Author's Note: All the usual comments about ownership of these characters apply, obviously. And a great big thank you to my new beta-reader, Thrennish, who is fantastic and helped me out enormously.
He trudged across the snow-covered grounds with his fellow fifth years, trying his hardest to appear calm. Yesterday, Neville (along with everyone else in the Great Hall) had noticed that Hagrid had returned from wherever he had been and had reclaimed his usual seat at the staff table.
He liked Hagrid well enough, but he most certainly did not enjoy the weekly threat of death by accident with a blast-ended skrewt or an insulted hippogriff.
He had rather hoped that Professor Grubbly-Plank would remain the instructor of Care of Magical Creatures until the end of the year. At which point he planned to drop the subject straight away.
In fact, there was only one subject that he would actually like to continue on with after O.W.L.S. Well, Neville thought glumly, at least I have Herbology to look forward to after Care of Magical Creatures.
As he and his classmates approached Hagrid's hut, his worst fears were confirmed. Hagrid was waiting for them near the edge of the Forbidden Forest, carrying half the carcass of a cow. Cheerfully, he announced that they would be working in the woods today. Apparently whatever creatures they were studying preferred the dark.
"What prefers the dark?" Neville heard Malfoy say to Crabbe and Goyle. There was a distinct hint of nervousness in his voice. "What did he say prefers the dark - did you hear?"
Apart from harboring a strong dislike for Malfoy, who ridiculed him whenever he had a chance, Neville was happy to see that someone else sounded as scared as he felt. But he was sympathetic toward Hagrid when Malfoy challenged him on whether or not these mysterious creatures were trained.
"Only it wouldn’t be the first time you’d brought wild stuff to class, would it?" In spite of the dread in his voice, Malfoy sounded as snide as ever.
What he’s saying might be true, decided Neville, but Malfoy should treat Hagrid with respect. He is, after all, a teacher. Besides, Hagrid means well and to him these creatures don’t appear dangerous. But then, Neville supposed that if he were half giant, he wouldn’t be frightened by nearly as many things as he was now.
"’Course they’re trained," Hagrid replied. Unfortunately, Hagrid’s assurance on this subject could not ease Neville’s mind.
It took a bit longer for Hagrid to finally put an end to Malfoy’s inquiries about the day’s lesson. But when he did, he marched right into the forest. Neville hung back a bit, reluctant to follow Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s lead. However, it didn’t take him long to quicken his pace so that he walked between them and Lavender and Parvati. He would rather face nearly any creature then endure snide remarks from Malfoy and his gang. Seeing as Malfoy was feeling particularly insecure right now, it seemed like a good idea for Neville to keep as far away from him as possible.
It was a good ten minutes before Hagrid finally stopped. Neville gazed around and attempted to peer between the trees. It was quiet enough here. There didn’t seem to be many creatures of any sort. He squinted harder; he didn't want to be caught off guard by whatever they were waiting for.
Neville jumped back, his eyes wide with fear. It took a second for it to register with him that the shriek was only Hagrid calling out to the creatures. After two more of these calls Neville saw Harry nudge Ron and point to a space between two yew trees. Following Harry’s gaze he saw two white eyes, then head and shoulders, and finally the familiar winged body of a thestral emerging from the trees.
Relief spread through Neville’s body. Thestrals were known to him. Shortly after his grandfather died, Neville had come across a pair of them as he was playing in the meadow behind his grandmother’s house. The sight of them had nearly caused Neville to collapse on the spot. But he had gathered himself together enough to rush home to his grandmother. There, she had explained what he had seen.
"There is a flock of thestrals that visit the meadow this time just about every year."
"How come this is the first I’ve seen of them, then?" Neville had asked apprehensively. Gran was often harsh with him when he showed any sort of ignorance. She expected him to be as brilliant as his parents, and try as he might, he just couldn’t live up to her expectations.
To Neville’s surprise, his grandmother’s eyes had softened as she explained about thestrals.
"They may have a kind disposition," she had finished, "but like any other animal they are to be respected. You wouldn’t try jumping onto the back of an ordinary wild horse, so use common sense with thestrals and there is nothing to fear."
Suddenly Neville realized he was still in his Care of Magical Creatures class. He had been staring at the long black tail of a thestral in a sort of trance. He didn’t fear them, but he wouldn’t exactly say he liked them. They reminded him of his grandad's last moments with him and the madness of his parents. They were a bit like personal Dementors for him, but not as overpowering. He could reflect on the entire person and the happy memories he had, especially of his grandad, who he had always felt the most comfortable with. Thinking about his parents cheered him up quite often as well. Although it was hard for him to see them in their state, he still loved their company. His mum's eyes were soft and kind, even now they were a comfort to him. According to Gran, his parents were mere shadows of who they had once been. He wished he could have known them then, if only for one day.
A second thestral appeared from between the trees and Neville pulled himself together.
"Now," Hagrid said, "put your hands up, who can see ‘em?"
Slowly, Neville raised his hand. Glancing around at his classmates, he saw Harry and a Slytherin boy with their hands up as well. Neville had feared he would be the only one, and felt a bit guilty when he was happy not to be alone.
"Yeah…yeah, I knew you’d be able ter, Harry," Hagrid said. An even deeper wave of guilt swept over Neville when he remembered Harry had witnessed Cedric Diggory’s death last year.
Hagrid turned toward him, "an’ you too, Neville, eh? An’ --"
"Excuse me," sneered Malfoy, "but what exactly are we supposed to be seeing?"
Hagrid turned and pointed at the slab of dead cow on the ground. After a few seconds, there was a shared intake of breath amongst the class. It dawned on him how frightening it must be to see the flesh being torn from the bones and then disappearing. He shivered at the thought.
Hagrid began to explain about thestrals to the class, in much the same way his grandmother had. Neville drifted back into a daze, thinking about his parents. He had never let go of the hope that they would gain back their sanity. He loved to reflect on what he felt when he stared intently into his mother’s or father’s eyes. He could see the faces of the people they used to be, trapped inside there.
A familiar voice snapped Neville back to reality again. "Hem, hem." Neville whipped around to see Professor Umbridge standing, clipboard in hand, facing Hagrid, who did not seem to recognize that the cough had come from her.
She coughed again and Neville lowered his eyes. He hadn’t had much contact with Umbridge himself, but he had noticed Harry’s hand bleeding profusely in the common room after his detentions with her. Neville could tell she was awful from class, but seeing Harry’s hand made him wonder what sort of horrors she was actually capable of inflicting.
"Oh hello!" Hagrid had finally noticed she was there. Neville moved farther back into the cluster of students behind him as she spoke to Hagrid about the inspection. The last thing Neville wanted was to be noticed by Umbridge. Her tone with Hagrid was so patronizing that it reminded him of how Snape spoke to him.
Umbridge made Hagrid seem utterly foolish over the next few minutes. She questioned every thing he said and forced him to repeat himself. All the while she was jotting down nasty comments about him and shamelessly announcing them aloud.
Neville found a kindred spirit in Hagrid as he timidly went on to explain how Hogwarts had acquired the thestrals. Hagrid’s confidence seemed to be faltering as Neville’s often did after being ridiculed. Neville rarely felt particularly brave. There was the odd occasion when something affected him so deeply that he just had to act on it, like when Malfoy made that crack about the permanent spell damage ward at St. Mungo’s. But those occasions were few and far between. Most of the time he found it hard to believe that he had ever been sorted into Gryffindor. He had many of the qualities found in a Hufflepuff and Neville wondered why he had not been placed there. The Sorting Hat had contemplated it for quite a while but had ultimately decided upon Gryffindor. Neville was still not quite sure why.
"Are you aware," Umbridge said loudly, "that the Ministry of Magic has classified thestrals as ‘dangerous.’"
Neville recalled his grandmother mentioning this to him. Hagrid’s response echoed hers.
"Thestrals aren’ dangerous! All righ,’ they might take a bite outta you if yeh really annoy them --"
Umbridge uttered more nonsense about Hagrid as she took notes on her clipboard.
Neville had been expecting this. His grandmother told him a lot about Umbridge in a letter.
"She despises part-humans," his grandmother wrote, "she rallied for all sorts of rubbish decrees banning werewolves and the sort from getting decent jobs."
His grandmother had always instilled in him a respect for every witch or wizard he came across. That’s why Professor Lupin being a werewolf never bothered him as it did other students.
Neville sighed as Hagrid attempted to further explain about thestrals and Umbridge boldly mimed her intentions to walk amongst the class. What Neville wouldn’t give to have Professor Lupin back teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts.
Hagrid appeared confused by Umbridge’s attempts to make him seem dim, but Neville noticed that Hermione was not so oblivious. Her face was red with suppressed anger and she was muttering under her breath to Harry and Ron. Neville only distinctly heard her utter the words, "hag… awful… twisted…vicious," as Umbridge strode over to Pansy Parkinson and the rest of the Slytherins.
That seems natural, thought Neville. If he had to guess which house Umbridge had belonged to when she attended Hogwarts, he most certainly would have guessed Slytherin. She definitely seemed to put emphasis on pure blood when it came to half-giants and werewolves. He assumed that prejudice would transfer over for muggle-wizard relationships and muggle-borns. Already she had proven herself to possess other Slytherin-like qualities. She was both cunning and sneaky. She certainly wasted no time in approving the Slytherin Quidditch team.
Neville inched further and further away from where Umbridge was standing with Pansy Parkinson and Malfoy. It had suddenly occurred to him that Umbridge might have seen who in class raised their hands about seeing the thestrals and would want to ask them questions. He was certain that she wouldn’t discuss them with Harry and that Slytherin boy did not appear to be much of a talker. He was standing off to the side, his arms folded across his chest, a frown on his face as he watched the thestrals.
Neville had guessed right, Umbridge did want to talk to someone who could see them. Her eyes fixed on him and she trudged toward him, clipboard in hand.
"You can see the thestrals, Longbottom, can you?" she said.
Neville panicked. He nodded in reply and began looking around at his fellow Gryffindors, hoping she would lose interest and move on. It didn’t work.
"Whom did you see die?" she asked.
Neville noticed the lack of even a hint of emotion and felt even more nervous. Had she sounded the littlest bit sympathetic he would have felt more at ease about discussing his grandfather’s death. But as he cast his eyes toward the thestrals he felt the emotions building up inside of him again. The last thing he wanted was to show weakness in front Malfoy and his gang. He endured enough from them already. He wouldn’t be able to stand it if they began poking fun at his grandfather’s death.
"My…my grandad," Neville replied, carefully keeping his eyes on the ground. Please just let her go away, he thought. But Umbridge pressed on.
"And what do you think of them?" she gestured toward the thestrals.
Neville raised his eyes and quickly looked at Hagrid.
"Erm," Neville began. He then stole a look at the thestrals as they continued to rip into what remained of the carcass. Images of his parents staring blankly at him in St. Mungo's ran through his brain and he had to think fast, something he consistently failed miserably at.
"Well, they’re…er…okay…" he lowered his eyes again. How pathetic, Neville thought. Why couldn’t I respond properly?
"Students…are…too…intimidated…to…admit…they…are…frightened…" Umbridge muttered as she jotted down what Neville had said.
Too intimidated by you, Neville thought. He couldn’t let her mix up his meaning like this. Hagrid had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t even the thestrals themselves, it was him. He allowed himself to be dominated by these emotions. He actually welcomed the feelings a bit. He never felt comfortable discussing his grandad’s death with his grandmother and he hadn’t ever told any of his friends about his parents. The thestrals provided him with an excuse to confront these feelings he was always pushing to the back of his mind. He had to stop that or he would snap again, as he had that day before potions with Malfoy.
"No!" Neville exclaimed, beside himself with emotion, "no, I’m not scared of them --"
"It’s quite all right," interrupted Umbridge. She patted him on the shoulder. Her mouth opened wide to the point of obscenity. It was evident she was attempting to look empathetic, but Neville could sense her indifference.
He continued to seethe inwardly as Umbridge crudely gestured plans having to do with the inspection to Hagrid.
She marched off with her clipboard tucked under her arm and her green hat pulled down over her eyes.
Neville began gazing at the thestrals again. He decided right then that he was going to stand up to Umbridge. He wasn’t going to let her or anyone else so easily take advantage of him anymore. Why should he let her or Snape or anybody else walk all over him? Okay, Neville thought, it's going to take a while for me to work up to standing up to Snape. Luckily, joining the DA was already one giant step toward defying Umbridge and it wasn't going to be his last.