"Five days?" Neville repeated tremulously.
The quill froze above the parchment, and Dumbledore looked up at him over the rim of his half-moon spectacles.
What's wrong with me, Neville chided himself. I'm not being asked to risk my life. I'm not being asked to go into battle. Not like all those other people, who need this new potion approved quickly. Their survival depends on it. The outcome of the war may depend on it. And I'm only being asked to give up five days of comfort.
"I'll go pack," he said, forcing his voice to be as calm as possible. He stood up, gathering his cloak off the floor where it had fallen after slipping off the back of his chair.
"Thank you, Neville," Dumbledore said, returning to his writing. "I will let Professor Snape know to expect you."
With a small sigh, Neville left Dumbledore's office.
He was proud of the work he was doing. After his seventh year he had remained at Hogwarts to help in the greenhouses. Professor Sprout was getting up in years and could no longer meet the ever-increasing demand for herbs and medicinal plants. Neville was doing his part, and he had never regretted his choice.
But five days with Snape!
Having entered his small living quarters, Neville looked around tiredly. It had been a long day, and now all he had to look forward to was spending the remainder of the night on board the train.
He began to pack, folding his best robes carefully and stowing them at the bottom of his suitcase where they would not be wrinkled, and adding a few articles of casual wear in case he needed to brave Muggle London. Lastly, he packed shoe polish and his comb and toothbrush. There was only one more thing he needed.
Leaving the suitcase still open on his bed, Neville left the room and headed down the long corridor.
Professor Sprout's office was locked, but she had given Neville the password when they first began to work together. Still, he felt slightly ill at ease entering her office while she was lying feverish in the infirmary and could not give him permission to search through her things.
He found her record book without too much trouble, and using the notes he found within it he was able to find each of the specimens he would need to take with him. He was glad Professor Sprout kept her shelves and cabinets in such perfect order.
Returning to his room, he packed the book and the jars, and closed his suitcase with a snap.
He was ready.
Knowing that lingering would only serve to make him more nervous, Neville left quickly.
In the entrance hall he was met by McGonagall, who handed him a small box.
"In case you get hungry on the train."
"Thank you," Neville said, surprised by the gesture.
"The train leaves in twenty minutes, I suggest you hurry," she said, opening the door for him.
"I will. Thank you," Neville said again, stepping out into the chilly evening air.
"Good luck, Mr. Longbottom."
The door clanged shut behind him.
Neville switched his heavy suitcase to his other hand. He began the long walk to the station, feeling more and more nervous with every step that took him farther from the castle.
He made it to the station just in time. Steam was billowing from underneath the train, and the whistle blew urgently. It began to move just as Neville collapsed into his seat.
He stowed away his suitcase and looked around curiously, finding himself to be almost by himself in the train car. There was an old woman sitting in the back, wrapped up tightly in a red shawl, and a man whose face was hidden behind a newspaper. Neville settled back, gazing out the window as the train gathered speed, though there was nothing to see but blackness.
He was tired -- he had been roused out of comfortable sleep, after all -- but his eyes wouldn't close. He kept thinking about the conference.
Could he really get up in front of a room full of people and not choke up or get his lines wrong? What if he made a mistake? What if because of him the potion was rejected?
Frantically he got his suitcase open and began to read Sprout's notes. There were pages upon pages of them, and the curvy, narrow script made them hard to read.
Neville read until his eyes began to burn and ache. He was no closer to feeling confident about his part.
Reluctantly he closed the book and leaned back against the seat, shutting his eyes. Within minutes he was asleep.
By the time Neville awoke it was early dawn. Feeling cramped and sore, he got up and stretched his legs, then made his way to the small bathroom to splash water on his face and clean his teeth. Even so, he felt grimy and unrested.
It appeared he still had a ways to go before reaching his destination. He picked up the record book again, but his stomach reminded him that he hadn't eaten anything since a light supper the previous night.
He opened the box McGonagall had handed him, and found several bread rolls and fruit. It wasn't much, but he ate it quickly, grateful to have something to fill him.
He read for the next hour, and used a clean sheet of parchment to make his own notes where he felt Sprout's were lacking. He hardly noticed that outside his window, the countryside had given way to streets and buildings.
He was surprised when the train began to slow down, and allowed his book to fall closed. All his nervousness came flooding back.
Would Snape meet him at the station? Would Neville have to travel through London on his own? He knew where the Ministry building was located, but the idea of traveling alone through the city terrified him.
The train rolled to a stop. Hurriedly Neville repacked his suitcase and brushed bread crumbs off his robes. He would just have to make the best effort he could muster.
He followed the other passengers toward the exit, feeling his heart begin to hammer in his chest.
Even before stepping to the platform, his eyes located Snape's distinct form. Dressed in black robes that billowed out from the cold draft blowing across the platform, Snape stood by the exit with his arms crossed over his chest. It was not a welcoming look.
With a deep breath to steady himself, Neville got a firmer grip on his suitcase and began to walk toward him.
"You brought Sprout's notes, I presume?" Snape demanded as soon as Neville was within hearing distance.
Neville, who had been about to utter a greeting, felt his mouth open and close wordlessly for a moment.
"Uh... Yes. Yes, I did," he finally managed to say.
"And the specimens?" Snape continued, his eyes registering suspicion.
"Yes, I have them," Neville said.
"Good," Snape said shortly, and turned and started up the staircase.
Frowning slightly, Neville followed.
After navigating through back streets and alleys, Snape led him to a small shop. From there they could Floo directly to their hotel.
"Let me have the suitcase," Snape said. "Knowing you, the specimens won't survive the trip intact."
Neville resisted the urge to glare as he gave up his suitcase and watched as Snape threw Floo powder into the grate and disappeared in a pillar of green fire and smoke.
Perhaps Snape had been right; Neville's landing was rather hard. He stood up, trying to brush off his robes and look around at the same time.
The hotel wasn't much; just a one-storey building looking out across a small square. It was obvious that care had been taken to make it fit in among Muggle buildings.
"This way, Longbottom," Snape said impatiently.
Neville was taken aback when Snape led him to their room. He had assumed he would have his own, but it appeared that in addition to spending his days in Snape's company, Neville would have to spend nights with him as well.
"Unpack quickly," Snape said, "the preliminary hearing is one hour from now."
Neville began to unpack, fear knotting his stomach. Dumbledore had told him the hearing would determine whether or not their presentation would be admitted.
"What will I have to say?" he asked timidly.
"You will say nothing unless absolutely necessary."
Neville breathed a small sigh of relief.
"If you are asked for your credentials, say you are Sprout's personal assistant, on staff at Hogwarts. For pity's sake do not reveal you were a student not four months ago."
"Should I change?" he asked, holding up the robes he had packed.
"Please do," Snape said shortly. "You're filthy."
Feeling his cheeks flame, Neville hurried into the bathroom.
When he came out, he found Snape had arranged the specimen jars on the table, and was making notes on a piece of parchment. He was muttering to himself.
"Hyssopus officinalis... cordyceps sinensis..."
"Are they all there?" Neville asked anxiously.
"... monnieri... Hmm?" Snape looked up, frowning. "Yes," he said, pushing the parchment aside.
Neville tried to smile. An effort entirely wasted on Snape.
"Come along, Longbottom."
Neville had to trot at a quick pace to keep up with Snape's long strides. He was out of breath by the time they had climbed to the fourth floor of the Ministry building. Snape frowned at him when he collapsed on a cushioned bench in the corridor outside the conference room.
"Just... let me... get my... breath... back," Neville panted.
Throwing him another dirty look, Snape began to sort through the papers he had brought with him.
The double doors opened and a crowd of people pushed out into the corridor. Snape forcefully pulled Neville to his feet before one of the officials took notice of them.
"You may go in," the man said, motioning them inside.
Snape gave Neville a hard push.
Neville was quaking inside, but forced himself to keep up with Snape as they made their way to the front of the room. Several wizards were sitting around a table, watching as they took their place behind the podium.
Snape had been right. Neville only had to speak once.
"Neville Longbottom, on staff at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as Professor Sprout's personal assistant," he said, his voice only slightly unsteady.
Then Snape continued with a short presentation, and Neville was ignored by all.
"You did well," Snape said when they were back on the street and walking back to their hotel.
"Thank you," Neville said in surprise. "Does that mean we'll be allowed to present?"
"Yes. Here," Snape said, searching the pocket of his robes and producing a handful of coins. "There's a shop on the corner. Buy lunch."
With that, he left Neville standing in the middle of the street.
Neville had never been in charge of preparing a meal. He had never had to think about what he would eat; food simply appeared on his plate when he sat down at the table, and the empty plate would disappear when he was through. Buying sweets had not prepared him to face the task at hand.
He stared at the endless shelves of food. Bags and tins and bottles and jars; it was all very confusing. He supposed that if he had to choose only for himself he would manage somehow, but how was he supposed to choose for Snape?
"Something simple," he mumbled to himself as he passed by a tank filled with live oysters and frogs.
Finally, to his relief, he saw a mother with two children buying pumpkin juice and sandwiches. That's what he would get, too.
Twenty minutes later he pushed the hotel room door open and stepped into the dark room. Snape wasn't inside.
Neville deposited his purchases on the table, careful not to move any of the specimen jars. He was just about to unwrap his sandwich when a sound from behind made him whirl around.
Snape was in the room after all. He was collapsed face down on his bed, still fully dressed.
For a moment Neville was afraid he may be ill or hurt, but after watching Snape's steady breathing for several minutes he was convinced that Snape was merely asleep.
In the middle of the day?
Neville frowned, but since he couldn't imagine anything good coming from disturbing Snape's rest, he sat down quietly and ate his lunch in solitude.
Snape awoke several hours later. He ate his sandwich without appearing to care what it was, and drank down the pumpkin juice too fast to have tasted it.
"What did you do with Sprout's notes?" he growled at Neville.
"R-Right here," Neville said timidly, handing over the book he had been studying.
For the next few hours Neville sat on his bed, too afraid to make a sound, while Snape worked.
At long last Snape put down his quill.
"We will take our dinner at the cafe across the street," he announced, pulling on his cloak.
Then, noticing Neville's appearance, he added, "Take off those robes, you might soil them."
He waited impatiently by the door while Neville changed.
Neville found dinner quite unpleasant. Snape ate in grim silence, and Neville was too frightened to attempt conversation. The food threatened to stick in his throat with every swallow.
"Can I get you gentlemen anything else?" a waitress asked.
"No," Snape said, pushing away his plate and rising. He dropped a galleon and two sickles onto the table.
Neville smiled apologetically at the waitress and hurried to catch up with Snape, who was already halfway to the door.
They returned to their hotel room. Neville found himself stifling a yawn as Snape proceeded to once again ignore him.
"Go to bed," Snape muttered without looking up.
Pursing his lips to suppress a sudden surge of anger, Neville gathered up his pajamas and toothbrush and disappeared into the bathroom.
One day down. He didn't know how he was going to make it through the next four.
He changed and went back into the room. Snape didn't look up.
Neville crawled under the covers and tried to ignore Snape's uncomfortable presence behind him. He shut his eyes tightly and tried to think of other, more pleasant, things.
He must have fallen asleep, because the striking of the big clock in the square outside the hotel woke him up in the dead of night. Without opening his eyes, he counted. One. Two. Three.
Three in the morning. What had awakened him?
He opened his eyes. There was a shadow on the wall in front of him, and it took him a while to realize it belonged to Snape.
He watched as the shadow shed its robes and disappeared as bedsprings creaked softly.
Was Snape only now going to bed? Neville listened for the sound of Snape's breathing, but could hear only the sound of his own heart beat.
After a few minutes he sighed and forced himself to return to sleep.
Before he knew it, it was morning, and Snape was shaking him awake.
"Wha-What is it?" Neville asked groggily, raising his head.
He came awake quickly enough when his eyes met Snape's glare.
"Get up. We're meeting the Committee Chairman in less than two hours."
Neville pulled himself out of bed and rushed through his morning routine.
"Pack the book," Snape commanded, throwing him a cloth bag, "and the bacopa monnieri powder."
Wordlessly, Neville moved to obey. Snape was already at the door.
"Will I have to say anything?" he asked as they left the hotel.
"I don't know," Snape said, a worried frown on his face. "This was unexpected." He shot a murderous glance in Neville's direction. "Don't say anything ludicrous."
Neville was a trembling bundle of nerves by the time they were seated at a fancy restaurant. Snape glowered, which Neville supposed might be his way of being nervous too. It certainly did nothing to reassure Neville.
At last they were joined by a short, portly wizard in dark blue robes. Snape stood to shake hands, and glared sideways at Neville until Neville scrambled out of his seat as well.
"Sit down, sit down," the wizard said. "Have you ordered yet?"
"Not yet," Snape said, motioning a waiter over to the table.
Neville tried to adhere to Snape's advice to keep silent unless absolutely necessary, but the Chairman pounced on him.
"Longbottom, eh?" he said, stroking his short beard. "Not Frank Longbottom's son, by any chance?"
"Yes," Neville admitted, already gritting his teeth in anticipation.
"Yes, yes..." The wizard patted him on the shoulder. "Terrible tragedy. Terrible."
"And that is why, Chairman," Snape interrupted to Neville's great relief, "we seek the approval of the Committee. We believe this new potion will prevent any further cases such as the Longbottoms, the Pikes, the Kincaids..."
Neville tuned the rest out. He didn't want to hear about the symptoms. He didn't want to hear about the causes. He didn't want to listen to the long list of victims. He just hoped he wouldn't have to say anything for the rest of the uncomfortable meal.
Their food arrived, but Neville had lost his appetite.
His ears pricked up when the chairman took out a large gold watch and said, "Do you mind if we continue this conversation in my office? I'm expecting an owl."
"Not at all," Snape said, putting down his glass and crumpling his napkin into his plate.
As the chairman was paying the bill, Snape turned to Neville.
"Return to the hotel," he said in a low voice. "And take this with you." He shoved the specimen jar into Neville's hand. "I won't be needing it after all."
Neville watched as Snape and the chairman walked out of the restaurant, heading in the direction of the Ministry building.
He breathed a sigh of relief. He was on his own.
He enjoyed the walk back to the hotel. There were shop windows lining the street, and the sounds and sights of the city were new to him. He had been to the city before, of course, and knew the layout, but his Gran had always been in a hurry and frowned upon his tendency to dawdle.
He found the rest of the day quite dull. There was nothing in the hotel room with which he could amuse himself, and after taking a short nap to make up for having been pulled out of sleep so early that morning, Neville found himself bored and frustrated.
The lunch hour had long passed, and since Neville was afraid to leave the hotel room without permission, he went hungry.
The afternoon wound down, and outside the window the shadows were deepening. Snape still wasn't back, and now, in addition to being hungry, Neville was becoming worried, too.
Worried about Snape. That was something new, and very disconcerting. Neville convinced himself that it merely because he wanted so badly for this conference to be a success, and the potion to be approved.
The sun set, and soon afterward the door was flung open and Snape stalked in. Neville didn't need to look twice to see that Snape was in a bad mood. He steeled himself.
"Did you buy dinner?" Snape demanded, emptying some papers and the record book onto the table.
"You--you didn't ask me to," Neville said meekly.
Snape's derisive snort told him he had been expected to think of it on his own. "Come along."
Without waiting to see if Neville was following, Snape strode out of the room.
Neville grabbed his cloak and trotted after him.
If he thought dinner was uncomfortable the previous night, that night it was almost unbearable.
Snape tore at his food, glaring over his plate at Neville the entire time. Neville got the impression Snape had missed his meals that day as well.
As for himself, Neville found the hunger he had been feeling all day had suddenly abandoned him. Thinking ahead, he slipped several bread rolls into his pocket.
Only once did Neville attempt conversation.
"Did the meeting go well?"
Snape froze with his fork halfway to his mouth. His eyes bore into Neville's. "Our presentation has been postponed."
"Oh," Neville said, squirming uncomfortably under Snape's gaze. He kept silent for the rest of the meal.
As soon as they returned to their room, Snape presented him with a thick roll of parchment.
"Memorize it," he said simply, leaving Neville to stare at it while he disappeared into the bathroom.
With dread, Neville unrolled the parchment. As he had feared, it was covered from top to bottom with Snape's small script. And he was supposed to memorize all of it?
By the time Snape came out of the bathroom, rubbing his wet hair with a towel, Neville was still staring numbly at the parchment, having read it through three times and understood perhaps half the words on it.
"When will I have to present this?" Neville asked, though he was almost afraid of the answer.
"Friday," Snape said unsympathetically. "I expect you to know it by tomorrow night."
Snape sat down at the table and began to sort through the papers he had brought earlier, ignoring Neville. Sighing, Neville returned to his task.
By the time the big clock outside chimed eleven, Neville was no closer to understanding his part in the presentation, and his eyes were practically closing on their own. Snape regardless, he put the parchment aside and began to prepare for bed.
Only when he was safe under the covers did he risk a glance in Snape's direction.
Snape was bent over the record book, his quill moving quickly across the page. In the flickering candlelight his face appeared more pale and gaunt then Neville had ever seen it.
He snuggled deeper under the blanket. He didn't want to think about Snape. He just wanted to get through his presentation and go home.
Visions of the tidy greenhouses back at Hogwarts filled his head. Who was helping Professor Sprout? Who was taking care of the seedlings he had so carefully planted the previous week, and making sure there was plenty of water and sunlight for them to thrive?
Neville shut his eyes tightly. He didn't want to think about anything at all.
His last conscious thought was that it had been a very, very long day.
Despite everything, he woke up early. The very first thing he saw was the parchment lying on the pillow next to him. Clearly, Snape wasn't going to leave any room for the possibility of Neville forgetting the task at hand.
Snape was gone. His bed was as neat and clean as it had been the previous night, and Neville wondered idly if Snape had slept in it at all.
After cleaning his teeth and taking a quick shower, Neville set to work.
Memorization had never been his strong point, so he began to break down the presentation into more manageable parts. When taken apart, it turned out to be much simpler than it appeared at first glance. There was a long introduction, but after that there was a straightforward list of plants and herbs and their attributes. He already knew them. All he had to do was put them into context.
That was the problem. He didn't know enough about the potion to understand how each of the plants functioned, or why that particular plant had to be used. He kept getting confused, trying to remember that he was supposed to explain that hydrastis canadensis was highly acidic, but shouldn't mention that its sap had a numbing effect.
Maybe he could ask Snape.
Neville had almost convinced himself to do so by the time Snape came back, close to noon, but Snape had such a dark expression that Neville hesitated to say anything at all.
Snape had brought a bag of food, and Neville was surprised to discover just how hungry he was. Of course, he had eaten almost nothing the previous night, and had only a hardened bread roll and half a glass of pumpkin juice for breakfast. He fell on the food and didn't stop until his plate was clean.
"Have you made any progress?" Snape asked, glancing at the parchment and Neville's notes spread out across the bed.
Neville hesitated. Now would be the perfect time to ask his question. Did he dare?
"Maybe... Maybe you could explain how each of the plants function in the potion?" he said hesitantly.
Snape's expression soured. "Longbottom, I made very little headway trying to make you understand potions over the course of seven years. How do you propose I should go about explaining the subject in the span of less than a day?"
Neville squirmed uncomfortably. "I don't need everything explained, just about the plants."
He expected Snape to come back with some sarcastic remark, but Snape only sighed exasperatedly and launched into an explanation.
Neville took notes.
Despite the annoyed tone permeating Snape's voice, he was incredibly thorough. By the time he finished, Neville had more details than he knew what to do with.
"Thank you," he said, reshuffling his notes.
Snape grunted in response, and cast a pointed look at the clock.
Neville retreated to the bed. Snape was right -- there wasn't much time.
He was concentrating so hard that he was surprised when Snape announced dinner time.
After the waitress brought their food, Neville decided to attempt a conversation. Grim, silent meals made him feel all out of sorts.
"Will you know anyone at the conference? Anyone from your line of work, I mean?"
Snape looked up from his bowl of soup, but Neville couldn't tell if he was annoyed by the question. "I suppose I will. It is a Potions conference, after all."
"Any... friends?" Neville asked. It seemed strange, somehow, to think of Snape having friends, but he supposed people in the same line of work might find Snape's company more pleasant than others did.
Snape smiled thinly. "No. At best there will be a few people I have collaborated with in the past." He paused for a moment, stirring his soup absently. "I prefer to work alone."
"Oh," Neville said.
Well, he'd known that, of course. Snape was always alone. Even at the staff table during meals, he never seemed to join in conversations. He was usually too busy glaring at the students.
In a way, Neville could understand. He didn't like to work with others either. When someone else was in the greenhouses -- other than Sprout, of course -- he found himself making mistakes and making a fool of himself. People made him nervous. They broke his concentration.
The rest of dinner passed in silence, but Neville didn't find Snape's company as oppressive as on previous occasions.
As soon as they returned to the hotel, Snape busied himself at the table, papers and specimen jars surrounding him on every side. Soon the only sound in the room was the scratching of his quill on a long roll of parchment.
Neville picked up where he left off, and studied late into the night, putting aside his notes only when the words began to blur in front of his eyes.
It seemed he was asleep for only a few minutes, and then Snape was shaking him.
Neville was instantly wide-awake. The conference! It was that afternoon!
He showered and dressed in record time, repeating his speech under his breath to be sure he still remembered it. By the time he came out of the bathroom, Snape had prepared tea and sandwiches.
Neville didn't feel the least bit hungry, and in fact the sight of food made him slightly queasy, but he was not about to argue with Snape. He ate as much as he could, and just hoped it would stay put in his fluttering stomach.
Snape left, giving no explanation and leaving Neville to frantically try to go over his speech again. Though by then Neville thought he knew it by heart, he also knew nervousness often caused his mind to go blank. To have that happen in front of a room full of people...!
He couldn't help glancing at the clock every few minutes. The hands seemed to fairly fly, and before he knew it the large clock outside the hotel struck noon. Only a few hours remained before the conference. Their presentation would follow four others, so at least they would not be the first up, but they still had to arrive on time.
Snape returned, carrying lunch, but this time Neville knew positively that he could not eat a bite.
Snape filled his own plate and appeared annoyed by the sight of Neville sitting across from him with only a cup of weak tea. "The conference could run late. I suggest you eat something."
Neville shook his head. "I can't. Sorry."
Snape finished his own food without saying another word. Neville was forced to sit and wait.
"We should go now," Snape said, pushing aside his empty plate.
Neville got up mechanically, put his cloak on over his dress robes, and picked up the roll of parchment with his speech. "I'm ready."
Snape lead the way out of the hotel. They didn't speak all the way to the Ministry building.
In the elevator, Neville stole a glance at Snape. It made him feel even worse to see a dark, worried expression on Snape's usually impassive face. Clearly Snape didn't think their chances were very good.
The fourth floor hallway was crowded, but it appeared Snape had the same effect on students and adults alike, with his grim expression and billowing black robes. They parted to let him through, and he led Neville straight to the conference room doors.
They found seats, and Neville collapsed into his, feeling drained already. If this was how he felt before the conference even began, he didn't know how he would ever get through the presentation itself.
The room was filling up, and there was no chance to talk, even if Snape was not sitting rigidly in the chair next to Neville's, his full attention on the wizards and witches seated at a long table at the front of the room.
They must be the ones we have to convince, Neville thought. He shivered involuntarily. As a group, they looked rather stiff and unfriendly. Each one had a record book and a quill poised ready to take notes.
Neville sat back and tried to calm the wild beating of his heart as the conference was called to order. The first presentation was on a newly discovered use of newt skin in sleeping draughts. Neville noticed that Snape appeared vaguely interested.
There was no point paying attention. He couldn't understand most of what was being said. The potions being described were beyond anything he had studied at Hogwarts, and since most of the potions Snape had attempted to teach him had been too difficult, he knew he couldn't begin to understand these.
He let his mind wander, and then tried to review his speech. The parchment he was clutching in his hands was now slightly damp and wrinkled at the edges.
Snape rose, and for a moment Neville froze in terror. It was their turn!
He staggered to his feet shakily.
"You'll do fine, Longbottom," Snape said as they made their way into the aisle. "You've proven in the past that you can rise to the occasion."
Neville stared at him, stunned by the open praise. Then he followed, keeping his eyes on Snape's back so as not to see the faces turning toward them as they made their way up to the podium.
He took his place next to Snape and his stomach twisted as he looked over the heads of the people seated in front of him. He couldn't hazard a guess as to how many there were. A hundred, maybe. Or maybe twice that many.
He took several deep breaths as Snape began to speak, introducing himself and Neville. So far, there was nothing Neville needed to do but stand there and look confident. An impossible task, he thought.
"... Neville Longbottom, assistant to Professor Pomona Sprout, will explain the properties of each herb."
Neville startled out of his stupor as Snape shoved him forward. There was mild applause as he looked, wide-eyed, at the crowd in front of him.
This was it. He wanted to turn to look at Snape, but he had a feeling that would only serve to turn his brain into mush.
He swallowed hard and forced himself to look down at his notes. He knew this. He'd practiced this.
"H-Hyssopus officinalis is commonly used in restoratives. When properly prepared it acts as a stable base..."
He forgot about the crowd in front of him. He didn't even hear his own voice. Setting his notes down on the podium, he focused on a large painting hanging on the back wall, and pretended he was back at the hotel room.
And then he realized. He was doing it! His voice was clear, not trembling at all. And people were paying attention!
"The final ingredient, extract of the herb cordyceps sinensis, serves to stabilize the potion and prolong its effectiveness."
He had done it. He had finished his speech without stuttering or stumbling.
He took a step back to allow Snape to take his place. As he did so, they exchanged a glance. He thought Snape awarded him with just the hint of a smile.
Neville didn't listen to Snape. His heart hammered in his chest. His knees felt like jelly. A river of sweat ran down his spine. He felt faint.
It's over, he reminded himself. I did it. It's over.
Snape virtually dragged him back to their seats, where Neville collapsed like a rag doll.
The next speaker was up, and Neville tuned everything out.
He was surprised when he saw people around him rising. Snape was collecting their things; even Neville's cloak, which had allowed slipped to the floor.
"Come on, Longbottom."
Neville didn't argue, but followed Snape silently. He felt exhausted. Just putting one foot in front of the other was a task.
It was already dark when they came out onto the street, and Neville shivered.
"Put your cloak on," Snape said, handing it to Neville.
"Thanks," Neville said automatically. Snape was already walking briskly down the sidewalk, and Neville hastened to follow, pulling on his cloak as he went.
They went directly to the cafe. The warm food was better than any restorative draft Neville could have taken.
"How do you think it went?"
"Well enough, I believe," Snape said. "We won't know until tomorrow, of course, but I believe we stand a good chance for approval."
Neville studied Snape's face. For the first time in four days the dark shadow and frown had lifted. He looked years younger.
But he is young, Neville suddenly realized. Only twenty or so years his senior. When Neville had been a student, the gap between himself and his professors had seemed unbridgeably wide, but now...
Snape looked up. "You're staring, Longbottom."
Neville blushed furiously and ducked his head. He could feel Snape studying him, and focused on his salad as if it were the most interesting dish he had ever encountered.
Snape cleared his throat. "You got through your part surprisingly well. I'm sure this experience will not be wasted on you, if you choose to pursue a career in Herbology."
"I intend to," Neville said. "It's the only thing I'm good at. And it's..." He let his voice trail off, realizing he was on the verge of starting to babble.
Neville sighed. "It's something I can do alone. I find it difficult to work with people."
He looked up when Snape did not reply, and found Snape still looking at him. "I suppose you feel the same way?" he asked nervously.
Snape leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. He didn't take his eyes off Neville. "Actually, I have wanted an assistant, but have not found anyone I would want to spend that much time with."
"Oh," Neville said.
"Yes," Snape continued. "Assistants are not paid much, and very few would want to enter into an apprenticeship with a school teacher. There are enough openings elsewhere for the number of people selecting Potions as a career."
"Oh," Neville said again.
"Ideally, the assistant would be someone already living at Hogwarts; either a teacher or a student. Years ago I did have a student assist me, but of late the pickings have been slim."
Neville supposed Snape meant him above all. He felt very flustered. He had never heard Snape talk so much or reveal so much about himself, and he had no idea how to respond.
"If you're finished, we should return to the hotel," Snape said. He didn't want for Neville's reply.
Neville sighed. He felt he had made a terrible mess of the conversation, and it had been the first time Snape had talked to him like Neville was a fellow human being. It would probably never happen again.
He followed Snape out.
"Are we returning to Hogwarts tomorrow?" he asked timidly as Snape unlocked the hotel door.
"Our train leaves at noon," Snape said. "But while we're here, there are several things I need to purchase."
"In Diagon Alley?"
"Among other places."
Neville gulped. He had a feeling Snape meant Knockturn Alley, and if so, Neville planned to wait at the hotel.
"I will need your help carrying things," Snape said, apparently having read his mind. There was an unmistakable trace of dark amusement on his face.
"All right," Neville said in resignation, sinking down on the edge of his bed and kicking of his boots.
He watched as Snape folded his cloak and robes over the back of a chair. He didn't realize he was staring again until Snape looked up and frowned at him.
Thankfully, Snape made no comment, and after taking a towel out of his bag he disappeared into the bathroom. Minutes later Neville heard the shower running. He was too tired to wait his turn; he changed and climbed into bed.
Despite his exhaustion, he couldn't fall asleep.
Something very strange was happening to him. There was nothing unusual in finding himself stuttering and unable to string a sentence together, of course. Snape had always had that effect on him. But there was something else. Like the way he couldn't help staring at Snape, even though he knew he shouldn't. And the way he kept coming to the conclusion that he liked what he saw.
But he couldn't be attracted to Snape. That would be quite mad, because even setting aside their past enmity toward each other and the fact that Snape would certainly be incapable of returning his feelings, Snape was far too old for him, and only a few months previously had been Neville's teacher.
No, there had to be a perfectly rational explanation for Neville's strange preoccupation. Perhaps this always happened when two people were forced to share a room. As soon as they returned to Hogwarts, all would be back to normal.
Comforted by that thought, he curled up under the covers and fell asleep.
He woke up at dawn, and it took him several minutes to realize why the nervous feeling that had been with him constantly since he had first agreed to go to London was missing.
The conference was over. He would be going home that night!
Back to Hogwarts. Back to his own work. Back to the greenhouses, where he knew precisely what he was doing, and where no one would be standing over his shoulder, criticizing.
He looked over at the other bed, expecting to see it empty, as it had been every previous morning.
But Snape was in it, fast asleep, the covers tangled around his body as though he had tossed and turned throughout most of the night.
Neville couldn't contain his curiosity. Slowly and quietly he eased himself out of bed, and sat on the edge, looking down at Snape's face.
"Longbottom," Snape said gruffly without opening his eyes, causing Neville to nearly jump out of his skin, "it's a bloody good thing you didn't have ambitions to become an Auror. I don't think you would have made it past screening."
"Sorry," Neville said quickly, "I didn't mean to wake you."
Snape's eyes opened, but he didn't look in Neville's direction. "It's just as well. We should get going."
Neville remembered where they were going, and couldn't keep back a sigh. It wasn't quite over yet, though he supposed after everything he had already done, he could handle a shopping trip -- ever to Knockturn Alley.
Half an hour later he had showered and dressed, and had packed all of his things. They wouldn't be returning to the hotel.
Neville looked longingly toward the wide, sunlit sidewalks of Diagon Alley as they turned down a dark, narrow side street.
"Watch it, Longbottom," Snape grunted as Neville tripped over the uneven cobblestones and grabbed Snape's arm for support.
"Sorry," Neville said, flushing. He hated making a fool of himself, and he always seemed to do it more often when Snape was around.
Thankfully, Knockturn Alley was nearly deserted. Perhaps, Neville thought, it was dangerous only at night.
Still, the skulls and blood-red candles in the first shop display they passed made shivers run down his spine.
"We will start here," Snape announced, pulling open a door and letting Neville go in ahead of him.
It was dingy and stuffy inside. Neville almost choked on the dust floating through the air. He looked around, trying to see in the dim light.
Snape began to pull small bottles and tins from shelves. "Hold these," he told Neville, handing him two large jars containing what looked like pickled rat tails. Neville shuddered, but took them.
Next, Snape handed him a tin which rattled ominously even when Neville held it quite still. "You may take everything up to the counter."
Neville deposited the items on the counter, and immediately an old woman appeared behind it, startling Neville.
"Oh!" he said. "Hello."
She regarded him with one eye squinted and the other bulging. Neville was strongly reminded of Mad-Eye Moody. She didn't speak, and Neville shuffled nervously from one foot to the other until Snape came.
"Madam Odin," he greeted the old woman.
"Severusss," she said, drawing out the name in a hiss. "Find everything?"
"Yes, as always," Snape said curtly.
The woman squinted and smiled conspiratorially, holding up a gnarled finger. "I have something that may interest you."
She disappeared behind a curtain, and when she came back moments later she held a small black box, holding it out to him between her long, curling nails.
Snape took it and opened it. "Hmm," he said. His expression did not change, but Neville thought he saw something glitter in the depth of his eyes. "How much?"
"For you? Twenty galleons."
Snape's lips tightened. "Count up the rest," he said, pushing the rest of their purchases forward. He didn't return the box.
The old woman smiled widely and began to sort through the pile of tins and jars on the counter.
"Fourteen galleons," she said finally, and taking out a roll of brown paper began to wrap everything into a parcel.
"Thirty-four, then," Snape said, counting the coins out. The black box disappeared inside his vest pocket.
"Always glad to do business, Severusss," the old woman hissed behind them as they exited the store.
Neville, now weighed down by the heavy parcel, followed Snape toward the next store.
He gasped as he entered.
Every available surface was occupied by plants. Plants hung from hooks driven into the ceiling. Vines curled around support beams. Pots of every shape and size stood on tables, shelves, and the floor.
Immediately, he began to name the plants to himself, just to see how many he could identify. He knew some of them; the Hogwarts greenhouses were quite well stocked, but many he only recognized from his reading. And some, to his surprise, were completely unfamiliar.
Like the witch in the previous store, the proprietor of this one seemed to know Snape well.
"What can I help you with today, Snape?" he asked, coming out from behind the counter. He glanced suspiciously over at Neville, who was gaping at a large fern-like plant.
"I will look at your stock of seeds and bulbs," Snape said. Turning to follow the man's gaze to Neville, he frowned. "This is my... temporary assistant."
The man looked closer at Neville, which made Neville very uncomfortable. "I see."
"Longbottom, come over here," Snape said as a large box was brought out from behind a counter.
Neville put everything down and came to stand next to Snape. He found himself looking down at the largest collection of seeds he had seen outside of a catalog.
Snape showed him a piece of parchment. "This is a list of everything I need. Select the seeds."
Neville looked at him, for a moment not comprehending.
Snape raised his eyebrow. "Sometime today, if you please."
Neville gulped and looked more closely at the list. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest, he thought it might beat its way out.
There was nothing unfamiliar on the list, though many of the plants he had never handled. He began to sort through the tins and jars, selecting the best quality seeds. All the while, he was aware of Snape's eyes following his every move.
"Uh... Professor Snape?" he asked after several minutes passed in uncomfortable silence.
"What is it?"
"Isn't this Professor Sprout's job?"
"Do you envision Sprout in this store, Longbottom?"
"No," Neville said, blushing in embarrassment. Of course; most of these plants were not sold in Diagon Alley. "I just thought... well, I haven't seen these in the greenhouses..."
"Clearly, you have never entered greenhouse five."
"That's off limits," Neville said automatically, parroting Sprout without even thinking about it.
"For good reason," Snape said, smirking. "I keep my private stock there."
"You mean... you grow your own plants?"
"Yes, Longbottom," Snape said, exasperation creeping into his tone. "Lacking a steady source, I am forced to cultivate my own supply."
Neville put down the last handful of seeds, still processing the new information. He had always wanted to see what was inside greenhouse five, and why he wasn't allowed in. Now he knew. He couldn't, however, quite imagine Snape on his hands and knees in the dirt, weeding and trimming.
Snape turned to the shop owner. "Wrap those," he said, indicating the seeds. "I will also take as much aconite as you have, and one sack of dried murlap."
When the man disappeared into the back room, Snape began to look through baskets of dried herbs, which lined two shelves at the front of the store.
"Is there anything I can do?" Neville asked timidly after standing uselessly next to Snape for several minutes.
"I doubt it," Snape said without looking up. "But you may check the list."
Neville looked over it, and again saw nothing that he was unfamiliar with. Most of the items listed were not dangerous once cut, powdered, or dried, though handling the live plants could be quite hazardous.
Seeing Snape pause to look at him, Neville held up two small swags of dried herbs. "Azorella compacta and manchineel moss. They're terribly expensive. You don't grow them?"
"Too time consuming."
"Oh. Yes, I suppose. They are delicate." Neville examined the list again. "How many should I take? The list doesn't say."
Snape didn't reply, and when Neville looked up he found the man studying him with an odd expression on his face.
Snape shook his head, as if to clear an unwanted thought. "We'll take four of each. Put them with the rest."
Their purchases were counted up and Snape led him out of the store.
"Last stop," Snape said as they reached a small building tucked between two larger ones. It was dark and decrepit, the paint chipping and with one window cracked down the center. "Wait out here."
Neville breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't like the look of the place.
Of course, waiting outside was hardly better. He kept expecting people -- if they were all people; he wasn't entirely sure -- to say something to him. None of them looked very friendly, and some regarded him with an almost predatory look.
He was very glad when Snape came out, and didn't even mind the extra parcel added to his already full load.
He breathed a sigh of relief when they left Knockturn Alley behind. Diagon Alley seemed brighter and cheerier than ever.
"If there is anything you wish to purchase, now would be a good time," Snape said as they stopped in front of Slug & Jiggers Apothecary.
Neville shook his head. "I don't need anything."
Inside the shop, Neville stood off to the side and watched as Snape selected his purchases. He tried to breathe through his mouth, because there was a smell around the place even worse than some of his own failed potions.
"Longbottom," Snape said suddenly, "which herbs are used in a boil reducing potion?"
Neville gaped at him. "Er... I don't know, Professor." He hoped Snape had not forgotten Neville was no longer a student.
Snape frowned as he examined the contents of a dark green bottle before replacing it on the shelf. "What are the properties of hellebore?"
"Hellebore is highly poisonous. Ingesting small amounts will cause unconsciousness or deep sleep. Vapor will cure migraines, reduce swelling, and lower blood pressure," Neville rattled off. He could almost see the plant's entry in his Herbology book.
Snape stared at him for a long moment, then turned away to look at a shelf with many small multi-colored jars, leaving Neville to wonder what that had been about.
By the time they left the Apothecary, Snape was as weighed down by parcels as Neville.
"We should eat. The train doesn't leave for an hour," Snape said.
When they were seated at a table at the back of the Leaky Cauldron, Snape took out a roll of parchment and a quill, and soon appeared to have forgotten Neville was there.
Having finished his food quickly, Neville fidgeted nervously. He hoped Snape wouldn't forget the time. He didn't know if the train ran more than once a day, and he certainly didn't want to miss it and have to stay another night in London.
Snape showed no sign of being aware of anything but the letters formed by his quill. His hair was hanging down over his face, the long strands nearly touching the paper, and the quill scratched rhythmically over the parchment, guided by his long, elegant fingers...
"Is there a problem, Longbottom?"
Neville realized with a start that he had been, once again, staring intently at Snape, who had paused his writing and looked up to meet his eyes. He felt heat creep up his neck. "No. I'm sorry."
Snape frowned, rolled up and pocketed the parchment, and stood up. "We should get going. I must mail this letter first, and the train won't wait."
Neville hastened to gather up his packages and cloak.
They made it to the station just as the train rolled in. Neville collapsed gratefully into a comfortable seat in their compartment, happy in the knowledge that by nightfall he would be back at Hogwarts.
Snape sat down opposite from him, folding his cloak in his lap.
Didn't he ever relax? Neville wondered. It made him nervous to have Snape's eyes fixed on him. It was, after all, a long way to Hogwarts.
He cleared his throat, deciding things couldn't become less uncomfortable, and he might as well start a conversation. "I asked Professor Sprout once about greenhouse five. She wouldn't tell me what was in it."
Snape's lip curled slightly. "It is already a chore to keep students out of my private stores. I don't need them breaking into the greenhouse, too. The plants are far more dangerous than the ones on Sprout's lesson plans."
"Oh," Neville said. "Of course. I did wonder sometimes where you got your supplies, especially foliage that looked recently gathered, when I knew Professor Sprout didn't have those plants. It just never occurred to me you had to grow them."
"It's a drawback of being isolated at an institution like Hogwarts. A large amount of my time is spent locating ingredients for my potions. Black beetle eyes, for instance, must be fresh to be effective."
Neville shuddered. No wonder Snape wanted an assistant so badly, if collecting beetle eyes was in the job description.
"The most time consuming, of course, is the greenhouse," Snape continued. "Entirely too much time is wasted to ensure it continues to provide a steady source of supplies."
"I could do that," Neville said without thinking. Immediately, he was sorry. Hadn't Snape specifically said he wanted a competent assistant? He knew that in Snape's eyes, there was hardly anyone less competent than Neville Longbottom, Hogwarts' resident klutz.
Snape regarded him with an expression Neville took for a mixture of distaste and skepticism. "It is not a matter of simply taking care of the plants. They must be carefully gathered, and brought to me on demand."
"I already harvest most of the plants from all four greenhouses. Professor Sprout hasn't been able to do much work lately." He hardly dared to look at Snape. He was sure Snape was going to dismiss him out of hand.
"What makes you think we could work together?"
"Why couldn't we?"
Snape raised an eyebrow.
Neville squirmed under his gaze. If he was entirely honest with himself, he would have to admit to having cursed the fates that threw him into Snape's company more than once over the previous few days. But there was something... he told himself it had to do with the lure of the mysterious forbidden greenhouse.
"We got along for five days, living in the same room." He didn't mention that half the time he was terrified of stepping out of line and bringing Snape's wrath down on his head, and the other half of the time he had been a nervous wreck over the presentation. It could hardly be claimed they had been spending quality time together.
After a long moment, Snape nodded. "Yes, as surprising as that is. I had expected the situation to be far less... acceptable."
Neville looked up, and there was that odd look again. He couldn't fathom what Snape could be thinking when those black eyes raked over him as if able to see clear through his skin. He couldn't help shivering.
"So..." Neville said, feeling a spurt of courage. "Maybe you could show me the plants. I assume since you bought seeds you're going to plant them this spring. It couldn't hurt to let me help, and you could see if my work is satisfactory."
"I wasn't doubting the quality of your work, Longbottom," Snape said flatly.
"You... weren't?" Neville asked in surprise.
"No," Snape said. "I do make use of plants from the other greenhouses, after all. I am aware you have taken over the greater portion of Sprout's work. I have not, however, noticed a decline in quality."
Neville blushed crimson. "Thank you."
Snape nodded. "I will show you the plants, since you so desire. If you are truly interested in cultivating them, we will see what can be arranged."
Neville didn't dare draw out the conversation; he knew enough to stop while ahead, and he didn't want to risk having Snape change his mind. He curled up against the corner of the seat and gazed out the window, where the country side was a steady blur of green and brown.
Snape had taken out a Potions journal, and didn't look up again. Every minute or so he turned the page; the soft rustle was the only sound in the compartment.
He was staring again. Neville looked quickly away.
It took so much of his concentration to keep his eyes firmly on the scenery that for a long time he didn't realize the distinctive silhouette of Hogwarts castle had appeared on the horizon.
When the train rolled into Hogsmeade station, Neville fell into step behind Snape automatically.
"Leave everything here," Snape told him, setting down the parcels he was carrying. "It will be sent up to the castle."
Neville gladly complied.
It was a long walk, made longer by Snape's silence. Anyone else would have believed Snape was angry with him, but Neville didn't expect conversation. He was not one to expect others to change; he just accepted what was and rolled with the tide. Adjusting himself to fit the situation -- and the person he was with -- made more sense than to expect the world to adjust to him. He had learned early on that the world would do no such thing. It reserved that privilege for the likes of brilliant Hermione Granger or dauntless Ron Weasley or lionhearted Harry Potter, not a timid creature like Neville Longbottom. He had to take what he got, and be happy with it.
And he was. His lot in life wasn't bad, was it? He was working at the finest Wizarding school in all of Europe. He was doing something he loved, even if it was unlikely to gain him wide esteem. He had friends who had proven themselves loyal, and who knew his limitations but still found him worthy of their time. He had...
He stole a glance at Snape, who did not appear to notice.
He had, for the first time in his life, gained the approval of the professor whose criticism had always cut deeper than any other's.
Neville smiled to himself. He didn't know why he cared, but it felt good to finally do something right, in Snape's eyes.
They reached the castle. Neville couldn't keep back a sigh of relief when the massive front doors were shut safely behind him.
Before they even made it across the entrance hall, Dumbledore was there to greet them. Neville stood back while he spoke with Snape.
"I will want a full report from you, as well, Neville," Dumbledore said, seeming to suddenly remember Neville.
"Yes, sir," Neville said sheepishly, knowing full well Dumbledore was probably just humoring him. His part had not been anything grand.
"Well, then," Dumbledore said, turning back to Snape, "Severus, if you are not too tired...?"
Snape looked exasperated. "Hardly."
"Very good," Dumbledore said, motioning for him to follow.
The two headed up the stairs, but Snape paused on the first step and looked back. "Dinner in my quarters, Longbottom, to discuss the details of our arrangement. Six sharp."
Neville could only nod his head mutely, his eyes growing wide. For a long time, he stood rooted to the spot, unable to move or even breathe.
He sighed deeply. Dinner with Snape. Well, he could handle that. Especially if Snape really intended to entrust him with the care of all those plants.
That reminded him, and Neville hurried to the back entrance. He had plants to tend. Who knew if Sprout had recovered enough to take care of them?
He shook his head slowly as he headed toward the greenhouses. He didn't know why he had done it. Five days with Snape should have been plenty; right about then he shouldn't have been inclined to willingly agree to spend more time with Snape even if the free world depended on it. And yet, he had not only agreed to do it, and had not only made the offer himself, but was actually looking forward to it.
It made no sense, and yet...
Neville stopped in front of greenhouse three and looked passed it. Greenhouse five stood apart from the rest, the glass tinted so he could not see in.
And he, Neville Longbottom, was going to be allowed inside. The thought thrilled him from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. He was willing to brave a thousand Snapes for the chance to get in there.
As he picked up a watering can and spade, Neville took note of the time on the large clock hanging above one of the work tables. He wouldn't want to be late, knowing how particular Snape was about such things.
After watering his plants -- someone had been looking after them after all -- Neville hurried up to his quarters.
He threw open his wardrobe and took out his second-best set of robes, which were dark blue and suited him well. They had been purchased for the end of year dance, but Neville had not attended it, lacking a date and not wanting to embarrass himself by going alone.
He washed, taking care to scrub underneath his fingernails, and dressed carefully. As a final touch, he curled two strands of hair around a wet finger, creating a wave in his otherwise flat, straight hair.
Pausing to look himself over in the mirror, Neville laughed at his own reflection. Anyone would think he was off to a hot date!
He reminded himself firmly of his purpose. He was not socializing. This was all business.
With this decisive thought, he smoothed down his hair again with a comb, gave his boots a quick brushing -- foregoing the polish he had intended to use -- and hurried from the room. It surely would only make him more nervous to sit and wait, and, after all, it was a long way to the dungeons.
He arrived just in time. He had stopped to have a word with the newly appointed Divination professor, and was out of breath by the time he reached Snape's door.
Finally catching his breath, he knocked and stood back, waiting.
The door swung open on its own, revealing a dim room beyond it. Snape was nowhere to be seen.
Like most students, Neville had never been inside Snape's personal quarters. Perhaps some of the Slytherins had been allowed in, but the rest could only wonder and speculate about what Snape's private domain might be like.
Neville looked around curiously.
The walls were bare stone, as was the floor. The furniture was comfortable, and yet looked solid and proper; all angles and heavy material. The only light came from torches on the walls, and the fire in the fireplace, in front of which a table was set for two.
"Do close the door, Longbottom, you are letting in a draft."
Neville hastened to obey. "Sorry, Professor."
Snape was watching him from the doorway Neville assumed led to the bedroom. He motioned toward the table. "Shall we begin?"
"Yes," Neville said, relieved to have the awkward moment over with. He hoped things would go better once they sat down.
Food appeared on their plates much like it always did in the Great Hall, and Neville was grateful to see no odd dishes. He had been half afraid rumors of Snape's odd tastes might prove true. Certainly he had never appeared to enjoy Hogwarts meals, and that fact had not gone unnoticed by the students.
They didn't speak until the main course was finished. Neville grew more nervous by the minute, and it didn't help that once again he couldn't seem to keep his eyes off of Snape. Time after time he would catch himself staring, and tear his eyes quickly away. To his mortification, Snape always met his eyes with a steady gaze.
"Is there a problem, Longbottom?"
Neville gulped down the bite of bread he was chewing, nearly choking. "Problem?" he asked faintly.
Snape raised one eyebrow slightly. "Is there a reason you feel compelled to stare at me?"
Neville felt his face heat. He shifted uncomfortably. "I... Uh..." He could think of nothing to say in his own defense, and fell silent, looking down at his hands.
"Am I to infer our shared... preferences... play a part in your sudden preoccupation?"
Neville looked up quickly, not sure he had heard correctly. How could Snape know...?
An odd smile quirked up the corner of Snape's mouth.
So he did know. Neville ducked his head again and tried to think of some appropriate answer; a difficult task with his thoughts all jumbled. "I was curious, I suppose," he said. "There wasn't anyone in Gryffindor..."
Snape didn't reply, and when Neville finally looked up he saw he had returned to his meal.
Neville looked down at his plate, feeling his appetite leave him. He forced himself to take up his fork again.
He had ruined it. He had no idea what Snape had expected him to say, but clearly he had said all the wrong things. Now Snape would never agree to work together.
The rest of the meal passed in silence, with Neville suffering through every bite. He was almost pathetically relieved when the plates disappeared and were replaced by a tea set. At least it would be over soon.
"How soon would you be able to begin working?" Snape asked as hot tea was poured.
Neville jumped, startled by the sudden end to the silence. "Right away," he managed to say.
"You have no other duties?"
Neville considered. "The plants seem all right, as far as I could see. They won't require extra care, and what they do require daily I usually finish quickly."
"It seems to me you spend all your time working," Snape said, not looking convinced.
"Because I enjoy it, not because the plants require it," Neville said quickly. Was Snape going to change his mind after all?
"I suppose we might try it out," Snape said after a moment of deliberation.
Neville breathed a sigh of relief.
"I have some time tomorrow morning, if you would like to begin then," Snape continued.
"Yes," Neville said. "Tomorrow is fine."
"You will have to familiarize yourself with my office, as well as the way I organize my supply cabinets," Snape said, still sounding doubtful.
"I'm sure I can do that," Neville said. He had finished his tea, and now didn't know what to do with his hands. Out of nervous habit he twisted a button on his robes.
Snape sniffed. "We will see."
Neville kept silent. Probably this was as good as things were going to get.
"Tomorrow at nine, then," Snape said decisively, setting side his empty cup, which instantly vanished, along with the tea pot and platter. "If you are finished, I must return to my work."
"Of course," Neville said, getting up hurriedly. "Thank you for dinner."
Snape nodded, studying him thoughtfully.
Neville headed for the door, afraid Snape might still change his mind and call off their arrangement.
Neville froze, then turned slowly around. "Yes?"
"I don't socialize with students, former or otherwise."
"Oh," Neville said, feeling a sudden heaviness in his chest.
"It is not a good policy," Snape continued, looking grim, "and not something I would expect to end well."
"I understand," Neville said, backing away a step.
"As long as we understand each other --"
"I understand," Neville repeated quietly. He couldn't account for his inexplicable feeling of disappointment.
"-- then there is no reason why we can't spend time in each other's company."
Neville startled. What?
"I admit yours does not grate on my nerves nearly as much as I had feared," Snape finished, looking as though he was still surprised by that finding.
"Oh," Neville said. "Well... I enjoy your company, too, Professor."
Snape snorted. "I will see you tomorrow morning, Longbottom," he said dismissively. "Go."
Neville practically flew out of the room, forgetting even to bid Snape good night.
In the corridor outside he stopped to get his breath back and think.
That had been a lie, of course, though perhaps not as large as it could have been. Snape still unnerved him, and Neville did not enjoy grim, silent meals in the least.
But Snape wanted to spend more time with him! That alone filled Neville with awe. Snape was not known for having friends, or enjoying anyone's company. It had always been said Dumbledore was the only one who could stand him, and the man had the patience of a saint. Now, it seemed, an invitation of friendship had been extended, albeit grudgingly, to Neville Longbottom. Who would have thought?
Neville returned to his quarters, stopping once to look through the large window on the third floor, from which he could see over the grounds to the greenhouses.
When he climbed into bed, Neville was still perplexed. What was he to do? Certainly he wanted the job Snape had offered him, and certainly he would agree to spend more time with the man if he was welcome. He would even try to enjoy it. But...
But nothing, he told himself firmly, blowing out the candle on his bedside table and settling into bed.
Snape had made himself quite clear. Neville would just have to accept what he was given, and put away those wayward feelings he couldn't quite sort out.
In the dark, he nodded his head deliberately, closed his eyes, and did his best to push away the memory of Snape's dark eyes, made darker and deeper by the candlelight, gazing steadily back at him.