Neville Longbottom shook his head. "I'm sorry, Harry; it's just not working," he murmured as he watched the silver cloud dissipate.
Harry Potter sighed. It was his idea to revive the DA at the Burrow during the summer after fifth year, but so far few had shown up. Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, of course, were the first to come, but only half the others appeared. Katie Bell and Lavender Brown were late, and Angelina Johnson and the Patil sisters showed up soon after they did. Neville, Luna, and Dean Thomas took a few days each to arrive, but come they did. Seamus managed to drag Dennis and Colin Creevey with him, and Ginny had no problem convincing Michael Corner into tagging along.
Still, Cho never came (although truth be told, was not sure whether to be relieved or upset), and he was disappointed how many had been scared away. Fred and George were living above their joke shop in Diagon Alley and so couldn't come until the day after, Ron had told him, but he felt truly let down. His attention was brought to the present when Neville once again attempted to perform a Patronus. New wand or not, he wasn't getting anywhere.
Neville was frustrated. Whenever he tried to project a Patronus, it simply disappeared into mist. He needed something concrete. He looked around; Hermione's otter frolicked around Ron's still-misty dog, while the Patils took on the Creevey brothers in a paired duel. Harry sighed.
"Well, are you sure you can't find any good memories?"
The other boy shook his head.
"Alright, have you tried making something up?"
"It doesn't work. Whenever I try, I start thinking about how I'll never feel it in my life and I get depressed again."
"What would make you happy?" Harry tried in his best Remus Lupin voice. Neville sighed.
"Not being a failure. Having more time with my friends. Passing all my classes. Time at school away from Snape …"
His gaze wandered around the room, seeing if anyone else was doing badly. He had almost gone back to closing his eyes when he caught sight of Hermione. His heart fluttered as it always did when he saw her. She was talking to Ron, a brown eyebrow raised in her typical "I can't believe you can see things that way" look. She had never tried the look on him, however. She had never told him that he was an idiot, or that he needed to stay home for the school year. Instead, she stood by him through all the worst. His mind drifted back through the collection of mental images he had of her: fighting the Death Eaters, dancing with Viktor Krum, nibbling on her quill in that way that always made him flush.
Still, it was nothing to build a Patronus on, and he knew it. She had Ron and Harry; he had concluded long ago that she would never notice him. Sometimes, he would summon up hope, only to see it dashed by his lack of nerve. Forget nerve, he thought. It's bad luck, too. Images of their first year flashed through his mind: Hermione rescuing him from Malfoy's Leg-Locker Curse, only to later Body-Bind him on her way to help Harry save the world for the second time. Then he found it: a simple phrase uttered back on the Hogwarts Express. "Don't worry, Neville, I'll find your toad."
That day he had first met her. A small glow of hope rose, and he extended his wand one more time.
"Neville, are you sure?" Harry looked at Neville questioningly.
He could only nod.
"Expecto Patronum!" he yelled out. The mist seemed thicker and brighter this time, but it would be no match for a dementor boggart, let alone the real thing. He sighed as his latest attempt faded away.
"What did you think of?" Harry raised his black eyebrows.
"When I first made friends at Hogwarts," Neville explained, half-truthfully.
"That was a good day," his friend smiled, but his expression faded into a grim look, "but I don't think it will be powerful enough for a Patronus."
"I knew it," Neville whispered.
"I wish I could help, I really do," Harry murmured apologetically.
"I'll just have to try harder, I guess," Neville said, never believing it for a second.
The session ended, and the students dispersed one by one. Neville sat alone by the fireplace, looking at the flames and trying his hardest not to cry. Occasionally, someone turned to look at him. Parvati looked sympathetic, Michael was busy staring at Ginny, Seamus told him to cheer up.
Luna sighed as she passed. "I'm sorry I can't stay. I'd like to help you, but remember my dad-" she explained apologetically.
"Thanks anyway. Goodbye, Luna." He smiled back at her.
"I wish I could help you." A familiar voice entered his gloomy thoughts. He turned to the speaker. It was Hermione, her long brown frizz reflecting the firelight.
"Hello, Hermione. I don't suppose there's a book on this sort of thing?" he asked her jokingly.
She smiled at him. He knew that the memories of her smiles would not be enough for a Patronus, but they lit up the present world amazingly.
"I don't think so. It's really a psychological thing, I guess. I could see why it's so rare that many wizards don't even try it. Oh, and Ron wanted me to tell you that we got an owl from your gran; she's going to be in Ireland for the next week, so you'll be staying here for a while."
"That's a relief!" He smiled back at her. "I'm starting to like this place. I have friends and family here. I'm starting to feel like I belong."
"I know what you mean," Hermione returned his smile. "Harry told me that he's always felt the same way. I miss my parents, but this is as close as you or Harry can get right now."
Harry again, he chided himself. She talks to him, not you. They're going to end up together and leave you all alone, and you know it. Tears came up again.
"Are you all right, Neville?" the young witch asked him, observing him closely.
"I can feel so alone sometimes. Harry told me it happens to him all the time, but I've never had what he has," he sighed.
"Don't think like that," she admonished. "You have the respect of every Gryffindor in the house. You have Ron and Harry and, in case you forgot, me. It was the Weasleys' idea to have you here in the first place."
"I'm sorry," he shifted in his seat, not able to tell her how he felt about her.
There was a moment of silence as the two teenagers looked at the ground together.
"I'm just glad you're here with me," Neville finally blurted out. Immediately, his skin paled as he realized what he had said. He froze up, unable to move or think, only waiting for the inevitable "What's that supposed to mean?" that would strike him down dead.
"And I'm glad you're here with me, Neville," she replied, her smile returning.
Not at all what he expected. Not at all. Wasn't she mad? Didn't she realize what he had meant? All he could do was timidly smile back as he turned over his response in his mind. He was not intelligent, he knew that, but he knew her. She's just being a good friend, a little voice inside him whispered condescendingly. And that's enough for me, he mentally retorted against the cloud of despair.
"Well, it's nearly time for bed, and Ginny's got her room set up. I think you're going to share the guest room with Harry. Goodnight, Neville," she said as she sat up and walked away down the hall.
"Hermione?" he called out. She turned around, curious. "Goodnight," he said simply. She smiled at him again, then continued walking.
Hermione walked around the corner straight into Ginny Weasley.
"Were you listening?" the older girl planted her fists on her hips.
"I can't lie to you on that one," Ginny grinned sheepishly as they walked to her bedroom. "You're not the only one who likes research."
"And what hypothesis do these observations suggest?" Hermione gave her a smirk.
"That Neville Longbottom fancies you, and you're finally taking notice of it," the younger witch said triumphantly, smiling like a shark.
"My hypothesis is that you've spent too much time with Luna and see ulterior motives in everything," Hermione replied with a cluck of her tongue.
"That doesn't stop me from being right. You know, you'd think someone so intelligent wouldn't have to be told when a boy looks at her in a certain way." Ginny's triumphal smile seemed to be plastered on.
"Ginny," Hermione sighed, "I really have no interest in a relationship right now.
Neville is a good friend who needs some sympathy."
"From you," the redhead riposted. "And why you in particular?"
Damn, Hermione thought, why can't I counter that?
"Would it be alright if I changed my hypothesis in that you have noticed him for a very long time?" Ginny's look of victory was getting under her skin, a characteristic of the Weasleys.
"No, but it would be even better if you considered your hypothesis invalid and dropped the whole thing," she countered as the girls entered Ginny's bedroom.
"You can tell yourself off, but how are you going to tell him?"
Touché. How did she get so cunning? Must be another Weasley trait; being clever in the times where it was least needed. Hermione winced at the thought of shooting Neville down before he had even done anything. He didn't deserve that. It was simply the wrong thing to do.
That led back to the question: what to do? She always prided herself on staying single; she thought it better to focus on her few friendships and many academics, the two things that mattered the most to her. Still, she always felt left out whenever Ginny walked out the dorm for a date, or when Parvati and Lavender swapped stories about their boyfriends. True, she'd had Viktor, but he had wanted too much, too soon. She didn't want to be popular, but she couldn't help feel alone when the boys went off to play Quidditch, or when she wanted some quiet relaxation instead of constant complaining about work.
Ron and Harry were like brothers to her, her only real family in the wizarding world. Ah, I wasn't sure about your stance on incest, a little voice whispered in her head. "Shut up," she muttered as she changed into her pajamas.
"Pardon?" Ginny poked her head through her nightgown.
"Nothing," Hermione said as she finished buttoning her shift. "Goodnight, Ginny." She hopped into bed, startling a resting Crookshanks. His small yowl woke her out of her thoughts. "Oh, sorry. Goodnight, Crookshanks." The cat merely purred as he slunk away to his corner.
"Good night, Hermione," Ginny added as she tucked into her own bed.
As Hermione pulled the covers over her head, she soon realized that she would get little sleep. If she dated Neville, it would be a pity date; the boy deserved more than pity. Pity was only one part of the equation. And he is losing his baby fat. Notice how tall he's getting? The little voice returned. She gritted her teeth.
He would never keep up, she tried rationalizing it to herself. Are you sure, dear? He's more than a match for you in Herbology, and he's fairly powerful. Remember how you saw him succeed in every test that Harry threw at him? The voice grated on. Except for the Patronus. Poor fellow can't find a good enough memory he lacks the confidence. Hermione sighed at the thought.
And who always makes him regain his confidence? Who finds his spine and makes a man out of him? Internal dialogues were something she tried to avoid most of the time, but every once in a while, they ruined her day. She did want him to be happy, after all. And knowing him, the feeling is mutual. Hermione squeezed her eyes shut and drifted to sleep.