It probably should have taken longer for 12 Grimmauld Place to feel like a home to Harry. And yet, since the first day that he had arrived back after the lengthy clean-up operation at Hogwarts, living here, in his Godfather’s last residence, had felt right. He was endlessly grateful to Mrs Weasley and the other members of the Order for orchestrating the mass cleansing of the house back in the summer before his fifth year at Hogwarts. At the time, the scrubbing and dusting and disposal of objects rife with dark magic had not been anybody’s ideal use of their summer, but now Harry was glad to be free to make the place his own without the need to erase its dark past from scratch.
Ron had moved in so immediately that Harry was no longer sure whether he had actually suggested the idea. Clearly the thought of moving back to the Burrow was not one that Ron was keen to entertain.
And Hermione. Harry had asked Hermione if she would like to move in. At first, he had expected her to return to Hogwarts and complete her seventh year. It seemed the natural choice for the Brightest Witch of Her Age. And yet she was hesitant to choose it, Harry could see that. But if she didn’t return to Hogwarts, her options were limited. Her parents were living their own lives now, with no recollection of their brilliant daughter. Her childhood home had become a memory to her alone. So Harry had asked her to come with them to Grimmauld Place. He’d said that it wouldn’t be right without her. That she was family. And Hermione’s eyes had filled with tears as she nodded. Harry had the unsettling realisation then that, despite everything, he hadn’t seen Hermione cry for a long time.
That had been a month ago and the feeling hadn’t left him.
‘It just makes sense to offer,’ Harry explained, ‘you know, she works at Gringotts still. It’s mad to apparate all the way from France every day and Bill is—’
‘It’d be weird though, don’t you reckon? I mean, we’re the Golden Trio! We won the war together and now we’re living together. Just the three of us.’
‘Please don’t call us that.’ Harry muttered, ‘Anyway, Fleur is cool. She’ll fit right in. And maybe she’s just what Hermione needs right now.’
‘I’m what ‘Mione needs.’ Came Ron’s response. ‘She’s loads better than she was anyway.’
‘She’s… improving.’ Harry allowed cautiously. ‘But I think having another woman around might be good for her. They spent a lot of time together at Shell Cottage, anyway.’
‘Uh, yeah, when ‘Mione was basically unconscious!’ Ron laughed. ‘She never used to like Phlegm.’
‘You know not even Ginny uses that name anymore, right mate?’ Harry checked.
‘Probably because she doesn’t have to worry about having her as a sister-in-law anymore.’ Ron retorted.
Harry sighed and ran a hand through his ever-unruly hair.
‘Are you alright with this or not?’ He asked tiredly.
At that moment, the kitchen door swung open and Hermione entered with Crookshanks padding in silently behind her.
‘Alright with what?’ Hermione enquired over her shoulder as she grabbed the muggle kettle from the counter and made her way to the sink.
‘I don’t know why you use that thing,’ Ron chuckled, ‘It takes forever.’
‘The tea tastes better.’ Hermione reasoned. ‘And don’t change the subject. What are you two plotting? I thought my days of interrupting your ridiculous scheming were over.’
‘Well, I happened to be talking to Mrs—’ Harry began.
‘Harry wants to ask Phlegm to move in with us!’ Ron interrupted.
‘Don’t call her that, Ronald!’ Hermione exclaimed, whirling around to glare at Ron. ‘For goodness’ sake! After everything we’ve all been through, can’t you just be kind?’ She snapped.
Ron’s eyes widened to an almost comical degree and Harry raised his eyebrows at him in warning before Ron could say anything in response.
The room remained tense for a few moments until Harry cleared his throat.
‘Anyway,’ he started, ‘Mrs Weasley said that Bill is going to stay on at Shell Cottage but Fleur has gone back to her parents’ place in France. She’s apparating to and from London every day for work and I just thought…’
‘That’s a lot of strain on her magic.’ Hermione murmured, ‘How exhausting.’
‘Yes.’ Harry agreed, ‘Exactly. So I thought, you know, we have space here and empty rooms, and Grimmauld Place is so much nearer to Gringotts and I don’t think she’d be annoying or anything, in fact I thought…’
‘Harry thought you’d like having another girl around. Even though you’re totally one of the guys.’ Ron added.
‘I am not a guy.’ Hermione rolled her eyes.
‘Well, yeah,’ Ron laughed, ‘No one knows that better than me.’ He smirked.
Hermione’s shoulders tensed and she turned away from the table, busying herself with finding her favourite mug in the cupboard. Crookshanks, wound himself around her legs once then sat beside her, his tail flicking occasionally and his orange eyes fixed on Ron.
Harry shook his head silently.
‘So you want to tell Fleur she can move in here, is that what I’m getting from this?’ Hermione asked, keeping her back to the boys.
‘Exactly.’ Said Ron.
‘Actually,’ Harry let out slowly, ‘I sort of already owled her and she said yes.’
The mug that Hermione had finally located and was retrieving from the cupboard dropped the last inch onto the counter, landing with a clatter that sent Crookshanks darting from the room.
‘Well,’ Hermione said before turning to look at Harry and Ron once more, ‘I suppose that’s sorted then.’ She finished with a smile that Harry thought looked suspiciously strained.
‘Only if you’re sure?’ Harry tested.
‘Yes, that’s fine.’ Hermione agreed curtly. ‘It’s your house, Harry.’
‘Technically.’ Harry agreed, ‘But it’s your home too, Hermione.’
‘It’s fine.’ Hermione reiterated.
Harry looked at Ron, unsure about how to read Hermione’s response. Ron simply shrugged as if that was the end of the matter.
‘The room down the hall from you, Hermione, I thought that would be best for her?’ Harry suggested in a questioning tone.
‘Perfect.’ Hermione nodded stiffly.
She finished readying her cup of tea and made for the door.
‘See you at supper?’ Harry asked.
‘I’m making Mum’s stew.’ Ron added.
‘Lovely. See you then.’ Hermione agreed as she disappeared back out into the corridor.
‘Sorted then.’ Ron nodded.
Harry blew out a long breath.
‘I guess so.’
Harry couldn’t shake the feeling that he should have asked Hermione before mentioning the idea to Fleur. It had just seemed like the right thing to do. After all, Fleur had hidden them, fed them, kept them safe at Shell Cottage. She had personally nursed Hermione back from the brink after the events at Malfoy Manor. Harry felt indebted to the French witch. Without Fleur’s care, Hermione would have been at the mercy of Harry and Ron’s medical skills. And without Hermione… Well, the war wouldn’t have been won. Harry knew that without a doubt. He also knew that Hermione was far from recovered.
‘It’s mad, isn’t it?’ Ron broke into Harry’s worries.
‘Remember what Fleur was like at school?’ Ron said in disbelief, ‘Bloody hell, the most gorgeous girl I’d ever seen. But such a stuck up—’
‘I always liked her, actually.’ Harry cut in. ‘She was good to me during the Triwizard Tournament. She probably just didn’t appreciate you drooling over her all the time.’
‘I did not!’
‘Come on, mate. You did. It was embarrassing.’ Harry laughed.
Ron grumbled unintelligibly.
‘Which reminds me, she’s going to be living here, right? Are you going to be able to resist gawking at her ever day?’ Harry asked jokingly.
‘I don’t need to gawk at Phlegm. I’ve got Hermione.’ He said with an air of smugness. ‘You’re the single one, Harry. Are you going to be able to withstand that veela thrall?’
Harry rolled his eyes at Ron. Ignoring Ron’s hint that himself and Hermione were an item. He couldn’t broach that topic again with Ron right now.
‘Fleur’s never turned me into a bumbling idiot.’ Harry reminded him with a grin instead.
Ron glared at him across the table.
‘Chess?’ He asked after a moment.
‘Chess.’ Harry agreed.
Hermione had retreated to her favourite spot in the house. A deceptively comfortable, shabby-looking bottle green armchair in the study, equidistant between the fireplace and the nearest bookshelf. Here Hermione sat, curled up with one hand wrapped around her as-yet-untouched mug of tea, the other hand distractedly stoking the dense ginger fur of the half-kneazle purring contentedly on her lap.
Her stomach churned. It felt now as if she could hardly remember a time when it didn’t. There was always an underlying current of anxiety. It ranged from a faint buzzing in her veins, to a full-blown sweating panic that rushed through her like a torrent, but never did it leave her completely these days. She had made the tea as an attempt to calm herself. She was safe. She was in Harry’s house; she knew both boys were in the other room. She could hear them now, bickering over yet another game of chess. She had a shelf full of books she had never read, the warmth of the fire before her, and Crookshanks blithely dozing on top of her. But she wasn’t calm. She couldn’t still her mind. No matter how much she told herself she was safe, the war was won, that woman was dead and gone, she just couldn’t find her way out of the dark. Not in the pages of a book, not in the ritualistic process of preparing tea the muggle way.
The past few years had been so focused, so dependent on her meticulously researching and planning their next move, so orientated towards the goal of finding horcruxes, of putting an end to the tyranny of He Who Must Not Be Named. Voldemort, she thought bitterly. It was time to say his name now.
And before that, she’d had Hogwarts. Her lessons, her ever-present need to know everything, to get everything right. And S.P.E.W. Her free time, when she’d had such a thing, was absorbed in the ideal that house elves deserved fair treatment. That every creature deserved fair treatment. After all, she was muggle born. She knew how it felt to be poorly treated, to be regarded with suspicion and ridicule for both sides of her being.
But now? It was done. Voldemort was gone. Horcruxes collected and destroyed. The battles fought. The lessons learnt. Her school days cut short, yes, but over just the same.
And what did she have? A curdling sense of guilt. A budding dread of stepping outside the front door. And nightmares. Relentless nightmares that steal her sleep.
There had been days, right after the final battle, when she had joined the others in jubilation. Was it jubilation? Or perhaps, in hindsight, just exhausted hysteria? Leftover adrenaline looking for an out? That sense of elation when Voldemort had been vanquished. The release from the desperate goal of ending the war. She’d celebrated. She’d hugged just about every person she came across that day. Brief squeezes for some. Clinging embraces for others. Tears of joy (or was it sorrow for the fallen) seeping into other people’s sweatshirts, then wiped onto the backs of grimy, bloodied hands.
Her and Ron had shared a kiss in the depths of the Basilisk’s domain mid-battle. Had lost their virginity to one another that night, sequestered from the celebration and devastation, in the Astronomy Tower. It had been giddy and fumbling. Life-affirming amongst the loss. Not at all satisfying, but it had somehow felt right nonetheless. It was right that it was him and her.
For Hermione, it had marked yet another ending. The end of innocence, as if that hadn’t been wrenched from her weeks earlier. A culmination of all they had been through together to reach that point, that victory.
For Ron, it had been a beginning.
Yet another thing for them to disagree over.
Hermione sighed and brought the mug to her lips. She sipped. The tea was lukewarm now and it circulated with the butterflies making their perpetual rounds in her stomach. Or were they bats?
And now Fleur was going to be joining them. Hermione had felt a stab of fear when Harry had announced that it was already arranged. Not fear of Fleur. Never that. Fleur, Hermione had come to realise, was gentle, soothing. Her ethereal nature one that had emanated serenity when Hermione had needed it most. Gone was the haughty French teenager who would have been better suited to the pages of Vogue than the bloodstained battlefield that Hogwarts was to become. Fleur had grown into a force of nature, at once an otherworldly beauty and a calculated curse-slinger.
But still, even having witnessed Fleur’s flawless wandwork that brought death eaters to their knees, Hermione would never fear her. She had felt the loving care that the other witch had poured into Hermione’s recovery. For every deadly jinx the veela had levelled at the Dark Lord’s followers, Hermione had felt the balm of Fleur’s hands working her homemade tinctures into her battered and bruised body. Had silently watched the older witch’s eyes consider the word sliced into Hermione’s arm, seen the seething fury in those deep blue orbs, but felt only tenderness in her touch.
And that was what Hermione feared.
Those memories. She couldn’t escape them in her dreams. The cackle of the Lestrange woman had her waking to sheets soaked in sweat, or worse, more nights than not. And now was she to have a constant reminder of that time residing in the next room too? The thought of bumping into Fleur in the hallways of Harry’s house, of remembering their time together at Shell Cottage, the possibility of seeing pity in those cerulean eyes. That’s where the fear lay now.
‘Hermione?’ Harry called, letting the kitchen door close behind him.
‘In here!’ Hermione shot back, dislodging Crookshanks from her lap as she twisted in her seat to grab a book from the shelves behind her. She just had it opened on her lap as Harry pushed open the door to the study.
‘Alright?’ He asked, entering the room and allowing Crookshanks to slink out past him into the hallway.
‘Yes.’ Hermione nodded.
There was a pause as Harry looked about the study aimlessly for a moment.
‘Are you alright?’ Hermione asked slowly.
‘Course.’ Harry agreed. ‘Just checking you were.’
‘Right. Well, yes. All fine here, Harry.’ She replied, failing to keep the confusion out of her voice.
‘Good. Good. That’s… Good.’ Harry nodded quickly. ‘Do you want to… Uh, would you help me get Fleur’s room ready?’
‘Well, Ron’s working on dinner. In a huff because I beat him at chess.’ Harry chuckled, winning a wry smile from Hermione.
‘He’ll be insufferable now.’
‘When isn’t he?’ Harry joked.
‘A good point.’ Hermione agreed.
Harry nodded again. ‘So… Fleur’s room?’
‘Yes. Of course, Harry. Let’s go and sort it out.’ Hermione closed the book on her lap, noting with minor dismay that it was upside down.
Hermione followed Harry up the dark wooden staircase to the first-floor hallway of 12 Grimmauld Place. The house may have been rid of dark magic but it remained gloomy in its décor for the time being, a fact that none of its occupants had seen fit to alter just yet.
‘And you’re sure you’re alright with Fleur being here?’ Harry asked over his shoulder as he approached the door to the spare room.
‘Harry,’ Hermione intoned, ‘I’ve already said it’s fine. Twice.’
‘Right, right. I know. OK. That’s good. I think it’ll be good having her here. She’ll bring something else to the house, and she’s very easy to talk to, though I suppose sometimes she can still be a bit blunt. I think maybe it’s a language thing? But she’s more than her looks, you know?’ Harry rambled earnestly.
Hermione chuckled, despite her underlying nerves surrounding the conversation at hand.
‘I have met her, you know Harry?’
‘Of course. I just… Yeah.’ He finished lamely. ‘I’ll grab some sheets. We can make the bed.’
‘Sure.’ Said Hermione distractedly as she glanced about the room. It was dim and dusty, like the rest of the house, though it felt safe and familiar. Hermione was struggling to picture the platinum-blonde, effortlessly beautiful Fleur residing in this dingy room though.
She pulled her wand from her back pocket and made quick work of the dust collecting on the dressing table and the desk by the window as Harry rooted around in a trunk that looked like a hangover from the Hogwarts days.
Just as Hermione approached the window to clear the dust from its sill, a ghostly face appeared the other side of the glass.
‘Harry, get down!’ Hermione shrieked at once, preparing to stupefy whatever ghoul was peering in at them.
‘Hermione, no!’ Harry shot back at her, crossing the room in one single bound and shoving Hermione’s wand wielding hand aside.
Sparks shot from the end of her wand just as she thought the word ‘Stupefy’ and scorched a hole through the wallpaper just to the side of the window.
Hermione turned to Harry, her eyes wide and manic.
‘It’s an owl, Hermione. Just an owl. You’re alright.’ Harry said slowly, his hand still wrapped around her forearm.
‘But, I—’ Hermione began before cutting herself off. She looked back to the window, her heart hammering, and saw that the ghostly face did indeed have feathers… and a beak. ‘Oh.’ She breathed.
She cast her eyes down in embarrassment and caught sight of where Harry’s hand remained on her arm. She tugged it from his grip immediately and straightened her sleeve.
Harry heaved up the sash window and a beautiful barn owl hopped nonchalantly onto the desk. Its face was creamy-white as freshly unfurled parchment and the pale brown feathers adorning its back and wings were flecked with gold. It almost glimmered in the glow cast by the lamplight in the room.
‘Leandre.’ Harry stated, ‘He’s Fleur’s owl.’
The owl offered a small chirrup at the sound of his own name, and lifted his leg for Harry to take the letter tied there.
Hermione continued to gaze at the owl. She had, by this time in her life, seen plenty of the birds, a vast cross section of their species. Indeed, she had seen countless barn owls. And yet this specimen was by far one of the most beautiful creatures she had ever seen.
Leandre, satisfied that Harry had retrieved the message from his mistress, turned his black, piercing eyes on Hermione. She felt as though he was appraising her incredibly thoroughly and she couldn’t help but meet his eye. After a moment of considering one another, Leandre chirruped quietly again and alighted from his spot on the desk, coming to perch on Hermione’s shoulder instead. She grimaced momentarily, waiting to feel the sharp pinch of his claws through her jumper, but it never came. Instead, she felt a barely-there weight on her shoulder, and the soft flutter of downy feathers against her cheek.
She lifted her hand slowly to the bird offering a cautious finger and half expecting a nip in return. She received a gentle headbutt instead and chuckled.
‘Hello Leandre,’ she murmured, stroking the silky feathers below his beak.
‘Nice, isn’t he?’ Harry asked, causing Hermione to suddenly remember he was in the room.
‘He’s very handsome.’ She agreed, earning a proud tone of agreement from Leandre himself.
‘Definitely Fleur’s bird.’ Harry laughed.
‘So what does she say?’
‘She says, “Dear Harry… blah, blah, blah… yada, yada, yada…”’ Harry muttered, reading the letter in his hand.
Hermione’s brows furrowed in impatience.
‘She’ll be here after she finishes work tomorrow.’ He said finally in summary.
‘Tomorrow?’ Hermione gasped.
‘Yep.’ Harry nodded.
Hermione felt another nudge to her cheek from the owl on her shoulder, and raised her hand to stroke him soothingly once more.
‘We should probably sort that out then.’ Harry suggested, gesturing behind Hermione to the burn mark on the wallpaper which was still emitting small wisps of smoke.