—I'm actually starting another one? There's no sodding end in sight. I'm going to be at this forever.
All right then, let's get on with it, shall we? Characters are not mine, yadda yadda. Forgive any factual errors—haven't read HBP since it came out and I don't really care. Sorry I'm a bit cranky—it's probably because I wrote this at an unholy hour, and because I simply can't believe I'm attempting another story when my incomplete monsterfic is looming up at me from another file on my hard drive….
The house had not changed.
It had not changed aside from several suspiciously absent wall hangings and what seemed an unfinished exercise in carpentry lying bare-planked in the small backyard of 12 Grimmauld Place. Hermione could see it from her favorite perch on the overstuffed couch in the den, through a cloudy window that overlooked the yard. Other things had changed. The Black family tree had disappeared entirely and the portrait of Sirius's mother appeared to have finally succumbed to some destructive jinx or hex. The canvass was torn through and tattered shreds hung from the frame, flagging ominously in her wake whenever Hermione passed it. Whatever happened to the subject in the painting, she did not know, nor did she care to linger and inspect the remaining corners of fabric for clues, for the heavy drape which usually hung over it had been taken down and Mrs. Black's outraged cries of infidelity no longer rang out at the slightest disturbance within the house.
It must have been Harry's doing. He had changed a few things in very subtle ways that were still not conservative enough to have slipped Hermione's notice. She had not seen Kreacher at all in the days since she arrived, and Hermione shuddered to think what Harry had done to rid himself of the last remaining servant of the house of Black. The row of plaques bearing the mounted heads of Kreacher's forebears had also vanished, and Hermione could not bring herself to believe the house elf would stand for such dishonor while still drawing breath. What had become of Kreacher she could not guess, but her mind roved dangerously each time she walked the corridor where a row of shapes bleached from the peeling paint held testament to the grotesque plaques that so recently hung there.
The house had hardly changed, but the people in it had changed considerably. Harry most clearly embodied that fact, as he had become quiet and reticent in the months since Dumbledore's death. Hermione could only begin to grasp how greatly it had affected him—even more so than Sirius's death, she thought, for surely Harry had felt closer to the old wizard than he had to any other person alive. He'd known their headmaster years longer than Sirius, after all, and had continued to look up to him for counsel and guidance in the time since his godfather's death. It seemed every influential figure in Harry's life was being picked off one by one. Hermione wondered who might be next in Voldemort's list of ways-to-hurt-The-Boy-Who-Lived, but found the thought all too depressing and instantly banished it from her mind.
She hugged her knees tighter to her chest where she sat on the couch in the darkened living area, determined not to think about her and Ron's place in the hierarchy of influence in Harry's life. There had always been the possibility of harm that went along with being Harry Potter's friend, but Hermione's affection and respect for Harry would not likely change, no matter how bent the Dark Lord became on destroying the boy. After all, it was why she had chosen to take up residence in Order headquarters for the remainder of the summer, to be near to her friend. And also, said a calculating and loathsome voice in the back of her head, to be near to the powerful wizards, witches and aurors that frequented Grimmauld Place. It was hard for Hermione to imagine any danger to her or Ron while staying within those walls. And just maybe, she thought, that was why Harry had sent the owl inviting her to stay over as long as she liked. She had not been at all surprised to find other people close to Harry's heart—Ron and the rest of the Weasleys, as well as Kinglsey Shacklebolt, Alastor Moody and even Nymphadora Tonks—as semi-permanent fixtures there as well. While together in the house, they created a sort of protective network, not only for Harry but for one another. Here with members of the Order of the Phoenix was one last place Hermione felt truly safe.
She brought the teacup from the arm of the couch where she'd balanced it and to her lips, breathing in the scents of mint and Echinacea that wafted toward her nose. She sipped and felt the effects of the tea—combined with a mild calming draught—going to work on her senses. There was a wonderful tingling sensation spreading outward from her chest, and with it Hermione knew would soon come a pleasant sleep free from dreams of her old headmaster and nightmares of his murder-at-large, the Death Eater Severus Snape. Restful and uninterrupted sleep had grown scarce since Hermione left the sheltered comforts of Hogwarts. While admittedly a great deal safer within the walls of Grimmauld Place, she had not yet been able to fully relax, and it was taxing her nerves.
Hermione realized as she gazed out of the filmy window at the yard where the starlight glowed on the planks of the curious and lopsided little hut that she had not felt rested in a very long time. She propped her elbow on her knee, rested her chin in her hand and blinked out the window, weariness growing in her as the gentle magic of the tea did its work. She thought for a moment about retiring to bed but pushed the thought away when she remembered the particularly nasty dream that had spurred her to seek out her favorite thinking spot and a cup of calming tea in the first place. Sleep was not a pleasant place for Hermione to be these nights. Instead, she balanced the half-empty teacup on the arm of the couch and wrapped her arms around her knees again. She sighed, resting the side of her head against the threadbare material covering the back of the couch, and tried in vain to keep her eyes open. The smell of the tea drifted over toward her again…
—Hermione jerked into alertness when she heard the front door of Grimmauld Place groan on its hinges. Surely no one would pay the Order a visit in the middle of the night? Hermione, ears straining, became very aware of the buzzing silence of that quiet house. Then she heard the door protest softly again and click shut. Hermione's heart was beating very fast as she instinctively reached for the tip of her wand, sticking up over the hem of her pajama pants where she had stowed it for her late-night venture from her room. She considered calling out to the sleeping occupants of the house for help, but stifled the urge when a more rational part of her brain attested there must be a perfectly sound reason for the midnight entrance. Perhaps a member of the Order had returned from an errand or night watch? Even so…
Hermione was sure she heard the creaking of a floorboard that bore an uncanny resemblance to the loose one just outside the entrance to the den. She realized she was holding her breath and she kept her eyes fixed on the yawning space beside the doorjamb, where she expected at any moment to see the dark figure of an intruder. She waited, but no one emerged from the shadows. The floorboard squeaked again, and then moments later Hermione could hear feet on the stairs, leading up into the second level of the house and leaving her unmolested on the couch. There was another soft click that Hermione took to mean a resident had indeed returned from some late-night errand, and she let out a deep breath, withdrawing her hand from where it hovered over her wand. Yes, she thought, probably only Harry coming in from one of his mysterious and ill-advised disappearances into the muggle streets beyond Grimmauld Place. It made sense; his room had lain vacant as she'd descended the stairs an hour ago to enjoy her cup of tea.
"You're getting paranoid, Hermione," she whispered to herself, starting at the croaking, unused quality of her voice at that hour.
She sighed and pushed herself up from the couch. Waving a hand at the teacup perched on the arm of the couch, she muttered a vanishing spell and smiled at her effective use of wandless magic. Then she exited the den, dodging the loose board as she took an immediate left, toward the staircase near the front of the house. Her eyes lingered on the coat hooks adorning the wall near the front door, for there was a dark shape hanging there that had appeared since Hermione left her room. It seemed to be an ordinary traveling cloak, though the shadows of the house transformed it into something more sinister. Hermione shivered and forced her eyes away.
At the top of the stairs, she made a discovery that caused her stomach to give a disquieting jolt. Harry's bedroom door—the second on the right—was wide open, and as she passed she found it still empty. She frowned into the gaping doorway for a moment and then shook her head, trying to clear the bewilderment. Must have been someone else coming home, she thought to herself, and turned to make her way toward the second set of stairs at the end of the hall. Her room was on the third level, and she found that she strangely had never desired for it to be nearer. The eeriness of the place was beginning to set her teeth on edge, the way it always did at that time of night.
As she approached the second flight of stairs, she noticed something strange and came to a halt outside a door on the far left—a room that she knew for a fact to be unused as of earlier that day when she had gone looking for Crookshanks and found him curled contentedly at the foot of a bed in this very same unused room. The door had been shut sometime during the last hour. As she stood there, Hermione had the strange, uncomfortable feeling of a person eavesdropping on someone in the next room. She creased her brow at the inexplicable sensation and made for the stairs, casting a furtive glance over her shoulder and back toward Harry's door, almost expecting him to be standing there, watching her snoop around his house in the dead of night. Again she found herself musing over her friend and the events in his life that had led him to seek comfort in wandering unguarded streets at night.
Yes, she thought as she ascended the stairs, the house had not changed at all. It had never been—and would never be—a place of happiness.