"I don't understand," Mr. Weasley said, brows furrowed. "I thought this house was under the Fidelius Charm?"
"It is," Harry said. "But… well…"
"It's my fault!" Hermione moaned. "After we broke into the Ministry to get the locket off Umbridge, we tried Apparating here, but Yaxley had hold of me, and I accidentally Apparated him within the wards. After that…"
"After that," Snape confirmed, "Yaxley was able to Apparate other Death Eaters onto the premises, which he did immediately. Every surviving Death Eater has access to this house."
There was a long silence.
"And you didn't think that was worth mentioning before?" Bill asked, frowning at him.
Snape snorted. "Until today, I had no idea Potter and his friends were living here. I had not imagined anyone would be willing to live in such a filthy place."
"Why did you?" Mr. Weasley asked, taking his glasses off and rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Why would you return here, knowing the Death Eaters had access, without telling anyone, without trying to reset the wards -"
"It was stupid," Harry said quickly. "We thought it was safe, we thought it was over -"
"Over?" Snape echoed, sneering. "With Death Eaters still on the loose?"
"Most of them have been caught -"
"You do recall, don't you, Potter, the impact had by those who were not caught? Surely you have not forgotten the intimate scenes that took place between yourself and Peter Pettigrew? Or Barty Crouch, Jr.? Not to mention," his face hardened bitterly, "the crimes committed by those very Death Eaters who are still at large now? You have not forgotten what the Lestranges did before they were caught?"
Harry shot a pained, apologetic glance at Neville, who determinedly avoided his gaze. He was trying not to be annoyed with Harry and the others, but it was hard not to remember that they had told him Grimmauld Place was safe. They hadn't mentioned the potential visit of the Death Eaters who had tortured his parents.
"I seem to be saying this rather often of late," Professor McGonagall said, nostrils flaring, "but you have acted with an astonishing lack of responsibility. And sense! To endanger yourselves in this reckless manner -"
"Where else was I supposed to go?" Harry shot back. "The Dursleys?"
Professor McGonagall flushed. Mr. Weasley broke in, "You might have at least talked to an adult -"
"We are adults," Ron objected. "And you knew we were living here!"
"We didn't know about the Death Eaters having access," Bill reminded him.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione all looked shamefaced.
"It was reckless!" McGonagall fumed. "Completely reckless! To think that after everything that has happened, you are still this careless! I would have thought someone would have managed to instill some sense into you by now, but evidently that was too much to hope for!"
Neville cringed. Even though the lecture wasn't directed at him, McGonagall's fury was intimidating. He looked at Snape. "Profess- er, what am I supposed to call you now?"
Snape arched an eyebrow at him. "'Sir' will do."
"Yes, sir. Can we try out the Polyjuice now?"
"Polyjuice?" Mr. Weasley asked quickly.
"The intruder was injured," Snape provided. "I collected a sample of his blood."
"Injured?" Bill asked. "Who injured him?"
"Longbottom, probably, although it is possible Miss Granger played a role."
He said it flatly, factually, but Neville still felt a strange bubble of pleasure inside him. Snape had recognized him, what he had done. When had that ever happened before?
He mentally corrected himself. When had Snape ever recognized that he had done something good?
"So we can use Polyjuice to identify him," Bill said, looking grimly satisfied.
Snape's lip curled. "Any volunteers?"
Everyone looked anywhere but at Snape. Harry sighed. "I'll do it."
They watched with wrinkled noses as Snape added a few drops of blood to a vial of Polyjuice. It turned a thick burgundy color. Harry made a disgusted face, closed his eyes, and swallowed it.
It was the first time Neville had seen Polyjuice work. Harry's face seemed to bubble, his body to sway and swell upward. With an annoyed sound, he kicked his shoes off, as his feet stretched to a much larger size. Professor McGonagall waved her wand to enlarge his straining robes, and finally, after a final twitch, the Death Eater was standing before them.
It was Rabastan Lestrange.
Neville's heart beat strangely fast against his ribs. His face prickled, as if all the blood had drained from it. He wanted to look away, but couldn't.
Snape, thin-lipped and even paler than usual, said quietly, "You are all very lucky to be alive."
Ron gave Harry a distasteful look, then said, "But why are we alive? Harry and I were both knocked out, he could have killed either of us on his way out. Why'd he let us go?"
"Why was he here in the first place?" Mr. Weasley asked.
"Books," Hermione said quietly. They had searched the whole house while waiting for the Order to arrive, and it had been clear the library had been the intruder's target. "We're not sure how many are missing - none of us ever spent much time in there -"
The adults stared at her in disbelief.
"I didn't!" Hermione exclaimed. "I mean, all right, I spent a few hours in there -"
"- but most of the books were really Dark, even worse than Dumbledore's books about Horcruxes!"
"What could be worse than Horcruxes?" Ron asked, looking disturbed.
Snape gave him an incredulous look. Hermione looked pitying. "A lot," she said. "I tried looking in one and - well -" Unexpectedly, she blushed. "They just weren't… decent."
"So," Mr. Weasley said, coughing a little. "We're, er, not sure which books he took?"
"No," Hermione said miserably. "And there's no way to -" Her eyes widened. "Kreacher!"
Harry jumped, a look of triumph flashing across Lestrange's face that was horrible to see. "You're right! Kreacher!"
The house-elf popped into the room. He didn't seem at all disoriented by Harry's appearance. "What does Master need from Kreacher?"
"Kreacher, the wizard who broke in here, he stole some books -"
Kreacher clutched his ears, scandalized.
"- and we were wondering if you could find out which ones are missing? That is - d'you know how to read?"
"Kreacher used to read to his Mistress from Nature's Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy every day."
"Er - right. Could you - could you go upstairs to the library and check?"
Kreacher bowed and Disapparated.
"Good thinking," Ron told Hermione. She blushed but said nothing. They still hadn't told Ron about the Hundred Year Sleep. Privately Neville was hoping they never would.
"In the meantime," Ron said, turning to George, who was sitting between his father and oldest brother, quite obviously not paying attention to anything. "George, have you opened the shop back up? Because the package on the doorstep was from Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes."
George gave him a blank look. "I haven't been there."
"D'you know if anyone could've broken in?"
George stared at him for a moment, then repeated, "I haven't been there."
Ron looked half-pitying, half-frustrated. "Well, you might want to check. Because whoever it was used your stuff to try and kill us."
George flinched. Bill frowned at him and said, "But you just told us he didn't try to kill you."
Ron opened his mouth, gaped for a moment, then shut it. "Well, he sort of did! Snape had to come here to sort me out, didn't he?"
Snape arched a brow. "Lestrange would have known the curse he cast on you would not be fatal."
"But you said you saved my life!"
Snape cast a questioning look at Harry and Hermione. They both blushed and avoided his gaze. "I take it your friends did not enlighten you as to the nature of the curse?"
"What d'you mean?" Ron looked around at Harry and Hermione, too. "What kind of curse was it?"
"Never mind that now," Harry said, scowling at Snape. "It would've killed you if he hadn't told us how to break it, but once he did it was - er - easy to get rid of."
Snape smirked at him.
Bill looked curious, but McGonagall said, "I think the more important question is why he left you all alive. Even if his primary purpose was acquiring those books, surely the opportunity of killing the Boy Who Lived would have been tempting for him." She looked at Snape as she spoke.
"Perhaps," he replied.
"Perhaps?" Mr. Weasley echoed. "Meaning what, exactly?"
Snape slid a long, pale finger along his lips, frowning not at Mr. Weasley but at Harry, still in Lestrange's awful form.
"Last time the Dark Lord fell, the Lestranges set out to find him and restore him to power," he said. "When that restoration finally occurred, it involved Potter's blood."
There was a long, dreadful silence.
"But he can't come back now," Ron said, sounding scared. "Can he?"
"No," Harry answered. "Definitely not."
Neville looked at Snape, who looked less certain. "What is it, sir?"
Snape's black eyes settled on him, measuring him, measuring all of them, and most of all his own words.
"The Dark Lord performed many experiments," he said finally, reluctantly. "All with the goal of achieving immortality. It is… possible… that Horcruxes were not the only method with which he found success."
Everyone stared at him in horror, even George, who seemed to finally be listening.
"It is also possible," Snape continued, "that the Lestranges merely believe this is the case, whether the Dark Lord actually achieved such success or not."
"Which - which of those do you think is more likely?" Mr. Weasley asked, looking badly shaken.
Snape hesitated, then said, "I think it will not matter, if the Lestranges are found."
"How do we do that?" Harry asked.
"You don't do anything," McGonagall said. "The entire Ministry is out looking for them -"
"Is that supposed to reassure me?"
"Kingsley's Minister now," Ron pointed out. "He'll be better than the rest of them -"
"The first thing," Mr. Weasley said, "is getting you all out of this house so we can reset the wards. You can stay at the Burrow for now."
He was looking at Harry and Hermione as he spoke. Neville wasn't sure whether he was included in the invitation or not.
"And Longbottom?" Snape said.
Neville flushed. Mr. Weasley looked surprised and slightly embarrassed. "Yes, Neville, too, of course, everyone's welcome."
"Thanks, Mr. Weasley," Neville said, feeling awkward.
"Well," Mr. Weasley said, "why don't you all go get packed? I think the sooner we get out of here, the better - Harry, you can tell Kreacher to come find us at the Burrow. Oh, and I suppose we'd better wait to leave until your Polyjuice wears off…"
"It's all right," Harry said, grinning suddenly. "You know us, it'll take us ages to pack."
Snape rolled his eyes. Neville, who would probably be finished packing in about five minutes, was the first to leave the table.
Behind him, he heard Mr. Weasley say, "Who blasted the hole through the ceiling?"
"Longbottom," Snape replied. "His Blasting Hex took out three floors."
"Neville did that?" Ron asked. "Are you sure?"
Neville quickened his pace, embarrassed, but he still heard Snape say, "Just because you need the aid of a flying car to demolish property doesn't mean your friends suffer the same limitations, Weasley."
Neville wasn't sure whether to cringe or grin, so he settled for both.
Severus had hoped never to return to this worthless excuse for a house (which was, in his opinion, even more deserving of a bout of Fiendfyre than his own had been), but, to his complete lack of surprise, his hopes had been in vain. Scowling, he shoved open yet another door onto an empty, dusty room.
"Fiend!" he hissed, devoutly hoping she was there. That hope, too, was dashed.
Scowling, he returned to the landing. He had searched all the empty rooms. That meant she must be in one of the bedrooms, socializing. He should have known.
He hesitated, then headed for what he believed was Longbottom's room. She had, after all, met the boy at St. Mungo's. It was not out of the question that she might consider him a friend, however absurd a notion that was.
Bracing himself, he knocked on the door. It clearly hadn't latched properly; at the impact of his knuckles, it swung inward.
Longbottom was sitting on his bed, holding his toad in both hands. On the mattress in front of him, Fiend crouched, tail swinging back and forth, golden eyes fixed on the amphibian.
"Making friends?" Severus asked, frowning at her.
She made a happy, chirping noise that hardly sounded catlike. Without looking up at him, Longbottom said, "Watch this."
He released his toad. Evidently the boy had less regard for the creature than Severus had previously imagined. Immediately, Fiend sprang into a pounce.
The toad croaked.
Fiend twisted halfway in her pounce, landed clumsily on the mattress, and stared at the toad with a startled expression. The toad croaked again, and she leapt away, eyeing it warily.
Grinning, Longbottom looked at him.
"Very amusing," Severus said flatly. The boy's expression faltered slightly, and he reddened.
"You might have brought her to me immediately," Severus continued, "to spare me the chore of searching this wretched house for her."
Far from looking penitent, Longbottom suddenly grinned again. "Now you know how I always felt with Trevor."
Severus scowled. Longbottom, though still scarlet-faced, met his gaze squarely.
"Sir," he added belatedly.
"Indeed," Severus replied.
"Anyway," Longbottom said, "I thought you'd look here first. Mine is the first door you come to."
Severus had to admit the boy had a point, though he would not be conceding it out loud. He could have saved himself a great deal of time and effort if he had not been so determined to avoid people.
And here he was, after all of it, in the presence of another person.
"Fiend," he said commandingly.
She gazed at him, tilted her head, then turned back to watch the toad.
"Playtime is over," he hissed.
She inched closer to the toad.
"Do you wish for me to leave you here?"
Her whole body seemed to twitch in preparation for her jump.
"The toad is simply going to croak at you again, you do realize that?"
She pounced. The toad croaked. She flipped sideways, flopped onto the mattress, and fixed the creature with a gobsmacked look, for all the world as if she'd never heard a toad croak before.
The toad looked entirely indifferent.
After Severus had watched her perform the stunt three more times, even he had to admit it was becoming amusing. Longbottom had a broad grin plastered to his face, a happier look than Severus was accustomed to seeing from him. He was always much more sedate with his friends.
Who could blame him, though, with friends like Weasley and Potter? Even the perpetually-helpful Granger girl had always been determined to prove her abilities by undermining his.
"You intend to accompany your friends to the Burrow?" he asked, watching as Fiend prepared herself for another round of Pounce Until He Croaks.
"Yeah," the boy said, his smile fading slightly. "Gran's with her friend, remember?" He shuddered, to emphasize the point.
"What is the matter with this friend?"
"She wants me to marry her granddaughter."
"Is her granddaughter unsuitable?"
Severus grimaced. "I see." Arranged marriages had once been common in the wizarding world, but even among Severus's generation they had been regarded with extreme distaste. He doubted whether any student currently enrolled at Hogwarts had been condemned to such a fate.
"And what does your grandmother have to say on the subject?"
"That she can do better," Longbottom said, smile entirely gone now.
"Hmm." Severus regarded him thoughtfully. "Yet I suppose her friend is determined to have you, now that you are a war hero."
The boy made a face. If it had been Potter, Severus would have disregarded it as an affectation of humility that didn't exist, but he knew Longbottom was not used to this sort of attention. And given the fact that he, the slimy git of the dungeons, had received no fewer than three marriage proposals while he was confined to his bed in St. Mungo's, he found it all too easy to empathize with the boy's revulsion for the prospect.
"Have you considered finding a flat?" he asked.
Longbottom looked at him in surprise. "I don't have any money."
Severus resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "So obtain employment. I daresay you will find it easy - war hero and all."
"But what could I do?"
This time, Severus did roll his eyes. "Surely you discussed career options with your Head of House?"
"I was going to apprentice with Professor Sprout after graduation," the boy said. "But now, with the greenhouses destroyed -"
"- Professor Sprout will be more in need of assistance than ever."
"But I couldn't ask her to pay me for that!" Longbottom exclaimed, distressed. "Only volunteers are helping rebuild Hogwarts, it would be wrong to get paid -"
"Hogwarts can be rebuilt with Transfiguration and Charms spells that any Acceptable N.E.W.T. graduate can cast," Severus replied. "The greenhouses require specialized skills. There is no reason your apprenticeship should not proceed as planned."
Longbottom looked reluctant, but also hopeful. He was a Gryffindor, so Severus imagined his hopes had a better chance of reward than Severus's own ever did.
"I suggest you consult Headmistress McGonagall on the subject," he said, in a tone that made it clear it was not a suggestion. "Apprentices are permitted to live at Hogwarts, but you may wish to consider seeking out a flat in Hogsmeade as your situation allows. When your father is released from St. Mungo's, he will need a place to stay. And I doubt he will be any more keen than you are to stay with his mother's friend."
The boy's face was practically glowing. He seemed to have lost the capacity for speech. Severus decided to leave before he regained it. Sweeping Fiend out of her crouch, he deposited her in his pocket and strode for the door.
"Sir!" Longbottom practically squeaked.
Severus turned to arch an eyebrow at him.
Wide eyes looked back at him. "Thanks."