A/N: As it says above, this is not a slash fic! This is a short story about Snape mentoring Neville; it does not end in adoption or a relationship, but rather a more subtle change. I really enjoyed writing this, and thank you to marthapreston4 for the invitation to join in on the challenge! Feel free to ask her for the details of the challenge if you're interested in writing one yourself.

Severus would admit, if only to himself, that his first reaction to the boggart episode had been pure, unadulterated fury.

As soon as that first wave of emotion had passed, however… came a suffocating, nauseating numbness.

He was Longbottom's worst fear.

The boy who had lost his parents to insanity at the hands of Death Eaters, the student who had spent an entire night in his first year petrified by a classmate, one student out of many who could have been killed by a basilisk the previous year, the son who should have been terrified out of his mind after Black's recent escape from Azkaban, if only because it showed it wasn't out of the realms of possibility for Bellatrix Lestrange to escape as well…

That boy's greatest fear was his Potions Master. His professor. A man who, while exceedingly nasty in his classes, would never raise a hand to one of his students, indeed did the best he could to protect them.

Severus felt sick.

Oh, he was still furious – but not at the boy. No. He was furious at Lupin for not taking the boy's fear seriously and for ridiculing a fellow professor openly; he was furious at the boy's classmates for laughing off that Longbottom was obviously scared to death of a man whom he came in close proximity with at least twice a week; he was furious at himself.

What had he done to instill such bare-faced fear in his young student? Surely being vitriolic, condescending and insulting in class wasn't enough to instill such terror in his student? The boggart showed, after all, ones deepest fear. How could Longbottom consider his Potions professor the most terrifying thing he could even call to mind? Severus would have thought Bellatrix Lestrange and the prospect of the Cruciatus Curse the most terrifying to the boy; or perhaps his parents regaining their sanity only to tell the boy they hated him and thought him unworthy of being their son.


Severus abruptly stopped pacing his room. Thinking back to the previous years, he remembered small comments he had heard in passing: Minerva telling Filius with a fairly incensed tone that Longbottom was using his father's wand rather than one of his own; a soft comment from Poppy about Longbottom's lack of confidence; Pomona remarking proudly how at home Longbottom was in the greenhouses when Minerva addressed how desperately Longbottom seemed to struggle to accomplish his tasks…

The few times he had seen the Dowager Longbottom, she had appeared strict, almost harsh; proud of her son and utterly bereft at his loss; curt and blunt of speech. He had caught a glimpse of her with her grandson in Diagon Alley one summer and not taken much note at the time of the deeply unhappy expression on the boy's face and the pinched, disapproving one on Dowager Longbottom's…

There didn't appear to be much love there, and if what Severus knew of the wider Longbottom family was correct, then Neville Longbottom only had an uncle and two cousins. Now that he thought of it, hadn't he heard a whispered rumor that the uncle was rather too interested in the Longbottom money and estate..? If he remembered rightly, the gossip had said that the uncle had attempted to kill the young Longbottom heir more than once before he was sent to Hogwarts…

Scowling fiercely now, Severus crossed the room and poured himself a glass of wine. Gazing into the red liquid with a darkly pensive expression, he wondered whether there weren't darker reasons for Longbottom's apparent fear of him. The way his thoughts were going, it seemed as though the boy had been at least unloved and at most despised growing up, with harsh words at least and murder attempts at worst. Growing up either way, Severus knew that the boy would have perceived his strictness in class not as such, but as verbal abuse.

He himself could acknowledge it as being verbal abuse, frankly. In his first year of teaching he had attempted to treat all houses fairly, to prove to Dumbledore and McGonagall that they were bigoted idiots; but then first Lucius, then the Dark Lord himself had questioned him why he was treating the other houses better than their own – and he had realized that he needed to change his teaching style, or be suspected of not being a true Slytherin. To his dismay, he had found it far too easy to denigrate the other houses, and he had faithfully kept up the mask of the odious Potions Master ever since.

Severus closed his eyes and downed the contents of his glass in one go, exhaling slowly at the end. He wanted to have a private word with Longbottom, prove to him that he had nothing to fear from him, help the boy as clearly no one else was willing to… but Severus was a spy, and had appearances to maintain. He couldn't risk his position on a frightened boy.

Could he?

"Longbottom, stay after class," the Potions Master snapped as his lesson ended, scowling fiercely at the sweating boy.

"Yes, sir," the student said weakly in response, and Severus's lip curled slightly before he turned and made his way to his desk, watching with a baleful glare as the students filed out of his classroom.

"Close the door," he ordered Longbottom once the other students had left; he hadn't missed the way Potter had seemed about to defend the other student, nor the way Granger had clamped a hand over the brat's mouth and practically dragged him out. So they thought he was going to take out his anger at the boggart situation on Longbottom, did they? Severus's lip curled again.

Then he realized his student was waiting with an apprehensive expression, practically shaking with fear as he stood a good two steps from the Potion Master's desk, and Severus pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to force down his irritation and anger.

"Have a seat, Longbottom," he said, wordlessly levitating a chair over to the boy so that he could sit. He made sure to place the chair nearly as far away as the boy was standing; it was rather more space than Severus would usually have between himself and a student during such a talk, but Longbottom clearly needed the distance. With a sigh Severus put down his wand and rubbed at his temples; he had a headache, as so often after this class.

"Longbottom," he began without looking up. "I wish to apologize for my treatment of you." Pinching the bridge of his nose again, he didn't open his eyes or look up at the student before him.

"I realize that I am an abusive teacher and should not be teaching. I realize also that I have no choice." He looked up at his student at last, his heart tightening at the incredulous expression on Longbottom's face. "Tell me – do you know any Occlumency?"

Longbottom hesitated before nodding, a painful look briefly flitting over his face, and Severus gathered from that who had taught the boy – and how.

"Do you know also of the Order of the Phoenix?" he enquired, and again got a painful nod in response. Severus struggled with himself briefly before pulling up the left sleeve of his overcoat, unbuttoning the cuff of his shirt sleeve and pushing it up to reveal the Dark Mark – faded, but just as disfiguring as always. There was an intake of breath from his student that Severus did his best not to react to.

"I am a spy for that Order," Severus said, looking back up to find Longbottom's eyes locked in horror on the Dark Mark on his arm. Grimacing, Severus laid a hand over the mark. "I am not proud of this… disfigurement," Severus said softly, his face averted from both mark and student. "However, it puts me in a position to save lives that would otherwise be lost. I doubt anyone knows of it, but Amelia Bones, the Clearwaters, even the Weasleys – they would all be dead if not for my warnings. Indeed, you yourself would be dead had I not found out what Bellatrix Lestrange had gone to do."

He looked back to the boy before him, finding there a horrified expression. Grimacing again, his head twitched as if to look away before he forced himself to still.

"I do not know if you are aware of it, but the Dark Lord is not dead. He is still in this world, still holds power – and as long as he remains alive, I will continue to uphold my position as spy to the best of my abilities. I must play the faithful Death Eater. I must give the Slytherins preferential treatment, I must loathe Gryffindors, and above all, I must treat the Boy-Who-Lived with all the hatred I can summon. And you… you were nearly the Boy-Who-Lived."

At the flicker of complete terror and disbelief that crossed Longbottom's face Severus chuckled mirthlessly.

"Yes, Longbottom – the night that the Dark Lord went after the Potters, he nearly went after the Longbottoms instead. For reasons only he knows, he chose the former family and met his downfall, and Bellatrix Lestrange decided to go after the Longbottoms in revenge. Had the Dark Lord decided instead to target the Longbottoms you would perhaps be the celebrity and Potter the one visiting his parents in St. Mungos." The boy flinched. "I say it not to hurt you, Longbottom," Severus said somewhat more quietly. "I say it so that you will understand that I have no choice but to be as abusive to you and Potter as I can possibly get away with – for to do less would be to expose myself as a spy, and then far more innocents will die when the Dark Lord regains his power. For he will," he said, holding the fearful boy's eyes with haunted conviction. "He will return as strong as before, and more desperate than before. There will be a second war. And I cannot, will not, put a student's phobia over people's lives, no matter how much it may pain both of us."

Longbottom swallowed hard, silence falling as the two held their gaze, emotions heavy between them. "I understand, sir," the boy said finally, his voice little over a whisper.

Severus nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Longbottom's. "I do apologize, Longbottom," he said almost softly. "Were we not in such dark times, I would have treated you quite differently. Indeed, considering your aptitude for Herbology, I believe that in other circumstances, you could have come to enjoy Potions very much, even excelled in the subject." He paused, grimacing slightly at the boy's look. "I would not lie in this, Longbottom – you clearly know how to prepare all of the ingredients properly, and no doubt could learn to keep count of your stirs were you not too intimidated by my presence to concentrate." He did look away, then. "I was... concerned to hear that your boggart assumed my form. I… There is no apology for such a thing. I would never… never raise a hand to a student. I…" Severus broke off and brought a trembling hand to his mouth, feeling nauseous once more and unsure what he could possibly say to reassure his student that he had nothing to fear from him.

"You cannot tell anyone about this conversation," he settled for finally, still not meeting the boy's eyes. "Few know of my position, and even fewer believe its validity. I will continue to be verbally abusive at all times, and you… you mustn't fear me. Act as if you are, if you must, but you have nothing, nothing to fear from me." He met pale blue eyes once more. "I swear it to you. I have nothing but your wellbeing in mind, and if you should ever find yourself in need and approach me for help, you will not find yourself turned away. This I swear to you."

Longbottom looked completely lost, and younger than ever before. Severus hoped that the boy couldn't read the emotions in his dark eyes – pain, regret, hurt – as the silence stretched. Then the boy nodded shakily.

"I believe you," he said, and his voice was wondering. It hurt Severus's heart. "I- Thank you, professor."

Severus actually flinched, at that. "There is nothing to thank me for," he said, finding himself once more looking at one of the tables instead of his student.

"There is," Longbottom said softly, that wondering note still present. "Nobody's ever offered to help me before."

Severus knew that this time, he wasn't hiding the pain in his gaze well enough when he met those pale blue eyes again. He didn't know what to say to that; he bit his tongue to keep from saying that nobody had ever extended such an offer to him, either. "I speak but the truth," he said finally, and the boy nodded.

"I won't tell anyone," he said softly, wonder still in his eyes. "Thank you for trusting me with this, professor."

Severus merely inclined his head, hoping it wouldn't come back to bite him in the arse.

As the weeks passed and nobody started treating the Potions Master differently, Severus began to relax. He continued to be just as vitriolic in class, and Longbottom continued to appear just as terrified of him, which Severus hoped almost desperately was now nothing more than an act. Considering Longbottom seemed incapable of acting out any emotion – he wore his heart on his sleeve just as all other Gryffindors did – Severus feared that despite his words, the boy couldn't find it in himself not to fear his professor.

Then, after one lesson where Longbottom appeared closer to tears than ever, the boy waved off his classmates' help, muttering for them to go ahead as he slowly packed up his things. Severus's lip curled in distaste when only Granger hesitated slightly in the doorway before walking away, leaving Longbottom alone with the man he feared more than anything in the world.

"Could I have a quick word with you, sir?" Longbottom whispered then, slipping his potions book into his bag and darting a look at the door.

Severus stilled. "Certainly, Longbottom," he said curtly, flicking his wand to close the door. "What did you wish to discuss?"

Blue eyes rose to meet his, tears swimming in them even as the boy tried to force them away. "I- No matter what I do, I can't cast spells as well as the others!" he exclaimed finally, wiping roughly at his eyes. "I try and I try, and I still can't get the spells right!"

Severus blinked. He certainly hadn't expected such an outburst, but a warm feeling spread through him as he realized that Longbottom had taken his words from weeks before at face value – and come to him for aid.

"Tell me, Longbottom – whose wand is the one you wield?"

The boy bit his lip, big wet eyes looking up at the tall man before him. "My father's," he said shakily, and Severus nodded.

"Precisely." He said nothing more, his gaze intent on the boy before him.

"But I-"

"Longbottom," he interrupted almost gently. "No wand will work for you as well as your own. It matters not whose wand you are attempting to use; there is no wand in existence that will work for you as well as a wand that chooses you. You need your own wand."

The boy's lip trembled. "My gran will never let me," he whispered, and Severus pursed his lips.

"You cannot be without a proper wand, particularly in these times," he said bluntly. Making a split-second decision, he informed the boy, "This weekend is a Hogsmeade weekend. Go to the village alone and wait for me behind the animal care shop. I will take you to Diagon Alley for a wand." Pinning the boy with an intent look, he said, "Let no one know of this, neither in advance nor afterwards. If anyone asks, say that your grandmother took you to Diagon Alley for a new wand; I doubt anyone will check with the Dowager Longbottom whether she did indeed take her ward for his own wand." His distaste for the woman's incompetence showed in his face, but the boy seemed to take no offense. Indeed, Longbottom seemed stunned beyond words, his face alight with a painful hope that tugged at Severus's heartstrings.

"Now out with you," Severus made a shooing motion with his hands. "You'll be late to your next lesson otherwise; you'll have to run as it is. Remember, no one is to know."

"Yes, sir!" the boy beamed at him, grabbing his bag and heading for the door. "Thank you, sir!"

"And wipe that grin off your face!" Severus called after him sharply before the boy opened the door. Longbottom clearly did his best, but managed only to look constipated. Snorting, Severus shook his head. "Gryffindors," he muttered. "Go on then," he said more loudly to the student, raising an eyebrow. Longbottom's lips gave another twitch before the boy wrenched the door open and ran off.

Ambling along the back street, Severus saw Longbottom lingering nervously behind the pet care shop and nearly rolled his eyes. Honestly, it was a good thing people rarely took the back street; Longbottom clearly had no idea how to keep notice from himself. Perhaps he wasn't abused, then; abused children typically learned how to keep themselves from being noticed.

The boy looked up at him and Severus grinned, waving affably at the boy. Longbottom blinked and turned around to check that the man wasn't waving at someone else, and Severus nearly rolled his eyes again.

"Neville!" he called out cheerfully, reaching the boy and grabbing his hand in a friendly hold. "How's my favorite nephew doing, then?"

Longbottom blinked again, and this time Severus did roll his eyes.

"Honestly, Longbottom," he muttered, "have you never heard of a glamor? Surely you didn't think I would meet you so publicly as myself?"

Longbottom blushed spectacularly before firmly returning Severus's handshake. "It's great to see you, Uncle Algie," he said somewhat softly, then muttered, "even if you look nothing like him…"

Severus snorted, then grinned and slung an arm around Longbottom's shoulders, inwardly frowning at the boy's instinctive flinch. Perhaps abused after all.

"Come, come, let's not linger! Off we go!" Without further ado he apparated them both to Diagon Alley, giving the boy a few moments to regain his bearings before leading him off in the direction of Ollivander's. "About time you had a wand of your own, eh boy?" he grinned at the boy, who looked surprised for a moment before a luminous smile spread across his face.

"And here we are already," Severus exclaimed before the boy could say anything in response, pushing the brunette forward. "Go on, let's go in – no point in delay!" Truly, he was aware that his disguise wouldn't hold up at all if someone recognized Longbottom – he knew he didn't look anything like the boy's uncle, and was determined to do this as quickly as possible. In and out and back to Hogsmeade.

"Neville Longbottom," a soft voice said once the door had closed, visibly frightening Neville. Severus caught the boy by the shoulders as he backed up into him.

"Ollivander!" he said reproachfully, if affably. "No need to scare the poor boy, eh?"

The wandmaker only gave him a brief look before turning his big eyes back on the student. "I must say, I had expected you years ago… But no matter, no matter. I see you carry your father's wand – ash and dragon heartstring, 11 inches, a solid wand for offensive spells. A good wand… but hardly suited to you…" the wandmaker said absently, turning and walking away, already searching the shelves for wand boxes.

Severus gave the shoulders under his hands a brief squeeze before releasing the boy and moving further into the room. He wondered why Ollivander hadn't taken the boy's measurements – was that something he only did to impress the children coming in for their first wand?

"Here, rowan and dragon heartstring, 12 inches – go on, give it a swish." As soon as Longbottom had picked it up, however, Ollivander snatched it back and placed it back in its box. Severus laid a calming hand on Longbottom's shoulder, seeing how much that had startled the boy.

"Rosewood and unicorn hair, 14 inches," was followed quickly by "11 ¾ inches, Fir and Kneazle whisker," but while the fir wand made a strange popping noise the wands didn't react at all to Longbottom's touch.

"No matter, no matter," the wandmaker muttered, pulling several more boxes off the shelves and pressing wands into Longbottom's hand until finally one had a spectacular result.

"Indeed!" Ollivander exclaimed, and even Severus's eyebrows rose at the result. The entire shop seemed to have plants growing out of the floor and walls. "Fantastic! Perhaps you might put my shop back to rights, Mr. Longbottom?"

Longbottom, wide-eyed, clearly had no idea what to do to reverse the process he had begun by picking up a maple and unicorn hair wand of 12 ½ inches.

"A Finite Incantatem should do the trick, my boy," Severus said cheerfully, and Longbottom gave him a startled look before raising his wand and repeating the words as firmly as he could. To his obvious surprise, the plants immediately retracted back into the walls and floor, leaving the shop looking exactly as it had before.

"How much for the wand, Ollivander?" Severus asked with a broad grin for his 'nephew', already reaching for his purse. "Seven galleons as always, right?" Already counting out the galleons, he placed them on the counter and wished the odd wandmaker a good weekend before steering the dumbfounded boy out with a hand on his shoulder.

"Alright, Neville; back we go!" Popping them away before anyone could approach them, Severus breathed a slight sigh of relief when they materialized in an unfrequented corner of Hogsmeade. Looking at his young companion, his lips curved slightly at the stunned expression the boy still wore as he gazed at the wand in his hand.

"I suggest you return to the castle and practice some spells in an abandoned classroom," he advised softly, giving the boy's shoulder one last squeeze before releasing him. "Use it well." With that he strode away, turning and waving with a jaunty grin when Longbottom called out thanking him. Once he was around the corner and out of sight he apparated away again, dispelling the glamor before apparating back to Hogwarts. Somehow he couldn't keep a slight smile from his lips as he thought of Longbottom's stunned and grateful expression.

"Longbottom, stay after class," Severus snapped at his student, giving Granger a nasty glare that had her ducking her head. He knew that the insufferable know-it-all had helped Longbottom with his potion; at least that meant there had been no explosions this lesson.

"Yes, sir?" Longbottom asked warily once they were alone, his expression practically screaming of guilt. Severus flicked his wand to close the door before sighing and gesturing for his student to sit.

"Longbottom, what are passwords for?"

Longbottom cringed. "To keep people out, sir?" he answered uncertainly, and Severus nodded.

"I believe you wrote a list of future passwords to Gryffindor Tower on a slip of parchment and lost it?"

"Yes, sir," Longbottom replied, folding even further into himself.

"And what do you do when you don't have the password to the tower, Longbottom?" Severus's tone was mild, and Longbottom frowned slightly.

"Usually I wait until someone comes along who knows the password and go in with them, or wait for someone to come out, sir."

Severus's eyes glinted. "Tell me, how do you think Sirius Black made it all the way up to Gryffindor Tower without being spotted? Surely one of the many portraits along the way would have seen him – no?"

Longbottom was frowning properly now, his eyes downcast in thought. "…Maybe he was invisible?" he suggested unsurely, and Severus inclined his head.

"Perhaps," he said noncommittally. "How, then, might Black have entered Gryffindor Tower had he not had the password?"

Longbottom's eyes widened and he straightened abruptly. "He could have waited until someone came out, then slipped in!"

Severus nodded again, his expression blank. "Or he could have simply waited for the right person to come out," he added lowly, and Longbottom shuddered.

"But sir," he hesitated, "why did Black attack Ron? Wasn't he after Harry?"

Severus's expression darkened. "I believed him to be, yes. There is the possibility that he mistook Weasley for Potter, but considering that atrocious hair," he sneered, "it is highly unlikely that he chose the wrong bed. It appears he was targeting Weasley for some reason."

Longbottom frowned. "That doesn't make any sense, though…"

"No, it doesn't," Severus snapped with a scowl, shaking his head at Longbottom's flinch. It appeared the boy still was afraid of him after all. "Tell me about Weasley," he ordered curtly. "No," he amended when he remembered that they both had a class to attend to in less than five minutes. "Write down everything you can remember about Weasley, from the most innocuous details. His habits, things you know about his friends and family, his opinion on political issues. Ask him why he thinks Black was after him and write down his reaction. There must be some clue as to why Black attacked him instead of Potter."

To his surprise, Longbottom immediately nodded firmly, saying he'd get the notes to him as soon as possible. He left for his next class, leaving behind a Potions Master who was strangely touched that Longbottom would agree to spy on a classmate without a moment's reservation.

The very next day found Severus sitting in his office reading the longest essay Longbottom had ever turned in. In a long, rambling manner Longbottom had written down absolutely everything he could think of concerning Ronald Bilius Weasley – from his full name to the fact that he was obsessed with the Chudley Cannons.

As he was reading about the enmity between Weasley and Granger's pets he stiffened abruptly, reading over the following paragraph intently.

Ron's rat hasn't been doing so well lately, really, Longbottom wrote. Ron thinks he's sick; he's lost weight and looks really tired, and Ron blames it on Crookshanks. Scabbers is a pretty strange rat, though – Ron says that Percy had him before Ron did, and rats don't usually live that long, do they? Sometimes I actually feel like Scabbers understands our conversations – at least, he always comes running when Ron calls him, usually to feed him. I think Scabbers even sleeps in Ron's bed, which is pretty weird. He doesn't even look like a domestic rat; he's missing a toe and everything! I do wonder why Ron keeps him when he doesn't even like the rat.

"Pettigrew," Severus breathed in shock, the parchment held in limp fingers. His mind was working a mile a minute – could Scabbers be Pettigrew? He had never seen the man's Animagus form himself, but he had found out about the Marauders' forms some years ago. And when Black had gone after Pettigrew, only a finger had been found…

Standing abruptly, Severus began pacing the room. If Scabbers were indeed Pettigrew, it would make perfect sense for Black to come after him with the intent to kill him, having failed to do so the first time. It would explain why Black had attacked Weasley, not Potter. But…

Why was Pettigrew hiding as a rat?

Black had been locked up in Azkaban. Why, then, would Pettigrew not have revealed himself to be alive? Claimed his Order of Merlin and taken up his place in society? Severus scowled. Something wasn't adding up. Why would Pettigrew hide from the world?

Severus jerked to a stop as the most plausible explanation hit him. "Guilt," he whispered, feeling as though he had just been submerged into icy water. Pettigrew was hiding because he was guilty.

"No!" he snarled, knocking a lamp over with a swipe of his arm as he resumed his agitated pacing. "Black was the secret keeper – has to be guilty – he betrayed Lily!" But what if the Potters had switched secret keepers without telling anyone? Pettigrew would have been the one to betray them, and Black would have known it, going after the rat and trying to avenge his friends, thinking he'd managed and been led away to Azkaban laughing…

Panting in the middle of his office, Severus stared unseeingly at the wall with haunted eyes. Had they been wrong all these years, Lily's betrayer sleeping just a bed over from her son?

Catch the rat and bring him to me, Severus wrote on Longbottom's Potions essay before handing it back to the boy in class, Longbottom paling at the words and stuffing the essay away before anyone else could see it. Clever boy.

It took a few days, but on Friday Longbottom slipped into the classroom as the NEWT class left for lunch.

"I brought what you asked me to, Professor Snape," the boy said hesitantly, and as soon as Severus flicked his wand to close the door the boy straightened and moved to place the box he held on the Potion Master's desk. "He's stunned," he said, removing the lid, and Severus narrowed his eyes at the rat within. He was indeed missing a toe.

"Good work," Severus said lowly, reaching in to lift out the rat, placing him on the floor before drawing his wand. "If my suspicions are correct, then this spell should work…" There was no going back now. Taking a deep breath, Severus raised his wand and cast the Animagus reversal spell.

As soon as the blue beam hit the rat it began changing form, a head emerging, then limbs, until a short man lay on the ground before them.

"Who's that?" Longbottom asked shakily, his breath coming quicker now.

Severus exhaled shakily, stunning the man again for good measure. "Peter Pettigrew," he said, trying to keep both shock and hate out of his voice as he fought to keep himself from murdering the traitor where he lay. Breathing heavily, he spun and crossed the room, bracing his hands against the clammy walls in an attempt to calm himself.

"…So he's the one Black's after?" Longbottom asked hesitantly, and Severus nodded.

"If my suspicions are correct… that man there was the Potters' true secret keeper, and Black is innocent of the crimes that landed him in Azkaban. If what I think is true, then Black found out this summer that Pettigrew remains alive, and his words 'He's at Hogwarts' were not concerning Potter, but Pettigrew. If that is true, then he escaped not to kill Potter, but to protect him."

Longbottom swallowed audibly. "Should I get Harry, professor?"

"No," Severus spun, giving the boy an intent look. "Potter does not know Occlumency; he cannot know I was behind this. No," his eyes narrowed as his gaze switched to the man lying unconscious on the floor. "I will teach you the Animagus reversal spell, and you will return to Gryffindor Tower with a sleeping rat, which you will place on Weasley's bed." Snagging a potion from one of the shelves, Severus crossed to the unconscious man and, with a sneer of utmost disgust, force fed him the potion. "You will then ask Granger if you could cast the spell on her Kneazle, wondering laughingly if Crookshanks might not actually be an animagus, as he seems too smart to be a regular animal. The spell will of course fail, and if Weasley doesn't himself volunteer for you to try the spell on Scabbers," he sneered, "ask him to let you test it on the rat as well. It will of course return the rat to his human form, and you will immediately notify Professor McGonagall, who should go directly to the headmaster and the Aurors. If she does not call the Aurors, do so yourself, immediately," he told the boy with an intent gaze. "Dumbledore is far too used to dealing with things quietly on his own, and this needs to be public knowledge. Ensure that Potter does not do anything rash, and do not trust Black if he turns up. It is, after all, possible that I am incorrect and Pettigrew is innocent." Not that he thought so.

Longbottom gave him a tight nod, his face utterly pale but his wand already drawn and ready to learn the spell. Severus stood and cast the spell forcing the wizard back into his animagus form, then taught Longbottom the reverse spell, impressed with how quickly the boy picked it up. He had, of course, overheard his colleagues enthusing over the boy's sudden and marked improvement, but to know that he was the reason behind it was… strangely satisfying.

Later that same day Severus made his way up through Hogwarts, knowing that all hell would break loose shortly. Just as he stepped off a staircase Minerva came tearing around the corner, her hair falling from the tight confines of her bun as she raced in the direction of the Headmaster's office.

"Minerva!" he exclaimed, putting both shock and censure in his voice. "Whatever is the matter?"

"Pettigrew in the Gryffindor dorms," the woman panted with wide eyes as she neared him, and Severus widened his eyes.

"Petti- and you just left him there with the students?" he snarled, starting in the direction she had just come from. "Did you alert the Aurors? It is most likely an imposter, perhaps even Black attempting to sneak in!"

"No, I cast an identification spell," Minerva countered numbly, and Severus stared at her in disbelief.

"Alert Dumbledore; I will go to Gryffindor Tower," he said curtly before turning and running towards the tower, already knowing what he would find there.

"Enter," Severus ordered when a knock sounded on the door to his office. The door opened and closed, and Severus looked up to find Longbottom in his office.

"Have a seat," he pointed at the chair on the other side of his desk and finished grading the essay he was working on before putting down the quill and giving his visitor his full attention.

"Sorry for interrupting," the boy said with an apologetic quirk of the lips, and Severus shook his head slightly.

"It is of no matter. What brings you to my office, Longbottom?"

The student fidgeted slightly, and Severus took a moment to regard the boy. He was a year older again, and it seemed that this year had been good to him. He sat straighter now, stood taller, indeed had more pride in himself and confidence in his abilities. His face was still round and his body pudgy, but Severus suspected that adolescence would change that. Perhaps he should suggest some physical exercise to the boy.

Then Longbottom seemed to decide on what to say, and spoke up. "I… wanted to thank you for this year, Professor," he said, pale blue eyes rising to meet dark ones. "So I hope you'll accept this," Longbottom placed a shallow box on the desk where it wouldn't disturb any of the things already on the wooden surface. "It's nothing much, but still…"

Curious now, Severus reached out and took the present, opening it and feeling his eyebrows rise in appreciation. Inside the box, on a bed of fern, was a small collection of potion ingredients that immediately conveyed a message to Severus that made him feel strangely warm even while it squeezed at his heart.

Touching a finger to the sprig with several perfect bluebell flowers, he said softly, "Gratitude." A touch to the ginger root, "Strength." Touching the items in turn, he listed the symbolism linked to each of them. Admiration, knowledge, stealth, 'something hidden', sincerity, faith, pride, timidity; even Astragalus, which signifies 'your presence softens my pain' and was used in most healing potions concerning pus. Lastly, Severus touched a finger to the bed of fern.

"Magic," he whispered. "Or shelter." Finally raising his eyes to Longbottom's face, he saw that the boy was blushing furiously with his eyes fixed on the symbolically laden gift.

"I didn't think you'd know all the meanings," Longbottom whispered, clearly embarrassed, and Severus gave him a rare smile that the boy didn't see.

"I'm honored," he said softly, and then Longbottom did look up, blushing harder when he took in Severus's smile. "As it so happens," he continued somewhat more strongly, "I have something for you as well." Pulling out a drawer, he reached in and lifted out a pendant.

"I would ask you to wear this at all times," he said seriously, holding it out for Longbottom to accept and letting the chain pool into the boy's outstretched hands. "It is enchanted to protect you from any actions performed with ill intent, whether magical or physical, as well as being an emergency portkey. You will simply need to place your wand to the pendant and say 'hidden help' to be portkeyed directly into my house. Do not use it except in the most urgent emergencies," he cautioned with an intent look. "However, do not hesitate to use it if you feel your life to be in danger." Severus hesitated slightly. "Use it also if you feel threatened at home," he said more softly, catching and holding Longbottom's gaze. "I will do what I can to protect you."

Moisture gathered in the boy's eyes, but he didn't look away. "Thank you, sir," he said, his voice somewhat choked. Severus merely inclined his head before smiling slightly.

"Go on then; I'll see you at the Leaving Feast. And I don't care if you have to write it all over your room – don't forget the phrase. Hidden help – remember it."

Longbottom gave him a shaky smile before standing. "No sir. I'll remember it." At the door he turned back slightly. "Have a good summer, sir." With that he slipped out, and behind him a Potions Master lifted a tiger lily from its soft bed.

"Pride," he whispered.