A/N: This was a little idea that jumped into my head and demanded to be written, and then morphed itself into its own little story. Not sure yet how long it will be, but it is definitely a few chapters, anyway. As always, this particular story idea is mine, but the characters and world are not.
It was decidedly not the stuff of romance novels. Badly written or otherwise.
Hermione was a realistic girl – woman – who was practical and well-read, even on this subject. Of course, having been caught reading such a book in her fifth year, she was forever after subject to Ginny Weasley's merciless teasing. But she always raised her nose in the air and scoffed when Ginny started in, because she felt it was better to be prepared than not.
She was not prepared.
How could she have been? In her imagination, or in the daydream charms Fred had continued to send her after overhearing her admiration for them (always with shockingly cheeky suggestions attached in his loopy scrawl), it was Ron in her fantasies. The object of her crushes since she was girl trying to find her way through the maze of Hogwarts corridors, the one who caused a rift of unheard of proportions in the sixth year dormitory, the one she'd kissed passionately before heading into battle. The one she'd always rather expected to marry, if she could reconcile herself to the bonding for life that was wizard marriage.
So, given that, how could she have been prepared for his brother?
It didn't take more than four trips off by themselves to an unoccupied bedroom or off to a secluded tree in the orchard before they both realized that their fumbling gropes and awkward kisses were not just the result of newness. It was actually Ron who had called it off, memorably telling her that while he'd fancied her for a long time, snogging her was worse than snogging Ginny. It was a good thing for him he'd managed to snag her wand before saying that. She still punched him. Hard.
He was right of course. They had waited too long, there were too many idealized notions floating about, and too many memories that were more sibling-like than romantic. Though for the sake of neatness, Hermione might have plowed on for a bit longer. There was something neat and tidy about giving her virginity to Ron, and while she couldn't quite see going through with it given that there was no romantic spark at all, she felt rather adrift without the anchor of her crush on him. And if she were honest, a bit embarrassed to have helped bring down a Dark Lord but still be so sexually inexperienced.
It was almost enough to make her wish she'd taken Fred up on one of his ridiculous propositions before the war took them in different directions. Maybe she was just a romantic at heart, but it would have been somehow fitting, she thought. But she hadn't, and he had died, and left behind a very lost twin.
And that was how it all began.
George, at his mother's insistence, stayed with the family at the Burrow, but only for a couple of weeks. Outwardly, he was surprisingly calm, helping with funeral arrangements and sending off Fred in a style he'd have approved of – George wore swim trunks to the funeral, in honor of his brother, and set off the most spectacular fireworks display when the burial started. Everyone remarked on how together George seemed to be, and it was less than a month before George began talking about re-opening the shop that had been their dream. He was adamant that it is what Fred would have wanted. And, he informed his mother, he couldn't bloody well do it at the Burrow, with the potions he needed to keep going to restock fully.
So George moved back into the flat he'd shared with his twin, and quietly broke down there, alone, in private. It was Hermione who discovered his secret.
She floo'd over three days after he returned to the flat with a basket of goods from Mrs. Weasley, who was certain that her Georgie wasn't eating well on his own. Ron and Harry were off meeting with Kingsley Shacklebolt about starting Auror training without their NEWTs and Ginny was volunteering at Hogwarts, assisting in the rebuilding efforts. Hermione offered to take the basket out of boredom and to share a strange idea she'd had with George.
He was sprawled on the sofa in the lounge, pissed beyond belief. No fewer than four empty bottles of Ogden's best surrounded him. It was clear from the stale, unwashed smell and stubble on his cheeks that he'd not bothered with showering since his return, and Hermione wondered how he'd managed to drink so much without being sick.
She gaped at him, unsure whether to cry at the sight before her or begin lecturing. George blinked at her through bleary, bloodshot eyes, and spoke in a raw, raspy voice unlike the strong charming sales voice she was used to hearing.
"What're you doing here, Granger? Mum send you to child-mind?" he slurred.
"She sent some food with me, but I came on my own. Have you eaten anything?" she tried hard to keep from sounding chastising or condescending. She knew how much they – he – hated that.
"Not since . . . yesterday? The day before? Dunno. What day is it?" he drawled.
"Right. Been awhile. Not hungry. You can leave the food in the kitchen if you like." He closed his eyes and laid his head back on the pillow.
"I don't think I could leave you here like this, George," she said softly.
"What're you going to do with me, Hermione? Nurse me back to health? Convince me life's beautiful and well worth living even without the person who loved me and knew me best in the world?" His voice had turned mocking. "I'm not a damned house-elf, or a little firstie who needs sorting and protecting."
"Of course you aren't," Hermione said crisply. "You're my friend, and you're grieving. You managed to hold it together far longer than anyone expected, so this isn't surprising. It's not particularly good for you, but it's not surprising."
"What, no lecture on irresponsibility?" George merely sounded tired now.
"No. You're a grown man. I don't think you'll find Fred in a bottle of firewhiskey, and I don't think it will stop the pain, but you have to decide that for yourself." Hermione sat down in the armchair near George's head.
"And just what would you know about it, Miss Prefect? Read it in a book?" There was a definite edge now, a firm anger in his tone, but his eyes glittered with tears.
"I don't know what you're going through, not exactly. Fred wasn't my twin brother, he was only my friend. But I sent my parents away to keep them safe, and they don't know I exist. I made that choice knowing if we won that they would never know it. They are alive, for all the good it does me," she said, bitterness evident in her voice.
George sat up, but immediately clutched his head. "Not a good idea," he groaned. "Going to be sick." Hermione quickly conjured a basin and shoved it before him just before he retched. He vomited up enough that it seemed to Hermione he might have taken a Puking Pastille, and she was disgusted at the warmth of the bowl she held, and the smell of the vomit, and sound of it, but what else could she do? He needed someone, and she was here.
When he seemed to have finished vomiting, he raised his head, and looked blearily at her, skin still greenish and pasty. Hermione quickly vanished the basin and it's contents, grateful to be rid of it, and in their place, she conjured a towel, which she wet with water from her wand and handed it to George.
"Here. That might help. You'll probably feel better with a fresh breath charm too, mind. Do you have any hangover potion, or do you want a sobering charm?"
"I want to be drunk. I don't want to be sober," he said, in a defeated voice.
"I believe that, but you seem to be out of firewhiskey at the moment," she said dryly. "Now, I'm not your mum, so I'm not going to cluck and scold. And I won't make you do anything, but I think you'll feel better if you sober up, try to eat something, take a shower and get to bed. Besides, I've a business proposition for you, and I want you sober enough to hear it properly. After that, if you want to go buy another bottle and drown yourself, I won't stop you."
George blinked and shook his head. He wondered vaguely if this Hermione Granger were real or if he'd been hallucinating again, as he had earlier when he could have sworn he'd held an entire conversation with Fred over one of the bottles. Fred had teased him when he cried, and soothed him, and finally made him laugh by telling him all the pranks he was playing on people on the other side. It was real enough in his drunken state that he'd have believed it actually happened, were it not for Fred telling him to get to know Granger better, because he wouldn't regret it.
Clearly, he'd been hallucinating then, and maybe he was now. This creature looked a fair amount like Hermione, but was not the judgmental know-it-all girl who had interfered so much with them in school. She was actually compassionate, in her own way. But a business proposition? There was suddenly a chuckle, full of mirth, that he never expected to hear from her.
"I'm beginning to think you don't believe I'm real, George. Come along, hangover potion or sobering charm?"
"Er, hangover potion, in the kitchen, second cabinet to the right. Blue bottle," he said, bemused. If he was hallucinating, she would go away after he took the potion. Whether he was hallucinating or not, he ought to eat, though his stomach clenched at the thought of food so soon after emptying itself of alcohol. Only a hangover potion could help that.
Hermione found the bottle, labelled with Fred's distinctive loopy handwriting, and blinked away tears. She missed him terribly; it was impossible to tell how deeply George felt his brother's loss. The whole time he stayed at the Burrow, he'd seemed so preternaturally calm, almost numb. She felt she ought to have known it would come out somehow. It was no good, him being here in this place that was just theirs, all alone.
Gathering herself, she took him the bottle, unsure of how much he would need, and guessing he would know better than she. He took it, barely giving it a glance, for which she was glad, and drank down half the bottle. The greenish tint worsened, and a sweat broke out along his brow, but within ten minutes, it had faded and he begun to look more normal. Haggard, but normal. He shook his head slowly, as if trying to shake the last cobwebs of drunkenness from his mind, and looked up at her.
"Oh, you are real then," he said, sounding faintly surprised. "I sort of thought I was hallucinating."
"Real indeed. Um, not to be offensive, but you stink, George. Why don't you shower? And I'll start up some soup. Is that gentle enough for your stomach?" she asked, all business-like.
He looked around, a little lost. "I . . . it was a mistake, coming back here," he said in a small voice. "He's still here, everywhere."
Hermione stepped towards him, and smell be damned, wrapped her arms around him snugly; a gesture he returned automatically. "I know. I'm sorry, George." He gave a sort of half-sigh, half-sob, and Hermione moved so that she was sitting beside him, sort of rocking him, as he clung to her and cried as he'd not let anyone else see, wracking sobs of loss and pain that he had held in check while others grieved.
When he was spent of that emotion, he pushed away from her, flushed and embarrassed. George had promised Fred, in one of their few moments of total sincerity when things were bad, but not yet awful, that he wouldn't mourn him like this if he died. But then, he'd never expected that one of them might actually die, or rather, he expected if one of them bit it, it would be him. Not Fred, who was always so vibrant and so alive, not Fred who could've found a way to go on without George. He'd tried, he'd tried really hard. But stepping back inside their flat – the only part of the building the Death Eaters hadn't been able to breach and trash – was a wave of pain he'd never expected. Everything was just as they'd left it, down to the dirty socks Fred always left in the hallway.
Seeing those stupid socks – black and orange stripes, with a hole in the toe – had unleashed the emotion he'd struggled to ignore, and rather than give in, he reached for the firewhiskey to try and drown it. It had worked for awhile, until he imagined Fred visiting him, until Hermione appeared and sobered him up and was so bloody nice to him. George wanted to be angry with her, wanted to yell at her, to give some voice to the anger that still roiled inside him because she was here, and Fred was not, but he was too embarrassed.
Hermione, sensing that embarrassment, returned to her brisk, bright, businesslike manner. Better not to ignore his emotional outburst, better not to pretend it was out of the ordinary. After all, that stoicism had led to this drinking binge of epic proportions, and she didn't want to trigger that anew.
"Right. How're you feeling then? A bit better, I hope," she said, purposefully allowing him to choose his physical state if he'd rather.
Slowly, he nodded his head, still avoiding her eyes. "Yeah, I think I am. I'm, uh, just going to go shower, then. I think you were right, I'm a bit ripe. Frankly, you might need a shower too, after that."
He stood quickly and practically ran down the hall, in his haste to gain some space between them. She cocked her head and frowned at the empty space, before beginning to prepare a simple, easy to digest but nutritious meal from what Molly had packed and what she could rummage through the cupboards. She heard the water running, and soon a vegetable soup was simmering, so she looked around her and grimaced at the state of the flat. Neither Fred nor George had been particularly well known for their tidiness and the haste of a quick removal, three months of disuse, and George's binge hadn't left things in a generally nice state. Hermione had nothing better to do while waiting for George to emerge, and so she began cleaning. Magical cleaning spells were quick and efficient, so it wasn't long before the lounge was tidied and layers of dust disappeared, the empty bottles vanished, the table cleared, the floor gleaming and the stack of inappropriate magazines stacked neatly on the coffee table. She left them deliberately in the open, hoping they'd at least bring some amusement to George's face again. Last but not least, she conjured a small basket and levitated the small pile of laundry into it. A freshening charm finished it off, just as the soup began to threaten to boil.
She was dishing it up into newly cleaned bowls when she heard George pad quietly back down the hallway. Hermione looked up just as George stopped short. His gaze was hard to read, as he looked around him, jaw set. His eyes lingered not on the stack of adult magazines, but on the basket of laundry. Before she could open her mouth to apologize for her overstepping, he said quietly, "Thanks, Hermione. Place hasn't looked so nice since Fred wanted to impress Angelina into his bed. Maybe you could do the loo before you leave. What this, then?"
He sat down at the table, and she set the steaming soup before him, along with a slice of freshly-baked bread. A goblet filled with water stood next to a spoon. He pushed the still wet hair from his face – grown long to cover the hole where his ear should be – and attempted a lop-sided smile.
"Vegetable soup. Give it a try. I'm not a terrible cook. I think you'll feel better for it. And I'm hungry and don't like to eat alone." Hermione caught herself babbling to try and fill an awkward silence, and finally turned her attention to her own bowl. There was quiet, and the sounds of eating.
After a few bites, which stayed down better than George had any right to hope, after the massive amount of liquor and no real food he'd consumed over the last couple of days, he said, still in the quiet raspy voice, "It's really good, Hermione. Thank you."
"You're quite welcome. But you need to eat some more of it. At least finish your bowl, I didn't give you too much. And drink more water. You are no doubt terribly dehydrated."
"What with all the weeping, you mean?" he said, his tone both disdainful and defensive.
"I was thinking more along the lines of the trying to keep Ogden's in business singe-handedly, but yes, tears don't help." She returned to her attention to her soup again, and after a moment, George did the same. She heard his spoon rattle at the bottom of the bowl and looked up, pleased he was done. She finished quickly and whisked away the dishes and set them to cleaning themselves while she fetched more water for George.
He took the goblet with him, and settled into the living room again, studying his feet, eyes occasionally straying to the laundry basket again, filled with sadness and resignation. "You said you had a business proposition for me? Love to hear it."
Hermione perched herself on the edge of the sofa, near George. "You need help to re-open the store. Obviously, I'm not Fred, and can't be. But I can brew potions really well and I'm very good at charms and transfiguration. I'd like to help you, if I could, at least to get re-opened."
George raised his eyebrows. If only Fred could hear this, he'd never believe it otherwise. "I beg your pardon? I'm missing an ear, which must mean I didn't hear you correctly."
Hermione huffed, and rolled her eyes. "You heard me. I'm offering to help out in your joke-shop so you can re-open it."
"But you hate our products!" George protested, confusion evident on his face.
Hermione frowned in her turn. "No, I don't. I disapproved of you testing them on first year students without informing them of the risks. And I didn't like you encouraging students to skive off classes. But the products themselves, well, many of them are quite clever and terribly impressive, creatively and magically. I told Fred that when we visited before sixth year, when he showed us the daydream charms. I'm surprised he never told you."
"He never did, that bastard," George said, a real smile spreading across his face as he shook his head.
"He used to send me daydream charms, you know. I guess that's why I assumed he told you. I should've said something to you before. He'd send five or six at a time, nearly every week, always with a ridiculously inappropriate suggestion. It was sort of nice, especially when Ron and Lavender were together." Her smile was sad, her voice was wistful.
"That was you?" George chuckled. It was a rusty chuckle, sounding weak with disuse, and Hermione realized she had heard no laughter from him since the Battle, before Fred died. "He never would tell me who they were for, and I could never catch him out. He would always just wink and say they were his way of working on a gorgeous witch."
"I don't think he was ever seriously working on me, as you say it. He was a terrible flirt."
George looked pensive for a moment. "It's hard to say, he might have been. He and Angelina were on again and off again. Too volatile for a real relationship, but great for a satisfying shag. He liked you lot, Fred did. May've fancied you, but he'd never have told me if so. Wouldn't have told anyone until Ron made his mind about you. That's the sort of bloke he was, though not many people knew it."
Tears made fresh tracks down George's face, but he seemed unaware of them. Hermione leaned forward and brushed them away with her thumb, a tender gesture that was unplanned. He broke out of the reverie and smiled sadly at her.
"So, my proposition?"
"Why would you be interested? And what do you want?"
"I told you already, I'd like to help. And I can help. I. . . I don't know what I want to do, to be honest. Without my NEWTs, there are fewer options open, unless I want to become an Auror. I just feel that I need some time to think things through, you know? And you're my friend. Seems like you could use me, and I'd like to be used."
George's rusty chuckle emerged again at those words, and Hermione flushed.
"That's not quite what I meant, George. As for what I want, well, a salary, I suppose. It's lovely of your mum to put me up, but I think after everything, I've moved a bit beyond the coddling stage. I don't have any means of supporting myself, but I'd like to be able to get my own place at some point."
"Right. Ok. Yeah, sure. You can help out here if you like." George shrugged.
"Really? Don't you need to, I dunno, think it over or something?"
"Yeah, really, if you like. I don't much care. If you want to help, you're welcome too. Maybe you can clean things up down there like you did up here." George sounded tired, and in fact, he was slumping a bit.
"I can do that," she said quietly. "Look, why don't you go lay down? You're about to fall asleep. And that's probably a good thing."
George sighed. "Don't want to."
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "George, you can't sleep comfortably out here."
"Can't," he mumbled. "Room's empty." Hermione's lips formed an "oh" but it was silent. It was only then that she realized that George hadn't slept by himself in his old room; Charlie had bunked in there with him. Being here, alone, in their bedroom after sharing a room his entire life must be awful.
"Right, I'll stay for a bit, yeah? You need some sleep." The yawn that nearly cracked his jaw made him agree. It couldn't hurt anyway, right? George nodded, and Hermione helped him up. He stumbled a bit as they moved down the hall, and tears returned to his eyes when she opened the door to their bedroom.
They had planned on separate rooms, not long before they'd been forced to flee the flat for Auntie Muriel's home. At first, neither of them really gave thought to separate rooms since they'd always shared, but they'd both realized that it was coming sooner or later. Fred had spent a few nights at Angelina's, and George a night or two at a witch's flat whose face he could remember more clearly than her name, and the brothers talked seriously about the future. Their plans, their fears. That was the conversation when they'd agreed not to mourn each other, and planned out their ridiculous funerals. It had been funny then, he recalled dimly.
Now, George was alone, supported by Hermione and the doorframe, and blinking away tears at the neatly made bed with the gold blanket with a red 'F' in the middle. Their mum had made those. George had his – red with a golden 'G', but refused to put it on his bed, saying he was too old for that. Fred had done though, laughing every time he made the bed at the absurdity of it. He blinked again and became conscious of Hermione's arm around his waist, and of his arm around her shoulders.
He squeezed her convulsively, and whispered, "I can't do it."
She leaned her head into his chest, and hugged his waist more tightly and said, firmly, "Yes, you can. You can, George."
"Stay with me," he said, pleadingly. "Don't leave me alone."
"Of course. I'll stay with you if you like. But you'll have to expand your bed. That is too tiny for both of us."
George shook his head. He fumbled for his wand, and hand shaking, raised it. A muttered incantation, and Fred's blanket was off his twin's bed and folded neatly, and had shut itself away in the closet. A swish of his wand and Fred's bed joined up with George's, and they became one with another muttered phrase. Hermione cast a discreet cleansing charm over the sheets and nudged George towards the bed. He was still shaking, and appeared to be trying not to cry. She walked around to the other side, to what had been Fred's bed, and kicked off her shoes. She magically expanded George's sheets, duvet and cover so that they were big enough for the now king-sized bed, and then slipped in.
George hovered by his side of the bed for a moment, before Hermione caused the bed to turn down. "Come on, George, you can't sleep standing up, and you need some sleep."
Hesitantly, with jerky movements that indicated how unfamiliar this was to him, how keenly his mind protested that it wasn't right, wasn't the way it ought to be, he crawled into bed, beside Hermione. She immediately curled up against his side, offering warmth and human companionship and whatever solace might be had from those. He gave another half-sob, half-sigh, and then the rusty laugh made another appearance.
"Of all the things I'd never have predicted, Hermione Granger in my bed actually tops Fred's death. I swear, Hermione, I'm usually much better in bed than this. Not a weepy mess, anyhow."
"I'm sure you are, George. No worries, I'm not busy making comparisons. Just try and get some sleep, yeah?" He sighed again, but it wasn't long before his breathing evened out and deepened.