Title: Love Is A Place
Challenge: #13 - Harry/Neville following Voldemort's defeat.
Summary: Finding Neville in the hospital ward after the war changes his and Harry's lives.
Warnings (if any): Character death, angst, slight slash.
Notes: This was so hard to write--easy to see, hard to write--so I thank my beta, vafizziks , profusely for her help and tolerance. Thanks, hon.
love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world
& in this world of
--e. e. cummings
And then it was over. Voldemort had been defeated, Harry was just barely alive, Ron was dead and it was over. After three weeks in St. Mungo’s, only two of which he’d been conscious for, Harry became restless. So he roamed the halls at night, seeing the horrors the war had left behind. He wondered if things would really be better now. Did life ever really get better after catastrophic events or did war just skew one’s perception of “better?” It hurt too much to think about it.
One night he found Neville. The boy lay quiet and trembling in his bed, his eyes fixed blankly on the waning moon outside the window. Harry watched him for a long time before entering and staring outside as well. Neville didn’t acknowledge his presence, didn’t move at all except for the fine tremors that ran incessantly through his slight frame. When had that happened? Harry wondered absently. He dismissed the thought almost as soon as he had it. In the grand scheme of things, Neville’s weight loss didn’t matter.
The visits became Harry’s nightly ritual. Unlike the other patients—those who were aware enough to speak anyway—Neville never treated him like he was some magnificent hero. But then Neville never looked at him or spoke or smiled. Harry asked the nurses what was wrong with him, asked why he didn’t interact with anybody. The nurses told him that they suspected his mind was gone, just not in so many words. Harry hated to hear this. How was this better? Neville—the other potential savior—had suffered as much as he, Harry, had. Was this how heroes were repaid—with madness and involuntary solitude? Harry vowed that wouldn’t be the case for Neville or for himself.
Over the next several nights, Harry’s nightly visits became confessions. He poured his heart out to Neville—all of his fears and doubts and hurts he bestowed on the shaking boy. A part of him felt that what he was doing was unfair. His mind was still intact. His recovery was going remarkably well; he wouldn’t have a single scar once he was completely healed, not even the one on his forehead, which was already beginning to fade. He had no right to burden Neville with his woes. But it felt good to confide in him even if he couldn’t talk back.
A new moon hung in the sky the night before Harry was to be released. He sat beside Neville’s bed and held the boy’s hand as they stared out the window. Because he didn’t know what else to say, he shared his post-release plans, sketchy as they were. Harry didn’t particularly care for his options. He didn’t have to return to the Dursleys, thank Merlin, but the only other places he could go were Grimmauld Place (which felt alien and uninviting without Sirius) or the Burrow (which would remind him that Ron was gone and he wasn’t ready to think about that yet).
He’d just decided that it was time to go back to bed when Neville squeezed his hand. It was so unexpected, Harry gave a quiet yell and watched in amazement as Neville turned to him. For someone whose mind was gone, Neville looked perfectly lucid. He squeezed Harry’s hand tighter. “If you need a place to stay,” he began, his voice low and rusty from disuse, “you can always come to Longbottom Hall. I shouldn’t be in here too much longer.”
“Nev?” Harry said when he found his voice several minutes later.
But the other boy just gave a slight shake of his head and a slighter smile. “Good night, Harry.”
Shaken and relieved by Neville’s sudden speech, Harry did what he was told for once.
“It’s over now. I know it’s over. You want to know something weird? I’m more afraid now than I’ve ever been. I’m seventeen. I’m an adult and I don’t know where to go. What do I do with myself now? My part’s over.”
St. Mungo’s discharged Neville a week after Harry’s release. He’d sent letters to him, asking how Neville was, offering to help in any way he could. Truthfully, Harry felt a bit embarrassed and more than a little ashamed of unburdening his soul on Neville. How selfish was it to dump all of that on a boy in his sickbed? However, if his responses were any indication, Neville either hadn’t minded or didn’t remember Harry’s confidences and scarcely two weeks had passed before Harry sent Hedwig to the Longbottom estate with yet another missive:
If the offer still stands, I’d like to come to Longbottom Hall for a while.
Hedwig had come back to Grimmauld Place two days later with an invitation attached to her leg. Relief flooded his body and he’d packed his meager belongings. A few days later, he’d said his goodbyes to the members of the Order still working from the house and left. He was grateful to them all. Had they not been there, the loneliness and memories of Sirius may have driven him mad. Still he didn’t tell anyone where he was going. He didn’t want to be tracked down.
Harry thought he should feel guilty for leaving. There was still much work to do—Death Eaters to apprehend, more covert traitors to flush out, a society to restore. But Harry didn’t want any part of it. He was tired. Tired of being the hero. Tired of fighting. Tired of being the answer to other people’s problems while his own built up around him. Tired of feeling lost and alone, adrift without anything to hold on to. He needed to get away from it all, the aftermath and the remaining responsibilities. Let someone else deal with the clean up. He was done.
However, his first night at Longbottom Hall was nerve-wracking. Neville was still quiet and an aura of pain clung to him despite his attempts to hide it. Harry followed the boy through the corridors, too preoccupied with observing his confidante to actually pay attention to the house itself. Neville moved slowly, carefully. But he didn’t know what injuries Neville had sustained; the other boy refused to discuss them. Watching Neville labor up the stairs, hand gripping the banister, sweat popping out on his forehead, Harry couldn’t help wondering.
“Are you all right, Neville?”
The other boy gave him a weak smile. He took a deep breath to ease his strained breathing before nodding. “I’m fine. Just getting my stamina back. It’s going to take some time.” Harry figured he must have looked unconvinced because Neville’s smile widened though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Really, I’m fine, Harry.”
After Neville continually shot down his attempts to learn what his condition was, Harry gave up. The boy had been nice enough to let him stay here. He didn’t want to alienate Neville by pressing him too hard. If he didn’t want Harry to know what was wrong with him, that was his prerogative.
Then there was Gran. Molly Weasley was prone to coddling; Mrs. Longbottom wasn’t so gentle. When she met Harry at dinner (she had been out visiting friends as she always did on Thursday afternoons when he’d arrived), she swept appraising eyes over him. Though there was nothing malevolent in her demeanor, he felt more self-conscious than he ever had in Snape’s presence. Finally, her gaze connected with his. “I expect you to eat while you’re here,” she’d announced in a stern yet not unpleasant tone. “Have some more potatoes.”
Later, they retired to the parlor, a comfortable room of red and gold with several portraits of Longbottoms past, many of whom watched Neville and Harry with an odd mixture of sympathy and expectation. They talked harmlessly about nothing and, when that dwindled into awkwardness, Harry retrieved a deck of Muggle playing cards. Neville turned out to be rubbish at gin rummy as well as poker, hearts, and pinochle. Gran, on the other hand, took Harry for a hundred Galleons and he cut his loses before he owed her the entirety of his Gringotts account.
All in all, it was a pleasant evening. Harry thought that perhaps he’d made the right decision coming here.
Longbottom Hall became his haven. The large manor house, which Neville swore wasn’t that big but seemed enormous to Harry (“It’s much smaller than Malfoy Manor, but it is the family seat.”), was surprisingly cozy despite its sparse furnishings. The rooms were decorated in warm, gentle hues of green and blue, yellow and red with heavy furniture made of highly polished cherry wood. Harry particularly loved his room. It was directly across the hall from Neville’s and had a large, four-poster bed that sat in the middle, draped in a soft green duvet. In fact, the entire room—the small settee and corresponding armchair before the fireplace, the carpet, the curtains—was decorated in various shades of green. It was the nicest room he’d ever had.
No one mentioned the war or Voldemort or death. There was no talk of rounding up the rest of Voldemort’s supporters or Harry entering Auror training or who was going to be the new Minister of Magic. Conversation at Longbottom Hall consisted mainly of what they were going to do that day or stories of Neville when he was a child (all of which brought a blush to Neville’s face that Harry found both amusing and endearing). Aside from anxious owls from Hermione to Neville (as much as Harry loved her, he couldn’t bear talking to her just now), the war began to seem farther away with each passing day.
Nights, however, were a different story. Nights meant sleep and sleep, for Harry at least, meant dreaming. He’d been at Longbottom Hall for a little over a week before he had the first dream. He was standing in the middle of the field. The Final Battle raged before him. He could see himself deep in battle with the Death Eaters, trying to get closer to Voldemort. Ron was beside him, fielding curse after curse. Somehow, the redhead got ahead of him, clearing a path with his wand and his fists. Harry watched as his dream self tried to fend off two Death Eaters. He shouted, telling himself to pay attention. His heart was racing and he found himself running. He knew what happened next. If he could just get there in time, maybe things would be different.
His dream self dispatched the Death Eaters and moved forward, determination in each step, his eyes locked on Voldemort. Harry saw Ron turn around, knew when he spotted one of the Lestrange men pointing his wand at Harry’s dream self, watched him dart back. Harry ran harder. A brilliant flash of green shot out of Lestrange’s wand. Harry dove forward, colliding with his dream self as he turned toward Ron. The redhead seemed to take forever to fall, his larger body collapsing into Harry’s arms. Together they sank to the ground, Ron’s eyes closing as Harry’s knees hit the hard, dry ground beneath them. Even though he knew it was useless, Harry shook Ron’s shoulders, tried to force him to wake up, to look at him. His face crumpled and he gasped for breath as he touched his forehead to Ron’s, silently promising to make things up to him somehow. Then he’d looked up and got to his feet. Without a sound, he killed anyone in his path, making sure that Lestrange’s death was especially painful. It wasn’t until he dealt the final blow to Voldemort himself that Harry opened his mouth at all. It was the most raw, most savage scream he’d ever heard.
“We didn’t think it would still hurt, did we? Once the war ended? Naïve that. Both of us are still suffering from the first war. It was really naïve to think this one wouldn’t hurt as much.”
A scream the likes of which Neville had never wanted to hear again rent the quiet of the house and pulled him scrambling from the bed. Quickly grabbing his housecoat, he raced across the hall and made his way to Harry’s bedside. The boy was screaming as if the world had dropped out from under him and Neville supposed it had. Without hesitation, he grabbed hold of Harry’s shoulders and shook him awake. Jade green eyes snapped open as the boy continued to scream. They stared unseeingly at Neville for a moment before awareness seeping into their depths and Harry stopped screaming. Only then did Neville realize Gran was beside him.
“What is it, child?” she demanded as she smoothed Harry’s fringe off of his face.
Harry just blinked up at her, panting as he tried to orient himself. “Dream,” he whispered finally. Then his face fell and he burst into tears. Gran’s eyes met Neville and he placed a hand over one of hers. “It’s all right,” he said quietly. “I’ll take care of him.” She looked like she wanted to disagree, but he smiled. “I’ll be fine. Go back to bed.”
With a sharp though reluctant nod, she kissed Neville’s cheek then Harry’s brow before leaving the room. Neville took off his robe and slipped into bed next to the sobbing boy, soothingly combing his fingers through the disheveled mop of cool, dark hair. Neville had almost fallen back to sleep when Harry gazed up at him. “Sorry I woke you.”
Neville shrugged. “It’s all right.”
“Go to sleep,” Neville ordered kindly. For a moment, Harry stared at him. Then he nodded and closed his eyes. Within minutes, they were both fast asleep.
The next morning found Harry pressed against Neville’s side, his head on Neville’s shoulder. When he woke this time, Harry blushed and stammered an apology. Neville shrugged it away and said they should go down to breakfast. After they ate and gave Gran a kiss on the cheek (Gran and Harry were quite taken with each other), Neville went to his garden for the first time since he’d been discharged. Harry hadn’t seen it, having preferred to stay close to Neville.
As they rounded the southwest corner of the house, he heard Harry gasp. Spread out before them was a profusion of riotous color. It cascaded over the yard for at least an acre. The garden was well cared-for, neat and properly weeded, but loosely structured. It was the perfect balance between order and chaos. “Did you do all this?” Harry asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
Neville smiled at his stunned appreciation and led him to a stone bench that sat high enough to afford them a full view of the lawn. “My mother started this not long after she married my father, but I’ve been expanding on it since after fifth year.”
“It’s really beautiful,” Harry said quietly. There was something serene about the garden; it was almost a sacred space.
“Thanks. My mum loved flowers. Gran says she preferred Muggle flowers to magical ones. Said they had all the beauty of magical plants without the additional worry of being bitten or fatally injured.” Harry chuckled before he could stop himself and Neville grinned in return. “After she and Dad got married, she went into town and bought all kinds of seeds and bulbs—lilies and roses and crocuses and chrysanthemums. Lilacs and daffodils and hydrangeas—you name it, she bought it and planted the whole lot out here so she could see it from the bedroom. I’ve added a few harmless magical plants here and there, but mostly I tried to keep it in line with Mum’s vision.”
“It’s like a tribute to her,” Harry said, to which Neville nodded. “You spend most of your time out here, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Some of the house-elves tended to it while I was away, but I’m feeling well enough to start working on it again.”
Harry frowned; Neville could tell Harry didn’t like the idea of him working in the garden so soon. The other boy had noticed his weakness despite his attempts to hide it. He supposed Harry was right and he should wait another week or so, but he missed being out here. There was nowhere else he wanted to be. “I’ll help,” Harry offered.
“No,” Neville said, shaking his head. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I promise I won’t destroy anything.”
Neville stared at his friend, eyebrow quirked at the boy’s solemn tone. Somehow, he knew this was Harry’s way of thanking him for the night before, for listening to him in the hospital, for letting him come into his home, and for dealing with Hermione for him. So he smiled and nodded. “See that you don’t,” he teased.
Harry laughed; it was first time he’d done so since coming to the estate. Neville laughed too and got to his feet. Then he gave Harry a tour of the vegetable and herb gardens by the kitchens and took him to the family fruit orchard. By the time they returned to the house, they were both worn-out. “I thought I was in better shape than this,” Harry panted, appalled at his fatigue.
Neville eased into a chair, his hand resting over his heart. “Don’t feel bad. We covered an awful lot of ground today.”
Harry looked unconvinced but he let it go.
They fell into a routine. Harry’s dreams continued and it became easier for Neville to sleep in Harry’s room. Then they’d get up, have breakfast with Gran, and spend the rest of the morning working in the garden. Gran would call them in for lunch, after which they’d keep her company while she wrote her correspondences or balanced the family accounts. Then they took a nap (in separate beds this time), had tea, and passed the rest of the evening playing games while Harry told them about growing up in the Muggle world. Gran was appalled at the treatment Harry’d received from the Dursleys, but Neville, who already knew about the awful Muggles, was fascinated by Harry’s descriptions of devices (like Palm Pilots) and sports (golf sounded easy enough though Harry assured him it was quite difficult and dull to watch) and pop culture (he loved Monty Python skits).
Though neither boy would describe life as good, both felt that things weren’t quite as bad as before.
“I spent two years worrying about becoming a murderer, agonizing over killing evil, monstrous people who cared nothing for the lives of others. I thought that dreading it made me different, made me good, but it didn’t. The truth is I’m worse than all of them because after R-R…after he died in my arms and I killed those people, I wasn’t sickened by what I did at all. I rejoiced in it.”
Despite the closeness between the two boys, it took Harry some time to feel completely comfortable around Neville. After all, he had shared most of his deepest, darkest secrets with him. Neville had never mentioned Harry’s nighttime visits at St. Mungo’s, but Harry knew with absolute certainty that the other boy remembered what he’d said. In fact, Neville’s memory had improved remarkably. Of course, this also meant that Neville would remember him bursting into tears as well as his tendency to wrap himself around Neville like he was a teddy bear as they slept.
Still, in spite of his lingering embarrassment, Harry needed to be near the other boy. Harry often pondered this need he had to be as close to Neville as he could. He’d lie awake when he was supposed to be taking a nap and run his hands over the endless expanse of his bed. It made him feel alone. For the last few years as his foretold destiny had come more into focus and singled him out as the savior, he’d come to believe that no one would understand what he was going through. As each year cost him another person, he’d struggled to find some sort of meaning in the absurdity around him. By the time the war was over, Harry had felt like a shell of who he was supposed to be, empty and barren. Yet, he never felt that way with Neville because somehow the boy had an intrinsic understanding of him that went beyond his hospital confessions. And he understood Neville in return.
So he worked with him in the garden though he’d been barred from actually interacting with the plants after he’d nearly destroyed one of Neville’s favorite rose bushes. He actively thought of things to make the boy laugh. Neville had a nice laugh, sweet and clear. His eyes lost some of the haunted look he’d had since St. Mungo’s when he laughed.
Being with Neville also taught Harry the art of listening. While Neville was attentive and understanding of Harry, the boy never spoke of his own problems. Harry still hadn’t any idea of how Neville had ended up in the hospital, didn’t know what his injuries were, wasn’t sure what had cast such shadows in the boy’s eyes. So Harry learned to pay attention to Neville’s body language and soon he could tell when it was time for them to stop working because Neville was in pain no matter how he tried to hide it. He listened carefully to what Neville said and to what he didn’t say, hoping to glean some insight into Neville’s experience during the Final Battle. Each day, he learned some new about the boy and each day felt like an adventure because of that.
Evenings were Harry’s favorite time of the day. Gran’s gruff yet affectionate treatment made him feel like he was part of the family. She’d tell him bits of Longbottom family history while Neville flipped through herbology books and the revision guides Hermione had sent them for the N.E.W.T.s they were to make up in December. Around eleven, Gran would insist they go to bed, which they did without complaint since there was nothing better to do. They’d settle in Harry’s bed and talk about whatever came to mind until they couldn’t stay awake. Then Harry would take Neville’s hand like it was a talisman against his dreams. Neville would squeeze it and let sleep come.
Harry depended on Neville’s presence. So one night when Neville didn’t come to his room to sleep, he’d put on his robe and padded across the hall to Neville’s room. The light of a fresh quarter moon gave a bluish tint to the rich, warm yellows of the bedclothes. Neville lay quietly, his body trembling as it was wont to do when he’d overexerted himself. Without a sound, Harry took off his robe and slipped beneath the covers, the anxiety that had been building in him dissolving almost instantly as he fell asleep.
A dream of an exceptionally rough train ride woke Harry. Neville’s body was jerking uncontrollably beside him. Harry shook him awake, thinking the boy was having a bad dream.
Neville blinked up at him then glared. “What are you doing here?” he asked through gritted teeth as he continued to twitch wildly.
“What’s wrong?” Harry asked in return, trying valiantly to keep his fear out of his voice.
“I’m fine,” Neville practically growled as he closed his eyes. “Go back to your room.”
Shaking his head, Harry climbed out of bed. “I’m going to get Gran.” He hurried out of the room, ignoring Neville’s call to leave his grandmother be.
Gran responded immediately to his knock, dressing in a housecoat and slippers. “He’s shaking like mad,” Harry reported as he scurried after her. She swept into Neville’s room and, sitting beside her grandson, took him in her arms.
“I’ll be all right, Gran,” Neville managed. “You can go back to bed.”
“Nonsense,” she admonished sternly before turning to Harry who hovered next to the bed. “Go to the kitchen and have one of the elves make Neville’s tea. They know which one it is.”
Harry nodded and did as he was told. After what felt like an eternity, he took the tea upstairs and watched while Gran helped Neville drink it. He offered to help but Gran insisted on attending to her grandson herself while Neville kept trying to send Harry to his room. Feeling edgy and useless, Harry sat at the foot of the bed with his back pressed against the farthest bed poster and hoped that he wasn’t about to lose someone else he cared about.
Gradually, Neville’s tremors subsided to a manageable tremble and he drifted off just before dawn. Gran eased her arms from around the boy and tucked him in before turning toward Harry. For the first time since he’d arrived, she seemed old and fragile. She patted his hand as she got to her feet. “Get some sleep, child. He’s all right now.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Harry asked. He didn’t recognize his own voice; it sounded small and lost, childlike.
“He’ll tell you when he’s ready.”
“No, he won’t,” Harry said. Gran paused then brushed his hair back off his face. “But he’ll be all right?”
“Yes,” Gran said, her voice hardened by determination as much as by conviction. “Now go to bed.”
Harry watched her leave then turned back to Neville. Tentatively, he stretched out, slipped under the covers, and stared at the boy until sleep claimed him.
The days that followed were tense for the entire household. A mediwizard had come and said that no lasting damage had been done, just make sure that there was enough potion so the healing process wouldn’t regress. Gran had taken to vigilantly monitoring her grandson’s activities to ensure he wasn’t overtaxing himself. As for Neville, he’d reverted to silence.
In the midst of all of this was Harry. He didn’t know what to do or how to make the situation better and it frustrated him to no end. There was nothing he could do but sit and wait for Neville to confide in him, for whatever was wrong with him to heal, for Gran to recover that fierce inner strength that had made her seem invincible. Despite his personal investment in Neville’s well being, he felt like the outsider he actually was because no one would tell him what was going on. So he did the only thing he could think to do—he stayed with the boy and helped whenever and however he could.
Over a week had passed when Neville insisted on not taking his daily nap. He puttered around the garden and the house under Gran and Harry’s watchful eyes, made it through tea and would have kept going if the two hadn’t spotted the yawn he couldn’t stifle fast enough. Harry hustled the reluctant boy up to his room and forced him to get into bed. One of the house elves brought Neville’s tea, which he usually drank before his naps, and Harry made sure the boy was comfortable.
He had just turned to leave the boy alone when Neville called out his name. “Stay with me?” he asked.
Surprised by the request, Harry climbed onto the bed and lay down, holding Neville’s hand in his the way he used to when they’d sleep in his room. For a while, they lay in companionable silence watching a half moon overtake the late afternoon sky.
“I was coming to help you when it happened,” Neville said suddenly. Harry turned toward him, but Neville continued to gaze out the window. “She saw me first and snared me. One minute I was running freely, the next it was like I’d taken root and I couldn’t move no matter how hard I tried. Then I heard her voice. ‘What have we here? If it isn’t the littlest Longbottom. This should be fun.’”
Harry shuddered at Neville’s eerily accurate impression of Bellatrix Lestrange, but didn’t interrupt.
“She sent me flying into a tree. I dropped my wand in the process. I don’t think she even noticed. She conjured thick ropes and bound me to the tree by my wrists and ankles. Then she started talking to me as if we weren’t in the middle of an important battle. She wanted me to beg her to release me. When I wouldn’t, she performed the Cruciatus curse on me. I thought I was going to die, it hurt so much, but then she stopped. She began telling me about my parents’ torture complete with imitations of what was said. Every so often she would subject me to the curse again, only stopping to ask if I was ready to beg or tell me more about what happened to my mum and dad.
“The gaps between the curse got shorter as her patience faded. It got to a point where I couldn’t even scream anymore. I was close; I knew it. One more round and I was either going to die or…” Neville’s voice faltered, “my mind was going to break. I was waiting for her to finish it when Hermione and Ginny came to my rescue.”
Neville stopped talking, but Harry knew there was more so he waited. Neville had edged closer to him as he spoke and his head now rested on Harry’s shoulder. His hand gripped Harry’s so hard, the green-eyed wizard couldn’t feel his fingers. Harry squeezed back.
“I killed her,” Neville confessed softly. “I didn’t mean to, but she hurt Hermione and was about to do the same to Ginny. I don’t even remember how it happened exactly; I was losing consciousness. I just remember seeing her point her wand at us and I shouted something and then I fainted as she fell to the ground.
“Ginny’s the one who told me Bellatrix was dead. The mediwizards told me it was a miracle I’d survived. They said that the torture had severely damaged my nerves. I’ll get better but they’ll never heal completely. I have to take a potion for them every day for the rest of my life. Right now, I take it three times a day. The other night happened because we’d thought we had more than we did and there was only half a portion left. The tea I drink every afternoon helps control the shaking but it doesn’t repair the nerves.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“You had enough to deal with,” Neville said with a shrug. “I didn’t want to worry you.”
“It didn’t work,” Harry observed sardonically.
“Yeah, I noticed.”
Silence settled over them as they watched the sky darken. After several minutes passed, Harry spoke. “Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“Can’t stop thinking,” Neville whispered. “I mean, why me? Why didn’t I...why did I survive Bellatrix’s torture but my parents didn’t?”
“I don’t know.”
“I keep thinking fate messed up and I shouldn’t be here.”
“Don’t say that,” Harry demanded, his chest constricting painfully at Neville’s words.
“Why not?” Neville argued. “It’s true. It’s what I think.”
“You’re supposed to be here, Nev.”
Harry took his time thinking about the answer before he spoke. “Because I don’t think we could get through this without each other.”
“He was the closest thing I had to real family, you know. I mean he’s been here the whole time for all the important stuff. As much as I loved Sirius, it’s not the same as it was with....I wonder if I’ll ever know what it’s like to have a family.”
Neville felt as if an enormous burden had been lifted from him. Once the worry of Harry finding out about his nerves had been disposed of, Neville was free to relax in the other boy’s company. Loving Harry was the strangest and most unexpected thing Neville had ever experienced yet it made perfect sense to him. He’d always been drawn to the boy even though nothing had really come of that draw until after fifth year. Then it had just been friendship and that had felt right. Now Neville began to see the dark-haired wizard as something more and, instead of being confused or terrified or in denial, he decided that this was the way things were supposed to be.
The realization that he loved Harry as more than a friend hadn’t come to him in an instant of sudden clarity or something similarly dramatic. No, the awareness had come gradually. He noticed that when he ran his fingers through Harry’s hair to calm the boy as he slept, he continued long after Harry had quieted because he liked the sensation so much. His happiness at seeing Harry smile had just as much to do with knowing he’d made the boy feel good as it did with the thought that Harry was moving past the trauma of killing Voldemort and losing Ron. Waking up to find Harry in his arms felt like a normal part of his existence as opposed to the anomaly it was. Even the knowledge that Harry probably didn’t share his sentiments didn’t undermine Neville’s acceptance of the situation. Besides Neville’s feelings weren’t about wanting to snog or shag. His love for Harry was much more complex, encompassing friendship and brotherhood as well as a sense of belonging Neville had never known. If nothing else came of this new development in Neville’s heart, he wanted Harry to know that he wouldn’t be alone anymore.
So he got over his reticence and opened up to his friend about everything. The boys talked at length about the war, their fears and their confusion about the future (though Neville had a better idea of what he wanted to do with his life than Harry did). They explored the similarities in their pasts and discovered there was much they didn’t have to say because they understood each other so well. Neville had never felt so close to another person before. Knowing their closeness gave Harry the foundation he needed to move on was enough for him.
Gran had her own way of getting them to move on. As summer turned into fall, she began to push the boys to revise for the upcoming N.E.W.T.s. Though he resented the intrusion of the real world, Harry did as she said because he’d gone through too much not to finish school. However, when she began to champion the idea of the boys going to a wizarding university near London, Harry refused to consider the notion. Gran argued (quite reasonably Neville thought) that it would be the best place for Harry to figure out what he wanted to do next. Harry insisted that he wasn’t ready to think about what he wanted to do for a living. Gran accused him of hiding. Harry told her to mind her own bloody business. The arguments escalated over the next few weeks forcing Neville to mediate. After a particularly bad fight, Harry finally snapped and stormed out in the middle of dinner.
It was dark when Neville finally found Harry in the apple orchard. He was bathed in the glow of the full moon filtering through the branches. Without a word, Neville charmed a bunch of leaves into a pile and lit a fire before handing Harry a cloak. He sat beside his friend and waited for the boy to speak.
“Why does she push so hard?”
Neville leaned back against Harry’s tree. “I used to wonder that. I always thought she was finding fault with me; thought I was a disappointment to my parents’ memory or something like that. But I think she just wanted me to do my best. I think she wants the same thing for you.”
“It’s never enough, is it?” Harry asked. “No matter how much I do, it’ll never be enough. Why can’t people just leave me alone for a while?”
“Because they’re afraid to,” Neville answered. Harry turned toward him, the firelight glinting off his glasses and obscuring his eyes. “They’re afraid that if they leave you alone too long, you’ll just stop.”
“What’s so bad about that?” Harry asked petulantly. “Everyone wants to stop sometimes.”
Neville sighed. “Most people haven’t been through as much as you have or lost as much.”
“You have and she isn’t pushing you.”
“I haven’t and I’m not resisting her.”
“You have,” Harry insisted. “And it’s not just her; it’s Hermione, too. She keeps bugging me to study and sending me messages from the Weasleys and the Order. Everyone wants a piece of me. How am I supposed to figure out who I am now that Voldemort’s dead if I keep giving bits of myself away?”
“How are you going to find out who you are if you don’t take a step forward?”
“So you think I’m hiding, too?” Harry demanded, bitterness and hurt thick in his voice.
“I think you’re scared you’ll find that you’re nothing without Voldemort around to define you,” Neville answered quietly. “As long as he was alive, he was the villain and you were the hope and savior of our world. Now it’s just you and you don’t know where to begin the rest of your life because you didn’t let yourself think that far ahead.”
Harry whipped around to stare at Neville for a long moment. Finally, he said, “How did you know that?”
“I know you,” Neville replied with a shrug. “You aren’t alone, Harry. I’m scared, too.”
“You know what you want to do. You know who you are.”
“Not entirely. I don’t have more answers than you do,” he assured. “It’s just going to take some time and a lot of work, but we’ll figure it. You’ll figure it out. I’ll help you.”
Harry mouthed wordlessly for a moment then he leaned forward and pressed his mouth to Neville’s. The kiss was over before Neville had a chance to react. “What was that for?” he asked, bewildered. Harry hadn’t shown the slightest indication that he might have deeper feelings for him before.
“It was a....thank you,” Harry murmured, the blush staining his cheeks visible in the firelight.
“Most blokes don’t thank other blokes with kisses.”
“I’m sorry I offended you.”
Neville shook his head but Harry didn’t notice since he was staring fixedly into the fire. “You didn’t. You just surprised me.”
Slowly, Harry looked at him. “You’re saying you didn’t mind?”
Turning completely toward him, Harry considered Neville a moment before asking, “So if I did it again, you wouldn’t be mad?”
Neville shrugged. Harry examined him for a long moment before tentatively laying a hand on Neville’s cheek and kissing him. Harry’s lips parted over his, the tip of his tongue shyly tracing the outline of Neville’s mouth. A sigh escaped him as he leaned into the kiss. But when Harry’s questing tongue slipped past his teeth to explore, Neville pulled back. He blinked, feeling disoriented and a little afraid of whether they were doing the right thing. After all, Harry had admitted to feeling lost and confused. Should they really be snogging and, if so, should he enjoy it so much?
“That was nice,” Harry ventured quietly.
Harry’s shoulders slumped at Neville’s distant, distracted tone. “Look, I shouldn’t have done that. I’m really sor…”
“How long have you...wanted to do that?”
Harry shrugged. “For a while now, I guess.”
“Are you sure?”
Another shrug. “I feel…good when I with you. Almost happy. But I don’t know what any of this really means. I mean, I should be freaked out because I’ve never felt like this about another boy before but I’m not.”
Worrying his bottom lip, Neville carefully thought out what he was going to say next. “I feel really close to you, Harry, closer than I’ve ever felt to anyone. I don’t know how I feel about this…”
“I understand,” Harry interrupted. “I’m sure this doesn’t…”
Neville clasped Harry’s hand to get his attention. “No, you don’t understand,” he said as the other boy stared at him with wide eyes. “I’m not upset or repulsed or anything like that. I just don’t know what to do now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, should we remain friends or should we see if this…snogging thing could be something real?”
“Oh.” Harry followed and glanced at the fire. “What do you think we should do?”
“Take it one day at a time?” Neville answered. “See where things lead?”
“Are you sure?”
“I think it’s our best option.”
Neither spoke for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. “What if this doesn’t work and we can’t go back to being just friends?” Harry finally asked.
“If this ever gets to be too much,” Neville began slowly, “or you realize this is just a phase, then it’s okay. I’ll understand. You don’t have to worry, Harry. I’ll never leave you. I’ll always be there for you even if we don’t work out.”
Neville nodded solemnly. “I promise.”
A small smile tugged at the corners of Harry’s mouth. “I can be a right pain in the arse,” he said earnestly.
“I already knew that,” Neville said. “I’ve shared a dorm with you for seven years, remember.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“You’ll be patient with me?” Harry asked.
Neville nodded. “Aren’t I always?”
Harry chuckled and squeezed Neville’s hand. “I won’t ever leave you either,” Harry whispered. “Even if we don’t work out.”
“So we’re doing…something that involves snogging but we’re taking it slow,” Neville summarized.
“I think that’s right,” Harry said as he scooted closer to Neville and laid his head on the boy’s shoulder. Suddenly, he tilted his head back and peered at Neville. “This means you’ll stay with me even when I drive you nutters?”
Neville squeezed Harry’s hand and smiled. “Only if you promise to do the same.”