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Chai, Pakoras, and a Friend in the Wee Hours of the Morning

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Neville Longbottom wondered if he was going through a mid-life crisis. It was one in the morning, and he was standing in his pyjamas staring in dismay at the mess he and the house elves had collectively made in the Hogwarts kitchens.

And all he felt like doing was crying.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to sort out his feelings. More likely than not, his desire for a good sob came not from a need to break away from the monotony of his life. After all, his life was not monotonous. Herbology professors teaching at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry rarely led monotonous lives, especially if aforementioned professors had been promoted to Head of Gryffindor House just the year before.

In some ways, his years as an Auror had prepared him well for all the drama, the teenage angst, the wrangling of semi-dangerous plants, and the definitely-dangerous humans that were part of his job description.

No, he wanted to cry because he’d failed. Again.

It was all Hannah’s fault of course. If he’d never met Hannah that sleepless night so many years ago – had it really been almost eight? – then he wouldn’t be in this predicament now.

The truth was, he missed Hannah. It was an ache with which he lived almost daily, since he was at Hogwarts during the school year, and she was in London, running the Leaky Cauldron with an efficiency and practicality that would put many an army to shame. It was sort of sexy.

But tonight, the ache was almost unbearable. He hadn’t been able to sleep, not even the generally uninspired essays of the second-years helping to lull him into the arms of dreams filled with Hannah. He’d had an excellent one a few nights ago, where he’d been valiantly battling a rogue Devil’s Snare in some dank dungeon, whilst Hannah blasted blueberry muffins at it by his side. He’d woken up just after vanquishing the beastly plant, but before he could share a victory smooch with his favourite blueberry muffin-wielding warrior witch.

No, tonight he was restless. And so in lieu of sleep, and dreams filled with making out with Hannah, he’d headed down to the kitchens, craving some of her excellent cooking.

It wasn’t until Neville was faced with the bemused yet politely helpful expressions of the house elves that were awake at this hour, that he realised he’d made a fatal mistake: no one cooked quite as excellently as Hannah. Not even the house elves of Hogwarts.

But he was in the kitchens now. Since his Auror days, he’d become the type to take whatever opportunities arose. In the field, it had sometimes been the difference between losing an ear or keeping it, or passing on the paperwork to Dennis Creevey, one of the more junior Aurors. So, with the help of the house elves, he’d set out to cook up a storm.

He decided to make a red velvet cake with cream cheese icing. It was something relatively easy with a set recipe that he could follow. He’d been practising since his debacle on their very first Valentine’s Day, and so far, no one had died of food poisoning, which was always something to be celebrated.

So he’d started baking, with the house elves watching from a distance. Whether it was a wary or respectful one was unclear to Neville. He’d dreamily followed the recipe one of them had kindly found for him, imagining Hannah’s face when he produced his culinary masterpiece. He hoped that he could perhaps surprise her during lunch the next day.

His wand had swished this way and that as he set the ingredients to whisking themselves, then pouring out into a cake tin, then levitating into one of the ovens at the far end of the room.

He’d envisioned her look of delight at her favourite cake, and squeals of even more delight at the sight of her favourite husband, as he rested comfortably on a sturdy wooden bench with a nice hot cup of chai whilst waiting for the cake to bake.

It was a disaster. The cake didn’t rise at all, he’d somehow caused the cream cheese to regress into cream and cheese, and the eggs had been bad. In the throes of despair at the sight of his disfigured cake, he hadn’t seen the diminutive house elf going about its business just behind him, so he’d taken a step back, colliding with the poor soul. Pans, and bowls, and whisks, and measuring spoons went every which way. It was a miracle that the Head of Hufflepuff House, whose quarters were close to the kitchens, hadn’t come running in to investigate the late-night cacophony.

It was at this moment Neville found himself wondering if this was a sign that he was going through a midlife crisis.

But then he sighed. No, he didn’t want more from his life. He just wanted Hannah.

 

~*~

 

“Hannah.” The sound of rich chocolate and warm familiarity wrapped around Hannah, and she sighed, settling her head more comfortably on the cushion of her forearms. She’d been downstairs late tonight, and when she’d finally come upstairs to the flat, she’d sat down at her kitchen table to work on the accounts for a bit before calling it a night.

She didn’t know when she’d nodded off, a mug of half-drunk, now-tepid chai by her right elbow, but she wasn’t complaining since the sound of Neville’s beautiful voice awaited her in her dreams. Even after all this time, she still loved him so much. His heartbreaking smile, his soulful brown eyes, his dorkiness, his tendency to grow dangerous plants in their bathroom… she sighed again, a small smile curving her lips.

Hannah.” His voice again, this time a little more urgent, but no less delicious.

Heat in the shape of a large hand on her shoulder.

She jerked upright.

“What? What?” she mumbled, looking this way and that for the emergency.

A soft rumble that was Neville’s attempt at controlling his laughter, and then his beautiful face was in her line of sight.

Something inside Hannah relaxed at seeing those familiar planes and angles. Her heart twisted a little as it always did when she noticed that his hair was dishevelled just so.

This was turning out to be a lovely dream.

“Hannah,” Neville said again, putting his other hand on her other shoulder as she turned in the chair to face him. He was kneeling on the wooden floor in front of her.

Hannah’s eyes narrowed. He was wearing pyjamas. If this were a dream, she was pretty certain that he wouldn’t be wearing pyjamas – or anything, really. “Why are you wearing clothes?” she asked this dream Neville.

Dream Neville blushed, but his lips tugged upwards, almost as if they were trying not to smile but couldn’t help it. “Hannah… are you awake?”

She shook her head. “No. I’m dreaming and you’re wearing your pyjamas.”

His lips shaped a full-blown smile. “You’re not dreaming, Hannah. And yes, I am wearing pyjamas.”

She blinked at him. And with that, the final vestiges of sleep whispered away. Yes, she was awake. Yes, Neville was here. And yes, he was wearing pyjamas.

How unfortunate.

But he was here, and that was all that mattered. His state of dress could be rectified in but a few moments. “What are you doing here?” she asked, her eyebrows drawing together.

Neville gently pushed at the line between her eyebrows, a teasing smile on his face. “I wanted to see you. I missed you.”

Her heart just about melted into a warm puddle, similar to the way chocolate just gave up its hold on being solid when you poked at it over the stove. “Oh.”

“Also I ruined the cake, and made a mess of the kitchens.”

“Oh.” Her chocolate heart was fast solidifying at his words. “So you came to me because you were hungry and failed to cook for yourself?” she asked, folding her arms over her chest.

The way his eyes bugged a little in alarm was incredibly amusing to watch, and Hannah tried very hard to control the smile that threatened to ruin her fun. “No!” he yelled. “Of course not! I love you!”

She was almost trembling with the amount of control it was requiring to keep the giggles down. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Something in her expression must have given her away, because Neville’s eyes narrowed at her. “You’re teasing me.” He jabbed the finger he’d used to push away her frown at her chest. “Why are you always teasing me?”

Hannah finally gave into her giggles, and grabbed his hand, accusatory finger and all. “Because it’s fun,” she laughed. “And because I love you.” She placed a soft kiss on his knuckles.

His shoulders relaxed, and he leant forward until their foreheads touched. “Oh,” he murmured, those beautiful brown eyes softening in a way that echoed the feeling in her chest. “That’s okay, then.”

Their lips met in a kiss that was long, and warm, and spoke of all the things that they didn’t say. Didn’t have to say.

When they pulled apart, Hannah asked, “So what’s this about a cake?”

 

~*~

 

When Neville Flooed back to Hogwarts, his hand entwined with Hannah’s, it was to find that the kitchens had been restored to their previous state of cleanliness, all traces of his spectacular cake failure gone. He couldn’t say that he was disappointed that Hannah wouldn’t be able to see the evidence of his atrocious baking skills.

“You know, before I met you, I was a pretty decent cook,” Neville said conversationally. He followed Hannah over to the wide bench that was now free of catastrophic cake failures.

Catastrophic Cake Failures could be the title of his autobiography.

Hannah raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “Neville, you forget that I know your grandmother. Your version of ‘pretty decent cook’ is about the same as the attempts of early humans before they found fire.” That was probably because he was going through the same motions as the early humans. Rub sticks together to feel good about yourself. Check. Be terrified when sticks burst into flame. Check. Realise that you’re a wizard and can use just one stick to start a fire. Check.

Neville shrugged. “Fair point.”

He leant on the counter, his arms folded across his chest as Hannah coordinated the procurement of a series of bowls, mixing spoons, and other cooking-related paraphernalia. Once again, Neville was bowled over by just how efficient she was.

She glanced over at him, and her eyebrows scrunched in that adorable way they did when she was confused. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You’re amazing,” Neville said simply. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get over the fact that this incredible woman had agreed to spend the rest of their lives with him. Or his insane urge to kiss her senseless at every available opportunity – and some unavailable ones, too.

Hannah grinned, dimples creasing her cheeks. “I know,” she replied with an insouciant shrug. She stepped towards him, closing the gap between them, and wrapped her arms around his neck. Neville automatically bent down a little so that she didn’t have to stretch up too far to reach his ear. “This sexy Herbology professor keeps telling me so,” she stage whispered.

Neville blushed again. “Hannah! The house elves will hear!”

She giggled and placed a smacking kiss on his cheek before whirling away to her next task.

A couple of the house elves were carrying a large drum of sunflower oil between them out to the bench by the giant stove, whilst Hannah was immersed in a rapid-fire conversation with another. Neville frowned in amused bemusement as he followed the exaggerated pantomiming of Hannah’s hands. Merlin, there was such magic in those hands…

Apparently, the pantomiming worked, because the house elf suddenly nodded with such ferocity, that her batlike ears flapped liked wings. In short order, a largish kadai was sitting on one of the burners, and Hannah’s wand was out, manipulating the large drum into pouring some of its contents into it. The liquid came out fast and golden, the bright warm glow of the candles hovering high above their heads illuminating it from within. A flick of her wand, and the drum returned to its stationary position on the bench, where it was promptly whisked away by the same house elves who’d brought it out. Another flick, and the burner burst into silent life, bright blue flames caressing the bottom edges of the kadai.

Neville had been so caught up in watching the somewhat complicated choreography of heating oil that he’d missed yet another house elf laying out ingredients on the bench right beside him. He felt a little sheepish in his zealous admiration of his wife – he knew many a colleague would laugh at him for his love-addled antics back at the Auror office. Hell, many a colleague would do it here.

He surveyed the ingredients, and tried to work out what Hannah was going to make. When he did, his face broke out into a huge grin and he grabbed Hannah into a tight hug, lifting her off her feet in his delight. “You’re my favourite person, you know that?” he said, not letting her go.

And Hannah’s delighted laugh was his favourite sound.

 

~*~

 

“You’re so easy to please,” Hannah replied after she’d been returned to her own two feet, the warmth of Neville’s body still clinging around her like a much-loved blanket.

Pakoras are my favourite!”

Hannah couldn’t help but laugh again at the expression of childish delight on her husband’s face. His excitement was practically bursting out of his skin.

“Go figure that your favourite food is fried vegetables,” Hannah teased. She turned to take the colander of vegetables one of the house elves handed to her. She was pleased to see that they’d already been washed. It seemed that the house elves of Hogwarts were just as efficient as the two she’d recently employed at the Leaky Cauldron. It had been a sound business decision, since she now had time to invest in other endeavours. “Start slicing, plant boy.”

Neville obeyed with a grin, and started peeling the potatoes.

Meanwhile, Hannah began measuring out the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. It was flatter, with a wider brim than the ones that were conventionally used, but the shape would come in handy later. She scooped up the besan, and then added the spices. She had been pleasantly surprised to learn that the kitchens at Hogwarts had a reasonably stocked spice cupboard. She could feel Neville eyeing her as she sprinkled some carom seeds, red chilli powder, garam masala, asafoetida, and salt.

“Are you done with the potatoes?” she asked, glancing over. He may be a terrible baker, but there was no doubt about it, Neville Longbottom knew his way around a chopping board. The potatoes had been impeccably peeled and cut into round slices that were exactly the same width. “You’re quite diligent tonight,” she remarked, noticing that he’d cut the cauliflower as well.

She returned to her dry ingredients and poured in the water, and began to mix it all together. Neville moved to stand behind her, his arms wrapped around her waist, his chin resting on her shoulder so that he could watch her work.

They stood like that in comfortable silence, in the middle of the Hogwarts kitchens in their pyjamas, as she stirred everything together. She had to stir for a little longer than normal to get all the lumps out since she was a little distracted by Neville’s warmth against the length of her back, his stubbled cheek tickling the sensitive skin of her neck.

“Do you remember when I asked your mother about the flour she used for the pakoras?” Neville asked, his voice low and soft.

Hannah laughed, “You called it gran flour instead of gram flour!”

Neville huffed against her ear. “A mistake anyone could make.”

“You looked so disappointed to learn that it was made of chickpeas and not the bones of one’s deceased ancestors.”

Neville huffed again, but his chest shook with silent laughter behind her. “I was a little disappointed, yes. You know the only thing that would make pakoras more amazing is a little bit of cannibalism.”

Hannah picked up the bowl and took it to the stove, where the oil was now good and hot. Neville followed with the colander of chopped vegetables. The house elves, in their eerily efficient way, had placed a long-handled slotted spoon on top of a plate lined with paper towels to soak up the excess oil, all ready to go. “That’s perfectly morbid, Neville!” Hannah gasped, trying to feel scandalised, but not quite able to contain the giggles bubbling inside of her from colouring her voice. What had got into her tonight? She never giggled this much. Perhaps it was because Neville had come to her in the middle of the night, just because he missed her. She didn’t really mind that he’d ruined the cake, too pleased that he’d even tried. His enthusiasm for attempting to cook for her was just too adorable; she fell in love with him a little more every time he did it.

Neville shrugged, and hip-checked Hannah out of the way from in front of the stove. “I can fry these, if you like,” he said. He didn’t wait for her reply before he started to dip the vegetables into the batter she’d made, and then dropping them into the bubbling oil. Hannah raised her eyebrows, impressed, when he stopped adding them in just as the kadai became full. “My mother’s trained you well,” she murmured, watching as he expertly pushed around the fritters with the spoon, before lifting and draining them onto the plate.

Neville grinned and shrugged again. “She’s had me practising lots. She’s going to help me cook up a feast for our wedding anniversary –” He stopped abruptly, bright red streaking across his cheekbones. He turned back to the vegetables and batter, and started the process again, this time dropping a large green chilli into the oil. They were her favourite pakoras, the big chilli ones.

Hannah stood there, stunned for a moment. “You’re…? Neville… that’s…”

“Yeah. Well. It was supposed to be a surprise,” he muttered. “Pretend I didn’t say anything, yeah?” he gave her a sheepish grin.

Hannah returned the smile, certain that all the love and affection she felt for this man was apparent in it. “In the absence of bones from the recipe, do you want me to make some of the next best thing?”

Neville’s eyes lit up. “Coriander chutney?” he asked, sounding as if Christmas had come early.

Hannah shook her head. “Coriander and mint chutney.”

Neville’s eyes positively glazed over.

Hannah shook her head and got to work, waving her wand to get the onion peeling and chopping itself. She decided to destalk the coriander by hand, whilst another flick had the mint doing the same thing beside her. All done, she placed the onion, mint, coriander, and two bright green chillies into another bowl, added some salt, a little bit of chilli powder, and some dried mango powder. The house elves must be Legilimens, Hannah decided. She hadn’t asked for the dried mango powder, but found it there waiting for her, right next to the garam masala. She made a mental note to ask the housel elves about their supplier, before making a circular motion with her wand to get all the ingredients to mush and blend themselves until they were well and truly pulverised and liquid.

“Since you told me a surprise, I can tell you one of mine,” Hannah teased, standing beside Neville, leaning against the counter the way he usually did. This way, she could keep an eye on the chutney and pakoras, whilst being able to stare at Neville’s handsome face all she liked.

“Oh?” Neville glanced in her direction briefly before returning to his task of dipping and frying. “What is it?”

She hadn’t planned on bringing it up until later, when she was a little surer of things in her head. But perhaps talking about it with Neville would help… She took a deep breath.

When she didn’t say anything for a long moment, Neville put down his spoon and turned to her, frowning. “Hannah?” he asked, quiet concern in his voice.

She bit her lip.

“What’s wrong?” There was a thread of alarm present now. He wrapped his big cool hands around hers and gave them a gentle squeeze.

Hannah shook her head and gave him a reassuring smile. “It’s nothing bad,” she rushed to say. “It’s just…” She blew out a breath.

“Whatever it is Hannah, we’ll get through it together.”

Hannah’s heart warmed at his unconditional support. “Hogwarts just advertised for a new position.”

Neville’s shoulders visibly relaxed. “Oh, yeah. I heard about that. Madam Pomfrey is finally retiring.” Neville grinned, his eyes twinkling with mischief. Hannah was reminded of the way he’d look that first night they’d met. “She must be a hundred by now.”

“The official Hogwarts retiring age,” Hannah replied, nodding solemnly.

Neville chuckled, and returned to his pakoras. “So what about it?”

“I was thinking… about applying for it.” Hannah held her breath, waiting for his reaction.

His expression became thoughtful. Then, he nodded. “That’s a good idea. I think you’d be the right fit for it.”

He’d finished frying the last of the pakoras, and he moved the plate, along with the chutney still in its blending bowl over to a large wooden table. Meanwhile, Hannah put the kettle on to boil. Neville returned and got two mugs ready, putting in the sugar and the teabags, instead of their usual tealeaves.

“I’d have to redo my Healer training,” Hannah murmured as they waited for the kettle to boil. “Brush up a bit, as it were.”

Neville looked at her, a question in his eyes.

She took a fortifying breath before replying. “I don’t know if I could do it.”

Neville’s face softened, and he entwined his fingers with hers. He surprised her: instead of giving her empty reassurances, he said, “What’s worrying you about it?”

The kettle whistled behind them. Hannah turned and poured the steaming water into the mugs. “I left being a Healer because I’d had enough. Working at St Mungo’s was… exhausting. And monotonous. And just… ugh. I don’t know if I want to go back to that.”

Neville dipped the teabags in their mugs a few times. “It wouldn’t be for too long, I imagine. And being the Matron at Hogwarts would be really different to working at St Mungo’s.”

Hannah nodded. “It would be.” She poured a little bit of milk into both their mugs, and Neville dipped the teabags a couple of times more, just for good measure, before removing them. “The Leaky Cauldron is well on its feet, and I’ve been changing the business model for the last couple of years so that I won’t have to directly supervise everything. Employing Sonia was one of the best decisions I ever made.” When Hannah had hired the young woman eighteen months ago, it had been a gamble. Things had been a little tight, but Hannah had needed the extra help. Now, she was the manager, second only to Hannah herself, and looked after almost all the day-to-day things involved with running the establishment. It had been Sonia who had suggested hiring the two house elves as kitchen staff.

They both sat down at the table, facing each other, steaming mugs of chai, and a large pile of pakoras between them. Hannah smiled in silent thanks at Neville when she noticed that he’d ferreted out a bottle of tomato sauce for her. She liked to mix it in with the dark green chutney.

Neville picked up a cauliflower pakora, and broke it in half, letting the steam escape from its golden cage. “You’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”

Hannah shrugged, picking up one of her beloved chilli pakoras. “I knew that I’d eventually want to do something else, maybe invest in some other sort of business, or something. But then I heard about the Matron opening.”

Neville levelled an even stare at her for a long moment. Then, taking a sip of his chai he asked. “Do you want to do this, Hannah?”

Hannah thought about her answer carefully before opening her mouth, taking a sip of her own chai. She let the fragrant steam wash over her, calm her. “I think I do. There are parts of being a Healer I miss. I always liked it when I worked around children.” She shrugged. “And we’ll be in the same place almost all the time.”

Neville grinned, and his gaze was equal parts admiring and lascivious. She blushed at the heat in them. “I wouldn’t be complaining,” he murmured.

She answered him with a grin of her own. “We’d definitely have more opportunities to make a baby,” she wiggled her eyebrows suggestively, and Neville laughed in response, his head tilting back. They’d been married for close to five years now, and had been discussing starting a family for several months. It was the right time, she thought. They were financially stable, well-established in their married life, and loved each other. Plus the sight of a child didn’t want to make them scream and run away in terror.

“So,” Neville said, picking up a potato pakora this time, and dipping it in the chutney before putting it whole into his mouth.

Hannah nodded. “Good. I’ll apply, then. If my application is accepted, I’ll enroll for the retraining course.”

Neville grinned. “I’m just going to become even cooler, you know. Not only am I married to the landlady of the Leaky Cauldron, I’m going to be married to the sexy Matron, too!”

“Neville!” she laughed along with him, mortified but mostly charmed.

“You know what I’m most excited about though?”

Hannah shook her head, still smiling.

“More chai with you,” he replied.

And as they sat there in the Hogwarts kitchen in the middle of the night, eating pakoras and drinking chai, Hannah and Neville fell in love all over again.