not," Fred says, and tugs her closer. She falls into him and laughs as she does and he feels the pressure building in his chest just from the simple sound. "You're always welcome here."
"Yeah!" George calls from the other side of Fred. "Now that you a Freddie finally got together it's time we spend some time together."
Hermione's chin ducks into her chest and Fred debates shoving his twin off of the bench, but before he can, Angelina is asking Hermione how she feels about male versus female intelligence and Fred doesn't want to ruin the beginning of this—whatever it's the beginning of.
He knows it's going to end sooner rather than later, but for the moment, Hermione is pressed warm along his side, her voice is chiming in to conversation with his closest friends, and he feels like he's on top of the world.
Studying in the common room isn't his favorite, but sometimes, it's his only option. He's got two chapters of reading for transfiguration due before class tomorrow and it's a concept he's actually struggling with, so he's biting his tongue and doing the bloody reading for once. The commotion around him is making it hard to concentrate on the words on the page, and he can feel his leg bouncing up and down and—
He flips the page harder than necessary. He's considering taking out his wand and putting up a muffling charm around him, but he wonders if he'll just strain harder to hear what's going on around him. It's happened before, and no doubt will happen again. Maybe he can create a plug to go in his ear with a silencing charm—but it'd have to be fitted, and that'd be difficult. Maybe he could ask Hermione—
"Y'know I know what you're doing with Hermione."
His ears pick that voice out, not only because the voice is noticeably louder than all the others, but also because Fred knows that voice.
Fred grew up around that voice and has listened to that voice for the better part of 14 years, now.
Fred really wishes that voice were not here right now.
He sighs, turns in his seat, and looks at Ron. "Yeah? What exactly am I doing with Hermione?"
"It's a prank and when she finds out—she's gonna write Mum and Mum's gonna send you a howler."
Fred raises his eyebrows at his little brother. "Really?"
"Mum likes Hermione, she'll be upset with you for hurting her."
"And what's Mum going to do when she finds out that I asked Hermione to the Ball because I fancied her?"
"You don't even know her!" Ron cries.
Fred hums. "D'you ever wonder where Hermione disappears to every Saturday morning?"
"No, she goes to the library, she tells us that."
Fred hums again, longer and higher this time. "Does she spend her time with anyone there?"
"Oh, now that's where you're wrong, Ickle Ronnikins," Fred grins. "I'm with her every Saturday morning. Sometimes Wednesday nights when she has the time to join me." He stands up from his seat and grabs the book he'd been reading. He snaps it shut and shoves it in his bag. "I don't know her, Ron? The bird who taught herself to write with her left hand in year three after breaking her right arm? Who can't wear her hair up for more than an hour without getting a headache? Who tries so hard but fails every time to not laugh at her own jokes? Well, you're absolutely right, then. I definitely shouldn't have asked the attractive, brilliant, witty, brave girl to go with me to the Yule Ball, eh? What a mistake that would be."
Without waiting for his brother to reply, Fred turns on his heel and marches towards the common room exit.
On one hand, he knew this had been coming. Hermione had already dealt with Ron, of course it would make sense that Ron would confront Fred as well. He was, after all, Ron's brother, and Ron was more likely to get the truth out of Fred than Hermione. But not this truth.
He scoffs as he finds his way out of the portrait hole. What is the truth, anyways? He's bloody head over heels for a girl who is using him to get out of going to a Ball with a bloke so his fanatics don't attack her. That's the truth.
That's the bloody truth.
He kicks at the loose stone along the corridor and watches it skitter along.
He wants to laugh at himself. Merlin, he should just move on. That makes the most sense in this situation, and it makes the most sense for him. He doesn't take things this seriously. He doesn't hold back on what he wants. It makes sense to let this go and get over it, but at the same time, he doesn't think he can.
He doesn't think he wants to.
He's come to cherish his Saturday mornings with Hermione the way he cherishes his alone time at the Burrow. Something that he looks forward to, that he requires to keep his head on straight. Something that is special to him, that is important to him, that keeps him going and that he looks forward to and that the promise of keeps him going. And it's certainly not the studying that he's looking forward to, no. No. No, it's the time with Hermione, even if she's busy studying, just being in her presence and hearing her mutter to herself. It's the times where she forgets that she's meant to be studying that morning and they spend hours talking with one another and Fred can't tell you how they get from one topic to another, but the conversation flows so easily that it just works. It's the times where he hears a frustrated growl and reaches over to pry the quill from her clenched fist so he can go over her essay and try and figure out what she's missing and the light that goes on in her eyes when he figures it out. It's the times where he flips through the pages frantically and she forces the book from his hold and asks what he's looking for and finds it with an ease that he doesn't understand.
He's spent the better part of the last year and a half falling for a girl who he's watched fall for his brother for the better part of the last year and a half and—
He can't even be bitter that Ron doesn't know what she looks like when she's talking about a prank.
He can't even be mad that Ron doesn't know what she sounds like when she accidentally scorgifys one too many lines of her essay.
He can't even be upset that Ron doesn't know what the light in her eyes looks like when Fred finally gives her the answer she's been looking for.
Beyond Ron likely knowing other quirks that Fred just… doesn't, it doesn't even matter because it's all down to Hermione. And Fred has watched and watched and watched and Hermione has never looked at Fred the way she looks at Ron. Hermione has never spoken softly to Fred the way she does to Ron. And Hermione has every right to make that choice, no matter how much Fred hates it, no matter how much he wants to think she's making the wrong choice.
Still, Fred can't imagine moving on from her.
"It's a good thing we studied the antidote for common poisons," Hermione's voice comes from behind him, and he feels a hand light on his shoulder. He tilts his head back and finds Hermione looking down at him. "Professor Snape just announced that we're having a test on antidotes on Friday."
"Hmm," Fred hums, leaning up to press his lips against hers in greeting. When he pulls away he shifts in his seat, creating more room for her and her bag at the table. "Then it's a good thing you know that potion so well."
She grimaces as she takes her seat. "Hopefully. I don't want to stress and forget all of it at once—"
"You won't, 'Mione. C'mon, name me the ingredients in order right now."
"Crushed bezoar, powdered herbs, unicorn horn, and mistletoe berries."
Fred grins. "See? You won't have any problem with this test."
"If you want to hear it from someone more reliable than Fred, I'll tell you the same," Alicia says from across the table.
"I'm just being honest," Alicia shrugs. "Hermione, who do you trust more academically—me or Fred?"
Hermione glances between the two of them and frowns. "Academically? You, Alicia."
Fred groans, throwing a hand over his chest and clutching at his heart. "'Mione!"
Hermione turns to him with a pout. "I trust you more with knowledge! Just… not school work."
"You know what? That's actually a fair assessment," Fred decides. He leans over and kisses her forehead for a long moment, reveling in the way she falls into his touch. "You're forgiven," he mumbles against her hairline.
"Thank you," Hermione says, sounding entirely too sincere for this banter. He glances down at her to find her eyes already on him, wide and—something.
He feels the weightless feeling that he gets when he thinks that maybe she could feel the same because for a second he thinks that maybe the look in her eyes means—well. Means exactly what he wants it to mean.
Hermione looks away though, and the weightlessness disappears with her eyes out of sight and the sinking feeling starts high in his throat once more. Because well—it's too good to be true, isn't it? Hermione has made her intentions clear, and further more, Fred has seen the way she acts around Ron—caring and soft and kind. Meanwhile, she's waggish and abrupt and fiery with Fred. He knows now, like all the other times, whatever he saw in her eyes was just a trick of the light.
"Hermione is a miracle worker!" Lee sings as he bounds out of the bathroom, dressed in his properly fitted, purple robes. Fred has to admit—they're a far cry from the robes that Lee had pulled out of his chest only last week. Sure, the ruffles on the chest were still present and eye-catching, but long gone was the horrid green and it also helped that Lee wasn't tripping over the pants as he walked.
"If this is news to you, you haven't been around Hogwarts enough the past three and a half years," Fred rolls his eyes.
"Oooh," George coos. "Fred's getting defensive of his bird."
"If this is news to you," Lee mocks, taking on a proper accent. Fred would like to point out that he by no means has a proper accent—but. He's already dug himself enough of a hole, it seems.
He rolls his eyes and motions to the door. "Right, can we just—they're probably waiting for us down stairs."
George skips over to the door. "Right! First one down gets the first dance with Hermione!" Lee whoops and runs out after George.
"That's not how it—"
Fred sighs and follows after them, much slower. He's not sure why, but he's nervous. He's not sure what to expect out of tonight. He's never been to a Ball, the closest he's ever got was a wedding and the last wedding he was at was when he was nine. He never picked up the dances that McGonagall tried teaching them, so he's unsure of how that's going to turn out tonight, but he's at least sure that he's going to get to spend the night with Hermione. He thinks it can't be too bad if that's who he'll be stuck with.
The common room is packed full of students—it smells strongly of mixed colognes and perfumes and the voices bounce off every wall of the room, dazing Fred. Most students are making their exit, but many are stood by the fire, taking their time before heading to the Ball. Lee, George, Angelina, and Katie are stood in the center of the room, crowded together by the pack of people around them. Fred pushes his way through the groups to make his way to his friends, tossing an arm around George when he makes it. "Alicia already left?" he asks.
"Louis picked her up a few minutes ago," Angelina nods.
"We're just waiting for Hermione, now," Katie says.
Fred looks at the clock. "We agreed on half seven, so she should be down any minute."
"Any minute is right," Angelina says, nodding towards the girls' dormitory stairs.
Fred looks over and sees Ginny descending the steps and behind her—behind her, well.
Hermione is gorgeous. Fred knows this. He's known this for well over a year now. Granted, her looks aren't the sole reason he's fallen for her, but he can't deny that they didn't help, because he finds her nice to look at.
Tonight, she's more than nice to look at. Tonight, it's a challenge to tear his eyes away from her, and right now, he doesn't even think to try.
The periwinkle of her dress is stark against the dark tones of her skin, and the shape of the dress hugs the curves of her body that Fred otherwise never gets to see. Her hair is—managed, he's not sure with what, but it's sleek and shiny and smooth and curling around her neck before cascading over her right shoulder and down her front. She's wearing make-up he can tell but it's only just enough to lighten up her eyes, to make the browns of her eyes richer. When she reaches him—when did that happen?—she's also two inches taller than usual.
She's smiling at him and her lips are painted a deep brown. "Hello, Fred."
There's a strong tug in his stomach at her greeting. "'Mione," he smiles. "You look—incredible. Merlin."
There's already a dusting of artificial blush on her cheeks, but Fred can see her face deepen in color at his words. "Thank you. You do, too."
"Why thank you," he says, and bows exaggeratedly, taking his eyes off of her for the first time since he spotted her. When he straightens back up, he extends an arm out for her and nods. "May I?"
"You may," Hermione grins.
The walk down to the Great Hall is fairly quick, but once they get there, getting in is a hassle. Half the school plus the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons students are all congregated outside the doors to the Great Hall, waiting for the Ball to officially begin. Which, thankfully it doesn't take long. After ten minutes of standing around and casual conversation, McGonagall calls for the Champions and their partners, and then the doors to the Great Hall fly open.
The Great Hall is stunning.
There are no House tables, but there are plenty of smaller tables, set for smaller groups of friends, lit with levitating lanterns in the center. The walls are frosted over, looking cold to the touch, though the room they are in is still plenty warm. Above them, garland and tinsel twisted along the ceiling, from it, mistletoes hung with ivy crawling down the edges of the wall. The entire room has a blue tint to it, like he is outside on a winter's evening, but the candles still hover above them, warm and orange.
Fred tugs on Hermione's hand, leading her towards where George and Angelina are already heading. They take a few minutes to get situated at the table, and then they find Ron and Ginny and their dates and drag them to sit with them.
Ron is glaring daggers at Fred through the entire opening where the Champions come in, and Fred can only answer with a wink and a grin. Ron's eyes narrow further at that, and he turns to his empty plate to scowl. Fred looks to Ron's date—Padma, if he's correct—and nods at Ron before pulling a face. Padma lets out a small laugh and Fred just feels sorry for her. Merlin knows he would be miserable watching Hermione with another date, too, but he wouldn't neglect his date even if that were the case.
The food is served and the entire table participates in the conversation—even Louis and Padma—just not Ron. Instead, his younger brother skulks and stabs at his food, glancing up at the Champions' table every once in a while. The rest of the time, he's looking between Fred and Hermione.
Beside him, Fred can tell Hermione's taken notice. Gradually, over the course of the meal, she's stopped touching his arm as much, hasn't reached out for his hand again, and is falling into a sour mood herself. She's still smiling, but it's weighed down and Fred feels a flip in his chest. He can't stop himself from sending a withering glare in Ron's direction once he realizes this.
Hermione's got an elbow on the table with her head resting in her hand, and she's only half paying attention to the conversation now. Fred sighs.
He leans over. "You remember how I promised to treat you right?"
Hermione looks at him. "Yeah?"
"That includes fighting my own brother if I need to."
Hermione's eyes spark and her head falls back as she laughs, loud and bright. The Great Hall is loud, but his ears hyper fixate on the sound of her laughter and tune everything else out. She reaches a hand up and places it on his chest. "I don't think that will be necessary, but thank you for the offer."
Fred leans over slowly, giving her plenty of time to back out, but Hermione reads him quickly and closes the gap and kisses him firmly.
"Hey!" Lee's voice calls, and something hits Fred in the side of the face. He jerks away from Hermione in surprise and looks down to see a roll sitting in his lap. "No kissing at the table."
Fred picks the roll back up and tosses it back at Lee and scowls. "Since when?"
"Since now," Lee fires back, also firing the bread back, which Alicia snatches out of the air from next to Fred.
Hermione leans around Fred. "Thank you."
"Did you ever try out for seeker, Alicia?" Katie asks. "Or just chaser? That was a nice grab."
Dinner carries on from there, but Fred doesn't look Ron's way anymore, and Hermione doesn't, either. It seems the table as a whole ignores his presence and maybe Fred should feel bad about that, but he can't bring himself to.
By 9:30, everyone is done eating and Dumbledore has cleared the tables away to make room for the dance floor and stage for the band. At first, only the Champions and their partners get to dance, but slowly, more couples join them. Once Louis bows and asks for Alicia to join him on the dance floor, Fred bites his lip and turns to Hermione, wanting to get it over with. "Are you ready?"
"You make it sound like a death march," Hermione laughs. She pushes off the chair that she's leaning against and reaches a hand out to Fred. "C'mon, scaredy-kneazle."
"I warn you, I only paid attention to half of McGonagall's lessons in dance," Fred tells her as they make it to the dance floor. He takes her hand in his.
"Half?" she gasps and he pretends for just a second that it was a result of him settling his hand on her waist instead of her mocking him. "That's a step up. Normally you hoover around the 10 or 20 percent mark."
He takes an exaggerated step which Hermione hurries to match. Another. Another. An entire string of embellished steps with Hermione floating on her feet to follow him, and they make their way around the dance floor, careless of who they passed. Hermione's laughter rings in his ears and it is so much sweeter than the music they are playing. Fred whirls her around, not caring about the technicalities of dance, just caring about the smile on her face. He ignores the pressure building in his chest, lets it over flow out of him into a burst of laughter, and twirls her for good measure.
"My, Fred Weasley, you're an excellent dancer," Hermione grins when the sound ends and they come to a pause, and she's nearly out of breath. Fred isn't sure if it's from the dancing or from the laughing.
"I'm a natural," he tells her, shaking his head and letting his head fall into his face. She laughs again and before he can bring a hand up to brush his hair out of his face, she does it for him. She pushes his hair back and tucks a few pieces behind his ears, but a few stray pieces still manage to fall into his face. She scowls, and tugs on the stragglers. "Hey, now," he says.
"Your hair is much… flowier than mine. I thought it would stay where I put it."
"Not a chance," he says. "My hair is a rebel like me and does what it wants."
"Right. Rebels, the both of you," she laughs with a roll of her eyes. She reaches up and runs her fingers through his hair again. "At least your hair is smooth, unlike you."
"Wh—ouch, 'Mione," Fred huffs. "I've been treating you right and everything."
"You didn't even ask me to dance! You just said 'are you ready?'"
"That was a question! I asked!"
"Dance was not mentioned," Hermione argues, crossing her arms across her chest.
Fred places his hands on her waist and crowds into her space until he's looming over her. "May I have this dance?"
"That's much better," she praises him, staring up at him with a glint in her eye. "But it's still not smooth when you needed me to tell you."
He groans. "C'mon, I'm trying here, Hermione."
"I guess you do get points for that," she sighs. She pushes on his chest until he's holding her at an arms length, and then she hold out a hand in front of her for him to take. "Yes, you may have this dance."
Fred grins, takes her hand, and then they're off.
They're all together at the drink table when George slaps a hand into Fred's chest urgently. Fred knows what that means.
"'Mione," Fred says, poking her shoulder. She looks at him. "George and I are going to speak with Bagman, will you be all right for a few minutes?"
"Yeah, of course," she nods. "Go on, I'll go find Harry and Ron."
"Right," Fred nods, and then leans in to kiss her quickly. She kisses him back and he sighs into it before he feels George grabbing onto his arm, dragging him away from her.
"Bloody hell, don't you two snog enough on your own time?" George laughs as Fred stumbles to gain his footing.
Fred grins at his twin. "Not nearly enough." Well. It's not a lie.
George rolls his eyes. "Right. Just because you've got a girlfriend doesn't mean you need to rub it in my face."
Fred fights to keep the grin on his face because sometimes he thinks having Hermione halfway is worse than not having her at all. Knowing it's only temporary is eating away at him and the fact that he can't even express this to his twin is making it even harder. So he laughs. "You started it, you realize."
"Yeah, yeah," George waves him off. He looks like he might say something else, but Bagman comes into view then, and their focus shifts entirely onto the man in front of them.
In the end, it's a fruitless conversation with the other man—he just talks them in circles as much as he does answer their questions.
Feeling particularly frustrated, Fred just wants to be back with Hermione. He spots Harry and Ron get up from their table and hurries after them. When he catches up he grabs Ron's shoulder and spins his brother around.
"Where'd 'Mione go?" Fred asks. "I swear she was just over here."
"No idea," Ron says with a spark in his eye. "Lost her, have you?"
"She was just with you," he says skeptically.
"Yeah, well, she's not anymore," Ron bites out, shaking his shoulder out of Fred's grip. "C'mon, Harry.
The two of them start on their way to the edges of the Great Hall and Fred frowns. "Hey Ron?" He waits for Ron to pause and turn to face him. "Remember a couple of weeks ago how you reminded me that Mum likes Hermione and would send a howler my way if I hurt her? I'm sure it'd be no different if you hurt her."
Ron's face goes up in flames, and he spins on his heel and stomps away from his brother. Fred turns to look at the room and sighs, clueless as to where to start looking.
He starts first with the table that their group had claimed early in the night, but she's not there. She's not at the drink station, nor is she at the food station. He spots Angelina and George dancing and thinks she might be with them, but there's no periwinkle dress. He keeps looking about the Great Hall but she's not with Alicia, nor Lee and Katie, not even Ginny. He's about to move outside until—
She's dancing slowly with the other man, talking softly to him, with several girls glaring at the pair from along the wall. Well. Fred is glad they didn't come together after all.
Yet, at the same time, he's angry. Hermione looks… content. She looks comfortable with Viktor, and happy with him. He thinks she could have had a good time with him had she gone with him, but his fan club had been enough of a thorn in her side that she threw away that opportunity. He thinks that she could be happy with Viktor, and that's all he wants for her, no matter how painful it would be.
He watches her, watches her smile softly, spin lightly, sway slowly. The music is gentle, the kind of song that he thinks he'd be struggling with right now if he were the one dancing with her. It doesn't set a romantic mood, per se, but it makes everything feel tender and if he were holding her right now, he's not sure if he could play off his feelings.
He has to wait another few minutes off in the corner before she's able to pull away from Viktor, who looks quite upset when she does. Fred can't blame the guy—Hermione's a hard one to let go of. He would know; he's been trying for months, now.
He pushes off the wall, expecting to have to go intercept her before she wanders off again, but she makes a beeline for him. He stays frozen where he is and waits for her to get to him, reveling once more in how bloody gorgeous she is.
"I saw you watching," she says in greeting. "Playing the part of jealous boyfriend?"
He laughs—partly for her benefit, partly for his own. Oh, his jealousy wasn't playing a part. He reaches out a hand and curls it around her elbow, trailing down her arm until he's got her hand clasped in his. "Not quite. You looked happy. I felt bad that you chose not to come with him because you felt threatened. That wasn't fair to you."
"Viktor is a great friend, but he's only ever going to be a friend. I wasn't going to risk the wrath of countless girls to be his date to the Ball, Fred."
"He clearly wants to be more than friends, 'Mione."
Hermione smiles, small. "I know. But I don't feel that way about him. He accepts that, he just…"
"Wishes it weren't so?"
Yeah, Fred can relate.
When Fred wakes up the next morning, it's to the sound of Kenneth falling out of his bed. From across the room he can hear Lee groaning as he, too, wakes up, while there's only a quiet shuffling from George's bed next to him. Likely because his twin is always the first one up, and Fred supposes the fact that they didn't get to bed until 2 a.m. doesn't change that fact.
In all fairness, he's not entirely sure what time it is, so it's entirely possible his brother got a full eight hours of sleep, but Fred does not feel like he got that much sleep. He reaches over and moves the curtain of his bed to peak out at the clock and—8:13. Definitely not as much sleep as he could have gotten. However, now that he's up, it's highly doubtful that he'll be able to fall back asleep, so he sits up in his bed and rubs at his eyes. When the crust is broken away from his eyelashes and cleared, he wipes his eyes and opens them, and moves to get out of bed.
It's Saturday which, naturally, means spending the morning with Hermione at the library after eating breakfast. He's not quite sure how long Hermione is going to sleep, however, or if, like George, she's already up. He supposes that's more likely, so he goes about his morning routine and finds his way down to breakfast without waiting for the others.
George and Alicia join him half way through, though the latter looks absolutely shagged out. Still, it doesn't stop her from asking how his night went, seeing as she had spent her night off with the Beauxbatons boy that had asked her. They make casual conversation throughout the meal, Angelina, Katie, and Lee joining about half way through, and then he's finishing up and bidding them all goodbye.
He heads up to the library, and it's no surprise when he finds Hermione tucked into her books already. He makes his way to his chair and pulls his bag off his shoulder, calling out a soft greeting to her that she returns kindly, but doesn't look up for. He can guess why—Hermione only went to bed ten or so minutes before he and the others had. She likely woke up at her normal time, which means she must be exhausted.
Fred resigns himself for a quiet day of study, and takes out his charms essay that is due come Monday. He'd started it but… that's about it. It still had a long way to go before it could be considered an essay.
Around the hour mark—when his essay had gone from pitiful to just sad—Hermione lifts her head and stares at Fred for a long minute. Feeling her eyes on him, Fred stops his writing and looks up at her. "Yes?" he asks.
"We've made it through the Yule Ball," Hermione states.
Fred furrows his eyebrows. "Yes?"
"What—what does that mean for us? Do we—are we going to break up now?"
"I just—I really appreciate what you did, but—"
"No, no," Fred shakes his head, because he really, really doesn't want to hear all the reasons that Hermione doesn't want to be with him, thank you. "I understand, 'Mione. And I appreciate what you did, too. You're right though. We made it through though, so this is over, innit?"
Hermione bites her lip, nods once.
"I don't think it should be today, though," Fred says, and Merlin who let him talk? "I just—it'd seem awfully suspicious if we ended our relationship after everyone saw us having a great time together at the Ball, wouldn't it?"
"You're right," Hermione agrees, and well, at least there's that. At least he made a good point with all of his self-sabotaging.
Fred leans forward onto his elbows and folds his fingers together. "How about a week from now? We can say the newness wore off and that we just didn't really feel the same without all the pomp surrounding us?"
Hermione stares at him for a long moment before nodding. "That could work." She looks back to her books and Fred thinks that's the end of the conversation until she clenches her quill in a fist and sighs. "We will say it was mutual, right?"
Fred blinks. "Of course, Hermione."
"I just—I don't want to be dumped when I've never even really…"
"No—'Mione, I'd never. If anyone was going to break up with anyone, you'd be breaking up with me," he says.
Hermione scoffs. "Right, who'd believe that?"
Fred wants to laugh. Oh, Hermione is brilliant, but she's also so blind. He laughs, and tells her, "more people than you might realize."
"Well, either way," she shakes her head, "it won't matter because it's going to be mutual."
Fred nods at her, and they both turn back to their work.
Fred feels the sinking start in his throat and thinks no. This is not mutual.
The next few days are agony, but in the best way.
Hermione greets him with a smile and a kiss each morning, and each time, a timer clicks in the back of his head, counting down that this is one kiss closer to the end, one greeting closer to good-bye.
Despite that, he doesn't let it stop his enjoyment of his time with her. She's still arguing with Ron, so he essentially gets her all to himself—well, sharing with George, Lee, and the girls of course. That's not a hardship, though. Sure, sometimes when Hermione is speaking with Alicia he wants her attention, but he never has to wait more than a few minutes before she turns back to him, beaming. Every time she does the pressure in his chest builds until he feels he might burst. He never does—but there are times he inadvertently comes out with a joyful laugh, or a sigh of contentment, or a hum of interest. The sound leaps from his chest without his permission and he's just so—happy.
They're out by the lake today, bundled up warm in their winter clothes, and spread out on one of the picnic tables. Fred's sitting on the actual table with his feet on the bench, and Hermione's sitting between his legs facing the lake. George sits beside him while Lee is laying across the other side of the table. Angelina and Alicia are sitting on the other bench, and Katie is off to the side, laying in the snow.
"I miss Quidditch," Angelina says after she tells them that her parents had gotten her a new broom for Christmas. "The Tri-Wizard Tournament is cool and everything, but I think we still could have managed a Quidditch season, right? We'd only be missing two players for the whole school, and we could just hold try-outs for their positions."
"Honestly," Alicia groans, dropping her head to the table. "There's three tasks. That's three days out of the whole school year, why did that mean taking away the entire season?"
"I miss it, too," Hermione frowns.
There's a pause and then—
"Really?" Lee asks.
Hermione turns to look at him. "Yes! I do happen to go to the games. It's a good break from studying. Besides, Quidditch is much safer for Harry than the Tri-Wizard Tournament."
"I didn't think of it from that perspective," Lee admits.
"That must be stressful," Alicia says, voice full of concern. "How are you handling it?"
"Well enough," Hermione shrugs. "I wish he was taking it more seriously than he is. He thinks that he can just put everything off and that it'll be fine but this tournament isn't meant to be easy! They've given him three months with the clue for a reason, haven't they? He's no closer to solving it now than he was when he first got it, either, and it's already been a month. He tells me not to worry because he's still got two left but…"
"That's annoying," Katie frowns. "I mean, I understand that he didn't ask to be a part of this but he is, and the stakes are high."
"Exactly!" Hermione cries. There's a flip in Fred's chest at the tone in her voice. His hand goes to her shoulder and starts rubbing calming circles, hoping that it works despite the layers she's got on. He can see some tension seep out of her neck, so he counts that as a win. "He's gotten so lucky on his impulses that he thinks that's how everything works now. Instinct is great when fighting dark wizards or getting away from a basilisk, but the Tri-Wizard Tournament isn't a tournament of instinct, it's a tournament of skill and reason. He can be a brilliant wizard when he puts his mind to it, he's just ignoring the severity of what being a Champion means. His first task was dragons. Does he think it's going to get easier?"
"I think Hermione rightfully misses Quidditch even more than me," Angelina declares.
Hermione tenses up. "Oh—I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to run off with the conversation like that—"
Fred leans forward, resting his forearms on Hermione's shoulders. He looks down at her as she tilts her head to look up at him, and he smirks. "It's fine, 'Mione. We're your friends, you can talk to us, yeah?"
Hermione blinks. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Fred repeats again, and then, because he's there, kisses her.
It's an awkward angle. His lips meet hers upside down, Hermione's head is tilted back as far as she can manage, and his shoulders are bunched up from how his arms are situated on her shoulders, but it's nice, nonetheless. Just as he goes to pull away a moment later, he can feel her lips turn up into a smile. When he's far enough away from her face, he offers her a smile in return, wide and toothy.
"Y'know," Lee says, "you two really are that couple, but it suits you."
The smile disappears off of Hermione's face and is replaced with a frown. She spins to look at Lee. "What? What do you mean?"
Lee sits up, brushing the snow off the back of his head. "I mean like, the couple that is cute and arse over tits for each other. It can be annoying but you two aren't over the top about it. You're still just Hermione and Fred, just, like. Dating now."
George laughs. "It's probably because we've seen this coming for so long, mate."
"Now hold on," Katie calls. "Give them credit! Lee's right, some couples get really involved with each other and completely blow off their other friends. Hermione and Fred haven't done any of that."
Hermione looks around at the group. "We could never!"
"We appreciate that, Hermione," Angelina smiles. "We like that you didn't steal our Freddie from us."
"And we appreciate you Fred, for bringing Hermione to our group," Alicia joins in. "Finally tipping the balance in favor of the girls. We over power you boys, now."
"Fred," George says in response to that, but it sounds more like a curse. "What have you done?"
"Next Hogsmeade trip we're going to Madam Puddifoot's," Katie decides. "Not because we want to, but because we can outvote you now."
Fred frowns. "We can just—not go?"
"Excuse me?" Hermione asks, and he turns back to look at her. She's twisted in her seat now with one knee propped up on the bench, leaning her back on his calf as a backrest. She looks up at him with a raised eyebrow. "You'd ditch your girlfriend during Hogsmeade weekend? When we started dating you promised to treat me right, don't you remember?"
"Ooh," Alicia croons, "Katie you got him in trouble."
"He got himself in trouble," Katie rolls her eyes.
Normally he'd argue something back with them but—he does remember.
And, well. He has. He's done everything he would have if they we actually dating, and he thinks he can say that she's done everything she would have, too.
But that Hogsmeade weekend is never going to come.
He's never going to have to pretend that he's miserable sitting in Madam Puddifoot's even though he could never be miserable with this group that's surrounding him right now. He's never going to get to buy her the most obnoxiously romantic drink in the tea shop just to see the look on her face. He's never going to get to hold her hand under the table and act like he's not in love in the most cliché place in all of Hogsmeade.
It hurts, really, that she's so able to talk about these things that are never going to happen. It's just a reminder that this thing doesn't mean the same thing to her as it does to him. That she's really just in this to help him out as a friend, and not someone who's practically in love with him and who has got herself into this mess based on that love. She's not a fool like him.
The conversation carries on around him, turning back to their earlier discussion of Christmas gifts, but he's not much in a chatty mood anymore. He looks out at the lake, watches as the loose snow blows along the surface with the light wind, much of it piling high on one side of Durmstrang's boat.
He feels something grab his hand, and tears his eyes from the expanse of white to see Hermione staring up at him with owlish eyes. She squeezes his hand, pulling his arm from where his elbow was resting on his bouncing thigh, and turns her hand over in his to slot their fingers together. She smiles at him, and then turns to reply to Angelina. There's a sinking from his throat, all the way to the bottom of his gut.
No, she's definitely not a fool.
New Year's Eve is his last night with Hermione. They've agreed to start rumors of their break up in the New Year, and they'll say it was because they noticed a lack of spark tonight.
While he isn't looking forward to that, he can at least appreciate their last night together before having to say goodbye to the things he's grown used to—holding her hand, curling an arm around her, and most importantly, kissing her.
Fred would appreciate it much more if he could actually find the girl.
The feast goes until past nine, with most people sticking around to eat their desserts and chat about the new year. Hermione had opted to sit with Harry and Ron, which—no surprise. Despite her ongoing argument with Ron, she still wants to spend some of the holiday with Harry, so she told him that she would handle Ron as well. But when he goes to collect her to spend their last hours as a couple together, Ron and Harry tell him that she left almost half an hour ago.
Fred looks to the doors of the Great Hall and sighs. Resigned, he starts the trek across the castle to the library. He should have figured that's where she would go—their last night together would be spent in their space, he supposed.
Except, after his hike across the castle, he finds their nook empty. He peeks around the rest of the library, careful not to miss her in any of the stacks, but when he doesn't find her, heads back to the Gryffindor common room.
She's not there, either.
He doesn't start to panic until Lavender says she's not in their room.
At that point—well.
He's really not sure where else to look.
Not finding her in the library hadn't been a problem—sometimes she went back to the common room early. When she wasn't there, he had waylaid Lavender to check the dorms while he checked the windows to see if she might be down by the lake—a favorite spot of hers—and that left him where he was now. Alone on New Year's Eve when he was meant to be spending the night with Hermione. The last night before they were due to break up. With Hermione nowhere to be found.
Fred was getting really upset with his past self for passing the Marauder's Map down to Harry. He needed it more my arse, Fred thinks. Clearly, Fred still has plenty need for that bloody map.
How hard would it be to steal it back, if even only for a few minutes to find Hermione? Harry probably has it stored somewhere stupid like in the bottom of his trunk, it wouldn't be too hard to sneak into his room, provided Neville, Seamus, and Dean are all still out. How was he meant to find that out, though? He supposes he could always ask Harry to borrow it, but Harry still wasn't back from the New Year's Eve feast, and Fred was impatient.
He glances around the room, eyes stopping on the one piece of Hermione that he can see.
"Hey Crooks," Fred calls, walking over to the cat that's perched on one of the chess tables, reaching out a friendly hand. Crookshanks stands up and arches his back in a stretch. When he's done stretching, he reaches his face out towards Fred's hand and rubs against his proffered fingers. Fred scritches at the cat's ears and smiles softly down at him. "Where's your mum, hmm?"
Crookshanks looks up at him and lets out a grating mrrow, and then jumps off the table. He pads across the common room until he's at the portrait hole, sitting next to the Gryffindor's room's exit, flicking his tail. Fred frowns. He looks out the window he's next to, and then back towards the cat and sighs. "Well, you're worth a shot."
He gets up and follows the cat across the room. As soon as he's next to Crookshanks again, the cat hops to his paws and exits the portrait hole. Fred would say the cat exits the portrait hole with purpose, but he's not sure he quite believes that Crookshanks actually knows what he's doing yet. Sure, kneazles are known for their intelligence, but does that intelligence span to finding their owner across the entirety of Hogwarts?
He gets a few weird looks from other students as he wanders by, following a massive orange tabby looking cat. Crookshanks is known well around the Gryffindor common room, but as far as Fred knows, he rarely ventures outside the common room. Which, really, all the more reason for Fred to doubt this cat's ability to lead him to Hermione.
He takes Fred across the bridge, and Fred feels sillier and sillier by the minute. Who's to say Crookshanks even understood his question?
Fred stops at the edge of the bridge and puts his head in his hands. The truth is: Hermione probably doesn't want to be found. If she did, she'd be in a spot where she could be found. She'd be in one of the places that he looked. Unless she was in a place only someone else knew to look for her, but…
No. Either way, she doesn't want him to find her.
They were meant to spend the night together and if she had wanted to follow through with that, she'd be there. But she's not. She's hiding somewhere, and Fred needs to respect that. He needs to give her the space that she wants. It doesn't matter that it's their last night together, in fact—that might be why she's hiding. It might have gotten to be too much. He might have pushed her over the edge. He could have—
He takes his head out of his hands and looks up at Crookshanks and huffs. "Really? Do I need to keep following you?"
"Alright, fine," Fred says. "But when you get us lost that's your problem."
Crookshanks turns and keeps heading in the direction that he was going before. Fred bites back a groan and follows. Honestly, at this point all he wants to do is go back to his room and feel sorry for himself before having to wake up tomorrow and tell the whole school that he's not good enough for Hermione Granger.
He climbs the stairs after the cat, rolling his eyes as they get higher and higher. "Crooks, if you wanted to go for a walk you could have gone on your own. You didn't need me to come with you."
Crookshanks doesn't stop walking, but offers a tail flick.
If he weren't so worried what Hermione would do if he let Crookshanks get lost, he'd turn back now. He's not sure how much Crookshanks gets out, but from the pace he's setting on these steps, Fred thinks the cat is in much better shape than Fred has assumed.
They're nearly to the astronomy tower when Crookshanks stops in his tracks. Fred nearly trips over him as he climbs the stairs and falls forward to catch himself on the railing to keep himself from stepping on the cat's tail. "Hey, whoa, Crooks. This it for you?"
"I don't know what you want."
Crookshanks twitches his ears and looks up the steps.
Fred can't quite believe he's falling for this.
"You're saying you want me to keep going?"
Fred stares at Crookshanks for a minute, trying to process what's happening. This cat has led him here and now is motioning for him to go on and—he's not lost the plot, has he? He's talking to a cat, so he likely has, just a little bit, but in the bigger picture—he hasn't gone off the deep end, at least he hopes not.
Maybe he has, however, because he starts climbing. He shoots a quick glance to Crookshanks who's frozen on the steps, staring back at him, and Fred ascends the stairs. He turns to face forward after the steps start to curve and it becomes apparent that Crookshanks really isn't going any further, but he's not thrilled about leaving the cat behind. He's the one who took him out of Gryffindor tower, he feels responsible for him. There's also a small part of him hoping that maybe… maybe Crookshanks knew exactly what Fred had asked after all.
The further he climbs the further the doubt sinks in, until he finally reaches the floor of the astronomy tower.
He's simultaneously blown away and also not surprised at all when he finds Hermione leaning against the railing on the far side of the tower. She's wrapped in a light jacket, clearly having planned to be out here for a while. She looks… relaxed. He almost doesn't want to interrupt her time up here, but now that he's here, he wants to at least check in with her.
He walks over slowly, takes a spot beside her, and leans on the railing with her. She looks to him in surprise. "Fred."
He smiles at the familiar tug in his stomach that comes with her saying his name. "Hi, 'Mione."
"How'd you find me?"
"Now, if I tell you that, I'll never be able to use the trick again."
Hermione huffs out a laugh, and turns back to look out across the Hogwarts grounds. "Sorry for disappearing on you. I know I was supposed to be down with you tonight, it wasn't fair of me to not warn you. I just… Tonight's not going the way I expected it to."
Flip in his chest. "What d'you mean?"
She shakes her head. "Nothing. It's just… not how I'd like to spend my New Year."
Fred feels his stomach roll. Did she really not want to spend her New Year with him? Is that why she hid? "Do you want me to—"
"No—no. No. You're fine. I don't mind—I want you here. Really."
He frowns. "Well then—tell me. How would you like to spend your New Year?"
Hermione looks back to him, and there's a soft smile on her face. "I know I haven't been home for New Year since my first year, but... my neighborhood threw this huge party. We'd light off fireworks, and there'd be sparklers—those are fireworks that don't explode, that you hold and wave around like a lit up wand—everywhere, and I'd get to have sparkling grape juice and stay up until midnight. We'd play music and watch films and count down the New Year together as a group. And—my last New Year at home I got my first kiss at midnight, too. I think I'd just like to be back in that environment. Celebrating with my mum and dad, our neighbors. Writing out the new year with sparklers until my wrist hurt. Fireworks."
"It sounds brilliant."
They fall silent after that, but it's not stilted. It's never hard to be around Hermione, whether there's words to be said or not. She's comfortable, even in the silence, which… Fred doesn't often feel comfortable in silence. He's an active mind, he doesn't do well with stillness. And yet, he's able to sit with Hermione. Of course, he's usually bouncing a leg, or tapping a finger, but Hermione never minds that, and he never wishes he were anywhere else, doing anything else.
Tonight though, he has to break the silence, because the question is looming and he can't stand it.
"Back to normal tomorrow?"
Hermione doesn't answer right away. Fred looks over to her and finds her staring out at the grounds, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth. He's almost wondering if she's heard him when she sighs. She turns to him and stares. "I don't know how we can be just friends again, Fred. It might be too hard for me."
Well, that's not what Fred wanted to hear.
He feels panic welling up in his chest so he just starts—just starts talking. "If it makes you feel better I've fancied you since your second year, you just didn't know, so obviously we can be friends when I fancy you—"
"You fancy me?" Hermione asks, jaw dropped in a way that Fred wants to find adorable but at the moment just finds frustrating.
His eyebrows shoot up. "Of course I bloody fancy you! Could you not tell by the fact that I followed you around like a kneazle? By the fact that George teased us about finally getting together? By the snogging?"
"I thought you were playing a role!"
Well. Now his interest is piqued. "'Mione?"
"I thought he was directing it at me."
Fred's brain might as well be a back firing wand for as useful as it is at the moment. He gapes at her, and feels like he's floating off the ground for how weightless he feels at the moment. "Are you saying that you fancy me?"
"I didn't think anything would come out of it!" she yells. "It's just a—a crush on my older, cooler friend. That happens to everyone at some point!"
"Hasn't happened to me," Fred challenges. "I got stuck liking my younger, brilliant friend."
Fred laughs, loud and obnoxious. He reaches forward and puts his hand on the side of her neck, letting his thumb drift up to trace along her jaw. "'Mione, do you know how utterly perfect you are? You're clever and witty, helpful and compassionate, you're loyal to a fault, you've quite literally saved lives, and you're one of the most capable witches or wizards I've ever met. Add on to all that that you're bloody gorgeous and I never stood a chance, you hear me?"
"Why did you never say?"
"I thought I've been watching you fall in love with Ron for the past few years. You look at him differently, talk to him differently… You're not like that with anyone else."
"My friendship with Ron isn't like my friendship like anyone else," Hermione says. "Just like my relationship with you isn't like my relationship with anyone else. Everyone expects something from me—help with their homework or advice about their spell casting or gossip about the Boy-Who-Lived. You? You've never expected anything. You've asked for everything and given me just as much in return."
"So why did you never say anything?
Hermione blushes. "I honestly just never thought you'd feel the same."
It's quiet. "I—are you sure?"
Fred huffs out a disbelieving laugh. "Merlin—I—"
Instead of trying to get his point across with words, he grips her shoulder and spins her to face him. Without a second of hesitation he leans down and crashes his lips to hers. He doesn't even have time to wonder if it was the right decision because Hermione is quick to react, pushing back into him and reaching her arms around his waist to pull his body closer to hers. There's a muffled groan that Fred thinks comes from him, but just as quickly there's a gasp from Hermione, so the playing field is leveled.
He tilts his head further to change the angle of the kiss, and moves his hands from her shoulders. One finds its way to her waist, while the other finds its way to the back of her neck. He tangles his fingers into her hair and tugs ever so gently to see if she'll tilt her head back, and when she does, he has to pull away from the kiss to grin.
"Shut up," she says quickly, eye lashes fluttering against her cheeks, and then she's pushing on to her toes to connect her lips with Fred's once again. He feels her hands curl into fists around the fabric of his shirt, and feels her tongue brush against his lips, and feels her chest against his. He could live in these feelings, the tickle of her hair against the side of his face, the press of her forearms into the flesh of his sides, the slide of her tongue against his. It's all so intimate and he groans while he tugs Hermione closer, reveling in all of this. He can't believe he's here. He can't believe he's with her. He can't believe this is real and not fabricated for some dumb pretend relationship to placate his friends.
They part what could be moments or minutes later, but they don't go far. Their foreheads are pressed together, their lips are mere millimeters apart, and their breath mingles with every exhale. All Fred can hear is their heavy breathing and it's all he cares to listen to, at least until there's a ruckus from down below of cheers erupting from every which direction.
"Happy New Year, 'Mione," Fred whispers, lips brushing against hers with each word.
"So much better than fireworks," Hermione mumbles, and Fred barely has time to laugh before she's pressing her lips to his yet again.
Fred will point out later that there were fireworks—just not the kind they could see. He could definitely feel them.