Written in December 2005.
t was the week before Christmas, and Hogwarts had never been so sombre.
At breakfast, news had arrived announcing the death of Alastor 'Mad-Eye' Moody. His murder had been the sixth in a long line of significant deaths that Hogwarts had been informed of. Unfortunately, there were not very many students at breakfast to join in mourning the ex-Auror, for most of the families of young witches and wizards still attending Hogwarts had whisked off their children on the first day of Christmas break, claiming that their homes were safer than the school.
Thus, an air of gloom hung over near-deserted castle. Many of the professors had stayed behind, insisting that Hogwarts was their home; but, nevertheless, the absence of so many of their peers was rather disconcerting to the four students that had been left behind.
Neville Longbottom was one of these four stragglers. A young man of seventeen, his life had taken a formidable turn the day before the start of break.
The summer before his seventh and final year at Hogwarts, Neville had bid his grandmother a reluctant good-bye at King's Cross. Just before he stepped onto the Hogwarts Express, his grandmother -- his guardian and his only family -- had scolded him for being cowardly and fearful. She had ordered him to be strong and brave, just like Harry Potter was. Neville had plastered a smile on his face and nodded, promising to do as she said, before turning away from her, ashamed and angry with himself because he knew the unlikelihood of his carrying out her demands.
And then, three days ago, a very solemn Minerva McGonagall had approached Neville with the news that his grandmother had been murdered in her home earlier that day.
Now, as Neville wandered through the desolate, empty corridors of the Hogwarts castle, his mind unwillingly drifted towards the memory of McGonagall standing before him three days ago, telling him, in low tones, that his grandmother was dead. The moment Neville remembered the mixture of pity and fear that had marred the Headmistress's lined features, he felt a wave of some unidentifiable emotion surge through him, swelling up somewhere in his throat until he found he could no longer draw breath with ease.
With a choked sound that came out as a cross between a grunt and a scream, Neville stumbled over to the nearest window and pressed his forehead against it desperately. The sharp contrast between his burning skin and the cold glass seemed to, for one fleeting second, reflect the stabs of pain slicing through him at that moment.
Then, Neville sighed in defeat. As he did so, he felt the anguish twisting his insides fade away into a dull throb somewhere in his chest region.
For several minutes, Neville remained in his position, trying to collect his disorganised, frenzied thoughts. Finally, he felt himself beginning to get dizzy due to the blood rushing to his head; so, he forced himself to look up and out the window.
It was so frigid outside that the untouched snow blanketing the Hogwarts grounds had frozen over. The clouds overhead greyed the sky, occasionally moving over to allow a few feeble rays of sunlight to reach out hopefully but always shifting back to cover them. In fact, everything Neville could see through the window seemed to be grey -- the dead trees, the frozen lake, the fading exterior of Hagrid's abandoned hut. It was a bitter grey, a grey that reflected the hopeless, stifling despondency Neville felt.
Predominating over all the thoughts and feelings Neville had gathered over the past three days -- and there were many of them -- was an overbearing sense of failure. He had failed in everything his grandmother had wanted to be. Whenever she had sharply told him that his lack of self-confidence was all that held him back from being as smart as Hermione Granger, Neville had sullenly mumbled that he had nothing to be confident about. Whenever she had reminded him that he had been just as involved in the Department of Mysteries battle in fifth year as Ron Weasley, and yet Ron was the one getting the attention, Neville had moodily explained that no one cared what he had to say even if he had been a part of the battle.
Ultimately, Neville had never lived out the glorious life of his parents: the one his grandmother had persistently tried to press upon him. He'd always been overshadowed by his friends, his brave, smart, outgoing friends. This had never bothered Neville, for he was the kind of person who preferred to hover in the background, only truly displaying his courage and loyalty when he was called upon. It had, however, bothered his grandmother, and Neville had never bothered to fix this. Now, she was gone from his life, and he couldn't help but feel like a failure.
Neville shut his eyes tightly and tried to push away a second flood of memories. One by one, though, the recollections crept into his mind, mocking reminders of everything in his past that was now gone from his life. Winning Gryffindor the House Cup in his first year for his display of courage, as Dumbledore had called it. Dancing with Ginny Weasley at the Yule Ball in fourth year. Saving Harry from being strangled to death in fifth year. Fighting the Death Eaters in the Astronomy Tower in sixth year.
Neville flattened his palms against the cold window, revelling in the numbness the frigid glass induced in his hands -- a numbness quite similar to that which had overcome him ever since he had received the news and, in essence, isolated him from his surroundings despite the Hogwarts staff's best attempts to comfort him. These attempts had, of course, failed, for Neville was deep within his grief and nothing -- no one -- could retrieve him from it.
Neville jumped away from the window and spun around to face the person who had interrupted him from his thoughts: Luna Lovegood.
"Hi," he said hoarsely, inwardly wishing that she would leave him alone despite the close friendship that had formed between them over the past few years.
"What are you doing here all alone?" Luna inquired, her large, protuberant eyes fixed on Neville. The penetrating look she was giving him was very much like that which he had grown accustomed to receiving from her; nevertheless, Neville still found it rather unsettling.
"Looking out the window," said Neville nervously, and he turned to face the frosted glass once again as if to prove his words. "What are you doing?"
"Professor McGonagall asked me to come get you and tell you dinner is starting soon."
"I don't want to go," said Neville immediately, "I'm not hungry."
"She thought you would say that," replied Luna, sounding only mildly amused. "It's not surprising that you've lost your appetite, though; being in the presence of Long-Tailed Fairies can do that to a person."
An odd urge to laugh rose up within Neville, but he suppressed it with some difficulty and instead said quietly, "Fairies don't have tails, Luna."
"Oh, but these ones do," said Luna seriously. "They're quite small, so don't worry if you can't see them, but they're very vicious when provoked. If you breathe in too deeply, they'll enter your system, which makes for a lack of appetite."
Neville shrugged and continued to stare fixedly out of the window. A large cloud was slowly drifting by overhead the Forbidden Forest, leaving a tiny gap behind through which rays of sunlight shone through, causing for a few faint patches of light to appear on the snow-covered grounds.
"Luna," said Neville suddenly. He turned around to look at his friend. She was still gazing at him unblinkingly as she twirled a strand of her long, dirty-blond hair around her index finger.
"Yes?" she asked, tilting her head to one side slightly.
"Your mum died when you were younger, didn't she?"
"Yes," said Luna again without a trace of hesitance. Her light, singsong voice, however, was now slightly tinged with sadness. "I felt the same way you do now, if that's what you were going to ask."
Neville stared at Luna, bewildered as to how she had predicted what he was going to say so accurately. "Yeah, well," he said uncertainly once he had gotten over her unnerving ability to read his mind, "how long did it take for you to get over it?"
Luna was now toying with a section of her bottle cap necklace. For a moment, a thoughtful look dawned upon her pale features; then, she said steadily, "I don't think I ever did."
"Oh," said Neville. He cleared his throat uncomfortably, and was about to return to his window gazing when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to find Luna standing next to him.
"Did you like her very much?"
"What do you mean?" Neville asked, once again puzzled by Luna's behaviour and speech.
"I -- we weren't that close, but..."
Neville trailed off there, not knowing what to say. Desperately, he glanced down at Luna's hand on his shoulder, trying to think of a way to put into words how he felt inside.
"I know what you're trying to say," said Luna solemnly, and Neville found to his relief that the understanding in her light blue eyes proved her words to be true. "I'm sorry about what happened."
"Thanks," said Neville quietly. At that moment, he felt a sense of connection and comprehension between him and Luna. It was a feeling he had never experienced before. For once in his life, someone truly did care about what his thoughts and feelings.
"I suppose that you're not the only one, though," said Luna, her voice taking on a distant tone again. "This war...it must have torn apart many families."
Neville didn't say anything, but he regarded Luna closely as she continued to speak, one hand on his shoulder and the other still twirling about a piece of her hair.
"Daddy told me that nearly all of his staff quit because they wanted to go back home and spend more time with their loved ones. It's all very heartbreaking, knowing that your life could be gone the next day. I would have liked to return home this break and see Daddy too, but I felt that Hogwarts needed me more."
Neville shot Luna a grateful look. "I'm glad you stayed."
"Me too," said Luna softly. Then, as if having been struck by a brilliant idea, she placed her other hand on Neville's shoulder, stood on her tiptoes, and kissed him lightly on the lips. When she fell back down onto the balls of her feet, she said with a dreamy smile, "Dinner starts in five minutes."
In utter shock and disbelief, Neville watched Luna walk away, her long, straggly hair swinging slightly with each step she took. When she had turned the corner and the echoes of her footsteps had died away, he slowly raised a trembling hand to his lips.
For many long minutes, Neville stood rooted to his spot, his fingers pressed against his lips. Then, he turned and looked out the window. The clouds had broken apart completely, allowing the sun's light to be broadcasted over all of the Hogwarts grounds.
It was the week before Christmas, and though Hogwarts had never been so sombre, a tiny ray of solace managed to shine through the shroud of despair and uplift Neville Longbottom's heart.