"What do you mean you knew?" How could she know? He'd only just realized it himself.
She gave him a squinty smile and his thoughts, marching all in step, entered into strange territory. The next question, the obvious one: he couldn't bring himself to ask that.
"I'm the know-it-all, remember?" Her expression was what they called self-deprecating, in books he'd read. And sometimes wry. "It's my business, knowing things. And you didn't owl anyone else with get-well letters, three times a week."
This was true. He hadn't. And even though she probably sent owls to loads of people, she'd made a point to reply to every one of his notes. Did this mean what he was starting to admit that he really hoped it might mean? More importantly, how much longer would she put up with being wet and uncomfortable, while he puzzled it out?
She grabbed his elbow. Not long, evidently. "I liked the letters. They were awfully sweet."
But? he wondered.
"And I'm glad you invited me here. It was a good idea." They were walking again, towards Gran's, her grip firm on his arm, and he kept waiting to hear her say But.
"You're a good friend, Neville." The rain was mocking him now, rolling down his fringe to tap his nose (but-but-but-but), and wouldn't she just get on with it? He could take it. Really, he could.
"But--." Here it came. He steeled himself.
"I think..." Would she quit hesitating? Couldn't she see she was killing him?
"I think that if we want to go further than friends, we ought to try holding hands."
His brain melted. Liquified and ran out his ears. This was the only possible explanation for the ridiculous chain of events that followed. Wherein he stumbled on a muddy rock, gasped, sucked in too much rainy air, and choked out a loud stupid, "What?"
"I won't say the place is safe as Gringott's," he told her left earlobe. "But it's an improvement over no wards at all." He didn't dare meet her eyes directly, lest he be stupefied. "I'd call it a day well enough spent. Care to help an old man up and inside?"
She shook her head. Negative. He saw a flash of white teeth capturing her lower lip, and could all but taste the rain on it.
"Suppose you'd rather see me go arse over cauldron down your back stoop, then? Hard-hearted wench." He tried for the beleaguered grumble that always so amused her, but she was having none of it today.
In four swift steps, she closed the distance between them. Put her hands on his shoulders, and locked eyes with him.
"I want you," she said. "I want you to touch me, Moody, and if you can't do that, I want to know what you're afraid of."
She was small and fierce, and clean with sheening rain. There were a thousand million things he feared with her this close; a bottomless raging ocean of phobias that were suddenly so simple to summarize:
"I don't know how to touch you."
He could shield her from harm, and stand watch against their enemies, find her no matter where she went, and make her home secure. But he hadn't the least inkling of how to reach across the space of a hundred raindrops, to set something in motion that he had no hope of stopping. He didn't know how to change that, but suspected that she did.
Holding his hand between them, palm up, he said, "Show me?"
For a terrifying lifetime of seconds, all that touched his skin was the neverending monotonous precipitation. But he stood still and steady, until her cool wet fingers closed over his wrist.
He imagined what it would be like, falling into the sea, all those tonnes of water closing over his head. How quiet it would be, sinking slow, slow, slow, down into the deep blue dark. The closeness of it pressing in all around, holding him together, hiding him safely as all the other sunken secrets down there.
There wasn't any Famous at the bottom of the sea, where the sands shifted and marine lights winked through the huge fat underbellies of the waves. There wasn't any Chosen, or Left Behind in the deepest deep, and no one gossiped about you, or wanted you dead, or died because you went to the wrong place, dreaming lies.
There would be sharks, though, said a depressingly practical voice in his head. His conscience probably, though it sort of had Ron's voice. And eventually, they'd eat you.
Stop, he told himself.
If you didn't drown first.
I am not thinking. I'm taking an imaginary trip somewhere that is not my life.
You're cracking up, mate. Definitely sounded like Ron. How weird. He could practically hear the freckles stretching around that grin.
I'm not cracking up, either.
He opened his eyes, scowling. His arse was wet; the damp had soaked through his jeans and underpants, and the backs of his thighs were itching. He was going look a right moron, going home. Wet hair sticking every which way, rear end soaked and mud-stained. Walking funny in his clammy clingy underpants.
Where was The Daily Prophet when he needed them? Get a picture of him going home like that, under the headline "/SAVIOUR OF WIZARDKIND??!/", and a lot of his problems could be solved. Voldemort would choke on his morning coffee, call off all his stupid Death Eaters, and never bother with Harry again because it would be too ridiculous. The rest of the world would choke and say, "We're fucked." And then they would leave him alone too.
It felt weird at first, to smile. It wouldn't feel right at all to laugh, not when he still felt bruised inside from guilt and sadness. But smiling to himself, all alone in the park, hidden behind the rain; it wasn't so bad.
"Why don't we go home," Kingsley suggested, still smiling at Bill. "There's a spot across the street where we can Apparate."
"But the restaurant is just here," Bill gestured, alarmed at the suggestion that they give up so close to their goal.
"Look inside," said Kingsley, putting a hand on his shoulder and turning him about. "They're packed to the rafters with this rain. We'll be waiting ages for a table, and soaking wet the whole time, to boot."
"I have it on good authority that there are excellent spells for both those things. Drying off, and getting tables at restaurants." Bill glared at the waterfall sluicing off the restaurant awning, his lovely mouth turning down in a sulk.
"And I have five words for you about that. International Statute of Magical Secrecy." He might have to work to get what he wanted, but he didn't mind. Even Sulky Bill was more enticing than he had any right to be, and Kingsley had some terribly specific ideas on how to make it up to the man. All the wet, and wandering, and inconvenience, and hunger. Especially the hunger.
"But no Peking Duck. After all that trouble?" Bill sighed under the sheer weight of his disappointment.
"What could we do in there while we waited?" Kingsley stood close at Bill's back, his voice no louder than the rain, whispering directly into the pink freckled shell of his ear. "Drip on their floor? Drink too many Mai-Tais and get up a scandal in their cloakroom? You know, I have a fireplace at home. Great ruddy thing, never gets used."
"Do you have Chinese?" Brought to stillness by Kingsley's tone. Breathing under his hand.
"I have a telephone. And more delivery menus than I can wave a wand at. We could do whatever we wanted, while we wait."
Bill shivered, then he chuckled. "Devious bastard. Admit it, you had Peking Duck the whole time."
"I wanted to walk in the rain with you. Silly, isn't it?"
Keeping a wary eye on the restaurant door, Bill leaned back into him; the briefest contact giving the subtlest sign of capitulation. Then in a few quick strides, he was out past the awning and pausing at the kerb, squinting back through the rain at Kingsley.
"Alright then, show me this fireplace of yours."
It was silly, to keep pretending she was having a quiet moment alone on the steps, with Professor Snape loitering there. He could stand there until the world ended, saying nothing and thinking things she couldn't even guess at. Looking at her like she was one of the Sphinx-riddles Bill liked to collect.
/Riddle/, echoed in her mind, and she flinched. They'd told her to give it time, but some words were still tricky for her.
Of course Snape would notice the flinch. But for whatever reason, instead of giving her a nasty sneer, or that avid pin-sticking look he sometimes got, he turned away toward the street.
"I imagine your family would find it inconvenient, if you fell ill from exposure. You might consider going in before that happens."
More likely would be Mum going spare at someone tracking water through the house, but it didn't seem worth mentioning. She was too busy having the unfortunate realisation that /Professor Snape/, of all people, was about the loneliest person she'd ever seen.
Granted, he was an ugly man with a vicious temper, and no one could stand having him around. But at the edge of the broken pavement, staring into the gloom, raindrops striking his shoulders over and over....
He looked like he had nothing, and no one. No friends to care if he caught cold. No warm house at the end of his walk. The sight of him by the flooding gutter gave her such a profusion of uncomfortable thoughts, that she nearly jumped up and ran inside to escape. Instead though, she blurted out a secret.
"I found a hidden passage in the library. It goes to the back of the second-floor linen closet. No one knows about it but me."
He turned his head, showing his craggy profile and pallid cheeks. One black eye glittered at her.
"And you couldn't bear concealing the knowledge, Miss Weasley?" he asked. Was that scorn or was it teasing?
She plucked her wet sock away from her ankle. "Well it wouldn't very well stay concealed, if I left a trail of water getting there. But if someone were on their way to the library anyway, they could do a cleaning charm behind us both. And then they could see the passage."
He got the strangest expression just then. Looked at from the side, it was impossible to interpret. "But logically, a person capable of performing a cleaning charm might just as well do a drying charm on themselves instead, thus negating the linen closet's usefulness."
There was no arguing with a Slytherin. They only used logic on you. "Well then you'd miss finding something interesting," she shrugged. He turned very slowly around at that. Took one step back toward the house, and then another. The third step brought him to the bottom of the stairs, where they had begun.
"Indeed," he said.
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