The Sugar Quill
Author: Dogstar (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Chocolate and Spice  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Hannah stared out of the kitchen window at the lowering sky outside

This story was written in February 2007, and posted first on quillerfluffers for Valentine’s Day, in response to the combined prompts “chocolate” and “conflict.”

 It has been tweaked slightly to incorporate some thoughts I’ve had post-DH, namely that Neville would not go straight into teaching. The Professors at Hogwarts, almost without exception, are not “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” people – they are experts in their chosen fields. I think Neville would be a Professor in that mould.

This story is unbetaed, but I am very grateful to the reviewers who gave me feedback on the early version of this story: St. Margarets, Anya, Girlyswot, Kate HC2, Arya, Whimsy, Starsea, Seaspray, Xianiane, J Forias, Ardie Bea, Kerosinkanister and TDU. 

Chocolate and Spice

Hannah stared out of the kitchen window at the lowering sky outside. The wind howled, a freezing draught sneaking in under the back door. She shivered and put her hands around the electric kettle to warm them. Almost twenty-three years old, and here she was on Valentine’s day making cocoa for her dad, when she could be on the other side of the planet with the person she loved most in the world. A traitorous tear splashed onto the cheap vinyl worktop. Was this old kettle ever going to boil? Hannah couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer. She filled the mug with cold water from the tap and pointed her wand at it. As always, the scalding liquid bubbled its way over the rim. She watched the brown puddle spread and mingle with the round droplet of her tear before sliding off the counter and dripping onto the floor. Damn. Now she’d have to clean that up.

When she’d taken the mug to Dad – who merely grunted, not lifting his eyes from his crossword – she went back into the kitchen to start making a chilli con carne for her lunch the next day. The food in the Ministry canteen was excellent, but it was too expensive to eat there every day. As a lowly employee in the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad Hannah’s salary didn’t stretch far. She managed to keep a roof over their heads and food in the cupboards, but not much more. Dad had promised to look for a job now that she was living with him again, but she’d believe it when she saw it.

Adding the grated dark chocolate to the bubbling pot of chilli, Hannah remembered last Valentine’s day. How the evening had started so promisingly … and yet ended so badly. She’d been staying with Neville in a rented flat in the wizarding quarter of Mexico City, where they were holidaying for a few weeks following the successful completion of their most recent specimen-collecting assignment. They’d spent a hot and tiring day wandering the cobbled streets of San Angel, taking in the colourful sights and smells of the local market stalls, coming home to enjoy a late-afternoon dip in the salt-water pool attached to their apartment complex. They hadn’t bothered getting dressed again after their swim. The old apartment, the best they could afford until the next instalment of their fee arrived in their Gringott’s account, wasn’t air-conditioned and soaked up the sun’s heat during the day.

“Chocolate in chilli? Are you sure?” she asked Neville, who came up to the cooker to tip in the little pile he’d prepared with the nutmeg grater. They both enjoyed the preparation stage of cooking, the chopping and shredding and peeling, but it was Neville who was the creative one when it came to combining the ingredients. Hannah would be intent on sticking to the recipe, terrified that the dish would turn out wrong. Neville, on the other hand, was happy to experiment, take daring risks which nearly always paid off.

“Trust me,” he said, standing behind her as she stirred, wrapping his arms around her waist. His thumbs stroked her ribcage in the gap between her sarong and the top half of her bathing costume. In a minute, she knew, they’d find their way underneath her bikini top. She leaned back against his bare chest and breathed in the scent of his skin, slightly salty from his swim and intermingled with the rich smells of cumin and tomatoes and onions steaming from the hob. Underneath, however, its familiarity was unchanging – sun, rain, the earth. Even in South America, Neville always reminded her of the English countryside, the garden behind their little house in North Yorkshire after fresh rainfall. A year later, it was a scent Hannah was beginning to find hard to bring to mind during long days buried in the dusty airlessness of her office.

“I do,” she replied, struggling to keep her mind on the task in hand. “But you’d better stop that if you want to eat tonight.”

“I am hungry,” he said contemplatively, slipping his hands out of her top, but only to snap open the fastening at the small of her back. “I’m just not sure what for.”

“I – I think it’s done anyway,” she gasped. “It needs to be left to simmer now for half an hour or so.”

“How cooperative of it,” said Neville, tugging at her sarong, while simultaneously drawing her by the hand into the bedroom next to the kitchen.

The chilli, Hannah remembered, had tasted wonderful. They ate sitting cross-legged on the bed, with bread to soak up the juices, scooping up the meat and beans by hand. Then as they lay back with their coffee the conversation turned, again, to the future.

“The letter said both of us,” Neville said stubbornly, his voice full of hurt. “I don’t see why you can’t stay with me and accept the job.” They’d been talking round in circles for over a week but Hannah didn’t feel any impatience with him. She just felt sadder every time she looked at the clock and counted down the minutes until she would have to leave. Talking it over made the fact of her going home seem less real, as though somehow they might yet find a way to stop it happening.

“How can I do that now? I’ve already turned it down. I doubt your employer would be impressed with me shilly-shallying. Anyway I have to go back. The Ministry is waiting for me. You know they weren’t keen on me extending my sabbatical.”

“Stay. This job uses your talents. Pushing paper and Obliviating Muggles – is that what you want to do forever? You’ve got five N.E.W.Ts.”

“You know it isn’t. But I like the contact with the families and the little ones. I feel like I can do some good where I am. And besides, I’m not the only one who hasn’t worked out ...”

“That’s not true.” Neville’s voice was stubborn. “I just don’t think I’m ready yet. It isn’t an option at the moment anyway. ”

“What if it never is? Professor Sprout isn’t showing any sign of letting go, even though she should. According to your Gran she’s in pain every day.”

“Yes, but she’s promised Madam Pomfrey … when everything’s back to the way it was … You read her last letter.”

“That could be another five years. Come back with me. You can look for something permanent, we’ll …” set another date … Hannah bit the end of the sentence off before it could escape.

“I have to take this. I’ll learn loads and we’ll be able to put so much away.” Neville moved so that he was kneeling in front of her. “It’s an amazing opportunity but I don’t want it without you beside me.” He took her hands and looked directly at her. “We make a good team. I’d never have found those specimens on my own without you to sense the magic in all that jungle.”

Hannah’s eyes slid sideways. “You’d have got them eventually. I helped speed the process up, that’s all. In the mountains you won’t need me at all.” She voiced her one unassailable argument. “It’s obvious they only offered me the chance to stay on to keep you sweet.” Neville opened his mouth to argue, but she didn’t let him cut in. “Besides, it’s more than the job. You know why I have to go back to Britain.”

Her voice was quiet. She didn’t want to mention Dad, but Neville shouldn’t push her this way. It was different for him. His parents didn’t know he existed, any more than they knew how much it cost to keep them at St. Mungo’s since the new administration had introduced top-up fees for long term care. For that reason alone it wasn’t fair or kind to try and drag him back home, leaving aside the fact he’d been looking for work that would hold his interest for over a year before getting this job, going from one small contract to another, always over-qualified. There was nothing left in Britain for him to learn.

She understood why he didn’t want to live in the country where everyone expected him to be ‘Neville Longbottom, big war hero’ everywhere he went, and tolerate their surprised looks on discovering that he hadn’t taken on some high profile role in reconstructing the brave new society. He wasn’t interested in a flashy job description, or being forced to participate in round after round of drinks with near-strangers every time they went to the pub. Continually being cast in the role of mousy little girlfriend hadn’t been a whole lot of fun for her either, if she were honest. If only they could find a safe place where they could hide away and no one would bother them. Hannah still enjoyed working at the Ministry, but she hated London. She thought wistfully of the home they’d shared for two and half years after the war ended, and the little church on the outskirts of Upper Flagley where they’d planned to marry, following in the footsteps of Neville’s parents and grandparents.

No, she couldn’t mention the wedding. It would be spectacularly unfair to whine about putting it off yet again. He’d be quite justified in bringing up the fact that it was in no way his fault they’d had to change their plans once already, before leaving England twelve months earlier. Dad again, putting in one of his periodic disappearances only weeks before the ceremony. They’d laughed it off, joking about how he was worse than Neville’s old toad, Trevor. It hadn’t seemed to matter too much at the time, they were so excited at the prospect of setting off on their big adventure. Now, facing separation from Neville for the next two years while he continued travelling around the world for a demanding boss, Hannah couldn’t help wishing that the pretty heirloom on her finger was already completed by a simple gold band.

They were back to where they’d started. Hannah’s portkey route to Britain was set for the following day, as was Neville’s to take him onto Popocatépetl. The conversation had ended there, Hannah mute with the effort of not begging him again to come back with her. After a final attempt to persuade her to stay, Neville too had lapsed into pensive silence.

It had been the last time they’d seen each other until the following Christmas, four long months later. It was an awkward holiday, uncomfortably divided between Hannah and her Dad’s cramped rented flat and Augusta’s pin-neat, welcoming home. The cosy little house on the hill nearby had changed hands since they moved out and was now let to a faceless Ministry employee – an Unspeakable, Augusta had informed them. They hadn’t even bothered to make the walk up Odin’s Hill for old time’s sake.

Heading back on New Year’s Day, this time to Nepal, Neville promised to be back for her birthday on May 1st. At the same time he broke the news that it was unlikely he’d be able to get away before then. They had kissed desperately, until they were breathless, but Hannah had felt ice starting to form around her heart the minute he’d gone, remembering the eagerness in his eyes winning over sadness at leaving her behind again. The separation between them was turning into more than physical distance. She feared she was losing him, and it hurt almost unbearably.

As she charmed the chilli to stir itself while she grated the chocolate into the pan, Hannah leaned into the aroma, allowing the steam to warm her chilled face. When all the ingredients had gone in, she sat down at the table and listened to the wind howling. She twisted the engagement ring on her finger, wondering if she was a fool even to be wearing it still. A small scratching noise started up behind her, which she ignored. Her cat really ought to have learned how to use the cat-flap properly by now. This wasn’t the house in Yorkshire, protected by all of Alice and Frank’s security spells. Nor was it as safe a place as Augusta’s, who had looked after her pet during Hannah’s stay overseas. In this anonymous inner London suburb the back door stayed firmly locked at all times, even though it would take only a half-brick launched through the frosted glass if someone were determined to break in.

Was it really scratching she could hear though? It sounded more like … tapping. And it wasn’t coming from the bottom of the door, but higher up. Hannah turned round in her seat and then jumped to her feet at the sight of a figure outlined in the door frame. Her heart beat faster, and she grabbed the wand that was lying on the table top.

“Who is it?” Her voice was a feeble, strangled squeak. She took herself in hand. For heaven’s sake, she could defend herself perfectly well. “I’m warning you,” she called, standing up and moving towards the door. “I’m armed.”

A very familiar voice answered, “For the love of Merlin, Hannah, it’s me. Let me in, I’ve been travelling all day. Couldn’t get a last minute Portkey for any price.”

Neville. She threw herself at the chains and bolts on the back door. “Wait!” she cried. “I’ll have it open in a minute.”

“I’m not waiting a second longer. Stand back.” The door swung open slowly to reveal Neville standing there, wand upraised, looking very tanned and not at all cold, in a thick, fleecy coat she hadn’t seen before which made him appear twice his usual width. No wonder she hadn’t recognised his silhouette.

“Happy Valentine’s day,” he said simply, holding out a bunch of delicate blooms in a depth of blue Hannah thought only existed in dreams. She took them from him, and laid them reverently on the counter, revelling in the knowledge that Neville would take responsibility for dealing with them – because he was here.

“Come in out of the cold,” she whispered, pulling him inside and shutting the door. She was overwhelmed by the suddenness of the change from dark, cold misery to bright light and warmth. “Why didn’t you ring the front door bell?”

“I wanted to surprise you. And avoid your dad. I didn’t mean to give you a fright, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I can hardly believe it’s you, that’s all.” She moved closer, into the circle of Neville’s presence, shutting her eyes to drink in the smell of mountains, of clear, open sky. “Are you hungry? I made chilli, and I even remembered to put in the chocolate.”

His arms came up to enfold her, pulling his coat around her. She yielded to the fleece’s incredible softness and warmth, feeling the tight band of ice around her heart loosen and begin to melt. “Starving,” he murmured. “May I?”

He lifted his wand again, and severed the elastic band that was holding her hair back. He dropped his wand on the worktop, next to the flowers. “That’s my Hannah,” he said, running his hands through her hair and tipping her head back, so she was gazing directly up into his brown eyes, hot with concentration as they roamed her face, taking in every inch as he always did, making her feel like the most important thing in the universe. She stood on tiptoe to reach up for her kiss, in her impatient fashion. He didn’t keep her waiting.

His kiss was harder, more urgent than she remembered, and his lips were slightly chapped, that was different. But after a moment or two, it all came back to her, and she found her body responding in the way it always had, melting and moulding itself to his, more muscled and defined than even two months earlier yet still, indescribably, him. If she weren’t careful, in a minute Dad might walk in to find her on the kitchen table in a state of considerable disarray. That would be embarrassing. Worse, they might have to stop and have a conversation.

“My room,” she managed to articulate, as Neville’s mouth moved to her throat, his hands pushing up the back of her shirt to trace a line up and down her spine.

“How long has that chilli got to go?” he asked, nudging the flowers into the sink with his elbow and releasing her long enough to turn on the tap so that the ends of the stems were in water.

Hannah took his hand to lead him from the kitchen and along the corridor to her bedroom. She stopped by the cooker on their way out. “If I turn it down, a good hour,” she answered.

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