"Have a biscuit."
It was a familiar comment coming from Professor McGonagall, but Neville would have laughed if he had felt up to it. After all, he had usually heard the commanding invitation after a particularly bad bout of bullying or when he had run afoul of someone else's adventures. Neville was not a particularly meddlesome type and he hated confrontation, but more often than not, Professor McGonagall would call him to his office for what his grandmother disparagingly called 'protective custody.'
She would listen patiently to his explanation of what had happened. In the early days, he had attempted to salvage the situation by refusing to name names or, more often, by taking the blame upon himself. Somehow, Professor McGonagall seemed to always know better and the blame would be placed appropriately as it was. After a while, he did not bother to dissemble.
This time, though, she had not asked for an explanation. There was no way he could explain this and she had no reason to believe that there was more to the story than what she had seen.
"I think I've lost my appetite," Neville muttered.
Her beady eyes flickered over his face, taking in the swollen, half-shut eye and the rip in his robe before her gaze settled on the blood-stained cloth that he was pressing to the gouge in his left cheek.
"Nonsense," she said rather faintly as she thrust the tin at him. "Have a biscuit."
He reluctantly reached across with his free hand to select a Ginger Newt and opened his mouth as far as he could to shove it into his mouth. The motion set off flares of pain in his cheek and chewing would have made it worse, so he simply let it dissolve on his tongue for a while.
Professor McGonagall was studying him with a wearily angry expression, but he knew from experience that her fury was not directed at him. That sort of expression meant that she wanted to fight on his behalf, on behalf of all her students, but that she was unsure of the best way to do so.
Still, it gave him hope that someone was still willing to fight for them. He attempted a smile, but got none in return.
"Potter favored those as well," Professor McGonagall recalled quietly.
"Was he in here a lot, then?" Neville asked.
She let out a bitter laugh that he didn't quite understand. "Rarely," she commented. "The last time was during the Umbridge fiasco and I was rather more severe with him than I should have been."
He had to bite his tongue at that, so to distract himself, he swallowed the mush that remained in place of the Ginger Newt. "I'm sure he didn't think so, Professor."
"On the contrary," Professor McGonagall mused, extending the tin once again. "He was so angry with my lack of sympathy that he refused a biscuit."
Determined not to offend her in a like manner, Neville took a Pumpkin Twist this time. "Thank you."
This time, she did manage a slight smile and selected a Twist for herself. The tartan tin went back on the corner of her desk as they both went to work on their respective biscuits. Finally, when he had swallowed the rest of his Twist, he glanced up to find Professor McGonagall looking as weary as he had ever seen her.
"You miss him, don't you?" he asked.
She did not dismiss the question, only nodded and swallowed her own biscuit. "I do in many ways," she admitted. "I miss him because, like you, he would have done what he could to put a stop to this."
"I didn't," Neville protested. "All I did was refuse to perform my 'homework.'"
Professor McGonagall grimaced at the word as if the corruption of her favorite word was a crushing blow. Still, she held his gaze with a steadiness that reminded him of Harry.
"Your father would not think so little of what you did," she insisted.
She had guessed, then, why he had refused to perform the Cruciatus curse. She knew that every time he heard the keening wails of a fellow student, he wondered if his mother had sounded like that before she fell permanently silent. He could not stand idly by while friends convulsed on the cobblestones of the courtyards because he could see his father crumpled in a similar position.
Of course, the Carrows knew those things as well, which was why they had assigned the task in the first place and why they had inflicted their punishment.
"I hope so," Neville said simply.
A sigh escaped her, almost inaudible even in the quiet of her office and she seemed to shrink within her tartan dressing gown. "I never had children of my own," she reminded him, "so I mother the students needlessly. My Gryffindors bear the brunt of that tendency."
"We're better for it," Neville insisted. "Even those of us who still have our parents around need someone like you to watch out for us during the school year."
Her gaze traveled back to the gouge on his cheek and the haunted look came back into her eyes. "I'm not doing a terribly good job of watching over my students this year."
He opened his mouth to protest, but Professor McGonagall shook her head. "I do not believe it is entirely my fault," she assured him. "I have never had to take responsibility for my students under such circumstances before and I am likely to be sacked at best and killed at worst if I go much further."
"You were here during the last war," Neville reminded. "Did you not…"
She shook her head again, cutting off the question. "We had Dumbledore."
And that explained much more than just the difference in circumstances. It explained why she looked as though she had kept a constant vigil for the last hundred years. She had kept the vigil required of her as Deputy Headmistress, but she had kept it alone.
"What can I do, Professor?" Neville asked with the full force of the Longbottom spirit behind him.
The answer came more quickly than he would have expected, as if she had been harboring the request until such a time as someone was loyal enough--or insane enough--to ask that exact question.
"Don't waste it," she said in a low hiss. "Hogwarts might have been closed several times since you arrived here, but we yet remain. We remain because we cannot neglect you. Fight if you can, resist when you must, but do not…"
With rapt attention, he leaned forward, straining to either hear or guess her next words. She seemed to be torn as to what exactly they should be and if she could entrust him with such a charge.
"Do not," she concluded, "let them win here as well."
She spoke it with the absolute certainty of someone who truly believed that the person, the friend, of whom they made such a demand could perform the task. He was momentarily dismayed and awed by that level of respect.
In the next moment, he retrieved the biscuit tin and offered it to her in return. "I never intended to, Professor."