The Dinner — Delays, Mishaps, and Disgruntled Toads
"There, that'll do."
Susan Bones stepped back from the mirror, smoothing the fabric of her dress with her hands. She turned slightly, studying her reflection.
"You look lovely, dear," the mirror said in its familiar sing-song voice.
"Thank you." She glanced briefly at the gilded frame, before returning to carefully observe herself in the mirror. She supposed that this black knee-length suited her well…the fit and flare flattered her in all the right places…and the cut wasn't too formal…
She glanced over her shoulder at the pile of discarded clothes lying heaped on her bed, choosing to ignore the fact that her cat lay smack in the middle of it all. Her eyes landed on her favorite red dress. She bit her lip.
"What about the red—did you like it better?"
"Yes, dear, quite pleasant."
"Pleasant?" Susan cringed. She didn't want to be pleasant. She wanted to be beautiful.
In a fluttering of nerves, she smoothed her hands over her waist one last time. No, the black would have to do. Turning she grabbed her wand and flicked it at the bed. Her cat hissed in protest as the clothes instantly bound to life, resorted, and re-hung themselves in her wardrobe. Susan collected her cat before she escaped to the sitting room and scratched her affectionately behind her ears, ignoring her feigned struggle to be free.
"Be good, Poplolly. I'll be back later—and don't mope, it isn't healthy."
The cat freed itself from her arms and landed with a disgruntled thump. Sauntering away with her tail swishing, she sat just out of grabbing distance, and began methodically grooming herself. She continued to clean each paw, ignoring Susan as she threw her wrap over her shoulders and hurriedly stepped out the door.
Smiling to herself while locking the door, Susan counted to three as she walked down the front steps. And there, at the tick of three, appeared Poplolly perched in the front window, her eyes glimmering in the light of the street lamp as she sat watching Susan descend the last of the front stairs. Susan threw a kiss over her shoulder and began to concentrate on where she was going.
Number ten, West Deeping…number ten, West Deeping…number ten, West Deeping…
Closing her eyes, she continued to murmur the address until she felt ready and then, stepping forward, she gave her wrist a slight twist. Landing with a hard jolt a moment later, Susan steadied herself and blinked up at the corner street sign.
She hadn't counted on making it here on her first try. Usually it took her at least two attempts to successfully Apparate to a place she'd never been to before.
That means…she glanced at her watch. Yes, definitely early.
She bit the inside of her cheek. Being early wasn't so bad… actually, no…it really was bad. Particularly for a first—she caught herself—for a first what? Date? Feeling the familiar tingle of nerves stirring in the pit of her stomach she took a deep breath in hopes of suppressing it. In the brief time between receiving the invitation this afternoon and arriving on the corner she had been so good, careful really, distracting herself with the simple task of getting ready, but now…actually here…she bit her lip. The anticipation nearly unsettled her. She closed her eyes.
I can do this.
She glanced up the lane. Neville's house must be close…yes, there was number one, West Deeping…it shouldn't be far at all…just a few more houses, really. It would take her no time at all to walk there, particularly if she could just convince her feet to comply.
They finally agreed.
Tick…tick…tick… her heels clicking out a steady rhythm on the otherwise silent pavement…tick…tick…tick…
She stopped walking…not far from where she had begun.
Fully annoyed with herself, Susan brushed her hair behind her ear. This was ridiculous. Neville had invited her to dinner with the Potters. He obviously wanted her to be there—but what if she was reading far too much into this invitation? There had been a brief moment during her last year of school that she had thought maybe, maybe, he might be interested in her, but it simply hadn't been the right time. A war was coming. With Professor Snape running the school, the Carrows administering ruthless punishment, and students rebelling—not to mention all the Wizards in Britain who were fleeing…hiding…dying…it just hadn't been the right time. So, the moment had passed. But now she wondered if perhaps the moment had not truly passed, but instead had just been . . . delayed.
Then again, how many years had it been since she'd last talked to him? And running into him this afternoon in Diagon Alley had been completely unplanned. Yes, she must be setting her expectations way too high.
Susan drew a breath and pressed her fidgeting hands against the smooth fabric of her dress. She certainly hadn't mistaken his eyes lingering on hers today in the market, or the way he had blushed when he touched her hand…no, she hadn't mistaken that…not at all…
A slight breeze stirred as she rounded a gentle curve in the lane and, glancing up, she took in the beautiful, starry sky, lit with a million stars. Susan drank it in fully, relieved for the distraction. Feeling some of the tension ebb out of her, she thought of the evenings that she had spent under the stars with her granddad. She had loved sitting out in the garden with him at night, listening to his stories, and watching the night sky.
Perhaps they would eat outside tonight…it was such a pleasant evening…
Number…Susan slowed, stopping just along the low stone wall that surrounded Neville's cottage. Her breath hitching a bit, she padded forward until her fingertips came to rest on the cool metal latch that held the wooden gate closed. Warm lamplight radiated from the windows, and the breeze that brushed across her face was full of smells tangible enough to taste. Blackberries and strawberries, hydrangeas and honeysuckle, they each swayed and mounded across the garden wall…welcoming her.
Bolstered, she tightened her fingers on the latch and quietly pulled it back. The wooden gate swung open effortlessly and, stepping in, she closed it behind her, shutting out the rest of the world. Brushing her fingers along the roughhewn planks of the gate, she turned toward the stone path. It was lined with thick moss and tiger lilies and together, accompanied by the glitter of glow-worms, they ushered her forward toward the limestone steps and the green front door. An umbrella sat propped against its frame, drying from an afternoon shower, and a pair of Wellingtons sat on the doormat with their treads caked in garden mud.
She paused, eager anticipation and pure nervousness mingling in a frantic dance on the floor of her stomach. She could not guess what this evening would hold, she could only hope…and she hoped for…what exactly? Another chance? Another try? No…no, what she hoped, what she truly hoped, was that finally, maybe, the right moment for them had just arrived.
She drew a deep breath and climbed the steps, the limestone having so weathered with use over time that her feet sank into the gentle downward curve at the center of them. Reaching the top, she steadied herself. I can do this…and with that, she rapped her knuckles on the door.
Neville checked on the lamb in the oven for what had to be the millionth time. It was going to burn—destiny had foretold it—it was bound to happen since he had offered to cook dinner for Susan…well, and for Harry and Ginny…but now really just for Susan.
What had he been thinking? He nervously threw the pair of oven mitts onto the dish drainer and ran a hand through his hair. Yes, definitely, pure insanity…he was slowly going insane.
All right, no use worrying. He stepped back from the oven and took mental note of his preparations. The knives chopped happily away at some lettuce and tomatoes with the cucumber and carrot standing by. The bread knife lay contentedly next to the loaf of bread, the slices lying neatly to one side. Perched pristinely on top the dresser sat the chocolate cake. Thank Merlin for magic, or he wouldn't have been able to properly ice it. A gloppy mess more like. The wine was uncorked and breathing on the table. So, all that was left now was to lay out the plates and cutlery. Certainly that was easy enough—his gran would be proud.
Neville went to the dresser and pulled out the plates, carefully counting to make sure that he had the correct number, and then did the same with the cutlery. The clock over the kitchen door pinged and he started, nearly scattering a few of the forks on the floor. He anxiously glanced at the time. It's still early. Neville straightened; everything's fine; just relax. Attempting to follow his own advice, he glanced around the kitchen in hopes of spotting Trevor but found that he was no where to be seen.
He's probably with Isabel.
Isabel was a female toad that had recently taken up residence under a fern by the small pond in Neville's garden, and Trevor was smitten. It was rare these days to see one without the other, and recently Neville would rather that he didn't see them at all. The toad mating season had just begun, and Neville had had the misfortune of stumbling across them at the most unfortunate times in the most unusual places.
Perhaps they had grown tired of the pond—which was the traditional place for toads to mate. Instead they seemed to find it much more delightful to utilize the unexpected in an effort to startle Neville—such as inside his discarded boot, or in the interior pocket of his cloak, or on the cover of his latest copy of Magical Fungi and Where to Find Them, or on his tube of toothpaste, or on top of the throw cushion that his gran had meticulously needle-pointed to match his front room.
He had lost count of the number of things he had tossed in the bin over the last week. And even worse, he shuddered to think where he hadn't found them. It was all very unsettling. There couldn't possibly be a room in his house that hadn't been tainted.
All he knew was at this point, Trevor had better stay outside in his toad hole tonight—he certainly didn't want Susan to innocently walk into the loo to find the duo perched on top the soap dish.
Neville opened the pantry door to retrieve the napkins.
Trevor and Isabel blinked innocently at him from on top a pack of Droobles Best Blowing Gum. Neville had just placed the pack of gum on the shelf that very morning.
"That's it, Trevor!" Neville burst, prying them off the gum. Trevor croaked loudly in protest, and Isabel jumped off the shelf in disdain. Scooping her up, Neville rushed her out to the garden. "I'm sorry, Isabel, but you simply must stay outside tonight. I'm sure Trevor will be along shortly."
Neville ran back into the kitchen to wash his hands, blatantly ignoring the fact that Trevor was sitting on the draining board nearly mad with indignant protest. He croaked loudly, his bellows staccatoing with anger and swelling his chest to nearly double its normal size.
"I don't care." Neville shook his head while rubbing his hands vigorously with disinfectant soap. "You have your own toad hole in the garden—a perfectly appropriate place that happens to not be my pantry!"
Rushing to dry his hands, he continued to ignore Trevor's incessant bellows and went to discard the tainted gum with a grimace. "Droobles Bubbles should never be used that way."
Trevor continued to bleat at him from the edge of the kitchen sink as Neville dropped the gum in the bin.
Neville's heart leapt in his chest, his hand still hovering over the bin. Susan?
Wait…no, that's Harry's voice.
Neville sprinted out to the sitting room to find Harry's head hovering in the brilliant green flames of the fireplace. Neville ran a hand through his hair and knelt down on the hearth.
"All right, Harry?"
"Hey, Neville. I'm all right, but…well…it's Ginny. Her practice ran long and she just got home." He glanced back, over his shoulder. "I think we're going to be a few minutes yet—she just stepped in the shower."
"No problem, take your time. I'll keep dinner warm."
There was a light knock at the front door. Neville scrambled to his feet, his heart leaping for the second time.
"What is it?" Harry tensed, clearly alarmed by Neville's sudden lurch.
"Oh…" Harry relaxed. "Susan?"
"Yeah, Susan Bones…I ran into her today at the market and invited her to dinner."
Harry's jaw went a bit slack. "You invited her to din—"
"Yeah, listen, got to run." Neville straightened his collar. "Just come over when you can."
Distracted, Neville missed the last of what Harry said as he dashed to the front hall. Nearly knocking over the coat rack as he rounded the corner, he stopped to steady it before glancing briefly in the hall mirror…he flattened his hair unnecessarily. Presentable enough, he hoped. Taking a deep breath he opened the door.
"I'm early." Susan apologized breathlessly. Her eyes shone in the lamplight.
"I'm glad." Neville grinned. "Come on in."
He stepped back to hold the door for her. She slipped by him smelling of lavender and mint, and he cleared his throat nervously.
"I hope that you didn't have any trouble finding the house?"
"Oh, no…not at all." She fluttered her hands. "In fact, that's why I'm so early."
"May I take your wrap?"
"Oh, yes—all right." Susan hastily removed the cloak from her shoulders, and handed it to him, before turning to explore the room.
Neville drew in a deep breath as his eyes swept over her. She looked…she looked beautiful. He swallowed, nearly dropping her cloak.
Mercifully, Susan didn't seem to notice his near fumble because she had bent to smell a violet that he had potted earlier that spring. The curtain of her dark hair swung forward to hide her face until she gently tucked the length of it back behind her ear. Suddenly realizing that he was watching her, Susan straightened and, hastily turning her back to the violet, blushed crimson. "I, uh, sorry…I just…violets…I love violets."
"That's all right." Neville smiled. "So do I."
Susan grinned with a small laugh. "Yes, I suppose you probably do."
Glancing down, Neville winced when he realized that he still held her cloak clutched tightly to his chest. He hastily turned to hang it, immensely glad for the distraction of fussing with the folds.
"Your home is lovely, Neville." She stepped toward him to study some photos of friends that he had framed and hung on the wall. "And the front garden, it's well—it's truly amazing, really."
"The front garden is mundane."
"What?" Susan stopped what she was doing to face him. Her eyes went wide. "You can't be serious—"
"No, what I mean is—it's entirely non-magical." Neville explained, leading her into the sitting room. "The back garden is where I'm free to do whatever I want with whatever I want—magical and non-magical alike. It's my retreat—my haven, really."
"That sounds so—so perfect. Are you able to spend a lot of time out there?"
He nodded with a small shrug. "Whenever I can—mainly after work and, of course, the weekends. It's coming along quite nicely now. It's particularly pleasant in the evenings when the weather is nice—you know, the garden and the stars and all that. I thought maybe we'd sit out there tonight. Does that sound, okay?"
She didn't seem to smile so much as radiate. "Yes, that sounds perfect."
Neville felt himself relax.
"Harry and Ginny are running a bit late, and I was just finishing up the last bits of dinner in the kitchen." Neville gestured toward the kitchen. "Would you like too—I mean, you're welcome to sit here if you like—but if you want, you can come with me…into the kitchen…while I finish up?"
"I'd love t—"
A large clamor erupted from the kitchen. As if all of the Hogwarts' suits of amour had burst into a million clanking and clattering bits. Neville and Susan jumped back from each other, turning in the direction of the ominous sound. A fresh round of breaking glass broke Neville out of his stupor and he ran for the kitchen, Susan close on his heels.
Neville stopped short in the doorway, dumbfounded with what he saw. It was as if a storm of some terrible ferocity had blown through the kitchen, knocking every pot, pan, plate, and cutting board onto the floor.All of his dinner preparations lay strewn and scattered on the floor, the knives still attempting to chase down and slice the escaping salad vegetables. The only thing left untouched was the chocolate cake, upon which Trevor sat, bellowing and bleating just as angrily as before. But something was different…he looked triumphant…and somewhat pleased with himself.
As if…as if…no…he couldn't have…
And then, as if to prove his point, Trevor hopped off the cake and with one heave pushed it onto the floor. A splatter of chocolate icing hit Neville in the face.
Neville had never considered the possibility. Ever. Trevor was obstinate, stubborn, annoying and slightly off-putting at times…but never so mad as to be destructive. He wiped the chocolate from his face, and Trevor croaked, a smaller much more feeble sounding croak. Frowning at the muted sound, Neville studied Trevor closely. Maybe he really did care for Isabel…
"Neville?" Susan took a small step toward him..
Neville attempted a smile. "We had a row—earlier, before you got here."
"You…um, you and Trevor?"
Neville nodded. "Apparently he's still mad."
"Apparently," she said, glancing up at the oven mitts dangling from the light fixture.
Neville kneeled down in front of Trevor on the dresser. "Listen—I'm sorry that I interrupted you and Isabel earlier…but, can the two of you just, you know, stay out of my things from now on?"
Trevor studied him for a moment and then blinked his bulging eyes. Neville took that as a yes, and leaned forward to scratch him on the head. Satisfied that they had come to some sort of agreement, Trevor croaked one last time before hopping off the dresser and across the kitchen towards the back door leaving chocolate footprints the entire distance.
The realization of the destruction around him finally dawning on him, Neville's shoulders sagged. The one thing he had been worrying about all day had finally come to fruition—and in front of Susan's eyes no less. What must she think?
"No, it isn't." Susan rushed to his side. "We can clean this up with the flip of a wrist—and it smells like the lamb is just about ready."
Neville jumped. The lamb! He'd totally forgotten about it—surely it had burnt by now. Rushing to the oven, he threw open the door to find it bubbling away quite merrily in its stew of vegetables. It would be ready soon. He smiled with relief. Maybe things weren't as pathetic as he thought.
"And—" Susan touched his arm, pointing at the kitchen table, "it appears as if Trevor left the bottle of wine untouched. Now, that's not so bad, is it?"
"No." Neville gave a small snort. "He probably knew I would need it after all this. I'm sorry…"
"For what?" Susan asked.
"I just—well, I wanted this to be perfect—and it isn't, and—"
"Stop. It's fine." Susan smiled, eyes twinkling. "And what's life without a bit of excitement? Come on, let's see what we can salvage out of all this."
They waded through the mess side by side, cleaning up the destruction. Susan pulled her hair up into a knot, slipped off her shoes, donned the only apron Neville had—a gaudy floral creation that his Gran had left behind one day—and scrubbed the floor, getting chocolate on her arms and inadvertently on her face. High patches of pink splotched her cheeks, and sweat glistened on her forehead. And all combined, Neville thought she had never looked more beautiful.
By the time they were done the kitchen sparkled, the lamb sat ready, a second salad had produced itself, and the wine had been poured. All as if nothing had ever happened.
Neville handed her the last stack of plates to return to the dresser.
"Is that all that's left?"
Neville nodded. Transfixed by a loose curl that hung down the line of her neck he fought the urge to tuck it back up. Susan glanced over at him, nervously swiping her cheeks with the back of her hands but only further smudging chocolate.
"I must look a sight."
"A beautiful sight."
"Oh, I—" Susan blushed a deep red, which Neville found he was growing quite fond of.
He swallowed, glancing at the kitchen door. Harry and Ginny would be arriving any moment. Gathering his courage, he took a step closer.
"I'm…I'm really glad you came tonight." He fumbled for her hand, and he thought he heard a small inhale from her as their fingers touched.
Suddenly seeming shy, Susan studied their interlocked hands as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world and…actually…Neville had to agree. There was something so very right about it.
"Susan…would you want to…on some other evening, you know, go out with me?" Neville hurriedly continued, "Somewhere where you don't have to cook or clean—and there aren't any disgruntled toads, of course."
Susan laughed, her dimples blossoming with her smile. Biting her lip, she looked up at him.
"I'd love too."
A hiss and a pop sounded on the grate in the sitting room.
That was Ginny's voice. Another hiss and pop soon followed and Neville knew that must be Harry on her heels.
"We're in the kitchen." Neville called out, his eyes never leaving Susan's. He grinned as she tilted her face and, forgetting that he had ever been nervous in the first place, Neville brushed the lock of hair that had been taunting him off her neck. Smiling, Susan squeezed his hand and together they walked out to meet the Potters.
Perhaps this evening wouldn't be so bad after all—in fact, it might turn out to be really rather perfect.