My mother died in October of 1996. While my father was out at work one day, Deatheaters broke into our home and killed her for being Muggleborn. She'd never tried to hide it, never been ashamed - her body was found with wand in hand... She'd tried to fight them off.
After Herbology that day, Professor Sprout called me to her office. Ernie came with me, holding my hand the whole way, but when we got there, she told him to go to class. He put up a fight - said I needed someone there for me, that he wanted to make sure I was okay. Ernie had always been a little bit self-righteous, and at that moment I loved him for it, but how could I possibly be okay? I could hardly breathe. The only person I wanted was my mum.
When he eventually agreed to just wait outside, I sat down and Professor Sprout took a seat behind her desk. She seemed less nervous now, more orderly - I assumed she must've spoken to Professor McGonagall for advice or something. She said that my Dad wanted me home, but that she would talk to him if I wanted to stay in school. My face felt stiff from crying and my throat was hoarse, but I told her that I needed to be with my family, and that I would go home. She smiled, completely understanding, and said that I could leave that evening.
I was a little alarmed by how soon it was, but then I couldn't bare the thought of sticking around for a night in a room full of pity and "I'm so sorry" chats, or of my Dad sleeping alone in an empty house. I left that evening, leaving a note for Susan on her pillow, and saying a tearful (on my behalf) goodbye to Ernie... and then I left.
I didn't go back to Hogwarts for the rest of term. My Dad didn't deal too well with everything, and he was convinced that we should now never be apart, that we were safer together. I didn't tell him how much I wanted to go back to Hogwarts after we'd had Mum's funeral - I couldn't leave him. I can't even begin to explain how awful that year was. I... I'll not talk of it anymore now, I think. I can't.
I had been doubting that I would get back to Hogwarts for my last year... But then, near the end of sixth year term... Dumbledore was killed. After that, Voldemort pretty much took over. The eye of the storm had passed, and now we were in the middle of destruction.
Every pure or half-blood witch or wizard at school age in Britain had to go to Hogwarts. Being the latter, I had no option but to attend. But Muggleborns were banned; which meant that Justin didn't come back that year. Snape was the Headmaster, and there were two new teachers - the Carrows. One took over Defence Against the Dark Arts; only that's not what it was anymore - they just taught The Dark Arts. The other took over Muggle Studies, in which they taught us all about why we should hate and kill muggles. We had no idea what happened to the old teacher, Professor Burbage. Lovely woman, she was.
After our first new Muggle Studies lesson on the first day, I felt a bit sick.
"Hannah?" came Ernie's voice. I looked up at him and forced a reasurring smile. He'd been protective of me ever since I'd returned to Hogwarts. I had seen him during the time I'd been off - he, Susan and Justin had all come over after 6th year ended and Ernie has stayed the night once or twice during the holidays - but he hadn't stopped mollycoddling me since our suffocating reunion hug at King's Cross.
"Definitely not a lesson I'm going to forget very soon!" he said bracingly, rubbing the side of his head with a frown. He didn't look too healthy either, actually.
"It was disgusting," Susan mumbled once we were well out of ear-shot of Professor Carrow. "How could she say all of those awful things?"
"Quite easily, apparently," I said bitterly, sitting myself down on a bench in the courtyard. "She's had it bred into her - she's not just saying because she has to; she genuinely believes it."
"It's disgusting..." Susan reiterated under her breath, and Ernie and I nodded our agreement.
"Hold your tongues for a second, guys," Ernie suddenly warned, nodding his head in the direction of both Carrows, who were practically prancing by without a care in the world. Or, prancing as much as two stout, squat wheezy little Deatheaters can prance. Everybody in the courtyards tightened up, but they seemed too invested in their conversation to notice anybody else.
"I can only imagine what Dark Arts class is going to be like," Ernie sighed, once we were safe again. "When have we got it?"
"Right before lunch," I answered grimly, resting my head on his shoulder as he sat down beside me. He put his arm around my shoulders, and the warmth from my best friend was a welcome comfort as the three of us seemed to silently share our thoughts on how dreadful this was going to be. When I felt Ernie shift slightly, however, I frowned and looked up. "What?"
"Luna," Ernie hissed to me under his breath. "She's over there - keeps staring... got those glasses on..."
I looked over to where he tipped his head at and grinned slightly before jumping to my feet with an "I'll be right back". Sure enough, over on the other side of the courtyard stood Luna Lovegood, her long, white-blonde hair gathered on one shoulder, a pair of Spectrespecs perched on her nose, staring straight at Ernie. But it wasn't her who caught my eye - it was her company.
I approached Neville rather cautiously, leaving my friends likely confused and curious behind me. I don't know why I was being so wary, why each of my footsteps grew softer with each turn, but I hadn't spoken to Neville in nearly a year, and he was sat there reading a book (on Herbology, I could only assume), looking like he didn't want to be disturbed...
I turned to Luna instead. "Hey!"
She turned to slowly look at me, and a dazed sort of smile spread across her lips, "Oh, hello Hannah," she greeted brightly. "I haven't seen you for a while."
"No, er... I left at the start of last year..." I pointed out a little awkwardly - perhaps it would have been a little less awkward if it didn't feel like I was talking to a strange, multicoloured owl. Or if I couldn't feel Neville's eyes on me.
"Ah yes, that's right," Luna smiled dreamily. "Well, it's good to have you back. You're very nice, Hannah."
I blushed slightly but grinned, "Er, thanks, Luna..." Honestly, nobody else in the world had the ability to deliver such blunt honesty while at the same time seeming so sweet and innocent.
"But, erm... Luna?" I asked warily. "May I ask why you were staring at Ernie?"
"Wrackspurts," she answered immediately, as if it were completely obvious. She adjusted the Spectrespecs on her nose and looked back at Ernie. "His head is full of them."
"Wrackspurts?" I repeated blankly. "What ar-"
But I was cut off by the sound of Neville clearing his throat. I looked at him, and he gave me a purposeful look, as if to say 'you don't want to know'. I glanced at Luna, whose eyes were back on Ernie (who was pretending to be listening intently to Susan, although I'm quite sure he could feel Luna's eyes on him again) and I sat down next to Neville.
There was a slightly awkward little pause, before both of us tried to talk at the same time. We shared a sheepish grin, then I gestured for him to go first. "Oh, I... I was just going to ask how you are." he mumbled.
"I'm fine," I lied. "Been missing Hogwarts, and... everything..."
"Be careful what you wish for, eh?" Neville murmured, glancing down the corridor that the Carrows had disappeared down. Even before a single class of theirs, we'd already had a horrible taste of what they were like at the Welcome Feast the night before.
"Have you had a lesson with one of them yet?" I asked, deciding not to point out that I hadn't solely meant the castle, but the people too.
"Not yet, but I've got Muggle Studies straight before lunch," Neville said darkly. "What about you?"
"We just had Muggle Studies, and we've got Dark Arts before lunch," I replied in the same tone. "She's not pleasant, the woman. It made me feel a little ill, actually."
Neville's brow creased in concern, "Are you alright?" he checked. "She didn't..."
"No, she didn't really do anything," I said quickly. "No mention of any particular people just yet. Only a lot of... a lot of talk that isn't particularly nice to listen to."
Neville nodded, though still seemed concerned. I noticed his eyes flicker over my face like he was checking for some sign of something - of what, I'm not sure - but he remained silent. I glanced down at my lap slightly awkwardly; I hadn't noticed until then how easily we'd been talking to each other. He seemed so distracted by concern that he hadn't even seemed nervous.
"It was weird not seeing you around school," Neville suddenly informed me. I looked back up at him, noticed that his cheeks were slightly red, and smiled as he continued, "I- I mean... we used to see each other around the grounds now and then, didn't we? I kept walking into Herbology, expecting to see you there... and you weren't."
"It was weird for me too," I assured him, although there was the most curious fuzzy warmth in my chest area. Had he... missed me? "I would wake up thinking I was back in my four-poster in my dorm and that I would get up and go to the Great Hall with everyone. But then I'd open my eyes and realise..."
Neville smiled comfortingly, but I kept my gaze down again, blushing slightly at how silly what I'd just said sounded. I'd never told Ernie about any of that; he'd known I missed Hogwarts, but I don't think he understood how much. With my eyes cast down, I watched Neville's fingers curl tightly around the edge of the book he'd been reading. Slowly, my eyes ran up his arms to his shoulders, up his neck to his face - he'd followed my gaze to his book, but his had stayed there - and his dark hair. He'd clearly just had it cut, right before term started, but it didn't seem to want to sit in the same combed parting that he used to sport - there were a few hairs sticking up around the front, like he'd ran his fingers through it one too many times.
His face, now less circular than it once was, but still a little round, showed signs that he'd been stressed too. Beneath his browbeaten eyes were shades of deep purple and grey that suggested he had barely slept the night before, and the gentle frown that his eyebrows were presently knitted in as he stared at his book seemed at home, like he'd done quite a bit of frowning recently. I pursed my lips slightly anxiously... the school year had, after all, only just started.
"Neville," I said gently, half-glancing at Luna and then meeting his eyes as he looked to me. Oh, there was that stomach tightening again. "I... are you... okay?"
What a pathetic question. He clearly wasn't. Nobody was. Voldemort was back and here we were, helpless, in school, away from our families and missing quite a large percentage of the school because of the muggleborn ban. But he seemed affected differently... like, I don't know; he had something extra to worry about?
But - "I'm fine, Hannah," he replied calmly, almost with a hint of confusion. "I should probably get to my next class, though."
"Oh, er - yeah, yeah, me too," I mumbled, embarassed, getting to my feet. "Well we- we've got Herbology last, so, er... see you then?"
Neville gave me a strained sort of grin and picked his bag up, slipping his book inside it as he dropped the strap on his shoulder. He'd definitely grown since I'd last seen him; he practically loomed over me, the knot of his scarlet tie level with my eyes. I looked at him, gave a slightly awkward little wave, and said "See you, Luna." as Neville tapped her shoulder and she looked away from the second year she'd been inspecting through her Spectrespecs.
"Oh, you've come back to us now that your better friends have left, have you?" Ernie smirked at me as I returned. Susan grinned at me, but I noticed her flash Ernie a very slightly offended look.
I grinned apologetically at Ernie and took his hand, pulling him to his feet, "Well, you're no Neville Longbottom, Ernie!" I teased.