As the crushing sensation of Apparition eased, Neville dropped into a crouch, his wand ready and extended in his hand as his eyes swept keenly over his new surroundings. He was in a large, dim room with cement walls and floor, the ceiling a low maze of pipes and beams lit with a handful of bare, yellow Muggle light bulbs. Cardboard boxes piled high against one wall, and a table covered in all manner of unfamiliar wires and blocky machinery stood against the other, a small, wheeled chair in front of it. Hannah, Ernie, and Susan were only a few feet away, like himself coiled and ready to fight, and he exchanged a tense look. "Where's Colin?"
Hannah shook her head. "I don't know. We Apparated to him like you said, but we wound up here."
A thin, familiar voice, tight with pain and fear, sounded from the shadows in the far corner of the room. "Prove who you are."
Neville looked towards the voice, but he could barely make out a small figure standing in the deep shadow, what appeared to be a large bundle at its feet. "Neville Longbottom," he announced cautiously, "I tripped and fell coming through the Gryffindor portrait hole last week, and Colin Creevey laughed and told me that it wasn't very inspiring or noble to land on my face like that. I've been at Gretna Green with my friends; Hannah, Ernie, and Susan, who are also here, and we came because a colt Patronus sent us a message."
"Okay." There was a pause, and then the figure took a single step forward, still shadowed but visible now. It was Colin, his face ashen, still in his Hogwarts uniform and robes, his arms clutched tightly around himself as he gestured back towards the darkness with his head. "Dennis needs help, please…I…I had to hit him really hard."
"What happened?" Neville did not put down his wand, but crossed the room to where Colin had indicated, kneeling over what he now saw to be the prone form of the younger of the two Creevey brothers. Carefully, he gathered the boy up in his arms, surprised to find how light he was, and laid him down again in the brightest patch of light. Dennis was also still wearing his uniform, and blood gleamed wetly in his cornsilk hair from a large, nasty lump on his forehead.
Colin did not move, and his voice was hollow as he answered. "When we got home, I went inside on my own. The house stank of rotten food. There weren't any bodies, but there were scorches on the walls, a little bit of blood on the floor, and…and the Dark Mark on the bedroom wall. I took Dennis to a motel. Told him. He didn't seem to care, but the next day, he wanted to call home. I told him again, but he still called. There wasn't…there wasn't a Christmas message on the machine."
The words caught, nearly broke, but he managed to go on. "He just sat there, staring at the phone, but the room started shaking, and the telly blew out. I tried to stop him, but then he started screaming that they hadn't even done anything, they weren't even in the wizarding world, and the lamps started to go, and I begged him to stop, to calm down, but I had to…I had to hit him, and it was too late. The Trace…I could hear them coming down the hall, blasting in doors, people screaming, they were looking for us. I sent the message and came here. I didn't know what else to do."
He frowned at the pain in Colin's voice, unsure whether it was physical or just from his heart. "Are you okay?"
"I'd never Apparated before. Haven't even taken the classes yet, I've just heard the older guys talking about how to do it. Splinched myself a little, but I'm okay. It just stings." The blue eyes widened even in the meager light. "Just take care of Dennis, please."
Neville nodded, gently fingering the knot on the child's head. It didn't seem like the skull had cracked beneath, but it was unmistakably a pretty impressive concussion. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ernie and the two girls had spread out across the room, sealing the door at the top of the staircase and searching for any other hidden entrances or concealed enemies. He felt a surge of pride and affection for all three of them, for how they knew what to do without even needing to be asked, without a moment's resentment for what had been so cruelly interrupted.
He looked back to Colin. "Where is here?"
"My friend Brad's house. He's a Muggle, but he's been my best mate since I was like three. It's his basement. He knows I'm here. I had to kind of tell him I –"
A loud pounding at the door atop the stairs made all five of them jump, and every wand except Colin's was instantly leveled at it as a boy's voice sounded out in indignation from the other side. "Dammit, Colin, don't lock me out! I've got the stuff for D's head!"
Colin nodded recognition of the voice, and Neville flicked his wand up at the latch. "Alohomora."
The door opened, and a tall, skinny boy appeared. He looked about fifteen, all arms, legs, and Adam's apple, with a vicious crop of acne beneath a shaggy mop of longish brown hair and a black t-shirt with a disembodied mouth on it worn over ragged blue jeans. As he saw the new arrivals in the basement, he stopped, jaw dropping as he held a bottle of iodine and a tuft of cotton wool awkwardly in his hands. He swore.
"They're with me," Colin explained hurredly, but without moving. "Other Mages, like I told you I was. The tall one's Neville. The big bloke's Ernie. The girl in the wedding dress is Susan. The one in the blue dress is Hannah. They're all Lawful Good Fighters. They teleported here like I did."
This was clearly some kind of code between the boys, and the newcomer - whom Neville assumed to be Brad - nodded slowly, but with a look of skepticism. "You're…you can do magic, like Colin?"
Neville was considering how to answer this, but Ernie just flicked his wand, closing the door at the top of the stairs, and that seemed to be answer enough. Strangely, however, the boy did not seem at all surprised at having a total of six witches and wizards in his basement. If anything, he looked rather disappointed. "You're just…I mean, you're all wearing normal clothes, and…Ernie? Hannah? What are your real names?"
"Neville Alastor Longbottom, Susan Circe Amelia Macmillan, Ernest Ian Macmillan, and Hannah Grace Abbott if it makes you feel any better." Hannah's tone was tight with annoyance, one hand on her hip, and the Muggle boy blushed.
"Sorry. I just thought…never mind." He shuffled his bare feet on the cement floor, then held out the supplies in his hand towards Neville, who was still bent over Dennis' motionless body. "Um, if you want to use this, you can, or you can just, you know, cast Healing or whatever."
Neville shook his head. "I'm not going to mess with a head injury like this. I don't know what I'm doing that well on Healing Spells. We can't take him to St. Mungo's, that'd be as good as gift-wrapping him for You-Know-Who, but we can't just leave him here, and that's not just that he's hurt. It might take them a little while, but if this kid's been Colin's best mate that long, the Death Eaters will track him here sooner or later if we stick around."
"What about the Burrow?" Colin's voice had taken on a strange, dreamy edge, and Susan frowned, crossing to the shadowy corner.
He pulled back away from her, but she reached out a hand, laying it on his arm with an expression of almost maternal concern. "Are you sure you're all right, love?" Then she froze, pulling back her hand and staring at her palm in shock. It gleamed wetly scarlet in the sallow light. "You're…Ernie, he's soaked in blood!"
"What?!" Neville jumped to his feet, but Colin was already backing away as tightly into the corner as he could, shaking his head vigorously, his arms still clutched to his chest.
"No, no! Take care of Dennis! I'm fine, I've taken care of it! I just got a little Spuh…" Shaking his head seemed to have been too much for what had apparently been already-fragile equilibrium. He swayed, eyes unfocused and dizzy, then the blue rolled to white, and his knees buckled, pitching him forward.
Neville lunged, and as he caught the younger boy barely a moment before he would have hit the concrete, he felt to his horror that Susan had been right. The black robes and shadows had hidden it, but the slender little body was sodden with warm, sticky crimson. Colin's arms unlaced limply from across his chest in unconsciousness, and he heard Hannah let out a little scream as they fell under the unflinching light. His right hand was gone at the wrist. Something that shone dull silver under the slick of red circled his wrist above the raw stump, but it was far from tight, and blood still oozed relentlessly, dripping now in thick rivulets that were no longer concealed against cloth.
Behind him, the Muggle boy let out an impressive string of explitives. "Someone goes friggin' Star Wars on him, and he tries to duct tape it?!"
Not sparing any time to wonder what any of that meant, Neville yanked the bow tie from around his neck, looping it over the severed wrist and pulling it tight in a desperate effort to stop the bleeding. He dropped his wand, his other hand feeling at Colin's throat for a pulse. It took too long to find it, weak and thready, and he felt a cold chill run up his spine. "Damn you, Colin," he whispered hoarsely, "don't you dare.…"
Someone had knelt at his side, and he looked up pleadingly into Ernie's warm hazel eyes. "We need Blood Replenishing Potion right away…you're in N.E.W.T. levels –"
Ernie shook his head. "Takes an hour and a half, even if I had all the ingredients on me. We don't have that kind of time. I didn't think there could be that much blood in a kid his size."
"What if we do take him to the Burrow? Ginny's said her Mother--" Hannah began, but Neville cut her off.
"He'd never survive the Apparition, not like this. We've got to do something first…." He paused, biting his lip as his mind raced through their meager options. "Susan, you take Dennis to the Burrow. Get him under care while we try to help his brother. It's no good losing both of them, and that blow to the head scares me…his color's all wrong, and he hasn't even twitched since we got here. The rest of us will try to do something for Colin, and we'll join you as soon as we can."
She nodded, "All right. But take care of yourselves. If they find you here…."
"We'll chance moving him anyway and run," Ernie assured her. He lifted Dennis and carried him over to her, leaning across the boy's body to give a quick, gentle kiss to his new wife before helping her cradle him in her own arms and stepping back. "I'll see you soon, love." Susan offered them a quick, tight smile, then turned on the spot and with a loud crack, she and Dennis vanished into thin air.
"Holy…" Brad shook his head, dumbfounded. "This is unreal."
"No, it's very real, and your friend is dying if we don't do something," Neville said sharply. "What first-aid potions do your family have?"
"Can't you just heal him with magic? Or even, you know, cast Resurrection if he does…."
"Dead is dead! Even in the wizarding world! Now, we need some Blood Potion before you get to learn that first-hand!" Colin's lips had faded to an alarming shade of blue, and although the makeshift tourniquet had stopped the worst of the bleeding, he had lost far too much already, and when he tried to find the boy's pulse again, it was scarcely a flutter beneath his fingertips.
Real panic had come across the Muggle boy's face now, and he darted across the room to kneel beside his friend, his eyes taut with despair as he looked from the mangled arm up to the older wizard. "We don't have anything like that!" He swallowed hard, fighting back tears as he saw the reality of the damage up close now, the amount of blood that soaked the dark robes. "I'll get an ambulance, we'll get him to hospital!"
"No!" Ernie grabbed his arm as he leapt to his feet and started for the door. "You can't!"
"Why not?!" Despite the wand in Ernie's hand and the vast difference in their sizes, Brad's face blazed with flushed defiance. "He's my friend, and if you say he's dying there, and you can't do crap –"
Neville took a deep breath, forcing himself to retain enough composure to explain. "Colin's hurt because we're at war in our world – the wizard world – and there are bad wizards after us because we're fighting back. If we take him to one of your hospitals, they'll find him there, and they won't care who else they have to hurt or kill to get to him. And that's not even counting that if the Healers there don't know what they're doing with a wizard kid, anything could happen. We can't always control our magic when we're really hurt or sick."
Hannah's face was pale, but as she looked up from Colin's limp body, an idea had sparked hope into her eyes. "Brad – that's your name, right?" The boy nodded. "Brad, what do you do if you don't have Blood Replenishing Potions? In your hospitals?"
There was only a moment's hesitation before the answer came. "We give them a transfusion. Other people give blood, and they kind of hook up tubes to put it into whoever needs it."
"Neville, could we…?" She trailed off, not needing to finish as their eyes met and she nodded.
Hannah settled herself more solidly on the floor, not even noticing the bloodstains that now covered her satin gown, and opened her arms as Neville carefully placed Colin's body across her lap, trying not to move the injured limb any more than absolutely possible. As soon as she had him, he stood, stripping off his jacket, and it took only a glance at Ernie before both young men were down to shirtsleeves, unclasping their cuffs and rolling them up to bare their forearms.
Taking a deep breath and clenching his teeth, Neville lay the tip of his wand against the most clearly marked vein he could find. "Espadius." The blunt cherry wood shimmered to a razor-sharp point, and he hesitated only a moment before sliding it into his flesh, feeling the resistence of his skin before it found the channel of the vein and he stopped, not wanting to penetrate too far. His eyes flicked up, and he saw that Ernie had done the same. He nodded. "Desanguium."
It was one of the strangest sensations he had ever felt as the wand began to suck greedily, and it almost seemed as though he could feel every blood vessel in his body become taut. He had bled fairly severely before, knew the light-headedness, the dull, hollow ache that seemed to come from the very center of your bones, but he had never felt the precious fluid actually pulled out of him, and he wondered if this was what the victims of vampires experienced in their last minutes. Neville let it go on as long as he could, but when he felt himself beginning to grow dizzy, he knew that it would have to be enough. They still didn't even know if it would work, and he could not afford to deplete his and Ernie's strength too far. "Finite Incantatem."
The wound closed as he withdrew the wand, leaving only a single red droplet on the surface of his skin, but the wood felt oddly hot and heavy now, and it seemed to throb in his hand, as though the living pulse continued within it. He knelt, lifting Colin's uninjured arm gently and pulling back the sleeve, but the skin was as smooth and white as eggshell, the surface veins wilted down invisibly from the loss of blood and not yet drawn clearly against cords of muscle like on the older youths.
He swore, but Ernie was across from him now, his own oak wand looking strangely flushed as he hesitated, the still-sharp tip poised at Colin's throat. "If I get it wrong…."
Hannah chuckled bitterly, but there were tears on her cheeks. "Yeah, you might kill him."
With a deep, careful breath, Ernie slid the wand into Colin's neck, his pleasant face drawn tight in concentration. Neville knew that his friend had been raised a businessman, not a Healer, yet he had heard enough stories about emergency rescues of sheep trapped in Snargaluff thickets and Demiguise breech births that of the three of them, he was still the closest thing they had to someone who could be expected to find a major artery on anything that didn't have leaves. The little body twitched, and Ernie froze, looking to him for help, and Neville licked his lips over a mouth and throat gone completely dry. "Do it."
Another moment of intense concentration, and the wand began to pulse, the surface of the polished wood rippling in Ernie's hand as the older boy's blood was pumped into the depleted veins. Neville handed him his own wand, knowing the switch would have to be made quickly when it was time, but no sooner had his fingers left the weapon than the lightning cracks of Apparition sounded through the house above them. The sounds came one after the other, first two, then four, and finally six all together. Six Death Eaters to take down a pair of practically Muggle-Born children? He shivered, wondering what exactly Dennis had done to that hotel room in his grief and anger.
"Get out of here!" Brad's voice cracked with fear. "I know what that sound means now!"
"If we leave now," Neville whispered, "we'll make that same noise, and the people up there will hear it, no matter whether Colin survives it or not!"
"So…you'll be gone!"
"You won't be, and they don't have any problems with going after innocent bystanders if they think you helped us!" Hannah retorted fiercely.
Panic stretched the boy's pale eyes, and they darted around the basement before falling on the strange assortment of wires and boxes on the far table. Slams and crashes were coming from above now as the Death Eaters began to search the house, but Brad didn't say a word as he scrambled to his feet, diving under the table as Ernie carefully switched the wands, now pumping Neville's blood into their wounded Secret-Keeper.
The Muggle boy made a small sound of triumph, grabbing the end of a wire with three silver prongs protruding from it and shoving it into the wall. Tiny specks of red and green began to glow all over the front of one of the box-like contraptions, and Brad stood hurredly, punching buttons and sliding toggles. A little door popped open, and he grabbed a thin, rectangular object that looked like a miniature book with two holes in the front from a dust-covered stack, dropping it into the open door and closing it again before striking another button with a gleam of victory flushing his cheeks.
The noise was unbelievable. Every one of the tall black boxes burst into pounding life, and the ear-splitting wail of a guitar and rhythmic crash of drums blistered the walls of the basement. A man's voice, hugely magnified and distorted, began to scream out words that seemed an incantation of haughty rage, but Brad was grinning at them. Neville could not hear a word, could scarcely hear himself think, but the boy's mouth was moving unmistakably. "Go! Go!"
Nodding at his two companions, Neville gripped Ernie's wand tight in his hand and forced himself to blot out the cacophany as he focused all his determination on Ginny's bright smile and the warm safety of the Burrow. He turned on the spot, and everything was crushing darkness.
The moment they arrived in the Burrow, they were descended upon. A tall, dark-skinned wizard with a gleaming bald head swept Colin out of Neville's arms and lay him out across the kitchen table, where a young witch with shocking bubble-gum pink hair was already bending over Dennis. A middle-aged couple with brilliant red hair - whom he could only assume were Ginny's parents - were busy at the stove, she working intently over a rapidly bubbling cauldron while he orchestrated a dozen knives and scales in preparing and measuring ingredients for the potion they were creating, and Susan spared scarcely a glance at her husband as she began helping the pink-haired witch strip away Colin's blood-drenched shirt.
Before Neville had time to gather himself enough to say anything, Ginny had appeared, her face pale below two bright pink spots that had flushed high on her cheeks from fear as her eyes scanned over their bloody clothing. "Are you –?"
"We're fine, it's all Colin's," Neville said quickly.
She nodded, turning back to the group. "They're okay!" she announced, relief making her voice tremble a little at the edges.
Mrs. Weasley glanced back over her shoulder and nodded, flashing them a tight but warmly welcoming smile. "Then get them out of here, Ginny, dear, we're running out of room…Remus and Lee will be back any moment once they see if they can find the poor thing's hand." She started to turn back to the cauldron, then paused, her eyes widening. "Merlin's beard! Is that the little Abbott girl?"
Hannah nodded. "Yes, ma'am. My Mum said she used to know you, but she lost touch after you both got married."
"I haven't seen Peggy in years…you must have been four or five…goodness.…" She shook her head, dismissing the moment of nostalgia. "Did your mother ever teach you that little charm she had for skinning Parching Peas?"
The young witch was already weaving her way across the crowded kitchen to Mrs. Weasley's side, raising her wand to summon an apron from the hooks on the far wall. "Everything she knew."
"Good. Arthur –" Mrs. Weasley waved her husband back from the counter as Hannah joined her at the stove, "—you go with the other boys, get them cleaned up. Miss Abbott will help me finish the potions. Ginny, on second thought, get your cloak on and see if you can wrestle some Hawthorne berries away from the Bowtruckles. Go on, scoot!"
Neville shook his head, trying to push his way closer to the table. "But Colin –"
The tall, dark wizard turned, blocking him completely. His voice was slow and deep, soothing without being patronizing at all, and there was something about it that instinctively inspired confidence in what he had to say. "No, son. You've already saved his life by tying that off and getting him here with enough blood in his veins to survive the Apparition. There are more than enough wands in the cauldron to do the rest. We will tell you if anything happens, that's a promise. Now go with Mr. Weasley."
Feeling dazed and almost grateful to have someone else taking charge of the situation for once, he allowed himself to be led away up the stairs. Ernie cleaned up the bloodstains on his hands and clothing with a simple Scourgifying Spell, then headed off back to Gretna Green to settle things at the hotel and collect their trunks, but Neville decided to take Mr. Weasley up on his offer of a proper bath. He didn't know why, but going back into the Muggle world seemed entirely too much to face, and the sound of the crack was like a slap in the face calling him coward as Ernie Apparated away alone.
The mirror in the bathroom was annoyingly talkative, trying to interrogate him about the whereabouts of all six of the Weasley brothers, as well as wanting extensive information about who's blood was all over him and how, but it shut up thankfully when he hung a towel over it. It took him a few minutes to fiddle with the taps until the water would go as hot as he wanted it, and he gasped as he slipped beneath the surface, feeling his skin tighten in protest against the scalding bath. It hurt. Every instinct tensed his muscles to leap out again howling, but he remained motionless as he watched the water turn scarlet with the tendrils of blood that were lifting away from his body like the steam on the surface above.
It hurt, but it was right. He picked up the soap that he had found in the laundry room where Mr. Weasley had sent him for towels and a washcloth. It wasn't meant to be bath soap, but he had wanted something stronger, and the Cadwalliger's Cauldron Cleansing Bar scraped and stung almost enough as he scoured it over his reddened skin. It was almost enough to make him feel clean again. Neville scrubbed at himself with the cloth until his own blood had begun to join Colin's in the water, running in thin trickles down over his chest and arms and down his back where the fragile tissue of the scars had split under his assault.
Only then did he stop. The frantic desire to sear and scour himself clean faded not in a scream, but with a sigh of hopelessness, and he sank back into the still-steaming water, closing his eyes as he felt the heat first sting, then soothe the re-opened wounds. It didn't help. Nothing could help, really.
No sobs rocked the calm surface of the bath water, there was no sound in the bathroom but steady breathing and the irate muttering of the mirror, but tears began to run thickly down Neville's cheeks from beneath the closed eyelids. Even if he were to peel his skin off entirely, it wouldn't help, because there were stains that didn't wash away, scars that hurt so much worse than the ones people could see when you took off your shirt.
For the rest of his life, he knew that he would see Susan in her blood-stained wedding dress with Dennis' body in her arms, Colin's arm falling limp across the concrete to reveal his ghoulish secret, the face of the Muggle boy, Brad - almost certainly dead now - as he covered their escape…and that these were not the first and would not be the last. They were only the most recent additions to a photo album of horrors that his memory was building over this year.
He envied Harry. Oh, how he envied him. For all the burden of being The Chosen One, of knowing that the entire wizarding world was depending on him, he didn't have to see any of it. Wherever he was, he wasn't holding second-years after they had been subjected to the Cruciatus Curse, he wasn't taking the last request of a fourteen year-old whose death warrant he had personally signed, he wasn't asking blushing, giggling fifth-year girls to stop looking at the boys and pay attention to how to kill someone.
They didn't bleed on him, they didn't cry on him, they didn't sweat and vomit and tremble against him, and oh, they didn't look at him. Their eyes weren't on him from morning to night, always expecting him to look back with strength, defiance, and certainty, to always have a plan, to always find a way, to always make it all right, no matter how very, very, very wrong it really was.
No, Harry had been given a plan by Dumbledore, but however difficult and terrible it was, he had the mercy of privacy in which to do it. Only his two best friends would be there to see if he was afraid, and they would forgive him for it, because they had a closeness that Neville envied even more.
Oddly, he had always been popular, even when he was considered an outright loser by everyone, because he knew he was a good friend. He always listened, he was nice, considerate, and funny without being over the top about anything, and he genuinely liked being around people. As a result, he had never lacked for buddies to make up a game of Exploding Snap or skive off History of Magic to go swim in the lake on a warm afternoon in late May, but he had also never had anyone he had been truly intimate with on a personal level the way he could see between Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
Now, his friendships were deeper, forged in blood and tears, and a little knot of the D.A.'s older members – himself, Ginny, Luna, Ernie, Seamus, and Hannah – had formed a bond that would give their lives for each other without a moment of hesitation. And yet, he realized, he could let himself cry in front of none of them. He could fear in front of none of them, because no matter how close they were as young witches and wizards, no matter how much he loved them all in their own ways, he was still their commanding officer.
That was perhaps the biggest difference which he envied Harry. Harry was tapped, destined, fated, responsible on a grand and cosmic sense, but he didn't have to make all the little daily choices of command. Is this worded a bit too strongly or not enough? Who takes the point position? Do you pair siblings together because they will fight harder, or keep them apart because they will be devastated too much to fight if they lose each other? How much pain is too much pain for an eleven-year-old to bear before you mount a rescue? If so, who are they worth risking? Those choices needed detachment, and they also needed trust, and for both reasons, he could never show weakness. He had to be ready to send any of them to die, and they had to believe that it was never second-guessed.
It wasn't fair. Now the sobs were beginning to come, silent and shallow, making the bath water ripple against his chest. It wasn't fair. All he'd wanted was a break, a relief from it all, a chance to go on a harmless adventure to celebrate his friends' love, spend some time with Hannah, and go home, home to his Gran and Mimsy and his own bedroom and just relax. Instead it was blood in the bath and two children on the kitchen table below with a dozen people trying to save their lives.
And really, it was his fault. Hadn't he known deep down that Colin was right the first time he had suggested what might have happened to his parents? Hadn't he known that the Creevey brothers would be fending for themselves more likely than not? But he had chickened out. He hadn't wanted to deal with it, so he had just handed over his address and gone off with his friends to leave their Secret-Keeper and his high-strung fourteen year-old brother to handle things alone. It was unacceptable.
Constant vigilance. That was what Mad-Eye Moody had taught them, and hadn't he seemed to be the only one who had ever seen this coming? True enough, it had been a Death Eater impersonating the old Auror, but that had only worked because Mad-Eye himself espoused the same philosophy. Moody was the wizard who had trained his parents, and Gran had always spoken of him as the revered, ever-attentive antithesis of her forgetful grandson. War meant constant vigilance, never letting your guard down, because that was when your enemy would strike.
He couldn't do it. The bath had grown cool now, and Neville pulled the drain with his foot, opening his eyes to watch the scarlet water swirl away, before standing to rinse himself under a freezing cold blast from the shower. It shocked the sobs to a halt, stripped the tears from his cheeks, and he shook his head, shivering as he climbed out of the tub and reached for the towel over the mirror.
"…and I really –"
"Shut it, or I'll smash you." The words held just enough of a hollow matter-of-factness that the mirror stopped abruptly, meekly reflecting his own image back at him without any further commentary.
He couldn't do it. He couldn't keep up that level of vigilance for another six months, and Merlin help them all if it went on longer than that. It was really a wonder, he mused, that his grandmother had recognized him at all when he had stepped off the train. His hair was long enough that it had begun to wave, low across his eyes and curling at the collar-line, and a few gray hairs, strangely not unexpected at the age of only seventeen, had begun to scatter through the rich brown at the temples. His features were sharper, harsher than he had ever seen them before, his jawline hard, his cheekbones pronounced and his eyes sunken over dark circles from weeks of little or no sleep, and nightmares when it did come.
Neville opened the medicine cabinet. With six boys in the house, he knew that there would be enough shaving accidents that the Weasleys must have a container of styptic powder that he could sprinkle on his trickling shoulders before he put on the old robes of Bill's Mr. Weasley had loaned him, but as he searched the little shelves, his fingers paused on a dusty bottle to the far back. The lable announced the contents to be a Settling Solution prescribed some five years ago, and bore the crossed wand and bone of St. Mungo's dispensary. For the use of Mr. Percival Weasley as needed for nerves during his N.E.W.T. examinations, not to exceed a half-ounce daily.
He lifted out the bottle, turning it over in his hands thoughtfully. If it had been prescribed for N.E.W.T. exams, it wouldn't dull his wits, but it might calm his nerves enough that he wouldn't feel all of this so keenly, that it wouldn't hurt so much. Maybe it would even help him sleep. He knew that his Gran would have a fit if she knew he were considering taking prescription potions without a Healer's advice, but he couldn't exactly go to St. Mungo's with his problems, and it was his N.E.W.T. year quite legitimately, something that was not exactly easing his stress levels with the amount of homework he had to juggle with the D.A.
There was barely enough left at the bottom of the bottle to coat it, and he reached for where he had set his wand on the side of the tub and tapped the glass. "Resatiate." The liquid expanded, filling the bottle to the base of the cork, and he opened it, sniffing the contents cautiously. A wonderfully calming scent, like tea and lavender and the smoky glow of a warm fire filled his nostrils, and he closed his eyes as he tipped the bottle against his lips.
The potion was old, so he allowed himself a single deep swallow, guessing that a half-ounce would probably not be enough after the passage of years, and what he was facing was a lot more than the question of whether he'd be able to get the job he really wanted. It tasted sweet and a little spicy, and his mouth and throat tingled for a moment as he put the cork back in and tucked the bottle out of sight in the pocket of the robes. It wouldn't be missed, not with that much dust on it and Percy long gone.
Everything seemed a lot more bearable now. The sense of crushing responsibility had eased, and instead, he felt quite perfectly up to the task. The memories of Colin's bloodied robes were just images now, and he could assess the mistakes he had made, consider his actions with a cool detachment that was wonderfully freeing.
He picked up Bill's old robes, pulling them on without really feeling the sting of the scalds the bath had left. Colin was in expert hands, and if he died, Hannah would be an excellent substitute as Secret-Keeper, both because of her feelings for him and the Hufflepuff loyalty he had discovered was so underestimated. The D.A. would go on, he would go on, and there was no need for anyone to share the burden, because really, it wasn't very heavy at all if you didn't have to carry the pain that came with it.
By the time he had fully dressed and had run a comb through his hair, Neville had realized that he was actually quite hungry now that the demands of his stomach were no longer drowned out by the pain of the day's events. He started downstairs for the kitchen, hoping that the Creevey brothers would have been settled enough for someone to dig him up a bowl of soup or a piece of bread, but Ginny met him halfway down, grabbing his sleeve and pulling him towards the sitting room with an eager look on her face. "I was going to get you," she said, "Colin's awake! We've got him in here."
The sitting room was small and a little shabby, but there was a friendly, cozy feel to it that was aided by the soft glow of the oil lamps on the walls and the warm crackle of the fire that cast a golden light over the surprising number of people who had managed to cram themselves in. Neville recognized Remus Lupin, scarred and haggard-looking, but smiling as he sat on the floor with the pink-haired witch curled in his lap, as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley shared the couch with the Macmillans; Susan perched on Ernie's knee, stroking his hair idly, while Hannah had taken a spot on the floor next to Lee Jordan.
It was an old, sagging chintz armchair, however, that captured his attention. Colin was nestled there, wrapped in so many blankets that his slim body had disappeared into a rather shapeless lump, but his blue eyes were gleaming bright and alive from the still-pale face, and he was smiling. Neville felt an odd sensation deep in his stomach, as if somewhere, someone else had experienced a vast surge of joy and relief, but only the barest of smiles touched his mouth. "Colin…" he hesitated, "…are you…did they find your hand?"
The boy extracted his right arm from the blankets, holding it up with an almost sheepish look on his face. The hand was there, no sign of a scar circling the once-severed wrist, but it looked wrong somehow, almost as if it had been expertly sculpted from wax rather than flesh and blood. "No, but I'm feeling a lot better, really. You guys saved my life."
Neville tilted his head curiously. "But if they didn't find it -?"
"We just did our best to regrow it," the pink-haired witch gave a little shrug, "trouble is, we're Aurors, not Healers, and I guess I'm only much good at making one set of hands at a time." She patted her belly, and for the first time, Neville noticed that her robes were stretched over a distinct roundness there.
Colin tucked his hand back under the blankets. "It's okay, Mrs. Lupin," he said quickly, "I'm not –"
"Oi! Don't call me that!" she protested. "Makes me feel ancient as well as huge! Tonks'll still do me fine, I told you."
Mrs. Weasley laughed, wagging a finger with a teasing glitter in her eyes. "Now, Dora, you're not huge, you're not even six months. You should have seen me with the twins…I told Arthur if I got any bigger, my belly would need its own owl address."
Ginny smirked, flopping down onto her stomach on the braided rug next to the Lupins. "Point is," she motioned up at Colin, "they regrew it fine, but they can't get it to work, and they don't know why, so right now, it's just sort of a decorative end bit on his arm."
"I'm left-handed anyway, I can still do magic fine," Colin said defiantly. "And they said the proper Healers should be able to figure it out as soon as it's okay to go back to St. Mungo's, or if Madam Pomfrey can get a look at it once we go back to school."
"Well that's good to hear," Neville said cooly, "but it's not all okay, Colin. You nearly died, and there was no good reason. What you did was incredibly stupid, and you're sitting there grinning like it was all just a lark. Your best friend has probably been killed by Death Eaters, Dennis – well, I don't know where he is – and you came this close to breaking the Fidelius Charm right when we're all scattered across the countryside and most vulnerable."
Colin looked as if he had been slapped, a faint pink flush rising on his cheeks as his mouth fell open with dismay. "I…I…I'm sorry," he stammered weakly. "D-D-Dennis is sleeping upstairs with S-S-Sturgis watching him. 'Nother Order bloke. They fixed his head."
"What did you want him to do, Neville?" Ginny sat up, her brown eyes flashing fiercely. "Sit around and let the Death Eaters take them because he hadn't passed his Apparition test yet?"
"No, but that nonsense about trying to hide how badly he was Splinched was inexcusable." Despite Ginny's anger and the hurt and shock on Colin's face, Neville was amazed at how calm he felt, how easily he was able to explain the simple logic of the situation. "You're the Secret-Keeper. When I explained that to you, I told you it might mean sacrifice, including your brother. You said you understood, but when it came down do it, you stood in the shadows and nearly bled to – no, scratch that, you did bleed to death, and you're only sitting there now because Ernie and I pushed a couple of pints of our own blood into you to replace what you let soak a dozen yards of fabric and half that basement. I want to know why I shouldn't lift the Fidelius now and put it on someone else."
Colin's expression was utterly devestated. He shrunk down into the blankets and ducked his head, only a fluff of fine golden hair still showing as his reply came muffled through the layers. "I didn't mean to let everyone down. I just…I wasn't thinking…my Mum and Dad…and my brother…and I just…I guess I didn't want to believe I was bleeding that much…."
"You'd lost a hand!" Neville snorted. "It should have been a clue when your uniform was wet to the knees."
The blankets began to shake, and his voice seemed very tiny. "I won't do it again."
"You bloody well won't. You only have one left…and I mean hand, life, and chance."
Ernie motioned Susan off his knee, scowling as he stood and took a step towards Neville, "Wait a moment there, old chum…you're being really hard on the poor kid. He just lost –"
"We're all going to lose, Ernie, and some of us already have." He motioned matter-of-factly towards where Hannah was sitting, noticing only vaguely that she seemed for some reason upset with him as well. "It wouldn't do any good to say Hannah was excused because she lost her mother if she failed in her duties, or because I lost my parents, or Harry lost his, or anyone else, for that matter. Colin failed, and he's going to have to make up for it and win my trust back, and it's really that simple."
Satisfied that he had explained things quite thoroughly, Neville turned to Mrs. Weasley. "Now, I don't mean to bother you, but I haven't eaten in almost twelve hours. Would you mind if I grabbed a spot of leftovers or something from the kitchen?"
A strange silence had fallen over the little sitting room, and Mrs. Weasley exchanged a long and seemingly very meaningful look with her husband before she nodded. "Of course, dear. Arthur will get something. Just give him a moment."
Mr. Weasley got up and swept past him without a word into the kitchen. He waited patiently, aware of the awkwardness that hung over the group, the only sounds the crackling of the fire and Colin sniffling beneath the blankets, trying and failing to hide that he had started to cry. Hannah got to her feet, draping herself over the side of the armchair and rubbing her hand over the little back in gentle circles. She murmured something at the boy that was soothing and meaningless and maternal, but her eyes were on Neville, blazing like the emerald flames of Floo Powder.
Finally, the kitchen door opened, and Mr. Weasley stuck his head back into the sitting room. "If you'll come in here, son…?"
Neville followed him into the kitchen, but no sooner had the door closed behind him, than someone had grabbed him, and he found a thick hand over his mouth as impossibly strong arms yanked him back, twisting his arm up behind his back until it screamed in pain. His wand was trapped in his pocket, he was helpless, but oddly, he felt no panic, his mind simply running over the options and deciding that it was best not to struggle until he had a better understanding of his situation.
Mr. Weasley was standing only inches in front of him, his own wand out and pointed unwaveringly at Neville's throat, his kindly eyes now narrowed in the same blazing, flinty look that was familiar from Ginny's bursts of temper. "Who are you?" he whispered harshly.
"Nnnull Lubumm," he mumbled behind the crushing hand, but his only answer was a sharp nod, and he was twisted around, now slammed face-first against the kitchen wall as someone yanked up his sleeve behind him, and he felt the wand snatched from his pocket.
"Cherry and unicorn, eleven and three-quarters…it's his." Mr. Weasley announced, then there was the tap of a wand against his left forearm. "Morsmordre Revelio!" Neville let out a cry of pain and shock as his arm stung viciously, the skin seeming to ripple and bubble for several long seconds before settling again, leaving him sweating and gasping from the horrific sensation.
Another voice sounded behind him from the one holding him, and he recognized it as belonging to the tall, dark-skinned wizard who had been in the kitchen before, although there was nothing soothing about it now; instead it seemed intimidating, even seplechurial. "He's not a Death Eater, then…but there are plenty of wizards without the Mark who are still no friends of ours." Neville felt warm breath against the back of his neck as the wizard leaned in close, twisting his arm until he was gritting his teeth against the searing pain in his protesting shoulder. "You'd best tell us something to convince us who you are, lad, or I might have to rip this off, and it would still be gone when the Polyjuice wore off."
Grateful that his mind was still clear of fear, he sucked a deep breath past the shooting ache in his arm. "There's a scar…" he hissed, "…on my arm – a fresh one, 'bout five inches long. Remus Lupin put it there last month. He had to have blood to fool the other werewolves when he saved me and Ginny and Luna in the Forbidden Forest." The pressure eased slightly, and he continued. "And Ginny…she wears Ron's old pajamas, the blue and white ones…and she had a diary in second – I mean, her first year – that used to belong to You-Know-Who…and Ron used to sleepwalk sometimes, but he hasn't in a couple years, and…."
"That's plenty. Thank you, Kingsley, you can let him go…he is who he says he is," Mr. Weasley said calmly.
The hands released him, and Neville stepped away from the wall, smoothing his rumpled robes as he looked at the wizard who had been restraining him curiously. "Kingsley…Shacklebolt?" The dark, smooth head nodded. "Blimey," Neville's eyes widened mildly, "you're famous. I guess I shouldn't be embarrassed about you getting the jump on me. We put it out all over school when you took out those Death Eaters…three of them, and they say four had you cornered."
"Five," Shacklebolt corrected him. "I've become rather unpopular with the Ministry because of that, which is part of why we are not too keen on having people here we can't trust." He exchanged a look with Mr. Weasley, then tilted his head back to the door. "Call if you need me, Arthur."
"Of course." Mr. Weasley waited patiently until Shacklebolt had left, then crossed his arms, staring intently at Neville.
A small spark of indignation at the treatment he had received had flared through the stoicism, and he frowned. "I hope you had some reason for all that, considering I've been putting my neck on the line all year to help fight You-Know-Who and his lot?"
"To put it bluntly, Mr. Longbottom," Mr. Weasley replied snappishly, "we didn't think you were capable of that little display you just put on out there with Colin."
Neville shrugged. "He made a serious error in judgement and deserved to be reprimanded."
"Maybe he did, but the young man Harry and the kids have told me about – not to mention the young man who arrived in my kitchen earlier this afternoon – would never have handled things so…well, so cruelly." He paused thoughtfully. "And I can't think of anyone who would have taken it so calmly being nearly dismembered by eighteen stone of the most intimidating Auror since old Mad-Eye."
Mr. Weasley took a step forward, leaning in close to Neville's face as he sniffed, his long nose flaring. "Well, it's not alcohol, but there's something." He crossed his arms. "Now, will you just tell me what you've taken, or should I bring Kingsley back, and we can do it the very undignified way involving taking some of your saliva and testing it for potions whether you like it or not?"
"If you're messing yourself up on who-knows-what and making decisions that could mean my daughter's life, you had better believe I would," he answered firmly.
Neville laced his own arms across his chest defiantly and took a step back. "Nothing."
There was a moment's pause, then Mr. Weasley actually laughed. "You know, I don't know what your grandmother lets you get away with, but I've raised seven children, and I think just about all of them were better liars than you…goodness, I think Fred and George had you beat by the time they were old enough to get their own names straight."
Aware that the matter had been lost, Neville sighed and reached into the pocket of his robes, withdrawing the little bottle and holding it out on the palm of his hand. "Just this," he said, "and that's the truth."
Taking it, Mr. Weasley studied the label for a long time, his expression unreadable. Finally, he nodded, then drew out a chair from the kitchen table and motioned towards it. "Take a seat, and I'll get you something…you said you were hungry?"
"Yes.…" he sat, looking up at the older wizard in confusion. "You're not angry?"
"It's my experience," came the reply, as Mr. Weasley pulled out a loaf of bread and began to cut thick slices onto a small plate, "that when someone tries to hide something, they already know it's wrong, so lecturing you on that would really just be a waste of breath, and I'm not your father, so I can't punish you for what you did even if I wanted to. But I don't want to, not really." He turned back, putting the bread and a pot of marmalade on the table before going back to the pantry. "If you took that tonight, I'm assuming you had a pretty good reason, or at least it felt like it."
Neville nodded slowly. "I didn't think I could…I mean, it's just, I know it's my fault what happened to the Creeveys. Colin told me he thought his parents might have been killed, and I let him go back there on his own, just because I didn't want to deal with it. I wanted to go with Ernie and Susan, then back to Gran's for Christmas and just pretend the war wasn't happening for a while, but they both almost died because of that."
"It must be hard on you, feeling like you have so much responsibility for so many people." Mr. Weasley sat down, pushing a steaming bowl of stew and a spoon across the table to him. "Ginny has told me what you've done with the D.A, and it sounds like an astonishing thing you've undertaken. Not just what you've done against Snape and the Carrows to keep everyone's hopes up, but that you've created your own Auror division in that school."
His mouth full of the savory stew, Neville shrugged, then swallowed. "Harry started it. I've just kept it up, and Ginny's helped a lot. I couldn't have done it without her and Luna and Ernie."
"According to what I've been told, Harry started a little substitute class to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts while Umbridge was mangling the subject. You've trained soldiers, and you're preparing to lead them in battle at the end of the year. The last time we heard about the D.A., it wasn't because our daughter wanted to make sure she had said her goodbyes if things happened sooner than you had planned." His voice was steady, but there was a deep sadness in the blue eyes.
"Do you think we shouldn't?" Neville asked.
"I think you shouldn't have to." Mr. Weasley sighed deeply, "Unfortunately, when she told us why you had decided to make your stand, Molly and I couldn't find any real way to argue it." He was silent for a while, watching Neville eat, then he stood up and pulled a bottle of firewhisky from the cupboard and poured two small glasses, sliding one across the table as he took the other. "You're taking a man's burdens, I can offer you a man's drink for this discussion. Goodness knows I'm going to need it."
He took a slow sip of the amber liquid, then began again, his tone solemn. "I'm not going to pretend I know what you're going through, that's the kind of patronizing nonsense that makes teenagers perform Silencio on anything else that comes out of an adult's mouth, because they know perfectly well that no one can really understand anyone else's heart. But I can understand what would make numbing it all out seem like a good idea. The last time You-Know-Who was in power, Molly and I lost nearly all of our friends, not to mention both of her brothers, my father, and both of my brothers.
"This time, we have even more to lose…beyond each other, of course. Bill has already been mutilated, and he's still in the Order. Charlie's still working with dragons in Romania, which is dangerous enough, but he's also using the fact that he speaks a half-dozen languages to spy for us out there and let us know if Durmstrang is coming in on their side. Percy hasn't spoken to us in almost two years, but he's working in the Ministry and from a known family of Blood-Traitors. We hear from the twins maybe once a month to tell us they still haven't been caught by the dozen Death Eaters who have been assigned personally to kill them. Ron is somewhere with the biggest walking target in the wizarding world, and Ginny is with you, getting ready to make a do-or-die stand at the end of the year. Molly and I know we're not going to see the summer with all of our children alive, and that's the bald truth of it.
"We know it has to be done, and we've given them all our blessing and our help whenever we can, but every day when the owls come, Molly and I still cry." His blue eyes were more open than anything Neville had ever seen from an adult, and he felt rather humbled.
"How do you handle it?" he asked quietly. "I mean, I've got Gran, and I've got friends I love, and I think I'm really in love with Hannah, but it's got to be worse if it's your kids."
There was a low chuckle at this. "I hope you find out some day. Oh, not having your kids in danger, just having them." Mr. Weasley took another sip of the firewhisky. "We handle it because we have someone to share it with. That's the amazing thing about love and pain, and it's something my father taught me. Love just keeps growing the more you divide it, but pain is cut in half each time you share it."
"Yeah," Neville reached for his own glass, bracing himself for the first burn of the spirit as he took a cautious drink, "but you have Mrs. Weasley. Hannah and I aren't that far yet."
"What about your grandmother?"
"Gran?" He paused, considering it, then shook his head. "Gran and I…it's kind of complicated. We love each other a lot, but she's never really been like a parent to me, and I don't think I've ever really been like a kid for her. I used to think it was because I wasn't good enough, but that's not it. It's…" he hesitated, searching for words. "We're like really good friends and teacher and student and almost husband and wife in some ways, because we're all each other has, but we're not really close when it comes down to it. There's this distance between us that makes everything almost, and I think it's my Dad."
"Your Dad?" Mr. Weasley asked.
"I don't think she can look at me without thinking of him, and I think that hurts too much for her to get really close, but I'm still all she has left of him. Kind of like a fireplace…you need it to stay warm, but if you get too near, you're burned." He took another drink, then spread his hands, trying to explain what he had never put into words before.
Thankfully, Mr. Weasley seemed to understand, and he nodded. "And you don't have anyone at school who's close to you the way Ron and Harry are?"
"Not really. I'd say Ernie and Seamus are closest among the guys, but they're my officers, so I can't let them know if I'm panicking about command, and…" he blushed, "…well, it's not the sort of thing you feel right burdening a girl with if she's not your wife, especially if it's memories of awful stuff, and all of them are D.A. too. And I'm the youngest one in my family by about ten years, so I barely know my cousins."
"I see why you took the potion, then. It's way too much to ask anyone to deal with." There was no hint of sarcasm in the words, and Neville raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"Harry deals with a lot more."
"Harry has Ron and Hermione, he had Dumbledore, Sirius, and he still has myself and Molly as well. So even if he had twice the burden to begin with, he has a third of what you do after it's split six ways." He spoke as if he were listing them as Harry's own family, and the look of confusion on Neville's face did not escape the shrewd gaze behind the little spectacles.
"You know, when we first started having kids, Molly and I decided to keep going until we ran out of room in our hearts for more. It was a lovely idea, but I don't really recommend it, because we ran out of room in our house and my paycheck a lot faster." He chuckled, and Neville found himself smiling back. "But the funny thing is," Mr. Weasley mused, turning the glass in his hand to watch the whisky coat the sides in thin, golden sheets, "fate's still given us three more – Harry's another son to us, Hermione and Fleur as good as two more daughters – and we're still not out of room." He looked up, meeting Neville's eyes pointedly.
"If you ever feel like things are getting to be too much again, Neville, you can always send a letter. Use one of the Coding Quills, give it to Ginny, she knows how to get them through to us. And if you absolutely feel there is no other way, you are an adult." He pulled the bottle of Percy's medicine from his pocket and set it on the table between them. "But I would beg you to be extraordinarily cautious."
Neville blinked, shocked. "You're letting me have that back?"
"I would rather you feel nothing than be so overwhelmed that you did something truly reckless. However," he raised a finger sternly, "once this dose wears off and you can feel again, I want you to really think about what you did to Colin in there. You hurt that boy badly. Your heart is just as important a command tool as your head…sometimes, I think that Dumbledore needed to remember that when he dealt with Harry a little more often, because there has been a lot of unneeded pain for him, but that's beside the point."
He thought of Colin's heartbroken look, and beneath the comforting blankness, something cold and shameful seemed to slither through the pit of his stomach. Neville looked down at the worn surface of the table, fidgeting with the nearly-empty glass. "I understand. I won't do it unless it's…you know. Unless I'm really losing it."
"I think," Mr. Weasley said quietly, "that might not happen so much if you have options."
"Yeah." He stood up, leaving the last of the whisky beside his now-empty bowl, but pocketing the bottle of potion as he turned to the door. "Thanks for the food, Mr. Weasley."
A warm smile came in return. "Call me Arthur, please."
"Arthur." The name felt a little odd on his lips, he was not accustomed to using the first name of people so much older, but it also felt somehow far more appropriate than the cool formality. He put a hand on the knob, then turned back with a faint, wry smile. "I hope you won't be offended if I have one more thing I want to eat tonight."
The ginger brows raised curiously. "Do you want some cake?"
"No," Neville sighed, "There's nine people out there I was a real skrewt to, and I think I need to save room for crow."