Author's note - Am I making fun of the epilogue? A little. Weasley bashing? I don't think so. Skeptical about this as a "story"? Yes. Maybe I'll do something more substantive along this line later.
As Harry lay on top of the bed waiting for his new wife, he couldn't shake the feeling that something about the night was…off. There wasn't any tangible reason for it. There was no reason he should be feeling anything other than elation on this, the first night of the rest of his life.
The wedding had been perfect—small and intimate, without the hordes of press that usually hounded the young wizard, more enamored than ever after he survived the fulfillment of the prophecy. Also missing were the witches clamoring for his affection, or even a mere touch of his hand, not-so-secretly hoping to steal him away from Ginny—dubbed the "luckiest witch in Britain" by Witch Weekly. No, the day had been filled with numerous overjoyed Weasleys, laughing, congratulatory friends and the certainty that a day that had been in the cards since he and Ginny first caught sight of each other at King's Cross would go off without a hitch.
Why then did he feel like their impending wedding night carried with it a faint sense of disquiet, and more strangely, a sense of déjà vu?
Harry shifted to the center of their King-size bed and eyed the bathroom door where Ginny changed into what he hoped was something lacy and easily disposed of. She was certainly taking her sweet time. Harry couldn't recall which of them had decided it was better they wait until their wedding night to be intimate, but now he could only feel relief that the time had finally arrived. He supposed theirs was the adult way to handle the situation. No groping in broom closets or Apparating from The Burrow in the middle of night. Not that waiting had stopped either of them from voicing many a racy thought about what this night and the others that followed would change for them.
The door opened and Harry's breath froze in his lungs. Again, there was the small feeling of reliving this moment, but he ignored it as Ginny stepped into the doorway and he caught sight of her silhouette in the near-darkness. Her long red hair seemed to glow from the light behind her before she turned to douse the torches that lit the small room. She entered their bedroom with small, tentative steps. The world seemed to stop in the time it took for Ginny to get close enough for Harry to see her face lit from the candles near the bed. As she did, he had only one thought: she was beautiful.
She stepped to the edge of the bed and Harry started breathing again—then hyperventilating when he saw what she was wearing, how very little she was wearing. Ginny smiled shyly. "Do you like it?" She twirled in place and Harry's mouth went dry. Before he could do more than nod, she began crawling towards him on the bed, her shy smile turning wicked as she got closer.
"I don't know about you," she began in a soft purr, "but I think we waited too long." She stopped next to Harry and began unbuttoning his shirt with trembling fingers.
He brushed her fingers away impatiently and began undoing the buttons himself, blushing as her light giggle reached his ears.
"If you're that eager, you could just do away with your clothes with magic," Ginny whispered.
Harry shook his head, finally shrugging his way out of the suddenly cumbersome shirt. "I don't want to use magic tonight."
Ginny nodded her agreement and moved to help him out of his pants, her fingers moving with swift dexterity until she had Harry stripped from head-to-toe. Smiling, she crawled to where he lay prone on the bed again, moving to straddle his legs. Harry's stomach tightened as she settled over him.
His drummed his fingers on the bed on either side of his legs, itching to tear the flimsy garment from her body. After a few moments, he realized he couldn't force himself to move. Harry saw Ginny's confused expression, watching and waiting for him to undress her and end their self-imposed abstinence. He had no idea what was stopping him from taking that final step. Was it nerves, now of all times? The possibility of disappointing the wife who'd waited for him as he had for her? No, that couldn't be it. He'd faced down Voldemort with what he'd felt was the barest of hope for survival, a redhead who wanted nothing more than to be with him wasn't a challenge in the least.
His eyes shot down to his lap. He was paralyzed, held by some unnamed fear that not only kept from acting on his instincts this night, but prevented him from looking Ginny in the eye as he denied her.
He heard her speak the words in his mind just before she spoke them out loud, as if he'd heard them a thousand times before. "What's wrong?" she asked and Harry felt his stomach clench. The disappointment in her voice seemed to fill the room until it weighed down on him like a palpable measure of his own guilt.
Harry looked up and placed his hand's on Ginny's shoulders, drawing an immediate sigh—of relief, he thought—from her. Hands shaking, he moved the straps of the flimsy garment aside and stopped. He closed his eyes again and fought the sudden urge to scream. His lungs burned from the sudden rushing of air through them as his breathing increased tenfold. He couldn't do this. He couldn't take this step with her and live with himself. He knew it as well as he knew she'd understand. In time.
Harry opened his eyes and was surprised by the sudden darkness of the room he was in. He took a moment to breathe deeply and collect himself, letting his eyes adjust to the shadows of the room contrasted by the small amount of moonlight coming in from the window next to the bed.
"Harry?" The woman next to him stirred and turned to him in the dark. He could feel her hand reach out to him. She touched his forehead; her fingers moved to rest on top of his hair. She cleared her throat and Harry tensed. "How bad was it?" she asked.
"Hermione, go back to sleep."
She shifted in the bed again and pushed herself up into a sitting position. "That bad?" He could hear the worry in her tone and chastised himself for waking her with his problems again. Living with what he'd done was bad enough without making someone else suffer through it. Hermione's hands moved and Harry let himself be pulled closer until his head was resting in her lap. "Fred or Professor Snape?"
"Ginny," Harry said. The sound of the name in the darkness simultaneously brought a chill to his skin and made Hermione stiffen as she held him. He knew why she reacted that way; she had every right. The nature of their breakup had been added to his repertoire of infrequent bad dreams not long after he and Hermione had gotten married and it had taken everything in Harry to convince her it wasn't because he thought he'd married the wrong person. No, it had been because Ginny was the last person he should've ever considered marrying. And she was yet another person whose pain he felt responsible for.
"Did you—do you want to talk about it?" Hermione asked. She began stroking his hair slowly, her other hand moving to rub slow circles on his bare chest.
"It was the same one—the honeymoon," Harry said. "Ended the same way. She was staring at me like I'd Stunned her and all I could do was sit there and wish she'd forgive me for what I was going to do."
"You have to keep reminding yourself that you already have her forgiveness," Hermione said quietly. Harry knew she was used to this little talk and was pretty much speaking from habit than any real awareness of what he was saying. If she'd still been laying down, he was sure she would've been almost back to sleep. He didn't blame her for the withdrawn response. Living with him hadn't been easy for her and dealing with his post-war issues was something he never would've asked of any woman, especially since he should've been completely over them—some of them—long before now. Luckily, his best friend is the one person he didn't have to ask.
"It's not the issue of her forgiveness that makes the dream scary," he said. "It's the idea of what she represented to me and why our relationship progressed so quickly sixth year." Harry paused, willing away the last confused, hurt image of her from his dream. "I can't believe I—" He swallowed hard. "I can't believe I was going to marry someone who looks like my mother. Do you know how that makes me feel to think that I wanted to…do things with her?"
Hermione sighed and Harry heard everything she wasn't saying in the gesture. It was the same discussion they'd had a dozen times over and would possibly have a few more times after this. Until he was completely healed. Whenever that would finally be. His therapist couldn't give him a definite timetable, but Harry didn't need one. He knew his demons would rest when he finally learned to let go of the guilt he carried. That, in his opinion, might never happen.
In the meantime, he had to live with what had become of his peace of mind in the aftermath of the war. Fear of losing his remaining sanity was what had lead to him seeing a Muggle therapist, one he knew would have no idea who he was and so would not judge him for his weakness. She'd listened to his talk of wanting to save the people fighting with him, of feeling like the responsibility of everyone's lives was on his shoulders and made the logical Muggle assumption—that he'd been a part of the military and was experiencing nothing more serious than an oppressive reaction to the years of stress he'd been under.
Then, talk had turned to Harry's parents and the longing for their love that had plagued him ever since he'd learned the truth of how they'd died. He'd poured his heart out in large measure, hoping the loss of them and everyone they'd been close to could somehow make sense in the late afternoon hours of his bi-weekly appointments. He'd told the therapist the few stories he knew of their time at school—redacted, of course—and what he knew of their life together before the "accident" that had claimed their lives.
Before he'd been fully aware of the reason, Harry had relaxed into talking about Ginny—comparing her to his mother in personality and looks, describing how the two of them together were a younger image of his parents, voicing the idea that they'd get to live their happily-ever-after when his parents—stronger and more prepared for war—had not. Then began the realization and the panic attacks that would be their relationship's undoing.
Ereuthophobia, that had been a symptom of the diagnosis. A deep and paralyzing fear of the color red. A small, disturbing part of the overall unhealthy nature of his attraction to Ginny. He'd had a friend scour his house from top to bottom, churning out anything with the smallest hint of red. When his initial reaction to this fear—and the nightmares that accompanied it—abated, he was glad his Gryffindor souvenirs had merely been boxed up and his photos enclosed in albums. The panic Harry had felt at recognizing his girlfriend's similarity to his mother had temporarily caused him to forget everything but his sense of self-preservation.
It had taken a long time to finally come to grips with the real reason for this phobia and to overcome the fear itself. With his realization came the knowledge that Harry's life had been headed into a direction he'd have never chosen for himself if he'd been mentally healthy following the years of trauma he'd suffered. It had taken weeks before he'd been able to talk to Ginny in person and tell her the reason he couldn't share his life with her. The guilt he'd felt had manifested itself into this dream—rare now, years later, but just as potent as the first time he'd woken from it.
After a drawn-out silence, Hermione spoke again. "You weren't with Ginny merely because of her looks. You know that. You had something special," Hermione said, coughing on the last words.
"I know I thought that, but it still bothers me that I never realized what I was doing. When I would look at her sometimes and think how pretty she was and…" And how much prettier she would be if she had green eyes and a softer smile, his brain finished for him. Harry shuddered and snuggled closer to Hermione under the sheets. It had taken a lot for him to see that Muggle therapist after the war had ended, but he was glad he'd done it. Especially if it had saved him a lifetime of trying to recreate a life with his mind's ghosts that would never resemble a normal, healthy existence. He and Ginny could never have lived the life his parents had been meant to have.
"And how our kids could've looked just like my parents," he finished aloud. Harry turned over onto his back and blinked up at the ceiling in the dim light. "Can you imagine if we'd had a girl that had my eyes, let alone her coloring? Or even a son with my looks and her eyes?" He closed his eyes and tried to will the disturbing image away. "The way I was going, if that had happened, I might have wanted to name them after my parents as well. Like little clones. Why didn't anyone tell me how much of a nutter I'd become?"
"To tell the truth, none of us really thought about it," she said slowly. "I know it never occurred to me that you were attracted to her…hair more than anything else."
"Well, no," Harry began. "Ginny's a nice girl and all, but she wasn't—I wanted her for the wrong reasons. I thought you of all people would've figured that out. You've always known me better than anyone. You knew what was going to go wrong with Cho long before it happened. And you knew the last person I would be attracted to is someone who looked at me as The Boy Who Lived. Or, I guess the Man Who Triumphed is the one they're using now."
The soft touch of her hand on the side of his face comforted Harry. "Ginny did see you differently. She grew up a lot before you started dating."
"You had to teach her how to talk to me," he reminded Hermione softly. "That's not the behavior of someone who got to know the real me and made a change in herself, is it? Ginny had no problem treating Michael or Dean like they were normal when she dated them. She pretty much admitted she expected I was going off to do the hero thing when I broke up with her and said that's one of the reasons she liked me." There was a faint note of bitterness to his voice and Harry paused, briefly reliving the conversation they'd had after Dumbledore's funeral.
"It was like I wasn't real to her," he said. "She didn't even cry. And she still saw me as a hero after I fought Voldemort that last time."
Hermione sighed again. "We all did. You have no idea how scary it was watching you walk into that fight and openly challenge him. I know you had to do it, but everyone else was just thinking how brave you were to fight him when the odds were so far against you." Her hand stilled over his hair and Harry felt a slight tremble in her fingers. "You can't fault anyone for seeing you as a hero. You saved a countless number of people."
"Yeah, but if that's the only reason she was with me—"
"Harry, is that what you think? When the two of you were together, did she do nothing but fawn all over you and put you on a pedestal?" She paused for a breath, waiting for him to fill up the space with a denial. "I'm fairly certain she treated you like a person, like the person she loved."
"Yes, but why did she love me? Because I survived Voldemort? Because I saved her life?" he asked.
"Those aren't exactly awful reasons to love someone," Hermione responded. She sighed. "You were together for more than two years. There had to be more than Ginny telling you how wonderful you are."
"Yeah, we had—" He stopped, not comfortable sharing the intimate details of his relations with Ginny. Though he knew their sex life was only in the far reaches of his imagination, the fact that he and Ginny had both wanted their relationship to go further still haunted him. He didn't want to imagine the consequences for his fragile state of mind if he'd taken her up on her offer before their planned wedding. The existing nightmares were bad enough. Seeing that therapist had made him question why he'd remained attracted to her long after he'd realized they had little in common. It was a moment that had changed his life.
"I don't know," Harry said finally. "I think I just got comfortable with the idea of someone who was easy to be with."
"And I'm not?"
"You know what I mean," he said. "She just—she didn't challenge me. Sure, she wasn't as emotional as Cho, she didn't argue nearly as much as you…"
"We didn't date at Hogwarts," Hermione reminded him. "Nowhere close to it."
"Yes, but we were close. You know I haven't been close to many girls," Harry said. "I didn't know what I wanted. I thought, okay, I've found someone who doesn't cry when I kiss her, isn't pining for someone else and doesn't want anything more than to be close to me. She had this way of making me laugh and forget when I started to feel everything weighing down on me. I should've realized I'd need more substance than that after a while, but I thought we could be happy."
"And you were." She paused. "Weren't you?"
"I—well, I was bored," Harry admitted. Hermione snorted in disbelief. He was glad she couldn't see the flush suffusing his face. "I know it's weird to say something like that about Ginny, of all people, but that doesn't make it any less true. We never really talked about anything more serious than Quidditch and how she was doing in her make-up classes. Then, when she took that job, we were just down to Quidditch." He turned his head and tried to make out Hermione's face in the near-complete darkness.
"It was like…after the war ended, I was disconnected from everything that had happened at Hogwarts and what had meant the most to me then. None of those things seemed important, or even interesting anymore. It was her whole life, but to me it was just…details from a life I'd long since left behind. I couldn't talk to her about anything that mattered. After a while, I didn't even try."
"So, why did you propose? You didn't have to. I think that's what—" Hermione stopped speaking abruptly and resumed stroking Harry's hair.
"You can say it. That's what really made Ron so angry. That I proposed and then broke up with her a few months later." Harry sighed and turned onto his side again. "I did it for the same reason we got together again after the war ended. Because it was what everyone expected of me. Ron, Mrs. Weasley—all of them were just waiting for the day we'd make the announcement. It was like they had everything all planned out and I didn't have anything to do but play the part someone else had written for me. Like another prophecy.
"But, I wanted more than just to do what was expected. I wanted to be passionate about her, not just think she was pretty and easy to stay with. I could've gotten that from any number of girls. I knew there had to be more than me marrying the only girl in the Weasley family and officially becoming their youngest son. If you'd married Ron too, we would've been one big happy Weasley family," he said, his voice rising with each word. "A huge part of me never imagined another future for myself, which is kind of sad." Harry paused. "It sounds horrible when I say it like that—"
"No, it doesn't," Hermione corrected him. "It sounds like you didn't want to marry someone you weren't in love with because it was what everyone expected of you. I'm kind of glad you didn't, actually."
"Well, yeah," Harry said with a small chuckle.
Her own small giggle followed. "Not just for that reason. You have spent so much of your life doing what other people have expected of you, from being a slave for those awful people who raised you to trying to save any and everyone, not to mention living up to all those expectations." She stopped as Harry's heavy sigh warmed her side through her nightgown.
"My point is that you have rarely had selfish moments. Breaking up with Ginny really wasn't one of them. She might have been too easy to be with." Harry fought the urge to interrupt then and ask if that was possible. He knew Hermione was only trying to help him feel better, and one of her speeches was only part of that.
"You needed to feel like you were with an equal," she continued. "Someone who you were sure loved you for reasons you understood and who could really nurture and fulfill you when and how you needed it most. I understand why you were drawn to someone with a big family—"
"And red hair," he interrupted. "Don't forget the scariest part."
"But that doesn't mean something was wrong with you," Hermione continued. Harry stopped himself from pointing out she was sounding exactly like this therapist at that moment. She'd only say that meant she was right and he should listen to both of them. "You were just confused. I know exactly what that's like."
"Another reason Ron hates me," Harry said.
"He doesn't hate you," she said quietly.
"What?" Harry pushed himself a little higher on the bed until he and Hermione sat at equal heights. "Have you talked to him about me?"
"No, I—I ran into George a little while back. After Ron left the Ministry, he started working at the store in Hogsmeade. George said Ron isn't really angry with either of us anymore. He's just too stubborn to admit it. You know how he is. Honestly, it's not as if he has reason to be angry."
"You don't think so?" Harry asked. "I have everything he always wanted."
A short, joyless laugh greeted this statement. "Yes, fame you didn't ask for, money you don't care about and the girl who wasn't in love with him." Her hand slipped into his on top of the sheets. "You have to stop doing this to yourself. You can't feel guilty for being happy for the rest of your life." Another statement she might have plucked out his therapist's mind.
"I know how Ron feels, though. Like I dumped his sister so I could have you," Harry said. "He'd been afraid of it for a while, actually. Probably thought I'd been biding my time or something."
"That's ridiculous and I'm sure he knows it. You and Ginny—look, she understood why you couldn't marry her and the two of you are…at least civil to each other. It was over for me and Ron long before you had even asked her to marry you, even if neither of us wanted to admit it at the time," she said. "I think after all those years of dancing around each other, it was something we both had to get out of our systems. If you want to know the truth, I think he was far more upset that I dated Viktor again for a little while than he ever was at you. I heard he went a little nuts when I was in Bulgaria."
Harry smiled and squeezed her hand. "It brought back old memories for him. He told me it was like the Yule Ball all over again, only he was smart enough to know what he was missing."
"So was I," Hermione remarked. "I knew neither of them were right for me. I just outgrew Ron. And it wasn't fair for him to take it out on you. Just like your relationship with Ginny was none of his business."
"He felt like it was."
"He wanted you to be his brother. He thought you would stay inseparable. Just like he thought we could stay together out of habit without putting in the work. Ron wanted to keep everything the same as it was at Hogwarts when nothing could ever be that way again," Hermione said. "We were friends desperately trying to recreate a chemistry that had long gone. After a while, I had moved on. I was disappointed when he couldn't, but it wasn't my burden. Just like pretending to want a life with Ginny for everyone else's sake wasn't your burden. It was theirs. And if they don't like the choice you made—"
Harry suppressed a chuckle. "Yes, I remember what you told me about what other people can do with their opinions." He was silent for a long moment. "I don't know what I would've done if I hadn't gone to that therapist. Marry Ginny, I guess. Ron will never forgive me for breaking her heart."
"It's not Ron's place to forgive you or not," Hermione reminded him. "Like I said, he doesn't hate you. But he might have if you'd married her and then changed your mind about the whole thing. You did what was best for you and that was more important than living a lie to please someone else. You're the one that has to live your life."
"I'm happy with the one I'm living now," Harry said. "Working as an Auror, being with you." He placed a hand over the slight curve of her belly, spreading his fingers over the smooth skin there. He smiled, imagining her growing bigger in the coming days. "Pretty soon I'll have everything I've wanted. Except my best friend."
Hermione put her hand on top of his. "You can have everything, Harry. Just talk to him. Let him know there are no hard feelings."
"And then what?" he asked.
"And then we can all move on."