The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.
A/N: Much, much thanks to Arabella for the brilliant red beta ("Oh, this is so sad! Fix your tenses,") to Soupytwist for the fabulous British beta ("A bit too Bronte, I suspect,") and CoKerry for the divine yellow beta ("Beware!") I am nothing without their most capable help.
Dedication: To Arianrhod, the howlin’-est soul mate I could have hoped to find this side of the Mugglins.
Lydia Elaine Smythe-Longbottom wanted very much to tap her foot in impatience. The tea was swiftly cooling on the table, and she was sure she could hear the buzzing of flies making for the cakes in the tray. Her brother and his wife were late. Again. She shifted uncomfortably in her wool robes, which had looked rather smart in the shop but which now pressed much too tightly into her waist. The sooner Algernon made his appearance, the sooner they could start tea. The sooner they started tea, the sooner they could finish it. And the sooner it was finished, the sooner Algernon and Enid would go away.
Indeed, Lydia Elaine Smythe-Longbottom wanted very much to tap her foot, but it simply couldn’t be done. There were appearances to keep up; there were examples to be set. And heaven help her if she ever set such a bad example for her grandson. Neville would surely pick it up instantly, as he did most bad habits. Inwardly sighing, Lydia finally allowed herself a small cough, if only to break the tension.
Neville must have thought this cough a warning in his direction, because he jerked out of the slouch he had slowly slipped into and gazed at the door with renewed attention. She hadn’t meant to startle him, but really, the boy slouched entirely too much. And he did look so much nicer when he sat up straight, his tweed robes setting off the white shirt underneath. He had protested wearing the pointy hat that Algernon had brought on his last visit, and Lydia had eventually agreed, if only because it was nearly as tall as Neville himself. Something was missing, though…oh, of course.
"Where is the tie we bought last week, Neville?" she asked, sure that she knew what the answer would be. Or rather, the lack thereof.
He squirmed, but, to his credit, met her eyes. She had been training him to do that. People wouldn’t trust him to stand up for himself unless he looked them in the eyes.
"I…uh…well, I don’t know where the purple one is, Gran," he said, and she almost chuckled at the emotions warring on his face—she wondered whether his obvious relief at the loss would outweigh his distress at having to inform her of the fact. But she rearranged her expression into the severe lines a visit from Algernon always brought on, and simply looked her grandson for several long seconds.
"I would have thought, Neville, that a trip all the way to Diagon Alley would have impressed on you the value of the garments purchased there. Perhaps we should ask Cook to provide temporary hospitality for your new…how shall we say, amphibious friend, until the tie is recovered, hmm?" She had expected him to look horrified, as his new toad was in his pocket night and day—except when it escaped, of course. However, he merely looked a bit confused. "Well?"
"Um…Gran, what’s antibious?"
"Amphibious, Neville. It is a description of a certain class of animal, such as frogs, or newts, or…"
He gasped. "Thornton!?"
"Oh, Gran, I’ll find a tie. I mean, I have a tie. I mean…wait here. Shan’t be long." And before she could remind him that they were expecting company, he scampered out of the room. Ah well, there was nothing to be done for it. She never would actually have taken the toad away from him, of course—the boy needed all the friends he could get, although she did wish he would make a few down in the village, instead of hanging about with…well, a toad. However, it should be amusing to see what he’d bring in lieu of a necktie. He wouldn’t be allowed to wear it, of course, but she supposed she could let him off the hook without losing face if he at least attempted to procure something. That kind of initiative was exactly what he needed, especially if he didn’t show some evidence of magical talent soon.
"Gran!" He had returned, thrusting out his hands to her, showing off a small blue and white striped bowtie. It was slightly faded and the left edge was frayed, but her grandson’s face beamed above it nonetheless. For a second she couldn’t speak. "Well?"
"Where…where did you find this?"
"In the attic. Thornton went up the stairs last night, and I almost lost him but I didn’t, and so I saw him going in that big crack under the door where I usually see the mice, and I followed him up into the attic—there were all these piles of old things with sheets on them—and I saw him hop into a drawer and I took him back out again, and he had landed right on top of this." He looked at her expectantly, but she remained mute. "Er, I was going to show it to you, honest. But I forgot. And now I can wear it, can’t I? It goes with my robe, doesn’t it, Gran?" She blinked at him. "Gran?"
It wasn’t the first time an old piece of clothing of Frank’s had resurfaced out of the general clutter that filled her house. The gray robe that he’d worn the day he brought Neville to see her for the first time, still stained from the strained pumpkin that hadn’t gone down so well with his son, had appeared on the clothesline a few years back, and Lydia’s heart had lurched almost as much then as it had just now.
But seeing Neville, proudly holding up his father’s bowtie—his father’s horrible old bowtie that Lydia had begged and pleaded with Frank not to wear to his engagement party—well, it felt for a moment as if Frank had never left. As if he would come in, laughing, lightly cuff his son, and tease her about her insufferable brother. It was as if it wasn’t now doubtful that he would ever again wear a bowtie, perpetually clad as he was in dingy gray...
With a great mental jerk, Lydia stopped herself from descending again into maudlin sentiment. A tie was a tie, and Neville certainly needed one. But she would have to teach him, one of these days, to hold onto his things. He couldn’t just go losing them all day long. She told him as much, then nodded brusquely at him, and stood up just as the doorbell rang.
Neville looked blankly at his grandmother. He had never before known her to spend so much time in thought, and then assent without so much as a "be more careful." He hadn’t been sure the bowtie would meet her approval, but it was, after all, not that bad-looking an old thing, even if it did come from the attic. Thornton had sure been lucky to pick that drawer, all right! No telling what else might be lying under there under the dust. Dead animals, probably. Or skulls. Neville had heard once that Gran’s third cousin twice-removed had spent a lot of time in Barbados, and had come back performing all sorts of Dark arts. He shuddered.
Then the doorbell rang, and he barely stopped himself from shuddering again. Great-uncle Algie and Great-auntie Enid were here. Again. Neville was sure they’d been to tea at least twice in the last month. While he didn’t precisely dislike them, he wished they would stop talking about him as if he wasn’t there, wondering aloud when he was going to show that he was magic. He wasn’t precisely sure what it meant to be magic, actually. He knew that he wasn’t, and that Gran and Great-uncle Algie and Cook and his sometimes friend Jacob from the village all were. Neville had tried very hard to be magic; he had tried with all his might to fly, or to turn Thornton into a frog ("Only for a minute, Thornton, don’t worry"), or to make the pots clean themselves like Cook did, but nothing ever seemed to work.
Neville had always believed that if he worked hard at something, and tried enough times with all his might, he would get it. That’s the kind of thing Gran was always telling him—steady now, easy does it. But Great-uncle Algie never seemed to think Neville was trying hard enough. Neville knew this because sometimes Great-uncle Algie would peer down at him, stroke his beard with his thumb and forefinger, and ask him, "Are you really trying hard enough, Neville?" Neville thought it was actually rather rude of him. Of course he was trying, trying as hard as he possibly could! He just wasn’t sure how to go about becoming magic, and no one had ever thought to tell him.
Apparently, though, Great-uncle Algie thought that instead of telling him, he ought to show him. Or rather, force Neville to discover it himself, as had tried one day when Neville was about five, and was sitting in his sandbox making castles. Great-uncle Algie had walked up casually and sat down in the sand beside him. Neville was so surprised by this that he forgot to pay attention to his castle and stared instead at Great-uncle Algie. Gran had certainly never sat in the sand beside him. Wouldn’t Great-uncle Algie’s robes get all full of sand and muck, like Gran said Neville’s did after a good castle-building?
"That’s quite a castle you’ve got there, young Neville."
"I built it myself," said Neville cautiously.
"I see that. Wouldn’t you think it would be more fun, though, if it could move around? You know, like a real castle does?"
Neville was confused. "It’s a sand castle. I built it with my shovel."
"I know that, boy. But why don’t you make it move?" Great-uncle Algie winked, and then picked up one of Neville’s model Order of Merlin Knights and danced it around suggestively. "Think about it moving. Think that you can do it, and you shall, my boy!"
By now Neville was convinced that his uncle was amiss about some of the basic properties of his castle, so he decided to set him right: "It’s sand, Great-uncle Algie." And Neville returned to his digging.
This statement seemed to have the desired effect, for after a long, slow, look at him, his uncle had nodded once, grinned, and stepped out of the sandbox.
He turned back after a few paces, and nodded again, encouraging. "Why don’t you keep trying, though, Neville? I bet it would make your grandmother very proud." Then he walked away, leaving a rather unsettled small boy to his castles.
Neville wasn’t sure when he had first heard the term which had come to haunt him. Perhaps it was from one of his grandmother’s party guests, some obnoxious great-aunt’s cousin or stepsister, who had first whispered just a bit too loudly, "Yes, dreadful, isn’t it? Algie’s been fearing poor Frank’s boy was all Muggle for simply ages!"
At first, Neville had been eager to ask his grandmother what the strange term meant. He knew what Muggles were, of course, and his Gran had always obligingly answered any questions he put to her. But then he thought that he had better make a good attempt at it first, since Gran had always told him that he needed to learn to do things for himself. Still, Neville hadn’t the faintest idea as to just what an Allmuggle could be.
He didn’t puzzle it out completely until he lay in his bed that night, clutching the stuffed unicorn that Gran said his mother had made him. When it hit him, the first thing he felt was a sense of profound relief that he knew what everyone was talking about. Relief ended swiftly, though, and panic took its place. Oh, dear, what would Gran say now? It must be very bad, which was probably why she hadn’t mentioned it before. She said it was usually better to leave bad things to the imagination. The last thing Neville thought before he drifted off into a troubled sleep was that he was very glad his parents would never know that their son…might…be…
Even now, Neville thought of Great-uncle Algie as the one who’d first said those words, for all that he hadn’t actually heard him. Yet. Although Great-uncle Algie was never directly mean to him, (even though Gran said that he had put Neville’s life in danger on numerous occasions,) Neville couldn’t help thinking of him as the one who had first whispered the phrase. He thought of this as he took Great-uncle Algie and Great-auntie Enid’s massive coats, which very nearly smothered him. He thought of this as he stood on his tiptoes to hang the coats up in the hall closet, where he had sometimes hidden from Great-uncle Algie in hopes that he would not be subjected to another "test." He thought of this as he slipped red-faced into his spot at the table and Gran began to pour the tea. She glanced at him, but he couldn’t read the expression. He’d probably done something wrong again.
He didn’t have time to ponder just what that was, however, because his great-uncle laid into him almost immediately.
"How are you doing in that school of yours, Neville?" he asked. "Floating chalk yet, or turning rocks into frogs?" Then he gave a strange sort of chortle. "Oh, the days I had before my Hogwarts letter—caused some havoc, I did, you can be sure of that."
"What’s havoc, Great-uncle Algie?"
"Never you mind, Neville," his Great-auntie Enid cut in. She grinned at him in what she obviously thought was a "just-us-two" kind of fashion. It didn’t quite work. Don’t get Algie started, or we’ll be here all afternoon."
"It means chaos, Neville. Mayhem, disorder," his grandmother said sharply. "And I certainly hope I won’t hear of you causing any of that."
"I do! Cause all the mayhem you like, Neville," boomed his great-uncle. "Maybe that’ll let the wizards at Hogwarts know you’re ready, hmm? How old are you now, eight? High time you started leaving your classmates all in a frenzy!"
"Disorganized, Neville," sighed Gran. "All over the place, out of order."
"Oh, like your moustache!" Neville beamed at his great-uncle’s upper lip.
A small silence fell as Neville realized what he’d said, during which both he and said upper lip turned some interesting shades of red. Neville chanced a look at his grandmother, but her head was turned away. He had shamed her again. He simply never knew the right thing to say! "Um, sorry, Great-uncle Algie?"
"Quite all right, my boy," his great-uncle said distractedly.
Auntie Enid glanced about the table, then gave a small. It seemed she had taken it upon herself to fill the silence. "Well, the boy’s quite correct, Algie," she twittered. "I’ve been simply dying to get you to a barber. More tea, anyone?"
Lydia did not quite trust herself to look at her grandson, as she wasn’t sure if she would give him a scolding that would embarrass him entirely too much in front of Algernon, or else laugh until she made herself quite sick. She didn’t trust herself to abstain from either, so she steadied her gaze on the ancient coat rack in the corner before finally turning back to the table. Algernon had certainly had that coming. She wasn’t quite sure where he was heading with his little jabs at Neville, but his manner had projected arrogant superiority clearly enough. He was sensitive about the most peculiar things—he’d go on all day, oblivious to the fact that anyone lived in this world but him, and then something totally obscure would puncture him completely. Like a comment about that ridiculous moustache.
Enid was trying her best to make up for the lull in conversation. She chattered placidly on, as she was wont to do in any situation. She was not a stupid woman, but like so many others she unfortunately seemed to feel the need to make Algernon believe that he was her intellectual superior. She was now asking Neville, in what she must have thought was a kind manner, about his school activities. Neville was hunched over the table, but Lydia didn’t have the heart to tell him to straighten his posture. At least, not at the moment.
"And so you really go about with Muggles, all day long? Doing their peculiar little games of agri…agricolancy? And reading all those Muggle books, I can’t imagine."
"Yes Auntie Enid," Neville replied dully. "Agriculture. Gardening." Lydia watched him sadly. She didn’t know what she’d do if these two didn’t stop picking at him. She caught his glance for a second, but before she could smile, he looked away, shrinking deeper into himself.
"Don’t like it, do you?" said Algernon. "Don’t like gadding about all day with children who couldn’t do magic if their lives depended on it? Now what shall we do about that, my boy?"
"Really, Algernon…" Lydia felt she had to cut in. He was going to start in on Neville again, and whatever self-esteem the boy had built up since the last visit was going to be ripped to shreds. Algernon always seemed to have that effect on people. Lydia remembered it from her childhood. She didn’t think him cruel, exactly, but his peculiar combination of affability and arrogance, magnetism and peevishness, snobbery and drive had served to rope many in—and cut them down just as quickly.
Frank had never liked him either, from their very first meeting, which Lydia remembered very clearly, right down to the bright yellow Wimbourne Wasps robes that seven-year-old Frank had insisted on wearing for nearly six months (Algernon had been abroad until then, studying something Lydia couldn’t quite remember). Both Frank’s powerful magic and his deep humor had been evident from the time he was two (he had often sent his plush animals skittering under the robes of Lydia’s stuffier callers) and Algernon seemed sometimes to feel that magic should be taken with a gravity that left no room for laughter. Algernon, though, had a peculiar soft spot for Alice. When Frank had married her, Algie had been downright cheerful, and it was no secret which parent he’d hoped Neville would take after.
Neville’s birth had been one of the happiest days in the Longbottom family history, a bit of much-needed joy that had been celebrated to an almost ridiculous extent. Enid had rolled up her sleeves and baked a cake that was nearly taller than Frank, and Algie had worked for a week on the fireworks display. For only the third time in her life, Lydia had been a bit tipsy, and she still sometimes blushed to think about it. They had been so happy then—Lydia sighed ruefully. She must be getting old to be thinking in phrases like that.
A sudden silence in the room told her that her sigh had been audible. Neville trailed off from a stammered description of tomato cultivation and looked at her tentatively.
"Oh…excuse me. Go on, Neville," and she smiled at him. He blinked at her, and continued. She tuned out almost immediately, however, as she did whenever he described Muggle Herbology in detail. It wasn’t that she didn’t respect the fact that he enjoyed it, or wasn’t glad to have him interested in something at last, but frankly, it just bored her to tears.
She looked at Algernon. She couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him—he was her brother after all. She had never forgotten how he had worshipped the Ministry, had seen it as the representation of all that was good and noble in the wizarding world. Its inner corruption, its powerlessness and futility against the Dark Lord had hit him harder than most. And when they had failed to save Frank and Alice, he had quit without any explanation—not that one was necessary. He never spoke of either the Ministry or his nephew and niece now. Perhaps that was where the attraction to Enid had come from. She didn’t remind him of anything unpleasant.
Lydia wasn’t sure why he was so hard on Neville. She didn’t think him a mean person, though she wouldn’t have expected him to be the boy’s closest confidante, either. However, Neville tended to turn towards any kind of praise quite eagerly, and she had never seen any sign of him looking favorably upon his great-uncle.
She sighed inwardly. To be fair, he didn’t turn to her much, either. She knew the boy didn’t feel precisely comfortable around her, but it was better for him to grow into a strong young man, to learn to think for himself, than to be leaning on her all the time for emotional support. Weakness could not be afforded by any of them, especially him. Especially with his parents…well, where they were.
Neville was wrapping up now, talking animatedly about carrying the one and adding the next line down. Enid nodded encouragingly, though with slightly unfocused eyes. Algernon was making no pretense of listening, curling his moustache and looking somewhat irritated as he gazed at a spot on the wall. Neville stopped talking, and Lydia nodded approvingly at him.
Algernon, however, smiled thinly, and said, "Fascinating, my boy. Very much so indeed. Bet you’d like to get your hands on a Herbology book, now, wouldn’t you? That’s real gardening, it is."
Neville’s face fell. Lydia decided that it was high time this tea finished up. "Neville, why don’t you take your aunt and uncle on a tour of the house? We’ve finished the renovations of the upstairs great hall, Algernon, the ones that you suggested." She knew that inflicting them all upon each other was not precisely kind, but she had an idea for which she needed to take a walk in the garden. Besides, if she didn’t spend a little time in the fresh air to clear her head, she was afraid she would say something to her brother that was very uncharitable. She tried to catch her grandson’s eye to tell her that she would come to rescue him soon, but he avoided her glance as he trailed slowly out of the room.
His grandmother’s tone had been unmistakable. Neville knew he deserved the reprimand, but still, did she have to make quite so pointed a punishment as that? And right in front of his great aunt and uncle, too. None of them would enjoy this tour, but Great-uncle Algie would get through it knowing that Neville was being forced into it. Auntie Enid would be oblivious, and Gran had taken herself conveniently away. It was only Neville who had nothing to alleviate his discomfort, nervousness, and boredom.
Neville scuffed his shoes on the mauve carpeted stairs as he led his relatives into the hall. "They brought a lot of old pictures in here, Great-uncle Algie—old relatives and people, I think. And they put an awful lot of gold and silver up around the ceiling. It’s sort of pretty." It was, at that. He did like this room, even though having to show it off could suck the happiness right out of a place.
"It’s lovely, Neville," Auntie Enid cooed. "Your grandmother has wonderful taste. And Algie here had a few ideas as well, didn’t you, Algie?" Great-uncle Algie grunted in assent. "I must say, Algie, I wish you’d do something like this in our house. These drapes are simply incredible!"
After a moment of silence, and a meaningful look from Great-uncle Algie, Enid suddenly opened her eyes very wide and said, "Oh! Right! I mean…Neville, those desserts were divine. Your cook is quite excellent. Do you think she’d…erm, give me the recipe for that meringue?"
Neville tried to picture Cook—a huge, motherly, no-nonsense type of person, who would either give him a bowl to lick or rap his fingers with a spoon when he tried to sneak a cookie—talking, or, rather, listening, to Auntie Enid. He couldn’t quite see it, but aloud said, "Yes Great-auntie Enid."
"All right then. I’ll just pop down and see if I can’t find the good woman, yes?" And without waiting for any further permission, she scurried back down the stairs, leaving Neville alone with his great-uncle. He supposed he should have expected this, and he had, really, but that didn’t make him any more comfortable or able to deal with the situation. He felt in his pocket for Thornton, but he had slipped away somewhere. He envied the toad—what he wouldn’t give to be able to hop away like that, bouncing carelessly off to…to something better, at least.
In a second, Great-uncle Algie would do something mysterious, like look at a piece of masonry and make it crack, and then demand of Neville that he fix it in the same way. And Neville would try as best he could, but he could never understand how just thinking at something could make it move. It simply didn’t make sense, and even the fact that he saw someone do it multiple times every day of his life didn’t help in the slightest.
He wondered if he would be all Muggle if his parents were there. As it was, they seemed to have no opinion one way or the other, but he couldn’t help but think that if he saw them more often, it would have to help. At least it would be better than Great-uncle Algie standing there, staring at him. Just like he had that time in the sandbox…Neville knew he was too old to still be thinking about that, but it had unnerved him horribly.
Actually, there was only one other time that he could remember Great-uncle Algie looking so…well, so meaningfully blank. And that was a time that he didn’t care to dwell on if he could avoid it. He had been only about six at the time (too young to know better, he thought scornfully from the worldly-wise vantage point of two years later) and had gone on holiday to Blackpool with Gran. Great-uncle Algie had shown up a day or so after they had got there (Neville couldn’t remember whether or not he’d been invited, but he supposed he must have been).
One of the few Muggle locations where wizards vacationed, Blackpool was a large, tacky resort on the Lancashire coast. When the Muggles became too much, though, magical families could move onto their own small boardwalk and pier, bewitched to appear to outsiders as jagged, dangerous rocks. The pier extended far out into the water, which deepened very rapidly, and the end dropped off at when the water was over fifty meters deep.
Neville had heard many stories about the fantastic creatures that lived in the center of Blackpool—merfolk, grindylows, even perhaps a great sea serpent—and was determined to see them for himself. Gran had promised to take him out along the pier after her nap, so Neville contented himself with collecting bits of seaweed and arranging them into a sort of garden in the sand. He was quite glad that Great-uncle Algie was nowhere to be seen, as he would probably insist that Neville make the seaweed grow.
Gran took such a long time napping, however, that Neville began to grow bored with the seaweed. He sighed, and admitted (though only to himself, of course) that had Great-uncle Algie been there, he probably would have been right—plants that you could grow would be more fun. The pier sat placidly, tantalizingly near. Stolidly, Neville dug some more. Oh, but the pier looked so inviting. Surely, it couldn’t possibly hurt if he just went a little way onto it. That way, he’d be able to show Gran the way when she woke up, so they wouldn’t get lost. Yes, that was exactly what he would do. He carefully stowed his shovel and pail under her LeviChair (charmed to repel sand, it hovered just above the ground) and trotted off toward the pier.
As soon as he stepped on, he felt marvelously free. The water veritably twinkled, and he ran to the edge to get a closer look. He almost toppled in when a light spray of water hit him squarely between the eyes. A small pink creature bobbed below him, grinning with its sort-of-mouth. It must be a wild puffskein, Neville thought. And as the thing took off along the pier, he obviously had no choice but to follow it. He’d never heard of these kinds of things in the wild before, but here it was in the middle of Blackpool!
As it swam, it was joined by more and more multicolored creatures, swirling about and sending little jets of water into the air. They swam so quickly that Neville had to jog to keep up, and it was no time at all before he found himself almost at the end of the pier. A man sat at the far edge, bent over as if to peer into the water. Neville cautiously walked up beside him, recognizing his great-uncle from a few paces away.
"Hello, Neville," he said without turning around.
"Hello Great-uncle Algie."
"Pleasant spot, this pier, isn’t it?"
"Yes." There was a silence. His great-uncle turned to regard him thoughtfully.
"You know, my boy," he said conversationally, "I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m disappointed in you for not showing any magic yet. Not in the least, I assure you. I’m just worried for your happiness, is all. Not to mention your safety."
Neville nodded. This made sense. He wasn’t quite convinced, but he was willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt. It was his uncle, after all.
"You know, I do think we’ll see some results soon. It is said, after all, that a magical gift can manifest itself in the most unexpected of times, when the young wizard-to-be is particularly angry, or stressed, or…afraid." He looked at Neville blandly. "What do you think of that?"
Neville didn’t know what he thought, but he wasn’t given much chance to consider. Displaying considerable agility for his years, his uncle leapt at him, and firmly and quickly propelled him off the pier.
The water was so cold that Neville couldn’t think, breathe, or move, and the chill instantly penetrated, lance-like, to his bones. Vaguely he thought that he should be thinking about something, but the water filled his lungs and he could not muster anything beyond the coordination necessary to thrash as violently as he could. He was dragged down by his sodden robes, and salty water stung at his eyes and poured into his mouth. He could hear his great-uncle yelling something at him, but he couldn’t even begin to make out the words. He was sinking, he was sure of that now, but he couldn’t seem to find the energy to care too much.
Later, he was sure he had dreamed what happened after that. Certainly Great-uncle Algie had never mentioned it, and Neville was sure he’d have seized on any detail that seemed at all out of the ordinary. But at the time, he’d distinctly felt a great mass come up beneath him, and propel him to the surface within seconds. As he gasped for air, laying on top of whatever-it-was just below the surface of the water, he heard a deep voice in and around his head whisper something about regards to a cousin at Hogwarts. And then the mass had pulled away from beneath him, though not without having given Neville time to catch his breath and begin to float. He knew how to swim, after all—Gran had been most insistent about that.
Neville had never been clear on what had happened after that, as the next thing he remembered was lying in his bed at home. However, he knew that Great-uncle Algie must have been given quite an earful by his sister, for he avoided Neville for the next several months.
Neville had tried to forget the unpleasantness at Blackpool, but it was difficult to do with Great-uncle Algie standing opposite him in the upstairs hall, gazing at him with that horribly familiar blandness. He felt a twinge in his stomach, but decided to get a grip on himself. It would not do to be falling to pieces all the time—Gran had told him that often. He needed to stand on his own two feet. He did this most expertly, and in addition, squarely met Great-uncle Algie’s gaze.
"Well, Neville," his great-uncle said smiling. "Here we are. Lovely view of the garden." They were so high up that they could, indeed, see far off over the carefully cultivated flowerbeds.
"Yes Great-uncle Algie," said Neville. Perhaps this would just be a pleasant conversation. "I planted a lot of that."
"Did you, now?" asked Great-uncle Algie affably. "Well." He walked closer to the window. "Tell me, what is that plant over there? The purple one, beside the elm grove?"
"Oh, lupine," said Neville. It was one of his favorites. Gran said his mum had admired it as well. He moved to Great-uncle Algie’s side. "We had a frost really late. Gran said it was a miracle they survived."
By the time Neville turned to face his uncle, he had unconsciously followed him to the window’s edge, and mimicked his position of peering over the sill. He turned just in time to see the man’s calculating glance at the sill’s height, and at Neville’s own feet. Neville’s eyes widened as he looked up pleadingly, but he saw only a peculiar, tight-lipped, this-is-for-your-own-good expression as Great-uncle Algie sprang.
Since no one was around to assist her, Lydia had to change her shoes in a most undignified fashion, sitting on the bench just inside the door and reaching down to deal with each shoe in turn. Off went the indoor ones—no more than slippers, really—and on came the outdoor. She didn’t mind the chore; indeed, it was good to have such a tactile experience after tea with her brother. If she couldn’t say all she wanted to him, at least she could direct some of the pent-up energy into pulling on her boots.
She let herself out through the garden door, and though her destination was close, decided to take a small stroll through the garden itself before making for the shed. It always served to calm her down, which was strange as any reminder of her son or his wife tended to upset her greatly. These gardens had been planned in a lovingly haphazard way, with Alice insisting on a carrot patch here, Frank carting in daffodils by the dozen over there. Their tiny son had run unsteadily between them, clapping his hands and tripping every fourth or fifth step, rolling in the dirt, investigating the various creepy-crawlies. He still spent a rather inordinate amount of time out here, alone, digging and weeding. Far be it from her to take from him that small happiness, though. She just wished…
Wishing wasn’t going to help; never had, never would, she reminded herself in no uncertain terms. If wishes were brooms…well, then everything would be a lot cleaner, that was for sure. Frank and Alice had always delighted in such little riffs on old sayings. They had delighted in…so much. Lydia envied them that. She envied them their ability to accept, and to turn the plain and ordinary into the beautiful and uncommon. They had probably needed that in their profession, seeing so much that was good stained with so much that was evil. They had needed that optimistic outlook, she reflected, or they would have gone quite…
Lydia swept past a small tangle of raspberry bushes, and pulled her skirts primly out of its thorny clutches. They hadn’t been careful enough. They had been far too trusting, and had let their names and locations be disclosed to far too many people. It would never do to have that incautious an attitude during peaceful times, and certainly not in the dark days that were now fortunately behind them. Fools, both of them. Nothing but fools. And they had passed that entirely heedless disposition on to their son. She sniffed loudly, trying vainly to make it sound more disparaging than tragic, though she didn’t think anyone was around who would either notice nor care. A squirrel regarded her curiously, and she met its gaze before striding onward.
She had always wondered where Frank had received such…such weaknesses. Lydia’s husband, who had died soon after Frank’s birth, had been quite capable and rather stern, though he was not unkind. Not much could faze him, though. Not much could faze Lydia, for that matter. Only a few times had she forgotten herself and completely broken down. Only a few sights or occurrences could drive her to that point. And Algernon, standing on her doorstep, her grandson held in one arm and an expression of blank shock on his face, had been one of those.
She had absolutely no memory of those first few weeks. How she had got through the emotional blow, how she had kept Neville hidden, and how she had managed such terribly mundane tasks as changing diapers or giving baths…it was still a mystery to her. Upon reflection, she supposed she had managed well enough. But she had come out of it with several things clear in her mind. Never again would a member of her family be left so open to betrayal or attack. She would make sure of that. Never again would her grandson be so helpless. He would simply have to learn.
Arriving at the small wooden shed, she pulled open the door. The shed was tucked on the side of the gardens, under a venerable beech tree. The inside was dark and cramped, and filled with dust. The caretakers had been bringing their own tools in lately, and had not needed to come in here. Lydia sneezed violently and stepped back to let the place air out a bit, then peered in and waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. She picked her way among the rakes and pruning shears stacked haphazardly against the wall, searching for what she was looking for. She began to rummage through a slightly decaying box of who-knew-what, at first gingerly and then with relish, tossing aside old weeding forks and matchless gloves with abandon.
She finally pulled out the item that had drawn her down the shed. Stepping out into the light, she held the small, unobtrusive flower pot up and inspected it critically, then tucked it under her arm and closed the door behind her. It had been Alice’s, purchased at a small garden shop on Diagon Alley that had long since closed. It was guaranteed to help the seed planted inside it to grow, provided you took proper care of it. Alice had used it to start some of the more sensitive plants, before transplanting them outside and exposing them to the elements. Lydia wasn’t quite sure what had reminded her of it today, but she felt sure that it was time for Neville to have it.
Satisfied, she walked slowly back through the garden, knowing that she should hurry upstairs to make sure Neville and Algie were getting along, but loath to leave the peace of the outdoors. She stepped through a row of hedges and began to walk up the drive, looking up at the house that stood at the end. Frank and Alice’s wedding had been here. Neville had been born here. Frank himself had been born here. The house was tall, stately and comfortable. Even though the paint had begun to fade, it was still a secure home.
Her eyes took in the walls, roaming up and down from roof to shrubbery. Then she noticed something curious at one of the fourth floor windows. Something that hadn’t been there before. Something…it wasn’t…it couldn’t be. She began to walk faster, denying that she saw what she saw as long as possible, until there was no denying it anymore, and then she began to run.
Neville had just discovered many things. For example, Great-uncle Algie was a lot stronger than he looked. With the power of his arms alone, he held Neville’s legs in a death grip, dangling him outside the window, only bracing himself against the sill a little from what Neville could see. He could also move faster than Neville had ever seen him move before.
Neville had also discovered that the wood paneling around the fourth floor window was hard and unyielding if he cracked his head against it. He’d discovered that looking down at the ground without his body and feet beneath him made him dizzy. And he had discovered that when he was more terrified than he had ever been in his life, his thoughts came in quick jerks, not giving him time to really reflect, though he could still clearly perceive everything around him, even somewhat more than usual.
His shirt had slipped down and was bunched up around his neck and mouth, making it difficult to breathe. His trousers were rough against his legs where Great-uncle Algie’s hands were clasped. He could see the potted plants inside the eighth floor window, and the bushes on the ground beside the house. And in the small pebbled patch of ground between the bushes and the house, he could make out a purple tie that had "accidentally" fallen out the window that morning. Guilt and fear washed over him, and he thought wildly that perhaps if he had worn the tie, he wouldn’t be hanging out of this window right now.
If Neville looked up (though it was really down at his feet, wasn’t it?) he could see Great-uncle Algie looking at him, bent over the sill, his arms clenched around Neville’s shins. His face was tightly compressed, and his eyes burned even as the breeze ruffled his hair. Neville wriggled once, in a spasm of panic, and felt the grip falter. He immediately froze, and hung limply as Great-uncle Algie regained his hold.
A scream beneath him made him jerk his head awkwardly outwards. His brief glimpse of the drive revealed his grandmother running—running? Gran?—towards them, yelling something incoherent. He could only make out his uncle’s name.
Great-uncle Algie’s voice boomed impassively from above him. "He has to learn, Lydia. He has to find it. In himself. Only then will he be safe. I have to keep him safe." Neville thought he heard Great-uncle Algie’s voice tremble. "Like they weren’t. Like she wasn’t. He must know--"
"He will be safe if you pull him back inside this instant, Algernon!" The words cut across the distance between Neville and the ground, though he didn’t think Gran had used Sonorus. It seemed to Neville that Gran was trying to keep her voice calm, like when she told him not to get worked up about things, because people paid attention better. A pause. Then— "Please." That word had not been so calm.
There was no answer from above. Then, softly, almost in a whisper, Neville heard, "Come on, boy. You can do this. Don’t think, just will yourself back inside."
Neville hoped Great-uncle Algie didn’t expect him to reply. There was no way his mouth was going to work right now. He didn’t know why he was in this particular situation; he certainly did not know how to get out of it. Why was Great-uncle Algie doing this to him? Why did the wind sting at his eyes, and why did the ground swim before them, so far away? Why--
"Please, Algie," came Gran’s voice from below. And again, silence from the window. For an eternal moment, time was suspended. Neville hung in the air, in the middle of the silence, arms loose, blood rushing to his head. And then, in the silence, he heard footsteps from inside the room, and his aunt’s voice permeated the empty space around him.
"Algie, what are you doing over there? Where did Neville go? Cook gave me a bit of her meringue for tonight and it’s simply lovely. Do try…oh. Oh dear. Algie, now--"
But it was too late. Great-uncle Algie, startled by her voice, had half-turned from the window, and in the process his hands had slipped to Neville’s ankles. Neville reflexively bent double, twisting slightly, accidentally pulling himself even further out of his uncle’s grip. Just before Great-uncle Algie lost his hold completely, Neville caught an upside-down glimpse of his face. His mouth was still tightly closed, but his eyes had lost their fire and now were showing something like fear. But Neville only saw it for a second before the hands let go of his legs and he started to plummet.
Longbottom Manor was not a small house, and having some form of great hall on two out of four floors meant high ceilings and tall walls. It also meant a long way down. Neville had always heard that time was supposed to slow down right before death, and he waited for his life to pass before his eyes; he waited to remember, as Gran would say, his "sorrows and his joys." But he felt none of that. He looked beneath him at the ground rushing towards him. He felt the air fly past his face and—wait. Right beneath him on the ground was…Gran. He was falling towards Gran. She was standing right there looking up at him, arms outstretched as if she was trying to embrace the sky.
He was going to hit her, and he somehow knew that she would be hurt. Badly. Perhaps she would even be…no. He would not let that happen.
Neville didn’t know what was happening. But somewhere down deep inside him, something took control. He was not going to hit Gran, he was sure of this. He was not, he was not, he was NOT. He thought with all his might, and wanted, wanted just as hard as he could.
And then suddenly, in midair, he shifted away from her, angling diagonally toward the ground. He didn’t know how he’d done it. But that wasn’t what mattered. He was gathering speed, he was about to hit, and he knew he was going to die. But he had not hit Gran. He had not. And now there was no time left to wonder about it, to think about it. The ground was almost at his face. Neville closed his eyes.
The impact, when it came, was not quite as hard as Neville thought it was going to be.
He hardly felt it, actually.
Really, if something was going to kill him, shouldn’t it at least hurt? His eyes were still closed, and he supposed he was dead, because he felt like he was floating away, light and free. The crash had been more like falling into bed than falling out of a window. Well, at least it hadn’t hurt. Neville had hoped it wouldn’t hurt. He decided to open his eyes, to see what being dead looked like.
It looked like the garden, and the drive, only he was floating up above it. Except he wasn’t anymore, he was falling again. Neville was flying through the air, arcing up and over and down to the drive again. He tried to keep his eyes open this time, because if he was dead it probably wouldn’t hurt and he wanted to see.
Watching himself hit the drive was perhaps the oddest sight Neville had ever seen. His body collapsed onto the hard packed earth in what looked like a violent manner, but it didn’t hurt him at all. And as soon as he hit, he took off again, flying into the air in a way that made him feel like a bouncing ball.
Four or five more times this repeated itself. He rose less and less each time, until finally he stopped rising and slid along the ground, skidding to a halt next to the road. Utterly confused and completely spent, he collapsed the rest of the way to the ground and concentrated on simply breathing for several seconds. He tensed all his limbs and decided that they were there. He also decided that he was indeed able to breathe, that he didn’t quite feel like getting up just yet, and that he was, in fact, alive.
Lydia had seen some terrifying things in her time. Anyone who had lived through the time of
Grindelwald and then the fall of Voldemort was no stranger to unpleasant images. The Dark Mark rising, a column of Death Eaters marching, a dear friend preparing for a journey from which he likely would not return. But she didn’t know if she’d ever seen anything that had ripped her throat with a scream and frozen her heart quite like the image of her grandson falling through the air.
She didn’t think. She didn’t even know she was moving, but suddenly she was at the spot directly beneath him, holding out her arms in what she did not realize could be nothing but a futile effort to break his fall.
Lydia had always heard that right before someone died, time moved very slowly. True as that may be, watching the last seconds of Neville’s life made time move with terrible speed. She couldn’t for the life of her muster the presence of mind to pull out her wand and shout a spell that would break his fall. The thought didn’t even occur to her. She only knew to stand beneath the tumbling body of her grandson, arms outstretched to protect him as well as she could, her heart falling as fast he did. She watched him as his face twisted and his body drooped limply in mid-air on its way down. He was not going to hit the ground. He was going to hit her. She was going to take him into her arms, to absorb everything, and he would be all right.
Then the second before the impact, he spun away from her. His path shifted, and he rammed diagonally into the ground several meters to her left. Lydia’s shock at the fall itself, and at this inexplicable change, held her rooted to the ground. She did not even turn around, unwilling to see what she knew would be the most dreadful sight of her life. She steeled herself, closing her eyes to block it out as long as she could.
A second crash, behind her, caused her to wheel around. She gaped open-mouthed down the drive. Neville was not beside her. Neville was fifty meters away from her. And he…well, he was bouncing. He was tumbling wildly up and down the gravel path towards the road. She could not see his face, but he seemed to have all his limbs, and he was flailing them in a manner that suggested he was very much alive. Lydia gave a harsh sort of cry that caught in her throat and did not quite make it all the way out.
Neville was alive.
Neville had been…
She wheeled around, and stared up nine stories at her brother. He was peering out the window, looking very small against the imposing house. His face looked like recent terror was fading, to be replaced by confusion, and then—no. He couldn’t. No brother of hers could ever have the audacity to look out on the barely-averted death of his nephew and look…vindicated. How dare he! Anger roared in Lydia’s chest. She would deal with him. Later.
"Leave," she spat, her voice carrying. The face at the window did not move. She did not have time for this right now. "Leave us. Now." He disappeared.
Lydia sniffed, and then looked back down the driveway. Far down, almost in the road, she could make out a crumpled body lying on the ground. Not moving. A moment of panic robbed her of her self-control, but then she steeled her will and Apparated to her grandson’s side. She didn’t need to prepare the spell. The distinct image of him that was needed to guide her was already the only thing in her mind.
Enormous clouds floated above him, magnificent in their fleecy serenity. The late afternoon sun was interwoven with the white behemoths, little rays piercing them and coming through to earth. Neville could smell the grass, and he could feel a stone digging hard into his left calf. The clouds broke suddenly, and the sun hurt Neville’s eyes. He closed them against its harshness.
He was lying on his back in the hard packed gravel, trying to piece together the events of the previous five minutes. Each thing he added to the list, though, sounded more unlikely than the last.
Great-uncle Algie had dangled him out the window. He had scooped him up and hung him outside of a window. As much as he didn’t want to believe that this had happened, Neville was fairly sure that it had. He tried to think about why, but decided that that would have to wait until later. He did not feel like searching for the answers, nor did he feel like dealing with them when he found out what they were.
Then Great-uncle Algie had dropped him. And he had fallen. This was logical enough. He had fallen straight onto Gran, and then…no, wait. He hadn’t fallen on Gran. He had spun off course in mid-air, avoiding her in his seemingly straight path down and had hit the ground beside her. How had he done it? Neville knew from long experience dropping things out of windows that an object tended to fall straight down. Unless…of course. The wind. The wind must have blown him off course. How lucky he was that the wind had come up, and just in time to save Gran!
But surely there could never be a wind strong enough to carry him all the way down the drive. Neville didn’t know what to think about that. Had Gran installed some sort of special rubber gravel in case something like this happened? Had the wind cushioned him just enough so that he would not be hurt by the first fall, and then had he instinctively jumped the rest of the way? He couldn’t jump that high. And he didn’t even feel hurt. It was like he had been Transfigured into Thornton for a few minutes.
A shadow fell across his face, and he decided that the clouds had once again covered the sun. Neville opened his eyes, and looked up at the figure of his grandmother towering over him. Her face was sort of folded inwards, like Great-uncle Algie’s had been. She was as pale as he’d ever seen her, almost frighteningly so. She looked as if she wanted to speak, but she said nothing. Neville guessed that meant he was supposed to, and he didn’t know what to say.
"I didn’t mean to," he blurted out. "I didn’t know he was going to—and then I couldn’t—and he was—but I mean I know I shouldn’t have—oh Gran, I’m so sorry!" Still she didn’t speak. Her eyes glittered, but they were not threatening like Great-uncle Algie’s had been. Instead it was more like…
A sudden spot of wetness on his face confused Neville for a moment, until he realized what it was. It was joined by another, and another. Startled, he turned his face away, and Gran seemed to realize what was happening. She wiped savagely at her eyes, and her face twisted. Then she dropped to her knees beside him, sinking into the dust without any regard for her robes. She gathered him into her arms like she had when he was small, sobbing brokenly into his hair. Her hands clutched at his back, nearly as firmly as Great-uncle Algie had gripped his leg.
Neville did not move. He could not remember being held like this, and he did not want to shake her off or frighten her away. He sank into her protective hold, trying to support her weight even in his awkward position of half-lying in the dirt. His arms were pinned beneath them both, but he wrenched one out and encircled her with it. He thought she could probably use the extra reminder that he was indeed alive—and that he wanted her to stay.
"Why are you crying, Gran?" he asked, trying to be gentle. He didn’t like to be disturbed when he was crying, and he didn’t suppose she would either.
"Oh, Neville." An odd expression shone through her tears. "Because, dear child—oh, Neville—because I’m happy."
They lay like that for a long moment. Neville’s thoughts started piecing themselves together, and he gradually worked his other arm out and pulled his grandmother into a full embrace. With a start he realized that he was nearly as tall as she was now, and could hold her body quite adequately. She was bent over him, rocking gently, no longer making noise, although he could tell she was still crying. She was crying because she was happy. But—why was she…how could she be...
And then it hit him, as suddenly and completely as his first impact with the ground. He had not been killed by the fall because he had bounced. He had bounced because he had willed himself to, after he had willed himself not to hit his grandmother. And he had been able to will himself not to because he was—
"Magic! Gran, I can do magic! I’m not all Muggle. I bounced. I can make myself bounce! I’m magic, like you!" This was surely why she was crying. Because he was a wizard. Because she was happy he was not a Muggle, and he would not bring shame to the family. Now perhaps Great-uncle Algie would leave him alone. Gran was happy that he was a wizard, it was as simple as that.
So, now he was magic. He must be very proud. He was sure that he was. Gran would stop crying now, and she would begin to teach him all the things you do when you’re magic. He was a bit sorry, though…it was nice that she was holding him.
Gran stopped rocking, and pulled away from him a bit. Neville gave a little sigh before he could stop himself—somehow this didn’t feel as wonderful as he’d expected, being magical. Now Gran would get up, dust herself off, and expect him to do likewise. He pulled his arms back, preparing to rise.
"You’re what?" The question caught him off guard.
"Magic. Right? I mean, I bounced. I thought I would, and I did. Like Great-uncle Algie always said. That means I’m magic, doesn’t it?" He trailed off at the bemused expression on her face.
"Yes, dear. I suppose it does." Her expression hadn’t changed.
"You mean, you didn’t—you hadn’t—but...why were you crying, then?" He blanched. It had been a silly question, and he doubted she would answer.
"Why was I…because I’m happy, Neville. I told you. Because I’m terribly happy, terribly terribly happy."
"But if you didn’t know that I was magic then why would you be—"
"You’re…you’re all right, Neville! You’re alive! That makes me happier than anything else ever could. Magic…oh, yes of course, but…oh, Neville, you were nearly killed, you could have been—when I think of what he—oh, but now it doesn’t matter." She sounded quite sure. "It doesn’t matter. You’re all right."
She sniffed loudly, and pulled him towards her again. He lay with his head on her shoulder as he allowed himself to absorb what she had said. It was enough for her that he was there, he could feel that. It was enough for him, too, to be with her like this.
He was almost too happy to bear it, too happy to believe it. Gran had cried with happiness because he was alive. Take that, Great-uncle Algie.
He put his arms around her again, beaming into her shoulder, and they remained together on the ground for a long time. The wind ruffled Neville’s hair as he leaned into his grandmother, and the sun dipped below the clouds, turning the sky red and gold.
As Lydia walked with her grandson back along the drive to the house, an evening breeze sent a brief shiver along the back of her neck. She wished she’d brought her hat. She pulled her robes more snugly around her, and squeezed Neville’s hand. He grinned at her.
"You should always put on a cloak when you go outside, Gran. You might get a chill if you don’t."
She gazed at him with mock severity. "Thank you, Mr. Longbottom. I might ask, however, why you don’t have one either."
He blinked. "Well, I didn’t exactly expect to be outdoors, did I?"
She started at him for a moment, then burst out with a most undignified guffaw, snaked her arm around his shoulders, and pulled him to her. He was chuckling loudly, and she joined in. How long had it been since she’d heard him chuckle? He laughed like Frank. The sound of it made her feel as young again as she must have been when she’d last heard her son.
They walked on in silence. The huge trees lining the drive looked down protectively. They had been planted long before she’d bought the house; in fact, they’d been one of the things that had drawn her to it.
When they were almost at the house, Lydia’s eye caught on a small terra cotta flower pot lying on the edge of the grass as if it had been flung there. Well, it had been, and rather carelessly too. It was a good thing it wasn’t broken. She bent down and scooped it up, and presented it to her grandson.
"This is a fitting gift for the occasion, I think, Neville." He looked at her, confused. "Put anything in here, any seed, feed it and water it, and it will grow. I thought you might like it, seeing as you spend all that time in the dirt with those plants." She raised her eyebrows at him as he took it.
Neville held the flowerpot lightly in his hands, turning it over and over. "Yeah, Gran," he breathed. "Of course. It’ll grow anything?"
"If the success of its previous owner is any indication, then yes, it will." He glanced up, questioning. "It belonged to your mother, Neville. This was hers. And, oh—she grew herself some wonderful things." Lydia winked at her grandson, and held his eyes in what she hoped was a meaningful gaze, not wanting there to be any ambiguity about what she meant.
Neville’s eyes widened, and he hugged the small pot close to his chest. Then he flung an arm about her waist and they continued towards the house.
The evening was upon them now. Crickets chirped in the bushes, and the light from the house made the stately old building look decidedly warm and comfortable. The shadows had traveled their untraceable path, lengthening, fading, and finally disappearing altogether, the moment of their suspension between existence and imagination as elusive as ever.
Lydia’s robes were dusty, her knees were sore, and her heart was exhausted from having come very close to beating its way out of her chest. But her house was glowing softly, her mind was at ease, and Neville was whole and healthy, walking beside her with his arm around her, clutching his mother’s flowerpot to him as if it was the most precious thing in the world. And even though it wasn’t, she was fairly certain she knew what was.
She tightened her arm around her grandson’s shoulders, and smiled as she wondered what he would grow.