Chapter Twenty-Four

Fred

Standing in the middle of the chaotic waiting room in St. Mungo's after so long away from the rest of the world felt uncomfortable and a bit surreal. Fred was tempted to run back to the cottage he'd abruptly abandoned, but knew that was the wrong decision. Besides, seeing how close he'd been to losing Hermione again terrified him past the point of madness. Just as Archie encouraged him, he was going to do whatever it took to win Hermione back. He would be more patient, more understanding than before. If it took a hundred years, so be it.

No one would tell him anything. It was frustrating. Because he wasn't technically family of either witch, all he could do was wait for someone to take pity on him or for an actual relative to show up. That would be tricky for Hermione. He didn't know how the hospital would handle the fact she didn't have any family. Would exceptions be made?

Fast footsteps rushed across the marble floor from the street entrance. There was always someone entering the hospital and usually at a rapid pace. Fred looked up at the new arrival just for something to do to occupy his mind. When he saw Percy with his disheveled hair and wrinkled, mismatched clothes that made it clear he'd been woken up in the middle of the night, he froze. What was he going to say? How could he even begin to apologize for punching him and then running away without a word for two months?

"Percy, I…"

His older brother threw his arms around Fred and hugged him tightly. Words didn't matter in those first moments. There would be time later to apologize and make everything all right. Audrey's greeting was a little more what Fred expected. As soon as he stepped back from Percy, his sister-in-law marched up to him, slapped him hard across the face, and burst into tears on his shoulder as she hugged him. He couldn't even be mad. It was less than he deserved. He bit back a smile. Somehow he didn't think it was appropriate to find humor in the reunion. Not yet.

"Harry came to our house to tell us what happened. He knew we would want to know about Millicent. There wasn't time to give us many details before he had to return to the Ministry, but Hermione and Millicent were kidnapped by a Death Eater and you were able to arrive just in time to save them? How?"

Fred promised his brother that he would tell him everything down to the most minute detail once they were away from the hospital and didn't have to worry about eavesdroppers. The last complication any of them needed was the story getting into the newspapers with more information than the public really needed to know. He meant it too. After unburdening himself to Archie about the crone and the important part she played in his life in recent months, he wanted to tell Percy. Maybe he wasn't ready to tell everyone in his family, but he knew he could tell his brother. He would understand or at least try to.

"It all happened very fast and I don't know what they went through before I got there, but Audrey, you need to prepare yourself. Millicent didn't look good. She was hardly conscious when she was brought here and I don't know what the bastard did to her."

Audrey wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief, but couldn't speak. All she could do was nod her head once. She and her cousin were as close as sisters. If something terrible happened and the Healers weren't able to save her life, Fred knew it would be devastating for her. Hell, it would be devastating for all of them. He considered Millicent one of his best friends even after such a short time. With all of their efforts to make sure he ended up with Millicent before they brought Hermione back, he knew how fond the rest of his family was of the Unspeakable as well. Percy put his arm around his wife's shoulder to offer her the support she needed.

"But Hermione is all right?"

"I think so. She said she was. She said that he didn't hurt her, but Harry wanted her brought to St. Mungo's just to be checked out for sure. The bastard almost pushed her into the Veil, but Millicent was there to catch her in time."

"Harry said that you blew him up?"

"Yes, just like Rookwood."

"Good. I'm glad."

He nearly smiled at his brother's response. For eight years neither of them had spoken about the moment they shared in Hogwarts covered in Rookwood's insides. Fred couldn't bear to think about the arsehole because of what he did to Hermione, but part of him always feared that Percy's reluctance to speak about him was because he'd been ashamed of how his brother acted during the battle. Seeing something akin to pride on Percy's face dispelled that notion.

"Now, we are going to talk very soon about where you have been, but this isn't the time. We need to focus on Millicent and Hermione. But, little brother, believe me when I tell you that if you ever do what you did to us again…"

Audrey interrupted, love-fueled anger visible in her eyes.

"Muggles put tracking devices in their dogs and cats in case they get lost. I'll drag you to a Muggle animal Healer myself if I have to."

Though he chuckled and Percy even smirked, Fred didn't doubt for a second that Audrey was telling him the truth. She could be every bit as stubborn and determined as the other Weasleys. Percy had chosen his bride well.

"I can promise you both that that won't be necessary. After tonight, after being reminded how quickly we can lose someone we love, I'm not going anywhere."

And he truly meant every word he said. Life was too precious to take for granted. While he didn't expect everything to be perfect or easy, for the first time in a long time, perhaps even since the war, he was ready to start living again. He knew he had the crone to thank for much of that. If he ever saw her again, he resolved he would be kind and thank her for her interference. There was no question he'd lost his way.

In a flurry of robes another familiar figure entered the waiting room. Disheveled as well, but in an entirely different manner than Percy and Audrey, Kingsley ignored everyone else in the immediate area to speak to the suddenly nervous Welcome Witch. A heavy aroma of fire whiskey wafted off the Minister as he passed the three Weasleys. The wizard wasn't steady on his feet either. Fred knew the signs of intoxication all too well.

"Where is Millicent Bulstrode's room?"

"I'm sorry, Minister Shacklebolt, but the Healers aren't allowing visitors right now and when they do, it will only be close family."

Kingsley slammed his fist on her desk forcing a worried gasp out of the woman. All other eyes in the room were on him as well.

"I demand to see her at once."

"But Minister Shacklebolt…"

Before he could escalate the scene to a dangerous fever pitch, Fred approached the desk. The poor witch was grateful for his abrupt appearance, but Kingsley was furious. He spun around in Fred's direction, ready with a spell on his lips or a blow with his fists. The second he recognized Fred in his drunken haze, he relaxed only slightly. His large hands gripped the lapels of Fred's robes.

"They told me you were there. How is she?"

He refused to lie. If he was in the other man's position, he would want the truth no matter how hard it was to hear.

"Not good, I'm afraid. She was really hurt."

Kingsley's face crumpled. Not acting like a man who was simply worried about an injured colleague, Fred could tell their heated snog he'd accidentally walked up on was more serious than the realized. Happy for both of them, he knew if they weren't careful they could have a serious scandal on their hands. He took Kingsley by the elbow to steer him towards a more private corner of the room. Before he walked away he offered the Welcome Witch a smile and a terrible excuse he was certain she could see right through.

"Miss Bulstrode is a respected Unspeakable and the Minister cares about all of the officials he's responsible for."

There were still curious onlookers watching the distraught Minister across the room until Fred cast a discreet Notice-Me-Not spell on the man. Soon the bored gawkers got distracted by something else. Fred worried Kingsley was in danger of falling if he didn't get in a chair at once. He didn't judge the man for drinking too much. He couldn't judge him. The second they collapsed into empty chairs, Kingsley covered his face with his hands and groaned.

"I'm such a fool. I knew something was wrong. I could feel it, but I thought she just didn't want… maybe she'd changed her mind or she thought I was… my instincts were all off. When she didn't meet me, I thought she was running late. Maybe she was working and lost track of time. An hour passed, then two. I knew something was wrong, but I just thought she finally decided I was right about the whole age thing. I…"

Suddenly realizing he was baring far too much of his soul in his drunken state, Kingsley's eyes widened. Fred nearly laughed. The man had it bad.

"You and Millicent never even saw me walk past you the night of the party. You were both a little too preoccupied near my dad's shed to notice."

A smirk appeared on Kingsley's face. Still a little embarrassed, at least he could see the humor.

"I thought she didn't want me so I found a bottle of fire whiskey and hoped I'd feel better at the bottom of it."

"Did you?"

Fred didn't even need to ask. Before Kingsley shook his head he already knew. Fire whiskey dulled the pain for only a little while.

"I ignored my owls and closed my floo. Didn't even know Hermione was missing from Hogwarts until one of the aurors came to my home to tell me what happened in the Department of Mysteries. Some legal guardian I've turned out to be. I didn't even know for hours Hermione was gone."

"Legal guardian?"

"All Hogwarts students, regardless if they're of age or not, are required to have a legal guardian. Hermione asked me to be hers. We signed the paperwork weeks ago."

"But if you're her legal guardian, the Healers have to tell you how Hermione is."

Kingsley stood up too abruptly, nearly falling on his face in the process. Fred quickly removed the Notice-Me-Not spell before he reached the desk. The poor Welcome Witch grew nervous again. It wasn't every day she had to worry about being confronted by an angry, intoxicated Minister for Magic.

"Hermione Granger is under my legal protection. I want to know how she is."

Much calmer than only a few minutes before, Kingsley was slowly becoming more like himself again. The witch shuffled some rolls of parchment around her desk. When she found the one she was looking for, Kingsley plucked it right out of her hand. She didn't protest or try to get it back.

"This says that Hermione is fine physically, but her Healer gave her a calming potion. She's resting comfortably and she will be allowed visitors in the morning. Thank you."

Kingsley returned the parchment to the Welcome Witch with a warm smile. It was a relief to both of the wizards even as they both still worried about Millicent. They returned to the chairs they'd just vacated in marginally better spirits. While Fred had been able to see and touch Hermione and she didn't seem to be injured, he was glad to have the confirmation. Hadn't she already been through enough?

"How did you know they were there, Fred? The auror told me you were the one who killed the bastard that took them."

"It's a long complicated story that I promise I will tell you in full one day, but all that's important to know now is I was in the right place at the right time."

"I'll make sure you win an Order of Merlin for this."

"Millicent was the real hero though. As badly injured as she was, she saved Hermione's life, caught her before she fell into the Veil. She's a…"

"Remarkable woman. I want to marry her."

A surprised gasp caught them both off-guard. Neither of them even noticed Percy and Audrey were standing just steps away. Based on the expression on his sister-in-law's face that looked as if Christmas had come early, Millicent had been good about keeping her relationship with the country's most eligible bachelor a secret from even her own family. Percy stepped forward with a glass vial he handed to Kingsley.

"I went down the corridor to the apothecary. Thought you might want this."

If Kingsley had been cursed with the Weasley complexion, he would've been bright red. Handling being offered a sobering potion much better than Fred, he thanked Percy and stood up to find some water to drink with it. Percy chose to help him, leaving his brother and his wife alone for the first time.

Fred hoped she would stick to asking his questions about what he knew about Millicent and Kingsley's relationship or ask him for details of how he'd managed to save both women. One look at the furious expression on Audrey's face told him she wasn't ready to move on from her hurt and disgust she felt at how he treated his family, especially her husband. He prepared himself for a scolding Molly Weasley would be proud of when she sat down in Kingsley's vacated seat. But, as she had many times in the eight years he'd known her, Audrey surprised him. She didn't need to scream at him or insult him to make her point that he'd been a selfish arsehole. One sentence calmly spoken was more effective than a lifetime of lectures from his mother.

"When we heard Harry's knock on our door in the middle of the night, we both assumed he was there to tell us you'd finally been found dead in a gutter somewhere."

His stomach sank. While he'd been gone, he suspected his family was probably worried about him. It never occurred to him that they might have thought he was dead. The very moment he had that thought he realized how foolish and dumb he'd been. Of course they would've worried he was dead. He'd never cut off contact from his entire family like that before.

"My poor husband hasn't slept a full night in weeks. He went all over this country trying to find you."

"Audrey, I…"

"Believe me when I say I understand how overwhelming this family can be at times and how tempting it can be to just run away from it all, but you can't do that. Too many people love you too much to have you disappear like that."

"I'm very sorry. I was selfish."

"Yes, you were, but I understand it. At least some of it. Our situations and reasons might be different, but I know what it's like to feel so down and depressed that you worry you're going insane or how even just the simplest irritation can make you feel like you're too overwhelmed to keep going."

Few times had Fred ever seen his sister-in-law without a friendly, welcoming smile. From the outside she had it all together. Her family was beautiful and seemed perfect. She and Percy were made for each other. All she touched appeared to be nothing but successful. How could he have failed to see the pain in her eyes until that very moment? It really was true that everyone was fighting a battle others couldn't see.

"I've not felt like myself since Lucy was born. More so than when I had little Molly. All of the Healers I've spoken with say that it's all perfectly normal. I'll 'snap out of it' one day, one claimed. Or I'll just learn how to live with it, says another. Most days I'm perfectly fine but there are others I struggle to even get out of bed and get dressed. Percy has been so patient. I couldn't have asked for a better husband. He's a wonderful father. I don't know how other women get through this without having that unwavering support he offers. I've thought so many times when I've been at my lowest that Percy and the girls deserve so much better than me. I've dreamed of running."

Fred put his arm around Audrey's shoulder and pulled her close enough to kiss her temple. It pained him to know she'd been struggling and he never even noticed. How many other loved ones did he have that were fighting to keep their head above water? He'd been more self-absorbed than he realized.

"I'm not just your brother's wife, Fred. I'm your sister. If you ever need someone who can just hold your hand and listen, I'm here."

Audrey's words meant more to Fred than he could describe. It helped to not feel so alone. He might have been able to thank her if they weren't rejoined by Kingsley and Percy. There would be other moments they could talk. He certainly wasn't planning on running off again. Kingsley cleared his throat.

"I must apologize for my earlier behavior. I was…"

"Out of your tree."

Fred had to chuckle as he thought about the morning after he crashed into Archie's basement. Kingsley hadn't behaved nearly as poorly as he did the last time he drank.

"Yes, I suppose I was."

"There's nothing to apologize for. You were worried."

Seeing two new people across the room, Audrey stood quickly to her feet.

"Kingsley, my aunt and uncle just arrived. Would you like to come with me and we can all talk to Millicent's Healers together?"

He didn't have to be asked twice. They were both across the room in seconds. After Audrey greeted her relatives and Kingsley shook their hands, the group went to the Welcome Witch. A Healer soon led the four of them into a private room where Fred hoped they would all be given good news.

"Do you want to start the story of how you ended up in the Department of Mysteries? Looks like we may have some time."

Fred nodded as they both cast privacy spells to prevent eavesdroppers. He wanted to tell his brother everything. Maybe it would make it easier for Percy to forgive him.

"I suppose it really all started the night of Ron's wedding."


Hermione

Waking up fully refreshed after another deep night's sleep thanks to a heavy sleeping potion, Hermione could understand how a person could get addicted to sleeping potions. There was a warning label on the side of every vial for a reason. After the horrible night she'd had, she deserved a little bit of indulgence. Nothing was physically wrong with her, but after the trauma of the kidnapping and being literally covered in the blood and entrails of another human being, her Healer thought she might need something to calm her down.

She was relieved to open her eyes to see Millicent staring at her from the bed next to hers. Part of the reason she was likely sedated was because she kept asking after her friend. Maybe they worried she would work herself up into a panic. Millicent had been in a much more serious condition.

"Good. Sleeping Beauty finally awakes. I was getting bored staring at you. Did you know you snore?"

Hermione chuckled as she rolled her eyes. Ecstatic to see her friend awake and in good spirits, she didn't even mind the teasing.

"How are you feeling, Millicent?"

"Like I've been run over by the Hogwarts Express, but better than I was. I didn't cut myself deep enough to get any heart's blood or I'd be worse. There was no way I was going to bring Vince back. That bastard can keep burning in hell."

Not for the first time since she heard there was more between Millicent and Vincent Crabbe than just being housemates and fellow members of the Inquisitorial Square, Hermione wondered what really happened, but she didn't want to push. She got the impression that what Millicent was able to do to the father was what she'd wished she'd done to the son. Was that what her desperation was when Crabbe ripped her robes? If she was correct, Millicent would tell her in her own time. Or she wouldn't. That was entirely her own decision. Hermione wouldn't dare ask.

The door to the hospital room opened before more could be said on that subject. Hermione smiled again when she saw Fred walk in. His whole presence and role in the previous night's events still seemed partly like a dream. She held out her hand, silently beckoning him to her bed. He looked exhausted. Had he been awake all night? Knowing how stubborn he was, he must've.

Hermione closed her eyes when Fred kissed her forehead and then gently pressed his lips against hers. It was a comfort to have him nearby again. He sat on the edge of her bed. Out of the corner of her eyes she could see Millicent pretending she wasn't listening. It nearly made her laugh.

"Hermione, darling, I'm so…"

She covered Fred's mouth with her hand. Startled by the odd move, he froze mid-sentence.

"I don't want to hear you apologize for a single thing that happened in the past ever again. Don't tell me you're sorry about our fight the night of the party or how you're sorry that you ran off with no word for months. I don't ever want to hear you say you're sorry again for bringing me back or sorry for being mad at me for saving your life. I'm done with apologies, Fred Weasley. Done. If you do something stupid in the future, by all means, apologize then, but we're not apologizing for the past any longer. We've already lost enough time we can't ever get back."

For a brief second she worried he was going to argue. She meant what she said and she was prepared to repeat herself if necessary. One more apology would be exhausting. Couldn't they just skip to the forgiving and moving on part? Fred smiled and kissed her again.

"How did you know where to find us? Your timing was incredible."

"It's a long story."

"I'm not going anywhere. My Healer said he might release me this evening."

He seemed reluctant to tell the story. What could he possibly have to be nervous about? Her mind went straight to all of the worst-case scenarios. After a heavy sigh and a promise she wouldn't think he was insane, he began his fascinating story.

Each step of Fred's bizarre journey was even more interesting than the previous. Millicent stopped pretending not to be listening in early on to ask questions, but even then there were few interruptions. He explained how he first met the crone in the pub who tapped his chest right above his heart and how he kept seeing her at times when he was low. When he described the events of the night of the party, Hermione felt ashamed of her own behavior and very thankful he was led to Archie's shop. When she was out of St. Mungo's she had every intention of visiting the man in Knockturn Alley to thank him. Every last moment from beginning to end was exciting.

"I've read about others in history who've met the crone, but I wasn't sure I could believe their stories.

"Maybe you can't believe them all, but you can believe mine. I'm not creative enough to make up something like that. Truth really is stranger than fiction as far as I'm concerned."

Yet again that morning the door opened to admit an anxious wizard. Hermione smiled at Kingsley when he stepped inside, but she might as well have been invisible. All he could see was Millicent. When he approached her bed, Fred was kind enough to cast silencing spells and pull the privacy curtain so they could be alone.

"I told him he needed to go home to shower and change before Millicent saw him. I've never seen him so drunk. He was out of his mind with worry about her."

"Poor man. She was afraid he'd think she stood him up."

He chuckled.

"Why do you think he was so drunk? He tried to drown his sorrows when she didn't show up. He nearly caused a scene when he arrived last night and was told he couldn't see her, but between Percy, Audrey, and myself, we got him sobered up and calmed down. He even met Millicent's parents. Between you and me, you might start preparing yourself to wear some hideous bridesmaid robes."

If Millicent and Kingsley could live happily ever after together, Hermione wouldn't care what she had to wear. They both deserved happiness and she was overjoyed that it looked as if they might actually get it. Even as she smiled, Fred grew serious. She was worried he had bad news.

"Are you sure you're all right? He didn't hurt you?"

"No, he didn't. I didn't fight him like Millicent. I was too scared to even try. Some Gryffindor I am."

Fred wrapped his arm around her back and pulled her up against his chest. It took some maneuvering to get them both in the narrow bed together, but they made it work.

"I'm glad you didn't fight him if it meant you're not hurt. I might be nothing more than a selfish arsehole for thinking so, but I'm glad you weren't hurt."

"You're not a selfish arsehole. You saved our lives. That's nothing small. Don't forget it."

"And… are you okay after… after…"

"After seeing you blow up a man with a spell?"

He nodded, clearly embarrassed. Or was he nervous that she would never be able to look at him the same way? Deciding that was probably it, she kissed his cheek, hoping it could offer him some comfort.

"While I would've personally preferred to have been out of the way of the entrails splash back, I'm very impressed and glad you killed him. After what he did to Millicent, he deserved to die a very painful death. I'm proud of you."

His arm behind her back tightened so they were even closer. He was relieved.

"I've decided not to go back to Hogwarts."

"Oh? Why not?"

"It felt very strange to be back there, especially with everyone else I went to school with gone. Professor McGonagall told me from the very beginning that I could do an independent study and take my NEWTs when I'm ready. Maybe you should do that too. Finally earn a few NEWTs and make your mum happy."

Though they both laughed, she was only half-joking. Fred was far more intelligent than he was given credit for.

"So does that mean you'll be moving out of the castle?"

The shy way he asked his question threatened to make her laugh. If they weren't very careful, they would make more mistakes that would take them right back to where they had been.

"Millicent offered to let me move in with her yesterday. I agreed."

She could tell he was disappointed to hear she wouldn't be moving back into his flat. There were too many expectations when she lived there. Hermione kissed him firmly on the lips. A half-smile appeared on his face when they broke apart.

"We get the chance to start over and just be a normal couple, Fred, without all of the pressure. We'll have normal date nights and we will take it slowly."

"I was hoping to get used to waking up with you in my arms."

"I never said there wouldn't be occasional sleepovers. In fact, I'm looking forward to a few of those and I get the impression Kingsley wouldn't mind me gone for a few days once Millicent is out of St. Mungo's."

Fred's kiss was a little more insistent, a preview of what she might expect on one of those sleepovers.

"What are you doing tonight?"

She laughed.

"What's the rush?"

Privately, she knew that once she was released by her Healers, there was nothing that was going to stop her from going straight to his flat. They still needed a great deal of practice. She was looking forward to getting started on it.


Two Years Later

Fred

He couldn't take more than a couple of steps in any directions without quite literally bumping into someone. Everyone was quick to greet him and make some comment about how the weather was perfect. All of the newspapers were claiming it was the wedding of the decade. Hundreds of invitations had been owled out to the very crème de la crème of British wizarding society. Even guests from several foreign countries were expected. No expense had been spared. It was to be an event that all of those who were lucky enough to get an invitation would be talking about for years.

And Fred desired nothing more than to be at home sitting next to his witch on the sofa with their cat snoring in front of the fireplace. Or naked in bed. Yes, that sounded like a much better use of his time. Starched dress robes felt more comfortable when they were crumpled up on the bedroom floor.

Across the formal garden that had been set up for an extravagant reception, Fred could see Hermione. No doubt haranguing the unfortunate caterers for something that wasn't absolutely perfect, he had to smile. After months of planning and color-coded charts, she would settle for nothing less than the very best. He snuck up behind her to slide his arm around her waist.

"I didn't want you to see me until I was walking down the aisle. I wanted my dress to be a surprise."

One kiss was all it took to calm her down. It was a trick he'd learned early on and used often to his own personal advantage.

"And I wanted to find you before the wedding started to make sure you weren't running around frantic driving everyone around you mad."

Her guilty smile was all the confirmation he needed to know that was exactly what she'd been doing. He kissed her again.

"I missed you last night. I'm tired of you not being in my bed every night."

"And that's why Ron and Harry were at mine and Millie's flat this morning. Everything I own is now in our flat."

"Good."

He wondered if he would ever grow tired of kissing her. Even when she pushed all of his wrong buttons and he was ready to explode, one kiss usually helped to calm him down too. When he was stuck in one of his low moods that still happened every now and again, she could kiss him and slowly he'd be able to climb out of his dark hole. Their life wasn't perfect and he never expected it would be, but they had plenty of love for the good and bad times.

"Did you enjoy yourself last night? I'd heard that the stag night was going to be wild."

Fred sighed.

"I would've rather been in bed with you all night. Besides, it was hard to have any fun while I tried to imagine what you were up to with the other hens."

Her laughter never failed to make him smile. Would it be the same when they were old?

"If it were up to me, as it should've been, we wouldn't have been out nearly so late and there wouldn't have been so many half-naked wizards dancing about."

His scowl made her laugh again.

"Sounds like the bride and groom were made for each other. Kingsley's plans were a little too exciting for my tastes. I just assumed the Minister for Magic's stag do would be a little more formal and a lot less naked."

"Millie started planning my hen night six months from now. She couldn't be bothered to plan her own wedding, but my hen night she makes time for. I already don't want to go."

He knew she was only joking, but acted sympathetic nonetheless. Of course Millicent had to make plans for Hermione's raucous last do before she settled down to become another Weasley wife because she certainly wouldn't do it herself.

"If it helps, with Percy as my best man, I see a fascinating lecture on cauldron bottom thickness followed by a single glass of imported fire whiskey I will be allowed to sniff but not drink as my stag night."

With each laugh, Hermione relaxed.

"Is it too late to ask other people to be our attendants?"

"Probably, but we could always elope."

"And break your mother's heart? I don't think so. We will just grin and bear it all because what happens after our wedding is much more important."

Fred raised an eyebrow and smirked.

"Oh yeah? And what is that?"

"The rest of our lives, you incorrigible pervert."

Catching her in the middle of a laugh, he kissed his witch. No, Fred was certain he would never grow tired of kissing his Hermione.

The End.