Chapter 1 : The Count
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Sometimes he liked to know what had happened to the others in the ward. He was so used to their presence, not comforting, exactly, but steady all the same. Sometimes, though, they were simply gone one day, all their possessions cleared and fresh sheets on the pristine beds and a new, washed set of curtains against the back wall, waiting for whoever would come next.
Sometimes he liked to ask the Healers what had happened to them. Some got better, rarely, and were moved to different wards in the hopes of catching a speedier recovery away from the implicit depression of this ward. Some got better, were actually healed, and were eventually released under strict stipulations. Some died, and were simply taken away, and it was as if they had never been there. Some came, and were never new faces for long. Sometimes he pried the Healers for every last detail, because while everyone else in the ward came and went eventually, there were two people who would never go. And he had to know: so if the Healers could not tell him about them, then they sure as hell had better tell him about everyone else.
Sometimes he hated knowing, and hid behind the curtains and sat and stared at the only two people in the ward who actually, truly mattered.
Her hair was wispy, like her consciousness – sometimes there was a spark in her eyes like she knew who it was sitting there and she loved him for it. He counted the blonde hairs out of the dead white each time he visited, kept a running count of her life, and today as he stared he added forty-seven new ones to his tally. Maybe if he reached a million one day, she would come back to him.
On the next bed sat the man who had given him his life, and then his wand. And after that, as he was constantly reminded, he had given him his legacy. One of those things he had broken, with a sharp CRACK of terror and adrenaline, but then his own new wand had fit in his hand so much more easily than the original had done. And he had followed through with the betrayal – learned the wand, loved the wand, and had thus saved the other two things he had been given. Maybe if he gathered all three, the gifts from his father, and gave them back, presented them here and now, he would come back to him, too.
“We did it.”
He sat on an old wicker chair between their two beds, as he had for years upon years. The time was the only thing he lost count of. He knew the texture of the wicker almost better than he knew their two faces.
“Voldemort’s gone. Dead, I should say, because it’s really the end this time. Harry did it, of course. You met him once, in here, about two years ago ‘round Christmastime. Incredible bloke, he is. Explained everything... what I did as well. Gran’s so proud, Dad, she was so, so proud when she found out. You will be too, just wait…
“It was Voldemort, he Summoned the Sorting Hat when I told him I’d join him when hell freezes over.” He allowed himself a small smile. People quoted the line at him now, like he was some sort of hero.
“And he made me wear it, and then the thing burst into flames – I was on fire, imagine that – and then – you won’t believe this bit – the Sword of Gryffindor came to me. Me!” His voice skipped an octave on the last word, still wildly incredulous at something he wanted to call fortune, because the other option, that he had deserved the sword, that it had chosen to come to him, was such a wild, impossible idea.
“And the snake, Merlin was it huge – but I grabbed the sword and just went for it, that’s a moment you only get one of in life… And the head went spiraling off and then Harry – Harry wasn’t dead anymore – ”
He broke off, staring into his mother’s face, battling the tears he had known would come. She was lying back on her pillows, blank eyes set vaguely in his direction like she was aware that there might be someone there. He turned to his father – his empty eyes were focused somewhere over his son’s head, a vague, dazed smile on his face. Did he understand?
“Th-the snake was a Horcrux. I killed one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, Dad. Mum, he’s gone. He’s bloody gone – p-please wake up – ” He trailed off, and reached for the box of tissues kept on the table between the two beds specifically for these visits.
Sometimes, he had liked to believe the end of Voldemort – and consequently, the end of Bellatrix Lestrange; the two were inextricably linked in his mind – would mean his parents would come back to him. It was a desperate, flickering desire that carried him through the void between waking and sleeping, when nothing was altogether trustworthy, not even his own heart.
“And Mrs. Weasley killed her. Mum – Dad – listen to me, she’s gone. Bellatrix Lestrange is gone, there is nothing she will ever do to us again. We’re safe now. Safe. I’m even helping the Ministry gather up the last Death Eaters – I’m some sort of… of honorary Auror or something – ”
He broke off as his father sat up and reached out a hand toward him. Wide-eyed, he stared at the pale man. His eyes were still staring beyond his son, but he leaned forward anyway to take his father’s weak, shaking hand in his own.
“Auror, Dad. Like you – Auror Frank Longbottom – ” And his mother gave a weak whisper from the neighboring bed and he turned towards her, to find her eyes clearer than he had ever seen them, clear and wet and shining.
Then she gave him a smile, uncertain, like her muscles did not quite remember how to move anymore, and his father’s hand tightened – warmed – around his.
“It’s me, Mum, Dad, it’s Neville,” he whispered, and nothing in the world mattered, nothing he had learned in all his time at Hogwarts, nothing he had accomplished in the last year to gain him such unexpected fame and respect and a legacy of his own –
“Neville,” croaked his father, voice like a cracked feather, and there was a look in his eyes like there was nothing in the world he would rather be seeing as he met his son’s glowing gaze.
“Neville,” repeated his mother, this time loud enough to be audible, and he reached with his free hand over to rest it against her weathered cheek. Pale, wispy hair tickled his fingers and something wet and hot rolled against his thumb.
His chest burned, splitting and bleeding along the fault that was the emptiness in his heart where his parents had always resided. A harsh sob escaped him, and then his eyes were clouded over with hot, burning tears – he blinked, frantically, heart pounding – every precious second he wasted now, when he could look at them and they him, when he did not need a Healer to explain that they loved him, was a second he would never to able to recover.
Sometimes he hated it all, and hid behind the curtains and sat and stared at the only two people who actually, truly mattered.
Once, he had ways of measuring time, but they withered away with what was deemed his sanity. Now he knew that he could eat when he needed, and sleep when he needed, and visit the toilet when he needed, and that the soft pliability of time was his to control, and his alone.
So he could sit, and time would tick on by while he supervised it, and sometimes he reached out a finger and touched it and then he could watch her hair drop from around her face, he could watch the boy growing and growing and each time he reached out, the boy looked a little more alive.
Sometimes, the boy’s voice came to him as he cried. “…I’m even helping the Ministry gather up the last few Death Eaters – I’m some sort of… of honorary Auror or something…”
Once, he had ways of measuring time, and they were reliable. Now he was reliable, and feared the moments time measured him. So he reached out a finger –
“Auror, Dad. Like you – Auror Frank Longbottom…”
He held the boy’s hand – “It’s me, Mum, Dad, it’s Neville…” – and he heard the ticking of a clock, faint as a memory, ticking away above his son’s head, and he began counting –
“Neville,” he replied, the name tasting like love in his mouth, the boy beating like his own heart before him. He counted the seconds – seventeen, eighteen – and his wife, beautiful Alice, echoed his whisper and her voice was the echo of her naked skin against his as this boy, Neville, came to be between them.
Forty-six, forty-seven, the boy was crying, but already the clock was fading, ticking into oblivion, into pliability that he could touch with a finger because its linearity had withered with what was deemed his sanity.
Every time he came, she struggled to remember who the child was. Half of her was constantly in tune with the man beside her and the clock on the opposite wall that he reached for so often, and it was this half that loved the child with an intensity that was outright pain.
Until he came, she could never remember his face. As he sat there, then, she stared and stared and traced the line of his nose and the curve of his ears and the curl of his hair into her mind, and then he left and she could not remember him, only that she was missing something so, so important.
Then he came again, and she could not remember him until she traced his dear face into her mind again for fear she would lose it once more. So she took to giving him wrappers of the gum that they gave her sometimes to chew as she struggled to remember, so that next time he could show it to her and she would know from the beginning that it was him.
He never brought them back. She could only wonder hopelessly if it remained the same child that she loved with such painful intensity.
One day he touched a hand to her face as she tried to rememorize his. It was a new sensation, utterly unfamiliar, but the words he had just spoken were not: “It’s me, Mum, Dad, it’s Neville.”
Frank whispered the name, free of the clock for once, and she whispered it too: “Neville…” And felt a tear trickle onto the child’s thumb – she would never forget this hand, even though the face was already fading again.
When the child left as he always did, slightly hunched and smaller than he had come in, wiping at his eyes, she pressed another wrapper into his hand. The forty-seventh wrapper she had given him.
Just in case she did not remember him next time.