Neville was flustered. He had been so preoccupied at work that he had completely lost track of time, and now he was going to be late. He gathered the loose files on his relatively tidy desk and unceremoniously crammed them into his briefcase. Accidentally knocking over a caddy of quills in the process, he scrambled to grab them before they fell onto the floor.
Extinguishing the lamp that illuminated his workspace, Neville picked up the cutting of his Mimbulus mimbletoniaand carefully returned it to its spot on the lab table under its magical source of sunlight. He then rushed through the lab, past the long tables, towards the door, stopping only briefly to ascertain that his Fluxweed cutting had enough moisture to survive the weekend, and to wrangle the vines of his Venomous Tentacula back under the glass globe that contained it. He didn't need another Howler from the Department of Maintenance complaining that his plant had terrorized yet another witch from the cleaning service.
"Neville, mate—leave it. I'll make sure everything is in order before I leave tonight."
Neville glanced over at his lab partner, Patrick McGaughey, who was carefully stirring a glutinous potion that gurgled fat bubbles and smelled strongly of Limburger. The goggles Patrick wore made him look like a ginger-haired owl, but the comparison was lost when he snapped them up onto his forehead.
"Seriously, I'll take care of it. I can't leave until this potion is done anyway, and you're going to be late for your dinner." Patrick glanced up at the clock by the door.
Neville jumped when he spotted the time; shrugging out of his lab robe, he ran for the door. "All right, all right—but don't forget. Oh, and you might check the new Blistering Tuber seedling. When I last checked, it seemed a little peaky."
"Yes, yes…" Patrick nodded, snapping his goggles back over his eyes again as he carefully lowered a measure of Shrivelfig into his potion. The rolling mass steamed and hissed in protest.
Neville threw his robe onto the cloak rack and straightened his tie. While bending to retrieve his briefcase from the floor, he looked back at Patrick, whose squat frame was still hunched over his potion. "I'm off then. Say hello to Colette for me."
Patrick didn't spare a glance but waved a lazy hand, mesmerized by the bubbling concoction in front of him. "Will do, mate. Have fun with your guests."
Neville rushed out the door, impatiently glancing at his watch. He hurried through the corridors and down the wide marble steps to the lobby of the National Wizarding Institute of Science, heading in the direction of the long wall of marble fireplaces. The queue for the Floo was entirely too long, but he took his spot at the end of the line anyway. Workers and visitors were not allowed to Apparate and Disapparate into and out of the Institute for security reasons, but they could use the Floo network or broom, or arrive Muggle-style.
Neville jingled the coins in his pocket, both out of impatience and out of nervousness. What had he been thinking of, offering to cook dinner? He could cook; he had certainly done it loads of times, but Ginny was a really good cook. It would be hard to compare his dinner to one of hers. But really, it was the least that he could do, for as often as Harry and Ginny had him over for dinner, it was certainly his turn to reciprocate. Plus, if they came to his house, then it was very unlikely that he would be required to meet another new witch.
Neville had been having dinner at the Potters' every Friday for several months now. He wasn't certain how it had all come about, but usually Ron and Hermione were there as well. Sometimes Luna would come, although she was usually off traveling with her father searching for yet another strange creature that Neville had never heard of before. But recently, just over the last few weeks, Ginny had begun inviting single, attractive friends of hers to their weekly dinner in hopes that Neville might form an attachment to one of them.
Neville studied the black and white tiles beneath his feet. Even thinking about it made him nervous.
They were usually sporty women who played Quidditch, or really intelligent Aurors from the Ministry, and lately Ginny had taken the notion to invite Hermione's librarian friends over, which was ten times worse. At least he knew how to talk Quidditch with the sporty-types, and he had been involved in the final battle against Voldemort, so that always afforded him ample conversation with the Auror-types. But when it came to the librarian-types he found that he usually had very little to say—making the whole evening incredibly awkward.
Neville could feel the heat rise on his neck as he remembered his last attempt at an intelligent conversation with one of Ginny's Quidditch teammates. He had stammered and stuttered, and had, in general, made a fool of himself. It was humiliating to think about.
It wasn't as if he wasn't interested in meeting new women. He was. It was just that there was so much pressure attached to that first conversation. He had to be interesting, and witty, and clever, and he had to have more than one interesting, one witty, and one clever thing to say. And, in total, that was very hard work. After all, what could he say that was all that profound?
He was just Neville Longbottom.
Ginny had sent an Owl earlier that day saying that Ron and Hermione weren't going to be able to make it that evening, but that she had found yet another witch, a Healer at St. Mungo's, whom she wanted to have over for dinner. Neville had quickly replied—preemptively, he hoped—and invited the Potters over for dinner at his place instead. He shuddered just thinking about struggling through another awkward evening, let alone one with a Healer. He didn't want to meet anyone new tonight. All he wanted was to relax over a nice dinner with old friends.
He would worry about meeting this Healer that Ginny had found on another day.
Finally the queue moved and it was his turn to grab a pinch of Floo powder and state his destination: "The Leaky Cauldron!"
Neville stumbled out of the hearth and into the dimly lit inn, nearly running over a hag who was walking by the fireplace with a tankard of mead. He brushed off his shoulders and coughed; the air was speckled with dust. He always tried to keep his elbows tucked in, but he seemed to drag along a fair amount of soot regardless. He hated the Floo. Apparating was just so much easier and—at least for him—cleaner.
Collecting himself, he quietly left the pub and headed into Diagon Alley towards Popplewell's Comestibles. It was a small grocery, but it was convenient, and once he had finished he could Apparate home.
Neville walked briskly toward his destination, glancing at his watch. If he hurried, he would have everything ready by the time the Potters arrived at his house. Rounding the corner, he turned to open the door and stopped dead in his tracks.
It was as if every wizard in London had suddenly converged into this one small corner shop. The aisles were crammed with people weaving and bumping about, finding what they needed. There were even a few zipping here and there on their brooms, accidentally thwacking people in the head with strings of sausages, or in one case, a cured ham. Those still on the ground were stretching over each other to pluck boxes of biscuits, around each other to grab the tinned tomatoes, or under each other to pick the jars of jam that they wanted. Many chose to Accio items rather than reach for them, and this led to further accidental thwackings. He stood dumbfounded until those same people began to elbow in and out around him and, feeling it best not to continue to block the door, he moved to gather a hand-basket.
He maneuvered his way through the crowd toward the produce aisle, which was where he wanted to start. After offering to make dinner, Neville had sent an owl requesting his gran's hotpot recipe. Gran had complied by sending him a very detailed reply. Her note was so thorough, it was as if she had forgotten how many times she had had Neville peel carrots and sprouts for this same recipe. But no matter, he now had all the instructions and the proper cooking charms—it would be nearly impossible for anything to go wrong.
Neville reached in his pocket to retrieve the ingredient list. It wasn't there. He tried his other pocket, and found it wasn't there either. Then he remembered: he had put it in the pocket of his lab robe, which was hanging on the coat rack in his office. And it wasn't just the ingredient list that he had forgotten; it was all ten pages of Gran's letter. The security measures around the Institute wouldn't allow him to Accio the correspondence, and retracing his steps would take entirely too long. His shoulders slumped, uncertain as to what he was going to do.
He had just about decided that he would make spaghetti Bolognese instead when he heard his name.
"Neville? Neville Longbottom?"
He turned to find a petite, dark-haired woman with incredibly cute dimples smiling up at him.
"I thought that was you!"
Neville blinked, frantically trying to place a name with the face, but failed miserably. People brushed by him, jostling him where he stood, frozen.
She giggled, shaking her head slightly. A smile lit behind her eyes.
"It's me…Susan…Susan Bones."
A wave of relief rushed over him, quickly followed by another of mortifying embarrassment. How could he not have recognized her when he was paired with her in Herbology class all the time during seventh year? He moved out of the center of the aisle toward her, sheepishly.
"Susan! I'm sorry—I didn't—I—" He stopped short, puzzled. "What are you doing here?"
She laughed, holding up her basket of shopping, as if to point out the obvious.
"I just got off work and needed to buy a few things for the weekend. This place is a madhouse, though. I've never seen it this busy."
"Yeah—yeah, me neither." Neville glanced around at all the scampering people and flying food, and then looked back at Susan. He hadn't seen her since they left school, which was now nearly four years. But she was just as pretty as he remembered, and her laugh—there was something about the lilt of it that had always made him grin. He tilted his head…there was something about her that was different though…
Still puzzling over what it was, he cleared his throat. "So, do you normally shop here?"
"Yes and no. It depends. I come here after work a lot, but there's another shop, slightly bigger, that I go to when I have more time." She paused and, suddenly self-conscious, scrunched her nose, rubbing it. "Why are you—is there something on my face?"
Neville started, realizing that he had been staring quite unabashedly. "No! No, I'm sorry—I just—" He felt his face go as red as a tomato. "There's something different about you and I just can't place—"
"My hair," she stated simply. She flipped the ends up to show him. "It's a lot shorter—and not in a plait. I always used to wear it in a plait."
"Thanks." Susan smiled, high patches of pink rising on her cheeks. Caught off guard by the sound of frantic metal wheels, she whirled and hastily took a step toward him in order to avoid being run over by a harassed-looking witch pushing a trolley. She stayed where she was even after the witch pushing the trolley had left. "Do you still have your Mimbulus mimbletonia?"
"Oh, yeah—it's huge now. It must be in its tenth new pot. I've taken several cuttings from it as well." Neville smiled, remembering that Susan had helped him re-pot it twice in Herbology class. "Do you still have the cutting that I gave you?"
She nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, yes. It's grown quite big. I transferred it from its pot into the garden just this spring. It seems to like it well enough—although the cat doesn't. He's been stinksapped a few too many times for his liking."
Neville laughed. "It doesn't make a very good scratching post."
"No, no. It most certainly does not," Susan agreed with a wince. She ignored the people elbowing her to get to the display of bananas. "But I hear it's great for other things. Congratulations, by the way. St. Mungo's was ecstatic when they found out about your Obliviate cure—it's quite something, you know."
Neville swallowed. He didn't have the heart to tell her that his find had been completely by accident. He had been using the stinksap from his Mimbulus mimbletonia to try to find a cure for the insanity caused by the extended use of the Cruciatus curse, not a cure for the Obliviate charm. "Well, my lab partner had a hand in it as well. He's the potions expert—I—I just know about the plants."
She looked up at him with a shrewd eye. "Yes, but it was your combination of ingredients that made the potion work."
A warmth filled him, seemingly from his very toes.
He looked away, uncertain what to do or say. He still wasn't used to this type of compliment. It was much easier when people just complimented the potion, or his effort—but not him directly. He wasn't accustomed to it.
A shopper jostled in between them to collect oranges from a display. Neville hastily took a step back, almost tripping over a small child on a toy broom tethered to his mother's wrist. Grateful for a distraction, Neville studied the oranges, waiting for the wizard to move. He was grumbling about the price of oranges and didn't seem to notice Neville or Susan, and when he left, Neville took a hesitant step back towards her. His mind struggled for anything useful to say.
She smiled again, idly playing with the handle on her basket. "Well, I won't keep you. I just wanted to say 'hi'."
"Yeah, right. Okay, it was good to see you." Neville felt a strange twinge of disappointment. He had enjoyed talking with her. He was just about to turn away, when a sudden idea struck him. "Hey, Susan—"
She turned back towards him, expectantly.
"Have you ever made a hotpot before?"
"Of course, loads of times...with my mum."
Neville shifted awkwardly. "Well, see, my gran—she sent me the recipe—but I seem to have—well, I forgot it at work. Do you think…do you think you could help me find all the ingredients? I mean, unless, well, unless you're in a hurry or something—"
She cut him off with a warm smile. "No, of course not—I was just going home to curl up with a good book. I'd love to help."
"Thanks." He smiled, holding her gaze until he felt his collar tightening uncomfortably. "All right, well then…" He cleared his throat. "I know I need potatoes and onions…"
Susan broke his gaze with a sudden flurry of movement. Heading in the direction of the potato display, she paused uncertainly as she considered the array. "Do you have a preference as to which kind?"
As people jostled around them, Neville found himself moving closer to her to avoid being separated. "My gran always uses King Edwards—but I suppose it doesn't matter much since we peel them anyway."
"True, but you don't want them to be too firm. They need to be soft enough when cooked. Hmmm…here these should work." Her fingers ran nimbly over the tops of several Désirée potatoes, quickly picking some and plunking them into his basket. She did the same with the carrots and the same with a selection of onions. She was much more efficient at this than Neville, who usually took an inordinate amount of time systematically inspecting each specimen before making his selection. He was surprised at how decisive she was. It was refreshing.
"And you'll need this—" She turned towards him holding up a fat turnip.
"A turnip?" Neville was certain his Gran never put a turnip in her hotpot.
Neville was puzzled now more than ever. As far as he knew, turnips had never been associated with luck. "Er—I don't…really?"
"Yes. No. I mean—" Her cheeks tinged pink and her hands fluttered slightly. "I suppose they're not traditional symbols of luck, but Grandad always insisted that Gran put one in each of her hotpots for luck. It's a family tradition really—he used to have quite a garden of turnips for the cows, but well—anyway."
She turned to deposit the turnip back on top of the pile. "You certainly don't need one. I wasn't really thinking. I suppose it is a bit silly, really—"
Neville plucked the turnip out from under her hand and put it in his basket.
Her eyes went wide as she looked up at him.
"So, well…" Neville cleared his throat, trying to ignore the sudden lurch of his stomach. "I have thyme and bay in my garden—"
"Yes, but not in the garden."
She laughed again, her eyes twinkling. "Well, then I suppose all you need is the lamb."
They spent several minutes picking out the best cuts of lamb at the meat counter. All the while Neville was stealing the occasional glance at Susan, trying to determine if she would be receptive to an invitation to dinner that evening.
Once they had selected the meat they went to find a nice loaf of crusty bread to accompany the meal. While they walked he rubbed his forehead in agitation, trying to decide if he should ask her now, or if he should wait—maybe even wait until a different evening altogether. Neville felt his pulse begin to quicken. His time was running out; any minute she would say that she needed to gather her own groceries and he would have missed his chance. Something clever, something witty, something interesting…
Any and all words were stuck in his throat.
But then it dawned on him. The whole time he had been talking to Susan he hadn't been trying to come up with anything clever, witty or interesting; it had just been natural and uncomplicated. It was easy to talk to her, and even more, he had just been himself—Neville Longbottom—and Susan didn't seem to mind.
"What, did we forget something?" Distracted, she looked into his basket, ticking the ingredients off on one hand. "Lamb, sprouts, carrots—"
"No, Susan," Neville cut her off, stilling her hand with one of his own. "Erm, no—we have everything."
Her hand felt hot in his. He let go of it very quickly, flexing his fingers by his side. "I wanted to ask…ask you if, well, you see I'm having this small dinner party tonight and I wondered…well, I wondered if you might want to come? I know it's last minute—but I'd really love it if—"
"Yes." Her face turned scarlet. "Yes, I'd love to come."
A tidal wave of relief rushed over him.
Neville felt a grin pull at his mouth. "Great. That's great."
"Oh!" Susan looked down at her outfit. "But I just got off shift at St. Mungo's, so I'm not really dressed for a dinner party—"
"You work at St. Mungo's? But I've never seen you there…" Neville puzzled, thinking of all the times he had been to visit his parents. He felt slightly daft that he hadn't recognized the baggy lime trousers she wore as the ones that all the Healers wore under their matching lime robes.
"You wouldn't have. I'm a Healer in the Alabastor Stork-Behring Ward." She flapped her hand as if this explained everything. It didn't, at least not to Neville. "Would I have time to go home and change first?"
"Of course." Neville nodded. "Although, it's just Harry and Ginny coming to dinner. I'm sure they wouldn't mind one way or the other—"
"Harry and Ginny!" Susan's face lit up. "Oh, how perfect! Ginny had an appointment in the ward earlier this week, and we were talking about how nice it would be to get together for dinner. She's so nice…and I'm so excited for her and Harry, she's—"
Neville tuned out everything else. "Hang on. Ginny wanted to invite you to dinner?"
Susan nodded. "She mentioned that she usually has people over on Friday nights. Originally, I was scheduled to work tonight, but another Healer asked to trade for the night shift so—well, now I'm off. And how ideal, because I never would have run into you either . . . it's all a bit strange, isn't it?"
Neville blinked, thoroughly amazed. "You have no idea."