Chapter One

The Right Moment

It happened the first week of summer break.

The Burrow was empty in comparison to the bustling activity of the previous summer, and Hermione found herself wishing for those past times more often than she liked; she was far too young for those sorts of thoughts. Still, most of the house's usual inhabitants were missing, and though none were gone under particularly vexing circumstances – except perhaps Percy, but they'd all pretty much gotten used to that, hadn't they? – it didn't lessen that little aching in her chest that something was amiss. Hermione didn't dare consciously consider that the war was upon them, and that one day in the future those missing could be gone forever; it was too counterproductive.

Harry was spending his last ever, dreadful summer with the Dursleys, and while the Order kept careful tabs on him, he, Ron, and Hermione had decided to keep their contact to a minimum so as not to draw attention to themselves. Since the three of them had committed to spending at least the first month of summer doing extensive research on Horcruxes, the communication halt was not too great a hardship: there wasn't much information to be had, much less pass along.

Ginny was spending a few weeks with Luna Lovegood in Tasmania hunting wild Callamadoos, though Hermione suspected it was as much to escape all thoughts of Harry as it was to see her friend. They had both handled the break-up remarkably well, she thought, at least on the surface. There would be a time to revisit that issue, but right now the two were regrouping, both for their own sakes and that of the battle ahead.

Mr. And Mrs. Weasley were around, of course, when they weren't off on Order business. Bill and Fleur had taken a flat in London, to Mrs. Weasley's dismay ("They aren't even married yet!"), the twins had their place above the shop, and Charlie was back in Romania. That meant that most days the house was practically deserted.

That's how Hermione found herself spending nearly every waking hour – excepting those when Mrs. Weasley forced a meal upon them, whether the day had left them feeling hungry or not – sitting on her bed in Ginny's room with a book propped in her lap and Ron sitting next to her, at least pretending to read. But it wasn't her best friend's research habits that had her interest. In fact, her own techniques had suffered abysmally since the first day he sat so close to her that the natural energy of their bodies made it seem as if they were touching, even if they actually weren't.

She knew she should keep her mind on the matter at hand – a confrontation with Voldemort was imminent, and they had to be ready – but there was something entirely too enticing about the way Ron always smelled like he'd just stepped out of the shower. Or the low timbre of his soft voice asking her questions every few minutes just to break up the silence. Mostly, it was just the knowledge that she'd loved him for as long as she could remember, and she was pretty sure he felt something for her, too. But now that they had plenty of time alone, he still wouldn't do anything about it.

"Can you pass me a chocolate biscuit?" Ron asked, interrupting her thoughts. It was the first Friday they'd been back, and they had decided to spend the day at the kitchen table instead of lounged on Hermione's bed, for once. Both of Ron's parents were away for the day, but Mrs. Weasley had left them enough food for a week and strict instructions to contact Professor Lupin if anything should come up. Ron could reach the biscuits on his own – would normally have just reached over her – but it was his unspoken job to make mindless conversation.

She set the plate in front of him with a smile. He smiled back. She asked, "Any luck with that one?"

"Nah," he said, flipping the book closed. He grabbed a biscuit. "Just some rubbish about old marriage rituals. Apparently wizards and witches used to literally bind their souls together. Bet that made the divorces even nastier than normal."

"It's not as antiquated as you might think," said Hermione reaching for the book. "In some cultures, particularly those with arranged marriages, it's actually pretty common. You should really pay more attention in History of Magic, Ronald. Will you let go?"

Ron looked down at the book and blushed all the way up to his ears. Hermione followed his eyes and saw that her hands were clamped down directly on top of his. She was suddenly very aware of how soft his skin was.

"Well, who would follow such a barbaric tradition anyway?" he said, letting go. He glanced briefly at her face, and then was immensely interested in his biscuit.

"You would, if your society asked you to," Hermione said, surprising herself with the sharp edge in her voice. If touching his hand caused this sort of reaction in her…. "Don't you want to get married someday? Would you let a little thing like the type of ritual stop you?"

"I sure as hell would!" Ron jumped out of his seat as if close proximity to her would be like taking such a vow right that minute. He nearly caused her to fall sideways off her chair. "We're talking about souls here, Hermione. Remember? The thing that's causing Harry so much trouble right now?"

"So what are you trying to say, Ron?" Hermione tried her best to keep her voice level, but as she rose out of her chair to meet him face to face – or face to chest, as he was considerably taller – the volume of her voice rose as well. "That you have such terrible taste in women that you could never risk it? Because if Lavender was any indication, I might be inclined to agree."

"Oh, and you have such good taste?" he said, taking a step toward her. The blush in his cheeks turned more pronounced with every word, though Hermione doubted it was still due to embarrassment. "Vicky Krum? Cormac McLaggen?"

"Don't you start in on Viktor!" She closed the last step between them. "He was never anything but nice to me, unlike some people." She punctuated her sentence by punching him lightly in the chest, marvelling for half a second at how hard his muscles were under his t-shirt before snapping back to reality.

"Well, there you have it then!" he yelled, grabbing her fist where it still rested against his chest. He moved as if to push it aside, and then seemed to think better of it. He wound his fingers around her hand.

"There I have what?" Hermione reached up to pry her hand out of his grasp, and only succeeded in getting her other one captured as well. "That you'd never bind your soul to someone because you're incapable of being anything but a loathsome git?"

"No." Ron's face was so close to hers that she could feel his breath on the bridge of her nose. She caught the scent and could pick out a mingling of tea and chocolate. "Because you're about the only person I can see myself marrying, and then I'd really never get away from you!"

Hermione's breath caught in her throat. Had she just heard what she thought she heard? She froze, her eyes searching Ron's for a sign that he was joking or that she'd misunderstood, but all she could see was an intensity in his blue eyes that had nothing to do with the angry words he'd tossed at her only moments earlier. His hand shifted around hers, releasing his grip but not his touch. She leaned a little closer to him, unconsciously splaying her fingers across his chest for better balance. She closed her eyes.

"What's all that yelling?" said a voice from the next room. "I told you I heard them fighting all the way outside."

Hermione and Ron sprang apart as if a dung bomb had just gone off between them. Only a second later, Fred and George walked into the kitchen. George was holding a small box, and he set it on the table. Hermione licked her lips self-consciously and stared at the ground, afraid to look up at Ron.

"I don't know how you two have stood all these years as friends when you can argue like that," said Fred, picking up one of the books from the table. "What's this? Studying for your NEWTs already?"

Hermione snatched the book from him. Even without having finished seventh year himself, it would only take a moment for Fred – or his twin, for that matter – to realize that Darkness Within: Harnessing Your Most Powerful Energies would certainly not be included in their year-end exams. How stupid it was of them to parade the books around like their mission was no big secret!

"From the sound of it," piped up George, opening up the package he'd brought in. "There wasn't any actual studying getting done."

"Oh, shove off," said Ron, apparently having finally found his voice.

Hermione snuck a glance at him, but he didn't meet her eye. Damn the twins for their interruption. She'd been this close to finally making Ron take action. In fact, she'd been farther than close. He was about to kiss her; she just knew it. And now it would probably be another year before she'd gain back the ground she'd just lost. If it hadn't been for the possibility of upsetting Mrs. Weasley, she would have seriously considered murder as an option right then.

"Now, now, Ronnikins," George said as he sat down at the table in front of the open box. Hermione could see that it contained several little glass vials all separated by cardboard dividers. "You wouldn't want to go storming off before you see what we've brought to show you."

"It's our best invention yet," said Fred with a nod. He pulled out a chair on the other side of the table and motioned for Hermione to sit. She raised an eyebrow at him, but sat anyway.

Ron rolled his eyes, but he put one hand on the table and leaned in to watch as George pulled a bottle out for them to see. The liquid inside the bottle – for it appeared to be a potion of some sort – was neon green, almost phosphorescent in the afternoon sunlight that streamed through the kitchen windows. Hermione picked it up and turned the vial around in her hands. "What is it?"

"We're calling it Morph Potion for now," said George, pulling out another bottle. This one was blood red. "Though it will certainly need a better name before we can market it."

Hermione set the potion down and wrinkled her nose. "What sort of unnatural creature do these turn one into?"

The twins exchanged a knowing look, as if they'd expected her to react that way. She wasn't surprised; if she was predictable, they were ten times more so. "Dearest Hermione, this is much more than a simple trick transfiguration," said Fred with a wide grin. "Actually, it's our own special blend of Polyjuice Potion."

"Polyjuice?" said Ron. This time it was his turn to look at the potions in disdain. "What would you want to sell that stuff for?"

"Why, for the money, of course," said Fred, shaking his head in exaggerated disbelief. "Besides, who wouldn't want to show up at the Halloween costume ball dressed as their favourite rock star?" He held up the green bottle. "Or…Professor Snape." He plucked another bottle from the box, this one filled with pitch-black potion. "Lasts a lot longer than the other stuff, too. Twenty-two hours is our record so far, but we're determined to break twenty-four."

"You've actually got it pre-bottled like that? But how do you preserve the essence? Better yet, how did you get Snape to let you use him?" Hermione stood and moved around to their side of the table where she could get a better view of the boxes. She was all too aware of how close she was standing to Ron, and could have sworn he moved a few centimetres in her direction. Whether by chance or intention, she didn't know, but when she felt Fred brush her other arm as he squeezed in beside her, she was grateful for the distraction.

"Well, our exact recipe is a strictly confidential company secret," George said with a sly grin. "But let's just say we concocted a way to eliminate the individual physical ingredient portion of the potion. Guaranteed to be completely Snape-hair free! It not only extends the shelf-life, but also the duration of the effects."

Hermione opened her mouth to ask another question, but then screwed up her face in confusion. She looked back and forth between the twins a few times before finally saying, "I'm impressed."

Fred's grin grew so wide that she was almost afraid he'd split his face open. He leaned down and kissed her quickly on the forehead. She was so surprised at this movement that she almost didn't notice him holding out his hand in front of George. The latter twin, who had begun packing the potions back into the box, reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful of galleons, and dropped them in Fred's hand.

"What was that for?" asked Ron. For the first time since the twins had arrived, he looked at Hermione. She shrugged.

"Fred bet me twenty galleons that we'd win you over with our brilliant potion-brewing skills," said George to Hermione, a wry smile on his face. He placed the lid on the box and stood up, giving her a little bow. "I apologize for my lack of faith in you."

Hermione giggled a little as the two turned and started out of the kitchen. Outside the confines of school, the two really were much more bearable. Out here, the only rules they tended to break were Mrs. Weasley's, and that was usually pretty funny if you weren't in the path of her wrath. She could almost forgive them for interrupting what they had. Almost.

"What was the counter bet?" she asked, suddenly curious. She stepped into the doorway to gaze into the living room after them.

The twins stopped and exchanged a look. It was really creepy to consider exactly how much information the two of them were probably passing to each other in that one motion. Fred gave her that huge grin of his again. "George bet me that we were gonna walk in on the two of you snogging." He raised his hand in an imaginary toast, looking into the kitchen behind her. "So thanks for continuing to be a clueless dunderhead, little brother."

With that comment, they walked out the door and were gone. Hermione couldn't move, knowing that only a few feet behind her was the last person on earth who'd give her the time of day after that little speech. Fred and George had really gone and done it this time. She'd thought their handy little bit of potions work had given them a reprieve from punishment for their timing, but now she wanted nothing more than to curse them both into oblivion. How was she ever going to face spending the summer with Ron now?

She felt a hand on her shoulder. Taking a deep breath, she slowly turned to face him. Might as well get this over with now, she thought. But the look on Ron's face was not exactly what she expected. In fact, she could have sworn she saw a hint of a smile. Not the full-face smile that he got when playing Quidditch or winning yet another chess game against her, but there was something there.

"Think we should call them back and make Fred give George his money back?" Ron asked. Now the smile went all the way up to his eyes.

She opened her mouth to respond, but he silenced her with a kiss.

Author's Note:

/swoon...Don't you just adore Ron? )

Well, this started out as just a fluff piece intended to give me a break from the serious topics addressed in The Secret Heir (my other current story, co-written by rainbowwisher). However, it soon developed a mind of its own and has become a Hermione-centric AU book 7, which is REALLY not something I ever pictured myself writing. It's good fun so far, though. I hope to focus more on the romance element than in the other story, and while the group's Horcrux search will be covered, it won't be as much of a focus as in a straight up canon-based "book 7."

I hope to update with a chapter per week. I'm a complete review whore, though, so your encouragement helps me write faster. No joke. My goal for this story is 50-75,000 words (unlike SH, which should be more in the 120,000 word range).

And if you haven't checked out The Secret Heir, please do. (Did you catch all those subtle plugs?) It's going to be well worth sticking out to the end.