Author's note: See my profile for an amazing image for this story by PieIsMyFriend on TDA.
"Groups of four, please, groups of four!" Professor McGonagall called out tensely over the students waiting in the Great Hall. They were waiting to be taken to Hogsmeade station, to go home for the winter break. What was usually a rambunctious, rowdy occasion was somber and muted this year. A single crow of laughter rose from a group of Slytherins, but even that was quickly quelled and followed by anxious glances over shoulders. The Carrows had a bad habit of turning up where you least expected them to.
Neville looked around for a group to attach himself to. Seamus and Lavender had just been scooped up by Parvati and Padma. Anthony, Terry, and Michael looked promising, until Lisa slipped her hand into Anthony's and the four of them moved to the door. There, Filch was sourly handing one group at a time over to Hagrid, who escorted them out into the howling storm. Every time the great doors opened, a blast of snow showered everyone within reach. Even from where he was standing, Neville could feel the cold.
Neville didn't particularly care who he rode to the station with; he just wanted to be out of the castle as soon as possible. He didn't plan on returning, even if it meant moving out of his Gran's house. After all, he was seventeen now. He hadn't told anyone about his plans, but maybe he should. If everyone (well, everyone but the Slytherins) refused to come back and subject themselves to Snape's reign of terror, the governors would have to see that things weren't right. Wouldn't they? If Hermione and Harry had been there, they would have done something about it, he was certain of it. Neville would have helped them, too, he just didn't see how he was supposed to start anything himself.
Now there were hardly any students left, and Professor McGonagall was randomly assigning them to groups, just to get them out the door. Neville was relieved. It was easier to be forced on someone than to be invited grudgingly.
"Miss Jones and Miss Broadmoor," Professor McGonagall called out to two Ravenclaw girls, "you can ride with Miss Oglethorpe and Miss Lovegood."
Neville looked over upon hearing Luna's name. He hadn't seen much of her this term, which was a shame. She was very nice. But without the D.A. meetings, and with him spending most of his time sitting up in his dorm room in order to avoid trouble, their paths simply hadn't crossed. She was looking very thin, Neville thought, thinner than he'd remembered. But maybe it was just the way her heavy cloak hung loosely on her frame.
Luna floated easily over to the other girls, a vaguely hopeful look on her face, and Neville flinched inwardly when the first two rolled their eyes at each other and whinged something about whether they really had to. His heart thudding rapidly, Neville spoke up before Professor McGonagall even had a chance to snap at them: "I'd like to ride with Luna, if you don't mind."
Luna turned to him, glowing with a smile of genuine pleasure. "I'd like that, too," she agreed. Neville's heart rate increased a notch.
"And we'll take her," one of the other three Ravenclaws said, snatching the arm of a scrawny second-year before Professor McGonagall could insist on the original arrangement.
"Fine, off you go, then," the professor said, pushing them in Filch's direction. "Another pair? Group of two? Quickly, now." She looked at the remaining handful of students and was greeted with silence. However, when in the next moment it looked as if she was going to start naming names again, they quickly arranged themselves into two neat groups of four each and were sent off.
"I suppose you'll just have to have a carriage to yourselves," she said to Luna and Neville, once she had ascertained that there was no one else waiting in the hall, as if it were their fault that the numbers hadn't come out evenly.
A moment later, Filch had checked them off on his list, the doors opened, and Neville gasped for air as the bitterly cold wind slammed into him. Next thing he knew, they were being thrust out into the waiting arms of Hagrid. It was a good thing, too, as the first gust nearly knocked Neville off his feet. He was surprised that Luna wasn't blown away altogether, but there she was, firmly in the grip of Hagrid's other hand. Neville could barely make out where they were going, the snow was coming down so thick and fast. It was so white that it hurt his eyes. They walked through a path lined by at least a half-metre of snow on either side. With no more foot traffic keeping it clear after them, it wouldn't be long before the path was covered as well.
A great, black carriage loomed up before them. Neville could see the shadowy form of the Thestral that was hitched to the front, but he was glad that the snowfall blurred his vision. Thestrals reminded him of death.
Hagrid leaned down as he opened the carriage door for them: "You give Harry my regards if yeh see him!" he shouted over the wind.
"All—All right," Neville stammered. He was confused by the admonition at first (why in the world would Hagrid think he knew where Harry was?), but then, as he pulled himself up into the carriage behind Luna, the feeling changed into one of pride that Hagrid would think him to be that close to Harry. He wasn't that close to anyone. He never saw any of the other students when he was away from Hogwarts.
He and Luna took seats opposite each other (Luna riding backward), and then, with a lurch, the carriage began moving. He gave Luna a small, awkward smile. He wished he were good at conversation. She smiled back at him in an encouraging way, and then, when neither of them had said anything for several seconds, her gaze drifted away to the window. Neville tried that, too, but the snow was coming down so hard that there was nothing to see but the flakes sticking to the glass. There was already a little drift accumulated along the bottom.
The carriage shuddered as it was buffeted by the wind, and more than once it felt like the wheels had lost their grip and skidded on the icy road. Neville gripped the edge of the seat to steady himself. Luna, unperturbed, leaned forward and breathed onto the glass, then pressed her nose and lips into the resulting foggy spot before sitting back with a satisfied expression. Her pale skin seemed to glow in the dim light filtering through the window. As it was now impossible to look out anymore, and Neville felt foolish either staring at Luna or avoiding staring at her, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back, hoping they would arrive soon.
Almost immediately, though, the carriage swerved sharply to one side and then stopped, throwing Neville into the corner of the seat. He looked over at Luna with some alarm.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Luna nodded. "Yes," she answered in a clear voice. "That was rather exciting."
Neville was a bit unnerved by her stare, but he reached over to open the door. "I guess we're at the station, then," he mumbled.
"Oh, no," Luna contradicted him pleasantly. "It's much too soon for the station. We've been going quite slow, because of the snow, you know."
Neville hesitated, hand halfway to the door. The carriage rocked back and forth two or three times, and then began moving again. Neville sheepishly sat back. "I should've realized," he said, embarrassed. "Guess we just got stuck for a moment."
"Thestrals are very strong, you know. Stronger than horses." She looked quite keen to have someone to talk to.
"No, I—I didn't know that," Neville admitted.
"Although I suppose it's a good thing there are only the two of us in here," she added thoughtfully. "If Crabbe and Goyle had been with us, the Thestral might not have been able to pull us free."
Although Neville was certain that Luna was merely stating a fact and not trying to make a joke, he found himself laughing. She didn't join in, merely watched him, and Neville got the feeling that she thought he was making fun of her.
"That was funny," he tried to explain. "I wasn't laughing at you. I—I like you. I don't think you're weird." Although he did, but not the way that other people thought she was weird.
Luna's face lit up again. "That's very nice of you, Neville. I like you, too. And I don't suppose you're any weirder than most." She gave him a serene, unblinking smile that made Neville feel very much put on the spot.
"I… uh…" he fumbled, trying to think of something useful to say. Finally, he came up with, "That sure is a big storm out there."
Luna's eyes opened even wider, if that were possible. "Daddy says that we've entered the Age of the Carnelian."
Neville was completely floored by this seeming one-hundred-eighty-degree deviation in the direction of the conversation.
"Pardon?" he asked, hopeful that he had simply heard her wrong.
"All the signs point to it," she elaborated matter-of-factly: "The unusual weather patterns, the increased incidence of alopecia barbae, and especially the complete disappearance of the Humdrum Thrummer from its usual mating grounds."
"Alopecia whatay?" Neville asked weakly.
"Lack of facial hair. When was the last time you saw a man under a hundred with a full set of whiskers?" she inquired triumphantly.
"Er…" Neville racked his brains, but, surprisingly, couldn't come up with a single example. "I guess you're right," he agreed, startled.
At this point, the carriage came to a jarring stop yet again, leaving Neville forever ignorant as to the nature of the Humdrum Thrummer.
"Must be stuck again," Neville surmised. They waited, patiently this time, their breath hanging in the air in faint white clouds, for the Thestral to get going again, but when, after several minutes, they were still standing still, Neville asked, "Do you think maybe we're at the station after all?" It was impossible to see out the windows now, fogged as they were on the inside and covered with snow on the outside.
"I don't know," Luna answered. "If we were, the door should have opened, but maybe it got stuck." She reached over and tried the handle, which easily turned down, and pushed on the door. She was only able to get it open a crack, though: It was blocked by a hard bank of snow which the carriage seemed to be wedged against. Outside, they could see nothing but more snow.
The two exchanged a questioning look, then Neville leaned against the door, putting his whole weight against it to force it open a couple more centimeters. Snow blew in, dusting the floor and seat. "Hello?" he called out, but the wind carried his words away.
Warning Luna to stay back, he grabbed on to the door frame with both hands and kicked the door once, twice, three times, until it was dug far enough into the snow that he was able to stick his head out. He couldn't see far, but what he could see looked like a lot of trees and nothing like civilisation.
"I think we're really stuck this time," he said, turning back to Luna. "Should we wait? They're bound to come looking for us sooner or later. Or do you want to try and make it the rest of the way to the station on foot? It can't be much further."
Luna thought for a moment. "Daddy won't mind if I'm a few hours late. In fact, he probably wouldn't even notice if I didn't come home at all." She related this information without any spite or bitterness. "But I think he might be sad they had to tell him that we'd lost our way and frozen to death. I'm all he has left, you know."
"All right," Neville said slowly. "We'll stay here, then." He sat back down. Snow continued to blow in through the open door.
"Oh!" Luna said suddenly, as if she had just remembered something. "We can't leave the Thestral out in this, though!"
Neville gawked. She couldn't possibly be suggesting… "I don't think that it would fit in here," he pointed out delicately.
Luna blinked. "No, of course he wouldn't. We'll have to unhitch him. So that he can find shelter. They're very clever, you know. Much cleverer than—"
"—than horses," Neville finished her sentence with her.
"Yes," she said, pleased. "It's nice to see that you appreciate them, too. I thought you didn't like them," she added.
"Wh… What made you think that?" Neville asked, astounded at her powers of intuition.
"When we rode them to the Ministry, you looked very uncomfortable. And when we got into the carriage today, you wouldn't even look at him."
"They do spook me a little," Neville admitted.
"That's okay," Luna reassured him. "I'll go and unhitch him myself." Before Neville could stop her, she had squeezed out through the narrow opening and disappeared. He scrambled to follow her, but was unable to fit through, even after removing his thick cloak to reduce his bulk. He worked his head and shoulders out, trying to see where Luna was, but he couldn't see past the front corner of the carriage. The snow was coming down in big, wet flakes that kept being blown into his eyes.
In a matter of just a few minutes, Luna came back, dripping wet and bright red from the cold.
"That was crazy!" Neville chided her as he pulled her back inside. "After all that talk about not wanting to get lost and freeze to death, you go and do that." He pulled on the door, and after several attempts, managed to dislodge it from the snow bank and get it closed again.
"I knew where I was the whole time," Luna explained, wiping her face with her inner robes. "And it was only a few minutes. Although it is cold enough. Calore!" She pulled out her wand, and in an instant, the tip was glowing a friendly red. She wedged it firmly between her knees and held her hands around the end.
Neville quickly fumbled for his wand as well, feeling foolish for not having thought of the same thing earlier. Truth be told, he was feeling the chill himself as well, having stood in the doorway without his cloak for several minutes. He tried not to let his teeth chatter as he incanted, "Calore! Here, use mine, too." He held the tip of the wand close to her so that she could feel the warmth, at the same time trying one-handed to pull his cloak back over his shoulders.
"Thank you," she said cheerfully. "That helps. Here, why don't you come and sit next to me. Then you don't have to stretch so far, and we can share." She scooted over to make room for him on the seat next to her.
"I'm sure it won't be long," Neville said as he settled himself. "They'll notice when we don't show up at the train."
"You don't have to try to reassure me, Neville. I'm not worried," Luna said, then turned to him and added, on second thought, "Oh, or were you trying to reassure yourself? Then yes, I'm sure you're right. We won't have to wait here any longer than necessary." She smiled in a vague way as she stared at the two wand lights.
Neville puzzled over exactly what that might mean and pulled his cloak more tightly around his body. The little heating charm wasn't doing much for his toes, which he could barely feel anymore. Luna seemed to be thinking exactly the same thing, for she leaned down, pulled off her boots, and tucked her feet up underneath her. Neville almost wanted to copy her, but he was self-conscious about taking his boots off. What if his feet smelled? He settled for flexing his feet and moving them around inside the boots as much as he could.
"Where do you think Harry, Ron, and Hermione are right now?" Luna asked, out of the blue.
"Well, Ron's at home with Spattergroit, and Hermione and her parents have probably left the country," Neville repeated the expected answer.
"No, I mean, where do you think they are?"
Neville held Luna's gaze. He would never have dared to give any other answer, had they been at Hogwarts. As it was, even in the carriage, it felt dangerous to express anything other than the party line. For all he knew, Snape or the Carrows could be listening in somehow.
"I think they're out tracking down You-Know-Who," he whispered finally.
"You mean Vo—" Luna began in her normal voice.
"Shhh!" Neville shushed her, looking fearfully around the interior. "Someone might hear you."
Luna looked around, too, as if seeing where they were for the first time. "You're right," she finally agreed, also lowering her volume. "I wouldn't be surprised if they'd put a Greedy Ear in here somewhere, just hoping to get information from us on the D.A. That must be why no one else wanted to share a carriage with us. They were all told beforehand to refuse to go with us, so that we'd be alone and discuss all of the D.A.'s plans."
Neville thought that was more than a bit far fetched. Especially since there were no plans. There was not even a D.A. anymore.
"Well then, we'll just have to talk about something else," Luna decided. "Or we don't have to talk at all."
"No, it's okay, we can talk…" Neville began. "I didn't mean… I was just being paranoid, I guess."
"Never mind. My father always says, a little paranoia is a healthy thing." Luna punctuated this statement with a shiver.
"Are you still cold?" Neville asked, concerned. "You were outside for a long time." He felt the edge of her cloak. "Here, you're still soaking," he exclaimed. "There must be a drying charm…" He frowned, trying to think of one.
"Secco," Luna supplied. "I learned it when all of my uniforms ended up in the lake one time… I think it was third year." She proceeded to apply the charm several times to her cloak and hair. "That was very thoughtful of you, Neville. But the inside of my cloak wasn't wet. See?" She turned the material over to show the lining. "I'm afraid I'm just cold. This little Caloric Charm only warms a sphere of approximately five centimeters' radius. If we were outside, we might start a large fire. Conflagrate is rather spectacular, but Incendio will do it as well. I don't think it would work as well in here, though. Professor Snape might not take too kindly to us burning up school property."
Neville chuckled. "You're right about that." He was really beginning to appreciate Luna in a new way. He'd always thought of her as nice, but a bit odd. Now she was turning out to be funny, clever, resourceful, and brave as well. In addition to being really quite attractive. He'd never sat this close to her before. Her long, blonde hair, now dry, was unbelievably fine. He almost wanted to reach out and touch it, just to see how it felt.
"But as you said," Luna continued, "we won't have to wait for long. I'm sure something will happen before we get frostbite."
An idea occurred to Neville of how they might stay warm, but he was shy about bringing it up. He didn't want her to get the wrong idea. It wasn't like he would be using their situation as an excuse to take advantage of her. On the other hand, she was a reasonable, practical person. Not so silly and goofy like some girls. And so, with butterflies in his stomach, he cleared his throat and spoke up, trying to sound casual. "If you'd like, we could sit together. To share our body warmth," he tried to explain, avoiding looking at her. "We could put both cloaks over us. Then hold our wands underneath, with the heating charm going. That should work…"
He waited then, hardly daring to look over at her to see what she thought. She cocked her head to one side and declared, "That's a lovely idea. It sounds very cozy."
And so, just a few seconds later, Neville found himself snuggled up with Luna Lovegood under two thick layers of wool, a little dot of heat held close to his heart.
He hadn't considered, when inviting Luna to share his cloak, that her body would actually be in contact with his. Close, personal contact. Aside from her head on his shoulder (which was rather comforting), she had curled her legs over his so that she was practically sitting in his lap, and there was a soft, squishy something pressing against his upper arm that he was breathlessly doing his best to ignore, but without much success. Oh yes, he was much warmer, all right.
Luna seemed to agree. "Yes, you're right," she said with a satisfied little sigh. "This is much warmer. You're very smart, you know. I don't think that Crabbe or Goyle would have thought of it."
Neville had to laugh again. The thought of one of the big Slytherin boys cuddling with Luna Lovegood was more than a bit ridiculous. "No, you're probably right," he agreed.
"Not that they're stupid, of course," Luna continued dreamily. "It's just they don't pay a lot of attention to girls. I think we scare them."
"You do?" Neville tried not to let his voice squeak. Truth be told, girls scared him, too. Not the way Snape did (that was out-and-out terror), but in a sweaty-palms way that made him feel even more clumsy and socially inept than he usually did. Like now.
"Why, yes. Not just nervous, like you. Actually scared. I feel very sorry for them. I tried to talk to them once, to show them that there was nothing to be afraid of, but they ran away before I could say much."
"Really?" Neville asked in surprise. "Crabbe and Goyle ran away from you? Just like that?"
"Yes. Well, they removed all of my clothes first. I think they were checking whether I was really a girl, or just a boy in disguise."
"They did what?" Neville was incensed. "Did they hurt you? When was this?"
"Oh, no, they didn't hurt me. It was just a bit chilly. Especially when they left me out in the courtyard like that. Luckily, Renee came by soon afterwards and loaned me her scarf. It was two years ago, when we were having the –" Luna lowered her voice and whispered in Neville's ear: "—D.A. meetings."
Her breath tickled in his ear, causing a shiver went through him.
"I wondered why there were no Slytherins at the meetings, and then it occurred to me that those two, Crabbe and Goyle, were probably too afraid to come because of all the girls. But it didn't help," she finished sadly.
"Luna, if anyone ever does something like that to you again, I want you to tell me, all right?"
"If you'd like," Luna agreed. "Although you don't have to wait until someone else undresses me if you want to see me naked. I'd be more than happy to take my clothes off for you sometime. Maybe somewhere a bit warmer, though."
"What? That's not what I meant, Luna! I don't want to see you naked!" He did his best to banish the tantalizing image which sprang unbidden to his mind.
"You don't? I thought boys always liked to see girls naked. Or do you prefer boys?"
"No! No, I … I like girls just fine. I like you, too, and that's the point. I don't want to just see you, or any other girl, naked for the sake of being naked." I can't believe I'm having this conversation, Neville thought to himself, but plowed on. "I mean, if we really liked each other, and, you know, one thing led to another… But that's different."
"Oh, yes, I think I see what you mean. The offer still stands, though. I do like you, too, Neville." She squeezed his arm and snuggled closer, her breast most definitely pushing against him. Neville wondered whether she were doing that on purpose.
"Luna? Do you think, maybe, we could change positions a bit? My legs are getting a little stiff."
"Of course. I was thinking the same thing." She uncurled herself and stood up. "Here, why don't you sit back like this—" Luna pushed Neville back into the corner and lifted his legs up so they were stretched out the length of the seat. "—and I'll sit here…." She wedged herself in between his legs. "Bend your leg up… There." She scooted back so that her back was against his chest, then pulled the cloaks over them again, burying herself up to the neck. "Calore! Although I almost think we don't need the Heating Charm any more."
Neville quite agreed. He was feeling downright hot. The whole procedure had gone so fast that he hadn't had time to think about what she was doing. He hoped that Luna couldn't feel his heart racing.
Her head was right at the level of his cheek now, and he could feel her hair caressing his cheek. It was as soft as it looked, airy, like down. Without even really meaning to, he moved his head a bit, enjoying the feeling. This resulted in a piece of hair finding its way into his mouth. He reached up to pull it out, then smoothed down the rest on her head so that it wouldn't happen again.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"Hmm, that's nice," Luna commented. "You don't have to stop."
Neville patted her head a couple more times.
"I'm glad it's you I got stuck with, Neville, even if it was because Snape wanted to trick us into giving him information. He might have put me in with Draco and Pansy, and let them torture it out of me."
"Don't even think such things," Neville said fiercely. "No one's going to torture you for information."
"It's nice to hear you say it like that. It almost makes it true," Luna mused.
"I meant what I said before, you know: If anyone tries to hurt you, or bothers you, or – or anything, I want you to let me know. You don't have to be alone. You have friends."
Luna turned her head up to look at Neville. Her eyes were shiny, and for a moment, Neville was afraid she was going to cry. "Oh, Neville, that's beautiful. Thank you. I shall remember it." Then she kissed him on the cheek, hesitated, waited to see what he would do, then leaned in and kissed him on the mouth.
Neville's systems went haywire. He stopped breathing, tried to kiss her back, didn't know what to do with his hands, got hot and cold all over, and was only just starting to process consciously what was going on when it was all over, leaving him gasping and speechless, his heart pounding fit to jump out of his chest.
Luna settled back down and pulled one of Neville's arms over her. He could feel her heart beating, too, giving his own a run for its money. They just sat like that, then, watching the snow.
It wasn't long before they heard someone shouting outside. The two of them quickly pulled their boots and cloaks back on, just as the door was wrenched out of its hinges by Hagrid.
"Thank goodness, yeh're all right!" he boomed. "When Frisky came back withou' the carriage, I knew something wasn' right. Come on, then, let's get the two of yeh's ter the station. Th'Express's already gone, but yeh can still catch the reg'lar commuter ter London an' get yer connections from there."
There wasn't much chance for conversation, as Hagrid hoisted Neville onto his shoulders and carried Luna in his arms for the remaining half-mile trudge through what would have been knee-deep snow for them. At the station, Hagrid spoke to the stationmaster and arranged for tickets.
Neville wasn't sure how things stood now between him and Luna. Were they 'together'? He didn't know if he could deal with a girlfriend on top of everything else. They seemed to take a lot of time and effort.
As if she could read his thoughts, Luna took Neville's hand gently and said, "You don't have to be my boyfriend, Neville, although I wouldn't mind. I like you a lot."
"I like you, too, Luna, it's just…"
"Don't worry," she said lightly. "People sometimes do funny things when they think they're going to die. They may say what they always wanted to say, but never had the courage to."
"I didn't think we were going to die," Neville admitted, and he couldn't help a smile escaping.
"Neither did I," Luna responded cheerfully.
And she climbed into the train, snowflakes sparkling in her hair.