"You asked for Longbottom. Here he is."
Fingers hard as fire-irons pressed into Neville's neck, forcing him down. He grunted as his tender knees hit the headmaster's stone floor.
Snape rose from his desk. Neville swallowed and dropped his eyes. He could stand up to Carrow's blows and spell-torture, but Snape's viciousness still made him tremble.
"He squeals as loudly as his parents did," Carrow said. "Filthy blood traitor."
"I told you that you were no longer to use the Cruciatus Curse on school grounds," Snape said.
Neville felt the fingers on his neck tighten. "His Lordship may have made you headmaster, Snape, but you're just a servant like the rest of us. I'll do as I please."
"The directive was not mine, it was His."
"You lie." Neville gasped as the fingers dug into tendon and bone; black spots danced before his eyes. Carrow's hand shook upon his neck. "His Lordship understands the need for punishment, he's given Alecto and me the authority to mete it out as needed…"
"I wouldn't presume to speak for the Dark Lord were I you," Snape said softly. "He has plans far beyond what you or I know." He circled around his desk and crossed over to them. Neville imagined he could feel Snape's gaze burning through the top of his head.
"The boy refused to cast the Bleeding Eyes Hex on the Parvati chit. He questioned my authority. I have every right to –"
"Spare me your bluster. Pure blood has value, but not if the witch or wizard is a drooling idiot with permanent nerve damage due to your indiscriminate use of…punishment. Although in this particular case, there wouldn't be much difference, I must admit."
Carrow snorted and the fingers relaxed somewhat. Neville blinked as his vision cleared.
"Leave the fool with me. Merlin knows what will happen if you're gone too long from the classroom."
"What do you have in mind for him?"
"Something more subtle than your ham-fisted efforts." Neville glanced up to see Snape glaring at Carrow. "Now get out."
"Fine." Carrow shoved Neville to the floor, sending him sprawling. "Take the little blood traitor. But you can count on me going to His Lordship about this, Snape!"
"If you want to disturb His Lordship with trivia like this, far be it from me to stand in the way of his displeasure on your behalf."
Carrow snarled audibly. A moment later, the door to the office slammed closed.
Neville began to pull himself to his hands and knees, only to find himself bodily yanked to his feet. He stumbled and looked up.
Snape glared at him, gripping him by the arm. "What made you think that you could get away with such a dunderheaded response to a professor of this school?"
"Harry would have refused." He could hardly believe he whispered the words. He winced.
But Snape merely sneered and released him. "You're a fool to follow Potter's lead, and an even bigger fool to believe that he'll be anything but dead once the Dark Lord is through with him."
Neville said nothing, but his heart raced faster. Snape walked around him; Neville could feel the heat radiating from his body like anger. He smelt of cruelty, of copper and acid and cool dark nightshade.
Snape stopped in front of him and bent close. "You play a dangerous game, Longbottom," he whispered. "And to what purpose? Graffiti spread on walls?" He straightened. "What would it take, I wonder, for you to see that silly pranks like that are useless against the Dark Lord? More torture? More rules?" He snorted. "You're ineffective, inefficient, oblivious and a fool to boot!"
Neville stared at the floor. Snape's boots were scuffed, his robe threadbare and dusty at the edges. Neville flinched when he suddenly laughed.
"Thank Merlin for Gryffindors – your lack of subtlety makes it easy to control you. You don't have the brains to figure out what would undermine the authority you're prepared to taunt in public. And that's why," he grabbed Neville's chin and forced him to meet his eyes, "the Dark Lord. Will. Win."
Suddenly, Neville felt his fear melt in a rush of anger. Glorious anger. The bloody arrogance of Snape, telling him how to fight his battles – he paused.
Telling him how to fight.
For the first time, he realized that Snape wasn't omnipotent, wasn't all-powerful – he was a fool. Otherwise, why would he be saying those things to him? Didn't he know that with every word, he was stoking the fires of rebellion with ideas, with plans that could – no, would! – lead to his own downfall?
Immediately, Neville began to think about the resources available to him. He knew there would be several others he could work with, as long as they could find a safe place to meet and plan –
Oh sweet Merlin. The Room of Requirement. Why hadn't any of them thought to find it again? After Fifth Year, after Snape had become the DADA teacher, they'd been learning all of the spells that they should have learned years before, so the Room had fallen into disuse. He hadn't thought of it for months. But it was there, it was right there, waiting for them. All Neville had to do was to take Snape's words and twist them to his own use.
The sense of power and purpose was overwhelming. They could do it, he knew they could.
Snape released him. "You will serve detention with Hagrid. In the Forbidden Forest. Every night for two weeks, beginning this evening. Now, get out of my sight."
Neville fled the room, gleeful that Snape's idea of what he obviously thought was a horrific punishment was so much preferable to serving time with either Carrow. But that could wait. He was eager to talk to Seamus and Ginny and Luna. There was so much that they could do…
The door slammed shut behind him.
Snape stood for a moment, staring at the closed door, and then went back to his desk. He leaned his forehead against the cool stone wall next to Albus' portrait. "He's a fool."
"You got through to him, though. He understands what must be done."
"You're doing so well, Severus. I'm sorry –"
Snape snarled and turned away. "Save your apologies, old man. I've work to do."
He sat at his desk and stared down at the papers strewn across its expanse.
Eventually, he rose without ever having picked up a quill or parchment. With a flick of his wand, the torches went out and he left the headmaster's office.
The door closed quietly behind him.