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There Are Days I Wish I Lived in a Romance Novel (But This Isn't One of Them)

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The tufted dandelions were blooming, the poppycocks snoozing, the Babbling Bogweed mumbling dozily to itself, and all was right with the world. Then, suddenly, the world tipped out of kilter as the door to Neville Longbottom's personal refuge slammed open. A pot of Christmas Cacti, which had been disappointingly late-blooming, belted out a rousing chorus of `Ding Dong Merrily on High,' and he turned around sharply to give whoever it was a good tongue-lashing. The Fanged Geraniums were teething, and the chill air could be enough to put them off their food altogether.

"Close the--" The rest of the reproach choked in his throat as the large witch who was disturbing his peace elbowed the door shut with a pane-rattling bang. Her form and face were vaguely familiar (even he couldn't forget a figure that imposing), though it had been a few years since he saw her last, and he was mildly surprised that he no longer had to look up to meet her eyes. She was-- She was-- Merlin's trowel! Who was she?

Neville began pawing frantically through the haphazard stores of his memory. Slytherin, his year. She was early on in the alphabet, Bullock, Balustrade? Something like that. Anyway, they weren't schoolchildren anymore; he'd have to try to recollect her first name if he was going to attempt some semblance of cordiality. Martha? Matilda? She'd been in the Inquisitorial Squad, had intimidated Hermione more than she cared to admit. Minerva? No, that was McGonagall. Morgana? What was her name?

"Er, Mildred? I--"

"It's Millicent, Longbottom. Millicent Bulstrode."

Well, so much for cordiality. Nonetheless, his grandmother had brought him up properly, and it would take a lot more than brusqueness to put him off.

"I'm sorry, Millicent. You caught me off guard. This is my private greenhouse, and I usually, well, I don't ever allow visitors in." His voice tilted up at the end, inviting her to explain how she knew where to find him and, more importantly, how she managed to bypass his wards.

"I need your help." Her scowl suggested that she was not in the habit of making that request, and certainly not to forgetful former Gryffindors.

Neville was more concerned with the five splotches of red he had just noticed on the door. "You're bleeding."

"Oh." She glanced down at her hands. "Yeah."

When she made no move to remedy the situation, Neville protested, "You can't be in here with open wounds. The blood makes the Shrinking Violets nervous."

"Healing spells don't do any good--they just split open again." She held up her hands. They were short, broad, and dusty, and the calluses on her fingertips were spider-webbed with cracks.

He winced in sympathy. "Just a minute. Wait here." Hoping she didn't harbor any deep animosity towards plants (and his in particular), Neville went to the small office in the far corner of the greenhouse and retrieved a small tin of Wonder Cream for Clumsy Clods from the top shelf of his medicine cabinet.

Upon returning (relieved to find his charges unmolested), he began to explain, "I'm not very good at healing spells--"

Her dark-eyed gaze drifted across his face. "That's obvious," she said dryly.

He blushed. He'd let his hair (which, thankfully, seemed to be more resilient than his epidermis) grow out a bit to cover the crinkled, reddened skin of his forehead and ears from those terrifying moments the entire world had seemed ablaze with Voldemort's conjured fire, but nothing short of a daily Glamour could hide the pale gouges that were his mementoes from the Carrows' tenure at Hogwarts. Seamus had assured him they looked dashing and heroic, but he'd have traded all the notoriety of `dashing and heroic' just to be plain fade-into-the-background Neville again.

"Well, er, anyway, I've found this helpful. Just rub it in."

Millicent smirked at the label, opened the tin, and sniffed at the contents. The pungent aroma wrinkled her nose, and she muttered, "With a smell like this, it must be good," before dipping her fingertips one by one into the greasy unguent.

She offered the tin back to him, but Neville waved it away. "You ought to use it regularly to really heal those over. Keep it; I've got plenty more."

It was a good thing he wasn't expecting effusive gratitude, as she tucked it into her robes without so much as a nod in acknowledgement and started in on her request. "I need a substitute for female cochineal insects, something long-lasting that'll make paint bright red. The bugs have started curdling my Ehwaz milk base, and I'm thinking something vegetal might be better."

Now here he was in his element. "What about beetroot?"

"Too purple."

"Bloodroot?"

"Too orange."

"Strawberries?"

"Already tried them. It fades too quickly outside in the elements."

Neville paused a moment, then snapped his fingers. "Madder!"

"Am not!"

"What?"

"If you're going to insult me, I'm off. There are plenty of other herbologists--"

He finally twigged on to the source of her indignation. "No, no, that's not what I meant. Madder root. It--"

"Oh!" Her eyes lit up. "They used madder to dye their cloth. Strong red, at least several centuries permanence. . . ."

She strode quickly to the door and would have left without a backwards glance.

"Wait!" Neville hurried towards her as she stopped impatiently, her hand poised to open the door. There was a small, purple flower caught in the rough wool of her cloak, and he plucked it up excitedly. "Winter Squill! Do you know how rare this is?"

Millicent was unimpressed. "Grows wild around my workshop this time of year."

"You have more?"

"More? It's underfoot everywhere." And with that, she departed.

****

Three days later, Neville was grappling with a juvenile Devil's Snare when the door opened once again. The panes didn't threaten to fall from their frames this time, but he thought it was still more forceful than necessary.

"Erm . . . now's . . . not really a . . . good time," he panted, wriggling his hips in an effort to dislodge the vine snaking around his waist. It was a losing battle, as the plant merely tightened its grip and began to tug at the fastenings of his robes.

Ignoring his polite dismissal, Millicent unlooped the errant vine and gathered most of the wandering greenery into one writhing bundle hugged tightly to her chest. "Better?"

The exposed roots dangled helplessly in front of him. Although he was startled, Neville certainly wasn't going to pass up on the opportunity before him. "Yeah; that's perfect. If you can just hold it a moment . . . ." A few snips of his shears, and the infected parts dropped to the floor.

The plant surged in Millicent's embrace, and the muscles of her bare forearms bunched and knotted--an impressive sight indeed. Neville guided the newly trimmed root ball into a fresh pot of soil. Once tamped in, the plant curled up tightly and rocked itself to sleep. She peered at it doubtfully. "I hope I didn't traumatize it too badly."

"No, it's just tired out. If you hadn't stepped in, I would've had to use a flame spell, and I'm trying to avoid that. If you hex them too many times, they develop a flinch when you draw your wand, and then you can't sell the dried vines for magical uses. Thanks, by the way."

"It seems to be a two-person job."

"It is, but I can't afford an assistant right now."

A speculative expression passed over her face. "I'd enjoy wrestling bushes into submission any day. Come see me next time you need an extra pair of arms. I may not be very dexterous, but I am strong, and I certainly don't mind getting dirty. Here." She rummaged through her pockets until she found a small stone, which she held out in the palm of her hand. "It's a Portkey. I'm not on the Floo network, but this way you can have a look at that Winter's Quill, as well."

Neville stared at the proffered object.

"Go on, it's safe. I promise."

Against his better judgment, he took it gingerly.

"See? Your fingers haven't turned black or fallen off or anything, have they?" He checked them carefully one by one as she rolled her eyes. "Anyway, I was wondering if you had any fresh madder. I've only got dried, and while that's much better than anything else I've tried so far, I can't help but think fresh would be even better."

He did, indeed, have fresh madder root and retrieved a pot of it for her.

"How much?"

"How much?" he echoed distractedly.

"Money. This is how you make your living, right? Unless it's just a front for an illegal potions smuggling operation or something. . . ."

Her jibe caught his attention. "No! I, I mostly sell wholesale, so I don't know quite what to charge for just one."

After a brief negotiation, they finally settled on a reasonable price, and, once again, she left without taking her leave.

Neville shut the door behind her and put a hand to his head. Millicent Bulstrode had just offered to help him. And he--could he claim it was temporary insanity?--had considered it. Had considered it seriously enough to take the Portkey and shove it in his pocket. What was he thinking?

****

Neville had forgot all about the Portkey until his Galloping Horseradishes ran amok. It was more of a nuisance than anything else, but the constant drum of tiny hooves throughout the greenhouse was beginning to wear his concentration down. It took him most of the morning to recall what exactly was niggling at his brain and another few hours to locate the Portkey. The warm, rough rock was etched with small, angular runes embellished by red paint, and magic bubbled contentedly in its core as he examined it. Taking a deep breath, he pressed his thumb into the centre depression.

He was set down next to a wind-worn standing stone, about ten paces from an old stone croft. As he regained his bearings, Millicent threw open the door to let out a large, black tomcat, which stretched arthritically and them ambled away towards the hills that rose up behind the house. She nodded at him in greeting (at least, he pretended it was in greeting; it was more likely that she was stretching a kink in her neck, but he found it much easier to smile pleasantly when he imagined a modicum of goodwill in return).

It was early afternoon, but the sun had just set, and gilt clouds still glowed red and pink in the west. That and the abundance of Winter Squill blooming brightly through a fine layer of snow confirmed Neville's suspicions.

"We're in the Shetlands, aren't we?"

She nodded, looking pleased that he had figured it out. "Eastern edge of Peerie Hion, just a bit northeast of Unst. This island and six more to the north are Unplottable and protected by Muggle-repelling charms, so you don't have to worry about being noticed."

Even in winter, there was a rugged charm to the place, and he remarked, "It must have been nice growing up here."

Millicent shrugged. "Yeah, I guess it must've been."

He stared at her quizzically.

"What, you think this is my family home?" She snorted. "I grew up in a rundown back-to-back in Birmingham. No, this is where Vince grew up. His parents are hiding out in Argentina, so I've taken up residence here. They won't be back any time soon, if ever, and the solitude suits me."

"Vince?" She'd said the name as though he should know it, but he couldn't recall any Vinces.

"Vincent Crabbe."

Crabbe. Neville knew he must have had a first name; he just never had the reason or interest to enquire. Come to think of it, he'd never heard anyone else use it, either. There was no need to hunt through his memory for further recollections. He remembered Crabbe all too well. Vicious. Massive. Slow-witted. None of those things should have merited the slight softening of her face or the downward sweep of her sparse-lashed lids, yet there they were. Neville wished for an excuse to avert his eyes from the unnerving glimpse of the grief she so carefully hoarded away, but she spoke again before he could come up with one.

"In the end, though, he was a bloody great fool like the rest of them." She turned into the doorway as bitterness, like acid dripping on granite, etched fine lines in a face suddenly hard and grim. This was the Millicent he remembered from Hogwarts, which was oddly disappointing.

She paused under the lintel. "Is it urgent?"

"Is-- No, in fact, you know, it doesn't have to be done today, and I can probably manage it by myself. I'm sorry to have bothered you--"

"Stop."

He did, grateful that at least one of them could halt his nervous rambling.

"Look at your weed while there's still a bit of light. Take as many as you like; there's more than enough to go around. Come in and let me know when you're finished," she ordered curtly and shut the door before he had a chance to reply.

When dusk had dimmed into earnest darkness, and a stinging wind threatened to divest him of his cloak, Neville reluctantly shrank the last of his specimen bottles and tucked them into an inner pocket. He cautiously opened the door and went inside. He found himself in a small kitchen nearly filled by a table, two chairs, and an old box bed in the far corner.

"I was just about to sit down to tea. Join me, and then we'll see about whatever it is you came to ask me," Millicent said from her chair by the fire, calm and collected once more.

On the one hand, he wasn't too keen to spend more time in her house than was absolutely necessary, but on the other, he didn't want to offend her just before he asked her to help herd his wayward plants. He sat in the unoccupied chair and graciously accepted the chipped mug of tea she pushed towards him. A plate of scones followed. No graceful excuse occurred to him, so he took one with trepidation and smeared on thick layers of clotted cream and gooseberry jam.

"Wow, these are really good!" He hoped he didn't sound too surprised.

She dismissed it with a jerk of her head. "Cooking's like potion-making--any idiot can follow directions."

Visions of melting cauldrons danced in front of Neville's eyes, and his cheeks felt as though he had thrust them into her peat-fired hearth.

Millicent, too, must have recalled their days at Hogwarts, and she continued, "Of course, it takes idiots like me a hell of a lot longer to figure out that sometimes it's better not to follow directions."

Tucked away in her gruff words was a compliment that, if he prised it out and polished it up, might shine like a tiny fragment of starstone. He didn't, of course, because getting in the habit of looking for compliments from people unused to giving them was only asking for disappointment.

Neville launched into an explanation of his problem as they finished their tea, and she readily agreed to accompany him back to his greenhouse.

As they stood to leave, he noticed that the door to the other room was ajar and couldn't help but attempt a surreptitious peek inside.

"That's just my workshop."

"Your workshop?" Millicent had never said what she did for a living, and his curiosity was piqued now.

"Yeah. Where I work."

"You've seen my greenhouse. It's only fair to return the favour." He hastily amended, "I mean, if you don't mind."

She acquiesced with a one-shouldered shrug and led him through. Although the kitchen-cum-bedroom was every bit as tiny as it appeared from the outside, her workshop was obviously charmed to two or three times its original size. Rocks of various sizes, ranging from pebbles to boulders, cluttered the floor and trestle table, interspersed with chisels, mallets, paintbrushes, and dog-eared texts.

"I work primarily with Viking rune stones--mostly creating them, although I've begun to pick up a bit of spell restoration work on the side. I specialise in protection stones. They're crude, but powerful. It's tough to be specific enough to cover all possibilities, so you could probably find a way to think your way around one eventually, but there hasn't been a spell invented that can actually break the protection of a really well-made Viking rune stone." She continued on, explaining some of the symbols and techniques in her current projects with evident pride.

The room seemed to expand and brighten, and it took him a few moments to put his finger on the change. She was smiling. Millicent Bulstrode smiling. Her eyes gleamed as her fingers traced the outline of a roughed-in serpentine figure, and she seemed almost a different person. He only understood about half of what she was saying, but her sudden enthusiasm was captivating.

It took them another hour to leave. Working together, they made short work of corralling the horseradishes. He herded each one in her direction, and she dove on it enthusiastically. Soon all of the plants were back in their pen, and she disappeared out the door before he could even thank her. After casting a vigourous sweeping charm to tidy up the floor, Neville noticed a small, cloth-wrapped bundle nestled in among the Liar's Scourge. It contained three scones and a tiny pot of gooseberry jam.

****

A Vertiginous Vine had made a break for freedom, and Neville found himself unable to detach enough of a section of the creeper from the glass ceiling to drag it back to earth without bringing the entire structure down with it. Naturally, he enlisted Millicent's assistance, and they were engaged in this activity when a large, violently magenta flower sneezed a cloud of pollen in their faces.

Perhaps it was the disgusted curl of her lip or the way her hand smeared the sticky blue substance across her cheeks in an ineffectual attempt at brushing it away, or maybe it was the chronic deficiency of levity in his life lately. Luna probably would have blamed it on Sniggle Imps, which really was about as logical as any other explanation. In any case, Neville forced his eyes opened wide and gasped theatrically.

"Oh, dear! That's an Aphelandra aphrodesia!" Millicent looked at him blankly. "Its pollen creates an uncontrollable desire to copulate in all who touch it."

A genuine panic came over her, and she released her grip on the vine, which retreated back up to its previous position as she scrambled away from Neville, knocking over a carefully stacked set of pruning hooks in her haste to escape. That certainly was not what he had anticipated. "Wait! It's only a snuffwort. I'm sorry! I didn't mean-- It, it was just a joke," he finished weakly.

Relief flooded Millicent's features, followed quickly by ire. "Just a joke? You're lucky I like you, Longbottom. Do that again, though, and your face is liable to meet my fist."

As they resumed the painstaking process of loosening segments of the vine and hauling it down, Neville pondered her reaction. Her face had been a little too horrified to be ignored even by his ego, and "Am I such an awful prospect?" spilled out of his lips before he could find something more dignified.

"You're not a half-bad prospect, I suppose, but I'd sooner take my chances with a starving nundu than be compelled to do anything. Where'd that come from, anyway? It sounds like a half-arsed plot device from some cheap romance novel."

"It is," he confessed. "My gran reads them. I am sorry."

She ignored the second apology like the first, instead asking casually, "So, how do you know what's in those books?"

"Those last few years of school, I read them for the happy endings when it seemed any sort of happiness was in short supply." He stopped short, realising that he had just admitted to actually reading them, and waited for her ridicule. He deserved it, but if there ever were a time for the floor to crack open and swallow him whole, it was certainly now.

Instead of the derision he'd anticipated, Millicent looked thoughtful and said quietly, "That's a better reason than most." Then she mock gagged. "They're still bloody awful, though."

He managed a faint grin and nodded in abashed agreement.

She continued, "Daphne always kept a stash under her bed. I skimmed half a dozen, and they were all the same. Too treacly by half, and all those wealthy heroes and heroines with rippling Quidditch-toned muscles, gravity-defying breasts, and handspan waists! Where's the fun in that? When they write one about people like you and me, I'll be the first in the queue to buy it."

Neville thought about Millicent and him doing those things described in florid euphemisms and couldn't imagine people wanting to read about it. Then he tucked the thought away, because, much against his better judgment, he was starting to enjoy her company, and he wanted to be able to look her in the face without blushing every time.

****

Somehow, he began to discover that more and more tasks required an extra pair of hands. Once every few weeks became once a week, which became once every few days. Interestingly enough, this curious phenomenon coincided with an increase in her need for advice, and the days he didn't Portkey up to Peerie Hion often found her dropping by his greenhouse to consult on all sorts of matters herbological, from acceptable substitutions in her paints to the best way to rid her garden of Creeping Dragonsbreath.

****

Millicent was helping Neville pot Crupstail cuttings, a task that required neither brawn nor multiple sets of hands, but went faster and more pleasantly with her assistance than without. The greenhouse was warm and humid, the air a veritable cocoon of fragrance, scintillating with the mingled scent of sweat and damp earth and exotic vegetation.

They were elbow-deep in silvery Mooncalf dung and enjoying a companionable silence when one of the shoots wiggled out of her grasp and catapulted itself in the direction of her nose. She peeled it off calmly and stared at it, as though daring it to attempt another escape. And then she was laughing, and a shaft of sunlight glowed on her face, and little curls of hair escaped her bun like sun-seeking tendrils, and, for a moment, she was beautiful. It wasn't the beauty of cute little woodland creatures or elegant French quarter-Veela witches, but the wild, rough beauty of craggy mountains and rumbling thunder and scouring spring winds. Then Neville blinked, and she was just Millicent again--plain, coarse, and sweaty.

"What? Do I have something else on my face?"

He shook his head and forced his eyes to focus on the cutting squirming in his too-tightly clenched fist.

After that, he couldn't seem to help sneaking sideways glances at her, hoping to glimpse it again. Once he began to expect it, he saw it more often. It wasn't what most people saw; it was a pity they didn't know what to look for, just as few had the patience or the inclination to search out delicate wallflowers clinging to the inside of rotting logs. That's all the fascination was, after all--just a thrill at discovering beauty in unexpected places.

****

Neville had Portkeyed to the usual place with a packet of dried spring nettles for Millicent, but he was stopped short after only two steps towards the little croft. She had her wards up, which meant she had company. He wasn't in any rush, so he cast drying and warming spells on the ground next to the standing stone and sat down to wait, watching four sheep meandering down the hill. The two ewes steadily munched their way down, while their lambs gamboled this way and that, never straying too far. Neville found sheep amusing creatures, so long as they kept their large yellow teeth and pointed hooves far away from him, and it wasn't until they were nearly upon him that he noticed the shadows had stretched out long and black away from the setting sun.

He was considering returning home when the creak of her door caught his attention. Two black-robed figures emerged from the house. If he wasn't mistaken (and how could he be, with that singular visage plastered everywhere?), Millicent's guest was Viktor Krum. He bent close to mutter something in her ear, and she laughed heartily. Then he clasped her shoulder in farewell and Disapparated.

The sudden dip and swoop of his heart surprised Neville. It couldn't be jealousy. First of all, there was nothing to be jealous of--Krum was a sallow, beak-nosed, taciturn fellow who looked about as graceful on land as a duck out of water. . . . And who was an internationally-acclaimed Quidditch star, was on the cusp of launching an exclusive flying school, had the dark and brooding look down to a fine art, and could make her laugh. Circe's wand! Who was he kidding? He had every reason to be jealous . . . if he were the sort of bloke who was jealous of his friends preferring the company of other, much more interesting people than himself. He had many shortcomings, but he was certain that wasn't one of them. He never would have survived school if it had been.

As she turned to go back inside, Millicent spotted Neville and ambled over, a small smile still lingering on her lips.

And then the most startling revelation crashed into his brain like a herd of centaurs on the rampage. He didn't want to be just her friend. He tried frantically to send it away, but that was about as futile as heading off the aforementioned centaurs. Before she could say a word, he shoved the nettles into her arms and Portkeyed away.

****

Neville wasn't surprised to hear the now-familiar bang of the greenhouse door. That had been a bit bizarre even by her standards, and he really, really, really had no idea what he should say to her. Various scenarios spun through his mind, but they all ended with him suffering some sort of trauma at Millicent's hands.

"I think you forgot to give me the instructions. I don't know whether to eat it or smoke it or fertilize my flowers with it." She held the packet up between two fingers.

He'd stood up to the Carrows and Snape and Voldemort (although he wasn't sure if Snape really counted, as he had turned out to be on the same side after all). Surely this should be easy in comparison.

It wasn't. He croaked, "Would you go out with me?" The suffocating weight in his chest did not ease, but rather grew to alarming proportions as he awaited her answer.

"We were outside, only you scarpered off to your greenhouse."

Of course, it figured that she would deflect that very simple question, just as she dodged every attempt at compliments or gratitude. Perhaps he had already spent so much time with her that had he absorbed some of her perversity, because this just made him more determined to wring a straight answer out of her.

"Not outside. Out. Like . . . er, romantically."

Millicent stared at him and finally said, "I don't do 'romantic.'"

He smiled wanly and shrugged. "I do."

"Yeah, well, cherubs and fluttery pink hearts make me nauseous."

"That's not romantic, that's . . . tacky. I can promise that I will never subject you to such things." He paused, but she didn't seem inclined to reply. "So?"

"So, what?"

"Will you go out with me on a date?"

Her jaw clenched, her fingers curled tightly into her palms, and when she spoke a low thrum of anger underlay her voice. "Look, I'm no one's charity case, Longbottom. Vince--for all his faults--he . . . appreciated me. And after that, I couldn't stand to be merely tolerated, especially just because your Gryffindor bleeding heart feels sorry for me."

Neville wanted to assure her of his sincerity, but the words flitted away, playing a cruel game of hide-and-seek in his brain, and the most intelligible thing that came out of his mouth was "I, erm-- You think I'd go through all . . . this just because I feel sorry for you?" Her fierce glare faltered slightly. "I can't explain what I feel or why I feel this way, but I do know that it has nothing to do with pity. Just give me a chance. Go out with me tomorrow and see if I can convince you. Please?"

****

The next evening, as Neville returned Millicent to her door, she grudgingly admitted, "That was surprisingly . . . pleasant."

He managed not to grin; it was high praise coming from her. "So you wouldn't object if I brought a picnic hamper up here tomorrow noon, and we tried it again?"

The dim glow of the sun hiding just below the horizon was barely sufficient to see her eyebrows arch incredulously. "I think I'd like that, if you really don't mind."

"It will be my pleasure," he answered gallantly, and then, while she was still too surprised to resist, he grasped her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. Half bowing, he left to Portkey away before she regained enough of her composure to do anything but gape.

****

The next several weeks passed in like fashion. Millicent still didn't seem quite sure what to make of his attentions, but at least she hadn't rebuffed him. One evening after a stroll around the island that had started in a fine mist and ended in a steady, chilling drizzle, they found themselves back in her workshop bedraggled and thoroughly spattered with mud.

She was dirty and wet and ever so beautiful, and Neville knew there was only one thing he could do about it.

"May I, erm . . . ?" Her eyebrows raised, but she tipped her chin up slightly, so he leaned in, and suddenly he was kissing her. He was kissing her, and her lips were chapped and pleasantly warm, and he didn't know what to do with his hands. She seemed to hover on the brink of kissing him back, and there was nothing he wanted more than to push her over.

Then he trod on the hem of his robes and lost his balance, falling into her and only just remaining upright. He heard the clunk of her head hitting one of the slabs of rock leaned against the wall just as he felt a sharp pain grab his lip. She shoved him away, and he stumbled back a few steps. He ran his tongue over his lower lip, hoping not to find blood where her startled teeth had clamped down. There were no sticky copper traces, thankfully. There was no taste of her lingering there, either, which he added to his list of Things that Happened in Romance Novels But Not in Real Life.

She'd cupped one hand over the back of her head, although she looked more upset than injured. "Look, just 'cause I'm big and coarse and appreciate the occasional tussle doesn't mean I like it rough. Not saying I couldn't, under the right circumstances, but it's an awful cheek to just assume."

"No! Er, I, I mean--" Neville swallowed and marshaled his wits before speaking again. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. That was just me being clumsy."

"Oh." Her body slumped, and she spoke quietly to her hands. "I'm used to . . ." She rolled her shoulders.

"D'you suppose we could try again?" he ventured tentatively.

"Okay," she whispered. "But only if we stand over there."

****

Some of the old crowd met every other Tuesday at the Hag and Hound. There were fewer overly curious hero-worshippers on weeknights, and the service was considerably faster.

When the Chudley Cannons' most recent loss and the latest rumors of suspiciously mundane happenings in the Department of Mysteries had been exhausted, Seamus turned to Neville and said casually, "Dean an' me stopped by Friday night to see if you wanted to go for a pint, but you were out."

Neville opened his mouth and promptly shut it again. He sipped at his cobnut ale, letting it warm on his tongue. Mentioning Millicent would surely lead to the rest of the group reminiscing about their encounters with her, which was bound to turn unpleasant.

"I was, er, out on a consultation."

"Didn't know you were in the business, mate."

Neville knew that muttering, 'I didn't either,' was not the way to quell his friends' curiosity. "I've only just started--haven't advertised much or anything. I didn't want to talk about it until it really got off the ground."

Luna smiled brightly. "I'd like to meet her."

He squinched his eyes closed as exclamations of "Her?" wreathed around the table. There, against the black backdrop of his lids, was the grave face of Albus Dumbledore. There are all kinds of courage. It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. He was right, of course, but Neville had had enough of bravery to last several lifetimes. Laughing off the nebulous "her" as a figment of Luna's hyperactive imagination would have been easy. Then he thought of Millicent's quiet "I'm used to . . ." and the shrug that spoke more eloquently than he ever could of years of having to stand up for herself because no one else would. He opened his eyes.

"I've been consulting for Millicent Bulstrode, and she's been assisting me in the greenhouse when I need it." It wouldn't be fair to her if he stopped there, though. "And, I've started seeing her in a, a personal capacity, as well." Not the most eloquent way to put it, and certainly not the declaration she deserved, but he could see the onset of comprehension on the faces surrounding him.

Hermione began to protest, and, in what was probably only the second or third tactful moment in his life, Ron kicked her in the shins.

Seamus had no such inhibitions. "Bulstrode! That Slytherin cow? You're kidding, right?"

Luna exclaimed, "Neville, that's lovely! You need each other like Snurlfish need mud." She nodded towards the rest of their friends. "They'll see. Just give them time."

He wished he had her confidence as he surveyed the scene before him. Hermione was looking mutinous, Ginny and Seamus had begun to argue over Millicent's most unpleasant feature, and Ron and Dean were staring at him as though he'd sprouted Veela wings.

Neville raised his voice. "She's a good person if you take the trouble of getting to know her. If you can't even put our schooldays behind you, I don't see how the Ministry can ever hope to function properly again. You should be ashamed to hear yourselves." His heartbeat thudded loudly in his ears, and it was a good thing his sleeves drooped low enough to conceal his trembling hands. "And, y-you won't be seeing me on Tuesdays until you're ready to invite Millicent, as well." He stood and walked out of the pub with as much quiet dignity as he could muster. Giant snakes were nothing compared to this.

****

That night, Neville could not find a comfortable position in bed. Usually the old mattress didn't bother him, but every lump and bump seemed determined not to let sleep help him forget the evening's events. He cast a True Night spell to block the moonlight glowing through the window. He tried counting gnomes. His mind kept coming back to wondering how he could explain Millicent's attraction to his friends.

It was true that she lacked most of the social graces that could have eased her way. She didn't bother to blunt her rough edges and tended to use brute force even when a little finesse might serve her better. Moreover, she was honest, sometimes brutally so; whether in the corridors of Hogwarts or in her workshop, surrounded by Slytherins or alone with him--she acted the same, spoke the same gruff words. He sighed into his pillow. How could he possibly rationalise that he had slowly come to find even these things endearing?

Then there was the matter of her figure. She wasn't a block of rough-hewn stone as it had first seemed, but a soft, flesh-and-blood woman, albeit one considerably outside the norms of contemporary society. She was shaped a bit like a deliciously ripe Williams pear, with wide hips and an arse that rounded out prominently, echoed by the gentle swell of her belly in front. Her breasts were like twin fruit half-hidden in the foliage of a mango tree, and--

Neville groaned. If all he could come up with were plant and food comparisons, he might as well start writing trashy romance novels straight away. Rather than having any convincing arguments, he was now uncomfortably aroused and voraciously hungry.

****

"What's this?" Millicent shoved a scrap of parchment peremptorily into Neville's dirty hands before he could even wish her a good afternoon.

Millicent Bulstrode,
We invite you to join us tomorrow night at the Hag and Hound around 7.30. We'd like to put the past behind us and start off again on the right foot. Please bring Neville--we need to apologise.

The text was in Luna's wandering script that slanted alternately left and right, but the signatures beneath were undeniably genuine.

"Oh!" It had taken them the better part of two weeks, and it was undoubtedly on Luna's initiative, but his friends had come through for him all the same. That was all the apology necessary. "Well, you see, we, ah, some of us get together at the pub every other week, just to stay in touch, mostly. Half of us would never see each other if we didn't."

"Yes, but why would they invite me? And what do they need to apologise for?"

Neville considered evading her questions, but concluded that it would be better to apprise Millicent of what had instigated the note rather than have it come out inadvertently at the pub. He explained the situation as best he could, judiciously omitting the specific details of the others' reactions.

"You did that because of me?'

His heart clenched at the incredulous pitch of her voice. "Yeah--" His own voice cracked, so he vigourously nodded to emphasise the point.

She shut her eyes and drew several deep breaths. When she reopened them, they sparkled wetly for a blink or two. "Thanks."

He wrapped his arms around her, and she reciprocated unreservedly. Their lips and fingers drifted about in languid exploration, and he blissfully inhaled the earthy tang of peat smoke lingering in her robes and hair.

It wasn't until he felt the rough catch of her calluses skimming the sensitive skin around his navel that he realised she had slipped a hand between the fastenings of his robes. He jumped back in alarm, bumping a potting bench and sending a flat of Tittering Thornapple seedlings into a fit of giggles.

"What? It's fine for you to grope me up and down, but I can't return the favour?"

He was Neville Longbottom, always had been and undoubtedly always would be, and while a dashing and heroic fantasy Neville might conceal beneath his robes the stuff of which a witch's dreams were made, he was pretty sure the real thing did not. He tugged on his robes self-consciously. "I'm not--"

"I've a pretty good idea of what you are and aren't, Longbottom. Do you trust me to know my own mind?"

He nearly laughed, because if there was anyone who knew her own mind, it was Millicent. "Of course."

"Then trust me in this."

****

When he finally arrived home several hours later, Neville had come to a decision. It was silly and soppy, and he'd probably regret what he started in the morning, but he brushed potting soil off of a sheaf of parchment, sharpened a new quill, and set out to write a book that Millicent would want to read.

****

Epilogue: Because Every Love Story Needs One (Just Ask Jo)

Niche Market Explodes
by Lila Loveshaft, Romance Reporter

Fans of Nell Longfellow eagerly await tomorrow's release of the tenth book in her "Eye of the Beholder" series. The reclusive author's unexpectedly popular books feature average, imperfect witches and wizards falling in love. Now, this may not sound like the recipe for an interesting story, but the skillful quill of Ms Longfellow reveals the extraordinary beauty of ordinary people in love. Undoubtedly, much of her success can be attributed to the fact that--despite (though many of her fans claim it's because of) jiggling bellies, plain faces, lopsided breasts, less-than-impressive cocks, wrinkles, scars, and the occasional missing limb--she writes the hottest love scenes outside Pleasure Me, Bills & Moon's newest erotic novel line.