Chapter 44 Chapter Text They soon were in Hogsmeade. Hermione met up with Neville promptly after class. Severus let her know that he'd meet them there. And so it was with trepidation that the two colleagues walked to Hogsmeade, hand in trembling hand. It had just begun to snow - not very hard, just a light dusting. It melted even before it landed on the ground. Hermione did notice, though, that Neville was prone to shivering. He was wearing several layers of clothing, and what looked like two mufflers, and even still he clutched his briefcase tightly to him as though it could help insulate him better. "Poor dear," Hermione said, and wrapped her arm around him. Her hip came closer to his, until it softly squished into his bony thigh. Her plump love-handles filled in some of the space between his rickety bones and her own, and she felt him breathing fitfully. "Poor both of us," Neville said, trying in vain to keep his teeth from chattering. "We're both about to be skewered, 'Mione." Despite the fact that the very thought of getting skewered by Severus Snape made a blush of desire rise on Hermione's cheeks, she maintained her dignity and brushed her bushy hair back off of her forehead with a gentle gloved hand. "You're making such a fuss," she said, and then she stopped under the first streetlight of Hogsmeade It was glowing with purple and yellow fairy lights, and the next lantern ahead of them was lit up in green and orange. The lights inside moved, and the effect was rather like looking at light reflected off of a swimming pool - it moved gently and bumblingly, illuminating the area in beautiful unearthly colors. "Are you sure you're all right to do this?" asked Hermione seriously, staring into Neville's eyes. Granted, she was partly making an excuse to stop, since she was already quite out of breath from their brief walk uphill to Hogsmeade. "We don't have to do it. You can go back if you want to." "No," Neville said, with gritted teeth. There was determination in his face, and she knew she wouldn't be able to dissuade him even if she didn't think it was the best thing. As it happened, she thought that doing this was, indeed, the best thing for them - but she couldn't be certain. "I'm doing it." "Great," Hermione said, "then stop complaining about it." She pulled his hand and kept walking along the path, letting the lights dance across their faces as they went. "It's bloody Severus Snape," moaned Neville, but there was something sporting about his complaining, Hermione now realized. It was somewhat for show, but also to cover up how terrified Neville was. "I'll complain as much as I bloody well please." "Then you won't be getting any dessert," Hermione said stiffly, and the threat worked like a charm. Oh yes. Whatever trouble Neville had been having with his appetite was gone now. Or at least, he had an increased interest in food. Hermione blushed with pride and the heat of desire as Neville stopped them. Abruptly, he put his hand on the back of her head, and he pressed his lips against hers. And then, for the first time since that doomed night in the gazebo, he kissed her deeply. Hermione felt her head spin. Neville had been mostly too ill to even think about anything other than gentle cuddling for the duration of their new relationship. This... this was new. And foretold good things. And there was a spark of vitality in his kiss that made her nearly swoon in excitement. The way he moved his tongue around her mouth, it was unagile and unpracticed, but the way he curled his tongue under hers, the way he sucked her lower lip, the way he pressed against her so forcefully... Kissing Neville was so different than Snape. Snape was languid, sensual, and erotic in how he approached kissing her. But there was also a sense of lackadaisicalness sometimes, a sort of affected indifference. Not always, of course - there were times when he was incredibly possessive and needy, and then his kisses lost that sense of feline coldness in favor of a more feral approach. But kissing Neville was altogether different. Perhaps the best comparison would be between a Labrador retriever and a cat. Neville's kissing of her was earnest and wholehearted. She had no doubt that he was, in that moment, wholly realizing their kiss. It wasn't nearly as sensual as kissing Snape, but then again, it didn't have to be. So much was communicated in just the way Neville's tongue curled around hers, a sense of warmth and affection that seemed impossible for Severus to emanate. It felt good. And it felt even better to know that her enjoyment of Neville's kiss was completely sanctioned in the context of her relationship with Severus. Indeed, Hermione nearly felt faint at the knowledge that she had won the admiration of two very different men. She felt, immediately, like she didn't deserve it. Her mood suddenly plummeted, and as it did, her engagement with Neville stopped. She lowered her head and, taking a deep breath, she pressed her face into Neville's shoulder. "Why do you like me?" she murmured, feeling despondent. "I don't... I don't understand at all." "Hermione," said Neville, clearly uncertain of what to say or do. He drew his arms carefully around her, and then pulled her tightly against him. She felt slightly uncomfortable, given how little meat there was on him, but she reciprocated, wrapping her arms around his barely convex middle. Only his many layers of clothes made him at all bearable to hug for comfort. Then again, his grasp was strong and firm around her, and she felt his fingers kneading slightly at her love-handles. He was tentative, exploring. It certainly didn't seem like his preference, but he did seem like he was receptive to figuring out what on earth she liked about being a bigger person. "You're the most brilliant witch or wizard I know," Neville said, and Hermione felt him rocking slightly, and she swayed along with him. "And it's an honor to be with you. How could anyone not like you?" "Thank you," she said, and she sighed. She felt like he hadn't said what she needed to hear. And fortunately, Neville was quick enough to read her. "Is there something else bothering you?" he asked softly, and he pressed a kiss into her soft buttery cheek. "I mean," Hermione said, and sighed. She buried her face thoroughly in his shoulder. His woolen robe was rough against her face, but it smelled warm and comforting. He didn't use any cologne that she could tell, but he smelled neutral and good, like cake batter or beeswax. "I wish people bothered to tell me something other than how smart I am. I'm... a bit burned out on it." She hadn't even realized it herself until she said it. The words hung heavy in the darkness that surrounded them, interrupted only by the flaring fairy-lights that moved across the shadows. "Well," Neville said, and he was clearly trying to scounge up something else to say. "I... well, 'Mione, you're so much more than your mind. You've... you've got such kindness in you. Such - such love. Including for those who don't normally get a lot of love from the world." "What," Hermione snorted, taking a deep breath. "You mean houselves?" "Yes," Neville said, "but also Snape." She pulled away from him just enough to look into his eyes. There was just a bit of bitterness there, but mostly admiration. "You think it's testament of me being *good,* me being with him?" Hermione asked. "I do want you to know, Neville, that the thought hasn't crossed my mind. Please don't think of my relationship with Severus as one where I'm trying to fix him, or something." "Oh, but aren't you?" Neville asked, and there was a sadness in his eyes. "Isn't this what you're doing with me? Fixing me?" "I... that makes it sound as if the humanity is taken out of my relationships with you both," Hermione said, though her conversation with McGonagall weighed heavily in the back of her mind. "Both of you deserve to be loved, and loved without the indignity of the assumption that I know how to fix either of you." She looked around them, looking back from whence they'd come. The cobblestone path to the castle was broken in places after years of poor curatorship, and also the recent battle. The trees were barren and cold in the darkness, and shook in the wind. "I don't want you to feel like I'm trying to fix you," she added, "I want to be helpful to you, but only so much as you yourself want." "But what if I can't help but feel like I'm just a project?" Neville asked, and she saw that there were tears in his eyes. They were brimming, but hadn't come to spill down his face yet. "You're just going to have to trust me," said Hermione, "and take what I say at face value. Otherwise..." She pressed her hand against his chest, and she leaned in closer, looking down. "Otherwise this can't continue." "I... is it all right if we say it's a work in progress, then?" Neville asked, after bated breath. "Taking you at face value?" "Certainly we can," Hermione said. And she reached up and kissed Neville on his wan cheek. "Human relationships are complex and mysterious things. I don't expect you to be inhuman." "All right," Neville said, in what sounded like a satisfied grumbly way, and he clasped his arms around her one last time. "Then let's get on to the pub, shall we?" "Yes," Hermione said, and she looked up at him. He seemed a bit more copacetic now, and she was glad to see that the worry seemed partially erased from his face. "Let's go."