Neville didn't like these parties much. He always came, because people expected him to and he always tried to live up to expectations and really, a lot of these people were his friends, but he still didn't like them. He was still the boy who stood in the corner with a glass of glow punch in his hand, watching everyone else enjoy themselves.
He hoped no one was going to make speeches this time. The only thing that made him want to hide under a table more than a party thrown partly in his honour was having to endure the speeches. Or even worse, having to make one.
He took another sip of his punch and watched his fingertips glow for a few seconds and hoped that no one was watching him. Or at least that, if they were, they just smiled to themselves and let it alone, or maybe brought him more punch.
"Longbottom, are we going to get a repeat of last time? I hear they kept finding your fingerprints on the ceiling for a month."
Bloody Malfoy, always finding his way to where he was wanted least. It was his special skill, like Hermione's mind and Harry's not dying. He was living proof that you didn't have to be good to be Good.
"Oh, are you here?" Neville said softly, knuckles turning whitish as he gripped his nearly empty glass. "I thought it was visiting day at Azkaban." Then he took that last sip and pretended he wasn't watching Malfoy out of the corner of his eye for his inevitable reaction.
Malfoy flinched, but his expression didn't change. "Oh, I spent some time with Dear Father yesterday," he said lightly. "You know, the usual, I told him what I was doing with my life, he frothed at the mouth and banged his head against the wall. Capped off with a lovely cup of tea while he urinated in his trousers." He took a sip of his own drink. "Is that what you were hoping to hear, Longbottom?"
"No," said Neville, and gripped the glass so hard it slipped out of his fingers and shattered on the tile floor.
Malfoy snickered beside him. "What's saddest about that visit," he went on, "is that it was still better than this party. I do hope the speeches start soon."
Neville thought he remembered Parvati once whispering about a secret passage out of this room, behind the great ugly portrait of Manjit Patel. Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking.
"Your lips are glowing. Did you know?" Malfoy smirked and tossed an almost casual reparo at the glass before stalking off again, presumably to find his next victim. "Oh, and by the way," he tossed back over his shoulder, "Potter is looking for you."
Neville knelt down to pick up his glass and thought about staying there, maybe imitating a piece of furniture. If he transfigured his robes he though he might make a lovely footstool, or perhaps an armchair in a pinch.
If Harry was looking for him, that meant Harry had something he needed Neville to do, and even if it was just standing up in front of everyone and accepting yet another award for his contributions to the defeat of Voldemort, he wanted nothing to do with it. Not that he minded the awards so much, they were very nice and looked lovely on his mantle, but the constant accepting of them was a bit much.
He wanted more punch, was what he wanted, but just in time he spotted Harry and Ron by the refreshment table. There were a lot of Weasleys by the refreshment table, actually, a veritable sea of red hair. Which didn't bode well for his chances, especially when one of them looked right at him and winked.
Neville tried to shrink into himself, dropping the glass again, this time without Malfoy to clean up after him. Thank Merlin the ballroom floor had a silencing charm on it and the accident didn't draw too terribly much attention. He backed up slowly until his fingers touched the fringe of what was probably a very expensive tapestry, watching warily as Harry scanned the room.
Then the most astonishing thing happened. Not astonishing in the sense that the twins never did things like steal people's glasses, because they did, if usually with more style, but in the sense that they did it right when Harry's gaze would have fallen on Neville.
Then the second most astonishing thing happened, which was that someone sneaked up to his side while he was gaping at the spectacle of Harry attempting to chase the twins across the dance floor and yanked him behind the tapestry. Astonishing in the sense that anyone would do that knowing it was in precisely that manner that he had been kidnapped the first time.
He bent over and bit the arm that was holding his and only when he recognised the yelp of pain did he relax his jaws again. Both the arm and the voice backed away from him, which was when Neville realised he'd been pulled into the very escape passage he'd been so desperate to find.
"Oh," he said, then, "Ron?"
"Charlie, actually," his captor and/or rescuer said. "Honestly, Neville, Ron's a full foot taller than me."
"Oh," he said again. "Well, you sound alike. How was I to know?"
"And speaking of sounding alike," Charlie went on, letting out a faint echo of he previous yelp, "what was that bite all about? Anybody ever tell you you have wicked sharp teeth?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," said Neville. "Anyone ever tell you you shouldn't sneak up on skittish war veterans?"
"Yes, but I clearly wasn't listening close enough," said Charlie. "I didn't mean to frighten you. Are you all right?"
"Yes," admitted Neville, "though your arm tastes a bit like sulphur." He smacked his lips together in disgust and wished he'd had a chance to refill his glass.
"Occupational hazard," said Charlie. Neville's eyes had adjusted to the semi-darkness of the passage; this time he actually noticed when Charlie reached for his arm. "There's a way out this way; the twins told me about it."
"I thought it was behind the portrait." Charlie paused in surprise, his hand just curled around Neville's forearm. Neville could see the outline of the bite, angry grey-red in the dimness. "Parvati was in my year," he added.
"Was she?" said Charlie. "I always thought she was older. Ron never really had much to say about her, I suppose that's it. It was always 'Hermione this' and 'Harry that'. Come on, this way."
"Wait, where are we going?" insisted Neville, staying put. But not really considering going back into the ballroom, because that way lay a whole lot of very bad things and only a few very good ones that he could enjoy another time anyway. "And how did you know I wanted to leave?"
Charlie grinned at him. "You aren't the only one who'll use any excuse to get away," he confessed. "They'll owl you the award if you don't show up, did you know? Bill found that out by accident one time he couldn't get away from a dig, and has barely shown up since."
Neville grinned back shyly. "I feel a bit guilty," he admitted. "People going to all this trouble to reward us and me not being able to get away fast enough."
"Well, as Bill likes to say," said Charlie, "they're not going to all this trouble to reward us. They're going to all this trouble to be seen rewarding us."
Neville finally started following, because it was better than just standing there in the dark and if there was anyone at the party he could trust, it was a Weasley. Particularly a Weasley who wasn't a twin or Harry's best friend. "So why have you come, then?" he asked him.
"The whole family's come," Charlie said, looking back at Neville who, as always, trailed just a bit behind. "You look a bit winded. Would you like me to sling you over my shoulder until we get outside?"
"Would you?" said Neville under his breath, but outwardly he shook his head and kept trudging onward, along the clearly upward-slanting passage. Being the toast of the wizarding world was hard work. "How long do you think it'll be before they get tired of all this?"
"Dad says to give it a year," said Charlie cheerfully. "It's easier for me, of course, being out of the country most of the time. No one expects you to Apparate back on a moment's notice."
"Well," said Neville, "actually, they do."
"Okay, you're right, they do. But they seem to understand more when you're on the continent and in the middle of breeding season. Especially when you suggest it might be necessary to bring one of the juveniles with you when you come. No one wants a dragon at their dinner party."
"Except Hagrid," said Neville, then blushed because Charlie was just making a joke, not expecting an answer, yet Neville just couldn't help saying something.
But Charlie looked back over his shoulder and grinned at him and nodded. "I'd show up for a party at Hagrid's any time," he agreed, then stopped at a dead end and looked up. "Okay, it looks like we climb here, unless we're outside the anti-Apparation area."
Neville looked at the dusty ladder and grimaced. "Only one way to find out," he said and, clutching his wand, imagined the lawn of Patel Manor and pushed inside his head, but he stayed stubbornly put. "Oh," he said, sighing. "Looks like we're still within the boundaries of the manor proper."
"Looks like," agreed Charlie, head tilted back as he looked up. "Must lead out onto a hillside; I don't think the ballroom was underground. Do you want to go first?" He backed away to the side, giving Neville the choice.
If he went first then Charlie could catch him if he fell, making it by far the more attractive option. Charlie may have been short but he was sturdy, and if anyone could get a strong hold of Neville on his way down it would be Charlie.
"You sure you don't just want to get a good look at my arse on the way up?" he joked, distracting Charlie from his clumsy grip on the rungs, but Charlie just gave him a crooked grin and looked away and started up behind him.
His hands felt sweaty before he'd got more than halfway, but he dug in and kept going and burst out into the moonlight a few minutes later, flopping over onto his back on the cool grass and catching his breath. Charlie followed, walking a short distance away to the very top of the hillside they'd emerged on and staring up at the sky.
"Nice night," he commented benignly just as Neville started to think about sitting up. "Don't you think?"
"Lovely," he agreed without giving it much thought at all, but it was a rather lovely night. A three-quarters moon, bright enough to see by and Neville's favourite time of month. A residual glow from the punch swam across the back of his hand as he held it up in front of himself. "I think I shall stay a while."
"We're out the other side of the gardens," said Charlie after a moment, looking back over his shoulder at the manor house. Neville couldn't see anything but Charlie and sky. "We should be safe here."
"Gran won't be happy I skipped out," said Neville, lacing his fingers behind his head and staying put. "And someone's bound to tell her. Sometimes I think Gran knows someone in every family and owls them nightly."
"I've met your Gran," laughed Charlie. "That sounds very like her. Do you still stay there?"
"Haven't really got anywhere else to go," admitted Neville. "Now that I'm through Hogwarts and the war is spectacularly over. I don't mind so much. I like to look out for her."
"Seems to me," said Charlie, "your Gran is abler to take care of herself than most witches and wizards I've ever known. Would you mind if I sat there? With you?"
"Well, all right," said Neville, tracking Charlie's progress as he walked back down the hill again and sat down on the grass next to him. He wasn't quite sure if he was supposed to do anything so he just kept on laying there, even though he'd long since caught his breath again. "It's quiet here."
"It's a little bit like being back on the compound," Charlie told him, "all rolling hills and open spaces and quiet nights. Except, of course, when the dragons start belching fire, but that's usually distant enough not to be a worry."
"When Ron first told me what his brother did, I was terrified," said Neville. "Working with dragons? You'd have to be absolutely nuts, I figured."
"Nuts?" said Charlie, looking down at him and grinning again. "You weren't far from wrong, there. They're all wild, you know. Who in their right mind would want to work with wild dragons?"
"Well," said Neville, giving him another shy smile in return, "that was before I figured out there were things more terrifying than dragons in the world."
"And isn't that the truth," mused Charlie, falling silent for a moment. "I know how tired you are of all the ceremony and everything to do with the war," he went on finally, "and Merlin knows we all are, but I never really thanked you for what you did for my brother in the final battle. You're really something, Neville, and don't you forget it."
Neville couldn't really do anything but stare up at him for a moment, and wondered if maybe Charlie had watched his earlier confrontation with Malfoy and wanted to make up for it. But there wasn't pity or consolation there -- and Neville knew pity and consolation like nobody's business -- just a moment of sincere appreciation.
"Well," he said, what was probably only a moment before Charlie got tired of waiting and turned away, "I could well be thanking you too, for what you did for Harry and Snape. You could've died."
"We all could've died that night."
"I guess that's why they call it a war," said Neville quietly, then cleared his throat and glanced away at the stars again. "Gran lets me take care of her gardens now, when I'm at home and not some place like this, right now. It's not like the greenhouses at Hogwarts, but I like it well enough."
"Ron told me you were good with plants," said Charlie easily. Out of the corner of his eye Neville could see him tilt his head back to look up at the stars as well. "He said he probably would have failed herbology without you in his dormitory, mumbling about brightweed and bubotubers in your sleep."
"I did not!" Neville protested, feeling the blush spread across his whole face. From Charlie's expression, it was certainly visible. "Besides," he added, lowering his voice to a mutter, "I used silencing charms as soon as we learned them."
"Oh, I'm sure you all did," laughed Charlie, "and it had nothing to do with talking in your sleep. I remember my days at Hogwarts as well as you do, you know."
Neville grabbed a handful of grass and tossed it in Charlie's direction, but he couldn't help laughing a little as well. He remembered far too many nights when one of the other boys had neglected to use one.
"Have you ever thought about working in herbology, for a career?" Charlie asked him as he brushed the grass off his shirt, deliberately in Neville's direction he was sure. "We're always looking for a good herbologist on the compound in Romania. Supplying apothecaries is more lucrative; we're forever losing them to private work."
"I suppose it would make sense," said Neville, plucking at the grass beside him, avoiding the now-bare patch. "It is what I'm good at. My mum and dad were Aurors, you know." Out of the corner of his eye he could see Charlie nod. "I could never do that, I haven't got nearly the marks I would need, but I think my Gran's still a little disappointed I didn't follow in their footsteps."
"My mum wanted me to work at the Ministry," Charlie confided in him, leaning in a little closer as he did. "My dad wasn't so fixed on that, particularly, but he always figured I would end up playing Quidditch. The dragon thing blindsided them a little, I think."
"But you did it anyway."
"And I haven't regretted a moment of it," Charlie told him. "Of course, once the twins came along, they were a lot happier with the choices the rest of us made. But then, look how well those two have done for themselves. Sometimes you've just got to go with your gut and do what you think is best. No one knows what that is that better than you do."
The thing was, Neville thought, there wasn't really anything else he could see himself doing, but then he hadn't spent much time envisioning anything past the end of the war. Right now it was easier to stay with Gran and not have to think much about that, and as much as he hated the parties and hated the speeches, it was nice that the ongoing accolades held off the rest of his life for a little while.
"Well," Charlie went on, "I suppose that's for you to decide. It's getting a little chilly out here, don't you think? We should think about moving on."
"I suppose I should stay a little longer," said Neville with a deep sigh. "Gran'll wonder why I'm back so soon, if I show up now. She might just march me on back to these front gates." He shuddered to think what would happen if she really did decide to do that.
"Well, I'm heading back to the Burrow for the night," Charlie told him. "I won't be going back to Romania until tomorrow. You're welcome to come..." He let the offer hang in the air, and it was obvious even to Neville, who didn't hear that kind of thing very often, that the offer wasn't just for a quick chicken sandwich and game of Exploding Snap before heading home. When Neville didn't answer right away, Charlie offered him a hand to help him up. Neville held on even when he was on his feet again.
"I'd like that," he said finally. "Thanks."
Charlie grinned at him again, and a moment later they both winked away.