Rating/Warnings: R, het and slash
Length: 8,978 words
Summary: When the portraits of previous Headmasters and Headmistresses of Hogwarts offer Neville advice he learns that having a relationship and running the school don’t mix. After all, Phineas Nigellus Black was married with five children whilst Albus Dumbledore was widely regarded as the best Headmaster Hogwarts ever had.
A/N: With many thanks to my beta who listened to me ramble on about this and gave it a thorough read-through (even though the initial reaction was, "Dumbledore and Doge?" followed by much laughing).
Written as a gift for hollycomb as part of hp_spring_fling and originally posted here.
Neville places a Chuckling Gyrania on the windowsill, turning the pot around and delicately arranging the fronds so that it can gain the full benefit of the sunlight. He steps back to judge the result. Like the Mimbulus mimbletonia on the main desk, it doesn't look out of place but then it doesn't make the office look like it belongs to him either. It just blends into the miscellaneous collection of items that clutter the circular room.
The room that, to Neville, will always be Snape's office.
Ten years have passed since Harry finally killed Voldemort and yet Neville feels like he hasn't finished his seventh year. He may be Hogwarts' Headmaster now and not just a leader of a student rebellion, but he still feels uncomfortable in the position of responsibility he finds himself in. He would have reassured himself that he couldn't be worse than Snape, if he hadn't found out that Snape had been secretly protecting them from the worst of the Death Eaters during his tenure as Headmaster, and, whilst he still hates the man, he believes that Snape only ever looked down on him for making mistakes. It wasn't Snape's fault that Neville always made so many.
"I'm going to make a right mess of this, aren't I?" he says, turning to address the portrait of Severus Snape that hangs at the right-hand side of Professor Dumbledore's, though he doesn't expect a reply. It was painted posthumously and therefore remains motionless.
"Nonsense!" says the portrait on Snape's other side.
The painting of Professor Flitwick is surrounded by a frame carved in detail to depict books, feathers, wands, Christmas Tree decorations, chisels, and hundreds of other things associated with the life's work of Hogwarts' previous Headmaster, possibly to make up for the plain frame surrounding Snape. Both portraits are life-size, but Professor Flitwick's is twice the size of Snape's even though the Professor was less than half Snape's height, so that Snape's portrait is more of a headshot, his upper body just squeezing into the frame, whilst Flitwick is shown in full.
"Is the boy mad?" a sallow-faced witch asks Flitwick.
"He's talking to an inanimate object," drawls a wizard from a portrait labelled 'Phineas Nigellus Black'. "Draw your own conclusion."
"Well," says the witch, "if one were to require advice from the esteemed portraits of this Office, one would do better to inquire of those who can actually communicate."
"You want advice? Don't die mere moments after writing your resignation letter," says Raymond Battencourt. "Five minutes is hardly enough time to enjoy your retirement."
"Do you have any advice for me?" Neville asks Professor Flitwick, who is the only one of an office full of past personalities whose advice Neville would feel comfortable following.
Flitwick leans forward in his armchair, placing painted hands on painted knees. "Do be careful when repairing Ravenclaw Tower. I'm afraid it's rather a death trap."
"We finished it," Neville tells him with a sad smile. "Before we held your funeral."
It wouldn't have felt right to bury the wizard who had worked so hard on repairing the damage to his House's home, only to be killed by falling masonry as it neared completion, without finishing what he had been determined to get done.
"Furthermore, relationships and running this school don't mix," continues Raymond, interrupting.
Neville blinks as the majority of the portraits nod in agreement.
"I was married with five children," says Phineas.
"And – what was it your great-great-grandson used to say? – 'the most unpopular Headmaster Hogwarts had ever seen'."
"With Dumbledore widely regarded as the best," says Ermentrude Goosemore, "and doesn't that comparison sum it up."
Dumbledore doesn't say anything to this and Neville confesses to himself that although sometimes there are questions he would like to ask his old Headmaster, 'was your love life inconvenienced by this job?' is not one of them.
Elphias lay flat on his back looking up at Albus, who was leaning over him with his hands planted on the bed at either side of Elphias head for balance.
"Why did we never do this before?"
Albus kissed him again, briefly this time, then moved back to kneel by Elphias' feet. He slid his hands under the bottoms of Elphias' trouser legs and wrapped them around Elphias' ankles.
Elphias wriggled. He hated his skinny, spindly legs, which were the result of an exceptionally bad childhood case of Dragon Pox. He couldn't walk for long periods of time without them giving out on him and flying had always been out of the question, since his thighs didn't have the strength required for gripping and controlling a broom.
"You said that it wouldn't do for someone to catch us," said Albus, stroking his protruding anklebones.
"Ravenclaws think things through while Gryffindors leap in blindly."
"And you thought that being seen doing something as socially unacceptable as showing affection for another man might ruin your chances at working for the Ministry."
Elphias propped himself up on his elbows so he could glare at him. "And you thought that it wasn't important, I know, but some of us aren’t so confident about being successful in the future."
He wanted to say 'arrogant', but couldn’t quite bring himself to say it. Albus couldn't help the fact that he outshone everyone around him, although Elphias wished that he'd grow out of believing that it made him superior to others.
Now wasn't the time to bring it up though, when tonight they had a room at the Leaky Cauldron all to themselves and he was finally discovering what all the fuss was about kissing, and when tomorrow morning they were setting out to travel the world.
An owl rapped at the window and Albus casually waved a hand in that direction to open it, rather than searching for his discarded wand.
Elphias wondered how long he would have to practise for before he would be able to do that too, or if he ever would be able to do it.
The owl dropped a scarp of parchment in Albus' lap and then started flying around the rafters, refusing to settle. Albus read the message and crumpled it up into a ball, squeezing it in a fist.
"What does it say?"
"Mother is dead," said Albus, his voice tight. "Aberforth says that I need to return home."
Elphias sat up, crossing his legs to take them out of Albus' personal space, and looked closely at his friend.
Albus looked angry and disappointed more than sad, which Elphias understood because he knew how much Albus had been looking forward to travelling and that Albus often felt dragged down by his family, but it was the sliver of sadness in Albus' eyes that made him pack their things, accompany Albus home, and attend Kendra Dumbledore's funeral.
It was the anger and disappointment (and the arrogance) that made him feel that he was allowed to leave afterwards to see the world on his own.
Neville rests his elbows on the table, propping his chin up with both hands, and watches Luna selecting the Perfect Chip. Sometime during the past ten years it's become a tradition that a Saturday night out at a pub has to involve a plate of chips to share between everyone. He thinks it might have had something to do with Hermione introducing Ron to Muggle-style nights out when the two of them tried dating, but he isn't sure.
Ron is with Luna now and has been for the past year. They sit close together, their shoulders touching, on the opposite side of the table to Neville and Ginny. There are seats for the other four who've manage to join the night out, but they're currently over at the bar, where Hermione is having an animated conversation with Dean and Percy whilst Seamus buys the four of them something alcoholic that comes with fruit floating on the surface and miniature umbrellas.
"Then they said the reason I wasn't getting that much time on the pitch was because I'm not good enough to keep up with the blokes," says Ginny, in mid-explanation of her recent move to the Holyhead Harpies. "I got offered a better deal, with more money, access to a Team Healer, and a shot at Captaincy, and they still think I accepted the transfer because Delia argued with the Wanderers' Seeker!"
"So you just want to set the record straight?" Ron snatches a chip and shoves it into his mouth, then talks around it. "Maybe you should reveal all in The Quibbler."
"Daddy doesn't allow me to publish nude photographs," Luna says calmly.
Ron chokes on the chip, which makes Ginny look more amused than she's been all night. Luna whacks him on the back and Neville leans over to tell Ginny, "Anyone who knows you knows you wouldn't do that."
"What? Pose naked for the Press?" She laughs loudly and unselfconsciously.
He elbows her, gently just in case she's in a hexing mood. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I'll have another one," says Ron as Rosmerta comes over to their table.
"Then go wait at the bar." She turns to Neville. "Floo call for you, Headmaster. Professor McGonagall needs you back up at the school, if that's alright."
"That's you," says Ginny, nudging him with her own elbow in return. "Headmaster."
Neville blushes as he gets to his feet. "It's probably just paperwork. Signing off on things."
There is an awful lot for him to sign before the new school year starts next week and he does have to check and amend everything before he signs, especially when it comes to Filch's proposals for additional school rules, but he doesn't feel comfortable when people call him 'Headmaster' as if he's doing an important job. He's isn't actually teaching anyone this year, he isn't keeping anyone's spirits up in a school run by Death Eaters, and he isn't fighting in a war. All he's doing at the moment is paperwork.
"Use the Floo," says Rosmerta, moving away again. "It's quicker. I'll show you where the Powder is."
"Hey." Ginny tugs on the sleeve of his robe. "Do you want to come for dinner at The Burrow tomorrow? It might do you good to get away for a bit."
Neville smiles and thanks her, too busy hurrying to catch up with Rosmerta and smothering his relief that he doesn't have to walk past the abandoned and boarded up buildings in the village, that have yet to be reoccupied after the war, to catch the startled look Ron gives his sister.
Elphias came back for Ariana's funeral, visions of pyramids, temples, libraries, bazaars, foreign strangers, and a thousand other fascinating things replaced with the sight of Albus, his face marred by a broken nose and streaked with tears.
It wasn't difficult taking Albus away from his enraged brother, his prying neighbours, the journalists. Elphias just held out his hand, Albus took it, and they left.
The Three Wands, where generations of Hogwarts' students had tasted their first alcoholic drinks on Hogsmeade weekends, was dimly lit, as always, and the air inside was stale. Elphias tossed a handful of Galleons on the bar and led Albus, who had yet to speak, up the back stairs and into one of the small rooms.
He reached up and pressed down on Albus' shoulders to make Albus sit on the bed, then stripped him of his boots, mismatched socks, and funeral robes. It was like caring for someone who had been Kissed by a Dementor and it made Elphias want to shake him until he came back to his old, arrogant self.
He shoved him, hard, and Albus fell back on the bed.
Elphias followed, placing his hands and knees either side of Albus' unmoving body, and crawling up until they were face to face.
"Say something, damn you," he ordered.
Albus blinked and stared upwards at nothing.
Elphias pushed his mouth against Albus', bit at his lips, could feel Albus' teeth against his. Then unbidden memories of a time when he was the one on his back made him swipe Albus' bottom lip with his tongue and slip it inside Albus' mouth.
Albus grabbed Elphias' upper arms, holding on tightly, and kissed him back.
Relief at finally getting some kind of response changed to heat and a kind of ache, and when Albus began to unbutton Elphias' shirt Elphias not only let him but pressed himself against Albus, loving the feeling of the warm body beneath him and loving it more when that body began to move.
Deft fingers squirmed between them and unfastened Elphias' trousers, lifted out his cock and wrapped themselves around it, and, without hesitation, stroked.
Elphias pulled away, mouth open and gasping for breath. He wondered how the last time they had met they had both been slowly fumbling their way towards intimacy and now Albus could do this and look as if he were sleepwalking his way through it, sure of every action.
"What happened?" he asked, pushing Albus' hand away.
Albus wiped pre-cum off his hand onto Elphias' shirt and reached up to touch the fedora still perched lopsidedly on Elphias' head.
Elphias felt inexplicably furious at that.
He undid the buttons on Albus' own trousers and shoved his hand inside.
"And what did you do?"
Albus didn't answer, just canted his hips upwards.
Elphias gripped Albus' cock and squeezed.
"What did you do?" he repeated and started moving his hand, up and down.
"Found someone else. He left too."
All the time Elphias was away searching for new experiences he never searched for this kind of experience, because that always belonged to Albus. Apparently, that feeling didn't go both ways.
He kept stroking until Albus shuddered and went still. Then he did what he had been (rightly) accused of and left.
Neville is used to eating with lots of people in the Great Hall, but at the Head Table the meals are less chaotic than at the student tables, though they themselves are quieter than during Neville's schooldays; a harsh fact of war is that the young children of a decade ago never had the chance to grow old enough to attend Hogwarts. Yet eating in the Great Hall, even as a student, doesn't come close to the chaos of a Weasley family dinner.
The table has been magically extended into an L-shape that takes up most of the kitchen and everything is in motion. Plates and dishes are passed across, over, and around, cutlery is exchanged, drinks are poured, expansive hand gestures accompany conversations, which range from politics to Quidditch jokes, and there's a food fight between Charlie and Fred before Mrs Weasley puts a stop to it.
Neville can't remember everyone's names, but in total there are fifteen adults, two children, and a garden gnome. Or at least that's what he thinks Bill and Fleur's youngest has hidden under the table.
"Are you alright?" Ginny asks as she spoons roast potatoes onto his plate.
"I'm fine. It's just that dinner here seems even crazier than dinner at school."
"Tell me about it." She rolls her eyes and passes the potatoes across to Ron, who starts serving them to Luna. "Even after-match meals out never feel as wild as dinner with my family."
She leans in his direction and nudges him in the side with her elbow. Smiling, Neville nudges back.
On the other side of Ron, and opposite Neville, Harry shifts uncomfortably in his chair. "I don't think I should have come today," he mutters.
"Nah, you're family, mate," Ron reassures him. "I told you, you don't have to be dating my sister to come to dinner."
Ginny swallows, although Neville is sure that she wasn't eating anything.
"Mulluincar states that 'being most comfortable when surrounded by family makes creatures comfortable enough to enter wild territory'," Luna says into the sudden awkward silence that descends on their section of the table. "When surrounded by family Nargles have been known, on occasion, to leave their mistletoe."
"Yeah?" Ron finishes serving her the potatoes, dumps a pile on his own plate, and then starts serving her the carrots.
Neville wonders if Ron actually knows what Luna is going on about or if he's trying to encourage her to continue talking so that he can figure it out.
Ginny stabs at her dinner with a fork.
"I think that it is good," says Fleur, causing Mrs Weasley to narrow her eyes. "I do not think it is so bad to be dating more than one man. It is good to try many out. How else are you to find the perfect one for you?"
Bill kisses his wife on the cheek and grins at his mother, who doesn't seem able to maintain her displeasure when Fleur so obviously thinks that Bill is her 'perfect man'.
Now it's Neville's turn to shift in his seat as he finally takes note of the fact that Luna is seated with Ron, Bill with Fleur, Percy with Anthony, George with Angelina, Mrs Weasley with her husband…and him with Ginny. He isn't sure if this means anything other than the fact that Mrs Weasley, who told them all where to sit, is a matchmaking busybody, but Ginny invited him to dinner with her family and he feels that maybe it means more than he thought it did.
"Can we please talk about something other than my love life?" says Ginny. "George, have you and Fred blown anything up recently?"
"Not that I can recall," says George, acting like he doesn't know his eyebrows are burnt off and his nose is blistered. "What's this about you dating someone else already?"
There's the sound of sparks, which Neville thinks is merely an appropriate sound effect until he hears a voice from the living room that he recognises as an irate Madam Pince hollering, "Floo call for Headmaster Longbottom!"
He starts, knocking the edge of his plate and spilling gravy onto his trousers.
"I refuse to let this boy from Flourish & Blotts leave until he fulfils our order correctly and he refuses to speak with anyone less than the Headmaster! This is a farce and I will not stand for it!"
"I'm sorry," Neville says to Ginny and to the Weasleys in general. He pushes his chair back from the table and tries not to be grateful for the excuse to leave. "Thank you for the wonderful meal, Mrs Weasley, but I'm afraid I have to go."
"Did you see that botched paint job they've done on the sign over at the Three Wands?" a thin wizard at the bar said to his companion. "They're calling it the Three Broomsticks now."
"It'll never be the same."
"I'll say –it's been bought by a woman."
Elphias, sat at a corner table with a wicker hat on his head and a glass of elderflower wine in front of him, was far from fond of The Hog's Head, and not just because Aberforth glared at him every time he came in here. He, for one, would be very grateful when Hogsmeade's other Inn, which had been boarded up since it had been raided during the war, was reopened, owned by a woman or not.
He ran his palm over the sticky tabletop and attempted to spell it clean wandlessly. He knew that it wouldn't work, but it was one way to pass the time.
"I hope you haven't been waiting long."
"Albus," said Elphias in acknowledgement as the new arrival sat down opposite him. "I'm surprised you managed to find time for this."
They came across each other in the Ministry often enough, with Albus being the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot and Elphias holding the position of Special Advisor, but they hadn't spoken socially since Albus had started teaching fulltime at Hogwarts years ago.
"It is always possible to find time for the things that are important," said Albus.
Elphias sipped at his wine and tried not to read too much into that statement.
"Speaking of important things," he said, "I've yet to congratulate you on becoming Headmaster."
"Thank you," said Albus, despite Elphias' wording not actually being congratulations, "although actually I was referring to more recent matters. Specifically the direction the Ministry has been taking in regard to the current political climate."
"I did hear your speech the other day, yes." Elphias put down his glass; a little wine splashing over the rim to add to whatever else had been spilt on the table in the past. "You're referring to the man who styles himself 'Voldemort'."
Albus nodded and adjusted his spectacles. "I feel that perhaps a group of likeminded individuals might work together to supplement the Ministry's stance."
"You mean to stand against the man and to do so using methods which the Ministry is unwilling to consider."
Albus' beard twitched.
"Oh, don’t upset yourself," said Elphias, smiling. "I've had this little area warded since I arrived, despite the looks your darling brother has been giving me."
Albus beard twitched again and then he smiled back.
Elphias finished his wine, placed the glass on the table and fiddled with the stem. "Would the point of this conversation be to recruit me for your cause?"
"Will you join?"
"I can't just say 'yes', Albus."
"But will you consider it?"
Elphias pushed his empty glass aside and folded his arms. "If you'll allow me to ask some questions, purely to ascertain your intent."
Elphias blinked. It was a rare occasion when Albus didn't state the boundaries of a conversation, especially one that was basically a question and answering session, and Elphias was tempted to take advantage of that. He suspected, though, that the usual rules still applied, such as not talking about Albus' family.
"Why didn't you accept the offer of being Minster?" he asked. "Then you wouldn't have been hobbled but the one making the policies in the first place."
"The Ministry was never as important to me as it is to you," said Albus. "I have always loved teaching. Do you remember when I used to tutor?" He waved a hand across the table top, leaving clean wood behind, his eyes sparkling, and Elphias chuckled.
"Alright." He rested his folded arms on the table and leaned towards Albus. "Did you recommend me for the Wizengamot position because you thought I wouldn't be able to get there on my own?"
"Is that really relevant?"
"Are you going to answer?"
"I believe you are the best person for the job," Albus said simply. "You would have rose to that point eventually, but, I confess, I wanted you and your opinions more highly placed before the political situation became any more dangerous."
"And you believe you were the best person for Headmaster and not Minister."
"I had thought so." Albus looked grave. "If I had been more dedicated, perhaps Tom would not have become what he has. There have been offers of positions I could perhaps handle alongside the post of Headmaster, and they have indeed been attractive, but I believe I can't afford to divide my attention."
"You want to be the best Headmaster that you can be."
He had never known Albus to be anything other than the best at what he chose to accomplish.
"It did bother me," said Elphias, "that you kept turning down the offer of Minister, as if working for the Ministry was beneath you, when it was something I had my heart set on. And then I found out I'd been recommended for my job because of you, a gift of a job in a place you thought less than highly of."
Albus titled his head to one side and tugged at the end of his beard as if encouraging it to grow. "You wanted me to think highly of your choice of occupation?"
"Well I didn't want you to think poorly of it!" Elphias took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. "Did you put off duelling Grindelwald?"
They watched each other for a moment, the sounds of an argument about the differences between beer and larger floating over from the bar. Elphias glanced over, caught Aberforth smirking at Albus' crooked nose, and looked away again.
"I always thought you were somewhat like my moral compass," said Albus. "Always questioning."
"Ravenclaw," Elphias replied without thinking. He uncrossed his arms and pulled at a loose thread on one of his sleeves, avoiding Albus' eyes and asking quickly, before he lost his courage, "Is that the only reason you ever spent so much time with me?"
"Elphias," said Albus, and he kept repeating it, four times in total, until Elphias looked up. "I have always greatly enjoyed your company."
"Oh." He returned to studying the wooden tabletop, his eyes tracing the patterns and knotholes revealed in the clean patch. "Yes. To joining your group of likeminded individuals. Why not?"
Neville winces as he walks past a groove in a corridor wall, remembering the curse that put it there. He hates that the students queuing up outside doorways or making their way to their next class have no idea that so much of the damage in Hogwarts, from little scuff marks to the permanently destroyed Room of Requirement, are recently acquired scars. To them the school has always looked like it does.
Whenever most people talk about the rebuilding and repairing of Hogwarts they talk as if it has been finished when, to the discerning eye of someone who can recall what the school looked like before Voldemort's war, there is still so much left undone. Neville is one of the few people that can see that and one of an even smaller group who actually seem to care. It makes his head ache.
He misses his official Herbology office, downstairs, and his informal office, which was a side room off Greenhouse One where he kept most of his teaching apparatus and notes (and the important teaching paraphernalia, like a kettle, tea, and spare earmuffs), if only because he didn't have to walk past so many of these scars on his way there.
"Sometimes I think I know what you must have felt like," Neville tells Snape's portrait as he walks into the office he has now, "when it came to the Weasley Twins' swamp. Something not part of the school you can't get rid of."
Unsurprisingly Snape doesn't respond, but another portrait snorts and Neville is willingly to bet that it's Phineas.
"Headmaster Neville Longbottom," the Sorting Hat announces and Neville sighs.
The Hat's habit of telling the Headmaster whoever is coming up the staircase and entering the office tends to be more annoying than useful when it extends to telling the Headmaster that he himself is entering his own office.
He strokes the plant on his desk, which leans into the caress, and riffles through the pile of letters, notices, reports, and various pieces of parchment that have accumulated next to it.
One in particular catches his attention.
I'm sorry about the dinner last week. My family can be a bit much sometimes, I know.
I got offered the Captaincy for the Harpies today and I feel like celebrating, with someone who knows me and knows what it means to me. Would you like to go out for dinner together, just us, to make up for last time? We can go Muggle, so my family have no chance of showing up (and showing me up) and you won't get dragged back to Hogwarts.
I know it's last minute, but if you want meet me in The Leaky at 7pm.
Several of the portraits of previous Headmasters and Headmistresses of Hogwarts look on with disapproval as Neville tends to the plants dotted around the room, leaves a message for Minerva, and then transfigures his clothes into more something more appropriate to wear around Muggles, finger combs his hair, and abandons his Headmaster-ly duties.
Muggle London is busier than Neville had imagined it would be, even for a Friday evening, and he's glad that Ginny is holding his hand, not just because it sends pulses of warmth from where her skin touches his to the rest of his body but because it means they're less likely to get separated. Large crowds put him on edge.
"Everyone's in such a rush," he says, loudly so she can hear him over the sounds of hundreds of feet hitting the pavement. "If the kids walked this fast none of them would ever be late for class."
Ginny laughs and Neville finds himself relaxing, regardless of the press of people.
"Can I ask where we're going?"
"I'm not sure actually," she says. "I just thought it could be just the two of us here, with no interfering friends, family, or school." She tugs him out of the way of a large man dragging a holdall on wheels. "Well, just the two of us and everyone else in London."
"Where do you want to go?"
"How about somewhere with chips?" she says, grinning.
They wander into the first three restaurants they come to that look like they might have chips or French fries on the menu only to be told, by serving staff with the same look Madam Pince gives students who have the audacity to try and take books out of the library without consulting her first, that they should have booked.
The pub they end up in has shelves full of ships in bottles high up on the walls and netting full of shells and pebbles hanging between the dusty rafters. It stopped serving meals an hour ago, but a shared plate of chips is easily negotiated and when Neville sits across from Ginny in a small booth, watching her licking salt from her fingers, it feels like it could be one of their usual nights out at a pub, just without anyone else there to interrupt their chatter.
"So, Wood and Marcus Flint," says Ginny. "Can you believe it?"
"Actually, yes," says Neville.
"I know Oliver was with Michael Watts at the Yule Ball, so I know he could get together with someone like Marcus, if you get my drift, but not actually Marcus."
Neville laughs. "If the Yule Ball is anything to go by then shouldn't Pansy and Draco be together?"
"Yeah," she says, "together in Azkaban, but no such luck. Although," she adds, with a wicked smile, "they could have let them out from time to time to give people dance lessons."
Neville buries his head in hands with a groan. Ginny laughs and scrubs at his head with one hand, messing up his hair, until he raises his head again to look at her and laughs along with her.
"We were really bad at that, weren't we?" he says.
"Could have been better." She reaches out across the table again, this time to smooth his hair down flat, but her fingers linger, running through his hair. "We had fun though."
Neville's breath hitches in his throat and he wonders if this is a date. He really wouldn't mind if it is.
There's an insistent tapping on the dirty windowpane.
He casts a discreet Scourgify at it and a school owl comes into view. Ginny offers to be a lookout, in case any of the surrounding Muggles see something they shouldn't, and he quickly vanishes the glass, grabs the letter held out to him in a beak, shoos the owl away, and replaces the glass. Ginny eyes it critically, then slides the tip of her wand out of her sleeve and spells a layer of grime onto it.
The message is from Septima Vector, who Minerva is training to replace her as Deputy when she eventually decides to retire. The writing looks like a bowtruckle with inky feet has danced across the parchment, but having mastered deciphering the handwriting of rushed student essays Neville doesn't take long to work out what it says.
Problem with food delivery. Kind of urgent if we want to be fed next week. Supplier needs to talk to the owner of the House Elves involved, but since they're owned by the school that means you. No rest for the wicked.
Neville reads it through and then hands it to Ginny wordlessly. Creases form in the bridge of her nose and he knows that whilst she isn't angry she certainly isn't impressed.
"I could stay," he says.
"But you won't."
"That, I believe, concludes this meeting," said Albus.
"Actually," said Molly, "I've been wondering what you intend to do about Harry this summer."
Arthur put one hand on her arm, whether to comfort her or to restrain her Elphias couldn't say, although the thought of her launching herself at Albus was amusing.
"I mean to collect him myself," said Albus, "and bring him to The Burrow, sometime this week."
Molly got up from her chair with a satisfied nod of approval. "In that case, would anyone like any more tea before they leave?"
Remus declined politely and left, with Nymphadora following him, and there was a general exodus of Order members. Molly boiled the kettle again anyway, for the few who remained.
Minerva shook her head at Albus and took the last ginger newt.
"What is it?" Elphias asked her.
"He intends to use Mr Potter to gain a new Potions Master," she said.
"Potions Master?" Molly waved her wand at the teapot and it began refilling five cups on the table. The other crockery she floated over to the kitchen sink.
Arthur raised his eyebrows at Severus. "Aren't you teaching this year?"
"This year I am teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts," said Severus, still managing to look imposing even when sipping out of a tea cup that said 'Mad Muggles For Comic Relief', which Elphias suspected was new a addition to the house and not an item of Black family memorabilia.
"Albus thinks that the prospect of having Mr Potter in his class will bring Horace out of retirement," said Minerva.
"It ought to put him off," Severus replied. Minerva frowned and the pair of them started bickering amicably.
Albus floated his cup over the sink, bid them all farewell, and started out the door, trying to exit whilst the others in the room were caught up in conversation so as to avoid having to answer any more questions. Elphias, wise to his ways, caught up to him in the entrance hall.
"You don't honestly think I'm going to let you leave without telling me what you've done now?" he said softly, concious of Walburga's portrait nearby and loath to wake her.
Albus lifted his spectacles and rubbed at one eye tiredly. "What have I supposedly done?"
"This." Elphias reached out and brushed his fingers against the blackened fingers of Albus' wand hand that peaked out from his sleeve. "What have you done to your arm?"
"All shall be revealed in good time," said Albus.
"No doubt," said Elphias, only a little sarcastically, "but what have you done?"
Albus ignored him, adjusting his spectacles.
"Tell me," Elphias demanded, who always hated it when Albus refused to speak, but no answer was forthcoming. "Or let me guess. Is it for 'the greater good'?"
"I fail to see how an injury of mine is any of your business."
"You wouldn't," Elphias hissed. "What is 'good' and what is the 'greater' part of it? And why in Merlin's name can't I be concerned for a friend's health?"
"You know full well that not all information known to the Order is disclosed to all members of the Order."
"I am asking, as a friend, what is wrong with your arm."
"So you can try to fix it?" Albus peered at him. "It can't be fixed."
"What is the extent of it? Does it reach to the elbow? Under what conditions did-"
"Elphias." Albus pinched the bridge of his nose.
"There are some things you just don’t tell anyone, aren't there?"
"You like to think well of me. I'd hate to disillusion you further than you already have been."
"We have both pretended not to see the faults in people until forced to do otherwise," said Elphias, moving closer, "but I have mostly forgiven yours."
"Mostly?" Albus frowned. "You are not in possession of all the facts."
Elphias crossed his arms, trying to hide how they trembled. "If I am not in possession of all the facts it is because you never provided me with them."
"And yet you still think you know everything, as always."
"I have never said that I know everything!" He fought to keep his voice low. "I've heard all the rumours and speculations, Albus, and I'm still here. I don't know everything, far from it, but why can't you trust me with at least part of it?"
Something creaked down the corridor behind them, perhaps the house settling for the night or perhaps a door opening, and they fell silent, backing away from each other.
Elphias rarely argued with Albus, if only because he was inclined to brush his negative opinions of good people under the carpet, and he would never show anything but complete support for Albus in front of other people, but the fact remained that when they did argue they aimed to hurt.
Albus looked at him with flat eyes. "My presence is required at the school."
"I know," said Elphias. "It always is."
The next time he sees Ginny Weasley, Neville is kneeling on the ground and up to his elbows in mulch.
He's always loved the greenhouses. He associates them with the smell of greenery, warm air encasing him, and a job well done which ends with him covered in dirt that's the evidence of success and not a failed mess. Bright sunlight shining through the glass or loud rain splattering on it make a greenhouse into a world separate from anywhere and anyone else, and it is a world where Neville thrives.
It doesn't hurt that Pomona was one of his favourite teachers and even during the war she refused to allow politics or Death Eaters to invade her territory.
He remembers the Flutterby bushes quivering as he raced past them, cramming earmuffs onto his head in a mad dash for Mandrakes, and later the shattered glass, oozing sap, and puffapod flowers littering the ground where a giant had stumbled over Greenhouse Two, but mostly the fighting and the war passed by the greenhouses and he could love being here just for that.
"Professor McGonagall said I'd find you down here," says Ginny.
"I'm here most mornings."
Neville doesn't bother getting up to greet her. No one likes shaking hands with someone covered in compost.
He eases one wriggling Bandimon root under another, hoping that straightening out the root system will ease the tension in the plant's frame and encourage it to take in more moisture from the soil.
"I thought since we don’t have a great track record with meeting up outside of Hogwarts that I'd come to you this time," she says.
Neville carefully lifts his hands out of the soil and turns to look at her properly.
It's seven o'clock in the morning and Ginny Weasley is standing in front of him in Muggle clothes with two professional broomsticks that have the Harpies logo on their handles.
"Are we trying to date?"
"If you like." She shrugs. "I remember you saying once that you'd never really gotten the hang of flying and I just thought maybe I'd do my morning practise here today."
"You want me to come flying with you?"
Her chin juts out in a way familiar to Neville from DA sessions where she was determined to get things right.
"Why not," he agrees.
He gets to his feet, wiping his hands on his jeans, and pushes a clump of hair out of his eyes. A grinning Ginny passes one of the brooms to him, he spells the greenhouse shut behind them, and they stroll towards the Quidditch pitch side by side.
"I'm not jealous," says Ginny abruptly, "that you're needed at Hogwarts. Just so you know."
Neville tightens his grip on his borrowed broom.
The hoops come into view as he tries to figure out how to respond, then they find themselves swallowed up by the entire Gryffindor Quidditch team, including four of their Reserves, coming from the other direction.
There are mumbled apologies from the blurry-eyed, windswept players.
"Early morning practise. Gotta beat the 'Claws this year," says the Captain cheerfully.
He seems to be the only student fully awake. Neville wonders if any players have ever ganged up on their Captain due to excessively early practises and what he, as Headmaster, is supposed to do about it when they do.
"Getting in a little practise yourself, sir?"
"Not that he needs it," says Ginny, far from truthful.
"Oh." One of the Chasers blinks. "Hey, are you the Harpies' new Captain?" She tilts her head and screws up her eyes, studying Ginny's face. "Yeah. Yeah, you are! Hey, guys, it's Ginny Weasley!"
Suddenly Ginny is at the centre of a swarm of sweaty students asking her for advice, for her autograph, for war stories, and telling her how fantastic they think she is.
Neville finds himself shuffled to the outskirts of the group. He doesn't mind in the slightest, but Ginny's fans don't leave until five minutes before breakfast is due to end and once again he's lost an opportunity to spend time with her because of the school and it's kids.
Maybe, he thinks, if she'd stayed in the greenhouse with him this 'date' might have gone better, but he doubts it.
He returns the broom and Ginny looks at him inquisitively, running her fingers over the Harpies' logo as she takes it off him.
"I'm due at a staff meeting now." He smiles. "I think we saw more of each other when we were in school. Do you think it's some kind of sign?"
Ginny doesn't say anything.
A flock of owls fly overheard, bringing the morning post, and Neville follows them back to the castle.
"I hope I'm not intruding," said Elphias, even though he had sent an owl to Minerva, requesting a visit to her office, in advance.
"Not at all," said Minerva, shuffling the pieces of parchment on her desk into a neat pile. "I'm waiting to inform our new Herbology Professor that he has the post. I can do that elsewhere, if you'd like me to give you some time?"
Elphias shook his head and favoured her with a small smile. She'd always treated him politely, even when debates at Order meetings had gotten heated.
"Are you to be Headmistress now?"
"Give up spending time in the classroom in order to spend more time with the Board of Governors? I should hope not!"
"No, Filius is going to be the Headmaster," said Minerva. "Do you know, when we had Lockhart on the staff he tried to set up a duelling club?"
"I believe I heard something of the sort, yes."
"Lockhart tried to get Filius to help him, since he was a Duelling Champion, and yet somehow Filius managed to get out of it. If he can manage that then he should get on with the Board just fine."
She pulled a scroll towards her and bent her head to scan the contents, not dismissing him but rather allowing him to end the conversation, if he chose.
Elphias appreciated that. He wasn't here to see her, but he had no desire to make her leave her own office and, if he were truthful, any desire to have the conversation he was here for without another living person in the room to ground him in the present.
"Elphias," said the portrait of Albus Dumbledore that hung on the wall behind her. "It's a pleasure to see you."
It was a large portrait and obviously painted with respect for the subject, with robes that might have been garish reduced to merely quirky and a detailed backdrop that even included a bag of those ridiculous sweets that Albus had favoured in life.
"Good afternoon," said Elphias. He adjusted his small fez and then tucked his hands behind his back to prevent himself fidgeting.
"How are you?" asked Albus, leaning forward in his frame.
"I received your letter."
"Ah. I hope it didn't offend."
"No." Elphias sighed. "Not at all, my friend. I was honoured to be the one asked to write your obituary."
"I never intended to offend you, you know, or hurt you in any way."
Albus removed his spectacles, cleaned them with a fold of his robe, and replaced them gently on his nose, using the gesture to disguise the discreet wiping away of the tears that had gathered at the corners of his eyes.
Elphias, watching closely, smiled. "I know."
Minerva, seated in between them, busied herself with correcting what looked like suggestions for new school rules and tried to appear as if she wasn't listening.
"I accused you of leaving," said Albus, "when I was the one who never followed you around the world, didn't follow you into the Ministry. I stayed here."
"You were one of the best Headmasters Hogwarts has had," said Elphias quietly.
"Perhaps. But I have wanted to tell you how much I appreciated that you always came back."
"Albus," said Elphias, "I could not have done otherwise."
The office was quiet for a moment, except for the scratching of Minerva's quill, as the two of them looked at each other and nodded, an understanding reached that Elphias wished they'd been able to achieve earlier.
"Neville Longbottom is on his way up," announced the Sorting Hat, pride shading it's tone, and a fond expression settled on Minerva's face as she shifted her attention to the door.
Elphias wondered if the Longbottom boy knew how highly he was thought of in this office.
"You wanted to see me, Professor?" Neville asked, hovering in the doorway as if unsure his presence was welcome, and Elphias realised two things: that the boy was the spitting image of Frank and that he'd have to learn to be less deferential to his old teachers if he was going to survive his first staff meeting. "I can come back later, if you have visitors."
"Just one visitor," said Elphias, "and I must be on my way as it is." He cleared his throat, turned his back on Albus, and added, "Allow me to offer you some advice, young man, if you will."
"When you decide what is important in your life, make it your priority. Go after it, with everything you have."
He opened the door a little further, so he could pass the boy still standing in the entrance, tipped his hat to Minerva, and left.
"Headmaster Neville Longbottom," says the Hat as Neville walks into his office and stops dead at the sight of Ginny, who is perched on the edge of his desk and facing the door.
"It's easier to break in here now," she says. "You might want to do something about that."
Neville just stands there, watching and waiting to find out what's going on.
"You know, I found it fun, actually. Stealing the sword. Even if we didn't manage to get away with it."
She folds her arms and Neville wonders if he's supposed to say anything at this point.
"We kept Dumbledore's Army going," she says, "even after Dumbledore was dead and despite all the things the Carrows and Snape did to try to stop us. Even kidnapping Luna. Despite everything. We fought in a war and we survived. Are you going to stand there and tell me that we can do all that but we can't manage to go on one whole date?"
"No." Neville summons moisture to his mouth. "I'd like to go on a date with you. And not leave."
"Well you do keep leaving and the only thing I can think of to try and make you stay until the end in future is to show you what the proper ending to a date is."
She pulls her t-shirt off over her head, tosses it on the floor, and narrows her eyes at him.
He moves closer to her and tilts his head down slightly until he can feel her breath on his face. It's warm and smells of toast.
"I'm not after marriage or a happily ever after or anything," says Ginny. "If you must know, that was one of the reasons me and Harry just couldn't work things out. I don't want to have to be serious. I had enough of that during the war. Can't we have a little fun?"
Neville isn't sure what to do, because none of this is familiar except for the woman in front of him. He presses a fingertip to the three freckles that fan out from the corner of her right eye, one at a time, and traces the arch of her eyebrow.
It feels as if this is fourth year and he's asking her to dance all over again, which is so much better than living as if this was still seventh year that he lets everything from fourth year onwards fade, even everything he learnt about her in seventh year. He is just Neville, she is just Ginny, and this is just a dance. He knows dancing can be fun, even when he accidentally stands on her feet.
"I miss having fun with you," she says. She kisses his chin, his nose, his cheek. "Even in sixth year, there was still some fun."
He had forgotten that she was younger than him a long time ago and it's only now that he remember that his seventh year was her sixth, and the years start to blend in his mind, until it's all just time.
"I miss having fun with you too," he manages to say.
Ginny kisses him properly then, her tongue sliding inside his mouth and stroking his. Neville lifts his other hand and frames her face, hands cupping her head. She lets him direct the angle and the force of the kiss whilst she undoes the three clasps at the front of his robes, pushes them open, unbuttons his shirt, and places her hands on his chest.
They feel cool at first, but then her skin warms to the same temperature as his, and when her fingers brush one of his nipples he accidentally bites at her bottom lip. She pulls away a little, takes a good look at his face, and licks her lip thoughtfully. Neville watches that small pink tongue and then tilts his head down to touch the tip of it with his. She draws it back into her mouth and his follows.
"Oh, I say!" says one of the portraits behind him. "They're not meant to do that in this office!"
"I think," says Professor Flitwick, "that now might be an appropriate time for us to reconvene elsewhere."
"But they're not meant to do that in this office! There are delicate instruments and equipment. What if they break something?"
Neville moves his hands from Ginny's face, stroking the sides of her neck with his thumbs as he brings them down to rest on her shoulders. She kisses his chin again, then the hollow of his throat.
Her head fits just under his chin in this position. He nuzzles her hair and notices that all of the portraits within view are now devoid of their occupants; all except for Snape's.
"Is there anything you want to be careful we don't break, then?" Ginny says.
He pulls back to look down at her face, shucking off his robe and shirt and letting them drop to the floor, then carefully transfers his Mimbulus mimbletonia from the desk to a space on a shelf of the nearest bookcase before coming back.
She grins at him and he grins back. Then he plants his hands on her hips and hoists her up onto the desk properly. She wriggles backwards. Objects are shoved off and scattered across the floor, joining his robe and shirt. Pieces of parchment, scrolls, a book, quills, a pot of ink (thankfully with the lid on).
Neville mouths her breasts through her cotton bra, which makes his mouth feel dry and slightly fluffy, but she arches her back with a satisfying noise, so he does it again. Then he tucks his thumbs in her trousers and slides his hands down her legs, taking the trousers with them.
Her hands are hot now as they roam his chest, his back, the crease of his arse.
"Does this count as a date?" he says.
She shifts to the edge of the desk, yanks down his trousers, wraps her legs around him, grips tight. He pushes forward, leans over her. She's almost flat on the desk now, their faces close, breathing each others' air as they start to move, find a rhythm.
"Yes," she says, pressing her mouth to his. "Yes."
And they dance.
In the quiet moment that follows, when his head is clearer than it’s been for a long time, Neville wonders if he really is needed here at Hogwarts or if he just never left because he felt like he had to stay. He thinks that maybe he can try being the Headmaster and being with Ginny, even if he's been told that it won't work, but that he has a choice. That he can choose what is most important and that maybe the choice might surprise him.
And that maybe he ought to put some clothes on and tidy his office before that meeting with Minerva.