hezo again. back to surprise you all with a second update in one year. please, don't get up. i'm finally getting to the part I've been dying to write for ages.

because i still have so much more matieral to cover (I'm taking the story right up to the end of DH), i'm not going to cover all of OoTP as thoroughly as i might've planned before. what i mean to say is…things are going to speed up. expect to see more montage paragraphs rather than whole scenes from the movie covered.

there are some review replies at the end for you all…enjoy!



Fred looked up, startled, as Angelina dropped a fat book next to his feet, which were propped comfortably on a table in the Gryffindor common room. It was late afternoon, and as gloomy outside as Moaning Myrtle was on the inside. The common room was mostly empty, save for him, George, and a few third years currently engrossed in a game of exploding snaps over by the hearth.

"I hate her," Angelina declared, slumping into a chair and laying her face down on the book she'd dropped—a book on quidditch strategies, Fred saw with a grimace. Had he really thought she'd be a saint compared to Oliver? Because she was like a taskmaster. He was surprised she hadn't resorted to lashing a whip at their backsides as she worked them through drill after bloody exhausting drill…

Still. The girl looked frazzled bordering on crazed. He and George exchanged a look, and George patted her absently on the head.

"There there," he said. "Are you referring to the toad charading as our Defense Against the Dark Arts professor?"

"Wears pink a lot?" Fred added as he distractedly rolled a galleon across the backs of his knuckles. "And bows? Makes a noise like—"

"Hem hem?" George finished helpfully, in an uncanny if slightly disturbing impression of Umbridge that made the third years jump and look around frantically.

Angelina groaned without lifting her head as behind her, Katie and Alicia slipped into the common room, looking just as battle worn. "Yes. It's not enough that I'm barely passing her joke of a class—"

"Please don't call it a joke," Fred inserted, wincing. "It gives jokes a bad name."

She spared him a withering glare before continuing. "Anyways. Now she's poking her nose into quidditch. Honestly, this year was supposed to be good. We were supposed to win the cup. Everything was supposed to work out. And now this. Has she let up on your detentions yet?"

Fred barely stopped himself from massaging the back of his hand, though he did absently glance at it, at the not-quite-faded red, irritated letters scratched into his skin. He and George hadn't let anyone look too closely at that writing. It wouldn't help business any if their prospective customers saw that Fred and George Weasley, mischief makers extraordinaire, had more or less been tattooed with I Must Not Make Mischief.

"Last one's today," George said, sounding half relieved, half glum. Relieved, because after this, they'd be done with the old cow. Glum, because that still meant going one more time, and sitting in that putrid office for another hour.

Alicia, brushing her blonde hair behind her ear, settled down next to him with a sigh. "She's right, though. We're not going to stand a chance at the cup if we can't—"

They all jumped as the portrait of the fat lady swung open to the sounds of barely-contained shouting. Coming from none other than one mister pubescent, angst-ridden, Harry Potter. Harry always seemed to be miffed, lately. Miffed at Ron, miffed at Dumbledore, miffed at Seamus, miffed at Hermione…who happened to be the focus of his not-quite-shouts right now. Fred watched her mildly as she hurried in after Harry, her dark eyes big and worried, her mouth slightly open for words Harry wouldn't let her get out.

"Look, there's no point," he growled, exasperated as he threw his bag violently into an armchair and then collapsed next to it. "I'm not going to pretend to go along with all her rubbish when she knows I don't believe it. At least this way I can—"

"Keep on getting detentions!" Hermione finished, her voice higher than usual. She was so caught up in her argument with Harry, she didn't seem to notice anyone else in the room, including Fred. Which suited him just fine. He was still ironing out what exactly she'd meant by throwing "I love you" at him. Alright, it hadn't been "I love you"; it had been "I've never been in love before". Close enough. Really, the two were practically interchangeable. People should just go around saying the latter in place of the first. They were the same thing. They were. She loved him.

"Can we not talk about this anymore?" Harry muttered tiredly. Noticing the others in the corner, he leaned up, brightening a little. "Quidditch practice tonight?"

Angelina groaned in answer. When Harry blinked, confused, Katie explained, "Umbridge cancelled practice. Due to the 'inclement weather'."

"What? She can't do that!"

"No," Hermione agreed, solemn, "she can't. She's not the head of Gryffindor. She has no right." For a second, she and Fred locked eyes, and he felt that irksome twisting sensation in his stomach again. They were the same thing. So now he just needed to figure out if he was supposed to say…er…"I've never been in love before"…back.

He gave his head a shake to return him to the moment, blaming Hermione for distracting him. Her caramel brown hair, tousled in its braid? Distraction. The way her Gryffindor jumper and tie looked so neat when everyone else had given up on adhering to the dress code hours ago? Distraction. The sad little smile Fred caught the second before she turned back to Harry? Distraction with a big bloody D.

Suddenly, Fred jerked up straight in his chair and whipped a pen out from his robe. "George, I've got it! Distracter Dumplings! Need to pull something right under someone's nose? Distract them with a dumpling that will distract them delirious!"

George's eyes crinkled as he grinned, but as he opened his mouth, Lee stormed in, scowling something fierce. He practically overturned his chair settling into it.

"I hate her," he grumbled morosely.

Alicia told him grimly, "Welcome to the club."

"We should get jackets," George suggested. He tipped his head to the side, and his eyes glazed, as if he was actually considering it. "Though I'd lean away from the pink. Clashes something awful with my hair."

Across the room, Hermione made a quiet noise that caused Fred to glance back over his shoulder, though he tried playing off the movement by pretending to stretch. She had that adorable look about her, the one leftover from her very worst know-it-all years. Straight-backed, expression fierce, thoughtful, and slightly triumphant. Fred grunted as George kicked him under the table, and realized he'd been stretching for a full thirty seconds. Distraction!

"I feel," George began slowly, hanging his hand limply, "like I've been gnawed on by a pair of dull scissors."

Daubing the beads of blood off the back of his hand, Fred snorted. At least they were done with the detentions. This time. He couldn't say why precisely, but he was 100% sure that he and George would return to Umbridge's office (a.k.a, Kitten Hell), in due time. He really didn't think a few scarred words on the backs of their hands were going to be enough to stop them from fulfilling their destiny. Mischief was their calling. It was going to take more than one fluffy fanged ogre to turn them from it.

The twins walked down toward The Great Hall, more than ready for some dinner and hot cider to take the edge off of the rainy, chilly evening. Umbridge's office had been cold. Fred would venture to say almost as cold as her cold, black heart. Maybe that was a bit dramatic, but then, times like these called for Harry-appropriate dramatics.

"You know," George said quietly as they pattered down a marble staircase threatening to shift positions at any second, "if things keep going the way they're going…with Umbridge…and quidditch…"

Fred looked at him, Twin Feelers out and working. "Yeah," he said just as quietly, "I know. Katie was right. This year wasn't supposed to be like this. This was supposed to be our grand finale before crossing over into the joke shop world. Not…whatever this is."

"It's bollocks."

"Thank you for that gentle clarification."

"I suppose someone has to be gentle with you, nowadays. What with Hermione dragging you around by your—" He broke off, choking, as they turned a corner and about plowed right over Hermione, who was standing there with a knowing little smirk, her hands clasped over her stomach. She'd changed out of uniform, into a pair of brown trousers and a grey jumper that looked soft. Fred was tempted to see if physics would allow him to kick himself. It looked soft? This was what Hermione was turning him into. The kind of guy who sees a perfectly fine jumper and says, "Oh, that looks soft." He disgusted himself.

"Hello, George."

"Hermione," George greeted warily, his eyes flickering back and forth between Hermione and Fred. He jerked his chin at his twin, simultaneously shooting him a wry look that the Feelers went to town trying to interpret. "I suppose you're here for him?"

"The both of you, actually." Hermione looked around, fidgety, before going on. "I've had an idea. Well, it was really your idea, George." George's red eyebrows shot up his forehead, but Hermione was off and running. "What you said in the common room, about having an I Hate Umbridge Club…no, I'm not really thinking about starting one, stop grinning like that. But I've just been talking with Ron and Harry, and they agree. It's time we took our Defense Against the Dark Arts classes into our own hands. We have to learn how to defend ourselves, and with Umbridge set on us never even using our wands in class, that will never happen unless we…that is, unless we—"

"Set up some extracurricular practice?" Fred suggested, still grinning despite Hermione's warning not to. "You do realize that would include—dare I even breathe it—rule breaking?"

With a dramatic gasp, George touched his chest and closed his eyes, whispering feebly, "Be still my beating heart."

Scowling and blushing at the same time—the effect was pretty fetching—Hermione said hotly, "Yes, I do realize that. And I happen to think it's worth it, to learn some proper defense. I'd break every rule in the book if it meant knowing how to do a patronus charm like Harry can." But her voice still shook a little breathily at just the mention of it. "And since Harry's agreed to teach us, we'll learn much more than we would on our own. Well?"

Exchanging a slow look, the twins frowned. It wasn't the thought of breaking more rules that bothered them, or even the fact that said rule breaking had been put forward by Hermione Granger. It was that they didn't know how much of the class they'd really be around for, if they went through with their plans and took off with their joke shop before the end of the school year. Still. One class or ten, any extra practice wouldn't go amiss. For Merlin's sake, all they'd been doing in Umbridge's sorry class for the last three weeks was learning to keep their mouths shut, and that could do with unlearning. Besides…if it meant Fred spending extra time with Hermione…extra time before he left…

"Time and place," he and George said in unison, and Hermione beamed at them, though her eyes held Fred's longer than George's. He winked at her, testing the waters, and the blush came back, pinker than before. Ha.

"The Hogsmeade trip, this weekend. We'll meet at that one pub off the way, the one that no one really—"

"The Hog's Head?"

"It's one of our favorite haunts."

"Best butterbeer this side of the country, once the proprietor slips in a shot or two of firewhiskey."

"Anyways," Hermione put in, eying them distastefully. "Be there at noon. Tell anyone you think might take this seriously, but no one you don't trust to keep a secret. If Umbridge knew…"

"Hem hem."

Fred's lungs went cold as that grating little voice announced a presence behind him. Honestly, it would've been less frightening for someone to have screamed, "FIRE!" Or for that matter, just lit him on fire. Hermione, standing shell-shocked before him, was staring past his shoulder with her brown eyes big and round on her color-drawn face. Meeting George's eyes for a fraction of a second, Fred turned to face Umbridge and forced a smile that might've been more of a bearing of teeth thing.

Despite her predatory little smile, Umbridge's cold eyes said she would brook no nonsense as she looked him and George up and down. "Misters Weasleys," she said sweetly, tilting her head to the side like a fat, pink bird watching a worm wriggling on the ground. "I thought I dismissed you to dinner?"

"We were just—"

"—on our way there."

"I see."

Fred's thought the grinding of his teeth was probably audible as he watched Umbridge's beady eyes flicker past him and George and settle on Hermione, flashing. If that bloody woman so much as—he drew a breath through his nostrils as George stepped on his foot none-too-lightly. Right. The plan was to leave the school of their own accord, not to get expelled.

"Why, Ms. Granger," Umbridge cooed, pleased. "Isn't it funny, me finding you alone. You're nearly always with Mr. Potter. But then, you're best friends, aren't you?" You would've thought she was talking to an eight-year-old. She forced one of her breathy giggles. "I would expect you known him awfully well."

Tilting his chin just enough to eye Hermione over his shoulder, Fred saw her nod, saw her pull back her shoulders and push up her chin, defiant, but timidly so. She wasn't going to let herself get bullied, and that was fine, but Fred wasn't going to let her get bullied either. He stole a step to the left, closing the gap between his and George's shoulders and making a wall between Umbridge and Hermione.

Blinking, Umbridge glanced at him sharply; her smile deepened, putting dimples in her cheeks. "Run along now, children," she said, tut-tutting. "Let's not be idle, hmm? Ms. Granger, I would so enjoy having you to tea in my office sometime. Perhaps next week Tuesday?"

"Yes," Hermione said weakly, "maybe."

And then the ugly, evil, corpulent, nasty…that is, Professor Umbridge, left. Fred felt as stiff as a petrified garden gnome until she disappeared down the next corridor, the heels of her shoes smartly click-clicking into the distance.

"Blimey. You think she heard us?" George asked, huffing a sigh of relief.

"Dunno," Fred admitted unhappily, turning back to Hermione, who was frowning darkly after Umbridge. "Guess we'll have to wait and see. You alright, Hermione?"

"What?" Hermione glanced at him, bemused, and then gave a jerk. "Oh, yes, I'm fine. I wonder if…never mind. She's just awful, isn't she? She makes my skin crawl. And she wants to question me about Harry."

"Well," Fred said, forcing his tone to be light, "we'll just have to keep you too busy for her to get her hands on. I have a few ideas you might be keen on."

Making a disgusted sound, George started walking backwards down the corridor. "Look, if you're going to start on that, I'm going on to dinner without you." He sighed loudly as Hermione smilingly reached out and took Fred's bad hand, turning it gently over to inspect it.

That was fine. Fred's appetite had been moved out to make room for the butterflies gallivanting in his stomach as Hermione's finger traced the words graven into his skin. "Go on, then. I'll meet you back in The Common Room." He made himself ignore George's faked retching noises as he stole a step closer to Hermione, close enough to smell her hair and cast his long shadow over her.

After a long moment of standing like that, Hermione said, "It's snowing out."

"That's probably because it's winter."

"Really?" Hermione said, trying for sarcasm but missing it by a mark. Still holding his hand with both of hers, she looked up at him. "Walk with me?"

Nodding, then looking both ways to make sure they were alone, Fred started leading her for the courtyard. The open, columned walkway let in tufts of snow that stuck to his skin and made him wish for his jacket, upstairs on his bed. And if he was cold, Hermione had to be. Girls were always cold. Fortunately, there was plenty of Fred to go around. Or there used to be, before Hermione. Nowadays, there was just enough of him for her, so long as she'd make up her mind about she wanted that much or not.

"What were you and George talking about?" Hermione asked as they walked, blinking into the snow.

Strangely, the truth about his and George's doubts about remaining at Hogwarts stopped up in his throat. He swallowed. Whatever he and Hermione were…he should be able to tell her anything. He knew that. But the thought of telling her he might be leaving—leaving her, essentially—and the picture of her reaction pulled him up short. They were just getting back on somewhat firmer footing. Call him a sap (Go on then, do it. George probably would.) but he wanted whatever time they had left together to be spent well, not on the rocks.

"Hogwarts," he answered vaguely, and she eyed him as if she knew that was only a partial truth. She led him to a bench squared between two hedges and sat down sideways, her legs folded beneath her, to face him. Then she took his hand and sat it on her knee, and started rummaging around in her trouser pockets.

"I've tried a few small spells with Harry," she explained as she pulled out a thumb-sized tube with a silver stopper shaped like a bell, "and nothing really helps the scarring. But Professor Sprout gave me this under the table the other day, and it at least takes the irritation away. May I?"

"By all means, rub ointment on me."

Rolling her eyes, Hermione dotted a bit of greenish paste onto her fingertip and then started spreading it over the back of his hand. Fred just watched her watching their hands, looking intent on what she was doing and perfectly content to sit there in silence. The snow caught in her hair, sparkling in the light cast by the castle windows.

"Do you love me, Hermione?"

She jumped, and looked up at him like he'd grown himself a pair of fuzzy antlers, though she knew perfectly well what those would look like, having grown a pair herself last Christmas.

"Yes," she answered, for a wonder, perfectly calmly. How was she calm? Fred felt like those pesky butterflies down around his middle were throwing a raucous party and tipping back pints of firewhiskey. "But I love Ron, too. And Harry. And Ginny."

Fred stared at her. "Well. That complicates things."

Smiling down at his hand as she carefully rolled the ointment over it with her finger, she said, "You know what I mean, Fred."

"And you know what I mean. That's not the kind of love I'm talking about."

"I know."

"I mean, you were kind of…what's the word… ambiguous..."

"I love that word."

"It's a good word. Anyways, that's what you were back there, with the whole 'I've never been in love before' thing. Don't get me wrong, I'm 98% sure you do love me…but putting it that way…it's like saying it without having to say it because you're scared of actually saying it. Ouch."

"Sorry." He thought she meant the apology in more ways than one. Girls. Were. Complicated.

"Well," he said roughly, pulling his hand out of her care so that she looked up at him with a frown, "if it makes any difference, I'm completely unambiguously in love with you."

Hermione's eyes widened, and spots of color appeared on her cheeks, but the look of dull shock on her face wasn't quite the rapturous reaction he'd hoped for. Biting her bottom lip, she dodged his stare, looking instead down at her hands as she wrung them on her lap.

"But why?" she asked softly. "You were right, Fred. I've been terrible to you, not being able to make up my mind, saying one thing and then…and then the thing with Ron…"

Growling, Fred stood up and shoved his hands into his pockets, suppressing a wince when his bad hand prickled. As he started marching away from the bench and a startled Hermione, he snapped, "Why does Ron always have to pop his ugly nose into these conversations?"

"But he isn't!" Hermione exclaimed as she tripped after him. "It's me! It's my fault! Don't blame—"

"It doesn't matter whose fault it is," Fred explained in a low voice, glaring into the snow and stalking in the general direction of Hagrid's cabin, which looked like a poor man's gingerbread house with its snow-covered roof and curling chimney smoke. "If you didn't like him, Hermione, you wouldn't keep bringing him up."

"That not true! Ron's my best friend, Fred! You know that! I couldn't just…oh, I ruin everything!"

The sudden change of pace caught Fred off guard; he looked over at her, blinking, before remembering how angry he was. He would've gone right back to sulking, only Hermione's eyes were glistening, and he really thought she meant was she said…that she ruined everything.

Sighing, Fred stopped and turned to face her. "Come on, Hermione, that's not true. At least, not as far as I'm concerned." She looked at him, eyebrows wrinkled softly together, and he clarified gracelessly, "Because everything's been better since you started looking at me differently. You don't ruin anything. Not ever. Even when you're the most annoying, perplexing, complicated female I know. You make everything…better."

Hermione's sniffle turned into a soggy laugh, but before he could bristle at being laughed at, she said in a rush, "Can we try this whole thing over again?"

"The whole thing?" Fred repeated, voice cracking.

"No no," Hermione quickly assured him, "just this conversation. The part where you said you were in love with me."

"Don't be vain, now."

"I won't."

"Alright. I'm in love with you."

"And I," Hermione declared, loud and clear, "am in love with you." Then she burst into giggles, covering her mouth with her hands. "That sounds so strange, doesn't it?"

"It does," Fred agreed, grinning. Hermione yelped as he roped an arm around her waist and yanked her into him, then planted a loud, smack of a kiss on her forehead. "But it's good to hear. Everything else can be ironed out later. And by later, I mean after a good snog."

"And by everything else, you mean—"

"So help me, Hermione, if you say my little brother's name right now, I will turn you into a pygmy puff."

Hermione's purposeful silence was just as loud as if she had yelled Ron's name, and despite those bloody butterflies getting down in Fred's stomach, he sighed. Hermione made everything better. But she also made everything more complicated. But if that was the worst side effect he could expect from hearing her say she was in love with him (which he'd totally called, by the way), well…he could do complicated.

"What are you thinking about?" Hermione asked him, pulling her hands back into her sleeves to hide them from the cold, then resting them against his chest.

"Just pondering over possible places we could snog," he said lightly, glancing around. "I think I've used up most of the best ones, but—"

"The Shrieking Shack ?" Hermione asked, disbelieving. His impish grin made her skin break out in goosebumps that had nothing to do with the snow.

"And how, pray tell, do you think it got its name?" He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively, and Hermione lightly slapped his chest, laughing but also squeezing her eyes shut and shaking her head, as if trying to banish an unwelcome image. It was the kind of cute that made Fred feel warm and stupid inside.

They continued their walk around the courtyard, not straying too far out into the wintry night, and hiding their held hands when someone passed by near enough to make them out. Even though the walk was easy and unhurried, Fred could feel the time speeding by, slipping away before he could fully enjoy each minute of it. It wasn't fair.

"I've had an epiphany," Fred suddenly declared, stopping so suddenly in his tracks, Hermione was yanked backwards by her hand still caught in his and would've tripped if not for his quick reflexes. Which might've been his plan to begin with, if his smirk said anything. "A camp out."


"You heard me. We'll go back to our common room and fetch our coats and some necessities and then I'll sneak you out the old fashioned way, and we'll set up shop in The Shrieking Shack."

"Fred…" Hermione started slowly shaking her head at everything that was wrong with that idea. Never mind the fact they'd be breaking rules…stay out all night? When they had class tomorrow, and the threat of Umbridge's detentions hanging over their heads? And what would everyone think when neither of them came to bed? Suddenly, despite the thick chill in the air, she felt very, very warm. "We couldn't possibly…" She trailed off at his puppy dog stare, his heartbroken expression that she had no doubt was a total farce. Unfortunately, that didn't make it any less effective. She laughingly clutched her hair in two fists. "I can't believe I'm saying yes."

With a triumphant crow, Fred started dragging her into the castle at for him, was probably a comfortable jog, but for Hermione, was a breathless sprint.

"I'll knick us some goods from the kitchens," he said eagerly. "If you've never tried toasting pie over a campfire, you're in for a real treat."

Hermione hadn't been in The Shrieking Shack since her third year, and she was surprised to find that it was so much less scary now, despite the dark night and the cold snow. Maybe it was because Fred seemed to know his way around the old leaning house so well, leading her by the hand through dark hall after dark hall without even lighting his wand. Which made her wonder…maybe he'd been being serious about the snogging thing. He had kissed eleven and a half girls, after all.

Fred set up their "camp" in one of the dining rooms rather than the bedrooms, sliding their separate quilts under the tall, spidery dining room table, making a fort of sorts. There was already a burned groove in the dusty floorboards from where numerous fires had been lit before, and true to his word, Fred made a bona fide campfire the old fashioned muggle way, using a flint and some broken chair legs. His father would've been proud. Then he set up a little rack he'd made out of butterknives no doubt stolen one at a time out of The Great Hall and produced, to Hermione's exasperated amusement, a blackberry pie, which he set to warming over the fire without delay.

"Oh, I can't believe I'm doing this," Hermione said, shaking her head at herself as she pulled her bed quilt up around her shoulders. Pavarti and Lavender had mercifully been asleep when Fred had appeared at their dormitory window on his broomstick, but Ginny had very nearly hexed him out of the sky, taking him for a peeping Tom.

Fred glanced up at her from under his red bangs. "Come now. You and Harry and Ron have snuck out loads of times, don't bother denying it, because me and George have seen you out and about often enough. I should teach you how to stalk properly."

Sniffing, Hermione informed him, "I can stalk very well on my own, thank you. And those were all for perfectly good, legitimate reasons. This is…" She gestured wordlessly, at a loss. Seeing Fred frown slightly down at the pie, his eyebrows drawing together, she hastily amended, "I mean, this is just different, is all. But it's fun. I suppose it's even a date."

Without looking up from the pie he was tending oh so carefully, Fred smiled. "I guess it is at that."

After they'd eaten the pie and chatted around the fire for a little, Fred took her exploring, showed her the house's other secret passages, and pointed out rooms that had to do with some story or another. Hermione only really half-listened, but it wasn't because she wasn't interested—or impressed, for that matter, with how much he knew about the history of the place. She was just getting tired; it was far past after hours, and she'd been up at dawn this morning, studying for her runes test. When Fred led her back to their hut in the dining room, she was so cloudy-minded, she nearly didn't register how odd it was that she and Fred Weasley were staying the night in a fort in The Shrieking Shack. It was like something she would have done with her neighbor friends when she was eight or nine, yet it felt perfectly normal.

Until she watched Fred pull off his trainers and wrap them in a spare shirt for a makeshift pillow. Oh. She was staying the night in a fort…in The Shrieking Shack…with Fred Weasley.

Fred looked up at her short, hysterical giggle, and she quickly cleared her throat.

"Sorry," she apologized needlessly, brushing hair behind her ear, shifting her weight from foot to foot, smoothing down her jacket—all in attempt to appear cool and collected without great success. "I'm calm."

She should've asked one of the older girls for advice; Angelina or Katie had probably been in this position before. She blushed wildly, panicked. Well, hopefully not this exact position. She didn't like dwelling on the thought of Fred and his eleven and a half female counterparts.

With a roguish grin that suggested he'd read her mind, Fred gave his coat's zipper an overenthusiastic pull down and then winced and stuck his finger in his mouth. It made her feel instantly better about almost tripping when she went to turn down her blankets.

Fred had layered their blankets thickly over the hard wood floor, arranged them so they would be sleeping head to head, with the fire the point of the triangle above them. Pulling her wand out of her coat pocket, Hermione past a softening spell to make their beds cushier, then quietly sat down and pulled her blankets up over her lap.

"Hermione…" She blinked at the hesitant note in Fred's voice, glancing at him with a frown. He was being very deliberate about getting into his bed, clearly full of thought. "There's something...I should tell you."

She'd guessed as much. She hadn't heard much of what he and George had been talking about in the corridor, but his face when he'd seen her…a bad feeling prickled in her chest. She thought she knew what this was about; something he'd mentioned in passing over the summer, and last school year, about his joke shop. Something about leaving.

When she'd been angry in the prefect's bathroom—more angry at herself than anything—she'd stupidly called down his and George's dream for their shop, and had instantly felt like she should've been sorted into Slytherin for how cruel it had been. Because the thing of it was, what he and George had been doing this last year, developing and inventing products, marketing for themselves (against school protocol, but nevertheless)…

He would be brilliant at his dream. But the thought of him leaving made the Shrieking Shack feel desperately cold. If he chose to leave—if he and George really decided it was for the best—she couldn't be selfish, like she'd been with him these last few months. She would have to watch him go and hold onto moments like these, of rendezvous in closets and bathrooms and snowy walks and stolen kisses, instead of holding onto him. But she could do it. She just didn't want to have to.

She met Fred's eyes, and a moment of understanding passed between them that she didn't think really needed to be followed up with words. She knew he knew that she knew…well. They just had an understanding.

With a sigh, Fred crawled over and sat beside her, facing the fire. She let her head drop on his shoulder.

"I'm scared of centipedes," he said suddenly. "And I actually like Celestina Warbeck. When George and I were little, we went for three days pretending to be each other, and no one knew the difference. I cried."

Smiling, Hermione peered up at him without lifting her head. "Really?"

"Give us a break. I was only fourteen." She stared. "I'm kidding. I was five."

"Oh." After thinking for a moment, Hermione sheepishly admitted, "I never really stole an aero bar. I lied."

Laughing pleasantly, Fred rolled down onto his back, tugging her with him, so that her head was nestled between his arm and chest, and she could hear him breathing, a sound like slow ocean waves coming up on the sand.

"I know."

"Um, hi."

Fred withheld a smile as Hermione, standing nervously at the front of the Hog's Head in front of about twenty students, began, "So you all know why we're here. We need a teacher. A proper teacher. One who's had real experience defending themselves against the dark arts."

The last three days had been some of the happiest he could remember, ranking up there with the time he and George had snuck out and flown their brooms to Ireland and camped out on the northern coast. His Hermione encounters were still rare—she'd been busy planning for this top secret meeting all week—but each one was like a burst of sunlight hitting the snow, totally brilliant and blinding. Yesterday, while it was still dark out, he'd woken to a find a folded paper airplane ticking on his forehead, anxious to be read. An invitation. When he'd stumbled blindly to the dormitory door, a bathrobe pulled on hastily over his pajama pants, Hermione had been waiting with a sheepishly cute grin. They walked along the foggy shores of the lake and eaten pastries while the sun had risen. The weird looks Fred had gotten as he'd walked back to the Gryffindor common room, whistling and in his bathrobe, had been worth it. And as a matter of interest? His bathrobe was an ugly brown, much too short around his ankles, frayed, and Ginny had once spelled it to curse whenever he wore it, so it occasionally shouted tired profanities at passersby. And Hermione was still totally worth it.

The thought of leaving Hogwarts was getting less and less attractive. George could tell. He kept giving Fred grim looks and shaking his head, and he'd gotten in the habit of muttering when he saw Hermione coming their way. He was understanding enough…but his plans were tethered to Fred's, and Fred understood it wasn't exactly fair for the outcome of his and Hermione's relationship to be the deciding factor in whether or not George left Hogwarts as well.

"Fred. Fred." George was elbowing him.

The meeting was over. Shaking his head, Fred stood and got in line to sign his name to what they were calling Dumbledore's Army. Hermione, Ron, and Harry were standing behind the table, looking excited at everyone's response—especially Hermione. Fred realized belatedly that he'd heard her use You-Know-Who's real name, and felt a warm wave of pride. That was his girl. He wondered if Ron would stab him with an ink pen if he tried kissing her right now.

"So it's a—"

"It's a macadamian mockball."

"And it—"

"Watch." Fred took the golden gumball from Hermione, popped it in his mouth, and chewed it up. Then he cleared his throat, batted his eyelashes, and said, "It's not spew, Ronald, it's S-P-E—"

"Stop, stop!" Hermione pleaded, her face a shade of berry as she put her hands to her cheeks and grimaced. "Ugh, that's my voice! That's awful!"

They were in Zonko's, in one of the back corners, sorting through Fred's bag of purchased items that he called "inspiration". Hermione had found him back here, reading the backs of boxes with a studious expression that she'd never seen him use at school. Ron, Harry, Seamus, Dean, and Neville were all getting butterbeers at The Three Broomsticks, while according to Fred, George was off performing his own valuable research. She didn't have the heart to tell him that she'd seen him at a table outside The Three Broomsticks, putting the enviable Weasley twins' charm to work on a fifth year Hufflepuff.

As Fred swallowed the mockball, he shuffled his hand around in his Zonko's bag, mumbling in a voice that was still just a little too high, "Where's it at…come here, you little devil…Ah. Here. Something for you."

Hermione went up on tiptoe with interest, trying to get a glimpse into the bag. She couldn't think of anything she'd much like from the joke shop—aside from Fred himself, of course—but there was always something exciting about getting a gift, and a gift from Fred was bound to be interesting. She shyly looked him up and down while she thought his attention was on the bag. The way he started grinning devilishly said she'd thought wrong.

"Now, you might already have this one," he began, and Hermione looked up in surprise. "But this is a bit of a special edition."

At first when he held out his hand, she thought it was a small ring box, the kind that came from a jewelers. Then she realized it was the world's tiniest, most compact book, the gold script on its brown leather cover tiny enough for dolls. She squinted to make it out, reading slowly, "The Magic No. 7, a Study of the Life and Works of Bridget Wenlock, Armancer Supreme."

Fred, watching her face for a reaction, said, "Expanderus," and the book started growing, unshrinking till it weighed down his hand and he nearly dropped it. The book was now roughly the size of the record player Hermione's father kept in his study.

"Fred, this is brilliant!" she gasped excitedly, taking the book from him, her back arching with the effort of just lifting it. "I never knew they had done a compilation of Bridget Wenlock's works! I wonder if they cover the Number Debates of the 13th century warlocks in…oh, just thank you!"

There really weren't words. She set the book down with a deep bass thump and leaped at him, and Fred, cackling, caught her, his back thudding against the wall of joke products. The kiss finely summed up their last few days. Perfect.

They couldn't know that everything was about to go spectacularly wrong.

fusselvieh - i agree on the hermione-is-being-annoying front. but i really felt that that would be the side effects of her struggle over falling in love with fred weasley. i think she's on the up and up now that she's coming to terms with the fact that she really does love him, and that that really is okay.

starfire8001 - thank you so much! that's exactly the kind of response that keeps me writing. :)

dominumkitten - i can't give away spoilers, but it is sticking with the movies. however, stuff will be happening underneath the story line, squeezed in to make it seem like it could've really been happening in the movies in scenes we didn't see. all will be revealed in good time, buaha.

thank you everyone for your kind encouragement and excitement, hope to hear from you again!