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It’s odd to be back at Hogwarts. It’s been a dozen years since Hermione attended the shortened session created for those in her year so they had the opportunity to take their NEWTs, and she honestly didn’t expect to return in a professional capacity. Kingsley had her working on rewriting laws and creating legislation while she was attending classes, after all, and a job was waiting for her at the Ministry when she finished her testing. Returning to Hogwarts was never a possibility. However, it is now a welcome shelter in an emotional storm, and she’s grateful that Minerva offered her a teaching position that allows her to remove herself from the chaos. The Defense Against the Dark Arts position might no longer be cursed, but Minerva has continuously had issues filling it year to year. Hermione’s accepted the job for this term. At the end, she’ll meet with Minerva and discuss whether she’ll continue in the role or if she’s decided that teaching isn’t necessarily her calling.

There’s a part of her that feels as if she’s running away. It’s just been difficult dealing with everything that’s happened the last two years. Her divorce with Ron had actually been amicable, and it happened at her urging because everything had been falling apart between them. When she found out that one of the curses used on her by Bellatrix Lestrange had caused her to become infertile, it had been the beginning of the end. Ron wanted a large family, and he deserved to be a father. He hadn’t left her or placed any blame on her, of course, but she could see it in his eyes every time he looked at Harry’s children. Whenever she had broached alternatives, he’d get angry and go to the pub, so she just stopped trying to solve the problem. She had thrown herself into her work even more than usual, trying to fill a void that she hadn’t even realized existed until the Healer told her the test results. They had drifted apart, and she knew divorce was the best solution before they ended up hating each other.

It’s tough because they do love each other, but the years have changed them, and she knows it’s still the best choice, especially considering everything that’s happened since. The publicity over the divorce was ridiculous, adding even more drama to an already emotional situation. The fact that Ron met someone else within months hurt more than Hermione cares to admit, and the latest publicity over his rushed marriage and Susan’s pregnancy has just been the final straw. She tries to still be friends with him, thinks that Susan suits him very well, but it’s just challenging on her to play the part of the accepting ex-wife and to constantly be on alert to be happy for them even as she aches at how quickly it’s all happened.

Hogwarts is a refuge from it all. There’re no social visits from caring friends who want to ensure that she’s really alright with Ron and Susan’s marriage and pregnancy. There’s no way for a reporter to be waiting outside her home or her job wanting to get a quote about the happy couple. There’s an excuse to explain her absence from the events that will be happening as Susan gets closer to her due date. She doesn’t even have to see the Daily Prophet unless she specifically orders it to be delivered, which she has no intention of doing. Hogwarts is a place for her to focus on a different kind of work and to start actually thinking about herself again because she’s put Ron’s happiness above everything since she found out she’s defective and unable to be a proper wife and mother.

Her job at the Ministry has been frustrating more often than not lately anyway, and she’s missed being able to research and learning new things now that legislation is stable and she’s usually assigned boring cases to work, so she thinks accepting the DADA position is the best choice for her career at the moment. It probably is running away, she knows, but she hasn’t felt this relaxed in nearly two years, so she isn’t going to judge herself too harshly. It’s still a few weeks until students arrive, but she’s already moved into her room in the staff area because she hasn’t prepared for this yet. There are lesson plans to create, information to research, decisions to make over what to teach, and she also needs to settle into living at the castle again.

Fortunately, Minerva has been amazing, giving her everything she needs to feel welcome and comfortable. Neville is also a wonderful support through her transition, and she’s grateful that she’s close friends with one of her new colleagues because it makes it easier. Neville isn’t the only instructor from her generation now, either. Cho Chang is teaching Transfiguration and Katie Bell replaced Madam Hooch as the flying teaching three years, so Hermione’s planning to get to know both of those women better when they return to school from their summer holidays. Neville has already returned from his visit with his grandmother, so he’s been helping her get acclimated the past couple of days and prepared to deal with being a professor instead of a student.

It’s a pleasant day, so she’s taken a walk to the lake, where she can just sit and try not to dwell on everything that’s happened recently. Obviously, she isn’t doing a very job of not thinking about the past. It’s hard not to at Hogwarts. Everywhere she looks, she sees memories: times before the war, events from the actual battle, and experiences from that term after rebuilding was complete. Harry sent her an owl earlier asking to meet her at Hogsmeade for dinner when she gets time. Since he’s one of the few people who actually knows all the details behind the divorce and who has supported her as well as Ron, she’s going to set aside later in the week for a dinner.

In all honesty, Harry’s been her only real support before she arrived at Hogwarts, and she knows it’s been rough on him trying to understand her decision and to remain in her life when she’s been shutting everyone out. Since he’s Ron’s best friend, she’s tried not to lean on him too much, but it’s really not fair, in a way, that Ron has all of his family and most of their friends who either feel sorry for her or assume this is her fault for filing for divorce in the first place. When she realizes she’s bordering on feeling sorry for herself, she shakes her head. It really has to stop before she goes crazy.

Tilting her head back, she lets out a loud scream. She’s far enough away from the castle to not be heard, and she feels so much better when she’s let it out. Screaming is better than crying, which she’s done enough of lately. Of course, just thinking that has her eyes prickling with tears, and she wonders when she’s going to stop being so bloody emotional about everything. She hates it, but she can’t seem to stop it.

“Oi! Are you okay, Hermione?” Neville’s voice comes from nearby, pulling her out of her thoughts.

She looks over then up. “I didn’t know you liked flying,” she says, blinking as she looks up at where Neville is floating beside her.

“I’ve become rather decent at it. Katie, Cho, and I like to fly laps around the field some nights. You’ll have to join us some time?” He studies her a moment. “I thought I heard a scream, so I flew over from the greenhouse.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She feels warmth rush into her cheeks as she realizes how foolish she must seem. “That was me. I just…” She trails off because she isn’t sure how to explain it.

“You, uh, tears, too.” He reaches into his robe pocket and removes a handkerchief. “Here you are.”

“Thank you.” She takes the cloth and dabs at her eyes, even more embarrassed now. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

Neville smiles. “It’s alright, Hermione. That’s what friends are for, you know?” He runs his fingers through his hair. “You want to fly a lap or two? It might make you feel better. There’s room on the broom.” He motions to the area in front of him.

“I’m not particularly fond of flying,” she reminds him. “If it’s a life or death situation, I can handle it, but, otherwise, I don’t really trust the physics. I know, how Muggle of me, but I’m just not good at it.”

“I don’t know what physics is, but I don’t think it has anything to do with flying. You have to just trust sometimes, I suppose.” He flies closer. “Sure you won’t try it? You don’t have to be scared. I’d never let anything happen to you.”

Hermione’s about to refuse again before she stops and decides that it wouldn’t hurt to try. Neville isn’t going to force her to continue if she gets anxious, and maybe it will help her stop thinking for a bit. She stands up and nods her head. “Okay. I’d like to try.”

“Really? That’s brilliant.” Neville grins at her. She’s struck by what a handsome man he’s become, and she certainly understands the ‘reluctant heartthrob’ title he’s earned in several women’s magazines. He brings the broom lower and motions to the empty spot. “It’s better if you’re in front, I think. I’ve never flown with someone else, but I’ll be able to protect you better if you sit here.”

“I had to admit that hearing you’ve never flown with another person isn’t that confidence boosting,” she says, giving him a slight smile so he’ll know she’s teasing. Mostly.

“Hermione, you’ve never struck me as a coward,” he taunts, arching a brow as he offers her his hand. “Do I need to do an exclusive with Rita Skeeter to spill the secret that flying scares you more than facing the Dark Lord?”

“You’ve become something of a smartarse, Neville. I’m not saying that in a complimentary way, in case you were curious.” She puts her hand in his, feeling callouses and rough skin that years of working in the greenhouses has wrought. He just smiles at her, and she blinks when she realizes she’s been staring. Feeling far more flustered than she should around Neville, of all people, she straddles the broom. He leans forward, pressing against her back, and his arms surround her as he guides the broom up.

“Hold on tight.” His breath is warm against her neck, and she shivers, though she’s not entirely certainly why. She doesn’t have time to think about it because they’re soon flying, the wind in her hair and his arms around her. There’s fear in the pit of her stomach, but it gradually lessens as he takes her across the lake and then towards the Quidditch pitch. Once she stops thinking about it, she begins to enjoy it. It’s freeing, in a way, and she leans back against him and closes her eyes, just letting go of everything for a while.

She isn’t sure how long they fly, but it must be an hour, at least. Finally, he flies them towards the greenhouses, and she sighs because it’s been an unexpected pleasure flying around the castle grounds. There’s not much chance of her rushing out to buy a broom of her own, but she’s willing to fly with him again, if he asks. That’s definitely a large step forward, and one that she’s going to be able to brag about to Harry when they meet for dinner.

“That was exhilarating,” she admits when they reach the ground. She gets off the broom and smiles at him. “Thank you, Neville. I had fun.”

“I’m glad. I haven’t seen you smile like that since you got here the other day.” Neville gets off the broom. “I’ve missed it.”

Hermione sighs; the smile fading as everything comes crashing back down on her. “There hasn’t been much to smile about lately.”

“Ron’s an idiot,” Neville blurts out, flushing slightly when she looks at him. “I mean, well, I do mean that. He’s always been a bit selfish, hasn’t he? Oh, you probably never noticed since you’ve been in love with him, but I think he has, at times.”

“It’s not his fault,” she says. Neville is one of the only other people who know about her condition, though she hasn’t talked to him about it. Harry asked her if he could tell Neville, since they’re quite close, and she trusts Neville nearly as much as she does Harry. Besides, Neville is the first friend she ever made at Hogwarts, and it didn’t take a troll to begin their friendship.

“It’s not yours, either.” He bites his lip and shakes his head. “I’d told myself not to say anything because you’ve been through enough lately, but I can’t just sit by and watch you be so bloody unhappy. He’s a selfish git who probably didn’t deserve you anywhere. There. I’ve said it. And I surprisingly feel better for having done so.” He holds up his hand when she starts to interrupt. “I know you’re the one who insisted, Harry told me. But he could have fought for you, Hermione. He didn’t have to agree. He didn’t have to put sperm above your relationship.”

“Oh, Neville. Really? Must we discuss this right now? I’ve had a lovely flight with you, and I don’t want to argue.” She frowns and moves past him, sitting on a stump near the greenhouse they’re beside.

“Yes, I think we do because you’re not behaving like yourself. The Hermione I know would be kicking arse and refusing to be mopey about some prat who values fathering children more than his marriage of seven years.” Neville walks over to join her, sitting on the ground by her feet and looking up at her. “There are other alternatives, you know? A surrogate, if the blood lineage is so important or adoption since there are plenty of kids who need good parents who’ll love them. Did he ever even consider those or was he so selfish he never thought what all this must be doing to you?”

“I tried discussing options, but he never wanted to talk about them,” she whispers, still frowning at Neville because she doesn’t want to discuss this, and she hates that he makes some valid points that a part of her has thought before. It makes it hurt worse to consider that Ron would honestly value his bloodline more than her, and she can’t think about it that way or else she becomes angry and spiteful, two things she doesn’t want to be.

“Harry said that he’s worried about you,” Neville admits. “He said you’re thinking that this changes you, but you have to know it doesn’t. Don’t you?”

“Of course it does, Neville. I can’t have children. While there are alternatives, most men aren’t going to bother trying those things when there are plenty of women who aren’t defective.”

“Don’t you dare ever call yourself that!” Neville snaps at her, startling her with his anger. He’s straightened up to his knees now, so he’s almost looking in her eyes. “You’re an amazing woman, and any man would be lucky to have you call him yours.”

Hermione studies him a moment and feels something in her gut that sort of reminds her of when they first took to the sky. “Any man? Or do you have someone in particular in mind?”

He ducks his head and nods. “I might,” he murmurs, looking back up at her. He straightens his shoulders and his chin takes on a stubborn tilt. “I know it’s too soon, that you’re still hurting and dealing with it all, but I’d like a chance to prove it to you, one day when you’re ready. If you’d let me?”

Instead of answering him, she draws on some of her Gryffindor courage and leans forward to press her lips against his. It’s a chaste kiss, barely a brushing of their mouths together, but it’s a huge step for her, even more so than flying, and she smiles shyly when she pulls back. “I think I’d like that, Neville.”