"You went to see Snape?" Ron asked, shocked.
"How is he?" Harry asked, accepting a tray of scones from Kreacher and not looking nearly as shocked by this news as Ron did. Harry, Neville noted, looked old. Neville's own reflection was a little strange these days, with unfamiliar scars and expressions, but he still looked like a teenage boy. Harry didn't look like a boy, but he didn't really look like a man, either. There was something pale, almost transparent about him, as if he'd faded away a little in the Forbidden Forest, as if something had disappeared from beneath his skin.
"He hasn't changed much," Neville said, frowning a little. That wasn't exactly true. "He's a bit more human, I guess."
Ron scoffed. "Look, just because he fancied Harry's mum doesn't mean he's human."
Neville glanced at Harry to see how he'd take this, but he was busy with the scones. That was good, at least. He looked like he needed a few decent meals. Maybe a few hundred.
Harry, noticing Neville's look, shrugged. "Ron thinks it's a bit creepy."
"A bit? Mate, Snape fancied your mum. What if she'd fancied him back? He could have been your dad!"
Even this new, old Harry seemed disturbed by that. "Lucky she fancied my dad, then."
Ron snorted. "I'll say. Ugh. Imagine fancying Snape."
Neville, who had six years' experience of this sort of thing from Ron, wondered why he felt bad about it now. It had always cheered him up before, when he'd made some stupid mistake in Potions and Snape had put him in another horrible detention. Now he felt a little guilty just for listening to it.
He wasn't sure what to say in Snape's defense, though. He really couldn't imagine anyone fancying him, either.
"I don't really think he wants to be fancied, you know," he remarked. "I don't think he wants anyone to like him at all."
Harry gave him a sharp look, the kind he'd been getting from all kinds of people lately, as if they weren't quite sure he was actually Neville Longbottom, the same Neville Longbottom who had been such an utter dunderhead all those years.
"No," Harry agreed. "I don't think he does."
"Like anyone would, anyway," Ron said.
"Well, yeah," Harry said. "That's probably what he's afraid of."
It was Neville's turn to give Harry a sharp look. Harry wasn't usually any more of an expert on feelings than he was. That was more Hermione's realm. Hermione was in Australia, though, trying to track down her parents.
"What d'you mean?" Ron asked. His grasp of human emotion didn't seem to have changed much, Neville noted with relief. At least there was one person who had stayed the same.
"I dunno," Harry said, shrugging. "I mean, maybe he thinks if he's nice to people they still won't like him."
"So he's mean to them," Neville added, "before they can be mean to him. He likes to make the first move."
"And you think that makes him more human?"
"It makes him insecure," Harry said. "Which is pretty human, really, even if he's trying to hide it."
Neville shook his head, bemused. If he had known, that day the Snape-Boggart had come out of the wardrobe, the personification of all his own insecurities, that one day he would be sitting around with Harry and Ron discussing Snape's emotional issues, would he have still been so terrified?
Probably. After all, Snape's emotional issues were terrifying.
"So why'd you go see him?" Ron asked, helping himself to about twice as many scones as Harry had. "Please tell me you told him about Nagini."
"I didn't have to," Neville said, wincing. "He was reading the Prophet article about it when I got there."
Ron chortled. "How'd he take it?"
"He didn't say anything about it."
Neville shrugged. "It was a relief, really. It would have been too weird if he had thanked me, or something."
"Good point." Ron took a giant bite. "Buwhychoogoeeim?"
"To give him a Mimbulus mimbletonia. Mine is starting to reproduce."
Ron gaped at him, mouth still full of food. Hastily, he swallowed it. "And you entrusted its offspring to Snape?"
"He'll take care of it. They're really valuable for potions."
Ron looked even more horrified. "You gave it to Snape to chop into little pieces?"
Neville laughed. "No, they're only valuable if the plant's alive. He'll have to take good care of it if he wants to use it."
Ron gave him a suspicious look. "Is this part of some scheme to make him act more human? Start him on a cactus and then work your way up to people?"
Neville gave him a thoughtful look. "Do you think that would work?"
"Neville! This is Snape! He's not supposed to be human!"
"You could get him a Kneazle," Harry said, grinning at the look on Ron's face. "Hagrid has some Kneazle kittens he's trying to find homes for."
"Snape would skin them alive!" Ron exclaimed. "Kneazles don't have to be alive for their fur to be used!"
"No, but they'll grow more fur if they're kept alive," Harry pointed out.
"You're both mental," Ron said, staring from one to the other of them. "Why are you trying to help Snape?"
Harry shrugged, then grinned. "Imagine how much it'll annoy him."
Ron opened his mouth in disbelief, shut it, then frowned. "It would, wouldn't it?"
Neville, not quite certain whether they were joking or whether he'd just gotten roped into something quite mad, grabbed himself a scone. "What else could we do?"
Severus, upon being released from St. Mungo's, should have fled the premises immediately, even if he'd had to throw himself through a window to do it. He'd been imagining his escape for several days now, and yet, now that he'd been issued a clean bill of health, he hesitated on the stairwell, staring at the sign directing visitors.
Then, with a snarl of impatience, he headed to the fourth floor.
Severus was familiar with most of the wards in St. Mungo's, thanks to the occasional potions assistance he had provided to the institute over the years, but he had thus far avoided the ward for Spell Damage, though he'd narrowly escaped visiting it as a patient on numerous occasions. The Dark Lord had been very liberal with his punishments.
When he saw Gilderoy Lockhart preening himself in a mirror, Severus almost turned back. What in Merlin's name was he doing here, anyway? But he was not about to run away from a vain, foolish, and now blissfully brain-damaged ponce like Lockhart. Resolutely, he strode through the doors.
"Good morning!" Lockhart said cheerfully. "My, you look very dark, young man. I don't think black is quite your color."
Severus froze. Lockhart had issued almost the exact same words the first time they had met. Could his memory be returning?
"Don't worry about him, dear," the Healer said quietly. "We've been learning colors this week, and he does love to comment on them."
"I think blue would suit you better, or perhaps a nice lavender!"
"Now, then. Who are you here to see?"
Severus, tearing his death glare away from Lockhart, scowled at the Healer. "The Longbottoms."
The Healer looked surprised. "I haven't seen you here before."
Severus wondered if the woman somehow, miraculously, didn't know who he was. "We were in school together," he said vaguely. "I have been out of the country since then." Well, it was half-true. He'd been in Scotland.
"Oh, I see." The Healer looked sympathetic. "They're over here in the back. They get distressed sometimes, if the other patients are too loud. You know what happened to them?"
"Extensive exposure to the Cruciatus."
"Yes. I'm afraid they probably won't recognize you."
"Nonetheless, I wish to see them."
The Healer led him over to a curtained-off section of the ward. "Alice, dear, Frank, you have a visitor."
She ushered Severus through the curtain. Two beds sat side by side. On one, Alice Longbottom sat with a box of crayons, peeling the paper off the wax. On the other, Frank Longbottom lay staring at the ceiling, mouth agape. Neither of them looked up at his appearance.
"There, now," the Healer said, "it looks like they're both doing very well, today."
Severus wondered what it would look like if they were not doing well, and privately hoped someone would Avada him if he ever got to this point.
"I'll leave you to visit," the Healer said, "but if they get upset, just step outside the curtain and call me over, all right, dear? Sometimes things can set them off unexpectedly."
"I understand," Severus replied, while inwardly cringing at the ward's appalling lack of security. They were lucky he wasn't a Death Eater - anymore, at least.
There was a chair between the two beds, but Severus didn't sit. He felt acutely uncomfortable, and wondered again why he'd come here. He had never liked Alice or Frank in school; while they had never been outwardly cruel to him like some of the other students, Alice had been Lily's best friend, and had always encouraged her to stop "hanging around that awful Slytherin boy." And Frank, though he alone of the Gryffindors that year had not joined Potter's fanclub, had never bothered to stand up for Severus, either.
No, Severus had no love for either of these people. Yet he could not pretend they had deserved this fate. Of course he had resented them, once upon a time, for not having been chosen by the Dark Lord as the parents referred to in the prophecy. But looking at them now, Severus couldn't wish that Lily had traded places with them. She had died a brave death, a heroic death. She had defeated the Dark Lord.
Alice Longbottom, on the other hand, was trapped in a living hell. The Lestranges and Crouch, Jr. had tortured her into insanity. Her last memories of this world had not been the few seconds of terror and beautiful integrity Lily had experienced. It had been hours, hours upon hours of agony, humiliation, and ultimately destruction.
And Lily, kind Lily, would have traded places with her best friend in an instant, just to spare her that pain.
Severus looked away from Alice, full of bitterness and grief, and tried to focus on Frank.
"Longbottom," he said.
Frank didn't move.
Severus glanced through the part in the curtains to verify that the Healer was at the other end of the ward, then looked back at Frank. "I understand you wish to die."
Frank's gaze, which a second before had been vacant, flickered to him immediately, sharp and suspicious. Something shifted in them: confusion, frustration, despair. Severus thought he might be struggling to place his face.
"I am Severus Snape," he said quietly. When the name was met with another glimmer of frustration, he added. "We went to school together. We were not friends."
Something like fear sparked in Longbottom's eyes, and Severus raised a hand. "Neither were we enemies, although we disliked each other."
Longbottom settled on a puzzled, though still frustrated expression.
"You wish to die," Severus repeated, making it a statement, not a question. Nonetheless, the desperation in Longbottom's eyes was more than enough confirmation.
"That is entirely understandable," Severus said, "considering your condition." He hesitated, studying the face of the man before him, a face which had belonged to a mere boy the last time they had met. Longbottom looked like he would have begged him, if he could have managed to speak.
"I am inclined," Severus said softly, "to arrange for your request to be granted. However… the fact that you are capable of making such a request in the first place suggests that you are not nearly so far beyond recovery as is believed."
More confusion, more frustration.
"Your Healers believe that you are entirely beyond communication." Severus had made certain of this before coming here, through seemingly idle inquiries of his own Healer as well as Minerva McGonagall. "And yet, you are clearly capable of understanding me, and even of communicating in return. Is this not true?"
Longbottom didn't move for a long time. Then, finally, he whispered, "Yes."
"Why have you kept this knowledge from the Healers?"
Longbottom was silent again, but Severus thought he might have been struggling to think of the words. Finally he rasped out, "No hope."
"I disagree," Severus said.
Frank blinked at him, in surprise, perhaps even in shock. "Hope?"
"Possibly," Severus said. "I will not know for certain unless I am able to Legilimize you."
Frank sat up suddenly, his expression vicious. "No!"
Severus heard the rapid clicking of the Healer's shoes across the floor. Frank lay back down.
"Is everything all right?" she asked, poking her head in.
"Everything is fine," Severus said. "I believe Frank may have drifted off for a moment. A dream, perhaps."
"Ah, yes," the Healer said sadly. "That does happen sometimes, I'm afraid. Are you finished here, dearie?"
Frank twitched a little at that, but the Healer had already withdrawn. Once her footsteps had faded across the ward, Severus said, "I understand your reluctance, of course. You were no doubt Legilimized by the Lestranges."
Frank twitched again. "With them," he whispered accusingly.
"I assure you, I am not. Bellatrix Lestrange is dead, as of last month. Barty Crouch, Jr. was administered the Dementor's Kiss three years ago. Rodolphus and Rabastan are still on the loose, but there is no reason to believe they are coming here for you. They, like the Healers and everyone else in the Wizarding World, believe there is no hope for you."
Frank's sharp gaze never left his face. "Why?"
Severus took a moment to puzzle that out. "Why would I assist you?" Frank's expression was affirmative, but Severus pretended not to see it right away. After all, he didn't entirely know the answer himself. His entire adult life, he had been motivated by what he had done to Lily. Yet this had nothing to do with Lily. He didn't know why he was doing it.
Dishonestly, he said, "I owe your son a life debt."
"Son," Frank whispered. "Neville."
"Yes, Neville. He will be eighteen years old next month. As of late, he has been making quite a name for himself." Severus tried not to sneer as he said it. No need to alienate Frank just yet.
"Eighteen?" Frank asked, and this time his whisper was full of pain. "Baby…"
"He is no longer a baby," Severus said mercilessly.
Frank fell silent for a long time. "Boy," he said finally. "Mother."
"The boy who comes here with your mother is Neville, yes. You asked him to kill you."
Frank flinched. "No…"
"Obviously, he chose not to. However, when he mentioned the incident to me, I knew that your condition could not be as severe as had previously been believed."
There, Severus thought. Let him think I am the boy's confidant.
It seemed to work, for Longbottom breathed, "Legil…"
"Legilimency will allow me to evaluate the damage to your mind," Severus stated calmly. "As far as I am aware, you have never received such an evaluation before. There is currently no qualified Legilimens working at St. Mungo's."
"I am qualified. I studied the subject independently during my youth. As an adult, Dumbledore helped me hone my skills."
The name Dumbledore resonated where Snape had not. Frank looked hopeful. "Dumble…?"
Severus decided now was not the time to reveal that he had been instrumental in removing Dumbledore from this world. "Yes, Dumbledore trained me."
Frank eyed him, half-suspicious, half-hopeful.
"Really, Longbottom," Severus asked, "what do you have to lose?"
Frank stared at him for a long, long time, doubt and pain and hope flaring one after the other in his eyes.
"Nothing," he whispered finally. "Nothing to lose."