Logic was Hermione's favorite tool, and she put it to the test again. Unfortunately, it tended to be used when it was least convenient, and her relentless curiosity bore down her defenses. What was it that Neville wanted? And why are you so concerned? The little voice teased. He's my friend. I'd do the same for Ron or Harry! She tried to counter the accusations.
Time to review the evidence: it was something Neville wanted, something Ginny was glad about, and something Ron was shocked about. Revenge? But why would Ginny be so pleased about it? Coming out of the closet about something? Again, Ginny would be just as shocked as Ron. Besides, it would have to be happy enough to cause a Patronus.
Maybe, she feared, it was related to her. That's why Ginny wouldn't tell. That's why Neville was so shy about it. That's why Ron nearly had a heart attack. Maybe Ginny was right; he did fancy her. This lead to the inevitable question: what would she do?
On one hand, she was frightened and unsure. Would he be another Viktor, who didn't understand her despite his true affection? On the other hand, she was happy. A boy truly loved her. Not only that, but it was a steadfast companion, pupil, and friend, someone whom she had trusted for years. This was not like Viktor, who had appeared out of the blue for only a little while. This wasn't Harry or Ron, who had become brothers to her. Did she love him?
His gentle smile, his strong shoulders, his quiet dignity even at his worst moments….there was something there. More importantly, he loved her, and that made all the difference in the world. Did Viktor still carry a torch for her? His letters became more formal as time went on, to be sure. That made things easier for her; he was sure to be happy about this. It was time to put last year finally out of commission and resign herself to her destiny.
Enough was enough. Hermione steeled herself and stepped out the door.
"Where's Neville?" she asked Ron, who was defeating Harry for the three thousandth time in chess.
"He's outside, in the garden," explained Harry.
"He said he needed to do something for Mum while she's gone. Good move, Harry, but it won't save you this time," added Ron.
As she left the room, Harry leaned over to his best friend. "Do you think she knows? What's going to happen to him?"
"I feel sorry for the poor bloke. It's not really his fault," Ron said, shaking his head sadly.
"I'm glad this is happening. I think it's going to work out fine," asserted Ginny, walking into the room.
"I wish I could see what you see," Harry shook his head.
"Good thing you can't. You're not that mad," Ron quipped.
In the garden, Hermione could not help but admire Neville's diligence and toil as he moved from one plant to another, the careful way he inspected, watered, and lovingly patted down the soil. He was soaked with sweat, and she could see his tense back muscles flexing furiously as he dug up another bush and tenderly placed it in a nearby pot. I never thought he could be so gentle, she thought to herself, fascinated by his diligence.
"Wow, Neville, I'm sure Mrs. Weasley will appreciate this when she gets back. You're doing a great job," Hermione said, breaking the silence.
"Oh, hello, Hermione." Neville did not turn around. "It's a way to make myself useful. I like doing nice things for people, and it's even better when I'm doing something I know I'm good at. I don't like it when I feel like dead weight."
"You're never dead weight," she said, rolling her eyes at his stubborn self-degradation.
"So you tell me." He inspected the plant and adjusted the soil with his spade.
"Would I lie to you?" she asked him. He shook his head.
"Neville? Could you tell me what was that one thing that would help you conjure a Patronus? It can't possibly be that important that you need to be so secret about it. You can trust me," Hermione insisted.
Neville sighed as he turned around. "You'll just yell at me if I told you. It's not important."
"If it's something that means that much to you, then it is important and my business," she snapped. "You're getting as bad as Harry, being so secretive and anti-social that-"
"Fine!" Neville groaned with the air of a dying man, defeated at last. "I love you, alright? And not only that, but I've been in love with you for the past three years." His sudden admission caused a red flush on both of their faces. He swiftly turned back to his plants.
Hermione was in a state of shock. "You do? You're not pulling my leg?"
"Would I lie to you?" he responded quickly as he quietly dug a new hole for the bush.
Hermione was a woman of words, not action. Only a few times was she prompted to take desperate action. She strode over to him, grasped his shoulders firmly and turned him around. The kiss that followed blew her away. Viktor was a decent kisser, and she remembered it well, but this had more power, more intimacy, more urgency. It had heart and soul in it, something that took both by total surprise.
Neville could hardly believe this was happening. One moment he was absorbed in his work, the next he was passionately kissing the girl of his dreams. Best of all, it was her that kissed him. After a pause, he hungrily took more of her in, widening his mouth and reaching around her, stroking her back through her shirt. His hands were dirty and rough, but they touched with the greatest of care. Hermione sighed into his mouth and became more active in her kiss, her courage rising to meet his.
Hermione sucked hard on his mouth and tentatively moved her tongue into it. He moaned and sucked on it, tangling it with his own. Her hands moved around to hang around his neck, fingers massaging the back. This was wonderful. This was unbelievable. This was the last thing she expected to be doing. Best of all, he was good for a beginner. Viktor had shown her how, being experienced, and it was only fair that she pass on the favor. She never thought it would be so good, so much better than the first or any she had imagined.
Screw Viktor. This one's a keeper, the little voice announced. For once, Hermione didn't care. She sank into his warm embrace. "I guess I love you too," she admitted.
His embrace tightened, so warm and soft and firm. Neville stroked her hair, relishing the feel of her soft, dark mane under his fingers. She rested her head on his shoulder. "Feel better?"
"I feel wonderful, but…are you alright with this? Do you really feel that way?" he asked her, sounding concerned.
"I can't just let you go on like this with anything in return. You deserve it." Hermione kissed him on the cheek. "I love you."
Ginny had stepped in a few seconds previous and could barely prevent a squeal of triumph. Only quick thinking on her part managed to Silencio Ron when he showed up. He was still mouthing obscenities and staggering like a drunken man, eyes bugged out in surprise. Harry cautiously poked his head around the door, only to have Ginny clamp her hand over his mouth.
"Jesus Christ," he whispered. Ron had recovered enough to make frantic, indecipherable hand gestures to Harry, who shook his head, not understanding anything that was happening.
"I'm going back to bed," Harry muttered, looking pale as a sheet as he staggered back into the house. "I need to lie down before I pass out."
Ron could only open and close his mouth in a nonsensical fashion. Ginny gave them one last grin before dragging her brother back into the house. She loved being right.
When they finally came back inside the house, arm in arm, Hermione called out. "Harry! I think it's time we give Neville another chance for a Patronus!"
Harry rubbed his eyes before putting on his glasses, disturbed from his nap. What the hell. Why not? He yawned before finally saying, "Go for it."
Ron and Ginny also heard this and quickly entered the room, the former with all the blood drained out of his face, the latter still glowing.
Neville took a deep breath, and conjured up his happiest memory of his entire life, courtesy of Hermione. "Expecto Patronum!" he yelled. Out came the silver mist, thicker and brighter than ever before. This time it didn't dissipate, but congealed into a large form. There was a new, bright glow as the spectral figure reared up on its hind legs before coming down with a triumphant bray.
"A donkey?" Neville looked shocked at the long-eared Patronus trotting around the room.
"They're not always associated with stupidity, you know," Hermione assured him. "In the book Animal Farm, it's the donkey that knows better than all the other animals."
"When did you read that?" Ron grinned.
"Summer after third year. Good book, excellent critique on the Muggle socialist situation in Russia seventy years ago," she said smugly.
"And at least the girls won't squeal about how cute it is," Ron pointed out, "and don't pretend either of you weren't part of that." He shot a look at Hermione accusatorily.
"I did not squeal," she sniffed. "I merely pointed out it was adorable."
"In baby talk," Ron said, rolling his eyes. "You're the only person who'd cuddle their own Patronus."
"If mine was cuddly, I would have done it," Ginny stepped in.
They were too busy arguing to notice that Neville had turned away and was looking out the window. "Thinking about your dad, too?" asked Harry from behind him.
"Yeah. Makes me wonder what he had as a Patronus. Gran will feel good about this, but I'm afraid to tell her about-"
"Neville, we all saw what happened, and we're all happy for you," he assured him.
Ron sidled up to them. "Promise us you'll do your best for her, and take care of her," he insisted. "She's important to us, too."
"I always do, and I always will. She always comes first," Neville assured them.
"Ginny, you were right." Hermione looked at the ground, blushing. "I shouldn't have tried to hide from it."
"I'm glad it's working out so far. I've been rooting for the two of you since my third year," Ginny smiled. "Now it's all settled and everyone's happy."
Hermione wasn't so sure.
"I hope this doesn't affect my grades," she worriedly said to herself.
Ginny put her small hand on her shoulder. "Hermione, you'll always be the best. Maybe you two could work together more often."
She liked the idea. A lot. Already she saw the possibilities. The ones involving getting too distracted stopped her train of thought completely. How could she work while spending time with him?
"Um, Hermione?" A familiar voice interrupted her thoughts. It was Neville.
"I hope this won't cause problems for your work. I'll try to work harder and try not to distract you. I mean, I don't want to ruin your schedule or anything."
"Thank you, Neville. I'll see about the free time. In the meantime, we haven't even received the reading lists yet-"
"Thank goodness," Ron muttered.
"-so I can wait a little. Maybe we should start doing things as a group," Hermione continued. Ron and Neville already took defensive positions, while Harry and Ginny looked as if though they heard a Messerschmitt roar overhead. "Like a party or something, where all of us can relax."
"That immediately crosses off any trips anywhere outside the Burrow, and some things we can do here. Thank you," Ron grinned.
"Maybe we could rent some films?" Harry suggested. Oops, bad idea, he thought. They all looked at him.
"You're experienced with Muggle cinema," Ginny pointed out.
"And you've got a big enough budget for it," Neville joined in.
Ron shook his head with a smile, "Sorry, mate. You're in the thick of this one. Again."
"I guess I'll help with the VCR," Hermione volunteered, "but it could take a while."