Warm, yellow light and raucous birdsong filtered in through the open car windows. Gripping the steering wheel, Hermione looked out at the wide, green meadow that stretched before her.
"You don't have to worry about hitting anything here," Neville said. "Well, aside from the fence...and maybe the house, depending on whether the stories George told me about your driving are true."
Her responding laugh was accompanied by the squeak of skin sticking to leather as she wriggled around and tried to find a comfortable position on the bench seat.
"Ordinarily I would tell you to take anything George says with a whole barrel full of salt, but in this case, he may not be exaggerating," she said.
Neville's gran's old car was a mustard yellow beast that rivalled the Knight Bus in size. It rumbled beneath her with a few ominous clanks as she turned the key in the ignition, seeming as full of its own opinions and consciousness as the rusty Ford Anglia that was rumoured to still roam the wilds of the Forbidden Forest.
Rose and Hugo, home for the summer, were safely ensconced inside Neville's farmhouse on the opposite end of the field, far from their mother's latest attempt to master the art of driving. If Hermione knew her kids at all, Rose was probably reading something from Neville's library while Hugo played with one of Trevor's great-great-grandchildren and watched the lesson through a window, just in case Hermione crashed into anything.
With a sudden grin, Neville slid across the seat until he was sitting so close that she knew she wouldn't be able to drive without bumping the gearshift into his leg.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I was thinking about when I used to sit next to you in Potions," he replied, "and it gave me an idea. Just drive."
"But you aren't wearing a seat belt!"
"Hermione, we're in a bloody field." Shaking his head, he chuckled. "It's not like a lorry is going to crash into us. Go on. I trust you."
"I fear that trust is grievously misplaced, but don't say I didn't warn you."
As she let the car roll across the bumpy ground at a speed that would make a sloth impatient, he leaned his upper body closer and began whispering instructions in her ear. He smelled like ink and soap and something fresh and green. The way his breath gusted over her neck every time he spoke made it very difficult for Hermione to concentrate on what he was saying. The words seemed to bypass her mind, choosing instead to brush along her skin like a caress.
Her lower abdomen clenched and tingled as he moved even closer, heat flooding into her face. The sensation was simultaneously alarming and wonderful.
Swallowing hard, she closed her eyes against the conflicting emotions that roared through her body. She thought her eyelids fluttered shut for only a split-second, but apparently, that was long enough.
She crashed into the fence.
Bumped would be a more accurate term, given her complete lack of any real speed, but it still jostled the rickety wooden structure enough to knock one of the railings to the ground.
"Well," Neville said, his voice coming out as a hoarse murmur. "That was...err."
With a nervous smile, she turned her head towards him. His cheeks were as red as hers felt.
The tingling hadn't gone away with the end of his whispers.
"So, what d'you reckon?" she said in an attempt to break the tension. "Pub?"
Kneeling down between the rows of onions, Hermione attacked every weed that dared to stand in her path. She and Neville had planted far more vegetables this year. The tomato plants were so huge and bushy that if she didn't know better, she would have sworn that Neville enlarged them with magic. She was going to have to make dozens of jars of sauce and chutney and salsa to use them all up once autumn rolled around.
Hugo leaned against the fence, watching her furious weeding with knowing, Ron-blue eyes.
Try as she might to banish the thoughts of her driving lesson that morning, her mind would not cooperate; it overflowed with images of Neville.
Neville in reading glasses. Neville dusted with smears of dirt and grinning as he helped her in the garden. Neville talking with Rose or laughing with Hugo. Neville offering comfort in the form of takeaway.
Neville in — oh, sweet Merlin — formal wear, spinning her around the dance floor.
"I've been thinking," Hugo said.
"Well, that's good," Hermione said, chucking a dismembered dandelion into the garden bin that she lugged along behind her. "You know I always encourage thinking. What is it you were thinking about?"
"Dad. He'd want you to be happy, I reckon."
Without waiting for a reply, he ran into the house, shouting for his owl as he let the front door slam behind him.
Hermione stared at her murky outline in the foggy mirror. Patting herself dry with a towel, she drew in a deep breath as leftover steam from her shower swirled around the bathroom.
Just as she'd done after every shower she'd taken since her wedding day, she picked up the two bands of gold that she'd left in a dish next to the sink for safekeeping. Hugo's words from earlier in the garden stopped her short as she moved to slide the rings back onto her finger.
Opening a drawer in the vanity, she placed her wedding and engagement rings inside the little magenta and orange jewellery box that Rose had made for her when she was eight.
Her hand felt strange and empty without the familiar weight, but she knew Ron would approve.
Well, no, not entirely. He'd probably get at least a little bit jealous, and perhaps he'd mention Viktor a few times, just for nostalgia's sake.
But Hugo was right: he'd want her to be happy.
"Hey again," Hermione said, waving at Neville as she locked the front door and jogged to meet him. "This is the fourth day in a row that Luna's sent you as her replacement. Is she okay?"
He shrugged. "I think so. You know Luna; she's probably on the verge of discovering a new species or inventing a magical alarm clock that will sweep her floors and brew gurdyroot tea."
Laughing, Hermione performed a few stretches and breathed in the cool morning air.
"You're probably right," she said. "Shall we?"
They walked to the nature reserve, their rapid footsteps carrying them faster than Hermione used to run when she and Luna first started their little routine. Once they started jogging around the trail that circled the reserve, she noticed with a swell of delight that he no longer had to shorten his long strides to accommodate her slower pace. His breaths came in quick gasps before hers did.
"What is that thing?" Neville asked as they passed a little wooden shed, squinting at the sign on the side.
"It's a bird watching hut. There are feeders outside, and you can sit and watch the birds through a window. It's not open this early in the day, though."
Pulling his wand out of a pocket that would've made Mad-Eye scold him, he tapped the padlock on the door and said, "Alohomora."
"Neville, I'm shocked at you," she said with feigned sternness. "I can't believe a professor and former Auror is showing such blatant disregard for the rules."
He grinned. "I know a thing or two about rebellion. You coming in?"
The narrow room that they crept into boasted several charts displaying the different types of birds that could be found in the area, a chalkboard for visitors to record recent sightings, and countless teenagers' names carved into a long bench and littered across the walls.
There was plenty of room for them to spread out, but they sat close enough that their legs pressed together. They spoke in whispers — not so much because a sign above the window asked them to be quiet to avoid startling the birds, but because it seemed like loud voices would break the spell, transforming them back into a couple of responsible adults who no longer did things like barging into locked buildings.
"What are those things around the base of the feeder?" Neville asked, leaning forward in an attempt to get a better view. "Squirrels?"
"Err, I think they're rats."
"Oh. Lovely. Well, rats and graffiti...you can't say I've never taken you anywhere interesting."
She let out a quiet giggle. "Yes, it was clearly worth the risk of sneaking in here."
Abandoning their brief foray into disobedience, they continued their jog. When they reached her house again, Hermione invited him in for a cup of tea.
This time, when they lowered their voices, it was out of necessity. Rose and Hugo were still asleep, and the slightest noise tended to carry upstairs from the kitchen. Neville helped by fetching mugs from the cupboard as she set the kettle boiling and hunted for the missing teabags.
"Rose," she muttered once she spotted the tea on a high shelf. "She thinks it's funny to put things out of my reach now that she's taller than me. Where did I put my wand?"
Before she could retrieve the offending stick of vinewood from her handbag on the table, Neville appeared behind her. Reaching over her head, he grabbed the box of teabags and plopped it onto the counter.
"Thanks," she murmured.
"Anytime. I reckon I have at least a few years left before Rose is taller than me."
He didn't back up right away. He stayed there, warm and close, not saying a word. Just as she tilted her chin up and looked into his eyes, a resounding thump sounded from upstairs, making them jerk apart.
Hermione tended to the kettle, trying to calm the racing of her pulse.
Before the interruption, Neville had looked for all the world like he wanted to kiss her.
"All right, Bessie," Hermione said, giving the dashboard a friendly pat. Neville's gran's car seemed like the sort of vehicle that needed a name, and Bessie suited it to a tee. "It's just you and me this time."
With a steadying breath, she pulled forward and steered the car in a wide circle around the field. The rough terrain jostled her in her seat, but she managed several laps in both directions without hitting anything or maiming herself. She even managed to follow the same tracks through the long grass each time. Gaining confidence, she gradually picked up speed.
Steering came easier than it had before. Her attempts to brake were a bit jarring, but still an improvement.
The mended fence stuck out of the ground, seeming to challenge her. Bringing the car to a stop, she drew her wand and conjured two bright orange traffic cones along the meadow's edge.
It took five minutes of adjusting her wheels and more than a few muttered curses, but she didn't run into the cones or the fence. The end result was slightly crooked, but it was good enough to make a grin break out on her face. Leaping out of the car, she examined her handiwork.
She had parallel parked!
Elated, she turned towards the house. Neville stood in the open doorway, watching her with a wide smile that made her stomach do a nervous flip-flop.
This new, unspoken thing between them — this glimmer of potential for something more: it was scarier than driving — more frightening than flying a broom or hurtling through the air on top of a dragon. Hermione couldn't even pinpoint when it had started. Somewhere between the comfort, companionship, and laughter, she'd begun a free-fall, spinning out of control.
This fluttery, giddy sensation was dangerous. She knew all too well how deeply she could get hurt.
But oh, she could live.
Running across the field as fast as she could, she threw her arms around Neville with such enthusiasm that they almost toppled over. She felt as though she stood on the edge of a cliff with only two options available to her: turn back towards solitary, safe familiarity, or dive into the deep unknown.
Raising up onto her tiptoes after Neville regained his balance, she kissed him full on the mouth.
He responded almost instantly, only a quiet gasp betraying his shock before his soft lips began to move against hers in new, unfamiliar ways. She smiled into the kiss when their noses bumped together, and her heart welled up with too much fondness to bear when she felt his hands tremble as he placed them on her hips. Too soon, he pulled back.
"Are you sure?" he asked, giving her a gentle squeeze. "I don't think I can stand it if you decide that you regret this later."
"Listen, when I'm gone—"
"No. Let me say it. We both know it's coming. Why dance around it? I want you to be happy, okay?"
There was no room for hesitance or second-guessing herself. If she was going to do this, she was going to do it bravely. Pressing her lips to Neville's once more, she teetered on the edge of that terrifying cliff and made her decision.
A/N: Thank you so much to everyone who has read this little story, and an extra thank you to those of you who took the time to review. And extra EXTRA big thanks to my beta, Callinectes, for just generally being awesome. :)