Neville decided to balance out his emotions when Pomona Sprout announced at the second staff meeting of the 2011-2012 school year that she would be retiring. Yes, he was sad to see his favorite teacher and personal mentor go, but he was also excited to take on the full duties of herbology professor. She'd barely finished her announcement before his mind was off, developing his future curriculum, drafting letters to the school Board of Governors to request funding for the purchase of certain plants he'd been itching to study since he'd become Sprout's assistant. And if the governors wouldn't give the funds, the nice hike in his paycheck should cover things.
In all honesty, he was balanced significantly more towards positive thoughts than negative by the time the meeting was over. He was, however, a little confused. It was only one month into term. Logically, if Pomona wanted to retire, she'd have been thinking of it for months and should have made the announcement at the start of term, or far more towards the end. As far as he knew, nothing had happened to his mentor to put her health at risk and spark her decision to leave the school, but the thought was troubling enough for Neville to cut one of his Gryffindor student's detentions short on Friday evening, fetch a tray of vegetarian tapas from the kitchens, and knock on the door to Pomona's private quarters.
When the older professor answered, she was a little bleary-eyed, but came to full alertness on seeing her protege. “Ah, Neville! How can I—aaaaah!” She went on with far more enthusiasm after seeing the food. “Are those stuffed green peppers? Oh, you do indulge me. Come in, come in.” Stepping back from the door, she gestured for Neville to enter, going off herself to find a water pitcher and glasses.
Neville was always somewhat surprised on entering Pomona's rooms. There was only a single plant in sight, and that a non-magical spider plant. He'd asked about this, once, and was told that she'd kept plants in her chambers early in her career, but a few ill-plotted assassination attempts by a reticulating rose vine had taught her to not bring work home. So, whereas in Neville's apartment you would be hard-pressed to find enough space not taken up by pots to put down a cup of tea, Neville easily set down the tray at a small dining table in the breezy lounge, taking his accustomed seat just as Pomona came back with drinks.
They got to chatting. Business, mostly. How were the shrivelfigs coming along? Was the alihotsy locked well away after that unfortunate incident with one of Neville's dimmer Gryiffindors? Had negotiations finished with Durmstrang to bring in a cutting of their own Whomping Willow to breed against the Hogwarts guardian? Very standard things. Neville took on most of the hard labor and organization of castle supplies, nowadays, leaving Pomona to the less onerous task of teaching, but she still liked to know how her “babies” were doing.
He let some time pass before, somewhat timidly, he finally asked the troublesome question. “Pomona...how is your health?”
“Oh,” she flapped a hand at him and took the final roasted tomato without stopping for the standard “no, you go ahead” song and dance. Unlike his mentor, Neville still ate meat, and hadn't quite gained her gusto for all things vegetarian. In fact, he found it somewhat ironic that a woman who worked every day with near-sentient plants wasn't a complete carnivore, but apparently it was an old personal choice from before her Hogwarts days. “I'm always a little sore at the beginning of term. Stretching the muscles after a lazy summer. But otherwise, I'm fine.”
“Really?” Neville frowned, picking up an olive and rolling it between thumb and forefinger, spreading out the oil, wincing a bit as some of the lemon dressing worked into a cut on the pad of his thumb. “Are you...sure?”
“Young man,” Pomona teased, getting a grin from the 31-year-old professor, “I am still fit enough to beat you at harvesting leaping toadstools, so do not patronize me.”
He laughed. She was, indeed, but that was more the result of decades of practice. He was catching up every harvest. “That's good to hear. I just thought...since you're retiring....”
Pomona paused, in the middle of chewing, and slowly nodded. There was a long silence as she took a long drink of water, the sigh at the end sounding far less refreshed than exhausted. “Yes...well...I would love to keep on, but it would hardly be fair.”
“I am fine being Assistant Professor, Pomona,” Neville protested...out of form.
“Not to you , Neville,” Pomona said. “To the school. There needs to be a very firm handover of power when Justin takes over as Head of Hufflepuff.” She looked down at her glass and muttered, “And I really can not take that job another year.”
Neville smiled, small and a bit painful. He'd been head of Gryffindor for ten years. Being a head of house was easily the most onerous task for a teacher at Hogwarts. Still.... “I always thought your students gave very little trouble. Comparatively.”
“Normally they do ,” Pomona said, pressing the glass to her forehead, condensation leaving a shining trail in her growing wrinkles. “But this year...I've had to sit four times as many detentions as my worst year, back in the sixties. And half the time, I think the only reason the students even show up is because it's me! In fact, I know it is, because Dennis had to pass on young Shardik to me before he would even attend!”
Now Neville was shocked. Never had he heard of a Hufflepuff missing a rightly-assigned detention. That was more Slytherin or, he hated to admit it, Gryffindor. “My word. You...must have tore into him.”
Pomona snorted. “Too right I did. Fat lot of good it did, though.” She tossed her head back, shrilling her voice far higher to imitate a young male student than she would for one of her females. “'Hufflepuff don't give a shit!'”
Neville had been in the process of finally eating his olive, and nearly died choking on it. He managed to suck it down and gaped at Pomona. “Dear Merlin...is he still alive?”
“Mostly,” Pomona grumbled. “Apparently, he has a lot to look forward to when he gets home. His mother isn't pleased. Sometimes, I really wish we could teach the Muggle parents how to make Howlers.”
Despite being on the receiving end of a few Howlers from his now-deceased gran, Neville agreed.
Pomona sighed and her mouth turned far, far down at the corners. “It's...well...the most troubling thing is, Neville...it's not all my Hufflepuffs.”
“I should hope not,” Neville said, thinking he'd have run screaming if all his Gryffindors had behaved like that.
Pomona swallowed and met her protege's eyes. “I hate to say this, after the war...but it's the Muggle-borns.”
Neville leaned back in his chair. “Pardon?” he said, only realizing it sounded a bit cold when Pomona flinched. He'd seen enough Muggle-born and half-Muggle classmates tortured during the war to make any “Mud Blood” sentiments set him off nearly instantaneously. It was only his love of his teacher and her obvious discomfort that stayed his rage.
“It's not prejudice, Neville,” Pomona said. “I've been keeping records. It's the only thing the students have in common. Different years, different parts of the country, different classes. But they are all Muggle-borns. Well...a few half-Muggles, but none of the full-wizard children are giving me this sort of trouble. I don't understand it!”
“Well...perhaps they're just...rebelling against the...er...'Hufflepuff steryotypes' you've always told me about,” he said, cautious. If he set Pomona off about the marginalization of Hufflepuffs, she'd rage nearly as much as he would about racism in the wizarding world.
“Then they should be corrupting my other students! There are plenty of very proud wizard-born Hufflepuffs! But they're behaving the same as always, while...Merlin's pants , Neville, I had to take one of my first years in to Pomfrey after she picked a fight with a Slytherin. A sixth year Slytherin!”
Neville gaped. “A...a what ?”
“And she seemed surprised to lose!” Pomona shouted. “She told Pomfrey she just needed to have a nap and she'd be fine! I...I can not take much more of this, Neville. And that's a sign that it is my time to step down.”
It seemed entirely reasonable to him. When you can no longer serve your students, then your duty, of course, is to let someone else take up the task. “I'll be sad to see you go,” Neville said. “We all will.”
She smiled finally, though it was small. “I know, dear. Though I'm sure you're looking forward to importing that venom-leeching orchid you've had your eye on,” she teased.
Neville coughed into his hand and transitioned into standing. “It...it would be excellent for N.E.W.T. curriculum.”
“Says every new professor on getting their first spending allowance,” Pomona murmured, eyes twinkling.
Neville huffed a laugh and reached out, cupping Pomona's hands between his own. “Enjoy your weekend, Professor.”
“And enjoy your date with Hannah,” Pomona responded. “Give her my love.”
Neville smirked. “I'd rather give her mine....”
Pomona slapped his forearm. “You rogue!”
Laughing, Neville stepped back, avoiding further physical punishment. “Keep your spirits up, Pomona. And tell me if you need any help.”
She rolled her eyes; something Neville had never been able to imagine someone of his grandmother's generation doing, given how often he'd had his ear twisted for the same gesture towards his gran. “I'm sure even I can take one final year with the 'nastyass honey badgers.'”
Neville raised his brows. “Extra detention?”
“ Doubled,” Pomona groaned. “And a week assisting the house elves with breakfast.”
Neville nodded. Given how early the house elves had to get up to make breakfast, it was a rather good punishment. “I'll see you at double-Herbology on Monday, then.” And, one mystery solved and another taking its place, Neville left his teacher's quarters, already pushing his worries aside in anticipation of his date with Hannah.