When Snape walked into the Potions classroom, he found Handolin just finishing up an interview with Hermione, while Dumbledore sat watching Renni working through some calculations. No one noticed him enter - there were some benefits to being this small. Snape went over to the potions storage cabinet and tried to unlock it. He swore bitterly when he failed to make the charm on the door disengage. It had only been a few hours since he had made the charm on the book's hiding place disengage!
"Severus, please don't use that sort of language in front of a student," said Dumbledore mildly, waving his wand and opening the cabinet.
Snape had to bite back another foul word when he found he wasn't tall enough to reach the potion he wanted. Hermione slid off her chair and came over immediately. "Which one, Professor?" she asked.
"Second shelf down, pale green potion in the Erlenmeyer flask," he said peevishly.
"Headache potion? Is that safe for...someone your size?" asked Hermione.
Dumbledore was in the room. Snape brought up his Occlumens defenses quickly, and - keeping his back to Dumbledore - said blandly, "It's for Longbottom. Too much reading; I had him hunting through a spell book in my office."
"We've finished our interviews, Professor Snape," said Handolin, and then gestured to Renni and her calculations. "We would value your input during our analysis."
"I can take the potion to Neville for you, Professor," said Hermione.
Snape kept his voice bland and even. "You'll do no such thing, Miss Granger," he said. He turned toward the door in such a way as to continue presenting Dumbledore his back. "Remain here; I shall be back presently with Mr. Longbottom."
When Snape returned with Neville, Handolin and Renni were both huddled over the calculations. Dumbledore smiled at Neville, who - looking a little pale - smiled back. Snape could see the ghost of suspicion hovering in Dumbledore's eyes. "I think Miss Granger and Mr. Longbottom can return to their classes now," said Dumbledore.
"Actually, I'm going to stay to help Professor Snape," said Neville. Dumbledore looked at the boy closely.
"It would be helpful to me," said Snape quietly. "My magic is apparently gone, and I can't even reach tall shelves unassisted."
Dumbledore studied them both for a moment, then said, "That's very kind of you, Neville. Very well; Miss Granger? You may go. Thank you again for your help."
Snape walked over to Handolin and Renni and frowned, reading their work.
"I've done this already," he said.
Handolin looked up at him, and then said in a diplomatic voice, "Well, it can't hurt to have someone else go through the calculations, just in case you missed something."
"I miss nothing," said Snape. "And it can hurt, if it wastes my time. I have very little time available to be wasted. I am telling you, I have done this already. Furthermore, I did it better. You've missed a minus sign there," Snape tapped the offending equation with his wand tip, "and there." Tap. Then he turned away, leaving Renni and Handolin frowning at the page. "Longbottom," said Snape, "you and I have work to do."
Neville nodded mutely, and moved toward the cauldron. Dumbledore said, "Can I help?", his eyes still appraising Snape.
"I don't think so," said Snape, feeling the sweat starting between his shoulderblades. "At least not yet. It would be better for Mr. Longbottom and I to work together for the time being. Check back later."
Dumbledore gazed at Snape for a long moment, then appeared to make a decision, and nodded. He turned to Renni and Handolin. "Perhaps I could install you two somewhere more comfortable to do your calculation?" he said. "I fear these student-sized desks will break your knees, and it's never warm in this room. The teacher's lounge has a large table to work on, and lovely squooshy chairs."
When the three adults had left, Snape pulled the notes he had taken over the past few hours out of his pocket and spread them on the desk beside the cauldron.
"Dig out the procedure that Professor Dumbledore wrote down for you," he said to Neville.
They stood for a moment, comparing the two sets of notes.
"That bit is identical to mine," said Neville, pointing to a series of four steps on Snape's notes. "But none of the rest of it is. And a lot of the ingredients aren't the same."
"But the interaction of these two ingredients," Snape pointed to his own parchment, "produces an essential magic that is very similar to, although weaker than, these three ingredients." Snape moved his finger over to hover above Neville's parchment. "The similarities are there, Longbottom. We have got something here; we just need to sort out how to make it all work. The potion from - " Snape looked up hurriedly. "Close that door," he said. Neville went and closed the door to the Potions classroom as a group of Slytherin girls walked by.
"Yes?" said Neville, coming back.
"The potion from that book," continued Snape somberly, "doesn't have the same effect as what your potion did to me. It is supposed to give the drinker twice their normal strength and the vigour needed to not sleep for a week. But it doesn't de-age the person - so we're trying to find a variation on it that works. Your potion hasn't been very fast-acting, either, for a potion. That means the most volatile of the ingredients you were using were neutralised somehow."
"How can that happen?"
Snape pointed at Neville's parchment. "This is a common mistake with students trying to prepare the draught of enlightenment. You stirred the potion too long, waiting for it to turn the right shade of orange. When it starts looking red, most of the active ingredient is gone already."
"Oh," said Neville. Snape didn't bother insulting the boy for his incompetence. As Neville had himself pointed out, Snape didn't really have time to engage in their usual animosity right now.
"But a drop of basilisk's venom..." said Snape, frowning.
"That's the key ingredient; a drop of basilisk's venom. None of it works without that one, extremely potent ingredient. And you could hardly have a drop of basilisk venom rattling around in your pocket or stuck to your sleeve like lint - I don't see how that could have got in... I don't even think I have any in the castle right now."
"Well - if some ingredients can be substituted for others, then couldn't it be something other than basilisk venom?" asked Neville.
"It would have to be something almost as potent. Unicorn blood maybe."
"I'd never hurt a unicorn!"
"Yes, I know, Longbottom," said Snape, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. "Listen, boy: from the description of what the final potion is supposed to look like, I think that your potion will almost be a case of straight substitutions. Your brew wouldn't have had any effect on me at all unless it was very close to a real recipe. So let's try making the potion from the book, but substituting equivalent or roughly equivalent ingredients from the draught of enlightenment, and see what we get."
Neville added the asphodel, and the potion turned silvery-white, but not opalescent, and it did not boil. It was the second time they had got this exact same result. Snape rubbed his eyes, his frustration so acute that it felt as if his heart was being twisted into a spiral.
"We're so close," said Neville miserably.
"It's the basilisk venom," said Snape. "We're missing one thing. What could it be?"
Snape sat down abruptly on the floor - which was a lot closer, these days - and buried his face in his hands. The move must have shocked Neville, for there was a long and utter silence from the boy.
"Professor Snape?" he asked eventually.
"I'm fine," Snape said, his hands muffling his voice. "I'm just - I can't think! At what age does a child's brain turn into something comparable to an adult's brain? I can't think anymore! I can't reason it out, and I should be able to..."
"Perhaps you're just tired," said Dumbledore's voice. Snape looked up - bloody hell, the headmaster was tall from this vantage point. Basically just a wall of blue robes with the wrong end of the second-ugliest nose at Hogwarts somewhere up near the top.
"Doesn't matter either way, does it?" said Snape. "If I go to bed, I certainly won't be capable of reasoning it out when I wake up. I'll be a baby."
"What is this?" said Dumbledore, staring at the potion.
"Almost right, is what it is," said Snape bitterly.
"How did you come up with this?" said Dumbledore, stirring the potion.
Uh oh. Occlumency, fast. "Just variations on what Neville had already been doing," said Snape evenly.
"But we're missing the basilisk venom," said Neville wearily. Snape gritted his teeth, and kept his face impassive, not that it was going to help.
"How do you know it needs basilisk venom?" asked Dumbledore sharply. "That's not in the draught of enlightenment."
"It - just - I - that's what Professor Snape said..." said Neville, his face reddening and his voice trailing off. He might as well have had the words 'I'M HIDING SOMETHING' written on his forehead in purple light.
"Professor Snape?" said Dumbledore in that same sharp voice, turning to him.
He was tired. He couldn't think. "Albus," said Snape quietly, "just don't ask, all right?"
Snape stared at the low flames beneath the cauldron. What could make the potion volatile? Never mind the matter of how a potent ingredient got in there, just let him figure out which one had, so that he could have his life back...
The silence stretched on a long time, and then Dumbledore said quietly, "Every time I think I have all your secrets figured out... Very well, Severus. I won't ask. But you must give the procedure for this potion - and any suspicions you have on how to proceed with it - to the specialists from St. Mungo's. They're still hashing over the equations in the staff room. Handolin appears to be quite brilliant. I think Renni is a bit second-rate, but she's rather sweet."
Snape felt his lip curl, and glanced up at the headmaster. "I'll take competence over sweetness any day," he said.
Dumbledore didn't quite keep his eyes from flicking toward Neville. "Indeed," he said. "I've noticed that about you."
"Professor Snape made notes," said Neville, passing over a few rolls of parchment to Dumbledore.
"Excellent. I shall give these to Handolin straight away." Dumbledore turned back to Snape. "And - basilisk venom, you say? Have you tried that?"
"I haven't any in the castle," said Snape. "Besides, it's not - it can't be basilisk venom. That requires special handling; you just can't have it lying about. The last ingredient must be a substitution. If I could only think, I could try to work out what."
"Well, you will have to leave it to Handolin then, Severus," said Dumbledore. "I know you hate putting your fate in other people's hands, but I'm afraid you have to now. You've run out of time."
"No I haven't. I'm still breathing," growled Snape, and then yawned enormously.
"Time for bed," said Dumbledore gently, "for both of you."
Snape didn't argue; he was exhausted. But he was also puzzled when Dumbledore followed him to his quarters.
"What?" he asked, after Dumbledore had closed the door behind them.
Dumbledore sighed, waved his wand, and conjured a pair of clean diapers.
"You will need to wear these to bed tonight," he said.
"Think about how old you will be when you wake up. You will need these."
"NO I WON'T! I'M NOT WEARING NAPPIES!"
"Severus," said Dumbledore in his most reasonable voice, "you're going to need help getting dressed in the morning, and I'll do that, but please ask yourself: which would be worse? Wearing the diapers - just in case - or running the risk of soiling the bed, and having me find out about it in the morning?"
Snape stared at Dumbledore for a moment, and then let out a choked sob. He was so shocked to find himself crying that he stopped again instantly. After a short pause, he said "I hate this. Better dead than this."
"Don't be so unforgiving of yourself, Severus," said Dumbledore gently. "You're inside the body of a very tired, very worried little boy. You can't help the tears. Let's just get you to bed."
"Let me do it myself," said Snape, picking up the diapers in disgust.
"I'll conjur you a little nightshirt," said Dumbledore in a deliberately syrupy voice. He chuckled at Snape's malevolent glare.
Ten minutes later, Dumbledore tucked him in. That felt odd; Snape vaguely remembering his mother doing that for him, when he was quite small. He'd been putting himself to bed, alone, for a very long time now. It was strange to have someone else there.
"You know, if it were me, I rather think I would enjoy dying in this manner," said Dumbledore, straightening up, "but you're a much younger man than I am. It's not the same. For you, this is a genuine and horrible tragedy."
"Hmm," said Snape, and then yawned. He closed his eyes and settled back against the pillow a bit more comfortably. "It is a bit interesting... Intellectually," he said. "You don't realise everything that you've lost. My eyesight is better now. I hadn't noticed it getting worse, but it's better. And food tastes more intense. No wonder children don't like broccoli - it's stronger than you remember." Snape yawned again.
"Sleep, Severus," said Dumbledore. "I'll see you in the morning."
Snape felt Dumbledore smooth a hand over his silky head, and press a dry, whiskery, old-man's kiss against his forehead. He made a small noise of protest, and wriggled away from the contact a little - but only a little, because he was already fading helplessly away into sleep.
Snape opened his eyes and watched the sunlight play across the ceiling. Dumbledore must have opened the blinds before he left last night.
Except that he hadn't left. When Snape sat up, he saw Dumbledore sleeping in a chair in one corner of the room, a blanket draped over him.
Snape hadn't needed the diaper thankfully, but he did need to go to the lavatory now. He peered over the side of the bed. Long way down.
Snape rolled onto his stomach and dangled his feet over the edge. Slithering backward by inches, his little hands grabbing bunches of the sheets, he managed to get to the floor without falling.
Doorknobs - just barely still manageable. Great; how to get up to the toilet? He'd have to climb it. Standing to pee was no longer an option, unless he stood on the edge of the bathtub, and that was an awfully long shot to make with any accuracy. And how would he get to the sink to wash his hands afterward? Better wash them in the bathtub.
When he came out again, Dumbledore was standing outside the bathroom door, wrapped in the blanket and looking both sleepy and worried. "Managed all right?" he said when he saw Snape.
Snape nodded. "Bu' I pwobabwee won' nes time," he said, then scowled, touching his throat. "Soun' like a baby," he said angrily.
Dumbledore shrugged, looking sad. "You are one," he said.
Snape scowled even more, then said peevishly, "Nee' hep wif safe-ty pins on dia-por. Buddy tings. Shood jus' use clips inth-tead."
Dumbledore helped him cinch up the diaper, and then let him wriggle and baby-swear his way into a tiny wizard's robe unassisted. The outfit had a teddy bear embroidered on the front, but Dumbledore had apparently had the good sense to turn both the robe and the embroidery black before Snape even saw it.
Getting up the stairs to go to breakfast was arduous. Dumbledore waited with serene patience as Snape clambered up each step individually. It finally occured to Snape just how stupid this was, and he stopped.
"Severus?" said Dumbledore, looking down at him.
Snape deliberated for a long moment, his pride warring with the necessity of not wasting what little time he had left. He made his decision. Snape looked at Dumbledore, lifted his arms and said, "Up."
Dumbledore looked at him sadly for a moment, then wordlessly picked Snape up, settled him against one hip, and carried him the rest of the way to the Great Hall.
Snape briefly considered asking to be put down in order to enter the hall, but then decided against it. It was a big hall, and there would be a lot of feet to deal with in there.
Dumbledore might as well have been sweeping a silencing charm over the students as he walked by. By the time they reached the staff table, a cat purring would have been audible in the Great Hall. It was certainly audible when Flitwick said quietly, "Here, let him use my chair; it's higher than the others."
Hermione was invisible underneath her cloud of frizzy hair, but Neville looked as if he had stuck himself to a piece of parchment on the desk with his own drool.
"You let them sleep here? Why didn't you send them to bed?" said Dumbledore angrily. Handolin and Renni, standing red-eyed and pale with fatigue beside the cauldron, looked abashed. Neville snorted, and sat up, the parchment coming up with him. Hermione's hair shifted a little, and the girl murmured.
"They came down under an invisibility cloak they'd borrowed, and said they wanted to help," said Renni. "We eventually agreed to let them, but every time one of them got sleepy, and we suggested that they go to bed, they'd try to wake themselves up instead of leaving. When they finally conked out this last time, we just left them."
"Sorry, Professor," said Neville muzzily, shaking Hermione's arm with one hand and dragging the parchment off his face with the other.
"Pwogwess?" asked Snape, feeling that they were wasting entirely too much time on misbehaving students. Let the brats sleep on the table if they wanted to.
"I'm sorry?" said Handolin, looking at him.
"Isn't he sweet?" said Renni, smiling and reaching over to run a finger over his soft cheek. Snape slapped her hand away as viciously as he could manage.
"Ms. Spanner," said Dumbledore severely, "Professor Snape is a grown man. Please allow him what dignity he has remaining to him in this condition.
"Yes, Renni," said Handolin snappishly. "Be a professional."
"Oh, I'm sorry, but he's just such a cutie."
"Pwogwess!" yelled Snape.
"I think he's asking if you've made progress," said Dumbledore.
"Not really," said Handolin, looking very worried. "But that potion you came up with last night was a breakthrough, Professor Snape. I ground through some more equations, and narrowed it down to a short list of what I thought the last ingredient might be. We've been trying those in the potion all night. Adding unicorn's blood held a lot of promise - the vapour pressure dropped dramatically - but when I owled a vial of the potion back to St. Mungo's for testing, they said the effects were all wrong. It wasn't the potion that Neville brewed."
"Baso-wisk venom?" said Snape.
"I'm afraid not. St. Mungo's owled us some - which is against the law, by the way - but it didn't work at all."
"How long has Professor Snape got?" Neville said. Hermione was sitting up beside him, but her eyes were still closed and she was swaying in a random sort of way.
Dumbledore looked at Snape, and then said sadly "Perhaps five hours will take him to the age of a newborn. I don't know how much longer he'll last after that, but probably only about another hour."
"Oh Merlin - I'm so sorry, Professor Snape!" Neville said, tears coming to his eyes. Hermione had opened her eyes, and was staring at Snape with a sort of horrified pity.
Snape couldn't help it; it was just hearing Dumbledore put it like that - six hours left to live. He buried his face in the Headmaster's cascade of silver hair, and tried to cry quietly. His shame was infinitely worse than his grief. First Snape had lost control of his powers, and now his self-control was completely gone. Him - crying - in front of students! And it was just a matter of time before his bladder and bowel started doing whatever they felt like, too. He wished he were dead right now.
Dumbledore started patting Snape on the back, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for his Potions master to break down in tears. "Mr. Ronk," he said, "what do you propose we do now? We have precious little time."
"I don't really know," said Handolin. "We've tried all the potent ingredients that I thought most likely to be the one, but none of those work. We just have to keep trying things."
"I'll help - anything I can do. I can chop potion ingredients for you again," said Neville, standing up.
"Me too," said Hermione. "Or maybe I can take care of Professor Snape, and Professor Dumbledore could help you? He'd probably be much more use than I would be."
"Thank you, Miss Granger," said Dumbledore. "Perhaps in a bit. You four get started; I want to talk to Professor Snape for a moment."
Dumbledore walked Snape over to the corner of the room and sat down. He lifted Snape, and sat him on the desk so that they were facing one another. Snape wiped at the tears on his face ineffectually with his small clumsy hands.
"Severus," Dumbledore said gravely, "I don't know from where exactly you got that "breakthrough" recipe that you and Neville brewed last night, but I have an idea. It's not one I like, but you are in desperate circumstances right now, and I am willing to overlook it because I want you survive this.
"You are Hogwart's unofficial Dark Arts expert - and much of your expertise was acquired first-hand. Handolin could probably brew an antidote to most Dark Magic potions, but I doubt he knows anything about Dark Magic itself. You do, Severus. And you are out of time. So never mind listing off potent potion ingredients that any medi-witch or wizard could name me. What ingredients would a Dark wizard think of first? What are the most potent ingredients, if a person has no scruples?"
"Human sacwifice," said Snape. "Body pawts. Han's. Eyes. Bud."
Dumbledore looked horrified. "But we can't experiment with any of those..." he began to say.
But Snape wasn't listening anymore. "Down!" he gasped, skittering off the desk into Dumbledore's lap. "Down!" Snape was in such haste to get to the floor that he nearly toppled off the Headmaster's chair headfirst, and Dumbledore had to grab his arm to keep him from hurting himself. "Down!" yelled Snape, dangling by his arm from the Headmaster's hand, kicking his legs in frustration. Dumbledore lowered Snape until his feet touched the floor, and then released him. Snape wobbled across the floor at his top speed, yelling "Bud of an'ena-mee! Bud of an'ena-mee!"
Handolin turned to look at him, confusion on his face.
"Bud of an'ena-mee!" said Snape, pointing at Neville.
"Blood of anenome?" said Handolin. "But that's not a potent potion ingredient, Professor Snape."
"No!" howled Snape, still pointing. "Bud of an'ena-mee!"
"Can we really trust him to know what he's talking about, at this age?" said Renni sadly, leaning over and picking Snape up.
It felt distressingly good to just start punching Renni in the face repeatedly - especially knowing that he couldn't really hurt her - but Dumbledore dashed over and yanked Snape off the woman, saying "Severus!" in a very angry tone. Renni rubbed her nose, scowling at him.
"Nev-oh!" bellowed Snape, pointing at Neville again. "Nev-oh! Gi' me han'!"
Neville looked bemused - even more so than usual - and extended his hand to Snape.
"Lef' han'!" said Snape, pointing. Neville gave him the other hand, and Snape grabbed it and turned it to expose the side of the index finger. Thank goodness the cut had been so small that the boy hadn't bothered going to Madame Pomfrey about it!
"Bud of an'ena-mee," he said, pointing at the small, straight-line scab on the boy's finger.
"I don't understand," said Handolin.
"Blood of an enemy," said Neville, staring at the days-old cut on his finger.
"Yeff!" said Snape.
"I cut my hand while chopping the gillyweed - I mean the asphodel," said Neville. "I forgot that! I must have bled on it!"
"Right," said Handolin, turning back to the cauldron immediately. "Renni, let's get brewing. We don't have much time."
"But I'm not your enemy," said Neville, looking up at Snape with a hurt expression.
Snape considered it for a moment, then said as clearly as his baby palate would allow, "Nemethith."
"Make'th a weak-or po'un."
When the time came, Renni pulled out her wand to extract some of Neville's blood, but the boy shook his head and picked up the knife.
"We don't have time to get this wrong. It should be as close to what I originally did as possible," said Neville. "Besides," he looked at Snape, "the violence of doing it this way might be necessary, right?"
Snape nodded wordlessly. It was Dark Magic, after all. Dumbledore made a small noise of horror, but didn't say anything out loud.
Neville sliced the tip of his own finger open, and hissed in pain. Renni gave him a look of sympathy as he dabbed blood onto the chopped asphodel, and then healed the cut for him with her wand.
Handolin scraped the plants into the cauldron, and the potion within boiled up ferociously - and then settled down to a silvery-white opalescence.
Snape actually raised his arms above his head in triumph. Dumbledore grinned, and bounced him up and down a little.
"That's it," said Neville. "That's exactly it. But it didn't get on him until the ladle went in."
"Iwon wade-ew," said Snape.
"Iron ladle," translated Dumbledore.
"You were using a ladle with iron in it?" said Handolin disapprovingly. Neville reddened.
"I misplaced my copper one," he said.
Renni was already scooping the potion into several vials. "It's going to be all right, Neville," she said. "We'll get these to St. Mungo's, add the iron, and start brewing an antidote for it immediately."
"How long will that take?" said Dumbledore.
"An hour, maybe two," said Renni, looking at Snape with a worried expression. "It had better be the right potion. Don't touch the rest of it, just in case we need to have more sent over."
Snape nodded at her - not that such decisions were up to him anymore - and then sagged against Dumbledore's shoulder. He suddenly felt incredibly tired. He was far too young to handle this much excitement without a nap.
"...just so odd to think of Professor Snape as having once been someone's perfect little baby," a girl's voice was saying. Was that Granger? Snape thought so.
He felt very warm and comfortable where he was; someone was holding him against their shoulder, and smoothing their hand gently over his head. It was all very - oh right; he didn't like to be touched. He wasn't supposed to be enjoying this.
"Hush," said Dumbledore. "Give him back. I think he's waking up."
Snape felt himself transferred from one set of arms to another, and opened his eyes.
Dumbledore was holding him, but Hermione was standing right in front of the Headmaster. They both had suspiciously innocent expressions on. Snape glared at Hermione sleepily.
"No word yet," said Dumbledore. Snape nodded, and closed his eyes again. He actually felt quite hungry, but didn't want to think about what they would have to feed him. He seemed to have misplaced his teeth recently.
Snape had just drowsed off again, when Handolin's voice woke him.
"We've got it!" he said. "That was definitely the right potion!"
"Wonderful!" said Dumbledore. Snape opened his eyes.
"We, uh, put it in this," said Handolin, looking at Snape with embarrassment. He was holding a glass baby bottle full of black potion. Snape pouted at the man.
"That was probably wise," said Dumbledore, taking the bottle with his free hand. "I doubt he could manage a cup in his present condition."
Dumbledore sat down and touched the tip of the bottle to Snape's mouth. Snape took a tentative suck, and then wrinkled his face in disgust and made a noise of protest. The noise sounded so infantile that he shut up immediately in embarrassment.
"You'll have to drink that all, Professor Snape," said Handolin apologetically. Dumbledore jostled the bottle against Snape's lips again.
Snape settled down to the nasty business of drinking the horrible tasting potion through a nipple.
The tap at his office door was so tentative that Snape just said "It's open, Longbottom," without looking up from his book. Neville peaked his head around the door.
"Enter," said Snape, glancing up.
"How are you, Professor?" said Neville, hardly coming more than two paces into the room. As Snape had recovered his height, the boy had apparently recovered his blind terror of him.
"The growing pains were no picnic," said Snape irritably, "but anything is an improvement over high-speed teething." He closed his book, and stretched his arms out in front of him, looking at his long fingers and slightly bony wrists. It was good to be a normal size again. "How old do I look?" he asked.
Neville shrugged timidly. "Maybe eighteen," he said.
"Good," said Snape. "It's working quickly. I should be back to normal by tomorrow."
"Where's the book, Professor?" said Neville.
Snape looked up at the boy appraisingly. Odd time for Gryffindor courage to surface. "It's hidden again," he said.
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Absolutely nothing." Snape flicked a bit of lint off his desk. "It is a dangerous object. It can lie in its tomb until it rots."
"I - I'm really glad that you're okay, Professor," said Neville. Snape eyed him.
"I am amazed that you're a Gryffindor," Snape said. "You're scared to death of me. You always have been."
Neville reddened, but said nothing.
"That wasn't meant to be an insult, Longbottom," said Snape, "just an observation. I've never been kind to you, nor done anything to earn your loyalty, yet you worked like a soldier, willingly made sacrifices, and consistently pushed yourself to the limits of your meager abilities during these past few days - all in order to help me. You've shown a startling amount of loyalty to a Professor that you cannot possibly like. So when I say that I'm amazed you're a Gryffindor, what I mean is, I don't know why you're not a Hufflepuff. Loyalty, perseverence, and sacrifice. It's all there."
"The sorting hat almost put me into Hufflepuff house," said Neville quietly. "I asked it not to. Gran would have awful about it. She wants me to be like my dad."
"Foolish woman, wishing for what can't be. You're like your mother, and always will be," said Snape. Neville looked up at him in surprise. Snape shrugged. "I did know her, a bit, before she was attacked," he said.
"What was she like?" asked Neville in an abrupt voice. The boy's expression reminded Snape unpleasantly of Harry Potter's face, whenever James or Lily was mentioned. It was the same sort of desperation.
"She was just like you," said Snape simply. He kept his nastier comments to himself for once. Neville waited, but Snape just held his gaze, and didn't add anything more.
Eventually the boy sagged, and dropped his eyes. "I'm glad you're better, Professor," he said, edging back toward the door. "I felt just awful about what I'd done to you."
"Neville," said Snape, without realising he had used the boy's first name, "I don't say thank you - I just don't. I don't say thank you, I don't say please, I don't apologise. I spent a lot of years grovelling on my knees before the Dark Lord, and I simply refuse to do that anymore. So absorb these next few comments of mine, note how out of character for me the last comment in particular is, and then interpret my meaning from that. Firstly, you certainly botched that potion spectacularly. Secondly, you certainly should not have been using a ladle with iron content in it; that is such a screamingly dangerous oversight that I cannot even begin to voice my frustration in you for forgetting something that basic. And thirdly and most importantly, you certainly were not the one who dropped the ladle into that potion."
Neville stared at Snape for a long time, then smiled a little, nodded, and turned to leave.
"And Longbottom?" said Snape. Neville turned his head. "You still have several detentions to complete with me. Professor Dumbledore might have suggested that those were forgiven, but I did not agree to any such thing."
Neville's jaw dropped. Snape raised an eyebrow at him, then calmly picked up his book and settled back to read.
Neville closed the door a bit harder than was polite. Snape smirked a little, and said to himself, "You and Pansy can get acquainted while scrubbing the droppings off the floor of the owlery. She could do with spending some time in the company of a nice boy, for a change."