"Harry James Potter, you better not have ditched me, again!"
Hermione walked purposefully through the hallway, and it was only at the kitchen that she froze, finally registering the change and looking around her. The place looked like it had been hit with a hurricane. Looking closer, she thought she could kind of see that the mess was due to a failed attempt at redecorating.
Now that she thought about it, it had been months since she'd been to Grimmauld Place. Harry always insisted on meeting anywhere but at his home, continuously citing redecoration and complete remaking of the place as his reason. From what he had told her, she was imagining a completely different place after he had spent alleged weeks working on it. He was going to knock out walls, put bright paint instead of hundred-year-old wallpaper, add windows, and make Grimmauld place a nice place to live.
It was hard for Hermione to believe that Grimmauld Place could look any worse than it did to begin with, but she was proven wrong when she walked around the rest of the house, opening doors and peeking inside only to recoil and slam them closed in disgust. A part of her wanted to believe that something had happened, like a fight or a battle (and that Harry had escaped relatively unharmed), rather than believe that Harry had been living in this dump for so long now.
Unlike his Master, Kreacher appeared immediately when called. Hermione couldn't help but smile when the house-elf gave half a bow and screwed up his face in what she was sure he thought was a friendly way.
"Master Potter is not home yet," Kreacher said, grabbing her bags out of her hands before she realized what was happening. "Follow me."
The study turned out to be the only room that was in a pristine condition, and the only room she hadn’t looked into. Hermione sat herself down on the couch and watched as Kreacher fussed around, dusting and carefully stacking papers that were messily spread across the desk. She was torn. Kreacher had refused her pleas of starting to work for pay or wear clothes. Having observed both Winky and Dobby, Hermione was finally just beginning to realize that while an argument of "they don't want freedom because they don't know it" could be made, most House Elves that had nicer masters than Lucius Malfoy, were happy doing what they believed with every pore in their body they were born and meant to do.
Swallowing her pride and shushing the voice at the back of her mind that was whispering that if she asked what was clawing its way out of her mouth, she would be admitting defeat of her S.P.E.W. project, she decided to take a roundabout approach.
"See you're still cleaning up after Harry and not letting him pay you for it, huh?" she asked with a smile, trying to convey with her easy-going tone that she wasn't planning on turning the conversation into any kind of a lecture.
"Why would I not be?" Kreacher grunted, though his tone was devoid of any spite or anger. "Have been doing it for Mistress all these years, loyal, yes, very loyal I've always been. Sirius Black was a blood traitor, upset Mistress so she wasn't ever the same again, but Mister Potter, he is a real Master."
Hermione chose to ignore the "blood traitor" comment, as hard as it was for her to do. She understood that Kreacher seemed to be merely mirroring Mrs Black's views, which was why he hated Sirius with such a passion. He knew very well that she was Muggle-born, yet, since Harry had given Kreacher Regulus's locket, he treated all of Harry's friends with respect and decency, seemingly completely ignorant or uninterested in their blood. She wondered, not for the first time, whether there was some kind of other bond between a House Elf and his Master or Mistress that went beyond the obligation of servitude. That perhaps if House Elves actually liked their owners, they simply copied them in thought and essence.
"Still, it must be a lot of work to keep up such a big house all by yourself," she said.
"I have always managed the house of Black..." Kreacher trailed off and Hermione could see, startled, that his face clouded over with barely-suppressed rage and what she was sure was pain. He gestured wildly at nothing in particular and continued in a high, shrill voice, "I know why you ask. Mistress would have died of shame and anger if she saw her house... And her portrait gone..." Kreacher turned to her and said in the most practical, most normal voice she had ever heard him use, "She would have hated all the changes, she would. Windows and bright colours and wooden floors and knocked down walls. But there aren't any changes. Just a big mess." He shook his head tragically. "Kreacher is not allowed to touch. Kreacher is only allowed to maintain the kitchen and the study."
Hermione didn't know whether to chuckle or roll her eyes at how typical and how obvious the explanation to the mystery was. Before she could do either, however, the door of the study flew open, and Harry practically ran in. His robes were dirty and singed in a few places, and the smell of fire-wood filled the entire room within a moment.
"Sorry," he said, his voice heavy with panting. "The Auror training ran longer today; I completely lost track of time. He looked back at a bowing Kreacher and turned back to Hermione, looking sheepish. "You saw the house, then, I presume?"
Hermione smirked. "Yes, I did."
Harry sighed and ran his hand through his hair, making some dry mud fall to the floor and making Kreacher wince.
"Ok. So," Hermione prompted him after a long silence.
"So this was a really bad idea."
Without a thought, Harry shrugged out of his dirty robes, which Kreacher caught mid-flight as Harry flung them into a corner.
"Just this whole thing. I thought I'd make this a nice place to live, but I wanted it to be... I don't know, meaningful, I guess. I wanted to do it all myself. Seemed symbolic at the time."
"It didn't go very well?" Hermione smiled at him teasingly.
"First of all, apparently, painting is not just dragging a brush across walls. Ripping off carpets and laying floor is difficult. And how you do you put in windows where there aren't any in the first place, exactly?"
"There are spells for that, you know. Not for everything, of course, but there are those that would make all of that much easier, at least."
"Yes, and I don't know any of them. And you know what? I'm bollocks at this. Auror training is taking up so much of my time and strength the last thing I want to do when I get home is more manual labour. Honestly, I don't even have the strength to put it back the way it was." In the background, Kreacher, who was obviously just standing around listening, perked up.
Hermione stood up and grinned at Harry before turning to Kreacher.
"Kreacher, would you please prepare a bedroom upstairs so it's ok to sleep in tomorrow night? The one at the end of the hall from where the master bedroom is. Don't put in any more effort than is absolutely necessary to make it safe and liveable for one night. I'll do the rest myself."
Kreacher nodded and vanished. Harry raised an eyebrow. "Am I expecting visitors?"
"A lodger, actually. Me." When Harry continued staring at her in confusion, she added, "You know how Ron convinced me that the whole "taking a year off from everything" was a good idea? Well, it wasn't. I'm bored. I could have gone traveling with him, but I didn't feel like moving around. I felt like being at home. This is something I can do. I'll have fun, you'll get your renovations, and everybody wins."
Harry looked doubtful and suddenly, Hermione felt self-conscious. "You want to live here, with me?" he asked.
"Just for a while. I mean, you're often not home, and it would be a change of scenery for me. Something to do. Besides, the library here is just incredible. Unless I'd be intruding," she added quickly.
Harry's face relaxed into a smile. "That's a lot of work, Hermione. I wouldn’t feel right asking you to do something like that.”
Hermione was already sizing up the wall on which Harry had considered putting a window, himself.
“Then it’s a good thing I’m asking you. It will give me something to do.”
Harry took a step forward and hugged her. She exhaled in relief. She had always loved Harry’s hugs for how safe they made her feel.
“I know I should say no, but I just don’t think I can resist the offer.”
Hermione laughed to herself. She was excited to actually be doing something with her time. That was the only reason, she told herself firmly. She wasn’t doing it because she felt lonely and restless at home. And certainly not because... No. She wasn’t going to think about that. She wasn’t going to think. Not while he was hugging her, anyway, because that could lead to things she had once promised herself she wouldn’t bring up again.
That night, Kreacher had served supper, which she and Harry ate in relative silence before both of them retired to their bedrooms. She could not account for his lack of conversation, but the words that usually came to her so easily felt oddly heavy in her mouth when she thought of the coming weeks.
Kreacher’s interpretation of “liveable” and “no more effort than is absolutely necessary” had, predictably, turned out to conflict with her own, and the room he had prepared for her scarcely looked as if it belonged with the rest of the house.
Cleared of any and all debris, the room was clean and tidy. The old, heavy furniture was polished and the dark wood gleamed invitingly. The wallpaper Harry had undoubtedly torn from the walls had been put back up; Kreacher hadn’t hesitated to take advantage of this apparent opportunity to repair his old Mistress’s home. The bed had been made with soft, clean sheets, and a warm quilt she was glad to see. The temperatures outside had been steadily dropping for weeks, the year slowly drawing to an end.
Tomorrow, she would return to her flat and pack her bags. Tonight, she neatly folded her clothes over a large wooden chair, slipped into the nightgown Kreacher had laid out, and fell asleep within minutes of closing her eyes.
The next morning, she had woken to find Harry already gone, a note pinned down to the kitchen table by a jar of preserves (which, upon close inspection, she found was well past its expiration).
I hope you slept well. Help yourself to the library and Kreacher. He will make you breakfast.
It was short, yet she smiled at his apparent thoughtfulness.
Kreacher did indeed make breakfast. After that, she spent the morning transporting two large suitcases from her flat, not far from Diagon Alley, to 12 Grimmauld Place, and unpacking them in her bedroom. That hadn’t taken very long, as she chose to Apparate rather than use the trains (as she had been doing in the past months; she had quickly found that saving time she couldn’t fill with work or studies was depressing her).
Finally, she was ready to inspect the house more carefully, trying to decide which of Harry’s disasters to focus on first. She stood in the hallway, looking out at the den, and considered Kreacher’s words to her the previous day. “But there aren't any changes,” he’d said. “Just a big mess”.
His assessment had been correct. The walls were only partially stripped bare, and no new paint had been applied yet; the carpets looked as if they were lifted, then replaced when Harry thought better of the project or decided to leave that task for last; furniture had been moved, stacked, and turned on its side. All windows and walls remained as they had been. No significant changes had been made; Harry had simply made a large mess by apparently attempting to do everything at once.
A flick of her wand collected the torn bits of wallpaper and debris strewn across the floor into a large bag, which tied itself and neatly floated to a corner. She repeated the spell until there were several rubbish bags stacked, and although the house still looked a far cry from appealing, it was, at least, clean.
She refastened the carpets to the floor with a second spell after Kreacher had come skidding into the room, apparently not yet used to the new living hazards his Master had installed. His flight was broken by a large dining room table that had been turned on its side.
When she was satisfied that Grimmauld Place was once again liveable, she retired to the library.
It was dark before Harry came home. His robes were in a much better condition than the previous night; only a few tears to the front, and leaves clinging to the back.
She didn’t ask what he’d been doing all day; she thought she preferred not to know.
They had only sat down for supper, Harry wearing fresh clothes, when she decided to present him with her plans.
"Harry, you said you wanted to do all the renovations yourself."
"Yes," he affirmed.
Harry swallowed a bite of grilled fish. "Well, yes. It would mean something if I did it all myself. With my hands." He chewed another bite before adding, "I'm sure I could have done the place in a few days if I'd wanted to use magic. Big library, you know."
She had her doubts, and smiled, but bit her tongue. "Right. Then you have to be prepared to actually do the work. I'm only going to help, not do the work for you."
"What you're saying makes sense, Hermione, but I can't help but have a bad feeling about what you're going to say next." He was smiling, but Hermione rolled her eyes.
"You're going to decide where the windows go, and what colours to paint each room. Then, you're going to take down the bits of wallpaper you left up."
"This seemed like a better idea when it was only an idea."
"That's true about a lot of things," Hermione said. After a pause in which he didn't reply, she continued. "Like Ron's bloody year off. I thought he might be right about needing a long holiday after - after what happened." She avoided Harry's eyes. "But I should have gone back to Hogwarts."
"Are you sure you want to go back?" Harry asked quietly.
She locked eyes with him again. "I've got no Muggle education and an incomplete Wizard education. What kind of future have I got if I don't go back?"
"Hermione," Harry said, dropping his fork to the table and leaning towards her. "You can do anything you want. You're a genius."
She felt a shiver ascend up her spine. "I've - I'm going to finish my seventh year, Harry. Next September."
He leaned back in his chair again and she exhaled a breath she hadn't realised she was holding. "You'll do great." He smiled.
She smiled back. Suddenly, the year ahead of her didn't seem nearly as empty as it had a week ago.
The tins of paint Harry had selected were stacked in a pyramid in the hallway, against the wall. The furniture had been carefully wrapped in protective sheets by Kreacher, who was terrified of any more destruction coming to his old Mistress's property. Harry and Hermione had cleared the weekend to paint the den. It was Saturday morning, and they were dressed in white coveralls.
She had convinced him against choosing a lime green for his walls, instead opting for a warm yellowy orange. This colour covered half a wall now, as Harry groaned beside her, bending down to dip his rolling paint brush into the paint again.
"What do you suppose Malfoy would say if he saw us now?" he asked.
"Harry," she said, "Malfoy could say whatever he wanted to."
Harry laughed. "I'm sure he'd have a lot to say."
She frowned. "Why are you worried about Draco?"
Harry shook his head, rolling the paint againt the wall as she did the same. "I'm not exactly worried. I just can't help but feel like I should cast a few spells and pretend I'd never tried painting a house."
Hermione stopped. "Harry, you can't just give up. What about the things you said when I first got here? About it meaning something because you did it yourself. That was only five days ago. Surely your attention span is longer than that?"
Harry had stopped and turned to face her as she spoke. "I still mean it. I just - you're right." He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "I suppose I've just got so used to magic now." He turned to continue painting. "And used to Malfoy's antics."
Hermione laughed as she watched Harry paint.
"What?" he asked, not looking at her.
"Your hair - Harry, your hair is yellow."
"What?" he asked, eyes wide, turning in alarm. "How'd you mean, yellow?" He moved to the glass case and carefully pulled back the sheet draped over it, trying to see himself in the glass.
Hermione tried to stifle her laughter, but his reaction hadn't helped. "You are just the clumsiest man I have ever known, Harry," she managed to say eventually, pointing to the paint on his hands. "You're supposed to paint with the brush, not your hands!"
He raised an eyebrow. She shook her head and turned back to painting the wall. She yelped when she felt something wet on her the back of her own head and turned in surprise, finding him wielding his paint brush triumphantly.
"You -" she started, eyes wide, as she realised what he had done. "You painted my head?" she yelled.
Harry laughed. "It appears so."
"Oh, I'm going to kill you," she said, and lunged forward, roller thrust in his direction.
He caught her roller with his hand and flung it out of her grip, throwing it to the carpet.
"I'm an Auror in training." With his newly soaked hand, he grabbed her arm, swiping it and painting the length of the sleeve yellow. "I can take you."
Hermione finally smiled again and shook her head. "What are you, five years old?" she asked.
"Just a bit older," Harry replied, picking up the paint brush and handing it to her, still grinning.
"The carpet is ruined," she observed, as she dipped it into the paint and turned to face the wall again.
"That's okay," he said, doing the same, and moving to stand closer to her than strictly necessary.
Her arm tingled.
Hermione had insisted on using a quick spell to clean the paint out of his hair that evening, insisting that water and soap would not be enough to tackle it, though Harry had tried to protest. He had accepted her help readily enough despite himself, though, when Kreacher had insisted they wash up before serving supper.
The long day had left them both tired, their backs aching, and she had been grateful for the large tub in the main bathroom. After her own hair was clean as well, she soaked her aching body until she felt the knots easing, the muscles relaxing.
When she was seven years old, her parents had painted their flat. She remembered similar paint brushes, similarly covered furniture, and similarly paint-stained clothes at the end of it all.
She hadn't been allowed to paint, so she'd sat on a chair in the center of the room, a book in her hands, her eyes on her mother and father. His hand would touch her arm as he bent to soak the brush. Her arm would brush his hip as she did the same. The murmured conversation was too quiet to reach her ears despite the proximity.
When she was seven years old, she'd thought it strange that her parents would paint the same wall. Surely they would be finished more quickly if each painted his or her own wall, she'd told herself.
Hermione was eighteen years old, and she finally understood why her parents had chosen to stand so close to each other.
In the warm water, for the second time today, a shiver crept up her spine.
It had taken less time than Hermione had expected to paint the den, and quickly she and Harry moved on to one of the bedrooms by Sunday evening.
The day had gone without incident, she thought, soaking in the bathroom again. She had taken care to put distance between them. The conversation was scarce and she found that she hadn't minded. Again, words had felt heavy on her tongue, her thoughts running wild.
She had known Harry since they'd been eleven years old, and had fought off a troll in a dungeon at Hogwarts along with Ron. They were her best friends. Though they didn't know it, they'd seen her through the hardest year of her life; even harder than the last year, which the three of them spent in search of Horcruxes, was her first year at Hogwarts.
Harry had been happy to leave the Dursleys and find a place where he truly belonged, she knew. Ron had also been prepared to go to Hogwarts, having been born in a Pure Blood family, and was familiar with the Wizarding World.
Hermione's childhood had been happy. Though she was an only child, she had never felt lonely for it. She had never starved for attention from her parents, and though she had been studious all her life, she had made good friends at her Muggle school.
Then the letter came -
Though she would never tell Harry, Hermione had decided against going away, at first. Spend seven years at a faraway boarding school, away from her family, from her friends, from everything she knew, to learn about magic - it had seemed inconceivable.
She wasn't sure what it was, exactly, that had pushed her to go, in the end, but though she'd known she must, every day after that first time she boarded the Hogwarts Express had been a struggle until -
Until she met Ron and Harry, and suddenly, she wasn't simply the Muggle-Born, the know-it-all, the professors' favourite.
She was a witch, and she was wanted in someone's company.
She had never found herself unable to lead a conversation with one of them before. Why was she finding it suddenly hard to look Harry in the eye?
She dressed and made the way to her bedroom without an answer to her question.
Hermione spent the next day in the library again, although she found it harder and harder to concentrate on the words on the page as Harry's usual time of arrival approached.
She'd made sure Kreacher would have supper ready, although the House Elf had seemed exceedingly offended at the insinuation that there was a possibility to the contrary. She had finally earned his forgiveness when she promised to make sure Harry wouldn't touch Kreacher's bed and few belongings in his redecoration plans.
Harry greeted her as warmly as always when he arrived home, robes singed to a strange red colour, and yet she found those strange knots in her belly hadn't dissolved since the night before last.
As they sat down to eat, Harry asked her about her day.
Hermione kept her eyes on her plate. "I found Sirius and Regulus Black's books from Hogwarts in the library. I'm going to study the Seventh Year books to prepare for the next year."
"That's wonderful, Hermione," Harry said.
She was pleased at his response, and at the same time, another knot made itself known. She looked up at him. "Do you really mean that, Harry?"
"Of course, I mean it," Harry replied, looking surprised.
She shook her head, desperately wishing she could take the question back.
"What's the matter, Hermione?" he asked.
She looked at the plate again. "I want to go back to Hogwarts." Then she locked her gaze with his. "But it won't be quite the same without you." She smiled.
Harry returned the smile. "And Ron."
She nodded. "Yes, without you and Ron," she amended quickly, silently cursing herself for her slip.
She listened to his account of his own day for the rest of the meal.
It was late at night when she heard the knock.
She hadn't been able to fall asleep after that awkward meal, feeling guilty for her part in it, and stupid for it.
There was a second knock at her door.
She didn't know what time it was, but she was sure it was well past midnight. She sat up in her bed. "Harry?" she called out.
The door opened a fraction with a creak, and a thin stream of light seeped in from the hallway. She squinted, her eyes adjusted to the dark of her windowless room. Harry appeared in the doorway as it opened wider. "Did I wake you?"
"No," she replied, rubbing her eyes. "What are you doing up?"
Harry came further into the room. "I couldn't sleep. I was thinking - well, it looked as if something was bothering you at dinner. Is everything okay? Did Kreacher do something weird?"
Hermione shook her head, hoping he could see the movement in the dark. "It's not Kreacher."
Harry sat down on the edge of the bed. She was suddenly acutely aware that there were only two feet or so between them. "Did I offend you? At supper?"
Hermione laughed before she could stop herself. "No, you didn't do anything. It's not you or Kreacher."
He didn't say anything.
She took a deep breath. "Harry." Her hands shook beneath the quilt. "What I said - about not wanting to go back to Hogwarts without you - I didn't mean Ron. I meant you." She bit her lip and forced herself to look at him.
"Hermione," he said, and she thought his voice sounded strained. He shook his head. "You can't sacrifice something that's so important to you just because I won't be there."
She laughed again. "You're so stupid, Harry," she said quietly.
His eyes widened. "Why?"
She turned her body to face him, narrowing the distance between them. "Can't you see what I'm saying?"
She watched as realisation dawned on him. "Hermione, you're..." He trailed off. "You're my best friend."
For the first time in days, she felt calm. Whatever Harry's response, his proximity felt good. His voice was warm and familiar. His touch -
His palm was on her jaw, thumb lightly rubbing her cheek.
"Harry," she said, and it came out a whisper.
He kissed her before she completed her thought.
And, oh, his lips were soft against hers, fitting perfectly. He took her lower lip between his, then her upper lip, and finally ran his tongue slowly along it.
Her hands cupped his face as she parted her lips and let his tongue slip inside, their breaths mingling.
He parted the kiss as a few seconds passed, touching his forehead to hers. "Hermione," he rasped.
She kept her eyes closed.
"I thought we were just friends."
She shook her head slightly. "We were. But -"
"I thought you wouldn't want this..."
Her heart was beating a quick rhythm in her chest. "Harry..."
He kissed her again, with more urgency this time. He tasted of toothpaste and pumpkin juice, smelling freshly of soap and something else. She moved her arms to circle them around his neck, and pulled him down as she lay back on the pillows. He followed, lying down next to her, pulling her to him, arm around her waist.
"We have to take this slowly," she said when their lips parted again. "Okay?"
"Of course," he agreed, and she found herself pleased that his breath was just as quick as hers. His forehead was on hers again.
"After all, there are more rooms to paint."
He laughed, and she chuckled too.