"Any witch or wizard who marries a Muggle is taking a terrible risk. The children born from such unnatural unions --" Alecto Carrow motioned with her wand towards the blackboard, the points appearing there in her heavy, scrawling handwriting as she named them off. "Can expect deformity, retardation, severe anti-social tendencies, and often a complete lack of magical ability. In addition, as Muggle females are ill-bred to handle magical children, serious complications can result in such pregnancies, leading in some cases to the death of the female. Likewise, an attempt by a witch to carry the child of a Muggle male – yes, Mr. Finnigan?"
Seamus stood, his face a study in scholarly innocence as he lowered his hand. "Please, ma'am, those anti-social tendencies, they'd be the reason You-Know-Who's so delusional, then?"
Neville felt as though his stomach had abruptly dropped into his feet. Had Finnigan lost his mind? He wished it weren't too late to catch his friend's eye, to warn him off of saying something so crazily inflammatory, but the damage had been done. The words on the blackboard dissolved in smoke as Carrow's face slowly turned a deep scarlet.
"The Dark Lord carries the blood of the great Slytherin himself through generations of powerful wizarding families such as the Gaunts and the Peverells," she hissed between clenched teeth. "More than powerful enough to counteract the pitiful influence of any Muggle... if you choose to believe disgusting rumors spread by petty, small-minded, Mudblood-loving fools. But you are certainly proof that no ordinary slum-dragging witch can marry filth without consequence!"
To Neville's surprise, Seamus seemed to take the attack on his mother in stride, nodding as if her answer had been perfectly reasonable. "Then if we're to be takin' the example of the Gaunts and keepin' it all in kin, can I ask when you and Amycus'll be expecting?"
A collective gasp sounded through the classroom, and Neville slipped his hand into his pocket, closing his fingers unobtrusively around the handle of his wand. Seamus had brought whatever punishment was coming on himself, without a doubt, but if it was going to be too much, Neville was prepared to fight to save his fellow Gryffindor's life. The look on their new teacher's face certainly suggested it might come to that.
Seamus, however, simply stood silently, facing her with the same look of serene curiosity on his face until the moment her wand snapped towards him. " CRUCIO !" she shrieked, and the curse hit Seamus with such force that he flew backward over his chair, crashing into the desk behind him. Lavender Brown jumped to her feet and screamed as he slid down to the floor, his body thrashing and writhing against her legs as the agony of the curse swept through him.
At the head of the class, Carrow watched, her teeth bared in feral glee at Seamus' pain. Neville's hand grew so tight on the wand that his fingernails cut into the flesh of his palm, but he made no move, forcefully reminding himself that it was only the second day, too early to do anything rash or foolish. If he made any move towards Seamus, he would join him instantly on the floor, helpless under the wracking pain of the curse he remembered all too well from the night he had faced the Death Eaters at the Ministry of Magic.
After what seemed like years, a hand appeared on the surface of Lavender's desk, and Seamus slowly pulled himself upright. He was trembling, his chin scarlet and his shirt stained with blood where he had bitten almost completely through his lower lip, but incredibly, he was smiling. "Touch a nerve, there?"
Slowly, Carrow stalked across the classroom, her squat, round-shouldered form moving with bullish intensity towards the taller student. Reaching him, she stared nastily up into his face, putting the tip of her stubby wand directly under his chin and forcing him to look upwards. "I take no disrespect from half-breed Irish dung, Finnigan." Lowering her wand, she unleashed a thick gob of spittle that hit Seamus directly in the face, then, with a quick, harsh motion, snapped the wand up again.
Before she could utter the curse, however, Seamus's own wand was in his hand, dropped out of his sleeve in a motion that seemed almost magic in itself. " Ionsaigh !" he shouted.
Carrow doubled over as if punched, beady eyes bulging in pain, and Neville gasped in shock. Silently, he urged Seamus to run, to flee, to Stupify her and get away before she could retaliate. But it was too late. Already, Carrow had recovered enough to jab her wand towards the young Gryffindor, and all Neville could do was wrap his arms around Parvati, who was sitting next to him, and hide her face in his robes so that she didn't have to watch.
"What in Merlin's name were you thinking?!" Ginny Weasley spoke for all of them the moment Seamus' eyes eased themselves open in the Gryffindor common room, barely visible as blue and white slits beneath the puffy swelling of two massive bruises.
"Izzazmple l'arridadun." The words were utterly unintelligible through the cracked and bleeding lips, and Neville knelt, raising a small bowl to his classmate's mouth.
"Here, drink this." He shot a look at Ginny. "You can wait to tell us all what possessed you once you're patched up."
"Winasplwen?" Neville tilted the bowl, and the protestation stopped as Seamus began to drink the murky green liquid.
Ignoring the faces his patient made at the taste, Neville gently wiped away a few stray dribbles from Seamus' chin, then refilled the bowl from the cauldron that sat on the low table next to the couch that was being used as a makeshift hospital bed. "You're not in the hospital wing," he explained, "because the Carrows wouldn't let us take you there. Alecto wanted you to suffer for what you've done. None of us wanted to try healing spells on you while you were unconscious, but I've brewed up a mixture of Dittany, Murtlap, and a few other things that should help a lot, and Ginny is going to give the spellwork a try for the rest – oh, don't give me that look, this isn't Potions, it's Herbology."
The swelling had already gone down by nearly half, and Neville was pleased to see that his concoction was already restoring a more normal appearance to the battered and bloody mouth, though the two front teeth were still badly broken. When Seamus spoke again, it was surprisingly clear. "I wanted to set an example like Harry. I thought if someone stood up to her straight away, folk'd see it could be done, you know?"
"What we saw, Finnigan, you ass, is an excellent alternative if poking the Whomping Willow is inconvenient!" Parvati's cheeks were flushed mahogany, but she could not entirely hide the relief in her voice. It had looked for almost two terrifying hours as though Seamus might not wake up, so badly had Carrow worked him over for his insolence, but merely having him conscious and seeing the first signs of healing had done wonders for them all.
Neville nodded towards Ginny. "You can give it a try while I add a little more tincture of Mandrake, I think."
The younger girl raised her wand, and Seamus drew back painfully into the mountain of pillows that had been piled under him. "Now wait a moment..."
"Hold still." Ginny's voice was crisp and matter-of-fact, the tone one that Neville knew without ever having spent more than a moment with Mrs. Weasley had been learned from her mother. "Do you really think I could have lived in that house with six brothers all my life and not learned a thing or two about healing spells? If we'd had to take Fred and George to St. Mungo's every time they blew themselves up, we'd have been out on the street."
Reluctantly, Seamus held still, and Ginny placed the tip of her wand against the broken teeth. " Episkey Dentata !" With a faint "pop!" the teeth regrew instantly, and Seamus tried to raise a hand to feel his mouth, but stopped mid-motion, groaning in pain.
Neville lifted his head from the cauldron where he had been carefully stirring in the Mandrake, one drop at a time, allowing his instincts to tell him when the texture was exactly right. "You have a broken wrist, a few cracked ribs, a sprained ankle, and more bruises than if you'd been used for practice by every Beater in the school. That's not to mention a knot the size of a Snitch on that thick head of yours, two black eyes, a few wand scorches, and a mouth that is just starting to look human again. I suggest you lie back and think about Gryffindors having a tendency to be brave to the point of stupidity, and then we need to talk about what you originally had in mind and make some decisions." The tone of cool authority in his voice surprised him, and he stopped, blushing and looking back down into the green mixture. "If that's okay with everyone."
"Wow, Neville," gushed Colin Creevey, "you sounded just like Harry there for a minute! It was like the DA again!"
"Yeah, well..." Neville mumbled, embarrassed, "Harry's gone, and so is Dumbledore, and so are Ron and Hermione and Dean and Justin and another dozen from the DA, and another hundred from the school. It's not like when all we had to worry about was Umbridge and her little Squad."
"But this is why we had the DA in the first place, isn't it? Because Harry knew it might come to this?" Parvati asked, and Neville wondered hotly why everyone seemed to be looking to him, even Ginny, who seemed to him the far more natural successor to any kind of leadership in Gryffindor.
"That's true," he agreed slowly. Finally satisfied with his brew, he scooped up another bowl and began to daub it onto Seamus' wounds, using the busywork to avoid everyone's eyes as he spoke. "But I think this is worse than even Harry ever guessed it would be. I mean, Dumbledore dead, Snape in charge of the school, Death Eaters teaching classes, the Ministry under You-Know-Who...I don't think anyone could have seen this coming this fast and this completely even six months ago."
Ginny scowled up at him from where she had been using her wand on the sprained ankle. "You're not suggesting that we should just roll over?"
"Or that we let ourselves be punching bags in the style of the brilliant Mr. Finnigan, I hope," added Lavender.
"I don't know what I'm suggesting," Neville admitted. Then he looked at Seamus again, a thought occurring to him. "I've wanted to ask you, what was that hex you used on Carrow? I didn't recognize it. Is it something Harry taught you personally?"
Seamus blushed, adding an overall pink tinge to his multi-colored features. "Nah, it's not even approved. I shouldn'ta done it."
Colin's eyes widened. "It's like an Unforgivable, then?"
"Not even!" Seamus started to shake his head, then thought better of it and closed his eyes, moaning softly before he spoke again. "It's one of the old ones from my Nana – Gaelic. All the Ministry-approved spells are off of nice, proper, respectable Latin, you know, but the Celts had their own brand of magic, even if it got pushed off as all backward. It's mostly died out now, but some of the old ones still remember a bit here and there, mostly hexes and jinxes and the odd witch's charm, you know, for tellin' what kind of baby you'll be having and the like."
Parvati looked suddenly fascinated, sitting up very straight and tossing back her heavy black braid. "My grandfather was a Fakir in Bombay, he used to tell us that there was all kinds of magic we would never learn at Hogwarts – he tried to have us sent to India to learn – but when our parents refused, he taught us a few spells. Padma can even control snakes."
Ginny gasped. "She's learned Parseltongue?"
"No, she can't talk to them, only make them do what she wants."
"Great!" Seamus grinned. "Tell her to make that big one You-Know-Who's got eat him."
Parvati gave him a look of exasperation. "That'd be nice, but it's just little ones – normal ones – like cobras and adders. And I know a few French spells from one of the boys from Beauxbatons."
Excited now, Lavender leaned over the back of the couch. "Anthony Goldstein comes from a family of wizards that go all the way back to the Essene scholars, I bet he knows some stuff in Hebrew. Vane's always going on that her family are genuine Rom – those are gypsies – and Ernie's family was so deep in the Clan wars that they didn't start going to Hogwarts until a hundred and fifty years ago, so maybe he has something like Finnigan, old Gaelic magic."
"His'd be Erse , not Gaelic. We're not the same, and we whipped Scotland at Quidditch last year." Seamus pointed out defensively.
Neville and Ginny stared at one another, startled by this sudden burst of exotic spell knowledge that had broken out, and then Ginny giggled. "I don't know about you, Neville, but I feel rather plain all of a sudden."
He couldn't help grinning back. "Yeah. I mean, my family's just been, you know, wizards. Normal old British wizards. Tut tut, conjure you a cuppa?" He put down the bowl and waved his wand, summoning an empty teacup from across the room and lifting it to her in an extravagant motion, pinky broadly outstretched.
Ginny curtsied with a flourish, imitating an arch, aristocratic drawl that everyone instantly recognized as a viciously accurate exaggeration of Draco Malfoy's cultured pronunciation. "But certainly, daah-ling..."
Everyone laughed. It felt good, a warm burst of happiness and fellowship in the midst of the darkness that had closed over all of them, and Neville gave himself over to it, roaring with mirth along with everyone else until his sides ached and tears were running down his face. It seemed like a wonderful forever before it finally died away, and he wiped his cheeks with the back of one shaking hand. The others surrounding him were still beaming, and he didn't want to bring them back to earth, but the reality of their situation was as unmistakable as the bruises still yellow and green on Seamus' swollen face.
"Really -- " Neville gasped. "It's good, though. I mean, Carrow didn't know what hit her, did she? She couldn't have blocked that one if she'd tried. And the Death Eaters are going to know all the usual spells. No matter how much we practice, Protego and Stupefy and Impedimenta aren't going to be enough on their own against fully-qualified Dark Wizards. You remember what Snape said about the Dark Arts. They're unpredictable. We have to be too."
Seamus frowned. "I thought you were against me fightin' back at them?"
Neville shook his head. "Not like that. We've got to think more like your brothers, Ginny. Like the twins. Mischief and little rebellions. We'll take some hits, get punished, sure; but Seamus took it too far. He nearly got himself killed on the second day of the school year over nothing at all. Beaten is fine, but no more unless the situation really calls for it." He could hardly believe the words coming out of his own mouth, and he hurried on, afraid of losing his nerve. "We keep the DA going, but just enough to get under their skin and keep the other student's hopes alive. Nothing full-fledged until it's time."
"What do you mean, until it's time?" Parvati asked.
"Well, until we have to. We all know what's coming." He thought that the realizations he had come to since Harry and the others had failed to return to the school were obvious, but seeing the expressions surrounding him, Neville came to the slow, horribly dawning understanding that perhaps he alone had been able to see what faced them. "Come on..." His voice was pleading. "Ginny, Seamus...haven't any of you figured it out?"
"I guess not," Lavender said.
Neville took a deep breath and licked his lips, uncomfortable with the spotlight he was suddenly in. Reluctantly, he held up a hand, extending four fingers. "The way I see it, things can only go four ways. One, we all become good little followers of You-Know-Who." He put down one finger. "I don't see myself doing that. Even if I could live with myself, Gran would kill me."
"Me neither, mate," Seamus agreed.
"Likewise," Ginny nodded as Parvati, Colin, and Lavender all made sounds of assent.
"Two --" Neville continued, "Harry finds a way to stop You-Know-Who and end all of this clean and quick before the end of the year, all the Death Eaters get rounded up, and things go back to normal."
"I'm for that one," Colin blurted, and several people smiled and nodded.
"But I'm not putting all my gold there. It would be great – and I believe with all my heart Harry's going to get him in the end – but doing it in one year with only Ron and Hermione's help seems like a tall order." Colin looked like he was about to argue that there was no such thing for the great Harry Potter, but Neville went on, ignoring him as he lowered another finger. "Three. We graduate, and we're not safe here any more."
"Sorry to interrupt, there," Seamus broke in, "but I don't feel so bloody safe, personally."
"Cormac is dead. Cho and Lee are in hiding. Roger is in St. Mungo's in worse shape than you, Seamus, and that's just what's in the Prophet, or what Ginny's brothers have managed to pass on in news under labels. Right now, he thinks there's still a chance to brainwash us in school, but once we're graduated, we lose the safety of numbers and the protection of being kids. He doesn't want the public outcry that would happen from a massacre at Hogwarts, but once we're out, we're on our own."
Parvati's voice was hushed. "What's four?"
He lowered the last finger. "We fight. If Harry comes back and needs us, we fight then. Personally, that's what I believe – that he can do this, but he'll need our help. It's only a matter of time before he's back, but we don't have infinite time, so on the very last day before school is over, if there's no word from Harry yet, we go all out. Either way, we make a proper battle of it. Take out every last Death Eater we can manage, hopefully Snape in the bargain. Use every exotic spell and dirty trick we can think of. Make them pay for everyone missing, everyone terrorized, everyone killed. Even the odds a little for Harry and the Order, and give the public that massacre that You-Know-Who doesn't want – get people outraged in a way the Prophet can't cover up. We still die, but we die on our terms, and we die accomplishing something, not just picked off one by one in back alleys with our deaths glossed over and ignored."
There was a long, terrible silence following his words, and Neville stared at the floor, unable to quite believe what he had just said, even though he had been thinking it for almost a week now. It had seemed like the only sensible thing to do inside his head, but when spoken, it sounded like some kind of grand, brave gesture, even something heroic. Colin was right, it did sound like something Harry would say, and the comparison made Neville deeply uncomfortable.
Finally, Ginny stood, tossing back her mane of bright red hair defiantly. "I've been looking for a way to top Fred and George on their exit," she said. "I'm in."
Seamus reached out his left hand, his right still cradled against his chest, and took Ginny's small white one. "I don't see myself winning any Death Eater popularity contests anyway, so why the hell not? I'm with you."
Parvati's hand joined the other two. "I can't speak for Padma, but count me in. I just hope my next life is something quieter."
"And me!" Colin thrust his hand out with an excitement that made Neville shiver.
"What else is a Gryffindor girl to do?" Lavender's hand joined them.
Slowly, Neville placed his hand atop the cluster of others, hoping that no one would notice how badly it was shaking. "I said it, so I guess I can't back out."
"I'd hope not, Neville," Ginny's brown eyes flashed at him in the firelight. "You're our leader."
Neville gaped at her. "I'm --"
"All in favor of Neville taking over for Harry as leader of the DA?" Ginny's voice carried over his protestations, and Neville was shocked to see heads nod all around him. She grinned, showing the dazzling white smile that had laid boys all over the school, including the famous Boy Who Lived, helpless at her feet. "Then that's settled. We'll talk to the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs later, but I think as of right now, Dumbledore's Army is back."
Neville's eyes swept the faces of his friends, taking in the belief in all of their expressions, and lingering on each in turn. Bright, fiery Ginny, the last Weasley left at Hogwarts. Cool, exotic Parvati, her dark eyes utterly trusting. Tempestuous Lavender, her best friend, standing at her side more like a sister than Parvati's own twin, and just as ready to lay down her life. Colin, his expression guileless and determined, brimming with the endless bravery of the naïve. Seamus, still in so much pain, his eyes still swollen nearly shut but resolute nonetheless.
In the flickering, deceptive shadows of the firelight, it almost seemed as though other Gryffindor faces were there as well. Bushy-haired, sharp-eyed Hermione. Stalwart Ron, red hair glowing beside his sister. The twins, laughing with some secret joke, Lee Jordan beside them like a mismatched triplet. Dean, eyes and smile gleaming from his dark face. And Harry. Harry with the lightning scar that marked him as so different from the rest of them, black hair sticking out in all directions, glasses glinting over that piercing green gaze that he had always relied on to take the lead.
Neville looked at all of them, there and there in spirit alike as he nodded. "Dumbledore's Army!"
"Six hundred eighty one, six hundred eighty two, six hundred eighty three ..." Neville sighed and sat up, grabbing his pillow and punching at it in hopes of somehow knocking it into a shape that might be more conducive to sleep. There was nothing wrong with it, no lumps or really anything uncomfortable at all, but it gave him the feeling that he was doing something besides uselessly counting Hippogriffs. With a deep sigh, he flopped back down. "Six hundred eighty four ..."
A faint knock sounded at the door of the boys' dormitory, and Neville sat bolt upright, grabbing his wand off of the nightstand as he swung his legs off the side of the bed and parted the curtains with one hand. "Who is it?" he whispered.
Letting out a sigh of relief that it wasn't Snape or the Carrows there to announce that they knew what he had done that afternoon, Neville climbed out of the bed and started towards the door. He had only made it a few steps across the pitch-black room when his toe abruptly met something painfully unyielding, and he let out a sharp yelp. Biting back the urge to yell out a few of the better swear words he had learned from his uncle, he hopped awkwardly in a circle, grabbing his foot until the worst of the throbbing stopped. Why did stubbing your toe have to hurt so much?
Gingerly lowering his foot to the floor again, he held his wand out ahead of him and muttered " Lumos!" The tip ignited with the familiar blue light, and Neville was able to see that his assailant was actually what had once been his own bed. With Harry, Ron, and Dean missing, the two remaining boys in their dormitory had been moved from the third and fifth beds into the first and second, and the change had not quite registered in Neville's mental map of the tower room.
Using the wand light to avoid any more unpleasant encounters with furniture, Neville made his way across to the door and opened it. Ginny swept past him in a blur of red hair and blue and white stripes, moving so quickly that he barely stepped back in time to avoid being run into. "What took you so long?" she hissed.
"Sorry. Stubbed my toe."
She was perched cross-legged on Dean's old bed now, arms folded tightly across her chest, and as Neville shut the door and crossed towards her, he was struck suddenly by how young and tiny she looked. Her hair was in two long braids that fell forward over her shoulders, and she was almost lost in a pair of pajamas that had been rolled up a dozen times at the arms and legs, but were still at least four sizes too big for her.
Following his eyes, Ginny blushed. All of the Weasleys, he noted, did this with gusto, and the red tinge was clearly visible even in the blue cast of the wand's glow. "They were Ron's," she explained, and there was a touch of defiant embarrassment in her tone. "I usually don't get hand-me-downs from the boys, but things are ... well, Bill just got married, and we don't know how much longer Dad or the twins are going to be able to work, so – I mean, they're just pajamas."
Well aware of how touchy Ron was on the subject of his family's finances, Neville smiled gently. "They're kind of cute, really. It looks sort of like you've borrowed them from your boyfriend or something."
She snorted. "If I'd done that, I could have saved myself six inches in the arms and legs."
Neville couldn't help but smile at this as he climbed up onto the bed next to her. "You didn't come here at three in the morning to show me Ron's pajamas."
Ginny looked down, fidgeting with the turn-up on one leg. "It's stupid."
He shrugged. "I was up anyway. Couldn't sleep."
"I had a nightmare," she confessed. "I dreamed that I'd messed things up with Seamus, and his ... hisarmsandlegshadfallenoffandhewasmadatmeforit." The last part came out in a single humiliated rush, and she covered her face with both hands. "Oh, it sounds so ridiculous now that I've come all the way up here!"
Neville shook his head. "No, it doesn't. You were just worried about him. Parvati and Lavender have been up to check too. We're all worried about him. He took a hell of a beating, and none of us are exactly certified Healers."
She nodded gratefully, not bothering to hide as she looked towards the far bed where Seamus was just visible as a long lump beneath the covers. "Is he still sleeping well?"
"Romilda made a really good Sleeping Draught -- she's great with Potions. He hasn't stirred since we gave it to him, but he's still breathing and everything just fine. Having a rest really is what's best for him. You can check on him yourself if you want."
"No, that's okay. As long as you're sure all his arms and legs are still attached."
"As much as they have been since Carrow finished with him." Neville smiled.
Nodding, she uncrossed her legs and started to get up. "I should get back to the girls' dorm, then. I'm sorry I bothered you."
"Wait!" He put out a hand, and she stopped, looking curiously at him. He shifted uncomfortably, suddenly not sure whether he wanted to say what had been keeping him awake. "I just ... never mind."
"What, Neville?" She sat down again, her legs dangling over the edge of the bed as she leaned back, propping herself on her arms. Her hands and feet vanished into the pajamas, and she looked smaller than ever. Neville felt the sense of guilt rise to a level that seemed to choke him. For all her fire, she was still Ron's baby sister, and he had all but agreed to kill her today. He had no right. He had no right with any of them.
"I just ... what happened earlier. I've been thinking about it. You guys made a mistake, a big mistake." He looked pleadingly at her. "Just because I was the first one to say something, doesn't mean – you would have figured it out, I know it. That doesn't make me the leader. I can't be the leader. I can't do this, I can't take that kind of responsibility, I'm not good enough."
Ginny frowned at him. "Why not?"
"Because ..." He trailed off, gesturing at himself as if to indicate that the answer was obvious. "You know."
She tilted her head at him, seeming to give the matter serious consideration for a few seconds, then spoke, her voice lightly tinged with an edge of sarcasm. "You know, you're at least as tall as Ron, your voice has changed, and I think you shave more often than Harry, so it really confuses me."
He blinked. "What?"
"Well, that would seem to indicate that you've got a working set of what they do, so I don't see why you constantly refuse to use them."
Neville blushed fiercely. "Ginny!"
"Oh, come off it!" She rolled her eyes. "I'm the only girl in a family of seven! I could belch the entire Chudley Cannons fight song by the time I was four, but Katie Bell had to tell me when I needed a bra and show me how to put the effing thing on, so don't act like I'm supposed to be some sheltered little flower about how boys are put together."
"I don't ... I mean ... I just ..." He was at a complete loss for words, but Ginny was not.
"I don't understand you, Neville Longbottom. The only person I've ever known who sells themselves as constantly short as you do is Ron, and even he's not that bad. You seem dead set on proving to everyone that you're worthless, and woe be to anyone who says differently. And don't start on your Gran, either. Even Professor McGonagall says she needs to stop –"
"Yeah, I know," Neville broke in. "Stop trying for the grandson she wishes she had and start being proud of the one she has. That's not something you say to someone whose kid is something great, Ginny. That's something you say when someone needs to settle for what they've gotten."
"That's not what she meant, and you know it!"
"It's true, though!" He stood, aware that he was using his height over her, but determined to make her listen to what seemed to him to be the inescapable truth. "I'm not half the wizard my Dad was. He was an Auror! He and my –" Neville stopped abruptly and looked away, feeling suddenly sick as he remembered that Ginny had been there that awful day at St. Mungo's and seen what had become of his parents.
A long moment passed, and then he felt her hand on his arm. She had stood as well, and her touch was surprisingly gentle. "What?" Her voice was kind, but held a deep undercurrent of stubbornness as well. "Neville, what exactly happened to your parents? I've seen the Cruciatus Curse now, I know how awful it is, but it's not that simple, is it?"
"It was my fault." Neville was stunned to hear the words come out of his mouth. He had never spoken them aloud before, no matter how many times they had repeated in his head and heart, but now it was as if some invisible line had been crossed, and he couldn't stop it. "They were after me. I don't know why, no one knows why – but they thought if they could get me, they could figure out what Harry had done to make You-Know-Who disappear. Maybe they thought it was something in Aurors' kids, or kids born in July, or one-year-olds, or ... my parents hid me in a closet. Put a Silencing Charm on it and concealed the door. It cost them their chance to get away ... They couldn't tell them where he was, they didn't know, but if they'd said where ... If they'd just ..."
He buried his face in his hands and sank down to the bed again, ashamed to feel hot tears seeping between his fingers but unable to keep them back. "Fourteen hours. Oh, God, Ginny, they tortured them for fourteen hours! The Healers ... the body protects itself. Anything that causes that kind of pain for more than a few minutes ... it should be an awful injury ... injuries cause endorphins, shock, you pass out, you die. A person isn't meant to be in that kind of pain that's just pain for that long. The brain can't cope! If they'd just ..." A sob so deep it hurt choked the words. "I wasn't worth it! I wish they'd known I wasn't worth it! They let themselves be worse than killed for me, and I'm nothing compared to them!"
All the shame, all the pain, all the guilt of sixteen years had come to the surface now, and Neville could say nothing more. He didn't even care if Ginny was there or not. His knees drew up to his chest, and he wrapped his arms around them in a tight ball, as if he could make himself disappear, undo the very fact of his existence. The sobs came from somewhere so grievous that they didn't even have sound, they were just great, heaving gasps that seemed to tear him apart as the tears soaked the knees of his pajamas in wide dark patches.
Neville wept until his throat was raw and his chest ached. He did not know if it had been minutes, hours, or even days, but at last his swollen eyes seemed to run dry. Only then did he notice that something soft and warm was curled against his back, slender arms encircling his shoulders in a gentle embrace. Immediately, an awareness of what he had just done came flooding over him, and he sat up quickly, shaking her off with a look of horrified embarrassment. "I'm ... I'm so sorry ... I don't know --"
Her face held none of the contempt or pity he had expected to see. Instead, the brown eyes were looking at him with an expression so unexpected that he was at a loss to identify it. She reached towards him again, placing one small hand unflinchingly on his shoulder, and said the last thing he had ever imagined she would. "You are so much stronger than I thought you were."
"What?" His voice was hoarse, almost gone entirely.
"Harry's got half the wizarding world petting him and calling him a hero and consoling him about his parents. Ron's down on himself all the time, but it's all in his head, and he's going to figure that out one of these days, even if Hermione has to write it down on something heavy and beat him with it. You...you've carried that around all these years alone, and when it's weighed you down, people have just added to it without even knowing it was there ... and the one person who did know has made it the heaviest of all. That you've managed to keep going is strong enough, but you've done so much more than that. It's amazing." The respect in her voice was completely genuine, but Neville shook his head in confusion.
"I haven't, though. I screw up everything I try. I'm not a hero at all," he protested.
"I saw you fight the Squad in Umbridge's office, and the Death Eaters at the Ministry, and again at the tower. You're not nearly as bad as you think you are most of the time, but when you fight ..." she shook her head slowly, "you're amazing."
A hand over his mouth cut him off, and now those sharp brown eyes were only inches from his. "I've watched you both. Harry fights bravely. So does Ron, so does Hermione – hell, we're Gryffindors, we all fight bravely. But you're something else. I've never even seen anyone in the Order who fights with the kind of rawness and intensity you do. It's a little scary, honestly."
Neville pulled her hand away from his mouth, turning so that he didn't have to look at her. "That's not the same. I'm not me when I fight. It's like something happens," he tapped his chest, "like something starts screaming or roaring or something, and it drowns out everything else and I just lose it."
Ginny came up behind him again, draping herself across his shoulders and placing her hand flat against his chest where he had gestured. "I think that thing is you, Neville. It's who you really are – a brave, powerful wizard, the son of two famous Aurors and a courageous soldier in your own right – and if I'd been cooped up and shoved down and hidden that long under such a heavy load, I'd probably start screaming if I had half a chance to get out too."
He shook his head, not bothering to move her hand this time. "You just don't get it."
"Fine." She tossed her head, swinging the braids behind her, and now her lips were barely an inch from his ear, and her voice held a low, almost savage intensity. "Let's say you're right. That you're worthless. A complete failure as a wizard and as a man. What are you going to do about it?"
Neville was unsure of how to answer this complete turnaround, and he shrugged, half in confusion, half in defiance. "There's nothing to do. I've been trying for years."
"No, you haven't. You've just accepted that it's how things are. Is there any hope for your parents?"
The question caught him off guard. "No. They say there's the faintest chance if LeStrange dies, but even that's thinner than the odds of You-Know-Who just deciding to turn himself in."
"So they gave their sanity – really, their lives – for you. What do you think they would say if she was killed and they did wake up tomorrow? 'Gee, son, we're so glad to see that you've tortured yourself with our gift?' Or maybe, 'How touching to see that they actually broke all three of us?' Or do you think that it might be a little better to be able to say to them: 'You thought I was worth everything, and that love was worth more than what anyone else could say, and I have lived every moment as though you could see me.'"
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"If it had never happened, if your parents were still fully themselves, what would they be doing?"
For the first time in what seemed like forever, Neville knew exactly what to say. "They'd be in the Order."
"Sort of like my parents, then?"
He nodded. "Yeah."
"And would they be proud to know that you were leading Dumbledore's Army here at Hogwarts, or would they want you to back down and say you weren't sure if their kid was good enough?"
"They would want me to lead the DA," Neville said slowly.
Her voice was softer now, but no less firm. "So maybe it's time to stop living because of them and start living for them."
There was a long pause in which neither of them moved or said a word, and then Neville reached up and silently shifted her away from him. Ginny did not protest, but sat back on her heels and watched as he crossed the room to his bed, stopping briefly to check that Seamus was still sleeping in peaceful oblivion.
Without looking at her, he reached under his pillow and withdrew something small and square, then rummaged in his nightstand, using his wand to search through the empty sweet wrappers, bits of parchment, spare quills, and half-packs of playing cards until he found what he was looking for. Placing the small picture frame on the top of the nightstand, he opened the latch at the back and removed the photograph of himself, Dean, and Seamus with their faces painted crimson and gold at the victory party for Gryffindor's first Quidditch Cup. In its place, he slipped in the one he had pulled out from under his pillow.
It was a picture of a young family. A wizard with Neville's nose and straight brown hair smiled proudly next to a witch who could only be his mother and who held a six-month-old baby in her arms, tickling his belly to make him laugh and wiggle for the camera. Satisfied that it was secure in the frame, he turned the picture to face his bed, then looked up. "It's a picture of my parents and me from before," he explained, aware that Ginny could not see it.
Raising an eyebrow curiously, Ginny hopped off the bed and shuffled over, not bothering to pull up the legs of the pajamas where they had unrolled over her feet. She stared at the picture for a long moment, then smiled. "You were cute." She paused, cupping her chin in her hand and regarding him with mock severity. "Still are, now that I really look at you...but taller. And more hair."
A thin smile passed over his lips at the jest, and he pointed to the picture. His body felt odd, even alien, and he realized that he was standing differently now: his spine straight, his shoulders back, his chin raised defiantly as he met her eyes without allowing any trace of shame to drop his gaze. "I'm not going to hide that any more."
He shook his head, then looked at the picture, for the first time not feeling the stab of guilt that usually shuddered through him at the sight of the bright, lively expressions on their faces. When he spoke, Neville heard a voice that was deeper, stronger than it had ever been before, a voice that was surprisingly familiar from old family recordings. It was his father's voice, but it came from his lips.
"I want them to see me."
"The Chinese Chomping Cabbage, or Brassica oleracea var. carnivorus, as it is scientifically known, is, like its Muggle cousin, a member of the mustard family. The common name, however, is somewhat misleading. Although certainly a cabbage, and if you have any doubts about the chomping portion, I would advise you against putting your fingers too close to it, it is actually native to the Korean Peninsula. The extremely piquant nature of this particular vegetable has lead to the development of a popular native dish, which attempts to replicate the flavor with somewhat less danger to the gardener. In addition to the culinary uses, which I recommend sparingly and only to extremely adventurous souls, the Chomping Cabbage is a primary ingredient in Pepper-Up Potion, used in cases of hypothermia ..."
Neville listened only half-attentively to Professor Sprout's lecture. He had already studied the chapter before class, and he could have recited the information by heart before she ever began. Herbology had always been both his favorite and his best subject, but now it was even more so, as it was one of the few courses that had remained completely untouched by the school's change in administration. Usually, no matter how well he knew the material, he would always pay close attention in hopes of picking up a few extra tidbits of knowledge, but today, he had more important things on his mind.
Pretending to take notes, he shifted a little on the bench, poking Hannah Abbott gently in the ribs. She jumped, then shot him a glare that could have wilted every plant in the greenhouse. He sighed. They had been partners in Herbology since the first year, but for some reason, she was ignoring him today. Neville would have been willing to write off her sudden iciness to the endless incomprehensible vagaries of female behavior, but that was not an option under the circumstances.
He poked her again, this time shifting his notes so that they were almost directly in front of her. With an annoyed little sniff, she looked down at what he had written. Everything okay?
Her look was more than answer enough, and she crossed her arms, keeping her attention resolutely on Professor Sprout, who was demonstrating the proper protection needed against both teeth and burns when harvesting leaves. As if by accident, the wand held loosely in her left hand brushed against the parchment, and the words changed. Picking up where Harry left off, are we?
Neville's eyes widened. She knew already! He had been trying to alert her to the resurgence of the DA, but apparently, someone else had gotten there first. A feeling of mingled excitement and fear coursed through him as he wondered whether the news was just being that eagerly received, or whether it had somehow leaked out through less desirable means. He gave the parchment a subtle tap of his own. Who told you?
Her eyes never seemed to leave the front of the class, but her spine straightened until she held herself with almost painfully flawless posture. I have friends in Gryffindor other than you.
Slowly, a possible reason for her displeasure began to dawn on him, and he tried to catch her eye with a sheepish, apologetic little smile. I'm sorry. You should have heard it from me first. I wanted to tell you myself.
Don't bother. The letters seemed unusually dark this time, and then he realized that they were actually burned into the parchment. Moreover, they were continuing to smolder, expanding into formless dark patches as the interiors burned away in glowing red circles. Suppressing a cry of alarm, Neville grabbed a nearby watering can and put out the burning scrap, causing Professor Sprout to pause, one eyebrow raised beneath her flyaway gray hair.
Neville felt his cheeks heat, and he looked down, waving his wand at the sodden, blackened mess and vanishing it. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I guess I wasn't paying attention to what I was doing ... thinking about the heating properties of the cabbages and all."
She gave him the endlessly tolerant look that he was so familiar with from other teachers, and he felt a surprising surge of resentment towards Hannah that he had received it now from Professor Sprout, of all people. "That's all right, no harm done. Now, as I was saying, contact with the sap on bare skin must be avoided if at all possible ..."
As soon as her attention had returned to the plant in front of her, Neville leaned in close to his partner. "Why did you do that?" he hissed as quietly as he could.
Hannah did not respond, but merely flicked her wand again. For a moment, it seemed as though nothing had happened, and then he felt the front of his robes grow warm, and realized in a single moment of near blinding terror that his pants were about to catch fire. Desperately, no longer caring whether anyone noticed, he pointed his wand at himself and yelped " Protego!" The burning sensation stopped instantly, and he thought he caught a tiny, vindictive smile on Hannah's lips as Professor Sprout turned again.
This time, however, Hannah raised her hand before the teacher could ask him what had happened. "I'm sorry, Professor," she said with a horrible sweetness, "it's my fault. I think I've developed an allergy to something over here. My wand just went off. Can I be assigned another partner, please?"
The look on the Professor's face made it perfectly clear that not only did she not believe a word of it, she was starting to seriously doubt Neville's previous excuse as well. However, this was clearly not the first time she had seen something go roots-up between class partners, and she simply motioned towards an empty spot on a bench a few rows down. "Dean Thomas is no longer with us, Miss Abbott, so you may partner with Mr. Finnigan if you wish."
"Thank you, Professor," she said with the same cloying sweetness, and without looking at Neville, she scooped up her book and gardening tools and glided across the greenhouse to sit next to Seamus.
Now completely confused, Neville did his best to try and catch her eye for the rest of the class – with the result being that he nearly choked his cabbage by forgetting to chop the grubs they were feeding it and had to use a last-second Anapnea Charm to save the rapidly purpling plant – but she steadfastly ignored his attempts. What's more, she seemed to be uncharacteristically fawning over Seamus. As far as Neville knew, she had never been more than polite acquaintances with him, but now she seemed to be going out of her way to laugh at all of his comments, fuss over the remains of the bruises he still bore from the previous day, and sit so close to him that it seemed to him a miracle either could even move.
When the lesson had finally ended, Hannah was gone from the greenhouse so quickly that he thought for a moment that she had Apparated, before he finally caught a glimpse of yellow-trimmed robes and long pigtails vanishing around a large Flutterby bush. "Hannah!" he shouted. "Wait!"
She did not acknowledge having heard him, and Neville broke into a sprint. By the time he caught up with her outside the farthest greenhouse, he was red-faced and panting, as well as more than a little bit peeved. She tried to sweep away, her chin raised haughtily, but he grabbed her elbow. Hannah stopped then, turning to stare at him with fierce indignation. "Let go, you ..." Her face screwed up as if she couldn't find a word bad enough.
Neville glanced in all directions, then, satisfied that no one else was nearby, he lowered his head near hers and spoke sharply but quietly. "Look, it's not as if I'm writing Harry off or anything, if that's what you're mad about. No one is. But he's not here now. I don't understand why you're being this way; we've always been friends. I would have thought you'd be ... well, proud of me, I guess."
To his utter shock, Hannah's eyes abruptly filled with tears. "I suppose I should be, shouldn't I? I mean, it's not like Harry was the only one who thought ... and I guess ... I guess it's certainly a step up for you."
Confused at the tears, but glad that she seemed to be grasping the necessity of the situation, Neville nodded. "Exactly. I'm so glad you understand, that really means a lot."
At this, she broke down completely with a loud, wailing sob. Dumbstruck, he stared at her, frozen to the spot until, with a cry like a scorned banshee, she grabbed up a Fanged Geranium off a nearby rack and flung it directly at his head. He ducked, and the snapping plant missed him by so little that he actually felt a tooth graze his ear. "Hannah!"
Another Fanged Geranium flew his way, and this time, he dove for cover behind one of the larger terracotta urns that would hold Devil's Snare later in the year. "Don't 'Hannah' me, you son of a bludger!" she screeched. "You could have at least had the guts to tell me yourself, but NO, I have to hear it from Demelza!" A Snargaluff pod burst a few inches from his right knee. Her aim was disturbing. "That little ..." -- he batted the next one away with his wand -- "... red-headed ..." -- he ducked, and this time, the writhing green tentacles hit exactly where his shoulder had just been -- "BITCH!"
Surprise overtook safety, and Neville stood up, blinking. "What?"
"You and Ginny Weasley!" The next pod hit him full in the face, and Neville dropped his wand as he toppled backwards, clutching desperately at the foul-smelling tendrils that were shoving into his mouth and nose, choking him. "She was up there for over an hour last night, you git! Did you think no one would notice ? No one would say anything?!"
" Expelliarmus !" Still on the ground, fighting for air against the increasingly ferocious plant smothering his face and neck, Neville heard a howl of indignation from Hannah as another voice shouted out the disarming spell. He recognized it instantly, but was not sure if it was the best or worst person that could have come to his aid.
" YOU!" Hannah's cry was pure murder.
The tentacles had choked off his air completely now. His attempts to pry them away grew weaker with each passing moment, and as blackness closed in around the edges of his vision, the last thought Neville was completely aware of was that it shouldn't have been any surprise that the craziest Death Eater out there was a girl
"Neville? Neville? Neville, say something. I'm so sorry. Please say something. Neville?"
It seemed to take a very long time for the sounds that filtered through the spinning blackness to mean anything, even though he was rather sure that they should. Gradually, awareness dawned, bringing with it three equally concrete certainties. First, that 'Neville' was his name. Second, that his throat and nose felt as though they had been scoured out with steel wool. And third, that he had apparently been completely unconscious through the most unlikely event of his entire distinctly odd time at Hogwarts: two witches fighting about him.
Slowly, his head pounding, Neville opened his eyes and pushed himself to a sitting position on the damp ground. Hannah and Ginny were kneeling a little ways away, matching looks of concern on both their faces. Both also sported hair and robes that were badly disheveled, and Ginny had a rapidly swelling and darkening black eye that complemented Hannah's bloody lip. He touched his own burning face, feeling the raised welts there from the Snargaluff's attack. What a pathetic group they made.
"Oh, Neville, I'm sorry." Hannah started to reach towards him, then stopped, her hands fluttering uncertainly about a foot away from him. "You must be furious."
"No." He shook his head, still trying to process the entirety of what had happened. "Not furious. Think maybe Confunded, but not furious."
"Well," Ginny said helpfully, "Demelza had a crush on Dean."
Neville frowned. "Thomas?"
"Exactly." Hannah spoke as though he obviously understood the entire thing now. He did not.
Thankfully, Ginny continued. "But I was going out with him, so she decided he was a prat anyway, and she went back to her other crush, which had been on Harry, but he had been going with Cho, and Demelza hated Cho, so she stopped crushing on Harry while he was with her, but then she went back with Roger, and so that made Harry okay to crush again. So Demelza starts going after Harry, not as if he noticed or anything, and then I break up with Dean, and she tries to go with Dean again, but he doesn't have time for her because he got back on the Quidditch team as a favor to me, and then I started going with Harry, and now I'm not with Harry any more, but he's gone, and so is Dean. So of course, when I went out last night, it was obvious that she'd try to use that to trash my reputation as much as she could. I mean, I didn't know she knew, because if I'd known, I'd have told you so that you knew."
Neville blinked very slowly. "Completely obvious. You were -- weren't -- were with Dean, who Demelza did -- didn't -- did like, and you were -- weren't -- were with Harry, who she also did -- didn't -- did like, so Hannah Abbott nearly kills me after trying to set my pants on fire in Herbology. Makes perfect sense."
Ginny looked at him the way that a parent looks at their beloved but rather dim baby. "Demelza told Hannah – and every other girl in the school she could get a hold of – that you and I were snogging for hours last night, when, like I've told her now, we were actually looking after Seamus and making plans for the other thing ...which, by the way, she said yes to, and she's going to tell Ernie and the others after dinner."
Little by little, like the sun breaking the horizon on a badly overcast morning, the truth began to come clear. "And you ..." --he looked at where Hannah was sitting, looking deeply embarrassed with herself -- "wanted to kill me, because only a complete git would try to steal Harry's girl the moment he left, and you thought I was a better friend to him than that."
The two girls exchanged a look that spoke volumes in a language of which Neville was completely ignorant, then Hannah nodded. "More or less." There was a pause, and then she turned to Ginny as though killing her had never even crossed her mind. "Are they always this dim?"
Ginny gave the matter a moment's thought, then shook her head. "No. Remember that time last year when Ron looked like he'd been attacked by a flock of birds?"
"Well, that's exactly what had happened, Hermione Granger had done it just after the start of the Lavender fiasco, and they're not always this dim. If they're Weasleys, they're worse." She patted the older Hufflepuff consolingly on the shoulder. "There's always hope."
Neville's eyes narrowed. "Hope for what?"
Hannah gave a great, deep sigh and stood, offering him her hand to help him stand up again. He did so, still slightly dizzy, though he was not sure if that was from the near-suffocation or the conversation surrounding it. She was looking at him now with an expression that seemed to be made of pieces of most of the feelings Neville had ever heard of and several more that he was sure he hadn't, and at last she spoke. "Hope for all of this, Neville. Hope for us."
He nodded, pleased at last to have something simple he could agree to with no possibility of misunderstanding. "Yeah, there's always hope."
A bell rang inside the castle, and Hannah jumped. "I've got to go, I'm going to be late for History of Magic." Then she was gone in a flurry of black and yellow robes, and he was alone with Ginny, who was gathering up her bag, where, he realized, she had probably dropped it in the course of saving his life.
He knelt down, picking up a loose quill and handing it to her. "Thank you, by the way."
"No problem. My fault anyway, really." She smiled sheepishly, patting her hair back into place. "But I guess Hufflepuff knows now, and Parvati told her sister this morning, so that's Ravenclaw, too."
Neville picked up his own bag and slung it over his shoulder as they began to make their way back up the path that led to the school. "If everyone still has their coins, I'll get the information out as soon as I have it figured."
She nodded, turning as the path split to follow it down towards Hagrid's hut, where he could already see the other sixth-years gathering for Care of Magical Creatures. "Okay, I'll make sure to keep it where I can feel it."
"Great. Oh, and one more thing ..." he called after her, and she paused. "Make sure that when it happens, you remind me to see that Hannah has something to throw. That girl doesn't miss."
Ginny gave him a very odd little smile. "Well ..." she said, "... most of the time."