Neville hated London, and London in the rain was even worse. He trudged along the sidewalk behind Professor Lupin, making a point of stepping in all the puddles. His feet slapped against the water, splashing sludge everywhere. It was childish, he knew, but he didn't care. It matched his mood. "Step in a puddle, Gran is in a muddle." Okay, maybe that wasn't the best rhyme ever, and it was rather mean. But Neville was mad at his grandmother right now. He had offered to hang up the decorations for her annual summer garden party, but she insisted on doing it herself. Granted, Neville managed to destroy half the decorations whenever he helped (he swore the strings of fairies tangled him up on purpose), but that would have been a small loss considering the alternative. Gran was really too old to be climbing on stepladders. He should have insisted, but Gran had refused to listen to him.
Not that Neville was particularly glad to have been proven right.
The doctors said it would take up to two months to regrow her hip. Old bones took longer. So Gran was bedridden at St. Mungo's, and Neville would stay at the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix where he could be near her -- and protected. But he was not excited about being at the center of the fight against He Who Must Not Be Named. After everything that had happened at the end of the school year, he'd really been looking forward to spending the summer in Gran's garden, not stuck in dirty old London.
Step in a puddle. Slap! Gran is in a muddle. Splash! His wet socks squished in his shoes. Everything was soaked and gray, much like his mood. Trevor wriggled inside his coat pocket, and Neville tightened his grip to keep him from escaping into the rain. At least Trevor seemed to be happy.
Step in a puddle. Slap! Gran is in a --
Crash! He bumped into Professor Lupin, who had come to a stop. Lupin stared down at him, taking in his sopping state. "A bit wet there, aren't you, Neville?"
Neville blushed, clutching at Trevor in his coat pocket. "Sorry, Professor."
The wrinkles around Lupin's eyes tightened. "I'm not a professor anymore," he reminded him. Lupin looked pale and drawn -- more so than usual. In fact, he looked like Neville felt, except Neville was too chubby to appear suitably miserable.
Lupin must have noticed, though, because he said, "Your Gran is going to be all right."
Neville scowled reflexively. It was never good when people told you things were going to be all right.
Lupin sighed, acknowledging the futility of his attempt to be sympathetic. "Well, here we are." He fished in his pocket and handed Neville a piece of paper. "Read that silently and memorize it."
Neville unfolded the paper and read, The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, London. He looked up at Professor Lupin, opening his mouth to ask a question.
Lupin held up a hand to silence him and said, "Now think about what you just read."
Frowning, Neville pondered what the words on the paper were supposed to mean, and to his surprise a house suddenly shouldered its way between the two buildings in front of which they had been standing. Lupin grasped the snakehead handle and held the door open for Neville.
They stepped inside. The entryway was dark and forbidding, silent and dusty as a tomb. A staircase led up into the shadows, and there didn't appear to be any windows. The place seemed exactly the way Neville pictured a haunted house, like the Shrieking Shack. He shuddered.
Mistaking his discomfort, Lupin said, "Let's get you out of those wet things. You can hang your coat here and leave your shoes in the corner."
Neville knelt down on the muddy carpet and tugged at his shoes. They made a loud squelching sound as they came off. He peeled his socks off as well, revealing his pale and pruney toes. Lupin helped him with his coat and said, "Let's get you to the kitchen where you can warm up in front of the fire."
Neville nodded, fishing Trevor out of his coat pocket and following Lupin down the hall.
The walls were gray and streaked with dirt. He could barely make out the pattern of the wallpaper beneath the grime. Paintings hung here and there, but they were all covered with dusty black curtains. Neville couldn't imagine a less cheery place.
At least the kitchen proved to be not quite so dour. A fire burned in the grate, doing its best to banish the gloom and inject a hospitable spirit, and the place looked like it had been lived in sometime within the last century. Neville placed Trevor on the thick, worn table and dragged a chair closer to the fire. He stretched his feet out toward the warmth, and immediately felt the chill in his body lessen.
Lupin was fussing over by an ancient icebox that looked older than Neville's Gran and returned with a plate of bread and cold cuts. "I'm afraid I'm not much of a cook."
"That's all right," Neville said, as he gratefully tucked into the food.
Lupin popped the caps off two bottles of butterbeer and placed them on the table. He drank in silence while Neville ripped up a slice of ham. Balancing a small piece on the tip of his finger, Neville held it out toward Trevor, wriggling the meat before him. Trevor's large, blinking eyes stared back. In a pink flash, his tongue shot out and he swallowed the morsel with a happy grunt.
"It's kind of you to share your dinner with your toad," said Lupin, a wry grin bringing a hint of life to his worn features. "But I imagine he will have no problem finding his own meals around here. This place is a toad smorgasbord. I don't suppose he likes mice?"
Neville shot Lupin a startled glance, and Lupin laughed. "Ah, well. I suppose Hedwig will have to take care of the mice herself."
"Hedwig is here?" Neville asked, sitting up straighter. "And -- and Harry?"
"Yes. Didn't anyone tell you?"
"No. I thought I was going to be here by myself." His spirits rose a little. Maybe the summer wouldn't be quite the prison he'd thought it would be.
"Harry's here for the duration as well," Lupin explained. "People come and go all the time, doing business for the Order, but I'm afraid you, Harry and I will be the only permanent residents."
Neville took a drink from his butterbeer and stared into the fire. His favorite professor, and Harry. The summer was beginning to look up.
After Neville finished off the sandwiches, Lupin took him upstairs.
"You boys are pretty much on your own," he explained as he pointed his wand at Neville's suitcase, charming it to float. He headed up the stairs, the suitcase bumping its way after him. "You want to be careful poking around the house, as there are still plenty of boggarts, pixies and other nuisances lurking about. Still, that'll be good practice for you. And given that You Know Who is on the loose, we don't want you boys leaving the house without supervision. I'm afraid that doesn't leave much to keep you entertained."
"That's all right. At home it's just Gran and me, anyway." Neville picked his way down the gloomy hallway, clutching Trevor close to his chest. The carpet felt gritty beneath his bare feet.
Lupin nodded at one of the doors as they passed by. "That's where Harry's staying. I'm upstairs. And this --," he stopped, pushing the door open, "will be your room."
Neville followed him in. A large bed stood in the center of the room, concealed by dusty curtains. There was a small fireplace in the wall, a moth-eaten overstuffed chaise longue, a wardrobe, and a small desk with a wooden chair. A couple of gas lights on the walls illuminated the room with a gloomy light. Neville crossed the room to some old maroon curtains, but when he drew them aside, he saw that the glass was so crusted with dirt it was impossible to see through.
"The windows have been concealed for safety," Lupin explained.
Rain pattered against the glass, and he could just discern a thin rim of light around the edges of the grimy panes. He sighed. "It's great."
"All right then, I'll leave you to get settled. Dinner will be around six. Some of the Order will be coming."
Neville nodded, and Lupin quietly left the room, closing the door behind him.
Neville remained still for several minutes, staring around the room. It was rather creepy being alone. The dark corners seemed vaguely menacing, as if they were hiding something. But this would be his home until the start of school term, so he'd better get used to it.
Trevor fidgeted within his grasp, and Neville knelt to let him go. "Take care of yourself there, Trevor." The toad sat on the carpet, licking his eyes with his tongue, then waddled off toward the bed.
Neville shivered. His pants legs were still quite damp, and in the absence of a fire, he was growing chilly again. He dragged the suitcase over to the wardrobe, and flipping open the lid, began unpacking. He changed into dry clothes and placed the rest of his things in the wardrobe. His books, quills and ink went on the little desk, along with the cards he had brought to play with. Since Harry was here, maybe he wouldn't be stuck playing solitaire all the time.
The thought of Harry cheered him up slightly, and he left his room, being careful to shut the door behind him so Trevor couldn't get out. Lupin's talk of mice and pixies worried him, and he didn't want Trevor wandering around on his own until Neville was a little more familiar with the house.
He approached Harry's door and knocked lightly. When Harry didn't answer, he knocked again, louder this time. "Harry?" he called out. "Harry, it's me, Neville." He waited, but there was still no answer. Perhaps Harry was asleep. He pressed an ear to the door to see if he could hear any movement inside the room, but he heard nothing. If Harry was indeed asleep, then Neville didn't want to disturb him by knocking again. With one last look at the door, he turned and headed down the hall back to his room.
Just before six, Neville poked his head out of his door and peered down the hall. Harry's door, he noticed, was still closed. Shutting his own door behind him so Trevor couldn't escape, he padded down the hall and paused outside Harry's room, pressing his ear against the door to listen for sounds of movement inside. But all was silent. He raised his hand to knock just in case, but then decided against it. If Harry was hiding out in there, then he'd just ignore Neville, so there was no point drawing attention to himself. He moved on down the hall, pausing at the top of the stairs. Voices drifted up from below, and he wondered who might have arrived. Feeling a bit shy, he crept down the stairs, straining to listen.
Once downstairs, he hesitated in the hall, staring down the line of curtains hanging on the wall. He had the oddest feeling that people were peeking at him from behind the curtains. Taking a deep, fortifiying breath, he scampered quickly down the hall to the safety of the kitchen, where he paused before pushing the door open and peeking inside.
"Is that you, Neville?" Lupin called. "Come on in."
He entered to find Lupin and a strange man and woman sitting at the table. At the sink, a plump lady with red hair was peeling potatoes. She turned at Lupin's greeting and smiled warmly at Neville. "There you are, love! I thought I'd pop on over and make a nice dinner in honor of your arrival."
"Thank you, Mrs. Weasley," said Neville.
"It's my pleasure, dear. I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother. I do hope she'll mend right up."
"Thank you. And how is Ron?"
Concern briefly clouded Mrs. Weasley's cheery face before she smiled again. "Oh, he's doing well enough. He still has rough spells after...his misadventure. Needs his rest, otherwise he'd have come tonight. But he did give me these to pass along to you." She reached into her pocket and passed Neville a handful of chocolate frogs. "But not before dinner, mind you."
"Thank you," said Neville.
The strange woman, who sported a shock of neon blue hair sticking up around her ears, called out, "Wotcher, Neville. You remember me, eh?"
She held her hand out to him for a shake. "It's Tonks. But last time we saw each other we were all in a bit of a muddle with You Know Who."
Now Neville remembered her from the Ministry of Magic, one of the Order members who had showed up to help in the battle.
"You're pretty good with a wand there, Neville," she continued. "Ingenious, really -- sticking it in Macnair's eye. I don't remember them teaching us that trick at Hogwarts, but hey, if it works!"
Neville shivered and stared at his toes. He didn't really like to think about what had happened there. None of it had been pleasant, and he still couldn't believe the things he had done that night. Not that he'd been brave. He'd been far too frightened to be brave. But he'd done the things he had to do -- things he hadn't known he was capable of, and the realization that he could do such things made him feel funny.
The other wizard nodded in greeting. "Sturgis Podmore. Nice to meet you, Mr. Longbottom."
Neville mutely nodded in return, and Mrs. Weasley said, "Come on and sit down at the table, dear. Dinner will be ready soon. I don't suppose you told Harry you were coming down?"
"No," said Neville.
"Harry knows when dinner is, Molly," Lupin said quietly. "He'll be down in a minute, I'm sure."
Neville saw Ron's mum shoot Lupin a mysterious look -- not unlike the expression she'd had when he'd asked her about Ron.
He offered to help set the table, and as he laid out the plates, Tonks and Podmore and Lupin asked him about school and how his summer had been going. Neville wasn't used to being around a bunch of adults he wasn't related to, other than Gran's little old lady friends who gathered weekly to gossip and swap potion recipes while smoking their pipes. He was a little nervous, afraid that his school record didn't sound very impressive, but he finally realized they didn't care about his OWL exams. They were just chatting, making an acquaintance - with him. It made him feel kind of grown-up, himself.
About five minutes after dinner started, the kitchen door swung open and Harry entered. The grown-ups all greeted him, and Mrs. Weasley warmly said, "There you are, dear."
"Hullo, Harry," Neville said.
"Hullo," Harry replied, barely looking at Neville as he took a seat next to Mrs. Weasley.
"Ron sent you his Quidditch magazines," Mrs. Weasley said. "I'll give them to you after dinner."
"Thanks. How is he?"
"Oh, he's been helping Fred and George with that infernal joke shop of theirs. If only that boy put as much effort into his studies as he does into writing those ads!"
"May I come see him?"
Mrs. Weasley's expression softened "Not this time, dear. He's had a tough go of it these past few days. Maybe next week."
At that, any spark of interest died in Harry's eyes, and he turned silently to his meal.
Neville surreptitiously watched Harry while trying not to stare. He seemed unusually pale, and almost as forlorn as Lupin. Belatedly, Neville remembered how moody and withdrawn Harry had been all school year. Perhaps he wouldn't turn out to be quite the good company Neville had thought.
If Neville could have picked anyone from all of Hogwarts with whom to spend the summer, it would have been Harry. But it wasn't because he was The Boy Who Lived. He remembered that ride on the Hogwarts Express his first year, when the entire train was abuzz with the rumors that Harry Potter himself would be starting school. He'd pictured someone tall and brave and very handsome. In fact, he'd seen someone on the train who fit the bill perfectly, but it turned out to be Oliver Wood. It was an easy enough mistake. Wood just looked like a hero.
But Harry did not. The Boy Who Lived turned out to be a scrawny, short kid with messy hair, glasses, and ill-fitting clothes beneath his robe. He looked ordinary and definitely unglamorous. He struggled with his classes, though not as hard as Neville did. True, he was a master at Quidditch and definitely very brave, but that didn't mean he was always the best at everything, or always confident, or even always popular.
And right now, he was more like The Boy Who Didn't Talk Much. He hardly spoke at all throughout the meal, and his silence began to affect Neville. Tonks sought to amuse the boys by making her ears turn all kinds of weird shapes, even upside down, but her efforts went largely unappreciated.
Toward the end of the meal, they could hear the portrait in the entry hall start to screech as Order members began to arrive.
"Looks like the meeting's about to begin," Lupin announced, pushing back from the table. "If you'll excuse us?"
As Podmore and Tonks rose to join him, Neville offered, "I'll get the dishes, Mrs. Weasley."
"Thank you, love. That's very sweet of you." She rummaged through a large orange sack and fished out a stack of magazines. "Here you are, Harry." Harry took the magazines from her, and Neville saw her hesitate before reaching out to run a hand over Harry's spiky hair.
Harry's eyes were downcast. "Thanks, Mrs. Weasley."
Her smile was sad, but when she glanced at Neville, her expression brightened. "I'll see you later, Neville. Take care." Then she followed the others out of the room.
For a moment, neither of the boys spoke, staring at the remains of dinner. The sight of all those empty plates in disarray, crumbs scattered across the table, half-drunk glasses of pumpkin juice, filled Neville with an aching loneliness. It was the story of his life: interesting people always rushed away after meals. They never stayed to hang out with him. But there was no use fretting over something that would never change. With a little sigh, Neville started stacking the plates. His actions roused Harry, who stood and went to the sink, turning the tap on.
They worked in silence, washing and drying the dishes and putting them away. When the kitchen was clean and tidy they headed out into the hall. Neville hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, glancing down the hall toward where the others must be meeting. But Harry showed no interest in what might be going on, and Neville hurried to catch up with him. "Do you want a chocolate frog?" he offered, pulling one from his pocket.
"No, thanks. I've got loads of them in my room."
When they reached Harry's room, Neville started to follow him in, but Harry turned and looked at him as if he wasn't too pleased. "I'm just going to read my magazines and go to bed."
"Oh." Neville fidgeted. "Well, can I read here with you for a while?"
Harry said nothing at first, then shrugged one shoulder. "You want to look at these?" he asked, holding up the magazines.
Harry gave Neville half of them, then stretched out on his bed, propping himself on his elbows and sorting through the magazines. Neville settled cross-legged on the floor and opened the top magazine. While he loved to watch Quidditch, he didn't particularly care to read about it. Mostly he just looked at the pictures from the games, re-creating some of the more dramatic plays. Finally he said, "So how long have you been here?"
Without looking up from his magazine, Harry answered, "A couple of weeks."
"I thought you had to stay with your aunt and uncle all summer."
Harry shrugged. "I was there at first, but we quickly got tired of each other, and Dumbledore said I could stay here with Lupin."
"Is this his house?"
"No, it belonged to Sirius."
Neville frowned. That was the man they had gone off to rescue, who had died in the fight with the Death Eaters. Harry hadn't said much about him out afterward, though he had clearly been distraught over his death. "He was your godfather?" Neville asked, trying to remember.
"Yeah." Harry turned the page of his magazine, his attention focused on his reading.
Neville considered this. The house didn't look like it had been occupied in a long time. If Harry's godfather had lived here, he must have had a high tolerance for dust. "Do you miss him?"
But Harry didn't say anything. He just rubbed at his nose and kept reading his magazine as if he hadn't heard.
That was answer enough in itself. Neville returned to his magazine, pretending to read it. After about half an hour, he bid Harry goodnight and returned to his own room. It looked like it would be a long summer after all.