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Chai, Carrots, and a Friend in the Wee Hours of the Morning by 800 words of heaven
Chapter 1: Chai, Carrots, and a Surprise
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Neville surveyed his kitchen in dismay. It looked as if his young godson, Albus, had rampaged through it in a bid to impress James. Maybe that’s what he’d claim when Hannah came over to his flat for a late-night chai and dessert session. It was something that had developed rather spontaneously since the zebra cake on his birthday. For some strange reason, every time he visited Hannah’s home after ten in the evening, they ended up drinking chai and eating some delicious homemade dessert.
And no, before anyone asked, they did nothing but talk on these late-night meetings, although he sure as hell wanted to do more than talk. But as always, he was too scared.
Too scared of her scorn.
Too scared of her rejection.
Too scared to lose her friendship.
And more than anything else, Neville didn’t want to lose their friendship. Of course, he knew that Hannah was just too bloody nice to laugh in his face if he asked her out on a date, but he didn’t want to risk changing things between them. There wasn’t anyone else who quite understood him the way Hannah did. She didn’t judge him for his insecurities, and she always listened to what he said. Plus, she was a fantastic cook, somehow always knowing how to make any situation better with the right food. Neville was amazed that he hadn’t gained a few pounds since meeting Hannah in the kitchen of the Leaky Cauldron – what was it now? – almost a year ago. He supposed he owed thanks for his fast metabolism to his mother’s side of the family.
It was this talent of Hannah’s that kept her so late at the Leaky Cauldron these days. Since quitting her job as a Healer and starting her employment at the Leaky Cauldron, Hannah had worked her way up the ranks from waitress, to bartender, to emergency sous-chef, and now to manager. Old Tom had now most definitely earned the title of old, so he relied more and more on Hannah to run the place.
Neville sighed again. The cake was a bust. He sighed and waved his wand, sending his kitchen into a frenzied panic as it cleaned itself. He’d almost be jealous of Hannah if he wasn’t so damn proud of her. It took guts to quit something for which one had worked so hard and so long to achieve. And it took a lot of dedication and perseverance to succeed in something completely new. If only he could be as brave as Hannah…
Just as the cake tin scrubbed itself clean of its burnt contents, there was a soft rap at his door. He grinned at its mere sound. He’d recognise the sound of Hannah’s knocking anywhere.
Man, he had it bad.
But for the moment, he pushed his monumental crush aside and flung his door open wide.
“Hannah!” he said warmly, pulling her into his flat and wrapping her in a hug. The lemony smell of the potion they used to clean the tables gently draped over a scent that was quintessential Hannah: her mother’s chai masala and cocoa butter. He took a deep breath in as surreptitiously as he could.
Hannah laughed, her arms coming to wrap around his torso all-too-briefly. Damn. “It’s nice to see you, too, Neville. How was your day?”
“Long. Boring. Tiring,” he replied, shrugging and reluctantly letting her go. With Hannah, ‘how was your day?’ was never just a nicety – she actually wanted to know how his day was. But he didn’t really feel like talking about his work in the Auror department. The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach had started over a year ago, and it had only grown.
Shutting the door with a bang, he followed her into the living area. Hannah set her bag next to the sofa, unwound her scarf, and dropped into the old worn upholstery with a satisfied sigh.
“Long day?” Neville asked, taking the chance to drink up the contours of her face whilst her eyes were closed.
“Very,” she replied. Her lips curved into a warm smile however, pulling at his heartstrings. Her thin nose cast a shadow over her cheek, and her long dark lashes rested over the soft dark smudges under her eyes.
“Tom’s working you to the bone,” he replied, heading over to his now-orderly kitchen and putting the kettle on to boil. Dessert or no dessert, they could both use a good strong cup of tea.
“I’m sort of used to the hard work,” she replied, pulling herself up from his sofa and coming to stand with him in his kitchen. It was larger than hers, and more modern, all stainless steel and glass splashbacks. Before Hannah had come into his life, or rather, before he’d stumbled into hers that late sleepless night, he’d mostly used his kitchen to make toast or boil the odd egg, not being much into cooking. The space had always felt rather cold and impersonal to him, but now it was warm and alive and filled with memories of Hannah. And perhaps, if he played his cards right tonight, the promise of something more…
But that was before he burnt the cake.
“I burnt the cake,” Neville said sheepishly, running a hand through his hair.
“You baked?” Hannah asked, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. She took out two mugs from the cupboard and placed teabags into them as they waited for the water to come to boil. He’d gone grocery shopping with her one day, and when they’d visited the Indian grocer tucked away in a crook in Diagon Alley, he’d learnt that one could buy teabags with chai masala pre-packaged in them. Hannah had laughed at his extreme excitement at this discovery.
“I tried to bake,” he amended. The kettle whistled. He watched as Hannah poured the water into their mugs and then headed for his ice box to get the milk.
For you. He shrugged, “I dunno. You’re always feeding me. I wanted to feed you for a change.”
Hannah stopped what she was doing and stared at him for a long moment. Neville stared back. He didn’t quite get what was going on, but he was certain that this moment was important.
“That’s…” Hannah began.
“But I burnt the cake,” he blurted again, not wanting to hear her praise him for ruining the job. Okay, so he didn’t have the wherewithal for cooking, but in his defence, he only had time for one hobby.
Hannah blinked at him, he was certain because of his interruption. “That’s okay. We can make something else!”
“But that’s not the same! I wanted to…” Impress you. Dazzle you with my mad culinary skills. Blow you away with the depth of my affection for you. “… To do it. You know, to show that I can cook, too.”
“But it’ll be more fun together.” There was that mischievous twinkle in her eye again, and the quirk of her mouth had her dimple winking into existence. Merlin, her dimple would be the death of him one day.
“What are we going to make, then?” he asked, resigning himself to the fact that he’d probably never wow her with his competence in the kitchen.
“What do you have in the house?”
He thought for a moment. To be perfectly honest, he only really had the basics. Bread, marmalade, a dozen eggs, milk, some firewhiskey in his pantry, and…
“Carrots. I have a lot of carrots.”
“Carrots?” she parroted.
He nodded, heading over to his ice box and extracting the carrots. All five pounds of them.
She stared at the pile of vegetables that he’d dumped onto his counter in all their orange glory.
“Why do you have so many carrots?” Hannah asked, bewildered.
“I, ah, tried a new fertiliser on my grandmother’s vegetable patch. It worked rather well,” he answered, feeling a little dumb. He should have known that the carrots would’ve loved the fish-rich fertiliser he’d retrieved from a raid on a shady merman’s aquatic nursery business. The bloke might’ve had some of the finest specimens of the Australian migrating Posidonia he’d seen this side of the photic zone, but money laundering for the goblin mob didn’t pardon such a gift for underwater Herbology.
Hannah laughed. “Well, you’re in luck Carrot Boy. I have an idea about what to do with these.”
“Carrot Boy?” Had they finally moved onto the stage where they could give each other nicknames? Although Neville had to admit that ‘Carrot Boy’ wasn’t that fantastic. Or romantic.
Ignoring him, Hannah said, “All we need is sugar, milk, some cashew nuts, a few almonds if we’re feeling fancy, and ghee. Plus the carrots.”
“I have all those things,” Neville replied. “Except… gee?” It was so endearing when Hannah accidentally slipped into Hindi when she spoke with him. He took it as a sign that she was comfortable enough around him to speak the way she thought.
“Ghee,” Hannah corrected, puffing more air out with the ‘g’. “Clarified butter.”
“I never knew people didn’t understand butter.” The joke was lame, understandably earning him a withering look, although the reappearance of her dimple had him reassured that despite being such a dork, she still liked him.
“I have some at home, actually. I can go grab it quickly!” The prospect of cooking lighted up her face, and a warmth originating from somewhere in the region of his heart spread through his body at the sight. This was the Hannah he wanted to see all the time. Maybe one day, she’d get that look when she saw him…
But he was getting ahead of himself. First, butter.
“Yeah, sure,” he replied shoving his hands into his pockets. “Just Apparate back here – you don’t have to knock again.”
She nodded. “Whilst I’m gone, could you get started on the carrots? They need to be skinned and grated.”
Neville brightened. He could do that!
Hannah smiled, and waved her fingers in farewell. “Back in a tick!” With a pop, she was gone.
His flat felt a little drearier already. Levitating the carrots to the sink, he flicked on the tap and got them toppling over themselves to get them clean. He didn’t want even the slightest trace of that super fish fertiliser left on them. When he was certain they were fertiliser-free, he levitated them out and onto the bench, where they splashed water across most of it. Right. Should’ve thought that through better.
Neville paused now. Did he have a peeler? He must. When his grandmother had visited him for the first time since he’d moved out of home all those years ago, she’d been horrified at his threadbare kitchen. She’d gone into a frenzy, stocking him with cooking-related paraphernalia like some sort of kitchen-residing warrior angel. Somehow, all those odds and ends had survived three relocations, a freak flood, a rogue Devil’s Snare attack, and his godson.
He opened a random drawer and stared in dismay at the array of various spoons, whisks, several spatulas, and was that an egg timer? At least he always knew where to find his pruners. “Accio peeler!” he sighed, pointing his wand at the drawer and hoping to get lucky.
Something struck him in the back before clattering to the floor. “What the…?” Neville spun around and looked at where his peeler lay. Ah, so it had been in the other drawer…
With a dramatic swish of his wand, he set the carrots to peeling and went on the hunt for his grater. He knew he’d seen it the other day…
Several minutes later, Neville gave up. This time, he stood at the entrance of his kitchen from where he could see all the drawers and cupboards. No kitchen utensil was going to catch him by surprise this time!
“Accio grater!” He had half a moment’s warning from the soft whoosh of slicing air somewhere over his right shoulder; he ducked just in time for his grater to sail over his head and come to a convenient rest next to his now-peeled carrots. Where on earth did that come from?
Shrugging the matter off for now, he flicked his wand and had the carrots grating themselves into shredded oblivion. He could do this. Hannah was going to have her mind blown at just how great a carrot grater he was.
As he watched his carrots absentmindedly, Neville’s thoughts drifted to less genial thoughts. His job really sucked. The hours were long and thankless, the assignments were mentally and emotionally draining, and the mountains of paperwork were mind-numbingly dreary. He’d heard stories about this happening to other Aurors. In his misguided youth, he’d never thought that he’d be amongst their number: the burn-outs. The ones who weren’t quite up to snuff, who couldn’t take the heat anymore.
But that wasn’t the case, was it? He was a damn good Auror. He put in the effort, he got the job done with minimal fuss and carnage, and he was bloody well-liked by everyone whilst he did it. He was so good, in fact, that when he’d gone into speak with Harry about his growing misgivings, his Head of Department had been quite shocked that Neville just wasn’t as motivated about his work anymore.
“I’m back!” Hannah sung, as she Apparated next to his dining table. Unlike her flat, his place was actually big enough to house a piece of furniture exclusively for eating.
At the sight of her, Neville felt instantly better. She held a large wide pot of some sort in her arms. It had two handles arching over the edge on opposite sides, and by the way she was supporting it against her body, it was heavier than it looked.
“I got the ghee,” she said, setting her pot down on the table with a dull clunk and taking out a largish green tub. “And also some ilaichi powder because I thought that you might not have some.”
Wasn’t lychee a type of fruit? Honestly, there was a powder for everything.
Hannah brought over the green tub and the small packet, and stood beside him surveying the just-grated carrots. “The carrots are done! Fantastic! We can get started on the rest!”
Neville loved it when she said ‘we’.
He stepped out of the way as Hannah busily moved the large metal pot onto the stove and placed a few healthy spoonfuls of the clarified butter from the tub into it. “While the ghee melts, could you chop up the cashews for me?”
“How much?” he asked, heading over to the cupboard to pull out his jar. Whilst he was at it, he took out the almonds as well. Hannah had mentioned that they’d need almonds, too.
“About two handfuls,” she replied, coming to stand next to him. Their arms brushed as she reached for the jar of almonds. Was it his imagination, or did she just gasp at the accidental touch?
“My handfuls are bigger than your handfuls,” he said, his voice coming out a little deeper and softer than usual. Was he flirting? Yes, definitely.
“Your handfuls are fine, Neville,” she replied, her mouth moving to a half-smile. Was she remembering the first time they’d cooked together, like he was? He hoped so.
She moved away towards the sink so he couldn’t see her face anymore. He diligently chopped the cashews as he heard the tap run and a bowl fill.
“I’m just putting these almonds to soak for a bit so we can take their skins off,” Hannah called over her shoulder.
“The cashews are done,” he replied, bringing them over to the stove. “Now what?”
“Now, we roast.” She indicated the large pot. Neville eyed it dubiously.
“Is this, er… safe?”
“Of course not!” she beamed. “Throw them in!”
Neville took a deep breath, and opened his cupped hands over the clear yellow liquid. He took a quick step back as they sputtered angrily at him. He knew there was a reason why he only ever boiled eggs. Did he know his building’s fire evacuation plan?
Hannah possessed a far braver soul than his because she stepped right up to the stove and poked the nuts around with a spoon, seemingly unaffected by the hissing beast the butter had become. Neville stood behind her, mentally going through the list of charms and incantations that could be used in the event of a fire. And Ron had thought that the course on first responses in an emergency had been useless. He was going to impress the pants off Hannah with his firefighting skills.
But not literally. Everyone’s pants were going to stay exactly where they were.
“They’re done!” Hannah was far too excited by the prospect of angry food, as she expertly drained the cashews of excess oil against the side of the pot, and removed them to a conveniently placed plate sitting beside the stove. Where had that come from? Once again, Hannah’s extreme efficiency bewildered and awestruck him.
Neville was pretty efficient when it came to pruning plants. Did girls find extreme pruning to be an impressive feat? Some of those plants had incredibly sharp thorns; they could kill a man if you weren’t careful!
“Do you want to put the carrots in now?” Hannah asked, pulling him from his fantasy of saving a damsel in distress from the devastating projectiles of a Spiky Bush with nothing but a pair of pruning scissors and a handy Incendio charm.
“Uh… sure,” Neville replied, levitating the grated mountain in all its bright orange glory into the pot. Thankfully, the sheer volume of vegetable dampened any hissing that may have blinded him.
Hannah dimmed the flame, and charmed the spoon to toss and turn the carrots. “We have to sauté them now.”
There it was again: we. “How will we know when they’re done?”
“They change colour and smell less… carrot-y.”
He glanced down at her, amused. “Carrot-y? Is that a technical term?”
She playfully shoved him in the arm. It erupted into gooseflesh. Was having a crush always this difficult? Surely it must be something that became easier with age. But knowing his luck, Neville was certain that it wouldn’t be the case with him.
They stood there in front of his stove for a good fifteen minutes, watching the carrots change colour. Hannah chatted about her day, telling him about how she’d had to cover the bartender’s shift again on top of her other duties, how she’d done her bi-weekly check on Old Tom’s room just to make sure he wasn’t dead, how she’d busted out her Healer skills when one of the patrons went into anaphylactic shock after eating the lentil soup. Neville listened to her, smiling and laughing every now and again. They were both quiet by nature, more listeners than speakers in conversation, so it was wonderful to hear her talk with such openness with him. He was flattered that she felt comfortable enough to let her guard down. That meant something, far more than a flirtatious smile or a touch that lingered just a little too long.
“I think the carrots smell less carrot-y, now,” Neville said. Their colour had changed too, becoming deeper and richer.
Hannah nodded in agreement, “It’s time for the milk, then.”
Neville obediently went to his ice box and retrieved the bottle. It was almost full to the top. Hannah eyed it critically, then poured its entire contents over the carrots. He’d need to buy more milk, Neville silently noted.
She increased the heat of the flame a little, charmed the spoon to stir the mixture of milk and carrots, and took a step back. “It’s going to take a while for the milk to evaporate,” she said. “So you’ll have plenty of time to tell me about what’s eating you up.”
Neville sighed, leaning against a countertop. “Is it really that obvious?”
Hannah smiled sympathetically. “Only a little bit.”
“Oh, that makes me feel much better,” he replied sarcastically, although his voice lacked any heat. He was a bit surprised that she hadn’t brought it up sooner – Hannah was that good at reading him.
“I assume that’s why you keep me around.”
“I like being around you,” he said quietly. There was another long moment where Hannah looked at him, her eyes crinkling in slight confusion. Neville held her gaze, trying to project just how much she meant to him – in the most not-creepy manner possible. Merlin, he was terrible with women.
“Stop trying to change the subject,” she said softly, snapping the tension. “And tell me what’s going on.” She came to stand in front of him, resting her hands over his, her slender fingers wrapping around his wrists.
Neville closed his eyes briefly, enjoying the simple sensation of her hands holding his. Opening his eyes again, he said, “I don’t think I want to be an Auror anymore.”
Instead of greeting this statement with derision, or incredulity, or even surprise, she just thoughtfully nodded. “Okay. Why?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. I guess… I’m tired. When I first started, I used to come home after a long day exhausted, but feeling good about myself, like I’d made a difference. Now, when I come home after a long day exhausted… that’s it. I just feel exhausted. Nothing else.”
“I get that,” she replied softly, rubbing her fingers gently across his wrist. “I want you to remember that you’re still doing good work, though. No matter what your feelings, it doesn’t take away from the positive impact of your actions.”
Inexplicably, the leaden feeling that weighed low in the pit of his abdomen felt a little lighter. “I know that.” And he did know that. It was just nice to hear someone else say it. It was nice to hear Hannah say it.
“Good,” she smiled warmly at him. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do?”
She stepped away and returned to the stove. Neville followed. He watched as she measured out four and a half cups of sugar into the stirring pot, and thought about his answer.
“Sort of. I talked to Harry about it last week. There’s a – there’s a position for a new Herbology professor. At Hogwarts.”
Was it his imagination again, or did Hannah freeze for a fraction of a moment at his words?
“Yeah?” was all she said, however, fiddling with the size of the flame.
“Yeah. I was thinking about it, and I reckon I’d be good at it. I know Herbology. I don’t hate children. I don’t think children hate me. And… I think I’d enjoy it, too.” He’d had to fill in last year training the new recruits for a few weeks, and he’d surprised himself by how much he’d liked it. There had been a lot more involved than just passing on requisite knowledge, and it was this aspect that had most appealed to him.
“I think you should go for it,” Hannah replied, turning to face him and smiling brightly. “You’d make a great teacher.”
“You think so?”
She nodded emphatically.
“Alright, then. Applications close next week. I’ll fill one out, and see how I go. If I get the job –”
“When you get the job,” Hannah interjected.
“If I get the job, I’ll have until the start of the new term in September to get everything sorted.”
Hannah’s smile grew wider, and she surprised him with a tight hug.
Neville chuckled, and returned her hug with equal enthusiasm. “Not that I’m complaining, but what’s this hug for?”
“I’m just so happy for you!”
Neville smiled to himself and rested his cheek on top of her head briefly. He tried to ignore the significance of how well they fit together and just how right this felt.
Hannah pulled away and went back to the pot of cooking carrots. The entire mass had once again dried. When Neville dared to touch the spoon, he found that he had to put a bit of effort into moving it through the thick stickiness.
“The sugar’s caramelised really well!” Hannah said. Neville nodded like he understood what was going on.
“This is some Indian dessert, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Some Indian dessert? It’s the best Indian dessert! There’s nothing like this and a cup of chai on a cold winter night like tonight.”
“And a friend,” he murmured. Hannah looked up at him, and once again, they shared one of those moments where a frisson of… something zinged between them.
She had to be feeling this too, right?
“Hannah, I…” Neville began.
“Time for the cashews!” He was certain that Hannah had interrupted him on purpose. His growing confidence dipped. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe she didn’t feel the same way he did. Maybe it was best –
“Could you pass me the ilaichi powder, please?” Hannah asked. She spooned some more – ghee? – over the carrots, and dropped in the chopped cashew nuts as well.
Neville nodded and handed over the little packet. “Just out of curiosity, why does this recipe have lychee powder in it? Come to think of it, why does lychee powder even exist?” Neville asked as he watched her measure out the stuff, and wave her wand again at the spoon to start mixing it all together.
“Lychee?” Hannah laughed. “No, it’s ee-lye-chee. Cardamom. I can’t think of spices in English. Sorry.”
“Why are you sorry for speaking more than one language? That’s bloody amazing.” And he meant it. Neville wished that he could speak more than English, although he was semi-proficient in troll. It wasn’t something he’d boast about though, since it mostly involved a lot of grunting and pointing.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, pushing the hair that had escaped from her ponytail out of her eyes. “Do you want another cup of chai? This is almost ready to eat, and I think your decision to become a teacher requires some sort of celebration.” Neville was already moving to fill the kettle.
They both moved around his kitchen in comfortable silence, somehow never getting in each other’s way. Hannah skinned and sliced the almonds, sprinkling them over the carrot-dessert-thing, and Neville made them some more tea.
Just as Neville removed the teabags, Hannah spooned some of the mouth-watering carrot concoction into two bowls. He followed her to the dining table with their mugs.
His grandfather’s old clock chimed twelve from the bowels of his flat. A new day – that day – had begun.
He took a deep breath. If he was going to do it, it had to be now. Everything was perfect. The time was perfect. The day was perfect. The carrots were perfect. The chai was perfect. Hannah was perfect.
She hip-checked him out of his thoughts, and when he looked at her in surprise, she smiled at him, teeth glinting in the dim light, the dimple in her left cheek looking so…
“What –?” she began, but some invisible barrier finally lifted from Neville’s brain. Without real conscious thought, he leant down and kissed that dimple. He lingered for a moment, felt her go still beneath his lips, heard her breath catch in her throat.
He stood straight again and looked at her face, her expression caught somewhere in the realm of shock. But maybe a good kind of shock? “I’ve been wanting to do that for ages,” he said as casually as he could, although he was feeling anything but casual. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Hannah.”
“Happy…” she began, her expression drifting from shocked to merely dazed. She shook her head, and watched him from beneath her lashes. “What… what was that for?”
He shrugged, and shoved his hands in his pockets, trying to hide how they were slightly shaking. He was nervous. Really nervous. “I, um,” he stopped. Cleared his throat. Then tried again, “I wanted to ask you if… if you’d be my Valentine? Maybe?” Merlin’s saggy underpants he sounded like he was fifteen! He felt like he was fifteen.
Oh? That was it? What did that mean?
“I’d like that very much, Neville,” she replied, looking down at the table where their tea was slowly becoming tepid.
She finally looked up at him, quizzical. “You sound surprised,” her lips quirked. “As if you didn’t know I’d say yes.”
“Well, I didn’t know,” he released a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding, running a hand through his hair in relief. “I mean, I’m atrocious with women, and I didn’t know if… well, I didn’t want to ruin what we have. Because aside from everything else, I don’t want to lose our friendship. I don’t want to lose you.”
Hannah’s smile grew into a bright laugh. Neville didn’t know what was so funny, but he couldn’t help smiling too. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him down for a kiss.
It was warm, it was soft, and it was better than anything Neville had ever imagined a kiss with Hannah could be.
Merlin, he was almost positive that he’d started falling in love.
As they broke apart, Neville pulled her body close to his. She rested her forehead on his collarbone for a few moments whilst they both collected themselves.
Finally, she looked up at him. Brown eyes met brown, and he couldn’t help his faint grin. He ran the back of his knuckles across her cheek, just because he could, and was charmed by the soft blush of pink.
“Neville,” she began. “No matter what happens between us, I’ll always be your friend.”
“Even in the wee hours of the morning?” he asked, leaning his face towards hers.
She pushed up towards him, and the just before their lips touched again, she murmured, “Especially in the wee hours of the morning.”
Yup, he was definitely falling in love.