The Sugar Quill
Author: Ms. Avi  Story: Green Thumbs  Chapter: Green Thumbs
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

 

 

            Neville Longbottom was no longer the sorriest excuse for a wizard at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  He had graduated over a year ago.  Now, he was the sorriest excuse for a wizard at Barrow and Bough's Bewitching Botanicals.  Well, not really, but he certainly felt like it half of the time.  Nobody was better than he was at the actual work; every plant he touched seemed to lavishly return his affection.  It was everything else: cataloging, measuring, ordering and restocking, and he never seemed to do any of it quite to his employer's satisfaction.  Neville didn't really understand it himself.  He grasped the idea of the 'proper procedures' perfectly well, and the constant fear of failure no longer hung over him the way it once had.  He never felt so confident as he did when surrounded by hundreds of magical plants and trees, each one crying out for his attention.  It was when Mrs. Tibbits, his supervisor, came scurrying down one of the narrow greenhouse aisles with a cross expression on her face that the old, unpleasant smack of uncertainty loomed up inside of him.  The loveliness of one bright, sunlit morning in early March was threatened in just such a way when Neville heard the telltale snapping of Mrs. Tibbits's patent-leather shoes on the greenhouse floor, heading unmistakably in his direction.  He stood from his stool in the middle of the Giggling Lilac bushes, failing to suppress a low groan and wondering glumly which thing he'd gotten wrong this time.

            "Mr. Longbottom," Mrs. Tibbits said as she approached him, her voice snapping as sharply as her loafers on the paving stones, "did you send that owl with the order for potting soil yesterday, as I instructed?"

            Neville groaned again, the familiar sinking feeling accentuated by his emptying lungs.  He looked over at his workstation against the wall and saw the potting soil order form sitting most conspicuously on the top of a large, disorderly pile of paperwork.        "No I didn't, Mrs. Tibbits, I'm very sorry," said Neville with the air of someone reciting a well-rehearsed poem.  "I had it all ready to go, and then I got distracted by the Giant Bursting Aloes--they started popping early, and we hadn't gotten the nets over all of them yet, so Jack and I dragged some burlap out of storage to rig something up, and then it took us forever to find all of the buds, since they kept wriggling out of their containers--"

            "That's all very interesting, Mr. Longbottom, but it is no excuse for neglecting to do something as simple as sending out an order!" snapped Mrs. Tibbits, her nostrils flaring.  "We've got that shipment of Carnivorous Hyacinths coming in today and nothing to pot them with!  I suggest you go find something suitable before the shipment arrives, or Mr. Barrow will have one of our heads, and I'm fairly certain it won't be mine!"

            Mrs. Tibbits stalked away, her arms stiff and her hands clenched into fists.  Neville sighed dispiritedly as she left, wondering where on earth he could get ten cases of potting soil in the next few hours.  A young witch with a large bucket of cut flowers strolled up the aisle Mrs. Tibbits had just vacated, smiling reassuringly at him.

            "She never misses a chance to drop Mr. Barrow's name into the conversation, does she?" the girl asked, shifting the bucket to one side.

            "No, she doesn't," said Neville, smiling sadly. 

            "Don't worry, Neville," said the girl, leaning toward him and shifting the bucket again.  "I've met Mr. Barrow, and if that man cares a whit about Carnivorous Hyacinths, I'll eat the entire shipment myself."  She flashed him a mischievous grin.

            Neville laughed.  "Thanks, Peggy," he said, grinning as well.

            "Any time," said Peggy, with a playful wink.  She hoisted the bucket to get a firmer grip, and followed Mrs. Tibbits into the shop attached to the main greenhouse. 

            Neville watched her disappear into the shop, heaving another sigh.  Peggy Durwin was Mrs. Tibbits's assistant in the shop, and was only two years older than Neville.  She was very beautiful, and very kind, and very happily engaged to a handsome professional Quidditch player.  It's the story of my life, thought Neville dejectedly.  He untied his apron and tossed it onto his workstation along with the pruning shears he'd been using to trim the lilacs.  He'd gotten used to wearing Muggle clothing during his time at Hogwarts, since it had been the fashion trend at the time.  He continued to wear them after graduation, much to the chagrin of his overbearing grandmother.  But he found them so much more comfortable and easy to work in than the wizarding robes she wanted him to wear.  Since the events of his seventh year at Hogwarts, and his subsequent increase in self-confidence, he'd taken quiet pleasure in doing certain things the way he wanted to do them, in spite of his grandmother's protests.  So he climbed into the clunky old company truck sporting a pair of jeans, an oxford shirt, a knit vest and white tennis shoes, smiling to himself as he lowered a pair of aviator sunglasses over his eyes.  He might be about to lose his job, but at least he looked good.  He started up the old truck with a tap from his wand, pulled out of the greenhouse lot, and chugged away down the muddy dirt road toward the nearest village.

            Barrow and Bough's Bewitching Botanicals was located about four or five miles away from the village of Cairn-in-Arden in Warwickshire.  The village was quite small, and had no wizarding families that Neville knew of.  He stopped at the tiny flower boutique on the main street to ask the owner where he might find ten cases of potting soil.

            "The only place around here to carry that kind of quantity is McAllister's, but it might be too early in the season even for them.  'Bout two miles out of town heading west.  Can't miss it," said the boutique proprietor; a plump, rosy-faced woman who eyed Neville as though she suspected he might be playing a little joke on her.  He thanked her, hopped back into the truck, and drove out of Cairn-in-Arden with the sun shining merrily in his face.

            The woman's directions proved accurate enough.  After several minutes of driving, Neville spied two long greenhouses stretching out to his right and a small building with a flag bearing the words "McAllister's Garden Supplies" fluttering next to the door.  He pulled into the lot and parked the truck near the small building.  His was the only vehicle in the lot, apart from the small pickup truck that bore the same insignia as the flag.  He walked over to the building, peered inside to make sure it was open, and entered.  A young man who looked to be about the same age as Neville sat behind the counter at the back, his feet up next to the register and a magazine open on his lap.  A little bell rang as Neville pulled the door open, and the boy glanced over at him, a bored and slightly sleepy look on his face. 

            "Hello," said Neville pleasantly to the boy.  "I was wondering if you have any potting soil?"

            The boy blinked, turning the page of his magazine and looking Neville over with the same bored expression.

            "On the shelf to your left," the boy said in a lazy drawl.

            "Oh, well," said Neville, casting a glance at the three 90-litre bags of potting soil on the shelf to his left, "I need a bit more than that, I'm afraid.  I'll need about ten cases.  That's if there are five bags to a case."

            The boy flipped another page of his magazine, staring at Neville as if he'd suddenly sprouted antlers. 

            "We don't have that much," drawled the boy, shifting his feet on the counter.  Neville frowned.

            "Are you sure?  The owner of the flower shop in town said you might have that much in stock."

            The boy sighed irritably, tossing the magazine on the counter and standing from his chair.

            "Hang on, I'll check," he said, exiting the building through a door that faced the greenhouses.  Neville spent the next ten minutes browsing the shelves, taking great interest in all of the paraphernalia common to Muggle gardeners and marveling at the differences, as well as the similarities, to the tools and supplies with which he was familiar.  The boy returned with another person in tow; a girl with wavy, dark blonde hair that fell just to her shoulders, pale blue eyes, and fair skin with a delicate pattern of freckles over her nose.  She looked so similar to the sleepy young man that Neville guessed they must be siblings, although he didn't find the boy nearly as attractive as this girl.

            "You're looking for ten cases of potting soil?" the girl asked with a tiny wrinkle between her eyebrows.

            "Yes," said Neville.  "I…er…work at a nursery nearby, and we don't have enough potting soil to cover a shipment of Car--er--a shipment of hyacinths we're expecting later this afternoon."  Neville felt the blood rushing to his face as he conveniently left out the fact that the blunder at the root of this problem had been his.

            "That's a lot of hyacinths," said the girl, her expression clearing and a smile breaking over her face like a sudden ray of sunshine.

            "Yes, it is," said Neville again, almost laughing with relief that she didn't seem to think him as strange as the young man had.

            "Well," sighed the girl, running a gloved hand across her brow, leaving speckles of dirt all over her hair and an earthy smudge on her forehead, "you'll clear us out, but the distributor in Leam owes me a favor, so we should be fine.  The season hasn't really picked up yet, anyway."

            "Don't think Mum n' Dad would like you helping the competition," said the boy loudly from his seat behind the counter, the magazine back on his lap.

            "Well, they left me in charge while they're away, so it's really up to me, isn't it, Leland?" asked the girl, casting the boy an annoyed glare.  "Pay no attention to my brother, Mister…?"

            "Longbottom.  But please, call me Neville," he said, inclining his head toward her.

            "Neville," repeated the girl, smiling once more.  "My brother considers anything that doesn't involve either punk rock or football a complete waste of time, so we'll be ignoring his opinion for the duration of your visit, I think."  She stuck her tongue out at Leland, who pulled a face at her and flipped another page of his magazine.  "My name is Lucy McAllister.  If you will pull your truck around to the far end of the first greenhouse, I'll help you load up."

            "Certainly, I'd appreciate it," said Neville, overjoyed.  "Er…how much do I owe you, then?" 

            "Oh, right," said Lucy, pulling off her gloves, walking to the register and shoving her brother's feet out of the way.  She punched a few keys with the speed of an expert and gave him the sum.  For once in his life Neville had thought ahead, and discovered to his own astonishment that he had more than enough Muggle money in his wallet to cover the bill.  Neville and Lucy spent the rest of the time talking, or rather; Lucy told animated and highly entertaining stories about her brother, her parents, and the shop, while Neville asked a question here and there and laughed heartily at her jokes.  He took a great deal longer than was necessary to arrange the cases in the back of the truck.

            "Well," he said when he could no longer pretend to be working.  "I guess I should get this soil to where it's needed.  I can't thank you enough for all of your help."

            "Not at all," she said brightly.  "Be sure to tell everyone over at Barrow and Bough's Bewitching Botanicals that McAllister's is always here, should you ever need another helping hand."

            Neville started.  Lucy was not a witch, how could she possibly know where he worked?  Lucy saw his confusion and (Neville's heart did a little somersault) she giggled.  She pointed to the door of his truck, where the Barrow and Bough's logo shone in stark contrast to the pathetic state of the truck on which it was painted.

            "Funny name.  I've never heard of it before today.  I'll have to drop by sometime and say hello."

            Neville's heart, which had been somersaulting only a moment ago, sank like a stone.  As a Muggle, Lucy could spend the rest of her life looking for Barrow and Bough's and never find it.  He quickly hitched the smile back onto his face, however, and said with sincerity,

            "I certainly wish you would."

            Lucy grinned, and Neville's heart switched from somersaults to cartwheels. 

            "I'll see you later, then," she said, waving as she returned to the greenhouse.

            "See you later," he agreed, returning her wave and desperately hoping that he would see her again very soon.

 

~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

 

           

            Neville's job was the type where one is largely left to his or her own devices, which suited Neville rather well, although it also meant that there were very few things to distract him from his own thoughts.  He usually valued this time, spending it lost in daydreams and self-reflection.  After meeting Lucy McAllister, however, spending too much time alone with his thoughts and daydreams came close to causing disaster on two or three occasions, since he found it more and more difficult to concentrate on anything other than the memory of her smiling, freckled face.  The first time Peggy Durwin asked Neville what was bothering him, he feigned surprise and amusement at the question, but thanked her for asking.  The second time she asked him was just after he had finished watering the Howling Hostas with the fertilizer meant for the Spitting Saguaros, resulting in the hurried evacuation of greenhouse four as the Hostas erupted in a chorus of ear-splitting screeches and the Saguaros began shooting hundreds of spiny needles in every direction.

            While Peggy plucked out the Saguaro spines lodged in Neville's back, she managed to slowly coax the story out of him. 

            "But Neville, that is brilliant!" she squealed excitedly when he confessed the source of his preoccupation.

            "She's a Muggle, Peggy," muttered Neville mopily.

            "So?" asked Peggy as she pulled out a nastily barbed spine, causing Neville to whimper unhappily.  "My father is a Muggle, and that didn't stop my mum from using every trick in the book to land him as soon as she could manage it."

            "That's just the problem," Neville moaned.  "I don't know any 'tricks.'  And even if I did, I'd only botch it up like I always do."

            "Neville," said Peggy sternly, walking around to face him, "you are too down on yourself.  You are a perfectly wonderful young man.  I'm sure this girl would think so too, if you'd only give her the chance to find out.  She's a Muggle.  All that means is that you have to go to her.  And what's more, you have a ready-made excuse to visit her again!"  Peggy thrust the tweezers she'd been using to remove the Saguaro spines from his back at him with a determined and slightly sneaky look on her face.

            "Don't move," she admonished, and marched away toward the shop.  She returned a few minutes later, laden with the largest and most colorful bunch of flowers Neville had ever seen.

            "Here," she said, unloading the bouquet into his arms, "Take these to her and thank her for her help, and don't you dare come back without a dinner engagement."

            "But--Hostas--fertilizer--" sputtered Neville, alarmed.

            "No one is going back in there until the Saguaros are out of needles and the Hostas have calmed down, and that will be at least an hour or two," said Peggy.  "Besides, it might be best if Mrs. Tibbits doesn't see you for a while."

            He certainly couldn't argue with that.  Climbing back into the truck, with the humongous bouquet taking up the whole of the passenger seat, he made his way back through Cairn-in-Arden to McAllister's Garden Supplies.  As he pulled into the lot, Neville felt a surge of anxiety mixed with a dash of excitement.  Would Lucy be there?  Would she remember him?  It had been almost two weeks since his last visit, after all.  He scooped the bouquet into his arms and nervously carried it to the small building in which he'd first met Lucy.  He backed slowly into the door and stepped inside.  Since the flowers obscured most of his view, it took him a moment to see that he was alone.  He set the bouquet gingerly on the counter and stood apart from it, looking around the room and swinging his arms awkwardly.  After ten minutes of waiting, he left the small building and headed toward the first greenhouse, his anxiety growing as he drew closer. 

            Neville had never been inside a Muggle greenhouse before.  As he entered, his nose was overcome with an intoxicating, heady scent that made him inhale deeply several times.  He meandered down the main aisle, examining every plant and flower, recognizing many, but discovering quite a few totally unfamiliar ones as well.  He was nearly to the end of the aisle when he saw a figure dressed in overalls and a wide-brimmed straw hat hunched over the ground, working furiously at the foot of a large trellis with a forked spade.  He paused behind the person, bouncing on the balls of his feet with great apprehension.  He was just about to make his presence known when the person looked over at him and scrambled to stand up.  Neville recognized the smattering of freckles underneath the straw hat, and felt the heat rising to his face when Lucy beamed at him, dusting the earth from her overalls with equally dirty gloved hands.  She pulled off her gloves, whisked the hat from her head, and tugged a small object attached to thin cords from each ear.  When she saw Neville staring at them quizzically, she laughed and said,

            "I'm sorry; this is why I didn't hear you come in!"  She pulled a small device from the right pocket of her overalls.  Neville vaguely recognized it from his Muggle Studies class at Hogwarts, and remembered that it had something to do with music.

            "To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" she asked, smiling from ear to ear.

            Neville stared at her in silence for quite a few moments, completely mesmerized.  When his brain had finally registered that she had asked him a question to which he ought to have already responded, he spoke, tripping over his own tongue in his haste to answer.

            "I, er…wanted to thank you again for all of your help.  You really saved my neck," he added without thinking.

            "I did?" she asked, intrigued. 

            "Er…"  Neville decided that there was nothing for it but to confess.  "Yes, you did.  It was my fault that we were out of potting soil.  I tend to forget things like that."  He blushed even more furiously.

            "Well, then, I'm twice as glad to have been of some assistance," said Lucy, blowing impatiently at the strands of hair that had fallen over her face when she'd removed her hat.  "You know, I tried to find your nursery in the directory to see how you turned out, and it wasn't listed.  I've asked around at a few places, and no one that I've spoken to has even heard of Barrow and Bough's Bewitching Botanicals.  I thought perhaps I'd misread your truck."

            "It's…not a very big nursery," Neville lied, each word costing him dearly.  He tried to make up for the fib by adding, "It's rather out-of-the-way and difficult to find, actually."

            "Ah, I see," said Lucy, nodding.  "I shall have to have you write out the directions for me, in that case."

            Neville's heart leapt to his throat.  He knew that he needed to change the subject immediately or he'd find himself in an even stickier situation, and so, trying not to panic, he blurted out the first thing that popped into his head.

            "Would you like to go to dinner with me sometime?"

            Lucy blinked.  Neville hardly thought it possible, but an even warmer smile broke over her face.  He even thought he saw the hints of a blush in her cheeks.

            "I would really like that," she said, the blush becoming unmistakable.

            Neville's heart swelled in his chest.  He had done it.  He had asked her.  And not only that, but miracle of miracles, she had said yes.  Then he realized that he was completely unfamiliar with the local Muggle villages, and that he had no idea where to go or what to do.

            "There is a new restaurant in Leam that I've been eyeing.  Would you mind very much if we went there?"  Lucy asked, gently biting her lower lip.

            Neville felt such a beautiful rush of relief that he could have kissed her for it.  A lot. 

            "Sure," he said, through a huge grin. "That sounds great."

            "Would this weekend be alright for you?  Saturday, maybe, around six?"

            "Yeah, that would be fine for me," said Neville, still slightly distracted by the thought of his lips on hers.  "I'll meet you here, then," he added, breaking the reverie with a little shake of his head.

            "Excellent."  Lucy smiled, and then bit her lip again, which Neville was beginning to recognize as a sign of uncertainty and shyness.

            "I reckon I'd better get back to work," said Neville, feeling dreadfully uncertain and shy himself, though he wanted to say something to make her smile once more before he left.  All he could think to say was, "I'm looking forward to Saturday already."

            That did the trick. 

            "So am I," she said, giggling.  "See you then."

            "See you then," he agreed, walking toward the exit and waving as he went through it.

 

~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

 

            Neville had moved out of his grandmother's home the day after he graduated from Hogwarts.  He would have skipped going back altogether, since he'd already arranged for his own flat while still at school, but he hadn't wanted to hurt her feelings.  Considering the amount of time she spent in his flat, however, having an independent address didn't seem to make much difference.  She had invited herself over for lunch that Saturday.   Neville continuously checked his wristwatch, and when she still showed no signs of leaving as 5 pm came and went, he knew he'd have to say something.  Sighing in quiet resignation, he spoke to her as he handed her a third cup of tea.

            "I'll need to wash and get dressed in a few minutes, Grandmother," he said, avoiding her eyes.

            "Dressed?  Dressed for what?" she asked sharply.

            "I…have a date," Neville said, cringing in anticipation of what might follow this admission.

            His grandmother's head swung around, and she nearly sloshed the tea out of her cup.  She stared at him with a mixture of surprise, incredulity, and something like hope written on her face.

            "A date?  With whom?  Someone I know?"

            "No, you don't know her," said Neville.  "Her name is Lucy McAllister."

            "McAllister?"  His grandmother frowned slightly in deliberation.  "I don't believe I'm familiar with anyone of that surname."

            "No, well, you wouldn't be," said Neville slowly.  "She's a Muggle."

            Her face fell so subtly that Neville might have missed it, had he not been watching carefully for her reaction. 

            "Ah, I see," she breathed, taking a sip of her tea.

            "That's not a problem, is it, Grandmother?"  Neville asked, a tiny flicker of anger sparking to life in his chest.  She glared up at him from her seat on his sofa, visibly affronted.

            "Of course not," she said tersely.  "Don't be preposterous."

            "I really like her," said Neville, still watching her closely.  "She's nice, and funny, and kind, and very pretty."

            "I'm sure she is," said his grandmother, her lips hovering over her teacup.

            Neville struggled to keep his temper.  He found that for some inexplicable reason, her words sounded almost derisive, though he knew they had been nothing of the sort.  He knew that even though his grandmother fostered an abiding pride in her pureblood heritage, she was no bigot.  So he did not understand why he felt the sudden urge to be argumentative and belligerent, and he was just far enough beyond the angst of his teenage years to realize that he was being irrational as well.  But he could not ignore the nagging feeling that was quickly building inside him. He moved around the side of the sofa to stand before her, staring down at her as he spoke in a low, threatening voice.

            "In fact, I hope to see a lot of Lucy McAllister.  You might even get the chance to meet her someday, if my luck holds.  And when that day comes," Neville said, shaking from the amount of adrenaline it took for him to speak to his grandmother in this way, "I promise you, Grandmother, if you treat her with anything but the utmost courtesy, I will never speak to you again."

            His grandmother stared at him, her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open.  After a moment of shocked silence, she blinked, and the surprise in her eyes changed abruptly back into the sharp, straightforward stare they usually held.

            "Neville, the only instance in which I should ever fail to be gracious to any of your friends is if one of them should hurt you in any way," she said, regarding him steadily.

            Neville's ire deflated under his breastbone like the air being squished from a balloon.  He stood there, watching as she calmly took another sip of her tea, and having absolutely no idea what to say.  He finally settled on something simple.

            "Thank you, Grandmother."

            "You're quite welcome, dear," she said, the tiniest hint of a smile touching the corners of her mouth.

 

~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

 

            Neville arrived at McAllister's Garden Supplies a few minutes after 6pm, having taken much longer than usual to decide on what to wear.  The little building in which he'd first met Lucy was dark and obviously closed for the evening, but he saw a light on in the first greenhouse, and made his way inside.  Again, the same sweet, intoxicating fragrance washed over him the moment he stepped into the greenhouse, and he drank in the scent with a grin.  Lucy was standing near the end of the long aisle, clipping the spent flowers from a row of vines that clung to the trellis she'd been working with when he'd last seen her.  She looked very different from that occasion, however.  Instead of grimy overalls, she was wearing a pretty floral dress, and half of her wavy hair was pulled back from her face into a silver clasp.  Neville inhaled sharply as she turned toward him and smiled.  She looked even lovelier than he had remembered.  The effect was only slightly spoiled by the fact that she was still wearing her dirty gloves.

            "I didn't hear your truck pull in!" she exclaimed, pulling off the gloves and tossing them, along with the shears, into a bucket on the floor.

            "Err…" said Neville.  He hadn't driven the truck, he had Apparated.  How, by Merlin's beard, was he going to explain that one?

            "I didn't drive the truck," he said, doing some of the fastest thinking of his life.  "I…er…had a friend drop me off."

            "Well, that explains it," said Lucy, smiling.  "I hope you're not faint of heart, then, because that means you'll have to ride with me into Leam."

            Neville laughed, relief and gratitude overwhelming him once again with the desire to give her a good, long kiss.

            They both laughed many, many more times throughout their evening together in Leamington Spa.  Lucy repeatedly exclaimed over the bouquet of flowers he had left for her, saying that she had never in her life known fully-bloomed lilies to last that long, and had never before encountered roses that smelled quite so beautiful.  Neville asked her about the wonderful smell in her greenhouse, and she said,

            "Oh, that," and laughed.  "You're not the only one who has trouble with getting orders right.  I thought I'd ordered a few dozen bougainvillea vines, and ended up with honeysuckle instead."

            "Honeysuckle," Neville murmured.

            "Lonicera x brownii," said Lucy, nodding.  "I suppose if I had to get the order wrong, at least it was a pleasant error.  My mother is usually the one who does all of the ordering.  I'm still getting used to it."

            "Do your mother and father own and run the business?" he asked with interest.

            "Yes," she said, a small and slightly wry grin on her lips.  "They're on an extended holiday, visiting family in the United States.  At least, that's their story.  I'm quite sure that the real reason they left, and put me in charge, was to try to discourage me from following in their footsteps."

            "What do you mean?" Neville asked, aiming the piece of potato on his fork for his mouth and missing horribly, never taking his eyes off of Lucy.

            "They want me to go to medical school," she said, with a little roll of her eyes.  "And I told them that all I want to do is work in the greenhouses.  Maybe even take over the business someday.  Mum seemed okay with it, but Dad was none too pleased.  I think the holiday was his idea."  She shrugged.  "It's been a struggle for them, from time to time, owning a small business and the insecurities that come with that.  Dad doesn't want me to have to go through anything like the hard times he and Mum have had to deal with.  But this is the only thing I want to do.  I was born for it.  He'll come around, I'm sure," she said, smiling again.

            "I feel the same way," said Neville.  "About working with plants.  I think it's what I was born to do.  It's what I'm best at."

            After dinner, they took a leisurely stroll around the gardens by the river, with Lucy pointing out all of the historical and exotic trees.  Neville tried his best to pay attention, but kept getting distracted by her smile, and how she gestured with her small, lithe hands, and the way she tilted her head just a bit to one side when he spoke, and the way she tried and mostly failed not to laugh at her own jokes.  He was so distracted, and she so enthusiastic, that before either one of them had noticed, twilight had become dusk, and dusk had become nighttime.  Neville only realized how late it was when he had to peer through the darkness to examine the buds on a shrub Lucy had just remarked upon.  He checked his watch.  They had been walking in the gardens for over three hours.  It hadn't felt nearly that long to Neville.

            "I've just realized, it's very late," said Neville, reluctantly.

            "So it is."  Lucy laughed, looking at her own watch.  "I suppose we'd better start back then, hadn't we?"

            Neville was just about to answer her when he caught a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye.  A dark figure was swooping along the shadows behind them, moving like quicksilver on a path that would lead it directly behind Lucy.  It moved so fast that Neville just barely had enough time to draw his wand from his pants pocket before it was close enough for him to recognize it; a bugbear.  Its jaws were wide open when it lunged, fangs bared and claws reaching for Lucy's back.

            "Petrificus Totalus!" Neville shouted, his wand pointed directly at its snarling muzzle. 

            Lucy gasped, whirling around to see what Neville had done, her eyes wide and her face quickly losing color.  She had instinctively moved toward him when he pointed his wand behind her, and when she saw the crumpled, motionless form of the bugbear on the ground, she gave a little scream and backed into him.

            "It's alright," he said, steadying her with his free hand.  "It's a bugbear.  They're nasty little things, but they're only really dangerous if they catch you unawares."  He stretched out with a foot and gave the creature a smart little jab.  It was about the size of a dog, though its features looked like a cross between a wild boar and a misshapen bear.  "I'm surprised this one tried to attack us together; they usually only go for people who are alone.  We must be too near its den."

            Lucy stared in silence at the bugbear for quite a few moments.  When she finally tore her eyes away from it, she slowly looked up at Neville's face, then down to his wand, and back up to his face.

            "What…how did you do that?" she asked in a small, frightened voice.

            Neville looked at her, the old, horrible sinking feeling coming over him so suddenly that it made him feel sick to his stomach.  He swallowed, dropped his hand from her shoulder, and took a deep breath before he answered her.

            "I'm a wizard, Lucy," he said softly.  "I can use magic.  I know that might sound impossible, but it's true."

            She looked at his wand again, her lips parted slightly.  Then her eyes returned to the bugbear.

            "And this--thing--could have…could have killed me?" she whispered.

            "Perhaps, but not while I was here," he assured her earnestly.

            "So you…" she breathed, turning to stare into his face, "you saved my life?"

            "Well--I--" Neville stammered, unsure what to say.  Words abruptly became unnecessary, however, when Lucy threw her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately on the mouth.  Neville had dreamed about this moment for so long that he could hardly believe it was actually happening.  His brain took a moment or two to verify the reality of her kiss.  Once his lips had received the message, he kissed her back, wrapping his arms around her waist.  When they finally broke apart, Neville was amazed to see the expression Lucy wore.  She was staring at him, her eyes bright and filled with something like wonder.

            "I knew you were different, from the moment I met you," she whispered.  "But I had no idea just how extraordinary you are.  My hero."

            The heat rose to Neville's face, and a wide, goofy grin spread over his mouth.

            "I'm not a hero," he said, trying not to laugh.

            "You're my hero," Lucy insisted, locking her hands behind his neck.  "And don't try to tell me any different."

            The muscles in Neville's face began to ache, protesting his huge grin, though he truly could not have cared less.  She continued to stare at him in awe, and he returned her gaze, doubting very much that he'd ever be able to let her go.

            "So, you're really a wizard, then?" she asked, grinning herself.  "That must be…incredible."

            "Incredible," he agreed, hugging her close.

//
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