The response was the promptest she’d ever received, and from the way her owl, Gaia, sat breathless on the windowsill, swaying a little in the heat, she was fairly sure that Mrs Longbottom had not so much as offered the poor bird a sip of water before making the return journey. Running a finger down the bird’s back softly, Hannah opened the envelope with her free hand and skimmed the reply, short and sweet and merely inviting her to turn up whenever she liked.
With a glance around the room, she put the letter down and pulled her trunk out from under the bed. Rescued from the Hufflepuff common room at the end of the battle, she had forsaken textbooks and school robes for the sentimental things; photographs, a cutting of the hangings around her bed, the locket that Justin had given her, the last time she saw him.
As her fingers caught on the photograph of her parents, twenty-four and newly-wed, she felt her eyes sting and her breath catch. Ernie’s father had been killed in February, three of Susan’s cousins had perished just a month ago, Justin missing and her father with him. Glancing at the photograph, of smiling faces and an eruption of tiny flowers over the newlyweds’ heads playing over and over again, she sank onto the bed, ignoring the shift it gave beneath her. Her mother’s face so like her own, at least she knew she was safe. She knew where she was and as much as she wished and prayed and cried, nothing would bring her back.
Her father, however, was lost in the same emptiness as her best friend. Perhaps he’d flown the country, or was being held hostage. Snatchers might have got him and maybe…
She paused. She wasn’t an orphan. She wasn’t. She was just lost, for now, and eventually things would start righting themselves. Ernie would be there, Justin would return, her father would come racing up the garden path and swoop her up like he had in her childhood. They would cross the threshold together, fix the doors, clean the floors, paint the walls. Every trace and every mark of disturbance gone, the place restored to what it was supposed to be.
She could dream.
Tucking the picture back inside the old robe she’d wrapped it in, she began slowly putting the few items she had on display away in the case. It was barely half full when there was a knock on the door and a low rumble of, “Cleaning,” echoed through the keyhole.
Shutting the lid, Hannah stood and opened the door to the woman, Miss Euthalia – most probably part-hag – who was clutching a mop, bucket and her wand menacingly. The blonde smiled and edged around her, the cleaner merely grimacing with the three teeth she had before hurrying inside and slamming the door behind her. Involuntarily, Hannah shuddered and the sound of clinking china in the kitchen drew her attention.
Breakfast was the one meal that The Hog’s Head was capable of doing; partly because it was almost impossible to get it wrong, but mostly because it wasn’t Aberforth in charge of cooking. A middle-aged woman who had come to Britain from the French Ministry to lend a helping hand had been stationed in the inn.
Although most of her day was spent at the castle, working on a partial restoration before September, her mornings had become dedicated to ensuring a good breakfast for the few stragglers who were still living in the accommodation offered by the Ministry in the magical pubs and taverns. After experiencing Aberforth’s less than appetising full English – consisting of Fwooper egg, toast the size of a doorstop and a dodgy looking array of fried meat – Hélène had happily taken over the morning duties, leaving the only surviving Dumbledore to mill around the bar, muttering angrily about Europeans and their fussy ways.
Hannah sat down beside a man who was dropping off slowly, starting every time his chin hit his chest before falling straight back into a light slumber again.
“Okay?” Hélène asked and Hannah nodded, slipping the paper from the middle of the table and glancing over it. Nothing of any interest; one of the Lestrange brothers was due in court that day, a search of Northumbria for Snatchers’ hide-outs had come up with nothing and two funerals were due to take place for two schoolboys who had died of the injuries inflicted during the Battle of Hogwarts. Folding the paper back up, she smiled a thank you to Hélène when the plate of food was put down in front of her. “You are sure?”
“I’m fine, honestly.” Hélène looked sceptical as Hannah nibbled on the slice of toast that she had been given. The blonde kept her head down but the stare didn’t stop and she looked back up at her, questioningly. “What?”
“Aberforth said you were leaving.”
“Oh,” Hannah muttered, dropping the toast onto the plate and taking a sip of pumpkin juice from the glass that had been set in front of her. “Er, yeah. I think it’s time I had a change of scenery.”
“I will miss you,” the woman said. Her honesty was obvious and she smiled, taking a bite of her own breakfast and shrugging. “And where will you go?” Hannah felt in her pocket for the leaflet and handed it over the table. “Ah. It will do you good but you leave me with all these men and just Miss Euthalia for company. I will be bored stupid.” The teenager laughed, tearing the crust off her bread and glancing at the yellow pamphlet, still as enticing then as it had been last night. “You are not going back to school in September?”
There was no hesitation in her answer and Hannah shook her head firmly. She had thought about it so many times. The prospect of re-sitting her last year made her stomach churn and her head ache. Exams after exams and for what? She had messed up her O.W.L.s. She had worked herself to the bone for N.E.W.T. level and yet still, she was barely scraping the passes. It wasn’t worth the return to see echoes of everybody that had died in every brick and every wall. It wasn’t worth the tissues either.
“No. I couldn’t.”
“Okay, but you will visit?” It wasn’t much of a question, her brow stern and her dark eyes wide in what must have been an attempt at being threatening. Hannah nodded, her smile baring her teeth, and Hélène hurried around the table, hugging her from behind. “Good girl.”
For a moment, the smell of her perfume, a strong scent of lavender, knocked Hannah for six. Night time baths and fairy tales in bed came flooding back; scented bubble bath that clung to her skin until morning, dug deep into the depths of the pillow and for a second, she was seven again. The hands around her loosened and Hannah looked up to see Hélène fussing over another pan as the goblin that was staying a few doors down from Hannah walked in, hobbling a little and glaring at everyone. She took two more bites of her toast to satisfy Hélène before disappearing back down the corridor, well aware that her room would now be empty and she could pack.
It didn’t take long but she hadn’t expected to, and with minimal effort, she pulled her trunk down the stairs. The landlord was rearranging the glasses again and she pulled herself up onto a stool, tapping a beer mat on the bar. He started and glared, but relaxed a little when he had straightened up.
“Bit early to start, isn’t it?” he asked, and she smiled. “Off then?”
“Mm, I’ll give it an hour or so,” she said, tugging on a bit of hair that was swinging in front of her face. Aberforth awkwardly leant on his walking stick, then cleared his throat and looked around him. “I’ll come back,” she added, almost teasingly and he coughed gruffly, not looking at him. “And I might even give the place a good clean.”
“Those goats are going nowhere, madam.” He sounded so offended at the thought of them going that it was hard for Hannah not to laugh. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and peered down at her through them as she covered her mouth in an attempt at being tactful. “Laugh all you like, they’re staying.”
“The goats have nothing to do with the six inches of dust that’s everywhere else,” she assured him. “They’re going nowhere, don’t worry.”
She ran a finger through the layer on the bar, marking out her initials in the dirt and wiping her finger on her robes when she was done. He cleared his throat again and started putting more glasses away. The front door creaked open and shut and he didn’t look up to see who it was who had ignored the big ‘CLOSED’ sign on the door.
“We’re shut,” he barked and Hannah turned to see Neville, hands deep in his pockets again, standing beside the closed door. “Oh, Longbottom, come in.” He moved into the light, smiling at Hannah and pulling himself into the seat beside her. “Want a drink?” Neville glanced at his watch and shook his head with an expression close to disgust on his face. There was a crash from upstairs and a shriek in French, followed by a tortured bleating noise. Aberforth hobbled from behind the bar, shaking his stick. “If you’ve laid one of your stupid fake talons on that goat, I’ll have you out of here before you can even say croissant,” he yelled ahead of him and Neville snorted once he was out of sight.
“You adjust,” Hannah assured him, swinging back around to face the bar. It really was a dump. Empty bottles that hadn’t been thrown out were stacked in a corner, the filth settling on them just as it did everywhere else. “What are you doing here?”
“Gran said you’d written,” he said, placing his hands on the top of the bar and looking sideways to her. He’d shaved since yesterday, his skin smooth around his jaw line and chin, and he smiled. “I thought I’d come and see when you planned on leaving. I’ll come with.”
“Well,” she said, trying to ignore the way her heart had stopped just for a second when he said that and nodding to the trunk propped against the bottom of the stairs, “any minute now, really.”
He raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Her response to his almost chance meeting with her, the fact that he’d had a leaflet on him at the time, that he’d not been scared of encouraging her to try and get out of the monotony she’d trapped herself in, it was almost unbelievable. Nobody had fallen into the Centre so easily for a week or more, usually needing persuasion – the Greengrass sisters, for example, who had only arrived after days of pressure from all angles. Hannah, it seemed, needed an escape more than she’d believed, and more than he’d believed as well.
“Do you want to get going, then? You might catch the end of breakfast.”
Her stomach gave a slight shift of form at the thought and she shook her head, then nodded and then paused, feeling herself blushing already. He smiled the same kind smile that he’d used yesterday and placed a hand on her wrist.
“Come on. I’ve got to get to the Ministry in a bit so let’s go,” he hesitated, “if you’re ready, that is?”
She listened to the raised voices – muffled but just about audible – upstairs and the heavy footwork of Miss Euthalia stomping about in the room above the bar before nodding, sliding off her stool and taking him with her. He lifted her trunk and nodded to the fireplace. The name of her destination was firmly fixed in her mind and the Floo powder lit the flames green. Stepping into them, she took a breath before saying, “Derwent House,” clearly and loudly and the spinning sensation swooped around her.
It had been the first time she’d used the Floo network for a long time and she found herself landing ungracefully on the floor of an enormous drawing room. Just about recalling that Neville was set to follow, she half-crawled out of the way, getting to her feet just as he stepped out of the grate with more elegance than she had attributed to him before. He placed her trunk down and nodded towards the door.
Tentatively, Hannah stepped in front of him and into the hallway, the vastness of the building suddenly hitting her. Down the corridor was the main hall, the sound of voices echoing through it, and Neville’s footsteps behind her urged her forward. It was so light, so different to everything she’d ever known. Not the quiet cottage of her childhood, nor the magical castle of her adolescence and certainly not the dingy tavern that she had grown accustomed to of late. It was more than that and less. Not a place of memories but when with so much potential to bring the best; hope almost shimmered out of the walls, off the plaster, the picture frames. It shone.
“Here,” he said so suddenly that Hannah jumped. She turned to see Neville’s hand on a door and he knocked for her, propping her trunk up on the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. A terrifying bark of ‘Come in’ came from inside the room and before Hannah could even consider stepping back and making a run for it, her companion had opened the door. “Gran, I’ve brought Hannah for you.”
“Bring her in, then, bring her in.”
Feeling like she’d been summoned to the Headmaster’s office at school – and trying to shake away the last memory she had of being in that position – Hannah stepped into the light to see an elderly woman relaxed in a comfy armchair behind a battered desk that had seen many better days in the past. Augusta Longbottom stood to her feet, easily in her eighties but agile as someone a quarter of that. She darted around the desk, towering over Hannah and narrowing her eyes to scrutinise her.
“Sit down, dear,” she said, offering a chair and turning to her grandson. “What are you still doing here? Off with you.” Neville didn’t need telling twice, and though Hannah turned nervously to look at him, he just smiled and shrugged at her.
“I’ll see you soon,” was all he could muster before his gran had turned her beady glare on him. He didn’t hesitate again, instead opting to hurry out of the room and his footsteps eventually died away to return the awkward silence to the room.
“He’s a good lad. Good heart but by goodness, he can be right daft at times,” Augusta said and Hannah smiled, out of lack of any other reaction to make.
In all reality, she’d have liked him to stay. His grandmother might have been sixty years or more her senior but she was still absolutely terrifying to be faced with and whilst she’d managed to shoo Neville away merely with a few dismissive words, his presence might have stopped her heart from racing quite so quickly against her chest.
“You’ve read the information, I assume?” Hannah nodded. “All right, so we’ll get you settled upstairs and then I’ll send someone along to have a chat with you.”
Augusta straightened up and poked her head out of the door, yelling a name that Hannah didn’t catch down the corridor and turning around. The blonde hurried to the door, for fear of facing Augusta’s wrong side, and waited for the sound of scurrying footsteps to draw closer. A girl not much older than herself appeared, smiling far too happily for Hannah’s liking, and lifted the trunk off the wall.
“Come with me, then,” she said, beckoning as if Hannah couldn’t see her right before her eyes. Augusta said not a word more, disappearing into her office. “You’ll like it here.”
As they stepped into the Entrance Hall, half the size of the one at Hogwarts yet just as impressive, Hannah nodded, little doubt in her mind that this woman was right.
A/N: I want to dedicate this chapter to the beyond amazing Gill (butterbeergal) who is just so ludicrously supportive of me and leaves the most breathtakingly impossible reviews I've ever had the fortune to receive. Thank you, lovely ♥
I think Aberforth's character's gone a bit skewiff but besides that, I'm mightily proud of myself for getting to the action almost straight away - usually it'd take me half a novel to get this far :P Any thoughts on characterisation, plot, flow - anything at all - would be hugely beneficial.
Thank you for reading ^_^