St Mungo’s Hospital was still very festive when I visited that 1st January 1996. Tinsel still hung in the halls, the extensively-decorated Christmas tree still stood in the Atrium and the cheery choral music still played from the radios. It almost felt as though I had not neglected my parents on Christmas Day. ‘They’ll understand,’ Gran said. ‘It won’t be a problem,’ she’d repeat. Well, it was a problem for me. I had visited my parents on Christmas Day ever since I could remember, like a tradition, and missing it this once felt like a betrayal. Even though I ended up spending the afternoon with Hannah at Hogwarts, my heart felt heavy with the knowledge that my parents would be missing me. And so I forced myself into forgetting about Christmas Day altogether; it was a day wasted if it was without my Mum and Dad.
Their room was quite dim. The curtains were still closed as they had not long woken up and eaten, so Gran went straight over to the window and sprang them apart with vigour.
“There you go,” she told Mum and Dad as the light flooded into the room and over their beds. There wasn’t much sun as we had been swamped with snow for the past few weeks, the heavier fall in Scotland.
Sitting beside my Mum on an armchair, I gazed over her tired face as though I had never seen her before. This happened every time. Their features were unchanged but still seemed different, distant. Mum’s skin was practically un-aged, not many wrinkles, but greyish and flushed. Her hair was short, her body bony. Dad’s hair had started to turn white for the past year or so and it suited him, however, this was just more proof that they were changing from the people I didn’t know into just the same thing. I didn’t know them as a child, had never heard their voices for I was too young to remember them before and all I knew them as was this, trapped peacefully within their own minds. Upon each visit, it was like I forgot what they were and how they would be for the rest of their lives. Mum’s eyes seemed to look straight through me most of the time and Dad would occupy himself with either walking up and down slowly (at which Gran would comment on how strong and active he was) or look at the ceiling as if the stars had descended especially for him.
“Hi, Mum,” I told her. I turned around to my father who was hiding his face underneath his blanket. “Hi, Dad.”
Gran was putting some fresh flowers in their vases and rearranging the photos of me and the rest of the family on a table, while I sat quietly, lost for words.
“Talk to them, Neville,” Gran said. “You’re never usually this quiet.”
I shrugged. “Got nothing to talk about.” It was strange how, through a prevalent need to see my parents, that, when I was there, I found nothing much to say; my wanting to be with them overcame ideas of what I would actually say once I got there. Silly me.
Gran put down a photo frame and said, “Sure you do. You’ve been studying for your O.W.Ls. Plenty to talk about there.”
“Not really. I’ll be lucky to pass.”
She frowned at me, looking most definitely angry at me for being this way.
Aware of the silence between us, she turned to Dad and said jauntily, “Neville’s just feeling under the weather.” She pulled the blanket from his face and to his knees. “Was sulking the whole way here. I thought he’d be happy to be away from school, most kids are.”
“I am happy to be here,” I clarified.
Gran didn’t believe me and her look said it all. She pursed her lips and then, being the alert old witch she was, began brushing my mum’s thin brown hair as she laid on her back. She began to sing (Gran, that is) a very quiet melody I hear her often humming. Sometimes I wonder whether she made up the song herself because she knew it so well.
Dad blinked three times; it caught my eye and so I talked to him quietly so that Gran would struggle to hear. “How was your Christmas?” I asked him. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. The nurse told me you got the present through owl post. I know you already have lots of pyjamas but the weather’s been cold recently and I thought you’d appreciate them.” Gran gazed at me tenderly, but continued to sing and whisper to Mum. “School’s okay at the moment. Been working hard. O.W.Ls are a few months away and I’ve been in the library studying with - with a friend …”
There was no point going on any further; I had this fear in the pit of my stomach that Hannah was only ever going to be my friend. It didn’t bother me because I was used to it. A girl would humour me, say I was lovely or nice or something like that, but in the end, that was all it was. I was fifteen. Would I ever get a girlfriend or would I be one of those people who were nearing their thirties before they have any luck or genuine companionship? Girls just didn’t like me, didn’t understand me, didn’t even want to try to. That was a fact and I was kidding myself whenever I had the occasional thought in my mind about Hannah and I.
“Neville …” Gran said.
“Can we go now?” I said, head hurting.
“We - we only just got here!” she opposed. “And you missed Christmas to -”
“Only because you told me to,” I retorted quietly. “I’m sorry,” I told my parents. “I’ll come again in a few weeks.”
“Neville,” Gran said again, this time more firmly.
“I’m sorry, Gran. I’ll see you at home. I’ll take the Knight Bus.”
Nobody said anything as I left, but Dad’s blanket fell off the bed, making the softest of sounds.
Being back in the castle, walking alone, made me think long and hard about abandoning my parents. I had already done so at Christmas and again at New Year because I felt guilty about the former. Gran was acting frosty towards me ever since my little episode, ignored me for the rest of that day just to scorn me, but that didn’t bother me; she spoke more as the days progressed.
I spent the beginning of the Spring term reading up on 1000 Magical Herbs and Fungi in my dorm, this time focusing on plants with properties that improve memory and function in the human body. With this, came my frequent visits to the library and Professors McGonagall and Sprout to ask for permission to go into the Restricted Section for more advanced books on Herbology, spells and potion-making. In the back of my mind, I had it in my head that I would find a cure for my parents, but seldom admitted it aloud.
On the third week back in the castle, I was sitting in my room an hour before my last lesson of the day was due to begin, going over the essays and various pieces of homework I was supposed to have done, reading over academic writings I should know for my exams. I guessed this was what Hermione’s life was like all of the time and, I had to admit, it hurt my head.
Seamus and I were alone in the room, the others in the common room or elsewhere. He kept looking over at me as though he wanted to say something - it had been very awkward in our dorm for months seeing as Seamus was the only one of us who disagreed about You-Know-Who returning. I felt sorry for him, in a way, because I could see the doubt in his mind every day, especially since Harry had been having terrible dreams and he predicted or saw the attack on Ron’s dad. I was glad Mr Weasley was recovering and this only reinforced the fact that the Dark Arts were on the rise, most-likely due to You-Know-Who’s return.
“You alright, Seamus?” I tried.
He nodded passively, pulled his jumper over his shirt and walked out of the room without a word. The poor guy was struggling, I could tell, but I left him to it. He would come around soon.
Closing my book and laying it on the large pile beside my bed half an hour later, I stopped reading and pulled my cloak on.
The walk to Transfiguration seemed uneventful until I saw Crabbe and Goyle walking by the third floor. Upon recognition, I instantly pivoted one hundred and eighty degrees, attempting to take another route down the stairs, but it was too late.
“Oi, Longbottom!” one of them yelled. You see, I couldn’t tell the difference between them; they both sounded like some form of the dialect named Idiot.
I kept walking along a corridor, hoping to catch another staircase on the other side. Each of my footsteps were hurried, each breath harsh.
“Longbottom!” They yelled again, this time sounding a little closer.
I continued along, pretending and wishing that they were not following me.
Go away, I thought desperately.
I managed to push myself through a small crowd of people on the corridor on the other side of the library, some students sitting on the ground in a group, but I rushed past without even looking.
I kept going.
“Neville!” I turned around to see Crabbe and Goyle approaching, but ahead of them, Hannah, who had been sitting with Zacharias Smith and a few older students in her House. I hadn’t seen or spoken to her in weeks and so her presence gave me a giddy and exciting feeling in my stomach. She was smiling, her hair loose around her face. “Why did you ignore me?”
“I - erm - didn’t notice you.” Nervous, I glanced at Crabbe and Goyle, who were a few feet away.
Hannah turned to look at them. After they assessed whether causing a scene was worth it in the presence of a girl, they backed off, a look in their eye clearly stating that I would be cursed the next time they found me alone.
I had wanted to thank her, but that would have been obvious that I feared them.
“I hate those two,” she muttered while shaking her head.
“I honestly don’t know how they stand each other,” I said. “Not one intelligent word must pass between them.”
“True.” She agreed with a chuckle and a nod and pushed her hair back with one hand, forcing me to look into her eyes.
“Did you enjoy seeing your family?” she asked. “I assume that’s where you went at New Year.”
“Yeah, I did,” I replied vaguely. “It was good. Did you get much work done here?”
“Yes, actually,” she said proudly. “All homework was done on time for once and I made full use of the library with Ernie.”
There was something about Ernie that I did not like. He was so stuck up and just thought he was better than every one else. And Justin. Just because he would have gone to one of the best and most expensive muggle public schools, Eton, it does not necessarily mean that he was better than everybody else. The two of them seemed to just lack that down-to-earth quality that the humbler few of us easily mastered.
“Good,” I muttered as I scratched my head.
“You heading to Transfiguration?” she asked.
“Yep.” She joined me, leaving Zacharias behind and we walked slowly down the staircase, heading to our classroom and Professor McGonagall.
“Do you know if Ron’s dad is okay?” Hannah asked me quietly.
“You know about that?”
She nodded. “Parvati mentioned it about a week ago. I’ve been worried and couldn’t bring myself to ask Ginny Weasley when I saw her earlier.”
“Yeah, Ron says he’s okay. Just taking a break from work to recover.”
Hannah shivered. “You know, ever since I knew he was attacked, I haven’t slept properly at night. It’s like he really is back. Like the First War all over again. My parents are worried.”
We stopped walking.
Her frightened eyes darted across the ground. Her arms curled around herself slightly.
I placed my hand on her shoulder to console her. “I’m scared too. Not of him, but of what he can do.”
“Good job we practised the Disarming Charm,” she said with a forced laugh.
Frowning, I bent lower to look into her eyes cautiously. “Are you okay?”
“It’s okay if you’re not, Hannah.”
“Well, in that case, I’m not. I’m terrified, scared that the DA isn’t going to be enough.”
“Well, it certainly beats Defensive Theory,” I reminded her.
She let a smile through her saddened features. “True. I still can’t believe that old hag doesn’t believe that -”
“Detention.” Umbridge walked by us as we stood in the corridor, dressed head to toe in that same sickly pink, the usual spring in each poisonous step.
“For what?” Hannah voiced.
Umbridge turned around. “You two are guilty of cavorting indecently in my corridors -” I removed my hand from Hannah’s shoulder. “ - and this will set a bad example to the younger and more innocent students. You must be punished. My classroom, tomorrow night at seven. And you’re a Prefect, Miss Abbott, you should know better.”
She shuffled away and Hannah and I stood in awe of her harsh dictatorship.
“‘Guilty of cavorting?’” Hannah repeated, stunned.
“Sorry,” I instantly told her.
“It’s fine,” she reassured as we began to walk to our classroom. “The nerve of that woman!”
“I know. And besides, these corridors belong to Dumbledore not her.”
“Somehow, I think that’s the next ‘problem’ she wants to fix.” Hannah sat beside me as we entered the Transfiguration classroom. “Want to walk with me to detention tomorrow night?” she asked dully while taking out her wand and textbook.
“Okay. Meet you after dinner?”
“It’s a date,” she said.
I hoped that Hannah was joking. Ever since she said the word ‘date’ I had been practically hyperventilating every time I thought of the detention. And not because I heard they were horrific, but because Hannah and I would be going together.
The next night, I barely ate during dinner despite the fact that the food smelt amazing and that I was extremely hungry. Instead, I occasionally watched Hannah as she sat with Susan and Padma on the Ravenclaw table.
“Are you alright, Neville?” Hermione asked me from across the table.
“What? Oh - erm - yeah. Yeah.”
“Dean told me you’ve got a detention later,” Harry said between mouthfuls beside me.
“Yeah. Hannah and I were -”
“You and Hannah?” Ron was suddenly in the conversation after overhearing his friends. “And what were you two doing? Nothing too scandalous?”
My face turned red. “N-nothing! We did nothing. We were just talking and all of a sudden Umbridge accused us of causing a d-disturbance and gave us a detention.”
“You sure you didn’t do anything?” Ron asked with a smile. “You look awfully guilty, a bit too sweaty and a bit pinker in the face than the average innocent teenage boy usually is.”
Before I could deny it, Hermione said, “What a horrible woman,” while gazing up at the staff table at her.
“Your detention will be fine,” Harry said kindly. “The time should fly by.”
“Cheers, Harry.” He nodded solemnly and got back to his meal. Harry had already had a few detentions and he rarely talked about them. I suppose, I wouldn’t either if I was being punished harshly for telling Umbridge the truth about You-Know-Who. His were probably way worse than what Hannah and I were going to be given.
I looked back at Hannah, who was waving at me from the table as she chewed her last few bites of food, signalling that she was ready to go. I checked my watch and it was only coming up to six.
“What’s wrong?” Ron asked.
“It’s not time to go yet. The detention’s in an hour.” I stayed firmly in my seat.
Hermione looked over my shoulder and then turned to me. “Get up right now, Neville. She’s waiting for you.”
“Who knows, you might get lucky,” Ron muttered.
Stumbling, I dropped my unused fork and got up, shuffling down the hall towards Hannah.
“It’s not time yet,” I told her.
“I know,” she replied timidly. “But hearing Susan’s stories about her whirlwind romance was giving me a headache.”
Hannah and I walked outside in the grounds while she filled me in on Susan and Zacharias (although I was sworn to secrecy) and about how left out she was feeling since her best friend had gotten herself a boyfriend.
“So what if I’m jealous?” Hannah divulged as we approached Umbridge’s office over forty minutes later. “I mean, Zach’s my friend too, but … Susan’s completely changed.”
“Well, she must really like him. What do they call that?” I mused jokingly. “Being in love.” I answered.
“Do you really think so?” Hannah asked, stunned. She stopped outside Umbridge’s classroom.
I shrugged. “She’s your best friend. You tell me.”
The door beside us opened and the High Inquisitor welcomed us into her domain.
“Sit,” Umbridge commanded.
Our previous conversation forgotten, Hannah and I sat down at two separate desks, where parchment was waiting for us.
“Quills out. You’ll be writing lines for me.”
“Is that it?” I asked.
“That’ll take -” Hannah began.
“As long as it takes.” Umbridge sat at the front of the class and glanced at her personal pocket watch. “You may begin.”
I took a look at the lines Hannah and I were supposed to write:
I must not speak to nor loiter with nor touch someone of the opposite gender in the corridors as it is both improper and unnecessary, culminating in disturbances, distractions and/or rampant hormones.
“What were those lines about?” Hannah laughed, days later, as she and Ernie walked with Dean and I through the forest after Care Of Magical Creatures.
That lesson, Professor Grubbly-Plank had told us about Thestrals and in mine and Harry’s case, we saw them. It unsettled me to be reminded of my grandfather’s death so abruptly. I wasn’t prepared for it and it brought up so many emotions and feelings that I just kept silent. And Harry? Well, he didn’t look any better than me because the event reminded everybody of what had happened after The Third Task, therefore reminding him of people’s distrust and utter lack of faith in the truth.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “They were pretty stupid.”
“It took us until after midnight to finish,” Hannah told Dean. “Well, Neville finished first. I’m convinced he cheated.” She laughed and then realised that I wasn’t in the mood to joke around. “Are you alright, Neville?”
I gave her a ‘Does-it-look-like-I’m-alright?’ look.
“I’ll see you later, Ernie.” I heard Hannah tell him to leave as I walked by the lake and sat at the edge. Dean and Hannah sat on either side of me silently.
“Yes?” I asked them. Why wouldn’t they just leave me alone?
“What’s up, mate?” Dean asked. “Is it about the thestrals?”
I said nothing.
“Neville,” he tried again, “we’re your friends, you can tell us what’s on your mind.”
Quietly, I uttered, “It all just came back to me, you know? I was really young, about seven when it happened. My grandfather was sitting in his chair and he just … went.”
“Oh, Neville,” Hannah said, holding my arm.
“It was peaceful and I wasn’t really quite sure what happened to begin with, but …” I sniffed and then gazed over the clear waters. “I’m just being ridiculous.”
“Of course you’re not,” Dean said with conviction. “Family matters.”
Could I do it? Could I tell these two friends of mine about my parents and how they spent every day trapped within their own bodies and about how difficult it was for me every single day to live with the knowledge that they’ll never change?
I wasn’t ready for that yet and I knew it. The pity would be excruciating.
“Could you leave me for a bit, please?” I asked them.
“Sure,” Dean said, patting my shoulder. “I’ll see you in the Common Room later.”
Hannah gave me a sympathetic smile. “Bye.”
“See you.” My head swelled painfully and I placed my head in my hands, trying hard to forget how pathetic and sorry my life actually was.
Weeks later, as I predicted, Seamus saw sense and we were all back on speaking terms in our dorm, something I was glad to see again. After Easter, Harry had got us back to practising the Patronus Charm in a DA meeting, yet another spell I had not mastered. I simply found it too difficult to concentrate on something happy, something so extraordinarily exciting that every sad feeling or emotion left my body.
Every time I thought of my parents, I would feel saddened about their condition, but mostly angry with Bellatrix Lestrange and every other Death Eater who took part in their torture. And so the little white essence that came out of my wand would diminish, turning into a big fat nothing.
Around the room, I could see Harry’s stag prancing about fancifully, Ron’s dog bounding around, Hermione’s otter, Ginny’s horse, Luna’s rabbit, Cho’s swan, Ernie’s owl and so many more. Other students were getting it, yet I was one of the few who could barely produce the silver smoke.
Sitting down, I watched Hannah close her eyes, focus and chant the spell. It didn’t work for her and, I had to say, I was happy that I wasn’t the only one. She noticed that I was watching and I smiled nervously, drawing up a large breath into my chest.
She smiled back and it was such sweet smile. The next moment, she chanted the spell and out sprang a little grey squirrel, its huge bristled tail aloft.
“That was really good.” I couldn’t help but get up from my chair and congratulate her.
She blushed. “Thanks.”
“What did you think of’? What was your memory?”
“Oh - erm - just someone I really care about.”
Okay, maybe it was just the way my brain worked sometimes, but I had the sneaking suspicion that she was thinking of me by the way she avoided looking into my eyes. Or maybe I was just hoping.
“Have you done a corporeal one yet?” she asked as her squirrel disappeared.
She folded her arms, waiting patiently as I focused on a memory, on her. I couldn’t quite think of one in particular, but somehow our late night study sessions came to mind, the moments when we would glance at each other, blush, smile and then look away. We really were as awkward as one another but it suited us, it made us who we were. We. Hannah and I. That’s all I really wanted. Whenever I would convince myself that we would never happen, that hope still burned within me despite the little chance I concluded that we had. Beside me, she smiled and I smiled back, not having to picture her face in my mind because she was right beside me.
I had to hold onto my wand firmly as a huge woodland bear sprouted out of my wand and fell down onto all fours. Around me, many faces in the room turned to see whose patronus it was and, as soon as that happened, the bear faded away due to my embarrassment and lack of focus.
“Oh my God,” Hannah whispered, “that was the single most coolest patronus I have ever seen.”
And it seemed that others in the room agreed as cheers began to ring out, applause shortly following.
The next DA meeting had been stalled due to Quidditch matches, O.W.Ls and N.E.W.T preparation. It seemed like the entire castle had decided to get serious; the library was always full, the Common Room turned into second library and people barely spoke. It was only the younger students who were calm and relaxed.
Myself? I was fairly confident about my upcoming Herbology exam and possibly Charms and Transfiguration. Everything else, I was concerned about and so were my professors. I stayed behind for every available revision session and extra class they offered - even Potions no matter how much it hurt me to be in Snape’s presence for longer than necessary. I had done all of my studying in isolation, not getting help from Dean, Hannah, Hermione or anyone else. Besides, Hannah was too much of a distraction.
So we hadn’t talked for a while until yet another DA session where we were going over the Stun and Disarming charms once more. Everyone got the hang of it, even me. It seemed that practice indeed made perfect and by far it was the best meeting I had had so far.
That was until a house elf Apparated into the middle of the room telling Harry the worst news possible at that moment in time: Umbridge knew.
There was chaos as Harry yelled at us, telling us to get out and to get out now. Taking the instructions in, people rushed out in small groups, making their way to bathrooms and spare classrooms, fear and silence surrounding us all.
I rushed to the doors and squeezed my way through the crowd to get to Hannah.
“Hannah,” I called to her.
“Neville.” She looked terrified.
A group of us stumbled out of the doors and to the seventh floor corridor and, despite the fact that my common room was on this floor, I had to make sure that she got down to hers safely.
I heard footsteps from the left and a voice that sounded suspiciously like Draco Malfoy’s.
“This way,” I whispered into Hannah’s ear.
Taking her arm, I pulled her away from the group who were about to rush down the main staircase, fearing that they will be caught. Even though she would be separated from the others in her house, including Justin Finch-Fletchley, she let me steer her away from them and into the girls’ toilets a few feet away.
“Neville, why -?”
Sliding into a toilet cubicle, I anticipated what happened next.
I watched the feet of about three Slytherins as they entered.
“Excuse me,” Hannah said, flustered. “This is the girls’ bathroom.”
“What are you doing in here?” Malfoy asked her vehemently.
“What do you think I’m doing?” she replied sternly. “Now get out.”
“Aren’t you in Ravenclaw? Why are you up here on the seventh floor?”
“I’m a Hufflepuff and I have friends in other houses, unlike you. And I’m a Prefect too. Now please leave me alone otherwise I’ll end up breaking curfew.”
They left quickly and as soon as they did, she tapped on the door. I let her in and she closed the door behind her, her head falling onto my chest relieved.
“Oh, thank you, Neville.”
I shrugged, nonchalant, as she looked up at me, smiling. I knew how grateful she was; Hannah was always nervous about DA meetings through a fear of being caught and being behind in her studies, especially because she was a prefect and was supposed to be setting an example to younger students.
“You’re funny, Neville,” she told me.
“In what way?”
“I don’t know … you were looking out for me even when you didn’t need to. You don’t owe me anything.”
“Well, I guess, you owe me now,” I replied.
“Thank you,” she said again, this time hugging me tight. Suddenly the small space we were stood in seemed much smaller and with less air to take in.
I placed my arms around her shoulders and felt comfortable being with her. I could have stayed there forever, being happy and content with her company, but unfortunately fate had other plans. Soon after we found our way to our common rooms, I realised that Harry had been taken to see Dumbledore by Umbridge and that only meant one thing: it was all over.
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