"Extra credit, Longbottom? You don't need it. I told you, you don't have to do well in exactly every class your grandmother was in. I've known her all my life, and if I did everything she said I wouldn't be here now", Professor Minerva McGonagall said, exasperated, to the gawky boy wringing his hands over her desk as the other students piled out of the room.
"But do you think I can get all the credits this year? Isn't Transfiguration one of the most important classes of magic to any wizards?" Neville Longbottom stammered as he leaned forward, concerned.
"It is, to many, but I've known many a wizard who couldn't turn milk into cheese but managed to become some of the most accomplished magicians in Britain. It is perfectly acceptable to focus on your interests alone. You have completed your necessary requirements, and it's time for you to move on to other subjects"
"This conversation has ended, Neville," she sighed, peering tiredly over her specs.
"Yes'm….." Defeated at last, he bit his lip and turned to leave.
McGonagall sighed again, but then spoke again.
"Mr Longbottom, I do have an errant for you to run for extra points to the House Cup"
Neville spun so fast he almost turned in a complete circle
"I understand that Slughorn is having a party for his club", the last word was said in the same tone one refers to septic tanks or solicitors, "and I would like to send him a note. Unfortunately, Mr. Potter and Ms. Granger have left already, so I hope you can catch up to them and have them deliver this to Professor Slughorn"
She handed him a white envelope, explaining, "You're a very trustworthy student, Longbottom, and provided it doesn't fall out of your pocket again I think you should be up to the task"
"Thank you, Professor. I'll get it to them right away", he felt sheepish at the reminded fumbles, but was encouraged by her trust in him. In a flash he was off.
The first place he looked was the great hall, but neither Harry nor Hermione was there. Parvati Patil saw him, waving with her usual enthusiasm and gesturing for Neville to sit down next to her. He walked up to her, but continued to stand. It was then that he realized, to his extreme discomfort, Ron Weasley in a desperate liplock with Lavender Brown, oblivious to anything happening around him. If Neville had looked closer, he would have seen tears on Ron's freckled cheeks.
"Don't mind them" Parvati rolled her eyes, "they're going to snog until they get arrested for it"
"Parvati, I hate to rush you, but I've got to get a note to Harry and Hermione. Where are they?"
"They're lucky; they're at Slughorn's party. Of all the parties to miss, it has to be that one" she crossed her arms with a pout.
Neville briefly pondered why Hermione didn't just ask Ron, but he shoved it aside, nodding and turning to leave.
"Tell me how the party was! Good luck!" Parvati waved goodbye as Neville was off again. As much as Neville would have wanted to say goodbye, he was out of earshot in seconds.
"Must be something urgent" Parvati shrugged as she propped up her head with her arm wearily. Even doing errands for the professors seemed preferable to another minute with her practically insensible friends.
Neville had no intention of stopping, wanting to do his errand and go to bed. His course was finally stopped by a violent collision with something invisible. When he came to his senses on the floor, he could make out a dazed and fallen Harry Potter, his glasses lying next to Neville.
"Harry?" Neville was confused to say the least as he handed Harry his glasses before getting to his feet.
"Oh, hello Neville. Sorry about that. I'm perfectly fine" If Neville had Hermione's perceptivity, he would have taken note of how hurried and preoccupied Harry's tone of voice and facial expression revealed.
If Neville was anxious and distracted, Harry was even more so. Even Neville was surprised at how quickly Harry got up, bundled up his invisibility cloak, and hustled off before Neville could open his mouth.
"What about the party? What's going on?" Neville only had a few moments to try to get his attention before the other boy had disappeared.
He was used to being confused by Harry sometimes, but this year it was different. Harry seemed distant, like everyone else. It was like they had never experienced what had happened last year. It was like Dumbledore's army had never happened, and Umbridge had never put a broad, pink-shoed foot in Hogwarts. Ron was absorbed with Lavender, Harry was secretive and paranoid, and Hermione seemed to be self-contained and distant. It was frustrating; he thought he had come closer than ever before to his friends, and now things seemed worse than before. Everyone was different, including himself. He guessed it was all part of growing up, but he thought their friendship would last. He hadn't felt so alone, even in his first year.
His run had been stopped by the collision, but he didn't try to run again, wrapped up in anxiety, barely avoiding crumpling the note in his squirming hands. He could hear the noise of old gramophone records and the patter of chitchat as he neared the room of the party.
Neville's entrance was unnoticed in the bright lights. A tall, pale, gaunt fellow who made a terrifying shudder travel down the student's spine was being restrained from attacking a bunch of girls by another wizard. Was that strange person what he looked like?
"The ministry always has someone to control the vampires so they can be used in their raids. Do you know that the ministry's been issuing glitter on vampires to make them stronger in the sun?"
"Oh, hello Luna" Neville didn't have to finish turning before he saw Luna Lovegood, looking like a carnival harlequin dressed for dinner party, smiling at him, "What are you doing here?"
"Harry invited me. Wasn't that nice of him? He went off after Professor Snape dragged out Draco Malfoy. I hope Harry finds something out; it'd be a shame if he missed this party on just a hunch"
"Malfoy? What was he-"
"Maybe someone invited him. I don't know" she shrugged, apparently done with the subject, "have you tried the drinks yet?"
"Where's Professor Slughorn? I have to give him a note"
"He's there with Professor Snape" Luna gestured to the two teachers, the grim, grotesque vulture-like form of Snape looming over the comical, pompous owl of Slughorn. Neville hesitated. On one hand, he needed the extra credit even if he wasn't taking the class. On the other, he saw Snape was in a worse mood than usual, and that meant that he didn't stand a chance without being punished.
"Thanks, Luna. See you later" Neville gave her a nervous smile before edging around the crowd. Luna went on her own way, drifting around the room in no apparent direction. At least Luna didn't change, Neville noted, she's just as batty as always.
It was surprisingly hard to maneuver through the thick crowd of well-dressed wizards and witches. Gran would have loved this thing. He couldn't help but remember similar parties where he would be chided in public and shown off like a prize horse with a tangled mane. He missed the parties back in Gryffindor house. Sure, no one paid attention to him, but that was the point. He was just part of the room, part of the house.
He had stopped to think when he was knocked off his feet for the second time this evening. A warm, trembling hand helped him up.
"Oh, Neville, it's just you" Hermione sighed as she pulled him to his feet.
"Hello, Hermione. What's happening?" He noticed how frightened she looked, and when Hermione was frightened, something awful was going to happen. He hated to see her scared. She had her hair up and was wearing a beautiful gown, but her beauty was overshadowed by fear.
"Follow me. I think I can lose him" She glanced over her shoulder, every muscle in her arm clenching and unclenching nervously. With an iron grip, she pulled him into what looked like an alcove.
"Hermione, what's going on?" Neville felt as if though Death Eaters were going to pop out of a closet at any second.
"Cormac McLaggen. I knew I shouldn't have invited him here"
"McLaggen? Why? What about Ron-"
Hermione blushed furiously, "I wanted to get Ron's attention, all right? How was I supposed to predict he'd try to ravish me on dessert cart? He's got hands like a tentacula and makes Malfoy look humble and chivalrous"
Neville whistled. "Didn't you tell him to back off?"
She rolled her eyes, "Of course I did. He just thinks I'm being coy with a 'real man'. He won't take me seriously like Victor did"
He felt like adding "And Ron", but didn't want to make her more uncomfortable. He just wished he could help her.
"Anything I can do?" he looked up at her, meeting her worried look
Hermione smiled in spite of herself. "Neville, aren't I the one getting you out of trouble?"
"That's why I'm trying to return the favor. I should have asked for Harry's cloak. Any idea why he brought it to the party?"
She groaned. "He thinks Malfoy and Snape are up to something. I don't know why, but he's been trying to spy on them this whole year"
So that's what was happening. "I hope he doesn't make it worse. I was wondering why he was so distant like everyone else is"
Hermione hung her head sheepishly. "I'm sorry. I was busy. I completely forgot about you. It's just…it's just…" She couldn't finish.
"Ron?" he asked quietly
"Yes." Her response was even quieter
"Is there anything at all I can do to help you about it? I mean, I know what you feel about him-"
"You do?" she gasped
"Yeah. Harry does too, but he's too busy with Ginny. I wish I could help you…"
"It's not worth it"
"What? Don't you guys mean a lot to each other?"
"If it's going to be like this, then maybe he's not worth all the trouble. Maybe I don't love him"
Neville couldn't be more confused if he tried "But Hermione, I thought-"
"So did I, but I think that it's gone far enough. I've suffered enough over him, and I'm sure he's suffered enough over me. If he wants Lavender, he can keep her"
There was a silence after Hermione's declaration that made time stand still for both of them. Neither would move for many minutes, but Neville reached for Hermione's hand, and to his surprise she grasped it tightly. Their eyes met, gazes of long-hidden love finally revealed.
This brief moment was broken when a dark head sneered from around the corner.
"A mudblood and a squib. I thought Slughorn had standards" Blaise Zabini rolled his eyes "Get out of here, Longbottom. Granger has an excuse, you don't"
"We'll both get out, Zabini. You seem more bored than usual" Hermione snipped as she and Neville got out of the alcove. Zabini just seemed more interested in humiliating moments instead of pressing his advantage like Malfoy.
"When you're surrounded by filth and troglodytes, you get bored very easily" he sneered back, following them to Slughorn
"It's because you're a total bore yourself" Neville shot back over his shoulder.
Before the insults could continue, Neville and Hermione were before Slughorn, who was still in an animated one-sided conversation with Snape (who seemed to combine Zabini's boredom and Harry's anxiety in a single grimace)
"Hm? What's going on? What are you doing here, Longbottom?" Slughorn was startled so that he almost spilled his cognac
"Found him in a storage room with Granger. Probably planning to raise a family of loud-mouthed failures" Zabini explained.
"That's enough, Zabini. Mr Longbottom, why are you here?" the teacher silenced the tall Slytherin with pointed look and turned his suddenly stern gaze on Neville
"I was told to send a note to you from Professor McGonagall" the young Gryffindor, suddenly feeling very alone and vulnerable, quickly explained and handed him the envelope.
"Oh, thank you. Longbottom. You can leave now" Slughorn changed from accusative to content in a moment, "I didn't know you knew Ms. Granger"
"Horace, Granger is the only reason Longbottom can tie his shoes. She's been keeping him alive since they first enlisted in this school" Snape glared at them with his usual contempt.
"Good on you, Granger. It's always a good thing to pass on your talents on the helpless. Who knows? He may become a decent wizard one day" Slughorn beamed patronizingly on them
"He already is. Just because you don't see it doesn't mean he doesn't have talent" Hermione tossed her hair defiantly, leading Neville out of the circle and out the door.
"Hermione, I didn't mean to embarrass you like that-" he stammered as they left the party.
"Trust me, you never embarrass me. Harry and Ron have, but you haven't" Hermione finally smiled.
"I didn't ruin the evening?"
"McLaggen did. You made it better. It's nice to have someone who isn't lost in their little world"
"You aren't" She said firmly, "It's pretty obvious you know exactly what you're doing"
"Neville, shut up and kiss me"
He obliged, but it was less him kissing her and her kissing him. She must have been lonely, frustrated, confused, as he was. He held her, surprised but his love for her made his arms and lips act on their own accord against her soft body.
After what seemed like an hour, Neville finally stepped back and took a deep breath
"Hermione, I've wanted to tell you I love you for years. I didn't want to hurt you and Ron, and I still don't. But I still love you"
Hermione closed her eyes, taking in his admission and all it meant for both of them.
"I'm sorry, Hermione, but that's the truth. I can't keep this to me any more. I wish I could just forget about it, but I can't"
She slowly opened her eyes, "Come on, let's go back to the tower before Cormac find us"
"But what about the party? What are you going to tell Slughorn?"
"I'm going to tell him that I left with a young man who I truly appreciate. It's about time I came to my senses"
By this time, Neville had turned bright red, and only blushed harder when Hermione squeezed his hand.
"Oh, Hermione…." He sighed.
As they left before anyone could see them, Neville couldn't help but wrap an arm around Hermione's bare shoulders. She let out a small sigh and leaned her head on his shoulder as the two young students walked back to their tower.
The next day, Neville couldn't see Hermione without blushing, and she always blushed in return. Harry, to their dismay, was still focused on his theories about Malfoy and Snape. Neville never really thought them trustworthy, but Harry sounded like he had pounded down a bottle of firewhisky. One on hand, Harry and Ron were as preoccupied as ever, if not more so. On the other hand, Hermione seemed more relaxed. She spent more time with him, and smiled more often. When they left Defense Against the Dark Arts class that day, it seemed as if even Snape's tyranny couldn't stop this new sense of hope.
"Hermione", Neville felt his anxieties beginning to rise again, "Are you serious about giving up Ron? Are you going to tell him?"
"I think I am serious. Besides, he's too busy with his Lav-Lav to care, and if he's smart, he'll just stay with her" her tone was hard and bitter.
"If he thinks I'm just pulling you along to make him jealous, he'll just go further with Lavender. If he thinks it's genuine, he'll have to come to terms with it. Either way, it's his problem" she continued
"Poor bloke. I hope he'll be alright about it" he shook his head sadly.
Sure enough, when they sat together at the tables, Hermione could obviously see Ron's agitation. He had sawed his knife right through the pork chop and was carving into the plate when Harry tapped him on the shoulder to stop him. Lavender kissed him, but Ron just stared at his food listlessly. Part of Hermione honestly felt sorry for him, the same part that made her worry about his injuries from the canary attack. The other part, the part that launched the canaries in the first place, assured her that it would teach him a lesson, and that it was all over.
She caught up to Neville on her way to class, her heart-melting smile ensnaring him as he turned and caught sight of her.
"I wish I could get away from these meetings with Slughorn" she sighed as they stopped to talk
"I miss you all the time, But I know you've got a full schedule and you've got to get good grades", he said
"I know, but I need to spend more time with you and my other friends"
Neville knew this would happen; he'd always be just one of the friends to her. Nothing more. Still, it was better than nothing, and that was enough for him.
"I know how you feel. You get wrapped up in work and then it hits you on how lonely you are" he said with a sad smile. He leaned on the wall of the hall as he remembered the many days and nights he'd endured that situation.
"I'm glad I have you, Neville, and I appreciate your confession last night. Everything is much clearer now"
He took a deep breath, encouraged by her statement. It was time to ask her something that had gnawed at him for a long time.
"Hermione, do you love me?"
For once, he threw caution to the winds. He didn't care about the other students. He didn't care about his next class. He didn't even care about if she would say yes or no. He had to ask that question or die trying.
Hermione closed her eyes in thought in a long pause. She did. She was surprised to realize that she did. She never really thought about it, but it seemed to come together. She almost told him last night, but was still uncertain about Ron. Now, her conviction set in and settled it once and for all. She did.
She opened her eyes suddenly when she heard a soft impact against the stone wall. The first thing she saw was Neville slumping down the wall, unconscious. Standing over him, furious, was Cormac McLaggen.
"What is this, Granger? Was that all a joke? Just to humiliate me in front of everyone else? You ran out on me" he loomed closer, anger barely held in check
"Cormac, I'm sorry, but I made a mistake inviting you-" Hermione stepped backwards, trying to keep him from further violence.
He responded by grabbing her arm and twisting it hard. She reached for her wand, but McLaggen had his at her throat
"You certainly did. I'll probably get kicked out of the club for losing my date to Longbottom. My mistake was asking you. I should have known you would whore yourself out"
"Let go, McLaggen. Now" Hermione glared at him
"Not until I figure out exactly what I owe you. You enjoy giving orders, but it's time you took some. You can't expect to do this to me and just walk away. You're going to limp away. You won't be able to stand. You won't be able to sit. This is for your own good, Granger-"
His threat was interrupted as his wand was wrenched out of his grasp and sent ricocheting down the hall.
McLaggen threw Hermione down and turned around to see a furious Neville Longbottom, who seemed to be just as close to breaking point.
"Go get sloshed, McLaggen. Be a lot more fun that what happens if you grab her again"
"I can grab her any way I want to, Longbottom. I'm not worthless like you are"
"I don't care. You owe her an apology. You like to pretend you have any sense of class, so let's see it. Apologize"
"Fine", McLaggen sighed. Neville lowered his wand.
It was just the opening he needed. McLaggen's fist slammed against the other boy's face, knocking him senseless. McLaggen only had a moment to wind up another punch before he crumpled to the ground.
"Neville, are you all right?" Hermione still had her wand out when she rushed over her fallen friend.
"I think so. You're still beautiful, so I think I can still see all right" he weakly joked.
As she helped him up, Snape and Slughorn came across the scene on their way to the dungeons.
"Granger? McLaggen? What happened?" the older wizard was flabbergasted.
"McLaggen threatened me, sir. Longbottom's my witness"
"That would never hold up in court, Granger, but again our unconscious friend is not exactly known for rhetorical skill" Snape's scowl seemed frozen on his face, "Thirty points from Gryffindor"
"I'm afraid I agree with Professor Snape, Ms Granger. Honestly, I expected better from Me. McLaggen and yourself. This is a disaster. Detention for the three of you, although I think it would be better if McLaggen did his separately. You must understand, Ms Granger, that I'll have to drop you and Mr. McClaggen from the club for the time being"
"Heaven forbid" Snape's deadpan sarcasm was easily deflected by Slughorn's unflappability.
As Hermione and Neville walked back to their house, Neville hung his head
"Thanks for saving me. Well, looks like I got you a detention"
"What you did was brave and selfless, and it's nothing to be ashamed of" Hermione put her hand on his shoulder
"But Hermione, what about the points? The detention?" Neville was still wringing his hands as they stepped through the portrait hole.
"Well, if you're there with me, the detention should be as good as extra credit. And to answer your question, yes, I do love you." With that, she kissed him and vanished up into the girls' dormitories.
Rubbing his cheek, Neville stared at the closed dorm for a long time. It wasn't the extra credit that gran wanted out of him, but he could accept this kind any day.