Neville was on the lash again.
Hannah thought that that habit had been kicked into the fire, along with Rita Skeeter’s column on their supposed Firewhisky-dependency and carelessness around Neville’s students. “I’ve a-never been drunk around them,” Neville said forcefully that night, more than a little sloshed, whilst Hannah tore the crumpled copy of The Daily Prophet to bits and prodded it through the grate with the tip of her wand. “Never.”
“I know, darling,” Hannah told her husband, knowing this was all her fault.
She wasn’t sure if he meant to sit down in front the bar of the Leaky Cauldron one day after his work at the Ministry, or if he only meant to pass through to Diagon Alley and couldn’t make it through the throngs. She had seen him often enough, his head bobbing amongst the crowds at her busiest time as she rushed to get out drinks to thirsty workers whilst Tom, three months away from a much-needed retirement, slept on the floor beneath the bar. It was a busy evening, the last muggy night before the Quidditch World Cup, and wagers were flying about the pub, little paper aeroplanes zooming past heads, careening into ears and backing out again, shaking out creases and bits of wax.
“Hello,” Neville had said to her as he took the only empty spot at the far end of the bar, smiling wanly and flicking away a paper plane with the deftness of someone used to it at the Ministry.
“Hello,” Hannah replied, not sure why she was blushing.
“Firewhisky, please?” Neville asked.
Hannah smiled. “Long day?” she asked. She wished it weren’t so loud she had to shout.
Neville let out an uneasy sigh.
“Coming up,” Hannah said. She poured him a fifth, then stole another glance at his lacklustre expression and topped it up to a dram. “On the house,” she said, voice low as she slid his glass across the bar. He pulled coins from his pocket, sending sweet wrappers scattering, but she shook her head. “Free drink for war heroes,” she added with false cheer, pouring a splash into a spare empty glass for herself.
“Oof,” Neville grunted, and Hannah added, with a painfully false German accent, “Don’ mention ze war!”
Neville’s expression turned from hangdog to puzzled.
“Muggle thing,” Hannah added, blushing again, then downed her mouthful of Firewhisky and rushed to serve her other customers.
She was surprised to find him still there, his drink drained, a half hour later when orders started to slow.
“I’ve been ignoring you!” she said. “I’m so sorry! Can I pour you another?”
She thought perhaps it was the drink, or maybe the demands of the long workday, but his expression reminded her strikingly of the days several years before, of long evenings and stolen study periods in the Room of Requirement, trading charms for counter-jinxes. Also, the first anniversary of her mother’s death, when, feeling rather tear-stained, she’d settled into her favourite seat in the library only to find she’d sat on a bouquet of forget-me-nots. Across the room, half-hidden in the Herbology section, Neville waved at her shyly.
“I’d like some water, I think. Please,” Neville replied, sucking in his cheeks and stifling a burp. He’d grown up well, Hannah thought (despite the burp). He’d never be a Cedric Diggory, but no one would ever call him not-handsome.
“Best to alternate,” she agreed.
The night grew old, and gradually the pub also grew empty as patrons went home to their children, husbands, wives. Yet Neville remained, nursing his second Firewhisky, his fourth glass of water.
Eventually they were the only two people left, Tom having finally gone up to bed. It was closing time. The gramophone had worn outs its welcome on the fifth go of the Weird Sisters’ Greatest Hits and Hannah wasn’t sorry when Neville lifted the needle. She did protest, however, when he started putting chairs on top of tables (not least because he kept dropping them, and she had perfected the set of tidying, cleaning, and polishing charms needed for bar work in the past nine years) and she set him back down in her favourite chair by the dying fire while she finished locking up the front and back doors.
“I wasn’ at work,” Neville said suddenly.
Hannah nudged the broom cupboard closed with her hip and looked up at him, surprised.
“I mean, I was,” he clarified. His face was a brassy red in the firelight as he played with one of the discarded aeroplanes, flapping its paper wings. “Earlier. But ‘fore I came here, I was at…S’Mungo’s.”
“Ah,” Hannah said.
“Yeah,” Neville replied. He scooted backwards in the chair. Hannah wondered if he was steeling himself, waiting for her to kick him out, to make him go home to the tiny flat that he shared with Seamus Finnigan so he could sleep off the drink and the sadness in his own bed.
“Stay here tonight,” she found herself saying, then blushing furiously again. “You can take my bed. I have a Transfiguring sofa.”
“Nooo,” Neville replied thickly.
“You must,” Hannah told him.
The Firewhisky became a habit after that, though they would both insist that it was a friend, not a crutch. The kindly intermediary that moderated their visiting across the bar on busy nights, slow nights, work nights, weekends. It loosened their tongues as they talked about their parents – Neville relating the bad days, the good ones, how he had only one memory of them with their minds intact but he wasn’t even sure it was real. Hannah telling him after a full lowball that her Half-blood father had started online dating and she was already hating every woman he hadn’t yet brought home. He laughed at that, the sad expression lightening, the Gryffindor bravery hardening his face for a moment…before dissipating entirely as he reached for another sip of his Firewhisky.
One night Neville only had water. That was the night he kissed her for the very first time.
Their life followed the natural progression quite quickly after that, rushing to keep up with their friends who were already married and sprogging like their lives depended on it. It was three weeks from First Kiss to Engagement. Another month to the wedding. Neville moved in with her to Tom’s old flat on the top floor of the Leaky Cauldron and filled the balcony with lady’s mantle, lavender, and sickly pots of Dittany. He never complained but Hannah sighed to see her husband, otherwise so happy, standing out on the balcony, poking at the plants with his wand and obviously wishing for a greenhouse, or perhaps that the planet would tilt on its axis so they’d finally get sun shining in from the north of Diagon Alley.
Then one day an owl came, and she recognised the handwriting on the envelope. There was no charm that kept her from opening it herself, and she and Neville weren’t in the habit of keeping secrets, so she curiously tore the flap and plucked out the heavy paper, Minerva McGonnagall’s emerald words filling only a quarter of the page.
Neville came home early that night; it was like he could read her mind from a distance, though he assured her it had been yet another quiet day in the Auror Department. “Work’s drying up,” he’d told her happily in their first weeks of conversation over the bar. “Soon there won’t be any dark wizards left, and I’ll be out of the job.”
Hannah greeted him in the doorway, the letter held aloft in one hand, the other held behind her back.
“What is it?” he asked, already shouldering off his robes, eyes glimmering with the hope and expectation that a year of marriage had still failed to quash.
“I shouldn’t have read your post,” she admitted. “Spoiled the surprise.”
Neville plucked the paper from her fingers and clutched it hard as he read the few scant lines.
“They’re not even going to interview me,” he murmured.
“They must know you’re the best person for the job,” Hannah replied.
Neville leaned hard against the wall, which was already leaning at quite a steep angle itself.
“They’re just giving it to me,” Neville said, dazed.
“Professor Longbottom,” Hannah said, sliding one hand behind his neck, a cool bottle of Firewhisky emerging from behind her back, clutched in the other, “I think you finally have your greenhouse.”
Hannah Longbottom’s selling the Leaky Cauldron was lamented but not unexpected – young girl, so happily married, was bound to want to knock off eventually, head to Scotland with the husband and start a family. She had been adamant in pointing out that Hermione Granger, undoubtedly future Minister of Magic, was deftly juggling a momentous career with raising two polite and well-adjusted children. It was none other than Rita Skeeter herself who said it, her poison green quill poised on the bar: “Yes, but you know full well she has an army of house elves doing all the raising for her.”
“Do you think there’s something to it?” Hannah asked Neville their last night in the flat, surrounded by trunks and moving boxes. “Do you think we should try?”
Neville made a curious face, as though he’d never thought about it before. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”
His disinterest was understandable. He had other things on his mind.
But now here they were, two years into his post at which he was excelling, him tipped to become the next head of Gryffindor House and with a wife eager to become the next Matron after Madam Pomfrey’s imminent retirement. Each night he would come home and encircle his wife’s shoulders as she huddled over her desk, her Healer coursework filling every inch of space and lapping over the sides. They had used up the last of their leaving presents by then, drained the remains of the Firewhisky a year before, so why did he still stink of it?
“Going to bed,” he often said those evenings, even though it was often well before nine o’clock. “Good night.”
They were never going to have children if this kept up.
Especially if he kept lying to her.
“I’m not drinking,” he told her the night she finally confronted him – it was February, long after he’d first started coming home with the empty bottles clanking in his school bag.
“Explain, then,” Hannah pleaded with him. She had worked at the Leaky Cauldron for years – she knew this, knew that once they stopped admitting it, that’s when it became a problem.
“I’m not,” he told her, and stomped off with uncharacteristic anger up to bed, once more to fall to sleep before she could finish her homework and join him.
She blamed herself. She couldn’t help it. Maybe she wasn’t doing enough around the house – she had hired a house elf to come in once a week to tidy and prepare a few meals, but Neville always told her that her cooking was better. Or maybe she was pressuring him too much for children. Or they weren’t seeing his parents enough, having rationed their visits to St Mungo’s to once a fortnight rather than twice a week due to both their demanding work schedules.
“Maybe I should have stayed on as landlady,” Hannah said one Saturday morning over a breakfast of sausages and fried toast. She tried to smile at him as she poured him more orange juice, tried to lighten the mood, “Your students would probably like me a lot better as the one serving Butterbeer than the one with the Skele-Gro.”
“They’ll love you,” Neville said absently to that, then threw his freshly washed gardening gloves in his bag and left without finishing his juice.
In April, halfway through the Easter holidays when Neville was running out of excuses to go into work, he came home at midday completely despondent, his dirty face running with tears.
“What is it?” she asked him, holding him tight as he sobbed into her shoulder.
“My-my,” he tried to say, while she remained at a loss, unsure what to do. “Bloodbramble,” he eventually choked out
“Your what?” she asked.
“Bloodbramble,” he sniffed. “Got a bad case of firespot…and I’ve been trying to get it to come ‘round but it’s just not, not—“
“Ssh,” Hannah soothed, stroking circles into his back. “I’m here, darling, I’m here,” she said, wondering why on earth something with the name Bloodbramble was worth this display, and why once again she tasted the bitter tang of Firewhisky when she pressed her lips to his forehead and told him that everything was going to be okay.
She wasn’t proud of her actions, the day she decided to follow him to work. It was the last day of the Easter holidays and he had bounced back quickly from his tearful display, woken up the following morning whistling and cheerful like nothing had happened. When she asked him why the grin (the grin that used to give her jelly-legs, back when he wasn’t keeping secrets), he had said nothing other than, “Just figured something out. Don’t worry about it.”
When Hannah could do nothing but worry about it. She had spent the last two weeks in a minor state that he had completely failed to notice, while he did nothing but bumble to the school greenhouses as soon as day broke and spend his evenings by the window, saying at every sunset, “The days are getting longer. I can tell.”
“Such is the way of living with a gardener,” Poppy Pomfrey sighed when Hannah had her over for tea. “You know, one year, I didn’t see Mr Pomfrey for the entire month of June.”
At least Neville was eating again. He’d gone pale over the winter but now his colour was coming back, his cheeks going ruddy and face once more filling up the hollows. He remembered to kiss her when he left for work, though apparently their reacquaintance in the bedroom would have to wait, as he was more often than not asleep when she managed to go up to bed, or would start snoring as soon as she lifted a Herbology text from his chest and slid it onto the bedside table.
It was a cold day, the day she followed him, and she wore her wool coat over her robes, her old Hufflepuff house scarf wound about her neck. She greeted each passer-by as she walked the short distance from their cottage to the school gate – there was no one in Hogsmeade they didn’t know by now – and the wrought iron bars swung open as she approached, and clattered shut behind her as she entered the Hogwarts grounds.
It was a peculiar feeling, seeing the children just back from holiday run, shout, dash across the school grounds in their strange mix of Muggle clothes and wizard robes – all skimpy, as though they didn’t feel the cold. It made a very particular part of Hannah’s chest hurt, but she pushed those thoughts away for now.
She could map Hogwarts with her eyes closed. She’d even started to understand the pattern to the changes in the staircases by the end, understood that most of the time, they were there to help, there to guide the students where they wanted to go if they paused long enough to think about it. She didn’t go inside, however; today, she headed straight for the greenhouses.
The doors were shut, condensation running trails down the window panes. She knocked at the door and the glass vibrated beneath her knuckles. No answer there, and not at the several that followed, either, her hand starting to crack as soon as she reached Greenhouse Six. He wasn’t in his office either, his door left unlocked, his chair empty but still warm.
She was going mad. She knew it, following him like this. What was she expecting of him? Just drinking? That’s wasn’t the entirety of it, surely. Having an affair? Unlikely. He loved her, she knew it…even though he was having a difficult time showing it as of late. He was Neville. Nevilles didn’t cheat.
No, it was the drinking. And the lying. And the…something else. She didn’t even entirely know.
“Oh!” a small, high voice said from the corner of the room. Hannah startled, no longer used to the surprise of disembodied voices erupting into previous silence – they had no art in their house but still life and photographs. She spun in Neville’s chair, steadying her breathing, to find her own face looking back at her, the rough likeness wide-eyed, golden hair gleaming in the yellow of bright summer sunlight by the Hogwarts lake. She couldn’t even remember who had painted it – she hadn’t modelled for it, at least not in person – but she remembered it being framed; she had gone foraging in the woods with Neville to find the sandy beech to complement her hair.
“Hello,” Hannah said, shy at confronting her strange likeness. “Have you seen Neville?”
“He was here a few minutes ago,” the portrait-Hannah said. Then, suspicious, “Why?”
Hannah felt suddenly shy. “Has he been acting…strange, lately?”
“Not any more than usual,” portrait-Hannah said, more cheerful now. Her eyes alighted on Hannah’s midsection, and she wondered what Neville had been telling the flat half-version of herself. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to know, and she wasn’t sure if the portrait would tell her.
“Hang on,” the other Hannah said, “let me go see if I can find him.”
Hannah waited while her small, watercolour self disappeared into the frame. It was a full ten minutes before she returned, pink-faced, out of breath, and draped in streamers.
“Couldn’t find him,” portrait-Hannah said, picking confetti from her hair. “Most of the other portraits are gone up to the Astronomy Tower for the holiday-end party, but Sir Cadogan said he spotted him near McGonnagall’s office a few minutes ago.”
“Thank you,” Hannah said, and rushed off to the third floor. She arrived a bit pink-faced, a bit out of breath, just like her likeness. She rung the bell – a recent installation, only fair considering there was no door on which to knock – and when there was no answer, tried desperately to remember the password Neville had told her several months ago (only for emergencies, most likely changed by now).
“Artemis,” Hannah guessed, and when the gargoyle still refused to move, began listing off all the Greek and Roman gods she could think of. It still sat stubbornly still until she blurted out, her face red, “Eros!” and the gargoyle chuckled (of course it would) and jumped aside.
She rushed up the stairs, not knowing why she was in such a hurry, not knowing what she would say to the Headmistress if she indeed were there, only to find this office empty as well. It was not so different from when Dumbledore had been in residence, only slightly more worn-in, dustier, cozier, giving the impression that McGonnagal perhaps spent more time trying to fix the world than understand it. The strange, shining instruments that had jingled and chimed and smoked were gone, replaced by a functional low table and comfortable chairs for upset students. There was also a set of chains fixed in the corner, which would have shocked her if Neville hadn’t already told her that they were one: a leaving present for Filch upon his retirement; and two: a joke intended to mildly frighten children, and nothing more.
“He’s not here.”
Hannah jumped again, the deep, familiar voice sending a shiver through her bones.
Most of the portraits’ subjects were gone, Dumbledore undoubtedly toddled off to the party along with many of the other former Headmasters and mistresses. One remained, however, sitting very straight in his frame, hands folded, leaning toward her in the odd way only a two-dimensional person could.
“And neither is the Headmistress,” Severus Snape continued. “I do suggest you leave.”
“But…” Hannah began, at a complete loss. She didn’t even know what she was doing, now that she actually stopped. What she was intending to do when she found Neville? Yell at him? She was not one for shouting. Cry? That seemed much more likely. Steal the bottles. Pour them down the sink. Have him barred from the Three Broomsticks and make sure the elves served him nothing but pumpkin juice.
Ask him to simply talk to her.
“Has he been here?” Hannah asked.
Snape glowered at her from his frame. Somehow he was even more terrifying in paint than he was in life, his blacks blacker, his expression even more immovable. Neville had told her that Harry had requested the painting be done, had even organised for the fusion of the portrait and the memories Snape had left behind to make up for him not having had the portrait done himself (yet more proof, Harry had argued, that Snape had only had the best intentions when he took on the post of Headmaster). But she’d never seen him in person; on her scant visits, organising her training and her application for matron, the former Potions Master had always been demonstrably absent. She rather had the impression that he spent most of his days holed up somewhere where he wouldn’t be disturbed.
“I’m worried about him,” Hannah admitted, shrinking back from the frame and putting a worn chair between them.
“As are many of his colleagues,” Snape said without feeling. “Though is it no concern of theirs.”
“I’m his wife,” Hannah said.
“Miss Abbot, wasn’t it?” Snape said, and she blanched, horrified that he would remember her. “You were sufficiently confident in Potions, were you not?” She had fought tooth and nail for the “E” in her O.W.L.s. “Hm,” Snape continued, a faint, sinister amusement flickering across his dark features, “I can’t imagine why he didn’t ask you.”
Then all Hannah could see was black robes, the heel of a boot as he stepped from the frame, into the other.
Then Severus Snape was gone.
It was Hannah’s turn to be distracted when Neville came home, and for once it wasn’t with her studies. She wasn’t very good at bottling things in; it made her prone to grumps, to outbursts, to accusations that took on more of a bite than she intended.
It was juvenile to align herself with her old school house, now that she was grown, but she still had to bite down the urge to suddenly shout, half-way through her roast potatoes, “I’m a Hufflepuff! We are loyal! And you are Gryffindor, you’re meant to be brave and tell me what’s bothering you!” while Neville ate his dinner and read the gardening Q&A in the evening paper, oblivious to the battle raging inside her head.
Hannah went to bed before Neville that night, stared up at the ceiling as he crawled in beside her, still slightly damp from his shower, smelling of dewberry.
The mattress dipped, groaned. He wished her an absent goodnight and turned his back on her, blowing out the candle. Hannah waited for the snores to begin.
Ten minutes later: “Is something wrong?”
Finally! she wanted to shout.
“No,” she said.
Fawkes the Phoenix, Sword of Gryffindor, she thought to herself – a ridiculous mantra, but it worked.
“You’ve been talking to Snape,” she spat out.
The sound of Neville’s breathing cut off.
“Snape’s dead,” he replied, his voice strained.
Hannah was rapidly losing courage, but she forced the words out anyway. “His portrait’s not.”
There was another long, silent stillness.
“I thought you were terrified of him,” Hannah said.
“I am,” Neville replied. She wished she could see his face; he was just a pair of wide shoulders, of seams pulling at the sleeves of his pyjamas. “I was,” he added. “But, you know, there’s only so much he can do from inside a frame.”
“What does he have to do with your drinking?”
Neville sighed, exasperated. “I am not drinking.”
Hannah wanted to cry. Roll into a ball and weep.
“Neville,” she said, her voice quickly vanishing, retreating back into herself to be stowed away along with the fragments of her shattered courage, “you can tell me anything. You know that.”
“I will,” he said. “I promise.”
“How much longer?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I don’t know how much longer I can take.”
“I know,” he replied.
Hannah couldn’t explain it, when after one day – a day when her nerves were the most frazzled, her confidence the most shattered, her wits at their end – she woke up to an overwhelming peace.
It was almost like she had chocolate pooling in her veins (in a not-deadly way, of course), warming her up, slowing her down, helping her to appreciate the fine details of her everyday life. The lopsided smile Neville gave her before kissing her and leaving for work. The almost imperceptible, affectionate tug on the belt of her dressing gown. The film left in his orange juice glass and the pulp at the bottom and the dissipating print of his lips on the rim. Everything’s going to be okay, she thought. Eventually.
The peace was undoubtedly helped by the fact that she was between placements and enjoying a few days’ rest before studies began again. “Of course, a Healer is never at rest,” Poppy had told her, but Hannah supposed that Healers were sometimes allowed to put the lights down low and draw a bubble bath in the upstairs bathroom. And surely sometimes they might be able to turn the wireless on to the flying forecast and settle into scented water, blond hair streaming around their shoulders, skin turning petal pink beneath the surface.
She had just closed her eyes, listening to the wind speeds in the Shetland Isles, when there was a thundering knock on the front door.
“Coming!” she shouted, half-in her dressing gown, rushing to tie the sash as she tripped down the narrow staircase to the front hall. The person on the other side apparently didn’t hear her, because they knocked again; it sounded like they were about to cave the door in.
She tore it open, her hair dripping in her eyes, and flung her dressing gown collar closed at the neck.
Then looked up, and up a bit more, into the hairy, smiling face of Rubeus Hagrid.
“Hello!” Hagrid was beaming as he doffed a deerstalker hat the size of a bin lid. “Mrs Longbottom,” he said, scratching at his greying beard. “I don’ suppose yer husband migh’ be in?”
“He left for school twenty minutes ago,” Hannah replied, still clutching tightly at her dressing gown.
“Ah,” Hagrid replied, “I s’ppose tha’ makes sense.”
“Aren’t you meant to be teaching today, Hagrid?” Hannah asked.
“Nah, not ‘til the afternoon.”
“All right,” Hannah replied, at a loss for what else to say. Hagrid still stood there, apparently completely oblivious to her state of undress. “Well…is there anything I can do for you?” she asked.
“Dunno, maybe,” Hagrid said. Still scratching. His hat looked like it had been lined with the entirety of a long-wool fleece, complete with dirt and dried blades of grass. “Don’t s’ppose..yeh know, the…status of the thing?”
“Thing?” Hannah said, not having the faintest clue what he was talking about, her heart starting to race all the same.
“Yeh know,” Hagrid pushed on, his voice dropping deadly quiet like he was making an illegal backroom deal. “The thing for Fang.” His voice caught and he coughed loudly into his sleeve before adding, “Not doin’ so well, the poor lad.”
“I’m sorry, Hagrid—“ Hannah began, thinking, Oughtn’t that dog be dead by now?, but Hagrid clamped his mouth audibly shut, his lips slapping closed with a pop!, and he said, turning bright red, “Never min’.”
“Sorry?” Hannah said.
“Best be goin’” Hagrid said, backing away.
“Wait!” Hannah called out, but he was already at the end of the garden, stepping over the fence. He must have not heard her, because he only smiled a nervous smile that took up half his reddened face and disappeared onto the street.
Hannah nearly chased after him, but her dressing gown had a bad habit of falling open at the most inopportune moments and she wasn’t about to chase him onto the high street of Hogsmeade on a bright spring morning. Instead, she raced back upstairs, the offending gown slipping from her shoulders (I knew it). She threw it onto the bathroom floor, sighed, and pulled the plug in her bath, watching her morning relaxations whirl down the drain.
Fang knew she was there before Hagrid did; she could hear the rumble of Hagrid’s shouting through the door as he came to answer it, exclaiming, “QUIET DOWN, YOU DOZY DOG!” over the booming barking that refused to stop.
The door cracked open a few inches and the gap filled with slobbering jowls, more barking, and, high above, Hagrid’s suspicious face.
“Yeah?” he said.
“Hagrid,” Hannah began levelly, her voice also raised. She was not used to him looking at her quite this way, his black eyes half-lidded. She also couldn’t think of anything persuasive, so instead settled on a simple and loud, “Let me in!”
There was a pause, a purse of lips behind the bushy beard, and Hagrid appeared to sigh as he pulled the door inward, taking a hold of Fang by the collar and pulling him back.
He said something Hannah couldn’t hear.
“Sorry?” she shouted back.
“Cheerin’ charm!” Hagrid shouted louder, pointing at the dog and making wand motions. “I always tend to take a bit of his fur off!”
Finally understanding, Hannah pulled out her wand and did as instructed, and Fang went instantly quiet, staring at her in a dazed stupor, leaning off slightly to one side as if he was about to tip over, petrified.
“Gone a bit deaf,” Hagrid explained, finally letting go of the dog’s collar. “Among other things.”
“Is he getting aggressive, Hagrid?” Hannah asked. She gave a tentative sniff; the hut smelled strongly and oddly of baking spice, like Hagrid had been trying to cover the smell of something stronger. Urine.
“Nah,” Hagrid replied, and Hannah realised it was a stupid question to ask. A creature could take off each of his fingers and toes and Hagrid would still proclaim it as gentle as a Pygmy Puff. “Mind’s a bit gone, these days,” Hagrid carried on. “Gettin’ on in years. Bound to happen. Healthy in the rest of ‘im, just the—“ He cut off, blinking furiously.
“Hagrid…” Hannah said, taking a tentative step forward. Fang didn’t react at all as she ran her fingers between his eyes and stroked the length of his ears. “The mind is part of the body,” she said gently. “Once it’s gone, it’s not coming back.”
Hagrid looked determinedly at the wall, not saying anything.
“If he’s in pain, or a danger to you or someone else, don’t you think it would be kinder—“ she continued, but Hagrid cut her off with a loud cough.
“You ever meet Hermione Granger?” he asked fiercely, then, quieter and oddly despondent, “s’ppose it’s Weasley now.”
“We were in the same year,” Hannah replied. They had been in many of the same classes. If Hannah had had more confidence, she would have said that Hermione was one of her fiercest competitors for the school’s top marks…but it’s not a competition if the other party doesn’t know she’s competing.
“Ah, yeah, tha’s right,” Hagrid said. “Friends?”
“Acquaintances,” Hannah replied. She rubbed soothing circles at the tips of Fang’s ears. He didn’t even blink. It was as though she had Stunned him. “Neville gets together with Ron and Harry every once in a while. Saw them a lot more often before we moved up here.’
“Well, Hermione’d say the same thing, y’know,” Hagrid replied. “Abou’ Fang.” He took a gentle hold of his dog’s slobber-coated chin with one hand. Hagrid’s eyes glimmered beetle-black.
“Hagrid,” Hannah said again. “I don’t suppose Neville has promised you some sort of plant to help him?”
Hagrid didn’t look up, and only continued to stroke one of the dog’s drooping jowls.
“You know there’s no plant that can make a damaged brain better,” Hannah said. “He’s getting old. A bit of…breakdown is normal. Natural.”
“He’s only twenty-six,” Hagrid said thickly.
“Twenty-six!” Hannah exclaimed. “Do you know how long these sorts of dogs are meant to live?”
“No,” Hagrid sniffed.
Hannah didn’t either, but she certainly didn’t think it was anywhere near that long.
She sighed and drew out her own human-sized chair. The wooden legs had gone wobbly, threatening to collapse beneath her. She kept her feet firmly planted on the floor.
“Hagrid,” she began again, “what has Neville promised you?”
Suddenly the sheen of tears was gone. He was clamming up, going nervous. Fang was starting to growl.
“Dunno,” he said. “Can’ say.”
“Don’t know or can’t say?” Hannah asked, feeling more than a little bit mean.
“Don’ know,” Hagrid said again, more emphatically. “Can’ say.”
“Well, look a’ the time,” Hagrid said suddenly, climbing to his feet and looking at his shirt cuff as though it were telling him where to be. Fang started barking again. “Bes’ get off to me classes now,” he called out over the thunderous noise. “You all righ’ ter walk yerself home?”
Hannah was at the door, her back pressed against the wood and her hand on the deadbolt – foolish, as though he couldn’t knock her aside as if she weighed nothing.
In those tense moments, with Hagrid staring down at her as though he were afraid of her (the half-giant who tamed dragons and raised gigantic spiders, afraid of her), and Fang’s deranged barking at top volume, something twigged in Hannah’s mind. Rolled over, gears shifting into place.
“Oh,” she said, not even able to hear herself.
“I sh’really go!” Hagrid shouted, hands in his pockets, too nervous to even wave her aside.
“Yes,” Hannah said. Her hand found the deadbolt, slid it back into the door. Pulled it open so the cool, bright morning breeze swept through, sending Fang into a momentary confused silence.
“So should I.”
Neville’s greeting was a door slam, a muffled “Gah!”, and a loud clatter as he walked into the stack of old cauldrons sitting at the bottom of the stairs.
“What the-“ Hannah heard her name, then, with more trepidation, “Hannah? What’s going on?”
“In here!” she called from the kitchen.
His footsteps were deadly slow, as if he fully knew what to expect. It was his hesitance that gave him away…that and the look on his face as he death-marched into the kitchen to find his wife surrounded by his entire library of horticultural books.
“What’s this,” he said slowly. It truly wasn’t a question.
Hannah shoved aside a heavy copy of Magical Plants, Aaronite to Zymbius, and smiled at her husband.
“I saw Hagrid today,” she said.
Neville turned an unbecoming shade of fuchsia.
“Oh?” he said carefully. He set his heavy ring of keys on the table, on top of The World’s Most Dangerous Flowers. “How is he?”
“You know how he is, darling,” Hannah replied. “Now, if you’d be so kind, I’m trying to track down Bloodbramble, but it doesn’t seem to exist….”
Neville didn’t move as Hannah pawed through yet another index. He only stood there, frozen.
Then he suddenly took another step forward. Pulled out a thin green book from beneath a stack of others and slid it toward her across the table.
List of Illegal Plants, United Kingdom, 2.0.1335.
Hannah met his hesitant expression with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s in my private greenhouse,” he said. “Nowhere the students can get to it. I’m the only one who has keys.”
“Why is it illegal?” Hannah said coolly, taking the thin volume and flipping through.
“It drinks blood,” he said. “A teaspoon in its drip feed.”
“Your blood,” Hannah sighed.
Neville nodded. “Overdid it for a while,” he admitted, scratching behind his ear. “Apparently I was overfeeding it, though. As soon as I cut back to twice a week the firespot went away.”
“And what else are you growing?”
“For you private collection,” Hannah replied.
She glanced up at him but he was still looking away, the same crimson hue.
“Hazeweed,” he said. “That’s where all the Firewhisky’s been going. Papaver somniferum electricalis. Witch’s ganglion. Not illegal, that last one – just rare.”
“And what do they have in common?” Hannah said.
“They can treat nerve damage,” he said.
Hannah flipped the book closed and leaned back in her chair. Looked up at him. He finally, bravely, met her gaze.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said, and Neville started.
“Tell you what?” he replied.
“That you were working on a potion for your parents.”
He flinched as if slapped, and she crossed her arms beneath her chest, swallowed hard.
“I can’t,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“It’s illegal,” he said. “Experimental potions on people with…brain…issues. They can’t consent.”
“So?” Hannah said.
“And…” His face twisted. It had been a long time since Hannah had seen him look in so much pain. “You’re going to be a Healer.”
Hannah gave a little gasp, holding back a sudden, unexpected sob.
“I didn’t want to get you in trouble,” he said. “If they’d found out that you’d known, or tried to help me, you could’ve been thrown off your course, worse….”
“And Snape’s helping you,” Hannah said.
Neville’s brow furrowed with confusion. “Erm, as much as he can,” he said. “But—“
“He won’t remember everything,” Hannah said. “You need someone a bit better at potions. Someone who has a body, and someone you can trust.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Neville,” Hannah said, “if I had a chance to bring my mum back, I would. And if I had to think about her at St Mungo’s like that—“ Her voice broke and she stared down at the table, at the emerald cover of the List of Illegal Plants. She took a deep breath. “She wouldn’t have wanted it. She would’ve thought it was worth a chance.”
“She was brave, your mum,” Neville said.
“Your mum was braver,” Hannah replied, and met his eyes again, full of challenge. “I promise it’s not something I’ll make a habit of. So Hagrid allowed you to test it on Fang. How did he find out about it?”
“I asked him,” Neville said. “He’d been having issues with him for a while. I thought he’d say yes.”
“He’s not very good at keeping secrets,” Hannah said.
“That might be something we need to work on,” Neville admitted.
After a number of weeks, the Hogwarts staff were no longer surprised to find Hannah accompanying her husband around the castle before and after school, anytime between sleep and her night shifts in geriatrics at St Kentigern’s in Glasgow. Some must have attributed it to a new latching-on to Young Love, a sudden renewal of feeling after a scant few years of marriage (it was true – Hannah had never loved someone so strongly in her life. In spite of everything, that feeling was not new, and it had never gone away.) Other less charitable staff members might have secretly accused her of becoming more forward in sniffing after Poppy Pomfrey’s job. Hannah did nothing to discourage either of these rumours – it kept people from asking too many questions about what they were doing in Neville’s private greenhouse.
“Right,” Neville said in early September, lifting the lid on a small wooden box. “First testing, version 1.7.”
Hannah was poised nearby with a notebook in hand, leaning too close to the overgrowing Bloodbramble, its crimson berries so heavy that its vines were nearly dragging on the floor. She already had several pages of records on the last six experiments – none of which had reached the testing stage (results: eating through cauldron, requiring evacuation of greenhouse, inexplicably disappearing into ether, explosion (thrice)). This was their first stable result; it was the colour of purple velvet, its surface mottled violet, bubbling slightly with an oily sheen.
It had had to wait a while for testing, as well, for Neville to obtain the testing subjects. Hannah couldn’t keep herself from shuddering as he lifted the lid on the box.
“Neville—“ she said, then stared. A long-legged spider was walking in circles around the tight confines of the box, four of its legs refusing to move. Every few inches, it would stop, lopsided, and give a violent shiver, as if it were on a web, caught in a breeze, remembering gentler times. “You didn’t…” She stopped, stunned. She hadn’t been in Moody’s…well, Crouch’s…Defence of Dark Arts class, when he demonstrated the Unforgiveables on poor spiders, but she had certainly heard about it, from her classmates as well as her husband. She never imagined—
“No,” Neville sighed, putting a stopper in her thoughts. “One of the Ravenclaw girls keeps finding them in their common room. We’re keeping an eye on her housemates. In the meantime I’ve asked her to bring them to me.”
“Oh,” Hannah said.
“Right,” Neville said, and Hannah tried to focus, quelling the greasy feeling in her stomach.
Neville opened another box and drew out a glass dropper. “Do you want to?” he asked Hannah, proffering it to her.
Hannah shook her head. On the greenhouse table, within quick and easy reach, sat her wand. She knew Neville wouldn’t want to perform the honours if something went wrong.
“Okay,” he said. “Here goes.” He squeezed the rubber top. His hands were shaking, though it was obvious from the shine to his face that he was trying to keep them as steady as possible. “Two drops,” he said, doubting himself.
“Two drops,” Hannah confirmed. “Just like Snape said.”
Neville squeezed. A velvet drop formed at the end of the pipette, rounded, then fell.
“Just hang on a second,” Hannah said, and as predicted, the spider walked right into it, stopped, started its rhythmic shaking. “One more,” she said.
Neville quickly dropped another one, and it fell onto the spider’s shivering back.
“Well,” Neville murmured, bending too close and watching hard, “that’s something, I guess.”
Hannah bent down to watch as well.
The spider stopped shaking, went completely still, and stared right back at them.
And then it began to move, but not like before. Every one of its legs, all eight of them, straightened out, lengthened, rising above its silver ball of a body and slamming into the floor of the box again and again. They could even hear it, the sound of its thin legs, its exoskeleton, and see it, its pincers opening, closing, working frantically.
Hannah reached for her wand. Gasped. Said the words she’d never thought she’d say, not even during the war. And the spider crumpled in a flash of green light.
They both stared for a while, as if expecting smoke to rise. Instead, the spider just rested in blessed stillness, its legs curled up beneath it. Free of pain.
“Good news,” Hannah said, trying to be cheerful. “The potion appears to affect the nervous system.”
Neville made a choking sound deep in his throat, and Hannah took his arm above the Dragonskin gloves.
“That means…” Hannah said. She squeezed his arm hard, using nail. “…that we’re on the right track.”
They held funerals for the first six spiders, burying them in match boxes in their back garden beneath the overwintering hydrangeas. Hagrid came to one of them (without Fang; “Can’ take ‘im in public anymore,” he’d said sadly). Hannah thought that his attendance might have been meant as some sort of encouragement, some sort of desperate show of support when their confidence was lagging. It worked. They found themselves in the greenhouse the following day, staring down into the cauldron that had been brewing for the past several weeks…and that was still, Hannah knew, missing something.
And then she had the oddest idea.
“Get Snape,” she told Portrait Hannah, too excited to seat herself in Neville’s office chair. Neville was following her, closing the door gently behind them as if to keep their secrets in.
“Oh, okay,” Portrait Hannah said, and vanished.
Hannah and Neville waited for what felt like millennia, the blood rushing in Hannah’s veins, her mind working overtime. Something had struck when she was looking through Neville’s plant books, her own Healer course notes. Something aligned, came together in her head.
Snape appeared, looking rather sleepy and perhaps a bit hungover, as if he was about to fall into the watercolour lake.
“Forget-me-nots,” Hannah said, not letting Snape speak, “can negate some of the more serious effects of treatment and open up receptors in the brain. Ease the way.”
“It’s theorised,” Snape replied thickly, his words oddly slow and slurred. “And an old wives’ tale. There’s nothing to prove it has any effect at all. I’m afraid,” he continued, and Hannah decided he was indeed drunk (On what? she wondered), “that it is usually included to bulk out the price of Sunburn Salve.”
“Do you think it would be a step backward?” Hannah pressed on.
Snape pursed his lips and leaned hard against the frame, sighing.
“It’s…unlikely— excuse me – that it would do much at all,” he said. “So no, it is also unlikely that it would be a step backward.”
“They’re going to start blooming soon,” Neville said. He grew a blanket of it in one of the school greenhouses, would put a Stasis Charm on a bouquet to give to Hannah every October, in memory of her mother.
The couple exchanged glances, reached out to join hands, and smiled at each other until Snape began to deduct points from Gryffindor for public displays of affection.
Two weeks later, just when Hogwarts was starting to shake off its short winter, Neville dusted in the pulverised petals and Hannah stirred the contents of the cauldron clockwise with the tip of her wand. The liquid thickened, fizzed, then instantly calmed and turned a semi-transparent gold.
They both stared at it, thinking.
“This could be it,” Hannah said. “It did something. Snape was wrong.”
“Let’s hope so,” Neville said. He lifted the wooden box from the lower shelf. “We’ve figured out who’s torturing the spiders, so they’re going to be in short supply from now on.” He sounded simultaneously pleased, worried, and disgusted. “Maybe you should do the honours.”
“Are you sure?” Hannah asked. It was odd, how familiar those two whispered words had become to her in the past several months: Avada Kedavra, spoken like a blessing. The green light and the crumpling of legs.
“Yeah,” Neville said.
Hannah lifted the lid of the box and frowned at the spider inside. It wasn’t moving. It wasn’t dead, it was just…there. Standing, doing nothing.
“Are you sure about this one?” Hannah asked.
Neville nodded. “She said it’d been in the corner of the common room since Christmas. No webs at all nearby. Just standing there, not eating or drinking. Didn’t even flinch when I picked it up.”
Hannah took the dropper and lowered it to the surface of the potion. Squeezed. Through the forest outside the greenhouse, sunlight broke through the trees, setting the liquid alight, like goldfish scales catching the sun.
“All right, mate,” Hannah said to the spider, lowering the dropper to hover two inches above the its thin grey body. “Let’s see what we can do.”
Hannah’s hand shook while she squeezed, and two fat drops escaped from the tapered end. They splashed a halo around the spider, little gold flecks of potion that soaked into the grain of the box, and for once, without smoking.
The spider continued to stand there, motionless.
“No seizures,” Hannah murmured, still hovering close, focusing hard.
“Not yet,” Neville said, bending down so his face was level with hers.
“Progress,” Hannah said.
“We’ll see,” Neville whispered.
Then something odd happened with that one hissed “s” that escaped Neville’s lips. A little puff of air traveled from his mouth into the box, tugged at the spider, tried to knock it over. But it kept fast, like it was leaning into that letter, those words.
Then it did something else. Its leg moved.
Hannah’s hand grabbed hard onto her husband’s arm. “Neville,” she said.
Another thin, ball-jointed leg crept outward, shook, as though it was feeling its way, trying to find purchase. It took a step forward, then another. Feeling with its two front feet, guiding itself along the slats of wood. Puts its front legs on the front wall of the box.
Swiftly climbed it.
And vanished into the vines of Bloodbramble.
“Neville,” Hannah whispered again, urgently, and looked at her husband, wondering why on earth he wasn’t saying anything.
“Oh,” she said.
Neville Longbottom was crying too hard to speak.
“I’m a bit nervous,” Hagrid said as Neville and Hannah took up residence in his hut later that week, feeling oddly crowded among the monstrous furniture and giant inhabitants.
“You can change your mind anytime,” Hannah told him. She set the vial of the golden potion on his kitchen table, right next to a basket of floury baps. The Cheering Charm was holding for now, Fang sitting by Hagrid’s bed in a quiet daze, but they knew they’d have to wait for it to wear off before they could risk administering the potion, not knowing what counteractions it might have. “Is he on any other potions or treatments?” Hannah asked.
“No,” Hagrid said quickly.
Hannah fixed him with a look, and Hagrid corrected himself.
“Not in a long time,” he said.
“What was it?” Hannah asked.
Hagrid scratched his head and said, “Erm, not sure, ‘xactly.”
“What did it do?”
“Made ‘im live longer?” Hagrid said.
“Yeah, well, learned my lesson now, ‘aven’t I?” He took a bap in his hand and crushed it hard between his sausage-like fingers. “Hasn’t looked me in the eye for years. That and can’ ask to go outside anymore, just widdles all over the floor like a pup. Then he jus’ stands in the corner, starin’ at the wall fer hours….“
Hagrid choked down any further words, the bread crumbs tumbling from his fingers, and Hannah sighed and unrolled her case of pipettes. All the while, Neville was standing by the dog, watching it, not really doing anything. Obviously nervous. Hannah couldn’t blame him – it was a large leap between spider and mammal. How much further would it be from dog to human? There was no guarantee that what worked for an arachnid would transfer. And they didn’t even know what had happened to the spider; it could have wandered off into the Bloodbramble and turned inside out. Crumpled into a tiny pile of ash. Neville had said that he had tested the potion on the healthy spiders that lived in the corner of his office, and to no ill effect, but when Hannah had asked him if he was sure they hadn’t just been replaced by different spiders entirely, he hadn’t been able to answer.
“Are you sure, Hagrid?” Hannah asked, her face flooding with warmth. Fang was starting to growl again, and Neville was creeping away, back toward the door. Hannah drew out her wand and made a subtle lightning bolt motion. It was becoming too familiar. “And you know what I’m going to have to do if it harms him,” she said. She wished she didn’t have to say it so loudly. “It’s the best thing.”
“Yeh,” Hagrid said, still choked. “I’m sure.”
Hannah would have liked it to be a peaceful process, but with Fang in the state he was, it was not to be. The growls became more prolonged as the charm wore off, and the whites of his eyes appeared as he started barking again, his few remaining teeth flashing as he set his waning attention on Neville. Hagrid took him by the collar and dragged him back, but even he seemed to struggle, and Fang’s ears – now more decorative than anything else – didn’t quite allow him to hear any soothing words that Hagrid could find to say.
“Just…keep a hold on him,” Neville panted as Hagrid seized Fang in a headlock and Hannah attempted to keep his jaw from closing on Neville’s hand, her fingers filling with slobber and wobbly jowls. Hagrid was muttering something that sounded partly like a prayer and partly like an apology as he leaned his massive forehead against Fang’s ear, making it hard for Hannah to keep a hold on the dog’s head.
“Almost—“ Neville said. Hannah slipped her hands onto Fang’s bare gums, one on the bottom, one on the top, and pulled. Fang bayed, or tried to, and Neville squirted a full dropper full of sunshine-yellow potion into the dog’s mouth.
“Hold him!” Hannah said, and let the dog go while Hagrid took an extra-strong hold of his collar.
Fang continued barking.
Neville frowned, sighed, and threw the pipette onto the kitchen table.
“Well, least it’s not worse,” Hagrid shouted, and Hannah reached out to hold Neville’s slobbery hand.
“Maybe we need to wait,” Hannah said. “Maybe it will take longer!”
“Pardon?” Neville replied.
A muffling charm later, they found themselves sitting cross-legged on Hagrid’s bed, scattered with crumbs from their Quaffle-sized bread rolls. Hagrid joined them after a while, proclaiming himself at wits’ end and about to take care of the dog himself. With some trepidation, they scooted over to make room, and Hagrid said, “Don’ worry. Not goin’ ter squish yeh.”
Apparently he didn’t, because Hannah awoke several hours later when the fire died in the grate. She was confused for a moment, wondering where she was, until she found Neville asleep in her lap, clutching the knee of her robes, and Hagrid with his head resting back on the windowsill, mouth open and snoring.
She sat up stiffly, blinked, tried to see in the darkness. Her fingers found her wand.
Hagrid’s hut lit up with a narrow beam of warm yellow light, casting long shadows of table, chairs, and even bread rolls upon the far wall. The floor beneath the bed was empty, a poker resting in front of the fireplace and an upended stool the only sign of their struggle with Fang. There wasn’t any more barking, muffled or not.
“Fang?” Hannah whispered. She carefully lifted Neville’s head from her lap, wormed out from beneath him, and lowered his head back to Hagrid’s quilt. “Fang?” she whispered again, louder this time.
Her feet touched the ground, then she stopped on her tiptoes.
Hannah swept her wand around and the door illuminated in her warm yellow spotlight, all except for a large, dog-shaped shadow, its back to her, its tail hanging curved between its back legs. A milky white of eye gleamed, but otherwise the eyes were dark, round, and glittering.
Fang whimpered again and pawed at the door.
He wanted to go outside.
“Yer goin’ to be minted,” Hagrid said after he’d bought them their third round of drinks. Hannah was already having trouble staying in her chair, and she wasn’t sure what yet another fifth of Firewhisky was going to do to her. Embarrassing – a few years away from the Leaky Cauldron and she could no longer hold her liquor.
Neville, however, seemed to have developed both a taste and a head for it.
“No,” he said, keeping his voice much quieter than Hagrid’s. The Three Broomsticks was otherwise empty but Madam Rosmerta was leaning over the bar, flipping through a battered copy of Witch Weekly. “We’re not going to be anything. We don’t even know if it’s going to work on humans.”
“Buck up, Mr Longbottom,” Hagrid replied, lifting his veritable barrel of beer. “So far so good, eh?”
“’Member what we told you,” Hannah told Hagrid, her tongue feeling thick in her mouth.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m watchin’ ‘im.” He took another long drink and when he put his flagon down, he had foam encircling his beard. His attention turned to Neville. “How long’re yeh goin’ to wait, before…yeh know.…”
“As long as we can,” Neville replied. “Mum is getting a bit frail, though. I’m not sure how much longer we have to wait.” On their last visit the month before, Alice Longbottom had barely left her bed. The Healer had taken them aside into a little rundown office off the ward, pushed tea and biscuits at them, and said, “The mind is part of the body. The two are linked. I’m afraid that once it goes downhill like this, there’s not always much we can do to stop it.”
It had infuriated Hannah to hear words that sounded so much like her own being spoken about her mother-in-law.
“A few months,” Hannah said, and Neville nodded his agreement. Despite his reserve about the potion’s success, his cheer had measurably increased. He was smiling more easily, laughing more often, ready to plant a kiss on Hannah’s lips whenever either of them left the room. They hadn’t had that conversation again, not yet, but Hannah knew they would. Eventually.
Hagrid nodded, sending bits of foam flying. Hannah wiped her forehead with the back of her palm.
“So what’re yeh goin’ to do, then?” he asked. “Easter holidays’ve started. What’re you goin’ to do with yer free time? Yeh’ve been huntin’ like Nifflers all year.”
“I don’t know,” Hannah said, pretending she had no ideas.
“I do,” Neville said, and his hand found her knee under the table and squeezed.
Several Months Later
“Oh, you’re here! They’ll be so pleased to see you.”
Hannah and Neville had grown used to this lie over the years, but it always seemed to sting more at Christmas. This year, it felt like being taken out by a Blast-Ended Skrewt. Neville had developed a shuffling gate on the way to St Mungo’s, and not even Hannah’s catching his hand and brushing it against her rounded side seemed to lift his mood.
It had been two months. Two months since Hannah had smuggled the vial under her maternity robes. Two months since Neville had volunteered to put his frail mother back to bed while the Healer was distracted with an escapee to the Spell Damage ward. Hannah had kept guard at the bed curtains, holding them shut behind her while Neville whispered platitudes to his mother, gentle commands, and coughed when the gentle expulsion of air announced that the potion had been administered. He emerged a few moments later, red-faced and nervous, and went to hold hands with his father (no potion, not yet) while Hannah sat at Alice Longbottom’s bedside, pretending to read a book.
It was tempting to go to sleep, tempting to think that would bring about change. She even had dozed for a moment (she was so tired these days), and then woken up in a panic, worried that something terrible had happened. But Neville’s mother was still there, on her side, covers drawn up to her chin and staring straight through Hannah, unblinking, as if she weren’t there.
They stayed until visiting hours ended.
If could be worse, Hannah had wanted to say, but she knew it wouldn’t have made it any better.
Eventually Hannah stopped looking out their kitchen window in waiting for the owls, and she stopped flinging envelopes aside in the morning post whilst on the hunt for anything that might be from St Mungo’s – an announcement of a sudden turn of events, a miraculous healing. Eventually, Neville stopped asking if anything had arrived. They spent their evenings much as they had before, with Neville perusing the evening paper, Hannah reviewing the coursework she would need to complete before her leave began. At least they sat touching now, leg to leg, arm to arm, and they went to bed together, neither of them any longer stinking of Firewhisky.
Some days, though, Hannah wished she hadn’t had to give it up.
The Healers had pushed Frank and Alice’s beds together for Christmas, as if seeing their pale, ghostly forms in such close contact would bring a comfort to Neville that healing could not. Perhaps it would have, if they acknowledged the other’s existence, but of course, they didn’t seem to even know the other was there, or Hannah and Neville besides.
Instead, Hannah and Neville pulled the ends of the Christmas crackers. Hannah and Neville ate the roast between them and picked off of his mother’s plate because Hannah was still starving. Hannah and Neville were the ones singing Christmas carols that neither of his parents seemed to be able to hear. Hannah coloured in ever-changing designs with bits of crayon worn down by months of ham-fisted use. Alice managed to point at a Highland Terrier wearing a Father Christmas hat, which was barking merrily, the lyrics to Good King Wenceslas appearing at the top of the page. Hannah humoured her by colouring the dog blue, and Alice took the paper in her hand, crumpled it, and threw it to the end of her bed.
In the late hours, before they were made to go home, Neville reached across, took Hannah’s hand, and scooted his chair toward his mother’s bedside. Frank had long ago gone to sleep, back turned toward them, thin shoulders lost in the layers of his pyjamas and blankets, but Alice was still awake. Or at least her eyes were open. Looking at them, it sometimes seemed, even though they knew that she wasn’t really.
“Mum,” Neville began, the first time he had addressed her directly in a while. Ever since the potion, Hannah thought, though she couldn’t quite remember.
Neville’s hand slid onto Hannah’s middle. “You and Dad are going to be grandparents.”
Part of Hannah expected a reaction. A flicker. A smile. Something. Perhaps not the confetti in the shapes of storks and prams pouring into the air from the tip of a wand (that had been how Hannah’s father had greeted the news), but just…some sort of acknowledgement that the two of them…no, the three of them…existed.
“We’re still thinking of names,” Neville prattled on, and Hannah felt tears prick her eyes. “It’s a boy. Was thinking of Harry but I don’t know…we want it to be special to both of us. We’ll think about it and let you know.”
They sat there for another minute, Neville’s hand rubbing circles on Hannah’s midsection like he expected his mother to shout out a suggestion any minute, Hannah clenching the arms of the chair and trying not to cry. A bright green shadow moved behind them. Healer Prou.
“Afraid it’s time for lights out,” she said, sliding the curtain aside. Her smile was wide, white with so many teeth. “Happy Christmas,” she said. Her voice was much sadder than her smile.
“Happy Christmas,” Hannah said for both of them, and took Neville’s hand.
Neville’s eyes were fixed on the floor as she led him back to the ward door. His steps were slow, slower than hers.
“They’ll get to meet him,” she told him quietly. “Maybe that will mean something to them, seeing him for the first time.”
“Maybe,” Neville replied glumly.
She pulled him on to the lifts and pressed the button, and stood firm beside him, her arm around his middle, propping him up despite his considerable height.
The lift door chimed and rattled open. Hannah took a step forward. Neville stopped.
“What—“ Hannah began, but she heard it, too. The long, sliding shuffle, the swish swish swish of slippers across the dusty ward floor, sliding beneath the guttural groans of the other patients, making its way toward them.
They both turned.
Alice Longbottom was shuffling toward them from the ward door, her wispy white hair floating about her head, cloud-like, her hand reaching for anything – a table, a chair, a wall fixing – to help ease her mode of travel. Hannah was about to go toward her, reach out, steady her on her feet, but Neville was leaning on her too heavily. If she moved, he might have fallen to the floor.
“Mum?” Neville said.
But Alice wasn’t looking at him. She was looking at Hannah. Her hand was outstretched, and between her thumb and forefinger was a bit of paper: a wrapper for Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum.
Hannah took it. “Thank you,” she whispered, holding it tight in her fist, and Alice turned around and shuffled back to where Healer Prou stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips and the smile still in place. “Let’s go back to bed, now,” were the last words Neville and Hannah heard as they stepped into the lift.
The baby nudged into Hannah’s ribs as the lift door clattered closed and they began the slow descent to the ground floor. Neville was staring hard at the golden buttons, looking as though he was considering pressing them all. Hannah was dragging the sweet wrapper through her fingers, smoothing out the creases and making her fingers sticky with traces of leftover sugar and gum.
“Maybe she is getting better,” Hannah said.
“Maybe,” Neville told the door.
“Maybe we should have told her we’re thinking of naming the baby after your dad.”
“Maybe,” Neville said again.
“Ground floor,” the lift told them, and chimed as the door clattered open to reveal the reception lined with its customary decorations of white trees, tinsel, and bobbles hanging from the ceiling in festive reds and greens. Neville took a step out, his hands in his pockets.
Hannah didn’t move.
“Hannah?” Neville said, but she didn’t even look up.
Instead, she was looking at the sweet wrapper, running it through her hands. Holding it up to the light so that the bright white of reception shone through.
Shone through…except for a distinct squiggle of un-trademarked blue.
“Han?” Neville said again, but Hannah could only stare. Down at her hands, down at the wrapper, down at the sky-blue lettering written in wax, shaky and backwards, like in a child’s hand
“Neville,” Hannah said, her thumb underlining the name.
Her thumb underlining the shaky but undeniable FRANK.