At the Daughters of the Goblin Wars Hall, under dim and shabby little chandeliers in the largest, draftiest, darkest room in the place, someone has transfigured a creaking stepladder into a fair imitation of a royal sedan chair, or at least an encyclopedia's illustration of a royal sedan chair. That someone and three other someones, under the influence of an open bar, have taken to carrying Mr. and the brand-new Mrs. Longbottom from table to table at the reception and, kneeling with an absurd, entirely solemn obsequiousness, demanding tribute for their temporary king and queen.
There’s been, already, a cake—a bespoke Wizard Wheeze—charmed to lean forward into Neville’s face and spit French vanilla icing when he tried to cut it; a rousing chorus of a novelty song the wizard-born knew as boys and girls, about transfiguring your grandmother into your grandfather; a Longbottom family tradition in which Hannah took a shot of some truly horrific firewhiskey and pulled a funny face.
Now there’s the tables, thinning out, and around the bar at the center of the hall a sea of red, happy faces; there’s the dance floor, thick with charmed smoke and sweating wizards and witches doing ridiculous steps cribbed from Muggleborn acquaintances and Weird Sisters shows.
Now there’s Hermione, outside the hall—where the patio runs into a gentle hill and a lovely little pond it throws up a wall that's perfect for sitting on just out of party's reach. Further up the patio, by the door to the reception, sit a few intense-looking couples staring glassy-eyed over some empties, their tables vibrating with the pounding music, and behind her, over the wall, there are crickets and frogs and the escaped sounds of other parties floating over the water. When the sedan chair arrived at her table—the singles and kids table, off in one corner—she complimented Ron on his transfiguration work and meant it, and smiled and nearly meant it, and as it cantered like a newborn deer out toward the last tables she had excused herself in the direction of an indifferent thirteen-year-old Longbottom cousin and walked out toward the quiet and the pond.
Most of an issue of Witch Weekly was sitting open on one of the empty tables, and Hermione is rereading a truly awful article about dealing with inelegant wand motions when Neville, still walking against the borrowed rhythm of the sedan chair, falls against the wall next to her. She turns and smiles at him and means it—he is wearing his father’s ridiculous white tuxedo and every so often his eyes make a just-perceptible sweep toward Hannah hugging her dorm-mates and his grandmother yelling at the bartender.
“It was a lovely service, Neville,” Hermione says. “I’m still not used to wizarding weddings but this one was my favorite yet. Hannah looks—”
“And me, of course,” Neville says.
The new confident Neville, of course, who reminds her of—and she says, “And you, of course. I was so glad they could make it—your parents, I mean.”
“Mum’s done a little better each time we break her out,” Neville says. “But I’m—I’m drunk, Hermione. You’re going to get me all sad-drunk if we keep on about that.” There are, now, the hints of tears in his glassy eyes, but he keeps going. “Now—now, Hermione, I’m told Muggle receptions are more or less exactly like this, so you’ve no excuse. Officially, now.”
She looks at him until he stops smiling and then she regrets it—she grins a little, to reinflate him, and she says, “Don’t worry—I happen to be exactly like this at Muggle receptions. Known far and wide as the only non-drinking, non-dancing Granger.”
They sit there like that for a while. Hermione treads water at parties like this—she loves people but she loves them one at a time, and with the moon over the pond and the intense couples beginning to fall asleep across from each other onto the patio tables Hermione feels a rush of affection for Neville and for who they all used to be and for who they are.
She smiles at him some more and he hugs her and his eyes get serious and she thinks they‘re about to talk about his parents. “I invited him, you know,” is what he says instead.
Four—five, now—five weddings and four—four-and-three-quarters receptions and everything else he's no-showed. She says, “Yeah.”
Neville walks out across the patio and when he’s halfway to the door he turns and says, “I could swear I’ve seen you do something before—not a dance but a shimmy, at least. For my sake—I’ll put on one of those little CDs with the people talking over the loud music. Just one shimmy.”
The most intense dancers and the most hopeless drunks are left after two in the morning, with the bride and the groom long gone and the house elves staring oversized daggers into would-be litterers. Around midnight Neville had gotten much too close to Hermione and said, much too loudly, that he'd tried his best to get one of the music round things but there weren’t any and he was going to get out of here for, well, you know, Hermione—I mean you don’t know-know, like I'm not saying you have or haven’t, but—I’m sorry I didn‘t mean to insinuate—
And Hermione had hugged him as tightly as she’d hugged anyone in some time and said enjoy yourself, please, and he’d said you too, but of course I mean—and then he'd been pulled away.
The party seemed to cool off then and she went back out onto the patio while the music echoed inside. Every so often some ersatz couple would stumble back there and, a little shocked, mumble their hellos to Hermione—ask after her job or Ron depending on how long it had been.
While all this happened she swirled an empty Shirley Temple around in one hand and with the other held herself conspicuously upright. And she’s swirling it like that when Ron shouts and everyone shouts, and she’s worried the sedan chair has turned back into a ladder while Seamus was dancing on it. But then people stop shouting, one by one, and her breathing stops short and she can’t get it started again.
Through the double-doors and past the dozing couples she can see Harry outlined against the colored lights on the dance floor, hugging his drunk friends in a kind of improvised receiving line. “I’m so mad I’m not drunk at you yet!” Ron shouts, and Dean slaps him on the back a little too hard, and Luna, who has been dancing barefoot since before ten o’clock, wearing her shoes tied round her neck, asks how long it’s been since anything, and is it so hard to use an owl, but she’s laughing at least for now.
Hermione sees Harry walking out onto the patio and everybody else about to follow him and in the couple of moments they’re mostly alone out there she says, “Y-you missed so many of these. You have some letters of regret to write.”
“George and Angelina, Ernie and that healer, Oliver and Katie—”
“That creepy older Slytherin and Anthony G-Goldstein. And me,” Hermione says. She’s crying now but these tears have been stoppered, held in reserve all night—all night at least—and by the time they start to fall she feels like she’s finished crying already.
“And you,” he says. “I’m sorry for leaving you—everyone. But you, really.”
He’s been gone two years without so much as a note and Hermione wants to hug him so badly but he’s been gone two years without so much as a note and she wants to wait just a week, or a day, or an hour before she’s crying again and he’s holding her and she knows he’ll be there, this time. "You were my best friend," she says. "You're my best friend."
“I want to talk about everything,” he says, and the crowd is swelling up and getting loud behind him. “Could we have lunch after all this—after people know I‘m back?”
“Uh-huh,” she says.
“Is Anthony Goldstein’s wife really that creepy?”
“Uh-huh,” she says, “a creeper.” Ron has Harry by the shoulders in a wrestling hold and she grins at him and then makes a you-deserve-it face for Harry’s benefit. “She’s—but I’ll tell you about it!” And she plots a course toward the back exit and then over the little trail along the pond and back to where all the drunks are fumbling with portkeys or else splinching themselves just outside.
“I’ll see you all!” she says, and she’s not sure anybody hears it but she has to say it. It’s been a good reception, a really good reception, and she wants to tell Neville how much she enjoyed it sometime, she really does. She stands up and she does an unselfconscious little dance toward coatcheck, and she looks at Harry, and she locks up, and they giggle, they both giggle.