Look at me, remembering to post chapters! :) Enjoy!

~Chapter 10: Independence~

Something amazing was happening. Neville's semi-conscious brain cells were struggling to determine exactly what it was.

A smell. The room was filled with a heavenly smell, and also a sizzling noise, which could only mean one thing: bacon.

He sat up and looked around wildly. Emily was standing by the stove, a fork in one hand.

"Bacon?" he asked.

She turned around, laughing. "Yes, bacon. French toast too. Good morning, by the way," she said, turning back to the frying pan.

"Sorry. Good morning. I got excited," he said, rolling off the couch and crossing to the tiny kitchen. He wrapped his arms around her waist from behind as she arranged crispy strips of meat and golden-brown slices of bread onto two plates. "You're the best."

"You're the best too. Thanks for tucking me in last night," she said, extinguishing the burner with her wand. She turned to face him and twined her arms around his neck. "Sorry I fell asleep on you. Literally."

"I didn't mind. You don't sleep enough. And honestly, it was nice to be able to take care of someone. Sometimes it seems like I've needed other people to take care of me my whole life."

"You can take care of me any time," she promised, and kissed him softly.

As Emily ended the kiss, Neville wasn't satisfied. He pulled her closer and captured her lips again, and he worried for half a second that he'd startled her, but then he felt her smile against his mouth. Encouraged, he deepened the kiss, and she responded by sliding her fingers into his hair, sending chills up his spine.

By the time they got around to eating their breakfast, it was rather cool. Needless to say, they didn't really mind.

"So, what are your plans for this morning?" Neville asked as he piled dirty dishes in the sink.

"Well, I was planning to go upstairs and take a shower," Emily said, "because I am gross."

"I think you're beautiful," he said cheekily.

She grinned and rolled her eyes. "Where exactly are you hoping flattery will get you, Mr. Longbottom? After my shower, I was going to sing for a while. I didn't practice nearly enough last week."

He had no idea how she would respond to this question, but he hoped for the best. "Could I come up and listen to you practice?"

"Um." Emily chewed her lip, looking uncertain.

"I promise I'll be silent as a flobberworm. You won't even know I'm there. I'll just sit and do paperwork for the shop, and I won't even rustle the parchment."

She was still hemming and hawing. "The thing is, I never let anyone listen to me practice."

"I'm not going to judge you, Em. Merlin knows I barely know the first thing about music," he said. "But music is a huge part of your life, and I know you're fantastically talented at it, and I would love to hear your gorgeous voice."

She couldn't hide her smile. "Well...okay. But only because you're so sweet."

Neville grinned broadly. "See? You are susceptible to flattery."

She sighed exasperatedly. "You are impossible!" she exclaimed, both indignant and amused. Then she chucked a dishtowel at his head and dashed out of the flat before he could retaliate.

Neville took his own shower and changed into fresh clothes before moving Trevor off the stack of papers he had brought home from The Herbology Expert. Simon's great-uncle Jake had kept copious notes during his fifty-some years as proprietor, but only on the topics he evidently felt were important. Rather than inventories and sales records, there were detailed descriptions of incidental conversations with customers, commentaries on meteorological divination, and chronicles of his experiments with plant breeding and hybridization. Everything was recorded in a sprawling, personal journal sort of style, rather than the regimented herbologist's log to which Neville was accustomed. He, Simon, and Hillary had divided among themselves the monumental task of sifting through everything to better understand the history of the shop and extract any pieces of information that might be useful for restarting the business. Neville was also hoping to glean some insight into the mysterious plant.

After grabbing a sizable handful of papers, he climbed the stairs to the fourth floor and knocked on Emily's door. She let him in, and he settled himself on her plush, lime green sofa, at the opposite end from her small electronic keyboard. Emily's fat, black cat, Salem, padded over and curled up at his feet.

Neville really did make something of an effort to read his papers, but he kept catching himself watching Emily out of the corner of his eye. First he marveled at how easily she operated the Muggle technology, inserting the plug into the wall without electrocuting herself and pushing exactly the right buttons to control the instrument's sounds. Then he was distracted by her fingers dancing lightly over the keys as she warmed up with a series of scales, singing various combinations of nonsense syllables. By the time she opened her large folder of sheet music and began to work on an actual song (something about flying over a rainbow), his thoughts had drifted away from work entirely.

He was still agonizing over the letters from Ginny and Professor Sprout, and he felt no closer to finding an answer. It was times like these that made him feel incredibly far away from his friends. He wished they were near enough to just pop his head in a fireplace for a brief chat. Hermione would draw up lists of pros and cons, Ron and Ginny would be quick to offer their snap judgments (probably complete opposites of each other), and Harry would try his best to find some middle ground.

Neville decided to review the fact of the situation yet again. Simon and Hillary were learning quickly, and before long they would have no need of him as a consultant. Perhaps he could stay on as a regular employee, but as much as he enjoyed working with them, he knew there would be no challenge in the work and the job would soon be as mundane as working in the Diagon Alley Apothecary. Also, Simon and Hillary had become such good friends that he somehow wouldn't feel right suddenly asking them for a paycheck, and though he was fine at the moment, he knew he couldn't survive on his inheritance forever, and it would be foolish to try.

He wanted to continue to grow as a herbologist, that was certain; and teaching would definitely present a challenge, though he was uncertain how enjoyable that challenge would be. However, Professor Sprout had personally asked him to become her successor, so there had to be some merit in the idea. And he would be working at Hogwarts, the place that had always felt more like his true home than anywhere else – except here in New York with Emily.

He had fallen for the city almost as fast as he had fallen for her. If he returned to Britain, how terrible would the withdrawal from Broadway and Central Park and hotdogs and pizza be? Could he and Emily survive a long-distance relationship, when they would probably only be able to afford a Portkey once a month at most?

And speaking of Portkeys, the International Magical Transportation Department was likely backed up so much that he would have to make a reservation in the next few days to get home for Harry and Ginny's wedding. Should he make a reservation for one or two travelers? If he had met some nice girl at the Leaky Cauldron, bringing her round to the Burrow for Sunday dinner would hardly be a dramatic affair. Taking Emily across the Atlantic Ocean for his best friends' nuptials was rather a bigger deal – right?

He shook his head and sighed, then glanced apologetically at Emily as he remembered his promise to be quiet. She didn't seem to have noticed, however. She had moved on to a new song and was singing

"There were bells on the hill,

But I never heard them ringing –

No, I never heard them at all

Till there was you.

There were birds in the sky,

But I never saw them winging –

No, I never saw them at all

Till there was you."

Neville closed his eyes and listened to her beautiful, clear voice as she continued. Until he met Emily, he realized, he had never given music or theatre or a career in either of those fields more than a passing thought. Until he knew her, he had never tasted Mountain Dew or cooked for himself or used Muggle appliances or kissed anyone, let alone while looking out across the most beautiful city in the world. He had never known someone who had chosen to give up practically everything they had to pursue their dream, and he had never imagined that he might mean as much to one amazing person as she meant to him.

Emily had walked into his life and changed everything, from the way he saw the world to the way he saw himself. Things were changing still, and that was exactly what made him excited to wake up every morning and spend another day with her. Perhaps bringing her home to meet his friends and family did represent an enormous change, and perhaps it didn't, but he would simply have to wait and see what would transpire. As for the position soon to be available at Hogwarts, he would just have to see where things stood in two months.

"You still awake over there?" Emily asked, and Neville opened his eyes. She was closing up her book of music.

"I'm awake," he said. "Just listening. You sang beautifully."

"Thank you," she replied, moving her keyboard back into the corner.

"Hey, Em," he said, deciding it was now or never, "I've got a question."

"What's up?" she asked, dropping onto the couch beside him.

"I told you that my friends Ginny and Harry are getting married in August, right?"

She nodded.

"Well, since I'll be a groomsman and all, it only seems proper for me to bring a date. Would you fancy taking a trip abroad with me?"

"I would love to!" she exclaimed, then hesitated. "But wait, isn't this a little short notice to be adding a guest?"

"Not a problem," he assured her. "Ginny wrote and told me to invite you. Everyone wants to meet you. Of course, you'll have to meet Gran too. I'm afraid there won't be any way to avoid that."

"Hush!" she scolded. "I will be very happy to meet your gran. I want to meet the woman who raised such a fine wizard."

Neville chuckled. "Now who's dishing out the flattery?"

"I mean it," Emily insisted. "I am so looking forward to meeting your family and your friends."

"Well then," he said, squeezing her hand, "it's a date!"

"It's a date!" she echoed, and her smile extended all the way to her sparkling eyes.

-.-.-.-.-

A few days later, Neville was standing alone in his kitchen. Tentatively, he scooped a little bit of green goop out of the bowl in front of him and tasted it. To his surprise, it seemed okay, at least as far as he could tell. He had only eaten guacamole once before, but his concoction tasted pretty close to the way he remembered Emily's. He would still have her test it, of course, but he felt rather proud that his first solo cooking venture had gone so well.

There was a knock at the door, and then Emily let herself into the flat. "Oh, good," she said when she saw him. "You're wearing red."

He grinned. "I'm not color blind, you know. The American flag is the same colors as the U.K.'s."

She set down the strawberry pie she was carrying. "I know. But you have to admit –" she rose on tiptoe to kiss his cheek "– you can be a little forgetful."

"Me?" he laughed. "No way! Here, try my guacamole!"

She scooped some up with her finger and tasted it. "Ooh, Neville, this is really good!"

"Really?"

"Really really. You'll be a gourmet chef yet!"

"I don't know about that," he said. "But it helps that I've had a brilliant teacher."

She reached around his middle. "I do my best."

He pressed his lips to her forehead, and she closed her eyes, so he kissed her again and again, trailing across her hairline and down toward her temple.

"Neville," she finally whispered reluctantly. "We don't have time for this."

"You always ruin my fun," he complained.

"I would gladly stand here and let you kiss me all day, but Simon and Hillary will be waiting for us. Plus I don't want you to miss your first Fourth of July celebration," she said.

He raised his eyebrows playfully. "And why should I celebrate the day your people so rudely severed ties with my people?"

She chuckled. "You are so whiny today. Listen, if you can muster a little bit of old-fashioned American enthusiasm, I will make it up to you." She smiled seductively. "Both our leaving right now and the Americans winning the Revolutionary War."

"Yes, ma'am!" he exclaimed, and he whistled the first few bars of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as he hurried to cover the guacamole and grab the bag of corn chips he had bought.

They Apparated together to Merlin's Square and walked hand-in-hand down the block to The Herbology Expert, which now had a large sign in the front window that announced REOPENING SOON!

Neville opened the door with his key, and Simon poked his head out from behind a large palm tree.

"Hey, y'all! Happy Fourth of July!" he said as they entered.

"Thanks!" said Emily.

"I'm just finishing up the watering here, and Hill is working on dinner. You two can go on up."

"Okay," Neville said, and he led the way to the stairs in the back room.

"Hi, Hillary," he called, opening the door of the flat.

"Come in!" she called back from the kitchen. "My rice is boiling!"

"Hi," she said, lifting a pot off the stove as they came around the corner. "Hey, Emily! It's great to see you again."

"Thank you so much for inviting us," Emily replied.

"Our pleasure," Hillary insisted. "Alice, honey, move your pictures so Neville and Emily can sit."

Alice was seated at the kitchen table with several pieces of paper and a box of crayons. Her white-blond hair was tied into pigtails with blue and silver ribbons. She obediently began stacking her drawings in a pile in front of her.

"Hey, Alice," Neville said, taking a seat across from her.

"Hi, Neville," she said shyly, looking up with the faintest hint of a smile before returning to her task.

After so many weeks of Neville working at the shop, Alice was finally starting to acknowledge him without her parents' prompting. He didn't mind, though; he too had been a rather serious child and he remembered what it was like to have adults pushing too hard for a friendly response.

"Can I do anything to help you, Hillary?" Emily offered.

"Oh, thank you, but I've got it all under control," Hillary replied, turning away from a plate of raw chicken drumsticks that were taking turns rolling themselves in breadcrumbs. "You just make yourself at home."

"What's for dinner?" Neville asked. "It smells fantastic in here!"

"Oh, fried chicken, cornbread, watermelon, the works," she said, making her drawl even thicker than usual. "Y'all are getting a true Southern feast!"

Neville grinned. "I can't wait!"

Emily sat down next to Alice, who was working diligently with her crayons again. "What are you drawing?" she asked.

"A kitty," said Alice, and Neville was impressed to realize that her picture was actually fairly recognizable.

"Do you like kitties?" Emily asked.

Alice nodded. "Uh-huh. I wish I had one."

"I have a cat," Emily told her. "He's old and fat. His name is Salem."

"That's a funny name," Alice said, giggling a little.

"I guess it is. My grandma named him. She used to belong to the Salem Witches' Institute."

"Really?" said Hillary. "My nana and all her sisters were part of the SWI. I think maybe my mama was too, for a while."

"Wow," Emily laughed. "It's a small world!"

Having found something in common, the two women chattered happily back and forth. Neville was pleased to see them getting along so well, and he listened politely to their conversation, but he was beginning to get bored. He was quite glad when Simon came in and said, "Hey, Neville, I think you'd better come down and look at our mystery plant!"

"Yeah?" he asked, standing up excitedly.

"Whoa! You two promised me you wouldn't do any work today," Hillary reminded them.

"It's not really work. I just think Neville had better come and have a look at the new growth," Simon qualified.

"We'll be quick," Neville assured her.

"Merlin's beard, what do I have to do to get you to take an actual day off?" she complained.

"Sorry, babe," Simon chuckled as he kissed her forehead.

Neville followed Simon back downstairs to the shop. "What new growth?" he asked. "Did it suddenly shoot up again?"

The strange plant had grown extremely quickly into a small evergreen tree with a thick trunk and sharp needles. It was now approximately four feet tall and hadn't seemed to change at all for a few days.

"No," Simon said as they reached its designated corner. "It's got these teeny-tiny vine-like things, which I don't think pine trees are supposed to have."

"Hmm," said Neville, bending down to get a closer look. Sure enough, the little nubs on each branch that he had expected would become pine cones had instead become extremely thin vines growing in tight spirals. None were more than an inch long. He tugged on the end of one and it stretched out easily, but it snapped back to its original position as soon as he let go.

"This is incredibly bizarre," Neville agreed. "I have never seen an evergreen like this. Also –" He leaned in closer to the tree and sniffed. "– it smells sweet, like a flower, more than it smells like pine."

"What do you think we oughta do?" Simon asked.

Neville shrugged. "Just keep watering it like we have been, I suppose, and wait and see what it does next. Now I really hope we find something about this in Great-Uncle Jake's papers."

"Me too," sighed Simon as he pulled on one of the curlicue vines. "Have you thought any more about taking the job at your school?"

Neville tipped his head back in frustration. "Oh yes. I've thought and I've thought and I've thought. Have I made a decision? No."

"Well, if it's any help, I think you'd be an awesome teacher. Merlin knows you've taught Hillary and me well."

"Thanks," Neville said, smiling halfheartedly.

"Have you told Emily about it yet?"

"No," he sighed. "She's got enough on her mind. It won't do any good to have both of us agonizing over this."

"I don't know, man; I bet she'd want to know. And she's a smart lady. Maybe she could help with the decision," Simon pointed out.

Neville shrugged. "Maybe you're right. Things are just so good for us right now. I still feel like I'm flying by the tail of my broom, trying to figure out how a romantic relationship is supposed to work, but somehow I haven't managed to screw things up yet. I will tell her," he promised. "I just have to find the right time."

"Okay," Simon said approvingly. "Come on, we'd better go back up before Hill accuses us of trying to do real work."

As they reentered the flat, Alice raced over to her father and exclaimed, "Daddy, Daddy! I setted the table all by myself!"

"Really?" Simon asked, scooping her up in his arms.

"Well, Emily helped," she amended. "But just a little."

"That's great!" he said, then he flipped her upside down and tickled her belly.

Neville walked over to Emily and put his arm around her. "Nice job," he observed over Alice's shrieks and giggles, admiring the table.

She grinned. "Thanks. We worked hard."

One of Alice's drawings was lying on his plate. He picked it up and examined it. Two approximately human figures smiled up at him, one with very curly hair. They were flanked by a black cat and a green blob with big eyes.

"It's us," Emily said.

"I see that. But what's this?" he asked, pointing to the green thing.

"That's Trevor. I just said you had a pet frog. I didn't try to explain how a toad was different."

"Okay." He squinted. "I can kind of see it now."

"Dinner will be ready real soon," Hillary announced, lifting the lid on a pot and tasting its contents.

They munched on Neville's chips and guacamole until Hillary declared that dinner was finally ready. Then they feasted on fried chicken, rice, cornbread, watermelon, and green beans nearly cooked down to mush, which Simon declared was the only way to fix them. For dessert Emily sliced her strawberry pie, which was covered in blue, star-shaped sprinkles, and they crammed the sweet, patriotic goodness into the small amount of space remaining in their stomachs.

After clearing away the dishes, they moved out to the balcony at the back of the flat. It was clearly supported by magic, as it was large enough for a wooden swing, a few chairs, and a low table to all fit comfortably. Several nearby buildings had similar attachments, and many were full of other people celebrating the holiday with friends and family.

Neville and Emily settled on the swing, and Hillary and Simon took the carved, wooden chairs across from them. Alice dragged a tiny rocking chair across the space so she could sit next to Emily and then began drawing an American flag with too many stripes and too few stars.

The adults talked and laughed until the sky began to grow dark and the neighbors began to set off firecrackers. This startled Alice so much that she burst into tears, and Hillary scooped her up and suggested they go inside and put on her pajamas. Then Simon went in to "rustle up some liquid magic," and Emily and Neville were left alone on the porch, swinging gently.

Neville cast the Muffliati spell, the reverse of Muffliato, so they could hear each other without having to shout over the firecrackers.

"Are you having a good time?" he asked.

"Definitely," she agreed. "I'm so glad the Warrens invited us over."

"Alice really seems to like you," Neville commented. "She's talked more to you today than she has to me in the last month."

"She's adorable," Emily said. "To be honest, I kind of have an aversion to little kids, but Alice is a sweetie. I think she's only about one-third as crazy as the average child."

Neville laughed. "Hillary's good sense overruled Simon's rambunctiousness, apparently."

She laughed too and rested her head against his shoulder. "Exactly."

He leaned his cheek against the top of her head, feeling her curls tickle his neck. "So the next thing on the agenda is fireworks, right?"

"Yep. They should start before too long. Filibuster Fireworks sponsors it every year, and it's always an incredible show."

The balcony door slid open, and Simon emerged, carrying four glasses and a bottle of firewhisky.

Neville grinned. "Excellent!"

"I thought it was appropriate," Simon said, winking.

Hillary returned a minute later, balancing Alice, who was now wearing a polka-dotted nightgown and looking noticeably sleepier, on her hip. Alice was holding a plastic cup of milk, and she perked up enough to join in the grown-ups' toast. Then a lone, red firework exploded in the night sky, and Emily and Neville returned to their swing. Hillary and Simon turned their chairs around so they could see the show, and Alice snuggled into her mother's lap.

A giant rocket appeared in the darkness overhead as Neville slipped his arm around Emily's waist, and it scrawled out the words

Happy Independence Day!

And then

Weasley's Wildfire Whiz-Bangs brought to you by Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, coming soon to Merlin's Square!

"What?" Neville cried, sitting bolt upright. "Ron and George never mentioned that!"

"Wow," said Emily, who by now knew all about the Weasley family enterprise. "I guess you've got a letter to write."

"I'll say," he agreed. "And they wonder why I claim no one ever tells me anything."

He relaxed against her again as a cluster of fireworks burst into the famous image of the Founding Wizards signing the Declaration of Independence. Enormous silver and blue stars and beautiful cascades of gold and red were interspersed with other classic pictures across the dark sky, such as George Washington crossing the Delaware, the first meeting of the American Congress of Wizards, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, and the U.S. Quidditch team's improbable victory at the 1960 World Cup match.

Neville smiled wistfully as he remembered the day Fred and George had first unleashed their Wildfire Whiz-Bangs in the halls of Hogwarts. It was truly amazing how far their wheezes had come since then.

"What are you thinking about?" Emily whispered, observing his expression with curiosity.

"Nothing," he murmured, not wanting to dwell on memories of Fred. "I'm just happy to be here with you."

"I'm glad I got to share your first Fourth of July," she said.

"Have I played the proud American well enough today?" he asked hopefully, remembering her promise from earlier.

She grinned. "You've done admirably," she said, and she kissed him deeply as more stars rained down overhead.

The fireworks display concluded a short while later with typical Weasley flair, and neither Simon nor Hillary commented on Emily's disheveled ponytail or Neville's slightly swollen lips as they went back inside. They were probably more concerned with not disturbing Alice, who had miraculously fallen asleep amid the bright explosions. Neville and Emily thanked their hosts profusely for inviting them, and Simon and Hillary insisted it was their pleasure. After exchanging hugs all around, Emily took Neville's hand, and they Apparated home.

-.-.-.-.-

Thank you for reading! Please let me know what you think.

-A Chocolate Frog