The Pathos of Distance
Neville’s undoing begins innocently enough.
He has learned, over the years and by accidents far more numerous than he cares to admit, that there are some things a wizard just doesn’t tell his grandmother.
Particularly not when that grandmother is Augusta Longbottom. One Howler in the boys’ dormitory was enough to put the fear of Augusta—because yes, that fear was righteous enough in and of itself— for the rest of his mortal life, and perhaps, he thinks, enough to follow him into whatever ambiguity beyond lay on the other side of the Veil.
And thus shaped his careful trepidation of All Things Augusta, beginning with a Remembrall and ending, most recently, with the job he’d stumbled into by accident after Ginny and Harry’s split. Luna had requested his assistance for a friend in need, and he had of course agreed.
What he hadn't expected was to stick with it as long as he had.
A professional cuddler is not the kind of career Augusta would approve of.
It's an innocuous enough title for a job the description of which is far more nebulous.
Apparently, professional cuddling is quite the industry in the Muggle world, and Luna's success seems to reflect it as of late, and his late arrival home that morning is all the more testament to it.
The witch whose home he’d stayed at the night before was nice enough. A quiet, slight little witch from the Archives department, she'd simply asked from a wizard who would hold her all night. Easy enough, so Neville had agreed.
His inability to say no was another of his personal contentions.
The job is fine. He can choose the requests he accepts, and he's careful to weed out those which ask for a physical commitment beyond basic intimacy. Even those have become taxing in recent months, though, and he heaves the clothes he wore to the Archivist's house into the wash basket. lt’s nice to provide the cursory comfort to those who need it, but the interactions still wear him down.
He can smell her perfume on him, its subtle scent seeming to curl in the depths of his olfactory senses, and he ducks into the washroom attached to his modest bedroom.
The water takes ages to warm in the rickety old building, leaving Neville naked and forlorn before the oblong mirror.
He tries to avoid the mirror. It’s not that he dislikes what he sees—he’s rather pleased at the way he’s grown into his over-large teeth and that his round cheeks have sprouted with evidence of his adulthood—but rather that he knows, should he stare long enough, he’ll see the disappointment reflected back at him.
It’s like this every time; comforting enough in the moment that he doesn’t question his motivations, but when he arrives home, covered in the scent of a woman who will have forgotten him by the weekend, he can’t help but wonder what he’s doing.
Gran doesn’t say it, but he sees the looks she gives him. He was supposed to salvage the Longbottom name. And though his work on herbology is widely recognised in the wizarding world, he still feels the shadow of his parents’ legacy looming over them. Instead, he prefers the little plant shop he purchased in Diagon Alley after the war and the relative anonymity it affords him. And if he sometimes accepts Luna's requests on the odd night for a touch of manufactured intimacy, Augusta needn't know.
Though the evenings are unfulfilling, he’s grateful for the time away from his wallowing.
He’s toweling off and cracking the oeil-de-boeuf and releases the warm steam of the washroom when an owl arrives, and she flutters in without ceremony. Resignation coils around him as he smooths her feathers back in welcome. “Hello, Winifred.”
The creature coos at him, tipping her head to the side. If she could talk, Neville is sure she’d reprimand him for the dark circles beneath his eyes.
“Yes, I know.” He heaves a long-suffering sigh, gesturing for her to offer him her leg.
Two pieces of parchment are affixed to Winifred’s leg. When he unravels them, a touch of trepidation races through him.
The outermost paper—the form note which accompanies all his assignments—has been replaced by Luna’s looping script.
Please read through the entire request before you decline it.
He very nearly reattaches the parchment and sends the little owl back on her way with the hopes that Luna will assume him unreachable with the holidays so near, but the vestiges of propriety that Augusta tried to drill into him begs otherwise. Steady fingers from years of untangling root-bound plants unroll the accompanying letter.
Since Ronald’s passing, I’ve found it rather hard to sleep through the night. I find myself startling awake, reaching for his side of the bed, out of habit. The sharp dose of reality in finding an empty bed has not ebbed in five years, so I hope you can help me.
Ginny says that you are able to match people according to specific needs, and I am also aware that a copy of this letter will be sent to the individual assigned to assist me. As it stands, my current needs are:
- Someone willing to stay the night with me for a period of one week to begin. I’m not overly fond of excessive cuddling, so it’s not necessary to match me with someone who insists on swallowing me in their embrace. After a week’s trial period, we will revisit with potential to sign a long-term contract.
- Someone who prefers to provide comfort rather than sexual gratification.
The final request is a long-shot at best, and I understand if it is beyond the scope of your services. However, Ginny insists I add it.
- St. Mungo’s is holding its annual charity gala for Christmas. I would prefer not to attend alone, but I don't want to go with any random bloke off the street who hasn't been vetted. As such, I am interested in beginning a mutually beneficial relationship with the individual I am paired. Necessary duties would include public outings, minimal displays of affection such as hand holding and chaste kisses, and, of course, attending the Christmas gala. They will be compensated fairly for their services at a sum of 100 galleons for the evening of the gala and an additional twenty galleons per public appearance. This sum is in addition to the contracted service requested in points one and two.
If you are aware of any employees who might fit the description of requested services, please instruct them to contact me directly via owl upon receipt of this letter.
For a moment, Neville is sure all the air has been sucked out of the room.
There’s no way that Luna would assign this to him.
He’s never told any of them that he works for Luna. It’s a safe, mostly anonymous escape from the loneliness that plagues him outside of working hours and the occasional pint with his friends that had driven him to talk to the whimsical little witch about the particulars of becoming, as she calls it, a “professional cuddler.” Telling Harry or Malfoy especially would be more embarrassing than he wants to consider.
Beyond that, though…
“Bugger,” he mutters, carefully rolling the parchment.
He kneels before the Floo, calling the witch’s name that started all of this. As he waits, a migraine begins to beat its insistent drum behind his left eye.
It doesn’t take long for it to pick up. “Neville! It took you longer to call than I assumed.”
“Hi, Luna.” The witch is sleep tumbled, her long blonde hair curled up in an impressive pouffe that he has no doubt will remain for the day, just as eccentric as the witch who wears it. “I think there’s been a mistake—I asked not to be paired with anyone I knew.”
“Oh, no, there’s been no mistake. This job is yours; I know it just as surely as I know there’s an Erumpent somewhere in the world.” Luna’s whimsicality is normally endearing, but sleep deprivation undercuts his patience as she blinks at him. “The pairing request was clear: she needs someone that will make her feel safe. Out of all the wizards I work with, your comfort level is consistently rated the highest.”
He very rarely contradicts Luna, but this—it’s too close and far too dangerous to accept. “You know why I can’t.”
Baleful eyes turn up at him, and if he’s not mistaken, a sparkle lights behind them. “Perhaps that’s exactly why you should .” She drums her fingertips on her thigh, staring off into the middle distance as though an answer is hidden somewhere in the ether that only she can see. “I’ve seen the way you look at her, Nev. Like the Wrackspurts have gotten in your ears and turned you upside down.”
Neville can feel the warmth of a flush burning his chest, but he can’t deny it. If there’s ever been a witch for him, it was Hermione Granger.
He’s known it since she helped him search the train over for Trevor.
His silence must be all the acceptance Luna needs; a serene smile tips her lips. “The request is for one week. Attend the first few days; if it proves too uncomfortable, owl me and I will reassign.”
Before he can respond, Luna disappears, and the Floo extinguishes.
Hermione Granger. He’s not seen her alone since… Merlin, since her wedding day. Ron had asked him to stand up with him to witness, and though it had killed him to do so, he desperately wanted to see Hermione in the gown she’d chosen. When Ron had asked him to deliver his letter to the bride before the ceremony, he’d jumped at the chance.
It was as much of a goodbye to the relationship he’d never had as any as he’d held her after her eyes had misted over.
When Ron had been killed on a mission with the Aurors, he’d desperately wanted to hold her until the broken pieces of her fused back together, but it had never been his place—then or now.
Neville feels wrong to enter into a relationship which is predicated on the expectation of platonic assistance. Not when his feelings are as strong as they’ve ever been.
The embers grow cold before he rises, knees popping as he summons a quill and parchment to jot a note before he talks himself out of it.
I’m writing in response to your request for company.
After reviewing your request, I have found myself in agreement with all of your terms—including the tertiary term regarding accompaniment to your Christmas gala. We can discuss compensation upon meeting.
If amenable to you, I will meet you at Dove & Quill in Diagon Alley tomorrow evening at 7PM to arrange the details.
He stares at the blank where his name should go for several long minutes.
It’s not unusual to sign it with a perfunctory title, something to ensure the reader is aware that the writer is legitimate and not some opportunistic stranger off the street, but it feels wrong to Neville. Like springing this on her might very well be the end before it’s begun.
The sour twist in his stomach drives his motions, and he signs his initials with a flourish below the closing, attaches it to Winifred’s foot, and releases her out the window from which she came.
It’s only one week, with the Christmas gala to culminate it. He can handle a week.
Neville clings to the mantra like a lifeline.
Winifred is waiting for him on the window ledge when he returns from the grocer that evening. The note is simple, but it sends a flutter of nerves through him nonetheless.
It’s a date.
Neville sips his gin and tonic nervously. He’d positioned himself with his back to the door to quell the nerves that have plagued him all day, but as the minutes pass, he finds himself more nervous than he would be if he could see Hermione coming.
Hermione is never late; she’s always precisely five minutes early—enough time to arrange herself before the commencement of an event but not so early as to draw unnecessary attention to herself. It’s a trait Neville has come to admire in recent years, but it’s currently the bane of his existence.
If he’d arrived five minutes early, they could have ran into each other in the foyer. Any later, and he’d arrive after her. So he’d settled on fifteen minutes early for enough time to down a drink and perform the gentlemanly duties of pulling out her chair upon arrival.
He hears her before he sees her.
Even in the quiet din of the restaurant, Hermione’s command of the room is impeccable. She’s outgrown the awkwardness of her youth—a reality Neville envies—and charms everyone she meets.
Perhaps it’s due to years of perfecting her bedside manner as the head healer at St. Mungo’s. Either way, he hears her tinkling laugh and exuberant compliments as she approaches.
A deep breath helps him rise from his seat, half-finished gin and tonic steady in his hand. Inside, he’s a riot of nerves dressed up in a sharp suit that Theo had helped him pick out years ago.
In the space of two heartbeats, Hermione is standing before him. The deep navy shift dress she wears flatters her, and the short heels she wears brings the top of her head level with his nose.
Still, as Hermione peers up at him, Neville feels approximately two inches tall.
“Neville, it’s good to see you.” She breaks the silence, voice gone raspy from years of directing patients and staff around her wing of the hospital. “I hoped it might be you.”
His heart drops somewhere in the vicinity of his feet, but he still manages to return Hermione’s hug. The brush of her curls against his cheek, of all things, knocks his knotted tongue free. “Hermione. I apologise for the crypticism; we try to maintain our anonymity until meeting.”
Though he helps her into the chair, Neville is struck by just how much of an imposter he feels.
Never mind that he’s done this dozens of times before. Never mind that he’s known Hermione far longer than anyone else he’s worked with. It feels new and strange and charged in a way it’s never been with any of the other witches.
Deep down, he knows it’s because it’s Hermione.
The waiter arrives as he tucks himself into his chair, and though he’s studied the menu out of sheer nerves for the last ten minutes, he dips his head at Hermione to take the lead.
“I’ll have a firewhisky neat, please,” she says, tapping the menu on the table. The waiter gapes at her, mouth open like a fish gasping for air. “That’ll be all.”
Neville blinks once, then catches himself. “You don’t want any food? The first meeting is on me.”
Hermione shakes her head. “I have a feeling this will be quick.”
His heart sinks in his chest for the second time that evening, and he quickly folds the menu, hopes dashed. “A second, please.” He taps the gin and tonic sweating on the table.
The waiter is gone, clearly unphased by Neville.
“So Luna forwarded the letter to you,” Hermione starts, warmth effusing her tone. The shift in her demeanour nearly topples Neville out of his chair. The surprise must be evident in his features because Hermione grimaces. “I’m sorry—defense mechanism. With the war, Ron’s passing, taking over the magical accidents wing at St. Mungo’s… it’s a lot. People like to talk to bombard without consideration for the individual they’re speaking to. It’s easier to be blunt.”
Something akin to relief washes over Neville. “Ah,” he says, searching for the right way to respond. “So this is—”
“Not exactly unexpected,” Hermione hedges, falling silent when the waiter returns with their drinks. After reassuring him that they truly don’t want anything more, he leaves, and she lifts her glass. “Cheers to—” She pauses, assessing him. “Cheers to reconnecting with old friends.”
Neville lifts his glass in kind. “Cheers.”
They clink their glasses together, but Neville can’t focus on anything more than the brush of their knuckles.
Their conversation volleys quickly, both catching the other up on the goings-on in their lives in previous years. He’s genuinely interested in the conversation, but he can’t help his wandering thoughts: what will happen when the liquor runs dry and the tab has been paid?
As though reading his mind, Hermione throws the rest of her drink back and slides the chair out. With a cocked brow, she looks down at him. “Are you coming?”
Relieved would be an understatement, but he nods nonetheless, throws a generous handful of coins on the tabletop, and follows her out of the restaurant. They’re barely through the door when she slips her arm through his own. “So, how should we do this?”
It’s as simple as that—no grand fanfare, no signing on a dotted line. He’s used to stilted conversations for the better part of the evening and then awkward negotiations followed by a tense first night during which he learns exactly what the witch wants, but this is simple.
Perhaps it’s because he knows Hermione, and she him, but it’s comfortable.
Alarm bells ring in the back of his mind, but he carefully mutes them as they walk, the dulcet silence of snow slowing the city to a crawl around them. He tips his head to peer at her. “It depends on what you’d prefer. Most of the time, I suggest a dinner meeting like the one we just had to feel a bit more comfortable with one another, but—”
“That’s not exactly necessary,” Hermione finishes. A beat of silence settles between them. “What if we began tonight?”
The question stops him in his tracks, and he gapes at her. A lamp lights her from behind, illuminating the snowflakes that snag in her lashes and hair. If he didn’t know her better, he’d think her made of ice with her beautifully crafted profile. “Tonight?”
She shrugs, tugging him along with her as though she’d suggested something as simple as a nightcap after dinner. “We’re comfortable with one another. I thought it might be easiest to jump in with both feet. Ginny mentioned—” Hermione cuts off, cutting her gaze up at him. “Ginny mentioned you helped her after Harry, so I had hoped—”
For the first time, a flicker of unease passes over her face. Despite his reservations, he’d do anything to ease her doubt. “I did. Ginny was the first—Luna approached me about it after Ginny requested someone she knew.”
Hermione hums to herself. “She told me—how much you helped her, that is. She had a hard time after she and Harry split. I think they both knew they weren’t right for each other well before they ended things, but they’d grown so dependent on one another. It took a toll on them both when they went their separate ways.” She stops just outside a stone building. Most of the windows are dark save for the uppermost right one, in which a cat sits. “I leave the light on for Crooks.”
“Oh.” Neville startles, rocking back on his heels. “This is your flat.”
“It is,” she confirms. She removes her hand from the crook of his arm and steps onto the stoop. It’s a measured, intentional distance, and though Neville is thankful for it, he mourns the loss of her warmth. It may as well have been a chasm opening between them. “I don’t want to pressure you. I know it’s not how things are typically done.” Hermione drops her gaze, seeming to search for the words.
When she looks up, her expression is guarded. “It’s been five years since Ron passed. I’ve spent every last day working myself to the bone until I fall into bed exhausted. And for just a moment, on those blissful mornings afterwards, I wake up and I’ve forgotten. The sunlight streams over my bed, and it’s like he’s right there.” Her fingers flex at her side, reaching for the phantom of her lost love.
Neville’s heart is a stone in his chest.
“I can almost see him, messy red hair fanned out on the pillow. His sleepy smile as we woke up together. I forget,” Hermione whispers, tears pricking her eyes. “But then I wake up. And the sunlight feels a little dimmer.”
“Hermione, I’m so sorry,” he says, voice hoarse. Though his grandmother would have his head for it, he steps into Hermione’s space.
“So am I.” On the stoop, she’s eye level with him. Her smile is tremulous, but he manages to swipe away the tears that break loose. “I don’t want to forget him,” she says, barely audible. “But I need for it not to hurt anymore. And of all the people that I trust to help take that pain away, I can think of no one more fitting than my oldest friend. That’s why I asked Luna to make sure it was you.”
Even if there was a singular fibre of his being that wanted to deny Hermione this, the sincerity in her eyes would have dashed it. “Okay,” he whispers, cupping her cheek. “Tonight.”
And just like that, his fate is sealed.
He follows her up several flights of stairs, gaze carefully trained on the switch backs of landings instead of her arse. Despite his deepest hopes, he’s determined to conduct himself professionally.
It has never been about anything more than the comfort the client needs—it’s a mantra Neville clings to.
Hermione's flat is utilitarian, furnished with only necessities of an overworked healer. An overstuffed chair is positioned beneath the window overlooking the street; along the walls on either side of it, bookshelves tower to the ceiling. Neville can’t help the chuckle that escapes him.
"What?" Hermione stands in the centre of the room, arms crossed protectively over her chest.
He shakes his head, scanning the rest of the flat. "Nothing. It just feels like you. I think it's the books."
Hermione didn't look as though she believed him, but she shrugged out of her jacket and hung it in the coat closet behind the front door. "I'm not here much, so I don't need much more than this."
"You've never been one for creature comforts, he agreed, running a finger over the bookshelf's pristine surface.
Hermione wrinkled her nose, casting her gaze away. "I had more—before Ron, but... it was difficult to come home to evidence of him everywhere. It made the hurt worse."
Her honesty reflects his own pain. There was a reason he preferred not to visit his Gran any longer than necessary. She'd left Longbottom Hall ages ago, but she'd brought the majority of its contents to the little cottage she stayed in now.
In every bit of it, the ghosts of his parents seemed to loom, even as they resided under Hermione’s care in St. Mungo’s.
He doesn’t remember them well; at least, not beyond vague snapshots of memories that seem more fleeting as the days pass. Gran tells him stories, of course, but Neville has always believed there to be a measurable difference in a memory experienced and a memory told.
A memory experienced, to Neville, feels like digging his hands into a perfect mixture of potting soil and perlite. It’s just porous enough that details slip through it as time passes, leaving behind pockets of oxygen that breathe new life into them.
They flourish, alive and well, in the recesses of his memory where he can foster their growth as like the past requires: with a delicate hand and reverent dedication.
He revisits them sparingly, tending their leaves as the years pass and they flourish into the redwoods he’s seen photos of: tall, imposing, larger-than-life.
And yet the memories he’s been told creep through the carefully tended garden, invasive and suffocating. It’s his own private shame, one he can’t bear to deal with, that he refuses to visit his mum and dad in St. Mungo’s. He can’t bear the reminder that they’re shells of who they used to be.
With a decisive tilt of her head, Hermione heads down the hall. "The loo is here. If you would prefer to shower before you leave, then you can find the soap beneath the counter."
Neville follows in her wake, carefully cataloguing the various nooks and crannies in the little flat.
The room at the end of the hall took up the majority of the western side of the flat, looking out over the roofs of the buildings. Gringotts' restored tower gleamed in the distance.
Her bedroom is just as bare as the rest of the flat. A linen duvet covers the bed, folded crisply back at the top. The only ornamentation in the room is the mound of throw pillows decorating the bed in various shades of green.
Hermione shuffles, gaze flicking around the room as she turns down the covers and sets aside the pillows. As she moves them, they shrink in her hands until they’re small enough to be stowed in the bedside table. It’s clever magic, and Neville admires her ingenuity. “It’s not much, I know, but—”
“It’s perfect,” he interrupts, helping her pull the covers down.
They fall into silence as they prepare the bed, and Hermione excuses herself to change into pyjamas.
If a heartbeat could be a physical presence, he’s sure his would fill every crevice in the room and crowd them until there was no space between them. Instead, it pounds in his ears, thundering in his veins, and steals all rationality as he slips beneath the covers.
Hermione returns quietly, pensive consideration in her gaze as she joins him in repose. The expanse between them is little more than the length of his arm, but it may as well be a chasm for as confident as Neville is in his ability to reach her.
Her lashes are so long he wonders how he's never noticed before. A full, dark fringe around her eyes, they're nearly as effective at framing them as a line of coal would be. “How do we do this?”
This is familiar territory, and Neville shifts into the carefully blank persona he’s crafted for evenings with other witches. “However you’d like. Most nights we just sleep. Some witches have requested that I talk to them until they doze off, and others simply want to be held until they fall asleep. Others request Legilimency to guide their dreams—those are the most taxing.” He rolls onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. “I can be here in the morning when you wake, if you’d like.”
“Please.” There’s a slight tremble to her voice, a raw honesty that pulls his gaze back to hers.
It takes every bit of self control he has not to band an arm around her waist and pull her to him, but Neville refuses to be the one to cross that line. She requested help sleeping and someone to be there for her, and he’ll give her that.
But he needs her to be the one to initiate anything.
Perhaps she sees it in his gaze, the apprehension that sees inextricably wound around each breath he takes. Slowly, as though she’s afraid to spook them both, she extends her hand between them.
It’s both an offering and an invitation, and when his fingers slot between hers, Neville can scarcely breathe.
He’s slept with witches before—never while working for Luna—but none of those encounters have been so intimate as holding Hermione’s hand in the dark of her bedroom. The gravity of the moment seems to rest on the fulcrum of their hands. Too much from either of them will tip it beyond a breaking point that Nevile isn’t sure he’d recover from.
“It’s been too long, Neville.” Hermione breaks the silence with a squeeze of his hand as she rolls onto her back, studying the ceiling as though it holds the answer to everything she hasn’t yet asked him. “Where have you been?”
A lead weight settles in his stomach, and he’s not sure if he’s pleased or dismayed that she’s noticed his absence. “Working, mostly. Between the shop and this, I keep fairly busy.”
From the corner of his eyes, he sees her tip her head. “But surely that’s not all that you do. You haven’t—I don’t know, you haven’t been seeing anyone? You rarely join us at the pub anymore.”
“I’ve seen some witches, but it doesn’t usually last long,” Neville confesses. The topic is dangerously close to confessions he can’t make. “But it’s okay. I don’t mind where I’m at right now.”
The half truth tastes bitter on his tongue. He doesn’t mind—in fact, with Hermione’s hand clasped in his own, there is no place he’d rather be. In the grander scheme of things… he couldn’t be further from where he’d hoped he would be by now.
“So this… it’s fulfilling for you?” Hermione pushes, seeming to sense the half truth. “You don’t mind the transience of it, a different witch to hold or comfort every night?”
Neville sighs, tipping his head towards her. If they were going to spend the week together acting as though they were seeing one another, then it only made sense to be honest. “It does to an extent. But I like it.” He searched for an explanation. “My Gran has never been all that affectionate, and so much of Hogwarts was preparing for a war that started before I was even a concept in the world. We all missed the easy affection of our youth.”
Hermione nods, her expression far away. “I think that’s what made what Ron and I had so all-consuming,” she confesses. “When we were on the run, he was there—we shared so much that it only made sense that we fell together. We were almost an extension of each other.”
“Luna was like that for a while,” Neville said, a soft smiling playing over his lips. “Before she was taken to Malfoy Manor, I thought we might have had something.”
Bittersweet regret chases through him. “No, I don’t think so. I loved her—still do—but it wasn’t anything more than friendship for Luna. And I think, in adulthood, I’ve come to recognise that the love I felt for her was probably the same; we’re good friends, but a match wouldn’t last between us.”
“That’s fair,” she answers, squeezing his hand. “I think we’re all a little jaded after the war and all of its fallout.”
Neville huffs a laugh, rolling onto his side. “Understatement of the century.”
Her eyes drift shut with her smile, a yawn escaping her. “Well, regardless of the circumstances that led us here, I’m glad that Ginny told me about this—about you. And that you accepted, of course,” Hermione whispers, her voice rasping out of her as she drifts to sleep.
It’s long after her grip goes slack in his that he manages to whisper back, “Me too.”
Neville wakes the next morning in the same position he fell asleep.
His hand is still outstretched before him, Hermione’s clasped gently in his.
Her face is open in sleep, though a soft furrow between her brows betrays a less than easy sleep. Still, she’s beautiful, soft in all the right places. Juxtaposed with the strength he knows her to bear after all she’s been through, Hermione is a study in contrast.
Perhaps it’s the intensity of his gaze, but she awakens as he watches her, eyes blinking blearily open in the dim light.
“Good morning,” he whispers. Forgetting himself, he lifts his hand and brushes the curls away from her eyes.
In the soft glow of the sunrise, tears glitter along her lash line. “Hi.” She lifts her hand, cupping his palm to her face. They lie together, the moment suspended. “Thank you. I haven’t slept that well since—”
A wealth of unspoken acknowledgement rests in those words. The knot in his throat belies his ability to respond, but he nods, his fingertips flexing against her cheek.
Though Neville would be content to bask in the morning light with her, Hermione’s gaze flickers to the clock and rounds in shock. “Merlin, I’m going to be late .” She springs from the bed, immediately leaving him cold.
As she races through her flat, summoning clothing from the closet as she goes, Neville rolls onto his back, propping one arm behind him.
“There’s coffee in the kitchen if you want to make some,” she calls from the half-closed bathroom. The muffled thud of clothing hitting the floor draws a flush to his cheeks, and he carefully trains his gaze on the ceiling. The swirled finish looks like fans, and he carefully counts them to stave off the intrusive thoughts that creep up, unbidden.
Like that Hermione is naked less than ten metres from him.
Like what it would feel like to curl into her warmth in the bed she’s just vacated and convince her to be just a bit later to work.
The creak of the bathroom door distracts his errant thoughts, and she emerges, hair swept into a low bun. Her pyjamas have been swapped out for neatly pressed slacks and an olive blouse that brings out the deep brown of her eyes. Neville realises he’s staring when she slings a lab coat over her arm. “I have to take off, but you’re welcome to stay and start the morning slow,” she says, summoning her bag from the bedside. “I’ll meet you for lunch at Mungo’s? Unless you’ve plans, of course.”
An endearing uncertainty colours the words, and Neville immediately dashes any plans that he had for the day. “How about noon? I’ll bring takeaway?”
Her smile is brilliant, warming Neville through. “Perfect. I took the liberty of connecting our Floos, so you’re welcome to use that to leave if you want. If not, the wards will lock up behind you.” She darts across the floor and brushes her lips against his cheek before he can move. “Thank you, for last night and this morning. I appreciate it more than you know.”
He’s frozen, caught in her gaze, but she’s out the door and down the hall, the Floo roaring behind her when words return to him.
Neville slumps down into the pillows, heart racing. In the empty room, his groan punctuates the guilt that plagues him.
He’s so fucked for her.
The next few days pass Neville by in a haze driven by Hermione’s presence.
He meets her for lunch in carefully chosen locales, away from the prying eyes of her coworkers, but not so hidden to quell rumours of their relationship.
They’re walking hand-in-hand away from the Dove & Quill when Hermione tugs him towards a street vendor.
Longbottom and Granger? The Wizarding World’s Newest IT Couple screams the headline of Witch Weekly.
Neville feels his dinner curdle over in his stomach. “Fancy that.”
Hermione peers up at him as she lifts it to scan. After a moment, a sharp laugh bursts from her. “Did you know we’ve been keeping this hidden for the better part of a year?”
The laugh he forces out of himself sounds hollow to him, borne out of a need to match Hermione’s expression. “We’re a talented pair, the two of us.”
The kiss he presses to her temple nearly guts him. They’ve not broached the subject of their respective romances since their first night together. He’s not sure which of them established the rule, but it feels safer that way.
Hermione drags him along, the magazine in hand as they walk. “Perhaps it’s not so strange,” she broaches, tipping her head to look at him.
His heart flip flops in his chest. “What do you mean?”
Lifting the magazine, she shrugs. “You and I together. We’ve known each other so long, and we fit quite well.
Her musing falls to the wayside, and they return to her flat, Neville’s heart in knots.
By the third night, they’ve fallen into a rhythm.
Though Neville thinks of himself as a creature of habit, it astounds him just how ritualistic Hermione is despite how much she touts disdain for the less practical aspects of existence. Every evening since the first has ended with the pair of them propped in bed together while they read, glasses perched high on her nose.
The mundanity of it is almost funny given the unconventional nature of their arrangement, but Neville appreciates the silent steadiness of it. Frequently punctuated by the scratch of her quill on the page, it lulls him into a peace he’s not felt in years.
Tonight, though, her relaxation grows restless as the minutes pass. It’s unusual, but Neville can tell that whatever she's wrestling with has to do with him.
“Neville?” She sticks a finger in her book and sets her glasses aside.
The tension in the room seems to settle somewhere at the base of his spine, and he draws himself upright. Self-preservation isn’t typically a trait he associates with himself, but he carefully arranges his legs to maintain the careful distance between them when he turns to face her. “Yes?”
She worries the hem of the duvet. “You mentioned Legilimency the first night you stayed. How exactly does that work?”
Some of the nerves leave him—this is safe territory. It’s work. He can do this. “It depends on what you need. It took a long time for me to learn, so I can’t do as much as others, but I can help you remember happy times. I’ve helped some witches uncover memories they’ve forgotten. Some want to just forget for a while.”
“Do you think you can help me move on?” The stark honesty in the question rocks him, and Hermione chews on her lip in the silence of the question. “It’s been so long, and I—I’ll always love Ron, but I don’t want to be alone forever.”
His heart cracks, and he crosses the divide between them, pulling Hermione into his arms. She comes willingly, resting her head just over his heart. “I don’t think you’ll be alone forever, Hermione. You’ve been through so much; you’re allowed to mourn him.”
She doesn’t answer him right away, but her voice is strained when she finally whispers, “I know.”
He leans back, tipping her face up to his. “I don’t pretend to understand exactly what you’ve gone through, but I do know what it’s like to miss someone who is beyond your grasp.”
A beat passes between them, her gazing roving over his face. “Do you remember them? You mum and dad?”
“Not half as well as I’d like to,” he answers, the hand on her back playing with the tips of her hair. “Most of what I know about them are memories Gran has shared with me. Most of what I remember comes in flashes: the way Mum smelled or Dad’s laugh.” The smile he offers her is wan, barely more than a stretch of his lips. “And of course we went to visit them as I grew up, but it’s not the same, I imagine. It’s hard to make happy memories in a hospital.”
Hermione hums, tucking herself back into his hold. Her head nuzzles into the space between his chin and his chest as though the space were carved out just for her. “They say your name sometimes. Did you know?”
He freezes in the same moment that his heart leaps into overdrive. “No.” It’s barely more than an exhale.
“You mum especially,” Hermione says, threading her fingers through his. “Your Gran brought a plant by for them ages ago, and Alice enjoys watching it. I’m not sure how she knows, but she’ll say your name to it sometimes. I think she’d rather like for you to visit.”
A knot has wound itself around his vocal chords, stealing his ability to respond, but Hermione simply nestles into him.
“Legilimency is complicated magic; so, too, is Occlumency, but you knew that,” she says, tracing patterns on his thigh. It’s clear that she doesn’t expect a response, so he allows her to speak. “I imagine we’ve both learned it through necessity rather than desire—to lock away those memories lest they ensnare us completely.”
He’s not sure how long passes before he regains the ability to speak, but his fingers have untangled the mess of knots her unbound hair had woven themselves into. “How about a happy memory?” he offers.
She considers for a moment. “A happy memory would be lovely.” Pulling away, she looks up at him. “Can I do the same for you?”
For a brief moment, he nearly cracks. Her face, open and honest and so damn loving splits him wide open. He wants to tell her that he’d allow her to do anything she wants. His heart rests, beating and vulnerable and so entirely hers, in the palm of her hands and she doesn’t even know it.
Instead, he gathers a breath deep in his lungs and exhales, allowing some of the wall he’s built around himself to crumble for her. “A happy memory would be lovely,” he echoes.
The ceremony of it feels sacred. She pulls from his hold and settles opposite him after retrieving both their wands.
Their nerves are electric, the fire of them racing over their skin like a livewire split open before them. Before he loses his nerve, he dips his head at her.
He tells himself it’s because he wants her to feel comfortable. If she has to lay herself bare before him, it’s only fair he do the same.
When the tip of her wand presses against his temple, he closes his eyes and remembers a night filled with music and dancing and laughter. A celebration and those fleeting moments when Hermione might have been his.
By the fifth night, the Legilimency usurps their reading together.
They take turns, delving into the memories of the past, and Neville finds himself thawing. The resolve he holds onto so tightly slips through his fingers when Hermione crumples into laughter at his horror when she shows him the moment she’d Polyjuiced herself into a cat. If she objects to the kiss he presses to her temple after a particularly embarrassing memory of his involving venomous tentacula, she doesn’t show it.
And if Neville sometimes pretends that their arrangement isn’t supposed to end after the gala, he can ignore the growing, inky black desperation in the pit of his stomach.
Hermione is sitting between his legs, a book propped in her lap as he plaits her hair when she leans back against him, tilting her head to the side to look up into his eyes.
The intimacy of the embrace isn’t lost on him. Their touches have grown more frequent over the past few days, but he hasn’t let himself look beyond the surface. She’s one of his oldest friends; it’s only natural that she’d feel so comfortable with him.
“What are you scared of?” she blurts, her voice low.
He blinks. It’s not a question he’d expected, and the honest answer tumbles from his lips before he can consider otherwise. “Being forgotten. Or forgetting those I care about. Both?” He heaves a sigh, brow heavy.
“Oh, Neville.” Hermione turns in his lap, her fingers finding the fine smattering of stubble that covers his jaw as she brackets his hips with her legs. “I find it hard to believe that anyone could forget you.”
Her praise is an unexpected balm, and he leans into the touch of her palm. He’s captive, but there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. Suddenly, his throat has gone dry, but he forces a swallow anyway. “Hermione, I—”
He can feel it, the potential looming before him. He stands at the precipice, the moment he’s been waiting for, waiting for the moment to jump. And the witch he wants more than anything is peering back at him.
“For my whole life, I’ve been trying to live up to ghosts. The man my father was. The wizard my Gran wants me to be.” The wizard who could earn you , he adds silently. Instead, he adds, “Somewhere along the way, I forgot to be the man I wanted to be. If I can forget myself, then it stands to reason that it's not quite so difficult for others to as well.”
She strokes her thumb over the cut of his jaw with a sad smile, her gaze piercing through him. “You’ve grown so much, but I still see you in there; I still see that boy that befriended me on the train to Hogwarts, that held me on my wedding day.” With a deep breath, she leaned her forehead against his. “You’re a good man, Neville. Why do you keep hiding?”
Heart thundering against his ribs, Neville leaps. “Because the one thing I want is the one thing I can’t have.”
He feels her request coming as she reaches for her wand, the cold length of it pressing to his temple in a familiar gesture before she breathes, “Show me?”
His mind flares open, but the scene hasn’t changed.
They sit, intertwined with one another, foreheads pressed together.
Neville has never been a forward man. He prefers to wait out the signs, ensure that the witch he’s with wants exactly what he does, and perhaps that’s always been his downfall when it comes to love. But this Neville, the man he wishes he could be, has no reservations about going for what he wants.
The hands he’d brace on either side of her waist slide up her body until one cradles the base of her skull and the other splays between her shoulder blades.
They meet each other halfway.
Days of dancing around each other culminate in a slow burn of fire between them. Even the scant space between them feels charged; long, rapacious press of her lips on his. For every nip of her lips, she delivers a cheeky tug to his hair, and then he rolls them, pinning her beneath him while wandering hands travel beneath the hem of her joggers, just a flash of black lace visible beneath the expanse of his hand—
A sharp exhale against his lips wrenches him out of the fantasy, and he slams his Occlumency walls back into place.
Hermione’s wand falls to the duvet beneath them, but her hand doesn’t follow it.
Both of them are breathless, but he can’t tear his gaze from her eyes, her pupils blown wide. Slowly, as though she might spook him, she threads her fingertips into the hair at the base of his neck
She closes the gap between them slowly, allowing him plenty of time to back away from her if he wanted.
Kissing Hermione is—
It’s like watching a neglected plant spring back to life. It’s watching a clipping flourish after propagation. It’s everything he’s ever hoped for and more, her mouth sweet from the toothpaste she uses, and Neville wishes desperately to lose himself in her.
Terror chases the desire in his chest. It’s all he’s wanted for so long, and it’s here and it’s happening but—
A small, insistent part of him wonders how real it is. Even as she pulls herself further into his lap and deepens the kiss, when she lays him back against the pillows and the frantic need slows to a gentle, careful rhythm, he can’t chase away the fear that he’s changed something irrevocably by taking advantage of her trust.
His chest is heaving when they part; he’s almost certain his heartbeat is audible in the room around him, but he can’t bring himself to feel ashamed, nor can he open his eyes.
If this is the moment it ends for him, he wants to remember what it’s like to hold her.
Her forehead drops against his again, and he finally peals his eyes open. “Hi.”
Hermione stares at him with a mixture of awe and dazed confusion, her fingers pressed to her lips. “Hi.” Her response is muffled, and for a moment, Neville nearly accepts defeat.
But slowly, a brilliant smile unfurls behind her lips, and she pulls him back to her, searing away his hesitation with the burn of her lips.
When Neville blinks away on Saturday morning, Hermione’s side of the bed is cold.
For a brief moment, fear seizes his heart in a vice grip. A thousand thoughts race through his mind. He’s ruined everything; she knows that she’s not just a job to him, that she’s never been just a job. She’s waiting for the Aurors to arrive and escort him away.
Between blinks, the thoughts plague him, but as he reorients himself and grounds himself—five things he can see, four he can feel, three he can hear—the sound of pans clattering in the kitchenette and coffee beckons him.
The night before… he grins at the ceiling. She had kissed him. Really kissed him. And though Neville wanted to do so much more, they fell asleep wrapped in each other, clothes still firmly in place.
He hoped there would be plenty of time to to learn the cartography of this new dynamic later.
Hermione stands over the sink, directing her wand over dishes they’d left out the night before. Her hair is tied in a knot on the crown of her head, baby hairs frizzing in a halo around her head as she dances on the balls of her feet. An over-large t-shirt hangs off her frame, matched with a pair of worn joggers, and she’s thrown a towel over her shoulder.
She’s never looked more beautiful.
He can almost let himself forget. That it’s just a morning after they’ve spent tangled in each other, reveling in the comfort of each other’s hold, and preparing for an evening out with their friends. Propping his hip against the doorframe as she sings to herself, it’s almost real. The kiss they shared, the thoughts they bore to each other, aren’t just a product borne of the proximity over the last week.
Until she whirls, eyes wide like she’s been caught in the act, and the spell breaks.
He pushes off the frame, shoving his hands deep in his pocket. “Er, morning. I was worried when you weren’t in bed. I’m sorry to interrupt. I’ll just—um… I’ll grab my bag and head out.” He’s rambling, and a flush races up his cheeks, but he can’t stop the words spilling from his lips.
“Stay.” An indulgent smile lifts the corner of her lips, and she wipes her damp hands on her joggers. “But you get to dry the dishes. The Muggle way. You can get ready here, and we’ll Floo to the gala together.”
A bit of uncertainty colours her movements, but it’s not an outright dismissal. He nearly wilts into the floor, relief that he can savour these last moments before the gala ends and everything falls back into the fear that looms in him.
But the glimmer in Hermione’s eyes is enough to make him swallow the fear and join her at the sink, their hips bumping together as they work in tandem.
The St. Mungo’s lobby has been transformed into a winter wonderland, and Neville barely recognises it.
Somewhere above the gaudy decorations, his parents are carefully tucked in their rooms.
A part of him wonders if they would recognise him as an adult. It's a weight on his chest, this guilt at not having visited them since the war, but it's a small measure of distance he provides himself while he determines who is supposed to be.
It does nothing to quell the guilt he feels at not having visited them.
On his arm, Hermione ascends the stairs, and though it's only three half-steps onto the main lobby, she turns every head in the room.
The dress she wears is understated enough, a simple, form-fitting black number with a single should cut sharply against her collarbone. In his herringbone suit, he feels incredibly underdressed, but she insisted he looks perfect.
Immediately upon entering the room, a man in a classic black suit with tails approaches them, and she suppresses a sigh. “Even at a party, the schmoozing never ends.” She affixes a bright smile to her face. “Mister Avalard, how good to see you. I hope you’ve heard the good news that your funding secured the necessary improvements to the pediatric ward.”
If the man were a bird, he would have puffed his feathers. Instead, he sweeps into a low bow, pressing a kiss to Hermione’s knuckles. “I did—and who is your dashing date?”
Hermione flushes, but the hand she places on Neville’s chest is steady. “Neville Longbottom. We were schoolmates years ago and recently reconnected.”
“Ahh, lucky bloke you are!” the man crowed, slipping his sweaty hand into Neville’s for an overzealous shake. As soon as he drops his hand, the donor’s attention slides back to Hermione. “I do apologise for the impropriety, but I was hoping to steal just a moment of your time to discuss the potential for future partnerships.”
Neville suppresses the urge to snicker at the veiled desperation in her look, but she nods as the man leads her away, their conversation a foregone conclusion. “Yes, of course! Neville, would you be a dear and fetch us a drink? I’ll find you shortly.”
She’s just disappeared into the crowd when a familiar laugh catches his attention, a tall, raven-haired wizard nudging against him. Harry presses a glass of champagne into Neville's hand. "Good to see you, Nev."
He takes a sip of the bubbly liquid before he returns the sentiment, watching Hermione throw her head back in laughter at something the wizard said.. "You as well. How have you been?"
Harry grimaces, careful eyes marking the room. He's grown into himself over the years, but he's never managed to shake the suspicion that he's carried since his youth. Neville can't blame him, and he supposes that's what has made him such a successful Auror. Suspicion was drilled into him in his youth. "I'm doing well—busy with work."
Neville nods. "Understandably so." He casts about for a subject that's useful. Distantly, he remembers an article he saw in the Prophet a few weeks ago. "I saw that the Ministry uncovered an illicit magical creature trade?"
"We did," Harry flashes a smirk, tipping his glass up and draining it. "Months of tracking who we thought was a Death Eater just lead us to an illicit creature ring. Better than nothing, I suppose. One less criminal on the street."
Bitterness rings in Harry's voice, and Neville supposes he can't blame him. All these years chasing down the very people who had tried to ensure the death of so many he cared about on the streets had made the man jaded despite the softness he still wore. "Right."
Silence settles between them, and both men look out into the crowd. After several moments, Harry says, “You know, I never got to thank you. For being there for Ginny.”
Neville stills, champagne glass halfway to his mouth. “What?”
“She told me—just recently, though. She made me swear not to say anything to anyone, and I haven’t,” Harry rushed to reassure Neville, some of his old recklessness bubbling to the surface. “But I’m glad she had you. It was a rough time for both of us, I think.”
Inclining his head, Neville brushes off the gratitude. “It was nothing—she needed a friend.”
“Well, I’m glad she had you.” Harry glances at him, shuffling his feet in a telltale sign that he’d rather be doing anything but having this conversation.
“Harry, you don’t have to explain yourself. I—”
“I’m gay, Nev. I knew even then that I was, but Ginny was a safe place. And I think she suspected all that time, but I think there’s a difference between suspecting it and knowing it. It crushed her.” He threw back the rest of his drink. “Anyway… Ginny and I’ve worked it out, but—thank you. For being the kind of friend I wasn’t able to be then. I won’t forget it.”
Neville swallows thickly, accepting Harry’s proffered hand. “You’re welcome, mate.”
Neville moves to excuse himself, but Harry catches him by the wrist. "I know I don't need to tell you this, but—" Harry pauses, eyeing Hermione making the rounds with who Neville assumes is another donor. "Treat her right. She's been through so much... I just want her to be happy."
Neville dips his head in what could pass as a nod. Guilt tears through him as he darts away, grabbing two more glasses of champagne to toss back as he darts for the staircase.
Alice is sitting on the edge of her bed, swaying side to side as she sings to the plant his Gran had bought her.
The pane of glass that separates him from his parents is just thick enough that it muffles the lullaby she sings, but the cadence tugs at a memory he’s kept buried for so long he’s forgotten he had it.
Fleeting, it flickers through his mind in snapshots. A tiny stuffed owl dancing before him. His mother’s sweet, clear voice lilting through the small room. His father’s proud smile. It fades away in the bass of the music below.
“There you are.” Hermione tiptoes towards him, heels in her hand, and slides her arm around his waist, watching as Alice begins her song again. “You look like her.”
Neville laughs wetly, wiping tears from his eyes. “Everyone always says my father. The Longbottom genes and whatnot.”
He can’t see her frown in the dark of the hall, but it’s evident in her tone. “Maybe, but I see your mother in your eyes. In your smile.” She turns to him, cupping his jaw. “In your heart.”
He closes his eyes, leaning into her touch. He’d no idea how starved he was for the affection he gave so freely until Hermione returned it. Perhaps that’s what scares him most about the end of their evening. He’s not sure he can bear to lose that all over again.
“Why don’t you go in and talk to her?” Hermione asks.
A rush of fear surges through him, and he lifts his head to watch as Frank approaches the window. Together, his parents gaze out the window.
"I'm not ready yet," he answers, disappointment lacing the words. If he's honest, he's not sure if he'll ever be ready, but with Hermione at his side, no matter where this ends, it doesn't feel quite as frightening as it had before. "They're happy?"
Hermione nods. "They help each other. Your father comforts her. I think a small, distant part of them remembers each other."
He remembers uncomfortable holidays with Gran at their bedside, his mum and dad's expression far away on the good days.
The bad days remained buried deeply. Perhaps someday, he'll be able to unpack them and return to visit them without an expanse of glass separating them. Maybe someday it won't hurt so much that they'll never remember who he is or the holidays he spent with them in his youth.
"They'll be here whenever you're ready," she whispers. Her fingers lace through his as they walk towards the lift. "It's okay, you know. To be frightened of the things you can't see right in front of you." She tugs him to a stop. "Some of the best things we find are those we stumble into accidentally."
Perhaps it's the champagne that emboldens him, or her hand in his anchoring him to the present moment and shutting out all the tiny, roaring doubts in his mind, or the kiss of her gaze as she studies him, but Neville turns to her. "Hermione, I don't want this to end. Not tonight. Not tomorrow, or the next night, or next year. I—" He sucks in a deep, bolstering breath as he steps into her, erasing the careful distance he's maintained since departing her flat. "I want you, and if you don't want this, then just tell me now and I'll get on that lift and take you home and sleep on the far side of the bed like a gentleman, but if there's even a chance that you want this too—"
A wide, brilliant grin lights up her entire face, and she drags him to her, cutting his rant off with a laugh and muttered, "Merlin, finally," before her lips seal over his.
Neville and Hermione tumble through the Floo, a tangle of limbs and lips. For the life of him, Neville wouldn't be able to pinpoint where he ended and she began.
Their path down the hall is worn bare by practiced feet, and Neville thanks his lucky stars that he manages to navigate them into the bedroom by memory.
He undresses her slowly, sliding the satin sleeve off her shoulder. Her skin is impossibly soft, silk beneath his fingers. He could spend days just exploring every last inch of her, and he's sure that it wouldn't be enough time. "You're beautiful." He exalts her between open-mouthed kisses over the flesh of her shoulder.
Her full-bellied laugh cuts off in a gasp as he lowered his head to her chest, laving her nipple with the broad expanse of his tongue.
Neville has never considered himself a selfish man, but Hermione makes him want to be so.
For every gasp that he wrings from her, he wants to earn ten more. When he pulls them down amongst the covers, her hips astride his as their cores brush together, he commits the breathy little sigh to memory.
"You're dangerous, Neville Longbottom," she breathes, her head lolling back as he danced a line of kisses over her jawbone.
Never in his laugh has he been considered anything but ordinary, and he cocks a quizzical brow at her. "Dangerous how?"
There's fond admiration in her eyes as she clasps her hands behind his neck. "You snuck up on me when I was least expecting you, and now—" She flushes, looking away from him.
"Now?" he prompts.
She looks back at him, striking in the vulnerability he reads in every line of her expression. "I don't want this to end either."
He beams, fingers tangling in her hair as he claims her lips again in a long, slow kiss.
The desperation he'd been driven by slows to a smoulder, embers burning between them as their hands explore one another's bodies. All the peaks and valleys call to him, and he commits it all to memory, this first with Hermione. She arches into his touch, simultaneously seeking the friction where their bodies meet, and Neville breaks the kiss with a hiss.
Neville gently lowers Hermione to the bed, propping her against the pillows they’d relearned one another amongst.
The moment suspends before him. Hermione, laid out on the bed, her knees bent in invitation. The moonlight streaming over her body casting her curves in sharp relief. The sound of their ragged breath echoing one another’s desire.
A mottled flush races over her skin, but she doesn’t move to cover herself. “What?” she whispers.
Gently, he runs the tip of his finger over the inner curve of her knee, the supple flesh of her thigh. The play of his fingers over her skin sends gooseflesh racing over it, and he chases it to the lace knickers she wears.
A crooked grin tilts his lip, and he glances up at her from beneath his lashes. “Are these for me?”
Her eyelids flutter shut, and she offers him a singular nod. “I remembered—and I hoped.”
A matching flush races over Neville’s chest. For the first time in recent memory, his fingers shake when he hooks his thumb beneath the lace and lowers them.
Hermione has always been vulnerable with him—since the day they met each other on the train, she’s never held him at arm’s length the way she has others. But when he tosses the knickers to the side and settles between her thighs, a rare moment of guarded apprehension flickers on her face.
"Hermione, we—" His protests die out in a desperate groan as she smoothes her hand down his stomach and palms his cock.
She releases her lip. "I want this—I want you, Neville."
He's not sure if it's the scant amount of wine he consumed at the gala or having Hermione laid out before him, but his resolve snaps at her reassurance.
He clothes her with himself, covering her lips with his as he blankets her body.
Though her hand is trapped between them, she still manages to work over him in short, tight strokes that drive him mad.
With great effort, he leans back, stilling her hand over him. Her eyelids droop low over her eyes, and it takes every ounce of self control he has not to lay her back and plunge into her with abandon. But he's waited this long to have her...
He wants to savour it.
"Neville, what—" A brief flicker of uncertainty flashes in her eyes when he rolls off her, but a wicked grin replaces it when he settles between her thighs.
He teases her, alternating nips and gentle kisses in an agonising trail to her core. The first swipe of his tongue over her lips earns him a drawn out groan, and Hermione's fingers plunge into his hair in time with his finger sliding into her.
"Merlin, you are so good," he whispers against her cunt. His lips vibrate against her, and she bucks into him. He swallows a chuckle and swipes his tongue along her slit again. "Do you like that?"
Her breath escapes her in pants, but she manages to glare half-heartedly down at him. "Don't gloat, Longbottom."
One of the things he's always admired about Hermione is her uncompromising quest for perfection in everything she does—and it extends to the bedroom. Her hand in his hair guides his mouth. He learns quickly that she prefers long, broad strokes to her clit over a series of rapid licks, and she has a penchant for pulling his face so tight against her that he can scarcely breathe.
When she falls apart under his mouth, Neville nearly pinches himself to keep from following her.
"What," she pants, propping herself on her elbows as he pulls away, "was that?"
He presses his fingers into her lazily as she comes down, thighs shaking. He allows his grin to grow as he kneels before her. "Something I've been waiting for years to do."
Her expression softens, and she reaches for him, pulling her up his body until he covers her, his cock resting heavily against her core. She guides him to her, and he sinks into her, reveling in the feeling of her gripping him as she arched beneath him.
A long, pleasured sigh escapes her, and Neville is distantly aware that he’s babbling his praise. “Fuck, Hermione.” If the rare expletive surprises her, she hides it well as she locks her ankles behind his back.
“Yes, Neville, that’s what we’re doing,” she offers with a cheeky grin, but the teasing lilt drops from the tone as he rocks into her lazily.
This close, he can see the starburst of green in the depth of her eyes, a mossy tinge that calls him to her as the plants he tends do.
He covers every inch of her exposed skin that he can reach in open mouthed, sucking kisses as she arches into him, weaving her fingers into his hair.
“So good, Neville. Gods—” Her words are nonsensical, but Neville revels in each one as he seeks the praise she bestows upon him.
It doesn't take long to drive her there again, the weight of body pressed firmly against her core as they kiss languidly. When she begins to tighten around him, he leans back, watching her come undone beneath him. She's otherworldly, her lips red and kiss-bitten. Neville is quite sure he's never seen anything quite so lovely as Hermione Granger on the brink of orgasm.
Her name is an exaltation and a prayer on his lips as he sinks into her again and again, her nails sinking into the flesh of his back as she scrambles for purchase, and pulls him over the edge with him.
Neville slowly swims back to awareness. His body is sore in memory of what they did the night before, but he stretches into it, extending his arm to Hermione's side of the bed. The movement sends blood flowing back through his veins, kickstarting his sluggish brain.
Hermione should be there.
The bed isn't so big that she could rest beyond that, but his hand smoothes over the cool, rumpled expanse where she normally lies and his eyes fly open.
She's not there.
Panic seizes him. Whatever small measure of hope he'd held out evaporated as he yanked on his trousers and dashed into the kitchen. Even the coffee pot was cold; no sign of Hermione having been there at all that morning.
She'd left him in her flat without so much as a note.
Some distance, rational part of his brain begged that he slow down and consider the possibilities that there was a logical explanation for her absence, but the insecurities were louder.
She realised it was a mistake and had left him to collect his things and leave without further embarrassment.
Hermione is deep in conversation with a wizard in plain white robes. He can’t hear their conversation from where he stands rooted just outside the lift, but he recognises the familiarity in the wizard’s touch.
Jealously falls over him in a wave of green, and for a moment, he considers marching down the hall, sweeping her into his arm, and snogging her senseless in front of this smarmy, attractive wizard who so clearly wants more from her. It's humiliating as much as it is tempting, and he nearly spins on his heel and disappears back into the lift.
In same breath, he refuses to be the man who lets her slip through his fingers.
He marches across the hall, determination in every fibre of his being as he stops before her. "Hermione."
Her eyes widen and she turns to him. Twin spots of red appear on her cheekbones, and she excuses herself from the wizard she'd been speaking with to lead him away from the nurse's station. "Neville! What are you doing here?"
"You were gone when I woke up, but I needed..." He pinches the bridge of his nose. "I understand that this is all sudden for you. I've tried for years—Merlin, I have tried—to get you out of my head. I was happy for you with Ron. And then after he died, I wanted so badly to be there for you, to help you pick up the pieces, but I couldn't. Distance was safer for the both of us. And then this opportunity to be with you fell into my lap, and I found myself wondering if this was it. If this was finally the moment that you saw me."
"I know, Neville, and I—" She lifts her hand, but it falls between him with his hasty step backwards.
"Just let me... let me finish and I'll leave, okay?" Neville sucks in a breath, and the rest of his confession tumbles out in a veritable landslide of words as he reaches behind him to call the lift. "Last night was the best night of my life. Not just for the sex but because you saw me. Really saw me. And the space I carved out to keep you from nestling any further into my heart seemed to shrink and I realised that you have had the whole of it this entire time. And I was making myself miserable staying away from you."
Hermione's mouth works, opening and closing in the silence of his confession.
It takes the span of a single heartbeat for his heart to break. "It's okay, Hermione," he whispers, and though it kills him to do so, he leans into her space and presses a kiss to her temple.
A ding behind him announces the lift's arrival, and, before he can do something so foolish as beg, he steps inside.
Hermione stands rooted to the spot, face red and splotchy as her tears spill over as the doors close between them.
Time seems to suspend in the lift, and Neville bounces on the balls of his feet, desperate to return to his flat and forget his shame on the floor of St. Mungo’s.
He's barely two steps out of the lift when the emergency stair door flies open, bouncing off the wall with the force of it.
“Neville Longbottom, stop right now!”
Hermione’s voice rings across the lobby, full of righteous indignation.
Despite every single nerve ending in his body screaming for him to run, he freezes.
He can feel the weight of dozens of stares on him as Hermione closes the few paces between them, her shoes a sharp staccato that marks his undoing.
Her chest is heaving when she finally stops before him, her meticulous bun falling in tendrils around her face. Neville would be willing to stake all the galleons she’d paid for him to pretend to be her boyfriend that she’d ran down all the stairs to stop his departure.
If he wasn’t terrified, he’d huff a laugh that she’d forgotten she could Apparate within the building.
To his horror, tears spilled down her cheeks in a torrent. “You do not get to march in here like that”—she jabbed her finger at the ceiling—”and say goodbye. Not after the night we shared.”
Confusion lanced through him, stark and visceral as he stared down at her. "I—what?"
“I’m not done yet,” she said, stepping into his space. “You don’t get to make me feel like I’m the only person in the gods-forsaken world that you care about and then just leave me.” Her tears spilled over, trailing down her cheeks. “You can’t just leave.”
His brows furrowed. "I thought you left me," he said slowly, taking a tentative step towards her.
She blinked at him, understanding dawning on her. "Oh." She blinked again. "Oh bugger," she swore, reaching into her pocket and withdrawing a piece of parchment. "I forgot to leave it," she whispered, extending the paper to him.
There's been a breakthrough in research, and I'm needed in the lab. I'll be home soon.
His gaze snared on the signature. "Love?" Foolish hope colours the words, but he couldn't stop it from racing through him, an adrenaline-driven response to the singular word that he'd coveted from her for as long as he could remember.
"Love, you walnut," she responded, closing the gap between them. "It's about time we stopped dancing around each other, don't you think?" Her hands trace over his chest. "I've thought about it for years now, wondering if you felt the same or if I would hurt us both. I needed to mourn Ron, to make sure I was over him. And I needed to know that what he and I had was separate from what you and I could have. And I knew, that first morning, when I woke up and you were there, that I was okay. That you had been there all along just waiting for me to stop fearing everything and jump."
He's not sure who starts it this time, but he supposes it doesn't matter much to him.
Claps and whistling sounded around them, and Neville smiled into the kiss.
Hermione was here, in his arms, and it wasn’t for show.
Her breath ghosted over his lips when she finally pulled away and peered up at him, eyes bright and a flush staining her cheeks. “Ginny mentioned it months ago, but it never felt right.”
Neville heaved a long-suffering sigh, making note to have a very long, serious discussion with their friend about unethical meddling in friends' romantic affairs, but he brushed a curl from Hermione cheek. “I was afraid that you thought I’d taken advantage of you.”
"Not a chance," Hermione whispered, dropping a kiss to the corner of his lips. "But I do need to go explain to Harry's boyfriend why you glared daggers at him from the Lift while he was getting me up to speed on a new vaccine."
Neville started. "Harry's boyfriend—?" Suddenly it clicked. The wizard Harry had watched so closely at the gala—the one Neville assumed was under surveillance—was. "Oh. Oh."
A dimpled grin lit her features. "Yeah. Theo Nott. Slytherin. I'm sure you'll meet him soon enough. But in the meantime." She lifted onto her toes, leaning in to kiss him again. "Why don't you go home and wait for me. I'll meet you there."
The warmth returned, blanketing Neville as he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her soundly in return. "You'll never be rid of me now, you know."
"I'm counting on that," she returned, pulling out of his grasp.
He watches her retreat across the floor, and for the first time in a long time, he looks forward to owling Luna.
He has a job to quit.