The sitting room she sat in looked so perfect, so immaculate, that it was hard to believe that the house was still home to four people. The race of traffic from a nearby motorway was faint, a thin drone hanging limply on the air, and from the front window, framed by a web of delicate branches which would bloom into a pale pink climber in spring, was the gentleness of the never-ending moors. From behind her, there was a clatter and she started.
“Susan,” a voice called and Hannah turned to face her friend’s younger sister, Emma, on the threshold of the living room. There was a moment of hesitation before the twelve-year-old let the cat in her arms jump onto the floor and hurried to hug the girl who had as good as grown up in their house each summer. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Hannah assured her, letting go and wondering exactly when the girl had grown so much. Almost coming up to her shoulder now, the face of the first-year seemed to have lost its innocence, its youth, and she couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a natural moment in every girl’s life when they came back enlightened from a year at school or the traces of battle marked even on those who could not stay to fight it.
“Are you sure?” Emma pressed and Hannah nodded. “Even, you know, with Justin?”
There was a pang of irritation in her chest but that was the curse of childhood; Emma barely knew her friends by comparison. Hannah knew that in three, four, five years’ time, Emma would look back on this moment under the shadow of shame and regret. There were some things that no school could teach and where to draw the line in the aftermath of bloodshed and burial was amongst them.
“Han!” Susan hurried through the door, her hair dripping wet and cheeks flushed. Their hug was tight, lingering and when they drew apart, the sleeves of Hannah’s clothes wet, Emma had disappeared. “Sorry about her,” Susan said, grabbing her wand out of her pocket and blasting it at her hair. It fell in neat waves about her shoulders and she glanced in the mirror behind them. “She’s got it into her head that she needs to know everyone’s life story after what happened.”
“It’s fine,” Hannah said, her smile faint. It was of some comfort that not everyone outside of the Centre had accepted the term war yet. Words provided some sanctuary, at least.
“You look well,” Susan said, popping briefly out of the room and returning with her handbag. “Thought we’d go out. You spend your life cooped up from the sounds of things.”
“It’s not really like that,” Hannah replied, following her friend out of the house and down the driveway. The countryside seemed endless as it stretched out beyond the capabilities of human sight, the only sign of life the movement of the motorway on the horizon. There was a tranquillity to it of the most terrifying form; the flatness, the stillness, the lifelessness made her feel tiny. Her mind traced hills and trees and a racing wind across the low-lit landscape, variety and beauty taken from the place that made her feel somewhat complete.
“Hannah?” She jumped and looked around to where Susan was holding out her arm. Her smile was smattered in confusion and a look that seemed almost wary, and as they Disapparated, Hannah wondered if everything really was ever going to seem quite the same again.
As soon as they landed in one of the designated Apparition spot for Birmingham city centre, Hannah felt an intense adoration for the fact that the one thing in their lives that hadn’t changed was the viewpoint of the Muggles. They were happy in their beliefs that bridges had fallen to ground because of the incompetency of their workers or that it was merely a curse of being British that meant they had been cursed with an unusually foggy year. They walked around and spoke of the World Cup and how lovely it was to see the sun and to them, to every one of the hundreds of people who walked past, she and Susan were merely two ordinary girls.
Sat under the shade of a parasol at the front of a small coffee shop, they spoke quietly, soft murmurings rather than the raucous laughter and screaming of the girls that paralleled them on the other side of the café’s door. Susan stirred her coffee gently, her eyes very much focused on what she was doing and Hannah pulled a chunk off the muffin sat on the plate before her, chewing slowly.
“What’s it like?” Susan said after a moment. Hannah dusted her hands off and shrugged. It was new, this world of questions. She had barely even noticed how little anyone asked anything past ‘how are you?’ in the Centre. There was no generic response to this question, no practised lie.
“It’s – it’s so many things,” she replied, sipping at her drink and cradling it in her hands, clammy from the heat of the day. “It’s been good for me.”
“Good.” Susan’s voice was low, gentle and when she smiled, there was still a worry in her eyes. “You look really well.”
“I feel it, sometimes.”
Her mind flitted to Dean and Daphne, to the meetings and the gardens, to Neville and that kiss that still made her heart skip a beat when she thought about it. They made everything heal. They pushed the overwhelming sadness away, the pain numbed, the questions faded into worries traced in the back of her mind. Nothing was ever completely gone but sometimes they made it seem like it wasn’t the end of everything.
“What are you not telling me?” This time Susan’s voice was teasing, her lips cocked up in a smile that Hannah gave a small chuckle at. “Come on, spill.” The blonde shook her head firmly, hiding her own smile behind the rim of her mug. Susan stared at her for a moment before her hand swept out and grabbed the muffin off Hannah’s plate.
“Oi,” the blonde said, grabbing her hand out for it but her friend was holding it high above her head. The naturalness of how they had settled into this again, the normality of it, was a comfort. She stood up and leant over the table to grab but Susan got to her feet too and they stared each other down, though both knew who would win. “Oh, fine.” She flopped back into her seat and the brunette followed suit, cradling the muffin on her lap as Hannah took a sip of her drink to try and regain a little bit of composure; the Muggle girls were staring at them as though they were a pair of certifiable lunatics.
“Is it a boy?” Susan prompted and Hannah put her cup down, glancing in the reflection of the window that her friend was sat against to the crowds that moved steadily through the city behind them. Amongst each wave of people was a couple, holding hands or kissing or looking like they would never be happier, and she nodded shyly. “Anyone we know?”
She’d found it far easier to push the name over her tongue for Hélène than it was in this moment. The prospect of gossip was so much heavier with Susan, with people of her age, and she couldn’t quite bring herself to admit that she was falling for the boy who had played their hero better than Harry for much of that last year of school.
“No,” she finally replied. “No, it’s nothing serious.” Susan raised her eyebrows but Hannah shook her head again and added, “Honestly.” The pair of them held each other’s gazes for a moment before Susan pushed the cake back across the table and crossed her arms across her chest, staring above Hannah’s head to the swarm of Muggles going about their daily business.
“I’ve met someone too,” Susan said slowly and Hannah tilted her head inquisitively. Susan had paled significantly, her hands tapping awkwardly against the table top. “It – it started when we were in school.”
Hannah took the moment to think through their last year; in Justin’s absence, Susan had somewhat filled the gap at Ernie’s left side. Perhaps it had been more than simply Hufflepuffs sticking together, more than an extended hand of friendship. Yet, there were moments – hours here or there – where she remembered noting Susan’s absence to him. They had never thought much of it and when she returned, Susan never mentioned it. They had all assumed it was one of the Carrows’ detentions. It was an unwritten, unspoken rule that you never talked of them.
“Oh God, Han, don’t be angry, please,” she said hurriedly and for the first time in a long time, Hannah saw a different kind of fear. It wasn’t the fear of the dark, the fear of bangs and shouts and screams but something set deeper, the fear of human reaction. “It’s Nott.”
“It’s not who?” Hannah asked, her brow furrowing in confusion but Susan shook her head emphatically.
“It’s Theodore Nott. Theo,” she added as an afterthought and Hannah loosened the grip on her mug. Theo Nott wasn’t much of a talker, not much of an anything. He kept himself away from Malfoy and his cronies in a way that most Slytherins seemed to find difficult; he had never laid a finger on any of them, the extent of his distaste of them demonstrated in a series of haughty stares and nothing more.
“Why would I be angry?” Hannah asked, her smile growing. “As long as he’s been good to you, it’s fine by me.”
“He’s really helped,” Susan said, though her smile was sad and for the first time, the magnitude of everything that was going on outside the Centre hit Hannah. “His dad was killed at Hogwarts.” There was a silence in which both of them stared solemnly at the table top. “He’s nothing like a Slytherin.”
Daphne’s face swam into the forefront of Hannah’s mind and she felt a pang of guilt at how they all judged people so easily based on their houses, how they always had to fight against the stereotypes. They had both suffered under the hand of Pansy Parkinson’s gang of girls and the fact that people could change their ways at all, let alone quickly, had never really occurred to her before meeting Daphne.
“We judge too quickly,” Hannah said, draining her mug and tearing up the case of her muffin. She could see that Susan was paying her more attention than normal and the blonde sighed. “I wouldn’t want people to think I’m just naïve and simple and nice, you know?” Susan nodded. “So why should we judge other people in that way?”
“I know,” Susan said. “Is this about Greengrass?”
“Daphne,” Hannah corrected. In one of her earlier letters, she had told Susan of the unfortunate situation of her roommate but never had she told her how different the girl, who had helped to make much of their school lives hell, was today. “I owe her a lot.”
“Yeah, well, be careful,” Susan said, a sudden sobriety to her voice. “She’s still a Slytherin.” It was said without prejudice and without disgust; it was genuine worry and in it, there was concern for herself too. It was said with ease, as though it was a phrase she told herself every day and Hannah nodded.
“I’d best be getting off,” she said as a clock in the distance chimed four. “You can visit when you want, you know?” She lifted her shopping bags from the floor and the pair of them stood.
“I know,” Susan replied as they slowly made their way to the nearest Apparition point. “Maybe I’ll meet your mystery man then?” Hannah laughed lightly and shrugged.
Their goodbye was short, marked with promises that they would see each other again soon, and they simultaneously spun on the spot, disappearing from the streets of Birmingham with only a trace of their smiles left behind.
When she arrived back at the pub, the bar was as close to being full as she had ever seen it. A pack of what looked like Ministry Maintenance workers clamoured around the bar and she squeezed her way quickly through to the back. She passed Aberforth, hobbling on his stick as he tried to count out enough glasses for the order and he grumbled a welcome at her under his breath.
“Do you need a hand?” she asked and he started, blinking at her before shaking his head.
“You’re here to relax,” he said gruffly, “not to be a skivvy.” She put her bags down behind the door and wiped her hands on her trousers, bending down to reach into the places he struggled with and withdrawing a stack of tumblers that were almost brown with muck. “Suit yourself.”
“I will,” she said, lining them up and one by one siphoning off enough of the dust to make them look presentable. They worked together, Hannah passing the glasses to Aberforth who filled them and with a flick of his wand, set them onto a tray that was floating at his side. There was a comfort in it, she thought. It had purpose. She felt she was actually being put to good use and she smiled. “What are they all doing here anyway?”
“Problem with the pipes up at the school,” Aberforth said, not looking at her. She turned as she handed him the last glass and raised her eyebrows.
“And they needed twenty men for the job?”
“Maintenance aren’t exactly the brightest buttons in the box,” he replied, putting the drink on the tray and lifting it up. Hannah smiled at him again and took it from him. He went to protest but she wouldn’t hear anything of it and with a brightness she had hidden in her long ago, she bounded towards the patrons as though she were born to do it.