A paperweight mug of cold, milky coffee. Books upon books and the sweet slight scent of flowers to counter the smell of mildew. Tall, unflickering candlelight equal parts blue and gold. Reams of yellow parchment spread across tables older than I can guess. A warm, small hand, smooth and soft except for calluses on her right index finger from writing. Ever-present smudge of blue-black ink on the side of her palm where perfect notions are smeared.
My memories of Hermione at school – fond, but platonic.
Skip ahead more than a decade.
If Ron knew how I feel about his wife these days, I'm pretty sure I'd be challenged to a dawn appointment.
I'm twenty-nine going on sixty. My mind feels older than it should and some days my body feels no better. I have a permanent limp in my left leg from a Hobbling Hex treated too late. My knee can forecast pending rain more accurately than any smart-suited, Muggle TV weatherperson. There's grey in my hair. Not the distinguished, Remus Lupin sort of grey, discreetly and fashionably confined to the temples, but the sort of grey that plays peekaboo with my vanity in the mirror. What started out as simple one plus one grey hair-arithmetic has now become exponential.
I'm convinced that in a distant, dusty attic somewhere, there is a magical portrait of me growing steadily younger by the day.
Yes, there are charms, but it's a fact that I have bigger things in life to worry about.
Tom Riddle isn't one of them. Not any more. Five years to the day that I sent that creature to his final place. In an explosive spray of pink mist, no less. Who would have thought that defeated, pulverised Dark Lords were the colour of agitated, red creaming soda? The lot of us showered for two hours straight after, to get the muck off our skin.
And then we hit the pub.
Goodbye pesky Horcruxes! Hello strange, dreary, post-war days and the onset of debilitating loneliness!
There is, unfortunately, no written rule or decree that heroes have to live happily ever after. There is merely a suggestion of a happy ending.
Gratitude is a fragile thing. It's like giving to charity. You have to be in the mood. They gave me my medals and awards and then took a step back to see what else I was going to do.
I made that trip to Godric's Hollow and gave the good news to my parents, personally. Several books were written. Too many interviews to count. Plenty of gossip. There was always gossip
People were thankful enough after Voldemort was gone, but so much had been put on pause for so long that the community pretty much got back to the swing of things post-Voldemort, very quickly. If the average human is a resilient creature, a magical human is resilience on steroids.
After all, the murderous leech had sucked almost half a century from us. We set about reclaiming lost time in a hurry.
My days were spent pleasantly enough in the first few years. Ginny was free to love me and we put our spare time to good and energetic use. I couldn't get enough of her. We made love in all the rooms in Grimmauld place, in the back yard, in her old bedroom at the Burrow and once in the back of a car we rented for a road trip along the western Spanish coast from Valencia to Barcelona. I was twenty-four, had just qualified for my Muggle driver's license and nearly killed us on the road about a dozen times.
Every sunset stole your breath, every inconvenience experienced on that trip was overtaken by the spirit of safe adventure. We held hands everywhere we went and shared everything we ate.
Funny thing about being convinced that your next breath may be your last. Sure, it's stressful and gives you impolite grey hairs that pop up wherever you find the parting in your hair. But it adds a certain sweetness to living.
Everything you experience is magnified delightfully.
During the war, I could swear that Molly Weasley's laundry smelled like no other laundry on the planet. That quick cup of tea Fleur made me on the Saturday afternoon when everyone just happened to be at the Burrow at the same time and we all sat at the table to catch up…wasn't it fucking perfect? Wasn't it simply the best cup of tea ever?
That evening in October when Ron, Ernie McMillan and I ate soggy sandwiches while on stakeout in the rain, in a godforsaken, rain-soaked corner of Taransay Island. Roast beef, lettuce with horseradish dressing and Ernie's opening joke for the evening about how many Death Eaters it took to light a candle.
Was there ever a better evening spent in the history of men?
After the war, the short answer to these questions was yes.
Molly uses Mrs. Duckweed's Jim-Dandy Laundry Conditioner, available at all reputable wizarding sundry shops. I've had many excellent cups of tea since, some made by my own hand. Every single roast beef sandwich I've bought or constructed, soggy or otherwise, has tasted appallingly, well…average.
My memories may have been shiny. My present was not. And the only clue I had as to why, was the fact that death was no longer stalking me at every turn. I had clean laundry aplenty, cups of tea and sandwiches to enjoy for the rest of my days.
I awoke one evening in our bed, to find Ginny sitting up against the pillows with her knees drawn to her chest, crying quietly, but not so quietly that it couldn't have awakened me.
She wanted to talk.
There was apparently a reason why she hadn't married me yet, even though we'd been engaged for over three years. Yes, I thought. We weren't in any rush and Molly had been happily planning a Weasley wedding almost every year since Voldemort's death. I liked to joke with Ron that Ginny and I were waiting for a free slot to open up.
But Ginny was not in a joking mood. My heart became this heavy, weighted thing as she spoke.
She didn't feel the same, she said. She was convinced I didn't either. There was no point deluding ourselves or denying it any longer.
My pride forced me to not immediately disagree. What was she on about? I hadn't been thinking any such thing! She had become my life, but perhaps that was the problem. Ginny never wanted to be with me because she was the centre of my universe.
She had done so because I was me.
But apparently, I wasn't me any longer. Fuck knew who or what I had become.
She left me. Must have been thinking about it for a while too, because she seemed to know exactly what she was willing to leave behind or take with her. That kind of packing takes some thought.
The tapestry in the front room from Professor McGonagall went, as did the silver tea service that had been an engagement present from her mum. Books, clothes, little knickknacks I took for granted disappeared off the shelves. I hadn't noticed how much she had nested at Grimmauld Place until I was confronted with a home stripped bare until it became a house, and little else.
She left all the framed pictures on the walls and mantle, though. School snapshots, family pictures, Weasleys, Weasley babies, my parents, her parents, Ron and Hermione's wedding, Remus and Sirius. My parents' wedding. A lovely, large, black and white portrait of a snoozing Albus Dumbledore.
I wish she had taken all of them.
I cried. To this day, I am still ashamed to admit this. I cried in our bed that still smelled of her perfume. I floundered, buoyed by anger and resentment. And then, I sank. Didn't care too much about resurfacing, really.
Enter one Hermione Weasley, nee Granger.
She came through the front door, a maternal whirlwind, with food and sympathy and nagging and wonders upon wonders, a iTV/i.
It was all calculated.
The television actually snapped me out my doldrums for the short while it took for Arthur and me to install an electrical socket, tinker with it, read the manual and work out how to tune the thing. She knew I wasn't much for reading and didn't push it after I steadfastly ignored the stack of Michael Crichton novels she 'casually' placed around the house.
"I thought you'd like his stuff," she'd muttered.
I didn't tell her that I had read Jurassic Park and that was only because I kept finding it in the toilet.
The next month, there was a DVD player.
We caught up on all sorts of television. It wasn't just me who had missed out. I accused her of being touched in the head for finding Edmund Blackadder sexy and she raised an eyebrow at the slightly glazed look in my eye every time Sarah Michelle Gellar high kicked her way across the screen in a ponytail.
If people talked about my notable absence from society that year, she never mentioned it. I refused to touch the newspapers. Old friends and the Weasleys visited. Luna stopped by with Neville and their little daughter, Beryl.
Everyone conceded that it was an awful name for a fantastically adorable creature.
Dean brought over his Grandfather's old model train set and we spent a weekend putting that together. Ron popped around every now and then, but I could tell he was torn between wanting to throttle his sister and wanting to tell me to snap the hell out of whatever it was I was going through.
I guess Weasley men bounce back from these sorts of things pretty quickly. I wasn't a Weasley, though. Ginny hadn't got around to marrying me, after all.
Was I bitter? Hell yes.
Some days, I'd wake up in the morning to discover that Hermione had been in the house. There would be a cooling breakfast in the kitchen, a new rental movie on the coffee table and sometimes a note. I'd stick a piece of toast in my mouth, shuffle out to the lounge with the plate of food, switch on the telly and read her note.
"Come out with us?" she would ask every so often, "everyone would love to see you."
I'd decline. I wasn't good company, but I was getting better. On some days, I even took a bath without being prodded.
Moments were spent trying to work out what I did wrong. I made comparisons, just to put things into perspective, you know?
I thought Ginny and I belonged together. She fitted me perfectly, completed me in every way I needed finishing.
Hermione does not. She overlaps me in some areas, falls short in others. It's like she's a square and I'm a circle and there's no way we will ever, ever fit like pieces in a jigsaw, but then there's this intriguing friction…
We disagree. All the times I glare at her for being too take-charge, too bossy. The times I try to hold a conversation and she stares down her nose at me because it's so bloody obvious she lost me three minutes into her dissertation about the evolving uses of Inanimatus Charms or whatever it is she's currently passionate about.
There's a thrill in knowing that we always continue to surprise each other. I like that she puts up with Quidditch for my and Ron's sake. I like that she'd rather listen to a fingernails-on-chalkboard symphony rather than fly on a broom. I like that she rolls her eyes at out bawdy, bar room jokes and then says these absolutely brilliant one-liners in that prim and proper voice of hers that makes us fall off our barstools cackling.
I like that her intellect intimidates me. Sometimes, it's nice being in awe of someone you care about.
It became clear to me that what I thought I wanted and what I actually wanted were two different things. Two vertical lines that would never meet no matter which angle I looked at them from.
Hermione is not the perfect woman. Too bookish, too interfering, with a code of morals that defies description or understanding. iBut her heart is boundless/i. She makes me feel safe while still managing to keep me on my toes.
Maybe maturity and age means that I am able to see more colours and Hermione has always occupied a broader spectrum.
I fell in love with her the same way I fell for Ginny. The realisation didn't sneak up and clobber me over the head. I'm too thick-skulled for that. I think I sort of woke up alone in bed one morning, did my usual reach for…no not Ginny.
I didn't want Ginny that day.
I wanted the woman that was holding my head above the water and who was doing a damned fine job of ferrying me slowly, but surely, back to shore.
So what do one-time heroes do, when they find themselves pining, with too much free time and a big, empty house all to themselves?
Use your imagination.
It's one thing to beat off in the privacy of one's own bed. It's another thing to entertain decidedly impure thoughts with the object of said thoughts sitting across from you at Weasley family dinners, chewing distractedly on a stick of steamed carrot while her husband, my best friend, jabbers on about his stupid work.
Oh, to be a carrot.
"Aren't you hungry, Harry?" Molly will sometimes ask me on the rare occasions when I grace the Weasley family table with my famed, damaged presence.
Hermione misses nothing, sees all. No, you stupid woman. Don't stare at me. Not with tenderness or concern or any of the other sisterly, motherly, best-friend's-wifely, child-woman looks you give me. Stop playing with your ruddy vegetables and maybe I won't have to rush out the door, piled to the eyeballs with leftovers, promising Molly that I'll visit more often.
How the hell did Ron and I both end up falling for the same girl, albeit ten years apart?
I don't know how I want her. Seems like an odd problem to have. When I say 'how', I don't mean – you know – on her back, on all fours, on top, I mean exactly in what way.
I can't have her. There iis/i no way. It is pointless wishing.
When did I become so sex obsessed, you ask? I'll tell you when. That bloody Friday evening last autumn, is bloody when.
Six months ago.
Let me tell you, no one, not any girl I have known in my entire life, can cry quite like Hermione. It's like a battering ram straight to the heart. None of that sniffly, lone-tear, Bambi-eyed shite I've seen Lavender use to reduce Seamus to stuttering, incoherent apologies. You feel wretched when Hermione cries. Don't even get me started on what you feel like when you happen to be the cause of her crying. It's not a pretty sight either. We're talking red nose, blotchy face and more often that not, a great deal of snot.
It all happened not too long after nine on that hateful Friday morning. I know because that's when I got up to take a piss and happened to glanced at the clock on my bedside table. The banging on the front door had nothing to do with my hangover from the previous night's lonesome, alcoholic binge. I don't drink that often, but when I do, it's like I'm trying to make up for all the times I don't.
A visitor? I stumbled out of bed, got as far as putting my bare feet on the floorboards and yelped because the floor was made of ice. Dressed as I was with no clean blankets to speak of, seemed a miracle I hadn't died in my sleep from hypothermia. I shoved said feet into the ten-year old bedroom slippers I shared with probably twenty different kinds of old slipper bacteria and stumbled groggily downstairs.
I opened the door and found Hermione standing on my front step, quite literally holding on to the door handle so as to avoid getting blown away. The black umbrella she was feebly clutching onto wasn't helping matters either. She looked like a forlorn, modern-day, beautiful, disheveled Mary Poppins.
Said something to convey my surprise, to which she responded with. "Are you going to ask me in before I freeze to your front porch?"
She wasn't dressed for walking around in a gale. I noticed the grey cardigan I had given her for her birthday that year. Jeans, Wellingtons and a summery silk scarf that was more decorative than substantial. It looked like she had dressed in a hurry.
I asked what was wrong. Surely something had to be wrong for her to come to ime/i, for solace, the Amazing Unfixable Man.
"Ron's gone to the Burrow," was her wobbly response.
And with that, she launched at me, wrapped her arms around my waist and bled her heart out all over my unwashed person. After shutting the door, I did what I used do in these situations, I patted her on the back, said comforting things and assured her that yes, Ron was indeed a git of the first water and I was sure he would come to his senses and apologise soon.
It didn't matter if any of this made sense. The nonsensical muttering helped. I didn't even need to know what it was Ron had done. I've come a long way since my ignorant, early days of assuming women were like broomsticks; that all you had to do was take out your servicing kit for the odd mend and polish every time they got cranky, and they'd treat you well in turn.
Living with Ginny for five years had schooled me.
She pulled away for a breather, sniffled wetly and gave me a critical once over. "Sorry, did I wake you?"
I looked a sight, I'm sure. I'd been sleeping for most of the previous day and was wearing the same undershirt and pajama bottoms for thirty-six hours straight. It was just as well her nose was stuffy because I was sure I reeked.
It stung a bit to note that she had assumed I'd be alone. Why, I might have had a young lady upstairs. She might have interrupted a rowdy, morning shag with an attractive, eager fan.
Who was I trying to kid? This was Hermione, my saviour. The woman who practically dragged a desolate me into the bath tub for a wash, in the weeks after Ginny had walked out.
Injured ego aside, I put her umbrella in the hideous troll's-leg stand on my left, ushered her into the drawing room and automatically apologised for the state of the place. Dobby is on a year-long sabbatical somewhere on a beach in Thailand, I joked. She gave me a watery smile.
Come in, come in. Cup of tea? Fuck I didn't even have any milk in the house. No? Ok. Well let's sit down, then. Tissue?
I started a fire. Took me a while because I was still mostly asleep and my wand was upstairs, so I used matches. One does not simply jump out of bed after twelve hours of dozing, bright eyed and bushy tailed. More like bleary-eyed and stubbly.
She stood, waiting. Looked impatient to resume crying again and was shivering enough for me to worry about her teeth.
I cleared the scattered DVD cases from the lounge (taking extra care of my Buffy: Season Six), brushed off the toast crumbs and dragged the velvet-covered sofa closer to the fire. When that was done, I handed her a quilted throw rug which I knew was clean because some anonymous grandmother-type had left it as a care package on the front step the previous week. What can I say, I have the best fans in the world.
She gratefully draped it over her shoulders, cape-like, and sat down beside me.
The shivers soon stopped, but the tears started again. My arm went around her shoulders and I tucked her head under my chin, waiting out the flood. Ron had really gone and done it this time because I hadn't seen Hermione so upset in a long while.
After five minutes of awful weeping, which did not leave me wholly unaffected, she soaked the front of my shirt right through. The tissues ran out, so I simply pulled the shirt over my head and handed it to her. It seemed polite to look away while she blew her nose into it with a muffled, "thank you".
In between hiccoughs, curses directed alternately at Ron and at the race of men in general and several, "Oh, Harrys", she explained that Ron had come home from visiting their joint account at Gringotts to discover that she was making three times the amount he was.
"And?" I asked her.
"Well, when I took the job at the Department of Mysteries, I might have fudged my salary a bit…"
Ah. I reminded her that Ron had always been more than a little touchy about money while growing up. It was probably a dent to his pride that his fine, upstanding job as an Auror Trainer paid a third of what Hermione received as a 'Paper-Clip Technician' (that was what he called her job). He would need to get over it, of course. Hermione did amazing work and we both knew it.
She hiccoughed, sighed raggedly and rested her head on my shoulder. This was not complete German to me. I knew what she needed.
A big fat tear rolled down her flushed cheek, sploshing on the front of her cardigan. My eyes had followed its progress, but they seemed to have stopped short at the champagne-coloured lace and silk thing she was wearing under the open cardigan. It had a row of tiny, pearl-like buttons at the low neckline. The filmy material went taut with each deep breath she took and honestly at that moment she seemed to be taking no other kind.
Didn't I mention she had dressed in a hurry?
So Hermione had breasts. She'd had them for a good fifteen years or so. Why the hell did I care inow/i?
God works in mysterious ways. The brain of the average man is no different. All I knew was that I did care and it did matter in ways it hadn't before.
In my defence, men like breasts. There, I've said it. Any straight man that says otherwise is a dirty, rotten, liar. Yes, we like lots of other things about the female body, but there is nothing so delightfully alien as a pair of breasts. I have it on good authority that girls are given to noticing them too.
Some men like a good handful and a half. Some like a little less. Any man that professes to like what Fred Weasley refers to as 'champagne glass tit' is trying to get into the pants of a girl not so generously endowed.
Now, our Hermione has a fine pair. I may wear glasses, but I'm not blind. I'd noticed before, in a purely detached, objective sort of way, and I'd always thought that Ron would have nothing to complain about in that, ah, area.
It got worse. My field of vision seemed to expand. Hermione occupied every inch of it. Likewise my other senses. Her thigh was supple and warm against the side of my body. Don't ask me to name what she smelled like. I'll just say 'floral' and that's as specific as I can get. But it was heady and welcoming.
To make matters worse, she caught me looking. I averted my eyes quicker than Draco Malfoy's Ministry plea bargain, but the damage was done, seed planted, bed made, however you wanted to look at it.
Suddenly, the arm I had put around her, which had previously felt casual and comforting, now felt like a violation.
We were not Harry and Hermione. We were not old friends.
Oh, we were still that, but suddenly, we were more.
I knew she felt it too, because she quit her weeping and looked at me funny.
She was staring at me in an extremely unacceptable way. Ginny used to look at me like that in our earlier days, but Hermione's frankly complimentary stare was very adult and frankly, it scorched by already bruised spirit.
I was as hard as a rock. No early morning, half-hearted erections on the way to the bathroom. No, this was serious.
Guess what? I'm not a gnome. So maybe she had a reason to stare. If only a little reason. Yes, I was a bit of a midget until about fifth year, but then my height finally caught up with the enormous tasks destiny had assigned me. Or it might have just been the cruel joke that Potter DNA likes to play with its men. I'm not as tall as Ron, but I manage to fill out my unfashionable wardrobe quite well, truth be told.
It was fortunate that that I faced Voldemort as man fully grown and confident in his capacity to knock the old codger's teeth out if it ever came to an all out fist-fight for wizarding peace. The scrawny, scrape-kneed boy that I was had the spirit and the latent-talent, but the flesh hadn't been as willing.
Perhaps it was just hormones and neediness doing this to me. I was lonely, depressed, sexually deprived and aware that I was becoming more and more neurotic as the days progressed. She could have been the cliché of a bored, neglected, unpraised wife, but she was Hermione and to think that about her would have been an excuse.
She reached up between us and pushed a black spike of hair off my forehead. I belatedly regretted that a shower spray hadn't come in contact with my head in more than a week. Her eyes remained on the spot where my scar used to be and then they crept downwards until she was looking into my eyes.
Brown and green have always been a good mix. Forest colours…
Idly, I wondered if the green I saw in the mirror each morning was the same green she saw. I felt faded on the inside, surely that came across in my eyes?
I tilted my head down toward her. Just a fraction. Just to see what she would do/i, I lied to myself. As it turned out, Hermione didn't have to do anything
I traced her plump, pink, lower lip with the tip of my tongue, wetting it to my satisfaction. She shivered deliciously and then sucked that bit of her soft, glistening lip into her mouth.
I have never, ever seen a person savour something so genuinely in my entire life.
So that, I'm unhappy to report, was our first and only kiss. Like a Chinese-whisper. Chaste and incredibly erotic at the same time.
Other things happened. Some of the power that I thought had left me for good, since my last day of service with the Auror Unit swirled and seethed under my skin. My fingertips zinged pleasantly as my old potency returned in dizzying waves.
I felt like an old car engine sputtering and coming back to life.
If I wanted to try my wandless Accio, I knew I wouldn't be disappointed again.
Maybe magic was more than just something that ran in your blood. She had done this to me with an almost-kiss. The only problem was that Hermione was not mine to be almost kissing.
It took every ounce of willpower I possessed, but I did it. I peeled myself off the couch. It would have been pointless to hide the fact that the front of my pants was tented. We were not teenagers and she was married besides.
"I'm so tired," she said, almost desperately.
I really didn't want to think about what else she could have meant by that.
"I'll make a bed for you," I said.
My bedroom used to be Sirius's. On the fourth floor.
I put her on the first floor.
I thought about Sirius that entire day. Missing him helped, but in the end I couldn't help but think he'd probably have some really bad advice to impart to me, should he still be alive. I counted on my fingers. He was only six years older than me when he died. He had been such a wonder to me. It's not always comforting to think of your heroes as mere people. You need them to be larger than life. I guess the same thing applied to how people thought about me. I felt like a disappointment.
Goes without saying that I didn't touch Hermione that day. I have no idea what she was thinking about or how she slept, because we haven't spoken a word about it since.
Later that week, I was able to leave Grimmauld Place for the first time in ages without feeling panicked or clammy or irritable. I visited the Burrow, spent some time tossing the three, latest Weasley grandchildren into the air, made the odd (literally odd, because I hadn't been to Magical London in months) public appearance for charity and then went home to my empty house.
I actually opened some of my mail too.
Two months later, Ginny returned from her study tour in France and paid me a visit. She was a little taciturn, but affectionate, with an apologetic air about her. Her timing was terrible. A few weeks earlier and I would have had her bent over the kitchen counter in a thrice, thankful as anything and blubbering at her to stay for the rest of the week.
But I didn't. She found me dressed, freshly splashed with aftershave, and on my way out. I entertained for a bit, made tea and had some of the cakes she brought with her. I walked her down the street.
"You look good," she smiled at me. There was this wistful languor about her which meant that she had probably hoped for more than just cakes and tea in the kitchen. I thanked her for visiting, pecked her on the cheek and headed off to my appointment.
That day, it was nice to know that loneliness wasn't a strictly Harry Potter affliction.
Last week was Ron's thirtieth. Hermione looked beautiful in a red, wraparound dress that ended at her knees but brought to mind a rainbow of possibilities.
I got a bit sloshed, but was careful to watch her only from behind the rim of my glass.
There's tension, but I'm counting on Ron to remain oblivious to it. Hermione and I are very careful to not be alone with each other.
My family's seen enough betrayal for a lifetime, I figure, and the Weasleys are family.