"He did what?" Hermione couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"He sat right behind me, as calm as you please, and described in detail--very imaginative detail, might I add--just exactly how he was going to kill me." Samuel was sitting across from her in her kitchen, just as he did every day after his shift. Today, like every other day for the past few weeks, he had no news. It had been oddly quiet since the tenement fire, and too soon the Wizarding public had forgotten the terror that walked among them. People had short attention spans, and as long as they were safe today, they were content. Hermione, and thankfully Samuel Hawke, knew better. They faithfully held to their breakfast ritual.
"And?" Hermione asked, a little breathless. She knew she sounded like a child, but Samuel had the most unbelievable stories. And he told them expertly.
"Well, there's not much I could do while driving, obviously," he answered, purposely drawing out the tale. He casually reached for a raspberry jam doughnut--his favorite, Hermione noticed, and made sure to stop by the bakery the night before--and took a bite. "Well, I could," he said, spitting bits of powdered sugar from his lips as he spoke, "he was definitely stoned enough. It's not like he would have remembered a well-placed hex in the morning. But mid-London traffic is a bitch as it is, and I didn't want to have to aim into the backseat while passing a double-decker." Hermione passed him a napkin, and he muttered his thanks.
Many mornings of stories and casual conversation had passed, and a sort of familiarity had replaced the awkward formality that had dominated their first meetings. It was nice to have someone so relaxed to talk to. Ministry officials were way too pretentious, stuffy, and self-absorbed--including herself.
"So I drove him to his destination, where he ordered me to get out. By knifepoint. In fact..." he pulled his collar down a half inch and pointed to a small scar on his right collarbone. "He got a bit overexcited, as you can see."
"He cut you? You let him cut you?"
He looked at her impatiently. "I didn't let him cut me. But it's not like his motor skills were in tip-top shape you know." He glared at her slightly over his coffee mug. "As I was saying..."
Hermione had been friends with guys long enough to know her cue. Ducking her head slightly, she apologized. "But what did
"I decked him."
"You decked him? Just like that?"
"Well, not 'just like that.' I very authoritatively kicked open my door, opened his, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, threw him against the car, and then decked him." Hermione pictured it and laughed heartily. She could see some doped cretin
absolutely pissing himself as he tripped over himself trying to get away. Mr. Hawke might not be a large man, but he had an air about him with his nasty crimson scar and piercing eyes. The air of a man who meant business. And if that business was kicking arse, there was no doubt in her mind that he would do it--with relish.
He seemed pleased with her reaction to his heroic tale. "Funny thing is, I gave him a ride again just the other night. Didn't even remember the incident at all." His eyes turned pensive as he drank his coffee. "It's a good thing I lost faith in humanity a good many years ago. Otherwise, interacting with the public might surprise me."
Hermione knew all too well what he meant and nodded. If only he knew what exactly people were capable of doing to each other. She never understood how people like Tonks or the Muggle investigators she worked with made it from day to day. At what point do you become numb to the atrocities around you? She considered the man in front of her. He never talked about himself, his family, or his past. While his stories were always amusing or insightful, they were always centered around his work and the people he met from day to day. Truth be told, she still knew relatively little about who he was or where he came from. What unnerved her the most was how damn comfortable she felt with him. Who did he remind her of? How did she know him?
She felt as if she were on the cusp of discovery when the clock over the sink chimed eight. She sighed heavily and started cleaning up her place setting. "As captivating as your tales of bravado are, Mr. Hawke, I must ask that you excuse me a little early today," she said, with her most charming smile. "I'm afraid that I have an appointment at Gladrag's today for a final dress robe fitting."
"Dress robes? Hot date tonight?"
Hermione snorted. "I guess you could say that, considering the roasting I'm going to get from Rita Skeeter when I show up to the Anniversary Gala on the arm of the Minister for Magic tonight."
"Yes, Rita sure does seem to have a personal vendetta against you. Any idea why?"
"I blackmailed her over a decade ago."
"Blackmail?" His eyebrows shot up. "You must have been..."
"Fifteen. Unfortunately, she wriggled out of it by obtaining post-war immunity. And has paid me back ten-fold ever since. I must admit, she does keep me on my toes." Hermione waved it away with her hand and then smiled slightly. "Anyway, be sure to read the Daily Prophet tomorrow. No doubt it will be worth the Sickle."
Sometimes she thinks she's beautiful.
Tonight, however, is not one of those times. Oh, sure, most often she was pretty. She made sure of that. She took the time every day to battle with her hair, armed with Sleakeasy's and a great many hairpins. A few quick swishes with some mascara did wonders, as did the shoe-shine charm she perfected. On occasions like tonight she outdid herself, twisting her hair into an up-do with a cascade of curls and spritzing around her best perfume.
Fastening a crystal chandelier to her right ear, she wondered why she spent so much time fixing her outside when her inside felt so broken. She wondered if this was how Albus Dumbledore felt the night the Potters died. The entire wizarding world was celebrating the defeat of Voldemort while he laid a marked, orphaned baby at the Dursley's front door. Tonight they celebrate again, ten years after a small group stood by the Boy Who Lived and permanently laid to dust the most evil wizard of the century.
She found herself staring dumbly at the mirror when the doorbell rang. Well, Hermione, it's showtime. She put on her other earring and her happy face before she went to greet her date.
"Hello, Neville." The man at the door gave her pause for a moment. Though she saw Neville at the Ministry daily, and had known him for so long, seeing him in his dress robes of midnight blue amazed her. He had lost some of his roundness as he grew taller, and he had the color of someone who spent as much time out-of-doors as possible. She was somewhat shocked to realize that she was going to be escorted to the Gala by not only one of her best friends, but by a very attractive man. Even if his collar forgot to meet the iron today.
"Wow, Hermione," Neville replied. "You look..." Instead of an adjective, he offered flowers instead. She had to hold them away from her so the snapdragons didn't singe her hair.
"I'll take that as a compliment. Grow them yourself?" Neville just nodded. "Come on in, I'll put these in water."
"Thanks for coming with me tonight," he said, as his tell-tale nervous quiver crept into his voice. Hermione knew that soon he would be fidgeting and she smiled to herself. She couldn't remember exactly when Neville Longbottom transitioned from the trembling, near-Squib boy to the much-more self-assured wizard he was now. Although he was more comfortable with authority figures, he was still shy about girls. Even girls he'd known since he was eleven.
"Of course. After all, it would be incredibly pathetic if Neville Longbottom, Minister of Magic and Order of Merlin, First Class, came to a big Ministry gala stag." Neville's laughter seemed to lift her spirits. Drying her hands, she said, "But even worse is that the Minister of Magic can't even dress himself. Come over here." Hermione wondered how much fidgeting he did before ringing the doorbell.
"Yeah, Ernie has to give me the once over before any meeting," he replied, blushing slightly as his collar was straightened, an errant lacewing fly plucked off of his shoulders and the hem of his left sleeve magically mended.
"I can tell. Maybe it's time for you to give up your bachelor lifestyle and just ask Ernie to move in?"
"Hell, no. Ernie is way too fussy. He'd have a Filch-size conniption every time I came in from the greenhouse." His primping finished, he held out his arm. "Ready?"
Hermione was surprised to see that they had not Apparated to the Ministry, as she had expected, but rather to a small, grassy park near the Tower Bridge.
"What are we doing here, Neville?"
He spent a long time looking at the ground. "I was hoping to talk to you about something before we went to the Ministry," he said in a strangled voice.
Hermione was worried. He was acting strangely. When he reached into his robes and pulled out a small velvet box, she grew even more concerned. "Neville...what are you doing?"
He looked at her imploringly, as if begging for forgiveness. Handing her the box, he said simply, "Doing something I should have done ten years ago."
Stunned, she opened the little box. Inside was a gold ring, engraved with vines and leaves. She tried to hand it back. "Neville, I can't...I can't accept this. We've been friends forever, but...we haven't even dated."
Neville stared blankly for a bit before flushing deep crimson. "No..." he stammered. "It's not..." He walked over to the railing overlooking the Thames and leaning against it, placed his head in his hands. The breeze coming off of the river made Hermione shiver and she wrapped her cloak tight around her shoulders. Following, she stood next to him and put her hand on his back in what she hoped was a comforting gesture.
It was a long time before he spoke again. "I was with him the night he died," he said, looking over the river.
Hermione felt her heart drop like a heavy stone. This was what she desperately wished to avoid tonight. Her eyes started to burn and Neville's face started to blur. "Please, Neville, don't..."
"I was so scared, but Ron wasn't. He was determined. It was the last Horcrux, and we had planned to divide and conquer, remember?" Hermione remembered. The idea was to destroy the last Horcrux right before Harry faced Voldemort and the last piece of the Dark Lord's soul. The plan required two different teams in a simultaneous attack. "The others got held up," Neville pressed on. His voice was wavering now. "Ambushed, but we had no way of knowing. We were supposed to wait for them, wait for Professor McGonagall's instructions, but no one came. Ron kept checking his watch over and over as darkness fell. He said, 'Neville, we can't wait any longer,' and I knew he was going in by himself. Then placed that box in my hand and wrapped my fingers around it. He told me, 'Take care of her, Neville.'" He choked on the words, and Hermione watched as his tears reflected the city lights, falling. " 'She's not going to understand. Promise me.' And I did."
The knuckles on Hermione's left hand were white from her desperate attempt to steady herself on the rail. "Why did you wait so long?" she whispered.
Finally Neville turned to face her. "You weren't ready."
"I don't think I'm ready now."
"Hermione, this can't go on any longer. He's gone. He's been gone ten years now."
She watched as the slip of gold in his hands blurred. "When we were searching Hogwarts for anything Tom Riddle might have left behind, I ran across the Mirror of Erised." Her breath caught and she choked back a sob. "I saw Voldemort defeated and Harry safe. And I saw Ron...and I..."
"You have got to let go."
"It's not that easy."
"I know that," he said, and she saw an odd intensity behind his eyes. "Doing what's right is seldom easy." Taking the ring from the box in his hand, he raised his wand to his temple and extracted a silvery thread of memory. The ring glowed blue as he coiled the memory around it, and with another tap of his wand, a thin gold chain looped from the wand through the ring. After pocketing the wand, he clasped the chain around Hermione's neck. "When you're ready, the ring will act as a sort of Pensieve. When you're ready, slip the ring on your finger and you will see. And you'll understand why, okay?"
"Okay." She couldn't hold back the tears any longer as the ache deep inside her threatened to consume her. The chain felt heavy around her neck like a millstone, and she gasped as if drowning. Neville's arms wrapped around her, and she clung to him as she sobbed. In that instant, she felt eighteen again--spotting Neville, alone and covered in blood, telling her the horrible news.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered. "So, so sorry."
It took Hermione a bit to compose herself before she felt confident enough to face the Gala. Apparently one of the perks of being the Minister of Magic was having your own security entrance. Hermione was grateful to have completely circumvented the throng of reporters and photographers stationed in the Atrium. Across the room, she saw that Harry and Ginny hadn't been so lucky.
"And it looks like this is where I abandon you," Neville said, jerking his head towards the frantic Ernie McMillian. "I guess I need to go over a few things before the party gets underway."
"See you at dinner, then."
Hermione had no sooner turned back to wait for her friends when Fred and George took the diversion that the Boy Who Lived Again offered and broke free of the media circus, with Fred leading the way in his wheelchair and George madly scrambling after. Skidding to a stop, Fred threw his arms out for an embrace. Of the two of them, Fred fared the worst in the war. Apparently Amycus didn't like Fred's freely-offered opinions and severed his vocal cords. Alecto didn't want to miss out on the fun and collapsed a giant archway soon after. George, in probably the most interesting twist of fate, now did the talking for both of them.
"Hermione!" George cried. Throwing his arms around her before she could greet his twin, he squeezed her until she thought her ribs would break. "It's so good to see you!" Fred nodded in agreement, then pointed accusingly at her.
"I know, Fred. It's just been miserable here at work the past few months, and..."
"It's been longer than that and you know it, Hermione Jane," George said sternly. "Don't try to use work excuses on us."
When she finally bent down to embrace Fred, he twisted her off of her feet and planted her squarely on his lap. He had a very expectant look in his eyes.
"Of course I'll dance with you!" Hermione laughed at Fred's ability to make himself perfectly understood without a single word. He lifted one eyebrow at her.
"Please don't make me interpret that one."
Hermione shook her head at George and leaned in to whisper in Fred's ear. "I thought that didn't work anymore." He turned his head to meet her nose to nose, eye to eye and waggled his eyebrows. His reply of "Wouldn't you like to find out" came across loud and clear before he gave her a bold, yet brief, kiss on the lips.
"Oi!" A voice behind them shouted as a small hand swatted Fred on the side of his head. Harry pulled her out of Fred's lap and into his arms while Ginny berated the twins on their shamelessness.
"Don't you two have business to conduct elsewhere?" Ginny's bossy voice chided behind Hermione. "Shoo, you two. It's our turn." As George laughingly wheeled a protesting Fred away, Fred turned back and signed that Hermione had better not forget her promise to dance with him later.
Hermione smiled broadly in greeting, but her smile froze when she met Harry's face. His eyes traveled to Hermione's neck.
"He finally gave it to you," he whispered, indicating the ring.
She absent-mindedly fumbled with the chain. "You knew about it?"
"Of course I knew about it. He was my best mate. I found out Neville had it shortly..." Harry paused, finding it hard to continue. "...After." After the funeral. Hermione didn't miss the pain in Harry's eyes, and it was comforting to know she wasn't alone in her grief. But as Harry reached for the comfort he found in Ginny, Hermione felt cut off. She knew Harry had suffered much more than she had in life, but it still seemed unfair that things were so "happily ever after" for him and so empty for her. Didn't she deserve peace, too?
As soon as the thought came to her, she pushed it away with shame. She focused instead on their shared pain and asked the question she knew only Harry would know the answer to. "How did he get the money?"
Harry and Ginny exchanged smirks. "Remember Bill and Phlegm's wedding?" she asked. Hermione nodded. "Remember how the Twins couldn't even sneeze without Mum checking them for their latest product?"
"Well, Molly made the mistake of not watching Ron closely enough," Harry said, eyes twinkling. "Seems that Fred and George had expected the surveillance and offered Ron a phenomenal sum to act in their stead."
"Of course Ron jumped at it," Ginny said. "Not only for the Galleons but for the chance to pull one over on Fred and George. The idea was that Ron would spike the punch. It was a variation on a simple truth-telling and babbling-beverage. But instead of the punch, he spiked the champagne. Fred and George knew to avoid the punch, but not the toast!"
"But he wasn't too chuffed when the prank backfired on him," Harry said, laughing. "He was as mad as a rampaging Hippogriff to find Fred trying to corner you in the pantry!"
Even Hermione laughed at the memory. Truth be told, she was just as guilty as Fred in the pantry incident. Other than the comfort he offered at Dumbledore's funeral, Ron still hadn't made much of a move, and she had been quite fed up with his timidness. She knew it was immature and sneaky, but appealing to Ron's jealous streak did the trick in forcing him admit his feelings for her...even if Fred did suffer a black eye.
"About time you showed up, Harry," Neville said, interrupting their laughter as he approached behind Hermione. "Hard to start a celebration without a guest of honor."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Guest of honor, my arse. You know how much I wanted to be here."
"About the same as the rest of us, I know, I know," Neville replied, holding up his hands in defeat. "But what the public wants, the public gets. The same can be said of Ernie. He says it's time for the show to start."
Ginny turned to Hermione as soon as the men were out of earshot. "You didn't tell me you were coming with Neville!"
"I didn't think it mattered."
"Of course it matters! He's the Minister for Magic!"
Hermione shrugged. She didn't really think of him as Minister Longbottom. "Nah, he's just Neville. I think he just wanted to pass on the ring, and this was a good opportunity to do it."
With one look, Ginny made it clear what she thought of that. "Come on, Hermione. He's fancied you since we were kids. Ron just made sure that he--and any others, for that matter--kept their distance."
The pit in Hermione's stomach grew every time Ron's name was mentioned. Hoping to change the subject, she asked, "Your mum didn't come?"
Mercifully, Ginny let the subject drop. "Nah, she hasn't had much interest in Ministry functions since Dad passed." Arthur had been gone three years now, finally succumbing to complications from his snake bite. Losing Arthur was the last thing Molly needed after the war, and Hermione understood the desire to fade out of the public spotlight. "I think she's enjoying being at home with the kids more anyway. She's got ours and Bill's. Spoiling them rotten as only Grandma can, I'm afraid."
The two women wound their way around guests and chairs to the tables in front of the podium. Only important ministry officials and dignitaries had assigned seating. She was pleased to see Percy, already seated at the head table. He rose to greet her as she approached.
"Hermione. How lovely to see you again," he said formally as they exchanged a small hug. His greeting to Ginny was as formal--Percy was notorious for being stiff and reserved in public.
"It's good to see you too, Percy," Hermione replied, graciously taking the chair he pulled out for her. "You as well, Penelope," she added to the attractive woman with long black hair at his right side. Miss Clearwater, the well-known style journalist, had been Percy's girlfriend for as long as Hermione knew him. Privately, she thought that the chances of Penelope becoming Mrs. Percy Weasley were somewhat dim, but if Penelope cared, she played well that she didn't. "I heard the first printing of your new entertainment guide rivaled last week's Witch Weekly circulation."
"Thank you, Hermione," she said and offered a very demure handshake. "Our hope is to appeal to the younger witch, who finds herself strapped for time but not responsibilities."
The conversation was interrupted by Ernie calling everyone to their seats. Once the room quieted, Neville stepped up to the podium.
"As Minister for Magic, I would like to welcome you all here this evening." The spotlight danced across the Order of Merlin medal pinned to his chest.Harry was wearing his, too, and was trying to appear casual and gracious standing next to Neville.
"It took Neville three whole weeks to convince Harry to even attend this thing," Ginny leaned over and whispered to Hermione. "Still don't know how he got Harry up there with him."
"Tonight we celebrate the final victory over He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named," Neville continued. The crowd murmured in approval, while Harry winced slightly and mouthed Voldemort. "Tonight we celebrate the heroes. Most of whom are with us. Many of whom are not." Neville's expression turned somber and the crowd quieted. On cue, a waiter handed both men tumblers.
"To our fallen friends," he said. His eyes swept over the crowd before resting on Hermione. "And to the mothers and widows who still wait for them."
As the crowd toasted, Hermione realized why Harry had agreed. Neville's speech was short, sweet, and not focused on Harry. She watched him remove his medal and slip it in his pocket as the two men approached the table. Hermione knew that he meant no disrespect, he simply didn't think he deserved the honor.
Percy rose as Neville approached him. "Congratulations, Percy," he said with a clap on the shoulder before seating himself. Penelope beamed as Percy muttered his thanks.
"Percy here has been nominated as Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot," Neville leaned over and explained to Hermione. The material of his dress robes felt cool against her bare skin as they brushed shoulders.
"Really?" Turning at the waist, she reached over and squeezed Percy's hand. "That's wonderful! You must be the youngest Chief Warlock..."
"Ever. But the Ministry wasn't planning on announcing it until Monday." Percy seemed confused by Hermione's gesture, but didn't remove his hand.
"Your mum is going to be so proud," Hermione said with a final squeeze.
Dinner was pleasant, even if Hermione spent most of the meal pushing her food around on her plate. Conversation revolved around Percy's new appointment at first, but soon evolved to the end of the Quidditch season and speculations on the upcoming playoffs. Shortly after Voldemort's defeat, Harry decided that he had enough of chasing Dark Wizards and pursued his love of Quidditch rather than his dreams of becoming an Auror. He had made the reserve team for the Pride of Portree after Hogwarts, but was traded to Puddlemere United just last year. Harry couldn't have been happier when he was traded. He had made it a personal goal to see Dumbledore's favorite team finally make it to the World Cup.
Taking a mental break, Hermione looked around the room. She saw Tonks not three tables away with a very old, very grizzly Mad-Eye Moody. The full moon was only two nights ago, giving Remus the perfect excuse to bow out of tonight's celebrations. Mad-Eye had insisted on taking his place in escorting Tonks tonight, citing her "delicate condition" and the ever-present need for constant vigilance. Tonks told Hermione that she didn't mind. It was either cut meat into manageable bits for Cassie or for Mad-Eye. As if sensing Hermione's attention, Tonks turned and gave her a suggestive wink and a thumbs-up.
Blood rushing to her cheeks, she jerked her eyes away and tried to catch up with the Quidditch talk. First Tonks, then Ginny...who'd be the next person to try to play matchmaker? Much to Hermione's chagrin, it was Fred. As soon as the plates were cleared and the band started, Fred was at her elbow and waiting for her to make good on her agreement. Even Neville had a good laugh before shooing her away.
"No, Fred, Neville and I aren't dating, so don't even ask," she said as soon as she was settled in Fred's lap and being wheeled around the dance floor.
Letting out a low whistle, Fred signed, "Defensive."
"Don't even pretend that you weren't going to bring it up."
Fred just shrugged and continued wheeling them around in as close to a waltz as a wheelchair allows. "Why not?" he asked after a few moments.
Pulling out his wand, he tapped the chair twice, allowing him to continue "dancing" hands-free. He wrapped one arm around Hermione's waist and looked deeper into her eyes than she was comfortable with. "Why aren't you dating Neville Longbottom? Or anyone else, for that matter?"
"That's none of your business, Fred," she replied through clenched teeth. She was getting tired of this conversation fast. Why was everybody so concerned about her dating status tonight? She was starting to regret even coming tonight. Her patience with this whole celebration was waning.
Reading the rising anger in her eyes, he gently pulled her into a soft embrace. She was startled to hear a raspy whisper in her ear. "All I'm saying, Hermione, is that we all want to see you happy again. Even Ron. Whatever--whoever--makes you happy again, well...I know he'd be okay with it."
Fred didn't say anything else, but by the time the song ended, he had managed to waltz across the room, leaving Hermione in front of the War Memorial. She suspected that he had left her there on purpose. Well, it's now or never, she thought to herself. Might as well get this over with.
The new war memorial covered the south wall of the atrium. Expecting something as horrific as the Fountain of Magical Brethren (which, to her dismay, had been rebuilt the same as the original), Hermione was surprised to find a simple wall with the names of the deceased engraved in the black marble.
"I got the inspiration from the Vietnam War Memorial in the States," came a voice beside her. Dennis Creevy leaned casually against the wall, staring thoughtfully at the names. "So often history becomes legend, legend becomes myth. Just a story full of names and dates that some boring old ghost recites while you try desperately not to fall asleep. I wanted something we had to confront everyday. Something that made us remember the fallen."
Hermione noticed that his shoulder was resting on Colin's name. She took a few steps forward until she was less than an arm's length away.
"Doesn't that fall under intellectual property laws?" Neville asked as he approachedbehind her, his tall figure reflecting in the black marble.
"Those laws don't apply between magical and non-magical communities," Hermione answered absently. Her focus drifted from the discussion of ethics between the Muggle and wizarding world behind her to the names in front of her. It was fairly comprehensive and included the witches and wizards lost in Voldemort's first reign of terror as well as the second. She ran her fingers along the names, trying to remember them as she went. The Prewetts, the Potters, the McKinnons...
"Neville," Hermione called over her shoulder, "Your parents aren't on here."
Neville seemed surprised at her observation, but stepped forward to look for himself. "Well, they're not dead. So I guess they wouldn't be, would they?" Although his voice held the note of sadness it always did when he talked about his parents, Hermione was amazed at his resilience. She slipped her hand into his and gave him a supportive squeeze.
"They should be. They should be remembered, too."
He squeezed back. "Thanks," he whispered.
Her free hand continued to travel along the polished stone and drifted across the names of the lost Hogwarts teachers; Albus Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall, Rubeus Hagrid. She noted sadly that her former Potions professor was missing. Despite her frequent assertions that he had saved her life that final night, his memory was still as shrouded with doubt as his life had been. His name, however, wasn't the one she was searching for. Crouching lower, she found it.
Ronald B. Weasley.
The cold stone under her fingers reminded her of the grey March day they buried Ron. Molly was inconsolable, burying the second of her precious sons in the space of just a few monthsHer anguished wails were a stark contrast to Hermione's dry eyes. Closing her eyes, Hermione recalled the feel of Ron's school robes, crisp and pressed, the contrast of his red hair and pale skin, and the coolness of his forehead as she kissed him goodbye. He had died a brave death, she had told herself. He had been one of many. She reasoned that if she didn't cry for them, then Ron would be no different.
The visions went away once she opened her eyes, but the numbness remained. It was ironic how the names of the departed reflected the laughing, dancing crowd behind her. If she were honest, she would admit that she was envious of their lives, their joy, and their forgetfulness. Dennis' efforts would probably be in vain--already, these people were just names on a wall.
"I'm sorry, Neville," she said, standing and turning back to face him. "But I think I've had enough fun for one evening."
Neville nodded in understanding. "Harry said that everyone was going to gather at the Burrow after the obligatory showing here. He said we were more than welcome to join them. Would you rather...?"
Hermione shook her head. "Nah. I'm sure they want to keep it family."
Neville looked as if he were about to say something, but decided against it. Instead he gave a faint smile and held out his arm. "Okay, then. Let's take you home."
As much as she wanted to leave the Gala, Hermione really didn't want to go home, either. Her feet refused to step across the threshold of her flat. Just a week ago she would have preferred to spend tonight at home with Uncle Ogden, but now that she was staring into her empty kitchen, she felt that it wasn't such an appealing idea.
"Sorry?" Turning back to Neville she realized that she must have been silent much longer than she thought.
"Are you going to be okay?" he asked, brows knitted in concern.
"Yeah, I just...Well, to be honest, I was just thinking of what I would have been doing tonight if you hadn't asked me to the Gala."
Neville smiled sadly. "Well, I'm not sure I was a better date than Uncle Ogden." Hermione winced. Was she that transparent? "Anyway, thanks for coming with me tonight," he mumbled, stuffing his hands into his pockets and staring down at his feet. The contrast between the confident Minister for Magic and the nervous man in front of her puzzled Hermione. At the Gala, he was all smiles and charm. But alone with Hermione, he seemed like a first-year about to be sorted.
He's fancied you since we were kids.
Taking a step closer, Hermione slid her arm under Neville's bent arm and around his waist. "Thank you for inviting me tonight." She positioned herself directly under his downcast eyes and forced him to look at her. "Really. I'm glad I went." She could feel him relax into her embrace and she let the warmth of his body ease her loneliness. Before he could say anything in return, she raised herself up on her tip-toes and kissed him. After a few moments--the appropriate amount of time for a friendlier kiss, Hermione knew--he began to pull away. Lifting her free hand to his face, her fingertips softly stroked the soft divot behind his earlobe as his pulse quickened under her palm. Wrapping his arms wound her waist, he pulled her closer and returned her kisses with fervor. It felt good to be wanted. So good that she could feel her heartache gladly replaced by a growing knot of simple desire. Security was being in someone's arms.
After the emotionally draining night she'd had, she was eager to to drink up the feeling that sex offered to her. Hadn't everyone said Neville would be a good match? His lips and his hands certainly felt like a good match. Especially the hand that was slowly making its way down her back and settling provacatively low on her hip.
"Stay," she whispered, pulling back enough to brush her invitation over his stilled lips.
He didn't respond immediately, just stood frozen with his eyes closed and mouth slightly open. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, he brought his arms up to Hermione's shoulders and took a half-step backwards. She tried to step forward with him, but he held her back.
"I can't replace him, Hermione," he whispered.
She tried to protest, but the pain in his eyes silenced her.
"As much as I wish I could," he said, voice low and threatening to break, "and as much as he might have wanted me to, I can't. I'm not Ron, nor will I ever be. I can't be another horizon you run to when you're hurting. It's not fair to me, and it's not fair to Ron, either."
Guilt ripped through her like an electric shock. Surely he didn't think...surely she wasn't trying to...
Oh, Merlin. She was. She could feel her embarrassment rise to her cheeks.
"Hermione, listen to me." She heard the pleading in his voice. "When you stop running, I'll be here. I mean it. If...if this is what you still want, come find me. Just please, stop running."
She couldn't watch him turn away and leave. Without looking up, she stepped backwards into her kitchen and closed the door. Overwhelmed with feelings of intense guilt, frustration, and despair, she sank down to the cool tile.