Neville stumped into the Room of Requirement, bruised and bloodied and extremely sore. He looked around—none of the others were back yet from their mission. Sighing, he gingerly sat down in one of the Gryffindor hammocks, trying to ignore the aching rib he was sure he'd probably broken.
They had all gone out on a vandalism spree in groups of two at ten o'clock to distract the Carrows while Justin, Ernie, and Seamus carried out the real job—rescuing a small first-year Ravenclaw boy that Alecto had thrown in detention.
Neville pulled out a scrap of parchment on which Hannah had written the groups and examined it for what felt like the thousandth time that evening, as if just by staring at it he could guarantee the safety of his friends.
"Ginny and Luna are in the Entrance Hall," he muttered to himself, "and Hannah and Susan took the third-floor corridors. Michael and Terry are in the dungeons, Lavender and Zacharias are up near Gryffindor Tower, Padma and Parvati took the trophy room, and I just got back from doing the security sweep…"
The door flew open just as Neville pocketed the parchment. It was Ginny and Luna, both of them disheveled and bloodstained. Ginny's hair had fallen out of its neat braid and one sleeve of her shirt had been torn clean away; Luna had grazes on her pale face and was missing a shoe. Both of them were limping.
"What happened?" Neville asked anxiously.
"We met Amycus," said Ginny, curling her lip in disgust at the name. "He was firing off jinxes and curses all over the place—tried to hit me with the Killing Curse a few times—but we did it."
"What'd you write?"
"The old standby," said Luna happily. "Dumbledore's Army—Still Recruiting."
"Well, that's true. Merlin knows we could do with a few more people," he sighed.
As if on cue, Michael, Terry, Lavender, and Zacharias came bursting into the room, their feet pounding at the flagged stone floor. They looked rather shaken up, but otherwise unhurt.
"Any sign of them?" asked Ginny, sinking onto the floor.
"No," said Michael. "We heard a lot of screaming coming from dungeon five—had to use Disillusionment Charms to get around. It's lucky we did, because Snape's on patrol tonight."
"All over the place," added Terry with a grimace. "We walked Justin, Ernie, and Seamus as far down as the dungeon entrance. Hopefully they'll get the poor kid out alright."
"They've never failed yet," said Zacharias, coming to stand in the circle of people grouped around Neville.
It was then that Padma and Parvati came back in, relatively unscathed. For a while, they all sat in silence, the only sound being their breathing, until they heard footsteps pounding down the corridor outside.
"Someone get a hammock ready," cried Hannah, racing through the door with Susan hard on her heels, "they've got him."
Ernie and Seamus appeared just behind them, carrying a small boy slung between them; Justin brought up the rear of the party.
"Oh, my God," Ginny gasped, staring horrorstruck down at the limp figure. She glanced around wildly. "Lav—the dittany…"
Lavender ran toward the small cabinet in the corner where they kept their meager medical supplies. Meanwhile, Neville stepped swiftly around Padma to get a better look at the boy, who had been placed in Terry's hammock.
He was absolutely shocked by what he saw. Many deep gashes had been ripped through the boy's robes—clearly 'sectumsempra' was still in vogue among the Carrows as torture methods went—and his face was deathly pale. He was losing far too much blood. His eyes stared blankly at nothing, and suddenly a violent feeling of rage swept through Neville: they had used the Cruciatus Curse on this innocent little boy.
Lavender returned with the dittany and crouched down beside a particularly nasty-looking cut on the boy's thigh. "Neville, this is going to hurt him. I would try to warn him…"
Neville leaned close to the boy's face and whispered, "You've got to stay with us, mate. Come on. Be strong."
His eyelids fluttered feebly and his lips moved; Neville had to bend down very low to catch what he was saying. "I don't want to be strong anymore. I want to go home."
"We all do," said Neville gently. "but we can't. We have to keep fighting. We don't want those Carrows taking over us, do we?"
"But, Neville…" said Ginny softly, "they already have. We're nothing without—without…" She trailed off, unable to say the name.
"Harry," Lavender finished for her, sitting up at last. "Right, that's done. Just try to lay quietly for a while."
In an undertone to Neville, she muttered, "He might not make it through the night. I'll sit up with him, if you like."
Neville glanced at her; she was as bruised and exhausted and bloodstained as the rest of them, yet the hardened look in her eyes dared him to argue. He nodded to her, then walked away to stand at the window.
The grounds were shrouded in gloom; dementors patrolled every boundary in twos and threes. Groups of students were marched in rigid columns through the halls at wandpoint, and the Cruciatus Curse was not so much 'unforgivable' now as it was 'undeniably fun' in the Carrows' books. Hogwarts had changed, and it was not for the better.
As a dementor drifted past the window, sending a freezing chill through the room, Neville asked himself the question that was on everyone's mind.
How much longer can we stand without Harry?