dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
- the big sleep, raymond chandler
"You look awful."
Hermione frowned. She knew very well what she looked like, without Ron's help. "Thank you," she said dryly. "Want me to comment on your appearance?"
Ron rolled his eyes, stepping past her into her flat. Harry followed behind him; he looked at her closely, making her uncomfortable so she huffed and turned around. Having set his stuff down on the table, Ron was pawing through her cabinets, emerging with a box of biscuits, one already in his mouth. "Yech."
"They're sugar-free, Ron," she told him. She put the box back and grabbed a bag of baked crisps for him instead. He shrugged and sat down.
Harry sat beside him, gazing up at her intently. In her current mood, Hermione wanted to snap at him. Partly. Another part wanted to tell him everything that had happened. She missed him, as crazy as it was with him just an apparation away. He was her best friend and she was holding so much back from him.
She knew what he'd say of course. Why didn't she go further back, tell him about the Horcruxes sooner? Why didn't she save everyone?
Not that it had been up to her. It was her older self that had sent her back, that had sent her to the battle with one clear instruction and an unbreakable vow, with no time to think. If she'd had time, she would have planned something - anything. Perhaps used a shield charm to keep the rocks from falling on anybody. Maybe told Harry where the diadem had been the second she realized where she was. Hermione had always prided herself on being logical and rational, but the pure energy she'd been running on that night had canceled all that out.
She'd done what she had promised: she saved Fred, no matter the cost. And now she didn't know which end was up.
They studied for a few hours, poring over charms books and practicing on the various items littered about her kitchen. Ron, realizing that she wasn't in the best of moods, was uncharacteristically quiet. They plodded through, reminding her of the times they'd tried to study together in school after a bout of bickering on two of their parts. It wasn't long at all before Ron announced that he'd had enough and decided to wander over to the joke shop to see what Fred and George were doing.
She tidied up in the kitchen, even though it didn't really need it, and made a half-hearted attempt at dinner. She asked Harry if wanted to stay, but he didn't answer.
Turning, she frowned at him. "Harry - are you listening to me?"
He doesn't answer, not really. Instead, "You've been crying."
A small bubble of panic formed in her chest. She thought about denying it, or just begging off an excuse of not feeling well, or having read a sad book, but she just… didn't want to.
So she compromised.
"It was being at the Burrow," she said. "I haven't been there in a while…" Harry nodded. "It was hard, being there. I just," she took a deep breath, "I feel really, really guilty about what happened to Percy."
Surprise glittered behind the round lenses of his glasses. He stood, walking over to where she was standing in front of her stove. Harry placed a hand on her shoulder and licked his lips - a habit she'd long ago learned was his way of taking a moment before speaking when he didn't want to let on that he was nervous or unsure. "Hermione," he said slowly, "what happened to Percy wasn't your fault."
All at once, her eyes filled with tears as though she had turned on a faucet. "Yes it was. When I pushed Fred out of the way, those rocks fell on Percy-"
"They were standing right beside each other; it could have been either one of them," Harry reasoned. "They weren't paying attention to a wall behind them, they were focused on the people throwing curses."
"And Percy making a joke," she said. A chill swept over her, remembering with a shocking clarity the eerie image of Fred, dead with a smile on his face. It was one she feared would never leave her.
Harry smiled, though it was a small, somewhat sad one. "Yeah."
She sat down. Wiping at her eyes, Hermione flicked her eyes up to Harry. He was so certain. If he only knew, what she'd done…
Ron popped back through the door, and she schooled her features quickly. Ron was a bit thick when it came to emotions, but even he would notice if she had tears running down her cheeks. He walked in, scowling though, both of his hands holding bulging, bright magenta Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes bags.
"What's the matter?" Hermione asked him.
"Fred," he muttered, and Hermione felt a slight grip of panic. "He was in a right mood."
Peering into one of his bags, Harry remarked, "Couldn't have been too bad, for him to give you all this."
Ron flopped down onto Hermione's couch, placing the other bag on the floor in front of him to go through it. "I think he was just trying to get rid of me. George said he's been awful all week."
Guilty, Hermione turned back to the stove and started fiddling with the knobs. She remained silent, listening to the two of them discussing the various contents of his bags, and then Fred's bad mood. Ron's voice began to gain momentum, and she recognized the beginning of a full fledged rant coming on, so she went on with her cooking and tuned the two of them out. Then they went silent and, out of curiosity, she turned around.
In the ten plus years that Hermione had known Harry and Ron, she'd seen them both wearing basically every conceivable expression. But just then the two of them were both sitting completely silent and stone-faced, looking down at the floor. "What is it?"
"Fred's bad mood," Harry said, gently. When she didn't respond, he went on, looking just a touch nervous. "Tomorrow is Percy's birthday."
Tentatively, Hermione raised her hand and knocked on the door. She heard the faint sound of bare-feeted footsteps before the door swung open. "Hey, Hermione."
"Hi." She forced herself to keep her eyes up, looking George right in the eye instead of averting her gaze the way she wanted to. "Um, is Fred here?"
"Yeah." He stepped back, allowing her entrance into the twins' flat. She'd waited until Harry and Ron left, heading off to dinner at the Burrow, before she made a beeline to the shop and caught Verity just as she was locking up. "He's in his room." George caught her arm as she headed toward the hallway. "Word of warning: he's been a total git the last few days. Don't let him get to you."
She offered a small, entirely false smile. "I won't."
As George wandered into the kitchen, Hermione took a deep breath and headed for Fred's room. There were only two bedrooms in the flat, but she figured the one with the open door was George's so she knocked on the other door. Not surprisingly, there was no response. "Fred," she called. Still nothing. "Fred, I'm coming in."
He was stretched out on his bed, hands behind his head and staring up at the ceiling. He made no move to acknowledge her presence and Hermione frowned. She let a few seconds pass before taking a step closer to the bed. "Fred, I know you're upset with me-"
"It's not all about you, Hermione," he spat, still not looking at her, though a flush of anger had risen in his face. He rolled over, turning his back to her.
Through a flare of her own anger and embarrassment, Hermione took a few deep breaths and tried to remind herself that he was hurting. So instead of aiming a punch at him like she was considering, she kicked at the mattress with all her might. It gave a great jostle and Fred fell with a thump to the floor.
Face as red as his hair, he stood up. His mouth was nothing more than a thin white line on his face and his eyes were wide glittering blue orbs in his face. "What the bloody hell was that for?"
"I know what tomorrow is, Fred," she said, watching his eyes flash and he swallowed hard. "And I know I'm probably the last person you want to talk to," she fought against the swell of tears threatening to clog up her throat, "but I happen to care about you, you big idiot, and I'm not going anywhere until I know you're alright."
Several awkward, painfully tense moments passed. The two of them stared at one another in silence. Hermione was afraid that she had been right and she really was the last person he wanted to talk to. Finally, Fred took a deep breath and shuddered out, "Didn't anyone tell you that it's impolite to call people names?"
Hermione laughed in relief. "Well if it walks like a duck…"
"Yeah, yeah." Fred sat back down on the bed, scooting until his back was against the headboard. He waved a hand at the edge of the mattress, silently inviting her to sit. So she did, fiddling with the buttons on her coat instead of looking at him.
"When we were kids," he began, "Percy was… fantastic. Really." Fred's voice got hazy, reminding her a bit of Luna, as he got lost in his memories. "Bill and Charlie were away at Hogwarts, and Ron and Ginny were too little to play with us… so it was just us three. Then he started school and he was determined to beat Bill at everything, to get some of the glory Bill had always gotten and he just… he changed." His voice caught. Hermione looked up to see his hand covering his eyes and his chest rising and falling with a series of quick, shallow breaths.
Fred was - or was about to start - crying. The fact sent a bolt of shock through Hermione unlike anything else she'd ever felt. Fred was generally so unflappable, and as upset as she'd seen him get on various occasions, she never thought she would see him like this. She'd only ever seen two men cry: Harry and Ron, and those times were nothing like the one she was currently in.
Crawling up to the head of the bed, Hermione gently pulled his hand away. Lacing her fingers with his, she leaned her head on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. She didn't know what else she could say - there wasn't anything else she could say, not without admitting everything and she wasn't prepared to do that.
"It should have been me."
Hermione's head shot up. She stared at Fred, her mouth hanging open. She was certain she must have looked ridiculous but didn't care. "Fred, you don't mean that."
"Yeah, I do." He looked at her; Hermione saw that his eyes were shiny with unshed tears, lashes stuck together in starry points and it broke her heart. "Percy was going to have a great life. We all knew that. He was going to go up through the Ministry, probably marry some brilliant girl and have a whole houseful of genius babies." Hermione thought, briefly, of Audrey. Percy had brought her to dinner the week before Hermione had been sent back and she wondered what would happen to her now.
Fred went on, bitter smile on his face. "I saw Mum yesterday. God, she was a wreck. All this time she's seemed so strong but it was just a front. Percy was her favorite-"
"Your mother loves you all," Hermione interjected. Having seen firsthand the kind of anguish that Molly Weasley felt over losing Fred, she knew that there was no way she could ever have loved any one of her children more - not more than Fred, or any of the rest.
"But she was so proud of him." Of course Fred would argue with her, even now. It was just who he was. "And he'd finally come around. After so long-" He broke off. His voice was fully clogged now, and he pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. "I don't want you to see me like this."
With tears of her own welling up, Hermione landed her chin on his shoulder, leaning her forehead to his cheek. "It's okay to miss him," she whispered. Her throat closed up over a lump that had lodged itself firmly in front of her vocal chord.
She felt like dirt. This was all her fault. Through her own selfishness she'd brought this on Fred. On all of them, all the people she loved. And this was just another a painful reminder of a life that had slipped away.
No. Not slipped, stolen. By her.
"What can I do?" she asked. She wound her arms around his, squeezed. "Please tell me how I can help."
Fred shook his head. His hands dropped to his lap and he gifted her with the tiniest of smiles. "You don't have to fix me, Hermione."
"I'm not trying to."
He pulled himself loose from her grasp. He took hold of the hem of his shirt and pulled, using it as a makeshift handkerchief to wipe at his eyes. After a few deep breaths, he turned back to her. "Well, either you're trying to fix me or you're trying to take advantage of me in my moment of weakness."
Hermione laughed; it was one of those sad watery laughs that was more about relief than anything else. She squeezed his arms again, the closest thing to a hug she could manage in their current position. Resting her head in the crook of his neck and shoulder, she concentrated on trying to calm herself down before she spoke.
Fred made a scoffing noise in his throat. "Knew it."
Smiling, Hermione simply held on.
The bed beside Hermione was still warm when she woke up, an odd coldness having roused her from the warm, deep sleep she'd fallen into.
She certainly hadn't planned to fall asleep on Fred's bed, but it had happened. And she was fairly positive that Fred had been beside her, telling her stories about Percy that she never would have believed, when she drifted off.
Taking one brief, silly, moment for self-indulgence, Hermione turned her head and took in a full deep breath. The smell that she'd always associated with Fred; sugar and parchment and what she suspected was probably gunpowder, invaded her senses. It was a combination she expected came from all the hours he spent concocting whatever popped into his head, a smell that was distinctly Fred and had clung to him - and only him - as long as she'd known him.
But, she reminded herself then, in this direction there was danger.
Finding her shoes (When did she take them off?) at the foot of the bed, Hermione crept as silently as she could manage through the flat.
Fred was asleep on the couch, his long legs askew: one dangled over the sofa arm and the other grazing the floor. His arms were flung over his head, dangling over the other end of the couch. His lips were parted slightly, moving with each exhalation.
Hermione felt the corners of her lips turn upwards. Fred actually looked… innocent when he was asleep. She suppressed a laugh. Fred was many things, but he was never innocent.
Then, like somebody had switched on a television, she was assailed with the only other mental picture she had of Fred looking so peaceful and still.
Feeling slightly nauseas, she tip-toed out of the flat, trying to hold back the urge to stay and stare at Fred just to prove to herself that he was fine.
There was a veritable carpet of daisies covering the area in front of her door the next morning, a large vase full of flowers sitting in the middle, and three chocolate lollipops attached to her door.
As she was leaving Flourish & Blott's that evening, Hermione heard a whistle behind her. Fred was leaning against the wall of Ollivander's across the street, grinning at her.
And embarrassingly, Hermione felt her stomach flutter.
It wasn't the most convenient thing in the world, that was certain. Though it had only been a recent realization, admitting to herself that she had feelings for Fred had changed everything she had thought she knew. And the physical attraction was the biggest challenge. Reason was enough to keep her from acting on her growing feelings - as was that picture of Fred lying perfectly still that lingered in the back of her mind - but whenever she would let herself entertain the ideas, she lost all sense of her reason.
And it wasn't as if that was all there was to it. Fred was, she realized, actually very likable. Having been so focused on school and trying to stay out of trouble (when she could, thanks to Harry and Ron) she hadn't really noticed it when she was younger. Not that she disliked him. No, she just… hadn't known him, not really.
Now though, now she knew him. And she liked him.
A great deal.
"Hi," she said, in a voice she hoped didn't betray her. "What are you doing out here?"
Fred shrugged. "I was on my way back from Gringott's, saw you through the window." He grinned at her, peeking into the bag she was carrying with her. "They paying you in books now?"
With a shake of her head, she laughed. "No. I doubt that would pay my rent. I just thought I'd take advantage of my employee discount."
"'Bout time," he teased. "Anything racy in there?" Seeing her blush hotly, he beamed at her and produced a familiar-looking chocolate lollipop from his pocket. "Guaranteed to put you in a good mood for at least an hour."
She narrowed her eyes at him. No matter what else had changed, Hermione knew better than to accept any sort of food from a Weasley twin without caution.
Seeing her suspicion, Fred held a hand over his heart in mock offense. "I'm wounded, I truly am. I'll have you know that these aren't even on the shelves yet. You're getting quite the scoop here." He waggled it in front of her face. "We used Honeyduke's best chocolate and everything."
Gingerly, Hermione took it, eyeing it as if some nefarious secret was about to pop through the wrapper and announce itself. "I'm not going to sprout feathers or a tail, am I?"
It was extremely obvious that Fred was trying not to laugh or make some inappropriate joke. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that she recognized and he was biting his lip so hard she was afraid it would start bleeding. "I promise," he said after a few seconds, voice heavy with repressed laughter, "that will do nothing but make you highly chipper. Honest." He took a step closer and lowered his voice, eyes intent on her face. "It wouldn't be very smart of me to ply you with trick sweets when I'm trying to convince you to go out with me, now would it?"
Feeling the flutters in her stomach start up again, Hermione ducked her head, twisting the stem of her lollipop between her fingers. "That might explain for all the flowers I found outside my door this morning."
He beamed down at her. "I was rather proud of that. But I take it you didn't try the candy yet?"
Shaking her head, Hermione peeled back the wrapper. She knew she probably had very little to worry about… but being cautious was part of her nature and she let herself briefly wonder whether or not Fred could have added in a few drops of a love potion or something similar.
(It wasn't necessary, but she wasn't ready for him to know that yet.)
Taking an experimental bite, she waited for any odd feelings to occur. Nothing did. Fred looked impossibly pleased with himself.
He fell into step beside her, asking her about her day and her plans for that evening (giving Crookshanks a bath and then revision) and being uncharacteristically attentive. And then…
"So, you have any plans for tomorrow?"
Startled, Hermione came to a stop in the middle of the street. The man walking a few paces behind her carry a tower of cauldrons in various sizes nearly knocked into her. She apologized, turning back to see Fred looking at her expectantly. "Fred, I don't think this is such a good idea."
"No, it's not," he said. "It's a great idea."
Exasperated, she laughed. "Fred…"
They had reached her building by then. Hermione set her bag down at her feet, moving off to the side of the door so as not to block it - and in case anyone they knew might happen by. Pushing her hair behind her ears, Hermione shook her head, trying to let the rational 21 year old adult side of herself do the thinking and not the 18 year old who was in danger of letting the euphoric feelings of infatuation overtake her good sense.
"Answer me something," Fred said, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest.
He tilted his head to one side, his expression soft yet somewhat guarded as he asked, "You do like me, right? I mean, it's not all in my head or anything?"
Mouth suddenly dry, Hermione swallowed. This was it. One beat, one breath, one small moment in time where she knew this had the potential to forever change her life and for a second she thought of Ron; she remembered their time together in what she had come to think of as her 'other life' in snapshots - tiny, perfect moments that she held tight inside, locked in her heart, safe from the reality of her life now.
Hermione was never the little girl who believed in fairytales. She didn't expect a Prince Charming, was never worried about evil step-mothers. And then Hermione fought in a war. She lived her life on the run, never knowing from one minute to the next whether she was going to survive the night. She had seen real evil and still managed, despite everything, to believe in happy endings. Because, through her friendship with Harry and seeing what he'd gone through, she believed in destiny. And for a long time - longer than she cared to admit - Hermione also believed that the working hands of fate had designed a future she could see arranged in front of her like the constellations of the sky for her where she got that happily ever after.
And Fred was not the Weasley she'd always seen in that vision.
That hadn't stop the fluttering in her stomach, or the way she found herself struck by each individual movement he made, cataloguing limb and gesture away like study notes, or wondering at various points in her days what he was doing.
There was a choice to be made here, but could she really do it? Could she look him in the eye and deny that she felt something - knowing that there was something else so much bigger she was keeping from him.
"No," she whispered, "it's not in your head."
At first his face went blank, still, and then a slow smile curled the edges of his lips. His face changed completely she realized. It had always been so unusual to see either Fred or George without the faintest traces of a humor lining their faces that she'd never before noticed just what a difference it made.
(She should have, knowing the look of grief on George's face as well as she did. But in those months, with Fred back, she forgot.)
To dispel the butterflies that had sprung to life in her stomach, Hermione took a large bite of her lollipop and felt the effects finally begin to kick in. A tiny smile of her own began to form. She ducked her head, but peeked back up at him from beneath her lashes. He was still there, smiling and looking at her, hadn't moved an inch.
Meeting her eyes, he nodded towards the candy. "Good, right?"
A snort escaped before she could stop it. She clamped a hand over her mouth, entire face red from embarrassment. Fred doubled over laughing, one hand to the wall to keep himself upright. Huffing, she made to walk past him but he took hold of her wrist and pulled her back.
"Sorry." He composed himself, though his mouth continued to twitch for a few seconds before he spoke. "So… how's about tomorrow night?"
Sighing, Hermione picked her bag up. "Fred, I may be in a magically induced good mood, but I still don't think we should."
"So, you're admitting that you do like me, but you think a date with a bad idea? One little date. Isn't that a bit like showing somebody a big red button that has 'Push Me' written on it and then telling them not to push it?"
Hermione raised a brow. He really was exasperating when he was making sense. "Let me guess; you'd push the button, wouldn't you?"
"Oh yes," he said, bobbing his head. "That's me: Fred Weasley, button pusher."
Bad idea. It was a. Bad. Idea. She knew it. But…
"One date." In response to the enormous smile of self-congratulation he wore, she frowned and snapped, "Quit looking smug or the deal is off."
He merely continued to smile. "I'm not looking smug, this is just my face."
With a scoff, Hermione flounced inside.
Yeah, I didn't really like this one.