"...which is why you don't want to try that out on a cow. Yes. Hermione."
"Can you clarify something?"
"I can try." Fred leaned against the desk, crossing his arms in front of his chest.
"The iaculum charm..."
"I know it's not entirely related to what we're talking about, but I have a point, I swear."
"There's always a point," Ron mumbled, his eyes glazing over.
"Iaculo is used as a sort of javelin, right, a way of directing things, a reverse accio, if you will."
"I will indeed," Fred grinned and Hermione paused, momentarily derailed from her thoughts.
"Um, yeah. In the early 1800's - "
"Not the early 1800's, please no."
Ignoring Ron, Hermione persevered. "In the early 1800's, there was a small, dark wizarding group that specialized in...repossessing common charms and using them for malicious purposes."
"The Orsini Coalition."
"You know them?" Hermione raised her eyebrows.
"Miss Granger," Fred pronounced officiously. "This might come as a bit of surprise to you, but I have picked up a book once or twice in my short life."
"What do you like to read?" Parvati asked, clearly eager to change the topic to anything to do with Fred.
"Poetry," Fred and Hermione blurted out together. There was a silence in the classroom as the two of them looked at each other.
"Lucky guess," Hermione said, blushing.
"Poetry?" Lavender gasped. "That is so sweet!"
"What can I say, ladies. I'm a man of many secrets."
"Secrets, like what Bill and Charlie made you wear when you ticked them off?" Ron asked loudly. Fred clapped his hands together.
"Okay, that's the end of class for today, folks. Essays on my desk on your way out. Ron, I'm not going to hurt my old house by taking points off. I'm just going to hurt you."
"Power tripping git," Ron grumbled, swinging his bag onto his shoulder.
Harry kneeled on the floor, searching under his desk for a stray quill. "Like you wouldn't be worse."
"I didn't say I wouldn't be worse. I'm just saying he's a power tripping git, is all. What do you think, Hermione?" As soon as he asked it, Hermione could see in his eyes that he wished he hadn't. "I - never mind."
"It's okay," she whispered as they lined up to deposit their essays on Fred's desk.
"I'm starving," Harry moaned as they shuffled slowly to the front of the class. "All this NEWTS studying is killing me."
"Please don't talk about NEWTS, Harry," Hermione said. "I don't want to have a panic attack."
"Oh, whatever." Ron rolled his eyes. "You're going to sail, little miss Orsi-thing Convention."
"Like I care."
"It's an interesting period in wizarding history, Ron, you know, dark wizards on the rise, how they were stopped, but I guess you can't bring yourself to care about that," Fred said as they passed by him. "Hermione, I didn't get to answer your question."
"Oh, that's okay," she said, handing over her essay.
"Why don't you stop by this afternoon and I can try to clear it up for you. Be in my office around four?"
Behind her, she could almost feel Ron becoming alert, sense the tension in her body mirrored in theirs.
"Sure," Hermione responded hesitantly. "I can do that."
"Great. See you then." And just like that, he turned his attention to Seamus and Dean, moving easily away from them.
As they made their way out of the classroom, Ron laid a gentle hand on the small of her back.
"You okay?" he asked, bending towards her ear.
"Will you two hurry up?" Harry complained, several steps ahead of them. "I'm about to eat Goyle, I'm that hungry."
"He'd probably enjoy it," Ron quipped.
"Gross. Now I can't eat anything ever again. I'm just going to give myself over to Voldemort right now."
Hermione smiled distractedly as she followed her squabbling friends down to the Great Hall.
The way Harry and Ron ravenously devoured it, lunch may have been the most delicious meal in the world, a true gourmet treat. Hermione, however, found it bland and unappetizing. She trailed her spoon through her stew, gently nudging a carrot back and forth. Her hand listed to a glass of water, then fell back. Ron looked up from his roast beef long enough to notice.
"Hermione," he started coughing on a piece of food. Harry patted him on the back as Hermione passed him the pumpkin juice. Once his throat was clear, he tried again, voice husky. "You not hungry?"
"Eh," was her reply, and the carrot went from one side to the other.
Ron and Harry exchanged glances over her head. "Fred," Ron mouthed to his friend, whose eyes widened in response.
"You know?" came the silent reply.
Ron nodded. He nudged Hermione.
"How 'bout after classes we try that ball thing again? It's not as hot today."
"I've got at Arithmancy study group. And Head duties. And I have to follow up on that Charms thing." Back and forth, back and forth went the spoon, making patterns in the broth.
"What an exciting life you lead," Ginny commented, plopping down on the bench opposite them. "Have some news for you all. Order stuff," she lowered her voice.
Three heads went up. Even Hermione was snapped into alertness.
"Order stuff?" she said. "Anyone hurt?"
"Nah, it's good. Fred grabbed me after class, said he just got a message from George." The redhead leaned in closer, her eyes bright with excitement. "Apparently, Dumbledore's insisting the three of you be allowed to join, formally. Mum's throwing a fit of course, saying you're all too young, but I think you all have proved you're in the thick of it now, haven't you? Haven't we all, really?" She reached over the table and grabbed one of Ron's rolls. "And if you guys get in, I'm a cinch the moment I turn seventeen."
"We sort of figured that Gin," Ron said, grabbing the roll back before she could steal a bite. "I mean, Harry's the bloody Chosen One isn't he, it'd be a little ridiculous to not let him in the Order. And me and Hermione are just awesome."
Hermione snorted. "Eloquently put, as always Ron." She rose from her spot next to Harry, gathering her things. "I should probably get a head start on this studying. But that's great, Ginny, really good news. Hopefully your mum will ease up on you guys."
"As if." Ginny stretched and stood as well. "I'm going to steal your seat, if you don't mind. Need to say hi to my man."
"Gag me," Ron mumbled into his food.
"Don't worry, someone will soon enough." His sister stepped lightly around the table and slid in next to Harry, locking her boyfriend into an enthusiastic kiss.
People around them began to laugh as Ginny played it up for her brother's benefit, flinging herself into Harry's lap. Hermione's gaze swept around the hall, looking at the catcalling rest of the Gryffindors and the teachers pointedly coughed and looked the other way. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs rolled their eyes and all the Slytherins sneered.
Except, of course, for one.
Hermione watched him watch Ginny and Harry with an intensity that startled even her. She of all people thought she knew the depths of his passions, but there was something in Malfoy's eyes that she had never seen before, not once with her. And just like that, Hermione got it. As she looked at Malfoy looking at Ginny, she finally understood why he had pursued her, why he still sought her out so desperately. She had messed things up with Fred from the start - she had snuck around and lied and hurt him when she had no reason to, and now she was the one who could not move on. But at least she had had that chance with him. And even if she hadn't, even if her feelings had never been returned and he had wanted someone else, she would at least have been near his life. She would be allowed to say hello to him, to joke with him, to tease him, to ask about an interesting facet of history. She would have been allowed to see him, to socialize with him, to hug him goodbye. But Malfoy, he had none of that. No matter how much he yearned for Ginny, he did not even have the luxury of civility. All he could do was sneer and jibe, all he was allowed were smirks and insults. His world was separated from Ginny's by increasingly tangible barriers. So he took any chance he could to fight his way even the slightest bit closer, even though it would make no real difference. He kissed Hermione because she was a part of who Ginny was. He kissed Hermione because if he could touch her life, maybe he could ghost past the one he truly wanted.
Hermione looked at him. Gone was the naked passion and pain she had seen just seconds before. He leaned over languidly, making some undoubtedly biting remark that caused Parkinson and Zabini to howl. She could scarcely believe that no one else had witnessed the dramatic crack she had just seen in his armor. Her heart ached for the very pain of him.
Hermione collected herself and took a step back. Harry and Ginny were just talking now, laughing at some story Ron was telling with the use of fruit as props. Everyone had settled back into their lunchtime routine - eating, gossiping, frantically finishing homework. Her eyes drifted automatically up to the teacher's table, finding Fred naturally. Hermione watched him calmly. She saw a frown flit across his face and he turned towards her, his eyes fitting simply into hers. His gaze was steady as he looked back at her, his face gentle. Her mouth twitched towards a smile, and a slow grin spread across his face in response before he turned away to speak to the person sitting next to him. Hermione breathed deeply and exited the hall. As she walked away, adjusting her bag over her shoulder, she realized that she was no longer afraid to face him. She was allowed to be in his life - she would be content with that.