This is a prequel to Transfigurations, begun as a birthday present to Resonant, at least two birthdays ago. Best laid plans, etc. This departs from canon when Transfigurations does, after PoA, and I've tried to avoid using anything from the later books. Massive thanks to Resonant, Cesca and particularly Mia, who fought for the story she believed in.
Then George raised his glass. "To Neville Longbottom," he said ... "And to Severus Snape, may he rest in whatever he prefers instead of peace." -- Transfigurations.
1. ANYWHERE BUT HERE
The Auror manning the Hogwarts gate stopped Neville with a wand to the throat. "State your name and business!" he barked. His name was Boris Bumstead, and he'd gone out with Neville's cousin Doris until she caught him casting moulting charms on her cat.
"Hullo, Boris," Neville said. "Neville Longbottom, Gryffinpuff Squadron. How's your Mum?"
"State your business for the log book!" Boris said, then dropped his wand and scratched his ear. "She's all right, thanks, Nev. Having her turns again, what with the war and everything, but her roses come up good this year. We're all real sorry to hear about your Gran."
Neville nodded. There was a goosefeather quill busily scribbling their every word into a giant leather book, and it seemed to be quivering impatiently. "Ron Weasley sent me to speak with Professor Snape. Got some news about the Dementors."
"Righto," Boris said. He tapped the gate with his wand and it swung open to reveal the castle inside. "Hi to Doris, if you see her."
Neville jogged up the path to the entrance, ducked through the series of metamorph-animagus-polyjuice detector spells on the stairs, and went inside.
As he dodged his way through the halls, Neville marvelled at how well he was getting the hang of this war. Here he was, on a mission of vital importance, Ron said. He'd got through the attack in Cotswald Green, and hadn't been caught by MacNair in Hogsmeade, and now he was safe inside and he'd nearly completed his task successfully. Ron would be proud of him.
Down the eastern corridor, wait for the staircase, past the statue of Madelyne the Malignant, and his feet were slowing. War was all right, except for his Gran and Hannah and everything. Well, war wasn't really that nice at all, but it was still better than Potions classes. At the bottom of the stone stairs, he smelled burnt cauldrons, and his feet stopped.
A mission of vital importance, he reminded himself, and turned into the hall with the portraits of the Albright Alchemists. He could do this, he really could. He'd been facing him lots, lately. He'd seen a lot of Dementors. Around the corner, the statue of Potions Master Latvius, and there was the door.
A mission of vital importance. Neville drew himself up, and knocked. It wasn't a very good knock. Ron would have just rapped firmly on the door, but his came out more like a nervous tap. Maybe he should knock again, in case it hadn't been loud enough. But he didn't want to seem impatient. Maybe there was nobody in there at all. It was probably better to come back after lunch, anyway.
The door flew open, and Neville started feeling cold and miserable, deep in his bones. His first impulse was to cry "Expecto Patronum!" like Dean and Seamus had drilled him.
"What?" Professor Snape demanded, scowling fiercely.
"Um," Neville said, and completely forgot the speech he had ready. Snape was still huge with crazed eyes and an evil mouth and he still looked as though he wanted to cut Neville's head off and drink his blood as it bubbled out of his neck. Neville took a few steps back.
"What is it?" Snape advanced on him. "I doubt even you are so dull-witted as to think I have time to reminisce about the good old days, even if for some unfathomable reason you believed I had pleasant memories of you to dredge up."
"Right," said Neville, wiping his hands on his robes. "Yes, Sir."
After a minute, Snape raised an evil eyebrow and yelled. "What in blazes are you doing here, Longbottom?"
Neville started to attention. "Ron Weasley sent me, Sir!"
"And I suppose it will take you half the day to remember what his message is," Snape growled. "You'll have to do it inside." He flung the door open so hard that it banged against the wall, and turned in a cruel swirl of black cape. "I have potions that need constant attention, not that you'd have even the faintest understanding of that principle." Not bothering to look back, he stalked inside.
Neville followed nervously. Cauldrons were everywhere, spitting and hissing and bubbling, and the sounds and smells were just awful. He'd much rather be out there in the Bitter Glades, hiding in a blackberry patch while Death Eaters hunted him.
Snape swooped around the room like a giant bat, adding ingredients to some cauldrons and stirring others. Then he stopped and tapped his wand against the benchtop impatiently. "Well? What is so important that I must risk a vital brew of Animaserum by having you in the room with it?"
His tongue was so dry, he didn't know how he would ever get the words out. "Heartsease, Professor." There, that wasn't so hard. He took a deep breath. Dementors were worse, surely.
"Heartsease," Snape recited dryly. "Native to the Cornwall region, grows wild in the Bitter Glades. Once common in potions for cleaning and stain removal. Can be used as a blood thinning agent, but only in small doses." His face went bloated and purple and his voice rose to a thunderous roar. "Talk in complete sentences, Longbottom, or I'll deduct a thousand points from Gryffindor in your name!"
Neville cringed. He shouldn't have come here. "Dementors. They-- we were in Cornwall, they attacked Poughill village."
"I'm aware of that," Snape said, but he'd stopped tapping his wand. If anything, his full attention was more even terrifying. A cauldron that wasn't boiling over was always five seconds away from exploding.
Neville pictured himself giving this report to Ron. That hadn't been so hard, and Ron had been really excited. "They didn't go near the heartsease, Sir. They went around it."
Snape was on his feet so fast that Neville squeaked and stepped back. "Well?" he demanded, ten feet high and scary as You Know Who Himself. "What are you waiting for, you great dithering fool? Fetch some!"
Neville nodded and ran for the door, heart beating like a rabbit's. He'd done it; he'd said it and Snape was--
-- going to make his life a living hell, and he wasn't nearly brave enough to go through with this. Neville turned around, quaking.
Snape was summoning books from all over the room, still stirring the cauldrons with his other hand. "Get those wretched Weasley twins here. I'll need someone foolish enough to test it for me."
Once he had the plants, Neville was just too scared to go to Snape's workroom again. He was almost too scared to take the heartsease to Hogwarts, but Hermione had sent him an owl, saying a lot of complicated stuff that seemed to be about potions and Dementors, but also that he'd done very well to think of it. This morning, the letter had given Neville the courage to venture back into the Bitter Glades, but now his nerve was failing him again.
He decided to send an owl from Hogsmeade, telling Snape he was on his way to the greenhouse with the plants. That way, Snape could ignore it, and Neville could stay in the greenhouse until dinnertime, and then go up to the Great Hall and have dinner, and then go back to the greenhouse and then maybe tomorrow he'd go talk to Snape. He screwed up four pieces of parchment, worried about spelling mistakes, and finally pictured Professor Lupin as hard as he could, and pretended he was writing the note to him instead. He was sure he'd spelt "apparated" wrong, but he handed it over to the clerk before he could change his mind again.
Then he picked up his wheelbarrow and began pushing it up the hill to Hogwarts. The path was dark and silent, and Hannah had disappeared from this path last week, and it was hard not to look over his shoulder. "Very good, Neville," he said under his breath. "I can see you've worked very hard on this," but his Professor Lupin voice came out breathless and timid. Fine, he thought. Might as well get it over with. "You brought the wrong plants, Longbottom!" he shouted under his breath, in his best Professor Snape voice, which wasn't very good. Still, it helped dull the anticipation. "And if you had a, a, a skerrick of brains in your, um, in your miserable skull, you'd know I only wanted the roots!"
"Actually," Professor Snape said, "I suspect I'll be needing the leaves."
Neville yelled and dropped the wheelbarrow, spinning around in terror. Snape dismounted from his broomstick and thrust it at him. "And if you had a skerrick of brains in your miserable skull, you wouldn't be risking a Death Eater attack by pushing a wheelbarrow up a mountain." He drew out his wand and pointed it at the wheelbarrow and plants. "Of all the blasted idiocy! I can't imagine the resources which must be wasted, keeping you alive. Diminutio," and the whole wheelbarrow was miniaturused in a crystal globe, which Snape pocketed.
"Get on," Snape said, taking his broomstick back and mounting it.
Oh, boy, Neville thought morosely, and tried to climb on behind Snape. This had been such a bad idea. Honestly, he'd rather be fighting Dementors. At least there was a spell to make them go away.
"Hold on, you festering boil, because I shan't be making any concessions for your abysmal flying ability." Neville grabbed a fistful of robes in each hand, and squeezed his eyes shut as Snape kicked off.
Neville fell off the broomstick when they landed, and by the time he picked himself up and went inside the greenhouse, Snape had unshrunk the wheelbarrow. Snape swooped on the heartsease, running his fingers over the bark, turning the leaves over to study the underside, digging a little dirt and examining the root system. He broke off a leaf and crushed it thoughtfully between his fingers, inhaling the scent.
"This isn't common heartsease," he said shortly, eyebrows raised, and Neville's heart sank.
"No, Sir," he said, and braced himself for the outburst.
"And why, if there was any reason at all lurking in the recesses of your mind, did you bring this variety?" Snape asked, quiet like a snake in grass.
Very good, Longbottom, Neville chanted to himself. You thought hard about this question. "This is the one the Dementors didn't like, Sir," he said, hating how much his voice trembled. "I can bring the other kind if you need it, but I got this kind first." He didn't mention that he'd splinched a bit of his hand, apparating out of Cornwall when three Death Eaters had shown up in the Glades where he'd been digging. He'd barely managed to save the plants he already had, using his wand left-handed while he waited for somebody to reattach his fingers.
If he had to get the other kind of heartsease, he'd go get the other kind, but he really hoped that he didn't have to.
Snape stared long and hard at him, and Neville wished he'd never even tried to do this, because it was going to be wrong, and a waste of Professor Snape's time, and he could have been fighting, even if he wasn't very good at that, either. At least Ron didn't yell at him when he didn't get it right.
"Very well, Longbottom," Snape said eventually. "I suggest you speak to your former head of house while I prepare the tests; she's impatient for news. Come to my office after dinner, and bring the Weasley brats with you."
It was nice to be back at Hogwarts, even if it wasn't quite the same. There weren't any children in the halls (they'd been sent home after the first attack), but lots of important-looking strangers were charging about as though they had very important things to do, talking loudly about defenses and plans and spies.
Neville sidled into the Great Hall and made his way to Gryffindor table. A lot of grownups he didn't recognise were sitting there, but he did see Fred and George sitting with Lee Jordan at the far end.
"Longbottom!" they called, and Neville made his way over. "How's Ron?" they asked in unison, pale under the freckles.
"He's good," Neville said. "He said Ginny's good, too." Ginny and some of her former classmates were hiding out in a mysterious Muggle institution called The Edinburgh School for the Therapeutic Arts.
"Good," they said, breaking out into identical grins, and passed him the pumpkin juice. "So what d'you reckon, Neville, is Snape getting soft in his old age or what?"
"Right," Fred said to Snape as they walked into his office, Neville hiding gratefully behind him. "We've been thinking about the problem, and we've settled on this." He produced a transparently greenish bulb, like a Christmas tree ornament, and placed it on the muddy bench.
"Planned to use it for a new and improved dungbomb, but I expect any vile-smelling potion would do," George added.
Snape scowled ferociously at them, but handed over six vials of different coloured liquids. "I want you to try each potion three ways," he said. "Near them, on their robes, and in their faces."
"Making a sum total of eighteen different kinds of mayhem," George said, nodding sharply. "Got it."
"This is no laughing matter!" Snape roared, and Neville squeaked involuntarily. He didn't know how Fred and George could just stand there without flinching. "If you fail to take proper notes," Snape hissed, "I will slip something in your breakfast to make your fingers rot."
"That's the spirit!" Fred said brightly. "We like to see a bit of enthusiasm now and then!"
George scooped up the vials. "See you in a bit!"
They ducked out, leaving Neville to face Snape alone. Snape picked up a book. "I suggest you get some rest," he said, turning pages rapidly. "If this turns out to be other than a wild flight of fancy on your part, you're about to work hard for the first time in your miserable life. And if you're wrong, well," his eyes flicked up, and he stretched his lips into an unpleasant shape, "you might not sleep peacefully for a very long time."
Neville hadn't slept peacefully for a very long time. His Gran used to say that Voldemort was a silly boy in need of a very sound spanking, but that was before she Disappeared. Now Neville had to visit his parents on his own, and when his mother chanted "silly boy, silly boy," over and over, drool escaping from the side of her mouth, Neville didn't know if that was Voldemort or him.
"Red, orange and purple were no good. Green and blue weren't too bad, but yellow's your man."
Snape held out his hand. "I'll draw my own conclusions rather than take the word of two compulsive liars. Hand over your notes."
"Well, here's the thing," Fred said. "We're not really the notetaking kind."
Snape drew himself up to full height and reached for his wand. "I was perfectly clear--"
George threw down a pile of photographs. In the top picture, Dementors were backing away from Fred and George, who were throwing yellow bulbs at them.
"Remember Colin? Real whiz with that camera of his. Clear as a bell, aren't they?"
"And we look rather heroic, I think," Fred said, and got a thumbs up from several photographic sets of twins.
"It's the petals," Snape mused, rage forgotten, sifting through the photographs. "And also the leaves and buds, but less so."
Neville stared at the photographs, and felt his mouth fall open. The Dementors really didn't like it. He hadn't been wrong. He hadn't made a mistake. They really backed away from the heartsease.
His heart started to pound, slow and hard in his chest, a feeling very different to the terrified rabbit patter he lived with every day.
Snape looked up at him, eyes like a vulture's eating into him. "More night-blooming heartsease, Longbottom, and some common as well. Inform Professor McGonagall, and ask Professor Sprout to begin selective breeding, since I doubt you could cross white cabbage with red. You two," he turned to the twins, "and your photographer friend, report back here at four. If you're so much as ten seconds late, I'll have you garrotted." He scooped up the photographs and vanished into a storage room.
"Soft as a soft-boiled egg," Fred said, and clapped Neville on the shoulder.
"Soft as Katie's-- er, never mind," George said, and clapped Neville's other shoulder. "Good work, Nev. Let's go have a celebratory drink or six, shall we?"
The next few weeks kept Neville very, very busy. He trekked all over Cornwall and collected as much heartsease as he could find without getting seen by Muggles or captured by Death Eaters. Madam Pince helped him in the library, looking up related plants, which sent him to Bath for mindsease and Kirkcaldy for Strumpet's Soothe. He couldn't apparate that far, which meant nerve-wracking train rides, jumping at the sight of every black cloak. He tried to console himself that he wasn't important enough to kill, but that hadn't helped Hannah or his Gran.
Professor Sprout took charge of things in the greenhouse, and he worked hard replanting the heartsease bushes and tending them for her. Snape was furious that night-blooming heartsease was the only variety to have any effect at all, and yelled at Neville for a good twenty minutes that he needed better hybrids, and he needed them three weeks ago. When Neville relayed the gist of this to Professor Sprout, she yelled at Neville for a good twenty minutes that she'd had about enough of hoity toity Potions Professors and Aurors and Ministry Officials all barging in and expecting all kinds of fussy and dangerous and delicate plants to grow faster than was proper and right.
Neville snuck off to the toilets and had a good cry, then pulled himself together. "Stop being silly," he said to himself in his Gran's voice. "There's a war on." He blew his nose hard, splashed his face with cold water, and went back to the library to look for anything that might help.
Neville had just wheeled the wheelbarrow full of a new generation of heartsease into Snape's workroom, and Snape was yelling at him for tracking mud in, when all the bells in Hogwarts began tolling at once. It was the alarm they'd been drilled in from fourth year onwards: Hogwarts had been breached, and the anti-apparation spells had been cancelled.
"Get the plants!" Snape roared, grabbing potions ingredients and shoving them into a sack which never filled.
Neville ran out the door, and then stopped. Oh, Bloody Mary, he couldn't do it. But he couldn't go back and say that. But the plants needed to be saved, or all their work would be lost.
It's Ron in there, he told himself sternly, teetering on the edge of panic. He might be cross, but he won't waste time yelling. He marched back in. "I'm sorry, Sir, but I can't get the plants because I don't know how to--" quick, what was the word? what was the word? -- "make them small."
"Fuck." Snape threw the sack at him. "Get everything on those shelves, and from that cupboard, and those drawers if you have time, and apparate to -- where can you go?"
"My Gran's house," Neville offered.
"Pray you don't get caught." With that, Snape was gone.
Neville dropped bottle after bottle and jar after jar into the bag, listening to the alarms getting louder, and the sounds of battle getting closer. He fumbled, and knocked the last one onto the floor where it shattered loudly, but there was no time to find a new jar. He turned to the cupboard, but there was -- please Gran, please save me -- Lucius Malfoy, pointing a wand at him.
"Where's the traitor?" Malfoy demanded, and Neville closed his eyes -- Hermione will unsplinch me -- and apparated.
When he opened his eyes, he wasn't at his Gran's house. He was on a wooden walkway, overlooking the beach. To his surprise, the sun was out, and he wasn't splinched. The air was warm, and a breeze was ruffling his hair, and Muggle children were playing in the waves.
A Muggle woman (her bathing costume had the skirt missing from it) came up to him and took his arm. "I didn't see you there, Luvvy, but you're looking a bit worse for wear. You'd better sit down before you fall over."
Head spinning from apparating, Neville let her lead him to a bench, where a child was stabbing fiercely at coloured buttons on a little box. It was so quiet here! Nobody looked worried, or frightened, or had red eyes.
"Must have been some party!" the Muggle lady said brightly. "In my day, I reckon I didn't know half the time what town I woke up in. That was before I met my Martin, of course. It all changed then, you mark my words! Haven't had a proper bender in years."
"Uh huh," Neville said, peering around for Death Eaters. Where was he? His ears were still ringing from the alarms, and Malfoy's icy voice rang in his ears-- the traitor, the traitor, the traitor. Cheerfully coloured flags were fluttering on the beach before him, and Muggles in bright costumes were running about on the sand. He thought the last thing he'd heard was screaming.
"Pet, you're shaking!" the woman said, and peered closely at him. "Sure you're all right?" The sun fell on her hair, picking out strands of grey among the gleaming gold-- no, the gleaming gold was Malfoy, as he raised his wand and opened his mouth to --
"I need to get going," Neville said, clutching Snape's bag, and praying he hadn't splinched that instead of himself. "My, uh. My Gran'll be expecting me."
"Well, it wouldn't do to worry your Gran!" the woman said, and helped him up. "Run along now, and drink plenty of juice when you get home."
Nothing had ever worried his Gran, not that it mattered now. Neville spotted a shop of some kind a bit further up the beach, and decided to head for it. At the last minute, he remembered his manners and turned to wave. "Thanks," he called out, and she waved cheerfully at him.
Muggles were nice enough, he thought as he walked on shaking legs to the shop, which looked like the most private place for miles around. It was funny how he forgot the war was all about them. All this trouble, and they didn't even know what Dementors were.
In the shade behind the little building, Neville drew deep breaths, but he couldn't calm himself down. Snape would be looking for his potions sack, and everyone at Hogwarts would be fighting off the Death Eaters, and here he was, on a Muggle beach, unable to apparate! It wasn't fair, he thought-- why did there have to be a war, why did he have to do all these things he couldn't possibly do--
Don't be silly, Neville, he heard, and it was Hermione's voice, when she taught him to apparate in sixth year. He closed his eyes and remembered as hard as he could. They had snuck away to the Shrieking Shack, which was cold and drafty. She had her arms folded, and was tapping her foot on the dusty hearth. You can do anything a wizard can do. Just make up your mind to do it.
You can do it, Neville, Ron added, waving a little Gryffindor flag and grinning madly at him.
It's easy once you know how, Harry said from behind a pile of Transfiguration textbooks, glasses slipping toward the end of his nose. Go on.
He'd done this before. He'd done it quite a few times, by now, and it didn't get easier, but he knew how to get it done. Neville clutched the Potions satchel to his chest, concentrated very hard on his Gran's house, made up his mind and, quaking in terror, pushed himself home.
This time, he appeared at his Gran's house, stumbled, and fell in what used to be her front garden. The house itself had been burned to the ground, the night Gran went missing. Trevor had gone missing as well, and Neville hoped that he'd jumped into a nearby stream and swum away before the Death Eaters got him. He didn't think so, though. Trevor usually turned up, and this time he hadn't.
It was horrible to look at the house, the place he'd grown up now just burnt wood and blackened brick all helter-skelter. It was worse to know that his Gran had been here when this happened, and now she might be somewhere, captive, or already dead. Neville knew she would have given the Death Eaters some really hard whacks with her handbag before they got her, but it was still just plain wrong, that they'd do that to such a nice old lady as his Gran.
His Uncle Algie had already come and picked through the ruins, so Neville was quite sure that nothing valuable was left, but Gran would hate how messy her garden looked now. He put the sack down and picked up bricks from the fallen chimney, putting them back in the ruins of the house. It wasn't much, but after everything his Gran had done for him, it was the least Neville could do.
After an hour or so, he wondered where Snape was. For a while he thought maybe Snape had forgotten all about him, but then he remembered that he had all of Snape's potions ingredients, and Snape wouldn't forget about them. He was a bit worried that Snape had been caught by the Death Eaters. Not that Snape wasn't awful, but he expected it would be a terrible blow to the war effort if they didn't have a really good Potions master, and probably it would be very hard to use heartsease just by itself to scare off the Dementors. They needed a potion, Ron had said, and Neville believed him.
Eventually Snape did appear, and he had that washed-out look of people who've done too much apparating. He ignored Neville and tore open his sack, inspecting what was inside.
"Lucius Malfoy came, Sir," Neville stuttered out before Snape could yell at him. "You said don't get caught."
Snape looked very, very angry.
"About as useless as I expected," he said, staring down his nose at Neville as if he'd stepped in something very sticky and disgusting. "I've arranged a place for us to work. If, that is," he sneered, "you are capable of working at all, which I very much doubt, but Dumbledore leaves me no option but to attempt the impossible."
He held out a silver hairbrush, and when Neville took it, he felt a horrid yank on his bellybutton, and watched as his Gran's wrecked house twisted into a blur and then faded to black. He fell out of the blackness into a cobblestone alley lined with tall, thin, grey houses. Children were playing a Muggle game in it. They stopped to stare at him and Snape, then just as quickly began kicking their ball again.
Snape unlocked a door and pushed him inside.
"We're in Muggle Belfast," Snape said, taking off his cloak and hanging it up in the narrow hallway. "You mustn't leave this house under any circumstances, and you'll need to be very discreet in the garden, although there are some charms about to keep Muggle eyes away." He stalked through a small kitchen and outside to a cramped yard, full of Muggle junk. It was gloomy and horrible. Snape pulled a dozen globes from his pocket and enlarged them.
"I expect you'll find my salvage efforts yielded far superior results to your own abysmal attempt at saving my precious ingredients," he said, still sounding very angry. "Get to work."
He stormed inside, and slammed the door behind him. Neville sat down on the back step and stared at the wheelbarrows in despair. He was alone with Snape, and Snape obviously expected him to know how to do everything Professor Sprout could do. But he couldn't do that, not without help from Hermione or Madam Pince or a book or something. There was very little Neville Longbottom could do, on his own like this.
"A dizzy garden gnome digs no holes," his Gran used to say, when Neville complained that things were hard. He supposed it meant that he should stop spinning around and get digging. There wasn't even much soil to dig, in this yard. But he didn't want Snape to yell at him for not trying. He was going to get yelled at no matter what, but he got out his wand and tried to quietly move all the junk to one corner of the yard, because he'd rather get yelled at for something he had done.
He was tired and upset by seeing his Gran's house like that, and he made the pieces of muggle metal all crash into one another, even though he was trying to be quiet. Snape opened a window above and yelled at him. Neville sighed, put his wand away, and started moving it all with his hands. Without the rest of Gryffinpuff Squadron to keep him company, he missed Trevor something awful. Trevor was good to talk to-- he always listened, and croaked in all the right places.
When it got dark, Snape called him inside and slammed a plate of sandwiches down on the kitchen table.
"I suppose you've made no progress at all?" Snape said.
"I cleared a space in the yard," Neville said glumly.
But it seemed that Snape was too tired to yell much. It was hard to believe that just this morning, they'd been at Hogwarts. The war had been bad enough, with all the Dementors and the Disappearances, but Neville got the feeling that it was a whole lot worse now.
Snape had knocked out all the walls upstairs -- so quietly Neville hadn't heard a thing -- to make a work room, so they had to sleep on the floor in the living room.
Neville woke up shaking from a nightmare about his Gran and Trevor getting burned alive, while his Mum and Dad laughed. He shivered under the thin blanket until dawn, too scared to cry because Professor Snape was lying on the floor right next to him, and he'd yell if Neville made too much noise and woke him up.
In the morning, the heartsease bushes were all droopy and yellow. Neville put them out in the sun and watered them and gathered some leaves for mulch, since they'd had a nice leafy forest floor back in the Bitter Glades. They stayed droopy, though, and Neville fretted until lunch about what to do about it.
"Excuse me, Professor," Neville said, after they ate more sandwiches, pretending he was Hermione and had a clever question, not a stupid one. "The plants aren't taking well. Would it be safe for me to owl Professor Sprout about it?"
"She's dead," Snape said curtly. "Caradog Dipsas got her."
Neville felt his heart stutter painfully inside his ribs.
"She threw herself in front of a curse meant for these plants," Snape sneered, "so do believe me when I say it's not worth your miserable life to let them die." He went upstairs to his workroom and Neville went back outside and wrung his hands as the plants drooped more and more.
Neville's Gran had always said what her fanged geraniums liked best was friendly company and the smell of her lemon butter cake with a nice pot of Darjeeling. Neville didn't have any cake, or Darjeeling for that matter, but he tried to be the best company he could. He apologised to the plants for their upsetting series of transplants, and talked to them about Harry and Ron and Hermione and the other Gryffindors, and explained the war in a way he hoped was morale-boosting rather than terrifying. He also tried to do a few diagnostic spells on the droopy ones, but after the second one burst into flames, he had to spend an hour practicing on weeds until he remembered how to do it. When he tried again, the spell said what they needed was a ride on the Bucking Pillows at the Hogsmeade Solstice Fair.
Neville sat down on an upturned pail and thought about having a good cry. Herbus diagnosius was a third-year spell, and he couldn't even get that right. He wasn't allowed to owl anyone for help, and their fireplace wasn't connected, and he couldn't apparate anywhere either. Snape said he wasn't allowed to move an inch from this house, because he'd crucio Neville for the exact same amount of time he'd wasted looking for him.
Still, there was a war on, and it wouldn't do to be silly at a time like this. Neville went into the kitchen and did the washing up, because his Gran always said if he was going to mope, he might as well be useful while he did it. Then he made a pot of tea and, feeling too numb to care if Snape yelled at him for using ingredients, made a lemon butter cake, too. He felt a lot better once it was in the oven, and sat at the kitchen table licking the spoon while it baked, breathing in the smell and pretending his Gran was just next door in the sitting room, rattling the pages of the Prophet and muttering about young people these days.
Snape came swooping downstairs and yanked the oven door open, ruining the daydream.
"It'll sink if you do that!" Neville shouted, and slammed it shut before the heat could escape.
"What in blazes are you doing?" Snape shouted back.
"I need cake for the plants," Neville said, not caring for once that he wasn't really telling the truth.
"Your bloody Grandmother's filled your head with nonsense," Snape said. "No wonder you can't do anything right. I'm surprised you haven't burned the house down."
Neville snorted. "It's only a cake. I've made it a hundred times."
Snape looked at him, snorted back, and took the pot of tea with him as he stalked back up the staircase.
The cake came out only a little bit sunk. Neville left it on a rack to cool, and headed back to the garden. The diagnosius worked this time, saying the heartsease needed an invigoro charm, thicker mulch, less water, and a bit more friendly company. Neville heaved a big sigh of relief, and after he did everything else, he sat down with the heartsease and told them all about the adventures he and Trevor had had in his Gran's house, before it burned.
Snape tested the cake with six different spells before he ate any, and then wondered at how Neville had managed not to mess it up. He wasn't scowling much when he said it, and Neville almost thought it might have been a compliment. Then Snape tried to teach him the shrinking spell, which ended in a lot of insults, and Neville feeling rotten again.
In a few days, the plants looked much better, and Neville screwed up his courage to try cuttings. He was starting to get the hang of this, he thought: try it, fail, bake a cake, try again. In a week, he had another three dozen heartsease seedlings, was doing quite well with the growth-enhancement charms, and had got yelled at four times for using up ingredients Snape needed. The next week, he decided to have a go at cross-breeding, and Snape nearly throttled him for putting diced dragonhide in a fruitcake when he thought it was orange peel.
"Since you're likely to kill us both either way," Snape shouted, slamming a cutting board and three jars on the kitchen table, "tomorrow you can slice stickleback fins instead of baking yet another infernal cake." Neville had to admit, if only to himself, he was getting a bit sick of eating cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
He was nervously slicing the fins when a huge black dog tore into the kitchen, barking violently. Neville grabbed his wand. "Stupefy!" he shouted, but missed, and stupefied a basket of onions. The dog barked even louder and launched itself at him. Neville scrambled onto the table and tried again. "Stupefy!"
"What in hell, Longbottom?"
The dog charged at Snape, still barking. Snape froze for a moment, and then spun and raced back up the stairs.
"Death Eaters coming!" he shouted behind him. "Go, you fool! Go!"
The dog raced off, still barking. Neville looked out the kitchen window in horror -- the plants. He ran outside and tried to do the shrinking spell, but his wand was shaking so badly, he shrunk the compost pile, and then blew up the potting bench, and then made an abandoned claw-foot bathtub hop around the yard on one leg, whistling loudly.
He abandoned that, and started stacking the plants in wheelbarrows for Snape to shrink. He knocked more over than he got in, including the two best hybrids. He couldn't decide whether to pick them up or save the rest of the plants, and ended up scrabbling in the dirt, trying to check if they were damaged. The bathtub, with a piercing shriek, hopped right into the wheelbarrows and sent them flying. Neville screamed at it; pointed his wand and shouted "stupefy!" But stupefy only worked on living things, and the bathtub started hopping towards him, whistling angrily. His mind was blank on the other spell, the plants were ruined, Snape was going to kill him, but only if the Death Eaters didn't kill him first. Neville screamed again, at the bathtub and the upturned wheelbarrows and Snape for not helping and his Gran for abandoning him and Voldemort for the whole bloody horrible unfair war.
Then, with a series of menacing pops, Lucius Malfoy and a dozen other Dark wizards apparated into the yard in front of him. Draco was there, glowering, Dark as anything. Neville screamed in terror this time, as loud as he could, hoping Snape could hear it. Lucius and half the men marched past him into the house, while the others formed a circle around him, grinning cruelly.
"Take this one alive," Draco said coldly, not even bothering to lift his wand. "He's a friend of our Enemy."
Neville drew in a huge breath, and heard himself whimper as he apparated.
Neville didn't have any idea where he'd apparated to, but looking around, the first place that had popped into his head was obviously somewhere very far away from Belfast and Snape and the Malfoys and the war and everything. He was on a stony beach by the sea, waves chopped up into thick foam by the freezing gales howling across it. He had no plants, no coat, nothing. He was shaking with fear and magic fatigue. He was all alone, and couldn't see another person, or a building, or anything, all the way to the horizon.
Shuddering with delayed terror, gulping cold salty air, he stumbled toward the small hill in the distance, hoping to spot a landmark. Snape would be so mad this time, Neville didn't even know how to prepare himself for it. He'd failed at the shrinking spell and ruined the plants and got himself lost and cocked up every single thing, because he was stupid and foolish and couldn't think. He was halfway out of blind terror and into dull, grinding horror when he reached the top of the hill and looked around.
He'd got himself stuck on an island. There wasn't a thing on it, not even a sheep. Just a few stumpy trees, and a whole lot of rocks. He was shivering uncontrollably. He had nowhere to go, and no energy to apparate, and nowhere to shelter, and nowhere to hide. In the distance, a bird shrieked, and the wind blew tears from his eyes to freeze on his cheeks. He was lost, and he was stranded, and he was all alone in the world. He sank down into the straggly grass and cried.
Eventually it got dark, and he had to trudge back down the hill and try to get out of the wind a bit. After a few goes, he managed to start a bit of a fire in a pile of driftwood and seaweed. It smelled awful, and wasn't very warm, but he huddled as close to it as he could. If he could just rest up enough, he'd be able to apparate back to -- back to somewhere he knew.
There wasn't much to do but rub his arms and try to figure out where to go. He wanted to go to St Mungo's and see his Mum and Dad. Maybe when he got there, he could check himself in and stay a while. He'd been feeling guilty that morning, because he hadn't gone to visit his Mum and Dad in ages. They probably didn't notice if he visited or not, but it didn't feel right, not going. He usually went every Sunday, even after the war started and his Gran Disappeared, but he didn't even know what day it was any more.
But he couldn't go there, because Draco wanted him taken alive, to be interrogated before they killed him. He couldn't go anywhere he knew, because somebody might be lurking there, waiting for him. He couldn't help thinking of all the top secret things he must have seen -- about the heartsease and the Hogwarts defenses and Hermione's research, and Professor McGonagall's spells and the potions Snape was making. He didn't think he would be able to put up with much torture before he told the Death Eaters everything. And even if he was that brave, probably they could just take all his memories and go over them until they knew things even he didn't know, and he'd be left crazy like his parents.
A thick fog rolled in over the sea, and it made Neville too cold and wet to think any longer. He put some more seaweed on the fire and lay down beside it, thinking it would probably be best for everyone if he stayed on the island until he froze to death.
Eventually the sun came up, weak and watery in the fog. Neville let the fire go out, stumbled back up the hill a bit, and slept.
He woke up when he got yanked to his feet by Snape. "You gibbering idiot!" he was shouting. "I suppose you're too thick-headed to even comprehend the risks I had to take to retrieve the plants, and the effort it has taken to locate you and apparate to the bloody Isle of Stupidity." He shoved a Pepper-up Potion into Neville's hand. Neville stared at it.
"Drink it," Snape yelled, "or I'll take a great deal of pleasure in shoving the entire bottle down your throat."
Neville drank it, and it felt so good to have something warm inside him that he almost wanted to hug Snape. But Snape was yelling at the top of his voice, hair and robes flapping crazily in the wind.
".. and although it pains me beyond all measure to work with such a snivelling, half-witted, incompetent fool, Dumbledore insists on saddling me with you until I can find a halfway intelligent herbologist and you can be fobbed off onto some other unwilling guardian."
Neville stared at his feet and didn't say anything. The potion was now making his face hot and his eyes burn.
"Dumbledore has also finally deigned to notice that Lucius Malfoy is doing his damnedest to present Voldemort with my head on a platter, and has arranged better security at another location. Apparate to the reading room in the Wizard Museum. We'll floo from there."
Snape didn't tell him where they were going. Neville couldn't think of a reason to care.
When they stepped out of the fireplace, they were met by the sweetest, happiest, bounciest house elf Neville had ever seen. She chirruped, gamboled, offered tea, fawned, giggled and finally skipped off, chirping joyfully, when Snape ordered her to stand in the linen closet until sundown.
"Stop gawking like the inbred simpleton you undoubtedly are," Snape snapped, and Neville tried to cast his eyes down as he followed him through the kitchen and out the back door. It was the loveliest cottage Neville had ever seen. Whitewashed brick with a thatch roof and a picket fence, it nestled into expansive gardens on a hill overlooking a little Muggle village by the sea. It was so sweet, Neville wondered if this was Dumbledore's own house. Snape deposited a few salvaged plants into a greenhouse in the far corner of the gardens, and then disappeared into a red-and-white garden shed to unpack the potions bag.
They'd lost more than half the heartsease, but after a couple of hours Neville had the rest settled into their new home. A lot of the labels had come off, and Snape was going to be furious about that, so he spent another hour trying to think of a way to identify which strain was which. He was so tired and dizzy that he couldn't think of a single charm. Then he remembered his Gran's spell for putting cutlery away, pointed at the labels and shouted "Excerno labels!" They all flew onto the pots, and Neville heaved a sigh of relief. He made a list of the cross-pollinations he needed to do again, and then Snape ordered him inside for dinner.
"This is awfully nice," Neville ventured, sitting down nervously in a carved mahogany chair in the dining room. The chair was actually soft and inviting, and the entire room exuded a picturesque comfort-- roaring fire, lace curtains, thick rugs, flowers in crystal vases. Snape, however, seemed to regard the armchair, the flowers, the fire, and indeed, Neville's presence here, as a personal affront.
"It's from my grandmother's family. They had nauseatingly mawkish taste."
Neville gaped at his Potions professor, perched awkwardly on the edge of his own seat. "This place is yours?"
Snape scowled. "Not that it's any business of yours, but the Snape holdings proper have passed to my cousin Carcinus, and this excessively embroidered monstrosity fell to me. Needless to say, I have made my home elsewhere. Don't get comfortable," he added sharply, "because I don't expect we'll be here for long."
Neville was so hungry at dinner that he bolted down what seemed to be an endless progression of dishes and drinks, and was so tired he fell asleep seconds after the house elf led him to a guest room, giggling with excitement.
Blinky, her name turned out to be, had been left alone in the house for too long. When Neville woke up, his room was crammed full of welcoming bouquets and three lavishly embroidered dressing gowns and seven bars of soap and a stack of towels higher than Neville. As soon as he got out of the bed, it was made, and a red carpet unfolded, leading him into the bathroom. There was a steaming bath awaiting, which looked like heaven, but as soon as Neville took his clothes off, they flew out the window and flew back seconds later, cleaned, mended, pressed, and folded. In the bath, hundreds of bath salts and bath oils poured themselves in, and as soon as he got out, six towels rubbed him dry. When he opened the door, she was standing there, giggling nonstop, and the bathroom cleaned itself in a whirlwind of motion.
Breakfast was coffee, tea, pumpkin juice, porridge with five different stewed fruits, croissants, french toast, ordinary toast, kippers, sausages, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, and eggs fried, scrambled, boiled, and poached. Neville reminded himself not to gawk, and sat down to eat. Blinky whisked away each empty plate and replaced them with baked apples, ham and cheese scones, shortbread, sugared almonds, black pudding, kedgeree, green salad, chicken soup, salmon steaks and a roast duck with steamed vegetables.
Snape banished her to the linen closet after a stern lecture about moderation, and ordered Neville to stop stuffing his face and get to work.
Blinky thwarted Neville's attempt to bake a cake the next afternoon, when the seedlings all tilted sideways and his diagnosium spell said they needed a good drink of Lockhart's Locks Mesmerising Shine Serum.
"Blinky is making cakes!" she cried, when Neville ventured into the kitchen. She produced a ginger fluff, and a walnut log, and three other cakes Neville didn't even recognise.
"No," Neville tried to explain. "I don't want you to make a cake."
"Then Blinky is making pikelets! And trifle, and rice pudding, and smoked cod with potatoes and beans!" Neville tried to explain again, but soon there were plates and platters all through the kitchen and migrating onto the dining room carpet. Defeated, he went into Snape's workshed and scoured cauldrons for an hour until he felt ready to try the spell again.
It took Neville a while to learn to banish her. "Er, Blinky?" he finally said one day, when the splicing spell was refusing to take, and she was doing somersaults through the beds of dahlias and singing a song about camels and teakettles. "Do you think you could go to the kitchen for a bit?"
She squealed with delight. "Blinky is loving to go to the kitchen, Mister Neville! Blinky is bringing you chocolate and sardines and pepper and everything you needs!"
"Well, actually," Neville said, rubbing his tired eyes with the heels of his hands. "Could you just, er, stand in the pantry for an hour? It would really help me concentrate."
"Blinky is loving to stand in the pantry!" Blinky cried, and skipped off.
Snape thundered in soon after. "Where's that blasted elf?" he demanded, standing over Neville and glowering. Neville rubbed his eyes again; the splice had finally taken, but the poisonous roots had promptly killed the blooms, and he'd tripped and fallen into the water trough and was soaked from head to toe, and he was so tired. "I asked her to stand in the pantry," he said, and reached around Snape for a new cutting.
Snape's lips almost twitched. "The linen closet is better ventilated," he said. "I'll make the tea, then, shall I?"
The cottage was, when he explored it, still the loveliest place Neville had ever seen, but the excesses Snape grumbled about started to wear on him too. His bedroom had a lovely bay window overlooking the garden, but it also had pictures of kittens on all the walls, and three hundred and seventy-seven (when he couldn't sleep, he counted) delicate china kittens arranged throughout, which made it hard to do anything in there. There was a library with leather armchairs and a mahogany reading desk and, unfortunately, shelves full of romance novels, decorated with entire herds of crystal unicorns. Neville found one shelf which contained back issues to Sport Fishing With Wands, The Gentleman's Guide to Hunting Magical Beasts, and, to his great relief, a 1963 Yates Compendium of Magical Plants and Gardening Charms. He carried that out of the library and closed the door behind him.
In the parlour, the theme was pink floral, and it was taken to every single piece of fabric, wood, brick, glass, and metal. There were family photos arrayed, in pink floral frames, among several dozen side tables, coffee tables, and mantels dripping silk flowers. The fireplace had a large arrangement of pink flowers sitting in it, flanked by two pink crystal dolphins with roses in their mouths.
Neville ignored the decorations and studied the photos. One of them, taking what might have been pride of place between a pink marble statue of a girl holding a bouquet of zinnia and a pink marble paradise orchid, seemed to be of the entire Snape family. One of the boys, unmistakably, was a young Snape, and he scowled at Neville when Neville stared at him. He thought he could recognise Snape's father, who had his nose, and his mother, who had his eyes. They looked stern but not unkind, the father's hand holding the young boy firmly still for the photographer.
Snape asked Blinky to redecorate ("get rid of every single blasted frilly, lacy, floral, or otherwise idiotic frippery!") his bedroom, the kitchen, and the living room. The various items forbidden by Snape made their way into the parlour. Neville carefully carried the kittens into it, and closed the door on that room too.
Dumbledore came by, to see how they were settling in and make sure all the protection spells were working. He brought a breadbox and showed them how it worked: he tapped it with his wand and opened it to reveal the morning's Prophet, and a jar of peanut butter. "Put a letter in if you need something," he explained cheerfully. "Somebody'll get it sooner or later."
Blinky brought him home-made marshmallow and candied oranges.
"Marvellous," Dumbledore said, beaming, and told Blinky some shockingly lewd house elf jokes which made her giggle until she turned blue and had to lie down on the carpet. Snape just glowered at him.
After he and Snape had a top-secret discussion in Snape's workshed (Neville pretended not to hear all the glass smashing), Dumbledore came out to say goodbye.
"Your Grandmother was a fine young lady," he said, sitting down in one of Neville's wheelbarrows. "She was a prefect, did you know? She beat Argus Filch over the head with a broomstick until he confessed to dismembering Juniper Dishpeg's toad." He kicked off his slippers and wriggled his toes. "She also got the better of young Alastor Moody in the Great Gyffindor/Ravenclaw Firewhiskey Drinking Match in her sixth year. A fine girl indeed, and a role model for all the prefects of her generation."
Neville hadn't known any of that, but he nodded, because he missed his Gran terribly.
"You're doing quite a good job yourself," Dumbledore added. "Keep at it, dear boy, and I think you'll do young Abigail Longbottom proud."
Neville kept at it, since Dumbledore obviously hadn't given Snape a competent herbologist. He got the hang of splicing, which was hard because it upset the plants terribly, and worked out a new cross-breeding program that he was too nervous to present to Snape and had to slip under his door. Snape returned it in the morning, covered in red ink. He got six out of twenty for it, and a lecture on proper sentence construction that ruined his appetite for breakfast. The next version got thirteen out of twenty, and the version after that got sixteen out of twenty, which was the highest mark Neville had ever got from Snape, so he figured it was good enough to put into action.
Snape also kept coming down into the garden and demanded Neville grow rosemary and Transylvanian garlic and sphagnum moss and other ingredients. Sometimes Neville had to make a seedling from a desiccated leaf or a piece of bark, and he had to make fresh aniseed tea twice a day to feed the sour dock, and move the vegetable patch so that the white baneberry could face the rising sun. Altogether he had a lot of different things to do, so he had Blinky help him make a special calender to help him remember it all.
"Can't we get Blinky to help with the potions and stuff?" Neville asked one night, when they were eating supper outside the potions shed because Snape had to stir something twelve times an hour for the next twelve days. It was a vision-repelling potion for Harry, and Snape had said more swear words than Neville knew when he got the message from Dumbledore to make it.
Snape snorted, which meant it was a stupid question. "If you paid the slightest bit of attention to your surroundings, you'd already know that house elves assist with nothing but housekeeping. Despite the creative efforts of a great many lazy students to coopt the Hogwarts elves into doing their homework as well as their laundry, they were created without those powers."
"I never tried," Neville muttered, as Snape got up and disappeared inside the shed again.
Dumbledore had explained that the big black dog was actually Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, who was an animagus, and did a lot of dangerous, top-secret jobs for Dumbledore. He wore a charmed collar that only Professor Lupin could take off, which Snape said was to keep Black from getting killed by his own side. Sirius growled at Snape nonstop, and Snape growled back, snatching the package Sirius had brought them and rushing back into the shed. Neville poured Sirius a bowl of water and set some leftover chicken pie on the back step for him, then sat down next to him, scratching his neck.
Sirius was good to talk to, and whined sadly when Neville asked about Harry, and barked furiously whenever Neville mentioned You Know Who. When Sirius got up to go, Neville had a brilliant idea, and asked Sirius if he could take a cake to his Mum and Dad at St Mungo's. Sirius barked once and wagged his tail lots. Neville had to ask Blinky for a cake, since he didn't have time to bake one. Blinky put it in a box with a string around it, and Neville quickly wrote, "Dear Mum and Dad, I'm safe and miss you lots, love Neville."
When Sirius left, Neville got right into his work. He had lots to do. There was a war on.
When the vision-repelling potion was finally finished, Snape staggered into the dining room and collapsed into his chair. He looked terrible, with huge black circles under his eyes, and a strange silvery glow, like moonlight, coming from his skin.
"You should go straight to bed," Neville told him, shocked.
"Don't presume to tell me what I should do," Snape snapped back, so tired his voice was weak and not nearly as terrifying as it usually was. "I've been taking Contramorphea for a week, and it's exceedingly dangerous to sleep before it runs it course."
"How come?" Neville said.
"Nightmares and sleepwalking," he said shortly.
Neville could see how that would be a bad thing. "How long until you can sleep, then?"
Snape studied the clock on the wall. "Eight or nine hours. I'll know exactly when I'm free of it."
That was a bit of hard luck for Snape, but it wouldn't do to have him sit in the chair half the night after working so hard. Neville got Blinky to run a hot bath and herded Snape into it, putting the WWN on so he wouldn't fall asleep in there. Then he had a great idea, and he and Blinky cleared out the parlour, moving all the kittens and flowers and angels and unicorns and fairies into the third bedroom, which was done in a tropical theme. Neville tried to transfigure the parlour wallpaper into a nice sensible cream, but it turned out a lot like the Gryffindor common room except blotchier. Still, it was better than a whole wall of pink tulips swaying in the breeze. He lit the fire, got Blinky to bring a light supper, and settled into one of the chairs. It didn't look too bad.
Of course, Snape scowled at the wallpaper when he came out of the bath, but he transfigured it into wood panels that looked rather nice.
They sat and ate their supper and watched the fire for a while.
"Thank you," Snape said. Neville looked up at him, thinking he must have heard wrong. "You've been very kind," Snape continued. He really did look terribly haggard.
Neville remembered his manners. "You're welcome," he said, and held out the teapot. "More tea?"
Snape had another cup of tea. Neville remembered that Snape was trying to stay awake, and tried to keep up a flow of friendly chatter. It wasn't much different from talking to the plants, really. He figured he better not talk about Gryffindors, though, so he told Snape all about his adventures with Trevor.
"That toad," Snape said. "I remember it. Where is it now?"
"I think he got burned in my Gran's house," Neville confessed, feeling terribly guilty that he hadn't kept Trevor with him at the Gryffinpuff camp. He'd thought his Gran's house was the safest place in the world.
"I had a rat in school," Snape said, and to Neville's great surprise, he told a story about himself and the rat, who was called Paracelcus. This was when Dumbledore was the Transfigurations teacher at Hogwarts, and Dumbledore sent Snape and Lucius Malfoy to Headmaster Dippet's office after Lucius put an enragio charm on Paracelcus and dropped him in Lily Evans' school satchel.
"What happened to him?" Neville asked, breathless.
"He emerged quite unscathed, but somebody poisoned him in my fourth year."
"Oh," Neville said. "Sorry."
"Such are the traumas of childhood," Snape said, with a tired wave of his hand. Their chairs had moved a bit closer as they talked, and Snape's hand fell on Neville's hair.
"You need a haircut," Snape said. Neville figured anything that kept Snape awake was a good thing, so he fetched scissors and sat on the carpet, concentrating very hard on identifying all the pink flowers woven into it, while Snape trimmed his hair. When Snape was done, Neville nervously offered to cut Snape's hair for him, but Snape snorted loudly and banished the scissors back to the kitchen.
Then, to his utter shock, Snape pulled him up to face him, and kissed him very softly, right on the mouth. Neville jumped back and stared at him.
"That was an offer," Snape said, very calm as if he did that sort of thing all the time. "War has made for stranger partnerships than ours, and you can be quite sure that the other Gryffindors are rutting like beasts in their camps at night."
Neville knew about Harry and Alicia, Ron and Parvati, but himself and Snape seemed totally barmy. He wondered if Snape was already sleepwalking, and having a terrible nightmare that he was kissing his least favourite student.
"Are you awake?" he demanded. "How can I tell if you're really awake?"
"Yes, I'm awake, you collossal fool," Snape said crossly. "And I assure you, I do know that yours is not the most desirable companionship in the wizarding world. But people like us take our comfort where we can."
"Comfort," Neville echoed, feeling hollow.
There was a strange light in Snape's eyes, as if in another lifetime, he might be smiling. "And we appreciate comfort when we find it."
Neville didn't understand what was happening, but he was too scared to stop it. Snape took his hand and led him into a bedroom that had fairies showing through the thinning illusion of green wallpaper on the walls. Snape kissed him again, and it was weird and horrible. Neville wondered if maybe he was asleep himself, and having a terrible nightmare. Snape unlaced Neville's robes, and pushed them off his shoulders.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," he said.
Neville nodded, dumb. Snape kissed him again, and Neville wondered, panicked, if he was supposed to kiss him back. Eventually, Snape drew back, frowning.
"Is this something you want to do?" he asked, very softly.
Neville shook his head, quaking in fear.
Snape exploded. "Get out!" he roared. "Get out!"
"Sorry!" Neville cried. "I'll do it, I'm sorry, I'll do it!"
Snape leaped back, angrier than Neville had ever seen him. "Whatever lies the Gryffindors whisper to each other at night, I am not in the business of molesting young men against their will, and I never will be!" He picked up Neville by both arms and threw him into the hallway, where he crashed into the wall. Then he slammed his bedroom door so loudly that Neville's teeth vibrated.
Neville picked himself up and ran into his own room and slammed the door, shaking all over. Oh, he hated Snape! It wasn't fair! He'd done his very best and it was never good enough. Every time he thought he understood things, Snape changed the rules on him. He never got the answers right, and now he was stuck with Snape and a thousand new rules he didn't understand and he didn't have Hermione to help him, or anyone, to help him with anything.
He walked back and forth in the room until he was too tired and confused and miserable to do it any longer, and then threw himself on the bed. He was too angry to sleep, and he hated Snape and he missed his Gran and he wished this horrid war could be over so he could go somewhere and never have to see Snape ever again!
It just wasn't fair, he thought numbly, and thought about having a really good cry, but the tears wouldn't come.
Instead, there was a very soft knock on the door. It opened, slowly, and he could see Snape outlined in the doorway. Neville shuddered in terror.
"I'm not--" Snape said, and staggered. "I'm not in the business of--" He turned and pressed his forehead to the doorframe. "Much as I would love to empty a bottle of Firewhiskey and forget this entire evening, I must stay alert."
Neville sat up. He'd forgotten all about the potion.
Snape turned to look at Neville, eyes sunk deep into his chalky face. "You have no idea of the nightmares I have, the consequences--"
"It's all right," Neville said, and quickly pulled his dressing gown back on. "What do you want to do?"
Snape laughed hoarsely. "Albus was fond of a mind-numbingly silly game called Uno, but in my" -- he staggered again -- "my hurry to leave Hogwarts, I neglected to bring playing cards."
"Here, sit down right now," Neville ordered. Snape looked at the bed fearfully. "I won't let you fall asleep."
Snape sat down on the far end, and leaned against the bedpost, shaking.
"Stay right there," Neville said, scrambling over his legs to the cold floorboards. He had no idea what Snape might need, but his Gran always said that at times like these, there was no harm in a cup of tea with some mayflower brandy. Neville needed some, at any rate, so he made two big cups and gave one to Snape.
"Shall we play checkers?"
Snape nodded weakly, so Neville fished his wand out from under the pillow and drew a thick line around the check pattern on his bedspread.
"81 squares," Snape mumbled. "Interesting board."
"I'll fix it, hang on," but Snape shook his head.
"We're hardly playing for the House Cup."
Neville accio'd kittens and unicorns for pieces, and then a coin to randomly determine who was going to be represented by what revolting emblem of appalling taste and idiotic hormone-driven marriages.
Neville's unicorns beat Snape's kittens in the first match, which seemed to startle Snape properly awake. The second match, Snape's kittens routed Neville's unicorns.
"Gryffindors," Snape snorted. "They never think ahead."
The third match, Snape started out strong, but Neville bit his lip and concentrated on thinking ahead. He concentrated so hard that when he finally made his move, he looked up and Snape's eyes were closed, and he was slumping down onto the bedcovers.
"WAKE UP!" he yelled, frightened, and Snape jerked upright. He took a few deep breaths, and then studied the board.
"Not bad, for a Gryffindor," he said, "but still hopelessly inadequate." He jumped three of Neville's unicorns to make it to the far side of the board. Still, that seemed to be the end of his strength, because even though Neville stopped concentrating on strategy, he had to keep shouting every time Snape blinked and his eyes stayed closed. He won the third game, and the fourth, and then finally, in the middle of the fifth, Snape slumped onto his back, clutching his forehead and breathing deeply.
Neville jumped up in alarm. "Are you--"
"It's gone," Snape said, eyes closed, drawing in another slow breath as he pressed his wrist to his heart. "I can sleep now." It was very very strange, because he was lying in Neville's bed, with his mouth open, breathing like that, expression on his face like that, and he looked like he'd just, well-- Neville felt himself blushing.
Neville slept on blankets in the parlour that night, since Snape fell asleep right there on Neville's bed. Neville didn't sleep very well, but Snape shook him awake late the following morning with brusque orders to distil six cups of heartsease petals, and do it right this time.
It has been an awfully strange night, but Snape wasn't acting any different, so Neville didn't either.
Ron stood in the workshed, casting strange looks between Snape and Neville as he shifted from foot to foot.
"Well?" Snape demanded, pausing in his packing to snatch a bottle out of Neville's hand. "Do you have a report?"
"Report?" Ron repeated. He looked awful, and Neville realised numbly why Bill Weasley's name in the Prophet had seemed important. It was hard to remember these things. There were a lot of names in the Prophet.
"The range of the fumes. The speed of the potion. Side effects."
"It works," Ron said blankly. "It kills them."
Snape advanced on him. "By the dozen? By the hundred? One at a time? Pull yourself together, Weasley, and report."
Ron pulled himself together. "It killed the nearest ones. They kind of crumpled up. The others took off. It took about three bombs to kill each one."
Snape pushed a crate of potion bottles into his arms. "These will probably have a wider range." He turned and swept out.
"Sorry about him," Neville said. "Do you want some tea?" Ron shook his head. "Sorry about, you know. Your brother."
"Lee Jordan just got Kissed," Ron said, with a lopsided smile, then held up the crate. "Thanks for this." His eyes were a little glassy. "It works. It kills them."
"We'll make it work even better," Neville promised. "Say hi to--" it was dangerous, naming names. "Everyone."
Ron nodded, and disapparated.
After lunch, Snape ordered Neville to scour some cauldrons and then grind up some Christmas beetle wings. He was very strict about Neville doing preparation away from the potions, so Neville had a little table and chair by the door for his potions work. He stared out into the garden, and worried about Ron.
"I don't think Ron's really coping, with the war and all," he confessed to Snape.
Snape hmmphed. "For years, Ron Weasley has played dangerous games without thought or consequence, but now his delusions of invincibility have been shattered. You and I," he said, sifting glowing orange powder into a potion, "have no illusions that war is a grim business, because we live our lives with the consequences of the First You Know What. He'll learn to live with it as well."
"How could he?" Neville said glumly, and pounded the wings harder than necessary. "I can't even live with it."
Snape looked up at him and held his gaze, even though his hands kept stirring like clockwork. "Then how do you get out of bed every morning, knowing your parents are rotting away in St Mungo's?"
"I do what I have to do!" Neville replied, stung. "I'm not happy about it or anything."
Nodding, Snape unscrewed the lid from another jar. "It's what people like us do," he said, holding the jar paused above another cauldron as he waited for the right moment. "Weasley will learn to live with it, because the only other option..."
"Is to roll over and die," Neville echoed, hearing his Gran.
Lucius Malfoy was in the Prophet again, this time Speaking The Truth At Last about his horrific experience as a hostage to You Know Who, and his daring escape from the clutches of the Death Eaters at Hogwarts. He also said the war was a lot of absurd nonsense and blamed the latest Muggle burnings on unemployed hooligans from bad families. He said he had it on very good authority that Severus Snape was a Death-Eater-at-large who ate roasted Muggle babies for lunch every day, and offered a thousand galleons in reward to the person who told Lucius where he was. The paper talked a lot about Lucius' mesmerising golden locks, and his marvellous holiday villa in Bilbao.
Snape threw the paper in the fire, and Neville really wasn't sorry. Lucius' photo drew its wand on them as it burned up.
"Gosh," Neville said. "You must really hate him."
"I don't hate Lucius Malfoy. He hates me. The difference is profound."
"That's crazy," Neville said. "He's so awful. You must hate him."
"Not really," Snape said, and sipped his tea. "My Grandfather used to say-- Grandsire Snape, that is, not the imbecile who bought his wife this cottage-- he used to say that the Malfoys were men of means, not ends. Lucius Malfoy has an overwhelming ambition to serve more compelling interests than his own, which makes him little more than an exquisitely dressed house elf. I despise him, but I reserve my hatred for men who choose their own despicable destinies.
Sometimes, Neville couldn't understand Snape at all. "Like Sirius Black?"
"The man is a brash, thoughtless, reckless fool, and the fact that he chooses to be so is ample motivation for hatred."
"Do you hate Harry?"
Snape looked at him. "More than you could possibly understand."
Neville folded his arms, waiting.
"Harry Potter has a world of opportunies and no ambition except for the same juvenile, reckless stunts as his precious godfather."
"Harry already saved us from You Know Who a hundred times!" Neville cried. "You're just jealous because he's a hero."
Snape shook his head. "Not even that. Voldemort made him a hero. Potter had appallingly little to do with it."
"But Harry's been through so much! I can't believe you're saying that."
"No, I don't expect you can. But you would do well to remember this, Neville: if life has been unkind to the great Harry Potter, it must be downright vindictive to people like you and me. A Gryffindor suffers bravely, but a Slytherin refuses to suffer without reward."
"Says you," Neville snapped. "You live in a dungeon."
"Yes," Snape said, smug as if he'd won the argument. "And one of my few pleasures in life is emphasising that point. Especially to Gryffindors, when they tell me how life isn't fair to them."
Neville shook his head. Snape was crazy, sometimes.
The work went on, digging and planting and crossing and relabelling and eventually, when he made a mistake or Snape declared them ineffective, throwing out dozens of bushes and starting over. The cottage garden, once filled with carefully tended flowers and a cute but not very practical vegetable patch, was slowly taken over by magical plants and escaped herbs.
Penelope Clearwater, from Slytherclaw Squadron, was their new tester, she said because Fred and George were doing top-secret stuff for Dumbledore, and Snape said because Ron was a dunderhead who had no appreciation of the intricate workings of Potions. Snape liked Penelope more than Neville had ever seen him like any student, including Draco. She stayed in Snape's workroom while Snape worked and Neville chopped or scoured, going over her notes and observations. Snape even let her stir the cauldrons while they talked, which made Neville a bit jealous even though he'd die of fright if he had to do it himself. Penelope also helped him sometimes in the garden, and she was frightfully clever and showed him how to do all sorts of clever things.
She didn't talk much about anything but potions and charms, but Neville knew that Lee Jordan had been her boyfriend after Percy Weasley (which Percy hadn't liked much, but Fred and George had thought was really funny), so she was probably too sad about him to think about much else.
"I've arranged to visit Knockturn Alley tonight," Snape said one afternoon. "There are only so many ways of working around a dearth of vital ingredients, and I have reached the limit of my skills in that regard. Do you need anything?"
"Books," Neville said. "Labels, quills, waterproof ink, pots, trowels, clippers, Gro-Quik, fish emulsion, seeds for everything--"
Snape interrupted him. "I'm well aware that you're working in inadequate facilities, with inadequate supplies," he snapped. "So am I, hence the absurd risk of this trip. Do you require anything I could not otherwise anticipate?"
Neville thought about it. "New shoes, I suppose." By now, his had so many holes that his toes poked out, and that meant his feet got very cold.
Snape arrived back after midnight, staggering under his bottomless sack and a dozen other packages for Neville. The first one contained the four-volume Encyclopaedia of Herbology, Mendel's Practical Spellcraft For Herbological Research 112th Edition, and several of Combinatricia Leafbough's works on magical hybrids. The second package had a carved chest labelled One Thousand And One Magical Seeds, and a dozen jars of other cuttings. Another had shoes, a warm cloak, shirts, trousers, robes, socks, underwear and pajamas. "I had to guess your size," Snape said distractedly, meticulously unpacking jars and bottles from his own sack.
Neville had been living in one set of clothes for so long that even the socks seemed a miracle. In another package was a satchel and another bottomless sack.
"We can't stay hidden forever," Snape said, "and I'd prefer it if you escaped with more than just the clothes on your back next time."
It was horribly dull, grating witchhazel, but Snape needed a lot of witchhazel grated. Neville knew Snape didn't like to be interrupted while he worked, but it was hard to concentrate without talking to somebody.
"So where's your cousin Carcinus?" Neville asked, because he was curious. "What does he do?"
"He works with Lucius Malfoy in the Ministry, so I expect he puts on hooded robes and goes about murdering Muggle-borns," Snape said brusquely. "I haven't spoken to the man in years."
Neville dumped a handful of witchhazel into the seive and started another mound. "What about the rest of the Snapes? Are they all Dark?"
"With the exception of Carcinus and his daughters, they're all Dead," Snape said. "When we were children, there was a rather acrimonious feud over the inheritance of a hunting lodge in Canterbury. The Snapes have always been far too fond of poisons for their own prosperity, but this dispute escalated into the most idiotic spree of fratricide and reprisal in the family's history. Carcinus and I were at Hogwarts at the time, and well-protected. We were the only survivors."
"Oh," Neville said. "Sorry. That must have been awful."
Snape twisted his mouth bitterly. "I was a Slytherin. I understood that I had a great deal to gain from it."
"So how come Carcinus inherited everything, then? Was he older?"
"Four years older," Snape said tiredly, "but also smarter, more handsome, more charming, more charismatic, and wily enough to gain the support of the Malfoys and the de Lapins. By the time I graduated from Hogwarts, he had control of all the family holdings. There was very little I could have done."
"You could have poisoned him!"
Snape frowned down his long nose at Neville. "I was only twelve at the time--"
"--but believe me, I tried."
The new hybrids were under their GroQuik bubbles, throwing out leaves and branches, so Neville left Blinky in charge of singing to them (Cornish folk songs seemed to work best, although war ballads were nearly as effective), and went to the shed to help chop up potion ingredients.
Professor Lupin was there, and Snape was shouting at him. "-- three different Heartsease potions, another Animaserum and a Tattlestop potion, so don't expect me to anticipate your needs as well!"
"It's quite all right, Severus," Lupin said calmly. "When do you think it will be ready?"
Snape glared through a cloud of blue smoke, and glared at Neville for good measure. "Two hours," he grumbled. "Now let me work in peace."
"I'll check on the defenses." Lupin turned to Neville. "Walk with me, and tell me the news."
They left Snape stirring five different cauldrons, two ladles in each hand and his wand between his teeth, and headed out to the back garden. Lupin brushed his hands along the boundaries, feeling for cracks or holes or-- Neville had no idea, but he followed behind, holding Lupin's wand until he needed it.
"How's Harry doing?" Neville asked, once they'd run out of updates to share. He never liked to ask how Harry was, because he wanted to think every day that the final battle was happening right now. But checking defenses-- that meant it wasn't going to be over anytime soon.
Lupin looked down at him with soft eyes. "He's hanging in there. Between the nightmares and the Dementors and the Death Eater attacks-- but Voldemort can't take Harry out. No matter how much he throws at him, Harry always pulls through."
"The Boy Who Lives and Lives," Neville echoed weakly, because that's what the Prophet was calling him now.
Lupin shook his head angrily. "The damn Prophet. Only a Qwik-Quotes Quill would call it living."
Neville glanced around at their pretty cottage and shuddered in guilt. "I'm working really hard, Professor," he said in a rush. "We're getting better results every day."
With a choked laugh, Lupin reached out and hugged him. "You're doing excellent work, Neville. I'm very proud of you, and so is Dumbledore."
Neville had to picture Snape standing there, shouting at him for not labelling the hybrids properly. He couldn't afford to start crying now.
Lupin turned and walked on, brushing his hands along invisible walls. "The Heartsease is giving everyone new hope, you know. And Hermione's working on something; a few things, actually. There's been progress."
"We're winning?" Neville asked, almost scared to even have that small hope.
"No, not just yet." Lupin smiled suddenly, and for a moment, he looked like a werewolf. "But we plan to."
"What d'you think you'll do when the war's over?" Neville asked at breakfast the next day. He hadn't wanted to think about it, but Professor Lupin, over lunch, had asked him the same question.
Snape sent him a withering glance. "Imagining this war will be over is inviting disappointment. If you had even the smallest measure of intelligence, you wouldn't fill your head with foolish dreams."
Neville didn't let himself be deterred this time. "C'mon. Pretend, just for five minutes, that the war's over. Will you go back to Hogwarts?"
"Unless there's a seismic upheaval at the Ministry, yes. It's one of the terms of the contract which keeps me out of Azkaban."
"Oh," Neville said, and went back to his porridge. "But what if you didn't have to go back?"
Snape closed his eyes in sardonic bliss. "Then I would find a house somewhere and enjoy my well-earned retirement, and never again lay eyes on anything resembling a child."
"Good," Neville said, suddenly relieved at the thought of the next Hogwarts first years, looking up at a smiling new face in the Potions classroom. "You were a bloody awful teacher."
Snape stood up abruptly and gathered his robes around him. "I would have thought you at least would understand," he said haughtily, "the torment of being impelled to do something for which you have no aptitude."
Alarmed, Neville stood to apologise, but then thought better of it. "You were hardly nice to me about it. At least I was trying."
Snape sighed loudly. "As was I, Neville. As was I." He sat down slowly, toyed with the remainder of his toast, and then threw it down again. "Imagine yourself at the front of the Great Hall, faced with four hundred different cauldrons containing four hundred different potions, many of which are highly volatile, most of which contain completely unknown ingredients, all of which are having a bewildering array of substances thrown into them willy-nilly every day. You are expected to turn them all into stable and functional potions, twenty at a time for an hour a day."
It dawned on Neville. "You were scared of us."
Snape scowled at him. "I most certainly was not!"
"Were so," Neville said, and went back to his porridge feeling happier than he had for a long time. He was so happy he felt like making up a song to sing about Snape being scared of him. He started humming the tune.
Snape kept scowling, but Neville just hummed louder. Eventually, Snape picked up his toast again. "And what, pray tell, would you do if the war were over?"
"Dunno." He really didn't. "Something with plants, maybe?"
Draining his tea, Snape banished their dishes to the sink. "Your ambition is staggering in both its precision and its scope. Fortunately for both of us, the war is not yet over, so I suggest we get back to work."
"It's a rash and ill-conceived plan, and I have no desire to clean pieces of your thoughtless brain off the walls--"
"So get Blinky to--"
"-- especially when a simple dynamite base will have the same effect--
"Not half the effect--"
"-- without potentially negating all efforts to hybridise the heartsease for the elements--"
"If it kills them better--"
"--that made it potent in the first place!"
Neville folded his arms and stood his ground. "Capsicum is relatively--"
Snape slammed the ladle down on the bench. "--completely unpredictable in hybridisations and only moderately stable in potions, as I vividly recall from fifteen years of attempting to teach irresponsible first years to make a basic pepperup potion!"
A giggle and a hiccup announced Blinky's entrance. They turned in unison to send her away, but she was smacking her head with both hands, giggling madly.
"And what do you want?" Snape shouted.
"Blinky is knowing Mister Snape and Mister Neville is too busy for eating. Blinky is making sandwiches!" With a flourish and another giggle she produced a silver platter, heaped high with bulging bread, and garnished with fennel and daisies. Snape frowned at the intrusion of food into his workspace, but before Neville could intervene, Blinky quickly knocked her head against the bench and continued. "Blinky is knowing Potions is a subtle and refined art and not subject to ill-considered alterations and reckless improvisations, but Blinky is enchanting the sandwiches so they don't make crumbs!"
Neville felt the air abandon his lungs as Snape looked down at her and nodded. "Thank you, Blinky. This was very thoughtful."
She flushed a deep purple. "Blinky is going to stand in the linen closet now," she announced solemnly, but a few more giggles escaped her as she scuttled out.
Snape still insisted that they take the sandwiches into the garden to eat them. "How is it," he mused as he chewed, "that even the silliest house elf can learn to consult her brain before acting, but such a simple exercise escapes Gryffindors entirely?"
"I expect they're too busy to think about the consequences of saving the world," Neville snapped.
Snape poured them both another glass of Blinky's lemonade. "It's a promising approach," he admitted. "But now that you seem to have found your Gryffindor courage, you should attempt to retain at least a house elf's worth of intelligence. You may attempt the hybridisation, but proceed with the utmost caution. Any explosions, and I'll leave you splattered all over the greenhouse for the rats to eat."
Neville found himself flushing, and fought back the urge to giggle.
The capsicum and heartsease just plain refused to take. Neville tried everything in Leafbough's Guide, and everything in Practical Spellcraft, and quite a few things from the Encyclopaedia, but nothing worked. He spent so much time on it that he forgot to prune the baneberry, which bloomed all over the herb garden and dried all the herbs. While he was fixing that, the triple-thorned ivy got out of its cage and savaged the oleander. By the time he'd hacked off all its tendrils and reinforced the spells on the cage, his scratches were swelling ominously. He was just putting balm on them when there was an enormous explosion outside; he ran back out to see that the hybrids had blown up, taking the potting bench and a rack of new of seedlings with them. Snape yelled at him, and Neville got so frustrated that he couldn't even get the Herbius Diagnosius spell right.
Eventually he banished Blinky to the linen closet and baked a hummingbird cake. While he licked the bowl, Neville flipped through the books he had, and then thought hard about what Professor Sprout would do.
"There's nothing a plant won't do for you, if you know how to ask it," she used to say. And, "when all else fails, try something logical, something obvious, and something ridiculous." He pictured her waving her trowel, the day she'd sent a clod of dragon dung flying into Draco Malfoy's eye and they'd had to carry Ron all the way back to Gryffindor Tower, he was laughing so hard. "You just never know, with some plants, what it'll be, but being nice never hurts."
When the cake was done, Neville iced it, still thinking hard, and then went to the linen closet and asked Blinky to sing love songs to the capsicum and heartsease. She squeaked with excitement and scampered outside; Neville followed.
"Oh, a cat loves a rattle and a bet loves a nettle and a squib loves a scribble and Snape loves Neville and corn loves a candle and Blinky loves fish! Oh, a dog loves pobble--"
Neville shrugged, and sat back to watch the plants react.
Snape woke Neville before dawn. "Your hybrids took," he said. "I noticed last night."
Neville blinked in confusion. "You did? Really?"
"Yes, really," Snape scowled. Snape always got offended when Neville said things like that. "Consequently, I'm going to Lancashire today. I need fresh figwort blossoms for an astringent base."
Neville rolled over and pulled the covers up to his chin. "Use bark. Does the same thing."
"I beg your pardon," Snape said, and tapped Neville's forehead until he opened his eyes to meet Snape's in the pre-dawn gloom. "One does not go substituting potion ingredients ad hoc and willy-nilly, as you would know if you ever passed a Potions exam unaided. Figwort bark is a notoriously unstable component."
"That's a myth, actually." Neville wriggled down into the warm blankets, feeling just a bit smug. He'd done it this time, after all. "Bark and blossoms have the same properties in the figworts. Most herbologists figure Potions Master Latvius couldn't tell yellow wood sorrel leaves from clover, and that's what really blew up his castle."
The eyebrow went up. "I'm hardly going to take the word of an infant herbologist over the writings of the greatest Potions master of the Rennaissance."
"Of course you're not." Neville grinned at him. "Potions masters are stubborn bastards. That's why there's a figwort myth in the first place."
"Be that as it may," Snape said silkily, "you'll forgive me if I err on the side of caution for the time being?"
"I'll forgive you if you bring me back some honeycup mushrooms. There's usually some growing near figworts."
Snape snorted and swept away. Neville yawned, and watched him go.
Ron said that the latest batches could take down two or three dementors at a time, if they aimed right. He grinned at Neville, still a little wild-eyed but no longer dull with grief and shock. "It was fantastic! They melted, like snowmen. Horrid grey snowmen with dead eyes, but sleeeeuuuugh!" He seemed to be doing an imitation of a melting Dementor.
Snape rolled his eyes, but Ron's excitement was infectious. "I could try a heartsease-chili hybrid next," Neville offered.
"Chili!" Ron cried. "Blow 'em right up! Bloody brilliant!"
Snape sighed loudly. "Gryffindors."
Penelope said much the same things as Ron, in a lot more words, but she also took Neville aside and whispered that a chili hybrid would be bloody amazing.
After the sixth explosion, Snape put his foot down about the chili hybrid. "I don't have an infinite supply of seawrack to heal your burns and I don't have time to grow the damn heartsease myself if you kill yourself and that's the last I'll hear on the topic."
"But I'm getting closer!" Neville said, trying to sit up. "I know lots about what doesn't work and with a few more goes--"
Snape cut him off. "If you insist on trying to kill yourself with ill-conceived hybridisation, try crossing it with rosemary."
Neville pouted. "Rosemary?"
"Or perhaps," Snape mused, nudging Neville over onto his stomach so he could dab salve on his back, "if you could cross rosemary with a citric eucalypt, I wouldn't need to emulsify them in the potion."
"Righto," Neville said, shuddering with the cool relief of the seawrack on his shoulders. "And I'll cross the heartsease with peppermint, and we'll see how the Dementors like that."
On Neville's birthday, Ron came by with Sirius, which was a wonderful surprise. He hadn't thought anybody would remember, but Ron said Seamus said it was today, and maybe they could stop by.
"We've been stealing Dark books from Knockturn Alley, bloody dangerous stuff, but Sirius does great diversions. No time to buy you a present, I'm afraid, unless you want this--" he held out a gold necklace with a lot of rubies. "Don't know what it does, probably something awful, but I thought Hermione might like it if she could take the spells off."
Sirius growled at it, Neville shook his head frantically, and Ron shoved it back in his pocket. Neville was so pleased by the visit that birthday presents hardly mattered. Blinky brought afternoon tea, and a ham bone for Sirius, and explained that Mister Severus was very busy with important potions and couldn't greet his guests.
"He doesn't like Sirius much," Neville explained, even though it seemed like terrible manners to him. Sirius barked furiously.
Ron shrugged. "They're both mental," he said, putting his mouth right up next to Sirius' ear so he was sure to hear it. "But you got a rotten deal, stuck here with nobody but grumpy old Snape for company."
"He's not so bad," Neville admitted.
Ron tipped his head to the side and studied him. "Have you looked in the mirror lately?"
Neville couldn't think of the last time he'd seen a mirror, but he'd seen pictures of Snape's Grandmother, the one who owned the cottage, and the lack of mirrors wasn't all that surprising. He did a calmus charm on a pail of water, and looked in it. His hair was long, almost down to his shoulders, and a bit greasy from too much time in the potions workshed.
"You look like Snape," Ron said, and then checked his own hair. "Hope it's not catching." His hair had leaves and twigs sticking out of it, and it was almost as messy as harry's. He sighed with relief. "That's all right, then."
Snape emerged from his workshed and gave Ron a crate of heartsease potion just as they were leaving.
"I didn't realise it was your birthday," he said, after they disapparated.
Neville shrugged. Such silly things weren't important, when there was a war on.
"Many happy returns," Snape said gravely, and went back inside.
"I was thinking," Neville said, slicing up elephant ears.
Snape looked up at him with one beady eye.
"That maybe you can make something that changes colour or something that tells me sooner if the hybrids will be any good or not," Neville said in a big rush.
"A magical paradox," Snape said, and talked for a long time about magic and potions and plants and timing and changed properties and how if it was possible he'd have done it long ago.
Neville sighed. Snape probably thought of it months ago. Snape probably thought of it in his first year at Hogwarts, and it took Neville until now.
"And I suppose we'd have to test the heartsease anyway, to test if the potion was predicting right, and that would take even longer," he said.
"Precisely," Snape said. "Continue thinking on the problem, although I myself can see no solution."
Snape announced one morning that they were having a visitor for lunch. It was Circe Stormlaw, a middle-aged witch with a bad limp and the longest, whitest hair that Neville had ever seen on anyone, including Dumbledore. She'd been an Auror until a bonecruncher curse ruined her knee, and she was now Chief Advisor to the Ministry on The Response To The You Know Who Problem. Neville had seen her in the Prophet a lot, calling the Death Eaters a mob of cowardly bullies, and there was a photo last week of her whapping Cornelius Fudge over the head with her cane. She had the same fierce eyes as Snape, and she turned out to be Snape's cousin, not on the Snape side, but on the side of 'that imbecile who bought his wife this cottage.'
Circe looked around at the dining room, which still had a lot of butterflies they couldn't get rid of. "Ghastly, isn't it." She turned to Neville. "The Stormlaws threw quite the party, when Great Aunt Mystibelle and Great Uncle Roger wound up with a gutful of nightshade at their son-in-law's wake."
Snape grunted. "So did the Snapes. That was the party where Uncle Callas put Krait venom in the punch."
Circe poured herself another cup of tea. "Yes, well, I always said the Snapes had more bitterness than sense."
After lunch, she inspected the grounds, added a few more illusion spells to the house and workshed, shook their hands, and apparated out with a crate of nightsease potion for the Ministry.
Neville was repotting Luna Lilies in the light of the full moon when he heard something that sounded like screaming. His heart suddenly beat like crazy, and there were bats in his stomach, flapping wildly. It had been a long time since he was in a battle, and he'd forgotten how scared it made him. Still, he knew what to do, by now. He drew his wand and stepped carefully through the front garden and out the front gate, trying to follow the sound to his source.
"Can you see what it is?" Snape whispered, appearing beside him.
He gave Neville quite a fright, but Neville managed not to scream out loud. He shook his head.
Snape cast an Inconspicuus charm on them both, and they made their way down the slope toward the screams, which were getting louder.
"It may be an intruder caught in the defenses," Snape said, very softly. "I don't know all of the spells which protect us."
Neville's mouth was so dry, and his hands was shaking. He wished he'd thought of casting calmus on his wand-hand as soon as he picked his wand up. The hill leading down to the village was dotted with trees and bushes, and they crouched behind each one and then quickly darted to the next. It was cold out, and the moon made dark shadows which creeped and loomed.
"Oh, hell," Snape said, and Neville quickly looked at him, but Snape was looking at the moon. Alarmed, Neville looked up too. It was a moment before he saw them, but when he did, his heart almost stopped, he got such a fright.
Dementors, hundreds of them, trailing straggly grey robes in the moonlight, all zooming down on the Muggle village by the sea. It was the Muggles who were screaming, like they were in a horrible nightmare and they couldn't wake up. How much worse, Neville thought, feeling sick, if you didn't know what the nightmare was.
"Heartsease," he said, mouth dry. "We need the heartsease."
Snape nodded, so they ran as fast as they could back up to Snape's workshed, and loaded their arms with bottles.
"I'll try to take notes," Neville offered, huffing for breath as they made their way back down, trying to stay under cover of the trees.
Snape shook his head fiercely. "Try to stay alive, Longbottom. Attack from the east, I'll take the west."
Neville nodded, and with a deep breath, unscrewed all his bottlecaps and started running down to the village.
"Neville!" Snape shouted suddenly. "Wait! Stop! Longbottom!"
Neville spun around to see Snape frozen in his tracks. "What is it? What's happened?"
"We can't," Snape said, still frozen. "If we go down there, we'll give away our location."
"So?" Neville yelled, shocked. "They're attacking Muggles! They can't defend themselves! We have to save them!"
"We mustn't save them! Longbottom, stop thinking like a stupid Gryffindor! We could save a few Muggles, but at what cost? We can't stop an entire horde, and our work is far too important to the war effort to throw it away over a failed attempt at heroism." Snape drew himself up, stern and terrible in the moonlight. "I forbid you to go down there."
Neville pointed at the Dementors, who were sliding terrifyingly quickly through the streets of Swanson-on-Sea, robes whipping and fluttering in the moonlight. "Are you mad? We can't let them do this!"
"We will," Snape said. He dropped his bottles and drew his wand on Neville. "I mean it."
"Well, sod that," Neville said, and apparated to the middle of Swanson-on-Sea before Snape could stupefy him.
It was already chaos in the streets, cold as ice, knifing through Neville's chest, as Muggles ran screaming from their houses in their nightgowns, only to run into the gnarled hands of more Dementors, then stop, paralysed, as the Dementors slowly lowered their faces to kiss them.
Neville could feel the Dementors all around him. It was hopeless, it was horrible, he was never going to be happy again. It felt unbearable, like the worst day of his life ever, worse than the hundred worst Potions classes all rolled into one. He staggered through the streets, throwing heartsease potion as he went, but he was quickly finished with the first bottle, and then the second, and soon he only had three left, and then two. For every Dementor that ran away, another five came around a corner, or flew in over a rooftop. The Dementors turned their attention to him, and began crowding him into an alley as Muggle townfolk screamed and ran the other way. He managed to take down three of them, but he only had one bottle left, and there were Dementors coming from every direction. There was one reaching for him, and Neville realised with growing horror and despair that peeking out from underneath the ragged grey robe was a nightgown with yellow flowers. It was making him cold all the way through, like his heart was too leaden to beat properly, and his blood had frozen into ice.
He took a deep breath, thought of his happy memory -- his Gran saving him from Uncle Algie -- and cast the biggest Patronus he could.
His Patronus was a screeching vulture, and it made the Dementors step back, but Snape had been right-- he couldn't stop this. His heart started beating again, so hard it hurt his ribs. He threw the last of the heartsease potion and then apparated back up the hill, where he could see Muggles fleeing the village and Dementors ghosting smoothly behind them, invincible. As he watched, choking on the cold air, a Dementor caught a lady with a baby, and bent its head to her face...
What would Ron do?, he asked himself, blind with panic. If Ron was here, he'd rally the entire Gryffinpuff squadron to charge into the village and--
If Ron was here--
Neville closed his eyes and apparated to the Bitter Glades.
The Gryffinpuff camp were asleep, for the most part. There were about a dozen of them, slumped around the campfire, who looked up with exhausted eyes at Neville as he stumbled for his footing.
"Ron!" Neville yelled, looking around desperately. "Ron!"
Ron scrambled out of a tent, wand in hand.
"Dementors in the Muggle village! You have to stop it!"
"We're on it," Ron said, and shouted orders to the squadron members, who started fumbling for heartsease and wands, some of them yanking on robes. He unrolled a map, and pointed with his wand. A hole ripped itself in the parchment, and Neville could see through it to the Muggles still running around in the streets. "Swanson-on-Sea, let's go." One after another they popped out, leaving Neville standing in the empty camp, shaking. He stared through the map, heart pounding, trying to catch his breath back, as they reappeared in the Village and began to attack. He was so relieved, he had to sit down for a minute.
"Hiya, Nev," somebody called out, and Neville jumped in fright. He'd had a lot of scares tonight, but it was only Justin Finch-Fletchley, still sitting by the campfire. He waved down at his leg, which was wrapped in bandages and jittering non-stop. "It's not tarantella," he explained, "or else the counterspell doesn't work. They've owled for a mediwizard."
Neville looked at him in surprise. "I thought the Muggle-borns were hiding away."
"Well," Justin said scornfully, "some of them are, but I don't see the point of hiding."
Neville frowned, and sat down next to him. "You should, though. You're a target."
"The way I see it, if I don't fight, then I can't win. I have to prove I'm better than the stupid purebloods." He seemed to remember that Neville was actually a pureblood. "No offense, of course. This isn't your battle, that's all."
Neville thought hard about this. "But we started it, and we should fix it. You shouldn't have to get hurt."
Rubbing his leg, Justin scowled. "That's what Ron says. You purebloods think you need to treat Muggle borns like children."
"Oh," Neville said. He hated it when people told him to stay out of the dangerous battles. It probably wasn't very nice to do that to Muggle borns. "Sorry, Justin," he said, feeling awful. "I just wanted to help."
Justin sighed, and reached out to clap his shoulder. "Quite all right, old chap. Don't mind me, I'm having a rotten night, that's all."
"Me too," Neville confessed, trying to put that floral nightdress out of his mind. The flowers had been daffodils, or maybe jonquils. Staring up at the setting moon, he tried not to count the petals. No wonder there were so many Dementors. They just kept making more, and out of Muggles, too.
Neville wanted to go back to Swanson-on-Sea and help the squad in the battle, but he didn't have any more heartsease. Snape would be worrying about him by now, too. All the same, he didn't like leaving Justin by himself at the camp, so he sat by the fire until the others started trickling back, some stumbling straight into their tents, but others bouncing in excitement.
"We showed 'em!" Ron shouted, and the little group cheered. All sorts of liquor appeared.
When Neville finally apparated home, Snape called him ten kinds of reckless and inconsiderate fool, and they managed to get a couple of hours sleep before the sun came up again.
He and Snape stayed hidden inside the workshed the next day, watching through omnioculars as Ministry officials moved through Swanson-on-Sea, restoring trampled gardens and obliviating their owners. Circe Stormlaw popped in very quickly, grabbing a few dozen heartsease bushes to plant around the town square. "A bit of prevention," she explained, miniaturising all the ones Neville said she could take.
"It was well thought of," she said, just before she popped out, "to approach the Weasley cohort for assistance. Good, solid thinking, young man."
Neville dropped his quill into a bucket of lizard gizzards and quickly fished it out before Snape noticed.
"Of course," Snape continued after she'd gone, "if it ever happens again, I'll stun you first and explain later. I'll also be needing a new bucket of gizzards by sunset." He put a huge glass jar of dead lizards on Neville's table and sneered cruelly. "Start dissecting."
At breakfast the following morning, Fred and George tumbled out of the ceiling and landed on the floor with an assortment of grunts and thuds. A red towel drifted down after them.
"Right ho," George said as he stood up, or it might have been Fred, because they were so covered in mud it was difficult to see the difference.
"What in hell do you two blistering idiots think you're doing here?" Snape demanded, pulling his dressing gown tightly around him.
"Well, obviously we found the right house," Fred said, and they sat down at the kitchen table and helped themselves to toast and jam. "Hi, Neville."
"Hi, Fred," Neville said, watching them eat as if they were starving, and letting his eyes take in the assorted cuts and bruises under the ash on their faces, half-healed gashes on their arms and what might have been blood on their robes.
"George, actually," Fred said, "but here's the thing. Our spy tells us that the Death Eaters aren't too happy about you killing off their pet Dementors, and they've figured out you're here."
Neville dropped his teacup with a clatter.
"But here's the other thing," George said, and shoved a boiled egg into his mouth.
Snape rubbed his forehead, suddenly paler than usual. "Any preventive action will compromise the spy's position."
Fred grinned. "Got it in one! So once we've had our breakfast-- thanks, by the way--" he reached over and took Neville's bowl of porridge, and the spoon from his hand, "we'll abandon you to You-Know-Who's tender mercies."
It was all coming back to Neville in a horrible rush: there was a war on, and his Gran was missing, and Harry was tortured by nightmare visions all day and night, and Fred and George had lost their brother and Hannah was gone, and Lee, and Professor Sprout. And now Death Eaters were coming once more for him and Snape.
"Blinky!" Snape called, and she appeared, clutching her tablecloth and trembling. "A large basket of food for the gentlemen, and hurry." She disappeared again with a terrified squeak, and Snape turned to Fred and George. "We're the lucky ones, aren't we?"
The twins nodded. "The spy insisted that we warn you, but Professor--"
"You need him more than you need us. I do understand the stakes."
Blinky re-appeared, staggering beneath the weight of a giant wicker basket.
"Brilliant!" they cried, standing up. Fred unfurled the red towel, and laid it on the floor.
"It's a bit experimental," George confessed. "We ended up in Cornelius Fudge's bathtub yesterday."
Snape handed them the basket.
"Good luck, Neville!" they shouted, and took a running jump onto the towel, which swallowed them, burped loudly, and vanished.
This was all his fault, Neville thought dully, as he tried to pick through all the things he needed to pack. Snape hadn't even yelled, just raised a cold eyebrow and told him to make preparations. It made his stomach churn, to think about it -- that he'd have got them killed if the spy hadn't warned them. Still, it wasn't as though he could have let the Dementors attack the Muggles, suck them dry of all their happiness. He should have gone straight to Ron-- but no, because by going there, he'd probably let everyone know that he was at Swanson-on-Sea, and who could expect an entire squadron to know that Neville Longbottom's location was top secret? They didn't know Neville was with Snape, or that Lucius Malfoy really wanted Snape dead, or probably even that Snape was vitally important to the war effort. But Neville knew all of that, and more. It made him sick, to think how stupid he'd been, and this was all his fault for not thinking.
Snape came by to check on the packing. He was being very polite; Neville wished he'd just lose his temper and yell and get it over with. Then he was sorry he wished it, because Snape snatched Practical Charms off the top of the pile and hurled it across the garden.
"I made myself perfectly clear!" Snape roared. "Take only the things you need most, and nothing else!"
"I need them!" Neville yelled back. "I can't possibly remember all the things I need to know!"
Snape seized a volume of the Encyclopaedia and threw it, and then another one, and then Neville's notes. "You selfish, selfish brat!" he roared, angrier than Neville had ever seen him. "Are you too stupid to understand even these stakes? We must seem surprised by this attack! The slightest indication that we were warned, and the spy's life is forfeit."
Neville gulped in a breath and struggled not to cry. He couldn't imagine how he could keep working without the books to help.
"Neville." Snape sighed, and rubbed his temples. "We must be mindful of our place in the scheme of things. We are not indispensable. Our efforts can only curb the Dementor Rebellion, not win the war. A spy in Voldemort's camp is irreplaceable."
"I understand," Neville whispered. "I'll do it again."
He did it again, taking the ten best nightsease bushes, and cuttings of everything else. One bottle of Gro-Quik, one bundle of labels, one bottle of ink, one quill, one knife, and one trowel. He packed one set of clothes and left the others folded neatly in his drawer. He left his bottomless sack, empty, in a closet, and took everything else to Snape, who miniaturised it all and gave it to Blinky to hide in the hills.
There was little else he could do, after that, except take as many notes as he could on the abandoned work, and burn the plants Snape told him to burn. He trudged inside when it got dark, but he wasn't hungry and Blinky didn't giggle once while serving dinner. Neville tried to concentrate on memorising the Encyclopaedia, but he couldn't stop shivering,
"Blinky," Snape said, when she brought out a plum pudding that was burnt on one side. "Have you finished your own preparations? Do you understand what you must do?"
"Yes," she said, and then burst into noisy tears. "Death Eaters is burning Madam's house! Blinky is caring for this house for years and years and now they is burning it to the ground and Blinky isn't stopping them one bit!"
"That's exactly right. The house is insignificant," Snape told her. "You're needed with us."
She hiccuped and sniffled and scrubbed at her tears with her tablecloth. "Yes, Mister Snape," she said finally, and trudged out.
Neville looked around the cottage. It was beautiful, and comfortable, and the closest thing he had left to a home, and tonight it would burn.
"I'm sorry!" he burst out. "I am so sorry that I didn't think before I acted!"
Snape looked at him. "I think you overestimate your role in this, Neville."
"But I gave us away," Neville confessed, miserable.
"It was only a matter of time," Snape said. "If not this, then something else. I, too, have taken risks that could have compromised our safety, and I am the one Lucius Malfoy wants above all others."
Neville wasn't very reassured, because it was weird that Snape was being so patient. But Snape seemed to have more important things on his mind.
"Do you know who it is?" Neville wondered suddenly. "The spy, I mean."
"I don't dare know." For a moment, Snape looked very, very tired. "I don't dare think about it."
Neville looked at him. "Is that what you're thinking about?"
"I can think of nothing else."
"Tell me," Neville said.
Snape shook his head. "I shan't bore you with my unheeded complaints regarding the treatment of Slytherin house, and the inevitability of many of their number turning to dubious comforts of the Dark, but it galls beyond description that one of them, no doubt, is now suffering the same fate as I did."
"An agony beyond all conceivable endurance," Snape replied, eyes fixed on a place far away, "and the cruelest form of self-punishment. To live, not just with your most humiliating mistakes, but still within them; putting every effort into being the exact same blind, arrogant, deluded fool you despise yourself for becoming; repeating over and over the crimes for which you desperately need to atone."
Neville didn't have any idea what the right answer was to that, so he took Snape's hand and led him into his bedroom.
"It would be wise," Snape said stiffly as Neville shut the door, "to be absolutely clear about your intentions."
"All right," Neville said. He didn't know what his intentions were, not really, but he needed something, and Snape needed it, and it was their last night here. It might be the last night of their lives. He moved close and put his arms around Snape's waist, and after not moving for a terrible long moment, Snape lowered his face and kissed him.
It didn't feel horrible, like it had before. He kissed like a grownup, stronger and surer than Neville could ever be. It felt really nice to just give in to it, and so when Snape moved them to the bed, Neville went gladly. They stretched out, and Snape was all warm dry skin and the clean, sharp scents of heartsease and witchhazel. His hands were stained with ingredients past and present, and Neville had grit under his own fingernails, and their fingers entwined as they kissed, hungry.
It was so lovely, to feel like this. He could lie here and be kissed until the end of time. But they didn't have that long, so Neville shed his robes and crawled under the covers. Snape followed, and they kissed again, a bit more hurried now.
He could feel Snape, there, and it made Neville a bit nervous. He hadn't really done this before, or, well, anything like this, and it wasn't like he could go bake a cake if he messed it up. But Snape didn't seem to mind, just rolled them over so Neville was on top, and kept kissing him. Soon Neville forgot about being worried, and concentrated on kissing, and remembering what made Snape groan and doing it again. Then he noticed that his hips were moving in a way that felt amazingly good, and Snape was doing it too, so he concentrated on that as well. Snape grabbed his hair with both hands and rolled them back over, kissing him even deeper, moving harder and faster, and Neville did the same, until he was gasping for breath and pulling Snape's hair and they'd forgotten to kiss and his heart was beating like crazy and they were just -- there, and it was, oh, wow.
Snape let his head drop onto Neville's chest, and Neville brushed his arms, his back, as their pulses slowed back down again. Neville was really quite amazed. That had been really good. He felt warm and happy and sleepy, but he also wanted to do it again, if they had time.
He glanced at the clock. It was after dark. Death Eaters were coming to capture them. He tried not to tense up, but he couldn't help it. Snape noticed, and sat up.
"We have to be ready," he said, leaving the bed and dressing quickly. Since it was getting late, Neville pulled on his pajamas and climbed back under the covers. Snape watched him, showing nothing in his face, and Neville wished, with all his heart, that things were different.
"Snape," he said. "It's been..." It hadn't been a pleasure, not really, but there had been days when he almost forgot that he was Neville Longbottom, forgot about his parents and his Gran, forgot that his life was actually nothing like this.
"Likewise," Snape murmured, with the ghost of a smile. He leaned over and kissed Neville one more time. "Thank you," he said softly, and then straightened up. "I should be in my workroom, when they come."
After hours of exhausted fretting, the attack, when it came, was like all attacks, really. Blinky screamed at the top of her lungs and Neville shot out of bed and was in the dining room with his wand out before he realised he'd done this before. His heart hammered like crazy and he roared at the ghostly hooded figures who were advancing on Blinky.
Blinky screamed again, a high-pitched off-key screech of fury, and sent the poker set pelting at the Death Eaters' heads, followed by several crystal vases and the dining table. Neville managed to stun a couple of them before they started throwing curses at him. Flames caught on the curtains, and spread quickly to the bookcase.
"Mister Neville needs to get away!" Blinky shrieked, and smacked the nearest attacker in the face with a candlestick.
"You go first!" Neville shouted. Blinky hesitated.
"Blinky is keeping this carpet," she announced, and it flew out from under the Death Eaters, rolled itself up in her hand, and vanished with her.
Neville ran around the sprawled mess of hooded attackers, through the kitchen and into the back garden. The greenhouse was burning fiercely, and Snape's workshed had already caved in, flames sputtering amid toxic black smoke and more Death Eaters dancing and cheering.
Snape had got out alive, or he hadn't. Neville closed his eyes to the orange-lit horror and apparated.
He stumbled as he landed, and cracked his elbow hard against rocky ground. Funny bone, he thought weakly, and tried to open his eyes as throat closed and his stomach heaved while his whole left arm flared in an awful tingling agony.
"About as graceful an exit as I expected," Snape said.
Neville clutched his arm and whimpered because it tickled and it hurt and hurt and hurt more every second and then hurt more. Bloody hell, it hurt!
"Here," Snape said, and Neville was lifted up. "Contranoceo," and the pain was gone.
Neville opened his eyes and concentrated on not passing out with relief. It didn't hurt.
And also, Snape was alive. There were scorchmarks on his robes, and ash in his hair.
"You got out," he breathed.
Blinky nearly barrelled him over with a fierce hug to his thigh. Or, if not Blinky, the huge rolled carpet on her back nearly did. It was taller than he was.
Snape shoved a backpack at him. "I have a marvellous diatribe about people who persist in stating the obvious, but we don't have time for you to properly appreciate it."
Neville shouldered it. "You can say it another day. Let's go."
3. THE OUTER HEBRIDES
They apparated to a set of caves in the Outer Hebrides, via Nottingham University, Killiewills Owl Office, and a souvenir shop in Inverness. "I neglected to bring silver spoons," Snape offered in explanation at the last stop, accioing several through the foggy window. "Chameleon tongues won't stay on any other kind."
They arrived at dawn, misty pink and bitterly cold. Blinky rolled out the carpet in the second largest cave, announced it was the new cottage, and bustled down a black tunnel to do whatever house elves did to re-establish themselves. She appeared ten minutes later with a sizzling pan full of sausages and eggs, which Snape refused until he'd finished putting up the defensive spells.
While he did that, Neville bolted down some breakfast, had a very strong cup of tea, and went to scout caves for the plants. He found a few good ones, and was working his way through the cuttings when Snape found him.
"I'm going to Transylvania," Snape announced. "What do you need?"
"I need ingredients. I could get supplies from the Hogwarts storerooms, or from Diagon Alley, but given the circumstances, Transylvania will be faster and safer." Snape handed him a scroll and quill.
"Okay," Neville said, and quickly wrote down the things he needed most. "When are you leaving?"
"Now." He took the scroll back, and pocketed it. "I don't know exactly what will be on offer, but I'll anticipate your needs as best I can."
"Thanks," Neville said, and paused awkwardly. "Be careful."
"I will," Snape said, and disapparated.
Sighing heavily, Neville turned back the plants. He had lots of work to do.
Blinky brought him sandwiches and blackberry cordial for lunch, and then perched on a rock and sang to the seedlings.
Neville was glad for the company. It was hard, trying to restart all the work he'd been doing, and setting up the caves with a suitable climate for his plants meant charms and transfigurations and all sorts of spells he was terribly out of practice at, and he didn't have Mendel's book to remind him any more. He was going to need Snape's help with a lot of it, but he didn't know how long Snape would be away, so he had to do whatever he could to keep the cold out now.
He was missing the cottage. He'd never even noticed the warm smell of the flower gardens as he worked, but every few minutes he'd realise it was gone, replaced by the cold, sharp salt of rocks and ocean. It reminded him of the island he'd been lost on, and that made him lonely and miserable and confused. He hadn't seen his Mum and Dad in months and months, and he felt terrible about it. He hoped they understood that there was a war on, but it worried him a lot that they would be all alone and sad because they didn't have any visitors.
Once the cuttings were replanted, Neville got started on re-growing everything else from seeds. An idle thought kept worming its way into his brain, and Neville finally put down his wand, wiped his forehead and thought hard about it. Rosemary and eucalypt had been utterly inert; heartsease and peppermint had refused to take; neither rosemary nor eucalypt had worked with heartsease or peppermint. But in a climate this cold, maybe he could try chili with all of them and see what blew up and what didn't. They had lots of spare caves. And besides, Snape wasn't here to say no.
He set that up first thing the next morning, after a few restless hours sleep on the carpet. He tended the cuttings and seedlings, cast a diagnosius on the heartsease and gave them all a squeeze of lemon juice, and then looked around for what else needed doing. He didn't dare touch Snape's ingredients, but between them, he and Blinky felled a tree, levitated it back to their camp, spelled it into planks and assembled crude shelves and benches for the largest cave. His mind was on Snape the whole time. He wondered where Snape was and whether he was safe. He worried that he was crazy for doing that with his Potions teacher, or even crazier for thinking that he was maybe just a little bit in... not love, even, but something stranger and maybe better. He was in comfort with Snape, he decided as he finally lay down to sleep that night, back aching from hauling flat stones to be shaped into work benches. He wasn't going to like it much, living in these freezing caves, sleeping on lumpy ground without enough blankets, but when Snape came back, he'd feel comfortable.
About lunchtime the next day, just as Neville was starting to really panic, Snape staggered into the cave, dropped his sack, and sat down heavily on the carpet. Blinky appeared with chicken soup, which he drank straight from the bowl.
"Are you all right?" Neville asked, worried.
"Tired," Snape mumbled, and lay down abruptly.
Neville piled blankets on top of him, and sat down on a nearby rock to keep an eye on him.
"Are the plants settling in?" Snape asked, eyes drifting closed.
"They're doing fine."
"Yes," Neville said, smiling to himself. "I'm glad you're back, though. I was getting lonely without you."
"That's hardly likely." Snape was obviously grumpy-tired. Neville's Gran would have packed him right off to bed, if they'd had one. "I'm terrible company."
"I think you're a good person," Neville said firmly.
Snape pulled the blankets around himself. "And you're not half as incompetent as you pretended in my class, so stop that infernal hovering and go prepare the bleachbone for me. I need to start brewing first thing tomorrow."
Neville let Snape sleep until midday, then sat down by his bedroll with a mug of strong, hot tea and shook him awake.
Snape, still groggy from transcontinental apparation, sat up and leaned heavily on Neville's shoulder while he drank. Neville closed his eyes and enjoyed the feeling of having him back.
"I'm sorry I didn't understand earlier," he said. "About, you know, comfort."
"I should have anticipated that you would be this slow to perceive the blindingly obvious," Snape replied.
Neville kissed him, a bit nervous, but trying to be brave. Snape kissed him back, which felt lovely, and then they got up and finished building the new potions workroom.
The chili-mint hybrid grew like crazy, and when Neville crossed it with a Phnom Penh Curry Vine, it grew like crazy and burned everything it touched, and when Neville crossed that with sugarflame jasmine, it grew like crazy and burned everything it touched and emitted a spicy-sweet scent that stung his eyes when he got within ten feet of it. He'd worked out a better hybridisation method by then, which included daubing the leaves and petals with Uncle Oswald's Whackem Love Perfume, which Blinky had brought from the cottage, and which explained a great deal about why Snape's grandfather had bought his wife that cottage.
He crossed the chili-mint-curry-jasmine with rosemary, which finally took on the seventh try, after Neville gave it a stern talking-to about every plant doing its bit for the war effort. Then he crossed the whole thing with his best strain of heartsease. He and Blinky sat with it all night, flying goggles on tightly, too nervous to even sing.
When the moon rose, it bloomed an avalanche of tiny spiky white flowers, with a perfume so strong they fled the cave, coughing violently.
Snape discovered their secret lab a few minutes later, after following the scent to its source. He cursed Neville's recklessness for several minutes, put containment bubbles around the entire cave and several of the individual plants; cursed Neville's phenomenal stupidity, and then stormed off cursing Neville's failure to understand that one couldn't simply throw the most noxious plant he'd ever seen into a painstakingly wrought balance of largely-unstable ingredients. No, he'd have to redesign the entire potion from the base up. Because Neville was irresponsible, and had no consideration for others.
Blinky watched the whole temper tantrum with her hands pressed to her mouth, giggling uncontrollably. Neville grinned at her.
The war, it seemed, was gearing up. They still didn't get many visitors, because they couldn't risk discovery, but they did get some news. Ron or Penelope came by every week or so, to bring supplies and collect more potions; Professor Lupin stopped in once for Wolfsbane, and reinforced their defenses. Sirius came one time, carrying letters from Professor McGonagall. The letters said who had died or what potions were needed; Snape burned the former and stuck the latter to the rockface by their bedroll. Sirius got into the pot of Beef Wellington that Blinky had set out for lunch. Snape kicked him in the head, Sirius bit his ankle, and after that, Ron or Penelope brought the letters.
Harry was barely alive, Ron said, mouth set in a grim line, and Hermione, reading twenty books a day, was more than half crazy, as though her enormous brain was dangerously overheated. Three people from Slytherclaw squadron had got Kissed in a Dementor attack, but Ron hadn't heard who they were yet. The Ministry had been attacked and lots of people were injured, and twelve Aurors had died when they tried to retake Hogwarts. But Sirius and Remus did a brilliant thing where they transfigured a vampire's heart into garlic and the vampire blew up and killed its whole coven, and the spy helped them foil a trap laid for Circe Stormlaw.
Penelope would sit on the rug with Neville and Blinky, pale and composed, and sip tea, grateful for a few moments of quiet. She brought cuttings and seedlings of every plant and herb she had time to collect, in case Neville might need them, and then helped him plant them out in the right climate-cave. Sometimes she brought cauldrons and beakers and rare ingredients she found in the ruins of burned houses. She got Neville to sign a birthday card for Hermione, and Neville rushed out and picked a birthday bouquet.
"Gingko for clarity, ginseng for memory, lavender for calm, sage for strength, and golden snapdragons for good luck," he explained, and Penelope kissed his cheek. That afternoon, he gave another bouquet to Snape, who grunted and put it in an empty jar on his workbench.
"I can't imagine introducing you to my Gran," Neville said another day, sitting on the bench between several bubbling cauldrons. Snape glared at his legs, and Neville stopped swinging them.
"Your grandmother was an eminently sensible woman," Snape said, shredding salamander skin with his green-stained fingers, "her fashion sense notwithstanding. She would have shook my hand and offered tea."
She probably would have, Neville thought, but he wasn't going to give Snape the satisfaction. "She made Hannah Abbott cry."
"Hannah Abbott is detestably sentimental and appallingly feeble-minded."
"Was. Hannah was detestably sentimental and appallingly feeble-minded." Neville folded his arms, knocking a mortar and pestle from the bench, but he resolutely ignored it. "And she was the only person who ever asked me to dance."
Snape's expression said very clearly that she was the only person who ever would ask him to dance. He picked up the mortar and pestle and placed them in Neville's hands. "I need more Christmas beetle wings now," he said, and kissed Neville's forehead. "Try not to break anything on your way to the storeroom."
It took Snape weeks to develop the new potion, and he left Neville to watch the cauldrons for terrifyingly long periods of time while he apparated all over the country for ingredients the others couldn't find. After the third ruined potion, Neville started keeping a list on a scroll on the workbench:
Cauldron Two: as soon as it simmered, it bubbled over until it was empty. Not my fault.
Cauldron Six: Exploded. My fault for not adding the partridge eyes on time.
Cauldron Thirteen: Exploded when I took the lid off to stir at midnight. Not my fault.
He suspected they were all his fault, since Snape never blew up cauldrons, but at least this way, Snape might know what went wrong. Snape would come back, look at the list, grind his teeth and grumble loudly, and then set up new experiments.
Penelope was first to report back on the new samples. "Green is good, yellow is even better, and purple is excellent," she said, and showed them a photograph. It was blurry and at a funny angle, but it was obvious enough: Neville watched in amazement as a purple globe exploded onto a Dementor, and the Dementor lurched, collapsed, and began to melt. He whooped in excitement, and Penelope grinned at him.
"In the yellow sample, the vapours seem to affect them, so we tried soaking our robes in it. It's awful to wear, but effective."
"So I need to increase the volatility without letting the alchemical tension de-ionise the heartsease," Snape murmured, scanning Penelope's notes, "and we'll finally have it."
"You already have it," Penelope insisted. "This is all we need to deal with the dementors."
Snape smirked at her. "A potion can always be improved, Miss Clearwater."
Ron reported back on the next version. "Bloody brilliant!" he yelled, bouncing all over the cave. "Bam! bam! bam! and they're dead as dead as dead! You're a fucking genius, Neville!"
Snape cleared his throat loudly.
"You too, Professor," Ron added hurriedly. "But fuck me, Nev, you're a fucking genius!"
"No, Mr Weasley," Snape corrected Ron sternly. "Neville works hard, he pays attention to detail, and he doesn't let obstacles deter him from his goals. There was no genius of any kind at work here."
"Jeez," Ron said, getting angry, but then noticed Neville blushing. "Oh, all right then."
They were mass-producing the potion, now: Blinky harvesting row after row of heartsease bushes, Neville chopping, and Snape brewing. Snape's mind didn't seem to be on the task at hand, though-- he was frowning at the potion, but didn't seem to notice that it had passed through violet and was turning an ominous shade of purple.
Neville didn't say anything, and didn't say anything, and didn't say anything. He kept his opinions to himself, and concentrated his meagre intellect on doing his own job correctly, and didn't presume to offer his insight on a subject about which his ignorance was legend, and then Snape's cauldron blew up.
"Too much time with bloody Gryffindors!" Snape was shouting, charging around the cave, when Neville's ears stopped ringing. His eyes were watering madly, he couldn't stop coughing, and the slick violet potion covered every inch of the workroom. Blinky had appeared, and was howling at both of them for ruining the carpet next door. "Sitting in a hole and bloody digging!" Snape roared, throwing a bunch of rosemary on the bench. "Dung-bombs, indeed!" He slammed down a jar of puffin fat.
"You just blew up a potion," Neville pointed out.
Snape grinned at him, wild, hair sending splatters of purple flying as he gathered more ingredients. "That," he said, "was an amateur explosion. Fetch me the three sabretooth claws and a dragon tongue, and I'll show you how a professional does it."
Snape insisted they test this one personally. "We've earned it," he said, almost scarily calm now, placing his hands on Neville's cheeks, and then turned back to his preparations. "And besides," he added, "only a witless fool would let a Gryffindor handle anything this volatile."
They apparated to Loch Skene, where Dementors had been terrorising Muggles for weeks. The Gryffinpuff and Slytherclaw squadrons were there, and quite a few Aurors, and a lot of Ministry people too. They set up a big cauldron at the very top of a hill, surrounded by six huge mounds of roughly chopped heather. At Snape's insistence, everyone placed handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses, and they all hovered on their broomsticks fifty feet above the cauldron.
Justin spotted the Dementors gliding in from the north, and the company swung around to watch them approach. There were about two hundred of them, grey and ghastly; not a large horde, but large enough.
"Hold your positions," Dumbledore called, from behind his candy-striped mask. His voice was hoarse and reedy, but it carried easily in the night air. "Await the signal."
As the Dementors drew nearer, Neville began to tremble. He'd never seen the new potion work; he hadn't faced a Dementor horde since-- since the night at the village. He let his hands creep around Snape's waist as they hovered, waiting.
"Hold on," Snape murmured, just loud enough for him to hear. "Not much longer."
"What do you hear?" Neville whispered, as his mother's deranged laughter began, just faintly, in the back of his mind.
He felt the shudder running down Snape's back. "Tom Riddle," he said shortly. "Making promises." He brought one hand up to grip Neville's.
As the horde drew closer, somebody whimpered quietly. Neville's mind was filled with the sound of his mother and father, laughing so loudly he could barely concentrate on anything else. It made him so cold inside, Silly boy silly boy silly silly silly boy...
"Ready?" Snape whispered, and Neville took the gallstone from his pocket. He nodded to Dumbledore, who nodded to Circe Stormlaw, who pointed her wand to the sky and shouted an incantation.
The wind changed, sending a lost handkerchief fluttering over the Dementor horde.
When the horde were nearly at the top of the hill, Dumbledore nodded again, and Fawkes flew out of his robes, screeching. Snape sent their broomstick plummeting down as everyone else shot upwards.
Steady, Neville told himself as he took aim, and the voice in his head was his own. The cauldron was rushing towards him, a glimpse of a potion so purple it was almost black. His mother was laughing so loudly and depravedly that he could barely focus, but he counted it down in Snape's ear-- "three, two, one--"
-- and let the gallstone drop into the cauldron.
Gravity lurched violently as they jerked upwards again, wind whipping their hair in his eyes as they climbed higher and higher. Behind them, there was an ear-shattering blast, and Snape spun the broom around so they could watch as the potion exploded as Neville had never seen a potion explode before. With a burst of heat like a volcano erupting, it sent purple flames twenty feet into the air. The potion vaporised into a dense violet fog, covering the hill and rolling down the valleys all around it.
Above him, the crowd broke out into wild cheers, and Neville peered into the haze, to where the Dementors-- there had been Dementors--
"It worked!" Sirius Black was beside them, clutching Snape. "You magnificent git, it worked!" There were tears streaming down his craggy face, from the fumes or the victory, Neville couldn't tell. "Bless you, Snape, and the hell that spawned you--"
--and then Neville was swept up in a woodsmoke-scented embrace. Red hair. Ron. "You did it! You killed them!" Hermione was just behind him, half-falling from her broomstick as she leaned over to hug him. "I knew you could, Neville, I told you--" and then they crashed into the ground, rolling in puddles of stinging grey goo, laughing wildly.
4. TIPPING HILL
Dumbledore gave them each a licorice bat and asked them to move to the camp where all the pro-Muggle factions were based. "We'd best keep a close eye on you, hm?" he said, eyes twinkling. So Neville and Snape and Blinky packed up their caves and took a portkey to Tipping Hill, which was near the Welsh border. Blinky put the purple-stained carpet down in a tent in the centre of the camp, while Neville set up the heartsease bushes all around it, and Snape got the cauldrons started.
Snape griped a lot about the move, but it was good to be back among people again. The Gryffinpuff and Slytherclaw squadrons were based here too, so Neville spent the first night catching up with all his friends. He didn't get to see Harry, who was tightly secluded and defended, and Hermione only stopped in for a few minutes to say hello, but he had drinks with Dean and Seamus, and Fred and George and Ron and Colin and Dennis, and Parvati and Padma and Lavender and Katie and lots and lots of other people.
When he got back to the tent, he stumbled over Snape in the dark, fell, and knocked over two cauldrons. Snape tried to yell at him, and Neville tried to shut him up by kissing him, which just made Snape angrier.
"Go back to your Gryffindors!" Snape yelled, finally.
"'m shtaying heeere," Neville insisted, and crawled into the blankets. He loved Snape. Snape was wonderful.
In the morning, Snape refused to make him a hangover soother, but he didn't yell any more about the cauldrons, either.
They had the heartsease potion working really well, but they couldn't blow up a cauldron every time the Dementors attacked. Even worse, their last supplier of date palm resin, which turned out to be the main element in the dungbomb bulbs, had mysteriously decided that the war was bad for business, and retired to Granada.
Neville wandered into the Gryffinpuff mess tent to find them going through their bag of tricks, looking for ways to throw heartsease at Dementors.
"How 'bout this," Fred said, holding up a green-feathered quill.
"Won't squirt far enough," George said. "This?" It looked like a ham and cheese sandwich.
"Too slow to detonate," Fred said.
"Hermione," Penelope called out. "Do you have any Muggle money?"
"I think so." She dug through her bag and produced a handful of coloured paper. "Twenty pounds and change."
"I've only got a tenner," Ernie MacMillan said, peering into his wallet. "But there's an ATM at the pub down the road. How much do you need?"
"I'm not sure," Penelope said, staring at the bottles of Heartsease Potion, lined up like hundreds of little mauve soldiers. "I was thinking about hopping over to the nearest Toys R Us, and buying a few water pistols."
Hermione squealed. "That's perfect! I love it!" She pushed her Muggle money across the table to Penelope.
Fred and George looked at Neville in confusion, and Neville shrugged. Muggle-borns were quite mad sometimes.
Justin was laughing and laughing. "In that case, take this," he said, and tossed a shiny gold rectangle to Penelope. "Hop down to the London Megastore and buy the biggest damn Super Soakers they have. Buy three hundred of them." He put his feet up the table and clasped his hands behind his head. "Let's show You-Know-Who what us Muggle-borns are good for."
Penelope whooped and put the gold card in her purse. "Muggle-borns with trust funds, you mean."
Justin stuck his nose in the air. "It takes all kinds, Penelope dear. IDIC and all that, don't you know."
"You're all mental," Fred said, and Justin kept on grinning at him.
They got word of a Dementor horde at Devanallt Green later that night, and apparated there to try out the water pistols, which were a bit tricky to use, but squirted the potion really well.
"Think of it as a wand," Hermione suggested, aiming hers.
Neville tried to aim at their practice target, a sneering picture of Lucius Malfoy from the Prophet, but ended up spraying potion everywhere.
"Actually," Hermione said, "don't think of it as a wand. Think of it as something you hold still while you use it."
After a while he got the hang of it, and they went after the Dementors in earnest. The only problem was, there were dozens of Muggle ladies having supper on blankets in the Green.
"Do you mind?" one of them shouted at Neville. "You've quite ruined Margaret's reading of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
Justin stepped in front of Neville. "I'm so sorry," he said, "but didn't you see the posters? There was a notice in the paper as well. We're from the Cambridge Historical Reenactment Society. We're doing the battle of Pwllmelyn tonight, and these things do get a bit rowdy."
"Pwllmelyn! How fascinating!" one of the Muggle ladies said.
"Isn't it," Justin agreed. "Must be off, I'm expected at the front line, but check out our website sometime."
How odd it must be to be a Muggle, Neville thought, as the ladies packed up their blankets and books. They all did the strangest things. He refilled his water pistol with the heartsease potion, and headed for the south slope, where he could hear the Gryffinpuffs shouting as they herded the Dementors toward a huge oak tree, where Slytherclaw squadron lay in wait with the Super Soakers.
That attack killed a lot of Dementors, but it also used up a lot of potion, which Snape yelled about for a long time. Neville was back in the tent, chopping, when Ernie MacMillan came running inside.
"Dumbledore's tent," he gasped. "Hurry!"
Snape dropped his ladle and went. Neville spelled out some of the fires, and spelled down some of the others, and then ran after him.
Boris Bumstead was on guard outside, looking dumbstruck, but waved them through. "Quick," he said. "There's not much time."
Inside was Draco Malfoy, and he'd been beaten up good and proper. There were bruises on his arms and face, and blood on his nose, lips and hair. Hermione, Professor McGonagall, Professor Lupin and Dumbledore were rushing around him, casting spells and all talking at once. Hermione had tears on her cheeks, but didn't seem to notice, as she assured Draco over and over that he'd done well, that he'd be safe soon.
Neville stared in shock. Draco Malfoy was the spy?
Draco was talking too, as fast as he could. "--and Rechtner has been training everyone in the Kristallnacht curse, and Kellie Kunckel's body is in Borgin's cellar, being used to power an inviolus charm, and they were moving forces to attack a festival in Brighton, and --" He stopped suddenly, when he saw Snape. "Professor," he said, and swallowed, reaching out his hand. He seemed to realise what he was doing, and snatched his hand back.
Snape shoved Hermione and the others aside and knelt at Draco's feet, taking his hand and gripping it. "Whatever foolish mistakes you made," he said urgently, "whatever terrible things you did, a Slytherin judges his actions by their success or failure in achieving a higher purpose. You've always served your ambitions well, Draco, and I expect you to continue doing so."
"Yes, Sir," Draco whispered, through bleeding lips.
"I'm ready," Hermione said.
Snape stood, and stared down at Draco's battered face with all the intensity Neville had once dreaded. "Your mistakes are your own, but all who gained from your duplicity share the burden of your crimes. Do not waste time on self-indulgent moralising, nor heed hypocritical recriminations."
Draco nodded, and Neville felt an odd twist in his heart. He didn't know much about it, but he didn't think anybody had ever told that to Snape.
Dumbledore cleared his throat. "Severus," he began.
Snape turned and left, robes billowing furiously behind him. Draco watched him go, and then resumed his recital of the Death Eater plans. Hermione made 'shoo' motions at Neville, so he followed Snape out.
Snape went back to the tent, checked on the cauldrons, and then stormed out again. Neville walked beside him, not knowing where they were going until Snape reached the top of a slope and sat down heavily, staring back down at the camp.
Neville sat down, too. He really didn't know what to say. It was peaceful here, though, and the sun was setting in an incredible blaze of orange and pink. All he could think to do was move closer, pressing shoulder to shoulder. Snape didn't say anything, and Neville was worried, but also buzzing with surprise. He'd seen Draco. He'd had no doubt at all that Draco was Dark.
"Bloody hell," he said eventually, as the colours faded from the sky. "I thought it might be Daphne Greengrass, she wasn't too bad in school. Or even Zabini, he was all right. I didn't think it was Malfoy."
"I hoped--" Snape shook his head. "I hoped it was all of them," he said eventually, "but I'm glad it was Draco. He's Slytherin born and raised, and he will truly see what he did in light of what he achieved by it."
Lying back on the grass, Snape sighed, sounding very, very tired. "I let Tom Riddle and Albus Dumbledore usurp my own ambitions. Time after time, I let my desperation obscure my vision."
"Must be hard, being a Slytherin."
"As opposed to being Gryffindor, which requires only that you leap blindly into mortal danger without so much as a decent breakfast."
Neville grinned up at the stars appearing in the dusky rose sky, as though somebody was poking tiny holes in the gloom. "Mortal danger's not so hard, once you get used to it."
They lay there in the cooling breeze, watching the moon rise. Neville's Gran had often said that the whole business about the world being round was a load of poppycock, but it felt, right then, as though the world was rolling over inside its blanket of sky.
"Voldemort will attack tomorrow," Snape said, out of nowhere.
Neville sat up, but Snape didn't seem at all alarmed.
"He'll be out of his mind with rage at losing Draco to Dumbledore. That kind of thing offends his sense of omnipotence." In the fading light, Snape was smirking. "And if know Lucius, which I do, he'll be cowering at Hogwarts instead of talking sense into his precious Lord, so they probably won't even wait for nightfall."
"Tomorrow," Neville echoed, the reality of it settling uncomfortably in his stomach, sending pinpricks from his fingertips to his spine.
"It will be terrible." Snape plucked a dandelion, and spun it idly between his fingers. "Terrible, and final."
"Will we win?"
"Of course," Snape said. "Gryffindors always win, because they're stupid enough to risk everything and sacrifice anything to do it." He blew the seeds from the dandelion, and turned his head to watch them drift away.
They were going to win, no matter what the cost. Neville found the thought comforting, even if Snape didn't.
Obviously Dumbledore knew Voldemort was going to attack, too, because they had a big feast that night.
"I'd like to make a speech," Dumbledore said, standing on a chair on top of a big bonfire, "but I'm sure you're not interested in why Guinevere the Garrulous emptied a chamber pot in her husband's bed. Instead, I shall warn each and every one of you to gird your loins and say your goodbyes, as events have reached their climax." He jumped down out of the fire and had a big drink of pumpkin juice. Then lots of the Aurors and teachers and Ron and Penelope went into his tent to plan.
Snape got Blinky to strip every blossom from every heartsease bush and Neville to supervise the Gryffinpuffs in growing more from cuttings. He let some of the Slytherclaws into the tent to help him brew the potion.
He'd wanted to brew one more version, but Dumbledore grasped his shoulder. "You've done more than enough, Severus." He patted Snape's shoulder a few times, and twinkled at him. "More than enough."
They made fierce love that night, abandoning all attempt at sleeping in a tent full of cauldrons which bubbled and seethed.
"When you speak of me, call me Severus," Snape gasped between kisses, fingers tangled in Neville's long, matted hair. His pupils were huge and dark, face glistening with sweat. "I want to be human to somebody."
"I will," Neville promised breathlessly, tightening their embrace. "You are."
Afterwards, they checked on the cauldrons, and then lay back down again on the grey Ministry blankets that made up their bed.
"What do you reckon you'll do?" Neville asked. "When it's over."
Snape smiled, and Neville stared. It was the first smile he'd seen from Snape that seemed... well, real. "With that hideous cottage burned," he said, "I find myself in possession of a good-sized piece of land overlooking the sea. We could build a house there."
"We? Really?" Neville pushed himself up onto his elbows. "Really?"
Snape turned his head and kissed Neville's neck. "Yes, really, you great blithering fool. Unless you're especially fond of the site where your Grandmother's house stood."
At the thought of that burnt-out shell, Neville's bubble of happiness burst. "No," he confessed. "I never want to see it again."
"Your parents had a house, I assume?"
"It got burned like all the others," Neville said. "I can't even remember what it looked like."
Lying there, with Snape stroking his hair, Neville thought about the war, and what it would take to be really over.
"When the war's over, can we try to cure my Mum and Dad?" he asked. "I'd really like that."
"An admirable ambition." Snape sounded pleased. "Certainly, we can try."
But deep in his heart, Neville knew that his Mum and Dad were going to be crazy forever, driven out of their minds by torture and pain. His Gran was gone, Ron and Hermione were half-mad, Harry was half-dead, and tomorrow, everyone who'd made it this far would be lined up like dominoes to be knocked down again. Like most of the wizarding world, he was going to be picking up the pieces and cleaning up the mess for years to come. He might even die, just when he had something wonderful to live for.
"I think it's time for me to have a good cry," he whispered, and it had started before he could even think to stop it, huge gulping sobs of all the grief and terror that he could never get out.
"I know," Snape whispered back, holding him close. "I know, Neville. I know."
When the sun came up, they filled hundreds of bottles and water pistols with the heartsease potion. Professor Lupin and Ron came by, and asked Neville to take the west flank with the Gryffinpuffs, and Snape to join the Aurors in the vanguard. At midday, they forced themselves to eat a few sandwiches and had one last cup of tea. Snape shook Neville's hand. Neville wasn't letting him get away with that, and pulled him down for a kiss that went on and on until the warning bells tolled. They pulled apart, and Snape looked as panicked as Neville felt. There was nothing else to do, though; there was a war on. They grabbed their wands and ran their separate ways.
The battle was like Neville expected, except louder and busier and more confusing. Actually, Neville hadn't known quite what to expect, he just drew his wand and shouldered his Super Soaker, and then spent all afternoon and most of the night trying to stay alive.
At one point, he looked up at the moon and wondered where Snape was, and if he was all right. Every now and then he stopped one of the Heartsease runners to ask how things were going in the valley, or on the other side of the hill. He saw Ron fall down, screaming, in front of Medusa Macallan, which made him so mad that he cursed her until she keeled over and fell under the feet of a hippogriff. Maybe it was wrong of him, but he smiled grimly as it happened. He didn't get a chance to help Ron, because a flock of satyrs came charging over the hill and separated them.
At one point, he and Ernie MacMillan and Marcus Flint looked around for the next attack, but there wasn't one. The wind was suddenly cold, and the stars icy in the sky. "Are we stopping for tea?" Ernie asked, scratching his head. Flint just stood with his head tipped back, wiping his face and neck with the sleeve of his robe. Neville was so thirsty, he thought about looking for some water, but a dozen vampires slipped out of the woods behind them, and he didn't have time to think about it any more.
Close to dawn, word got shouted back that it was happening, Harry and You Know Who had met on the battlefield. Neville raced up to the top of the hill, and there he was, Lord Voldemort, creepy and so evil that it made Neville feel sick, just looking at him. Voldemort had a huge snake defending him from every attack, and a circle of Death Eaters behind him, looking murderous, wands at the ready. Bellatrix LeStrange was there, and she blew a kiss at him, but Neville stared back at her, determined to be brave.
He found himself in a circle of his own side, facing off against them. They stood around Harry, who was hardly even conscious, held up by Sirius and Ron. Voldemort was saying something, and Sirius shouted back at him. Professor Dumbledore and Professor Lupin stood guard at either side. All of them were bruised and bloody. It looked hopeless.
Some vampires were trying to sneak up behind them, but Circe sounded the alarm, and the Aurors beat them off. When Neville looked back, Harry and Voldemort were duelling while Hagrid attacked Voldemort's snake. It was hard to catch his breath, and even harder not to run away and hide, but this was too important not to stand as firm as he could. Everyone who wasn't fighting was watching, their faces scared or hopeful. Neville was frightened out of his wits -- Snape said they would win, but their side all looked half-dead already.
But Harry's wand was locked with Voldemort's, bright green lines holding them together. Voldemort waved his other hand and shouted a curse that made Harry fall backwards, but Sirius and Dumbledore held up him up. Sirius put a wand in Harry's other hand, and lifted his arm until it pointed at Voldemort. Neville's heart was pounding so hard, he couldn't breathe. What if Harry had to die in this? What if Harry was the sacrifice the Gryffindors would make? It wasn't fair, after all Harry had been through, but Neville knew a small bit of him was going to make the sacrifice too, because he didn't move forward to stop it. He wanted Voldemort dead, and he wanted the war over, and not even Harry's life mattered more than that.
Harry's eyes cleared for a minute, and he said a spell, and then he and Sirius and Ron and Dumbledore all collapsed on the grass, but Voldemort did too. A huge cheer went up from the Aurors watching, and the Death Eaters all screamed and attacked.
"Get them!" Circe shouted at the Aurors. "Don't let them apparate!"
After that, things went crazy again, and Neville had to fight for his life as hundreds of Dementors attacked from everywhere and Death Eaters cursed everyone as they tried to escape.
"We won," he found himself muttering, as he ran fast from a charging Banshee, fingers in his ears. "We won. I think we won..."
When the sun finally came up, most of the beasts were routed, and all the Death Eaters were gone. A hoarse cheer of "victory!" went up from the Aurors. Neville looked around at the battlefield in the morning light, with trampled tents and bodies and beasts lying all over it, everything burning or dead for miles around. His knees gave out, and he was violently sick on some dead grass that was already covered with blood and potions and ash. His eyes stung, and his throat felt so tight he couldn't breathe, and his heart hurt like a knife was stuck right through it. Oh, Gran, it was so horrible.
"Neville," Snape said, and rolled him over on his back. Snape was bleeding everywhere, robes in shreds, hundreds of cuts all over his face and arms-- the Kristallnacht curse. "Neville," he was saying, "Neville."
Neville blinked up at him. "You're all right," he choked out.
"I'm fine," Snape said, brushing impatiently at a trickle of blood. "Are you?"
"Yes," Neville said, and struggled to sit up. He pressed his forehead to Snape's, and concentrated for a minute on just breathing. "Help me up," he said, when he felt a bit better. "There's a lot more to do."
At the top of the hill they found Hermione kneeling in a pile of ashes, holding Harry and Ron. She was weeping uncontrollably. Ron was jerking and spasming, but Harry was still as a corpse.
"How bad is it?" Neville asked, crouching down next to her.
"Ron, crucio--" she gasped, between sobs. "St Mungo's, they need-- I can't-- Magic fatigue."
"Obsaepiocrucio," Snape said, and with a huge sigh, Ron went suddenly still, and his eyes closed. Snape picked up Harry. "Neville, can you apparate?"
"Yes," Neville said, and Snape and Harry popped out.
Hermione slumped to the ground. "Thank you," she whispered, mouth full of tears.
Neville picked up Ron and apparated to St Mungo's, where Mediwizards and nurses were running about like crazy. "This is Harry fucking Potter!" he could hear Snape yelling. "Of course you're going to perform miracles!"
"Give 'im here, Laddie," a very old mediwitch said, taking Ron from Neville's arms as if he weighed nothing. "Ye injured, yeself?"
"No," Neville said, "but Ron's been cruciated." It was horrible to say. It was horrible to think, after Ron had fought so hard for so long.
The witch whistled for a stretcher, dropped Ron on it, and Neville just had time to pat Ron's hand before she slapped the rear of the stretcher and it flew off. Neville remembered his manners and said thank you, then quickly found Snape and tugged on his sleeve until he left the poor trembling mediwizard alone.
They apparated back to Tipping Hill, where Fred and George each gave Neville a tired wave as they walked away from the scene of the duel, supporting Hermione.
All that was left on the hill now was the ashes. He could remember seeing bits of it through all the fighting: Fawkes had taken the wands, and burned Dumbledore's body, and Voldemort's. He hadn't thought Dumbledore had died, but Fawkes would have known.
Neville felt nothing but blankness. Snape's eyes were almost terrifyingly empty, but he rested his hands on Neville's shoulders and took deep, slow breaths.
"Did you hate him as well?" Neville asked.
"As it turns out," Snape said, as little eddies of dust spun away from the charred ground, "no. It wasn't hatred at all."
In the distance, somebody was crying, and someone else was screaming a scream which seemed to go on forever. Neville shivered, and reached up to grip Snape's fingers tightly.
"What about You Know Who?"
Snape snorted. "If I knew which ashes were his, I'd piss on them." He drew his wand and conjured a whirlwhind which scurried through the dust until it was gone. "Too many Gryffindors would be tempted to guess," he explained, and then brushed his hands. "There's more to be done before this is over. Are you finished here?"
Neville was. There were probably a lot of people with magic fatigue, and he still had a few spells left in him.
5. MUFFET'S TUFFET
It turned out that he and Snape and a lot of other people had nowhere to go, even after the battle was over, because so many houses were burned, and the Death Eaters still had control of Hogwarts. All the wizarding Inns in the country were crammed full of dispaced families, and most people already had relatives sleeping in all their spare beds.
Neville got an owl from his Uncle Algie, saying there was room in the chicken coop for him, as long as he didn't disturb the chickens. Snape's cousin Carcinus had died in an Auror raid, and his niece Fausta sent him an invitation to the wake, but he didn't want to risk poisoning by associating with other family members.
"You can come stay with my folks," Justin said to Neville, right arm in a sling. "As long as you don't mind my little sister playing the Scary Spice CD non-stop. It's horrible."
"Thanks," Neville said, a bit confused, "but I think we'll stay with the camp for now."
The camp relocated from Tipping Hill to Muffet's Tuffet near Hogsmeade, where at least they didn't have to pretend to be a circus any more. Everyone had a day's sleep, then they did all the funerals. Neville wept buckets at Dumbledore's, and at Professor Sprout's and Colin's and Madam Pomfrey's and Lee's. Snape stood by him, stony-faced, and didn't say anything.
The Ministry didn't approve, since they wanted everyone to wait until the Official Sub-Committee for Investigating Unexplained Absences had delivered its final report, but there were also memorial services for his Gran, his cousin Doris, Hannah, and everybody else who had Disappeared.
Snape grunted in approval at this. "Eminently sensible," he said. "Better to get this appalling display of sentimentality over with." He helped Neville make a butternut pudding with mayflower syrup for his Gran's wake, which was last. Neville cried and cried, until he got it all out of his system, and then Snape took him to St Mungo's to visit his parents and Ron and Harry.
It was the first time Snape had met Neville's parents. It was the first time anybody had met Neville's parents. As they walked up the stairs and into the Barking Mad ward, Neville touched the doorframe for luck. He wanted this to be a good day for them.
"Mum, Dad," he said nervously. "This is Severus Snape. He's, um. We've been working together."
"I remember you both from Hogwarts," Snape said politely. "You once helped me transfigure a sofa into a hippogriff, Alice."
His Mum looked up at them with one bloodshot eye, and then went back to arranging her every flavour beans. His Dad was rocking back and forth in his chair with a bowl of jumping jelly, humming tunelessly and tapping his spoon.
Snape pulled up two chairs and sat patiently while Neville told his parents about Gran's wake and the war and Harry and the heartsease potion and Blinky and the cottage. It had been a long time since he'd seen them, so there was a lot to tell. After a while, his Dad seemed to be listening. While Neville was telling them about blowing up the cauldron, though, his Dad turned his face to the wall and started humming Little Cock Sparrow, which Gran said he'd sung to Neville when he was a baby. His Mum started humming it as well, as she threw her every flavour beans one by one at the wall.
"I s'pose that's it," Neville said to Snape, determined not to cry again. "Best to leave before it gets worse, really."
"Will they mind if I approach them?" Snape asked.
Neville shook his head. "They don't usually mind the nurses."
Snape, suddenly gentle, knelt in front his parents and started humming the same tune. He looked into their eyes, ran his fingers down the sides of their throats, turned their hands over in his.
"Perhaps a variant on the Nervalitum potion would restore some higher brain function," he said, very quietly. "And there is some evidence that maleleuca pollen can increase lucidity in the criminally insane. But see this?" He took Neville's Mum's hand and held it up to him, pressing a fingernail. Neville didn't know what he was looking at, but Snape had moved on and was carefully bending each finger back and forth. "Their circulation is quite poor, which might be a factor in the overall slowness. And Crucio is very detrimental to the muscular system, because the body destroys itself in the attempt to escape the pain."
"Crucio!" Neville's Dad yelled suddenly, pointing his spoon directly between Snape's eyes. "Crucio, Muggle-lover!"
Neville cringed, and then felt sick. Snape took the spoon out of his Dad's hand and put it back in the bowl.
"Careful now," he said. "Your jelly is getting away." He stood up and put their chairs back. "You mustn't get your hopes up, Neville. Even the best mediwizards have been unable to cure them, and for good reason. The damage is manifold and much of it may prove irreversible."
But as Snape studied the medi-scrolls by their beds, he had a glint in his eye, a smirk on the corner of his mouth, which reminded Neville of his very first Potions class. Snape believed in Potions. He believed that Potions could do anything, even restart a crippled heart or regrow fried nerves. Maybe the best mediwizards hadn't cured his Mum and Dad, but they didn't have the best Potions master to make the exact right medicine.
"This is an intricately tailored solution!" Snape had ranted one day, when Neville had sliced the galingal for the Wolfsbane potion at the wrong angle. "Any fool can make a sleeping draft as though it were porridge, but there is magic in every stroke of the blade, and power in the very thought you put into it!"
Neville hadn't understood it then, but he knew it now. He slipped his hand into Snape's, and for the first time in his life, he left his parents' ward with a lightened heart.
They went down the hall to visit Harry, who was guarded by two Aurors outside his door.
"Family only!" they barked, barring the entrance.
"Mister Crowley," Snape said, drawing himself up and looming over the Auror with lots of freckles. "I see that neither your intellect nor your attention to detail has improved in the years since your graduation. It is well-known that Mister Potter has no surviving relatives, and if you mean to exclude me from this room on the grounds that I am the sort of blithering idiot who might run to the Prophet with news of his condition, I will flay your skin, desiccate it, and keep it in a jar on my desk."
Crowley went white. "Yes, Professor. Er, I mean, no, Professor. I mean, go right in, Sir."
"Thank you," Snape sneered, and swept past him. Neville shrugged apologetically and followed.
Harry lay on the bed, staring at the wall. He was pale and very thin, making his scar stand out bright red from his forehead. Even though You Know Who was dead, the scar looked more alive than Harry did.
"Hi, Harry," Neville said.
Harry didn't even blink.
"I guess the war was rough, huh," he began, because he'd been visiting his parents his whole life. He believed they could hear him; if he talked long enough and patiently enough, some thread of his voice could reach through a foggy mind to the person underneath it. His throat was getting sore from all the talking and crying today, but he chatted away to Harry for a bit longer, hoping he could hear. It was hard, though. Harry looked like an empty shell, dead inside from too much suffering, and Neville wanted to cry all over again.
Eventually Snape cleared his throat. "Visiting hours are nearly over. I believe you have another stop before you're done?"
Down the stairs and through the eastern corridor was the Not Too Shabby ward, where Ron was staying. He was sitting at a table with Fred and George, playing Magopoly. His hands were still shaking, but he seemed well enough to shout loudly at George for borrowing 200 galleons from Gringotts.
"International rules, my boy!"
"That wasn't in the international rules when I landed on Prewitt Gables!" Ron snapped.
"International date line," George said. "We're now playing according to Tongan custom."
"You look good, Ron," Neville offered.
Fred and George jumped up. "Longbottom! Here, you need to see this! We've been up at Tipping Hill, building a lasting tribute to our dear departed You Know Who." They unrolled a big plan over the top of the Magopoly. "Ta-daa! The Tom Riddle Memorial Lavatories."
"The toilets don't flush, you see."
"And we've added forever-scent charms to the urinals."
"Except the Ministry is a bit peeved we didn't wait for their approval before desecrating a valuable historic site or some such."
Neville studied the plans, which clearly marked that the taps splattered out brown water, the mirrors were all scratched and dirty and wouldn't show that your fly was still down, the toilet paper rolls only ever had one square left, and the cubicle doors were charmed to swing open at every inopportune moment. "I think it's very good," he concluded.
Snape leaned over Neville's shoulder and frowned. "If you were even remotely competent at Potions, I'd suggest putting some Aeternamerda on the walls and floor."
Fred grinned. "Snape, old boy, we'll rely on you to make that one."
George nodded. "Wouldn't dream of depriving you of the pleasure."
They invited Neville and Snape to join the game, and Snape knew the International Rules even better than the twins. "I'm a Slytherin," he scoffed, when George quibbled him on Korean auction procedure. "I can cite chapter, section and paragraph of the Korean Revised Magopoly Agreement of 1968, and Peabody Manor is mine."
Snape also cheated, stole, lied, and showed no mercy when anybody landed on his railway stations. Ron and Neville went broke in a few rounds, and Fred and George redoubled their efforts to hold down their Knockturn Alley set, which was trying to relocate to the Snape's side of the board.
Ron was getting tired, but he wanted to go sit in the garden. Neville helped him to a nice spot with some chamomile flowering in the cracks between the flagstones, and got some pumpkin juice brought to them. They worried about Harry for a while, and then Justin stopped by after visiting some of the younger Hufflepuffs. He was in one of his rotten moods; Josie MacMillan was still in Death's Door, he said, and John Huntingpass was going to have his legs on backwards for the rest of his life.
"What are we all going to do?" Neville wondered. "Now that the war's over, I mean."
Ron fidgeted impatiently. "Mum wants me to join the Aurors, but I just want to get out of here. I reckon I'd like to go to Egypt for a bit, and help Kiya finish building the nursery. That's my sister-in-law, you know," he added proudly, more like his old self. "I'm going to be an uncle soon."
Justin sighed. "I think maybe I'll just be a Muggle for a while. Go to Cambridge, like my mother always wanted."
"Don't be daft," Ron said, annoyed. "We fought bloody hard so that you could be a wizard."
"I know," Justin said, staring moodily into his teacup. "But I don't know how it could have been worth it."
It turned out that that was a Sunday. On the Monday, there was supposed to be a meeting between the Hogwarts Supervising Sub-Committee of the Department of Wizarding Education, the Hogwarts Board of Directors, the Committee for the Capture of Death Eaters At Large, and the Ministry You Know Who Advisory Council, to figure out how to get Hogwarts back from Lucius Malfoy and the remaining Death Eaters. After two hours of bickering over whether the Advisory Council needed a new name, and who was going to replace Lucius Malfoy as the Chairman of the Hogwarts Board, and whether the Acting Chairman of the Board had the authority to tell the Executive Director of The Supervising Committee to shut her silly trap, Snape took Neville's arm and dragged him out of the tent.
"Useless bloody imbeciles!" he ranted. "Selfish, petty, power-mad morons, who never bloody lifted a bloody finger against bloody Voldemort in the bloody first place!"
They went to the pub, where Sirius Black, Professor Lupin, Professor McGonagall and Circe Stormlaw were meeting over Firewhiskey and a big pile of fish and chips.
"Severus," McGonagall said warmly. "I thought we'd see you here soon enough."
Snape accio'd another two chairs, enlarged the table, and ordered a pot of tea for himself and Neville. Neville mainly kept Sirius and Snape from insulting one another, and soon they all agreed that a large team of Aurors and a few good spells could keep the Death Eaters trapped in the Hogwarts grounds while they sorted everything else out first.
By the time they finished the last of the chips, they'd decided that Sirius and Lupin were in charge of putting down the remaining Dementors, and the vampires and all the other Dark Creatures which now roamed across Britain. McGonagall put Snape in charge of identifying all of the remaining Death Eaters and tracking them down. Circe put McGonagall in charge of coming up with a plan to get Hogwarts back. McGonagall put Circe in charge of making a new prison to put Lucius Malfoy and the rest of the Death Eaters in. Sirius put McGonagall in charge of talking sense into the Ministry people who got in their way. Snape put Circe in charge of knocking sense into the people who couldn't have sense talked into them.
Circe appointed Neville The Official Co-Ordinator Of The People Who Actually Know How To Get Work Done. His job was to find all the people who were actually getting work done, and tell everyone what everyone else was doing.
Neville was very busy for the next few weeks, apparating all over the country talking to Aurors and Ministry people and shopkeepers and two very elderly witches at the East Sussex Home For Unwanted Old Biddies, who were keeping eleven Death Eaters tightly bound and gagged in the cellar. His Gran's taxidermy club were doing some very intimidating fundraising to help out the war widows in Yorkshire. The Shropshire County Quidditch team was spending every weekend doing repairs to public buildings. The Diagon Alley Chamber of Commerce was collecting clothes and furniture to be given to people whose homes had been burned, with only a modest handling fee applied. Ron's Mum had formed the Association of Assorted Ladies Auxiliaries, and organised them into taking hot meals to the homeless each night.
All in all, Neville met a lot of awfully clever and brave people that made him proud to be a wizard. He wrote a long letter to the Prophet about them, and after Circe paid them a friendly visit, the Prophet put it on the front page. Then he got hundreds of owls, and Snape helped him make a really big map so he could organise all the people who wanted to help.
Snape was hopping all over the country, too, and often came back with very sorry Death Eaters in tow. He tossed them into the jail tent with long lectures about their shoddy spellmanship and their failure to think strategically about avoiding capture.
"And choosing the opposite side to the sadistic madman with delusions of grandeur would have been a good start," he grumped at Neville.
He and Snape went to St Mungo's each Sunday, and then over to Swanson-on-Sea, where Blinky was building their house. It was going to be a sensible Tudor-style home with two floors and a workroom and a conservatory and it was absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to have any curly monstrosities or frilly excesses. Blinky giggled non-stop as she showed them her progress. At night, they crawled into their tent and Snape complained about the rocks under his side of the bedroll and Neville told him to shut up, because he'd already said they could swap sides ten times.
Neville had never, in his whole life, been more happy.
Word finally went out that they were attacking Hogwarts at dawn on Thursday. Professor McGonagall wasn't taking any chances-- she called in every single Auror, and the Gryffinpuff and Slytherclaw squadrons, and everyone else who could still stand up well enough to fight. Most of them showed up on Wednesday night, bearing wands and cutlasses and vomit sprinkles, which Fred and George said might as well get tested on Lucius Malfoy.
"The war isn't over yet," McGonagall declared, over a huge outdoor feast at the Muffet's Tuffet camp. "And nor will it be over tomorrow. Tomorrow, however, we reclaim our beloved school from the vile hands of those who oppose the very principles that its four Founders embodied."
Most people looked confused, but they cheered anyway.
Neville couldn't sleep that night. The bats were back in his stomach, flapping madly. He could see Lucius Malfoy every time he closed his eyes, pointing a wand at him, lips moving: "the traitor..."
"For the love of all that is devious!" Snape shouted finally. "Will you lie still?"
"I can't," Neville confessed, shivering in the black gloom of their tent. "I'm afraid."
"Of course you bloody are! Any halfway-sane wizard would be! Tomorrow is the last day of Lucius Malfoy's life, and I assure you, he doesn't plan to die alone."
"Well that's very helpful!" Neville yelled back. "How am I supposed to sleep now?"
Snape sighed in annoyance. "Neither of us is going to sleep tonight. I just want you to stop fidgeting."
Neville gave up, and rested his head on Snape's shoulder. "It was easier," he confessed, "when I didn't have anything to lose."
"I know," Snape said, pulling the blankets tightly around them. They lay there in the dark, waiting for the morning.
Professor McGonagall had worked out a very clever plan, where everyone got sorted into their former houses to retake the parts of the castle they knew best.
"It's a bloody obvious plan," Snape said, but then Hermione said that Auror teams had been hidden inside the castle for a week, preparing counterattacks.
"Draco's idea," she explained. "Do what the daft Gryffindors were going to do anyway, and then take advantage when the Death Eaters roll their eyes and forget that we have quite a few Slytherins on our side."
Snape conceded that Draco's part of the plan wasn't stupid.
They gathered around a map that Sirius had, which showed where everyone in the castle was, and worked out the last details.
The Aurors went in first, to clear the grounds and the Great Hall. Hundreds of them waited, grouped in their old houses in the morning gloom, until McGonagall gave the signal. As one, they sprinted through the gates and up to the castle. Explosions went off all around them, but they charged on. Neville concentrated hard on remembering his job: get to top of the second floor stairs, and then defend them.
The Ravenclaws broke off first, and then the Hufflepuffs. They only had time for one rushed kiss before Snape took the staircase down to the dungeons. "I'll be careful," he promised.
Neville clutched his hand a moment longer, trying to think of something to say. "Be careful, then," he said finally.
Snape scowled at him, and with a swirl of black robes, vanished.
He was looking for Snape, and looking for Snape, and looking for Snape, but he couldn't see him anywhere. This filled him with an unspeakable dread. There must be Dementors here; he couldn't see them, but he could feel them nearby, freezing his feet to the ground and draining him of every last bit of hope and warmth.
Snape would be here soon, with the heartsease potion, and then they could banish the Dementors and win the War and cure his Mum and Dad and feel happy again. He was looking for Snape, but he couldn't see him anywhere.
"Oh, you poor child," Professor McGonagall said, taking his hand and patting it very rapidly. "You've heard the news. Come sit down at once."
Neville had heard an Auror say that Snape and Malfoy killed one another in the dungeons. "Good riddance to both," another one had said, and they'd clinked their Firewhiskey bottles together. Then Neville had gone looking for Snape, to ask him if it was true.
"I'm just devastated, myself," Professor McGonagall was saying, dabbing at her eyes with a tartan hankie. "The greatest Potions master of his age, without a doubt, and a courageous man who never flinched from his duty. Hogwarts will never be the same without him."
"Neville," Professor Lupin said, and knelt before him. "Neville, I'm sorry. I know your heart must be breaking."
Neville nodded. He was so cold, and so unhappy, shivering as the Dementors sucked his soul out of him. He hoped Snape would get here soon with the heartsease.
"Neville, listen to me," Lupin said, shaking him a little. "Are you listening?"
Neville looked at him. He looked upset.
"Be brave," he said, holding Neville's hands very tightly. "You have more courage than you can ever know. Grieve honestly for what you've lost, because you have the strength to do it. Your heart has survived blows that would cripple lesser men, and there is nothing it cannot withstand."
Neville nodded. He wasn't feeling very brave just now, but he could try.
"You still have everything he gave you. You still have the man you now are. You still have everything you did together. You'll be all right, Neville. Believe that, with all your heart."
Neville nodded again. He believed it. It made him feel a little warmer, inside all this deadly cold that just kept getting colder; an icy pain which meant he knew that Snape was gone.
He apparated home from the Ministry well after dark.
"Mister Neville is back! Blinky is making baked ham and roast potatoes!"
Neville didn't want to eat anying, but he tried to smile. "Thank you, Blinky. It smells wonderful."
"Good." She scrubbed at her eyes with her tablecloth. "Mister Neville must eat a proper dinner. Blinky is looking after him now."
He stripped off his robes as he trudged up the stairs, numb and empty. When he opened the bathroom door, she was there, pouring a blue potion into a steaming bath. Something in the haggard contortions of her face was unbearably familiar, and he closed his eyes until she was gone.
He should accept this new job offer, he told himself as he sank into the water. Circe had said she could wait until he was ready, but the house was finished, Snape's affairs were settled, and all the funerals and ceremonies were done. There was nothing else to wait for.
He took a deep breath, rubbed his temples, and tried to throw off the sense of foreboding that was bothering him. All these years of getting out of bed, because the only alternative was to roll over and die, and he'd thought it was working. But what was the point, if he was always going to lose everything that made him happy?
He changed into his pajamas and went back downstairs, where Blinky had his dinner waiting. He ate slowly, to the sound of Dolora Pazzesco on the WWN. The ham was delicious, and by the time he finished a slice of blackberry pie and cream, he was beginning to feel like himself again. He probably just needed a good cry, that was all. The war was over now, and things would get better. He could take the job at the Ministry, and work hard to make sure that they did. He'd lost Snape, but he wouldn't abandon his ambitions. There was still a lot left to do.
That decided, Neville made himself a cup of tea with mayflower brandy, and retreated to the stone seat by the old greenhouse. Snape would probably have snapped at him for indulging in melancholy instead of doing something productive with his evening. But the fact was, he loved this bench, this nook, this garden. He liked looking out over the peaceful Muggle village of Swanson-on-Sea, knowing he and Snape had helped to keep it that way.
As the moon rose, the bittersweet scent of blooming heartsease washed over him, filling the night air with memories of the war. In the silvery light, the garden seemed filled with ghosts and statues, swaying sadly. Neville pulled his dressing gown more tightly around his body, and settled himself into the cold stone.
The night had been long, and it wasn't over just yet.
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