The bar was slowly emptying out. Last orders were being shouted across. The rain was still trickling down outside, a steady drizzle that just would not die. Neville Longbottom sat at the very end of the room; his mug of hot chocolate now cold. He was reading from a torn, tattered diary. Scribbled across the cover was an unrecognisable name in faded silver. A partially dried quill sat on the table in front of him, the ink bottle lay open, perched precariously at the edge. It seemed the professor was unaware of his surroundings, deeply burrowed into the contents of the notebook.
‘Ahem,’ the waiter cleared his throat as he approached Neville, who seemed not have noticed. ‘Sir, you’re gonna have to leave now. We are closing in 15 minutes.’
Neville looked as if awoken from a deep slumber. ‘Yes, yes. I’m sorry. I’ll finish up then.’
Not bothering to ask the waiter to warm his drink, he chugged the entire contents down in one gulp. He got up, kept the money on the table and left the bar, umbrella in one hand and briefcase in the other. The street was mildly flooded now and the lamps were flickering on. It was getting, the professor must have surely missed the last train to Hogwarts. Cursing himself for losing that much time, he hurried across the road, knowing exactly where to go. Diagon Alley was just around the corner from The Leaky Cauldron, and home.
He did not bother to visit Hannah upstairs and quickly sneaked out the back. The passed the magic wall, and trudged along on the main street. Diagon Alley was similar yet very different to those many years ago when Neville first visited to collect his school items. The shops were refurbished and the lanes painted with a fairer shade of brown. The font on the banners were new. The exotic animals section relocated from the main street to the square a little ahead. Flourish and Blotts was still there on the North Side, soon approaching its 365th year of business. It still carried its rustic charm, with a hint of modern flair. He hardly visited the Alley, even though it was stone throws distance. Something about Gringotts, he muttered when Hannah asked him.
Neville crossed the bookshop and turned right towards one of the newer lanes in the Alley. He stood facing a big green door. A swanky inn, one of the recent additions to the area, lay at the end of the street. Neville pressed the doorbell to which a very short wizard answered.
‘Good evening, sir. Are we looking for a place to spend the night?’ the wizard asked. ‘We are full tonight, save for the luxury suites. You see, the weather did not help.’
Neville groaned slightly. A Hogwarts professor only earned so much. ‘Is Mr Macmillan in tonight? Could you tell him that its Mr Longbottom from Hogwarts? He’ll know what it’s about.’
The man looked back at him suspiciously, but decided to give Neville the benefit. ‘Very well sir. Please wait inside while I tell Mr Macmillan.’ He led Neville to the reception, which was being warmed by a calm fire. The Four Houses was the last remaining inn on the west end of Diagon Alley. Five years ago the Ministry order the entire market place to be divided in specific zones for rest, food, trade and entertainment. The once dark and dingy Knockturn Alley was being converted into a fledging commercial market, right adjacent to the hotels and small inns.
The fire in the reception area was enchanted according to the room’s climate and occupancy. It sensed the door opening and sprung into life to maintain the comfortable warmth. The walls in the room were decorated with banners from the four Hogwarts houses, autographed with every alumnus who visited the inn. Right at the top were two signatures Neville recognised in heartbeat. Minerva McGonagall had scribbled her name just below the Gryffindor crest. The retired headmistress, now an honorary member of the school board, often corresponded with Neville on important Hogwarts matters, still advising the staff. Slightly towards the right was the younger Dumbledore, Aberforth – still tending to his goats in Hogsmeade.
There were footsteps coming from the corridor and Neville could see two silhouettes against the dim light. The short wizard walked into the reception followed by a smartly robbed man. Ernest Macmillan was hardly the young teen who fought alongside Neville those summers ago. He was now the proud owner of The Four Houses and one of Neville’s few associates outside the school.
‘Neville! Isn’t this a surprise?’ he said beaming. ‘I could have bet my buttocks against you showing up in London on the first day of the new term. Thank you, Quintus. That will be all,’ he said turning towards his help. ‘So, what can I do you for? Oh, how rude of me! Let me offer you a drink and a towel. You must be cold.’
‘No, thanks Ernie, that won’t be necessary,’ Neville stopped him. ‘I just needed a place to spend the time. Something really urgent had come up. A ministry matter.’
Ernie was rummaging through the shelf beside the fireplace now. He disregarded Neville and pulled out a bottle of wine and two bronze glasses. ‘Ministry matter, eh? Well, you can stay in one of the rooms on the upper floor. Quintus will show you around. But first, we must have a drink.’
Success brought its fair share of failure in one’s life, and that was never more true in Ernie’s case. The fame of being of survivor from the Second Battle of Hogwarts got him a good job, decent money and this elegant house as a gift from his father-in-law. However, his glory led him many a temptation. Pride, gambling and wine were a few.
Neville reluctantly obliged. He had no intentions of spending the night at King’s Cross. Ernie poured two large glasses and raised his. ‘To urgent ideals, and surprise visits.’ He clanked his glass with Neville’s and drained half of it; his face turning sour with the taste. Neville saw that and set aside his glass in caution.
‘So, what business are you on with the Ministry?’ Ernie asked letting out a slight burp.
Neville hesitated for a moment. He was unsure if Ernie was the right person to be sharing this with. His drinking bouts often led to him spilling stories that others had shared in privacy. ‘It’s nothing. Just the odd plant jinxes. You know, like the peach trees fruiting coconuts.’
‘Ah, yes. That was a funny one. In fact, I think Quintus cooked some of the barley eggplants a few nights ago. Some of the guests were not pleased,’ he winked back and let out a snort.
‘That’s not all,’ Neville continued. He knew he was not supposed to be sharing this, but he had to let it out. The information was burning him. He read the diary entry from Gregory Clarke’s notebook twenty times earlier in the day, until the meaning of it all had sunk it. The afternoon was a blur. The evening a crawl. Neville was recalling the same instance over and over. Clarke handed him the notebook and explained the name on the tag from the orb.
‘I could have been the chosen one Ernie,’ Neville said looking down into his glass. The fire had died a little. The room was sufficiently warm. Long shadows formed on the wall opposite them. A clock ticked away somewhere. ‘Voldemort could have chosen me instead of Harry. It could have been my family.’
Ernie had a bewildered look etched across his face, as though someone had stunned him. Slowly the life drained back and he stammered, ‘I’m s-sorry. It just.. sounded like.. I did not get.. What!?’
They stood facing each other until Quintus entered, breaking the deafening the silence. ‘Sir, should I serve dinner, or will Mr Longbottom be eating in his room?’