Things only got worse after that. Neville was right; Snape hadn't been bluffing. It was the first Wednesday after that weekend, the first time I saw it first-hand.
It was Ernie.
And it was Megan Jones.
All Ernie had done was mutter some small comment under his breath about something Amycus had said. I didn't actually hear what he'd said, and I had been sat right behind him, with Susan, so I'm quite certain that Amycus hadn't heard either.
Nevertheless, he had turned and forced Ernie to his feet before any of us had gotten a chance to register that anything had even happened. In the seat beside Ernie's, Anthony Goldstein - who already had a black eye from Monday's Dark Arts lesson - flinched so badly that he nearly fell out of his chair.
"What was that, boy?" Amycus spat into Ernie's face.
I very carefully nudged Ernie's chair with my foot, hoping that he'd feel it press against his leg and understand how much I was willing him not to try to be a smart-arse.
"Nothing, Professor," Ernie said through gritted teeth.
"That's funny," snapped Amycus. "Because I always thought that 'nothing' sounded like nothing. That certainly sounded like something to me."
Ernie stayed silent. Nostrils flaring, Amycus narrowed his eyes and turned to survey the rest of the class.
"You, girl," he ordered. "Up. get up."
And up got Megan Jones, face pale with fright.
Now, you know Megan's relationship with me and Susan - she didn't like us, but she was never particularly nasty or mean to us - but it was a different story with Ernie. No, she really, really didn't like Ernie.
I suppose I could understand why. Back in our first few years at Hogwarts, Ernie, Justin, and I had been a little... clique-y. We were very much a unit. But by late in our second year (most notably after Justin was Petrified) Justin and I had managed to branch off with a few extra friends.
Ernie, however, struggled. Firstly, he was very proud of our little group, and had even been reluctant in accepting Susan after I'd become closer friends with her. And then there was the fact that most people tended to think Ernie a little... well, pompous, I suppose. These, of course, were people that hadn't taken the time to know him like I had; I guess sometimes it was a little difficult to see past how proud Ernie was.
But anyway, the point is that Megan really did not like Ernie. I'm not sure if he ever actually did something to directly offend her, but she would glare at him or roll her eyes when he spoke in class, and I even think she once "accidentally" spilled her pumpkin juice all over him.
So when Amycus - probably assuming that she and Ernie were friends because they were in the same house - chose Megan to punish Ernie, Susan and I immediately glanced at each other in slight alarm.
"Cruciatus curse," Amycus instructed in a voice so menacingly low that it made my hair stand on end. "I've shown you how to do it, now raise your wand arm and say it like you mean it."
Megan was visibly trembling as she raised her wand and pointed it weakly at Ernie. She seemed to be looking anywhere but at him, her face creased in focus, but it slackened after a moment, her wand arm falling slightly.
"I- I can't do it," she squeaked to the floor.
"What was that?" snapped Amycus.
"I can't do it..." Megan repeated, her voice cracking and her cheeks regaining some colour as her eyes began to well up.
"But you must," Amycus announced. "It's the only way you'll learn! What's your name, girl? Blood-status?"
"Megan Jones, h-half-blood."
"Are you the girl related to that woman that was on the Wizengamot and got replaced by Thicknesse?" Amycus asked cruelly.
Megan shook her head, still not looking up from the floor, although most others in the class shot a glance at Susan - the woman he'd been talking about was actually Amelia Bones, Susan's aunt, who had been killed by Deatheaters in the summer. I took Susan's hand beneath the table, but although she looked quite like she was going to be sick, her concern remained with Ernie and Megan.
"Why don't you do it yourself?" Ernie challenged fiercely.
"Because she needs to learn!" roared Amycus, turning back to Ernie and striking him across the face with the back of his hand. He turned back to Megan, suddenly furious."Now get on with it, girl, or you'll be disobeying my orders and you'll have to be punished too!"
Megan raised her wand again, but when she attempted to look at Ernie, her face was stained with tears as she shook her head, seeming unable to make much more noise than a few tiny whimpers.
"What about your family, then?"
Megan looked at Amycus, face stricken.
"Are they safe?"
Megan's arm straightened out, wand aimed right at Ernie, "Crucio."
Ernie doubled slightly, one hand falling to grip onto the table. Mine and Susan's hands tightened over each other, but Ernie somehow managed to straighten himself out.
"Again, girl - you've got to mean it!" Amycus encouraged, bouncing on the spot slightly with excitement. "What would your poor mummy think if she had to die because you couldn't do this one thing?"
Her voice was practically a shriek, and Ernie immediately seemed to lose his knees beneath him, falling roughly into the desk. Beside him, Anthony tried to catch him and hold him steady. Ernie shook his head, his eyes screwed shut in pain, and fell to his knees. Megan had her eyes closed too, but Amycus was egging her on with taunts about her family and how dangerous half-blood status was.
Yet Ernie kept on.His fingernails dug into the wood as held himself up on his knees, fingertips maroon and knuckles white. He held his jaw tight, determined not to let himself call out in pain, until Megan, looking completely sapped of any strength, released him, breaking into a fresh set of tears and stumbling back a step or two. Ernie slumped on the desk, barely moving except for the heave of his shoulders as he gasped for breath.
I immediately pulled my hand from Susan's and rushed forward to stoop by his side, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and trying to push his shaggy blonde hair back to see his face.Amycus glared at me, but seemed so pleased with his little torture session that he didn't try to move me.
As Megan fell back into her chair, sobbing into her hands, Amycus turned to the rest of the class. "Well, that's about all we have time for, kids!" he announced brightly, as if calling the end of a show. "Until next time! And don't forget to read that next chapter!"
Feeling a little sick as the sight of him so weak, I tried to help him back to his feet, Anthony lifting from the other side.
"I've got him, Hannah," Anthony assured me as Susan handed me my bag. We watched them go, then simultaneously turned to Megan.
She was still sniffing back tears as her friend packed her bag for her, Megan's hands shaking too much for her to do it herself.
"Are you okay?" I asked her.
"Hannah, I- I'm so sorry," Megan sniffed, shaking her head. "I didn't-"
"Not in here," Susan interrupted swiftly, putting a hand on Megan's back and leading her out of the classroom. Ernie had stopped to prop himself up against the wall a few feet away, Anthony, Michael, Terry, and Wayne Hopkins (who shared a dormitory with Ernie) stood around him.
"I didn't mean- I- I didn't want to-" Megan started again.
"We know," said Susan. "We know nobody sane would ever do that by choice."
"And Ernie knows that too," I added.
"How do you know?" Megan mumbled, wiping at her face with the tissue her friend had conjured for her.
"Because I know Ernie," I said simply. "And I know that he was probably willing you to do it - he wouldn't want anything bad to happen to you or your family, least of all because of him. In fact, I'll bet that the only thing he's annoyed with you about is the fact that you didn't give him any cool battle scars to show off."
Megan gave a watery smile, and her friend led her away to calm down. Susan started towards Ernie, but I caught her arm.
"Hey, are you okay?"
But she merely shrugged me off with a dismissive "I'm fine!" and carried on her way.
"Don't," Ernie warned before I could start fussing over him. "I'm fine."
"So he keeps saying..." Terry muttered to me under his breath, looking slightly concerned. I shared a knowing look with him; everybody seemed to be 'fine' at the moment.
"I'm sure you are," I said, gently pushing Ernie's hair back to feel the temperature of his rather pale forehead. "But that doesn't mean you should ever chance it again; you really scared us there!"
"It wasn't much worse than you might expect," Ernie decided. "I don't think Megan was doing it right."
"Well, people do say that Unforgivable curses don't really work properly if you don't really, truly mean them," explained Michael Corner.
"See?" Ernie shot a weak smile at mine at mine and Susan's anxious faces.
"That must be why Alecto got Crabbe to do Neville's," mused Anthony.
My neck snapped up. "Neville Longbottom's?"
Michael raised an eyebrow, "Is there any other Neville in this school?"
"Mouthed of to Alecto yesterday, didn't he," Terry explained. "Got the Cruciatus treatment. You didn't hear about it?"
I shook my head, pit of my stomach squirming. "Is he okay?" I asked quietly.
"I saw him earlier," said Wayne Hopkins. "Looked a bit unsteady on his feet, like he was just recovering from a bug or something. Up and about, though."
"That's typical Neville these days," Terry grinned. "Won't let himself get knocked down anymore."
"Well, he is much sturdier than he once was," mused Susan. "Looks like he spent the summer doing press-ups, that boy."
I had already drifted off from their conversation by then. So Neville was trying to act like he was okay in defiance of the Carrows - but did that mean he wasn't really okay?
So I found him at dinner. He arrived a good ten minutes after I did, and I was still eating, but as soon as I spotted him I excused myself. I received a few odd glances for moving from one table to another, as usually the only people who strayed from their house table were... well, just Luna, I suppose. But when I sat next to him, Neville looked rather pleased to see me.
"Hannah! What are you doing here?"
"I only just heard about what happened to you yesterday," I replied, confused by his surprise. "I wanted to check that you're okay."
"So... does that mean you're talking to me now?" Neville asked slowly.
"What?" I frowned. "Since when was I not talking to you?"
"I mean, we haven't spoken since... Saturday morning, when we..." Neville mumbled, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck. "I just... I figured I'd upset you. You kind of... stormed out..."
I suppose I hadn't spoken to him since then. But I wasn't angry with him at all. I was just feeling weird about the way I'd left that morning, clearly not okay; but at the same time, I really didn't want to attempt to explain to him how I'd been feeling guilty. There was no way he would understand. I didn't want him to.
"Well, I wasn't ignoring you," I explained shamefully after a beat. "I'm sorry I made it seem like I was."
"It's fine, Hannah," said Neville. "I'm just glad that you're not."
"So... you're okay, then?" I asked.
"I'm fine," Neville shrugged. But by the way his shoulders sagged slightly as they sank back down, I could tell that he wasn't. "Crabbe's never been the most skilled at spellwork, has he? The girls made sure I rested last night, and Seamus tried to stop me from getting up this morning, but... I mean, I've felt better, but..."
He trailed off, shrugging again, and all I could do was bite my lip and nod. It sounded like the Gryffindors had tried to slow him down, so didn't imagine I could do much better.
"Just... be careful in future, won't you?" I requested gently. "Don't go being reckless just for the sake of proving yourself. There's a difference between martyrdom and recklessness."
"No recklessness," Neville nodded, offering me a smile. "Got it."