Summary: Hermione is overcome by the worries that have been pilling up during her 6th year at Hogwarts. Neville is the only one who seems to notice that the problems are taking a toll on her. Friendship/Comfort fic

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AN: This story takes place near the end of their 6th year. This was not betaed, so please forgive any small mistakes. Feel free to point them out afterwards if you like.

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Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. If my mind could create a world like that my happy place would be much more fun.

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First Step

The sun had begun to fall behind the trees of the Forbidden Forest when Neville found Hermione. She had carefully hidden her entire body behind an ancient tree. He had walked halfway around the lake before finally spotting her.

Hermione was staring off in the distance at nothing Neville could identify. He suspected that he would never be able to see what had so completely captured her attention.

If he had been more careful, perhaps he would have avoided stepping on the twig that so loudly announced his presence that Hermione jumped several inches.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

Her breath was ragged. "It's all right, Neville."

Neville spoke quickly before she could drift back into her thoughts. "How are you, Hermione?"

Such a simple question.

It was his tone that changed the meaning of a question that millions of people asked each other every day. A question that seemed to have lost its meaning. Some people think that if you say "I love you" too often that the words lose their significance. For Hermione, the three words that meant nothing to her now were "How are you?" When people asked her that, they didn't really want an answer. They wanted one word that could fill their daily quota of trying to care about another person. Or a word to fill an awkward silence as you happened to pass through the same space as them. And she gave them that relief; she told them "Fine" or "Well". On the rare instance that she thought a friend was actually curious about how she was doing, she would try "Okay", but they never asked for further clarification.

And yet, here was Neville asking her that same question. Neville, whom she had met on that first train ride. Neville, who had always been a friend, but never a particularly close friend; certainly not a confidant in any way. But somehow, Neville had seen what her best friends had glossed over. She could hear the concern in his voice and see it resonate through his eyes.

She refused to allow grateful tears to wash her face.

Hermione took a deep breath. "Not very well, Neville."

He sat down at the foot of the tree, an invitation for her to join him. She sank down, as if the weight of all her thoughts made the decision for her.

"You haven't been yourself lately. I know I'm not Harry or Ron or Ginny, but I thought you might like to talk about whatever is bothering you."

He mistook her silence for confusion or distrust. But Hermione's joy and relief at being noticed had stolen her voice for the first moment.

Now her thoughts and feelings boiled over, rushing out of her mouth so quickly that her voice had trouble keeping up.

"It's everything Neville. Everything that I can't control. All of the danger we're sure to encounter in the next year that we might not survive. I lay in bed at night going through all the possible scenarios by which we could die in the next year. If I do somehow fall asleep the nightmares are waiting for me. Harry, Ron, Ginny, you, my parents, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Fred, George, Hagrid, Professor McGonagall, Dumbledore…I see you all die over and over again every night."

She paused to look at Neville, making sure that she had not misunderstood him; that he really did want to listen. In the dimming light Hermione saw something in his eyes that was reassuring.

"And my so-called friends notice nothing. Or worse, they notice and assume that they already know the answer. They assume that I'm worried about classes, without noticing that I'm barely keeping up with my assignments now. They assume that I'm busy researching for the meetings Harry has been having with Dumbledore, without seeing that I spend a half hour re-reading the same page. It never even crosses their minds to ask me why I'm upset.

"I've been like this for weeks. I've got circles under my eyes so dark that no amount of muggle make-up could ever hope to cover them. Smiles are few and far between. I think I'm starting to forget how to laugh. Because now when I'm not worrying I'm busy being angry with them for not realizing that I'm worrying."

She paused again to look at him. She sighed, "That sounds crazy, doesn't it?"

"No, it's not crazy. It is wrong of them not to see how upset you are."

Vindication from a friend ended Hermione's ability to hold back the tears that had been making a nightly appearance for longer than she cared to admit.

"If it isn't me, if it's them, then why are they behaving like this? If they are my best friends, then why don't they see me—really see me and what's wrong with me? If they really cared for me they would step out of their own little bubble and realize what's going on. I shouldn't have to train them to read my signals—not after we've been friends for this long and gone through so much!"

Neville handed her a handkerchief. "Have you thought about trying to bring all this to their attention?"

Hermione began drying her tears and willed herself not to end this chat with the hiccups that always accompany heavy crying sessions.

"What do I say to them? How can I talk to them about a problem when they don't even know a problem exists?"

Neville shrugged. "Maybe they're having the same kind of problem as you. Lost in the own thoughts and troubles."

Hermione thought this was at least plausible for Harry.

"Or maybe," he continued, "they just never learned how to read people and recognize that some people have huge loads on their mind."

This explanation seemed reasonable for Ron.

"But either way, Hermione, you can't just keep circling this line of thinking. I know that you always fall back on logic, but with friends that doesn't always work."

"Especially friends like Ron," she added under her breath, paired with an almost smile.

Neville laughed. "Especially Ron."

He paused, waiting for the moment that Hermione met his eyes.

"You can't 'think' away the unknown and that's what you're trying to do. You can't make the worry go away, but you can dilute it by getting comfort from your friends. And sometimes even though it hurts, you have to be the one to take the first step. Because if you don't then you stay rooted to the same horrible place forever."

Hermione dried her tears and permitted one last sniffle.

"That's not entirely true, Neville." She leaned her shoulder against his. "Thank you for taking the first step."

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AN: This was written mostly to get out some frustrations I have been having lately with my friends, if you couldn't tell. I hope that if you read this and have felt similarly, that you feel at least a little bit more noticed and seen now.