Hannah screamed repeatedly, each cry echoing and re-echoing around the dank, gloomy dungeon. Her face, contorted into a fixed mask of agony, was shining with sweat, stinging her tightly-closed eyes. She writhed about on the floor, twisting and squirming and kicking. Her arms were spasm-locked before her like a preying mantis; her hands, rigid claws with no respite to clutch. "Crucio!" bellowed Alecto again, eyes agleam with malice. Neville, bound to a chair and forced to watch, was shouting at her to stop. Hannah's back was arched so badly it looked like it would snap. Steady on, Han. Don't overdo it, thought Neville.
"Well, Longbottom? Ain't yer gonna save yer friend?" hissed Amycus. "We can keep this up all day."
No you won't. You rarely go more than ten minutes. Anyway, you've too much to do and it's nearly lunchtime. I give you five more minutes, tops, thought Neville but outwardly he acted out his best pleading, begging, and grovelling routines. "Stop! Stop! Please stop! I'd tell you if I knew anything! All we heard is talk the Slytherins planned it."
"Liar! Why would they! Crucio!" snarled Amycus. The curse hit Neville in the face making his head buzz and his jaw rattle. Hate it when that happens - it's harder to perform without sounding like a warbling idiot.
"Incriminate us," whimpered Hannah from the floor. "Slytherins always trying ... get us ... in ... trouble. Things we ... didn't do."
Amycus looked at Alecto and shook his head. He turned to the students crouched or laying groaning and moaning along the dungeon wall: Seamus, Terry, Michael, Ernie. It had been the same story from all of them. He looked at his watch. That's a good sign, thought Neville optimistically. might be in time for the hot pasties and mushy peas if we're lucky.
"Come on, 'Lecto, wastin' our bloomin' time 'ere," moaned Amycus and swept towards the door. "They don't know nuthin'. Let 'em go."
As he went out, Alecto followed but not before she dropped an itchysquirm hex in their midst. "And be on time for your lessons this afternoon - no excuses!" She laughed and slammed the door behind her as she left.
Ernie sprang up and hurried to the bench where lay all their wands. He countered the hex and released Neville from his binding curse. Everyone was getting to their feet, massaging their limbs and swallowing another potion sachet from shoes and belts. Terry had a big black mark on his jaw and was rubbing it with with a lapel button full of Fred's bruise paste.
"Seamus!" said Neville. "Your moans are getting over-emphasised and too samey. More variations next time. Hannah! Good job! But a bit less of the death throes if I'm around - makes me feel... erm... funny."
"That's what I was trying to do," murmured Hannah with a weak smirk. Their show of suffering might have been exaggerated playacting but it did hurt - though to a much lesser extent - and took a lot out of them. She swallowed a modified chocolate button and cleansed herself with a spell.
"Did you like my panic attack where my face goes purple?" bragged Terry. "I can hold my breath for nearly two minutes now!"
There was the sound of approaching footsteps and everyone dived back to their positions and resumed moaning. There was a cry from outside, the door burst open with a red flash, and Eloise Midgen came through. Neville didn't have the heart to tell her the door had not been locked and they were free to go. She took one look at the groaning, rocking bodies on the floor then threw herself, sobbing, upon Terry in a big hug.
Everyone else got up and crept out, grinning to themselves. Terry moaned weakly for a while longer. "I'd ... d-- die rather th-- than ever be-- betray you, Eloise," he whimpered dramatically.
"Anyone seriously hurt?" asked Neville as they headed up the stairs towards the Great Hall. As they got nearer, Michael started limping; Hannah and Neville slowed to a weak shuffle and tried to look as if they had just suffered miserable, unbearable torture. Seamus had stopped to talk to a young Ravenclaw boy who was tugging at his sleeve.
"Side of my back still hurts," complained Ernie. "Whistle if the Carrows are at the meal and I'll sneak away to see Madam Pomfrey. And there won't be any Slytherin prefects about when there's food to be had, especially Crabbe and Goyle."
"Neville, the Carrows have another young kid chained up," said Seamus. "His brother." He indicated the youngster standing beside him.
Neville groaned. "Not another..."
Hannah said, "I'll scout down there while everyone's eating."
"No, Hannah," said Neville, "you're still weak from this morning. So am I. What did he do - your brother?" He was looking at the Ravenclaw boy.
"Didn't do his homework."
Well, that's no so bad." said Ernie, rubbing his side and wincing. "Usually just stingers for missing homework."
"You'd better get to the hospital, Ern," said Neville.
"No, he refused to do it," said the youngster. Everyone looked at him so he explained, "Supposed to practice dark curses and hand in his notes."
"Practice on who?" said Seamus.
Neville sighed "That's how I got this." He pointed to a gash on his face. "Seamus, could you and Michael go and see? Find out if he's injured and needs help. We can get Ginny to--" Neville clucked his tongue in exasperation. "I keep forgetting she's not here. Well, see what the situation is then we'll plan something tonight if we can."
He looked over Seamus' shoulder. Terry and Eloise were coming along the corridor at last. He was walking really slowly and partly leaning on Eloise with his arm around her shoulder.
Neville shook his head in disbelief. "Someone should tell her we all fake it."
"She knows," whispered Hannah in his ear.
"Never!" breathed Neville, his expression showing his amazement.
"Oh yeah!" affirmed Hannah, nodding her head vigorously at Neville. "You can tell she's enjoying it as much as Terry. Eloise still feels embarrassed about hugging without an excuse."
"Why don't they just bring their feelings out in the open?" said Ernie. "I mean, they're a couple, right? How long before they actually snog and--"
"Ernie! You going to get your back fixed or what?" said Neville.
"Erm... right - see you later."
Ernie was wrong about there being no prefects about: Astoria Greengrass was standing around in the hospital wing as he entered. He paused in the doorway.
"Since when?" said Ernie, frostily, seeing her prefect's badge.
"They're one man short and needed a substitute," she said. "What you doing here, Macmillan? You know the rules - no hospital wing for detention injuries unless they're life-threatening."
"Yeah, well I'm dying to know why you're here too. Is that life-threatening enough for you?"
"Less of your cheek!" She looked over his shoulder into the corridor behind him. "Are you the only one?"
"Disappointed we're not all dying is that--? What do you know about it anyway?" Ernie closed the door behind him and looked at her thoughtfully as he approached. "You were waiting for us, weren't you." It was not a question.
Astoria's face clouded. "I might not report this if you--"
"Oh, give it a rest, Greengrass!" snapped Ernie. "Where's Madam Pomfrey anyway?"
Ernie walked past Astoria and looked around. The only bed occupied held a miserable-looking Transfiguration student with a third arm soaking in a bowl of withering potion.
"I got a message to Matron that there had been an accident in Potions," said Astoria.
Ernie whirled around. "You what? You drew her away? Why?"
Astoria's demeanour softened. "I want to know what's happened to Draco."
Ernie stared at her. "No idea. He's a Death Eater and a murderer. He helped get Professor Dumbledore killed. Far as I'm concerned I hope he took a long vertical flight perched on top of a very short broomstick."
"Who'd know? Would Longbottom know?"
"I doubt it. What's this about?"
"Could he find out?"
"Ask him, not me."
"I can't be seen... Can you arrange for him to meet me?"
Ernie glared at her suspiciously. "Where?"
"Owlery. Eight o'clock tonight."
The door burst open and Madam Pomfrey swept through rather angrily. She stopped when she saw the two of them. "What's this? Why are you two here?"
Ernie thought quickly then gestured at Astoria. "Miss Greengrass helped get me here. I was kicked in the back by Carrow - kidney I think."
"Right - shirt off and lie face down on that bed, Macmillan." She turned to Astoria. "You - out!"
At the door, Astoria looked back and caught Ernie's attention as he was climbing onto the bed. He looked at her carefully. She was biting her lip and her eyes were begging an answer. He nodded his head in agreement.
Neville looked at his fake Galleon one more time, shook his head, and began ascending the stone steps up to the owlery. He was cautious, experience had taught him to be, yet he did not expect a trap. In any case, he had nothing to give; Luna had not yet responded to his message. As he reached the door of the owlery he reached for his Galleon yet again. He did not draw it out this time; it was still cold. He put his hand on the door handle. Perhaps he might still get some information from Greengrass first; Ernie had said she seemed anxious - perhaps desperate - so hopefully more willing to trade to his advantage.
There was no one to be seen in the owlery but owls, and most of these were Hogwarts' own birds. Neville looked around the roosts but only a few of the residents took any notice of him. Yet there was something in the air that seemed familiar... He walked back to the doorway and listened for footsteps coming up. After waiting a minute, he shrugged his shoulders, and went to one of the open windows to look out. The western sky was aflame with the remnants of a hazy setting sun. He took out a packet of owl treats he'd brought up as part of his cover story should he be interrupted.
"So, you came alone."
Neville whirled around, wand fumbled out, owl treats scattering to the floor. Astoria was removing a concealment charm from herself.
"You don't trust me?" said Neville.
"I had to be sure," said Astoria.
"Don't see what you've got to worry about. It's me that's at risk." Neville kicked treats aside with his foot but kept his wand out steady. It was her fragrance that he must have recognised from somewhere - he told himself to be more vigilant.
Astoria shook her head slowly. "You have no idea, do you? If I were caught consorting with the leader of Dumbledore's Army--"
Neville laughed. "Me? Neville Longbottom? You are so wrong it's laughable. I'm just an errand boy. They won't even let me into their meetings."
Astoria gave a wry smile and rolled her eyes. "I need your help."
"So I heard, but I want yours first. Act of faith. Information. What can you tell me?"
"About what?" she asked.
"Anything. Anything that I might... pass on. I have a contact who might know someone who says his friend could possibly be in the D.A."
"Think I'm that stupid? Everybody knows you're the leader of Dumble--"
Neville took swift steps towards her and the wand, still in his hand, flashed and whirled rapidly. "Specialis Revelio!" Astoria, startled, took a step back. Neville studied the results of the detection spell for a few moments, then relaxed and put away his wand.
"Are you crazy!" said Astoria. "Did you think--?"
"I had to be sure," smiled Neville, grimly. "So... what do you know? What can you give me that will help us?"
Astoria stared. "Do you think the Slytherins sit around hatching secret plots all day? Or that they are privy to the headmaster's secrets? Or the Carrows? No, I don't have any information for you."
Neville said, "Then we have a problem." He turned away to stroke the feathers of the nearest owl but he was watching Astoria out of the corner of his eye.
"I sometimes... I sometimes hear things," she said finally. "I could listen out for anything that might be useful."
Neville glanced at her then said with a note of finality. "Fine. Let me know when you have something." He turned back to the owl. It fluttered its wings then flew to the window where it perched for a while before flying away to hunt in the gathering dusk.
Astoria swept around to his side. Her eyes were full of the concern she felt. "But I need to know now... I have to know... Please. Ginny said--"
Neville gasped. "It was you! It was you who grabbed Ginny in the girls' bog that time near the library!"
"And you tried to trick--" He paused as he recollected what had actually happened. "It was you that told us - told her that Luna was alive?"
Again she nodded. "Yes." She could see the word "Why?" starting to form on his lips so quickly added, "None of your damn business!"
Another owl had returned, perhaps the same one, silhouetted at the open window arch. It scrabbled around as if trying to remember where it should go.
"But..." Neville's mind was working extra hard. "How'd you know? About Luna?"
"That's none of your business either," snapped Astoria.
"Fair enough. And Draco's none of yours."
"You know what's happened to him? Is he alive?" She forced herself in front of him, looking intently into his eyes. He realised why he had been avoiding examining her features too closely: her face was only moderately pretty - though slightly angular - but he had to concede that her long fair hair was finer than Hannah's. He resented her for that theft. Perhaps it was only the last of the daylight behind her that made it seem a drifting haze of silvery gold. He had been wrong - she was much more than pretty and her fragrance so filled him that he wanted to hold on to every breath... The newly-returned owl wafted close by his face and broke the spell.
He blinked and took a step backwards, trying to gasp in fresh air. "You're wearing Love's Influence! No wonder your scent seemed familiar - it's Hannah herself! That's not even legal! It's undetectable!"
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I was desperate!" she pleaded. "I was scared you wouldn't help me!" She opened a small vial from which a soft blue vapour arose around her while she chanted softly. "See - it's gone now."
Neville glared at her. "How did you get Hannah's... essence?" He shook his head and muttered half to himself, "It's not just her scent - it's Hannah, herself! Her personality. Her character. All that she is... Have you--?"
"I didn't go near her, I promise! You brought her! She's in your head! That's how it works! It makes your own love influence what you see."
Neville fell silent, still scowling and only slightly mollified that Hannah had not been defiled in any way. He was the one who felt violated.
"Will you still help me?" Astoria's face did not look so pretty anymore and her hair seemed very average.
"Have we a deal? You'll tell me anything you hear that might be useful to us? And your word you won't tell anyone you spoke to me?"
"Yes, Yes. Please. I have to know." She said it so beseechingly that Neville hesitated to tell her he knew nothing. He heard the owl flutter back to its roost behind him. Long moments passed while Astoria waited, not daring to breath. Finally, Neville could delay telling her no longer.
"If there happens..." He hesitated, wondering how to say it. "I'll let you know should there be--"
Astoria released her long-held breath and seemed to sag as if all hope was expelled with that air. "You don't know anything at all, do you?" She took out a handkerchief and slowly moved to the door, dabbing at her eyes. Ashamed of his deceit, he turned his back to her and listened as she went out through the doorway.
"WAIT! WAIT!" He was looking at the owl which seemed exhausted. It was much bigger than the first one. "Audrey?" The message tied to its leg was very brief. He heard Astoria's foot crunch on an owl treat as she approached behind him. Neville had to make a big effort to tell her.
"It's bad news. I'm sorry." He heard her give a little cry and although he turned to her, he could not look her in the eye; his gaze remained on the parchment. "He's been badly... hurt." He wondered whether to tell her the truth. He looked up and said the words, "Tortured by... You-know-who."
He reached out to support her as she swayed next to him. "Last we know, he was alive."
She nodded and wiped her eyes again.
Abruptly, compassion overwhelmed his dislike of the girl; nobody, not even Draco, deserved to suffer like that. "Sounds to me like You-know-who does not intend him to die, though," Neville murmured, wondering, after he had said it, if that was any comfort.
Astoria went back to the door. Neville thought she looked rather small - just a little girl really. All he could say was, "If I hear more I'll let you know."
She went out without replying. Neville was unsure whether he had made a friend or an enemy.
He went back to see if Audrey was alright but she was already sleeping with her head hunched down between her shoulders and her beak tucked into her soft downy feathers. He scooped up a few of the fallen treats but as he went to place them in her roost another owl fluttered in and alighted at his side.
"Brash! What are you doing here, boy! Not seen you since... You're not supposed to come here except--" Neville's original expression of delight at seeing his gran's owl changed to one of concern. "--in emergency."
He took the proffered message and read it carefully. He was passive and thoughtful by the time he left the owlery.
Ginny sat at Aunt Muriel's writing desk, smiling to herself, thinking of Harry and wondering what he was doing. Yes, she was keen to see and talk with him but somehow it did not hurt anymore. There was no temptation to use the medallion either. In a way, there was no need. She could sense what was important. He was safe - and he was experiencing the same certainty that she was.
One of her earliest memories came to her recollection. Her mum had to go out on an errand leaving Ginny in the care of her elder brothers. She had been too young to understand. Mum took her everywhere she went and now, for the first time, she had gone without her. Even Charlie had been unable to console his little sister. How she had cried! Wailed and wept for the eternal twenty minutes it took her mother to return. Then, with teardrops still sparkling, it was all smiles again in her mother's comforting embrace, the emptiness and anguish quickly forgotten. Over the years, much longer separations caused no distress. She had learned that absence was not permanent loss: her mum always returned.
Ginny included the tale in her letter, writing down every detail she remembered. She sealed it, wrote 'To my beloved Harry' on the envelope and added it to the haphazard pile that was accumulating there. Ginny had no doubt whatsoever that it would be all smiles again with Harry one day so made no attempt to hide the heap of correspondence. She looked up. Her father was sitting close by, looking at her very curiously. He seemed about to speak but there was a distant knock on the front door, two rooms away, and his hand went to his wand. They listened intently to Aunt Muriel's challenge, then heard someone being allowed entry.
"Bill!" cried Mrs Weasley, rushing to cling to her son. "Oh, and Mr Ollivander, here at last! How are you feeling now?"
"A little weak, still, Molly, I must confess," he replied.
"You do look dreadful, Garrick," barked Auntie Muriel. "To be expected, I suppose. Well, someone find him a seat before he collapses on my best rug. Anywhere will do."
There were greetings all round. Bill said he had to get back quickly.
"I have something for you, Muriel," Ollivander croaked as he lowered himself onto an ancient leather chair, assisted by George. The wandmaker held up a small box.
"Hmph! I see you're getting comfortable in my favourite seat. Well, what is it?"
"Oh, is this your--"
"As George well knows!" squawked Auntie Muriel. "Oh well, if I must stand in my own home then I will. I'm a hundred and eight you know!"
Despite Mrs Weasley's protests, Bill insisted again he had to get back in time for dinner. In the commotion, nobody noticed Ginny had slipped away to the front hall, nobody except Mr Weasley. His lips firmed and he looked across to the desk. The pile of sealed envelopes was still there. He frowned as Bill tried to make his goodbyes with his mother still clutching his arm, then Mr Weasley rose and went to the desk.
Ollivander gathered up his weak frame to perch on the end of his seat and leaned upwards towards his host. "Muriel, might I ask a great favour?"
"Hmm... Well, everyone seems to be doing so now - it seems to be the style," she said sternly. When he hesitated, she added, "Go on then. Out with it. Perhaps I can accommodate one more... favour."
"The tool shed - I noticed it in your garden as we came through..."
"My tool shed! I can assure you I can provide proper bedrooms in my house for guests, Garrick!"
"Yes, of course - no, I mean... I wondered if I might use it - just temporarily sometime during my stay you understand. I very much wish to make something for the young lady who gave me hope again during my confinement. A new wand. No one more deserving."
"The Lovegood child? Hmph! Well, Garrick, if it cures her of dancing so foolishly then it can only be an improvement. I'll be swaying myself soon if I don't fall over first..." She looked around for an available seat.
"Thank you, Muriel. Thank you so much."
"Muriel?" Ollivander's brow furrowed as he tried to grasp her meaning.
"Are you to keep me in suspense all evening, Garrick?" Her wand summoned a squat, two-seat settee which slid along the carpet towards her carrying an astonished Fred Weasley. She plumped down at his side making his teacup rattle in its saucer.
"What my dear?" murmured Ollivander, faintly. "Oh, yes, of course. Forgive me. Fleur has asked me to return your tiara to you with grateful thanks."
Hmph! Well, I cannot hide my astonishment!" said Muriel, as she carefully inspected the contents of the box. "After all this time I had come to accept that I was never to see it again." She glanced at Bill on his way out of the parlour door. She gave a satisfied smirk when he flinched at her words but he did not look back.
He was startled to find Ginny in the front porch. She did not say anything but the look in her eyes told him what she wanted to know. He sighed. "He's keeping busy as usual with Ron and Hermione. Harry's fine."
"I know," smiled Ginny.
"I just wanted to hear his name. To hear it without anger or... contempt."
Embarrassed, Bill looked at his watch. Dinner would be being served at Shell Cottage and he was most anxious to get back to Fleur. He hated to leave her for long in these dangerous times. Looking at the earnestness in Ginny's eyes, he suddenly was swamped with a strange sensation of how it might be to never return to his wife. He blinked. This was all Ron's fault; the way he had talked the other day was clouding his common sense. Ginny was still looking at him expectantly.
There was resignation in his voice as he said, "You're set on him aren't you? Harry."
Ginny nodded. "He's the one. We belong to each other."
Bill looked as if he was about to say something but then turned and opened the front door.
"I must go - I really must."
"Give everyone my love won't you Bill - everyone?"
He turned in the doorway and studied her face for a few moments then nodded before he strode away to the front gate. Ginny watched him Disapparate then quietly closed the front door.
When she returned to the parlour, she found her envelopes in a neat pile. Ginny smiled but did not look round; she knew how methodical her father was. Once seated, her quill was taken up again with relish. It was a nice luxury to be able to write really long messages. At last she could pour out her heart in written words without fear.
Neville's reading of his gran's message in the owlery had given Astoria plenty of time to get clear but as he descended he could hear her there still at the foot of the tower involved in a shouting match with Seamus. There was blood pouring from his nose and mouth.
"No idea what you're talking about!" she squealed. "What--"
"Where is he, then? I know you were going to see him!" Seamus' eyes rose over her shoulders and fell upon Neville as he stepped off the bottom step. "Ah! Neville!"
"Seamus? What happened?" Neville pushed past Astoria who was glaring at the two of them.
"They got Michael in the dungeon. We rescued the kid but they took Michael. I ran for it then Crabbe found me, gave me a beating."
"You were supposed to be hidden by a Disillusionment charm! Why didn't you--?"
"We were! Crabbe felt me trying to get by him and just started thumping the air. I managed to get away though!"
"Did he know who you are?" said Neville.
"No - but Michael, sheesh... Goyle hexed him bad the last I saw," moaned Seamus. His voice fell to a dark whisper, "Heard his arm break."
Neville stared. Astoria looked aghast. It was being driven home to her what involvement with the D.A. really meant.
As he sank down to sit on the stone floor, drained of even the effort to stand, Seamus was muttering to himself over and over as if he could not quite accept it himself yet, "Heard his arm break."
Astoria watched as Neville ripped the red and gold clasp off his robe and broke it in half. He crouched down next to Seamus. "Here, swallow this." He squeezed something out of the fastener into Seamus' hand and gave him a handkerchief. Astoria leaned against the wall feeling faint.
Neville looked up and saw how white she looked. "You okay? You need help?" He took something from his belt and went to her. "You need help getting back to your dorm?"
She shook her head. This wasn't happening. We're supposed to be enemies and all he can think of is if there is some way to help me - likely get himself a kicking for his trouble. Were Gryffindors all mad? "What kind of people are you!"
"Us?" Neville looked puzzled. "You should be asking that question of the low-life who broke Michael's arm, shouldn't you?"
"I don't think he's got anything," moaned Seamus from the floor. Dabbing at his face with the handkerchief.
"What?" said Neville.
"Michael - he used up his Mandrabane this morning - we all did. I don't think he had a chance to replace it during the day. He'll talk. They'll make him scream for real. I think he's only got one Dittany mint. Fat lot of good that'll do when they open him up like sardines in tomato." He stared at the bright red stain on Neville's hankie.
It was evening before Michael was released. He was in a dreadful state. Ernie and Seamus had to carry him from the dungeons past a column of jeering Slytherins. After making sure they were not followed, they left him overnight under the Matron's care in the hospital wing. They went back to visit first thing the next day with Neville.
"Please, Madam Pomfrey," said Neville, "there's something I need to know - or you might have more patients than you can handle, if you know what I mean."
Madam Pomfrey glared at Neville, then her expression relaxed a little. "Ten minutes - no more - and just the one of you."
Seamus and Ernie waited outside while she led Neville through her office towards a tall metal cabinet whose door was hanging off on one hinge. There were various unpleasant implements on its shelves and blankets and sheets were squeezed between whatever spaces there were left. Looking up, Neville could see more crammed into a big wire basket on top of the cupboard. Madam Pomfrey tapped four times on a distastefully shaped throat scraper and the shelves and their contents faded to let them through. There were three beds but only one occupant of Matron's 'special' ward.
"Michael! You look... rough."
"Ten minutes, remember!" Pomfrey said sternly as she backed out and closed the exit.
"They ... got ... mint," groaned Michael. He was propped upright against a pile of pillows but only because his features were so painfully swollen and his insides so damaged, he could not lie flat comfortably. "They figured it ... out."
"My ... Ditt ... any ... mint," he gasped.
Neville's mouth fell open in shock. "They know? I'd better warn everyone. They'll be searching for potions and pastes and pills disguised as sweets at least. The Carrows may be stupid but Snape's cunning; they won't find it hard to find the other stuff inside buttons and laces and ink bottles." He released a long sigh. "I suppose we're lucky we got away with it this long."
There was a long pause before Neville continued hesitantly, "Did you... You'd have to... You must have told them..."
Neville went pale. He couldn't blame Michael for informing on them under what he must have suffered but somehow he had hoped he might have avoided it.
"Told them ... everybody."
"You told them the names of every single D.A. member?"
"Said ... all Hogwarts ... students ... are ... D.A. Everybody's ... in it.... Everyone."
"They believed that?"
"They still ... trust ... Verita ... serum." He couldn't smile but there was satisfaction detectable in his tone even though his voice was weak and hoarse.
Neville grinned. "Well, that'll confuse them. They must think you believe it even if they don't accept it. Anyway, they won't want to expel everyone and close the whole school down."
"Draco's back," gasped Michael.
"What!" cried Neville in astonishment. "Are you sure? He must have returned while..."
"Mmm..." Michael sunken features seemed even paler and he closed his eyes. "waves..."
Neville sat with him the remaining few minutes trying to think of all the clever, supportive words a leader is supposed to offer. He had no success. The linen sheets were crisply bleached and still with that delicious, not-quite-scorched, freshly-ironed smell he noted. He wondered if it were a charm. No stains. No blood. All suffering was clinically hidden away from sight; tucked up tightly in bed within its sobbing victim.
"He looked ... worse 'n me," Michael said eventually.
"Draco? Standing though? He can walk?"
"Yes, but no lessons." Malcolm gasped and stopped talking again for a while before continuing. "Keeping him ... low ... out of sight ... to recover. Away ... from ... home."
"So that's what they were discussing. I was afraid they were laughing about you," said Neville.
"No," said Michael. "Think they ... talking ... 'bout ... you."
He began crying again as the pain took him once more.
The secret cabinet entrance opened and Madam Pomfrey leaned in.
"This is great bravery," Neville said gruffly to Michael before he left, hoping to convey there was no shame in weeping. "This is what it is." It sounded inadequate - even dumb - after he had said it.
As he squeezed past Madam Pomfrey he said loudly, "Don't you ever tell anyone he was crying!"
Her eyes flared but he looked resolutely into them. There was hidden meaning in his gaze. She had been about to say something scathing in response to his rudeness but her face softened as she realised he wasn't speaking for her sake. The Matron lifted herself to her full height but Neville stood taller. In a voice as clear as his had been, she said, "No, I won't. Of course not."
When Neville rejoined Seamus and Ernie outside he was bitter. "They've hurt him really bad this time - but he told the bastards nothing."
He gave them time to digest the enormity of that before he continued, "We'll still have to ease off though. They know from his disguised Dittany that we're using hidden potions and spells to withstand the punishments and heal the injuries. No more of these risky stunts, just the graffiti and sky writing and so on but we'll take extra care. I don't want anyone suffering again what they did to Michael. Pass the word: Don't be caught with any concealed potions. The D.A. needs to rethink its strategies."
"Do you think we can keep going at all?" asked Ernie.
"We have to!" snapped Neville. "How long, I don't know - but we have to keep trying." He looked thoughtful. He wanted to tell them how useless he felt after sitting unhelpfully with Michael but he kept quiet about it. "I wish Harry was here more than ever now. He'd know what to do. He'll come - I just know he will."
Seamus and Ernie looked at one another sceptically but they kept their feelings to themselves too.
Snape and the Carrows were absent at breakfast and the general mood was much lighter than during previous meals. Eloise had put up a new message in the sky Setbacks are temporary. Success is certain. Dumbledore's Army will never surrender.
"What you looking so smug about, Seamus," said Romilda.
"You'll see," said Seamus.
Neville noticed he kept looking across to the Slytherin table. Crabbe and Goyle were sharing a joke about something and glancing back at the Gryffindor table. "Why are they looking over here?" said Neville. "Are you sure they don't know it was you that escaped them?"
"Yeah, I'm sure."
"Might have recognised your voice?"
"No, I didn't speak, didn't call out. Might have grunted when I got a fist in my face but no, they can't know it was me."
"So why are they looking at you?"
"Don't think it's me. They're probably only looking at the Gryffindors. Just showing how dumb they really are since Draco didn't return to pull their strings this term," said Seamus.
"You planning revenge on Crabbe? Is that it?" said Lavender.
"Maybe," growled Seamus. "Look at them, probably laughing about Michael."
Neville glanced quickly across again. Crabbe was smirking directly at him - at him, not Seamus - but Draco's place was still empty. Astoria's usual position next to her sister Daphne was empty too. He began thinking about his grandmother's rocking chair being equally empty. He stared down at his bacon and eggs despondently. He'd not spoken to anyone yet about the message he'd got from her. So that's likely why Crabbe and Goyle are sneering at me.
"Death Eaters went after my gran."
"What!" said Seamus and Romilda together.
He held up his grandmother's message. "Yeah, she thinks they were going to keep her hostage to force me to do whatever they want."
"She got away then?" said Romilda.
"They only sent one Ministry Auror," said Neville contemptuously. "She hexed him then ran for it. My gran's tough - they underestimated her." He brightened up a little with pride even though he was worried.
"Somehow I don't think it would have worked anyway, Neville," said Seamus. "You're more like Harry these days. I can't imagine you ever giving in to them."
Neville didn't have time to think about this. There was a sudden explosion of activity from the windows as several owls burst in just as a loud crack came from the Slytherin table. The bench upon which Crabbe and Goyle were sitting had splintered and collapsed and the pair went down to the floor with a crash along with other students from their house. More owls were pouring in through the windows and to add to the commotion, students were now openly jeering at the Slytherins while others were excitedly receiving the first messages they had received for some time.
"Nice one, Seamus," said Romilda. "How'd you get these owls to arrive all at once?" There were now thirty or forty owls either flying about or fluttering on table tops. Students were scrabbling for their messages.
"What are you up to, Seamus? Mine says 'SHOUT! CLAP! WALK!'," laughed Lavender. "Are we really supposed - WAHOO!" She couldn't help herself. Seamus watched as she stood up and began walking around in circles, clapping her hands and yelling meaningless gibberish.
Some of the kids were already performing similar antics. McGonagall rose to her feet and tried to restore order but the tumult quickly spread.
"Weren't my idea," smiled Seamus. "I only did Crabbe and Goyle - looks like I've got one too!"
"Me too!" grinned Neville, reaching for the message attached to the owl in front of him.
"WHISTLE! JUMP! SHOUT!" laughed Seamus. "What's yours, Neville?" But Seamus didn't wait for an answer; he was already leaping about, yelling and whistling.
Neville had stopped grinning. His face went pale. He stood up, looking around fearfully then thrust his message at Seamus, who, by now, was prancing along their bench. Neville shouted as loudly as he could above the noise, "GOTTA RUN!"
"GREAT! GO FOR IT!" yelled Seamus back at him.. Students were running, jumping, and hollering everywhere. McGonagall was shouting for order but was being ignored.
"NO! I'VE REALLY GOT TO!"
"ME TOO!" laughed Seamus.
Neville was whirling around, searching. Crabbe and Goyle were not visible - presumably still on the floor after the collapse of their bench. His eyes alighted on the door in the corner behind the teachers' tables at the front of the room. "Of course!" It was the door the champions had passed through at the start of the Triwizard Tournament. He ran. He ran for his life.
"NEVILLE?" Seamus yelled after him.
"Mr Longbottom," cried Professor McGonagall as Neville leapt over her table, "what on earth is going on!"
"Sorry, Professor - no time!"
He shouldered through the door while opening it then squeezed it shut behind him. He leaned back panting, trying to see where he was. The room was small and dim but he could detect several portraits staring at him curiously. "Renegade! Usurper!" cried a grey-haired wizard in a green cloak. "Fetch the headmaster!"
"No - wait!" shouted Neville but the painted wizard had slipped away off the edge of his frame.
Neville peered through the shadows and drew out his wand.
"Don't light that!" called a witch from a plain frame hanging on the side wall. "It will fade my colours." She was pointing into the furthest corner. Neville could faintly discern a black-painted door.
"Don't mention it," she replied then added more emphatically, "please."
The passage outside was as small and dim as the room had been and just as unknown to him. He felt his way along, found another door and crept through, hand extended in front of him. He closed the door quietly behind him then lit his wand. Store cupboard. Neville sighed and backed out, noisily knocking over a mop as he did so.
"He's here!" came from the far corner of the dark passage.
Neville knew that voice to be Goyle's. He and Crabbe must have been alerted by the Slytherin portrait and gone around ahead of him. How had they moved so fast? Neville sent a couple of curses and chased after them; there was no other way out and he had no intention of returning to the Great Hall. He found only Goyle glaring up at him, tightly bound, mouth silenced jammed up against the outer wall of the turn. As he stepped past him round the bend he realised his mistake. From far down this new corridor, both of the Carrows hurled hexes and jinxes his way and both hit him in the left leg. Down he sprawled over Goyle and half around the turning. He pushed off from the Slytherin with one leg, wriggled on his back out of sight, extinguished his light and cast a concealment spell upon himself.
There was no pain; he had no sensation in his leg at all and wished he had looked at it before magically hiding himself. His hand reached out and found his limb but it might as well have been dead or attached to someone else. The Carrows' footsteps and their low mutterings could be heard slowly approaching; they were being careful.
"I'm sure we got 'im," wheezed Alecto breathlessly.
"Yeah, but 'e's a slipp'ry one so watch out," Amycus muttered. "Probably just round that corner, waitin' for us."
They know exactly where I am! thought Neville frantically.
There was no possibility of outrunning them on one leg; he had to think very quickly. The broom cupboard was still open and he could see the mop lying half out from it.
Neville whispered almost inaudibly three spells rapidly, "Wingardium Leviosa. Accio mop. Colloportus." The mop obligingly floated back into its cupboard then tried to obey Neville's summons but it was already locked in. It tried its best, tapping and bumping against the door but the door would not budge. Now Neville wriggled on top of Goyle, glare to glare, though Goyle could not see his, and lay still against the far wall. Ahead of him, the Carrows, silhouetted by daylight coming through an archway behind them, were very close but had halted at the sound of the knocking mop. The arch seemed familiar but the passage turned abruptly left beyond it and he could see no further.
"Watch out round this corner, Ammy" murmured Alecto, holding her wand light high.
"I can 'ear the clumsy blighter," snarled her brother. The bumping and thuds from the cupboard were unmissable.
Amycus walked closely past Goyle followed by his sister who brushed across Neville's knee but must have assumed it was Goyle's beefy elbow on her ankle.
"Give up, Longbottom," he heard Amycus say when he had reached the cupboard. "There's no way out, now. Your time is over! Did you really think we'd let you carry on being a pathetic nuisance forever? You and that ridiculous fumble more army?" He was sniggering at his own taunts but Neville was already crawling along the stone slabs of the new corridor. He was almost at the archway when he heard Alecto's impatient shriek, "Alohamora!" followed by a yelp of pain. "It's a bloomin' mop!"
"Follow it then!" bellowed Amycus.
Neville didn't quite make it through the arch. The wand lights of the Carrows came around Goyle's bend, clearly illuminated the mop speeding towards Neville who grabbed it instinctively to prevent it colliding with his head. In a moment he had hovered it onwards through the archway then to the left with him clinging to its shaft and his boots and backside scraping along the floor. It was no enchanted broomstick though and his weight was too great. The mop was starting to splinter as magic fought with mass through the thin pole. At least he had been dragged out of sight of the Carrows' curses.
With a startled gasp of hope, he recognised where he was: the right cloister leading to the boathouse steps descent. He had come partly this way as an anxious first-year to the sorting ceremony. If only he could escape across the lake... but he knew they would overtake him easily on those steps or if not, he would be a sitting duck on the open water. One leg kicked out again to try to lift him and his fracturing mop above the stone railings through one of the cloister arches. Looking back he could see wand lights closely approaching the archway he had passed. In a desperate panic he thrust up with both legs. The mop lurched up and over but broke its back on the parapet, cracking and breaking apart completely as it pulled him over. He fell heavily, and the pieces of the broken mop dropped about him.
Biting on his sleeve to stifle his groans, he lay like a stranded whale atop the rocky descent, listening to the Carrows thundering by in the cloister passageway above.
"We got 'im now 'Lecto!" panted Amycus. "Swim or row, we got 'im now!"
"His mop'll fly 'im over!" wheezed Alecto. "Or what if 'e 'as Gillyweed?
"Now 'e ain't goin' to be havin' no Gillyweed on 'im - not likely is it?" snorted Amycus. "No, 'e'll use 'is mop then 'e'll make a fine target won't 'e - flopping 'bout like an 'ooked kipper!"
Neville heard their exchanges growing fainter down the boathouse stair. He was out of their sight for a few minutes - though he knew they'd be back. He had only fallen eight feet but he was winded and aching all over. Neville forced himself to sit up against the cloister support and cancelled his concealment. His left trouser was ripped but he couldn't tell the state of his leg. There was a little blood but no feeling; could he stand?
Leaning against the stone wall he struggled to his feet and gingerly put weight on his numb leg. It held but he was sure he could not walk - there was no sensation, no idea which way the leg was pointing without looking. Well, he told himself, somehow he just had to find a way. It was a long climb down over the rocks to the lake and one slip would likely send him plunging to his death. That was out of the question even if he had two good legs. There was nothing for it: he had to get back into the cloister. It was only a few feet but with aching muscles and a useless dead leg it took him almost two minutes by which time he could hear footsteps running back up the boathouse steps.
He decided the Carrows would probably split up. One would search over the outer rock wall and see the broken mop pieces. The other would climb through the inner arches of the cloister. From there they would have a clear view in daylight across the exposed bridge to the east wing or else around the grand staircase tower to the courtyard. The concealment charm he once again cast upon himself would not be enough for anyone actively searching and using revealing spells. Neville went the only way left to him, the one way he did not want to go: back towards the Great Hall.
By keeping one pressed hand firmly on his numb leg, a hurried, crouching limp was managed but he did not get far. As he stood in the archway, Crabbe had joined Goyle at the furthest end of the dim corridor, though the released Goyle was swaying on his feet. Neville was trapped. He span around. He could see the Carrows looking over the cloister rail. He could faintly hear them arguing about the broken mop debris.
"That's what 'e wants us to think! 'E's just thrown it over." said Alecto Shrilly. "I ain't goin' down there!"
"We gotta be sure," snapped Amycus. "I'll go then, you ninny - you check the bridge and the courtyard."
Behind him, Neville heard footsteps approaching. It was Crabbe. He was on his own but Neville was between him and the Carrows. If he Stupefied Crabbe then the Carrows would hear and be upon him in an instant from barely forty paces away. Neville looked up. There was a carved stone lintel jutting out the top of the arch but he could see no way to get up there even if he were fit. He stepped to the stone rail but Amycus was also peering over further along, hesitantly casting spells across the rocks left and right to try to detect him. Neville would be found if he went down there again - yet if he stayed in the cloister then Crabbe would be upon him in the next few seconds. If Neville tried to cross over to the opposite rail then Crabbe would see his pale camouflage pass in front of the arch.
He did the only thing he could: he sat on the cloister rail right next to the archway. If Crabbe glanced to his right as he emerged then he would surely see the shimmering camouflage of Neville's concealment spell. But as he came thundering out into the cloister, Crabbe spotted Amycus Carrow ahead and he raced straight on past Neville.
"Ah, Crabbe - over you go, boy. He's down there, I reckon."
Neville didn't wait to watch. He slipped back though the archway once more and legged it as quietly as he could back to the Great Hall antechamber. Goyle was there, moaning weakly in a chair but he was still too dazed from Neville's binding spell to have lit his wand in this gloomy chamber. The friendly witch portrait didn't see the near-invisible Neville pass by in the dark but she heard his foot slip on the stone floor. He heard her gasp but she turned it into a lengthy cough. Neville wondered who she was to have helped him; her robes were plain. He seemed to recall seeing the Fat Lady talking to her a few times.
He eased open the door to the Great Hall just a crack but he knew from the noise what he would see. Most of the students were still enchanted by the running, jumping and shouting spells and being chased by various professors which only added to the mayhem. Neville would never make it across the Hall without either his camouflage charm being spotted or, more likely, he would be bumped into by someone in that jungle of rushing bodies.
"Who's that?" came from behind him. He twisted around. It was the Slytherin wizard portrait.
"They left the door open, that's all" said the friendly witch.
"Goyle! Rouse yourself! Check this door! Check it, I say!" shouted the green-robed portrait.
Goyle tried to struggle to his feet. "Wha'--?"
Neville felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder from behind and a chill went through him. He slowly raised his wand - but another hand grabbed his arm and pushed it down. There was a soft whisper in his ear, "You'd better come with me, Longbottom." It was Professor McGonagall.
"It's me, you blitherin' nincompoop!" snapped the professor. "Breakfast is over. Shouldn't you be in your first lesson?"
She pushed Neville back to the shadowy side wall and stood in front of him while she waited for Goyle to pass into the Great Hall, then she closed the door, strode over to the Slytherin portrait, removed it, dropped it face down on the armchair which Goyle had vacated, then sat on it heavily. "Well?" she said to Neville, firmly but quietly. "I hope you have an explanation?"
There was a whistle from the door. It was open again and Seamus jumped through, wand held high followed by Hannah Abbott who was singing a raucous tavern song about a drunken dairy farmer who had lost his whey. Seamus saw Professor McGonagall sitting quietly in the darkness, glaring back at him.
"SORRY, PROFESSOR!" he shouted. He was springing up and down on the spot because of the on-going Pogo enchantment. He was now reaching heights dangerously close to the overhead beams.
"What in Merlin's name is going on!" demanded McGonagall.
Hannah sang to her very sincerely and sorrowfully, "We are searching for someone, We're not stopping till we're done. Is he near or is he far? Trah lah lah lah lah lah lahhh!"
Seamus whistled along in and out of tune depending whether he was on the way up or on the way down. McGonagall groaned and countered the enchantments with a wave of her wand. "Mr Finnegan, is there something you wish to tell me?"
"Professor, have you seen--?" panted Seamus.
"Quietly, Mr Finnegan. We have company," she cut in swiftly.
Seamus looked around at the portraits then began to whisper, "We... erm..."
Neville said quietly in his ear, "Show her my message, Seamus."
Seamus and Hannah gasped and Neville reached out and took her hand.
McGonagall read the parchment to herself.
CARROWS WAIT TO TRAP YOU OUTSIDE GREAT HALL AFTER BREAKFAST. AZKABAN OR WORSE. RUN!
"You know who wrote this?"
"I've a good idea but I'm not saying or I may put someone at risk," said Neville, adding by way of explanation, "The Ministry tried to kidnap my gran but she escaped. I guess that was their last attempt to control me."
"So now they've decided to simply dispose of you instead!" spat McGonagall. She vanished the parchment with a wave of her wand.
"Mr Finnegan, Miss Abbott," she said very softly, "would you please escort your friend to my office? Though how we can possibly smuggle him out of Hogwarts, I do not know!"
Seamus and Hannah with Neville concealed between them had barely got out the door into the Great Hall when there was the sound of running feet and shouts of exasperation behind them. McGonagall transfigured herself into a cat and calmly strolled behind the armchair but not before she had enchanted the door to delay the Carrows.
The Great Hall was still in an uproar with students running and shouting. Neville suspected many were not even enchanted but joining in the spectacle rather than starting the morning's lessons. These distractions made Seamus and Hannah less noticeable. The counter spells of Professors Sprout, Flitwick, and Slughorn seemed ineffective but Neville had the impression they too were playacting - feigning their attempts to bring order to the chaos. Had McGonagall tipped them off to Neville's plight?
Despite Neville's limp, the three made good progress and were almost at the Entrance Hall when the door to the ante-chamber exploded open and Crabbe and the Carrows emerged in a rage of wood dust and splinters.
Neville dived under the nearest table. "Split up!"
Seamus quickly walked away and began shouting and jumping again - it seemed more normal than standing around. Hannah went and sat down at the Hufflepuff table, wondering what to do to help Neville. All the Slytherins had left so Neville crawled to the far edge of their table to await his chance. He didn't get one.
"Finite Incantatem!" roared Amycus.
The scene had been a mix of drama and party humour; the sudden quiet and stillness that fell upon the Great Hall's occupants reduced the atmosphere to a more serious tension. Everyone awaited the outcome.
"There!" bellowed Crabbe.
Neville didn't look back to see where the Slytherin was pointing. Visible and vulnerable, he had only twenty paces to reach the doorway to the Entrance Hall but with his dead leg he had no hope of getting out. The Carrows did not wait for him to try.
"Relashio!" shrieked Alecto, crouching so her wand could point under the table.
Neville was thrown forward beyond the protective table. He rolled and scrambled closer to the door, keeping low, gaining what ground he could while still partly obscured by the tables and benches then, casting his fate to the gods, he pushed up and began a stiff, hobbling run. Both Amycus and Alecto sneered and leisurely took careful aim. There was a thunderous rush of feet. Out of the corner of his eye, Neville sensed a throng of students were also running for the doorway, apparently threatening to intercept him and prevent his escape. Whether that was intentional or whether they, like he himself, were trying to avoid the curses of the Carrows, he could not tell. The truth was soon clear.
"GO, NEVILLE! RUN!" were the shouts. "GO! YES, GO! GO!" His head swam with elation and gratitude. He was encouraged, pushed, hustled ahead of the crowd and ejected out of the Great Hall like a cork from a fizzy bottle. He could tell as those cheers changed to screams that some students were taking the curses intended for him but he dare not look back.
Now it seemed even the magic life of the castle came to his aid. The great front doors swung shut with an almighty crash to remind him there was no shelter outside for someone on foot. His only hope was to hide on a higher floor in the vast spaces of the building. As he struggled up the great marble staircase within the Entrance Hall, the stairs to all floors began to silently turn. Any fear that he might be cut off was quickly replaced by jubilation; they were separating him from his pursuers. Up and up he scrambled stiff-legged, gasping for each breath. Seemingly with this exertion, the numbness in his leg was easing and as sensation returned, pain overpowered him.
He stopped, clutched at the banister and looked back down. There were two figures angrily pushing through the crowd of students that all stared up at him. As he watched, they transfigured to shapeless darkness that twisted away from the ground like trails of black smoke. As they rose up the stairwell, Neville threw himself onward, defying the agony in his leg. He had only reached the third floor but the door which opened ahead of him seemed to signal trust. As he pushed through, it crashed shut behind him to delay his hunters but there was someone blocking the corridor: Mr Filch stood outside the library entrance, holding his cat in his arms and calmly stroking its fur.
"Well, well, w--" he began but did not finish. Head down, Neville charged. The cat reacted instantly and leapt into the library but Mr Filch stood transfixed, unable to believe that a student would directly attack him. The hard top of Neville's skull impacted the soft belly of the caretaker, knocking all the wind out of the startled man. Down he went and Neville tumbled over him but pushed off and onwards immediately, driven by desperation and fear for his life.
"Sorry!" gasped Neville.
Madam Pince watched Neville stagger on past her library. "Ahem! Will you please not make so much noise, Mr Longbottom! This is a place for study not for your foolish antics!"
"Sorry!" Neville shouted back.
He was near complete exhaustion when the west staircase was reached but to hide anywhere in this area of the castle would be futile. His legs gave way. he felt utterly spent. The open slit windows up the stairwell seemed very inviting. He began to crawl. It would be preferable to throw himself down to his death outside than to be taken for unknown tortures. The best he could hope for would be a half-life void of all hope and happiness under the shadow of the Dementors in Azkaban. His flight had so far been driven by excitement and instinctive action - now real fear took possession of him.
A picture of Michael crying then came to torment him. He began to shake at the very real prospect that he might suffer like him - or worse. At least they had released Michael. The Carrows hadn't tried to kill him outright so far and he knew what that meant. He remembered how his parents must have endured agonies before their minds yielded to madness - but he did not have their courage. Heartbreak stung his eyes. He had, after all, he thought, ultimately failed them. Sorry, Mum. Sorry, Dad.
As blind terror pushed him up onto the window ledge to surrender himself to painless oblivion, a shadow fell upon him from without; a witch silhouette that seemed almost angelic - an outline he recognised.
"Neville! Take this!" It was Hannah astride her broomstick and thrusting another through to him. Choked with emotions, Neville could not speak.
"Take it! Take it!"
He could not even manage a nod but with his last ounce of strength he clutched at the broom and sprawled across it. Its welcome support reduced the fiery torture in his leg to an almost bearable dull ache. He sensed Hannah push something into the pocket of his robes and he swung the broom towards her like a compass needle. She was now his only direction, his north and south.
"No! Not out here!" cried Hannah. "Go up! Seventh floor - yes? The Room! It's your only hope!"
She watched him continue up the steps but she could tell he was sailing blindly, hardly knowing what he was doing. She hesitated. Her view was obstructed but back along the library corridor it seemed to her there was thick black smoke approaching. She sank down outside the window, hovering and wondering where best to go.
Looking down made her feel queasy. It was one thing to fly a broomstick freely in open space; quite another to be against a stone wall of immense height supported by nothing more than a stick. Looking up was as bad but there was a tall seventh floor window she recognised. Up she flew, clinging with desperation to her broomstick, denying her vertigo and praying that Neville would come to his senses when he realised where he was.
The great window was thickly glazed but through it Hannah could dimly see the corridor that led past the top of the west stairs back towards the grand marble staircase. Which way would the Carrows come? Neville could not be seen. Had he collapsed on the steps?
She pressed helplessly upon the glass; the window was a closed stone frame and unopenable. A dark shape fluttered into view within: it was Neville, moving barely inches above the ground and still clinging to his broomstick. When it alighted onto the floor of the passageway he did not move.
Hannah banged and tapped hard on the glass as she shouted at him, "NEVILLE!"
He stirred and his pale face turned up. She signalled to him, urging him to make one last effort. Using the broomstick for support he struggled to one leg and looked around. A troll in a pink tutu stared dully at him from a wall tapestry.
Hannah watched as Neville stumbled back and forth three times against the opposite wall. The enchanted door appeared and opened to the relief of the separated couple. They exchanged one last look of shared hope - his face white, eyes wide and staring, hers yearning to convey some comfort - before he finally took refuge in the Room of Requirement. Only then did she depart.
The Room was completely unlike how Neville had ever seen it before - yet he knew it so well. It was now the comforting, snug interior of the little wooden cabin his dad had built for him in their garden because a tree house was deemed too dangerous. He had been much too young to appreciate it until long after his parents confinement in St. Mungo's. Now, as then, the only furniture was a single table and chair lit by a flickering torch. Against the opposite wall hung a hammock - precisely as when he had played the lonely pirate all those years ago. He went and sat on it, his leg on fire with pain, and looked around. Only the window - the crow's nest lookout - was missing from his youthful games. The space was devoid of any luxuries other than the scent of freshly-sawn timber and the Gryffindor banners that decorated the dark panelled walls.
He had not long had breakfast but he was gasping for a drink. The table did not even carry a water jug; it was bare he knew. Neville stared and rubbed his eyes. There was something there now he was sure had not been there a few moments earlier: it was a tiny piece of parchment. He could not will himself to stand but his curiosity begged to be satisfied.
He plucked it out of the air. On it was written one word, 'Pocket.'
Neville blinked then reached into his pocket and found a Dittany sachet and the water bottle that Hannah had put there. He drank half the water then used the refilling charm before drinking again. Then he sank back into the hammock and rolled up his trouser. His calf muscle down to his ankle was swollen and bloody. He cleansed it with a spell, applied the Dittany, then lay back and closed his eyes. He knew he could rely on Hannah to bring another healing potion as soon as the morning's lessons were over but regular food would be extra difficult: the Carrows were certain to watch every suspect much more vigilantly from now on. Despite his painful leg, he drifted off into an exhausted sleep. He would worry about his problems later.
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