A few quick wards and a surreptitious Muffliato ensured they wouldn't be interrupted. Frank Longbottom watched him work with sharp, apprehensive eyes, but Severus ignored him until he felt certain the Healer would not only be unable to hear them, but would forget about their presence altogether until he lifted the spells.
Clearing his mind was as natural as breathing, and as essential to his survival. He felt the familiar cool calm settle through him, clean and perfect as water. Occluding had never done him much good during his sessions with Potter - though he had berated the boy for his inability to control his emotions, Severus's own emotions had always been on edge in his presence - but here, with Longbottom, his mind was still.
"This will likely be painful," he stated. "Try not to resist."
He saw the last flicker of doubt in Frank's eyes, the fear that Severus was not who he said he was, that this was some Death Eater trick. Severus did not allow that doubt time to take hold.
"Legilimens," he whispered.
Ragged fragments. Cuts, savage and raw, gouged into thoughts and memories. The mind writhed at his presence, and he held himself still, calm, unmoving. He observed.
Swathes of gray. Webs of thought torn apart like cobwebs, their gossamer strands tangled and frayed, their perfect architecture no longer discernible in the soft, weak tatters that remained. Emotions clung to those tatters, billowing and brief. With the slightest pressure, Severus could have destroyed everything in his path.
And yet, somewhere in that maze of webs, Severus could feel Frank Longbottom, swaying like a spider from the ruined threads of his mind. Desperately, he dangled, hungry and hopeless, too frightened to move.
Severus was equally unwilling to move. He was not used to minds of such fragility. Potter's mind, for all that it had been unrefined and repellent, had possessed a force of passion and resilience that Severus would not have been able to destroy. Even the most pathetic and worthless of minds (Mundungus Fletcher's, for example) usually revolved around a central power, a core desire or purpose or identity that could not be altered, only manipulated. Severus's own mind was as fluid and indestructible as the sea. Even he could not reach its deepest point.
Longbottom's mind, on the other hand, contained little more than wisps of dust. His one vital remnant was a tiny, terribly breakable being, like the shriveled arachnids Severus ground up for potions. That he was still capable of speech left Severus baffled.
But then, spiders were resilient. They were used in potions as an element of balance, the balance of a perfect web, of blood and air, of life and death. They created to destroy, and destroyed to create. In an elegant universe, their elegance was supreme.
Severus, though far from considering Longbottom elegant - he was, after all, the father of Neville Longbottom - nonetheless acknowledged that there might be more strength to the broken man than the ruin of his mind suggested. The analogy of the spider was of course of Severus's own creation, and in no way reflected the way Longbottom saw himself. Still, Severus's mind had seen something in him to evoke the image. Perhaps it was fitting. In a mind as imbalanced as Longbottom's, only balance would allow him to heal.
But could he heal?
Tentatively, with all the caution of a spider creeping across a web, Severus approached the dangling remnant of Longbottom's sanity. He didn't dare touch it, but he could touch the threads it clung to, such weak and worn threads:
A newborn infant, smeared with blood, crying for the first time, while Alice and Frank cried through smiles.
Augusta Longbottom, vulture hat in her lap, looking at him with a pinched mouth and saying, "This man is not my son. My son was murdered by the Lestranges…"
Bellatrix Lestrange, cackling and furious, hissing, "Where is he? Where is our Lord?" Behind her, in the shadows, Alice was screaming…
And that was all. The threads quivered beneath his touch, while Longbottom shivered wildly. Severus forced himself to remain calm, considering his options.
Other memories whispered around him, out of Longbottom's reach, but within his. He reached for the most solid of them - his own face, thin and pale, slightly arrogant and very tired. Longbottom's breath of a question hovered over the memory: "Hope?"
Severus descended on the memory, until he was close, so close to Longbottom's desperate self. He offered the memory up like a lifeline, and Longbottom took it.
The other threads stopped quivering.
Longbottom clung to this new memory just as desperately as he had clung to the others. Abruptly, Severus felt the brush of Longbottom's mind as he reached out for him, for something solid to cling to, some proof that he wasn't alone. Severus felt the touch like an embrace, like a kiss, like tears. Almost involuntarily, he jerked out of Longbottom's mind.
Longbottom lay panting on the bed, a wordless plea groaning in his mouth. Severus, thoroughly unnerved, forced himself not to snap or snarl something nasty.
After all, if he had spent the last seventeen years in that tattered ruin, he might be pleading, too.
"Frank," he said quietly, and Longbottom's eyes slowly focused on him, still pleading.
"I realize you are eager for your circumstances to change," Severus said. It was a horrible understatement, but he thought it best to keep things sedate. "However, this process will need to be undertaken slowly. It will take months to rebuild your mind. You will need to be patient."
Longbottom, still panting, gasped out, "Hope?"
Severus regarded him for several seconds, considering the man's fortitude, considering his own skills. "Yes," he said finally. "I think there is hope."
Longbottom's eyes blazed.
"Understand," Severus added quickly, "that you will never be the same. You will bear scars…"
"Live," Longbottom whispered.
"Yes, I believe you will be able to live."
"Leave," Longbottom corrected insistently.
"Yes," Severus repeated. "I believe so. If we are successful, there is no reason why you should be forced to stay here."
Longbottom's hands, which had clenched around the bed sheets, loosened. "Thank you."
It was night by the time Severus returned to his house on Spinner's End, and the sight of the stained old bricks, the dusty windows, the sagging door, all left him with an immediate urge to burn the place to the ground. He had not been here since he had begun his hellish term as headmaster; he had half-expected to find it burned to the ground already. But no. It seemed the worthless place had been left intact.
Resigned, he climbed the stairs to the door.
Only to freeze, wand in one hand, Mimbulus mimbletonia in the other, at the sight of a small basket waiting on the doorstep.
Warily, he glanced up and down the street. It seemed deserted. Yet his wards were gone. He had assumed the Ministry was responsible, that they had searched his house before his pardon had been secured, but now he wondered if his conclusion might have been premature.
The Ministry was not in the habit of leaving baskets at people's doors.
Dumbledore was, but Dumbledore was dead. Severus had seen to that.
Cautiously, Severus began to cast a Revelio on the basket, only to jump backward as the lid twitched, twitched again, then popped open.
Severus was so taken aback he couldn't even curse the thing into oblivion, despite the fact that it was obviously some kind of dangerous magical creature, probably left there to kill him.
"Lumos," he murmured, preparing himself to cast everything from a simple Stunner to Fiendfyre, if the need arose.
Two large orange ears and a pair of golden eyes protruded from the basket, which Severus now saw was full of some sort of vile fluffy material, which even more appallingly was a bright Gryffindor red. The creature - the kitten, Severus realized with great revulsion - placed one paw on the basket's edge and mewled again, quite pitifully.
Severus, still suspicious, finished casting his Revelio, plus half a dozen other spells. But it seemed the Kneazle kit was just that. A Kneazle.
Severus looked around for anything else suspicious. It had to be some kind of trap. Yet he stood alone on the street, among the abandoned and condemned houses. Alone except for the Kneazle.
"Mew!" it - she - wailed more insistently. Severus felt a wave of weary despair. How many more pitiful creatures was he expected to care for?
"Someone must have left you here as a joke," he told the kitten. "No doubt a Gryffindor is responsible. But I assure you, I am not going to be your owner."
The Kneazle gave him a slightly outraged look, though whether at his lack of interest in her or his presumption that anyone could own her, he wasn't certain. In any case, she burrowed back into the basket with an offended meow, leaving him at a loss as to what to do next.
Long habit had him unlocking the door with a tap of his wand; lingering on doorsteps was never wise. Carrying the magical cactus inside and setting it on the table beside the sofa, he returned to the threshold. The Kneazle's tufted tail swayed back and forth from the open end of the basket.
Yet again, Severus scanned the street, determined to find some sign of whichever enemy had left him this absurd homecoming gift. Unfortunately, the street was just as empty as before.
With a scuffle and a mew, the basket at his feet suddenly tumbled to the side and down the stairs.
"Damn it!" he snarled, hurrying down to the pavement to make sure the creature hadn't broken its neck. He had never been good with animals, but evidently this one was determined to damage itself all on its own.
As he turned the basket right-side-up, its fluffy head appeared, supported by an evidently unbroken neck.
"What exactly were you trying to accomplish?" Severus asked, scowling.
In answer, the creature began shredding the scarlet fluff, digging her little claws in and tearing them upward with great enthusiasm. The basket wobbled dangerously.
"While I share your enjoyment of destroying all things Gryffindor, may I encourage you not to do so at the top of a flight of stairs? In my personal experience, that never ends well." Though he had been thinking of an incident with Black in his third year, his mind involuntarily conjured an image of the Astronomy Tower, and of the Gryffindor he had destroyed there.
Suddenly tired, with an ache in his chest, he picked up the basket. The Kneazle gazed up at him curiously. He gazed down at her in resignation.
"Fine," he muttered. "You may sleep in my house."
And he carried the creature back up the stairs, trailing red fluff behind him.