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Cramped Spaces

                I had just worked the corner of my trunk free of the second-to-last step when another pair of hands lowered into my eye line, gripping the bottom and easing it down onto the platform.                “Thanks,” I raised my eyes up just enough to see him through a curtain of my own hair. We set the trunk down on the stones near the platform sign at the same moment, moving in tandem in the way that had developed almost without our notice. “But you really didn’t have t—“

“I know,” he straightened up and offered me a gentle smile, an edge of familiarity in his tone.  A comfortable silence hung between us as a sharp breeze kicked up from somewhere to the West.  I took a step back under the pretext of shaking the hair out of my face and forced the brightest smile I could manage.

“You know your agreement to watch my back doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the castle.”

He looked me over in that way that gave me the maddening feeling of being shut out of something:  blank, but somehow infused with a language that I couldn’t read. His moment of study apparently over, her shrugged his shoulders and I watched the layer of glass fall away.

“I guess it’s just not that easy to turn off.”

A chuckle escaped my throat.

“No. Guess it isn’t.”

I closed the gap I had created between us and extended my arms toward him. The smell of roses and wet earth enveloped me as he accepted the offer.  “Be careful, Neville.”

It should have felt like an odd thing to say, back in London and getting ready to go home on holiday. But repetition had elevated it to something bordering on reflex. It was part of the reservoir of automatic responses that line themselves up and file out of our mouths without help from the conscious mind. But he squeezed me a little harder before letting go, anyway. The voice of the crowd was starting to take on its own rhythm, the space around us filling with the quiet, pulsing energy that rushes into any corner of the world where too much human life occupies too little space. I could feel the insistent existence of the crowd pulling on us from every angle it could reach, but his eyes were locked on mine.

“And you relax.” He dropped his voice bellow the confused hum around us. “Please.”

I felt one corner of my mouth quirk upward as I leaned away from him, appraising the dried mud on his robes and black circle under his left eye, still healing from the Carrow’s  latest attempt to make him see reason.

“Meaning?”

He matched my stance, resting his arms over his stomach as he quirked an eyebrow at me.

“Meaning you’re off duty, General Weasley. It’s ok to go home and enjoy yourself.  Stop worrying all the time. For a little while, at least.”

The statement seemed to bring a sudden increase of oxygen into the station with it, but I managed to keep my face blank as I studied him between the first flakes of a new snowfall. He wasn’t the only one who could hide behind glass.

I took a long, slow breath of as a small group of first and second years, huddled a few yards behind Neville, caught my eye.  I shifted my eyes back to his and inclined my chin toward his waiting charges.

“You’re sure you have them covered, then?”

Neville glanced over his shoulder. When he looked back, he offered me a slightly exaggerated sigh, his smile somehow amused and resigned at the same time.

“Happy Christmas, Ginny.”

I bit my lip as he folded his arms around me again. I’m not sure if he felt the bit of extra pressure I applied just before letting go.

“Happy Christmas, Neville.”

 

()

                Two days before Christmas, something about my tendency to treat the vegetables as though there were guilty of a capital crime got me excused from the kitchen.  The smell of wood smoke and the sound of Bill and Charlie’s voices from the living room sent me veering to the right as I left the smell of cinnamon and half-cooked ham behind me.

I’m pretty sure that my brothers assume that the narrow door just off the living room leads to an extra broom closet. As I rattled the doorknob, first to the right, then up and down, I was happier than ever that I had never corrected them. The room was a little narrow, but the window and the rickety piano that someone had shoved into one corner were enough to make it cozy. I pulled out one of the old blankets I’d hidden here and draped it over the piano bench (this room gets strangely damp after a good snow fall) and closed my coat against the chill. I was pulling the quill out of my pocket before I even noticed that my hand had moved.

“Loqui Secretum—Longbottom.” The quill glowed red, then gold against the scarred wood of the piano. A moment later, Neville’s voice filled the space around me, as close as if he were sitting next to me on the bench.

“Evening, Weasley. How are you holding together?”

A chill ripped down my back and I reached for my wand to try one of the warming charms we used for autumn Quidditch practices. The living room would be warm by now, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in there quite yet.

“Well enough now I’ve found an empty room.”

He chuckled and I felt myself smiling, too.

“Your family getting under your skin already?”

I opened my mouth searching for a snarky answer, but something stopped me long enough for the truth to push its way forward.

“It isn’t them…not really. I just…” a half-laugh filled my throat as an uneasiness I couldn’t name rose in my stomach. “I think I just miss you lot. Mad as that sounds.”

“Doesn’t sound so mad to me.”

“Not under normal circumstances,” I added. “But…you have to admit it’s a bit odd. Here I am with a whole house to roam round in, and I’m missing being crammed into one room with eighteen other people.”

A soft, low chuckle filled the empty air next to me.

“Yeah,” he answered finally, “I guess that does sound a bit mad.”

I offered a brisk nod even though he couldn’t see me.

“Precisely. This whole mess is starting to turn my basic understanding of reality upside down.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing.”

I blinked at the quill.

“Pardon?”

When he broke the silence, that simple, matter of fact tone that I’d learned to find some odd comfort in had settled back into his voice.

“An inverted sense of reality should be pretty helpful when you get back to the madhouse.”

I let out a strangled chuckle.

“True enough.”

A peaceful silence stretched between us as the cold rolled over the edges of the charm and I felt something approaching joy for the first time in months.

“While I am flattered to be missed, please try not to think about us so much for a while. Don’t worry—we can both go back to having heart palpitations over everyone else soon enough.”

I sat there with Neville’s voice hovering around me until I could convince him that I would take his advice and go “enjoy my family.” When the voice faded, I sat in the greying glow of my charm, staring at my hands on the piano without seeing them as the room grew cold around me. I had walked in here sensing that I was being tugged away from my family without knowing why.  I hadn’t really fixed the tugging part, but at least now I had better knowledge of the problem.

It was true: I did miss the others in the DA, and I came here because I needed someone other than those I was with. But I hadn’t contacted Luna; I hadn’t reached out to Seamus; I hadn’t even thought of asking for Dean. The first and only name that had come to mind had been the one I’d instructed the charm to reach for me. And, for some reason, that knowledge made me slightly sick as I stumbled back into the hall at the sound of someone calling my name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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