Neville almost didn't rejoin the Defense Association sixth year. The DA was more official now, with Professor Dumbledore checking in on meetings and Blaise Zabini from Slytherin hovering in the corners. He didn't like the way it made him feel about the rest of school -- as though school were just the way they passed the time while preparing for war.
But, as usual, he'd gone along anyway. Privately Neville thought this was how armies were really made -- you signed up because your friends were fighting. You signed up because you couldn't imagine the look of disgust on your gran's face if you didn't. You signed up because your father would have done, and your mother, too.
And because eventually, no matter how you hid, they'd come for you, too.
They all watched while Hannah Abbott and Parvati Patil sparred, until Hannah was disarmed with a neat Expelliarumus and cried defeat. "You're not down!" Harry hollered at her. "You've still got your hands and feet! Keep going!"
If you're breathing, keep fighting, was Harry's rule. If you're conscious, keep thinking. If you can move, keep running.
"I'm down," Hannah insisted, humiliated. She stalked off the mat, and Susan Bones summoned Hannah's wand for her. Harry caught it midair.
"Neville," he said. "Set your own wand down and take this." He handed Hannah's wand to Neville. "Show us how to keep fighting when you're down."
"Against Parvati?" He really didn't want to hit a girl, and this was likely to come to hitting. Hannah Abbott's wand was willow, too short, and felt like a useless twig in his hand.
"No," said Harry, "against me. Don't be nice to me, Neville. I've been possessed by Voldemort, and he's made a Death Eater out of me."
There were whispers and giggles from the class as Harry threw a Jelly-Legs curse. Neville managed -- barely -- to jump out of the way. From nowhere, Neville thought about Sirius Black.
"Is that all you've got?" Neville said. "You're a Death Eater armed with Jelly-Legs?"
"Maybe I don't figure you're worth Crucio," Harry said cruelly. Neville knew he'd said it to make him angry, they were just words--
It didn't matter. Harry knew where to hit, and it hurt.
Neville physically threw himself at Harry and tried to tackle him, listening to the gasps and giggles of the DA as they watched. Harry was small, but strong, and he still had his wand... Neville pushed his hand over Harry's mouth to keep him from talking.
Harry bit his hand, hard enough to draw blood. Neville ignored it, trying to pinch Harry's wand out of his grasp with his other hand.
He got the nerve pinched right, somehow, or Harry wanted to drop the wand, because now they were down to tavern brawling. Neville had a hand in height and several stone on Harry, despite the fact that Harry Potter was a fast, wicked little bastard.
Neville could hear the class hollering to pull them apart, and Hermione, bless her, saying, "No, not yet, they're making a point."
Neville and Harry both rolled and grasped for Harry's wand -- disarm your opponent and keep them that way was Ron Weasley's favorite tactic -- and Neville managed to knee Harry in the stomach.
Harry just took the hit; he was one of those wizards who didn't seem to feel pain. They were still tangling for the wand. Neville was pretty sure Harry wasn't putting everything he could into the fight, but instead of this making Neville hold back, it only made him madder. Did Harry think Neville was that pathetic a target? Even after last year?
He ripped Harry's glasses off and heard them break when they fell. Bother. Harry thumped him in the head and was about to get the best of him in their wrestling. Neville could hear the rest of the DA hollering enthusiastically for him -- for Neville! -- to win.
His fingers finally closed around Harry's wand. It might work. It might. "Petrificus Totalis," he said, as clearly as he could with Harry trying to reach his mouth.
It didn't work. Maybe something easier -- "Stupefy!"
Nothing. He should break the wand, but he'd done in the glasses already, and what was, oh, what was the rule? "Broken!" Neville gasped, and managed to toss it out of Harry's range. He thought he saw Hermione pick it up.
"Hold!" Harry shouted then, and Hermione blew the whistle, and Neville offered a hand to help Harry up.
"After that it's just hand-to-hand fighting," Harry said, "which we'll be covering for the next few classes, since most of you don't seem to have any experience at it. I think Neville would have had me, though."
Neville wasn't so sure, but he accepted Harry's handshake and the class's applause anyway.
"Here's the thing," Harry said. "Neville's probably the best duelist in the room. Why? Because he came at me, unarmed, without a chance, and he just beat me. What are the rules he remembered? Hannah?"
"If you're breathing, keep fighting," Hannah murmured into the floor.
"Disarm your opponent and keep them that way," several people added.
"Neville knows that better than anybody else," Harry said. "Last year he went after a Death Eater who was about to kill me. He had a broken nose, and Hermione's wand, which wouldn't have transformed a matchstick for him. You know what he did? Nobody talks about this. Neville, did you never tell?"
Neville shrugged. To be honest, he didn't remember much about the fighting at all, except for the fact that it had happened.
"Neville took Hermione's useless wand and stuck it in that Death Eater's eye," Harry said. He stood next to Neville and took hold of his shoulders, like Neville was some kind of champion. "Saved my life as surely as Professor Dumbledore did."
"Bloody hell," muttered Seamus. "Bloody hell, Nev." But Neville didn't remember these heroics, and he just felt embarrassed at everyone's praise.
"That's proper dueling," Harry said in his best I've-met-You-Know-Who-five-times-and-lived voice. "That's what dueling's really like. All we're doing here is sparring, but you have to remember that you're not helpless even if you don't have a wand, even if you can't cast a spell." Harry held out his hand for his own wand, and showed the class the nasty bite he'd given Neville's hand. It was only just starting to hurt as Harry took hold of his hand and healed it.
"You're okay?" Neville asked him under his breath.
Harry grinned at him. "Are you?"
"Right enough," Neville said, already forgetting he'd been angry enough at Harry to really hit him.
"That was brilliant." Harry couldn't seem to contain his grin. He'd always liked fighting a little too much for his own good. There was something wild and wicked still in his eyes, as though the green in them had gone dark... and why was Neville staring at Harry's eyes, anyway?
And why was Harry staring back? He watched Harry blink, then summon his broken glasses. Hermione took them from him with a long-suffering sigh.
"For Thursday, think about what you'd do if you went into a fight without your wand." Harry said. "We'll learn some hand fighting and we'll practice using Silencio, in addition to Expelliarmus. Good job, everyone. Hannah, Neville, stay a minute?"
Neville picked up his own wand and waited for Harry to talk it out with Hannah, who was embarrassed and a bit sulky. Neville hadn't felt like this outside of Herbology for a very long time -- like he'd done something right, and some other student, for a change, had messed things up.
"Really well done," Harry said, behind him, and they were alone in the DA classroom. "Sorry I had to make you mad."
"No, you had to, or I wouldn't've fought. I get that."
"Then why are you still mad?"
"Look at me, then."
Neville looked up, as directed, and met Harry's eyes, which were back behind his oft-repaired glasses and looked normal again. "You held back."
"Fighting you? I guess I could have cast Petrificus right off. But that wouldn't have made the point. I could have let you have your own wand, too."
"No, I get that. I mean, during the hand-to-hand fighting."
"No, that was real fighting," Harry insisted. "You had me, Neville. I'm not a very good fighter once I get caught, and you're a lot bigger than me. And you could have kicked me -- well, somewhere a lot worse than my stomach." Harry made a face.
He could have done, at that. "Fair enough. But you let me catch you in the first place."
"That, I admit." Harry pushed his glasses up on his nose. "So. Rematch?" He bowed and gestured with his wand.
"You're mental," Neville said, suddenly a little frightened. This was Harry Potter, and it was one thing to sort of be his friend and have been very lucky with Hermione Granger's wand last June, and it was another thing entirely to be stupid enough to actually duel him.
"With your new wand, your aim's really a lot better." Harry thumped him on the arm. "You could take me."
"It'd still have to be my lucky day," Neville grinned. "And I don't want to fight you, Harry. But thanks."
"I meant what I said," Harry said. "I owe you my life. That was the bravest thing I ever saw, what you did last year."
"I didn't even think," Neville admitted, as it came back to him in flashes. "I just couldn't let everything end like that." He helped Harry set the cushions back, and helped him cast Reparo on the chair Ernie MacMillan had broken during his turn.
Harry went quiet while they worked, and when they were done, he pulled on Neville's shoulder. "I want to tell you something," he said. "Something secret. Nobody else knows but Professor Dumbledore."
And then Harry pulled him down by the shoulder, onto the cushions, and whispered to him about a prophecy, and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and two boys born at the end of July.
Neville felt something in him give way, something he'd been holding on to and hadn't even known was there. It was like the feeling when Ollivander had put the new wand in his hand. It was like the one time he'd left St. Mungo's alone, without Gran, and let himself cry. "It could have been me," he said. He could have been the one born with enormous powers, the golden boy who'd defeated You-Know-Who again and again.
But for every reason Neville had to be jealous of Harry, he had a reason to fear him, or pity him, or both. "It's better that it's you," he said after a long time, imagining himself in the Triwizard Tournament, or as Ron and Hermione's best friend, as Ginny Weasley's hero. As a Parselmouth, or a complete orphan raised by rotten Muggles, or as You-Know-Who's worst enemy. "I can't even put up with Snape," Neville admitted.
"Most days I can't either," Harry said, pulling at a string on one of the cushions. "I'm not sure telling you is the right thing," Harry said. "I'm not supposed to. But I can't help thinking... what if Professor Dumbledore is wrong?"
Neville's stomach lurched. "What if it's me, you mean?" he whispered, and Harry nodded. "Harry, it's just -- it's just not."
"You don't even know what you can do," Harry said. "You didn't even get a proper wand until just this year."
"I'm a botanist," Neville tried not to holler, but his voice broke anyway.
"So maybe the 'power to defeat the Dark Lord' ends up being your Mimbulus mimbletonia!"
"Don't be stupid." Neville reached out and reached up under Harry's bangs to touch the scar he knew was there. "'And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal...'?"
Harry brushed his hand away, but more slowly than Neville had expected. Truth to tell, he hadn't expected to get anywhere near Harry's scar.
"Maybe... maybe it's both of us," Harry said, and Neville understood then what Harry had been keeping quiet, and wondered how long he had known. When had Professor Dumbledore told him? When Cedric Diggory was killed? When Harry's own godfather had died?
Congratulations, Neville thought. You're the most powerful wizard of your generation. Now kill or be killed. No pressure, dear boy.
"You're not on your own," Neville said. "It doesn't matter which of us it meant, Harry. The prophecy could mean bloody Hannah Abbott, and we'd still all go and fight, right up until it's over."
Harry gave a little sigh that meant, you say that now.
"I mean it," Neville said. "If you want it to be me, then fine. It's me. Is that going to stop you from fighting? Think you'll take a long vacation in Bermuda, now? Wash your hands clean, war's as good as over, Neville's taking care of You-Know-Who?"
Harry pushed at Neville, looking too mad to even speak.
"I know you feel like it's only you sometimes," Neville said. "And I know sometimes it really is just you. But sometimes? It's just me, getting gum wrappers from my Mum because she's insane. It's just Hermione leading Professor Umbridge out to get trampled by centaurs, or Ginny getting possessed in the septic system, or Ron getting himself eaten by a giant brain and we still don't know if he'll be okay. Or Luna's mum dying right in front of her. And that's just us, Harry. That's just the stuff we know about." He shook his head, a terrible ache between his eyes. "That's just what we remember."
Somewhere in the middle of this Harry stopped looking angry and started looking amazed. "I don't think I've ever heard you put that many words together."
"Not without stuttering," Neville said, and grinned shyly.
Harry leaned in towards Neville then, and ran his hand up Neville's arm. And when Neville didn't back away, Harry leaned into him, and kissed Neville's forehead, right where Harry's scar would be. A brotherly kiss. Sort of.
Neville felt that something-breaking feeling again, and he was almost starting to like it. He curled his hand around Harry's head and held him there, leaning up and kissing his cheek. Not quite like a brother; not really.
Harry pulled away a minute, and then leaned back in, their foreheads touching. "I'm think about to kiss you," he warned, very softly. Neville found Harry's hand and clenched it, two damp, cool palms together.
Neville's voice stuck in his throat. "I don't think you'd better," he managed. "Because if you did, I think I might kiss you back. And then who knows what. And I'm not sure I want -- "
"All right," said Harry. But he didn't move.
They held hands, heads touching, breathing each other's breath, and stayed that way for a long time. Neville thought about kissing Harry, slow and messy and warm. He thought Harry might taste like treacle tart, and that there probably wasn't anything Harry Potter wouldn't do in a darkened classroom. If they kept holding hands after, if they smelled of each other, it would make the front page of Witch Weekly, and Ginny Weasley would probably kill Neville in his sleep.
It wouldn't be smart. Not for a thousand reasons.
But it would be something.
Neville leaned in, then, and touched his lips softly to Harry's. He heard Harry's startled half-laugh, and he let Harry pin him down on the cushions, both of them laughing, neither of them giving up while they could still draw breath.