Snape did not recognize the tall young man at first. "What is it?" he snapped, impatient to return to his classroom. The flinch he gained in response first filled him with satisfaction, and then more strangely, recognition. "...Longbottom?"
Neville Longbottom had grown into not handsomeness, but a comfortableness with his features: tall enough to look Snape in the eye, his youthful roundness had dissolved to reveal a squarish jaw and good, solid frame beneath. His clothes were plain but not shabby, befitting someone who, as rumor would have it, now worked as quite a respectable employee of the Ministry.
It was in the slight, timid stoop of the young man's shoulders and the faint worry permanently embedded in his face that Snape saw the ghost of the boy Neville once was. The conflict of past and present made Snape uncomfortable, so he seized the past, wrapped himself in superiority and disdain.
"Couldn't stay away, Longbottom? Or in need of a refresher course in potions, since you didn't seem to be paying attention while you were enrolled?"
"N-No, Pr-Professor Snape, sir, you see--" Neville grabbed his hat off his head, turned it in his hands, clearly searching for the right words. His eyes, in turn, searched the floor, as if somewhere he had written on it what he desired to say.
In Neville's hesitance Snape found confidence. He drew himself up further, crossed his arms impatiently. "Speak up, then. I haven't got all day. I've things to attend to." But he found that being unable to sneer down his nose at Longbottom made quite a difference. Neville seemed to notice this too, meeting his eye at last, something steely behind the old softness.
"--You see," Neville continued, straightening his shoulders a bit, "I came to Hogwarts because, well, because, to tell you-- see, I used to think I hated you, Professor, but really I think... I think I just feel very sorry for you."
At first the words washed over Snape without registering. Then he was stunned, as if Neville had punched him in the gut; at last, he was angry. Neville Longbottom, that disgusting, spineless, sniveling Gryffindor of a boy, pitied him?
"How dare you--" he began, but Neville, that quivering, whimpering pile of incompetence, that nit-brained frog's bottom, shut him up with a look and cut him off.
"Anyway, that's all. That's all I wanted to say."
Snape sputtered and stumbled over a variety of retorts, none of them quite maturing on his lips. At last the only thing that came out was, "Why?"
Neville seemed to think a minute. For once, Snape did not perceive this as hesitation; he only saw Neville, considering, as any person considered a delicate question. "Y-You seem alone," Neville said at last, and then corrected himself. "No, you seem lonely, although... you're the one making sure of it."
"So what?" Snape snapped, before he realized such a reply legitimized Neville's accusation. "If I'm the one making sure of it, it's probably what I want, isn't it? Perhaps you should keep your concerns to yourself, Mister Longbottom!"
Neville seemed to retreat without moving, shoulders tucking down again, glancing at his feet. "P-perhaps." For a moment he was the boy of past, cowering before the terrible Severus Snape. When he looked up, however, the illusion dissolved; there was no apology in his eyes. "But that only makes me more sorry for you. Professor. Sir."
"I don't need your pity!" Snape roared. He forced himself to exercise some restraint when some passing students regarded him strangely. "So you can take your little confession, revelation, whatever, your high-and-mighty attitudes, and go on to your great big future, Mr. Longbottom, because I've no use for them here."
He swept his robes around him in the most intimidating manner he could still manage and started back towards his classroom at a brisk pace. But he could not escape Neville's words, no matter how fast he walked:
"Perhaps you ought to give someone a chance, Professor."
He told himself it was not entreaty but pity in Neville's voice, and let the door slam behind him as he entered his rooms.
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