Hermione sat at the Weasley's kitchen table, books and papers spread out in front of her as if a combined stationary/book shop had exploded. Late into the night she could be found there, one finger running down columns of figures as she muttered to herself and chewed on her bottom lip, a nervous habit she could not seem to break. The NEWTs were in a week, and even though she had been studying for them seriously since last summer, her nerves would not let her rest. Harry and Ron might be practicing Quidditch out in the field behind the Weasley's house every day, but Hermione had barely set foot outside since the holidays began.
It had been a surreal little holiday so far, what with the Hogwarts term being ended early due to the war. The fighting had been everywhere at once, it seemed, war creeping in around the corners, sneaking in even under doors shut tight against it. NEWTs were postponed this year--that was how Hermione truly knew it was serious business. All the while she kept on with her studying, for what else was there to do with her time and nervous energy?
Voldemort had been defeated, but there was no time for rest yet. Charlie was working somewhere on the Continent, though he couldn't divulge where specifically--the information was still classified even for his family. The Weasleys received letters sometimes, all carefully censored, only a vague and strained tone of cheer coming through. Percy still wasn't speaking to his parents and Hermione could sense the grief that this caused them, though this was something that fit squarely into the category of Things We Do Not Talk About. Just like Harry's nightmares, his pale face and lack of appetite were not discussed in the open, only in hushed conversations behind closed doors. When Molly Weasley fretted over the weight he'd lost or the dark circles under his eyes, Hermione couldn't help but imagine that she was thinking of the sons that were out of her reach, whether by Ministry decree or their own choice.
Mr. Weasley was logging longer and longer days at the Ministry, coming home late each night, exhausted. Hermione was often still up then, studying as always, and he would join her at the table. As he picked at the cold dinner leftovers Molly left out covered for him, too tired to even use a warming spell on them, he would ask her what she had learned today, and she explained it to him as best she could. Usually he smiled and shook his head, told her not to worry so much and go and get some rest. "You work too hard, Hermione. Get some sleep, have some fun--enjoy life while you're still young."
"I'll enjoy life when the NEWTs are over," she replied, and he chuckled.
"No rest for the scholar like you, is there?"
"It's all right. Stress and working hard under pressure keep the demons at bay, you know."
"Oh, I know plenty well." He gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder before putting his bOWL in the sink. "Good night, Hermione. Don't stay up too late."
But insomnia kept her brain too wired to slow down, and she finally fell asleep over her papers and workbooks at some odd hour of the morning. She was not awoken by Mr. Weasley slipping quietly out the door to work or Mrs. Weasley clattering pots and pans in the kitchen or Ron and Harry's fumbling in the closet for Quidditch equipment. No, she slept through all these only to be awoken by Bill Weasley coming in the front door, juggling a ring of keys in the palm of his hand and whistling.
Hermione jerked up right, disoriented to find herself at the kitchen table, still in her clothes from the night before. Bright summer sun was streaming in through the kitchen windows, and she could tell that it must be past noon. Surreptitiously, she wiped at a patch of drool that had gathered at the corner of her mouth. She glanced at the stairs longingly and wished she could disappear up them before Bill had a chance to fully notice her.
Too late. "Good morning, sunshine," he said with a friendly, if rather impersonal grin (he smiled like that for everyone, she reminded herself as her stomach squeezed and gave a little leap). "Even if it's a little past noon."
"I don't usually sleep in this late," she said hastily.
"Been hitting the books hard, have you?"
"The NEWTs are in a week; I don't think there's any excuse for loafing about now." Hermione gave Ron and Harry a mental dirty look that could very possibly have harmed them, if it didn't have several walls and an entire garden to pass through. "It's not like there's anything else that's a demand on my time right now."
"Seems it would be quite a feat to get you away from your studies then, so I shan't set my hopes on it." Bill gave a dramatic sigh and shook his head, one hand clasped to his heart.
His dramatic tableau was amusing, but Hermione wasn't sure whether she was supposed to laugh or not. It was more embarrassing than usual to be seen in her morning guise, eyes probably full of sleep, hair more tangled than usual and matted attractively where it had been pressed against her books.
Bill leaned against the table, bending down to look over her shoulder. "So what are you doing there?"
She yawned and rubbed her eyes. The last time she had looked at the problems was at four in the morning, when formulas were swimming on the page as if the ink were wet and running. "Something to do with vector analysis and predicting patterns in magic. I'm not really certain myself."
He laughed. "If you don't know what you're talking about, then I'm sure no one else does. Ron always did say you were quite the brainy one. I think a clever girl like you should be in fine form."
"Oh. Well, thanks." She wrapped a curl around her finger, tugging at it nervously, and gazed at the floor. Think, Hermione, think! Why had all her words suddenly dried up?
"Mind if I have a look?"
"Of course not." Hermione shifted over so that he could sit down next to her and look over the problems. He was so close to her: his big mannish hands resting on the table a little way from her, his ponytail curving around his shoulder to where it almost brushed against her cheek; his knee just centimetres from her own. She repressed her urge to move her knee so that it would accidentally bump against his.
"You had an NEWT in Arithmancy, didn't you?"
"Yup," he said. "Needed one for curse-breaking, you know. Gringgotts is very stringent about that one."
"So I've heard." She fiddled with the corner of the page, rubbing it between her fingers over and over until she could feel the paper grow nubbly.
"Well, I'm sure I've kept you from your studies long enough. Better not distract you further."
"Oh." Even the smallest things suddenly seemed hard to say or ask, and she took a deep breath. "Will you be around much later?"
"Oh yeah, I'll be around for at least a week, off and on." He slipped his ponytail holder off, ran his fingers through his hair, and redid it in one deft movement. "So if you have a question or anything like that, just ask. I'll help you with it if you can--even if my vector analysis is a bit rusty, I'm up for giving it a try."
"All right. And--thank you."
Bill moved around in the kitchen for a few minutes, while a breathless Hermione got very little done on her problems. From beneath her eyelashes she watched him, watched as he took an apple from the fruit bOWL, polished it on his shirt, and took a bite. Teeth sinking into white apple flesh, the red red skin breaking, little drops of apple juice collecting on his upper lip, already dusted with the faintest hint of red-orange fuzz--it all seemed to take on a dizzying, technicolor significance that riveted her.
And that was how it was for the next several days. No matter how much she tried to concentrate and throw herself into her work, refusing Harry and Ron's offers of outside picnic lunches or games with enchanted water balloons that Fred and George had designed, she felt hopelessly distracted. Despite the talks she gave herself each night, cajoling and self-castigating in equal measures, she never had the courage to really talk to Bill. Naturally, she saw him at meals and during the occasional twilight hours when the Weasleys finally lured her outside to sit in the garden and watch the sunset with them. Firefly lights hummed and lit up the night and everyone else seemed to be laughing and chattering easily, but Hermione felt as if she were alone in the shadow. Over and over he would arrive and she would promise to herself that this time she would sit down next to him and attempt to have a real conversation, ask him something about Gringotts or Egypt, or…well, it didn't really matter what. But it never happened; he would leave before it got too late, or sleep over and be gone the next morning before she got a chance to say hello.
What was wrong with her? She felt clumsy, awkward, wrong-footed and tongue-tied continually. The only time she could speak to Bill was when she was studying Arithmancy and asked him questions. Funny how up until now she had never really though of him as being studious, even though she had known that he was Head Boy, known that he had gotten loads of NEWTs. Admittedly scholarship wasn't always the first thing on her mind as he sat and studied with her, particularly when he decided that a good way for her to remember formulas was to write them on her skin.
"I'm completely serious, I read about this somewhere," he said, picking up a pen and beginning to trace out numbers on the back of her skin. "There's some real magical theory behind this, not to mention learning theory…"
"Oh right, Bill, I'm going to learn it through osmosis! You know, this is the kind of mumbo-jumbo thing some Muggles swear by, and I can tell you--"
"Come on now, I'm sure your learning curve is improving as we speak. Soon you'll be doing these in no time at all."
Hermione didn't complain as he took her hand with his, turning it as the black nib slid wet against her skin. She could tell when he was writing neat little characters in his angular handwriting and when he drew little curves or dotted lines, strange little graphs scattered across her hand and wrist. Was her palm becoming embarassingly wet against his? Would he notice? But he kept on, intent at his task. When he made a mistake, he licked his finger quickly and blotted the ink on the inner side of her wrist, rubbing it out.
She wasn't sure if this was having the desired effect on her memory or not.
Halfway through the week, Ron and Harry came clattering and thudding down the stairs into the kitchen, hunting for a quick snack. "Hermione, nice to see you too," Harry said, after she had still failed to look up several minutes later. She gave a quick, distracted hello and went back to her work.
"Have you seen Bill?" Ron asked her.
"No," she muttered absently, erasing some incorrect figures in the margins of her workbook. "Why are you asking me?"
"I dunno, it seems like he spends the most time talking to you whenever he's around."
Ron shrugged and took a swig out a the bottle of juice.
She looked up sharply. "Really?"
"Yeah. Anyhow, Harry and I are off to practice with Fred and George. If you see Bill, tell him to come out and join us, all right?"
"All right, I will."
As soon as they left, she put down her quill and rested her head on the table. Bill. Just thinking about his name filled her with a giddy hunger, something like the anticipation she got each morning when she woke up and wondered if she would see him that day. A full-body blush came over her whenever he entered a room, all of her flaring with heat. When he spoke to her she was almost overwhelmed, trying so hard to be fully present in the moment, to remember all the details for later, and yet also being acutely aware that it would be over soon.
The NEWTs were in only a few days and Hermione wasn't sure what she should be studying. In truth, she had covered all the basics, keeping a checklist and running over it until her nerves were almost ragged. Today her concentration had been patchy from the moment she awoke in a sweaty tangle of sheets, her comforter pushed to the floor during the night. It was hot and humid, so much that she could almost feel the air resisting her as she moved. She hated the opressive heat like this and the muggy atmosphere that made her hair frizz more than ever no matter what she did.
The heat made everyone sluggish and irritable, a restless apathy that crept over the entire Burrow. Everyone else had gone outside and was clustered under the shade of a tree, fanning themselves and sipping cold drinks or dousing each other with water. Hermione was the only one left indoors, and she was becoming very tempted to join them when she heard the sound of someone coming down the stairs.
Bill wandered into the kitchen, blinking in the bright light. He was shirtless, his hair out of its usual ponytail and spilling loose across his shoulders. Amidst the hot summer surroundings, he was all autumn colors: the red of his hair, the golden apricot hue of his skin, the dusty orange of his eyebrows (and of the soft line of fuzz that began at his belly button and disappeared into his faded cut-offs, though Hermione glanced away quickly, embarrassed). She tried her utmost not to stare as he paused and stretched in the doorway, as unself-conscious as a lion on one of the nature shows she had so liked to watch as a child.
He was so easy in his body and she felt so awkward and uneasy in hers, as if it were a jumper that had shrunk and no longer fit her. Hermione wanted to shed her skin and be all careless grace like he was. It wasn't something you could learn though, was it? It came naturally or it didn't come at all, and no amount of practice or learning could make her something she wasn't.
Bill was digging around for something in the kitchen, mumbling to himself. "Milk, milk…where's that? What's that, cheese, hmm…"
"We're out of milk," Hermione said.
He turned around, glancing about as if noticing the rest of the room for the first time. "Oh Hermione, I didn't even see you there."
Of course. Her throat feeling tight and constricted, she swallowed. "I was just thinking about going outside. Everyone else is out there."
"And you're in here, being anti-social with me? Tsk tsk." Bill shook his head, a dimpled grin sliding across his face. He dipped his finger into the honey pot and swirled it around, leaving a spiral in his wake. "Sssh, don't tell Mum." He licked it off his finger slOWLy and winked at her, a sideways, sleepy gesture, and she blushed. And there she was, back in this flustered, slow-tongued haze that seemed to be fast becoming her permenant condition.
Hermione finally closed up her books and slid them across the table. "I give up; I think it's officially too hot to studying."
"That's the spirit, all right." Bill grinned at her. "Come on and have some fun, Miss Brown Eyes. Weather like this is no good for studying."
"I just want to cool down," she sighed. "It's so bloody hot, I can't stand it." She pressed her glass of water (almost room temperature by now) against her forehead, staring at Bill through the distorting effect of glass and water.
"So get wet."
"What?" She looked at her glass, looked back at him, and gave a what-the-hell shrug. "This isn't doing anything for me drinking it anyway, so why not." With a giddy little laugh, she picked up her glass and tipped it over her head. Water splashed through her hair and ran down her face, pooling at her collar bones and the hint of (very modest, she knew) cleavage peaking out above her shirt.
"See, that's more like it."
"We need more water," Hermione said.
"Or ice." After a moment of digging around in the icebox, he came up with a tray of ice cubes that had apparently been neglected in the recent cold drinks rush. "Here we are. Catch!" He tossed several ice cubes to Hermione, though most of them managed to fall on the floor by her feet. Giggling anyway, she bent down and scooped them up, pressing them against her flushed cheeks and forehead.
"Here, let me get a clean one." She crossed the room to where he stood with the tray and took one, popping it directly into her mouth. "Thass better."
There was a mischevious look on Bill's face and before she could even duck, he grabbed a glass of water and flung it on her. It began to soak into her shirt, and Hermione jumped for her own revenge: she grabbed another glass of water and dumped it over his head. He shook it off rather like a wet puppy, sending water droplets flying in her face, and before she knew it, he had grabbed her around the waist and hauled her over his shoulder. Kicking, shrieking, and pounding on his back made no difference--not that it was exactly unpleasant being pressed against his bare back.
Once she stopped struggling, she noticed that he smelled good. A warm, homey smell, vaguely spicy, but mostly comfortable and delicious. Up close she noticed freckles, running up and down his arms, across his shoulder blades, and scattered more scarcely across his back.
Looking was good. Touching would be better--much better. Tasting wouldn't be bad either, come to think of it.
Unfortunately for her, he was already lowering her to the ground. While she still had an excuse, she wrapped her arms around his neck, her whole body sliding against his as he put her down, sending a pleasant chill through her overheated body. When she was once again at eye-level with them, she had to look away. Her private thoughts seemed far too close to the surface. If you had any idea what I was thinking right now, you would probably run from the room in disgust. Or look at me, your little brother's bookish friend, in horror. Or laugh.
Bill leaned back against the counter, his body still partially pressed against hers. As she watched he took another ice cube and sucked on it, rolling it idly between his lips. It was half torture, half delight to watch him. The moment stretched on, the ice melting in his mouth, the hot damp air seeming to press back against Hermione's skin. With the back of her hand, she wiped sweat from her upper lip and forehead.
"Hot?" he asked her. She nodded and he took another ice cube from the tray, but when she held out her hand for it, he shook his head. "Come a little bit closer." As she leaned in for it he only rose his hand higher, until her head was tipped back, mouth open rather like a baby bird waiting to be fed by its mother. When she finally expected him to give up with the game and give her the ice, he just laughed and popped the ice cube into his own mouth.
"What, didn't your mother teach your any manners?"
"She did indeed. She taught me to share." Bill's hands snaked around her back, bringing her closer. When she was all but touching him, his breath hot in her face, (easily kissing distance away, her mind added) he pressed his lips almost but not quite against hers. She wondered for a confused moment if he was kissing her, but then his cold lips opened up and he passed the ice cube from his mouth to hers. The warmth of his mouth, the chill of the ice, partially melted from his warmth…it all washed over Hermione and she shuddered.
At the sound of this, Bill drew back. "I…Hermione." He rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly looking awkward and embarrassed, guilty even. "I'm sorry, I thought…I wasn't thinking."
"No, wait." Hermione put a finger to his lips, shaking her head.
She looked at him and before he could say a single word more, she launched herself at him. Gryffindor courage was finally showing up at an unexpected moment as she grabbed him around the shoulders, pushed him back against the counter, and kissed him properly. Lips on lips, damp and soft and full against hers, and her hands came up to his chin, moving on to caress his cheek--just the slightest hint of stubble there rubbing against her fingers. He stiffened with surprise at first and then he softened, becoming the Bill she had been imagining all summer. His arms were around her waist, his hands curving around the back of her hips and pulling her closerclosercloser. His mouth opened and she followed suit, the tip of his tongue darting against hers. It didn't matter that up until now her one brush with French kissing had left her thoroughly disgusted and determined never to try it again--that resolution was gone, never to return.
Somehow they turned so she was the one with her back against the counter and he lifted her up in his arms. Hermione slid backwards so she was sitting against him, her face pressed against his jaw. It seemed totally natural for her to reach up, hands tangling in his hair, and pull him closer against her, completely natural for her legs to wrap around him and for him to press back against her. No matter that this was more and further and faster than she had imagined.
It was an entirely physical out of body experience, she thought, and she was dizzy with it. She rolled her hips against him, a sinious movement that surprised her, as her hands slid up and down his back. He gave a little gasp--was it surprise? pleasure? Hermione wasn't sure--and then rocked back against her. Until now, she had been worrying on some level: did he want this? did he really want her? Now she kissed him without hesitation and he kissed back; she pressed her tongue against his and made a little circle with her hips and he buried his head in the bend of her shoulder, squeezing her to him.
She wanted to forget about breathing, about everything else she had to do. Hermione just wanted to kiss him and kiss him and then kiss him over again. So this is what she had been missing all along, so this was what the other girls whispered about under the covers at night when they thought she was asleep or still reading. How could anyone get tired of this? Pressing against Bill as he pressed back, tossing his head so his hair flashed like flame in the light, and she saw that same desire reflected in his eyes. He gasped in her ear, made a little choking sound as he reached down and gripped at her hips, lifting them against him.
Hermione didn't know how long they were like this; time was uneven and irregular and made no sense to her. At last there was a hitch in his breath and he bit down on her lip. They folded together then, him collapsed in her arms, his head resting on her shoulder, both of them sweaty and breathing roughly. She stroked his hair softly, pressing gentle kisses to his damp forehead. The desperation she'd felt previously, the explosive heat, was replaced by an almost overwhelming tenderness.
She spoke first, her words far away, almost as if she were in a dream. "I didn't think you would ever like me. Not like this, I mean. Not being attracted to me."
"I've been attracted to you for a long time." He gave a little laugh. "You're pretty, you must know that. And smart, and you seemed so…sure of yourself. But I felt kind of like a perve, leering at my baby brother's friend."
"Really?" Hermione looked down at him, still feeling unsure. Compared to all the other girls he had been with, she must be a wide-eyed innocent, someone with barely any experience. "I… There's just so much I don't know. I don't know what you like."
"For starters, I like a lot of things about you. Right now, the more shallow ones are the first that come to mind." He smoothed the hair back out of his eyes and looked at her, his tongue flicking across his lips. "I like your figure, your curves." Where her shirt had slipped up, he ran a hand across the curve of her hip, fingers brushing along the small of her back. Up and down and in and out and in again, tracing the rise and fall of her body. She reciprocated, running light touches up and down the sides of his spine, dragging her fingernails across his skin in a way that that left goosebumps in their wake.
"I like the way you touch me. I like it when you do that," he sighed. Hermione pressed damp lips against his neck, kissing the corner of his jaw, dropping down to press a kiss against his collarbone. Nuzzling the indentation in his throat, she kissed up his neck, softly at first.
"I don't really know what I'm doing," she admitted.
"You're a fast learner. No curves like your learning curve." She kissed him again, hungrily, and he kissed her back. After a moment, he looked at her and said, "You're--you're not what I expected."
"How's that?" Hermione wrapped her arms around his neck, pulled him even tightly against her.
That made her throw back her head and laugh, before leaning forward to take his earlobe between her teeth and flick at it with her tongue. "It's all those years of reading," she said seriously. "Too many books has turned my head and made me like--" she paused, running her hand down his stomach, stopping to squeeze his thigh, "this."
"If that's really the case, I think reading should be prescribed for more young ladies."
"It does seem to be rather dangerous though."
Hermione was just kissing him again when a voice sounded right outside the window. "Bill! William Weasley, where are you?" They both jumped, pulling apart somewhat guiltily.
"Oh, I forgot! I was supposed to tell you to meet Ron and Harry outside."
"Well, I guess I'm glad that you didn't tell me earlier." Bill stepped back, running his fingers through his hair. "But I guess we should go outside now."
"I suppose so." Hermione climbed down off the kitchen counter, hastily trying to finger-comb her hair and smooth out her hiked-up clothing.
The two of them went outside, and Hermione was swarmed by the rest of the Weasleys, all marveling over how Bill had finally managed to lure her away from her studies.
Bill and Hermione didn't have time to talk much the next few days. Bill was called away to Gringotts on important business and Hermione finally convinced Harry and Ron to do some last minute review for their exams. She lived in a haze of nerves and fluttering stomachs, though she was rather cheered when Bill sent an OWL with a postcard wishing the three of them good luck.
They went and took their exams; afterward Harry and Ron were giddy with relief, but Hermione was on edge, continually rehashing what she might have missed.
A few days later, an OWL brought three letters with the official seals of the Ministry stamped on the front. The entire Weasley family was gathered, ready for a celebratory (or mournful) dinner that night. Harry and Ron tore their letters open hastily, shouting out their results, while Hermione opened hers with shaking hands.
"Well?" everyone asked.
"I passed," she said, leaning against the kitchen table and going limp with relief.
"Well, of course you did silly girl. Let me see," Mr. Weasley said. Hermione handed him the letter and he scrutinized it. "And with flying colors, naturally--is anyone surprised?"
"Of course not," Bill said, and he winked at her. "It's our Hermione, after all."
After the rest of the family had filed outside, carrying dinner fixings, the two of them managed to be alone in the kitchen for a quite moment.
"Thank you. For helping me," Hermione said, the first thing she could think of.
"I think it was no thanks to me that you got that much studying done," he said with a grin.
"Well." She gave a little, relieved laugh. "I'm not complaining."