Chapter 1 : courage
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When he looked at the writing desk, memories flashed across his eyes. He remembered nights where his quill seemed to have a mind of its own, where he wrote as fast as he could, his handwriting rushed and messy; on these nights, he wrote forcefully, as if trying to engrave his words permanently into the wood beneath the scroll. Those nights, he was bleeding words, letting all of his secrets and stories spill out on the page; he always went to bed with the feeling of being lighter he had been in the morning, as if by writing, he had taken some of the weight on his shoulders off.
He also remembered nights where he could only sit and stare at that infinite blankness before him, bathed in yellow by the candlelight, with nothing to accompany him but his wife soft’s breathing a few feet beside him and the deafening silence of the words that would not come to him; in these moments, he’d stare at his quill, as if trying to will it to find those words for him. Those nights, Neville would stare at the page and see flashes of all the stories he could not and would not tell.
Most painfully, though, were the nights where the words did come to him and hedid write pages and pages, but at second glance, noticed only the pain and confusion in his words, his tone jumpy and desperate; his words were jumbled and inadequate, not enough to tell his stories and secrets. On these nights, he threw those pages into the fire, finding that words were not enough to silence the voice that echoed in the back of his mind, incessantly repeating his mistakes to him.
Tonight was a rare night where he could taste the words he wanted to write on his tongue, feel them at his fingertips, hear them in his ears. The blank scroll of paper sitting on his desk beckoned him expectantly. But when he picked up his quill to start writing, he hesitated; he could see the words he wanted to say before him, but there was a gap between his words and his fingers. The words simply wouldn’t appear on the page, and if they did, they appeared mangled. The tight ball in his throat made it impossible for him to start writing.
Neville picked up the quill, finding that it felt heavier than it had felt before, and bent over the sheet of the paper, his inked quill hovering over the top of the paper. How did he start? Dear Seamus? Was he even allowed to say Dear anymore? The voice in the back of his mind snidely denied him this right, but Neville hesitantly wrote this anyway, finding there was no other way to start.
But how to continue? Skipping to the next line, he started: I’m—and stopped. What came next? What word would be enough? Hundreds came to mind. Sorry? Too generic and insincere—he could use sorry for having accidentally stepped on his foot two weeks ago and for this, the crime that kept him awake at night. Regretful? No, this would be inaccurate. The regret had evaporated long ago, leaving a bitter bile, a tangle of emotions that he had no name for.
(Perhaps that was why he was trying to write this letter in the first place, his words the forceps with which he would carefully untangle this knot that had been resting in his stomach for the past fifteen years).
Neville laughed shortly. That would certainly be fitting—and he could imagine Seamus laughing and agreeing, “This bloke—always stating the obvious, huh?”
Perhaps he could start the same way that he started the stories he told to his children, when they sat at the foot of his bed, faces bright with anticipation and curiosity, almost tripping over themselves; they’d fight with one another to sit on their father’s lap as he told them another story. “Tell us about the time you killed Voldemort’s snake!” his son Frank would insist without fail even though he’d heard the story perhaps fifty times now. Alice, his daughter, would instantly shoot her brother a glare—Frank may not have tired of the story about Nagini but Alice definitely had—and demand, “No! Tell us about how you broke into the Department of Mysteries!” They wanted to hear of all the times he was so brave—their father, the courageous wielder of the Sword of Gryffindor.
How did those stories start? Right. “Alice, Frank, this is the story of the time I was in a secret society with Harry Potter.”
How would this story start?
Alice, Frank, this is the story of the time I was an utter coward and Crucioed my own friend.
Neville did not remember the exact details anymore; after fifteen years of guilt-induced suppression, he had forgotten most of the details, but the feelings the memory evoked were as clear as if it had happened yesterday. He recalled vaguely that it had happened in the beginning of his seventh year, when there seemed to be a dark veil upon Hogwarts and he had been looking over his shoulder constantly. He remembered that before it happened, he’d been talking to Seamus, rounding the corner to go to class—Dark Arts class, he recalled, because he’d grimaced at the thought. What stuck with Neville, even after fifteen years, were the screams—starting with the little Hufflepuff girl’s scream when that smarmy git Amycus’s hand wrapped around her collar, dragging her to him. What had she done to provoke him, to deserve his punishment? Neville couldn’t remember. It could’ve been something as simple as her uttering a sound when she wasn’t supposed to, or wearing her hair in a certain way, or perhaps it wasn’t even something she was doing, just that that bastard was bored.
Either way, anger flooded forward and his fists tightened. Red had flashed across his eyes. What he remembered of his anger most was the way that his skin seemed to buzz; he felt tense all over. Seamus later called him a cat with his hackles raised—Neville realized that Seamus just wanted to use the alternative, less respectful term for a cat. (This was another thing that had changed; everyone had become vulgar. It was war—no one had the luxury anymore to be politically correct). Neville shouted, a sound that seemed like a scream of anger, tinged with desperation and frustration, “No! I won’t let you!”
His children would be impressed hearing this. “Go, Papa! You tell that bastard!” Alice would exclaim with pride, grinning even as her father would shoot her an admonishing look for using a curse word. Frank would, for once, agree with his sister, nodding and gazing up at his father with awe, respect, and admiration. I want to be like him when I grow up, he would think. Brave, like a warrior.
Warrior? Seamus would snort derisively and say that he was more of a jackass than a warrior.
Neville gripped his quill tighter. Perhaps that was the right thing to say. Dear Seamus, I’m a jackass. Signed, Neville.
That pretty much summed up exactly what he was trying to say.
But in saying this, he would be omitting the story and the explanation, which meant he wouldn’t be able to get forgiveness. (Though, perhaps, that was better; maybe he wasn’t all that deserving of forgiveness).
Neville remembered Seamus jumping up right after he protested the Hufflepuff girl being taken away; Seamus had screamed too, something that he didn’t remember—all of his blood had been rushing to his ears, his fury a dull roar; it had probably been something like “Neville you fucking idiot, sit down!”—and a wide smirk had spread across Amycus’s face. Then, what had stuck out to Neville was the strangeness of that smile, how the bastard’s too-white teeth didn’t fit into his pale face and seemed like the teeth of a canine. Amycus drawled something indubitably sleazy—Neville remembered his fists clenching even tighter—and released the Hufflepuff girl’s collar.
Fifteen years later, Neville still remembered his exact words that followed: “Would you like to volunteer, Longbottom? Or perhaps, you’d like to volunteer your parents—I know they good at handling the Cruciatus Curse.”
Neville had never before believed that words could induce a physical reaction, like something stabbing him in the knee, but he recalled jerking upright as if Amycus had cast Incarcerous. Those words brought memories of his parents’ screams, or what he imagined they were like when he thought about them in the middle of the night, or sitting in the Great Hall, waiting for a letter that would never arrive. He heard the shrill sound, imagined their pale faces, tightened with pain but concentration, expressing their strength and stubbornness. Their pain rushed through his bones, followed by surge of anger that made him step forward; suddenly, all he wanted was to hear Amycus scream as loud as he could. He wanted to hear that blood-curdling, anguished sound; he wanted to hear Amycus beg, to seek mercy, to be brought to his knees.
Seamus had probably grabbed his arms and restrained him; Neville could only remember how Amycus’s smirk had widened at his reaction, and how he had wanted nothing more than to slam his fist into the Death Eather’s face and break that goddamn smirk.
Neville could imagine what his children would say about all this. Alice’s face would redden and she would shout heatedly, “No one insults our family!” She would insist that they find some way to jump back in time so she could attack Amycus—”you hold him down and I’ll punch him, okay? We’ll even bring Uncle Seamus with us!”
Frank wouldn’t react as violently as his sister but would stiffen just like his father. He would furrow his eyebrows, his generally kind brown eyes would turn steely. “That man is awful,” he would say quietly, an alarming statement from the boy who refused to insult anyone, who strived to be as kind as possible.
Seamus might agree with both of his children, but he would shake his head at Neville. “You shoulda walked away then and there,” he would chastise, dark eyes holding a knowing glint and an unplaceable emotion—too dull, cold to be anger, but too sharp and steely to be affection. Neville felt like hitting himself upside the head for not listening to Seamus; it was something that few realized, but it was often wise to listen to Seamus.
(Even if he did have a dangerous proclivity for blowing things up. Perhaps that was what Neville should write. Dear Seamus, I’ll always listen to you now—even if it means that my head will explode in the process. Signed, Neville. Seamus would certainly find the thought of Neville’s head exploding an agreeable one).
Aside from the anger, Neville also felt a tightening in his throat at the thought of being under the Cruciatus Curse. He didn’t know why; perhaps it was because that thought brought the image of his parents, and the image of him beside his parents in the Spell Damage Ward. His mind permanently damaged, unable to recognize his own face. Babbling nonsense. It induced a sort of paralyzing fear that made Neville tense up more—Seamus had probably mistaken that for anger, and Neville wished to Merlin that it was anger, because at least that would mean he wasn’t some weakling, afraid that he hadn’t inherited his parents’ willpower and strength.
He recalled the sweet but sickening relief that coursed through him when Amycus drawled, “I’ll spare you, Longbottom.” Even now, fifteen years later, it made him hide his reddening face, made him feel guilty like he’d been caught committing the worst crime. He was a Gryffindor, for Merlin’s sakes—the son of two members of the Order, brave and strong. His shame still enveloped now him, combining with the guilt and the memories of Seamus’s hoarse screams to force him awake in the middle of the night, his heart pounding, sweat on his face; he scratched at his skin, as if trying to peel off the shame and guilt covering his skin, burning him and strangling his throat. He took loud wheezing breaths, gaze darting around the room wildly. Those nights, he was forced to repeat assurances to himself, to quell the guilt swelling inside him, to force down the shame that was strangling his throat. You are Neville. Son of Alice and Frank. Wielder of the Sword of Gryffindor. Brave Neville.
None of it helped, because those assurances that he clung to so tightly where nothing but lies.
It felt disgraceful to repeat them to himself, when he remembered the cool heavenly relief, like the taste of honey on his tongue, that coursed through him when Amycus had decided to spare him—and felt even more disgraceful when he recalled what Amycus had said next: “Finnegan. You’re up, then.” Neville remembered the taste of bile on his tongue, the sickening feeling coursing through his body, bringing a bitter edge to his sweet relief. He remembered the shame he felt, the taste of self-disgust then, mixing with his anger—it all combined with the overpowering feeling of shock.
Neville imagined Alice blanching at hearing this, the fury in her sweet voice, “Not Uncle Seamus! You saved Uncle Seamus, right, Papa?” Frank would look at him with wide and expectant eyes, with the clear confidence of a boy who believed his father, his idol, could not err.
Fifteen years later, Neville swallowed thickly, thinking about how he would have to shake his head and say, no, darling, I didn’t do anything. He had opened his mouth to protest but no words had come—all he could think of was that paralyzing image of him lying on the bed beside his parents and the maddening whiteness of the walls in the Spell Damage Ward and his horribly inappropriate thought: I don’t like hospital food. A controlling fear had locked his limbs and vocal chords together, and sucked up all his courage and anger; it prevented him from making a move.
He also remembered, vividly, the expression on Seamus’s face. The Irishman was too proud to show fear, but there had been a vulnerability in his eyes; thinking of it now, Neville tried to imagine what Seamus had been thinking about, what image kept flashing before his eyes, making him freeze with fear. Perhaps that was what he should write in his letter. Dear Seamus, I’m curious about what you were thinking about then. It’s haunted me for the past fifteen years. Signed, Neville. Perhaps it would be better for him not to say anything, but to allow Seamus to say all he needed to. This way he would not have to draw out memories he had tried to keep suppressed.
Memories of Amycus’s nasally voice making another suggestion, slyly stated with a sadistic smirk on his face—“I think I’ve had enough practice with the Cruciatus Curse… Longbottom. Why don’t you try?” He remembered his brain shouting, Say no, you fucking idiot—turn your wand on that bastard, or if you can’t do that, on yourself! Your parents would want you to be loyal. But he remembered the image of himself lying next to his parents flashing in his brain and I don’t like hospital food and then he remembered the feel of his wand, scalding his hand, creating a permanent imprint on his palm. He would never forget—fifteen years later, the memory made his palm burn and the shame rise again.
Neville recalled, with growing shame, Seamus’s expression, how it changed from smugness—”Neville would never do that, Carrow,” he’d shouted. “The lad’s got too much honor”—to disbelief at the sight of Neville with his wand in his hand, to fear and then to a coldness that Neville was now used to see under his expression whenever they might.
But Seamus’s screams… fifteen years later, they still kept him up at night. At first, Seamus had gritted his teeth to stop from making a sound—I’m not giving him that pleasure, Seamus had thought, Neville was sure, though he didn’t know who the him was in this case: himself or Carrow. But after the first groan of pain, Seamus’s control had snapped, the pain overwhelming him; now, fifteen years later, Neville heard each scream again in the middle of the night, felt it like a punch to his stomach.
He remembered the feeling of separating from his body as he was pointing his wand at one of his best mates; then, it had felt like he wasn’t even there, as if the entire thing was some sick film he was watching in Muggle Studies class. He felt separated from the scene, and that allowed him to swallow some of it, like maybe he could hide this memory in the back of his mind, under lock and key, to fade like an old photograph if weathered for long enough.
But the screams. They kept him awake at night.
And the self-disgust, a bitter taste on his tongue. He tasted it whenever he saw Seamus.
Maybe that was what he should write. Dear Seamus, I’m disgusted with myself. Signed, Neville. Would that be a sufficient apology? A sufficient explanation?
It was tempting. Neville didn’t want to explain how even while he had been pointing his wand at Seamus, channeling all of his hatred at Amycus, at Snape, at the Death Eaters, at You-Know-Who, at Harry, at Bellatrix Lestrange, at Dumbledore, at his parents, at everything, he’d still felt that shameful relief. At least it isn’t me. He thought this even as he saw the tears in Seamus’s eyes.
Seamus would hate to hear that; if he didn’t already secretly despise Neville a little for what he did, he certainly would after that.
Alice would be speechless if she heard this. Neville shivered, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, thinking of what her expression might be if he were to tell her this story. Somehow, her silence would be more painful than even the memories of Seamus’s screams; in her silence, he would hear all the words that she wished to say but would never utter. Coward. Despicable. Weak. All the words he’d thought of himself, still heard whenever he looked at Seamus, even now, fifteen years later.
Frank would be disbelieving. He would deny it completely; to him, his father was a perfect idol, incapable of erring. Neville imagined his young son questioning everything he knew of his father then; he imagined Frank looking at him with squinted eyes, his image of his father warping completely. Who’s this man? Frank would think. This isn’t my Papa.
Neville set his quill down, staring at the letters on the page. Dear Seamus, I’m. He felt the guilt chewing at him now, fifteen years later, as he regarded the letter, trying to think of something profound to say that would convey his guilt and shame, that would earn Seamus’s forgiveness, and that would put to a stop to the screams that kept him awake at night. But he could think of nothing that wouldn’t reopen the wounds that had been hastily stitched closed fifteen years ago out of necessity and something that wouldn’t make his guilt consume him—something that wouldn’t make his children look at him as though they didn’t know him at all.
He wished he had the courage to say what needed to be said to heal these old wounds once and for all. But it seemed that this courage was finite, that at some point over the years, he’d lost that impressive courage that had led him to pick up Gryffindor’s sword and kill Nagini. Perhaps it was right after that moment that he’d used up all of his courage, leaving him with nothing but stories of valor.
So he picked up his quill and wrote neatly, Dear Seamus, I’m bringing Alice and Frank over tomorrow; they miss their uncles. Would that be okay with you and Dean? Signed, Neville.
Sometimes, saying nothing was best.
Hello! This was a monster to write; lots of elements to sort of wrangle together. Let me know how I did? I'm also aware that the ending was by no means a picturesque, satisfactory ending, but to paraphrase Tim O'Brien, true war stories don't have endings. :) Thanks for reading!
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