(AN: I really apologize, I've been having something weird happen with a lot of my recent postings to where the format ends up as a big mash of HTML code, rendering the stories unreadable, and I'm not sure why that's been happening? Please know it's not on purpose and I'm trying to fix fics as soon as I notice there's a problem. Hopefully that won't happen here... but please let me know if it does!
Also, if any of you prefer AO3 as a reading site, this fic can be found on AO3 as well under the same username - Senatsu - and the same fic title!)
It is years before he opens his eyes, it is moments. It is time unending and no time at all.
"There you are, slowpoke," and her voice is wry with humor as he's never heard it before.
He lets out a soft groan, closes his eyes again, sinks into the vague warm nothing billowing around him. "If it's all the same to you, my head is bloody well pounding, I think a nap is in order…"
"Don't you dare, Fred Weasley," she says, at once stern and amused. His spine snaps to attention immediately. He thinks, vaguely, that she'd easily give Percy a run for his money as no one else could, given the opportunity.
"So what's all this, then?" He finally looks at her, and though the lines that graft her together are blurred as if in haze, he feels as though he's seeing her more clearly than he ever has. "Can't trust me to find the pearly gates all on my own? I'd ask if you've come to pester me to death, but, well."
Her eyes roll, a laugh slips out; he wonders how he never noticed before, the way the sound seems to tickle his ears. "Leave it to you to make a joke of your own passing."
"Old habits die hard, wouldn't you know."
"Yes, they do, don't they?" and she laughs again. He thinks he might've liked this, making her laugh so easily - might've liked it quite dearly, given time. "But I suppose that is why I'm here, after all," and he comes up short, staring at her.
"Pardon?" he says blankly. The corners of her lips quirk upwards, dimples sinking into her cheeks, and it has never puzzled him so much as it does in this moment that Ron so often brought her to tears when he could have been basking in the radiant glow of her smile instead.
"It's those old habits of yours I'm after," she remarks, as though this explains everything. When his blank stare only intensifies, she continues. "I'm bringing you home, you silly oaf."
He frowns, then, and an unexpected sharpness lances through him in the vicinity of his heart. The 'home' he's currently headed towards is somewhere in the heavens above, and if it is to that she refers- "Don't tell me you're…"
Another quirk of her lips. "No." A pause. "Not yet." He feels both relief and fresh concern, and an eyebrow lifts in question.
"Please tell me that's a 'yet' as in 'someday,'" he says, discovering that he is afraid of her response.
For the first time, she turns away from him. It is only briefly, and when she returns her gaze to his, it is again with a smile. "We're smack in the middle of that 'yet,' I'm afraid."
He stands, at last, though he still isn't certain what it is he stands upon, or where. There's nothing much to speak of, here - just a vague sense of cloudy space, and her. "What d'you mean, in the middle of it?"
Her smile turns bittersweet. "I suppose you could say I'm making a trade, of sorts."
In an instant he stands before her, bodies nearly touching, his own frame towering over hers. "Tell me that doesn't mean what I think it does."
Her eyes turn upwards to meet his. They twinkle despite her somber expression - she's enjoying having the upper hand, it would seem. "I could tell you that, but it'd be a spectacular bit of fibbing," she remarks, straight-faced. "I'd prefer to leave the title of 'Spectacular Fibber' in your capable hands, if you don't mind."
For the first time in his life - is it still 'his life' if he's dead? - Fred finds himself genuinely angry with her. "Don't be daft," he snaps, and his hands are on her shoulders, shaking her. "I won't let you."
Her hands find their way to his waist, and she simply continues to smile. "That's very sweet of you, Fred, but I'm afraid you don't have a say in the matter."
His fingers dig into her arms, his jaw clenches, a vein throbs in his neck. "But Harry," he says hoarsely. "But Ron."
"But George," she replies softly, and Fred feels his heart plummet through his feet.
"Georgie… he'll be all right," he says, and he knows from the crack in his voice that it's as much to convince himself as it is to convince her. "But Harry and Ron will be lost without you."
Her palm suddenly rests on his forearm; she gently draws his hand to her waist, sliding her warm fingers up the new angle of his arm to settle comfortably on his shoulder. She captures his remaining hand with her own and extends their joint fingers away from them. Before he can even sputter in surprise or protest, she's begun to turn him gently around. There is no audible music, but suddenly it feels as though it's instead bled right up into him, filling his every fiber with song.
And despite himself, he dances.
"Fred," she says. His name has rolled off the tongues of many during his lifetime, often in exasperation, often in fondness. He never thought he'd hear the latter from her, her of everyone he'd ever known. "Harry will be fine. He's finally free of the monster that's haunted his every breathing moment all these years. He's finally free to be just Harry. He'll grieve, but he will live and live vibrantly." She spins with him, two pairs of feet that have never matched before stepping in time with a rhythm they have somehow always known. "And Ron will have the breathing space to grow. He thinks he needs me, you know. He thinks he does, but he doesn't. He's spent so much time hating me and loving me for who I am, because it's everything he wants and it's everything he wants to be. He's never understood how to just be the best at being Ron."
"But," he tries again, swallows hard. "But George and I, we lived. We lived loud and wild, all that time. We had fun. You... You never had that." His fingers curl around hers; she feels so fragile in his grasp. "You spent forever long running, you fought for Harry more fiercely than anyone else in this whole bloody continent, you grew up before we ever did. You worked so damn hard for everything you had. You've been busy changing the world since the day you were born. You can't stop now. You deserve the life that's waiting for you out there."
"And here I thought I was just a perfect prefect with a stick up my arse," she teases gently, though he can see the surprise skimming just beneath the surface of her smile.
"No, that's Percy. You, you're so much more than that," he replies, and his head drifts down, closer to hers, the line between their gazes shortening. "If only I'd bloody well figured that out ages ago."
"Fred," she says again. If the music in their bones had words, it would be the sound of his name on her lips. "Don't you see? I've done what I needed to do. I lived every moment of my life as nothing other than myself, the same as you and George. I studied hard because I wanted to, I practiced hard because I wanted to, I loved Harry like a brother because I wanted to, and I chose to fight for and with him until my last breath. I saw him through to the end, Fred. We've won, now. He's free. We're free."
"Just because Harry's arse doesn't need saving doesn't mean you've nothing left to do with the rest of your life," and his voice is desperation made tangible.
"No," she agrees, "there are many things left I've yet to do." But he knows that her concession is not that of defeat.
"Because it was my job to look after Harry and Ron. It's your job to look after everyone else."
There's a knowing in her eyes - these are words that are new to her lips but not to her mind. "All those days that we were on the run - Harry, Ron, and I - I'd think of you and George, sometimes. I'd think about Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, and how I'd give almost anything just to catch the two of you playing pranks again. I'd think of the way the two of you seemed to light up a room just by being there, how Diagon Alley seemed to come that much more alive with your shop's presence. The looks of hope on the other students' faces and in their eyes the day you left Hogwarts in the wake of your best and biggest prank, in the midst of the terror that Umbridge seemed determined to sow in all of us. You helped keep everyone's spirits alive, and I just knew that, once we ended this war, you would do the same again - this time, not just for the whole school, but the whole wizarding world." She laughs bitterly, then, a shuddering sound that rattles in her lungs. "It never even occurred to me that I'd arrive at the war's end and find only one of you alive. But I saw you, laying there, and I knew how wrong it was, knew I couldn't just leave it that way."
She nudges his arm outward, and he twirls her under it with a grace his physical self never learned to possess. "Because we've won, but the price was dear - the price is always dear. There are those who've chosen to pay it and those who haven't, and the freedom they've won won't ease their grief. Now, now more than ever, they need to find hope. They need to laugh again, Fred, to see the joy in the little things, to be shown the wonder in the world their loved ones died for."
She gazes up at him, blazing with Gryffindor ferocity and passion, a lioness to the end. If he had been breathing, he'd have stopped. "So you go back to your brother, Fredrick Weasley - you go back and you show it to them. I know that you and George are capable each on your own, but together, you're unstoppable. Your own sister once said that the two of you make anything seem possible. Our world needs that now, Fred, needs it desperately, and I'm damned well going to make sure it has that." The frizzy curls of her hair crackle with the same vehemence that carves itself into her every word.
For the second time in his life, he realizes that Hermione Granger is beautiful.
Looking at her now, the blood in her veins humming with conviction and determination, her eyes sparking fiercely, he wonders how he had ever forgotten. Then again, her sleek, charmed elegance at the Yule Ball pales in comparison to the vision in front of him right in this moment.
"All this time," he says hoarsely, clears his throat, tries again. "All this time, I - George and I both - we were so blind. Reduced you to a caricature, a self-righteous little firecracker full of anger, when all along it's been passion. We were too caught up in the ways that your mindset conflicted with ours to see it for what it really was." He takes a shuddering breath. His forehead nudges hers lightly, and his eyes drift closed. "This is piss-poor timing, but as I'm quite certain I'll never have the chance to say it again... I think I would have fancied you, Granger."
"Hermione," she whispers, and he opens his eyes to find hers glistening.
"Hermione," he repeats, reverent.
"I think I'd have fancied you, too, Fred," she says with a helpless smile. He opens his mouth, wants to ask about Ron, but she seems to anticipate his question and shakes her head. "Everything has its time," she tells him, reaching up to trace her fingertips down the fine hairs at the edge of his cheek. "If we had been allowed to enjoy our adolescence uninterrupted by dark forces, I believe he and I would have gotten ourselves sorted much sooner - and I think we'd have parted ways not long from now, if not earlier. As it was, we were always so busy with Harry that everything else fell to the wayside. Still, it was nice to finally get a good snog out of him, after all these years," and she grins up at Fred mischievously. "Should have gotten it out of our systems much sooner, honestly."
Fred gives her a look of disgust, and his fingers tighten around her almost imperceptibly. "Thanks, I needed to imagine that," he says irritably, then mutters, "Bet he's not even that good at it."
Hermione laughs at this, tickling his ears again, and shrugs. "He got far more practice at it than I ever did, so I'm hardly one to judge."
Fred thinks darkly of 'Lav-Lav,' then of Viktor Krum, and he bends so that his breath ghosts over her lips. "Would you like to expand your frame of reference?" he murmurs.
She goes still in his arms, her fingers curling into him slightly, and she worries at one side of her mouth with an eyetooth. "Well... it is now or never, I suppose," and he chooses not to think of what that means, instead capturing her mouth with his own before she can change her mind. The hand that clasps hers finally uncurls itself, and he gently cradles the side of her face.
It is not a chaste kiss; it is not a fierce kiss; it is a kiss that wanders.
If he is going to kiss Hermione, then he wants to know her mouth, wants to carve the memory of her into his soul. And he is patient in this, gently pulling his lips from hers and returning to them at a different angle, coaxing hers into relaxing, slowly, until one begins to melt into the other, and their movements grow languidly certain. Her hand hesitantly finds its way to his neck, and he is surprised to realize that her palm and fingertips are layered with callouses, making him all the more painfully aware that he has no idea what she's been through.
He grasps her hand and pulls it back down, brings it to his mouth, presses a gentle kiss to the center of her palm. She watches him through half-lidded eyes, seemingly entranced as his lips find their way out over her fingers and back again, traveling along the creases that line her skin. When his lips reach her inner wrist, however, she flinches, and he looks up immediately. There is a sudden depth of pain in her eyes that sears his insides; when he looks down to her wrist and arm, the searing becomes an inferno.
'Mudblood,' the scars say.
He could ask - could ask 'who,' could ask 'when.'
He could, but he won't, because now is all they have.
Instead, he presses her hand to his cheek and buries his face against her inner arm, his lips covering the scars one at a time, end to end, over and over again. And when he is done blessing each curse, he cups the back of her head and traces the fresh trails of tears on her face with his mouth, kissing her eyelids, her wet lashes, her nose, her mouth again. She laughs, in spite of everything, and her fingers slide into the hair just above his sideburns. "Despite my only-just-expanded frame of reference, I do believe you're rather good at this," she says, breathless, and though he has seen her red with anger many a time, he has never seen the lovely rose hue of her blush until now.
"Contrary to popular belief, it does take two for a good snog," he says, just as breathless, and the grin she gives him in return is a treasure.
"I couldn't have asked for a lovelier parting gift." Her grin fades into sobriety, and her hands slip down his face and neck, coming to rest upon his chest, one hand over his heart. "Thank you, Fred."
"Hermione," he says, and the reality that they are about to part ways nigh-strangles him with grief. She touches two fingers to his cheek, then, and he is startled to realize that he is now the one crying. He tries to speak again, but her fingers settle themselves over his mouth, and she shakes her head with a sad smile.
"Please, Fred," she says, and her own voice drops with the weight of mourning, for all the things she'll never do or say - for all the things they'll never share. "Live fiercely. For both of us. For everyone left. Please. Be sad when you are sad, be angry when you are angry - but live with joy."
"I will," he says, and he melds the palms of his hands to her cheeks, pressing their foreheads together once more. "I promise." He gazes into her eyes, for the last time, and though he has never paid them much mind before this strange series of moments, he knows he will never forget a single fleck of their shape and color for as long as he lives. "I think... I think I would have loved you, you know." He watches her face crumple, as the nerves of steel that have held her resolve together give way for a moment, and he wants nothing more than to tell her they'll find a way out of this - both of them together. But he knows that a lie will not comfort her, and he instead holds her close, his heart breaking. "Would have been absolutely twitterpated. A poor, lovesick old sod - I'd have been walking into things left and right! Why, I'd have come and tossed rocks at your bedroom window until you flung yourself out into my arms and came along with me for a proper ride on my trusty old broom."
She laughs through her tears, and he strokes her hair, memorizing the texture of every wavy ringlet with his fingertips. "Well, you wouldn't have flung yourself in my arms so much as told me to sod off, and I'd have fallen to my knees and begged and wheedled until you finally couldn't stand it anymore and gave in just to make me go away, and then I'd have whisked you off for a romantic moonlit picnic and we'd have made sweet love under the stars." He grins as she smacks his arm, forging on ahead. "And then I'd bring you home to meet my parents, only you've already met them, and Mum would be so surprised that she might just up and swoon right there in the kitchen, with a big bowl of batter in her arms, and then we'd never hear the end of it." He traces over her eyebrows, down the sides of her nose. "And George would prank us both right good, and we'd have to plot our revenge on him, and it would be bloody brilliant because you're the most spectacular witch I've ever met, and he'd never dare try again."
She's laughing again, and he winds a strand of her hair around his fingertip. "And then, one day, I'd be crazy enough to think that you might be crazy enough to agree to spend forever with me, so I'd buy you the most dazzling ring the wizarding world has ever seen, and I'd take you on a whirlwind tour of Europe, and you'd be hounding me with questions but I'd dodge every single one with a grin and a joke, and then when we were at the climax of the tour I'd whisk you up on that trusty old broom of mine and sit with you up in the sky... pull the box out of my robe, try not to drop it as I got all shaky with nerves-," at her questioning eyebrow, he pauses and adds, "-yes, yes, even I get nervous every once in a blue moon - and then I'd open it up and impress you with my taste in shiny jewelry and ask for your hand with my very best roguish smile, and you'd try to keep a straight face, string it out until I thought I might die, until finally saying yes and nearly knocking us both of the broom as you gave me the best kiss of our lives."
He skims over the outer edges of her ear, now, tracing the shape, learning every inch of her for the first and last time. "And eventually, I'd convince you that we deserved a brood of our very own bushy-red-haired rascals, and we'd make sweeter love than ever before, and the time would fly by until we found ourselves at the hospital, with George trying to keep me from either storming into the room or passing out, and lo' and behold, you'd have not one little sprog but two - they run in the family, you know - and we'd argue over names for the next forty-eight hours before eventually agreeing that you were right all along. You'd have them reading books on their own within a week of being born, and I'd teach them all the best pranks, and they'd have so many aunts and uncles and grandparents and godparents their heads would spin! And after a decade and a year of trying to keep them in only the very best kinds of trouble, we'd send them off on that beloved old train with all the other sprogs, and I'd pretend I'd gotten something in my eye and that I wasn't crying and you'd be the one with the stiff upper lip, handing me a handkerchief." He pauses. "And then I'd take you home and persuade you to comfort me in the sweetest of ways, and we'd live happily ever after."
She kisses him soundly at the end of his tale, and her eyes are still as wet as before, but with an underlying peace that brings him some small measure of relief. "Yes," she says, and kisses him again. "Yes, I think we might have done all of those things. And I think it would have been more beautiful than anything I could ever have dreamed of. I do believe I would have loved you, too, Fred."
For a brief heartbeat his blood seems to sing in his veins, and he gives her the most soulful smile he's ever worn in his life.
Then the world around them begins to ebb, as if the tide is going out, and his smile takes on a desperate edge. "I'll think of you, every day," he tells her, clasping both of her hands to his chest. "Everyone will know what you've done for me, Hermione. And when I come back to you, someday, I'll show you that I meant every word of that story… every kiss."
"Do you solemnly swear?" she asks, and her grief mingles with the joy in her voice.
"I solemnly swear," he replies, and kisses her.
When Fred finally opens his eyes outside of that strange dreamworld, it is to the feeling of a rapidly-cooling body curled against his own, and the sight of his grieving family standing above him. He gingerly reaches up to touch the frizzy hair he knows he'll find, to stroke the cheek that is now devoid of life. He swallows, and then he manages to rasp, "George," before retreating back into the silence of his own grief.
There is a heartbeat of stillness, and then his twin is kneeling at his side, grabbing his shoulder in disbelief. "Freddie...?" George says, his voice raw and throaty. Fred simply nods and struggles to sit, tightly clasping Hermione's body to himself, George helping to steady him as the clamoring sounds of his family begin to echo joy and awe around him. "Gods, Fred, we were so sure that..." Then he trails off, unable to even say it.
"You were right," Fred tells him, looking down at the face of the girl that rests against his chest.
George startles. "Then how...?"
Fred looks at George, gazing at his twin with such sorrow that George feels it like a physical blow. "Hermione," he says hoarsely, and closes his eyes, pressing his cheek to her hair.
There is a moment of silence, of confusion, and then George finally seems to realize that Hermione is no longer breathing. He lets out a strangled cry. "You don't mean..." and when Fred mutely nods again, George sobs and curls his arms around them both. The family members that surround them notice the change, and it's not much longer before Harry and Ron are kneeling down on either side of them, reaching for Hermione in disbelief.
When they touch her, they know. Ron slams his fist against the ground, his head bowing as his jaw works ferociously; the howl of grief that escapes Harry is almost unearthly.
Harry takes her from Fred, then, and though Fred despairs at the thought of releasing her, he does. She is Harry's to mourn, and Ron's. Not Fred's. On this day that would have seen George lose his twin brother, Harry has instead lost a sister - Ron, a dear friend and love.
But Fred knows that he will mourn her just the same - those fleeting moments they shared were enough to etch her memory into his bones forever.
He will mourn, and then he will live, because he promised her.
He solemnly swore.
And live he does.
When the last of the funerals have come and gone, and the process of cleaning and rebuilding their world has begun, Fred Weasley gives life everything he's got. He eats heartily, he sleeps well, he fills scroll after parchment after scroll with the best inventions he's ever dreamed up.
George is taken aback, at first - but when Fred finally believes himself capable of telling George the details of that dreamworld without falling to pieces, he does - and George suddenly matches Fred's fervor with every ounce of his own.
Eventually, in amongst the pranks and tricks and sweets of their shop, there begins to appear a small, special line of products - scrolls onto which one records appointments and activities that buzz to remind one of their approach, little squares of parchment that have a question or word on one side, an answer or definition on the back, and which explode if the wrong response is given (they re-conjure themselves a short while later, of course), a little glowing orb that shouts at the user indignantly to correct their spell pronunciation - a clock that wakes one at a pre-set time, coming to life as a small, shimmering otter bursts forth from it and swims around one's head, chittering until the sleeper finally leaves their bed.
Eventually, a collection of fake wands is added to the line as well - elegantly tapered shapes with vines curling around their edges, that produce their own vision of the swimming otter upon command, white and gently glowing like a Patronus.
The emblem of this product line is, of course, that very same little otter.
As life goes on, George is eventually happily wed to Angelina, and the two of them begin their own brood of Weasley children. Fred is overjoyed to be an uncle anew, and to watch over the children of his twin as if they were his own. In a manner startlingly similar to Fred and George's own siblings, Angelina and George are first blessed with a series of boys - four in all, two of them twins, to no one's surprise - before they have a little girl.
At her birth, Fred and George exchange a glance, and they know in that moment what her name will be.
From the moment she is able to stand on her own two feet, little Hermione Weasley is inquisitive, bright, and a quick study. She takes to both reading and pranking like a duck to water, and though she is George and Angelina's daughter, she is Fred's pride and joy.
When she is old enough to wonder, he shows her old moving pictures and regales her with tales of her namesake - a book in one hand, her wand in the other, saving the wizarding world time and again. At first, little Hermione seems to withdraw from these tales, as though the name she bears carries too much weight for her little shoulders. But Fred sees this and smiles, curling his arms around her. "You aren't named Hermione because you were meant to be just like her, love." He strokes her red curls reassuringly, kisses the top of her head. "You were named Hermione because you are good, and true, and brave - and you'll grow up to be your very own kind of wonderful."
The day that Hermione Weasley steps through that infamous brick wall and onto Platform 9 3/4, Fred stands next to George and Angelina, swearing to everyone that he's got something in his eye and is not crying.
He kneels down to look his little eleven-year-old niece in the eye, hands gentle on her shoulders. "A good luck present," he says with his trademark grin, and seems to whisk something out of thin air, pressing it into one of her tiny hands. She holds it up - it's a wand, the one from their shop with the little vines - and glances at him quizzically.
Before he can give her the command to make it work, the wand suddenly comes alive all on its own, the little otter shimmering forth from the wand's tip and swimming around the girl's head, over and under her long red curls, even pausing to knock its head at her nose.
For a moment, the world seems to stand still, and Fred swears that the otter's shape turns its head to look at him. He forgets to breath.
Then it chitters one last time and vanishes, leaving his little niece squealing and giggling. "What was that?!" she demands, delighted, gazing up at him with her eyes sparkling.
"A memory," Fred says, and swallows the lump in his throat. He smiles at her, tugging on a single coil of hair and laughing as she wrinkles her nose.
"A memory of the brightest witch of her age."