It was night time when he approached the dingy storefront in London, the one that had been closed for refurbishment for as long as anyone could remember. Despite the War, Purge and Dowse, Ltd remained every bit the same as it had ever been. No, that wasn't quite right. Indeed, it had been changed a great deal by the War. In an effort to re-establish the breech between the Muggle and wizarding worlds, however, it had been the first building in London to be completely repaired, inside and out. The same ugly mannequin stood in the window and stared sightlessly out, as it had before during and after the War; its clothes were still terribly outdated.
"Same note, different day," he spoke to the shop window dummy, striking an unremarkable figure as he stood in the orange lamplight. For a moment, he could have sworn there was a slight twinkle to the mannequin's eyes before it nodded once and beckoned with its stiff, outstretched hand. Without turning around to see if anyone was watching him, for no one ever was, Neville Longbottom stepped up to the glass- and then through it. It was a little like walking through a sheet of cold water, but he was long since used to the sensation. Taking a step further, he found himself in the familiar waiting room, with the familiar chairs, the familiar globes of light suspended in the air, the familiar watchwizard and the familiar plump, blonde witch who smiled and waved at him as he moved towards her desk.
"Hullo again, Mr Longbottom," she chirped brightly. The only noticeable sign left of the War was a slightly pearlescent scar that slid a small way down from the bottom of the witch's lip. It was easily missed by most people, but for Neville it was a too real reminder of that horrible time. "Hullo, Mrs Whatley," he said in reply, nodding to her with a faint smile.
"Oh, love, please call me Hildy," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. She insisted every time, but Neville felt it disrespectful somehow. It had been so many years, after all. "You're going to see your parents then, are you?" she continued with a knowing smile.
"Yes, ma'am. I do hope you enjoy the rest of your evening," Neville said, and then he moved past her. It had been a long time since he had needed anything in the way of a visitor's pass. "Such a nice young man," he heard Mrs Whatley comment to the watchwizard. Some things never changed.
Neville climbed the stairs up to the fourth floor, nodding to passing Healers and more ambulatory patients. Most of the portraits' occupants were either sleeping or off visiting somewhere else, leaving the corridors almost silent. It was a good time to come when all one wanted was a relative amount of peace and calm. Up the last flight of stairs he went, until he came to the double doors, the sign above which stated the floor to be "Spell Damage". He pushed the doors open and walked to another door at the far end of the corridor, at which he stopped and rapped his knuckles very faintly against it.
It only took a moment for the doors to come open, and a familiar face greeted him with a pleased smile. The eyes took on a reproving look, however, as the woman behind them stepped to one side to allow him to enter. "I was beginning to think you weren't coming," she said. "Your mother will be so pleased to see you again. She's been looking expectantly at the doors all day long."
Neville cleared his throat, finding it suddenly thick. The woman waited quietly as he regained his composure. It wasn't fair that he could still be undone by so simple a thing, even after all this time. He was faintly aware of a light pressure on his folded arms; her small hand rested there. He smiled feebly at her, mumbling, "Hullo, Cecily," and then nodded towards the end of the room, where his parents beds were- or had been. "How are they getting on today?" he asked, his voice somewhat tight.
"Quite well," came the woman's response, "especially considering their new arrangements. Mrs Longbottom does like the sun, and Mr Longbottom's sage cutting is coming along nicely on the sill. I think he's rather taken with that book you brought him a few weeks ago." She was walking down the room, between the rows of beds around which most of the curtains had been drawn. "You will come say good-bye once you're finished, won't you?"
They had stopped just short of the end of the room, where his parents' beds had been for as long as he could remember. He didn't mind the change, and neither had the Longbottoms. There wasn't much any more that upset them. Neville glanced up, a slightly abashed smile on his face, and he nodded. He watched the woman until she had disappeared behind another curtain further away, and then ducked behind the ones around his parents' beds. His father was already in bed, sound asleep, but his mother was rocking slowly in a charmed loveseat, staring at nothing in particular. He could faintly hear snatches of a song hummed under her breath, but it wasn't anything he recognised. She only looked up at him as he came around the bed and sat on the edge of it.
Neville didn't say anything; he almost never did. His mother put out her hand and patted his knee and smiled absently at him. He looked down at her hand and slowly slid his hand beneath it. Thin skin stretched over knuckles made bulbous and unsightly by old age. They reminded him of his grandmother, whom he still missed. He raised his mother's hand and kissed the wrinkled skin before setting it gently back on his leg. She let out a sigh that may have been of happiness or regret; who could tell, really. Together, mother and son sat in peaceful silence.
It was broken a few moments later by another knock at the ward's door. Another visitor to ward 49, at such a late time? There was a murmur of voices, and then the rustling of robes as someone moved past the curtains. Neville was able to glimpse a pair of very expensive looking shoes as they walked by, but of their owner he knew nothing. His curiosity wasn't as easily piqued as it had once been. He heard the set of curtains next to his parents' being pulled back and heard a man's voice saying, "Good evening, ma'am."
And that was when Neville became aware of the slow rise and fall of a voice that had been so faint that until now his mind had tuned it out. Strange how he had merely dismissed it. Stranger still that he realised it was not the first time he had heard it. It was a woman's voice, murmuring and muttering to herself without ceasing, a low and gentle susurrus.
Neville caught himself listening and, what was more, straining to hear. Knowing instantly that this was inestimably rude, to say nothing of grossly intrusive, he stopped. He could still acutely remember the embarrassment and humiliation he'd felt when the Golden Trio and Ginny had discovered that his parents were there, even if it had been years ago. As he sat with his mother, she who seemed quite content to merely rock back and forth, holding her son's hand (who could know if she was aware of even that) and humming quietly, his own mind began to wander.
"She begins Hogwarts this year," the man's voice came from behind the curtain, breaking into Neville's thoughts so subtly that he wasn't even aware he was listening at first. The low murmur of words changed in pitch and urgency, but the man went on. "We've already been to Diagon Alley for her school things. She began insisting almost as soon as we received her letter. Rather like a certain young man that you used to know."
The man chuckled quietly, but there was a hollow, forced quality to it. Neville could commiserate. How many times had he forced a smile, a laugh, some sentiment he did not truly feel? It hadn't been so bad in recent years, though, not since-
His new train of thought was broken when he heard the gentleman speak again. "Of course, she's looking forward to Potions the most. She's done almost nothing but play with her Young Wizard's First Potions Kit™. You know, the one she received just this Christmas last." Neville smiled to himself, catching the subtle inflection of the man's voice. Clearly the gift had been said to be from the woman. (A close family friend, perhaps? Some victim of the war?) How many presents had he received when he was very small had he thought had come from his mum and dad?
"She may well favour Care of Magical Creatures as well. Her mother does go on so about them." There was a certain note of- what? Frustration? Bemused exasperation? - to the man's voice, but before he could continue the woman's voice rose sharply.
"Lost!" she cried, making Neville's mother start. Her wrinkled brows knit together with worry, and eased only slightly when Neville covered their hands with his other one. As much as he wanted to solely comfort his mother, years in the War had made him wary of anything remotely out of the ordinary- even in a place like this. To this end, he dropped all pretences of politeness and listened hard. Apparently the abruptness of her outburst caused the man to fall silent. "Not lost, not lost," she continued, her voice shrill. "His choice when blackest night is fallen- hope. Hope! HOPE!"
Silence rang through ward, so pressing, so absolute, that for an irrational moment Neville thought he'd gone deaf. His father snuffled in his sleep, then, and turned over, in effect breaking the spell. Sound returned to the ward, the deep and heavy breathing of a deep sleep, the gentle and quiet hum of his mother's half-remembered song. Someone moved past the curtains, but it was obvious that the man had already left the woman's side. Neville could hear his voice speaking with the current matron of the ward. "I'm terribly sorry, Miss, ah-" the man said, his own voice strained.
"Mrs, actually, but please call me Cecily. You do come by often enough to warrant it." Neville could hear the gentle, understanding smile in her voice. He pictured her fingers twitching at her side, seeking to comfort the man as she had done earlier with Neville, but stopping herself. She was so very caring.
"I didn't mean to trouble her," the visitor continued. Cecily murmured something, but it was too quiet to be heard this time. "Yes, of course," the gentleman replied. "I'm sure you're right. She's calm again, at any rate. Thank you again. Good evening."
Neville listened as the man left. The curtains to his parents' neighbour were turned aside and the young woman attended to the poor crazed woman. She had returned to her low murmuring, and soon even that was no more. Neville sat with his mother until she too was asleep, and then he gently levitated her into her own bed. Leaning down over her blanketed form, he kissed her forehead and touched her cheek before turning to his father and taking his hand. "Good night, Dad," he said into the slumbering quiet.
As he left, Neville passed close to where the young woman sat, a few books open around her on a desk. She looked up at him as he called softly to her, "Cecily." The smile that spread across her beautiful face was almost enough to undo him on the spot. He walked to where she sat and watched her stand and walk around the desk, joining him. "You, ah, won't be long tonight, will you?" he asked in a low voice.
"Not terribly," she replied, reaching out to take hold of his hand. Her deep brown eyes stared up at him and her smile deepened as he raised her hand and kissed it. "I'll miss you, though. Kiss the girls good night for me?"
Neville smiled down at his wife. "Of course," he said, and watched as she stood and walked around the desk. She hugged him tight, just around the middle. How odd this life was, when he could be in the same room with his tragically mad parents and the one person in the whole world who could make it feel like it was all right to go on. He kissed the black braids of her hair and then stepped away from her. With a small wave of his hand, he turned and left the ward.
As he walked out into the cool London night, unnoticed by any passing Muggles, he pushed his hands deep into his pockets. Home was a blessedly short distance. He would have to spend plenty of time tucking in his daughters this evening, and planned on spoiling them with any story they wanted. It was with a strong sense of melancholy that he thought about the next day. Every year it became harder and harder to return to work. All the same, at least his girls would be going in a couple of years. Humph, how complicated would that then make his job? Neville chuckled under his breath. Balancing Herbology and those two little handfuls? He could quite understand the reason that most of the professors at Hogwarts never had much in the way of families.
Still, there was absolutely no way he would change it for anything else.
The Obliquely Odd Cousins were playing on the wireless, their latest single "Stop the Clock Ticking" coming through various objects that had been charmed to act as speakers. A witch danced around the large and open family room, her skirts swirling around her ankles while packages and neatly folded clothes floated around her, faintly pulsing to the beat. She spun to where a very new trunk stood open and directed the school things down into it with subtle movements of her hands. There was something so enjoyable about the Cousins. On the outside, they were this very appealing group of young musicians whose songs seemed about as light and airy as anything else on the wireless- even on the Muggle channels. Just beneath it, however, were these lyrics that would make one stop and think for a long while if one took the time to really listen. There were spells in music. She firmly believed this. One just had to dig deep enough to find them.
From down the hall outside the spacious flat, she heard the ancient lift making its way upward. Reaching just behind her head, she removed her wand from her thick, hastily thrown up hair. She hardly noticed as it fell down her back and over her shoulders. She was far too busy using the wand to silence the wireless; a few deft flicks and various sounds of tea making began to sound from the kitchen just a couple of rooms away. By the time the key rattled in the door, Luna had turned to greet her husband.
Even at first glance, he looked weary. She knew the look far too well. Smiling quietly, she helped him off with his coat, and then hung it next to the door. He walked into the family room and then sat down in what was inarguably his chair. "Long day at work, dear?" Luna asked. He paused in the act of rubbing the bridge of his nose and looked at her blankly. A traitorous smile edged the corners of her lips upwards. "I mean, really, you look like you've been dragged about all day by a Horned Glaarxak."
Her husband gazed at her. An outsider would have said that the look was cold, almost perturbed, but Luna knew him. There was that small flash of amusement in his eyes that told her he appreciated her levity. "Already in bed, is she?"
"I would hope so," Luna retorted, it being her turn to act put-out. "I thought I might have to give her a Sleeping Draught just to do it. Merlin, but she is excited about tomorrow. We ran into Mrs Gillkin, you remember, from Madam Malkin's, at the shops this morning. She simply went on and on about her school robes. You would have thought they were spun by faeries the way she spoke about them."
He smiled despite the evident effort and watched for a moment while Luna levitated a few more things into the trunk. "I thought today would be a good day," he murmured, making her stop and look back at him. There were some things she didn't ask about. If he wanted to talk about it, he would. She had learned a long time ago that he would never change in that regard. His head dropped onto the back of his chair, and he dragged his hands across his face. Letting his hands fall into his lap, he let out a sigh that usually signalled the end of that particular conversation.
"It's just the things she says," he continued, surprising her so much that a fourth set of high quality robes fell just short of their desired resting place. She turned towards him, a subtle and gentle flick from her wand setting the robes to right, and watched him with wide eyes. "Such madness that comes out of her mouth," he muttered. "It's frustrating. And it's all the time. I mean, for heaven's sake, I can't even take our daughter to see her anymore. She's reached the age where a visit to her grandmother would just be upsetting. I so wanted mother to see her at least once more before she went away to school."
Luna sighed very quietly to herself, only a whisper of a breath in the sudden quiet of the room. The last of their daughter's school things packed away, she motioned the trunk closed and then stood for a moment, considering her husband carefully. When she walked to where he sat, he didn't look at her, only continued his doleful gaze at the ceiling. Even as she sat on the arm of his chair, he seemed determined to look anywhere but at her. She touched his neck, however, just below the jaw, and then traced his hairline as he slowly lowered his face forward to give her better access.
They didn't speak; there was no need. There was only the quiet, still comfort of her touch to ease his fear and frustration. The tension slowly left his shoulders. When she was quite certain that her husband's humours had returned to their more natural balance, she leaned down until she was practically looking upside down at him. She smiled broadly at him and poked him directly on the nose. "Malcolm Dedrick Smith, what would you ever have done without me?"
In the shadows cast by the curtain of her hair, he seemed to seriously consider the question for a moment. "Married wealthy," he drawled with a roll of his eyes. "Been an upstanding member of society. Stuck my head in an oven years ago." At the last, he lashed out and began tickling his wife unmercifully. She, overcome by giggles, collapsed helplessly into his lap. They held each other for a time, then, just being together. All too soon, however, the nasty business of real life intruded in both their thoughts, and they each got to their feet.
Turning nimbly, Luna put her arms around her husband's neck, standing on tiptoe to look him in the eye. "You won't forget, will you?" she asked, looking seriously into his eyes. "And you'll make sure she's safe? Oh, I'm still furious with Dad for pushing up the deadline. Mark my words, he'll wake to find spiny Warktoads in his bed one morning."
Malcolm laughed and gave a smile of rare, true amusement. "Of that I have no doubt, my love."
There were flashes of light, sudden and terrible, that made the earth writhe, convulsing as it was bathed in hatred made manifest. What once had been a glittering and perfect whole was now illuminated as impossible, twisting shapes that offended the senses. The thunder came as whispers in a language so long dead that its meaning had been irrevocably lost. A constant murmur of sound pulsed against the sky, creating a heartbeat that made this place that much more ominous.
The corridors were cold and dank. Darkness wove patterns against the night, making shifting shadows that would have seemed natural in candlelight. There were no candles in this place, however, nothing to illuminate the pressing gloom. It felt like midnight, maybe later; there was no way to mark the passage of time. All the stars had blurred to an indistinct glow, marring the violent sort of purple the sky had become. Smoke curled and billowed from fires that could not die, creating loathsome clouds that rained dust, death and memory down on a war pocked world. Not death, though, not really. There had to be something left living for death to still hold its sting.
Here and there shades twisted and danced through the air, a mockery of the life that once flourished here. A limb would form now and again in the darkness; fingers and hands coalescing, moving in frantic, fevered ways. Faces began to appear, but their features were obscured. It was rather like looking at a very poor reflection in an ancient mirror. A boy with pale skin and dark hair stepped from the shadows. No, that was not right. He came from the shadows, borne out of it like something from a creation myth. A woman came next, her long hair stripped of colour by the dead light that surrounded them. Though her features were still occluded, she retained an air of unutterable loveliness. The figures were coming more and more quickly, and soon the room was positively choked with them. They milled about in an aimless fashion, and seemed to be speaking with one another, though their words were swallowed by the pulsing sounds outside.
The Hatred came on so suddenly that before even one person was able to cry out a warning, half of the room was felled. Their bodies seemed to collapse, and they reverted back to formless shadows before they hit the floor. It was monstrous, the Hatred, a thing so swelling and vile that even the darkness fled from it; and yet the people could do nothing but stop and stare in terror. The woman's mouth opened in a scream, and yet it was only a long quavering note that came out. It floated on the air for a long moment like birdsong, and the Hatred was forced to stop its ingress, as though it had hit some sort of invisible wall. It made a horrible sound, all rage and frustration, and beat against its barrier. Mine! came its thoughts. Do not deny me!
There was a flurry of movement from the watching crowd, and then something long and thin flashed in the darkness. The woman stood alone, her hair now flames that flew out behind her, giving her the appearance of some fierce winged creature. She held a deadly knife in her tightly clenched hands. Eyes that flickered and filled with tears stared down at the dark haired boy, who in turn gazed back with love and trust. "You have to know," she said in a ringing voice that shook the world to its very foundations, "this is the only way!"
The knife came down in a slashing arc, and the universe convulsed in agony and confusion. Above all else, however, there was bitter betrayal; and then there was nothing, only the long, unending Night. This was the most frightening of all.