Hermione didn't know why she did it. Every Sunday afternoon she found herself walking down Diagon Alley more briskly than the average Sunday stroller, thousand-yard stare on her face so she wouldn't risk making eye contact with anyone she knew. Right before she reached Flourish & Blotts', she'd duck into the narrow alleyway between the bookstore and the new café next to it, Disillusioning herself as she turned. She'd take a right after exiting the alleyway and walk down the back alley where no one but shop employees and wizarding sanitation workers usually treaded. Exactly five stores past Flourish & Blotts', she would reach a door. It was here that she stopped every week, and told herself why she shouldn't go through with it. It was here that she reminded herself for the hundredth time that day why she was walking down back alleys instead of in the front door, and why she should just turn around, go past all the wards, and Apparate back home. It was here that she would remember the last fight with Ron, the look of utter betrayal on his face when she told him that she was leaving him, the look on his face two weeks later when he came to beg forgiveness, only to find her half-naked on the couch with one hand down the trousers of Jared from Accounting. She would remember the tone of his voice a month after that when he told her it didn't matter what happened next, that she would always be his. She would remember how awful it felt when he wouldn't talk to her for six months, how lonely it felt staying at home or at work (or occasionally at the pub) when everyone was at the Burrow for some event.
Then she would remember who had helped her through the whole ordeal.
And Hermione would open the door and walk into the back of the shop, letting it slam behind her so the man upstairs would know that she'd arrived. She would remove her Disillusionment Charm and trot up the steps, trying not to look at the pictures on the walls, pictures of the woman he should have been with during the 'Ron Disaster' when Hermione was crying on his shoulder. She would reach the top of the steps, open the door, and look at the man sitting on the couch, going over his ledger.
"Hello, Fred." And he would look up, smile, and lean back on the couch and look at her like he was a starving man and she was a five-course meal.
Hermione went to him swiftly, her bag hitting the floor by the couch as she straddled his lap, the door shutting as her lips met his in a hungry kiss. As his hands slid under the hem of her dress to dance over her thighs, she pulled her mouth from his with a small moan and smirked.
"Aren't you even going to ask how my week's been?" she asked, tilting her head to the side as Fred moved his lips to her neck.
"Not now," he groaned. "I need you too much." He licked the hollow of her throat as his hands slid higher. "I think you need me just as badly." He grinned as he moved his hands even higher and found his answer.
Later, after they had moved the show to the bedroom, Hermione and Fred lay cuddling under the covers of the big bed in the apartment over the shop, an apartment the twins had long since moved out of, but which they still kept up.
"Are you staying tonight?" he asked her, kissing her temple.
"Fred, you know I can't. Kate and Janet would wonder where I was and raise a fuss, and then where would we be?"
"C'mon, love, just Floo 'em and say you met this amazing bloke, you've just had the greatest sex ever and you'll see them in the morning. They'll understand, and there's no reason they have to know that the bloke is me." Hermione tried to formulate an argument to this, but it was difficult with Fred raining kisses down her arm. She turned to tell him so, and found herself looking into his eyes, pinned down by his intense stare.
"Stay, Hermione. I need you tonight." It was the eyes that got her.
"Alright," she said softly, picking his shirt up off the floor and putting it on as she walked towards the fireplace and took a pinch of Floo powder from the box on the mantel. "Hermione Granger residence," she shouted clearly as she dropped the powder and stuck her head into the fireplace, wishing for the millionth time that she had a home with an interesting name instead of just saying her or her flatmates' names whenever she wanted to Floo home. How boring!
When her head stopped spinning, she found herself looking up Kate Mitchell, who was lying on the couch with some sort of trashy romance novel in her hand. She looked up when the fireplace burst to life, and was a bit startled to see Hermione.
"Hey, Hermione. What's going on? And this better be good, because I was just getting to the good part."
Hermione raised her eyebrows at that. "I'm sure you were." Hermione hadn't been interested in books like that since she was teenager, and she knew Kate usually shared her contempt.
"Hey, no need to be like that. I'm taking a bit of a vacation from reality today. You should try it."
Hermione blushed. "I am, actually. I just Flooed to tell you not to worry, but I won't be home tonight." Kate dropped her book and leaned forward, prepared to hear exactly where her roommate was spending the night.
"Who is he?"
Hermione blushed harder as she smiled. "Just a guy…a sweet, funny, wonderful guy who happens to be fantastic in bed. I'll see you tomorrow morning."
Hermione grinned mysteriously. "Maybe. Bye." And she crawled out of the fireplace, terminating the connection before Kate had a chance to ask her any more. She turned to find Fred still looking at her like she was the beginning and end of the world. It only lasted for a moment, though, before he donned a Cheshire cat grin and held his arms out to her as she came back to bed.
"See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" he asked as she crawled towards him.
"No, I suppose not," she replied, raising herself high on her knees and leaning down to kiss him. "Why the desperate need to have me here tonight?" she murmured against his lips.
"Well, it has been a week after all."
"Oh, so this week you want me to show up at 3W headquarters and drag you off for a quickie like I did week before last?"
Fred ran a hand through her hair and moved to nibble at the skin showing above the collar of the shirt she was wearing. "I was actually thinking about showing up at your office and taking you out to lunch. You'd be lunch, you understand, but no one else has to know that." Hermione moaned and Fred pulled away to look at her. Her hair was mussed, her skin was flushed, her eyes were faintly cloudy with lust, and she was wearing nothing but his shirt. He was sure that he had never seen anything sexier in his entire life. "God, you're gorgeous. I should get you to parade around in my shirts more often."
Hermione smiled. "I'm not parading around, but I could if you'd like," she teased. Fred planted one hand firmly on her hip and placed the other under her chin, pulling her lips to his.
"I don't think so. You're staying right here." Hermione couldn't remember the last time it had been like this with them. No, scratch that, she could remember, and that made her want to put on the brakes.
"Fred? Not that I don't want you very, very, very much right now, but what's going on?"
One look at her told him that he wasn't going to grin and smooth-talk himself out of this one, so he figured he'd try playing stupid for awhile.
"What do you mean, love?" he asked softly. Hermione wasn't fooled.
"You know what I mean. You haven't been like this since –." A lump was forming in her throat. She swallowed hard and tried again. "Since –."
"Since Rose died," Fred finished for her. He looked away at the wall, then back at her, a sad half-smile on his face. "It hasn't been this way with us since the first time after Rose died, and you're wondering what's driven me to need you like this now."
"I am a little curious," Hermione admitted. Fred looked down at the sheets for a moment, and Hermione reached out and tilted his head up so he would look her in the eyes. "Hey, if you don't want to talk about it now, that's fine. We've got all night; just tell me when the words come." Fred looked down and laughed dryly.
"The words are there, I'm just not sure what you'll think of them." He looked up at her again and made a decision. "C'mon," he said, lifting her off his lap and standing, going over to a drawer and pulling out a pair of sweatpants. "This is a conversation best had in nice, bright, harsh light and away from lovely distractions like this bed. Come to the kitchen with me."
A few minutes later, Hermione found herself seated at Fred's kitchen table, drinking a mug of hot cocoa with her…boyfriend? lover? After all this time, she wasn't quite sure what to call the man seated across the table. All she knew was that she loved him and needed him in her life. She knew that he felt the same way, but at the same time couldn't help but feel that this conversation was going to drastically change the course of their relationship.
As if on cue, Fred spoke. "Hermione, why are we still hiding?" Hermione looked up from her drink, but Fred, looking down at the table, continued on, not expecting an answer. "First there was Rose, but she's…" Fred trailed off, feeling the familiar wave of guilt at the thought of his late wife, but he gathered himself and continued. "Rose is dead, and even if she weren't, we'd be divorced by now. Then Ron was sick, and we didn't want to shock or upset him. But he's better than ever and seems perfectly happy with that Lydia woman he's dating and an acceptable period of mourning for Rose has passed and the twins love you and the rest of the family loves you so why are we still hiding?" Fred was looking at her now, the look on his face both more earnest and more angry than Hermione had seen in a long time. "I'm in love with you, Hermione. I am madly, hopelessly, and all those other words silly romances always use in love with you. All that and more. I want to go to family dinners with you, not just meet you there. I want you next to me at the table; I don't want to look at you sitting between Harry and Ron on the other end. I want to stand on the rooftops and shout that you're my girlfriend. Hell, I've been close to doing it a time or two." In spite of herself, Hermione chuckled quietly at this. Fred let a half-smile cross his face as he reached across the table and took her hand in his. "Hermione, I am downright ecstatic that you are in my life, but it bothers the hell out of me having to hide it from everyone. Don't you want to tell people about this, about us?"
Hermione closed her eyes, as if by doing so she could hold back the flood of emotion that was threatening to cover her. "I do want to, Fred, I want to very much…"
"But?" Fred broke in, hearing the hesitancy in her voice.
"But I'm afraid." Hermione opened her eyes and looked at him, pleading with him to understand that this had nothing to do with him, that it was her own cowardice making her want to keep this wonderful thing under wraps. "Fred, I'm terrified of what telling everybody else would mean, what it would do to us, how it would change things. I would love to stop sneaking around, to just be a normal happy couple, but I'm…"
Fred cut her off "Afraid? What of, Hermione? What do you have to fear with me? Are you afraid we'll end up like you and Ron did; horrible split followed by months of not talking to each other, with you estranged from the family? Because that's not going to happen, Hermione. I saw what that did to you once, and I would rather let myself be used for Cruciatus practice than do it to you again."
"I know you wouldn't do that to me, but…" Hermione sighed; she was using that word entirely too much in this conversation. "Fred, Ron and I dated for four years; two on and off, two exclusive and committed. We had been friends for almost eleven years when we broke up. I didn't know who I was without him. And then we were over and he was gone and I lost not only one of my best friends, but a whole extended family and I was lost. I became somebody else after I left him. I bought new clothes, I cut my hair." She tugged at the strands that were just now growing back to shoulder length. "I partied with the crowd from work, I lost touch with some of my closest friends from school, and I needed to do it, but it was hell. I had to redefine myself as a single woman without the safety net I'd had for the past eleven years, and you came around in the middle of that and reminded me that all of the old Hermione Granger wasn't about Ron. With Harry off trying to drag Ron away from his Firewhiskey bottle, you were the best friend I could have had. And then we weren't just friends and I was the other woman." Fred started to speak, but Hermione held up a hand to silence him. "I know that you and Rose had already agreed that after the twins were born, you would divorce. But when we started sleeping together, you were still married, your wife was still pregnant, and that makes me the other woman, and a right bitch of one at that."
"But you're not anymore," Fred said, bringing his other hand up so that her hand was held between both of his. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, Hermione."
"Don't I? I took you, the brother of the man whose heart I smashed, away from your wife."
"You didn't take me; I was already gone. Rose and I weren't meant for each other, even though we tried to pretend we were. Maybe you and I should have stayed apart until after Rose and I split, but you remember those days, Hermione! We couldn't stay away from each other. Hell, we've been together for more than a year and a half and we still can't stay away from each other! Isn't it time to let everybody know that?"
"I want to, Fred, I do, but the moment we tell them, they're going to want to know how long this has been going on, and I can't lie about that; I can't lie about us. And when people find out how long this has been going on, they're going to start telling you all of the reasons you shouldn't be with me, all of the things you've been able to ignore while this was sneaking around in the apartment above the old shop. I'm afraid that when people start telling you that I'm not the type of woman you want hanging around your children you'll believe them. You should, it's true."
Fred shoved his chair back from the table and stood. "That's bollocks and you know it, Hermione. You helped Harry bring down Voldemort; you were instrumental in the development of the British Department of Wizarding Intelligence and Defence, you're the youngest department head they have. Add that to the fact that you're one of the most loving people I know; you're the perfect person to be 'hanging around' Jonathan and Rosemary. Now stop whatever game you're playing to try and make yourself look bad so I'll leave you, because it has no chance of working. What's really bothering you?"
Hermione stared down at her half-empty mug, avoiding the gaze of the man leaning against the kitchen counter as she thought about how best to phrase this. "I've always been an independent woman, you know that, Fred."
"Yes, I do," he answered, hoping desperately that this wasn't her way of trying to break it off. Hermione continued.
"I'm an independent woman, and I do things my own way. I always have. That was a major source of contention between Ron and me in the end, the fact that there were parts of my life so completely separate from his, the fact that I didn't tell him everything there was to know about me and what I was doing. When we broke it off, I was crushed to be sure, but there was a part of me that was happy to regain my freedom, a part of me that was glad to be on my own again, to be able to be fully me without needing anyone's say-so. But it's different with you, Fred. Those three months after Rose died when we weren't really speaking to each other, I needed to talk to you so badly, if only to tell you how my day went. And in the time between you and I becoming friends again and us starting, well, whatever we have going on here, I wanted you so badly I couldn't think straight at times. I wanted to be yours. I've never wanted that before, Fred, never. And that terrifies me. Before you, I wouldn't have given up my freedom for anything, and now I can't tell where I end and you begin sometimes. I can't control what I feel for you, what I am when I'm with you and I'm just afraid that telling everybody else will make this all the more real." Hermione looked over to Fred, who sometime during her rant had moved to the table and was now kneeling by her side.
"Hermione, it's alright to be scared, love," he said, reaching a hand up to cup her cheek. "I feel the same way, only I know this is real. It's not going away and I can't hide it anymore. I love you and every night I'm away from you is pure misery. I want you to spend the night at my home, in my bed, after a day of walking around Diagon Alley hand in hand and playing with the twins. Don't you want the same thing?"
"Yes, very much," she answered, voice full of emotion at just how much she wanted that.
"Then we can have it. Let's stop the sneaking around and come out in the open with this, shall we?" Hermione's only answer was to pull Fred closer to her and kiss him unreservedly; giving herself over to him.
An indeterminable time later, she pulled herself away, breathless and smiling. "So how are we going to go about telling the others, then?" Fred grinned back at her with so much joy, she felt like dawn was breaking in the small kitchen.
"Well, we'll start with you spending the night here, and then instead of slipping out the back, we'll leave out the front door tomorrow morning, together."
---And they lived happily ever after (more or less). But that's another story altogether.