Disclaimer: I own nothing. Everything belongs to JKR.
Neville Longbottom had long associated St. Mungo's Institute for Magical Maladies and Injuries with strange occurrences. It would have been natural, of course, for him to associate it with grief, or perhaps misery; he had certainly experienced enough of those within its walls. But St. Mungo's never had an atmosphere of grief. The waiting room was always full of bizarre magical accidents, the long journey up the stairs offered glimpses of rare and nameless maladies, and the portraits were, well, odd.
None of this lessened his dread of the place, but it did prepare him for the sensation of utter unreality that splattered over him like a poorly brewed potion as he looked down at Professor Snape's unconscious body. No, not Professor Snape. Neville doubted he would ever be a professor again. (He doubted, too, whether anyone, least of all Snape, would lament this.) But looking down at Snape, unconscious and breathing only with the aid of a Respiration Charm, Neville felt the familiar sense of the ground dropping out from beneath his still rather clumsy feet.
Snape looked… young. That was probably the strangest part. In all the media coverage of the Battle of Hogwarts, Neville had read that Snape was thirty-eight years old, which, for a wizard, was not old at all. Snape had always seemed old, or at least ageless. Now he seemed… young. Neville's parents' age. And Neville had always been determined to think of his parents as young, because the alternative was too terrible to contemplate.
In any case, Snape looked young, now, deathly white and thin, so thin that Neville wondered if he had eaten at all during his year as headmaster. Snape's health had never been of any particular concern to him before (and especially not during the past year), but now it was impossible not to feel a little disturbed. Snape looked like a spindly sapling poking out of a blizzard's worth of snow.
He was small, too. Shorter than Neville, slimmer, slighter. Neville remembered the exact moment he had first noticed it. It had been that night when Snape had caught him and Ginny and Luna trying to rob his office. There he had stood, Neville's former boggart, in all his dark malice, and Neville, who had expected to feel afraid, had instead felt a savage glee that he, who had always felt so tiny in Snape's presence, was now the bigger of the two.
Now, though, that entire scene took on a different meaning. He had thought, at the time, what an utter idiot Snape must be, to think that detention with Hagrid was even remotely comparable to detention with the Carrows. But of course Snape had known that it wasn't. Snape had known Hagrid since he himself was a child. He knew perfectly well that detention with Hagrid would be about as torturous as snuggling with puppies.
How, Neville asked himself, had he not known the truth right then? How had he not guessed? He had been so smug, laughing at Snape with Ginny as they followed Hagrid into the Forbidden Forest for what proved to be a nice little holiday from the horror inside the school. Luna hadn't laughed, though. Neville thought she might have known.
He felt like the dunderhead Snape had always accused him of being. Of course Snape was on their side. Of course he wasn't really bad. With the exception of that time he'd tried to poison Trevor, when had he ever actually done anything horrible to any of them? He had made Neville feel horrible, to be sure, but he'd never done anything evil.
Well. Now everyone knew the truth. Harry had shown the Ministry Snape's memories of Dumbledore ordering him to kill him, and Snape had been pardoned of all crimes. Neville knew there were some other memories Harry hadn't shown the Ministry, but, as far as he could tell, only Harry, Ron, and Hermione knew what those were.
Whatever they were, they had drastically changed Harry's opinion of Snape. He was the one who had gotten Snape the pardon. He had even given an interview to the Daily Prophet about him, and Harry hated interviews.
Harry had succeeded in obtaining the pardon. He had not succeeded where public opinion was concerned. Neville could see the evidence of that on Snape's bedside table, which was utterly bare. No flowers, no candy, not even a card. Snape had been here for more than a week, and no one seemed to care much whether he woke up or not.
"Self-induced stasis," the Healers were calling it. Snape had, quite astonishingly, built up an immunity to Nagini's venom, but the blood loss should still have killed him. The only thing that had kept him alive was accidental magic - the kind Neville had performed when Great-Uncle Algie had accidentally dropped him out the window. Whether Snape would recover was anyone's guess. His throat had been healed, but he was still in some kind of limbo, as far as his consciousness was concerned.
Neville wondered if Snape wasn't sure whether he wanted to live or die.
"It's okay, you know," he said quietly. It didn't bother him that Snape couldn't answer; he was used to talking to people who couldn't. "You won't go to Azkaban or anything. You've even got an Order of Merlin, Second Class. Harry tried to get First Class for you, but, well…" He frowned. "You were a Death Eater for a while."
Snape, luckily, couldn't hear him.
"Anyway… It's safe to wake up, is what I mean. There's no one waiting to punish you. You can wake up and…" Neville searched his mind for what Snape might want to do with the freedom not working at Hogwarts would give him, but came up empty. "I don't know, travel, or something."
Neville gave it one more try. "Nobody blames you." This was not remotely true, but Neville thought it might help, anyway. "For what you did."
On the bed, Snape still looked like death might be preferable to waking up.
"Well, I'll see you later, sir. I hope you get better."
When Severus opened his eyes, he was neither dead nor in Azkaban nor in the Dark Lord's clutches, all of which made him question whether he was indeed awake. He had no time to consider the matter in depth, however, because a Healer was bending over him, washing his hair.
"What," he snarled, "do you think you're doing?"
The Healer emitted a very satisfying shriek, and stumbled backward over a visitor's chair that Severus could only imagine had been placed there as some sort of joke. Certainly no one would be visiting him.
"S-Snape!" the Healer cried. "You're awake!"
The Healer, unfortunately, seemed to be recovering her faculties. "My dear boy, we thought you might never come back to us."
Severus flinched at the form of address. How many times had Dumbledore called him that? In any case… "I do not see why anyone would care."
The Healer looked slightly uncomfortable at that. "Well, you know, you are a patient here. And you've been pardoned! Isn't that wonderful news? Harry Potter himself spoke on your behalf to the Minister!"
Snape swallowed the urge to vomit. Then the Healer's words sank in.
"Potter is alive?" he asked disbelievingly.
"Oh yes! And He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is gone forever!"
"If Potter is alive, then the Dark Lord cannot possibly be gone forever."
The Healer gave him a startled look. Just then, someone coughed.
"I think, Severus, you will find you are mistaken on that point. You-Know-Who really is gone, and Harry really is alive and well."
Severus tensed. Minerva McGonagall stood behind the Healer, smiling down at him. Actually smiling at him, as if they were friends.
They were not friends. He had killed Dumbledore. He had dueled her. He couldn't count the number of times she had disparaged his character in the past year. She despised him. They were not friends.
"I'm very glad to see you awake," she said.
He said nothing.
The Healer, sensing the awkwardness, and evidently finding nothing wrong with Severus in her scans, said, "I'll just let you two catch up," and scurried away.
Minerva sat in the visitor's chair.
"I owe you an apology," she said, suddenly grave. "I should have -"
Minerva's lips thinned at the interruption. A little sharply, she said, "You might have told me."
He sneered. "You, like all Gryffindors, wear your heart on your sleeve, Minerva. Informing you would have done nothing but compromise me."
She sniffed in disagreement, but mercifully let the subject drop. "You seem to be under the impression that Harry had to die before You-Know-Who could be defeated. I am happy to correct that impression. Harry did not have to die."
"According to whom?" Severus asked.
"To Harry, of course."
"And did it not occur to you that he might have reason to be dishonest about the necessity of his death?"
Minerva arched her eyebrows. "Harry did believe it was necessary for him to die, thanks to you and Dumbledore." Her nostrils flared. "He allowed You-Know-Who to use the Killing Curse on him. The curse destroyed the Horcrux inside Harry, and left Harry himself alive. He was then able to duel You-Know-Who, and win."
"Potter could not have won in a duel against the Dark Lord."
Rather than looking irritated, Minerva smirked. "I assure you, he did."
Severus scowled. "And Nagini?" He had figured out months ago that she, too, must be a Horcrux.
If possible, Minerva looked even more smug. "Nagini is dead."
Severus felt a bitter taste in his mouth. Had Potter, of all people, avenged him? "The boy killed her?"
"Harry, you mean? No, I'm afraid he was otherwise occupied." She was still smirking. Severus felt unnerved. Who could be worse than Potter?
"Neville Longbottom killed her."
"Longbottom?" Severus choked out. "LONGBOTTOM?"
"Do calm yourself, Severus. You have only just woken up."
"I don't believe it," he said, folding his arms and glowering.
"I thought you might not," Minerva said, withdrawing a bundle of newspapers from her robes. "These might convince you."
And with that, she left him to the most disturbing reading he had ever done, including all of his favorite Dark Arts books.
Neville was not afraid of Snape. At least, that was what he told himself.
It had been true, last year. His boggart had changed to Bellatrix Lestrange after the incident in the Department of Mysteries, and Snape, as headmaster, had inspired not so much fear as contempt. Neville had faced him down without flinching more than once.
So why was he so nervous now?
Clutching his gift in sweaty hands, he stepped into the ward and resisted the urge to turn and run when he saw Snape scowling amid a pile of newspapers. Neville knew that scowl very well. Approaching an angry Snape was much worse than approaching You-Know-Who.
Don't be stupid, he told himself. He had decapitated part of You-Know-Who's soul, after all. What was Snape? A bad-tempered former teacher?
Feeling a little more confident, Neville managed to make it to the foot of the bed before the next bout of nerves stopped him in his tracks. Snape was reading the Prophet article about him.
Slowly, venomously, Snape raised his eyes to focus on Neville.
"I do not recall inviting you to my bedside, Longbottom."
As far as Snape's opening volleys went, that one really hadn't been so bad.
"I brought you a gift," Neville said, and, without further ado, he set the tiny Mimbulus mimbletonia on Snape's bedside table.
Snape stared at it, then at Neville, and Neville saw, with considerable glee, that Snape's natural impulse to say something nasty was warring with his obvious worry that Neville would take the cactus away if provoked. The Mimbulus mimbletonia was incredibly valuable, both to herbologists and potioneers; it had been a wrench to give away this one, his own beloved mimbletonia's first offspring. But Neville thought it was a gift Snape would appreciate.
Judging by the unrepressed greed in Snape's eyes, he'd judged correctly.
"What exactly are you doing here?" Snape asked, obviously trying to keep his naturally malicious tone neutral.
Neville suppressed a smile. "I didn't think you'd have many visitors."
Something flickered in Snape's black eyes, and his lips tightened. Neville wondered, with deep discomfort, if he had hurt Snape's feelings. It was strange to think of Snape having feelings, and especially of those feelings as being vulnerable, but then, if someone had said that to Neville, he would have been deeply hurt.
"You're a bit like a Mimbulus mimbletonia," he blurted.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're… defensive. Sir."
Snape sneered. "You think my dearth of visitors is due to my being defensive?" He leaned forward, clenching the newspapers in his fists. "You do not think it is perhaps due to the fact that I murdered Albus Dumbledore?"
"You didn't murder him!"
Snape bared his teeth. "What would you call it, then?"
Neville's heart was beating rather fast. For a moment, he didn't know what to say. There was a vicious look on Snape's face that even he had never seen there before.
"My dad asked me to do that," Neville said, turning red.
Snape went still, confusion and disbelief relaxing his features slightly.
Neville, taken aback by his own words, didn't know whether or not to continue. He had never told anyone about this; in fact, he considered it his darkest secret. But he somehow wanted to tell Snape, so he did.
"It was the only time he ever talked to me," Neville said. "Most of the time…" He shook his head, not wanting to pursue that. "But on this day, I was sitting alone with him while Gran talked to the Healers, and he… spoke." Neville's voice dropped to a whisper. "He said, 'Kill me. Please.'"
For the first time in the seven years Neville had known Snape, there was not a trace of malice on the man's face. He stared at Neville with an intensity Neville could barely stand, an intensity that made him want to look away. But he couldn't. He was fascinated. Snape without malice was like a tree without roots. Neville felt like something important had been torn away.
"He didn't know who I was," Neville said. "But he knew I cared about him, and… and I think he thought he could trust me."
Pain burned deep in Snape's eyes, sharp and devouring. When he tried to sneer, it reminded Neville of a naked man scrambling to cover himself. "And you think this makes us similar, do you?"
"No," Neville said quietly. "We're not similar. I was too afraid to help him. Too… selfish." He looked down at his hands, unable to meet Snape's eyes. "You're the opposite of that."
The silence that fell between them then was too much for Neville. Without another word, he stood up and ran away.