A day before Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry broke up for the summer holidays, headmaster Albus Dumbledore strode across the Entrance Hall towards the door leading down into the dungeons. Tall and thin, with flowing white hair and beard, his imposing figure was usually softened by twinkling blue eyes and a broad friendly smile. Sadly, since the dramatic events at the Department of Mysteries a few days since, the smile had been less ready to brighten his face of late, and his eyes held more of a hint of troubling thoughts than their usual benign twinkle.
A bell rang loudly overhead as he neared the door at the back of the main staircase, indicating the end of the day's lessons. Despite the impending holidays, classes were being held as normal in preparation for the students' next year at school, though they were more informal than usual and consisted mainly of the assignation of homework and a summary of the following school year's lessons. So it was that, upon reaching the door, the slightly sombre headmaster found himself almost bowled over by a horde of fifth year students eager to leave the gloomy dungeon corridor behind them.
Stepping to the side, he summoned his best smile and nodded in response to the various calls of 'Oh, sorry sir. Didn't see you there!' and 'Hullo, Professor Dumbledore!'.
He waited patiently while they all filed past, Gryffindors and Slytherins briefly united in their passage out to the lawn, where they would once again be sundered as they parted to enjoy the warm sunshine in their own individual groups before dinner. As the crowd of happy teenagers passed, Dumbledore's gaze was caught by a dark-haired boy climbing the final stairs to freedom with two of his closest friends.
"Good afternoon, Harry. Miss Granger, Mr Weasley." He nodded at the trio of friends. "I trust you are all well?"
To his disappointment, Harry Potter did no more than acknowledge his enquiry with a 'Yes, sir,' before passing into the Entrance Hall proper and heading towards the front lawns. Ronald Weasley offered the headmaster a sheepish smile and Hermione Granger stopped briefly to offer an apologetic 'Harry doesn't mean to be so abrupt, Professor Dumbledore; he's just got a lot on his mind right now,' before scuttling off to rejoin her friends.
He watched them for a moment as they hurried across the paved flagstones and exited the building amidst a crowd of fellow students. It saddened the old wizard to know that he had so thoroughly failed Harry this year. Had he only made himself more available to the boy instead of avoiding him for fear that he was possessed by Voldemort - how different things might have been! Harry need not have suffered so very much if he, Dumbledore, had only listened to him. He need not have spent months feeling abandoned by his greatest ally, need not have been left to make his own way through a difficult year with a hostile teacher who was determined to discredit him, or felt he had no other choice than to take matters into his own hands and rush to London with a small group of friends to save Sirius Black. To once again face the most evil wizard Britain had ever known and be left devastated by the death of his beloved godfather as a result.
A death for which Harry now felt almost solely responsible.
With a heavy heart, the headmaster dragged his gaze from the Entrance Hall and began his descent down the now empty staircase to Professor Snape's office. He had wronged Harry this year; hurt him grievously by avoiding him, by not explaining certain things to him sooner. Now the boy was burdened by a guilt that Dumbledore would have done almost anything to relieve him of. If only he had trusted Harry's natural resilience to Voldemort's influence! If only he had told him about the prophecy years ago! True, it might have burdened him at a younger age, but with the headmaster's help Harry would have learned to live with it. It would have made him stronger, less likely to make reckless decisions and readied him for the imminent confrontation with Voldemort ...
Sighing, Dumbledore pushed the troubling thoughts aside. There was little point in dwelling on might-have-beens. What was done was done, and now he would have to salvage what he could of the remaining trust Harry bore for him and build on it. Hopefully his impending chat with Severus would go a long way to mending Dumbledore's relationship with Harry, as well as strike a silent, though significant, blow against Voldemort's rise to power.
With this in mind, Dumbledore made his way down the long gloomy corridor. It was lit only by torches hanging on wall brackets and his elongated shadow was thrown into sharp relief on the damp stones. The deep purple fabric of his robes swished silently in his wake, its zooming stars and moons swirling and colliding violently, but silently, on the rich material. So swept up in thoughts and plans - and with certain memories stored in his office cabinet - was he, that Dumbledore did not, for once, acknowledge the friendly greetings of the castle's paintings which lined his path. Indeed, he was so submerged in other people's memories that he was only dragged from them by the sound of angry teenage voices coming from a bend in the corridor directly ahead.
Curious to know what might be causing contention between students this close to the holidays, and knowing they would never reveal it to him if he happened upon them mid-argument, he slowed to listen. Had some small incident in Potions class been blown out of proportion, perhaps? A slight between two of the students? Given that Severus' most recent class had been a mixture of Gryffindors and Slytherins, Dumbledore would not have been surprised. Saddened, but not surprised.
Stopping just before the corridor turned right, Dumbledore folded his hands together and awaited enlightenment. The sounds of heated discussion continued to drift his way, echoing slightly off the walls, yet still easily discernible.
"Think you're some kind of hero, do you?" demanded the unmistakably clipped, and very angry tones of Draco Malfoy. There was a slight scuffle, then: "You're not. You're nothing but a pathetic hanger-on."
"You'd know all about pathetic hangers-on, wouldn't you, Malfoy? You're surrounded by them. That must really embarrass you. It'd embarrass me."
The second voice, deeper and firmer, was that of none other than Neville Longbottom. Dumbledore's eyebrows rose in nothing short of surprise at Neville's tone; he had never heard it sounding quite so … authoritative.
"What's that supposed to mean?" demanded the Slytherin boy with unmistakable malice.
"It means your two pet trolls here for a start. Grab and Coil, or whatever they call themselves." Two deep growls of protest followed Neville's deliberate slur: apparently Crabbe and Goyle were present too, and none too happy with their unfortunate new monikers. "How much do you pay them to be your lackeys, anyway?" continued Neville scornfully. "Or is a nice big bowl of trifle enough to buy their allegiance? I mean, it's common knowledge they think with their stomachs - they'd have to, wouldn't they, having nothing in their heads to do the job with."
"Shut up, you! They've got more brains than you'll ever have. Brains enough to know the winning side when they see it. Unlike you. You're a disgrace to pure-bloods everywhere. But what else is to be expected from a Longbottom Squib?"
"I'd rather be a Longbottom Squib than a Malfoy pure-blood any day of the week. Which brings me to the next hanger-on you're familiar with: how's your dad these days? Oh, that's right; he's finally in Azkaban where he belongs. And that's exactly where you and your gormless mates will be heading if you keep bending and scraping to You-Know-Who - that's if he doesn't off you all first for being as incompetent as your old dad …"
There was a louder scuffle and a sudden whoosh of air.
"I'll make you pay for your part in that, Lardbottom, if it's the last thing I do. You, Potter, those blood traitor Weasleys and that Mudblood Granger - and all your pathetic Muggle-loving cohorts. By the time I'm finished with you, you'll be little more than a babbling wreck - bit like your loser parents, actually. Maybe if you beg me nicely, I might see if I can arrange a bed for you on the same ward as them. Don't say I'm not good to you!"
If Dumbledore was dismayed by the escalating hostility between his students, he was even more angered by Draco's casually malicious reference to Neville's parents. Frank and Alice Longbottom had been two of the finest Aurors ever to work for the Ministry, and their permanent incapacitation by Death Eaters during Neville's formative years - at least one of whom was a direct relation of Draco himself - disgusted and troubled the headmaster.
It would seem that Bellatrix Lestrange's nephew needed a lesson in humility - and the sooner, the better.
Having heard enough, he swept around the corner just in time to witness an incandescent Neville Longbottom shaking himself free of Crabbe and Goyle's grip and launching himself head first into Draco's stomach. The two boys crashed into the wall and slithered to the ground in a flurry of punches and kicks; Malfoy's heavy friends, stunned at the Gryffindor's sudden burst of strength, finally roused themselves enough to make another grab for him. Their angry voices were now loud with yells and howls, and more than enough to rouse Severus Snape from his nearby office.
"What exactly is going on here?" demanded the glowering man, storming out from his gllomy office and wading into the fight. He reached out to yank Crabbe and Goyle back by their ears. With the enormous pair safely out of the way, his dark eyes landed on Neville and the Potions master's face clouded thunderously. Knowing that Professor Snape had automatically assumed the Gryffindor was at fault, Dumbledore swept down the corridor to intervene.
"Longbottom! Get your hands off my student immediately!" snarled the greasy-haired professor.
For once, Neville completely ignored him, preferring instead to utilise his time landing another punch to Draco Malfoy's arm. The blond Slytherin grunted in pain. Incensed, Snape whipped out his wand and was just about to fire off a spell when Dumbledore arrived.
"Enough!" he ordered, coming to a halt before the grappling teenagers. Where Snape's command had failed, Dumbledore's had the effect of parting the two boys instantaneously. Bloodied and scratched, they glowered at each other before facing their headmaster. Dumbledore studied them gravely for several seconds, and they both flushed in shame.
It was the livid Potions master who posed the first question once the uneasy truce was established. Angry dark eyes raked the young Gryffindor accusingly. "Explain yourself, Mr Longbottom!"
Neville, rumpled and dirty from his roll on the corridor floor, and sporting what would shortly become a rather spectacular black eye, let his gaze flicker to Draco, then to Dumbledore, before he finally looked at Snape. "Malfoy and his friends were lying in wait for me after I stayed behind to hand in that Potions essay you were still waiting for, sir. When I left class, they jumped me and started threatening me."
"That's a rotten lie, Professor Snape! We were just walking back to the common room, minding our own business, when he attacked me from behind!" declared Draco passionately, straightening his robes and wiping at his split lip. "If you ask me, I think that little stint at the Ministry has gone to his head - given him delusions of grandeur or something. Thinks he's a regular little Potter, he does."
"Better a Potter than the spawn of a Death Eater," muttered Neville under his breath. Dumbledore, astonished and rather amused by the boy's newfound boldness, suppressed a rather inappropriate grin. Not so Professor Snape, who was angered by Neville's flippancy.
"I think a week's detention should go some way to curbing your cheek, Mr Longbottom!"
"But sir, school finishes tomorrow," pointed out Neville in a more chastened voice.
Snape rolled his eyes. "Then you may begin your punishment this evening after dinner and continue it after the summer holidays. Report to my office at six o' clock, promptly. And twenty points shall also be deducted from Gryffindor for your callous attack on another student," he added stiffly.
Dumbledore was unsurprised by the man's leniency in assigning detention: Snape had obviously decided to refrain from displaying too much prejudice against a student from another House while the headmaster was present, though this was little consolation to Neville, who blanched.
"You may count yourself lucky, Mr Longbottom, that Gryffindor's total is pitiful enough for the loss to make little difference," growled Snape, glowering at the crestfallen teenager, "because I imagine your housemates would be rather upset with you for losing them the House Cup otherwise."
Snape glanced at Dumbledore, no doubt expecting the headmaster's support: his Slytherin students, meanwhile, were looking as delighted as poor Neville looked miserable.
And so the matter may have ended but for one thing: nobody else knew that the headmaster had been just around the corner when the altercation had taken place, nor that he had been privy to almost all that had passed between the four boys. Dumbledore's gaze travelled from Neville, who was gritting his teeth and staring woodenly at the wall, to Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle, who were not trying very hard not to look pleased at the outcome of their little ambush, and then to Draco Malfoy, who was smirking at Neville, but who smoothed his features into an innocent mask upon sensing the headmaster's eyes on him.
Dumbledore sighed inwardly, feeling very vexed that the Malfoy apple hadn't fallen far from its cart. He had hoped that Professor Snape might have been able to sway at least some of his students towards sense, to make them realise they didn't have to follow their parents into the service of Voldemort; but it was now apparent that he had perhaps overestimated the younger man's chance of success.
Which did not bode well for Draco - or for any of the Slytherins.
Troubled, he folded his arms and tapped his fingers against the purple fabric of his robe. Snape was still watching him expectantly, but the headmaster let him wait a few seconds longer as he mulled over his thoughts. Draco smirked confidently at Neville, unaware of the extent to which his behaviour was concerning the elderly professor.
The boy has no idea what awaits him, thought Dumbledore sadly. Already Draco's innocence was bleeding away, courtesy of the warped influence of his deluded relations. Indeed, as a child of two of the most fanatic pure-bloods in society, his very fate had been sealed since birth. If Draco - or his friends - gave themselves in service to a master who would view them as disposable … well, that was no future at all, and Dumbledore feared for their safety as much as that of any of his other students.
Switching his attention to the left, the formidable wizard studied Frank and Alice's son briefly, marvelling at the boy's rapid transformation from nervous youth to newly emboldened scourge of Death Eaters everywhere. Life without his parents had been especially hard on him, whether or not Neville would admit it to himself. As well-meaning and devoted to him as she might be, the rather strict Augusta Longbottom was forever comparing Neville to his father, and forever finding him wanting. Add his natural shyness and an overbearing uncle with a fear of having a Squib in the family into the mix, and it would have been a miracle if the boy had turned out half as well as he had.
Yet Neville had turned out well. Very well. Not only had he overcome the many obstacles inadvertently thrown into his path at home, but he was emerging as a confident young wizard in his own right; one who cherished the same honourable beliefs as his parents. He was brave in the face of adversity, fiercely loyal to Harry Potter, and more than willing to fight for what he believed in - something his recent adventures at the Ministry of Magic had proven conclusively.
It was therefore Dumbledore's opinion that not only had young Neville met his family's very high expectations, but vastly exceeded them. Indeed, when the headmaster had learned that Neville readily succumbed to the Cruciatus Curse - and at none other than Bellatrix Lestrange's hands - rather than have Harry surrender a certain prophecy …
A feeling of deep affection swelled within his heart and it was as much as he could do not to reach out and hug the boy for his bravery. Not for a second would he have doubted that the son of Frank and Alice Longbottom could be anything but brave, but to submit himself to torture at the hands of one of the people who had taken his parents from him, just to save a friend? He was not merely a brave boy: he was a remarkably selfless one.
Marshalling his thoughts and composing his face into a mask of faint disapproval (a feat he had learned from Minerva), Dumbledore finally spoke.
"A week's detention and twenty points deduction seems reasonable to me, Severus," he said calmly, ignoring Neville's deeply glum expression for the moment. The Potions master looked more than satisfied and was about to dismiss all four boys when Dumbledore added, "which is why I shall be deducting the same amount of points from Messrs Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle. Each."
Looking less than thrilled at this unexpected turn of events, the three Slytherins started to protest.
"Wasn't our fault!"
"We were only helping Draco."
"But, sir! He pushed me …"
Silence fell instantly when Dumbledore held up a warning hand.
"Do not insult my considerable intelligence by attempting to protest your innocence again, Mr Malfoy; it will hold little weight with me today. You see, most unfortunately for you, I was already well on my way to Professor Snape's office during your little altercation with Mr Longbottom - in fact, I heard your voices from the end of this very corridor. I am therefore well aware of the better part of your discussion. As such, I am also aware that he was merely responding to provocation from you."
Neville's jaw fell in surprise, then snapped shut again when Dumbledore looked at him. "I am nevertheless disturbed that you found it necessary to use your fists, Neville. Words are only ever a useful weapon if we allow them to affect us. You must learn to rise above such mundane attacks or you will give your aggressor the emotional advantage, and thus the exact opening he or she seeks to defeat you. Do you understand?"
Brown eyes widened in surprise and Neville nodded automatically. Dumbledore could almost feel the boy's mind whirring in thought. Satisfied, he returned his attention to Draco.
"As for you, young Draco, I admit to no little disappointment at your behaviour. Threatening a fellow student with violence? Slurring the good names of his parents - parents who, whether you realise it or not, fought as much for your future as they did for that of their own son - and then lying to your Head of House about the events which preceded the attacks?"
Draco swallowed nervously, the cocky smirk long since vanished from his lips. Snape's jaw was clamped tightly shut in anger, though whether it had anything to do with his student's dishonourable actions or his suspicion of what was to come was anyone's guess.
"I am deeply disturbed by your behaviour, Draco. Deeply disturbed. Have the events of the past two years not taught you that we must all work together if ever we are to be rid of the threat of Voldemort?"
Everyone bar the headmaster flinched at the name. Draco composed himself quickly and stared back at him mutinously. Dumbledore tried once more to make the young pure-blood see sense.
"Yes, threat it is, Mr Malfoy. Do not for an instant think that any who believe themselves favoured by Lord Voldemort will enjoy such good fortune for any length of time. He is a cruel and exacting master with no interest in anyone who cannot prove themselves of use to him. Once they have outlived that use - and they all will eventually - then their lives shall be numbered in hours, if not minutes. Such is always the way with dictators, for narcissism alone is at the very core of their natures. This is something that those who would worship him as their leader would do well to learn sooner, rather than later."
The blond boy watched him sullenly, but there was yet a spark of defiance in his eyes that spoke volumes. Dumbledore's attempt had met with no success. It was thus with a heavy heart that the headmaster continued.
"For your threats against a fellow student, Mr Malfoy, I hereby deduct another twenty points from Slytherin House."
Crabbe and Goyle paled; Professor Snape frowned deeper still; Neville valiantly attempted not to look too pleased. Draco Malfoy finally lost the spark in his eyes as he began to mentally tally up the loss of points so far to his House.
"For blatantly lying to your Head of House, I deduct a further twenty."
Draco began to squirm.
"For the use of an offensive term when referring to your Muggle-born counterparts, I deduct another twenty points. Furthermore, I would strongly caution you against using that word again within Hogwarts, for twenty points shall be automatically deducted from Slytherin House each time you do. Additionally, you and Messrs Crabbe and Goyle will report to Mr Filch every evening at six o' clock for the first month of the next school term where he will assign to you whatever tasks he feels necessary to lighten his numerous caretaker duties. Let us hope that that may prove an effective lesson in tolerance to you all."
By now, the three Slytherin boys were sweating visibly. Professor Snape stepped neatly behind the Malfoy heir, no doubt fearing he may faint if he lost his House any more points.
Which was not a bad idea, in the end.
"And finally," said Dumbledore, allowing a little anger to seep into his voice; Draco stared at him rather like a mouse being held in sway by a snake before it pounced, "for your shameful reference to the current incapacitation of two of the finest Aurors Hogwarts has ever had the privilege to produce, I hereby deduct fifty points from Slytherin House."
Draco actually staggered backwards into his Head of House; the Potions master was looking vastly unhappier than Dumbledore had seen him looking in a long time - which was saying a lot. Crabbe and Goyle slumped against the far wall, Crabbe hiding his face in his hands. Neville was speechless.
"And him?" said Draco desperately, pointing an accusing finger at Neville. "What about Longbottom, sir? He was part of an illicit club banned by the Headmistress - will you be deducting points from Gryffindor for that?"
"Ah, yes. Thank you for reminding me of that, Mr Malfoy." He turned his attention to a wide-eyed Neville.
"I feel it only fair to address the issues Mr Malfoy has raised, both now and a few moments ago with his mention of your - oh, what was the word he used? Ah yes! - 'stint' at the Ministry last week. I had thought to save this until the Leaving Feast, but let us have done with your part in it now, Neville, shall we? I believe you were a member of the illicit group Mr Malfoy is referring to, were you not?"
Flushing, Neville nodded and, fearing the outright slaughter of Gryffindor's remaining points, steeled himself for the inevitable. Draco's eyes narrowed maliciously.
"Perhaps you would care to refresh my memory as to the name of this group?" enquired the headmaster.
Neville's flush deepened. "The DA. Dumbledore's Army, sir."
"Ah, of course. Dumbledore's Army. I must confess to the weakness of flattery upon hearing that, though I am certain you will not hold my little egocentricity against me for long. Now, perhaps you will illuminate me as to why you participated in this secret club?"
Neville opened his eyes. "Because Professor Umbridge was doing her level best to keep us all ignorant in defending ourselves against the Dark Arts - a subject she was supposed to be teaching us. I'm sorry sir, but how were we supposed to defend ourselves, or each other, in the event of an attack if she wasn't doing her job properly? I know it wasn't your fault, sir, but we deserved a better Defence against the Dark Arts teacher than Dolores Umbridge. Hogwarts deserves better than her."
"A fair point," conceded the headmaster. Sensing that his tactic was about to backfire on him, Draco's expression turned thunderous. "A very fair point." repeated Dumbledore seriously. "And had I had any say in the matter, Hogwarts would have had a better Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Allow me to assure you that it will have next year; I give you my solemn word on that, Mr Longbottom. However, happily enough, the spells you were taught in the DA helped to protect you and your friends from grave danger in the Ministry of Magic, and for that I am thankful. Therefore, for your unswerving loyalty to this school, its headmaster and, not least of all, your friends - irrespective of their blood-status - I award fifty points to Gryffindor House."
Four Slytherin jaws dropped in horror.
"For your valiant defence of those same friends when faced with a group of Lord Voldemort's most dangerous Death Eaters in the Ministry of Magic last week, I award a further fifty points to Gryffindor."
This was too much for Draco. He shrugged Professor Snape's hand off his shoulders and straightened in outrage. "What? Are you joking, sir?" he cried shrilly. "Longbottom left school grounds without permission! Aren't you going to punish him for that …?"
"That will be enough, Draco!" hissed Snape in warning, but Draco ignored him to confront Dumbledore.
"Or what about deducting fifty points from him for slandering my father, or does that only work for Gryffindors?"
Dumbledore took a slow step toward the young Slytherin, who was shaking with anger, and pierced him with his eyes. Though he spoke softly and evenly, his tone was more effective than Draco's impassioned protests.
"The difference between Mr Longbottom's remark about your father, and your remark about his parents, is that Neville's was based on fact. It is not slander to call a Death Eater a Death Eater, Mr Malfoy, particularly when said Death Eater was caught red-handed trying to murder half a dozen of my students." The anger in his voice was unmistakable. "As for your other charge; if I have to start deducting points for that, then I must also deduct points from Slytherin once more for the rumoured abuse of Prefect privileges this year. I have also heard a rather disturbing account of an incident which is said to have occurred in your former Headmistress' office, in which it is claimed she very nearly used an Unforgivable curse on a fellow student of yours. Had I suspected you to be present at that time and - though you, as a member of her infamous Inquisitorial Squad, and thus in a position to influence her back to reason - did nothing to stop her … Let me simply say, Mr Malfoy, that I would have been less than tolerant of your presence in this school upon my return. Does that adequately answer the charges you have brought to my attention?"
Looking both very guilty and very cowed by his headmaster's quiet fury, Draco closed his mouth and nodded subserviently. Unwilling to alarm the boy any further, the elderly wizard offered him a smile. "I am glad we are finally of an accord, Draco," he said genially, as if they had been discussing nothing more unpleasant than Skele-grow. "Now, might I suggest that you pay a visit to the hospital wing to have that lip attended to? Thereafter you and your friends might wish to take advantage of the glorious sunshine and go for a stroll or a swim before dinnertime; it may be your last chance before we part for the holidays tomorrow."
Draco mumbled a defeated 'Yes, sir,' before motioning to Crabbe and Goyle with a jerk of his head. The other two boys peeled themselves from the wall and followed him mutely. They soon disappeared around the bend, their hurried footfalls evidence that all three were as keen to put the dungeons behind them as quickly as possible. Dumbledore allowed them a few more seconds to ensure that they would not overhear his next remarks, and huffed in satisfaction when he heard the tell-tale slam of the door leading from the dungeons to the Entrance Hall.
Neville, incapable of speech, gaped stupidly at the headmaster. Ignoring Professor Snape's dark scowl, he laid a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Now then, Mr Longbottom; I hope you will forgive me, but I find I must detain you for a moment longer before you too are discharged."
Confusion flitted across Neville's face, then he flushed. "You don't have to say it sir; I'm sorry for fighting. I know I shouldn't have, but …"
"As glad as I am to hear that, even I must admit that there are some battles which - despite the best of intentions - we simply cannot avoid. Which, I find, brings me neatly to my final order of business."
Fixing the nervous teenager with a penetrating stare, Dumbledore smiled warmly.
"Neville Longbottom, for your selfless attempt to prevent valuable information from falling into enemy hands - despite the physical and personal price you paid for doing so at the hands of a woman you have more reason than most to hate - I award Gryffindor House a further one hundred points."
It might have been a trick of the flickering light, but Dumbledore could almost have sworn that his black-swathed Potions professor nearly reached out a hand to steady the shell-shocked boy, who was beginning to sway ever so slightly on his feet.
Deciding that Severus was as likely to coddle Neville Longbottom as he was Harry Potter (which was not at all), he steadied the teenager with a hand of his own.
"I think you will find that your friends are already relaxing on the lawn, young Neville," he finished kindly. "You might wish to join them and share the good news."
"Good news?" croaked Neville.
Dumbledore beamed. "Why, yes. You might just be first student ever to lose their House points and then win them back tenfold within the space of five minutes. More than enough points, in fact, to make Gryffindor an unexpected contender for this year's House Cup, I should think. I would say that is very good news, wouldn't you?"
Professor Snape looked very much as if he might vomit, but a slow grin was breaking out across Neville's face.
"Yes, sir!" he said in a much steadier voice.
"I would however count it as a personal favour if you kept your fists in your pockets the next time someone thinks to rouse your temper with nothing more dangerous than words," added the headmaster pointedly. Neville turned scarlet.
"If there is a next time, I promise to keep my fists in my pocket," he vowed solemnly. "I'll just have to sharpen my tongue instead."
"I would be more than happy to sharpen it for you, Mr Longbottom," interjected his Potions teacher dryly, unable to refrain from comment, adding, "in the interest of arming you appropriately, of course," at Dumbledore's disapproving frown.
"Er, thanks," replied the boy nervously, "but I think I'll manage, sir. Wouldn't want to be accused of stealing your witty one-liners. I'll see you at dinner, Professors."
With that, he dashed off, leaving a chuckling headmaster and a scowling Professor Snape behind him.
It was with a considerably lighter heart that Dumbledore watched Neville disappear round the bend in the corridor, and he mentally congratulated Frank and Alice for producing such a fine boy.
"I did not realise you were still assigning homework for this term, Severus," said Dumbledore conversationally, recalling that Neville had remained behind after class to hand in an essay.
"I am not. Longbottom had not finished the one I assigned him prior to his O.W.L.s."
Mildly exasperated that Snape hadn't foregone the unfinished essay, given that the exams were now over, the headmaster shook his head. "I trust you will find no reason to deduct any of those well-earned points I assigned him when the boy attends his detention this evening?"
Snape's scowl deepened. "If Mr Longbottom behaves himself and does not attempt to attack any more of my students, his points should remain … intact," he replied curtly.
"Neville is also your student, Severus," sighed the headmaster, chagrined that his companion still insisted on the distinction between Houses. He glanced down the corridor which the teenager had traversed so recently and his thoughts strayed to another Gryffindor. "They are all your students, as well as mine. House allegiance is irrelevant. The time is now upon us to put such petty loyalties aside. The final battle is coming, Severus, and sooner than either you or I would have suspected. Harry, Neville and all their friends may have helped us to strike a blow against Lord Voldemort, but we should not leave all the hard work to the younger generation. It is our duty to protect them from Voldemort and his Death Eaters, not to feed them to him through our own ignorance and impotence."
Draco's angry face flashed through his mind, quickly followed by the smiling mien of Neville, and the grief-stricken one of Harry.
Regret flooded him once more. Pompous selfishness had cost him much of Harry's faith this year, and it was time to make reparations for that. His own faith in Harry, however, was stronger than ever. The love he bore for his dead godfather, and for his friends, had helped the Boy-Who-Lived fight off Voldemort's possession of his body and Dumbledore could not have been prouder of him. He should never have doubted that Harry was capable of it in the first place. Whatever happened next, James and Lily's son would be strong enough to do what had to be done, and strong enough to live with the consequences. Like Neville before him, Harry Potter came from two of the most honourable people Dumbledore had ever known. And, also like Neville, Harry had inherited their impeccable sense of morality.
If only the same could be said for Draco Malfoy. Yet perhaps it was not too late …
Dumbledore set his jaw determinedly. He would not leave any more of his students vulnerable to Tom Riddle's mercy. Not again. Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Slytherin, he would do his best to ensure they would all be freed of Voldemort's clutches forever.
And maybe then he would have recouped some of Harry's lost faith.
Shaking himself free of his reflective mood, he turned his snowy head until his eyes landed on Snape. "Come, Severus: we have plans to make. Now that our enemy has been forced into revealing himself at last, he will not dally long before retaliating. Let us see what we can do to match the daring efforts of young Harry Potter and his brave friends in thwarting him, shall we?"
So saying, he followed his still scowling ally into the dungeon office to make his own plans for the summer.