In Harry Potter's mind, Hogsmeade was always inextricably linked with Christmas. His mental image of the village was all icicles and wreaths of holly, cottage roofs covered with a thick layer of smooth snow, the white cloud of his breath freezing in the cold air, and the delicious feeling of coming into the warmth of the Three Broomsticks. However, as he Apparated into the main street, and felt sunlight wash over him, Harry found he could also appreciate the charm of Hogsmeade as a summer village. Sweet-smelling flowers lined the window boxes of cottages and shops. Someone had set up a colourful ice cream stand near Zonko's; it sagged under the weight of several banners, signs, and flags ("Flavour of the month: Hungarian Horntail! Set your taste buds aflame!"), and clearly would have never held together without magic. Outside the Three Broomsticks, some small, round tables with brightly-coloured umbrellas had been set up. The tables were jam-packed full of a unique assortment of witches and wizards: Hogsmeade residents, tourists, a few dust-covered archiwizards (who must have been working on the construction up at Hogwarts), and a large group of young witches and wizards who were talking excitedly in an unfamiliar language. Unlike Harry's last visit here, when Death Eaters had controlled the village, the streets were now bustling with loud and happy people. Harry marvelled at how quickly the village had come back to life, at the foreigners who could now dare to visit, at the spirit of celebration and liberty that still pervaded the village weeks after Voldemort's fall. The years of darkness - Dementors and Death Eaters and Imperiused barmaids - had not sat well with Hogsmeade, and now that the magical village was free from worry, it was flourishing.
But upon closer look, there were signs of grief and remembrance, too. There was a shrine filled with flowers and photos in front of one of the shops, for a shopkeeper's son who had stayed at Hogwarts to fight and had never come home. There were long, white candles floating behind every window on the street, and Harry imagined them lit at night, floating in the windows as a tribute to the dead. At first swallowed up by the happy crowd, Harry now spotted a quiet group sitting at a table outside the Three Broomsticks. They were clothed all in black, and grief was still etched upon their faces.
Harry stepped forward to peer down a familiar side street, and barely recognised the Hog's Head. The pub seemed to have had its windows washed lately and the grime removed from its stone exterior. The broken bottles and other debris that had always littered the entrance had been cleared away. Several people were stopping briefly in front of the door with their heads bowed, as if paying tribute to the brave people who had rushed to Hogwarts' aid through the passageway inside and never returned.
Harry tore his gaze from the Hog's Head, suppressing the familiar feeling of guilt throbbing dully in his chest. He suddenly realised that Ron had not yet Apparated beside him. Harry immediately felt a jolt of panic, thinking of Snatchers, or Death Eaters, or being Splinched. The next moment he came to his senses and the panic was gone. It would be like this for awhile, Harry reckoned; he'd become habituated to being on constant alert. Harry smiled wryly to himself as Mad-Eye's "Constant vigilance!" echoed through his mind. A soft pop beside him announced Ron's arrival and of course he was safe and whole.
"Sorry," Ron said, squinting in the sunlight. "Mum caught hold of me just before I Disapparated. Wanted to know if we needed snacks for today. You're looking to buy a house, and she wanted us to bring snacks…honestly…"
Harry smiled, but Ron's grumbling seemed half-hearted. Harry had been staying on and off at The Burrow for the past month and Ron had been making a valiant effort at normalcy for Harry's sake. But Ron and his family had been dealt a terrible blow. The loss of Fred seemed to permeate The Burrow. The horrible truth was lurking on the edge of every strained conversation, was evident every time George came down from his bedroom to make a brief appearance in the kitchen. It was not George's resemblance to his deceased twin that shook Harry; it was that, for the first time in his memory, George was silent and listless. There were moments in which Harry barely recognised him. In Harry's mind, the twins were always laughing, and this quiet and solemn George bore no resemblance to the George that was sketched in his mind's eye. Though he shared in the Weasley's grief, Harry couldn't help but feel uncomfortable staying at the Burrow. The sight of Mrs. Weasley quietly crying into a stew, or a pale Ginny sitting silently with Percy in the garden, her hand atop his, seemed private and familial.
Ron had been surprisingly strong thus far. He and Ginny had unexpectedly become the rocks that supported the family's grief. Although on the surface Ron seemed to be holding up pretty well, Harry noticed that his friend had become a lot quieter, and his jokes were fewer. Ron seemed empty and flat sometimes.
"Where's Hermione?" Ron asked, looking around.
"Don't know. Maybe she's late?"
But a moment later they spotted Hermione emerging from Honeydukes with an enormous basket of sweets in her arms. She seemed to be struggling under its weight.
"Wingardium leviosa," said Ron quickly. The basket floated out of Hermione's arms and hovered in front of her, gently bobbing up and down.
"Thanks," Hermione said rather breathlessly. "I didn't expect it to be that heavy, and then my arms were full and I couldn't get to my wand."
Harry glanced at the basket, which was stuffed with every kind of sweet imaginable - Licorice Wands, Laughing Taffy, Chocoballs, Pumpkin Pops, Chocolate Frogs, several packs of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans…
"Hungry?" Harry asked innocently.
Hermione rolled her eyes at him. "I got here early and was waiting for you two, so I popped into Honeydukes just to pass the time. I guess the owners recognised me from that photo in The Prophet, because they gave me this thing and said it was the least they could do to thank us - "
"Hang on. They gave you this stuff for free?" Ron interrupted, looking over the basket appreciatively.
Hermione's cheeks were slightly pink. "Well I told them I couldn't accept it, but they made such a big fuss…"
"Are you kidding? This is brilliant, something like this would have cost ten Galleons, at least!"
It had been like this yesterday too, in Diagon Alley. It was the first time that Harry had ventured into a magical public place since the Battle of Hogwarts, and it had been absolutely mad. Strangers had kept stopping him to shake his hand, offer him gifts and ask to take photos with him. It had been like discovering he was famous all over again. He supposed that at least this time, he was famous for something he remembered doing. Still, it had been exhausting and though he had tried to be a good sport about it, Harry had felt extremely awkward. He'd been glad when Ron had finished whatever he'd had to do at Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes. Now that Harry thought of it, people had stopped Ron a few times as well.
"Its only half past one, should we get a drink first?" Hermione suggested. "Your appointment isn't for another half hour."
"Sure," Harry replied. He glanced back at the tables outside the Three Broomsticks, only to find that the group of young foreigners were now whispering excitedly and pointing in his direction.
"Er…somewhere quieter, though?" Harry said uncomfortably. "The Hog's Head, maybe? I'd like to say hello to Aberforth, anyway."
Ron and Hermione agreed, and they set off down the street at a leisurely stroll, the basket of sweets floating silently behind Hermione.
"How're your parents?" Ron asked Hermione.
"Fine," she replied, but Harry thought her voice sounded a bit strained. "They've still got some problems with short-term memory loss, though. Dad keeps losing his car keys and finding them in bizarre places, like the refrigerator. But I sent an owl to Professor Flitwick, and he said that it sometimes happens after big memory modifications, and they should be back to normal in a few weeks."
Hermione lapsed into pensive silence for a few moments. Presently, she glanced over her shoulder at the floating basket of sweets. "You know, you shouldn't have gone on about us so much in that interview in The Daily Prophet," she admonished Harry.
"I just told the truth," Harry said firmly. "I couldn't have done anything without you two."
Ron cracked a smile, and Hermione looked embarrassed but pleased.
"I'm still surprised you agreed to do it," said Ron.
"Well I had to, before Rita Skeeter decided to write a book called Harry Potter: Hero or Hothead?, or something along those lines," Harry said wryly. Hermione snorted.
The interview had been uncomfortable, but necessary. The events surrounding Voldemort's death would have been wildly distorted if left ambiguous. So Harry had decided that the best thing to do was to come forward and state the facts before gossip and rumour tainted the story. He had firmly stressed the importance of his two best friends, the DA, the Order and the Hogwarts professors. After talking it over with Ron and Hermione, he had also decided to speak about the Horcruxes; Voldemort's fate was a warning to anyone else foolish enough to consider pursuing immortality by shattering their soul. However, Harry had omitted his own role as an accidental Horcrux, and had left out the Hallows all together. He had been honest about Snape, and the author of the article, Melania Mumbleton, had painted Snape in a heroic light from what Harry had told her. Harry, however, was still coming to terms with what he had learned about the man whom he had hated for so long. Snape had been unquestionably brave and he had made astonishing personal sacrifices, all for the memory of Harry's mother. But Harry hadn't yet decided for himself if Snape could be called a hero.
The trio entered the Hog's Head and Harry found the inside of the bar seemed to have undergone a dramatic cleaning-up as well. The windows had been scrubbed clean and sunlight could now shine through without a thick layer of dust and filth impeding it. The peculiar smell of farm animals, which had always pervaded the Hog's Head, had disappeared. Although still not as cosy as the Three Broomsticks, the bar was brighter, cleaner and the clientele seemed to have increased in respectability. Harry, Ron, and Hermione settled down at a table, Hermione's basket of sweets dropping unceremoniously to the ground beside her. Harry surreptitiously checked under the table for the usual mesh of cobwebs to be found there, and was pleased to find that they, too, had been cleaned out. He glanced over at the bar and the reason for the changes became apparent: a young witch wearing ruby red robes was behind the bar, wiping down glasses. She glanced up at them and let out a squeal.
Harry's jaw dropped. It was Lavender Brown.
She bounded over to their table, ruby robes flying behind her. "Hi!" she said enthusiastically. "Oh, it's so good to see you all!"
Lavender swept down upon Harry and gave him a bone-crushing hug. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Hermione pointedly slide her chair closer to Ron.
"Good to see you too," Harry managed to gasp out once Lavender released him. She gave Ron a hug as well, and then abruptly stopped in front of Hermione. For a wild second, Harry thought there was going to be some sort of confrontation - after all, Lavender had been downright hostile towards Hermione during the 'Won-Won' days - but then Lavender clasped Hermione's hands, her eyes shining.
"You saved me," Lavender pronounced. "From being bitten by Fenrir Greyback, during the battle. You saved my life."
A fleeting image of Hermione blasting Greyback away from Lavender entered Harry's mind. Lavender released Hermione's hands and embraced her like a sister. Hermione looked bewildered; she awkwardly patted Lavender's back and seemed relieved when she finally let go of her.
Harry invited Lavender to join them. She happily Summoned another chair over to their table, sitting down between Harry and Hermione.
"So you…work here?" Ron asked incredulously.
"Since the end of June," said Lavender. "It's kind of a long story…you see, Aberforth was providing us all with food while we were in hiding in the Room of Requirement, but there ended up being quite a few of us in there. So some of us girls started helping him out with the food when we could. I started sneaking in a few Cleaning Charms too, when I had the chance, because the place was just filthy, remember? Aberforth got angry with me for doing it, but I think he was secretly pleased to discover he actually had a floor under all that filth. Anyway, when I got out of St. Mungo's - " Harry remembered that Lavender had been injured in the battle, and felt his stomach twist with guilt. " - I dropped by here to say hello and Aberforth offered me a job on the spot!"
"Never was great at Cleaning and Tidying Charms, myself," said a familiar, gruff voice.
Aberforth had appeared behind them. Harry stood to shake his hand and Ron and Hermione followed suite. Even Aberforth looked a bit neater, but not much. His beard had been trimmed slightly and his glasses had been cleaned, but there still seemed to be a faint odour of goats about him.
"They've been talking about making the Hog's Head a historical site, you know!" Lavender said excitedly. "We couldn't have it looking like it hadn't seen a Scouring Charm in centuries. Oh, excuse me, I think Madame Bromskin needs a refill…" Lavender beamed at them all and hurried off.
"She's chased away all my usual customers," Aberforth grumbled. But Harry thought he detected a faint note of fondness in his voice. "What brings you to Hogsmeade? Aren't you supposed to be busy slaying vampires in Slovakia?"
Harry smiled wryly. "Actually, we were in Australia and there were absolutely no vampires involved."
After the death of Voldemort, Hermione had quickly tracked down her parents in Newcastle, Australia. But getting to them had proven more difficult than expected. It had taken weeks for Hermione to secure the proper papers for an international Portkey. The Department of Magical Transportation was evidently extremely understaffed. Furthermore, they had been very busy getting people who had fled England back into the country. Finally, after weeks of writing back and forth to the Ministry, Hermione managed to procure papers allowing her to set up a Portkey for two to Australia. After some heavy debate, Ron had conceded to let Harry go with her, realising that his mother wouldn't take well to him going off travelling so soon after Fred's funeral. They had found the Grangers easily enough, living happily in Newcastle as Wendell and Monica Wilkins, completely oblivious to the fact that they had a daughter. Hermione had performed some tricky magic to lift the enchantment she'd placed on them and then had done some even trickier explaining when her parents demanded why they had been living under false names in Australia for nearly a year. They had returned from Australia a few days ago and Harry had been staying at the Burrow since then.
Aberforth raised an eyebrow. "Funny time for a vacation."
Harry shrugged, and Hermione cleared her throat. "Actually, we're in Hogsmeade because Harry's looking for a house!"
"Are you, Harry?" said Lavender, returning to the table with three Butterbeers. "On the house, of course," she stated, placing them in front of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
"You want to find a place in Hogsmeade?" Aberforth asked.
"Actually, I was thinking somewhere more…out-of-the-way," said Harry. "But I found an ad for an estate wizard who deals with country properties and his office is here in Hogsmeade."
"I still say you're mad," Ron muttered. "You can stay with us, we have the space…"
Ron trailed off, looking uncomfortable with what he'd said. Harry knew that he had meant it innocently, but the idea that there was space to fill at Ron's house was yet another reminder of Fred's absence, even though Fred hadn't lived at The Burrow for a few years. Harry loved the Weasleys, and The Burrow was like a second home to him. But he couldn't intrude on their family mourning for much longer, nor did he want to continue to take advantage of their hospitality. Grimmauld Place, though greatly improved, didn't feel like a home and never would. Going back to the Dursleys wasn't even a thinkable option. This idea of finding a place of his own had got stuck in his head. Nothing else about his future seemed certain at this point, but finding a house was a realisable goal and Harry had fixated on it.
"But isn't it silly to buy a house now?" Lavender asked, frowning. "Aren't you going back to Hogwarts when it re-opens?"
Ron and Hermione looked to him, as if they had been wondering this as well, but had been too afraid to ask. The issue of Hogwarts had not been discussed amongst the trio; Ron and Hermione seemed to be taking their cues from Harry, who had said nothing on the matter. He did not know how he felt about returning to complete their unfinished seventh year. On the one hand, Hogwarts was his first real home. Part of him yearned to return to homework and Quidditch matches and breakfast in the Great Hall. Furthermore, Hogwarts was where Ginny would be and the idea of spending his free hours in secluded areas of the grounds with her was extremely appealing. But, on the other hand, the school would never be the same. Dumbledore was gone, along with Snape, and Harry knew he would never be able to eat in the Great Hall without picturing the neat row of dead bodies that had lain there after the battle. After what he'd seen and done, Harry just didn't know if it was possible to go back to the days when unfinished essays and Quidditch matches were his greatest worries.
"When will it re-open, do you know?" Hermione asked when it became apparent that Harry wasn't going to answer.
"Well, I got a letter saying that they'll be holding N.E.W.T's in September for anyone in our class who wants to take them. The castle won't be ready for the actual school year by September, though. In her letter Professor McGonagall said November, at the earliest, and then school might run for a bit longer into summer holidays. It'll still be a shortened school year, but it's the best they can do, I guess."
A bell on the door jingled as it opened, and a burly, jovial-looking wizard trekked in, his boots leaving muddy footprints on the floor. Lavender frowned in disapproval, took out her wand, and siphoned the dirt off the floor from where she was sitting. Aberforth stalked off to help the new customer, apparently uninterested in Hogwarts business.
"They're also letting us repeat seventh year if we want to," Lavender continued. "We didn't exactly learn defence in Defence Against the Dark Arts, and between pulling those DA stunts, serving endless detentions, and then hiding from the Carrows, we weren't really concentrating on classes."
"Are you going to repeat the year, then?" asked Ron, who had procured a Chocolate Frog from Hermione's basket of sweets. He was now struggling to unwrap it under the table without making any crinkling noises, and kept throwing cautious looks at Hermione whenever he did make a sound. Hermione was either oblivious, or was generously ignoring it.
"Me? Oh no. I'm going to try for my Charms N.E.W.T. and that's all, I think. I like working here for now. Parvati and I have always wanted to open up our own beauty shop, though…if she gets better, we'll do it someday…"
Lavender suddenly became busy studying the floor and Harry felt another jolt of guilt surge through him. The last he'd heard, Parvati was still in St. Mungo's. Some very nasty Dark magic, courtesy of Bellatrix, had confined her to bed in a semi-conscious state. The Healers were still working on her, but the curse was unfamiliar to them and it seemed to be slowly sapping away her energy day after day.
"I'm sure she'll get better soon, Lavender," said Hermione kindly.
"Bloody hell!" Ron suddenly exclaimed, dropping his Chocolate Frog. The collectable card fell to the ground, and the frog made a desperate dash for freedom. Harry watched it hop over a few tables and out an open window. Ron bent down to retrieve the collectable card.
"What's wrong?" Harry asked.
"Take a look at that!" Ron said, shaking his head in astonishment. He passed the card to Harry. Lavender and Hermione craned their necks to see the card over Harry's shoulder.
Neville Longbottom looked up at him, grinning shyly. He was holding the sword of Godric Gryffindor in one hand, and the Sorting Hat was perched atop his head. Neville waved enthusiastically with his free hand.
"Well I'll be…" Harry said in amazement. Hermione snatched the card away from him to see it for herself before he had a chance to read it.
"Oh, you three have your own cards, too," Lavender said nonchalantly. "My nephew's got Hermione. He's trying to get Harry and Ron, to complete the set, but apparently Harry's is very rare."
Ron stared at her with his mouth slightly agape. Hermione's cheeks had turned apple red. Harry shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
It was getting close to two o'clock. The trio said goodbye to Aberforth and Lavender, who urged them to come visit again soon. The three of them left the side street on which the Hog's Head was found and set off down Hogsmeade's main street, Hermione's basket of sweets floating behind them again. Harry pulled out a folded-up ad from his pocket and scanned it; the heading read Country Gardens Estate Agency, in white script. Below this was a black-and-white picture of a middle-aged wizard with a very large smile. The words William Peet, sales representative were beside this picture, along with an address.
The address led them to a quaint-looking building with a large, white sign reading Country Gardens Estate Agency hammered into the ground. Photographs of several different homes were plastered to the shop windows. Some looked indistinguishable from Muggle houses; the only things moving in these pictures were gently swaying trees, or an occasional bird flying by. Other houses in the photos were quite clearly magical, with spinning chimneys or windows that kept re-arranging themselves. Harry tore his gaze from the photo of a bright pink house and pushed open the door.
The interior was small, a handsome desk on each side of the room. There were two comfortable-looking armchairs before each desk. The walls and ceiling were plastered with more glossy photos of houses, flats, cottages and happy customers. Suddenly, one of the big armchairs on the left side of the room started making its way over to the right side, so that three armchairs now sat in front of the right desk. A teapot, which had been floating in mid-air near the back of the shop, quickly poured its contents into three little teacups with the words Country Gardens Estate Agency written on them, and the teacups came zooming at Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Harry and Ron deftly caught theirs; Hermione quickly pulled out her wand and froze her teacup while it was still airborne, then plucked it out of mid-air.
A wizard in emerald green robes burst out of a door that Harry hadn't realised was there. His face was very tanned, and his skin had the leathery sort of look that came after excessive sun exposure. He beamed at the three of him, and Harry saw that his teeth were very white and very straight.
"And of course you're Harry Potter!" the man exclaimed, hurrying forward to pump Harry's hand enthusiastically. "Great to meet you, I'm a huge fan!"
Harry felt bizarre being addressed as if he were a rock star. "Er…nice to meet you too."
"Willy Peet, at your service!" the estate wizard said enthusiastically. "And you're Ron Weasley, of course and Hermione Granger…now, you wouldn't mind if I snapped a quick photo, would you?"
"I - " began Harry, but before he could get another word out, Willy Peet had grabbed a very large, clunky camera. There was a great bang and flash of light as Mr. Peet snapped a photo. Harry choked on the copious amount of green smoke that issued from the camera while their photo unfurled out the bottom of it. In the picture, Hermione and Harry lifted their hands to their faces to shield their eyes from the flash, while Ron jumped in surprise and spilled his cup of tea on himself.
"Lovely!" gushed Mr. Peet.
He sent the photo flying over to the far wall with a wave of his wand. It stuck to the wall next to a photo of Mr. Peet shaking hands with Quidditch player Aladair Maddock in front of a large, white house.
"Please, please, have a seat!" Mr. Peet insisted. "Can I get you anything? Drink? Snack?"
"We're fine, thanks," said Hermione as she drained the tea out of Ron's shirt with her wand.
"Well then sit down, sit down!" Mr. Peet exclaimed as he settled behind his desk. The trio sunk into the armchairs before him. "What brings you here, Mr. Potter?"
Harry suddenly felt nervous. He wasn't sure how to go about this; after all, looking for a house was quite an adult thing to do.
"Well, ah…I'd like to buy a house," he said rather stupidly.
"Of course!" Mr. Peet cried. He abruptly started talking twice as fast as he had been before. "I read your letter, of course, and I've got lots of lovely country properties in and around the Hogwarts area. Charming bungalow just outside Hogsmeade, two bedrooms, roomy kitchen, bit of a fixer-upper but nothing for a talented wizard such as yourself - "
"Actually," Harry interrupted, "I'm not necessarily looking for something around Hogwarts…"
"Of course!" Mr. Peet cried again; Harry was beginning to realise this was a favourite saying of his. Mr. Peet started rummaging around in his desk for something, a stream of words continuing to pour out of him. "I've got some lovely country cottages up in Covelly, beautiful little Muggle village, quite quaint, and some others up near Bibury, lots of space, secluded, perfect yards for playing Quidditch, and a great stone cottage in Chipping Campden, lovely village, have you seen the church?"
Harry was feeling dizzy. "Er - "
"Here, take a look!" Mr. Peet said, finally finding what he was looking for in his desk. He fiddled with it for a moment, and then shoved it into Harry's hands. Harry glanced down at the heavy black object. The device resembled two very short telescopes, attached together by a thin, silver tube.
"Binoculars?" said a puzzled Hermione at the same time that Ron said, "Omnioculars?"
"Proproculars!" corrected Mr. Peet enthusiastically. "A patented product of Country Gardens Estate Agency. Go on, Mr. Potter, have a look!"
Harry warily lifted the Proproculars to his eyes, and inadvertently gasped. He wasn't just looking at a red brick cottage in the country - he was there. He could feel the wind on his face, and hear the front door creak as it opened of its own accord. Curiously, he could also still feel himself sitting in the comfortable armchair at Country Gardens, and could hear Hermione asking Mr. Peet how the Proproculars worked. Harry didn't move a muscle, but somehow he started flying forwards towards the house. He was entering the open front door, looking around at the panelled walls of the entranceway, moving into the sunny sitting room…
"Just press here to change locations!" said Mr. Peet's disembodied voice. There was a clicking sound and the brick cottage vanished. Now he was approaching a large house of stone, with a well-kept lawn and neat garden.
Harry looked at - or rather, experienced - several other houses, but after awhile, they all began to look the same. He wasn't sure what exactly he was looking for, but nothing he had seen so far resonated with him. Harry was on the verge of giving up, had nearly convinced himself that the entire idea of buying his own home was a stupid one, when something finally caught his eye.
It was old, but pretty - a yellow cottage with a sloping, thatched roof. Harry glided through an open wooden gate, which was framed by a short wall made of mismatched stones. The pale yellow cottage had lots of small windows with white frames; a few jutted out of the roof, with triangular arches over them. Something that resembled ivy completely covered one side of the house. Harry watched as one tendril started moving, snaking around the front of the house to curl around the white banisters of a roomy front porch. He swore he saw a leaf wave enthusiastically at him. The property was huge, with a rolling carpet of long grass and many very tall, knobbly old trees. Behind the cottage, Harry could see a forest that seemed to sprawl out in every direction, and saw the sun glinting off a small body of water back there.
Harry didn't even have to go inside. He removed the Proproculars from his eyes and blinked a few times, the interior of Country Gardens Estate Agency coming back into focus.
"Where's that one?" he asked, handing the Proproculars back to Mr. Peet.
Mr. Peet peered into the Proproculars. "Ah, of course! Arbour Glen. I should have known! Just outside Bibury, very secluded; next house is ten minutes up the road. Originally built by Muggles in the 16th century, now with some magical renovations. Four bedrooms with built-in wardrobes, farmhouse-style kitchen, beams and flagstone tiled floor throughout, living room and conservatory - "
"Could I see that one in person?" Harry interrupted.
Mr. Peet was delighted to make an appointment for Harry to see Arbour Glen the following Saturday. Harry was given a map of its location, Peet's business card, several brochures, another mile-a-minute description of the cottage and one last enthusiastic handshake before he was finally able to leave the estate agency with Ron and Hermione. They stepped out into strong sunshine and although Harry felt slightly dizzy from information overload and his experience with the Propoculars, he also felt exceptionally happy.
"Anyone else have a headache?" Ron moaned, trying to filch another Chocolate Frog from Hermione's gift basket. Harry was sure Hermione saw it this time, but she chose not to say anything.
"He was very enthusiastic, that's all," said Hermione. "Are you sure you only want to go see one house, Harry?"
"Yeah," Harry answered contentedly. "This is the one. I've just got a feeling."
Hermione frowned. "Four bedrooms, though? Isn't it a bit big for just you?"
"Well, I'll want you two to come and stay over sometimes," said Harry thoughtfully. "And Neville and Luna and anyone else…"
He didn't dare mention Ginny; he had a feeling that Ron wouldn't take well to the suggestion that his sister stay over at Harry's place. Harry's mind was suddenly filled with thoughts of Ginny coming to visit him at the cosy yellow cottage; he pictured lying under one of those big trees, Ginny's head resting on his chest…
Hermione interrupted the daydream. "A big place like that is sure to be expensive," she pointed out.
"Maybe he'll get a celebrity discount," Ron suggested through a mouthful of chocolate.
Harry suddenly realised that they had begun walking the familiar route from Hogsmeade to Hogwarts. The three of them walked in companionable silence for awhile and Harry's thoughts strayed to Ginny again. They hadn't had a chance to be alone at all in the past few weeks and nothing had been said by either of them about where they stood. But Harry had been the one to hold her hand at Fred's funeral; he remembered Ginny's strong, sure grip and the look of resolve on her pale face, as if she had firmly decided not to cry. It was only as they were lowering Fred into the ground that she had turned her face into his shoulder and Harry had felt dampness through his shirt.
Ron and Hermione were now discussing what to do with the basket of sweets. Hermione didn't want to take it home, as she thought her dentist parents would surely throw a fit. Ron agreed to bring it home instead, and was clearly trying to hide that he was quite pleased with this turn of events. Harry forced his thoughts away from funerals and away from Ginny and thought about Arbour Glen. He hadn't even seen it yet, but he somehow knew he'd buy the house. He had only ever used his gold in Gringotts for school supplies and birthday and Christmas presents, so the majority of the small fortune his parents had left him still remained. Buying a home would be a worthwhile use of some of that gold, he reasoned.
They reached the Hogwarts gates before they even became conscious it was where they had been headed. Harry gazed up at the school, and felt like he was looking at an injured friend. A thick layer of dust, presumably from construction, partially obscured their view. A section of stone on the Astronomy tower looked as if it had been scorched by fire. Several windows were broken, and entire sections of the school had been blasted away. The grounds were still littered with piles of rubble. It appeared that progress was being made, though; even from the gates Harry could see the thin beams of light from the archiwizards' spells snaking around the castle.
Harry shifted his gaze. He could just make out a small dot of pure white in the distance - the white marble tomb, where the greatest headmaster Hogwarts had ever known now rested, along with the wand of which Harry was still master.
"It's not ever going to be the same, is it?" Hermione asked in a small voice.
"Not for us," said Harry heavily.
"I reckon they'll fix it up really nice, though," Ron said quietly. "Make it even bigger and better than before."
They stared up at the castle for a few moments longer. Then, quite abruptly, Hermione pulled out her wand and Conjured a cluster of white roses, which she lay in front of the gate.
Harry felt a fresh stab of guilt and tried to ignore the stinging feeling in his eyes. He glanced over at Ron, who was gazing at Hermione with a look of such affection that Harry tactfully turned away, feeling intrusive.
The sight of the school strengthened Harry's feelings about Arbour Glen. Hogwarts had been his home, but now the school was battered and broken. Hogwarts could never be the same for him. His trip to Godric's Hollow earlier in the year had made Harry realise his need for a home, a real home, of his own.
The three of them turned and walked up the road, away from Hogwarts.