Neville couldn’t quite settle his nerves. After introductions, mostly unnecessary since the professorships of Hogwarts had not changed much in the last ten years, there was only one other professor unaccounted for. And it happened to be the one professor that Neville was most anxious about meeting again, even though he tried not to be.
It was ridiculous, he kept telling himself. It had been ten years since school. It had been seven years since he’d seen him last, before Neville had busied himself on the family estate following the death of his gran. While deeply saddening, even given their complicated relationship, her death had given him the opportunity, excuse really, to disappear from the public eye behind the strong warding around the estate.
If it hadn’t been for Minerva’s offer of employment at the ten-year anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts, Neville could have quite happily spent the rest of his life ferreted away on the estate, far away from the madness that still followed him and every other so-called Hero of Hogwarts. Facing the public again for the memorial had been just as gruelling as he’d remembered, but he had been happier than he had been before he’d hidden himself away, so it hadn’t been quite as bad as he’d expected. It had been a little easier to block them out, maybe. He’d started with a higher mood to be chipped away, perhaps, so it had taken a little longer before he’d felt weighed down by it all. He was certainly glad he’d gone, even if it had taken a good deal of badgering from his friends.
Hearing about Pomona’s resignation had been a surprise, since he’d had her over to tea the week before and she hadn’t said anything. But thinking back on how carefully, and rather deviously, Minerva had led him into the offer of employment, it had probably been an intentional omission on Pomona’s part.
Really, he wasn’t sure why he had agreed to the post in the end, since it would put him back in the public eye, even if only at Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. It seemed like a step backwards away from the comfort and happiness of filling his day with work around the estate.
Hopefully, the younger generation kept to worshipping Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and weren’t quite so impressed with Neville and the others. Or at the very least, the fact he was a professor, and that they were still so young, they should be too shy to badger him about the war. Or at least he hoped so.
In any case, he’d agreed, and he was here now. Professors he did not previously know well now had first names that were awkward rolling off his tongue. He’d had two cups of tea, a rather spectacular scone and slice of cake, and the first staff meeting ahead of the arrival of the students was over. Without the potions professor present.
Minerva was seated in the chair across from his, but all the other professors had left as they waited.
“I really wish I could say this doesn’t happen often,” she said, sounding tired as she poured herself another cup of tea from the levitating pot. “But he does get absorbed in his experiments.”
“You really don’t need to stay,” Neville said, waving off the pot as it floated towards him. It sank a little lower in the air and he felt immediately bad, against his better judgment. “This is unnecessary, really. It’s not like he’s a stranger.”
“Ten years makes strangers of us all,” she replied sternly.
Her purpose in staying was obvious.
“We’re hardly going to fight like stupid teenagers,” Neville muttered, playing with a hole at the bottom of his cardigan. He really should repair it, but he just always seemed to forget.
“I should think not! But I would be poor headmistress if I didn’t reprimand him appropriately for missing the first staff meeting of the year. Even if he has done it before and will only go on to miss many, many more.”
Neville tilted his head in acknowledgement, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Being there had him feeling wrong-footed and out of place. It was easier to say nothing and wait until it was clearer what the more appropriate thing to say was. It was a habit he had not indulged in for quite some time, and one that made him feel very young and meek again.
But he supposed that was to be expected, being back in his childhood school and in the presence of a professor who, if he was being perfectly honest with himself, had frightened him a good deal with her sternness. Even if she’d had nothing on Snape.
Luckily, however, it seemed he didn’t need to think of a response, as the door to the staff room finally creaked open.
As if he hadn’t missed the meeting, Draco Malfoy walked in slowly and went straight for the teapot, which had settled forlornly on the table against the wall opposite the door but lifted up a little, somewhat hopefully, as he approached it. He walked right past them without any acknowledgement at all.
That, and seeing him again, made Neville tense up at once. Even though he wasn’t the bumbling, insecure boy he had been, there was something about Malfoy that made him feel much shorter and much less capable. He’d always felt that way, ever since he’d first seen him at a party before they’d ever even come to Hogwarts. It was something he was determined to hide, lest he unintentionally give Malfoy the upper hand over him. Malfoy already had seniority, having had the post of Potions Master for four years. If he knew just how much he still affected Neville, he’d surely use it against him somehow.
Across from Neville, Minerva unfolded gracefully from her chair. “I really do expect better timekeeping from my professors, Draco,” she chided, gently enough that Neville could tell it was by rote and not from real annoyance.
“Sorry, Minerva, won’t happen again,” Malfoy said, not even turning to look at her as he fixed his tea. “I was having temperature fluctuations that might have turned explosive had I not stayed to stabilise them. You know how it is.”
The blatant disrespect in his tone, and the fact he didn’t even face her while talking, made Neville bristle and stand himself. Minerva only made a soft tutting sound.
“Perhaps it would be wiser not to start a sensitive experiment on the day of a staff meeting,” she suggested in a tone that made it clear it was a regular suggestion.
Her lack of irritation at his terrible manners made Neville uncomfortable all over again. It was not expected, and it was a stark reminder that he was stepping into a group that had already formed bonds without need of him and without room for him. The possibility of stepping wrong and alienating himself was high. He could already feel himself start to get a bit wobbly from worry.
“Well, now that you’re here, show some manners and greet our newest professor,” she said sternly, finally appearing a little more herself as Neville had known her in school. He’d seen the softer sides of her during all the times they’d had tea leading up to her finally convincing him to take the post after the memorial where she’d first broached the idea, but it was still odd to see her express anything other than sternness. Calling her Minerva was even stranger, but she had insisted, at length.
A moment after she spoke, Malfoy turned. Holding a teacup in one hand, he raised it to take a sip as his gaze fell on Neville.
Feeling his body tense, Neville fought the urge to hunch over. It was not a thing he’d done in a long time under the scrutiny of another, but something about Malfoy’s gaze made him want to try and protect himself. Even more so as he noticed Malfoy’s gaze linger around his midriff.
The last time they’d seen each other had been Neville’s last public appearance at a social event, back when he’d been fixated on what people said about him in the papers and the pressure to look like the hero everyone called him. He had been far more fit then. It was all he could think of, his memory of Malfoy at that time being vague, remembering himself far more easily since he had been so fixated at the time. It had been not long after the New Year and he remembered, with much embarrassment and regret, being fixated on how badly he had wanted to pluck the fancy food off the floating trays after half-starving himself over Christmas. All the charitable organisations had wanted photographs of him at events over the holiday season. So many photographs, so many opinions.
At times he really did miss being so fit, but it had led to much unhappiness in the end, with the way he had been fixated on maintaining it and improving it beyond what was reasonable.
Letting himself live again and stop obsessing about his appearance, as difficult as that had been for a long time, had led to him regaining his pre-war weight and then some. But he was fine with that now. He was happy now, regardless of what the papers had to say on the matter. Not that he let them see him often enough to hear much about it.
But he was already tensing at the prospect of Malfoy saying something snide about it, just like when they were children in this very same castle. Malfoy and Parkinson had loved to call him fat then, and no doubt the habit would resurface regardless of professionalism. Especially since he was rounder than he had been then and Malfoy didn’t appear to have changed, given the way he’d disrespected the other staff by missing the meeting and then Minerva by not even looking at her while he spoke to her.
Happier and more secure with himself than he had ever been, he knew he was able to defend himself and put Malfoy in his place, like he had never been able to when he was younger. But that didn't stop the sudden onset of nerves and worry.
“You should really get that hole mended before the students get here,” Malfoy said in a bored drawl, drawing Neville from his thoughts with a jolt. “It makes you look shabby. Some of them can be vicious little buggers about things like that, you know.”
Without thinking, Neville looked down at the hole in his cardigan and tugged at it with one finger. Malfoy’s words were so unexpected that he floundered for a response.
“Draco,” Minerva said sternly.
With a scoff, Malfoy gestured at Neville. “Don’t act like you weren’t thinking the same thing,” he said. “If it wasn’t his first day, you’d have made him repair it on the spot. Don’t think I’ve forgotten the way you were about my robes when I got here.”
Glancing over Malfoy himself, a little more carefully, Neville was surprised to see there were a multitude of stains on the front of his robes, visible even on the dark cloth. It didn’t match the idea of him that he had in his head, and the way Malfoy had always seemed so impeccably dressed at all times. The idea that he had arrived at Hogwarts with holes in his robes seemed too ridiculous to be true. Even as a child, he had been so dignified in the way he held and dressed himself.
“I don’t care if you only wear them when you experiment in your personal laboratories,” Minerva said in a stern tone. “Clothing with holes are a hazard. Even more so in a sensitive potions laboratory. I’d expect you not to need that lesson from me as often as you do!”
After taking another two sips of his tea, and leaving the room in an awkward silence by not responding, Malfoy turned to look at Neville. He looked him over again and then put his tea cup down.
Neville tensed all over again as Malfoy walked over to him. But all Malfoy did was hold out his hand.
“Well then, let’s get this inane tradition over with,” he drawled. “Welcome back to Hogwarts, Neville.”
Hearing Malfoy say his given name made Neville shiver, and he hoped Malfoy couldn't tell. Even though he felt thrown by this reintroduction to Malfoy, and was still waiting for him to do or say something nasty, Neville took his hand and shook it firmly. He refused to be anything but civil until someone was otherwise to him. It was something that had always worked well for him, and something that had only become easier and easier the more confident in himself and his abilities he’d become. He wasn’t going to let their history change that.
“Malfoy,” he said firmly in acknowledgement.
“Ooh, tut-tut,” Malfoy snickered quietly.
“I encourage the use of first names amongst all the staff,” Minerva said, and Neville saw that she was watching with a close eye. “It promotes an air of unity, which is beneficial for the students even though you will use more formal address in front of them.”
Malfoy leaned closer and Neville fought the urge to step back. “She means she insists, really,” he said softly, though still loud enough for her to hear. “Best get used to it.”
Minerva raised an eyebrow at Neville and appeared to be waiting. Upon looking back at Malfoy, so did he.
Feeling very odd indeed, Neville shook Malfoy’s hand again, since he had not let go.
Malfoy let his hand go with a very satisfied expression. It made Neville stand a little taller. It seemed like Malfoy was mocking him, but at the same time it didn’t feel anything like what it had once felt like.
He didn’t know what to make of it.
“Well, this has been lovely,” Malfoy said, putting his teacup back near the tea things where it was promptly banished back to the kitchen. “Was there anything important in the meeting?”
Minerva shook her head, but her expression was not as stern as Neville expected. Uneasy, he took his leave while she filled Malfoy in.
With time, he was sure he’d come to understand the dynamic between all the professors, and find his own with each of them in turn. But he did not relish discovering a working dynamic with Draco Malfoy.
While still feeling awkward and out of place, rather like an outsider trying to infiltrate some secret group with all these codes and inside jokes, Neville managed to settle more quickly than he had expected. The professors who had known him were fond of him. The new faces were quick to bring up his deeds in the war, and just as quick to drop them when he said he didn’t want to discuss it. Finding a place of mutual respect was easy, for the most part.
Malfoy remained an odd mixture of distant but jokingly snide. At least, Neville assumed it was joking. It didn’t quite seem cruel like he remembered him to be. But for quite some time he still found himself anxious and uncomfortable around him. Despite his determination to the contrary, he also still found himself hunching over slightly if Malfoy fixed him with a scowl or a withering look. Even more so if it came with a barb, whether it was deathly sharp or merely a pin prick.
He did manage to return some barbs, but he always found himself sounding very overly defensive or unsure of himself when he did. Which always made him hunch over a little more, waiting for Malfoy to jump on it as a sign of weakness to exploit.
Unexpectedly, Malfoy either didn’t notice any of this, or didn’t care. He didn’t get any worse or any better. Rather, he treated Neville the same way he seemed to treat everyone, if slightly colder and more distant.
It was all very disconcerting and Neville just tried to avoid him as best he could, irritated with his loss of confidence around him, and the feeling of wrong-footedness that came with their every interaction.
Malfoy, it seemed, had changed but Neville didn’t much care to find out why or by how much. Or what kind of person he was now. They taught in different areas of the castle and never had to talk to each other outside of meetings, which Malfoy hardly made it to anyway. It shouldn’t be difficult to maintain a little distance.
“Why would you volunteer?” Neville asked Malfoy as the other professors left the room. “That’s almost more shocking than the fact you turned up for the meeting at all.”
Malfoy fixed him with a withering look that had far less impact now than when the school year had started. Back then it had made Neville lose all his hard-won confidence at once and hunch over a little, as if to prepare for a thorough cursing. It didn’t stop him from engaging in conversation with him, when he had to, but it did keep him in an oddly uncomfortable state whenever he was around him.
“Think about it. It’s not hard, though I’m sure you’re out of practise after playing in the dirt for so long,” Malfoy deflected, standing gracefully from his chair and then watching with a sneer as Neville struggled out of his.
In retrospect, Neville should have chosen a chair that didn’t have abandonment issues and tighten around whoever tried to leave it. It was hard to appear serious around Malfoy when he was struggling out of an overly affectionate armchair. He and Minerva had commiserated together, at length, about the personalities Dumbledore seemed to have imbued the staff furniture with during his tenure. It was quite irritating at times.
“You spend most of the time complaining about the little brats, why would you give up your holiday to watch them?” Neville persisted as he finally freed himself from the chair.
Malfoy merely scoffed. “You complain about them just as much.”
Neville couldn’t argue that. The first years were giving him hell. He was sure none of his own year-mates had been such brats in their first year.
Although, thinking back, they had probably been worse, just in different ways.
“I do this every year, do catch up,” Malfoy said, his brow furrowed as if he was aware that Neville was thinking about what a brat he had been when he was younger. “But don’t go thinking it’s about them. I have experiments running.”
Neville shook his head. He was having none of that.
“When I brought you those dittany clippings yesterday, you only had one potion simmering away, and you said it was almost finished.”
“For Merlin's sake, Longbottom,” Malfoy hissed, clenching his fists. “We don’t all have sprawling estates to return to for the holidays! Nor do we all have happy families to spend Christmas with! Aren’t you supposed to be the nice one? Leave it alone!”
Malfoy turned to storm out, but before Neville could stop himself he’d reached out and grabbed his arm. In his anger, he probably gripped it too tight.
“Don’t you dare mention family to me!” he snapped. “My parents are strangers who don’t know me and my grandmother died years ago. I have no one else. At least your parents still know and love you!”
Tearing his arm free, Malfoy wouldn’t look at him.
Neville took a step back and forced himself to calm down. He hadn’t lost his temper like that in a long time but it was already fading, replaced by that sinking feeling he got when he thought about family. When he thought of his parents’ vacant eyes when they looked at him and the fact they were all he had left, and that he didn’t even really have them at all.
“You don’t know anything,” Malfoy muttered.
When he left, Neville didn’t stop him, too afraid he’d lose his temper again and do something he’d regret. They’d made it this far without fighting and he was determined to pass the full school year avoiding it. Even if he sorely wished to follow and hex him.
The papers reported often enough on when he visited his parents, one of the few times anyone managed to get photographs of him anymore. There was no way Malfoy didn’t know. Just like he certainly knew about Neville’s grandmother passing. There had been a big spread about that in the papers at the time. Neville had learned more about the extent of his inheritance from those articles than he’d ever known, and all before the family solicitors had even paid him a call.
Regardless of whatever Malfoy’s sensitivity was about, to say Neville had a happy family was an obvious, and intentional, slight. More like inflicting a grievous wound to shut him up.
And as he sat back down in the chair and felt it tighten around him in glee, he felt that familiar pain rising again and hated Malfoy more than he had in a long time.
With Malfoy and several other professors electing to remain at Hogwarts over the Christmas holiday, Minerva was happy to let Neville return home. It was a good chance to make sure that all the staff he’d hired to maintain the grounds were following his instructions, and a good chance to have some time to himself.
Even working in the greenhouses, Neville had been surprised by how rarely he found himself alone at Hogwarts. If he wasn’t teaching a class Hagrid often stepped in to talk if he was free too, or even one of the other professors. When there were no classes, or when some of the seventh-year students had a free period, he had students coming to him with questions about assignments. He even had one or two that reminded him of himself, always stopping by full of interest and passion. Future herbologists for certain, and he did his best to cultivate that passion with them.
Even if he wasn’t in the greenhouses, there was always someone in the staff room, and he often found himself there having tea and a biscuit with Minerva, or Poppy, or even Filius, who Neville had discovered was quite fond of poetry and enjoyed reciting his favourite parts to any willing ear. Always slightly different every time, and hearing the new embellishments was half the fun of it.
The only time Neville was really alone was when he was in his quarters, or the early and late hours in the greenhouses. Even if those were the times Malfoy was most likely to come asking, or demanding, depending on his mood of the day, for this or that for his potions storeroom.
To return home for two weeks and be so isolated and alone on the family estate again was strange. It had been such a relief when the attention of the public had gotten too much, and half-starved and constantly tired from trying to look the hero, he’d retreated from it all. Then he supposed he had just gotten used it, having his friends visit him had been so preferable to going out and getting hounded by the press. That never ended, and it still made him scoff to himself at times. That anyone considered him a hero when he had really not done all that much and others had certainly done more. It was ridiculous, but it persisted past his expectations.
On Christmas day he stayed at St Mungo’s with his parents for as long as he could even though, like always, there was no change. Then he’d had to sneak out a secret entrance to avoid the press that had gathered at the front because someone had spotted him going in much earlier than he’d used to.
Back at the estate, forcing his mind away from his parents and the dual pain and comfort he always felt when he saw them, he couldn’t get Malfoy’s words out of his mind. As much as he didn’t want to spend his holiday thinking about that prat, it was a distraction.
But it bothered him, as he stood at the edge of one of the decorative ponds behind the manor and looked out of the sprawling grounds. He knew that the Malfoys had maintained their grip on their estate, even if they had been almost bankrupted by costly reparations. He also knew Narcissa Malfoy had remained in the country, even if she never seemed to be spotted anywhere or seen by anyone.
So he couldn’t fathom Malfoy’s words and found himself thinking of them often, even while he found things to occupy himself with on the grounds.
Even with the strange turn of his thoughts, it felt good to work his own land again. But when he returned to Hogwarts, he didn’t miss the solitude like he might have once expected.
“What can I do for you, Neville?”
Shuffling inside the door, Neville gave a helpless shrug at Minerva’s amused expression. He never could get used to being in her office. He still felt as if he was years younger and being told off for something. From her reaction every time he stepped in, it showed in his countenance.
“Why does Malfoy always stay for Christmas? He made it sound like he had no choice,” he said plainly. She knew him well enough to know if he was talking around something and wouldn’t appreciate it.
“It is not my place to gossip about the private lives of my staff,” she said shortly, tapping the desk with her wand. A small tea service appeared a moment later, and Neville grimaced and sat down. “But it is my place to remind you, again, of my desire for us to all use first names with each other.”
Now he really felt like he’d done something wrong. Or knew it, really. He’d known she wouldn’t tell him anything but it was still on his mind, and he knew Malfoy would never tell him anything personal either. They really only talked at staff meetings, if Malfoy even bothered to show up, or when Malfoy came to him for potions ingredients. Although, perhaps that had a great deal to do with Neville avoiding him for the first few months of the school year.
“I made him rather cross after that meeting before Christmas,” he explained, taking a little cake off the plate she offered. “Didn’t want to do it again by saying the wrong thing.”
Minerva cleared her throa, and her lips twitched as she poured herself a cup of tea. “Well, it isn’t always difficult to make Draco cross.”
“Everyone else seems to get along with him fine,” Neville remarked, hating the tone of his own voice. He sounded unexpectedly petulant about it. They were perfectly civil, most of the time, and he didn’t care to be friends with him so he couldn’t account for it.
Minerva did chuckle at that as she poured his tea too. Neville watched the cup fill and wished he hadn’t knocked on her door. But Malfoy had been cold with him ever since that meeting before the holiday. It was strange. He’d thought Malfoy was always cold towards him but this proved otherwise. It was impossible not to notice the change. It was also oddly unpleasant. Even if Malfoy was still a bit of a git most of the time he did talk to Neville, that was preferable to the cold shoulder now.
Really, Neville just wanted to go back to civility and forget the whole business. But he didn’t know how to fix his mistake when he didn’t really know what it was. For all his thinking about it during the holiday he still didn’t understand Malfoy’s words, or what was behind them.
And it really didn’t help that he still found himself uncomfortable and anxious around Malfoy when he had something important to say or do. He still found himself waiting for Malfoy’s sharp tongue to show itself, even though it rarely did now, at least, not in any way that actually hurt. So he was reluctant to go to him directly about this.
“You must remember that he has had his post for four years,” Minerva said kindly as he continued to stare at his tea instead of drinking it. “We’ve all become used to each other. You’ll get the measure of us all in time. Just like, eventually, you’ll find it more natural to use given names.”
Neville snorted softly and picked up his tea to avoid saying anything. It wasn’t ready, he hadn’t added any milk or sugar and it was bitter, but it suited his mood. He didn’t think he’d ever find himself calling Malfoy by his first name. He’d only done it three times since the start of the school term, each time when Minerva had been present and there had been no other way around it. Each time it had felt strange and uncomfortable on his tongue. The way Malfoy looked at him each time didn’t help. Smug and self-satisfied. As if he was winning something even though he had nothing to do with making Neville say it.
Even if he was a lot more civil than he had ever been in school, Malfoy really was still a git underneath it all.
Across from him, Minerva chuckled quietly. “He was much the same as you in the beginning, as I’m sure you can believe.” She picked up a biscuit. “Now, you haven’t said anything since you got back. Did your holiday at home make you rethink staying on another year? The students love you, as do we all. It would be such a shame to see you go after only one year.”
Neville watched her take a sizeable bite of her biscuit, and then looked away. He had expected to enjoy every aspect of being back home, since maintaining the estate had consumed him for so many years. But the loneliness had been so unexpected. In such a short time it seemed, he’d already grown heavily attached to Hogwarts all over again, attached to being around so many people all over again.
“I think I can manage another year,” he said slowly, picking up his tea and taking another bitter sip while considering his next words. He hadn’t even finished his first year, to ask for anything seemed like crossing a line.
“Well go on. The suspense is killing me,” Minerva said dryly.
Neville felt his face flush. “Just before I took this job, I was starting to experiment with magical and non-magical plant hybridisation. The greenhouses are so full of teaching plants and stock for potions that I don’t have the space to do any experimentation here. And it’s not really practical to keep travelling to the estate and back.”
The corner of Minerva’s mouth twitched. “And I suppose this has nothing to do with the four personal potion laboratories Draco has down in the dungeons?”
“Four? I hadn’t noticed more than the one,” Neville said honestly, although it didn’t surprise him that Malfoy had managed to weasel so many rooms out of her. She seemed to have an odd soft spot for him that Neville never would have expected and certainly didn’t understand.
“You’ll see them all eventually,” she said, her tone light with amusement. “I imagine he would be very interested in the applications of any hybrids you manage to have success with. It could also result in some interesting potion discoveries.”
“I hadn’t thought about it like that,” he admitted. “It’s more for interest than application.”
“Said like a man who has a great deal of wealth behind him,” Minerva said shrewdly.
Heat spread from Neville’s cheeks and all the way down his neck. He’d never quite managed to stop being embarrassed by his wealth. He’d never thought of the estate that way, as part of material wealth. It was just where he had grown up and even later, knowing it was larger than many other old pureblood estates, it had never seemed all that significant. The monetary wealth, however, made him uncomfortable. His grandmother had been sharp and frugal, and had left him in a better financial situation than he could have ever imagined.
Although, he was sure she would not have approved of the way he had hidden himself away on the estate for several years following her death. After proving himself such a hero, after finally earning her pride, he’d then shown himself to be such a coward. Part of him was glad he’d never have to hear what his parents thought of that.
“I would pursue any potential applications, of course,” he mumbled, his shoulders sinking.
“Well, it always does good for the school to be seen producing new discoveries across multiple fields,” she said. “I’ll talk to the board of governors about it at the next meeting.”
“I’ll come back either way,” Neville hurried to say, feeling guilty. “It would just be nice, is all.”
She smiled at him. “Of course, but I like to keep my staff happy. It’s a good atmosphere for the children to be taught in as well.”
Neville tried to focus on young Kyra Sutton where she stood across from his desk, head down and still explaining what plants she had stolen when she’d broken into Greenhouse Five, and how very sorry she was. It was only polite to pay attention to her, even if she was unable to meet his eye.
Instead, he was struggling not to look at Malfoy, who was standing behind her and just to the left. He had his hands held behind his back and a bored expression on his face. But he had brought her in and prompted her to confess her misdeeds to him. Since she had first started talking, Neville had failed to stay focused on her as he found his gaze kept shifting to Malfoy. Malfoy’s expression shifted into something akin to amusement when he noticed this. The sort of subtle amusement shown between people sharing a joke, only Neville didn’t know what joke they were sharing.
It was the first time Malfoy had not looked completely cold and distant in his presence since that staff meeting just before the Christmas holiday. Neville found himself oddly cheered by it. Even if they hadn’t been on good terms before, it was nice not to have one of his colleagues look so obviously reluctant to be in the same room as him anymore.
Suddenly, Malfoy cleared his throat and Neville jerked in his seat and looked back at Kyra, who seemed to have stopped talking. He had missed the last part of her confession and looked back at Malfoy. Malfoy only looked back expectantly and Neville almost visibly cringed. He still could not stand to give out punishments.
“Well, that was very brave of you to come and tell me that, Miss Sutton,” he said, trying to sound kind and stern at the same time but only sounding strained instead. “I’m very disappointed by the disregard you’ve shown towards the rules, and the lack of care you’ve shown towards living things. Your harvesting techniques left unnecessary damage to the plants and it took a lot of work to reverse.”
Kyra hunched a little lower and Malfoy seemed only more amused. “And what punishment would you like to see done here?” he asked lightly.
“As head of Slytherin house, I think it more appropriate that you handle the details of that,” Neville said, hoping to dodge the responsibility altogether.
Malfoy’s lips twitched and he brought one hand from behind his back to briefly brush a knuckle to his nose. It didn’t really do anything to hide the smile behind his hand.
Neville’s sense of balance only deteriorated further. Only the previous day, Malfoy had avoided looking at him for the entirety of their fortnightly meeting regarding his stock of herbological potions ingredients. Now he had an air of someone sharing a private joke with him and seemed overwhelmingly warm in comparison to how he’d been only the day before.
“You have no input?” Malfoy finally asked, shifting his hand behind his back to join the other again. He looked less amused, if still a touch too relaxed for the subject matter of the meeting. “No chores that need doing around the greenhouses that could be delegated to Miss Sutton here? I do prefer my students do something productive for their detentions. There’s no sense in purposeless punishment.”
Oddly reasonable, Neville thought as he caught another glimpse of that private-joke-expression.
“The compost from the kitchens needs turning every few days,” Neville said absently. “But I usually use spells.”
Malfoy’s lips twitched in an aborted smile again and he moved forward slightly.
“Excellent. Doing that by hand sounds like a reasonable balance after the extra work her actions caused you,” he said, before his expression shifted into something far sterner. “Wouldn’t you say, Miss Sutton?”
She nodded furiously but didn’t look directly at either of them. Oddly meek for a fourth year. Neville thought she reminded him of himself a little, actually. And she certainly knew enough about which plants could be valuable to any students brewing potions in secret. She was likely one of the suppliers of a secret little ring of beauty potion brewers Malfoy had been trying to catch recently. That probably accounted for some of his amusement and relaxed demeanour, if he’d finally caught one of them.
“Excellent, I will sort out the days and times with Professor Longbottom and then pass them along to you. You are dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir,” she mumbled, before turning and hurrying out of Neville’s office.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Malfoy chuckled and took the seat opposite Neville’s desk.
“I can never get past how strange it is to be an authority figure,” he said easily, looking completely relaxed. More relaxed than Neville had ever seen him. It was a shocking sight. He wasn’t even sitting straight. “I find making them admit their misdeeds to whomever they’ve wronged is the best method to discourage them from doing it again. Most of them are thoroughly embarrassed and shamed by the experience.”
“That makes it sound cruel,” Neville muttered, remembering all too well how much he hated feeling embarrassed, and how many times Malfoy himself had caused him to feel that way.
“Perhaps, but it’s effective and causes no lasting damage,” Malfoy said dismissively. “Besides, they all love you, you’re already a favourite. That was brilliant, telling her she’d disappointed you. She’s quite fond of you actually. She might really avoid doing it again.”
Neville frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Malfoy snorted. “You have no idea, do you? You haven’t even been here a full year and you’re already one of the favourite professors. It’s because you’re so nice, and so approachable.”
Neville wasn’t sure how he felt about that, and looked around awkwardly. Malfoy had never been in his office outside of asking for plants for his storeroom before. He wasn’t sure if he should offer him tea like Minerva did. He wasn’t really sure he even wanted to.
“Understandable, really,” Malfoy continued, looking around as well. “You always were unbearably nice.”
“And you were always unbearably cruel,” Neville replied before thinking.
Malfoy raised an eyebrow, but didn’t look at him. “I was a bit, wasn’t I? Odd how everything seems, looking back. You were just such an easy target, and it was so much fun. I never did think about how it must have made you feel. Or rather, I liked feeling so big by making someone else feel so small. Or imagining that’s what I was doing, whether it was the case or not.”
Heat rushed to Neville’s cheeks, and he fought down angry words. He wasn’t sure what to say to that and wanted to think about it first. They hadn’t really talked this much all year and it suddenly seemed very important, even if Neville couldn’t fathom what had brought it on.
“I’m sorry about that, you know,” Malfoy said a few moments later, finally looking at him again. “Being such a little bastard. I can’t offer excuses or reasons. I just was. But I am sorry for how you must have felt, and for being the cause of it. You didn’t deserve any of it.”
“Really.” Neville could hear the blatant scepticism in his own voice, turning the question into an odd statement instead, but he forced himself to sit tall. He’d never expected any of this from Malfoy, and it was throwing him completely off balance. Most of the time he still expected insults. An apology was something he’d never thought he’d get.
“Really,” Malfoy said, softer. He sounded so sincere that Neville found himself accepting it, even though perhaps he should have kept his guard up.
But he had no idea what to say. He wasn’t going to say it was okay when it absolutely wasn’t. He wasn’t even sure he should offer forgiveness, or if Malfoy even wanted it.
Before he could think of a reply, Malfoy stood abruptly. “Well, nice chat,” he said, suddenly sounding and looking very awkward. “I’ll send you a copy of Kyra’s schedule, just pick a few days for her to turn the compost and I’ll assign it for, say, three weeks?”
“Sounds fair,” Neville replied, looking at him curiously. His cheeks looked a touch pink but he was turning and heading to the door before Neville could get a proper look at him.
“See you at dinner then.”
Malfoy was gone before Neville could say anything more, and he found himself staring dumbly at the door, wondering what had just happened.
At dinner, Malfoy gave a little nod in Neville’s direction when he joined the table a few seats down. Neville felt distinctly wrong-footed and nodded back before he’d even thought that perhaps he shouldn't. He didn’t know what Malfoy was up to, or what it meant.
But nothing else came of it.
Until Malfoy started acknowledging him this way at every meal, and when they passed in the halls.
Unable to explain it, Neville found himself liking the gesture. Once so anxious to be acknowledged by Malfoy, sparked by how he’d been so in awe of how dignified someone his own age could be when they’d met at that party before Hogwarts, and even with all the misery that had followed once they’d actually gone to Hogwarts, he now found himself oddly enjoying the attention.
Frustrated with himself upon realising this, he was determined to stop responding. He failed utterly.
“What on earth are you doing?”
Neville yelped and slammed the book shut on instinct. Malfoy was standing on the other side of the table and Neville glared at him.
“What are you doing sneaking up on me?” he countered, opening the book again and attempting to find the page he’d been on.
Heat rushed to his cheeks from how ridiculous he must have looked, slamming the book closed like a teenager caught looking at something naughty. Increasingly, he did stupider and more awkward things in front of Malfoy ever since that moment in his office when Malfoy had apologised for his past actions. He hadn’t meant to let it affect him so much, but it seemed to have done so anyway without his permission.
“We must inform dictionary writers everywhere,” Malfoy said, deadpan. “New definition for ‘sneaking’: walking normally in a library.”
Neville glared up at him again, part of the severity of his expression caused by the heat he felt in his cheeks and the knowledge he’d be a bit pink.
“Did you want something? That crop of motherwort you wanted won’t be ready for at least another week.”
Malfoy looked away, down between the shelves. It was late enough after dinner that it was unlikely there were any students about so close to curfew. “I actually wasn’t looking for you at all, but the sight of our beloved herbology professor reading a book was enough to lure me away from my task.”
Shaking his head at him, Neville went back to trying to find his page. “Are you incapable of saying anything normally?”
“More fun this way,” Malfoy said, pulling out the chair opposite Neville and sitting down without invitation. “Irritates more people. Highly amusing.”
Neville deeply regretted picking a table that didn’t have the opposite long edge taken up by shelves. Even if they talked more now, he still did not know how to act around Malfoy when he appeared to be in a chatty mood. Nor did he know yet how to handle Malfoy being a touch warmer towards him. Still cold, really, but warmer than before.
“If it wasn’t dangerous, I’d give you a bad batch of ingredients sometime,” Neville muttered, giving up on finding his page. He leaned back in his chair. “Don’t be so mean. I read plenty.”
Malfoy reached across the table and pulled the book towards him. On checking the cover, he groaned and pushed it back.
“Boring. I expected something scandalous from the way you slammed it shut and went pink. More bloody plants.”
“Herbology was a hobby before it was my career,” Neville defended.
“Really? ‘Historical Herbology Suppliers of England’? Are you going to put that in one of your lessons? Boring. Cruel, really, so close to the end of term.”
Neville scoffed, wishing his cheeks would cool off. With the way he flushed whenever Malfoy acted so relaxed and casual, he had the horrible suspicion he might be developing a crush. Even though he was too old for crushes, and certainly not self-destructive enough to want anything to do with Draco Malfoy.
Malfoy was relaxed, slumping in his seat and wearing his robes unbuttoned to reveal comfortable muggle clothing underneath. It shouldn't be worth noticing, but it was so different to how dignified Malfoy still acted most of the time that it drew Neville’s attention and heated his cheeks every time Malfoy relaxed around him.
Bugger it all. He had a stupid crush. On someone who used to be an utter bastard, and who most definitely had bastard-ish tendencies still.
“You worry about your lessons, and I’ll worry about mine,” he said, the irritation he felt towards himself showing as terseness in his tone. It was a mostly unfamiliar tone for him, and Malfoy seemed to perk up at the sound of it. He sat a little straighter and scanned him as if he could divine Neville’s every thought just from looking closely enough.
Neville really didn’t want him looking closely enough, and scrambled to find a distraction.
“Did you know there used to be gillyweed growing in the lake?”
Malfoy’s brow furrowed, but he seemed to relax back again. “Really? How very fascinating,” he said in a tone that indicated it was the precise opposite of fascinating.
The sound of that tone made Neville feel like doing a little irritating of his own, like Malfoy had been doing with that dramaticism earlier.
“Hogwarts used to be a substantial grower of it in the eighteenth century,” he said, sitting up straighter and enjoying the crinkle developing between Malfoy’s brows. “They even used to have enough to hold Defence lessons down in the lake, as well as Herbology lessons on the lakebed.”
A soft sound emerged from somewhere in Malfoy’s chest. Sort of like a pathetic whine, and his eyes widened as he coughed as if to cover it up.
A strong sense of satisfaction and smugness spread through Neville and he sat up even straighter. “Apparently they even had enough, after harvesting for buyers, to allow students supervised underwater excursions just for fun. Although, at some point it seems all the crops died and they never tried growing it again. There aren’t any details about what killed off the crops. No mention of why they didn’t try growing it again either.”
“Fascinating,” Malfoy said dryly, pushing back his chair and getting up. “But I really should get back to what I was doing.”
“Which was?” Neville asked, losing some of his smug satisfaction when he couldn't stop himself from noticing the way Malfoy’s jumper hugged his slim frame under his robes. Even when Neville had been slim, he’d never been as slim as Malfoy, and he felt the urge to reach out and grip the sides of his waist for no discernible reason.
Definitely a physical crush. Impossible to ignore the turn of his thoughts now that he was recognising the attraction. And worse than the crush he’d had on Cedric Diggory for most of third and fourth year. How childish. Juvenile, Malfoy would say, after laughing himself silly no doubt.
Malfoy stared at him for a few moments.
“Looking for something interesting for the last few lessons of the year,” he finally said, as if only just recalling. Or perhaps, given the pink hue dusting his cheeks, embarrassed to be admitting he was trying to do something fun in class.
“You softie,” Neville teased, regaining the upper hand and finding himself enjoying it. “You’re trying to have a fun lesson!”
Malfoy snorted, tugging his robes closed and folding his arms over them. “Don’t speak such rot where others can hear you. I don’t need a small horde of excited children moaning and groaning because they never got the fun lesson another professor said I’d give.”
Neville not only found his balance again after his realisation, but felt it strengthen.
“Defensive,” he said with a grin. “You are trying to have a fun lesson. Do you do this at the end of every year?”
“Piss off,” Malfoy muttered, his cheeks definitely pink. “How I conduct my classes is none of your bloody business.”
Before Neville could point out his blush with unrestrained glee, and a sense of vengeance, of a sort, given how often Malfoy had made him turn red from embarrassment over the years, Malfoy had turned and abruptly stalked off between the shelves.
Neville watched the last of the students leave the courtyard, led away by Hagrid. It felt strange to see them go, and for the castle to become so empty and quiet. The staff had all gathered to see them off. As he looked around, most of the professors were discussing their holiday plans. The only person whose plans he had not heard a single hint of were Malfoy’s.
He stood off to the side with Poppy, arms folded across his chest and looking cross at being pulled away from his personal laboratories. Poppy was nodding along as he spoke. They were probably discussing the potions stores in the hospital wing. Malfoy always chose the oddest times to talk about things like that. Like the time he’d discussed his stores of herbological ingredients with Neville during the Halloween feast, when they’d been seated together.
Back then, it had been the longest Malfoy had ever spoken to him, at a time when Neville still tried to avoid him. It was strange to look back at how nervous Neville had felt to be talking to him, and how resistant he had been to it. Now, he didn’t mind talking to him. Even if he still felt nervous at times, it was nothing close to those first few months.
The whole year had been surprising, and not quite what he’d expected. He hadn’t thought he would enjoy teaching so much, but he had. Of course, many students weren’t interested in Herbology, but seeing those few who were excited about it, like he had been, and engaging with them and encouraging them, it was an oddly satisfying feeling that he never imagined would feel so good.
And he certainly could never have guessed at the start of the year that he might look at Malfoy, as he did now, and actually want to go over and talk to him.
He had heard about Malfoy’s last lesson, seen the effects in fact. Brewing a potion that made skin sparkle and glimmer for a few hours. The younger years had been delighted and the great hall had been buzzing with glowing, sparkling, excited children during the meals that day.
Minerva had chuckled and said it was less disruptive than what he’d done the year before. She hadn’t elaborated, and Neville hadn’t wanted to pry in case he embarrassed himself with just how eager he now was to know more about Malfoy’s surprising fun streak at the end of term.
But wary of the same thing happening in front of much more judgmental eyes, instead of going and asking Malfoy himself, of indulging in that desire to talk to him, he just watched as he talked to Poppy, until everyone started heading in to start closing up Hogwarts for the summer.
“And then he went pink. Pink,” Neville said gleefully, helping himself to another slice of the teacake Luna had brought with her. “If he turns pink and storms off, it’s a sure sign you’re right and he can’t think of a way to hide it without making it more obvious, so he just stomps off instead and pretends to be bored of the conversation.”
“Maybe if he only turns pink, he’s leaving before he can turn red,” Luna said wisely, as she continued arranging flowers in a vase next to the tea things. “He is so pale.”
“You’re probably right! You know, after getting over the shock of him, and not knowing what to expect, he’s actually bloody awkward most of the time,” he said, fixing himself another cup of tea, and another for Luna too. “I thought it was arrogance, or priggishness, but it’s actually just awkwardness, like he doesn’t know any better how to act half the time.”
Luna accepted the tea with a happy smile and tucked a flower behind one of his ears. “Does it help you feel less anxious around him?”
Neville felt colour tint his cheeks. It did, only now he felt a completely different kind of anxiousness.
“Some part of me still does expect him to insult me out of nowhere,” he admitted. It always was easier talking to Luna than anyone else. He’d talked completely differently of Malfoy when Harry and Ron had visited. “But not like I used to. He still acts like a bastard half the time, but it’s not as bad as he used to be. Sometimes it’s funny. Honestly, it throws me off. He didn’t say anything about my weight for the whole year, and I really expected him to with the way he used to tease me about it in school. And I am so much bigger than the last time he saw me.”
“That’s because there’s nothing to tease about, silly,” Luna said, putting down her teacup and returning to rearranging the flowers again, bending down a little to inhale their fragrance. “Anyone who is worth knowing can see that you’re happier now. You had such a sad air about you before, even if you did look absolutely—”
“Thanks, Luna,” he quickly interrupted. Her habit of being frank about what she thought was refreshing, but there were only so many times he could hear the many different, and often obscene, ways she’d describe how he’d looked when he was fit.
At the time it had caused a lot of awkwardness as he’d had to try and tell her he was gay. Then, of course, the awkward revelation of a misunderstanding, as she wasn’t interested anyway, she just thought he looked rather ravishing and didn’t see the point in keeping it to herself.
She left the flowers and reached over to cup his face with both hands.
“You are still thoroughly handsome, inside and out, and if he doesn’t think so then who cares?”
His cheeks became hotter. He did believe that now, even with the occasional bad day. But he did care. And not in the way he’d thought he’d cared before. Worried that a harsh word would have him crushed and back to his teenage self, all low-confidence and bumbling embarrassment. Perhaps he had wanted Malfoy to think kindly of him all along. Perhaps that was why it had always stung so much to hear he didn’t.
Perhaps it all linked back to that first time he’d seen him at that party, in a side room with all the other children just shy of Hogwarts age. He had been so envious of his dignity and grace. Everyone had always told Neville he was so clumsy and bumbling. It had gotten a little better after he’d finally showed some magic, but he’d always felt like such a mess. And there was Malfoy, the same age, and yet somehow so much better. At everything. Even if he had been a complete bastard when they’d met again at Hogwarts.
Merlin, he really ought to stop looking back. Everything was getting twisted around.
None of that mattered though. Even if he was a touch warmer than before, Malfoy was still a giant prat most of the time. Neville would only be giving him reason to go back to teasing cruelly if he mentioned or displayed any of this ridiculous fancy.
“You know, he actually apologised to me,” he found himself saying, instead of dropping the subject. “We had a fight before Christmas, about family, and then he was distant until one day he was just...over it. Seemed quite chummy after we had to give someone detention, like we were in on some joke together. But not a joke at me. I’m not really sure what the joke was about, actually. And then the apology. It was weird. But not bad. Just…weird.”
Luna let his face go, and looked thoughtful. “He must be avoiding the manor still,” she said absently, before flicking her hair over one shoulder. “It must be nice to have another professor around who is the same age. Hogwarts is filled with such old energy even with all the students. It was very tiring at times. It’s not surprising he wants to be friends. He must be so lonely.”
Neville frowned at her. Friendship with Malfoy seemed like a foreign concept. A far cry from not-cold towards each other. He didn’t want to think about that. He was still getting used to Malfoy being not-cold. And if he was actually lonely, surely he’d be less of an arsehole to people. “What do you mean, avoiding the manor?”
“I really shouldn’t say, you know how grumpy he can get,” she replied. Plucking one single flower out of the vase, she stood back to look at it. “Done! That should keep down the Gulping Plimpy infestation in your entry hall. Don’t want to let them get a foothold or the whole house will be lost!”
Neville took in the colourful array of flowers she had picked while they’d wandered the estate catching up with each other before having tea.
“And it will look beautiful while it does. Thank you,” he said, giving her a smile, and then standing to lean in and smell it himself.
She always did combine flowers in the most interesting ways. He could never quite figure out how she got such an interesting and unexpected fragrance from each combination. And whatever she ended up claiming it was for hardly mattered. It never changed the beauty of it.
Being back on his estate was fun to begin with, checking in on everything, catching up with his staff, but it quickly became boring. After Luna’s visit, everyone else was too busy for a while. In a fit of boredom, he’d planned most of his lessons for the next year within the first two weeks and now he really didn’t have much to do.
Not until he heard back about getting a personal greenhouse. The board of Governors met in August and that was still weeks away. He couldn’t start any work with hybridisation, not when he might have to abandon his specimens when the Hogwarts year began. Nor could he dismiss his staff just to have more work himself while he was home. They had devised their own system for holiday time, covering each other when it suited them. He couldn’t bring himself to interfere with that.
Left with nothing really to do, and with friends too busy with their own continuing jobs to visit often, he searched for a project that he could do over the summer. One that wouldn’t suffer when he returned to Hogwarts.
Neville broke the surface of the lake and set off for the shore. The effects of the gillyweed had worn off, leaving an odd tingle over his skin. As suspected, he’d found no evidence of any gillyweed growing in the lake near the castle, by magic or by eye. But he had located an area that would be suitable, if he cleared it first of weeds and debris.
As he neared the shore enough to stand and walk, he caught sight of someone approaching from the castle. It didn’t take long to recognise who it was. Malfoy’s hair was distinctive as the sun caught it and caused it to shimmer.
Hesitating a moment, Neville wished he’d known Malfoy was around. He would have kept his shirt on to cover his stretch marks.
Registering his own thought, he scoffed at himself and continued out of the water, forcing himself to hold a confident posture as the water retreated. He’d made his peace with his weight when he’d found himself much happier than when he’d been constantly trying to keep it down, even if had taken him years to get to that point. He wasn’t going back to that mindset of embarrassment and self-hate. If Malfoy said anything cruel about it, he’d just hex him and be done with it. At least then, with Malfoy finally given the chance to say something without anyone else around to overhear, Neville could finally know for sure if he did still have that cruel streak hidden away. He didn’t think so anymore, but there was always that part of himself that was wary around him. It would be nice to finally let that wariness go, one way or the other.
Part of him almost hoped Malfoy would say something cruel. It would give Neville the chance to respond in ways he had never been able to in school, back when he’d had no confidence and a stray word had so easily broken him. It would also, conveniently, help him rid himself of that ridiculous developing crush. He really didn’t want to go through the school year with that in tow.
Registering his own thoughts again, he grit his teeth. What was he, fourteen again? He needed to stop referring to it as a crush before he lost all sense and reverted to the mindset of a silly teenager.
“Malfoy,” he said shortly, still cross with himself as he left the water and joined Malfoy on the bank.
Malfoy’s eyes narrowed at him, and then he crossed his arms. He was wearing muggle clothes again, Neville noted. “Oh, we’re back to last names now, are we? Delightful. When Hagrid popped in to say you were here, I had hoped to have a conversation with someone my own age. But I see not all children are gone from Hogwarts this holiday.”
Neville rolled his eyes to hide how sheepish he felt. They probably were past last names, as odd as that was to acknowledge. But he still found it hard to say his given name. After their history it just felt so intimate.
“Why are you at Hogwarts?” he asked instead, bypassing the matter entirely. He still felt a bit naked without his shirt on, more so because every time Malfoy glanced at him, his gaze skittered away again. There was a faint touch of pink at his cheeks, as if he was embarrassed by Neville’s bare skin.
It set Neville on edge and left an awkward atmosphere as Malfoy looked out over the lake, or back over the grounds, but never at him for more than a moment.
But he didn’t say anything.
Retrieving his wand from the holster on his left forearm, Neville non-verbally dried himself off and summoned his shirt from the bundle of his things nearby. Once fully clothed again Malfoy suddenly appeared able to look at him again.
“I usually stay over the summer,” he supplied, uncrossing his arms to make a casual gesture. “It’s just easier to keep working on my potions here. What are you doing back?”
Neville was tempted to just tell him to sod off. But Malfoy hadn’t said anything, and he could hardly have a go at every person who looked uncomfortable around him.
“Looking for gillyweed in the lake,” he said with a shrug. “Boring plant stuff.”
Malfoy looked out to the lake. “Find any?”
“No, didn’t expect to really,” Neville replied, feeling awkward. Why had Malfoy even come out to talk to him if he wasn’t interested in what he was doing?
“Did you see any Murtlaps?” Malfoy asked, looking at him again. He looked just as awkward as Neville was starting to feel, and it only made the situation all the more ridiculous. He should have just stayed in the dungeons. “Hagrid keeps saying he’s seen some around the shore.”
“Murtlaps are saltwater creatures,” Neville pointed out, wondering at this second mention of Hagrid and whether Malfoy actually talked to him as much as it sounded. He hadn’t seen them together much during the school year.
“That doesn’t preclude there being some in the lake,” Malfoy scoffed. “There are freshwater species too, idiot.”
At a loss as to what Malfoy was trying to get out of this increasingly awkward conversation, Neville gestured to the lake.
“If you’re so curious, why don’t you go look yourself?”
Malfoy’s expression set in a scowl. “I was making conversation, you twat.”
“I couldn’t tell. Maybe you should practise more until you’re actually good at it,” Neville said spitefully, feeling a rush of irritation and not bothering to stop it. He never felt so awkward now as he did around Malfoy and it irritated him to no end that Malfoy probably knew and enjoyed making it worse.
Why he seemed to have some sort of fleeting attraction to the git was beyond him. Still a nasty little shit under it all. Just hidden better than before.
“Merlin’s balls, you are an oversensitive idiot, aren’t you?” Malfoy huffed. “Leave the insults to people who know what they are doing. You sound ridiculous when you try to be mean.”
Enraged, Neville stepped forward and shoved him.
Clearly not expecting it, Malfoy released a high-pitched yelp, his arms flying about as he fell backwards to sprawl on the ground.
For a moment, Neville stared at him uncomprehending. Then it set in and he started laughing. The sound Malfoy had made, the undignified flailing about as he fell, and the look on his face as he lay sprawled on the ground, it was all too much. Neville clutched at his belly and didn’t even try to hold it back.
Malfoy’s expression shifted from shock to irritation, and it only made Neville laugh harder, until his stomach and sides were aching.
In all the years that Malfoy had tormented him, he’d never once thought of doing that. He’d always been behind in magic, until those later years when he’d become more confident. He’d always been too afraid of cocking it up and making the mocking worse if he tried and failed to retaliate. He should have just shoved him. He’d always been bigger than Malfoy, it was unlikely the little git would have fought back. If Crabbe and Goyle weren’t around, he should have just shoved him.
Someone should have shoved him, at least. If anyone in school had needed to fall on their arse a few times, it was Draco bloody Malfoy.
“Are you quite done?” Malfoy asked, sitting up but not standing.
The laughter started to die away as Neville saw he didn’t even look irritated anymore. He was watching Neville laugh with a curious expression and didn’t appear to even be considering retaliation.
“Wish I’d done that in school,” Neville said, sitting down himself with a groan. “Would’ve been brilliant.”
Malfoy didn’t reply, and Neville looked over at him to see he was staring out at the lake with a tense expression.
“Oh, come on,” Neville scoffed. “It was just a little shove.”
“I wish you had knocked me on my arse in school,” Malfoy said suddenly. “It would have done me some good, I think.”
Neville frowned. “I was just thinking that.”
Malfoy laughed, low and a little breathless. “Of course you were. You’re probably always thinking of ways to get back at me.”
“No, I mostly just don’t want to start any of that up again,” Neville said, his brows furrowing further. “We don’t all waste our time on revenge fantasies, you know.”
With a funny sort of sound, something like a laugh and scoff, Malfoy lay back and looked up at the sky. “How noble of you,” he said simply.
“I’m not noble. I just don’t want to waste my time on something like that,” Neville said, unable to stop himself from looking him over while he wasn’t watching. Seeing glimpses of muggle clothes under his teaching robes wasn’t the same as getting a full look. He was wearing worn looking jeans, dark grey or faded black. The bottom of a normal looking t-shirt was poking out from under a soft looking jumper, even though it was hot.
Malfoy’s words from before Christmas, and those comments about his robes at the very first staff meeting, suddenly registered with Neville. Even knowing the Malfoys had lost most of their money in reparations, he’d never really connected that with Malfoy being poor. But most poor wizards wore muggle clothes, regardless of bloody purity. They were just so much cheaper after the currency exchange. It was something Neville had learned from Ron fairly quickly in first year, after his own tailored clothing had been noted, though Ron turned bright red when he’d explained it and it made Neville feel very awkward. Neville had only mentioned it to his gran once and it had been like she’d leaped at the chance to save money on clothes, knowing so many of his year did it too. But knowing the extent of his fortune now, he sometimes wondered if it had been more to do with him fitting in, even if at that point she’d still never expressed any pride in him nor talked of such things as his happiness.
At least, that’s why he assumed Malfoy was wearing muggle clothes. Money. Perhaps he shouldn't assume that, since Malfoy hardly ever actually conformed to his assumptions and expectations anymore.
Looking back out over the lake, Neville felt uncomfortable all over again. For all that he’d worked with Malfoy for a year, he really didn’t know anything about him. He didn’t even know how he’d managed to get his Masters in Potion Making to earn the rank of Potions Master and gain his position. From the beginning he’d known Malfoy wasn’t just a professor, he did have that rank, even though it wasn’t a requirement to teach at Hogwarts. But Minerva had said nothing on the matter, just as she’d been reluctant to talk of Malfoy’s private life after Christmas.
If Malfoy really was staying at Hogwarts over summer, that meant Luna’s offhand comment about him avoiding the manor was probably true. And if Narcissa Malfoy was never seen in public anymore, what were the chances she didn’t leave the manor at all?
And if that was the case—
“Don’t break something in that head of yours,” Malfoy said, startling him out of his thoughts. “Minerva won’t be pleased if she has to sack you for thinking so hard you rendered yourself stupid.”
“I thought I already was stupid? You do love calling me an idiot,” Neville muttered, suddenly feeling a bit ill in his stomach. If Malfoy never went to the manor, and his mother never came to see him, it did explain why Malfoy had been so sensitive before Christmas. But it still didn’t excuse him for being an arsehole about Neville’s family.
“I call everyone an idiot at one time or another, do keep up.”
Neville scoffed. “You’re such an arsehole.”
“There, see,” Malfoy said, turning an amused smirk his way. “I call you an idiot, you call me an arsehole. By both our tones, we don’t really mean it harshly. So don’t go overthinking it and getting weepy on me. It’s such a bore when that happens.”
“You are an arsehole though. And maybe if you were less of an arse, people wouldn’t get so weepy,” Neville said with a scowl. “Words can really hurt, you know. Just because I’m less sensitive now doesn’t mean you should still say half the things you say.”
Malfoy sat back up, hunched over a little. He didn’t look at Neville, and after a while Neville realised he was looking at his left arm.
“You really are an idiot if you think I don’t know the damage words can do,” he said softly.
Neville looked away, tensing as that horrid sense of awkwardness returned. “Don’t be such a bastard then, if you know how it feels.”
“Let me know when I do go too far and then I’ll know your boundaries,” Malfoy countered, pushing himself off the ground and brushing himself off. “Just like everyone else here. We all have an understanding about these things that lets me keep my sense of humour even if it sounds horrible to you. I wish you would stop skulking about and keeping your distance. We’re the only young professors here and I don’t intent on ever quitting. If you’re sticking around we need to learn to get along, so meet me halfway. Don’t make me do all the bloody work.”
Neville stared up at him, not sure how to respond. That did explain why no one else seemed genuinely irritated when he said borderline nasty things to them. But it still didn’t seem quite right to speak to colleagues that way. He also didn’t like the idea of losing that distance, since he wasn’t entirely sure what would happen if he did spend more time with Malfoy, and that only made him feel like his teenage self again, lacking all confidence.
“And for that matter, stop thinking that I’m the same little shit I was in school,” Malfoy said, crossing his arms. “I can tell, you know, when you do it. It’s been ten years. Maybe if you didn’t avoid me most of the time, you’d see I’m not the same. I really am sorry for what a shit I was to you, but you don’t have to like me to work with me. We should at least be civil and able to talk from time to time. It would make our supply meetings a lot less bloody awkward.”
Neville suddenly scowled. “Did Minerva put you up to this?”
Malfoy threw his hands up and made a completely inelegant groaning sound. “No, you twat. I want—” Cutting himself off with another irritated sound, he made a dismissive gesture. “Fine. Keep skulking about. But when you pull your head out of your arse and realise you miss talking to someone your own age, you know where to find me.”
With that, he turned and stomped off towards the castle.
The dramaticism of his exit was ruined by the dirt and grass still on his back from lying on the ground, but Neville felt the weight of his words anyway. As much as he was still an arsehole, and annoyingly high and mighty about the matter, Malfoy did have a point. It was nice talking to Minerva and Hagrid, and listening to Filius read out his favourite poetry, but he did miss people his own age. He didn’t get to see his friends nearly as much now that they were all so busy with their own lives and had grown used to seeing him less after he’d deliberately distanced himself for so long.
If Malfoy was all he had during the school year, without having to juggle schedules to catch up with someone else, he probably should try harder to make it work. But there was a part of him, even though he definitely found the bastard attractive, that still resisted. Some small, petty part of himself that didn't want to let the past go. And some small part that still expected Malfoy to turn on him as soon as he let his guard down.
Neville distinctly felt like he was doing something wrong. He didn’t have that feeling often, since he rarely did anything against the rules. The only times he’d really, truly, gone against the rules, the rules had been set by Death Eaters, so really, he’d been doing the right thing even then.
But sneaking onto Hogwarts grounds while trying to avoid being seen by Hagrid, since he’d apparently go running off to tell Malfoy, as well as avoiding Malfoy himself felt distinctly wrong.
He’d thought through everything Malfoy had said. He’d thought through it all again, and again, and then he’d invited Luna around for tea again to try and get some more information out of her. But she’d been too busy talking about her hunt for some creature he couldn’t even pronounce and he hadn’t got a single word in edgewise. Though he did get another beautiful and fragrant floral arrangement for his entry hall.
Even if he was now seeing the wisdom in Malfoy’s suggestion that they try to get along, he still found himself avoiding him. They could start all that when the school year began. When they had the buffer of students and other professors around and the topic of classes to fall back on.
But he’d managed to get his hands on some viable gillyweed spores and, after a very fruitful visit to Minerva’s cottage, he had permission to try and stock the lake again. Minerva had seemed completely bored by the history he’d used as justification, but she’d definitely seemed interested in the possibility of having enough gillyweed to take classes down into the lake. Or more likely, she was interested in Hogwarts becoming a seller again on top of that. With so many orphans after the war, the school’s funds had been severely drained in the last several years of providing school supplies to those students who did not have parents to purchase supplies for them, and those whose parents could not.
He hadn’t really thought about that before she’d mentioned it, and probably could have saved time by using that as his primary argument.
Regardless, he found his way to the shore, feeling guilty about avoiding Hagrid and just a little odd about avoiding Malfoy, even though it was hardly likely Malfoy would notice he was around anyway if Hagrid didn’t venture down to the dungeons to tell him. Stripping off his shirt, he transfigured his jeans into swimming trunks and carefully put the vial of spores in one of the pockets before sealing it so that it wouldn’t fall out.
The spot he’d found that would be best for them was close to the dungeons actually, but should be out of sight of the window into the Slytherin common room. He really didn’t fancy being seen by students during the year when he went down to maintain the crop. If it grew at all, he still didn’t know what had wiped out the historic gillyweed beds.
If that did happen at least he’d be able to find out why, and perhaps even prevent it from happening again.
In any case, it was something interesting to do over the holiday and would provide him with a project when the school year began, if he didn’t get a personal greenhouse for hybridisation experiments.
When he was ready to go, he retrieved a small jar of gillyweed from the pocket of his jumper and grimaced. It really was nasty stuff to eat, and he needed a lot of it to give him a couple of hours under the water. But he didn’t trust his skill with bubble head charms and the idea of the charm failing while he was down in the lake made him feel weak and dizzy.
Gillyweed was preferable, all things considered.
After swallowing the nasty stuff, he waded into the lake. The feel of it taking effect made his skin tingle and itch, and he dove down just as he started to feel like he couldn’t breathe.
When he’d been down in the lake before he had been awestruck by how it looked, green and murky, but life everywhere. He was no less stunned by it this time, but he was wary of taking too long. If the crops were successful he’d have plenty of gillyweed to explore the depths properly, cataloguing the plant life of the entire lake over the years, if he stayed on as Herbology professor.
Even back when gillyweed had been more plentiful, no one had ever done that. It would be nice to explore new herbological territory, and the idea of what undiscovered plants lurked in the depths further out from the school made his heart race with excitement.
But that was not an immediate concern, he firmly reminded himself, as he forced himself to focus and started making his way towards the area he’d picked out before. First, he had to grow a successful crop.
The look Malfoy gave Neville as he sat down beside him at the welcoming feast almost made it worth suffering through his nerves. When Malfoy had not shown up to the first staff meeting of the year, after Neville had vowed to himself to be more than civil, to try to be friendlier and find out about that ten-year gap and what Malfoy was like now, it had thrown Neville off balance. Malfoy always seemed to be throwing him off balance, and now he decided it was his turn.
The open surprise on Malfoy’s face, with just a touch of unease in the tightness around his eyes and the tense line of his shoulders, told Neville he’d succeeded in defying his expectations. That calmed his nerves just a smidge, and as the sorting began, he let himself relax a little.
Malfoy, however, did not relax. All through the sorting he was tense beside Neville, his expression getting tighter and tighter. It stopped being amusing quickly, and then Neville started getting anxious all over again. Perhaps Malfoy hadn’t meant what he’d said after all. Which would mean Neville was doing nothing more than embarrassing himself.
“Are you mocking me?” Malfoy finally hissed, after Minerva’s post-sorting speech ended and the chatter of children filled the hall.
Refusing to let his shoulders dip, even though they sorely wanted to, Neville leaned closer so they wouldn't be overheard.
“No, I’m sitting next to you at dinner. I’m meeting you halfway.” Malfoy’s brow furrowed, and he was still radiating tension. “Idiot,” Neville added, since Malfoy had implied it wasn’t ever meant seriously when he said it, and would hopefully assume the same of Neville. He still struggled to see it as the not-insult Malfoy seemed to suggest it was. But if it lightened the mood then it had value anyway.
“Think of your own favourite insult,” Malfoy replied quietly, his brow still furrowed. “And think of a better overture of friendship while you’re at it.”
Neville felt his face go hot and looked down at his plate. “This isn’t an overture of friendship. Don’t get carried away,” he said quickly. “This is just…” He could feel Malfoy raising his eyebrow at him, but he just couldn't think of a way to finish his sentence. It wasn’t an offer of friendship. More like an investigation into whether they ever could be friends, but that sounded awful to say.
“I’m waiting,” Malfoy said after a while, ignoring the food before him as if it wasn’t there and giving Neville his full attention instead. It felt weightier than usual, and Neville just felt his face get hotter. He really could have gone without realising he was attracted to the git. Being uneasy around him for fear of being verbally lashed was better than being uneasy about embarrassing himself due to some stupid crush.
And he still needed to think of a better word for it than that.
“You’ll be waiting a long time then,” he said, before clearing his throat and pointedly picking up his utensils. “There’s dinner to be had.”
Malfoy scoffed but didn’t say anything. He turned to his meal as well, and Neville just tried to focus on eating and not on how strange it was to be attempting to get along with Draco Malfoy.
“You could look less smug,” Malfoy observed as they watched the contractor survey the grounds by the greenhouses.
“Says the professor with four personal research areas,” Neville replied, not trying to hide his excitement, thank you, one bit. “Speaking of which, don’t you have potions to brew?”
“I’m doing my half of the meeting halfway,” Malfoy said, gesturing out across the grounds. “Not letting you stand out here alone and let this privilege go to your head.”
“It’s one greenhouse, Malfoy. One,” Neville said with a groan. “Stop being an arse about it. Let me be happy.”
“I don’t know, Longbottom,” Malfoy replied, his tone a degree colder. “The loneliness of standing here without me to keep you company might just ruin the happiness of this moment.”
Neville crossed his arms and focused on watching the contractor cast scanning spells to ascertain the best location for foundations.
“I really don’t think it would.”
“You’re not funny,” Neville said shortly, crossing his arms and looking out over the party again. The mist they had engineered to curl around everything and everyone made supervising harder and that, combined with the dim lighting, was giving him a headache as he had to squint to make out the students’ faces. With each passing moment he regretted volunteering for this.
At the time it had seemed fun, to watch over a Halloween party. He’d avoided it the year before but had heard after the fact how fun it had been from the other professors. Now he was sure he’d been lied to.
Or maybe it was just because Malfoy, upon hearing he’d volunteered, had done so as well. What had at first seemed like a show of solidarity in the name of their new business of ‘getting along’, it was now clearly just Malfoy taking advantage of the opportunity to piss him off when he couldn’t react. Not with so many students around.
Half the time he was convinced Malfoy just wanted to ‘get along’ so he could tease Neville with a clear conscience.
“You look ridiculous,” he added.
“Yes, that’s why you laughed yourself silly when you saw me,” Malfoy said, his tone light with humour. “That’s the point, idiot. And I am hilarious, in fact, since I made you laugh. So the joke is on you for being such a bore and going as something so predictable.”
Neville couldn't look at him without feeling distinctly uncomfortable. “None of the students even have a clue who you are,” he insisted. “What was the point?”
His own costume was far more acceptable. Everyone knew a vampire when they saw one. But no one else would know what the ginger hair, freckles, and knitted sweater with an ‘R’ on the front meant.
“That’s exactly the point,” Malfoy said, only sounding more amused. “It’s an inside joke. Minerva snorted into her teacup when I popped by the staff room earlier. Sprayed it everywhere. Priceless! I’m going to bottle and replicate the memory to share around.”
Neville turned to glare at him. “You are such an arsehole.”
Malfoy only grinned back, all teeth, looking distinctly not himself while so freckled and orange. The sight had Neville’s lips aching to smile. He just looked so comical. And Neville knew Ron would go mental if he found out. Imagining that alone was enough to have him fighting to hide a grin.
Meanwhile, the grin on Malfoy’s face turned into something more subtle and familiar. A smirk. “I see you almost smiling there, you can’t hide anything from me,” he said haughtily. “You love my costume!”
Neville looked around for a distraction. One month of sitting together at meals and talking more did not make Malfoy being friendly any easier to deal with. It was still a distinctly weird experience. It was an odd not-entirely-friendly way of being friendly, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.
Which he was just self-aware enough to know was a lie, because he absolutely did like it. It was more amusing than he could have imagined, even if he felt somewhat guilty about it sometimes. And every time Malfoy smiled he just looked more and more attractive, and Neville was starting to want to do more to make him smile more often. Except tonight, since he looked like some relative of the Weasleys and it was giving Neville horrifying flashbacks to when he’d had a crush on both George and Fred, even though he could tell them apart and didn’t consider them one entity like most others had seemed to. Which had been both mortifying, since they were Ron’s brothers, and terrifying, since they both scared the daylights out of him on a good day.
His libido didn’t know what to do with Malfoy looking like this.
“Rodgers and Smith look like they’re trying to spike the punch,” he said, as he saw them acting suspiciously around the replica of a giant’s skull that served as the punch bowl. “You’re on the Gryffindors tonight, remember?”
Malfoy made an angry sound and Neville turned to see his smile had turned into a frown. “I still say you rigged that coin toss. Gryffindors and Slytherins? You absolutely did that on purpose somehow. There’s no way Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs are going to give you trouble tonight!”
Neville grinned smugly. “If you say so.”
“I’ll get you back for it, even if I don’t know how you did it!” Malfoy threatened, before stalking off across the room to sort them out.
Neville watched him go and then shook his head at himself. Malfoy had been right, it was definitely nice to have someone his own age to talk to now. They had a surprisingly easy time of it too, when Malfoy wasn’t being awkward. Neville noticed that more and more now, Malfoy’s awkwardness, which he now realised he’d been misreading as cold and distant before. But he was still sure that somehow he was cursing himself in the foot by getting closer to him.
Malfoy stood with his arms crossed, looking at him like he was insane. Neville felt insane, as he added another layer of warming charms to his body. It was something he hadn’t really thought about at the time, but the gillyweed needed tending right when he least wanted to do it. Growing both useful and useless shoots, he had to go down in winter when growth was stunted and remove the useless ones so that they didn’t impede the rush of new growth that would follow when the waters warmed again.
But that meant going into the lake when it was freezing. And of course Malfoy had to come out and watch. He never was one to pass up laughing at someone else’s expense, even if it wasn’t in the same nasty way he used to do it.
“Go back inside before you turn into an icicle,” Neville threw over his shoulder.
“Are your charms even up to snuff?” Malfoy asked, stomping closer through the snow. “Charms was never your strong suit.”
“Manners were never yours despite the way you boasted about your superior upbringing in school,” Neville replied, trying to ignore just how right he was about his charms.
“Oh, good job,” Malfoy said, his tone just shy of patronising. “That wasn’t a half-bad retort. I’m rubbing off on you.”
Neville’s ears went hot, and he very firmly thought about the frigid waters he was about to enter and not Malfoy rubbing off on him.
Which was a fruitless venture, since he’d been thinking of little else for the last three weeks after they’d collided in the entryway of the staff room and fallen to the ground. It was only sheer luck that Neville had stumbled backwards to try and get out of Malfoy’s way when he’d seen him doing that angry rushed-marching thing he did when someone had particularly pissed him off, otherwise he might have landed on Malfoy and crushed him a little. Instead, he’d had Malfoy sprawled all over him, complete with a thigh between his legs that would have proved informative for Malfoy if they’d stayed there a moment longer than they had.
Having knowledge of what it would feel like to have Malfoy pressed up against him was not helping him let go of this ridiculous infatuation. And it had been promoted from crush to infatuation after getting to know him more.
Ten years had done a lot of good for Malfoy. Or maybe it had done a lot of good for Neville in allowing him to let go of the past and enjoy Malfoy’s company, no longer fearing a harsh word around every corner and pre-judging his every sentence.
“Oh for Merlin’s sake,” Malfoy huffed, yanking his wand right out of his hand. “I can tell how weak your charms are from here. Hold still!”
Neville was too surprised to move as Malfoy used his wand and layered him with enough warming charms that he felt toasty warm and started to sweat.
It was only when he was finished that Malfoy seemed to realise what he’d just done. Awkwardness enveloped him like a blanket, his posture tensing, his gaze darting off to the side, no longer able to look at Neville directly.
“Can’t have you freezing to death down there,” he muttered, thrusting his wand back at him. “They’d find a way to blame me somehow.”
Neville took his wand back with hands that were shaking only a little. Malfoy had used his wand flawlessly, and it made Neville itch to find out if he could do the same. The intimacy of the gesture made him run even hotter until he was sure he’d get heatstroke.
“Since you have nothing to do with my project of growing gillyweed down there, I doubt that,” Neville said, licking his lips and rubbing the sweat off his brow with his sleeve. He’d noticed Malfoy did that when he got awkward, make allusions to his past and assume the worst.
Malfoy shrugged, one of the casual gestures he did sometimes that drove Neville mad with want. After seeing him always so high and mighty and dignified, even if he’d been jealous of his grace for much of his life, he still got the most intense thrill whenever he saw Malfoy act anything other than dignified. He still didn’t understand why, unless it really was just the shock and rarity of it.
“Well, now you have my magical signature all over you, so if you die they’ll definitely blame me. So don’t die on me, yeah?”
Malfoy seemed to realise the sound of his own words at the same time Neville did and he looked away, his expression twisting into something unreadable.
An awkward and heavy silence fell over them as Neville tried to figure out if Malfoy had grossed himself out with the phrasing, or was just embarrassed by how sentimental it had sounded.
“Just eat your slimy weed and go freeze your bollocks off,” Malfoy finally muttered, snatching up the jar of gillyweed Neville had taken great pains to procure and thrusting it at him.
Neville looked down at it. He really hoped this venture was successful, since it was getting harder to source gillyweed each month. The price had gone up as one of the very few growers in the UK had retired. Imports were far more expensive. He had plenty of money for it, but Minerva had instructed him to use Hogwarts funds since it was, in essence, a scheme that would return profit to the school if successful. Neville thought she was daft, but he didn’t want to argue while they were still building his personal greenhouse.
As he continued to sweat under Malfoy’s expertly layered warming charms, another thought crossed his mind.
“How are your bubble head charms?” he asked.
Taken aback by the swiftness and ferocity in that single word, Neville gaped at him.
“I’m not putting your life in my hands like that. Forget it,” Malfoy elaborated, his voice getting sharper and colder with each word, and his posture winding tight to the point he looked like he was going to bolt off at any moment. He was looking all around the snow-covered grounds but not at Neville directly.
“Alright, just a thought,” Neville said softly, realising he’d stepped into something far too serious for this stage in their business of ‘getting along’.
“You should stick to playing in the dirt,” Malfoy said coldly, crossing his arms and stamping his feet. “You’re better at it.”
His defensiveness was too obvious to take offence at the weak insult, so Neville just opened the jar of gillyweed and scooped it out. “Just go back inside. You’re already cold enough for comfort, we don’t need you getting colder,” he said, trying to match him in pathetic insults. Things like that seemed to make Malfoy look more comfortable when he was being awkward.
“Poor effort,” Malfoy muttered back.
“Just matching you,” Neville said, before swallowing down the mass of gillyweed as quickly as he could.
Malfoy didn’t reply as Neville waded into the water. With Malfoy’s warming charms it was just cold, rather than freezing. When he was out far enough to dive, and starting to feel like he couldn’t breathe from the gillyweed, he turned back and saw Malfoy still standing there in the snow, arms around himself as if he was cold, even though Neville now knew first-hand how effective his warming charms were.
The sight of him standing there watching, and presumably planning to wait for him, made Neville feel even hotter and he quickly dove down into the cold water.
Christmas on the estate was just as lonely as the previous year. He visited and spent most of the day with his family, watching his mother finger paint and pretending to himself the whole time that she understood what he was saying to her, trying to look like the tune his father was smashing on the piano in the group room was nice to listen to instead of jarring, even if the fact it was marginally better than last year was something he should be excited about. Returning to his lonely house only made everything seem worse than it was, and he started to regret not staying on at Hogwarts.
Ron had invited him to the Burrow of course, as he did every year, but Neville never liked to go. It wasn’t fair to Ron and his family, but seeing such a large and happy family always made him feel miserable. The one time Molly had hugged him he’d started crying, and it was only because it was right after the final battle that he was able to play it off as something other than wishing his mother had enough sense to hug him and mean it.
Luna was out of the country hunting down this or that creature, and everyone else had private family gatherings. Even if they’d had a difficult relationship, he really missed his gran. Even if she would have chastised him about a great many things, including how mopey he was about things that were beyond his control, at least she still would have provided some company.
Visiting hours at St. Mungo’s had ended at three, and by the time it got to five Neville found himself throwing floo powder into the fireplace and calling out the address of his quarters at Hogwarts.
Once he arrived, he felt sick with embarrassment. To show up unannounced for Christmas dinner, even though he knew he’d be welcome…he may as well have just shouted to the world that he had no one to spend Christmas with. And when he entered the Great Hall, he could see that understanding on the faces of those colleagues who had stayed.
Minerva smiled in that gentle way that said she was all too aware of his hurting feelings, and Hagrid merely thumped his shoulder a little harder than usual, as they both said he was more than welcome.
Malfoy looked dismissive of his presence, which sort of helped in a strange way. When they shuffled about to make room for him, and another setting appeared at the table that the teachers and students were sharing, Neville was glad it was next to Malfoy. He said a quick hello to the few students who had stayed, none of whom he knew particularly well, and then took his seat next to Malfoy.
“And you said manners were never my strong suit,” Malfoy scoffed, tapping the rim of his almost empty goblet with his wand, until it was topped up with something that looked like red wine. “It’s common courtesy to send word ahead before crashing a Christmas dinner.”
Neville frowned at him. “Are you alright?” he asked nervously, as Malfoy finished whatever beverage he’d had the house elves serve him in two large mouthfuls.
“I think the more appropriate question is are you alright?” Malfoy countered, tapping his goblet to get it refilled again. After a moment’s hesitation, he tapped Neville’s empty goblet too and it filled with the same drink. “I highly recommend this. The house elves make it themselves, best red I’ve ever had. But don’t tell anyone I said so. It’s terribly low class.”
Neville watched as he returned to his meal. The dismissiveness still made him feel less embarrassed about showing up, but now he was feeling miserable about why. Malfoy knew all too well why Neville was there. Neville had told him himself in that fight before Christmas last year. He couldn't decide if that was embarrassing or sad, since Malfoy was, apparently, trying to ply him with alcohol, presumably out of some form of awkward attempt to help make him feel better.
Neville had become rather adept at spotting his awkwardness now, for all the different forms it came in. If someone had told him a few years ago that Draco Malfoy was a horribly awkward person he would have said someone had hit them with a Confundus charm. Malfoy had always seemed so put together and dignified, unless he was fighting with Harry, but then, Harry had that effect on a lot of people, Neville had found. But now he knew better. Malfoy seemed awkward about almost everything and, once he’d noticed that, it had become a lot easier to ignore half of the things that came out of his mouth. In fact, half the time it made his insults and blustering incredibly amusing.
“I don’t like red wine,” he lied, wanting Malfoy to look at him and stop feeling awkward about what he knew of Neville’s situation.
It worked a little too well. Malfoy turned to him with a scandalised expression. “How are we friends?” he said, sounding insulted.
Neville’s ears went hot and he immediately regretted this course of action. “Are we friends?”
All at once, Malfoy’s expression went blank and he stuck his nose up as he turned back to his meal.
“Don’t read into my attempts to mock you,” he said stiffly. “It’s in poor taste and your idiocy will only lead you to all the wrong conclusions.”
The heat in Neville’s ears spread to his cheeks. Of course attempting to lessen Malfoy’s awkwardness would only result in him making everything more awkward.
Clearing his throat, and feeling his heart race with all the ways this could go wrong and all the ways he could embarrass himself, he tried to call upon that confidence he knew he had somewhere, even if it constantly got lost around Malfoy. He picked up his goblet and nudged Malfoy’s elbow with his own.
“Well then, I guess I like red wine,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t show how completely crazy he thought his own words were. “Nothing else for it, if I want to be your friend.”
Malfoy’s expression softened around the edges as he watched Neville take a sip. But he didn’t reply, and Neville would have worried about that if it wasn’t for the flavour bursting over his tongue.
“Fuck me, that’s incredible!” he gasped without thinking.
“Mr Longbottom!” Minerva hissed, obviously on instinct as she forgot his proper title. The students along the table giggled and tittered.
Next to Neville, Malfoy started laughing, and even if his face was red from embarrassment as he stumbled through an apology to Minerva, Neville couldn’t help himself from drinking in the sound.
It was at that point he knew all hope of losing his infatuation with Malfoy was gone. Malfoy’s laugh sounded perfect and he wanted to keep making him do it, even if he had to act like an idiot or get scolded.
He was doomed.
It couldn’t be good for his blood pressure, Neville decided, as he helped Malfoy down to the dungeons. That was something Hermione was always saying these days when he saw her and she was stressed out.
All the blood constantly rushing to his face, and elsewhere, as he was excruciatingly aware of Malfoy plastered to his side, one arm slung over Neville’s shoulder as Neville had one arm slung around his waist.
Couldn’t be good for his blood pressure.
But he felt a bit responsible. After the dinner with the students, the remaining staff had retired to the staff room for a round of drinks. Still unable to look Minerva in the eye, and still feeling awkward and embarrassed about declaring his intent to be Malfoy’s friend, Neville had drunk a little too much. Seeing this, Malfoy had claimed something about ‘being a good friend’, and had then tried to keep up. He’d then overshot Neville by quite a bit.
Neville had been embarrassed for them both as they’d, in some strange fit of competition, tried to get emotional responses out of the chairs. Minerva hadn’t stopped them, so Neville was sure that she somehow approved of getting back at the chairs that constantly irked them all with their stupid personality quirks. Well, as sure as he could be with his mind still a little foggy.
In any case, Malfoy was wobblier on his feet than Neville, so he felt it was his duty to help him down to his quarters.
Although he had just enough sense to realise that he was not of much help as they stumbled about a bit.
“You went so red,” Malfoy suddenly exclaimed. “It was glorious. I never got you that red. Did you always get that red when she scolded you in school? I can’t remember.”
Neville felt his face grow hotter. Of course Malfoy could be hopelessly unsteady on his feet and yet somehow retain the ability to form perfect sentences while drunk.
“Jealous?” he muttered in reply, shivering as they descended into the dungeons and the air grew cold enough to break the warmth he felt from the alcohol in his system.
“Yes!” Malfoy hissed. “I used to love making you go red. And it was so easy. I shouldn't have liked it, really. I liked a challenge back then and you were so easy. But damn, I liked seeing you go all pink and fumbly. It was adorable. And it made everyone else laugh.”
“You’re an arsehole,” Neville said, fixing him with a glare, only to realise their heads were too close while Malfoy was leaning on him like that and promptly looking away again.
“I certainly was.”
“You still are, idiot,” Neville said with a snort, stopping for a moment to look around. He still wasn’t very good at navigating the dungeons.
“Hey, idiot is my word for you!” Malfoy huffed, prodding him in the chest. “Find your own!”
“Where’s your room then, arsehole?” Neville replied, before chuckling a little, since Malfoy hadn’t denied the claim.
Malfoy squinted about and then gestured off down a dark corridor. “That way.”
As Neville started them off in that direction he couldn’t stop wondering why proud, stick-up-his-bum, awkward Malfoy was letting him help like this without a single word in protest. But selfishly, he didn’t want to lose the chance to be a little closer to him even if he knew, in that drunk way where he knew but didn’t care, that he was going to be mortified by all this in the morning.
So was Malfoy, presumably, as he slumped against Neville even more, pressing his face to his shoulder with a sigh.
“So glad you like red wine,” he murmured, lower than all his other drunken proclamations. “Wasn’t sure you ever would.”
Neville had just enough faculties left to remember his deception and realise Malfoy was talking about more than red wine. And just enough sense left to keep his mouth shut lest he betray just how much more than friendship he wanted.
“Ooh, there it is!” Malfoy suddenly shouted, as they rounded a corner, and were left facing a short hallway with a door at the end.
Neville felt his stomach sink as they came up to it and it unlocked to Malfoy’s touch. It was nice to have someone pressed up against him again, since it had been so long. Longer than he’d realised.
But Malfoy peeled off him without a second thought, pushing open the door to wobble inside.
“Night then,” Neville muttered as he turned to go.
A hand on his shoulder pulled him back around and then Malfoy’s face was close enough that, for a moment, he thought Malfoy was about to kiss him. Instead, Malfoy fixed him with as serious a look as he was probably capable of while inebriated, which was still rather serious, Neville thought.
“I’m sorry about your parents, Neville,” he said, his tone low and almost urgent. “I really am. And your grandmother too. I’m sorry you have to visit them alone now.”
Neville closed his eyes for a moment as he remembered the lack of recognition in his parents’ eyes that morning and felt a rush of pain. It never got any easier, but he always went anyway. He was surprised Malfoy didn’t call him an idiot for it, actually. Sometimes he himself considered not going, to visit less. But if he lingered on the thought, even for just a few moments, his stomach would lurch until he felt he might vomit. The guilt was unbearable.
Before he could think better of it, he placed a hand on Malfoy’s shoulder.
“You could visit your mother if you wanted to.”
Malfoy’s expression seemed to shatter and crumble. His whole posture sagged. “No, Neville, I can’t,” he said weakly. “I can never step foot in that house again. And she won’t leave.”
Neville acted before thinking, and pulled Malfoy into a hug. It was only after Malfoy was clinging back desperately that he thought maybe he shouldn't have. But Malfoy started sobbing and Neville didn’t know what else to do except what Molly had done that time she’d hugged him. He rubbed circles on Malfoy’s back with one hand and cradled the back of his head with the other, holding it against his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, shuffling them back a bit so that they were inside Malfoy’s rooms and he could shut the door behind them.
Malfoy probably wouldn’t care so much if a student saw him drunk, if they happened to be wandering about late, but he was sure he’d hate for anyone to see him cry. In fact, he’d probably murder Neville in the morning for seeing it himself. But even if it wasn’t the same as his situation with his parents, Neville hated seeing him cry over his mother, understanding the pain all too well.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, as Malfoy clung to him and started wailing things that were only halfway coherent.
As they stood there, Neville’s mind started to sharpen from the worry he felt, and he almost laughed. Ending the day holding someone who was crying should have been miserable, but at least he wasn’t alone. And it was the first time he’d spent Christmas Day night with someone else in a long time.
When Neville woke up, he groaned and clutched at his head.
“Serves you right, you wanker.”
Moving his hand, Neville looked up to see Malfoy standing over him, holding a steaming mug in one hand and a nasty looking vial in the other. He was dressed in muggle sleepwear, and the heat that was beginning to seep into Neville’s cheeks as he remembered last night rushed south instead. There was something about Malfoy in soft pyjama bottoms and a loose but equally soft looking shirt, appearing completely relaxed even if he was scowling, that just did things to Neville. Even more so for the fact Malfoy had not bothered to change before approaching him.
After Malfoy had finished crying, he’d insisted Neville sleep on his sofa instead of trying to floo home or battle the stairs to get back up to his own rooms. He’d even managed to transfigure the sofa a bit bigger so Neville wouldn’t fall off the edge in the night. It had distorted the fabric and colour in a strange way, making it look visibly stretched out thin where it was extended. Then, without even trying to fix that, he’d disappeared off to his bedroom, red-faced and awkward again.
“I thought I was an idiot?” Neville said stupidly, as he sat up, hoping his hair hadn’t done anything particularly embarrassing from sleeping on sofa cushions.
Malfoy snorted. “That too. Tea first or hangover cure?”
Neville reached out a hand towards the vial and Malfoy handed it over, his grumpy expression melting into something smug and vindictive as he watched Neville drink it and then try to keep it down. Then, miraculously, he handed over the tea.
Taking a sip, Neville found it exactly to his tastes and looked up at him in surprise. “I thought you were just going to taunt me with this.”
In the middle of summoning his own mug from his kitchenette, Malfoy spared him a rather awkward look, as if he was only just realising he should have done that and was embarrassed that he hadn’t.
“That’s the thanks I get for being nice?” he said instead, sitting heavily beside Neville where his legs had been.
Neville sipped his tea again, not really sure what to say or do. For one Christmas dinner, a lot had happened. He’d declared, rather stupidly, that they were indeed friends now. Then he’d sworn in front of Minerva and the others, and some students, and then he and Malfoy had got drunk, harassed some chairs, and then ended the night with Malfoy crying in his arms.
“What a night,” he muttered. He took another sip, wishing it could cure his embarrassment. Malfoy was probably going to declare this whole friendship business a mistake now. Neville had shown himself to be just as awkward and strange as he’d always been. And then he’d made Malfoy cry. He probably would have loved to do that when he was younger. Now it just made him feel a bit sick and sad himself.
“Minerva will bring up your foul language for at least three months,” Malfoy said, his tone strangely conversational and obviously forced. “And the more you get flustered and embarrassed, the longer she’ll do it and the more satisfaction she’ll get out of it. She’s positively Slytherin, that woman.”
Neville raised an eyebrow at him. “Know that from experience, do you?”
Malfoy grimaced. “You think I need you around to make an arse of myself?”
Mulling that over, Neville watched Malfoy sip his tea with his eyes firmly fixed on the coffee table in front of the couch. There was a dusting of pink on his cheeks and he was holding his mug tightly enough that his knuckles were white. Malfoy had already been drinking wine before Neville had arrived, he recalled. Perhaps he always overindulged at Christmas and would have done the same even if Neville hadn’t been there. That was certainly what he seemed to be implying.
“Last night didn’t happen,” Malfoy said a moment later, firmly.
Neville wasn’t sure he wanted to brush it off like that. “Which part?” he asked. “Deciding we’re friends now? Getting drunk? Harassing those awful chairs? Or the part where you showed some of your humanity and cried over never seeing your mother?”
Malfoy continued to stare at the coffee table and grip his mug tightly. “Yes, I still have a mother who knows me, I should be grateful. I know, I know. It didn’t happen, alright?”
Neville’s stomach twisted. He wasn’t sure whether to feel angry to be accused of brushing aside his pain like that, or sad for him that he felt that justified brushing it away.
“You seriously think I care that you cried?” Neville said, even though he did care. But saying that would give away too much. “I used to cry all the time, remember? You even made me cry several times. There’s nothing wrong with crying.”
Malfoy still wouldn’t look at him and it was starting to grate on Neville’s nerves.
“We won’t all stop respecting you just because you showed some genuine human emotion for once!” he snapped. “You’re allowed to be sad about never seeing your mother. For whatever reason. It’s not our place to judge you for that. Honestly, it’s nice to see hard evidence that you’re not only an arsehole. That you do care about someone so much that you’d cry over not seeing them.”
A shudder passed over Malfoy and he sipped his tea again before setting the mug down on the coffee table. Slowly, he turned and looked Neville in the eye.
“As your friend, if you really meant that we are friends under that bullshit improvisation about red wine, which didn’t fool me for a moment, you idiot, thinking we were what? If not friends, then what did you think this was? Honestly, you’re so—”
“As your friend, what?” Neville interrupted, as Malfoy’s face turned redder and he was obviously gearing up for a decent rant.
Deflating a little, Malfoy looked away for a moment and then caught his eye again.
“As your friend, I’m asking you to drop this,” he said firmly.
Neville felt his jaw tighten.
“Please,” Malfoy added, holding eye contact.
After a tense moment, Neville broke eye contact, looking across the small room instead. “Fine. But we are friends then?”
“Of course,” Malfoy said softly. “Idiot.”
Neville paused. In her favourite chair by the fireplace in the staff room, Minerva was staring at him with that annoyingly intense expression of hers. Right as he was about to take a sip of his tea. Heat burst over his face and then her lips twitched. He knew, without a doubt, that when he took a sip she’d ask, in a completely innocent tone, if his tea tasted ‘incredible’. And then Malfoy, the arsehole that he was, would snort to himself from his armchair next to her. As had happened too many times already since the holiday had ended, along with them both expressing condolences that his tea didn’t taste good enough for a loud, sexually charged expletive.
With a scowl, he put his teacup back down on the side table without taking a sip.
Predictably, they both snickered at him anyway and he felt his face grow hotter.
Malfoy had warned him that Minerva would keep bringing up his Christmas swearing, but he hadn’t said he’d join in.
“Don’t you two have anything better to do?” he asked, picking up the next essay to mark. He should have read them in his office or quarters, really.
“Better than spending time with two of my favourite professors in our lovely warm staff room?” Minerva asked.
“Much warmer than the dungeons,” Malfoy said with a shiver.
“You have a fireplace in your office,” Neville pointed out with a scoff. “So do you, Minerva. And every professor is your ‘favourite professor’, and we all know it. I don’t know why you insist on saying it to us all.”
“Who pissed in your pumpkin juice?” Malfoy asked.
Neville glanced at Minerva just in time to see her lips twitch again. She enjoyed Malfoy’s arseholery much more than she admitted. Malfoy might have been right about her Slytherin streak.
“Indeed. If we are proving to be too much of a distraction from your work, Neville, might I point out the option of retreating to your own office?” she said, before turning a page of the heavy book she had balanced on the left arm of her chair.
Neville glanced at Malfoy just as Malfoy looked up to meet his eyes. Feeling his face heat again, he looked away. For all that they’d verbally agreed they were friends, spending time together in the staff room seemed more neutral than visiting each other in their offices.
He was definitely avoiding it, though he wasn’t sure about Malfoy even if he did seem to be in the staff room more often than he used to be. Although, that might have just been because Neville was noticing him there more now, since he was just noticing more about him anyway.
“He probably wants help with his marking,” Malfoy commented, before getting up and walking over to the tea things to fix himself another cup, since the teapot had given up floating around the room sometime after Hagrid had retired for the night. “Still afraid to be too blunt with them?”
Neville glared at his back. “I think I have the hang of it now, thanks. And I wouldn't ask you. There’s being blunt, and then there’s being an arsehole.”
Malfoy turned from the tea things, giving him a delighted grin just as Minerva said, “Now, now, boys. Just because I can’t deduct points doesn’t mean I can’t punish you for incivility somehow.”
Neville wriggled deeper into the embrace of his chair, and it hugged him a little tighter in response now that it was no longer angry with him for taunting it at Christmas. Even if it had a hard time letting him go, its overly-affectionate personality was starting to grow on him. It certainly made him feel better after getting called out by Minerva.
Malfoy was still better than him at engineering things so that it was Neville’s replies that sounded bad rather than what he said to spark them. Arsehole.
Of course, the smile Minerva was now hiding behind the rim of her conveniently placed teacup gave away how much she enjoyed seeing them squabble. But even so, Neville was going to find a way to turn that around if it took him years. He was itching to see her tell off Malfoy.
Barely managing to stop himself from grumbling, he took a sip of his tea.
“How’s the tea today?” Malfoy suddenly asked, appearing from nowhere to lean on the back of his chair.
“Yes, how is it?” Minerva piped up from beside the fire. “Is it incredible?”
“Or only so-so?” Malfoy added.
Groaning, Neville put his tea back down and snatched up the essay again, hiding his face behind it as he heard them cackling around him.
Neville felt like he was floating as he walked through the doors to his personal greenhouse. It was, of course, completely bare, but everywhere he looked he could see how it would be once he began work. He’d already ordered several seeds and the other materials he preferred over the Hogwarts stock. He was itching to get started, and would have to comb his journals carefully to pick which project to start with.
“How utterly anticlimactic.”
Feeling his expression drop a little, Neville turned to glare at Malfoy. He was leaning against the open doorway, surveying the space as if it held something that smelled like it had gone off.
“Did you follow me out here?” Neville asked.
Malfoy pushed off from the doorway and gave a lazy shrug with one shoulder. “I was going up to the staff room for a cup of tea after my last class, saw you rushing off from the direction of Minerva’s office.”
“You really should work on that nosey streak of yours,” Neville said, trying to steady himself as Malfoy looked about the empty space. No doubt he was imagining it with cauldrons and jars of disgusting things. But looking around himself, Neville was reminded that all the students would be getting ready for dinner. They were alone and unlikely to be interrupted.
The direction his thoughts turned after that realisation made him shiver. He really should stop indulging in fantasies that were never going to happen. He should have learnt his lesson from his crushes in school.
“I can’t believe how long it took to construct something so simple and so bare,” Malfoy said, gesturing around the space before moving closer to him. “I thought they’d be installing tables and garden beds and whatnot.”
Neville shook his head. “It’s the spells that take the longest. Working with hybridisation requires all kinds of warding. The ones to keep the heat stable at precisely the temperature I set. Ones to absorb any flares of unstable magic, and the ones to notify me when that happens. Then there’s the ones to keep out pests. And you have to prevent magic from outside getting in, and vice versa. That’s before the specifics I’ll have to cast myself for each crop, which would be wholly dependent on what strains I’m trying to combine.”
Malfoy made a soft, almost impressed sound. “My potions labs were a lot easier to organise.”
“Probably why you have four,” Neville huffed. “Greedy git.”
“Five,” Malfoy said, shooting him a superior look. “They converted one of the old classrooms for me around November. Didn’t I tell you?”
Neville threw his arms up in a gesture of hopelessness. “How could you possibly need five? Five!”
Malfoy chuckled. “You don’t really want me explaining that, do you? You’ve always hated potions.”
“Minerva favours you,” Neville muttered, turning as the sun broke through the clouds that had been hanging around all day and filtered in through the wards. Reaching out a hand to pass through the streams of light, he felt no heat from them. Everything was perfect.
“She does have a soft spot for me,” Malfoy said, sounding smug. “And you sound jealous.”
Neville turned to scoff at him but froze. The sun was hitting Malfoy’s hair and making that stupidly pale mop glow. It made his hands itch from wanting to touch it.
No matter how many months passed, he was not getting over his infatuation. And the way Malfoy’s brows crinkled together whenever he looked at him for too long, he was probably starting to give too much away.
“Why does she like you so much?” he asked instead.
Malfoy scoffed. “Because I’m so terrible and it’s so shocking she—”
“Oh don’t start that self-deprecating bollocks,” Neville scoffed, reaching out and giving him a little shove so he wasn’t directly under the beams of sunlight. “You know what I meant.”
“Spoil-sport,” Malfoy huffed. He looked away, around the empty space again, and then his posture stiffened. “You’ll laugh, or read into it something awful.”
“So?” Neville asked. “You laugh at me all the time. It’s only fair I get a turn.”
Shaking his head, Malfoy turned and walked over to one of the opaque walls. The fact he wasn’t looking at Neville immediately made him pay more attention. Something personal then, emotional even. The last time anything like that had come up between them it had been when Malfoy was drunk and crying in Neville’s arms, something they had still never talked about properly.
“I’m not entirely sure, to be honest,” Malfoy finally said, still facing away from him.
“But…?” Neville prompted, moving a little closer.
“But, I got completely inebriated the first Christmas I was here, and I vaguely remember her stopping by my quarters.”
Neville’s first thought was how hilarious that must have been, for Minerva to walk in on him completely drunk, before he remembered why Malfoy would be drinking at Christmas.
“Oh,” he said stupidly, shocked that Malfoy would tell him that at all.
“Yes, oh. How eloquent,” Malfoy muttered. “I can’t remember what I said to her, but I can very well imagine. She, unlike you, let me pretend it never happened when I saw her the next morning, but I know she became warmer towards me because of whatever I said. Out of pity.”
Neville reached out and rested a hand on his shoulder before he thought better of it.
“It’s not always pity when someone is kind to you after hearing your pain,” he said softly.
“I hate being pitied,” Malfoy said softly.
“You know, that pride of yours must really get in the way sometimes,” Neville said lightly, trying to change the mood. If being friends meant Malfoy was more open about these things, he wasn’t sure he was ready for it. It made his heart race from the intimacy of seeing him so open, that he was trusting Neville with his pain.
Malfoy snorted, then knocked Neville’s hand away. He turned and gave him a sneer.
“Your exaggerated sense of embarrassment must really get in the way sometimes.”
Shaking his head, Neville shrugged helplessly. “Yeah, it is a bit of a nightmare. But I’m not that bumbling kid I used to be. Not anymore.”
Malfoy looked him over and, even though it was clearly with a purpose towards mocking him, the attention made Neville shiver. A far cry from how he’d responded when he’d first come back to Hogwarts.
“You still bumble a fair bit though,” Malfoy said, meeting his gaze.
“And you’re still a prideful arsehole sometimes,” Neville countered, feeling far more secure in the knowledge that the words wouldn’t hurt him than when they’d first started talking to each other that way. That Malfoy would take it to mean the joking side of that behaviour, rather than the old, hurtful way he’d been.
“Please, you love it,” Malfoy said, his posture straightening and his nose lifting up.
Neville scoffed at the appearance of his haughty airs and turned to head towards the door. Deep down, his heart was racing. He rather did love all that about Malfoy, and that wasn’t something he found so easy to hide anymore.
“We should get to dinner before Minerva takes my greenhouse away for being too much of a distraction.”
Malfoy laughed behind him, but Neville heard him follow. “If that were the case, I wouldn't have five personal laboratories, you know.”
“Wow. Five? Really, Malfoy? I had no idea,” he mocked, waiting and then closing the greenhouse door behind Malfoy.
For a moment, Malfoy stepped so close that Neville stopped breathing. “Jealousy looks good on you, Longbottom,” Malfoy said, slow and heavy before turning and walking off towards the castle.
It took a few seconds before Neville remembered to breathe, and how to walk. But it took Malfoy calling out an insult about being slow that finally spurred him to follow, with his heart still racing.
Neville made a triumphant sound as soon as he broke the surface of the lake. Wiping the water off his face and slicking back his hair so it was out of his eyes, he re-oriented himself until he saw the shore. He didn’t normally come up so far out, but had swum about down in the depths out of excitement and wound up further out than planned. Along the shore, he saw Malfoy raise an arm and set off for him.
“That sounded promising,” Malfoy called out when he got closer.
Neville waded up the shore, transfiguring his swimming trunks into trousers and drying them once he was out of the water. As he caught his breath from the swim to shore, he wordlessly summoned his shit and pulled it on. Malfoy always came out with him now if he knew Neville was going down to check on the gillyweed, but he still seemed unable to look at him unless he was fully clothed. Neville was always on the verge of confronting him about it before deciding it wasn’t worth it. Malfoy never said anything, or even made any obviously negative expressions. He just didn’t look at him.
“Did some foul creature down there get your tongue?” Malfoy prompted, closing his book and sitting up from his sprawl on one of the few patches of comfortable ground.
With the students still around and outside more during exams, Neville was using a more sheltered part of the shore from which to enter the lake. He hadn’t really expected Malfoy to just lie down on the ground to wait for him, although perhaps he should have. Malfoy was surprising him again and again in recent weeks. One day, when he’d come down to bug him about his stores of herbological ingredients, he’d found Neville weeding by hand and then just dropped down and joined him without a fuss, continuing his demands without pause.
Seeing Malfoy sticking his hands into soil to pull out stray weeds had caused an embarrassingly strong reaction in Neville that he was trying not to think too hard about.
Seeing him lying on the ground with a bit of grass in his hair was having the same effect, it seemed.
“Is this some new game to irritate me?” Malfoy persisted, scowling at him. “Is there some magic word I don’t know that will suddenly render you able to speak again? Or did you have another encounter with those bloody merpeople and you’re frightened out of your wits again?”
Neville glared at him. “I wasn’t frightened!” he snapped. “I was suitably concerned! Besides, it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for Minerva to enforce the limits of their territory again.”
Malfoy scoffed. “You were shaking like a leaf and looked like you’d pissed yourself at least twice down there.”
“Arse,” Neville muttered. “And even though you’re not interested, the gillyweed beds are right on track, thank you for asking. They’re even healthier than I expected.”
Making an angry gesture, Malfoy threw a twig at him. “I asked before you even got to shore! Obviously I’m interested.”
“More interested in whether I embarrassed myself in front of the merpeople,” Neville muttered.
“Neville, Neville, Neville,” Malfoy said with a sigh. “When will you learn? I’m always interested in instances where you embarrass yourself. Come on, I thought your memory was better now. Do I need to go hunting for a Remembrall?”
Neville resisted the urge to summon some water from the lake to splash on him at the reminder of that awful day from so long ago. Instead, he settled for another glare and then sat down beside him.
“I still can’t understand how the historic crops died. There hasn’t been a single problem yet,” he said thoughtfully, looking out at the lake just in time to see the giant squid pop above the surface enough that one eye was revealed, peering towards the shore.
He’d not seen it once in any of his trips down into the lake, but it often appeared when he had left. It had him shivering from the idea something so massive could be near enough to know when he came and went but not be seen.
“Perhaps you’re just a more competent herbologist,” Malfoy said casually.
Heat flooded Neville’s cheeks at what could almost pass as a compliment. He hoped Malfoy was distracted by the squid so he wouldn’t notice.
“Softie,” he murmured as the giant squid retreated back down into the lake.
“I come bearing sustenance.”
Neville yelped and knocked his inkpot over. Malfoy opened the door further, sniggering as he entered the room properly.
“One day I’ll curse you without thinking,” Neville muttered, fumbling around his desk for his wand. It was a mess of exam papers. He’d started with a clear ‘marked’ and ‘unmarked’ division, but then there had been things he wasn’t sure how to grade and two piles had turned into many.
“You’d have to find your wand first,” Malfoy said with a snicker. “Clear a space for me, would you?”
Neville looked up. He was pulling up a chair, holding a stack of papers himself and that fancy green quill he always had on him. Behind him there was a tray levitating around chest-height, with small curls of steam rising from a teapot.
“What’s this?” Neville muttered, giving up on his already chaotic piles and shoving everything to one side.
“Sustenance. Are you deaf? You’re a mess,” Malfoy tutted, placing his stack of papers down on a clean spot on the desk and then drawing his wand to lift the ink and have it fly back into its vial.
As Neville cleared everything back into one pile, knowing full well he needed to go through everything again anyway, Malfoy set the tray down. Seeing the spread of food that accompanied the tea, Neville’s stomach growled.
“So uncivilised,” Malfoy tutted again. “You didn’t show up for late tea in the staff room. I figured you’d be doing something stupid like forgetting to eat as you tortured yourself over marking exams.”
An insult in return wasn’t forthcoming as a rush of affection surged through Neville. Once settled, Malfoy flicked his wand at the tray and the tea things started preparing the cups of tea themselves. Neville stared, still a bit dumbfounded by how thoughtful the gesture was.
“I was getting bored with these exams anyway,” Malfoy muttered, drawing Neville’s attention away from the animated tea things. There was a tinge of pink to his cheeks, like every other time he was caught doing something nice. “Misery loves company. You wouldn’t believe some of the rot the second-years are putting down. How are yours?”
A fully prepared cup of tea floated over to land just within reach of Neville’s hand, and he was distracted enough that he still couldn’t think of much to say. His chest was aching and he knew what that meant. A miserable night where he’d been moments away from tearing his hair out was suddenly turned around. Malfoy’s mere presence had lifted his mood. He was completely done for.
“Practicals went all right. Theory’s a mess,” he managed to mumble, looking at the first exam on his pile. Eloise Gates. He bit back a groan. Her spelling was atrocious. He didn’t think it was that important, but Minerva had told them all to be harsh or they’d keep slacking on the non-magical aspects of school work. But how much was too harsh? And what was not harsh enough?
Malfoy picked up the teacup that settled near him and leaned back in his chair to take a sip. He looked completely at ease taking up the other side of Neville’s desk. It made Neville’s chest ache all over again.
“I’m at the point where I want to deduct marks for poor penmanship. I swear, their handwriting gets worse every year. I’ll soon convince Minerva to let me, I’m sure of it.” He took another sip and sighed, his eyes closing for a moment. Neville’s face felt hot and he looked at the tray for a distraction, only to hear his stomach rumble again. “Except Charles Gates. He’s trying too hard. I want to mark him down just because I can.”
Neville shook his head, reaching for one of the scones that was already split and slathered with something. “At least someone in that family can write. His sister’s spelling is giving me a headache.” He lifted the scone to his nose for a sniff.
“Lemon curd,” Malfoy supplied. “The house elves insisted the moment I mentioned this was for you too.”
Neville grinned and bit into the scone. Closing his eyes, he fought off a groan and failed. He loved the Hogwarts lemon curd. The house elves were masters at everything. It certainly made a late night of marking exams less daunting as he finished it off quickly and grabbed another.
Malfoy already had one of his exams in hand, leaning back in his chair and reading it close to his face. After a few moments, he scoffed and leaned forward, planting it on the table and dipping his quill in Neville’s inkpot to cross something out.
“Idiot,” he muttered. “I went over that four times in our last lesson. Did he think I was feinting and not study it?”
Neville snorted. “Does Minerva ever catch you calling them idiots?”
Malfoy paused mid-scribble to peer up at him. “You’ve never seen her mark exams?”
Laughing, Malfoy finished what he was scrawling. “Absolutely.”
Neville hummed and then turned back to his exams, brushing the crumbs off his jumper and resigning himself to Eloise’s awful spelling. He’d already gone over it, but he’d ignored several errors he knew he needed to deduct points for. He just felt so awful doing it.
“Even I could spell ‘Venomous Tentacular’ at that age,” he muttered.
Malfoy brandished his quill like a flag of triumph. “That’s the spirit!” he said, grinning over at him. “Mark them down or they’ll never learn!”
Neville snorted at how ridiculous he looked, but inked his quill. He knew he needed to, even if it was so hard to do.
“Ah, to see you struggle,” Malfoy said wistfully. “Just wait. You’ll be calling them idiots and fighting the urge to mark them down from spite alone soon enough.”
“Some of us can restrain our arsehole-ish tendencies,” Neville said, underlining another misspelled word he’d ignored earlier.
“But you do still have the tendency,” Malfoy said, and Neville looked up to see he was looking smug.
“Get back to work,” Neville huffed.
Malfoy chuckled and sipped his tea before making a great show of dipping his pretentious quill in Neville’s inkpot again.
It felt just as strange as the first time, watching the students all leave. This time he was standing next to Malfoy, who was muttering something about a prank in the Slytherin common room he’d make them pay for when the next year started. Neville nodded and mocked him a little, something he felt more comfortable doing now than ever before given the way it obviously delighted Malfoy under his mock outrage.
Across the courtyard, as the last students disappeared off with Hagrid, he could see Minerva was watching them talk. She’d been doing that a lot lately and it made Neville’s skin itch. Given how close she and Malfoy obviously were, and given how devious she was underneath all that sternness, he was constantly worried she’d say something to him.
It didn’t even cross his mind that she wouldn’t know about his developing feelings. She was far too perceptive, and he was probably giving far too much away. He’d started catching himself smiling at Malfoy all the way through meals, while Malfoy waffled on about his snakes, as he liked to call them, and what they thought he didn’t know about what they got up to. In fact, he doubted Malfoy had missed it either since he was just as perceptive. More likely he was just hoping Neville would get over it already. Neville wished the same but it just wasn’t happening. He was in far too deep.
A nudge to his shoulder jarred him from his thoughts and he turned his attention back to Malfoy. “What?”
“You weren’t even listening, you wanker!” Malfoy huffed.
“Were you saying something new? Or were you still talking in circles about those little shits and how you’ll get your revenge for the mess they left you?” Neville asked.
“Maybe ‘arsehole’ should be my insult for you,” Malfoy muttered.
“Nah, find your own,” Neville said with a laugh.
Malfoy chuckled himself and turned to watch the other professors start to head inside. His expression tightened.
“Summer seems so long these days.”
Feeling a burst of confidence that was usually hiding around Malfoy, but had apparently made a sudden appearance, Neville didn’t even think about his next words until they were out of his mouth.
“You could just say you’ll miss me, like a normal person.”
Malfoy turned to look at him with a shocked expression and Neville’s ears burned hot.
The silence dragged on, but Malfoy’s expression twitched a bit like he was searching for a retort. Neville grinned, he’d surprised him again. He loved doing that.
“Good thing I’ll be visiting a lot,” he said, looking forward to it himself. “Have to harvest the gillyweed at the start of August. I’ll have to check on my hybrids all the time too.”
Malfoy’s face did something complicated that Neville wasn’t even going to bother trying to figure out, before smoothing into one of his lazy expressions.
“Hagrid will be glad to have someone to talk to who uses smaller words.”
“You are an utter arsehole,” Neville said, shaking his head and moving towards the entrance to the castle. “I might just sneak in and out without even saying hello to you.”
“Go ahead and try, you’ll fail,” Malfoy called out after him. “You’re not capable of being sneaky!”
Neville snorted and shook his head, pausing in front of the doors. He turned back and met Malfoy’s eye.
“I sneaked onto the grounds twice last August without you or Hagrid even noticing,” he said smugly.
Malfoy’s eyes widened but Neville turned and continued into the castle rather than give him time to respond.
Malfoy rushed after him anyway, and Neville grinned and didn’t answer when he started questioning him.
“Don’t you get lonely?” Neville asked from his perch in the corner of Malfoy’s third laboratory. He probably should have made a fuss over being made to literally sit in the corner and not touch anything but, given his history with potions and the fact Malfoy was experimenting, it was probably wise.
“If you’re going to get maudlin you can bugger off to your greenhouse,” Malfoy huffed, squinting as he dropped some kind of violet liquid into a steaming cauldron drop by tiny drop.
“Do your friends come and visit?” Neville asked, ignoring his words. “You never mention them, you know.”
“My friends tormented you for seven years, Neville,” Malfoy said in a strained tone, his attention still fixed on what he was doing. “I didn’t think you’d care to hear about them.”
Neville watched him measure in three more drops before putting the bottle aside and beginning to stir.
“I didn’t think you would let something like that stop you,” he murmured, filing it away. More and more often he was realising that the nicest and most thoughtful things Malfoy did were the ones that were the hardest to see. The things he never talked about or mentioned. That he tried to explain away as something else if it came up at all.
Of course, he was still a braggart. He often talked about good things he did, but Neville was only recently realising those things were a distraction. It was things like not mentioning people he thought would upset him, things like joining Neville when he marked essays, offering advice for how to word corrections because he knew Neville still hated doing it. He said it was because it was amusing to watch him struggle, but Neville wasn’t falling for that anymore.
And sweet Merlin, the git had come out of the castle last week to watch him go down into the lake, carrying a basket full of food from the kitchens. Then he’d actually proceeded to sit with him by the lake for lunch.
It had been almost like a date, and Neville had embarrassed himself thoroughly by being ridiculously awkward the whole time.
“I didn’t think you still thought I was like that,” Malfoy murmured in response, surprising Neville. He didn’t think Malfoy was listening while he counted his stirring.
“I don’t,” Neville said quickly.
Malfoy scoffed softly, stirring anti-clockwise three more times before stepping away from the potion and wiping the sheen of sweat from his brow.
“You do,” he said, not looking at him. “But that’s to be expected after everything. Two years can’t outweigh seven so easily.”
Neville felt his ears go hot. Less than two years had been more than enough for him to move past their history and develop feelings for him.
“I just meant that you should feel free to talk about your friends,” he said awkwardly. “I blathered on about Luna for two hours the other day.”
The potion presumably needed to simmer, as Malfoy crossed the room and pulled up a stool near him. “I like hearing about Luna. She and I have tea every now and then, not nearly as often as I’d like.”
Neville had already guessed as much from how much Luna seemed to know about him, but it was still strange to hear it from Malfoy now. It was another thing he hadn’t really known about him.
“We’re friends, Draco,” Neville said seriously. “I don’t want you holding things back just to pander to my sensitivities.”
“Isn’t that what friends should do?” Malfoy said, looking genuinely confused. “Hurting you is not something I like the idea of anymore, you know.”
The heat still present in Neville’s ears spread down to his cheeks. They didn’t talk like this often, but it had started to happen more lately. He could never make it through a conversation like this without turning red. A dead giveaway for his feelings. Yet Malfoy had never commented on it.
But whenever Malfoy opened up like this, it was basically permission for Neville to do the same.
“I don’t like the idea of you being here all alone over summer,” he said. “I only drop by once a week or so.”
“Hagrid is always here,” Malfoy said dismissively. “And I go see people from time to time.”
Neville watched the tension seep into his frame and sighed. “You never say. You let me waffle on about things but you hardly talk about yourself at all.”
Malfoy snorted. “I had no idea that enjoying the sound of your voice was so offensive. How horrid of me.”
“Oh, piss off,” Neville muttered.
With a chuckle, Malfoy looked back at his cauldron. “This is for Pansy,” he said. “She’s having trouble conceiving and the standard potion therapies aren’t helping. Reproductive magic is still lacking in these areas. I’m trying to develop a potion to fill the gaps.”
Neville’s stomach twisted. “Should you be telling me that?”
“You asked,” Malfoy said with a shrug.
“Yeah, but that’s really personal!” And more than he wanted to know about Parkinson.
Malfoy shrugged again. “She’s pretty open about these things. And she figured I’d tell you when I mentioned you were visiting this summer. Said to make sure I don’t let you so much as breathe near the cauldrons with her potions.”
The heat in Neville’s cheeks grew worse. “You talk to your friends about me? They must think you’ve gone mad.”
With a low snort of amusement, Malfoy shook his head. “I’ll tell you about it sometime, but not now. I’ve got about an hour before I have to add the next ingredient. I want to see that hybrid you were working on before school ended.”
Neville frowned. “The Shrivelfig-Liquorice hybrids?”
“Those,” Malfoy agreed. “You said you finally had some successful specimens.”
“I guess, but they’re still just seedlings. I don’t want to use any diagnostic spells on them until they're a bit older and their root systems are more established. I won’t know the distribution of—”
“How long until I can get a root sample?” Malfoy interrupted.
“Probably a few months,” Neville said with a frown. “You think the fertility properties of liquorice root will carry over?”
Malfoy looked impressed. “Precisely. All the common fertility potions exclusively use magical plants and steps with spell involvement. I’m experimenting with muggle herbal remedies, but a muggle plant with magical properties might be more effective.”
“I never thought of that,” Neville said.
“Why did you choose those two to try and hybridise?”
Neville flushed. “Shrivelfigs have really resilient root systems,” he muttered.
Malfoy snorted. “You wanted a hardier source of liquorice root for sweets, didn’t you?”
“The house elves make brilliant sweets!” Neville defended. “After you got me to try that wine I went and asked what other things they make.”
Malfoy shook his head, looking amused. “You’re right, they do. Still, as soon as you have some viable roots for samples, I want some.”
“Of course,” Neville said, looking over at the cauldron. “Your reason is far more important than mine.”
As Neville transfigured his trousers into swimming trunks, he forced himself to avoid looking at Malfoy. It wasn’t easy to do, knowing that Malfoy was likewise stripping to his jeans just to his side and changing them into appropriate swimwear. Neville had been surprised that he’d insisted on going down with him to harvest the gillyweed but couldn’t deny him, since his reasoning of it making the job go faster was sound.
Still, after all the time they’d been spending together over the summer so far, he was going crazy trying to hide his feelings for him. All along he was sure he’d been terribly obvious about his attraction, so Malfoy’s lack of acknowledgement could only mean one thing. Neville was embarrassing himself and the case was hopeless.
Knowing this, he should have avoided him over the summer and used the distance to try and get over those feelings, to settle on something more appropriate for a working relationship. But the last time he’d forced himself to avoid things he wanted, even if it was just something as trivial as food, he had been miserable even though he had gained the desired outcome for a time. He wasn’t going back to that.
Being around Malfoy was hard, not being able to have what he wanted, but it was still more enjoyable than avoiding him. So he kept visiting Hogwarts over the summer. More and more often, in fact. It helped fill the time between catching up with his other friends. It helped ease the loneliness he felt living back on the estate. And even if he would probably never admit it, he knew his visits kept Malfoy from feeling too lonely as well. Just the knowledge that he was making Malfoy happier was enough to overcome any hesitation.
Still, as he found himself ready to go into the lake, fiddling with the jar of gillyweed he’d use, he could see Malfoy in his peripheral vision. It was hard not to notice him. Under the sun, his skin was almost blindingly white. Even without his attraction and feelings, he would have found it hard not to look as his eyes kept wanting to turn to the brightness of his skin.
Allowing Malfoy to accompany him down into the lake was definitely a mistake. But he’d been oddly eager about it, so Neville had not been able to bring himself to deny him.
“I can’t believe you’re making me eat this foul slime,” Malfoy muttered, and Neville noticed he had opened his jar of gillyweed.
“If you want to use a bubble head charm then you have to cast one on me too,” he said firmly. “That’s only fair.”
“You really don’t understand what that’s asking of me, do you?” Malfoy huffed.
Before Neville could respond, Malfoy had shoved the gillyweed into his mouth with a grimace, chewing a little and swallowing with a disgusted expression. Without looking at Neville, he grabbed the collection bags, already charmed with spells to preserve the gillyweed until they stored them more appropriately, and began wading into the lake. Hurrying to follow him, Neville downed his own gillyweed, scooped up his collection bags, and followed.
Once they were both under the water, Malfoy looked around with open amazement. It was unexpected, and Neville stared at him. He’d been sure that Malfoy would find it disgusting down in the lake, but instead he seemed transfixed by the sight.
Close to the surface, the water was clearer and penetrated by beams of light, but as they started moving deeper, it became the murky green Neville had already become so familiar with. As they moved along, still close enough to the shore to avoid the kelp forests, Neville could hardly keep his eyes off Malfoy and the shocking paleness of his skin as he moved through the water.
If Malfoy insisted on coming down again after this, when Neville was maintaining the next crop, he knew he’d have a hard time focusing. It didn’t seem like something he could get used to, seeing Malfoy in such a state of undress.
Even in the cool water, his ears and cheeks warmed. His infatuation was both immature and out of control, but it was far too late to stop it now, not without putting a distance between them that he didn’t want.
Gritting his teeth, he tore his eyes away from Malfoy and tried to focus.
With the bags full of gillyweed trailing behind them with a modified summoning charm, they stayed under the water for as long as they could before surfacing close to shore. Only needing to swim forward a little, they stopped when they were able to stand on the bottom of the lake and not tread water.
“Now I’m curious why no one else has tried growing gillyweed down there,” Malfoy said, slicking his hair back out of his face. He looked behind them to where the bags bobbed on the surface of the lake. “You have enough make quite a lot of money with the market the way it is.”
“Money wasn’t my motivation,” Neville said absently, turning his gaze from the bags to Malfoy. He laughed before he could stop himself.
“What?” Malfoy asked, looking confused before he realised Neville was looking at him.
He had bits of different plants in his hair, showing starkly against the pale colour. It made him look ridiculous. Even if he was a lot more relaxed about his appearance and clothing than he used to be, his hair had still remained perfect. Seeing it mussed was both incredibly amusing and incredibly tempting.
Unable to hold back, and figuring it would be interpreted as completely innocent, Neville reached out and plucked a bit of kelp from his hair.
Malfoy’s eyes darted to his hand and then widened. He made a strange, high-pitched sound and started furiously ruffling his hair.
Still laughing, Neville reached out and grabbed his wrists. “Hold still, idiot. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“Gross!” Malfoy hissed. “Get it out!”
Chuckling, Neville started picking bits of plant life from his hair. “What did you think would happen if you went for a swim down in the lake? You didn’t have a problem when you were down there.”
“That’s different,” he muttered. “Have you got all of it?”
“Not yet, be patient,” Neville laughed, taking longer than he should have as he ran his fingers through Malfoy’s sodden hair to find and remove all the foreign material.
Malfoy made another huffing sound and crossed his arms. They were standing far enough out that his arms were underwater, and the fact he made the gesture even though it was barely visible made Neville laugh again.
“You are ridiculous,” he said.
“I hope you realise how privileged you are,” Malfoy muttered. “I don’t even let Pansy touch my hair anymore. Not after she got icing sugar in it during a disastrous attempt at baking a few years ago.”
Neville paused his search for more debris and met his gaze. His ears went hot, and then his cheeks. Touching Malfoy’s hair seemed less innocent now, as did the way Malfoy looked back at him, open and relaxed even though he’d implied he was uncomfortable with anyone touching his hair.
Unable to resist the urge, Neville leaned forward and pressed their lips together. He had all of a few seconds to even register that he was kissing Malfoy before Malfoy made a muffled sound and pulled back.
Neville froze and a rush of cold swept through him. His heart began to race and his face only burned hotter.
“Sorry,” he muttered quickly, disentangling his hands form Malfoy’s hair. “I…sorry.”
Malfoy stared at him with wide eyes for a moment but then surged forward, gripping his face and kissing him a lot more roughly than Neville had kissed him.
Making his own muffled sound of surprise, Neville almost pulled back from shock, but Malfoy had pulled back again before he could.
“Thank fucking Merlin!” Malfoy exclaimed, before kissing him again and again.
Neville wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but kissed back eagerly, reaching under the water to grip Malfoy’s sides and pull him closer. Feeling Malfoy’s warm skin under his hands made him shiver. Then Malfoy broke the kiss again.
“Do you have any idea how infuriating it’s been just being your friend? Trying not to stare? Trying not to let on too much and make you uncomfortable? And then you just kiss me? Out of nowhere like that? Like it’s the most natural bloody thing and I haven’t been wanting to for months myself? Merlin, I was going insane, you idiot! Why didn’t you say something?”
“You’ve been going insane?” Neville exclaimed. “You never showed any sign you wanted something like this! You just kept blathering on about friendship!”
Malfoy made an annoyed sound then kissed him again, deep and lingering, his hands twisting through Neville’s hair to hold him close only to release his grip and push him away by his shoulders again.
“You seemed to struggle enough with just that,” he said, running a hand through his hair again, not seeming to notice that there were still a few fragments of kelp in it. “And then…well…you Gryffindors are all so exuberant about your friendships that it’s sort of impossible to tell if there’s anything else there. I’d resigned myself to pining after you like some stupid hormone-addled teenager. I mean, sometimes the way you looked at me…but I just thought…I mean…wishful thinking, right?”
Neville shook his head and laughed. “How long have—”
“Oh no!” Malfoy interrupted, making a wild gesture and splashing water everywhere. “We’re not playing that game. How long is unimportant. There are other far more important things to consider.”
Neville frowned. That sounded ominous.
“Like what?” he asked slowly, suspiciously.
Malfoy sighed and made a helpless gesture with a splash before he seemed to notice the bags still floating near them.
“We’ll talk about that after getting the gillyweed properly preserved in jars,” he said, with finality in his tone. “After all the fuss you made over growing the stuff, we can’t let the crop go bad now.”
“Those bags can prevent degradation for at least—”
“Don’t care,” Malfoy interrupted, wading towards the shore. “This is a conversation that should be conducted indoors anyway.”
Scrunching his face up in annoyance, Neville followed him, looking over to see the bags following, tugged along the surface by the modified summoning charm. It probably would be best to get them sorted out first.
Then again, there was no reason they couldn't do both.
“More important things to consider, like what?” he asked again as he left the water and levitated the bags to keep following him.
Malfoy glared at him as he dried himself off with a swish of his wand and transfigured his swimming trunks back into jeans. Before he put his shirt on, Neville found a moment to feel horribly large and ungainly standing in front of someone to lithe and graceful, but shoved that thought away like he always tried to when such things surfaced. With the desperate way Malfoy had kissed him half-naked in the water, he didn’t think he had to worry about that, which was a comforting thought he’d probably linger on later. All those times Malfoy had been unable to look at him, perhaps it had never been about his weight to begin with. Maybe it was like all the times he’d had to force himself to look away from Malfoy before he drooled or said something stupid.
He felt like a proper idiot, as he started recalling all the times Malfoy’s cheeks had reddened around him, accompanied by an averted gaze. Obvious now, he couldn’t even remember what he’d thought of it then.
“Well, we work together,” Malfoy finally said after tugging his shirt on. “Minerva probably has rules about this sort of thing.”
Neville froze after casting drying charms on himself. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted.
Minerva had certainly noticed that Neville had developed feelings for Malfoy, but surely if there were rules she would have warned him off even if she thought there was no chance of anything happening.
“I mean, she’s made a few remarks,” Malfoy continued, his cheeks flushing pink. “It’s definitely not forbidden. But there are probably still rules to follow, so it doesn't interfere with or affect the students.”
Neville finished tugging his own shirt over his head and stared at him. “She what?”
Malfoy cleared his throat awkwardly as Neville finished transfiguring his swimming trunks back into trousers. Malfoy turned and started walking towards the castle, his bags of gillyweed levitating behind him. Hurrying to follow, Neville nearly tripped, but thankfully Malfoy didn’t seem to notice.
“What has she said?” he asked as he reached his side.
Malfoy groaned. “Nothing. Forget I said anything.” He looked at Neville while they walked next to each other and then faced the direction of the castle again, his cheeks still pink. “I’m half convinced this is some dream, you know. Friendship alone always seemed like more than I deserved.”
Neville reached out and grabbed his upper arm, bringing him to a halt. “You’re not who you used to be,” he said firmly. “I’m glad you persisted in helping me see that.”
Malfoy averted his eyes. “And you’re not the person you used to be,” he said, softly. “I’m glad you’re happier now. You always looked so miserable after the war. I enjoyed it more than I should have, feeling so miserable myself and failing so terribly at improving the standing of my family. It was nice to think I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t flourishing. That one of you lot looked as miserable as me. But after a while, it just didn't seem right thinking that way.”
“I got my priorities straight,” Neville muttered. “About what really mattered, and what brought me joy. And that wasn’t being a public figure or a so-called hero.”
“As did I,” Malfoy replied. “And it wasn’t trying to fix my family’s reputation.”
With a breathless laugh, Neville gestured towards the castle. “And somehow, we both ended up here.”
Malfoy looked towards the castle. “Best decision I ever made, coming back here. It was so hard at the time, knowing the position was offered more out of pity that anything else. But I was so desperate that I took it. I’m glad I did. It’s taught me a lot that I couldn’t have learned continuing to struggle the way I had been.”
Neville shivered. “You never talk about your life before you came back here,” he said.
Shrugging Malfoy pulled his arm free from Neville’s loosened grip and then continued towards the castle. Neville followed, reeling a little from how quickly everything seemed to have changed. How easy it seemed.
“You never asked,” Malfoy said simply. “And likewise, you never talk about all those years you were holed up on your estate. And likewise, I never asked. It seemed prudent to avoid those topics.”
Neville considered this. “We never really talk about all that much outside of school and our hobby research, do we?” Another thought came to him, making him feel a bit cold. “What if—”
“No!” Malfoy said, whirling around to face him. “That does not mean this is all doomed to fail! Don’t be so pessimistic!”
“Okay,” Neville said simply, even though he still wondered. A few kisses didn’t suddenly make them a functional couple. Or even a couple really. “But we’re doing this?”
Malfoy looked thoughtful. “Properly though,” he said, looking back at the castle.
“I was going to suggest we join Hagrid for lunch, but…” His cheeks became redder, and he kept staring at the castle. Neville wanted to reach out and touch. Realising he could, he didn’t hesitate.
Malfoy looked startled when Neville brushed his fingertips over his cheeks, but didn’t try to stop him.
“You’ve gone red,” Neville explained. “You look nice when you’re flushed, even if it’s usually because you’re being awkward.”
“You’re one to talk of awkwardness!” Malfoy huffed, his face twisting into a scowl, although he made no move to stop Neville from touching his face.
“What were you saying about lunch?” Neville asked, as his stomach suddenly decided to remind him how long it had been since breakfast.
Malfoy’s gaze skittered away from him. “We should go to Hogsmeade,” he said shortly.
Neville grinned. “You need to work on that,” he said. “Asking for a date. You’re terrible at it.”
“At least I’m asking!”
Neville chuckled. “I have a better idea.”
Snorting, Malfoy shook his head. “Alright then, let’s hear it.”
“Picnic by the lake?” Neville asked, hoping his nerves didn’t show. Even after kissing him, he still felt shy exposing his feelings for Malfoy this way.
Malfoy looked surprised. “But we’ve done that before.”
“Exactly,” he said, barely able to look at him directly. “It sort of felt like a date and…I liked it. It was nice.”
Malfoy looked away again, his cheeks still flushed. He cleared his throat and then started walking towards the castle again.
“Fine, picnic by the lake,” he said without pausing his rapid strides.
Neville hurried to follow him, not bothering to hide the grin on his face.
“Stop grinning like that, you idiot,” Malfoy said, after looking over his shoulder. “It’s just a picnic.”
“I’m happy, arsehole,” Neville countered. “I’ll grin if I like.”
Malfoy huffed but didn’t reply as they entered the castle and made their way to Neville’s office.
Their steps echoed around the empty space. Even if it meant telling Minerva, and perhaps having to follow rules regarding this new relationship after all, he couldn’t wait until the halls were full of children again.
Two years ago, he’d barely been able to make himself attend public gatherings, and now he ached to be surrounded by people again. Two years ago, he’d still been afraid of Malfoy, while also still somehow looking up to him as being far more dignified and graceful than he could ever be. Now he was rapidly falling for him and feeling only more and more confident around him, even with the nervousness of suddenly having his feelings exposed.
The difference two years could bring.
“What’s that stupid smile for?” Malfoy asked, drawing him from his thoughts as they reached his office.
Neville shrugged as they put down their bags on the workbench in one corner of his office and began preparations for preserving the gillyweed in jars.
“Probably the same reason as the one on your face,” he said.
Because Malfoy was smiling a silly little smile himself, and even if he couldn't know for sure, Neville felt it was for the same reason.
And it only made him smile more.