Disclaimer : JK Rowling owns Harry Potter and his wonderful world. We gain nothing but enjoyment from writing and reading about the characters she created.
Chapter 1. The Red Haired Man
"No!" He woke up screaming, clutching his head as a blinding pain seared through it, as if trying to prevent it from exploding. He was sweating on this wintry night.
It took quite some time for him to finally get his bearings back and walked to the bathroom. The room was pitch black but he had no trouble finding the faucet and turning it on. His face welcomed the splash of cold water.
He successfully willed the light around the mirror to turn on and looked at the man that stared back at him. He ran his fingers through his unkempt red hair trying to make it go the other way without much success. His brown eyes were bloodshot. It was 4am and he had just two hours of sleep.
For the third time that week, he had a nightmare. All he could remember was what woke him up; a woman screaming in the background, a flash of green light, and a man falling back; a red-haired man with blue eyes and a surprised look on his face. Then as the red-haired man's eyes closed, he could hear a woman's voice, she was crying, almost whispering, "Ron…no…"
He looked at his reflection, focused and intense in concentration. Suddenly, his image on the mirror changed; red hair to jet black, brown eyes to green, nose shorter and lips fuller. Finally, a lightning bolt-shaped scar appeared on his forehead. Harry Potter thought he looked awful.
The nightmares were keeping him awake at night and Quidditch practices were tiring him out during the day. He must have been too weary to morph himself back after coming home from the pitch last night. Harry couldn't really remember. The American World Series was about fourteen hours away and when he should have been worried about how to hang on to the broom and hopefully catch the snitch in his current physical state, the recurrent nightmare was not allowing him to get any rest at all.
He remembered how as students he and Ron aced dream interpretation through morbid creativity. Too bad he did not really have the gift of the inner eye. He was not sure if he was dreaming the past, the present or the future. Needless to say, a crying woman voice in the setting of a green flash of light was a dream he disliked the most.
He went down two flights of stairs and found himself in his basement laboratory. He took a sip from a flask with puce potion sitting on the counter and felt slightly less anxious. Sitting behind his big oak desk, he opened the bottom drawer and pulled out a picture with three laughing figures. It was taken after his and Ron's graduation from the Auror Academy, about two years ago. Ron and Hermione were in an embrace, laughing with him, what about he could not remember.
Despite his calming tonic, Harry could not stop worrying about Ron. And that voice was unmistakably Hermione's. He had not seen nor spoken with them for close to two years. They were in London. Ron was an Auror and Hermione, an Unspeakable for the Department of Mysteries. Harry was in the Bronx, seeker for the New York Skewrts. At least on the roster, red haired Philip Horton was.
Morphing was a skill Harry learned privately through Tonks during his last year at Hogwarts. It was common knowledge that metamorphosis was a skill that one was born with and could not be learned, but he always was quite uncommon. Without it, he would not have been able to do what he had done; make Harry Potter disappear from public view. And most all, in combination with the non-traceability charm, he had disappeared from the people he considered his family. It helped that he remained unregistered.
Deciding quite soon after the first nightmare that this was not due to stress, he poured over his subscription copy of the Daily Prophet for any news about deaths and injuries. He went as far as reading obituaries. Thankfully, there was nothing. But he had to be certain.
Harry, until his recent dreams, had no real intention to communicate with them. He needed more time away as he was not quite ready. After several attempts he finally attached a letter for Ron on Hedwig's leg.
I know it has been ages. How have you been?
"Find him, Hedwig. I need to know."
Hedwig was delighted and flapped her wings. She rarely was sent on such errands anymore. It was going to be a long trip, and Harry did not expect Hedwig back until the next day.
He shoved the photo back into the bottom drawer, which was filled with many similar notes to the Weasleys, to Ron, to Hermione, all crumpled and unsent. He missed them more than anything. But he had to leave; not only because of what he had done, but more so because of what he knew he could have done had he stayed.
Closing his eyes, he hoped for some respite from the nagging desire to reminisce the events of those last few days. It was pointless. All this time he had tried, but had never had success banishing the memory into the deeper recesses of his mind. Harry relented, allowing his mind wandering back to that fateful day two years ago that changed his life…
"Harry! Harry! Wake up!" Ron shook Harry from deep slumber.
"What time is it?" Harry asked, rubbing his eyes and putting his round-rimmed glasses on. He realized he was in Ron's room in the Burrow.
"Don't know, late morning," Ron sat on the opposite bed. "We haven't much time to get ready for the ceremony. It's not everyday one graduates from Auror Academy. And, also tonight's definitely the night, Harry. Tonight's the night I'll do it!"
Ron was giddy with excitement and Harry knew what this was about. He had heard this before. He sat up on the bed and made better effort to appear attentive.
"Are you sure this time?"
"Definitely! I'm popping the question tonight. And I need to practice how to say it. Which sounds better, 'spend the rest of your life with me' or 'be mine forever'."
Harry wasn't sure why Ron thought his opinion was of value, considering Harry had never been proposed to before, nor had he ever proposed to anyone.
"The answer is 'no, thank you'. I'd much rather spend my life alone than be with you forever," he jested, then seeing the crestfallen image of his best friend at the possibility of her answer indeed being that, he retracted, "Just like I told you the ten other times we talked about this, either would be fine, both if you want."
"I just want to get it right the first time," Ron said anxiously.
"Whatever you do, never share that thought with her. She might misunderstand and think you have the intention of asking the question more than once in your lifetime. If that happens, it will definitely be the first and last time you are going to ask that question!"
Ron threw a pillow at him, "Useless git of a friend! Come on, let's get something to eat."
Harry followed Ron down to the kitchen. The Burrow had not changed much since he first came the summer prior to his 2nd year at Hogwarts. Mr. Weasley still worked at the Ministry. Mrs. Weasley was off shopping for baby clothes that morning with Ginny. She and Dean were pregnant with twins, who were threatening to come anytime now. Bill and Fleur lived in France now and were raising three very active boys. Charlie was now Head of the biggest dragon reservation in Romania. Fred and George were busy with their joke shop and were branching into the entertainment business. Percy was still working as an assistant to the Prime Minister, Rufus Scrimgeour.
It was peacetime, four years after Harry vanquished the evil wizard Voldemort. It was no longer vogue to be a Death Eater, and nobody with sense would admit to supporting the use and propagation of the Dark Arts. Hogwarts re-opened its gates that following year, allowing Harry and his classmates to graduate and take NEWTs under Headmistress McGonagall.
Following Professor Dumbledore's death, Ron and Hermione finally gave in to their attraction to each other. While not as overtly physical as the Won-Won affair with Lavender, Harry suspected that they were, as a courtesy to him, just not flaunting their relationship. If that was the case, it was definitely Hermione's idea.
"When is Hermione coming?" Harry asked as he flicked his wand to put together a tuna sandwich.
"She'll meet us at the Ministry. She's working late again," Ron answered glumly, with an obvious hint of disapproval on his voice. Harry noticed that lately, Ron was increasingly frustrated and disappointed in not being able to see Hermione or talk with her. She was now a full-pledged Unspeakable at the Department of Mysteries; she really could not talk about work. And because she was spending so much time at work, she didn't do much else that they could talk about.
"Don't give it away when you see her, okay? I want it to be a surprise."
"No worries mate. You'll get cold feet anyway, like the countless other times you said you would do it," Harry countered, hoping Ron would take a hint. He did not have the heart to tell his best friend to abort.
After their Hogwarts graduation, Hermione broke Ron's heart by telling him she did not wish to be an Auror, hence would not be joining him and Ron in the Academy. Instead, she chose to train in the Department of Mysteries, the youngest witch ever accepted. Not that the Ministry could refuse; Hermione aced all her NEWTs and was the most sought-after recruit after Harry. With Hermione busy in her training and Ron busy with school, Harry sensed that the relationship had become somewhat strained. In the past few months, a Hermione sighting in the Burrow was a rare event indeed.
Harry had a feeling that Hermione stayed away on purpose. She rarely spoke to Harry directly anymore and rarely was alone with him. She also started arguing with Ron at every opportunity. In fact, Ron's previous attempted proposals were preceded by verbal wars such that Ron always forgot about what he was set to do. Their relationship, during the past couple of years, had so many valleys; he could not fathom why Ron would want to ask her to marry him. Yes, granted that Ron was a bit dense sometimes, maybe Ron thought the proposal would make it all better. Maybe, Hermione had been expecting a proposal and had been miffed at Ron for the delay.
Ron maybe read his mind. "I know it hasn't been great lately, but I can't imagine life without her, Harry. I have to ask and if I crash, then at least I tried."
He sighed and nodded, "She might go for that line."
Harry did not look at Ron as he secretly hoped he was wrong about that. He, too, could not imagine life without Hermione. And because life without her was a certainty for him, at the moment he could not imagine having a life, only an existence. He was hopeful that, eventually, as he had been able to do after Ginny, his heart would allow feel that way for someone else, someone who would have the same feelings for him.
Harry fell in love with Hermione their final year at Hogwarts. In the three years since, Harry thought he would lose his mind. He was thankful that she stayed away, but that made him yearn to see her more. He was unhappy for Ron's misery when they had a fight, but overwhelmed with joy thinking he might have a chance. He was relieved Ron and Hermione were not overtly intimate, but still overcome with jealousy whenever they were together. Ron was definitely in love with her. He was almost certain that despite their recent troubles, she loved Ron too. His only wish was that the gnawing pain in his chest whenever he saw her would stop.
That final year in Hogwarts was the worse year Harry spent there; ironic that it would happen when Voldemort was gone. Harry spent less time with Ron and Hermione, though they tried their best to not make him feel left out. Ginny broke up with him that year too; devastating because Ginny was Harry's first true love.
Depending on who you asked, the reasons for Ginny's and Harry's break-up varied. Ron said it was because Ginny was fed up with all the women who threw themselves onto Harry. Hermione believed it was the pressures of the constant spotlight brought upon their relationship. Ginny just wanted a normal life and could never have one with Harry. Harry felt Ginny just realized she did not truly love him.
With no evil wizard to battle and no muse to inspire him, Ron theorized that Harry was depressed for most of that year, as evidenced by his spending a lot more time in the library. Ron saw Harry there because he spent a lot of time there too; he did not have a choice!
Hermione took up his 'cause' as she did before for the house elves and for Buckbeak. She convinced Harry to go on double dates with her and Ron, finally giving up on the fifth one, after Harry and Ron kept laughing at the fact that Melissa, the 4th year Hufflepuff who had passed Hermione's stringent approval process, kept on fainting every time Harry addressed her.
It was during those double dates when Harry realized he was attracted to Hermione. It wasn't just a physical one, though Hermione was beautiful. He loved being with her, her personality and quirks and how she was passionate about almost everything. From the start he tried to undo his feelings and discourage it. He purposely avoided being alone with her and busied himself with studying and Quidditch. He even asked Tonks to teach him how to morph to kill time not thinking about her. But despite all that, the physical and emotional attraction only grew stronger, and he was powerless to stop it.
That was three years ago.
The graduation that afternoon was well attended. There were ten other Aurors in Harry's class. The ceremony was finally over in two hours. Harry thought it should not have been such a big deal, but apparently was for most.
The Weasleys were all there. Moody, Remus and Tonks were also in attendance. Harry saw Hermione slip into the room just as Ron was being announced. She took his breath away. Then it came; the skip of a beat and a gnawing pain in his chest. She caught his gaze, waved and smiled at him. He smiled back. It was sheer torture.
The Department had that year started a tradition of hosting a dinner and dance for family and friends after Auror graduation. Never in the history of the Auror Academy had they graduated more than three. This year, it was being held in a Wizards-Only bar restaurant called the Screeching Moon a few blocks from the Ministry. It was a chance for the seniors to get to know the rookies. No wonder their class had been a relatively big one, the war with Voldemort had depleted its ranks, and while there were not a lot of openly practicing dark wizards anymore, the Ministry had to maintain constant vigilance.
After a pleasant dinner came the dancing. Ron and Hermione took to the dance floor and seemed like they were having a great time. Maybe, tonight was the night as Ron had said. He half-wished Ron would succeed tonight, maybe that would make this pain go away. And maybe, it would give him that finality that he would never be with her and there would be hope for him in the future to find a woman interesting enough to have a meaningful relationship with. He so longed to have the intimacy the couples around him had.
"Wotcher, Harry," he heard Tonks say as she sat beside him. "I think it's only Ron who hasn't noticed you looking at Hermione."
He smiled at her weakly, thinking he had to ease up on the alcohol and find something else to do.
Tonks must have read his mind.
"Can you dance with this old lady? I'm afraid Remus might not last through one."
He did not care for dancing, but relented to Tonks' request after seeing that Remus did indeed look peaky that night following a full moon.
"Only if the old lady doesn't mind being stepped on a few times," he said to Tonks.
She laughed. Tonks was beautiful and tonight she came pretty much without any disguise except for looking a bit older than she really was, to prevent people from mistaking Remus to be her father.
She took her wand from her purse, made sure no one was looking and waved her wand at her feet, "There. Steel-toed boots but light as a feather. That should work!"
It was getting deeper into the night and firewhiskey was flowing freely from the bar. Tonks and Remus were saying goodbye, and so were the Weasleys. Ginny took him aside just as she and Dean were leaving.
"Can you take Hermione home?"
"Why, where's Ron?" he surveyed the bar. He did not see him, or Hermione. Worried, he asked, "Is she alright? Where is she?"
"There's a backroom through that corridor; Unspeakables use it," she motioned to the hallway right behind Harry. "She and Ron had a row and he left quite upset. She knows she can't handle firewhiskey and I don't think she's in a state to apparate by herself, though you might have difficulty convincing her."
"What did they fight about this time?"
"I've been with her for the past hour and she wouldn't say. Was he attempting a proposal again?" Harry nodded. "Well, she's been arguing with him just to prevent him from asking so that's probably what happened."
Harry had this puzzled look on his face. "Why would she do that?"
Ginny shook her head, "Sometimes you can be so dense. She doesn't want to say 'yes'."
"Then she should just say 'no'."
"Harry, she doesn't want to say that either."
Harry was more confused.
"Sorry Harry, no time to explain, and I don't think you will ever understand anyway. It's one of those things only women can figure out. So you'll take care of her?"
"Of course," Harry answered. He waved to Ginny as she disapparated back to the Burrow.
Harry found Hermione just where Ginny had said he would. She was by herself, staring at a half full glass of firewhiskey. An almost empty bottle was beside it. Seeing her that way broke his heart.
"Had enough of this place? Ready to go?" he took the glass from her hand and set it aside.
She looked up. Her brown eyes were dry but could feel them weeping. They were so sad, and he wondered how they got that way. A feeble smile curved around her lips.
"Ginny put you up to this. I told her I would be fine."
"Yeah, she thought otherwise. And don't even think about convincing me not to take you home," he interrupted as he saw Hermione about to argue, "I don't want to get in trouble with her. Her hexes are in overdrive being pregnant with twins and I think she would welcome any excuse to use them."
She laughed, left a couple of galleons on the table and waved to the bartender.
"Thanks Tom," she said, obviously frequenting the place that they knew each other.
"Take it easy," the man replied.
"Nice man, Tom," Hermione told Harry as he helped her into her cloak, "He was a wizard, you know, lost it all when he lost his love; really sad story. I feel like a walk tonight, do you mind?"
Her apartment was only a few blocks away.
"I don't mind," he replied. It meant it would give him more time to be with her.
They stepped out on the street and walked side by side in silence for a couple of minutes.
"How have you been?" Harry broke the stillness. He missed having talks with her.
"Busy and miserable," she said half-jokingly, grinning to herself.
"You sound quite pleased that you are," Harry recognized an opening to ask, "Do you want to talk about Ron?"
He looked to his left to gauge her reaction. She looked back at him, smiled, and shook her head.
"I'll spare you the ongoing saga, but I appreciate you asking."
She moved closer to him and held his arm as they continued to walk.
"Do you want to talk about work?"
"We could, but I'd have to obliviate you right after."
They both laughed. They talked about the graduation, about Ginny's pregnancy and how she was driving Dean, and everyone else in the family, crazy. They talked about their other Hogwarts classmates and where they were. Time went by so fast. About half a block away from Hermione's apartment, they were interrupted when a woman's voice called out, "Harry, Harry Potter!"
Both Hermione and Harry turned around, hands on their wands and ready. A beautiful blonde woman with long hair approached them. She stopped in front of Harry, looked at him seductively and placed a calling card in Harry's hand.
"Call me when you're done with her so you can be with a real woman."
Both Hermione and Harry burst out laughing, and Barbara's (the blonde woman) face became deep scarlet. Harry put the card back into the blonde woman's hand, still laughing.
"I'm so sorry, but that's the most ridiculous pick-up line I've ever heard! Thanks. And by the way, my friend here is more woman than you'll ever be."
Hermione snatched the card back and put it in Harry's pocket, "Oh, don't be rude Harry," and turning to Barbara, "He does need a real woman, he'll come around in a few days and give you a call, hopefully you won't be as angry with him then."
Barbara stormed off into the darkness still fuming, leaving Harry and Hermione still laughing. They began to walk again.
"Harry, she was obviously a fan. How could you crush her hopes and dreams just like that!"
"Actually, don't you remember the last time I didn't do that and went out with a fan? It ended very badly. But what have you done with my friend? The old Hermione would have never allowed me to hook up with some girl who walked up to me in the street! Are you sure there is nothing in your mind screaming to get out saying 'she could be diseased, she could be the Bellatrix Lestrange incarnate' because I can hear you in mine!"
"Nonsense! How could you pass up someone that ballsy and attractive? I know you haven't had a serious relationship since Ginny and that's a shame Harry. You have to move on."
"I have moved on," I just haven't moved on because of you, he thought. He felt the need to steer the conversation away from current topic. "So, you mean to tell me that you would go out with a total stranger you met on the street who hands you a card and tells you he would be more man than Ron?"
"Absolutely!" she said in a heartbeat.
"Yeah, right," he doubted it.
"Haven't been proven wrong yet. By the way thanks for trying to defend my ego, 'more woman than you'll ever be'?" They were both laughing hard now that they were waking up a few drunks on the sidewalk.
"Well, she was really stupid insulting you like that. She should really thank me for saving her the fate of Lestrange, what did the healers call it? The Granger Curse?"
Hermione feigned shock that Harry could think she could do something like that, "How even more insulting for a friend like you to think I would curse anyone who insulted me! By the way, it was way too funny to be insulting."
Finally, they were just outside Hermione's apartment building in downtown London. Harry looked at the time-teller in the lobby. It was 2a.m.
"Why don't you stay? No use waking up Dobby at this time of the night."
She was right. Despite Harry constantly telling Dobby not to meet him on arrival at Number 12 Grimmauld Place, because he was a free elf, he could do whatever he wanted. And besides, he was having too much fun with her he really did not want the night to end.
She nodded to the concierge and walked to the elevators with Harry. The building itself was owned by the Ministry and boasted of anti apparition security and other impenetrable charms. Being an Unspeakable had its perks, Harry thought. The Ministry thought they had enough on their minds to constantly think about where they were. For Aurors, they preferred to have them live with all of that to maintain their edge all the time.
Hermione lived on the 5th floor; a good-sized pad with a couple of bedrooms. The living space appeared barely lived in. Hermione's bedroom seemed hardly used either. She had converted the other room into an office and that, he saw, was where she spent a lot of time.
From his previous visits to her pad with Ron, he learned that Hermione preferred to live there without, as much as possible, performing magic. She said it kept her grounded to her Muggle parentage and she also did it to remind herself of her parents. She lost both of them the year before to a skiing accident during one of their vacations.
"The couch is really comfortable. I've broken it in myself," she said handing Harry a couple of pillows and a blanket she had taken from the nearby linen closet.
Harry suddenly felt tired but still disappointed Hermione seemed ready to turn in for the night.
"Thanks," he replied and she began to walk into her bedroom. An image of him walking in to follow her flashed into his mind and he quickly shook it off.
She turned to face him at the doorway and asked, "Is there anything else that you need?"
She looked so beautiful and so vulnerable; yes, he did need something else. If you could only read my mind, he thought as he saw an image of her undressing and coming to him.
He had had so many impure thoughts about Hermione, his best friend, over the past couple of years that he no longer chastised himself each time he did it. He figured that since he would never act on it, it shouldn't and wouldn't make him feel guilty.
Finally disrupting his revelry, he said to her, "No, thanks. Good night."
"Good night. And thanks for taking me home."
Harry nodded and lay on the couch. He heard the shower come on and listened as he heard her in it. More impure thoughts were overcome by an intense desire to close his eyes and rest, thinking, he should have just gone home and woken Dobby up.
Then he dreamed. He was with her, in the shower, naked. She had her back to him and he was kissing the length of her neck, he saw her smile as she turned and they kissed on the mouth, full of deep longing. They could not stop, not even to breath, as if afraid that the dream would end when they did…