When Snape informed Crabbe and Longbottom to present themselves at his classroom that evening, both boys were startled. Not only because Snape hadn't used the word "detention", but because it was after a class that had been entirely lecture. Neville hadn't had a chance to melt anything, and Crabbe hadn't had a chance to, well, he never did much of anything anyway. Still, they knew better than to argue, so they duly turned up as ordered and were surprised to find a grim faced Malfoy and determinedly cheerful Granger waiting for them, along with Professor Snape.
"You will spend the next two weeks being tutored," Snape told them, "in the hopes that Miss Granger or Mr Malfoy may have more luck than I in instilling knowledge between your ears. I am certain you will do your best," he added, though his tone made it clear he didn't expect that their best was any good.
The two boys exchanged a mutual look of confusion but then they agreeably headed towards their respective Housemates.
"No, no," Snape's mocking voice caught them midway. "Mr Crabbe is to work with Miss Granger. Mr Longbottom with Mr Malfoy."
"I don't want to work with a mudblood!" Crabbe protested before Longbottom could express his own dissatisfaction with the scheme.
"Are you defying me?" Snape swept down on Crabbe like an avenging force.
The burly boy cowered back and tried to hide behind Neville. It was rather like watching a large bear try to hide behind a plump pony. "No! No!" he yelped, surrendering instantly.
"And do you have any objections?" Snape purred at Longbottom.
"N-n-n-" Neville stuttered, shaking his head.
"Excellent." Snape straightened up and calmly flicked his robes into place. "Then you may begin."
Crabbe scuttled over to Granger and did his best to keep her between himself and Snape. Hermione sighed and took the large figure by the hand, tugging him over to a desk at the far side of the room. Vincent was still so rattled from Snape's fury that he didn't even pull away from her "defiling" touch. "Now, Vince," she said kindly, when both were seated. "What seems to be your trouble in Potions?"
He regarded her blankly. "Huh?"
Hermione's smile grew more forced. "What are you having problems with? What confuses you?"
Crabbe shrugged. "Dunno. Everything, mostly."
"Well, let's try this a different way. What do you like about Potions?"
"What parts do you understand?"
Hermione fought the urge to pound her head on the desktop. "Can you tell me one of the ingredients in a basic healing potion?"
"Uh, that flower?"
"You know, that one that gets put in everything."
"Forget me not?"
"No, Vince. That's more for memory potions, not healing potions."
"How about explaining the difference between brewing a potion and an infusion?"
"Okay. Vince, do you have your Potion notes with you? Any old essays or tests I could see?"
The mammoth Slytherin obediently bent to his bag. Vince was obviously accustomed to following orders.
Hermione glanced over the work he displayed. As best she could tell, Snape was giving Crabbe credit because he spelled his name correctly. Most of the time. "Vince, tell me one thing about Potions. Anything. Anything at all."
He frowned, his brow creasing with the effort of unaccustomed thought. "They stink."
"Good!" Hermione practically jumped on the desk and cheered. "That's right! Very good!"
Excited by this unusual success, Crabbe was inspired to greatness. "And they taste bad."
"Wonderful! That's very very good, Vincent!" Hermione scrambled in her bag. "Here, that deserves a chocolate frog."
Vince brightened. Food? He was getting food for a right answer?
"Vincent, why do you think potions taste bad?" Hermione asked, craftily leaving the box of chocolate frogs in plain sight.
Crabbe stared at the box and thought hard. "Ummm, because they don't have sugar or chocolate in them?"
"Good…" Hermione said encouragingly. "Instead, potions contain…?"
"Um, squished up frogs and bits of dead things and stuff like that?"
"Right. And that's why…?"
"That's why… they taste bad?" Vince asked, the ideas finally coming together with an almost audible click.
"Yes!" Hermione gave him another frog.
"Wow! That makes sense!" Vince said happily. "So, like, why do we put all that yukky stuff in them?"
"Because the yukky stuff each has special magical properties. When you put them together in different, special ways, you can make potions that do what you want." Hermione thought back to their very first Potions class and Snape's eloquent introduction to the mysteries of his field. Obviously it was a bit too eloquent for some students. "What are some of the potions that you've used?"
"Uh, healing potions, bruise salve, pepper up potion…" Vince started to reel off several more.
"Great!" Hermione saw Vincent's eyes go to the chocolate frogs, but she firmly kept her hand on the box. She was going to need to owl Honeydukes later. "Let's pick one and talk about the yukky stuff that makes it do what you need."
By the time Snape dismissed them for the evening, Hermione was out of frogs, but Vincent was able to name and describe the basic properties of three ingredients in pepper up potion. The Slytherin left happily, while Hermione dragged herself out the door. She paused only long enough to look daggers at Snape and say, "I begin to understand why you dislike teaching."
Snape smirked back at her. "It's supposed to be a punishment, Miss Granger. I am delighted to see it's working."
The next night, re-supplied with chocolate frogs, Hermione sailed back into battle. She had expected Crabbe to forget everything from the night before and was astounded to find he could recite everything back to her, letter perfect. "But Vincent, that's amazing!" she exclaimed, handing him a chocolate frog in a daze. "How did you remember all that?"
Crabbe looked embarrassed. "I've got a funny memory. I can remember stuff like lists and things."
"Really? That's wonderful."
He shrugged, sheepish. "Doesn't really help with anything. In all our classes, you need to think. I don't do that so well," he said without a trace of irony.
Hermione frowned. "What's your favorite class?"
Vince looked even more embarrassed. "History of Magic," he all but whispered.
"WHAT?" Hermione was staggered. Someone actually liked that class?
"Yeah, I mean, it's boring the way old Binns just drones on and on, but all those dates and the cool Goblin wars and all the killing and stuff – that's fun. My dad tells me lots of stories about the old wars and what the different pureblood families did to the Muggles and goblins and – oh. Sorry."
Hermione waved it off. "I know you weren't trying to be rude, Vincent. It's okay. But you mean, you actually like all the dates and things?"
"Yeah, I mean, I can remember that stuff really well. You don't have to think in History." And to prove his point, Vince started reeling off dates and battles.
Hermione was forced to get out her textbook in order to check him, and to her amazement, he was entirely accurate. "But, Vincent, this is wonderful news! Don't you see how you can use this in your other classes?"
He just looked at her in bewilderment. Once again the concepts were neatly lined up, but the connections weren't being made.
"Listen," she began…
The next morning in Potions class, Snape ordered all books closed. "All right, let's see which of you little dunderheads actually did the assigned reading and which of you will be writing an extra essay tonight." Muted groans echoed around the room. "Who can tell me the fourteen ingredients in a Far Seeing potion?"
"Speckled newt's eyes, frog toes, water, violet stamens, honey, bismuth, mandrake root, octopus eyeballs, hawk's feather, cat whisker, snake skin, bubotuber paste, mint leaves, and marjoram!"
Snape scowled. "There is no shouting in my class, Mr… CRABBE?" He – and the rest of the class – stared incredulously at the student who was beaming proudly.
"That's the order you add them in, too," the boy added helpfully.
"Yes, yes, it is," Snape admitted, stunned. "What about Blood Replenisher?"
Crabbe again recited the ingredient list without so much as a pause for breath. The class, Slytherins and Gryffindors alike, gaped at him. "That's very good, Mr Crabbe, not to mention completely unexpected. Ten points to Slytherin." Crabbe glowed, and Snape quirked an eyebrow to where Hermione sat, smiling smugly.
"…Of course, he doesn't have a clue about why you use those ingredients or what to do if you need to substitute something, but it's still a big improvement," Hermione explained to Snape after class.
"One might almost say miraculous," Snape agreed drily. "I'm… impressed, Miss Granger." Her resulting smile was almost as wide as Crabbe's. "Of course, you still have several days of tutoring left."
"Oh, yes sir. I need to show him how to do the same thing with his other lessons as we've done with the Potions material. That's all right, isn't it? We don't have to only study Potions, do we?"
"No. I am appreciative of the assistance you are showing a member of my House, Miss Granger. You definitely are exceeding the onus placed upon you by the detention," he admitted.
"Well, I didn't expect to enjoy it, especially after that first night, but it is exciting to watch Vince start to do well. For him, I mean. And it felt good to see his face after he got those answers right today." She smiled up at him. "I'm sorry I was rude that first night. It's actually a pretty brilliant detention. I'm having fun."
"Be sure not to tell anyone," he said crossly. "Now run along." As she left the dungeons, he said quietly, "And twenty points to Gryffindor for having wrought a miracle."
Two days later, Snape was summoned to the Slytherin Common Room by one of his prefects. "What is it this time, Mr Flint?" Snape snapped.
"Sorry to disturb you, sir, but you said to notify you about any fights in the House."
Snape hid his surprise under a fearsome scowl. Considering how strongly he cautioned his little snakes that they all had to support each other – Slytherins first and foremost – serious fights within the dormitory were relatively rare. There were too many Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, and (of course) Gryffindors to battle for there to be much energy left over for internal conflicts. Besides which, Snape's palpable displeasure at snake-on-snake violence made it much less likely to occur, particularly after his threats following an incident earlier that year.
Snape followed Flint into the main room. Most of the Slytherins had wisely vanished, not wanting to be associated, even indirectly, with these events. "Who was involved?" Snape demanded, biting off each word.
"Crabbe and Goyle, sir," Flint said. "I had to petrify 'em before they'd stop." He nodded to where the two boys lay rigid in front of the fire. The rest of the room was a shambles, as if two large gorillas had hurled themselves about with careless abandon. Which, in a sense, was exactly what had happened.
Snape glanced about. "Yes? And who else?"
"Sir?" Flint looked blank.
"Who were Crabbe and Goyle fighting?" He wondered if the poor student (or students) had already been transported to Madame Pomfrey.
"Uh, no one, sir. They were fighting each other."
Snape's eyebrows rose in shock. Crabbe and Goyle were inseparable, just as their fathers had been in school – and still were to the current day. For them to have argued, let alone come to blows, was unprecedented. To be completely honest, Snape hadn't imagined the boys had enough brains between them to disagree about anything.
"What were they fighting about?"
Flint shrugged, then colored at his Head's glare. He knew Snape loathed such sloppy gestures. "Sorry, sir. I'm not really sure. No one seems to have noticed anything until the punches started flying. I think someone said Crabbe said something to Goyle like 'Don't call her that!' but I'm not sure."
Ah. Yes, of course. Snape pinched the bridge of his nose.He should have foreseen this. Of course Crabbe would now regard the Gryffindor know-it-all with a certain degree of fondness now that she had helped him improve his dismal scholastic record. And just as predictably, Goyle hadn't understood that his best friend's world had undergone a sea change.
"Thank you, Mr Flint. That will be all," Snape said. He levitated the two pugilists and guided them, floating behind him, to his office where he released the binding spell. The boys scrambled to their feet.
He glowered at them, and they cowered back. Obviously whatever their differences, they still were more scared of him than of each other. He cast a quick diagnostic spell to ensure that neither was seriously hurt, but though each had absorbed a lot of punishment from the other, there was nothing worse than minor cuts and bruises. There was something to be said for being a solid block of muscle.
"Well?" he snapped.
"He hit me!" Goyle whined. "Just 'cause I called a mudblood a mudblood."
"Don't call her that!" Crabbe growled. "Her name's Granger." An odd sort of simper appeared on his face. "Hermione Granger."
Oh no. Please no. Snape's stomach lurched. All he needed was for Crabbe Senior to figure out that his son and heir was in love with a Gryffindor Muggleborn. Not that he was brutal the way Lucius Malfoy was, but he would most likely appear on Snape's doorstep drunk and maudlin, wanting to know where he had gone wrong with the boy. The last thing Snape wanted was to have to console a tearful moron like Crabbe Senior.
"Mr Crabbe," he said sharply, "Miss Granger is acting in the role of a teacher for you. It would be most improper for you to treat her with anything less than complete respect!"
Crabbe gazed at him blankly.
Little words, Severus. Use little words, he reminded himself. "Hermione may not like you as anything but a friend," he said as gently as he could.
Crabbe sighed mournfully. "Yeah, I know. But that doesn't mean he – " he jerked a thumb at Goyle "- can call her names!"
"Huh?" Goyle was, as usual, lost. He looked pitifully at Snape. "But isn't she a mudblood? I thought that if your parents aren't wizards, that makes you a mudblood."
"DON'T CALL HER THAT!" Crabbe was nothing if not single minded.
"Enough!" Snape snarled. Well, perhaps he might yet salvage another student or two from the Death Eaters. "Neither of you will use the term 'mudblood' again. Use 'Muggleborn' instead. Understand?" He watched Goyle's lips move as he laboriously practiced the word. "If anyone argues with you, send them to me." With luck, once it became known that Crabbe had punched the stuffing out of Goyle for saying 'mudblood', use of the term might decline precipitously throughout the House.
"And for fighting in the House," he continued, giving them his best glare, "you will both serve a weekend of detention with Filch." They flinched, but knew better than to argue. Actually, compared to what he had threatened earlier in the year, he was treating them with astonishing leniency, though it was unlikely they would have the wit to appreciate it.
He dismissed them after a few more snarls and threats, then sat in his office, musing. That Granger girl really had shown an amazing talent for teaching. He wondered if Draco were similarly skilled.
Unfortunately, Malfoy and Longbottom were not having a similar level of success. Malfoy's teaching style was heavily influenced by Snape, and having yet another Slytherin shout insults at him was – oddly enough – not helping Neville.
"You really are hopeless, Lardbottom!" Malfoy howled in frustration after one spectacularly failed attempt to brew a simple three-ingredient potion. "This is the kind of stuff they have eight year olds doing in Junior Baby Potion classes! Are you sure you're not a squib in disguise?"
"Shut up, Malfoy!" Neville was scarlet with frustration and humiliation. "It's not like I'm trying to fail, you know!"
"Maybe if you tried to fail, you'd succeed! Merlin knows trying to succeed isn't getting you anywhere."
"I'm doing the best I can," Neville protested, feeling the familiar prickle of tears at the back of his eyes. "It's not easy for me, okay?"
"I just want you to know, " Malfoy leaned close and hissed at him, "that when you blow the next test and I get whacked for your idiocy, I am going to have Crabbe and Goyle ambush you and beat you bloody."
Neville promptly dropped the container of stinkbug juice, and the ensuing noxious cloud forced the evacuation of the classroom and the adjournment of the evening's lesson.
By the next morning, tempers were still running high. Malfoy and Longbottom exchanged glares through History of Magic and into Herbology. When Professor Sprout praised Neville for his excellent potting technique, Malfoy stage whispered to Goyle, "It's no surprise he gets along with plants, he has the same brain capacity as one!"
That did it. Yes, Neville was relatively timid. Yes, he was petrified of Snape. Yes, Draco scared him too. But Draco, for all his sneers and threats, was just another student, and while Neville might not be able to do anything about Snape's constant abuse, he had reached the limit of what he would take from Draco. So he deliberately turned around and threw his tray of seedlings at Draco.
That in and of itself might not have been a particularly nasty move, but the seedlings were firecracker plants and the rough handling promptly made them detonate. Malfoy yelped and dove for cover as a half dozen explosions occurred around his ears.
Some minutes later, Sprout had restored calm to the classroom and was applying salve to the small burns spotting Malfoy's head and hands. "Oh dear, Mr Malfoy," she said apologetically. "It looks as if some of your hair has been, er, singed."
"What?" screeched Draco. Not his hair! He brought a hand up and was appalled to find that a sizable chunk had been burnt away. The frizzled remains felt like straw beneath his fingers. "I'll kill him! This is all that idiot's fault! You saw what he did! You'd better be giving him detention until he's forty!"
Professor Sprout's gentle gaze grew steely. "Yes, I did see what he did. And I heard what you said to provoke him. You'll both be here after class for detention."
"That's not fair," whined Draco. "I'm the injured party in this! And besides, we already have detention with Professor Snape."
"So Mr Longbottom explained to me. That is why you will serve your detention with me before dinner and with Professor Snape after dinner."
Draco whinged and complained, but Professor Sprout remained firm. She finally threatened to contact his Head of House if he continued to refuse the detention, and Draco backed down. Snape might agree with Draco that having been practically set on fire was enough of a punishment, but he might just as easily support his fellow professor.
And so, after class was over, Longbottom and Malfoy remained behind, alongside what appeared nearly endless rows of Samurai Roses, all of which needed pruning. The only problem was that the Samurai Roses didn't want to be pruned, and they were wickedly good at defending themselves with their thorns, some of which were nearly as long as a finger.
Professor Sprout headed off to a project that required her attention in the other greenhouse, but not until she had threatened them with death, dismemberment, and detention (not necessarily in that order) if they got up to more mischief. Both boys nodded and got to work.
Draco found it not only slow going, but acutely painful. No matter how he tried to sneak up on the plants, they always saw him coming, and they were lightning quick with their sword-like thorns. He tried parrying them with the pruning shears, but they had earned their name – samurai – and he was no match for them. Within half an hour, he was weeping from both pain and frustration. He knew that when he returned to his dormitory with his hands cut to ribbons, he would be mocked and derided. Sprout – and Hufflepuffs in general – were not held in high regard, and the notion that the Prince of Slytherin could be vanquished by a bunch of flowers would make him the butt of jokes for several weeks. Making matters worse, his father was certain to hear of it through the Slytherin parents' grapevine, and he would likely turn up to make his displeasure clear to Draco. Very, very clear.
One of the flowers neatly impaled his thumb on its thorn, and he couldn't suppress a cry of pain. Neville looked over from where he was significantly farther down his row. "What's the matter, Malfoy?"
"Shut up, Lardbottom," Draco said savagely, dashing the tears from his cheeks. That was all he needed, Neville's taunting as well. He struck out at the rose in front of him and cried out again as it blocked his attempt and opened a long slash along the back of his hand. He threw the pruning shears down and burst into tears of pain and rage.
"Merlin, Malfoy, what have you done to yourself?" Neville asked, coming up behind him. "Your hands are shredded."
"Yeah, I know. Real funny, isn't it? Ha, ha," Draco snapped, forcing back his sobs and pulling himself together through an act of sheer will. "You'll be able to have a real howl about it back in the Gryffindor Common Room tonight, right, Lardbottom?"
"Stop calling me that, Malfoy," Neville ordered sharply.
Startled, Draco looked at him. Here in the greenhouses, Neville seemed different. More confident and more… adult, somehow. "Here," Neville said, reaching under the work table and pulling out his bookbag. He grabbed one of Draco's hands.
"What are you doing?" Draco demanded, snatching back his hand. "I'm not holding hands with you!"
"Fine, bleed all over the place," Neville shrugged. "Or, if you want, I can put this healing cream on." He held up a pot that Malfoy instantly recognized. "I always bring some with me just in case."
Draco sniffled then tried to hide it with a disdainful sniff. "I'm sure you need it all the time. A clod like you working with all these dangerous plants?"
"Actually, I haven't needed it at all this term," Neville said evenly, then grinned suddenly. "Yet." He opened the jar. "So do you want some or not?"
Draco fought with himself. Accept help from Lardbottom? But as much as it would sting his pride to do so, refusing would hurt worse. His hands were sheer agony. "Not much point," he muttered, looking down the long row of plants he had yet to touch. "I'll just get sliced up all over again."
Neville recaptured one of his hands and started smearing it with salve. "Not necessarily. Let's see what your technique is like. It's really not that hard."
Draco snorted. "Oh yeah? A lot you know!"
Neville looked at him calmly. "I've done twice as many as you, and I haven't gotten a single scratch. So, yeah, I do know a lot. More than you, anyway."
Draco wanted to sneer at the notion of a Longbottom knowing more than a Malfoy about anything, but the salve felt so good that he couldn't bring himself to say anything snotty. The pain was nearly gone from one hand, and he nearly whimpered in relief as Neville reached for the other.
"Okay," Neville ordered, once Draco's hands were fully healed. "Show me what you've been doing."
Draco bridled, but then grudgingly obeyed. He picked up his shears and started warily towards the next rose.
"Wait!" Neville called. "That's your first mistake. You need to approach it like this – didn't you do the reading?" Neville took his own pruning shears and approached the rose. He bowed, and the rose bowed back. The instant the rose bent over, Neville nimbly leapt forward and with an adroitness Draco never would have suspected, he pinched it just behind the flower. The entire plant promptly went limp, and he quickly snipped off its extra branches. Then he let go, sprang back, and the rose immediately revived.
Draco stared at him. Somehow those fingers which always seemed so fat and clumsy in Potions and on broomsticks were deft and sure here in the greenhouse. "That was amazing," Draco gulped, in spite of himself.
Neville smiled, just for a moment, then the usual caution settled back in his expression. "You give it a try."
It was hard for a Malfoy to bow, especially to a stupid flower, for Merlin's sake! But Draco managed, and the rose bowed back. It took him a few tries before he was able to do it quickly enough to avoid the thorns, but soon he was zipping along the line of roses. He wasn't as graceful at it as Neville, but he was good enough to avoid being hurt.
"Hey, Neville," he called, curious, "if you've got the dexterity to get the drop on these roses, why are you so clumsy in potions? If you're not hacking apart the ingredients, you're dropping them all over or jostling the cauldron. That's why your stuff always blows up or melts or something."
Neville shrugged. "Snape rattles me. I know he's your Head of House and godfather and all, but he's really scary."
"Compared to what?" Draco scoffed. "All he can do is insult you, and he insults everyone. What's so bad about that?"
Neville looked down at the rose he was working on. "I don't like it when he says I'm useless," he whispered, almost too low for Draco to hear. "Because he's right."
Draco looked up in surprise. "Why do you say that?" It was true that not too long ago, he'd have agreed with Longbottom, but having watched the other boy's skill with plants, he didn't understand why Neville was so convinced of his own ineptitude.
Neville looked away. "You know about my folks, right? I mean, with your father being a Death Eater – or ex-Death Eater, I guess."
Draco colored at the reference to Lucius, but it was clear Neville hadn't meant anything rude by it. "Yeah. So? They were tortured by Death Eaters and went insane, right?"
"Yeah," Neville said. "But I was there when it happened."
Draco swallowed. He knew Neville would only have been a baby at the time, but still, being there, hearing his parents screaming from the Cruciatus… That was just sick.
Merlin, he did not want to join Voldemort, no matter what his father said or did.
"Yeah. I don't really remember, but you know…" Neville took a deep breath. "I didn't do anything. To help them, I mean."
Draco stared at him. "Longbottom, you were like, what, 14 months old? What the hell could you have done?"
"Harry defeated Voldemort at that age," Neville said quietly, continuing to prune the roses. "I couldn't even get help for my parents. It's not like they went insane quickly, you know. It took hours and hours."
Draco felt nauseous. This was what his father wanted for him? Suddenly he realized how much courage it must take the other boy just to get up in the morning. "Really, Longbottom, that's not true. About Potter, I mean. He didn't defeat the Dark Lord."
Neville frowned at him. "What are you talking about?"
"I mean, yes, the Dark Lord tried to kill him and the spell backfired or something, but everything I've heard always said that it wasn't really Potter, but something his mum did, or maybe both his parents together. You know, to protect him. Like, it wasn't anything that he did on his own, but something that they did to him, or maybe for him. So maybe the fact that you survived too was because of something your folks did for you. Did you ever think of that? Maybe it wasn't that you should have done something to save them, but that they were doing something to save you that whole time. That's why you're still here. 'Cause they cared about you as much as Potter's parents cared about him."
Neville was staring at him. "You really think so?" he said, the words breathed out between stiff lips.
Draco shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. Why was he being nice to Lardbottom? "I don't know. But it makes sense to me. I mean, why should only Potter's parents be able to protect their kid?" he asked, the usual venom in his voice as he mentioned the Dolt Who Lived.
Neville suddenly ducked his head, and Draco realized, mortified, that the other boy was crying. If Sprout comes in here now, I'm dead. She'll want to know if I made him cry, and I'll have to say yes, and she'll report me to Snape and… Oh, Merlin, why did I ever say that?
Draco waited in an agony of embarrassment and anxiety for the other boy to get control of himself. Twelve year old boys are not particularly comfortable with strong emotions, and Draco was perhaps less sympathetic than most, but even he realized that anything he said at that moment would only make things worse. There was nothing to do but wait.
After what seemed an eternity but was probably only a few minutes, Neville dragged a sleeve across his face and looked up at Draco. "Thanks. I hadn't ever thought of it like that. I owe you one, Malfoy."
Draco squirmed. "Yeah, okay," he muttered. "Whatever."
Neville managed a watery grin. "Now I really need to improve in Potions. I'll actually feel bad now if you end up getting walloped because of me."
Draco glared at him suspiciously. "Have you been deliberately holding back just so I would get in trouble?"
"No! I mean, I know that if I don't improve, Hermione gets in trouble too, and even if I wanted to see you whacked, I wouldn't do that to her. But I guess I just never really thought that you would be able to help me improve my grades, no matter how hard I tried, and until now I wasn't really all that upset at the thought of you getting hit."
"Great," Draco said sourly. "If you had been messing up on purpose, we might have had a chance. But no, we're still dead."
Neville looked apologetic. "I'm really sorry."
Draco thought hard. "Tell me what you have to do to pot a Veritas orchid," he said slowly, an idea striking him.
"Oka-ay," Neville obviously didn't understand the request but he was willing to play along. "First you have to prepare the potting soil. There are eighteen ingredients that make up the seven layers, and it takes about three weeks to prepare them all. You have to be sure that you do it between the winter solstice and –"
"Stop!" Draco commanded. "If you can remember all that, and do it, then what is your problem with Potions? I mean, this herbology shite takes forever. It can take you three years to figure out if you potted a centenary plant properly – at least a potion either works or blows up pretty quickly by comparison."
"I don't know," Neville defended himself. "I don't understand how potions work. I mean, with plants, it's all pretty simple. They're living things. You need to give them what they need to grow and thrive. Yeah, okay, some are more complicated than others, but most of them just want the same thing. But potions are all different and the ingredients are disgusting – all those awful animal parts? Yuk!"
"What if – what if you thought about a potion like a plant? I mean, you need to feed plants, right? You have to mix up different plant foods for roses than for kauri trees, don't you?"
"So how do you decide what goes in each type of plant food?"
Neville grinned. "That's easy. You just look at the plant that's going to eat it, and you figure out what it needs to grow properly."
"Okay, so try this. Instead of thinking of a potion as a recipe you're brewing or something you have to make, think of it as an effect you want to create. Like when you make plant food, you say you think about what you want it to do for the plant, right?" Neville nodded. "Okay, so when it's time to make a nutrient potion – " Draco named one of the simplest potions "- think about what you want the potion to do."
"You mean, like replace the body's own fuel stores?"
"Exactly!" Draco was beginning to get excited. "So what do you need to put in it to get that effect?"
Neville was thinking hard. "Well, you'd need something to take the place of the protein and other food groups – is that what the powdered dragon's liver does? Because it's so high in magical content?"
"Yes!" Draco pumped his fist in victory. "You've got it! Keep going!"
Neville managed – with only minor prompting – to get through the rationale for the rest of the nutrient potion's ingredients as well as to puzzle out why they needed to be added in their appropriate order and manner. By the end, he was dancing around the greenhouse, yelling, "It makes sense! It finally makes sense!"
Throwing his dignity to the winds, Draco linked arms with him in a mad sort of jig. "Hooray! I'm saved! No swats!"
A noise at the entrance to the greenhouse caused the boys to jerk to a halt. Sprout and Snape stood there, mouths upon. "I – I heard the yelling and thought you were killing each other, so I called Professor Snape," Sprout stammered. "Is – is everything all right?"
Draco straightened haughtily. "Of course it is," he said coldly. "Why wouldn't it be?"
Snape raised an eyebrow. "You were dancing with Mr Longbottom, Mr Malfoy. Have you been hit with an Imperius? Do you need to see Madame Pomfrey?"
"Please, Professor," Neville said in tones almost as glacial as Draco's. "Although you may find such comments amusing, I doubt the rest of us do."
Draco smothered his snort of laughter, while Snape's other eyebrow joined its mate at the man's hairline. Longbottom had just delivered a put-down? To him? "Perhaps you have forgotten you have detention with me after dinner, Mr Longbottom," he replied with silky menace.
To his astonishment, Neville actually grinned. "I know. I'm looking forward to it. I think we'll brew a nutrient potion tonight. That sound good to you, Draco?"
"Yeah, okay, Neville." Draco couldn't resist. He knew it would make his godfather nearly swallow his tongue. "Professor Sprout, may we please be excused to go to dinner?"
The Hufflepuff nodded jerkily.
"Thank you, Professor," Neville said politely. "I'll be happy to come by this weekend and help finish the pruning if you need me."
Snape and Sprout watched the two boys walk over to the Great Hall, chatting companionably. "Severus…" Sprout began tentatively. "I suppose it's not really any of my business, but is your godson behaving like his normal self?"
Snape paused. He trusted the Herbology professor as much as he trusted anyone – which admittedly wasn't very much – but he wasn't about to reveal his plans for Draco to anyone. He forced the immense satisfaction that he felt out of his tone and answered in his usual ill-tempered drawl. "No, Pomona. Not in the least. Obviously exposure to Longbottom has softened his brain."
As he'd expected, the Hufflepuff took exception to his remark. "Well, it certainly has softened something about him, and you know what? I like it!" With that angry snap, she whirled and marched away, leaving Snape free to murmur softly, "So do I."