August went forward like an elastic band, stretching out here, snapping forward there, propelling Neville toward school in fits and spurts.
After the party, Harry's dad -- along with Sirius and Lupin -- had given Harry a blank piece of parchment which they claimed to be full of magic, and had told him how to unlock it… but he wasn't allowed to use his wand until school started, so he couldn't figure out if they'd given him something worthwhile, or if they were having him on for a joke. "They named me a Marauder, anyway, which Dad says is what they called themselves," he said on a long afternoon in Neville's garden. "Supposedly, Lupin is called Moony as a 'Marauder name,' and I'm to discover my own later on. Not that I've any hint where to look for it." He shook his head. "They said I'd need fellow Marauders. You're in, right?"
"I don't know what a Marauder is."
"Well, neither do I, but Dad and Sirius and Moony and Peter were Marauders, so I reckon it's nothing bad."
"They didn't even tell you what it meant?"
"No! I'm supposed to figure out what it means 'for me.' Like it's a code word. They only told me it was about having best friends. So you're in, right?"
"I… well, as long as it doesn't mean anything bad, and I'm not supposed to do anything bad for it…"
"You're in," he said testily. "And the thing, the parchment. Maybe it's a compact or something, like… rules and ideas and… I don't know."
"If you're supposed to figure it out -- what it means, I mean -- then why would they give you a big set of rules?"
"Right. So maybe it's the best spells they know or something."
"We couldn't do them right away, could we?"
"Maybe we could do them eventually." He climbed up on a garden statue of a large turtle and sat on it cross-legged. "They know good spells, I know that. They liked to play funny pranks."
"Oh. I'm not… I don't really…"
"Yeah, that's not really you, is it?" He bit his lip. "I don't know. What do you want to do at Hogwarts? I mean, other than the greenhouses."
Neville shrugged. "I figured I'd find out when I got there. Apart from Quidditch, what do you want?"
"I want to be in Gryffindor, like Mum and Dad."
"Do you want Gryffindor? Your grandmother was a Gryffindor."
"And Dad was a Hufflepuff, and Mum was a Ravenclaw, and I guarantee a good lot of Slytherins on one side or another. I could be anything. Probably Hufflepuff."
"Right, just like you're probably a Squib."
"There's nothing wrong with Hufflepuff!"
"I didn't mean there was! And there's nothing wrong with being a Squib, either, before you say it. You just… you always sound like you figure you won't get much magically, and I guessed…"
"I really do think it would be good. I like Hufflepuff. They do service stuff over summers. The Macmillans do volunteer work at St. Mungo's, and Ernie wants to volunteer at the Wizengamot. They run memos and things, and they get to hear everything that happens. That would be fun."
Harry snorted. "Not according to Sirius."
"The head of Hufflepuff is the Herbology teacher, too."
"Oh. Well, if it's what you want. But would you still be able to be… you know.. I mean, would we still be mates?" Harry looked away awkwardly.
"You're worried about that?"
He leaned forward over his crossed legs and looked over the garden. "When we get there, well… the whole chosen one thing… you know everyone's going to want to be your friend, right?"
"I've always had the scar," Neville said. "No one else ever wanted to be my friend before."
Harry made kind of screwed up face, like he was daring himself to say something. "People ask me about you when you're not there, you know. If I'm at the Ministry, or wherever. They want to know what the chosen one is like."
"Really? What do you… I mean… how do you answer it?"
He grinned. "Well, I tell them you're a right pain, all full of yourself, but I'm afraid to say anything because you might blast me to bits and -- "
"Come on, Harry."
"I say, 'Neville's my friend and he's just Neville.' Then I change the subject. But they'll all be there."
"And you think I'd rather be friends with them? That's just weird, Harry. Don't be stupid."
"I guess I don't really think it." He frowned and went back to his main subject. "So, maybe it's some old fraternal organization and Dad gave us the initiation ritual…"
And the conversation went on. That day seemed to last forever, but then in a blink of an eye, it was gone, and the month seemed half-gone with it.
On a much longer-seeming day, Gran had Minerva McGonagall in for tea. Neville thought of McGonagall as Gran's friend, but it was a strange, sharp-edged friendship. McGonagall was the Transfiguration professor at Hogwarts, and, unlike other staff members Neville had met in his life, he had always addressed her as "Professor," even when she and Gran were sitting in the parlor trading stories about their time in the war against Grindelwald. They did this in a tone of brusque impatience, like trading war stories was an unpleasant bit of business that must be got over every year or so. From anyone else, tales of going undercover in Germany under Grindelwald -- tales of rescuing Squibs and Muggle-borns, of smuggling out powerful artifacts, of sabotaging battalions -- would be exciting, or so Neville imagined. With Gran and Professor McGonagall, they were rattled off like a shopping list for a particularly dull potions project, which they both looked forward to being done with.
Once the war stories had been told, Gran tried to bring up Hogwarts, but McGonagall said, "No, it's better, Augusta, if Neville separates his home life and his school life."
Neville wondered if Harry had got a similar suggestion from Lupin (and how would he ever remember to call his babysitter "Professor"?), and thought probably not.
Another long, rainy day was spent with Susan Bones, lazing around in her aunt Amelia's parlor, playing board games and speculating about life at Hogwarts while Gran and Mrs. Bones hashed out something about a statue of Mum and Dad that was supposed to go up at the Ministry.
Susan seemed to know a good deal about Hufflepuff House, where she really wanted to be.
"It's where people are meant to be nice to one another," she said. "Think about it. In Gryffindor, everyone's always competing. Who's going to be the real hero? Then in Ravenclaw, it's always about who can make the best marks, who's the smartest. And in Slytherin… well, one-upping each other is pretty much the whole point. But Hufflepuff, you can go home at night and just relax."
That seemed to settle it, but Harry insisted on a day to argue for Gryffindor, and he had back-up from all of the adults in his life. Gryffindor was about fun and action, and, according to Lupin especially, about always standing up for what was right. "Being brave isn't about trying to beat everyone else to the glory," he said. "Being brave is about looking the world in the eye, and when it's wrong, saying, 'I'm not going to stand for that.'"
Feeling that he'd only got the argument for two Houses, Neville asked Gran to bring him to Flourish and Blotts, where a frazzled assistant directed him to a book called Hogwarts, A History, if he really wanted an idea about all of the houses. He only got lost a few times in the twisting stacks, trying to find his way back to the little, boxed in alcove where the book was meant to be.
When he got there, there was a bushy-haired girl curled up in a puffy chair, reading a copy avidly, twisting her hair and biting her lip like she was trying to memorize the whole thing for an examination tomorrow morning. He tried to take a copy from the shelf over her head without her noticing, but he accidentally knocked the thing off. It fell onto her lap.
She looked up eagerly. "Oh, are you for Hogwarts, then?" she asked. "I'm Hermione Granger. I…" She frowned. "Is that a scar on your head. Are you…?"
Neville remembered what Harry had said about people wanting to meet him and ask questions about him, so he just flattened down his fringe and said. "I… er… I wanted to know more about the houses. About Ravenclaw and Slytherin."
"Oh, Ravenclaw sounds quite lovely," she said. "Books and questions and debates. Very interesting. I think I'd like it, though Albus Dumbledore himself was a Gryffindor, and I'd much rather have that. Slytherin sounds a bit dodgy and where do you want to be?"
He barely noticed that she'd finished on a question, so quick was her speech. "I… er… well, I don't… that is to say…"
"Oh, it's very exciting isn't it? I really can't wait to get on the Hogwarts Express. My ticket came by owl already. Why do you suppose we need tickets? Couldn't they have a charm to know who belongs on the train? You'd think that would be simpler than trusting everyone not to lose a ticket. You just go on the train, and if you don't belong there, you glow or some whistle goes off."
She seemed to expect an answer to this, but Neville was flummoxed. "I guess… well, trains expect to have tickets, I suppose."
This didn't seem to satisfy her. "I can't wait to see the Great Hall," she said. "The ceiling is enchanted. I can't quite picture it. It should feel like being outside, except that you can't feel the weather. I wonder what that will be like. I've never really seen magic, except what I've done, and that's not much. Mum says I once made the toys in my cot dance, but I don't remember that. I guess my parents weren't awfully surprised to find out I was witch. I think they were more surprised to find out there were other witches and wizards and a whole world out there. Are you… like me, or are your parents…"
"My parents are dead," Neville said, almost in self-defense against the barrage. "They… they were… are you Muggle-born?"
"Yes. I am. I don't know anything really, not yet, but I can't wait to -- " She looked over Neville's shoulder. "Oh, there's my mum."
Neville turned to find a woman who looked something like the girl -- especially through the hair -- coming up behind him, her arms piled up with books. She looked more than a little bit lost.
"Hermione," she said, "Professor Lupin says it's time to finish up so we can all go to Ollivander's."
"Oh." She stood up and took the books, adding Hogwarts, A History to the pile, then smiled over the top of it at Neville. "Well, it was nice to meet you. I can't wait to see you at school. I have to go back to orientation now."
She left without asking for Neville's name.
He took his copy of Hogwarts, A History and looked at it quizzically, wondering if it cast a spell that would make him so talkative. He hoped not.
He spotted several other eleven-year-olds flitting about the shop, then saw Remus Lupin standing casually near the door.
Neville went over to him and said, "Is this Muggle-born orientation?"
"Yes," Lupin said. "My mother always said we ought to have had it. She actually always said we should contact Muggle-borns before they're eleven and give them a chance to learn their way around before school, but… small steps. I got Hogwarts to approve the orientation three years ago. I saw you were talking to Miss Granger?"
"Well, she was talking to me, at any rate."
Lupin laughed. "Well, she's excited. She's a nice girl. I hope she finds friends at school."
Neville was fairly sure this was an instruction to befriend the girl. If he'd been with Harry, he'd have been completely sure of it, as Lupin, like Sirius Black, was comfortable giving Harry directives like that, but it wasn't as clear without him.
He said goodbye to Lupin and paid for his book, then went back out into Diagon Alley, wondering if he'd find someone to gush on about Slytherin (though he supposed the girl in the shop had really meant to gush about Gryffindor; he wasn't sure, as she hadn't talked about it like other people did). He supposed he could try to find Malfoy. They'd been in Slytherin for a long while. But Neville didn't think anything Malfoy had to say would be convincing. Maybe there would be someone else.
But the day ended before he happened to run into anyone, and the month snapped forward again in a rush of gardening, telling Gran how to care for the plants before winter, reading his school books, and generally spending the time like Sirius Black spent gold: Carelessly and recklessly, until his purse was empty.
The thirty-first of August leapt out of nowhere, and Neville found himself with nothing packed and his ticket misplaced. He and Gran spent the day digging through all of his new belongings -- he had more than one occasion to think that the Muggle-born girl from the bookshop was right; there ought to be a charm instead -- before he finally found it, still tucked into the envelope with his Hogwarts letter, slipped behind his bureau. Once they had it, Gran straightened up magically and packed his trunk for him, muttering about how he'd lose track of his own head if she didn't keep a finding charm on it, then gave him an exasperated sigh.
"Neville, you really must take better care of your things."
"I won't be here forever."
"Don't talk like that, Gran."
She sighed. "Oh, I have no plans to disappear quickly. But I worry. You have some great work to do. I feel that. Something left unfinished… there." She jerked a finger toward the scar on his forehead.
Neville felt a lump in his throat. "I thought that was over. In the past."
"A fine belief, and one I hope fervently is true. But I worry that it isn't."
"Why did he choose me instead of Harry?"
Gran looked up sharply. "You've been listening at keyholes, and now you're vexed."
Neville nodded. He said nothing, but didn't back down from the question.
"I don't have an answer for you," Gran said. "No one knows, except possibly Severus Snape, at Azkaban. I'm not even sure about that. We don't even know how you survived the curse. Dumbledore believes that your father sacrificed himself for you and cast something of a shield charm -- a very powerful one that caused the curse to back up on the one who cast it."
"Do you think so?"
"I don't know. It's the sort of thing Frank would have done, certainly, if he knew the moment was upon him. But it takes knowledge of an old magic. Lily Potter explained it to me once; she researched it in case such a protection was necessary for Harry. She said it wasn't about the casting of it. There are no rituals to perform, no potions to brew. It's simply focusing all of one's magic in the last moment of life, channeling it…" Gran sighed. "I'm not sure how it works. Lily seemed to think that instinct would take over. I'm not sure if Frank would have had time to concentrate that fully, or if Lily had ever shared with him what she learned. But the point is, we don't know how it destroyed Voldemort, or if it did in any complete sense… though I hope you have the intelligence not to spread that around. We don't need a panic."
Neville couldn't imagine casually suggesting such a thing to other children at any rate, so he nodded.
"But whatever the case, you were marked, Neville. There is something great inside of you. I have known this from the beginning."
"I'm not great."
"You are, though. I have no doubt of that. Alas, I have little doubt that tests of that greatness are in store. And for that, you will need to be able to keep track of your Hogwarts ticket, among other things." She smiled faintly. "Now, get some sleep. We'll meet the Potters at the Leaky Cauldron for breakfast."
Neville didn't think he'd be able to sleep, but he dropped off easily enough. He dreamed of a vast garden, full of bright, poisonous flowers. He wandered its paths aimlessly, sure that someone was following him, but unable to turn around and see who it was.
He awoke just after dawn, and the early morning was something of a flurry. He walked Gran through his garden one last time, showing her what each of his plants needed, even though she knew. She was patient with this, as she readily admitted that Herbology was not her best subject, and she promised to keep him updated if anything seemed wrong. She would keep it climate controlled until he came home for Christmas, and he would take care of putting it to bed.
He took one last look at it as she prepared the Floo connection, convinced that it would die without his constant care, even though he knew better. Then he took a deep breath and went inside. Gran held out the box of Floo powder, and a moment later, he was hurtling into Diagon Alley. Gran followed, Apparating in with his trunk, and they were swallowed in an odd early morning rush of families. Neville imagined the girl in the bookstore, now wondering not about tickets, but about why the Hogwarts Express didn't make stops all over the country. Why should everyone come to London just to ride back up north to Scotland?
Of course, that wouldn't be her question. That would be asking for the train to be more Muggle-like. It wasn't, after all, a major impediment to come to London in the morning, at least for wizarding families. Some came in on Muggle transit, some in borrowed cars. Those, like Neville, who came in from the North and just doubled back, simply traveled through Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron, and back out to King's Cross Station. He imagined it would be a somewhat more annoying commute for a Muggle from Aberdeen, and wondered if the girl would think of that. He doubted it. She'd sounded… well, local, for lack of a better word, and she'd probably just think it was only natural to leave from London.
And why was he wondering what she was wondering about? Why was he thinking of her at all?
As soon as he got into the Leaky Cauldron, before the brick archway had even closed, a hand shot out of the crowd, and Harry pulled him along. "Come on," he said. "Better get to the family before Vi decides to start shouting for you. Hi, Mrs. Longbottom." He came around Neville and took the strap on the trunk, which Gran had been lugging along. Neville should have done this himself, and kicked himself for not thinking of it.
Harry led them through the breakfast crowd. Lily Potter was already at work, and James was trying to wrangle Vi and Pete, who seemed determined to escape and explore. There was a large, antique owl cage sitting on the floor beside him, and a white owl with golden eyes looked out of it.
"Yours?" Neville asked.
"Got her yesterday. Her name's Hedwig."
"Yeah, I found it in a book. She just looks like a Hedwig." Harry grabbed Vi's hand as she tried to zoom by, then let go of the trunk and said, "Dad?"
James steered Pete back to the family and in Neville's general direction. Neville caught hold of him by the shoulders, then Pete put his arms up to be picked up. He was a bit big for it, but Neville gave it a try.
James pointed a wand at Neville's trunk and said, "Admire the new spellwork." The trunk rose into the air, then folded in and became a briefcase with a long strap. James slung it over his shoulder with another just like it.
"You'll have to teach me that one," Gran said.
"How do we get it back once we're at school?" Neville asked.
"You forgot to ask that, Harry," James said. "Point your wand at it and say Finite Incantatem. If it doesn’t work, ask Moon… Ask Professor Lupin to help you. Or an older student. That's a simple one. Shall we?"
He led the way through the Cauldron and out to the street, where what seemed to be a Muggle taxi was waiting. Neville realized that it wasn't what it seemed as soon as he saw the driver -- Sirius Black. The boot popped open, and James put in everything except Hedwig the owl, who Harry put in the center of the back seat. Everyone else piled inside, and there was room to spare.
"It's actually my motorcycle," Black said. "This is what good study in Transfiguration will get you someday. That, and time with McGonagall, which is worth more than any spell." He placed his hand over his heart, then started the taxi and pulled out into traffic.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Did you bring one of the toads?"
"No. They're happier in the garden."
That was all the time there was to talk about the upcoming school year, because Pete abruptly started to weep, apparently realizing for the first time that Harry would be gone for several months. Harry pulled him over onto his lap and called him names, shadowboxing with him and promising that he'd write a letter now and then. "Really, Pete," he said, "I'll have much better stories for you. You know Dad and Mum's Hogwarts stories. I'll have them too, now."
This didn't seem to appease Pete, who clung to Harry, crying, all the way to King's Cross. Vi sighed dramatically, and rolled her eyes in Neville's direction, as if they were sharing a tiresome joke.
Neville, wanting to look away, glanced toward the front, and saw that Sirius Black was watching this in the rearview mirror, an unreadable look in his eyes.
They got to King's Cross very early, before many of the families arrived, which would have been fine with Neville except that one of the other early families was the Malfoys. Draco noticed them as soon as they came through the magical barrier, and promptly pointed at him. His father looked over with unmitigated disdain.
Sirius Black made a rude gesture in the general direction of the Malfoy family, then turned his back on them and shielded Neville and Harry from their gaze. "You'll both be careful of that lot, I assume."
"If by 'careful,' you mean 'constant vigilance,' than yeah," Harry said.
James tried not to grin. "Harry, your mother told me to make sure to tell you not to fight and to be… well… her exact words were, 'Tell him not to be as much of a prat as you were.'"
"Meaning, leave Malfoy alone, even if he deserves a good cursing," Sirius said.
"And remember that Professor Lupin is your teacher, not your babysitter -- "
" -- so you can prank him much more often -- "
"Not helping, Sirius."
Sirius grinned. James rolled his eyes as extravagantly as Vi had done, then turned to Neville. "We both know you're the grown-up here. Don't let Harry talk you into doing anything stupid. Unless it sounds really fun." He winked.
Gran pulled Neville aside while the Potters all said goodbye to Harry (Pete was still crying, and now Vi was starting, though she was trying gamely to hide it).
"Now," Gran said, "do you have everything?"
"I think so," Neville told her. "I guess so."
"If I find anything later, I'll send it on to you." She looked him over sternly, not seeming anywhere near tears, though Neville himself felt them fairly close to the surface. "You know you have more important jobs than playing around. Try to enjoy yourself, of course" -- she frowned at him sternly, as if he had not shown sufficient aptitude for enjoying himself and she expected better from him -- "but remember that you are going to school to learn, and that learning, for you, may be for considerably more important tasks than examinations. You have a job to do somewhere down the line. Be prepared for it."
She looked at him again, her eyes inspecting him from the hairline to the toes. "For what it's worth, Neville, I believe you to be worthy of the task ahead. You are made of stern material, and you understand -- perhaps better than I at times -- what is of importance in life." She spotted some kind of dust mote on his cloak and plucked it away, then stood up. "Very well, then. Let's get you to school."
A moment later, their trunks secured over their shoulders as briefcases, he and Harry were boarding the Hogwarts Express, and, seemingly seconds later, were on their way to Hogwarts.