Chapter One – The Volunteer
The war was over. Voldemort was gone forever and Harry Potter was a newly-minted Auror, fresh from his eighteen-month stint at the Auror Academy. Ron Weasley, his best friend had also just finished and was second in their class next to a very surprised Neville Longbottom. Harry had been ranked somewhere in the teens, despite every one's expectations, and explained this occurrence with a noncommittal shrug when asked. The real reason had been a closely-guarded secret and he wasn't about to mope at their finishing party – which was where he was, presently trying to ignore the other Weasley in his life.
Ginny was flirting outrageously with Neville in the Burrow's back garden. It had been festooned with various decorations that Harry was sure were stunning and should have imbued everyone with a sense of accomplishment and pride. Harry felt none of these things as he watched his recently ex-girlfriend chatting up the number one Rookie Auror. The only reason Harry hadn't beaten his good friends in their class standings happened to be the short redhead that had captured Neville's attention. Apparently, Harry just wasn't a good enough kisser for her.
"Cheer up, mate," Ron said from beside him and thrust a frosty Butterbeer into his hand. "There's other fish in the sea and Merlin knows they'll be happy to take the bait you're offering." He waggled his eyebrows for effect and Harry let out a morbid sigh.
"Whatever you say," Harry replied and took an obligatory sip from his beverage. Being honest with himself, Harry had to wonder... if his kissing prowess with Ginny had been so abysmal, and even he could admit his experience with Cho before her was horrible... he wondered if he wasn't doomed to being alone for the rest of his life. Who knew that being a terrible kisser could cause such misery?
"Well," Ron said, breaking through Harry's train of depressing thoughts. "I'm off to sample the female population myself." He rubbed his hands vigorously and eyed the crowd of witches that had turned out for the party. Eighteen months of solitude during their training period with no break longer than a weekend had built up a hearty appetite in all of them, but Ron most of all. It was too bad Ron's relationship with Hermione had never taken off past their jealousy and Bludger-like flirting. He had a feeling they would have ended up killing each other anyway.
Suddenly, Ron's eyes went wide. "Oh, no," he said and ducked behind Harry. "I didn't know she'd be here."
Harry had been about to ask 'who', when the object of his fright appeared from behind a knot of recently-former seventh-year Hufflepuffs. Luna Lovegood was walking serenely in Harry's direction, her ever-present radish earrings dangling from her lobes and her periwinkle dress robes bedecked with several dozen Drooble's wrappers that were tied in knots along the hem and sleeves.
"Hello, Harry," she said dreamily. "Would you mind if I had a word with Ronald?"
Smirking despite himself, Harry stepped to the right and revealed his best friend, ducking in a low crouch.
"Hey!" Ron said with mock indignance as he stood. "Some friend you are."
"Don't be a coward, Ron," Harry said and took another swig of Butterbeer. Something about witnessing Ron's plight made his own fade a little. "Just remember to be a gentleman."
Ron's ears went pink as Harry grinned and backed away from the couple. Luna moved in and started to say something that Harry was glad to have not heard. Judging by the fact that Ron's face turned the same colour as his ears, Harry was sure that Luna was typically getting right to the point.
Not wanting to return to the party, where he was sure Ginny and Neville were either snogging or about to (and thus bringing up the very thing Harry wanted to forget), Harry decided to check on Molly. The Burrow was his home away from Hogwarts, and now that he was both finished with school and a full-fledged Auror, Harry was a bit out of sorts as to what he was going to do with himself. Get a flat? Find a roommate? Ron was the obvious choice, but he knew that with both of them being Aurors, it would be rare if they would ever be there at the same time. Wherever he lived, being alone was not going to be part of the package. He'd had enough of that growing up with the Dursleys.
As Harry walked into the kitchen, he nearly ran into a familiar brown-haired witch, carrying a tray of treacle tart. "Oh!" she said and flashed a patient smile. "Didn't see you there, Harry."
He didn't move, but Hermione edged a foot around his leg and nudged him out of the way. "Can't talk now. I've got to deliver these. Catch me up later? We'll talk then."
Not knowing what else to do, he nodded and watched her walk toward the crowded refreshment table. He hadn't seen her in a year, since they'd had a common weekend off last September – the weekend she'd broken things off with Ron and they'd agreed to just be friends. Her work as an Unspeakable was classified, so he didn't really know what took up her time, but he knew she'd never looked happier. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he turned and walked into the kitchen.
Molly was in her element. Puddings, sandwiches, sweets, and various finger foods were being made and eaten in almost equal proportions. Harry had always associated happiness with Molly's cooking, and watching her whip up a batch of cucumber sandwiches pushed the loneliness even further away from him.
"Need a hand?" he asked as a pot zoomed from its rack on the wall, over his head, and onto the stove.
"Sorry, dear," she said and a creamy, white liquid poured from her wand into the pot. "Didn't see you there." She flicked her wand at the hob and it ignited. Then, she summoned more ingredients, and set them in the pot, humming all the while.
He watched her work, thinking she hadn't heard his question, when she pointed to a tray full of sandwiches. "Take those out to the party for me?"
Grateful to be of some use, Harry pulled his hands out of his pockets and grabbed the tray. "I'd love to."
He made it to the door, the tray balanced on one hand held slightly above his head, when he almost ran into Hermione once again. "Sorry," he said as she ducked around him. They brushed against each other in a very innocent manner, much like they'd done a thousand times in the corridors of Hogwarts, but there was something about the way she smiled at him as they caught each other's eye that made him think twice about it.
"Sorry," she echoed and slipped back into the kitchen.
The next hour consisted of many of these moments as they both ferried food and drinks to the party-goers. If Molly was upset that he, a guest, was serving the others, she made no indication of it. Instead, she seemed delighted with the help, and Harry was more than willing to be busy with something that didn't involve brooding.
During their doorstop interludes, Harry made it a point to really look at Hermione. She looked very much the same, but her hair was somehow more tame than he remembered. Her eyes were just as bright and inquisitive, but they seemed a bit more... wise was the only word that came to mind. Even that seemed inadequate to describe everything that was there, however and he found himself wanting very much to know what those things were.
Just as the last dessert tray was carried out by Molly, who had finished cleaning the kitchen with a few well-placed charms, Hermione stepped back into the Burrow. Her face was flushed and she was slightly out of breath. "Now, what did you want to talk about?"
Harry motioned for them to take a seat at the table and held out one of the chairs for her. She gave him an odd smirk, but took the proffered seat nonetheless.
"It's been ages," he began, sitting in the chair next to her. "Since I've seen you, I mean."
"Has it been ages?" she asked, her eyes surveying him carefully. "It seems like last month. Things have been so busy at the Ministry..." Her face was arranged in a contemplative look. "I guess it has been a while. Almost a year?"
"Yeah," said Harry, who felt suddenly nervous.
She continued to stare at him. "You look good. Auror training has been good to you."
Harry snorted and looked at his hands, which were folded on the table. "I wish I could say I felt good."
There was a subtle change in Hermione. She touched his hand and when he looked up, the careful gaze had been replaced with concern. "What's happened? Is it Ginny?"
He nodded. "We broke up."
She squeezed his hands and cradled them with hers. "I'm so sorry. I know you were close at school."
He shrugged. "I thought so, but I guess she's been holding back telling me I was a horrible kisser all this time."
Harry could tell that she was restraining a smirk, but he could only tell because he'd seen her do it a hundred times. "It's not funny, Hermione," he said, though a grin crept into the corners of his mouth as he said it.
"No," she agreed. "It's not. It's horrible, as a matter of fact." Then she withdrew her hands and sat back in her chair. "Though I can completely understand her dilemma."
"You can?" asked a very surprised Harry. He had no idea about Hermione's kissing ability, but he was certain that it far outstripped his own. From what he understood, she'd had a fair number of boyfriends after Ron.
"Oh, yes. Kissing isn't everything, mind you, but it's certainly important that both parties enjoy doing it. Otherwise..." She trailed off, and Harry knew exactly what the consequences could be. "But Harry... she never said anything about you being... well, bad. And both of you were so happy. How did you find out?"
Harry hung his head. "You remember the first time we kissed, right?"
"After the last Quidditch game?"
He nodded. The last Quidditch game played while they were at Hogwarts. Ginny had caught the Snitch and in a fit of pent up attraction, mixed with the excitement of winning, Harry had snogged Ron's sister. He'd thought it was one of the most amazing experiences up until that point in his life. Too bad she hadn't felt the same way.
"Well, we left to take a walk around the grounds. I just wanted to kiss her some more, but she had it in her mind to talk instead." He shook his head at the memory. "I should have known then that it was doomed."
Hermione snorted and he was surprised to see a smirk on her face. "I'm so sorry, Harry. But you'll have to forgive me if I don't indulge in a small bit of joy from your predicament."
"But..." Harry began in confusion. "I though you wanted Ginny and I to get together?"
"Oh, when you first kissed I was quite happy for both of you. I could tell you'd fancied her for a while and if kissing Ginny Weasley was what you needed, then I was all for it."
Harry thought he detected a hint of bitterness in her voice, but it could just have been a tired edge instead. They had just been on their feet for the better part of two hours and he was feeling a bit weary himself. "So then why are you thrilled with my being ditched by Ginny?"
She smirked again. "Because this is just the opportunity I've been waiting for, Harry. You are an abominable kisser, but it's only because of lack of proper training. Ginny couldn't be bothered with teaching you and Merlin knows Cho was still too weepy over Cedric to fuss with kissing techniques."
Harry's head was spinning. Not since she had quoted his speech to the D.A. in sixth year had he realised just how closely Hermione paid attention to him. It was extremely disorienting to have his best female friend be so observant about his personal life. "If it's just lack of training, then..." he said as a very sudden, very foreign thought occurred to him. "Who do you think has the time and the inclination to train me?"
Hermione leaned across the table and patted his shoulder. "Meet me at my flat tomorrow night and we'll talk about it some more." She stood, ran her hands over her hair and walked out of the kitchen.
Staring at the empty seat where Hermione had been just a moment before, he blinked a few times and wondered exactly what they'd be discussing the following evening.