Disclaimer: To my greatest misfortune, I am not JKR. Awh well, a girl can dream...
A warm summer wind was blowing down the alley, making the hanging signs outside the many shops swing joyfully. The road was crowded with people, bustling from shop to shop with their bags bulging or standing in clusters and chatting loudly. It looked like a normal enough scene, even if the place was as far from normal as it was possible to be. The place was Diagon Alley, and it was the main shopping street for the wizarding community in Britain.
Midway up the busy street, the door to a potioneer's shop flew open as a man stumbled through the frame. He collided with a barrel of fresh dragon dung on the walk in front of the apothecary next door and barely managed to regain his footing in time to prevent himself from going headfirst into the barrel's smelly contents. His round face turning a brilliant crimson, the man straightened up and picked up the carefully packaged parcel he had dropped by the door, answering the owner's questions with a mumbled, "I'm fine, just tripped."
Fixing his robes, the man headed off up the street in a more graceful way than his exit from the shop, carefully cradling the vial wrapped in the shopping bag. He was a pleasant looking man, with a thatch of blonde hair, pale eyes, and a perpetually pink-tinged face that was marred only by a few white scars that carved through his round cheeks and forehead. The man's name was Neville Longbottom, and the scars were the only indicators that he had once been a hero before settling into an easier life.
Neville looked around at the voice and spotted a cluster of teenagers outside Quality Quidditch Supplies. He recognized a young girl with a long brown plait, who would be going into her fourth year at Hogwarts and belonged to his own house, Gryffindor.
"Hello, Miss Towler," replied Neville, smiling and offering a short wave before returning his hand to his parcel. She called a "See ya tomorrow," after him as he continued down the street.
Tomorrow. September first, the day that Neville always looked forward to and dreaded in equal measure, just as much now as he had when he was a teen. It meant the return to Hogwarts castle where he served as Herbology teacher and, starting this year, the Head of Gryffindor House. After three years he had been settled into his teaching career, but he couldn't deny that this new position had him feeling just as nervous as he'd been before starting his very first lesson. Pull it together, Neville, you fought in the greatest wizarding war in history. They're just kids.
Feeling slightly better, he strode into The Leaky Cauldron and glanced at the fireplace. There was already a large crowd around it, and he could hear a mother instructing a large brood of children who were apparently returning home after their shopping day. Watching them made him think of the Weasleys and he smiled faintly. I should visit them soon, he thought the large group meant it could be a while before he could Floo back to his office in Hogwarts, and this was only made clearer as a series of people stepped out of the fireplace, interrupting the family's attempts at leaving.
Neville sighed but sat down at the bar and placed his package carefully on the smooth surface. He could see the landlady, although she had her back to him, so he called, "I'll have a butterbeer, please."
"Right away, sir," the woman said over her shoulder, not turning away from the glasses she was cleaning. A moment later she had retrieved a bottle from beneath the counter and turned to hand it to him, but froze, her eyes wide. "Neville?"
Neville stared at the woman's face for a long minute, taking in her soft cheeks, round eyes, and long blonde hair, before it finally registered. "Hannah?"
Hannah Abbot beamed as she set the butterbeer on the counter in front of him and wiped her hands on her apron. "Wow, Neville, I –" But she trailed off as a squabble suddenly broke out by the fireplace. It seemed the mother, irate that the newcomers were waylaying her broods departure, had cast a Tickling Charm on the lot, and they were now shouting profanities at her between explosions of laughter. Hannah rolled her eyes and sighed loudly. "Sorry, I'll be right back."
Neville watched as she stormed around the bar, shouting at the woman and pulling out her own wand to perform the countercurse. To say that it had been a surprise to run into Hannah was a bit of an understatement. He hadn't heard from many of his old schoolmates since they'd left Hogwarts, except for Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and, on rare occasions, Luna, when she wasn't out hunting for Crackle-Haired Snarkilarks, or whatever they were called. He couldn't remember having seen Hannah since their final year when she'd been forced to return because of the Death Eaters. She'd joined the reformed DA, but they hadn't actually spoken much. There hadn't been much time for pleasantries or idle chat that year.
Looking at her now, it was clear that she had changed a lot since school. Her hair, which had always been in pigtails, was now twisted back into a hap-hazard knot on the back of her head, probably to keep it out of her way. There was something mature and confident in her stance, although her expression still maintained some of the sweet temperament and kindness that she had been noted for. He also couldn't help but notice that she certainly had – he blushed just thinking it – a more womanly shape then he remembered her having.
The dispute being settled, Hannah returned to the bar, smiling, and she leaned against the counter opposite him, although he could see she was keeping an eye on the fireplace and she hadn't yet put away her wand. "It's great to see you, Neville," said Hannah, cheerfully. "How are you doing?"
"Wonderful," answered Neville and was happy to admit that he was being truthful. There had been plenty of times in the past when he'd been fairly miserable but he had grown into his own since then and was now quite content with his lot. "So you work here now?"
"I own it," said Hannah, proudly. "Tom was looking to retire and I bought it from him. What about you? I heard you were working for the Ministry."
"I was for a while," said Neville. "I was an Auror, helped to track down some of the last Death Eaters, but once things started to settle down I quit. Ministry work never suited me. Now I'm teaching at Hogwarts."
Hannah smiled again. "Herbology?" she asked and Neville nodded. "I thought so. You were always top of our year in that class." Neville felt his ears burn and, not knowing what else to do, took a sip of his butterbeer. "I bet you make a great teacher. I remember how you led the DA our seventh year. That was very brave of you." He felt her eyes lingering over the scars on his cheek. I wonder if this is how Harry felt.
"So," he started, wanting to change the subject, "have you seen anyone else from school?"
"Oh – yeah, I have," said Hannah, quickly coming back to the conversation. "I see them coming through here all the time. Ernie was in here just yesterday, and a few days ago Seamus and Lavender came through." This set them off into a long conversation about their old classmates, and memories from school, only interrupted when Hannah had to help another patron or when Neville occasionally talked with students as they filed past with their shopping. Their stories gradually shifted from old memories to sharing new ones, and before he knew it, they were exchanging tales by lamp light as night settled outside the inn.
"And the puffapod ricocheted off the ceiling and hit this little first year boy in the chest, and he fell back into my mimbulus mimbletonia. Covered the whole class in stinksap." As Hannah erupted into laughter, Neville watched her, smiling. It felt good to know that he was the one to put that smile on her face. He had never really been considered funny; most of the time when he made people laugh it was because he'd fallen over something or magicked his nose on to a teapot and the spout onto his face (he had smelled stale tea for months afterward and it had taken a half year before the steam stopped streaming from his nostrils every time he felt warm.) But here he was, telling stories that were making a pretty young woman laugh with him.
"Oh that must have been terrible to clean," said Hannah, and as she did her hand brushed his on the countertop. Neville felt a strange, swooping sensation deep in his stomach and wondered if he was getting ill. That was the third or fourth time it had happened tonight.
"Bloody nightmare," he agreed. "Took almost an hour to get everyone cleaned and get it off the other plants." He blushed slightly as he added, "I never have been handy with cleaning charms."
"Neither was I," Hannah admitted with an airy laugh. "That was always my mum's talent." Even though she was still smiling, Neville recognized the expression under her eyes. It had been all over the school when she'd been pulled out during their sixth year after her mother had been murdered by Death Eaters. He also remembered the spark that had filled her eyes when she'd rejoined the DA the next year; it was the same burning intensity that had propelled him, the desire to thwart those who had ruined families like their own.
"Grandmum banned me from doing them," Neville said with a shy grin, trying to lighten the conversation. "I was trying to scrub the dishes once and instead I ended up spending the evening chasing down the pans as they flew 'round and knocked into things. I guess after that she decided it was just easier to do them herself so she didn't have to clean up my mess."
Hannah was smiling brightly again and Neville managed to not blush too brilliantly at the memory. They slipped back into easier talk until Hannah suddenly yawned behind her hand. Surprised, Neville glanced around and saw that they were alone in the dark pub, and a quick look at his watch told him it was after one in the morning.
"Merlin's shorts!" he exclaimed. "I didn't realize it was that late. I'm sorry; you probably want to go to bed."
"Oh, no, it's fine," said Hannah, waving the hand not hiding another yawn dismissively. "I've enjoyed talking to you."
"I really should let you get to sleep," said Neville, standing up. "Besides, I've got to get back to the castle. The Venomous Tentacula has got some really awful hives and I've got to get this potion on it before it snags one of the students and passes them on."
"Alright then," said Hannah, smiling. She followed him as he walked back to the fireplace and they stood in front of it, all of the casualness of their conversations forgotten as they awkwardly stared at each other. "It really was wonderful to see you, Neville," said Hannah suddenly, as though she were rushing to get it out before she lost her nerve. "And, you know, you're welcome to come by any time you feel and chat, if you want."
"Thanks," said Neville. "I had a great time today." He offered a hand and Hannah shook it, smiling up at him beneath rosy cheeks. When she'd released him, he turned to the fireplace but he'd hardly lifted a hand to the pot on the mantle when Hannah shouted, "Neville!"
Turning on his heel, he saw Hannah bustling back from the counter. In her arms she was cradling his parcel. "Oh, thanks," he said, his ears flooding with warmth. "That would've been a bugger if I'd left without it." She handed him the package and he took it, his stomach swooping again as his hands touched hers in the transfer. "Well, good night then," he said, still feeling foolish and awkward.
Hannah seemed to be considering him for a moment and in the next she had thrown her arms around him in a hasty hug that he barely had time to return before she'd pulled away. "Good night," she said, a bit breathlessly.
Feeling faintly light-headed, Neville grabbed a handful of Floo powder, tossed it onto the low flames and said, "Professor Longbottom's office at Hogwarts," into the suddenly roaring sweep of green flames. He caught one last glance of Hannah's soft smile and flushed cheeks before he was sucked up behind the mantle. His eyes were firmly shut as he spun wildly through the grates, and he staggered slightly on landing in his office. He stepped onto the rug, dusting ash from his robes, before walking out into the castle. He needed to get to the greenhouses and administer the potion to the Venomous Tentacula so it would hopefully be cleared up by the time he had his first lesson in Greenhouse Three.
As he stepped out onto the front steps of Hogwarts, he stopped to take in the grounds in the darkness. It had never ceased to amaze him just how beautiful the castle and its grounds were, even though he had spent a great deal of time on them in the last fifteen years. The grass was black in twilight, and the smooth surface of the lake reflected the quarter moon. The gamekeeper's hut was issuing a thin stream of smoke from where it perched in front of the shadowy forests, and a few metres away from the lake's edge he could just make out the gleaming white marble resting place of Hogwarts' greatest headmaster.
Just as it did every time, the sight of Dumbledore's tomb filled Neville with awe and, oddly enough, courage. There was no denying that Dumbledore had been a man with courage beyond what a normal human should possess, and his bravery wasn't just one of strength, but one of spirit as well. Much like the singular type of bravery that Neville had held all along, before he'd weilded a sword against the pet of the darkest wizard of all time. The bravery that had led him to stand up to Malfoy because he'd felt faith in what his friends had told him, and that had later that year led to him standing up for what he felt was right against those same friends. A courage of heart. A small smile slipped over his face. "I may have to make another trip to Diagon Alley very soon," he said aloud in the shadows, before starting off for the greenhouses.