Somehow, he never quite knew what to say when the after lights-out discussion turned to topics like this. The others all seemed much more, well, worldly about such matters. Dean Thomas had been going out with one girl or another - or even several at once, he said - since he was twelve, and Seamus, though he had started later, was apparently catching up fast. Ron, well, Ron had Hermione Granger, and while she was a bit too intimidating a prospect these days for most of the boys to consider, she was undoubtedly a fully-fledged girl. And Harry Potter had a head start just by being Harry Potter. There was hardly a girl in the school who wouldn't jump at the chance of being seen with him, excepting most of the Slytherins, who didn't count.
Girls... females... women... were such a mystery. It was all right in the classroom, they were either good at stuff or not good at it, just like him, although in his case, there wasn't usually an 'either', he was just not good at stuff. Except Herbology, where he was pretty sure Professor Sprout wasn't just being kind to him - but what use was Herbology anyway? No, lessons were okay. It was when the girls were somewhere else, somewhere that wasn't a classroom, that they were so difficult to deal with. Giggling, and stuff. And the way they curved and wobbled. It was all very awkward. He knew he wanted to get a bit closer, well, quite a lot closer, to one of these girls, but he didn't know how, and he had a horrible feeling that even if he did find a girl who'd let him get, well, close, somehow he wouldn't be what she wanted. Whatever that was.
So he would lie in the dark and listen to the others, the ones who knew, talking about girls, and try to glean something useful.
"...hold your wand. Just don't ever let them tell you," Seamus was saying, "that size doesn't matter."
"Yeah, right!" Ron's voice.
Wand? Wand size? But there was nothing you could do about that, was there? The wand chose the wizard, or that was what Mr Ollivander had said, wasn't it? Or had he forgotten something?
"...a natural advantage." Dean sounded very smug. Neville wracked his brains to recall what kind of wand Dean used, but couldn't.
"What," he ventured nervously, once the others had stopped guffawing, "what difference does it make how, er, how big it is? I mean, I thought... it's more important what you do with it, isn't it?"
"Yeah, sure, you've got to know how to use it, but you can't tell me a girl isn't delighted if you've got something substantial."
"But couldn't she just use her own wand?"
There was a tiny pause, then the dormitory exploded with laughter. At some point, one of the wheezed words somebody managed to squeeze out between huffs of mirth illuminated Neville's misunderstanding. Ah. That sort of 'wand'. Oh.
So girls liked big... things.
Cautiously - though with the others all laughing their heads off none of them was likely to notice - he picked his wand, his actual wand, off the bedside locker and slid below the bedclothes.
"Lumos!" he whispered.
In the faint gleam he peered beneath the waistband of his flannel pyjamas, and felt despondent. No wonder he never had a girlfriend.
* * * *
Everybody else seemed to have someone to go to Hogsmeade with. Everywhere he looked people seemed to be walking along arm in arm, or holding hands. There was Dean Thomas with Parvati - no, Padma - Patil practically tucked under his armpit. Seamus was up ahead with a long-haired witch who was wearing his new scarf. That lanky carrot-top was Ron Weasley, inevitably linked with Hermione Granger, and Harry Potter seemed to have acquired yet another female companion, though Neville couldn't see who she was.
He trudged along, miserably inadequate. How was he ever going to find a girlfriend? He just didn’t seem to have what it took.
Honeydukes helped, a bit; not because he thought Fudge Wonders and Chocolate Frogs would improve matters, but because there was such a crowd in there that he got squashed against several rather nicely wobbly bodies while he tried to get to the counter. He didn't want anything from Zonko's; he hadn't ruined any equipment lately so he had no need to visit Dervish & Bangs; he'd sent a late Christmas gift and a grovelling apology to Great Uncle Fergus at the beginning of term, and it wasn't Gran's birthday for ages, so he didn't need to look for a present; and he just didn't feel like going into the Three Broomsticks and seeing all those happy couples snuggling up to one another as they drank their butterbeer.
It was quite cold, though. He'd have to go inside somewhere. Preferably somewhere no-one else wanted to visit.
Foxe & Curlew's Second Hand Books. Perfect.
He almost bumped into Hermione, who was coming out just as he opened the door, but nobody else seemed to be in there at all.
It was a cosy little shop, in its way; there were no flashy, dancing displays of just-published novelty books here; no signs announcing that such-and-such a volume had been on Witch Weekly's Recommended Reading list for seventeen weeks; no scintillating dust jackets featuring implausibly beautiful witches draping themselves over ludicrously handsome wizards, or exotic locales crammed with flora and fauna of spectacular size and coloration, all twitching and beckoning the unwary browser. No. Most of these books seemed to have lost their jackets years ago. Faded and quiet, they sat stuffed onto the crammed shelves, or lay piled in waist-high columns on the dusty floor. There were small brown hand-written signs on some of the shelves: Astronomy (Pre-Copernican), Biography, Curses. Neville wandered through the stacks until he was out of sight of the door and the grubby window, and sat down next to Spells, Ancient and Modern, to have a stick of Fudge Wonder.
After three or four glorious mouthfuls, Neville felt slightly comforted, and began to look around for something to keep him occupied for a while. The shelf next to his shoulder was full of 'How to' books, and he didn't fancy those. He had quite enough well-meant hectoring from the teachers without being lectured by books in his free time.
The bottom-most shelf was almost filled with very tatty volumes that looked as though they had been there ever since the shelves were put in. However, they didn't have titles like 'How to influence the Orb' or even 'How to make your garden grow: a wizard's guide to territorial expansion', so he picked one out randomly.
Urgh. Thinges My Grandemother Taught Mee.
He put it back. He definitely didn't need a book for that!
What was this? Something seemed to have slipped to the back of the shelf. With a bit of careful poking and tugging, Neville managed to extricate an ancient volume with a tortoiseshell cover - felt like tortoiseshell, anyway, might have been turtle.
Boke of Fecretf.
Oh, of course.
He hesitated for a moment. He'd heard about queer books that behaved strangely, trapped you reading them, or had spells in that cast themselves when you opened the pages... but this was a shop, wasn't it? The shopkeepers wouldn't have any books on display that were dangerous, would they?
Trying to ignore the little voice in his head that pointed out that this book hadn't exactly been 'on display', Neville opened it.
He closed it again, and looked cautiously around. No, nothing seemed to have happened. He opened the book again, and began to read.
It wasn't easy. The writing was very strange, old-fashioned and untidy, and the spellings were even more eccentric than Neville's own. It took him several minutes to decipher the faded introduction, and he wasn't sure it had been worth the effort. This Ophidia Leaginus person (there was a cramped signature at the bottom of the page) seemed to be altogether too pleased with her—or him?—self. Bit like a medieval Gilderoy Lockhart, he mused, turning a handful of pages.
And there it was.
* * *
There were times, it seemed, when being good at Herbology was useful after all. Professor Sprout had been quite forgiving when he dropped the flower pot containing his Aumentillia Japonica, and hadn't noticed him sneak the bruised plant under his robes instead of throwing it into the pumpkin compost. This was the last ingredient. He could make the thing tonight. Sneak down to that toilet nobody ever used...
* * *
Brilliant! It was working!
* * *
On Thursday night, Neville didn't bother to hide behind the curtains of his four-poster before changing out of his robes. In fact, when Seamus—inevitably—chucked a slipper at Neville's naked buttocks, Neville turned round, picked it up and threw it back.
There was a reverent silence.
"Blimey, Neville!" said Ron Weasley.
That night, Neville smiled to himself as he lay in bed, feeling the warm, solid weight resting against his thigh. He didn't even care that he had Potions tomorrow. He, Neville Longbottom, could make a Potion that Professor Snape probably didn't even know existed! What did it matter if his cauldron occasionally exploded? He was the best-equipped student in the school.
* * *
"Wow, Neville! That was great!" Ron clapped him on the shoulder as they hurried out of the dungeons. Harry, grinning, added a thumbs-up as he passed.
"I knew you could do it," Hermione added. "It's great to see you stand up to Snape. You mustn't let him bully you!"
Neville grinned. It had been surprisingly easy. There was something very reassuring about the fact that his, his... thing was dangling well below the leg of his cherub-covered underpants. When the Potions Master had loomed over his cauldron, somehow the thought "Bet mine's bigger than yours" had enabled Neville to deal with the insults and reply without trembling at all. Well, hardly at all. Really.
Next time Hogsmeade weekend came round, he'd have a girl to go with!
* * *
Bounding confidently out of bed the next morning, Neville was dressed and downstairs before any of the other sluggards in his dorm had even woken up. It wasn't until he got to the loos that he realised it was almost down to his knee.
* * *
After the Quidditch match (Slytherin walloped Hufflepuff, more's the pity) he sneaked back to the toilets again. It was definitely down to his knees. Was this... was it—maybe—a bit too big? How big was 'impressive' and was there a point at which it turned into 'alarming'? Or even 'ridiculous'?
Still, it couldn't possibly grow much more.
* * *
On Monday he was ten minutes late for Transfiguration. A panted apology to Professor McGonagall did not go down well.
"You have plenty of time to go during your lunch break, Longbottom. Five points from Gryffindor."
Neville sat gloomily at the back of the class. It was all very well saying there was 'plenty of time'. He'd like to see her try to aim something at arm's length. Besides, he had to wait until everyone else had gone. There were some questions he just was not ready to face.
* * *
Tuesday. Charms. Revision.
He messed everything up. Couldn't even manage a simple levitation spell. It was difficult to concentrate. He was too conscious of what was tucked into his sock.
In that afternoon’s Herbology lesson, he asked Professor Sprout whether there was a plant that made things shrink, the way Aumentillia Japonica made them grow. She told him to look it up for Homework, but after working half-way through the index in the back of his text book, he still hadn’t found anything.
* * *
Everyone knew Trelawney was just an old fraud, but you'd have thought even *she* would have noticed something was wrong. This, Neville considered, was big enough to be written in the stars. He hadn't meant to crash into the dresser where she kept her favourite pink tea set. He'd just... just tripped.
He dreaded going to bed. What would Thursday morning bring?
* * *
History of Magic was a blur. Interminable, but a blur. All Neville could think about was, what was he going to do?
* * *
Oh, help. Oh, help helphelphelphelp. Help.
Neville managed to drop each and every one of his ingredients at least once. He was horribly aware that Snape's half-closed eyes were watching him constantly. Last week's bravado was gone, utterly gone. Trembling, he waited for the contemptuous "Longbottom! Detention!" he was sure Snape would inflict after this disastrous lesson.
It did not come.
So Neville dropped another flask. It did not shatter, of course, his grandmother had put an Unbreakable Charm onto every flask he owned at the beginning of the year, but the top came off. The tincture of rat gizzard spread in an evil-smelling yellow pool, and he bent to mop up the mess, waiting behind the desk until he was sure all the other students had gone. Then, taking a deep breath, he rose and approached the teacher’s table, where Snape was making notes.
“The lesson is over.” Snape didn’t even look up.
Neville tried again. “I... I..."
'What?" Snape snarled.
Snape emitted a strangled cry of exasperation. "Longbottom, your unbelievable incompetence has pushed my patience to its limits. I suggest you get out. Now!"
Neville, quivering in every limb, stood his ground. I'm a Gryffindor, I'm a Gryffindor, he told himself desperately. "Professor—I need your help!" he squeaked.
"What?" There was definitely a note of astonishment in Snape's acidic response.
"I m-m-made a p-p-p-potion. And it went wrong. And I—"
"You. Made. A. Potion." Snape's voice was thick with rage. "Unsupervised, and without my permission? How dare you, boy!"
In any other circumstances, Neville would have fled. The Potions Master loomed over him, his long face distorted with fury. Neville, white-faced and well-nigh petrified with terror, stared up at him helplessly.
"Argh!" Snape clutched at his lank hair with both hands, then strode over to close the classroom door. Then he swooped back to his table and seated himself, clasping his hands as though to prevent himself throttling Neville, and hissed: "And what made you imagine yourself capable of making a potion correctly, without assistance, Longbottom, when you have never yet managed that simple task in this room?"
"I—I—" Neville hung his head. "I don't know, Professor."
Snape glared. "And you expect me to correct your blunders. As usual. I shall have to report this to the Headmaster," he added vindictively.
Snape made another disgusted noise. "How am I to remedy whatever unfortunate crisis you have precipitated if you do not tell me what you attempted to brew? Attempted, Longbottom, because there is not the remotest possibility that you were successful."
"It - I - ah. I found a book, in Foxe & Curlew's, it had this recipe, I copied it out." Neville fished out the tattered scrap of parchment from his pocket, and placed it cautiously on the corner of the teacher's desk. Casting him a baleful but mercifully brief look, Snape snatched it.
"Sit, Longbottom." Neville slid into the nearest chair. "Application for ye increafe of..." Snape read aloud, and stopped, an incredulous expression sliding across his sallow face. After staring at the parchment for a full minute, he rose from his seat and began to stride about the classroom, his black robes rustling like bats in a gale. He came to an ominous halt just behind Neville, and stood there, silent as night.
There was an awful silence.
"Are you... certain, Longbottom, that you copied this recipe correctly?" The words sounded as though they were being released from prison.
"Uh... yes. I mean, I checked it. Twice.”
"And what does this—" the parchment was smacked down onto the table beside Neville's elbow, "say, pray?" A long, sinister finger pointed to an item in the list of ingredients.
He read it, nervously. "Five teaspoonfuls of fresh Aumentillia leaves."
"Five... teaspoonfuls. Indeed. T... s... p. Is it possible, Longbottom, that the original recipe required 't p s' rather than 't s p'? That the recipe in fact calls for five fresh tips of Aumentillia leaves? Because Aumentillia leaves are extremely potent ingredients, Longbottom, as you would know if you paid attention to what you are taught instead of messing about with your Gryffindor friends. Using five teaspoonfuls of Aumentillia would—" The sentence was cut off as though it had been executed.
Had it ever been so quiet in the dungeon? He couldn't even hear Snape breathing. Neville dared a glance upward, and wished he hadn't. Snape's face looked as though it had solidified, every muscle rigid with tension. Through barely moving lips, words emerged like stones. "How. Big. Is. It. Now?"
Neville shrank into his seat. "T-twice around my middle and over my shoulder," he whispered piteously.
* * *
It was awkward getting changed under the bedclothes, but the heavy velvet curtains just weren't enough protection. What if one of the other Gryffindors in the dorm decided to stick his head through to tell him a joke, or ask if he'd finished his Transfiguration homework? Nobody must know. Nobody must ever know, except—Neville gulped—Snape. And possibly Albus Dumbledore, but somehow, it wasn't quite so bad, Dumbledore knowing.
Anyway, it would be better soon.
Unrolling the... thing and coiling it under the bedclothes, Neville reached for the new potion Snape had given him after supper. It was unnerving, remembering the sinister gleam in those dark, hooded eyes, the way those nostrils had twitched as he handed over the little flask, the way his lips twisted as he told Neville to be sure and drink it all.
What if Snape had... no, he wouldn't, he was a teacher, he wouldn't... would he?
Neville stared at the tiny bottle of salvation, terrifying possibilities invading his mind.
Perhaps he should leave a little bit, just in case.
What if it didn't work unless you drank every drop? He'd have to ask for some more, and Snape would know he hadn't obeyed the instructions!
Then again, if it—if he had—if something went wrong, he'd have evidence.
Then again, again, the Potions Master would probably be the person who assessed the evidence.
He would just have to drink it all, and pray that he wouldn't end up with something the size of an Every Flavour Bean.
But wait - of course! If anything went wrong, next week was another Hogsmeade weekend - he could go back to Foxe & Curlew's, and get the Boke of Fecretf! Now he knew what he'd done wrong, it would be easy to make the potion correctly next time. Sneaking a few Aumentillia tips would be easy peasy compared with snabbling an entire plant.
Relieved, Neville drank his potion.
* * *
"What do you want from Foxe & Curlew's, Neville?"
"Oh, I just thought we could have a look around, you know. Sometimes you can find some really interesting stuff in second-hand book shops."
Hannah giggled. "You sound like Hermione Granger. Okay, then. So long as we can go for a butterbeer afterwards." She gave his hand a squeeze.
Neville squeezed back, and considered briefly. It wasn't as though he needed the book, anyway. Snape must have miscalculated slightly. Not quite a Blimey, Neville! but he was well satisfied. And here he was, in Hogsmeade, with Hannah Abbott's hand tucked into his pocket along with his own. Neville grinned. "Tell you what, let's forget Foxe & Curlew's. The Three Broomsticks sounds much more fun."
The trip to Foxe & Curlew's would have been unsuccessful in any case. Much to her surprise, Libby Foxe had sold the last copy of The Boke of Fecretf, by Mistress Ophidia Leaginous. Last Saturday.