According to Plan
Fred's lips were soft and smooth as they crushed against hers with a fervour that Hermione had never experienced before. After that initial onslaught, he pulled back a little. Not enough that they lost contact, but just a teasing amount so that it was as light as a breath. Without even thinking about it, she rose up on her tiptoes and deepened the kiss again. His hands immediately moved up from her arms to the back of her neck where his fingertips dipped into her hair.
This was Ron kissing her, in body if not in mind, except it wasn't Ron at all. The tentative nature of the kiss faded away after only a few seconds, and his lips caressed hers as if he wanted nothing more than to provoke the little sigh that escaped her before she could stop it. There was nothing greedy about it, nothing possessive. She had been so surprised by Fred's sudden action that she wouldn't have known how to react anyway, had thinking even been possible. This was no tongue tangling, groping-in-the-closet sort of kiss. And it was the nicest one she'd ever had.
When they finally pulled apart, everyone was staring at them, mouths gaping, especially George. Hermione knew she was flushed, and not just out of embarrassment. She clung to Fred and buried her head against his shoulder. She knew a lot about a lot of things, and was rarely afraid to speak her mind, but somehow being in that position in front of all those people rendered her completely speechless.
"Now, if anyone else is thinking about insulting me or my girlfriend by doubting my feelings," Fred was saying beside her in an excellent imitation of Ron's nastiest fits of temper, "I'd suggest you reconsider."
Sometime in the middle of his speech—or the snogging, for all Hermione knew—he had drawn his wand. He wasn't pointing it at anyone, but had carefully concealed it against his thigh. She had no doubt Malfoy had seen it, however, because the blond boy took a step back from them, eyeing their audience carefully.
"I suppose you deserve one another, then," said Malfoy in an unreadable tone.
"More than you deserve to be here," replied George coldly.
The others were looking on the scene with either undisguised interest, or obvious fright. The latter were older students who knew the trio and their nemesis pretty well, at least by reputation. And there was nothing safe about Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy being in a duelling mood. It was probably a really good thing that Harry wasn't actually at the school right then, because having an excuse to hurt Malfoy sounded like something he would have welcomed.
"Come on, Hermione," said Fred, and she was surprised to hear his voice sounded as unsteady as she felt.
They moved through the small crowd without even acknowledging Malfoy again. Fred's arm was looped around her waist, and she was glad for the additional support. Her hands and just about every other part of her were shaking uncontrollably by the time they reached the common room. A lot of faces turned to look at them as they entered. Neville jumped up so fast that Hermione would have smiled at him if she could have found the capability.
"What's happened, Ron?" he said, the concern evident in his tone and expression.
"It's alright, Neville," said George, putting a hand on their friend's shoulder. "She's just a bit shaken up."
"Shaken?" said Ginny, looking worriedly over the top of her Potions book. "Looks more like she's been in a duel." She discarded the book on the table next to her and stood. "Merlin, Hermione, I haven't seen you so worked up since that night this summer."
Hermione knew exactly which night she meant—when Harry had returned to the Burrow after a near-death encounter with Voldemort and the Death Eaters—but she found it utterly ridiculous to be comparing this moment to that one. She'd only been accosted by Malfoy and then kissed by Fred, all in all not much worse than the average day at Hogwarts in this time of war. But no matter how lightly her mind could take the situation, gloss over it, her body's reaction was much more severe. Why couldn't she stop trembling?
By sheer force of will, she pulled herself out of Fred's grasp, tentatively testing her legs before letting go of him entirely. "I'm fine," she said, and put on a big smile. "Doesn't hurt to play the victim a little, show some of the first years just how vile Malfoy is. I think we did pretty well, don't you, Ron? Got him right sorted, and I didn't even have to take house points."
Fred smiled, too. "Next time he says anything like that to you, I'll skip straight to hexing his bollocks off."
"You'll do no such thing," Hermione said, but she stretched up and gave her fake boyfriend a kiss on the cheek and stopped long enough to whisper something in his ear. "You were brilliant. I think we'll soon have the whole school fooled." Then aloud she said, "I think I'll have a short nap. Don't forget our N.E.W.T. study session tonight."
She heard groans behind her as she climbed the stairs to the girl's dormitories without another glance at the group. Any other time she would have turned right back around and told them exactly what she thought of their attitude toward such an important thing in their lives, but it seemed so inconsequential right then. Just the simple knowledge that N.E.W.T.s were truly the last thing on her mind made the whole situation seem even worse. This was her future, and yet she was more worried about surviving long enough to use her test scores than she was about the scores themselves.
She flopped onto her bed, glad that her roommates had not chosen that afternoon for a gossip fest, which meant their room would be uninhabitable for several hours, and usually drove her to the library. Assured by the emptiness of the room, she pulled out Ron and Harry's letter once again, reading it over and over. Maybe a visit was exactly what she needed. She'd been on edge all day; it was the only explanation for her body's reaction to Malfoy's torment.
And then there was the kiss. It had been…nothing short of wonderful, if she were to be honest with herself. Fred had obviously had experience in that arena, and he hadn't held back in the least. The way his lips had effortlessly coaxed hers into a response, the way everyone else seemed to disappear as she was totally absorbed by the lightest touch of his hand on her skin. Hermione had lowered the letter closed her eyes before she even realised it. She snapped back to attention.
Yes, she definitely needed to see Harry and Ron. If nothing else, Ron would be able to drag her off to one of those broom cupboards on the third floor where she always seemed to find snogging couples while on patrol. A few minutes of fumbling around in the dark with him would be able to wipe all thoughts of that kiss out of her head.
There was a knock at the door, and Ginny first peeked her head in and then came in all the way, shutting the door again behind her. She was carrying a large book bound in pink leather that reminded Hermione a lot of the genre of reading her roommates would prefer. Probably a fluffy, romantic novel about some witch who was forced to marry and eventually fell in love with her brash-yet-annoyingly-handsome husband. She wasn't surprised that Ginny would have such a book, but it didn't make it any less humorous.
"Are you all right?" Ginny asked, sitting down on Lavender's bed. She studied her friend for a second before adding, "You don't seem upset. You actually look…happy. Was all that really an act?"
Hermione covered her mouth in surprise. Had she really been smiling so big? She shook her head and swallowed a giggle as she said, "I'm fine. I was a little shaken, but Ron handled it."
Ginny snorted. "Yeah, I'm sure Ron was absolutely brilliant. What happened anyway?"
"Malfoy," Hermione said with such venom that it practically hung in the air like a poisonous cloud. "I only hope that he continues to draw attention to himself. Eventually he'll slip up in front of a professor if we're lucky."
Ginny nodded. "I thought as much. Still…are you sure it wasn't anything else?" Her eyes narrowed slightly. "One of those things you're not bleeding allowed to tell me?"
"No, that's all. He's following us and causing trouble. Why?"
"Well, it's just that Ron is in a right foul mood," she said, face scrunched up. "But in a completely un-Ron way. I mean he's being so quiet." At Hermione's look she added, "Well, yeah, he's quite fond of the silent treatment, to be sure, but usually he's banging around books and slamming doors and just generally making sure everyone knows he's mad, even if he's not talking to you. But today he's just sitting there."
"What about Harry? How does he seem?" Hermione's mind zoomed from one possibility to the next, but she couldn't really place what about the encounter could have bothered Fred so much. Had she missed something Malfoy had said or done in her righteous anger? She wanted to immediately go down to the common room and drag him off to talk about it, but she still wasn't sure her legs would hold her.
Ginny glared at her. "Well, if I was paying any attention to how Harry Potter seemed, I would say he was quiet but not sullen. But since I'm not, you'll just have to ask him yourself."
"You really shouldn't give him such a hard time, Gin."
"I bloody well should! Why's everyone so understanding of him when I'm the one who's been jilted?"
Hermione sighed. "He's got a lot more important things on his mind right now. You know that."
The other girl snorted and climbed off the bed, her long hair swinging wildly as she turned back to face Hermione. Her face was calm, but there was something off about it, like a watched pot that hadn't quite managed to boil. "But I don't know it. I don't know anything about it. I'm too fragile right? No one bothers to notice I can take right good care of myself without sodding Harry Potter's help." She stopped and took a deep breath, and when she continued her words were smoother and less frenetic once again. "But I have a plan, so don't you worry a bit about Ginevra Weasley. I won't let a little thing like being gutted by the man I love stop me."
"Ginny…" said Hermione warningly.
"No, Hermione, don't even try it. You have your little secrets, and I have mine."
The look on the girl's face was one Hermione had seen on many occasions, and she knew there was going to be no convincing her to speak on the subject any more. If Ginny was planning something to do with Harry, then it could mean nothing but trouble. They were going to have to be on their guard. For a split second, she almost considered telling her everything. But if her friend had such a strong reaction when she didn't know anything, there was no telling how she'd be after learning the truth about what Harry and Ron were doing. No, it was best to change the subject.
"Speaking of secrets," Hermione said, a sly little grin creeping onto her face. "What's this book you've got? I thought you'd finished your assignments already."
The trademark Weasley blush spread across Ginny's face, and she quickly hid the book behind her back. "Nothing. Just a little leisure reading. You aren't the only one who's allowed to read for fun, are you?"
Hermione stood and walked toward the girl, smile growing as she said, "Oh, come on, Gin. What's the plot of choice? Maybe he's her brother's best friend, and he's never seen her as anything but a little girl? Or were they required by law to marry? Perhaps she's pregnant after a one night stand?"
By the time she got to the end of her string of questions, Hermione was chasing Ginny around the room trying to grab hold of the book, and they were both laughing so hard they could barely breath. Ginny was shrieking so loud that it was surprising no one had come to check on them yet. Finally, Hermione was the victor, and she grabbed the book and ran back to her bed.
"Bound by Marriage," Hermione read.
"Arranged marriage," explained Ginny, a sheepish smile on her face.
Hermione heard the words, but her mind had been sucked into an entirely different chore. Bound by Marriage. It made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and she couldn't quite place why. Was there something she should remember, something important that those words indicated? Ginny was giving her a strange look, but she couldn't say anything. It was going to drive her mad if she couldn't—
And then suddenly she had it. She leapt off the bed, only pausing long enough to say, "You have no idea how much you just helped us, even not knowing what's going on."
She dashed down the stairs, thoughts running at a thousand kilometres an hour. When she reached the common room, her mind briefly registered that Ginny was right; Fred did seem unusually quiet sitting in his chair scratching out an essay as the others laughed and cut up rather than worked. George threw him a glance, but went right back to telling some sort of animated story. She didn't have time to worry about what was bothering, nor that her two confidantes were surrounded by half a dozen other Gryffindors.
"I've figured it out," she said, walking straight up to Fred. He looked up at her, surprised at her sudden appearance. "Marriage!"
The rest of the group went silent. Only George made a sound, laughing and saying, "I wouldn't say no, Ron. She's apt to curse your bollocks off."
Hermione turned back to glare at him. "I'm not talking about getting married. I've just figured out a tactic for my independent studies project, is all."
Fred's eyes widened, but he smiled so slightly that the others would like not notice. "But it's Saturday, Hermione. Do we really have to work on your dumb project today?"
"I have no idea how you ever managed to make it to seventh year with that attitude, Ronald," she said with a huff. She looked at George. "I could use your help as well, you know. If you can spare a little time from your audience. You know where I'll be."
She barely had to wait for a minute outside the portrait hole before both Fred and George followed her. They eyed her with equal curiosity and confusion, and Hermione thought she could still read a little something else in Fred's eyes. Worry, maybe. But he smiled and grabbed her hand.
"Come on, Herms," he said, batting his eyelashes. "You know you can't stay mad at me. After all, you find my obliviousness and inconsiderateness adorable."
"Thank Merlin I don't have actually put up with that right now," she said, but she smiled sweetly at him and squeezed his hand. "Come on. We've got a lot to talk about."
They started down the stairs, but she stopped suddenly for a second to turn back and glare at him. "But call me 'Herms' again, and I really will hex you."
Wow, you guys have no idea how much trouble this chapter gave me. Eventually I just had to turn off my internal editor and write the damn thing, so I hope it worked for you. I can only pray that the next chapter won't be quite as difficult. Next we'll get a little visit from Harry and Ron, so we'll see how much more complicated that makes things. :-)
Thanks for being so patient everyone!