Chapter Six: The Proof of Sincerity

Neville arrived for his Friday detention nursing a slashed arm, and a cut on his left cheek, as well as bruises. He grimaced as Alecto led him up to the Headmaster's Office. It was his own fault, really. He'd mouthed off again. But Alecto had been badmouthing Hermione, as an example of Mudblood filth, and he'd had to speak up. Not the wisest thing, but...he wasn't going to let them say such things. It had been bad enough when it was Malfoy.

Alecto delivered him to the door with barely suppressed glee. "Got your prisoner for you, Headmaster!" She snickered. "He's been a nasty brat. Smarted off to me in class today."

Snape raised one eyebrow. "Indeed? In that case...I'm sure he'll have plenty of time to regret it, while serving detention with me."

Alecto smirked. "Right then. Where do you plan to start, huh? If it was me, I'd string him up, good and proper, down in the dungeons, then give him a good stiff dose of discipline." Her eyes gleamed coldly. "I can do that for you, if you like, Headmaster. Got to be irritating, watching this brat night after night." She shoved Neville forward disdainfully.

"Quite." Snape's face was calm and relaxed as he rose. "However, I assure you, I am quite capable of enforcing my own brand of...punishment, with Mr. Longbottom. Nor do I require your assistance, even in such a matter as this. And I believe you do have other duties to be seen to." He gestured lazily. "You are dismissed."

Alecto scowled. "Boy's got no respect for us, Headmaster Snape. I'm in charge of discipline, appointed by the Dark Lord. You ought to let me put the little brat in his place, or make an example of him."

Snape's cold sneer took on a dangerous edge. "You seem to forget. The Dark Lord has placed you in charge of discipline, but I am the Headmaster of Hogwarts, until our Lord sees fit to change that fact. As such, I hold the right to make whatever commands I see fit, so long as they do not countermand his orders. As your methods of disciplining Longbottom have had no effect, I see no point in continuing such a useless endeavor." His tone had shifted from cold to insulting, implying incompetence, and Alecto flushed red. "As for making an example of the boy..." His eyes drifted to Neville, cold and mocking. "The brat has been the bane of my class for six years already. However, much as I support your enthusiasm for removing him, the Dark Lord has given orders otherwise. And until our Lord issues different orders,youwill have him in your class, and I shall have the rather dubious pleasure of attempting to beat the foolishness out of him." One dark eyebrow rose. "You are, of course, free to speak to the Dark Lord himself, and tell him you disagree with his orders."

Alecto paled nearly as fast as she'd flushed earlier. "No call for that, Snape."

"Headmaster." The correction was delivered coolly. Then Snape turned away. "If that will be all, Alecto, I believe you have corridors to patrol. And Mr. Longbottom and I have a detention to start." There was an edge of maliciousness to his voice that made Neville swallow hard. Even with the discussion they'd had last night...Snape sounded dangerous.

Alecto saw his expression, and a sneer replaced a bit of the scowl on her face. "Well, if you're sure, Headmaster, then I'll get to it. Be sure to make the brat scream good and loud." With that, she turned and left.

Snape made no move as the door shut behind her. Neville remained where he was, wondering what the hell Snape was going to do. He knew they'd made a deal. He knew that part of it was to act as if nothing had changed between them. But still...a part of his brain was screaming, twisting his stomach into knots, wondering what Snape was going to do. Part of his mind was screaming that it had been a trick, so Snape could prevent him from revealing his weakness, so Snape could ferret information from him.

Black eyes regarded him for a moment, then Snape turned away and flicked a wand at the desk. "I believe you have lines to finish, Mr. Longbottom. After which, I seem to recall you have some cleaning and sorting to do, down in the first year's labs. It appears that they've made quite a mess down there." There was a smirk on his face, and in his voice.

Neville bit his lip on a scowl and moved forward to the desk. His arm smarted, as did his face, and the bleeding hadn't stopped entirely. But he didn't dare say anything. He dabbed at the blood with one sleeve.

Snape snorted. "Pathetic. I would have thought you'd have been brought up well enough to at least use a handkerchief. Unless of course, you are so absentminded and foolish as to have forgotten one entirely, which I find highly likely, considering that it is you."

Neville bit his lip to stop his first response. He was trying to think of what to say, when Snape turned from the Headmaster's desk and dropped a square of cloth, a small bowl of water, and a jar of salve onto the surface in front of him. "Use that. I've no wish to try and decipher your already abysmal penmanship from amidst blood splatters. Nor do I wish to listen to you whine all night."

Neville blinked. Then he picked up the cloth, dipped it in the water, and rubbed it over his arm and face. The cool liquid felt wonderful. He dabbed at both cuts until the cloth stopped coming away pink, then picked up the salve, stuck a cautious finger into it, and rubbed it into the slash on his forearm.

The blood welling in the gash slowed almost immediately. A soothing, cooling feeling spread through his arm, easing the burning sting, followed by a comforting warmth. His arm stopped throbbing at once. He spread a little more over the cut on his face, with the same results. The lack of pain was almost enough to make him sigh with relief.

Snape stepped forward again, and before he could move away, slapped a small square of a bandage onto the cut on his face. Then the man shoved his sleeve roughly upward, wound a bandage around his arm, then tied it off.

Neville blinked. "Professor..."

"Headmaster, unless you wish to admit you are too stupid to even remember the change in my status, obvious though it is. However, as I have no intention of releasing your from your punishment of cleaning the labs this evening, precautions are required to insure that you do not wind up in the Hospital Wing, suffering from accidental exposure to something. Normally, I would not bother, however, given your track record for foolishness, clumsiness, and overall idiocy, there is no point in taking chances. I have no desire to waste precious time explaining matters to either Madam Pomfrey, or your Head of House." Snape stepped away. "The bandage will be removed when you finish your work for the night. Speaking of which, I suggest you start." His fingers flicked toward the stack of parchment.

Neville flushed under the insults, but turned back to the desk. For a minute, all he could feel was anger at the way Snape was treating him, then his eye fell on the white bandage, and the fury cooled.

Snape had tended his wounds. And whatever it was he'd used on the cuts, it was very effective. He could still feel the soothing effects. And, as his head cooled, he remembered that they'd agreed to be enemies. His eyes glanced up, taking in the portraits on the walls. He doubted any of them were spies on the side of the dark, but there was no guarantee. Nor was there a guarantee that someone wouldn't come barging into the office. It was still early enough for teachers or students to report in. He thought Snape might be acting a little paranoid, but then, the man had more experience at subterfuge than he did. He took a deep breath, then bent his head and got to work.

The lines took him over three hours to write. He stopped briefly, for dinner, then got right back to it. Snape alternated between sitting at the desk and prowling around the room, just like he did in potions class. Twice he managed to startle Neville into smudging the paper, forcing him to redo part of the work. By the time he was done writing, his fingers and hands were aching and felt rubbed raw, and his shoulders and back had cramped from sitting hunched over the desk.

Snape snatched the sheets of paper and studied them. "Adequate, I suppose. Certainly indicative that repetition can drill something into even the thickest skulls, though I suppose it's too much to hope you learned the intended lesson from this."

Neville swallowed back his question about why Snape was being such a git, and his desire to snap at the man, settling for a sullen attitude. "Can I leave then, sir?"

Snape looked at the clock, offhandedly. "There are still...two hours, before curfew. Quite an adequate amount of time for you to at least start your next task." He gestured to the door. "Come."

Neville grimaced and followed the man, wincing as his stiff muscles protested the movements of navigating the stairs. However, by the time they descended the final flight to the Entry Hall and turned toward the dungeons, the stiff muscles had loosened up, and he felt almost normal again, aside from the stiffness of his hands.

Snape led him to a lab he recognized from his first year at Hogwarts, and pushed open the door. "Inside."

Neville grimaced. He wasn't that good at Potions and knew it, but even he could tell something had gone wrong. The smell alone was awful.

Snape caught the expression on his face and sneered. "An exploding cauldron. I expect you are highly familiar with the phenomenon, seeing as you hold the record for the number exploded in my class." He put an impatient hand on Neville's back and shoved, sending him stumbling into the room. "In addition, I believe that several other students were too preoccupied with watching their class-mate's mishap to pay proper attention to their own brews. While, normally, this would be a task for the students, I've informed Professor Slughorn that you have volunteered to clean up all such accidents, as part of your detention." He shut the door and locked it, then gestured, and the usual cleaning supplies appeared. "I assume, by now, that even you have an idea of what to do."

Neville bit his lip and picked up the cleaning supplies. Snape watched a moment, then turned and settled himself at the teacher's desk, folding his arms across his chest as he did so. Neville shifted the cleaning supplies to one side, and looked around the room.

It wasn't actually nearly as bad as he'd expected. There was gunk on three of the tables, and a wide section of floor, but it hadn't splattered the ceiling this time. He spotted shards of one cauldron, and five more intact ones, all covered in mess. He rolled up his sleeves, then went to the sink and began running the hot water and Magical Mess Remover. After it filled, he turned back to the cauldrons.

All of them were disgusting. Two were so awful it made him gag. He had no idea what potion the students had been assigned to make, but after encountering the results of their mistakes, he hoped he never had to take the actual brew. He dumped the two worst cauldrons into the sink and was reaching for a scrub brush when Snape spoke. "Move."

He stepped sideways, turning in surprise, then jumped out of the way as Snape snapped a spell. Neville blinked as a jet of light hit the cauldrons, and they began washing themselves. "Sir?"

"You will scrub the last one yourself." Snape gestured again, and the debris from the blown cauldron collected itself. "You will also clean the floor and the tables. However, prior to that..." He gestured curtly, and a stool slid out. "Sit."

Neville settled gingerly onto the stool. Despite Snape's change in attitude, and their bargain, he still half expected the man to do something horrible to him. Snape watched him, then rose from his own seat and paced around the desk, as if he were agitated, or thinking of something. Then he stopped and leaned, very deliberately, against the desk, bracing himself on both hands. "Why, Mr. Longbottom, did you deliberately antagonize the Carrows, this afternoon?"

Neville blinked. Of all the questions he'd expected, that wasn't one of them. "They were going on about Mudbloods, and half-breeds again. And then Professor Carrow got to insulting Hermione. Called her a load of nasty names, said she was a stupid twit, and other rubbish like that."

Snape's hands clenched on the desk. He looked as if he were trying to prevent himself from striking something. Neville felt his shoulders tighten in apprehension. Then Snape exhaled sharply. "Anyone who has read Miss Granger's records knows precisely what she is capable of. Furthermore, as she is not here, and your classmates seem unlikely to pay any more attention to the Carrows than you do, I doubt her reputation shall be much affected. Whatever insults the Carrows can contrive." he straightened suddenly, whirling to face Neville, the black eyes glittering with anger. "You, on the other hand..."

Neville stiffened again, this time with indignation. "Hermione's my friend. I'm not going to let someone insult her, even if I am going to get in trouble for it." One of his hands clenched into a fist. "I know it could get me into a load of trouble, but it's the principle of it, you know. I reckon we've got to stand up for ourselves, and for each other, unless we want them to win. And I..."

"Quiet." The low intensity of Snape's voice cut him off, and cooled his indignation. The man stood still for a long moment, then turned away from him. "Do you not understand, you foolish boy...do you not realize what would have happened, had you not already been serving detention with me?" Under the sneer, there was tension in his voice, mirrored in the lines of his shoulders underneath the black robes.

Neville swallowed. "Reckon the Carrows would have punished me then."

"Indeed. And I would have been unable to prevent it. You would have been lucky to avoid permanent damage. Even if they had remembered my orders and referred you to me after a relatively light punishment." Snape's voice was a low snarl. "Idiot boy. Have you no concept of when to choose your battles?"

Neville grimaced, feeling both anger and embarrassment. "What do you reckon I ought to do, just sit back when they insult my friends? Or maybe I ought to let them get on with all that rubbish, putting Seamus down for being a half-blood, and all that other rot. Bet you'd think it was perfectly all right." He flinched at the last statement, but his anger had got the better of him, and there was no way to take it back.

"Mind your tongue." Snape spun around, his face pale in the light. He looked angrier than Neville had expected. Then the Headmaster stopped and threw his head back, inhaling deeply. "That...is precisely what I mean about choosing your battles. Had I...been any other, particularly the Carrows, you would have found yourself facing at least the Cruciatus. If you were fortunate."

Neville swallowed back another angry response. "Yes sir."

Snape studied him a moment. "Better." The black eyes held his a long moment, then Snape turned away. "How many are there, in your little group of troublemakers?"

Neville blinked, startled by the change in topic. "I...what?"

"How many?" There was a bite of impatience to Snape's voice.

"Dunno. We don't keep count, and we don't keep each other's names, because we might get caught like we were two years ago."

"A rough estimate then." Curiously, there was no further anger or impatience in Snape's voice.

"Well, I guess...fifty, seventy-five maybe. At least, the active ones. I haven't any clue how many people there are who support us, but won't come forward." Neville shrugged.

"Since that would no doubt include well over half the school, you need not concern yourself with that." Snape flicked a hand. "Bruises and cuts are your usual injuries, and exposure to the Cruciatus Curse?"

Neville swallowed hard. "Yes, sir."

Snape must have heard the slight hesitation in his voice, because he turned. "What else, Mr. Longbottom?"

Neville took a deep breath. "Well, they're rather fond of chaining us in the dungeon. Only, the chains aren't really long enough, you know. They're really bad with the first years, sir." He could hardly believe he was confessing the whole thing to Snape, of all people.

Snape nodded. Neville even saw one hand shift, as if the man had made to rub the opposite wrist, before the gesture stilled. "Very well." He waved his wand, and the cauldrons stopped scrubbing themselves. "You will complete your detention. I have work to do." Without another word, he turned and vanished through the office door in the back, and Neville heard the locks click closed. He stared at the door for a moment, wondering what was going on, then sighed and went to finish cleaning out the cauldrons.

He'd just finished cleaning the floor and mopping it, when Snape strode back into the room. The Headmaster was carrying a moderately sized box. He set it down on the table. "Dare I hope you've finished, or has your usual incompetence got the better of you?"

Neville felt his face heat, and his temper flare. Then he saw the subtle flick of Snape's wand. A spell? He forced himself to speak normally. "I've finished, sir."

Snape glanced at the floor, and the cauldrons sitting on the counter. "Very well. I assume you know how to cast, and counter, a simple Shrinking Charm?"

Neville frowned. "Well, the Expansion Charm, yeah. We learned that ages back, in Flitwick's class."

"That will do. Pay attention." Snape tapped the box, and it expanded. "This box contains pain-killers, balm and other potions to counteract your...peculiar affinities for trouble. There is enough here to cover the situation, as you described it to me, for the time being. If you have sense enough to inform me when you are running low, I shall see that another batch becomes...available."

Neville nodded and stepped up to the desk, glancing into the box. There were several potions inside, including bottles of Blood Replenisher, and what looked like Skele-Gro. He frowned. "Sir...someone's going to miss this, aren't they?"

"I already am, Mr. Longbottom. As of ten minutes ago, a ward was tripped by an unfamiliar wand, in my store-room. I will escort you up to my office, to be guarded by the portraits, while I attempt to uncover the thief. When I return, you will go straight to Gryffindor Tower, do you understand?"

Neville nodded. Snape shrunk the crate again and handed it to him, then grabbed his arm and propelled him out of the room, looking every inch the furious and irate Headmaster. His grip on Neville's arm was bruising. Neville fought the urge to protest, knowing it would do no good. Instead, he set his own face into stoic passivity.

Alecto and Amycus met them at the gargoyle door to the Headmaster's office. Snape stopped. "Any sign of them?"

Amycus shook his head. "Not a one. Haven't seen a brat out of House yet. Except for this one. Got the Slytherins and all looking, but no luck." His eyes lit on Neville. "Or did you catch this little rat at it Headmaster?"

"Do not be a fool. I'm scarcely stupid enough to leave a student in the middle of detention. Particularly one as thoroughly useless and troublesome as Longbottom." He glared at the gargoyle. "Cockroach." The gargoyle moved. "I'm taking the boy up to confine him in my office. Remain here, until I return."

Alecto snickered. "Dungeon would be better. String the brat up, right and proper." She snickered again. "I'll do it for you, if you're too busy, Headmaster."

Snape sneered. "The thief was only recently in the dungeons, and, since you've not located him or her, may still be there. I've no wish for the two to encounter each other, and possibly erase evidence of their misdeeds. I've no doubt Longbottom, even tied up, would find some way to screw up the situation." He dragged Neville up the stairs, then dropped him, firmly but not roughly, to the ground. "Incarcerous." Ropes bound Neville. Snape watched him a moment, then whirled and left the room.

Neville lay where Snape had dropped him, breathing rapidly. He'd been afraid the Carrows were going to get him, for a moment there. Slowly, he relaxed and took stock of the situation.

He was bound, but not too tightly. The shrunken box of potions was still in his pocket, and undamaged. He was a bit uncomfortable, but Snape had dropped him onto a carpet, so it wasn't as bad as it might have been. His elbow was aching from where Snape had held him, but even that was pretty minor. After a careful wiggle to make sure he wasn't bruised or hurt, he relaxed and allowed himself to think of what had just happened.

Snape had given him potions, to help the DA. And with his detention, and Snape's public incarceration of him, he pretty much had solid alibi. He wouldn't be in the Gryffindor room when they did the search, so by the time he got the potions back, there'd be no one looking for him, or them. As long as no one said anything and the teachers, particularly the Carrows, never caught them with a potion, it was completely safe. He had to marvel at the genius of the whole thing.

Another thought occurred to him. With the high number of injuries the Carrows inflicted, there was no reason they couldn't say they'd received the potions from Madam Pomfrey, if someone got caught with one. Most teachers wouldn't bother asking, or investigating beyond that. It was a bit of a risk, if the Carrows or Filch or someone did decide to ask the Nurse, but she was smart, and not too fond of the Carrows and their enforcement squad. If they were lucky, she'd lie and back them up.

He frowned. Snape was doing a lot for him. He'd been wary of the man, and his agreement to help, but his actions...Snape had lectured him, but for his own good. He'd healed him, and now he was helping him smuggle healing potions to the DA. As much as part of him wanted to deny it, he was beginning to believe Snape was sincere about wanting to help them. Certainly, all of his actions so far indicated it was true. But in that case...he owed the man a gesture of his own. He laid his head back against the carpet, trying to think of something he could do, something to indicate his own trust in the man. He didn't want to say or do too much, not yet, but there had to be something.

He had no idea how much time passed, but finally, the door to the office clicked, and Snape strode in, his expression dark with anger. He shut the door behind him, studied Neville sourly for a moment, then clicked his fingers, and the ropes fell away. "Get up."

Neville rose carefully to his feet. He was a little stiff from lying on the ground, and he didn't want to break the box he had. "You done, sir?"

"We are. The culprit has not been found. However, that does not mean anything. The search will be continued, more discretely." Snape strode into the room, face drawn with irritation and an exhaustion that Neville suspected he'd have never noticed, or been allowed to see, a few weeks prior. "You would do well to remember that you and your classmates have already gathered...unfriendly attention."

"I reckon we all know that. You mean that they'll suspect us, even if they haven't found any proof yet." Neville stretched, working a shoulder that was still stiff from cleaning. "If you're done with me tonight, reckon I'll go ask Madam Pomfrey for a Muscle Relaxer, if that's all right with you, sir."

"If you must." Snape scowled, but Neville caught the gleam of understanding in the black eyes, and had a feeling Snape knew the cover story he'd concocted, about the potions. "You may see her in the morning."

Neville blinked. "Sir..."

"In the morning, Longbottom. It is now past curfew, and you would do well to return straight to your dorms. Unless you wish certain parties to become...suspicious, despite the circumstances."

Neville swallowed, seeing the logic. He hadn't even thought of that. Then another thought occurred to him. "Sir, you said...it was an unknown wand, or whatever. How could you tell?"

"I was Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher for a year. Most professors teaching applied magic learn the signatures of their students, to identify any misuse of spell-casting. I have more reason than most to keep an eye on such things. However, you would do well to remember that fact, regardless."

Neville nodded. "But, if the other professors know that...then an unknown wand..."

"I doubt most of them will remember it, and I am highly certain it is a fact the Carrows never bothered to learn. However..." Snape paused. "Another thing you would do well to remember, Mr. Longbottom. Both defeated wands and inherited wands can change masters. And most...experienced duelers, possess more than one."

Neville nodded. He had a feeling he knew what Snape was saying. The professor had a spare wand in hand. That was interesting. So was the warning and the advice in his words. Right, so if we can, we should try to acquire spare wands. Doubt there'll be much opportunity, but it's worth a shot. And we shouldn't assume, if we Disarm someone, or don't see a wand, that they don't have one. Don't know if the Discipline Squad knows about that, but I reckon we'd better watch ourselves. "Yes sir."

He thought for a moment, thinking over the evening events, remembering what he'd been thinking of before Snape had returned. He was interrupted by Snape's words. "If there is nothing else, I believe you have detention in the morning. I recommend you get what rest you can." There was a sneer in the words, but he was learning to see past it.

"Right. Only, Professor...there's one more thing..." He reached into his pocket, and grasped the charmed galleon he had with him. He already knew there were spares, and Ginny had at least two.

"Make it fast." Snape leaned against the desk.

"Sir...if I need to contact you...or if something happens...well, you said we can't appear to be allies, right? Makes it a bit more difficult."

"I shall manage the problem, Mr. Longbottom." There was no doubt about it, Snape was definitely beginning to look tired. Neville wondered if he was still suffering the effects of the Cruciatus.

"I might have something for you." He withdrew the Galleon, then moved forward and set it on the desk.

Snape glanced at it, and a small sneer curled his lip. "While I am quite aware that the Longbottom family is far better off than I, the salary of Headmaster is more than sufficient to insure that I do not need hand-outs from students. Nor do I accept bribes."

"I know, sir. But this one's a bit special." He picked it up again, and concentrated on the codes the DA had practiced. 'Safe' and 'okay' with a question, plus his initials. The coin blazed warm in his hand as he sent it on. Snape's eyes widened just the slightest bit, interest and concentration banishing the air of weariness.

Moments later, the coin warmed again, and the symbol for 'all clear' appeared, this time with Luna's initials. Then it flashed, the same signal appearing with Ginny's marks.

"Quite...interesting." Snape reached out and took the coin from him studying it. "An ongoing enchantment, quite complex."

"Hermione made them, back in fifth year. We modified them before school started." Some of it had been done before the end of sixth year, some of it over the summer.

"And this is the method of communication used by your...friends?" Snape's voice was quiet.

"Yes sir. It's how we get word around. Not sure quite how Hermione did it, but you can send a general message, or just to one person, long as you can visualize them. Usually, we send them anonymously. Reckon they've got initials this time so that I'd know everyone was all right." he swallowed, wondering if Snape could guess who'd sent him the information.

"Miss Lovegood and Miss Weasley." Snape might have read his mind, by the soft-spoken confirmation. "However...I already have my eye on both of them." His fingers ran along the edge of the Galleon. Seconds later, the surface shimmered, and the normal image of a Galleon appeared. "Camouflage. Quite wise of Miss Granger."

"Yeah. They change after about a minute, I think."

Snape nodded. "And the symbols?"

"It's kind of our code. There's a whole load of them." He half expected Snape to point to the desk and order him to write them down, but the man merely nodded, then handed it back to him. "Sir...you can keep it if you like. I thought...it might help."

"Do not be a fool, Longbottom. You have just signaled your friends, and no doubt the entire Castle is aware of your likely whereabouts. To present me with this now would only create suspicion, if not unneeded concern. The last thing I need is intrepid Gryffindors breaking into my tower looking for money." A smirk curved one corner of the thin mouth. "However, considering that you seem to have difficulty learning your lessons, perhaps I should charge you recompense for the cauldrons you damaged last week."

Neville blinked. "Sir?"

"You have pocket money, from home, I assume?"

"Err...yeah. A bit." Neville blinked.

"Then I am charging you to pay at least partial recompense for the cauldrons destroyed in our earlier altercation. You will bring me the payment tomorrow." Snape smirked. "Since I cannot charge you full price, due to the number of cauldrons exploded here by accident every year, I am only charging you, say, a Galleon or two."

Neville nodded. "Yes sir." he shifted, feeling suddenly tired. He hadn't thought all the double talk and planning could be so exhausting. He saw a similar weariness deepening the lines of Snape's face, in spite of the sneer. "Can I go now, sir?"

"You may. Return tomorrow morning, 8am." Snape gestured curtly, and the door swung open. Neville matched the sneer on the professor's face with a sullen scowl of his own, and left.

Author's Note: So, it's a bit rocky, but the relationship is at least a bit stable...however, I guarantee there's going to be several more rocky moments between them...