Outside Greenhouse Four, two figures in auror grey are trudging across the grass towards the castle, between them a large oblong bundle, slung awkwardly under arms. Neville had forgotten it was today. He turns abruptly back to his pots, the weird sensation of disapproving eyes boring into his back, and takes the head off a healthy shoot by mistake. Odd that Harry hasn’t come himself, but perhaps with the baby so close.
“I want to point out that this decision is my own and based on the weight of evidence, and in no way due to any pressure brought to bear by members of the Auror Office.”
The headmaster had looked over his spectacles at a room full of teachers three times his age, his thumbs pressed together – soberly, almost persuasively – above clasped fingers. Flitwick had coughed at that point and earned himself a stare. Neville, too, had some idea of what that pressure might have been, but kept his mouth shut. Benefit of the doubt – that’s always been his way, until he’s proved wrong, changed his mind, and then, unexpectedly, proved wrong again. Which means he was right in the first place, doesn’t it? Either way, he’ll be in no hurry to visit the headmaster’s office again soon. Not now, with its newest occupant.
He snips another half centimetre. There is a new bud shoot just below where the branch forks, a little fold of palest blue-white below the sheath of green: dense, waxy and strong against the tip of Neville’s thumb. A good scion.
White winter chattering camellias. Camellias for luck, boy, Augusta Longbottom used to say. She grew them in the rose garden. They never brought Neville much luck, but then she didn’t have his patience with compost. Or the grafting knife.
He slides the cut edge carefully into a notch carved in the rose stock, holds it gently between one thumb and forefinger just at the join, and reaches with his other hand for a small vial of cambium potion. He’s always preferred the hands-on approach, smoothing the potion down the stem, feeling the stalk shiver and stretch.
“There. There’s a comfy new home for you.”
The bud seems to sigh into his palm, unfurling a little. He smiles, understanding. Odd to feel so confident – by December the greenhouse will be thick with oyster-white flowers, full of the high hum of brittle chatter.
We got to Costa Rica on Saturday and it definitely looks like the sort of place you might find a colony of crumple-horned snorkacks. Now that I think about it, it was really very silly of Father and me to think we might find one in Sweden, when their favourite food is dugbogs. I’ve found someone who’s going to take me into the forest in few weeks. He’s called Pablo Despiste, and I think he’s tracked quite a lot of snorkacks in his time; he told me about a very exciting expedition he went on last year where they found two families of snorkacks and some male clabberts. I’ve owled Father about it, and he says they’re very rare.
I hope you aren’t lonely. Are you going to move back into the castle? I don’t know if I’m coming back, so you can keep the yellow armchair. Good luck with the second years. I hope they don’t keep planting your dragonhide gloves this year.
PS. I think I always liked being friends better.
It’s more than a week later when Headmaster Weasley visits Greenhouse Three, mid-morning.
“Professor Longbottom, that’s my tea.”
“Oh. I thought – I’m sorry, I thought – the fluxweed loves oolong. I assumed –” Neville gestures towards the tall swaying plant with the blue-figure china cup, then sets the cup down on the saucer. Of course not. He looks at Percy’s feet in their brown brogues. Impatient feet – he expects them to start tapping.
“Well? Perhaps a refill?”
Neville looks up to see the headmaster’s expression slide from superciliousness into something like annoyance. His mouth moves a little and he’s frowning, but it’s at the fluxweed and not at Neville.
They stand for a second or two. Percy sips his tea, then clears his throat.
“Anyway. I wanted to ask about the new Defence professor. Settling in, is he?”
“As well as can be expected,” Neville says cheerfully. “They’re always a bit rattled when they start, of course, but I think Benjamin stands a real chance.”
“And the circle?”
“No real problems yet. Everyone’s really quite positive, actually.”
“Good. Good.” Percy claps a hand on Neville’s shoulder, a movement that begins with enthusiasm and ends a little stiffly. He removes the hand and resumes his teacup. “I’m really hoping to see Professor Murtlegrip back next year. It’s becoming a little, well, that’s to say, those Prophet articles last summer about Professor Goldstein’s breakdown could have been really very damaging.”
“Not to worry, Headmaster.” Neville pats his shoulder in return, eliciting a look of the greatest surprise. “The curse is definitely gone. Everyone says so –”
“Apart from the Prophet. And the parents.”
“We just have to convince the Defence teachers of it. The circle of support should do the trick.”
That’s what’s really good about having a young headmaster, Neville’s always maintained. What you lack in twinkle, you definitely make up for in practicality and dynamic thinking, even if Professor Weasley is something of a micromanager. He hasn’t yet managed to get Professor Flitwick to agree. Binns, on the other hand, and somewhat surprisingly, is a huge fan and has begun to make an appearance at the new bi-weekly staff meetings, poring with infatuation over the many-bullet-pointed agendas.
The headmaster is looking a little bolstered.
“Well, very good, Professor Longbottom. Yes, I have every faith. Well.” He levitates his cup and saucer in front of him. “I think that’s probably all. I’ll let you – oh yes! except – we’ll be having a portrait dedication in a week or two. All staff are expected to attend.”
“Oh.” Presumably this three-line whip was not used for Dumbledore’s dedication.
“There will also be some delegates from the Auror Office, my brother-in-law among them, assuming the bootleggers and the baby allow. It should be a – jolly occasion.” Percy’s voice hardens and Neville’s thoughts turn to the possibility of a debilitating Devil’s Snare accident. Aside from Harry, who has turned out a bit of a private zealot on Snape’s behalf, he can’t imagine anyone will actually want to be there. Neville feels a little swell of fellow feeling for Percy who has to sit with him day after day. He really ought to make an effort.
“Professor Snape – he’s getting on okay in the office?” Neville fingers a fluxweed leaf, which shudders contentedly in his hand. “I mean, I hope he’s not being –”
“It’s not customary for former headmasters to insult the present incumbent, you know.” A bit starchy even for Percy. His teacup is bobbing ominously.
“Oh. Of course not. Sorry, I –”
Percy clears his throat, looking out of the greenhouse window. “Well. As I say. It’s not customary.”
For a moment or two there’s a silence between them that is either sympathetic or uncomfortable. Neville tries to swing it by projecting his most benevolent thoughts, not at all sure that they will be welcomed.
“Which reminds me, Professor – I’d be grateful if you could pop up there from time to time. I’ve been sent a couple of potted Wishknot shrubs by – well, er, by my mother as a matter of fact – and they’ve been rather disrupting my workspace. I’m sure a little well-judged pruning will work wonders. Tomorrow, perhaps?”
“Certainly, Headmaster. Should I bring my, um –?” He gestures scissors with his fingers, feeling like a prize idiot, but Percy is already on his way out of the greenhouse, “Password’s damage limitation!”, forestalling any further discussion.
Neville sighs. There goes his cherished hope of avoiding the headmaster’s office for at least the next year or two. He is deep in memories laced with humiliation and the fearful stink of the Potions lab, when he feels the brush of a fluxweed frond against his knuckle, an offering of leafy comfort. He strokes it with the pad of his thumb.
“Easy for you to say. Some days I’d give anything to be a plant.”
The headmaster is away from his office, of course, when Neville enters the next day, secateurs held to his chest. He has been ordering himself to buck up since breakfast this morning, and yet it’s a relief not to be confronted by those gimlet black eyes on the opposite wall the instant he opens the door.
Longbottom, you feeble excuse –!
He lets out a breath, smiling at himself, and steps into the room. In fact the atmosphere hasn’t changed noticeably since he was here just before the summer holidays. McGonagall, visiting last year from her lively retirement in Auchtermuchty, had sighed over the changes Percy’s made, but Neville rather likes it. It’s full of light – a lovely fresh green colour, not all darkness and wood like Gryffindor Tower or musty stone like the dungeons. There is a world of parchment, labelled and divided into thick stacks, and a framed chart hung on the wall next to the desk, which today is showing the slow rise and fall of house points. All in all, the reliable competence of someone who has things well in hand.
Or it would be, but for the jungle of Wishknots determinedly making their way through the headmaster’s in-tray. Neville rolls up the sleeves of his gardening robes.
“Now, really! What on earth –” he begins, advancing on the miscreant plants.
He’s rounded the corner, and well in his stride, when he catches sight of it. Lank, black hair falling as far as black worsted shoulders, tense, as if he’s flinching from some monumental stupidity. Neville would recognise the back of that head anywhere. For a moment he’s puzzled – did they really paint him from behind? The portrait is set in the most incredible frame: gilt, spandrels, clusters of grape-strung vine, fluting, everything’s been thrown at it. If Neville had any heart in him at all right now, he might even have to smother a laugh.
It’s a full twenty seconds before he thinks to look away, remember his feet planted one in front of the other, his left hand clenched around the secateurs. Job to do, come on, Neville. It’s not like he’s looking at you. Coaxing. Doesn’t even know you’re here.
Even so, it’s barely a tiptoe that takes him to the desk, a ginger thumb and forefinger that reach to disentangle Percy’s governors’ reports from the Wishknot. Five minutes’ work to get the shrubs pruned back to manageability, to flatten out the pulverised parchment, and with his back to that wall, he’s beginning to relax.
“Now, then,” he whispers. “No more of that. I know he puts a lot of effort into those reports, but let’s get you a proper wish, shall we?” No blank parchment anywhere, he tears a tiny piece of blotting paper, and dips a quill. For a second he pauses, at a loss. Babies, Defence professors, well-behaved second years… Luna. He frowns. Camellias? Yes, why not. Neville scribbles the words, and prods the scrap gently, torn edge first, towards a curling shoot, watches as the plant grips at it greedily, rolls it tight to the stem, folding in corners until it’s all but absorbed.
When both shrubs are fed, and rustling and stretching in post-prandial somnolence, Neville tucks them back into a corner of the desk. He is rearranging the piles of parchment, when his eye catches on his name written in precise headmasterly letters on one of the rescued sheets. He forgets – what was he –? It would take a stronger man than he is not to read:
As in previous years, Professor Longbottom’s Herbology classes prove to be –
An almighty nervous spasm sends the secateurs clattering to the floor. Oh god. Neville spins round, backside pressed to the desk, one hand clutching for safety, the other pressed to his chest. Oh god. Boggart.
“Professor,” he wheezes hopelessly, immediately back in first-year Potions. The portrait just stares at him, that same shrivelling black stare, the same shroud of worsted, buttons and greasy hair, the same terrifying beak of a nose. Detention, Neville quavers at himself, before suddenly realising how ridiculous this is. A mustering of character, that’s all it takes. With an effort he lowers his hand to his side and clears his throat. “You, um, gave me a bit of surprise.”
Snape looks at him as if he’s speaking Chinese.
“I? I gave you a bit of a surprise?” Neville’s stout heart flutters uncomfortably under Snape’s emphatics. Just a picture, after all. Just a picture. “What – exactly – are you doing in this office? Is this some wild, ill-conceived attempt at a break-in?”
Neville tries to smile, but it comes out a bit twitchy. There’s a sort of hysterical guffaw trapped in his chest.
“Perc– Headmaster Weasley hasn’t told you?”
The portrait scowls. “It would seem not.”
Suddenly Neville’s afraid to say it. He looks round at Professor Dumbledore snoozing over the fireplace. No help to be had there. “I, er, I work here now. I’m the new Herbology master.”
“No, you are not.” Snape says it so quickly and with such utter conviction, that Neville’s almost convinced. He glances at his empty hands.
“You are not. This is some sort of hallucination.”
Neville’s laugh finally comes out as a choke.
“I promise you – I really am. You’re not halluci–.”
“NOT ME. YOU.”
It’s almost impossible not to cower under that thunderclap of a voice. And how can Professor Dumbledore still be asleep? Neville bends down and picks up the secateurs, holds them out, to prove a point he doesn’t quite dare articulate again. Snape looks at him, mouth sliding into a curl of absolute contempt, then his eyes close, and Neville can just about make out his mutter:
“Not for this. Dear Merlin, it can’t all have been for this.”
Neville looks at the secateurs, then back up at the portrait, which is already turning its back again, hair swishing in a muted version of the old robe trick. He takes a deep steadying breath, and all the way back down the corkscrew staircase, he says to himself: You are the Herbology Master, but it’s not till he’s safely back in Greenhouse Four that he really believes it.
Neville’s standing closer this time. Close enough to see the brush-strokes, which are bolder, quicker, less finished than the other portraits. It was probably an unnerving one to paint – he imagines the last dabs to the chin, the eyes blinking to life. He’d’ve been out of the studio in a flash. All the same, barring the ridiculously flamboyant frame, the effect is right. It is a brash portrait, unsoftened by time or diplomacy, the paleness of the skin and blackness of habit seem to beam out across the room, drawing the eye, just the way they did when he used to stride up and down the dungeon corridors with a glare all special, boxed and secret, just for Neville.
Oh, yes. That glare. Brazen it out, Longbottom. Just a picture.
“Well, do you mean merely to gawp at me?”
“N-No. I’m here to help the headmaster with his –” Neville waves a hand towards the desk. “I just thought we should perhaps try to be a little –” god, can he say the word? “– friendlier.”
It sounds ridiculous – Snape’s eyebrows are high and incredulous – and it’s probably a terrible idea to keep talking.
“Harry wants it.” Snape doesn’t move or blink. “He told us all about – I mean – you’re a hero. And we all thought –”
“Don’t presume to know anything of me!” The words rush at him. “That boy. That boy!” Snape looks away, nose pointing to the window, then turns back so quickly that Neville jumps. “And he showed you my memories, of course. Insolent, careless, ungrateful –”
“No! Honestly no. He didn’t.” Neville’s holding his hands up. This is about as painful as he’d anticipated. “I’m – I’m going to sit down now,” he says, moving slowly to draw up Percy’s chair, as if Snape’s an animal to be pacified. Don’t make eye contact.
On the chimney breast next to Snape’s portrait, Albus Dumbledore is blinking himself awake.
“Good afternoon, dear boy, what a pleasant surprise.”
“And then to drag me back here to be ogled by a pack of morons.” Snape isn’t looking at either of them. “Who is he to –?”
Snape doesn’t finish the thought, but stares fixedly towards the window, jaw working. Neville turns to Dumbledore for help, but he’s still just smiling that twinkly smile.
“He did it because he thought you deserved it. He did more than anyone, you know, back then. I mean we all – we had Dumbledore’s Army that last year, when they were away –”
“Ah!” Dumbledore sighs.
“Dumbledore’s Army!” Snape snorts. “You think I didn’t know about that? Your coins and your secret meetings –”
“We were tortured for that!” Neville’s heart skips with adrenaline.
Snape smiles grimly. “Oh indeed. A very pale idea of torture. And your famous saviour and all his sacrifices.” A humourless huff. “Well, the Carrows paid for their crimes. As did we all!”
There’s a ringing silence, during which Neville frowns accusingly at the ceiling.
“Now, Severus. I’m sure there’s no need to shout.” Dumbledore doesn’t even look round, but has Neville trapped in that benevolent blue gaze. “He’s just a child.”
Well. No. Neville shifts from foot to foot.
“He is not! He is twenty-six year old man, partially in charge of what passes for an education in this farce of a school.”
A chuckle and a scowl respectively. Perhaps Neville can slip out and leave them to it. Maybe –
“And where is he now? Precious Mr Potter. I know he didn’t die. Where is the Chosen One, because he isn’t here. He isn’t hanging on a fucking wall!”
Neville stands up then.
“No he’s not! He nearly died, though. We thought he was dead. And he’s worked bloody hard to sort things out, and he’s still working bloody hard. He deserves to have a life and be happy. He’s an auror – head of the Auror Office – with a wife now, and a baby – and why shouldn’t he?”
Snape’s mouth snaps shut. His stare lasers out of the portrait, pushing Neville back into his chair with a thump.
“Bravo, dear boy!”
“Well. Anyway. He’s a big fan of yours, whatever you think of him.”
Snape looks away again then, and Neville finds himself exhausted, drooping into the chair, his hands wilting over the arms. A much longer silence follows, during which Snape glares at a pigeon on the windowsill, Dumbledore finds a sherbet lemon in his pocket, and Neville wonders exactly how soon he can politely leave. A smart silver carriage clock ticks on the desk behind his left shoulder. He thinks with subdued nostalgia of his camellias.
“Well, you see,” Dumbledore finally begins, mouth stuffed with sherbet lemon, “in time, even the most overheated of potions must cool. Harry and Severus, they are like –”
“Oh, pipe down, Albus!”
The same day as Ginny goes into labour and Harry’s partner goes missing, Neville gets himself a boggart.
“This isn’t going to get me fired, is it?” Professor Murtlegrip had asked, standing in front of the chest and twitching a little.
“No. Definitely not. It’s just for a speech. Someone else was going to give it, but they’re, um, busy.” Neville put a reassuring hand on Benjamin’s shoulder, smiling his most bracing smile, which he has never imagined to be all that bracing. “I need something to practise on, that’s all.”
Whatever small hope Neville had had that his boggart might have evolved into something more grown up – or even something more reasoned, such as a giant snake – had been disappointed when the chest creaked open like a coffin and a thin black-trousered leg had spidered over the side. Instead of advancing on him like a child’s bedtime ghoul, though, this “Snape” had pulled up a cheerful yellow chair in Neville’s living room and looked at him disparagingly.
“My teacher for six years. A loyal and true friend to, um, his colleagues –”
“What absolute nonsense!”
“– one of the finest minds in Hog–” swallow “Hogwarts.”
“As if you would know.”
“And finally, one – one of the bravest men I, we, ever –”
“No – you can’t say – I’m supposed to –”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
For a spot practice, and aside from the absence of Headmaster Weasley, who had sat in the sunlight and looked at him with kind encouragement – coupled with the natural relief of not having to do it himself – it turned out to be remarkably close to the actual performance.
“Put your back into it, Longbottom.”
“Stop saying ‘Longbottom’ like that.” Neville’s fingers are wedged behind the frame and his nose much closer than he’d like to the pale swipe of paint that makes up Snape’s jawline. The collar of his shirt is dampening with sweat.
He tries again, a futile levering. His knuckles are aching from the pressure, and hard corners of gilt vine leaves are pressing into his palms. “No good. It’s not coming,” he wheezes.
“I’m trying! Don’t shout in my ear.” Neville lets go and stands back, puffing. “It’s stuck fast. I think it’s the frame. Maybe if I could get inside it and –”
“Out of the question!”
“Then you’ll have to stay put.”
The hinge of Snape’s jaw flexes. His eyebrows are dangerously low, but Neville, boggart-trained now as well as exhausted from trying to pry an enchanted portrait from the wall, faces him down.
“He can’t be that bad.” Neville glances at Dumbledore, remembering his cloying follow-up speech from the dedication. Snape’s lip curls.
“I will not stay here. I will not be stared at by every weepy girl who comes into this office. And do you have any idea how many of them there are now? ‘The best teacher I ever had’! I hold you to blame for this, Longbottom. You and him.” He looks away from the fireplace, but the indulgent chuckle comes anyway.
“Look – I didn’t write that speech. Harry wanted to –”
“No! Shut up!” Snape’s eyes flick shut. His colour is high, a stippling of scarlet paint on the oyster-white contour of his cheekbone. Neville does indeed shut up, and there’s a painful silence for several seconds. Of course it is interrupted.
“Ah Severus.” As tight as his own jaw is clenching, Neville is certain that Snape’s must be clenching tighter. “Love – even a love that comes late – is worth a hundred years of misunderstanding and bitterness.”
“Get me out of here,” Snape hisses, eyes still closed.
Suddenly hollow-chested with sympathy, Neville nods. Not that there’s any point nodding. He clears his throat. “I’ll think of something.”
The baby is tiny, black-haired and crumple-faced, and he lies in the crook of Neville’s arm, curled like a shrimp. Every swipe of his little arms seems a terrible effort and produces a storm of stuttered grunts and muted gasps.
“He’s very handsome,” Neville says, peering closely to make out any degree of handsomeness at all. The baby’s head flops against his stomach and attaches itself by a string of saliva issuing from the mouth.
Harry, crouching in front of the sofa, runs a hand along the tuft of fluffy hair, more to feel, it seems, than to flatten. His smile is so wide it pulls the skin white over his chin.
“His name – it’s –” Unusual. Inappropriate. Going to cause a riot in the headmaster’s office. Neville swallows. “What does Ginny think?”
Harry looks up. “Ginny?” The smile drops a fraction. “No, she’s fine.” His gaze drops again as a small fist connects with Neville’s chin, and the baby’s face trembles into a little mask of misery. “We made a deal. Here.” He holds out his arms as Albus Severus begins to bleat in earnest.
A couple of lengths of the Potters’ living room, Harry shushing and jiggling, and the baby quiets down. It’s still a surprise to see Harry gentle like this: Harry, whose life has always been made up of violences – violent convictions, attachments, hatreds. Neville’s own brief and uncomfortable flirtation with violence had ended the same day as Bellatrix Lestrange and Voldemort’s snake, but he could never imagine himself owning the confident tenderness that Harry embodies with a baby held against his chest. He looks at his own hands, imagines them lacing carefully into cool strong leaves, and feels heartened.
“Malfoy turned up again then?”
“He always does.” Harry’s smiling down at the baby as if he’s hardly listening to his own words. “Not Yaxley after all, probably just a firewhisky binge.” He sits down in an armchair at right angles to Neville’s sofa and looks up. “Listen, thanks for doing the dedication speech for me.”
“That’s okay.” Neville’s not even sure it was entirely for Harry’s sake that he did it. Percy had shaken his hand afterwards with both of his own, forehead slightly sweaty with obvious gratitude, and Snape had spent a whole day and a half facing the wall.
“I wanted to ask –” Harry pauses, shifts his hold on Albus. “How is he doing? Is he settling in all right? I’d really like to visit.”
It had to happen sooner or later, Neville tells himself with a heavy, doomy feeling in his gut. The baby gives a sudden spasm of a wriggle like he’s trying to fling himself out of Harry’s arms, then turns an angry face on Neville, and that, at least, rings true.
“He’s not keen on the frame,” Neville says finally, and is surprised to see Harry blush.
Neville’s black crayon is worn practically to a stump. The nose has come out a bit smudged, but roughly the right shape, and the eyes are definitely his. They’re even starting to develop a cynical glint, though he can’t be in there yet surely.
Towards the end of the drawing, every stroke of crayon seems portentous. Neville is gingerly adding an ear lobe when the greenhouse door opens, and picture and crayons are shoved under the potting surface in a jerky reflex.
“Good morning, Professor Longbottom.”
The headmaster’s hair is fifty different shades of copper and gold in the brittle November sunshine. A tray with three cups floats gracefully beside him.
“For the fluxweed,” he explains, waving a hand dismissively.
The sun is hot on Neville’s cheek. “Thank you,” he says, startled, then begins to witter. “Of course, you mustn’t over-tea in the fifth week before the solstice or the buds will come out blue and the sepals won’t smolch, so just one is probably –”
“No!” Percy lifts one of the cups off the tray and it rattles against its saucer. “The other one’s for you.”
Neither of them notices as a crayon rolls from under the table and comes to rest against the toe of the headmaster’s shoe.
With all four corners firmly spellotaped down, Neville steps back.
Snape cautiously opens a crayon eye. “Where in Merlin’s name are we?”
Half sure, as he was, that the picture wouldn’t work, and though the lines around Snape’s nose and mouth shift and jerk like a sketchy cartoon as he speaks, Neville almost laughs out loud at his success.
“This is my living room.” He gestures at the sofa, then, looking round, bends swiftly to pick up a dirty plate left on one of the cushions. “Sorry – I should have –”
“How did you get it off –?” Snape begins to ask, then something catches him, and he stops, frowning. He stretches his mouth into silently exaggerated vowels, furrows his brow, raises one eyebrow and then the other. He gives a gigantic shudder which snaps and twists the paper against its fastenings, then his expression falls terribly smooth and his nostrils flare into giant black crayon holes.
“Longbottom.” It’s barely a whisper. “What have you done?”
“I’ve – drawn you.” This is met with blankness, so Neville pushes on. “Like an alternative portrait – somewhere to escape to.” Snape’s eyes close in something that looks like despair. “I’m not even here really during the day. And there aren’t any – weepy girls either.” None of this seems to be helping.
“You’ve drawn me.”
“YOU’VE DRAWN –” He clears his throat. “You’ve drawn me.”
“And since when were you an art teacher, Longbottom?”
“I suppose I should be thanking Merlin that I even have eyelids.” He hasn’t opened them.
Count to ten, Neville.
“I’ll – let you settle in then.” Nothing to be gained by an argument; far better a tactical withdrawal.
A minute and a half drumming his fingers on the edge of the sink and staring out into the garden is enough to induce the calm necessary to think about tea, and as Neville steps back into the living room, mug in hand, Snape is peering at him sharply.
“What were you laughing at?”
“Nothing… just – thinking about something.” There’s no point mentioning the reflexive second cup of tea shoved hastily behind a geranium on the kitchen windowsill. It’s not Neville’s fault he was brought up with manners. He sits on the sofa, zigzagging carefully back towards a cushion so as to keep the cup level.
“Thinking.” One eyebrow lifts into a crooked arch, of course, but curiosity has apparently got the better of Snape’s need to demean. Or shout. “Why do you not live at the school?”
Neville shrugs, wondering whether any explanation will bring down a storm of derision. “Same reason as you.”
“Oh – god – no. That’s not what I meant. I just meant it’s quieter here – no weeping girls. Private.” Snape sucks in his cheeks. Oh, the hell with it. “There’re a lot of memories at the castle – pretty nasty actually, some of them.” Neville looks at his tea. Still too hot to drink, which is a shame, because he’d dearly love to have something to do with his hands.
“Memories in which I doubtless feature quite eminently.” He sounds disgusted. Neville picks at a loose tuft on the arm of the sofa. “Which in turn raises the question what on earth possessed you to bring me here – to your house? To –” he flexes his shoulders, and the papers crackles like it’s trying pry itself loose from the wall, “– pin me up like a shopping list?”
“I asked at the Three Broomsticks, but Rosmerta wouldn’t have you.” Neville takes a gulp of tea, blisteringly hot against his palate. “Needs sugar,” he says, already on his feet.
Neville has his dinner in a little parlour at the back of the house. It’s a cosy room, kept at a constant temperature by thermostatic warming charms, a jungle of succulents in earthenware planters. It’s too hot in here to be eating vegetable stew, and he’s getting up a bit of sweat round his middle where it folds thickly together. With every other spoonful, a venomous aloe that has draped itself over his shoulder pats consolingly at his chest. He thinks of Luna in Costa Rica slicing her way through the undergrowth with a machete hex. He eats as slowly as he can, but the heat drives him out inside fifteen minutes.
“You live here alone,” Snape shouts at him as he passes on his way back to the kitchen. Not any more, Neville feels like shouting back. Instead he fetches himself a steadying brandy and a small bundle of first year essays.
“I didn’t always.” Neville sits in his armchair and sips at his brandy.
If Snape was still waiting for that response, he shows no sign of it. He is inspecting the room with eyes that are unnaturally beady and lifeless, even for him. Neville pats an essay flat on his knee, but it takes him three tries to get through the first paragraph. The room is silent, apart from the creak of springs as he shifts his thighs, feeling that comic book stare on the top of his head.
“That chair –”
“She chose it.”
Neville looks up. Snape’s tone is more flat disbelief than curiosity. Suddenly his mouth twitches upwards at one corner and a strange humorous sound comes out.
“There’s a reason you work with plants, Longbottom.”
The brandy blushes hotly down Neville’s throat. “It didn’t quite work as we hoped.”
“Naturally not.” This is not a conversation to be had here. And not with this – person. Neville embarks on paragraph two. “And – Mr Potter and his Weasley. Evidently as felicitous and fruitful as all Weasley unions.”
Nor is Neville about to discuss the ambiguous state of his friends’ relationships with Snape, not that they confide a great deal in him. A relief really – secrecy he can manage, it’s the need for maintenance and discussion he’s never quite mastered. He decides on a safer sort of news. “He’s named the baby after you.”
Snape’s face takes on that strange flat look again. It’s a little alarming – perhaps he was drawn in too much of a hurry; there aren’t enough lines to pinch around his mouth. Neville presses on:
“He wants to visit you.”
A little outbreath, then an oddly strained whisper: “Not here.” The picture is all stark darting black eyes and slack mouth, signifying – what? From Snape, it’s so incongruous that it should be funny; it is not.
It is two days later when Neville enters the headmaster’s study to find Percy bending over the smaller of the Wishknot shrubs, a small scrap of paper held out like a spoon towards a greedy infant.
He half turns, then abruptly stands, brushing his hands on the legs of his tweed trousers, as the paper is rolled and crumpled jealously into the ether of possibility. There is a wood fire crackling and snapping in the hearth, and Percy’s cheeks are pink from the heat.
“Ah. Professor Longbottom.” He bounces once on the balls of his feet. “Coming –” he clears his throat, “coming along nicely aren’t they?” Neville steps closer and peers at the plants. They are burgeoning. “Once a day – just like you said.”
“Actually, once a w–”
“Once a week, I mean, yes.” The headmaster rubs his hands together, brisk and in command. “Once a week. Right! Lots to do.” He looks at his watch. “I have a meeting in Hufflepuff at ten-thirty, and today is Auror Potter’s visit, of course.”
“He’ll be here in fifteen minutes.”
“Excellent. I’ll – er – leave you to it.” He looks round tentatively at Snape, who is glaring at the wall opposite, all grim mouth and hunched shoulders. “I know you’ll make our visitor welcome.”
Snape is doing his very best impression of one of those awful corpse-like muggle portraits, totally unblinking, and, suddenly desperate to save the headmaster embarrassment, Neville answers instead.
“We’ll do our best.”
Percy smiles, his hairline rising as an anxious frown smoothes out. “Excellent,” he says again. “Oh and – it might be a good idea to give him a bit of a scourgify. Looking a touch grubby.”
Snape turns at that – affronted, maybe even a little panicked. He lowers his chin to his collarbone and examines his chest. There are fingermarks on the frame and the paint where Neville had tried to wrench him off the wall last week.
“Clean me,” he says, in a voice that would freeze an alpine rockery, as soon as the headmaster is gone, and yet will not allow Neville within six feet of him with a wand drawn. A large yellow duster is summoned from the kitchens.
Neville has been rubbing gingerly at the gilt corners of the frame for several minutes, when Snape suddenly shifts in agitation. “Ridiculous frame. Change it.”
“Can’t be done. He’ll be here in five minutes.” Snape breathes out hard through his nose. “Besides you told me to leave my wand on the table.”
There is more shifting. Neville doesn’t look up, but smoothes the cloth gently over a hard lacquered vine leaf. Vitis vinifera.
“Anyway, he chose this frame. You should probably –”
“I am not here to flatter that boy’s taste!” Snape hisses, and turns to face the window.
When every ronde of grape in every cluster is gleaming, he moves in to inspect the surface of the painting. Thick ridges of oil, fifteen different shades of black. Snape keeps his face averted, for which, as he dabs at the starched black collar, Neville is duly grateful.
The whorls of paint rise and fall smoothly and swiftly with Snape’s breathing. There’s nothing to say; his anxiety beams out of every brushstroke, and it’s infectious. Neville finds his own pulse fluttering. Harry hasn’t seen him in ages – “Eight years,” he’d said, choky, like he was trying to tamp down a weird euphoria – but for Snape who was in whatever bitter peace might pass with him for death, it must seem like a matter of weeks. Four weeks, five maybe, since he dug out his heart for the very last time and spread it out for Harry to pick over. And there are big thick secrets in these swipes of black paint even now, secrets clenched tight between yellowing tempera teeth.
Percy’s clock ticks through five minutes, and when they are up, the door pushes open and Harry walks in. The smothered burst of hunger in Snape’s face is enough to drive Neville back out and down the stairs.
“– wanted to understand! I wanted –”
“What exactly leads you to believe you could ever comprehend the kind of –”
“I have no fucking idea! None at all! You’re fucking impossible!”
It was a bare ten minutes on the spiral staircase before Neville heard the first rumble of shouting. But now the door is open again and the words smash around the stone walls.
“Yes! I am! I don’t know why you ever thought different!” Snape’s voice is rising hysterically; there’s the clump of boots on the stairs.
“Fine!” Harry shouts, and Neville flinches as if he’s shouting in his ear.
“– and do me the very great service of not returning!”
Neville is considering backing into the shallow nook at the bottom of the staircase, when he is shouldered to one side.
“Absolutely bloody pointless.” He doesn’t even look round.
But he clearly has no intention of stopping or listening to any cack-handed attempts at arbitration. This is the Harry that Neville remembers – the great causes always filled him with a frightening sort of righteous fury. And as for Snape, who’s been ready to jump out of his skin for the last two days, well – any idiot Herbology professor could have predicted this, he tells himself. Neville cranes round, peering back up towards the office, and thinks of Percy safely ensconced in Hufflepuff. There’s nothing for it, though. He trudges back up.
Snape has edged to the furthest left corner of his frame when Neville looks in, and is in his habitual mode of glaring at the window, this time apparently in an effort to avoid Albus Dumbledore who has sidled into the frame and is offering the contents of a crumpled white paper bag. Snape glances at Neville without turning his head, then looks back at the window. He puts a hand to his cheek, like he’s holding himself steady.
“Paint over me,” he says.
White petals flutter at Alice’s fingers. That boy who comes has come again. He brought these. They look nice on her shelf – she pulls at Frank to look too. White petals in her big white room, curled and slipped and secret. Alice chuckles.
But the boy looks sad today, or thinking, or hoping. When Miss Tea comes, he takes a cup. No words today. No slivers of silver. All those words kept in his chest, or stirred and stirred and stirred into his tea. She touches his fringe and he starts and smiles at her.
A nice word. Alice says it back to him.
As soon as Neville’s wish has been greedily snatched and crumpled, he feels as exposed as if the words were in six-foot high letters strung over the headmaster’s desk. A ferocious heat prickles up his back. He fingers an invoice in the top of Percy’s in-tray.
As in previous years, Professor Longbottom’s Herbology classes prove to be –
It might have been anything really: original, popular, sub-par, laughable. He swallows. Laughable. Sometimes he suspects he makes no progress at all – still a fat boy with a toad instead of an owl, accidentally sorted. Still, who’s to know? Embarrassment when there’s only yourself to see is nothing but a waste of time.
He scribbles the selfsame hope on another triangle of blotter and holds it out to the smaller of the Wishknots with only slightly shaking fingers.
We didn’t find any snorkacks. I’m starting to think maybe there weren’t any in the first place. We were in the forest for a month without seeing so much as a nargle, but then I ran out of galleons, and Pablo said he thought they must all be hibernating. I didn’t know snorkacks hibernated, did you? But Pablo is quite poor and perhaps he just needed a bit of money before the baby comes.
But this is my real news. When we got back to San José, he introduced me to someone called Rolf Scamander, who is another explorer he took into the forest, looking for umgubular slashkilters. (They didn’t find any.) Rolf says he’s not giving up and that the next place to look is in the foothills of the Andes. He’s making an expedition to Peru and he’s asked me to go with him. He’s got a funny little beard, and he’s a bit rude sometimes, but I like him anyway, and everyone says he knows more about tracking the umgubular slashkilter than anyone else. I think I will go.
I’m not coming home yet.
The second interview is almost two weeks later, and lasts considerably longer.
The greenhouse glass is pearly with condensation, but Neville can see a dark shape lurching outside. A swipe of his sleeve reveals it to be Harry crunching across the grass. This is unexpected; even the camellias seem to whisper louder. Neville wipes the dirt off his hands and goes to the door of the greenhouse.
Harry veers round, and walks towards him with a smile.
“Brave man!” Neville shouts, shivering in his shirtsleeves.
Harry’s eyes drop a little, but he walks forward just as full of purpose. “If a thing’s worth doing.” He shrugs, still smiling, but at his feet.
They go up to the castle together.
Harry blows a breath out, and the pale white blast of it curls a foot in front of him. “Very well. Last I heard.”
Oh. Neville wonders what to say.
“It’s fine.” Harry looks at him sideways. “She’s staying with her mother for a week or two. Part of the deal.”
“Do you miss her?”
Harry makes a grunting sort of laugh. “I miss Albus and James.” He pats Neville on the back, as if he’s apologising for the awkward conversation. “They’ll be back.”
They trudge together up the front steps of the castle. “Anyway, I’m hardly suffering for company,” Harry murmurs, as they disappear through the oak door. “Can’t get Malfoy out of the house for love or money. I think he’s run through his booze allowance.”
By the time they reach the gargoyle, they’ve said nothing more. Neville is annoyed with himself for getting lost off in counting the steps from door to study, thinking of the familiar turnings, milepost gashes in the stone walls, the muffled crowing of teenagers in the stairwells. He’s missed the opportunity for a serious chat. That strange secret look on Harry’s face seems like nothing but trouble.
“Are you coming up?”
“Would it help?” If anything at all would help this situation, Neville is pretty sure it’s not him.
He takes a deep breath. “Damage limitation.”
At the top of the staircase, the study door opens on a flood of pale green sunlight and what sounds like a restrained difference of opinions.
“– nevertheless, studies have shown that this fibreglass –”
“Studies? Studies by whom? Some Muggle ambassador for that blasted hocus pocus they call ‘science’? This is my Potions laboratory –”
“Not any more.” There is that light colour again, creeping over Percy’s pale skin, like Uncle Algie’s applejack roses. The headmaster’s arms and legs are folded over each other. Neville regards him with a sudden wild admiration. He looks round at Harry, nudging an elbow at him, but Harry’s busy grinning at Snape. Neither the headmaster nor the portrait seem to have registered their presence.
“Hallo, Percy,” Harry says to Snape. “Hallo, Severus.”
Neville flinches at the same time as something twitches in Snape’s cheek and an eyebrow shoots up to mid-forehead. Here it comes – then Percy turns, his arms and legs coming unhooked, his nostrils still wide with fading irritation.
“Good morning, Harry. Ah, Professor Longbottom. I was hoping to catch you.”
Neville swallows uncomfortably. It is a hard thing to be suspended between desire to show his willingness for whatever function Percy had in mind, and bracing himself against the storm of offended rage which is surely about to burst forth from the wall opposite the desk. What a relief to be guided gently from the room, with a hand held lightly at his shoulder. Snape and Harry are engaged in staring each other down, and don’t so much as turn.
“What was that about?” Neville asks, when the hand is finally withdrawn, and the staircase lowers them slowly down.
“Professor Snape is a little old fashioned when it comes to teaching methods. He’s also a fearful eavesdropper. I was telling Professor Slughorn about the shipment of fibreglass cauldrons we’ve agreed on – totally inert and, for safety reasons, far more appropriate for school-age Potions instruction – and well. There you have it.”
“I’m not sure inertia is something Professor Snape is particularly keen on,” Neville offers, secretly wondering about a fibreglass panel for the front of the portrait. For safety reasons.
Percy smiles at him. “Quite.” They hesitate at the bottom of the staircase, then Percy leans close, as if not wishing to be overheard, and his breath flutters against Neville’s ear. “Actually I think it was the explosions that got him into Potions in the first place. So much scope for shouting.”
They are ensconced in Greenhouse Three, two cups of tea to the good, fluxweed nodding approvingly above them, and a third of next door’s crop of camellias promised by proxy to Slughorn for the yearly batch of Felix Felicis, when the black shape floats back over the grounds.
They both watch in silence, two cups halfway between saucer and mouth.
“Should we go up?” Neville says, when the shape has faded into the dark blur of the forest.
He looks back at Percy, who is taking a sip of his tea, head bent, copper and walnut. When he looks up, he’s smiling. “I think maybe a little longer to cool off, don’t you?”
Neville fingers the handle of his cup, as the sun dips behind a cloud and the plants seem to shroud them over like a forest canopy. “A little longer,” he says.
By the time the tea is finished, Neville has a class of Ravenclaws and Slytherins waiting with their earmuffs outside Greenhouse Two, and there’s no time to return to the headmaster’s study. The children straighten as Percy strides past them; two girls on the edge of the group fall silent and look at him out of the corners of their eyes. The sun has come back out and Neville squints into it, one hand on his forehead, not exactly sorry not to be following into whatever aftermath there might be.
For the last two months, Neville has done his utmost to maintain a polite curatorial distance from Snape. Nevertheless, as he walks home to Hogsmeade that evening, he finds it impossible not to think about Snape’s desperate expression after the last visit. By the time he reaches the house, his conscience is pricking him hard enough to be considering an owl to Harry.
“Dear Harry,” he’s murmuring, at a bit of a loss, as he opens the front door. “Dear. Harry –”
“What was that?”
“Oh, Professor, you’re here.” Neville sticks his head round the living room door. The picture tries to peer past him. “I’m er – on my own.”
Crayon eyebrows lower a smidgeon further than is lifelike. “Just as well.”
“Have you been here all day? How did your visit go this morning?”
“How did it go?” Snape’s nostrils inflate. “The boy lacks manners, education, tact and native intelligence. Naturally it went like a blasted dream.” There’s an odd little quirk at the corner of Snape’s mouth, an indication either that Snape is exceptionally badly drawn or that he is peculiarly pleased with himself.
“Naturally.” Neville can feel the frown on his face as he wanders through to the kitchen.
Snape is still there when he comes back with his bowl of vegetable stew and the Daily Prophet, but Neville’s too absorbed in a piece about Hogwarts’ new Defence professor and an alleged misappropriation of dark creatures. He really must return that boggart. There’s also yet another article about last week’s unprofitable raid on the warehouse in Folkestone, and this time the anonymous leak from the Auror Office has the stamp of Malfoy all over it:
‘An almighty cock-up,’ a source close to department heads reports. ‘Some people are born for leadership and some simply aren’t; Potter certainly wasn’t Chosen for his logical thinking.’ A large component of the auror workforce is, moreover, said to be anticipating a welcome change of colours in the MLE Offices in the very near future.
Neville almost chokes on a cube of pumpkin.
“Longbottom. Kindly cease slurping and tutting.”
“And don’t speak with your mouth full!”
He swallows, prodding at the Prophet. “I sometimes wonder what they put in the water in Slytherin.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Slytherin,” Neville repeats, then stops. “Why are you in such a good mood anyway? Did Harry slip and crack his head on the desk or something this morning?”
There’s that lip quirk again – unsettling to say the least. “As it transpires, Auror Potter is in need of my assistance. One of my former associates, Rupert Yaxley, is believed to be involved in an alcohol-running and money-laundering syndicate.”
“I know.” Neville pats at the paper in his lap.
He almost expects Snape to be offended that the information has come so late to him, but evidently not so. “Greatly as I mistrust the ability of Potter and his department to penetrate to the heart of the matter, I have agreed to provide whatever information they deem useful. My sense of duty is doubtless overdeveloped.”
Neville stares at him. His chin is lifted as usual, but there’s something about the tone of his voice that is absolutely unfamiliar. The spoon hangs from Neville’s fingers. When no response comes, Snape looks down at him, all the way along that pointed cartoon nose.
“Your dinner looks revolting.”
That’s it. For a bitter, misanthropic, pessimistic, dead bastard, he sounds – happy.
Over the two weeks that follow, several things happen: the fluxweed is harvested and Greenhouse Three restocked with winter bulbs; Headmaster Weasley comes to tea six times; the camellias in Greenhouse Four come into full bloom and begin spreading rumours behind Neville’s back; and on one occasion Harry, now a frequent visitor to the school and allowed the freedom of the office password, brings his designated partner, Probationer Malfoy.
“We’re no closer to finding Yaxley,” Malfoy says confidentially. “I don’t personally know what it is they do up there for hours on end.” He sounds miffed not to have been invited. Harry had practically manhandled him onto a stool in the greenhouse, and told him to wait with Neville and the headmaster. Now he sits here, in the pale grey uniform of a rehabilitated Death Eater, looking at least fifteen years older than when they left school. Apart, that is, from the sneer, which is precisely as Neville remembers it. “Can’t you get these plants to shut up?”
A collective gasp rises from the camellias. Neville gives the closest cluster a deprecating look, hoping it will suffice until he has time for a more thorough soothing.
“You know he’s commissioned another copy?” Malfoy looks from one to the other over the rim of his cup, probably aiming for subtle and missing by at least a couple of feet.
“I am aware, yes.” Percy’s spikiest headboy voice. “The artist came last week for some preliminary sketches.”
“And left looking ten years older, I expect. I’ve told Potter it’s all fine with me as long as it doesn’t hang in the outside office with us.” He shudders, sucking air in through his teeth.
Neville frowns. “I thought you Slytherins all loved him. He always took your side.” Malfoy doesn’t look impressed. “He hasn’t changed at all, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about, Longbottom. Horrible man. You only thought he was nice to us, because you were too busy wringing your hands over how life was oh so unfair to you poor Gryffindors. Those dormitories were freezing.” He takes a sip of tea. “Besides, portraits give me the willies.”
“Hang on –” Neville starts crossly, not even sure where this surreal urge to defend Snape is going to take him, then Percy lays a tea-free hand on his arm. For a moment Neville just stares at it.
When he looks up, Percy is smiling at him with one side of his mouth. Not worth it. Neville lets out a breath, and turns back to say something a little blander, more conciliatory. Malfoy, meanwhile, is looking at the pair of them, open-mouthed like the snitch has just plopped into his hand of its own accord. Neville’s ears are instantly so prickly hot it feels like they might burn right off, and there Malfoy sits, goggling like a first year, for a full five seconds, before clearing his throat with unnecessary drama.
“Anyway. Tell me about the new Defence professor. Is it true he’s been pilfering hinkypunks?”
Another soft gasp from the little tree at Neville’s right elbow. The camellias lean forward to catch more. Luck, my arse. Next time Neville’s going to try grafting them to a crop of Devil’s Snare.
Ten minutes more and the headmaster’s had enough. He pleads a staff meeting and stands to shake Malfoy’s hand.
“This has been charming, Probationer Malfoy. We must do it again.”
“I’d be thrilled.”
Nevertheless, he insists on accompanying them up to Percy’s office to collect Harry, and Neville’s fairly certain it’s only in the hope of getting a glimpse of the portrait. He’s first through the door – “in case they’re discussing something top secret” – and stops so abruptly that Neville bumps into him with a boof of air from his lungs. Neville peers into the room.
Over Malfoy’s shoulder, he is just in time to see Harry standing on the headmaster’s green-upholstered mahogany armchair, a bare inch of air between his torso and the rough surface of a painting on the wall behind the desk. The fingers of his left hand trace slowly across a pale cheekbone, a yellow duster in his right smoothes short gentle strokes along the sitter’s neck. Snape’s eyes are closed and his mouth ever so slightly ajar; he seems almost sighing to himself. For a moment Neville’s stomach swoops violently as if he’s stepped out for a stair and found it missing. Then it’s over. Harry pulls back so fast he almost totters, one foot paddling a little through the air to keep his balance. The duster is whipped behind his back, and he smothers a sneeze into a closed fist with a squeak and a bounce of the knees.
Neville’s first instinct – to back out of the door, down the stairs and to keep going until he’s firmly bolted into the furthest greenhouse – is stymied by the headmaster pressed against his back. The three of them stand there, and for at least two it is without doubt one of the most uncomfortable experiences of their lives. Snape stares at them with more contempt than he ever spared a second year splattered in bubotuber pus.
Finally Malfoy’s shoulderblades shift against Neville’s chest, and in his peripheral vision he sees a pair of clasped hands.
“Thank you, Merlin!”
Wednesday afternoon. Double Herbology with the first-year Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs.
“Hold it like it’s a wand, Staveley. Thumb on top. That’s it.” Staveley’s little fat hand grips falteringly on the secateurs. “Remember to tickle just below the leaf cluster. Wait a second – till it leans a bit. Gently. There.”
The camellia hisses against the snick of the secateurs and drops with satisfied hum into the small pile of flowers on Staveley’s workbench. There’s a drift of them rising gradually all around the students. A third will get laid out overnight in the vegetable patch under the anti-crow charms, so that they come to Professor Slughorn dewed and soft.
Neville had spread out the first batch last night, under a glittering clear sky and a sliver of moon, and wondered for the first time why he still lived in that little cottage in Hogsmeade. There were lights still lit high up on the north side of the castle and he’d looked at those pale yellow windows until they burnt purple on the inside of his eyelids when he blinked, then went home just the same, and not even Snape was there to sneer at his hopelessness.
“Sir! Professor Longbottom!” Neville turns with a jerk. Stuart Buggins, a fifth-year prefect, is scurrying across the lawn towards the open greenhouse door. “Can you –” He bends, panting, one hand on the doorframe, the other on his knee. “Can you come to the headmaster’s office. Those plants –” He points back towards the castle.
Neville takes him by the shoulders. “Where’s the headmaster?”
Buggins seems to point harder, his finger waving wildly. “In the office. Fighting them off.”
Oh Merlin. “Stay here. Don’t let them –” Neville gestures at the greenhouseful of first years. There are plenty of things a dozen Gryffindors shouldn’t be allowed to do with a pair of secateurs, but panic sweeps them all from his mind.
Neville dashes in through the entrance hall, feet slapping heavy and flat on the stone flags. Skidding round the turn by the tall suit of armour, there’s the hole where Malfoy’s hex struck the wall by the Charms classroom in fourth year, there’s the statue of Themistocles the owl with its beak missing, there’s the stair that’s been shattered beyond repair for hundreds of years. A rumble of laughter grows louder as the period finishes and children boil out into the corridors, and all the way up to the office, Neville imagines Percy caught round the neck by a thick arm of vine.
When he arrives, it’s not quite as he feared. In the week since Neville was last here, the Wishknots have grown to the size of well-established hydrangea bushes and the branches are snaking across the desk, reaching and twisting for anything in close range. Percy is wrestling one of them for his tie, while the other has spilt his inkwell all across the desk and is rifling through the boxes of paperwork.
This is Neville’s moment! There is a spell for ‘let go’ – and it is – what is it? He fumbles his wand out of his trouser pocket. Begins with res-? rem-? re-? Percy’s opponent is reaching for the collar of his shirt. Neville panics.
The Wishknots are still for a second, then there is a massive convulsion, Percy staggers forward with a yelp, then stillness again.
Percy and Neville eye each other nervously as a fragment of paper is catapulted out from the middle of Percy’s Wishknot and lands in his hair. He picks it out and Neville has barely a moment to flush with embarrassment and beg him silently not to read it, when scraps begin erupting from both plants, filling the study like a snow globe.
The deluge lasts for at least two minutes and leaves them both ankle-deep in soft shards of white, like camellia petals. Percy’s face is blank and shocked; he must have fed them at least twenty times a day for the last two months to cause this – the pair of them wading around in their joint indiscretions. Neville’s almost cross. He would say something, but there’s a piece of paper stuck to the tip of his tongue; he peels it off, keeping his eye on Percy for any sudden movement. The writing is smudged blue and purple. Professor Longbrlluurr, it says cryptically, drunkenly blurred and chewed. Neville stares at it, as if it’s a clue to be deciphered, then picks up another. Professor Longbddrrrm, says one on his shoulder, and Profoeedr Iomqbcllarrr, one caught in his collar. When he looks up again, a heat flooding his skin, like the sun’s just come blazing out at five o’clock on a December afternoon, the headmaster is just standing there, red in the face, one elbow twitching mechanically against his desk chair.
And it comes down to this. Neville may have been slow at Potions and clumsy at Transfiguration, but if there’s anything he’s learnt at Hogwarts, it’s that there is every reason to accept something when it presents itself to you. He climbs over the ruin of Percy’s filing system, parchment and paper crumpling together and all manner of governors’ reports and Profemmrnr Lommbolllrroms crushed under his heels, and keeps himself walking awkwardly forward, aware of every untidy muscle movement, until he’s two feet away from Percy. And as steady as he can, he holds out his hand.
Spring is returning. The south edge of the Forbidden Forest is bright with bluebells and the Snapping Gladioli are beginning to come through in Greenhouse Three, but it’s been a bad day.
This morning the staff finally waved goodbye to Benjamin Murtlegrip. Earlier even than last year’s Defence professor. Percy has been in desperation all afternoon, and at four o’clock a statement of interest owl arrived from Draco Malfoy, which was once again the triumph of hope over expectation, as well as an exercise in extravagantly poor taste.
A tentative dinner plan has had to be cancelled, and Neville trudges home alone. He is annoyed, and by the time he reaches the cottage, his collar is damper and pricklier than the intermittent drizzle warrants.
He throws his cloak over the armchair in the living room and is about to head upstairs to run himself a bath, when something stops him short, suddenly aware of all the hairs standing to attention on the back of his neck. A familiar voice behind him makes him start.
“So you’re still here?”
Neville turns, one hand on his chest. Snape is peering around the room as if it is his own and Neville has made some very unwelcome changes.
“Of course. Where else would I be?”
“At the castle. I fully expected to see you installed as deputy head by now. I imagine I should be relieved.”
“I imagine so. What are you doing here?”
“Since you’re the one who drew the picture, I rather thought that might be within your purview.”
“You haven’t been to my picture for months. Has he said something?”
“Who?” Snape begins sharply, then the clumsy crease between his brows flattens out again and he takes a breath in through the nose. “He brought his brood into headquarters today, evidently from the mere wish to see me smeared with jam and deafened with squawking. That one with the appalling name.” His mouth is drawn tight like he’s going to be sick. Is that possible for a portrait? It suggests all sorts of other bodily functions Neville’s not quite ready to contemplate. “I reprimanded it on its conduct, as any rational person would have.”
The rest of the story is pretty easy to imagine. Neville’s even seen it play out once or twice. Perhaps it’s only really surprising that Snape hasn’t reappeared before now.
“Oh, you needn’t worry, I shall return once the office is empty. We can both get some peace.”
“Oh, well. I’m sure tomorrow you’ll – he’ll be ready to apologise.”
“If he leaves me again with that cretinous Malfoy boy, he’ll have more to do than apologise.”
“Malfoy’s always been afraid of you. He told us.” Neville almost blushes, distracted by the thought of who ‘we’ were. And it comes so easily to the tongue. They’ll have dinner tomorrow instead. Then perhaps… He smiles.
Snape either does not notice, or he affects not to. “Gryffindors,” he snorts. “Do you honestly suppose that a house like Slytherin can be ruled by love? Do you think that I tucked Gregory Goyle into bed each night?”
“No! Merlin, no. But maybe if you’d been a bit nicer –”
The eyebrows descend. “Nicer? Longbottom, I am, as you are doubtless aware, barely of the temper to be nice. Besides, what you win for yourself with your nauseating niceness, some of us manage far more efficiently through discipline and appropriate correction.”
There’s a tight-lipped look to Snape’s picture, a slight arch of one brow, which to Neville’s great horror, seems to signify a profound smugness. Time for that bath.
“I’ll entertain myself,” Snape calls, as Neville escapes up the stairs.
It takes a good twenty minutes to soak out the very concrete image of Snape kissing Goyle goodnight, as well as several more nebulous ones of discipline and – entertainment. Neville stares absently at his belly, which rises like a shiny milky-coloured hill out of the bathwater, thinks of a coppery mop of hair rising and falling slowly on his ribcage.
No one shouts at him as he comes back down the stairs, which is a pleasant surprise.
“You had a visitor,” Percy says, as Neville sticks his head into the living room.
Neville is suddenly smiling so wide his cheeks ache, and there seems no question of bringing his expression under any sort of control. “Hello. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Nor was – um –” Percy gestures at the empty page of paper tacked onto the wall with yellowing spellotape.
“Oh, god. What did he say to you?” Neville sits on the sofa. They touch lightly, knee to knee.
“Actually, he was surprisingly polite. Even had a suggestion or two for the Defence post – neither of them practical, of course. Then he left. He said something to the effect of not wishing to be a third wheel.” Percy looks down at their knees, and Neville reaches across to take hold of his hand. His fingers are unmistakeably those of a gardener next to Percy’s colourless skin, his fingernails scratched, his knuckles scuffed white. “I don’t know what he imagined we were going to do in the middle of the living room.”
Neville laughs. “I think he had some sort of argument with Harry. Merlin knows why he chose to come here.”
“This is where I’d come.” Percy’s looking at him seriously, and Neville thinks suddenly how young he looks out of his school robes. His lips are pink, with that one pale brown freckle that creeps onto the bottom left edge of his mouth. He glances again at the picture, still empty.
“You could always take it down, if you don’t want him here. Fold it into one of your Herbology encyclopaedias.”
“No, I think it’s – I don’t mind.” He rubs his thumb over the back of Percy’s hand, absently reassured by the bump and twist of his knuckles. “It’s good he has somewhere to come.”
When they lean in, Neville wonders if he should have offered tea first, if he should have asked about the Defence job advert, whether his hair will drip on Percy’s neck. Then they kiss, and it’s as surprising as the first time, as patient and kind. A gentle unfurling of lip and hand, a subtle graft of shoulder and thigh. Neville will keep the picture. Perhaps it’s superstitious, but luck like this is not to be tampered with.