Disclaimer: I still do not own Harry Potter.

Author's Note: Hey everyone. First of all, I had one heck of a time publishing the last chapter, as you all know. Once you were finally notified that I had updated, it sent the same notification two days later when I hadn't even touched it. It was the strangest thing, actually. My boyfriend Ryan, who is one of the followers of this story, woke me up to tell me that the notification had been sent again. I was taking a nap and wasn't even touching Fanfiction. This site acts so weird sometimes, and I'm sorry you were inundated with emails. I hope it doesn't happen again this time.

Anyway, I'm delighted at all the wonderful reviews. Thank you all so much. I'm very touched by all of your comments, and I'm glad I've gotten people really interested in this story. I'm also happy that people think I'm writing it differently than others, because that's what I'm aiming for. I want my story to be unique, something fresh for others to read.

As for Ron bashing, I'm pleased by what one of my reviewers said. Ron definitely has his flaws, but so does everyone else, and I feel no need to blow them out of proportion. You'll see in this chapter that he feels a tremendous amount of guilt about what happened to Hermione. I also think it's awesome that you like where I'm taking Harry. He sure as heck isn't going to put up with any nonsense, especially now that he's lost a friend because of the incompetence of people in Hogwarts.

I hope you enjoy this chapter, folks.

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When Neville woke up the morning after Hermione's death, it took him a few seconds to remember what had happened. He'd barely slept the night before, so when he did wake up, it took him some time to become fully alert again. When memory returned, it hit him like a hammer.

Feelings of guilt and self-loathing rose up in him; these emotions were familiar, but they were now at a level that he had never known before. Hermione, someone he had befriended, was gone forever, never to crack open a book again, or burst into a monologue of how she thought certain aspects of magic were so amazing. He would even miss her constant hand-raising in class, something that had quite annoyed him before but he was willing to look past. Now, it was one of those things he would remember fondly, but it would never cease to cause him sadness.

What had he done wrong? How could he have prevented this? As he slowly and unwillingly rose from bed, his mind went over everything he'd done on that terrible night the troll had attacked. When Quirrell had come bursting into the Great Hall, screaming and then fainting, the whole scene had become chaotic. Several Prefects, including Ron's brother, Percy, had been in charge of escorting the Gryffindors back to the common room. Neville had instantly realized that Hermione wasn't there; he'd been looking for her at the feast, after all. He'd been worried about her since the altercation with Ron at the end of Charms, when she'd run away in tears.

When the evacuation had started, Neville had tried to get the Prefects' attention to let them know Hermione was missing. Through all the hubbub, he'd finally gotten through to the seventh-year female Gryffindor Prefect, whose name was Vallerie. Instantly, the girl had snapped to attention, letting Neville know that she would inform Professor McGonagall.

But now, he worried that he hadn't done enough. Had Vallerie said anything? Perhaps she had, because McGonagall had been one of the teachers to find Hermione, after all. But had she done it quickly enough? Neville had been terrified at the time, and he'd implicitly trusted the older girl to do what needed to be done. He hated to be cynical, but he knew that many people at Hogwarts did not think at all well of Hermione. Was it because of this that she hadn't been found before it was too late? Was Neville partly responsible for what had occurred because he'd let his fear get the best of him, and he'd allowed himself to be lost in the sea of people leaving the Great Hall, being hustled back to their common rooms?

All throughout his life, his Gran had pounded into him that being afraid was cowardice, and that her son and daughter-in-law had never been afraid, not even in their last lucid moments. There was always disappointment and reprimand in her voice whenever she said this to Neville, and he had grown up always knowing he'd never been good enough. He was constantly accused of being ashamed of his parents, and even though he never showed his Gran this, it made him furious. Neville couldn't be prouder of who his parents had been. Just because he didn't want to be constantly telling the world what had happened to them did not mean that shame was anything he felt. His Gran was always saying to him: "They gave up their very sanity for you, Neville. It astounds me that you are so unbelievably ungrateful for their sacrifice, young man."

Neville cringed at the very thought of what the woman would say to him now. He knew he'd have to write to her and tell her of the past few days' events, but his heart filled with deep dread when he contemplated how she would reply. What would it be? "Your cowardice played a large part in the death of one of your schoolmates, and you say she was a friend. My Frank would never have been afraid to confront any adverse situation. You are nothing like him." A lump arose in his throat as these words echoed through his mind.

The dormitory was dead silent as the boys went through their morning routine. Neville knew there were no classes today; when he'd returned to the dorm after Madam Pomfrey had let him out of the hospital wing late the night before, Seamus and Dean had told him that Hermione's passing had been announced to the school, and everyone would have a day off today. Even though Neville wanted nothing more than to burrow under the covers in order to try and block everything out, he realized that if he was going to attempt to be the man his Gran wanted him to be, he had to try and show strength in front of the school today. He was guilt-stricken and grieving, but he was Neville Longbottom. He was flawed, clumsy, forgetful, and was damned awful at magic, but he was the son of Frank and Alice Longbottom. He had to try and make them proud, even if he didn't succeed.

And ... Merlin, Hermione. He had to do this for her, too. He'd only known her for two months, but he had a good idea of what she would have wanted. She'd want him and Harry to be strong, to go on, to cherish magic and move on with their lives. No matter what people had said about her, she'd kept trying. Neville knew, with a certainty that broke his heart, that if she would have survived the experience with the troll, she would have gotten right back up and kept going, kept learning. Her motivation had always amazed him, and this was why he had been able to look past some of her more irritating quirks.

As Neville was about to leave the dormitory with Seamus and Dean, he realized that he hadn't heard a peep out of Ron the entire time. After sharing a room with the other boy these past two months, he'd come to know the sound of his snores. It had been hard, at times, not to chuckle at the loud noises the boy made each and every night. Now, however, even though the curtains were still closed around Ron's bed, there were no such noises coming from it. Ron must be wide awake, Neville thought, but still in bed.

And no wonder. Neville knew Ron was full of guilt over what he had said to Hermione that started this entire chain of awful events. Neville still didn't know exactly what Ron had said, and he desperately wanted to ask. But something told him that it wasn't his place to do so, and his mind fought with itself. Maybe soon, he would find it in himself to question him, but not now. Considering how distraught Ron was, this was no time to ask him such a thing.

But Neville also figured that Ron shouldn't be left alone at a time like this. Even though Hermione had been in the girls' bathroom because of what Ron said, Neville somehow couldn't find any anger or cast any blame towards the other boy. It was plain to see that Ron was doing this all by himself, and Neville's sense of justice told him it wouldn't be right to heap any more guilt onto him. He had to, at the very least, check on him and see if he could do anything for him.

"You guys go ahead. I'll be right there," Neville told Seamus and Dean as he walked over to Ron's bed. He stood there for a moment, nervous and contemplative. What could he possibly say to comfort someone who thought they were responsible for someone's death? Neville truly didn't know, because he didn't feel that he could be comforted either, and for the same reason. Eventually, he simply said, "Ron? Are you awake?"

Ron's barely audible voice sounded like nothing Neville had ever heard. "Leave me alone."

"Ron ..." Neville was truly out of his element. "Please get out of bed. It's not going to do you any good to stay here all day."

"You know nothing." Ron's voice sounded desperate; the words weren't said in anger, and Neville took no offense. His tone of voice was one Neville knew only too well, one full of self-recrimination. It screamed "stay away, I'll only disappoint you more if you don't leave".

Neville sighed. Maybe he wasn't the right person to deal with this, he thought. Maybe retrieving one of his brothers would help ... maybe Percy. At the moment, Neville truly didn't know how to feel about the older boy - he was always puffing out his chest, prattling on about his Prefect duties. Could he have intervened to help Hermione? You told Vallerie, not Percy, Neville reminded himself sternly. But there was something in him that still resented Percy for somehow not knowing more. If you were going to constantly flaunt your title in front of everyone, you had to live up to it. And Percy had let Hermione down, in the most brutal of ways.

But maybe he can help Ron now, a part of Neville persisted. "I'm sorry," he told the other boy as he made to leave the dormitory.

As he got to the door, Ron whispered words which caused Neville's heart to ache. "Not as sorry as I am."

xxx

The Great Hall was subdued as Neville slowly sat at the Gryffindor table. In the common room, he had managed to get Percy's attention. The older Weasley had instantly announced he would go up to the dormitory and speak to Ron. His face had been pale and drawn, and Neville wondered if he had any regrets. It certainly looked as though he did.

Neville's eyes turned towards the Slytherin table, Harry's well-being on his mind. He immediately spotted him; he was sitting in the midst of the three girls who had become his friends. Neville didn't know them very well, but had nothing at all against them and knew that they were a good influence on Harry. His insides twisted with sorrow as he saw that Harry was trying his best to put up a brave front, but the look in his emerald eyes spoke volumes of the turmoil inside. He was talking with his friends, and Neville could see that they were all rallying around him, lending him their support. He felt sincere gratitude towards them, thankful that they could be there for him.

All the Gryffindors seemed to be in a state of reflection. Not much was said as people slowly filled their plates with food, but no one ate with their usual gusto. Dean and Seamus said nothing to Neville, and he knew it was out of respect. Hermione's roommates, Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown, didn't have any food on their plates at all, and it didn't look as though they were going to rectify that anytime soon.

Neville's eyes wandered over to the staff table. Every teacher he turned his gaze on had a pale face, he realized; there were circles under many eyes, showing that sleep had been elusive. For the first time, Neville could feel a strange sense of vicious satisfaction come over him. Good, he thought to himself. None of them should sleep. Hermione's dead because they didn't fulfil their duties.

This train of thought bounced over and over again in Neville's mind; the more he thought about it, the more betrayed and angry he felt. Hogwarts was supposed to be a fortress, the safest place in all of Britain. How many times had he heard its safety being touted? How had a troll been able to breach the oh-so-amazing wards he'd always heard about? It was a mystery to him, and one that needed to be solved before another student got hurt.

And it seemed as though the fates agreed with Neville's assessment of this situation. Several minutes into the meal, the subdued atmosphere of the hall was broken by the sound of the great doors banging open. The whole school turned to look.

There, standing in the doorway, was Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, and beside him were several Aurors. And none of them looked the slightest bit happy.

The entire room went silent - you could have heard a pin drop as the Minister strode purposefully over to the staff table, the Aurors following a step behind. The staff tried to look attentive and prepared, but it was obvious to anyone's eyes that they were far from it.

"Good morning," said Fudge, his voice radiating authority. "Or, maybe I should say, not a good morning. There's some nasty business going on at this school, I hear. Nasty business that we can't let stand. Dumbledore, I need to talk to you at once."

"Yes, Cornelius." Dumbledore stood up, his face calm and serene, but his blue eyes weren't twinkling. Neville had always looked up to Dumbledore - almost idolized him, actually. But for the first time, he felt disillusioned as he looked at the old man.

Then, Neville saw something that surprised him, but in hindsight, he should have known it all along. From the Slytherin table, Harry Potter stood, and all eyes turned to him as he walked directly over to the Minister, the Aurors, and Dumbledore with no hesitation. His face was pale and his eyes were dull, but there was a firm resolve in his step that Neville wished, fervently, that he could emulate.

"Hello, sir," he said, addressing the Minister. "Are you here to ask about what happened to Hermione Granger?"

"Are you ... you're ..." Fudge's mouth opened and closed in shock. "You're Harry Potter," he finally blurted, and the Aurors beside him stared at the boy in pure, rapt fascination.

"Yes, I am, sir," Harry said. "I can tell you what happened, if you want."

"Harry, this discussion is between myself and the Minister," said Dumbledore, who couldn't hide the surprised look he was giving him. "Please go back to your table and finish your breakfast."

"Excuse me, Dumbledore, but after what you allowed to happen in this school, you have no right to give any orders," said Fudge, his face turning red. "If this boy would like to give testimony, I would be glad to receive it. Come along, young man."

"Cornelius ..." Dumbledore tried, but Fudge shook his head, looking even more livid. The expressions of the three Aurors beside him didn't bode well for the Hogwarts Headmaster, either. The old man sighed in defeat, and did not say anything else as he was practically marched out of the Great Hall by the group who wanted to question him, Harry following in their wake.

And Neville wasn't sure exactly what would happen next, but he knew it was the start of a whole new chapter in his time at Hogwarts.