Harry sighed with relief, as he wheeled his cart through the magical barrier onto Platform 9 ¾. At last, he was finally reaching the end of this horrific summer.
He hadn't been at all sure that he was going to make it through that last fortnight. Given the events of the last two weeks, he was very surprised that Vernon had actually consented to drive him to the train station. Two days ago, Vernon had told Harry he could find his own bloody way to the station. Last night, however, after Vernon and Petunia had had a hissed argument in the living room while Harry cleaned up after dinner, Vernon had come in to tell him that he would take him to the train station, "Since it's the only way to get shut of you." he'd snarled.
Harry didn't care in the slightest why the Dursley's brought him to the station, only that they did. Even Vernon's "going away gift" couldn't dampen Harry's spirits. Not that much, anyway.
Since the fiasco with Marge, Harry felt like he hadn't had a moments peace, except when he was locked up in his bedroom. Which was whenever he wasn't working. That was only for a few hours at night. More because Petunia needed her beauty rest (Harry reckoned she needed about a hundred years worth of that), and couldn't supervise Harry, than out of concern for Harry's state. If they could have worked out a way to keep Harry working all night, they would have.
The Ministry had, sadly, made it quite clear that accidental magics were to be expected from an energetic, young wizard such as Harry. Adolescent high spirits, they'd called it. Naturally, Petunia and Vernon decided that if they worked Harry hard enough, and fed him little enough, he wouldn't have any energy left for magic. Then too, Vernon had his own way to remind Harry of his place in the universe. Marge had been very helpful in giving Vernon tips on the proper ways to break Harry's willfulness.
For the thousandth time, Harry cursed himself for losing it, the night he had blown up Marge like a giant balloon. Privet Drive was, for some reason, under close scrutiny. The Accidental Magic Reversal Squad had been on hand, almost immediately, to put her right. They missed Harry though, who had packed up his trunk and inadvertently hailed the Knight Bus moments before.
It was several hours before anyone found Harry at Diagon Alley, the conductor of the bus helping him with his things. Harry had intended to go to Gringott's, withdraw every last knut from his vault, and then...well, he hadn't really planned that far. All he knew was that his life would be a living hell if he had to go back to the Dursley's
He tried to explain this to Kingsley Shacklebolt, the Auror who found him. Shacklebolt had seemed sympathetic, but he'd said that it wasn't safe for Harry to wander about unsupervised, even in the Wizarding World. He'd explained to Harry that there was some dangerous criminal dark wizard on the loose. That wizards needed to be more careful than usual. He seemed to imply that Harry, due to his stature as the Boy Who Lived, might be at more risk than average.
Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic himself, escorted Harry back to Privet Drive. It had taken some fast talking on Fudge's part, but he had soothed the Dursley's ruffled feathers and had them agreeing to take Harry back.
The nasty glint in Vernon's eyes, told Harry that his assessment of the rest of his summer was not wrong.
Fortunately, Vernon was a master at not punishing Harry where it would show. Harry couldn't have born returning to school with the bruises and cuts he'd had right after he'd returned to Privet Drive. Their nosy neighbor, Mrs. Figg, had asked some very awkward questions that first day back, when Harry was mowing the lawn. Harry had to talk at some length with her, to assure her that he'd gotten into a fight with some teenagers, when he'd run off in a huff the prior night.
Petunia had overheard the conversation and advised Vernon to stay away from the boy's face, in future. She'd also given Harry an extra piece of toast that night. Harry wasn't sure if the extra food was to help him heal faster, or a reward for throwing Mrs. Figg off the scent.
Uncle Vernon had used the cane more often, after that. On the theory that it left less actual damage, while driving home the lessons that needed to be imparted.
Harry's back was on fire, this morning. Uncle Vernon had woken him at the crack of dawn to make sure Harry understood what he would be returning to next summer. Harry had barely been able to tolerate the ride to London. When they'd arrived at the station, Uncle Vernon had stopped long enough to pitch Harry's things out of the car. Harry was very glad that Hedwig had had the sense not to return to Privet Drive after he had let her go, telling her to head for Hogwarts, where she'd be safe.
Harry wrestled his trunk onto a trolley, navigated around the Muggles in the station and passed through the solid-seeming brick wall that led to the platform. Much to Harry's pleasure, the first person Harry saw when he came through the barrier was Ron. He was saying goodbye to his parents. His brothers were already loading the luggage onto the train. Mr. Weasley was giving Ginny a hug and Mrs. Weasley was hugging Ron tightly.
"Harry!" Mrs. Weasley cried, spotting him as she looked over Ron's shoulder. She gave Ron a final kiss as he squirmed away from her, embarrassed. He turned to give Harry a smile. Ron was more freckly than ever and his red hair looked sun streaked from his family's vacation in Egypt. He'd also grown about a foot in the last two months.
Harry sighed inwardly, wishing he'd gained a few inches in the summer.
"All right, Harry?" called Ron. The twins turned to grin at Harry, too. Ginny gave him a shy smile
Harry grinned at them all in delight, deciding that his height didn't matter, his relatives didn't matter, and his empty stomach could be taken care of shortly, so that didn't matter, "Yeah, fine. It's great to see you!" Even before getting on the train, he felt like he had arrived home. He set his teeth and didn't flinch when Mrs. Weasley hugged him.
"Well, all of you, hurry up." said Mrs. Weasley, holding her arms wide to guide them along like they were a flock of chicks, "It's almost 11:00."
Fred and George grabbed Harry's trunk and hoisted it onto the train for him.
"Ron! Harry!" Hermione waved at them from the platform, hurrying to catch up. Fred and George grabbed her trunk too. She smiled at the twins gratefully.
The twins returned the grin, and then ran off to the front to join their friend Lee, who had already found them seats.
Harry yelped when Hermione gave him a hug. Hermione backed off to look at him questioningly.
"It's nothing." he assured her quietly. Fortunately, Ron still waving at his parents, "Uncle Vernon had me doing all the yard work. I'm sore as hell. You just caught me wrong."
Hermione nodded reluctantly. Harry knew she had her suspicions, but what could she do?
Harry knew that the painful marks would be gone in a day or two, so all he really needed to do was avoid Hermione's more enthusiastic expressions of affection. She patted his hand and turned to hug Ron, next.
The three made their way down the corridor, looking for an empty compartment. Finally coming to one which was only inhabited by a shabby man who was asleep with his head against the window.
"Who's that?" asked Ron in a low voice, as they all took the empty seats in the compartment. They'd never seen an adult on the train, other than the witch who pushed the food trolley.
"Professor Lupin," replied Hermione, "He's teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts."
"How do you know that?" asked Harry, surprised.
"His name's on his suitcase." Hermione pointed at the inscription on the worn suitcase, Professor R. J. Lupin, "And Defense Against the Dark Arts is the only class that doesn't have a teacher."
"Go on then, be logical." grinned Harry, "I was enjoying the mystery."
The other two laughed and Ron pulled out a deck for Exploding Snap.
While they played, Ron told them what his dad had said about the search for the escaped criminal, Sirius Black.
The witch with the food trolley came. Harry bought one of everything, although most of the sweets he stashed in his trunk. Hermione had taught him a pretty cool stasis charm last year, and he was determined that he'd always have something to eat available. Stupid, he supposed, since he never went hungry at Hogwarts, but it went a long way to making him feel more secure.
He felt Hermione's gaze on him again, although Ron didn't seem to think about it. He just took it for granted that Harry's appetite must rival his own.
The door of the carriage opened, "Hermione?" called Neville, as he stood leaning against the door frame. He was pale, with deep circles under his eyes. His round face was a lot thinner than it had been when he left school last term. Harry noticed that he held himself curiously stiff. Almost as if he were guarding an injury.
He looked a bit like Harry felt, to be honest.
"Hi, Neville." chirped Hermione.
"Can I talk to you a second?" he asked, his face going red.
Hermione's eyebrows drew together in confusion, "Of course, but what..?"
Neville's eyes darted around as if he feared who would overhear, "I need help with a spell." he didn't seem keen on talking about it. Harry couldn't tell if it was because he and Ron were here, or if he was just uneasy in general. He took a deep breath as though steeling himself, and came into the compartment. He sat gingerly next to Hermione.
"Do you know any healing spells?" he asked. His voice sounded strained, and Harry noted that he didn't lean against the back of the seat.
"Not really, no." replied Hermione, "Potions work much better for that sort of thing. Have you hurt yourself?"
"Fell down some steps." replied Neville, quickly. Too quickly, for Harry's comfort. Neville didn't meet their eyes as he spoke, either, "You know how I am." he went on, still in that strained voice, "I was hurrying to get the post. I was waiting for some letters. My Gran was supposed to owl me before I left for school, since she had to be away this morning, and I tripped on the rug. Just fell headlong. And the owl wasn't even there yet, I found out. Anyway, I'm all bruised up. My Uncle brought me to the station, and he's not that good with healing charms. He said I should just let Madam Pomfrey take care of it when we get to school. I guess, he thought I was just being dramatic, but some of these bruises are really painful." He pulled up his sleeve to show the red, black, purple and blue marks on the underside of his arm, "Anyway, I was hoping you knew a good healing charm, Hermione." Neville finished.
Hermione and Ron nodded sympathetically, but Harry's stomach tightened uneasily. Something about what Neville was saying felt...off.
"You should have Madame Pomfrey look at it, when we get there." Hermione was saying, "We won't be long." it had grown quite dark over the last hour, a steady rain extinguishing the afterglow of the sunset.
I think we're there, actually." said Ron. "We're slowing down."
"No, it can't be." said Hermione, looking at her watch, "There's another half hour..."
As she spoke, every light on the train went out.
"What was that?" said Neville's voice, panicky.
"Have we broken down?" asked Ron's voice.
"I'm going to talk to the driver." said Hermione.
"Ow. That's my foot." said Harry, pulling them back.
They heard the sound of the door sliding open, then, "Ow."
"I came to find Ron."
"Well, come in and sit down."
"What do you think..?"
"Quiet." Said a hoarse voice. It was their sleeping companion, apparently awakened by the disturbance. "Calm down." He said in a firm tone
There was a little crackle of sound, then the man's face was illuminated by flames he seemed to be holding in his hands, "Let me go find out what's wrong."
Before he had a chance to move two steps, however, the compartment door slid open again.
A tall figure in a cloak stood there, blocking the way. It had the shape of a human being, but Harry knew, instinctively, that it was not even close. Resting on the door frame, a slimy, scabbed hand was visible from underneath the cloak. It was white and rotted looking, as though the thing standing before them was already dead, and had been pulled up from beneath a lake
The Thing took a long, rattling breath, tasting the air. Sucking in some vital quality.
Every bit of warmth seemed to be pulled from Harry's body, with that breath. White fog swirled up inside his head, chilling his thoughts, drowning him.
A woman's screams echoed through the fog. Where was she? Harry wanted to find her. To go to her. To help her. But the white fog surrounding him was freezing his limbs, motionless.
"Harry" Ron's voice was urgent, as though he had called Harry several times already, "Come on Harry, wake up!"
Harry blinked. Why was he on the floor? Where was the woman? "Who was screaming?" he muttered.
He could see Ron, Hermione and Ginny, in a circle around him. Their faces pinched with concern.
"That was Neville." said Hermione, very quietly. "That thing came in, and it was like it made you have some kind of fit. You went all rigid and fell over. But Neville..." she trailed off, upset.
Harry struggled up, "What happened to Neville?" the screaming Harry heard had sounded like a woman, but perhaps Harry had only assumed it was. He pushed himself back up onto the bench.
"I don't know." said Ron. He was so pale that his freckles stood out in stark contrast to the rest of his face. "Neville took one look, staggered backwards and screamed. He collapsed. Professor Lupin told the thing 'None of us have Sirius Black under our cloaks'. He pointed his wand and shot silver stuff at it and it went away."
"He checked you and Neville." Ginny took up the story, quietly. She was unwrapping something in her hand. "He said you weren't in any danger and we should give you this when you came around." She held out the thing she'd been unwrapping. Harry recognized it as a bar of chocolate, "When he checked Neville..." Ginny glanced uncertainly at Ron and Hermione. "He was upset about something. He picked up Neville like he didn't weigh anything. I think he took him up front." She snapped off a piece of chocolate and shoved it into his hand, "We've all already had some. It helps."
The four of them didn't speak for a few minutes. Harry stared at the chocolate in his hand, not eating it until Hermione said, "Harry, eat. It does help."
Harry bit into the chocolate and was surprised to find that warmth spread through him, all the way to his toes, "Did Professor Lupin say what those things were?" Harry asked, finally feeling up to talking.
"They're Dementors, he said." answered Hermione, in a low voice, "They guard Azkaban. They must have been looking for Sirius Black."
When the train arrived at the station in Hogsmeade, the four of them were still subdued, and rather shaken. They were not the only ones, everyone was talking in low voices about the Dementors. Harry looked around for Professor Lupin and Neville, but they seemed to have gone up to the castle already.
The teachers were strangely tense at the welcoming feast. Professor McGonagall was late. She marched into the hall after the first years were already standing in a loose grouping around the three legged stool that the Sorting Hat sat on. Harry noticed her glance at Dumbledore and give him a brief, jerky headshake.
Harry looked up and down the Gryffindor table, realizing that Neville had not joined them. How bad could it be that Neville had to miss the feast? Harry looked at the teacher's table. Three chairs were empty, Madam Pomfrey's, Professor Snape's and Madam Sprout's. Professor Lupin was there, sitting next to a very grave looking Dumbledore.
After the Sorting, Dumbledore stood. He gave a very serious speech about the Dementors that were guarding the school and how dangerous they could be. Harry barely heard him, as preoccupied as he was with his own discomfort, now that the adrenaline of the events on the train was wearing off. He ate as much as he could manage, knowing that he had a lot of weight to gain and he needed the calories to heal. He avoided eating to discomfort though, knowing from experience that if he stuffed himself tonight, it would only come back up. He'd been living on dry toast and cold tea every morning for the last two weeks, so he reckoned bread and potatoes wouldn't disagree with him. He made sure to butter his bread heavily and put extra on his potatoes as well.
Professor Snape had finally returned to the table, but now McGonagall was gone. Snape looked terrible. His normally sallow face was completely colorless. His face was an impassive mask, determined not to let what he was feeling show. He looked like a man who had just heard news of a grave illness or the death of a friend, and was determined to bear up underneath it.
He whispered to Dumbledore.
Dumbledore stood very quickly. The room went silent, waiting for him to say something. For a moment, it seemed that he had forgotten where he was. Snape touched his sleeve, as if to remind him. Recovering, Dumbledore said, "You will have to excuse me. A matter of grave importance calls me away." he strode out of the door with Snape beside him, his silver and blue robe billowing beside Snape's black.
A little while later, Professor Flitwik dismissed them to go to bed. Harry was very grateful. He wasn't sure how much longer he could act normally. The other students were very interested in whatever little drama was happening with the teachers, but Harry was only interested in bed.
Neville was still conspicuous by his absence. His trunk was at the end of his bed, untouched. Trevor the Toad was forlornly (or so Harry imagined) sitting on his rock on Neville's bedside table.
Harry showered quickly and was in his pajamas and in bed before the other boys had come up. Harry didn't want to explain the many bruises covering his body.
Something occurred to Harry suddenly. He looked at the almost healed bruises on the underside of his forearms. Those were the ones he had received from Uncle Vernon when he was protecting his chest from being struck with Dudley's Smelting Stick. The bruises Neville had shown him had looked very similar.
Harry resolved to ask Neville about it in the morning, before drifting off to the first decent sleep he'd had in weeks.
The next morning at breakfast, Harry noticed that, again, Madam Pomfrey, Professor McGonagall, Professor Sprout, and Professor Snape were missing. Flitwik was gone this time too.
The teachers who were there were completely silent. Hagrid was wiping his eyes with a gigantic handkerchief. One teacher, a woman with enormous glasses that made her look like a giant insect, that Harry hadn't seen very often at breakfast, was absolutely grey and shaking with what looked like shock. Madam Hooch had her arms wrapped around the Arithmancy professor, who appeared to be crying into her robes. Professor Lupin sat rigidly, gazing into his teacup.
Dumbledore looked as if he had aged fifty years overnight, "I have very grave news." he said in a quiet voice that nevertheless carried to every corner, "Neville Longbottom died in the infirmary, last night."
Harry heard Hermione's gasp, but didn't take his eyes away from the teacher's table. A horrified mutter circulated through the hall. Dumbledore waited for it to die away, "It appears that Mr. Longbottom was the victim of violence," Dumbledore paused as though to gather himself, "Violence inflicted upon him by a member of his own family."
Gasps and whispers. Dumbledore held up his hand for quiet again, "In the interest of ensuring that such signs of child abuse are not again missed, the board of governors, the Heads of Houses and the Ministry of Magic has agreed that each student must receive a screening exam immediately. This is merely a precaution, you understand. In addition, Auror's may be asking some of you questions in regards to the ongoing investigation into Mr. Longbottom's case. I would ask you to cooperate with both of these things to the best of your ability." He looked sadly around the Hall, "I am devastated that this should happen in my tenure as Headmaster. I feel that I should offer each and every one of you my deepest apologies."
Absolute silence greeted this.
"I am cancelling classes for the remainder of the week, so that teachers and students might have time to come to terms with this news, and so that the screening process can be moved along as quickly as possible. I must leave, for the next day or so, to help with the arrangements for the Longbottoms. Professor McGonagall will accompany me. Professor Snape will be in charge of the school until my return. He will also be working with Madam Pomfrey to coordinate screening exams." Dumbledore sat down heavily.
Harry slowly put his head in his hands, breathing harshly. He heard Hermione sobbing beside him. Ron put his head down on the table, on the other side of him.
Severus Snape sat quietly, next to the body of one of his least favorite students. He and Minerva had spent the night by the boy's side. Minerva, because she was head of the boy's house, and Severus, because he had been assisting Madam Pomfrey. Now he was tired. He sipped the tea a house elf had brought him, waiting for the headmaster to return to take over the vigil over the body.
He glanced again at the body whose face they had covered, not half an hour ago. The child had been slipping away since midnight. The internal bleeding and damage to his organs was too much for the boy's magic to repair quickly enough to keep him alive. Severus and Poppy suspected a spell was used as well. Or perhaps the encounter with the Dementor, in his weakened condition, had sent him into a type of magical shock. It surely didn't help that Lupin had had to Apparate with boy to the Apparition boundary, just beyond the gates.
The man's Patronus had appeared in the staff room, demanding the presence of the Headmaster and Madam Pomfrey. They found him carrying the boy, already almost to the castle steps. Snape shuddered at the show of the wolfish speed and strength that Lupin usually kept very well hidden.
"Severus?" Professor Sprout peeked around the curtains, "Might I join you?" She was exhausted, as well. She had spent the night attempting to use different obscure magical plant remedies.
Severus waved a hand in the direction of the empty chair.
"I will miss him." she sighed.
"I know, Pomona." replied Severus, heavily, "I know you were fond of him." Guilt twisted up in his chest, unlike myself, went the unspoken thought between them.
"I had hoped he would want a Herbology Apprenticeship when he finished school." She sighed.
Severus eyebrows rose, in spite of himself.
Pomona smiled sadly, "He was very good with plants."
"I didn't know that," sighed Severus, "There was a great deal I didn't know about Mr. Longbottom."
Including crucial facts: like that the boy's clumsiness was caused by nerve damage in his dominant hand. The fact that the boy's irritating cowering was caused by the expectation that blows would follow any raised voice. His inability to follow directions coming from the need to pay attention to where the next threat was coming from, rather than his lessons. His constant daydreaming a result of dissociation.
Severus stood, suddenly feeling that sitting there one more minute was intolerable. He paced back and forth a few times.
"Augusta will be here any minute." Poppy Pomfrey came around the curtain, to tell them quietly, "I suggest that you both get some sleep. Albus, Minerva and I will stay with her. When they're gone, I'm going to get a few hours myself, and we'll organize the exams for tomorrow morning."
"How many healers can St. Mungo's lend us?" asked Severus.
Poppy sighed, "They can lend us ten, until the end of the week."
Severus made some mental calculations, "Is it just the three of us," he indicated Pomona, "Who are qualified to do the exams?"
Both Severus and Pomona had certifications in medi-wizarding, due to the natures of their respective fields. They both needed to be able to do diagnostic charms and basic medical care.
Pomona rubbed her eyes tiredly, "I'm going to go have a sleep, then."
"I, as well." Severus nodded gravely to the two women. He glanced at Longbottom's body one last time.
Poppy patted his arm as he left. To someone who didn't know him better, he would have seemed unconcerned. Poppy, however, had known the man for more than half his life and knew that behind his icy facade he was experiencing shock and grief as deep as anyone's. He paused for a moment to grasp her hand.
As always, it was easier to put aside his feelings and carry on with planning. In this case, Severus had to plan on how to get nearly a thousand adolescents, some of whom might be very resistant, to speak with a healer or a medi-wizard or witch about their home lives. They would all need thorough exams and interviews. It was going to be a veritable nightmare.
Worse yet, this was all to be handled by Severus, because Minerva and Albus were both helping Augusta Longbottom plan for her grandson's funeral, since she had been cleared of charges under the influence of Veratiserum.
After that, they were facing an inquiry by the Board of Governors.
According to the Legillimancy that Severus had used on the boy before he died, it had been the boy's uncle who had perpetrated the assault. Apparently because the boy's magic was never strong enough to please the man.
Severus shuddered. Longbottom had been terrified of Severus' intrusion into his thoughts. It had taken some time to get the boy to stop fighting, and just give up the memories. Then, the spark that had been Neville Longbottom had shivered and dimmed, finally falling off into darkness. Severus had come back to himself, staring into a pair of dead eyes.
"Stop it." He said, harshly, aloud to himself, banishing the vision from his mind. He had not felt this weight of guilt since Lily's death. He had not liked the boy, no, but he had not seen what he should have. He should have seen the signs, pointed them out to Minerva or Poppy, or even Albus.
He knew, better than anyone, what Longbottom's particular malady looked like.
He hurried to his quarters, before anyone could waylay him. A sleeping draught had his name on it, and after that, he faced a long week.