Romance out of Ruin
Seated amidst the knot of admirers in the Hogwarts Great Hall, Neville looked affectionately and proudly at the sword lying beside him, still smeared with blood and traces of Nagini's thick skin. It had been a long journey for him, from the shy and uncertain eleven-year-old who had arrived at Hogwarts longing to break free of his grandmother's stern rule and his parents' heroic reputation and make his own mark. Back then, he hadn't known whether to be glad or sorry that all the focus was on Harry Potter – being in the same year, same house, and even the same dormitory had meant that Neville was only noticed for the things he did wrong, which in a way had all the comforting familiarity of an old-established pattern.
In his own mind, though, Neville knew that there had been some crucial turning points: those ten house points Dumbledore had given him in first year, for example, for courage in standing up to his friends. That was the first moment he'd believed that he might actually belong in Gryffindor. In fourth year, when Moody – Neville corrected his thoughts; Crouch junior, pretending to be Moody – had given him the book on Magical Water Plants; only Neville knew how much that had made him realise that he was actually good at something. Somehow it didn't seem to matter that it had been a Death Eater that had noticed it – Neville knew that it was true anyway. He was good at Herbology.
And then in fifth year, with the DA practices in the Room of Requirement – Harry had been a good teacher, patient and encouraging, and Neville had learned that a good teacher allied with his own fierce determination to improve really did bring results. He had held his own in the Department of Mysteries battle, and gained enormous confidence from having fought like his parents had. At this point in this thoughts, Neville repressed a shudder – that brief experience of the Cruciatus curse had made him dreadfully aware of what his parents must have suffered in the first wizarding war.
All these events had contributed to Neville's developing self-confidence, until the departure of Harry from Hogwarts and the arrival of the Carrows had given him his niche. The remaining DA members had needed a leader, and Neville had suddenly found in himself the qualities they needed that leader to have – they needed someone who was brave, and defiant, and willing to put themselves on the line for what they believed in. And, moreover, someone who knew how to use the Room of Requirement to its maximum potential. Neville didn't quite know why he understood the Room so well, but he did. It was as if he not only understood it when he was in it, but that even when he was elsewhere in the castle he was still connected to the Room. He grasped both its boundaries and its fluidity, and had an instinctive knowledge of how to work with both.
It was hard to realise, though, that he had played such a big part in killing Voldemort. He still didn't fully understand why Nagini had been so important, but he remembered again Harry's words: "If anything happens to me, kill the snake," and he had instantly wondered how. Never in his wildest imaginings could he have pictured that Voldemort would mock him with the Sorting Hat, try to tell him he was in Slytherin now, and finally set the Hat on fire. In that moment of shock and horror, with the uproar of battle forces meeting around him, suddenly something incredibly heavy had given him a blow on the head as the Hat fell to the ground. He had thought for one moment that one of Voldemort's supporters had struck him, but then the glittering sword had fallen into his hand, and he knew what he was meant to do. Nagini was right in front of him, hissing and eager. He had raised the sword and swept it across her neck like a scythe. Godric Gryffindor's sword had appeared for him, and in that moment Neville had known triumphantly once and for all that he was a true Gryffindor.
It was at this point in his thoughts that Neville focused again on his surroundings; the admiring crowd around him, the small clusters of laughing and chattering people, all so relieved that the battle was over, that Voldemort was dead, and that so many barriers had broken down. He noticed the Malfoys sitting rather stiffly together, and it was obvious that they were uncertain whether they should be there. He considered going to speak to them – in the happiness of victory he felt he could almost be nice to Draco! – but then someone else caught his eye. At the table which had been the Ravenclaw table, a girl sat with bent head. Even from a distance, Neville could see that her shoulders were heaving, and his own past unhappy times in that room gave him the sure feeling that hers were not tears of happiness and relief.
He got up and walked over to where she sat, stopped beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him with a tear-streaked face, and he saw again the scars which still had not fully disappeared, despite Madam Pomfrey's best efforts. It would be a long time indeed before Marietta was able to forget that the word "SNEAK" was visible on her forehead.
Neville sat down beside her. "Anything I can do?" he asked in a gentle voice.
Tears began streaming down her face again, and she burst into unhappy speech.
"You don't know how sorry I am!" she gasped. "I never wanted to – I – they told me my – my mother would be tortured if I didn't – Oh!" She clapped a hand to her mouth. "Oh, your parents – I didn't mean – "
Neville took her hand. "Please don't feel bad about saying it," he said. "My parents suffered terribly, and in a way they still do. I can't imagine how I'd feel, or what I'd have done, if I'd been given the choice to prevent it."
He was warmed by the look of gratitude that sprang into her eyes.
"But they didn't give in. They stayed strong. I – didn't." Her voice broke on the word.
Neville's hand tightened on hers briefly. "You were young," he said quietly, "and Umbrage was pretty scary. More scary than Voldemort, I sometimes think."
Marietta looked at him doubtfully. "You really think so?"
Neville nodded vigorously. "Yes, really. She was so – so…" he searched for the right word, "so normal on the surface. You'd think she was just some nice person, but then she did such evil things and she really seemed to enjoy doing them. At least Voldemort looked as evil as he was."
Marietta thought this over, and then her eyes filled again. "But I betrayed everyone. I can never undo that. And no-one will ever forgive me."
For a brief moment, Neville remembered the anger and resentment they had all felt towards the girl now sitting so miserably beside him, and then compassion swept the feelings away. He hardly knew where his next words came from, but he knew they were true even as he spoke.
"But that's really what we fought for, isn't it? We fought to make love win, not hate. We fought to give people a second chance. And we fought for people not to be excluded." He thought of the Sorting Hat and Voldemort's words. "Voldemort wanted to make his own way the only way, and eliminate everything else with hate. But Dumbledore – and all of us – wanted people to be free. And being forgiven is freedom."
Her next words were so low he barely heard them. "I didn't belong in Dumbledore's Army."
"Yes you did," said Neville forcefully, wishing he knew how to convince her. "You fought on his side tonight, didn't you?"
"But I sneaked. And I was a coward."
Neville realised then that he knew exactly what would convince her. She looked up in surprise as his tone became almost conversational. "When I first came to Hogwarts, I was frightened of nearly everyone. You've probably heard that my boggart turned into Snape?"
She gave him a small smile of acknowledgement.
He smiled back at her, and went on, "I thought that because my parents had been so brave, I should be brave too, but I wasn't. I felt stupid and silly. Then I got Sorted into Gryffindor, and I didn't see any reason why I belonged there. I thought the Hat had made a mistake."
"You?" she cried in surprise. "But you fought in the Department of Mysteries! You fought against the Carrows even when they treated you awfully! I – I think you're wonderful."
Neville blushed. "I think I wanted to prove to myself that I could," he confessed. "And I don't think anyone – least of all me – thought I'd be any use in the Department of Mysteries. I'm sure Harry didn't think so at the time. But," a note of pride came into his voice, "I was. And I think that helped me believe that I was braver than I thought." His voice became serious. "Because, you see, what I realised was that bravery isn't about whether you feel brave. Harry didn't feel brave when he faced Voldemort in the graveyard. Dumbledore probably didn't feel brave when he duelled Grindelwald. And I didn't feel brave when I found myself fighting against Bellatrix and the others, knowing that she'd tortured my parents till they lost their minds." He swallowed. "In fact, I was terrified. But we fought together, and that's what made a difference. It's easier to overcome the fear when you've got friends beside you."
Marietta had followed his words breathlessly, but at his final sentence her face fell. "But that's what I don't have. No-one wants to be my friend now."
"I do," said Neville firmly. And as he spoke, he realised that something more than compassion was stirring in him. He lifted his free hand and touched the scars on her forehead. "These – they've taught you something, haven't they? They've taught you that friends matter more than fear, and that standing up for what's right is what keeps your friends."
Marietta nodded ruefully. "I wish I hadn't sneaked!" she burst out. "It's been awful! And my mother was so disappointed in me. She said she'd rather have been tortured than know that I was so weak and silly."
Neville squeezed her hand again. "My grandmother used to say how ashamed of me she was, but now she's proud of me. You can make your mother proud of you, too."
Neville looked her straight in the eyes. "Be brave now. Rebuilding is hard, but we have to do it if we want to move forward." He waved his hand around at the shattered walls of the castle. "Look at this place. We have to rebuild this, too. But we will, because we know it's worth it. And because of the destruction now, what we rebuild will be even better and stronger. You can be better and stronger too."
"How can you be so sure?" she said, doubtfully.
"Because if I can, you can," he said with certainty.
"But you're in Gryffindor. You know you're brave."
"And now you know I didn't believe I was until I acted on it," he said gently. "You're in Ravenclaw – do you always feel smart?"
Marietta laughed tearfully. "Sneaking was the stupidest thing I've ever done."
"You see?" said Neville. "It's not about what you feel, or what you've done or not done in the past. It's about what you choose to do from now on, and how those choices make you become more than you ever dreamed you could be."
"Will you help me?" she begged.
"Of course I will," answered Neville warmly. "For as long as you want me around. And I think we'll make a good team."
He put his hand under her chin, tilted her face up towards his, and kissed her lips gently.
She smiled at him and nodded.
"Come on, then. No time like the present. Come and meet my gran. She's an absolute terror, but if you can stand up to her she'll love you."
Neville stood up, pulled Marietta to her feet, and took her hand comfortably in his as they walked across the room together.