"Boy, come here and sit with your old uncle." Algie motioned for Neville to join him at the kitchen table.
Neville obeyed a little nervously. He liked his great uncle, but the man had pushed him into the sea and dropped him out of a window. While Neville understood that those pushes and drops had been necessary, he found them hard to forget. Besides his uncle still had a habit of springing things on him, much like the way he used to jump at him in the old days when he was trying to frighten magic out of him. Algie leaned forward; Neville could smell the old man smell of firewhiskey and cigars.
"That bastard, Crouch tricked you, didn't he," Algie said. "You thought he was some Auror friend of your father's who wanted to talk a bit with his old friend's son. But he was just playing with you wasn't he?"
Algie had done it again. Neville's great uncle had hit him with a bludger when he was unprepared. Neville should have seen it coming. His great uncle was the only one of the relatives who hadn't yet gone into a rage that Barty Crouch Jr. had taught a Longbottom at Hogwarts.
Neville had not talked about Crouch with anyone yet, not really. His grandmother's rants and furious questions, and the angry outbursts of the Longbottom relatives didn't count. They raged around him like a stormy atmosphere expecting no reply and not interested in any he might give. He ignored them and when he couldn't he endured them. His great uncle was different. His question required an answer beyond yes, no and I'm sorry and Neville didn't want to give one.
"Your grandmother's upset," said Algie. "She's horrified that Crouch was anywhere near you. It scared her I think."
Neville couldn't give an answer, not even a nod. He knew his gran was angry, not upset but angry. Why shouldn't she be? Neville had visited with the man, listened to him tell stories about his dad and his time as an Auror. Neville shuddered. He hoped Crouch had made the stories up, because any story he'd heard from Crouch's mouth was permanently ruined for him. Even Sprout's compliment (did she really make it?) felt muddied and contaminated by Crouch.
His gran knew how Crouch had tricked him, because Neville, like an idiot, had owled her about it. He'd written her that his dad's old friend Moody had asked him to his office for tea that he'd talked about his dad's old life. (He hadn't told her about the spiders and the Cruciatus curse of course. He wouldn't hurt her, not intentionally and it wasn't something Neville wanted to talk about anyway.) Neville had even bragged that Sprout had called him her best Herbology student. He couldn't help doing it; he rarely had anything good to write her about school.
"He tricked you," Algie continued. "But why should you be any different from anyone else? Crouch fooled Dumbledore didn't he? Dumbledore thought he was Moody the whole school year. Greatest living wizard and he'd been tricked."
Neville didn't care about Dumbledore's mistakes. The greatest living wizard's parents hadn't been destroyed by Crouch. Neville had met one of his family's worst enemies and had lapped up his compliments like a dog.
What had Neville said to Crouch? He hadn't been able to hide how much the spider torture had shaken him. Did he cry in front of him or ask about his dad? Neville backed away from a memory too painful and humiliating to think about. Neville stared down at the table; he could feel his eyes getting wet. His throat burned.
"That worm knew how to control people. He Imperiused Moody and Moody was a brilliant Auror. Nearly as good as your father," Algie continued.
At that Neville almost cracked a smile. He still kept his head down.
"Crouch fooled your father you know," Algie said sadly. "That's how they got him."
Neville's head came up. He remembered something about this.
Algie nodded. "That lickspittle was the son of the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement," Algie said, speaking the last words in as pretentious a voice as he could muster. "Crouch Jr. hung around the ministry and the Auror office. People trusted him. Your father trusted him."
Algie pointed at him speaking forcefully. "You and your father were both fooled by the same lickspittle. That's what I call him -- the lickspittle."
Neville still couldn't speak. He stared at Algie unblinking. He knew his eyes were wet and red.
Algie stared back at him with a worried expression. He reached down and pulled a bottle of firewhiskey from his bag, conjured two glasses and filled them. "You're going to be fifteen years old in a month. It's time your tried some of this." He passed Neville a glass. "Don't sip it. Gulp it, like this," he said as he demonstrated. He refilled his own glass when he finished.
Neville drank. Tears ran down his cheeks and a choking burning rose in his throat, but he swallowed.
"Brought tears to your eyes. Didn't it?" Algie said nodding.
Neville smiled in warm gratitude at Algie. He realized that his great-uncle was covering for him. The firewhiskey had given him a reason for having tears. He finished his glass and felt calmer and strangely buoyant. The feeling felt familiar, but he couldn't remember why.
Algie leaned toward Neville, a crafty expression on his face. "The lickspittle knew how to manipulate people. I watched him at the trial," he said. "He had everyone convinced that he was a victim of bad company. He played on their sympathy, and they pitied him. I saw through him, but that was because I knew already. I could see how good he was, how he could've fooled Frank. I know how he fooled you."
He smiled a toothy smile at Neville. "The Dementors got him. He's worse off than your parents. You're alive and free and he isn't. That's the best revenge. You remember that."
Neville thought that he would prefer a real revenge.
His great-uncle Algie finished another firewhiskey. "Crouch is gone, but "You-Know-Who" has returned, and everyone is beside themselves. But in this family we always knew that would happen," Algie said.
"Yes," Neville replied finally able to talk. "We always knew that would happen." He sighed.
"I have something for you," Algie said. He got up from the table and steadied himself a moment before walking off in search of his item. He returned carrying a box that Neville recognized as one used for transporting plants.
"When I heard the news about Crouch, I knew you would need cheering up. So I got you a special present for your birthday," Algie said as he handed Neville the box. "I decided to give it to you ahead of time. I would probably kill the thing, if I waited for the real day."
Neville lifted the plant out of the box. When he recognized it, he was amazed. "Mimbulus mimbletonia," Neville said. "How did you find it?"
"When I was in Assyria, I met one of their Herbology professors and I asked him what would be a prize plant, something really rare. He mentioned this. He said it was very, very hard to grow, that most people would kill it. But I told him you could grow anything."
For the first time that day, Neville really smiled at his great-uncle.
"It was very hard to find, even in Assyria," said Algie. "But I finally found a dealer who knew someone who could get their hands on one."
"It's a fascinating plant," Neville said excitedly. "When it's full grown, it sings. If it's disturbed it shoots stinksap at its attacker."
"Well, don't disturb it. I don't want any stinksap sprayed on me and I don't want any in your grandmother's kitchen," said Algie, eying the plant dubiously. He looked less happy with his gift.
"Oh, I won't," Neville said. He actually grinned. "I really like it. -- Thank you."
"I knew you would," Algie said with a nod. "I know what you like -- I gave you your toad didn't I? The same as I had when I was in school." He picked up the firewhiskey and gestured toward Neville with it. "Haven't I always understood what you needed? I knew how to get you your magic. Some in the family didn't approve, but I was right. My ways worked and in the end didn't hurt you at all."
Neville remembered the shock of cold water and the despair as his wet clothes dragged him under. He'd blacked out and woken up vomiting water surround by a circle of faces staring down at him. Sometimes the memory came back even when he didn't want it. He even had nightmares about it, panicked dreams of falling, unable to breathe. Even now when he looked at Algie he could feel the frenzied terror of hanging over emptiness. He took a breath and reminded himself of bouncing down the road, thrilled to have magic like everyone else did, and happy really happy to be free of the fear of being a squib. His gran had even cried with relief for him.
"No," Neville said. "I wasn't hurt at all."
"You sure you haven't drunk this before?" Algie asked. "I gave you a lot. I was worried you'd fall off the chair, but for a little guy you can handle your firewhiskey."
Neville laughed. Algie poured him another glass. He swallowed it screwing up his face as he did so. The firewhiskey burned peppery hot as it went down. He felt very good, better than he had in a long time. He was reminded again of feeling this way before, but he couldn't quite grasp the memory of when.
"Your gran sent me an owl saying you took a girl to the Yule ball." Algie said.
"Ginny Weasley, just as friends."
"Weasley, I reckon she has red hair. I always liked red hair myself. Was she pretty?"
"Yeah, very pretty, with long hair." Neville answered gesturing, as Algie poured him another firewhiskey.
"Drink up!" the old man told him.
The drink went down easier this time. The sense of something very familiar grew.
"I should have known you could handle your firewhiskey. All the Longbottoms can. Firewhiskey was your father's favorite drink. He gave it up though, because of the war. He feared the Imperius curse. Said he heard being under it felt a lot like drinking a few glasses of firewhiskey. He never wanted that feeling to be too familiar; it might weaken his resolve."
Neville was going to be sick. He stood up from his chair quickly to get to a toilet, but the ground moved under his feet and the room spun. He fell to his knees and vomited. He had realized what made the firewhiskey feeling so familiar. In class he'd been under the Imperius curse. He had felt the same floating sense of warm comfort when Crouch had been in his mind making him flip and cartwheel like an acrobat.
Neville let his head sag a little, tired from being sick. As he kneeled on the ground getting control of himself, he remembered the classroom: the feel of his own body jumping, because Crouch was putting the orders in his mind. The room spun again. Neville groped for the floor. A spider danced under Crouch's command; the flips and cartwheels Crouch forced on it reminded Neville of his own. He watched them - no, it suffer under the Cruciatus curse. He saw his poor parents. He tried not to, but he did. Sick rose up in Neville's throat again. Crouch had looked him in the eye, before he'd cursed that poor spider. He'd known who Neville was when he did it. Neville was sure of that now.
Neville vomited again, his throat and nose burning with the hot pepper of the firewhiskey.
Great uncle Algie stood in front of him. Neville could just see the tops of his shoes.
"Gave you too much -- didn't I," Algie said kindly as he spelled away the mess Neville made. "Well don't try to stop it. Just let it out. That's the best way to get rid it."