His Gran had never been a patient woman; these days she was even less so. The prospect of Voldemort's return to power made her anxious, fearful – though she never would admit it openly. He could sense her fear; it penetrated every little gesture, every sharp comment, until he felt overwhelmed and confused by it.
That weekend they went to visit his mum and dad, and they brought no one, not even Trevor. Neville was glad of that. He liked the sense of detachment that brought, the feeling that he was, for a few hours, going to be away from all the horror that Hogwarts seemed to be so full of these days. He would just be with his parents. Neville didn't know what was going on in the world at that precise moment, but he felt the fear. He knew, from the grim faces that peered at him around corners in Hogwarts' halls and from the DA's frequent meetings, that there was something sinister brewing on the horizon.
"Hurry up, Neville, we're going to be late!" snapped his grandmother, and he quickened his pace to keep up with her. Although she was elderly, and he had gained quite a bit of height on her, Gran could still out-walk him if she desired to. On this occasion, it seemed, she did.
Not that he didn't like visiting his parents. As painful as it was, Neville looked forward to seeing them on every visit. It was almost Christmas, too, which meant he was bringing them both gifts, nothing expensive, just pleasant little everyday things that would make their lives a little more interesting. An alarm clock shaped like a robin, for his mother, that sang a sweet melody when wound up. Gran was always telling him how much his mum loved birds. Neville remembered. He also remembered that his father was a fan of Muggle radio broadcast. He clutched the little plastic bag in his hot, sweaty hands, wondering if they'd purchased enough batteries to keep the radio going until their next visit, which wouldn't be until Easter, maybe later.
It didn't bother Neville that much when he presented both gifts to his parents and neither of them reacted. His mother started humming though, while staring at the robin-shaped clock, and stroked it like it was a real bird. His Gran fussed over the state of their sheets and even threatened to report a complaint until Neville's father, frightened by Gran's yelling, tried to hide himself beneath the sheets, presumably to block out her voice.
She calmed down then, was civil again and even said a few pleasant words to the Healer in charge. Eventually, however, it was time to go.
"Oh, Mrs. Longbottom, are you leaving already?" asked the Healer, smiling graciously. Gran nodded; Neville kept quiet.
What he hadn't expected was to see Harry Potter, of all people, to be there, his head snapping around to stare at Neville. Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger – even Ginny Weasley, whose freckled face Neville could see clearly from where he stood.
Ron yelled out his name, sounding pleased to see him, something that puzzled Neville tremendously. Why are they here, he wondered, feeling shaken by the unforeseen meeting. Gran looked back, politely inquired as to who they were, and Neville could feel his face drain of blood. He could not look into anyone's eyes, nor could he find a voice to speak with.
Gran went around shaking all of their hands, reeling off their names as she did so. He saw the look of surprise that Hermione assumed when Gran descended on her, claiming to have heard all about her. Neville almost couldn't bearthe awkward glances they gave him as they greeted his grandmother, obviously embarrassed to discover he'd mentioned them to her. Neville supposed it was also partly guilt – because he had a feeling they'd never mentioned him to their parents.
"He's a good boy," she said, casting a look that was nearly fond, but more sternly approving at him. "He hasn't got his father's talent, I'm afraid to say."
"What?" said Ron, his eyes widening.
He found himself frozen to the spot, immobile, much like the time Hermione had cast a full body bind on him in order to proceed to save the Philosopher's stone from Voldemort. Neville still smarted from the incident, still thought himself utterly stupid and undeserving of those ten house points. Courage to stand up to your friends, he thought, the words repeating themselves in his mind round and round. What courage was there but idiocy?
"Is that your dad down the end, Neville?" asked Ron, taken aback. Neville's insides flooded with ice, he couldn't bring himself to speak. What could he say? How could he explain what he'd kept hidden for so long?
He didn't have to, for his Gran spoke up next, her voice edged. Neville looked up at the ceiling, at a spot just left of the quivering beak of the stuffed vulture that sat trembling on her hat. "What's this? Haven't you told your friends about your parents, Neville?"
Neville concentrated on that part of the ceiling, and everything felt so far away and faint. He could feel five pairs of eyes focused on him, their intensities boring through the distance into his skin. They were waiting for an answer, foradmittance, for his confession. Neville had nothing to confess, so he shook his head.
"There's nothing to be ashamed of!" She was angry at him, disgusted. She usually was, and Neville was used to it. "You should be proud, Neville, proud!"
She went on, but Neville did not hear her. He lowered his eyes, pretending no one could see his embarrassment but himself. He was never good at lying andwhen he did lie to himself he never succeeded. Neville swallowed, avoiding the gazes of his friends, feeling their pity consume him alive. He bore it though, he bore it hard and fast and never let go because it was what kept him afloat. Amid jeering and taunts and fearful grandmothers who spoke sternly down on him - those moments of self pity, of knowing that the only way to know you're alive is to bleed for it, or have someone else bleed for you.
But no one bled for Neville. He bled for himself.
"I'm not ashamed," he whispered, and he always whispered to himself, again and again proving it true. Neville was not ashamed; he was not ashamed of having parents who'd bravely faced Voldemort, parents who'd given their all to defend what was just.
What Neville was ashamed of was his own lack of skill, his own wavering determination: Neville was ashamed of his tears, ashamed of his sleepless nights and dreams of blood and screaming; of waking up with sweat dripping down his face and the words mummy and daddy unspoken on his lips. Neville was ashamed of himself.
"Well, you've got a funny way of showing it!" Gran's old face scowled down at him, and she turned to the others, her features flushed and haughty. Neville held himself loosely;he did not know what to do with himself. His ears roared with noise only he could hear, as Gran told them in one breath all the things he had been unable to say in five years.
Be proud, Neville!
He felt broken; he felt like someone had taken a hammer and shattered his body to pieces with it. He was too stunned to put them back together, and he was afraid they would not fit if he tried. When his mother shuffled forward, her eyes blank andvacant in her pale and thin face, he thought that maybe the shards would cut him up until there was nothing left of Neville Longbottom but a broken, bloody corpse.
She pushed timidly towards him, her gestures oddly fragmented. Words pooled on her lips but did not quite emerge, and Neville tried to see if he could fight back tears that never came. He stretched out his hand without having to be told to, because this had happened before, every year, and every visit.
She dropped an empty candy wrapper into his hand, Droobles Best Blowing Gum, the bright red paper shiny and new. It looked a lot like the wrapper for his old favourite, Bertie Bott's Strawberry Nougat, which had gone off production for six years now. Of course his mum could never know that, and every year she gave him a shiny red wrapper, and ever year Neville accepted it.
"Thanks, mum." he said quietly, and she moved away, oblivious once more, humming a little tune he recognized as familiar, but did not know by name. No one spoke, but they'd all seen.
They didn't laugh. They wouldn't laugh and Neville knew that, but he glared at them, defiant. A part of him wanted them to laugh, to wipe away some of that unbearable pity that he was so used to. He wanted to erase this moment, to pretend that it had never happened. If they laughed, it wouldn't matter. But no one laughed, and no one would forget that they hadn't, that it hadn't been funny.
He could see the pity in Hermione's eyes, the sympathy in Harry's. He could feel the horror that Ginny's eyes reflected, the mortification Ron tried to hide. Neville could see it all, feel it all. He had felt it before, ten times worse.
He turned away from the others and despised them a little, for having witnessed his shame all these years. He hated them a little for never knowing who he was.
Neville slid his hand into his pocket as he followed his grandmother out of the room, feeling the flimsy weight of the wrapper between his fingers, a reminder of the one thing in his life that he was not ashamed of.