Egypt is just as hot as you'd warned me it would be, and twice as dry. I know we've talked about this again and again but I really do think it's worth it, even if so far all I've seen are the little outpost where I arrived, a distempered camel and miles and miles of sand.
Farouk met me as promised, at the nearest fireplace connected with the Floo Network, with me only a little bit late thanks to Gran's last-minute advice (which I should have scheduled for, I know), so you were right that I didn't need to worry. Or met us, I should say, since there was a lovely woman from India who arrived shortly before me.
We're taking a flying carpet, can you believe it? I'd never even seen one before, though Gran told me all the stories when I was young. I think the Ministry's daft to continue to outlaw them, because this is really brilliant. Though it could probably use a built-in anti-nausea charm for those of us who haven't ridden one before. (I've often wished that my broomstick had one as well.) Chandra, that's the Indian woman, is right at home on it; I'd imagine they have loads of them where she comes from.
Harseisis already seems like he feels at home, though -- clearly we named him well. I've only seen one other owl so far, and I suppose they're not really that common an animal in the Egyptian desert. I didn't really think of that. There'll be some at the site, though, I've been assured. Give him a bit of banana before you send him back, would you? It turns out its his favourite.
We're going to arrive soon, I'm told, so I'll keep this short. I'll write again once I'm settled. I miss you already!
Neville tied up the letter, attached it to Harseisis' leg alongside another destined for his grandmother, and send the owl on its way. He watched until it was barely a speck in the sky, shielding his eyes from the sun all the while, then ducked inside the modest one-bedroom tent which had been set aside for him.
He hadn't brought much with him to unpack: a few clothes, a few books, and a few photographs. The one of his parents he placed on his desk, the one of his friends next to his most comfortable chair. The picture of himself and Owen, waving cheerfully on the coast where they'd spent their last vacation, he placed next to his bed.
He started when he heard a noise behind him, drawing his wind swiftly though he had finally left behind the reflex to hex first and identify the target only after it was immobilised.
He relaxed at the sound of Chandra's voice, lowering his wand and turning to face her. She'd just poked her head inside the open flap of his tent, peering at the interior through dark-framed, cat's-eye glasses.
"I've just been settling in," he said, motioning for her to come inside as he slipped his wand back into his light robes.
"I have settled in as well," she said, closing the flap behind her. "I did not bring many things. Have you met any of the others?"
"Not yet," admitted Neville. "I haven't even got any idea who's working this site. I was supposed to be about two hundred miles south of here, really, but they switched me at the last minute. I hope I've got the right books. Though I suppose I can have Owen send anything I need."
She smiled at him. "A lovely young man has invited us to join them this evening. They have just returned from the tombs, only minutes ago. Are you finished here?"
"As finished as I'm going to be," he said, surveying his new home with satisfaction. It was just familiar enough to be comfortable, just new enough to be exciting. "I could use a drink and some company."
"Follow me, then," she said, slipping out of the tent again. Neville charmed it shut, unsure of the etiquette of this sort of thing in such a small and closed community, and caught up with her as she approached the more permanent part of the settlement, a core of sturdy structures surrounded by a ring of tents.
"He told me it was the one with the scarab out front," she told him, twisting her head left and right to look at the fronts of the buildings. "Ah, there it is." It wasn't as though there were many choices, especially when some of the buildings looked particularly uninviting.
A cool breeze struck him as he stepped inside the dim interior, catching his hood and billowing it out behind him.
He squinted into the room, eyes adjusting enough to see a figure get up from the table and start towards him. In a swift but non-menacing manner.
"Zacharias?" said Neville when he got close enough to identify. Maybe. "Is that you?"
"Neville! What are you doing here?"
"What am I...?" he started, shaking his head slightly. "I start tomorrow," he said. "What are you doing here?"
"Cursebreaking," said Zacharias with a grin. When he looked on past Neville, his smile grew. "Chandra. I'm glad you came."
"I said I would," she told him. "It is not as though I had any better offers in the last ten minutes."
"Flatterer," said Zacharias, moving around Neville to take her arm like the gentleman Neville had never known him to be, when they were in school together. "We've been looking forward to your arrival. Neville here's a bit of a surprise, though."
"Last-minute reassignment," Neville explained, taking a seat at the table that Zacharias had been sharing with two others. "I hardly knew where I was going to end up myself."
One of the people at the table peered at Neville intensely enough to make him vaguely uncomfortable. "Did you go to Hogwarts?" she asked him finally as Zacharias and Chandra took their seats.
"Yes," said Neville slowly, struggling to identify the speaker. "I'm sorry, do I know you? It's been a few years..."
"No, probably not," she admitted, seemingly satisfied with just that. "I must have been a few years ahead of you, you just looked awfully familiar."
"I get that a lot," admitted Neville. "Comes with looking average, I expect. Neville Longbottom." He offered her his hand, which she took with a firm, comfortable grip.
"Eve Jones," she replied. "Were you at school with Zach, then? He would have been there about the same time, if I'm guessing right."
"We were in different Houses," Neville told her, still struggling to recognise her, "but the same year. Did you play Quidditch?"
"Beater for Hufflepuff for four years," she said proudly. "We were runner-up for the cup in my third year." She turned abruptly to the side, addressing the one person seated at the table that Neville had not been introduced to. "Get us another round, would you, Rafael? It's time to get acquainted."
The boy cheerfully got up from his seat and headed into the darkness that was the rest of the building. They all seemed to know it quite well. It was possible that it was the only place to get a drink in the entire settlement, and wasn't that a sobering thought.
"I hear the beer's good here," said Neville, turning his attention back to the people who remained. "Owen told me he brought some back from his visit to Cairo and the whole Department of Municipal Regulations went mad for it."
"Hard to imagine the Department of Municipal Regulations going mad for anything, honestly," said Zacharias. "Wait, you don't mean Owen Larkin, do you? That old stick in the mud? How do you know him, Neville?"
Neville coughed and blushed and was glad that Rafael had already returned to hand him a beer in a stout, d bottle.
"Oh," said Zacharias. "Oh! Sorry, Neville, I hadn't any idea. No offence, of course."
"None taken," said Neville after taking a long pull of the beer. After the trip across the desert, it was much appreciated. "You're right, of course. The Department doesn't really attract the sort to go mad about anything, but still."
"Well, whatever does it for you," said Zacharias breezily. "So why Egypt, then, if you've got someone waiting for you back home?"
"Because my life isn't about only doing things because of someone else," said Neville sharply, not realising how sharply until he startled look on Zacharias's face. "Sorry," he mumbled, draining more of his beer to fill the silence. "Didn't mean it to come out that way."
Zacharias recovered quickly. "Sure you did," he said. "And good for you. I guess I don't... never really got to know you before."
"Different times," said Neville with a half-shrug, indicating his willingness to let that go. Especially since the other three, from the expressions on their faces, hadn't shared the experience. "So how about you, then? How'd you wind up here?"
"Been with Gringotts going on three years now," said Zacharias. "I'm in it for the cursebreaking, me; no better job, as far as I can tell. Been all sorts of places, though; I didn't wind up here until about six months ago when they opened up this site. Before that I was in Colombia working on acquiring some Inca gold, me and Rafael both."
"I thought it might be nice to see someplace a little further from home," said Rafael. "When we finished in Colombia and Gringotts had their gold, I asked to be assigned here as well."
"I haven't any idea what's going on at this site, not really," admitted Neville. "I could tell you anything you wanted to know about the temple outside Midrath, though. I did my homework."
"From what I know of Owen," Zacharias teased him, "you probably didn't have much choice. I have to admit, Neville... I never though you'd be one to take up cursebreaking. Not that you weren't ace at Defence those last few years..."
"I'm not," Neville interrupted him. "I'm an herbologist."
"You're a-- oh," said Zacharias. "Well, then."
"Specialised in Egyptian and Mediterranean herbology," Neville went on, when no one at the table seemed to know what to make of that. "I know I've only just got here, but there is more to the work than just cursebreaking."
"Right, I know," said Zacharias. "Sorry. Again. We've got a potions maker about somewhere; don't see him much, though. A lot like ol' Snape, that one, likes to kept to himself."
"To Snape," murmured Neville softly, raising his beer. Zacharias silently returned the toast.
"And an army of appraisers," added Eve. "They've got them at every site, and I've worked quite a few. Sometimes I haven't got any idea what we're bringing out of the tombs; they're dead useful, those appraisers."
"Well, Gringotts is in it for the money, even if we're not," said Rafael, then looked about the table. "Okay, I'm in it a little bit for the money. But more because it's better than working in my madre's charm and trinket shop for the rest of my life."
"I cannot imagine doing anything else," agreed Chandra. "It's in my blood. My family has done this sort of work for generations."
Neville's family had always done a different sort of work than he favoured, but he understood the bit about being unable to imagine doing anything else. That got Rafael to talking about his family in Chile, and Eve about her own distant Muggle relations, and before Neville knew it there was another round of beers on the table and the evening was only just beginning.
Neville woke to the bright chirping of the alarm clock he'd had since childhood, cracking his eyes open just far enough to watch the minute hand sway from 'on time' to 'pushing it'. The pocket watch he kept under his pillow gave the actual time, five o'clock in the morning.
In retrospect, perhaps it hadn't been the best idea to go out drinking with his co-workers before his first day on the job. But there was nothing to be done for it now; neither his Gran nor Owen were the sort to be sure he left home supplied with ample hangover remedy. All he could do was wash and dress and prepare himself to meet his supervisor at six o'clock exactly.
"I hope you brought trousers."
"I'm sorry?" said Neville, looking down at his lightweight, light-coloured, perfectly appropriate robes. The sort that had been recommended to him in his Gringotts Egyptian Assignment packet.
"Trousers, for the tombs. Robes will only trip you up, and we both know you're not the most graceful sort to begin with.
"Well, yes, but..." Neville admitted awkwardly.
"It's no matter today; you'll be working in the greenhouse. You can wear whatever you like there; we haven't got any other herbologists on site. Are you any better at potions than you used to be?"
"I do all right," said Neville. "Nothing Master-level, of course.
"Good. You've got a project to work on and we'll need it by the end of the week. This way."
And so, Neville was reintroduced to Bill Weasley for the first time since the end of the war. This hadn't been quite how he'd imagined it. He looked the same as Neville remembered, but everything else seemed different.
The greenhouse was clear on the other side of the settlement, a long building of the sort Neville was familiar with, if smaller. The entrance was flanked by two date palms, the leaves of which Bill brushed aside as he led the way inside.
There were a few plants inside, but mostly it was cuttings, seedlings and seeds. Neville had his work cut out for him, that much was clear.
"This is what we need," said Bill, leading him to a desk in the back and handing him a piece of parchment. "We've got a half dozen urns that won't open without it."
Neville looked at it. "This is in hieroglyphics."
"This is Egypt."
"I don't read hieroglyphics," said Neville. "Haven't we got a translator? I can't use a spell on this, it's no good for this sort of thing. It'll only muck the ingredients and give modern substitutions." Bill opened a cabinet next to the desk, displaying a row of books. "Suppose you'd better learn, then," he said. "And do be quick about it; if we haven't got it by the end of the week, I'll hear about it from the goblins."
Neville looked at the parchment in dismay. Bill was already clapping him on the back and turning to leave.
"I've got to get out to the tombs," he said. "I'll come and check on you later, all right?"
It had better be, because Bill hadn't left him enough time to respond before making his exit. Neville was alone and in over his head.
There was only one thing to be done for it. Neville set the parchment back onto the desk, pulled out his dragonhide gloves and set about organising his greenhouse. He would do what he did best, and everything else would follow.
Neville looked up from the book he was studying at the sound of Bill's voice. He hadn't even heard him come in; he was going to have to put up some sort of warning charm at the door just to know when people were coming and going.
"Only because it's no longer a disaster in here," he replied. "I haven't finished yet, if that's what you're checking on."
"How are the hieroglyphics going?"
"Quickly," said Neville, because no other answer would do. This was his boss, of sorts. "Are you sure we haven't got a translator? It would save time."
"Not many people trained up on that sort of thing around here, what with translation spells," said Bill. "Pity you can't use one on that, you'd be near to done by now."
Neville didn't say anything to that; he wouldn't have any idea just when he might be done until he understood what the formula required. "I'll make do," he did say after a moment. "Now that my greenhouse is in order."
"I've come to take you out to the tombs," said Bill abruptly. "You'll have to pick that up again later."
Neville sighed; clearly that night wouldn't be a repeat of the last, not if Neville was stuck studying those perplexing little pictures for hours, but then perhaps that was for the best. And he did want to see the tombs.
"A break is a sound way to get a new perspective," he said, quoting the herbologist he'd been apprenticed to after the war. Misquoting, probably. And frankly, he was happy enough to close those books for a little while before his eyes started to cross. If it wasn't already a little late for that.
They rode by carpet again, though surely that wasn't the method the team used each day to get from the settlement to the tomb sites; more likely there was a portkey. But he enjoyed the ride nonetheless, peering over the sides this time and marvelling at its balance, balance his broom had never seemed to have.
"Don't tip it, now," said Bill, completely unnecessarily, as they landed in a marked off area, near a wide and dark opening in the sand.
"I'd imagined there would be more people," admitted Neville as he got off the carpet, not onto soft sand as he'd expected but bleached stone. "I don't see anyone."
"What on earth did you think you would see people doing?" Bill asked him as he dusted himself off. "Digging? Come along, they'll all be inside now." He brushed Neville off as well, quickly but firmly, along his shoulders, his sides, his thighs. "Sand gets everywhere, doesn't it?"
"Had to charm it out of my bed last night," admitted Neville. "Haven't any idea how it got in."
"Haven't figured that out myself and I've lived here for years," said Bill. "Hurry now, it's cooler inside. The sun really gets you if you stay out in it too long. Especially if you've got skin like mine."
"Could grow you up something for that," offered Neville instantly. "Works better than any charm."
"Would pretty much have to," muttered Bill. "Bloody useless charms. They'd have me burn on a cloudy day, half the time."
Bill hadn't said yes, but Neville made a note to himself to take care of it regardless. It was the sort of thing he'd been hired to do, after all. The sort of thing he'd chosen to do.
"You'll want to get moving," Bill reminded him, and Neville realised he hadn't quite got his feet going yet. He wiped his hands off on his robes and quickly followed to where Bill was already poised to descend into the tombs. "Just stick with me," he went on, "and try not to catch your robes on anything. I warned you about that."
"It's not as though I've had time to change into something else," muttered Neville as they started their descent. It took a few moments for his eyes to become used to the dimness of the shaft, then as soon as they did he was assaulted by the bright lights the team worked by.
"Neville," said Zacharias cheerfully. "Thought we wouldn't be seeing you today. Come to do some honest work?"
"You come to my greenhouse, I'll show you honest work," Neville teased him back. One night of beer and camaraderie was enough to forge a bond in a closed community such as this, especially when there was such profound common ground. Neville was glad of it; he was feeling a long way from home.
"I'm giving Neville a tour of the tombs," said Bill shortly. "The safe tour, anyway. Is Rafe working in the back chamber?" Zacharias wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and nodded. "Make sure he takes a break every hour; the air in there's not good. I don't want to have to revive him again."
"Aye, aye," said Zacharias, and gave him a mock salute, which Bill just grinned at and shook his head.
"I mean it," he said. "Actually, while I'm here, I'll check on him myself. Watch Neville for a minute, I'll be right back." He strode off without waiting for an answer, clearly assuming that everything would be done as he asked.
Neville didn't protest that he didn't need to be watched; it hadn't sounded like Bill thought he needed a minder. Zacharias was only half-watching him anyway, looking like he was using the demand as an excuse to take a break.
It was not only emptier than he'd imagined, it was quieter than he'd imagined. There weren't loads of people clearing out the tombs, yelling to one another, curses going off. Mummies. Okay, Neville hadn't though there would actually be mummies wandering about, but still.
"Can I ask a stupid question?" he asked, finally.
"Can I laugh if it actually is stupid?" said Zacharias.
Neville grinned at him. "Only a little," he said. "Um. Where are all the goblins?"
Zacharias did laugh, but not cruelly. "Not here," he said. That much, Neville had already gathered. "They mostly work higher up, actually. The bosses of the bosses. Or else they're way down below. A mile down. Five miles down. Places you and me'd never go. You won't see them around much, except talking to Weasley sometimes or checking up on things."
"Oh," said Neville. "I mostly dealt with the goblins, back in London."
"It was the same in Colombia," said Zacharias, dusting off his hands on his close-fitting trousers. "Goblins aren't much for cursebreaking, really. That's what they need us for. Brilliant at other things, though."
"I don't think I could work down here all the time," said Neville after another silent moment passed. "It would be like being in the dungeons all the time. I like to be out of doors; I like the sunshine."
"Well it's not as though we're chained to the walls," laughed Zacharias. "Except for that one time, and that was entirely an accident. Sure was glad Bill was around to take care of that one."
Neville shuddered. "No, I think cursebreaking's not for me. I'm not sure my reflexes are up to it anyhow. I think I'll stick to herbology; I know I'm good at that."
"So I hear," said Zacharias. "I hear you were a big help during the war, risking your life, getting that cure out to hundreds of people."
Neville just nodded. He'd won recognition from the Ministry for that, but it wasn't something he looked back at with any kind of fondness or pride. Those had been very different days.
Zacharias cleared his throat awkwardly, then, "Hey Bill, that was quick."
"Rafe's doing fine on his own," said Bill, explaining in short. "Neville?"
"Coming," he said, giving Zacharias a reassuring smile before he followed. He may not have had fond memories, but that didn't mean he wasn't okay with remembering them, with sharing them. He knew the part Zacharias had played as well. That Bill had played. That all of wizarding Britain had played.
Even here, in Egypt, a world and civilisation away from everything he'd known before, it made it feel a little more like home.
"You're green," said Neville, speaking the first thing that came into his head after a moment of startled silence.
Chandra blushed, as much as a person with green skin could blush. "Rogue hex," she muttered, sliding smoothly around the table to where the light was dimmer. "Bill says it ought to fade in a couple of days."
"Oh yes, Bill says," teased Eve. "I loved the way you just swooned into his arms when he cancelled out that hex. How far down does the green go, again?"
Chandra mumbled something and gestured just below her breasts.
"Oh-ho," laughed Eve. "Bet Bill would've liked to have seen that for his reward."
"Honestly, Evie, could you get any cruder?" said Zacharias, slipping into his seat.
"Oh, no offence, no offence," she said quickly. "I would've swooned for Bill, too, I think. Not that he'd ever look at me twice."
"Oh I don't know," said Rafael. "Remember that bloke from Johannesburg, who worked here for about a month? He wasn't a stunner but Bill had him all the same. He's about character, not.... green breasts."
Chandra blushed even harder, a sort of an aquamarine shade.
"Oh, leave the poor girl alone," said Zacharias. "What about you, Neville?"
"What about me?"
"Do you think Bill is swoon-worthy, or is it just the ladies?"
"And the bloke from Johannesburg."
"Yes, and the bloke from Johannesburg."
"I don't swoon," said Neville primly. "And I certainly don't swoon for my boss. My sort-of boss. No matter how brilliant he looks when he takes his shirt off and--"
"Practically poses, with his wand up and sweat on his shoulders?" finished Eve for him. Neville grinned and nodded. "He could even pull you, with a body like that, Smith."
Zacharias snorted into his beer. "Only if he bought me a few drinks, first," he said. But he didn't say no.
"Did you know he used to date a Veela?" offered Neville.
"Really?" said Zacharias. "I know his brother Ron said so, but I thought he was full of it."
"No, he really did," said Neville. "Well, she was a part-Veela, anyhow. Fleur. It was years ago now."
"Oh, I know who you're talking about!" said Eve. "My baby sister Megan told me about her, from when she visited Hogwarts. She said all the boys wanted her."
"Not all," protested Neville. Just most. And Bill had got her. Or she had got him. Neville never had been sure which it was. "I wouldn't swoon anyhow. I've got someone back home to swoon over."
"Right," said Zacharias. "Your little Ministry paper-pusher. You are an odd one, Neville. I wouldn't have imagined there's much swooning going on there."
"There's enough," said Neville softly. "Enough."
Neville translated the list of ingredients, collected what he could, and force-grew the rest overnight -- save one which he had to send for -- but he knew his limitations. And so once he had accomplished all of those things, he set out to meet the elusive potions master, to finish what needed to be done.
It was not as easy a task as one might think. The man was only at the site two days a week, dividing his time between four sites which all required his services. And even when he was about, or meant to be about, Neville was told there were times when not a soul could recall seeing him. But Neville was a tenacious sort, and donning his lightest robes and a ridiculously wide hat to keep off the sun, he staked out a spot in front of the potion master's laboratory and cast a cooling charm upon himself and waited.
It was nearly two hours before a plain-looking man upon a low-riding and slightly tilting carpet flew up to the door. The potions master, a reclusive but not unpleasant man named Blount, hopped off the carpet and invited Neville in for tea and biscuits.
Neville was quite pleased to accept, even if the tea was brewed right next to a pot of simmering viper brains, and the biscuits were fished out of one of his deep pockets.
"My name is Neville Longbottom," he told him after a moment. "I'm the new herbologist."
"Was there an old herbologist?" the man said, perplexed, taking a seat next to his lab table and absently stirring something. "How curious. What can I do for you, Mr. Longbottom?"
Neville pulled out his translation of the potion from inside his robes. "I need a potion made in something of a hurry," he confessed. "I've grown and prepared all the ingredients in the greenhouse, I just need someone to put them together."
"We have a greenhouse?" said Blount. "How splendid! I hadn't any idea." The previous herbologist, Neville decided, must have been doing a very poor job. No wonder he'd been transferred to this assignment on such short notice -- they must have been desperate enough to take on someone so recently an apprentice.
"It was poorly stocked," Neville confessed. "I've only been here a week, but I've done what I can to get it in serviceable shape again."
"Splendid," he said again, peering at the cauldron he'd been stirring and then letting it alone again. What had appeared to be busy work had probably been extremely calculated attendance. He finally read through the parchment Neville handed him, nodding at regular intervals. "I've got these wings in back," he said, pointing at the one non-herbal ingredient. "This ought to be fairly straightforward. I'm excited to see this greenhouse of yours. If I should give you a list of items I currently send away for, you could grow them here?"
"Given enough time, I can grow anything," said Neville proudly. "It's what I'm here to do, after all."
In one swift motion, Blount changed the heat settings one a couple of cauldrons, put lids on a couple of others, and grabbed a hat just as ridiculous as Neville's. "Well, let's go see, then!" he said. "I can have this started for you in moments, and you can show me around your splendid greenhouse."
Neville was only too pleased to comply.
It was easier to fly a carpet than a broom, but Neville still took his time figuring out the balance of the thing before setting it off on its course toward the entrance to the tombs.
Blount had efficiently brewed up the potion in Neville's greenhouse, on a table Neville had set out for that very purpose, and left it to simmer for the necessary twelve hours. Neville bottled it himself and, once through, decided to deliver it personally rather than make someone come back to get it.
His pace was slow but steady, and he managed to brake and dismount without tipping once. Not bad for his first solo flight, he figured, though he was silently glad there'd been no one about to witness it. Making sure the two vials were stoppered tightly, he dropped them back into the pocket of his practical trousers and started the descent into the tombs.
"Neville!" said Eve, the first person he came across, in a room that looked -- but undoubtedly was not -- utterly empty. "What are you doing here? Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine," he assured her. "Where's Bill at, do you know?"
"He's decided to take a crack at the back chamber himself today; it's a brute. Give him a bit of warning before you go in there, yeah? Surprises are bad."
"I know," said Neville, patting his pocket to be sure the vials were still there. "Thanks."
Even gave him a nod and a wave, and went back to work, staring at the wall. Neville pulled a crudely-drawn map out of his other pocket and followed it through the open chambers and tunnels to the back.
"Incoming," he said, as loudly as he dared in the echoing space, and counted slowly to three before triggering the door the way he'd been shown and peering inside.
Bill had his wand held up, but he'd clearly heard the warning. "Neville?" he said, his face screwing up in puzzlement.
"Hello," said Neville. "Eve told me I could find you here."
"And here I am," agreed Bill. "But why? Is everything all right?"
Neville pulled one of the vials out of his pocket and held it out. "You told me to have this ready by Friday," he said. "It's Friday."
Bill's look of confusion remained for a couple more breaths, then he grinned broadly. "And you managed?" he said finally. "That's brilliant, Neville! Come with me."
Bill grasped his wrist and pulled him back out of the room again, moving with a long-legged stride down a side corridor that Neville hadn't explored yet. "Why are you surprised?" he asked when he'd caught his breath again.
"Not surprised," said Bill. "Impressed. Nine out of ten witches or wizards would have told me they needed more time. You're the one who gets it done, Neville. I knew you would be. Ah, here it is, through here."
The opening was low enough that both Bill and Neville nearly bumped their heads on it, but both managed to slip inside unscathed. "Yes, here they are," said Bill, lighting up the room with his wand, illuminating a few urns in a corner. "I assume you know how it works."
Neville had rather assumed that Bill would, but he nodded his head. "I've just got to spill a few drops on the seals and they should come right open," he said. "I haven't got any idea what's inside, though."
"Let me worry about that," said Bill, with a look that suggested he already did know. "Go ahead then. Let's see if this works."
Neville was sure that, between himself and Blount, it had been made absolutely correctly, but his hand still shook a little as he opened the vial and let a few drops of the fluid fall upon the seal of the urn.
For a moment nothing happened, then there was a faint hissing sound and a pop, and the seal around the rim of the urn fell away. Just like that.
"Brilliant, Neville. Just brilliant," said Bill, moving closer to curl his hand around Neville's shoulder. "Let's get your right on your next project then."
I'll have you know I've just sent Isolde and Seamus the most placating letter I could manage. I can't imagine what you could have done to make her that livid, but whatever it is, make it right again. She's promised to send me some of her famous chocolate biscuits and I won't have her changing her mind on account of something you've done. And don't think she won't, the woman can hold a grudge.
Things are largely the same here, though I hadn't really imagined how much work it would be. And don't you give me that face; I know you didn't think of my apprenticeship as real work, but I'd like to have seen you try it. Then we'd find out just who was teasing who about playing about all day.
I've certainly learnt not to rely on pre-translations -- we don't have that kind of luxury here, something I wish someone had realised before I was trained up that way. And hieroglyphics are hard. I'm just grateful I'd learnt to at least recognise a few before coming, even if that was hardly a head start at all.
I ought to be able to get away for a day or so some time soon; they're not as strict about keeping us on site as you suggest. It's just a matter of finding the time to go back outside the perimeter and to the nearest fireplace on the Floo network. It's an awful lot like being back at Hogwarts, really, only larger and I don't need to get Gran's permission to leave.
I'm pleased to hear how well things are going for you at the Ministry. Do let me know if you get that promotion; I know how you will enjoy having a couple of junior officials beneath you.
Oh, and if you run into Harry again, say hello to him for me. I didn't mean to lose touch the way we did, it was just that the end of the war was such a mess and.... Well, you remember what I was like back when we met.
I'll write again when I find the time, and do make up with Isolde. I mean it.
With great affection,
"Why isn't this finished yet?"
"What?" said Neville, looking up from his text at the sound of Bill's voice. "Why isn't what finished?"
"These..." he gestured vaguely at a nearby tray of plants. "These whatever they are. Why aren't they finished yet?"
"Because they take exactly nine days to grow," said Neville hesitantly, "and it's only been four. If I'd known you needed some, I--" Bill scowled and shook his head. "Is everything all right?"
"First the west tunnel collapses, then Chandra sets off another curse, then I come here and you haven't got anything better to do than read!"
"You told me to read this," Neville reminded him quietly. "It's on this site, a map of the whole tomb system." Bill looked unimpressed. "You said I ought to know all about the place so I could do my job better."
"Well, I didn't mean read it instead of doing your work."
Neville finally threw his hand up in the air. "Well what would you have me do, then?" he asked him. "Would you have me fuss with my plants just so I would look like I'm busy, instead of doing something useful like reading this?"
When Bill didn't answer, Neville pulled out an extra stool for him to sit on. After staring at it for a moment, Bill sat down.
Over drinks one night, Zacharias had told him of Bill's reputation for being hard on his team members, ever since coming back from the war and being promoted to chief cursebreaker. Neville had at first figured that it was just how the war had affected him, they way it had hit them all in different ways. Then he came to realise that Bill just really didn't like being a boss.
"Is Chandra all right?" asked Neville finally.
Bill waved the question off. "She'll be fine," he said. "Just a bit scorched, you've got to watch out for those. The Egyptians really didn't want anyone getting ahold of their secrets. Or their treasures."
"Ron was always so proud of you," Neville told him. "He always told us all about what you were doing. Especially after that year your family came to visit you here."
"That was ages ago," said Bill, tapping his fingers against the table, dangerously close to a snapping tea rose. Neville made sure he had his wand handy to stop the bleeding. "Before the war."
Neville nodded. "How's he doing these days? I haven't heard from him in... ages."
"Neither have I," admitted Bill. "Dad wrote me, though. Says he's thinking about settling down with that girl he met in Japan. Can't remember her name."
"Didn't even know he'd been to Japan," said Neville.
"Well, everyone's going all over, aren't they," said Bill. "Just look at you, here. Wouldn't have believed it if I didn't keep up to date on what's going on at Gringotts London branch."
"Owen wasn't too happy about me taking this assignment," admitted Neville, discreetly moving the snapping tea rose away. "But it wasn't his choice, now, was it?"
That got a smile out of Bill, and a slight relaxing of his shoulders. Neville'd always been so good-natured and quiet back in the Gryffindor dorms that he'd been yelled at loads of times for things that had nothing to do with him. He knew how to handle it.
"Good for you," he said. "I remember when we were both staying at Remus's house at Grimmauld Place, when a whole bunch of us were staying there. You had so much--" He waved a hand vaguely. "I always figured you'd go on to do amazing things."
"Haven't really done that yet," said Neville, but he smiled at the compliment nonetheless. "Just grown a few plants."
"Oh, stop," said Bill, sliding off the stool and sticking his hand in his pocket. "That's not 'just' anything. You had potential back then but now, now you're..." He gave Neville an appreciative look.
Neville snorted, even as he grinned. "Five years older, and a fair bit taller," he said. "Possibly a little wiser. Possibly a little bit more settled."
Bill tilted his head as he nodded. "Your Owen's a lucky guy," he said. "A fair bit of talent and a nice arse. Hope he knows it."
"Oh, you're one to talk about a fair bit of talent and a nice arse," Neville joked as Bill turned to leave. "You've got quite the reputation, you know."
"And well-earned, too," Bill said with a short laugh. "Thanks, Neville. For, uh."
"Not yelling back?"
"Right, that," said Bill, looking back over his shoulder as he neared the door. "Thank you. And I wasn't kidding about the arse!"
He was out the door before Neville could say anything in return this time. So he just shook his head and laughed softly and returned to his studies.
"Who is your letter from?" Chandra asked him, handing him a glass of something that definitely wasn't beer. "Try it," she encouraged him. "You might like it."
It was a bit sweeter than he generally liked, but it had a bit of spice to it. He smiled and nodded at her.
"Yes, who's it from?" said Zacharias. "Is it from Owen? Is it dirty? Can I read it?"
"No, no and no," laughed Neville, tucking the letter away into his robes.
"Bugger," he said. "Where am I supposed to get my excitement from, anyhow?"
"I hear the group from Romania brought some illicit charmed toys with them," said Chandra, gesturing towards a group of workers in a dim corner. Zacharias looked to Eve, who nodded solemnly. "What is that about?" said Chandra. "You didn't believe me?"
"Hufflepuff solidarity," Neville explained to her. That didn't seem to clear things up any. "It's a school thing."
"Ah," she said, clearly not understanding but willing to let it go at that. "If that is the sort of excitement you're looking for, Zacharias, I assure you you will find it there."
"And if I'm not?" he asked her.
She smiled, quite wickedly, Neville thought. "I understand Mr. Weasley is available at the moment."
"Bite your tongue!" laughed Zacharias, nudging her shoulder. "I suppose I deserved that. Old habits die hard." She gave him a little nudge back, and a sly little smile. "So who is the letter from, then?"
"Luna," said Neville, patting the letter fondly through his pocket. "Luna Lovegood. Do you remember her?"
"Course I do," said Zacharias. "Everyone thought you'd marry her one day. It was all over the school, our final year."
"Everyone except me and Luna," Neville corrected him. "She's doing well. It's nice to hear from home."
"I got a letter from my sister just yesterday," said Eve. "It's always nice. Especially to balance out a day like today."
"Boss rough on you again?" asked Neville.
"When is he not?" groaned Zacharias, but he didn't look displeased by it. He really did love his work, no matter how difficult it got.
"Well, he's not exactly your boss, now is he?" said Eve.
"I suppose not," admitted Neville. "Haven't really got one, technically, unless one day the goblins come to check up on things. But he's the closest thing I've got."
"Still, it's not really the same, is it?" said Eve. "It wasn't that anyhow. Just a long day. Recovered loads of gold, though, the goblins will be pleased."
"Long day all around, really," said Zacharias. "You want to share some of that, Chandra, or is it just Neville you're sweet on today?"
Chandra blushed and poured drinks for everyone, and Neville settled in for another evening of companionship. He really felt like he was starting to fit in.
Bill was breathless when he reached Neville's greenhouse, where Neville was doing some planting outside the front entrance. He didn't think he'd seen Bill look this harried since the war.
"Drop whatever you're doing and come with me," he said. Neville wasn't doing anything he couldn't drop and pick up later, so he did.
"What, did you run all the way here?" he asked as he caught up with Bill round the corner of the greenhouse.
"No, I left my carpet at the other end," Bill said. "I thought you'd be in the back."
Sure enough, Bill's carpet was hovering by the back entrance, the only Neville ever really used. He hopped on and didn't say anything more until they were well on their way.
"What's going on?" he asked. "What's happening? What's wrong?"
"Rafe set something off in the queen's chamber," said Bill, his jaw clenched. "This vine sprung up, all over every wall, I've never seen anything like it. I got out, but everyone else who was in the room dropped almost as soon as it happened. We need to know what it is, and fast. I've got a mediwizard on the way but I'm sure we'll beat him there. Time to earn your keep, Longbottom."
Neville started running through everything it could be, starting with native plants. "What did it look like? Was there any kind of scent? How fast did it grow?"
"It covered every wall within seconds," said Bill, shuddering a bit at the memory. "Started in the north-west corner and just grew from there. I've really never seen anything like it."
"Scent?" pushed Neville.
"Not that I noticed," said Bill. "But then if I had, maybe I'd be lying on the floor of that chamber as well. I could see that they were still breathing, but..."
"Probably for the best you didn't, yes," said Neville, but even so, it gave him less to work with. "Flowers?"
"Tiny white ones," said Bill. "Or maybe they were berries. Tiny white things, anyhow, all over the greenery."
That narrowed it down at least, but Neville needed to see for himself, as soon as he could. He'd never ridden a carpet this fast before, but he hardly noticed until he realised they'd arrived.
"Use a Bubble-Head Charm before we go in," Bill advised him. "I've sealed off the room, but one can't be too careful." Neville had been planning to anyhow.
"Where's the queen's chamber?"
"It was on the map."
"There were a lot of things on that map," said Neville. "Just show me."
Bill did, in a straight line from the entrance and to the right. Neville could see it before they arrived, mostly because Zacharias was pacing out front.
"They haven't moved," he responded the moment Bill came into sight. "Nothing's changed at all."
"No new growth, then?" Neville spoke up. "Of the plant?"
Only then did Zacharias really seem to realise that Neville was even there. "N-no," he said "Not since I've been here."
Neville got as close to the entrance as he could, without breaking the powerful seal that Bill had put upon it. He'd never seen the plant before, but then there were a lot of things he hadn't seen. That did mean, however, that it wasn't native.
"I've got to consult my references," he said finally.
"I haven't got time to take you back!" Bill burst out.
Neville didn't answer, just pulled his reference library out of his pocket and cast an enlargement charm on it and went to work. He'd never been so glad of his friendship with Hermione Granger, who'd taught him the charm to scan the books for relevant words, once he had some to look for. It might have taken him hours -- days, even -- to find a reference to the plant. Instead, it took him only eighteen minutes, and that was including two false leads.
"This isn't even supposed to exist anymore!" he said, eyes widening as he read the entry. "The last sample was lost almost two thousand years ago!" That, at least, was a valid reason for him not to have known it on sight.
"I couldn't care less how rare it is," said Bill. "Are my people going to be all right?"
Neville nodded slowly. "They aren't in real danger until they've been exposed for twenty-four consecutive hours. Right now they're just sleeping. Sleeping deeply, but sleeping."
Bill's relief was visible. "What do we have to do, then?" he said. "I want to get them out of there."
"As soon as I get a sample," said Neville, "unseal the room and incinerate the vine. The Bubble-Head Charm--" Upon hearing this, Zacharias cast one on himself. "--should protect you from the effect."
"Absolutely not," said Bill. "In this line of work it's considered grossly irresponsible to hang on to something so dangerous."
"And in mine," countered Neville, "it would be irresponsible not to preserve it. People have been killed for less. I know what I'm doing, Bill."
"If you don't--"
"But I do," interrupted Neville. "Trust me?" Bill hesitated, then gave him a curt nod. Neville motioned for him to let down the seal, then used a severing charm to cut a small piece of the plant. Sealing it and then resealing it in a small glass jar he carried -- without ever getting near it -- he summoned it back to himself and tucked it away into his robes, out of sight. "Okay, destroy the rest."
Bill didn't hesitate at all; moments later there was nothing left but ash. And it didn't grow back. Neville did a quick inspection of the chamber and, once he was sure the plant was gone, removed the Bubble-Head Charm. When he didn't immediately collapse to the floor, Bill and Zacharias did the same.
The rest of the team still lay where they fell. "What do we do to help them?" asked Bill, kneeling down next to the closest to him. Eve.
"Can you have the mediwizard meet me at the greenhouse instead of here?" Neville asked him, consulting the volume he still held in his hand. "And Blount as well. Between us, we should be able to prepare this cure within a couple of days. We'll make lots; I'd imagine you'll all want to carry some from now on, in case any of the other chambers have a similar curse."
"And they'll be fine until it's ready?"
"They'll be perfectly safe," Neville assured him. "They'll just sleep. Bring them home and put them to bed and that's pretty much all you can or need to do."
"Smith," said Bill. "Head back to the settlement and recruit whoever's about, to help you bring them back. I think there are a couple of researchers from Sweden just got in. Big, muscular blokes. Can't miss them. Neville--" And Bill turned to him, meeting Neville's eyes. "I have never been so glad you joined the team. Thank you."
Bill's smile made Neville feel warm inside.
Neville arrived at Owen's flat at a little after six in the evening, and took a seat on the sofa for what he knew would be a short wait. At precisely quarter past, fifteen minutes after Owen finished his shift at the Ministry, there was a mild pop from the kitchen as he arrived home.
He'd set his hat on the table, his cloak on the hook and his briefcase on the countertop before he ever noticed that he wasn't alone. "Neville!" he said, and abandoned all routine to greet his lover enthusiastically. "You didn't tell me you were coming!"
This was the sort of contact Neville had been craving, the sort he'd been repeatedly teased with over his first few weeks at the site. He relaxed into the embrace and let Owen give him a long, slow kiss to the neck before responding.
"I didn't want to get your hopes up if things fell through," he told him, running his fingers through the soft, short hairs at the back of Owen's neck. "I've only got until early tomorrow morning before I've got to head back."
"Well, let me fix you a splendid meal," said Owen. "Or better yet, let's go out! There's a new restaurant in Diagon Alley, Edward has been raving about it."
"Edward?" said Neville. "Not that it matters, I'd just as soon stay in--"
"Nonsense," insisted Owen. "I'll treat you right, it might be my only chance for ages. Have you got anything to dress up in?"
Neville was wearing the loose, light robes he always wore these days; it had been good enough for Egypt but he supposed something more formal might be more appropriate for dinner in Diagon Alley. He'd rather hoped once he took his robes off he wouldn't be putting anything back on, but Owen was already getting himself ready and wouldn't be put off.
Neville sighed and decided that it would be worth enduring dinner to be able to spend the night in someone's arms again. That, of everything he'd left behind in Britain, was what he missed the most.
He did learn, over the course of the evening, that Owen's department was running on-budget and a week ahead of schedule, and a draft of the new regulation he was working on had already been approved by a local council of witches and wizards. Fascinating, truly.
It was long since dark when they finally returned to Owen's flat, after a large meal and a not insignificant amount of Firewhiskey as Neville listened to Owen talk. He was quick to shed his robes once they were indoors, only to find Owen hadn't done the same.
"It's so wonderful to have you back again, Neville," he said. "It's almost as though you never left."
"Except that I do have to leave again, in the morning," said Neville. "Quite early. And I was hoping we could..."
This time Owen did catch the hint, though he could hardly fail to, what with Neville nearly bare and halfway to the bed they'd once shared. He ran his hand through Neville's hair then pulled him close and finally kissed him again, long and slow and just what Neville remembered of him.
"And so we will," Owen promised him, pushing him gently onto the bed, and finally -- finally! -- letting his own robes fall to the floor. He took Neville from behind, they way they liked it, and it was long past midnight before they finally slept.
When Neville woke, before dawn, Owen was already gone. Leaving only a note that Edward -- his secretary, apparently -- had called him back to the office and he had no choice but to go. Neville didn't use the fireplace to call him at the Ministry to say good-bye, he just gathered his things and found the Floo powder behind a photograph of Owen's mother and returned to Egypt.
Neville was competent enough to brew a few of his own healing potions, which was good because Blount hadn't the time and it was ridiculous, always sending away for that sort of thing when you went through so much of it in the average week. He was just bottling some of the Burn-Away Balm when he heard his wailing lotus signal the arrival of a guest.
"Well, that's new," said Bill, with a finger deep in his ear as though to dig out the resonating sound. "So much for my plan to sneak in after midnight and leave you little love tokens."
"I haven't got any planted at the door to my tent," said Neville coyly. "So what brings you here this morning? Zacharias told me you would all be out until quite late."
"No," said Bill, "they will all be out until quite late. I will be here going over your newest task, and then in London overnight to deal with some new contracts. One thing that can be said for goblins: they're certainly efficient. Or I might have been gone an entire week."
"New task?" said Neville, carefully pouring the last of the balm into a pot and popping on the self-sealing lid. "Urgent?"
"Well, it's not life and death," said Bill, "but it's possibly the most important thing you'll do while you're here."
"Other than saving people's lives."
"Right," said Bill. "Other than that." He laid out a hieroglyphic-covered parchment, giving Neville a momentary flashback to his first day on the site. But this time Bill laid another, in clear English, beside it.
"This is what the translation spell spit out," he said, "but Blount tells me it doesn't make sense."
"I told you translation spells don't work," said Neville. "They've completely bollixed up Nelumbium speciosum here. And this one can't be right -- it didn't even exist until about six hundred years ago."
"Well, this is why we've got you, isn't it," said Bill, squeezing his shoulder. "I'll leave it with you, then, and you'll take care of it?"
"What's it for?" Neville asked him, puzzling through the translation and shaking his head at the dismal result.
"You've noticed how, on the map of the tombs, we've only got through perhaps half? If that?"
"Yes?" said Neville. There were, again, only one or two ingredients that were non-vegetative in nature, and he was sure Blount could procure those.
"This will allow us access to the other half."
Neville looked up. "That is important," he said. "How quickly do you need it?"
"How quickly can you have everything ready for it?"
Neville grinned. Rather than intimidating, as the first assignment has been, this time it felt exciting. "I'll get right on it," he said. "You... go take care of your business. You're distracting."
"Careful," said Bill, wagging a finger at him, "or I'll tell Owen what you're up to."
Neville chuckled. "Yes, you do that, while you're in London. Do say hello for me!"
"Cheeky," said Bill, giving his ear a tweak. "I'll see you tomorrow, Neville."
The lotus at the door wailed again for his departure; Neville just smiled and dove into his work.
Comparing his current assignment to his first was like comparing a Patronus to a Lumos. The translation was hard enough, but it was getting the ingredients together that was the stuff of nightmares. Most of it he could and was growing, but it would take some time. And one item... one item had only one viable source, and Neville couldn't imagine Bill was going to like what it was.
"I know you're busy," said Bill, making himself at home in the greenhouse once again, "but I've got a list of things we're going to be needing in the next little while, and then some more that I think it would be wise to have on hand in the long term. I'd like you to get started on them as soon as you can."
"Do you do this to everyone?" demanded Neville, throwing down his quill.
"Keep on loading things onto them until they're not sure how they're going to find time to sleep?"
"No," said Bill after a moment.
"So it's just me, then."
"Just the ones I can trust to handle it," Bill clarified. "Just the ones I have the most respect for."
"Oh," said Neville. In the awkward silence that followed, he picked up his quill and smoothed out the feather before setting it gently down. "Oh. Thank you?"
Bill didn't smile, he just looked concerned. "Is it too much?" Neville immediately shook his head. It wasn't, not really, it was just... "Things not going well?"
"Well enough," said Neville. "Slower than I'd like. I doubt you know just what it was you handed me when you gave me that latest formula."
"Well, I figured it would be a little more complicated than Pepper-Up Potion," said Bill. "Sorry. Herbology and Potions really aren't my field. It is the only means to open up a series of chambers sealed for the last four thousand years; I'd imagine it's not easy."
"There's an understatement," said Neville. "I've already consulted with Blount on it, and we've got a handle on the formula, there's just one thing."
"And what's that?"
"Airmaiden Fern," said Neville with a hefty sigh. "It was once as common as grass, here, but not anymore."
"You can't grow it?"
"Not only can't I grow it," said Neville, "no one can grow it. Anywhere. Except one man in northern China, who's the only source for it in the world." Bill nodded, and waited for Neville continue. "Just for the bare minimum that we'd need, it's going to cost over five hundred galleons. I'm sorry, I'll keep trying to find another way, but--"
"Okay," said Bill easily. "I assume he'll take a note drawn on Gringotts?"
"W-well, uh, yes," said Neville. "That's it? Just like that?"
"You should've put in a request as soon as you knew. It could've been on its way already."
Neville just stared at him. "It's five hundred galleons!" he said. "Just like that, I can do that? I'm just the herbologist..."
"I don't think you understand," said Bill. "First of all, five hundred galleons is nothing compared to the value of what's behind the wall that this concoction will open. And second, Neville, you're not just anything. You could have made the request yourself and it would have gone through immediately, you didn't even have to go through me. You're the herbologist, the only one in the area, the first one on this site."
"But the greenhouse--"
"Was only put up a couple of days before you arrived," said Bill. "If I'd realised you didn't know..." Neville hadn't had any idea. "We could have had anyone, Neville. I wanted you. All of us during the war -- we lived together, we fought together, we could have died together. I knew that you, and maybe only you, would be capable of handling what I wanted you to."
"You never said anything."
"I didn't think I had to. Don't underestimate yourself, Neville, or your position here."
Neville finally gave him a shaky smile. "I've had it pointed out to me that you're not technically my boss," he said. "I guess that's really true. I'm kind of my own department, aren't I?"
"And doing a brilliant job of it," said Bill. "You're valuable, Neville. You're a treasure. Don't forget that."
I do understand that you had to leave to take care of things at work, but it's not quite so simple for me to get away again, especially so soon and on such short notice. We both knew that when I accepted this assignment. When I, in fact, requested this assignment.
I really do like it here. I know you suspected I would tire of it quickly and return to work as someone's junior assistant back in Britain, but that's not going to happen, Owen. I plan to stay, for as long as they let me.
I do understand what that means. I know you won't wait for me, and you shouldn't. I'll never forget the time we had together, and it was exactly what I needed when we met, but it's time we both moved on to things that might suit us better. It will work out for both of us, in the long term, I'm sure of that.
I've let Gran know to expect you with my things some time soon. No huge rush; I don't expect I'll be back again for at least a few weeks. At least I can do that for you.
Do stay in touch. I know I will.
"I'm never going to get you out of those robes, am I?"
Neville could only stare as Bill slowly came to realise what he said.
"I meant, into trousers," he said, with a generous laugh.
Neville gave him a slow smile in return. "Not so long as I spend most of my days in the greenhouse," he told him. "It suits me fine, there. If you'd give me some warning, next time you need me down in the tombs..."
"Yes, I'll be sure to schedule our next emergency in order to give you sufficient notice," said Bill dryly. "And I ought to mention, you're not in the greenhouse now."
"You just have a trouser fetish," said Neville, draining the remainder of his beer. "Are you done for the day?"
"I am," said Bill. "May I sit?"
"By all means," said Neville. "Especially if you've brought me something to drink."
"Is everything all right?" Bill asked him, pulling a bona fide British ale out of his cloak. "Zacharias says he's hardly seen you in a couple of days, and I know you normally enjoy his company."
"Is that why you sought me out?"
"In part," admitted Bill. "I haven't seen you in a couple of days either."
Neville nodded and gratefully accepted the ale. "Just needed some time to myself," he admitted. Then, after a sip of his drink, "I ended things with Owen." Bill just nodded. "You don't look surprised."
"I'm less surprised that it ended than that it began in the first place," said Bill candidly, with only a moment of hesitation. "I never really understood... but then, since when does attraction have to make sense, right?"
"It did make sense, at the time," said Neville, with a little more ale in him. "It was..." This was Bill; Bill remembered. Bill would understand, if anyone would. "It was right after the end of the war," he went on. "I was completely lost, and Owen was... stable. Secure. Right then, there was nothing I wanted more."
"And not hard on the eyes."
Neville broke out in a crooked grin in spite of himself. "No, definitely not hard on the eyes," he admitted.
"And now?" said Bill. "You don't want those things anymore?"
"I have my own stability," said Neville. "As much as I need or want. My own ambitions. And it turns out they're very different from his. He's a good man, he'll always be a good man, but..."
"You want something more?"
"I want something more," agreed Neville. "Something that agrees with my chosen way of life. And if I can't have that, well, I decided that I'd rather be alone than constantly feeling as though I have to apologise for my life."
"Well said," said Bill, not approvingly -- it wasn't his to approve of or disapprove of -- but understandingly. "I'm sorry nonetheless. That's never easy."
"No, it feels all right," said Neville. "I feel good. I finally really feel like I'm living the life I want to, now. I'm sorry he couldn't fit into it, but he doesn't, and I don't fit into his, and I'm glad we realised that."
"Good for you, then," said Bill, raising his own drink in a toast to him. "I think your life is going to be fantastic."
Truth was, Neville did, too.
"All right, this is it," said Bill. "Eve, Zacharias, you're the taller, you can anoint the top two corners. Rafael, Chandra, you take the bottom. Neville... just stand back. Is everyone ready to see if this thing works?"
"As ready as we've been for the last month," said Zacharias. "On with it, Weasley."
"All right, everyone on your toes," said Bill. "Go ahead, do it."
The reaction was instant -- the anointed corners started smouldering, then thin lines down the sides of the doorway appeared, then what had seemed to be solid wall just faded away to expose the chamber on the other side. Even Neville could see the unmistakable glint of gold. Loads of it.
"Bloody hell," murmured Zacharias, speaking for all of them, really.
"It worked," said Bill quietly. "It worked!"
While the other four carefully made their way through the opening and into the chamber, Bill turned back and headed straight for Neville.
One moment Bill was just looking at him with absolutely giddy eagerness. The next, he had Neville pressed against the chamber wall, images of Isis and Osiris at his back, and was crushing their lips together.
Neville didn't mind one bit. In fact, before more than a few moments had gone by he had one hand tangled in Bill's hair and one knee up about his waist, holding him right where he was.
Bill didn't move one bit until they were both quite breathless.
"I've got work to do yet," he murmured. Neville had never heard him sound quite so regretful.
"As do I," said Neville. He gave Bill's jaw a quick kiss. "You know where to find me, after."
"You'll be there?"
"I'll wait for you," Neville promised him. "And if I don't go now, I'll not be able to go at all."
Bill kissed him again, hard and fast, then pulled away. "Nor would I," he said. And, while they still could, he turned and stalked into the newly uncovered chamber to begin the treasure hunt.
Four hours later found Neville on his knees in the greenhouse, tugging Bill's trousers off with a singlemindedness he usually reserved for tending his most precious plants.
"We'd recovered that five hundred galleons with the first piece we picked up," murmured Bill, helping him as much as he could.
"Hush," said Neville, getting them off and tossing them into the branches of a half-grown willow. "Hush, you." He took Bill into his mouth swiftly, hours beyond ready for this. Days. Weeks, maybe, if he was being honest with himself.
Bill, for his part, stopped talking about gold. Stopped talking about anything at all.
Neville could have been happy if this had been all they'd managed, nakedness and licking and sucking and Bill tasted brilliant, really. Neville felt as though he'd been half-starved, before this day. But Bill would only let him get so far, get to the point that Neville was licking at the crown with abandon, gently pulling the skin down with his other hand, when he moved away and pulled Neville to his feet again.
"No," Neville said involuntarily, nearly blushing when he realised he'd voiced his protest aloud.
"Can I have you?" said Bill breathlessly. "I want you. I've wanted you for ages."
That, Neville decided, was the only acceptable reason for having pulled away. He didn't answer, didn't figure he needed to. His response to that was clear on his face, and in the reaction of his body.
Bill kissed his throat, his collarbone, his shoulder, then whirled him around and started down his spine, wet kisses over ever bump as Neville was slowly but surely bent over his work table. Bill lavished attention over the small of his back then spread his cheeks and descended further.
Neville gave in, bowing his head to the surface of the table and spreading his legs and letting Bill open him the way no one had before. 'Merlin,' he thought, but didn't speak it aloud. The only name he would be saying tonight was Bill's.
Just when Neville thought he couldn't bear the pleasure a moment longer, when his nerves and muscles fluttered and he couldn't imagine how he was still standing, Bill moved back again.
"We need a bed," he murmured.
"You're a bloody wizard," said Neville urgently. "Make one!"
Bill chuckled and grabbed his wand, and before Neville could turn around there was a bed in place of his cutting table. He didn't even stop to wonder what had happened to the few tools he'd had set upon it, he just let Bill all but toss him onto it.
He bounced once then spread his legs and threw them over Bill's shoulders the moment he, too, was on the bed. Bill gripped his legs and turned his head to the side to kiss his calf and pushed straight in. Neville let out a gasp and it was brilliant, just brilliant. He thrust his hands up over his head and gripped the bedframe as Bill drove into him, punctuating his thrusts with tiny kisses, wherever he could reach.
The only reason Neville was willing to let it end was because he knew that they could, they would, do it again. That, and there came a moment when he knew his climax could be put off no longer.
"Bill!" he said, finally speaking something aloud again, and gripped him with arms and legs and everything that could be wrapped around his body. Bill, too, let out a sharp noise and thrust into him just a little longer, before a shudder went through his body and he fell still.
"Nice bed," murmured Neville after a few silent moments had passed, as he lowered his feet to it. Bill chuckled and finally collapsed against him, and Neville was quite sure that nothing had ever felt better.
I'm sorry it's been so long since my last letter, but things have been quite busy here. I'm sure you understand.
I'll be back in Britain for Christmas, or at least that's the plan. Half of it we'll spend with Gran, and half at the Burrow with the rest of the Weasley clan. I have to admit, I'm really looking forward to that. I've never really experienced a big Christmas before. Perhaps we can get together for lunch one afternoon while I'm nearby?
Gran tells me she's seen you and a young man having dinner together in Diagon Alley a few times. Is that Edward? You don't have to tell me, but whatever the answer is, I don't mind. Not anymore.
With the newest discoveries in the tomb complex, Bill assures me that there's enough work here to keep us busy for years. Those Egyptians really were a wily bunch, you have no idea. Curse upon curse, like there's no end to them. I really don't mind. I feel like I'm setting down roots here, and right now I can't imagine anywhere else I'd want to be.
I hope you're as happy as I am.