Chapter 1 : The Nerve of Neville
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Neville forced himself to take deep, calming breaths as he neared his destination. Inhale for three seconds. Exhale for three seconds. Inhale. Exhale. The steady rhythm of his breathing warred with the rapid pounding of his heart against his ribcage.
He wiped away the beads of sweat forming on his forehead and sighed as he realized his face was already turning pink with anxiety – he could feel the blood rushing to the surface. He would have to figure out how to control this sooner or later. He was getting better at acting confident, even when he wasn’t…but how was he ever going to pull off a passable imitation of bravery if his physical reactions kept giving him away?
This walk was familiar – he felt as though he had taken the same route hundreds of times before – and it had always seemed painfully long and ominous. But this time, it seemed impossibly short, not nearly enough time to prepare himself, and before he knew it, the door he needed was staring him in the face. He paced in front of the door for a full five minutes while he gathered his wits. What he was about to do seemed a hundred times more terrifying than the battle at the Ministry the previous June. There were no spells that could help him here. That was, he believed, a considerable shortcoming of magic – that it was useless as far as personal interaction was concerned.
As if he had sensed Neville’s anxiety, Trevor the Toad gave a little wriggle inside his pocket. Neville cursed under his breath; he had meant to leave Trevor in his dormitory. Trevor’s tiny burst of energy also alerted Neville to the fact that he had been fiddling with his wand inside his sleeve – a wholly inconvenient habit he had developed over the years, and one he considered even more of a dead giveaway than his tendency to turn bright pink when threatened.
Deciding that enough was enough, Neville abruptly stopped his pacing and rapped on the door.
“Yes, come in,” commanded a brisk voice from inside. Neville took one more deep breath and pushed the door open.
Minerva McGonagall looked up from a letter she was writing at her desk. She raised her eyebrows slightly and indicated that Neville should sit in the chair opposite her.
“Mr. Longbottom. No troubles on the first day of classes, I hope.”
“No, Professor,” he said hastily. “Nothing like that.”
“Then what can I do for you?”
Neville exhaled a large amount of air he had been holding in his lungs. “Professor, I want to ask you to reconsider what you said this morning, about not letting me continue with Transfiguration.” He forced himself to say this slowly, so that it would not come out sounding like gibberish. Unfortunately, it came out so slowly that he worried he would appear, well, slow.
McGonagall’s forehead creased slightly. Neville wondered if this was the first time that anybody – student or professor – had asked her to reconsider anything.
“Request noted, Longbottom, but I have made my decision.”
Neville spit out his next statement so closely on the heels of McGonagall’s that he came treacherously close to interrupting her. “Please, Professor, if you would just hear me out!”
He suspected – and indeed, he believed for the rest of his life – that McGonagall only entertained the rest of their conversation out of pure shock at his persistence. Certainly, nobody would ever have expected Neville, of all people, to contradict McGonagall after she had issued a final decree.
“Longbottom,” she said, slamming her quill down on her desk, “I am baffled as to why you are pressing this subject. After five years, why are you suddenly so attached to Transfiguration? The only desire you have ever shown in my class is the desire to leave as soon as the period is over.” Neville remained silent as McGonagall surveyed him with what appeared to be a look of interest – at least, to the extent that McGonagall ever looked interested in anything. He resisted the urge to shrink back into the chair.
After a short pause, McGonagall continued. “Really, Longbottom, you have strengths, and you should tailor your studies accordingly. Professor Sprout tells me she’s never seen such aptitude at Herbology. You have a world of options ahead of you in that area.” Neville seriously doubted this, but he kept his face impassive. “I would be most interested to know why Transfiguration is so important to you.”
Neville felt the muscles in his face twitch as his jaw became set, and he experienced the peculiar sensation that occurred whenever he was frustrated, or aggravated, or concentrating very hard on something – it felt as though all of the energy in his face was being directed towards the very front, in his mouth, nose, and brow. He felt his lips press together and his nostrils flare.
Memories of the Department of Mysteries swam in his head. He saw, clearly, in the forefront of his mind, the image of Bellatrix Lestrange cackling as she taunted him about his parents. Neville knew he shouldn’t be stupid enough to expect that he could ever become an Auror – and he supposed he should just be glad that he was decent in Defense Against the Dark Arts – but, in the war that loomed ahead of them, every skill helped, didn’t it?
However, he was too embarrassed to share these deepest of emotions with the steely witch in front of him. Despite the surge of adrenaline he felt, all Neville managed to whisper was, “You-Know-Who.”
Part of him hoped that McGonagall would not be able to hear what he had said. It was silly, he realized, to think that he would play any major role in the fight against You-Know-Who. And it was even sillier to expect that McGonagall would take him seriously.
McGonagall, however, blinked in surprise, and her face softened almost imperceptibly. “I see. Well, Longbottom, while I can certainly appreciate your ambitions, and while I now have a slightly better understanding of your motive, I must reiterate that I have doubts about your ability to keep up in my NEWT class.”
“Professor, I have a – a deal to propose.” He felt himself fiddling with his wand inside his sleeve again.
“A deal?” McGonagall regarded him sharply.
“Yes. What if – what if you take me in your class for…two weeks. Give me a chance. Professor, I swear, I’ve undergone a lot of changes in the past year. I’ve done things I never dreamed I could. And if – Trevor!” Neville jumped up as the toad wriggled free of his pocket and bounded across the room. This was all he needed – his stupid toad messing up any chance he had of convincing McGonagall he was somehow bursting with long-dormant magical talent. Panicking, and without any particular spell in mind, Neville brandished his wand at the errant amphibian.
Normally, he would have intended to immobilize Trevor. Maybe it was because he had been thinking about Transfiguration, however, that something completely different happened.
Trevor the Toad was now Trevor the…Toadstool. A real toadstool, without eyes or little toad feet. And a very pretty toadstool at that, with a red umbrella cap and white spots.
Neville looked, wide-eyed, at McGonagall, whose own eyes were narrowed in contemplation.
“Retrieve your toad, Longbottom.”
Reminding himself not to hyperventilate, and hoping with all his heart that he wouldn’t look like a complete nitwit, Neville gritted his teeth and waved his wand once again.
Trevor, once again a normal toad, croaked reproachfully and hopped into Neville’s outstretched hand. Neville beamed.
“I’m sorry, Professor,” he said as he stuffed Trevor back into his pocket. Then, taking advantage of McGonagall’s silence, he continued. “But…give me two weeks to start, and if after that I’m not up to scratch, I won’t ever bother you about it again.”
“I should hope not.”
“Maybe I’ll even ask Hermione to run through some spells with me this weekend, in her spare time.”
“I believe that whatever spare time Miss Granger enjoys is generally spent keeping Mr. Potter and Mr. Weasley afloat in their classes, but I daresay she needs a break from them now and again. If you can convince her of it, that seems an excellent idea.” She paused. “Out of curiosity, Longbottom, what do I get out of this supposed deal?”
Neville froze. He wasn’t sure what the benefit to McGonagall would be, if there even was one. A sudden impulse overtook him, one which he regretted as soon as he had acted upon it.
“Um…the pleasure of having me in your class?” He grinned sheepishly, while mentally kicking himself.
He could have sworn he saw the corner of McGonagall’s mouth twitch upwards for a second.
“Indeed. You know, sometimes I think Potter and Weasley have had a rather bad influence on you.”
An agonizing silence followed, and then…
“I’ll give you two weeks, Longbottom. After that, we shall reevaluate.” She picked up her quill again, a clear sign that she intended to return to her work.
Neville couldn’t believe his ears. “Thank you, Professor!” He hesitated for a moment. “And, um…”
“Good heavens, there’s more??”
“Well…I was wondering…what about NEWT level Potions?”
“Don’t push your luck, Longbottom.”
Fueled by his elation, and inexplicably inspired, Neville persisted. “Well, Professor, you know, I always had trouble with Potions because, er, Professor Snape wasn’t the most supportive instructor…seemed to want me to do badly, see…and now, with a new Potions professor, well, I wonder if I wouldn’t do better at it. And, you know, I’m being allowed to proceed with Defense Against the Dark Arts, even though it’ll probably be terrible on me this year because of…well, Professor Snape. So, really, Professor, I’ll probably end up doing better at Potions than Defense Against the Dark Arts this year, and if that’s the case, it would be silly not to let me take it.”
McGonagall’s eyebrows had nearly disappeared into her hairline.
“Longbottom, with that kind of logic, it’s a wonder you aren’t in Ravenclaw.” Her voice dripped with amused sarcasm. “I think we’ve concluded here. I’ll expect you in class tomorrow. Borrow someone’s book for the reading assignment and come prepared.”
“Yes, Professor. Thank you!”
“Incidentally,” she added as Neville turned to leave, “while I am delighted to see you becoming less timid, you should know that overconfidence can be just as damning.”
“Um…I don’t think overconfidence is something you need to worry about with me.” He felt himself blushing again.
“Stranger things have happened. You’re dismissed.”
As soon as Neville Longbottom had left her office, Minerva removed her wiry, square-framed spectacles and massaged her temples wearily. Yes, Potter and Weasley were definitely rubbing off on Longbottom. For a moment, she feared that she was losing her touch. The nerve of that boy! The cheek!
She gave an amused “Hmmph!” as she recalled the boy’s persistent anxiety over having enough courage to justify his place in Gryffindor.
The truth was, Minerva had been forcibly reminded of another cheeky student – one who shared the same round face and set her jaw in the same way as her son – who also liked to use contrived logic to tease her teachers.
“Miss MacPherson!” Alice MacPherson’s head snapped up in response. “I see you are neglecting your assignment in two ways. First, your assignment is not to make eyes at Mr. Longbottom!” A certain amount of laughter and oohing from the rest of the class followed this reprimand. “And second, you are supposed to be turning that cat into a coat rack, not a chaise longue!”
“But Professor,” replied Alice, her bright eyes dancing and her plump cheeks flushed with mischief, “I never bother to hang my coat up – I always throw it onto a nearby chair. So, you see, I’d have no use for a coat rack, and I’m nothing if not practical!”
“Besides, you always told me that Aurors have to be versatile and take the unexpected route, and I thought, what better time to start practicing than today? So, really, Professor, if I’d just turned this cat into a coat rack, like you were expecting, I’d have completely failed you!”
Lost in her reverie, and protected from prying eyes in the seclusion of her office, Minerva’s smile turned into a chuckle. She recalled she had taken ten points from Gryffindor, but, of course, it hadn’t dissuaded Alice in the slightest.
Minerva would never have believed Neville Longbottom could be so forward. Perhaps there was more of his parents in him than anybody realized – least of all, he himself. She would give the boy his chance.
She sighed, glancing at the portrait of one of the former Heads of Gryffindor House.
“Horatio,” she said, “I think I may be going soft in my old age.”
“My dear Professor,” answered Horatio, “it is never weakness to help your students fulfill their destinies.”