CHAPTER 3: DID YOU SEE SNAPE'S FACE?

He isn't sure, what, precisely, he expected, but it definitely wasn't this.

The classroom has fallen into breathless silence as he peers into Longbottom's cauldron. He lifts the ladle and lets the calming draught pour out slowly.

It's not perfect, of course, but it is an entirely acceptable batch and leagues beyond anything Longbottom has ever before produced.

He slowly turns his gaze on Longbottom, wondering how, how he'd missed this. The boy quails slightly under the intensity of his gaze, but meets his gaze squarely.

"Well," he says after a long pause, "It appears that despite all prior evidence to the contrary, you can in fact follow a basic potions recipe." He pauses again, seeing in the boy's eyes relief mixed with defiance and...was that just a bit of pride? He lets a slow, shark-like smile cross his face, and straightens swiftly. He can use pride. "You have made the error of raising my expectations, Mr. Longbottom. Now that I know you are capable of it, I expect all your work to be of this caliber. If you melt another cauldron in my class, you shall be in detention for a month."

Neville Longbottom gulps, audibly. For a moment he is afraid he's pushed too far, too quickly—and then the boy sets his shoulders, fierce determination in his eyes.

Severus Snape moves on to scathingly critique Potter's latest attempt, but inwardly he is basking in a deep satisfaction.

xxx

Harry is pretty sure something's up with Snape.

Everyone else is congratulating Neville, but Harry is thinking about the way Snape had been watching Neville the whole class—not like he watches Harry, an ominous glare that's meant to be noticed—but with quick, shrewd glances, in between complimenting Slytherins and insulting Harry.

"Blimey, Neville, did you see Snape's face? I've never seen him so speechless—"

"Yeah, Nev, except I bet he's still got it in for your for the Boggart, and now he's got an excuse—a whole month of detentions—"

"Well I think Neville can do it, if you need any help just let me know—"

"Thanks Hermione, but I think I'll manage."

Neville is quiet, thoughtful. Harry thinks there's something up with Neville, too.

xxx

Severus Snape thinks he should stop being surprised by Neville Longbottom.

He almost didn't hear the faint, timid knock on his office door, but after thirteen years he is intimately familiar with the dungeon's natural symphony of clanging pipes and ghostly moans, and any new sound will stand out.

"Enter," he calls, half expecting one of his Slytherin first years to creep through the door.

There is a long, long pause before the door creaks open and the Longbottom boy steps through, visibly trembling and eyes glued to the floor. The latter is fortunate, because Severus truly cannot control his surprise, and his eyebrows rise so fast he feels a muscle pull in the side of his face. He grimaces in pain just as Longbottom looks up.

Again, that flash of fear, before something hardens in the boy's gaze.

"Longbottom," he says, as neutrally as he can manage. "Why have you come." His lack of inflection renders what should be a question into a statement—a subtle blend of discouragement just short of outright hostility he has spent years perfecting.

"I—I have a question."

Severus slowly puts down his quill, dripping with the scarlet ink he fancies strikes terror into the hearts even of his NEWT level students. The careful, precise motion gives him a brief moment to think.

He isn't sure what to do. He didn't expect this—he'd hoped that by giving Longbottom his precious text, the boy would manage a small improvement; enough to justify fewer acid comments and instill some measure of confidence. He never expected the child to do so well as he has the last few classes, and he certainly never expected the boy to approach him.

He knows what his role as a spy demands. The words tremble on his tongue, ready to spill out in a vitriolic tirade that will crush all suspicion that Severus Snape has anything to offer a Gryffindor. But he looks at the child standing in front of him, who lost his parents because of a prophecy Severus reported as surely as if he'd been the chosen target himself. Neville Longbottom is trembling like a leaf, but he is here, and he wants to learn, even from a professor he fears and hates in equal measure.

He's never missed a single potions class in three years, he thinks, and in that moment a reckless decision is made. A tenuous plan is sketching itself out in the back of his mind—a way to further his goals with Longbottom without sacrificing his role as a spy—but none of that truly matters, because here and now he's discovered his own breaking point, the final proof that he has principles beyond the sacred memory of Lily Evans.

"You realize," Severus finally says, his tone deceptively mild, "that we have a library."

"I don't know where to look, sir." Severus raises an eyebrow.

"Do go on," he says, tone sardonic. "I am eager to know what troubles your little mind."

"I—I read in… I read that a common substitution in the Wiggenweld Potion is murtlap tentacles. But wouldn't the leaves be better than the arms, sir? I— I mean," he stutters at the expression on his professor's face before plowing through hurriedly. "The leaves are younger and healthier, since they shed and regrow every year while the tentacles hibernate. Shouldn't they have stronger healing properties, then?"

And Severus is surprised, again. One really should not underestimate Neville Longbottom, he thinks ruefully. This is a NEWT level question; in fact the very subject of the essays he is currently marking. Many of his students have difficulty with this particular essay, as it requires more than an adequate understanding of Herbology. Which, of course, is why he assigns it every year.

With a dawning resignation, he recalls how Pomona Sprout has always nattered on in the staff room about Longbottom's gift with plants. He'd always dismissed her ramblings as the stubborn charity of a Hufflepuff, but the very truth of it stands before him, plain as day.

"Any fool would know to look in Bullfinch's Compendium," he sneers, a blatant lie. "If you insist on wasting my time with frivolous questions you shall be required to treat them seriously. I expect twenty inches on the subject by Monday."

The appalled expression on the child's face amuses him greatly, but he does not permit even a hint of good humor to show in his malicious smile.

"Yes, sir," Longbottom squeaks, vanishing before he can be given any more homework.

Severus closes the door behind him with a flick of his wand, and indulges in a genuine smile. Dismissing the pile of unmarked essays still waiting, he folds his hands together and thinks. He suspects that whatever plans he weaves will be disrupted by Longbottom's entirely unexpected behavior—but he finds he's almost looking forward to it.

Haha, a new chapter! Ain't you folks just lucky. It even has real action in it!

I had a ton of fun writing Snape here, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Let me know what you guys think!

Next chapter: we finally get a peek into Neville's head...