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[personal profile] velvetfiction
Title: Voices Within
Author: VelvetMouse
Recipient: [ profile] gm_weasley in the 2006 [ profile] hp_holidaygen exchange
Rating: G
Character(s): Neville-centric; cameos by Minerva McGonagall, Arabella Figg, and a cast of hundreds; and one very special character, without whom this story would not exist. What? You expect me to give it away?
Warnings: Technically, I suppose I should warn for HBP, but if you haven't read it at this point, what are you doing reading fic?! Go pick up the real thing and read! (Written pre-DH)
Summary: Years after the defeat of Voldemort, Neville finds himself forced to confront his assumptions, fears and a branch of magic known as Potions.
Author's Note:This story was remixed into You're Not the Only One (For a Dead Guy, Albus Sure is Busy Remix) [Neville Longbottom, Severus Snape, 100 words, rated G] by [ profile] goddess47 for Round 7 of [ profile] remixthedrabble

For as long as he could remember, Neville had heard voices in his head. If he had been a Muggle child, this would, perhaps, have worried him at some point. But as he was a proper Wizarding child, well accustomed to animate paintings and chocolate frogs that hopped, a few voices did not even register as something odd.

The very first voices he remembered hearing in his head were, of course, his parents'. Not their actual voices, he rationalized later, when he was much older – he had been far too young when their voices were forever silenced to accurately remember what they sounded like. But, rather, he heard what he though they should sound like, based on the half-cognizant memories of his fifteen month old self. Those voices were his constant companions from his earliest memories onwards.

I'm so proud of you, Neville! he heard his mum say in her soft, lyrical tone, when he first completed a blotchy alphabet using one of his grandmother's cast-off quills.
Good job, son! added his father's gruffer voice.

Soon after he began hearing his parents' voices, Gran's voice join in the chorus. She tended to chime in, stern and severe, whenever the small boy even thought about getting into trouble.

No biscuits before dinner, Neville! Gran's voice would echo through his head like a whip-crack whenever he so much looked at the biscuit jar.
Don't play in the garden, you'll get your robes all dirty! was another common refrain, as the young boy pressed his nose to the window and looked longingly at all the lovely dirt and interesting plants on the other side of the pane.

Over time, other voices joined the growing chorus in Neville's head. Some were those of real people, while others seemed to appear out of thin air. The result was a rather absent minded young man, for it is difficult to remember anything when there are several conversations and running commentaries going on in your head at all times. The Remembrall Gran sent him in his first year at Hogwarts helped. But only a little.

Eventually, as Neville grew more confident in his place in the world, the symphony of voices in his head quieted to a mere chamber group. He discovered in his fifth year at school, during those wonderful, awful training sessions for the DA, that if he focused on learning something hard enough, he could tune out the voices to a certain extent, and was much more successful in his attempts. Unfortunately, nerves and fear brought the chorus back full force, which explained his notable lack of success in Potions, a subject that should have been as strong for him as Herbology was.

The War changed Neville as well. From the opening skirmish in the Department of Mysteries, to the final bloody battle that ranged across the grounds of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, Neville increasingly found himself near the center of the action. Not at the calm eye of the storm – that was Harry, Ron and Hermione, with their careful plotting and secret quests – but in the chaotic, turbulent eye-wall.

In the heat of battle Neville found that the chaos surrounding him on the outside was enough to drown out the chorus of voices in his head, and he dedicated himself to providing whatever support Harry needed. The "Golden Trio" remained steadfast through the long years, but Neville, along with the fiery Ginny and slightly odd, but frighteningly insightful Luna, formed a trio of their own, bound by their common goal of supporting Harry. The two groups spent much time together, forming an often inseparable sextet. Neville's resolve to help was only strengthened when, one night, after a few too many glasses of Firewhiskey, Harry tearfully confessed the Prophecy to his former dorm-mate. The knowledge that it could have been him, not Harry, in the spotlight touched Neville deeply, and made his resolve that much greater. He drove himself relentlessly, practicing offensive and defensive spells with Hermione and Ginny, and doing physical training with Ron.

It was then that he discovered that, while he would never be lithe, the chunky little boy he had been had somehow melted away into a stocky, powerfully built young man. What he lacked in speed, he found he could make up for in endurance, and the first time he bested Ron in their friendly training competitions, the chorus in his head exalted.

I'm so proud of you, his father's voice proclaimed, I knew you could do it!
Such a fine young man you've grown into, his mother echoed.
Even Gran's voice was approving for once. You're doing a good job, Neville. And you're doing it for the right reasons.
But nothing could compare to hearing her say those same things out loud the next time he visited her.

The defeat of Voldemort, and the end of the War which had claimed the last of their childhoods, signaled a change in Neville and his friends. While others celebrated their freedom, married, traveled and otherwise enjoyed themselves before settling down and starting their "adult" lives, Neville threw himself back into studying the plants he had been forced to all but abandon during the War.

His first job was an apprenticeship with Professor Sprout, helping her rebuild and restock the greenhouses at Hogwarts, that had been destroyed in the final battle. Next, letter of recommendation clutched in his hand and choir of voices clamoring in his head, he set out for South East Asia, and a two year survey of the magical plants of the region. His paper at the Botanicals Unheard of and Dangerous (BUD)'s meeting at the annual ICW conference brought him to the attention of the Chief Botanist of the Royal Arboretum, who happened to be looking for a Venomous Plants specialist.

Barely a dozen years later, upon the retirement of his boss, Neville found himself, at age 35, becoming the youngest ever Chief Botanist.

People often asked him if he ever got lonely, being largely surrounded by plants all day. Neville would just shake his head and smile. After all, how could he explain, even to another wizard, that he had half a dozen voices to carry on conversations with at all times? Oh, he certainly saw his friends, and socialized with his staff. He even occasionally dated, although, as one ex-girlfriend had been known to comment, until he found a woman who was as much in love with plants as he was, he could forget about a long-term relationship.

For the most part, Neville didn't mind. He spent all day doing what he loved best, he had friends who cared about him, and he carried the voices of the people he loved around in his head. Life was very very good for Neville Longbottom.

What was not so very good, was the mountain of paperwork that he had to deal with. His former boss assured him that it really would get easier, but a month into his new position, Neville wasn't so sure. He had dutifully spent several hours each afternoon filing, sorting, replying and delegating, but he only seemed to make a small dent in the piles on his desk.

This, then, was how an unfamiliar owl found him one warm spring afternoon. Puzzled, Neville thanked the owl and turned to the letter, which was addressed to him in a tantalizingly familiar handwriting.

Dear Mr. Longbottom, the letter began, First, since I am writing to you as both Headmistress of Hogwarts, and as a one-time member of the Order of the Phoenix, let me express both my official and unofficial congratulations on your new position. It is always gratifying to see former students and colleagues acknowledged for their unmistakable talents. I now appeal to you as both Chief Botanist of Her Majesty’s Magical Arboretum, and as a former member of the Order. Although this is not – and cannot be – a formal request in either of our official capacities, the matter is no less urgent. I would therefore request your presence in my office at 10am next Tuesday hence, under the guise of a possible restructuring of the Hogwarts’ herbology curriculum. I will discuss my true request then. Please send your reply with Archimedes. Yours, with sincerest admiration and affection, M. McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Puzzled, Neville penned his acceptance, and wondered what his former Head of House could possible need from him. For once, the voices in his head were as confused as he was.


Late the next Tuesday afternoon, Neville and his choir were still utterly confused. He had shown up at the gates of Hogwarts at the appointed hour, and now, nearly five hours later, was no closer to understanding Headmistress McGonagall's "true request" than he was when he got there. First, he had spent an hour in the Headmistress's office exchanging pleasantries and drinking tea. Next, they had moved on to discussing the Herbology curriculum, how it compared with other schools' and what might be changed. Then, he had been invited to join the staff for lunch. After a delightful meal (few things could compare to even an informal lunch produced by the Hogwarts house elves), the following two hours were spent in the greenhouses with Professor Sprout.

Finally, Neville found himself once again standing in front of the Headmistress's office, wondering if he was ever going to find out the point of this visit.

Patience, my boy. All things in good time, said a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Albus Dumbledore. This unexpected comment caused Neville to wonder if all Headmasters were cagey and experts at misdirection, or if it was something McGonagall had learned from the old man. A faint laughter echoed in his head, and he would have sworn that the voice twinkled. Shaking his head to clear out the unsettling thoughts, Neville rode the stairway up to the office, and hope that this time maybe his former professor would finally get to the point.

In that, at least, Neville was not disappointed. Before he could take a seat, McGonagall stood and gave her former student a piercing look.

"I need your help on a matter of the greatest delicacy and urgency," she said, and moved towards the far wall of her office. She tapped her wand on the wall in several places, and a hidden panel slide to the side. "Come with me," she commanded, and stepped through the portal before Neville could respond.

He hastened to follow her, and found himself trotting down a narrow corridor that was sparsely lit by a few globes of light.

Merlin, I hope I can move that well when I'm her age, came the comment in the voice of a teenaged Ginny.

The Headmistress stopped before a dark door, recessed in the wall and nearly hidden by shadows. She gave Neville another long look and seemed to be about to speak, but instead she turned back to the door and waved her wand in a complicated pattern. He heard a faint click, and then the door opened.

McGonagall entered first, and he heard her sigh in exasperation. "Sitting in the dark and brooding won't change anything you know," she said and lit several lights with the flick of her wand.

A deep, male voice replied but the words were too faint for Neville to make out. Then he saw McGonagall roll her eyes and step to the side, allowing Neville a view of the room's occupant.

“P-p-p-professor S-s-s-nape?” Neville stammered, unable to believe the sight before him. Caught by surprise, he suddenly felt like a bumbling first year again, and immediately the voices sprang to life.

Act like the man you are! his father snapped.
Show some spine, young man. I did not raise you to cower, Gran added.
You’re not his student anymore, Neville. Besides, he can’t be all bad, or he wouldn’t be here, a third voice rationalized. That could only be a very young Hermione. No one else had such implicit trust in their professors. Not even the adult version of his bushy-haired friend.

Absently, part of Neville's mind wondered what Hermione would make of the situation in front of him now. Mate, she'd probably start in on a lecture about how this just proved that she was right and that Snape was never out to get us in the first place, Ron's voice answered with such clarity that Neville had to suppress a snort of amusement.

This seemed to steady his shaken nerves, and he quickly put away his wand, which he did not remember drawing. Glad to see that his reaction did nothing more than cause McGonagall to raise her eyebrows, he tried to relax and reassess the man seated in front of him.

His most dreaded professor now seemed to be only a shadow of his former self. He met Neville's frank scrutiny with an arched eyebrow, but the effect was mitigated by the gaunt cheeks and heavy blanket wrapped around his thin frame.

"Longbottom?" he asked his former colleague. "You tell me you have found a way for me to be cured, and you bring me Longbottom? You might as well point your wand at me and finish me off yourself, if this is your idea of saving me!"

"What is he doing here?" asked Neville, equal in his disbelief.

"It was Professor Dumbledore's last wish that Severus always find help here at Hogwarts, should he need it," she replied, ignoring Snape's comments.

"Last wish? But how do you know that, you weren't there with him on the tower!"

A soft snort came from the man in the chair. "Haven't you ever heard of a last will and testament, Longbottom?" Snape sneered weakly.

Neville flushed but held his tongue. The silence in the room stretched on until McGonagall cleared her throat.

"Severus came to me several months ago. Like the rest of the world, I believed him to be long dead, although, thanks to Albus's pensives, I knew that he had never truly betrayed us. He begged for help and, despite whatever reservations I might have personally had, I was honor-bound to do as he asked."

"This," Snape said with a slight wave of his hand to indicate his weakened state, "was a parting gift from Lucius Malfoy. Although the Dark Lord never learned that I turned against him, Lucius was long suspicious. Just before the final battle, he saw fit to. . . grant me a taste of his suspicion. He cursed me with a spell that I had never heard before, nor have been able to find since. It would not surprise me if he created it himself. Initially, it caused my blood to feel like it was boiling, not unlike the effects of the Cruciatus Curse."

Neville shuddered at the memory of Bellatrix Lestrange's eyes as she had gleefully cast that curse on him.
Shhhh, his mother's calming voice said. It's over now, and she can never harm us again.

When he nodded for Snape to continue, Neville saw something in his former Potions teacher's eye that – had it been anyone else – might have been called sympathy.

"As I said, that was merely how it felt at first. It was not until some months later that I realized the full extent of Lucius's depravity. Since then, I have spent all of my time researching and testing my blood to try to determine what Lucius did to me. At first the effects were slight, and I only had a major flare-up once every few months. Then they became more frequent, the pain more pronounced. But I am not unaccustomed to pain, and I was determined to figure out what was happening." He coughed weakly and paused while McGonagall conjured a glass of water.

"My breakthrough came about a year ago, from, of all things, a Muggle medical journal. Ironic, no? It seems that Lucius unwittingly found a way to magically mimic a disease known as leukemia."

Neville nodded slowly, trying to assimilate the wealth of information that was being thrown at him.

"Once I had a model disease upon which to base my studies, my research progressed much more quickly. I believe I have finally come up with a potion that would at least provide me with some relief, if not cure me outright. However, in my current condition, I obviously cannot make this potion myself."

"Why me?" Neville asked bluntly. "There are others far better qualified to brew an experimental potion, like Hermione."

"Yes, Minerva, why Longbottom?"

"Because," she replied with a weary sigh, "it is not the potion itself that presents the difficulty. As you know very well, Severus. The potion is so simple that even I could make it. It's some of the ingredients that cause the problems. And when it comes to handling volatile plants, I can think of none better than the Chief Botanist of the Royal Arboretum."

"Chief Botanist, eh?" Snape inquired with a raised eyebrow, although this time it was curious rather than mocking. "What happened to old Featherlite?"

"He retired," Neville replied, surprised into honesty. "I worked with him for almost a dozen years, and he asked me to succeed him when he retired last month."

"Impressive." Neville wasn't sure if that comment was in regards to his new position, the fact that he was even considered for that position, or the fact that Featherlite had finally retired.

McGonagall produced a folded piece of parchment from somewhere in her robes and handed it to Neville.

"As you can see from the instructions, Mr. Longbottom, the potion itself is fairly simple. However, some of the ingredients require handling by one as experienced as yourself. Will you please help us?"

Silently, Neville nodded. Neither he nor his choir of voices could think of a way to refuse the request.


A week later, sitting in his office, Neville cast a Revealing Charm, and examined the parchment McGonagall had given him.

“How did I let myself get talked into this?” Neville muttered, not for the first time.

Because, responded the quiet voice of a young man, it’s the right thing to do. And sometimes doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing. Odd, that voice had sounded like Harry.

As he perused the instructions for the potion once again, he marveled at its deceptive simplicity. The base of the potion was so simple it was laughable: a basic tincture of distilled dandelion root, infused with fennel and peppermint. Then nettles and yellow dock were to be added, and the whole thing poured over crushed sarsaparilla and left to simmer for three days. A first year, even one as hopeless at potions as he had been, could do it.

The next stage, the addition of the purely magical ingredients, was relatively straight forward as well. Re'em blood, shrivelfigs and fanged geranium seeds all needed to be handled with care, but they weren't particularly tricky to deal with. Indeed, Neville worked with far more dangerous things on a regular basis.

It was the very last step, the addition of three drops of sap from a birch tree, that would cause the problems.

It was, even to Neville's untrained eye, a brilliant addition. Muggles saw the tree as a normal – albeit, beautiful – plant, but wizards knew better. The "glowing" that one could see in a stand of birch trees on some misty mornings Muggles tried to explain away as a trick of the light, but Neville knew that they really were glowing, radiating power and growth. The wood of the birch, light and springy, was well suited to many things, although it was rarely used for wands anymore. Neville had heard, too, that many native peoples of North America used the bark of the tree for various purposes. But it was in the sap of the birch, as any good herbologist knew, that was where the real power lay.

Unfortunately, the tree seemed to know this too, and went to great lengths to make its sap inaccessible to wizards. Great care and patience was required to obtain birch sap in any useable form. Not only was the extraction process delicate, but once obtained, the sap would only retain its power for a mere six hours, and each hour that passed caused a massive reduction in potency. It would need to be used almost immediately. And to top it all off, the sap was so sensitive to magical signatures, that handling and use by anyone other than the person who extracted it would render it completely inert. Neville had realized as soon as he saw the ingredients list that he would be the one making this potion. All by himself.

Finding the sap, at least, was not going to be a problem. Neville knew exactly which tree he wanted to use. It was time for him to visit another former member of the Order. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Neville concentrated and disappeared with an audible pop, as he Apparated to an exceedingly normal town in Surrey.


Neville appeared in the secluded backyard of a modest house. The rambling paths gave the impression that wilderness was just on the verge of reclaiming the yard, although he was well aware that careful planning and sculpting had gone into producing that effect. Indeed, he had designed much of it himself. Several small fountains burbled happily, creating a constant source of white noise that was just loud enough to muffle any unexpected sounds – such as someone Apparating in. Tall trees surrounded the edge of the property, providing a nearly impenetrable shield against prying neighbors' eyes. Neville knew, too, that these trees were a constant source of irritation for the Neighborhood Association, as they did not conform to their guidelines and bylaws. He suspected that was half the reason the house's owner kept them.

Because heaven forbid anyone fail to conform here, Harry's voice remarked.

Neville chuckled to himself as he made his way to the backdoor of the house. Harry certainly had little love for the town he grew up in.

An older woman answered the door, and several large cats twined themselves around Neville's legs in greeting.

"Mrs. Figg," Neville said warmly as he embraced the woman.

"Neville Longbottom, as I live and breathe! I thought I heard a familiar pop in the backyard. And how many times do I have to tell you: call me Arabella."

"At least once more, apparently," he replied with a smile and allowed himself to be ushered into the sitting room.

Of all the friendships he had made in his life, one of the oddest – but most comfortable – was with this woman. Although she was closer to a contemporary of his grandmother than himself, Neville found himself conversing with Arabella Figg as a peer. And for her part, she seemed to be delighted that someone in the Wizarding world would value a mere Squib's opinions.

They had met during the long years of the War, as Neville had become more and more involved with the Order of the Phoenix. He had quickly learned that Mrs. Figg had two great passions in life – cats and gardening. While Neville didn't have anything against cats, he never really considered himself a "cat person." Gardening, on the other hand – whether Wizard or Muggle – was something he could talk about for hours. And so they did.

When the Order had been stumped for ideas about how to safely access Mrs. Figg's house, it had been Neville's suggestion (with the quiet support and prompting of Professor McGonagall) to turn her backyard into an Apparation-safe place. Work on her garden had provided him with some of his few opportunities to care for plants during the War, and he had been forever grateful to the old woman for the chance. After the War ended, Neville still found an excuse to stop by every few weeks and tend to some of the more touchy plants. Once he had returned from his sojourn in Asia, he had resumed his visits, although they decreased in frequency. Now, listening to his friend ramble on about her tulips, he resolved to visit more often.

Several hours later, Neville had consumed four cups of tea (sometimes he felt like he spent his life drinking tea), two excellent scones (something he had never figured out how to adequately make for himself), had been brought up to date on all of the cats (Nibbles was recovering from a nasty scratch she had received from that awful poodle down the road, and the crushed pine leaves that Neville suggested was working very nicely to keep the mites away), and learned that honeysuckle was all the rage this year with the Neighborhood Association ("Really, they ought to rename it 'Honeysuckle Lane'! I haven't seen more than three wisteria plants in a decade!").

"Mrs. Figg, I have a favor to ask of you," he began hesitantly.

"Of course, dear. What is it?"

"I find myself in need of a small amount of birch sap, and . . ."

"And you want to know if you can tap the ones out back?" she asked shrewdly. "It makes sense, as you've practically raised them since they were saplings. Oh don't look so surprised, dear. I did read those books you gave me. Just because I can't do magic myself doesn't mean I don't understand how it works."

"Are you sure? It's a rather long and involved process and I can't promise – "

"Neville, child, I'm sure. I trust you, of all people, not to hurt my beautiful trees." She gave him an indecipherable looks. "And I won't even press you to tell me what you need the sap for, although I'm dreadfully curious. The only uses for it that I know of are in potions, and you're the last person on earth I would expect to be making those."

Neville chuckled ruefully. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Mrs. Figg. But maybe someday I'll be able to."


A few cryptic messages owled back and forth between London and Scotland established a workable plan, and Neville discretely cleared a couple of afternoons and one full day. Everyone involved agreed that the less transportation of materials, the better off everything would be.

Which was why, one afternoon, Neville found himself walking up the path to Hogwarts, about to go brew a potion in front of the man who made him forever tremble at the mention of that subject.

His feet dragged more and more with each step and his mind raced with blind panic. He had no idea how he was going to perform even the simplest task in front of Snape.

Enough! Hermione's voice suddenly snapped in his head. Neville, you can do this. You've brewed potions much more difficult than this before. And this is just the first step, the easiest part. I'll be right here, helping you. Just like we used to do. Only this time Snape can't yell at you or dock points.

This calmed Neville. But only a little.

When he reached the rooms where Snape was secreted away, Neville saw that a small work area had been set up for him. Snape himself was already there, seated in a chair that was half facing away from where Neville would be working. But Neville wasn't deceived; he knew that Snape would be watching him like a hawk the whole time, ready to pounce if he made even the slightest mistake.

The voices in his head (his father and Ginny, this time) sternly reminded him that he was not a first year anymore, but a respected member of the Wizarding community, and that he held a position the was at least equivalent to that of Potions Master.

Determined to ignore the other man as much as possible, Neville carefully withdrew the instructions and smoothed them onto the workbench beside him for easy reference. Not that he really needed them. He had read them over so often that the words were practically burned into his mind. But still, better to not take any chances.

Slowly, he selected a few dandelion roots from the jar and began to chop them.

Chop, not mash, Hermione's voice gently reminded him. The hot water will extract the necessary things from them, so you don't need to pulverize them.

With Hermione's familiar voice providing narration and commentary, Neville managed to relax and made it through the first steps without mishap. Dandelion roots were chopped and submersed in boiling water along with fennel and peppermint, and then strained. The resulting liquid was returned to the cauldron, and then he added the nettles and yellow dock, and set that to boil for two hours while he had dinner with Professor Sprout.

After dinner he returned and carefully crushed the sarsaparilla leaves and placed them in a second cauldron. Placing a plastic strainer over the top (and silently blessing Muggles for inventing the non-reactive material), he poured the contents of the first cauldron over the crushed leaves and set the whole thing to simmer with a wave of his wand.

Only then did he address the room's occupant.

"Shall I return each evening to check on this, or. . ." He trailed off, unsure how to finish the thought.

Snape gave him a flat stare. "I am capable of that, at least, Longbottom."

Neville nodded stiffly. "Yes, sir. I'll see you Friday evening, then. Goodnight, sir."


Friday night's work went equally smoothly, but Neville did not dwell on the success. His hardest task was yet to come. Fortunately, coaxing uncooperative plants into doing what he wanted was his specialty and, better yet, he did not have to do so in front Snape.

Early the next morning he Apparated to Mrs. Figg's back yard. The cool night air was just beginning to feel the first hints of the sun's warmth, and a few delicate rays of light were just starting to kiss the tops of the trees. In the corner of the property, a small copse of birch trees stood glowing with their inner power and the outer light. Taking a deep breath, Neville approached them slowly and cautiously, almost like one would a wild animal.

Carefully, he withdrew his wand and quietly began casting Notice-Me-Not spells over himself, taking care not to allow any surges in his magic. Such a surge would disrupt the birch's power flow and then he would be in deeper trouble than a hippogriff without wings.

Finally, he stood in the middle of the trees, and lightly rested his hand on one of them. He could feel the power pulsing under the bark, and felt wrapped in the warmth of the power. He breathed a quick sigh of relief – the trees had accepted him. At least for the moment.

Quietly, speaking in no more than a whisper, Neville explained to the trees who he was, what he was doing, what he needed and why he needed it. Other herbologists laughed at him for this practice, but no one had ever been able to prove to him that the magical plants couldn't understand him, and it had worked for him thus far, so he was going to keep doing it. Especially with these trees that he had tended since they were planted nearly fifteen years earlier.

A slight sound in the background broke Neville out of the trance-like state he had fallen into. He looked over and saw Mrs. Figg standing waiting patiently for him, with a mug of tea in each hand. He did not know how long she had been there, but it had obviously been a while, as the mugs were no longer steaming.

He carefully made his way over to her and accepted the tea gratefully. She smiled as he waved his wand over the two cups in a quick re-heating charm. "How's it going?"

"Fine so far. They've let me in and I think I'll be able to get what I need," he replied quietly.

"I'll let you get back to work then."

Several hour later Neville's arms ached and sweat dripped down the back of his neck, although it was not a particularly warm day. The process for extracting the sap from a birch tree required that he maintain several spells at once for the entire time he worked on the trees. Essentially, what he had to do was isolate a "vein" within the tree and divert it – both physically and magically – long enough to get the required liquid. The tree, of course, would resist this and attempt to reclaim the line of magical sap.

The whole process was best completed in conjunction with the warming of the day and the rising of the sap through the trunk, which meant that Neville had needed to get his isolation spells in place while the tree was still sluggish with the night's chill. And then he had to maintain them, as unobtrusively as possible, until he had completed his task.

After a few false starts, he had found a likely looking spot on one of the trees and had cast the spells. Then he had carefully inserted a small tap into the tree, from which a small crystal vial hung. Then all he had to do was sit back and wait. And wait. And wait.

At long last, the crystal vial was filled to his satisfaction, and the most dangerous part of the whole procedure began. Swiftly, he capped the vial with a cork, and placed it carefully in his shirt pocket. Then he gently extracted the tap and slowly released the spells he had been maintaining. A surge of magic now, from either himself or the trees, would render the sap useless.

Finally, he finished extracting himself from the copse of trees and he breathed a sigh of relief. As he moved back towards the center of the garden, Mrs. Figg emerged once again, with a plate in one hand and a small box containing several other things in the other.

She handed the plate, which held a thick sandwich, to Neville and set the box down and began sorting through its contents.

Neville looked at her quizzically.

"I know you said you couldn't use any spells on the vial of sap to protect it, but you didn't say anything about using Muggle objects. I can wrap that vial up tighter than one of Molly Weasley's Christmas presents, and you'll be on your way in no time."

While Neville ate, Mrs. Figg packed. First she withdrew a clear, flimsy looking piece of plastic with a brightly colored strip running along one side. To his surprise, it turned out to be a bag ("Zip-top bag, deary. This will seal the vial up good, so if that cork should happen to fall out, you won't lose any of your precious sap."). Next, she pulled out more clear plastic, though this time it was oddly bumpy ("Bubble wrap. Greatest invention since electricity. With this stuff, I could send a teapot from here to China without worrying about it breaking."). Finally, she placed the whole plastic-wrapped lump in the box she had brought out, and sealed it with tape.

"Now, I know you can't use magic around the sap, but a good sharp knife should let you unwrap this quick as can be."

Neville smiled. "Thank you so much for everything."

He accepted the package and with a wave, Apparated to Hogsmeade.

Apparition was something of a calculated risk for Neville while carrying the sap. Strictly speaking, he should have performed no magic at all while it was in his possession. However, he judged the risk worth it in the face of a five hour trip by train.

Mindful of the invisible clock ticking away the sap's potency, he hurried up the path to the castle and to the secret rooms. He carefully unwrapped the package, ignoring Snape's odd looks. The vial remained unbroken and still corked. Unfortunately, there was no way to test if the sap was still active or not. Nothing to do but use it.

Neville held his breath and carefully added one – two – three drops of the precious sap to the cauldron. The potion shimmered for a moment and then rapidly turned a deep golden color, just like Snape had predicted it would. Then, with a care he usually reserved for grafting venomous plants, he slowly decanted a bit of the potion into a clean vial.

Trying to steady his hands enough so that he wasn't visibly shaking, Neville handed the completed potion to Snape.

The former potions professor examined the vial critically for several minutes, before downing it with a shrug. He shuddered violently – Neville could only imagine how horrid it tasted – and then nodded minutely.

"You'll do, Longbottom. You'll do."

Neville glowed like a stand of birches at the unexpected praise, and he wondered if another voice had just been added to the chorus in his head.


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