April 16, 2018
Author's Note: Written for an ask meme on Tumblr in May 2017. foodanddebauchery requested Neville/Hermione based on the prompt "Tell me to go and I will, but if you ask me to stay, I'll never leave you again."
Neville's eye followed a fly as it buzzed around Hermione's head, the sound of its wings background music to the sweltering greenhouse setting.
Hermione's concentration did not break for flies or sweat running down her temple or the weight of Neville's gaze. Her attention remained on the plant in front of her, on gathering and weighing soil samples, measuring leaves and stalks, taking notes on all her observations.
They'd been working together since before the summer holidays, using the greenhouses at Hogwarts for their research in between Neville's classes and Hermione's work at the Ministry. Now that summer had arrived, Neville had all the time in the world, and Hermione… well, somehow she'd found more time to spend at Hogwarts, too.
Neville wiped his own sweat with the back of a grimy, gloved hand, smearing dirt and magical fertilizer on his face like war paint. Or maybe like a grubby child. He frowned as he reached for a clean rag, but froze when Hermione looked up at him, a small smile gracing her lips.
His heart thumped in his chest, the beating a bass drum in the greenhouse symphony of sounds.
"Have you received a response from the Institute?" Hermione asked as she pushed her notes aside and removed her gloves—properly, he noted, without getting a speck of dirt on her hands.
Neville's mouth suddenly dried. He'd hoped she had forgotten his excited ramblings about a research position he'd discovered in Brazil and that he had applied for an opening with the Instituto Biológico da Amazônia. He knew it had been a futile hope. Hermione had always been an attentive friend to him. It wasn't like her to forget such an important or prestigious opportunity, not when she had encouraged him to apply.
He stabbed his trowel into the bag of soil on the workbench next to him and forcefully filled flowerpots, focusing on the work at hand, though it required little attention, to avoid Hermione's expectant gaze.
"Yes," he said. "Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that."
He glanced out of the corner of his eye and regretted it immediately because Hermione had turned to face him completely, her eyes alight with hope, her lips trembling to contain her smile. It was the same expression she had given Neville back at Hogwarts, after she'd tutored him for weeks to prepare for a Potions exam and he'd answered every one of her revision questions correctly. It was an expression that made him feel like a more capable wizard than he really was, both braver and weaker than he really felt.
Get a grip, you lout! You led a rebellion against Death Eaters and destroyed a Horcrux hidden inside Voldemort's pet snake. Women should be child's play compared to war.
He laughed out loud at that thought, earning a brow-creased look of concern from Hermione. At that moment, he would have preferred to go back to war than face her.
The excitement on Hermione's face gradually fell, and she placed a hand on Neville's arm, stilling it in the process of packing soil down. "Did they… turn you down?"
Merlin, he hated to see this new expression. The disappointment pierced him through one lung, making it difficult but not impossible to breath. It stung even worse because she was disappointed on his behalf. No—it stung even worse because his heart began to pound hard again, beating against his deflating lung, the sting growing more painful the longer he stayed alive.
He took a deep breath, a slow one. "No, I didn't get turned down. In fact, I'm due to start at the end of the month. I'm supposed to leave for Brazil next week."
Hermione's face brightened, her brown eyes widening with sincere elation at Neville's good news. "That's wonderful!" she cried as she threw her arms around his neck and jumped up and down.
He didn't feel any of her excitement. Couldn't feel it, not when she was this close to him, her body pressed against his, her happiness flooding over him, through him. He closed his eyes and held her tight, just savoring the feel of her for the first and possibly the last time.
She sensed the tension in his body and pulled away first, confusion erasing her smile. "What's wrong? Isn't this what you wanted?"
"It was." His tongue grew thick in his mouth, making the next words so difficult to say, near impossible, but not quite. "It was what I wanted, until I realized I'd be leaving you."
She waved that away with a roll of her eyes. "Oh, please. These experiments of mine are child's play compared to the work you'll be doing in the Amazon! You don't need to fret over my research here."
He couldn't help but smile at her use of the same phrase he'd used in his head just moments ago, and he reached for her hands, holding them tightly between his dirty, gloved fingers, sullying her flesh. The sight of the soil residue transferring to her skin left him shaken, as if he was seeing his situation displayed in front of him in a visual metaphor.
He knew he wasn't good enough for her. He wasn't quite smart enough, not quite quick enough. The war had shaped him into a new man, but the old, soft Neville was still there under his skin, still frightened and insecure and itching for a way to prove himself. That's why he had applied for this research position at the Institute. He'd wanted to impress her with his ability, with his desirability, and he'd succeeded in spades.
His voice lowered as if he didn't want their audience of flora to overhear. "That's not what I meant. I can't bear the thought of leaving you. Every day that we've spent working together, every hour talking in these greenhouses—I'm happier than I've ever been, and it's because of you, Hermione."
His face flushed, but he didn't break her gaze, even when her mouth dropped open in shock, even when her own cheeks reddened and her eyes dampened alarmingly.
She didn't say anything—couldn't, by the looks of her—so he kept going.
"Tell me to go and I will, but if you ask me to stay, I'll never leave you again." He raised her hands to his lips and placed a gentle kiss in the middle of her knuckles, one on her right hand, a second on her left.
"I didn't know," she finally said, her fingers tightening in his to hide their shaking.
"I've loved you for longer than I care to admit. For years. I became good at hiding it."
He wasn't surprised when she pulled her hands out of his grip, but he was devastated by it all the same.
"I'm sorry," she said to the plant she'd been measuring. "You have to go to Brazil. I won't hold you back from that."
Somehow, he found it in him to smile because this was just like her, and he shouldn't have expected anything less. Education and learning were everything to her. Of course she would want him to pursue whatever opportunity came his way.
"Okay," he said as he clenched his hands into fists, digging his fingernails into his palm to distract him from breaking down into tears. "Just remember that I'll be back."
Her answering smile, tremulous due to her own tears, said enough.