The bar was empty and Hannah sat on a stool against the back wall, surrounded by a hundred glasses that were sparkling clean. Her hands were covered in the filth she’d managed to charm off them and her face was flushed with the heat that the summer had brought. She brushed strands of her hair out of her eye line with the back of her hand and smiled. Aberforth had finally conceded to her demands to clean the place up a bit. It wasn’t exactly how she’d envisaged her time away from the Centre but it kept her busy and even if she’d barely started on the work, there was already a considerable difference in the attitudes of the punters. They had started coming back for more than just one drink, complimenting her on her work, and even sometimes brought new faces.
“Yeah, well, it’s the novelty,” Aberforth would grumble, still using his dirty old rag to wipe the lip of the glasses he was still allowed somewhere near. “It’ll wear off and all this will have been pointless.”
Hannah merely smiled each time he said it and carried on with her work. He would come round, she knew it.
“Isn’t that friend of yours coming round?” he said this time, coming out from having seen to the goats and staring at her beadily through those eyes that always seemed to read her so well. She glanced to her watch and swore under her breath. She took off the apron that hung around her neck and shoved it unceremoniously in one of the cupboards. Without another word, she ran upstairs two at a time and hurried into the shower, praying that Ernie would live up to her expectations and be a good twenty minutes late.
Her hair was just about dry when there was a rap of a cane on her door and Aberforth called out gruffly to her. She tucked her hair back into a ponytail and slipped her watch back onto her wrist before pulling the door open.
“He’s downstairs,” Aberforth said, already halfway down the hall. She slammed the door shut heavily behind her and hurried in the opposite direction, finding herself feeling sick from what she could only think to be irrepressible excitement.
She had not seen Ernie since the end of the battle; the sun had just risen and the crowd had begun to come down from the high. The bodies lay forgotten in that chamber and slowly, those who had lost loved ones had begun to mourn. The pair of them had found themselves standing a little way away from a sobbing woman, every cry a stab to everybody’s soul, and they had said nothing. He had put his arm around her and she had stood there emptily in his embrace. His family had arrived, he’d been whisked away and then she was alone. For the first time in her life, properly alone.
She didn’t blame him even in the slightest. If she had had family, they would have been her priority but her dad was merely a name on a list. His was to be enshrined in stone on a cold hillside in Gloucestershire and it was a situation she would not intrude on. He’d had enough to concern himself with and even though she knew full well that he would have given her more support than anyone, she had not wanted him to waste it on her.
The light of the pub was awkward, dim but broken by shattered rays crackling through the frosted glass of the dusty windows. Aberforth had tidied away the glasses onto a dusty shelf and she mentally made a note to teach him the meaning of the term ‘clean’. It took her a moment to locate the one other life form in the room but once she saw him, nothing else mattered. His name fell from her lips like a promise and his rested silently in his eyes. They hugged as though it might help them find their place again and when they drew back, there was a mutual desire to look nowhere else but at the figure in their lives they had missed most.
“You look so well,” he said as they sat down at opposite ends of a table. Aberforth was clunking around in the back and eventually, he came out and handed them two bottles of Butterbeer. Hannah had to give him credit; he’d at least wiped them down a bit with the rag. He was learning. She glanced back to Ernie and smiled, wishing dearly she could say the same to him. His skin was washed out and his hair limp; he looked as tired as she remembered feeling and gently, she reached her hand over the table.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he replied but she knew that it was the same lie that she had given so many times. “Really, I’m coping.”
“You don’t look like you are,” she said sceptically and he frowned. She took a healthy swig from the bottle and looked kindly at him. “You’re exhausted.”
“I’m fine.” For the first time, Hannah saw the negative side to being lost in denial. It had once been her defence mechanism and she had fooled herself into thinking it had worked, to an extent. Now, looking at Ernie, she saw that he believed the same. “Don’t suggest I go to that place,” he said after a moment’s silence.
“I wasn’t going to,” she lied. “You shouldn’t judge it.”
His letters had proved full of disbelief and indifference towards the work of Mrs Figg and Mrs Longbottom. It had never been explicitly stated that he thought it silly but the implication was heavy. He always had been too quick to form an opinion and normally, she ended up being dragged along with it.
“It looks like it’s done you some good though,” he conceded, smiling. “We’re different people, Han. It’s not for me.”
He still had his sister, his mum, his cousins and aunts and uncles left to look after him. He would, in time, heal. He was strong, a fighter and even when it got him down, he would pull up the same shield of denial as she had once held onto but keep it up for far longer. They both knew that Hannah was quite the opposite.
“How’s Matilda?” she asked, swirling her drink in the bottle and the conversation turned towards stories of his older sister’s job, what the cat had been up to and whether or not they thought Pansy Parkinson would ever get married. The laughter wasn’t quite as warm or as heartfelt as in the past but it kept them entertained until there was a soft swoosh and a thump as someone stepped out of the fireplace.
The sun had fallen now, afternoon on the brink of evening, and outside the crowd was beginning to dwindle. Neither Hannah nor Ernie looked up past seeing they had a third companion in the empty bar until the figure stopped beside the table.
“Neville,” Ernie said, standing up to shake his hand firmly. Hannah took a sip of her drink and glanced up as the two of them exchanged their pleasantries. “You couldn’t have timed it better. Here, sit down.”
“I can’t,” Neville said, shaking his head and for the first time, changing the direction of his gaze to Hannah. He lowered his voice, his smile faltering, and turned his back on Ernie just enough to make it seem a little more private. There was a solemnity to Neville’s stance, a hesitancy in his features and he couldn’t quite look her in the eye. “Can you come with me?”
“Well,” she said, glancing to Ernie who had taken his seat again and was tapping his hands on his lap, not looking at either of them. “I’m a bit busy, actually.”
“Please?” he asked. She caught his eye and managed to hold it for long enough to see a darkness in them that he had never shown before. She looked back to Ernie and bit her lip, stretching her hand out to cover his as she stood up.
“I’m really sorry,” she said, feeling a blush heating her cheeks. He shook his head with a smile and lifted his bottle with his free hand, as if to imply he’d wait. “Will we be long?”
“I don’t know,” Neville said, starting to edge away from the table. She stared at his back for a moment and frowned. The impatience was unfamiliar, unlike anything she’d expected of him and she was almost tempted to just sit back down and wait for him to explain. She glanced at her watch and sighed.
“If I’m not back in an hour, just go,” she told Ernie, leaning over the table to kiss his cheek and turning to Neville’s back to add, “I’m going to get my bag. Two minutes.”
She wandered around to the other side of the bar and hurried up to her room. The shadow in Neville’s gaze was still worrying her and she thought of Dean, of Daphne, of the other few friends she’d found in the Centre. Was someone ill? Had something happened to his grandmother? Had the Centre folded? There were so many questions and each made her feel sick to her stomach.
She threw open her door and Summoned the bag, trying to regain some composure as she descended the stairs to the bar. Ernie and Neville were talking in hushed whispers and she cleared her throat emphatically, with far more confidence than she currently felt she had. Neville turned, his smile faint but somewhat more real than each that Ernie had attempted, and pointed to the front doors. They stepped out into the warmth of the early evening and he held out his hand. She stared at it blankly and then back to him.
“Do you trust me?”
There was no need to make a reply. She placed her hand softly on his and just about had time to grab a breath before they Disapparated.
The Muggle street was teeming with people and Hannah clung to Neville’s hand marginally more tightly than strictly necessary. When he stopped them, she held tighter. Memories of being whisked away by Professor Sprout to this very same shop front made her shiver and when they stepped through the glass, she felt an overwhelming urge to vomit.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on or not?” she asked and he finally looked at her. He still seemed somewhat on edge, unable to stand terribly still and she realised with a fit of anger in her chest that he was still holding her hand. She pulled it out of his grip and crossed her arms across her chest. He ran a hand back through his hair and touched her arm lightly, gesturing with his head towards two chairs near the front of the reception.
“We got a letter today,” he said as they sat down. Whereas before he couldn’t seem to bear to look at her, now his gaze was so intense that it made her feel uneasy and she turned her gaze to a little girl on the opposite side of the room. Her hair, so pale that it could have been white, was in two neat bunches and her cheeks were a vibrant red. She didn’t really look much like Hannah had as a child – especially considering the fact that this poor girl had a unicorn horn sticking out of her forehead – but there was still a vague similarity, a vague trigger of a memory that would have been created from a story not reality.
“We get them sometimes,” Neville continued, “if they can’t get hold of the person in question. You must have just missed it the other day or something. I don’t really know how it works. Owls, all that. Complicated stuff.”
“You’re rambling,” Hannah said, her voice softer now and she even managed to form a smile. He didn’t repay it but covered her hands with his in the same way she had done to Ernie earlier and she felt everything in her chill.
“Your dad. They’ve found your dad.”