Flora and Fauna
Neville rode the Hogwarts Express home one last time, staring out the window and trying to figure out his future in a world that barely made sense to him anymore. Harry and the Order -- including all the new members who had once formed the DA -- had defeated Voldemort in time for the students to take their NEWTs; they'd emerged from the battle heroes with no idea of what to do with themselves, now that they'd stopped fighting and had to start living. Nev knew his grandmother would give him a few months' leeway to gather his wits, but that time seemed terribly short to him, days that he expected to pass the way the lights did outside, each a long stretch that was over in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps the hardest thing for Neville was that, for the first time in seven years, he wouldn't have school to look forward to, the train ride back and the transition from his lonely summer days to the crowded nights spent in a room full of friends. Even when Neville wasn't the favourite person in the Gryffindor Common Room, he had always known he had friends he could go and sit with and feel like he was a part of something. Neville felt that security slip away from him for the last time as he exited the station with his grandmother to head for home, and tried not to feel like he was leaving the most important things behind him instead.
The summer was an especially strange one for Neville because he got dozens of owls; invitations from those who listened when Harry listed all those who helped him in his victory, letters from friends who'd never bothered to write to him in the six previous summers, offers for apprenticeships that didn't suit a single skill he possessed from people who wanted their businesses to have that extra shine of a genuine war hero on staff. Neville made a hobby of guessing by the outside of the envelope which thing would be in each missive, and he soon learned to recognize and welcome Harry's messy scrawl and Hermione's neat lettering, Ron's perpetually worn quills and Dean's artistic little doodles.
One day in the middle of August, NEWT results a few days past and no surprises there, Neville got an owl he couldn't quite place. The handwriting seemed familiar, but it wasn't any of his schoolmates or the few persistent businessmen who hadn't yet managed to hire any of the other Order members. The parchment was obviously reused, old words carefully sanded away and the ink blurred but strong where it spelled out his name and address. There was no seal, only a blob of wax where a Knut had been pressed to make sure it stuck, the twining vine knot on the back of the coin making a sinuous pattern in the red blotch. It was, in short, the most interesting thing Neville had received all summer.
Nev carefully cracked the wax and unfolded the note, only to find a few dried leaves and flowers inside, pressed flat and wrapped in tissue. Neville set those aside, more curious than ever to find out what was going on, and began to read.
Neville found himself smiling as he unwrapped the tissue and carefully removed one sprig of Lilac, pressed as though by some Victorian maiden keeping tokens in her diary, with a hint of moonlight still shining ever so gently in the hollow of each tiny flower. In the other tissue were Hellebore leaves, frost still riming their edges as their magic gleaned moisture from air much thicker than what they'd grown in when they were part of a living plant. There were no sample Grackleberries, but Neville knew what they were and was even hopeful that he might wheedle some seeds or cuttings from Professor Sprout. The Lilacs could be grown eventually, once he'd found trees to harvest from, but they'd need a very specialized greenhouse; the Hellebore would have to be collected annually in season.
It all seemed to Neville to be just the sort of adventure he needed, a future he could sink his teeth into. It wouldn't be a safe or easy life, and there was a very good chance he'd end up right back where he was now, living on his grandmother's charity, but it was a far cry from waiting around for another two months for some miraculously better offer. This job wouldn't solve everything in his life, or even most things, but it would be his; Lupin had made him the offer based on what skills he actually had instead of his dubious fame.
Neville had been in a holding pattern for so long that the giddy excitement of having something real to do swept away his doubts, and before he could change his mind, he got out quill and ink and the good sort of parchment one ought to use when sending to a prospective employer and wrote his acceptance note, grin widening with every word he penned.
Neville was nervous, but that had been his normal state for so many years at Hogwarts that it was almost a welcome change from the summer's boredom. He'd bought all the gear requested in Lupin's pleased reply, and even received his grandmother's blessing -- she approved of the entrepreneurial spirit, and potions ingredients were a respectable business for a young man of his talents and breeding. He went over the list in his head one more time, hoping he hadn't forgotten anything, and nearly jumped out of his skin when the doorbell rang. Neville wiped his hands on his trousers and answered it, grinning widely at his much-anticipated visitor. "Pro- Mr. Lupin! It's so good to see you," he said, opening the door wide to let Lupin inside.
"Remus, please," he said, brushing past Neville, his clothes warm from the summer sun and perhaps his own body heat. Remus turned and shook Neville's hand once the door was closed behind him. His hand was strong but fragile-seeming, like touching an owl's wing, all thin bones and dry feathers, and Neville hoped his own palm wasn't too clammy. "You're looking fit, Neville," he said.
Neville smiled shyly as their hands dropped; he'd never be thin, but puberty had solidified his baby fat into something like muscle, aided by a very active final year in and out of Hogwarts. "Thank you, R-remus, you as well."
Remus followed him into the parlour and sat in the sun where Neville could see him clearly, his clothing nearly new for once and cheeks less hollow and more rosy than the last time Neville had seen him. "I've been doing all right, since Harry gave us all a bit of a shine."
Neville nodded understandingly, sitting on the loveseat across from him. That shine had been a mixed blessing for Neville until now, but he was grateful for it all the same. They all were, really, since that fleeting fame was all the reward the wizarding world had to offer them in return for their hard work and heavy losses. "Gran insists you stay for tea. She'll be down any moment now, b-but I want to tell you before she does that she's given me some money to start us out," said Neville, cursing his stutter and picking at the dirt permanently embedded under his fingernails.
Remus' eyebrow went up at that, and he asked, "Define 'some'?"
Neville coughed politely and named the figure, slightly diminished by the quality of gear he'd bought for collection and storage of valuable and delicate ingredients. "She called it an advance on my inheritance, so we can start ourselves out right. Do... d'you think it'll be enough to pay for the greenhouses?"
Remus whistled. "It'll pay for a lot of things, I expect, if we stretch it where we can." He paused, obviously calculating something out in his head before saying, "I still want to begin with a trip to the mountains, but perhaps with this we'll be able to start building as soon as we get back, instead of having to do several trips to save up." Remus gave him a rakish wink and added, "Don't worry, I'll keep you busy."
Neville blushed, but grinned anyway. He'd managed to forget how charming Remus could be, when he wasn't being a professor and therefore untouchable. Not that Neville thought he had a chance of touching Remus now, but it was different when you were both supposedly adults. "I expect so," murmured Neville, wondering how it would work out, him all inexperienced but putting up the lion's share of their seed money. Remus was trustworthy, Neville knew that, but still he might have said more if his grandmother hadn't arrived at that moment. The tea was served in proper style, and the conversation became more formal as well.
After the pleasantries were taken care of, Gran fixed her best quelling stare on Remus and asked pointedly, "What sort of accommodations have you arranged for my grandson?"
Neville blushed; she'd been sceptical when he told her he wanted to move out and live with Remus, rather than continue to rely on her largesse for his room and board.
"I found a flat in Periffer Alley for us," said Remus calmly, eyes twinkling as though he'd expected this line of questioning. "Two bedrooms and quite proper, with a rent in a range we can easily support."
Gran snorted and took a sip of her tea. "Not one of those little by-the-week flophouses, I trust?" she said, her tone suggesting she trusted nothing of the sort.
"No, no, not that end. The flat is only a few blocks from the Leaky Cauldron, quite a respectable address for a young man just starting out, even living with the likes of me," Remus replied, his voice just a touch less friendly at the end.
Gran didn't push the issue any further, though she did add, "I expect an invitation to tea once you've returned from haring off into the wilds, so that I may see for myself."
"Yes, Grandmother, of course," said Neville, making a mental note to be sure the place was mostly clean before they left for Norway.
She snorted again and moved on to other subjects, offering to help them find a man at law for their paperwork, showing herself to be as committed to Neville's success as was proper for the woman who had raised him. Eventually the last cakes were eaten and Gran seemed mollified and even pleased with Neville, an eventuality so rare Nev thought he ought to mark it on a calendar somewhere, and they said their goodbyes. Neville shouldered his magical travel pack, pocketed his shrunken trunk, and brushed a dutiful kiss on her cheek, then went outside and allowed Remus to Apparate them away.
They arrived at Periffer Alley, one of the many side streets off of Diagon Alley in London, this one made up chiefly of boarding houses and hostels. They went into one of the narrow buildings and up two flights of stairs, stopping in front of Number 32. Remus handed Neville a worn brass key, and Neville opened up with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. He found the inside scrupulously clean and bigger than he'd expected, and he stepped inside quickly so Remus could follow. There was a small but serviceable open kitchen off to the left of the tiny entryway, and an equally open living room to the right, with a worn sofa in front of a wonderfully large fireplace. "Are we on the Floo?" asked Neville, smiling as he set his pack down.
"We are, though it's a bit dodgy at the moment. Needs a good cleaning to set it to rights. Leave your shoes, too, the carpet shows dirt something awful," said Remus, slipping off his own boots with a smile. "I'll show you our other luxury."
Neville clumsily shed his shoes, the new laces recalcitrant as he coaxed the knots out of them, and he was red-faced and squirming by the time he made his way over to Remus' side in the little hallway leading deeper into the flat.
"Through here," said Remus, passing the two closed doors on either side and leading him to the one at the end, ajar with sunlight streaming through it invitingly.
Neville followed silently, not asking partly because he didn't want to spoil Remus' obvious enjoyment of the moment, but mostly because he didn't really know how much chatter Remus would put up with from his new roommate. It proved to be worth the wait when Neville stepped up to the threshold to see the most perfect loo he'd ever been in. The walls and ceiling of the room were made of dozens of panes of frosted glass, and the whole room was festooned with plants, turning it into a tiny, private conservatory. "It's brilliant!" he said with a grin, then asked warily, "How much is this costing you... I mean, us?"
Remus shook his head, but named a surprisingly reasonable monthly rent. He sat on the edge of the raised tub, toying with the chain for the plug; the bath was easily big enough for even a tall man to have a proper soak, running the whole length of the right hand wall. On the left there was a screened-off toilet, and a slightly grotty little sink, and the back wall had been fitted with metal shelves between the windowpanes, all of which were festooned with plants. "You'll see why it was cheap next," he said with a wry little smile, "but I thought this was worth it, especially since we'll be travelling so much."
"It's really nice, Remus," said Neville, properly impressed, gently petting the fronds of a Finger Fern which petted him right back. "Did you choose the plants, too?"
Remus nodded. "Mostly. They're things I collected in my travels, bits and pieces that don't make good potions ingredients, or that Snape didn't need," he said, then looked as if he might want to take back the last bit.
"It's all right, I figured there must have been a reason you weren't telling me who our mysterious potion maker was," said Neville with a self-deprecating smile. He'd be lying to say that he wasn't bothered by the idea of doing business with Snape, but he wanted to put up a brave face for Remus, so he just shrugged. "At least he can't take points, right?"
Remus laughed and stood, brushing off imaginary dust and motioning for Neville to precede him into the hall. "I've taken the left, but they're really the same," said Remus apologetically, so Neville opened the door on the right.
Neville could now see why the flat was cheap.
The bedroom was as dark as the bathroom was light; there were no windows, since there was a flat on either side of them. The bed itself barely fit in the tiny space, and it was smaller than the beds at Hogwarts, narrow and short enough that Nev wasn't even sure he'd fit on the sagging thing. The sag seemed to be a combination of a lack of proper support, and a floor that dipped alarmingly in the centre, as though the enlarging spell that gave the flat a bigger interior than exterior hadn't quite worked in the middle space, leaving the ceiling a bit smaller than the floor and the whole room feeling oddly squashed. There was a wardrobe wedged in next to the foot of the bed, a spindly nightstand by the head, and just enough space between to dress in the mornings, so long as Neville didn't put anything on the nightstand that would break when he inevitably knocked it off.
"Well," said Neville, turning back to a nervous-looking Remus, some of the vitality he'd displayed earlier leeched away by uncertainty, leaving him looking old and slightly transparent, like well-used parchment held up to a candle so you could see the thin spots. Neville bit his lip, then gave in and tried to defuse the situation with humour. "I suppose we'll just have to travel a whole lot until we're rich and can afford better, right?"
They both laughed, and Remus nodded. "That's what I thought, and between the bath and the fireplace, I hoped you'd understand why I took the place."
"It's fine, Remus, perfect for two gentlemen entrepreneurs just starting out," said Neville, echoing his grandmother's earlier, rather optimistic description of them. "Will we stay here tonight and leave in the morning?" he asked, hoping he'd get a chance to have at least one bath in that lovely room before they left it behind for parts unknown.
Remus nodded. "Yes, that was my plan. I thought we'd go up into the mountains first, since that's where things are ready to be gathered this time of year," he said, rubbing the back of his neck in a rather adorably abashed manner, "Actually, um. We have a dinner invite tonight, anyway."
"Brilliant, from who?" Neville asked, grateful for the change of subjects. The mountains sounded very daunting for a first trek, though Neville had known from his reading that the Grackleberries only grew in a very specific sort of environment, and the Hellebore as well. He'd visited a few of his friends over the summer, Harry and Ron mostly, but he hadn't seen anyone since his birthday and he missed having friends around.
"There's a whole group from the Order meeting up at the Leaky Cauldron tonight," said Remus, his smile gone stiff and uncomfortable.
Neville nodded and smiled back, hoping Remus wasn't upset about having to be seen with him. "I'd love to go, but if you're too tired..." he said, offering Remus an easy out. He could see his friends when they got back just as well, after all.
"No, no, it's not that," said Remus with a little cough and flush. "Erm... Apparently Tonks is going to be there as well, with that singer she's seeing now."
"Oh!" said Neville with a little squirm. "Look, we don't have to, I mean... I don't really know what happened with the two of you, but I wouldn't..."
Remus held up his hand, cutting Neville off. "I shouldn't have let her talk me into trying it in the first place, is what happened," he said, mouth twisting up in a wry, weary little smile. "Neville, you've not seen your friends in weeks, from what they tell me. I can put up with a bit of social awkwardness for the sake of my new business partner."
Nev smiled shyly and nodded, unused to the idea of anyone putting up with anything for his sake. "You want the loo first, then?" he asked, though really they were both perfectly ready to go out.
Remus shook his head. "I'm going to hide in my cave and read a bit, just knock when you're done," he said, opening the door to reveal a room every bit as tiny and gloomy as Neville's. He started to swing the door shut, then stuck his head out and added, "Oh, and you get to care for the plants in there now, by the way. I'll cook."
Neville laughed and agreed readily -- his lack of cooking prowess had been rather legendary in the Order, mostly from the one disastrous time he'd tried to put together tea for a group of them meeting up at the old headquarters. He shook his head and went back to his own little room, lighting the high lamps with a Lumos that still seemed terribly dim in the cramped space. He set his trunk on the bed and then enlarged it, putting his clothing in the little wardrobe, setting out his few possessions on the shelf above the bed and stocking the bathroom with toothbrush and other necessities. He had a separate set of everything in his travel pack, all new and specially made for camping, so once his trunk was empty all he had to do was shrink it back down and slip it under the sagging bed.
He whiled away the rest of the afternoon in the loo -- with the door invitingly open -- making friends with the plants there and adding his few treasured specimens in with them, rearranging a few according to their needs and making sure everyone was properly watered. The Finger Fern ruffled his hair whenever he passed by it, and Neville was pleasantly surprised to find a few of what he thought of as "helper plants" hiding in Remus' eclectic collection -- these were plants that took different things from the soil than a lot of the varieties he'd want to grow, and put back in the sorts of minerals and magical essences that their greenhouse would need. By the time the light began to fade, Neville had dirty hands, a good mental catalogue of the room, timed watering spells all set up for while they were away, and a better appreciation of Remus' qualifications for this venture of theirs, if not his own.
"You've got dirt on your cheek," said a warm voice, and Neville started, then blushed as Remus' fingers brushed at the spot.
"Sorry, I got a little distracted with the plants. I've set them up to be all right for a week or so while we're travelling, so no plant sitter needed," Neville said, then stopped, thinking of the Finger Fern's gentle touches, unconsciously comparing them to Remus'. "Well, they might like if it someone stopped in to visit. That fern is very friendly." Nev went and busied himself at the sink, cleaning hands and face and spelling away the bit of dirt on his good robes. "Do I look presentable?"
"You look quite nice," said Remus with another of those winks, and Neville thought he might never stop blushing at this rate.
"Thanks. I'll leave you to it, then," Neville mumbled, head down as he bustled out and went to wait in the living room. He pondered his own little bedroom and wondered if some cave plants might do well in there, losing himself in images of phosphorescent moss draping itself over the wardrobe or dotting the ceiling in strange constellations; he was distracted enough by his daydreams that it seemed like mere moments before gentle fingers were brushing the hair off his brow, much as the fern had.
"I'm all set," Remus said, and Neville stretched, surreptitiously eyeing the way Remus' robes fit now that he was no longer quite so terribly thin as he'd been during the war, ending up meeting amber eyes half-hidden beneath greying fringe.
"Are you sure you're up for it?" said Neville, trying to chase down that furtive look in Remus' eyes and pin it with a name, or at least an admission of some sort.
"I'm fine, Neville, and we both deserve a bit of a night out before we leave civilization entirely, don't you think?" Remus replied, his smile brightening just enough to be convincing.
Remus' hand was warm when he helped Neville up, and Neville swallowed hard, recognizing the signs in himself from his school years. He could only hope that Remus would prove as oblivious to his developing crush as Harry had, and Ron and Seamus as well. Neville shook his head as he tied his shoes, smiling wryly at his own foolishness; why did he always pick the straight ones?
Well, all right, not Harry, but he'd been just as unavailable, and even Harry had thought he was straight at the time Neville had been infatuated with him, so it amounted to the same thing.
Periffer Alley was right near what Neville thought of as the mouth of Diagon Alley, the spot where it sprouted from the back wall of the Leaky Cauldron and went winding its way off in all its magical glory. Just a few blocks' walk and an odd little turning, and they were stepping through the archway back into London's favourite wizarding pub. It was busy inside, nothing at all like it had been during the war, and it made Neville smile to see such a tangible result of the often futile-seeming effort he'd spent the latter part of his school years on instead of studying for OWLs or NEWTs as he should have done.
"I think they took one of the back rooms," said Remus, taking Neville's hand and leading him through the press of brightly-robed bodies, back to the largest of the private eating rooms offered by the pub.
Neville was too distracted by Remus' hand to pay much attention to anything else, the bones fine and delicate under his own broad, sturdy fingers. Remus was so warm, he reminded Neville of sunshine, or perhaps his uncle's pet hunting dogs that used to climb into bed with Neville as a boy and curl around him, all fur and heat and mystery. They'd leave before morning and go out hunting, but for those few hours in the night, they'd been Neville's companions alone. Just like Remus would be up in the mountains, though he rather suspected they'd have separate sleeping accommodations.
His train of thought was rapidly derailed when Remus stopped abruptly and Neville ran into him, banishing images of those dogs with the reality of the man. Remus was thinner than he looked, the robes tailored to hide what the old, threadbare ones hadn't been able to, and his body radiated warmth as though fevered, sending a tendril of worry through Neville's appreciative thoughts. "Er, sorry," Neville mumbled, stepping to one side so he could see into the room.
It was full of Order members and their dates, Ron and Hermione acting like a couple, Harry and his bloke trying very hard not to appear like a couple, Dean looking like he might be with Ginny again, and of course all the single people as well, Kingsley and Professor McGonagall and even old Mad-Eye Moody. Tonks was there, laughing and hanging on some handsome bloke that, to Neville's eyes, looked a little like Sirius Black had, after he'd cleaned himself up a bit. "Stubby Boardman," said Remus shortly, shrugging and stepping into the room with Neville trailing along behind.
"Huh," said Neville, cocking his head. "Guess Luna's dad had a point after all," he mumbled, thinking of the articles he'd seen in the Quibbler over the years claiming this poor bloke was really Sirius in disguise.
"It's the laugh," said Remus tightly, and for one wild moment Neville wondered if perhaps it wasn't Tonks at all that was making Remus jealous, but her new beau. Which was absurd, really, Remus and Sirius had been best friends but there was no sign that Remus swung that way. It was probably grief, just like they all held for the people they'd lost, for everyone from Cedric to the Headmaster.
Neville put a hand on the middle of Remus' lower back and steered him gently over toward Harry, murmuring, "Still, he's no Sirius, is he?" After all, Neville had a lot of practice being a comforting friend, a sympathetic ear or shoulder to cry on. It was the one thing he'd still been good for near the end, when his bumbling in other things made everyone forget that he could cast as good a Patronus as any of them, that he was the one who'd grown the Venomous Tentacula for the potion that had taken out Nagini.
The gentle touch and kind words seemed to relax Remus, anyway, and soon enough they were face to face with Harry and being introduced to his latest Quidditch player while the party swirled on around them. They weren't the last to arrive by any means, and the food was set up buffet-style on a sideboard so that people could trickle in and out and still get fed. Remus and Harry got into a conversation with Kingsley about inner-Ministry politics that Neville didn't understand, so Neville took it upon himself to get Remus something to eat, feeling pleasantly useful at the grateful look Remus shot him when he handed off the laden plate. "And when did you two start seeing each other?" asked Kingsley, turning to Neville with a smile.
Neville blushed. "Oh! We're not, I mean... Poor Remus, everyone must be thinking... we've gone into business together, actually."
Remus chuckled. "It's all right, Neville, I don't care what everyone thinks," he said, though to Neville's ear he sounded almost wistful as he said it.
The evening grew a bit more surreal when Neville found himself cornered by Tonks on the way to the loo, a very serious expression on her normally cheerful face. "Look," she said, poking him in the chest, "I'm glad he's finally decided to stop pretending about what he wants, but if I find out you're just playing with him, don't think I won't come kick your arse just because we were in the Order together."
"Um, what?" Neville replied, feeling stunned and strange.
Tonks sighed. "I guess it's none of my business really, since I wasn't much better when it came right down to it, but you'd best make sure you care for him properly and aren't just messing about, all right?"
"Er, all right," said Neville, taking the pause as an opportunity to escape into the Gent's. She was gone when he came out, hands clean and mind muddled, whirling with all sorts of thoughts about the things she'd inadvertently told him.
Remus corralled him shortly after and they had a quiet walk home, both men lost in their own troubled thoughts. Neville was feeling quite guilty by the time they got to their flat; not only had he accidentally outed Remus, but he was also spoiling Remus' prospects for a real date just by existing, since now everyone in their acquaintance thought Remus was taken by Nev. Well, not Kingsley and Harry, and between the two of them, Neville thought, eventually everyone would get set straight. Except himself, of course, since he was obviously quite bent to even be thinking of how nice it had felt, having everyone look at him for one evening and think that he'd been worthy of someone's attention after all.
The morning started precipitously with a loud thud and a lot of swearing coming from the hallway. Neville emerged from his room, all tousled hair and rumpled nightshirt, into chaos. Objects littered the hallway like a small cyclone had been through, leading into the living room where a great deal more were stacked in haphazard, teetering piles. Remus was sitting on the floor and looking peeved, bedraggled, dusty and sweaty, and no little embarrassed. "Didn't mean to wake you," he said, taking the hand Neville proffered and getting to his feet. "I've been trying to pack all the equipment and stuff, but it's... not working out so well."
Neville smiled and brushed a bit of lint off the tip of Remus' nose, too sleepy to be worried about the casual touch. "Let me use the loo and put on some trousers, and I'll give you a hand?" he said, not that he had an idea of how to pack for that sort of travel. Still, what was a junior partner for if not to do some of the dirty work?
"How about you do that, and I'll wash up in the sink and make us some breakfast before we tackle this crap again?"
"Even better," said Nev. He ducked back into his room for some clothes, then made quick work of his morning routine and carefully picked his way through the mess, heading for the lovely smells wafting from the kitchen.
"I'm assuming you can set table without burning yourself?" said Remus, eyes sparkling and humour restored.
"It might be difficult, but I think I can manage," said Neville dryly. Instead of an actual table, there was a counter with two stools that divided the kitchen from the living room in a rather half-hearted manner, and he was grateful that Remus had piled the necessary items on it so Nev didn't have to try and squeeze into the kitchen with him. Neville laid out cheerful blue placemats, giving them each the proper assortment of silver, a plate, teacup and saucer, and a glass for juice. Finished with his task, Neville perched on one of the stools and watched as Remus fried up eggs, tomatoes and sausage for them both.
Remus moved around the kitchen gracefully, putting juice on the counter for Neville to pour, starting the tea steeping and two thick slices of bread toasting, then back to the frying pan to make sure nothing overcooked. Soon enough the food was done, and Remus was sitting next to Neville spreading marmalade on toast as if he set out for adventures with boys half his age every day.
"Er," said Neville, poking at his own eggs and trying to remember what an appetite was and what one used it for, "how much climbing d'you think we'll have to do, anyway?"
"Not much, if you can Apparate. There'll be more athletics later, but for now I've got a fairly safe area picked out that's got a lot of vegetation nearby, with at least a couple of Grackleberry bushes." He ate a bite of sausage, then continued, "I didn't want to offer unless I knew there was work for two, you know? You don't deserve to be scrambling to fill two stomachs and Snape's weird orders."
"So, we're primarily going to be supplying Snape right now? Just Wolfsbane, or do you give him other stuff? Does he pay?" Neville asked, anxiety making the questions come out in a quick-fire burst. He could Apparate, but he was a little wobbly, and worse over long distances. Well, they'd cross that bridge when they came to it, so to speak.
Remus nodded. "I have a few apothecaries interested if we can get the right things, but up until now it's mostly been Snape ordering and me fulfilling what I can. He pays cash for anything that doesn't go into the Wolfsbane, and discounts the price of the potion based on how many of the ingredients I can supply."
It all seemed reasonable, to Neville's inexperienced ears, anyway; he'd just have to hope that Remus would do what was best for them both as he stepped off the pier of childhood and into the waters of the adult world, trusting Remus to keep them both from drowning.
Breakfast passed with nothing so dramatic as all that; once Neville's stomach remembered his long-standing habit of eating when stressed, he wolfed his food down. Eventually they got the equipment and their personal effects all sorted and packed, and there was nothing left to do except go. It was strange how this felt more like leaving home than it had to leave Gran behind, maybe because this was his own place now, or maybe just because the Finger Fern, which he had named Alice, had taken a liking to Trevor, and he'd had to leave the two of them nestled together, his first friend and his newest both staying behind while he faced the big bad world.
The big, bad world turned out to be a Floo stop in Norway, and then Apparition up to a bathroom-sized notch in the sheer side of a mountain top so high up that summer never really came, and Neville was glad that for the first, long jump, Remus had chosen to take him Side-Along instead of making him try to go under his own power. He couldn't imagine what would have happened if he'd missed the ledge and dropped, but he didn't expect it would have been a good thing.
"We'll Apparate from here up to the plateau," said Remus, pointing to a flat spot off in the distance, shimmering with greenery just a few dozen yards below the tree line.
"I'm licensed but I'm not brilliant at it," Neville admitted, hoping they weren't going to try to make it in a single jump.
Remus nodded, thankfully looking neither surprised nor disappointed. "Do you think you can make it to that little cave there?" he asked, pointing out a dark, man-sized hollow in the face of the rock about a Quidditch field's distance away.
"Oh, yeah, that's not that far," said Neville, brightening. Little jumps he could do, to places he could see. "I'll go first, just in case?"
Remus smiled and nodded. "I'm not really worried you'll leave any bits behind, but yeah, just in case."
A moment of concentration and Neville was there in the dry little cave, looking out over the distance to Remus. A quick inventory proved he hadn't splinched himself, and he waved to Remus encouragingly and stepped back from the mouth of the cave to give him plenty of room.
A glimmer in the darkness caught his eye and he turned, hoping it wasn't a predator who objected to their temporary intrusion. Instead he was delighted to find a cluster of Eyelights, something like a cross between lichen and an octopus, only with gleaming, phosphorescent eyes at the end of each tentacle-like frond. It clung to the cave wall and looked at Neville curiously, then darted half its eyes to Remus when he popped in. "Look, our first specimen!" said Neville excitedly, picking up a stray rock from the ground. "If I can coax it onto the rock, we can keep it in one of the trunks and I can cultivate some in my room."
"Good for potions to strengthen perception," said Remus, and Neville flushed; he'd almost forgotten why they were on this trip, though Remus was right and it was a good find economically as well as interesting botanically.
Neville managed to get a little three-stalk offshoot to perch on his rock, and he smiled and stroked its fronds for a moment before tucking it safely away in his robes. "All right, where to next?" he asked, going nervously to the cave mouth and peering out over the edge. He always had hated heights.
Remus indicated the next Apparition point, a little promontory just slightly further down and about a third of the remaining distance to the plateau. "It's kind of narrow, so I'll go first to give you something else to sight from," he said, and Neville agreed with relief.
Three more jumps and they were safely headed into the interior of the plateau, which Neville was fascinated to find carried all manner of magical plant life. "There must be some sort of magical wildlife around here that fertilizes this spot," said Neville, spotting a dozen things he wanted samples of on the way to the campsite Remus had chosen.
"Norwegian Ridgebacks used to be all over this area," said Remus, and Neville swallowed nervously. "Mostly gone now, but there's a few that still fly over this spot and, er, deposit."
"Dragon dung is a really brilliant fertilizer," said Neville stoically, trying not to glance up at the sky. "Is there, er, anything for them to eat up here?"
Remus laughed. "Yeah, there's a couple of herds that live on the other side of the plateau, frostdeer and groats. And a pack of dire wolves, but we're on the wrong half of the plateau, and the tent's got a Disillusionment charm built in, so we should be safe."
Neville swallowed, remembering suddenly why the plants they were gathering normally went for top dollar -- rarity went hand in hand with the danger involved in gathering them. He peeked into his outer cloak and three little glowing eyes peered back at him, and he hoped he'd get them all home in one piece.
They set up the tent and sorted some equipment, stowed the Eyelight in a pleasantly dark trunk and ate lunch, but eventually Neville had to admit he was just stalling, though it was kind of Remus not to say so. "All right, how do you want to do this?" he asked, looking at all the enticing greenery around them. "I know what's interesting to me, but that might not be the same thing as valuable."
Remus smiled. "Don't worry, that's what I'm here for," he said, pulling out a thick ledger. "I wanted to map out as much of this area as we can, taking samples or cuttings or whatever you need to see if you can grow things, or if we'll have to come back and collect them from here each time. I've been researching the market as well, and talking to Severus of course."
"Y-you're on a first name basis?" Neville asked, surprised.
"Well, you could say that," Remus replied with a wry little chuckle. "Mostly I call him Severus and he calls me Lupin, and we both understand that he means it as synonymous with something you'd scrape off your shoe after a walk through a field."
Neville laughed with him, then hefted the pack of collecting gear and nodded to the north. "Let's be methodical, then. We'll walk in a straight line north for an hour, then turn around and take notes and samples on the way back. That way, if we dawdle, we won't get caught out after dark."
Remus smiled and shook his head. "It's summer in Norway, there's not a lot of dark, but it's still a good plan."
"Oh," said Neville, blushing, "Right. Um. Me first, I guess?"
"I've got the compass, I'll go ahead for now."
Neville shrugged, and Remus headed off into the sparse undergrowth. There weren't a lot of trees here, mostly shrubs and other ground plants, but everything was taking glorious advantage of the last of the summer's long days and putting forth fruits and berries, flowers and seed pods. It was a perfect time for a harvest, and Neville could only admire Remus' careful planning. They didn't talk much as they went, both of them occupied with their thoughts and the less-than-simple task of traversing the rough ground, but Neville found he didn't mind so much. Instead, he made mental note of any interesting plants they passed, though he did warn Remus away from a little grove of Pummel Pines, their knobbly boughs rustling dangerously at the humans just out of their reach.
Not much else looked threatening, though Neville knew a lot of stuff was poisonous outside of a properly brewed potion, and soon enough they reached a good stopping point. A tiny waterfall broke out a rock and fell tinkling into a pool below, the edges iced over but the centre liquid and clear. "Let's start with the stuff around here, I can already see three really rare species," said Neville, kneeling down and casting a spell to check the water.
"Sure," said Remus agreeably, getting out the thick book and an Ever-Inked Quill. He cast a cushioning charm on a nearby rock and sat, then said, "You tell me what it is, and I'll tell you if it's valuable."
Neville went around to the far side of the little clearing and started with the plant trailing its vines down into the water right next to the fall. He slipped on the rocks but didn't fall in, much to Remus' somewhat irritating amusement. "Viscosity Vines," said Neville shortly, kneeling down to check the underside of the leaves, "Lowering type, probably what keeps the water liquid despite the cold." Neville himself was already grateful for the spells woven into his robes, cloak and gloves, keeping him warm and dry despite the spray from the falls.
"Valuable for some medical potions and other applications," said Remus, checking a smaller notebook he'd had tucked in the back of the ledger. "Can we grow them back at home?"
"They'll need a constant flow of water like this, but if we set up a water plants section it won't be any more trouble to put a waterfall fountain in," Neville replied, examining the little grouping. "I think I can snag some offshoots without hurting the main plant, that's the way they're normally harvested."
"Good, good," said Remus distractedly, making notations in the big ledger, juggling it with the smaller book awkwardly. "The young plants go for sixteen Galleons each, so get a few if you can. How long will the cuttings and seedlings last in the stasis orbs?"
Neville bit his lip; he'd talked to the dealer a long time before spending the money on the expensive glass balls, but if they worked as advertised, they'd pay for themselves a dozen times over. "The dealer said three months, so long as they're in soil from their planting site, but some stuff might still die sooner if it's resistant to the magic."
"Oh," said Remus, brows knitting. "You're sure we can get the greenhouses up in time?"
Neville sighed, hating the familiar feeling of inadequacy that gripped him as he answered, "I'm not really sure, no, but we have to come back here to harvest the High-Altitude Hellebore in October anyway, so we can replace whatever we lose, I guess."
Remus made another note. "Hm. Well, most of the plants sell just as well dried, so we can always make a few sickles off the dead samples, anyway."
Neville could only agree, though it pained him to think that he might have wasted so many Galleons on the orbs, only to have the plants inside still die. They worked their way around the whole pond like that, taking samples or harvesting ingredients from those things Neville didn't think they could grow. Neville took two things that weren't particularly valuable and was pleased that Remus didn't argue the waste of resources, one an interesting lily pad he thought Trevor might like, and the other one of the few plants he'd accidentally killed when helping out in the Hogwarts greenhouse, which he knew Professor Sprout hadn't yet bothered to replace.
The rest of the trip back was quicker though equally fascinating, and they made special note of a whole stand of Grackleberry bushes, heavy with berries and just waiting for harvest. Neville had left the special gloves and jars for them back at camp, so they'd come back tomorrow for the tempting little orbs -- the juice was a marvellous restorative, but the seeds were quite volatile, and had to be handled with utmost care.
Once they got back to the tent, Remus went inside to cook dinner while Neville got all the plants tucked away in the specialized trunk, each little orb nestling in its felt cradle with a tingle of protective magic. They'd used up about a third of the space, and he'd bought four of the trunks, so they still had plenty of room. He put together the expandable drying rack and laid out some of their harvest to wither in the sun, the dried leaves just as valuable as the living plants and much easier to transport home in the motley collection of boxes and jars that made up the bulk of the rest of their equipment.
They did have a wizarding tent, but it wasn't an expensive one, so there wasn't much privacy to be had of an evening. There was a tiny bathroom with a shower that never seemed to get quite warm enough, a slightly larger efficiency kitchen that Remus was using to good effect, and one medium-sized room with a fireplace, two smallish beds and just enough space to walk between them. The tent was weather tight, at least, so there was no worry about draughts, but Neville thought it would be strangely intimate to lie in bed every night, knowing Remus was there, less than an arm's length away.
Remus was just putting food onto plates when Neville came in, and he smiled as Nev headed straight for the little bathroom to get cleaned up. The food was steaming on trays when Neville emerged, and Remus was already sitting in his bed eating, nose buried in the ledger as he made notes, consulting the smaller book frequently.
"Thanks for cooking," said Neville awkwardly, getting his tray from the kitchen and finding that his own bed was really the only choice, unless he wanted to go back out into the cold.
"S'my job," said Remus around a mouthful of pork chop, not even looking up from his book.
Neville's spirits fell a little at being so dismissed, and he ate methodically, thinking about the samples they'd already gathered and the idea of having a lifetime ahead of him living so closely with a man who didn't want to talk to him when they weren't working. Well, at least the cold reception would put a damper on any foolish designs he might have developed for Remus, he thought miserably as he drank the last of his tea. "Take your tray?" he offered, his own balanced in one hand.
"Hm?" said Remus, looking up, eyes focusing on Neville slowly as if his gaze had been as far away as his thoughts.
"Can I take your tray into the kitchen?" Neville asked again, reaching for it.
Remus looked down at his long-empty teacup, then gave a sheepish little grin and nodded. "Sorry about, you know... My mates in school used to tease me until I pulled my head out of my books, but I ought to be able to do it myself by now," he said, making one last little notation before nestling the smaller book -- Potions Ingredients on the Open Market, a Magical Guide Neville finally saw, the expensive edition that would update as commodity prices changed -- into the ledger and setting everything aside.
Neville carefully transferred the trays to the scant counter space in the kitchen, then turned back to Remus curiously. "Sorry about what?"
"About ignoring you," Remus replied, and Neville felt one of the knots in his stomach loosen.
"Well, you're talking to me now," said Neville, feeling shy now that he had all of that attention on him. "Want me to make us another pot of tea and we can play cards or something? I'm bollocks at chess."
A worried look passed briefly over Remus' face, but he seemed to come to the conclusion that nothing too catastrophic could happen with him right there watching, and he agreed. "Sure," he said, pulling his personal pack out from under his bed and rummaging through it.
Neville chose not to enlighten Remus as to how many disasters he'd caused right under Snape's nose, and instead concentrated on what his hands were doing. He put the kettle on the burner and laid out everything he'd need on one of the trays, sending sidelong glances over at Remus periodically. The water boiled and Neville went through the little ritual he'd learned at his Gran's knee, swirling hot water in the pot, adding the leaves and filling it up just so high. He capped the pot and dumped out the excess hot water, set the kettle on a cool burner, double checked that he had everything they might want on the tray, and then decided to prove to them both he wasn't a complete idiot by levitating the tray over to hover between the two beds.
"Thanks," said Remus, tapping it with his wand. It wobbled a little, then grew long legs and a much bigger surface, turning itself into a card table just big enough for them and their tea. "Gin all right?"
Neville scooted in, setting the ex-tray to swaying a little before he let go of his levitation spell entirely and let it settle down onto the surprisingly sturdy legs. "Rummy, please. And I don't mind helping when I can," he said, hoping Remus understood he meant more than just a pot of tea.
Remus grinned. "Of course not, or we'd get along terribly," he said, shuffling the worn deck of cards and dealing them each ten. "Er, don't mind the pictures. They were a gift from Sirius and I never had the heart to get rid of them."
Neville's eyes widened when he looked at his hand, the Two of Spades catching his attention right away with a cheerful left-handed wave; the right hand was busy wanking a rather impressive prick. All the cards had blokes on them doing similar activities, and they all looked absolutely overjoyed to have a fresh audience to appreciate their slightly time-worn charms. "Why did Sirius give you naughty gay playing cards?" Neville asked, sorting his hand as though the face cards weren't all decorated with couples engaged in various carnal acts.
Remus blushed. "I, er..."
"You don't have to tell me, though you perhaps ought to know that Tonks told me you fancied blokes," said Neville with a nervous little cough. "Er, well, I guess she just implied it, really, but she did seem really convinced we were, you know. Like Kingsley had thought."
"You poor thing," said Remus sympathetically, flipping over the top card of the stack to reveal the enthusiastically fucking Kings of Hearts.
Neville tried really hard not to notice that the two blokes on the card looked suspiciously like he imagined Remus and Sirius might have at a much younger and more prosperous age, and he felt torn between wanting a closer look and really not needing a King in his hand. "I, er, expect I'll survive," he said, taking the top card off the pile and getting a lovely shot of some bloke's arse and balls, hands holding his cheeks wide to expose the winking hole. "After all," he said nonchalantly, rearranging his hand to accommodate the Ace and discarding the four of clubs, who pouted and blew him a goodbye kiss, "You're going to have to put up with everyone thinking you've pulled me."
Remus chuckled. "Better than having Tonks mooning at me, or sulking in the corner over Sirius," he said with a shrug, though Neville could see the shadow of old and new pain lingering in his eyes.
A few turns passed in silence, and Neville was amused when the figures on the cards peeked around the edges as the discard pile grew, or thrust other appendages out as if to entice the players into picking them up. "Y-you loved him?" Neville asked quietly, hoping he wasn't overstepping his bounds but eaten up by curiosity.
Remus nodded and sighed wistfully, then spoiled his sad little boy act completely by laying down Gin.
"Bugger," said Neville, putting his own hand down. "Points, or just individual games?"
Remus' answering smile was sheepish and almost adorable, and Neville found himself unable to resist smiling back shyly. "Let's just do games, so you don't refuse to play with me like P- James used to."
Neville had a feeling he knew what name had nearly gone there, and he nodded his agreement and gathered up the cards for his deal. "I think work went well today, don't you?" he asked as he shuffled.
"Yeah, we got a great start. I think this is going to work out really well for us," said Remus, pouring their tea, which had steeped to a lovely deep brown almost like coffee while they'd played. "Two sugars, right?"
Neville nodded, strangely pleased that Remus had remembered. He watched as Remus added a splash of milk to his own and gave them both a stir, then dealt the cards before accepting his cup. "Thanks," he said, taking a sip and making a pleased face. He'd nicked a tin of tea from his Gran's kitchen before leaving; he had a feeling they'd have to economise on a lot of necessities, and he had a weakness for a good cuppa.
"The Eyelight doesn't seem to like the trunk much," said Neville, frowning at his cards. They attempted to cheer him up with some rather athletic antics that got him squirming in his seat, and he felt his cheeks burning as he rearranged them.
Remus shrugged and took his turn. "That's your area, got any ideas?"
Neville pointed to the little hollow under the nightstand, appropriately dim but much airier than a closed trunk. "Could I try putting him down there?"
"Him?" said Remus, raising an eyebrow.
Neville flushed a bit deeper pink. "I, er, named him Stuart."
Remus chuckled. "Stuart is perfectly welcome in our home, if you think he won't mind the light too much."
Neville's grin seemed to please his cards as well as Remus. "Thanks. I'll go get him after this hand."
Remus won again, but it was a closer game this time, somewhat allaying Neville's suspicions that the cards favoured their owner. The little plant was pathetically grateful to see Neville when he opened the trunk lid, and Stuart twined one vine happily around Neville's wrist as he was carried inside. "He really is fond of you, isn't he?" said Remus, amused at the vine's antics and the somewhat jealous glare it shot him.
"Apparently so," said Neville, depositing Stuart's rock in the back corner of the little nightstand. The plant gave Neville one last little caress and then settled in, glowing gently, obviously quite a bit happier in its new surroundings.
"You'd better watch out," said Remus, shuffling the deck again. "He might molest you in your sleep."
Neville had a feeling he wouldn't stop blushing until after he'd fallen asleep, at this rate.
They walked the other three cardinal directions the next day, then began filling in the gaps, generally managing two good outings a day, though sometimes one was given over to harvesting. The days passed pleasantly enough, with a few fumbles here and there. Remus got snappish over the Blubberbells -- the delicate gelatine-like fruits burst at the least little jarring, so much so that Neville spoiled more than he harvested, and nearly ruined his gloves as well with the oily residue. Neville started an argument the next day over Remus' note-taking, appalled at some of the things he'd neglected to jot down in his obsession over prices, forcing them to do some backtracking to record things like light and soil conditions. In the end, though, Neville was happy about the way things were going. It was work he loved, and he was good at it. These were two things he'd never expected out of his future, and the heady combination made everything else seem trivial.
Their trunks filled up with everything from the precious Grackleberries to some uncommon clover that Neville wanted to show Sprout, and they continued to play cards in the evenings while Stuart sent up a fourth little eye-shoot, and even developed a liking for both Remus and the saucers of sweet tea that Neville left in his niche for him at bedtime. The third day in, Neville finally admitted to Remus that he didn't actually like fried tomatoes, and slowly the old barriers of authority and age began to break down as they began to develop a true partnership.
Nine days into their stay, an exhausted-looking owl arrived bearing an urgent request for some ingredients from Snape, most of which they'd already found. "I think I saw a group of Air Ferns out past those Manly Mountain Mangroves yesterday," said Neville, looking over the list while he drank the rest of his tea. "If you can snip a few more Snow Pods while I capture them, we can be done by lunch."
"And off to see Snape before tea," said Remus wryly, obviously not looking forward to the visit any more than Neville was. "Well, we were nearly full up with specimens anyway, I suppose it's no great loss to go back a few days early."
It took all of Neville's courage to go out and get the Air Ferns, especially knowing that his reward would be a visit with the one man who never failed to make him feel small and insignificant. The Mangroves grew along the very edge of the plateau as though the vast expanse of air were the shore of some strange lake, their roots often dangling out over the long drop. Past that a little cloud of green puffs floated on the wind, their little round shapes tumbling rather than being moved when a larger gust tried to sweep the whole patch away. Neville wedged himself firmly between two Mangroves and got out his wand, teasing a single fern away from its fellows and into one of his few remaining orbs with painstaking slowness. Too much force would start it spinning in place, but too little and the wind would steal it away, or scatter the precious spores on the wind.
It took Neville nearly an hour to get the half-dozen Air Ferns requested, and he just didn't have the energy left to try and get a seventh for the greenhouse. He trudged back toward their tent tiredly, precious spheres tucked away and barely watching where he put his feet. He nearly stepped on the tiny flower in his exhaustion, but suddenly the empty sphere was a blessing instead of a failure. He carefully transplanted the single Fire Briar Rose into the glass orb, making a mental note of the location and everything about it in order to report to Remus when he got back to camp.
When he got there, the tent was all packed away and most of their things as well, only the one trunk left with seven empty slots for Neville's cargo. "Look what I found," he said excitedly, pulling the rose out of his pack and showing it to Remus.
"It's a rose, Neville," said Remus, looking tired and irritated. "Can't you get those at any greenhouse in London?"
Neville shook his head, nestling the precious flower away as he talked. "It's a Fire Briar Rose. They're rare enough we could probably auction this one off for a great deal of money, but I'd rather keep it for the greenhouse. D'you have the ledger so I can get down my notes before I forget them?" he asked, hands busy transferring the Air Ferns into the trunk as well, each little plant still tumbling happily away inside its stasis orb.
"A real Fire Briar Rose?" Remus asked, sounding impressed as he dug out the fat book and handed it over, along with a quill. "Like in the play?"
"Each petal to set the fires of a different emotion in one's heart, each thorn to deliver the prick of retribution for a different sin," said Neville, quoting the relevant passage from Petals on the Brazier.
Satisfied that he had the location and environmental factors down, Neville looked up to find that Remus had packed that trunk, too, away, and they were ready to abandon their idyllic little haven in favour of bearding the serpent in his den. "Where'd you put Stuart?" he asked, smiling when the plant waved one eyestalk from the little space between two leaning packs. "Want to ride in my robes again?" Neville asked, kneeling down and pulling him out to examine. The fourth stalk was growing well, the eye nearly ready to open, and Neville thought he saw the bud of a fifth on the other side; apparently sweet tea was excellent for its growth.
The fronds waved their agreement, and he tucked the rock in a pocket so the eyes could still peek out, just as he had on the way in, then shouldered his pack and turned back to Remus. "Same route back?" he asked; though he was more confident in his own magic, he was also tired from harvesting the Air Ferns, and nervous about the coming meeting.
"Yep. Maybe we should get Stuart a friend?" said Remus, setting out for the little clearing they'd arrived at, out on the edge of the plateau.
Neville chuckled. "Want one for your own room?" he offered; Stuart was his own friend, in a way, and he'd likely prefer to have all the resources of Neville's cave-like bedroom to himself rather than having to share with another Eyelight.
Remus shook his head. "No, no, that's all right," he said, stopping to look out over the breathtaking view one more time. "I'll go on ahead this time, I've got most of the magical luggage and we don't want to lose anything," he said after a moment of silence, then Disapparated with a crack.
They made it back to their London flat in no time, unloading everything and then resizing and repacking, careful to keep their plants separate from the things they'd brought for Snape. Almost all of the harvested ingredients were going to Snape, though Neville saved a small jar of Grackleberries to try and grow their own bushes, and one of the Blubberbells had taken a jolt and turned to useless goo. Only one trunk of the live plants went with them, however, and Neville tucked Stuart carefully away in his bedroom. Eyelights were excellent ingredients, and Neville wasn't ready to argue about the disposition of that particular plant today.
"I don't suppose we've time for lunch first," said Neville a bit forlornly, once they'd both changed and done a sketchy wash.
Remus shook his head. "The owl was urgent and dated for three days ago, we might already be too late," he said, and Neville got the annoyingly familiar feeling Remus wasn't telling him everything.
"You know what the ingredients are for," Neville said accusingly. "I'm not a child anymore, don't you think you should've told me?"
Remus stopped shrinking things and stared, then shook his head. "I'm an idiot. Of course I should have, but we got so into the habit with the Order..."
"I know what the Order kept from us," said Neville bitterly; the younger members had been kept in the dark nearly to the point of fatality for some, and none of them had ever quite forgiven the decision not to tell them what had been going on.
Remus sighed. "I'm sorry, Neville, you're right. The ingredient list is for some sort of burn potion, something for a really severe injury. I'm concerned something's happened to Charlie, though of course it could be a number of accidents," he said, packing the last of the reduced trunks away into his bag.
"Oh no," said Neville, somewhat glad he hadn't known that someone's life might rest on their harvest when they'd been doing the work. "Well, we'd best get going, then. Speak the Floo address clearly and I'll follow."
Remus' smile held all the approval Neville had once tried so very hard to win from him, both as a student and a comrade in the war, and Neville returned it shyly, feeling thirteen again and pleasantly squirmy. The feeling dropped away when Remus turned and Flooed to Snape's address, and Neville followed with some trepidation. If their mostly-idyllic time on the plateau had been something like training, then this was the trial by fire that would show him if he could really count himself among the adults.
Remus and Snape were already unpacking the bag when Neville arrived in the dim little room, and Neville spared a moment to wonder where on earth they'd unpack everything to. The walls were lined with shelves full of ingredients already, and every available surface seemed to have a potion in progress on it, which made Neville shrink in on himself in irrational fear.
"...pay you today, but I assure you my credit is good," Snape was saying, and Neville felt his stomach drop. Their very first delivery, and Snape was already taking advantage.
"You'll have a partial payment at least, I t-trust?" said Neville, shooting Remus a sidelong glance as he stepped up, shaking hands thrust in the pocket of his robes.
Snape glared, then nodded. "I have an amount sufficient for our usual transaction, but I am well aware that Air Ferns and Snow Pods do not come cheaply," he said. "Once the potion is paid for, I will forward you your portion of the proceeds."
"What happened?" Remus asked, thankfully pulling Snape's attention away from Neville.
Snape turned and tapped one wall and spoke something too swiftly for Neville to make it out, and the shelves on it parted, revealing another laboratory much like this one, but with empty tables and significantly less clutter on the shelves. "I am told it was an incendiary device," he said, wand directing the miniature trunks to rest, one on each table.
Remus followed the procession and enlarged them one by one, saving the one with live specimens for last. "Who's the potion for, Severus?" he asked, voice amused as though he'd expected Snape to be just like this, as unhelpful and unforthcoming as a stone blocking your path.
"Fudge," said Snape with distaste, and the puzzle pieces fell into place at last. There was a lot of lingering resentment for the former Minister, especially from those whose families were decimated by the Death Eaters, and there had been a great deal of bad press about him lately.
"So he'll be able to pay, but most Apothecaries won't brew for him," said Neville, opening the trunk of live plants and checking everything over. "Do you have somewhere to store the live plants once they're out of the stasis orbs?"
Snape's eyebrows shot up. "Since when can you afford stasis orbs, Lupin?" he asked, ignoring Neville as much as possible.
"Neville bought them," said Remus, smirking.
"Ah," said Snape, as if that explained everything. He summoned a set of scales and began to remove boxes and jars from the first of their ingredients trunks, weighing the contents of each carefully and then transferring them to one of his own vessels, a Dictaquill noting down the date, amount and type of each item on the label. Remus got out a quill and scroll and began to take notes while Neville stood there feeling useless. Neville resisted the urge to fidget, though he did turn and peruse the shelves in here, hands behind his back to keep from accidentally touching anything that ought not be disturbed.
Once they got the first trunk unpacked, Snape's eyes came to rest reluctantly on Neville. "Though your aptitude with potions is abysmal," he said, looking as though it pained him to continue, "You appear marginally competent in your chosen profession." There was a long pause while Neville and Remus both stared at Snape as though he'd grown an extra head, and he finally gave in and clarified. "It will go faster if you aid us."
"Shall I weigh?" Neville asked, moving toward the second trunk.
Snape nodded. "I will confirm each weight and dictate to the quill, then store the item while you prepare the next."
"Right," said Neville, opening the trunk. "Any particular order?"
"We must do them all eventually," said Snape, and Neville took that as a no and very gingerly pulled out the first jar of Blubberbells.
"I'm not sure we should decant these," said Neville, looking at the carefully packed and charmed jar. "Do we have one of these jars that's been emptied that we could use for a zero weight, Remus?"
"I think so, if that's all right with you, Severus?" said Remus, fishing an identical jar out of the other trunk and dusting out the remaining pollen lingering in the bottom.
"Acceptable," said Snape, and Neville got the distinct impression that he was unpleasantly surprised that Neville had thought of an intelligent solution to the problem.
All of the Blubberbells were in the same sort of container, and they were quickly weighed and labelled once the scale had been reset. Remus kindly didn't charge Snape for the jars, which he later admitted to Neville were recycled gherkin jars from the local deli, and they quickly moved on to the rest of the ingredients. Nothing else was as fragile, though there was some argument as to the best way to measure the Feather Pollen, which rang up at a whopping five Galleons, seven Sickles per gram. Considering they'd gathered most of it when Neville tripped over the strap of his pack and landed on top of a whole patch of the delicate flowers, they managed to make a tidy little sum from the compromise figure of fourteen and a half grams.
By the time they got to the live plants, things were going so smoothly you could hardly tell that Neville had only just joined in, but of course that was when they hit a snag. "You can't buy the orbs, Severus," said Remus for the fifth time.
"The sets are really expensive," said Neville, watching the spidery fingers fondle the surface of one. "I won't break it up and sell you one or two just because you don't have any way to care for the plants inside." The individual orbs actually cost less out of the set than in, and the salesman had explained to Neville that this was because the sets were attuned to one another. Neville had given in and bought all four because they'd all been made together and were interchangeable.
"I find it difficult to believe that you would go up into the Dovrefjell Mountains for a few plants," said Snape, waving his arm to encompass the room and all its contents, "but cannot be bothered to walk back to Diagon Alley for another orb."
"The sets can't be broken up," said Neville for the third time, firm in his resolve despite the feeling that he'd much rather be throwing up just then.
Remus shook his head, and Snape looked like he wanted to hit something. "I need these plants, Longbottom."
"I n-need my stasis orbs," said Neville, his hands shaking enough that he had to grip the edge of the counter just to keep it from making his voice quaver as well.
"What about borrowing the whole set until you can acquire a few of your own?" asked Remus, and they both shot him looks, Neville's of gratitude and Snape's of pure venom.
"I was under the impression that Longbottom did not want to let them out of his sight," said Snape derisively.
"If you break one, you have to replace the set," said Neville, knowing it would be a pain to keep another set apart from the three intact ones, but there had been some different ones he wouldn't mind trying out, with larger or oddly-shaped orbs that would be easier to discern.
"Agreed," said Snape, closing the lid on the trunk and snapping the locks closed.
Neville's breath left him in a whoosh, and he was glad to sink down onto one of the few stools while Remus and Snape discussed the final total, crossing off some things or making notations. Neville knew that Snape wouldn't be paying full market price for their bounty, that was part of the deal, and he was slightly shocked when he heard them agree on a final figure. It wasn't enough to build a greenhouse, but it was certainly enough to keep them in tea and groceries until they got the greenhouses built.
"I have approximately one-third of that now," said Snape, going over to the only wall without a shelf and doing something to the painting that adorned it, and returning with a purse. "I will be able to produce another third once Fudge pays for his potion, and the rest I should be able to give you within two weeks."
"That's fine. We're probably going to hit the forest next for seasonal harvesting, though, if you wanted to send along a list?" said Remus, and Neville got the distinct feeling that he was missing some underlying history here.
"Trying to get me to overextend myself, Lupin?" snapped Snape irritably.
Neville ventured a comment in the ensuing silence. "You've been i-invaluable in helping us get started, so a little credit isn't out of order," he said, wishing he had some idea of what was going on between them. "Seasonal ingredients c-can't always be in the b-budget, I imagine."
"Very perceptive, Longbottom," said Snape angrily, and Neville knew he'd hit upon the sore spot.
Remus glanced from Neville to Snape as if trying to decide if he should bring something up, then finally said, "There's still the offer I made before."
"As if I want you crawling over my home and land constantly," said Snape disdainfully, sneering. "I'd rather overextend."
"It's all right, Remus," said Neville, putting a hand on Remus' arm. "I-I'm not sure I'd want to build a greenhouse in Snape's backyard a-anyway."
Remus sighed and nodded. "We'll take our leave, then, Severus."
Snape only nodded, already moving to put away some of his expensively-won bounty. Remus silently packed away their much lighter trunks, leaving the precious orbs in Snape's care. They Flooed back to their apartment in silence, and Neville flopped himself on the couch with a huge sigh. "He's unpleasant as ever."
"He's having a hard time. Very few people will do business with him, and the sort of potions they're desperate enough to ask for usually involve rare and expensive ingredients," said Remus, sitting on other end of the couch and looking as tired as Neville had ever seen him.
"So he's having trouble keeping ahead of his expenses," said Neville, nodding. "Look, I... I know he's a bastard, but he's honourable in his own way, and he's our only customer. Do whatever you have to do to keep us all afloat, and we'll be thrifty with our seed money in the meantime."
Remus' face lit up with relief. "You really don't mind?" he asked, stretching as if he could pull out the leftover tension. "I know you hated him at school."
Neville shrugged. "He was a bastard and I was terrible at potions, but now he's our customer." He chewed his lip, looking off into the middle distance and contemplating the situation. His stomach interrupted him, growling ferociously, and they both laughed. Remus got up to make them up a hearty tea, lunch a distant dream by now, and Neville contemplated their full trunks and the work left to be done.
They were done eating and sipping their tea in silence when Neville said suddenly, "How about we buy him a few of his own stasis orbs? You know, how some firms get gifts for their clients. The place I got mine etches them if you want, we could put our business name on them, or something."
Remus sat back and smiled, looking oddly proud. "I think that's a brilliant idea, we have to get another set anyway. I'm sure there's things in the forest you want to bring back alive."
Neville laughed and conceded that that, too, had been on his shopping agenda. Once they'd made a list of things to buy in Diagon Alley tomorrow, they took turns in the bath, and Neville was highly amused to end the evening sharing his bed with Remus, each of them sitting at an end while they played cards, while Stuart looked on from his new home atop Neville's wardrobe. It was, Neville reflected as he lost to Remus for the fifth straight game, more than a little bit like home.
The next day Remus stayed home to let in the Floo cleaners, and Neville made a few social calls, first the obligatory visit to his grandmother, who assured him her man at law was already working on the paperwork for them and demanded they think of a name and owl back the signed papers before they left Britain again. He escaped with his skin intact and belly full of her house elf's delicious cooking, and headed up to the school, where an owl had assured him that Professor Sprout would be doing summer work in the greenhouses today.
"Professor?" Neville called, poking his nose into Greenhouse Three and smiling to see a few potted Mandrakes still thriving, offspring of the plants his class had grown his second year.
"Neville, dear," said Sprout, bustling out of the office in back with a smile on her face. "No need to stand on ceremony, call me Pomona, please."
"Pomona, then," said Neville; working with the Order had gotten him used to calling some of his old professors by their first names. At least he could rest assured that he'd never be called upon to address Binns informally, or Snape for that matter. "I brought you something, to replace the one I killed in my fifth year."
"What... oh, you didn't!" she said, looking terribly pleased as Neville handed over the pot in which he'd planted the half dozen Manic Maple seedlings he'd found up in the mountains. They were too unstable to use in most potions, and a little too hyperactive for landscaping, but Sprout had kept some around to show how a plant could be magical and hard to care for, and still utterly useless for practical purposes. "They're perfect, young and spry, look at them shake."
"They were he- tough to pot, but I couldn't resist bringing you some when I found a stand of them on our trip out," he replied with a smile. "Our harvest seems to have done really well so far, we even got a number of samples to put in a greenhouse and try to grow at a safer altitude."
"That's wonderful, dear," she said, setting the pot aside on a work bench. "It's good to see one of my students using his skills out in the world."
Neville assured her that he wouldn't have any marketable skills at all if it wasn't for her, and the two of them launched into an afternoon of reminiscing, punctuated by the ubiquitous offer of a cup of tea and a minor moment of panic when the Maples tried to fling themselves and their pot off the edge of the table. By the time they were done, Neville was reminded again of why he thought he could do this, bolstered by her confidence in him. He promised her an invitation to tea in the nebulous future, and left her to her own greenhouses already starting to mentally plan how he'd work theirs out.
He came back to find Remus cooking them a somewhat more elaborate dinner than he'd managed in the tent, in plenty of time to set the counter and be what little help he could. Afterwards he told Remus about his day over cards, and they tried to think of names for their business, and made plans to spend tomorrow running errands in Diagon Alley. Neville fell asleep that night with a smile on his face, a slightly larger crush on Remus than before, and a bright hope for the future.
On their first errand, Neville ended up buying two more of the travel cases full of stasis orbs, and commissioning a dozen of individual orbs to be etched with "L&L, Ltd.", a name that had amused him and Remus both enough during their card playing last night that they decided to adopt it over breakfast. They stopped at the post office and owled Gran to give her the signed paperwork, complete with their new name and a draft from Remus to cover any application expenses, and then they spent the rest of the afternoon looking at empty lots and trying to figure out which one was cheap enough they could afford it, but in a good enough location to build their greenhouses.
They visited Gringotts as well, depositing Snape's money into Remus' tiny vault and checking on the true status of Neville's, the piles of gold a comforting promise for their future. Dinner was at a pub in some remote little village with a property available that seemed like it might do, with a lot of work and a little luck. A warm feeling of accomplishment filled some of the yawning pit of inadequacy that had been lurking inside Neville for as long as he could remember, though it was still present enough to ache when Remus appeared at his bedroom door, freshly showered and offering his company.
They drank tea and played gin rummy with Remus' naughty cards, and Neville even won, once. It didn't really help.
The next morning they set out for the Forbidden Forest with permission from Headmistress McGonagall and the intention of spending just the day out there and coming back before nightfall. The sky was a flawless vault of blue arching above the little clearing they arrived in, having Apparated to a spot outside the school wards near the Hogsmeade edge of the forest. "It's really lovely here," said Neville shyly, looking around at the butterflies floating from flower to flower, listening to the hum of bees and chirp of birds, basking in the warmth of the summer sun.
"It was one of my favourite spots as a student," said Remus quietly, already setting up a home base of sorts for them to bring the harvested ingredients.
"Soothing enough to tame the wild beast," Neville teased, hoping it wasn't overstepping. Remus' lycanthropy seemed a strange and distant dream to him, something to schedule around but not fear or hide.
Remus chuckled ruefully, and Neville let out the breath he'd been holding. "I suppose so."
When they set out, Remus was in the lead once again, this time not because of any worry over danger, but because he knew the land, knew where a brambly patch of Mistberries lurked in one of the hollows just waiting to be picked and a whole grove of Putrid Poplars played host to several kinds of fungi invaluable in the creation of healing potions. A lot of the things they were looking for would only grow well in the forest like this, surrounded by all the wild magic, and so their harvests over the next few weeks would have to stock Snape for a whole year, until the berries, leaves and fungi they were hunting grew ripe and ready once more.
Their last stop of the day was at a strange grove that was almost an orchard, tall Adam's Apple trees jutting up into the sky, branches laden with the precious fruit. Below them the ground was covered in Eve's Lilies, whose flowers would only open at night, swallowing down those apples that fell and fertilizing both themselves and the next generation of trees as they digested the oblong fruit and spat seeds back into the soil. Neville felt his cheeks heat as they stood at the edge of the strange orchard, and it was Remus who ended up breaking the embarrassed silence.
"At night, the air smells of musk so pungent animals will lay down and mate on the blooms, their body heat helping along the digestion and spreading the lilies' pollen."
Neville grinned. "Been taken in by them yourself, Remus?" he asked, wondering if he ought to take a sample of the blooms and a seedling or two just to see if the aphrodisiac could be captured.
Remus chuckled and shook his head. "That's not my story to tell," he said, looking up into the branches at the gaps where the sky shone through the green leaves.
"Wands for harvesting, then?" Neville asked. They'd have to levitate the apples to them individually, or find some way up to the lowest branches and pluck them by hand. Tedium or danger, not the best of choices.
"Should've brought brooms," said Remus thoughtfully, and Neville shook his head.
"I can't fly at all. I'm a disaster."
"Right, Harry told me about the Remembrall incident," said Remus, looking slightly abashed to have forgotten.
That almost made Neville feel better about not being able to do his job. "What if we came back tomorrow, borrowed one of the school brooms, and you could harvest them in groups and levitate them down to me?"
"The grove's ripe now, today," said Remus, shaking his head. "We got lucky, but tomorrow they may all be inside the flowers." Neville nodded; it had been wishful thinking. "I'm going to see if I can't climb them with a charm I know," said Remus abruptly, carefully making his way to the smooth trunk of one of the trees. "You catch what I toss down?"
"A-all right," said Neville. Neville had to trust that Remus knew what he was doing, that's what Neville had promised himself, so he ignored the bad feeling in his stomach and cast a simple net charm over the area just above head height, the magical mesh fine enough that only the smallest, most unripe fruits would slip through.
Remus cast his charm and began to shimmy up the tree like a squirrel, lacking only the bushy tail and pointed ears. It made Neville's stomach hurt to see him go so high, as though Neville's vertigo worked for other people as well, or maybe just Remus, since he'd never felt like this during a Quidditch match, not even for Harry. He busied himself on the ground, moving off to one side and carefully transplanting a few seedling trees and their surrounding closed flowers into one of the largest orbs, though this one was more of an elongated egg-shape, over a foot tall and fat at the bottom.
Neville sealed it up with a feeling of satisfaction, glancing over to make sure his net was holding. He got a different sort of twinge when he saw the fruit that had already been caught in the shimmering magical web, firm cock-and-bollocks-shaped apples of all sizes piled up like some sort of obscene window display. He'd known, intellectually, where the trees got their name, and he wondered if Remus would notice if he swiped one and put it to its traditional use among lonely maids, and men of his persuasion. He was quite a hand at Silencing Charms after all, and they just looked so very tempting.
Neville had already reached out to pluck a short, fat apple out of the bunch when he heard a yell and looked up, and the world seemed to slow down. Remus plummeted toward him, toward his net, going faster than Neville could think. A wave of Neville's wand and the net expanded, strengthened, and Neville could only hope it was enough.
Remus' body crashed through it and into the flowers, hitting the ground with a thud before the net reformed and lifted him back up, cradling his body. A few of the apples had been lost but, Neville thought irrelevantly, at least most of the harvest had been saved, the fruits nestling all along one side of Remus' body. Neville ran into the clearing, heedless of the smashed flowers and their scent, and was happy to find Remus blinking, aware, and most importantly not dead.
"Get off the flowers," said Remus, his voice rough with pain and something else, a lust that Neville knew could only have come from the pollen coating his clothes and hair.
"Just stay still, I'll pull the net back and box the apples, then levitate you out," said Neville, backing out of the orchard carefully and pulling the net with him, the spell sluggish and unresponsive under so much weight.
Remus relaxed back but didn't close his eyes, blinking up at the canopy of leaves and branches above them. "Next year, make me bring a broom," he said dazedly, and Neville couldn't hold back the hysterical giggle that bubbled up.
"Would you have fallen off that, too?" he asked, using his wand to direct the apples into their box, all thoughts of pocketing one washed away by his concern for Remus.
Remus coughed and Neville thought he saw blood in the flecks of spit on Remus' lips. "Likely."
"I'll bring Harry next year, then," said Neville, trying not to imagine the Seeker up there plucking the phallic apples, the image pulling at his concentration while he tightened the net under Remus until it was just big enough, the strands of magic almost as dense as cloth now that they weren't covering such a large area.
Remus laughed, and it sounded painful. Neville shrunk the apple boxes and sphere and got them all tucked away in the pack, then shouldered it. "Don't try to get out of the net, or I'll lose it and you'll get to feel the rest of that fall," said Neville lightly, trying to ignore the worry that speared through him at the thought.
"It's not the falling, so much as the sudden stop," said Remus, coughing again and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "Do you think Madam Pomfrey missed me?"
"I think you hit your head awfully hard," said Neville, amusement warring with concern. Fortunately for them, they'd packed up their last batch of goodies before heading for the Adam's Apple orchard, mindful of the growing shadows surrounding them. "It's summer, I'm taking you into town instead. Poppy's not there."
"Right, sorry, f'rgot," said Remus, his voice growing faint and tired while Neville figured out how to cart all of their hard-won bounty and still have a hand free to guide Remus.
"Keep talking to me, Remus, don't leave me to face Snape alone," said Neville worriedly, walking right beside Remus' head as he picked his way through the forest's edge toward the path to Hogsmeade. "He'd cheat me terribly on the apples because I'm too embarrassed to argue."
"Wouldn' do that," said Remus, sounding less and less coherent with every word. "Don' wan' you an' Snape to take up, ruin my plans f'r you."
"Snape would rather shag a basilisk," said Neville, immediately regretting the metaphor and the image that came with it. "Your plans are safe."
"Y'r arse is safe, y'mean," said Remus with a drunken giggle, and Neville had never been so glad to see the roofs of Hogsmeade in his life.
"Just a little more and we can get you to a healer," Neville reassured him, happy to see someone spot them, wave, and then go running.
"Doctor, doctor, can't you see I'm burnin', burniiiin'!" Remus crooned, running a hand down the front of his body and calling attention to the fact that either he had a particularly sizeable apple in his robes, or he'd inhaled a lot more of the pollen than Neville had realised.
"Let's hope the pollen's curable as a head wound would be," said Neville, ignoring the crowd they were attracting as he steered the impromptu stretcher toward the healer's office.
"What sort of pollen, my boy?" said a man in Healer's robes, hurrying up from the very building Neville had been aiming for. He was tall and muscular, his summer blond hair spreading out over his shoulders and emphasizing their breadth.
"Pussy Pollen!" Remus crowed, running his finger down his own cheek and leaving a little smear of rosy powder behind.
"Eve's Lilies," said Neville, blushing. "We had Professor McGonagall's permission to harvest in the Forest, and he fell out of an Adam's Apple tree."
"Daylight exposure to Eve's Lily pollen. The effect is probably temporary, then," said the Healer, helping Neville move Remus the last little way and settle him in a small infirmary bed.
Neville dismissed the net and set his other burdens down as well, sinking gratefully into a chair next to Remus' bed. "You're in good hands now, Remus," he said, hoping it was true.
The hands in question were already running a long, slender wand over Remus' prone form. "I'm Healer Ian Fizzitsh, and I'll be taking care of you, Remus."
"Will you take care of alllll my needs?" Remus asked, eyebrows waggling bizarrely.
"I'm Neville Longbottom, and this is Remus Lupin," said Nev, ignoring Remus' outburst. "He's, um..."
"I know, I recognized him from the papers," said the healer, now using his wand to direct a little rose-coloured cloud of pollen from Remus and Neville's clothing and into a specimen jar. "You can call me Ian."
"Ian Fizzitsh, Physician Ian," said Remus in a singsong voice.
"He'll really be all right?" Neville asked worriedly. "He's usually quite, er, subdued. Not like this at all."
"He'll really be all right," Ian assured him. "The damage from the fall is a couple of broken ribs, one of which nicked a lung but not seriously, a lot of bruising and a very mild concussion. Since the flowers weren't properly in bloom, the pollen ought to wear off in a few hours without having to, er, tend to the effects, though if you're that sort of friends, it'll go faster if you give him a helping hand."
Neville shook his head, blushing pinker than the pollen. "No, no, we're colleagues and friends is all," he protested, knowing it was probably vehement enough to give him away if Ian was half as smart as he appeared to be.
"Ah, well," said Ian, tapping his lips with his wand and bringing his full mouth to Neville's embarrassed attention. "Would've made things easier, but I can heal the ribs and lung without a potion, and he'll just have to wait out the pollen before I give him something for the bruises."
Neville swallowed and nodded. "Thank you, I was really worried he'd rattled his brains with the way he was talking."
A large, warm hand settled on Neville's shoulder, and Ian's smile lit up the room as though the sun had come from behind a cloud, just barely piercing the fog of Neville's worry for Remus. "You did the right thing, bringing him here, Neville."
Remus launched into an off-key rendition of "Do the Hippogriff" that had some lyrics in it Neville had certainly never heard before, and suspected the twins had probably invented.
"Why don't we have a cup of tea while he calms down?" said Ian, offering Neville a hand up. "The bed's got charms to keep him in it, and we can sit right over there."
Neville's eyes followed the pointing finger to a cosy little nook with three chairs, where Healer Ian likely gave people the news, good or bad, about themselves or their relatives' conditions. Neville took the proffered hand and allowed himself to be led, grateful when his ears popped as they entered the perimeter of a muffling charm, and the raucous singing faded to a distant murmur.
"Thank you," said Neville politely, sitting and finding himself ever so slightly still in shock. He'd thought he was done with mortal danger and worrying for his injured friends when the war ended, and suddenly here he was, faced with a damaged werewolf singing naughty songs because he'd fallen out of a tree and into an aphrodisiac. "My life is very strange," Neville informed Ian, who just smiled and tapped the teapot with his wand, setting the contents to steaming.
Healer Ian proved as deft with a cup of tea as he was with his bedside manner, and soon Neville found himself relaxing as night fell outside the windows and Remus continued his muffled serenade. Ian brushed off Neville's inquiry about getting home for dinner with an assurance that there was no one waiting, and if Neville didn't know better, he'd have thought the handsome healer was flirting with him. But he was Neville Longbottom, and even being a hero hadn't managed to get him pulled, though he did wonder if Ian had perhaps gotten a whiff of the pollen after all.
The conversation wandered, as they were wont to do, Ian explaining how he came to be the local Healer in Hogsmeade and Neville talking about their fledgling business. Neville grew animated when it came to his favourite subject, and he told Ian about many of their discoveries, though a few of the more valuable specimens he kept to himself, for now. Ian was full of anecdotes, stories of his patients and the magical mishaps they got themselves into, and between them the time seemed to fly past.
Eventually Remus fell asleep, and Ian took the muffling charm down, bringing the rest of the world back into Neville's awareness with a rush of sound. All the background noises that came with life in a bustling village were there to remind Neville that he ought to be getting home, and putting Remus in his own, tiny bed. "We should really go," said Neville, standing up and looking just as apologetic as he felt. "I can sign a draft for Gringotts for the bill if you'd like, or you can owl us."
"I'd really prefer to keep him overnight," said Ian, glancing over at Remus' restless figure. "You can stay in my guest room if you'd like, I live right next door."
Neville glanced from Remus to the packs lying forgotten beside him, then sighed. "I'd love to, but I'll need to run these things home and check on my, er, plants," he said, wondering if Stuart would insist on coming back to Ian's with him. The Eyelight liked Neville's bedroom a lot, but had grown agitated when Neville and Remus had discussed their plans for a future night time trek into the forest.
"The office has a Floo, you're welcome to use it," said Ian, smiling his charming smile.
Neville grinned and shook his head. "You've got the bedside manner thing down," he said, gathering up their belongings, "But it's wasted on me. I liked you as soon as you said you wanted to meet Stuart, Alice and Trevor."
"You'll come back?" said Ian, taking some of his burden and leading him to the fireplace.
"Yeah, I'll be back. I just want a quick shower and to make sure everyone's watered and settled in for the night," Neville said, biting his lip as he accepted the last of his things from Ian once again. He seemed to have one too many things to manage carrying and tossing powder.
Ian grabbed a handful of powder. "I'll toss, you Floo," he said amiably, throwing the sparkling stuff into the flames at Neville's grateful smile.
"Thanks," said Neville, then stepped into the flames and announced their address clearly. When he stepped out into the living room, he was surprised at how lonely the place felt with no lights, just the moon filtering in, a few days away from full.
Neville shrugged off the feeling and made quick work of resizing their samples and checking everything over, then trundled to his room to visit Stuart and get fresh clothes. He felt a little silly, worrying if his nightshirt was too unflattering, but he tossed it into a bag anyway, along with some fresh clothes for tomorrow, and a set pulled from Remus' wardrobe as well. His bath was quick by necessity but Trevor joined him anyway, and the small bit of normality was just what Neville had needed to restore his calm. Remus would be fine, their samples were fine, and Neville had quite possibly made a new friend.
All in all, he thought as he dried himself off and got ready to go back to Hogsmeade, it had been a very full day.
It turned out to be a good thing that Ian had kept Remus overnight, because some combination of pollen and the nicked lung and just plain bad luck turned into a nasty respiratory infection. Remus slept until midmorning and woke coughing and feverish, and Ian suddenly went from the lackadaisical, smiling friend to consummate professional, eventually declaring Remus in need of a whole regimen of healing potions and a long convalescence to allow the damaged lung tissue to heal completely before he tried any more climbing of anything, trees or mountains or even too many flights of stairs.
By late afternoon, Remus was looking better and Ian agreed to let him go home, "Provided Remus takes his potions and Neville invites me to dinner once a week so I don't have to charge for house calls." The smile was back as he said it, and Neville found himself returning it with a shy little grin of his own.
"You'll want takeout," said Remus with a wicked grin and a laugh that turned to another coughing fit.
Neville blushed, but couldn't disagree. "I've been known to bollix up tinned food," said Neville apologetically, his hand twitching with the urge to comfort Remus with a pat on the hand, or back.
Ian's eyes flickered from the hand to Neville's face, then shrugged amiably. "If you're buying, it's good enough for me," he said, closing up the small medical bag he'd stocked with a few days' worth of the potions Remus was taking to keep the infection at bay and help him breathe. The one time his dose had been a little late, his chest had rattled, and he'd gasped as though the air were thin. Neville had vowed not to be late again, if he could help it. Ian handed Neville the bag and asked, "You said you've got someone who can make up a whole month's supply?"
"Yeah, we've got some credit with a brewer who buys our ingredients," said Neville, shouldering the bag of dirty clothes. Snape's name, while no longer synonymous with the darkest of the Death Eaters, was still not exactly welcome in most polite company.
Bags and kit in hand, Neville glanced over at Remus, wondering how they'd manage the Floo journey. Ian surprised them both by leaning down and lifting Remus up like he weighed nothing more than a small child, hefting him carefully. Remus looked as though he might protest, but Ian just ignored him in favour of asking Neville, "You'll have to toss the powder this time. Flat 32, right?"
"R-right," said Neville, nervous now for no apparent reason, and just a little jealous as well, though he wasn't sure of whom or what as they trooped over to the fireplace. Neville threw the powder into the flames and watched them disappear, taking a moment to try and quell his roiling stomach before following.
"...keep your door open for circulation, even at night," Ian was saying as Neville Flooed in. Remus was currently ensconced on the couch, swaddled in blankets Neville recognized from both their beds.
"You won't be traumatized, will you, Neville?" Remus asked, a shadow of his usual good humour sparkling behind eyes that mostly just looked tired.
Neville shook his head, setting the clothes on the floor and the potions carefully up on the wide mantle. "Should he have a lot of blankets?" he asked, moving to help Ian fold the ones that had come from the infirmary wrapped around Remus.
"It might be a good idea," said Ian, shooting Neville an odd glance that turned mischievous before Neville could place it, "Unless he's got a personal bedwarmer."
Neville laughed and shook his head. "Nope, not unless you count Stuart," he said, eyes flickering down the hallway. In the end he'd left the little plant behind, not knowing if there would be anywhere in Ian's guest room for it to hide.
"He's more of a nightlight," said Remus with a little cough that turned into a spate of it. "I'm more worried that I'll keep you up all night."
"I'm not," said Neville firmly, giving Remus' hand as lingering a pat as he dared. "I want to know if you're having trouble."
Ian nodded as if satisfied with his arrangement, turning to Remus to give instructions though he was obviously counting on Neville hearing and enforcing them. "You'll need to sleep sitting up until I say otherwise, and take your potions exactly on schedule. In about a week you should be well enough for light work like cooking, but if you feel tired, you need to sit down, even if it spoils dinner."
Remus nodded, and then asked hesitantly, "Will any of these potions interfere with my Wolfsbane?"
Ian looked surprised, as if he'd forgotten Remus was a werewolf, and then pensive for a long moment. "I don't think so, but ask your brewer. He'll probably have to alter your dosage for the night anyway, because you won't be taking anything while you're transformed, and will likely backslide some as a result."
"Can't be helped, though," said Neville nonchalantly, his own anxiety spiking. As an invalid, Remus wouldn't be spending the moon anywhere but right here in their flat, and probably couldn't be left alone. Neville wasn't at all sure about spending any time at all taking care of a werewolf in full wolf mode, Wolfsbane or no, but he couldn't just refuse, either. He went into the kitchen and began rummaging around just to give himself something to take his mind off the idea of Remus as a slavering beast. "Tea?"
"Please," said Remus gratefully, his voice hoarse.
"I'd like some as well," said Ian, pulling out his wand. "Remus ought to have some water nearby at all times as well, do you have a pitcher or something?"
"I've got an Ever-Chill Canteen in my camping things," said Neville; they'd carted it around with them on the mountaintop, grateful for the endless stream of cool, sweet water it provided. His hands worked as they talked, filling the kettle and putting it on the stove, then setting up the tray for three instead of two. "I'm sorry we don't have a lot of seating," said Neville shyly, realising what a challenge it would be to fulfil their part of the bargain, if only because there was only space for two at the little counter.
"It's all right," said Ian, wand out once again. "I got a NEWT in Transfiguration." He moved the couch and its occupant off to one side of the small room and conjured a love seat to match, big enough for himself and Neville, so long as neither of them minded a bit of closeness. It just barely fit, making the room seem terribly crowded with the chests full of plants in their orbs lined up along the far wall, but it was sort of cosy as well.
"I didn't even get an OWL in it," said Neville, though that wasn't really true; he'd gotten an Acceptable, but that hadn't been enough to get into McGonagall's NEWT class. Not that it mattered much now, except that he couldn't conjure furniture for his guests or turn Trevor into a wine goblet.
"You did well enough," said Remus almost defensively, as though he objected to Neville's selling himself short. "You've got a medal stuffed in your sock drawer somewhere, same as I do."
Neville giggled. "It's in my underwear drawer, actually," he said. He hadn't known what else to do with the stupid thing, a token given to all the Order members Harry named in his infamous interview. It had mollified Harry a bit, and given them all a little more of that heroic shine, but it was still just a hunk of metal. Metal wouldn't bring back the dead. He shook off the melancholy and warmed the teapot, mindful of the boiling water and his own distracted mental state.
"Close enough," said Remus with one of those half-sad little smiles of his that always tugged on something in Neville's chest, something confusing that wanted to reach out and tug back.
"I'm forever disillusioned," said Ian teasingly, transfiguring their couch into more of a chaise lounge while he was mucking about with the furniture; the shape helped to cradle Remus' upper body better, and took up less space, not to mention ending up less worn than it had started out.
"You couldn't change the ugly pattern?" Remus shot back plaintively, wriggling a bit to resettle himself.
"I like it," said Neville, tea steeping and tray ready. "There's cornflowers, I've always liked those." He floated it ahead of him rather than try to carry it, since the addition of an extra cup made everything else not quite fit anymore.
"All we need is a table," said Ian, conjuring one of light wood with an inlay of cornflowers on the top that made Neville smile.
"Now you're just showing off," said Remus with mock petulance.
They all laughed and that seemed to set the tone for the afternoon, teasing and chatting amiably as they drank their tea and nibbled on the biscuits Neville had found hiding in a cupboard. Once he'd had one cup, Neville excused himself to find the canteen and go visit the Owl Post Office so he could write to Snape. From there he used the public Floo to visit Gran and explain the difficulties, getting burdened with a pile of blankets and pillows, still smelling faintly of cedar and lavender from wherever they'd been stored, and wheedling an extra tin of the good tea from her as well.
When Neville returned to the flat, he found the tea things cleared away and Remus playing cards with Ian. Neville couldn't help but feel a bit jealous that the cards seemed to have already taken a shine to the handsome Healer, but he bucked up and went to make the beds instead, putting the lion's share of the new linens on Remus' bed and piling the pillows up into a hopefully comfortable back rest. Fidgeting done, he emerged to the sound of laughter and stood shyly in the dim hallway for long moments before he managed to gather the courage to go back out there.
"You're all set for tonight," he said cheerfully as he stepped into the light, smiling just a hair too brightly. "Ian, did you want to meet Stuart before I go for takeout?"
"That's the Eyelight you found in the mountains, right?" Ian asked, taking his turn at cards before looking up at Neville, his expression warm and sincere. "Let me finish winning again, and I'd love to meet all your plants."
"Gin," said Remus, his voice full of smug triumph as he laid down his cards. "I believe this frees you up?"
Neville laughed, familiar with that particular tone in Remus' voice. "Come on, I'll let you nurse your bruised ego while you admire my utterly brilliant bathroom."
"Your bathroom?" asked Remus archly, though he was still grinning.
"Your kitchen, my bathroom," said Neville, smirking.
Remus laughed, which sent him into a coughing fit that finally died down once Ian plied him with a few small sips of the cool water. "I suppose that's fair," he croaked out, taking the glass and motioning for Ian to go on with Neville.
"He took his doses while you were out," said Ian, back in professional healer mode for a moment as he gestured toward the bottles now lining the mantelpiece. "I'll stay for the next batch, and then I was hoping you had an alarm clock we could set for the rest of the intervals?"
"Yeah, of course," said Neville, giving Remus an impish little wave as he led Ian into the bathroom. "It's in my room, so we'll go there next," he added, brave enough to flirt just a little with Ian's attention most definitely elsewhere.
Ian was staring around the little bathroom with something akin to awe, though it wasn't as impressive at night. "I always loved Herbology, though I didn't take the NEWT," he said, moving into the room. Alice reached out and teased at his hair and he started, then laughed at his own foolishness. "This is the Finger Fern?" he asked, bringing a hand up for her to twine around.
"Her name's Alice," said Neville, looking around and spotting his toad off in a corner, just watching them. "That's Trevor over there, he's been my toad since I was a firstie."
Ian's smile widened until it seemed as though the sun had come to visit their little conservatory in the middle of the evening, and Neville tried very hard not to squirm under the attention. "I'm surprised he's lived this long, you must take very good care of him."
Neville laughed. "He's always wandering off, but his species is really long-lived and hardy. Gran made sure to get me a pet that would be very difficult to kill off by accident."
Ian shot him another of those looks that Neville couldn't interpret and stepped away from the fern. "Well, as much as I'm curious to know about all of these, I think perhaps I ought to save the full tour for another time. Let's go meet this lichen of yours and go back to my patient."
Neville nodded, only a little sad that Ian was so eager to get back to Remus' company. He was more Remus' age anyway, really, and he did have an obligation to make sure Remus didn't cough up a lung while they were dawdling in the loo. "Sure, no problem," he said, leading them back out into the hallway. "I've propped the doors open with a Temporary Sticking Charm so I can hear Remus if he needs me in the night," he said, pointing into the darkness of Remus' little room while he lit a dim light in his own.
Stuart turned all eyes on him, the fourth one having opened up sometime in the night. "You did it!" said Neville happily, coming over to stroke and pet the little lichen. "I'll bring you some tea later tonight, and maybe you can join Remus and I in the living room for cards," he said, then turned to where Ian was hovering in the doorway. "Ian, come on in, this is Stuart. His fourth eyestalk just opened today, I'm so happy that he's already flourishing here."
Ian practically had to press himself up against Neville in order to step into the room, and Neville blushed just a little. "Hullo, Stuart," said Ian, reaching out to the little plant.
Stuart eyed him warily for a moment, then one of the stalks twined around his fingers briefly before returning to rub against Neville's hand. "He likes you, I think," said Neville, pulling the little rock down from its perch and snagging his alarm clock. "Come on, he likes to hang out if we can give him a dark spot, and I think that table you conjured should be shadowy enough underneath."
Ian's long arm brushed along Neville's body as it retreated, causing heat to rise in Neville's skin that had nothing to do with the temperature of the room. "Sounds brilliant," Ian said, though his eyes said something entirely different.
Neville cleared his throat and Ian stepped back, and together they made their way back to Remus to spend the evening eating fish and chips, playing cards, and learning how to be friends.
Snape owled enough potions for three days, and a tally subtracting their cost from his credit. Much to Neville's chagrin, Snape's letter indicated that he would have to come see Remus in person in order to ascertain what would best suit for the full moon, and prepare it on the spot, as it were. So, here Nev was on the day before, making tea and watching the clock, hoping Snape arrived before the empty bottles on the mantle became a real problem.
Just as Neville was starting to think he'd need to Floo Healer Ian for a stopgap, the fire flared and Snape stepped through carrying a cauldron filled with ingredients in one hand, and a smoking goblet in the other. Neville wondered how he'd managed to Floo, but wasn't foolish enough to ask. Instead he stayed in the kitchen and got tea ready for the three of them while Remus dealt with Snape.
"Welcome to our home, Severus," said Remus cheerfully, though his voice was weak and rough around the edges.
"You sound terrible, how long has it been since you had your last dose?" Snape asked, getting straight to business. He stepped over to Remus, eyes flicking over the detritus of convalescence disdainfully as he held out the goblet.
Remus tried to clear his throat, which turned into a coughing fit, so Neville braved the little sitting room with the tray of tea and said, "He took the last of it three and a half hours ago, so he's about half an hour from needing another, which we don't have."
Remus sipped water carefully, then took the goblet from Snape in silence. Snape filled it with his own voice, deep and contemptuous, especially compared to Remus' normal soft tones or Ian's cheerful chatter. "I will endeavour to give him something before the time limit runs out; I am aware of the importance of regular dosing with this sort of illness." He sounded almost offended at the last, as though having Neville question his competence was more insult than he could manage.
"Wolfsbane now?" Remus asked, not sounding at all thrilled with the idea. At Snape's nod he made a resigned face and gulped it down, handing back the empty vessel to Snape, still smoking. "God, that tastes awful."
"Give it a moment to absorb and then you can have tea," said Snape, turning to set down his burdens and began to prepare a cup.
Neville felt terribly invisible, but he supposed that was better than being the focus of Snape's ire as he'd been so many times in school. He desperately did not want to share the comfortable little loveseat with Snape, so he hovered, waiting to see who would sit where and if he was needed at all.
"Thank you, Severus," said Remus, and it took Neville a moment to realize that Snape had actually been making Remus' tea and not his own, the small kindness at odds with everything Neville knew about his former professor.
"Your pet healer owled me, and I have prepared a base potion that I need only refine with a few last ingredients once I have seen the damage for myself," said Snape, drawing his wand. It was long and blunt-tipped, made of oak, and had a slight sinuous curve to it that suggested snakes or possibly something often symbolized as one, and made Neville blush. Oak was a wood for fidelity and triumph over one's enemies, but also a very male wood, just as hazel was female, and Neville had one really unpleasant moment of thinking of Snape as a man and a potent one at that before he shoved the image forcefully away.
Snape had been examining Remus while Neville's mind had been wandering, and when he turned to fetch his cauldron, he seemed almost as though he had forgotten Neville was there. "I assume the kitchen is the only space available for brewing?" he asked, contempt dripping from his voice and washing that brief, virile image away much more effectively than Neville had managed.
"Yes, that's fine. Do you need any of the things we gathered in the forest?" Neville asked, flushing as he remembered the box filled to overflowing with Adam's Apples. It was all that card playing, he suspected, turning him into some sort of pervert who saw phalluses at every turn.
Snape shook his head and snagged his cauldron, sweeping into the room and spreading his things out on the meagre counter space. Neville sank down onto the loveseat and fixed a cup of tea, wondering if Snape would always make him feel like he was eleven again, and he'd just escaped a furious lecture by some unknowably narrow margin.
"He's just not used to having friends who wouldn't kill or betray him to suit their purposes," said Remus, nodding into the kitchen as though Snape couldn't hear them.
Neville flushed. "I doubt he thinks of me as a friend."
Remus shrugged and took another sip of the tea that Snape had so deftly prepared, with honey and a little dab of milk, just the way Remus liked it. "Would you want to be?" he asked, his voice as nonchalant as it could be when he sounded like he'd been gargling glass.
Neville didn't just dismiss the idea, instead rolling it around in his head. "I don't think we'd ever be like Ian, I mean, I'd die of sheer embarrassment if I tried to play gin with Snape with your cards, but yeah, I think I would."
"Still playing with your naughty deck, L- Remus?" said Snape from the kitchen, making Neville flush and squirm and try not to think about how stupid Snape must find him now.
"And it still plays back," said Remus, mild and teasing. Neville had no idea how he did it, not with Snape. "Did you want to have a bit of strip poker when you come visit tomorrow?"
"Longbottom would faint," said Snape coldly.
Neville nearly choked on his tea, and his Gryffindor pride welled up in answer before he could stop himself. "I'm game if you are, but you have to call me Neville."
Remus, whom Neville had been helping to the loo for four days and thus had no illusions about, leaned in and mock-whispered, "He's almost as big as me."
"You haven't seen it in over fifteen years," said Snape, chopping and stirring and pointedly not looking their way, "how do you know I didn't have a last growth spurt?"
Remus let out a wheezing little chuckle, but managed to get down enough tea to stave off coughing. "How do you know I didn't either, Severus?"
"Your pants would fit lopsided if you had any more stuffed into them, Remus," said Snape.
Neville snorted his tea, spraying a mist over the table and getting a hopeful eyeball from Stuart under the table. "Want some tea?" he asked the little plant, already snagging an extra saucer even as the eye was joined by a second, both of which bobbed eagerly. Neville tipped some of his sweet tea into the saucer and gave it to the plant, scooting it underneath, but not so far he'd forget to wash it.
"I take mine with lemon," said Snape sardonically from far too close, and Neville nearly hit his head on the table, staring up at the long expanse of black robes to Snape's face. His eyes didn't linger long at a certain bump along the smooth line of fabric, but he had a feeling Snape noticed anyway.
"Yes, sir, er, Severus," said Neville, pouring tea into the last cup, grateful for the warming charm on the pot since he didn't think he could manage even a simple heating spell at this point. He slipped a lemon wedge onto the saucer, then added a second for good measure and turned back to Snape just in time to see him feeding Remus a potion in surprisingly intimate tableau.
For the second time in a week, Neville found himself jealous and not sure of whom, though frankly the thought of actually propositioning Snape was so disconcerting as to be somewhat creepy. Snape's arm was around Remus' shoulders, Remus' head lolling back against it while his throat worked to drink as fast as Snape was pouring. A line of thin green potion slipped from one side of the cup and down Remus' chin, and Neville was suddenly really, really glad it wasn't white.
"Will he need to take anything else before you come back tomorrow?" Neville asked, still standing there holding Snape's cup and saucer as he stared.
"I will be staying the night, in case the potions interact poorly," said Snape, and somehow that, more than anything else that had happened, let Neville know how serious Remus' condition really was. Ian had made light of it, and Remus had seemed so normal while he was on his potions aside from the coughing and general weakness, so Neville had never let himself think that perhaps Remus was sicker than he let on. Snape eased Remus back down onto the pillows and for one surreal moment Neville thought he might wipe up the small spill with his finger, or possibly lick it off.
"Well, no strip poker tonight," said Neville, retreating into humour when he had nowhere else to go. "No fair when one of us has to s-start naked."
Snape turned toward him and took the cup, standing in front of the warm fire as he took a sip. "You will, of course, show me this marvellous conservatory bath that Lup-" There was a pause, and Snape sighed. "That Remus has told me so much about, during the transformation. He will be safe after, but during it would be best not to tempt a beast in pain with fresh meat quite so nearby."
"Should we take Stuart?" Neville asked, sitting and reaching down to let the little plant twine its fronds with his fingers.
Snape's eyes flickered down to it. "It is alive enough to attract attention. Although I'm sure it smells like plant and not animal, it's best to be cautious."
"Don't worry," said Remus, potion wiped away and a wry, painful smile on his lips, "Snape knows firsthand that I'm safe when I've got my Wolfsbane."
"That's why you gave him the Wolfsbane first," said Neville, sipping his cooling tea with a little sigh. "Remus, are you worried I'll be afraid of you?" he asked, a question he hadn't known how to phrase when they did have some privacy, and couldn't put off any longer now that he knew they wouldn't be getting any.
"Of course he is," snapped Severus irritably. "But it is also true that the Wolfsbane is least effective during the pain of transformation."
"Oh," said Neville, sighing. The silence stretched out while they all sipped their tea, and finally it was just too much, and Neville broke it again. "So, gin, then?"
Three hours later Neville had almost gotten used to sharing the loveseat with Snape, but he still squirmed whenever his cards got frisky enough to make his body react. "Want to have a measuring contest now, Severus?" Remus joked as he laid down gin yet again. "It might improve your luck."
"Somehow I doubt you're 'up' to it, Remus," Snape shot back, and Neville grew a bit pinker and bent to examine the hourglass Remus had had Neville retrieve from his room. The sand was just starting to glow as it fell, the top chamber nearly empty as it counted down the moments until moonrise.
"These cards have always been very inspiring for me," said Remus, smoothing a hand down the front of his body and winking at Neville.
"I never thought I'd see the day when you two got into a literal contest of... size," said Neville, recalling the times he'd seen them butt heads as teachers in what always seemed to him to be less about whatever issue they were arguing and more about proving who had -- or was -- the bigger prick.
"It's distracting you from thinking about the change," said Remus with a wink. "Besides, Neville, you've never seen me at my best. Maybe I want the chance to make a good impression."
"The moon is like a drug in this stage," said Snape, gathering the cards and returning them to their box.
"So, he'd do it, but he'd be embarrassed tomorrow?" Neville asked, gaze flickering to the bulge that Remus had so kindly outlined when he smoothed down the blankets.
Snape nodded, then stood. "We should clear the centre of the room for him."
"I'll get the tea things," said Neville, gathering up all their cups and slipping them onto the tray. He remembered Stuart's saucer and bent down to retrieve it, taking a moment to pat the little plant. "I won't forget you," he said gently when Stuart twined around his fingers.
"That," said Remus while Neville tried to disentangle his hand, "is an arse a man could sink his teeth into."
Nev picked up the rock and stood, staring at Remus in shock.
"Somehow, Remus, I don't think he appreciates the compliment," said Snape with a smirk that Neville would have called mischievous if he didn't know better.
"You're going to regret that when you're well," said Neville, sticking his tongue out at Remus and tucking Stuart into the front of his robes. He carried the full tea tray into the kitchen and managed the cleaning and sorting charms to get it all put away, trusting Snape to take care of the rest while he tried to quell his embarrassment. At least Snape hadn't commented on his arse as well.
Neville's blush returned full force when Remus shoved the blankets off his lap and started to undress. "I'm hot," he said, eyes looking otherworldly and frightening.
"It's time," said Snape, retrieving the bedding and leaving it in a pile on the loveseat.
"Right," said Neville, leading Snape down the hall. Snape paused, turned, and used his wand to set the loveseat across the hallway entrance.
"Our loo awaits," said Neville nervously, knowing that he and Snape were thinking the same thing -- conjured furniture and a bathroom door wouldn't count for much if the lung potions interfered with the Wolfsbane, and Remus turned into a monster.
Snape followed him in and Neville locked the door behind them, suddenly feeling as though the man in the living room shucking his kit wasn't the only dangerous man in the flat. "I find myself in the unusual position of having my mind changed," said Snape out of the blue, his back to Neville as he toyed with Alice, letting the fern twine around his fingers and then pulling them back, only to do it all over again.
Neville was nearly as surprised that Snape was playing gently with the plant as he was by the statement. "I, er, about what, s-Severus?"
"You have grown beyond the bumbling idiot I was forced to teach, and are showing a surprising amount of common sense for a Gryffindor." He paused to tuck a lock of hair back behind his ear and out of Alice's reach. "The foolish bravery is to be expected."
"Thanks," said Neville, sitting on the edge of the tub and feeling more than a bit floored. "You're not nearly so unpleasant as you used to be, either."
Snape laughed, and it wasn't the mocking, cruel thing Neville had heard him use in school, or even the teasing snigger he'd graced them with during their card playing, but a full-throated thing, full of genuine humour. "A compliment indeed, Neville."
Neville watched Snape play with Alice a few minutes longer and finally blurted, "Why?"
Neville heard a muffled thump from the other room and sounds that might have been an animal in pain. He saw Snape's shoulders tense. "Why what, Neville?" said Snape mildly.
"Why bother telling me?" Neville asked, swallowing his rising anxiety and, yes, fear as the sounds grew louder.
"I believe that it was foolish of me to refuse outright your offer to build your greenhouse on my lands. We could both benefit financially, and I find that your company is neither as disruptive nor tedious as I had expected based on our prior acquaintance."
"Oh," said Neville, not knowing what else to say. Remus would be ecstatic, not only because it was one obstacle down for their business, but because Remus seemed to like Snape despite everything. Maybe even more than like. A howl erupted from the other room, seeming perilously close, and Neville stood and moved next to Snape. "We can Apparate out if he comes for us."
"It's good you realise he's not always going to be your friend when he is the beast," said Snape, moving just slightly away, out of the Finger Fern's reach and Neville's personal space both.
"I'm smarter than I look," said Neville with a wry little smile that got an answering chuckle out of Snape.
"So it would seem," said Snape. He held his hand up for silence, and Neville realized that the sounds from the living room had died down. There was still a feeling, a presence beyond the door that Neville knew he didn't really want to see, but Remus had given him a chance that no one else would, and Neville didn't take that lightly.
It surprised him to realise that the same thing was true for Snape -- that Snape knew exactly what Remus was doing, choosing him to make their first bargains with. Neville smiled at that, and at the thought that Snape of his third year would have rejected and resented such an offer. Neville kept both those thoughts behind his teeth, sensing how they'd be received, and said instead, "We have to come out of the loo sometime, unless you want to try shagging in the bathtub."
As humour it wasn't exactly the most tasteful thing Neville could have said, but it did tease a smirk onto Snape's serious, pale face. "I'm not the teeth-sinking sort," came the rejoinder, Snape turning already to unlock the door, and let them out or the werewolf in.
The hallway was anticlimactically empty, and they both drew their wands as they walked side by side to the mouth and its inadequate barrier. Neville didn't want to look, really, but he forced himself to -- after all, what use was it having a crush on the man if he couldn't make himself look at Remus when he wasn't a man at all?
It took him a moment to spot Remus, once they were standing at the back of the loveseat; the werewolf was curled up in a forlorn ball on the rug in front of the fire, tail over its nose and amber eyes gazing sadly up at them. His fur was the same grey-streaked light brown as his hair had been, though the grey had more pattern in the wolf, darker down the back and almost silver on the underside of the bushy tail. His muzzle was an eerie cross between some sort of really big dog and a man, and the eyes held an intelligence that reassured Neville that Remus was really still home, and the creature wasn't just biding its time while its dinner came to it.
"Are you all right?" Neville asked, working his way up to moving the furniture and joining Remus in the living room.
Remus' ears perked up, and the head nodded, tail twitching just a little. "Are you going to eat us?" Snape asked, his voice flat and sarcastic but with some little thread in it that told Neville that he wasn't just asking to amuse.
The shaggy head shook back and forth, then tilted to one side. Remus whined like a dog who's been told to sit and just wants someone to pet it or give it a bone. Neville couldn't quite reconcile the image, but it was enough to get him to push the loveseat away and move into the room. "It's going to drive you crazy, not being able to say anything about Snape's teasing all night, isn't it?" he asked, moving forward with one hand out as though Remus were a strange dog and he still wasn't quite sure if he was going to be licked or bitten.
Remus waited patiently for Neville to kneel down next to him, everything about his posture as unthreatening as you could be, when you were a giant wolf. "You're really in there, aren't you?" said Neville, holding his hand out for Remus to sniff.
Remus obliged, his nose wet and tongue warm and just a little scratchy where it slurped over Neville's knuckles. Neville laughed and plunged his fingers into the fur behind Remus' ears, unable to resist giving him a little scratch. He was too much like a puppy who wanted to make friends but was worried that the feeling wasn't mutual.
"Take care he doesn't nick you with a fang by accident," said Snape, using his wand to reposition the furniture around Remus and Neville.
"We'll be careful," said Neville, smiling now. Remus' eyes were smiling, too, half-closed in pleasure from the absurd treatment, tail thumping heavily against the carpet while Neville scratched and petted his soft fur.
"Tea?" Snape asked, moving away from them, and Neville wondered if Snape was still a little bit afraid of the werewolf, tamed or not.
"Please," said Neville, and then a curious eyeball peeked out from under his robes, reminding him that he hadn't put Stuart in his room. "And an extra saucer for Stuart." Remus' head came up and his ears perked, and Neville laughed. "And, apparently, a bowl for Remus as well."
That final incongruity seemed to dissolve the last of Snape's fear, and when he returned with the tray, one long-fingered hand came and gave Remus a pat on the head. "His fur is very soft," said Snape quietly, fingers slipping deeper into the fur as if in spite of himself.
"I was surprised, too." They stayed there like that for long moments, just petting Remus as though he were a family pet and not a dangerous Dark creature, and Neville smiled when their fingers met in the course of their petting. "It's a bit like petting a tiger in the zoo."
"Or befriending an old enemy," said Snape, which made Neville wonder to which of them he was referring.
Snape went to Remus' freshly-made bed around two in the morning, but Neville sat up with Remus until the cool predawn light started to press in on the windows. The row of bottles on the mantle had been replenished during the night, Neville reading aloud to Remus while Snape brewed in the kitchen, pretending not to listen. It had almost been domestic, friendly, though Neville had his doubts that Snape's current spate of uncharacteristic affability would last once Remus was no longer in danger of dying from the infection. For now, it was enough for Neville that they were all safe and sound, and he pressed a shy little kiss to the top of Remus' furry head before retreating to the bathroom.
He woke Snape first, then began to run a bath, the sounds of splashing water helping to disguise the noises of Remus' transformation. Snape sat on the edge of the tub and looked dazed, blinking as if he hadn't quite woken up yet. Neville tried not to look at his thin legs sticking out from under his grey nightshirt, the skin pale as a fish's belly and sprinkled with dark hair, one calf scarred with something that looked like a bite mark but couldn't be werewolf, the other smooth and slender and disturbingly perfect.
"Will you be awake enough to examine him?" Neville asked, trying very hard to resist the urge to smooth Snape's lank hair out of his face; one night petting Remus and he was suddenly fraught with dangerous urges.
Snape blinked again, then seemed to come back to himself, as if realising that he couldn't go straight back to bed even if he wanted to. "I will be," he said, levering himself up tiredly and moving to the sink where he ran cold water on a flannel and pressed it to his face and neck, then half-heartedly fixed his hair in the mirror. "Not a single comment about the nightshirt," he warned, and Neville had to swallow a giggle.
"I wouldn't dream of it," he said, poking through the bottles to one side of the tub. "What do you think, lavender or sandalwood?"
"I have an infusion for the bath, I will bring it when we put Remus in," Snape replied, already looking more himself.
Neville tested the waters and then turned off the faucet, and they both stopped for a moment to listen. Nothing moved outside, though Neville thought he could hear a soft moan, which turned into a very recognizable spate of coughing. "You get the potions ready, then, and I'll get Remus into the bath, since I have seen him in the past fifteen years," said Neville, teasing a little just because he was worried and too exhausted to know better.
"Indeed?" said Snape, one eyebrow arching up, his tone speaking volumes.
Neville sniggered, but relented quickly. "He's an invalid, Snape, he can't even walk to the loo without help. Who do you think changes his clothes every day?"
Snape snorted, then opened the door. The coughing was louder. "He'll get better," said Snape softly, heading for the living room.
Neville followed, hoping it was so.
Two weeks later, Remus could walk short distances, dress himself, and had even been cleared to cook as long as he kept a stool in the kitchen so he could sit whenever he grew short of breath. Once Quidditch went into the off season, Harry took to hanging around the flat and giving Remus someone else to beat at cards, and Ron and Hermione paid a visit or two as well. Remus agreed with Neville and accepted Snape's offer to rent the land for the greenhouses, and Neville even made two more trips into the forest with Harry to do a second round of harvesting; Ron came along with them on the second to watch over them while they harvested things that were only useful if you picked them at night.
Thanks to their friends, Remus and Neville were down, but not out, and Neville was determined to turn Remus' one bit of bad luck into good fortune for the rest of them.
Which is how they all four ended up at Snape's house on a clear day in early September; Snape hid in his lab, Remus sat bundled up on the lawn in a conjured chair, Harry worked in nothing but an old pair of blue jeans, Neville in his oldest robes and both of them up to their elbows in magical building materials. "Are you sure you've got that mixed right?" Harry asked, pointing to the mortaring compound Neville was slathering between the stones that would form the foundation for one of their greenhouses.
"Yep," said Neville, paving without looking up. "This greenhouse is for the high-altitude plants, so I have to use the magical mortar instead of the normal stuff." Instead of a gritty mixture like Harry was using on the second foundation, it came ready-made as a soft goo like nothing so much as a good marshmallow fluff, frothy and smooth. It would hold in whatever environment they wanted with a seal tight enough to keep even the air thinner inside than out, so long as the glass was properly spelled.
"I got my first layer done, you want help?" Harry offered, though in truth Neville only had a few dozen more stones to lay before he, too, would have to take a break to let things set up.
"Naah, why don't you go pester Snape for some tea?" Neville said, fitting in the second stone carefully. He was incredibly grateful for Harry's help -- not only was Harry a quick worker, but if they hadn't had an extra body to help with the labour, they'd have had to hire it all professionally done and would have had to settle for a single large greenhouse. This way they were going to build three in total, if they included renovating the ruined conservatory attached to the house. Snape claimed it had been in such disrepair when he bought the property, though seeing the number of useful potions ingredients Neville had found growing in the broken husk, he suspected Snape may have encouraged whatever had been there to flourish in the ruins.
Harry grinned wickedly and nodded. "Topless Snape-pestering. Got it," he said cheerfully, turning and heading toward the house.
That was the one down side to Harry's help; he and Snape got along very strangely, not friends or enemies, but something else. Snape was like a jaguar with his tail hanging down, and Harry the monkey that couldn't resist giving it a pull, just to see what today's reaction would be. Neville and Remus encouraged this shamelessly, if only because it made them look good by comparison. Besides, Snape's reactions were generally clever and entertaining, in an irritable sort of way.
"Nearly done?" Remus called, his voice thin and reedy still, but stronger, clearer.
"Just a few more stones and we'll have both borders laid," said Neville, hands working while his mind wandered. He'd brought Remus every single book on greenhouse building he could find, then spent his time with the plants while Remus did the research. They'd nicked the plans whole from one of the books, figured out the building techniques from a dozen others, and bought the glass pre-spelled to not only work at properly controlling the environments, but sort of build itself. Once the foundations were laid, Neville would plant a series of magical window frames, growing them up around the glass panes and sealing the whole thing up tight.
"I still can't believe it's all going up so fast," said Remus with a smile, watching as Neville placed the last stone and then resealed the vat of mortar so it wouldn't dry out.
Neville looked at the two low rectangles of stone, then turned back to Remus with an answering grin, coming over to sit at his feet. "Magic makes construction go a lot faster," he said, thinking about how much harder it would have been to clear the yard by hand, let alone the rest of it.
"Wizards do get a few things right," said Remus with a little twinkle in his eye. Neville missed the laugh that would have followed, before the accident, but Remus had trained himself out of those little chuckles, at least until they stopped sending him into coughing fits.
"One or two," Neville agreed, laying a hand over Remus' leg, feeling the shinbone sharp under the blanket.
They sat in silence like that for a few moments, the comfortable sort that Neville had learned to have with Remus up in the mountains what seemed like a lifetime ago. Neville wondered if they'd ever get back to that simple closeness, or if other things would keep coming between them until Neville's hopeful crush had died out entirely, not just been banked by concern and responsibility.
Harry poked his head out the door and interrupted Neville's unproductive descent into melancholy, still half naked and grinning wickedly. "Snape requests the pleasure of your company for tea, before he murders me and hides the body under Greenhouse Two."
"The one attached to the house would be a better bet, that's to have a floor," said Neville with a little laugh. He stood, dusting himself off and finally casting a cleaning charm to get the bits of magical mortar off his skin, shivering at the tingle of it.
Neville turned to Remus to levitate him into the house, only to find Remus wickedly grinning with his wand out. "Watch this," he said, saying a spell and tapping the chair with his wand. The legs bent suddenly and Neville nearly panicked until he realised they'd all developed little knees, and were flexing them in preparation for a quick march into the house.
"That's brilliant," Neville said with a laughing bow. "After you."
"Hoping Snape won't curse an invalid?" Remus asked jokingly, directing the chair along to where Harry was kindly holding the door for them both.
Neville declined to answer, following Remus inside and shooting Harry a little wink. "This ought to be good," he murmured, admiring as he always had the bright sparkle of humour that seemed to always live in Harry's eyes nowadays, the old darkness and pain chased away by his determination to live his life to the fullest and sod the forces of evil.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," said Harry, waiting for Neville to proceed before stepping in himself and shutting the door after.
They trooped after the chair and into Snape's little parlour, a once-dusty room that Hermione and Mrs. Weasley had descended upon their first day working and cleaned, furnished and even made them a proper tea. Well, Mrs. Weasley had done most of the work; Hermione had really been there to talk to Snape about a potion he'd been working on for a client she'd referred to him from the Department of Mysteries. Molly hadn't minded too much, and Snape had forbade her from entering the rest of his house, so she'd contented herself with sending them food packets every few days, full of fruit and cheese, pasties of all sorts and once even a proper shepherd's pie.
Snape was already there putting today's offerings on the sideboard, a stack of single-serving pork pies with sliced cheese, oranges, fresh bread and a plate of assorted tea biscuits. The tea was there as well, steaming and no doubt perfect as Snape's always was. He turned and glared as Remus' chair made its way inside, little feet working frantically to keep from bumping into any of the other furniture and finally settling itself right in front of the fireplace. "Do take care not to scratch the floor that Molly took it upon herself to polish," said Snape, disapproving of any number of things in a single sentence.
"Impressively insulting even for you," said Harry, flopping himself in the chaise and posing like a centrefold.
Neville gave an embarrassed little cough. "I'm sure the feet are padded, Severus," he said, going over to the sideboard to fill plates, first for Remus, then Harry, and finally himself. Remus got two oranges to help him get better, and Harry a handful of biscuits in an effort to fatten him up. Neville took one of everything except the biscuits, which he didn't take any of at all.
Snape served himself, and poured tea for them all when the pot was ready, as was his wont.
"They're making great progress," said Remus, digging in eagerly; they'd all begun to anticipate Molly's cooking, even Snape, though he'd never admit it.
For once, Snape didn't comment on the foolishness that had led him to offer the land in the first place. Instead his eyes slid to Harry and he said darkly, "At least once the work is done, Potter can go back to riding broomsticks."
"At least I admit I like riding broomsticks," said Harry, looking Snape, Remus and Neville up and down in a blatant appraisal. "Any broomstick in this room would do me just fine."
Remus laughed at that, a surprisingly joyful sound until it devolved back into a coughing fit so terrible that Snape gave him one of his doses early. They were all more sober after that, discussing and refining the greenhouse plans and how long Harry could help and still start up training for next season with the rest of his team, but Neville didn't forget the heat in Harry's eyes when he looked at Remus, or how happy Remus' smile had been for a brief moment. He didn't even bother to tell himself he wasn't glad that Harry couldn't stay through all their planting, though he'd be able to help at least until all the building was done.
Neville looked into his tea and scolded himself; Remus wasn't his, and wouldn't ever be his. That sort of happiness was for other people, people like Harry and Ron, and it wouldn't do for him to resent Remus' inclusion in Harry's happiness, should the offer ever be made and accepted. Still, the pall stayed with him all through the afternoon's work, making the sunlight seem duller somehow, the future just a shade less bright.
It was only a few days later this time that Harry and Neville were laying the very last of the brickwork, building the arched doorways that would be the only entrance to each of the greenhouses. There were three ready-made doors sitting wrapped in break-proof shrouds to one side, though the one for the house wouldn't be ready to go in today. They'd decided to let that one be a lower priority than the outside, saving their Sickles until they could manage another harvest, another windfall of coin to allow them to have a Construction Wizard come and check the house's foundations.
Remus was inside with Snape today, talking to Ian about Remus' progress and his dosages while the boys toiled outside. Neville tried not to feel like it was the grownups inside, and he mostly managed it when he and Harry stepped back to watch the sun shining through the second archway, keystone in place and mortar drying to a perfect seal. "I'm glad you asked me to help with this, Nev," said Harry, brushing his fingers against Neville's in a manner that Nev knew by now wasn't really flirtatious, just Harry.
"Somehow I think I'm gladder," said Neville, giving his hand a proper little nudge. It had taken him awhile to get used to being one of Harry's touchstone friends, those who, like Ron and Hermione, allowed Harry to remember that there were people who didn't freeze or burn at his touch, that were warm and alive all on their own. "We never could have done it without your help, not after Remus took ill."
"He'll be all right, Nev," said Harry, squeezing Neville's shoulder, offering back that same small comfort of touch.
Neville nodded. "I know. Severus and Ian will make sure he is, if only to show each other how terribly competent they are."
Harry laughed. "That's Severus, all right, though he's probably also making sure to show Remus what a big man he can be, generous as well as sarcastic."
"He's had a hard time of it, but he wouldn't be quite so bad if you weren't always poking at him."
A wry little smile graced Harry's lips. "I know, I just keep hoping to get a rise out of him."
"You just like getting blokes to r-rise up for you," said Neville, blushing at his own stumbling innuendo.
"Especially a bloke old enough to be my dad, strangely, but don't tell," said Harry with a little wink.
Neville swallowed, smile suddenly frozen on his lips. "And here I thought you only liked handsome Quidditch p-players," he said, cursing his stuttering tongue.
"That's what I wanted everyone to think," said Harry with a shrug. "I didn't think I had a chance with who I really wanted, but now I have hope." He turned his shy little boy grin on Neville, and Neville sighed and smiled back encouragingly, just as he always had.
"I'm sure he wants you, Harry, you just need to tell him," said Neville. "Maybe wait until we're done here, though, so he doesn't..."
"I know, I know, I couldn't do that to you and risk it going wrong," said Harry, pretty much confirming what Neville had been dreading.
Neville turned to the sunlit arch and felt another little spark of hope go out inside him. Still, it was another kind of hope to want the people you cared for to be happy, and if there was one thing Neville had learned to be mature about, it was his friends being happy without him. "You're a good bloke, Harry, I know you'll take good care of him."
Harry grinned fit to light up the world with just his smile, and Neville couldn't help but answer it. "Thanks, Nev," he said, squeezing Neville's shoulder before letting his hand drop. "It means a lot to me that you approve."
Neville swallowed his own heart and let himself be happy for them, as much as he was able. He still had Stuart, anyway, and Trevor and Alice and all the other plants who seemed to prefer him to anyone else. He wasn't alone, and he wouldn't let himself wallow in loneliness. He had friends, and a purpose, a future that was full of promise, even if it wasn't quite the same promise as he might have liked it to be.
The next day dawned perfectly blue and clear and just a little bit nippy, enough so that Neville wore his slightly heavier, slightly nicer robes to visit Snape's. Remus was bundled up in his chair and in charge of keeping the pot of tea warm and filled for everyone who had shown up to see their triumph. They'd actually managed to convince Snape to allow a small celebration to commemorate today's accomplishment -- today, the glass would go up, and the greenhouses would be finished.
Snape hovered over Remus and scowled a lot, refusing one of the many chairs Ian and Hermione had kindly conjured for the occasion. Ron lounged happily in one of them, already stuffing himself on his mum's pasties while Hermione sat beside him and watched with fond exasperation. Mrs. Weasley had taken over Snape's kitchen and most of her family was here as well, though Percy hadn't been able to get the day off, and Charlie was back in Romania. Arthur kept showing everyone his newest Muggle obsession, some sort of little box that zapped you if you laid it on your tongue and Neville couldn't quite see the point of, and suspected it got its name from how battered your tongue felt after a few jolts.
Neville's grandmother was in another of the seats speaking with Ian and Professor Sprout about something Neville was absolutely positive he didn't want to know, and that was all of them -- they hadn't bothered inviting all of the Order, not for something small and on a weekday. This was enough to make it a party, to make Neville feel like he had friends who cared without straining Remus' health too much or, for that matter, Snape's temper. Neville finished his mug of tea and set it aside; his name had been written in magic on the side the moment he set lips to the charmed vessel, and no one would mistake it for theirs.
"Ready, Harry?" he asked, pointing to the greenhouses. They'd come early this morning and spread the foundations thick with the iron-rich black "soil" that the strut pods would use to grow themselves, and there was a bag of pods in front of each door.
"I'm ready. You're doing two, right?" Harry replied, giving Remus' legs a pat and Snape a rakish little wink that only made him scowl more.
"Right, you remember the spell for your side?" said Neville, already moving toward the second greenhouse, his insides clenching. This was the harder of the two, with more complex charms to make sure the glass not only went where it was supposed to, but got an airtight seal with the iron frame, and he should probably have let Harry do the work, but he'd built the foundation and it wouldn't have felt right to entrust it to anyone else.
"Easy as one, two, three," said Harry with an easy grin, going to stand in front of Greenhouse One. The rest of the crowd gathered round Remus to watch, having been warned to stay out of range of the reaching iron vines and flying glass.
"Let's do it," said Neville, opening the bag of seed pods.
They weren't quite in synch as they said the first spell to disperse the seeds evenly around the foundations, the fist-sized pods marching to a distance of approximately one foot apart, including along the archway above the doors. They sank halfway into the black earth and began to bloat as they gathered iron and other minerals from their surroundings. "Ready for the glass?"
"Ready," said Harry, and then they said their spells again. This time Neville let Harry go first on purpose, watching as the panes floated up from the pile, not in an orderly line like the seeds had gone, but in a swarm, settling themselves around the foundation, building up until they each found a place and hung, glittering, in the late morning air.
Neville said his spell and his own panes did their swarm, and already you could see they weren't the same -- Harry's were clear glass, shining with white and rainbow-prism glimmers, but Neville's were a soft green that dulled the light, making his greenhouse look more like some sort of ancient, translucent tortoise than the shining structure Harry had built.
One more spell, and the iron framework began to grow, unlike any vine Neville had ever seen, filling the air with the scent of warm iron and the screech and grind of metal marrying itself to glass. The filaments pushed straight up to fill the gaps between the panes of glass, sending off tendrils at ninety-degree corners that met and merged with one another into a solid whole while the main body of it rose up and up and up, following the scant spaces until they met at the very top and joined into one cohesive whole, sealing the glass and freezing still and solid, so that all of a sudden, it was over.
There was a moment of silence, and then the whole group broke into applause. Harry caught Neville's eye and grinned and they turned together and bowed, then walked back over to get properly congratulated and back-slapped. "You can't go inside for 24 hours," Neville warned repeatedly, though they'd spell-locked the doors as soon as they'd gotten them hung last night. "The vines have to harden and cure in the sun, and you have to wait until the hovering charm on the glass wears off to make sure there's nothing that's going to fall out."
Everyone, of course, assured him they'd done a brilliant job and this wouldn't happen, but Neville would believe it when he saw it. Trusting in fate had never done well for him, only hard work and determination, though fate did bring him his mug with a refill of tea and a plate of pasties, in the form of Hermione. "You'll call me to help plant on the weekends, right?" she said in a tone that brooked no argument.
"You know I will," said Neville with a shy grin, though he knew it was as much about her thirst for knowledge as the bonds of friendship; she was the only person he'd told about the Fire Briar Rose and his desire to try and cultivate it long enough to see how it went to seed and possibly grow more. "Harry's here for a few more days, and then he's got training camp and of course the season will start eventually, so I'll need all the help I can get."
"Not trying to steal my fiancee away, are you, Nev?" said Ron, slinging a casual arm around Hermione's shoulders and looming just a little, though that was mostly because he still wasn't used to being the tallest bloke in the room.
"I'd rather steal hers," said Neville with a wink, making Hermione nearly snort her tea.
Ron laughed and shook his head, then said, "Well, that's all right then, she's secure in my desire never to see another bloke naked for the rest of my life."
"Never offer to play cards with Remus, then," said Neville, unable to help sniggering a bit at the thought of Ron faced with trying to make up sets and runs while trying not to actually look at the cards' faces.
"I'm glad you've cheered up enough to give away my trade secrets," said Remus from off to their left, chair walking him over to join their little group. "For awhile there I thought you might have gotten into the Languishing Lilies."
Neville shrugged. In the face of today's accomplishments, it didn't seem that important to need someone by his side to share them, not when he was surrounded by people who were doing just that. "It's a good day," he said, smiling back at Remus' familiar face and noting that he looked stronger today. "Did Snape and Ian change your potions?"
"Something like that," said Remus with a little flush, and Neville's eyes couldn't help but flicker over to where Snape and Harry were talking animatedly.
"You're looking much better," said Hermione, touching his hand lightly. "I really do hope you get your wind back."
"I'll make sure he gets plenty of exercise," said Neville, then blushed when they all looked at him oddly. "Gathering plants," he clarified, "in the mountains and forest while not climbing trees."
They all laughed and Neville was glad the misunderstanding had passed, relieved he hadn't had to explain the innuendo to Harry, who snuck his way into their little group and sat down at the foot of Remus' lounge chair. "I'd ask what's so funny, but today's such a good day to smile I don't even care," he said, looking smug as a cat in the cream.
"I take it your talk went well?" Neville asked, proud that his voice didn't waver at all.
Harry snickered and glanced over at Snape, who was back to scowling at everyone in the general vicinity. "Yeah, it did," he said, giving Remus' leg a little pat. "I hear you finally let them flush your system and you're doing better now," he said, clearly changing the subject from his love life to Remus' health, and Neville took the hint. He'd always imagined he might be that way at the start of a new relationship, wanting to hide it for awhile, keep it his own secret joy until it grew strong and flourished enough to show off to everyone else.
He tried not to be bitter that he was in no danger of finding out any time soon, but it was hard today, surrounded by happiness.
"It was terribly uncomfortable and yes, I feel much better now," said Remus, cheeks getting more colour than Neville had seen in them in weeks. "I think the last of the infection's gone and now it's just healing left to do."
"You do look a lot better," said Neville, patting his hand. "You sound better, too, not so much like you're accidentally whispering."
Remus chuckled and managed, for a miracle, to stave off the coughing with a few sips of his honeyed herbal tea, another part of his new regimen. "Severus and Ian are making me take good care of myself," said Remus, casting a fond glance over at Ian, eyes warm enough when they turned back to Neville to confuse him completely. "I'm glad you took me to him, Neville, and had the good sense to owl Severus as well."
Neville shrugged, not knowing what to say, and sipped his tea, watching Harry for a long moment. Though Harry was physically close to Remus, his attention rarely turned toward the man, instead looking out over the crowd for someone else, though at this point Neville had absolutely no idea who. Ironic, really, to realise he'd possibly misinterpreted Harry, only to figure out it was because he'd misinterpreted Remus as well. "Ian's a good man," said Neville distantly, watching as Molly pressed a thick slice of cake on the healer in question, getting past his laughing protests with practiced ease.
Neville was amused to have the honour of being the only person in his acquaintance that Mrs. Weasley didn't try to fatten up, aside from perhaps Mundungus Fletcher, who really didn't count. He ran a thoughtful hand over his round belly and turned away, ostensibly to get more of something, though his cup and plate were still mostly full. The conversation swirled around him and he found himself smiling a wry, sad little smile; if only it were as simple as Languishing Lilies or Drooping Daisies.
Harry came over to him, then, and put an arm around him with his own little smile. "You all right?" he asked, an effort he never would have had the time or presence to make in school, when he barely noticed Neville at all.
"Yeah, but thanks for asking," said Neville, giving Harry's hand a squeeze. "It's just a lot to take in."
He glanced back at Remus to find those amber eyes fixed on him and glittering with a strange light. "I... it wasn't Remus you meant, was it? Yesterday, I mean."
Harry laughed and shook his head, shaggy hair moving with it and falling in a new and equally messy configuration. "Naah, Remus has eyes for someone else," he said with a wink.
Neville smiled sadly and nodded. "That's what I thought," he said, glancing around the party again until he spotted Snape positively glaring daggers at him. "Wait, you're after Snape?"
Harry shrugged, blushing. "I told you it was daft."
Neville looked back at Snape and found that grin from earlier, seeing the jealousy in Snape's dark glower. "I think it's one of the smartest ideas you've had," he said, giving Harry a little elbow in the ribs. "Now go talk to him before he tries to use my spleen in a potion, and explain to him that I stopped having a crush on you in sixth year."
Harry laughed, hugged him with one of those half-serious guy hugs that was all one arm and back slapping, then made a beeline for Snape. Neville watched them both light up with a stab of envy so sharp he thought it might cut his heart out, not because he wanted Harry or Snape, but just because he wanted that happiness. They began to argue, Harry grinning that same wicked, impish grin he'd had plastered to his face since they started work on the greenhouses, Snape scowling with a light behind his eyes that said he was enjoying it just as much as Harry, that it was just a prelude to something Neville had no business thinking about.
When he turned away, Remus had toddled off in his chair to rescue Ian from Molly, and Neville wondered how he could be so happy about some things, and still so miserable about others.
In a few more weeks it was properly, gloriously autumn, and leaves fell thick and crackling on the ground around Neville's greenhouses -- they might really belong to him and Remus both and be on Snape's land, but everyone, Remus included, called them Neville's. They'd gotten all the interior building done in the last few days of Harry's assistance, before he'd gone into training for the winter season and had to limit his help to his spare time, with everyone they knew pitching in that last weekend to get both greenhouses ready for planting. The place had been thick with Weasleys, much to Snape's chagrin, and Ian had pronounced Remus well enough to help so long as he rested often, then stayed to help, and keep an eye on him.
It was a Sunday, the skies clear and the wind just a little bit cold outside and in, the air in the high-altitude greenhouse thin and chill, just as it had been up on the mountaintop. Hermione was there with Neville, while Remus stayed in the thicker, moist air of Greenhouse One and directed Harry and Ron to plant in accordance with Neville's notes. Ian was inside with Snape working on further modifying Remus' potions now that another full moon had passed and he mainly just needed something to help restore his stamina. Even Remus' coughing fits were practically nonexistent now, a state of affairs that pleased everyone involved.
They were almost done planting at this point, though neither greenhouse was more than half full, and Neville was itching to finish up and go gather some more specimens before winter set in. He and Hermione had spent quite a long time working out the layout of the greenhouse, and she'd even helped Ian conjure the working waterfall and pond where the Viscosity Vines and other water plants were now huddled, looking painfully sparse but otherwise healthy.
"You're stalling," said Hermione, coming up next to him with a knowing smile, squatting down to see the mist that crawled along the surface of the pond, spreading out from the spot where the Viscosity Vines trailed into the water, thinning the liquid into something heavier than a gas, but lighter than it had been.
Neville smiled and turned to her, shaking his head. "We've only got one plant left, and if I screw it up I could literally cost us the hundreds of Galleons we would have made if I'd just give in and sell the thing."
Hermione shook her head and stood. "Neville, Remus knew when he asked for you that you wouldn't be content selling off everything you found; it's even one of the reasons he hired out, so he wouldn't have to argue with someone else about saving things for the greenhouses."
Neville blushed and stood, brushing nonexistent dirt off his work robes. "You're right, I hope, though I suspect some of it was just knowing I wouldn't argue much at all," he said, trying to keep some of the wry bitterness out of his voice. He'd been feeling it more lately, which he hated, because it seemed to leech away the joy he knew he should be feeling when he looked around at what they'd wrought, the seedlings and other foliage planted all around him with space to grow and hopefully reproduce for him, so long as he cared for it all properly.
He never argued when Remus wanted to have Ian over for dinner and cards, and if he was honest with himself he didn't really want to, because Remus was brighter and smiled more when Ian was there. Though Neville enjoyed their quiet evenings alone, a part of him was jealous that Ian could make Remus shine like that, a bright sun to Remus' quiet moon. He shook his head to clear it of totally irrelevant thoughts, stomping down the feelings of inadequacy that had dogged him his whole life, hoping that this time they'd stay down and leave him alone.
"Do you want to go over the planting site one more time?" Hermione asked, leading Neville over to the work bench and its one lonely orb.
Neville shook his head. "No, you're right, I'm stalling. I've given it everything I took notes on, reproduced that little bit of forest floor to the best of my -- of our abilities."
He picked up the delicate Fire Briar Rose, watching the false heat shimmer that emanated from its core, eyes tracing over petals that began the glowing red-orange of embers and shading out to the curling black of burnt parchment at the edges. The plant looked like a strange cross between a wild rose and one in a vase, a single stem with seven thorns and seven leaves rising up to a single flower with seven petals and what looked like hot coals at its centre instead of pollen. It was that glow that had attracted his attention in the first place, despite the diminutive size of the plant -- the whole flower was barely the size of a Galleon, and the plant itself a mere three inches tall. Rather than having the leaves in groups of three like some roses, they spiralled up the stem with a thorn opposite each, as though the whole plant was some abstract design intending to represent a rose without having to actually be one.
"Bring it here so we don't open the orb sooner than necessary," said Hermione, already kneeling by the spot they'd picked out, hands scraping out a hole big enough for the plant and all the surrounding earth Neville had brought along with it.
"I'd hate to lose one of the petals just being careless," Neville agreed, bringing the shining sphere over to Hermione and kneeling next to her. He placed it, whole, into the depression she'd made, and then gave it a tap with his wand. It thinned out until it looked almost like a soap bubble and rose the full height of its own circumference, until it hovered just above where it had been with the rose left behind in the dirt below. Neville put his hand below it and gave it another tap, and it settled into his palm, solid and empty. "I'll never get used to them doing that," he said with a grin, fingers carefully exploring the ground around the plant.
"Some days you've got almost as much wonder about magic as Harry always did," said Hermione, in her usual irritatingly insightful way. "It's good to see it again; for awhile there I thought you'd lost all your spark to the war."
Neville blinked, then shook his head with a wry smile. "Believe it or not, it wasn't so bad for me during the war," he said, then took a deep breath and plunged on, knowing he wouldn't be allowed to prevaricate now that he'd admitted it wasn't the cause of his uncharacteristic sadness of late. "I've sort of got a crush on someone who's involved with someone else."
Hermione's face went from that blank sort of concern one gives to trauma victims who might not want to talk about their trauma, to a warmer sympathy, and she reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "Oh, Neville, not Harry again?"
Neville laughed, almost relieved to have someone to tell. "No, not Harry again. I know I'll never be in his league," he said, shaking his head and standing. "Let's test the path wards?" he said, trying to change the subject.
Hermione stood and stepped back onto the winding stone pathway with him, but she wasn't going to let him drop it so soon. "Well, I'm sure it's not Snape, and it had better not be Ron," she said, voice going a bit sharp at the last.
"Not Snape or Ron," he said with a laugh and a shake of his head. "Why would you think that?"
"It's got to be someone you see a lot, or it wouldn't eat at you like this. I can tell when you've actually managed to forget for a moment, because you're back to your old self, all excited about your new toys, but then it hits you and you're sad again."
Neville shook his head again, hating that he'd been so easy to read. He turned his attention to the path again, large paving stones with an edge of smaller magical stones that would gently discourage people from crossing their line. It had to be one continuous line, however, or two in this case, so the path meandered all around the greenhouse rather than branching off anywhere, letting out in the back corner where all the work benches were. Anyone strolling along them ought to find themselves reluctant to step over either of the lines and risk crushing the delicate flora.
"I'm not who he wants, Hermione, so what does it matter who he is?" said Neville, not looking at her, instead thinking about going back over to check on the rose. He took one step toward it, but found that when he tried to raise his other foot and step off the path, he really didn't want to anymore.
"What if you're wrong?" Hermione said, stepping up next to him and stopping just the same way, putting her foot back down and then grinning. "Right, the stones work and the flower didn't die right out of the orb, so I think we can call this a success."
"If I try and mess it up, it'll mess up too much for me," said Neville, heading for the pond to rinse the dirt from his hands in the tiny waterfall.
"You're not happy," she said, following him with her hands on her hips, smearing dirt on the odd blue Muggle trousers.
"Who ever is?" he replied, drying his now-clean hands on his own robes. She didn't seem to have an answer for that, so they went to the other greenhouse to check on the boys' progress, and to make sure Remus wasn't overdoing it.
It took several more days, one of them spent working with Neville in the thin air of Greenhouse two, before Remus got Ian's permission to go back into the mountains. They promised to make sure Remus took his potions on time, rested frequently, and came home at the least sign of a relapse. They packed for the colder weather, making sure all their gear and clothing was charmed down to the socks, and left Snape with instructions to just stay out of the two greenhouses, which had watering spells set to rain where they were needed, and timed darkening spells on some of the glass panes to keep the shade-loving plants out of direct sunlight.
Neville basked in the sunlight for a long moment, and in the rare luxury of having bought exactly what they needed and having people around him with the skills to help where he'd have had to hire, before locking the place up and giving Snape one of four charmed keys. One he kept and one went to Remus of course, and the fourth had already been put in his Gringotts vault, waiting to be transferred over once they got their little business officially licensed, and could open L&L, Ltd. a vault of its own.
"I trust nothing will explode or otherwise cause a disaster in my absence?" said Snape, accepting the heavy iron key.
Neville smiled, used to Snape's new form of teasing by now, insults that were meant with something akin to affection. "I'm sure you'll owl us if anything untoward happens, but it was all fine thirty seconds ago," he replied. "Even the Fire Briar Rose seems to have taken root, so I'm hopeful that nothing will die while we're gone."
Remus came up behind them and, just to irritate Snape, Neville was sure, slung an arm over each of their shoulders. "Feels good to be getting back to business, eh?"
Neville turned to him shyly, feeling that old flutter of emotion in his chest like all his boyhood crushes come home to roost. "Very good," he said, though he wouldn't admit that it was partly just so he could get a few days with Remus all to himself.
Part of their mission was to get a few more samples and harvest some more things that would have come into fruit, flower or seed as the seasons had changed, and part of it was to see if they couldn't pick up some of the fauna to go with Neville's flora, some Bubblebees and High-Altitude Hummingbirds to help fertilize the plants, as well as some of the things that lived in the soil. They'd lucked out and had some beetles and worms in a few of their soil samples, but Neville wanted to get a few more species to try and make the greenhouse as much like the mountaintop as he could manage.
"Well, I for one have work to do, if you two would get on with it," said Snape darkly, though Neville thought he saw a shadow of worry in Snape's eyes. They'd become friends of a sort, and it was a risk for Remus to go up into the thin air of the mountains with his newly-healed lungs.
Neville checked in his robes to make sure Stuart was safe and sound, all his eyes -- seven now, and Neville suspected there was a whole new patch of Eyelight lichen growing on top of his wardrobe at that very moment -- peeking out as if to echo Snape's plaint. "You're our last stop," he said, shouldering the lightweight magical pack, sparing a grateful thought for Remus' facility with shrinking spells.
"Can we use the Floo to Norway, or would you prefer we Apparate to an International Floo Terminal?" Remus asked cheerfully, though of course they knew the answer. They'd even brought their own small tins of powder for this, as it would take a double handful to transport them that far.
"You'll do as you please regardless," said Snape, turning abruptly and leading them into the house. "Don't forget my Air Ferns," he added by way of goodbye, turning off toward the laboratory and leaving them alone in his parlour.
"I think he's going to miss us," said Neville with a grin. He got out his tin of powder, which had once held a rather cheap brand of loose tea, and stepped up to the hearth. "This is enough for one trip, right?"
"Right, we've each got one go on us, and we'll pay at the station when we go home," Remus replied, getting out a battered baking soda tin that held his own supply. "You're going first?"
Neville nodded. "I can't ask you to lead everywhere we go," he said a little wistfully, then tossed the contents of his tin into the flames and stepped in. "Dovrefjell Mountains!" he cried, and had one last glimpse of some strange emotion passing over Remus' face before the magic took him whirling away.
He stumbled out into the small Floo station, and the first thing he noticed was the bite of cold that hadn't been there last time they'd come up this way. He stepped out of the way and dusted himself off, looking out the window at the frozen panorama beyond. Everything sparkled blindingly white with just a tinge of blue shadows in the hollows and crannies, and if it weren't for the attendant giving him a curious look, Neville would have thought they'd emerged into a frozen wasteland.
"You goin' up alone?" the little man asked, folding up the paper he'd been reading.
The fire flared and disgorged a cloud of soot along with Remus, who had a short fit of coughing that, thankfully, subsided on its own. "I hate dirty rides," said Remus, and Neville couldn't help but blush, though it was a common slang term for a Floo ride with more than the usual amount of soot and dust.
"Don't we all," said the attendant with a grin. "You two goin' up?"
"Yes, we've been before," said Neville, helping Remus to dust off the layer of black that seemed to have settled everywhere.
The man nodded and tried to pour himself a cup of tea, cackling when nothing came out. "Got to watch out," he said, saying a warming charm over it three times before steam rose from the spout, "Sometimes I think tea freezes quicker'n anything." He poured a dollop of amber firewhiskey in with a wink, and Neville couldn't help but smile back.
"Whatever keeps you warm," said Remus, which inexplicably made Neville blush again. They had their spell-warmed clothes and tent, but he had a sudden image of them sharing body heat, huddled under the blankets together skin-to-skin.
It certainly got Neville warmed up a bit.
"Do you want me to Side-Along you for this next bit?" Remus offered, hand held out.
The old man snickered and Neville's cheeks went pinker, but he nodded and took the proffered hand. "You know I'm arse at long-distance Apparition."
"I'm a bit weak, so don't mind me," said Remus, and Neville had no idea what he meant to do until he found himself plastered against Remus' body, and then just as suddenly, somewhere else, back not on the little promontory they'd used last time, but right in the middle of their old campsite.
"Your aim's improved," said Neville, trying to catch his breath and his balance and hoping with all his heart that his cock was not as obvious against Remus' leg as it felt it was.
"I know the area a lot better this time around," said Remus with a shrug, but he looked pleased.
Neville laughed and set his pack down, pulling the tent off the top and handing it to Remus. "You're much better with this than I am, so I'll let you do the honours," he said, already easing back into that space where all that mattered was the two of them, and that he could make Remus smile back just like that.
"Do you want to set up camp while I go harvest Air Ferns?" Neville asked; he wanted to do that first, before his courage ran out, and the trek was far enough he was glad for the excuse to leave Remus behind.
"Sure," said Remus, already busy positioning the tent in the middle of the little clearing. "D'you need me to unpack anything before you go?"
Neville thought about it, and then shrugged. "I'll need stasis orbs, but I think I can manage the enlargement spells without damaging anything," he said, though of course he wasn't at all sure, really. "Oh, and I guess I need the ledger, too, so let me help you set up and then you can cook while I harvest instead," he said, giving Remus a wink.
"You're quite aware that I can walk out to the edge with you without collapsing and dying?" said Remus, his voice full of warm irony, not the cold-edged thing that Snape used, but something like a secret joke between them, inviting rather than offputting.
"I'm well aware, but I'd also like something hot to eat once I've done with braving the wild edges of the world, and there's no sense in us both going when I've gone by myself once before."
Remus shook his head and grinned, then began the charm to enlarge the tent with its contents intact. Neville began to unpack the various shrunken trunks and other paraphernalia, setting them all out with plenty of space for Remus to resize them. The orbs were designed to be shrunk in their case, but Neville decided to leave the enlarging to Remus' delicate touch. Even though he wasn't a bad hand at Charms, resizing was much more like Transfiguration, and Neville was afraid he would crack the lot.
They worked in comfortable silence once the tent was up, Neville arranging things as Remus enlarged them, until they had a whole little field lab set up for gathering, drying and storing their samples. He took Stuart inside and tucked the little plant away in its niche, then came back out to find Remus staring pensively off into the distance. "All right?" Neville asked, keeping his voice casual; he really didn't want to hear about Remus missing Ian or some rubbish, and the look on Remus' face had been wistful and just a little lonely.
"Yeah, all right," Remus said, turning with a wry little smile on his face. "I just hate missing out on adventure due to illness, I spent most of my school years doing that," he explained, and Neville breathed a sigh of relief.
"Don't worry," said Neville lightly, packing up his bag with ledger, orbs, and a few extra containers just in case, "there'll be plenty of adventure after dinner."
Remus' laughter followed him into the woods, and Neville went gathering with a light heart. The Air Ferns weren't quite so nerve-wracking this time, since Neville wasn't on a deadline and could stop and look around between catches instead of sticking himself out over the abyss for such a long time in one go, and he managed to get a nice, moist soil sample full of Breathworms, which aerated the soil as they moved through it. He spotted a little gully full of bushes that he thought might be Rainbowberry from the shimmer on their leaves like an oil-slick puddle in the rain, and made a special note to bring Remus back with him -- the blueberries, blackberries and redberries weren't worth much except as food, but goldberries and the rare rainbowberries were valuable all on their own, and greenberries, orangeberries and indigoberries were useful in a number of potions.
Neville smelled camp before he saw it, and he emerged into their clearing with a hungry grin on his face. "Decided to make a bit of your own adventure?" said Neville with a little wink, finding Remus in front of an open fire with a huge cauldron suspended over it, and some sort of stew bubbling inside.
"I thought it might be nice to have something we could eat for more than one meal without having to cook," Remus explained, taking a little taste of the stew and then offering the half-full spoon to Neville.
"It smells delicious," Neville said, stalling for one moment over sharing something so intimate, though really his tongue wasn't likely to touch the places Remus' had on the wide bowl of the spoon. He leaned forward, swallowing against the thick nervousness crowding his throat and making his stomach flutter, then blew gently on the liquid. He flicked his tongue out, then followed with his mouth, getting as much stew as he could before leaning back and licking his lips. "Tastes even better," he said, grinning. The clean spot left by his mouth just overlapped where Remus' had been, and he found himself licking his upper lip again just in case one of the flavours lingering there was Remus'.
Neville saw something flare in Remus' gaze, but Remus turned away too soon for him to decipher what it was, saying, "Good thing, because we'll be eating it for awhile."
Neville laughed and accepted the bowl of stew Remus ladled for him, then another which was, presumably, for Remus. "Take them inside, there's bread and tea already on the tray," said Remus, and then after a moment's pause, "Er, please."
"You've got it, boss," said Neville with a chuckle, though the way Gran was having the business papers done, they were equals in all things.
"Brat," said Remus, borrowing Snape's favourite term for Harry, Neville, Ron, and anyone else under the age of thirty that dared to enter his domain.
Neville grinned and got out of arm's reach, nearly to the tent before he shot back, "You like me this way." It was Harry's stock response, and Neville felt warm self-satisfaction at seeing Remus' surprised expression when he used it. He ducked inside before Remus could think of a suitable rejoinder, smiling to see the familiar room again and finding that somehow, despite being cramped and completely without privacy, Neville had missed this life, this time with just himself, Remus and the job at hand.
He put the stew on the tray that was squeezed between the beds as they'd always done for cards, then slipped off his boots and went to the loo for a sketchy wash, not bothering to close the door. Remus was there sitting on his bed when Neville emerged and it was comfortable to sit across from him, homey in a way Neville didn't know he'd longed for until he had it in his life. It hurt a bit to think he'd not get to keep it, but Neville was nothing if not practical about what he could and couldn't have, and if this was all he got of Remus, then he'd try to make the best of it.
"I found a really nice patch of earth with some Breathworms for Greenhouse Two," said Neville, folding himself onto his own bed and tucking in.
Remus smiled and took a sip of his tea. "That's one less worry, then," he said, then took a bite of stew.
"There's a thicket off that way as well that I'd like to look at tomorrow while you're along, looked like Rainbowberry bushes. I thought we might make a proper harvest of it, pick some for Snape, some for sale and some for jam," said Neville with a little blush, wondering if he was presuming too much that Remus would be willing to go through the work to make jam from what they picked.
"Sounds good," said Remus with a smile. "I'd love some redberry jam, but you'll have to help with the canning unless you want me to rope Severus into it."
Neville chuckled and shook his head, pouring himself a bit more tea and glancing under the nightstand to see Stuart peering up at them with the look in his eyes that Neville had come to view as plaintive. He added sugar to his cup, then slipped the saucer from underneath and tipped some tea into it for the little plant. "No more offshoots while we're up here, you're only to populate my room," said Neville, setting the sloshing dish down in front of the little plant -- well, not so little anymore, since the dark green now completely covered the rock it lived on, and its seven eyestalks were all long and thick with bright, healthy eyes gleaming at the tips. The fronds came out to give Neville's hand a thankful caress, and then Neville leaned back up to find Remus watching him with an odd expression.
"You always remember to take care of him, don't you?" said Remus, dipping bread into his stew with the air of a man just toying with food he wasn't sure he wanted to eat just now.
Neville blushed. "I try," he said, shrugging and tearing off a bite of his own bread. "I like to take care of things."
"And people, or at least werewolves, as well, I guess," said Remus wryly, referring to all the varied assistance that Neville had given him when he was too ill to do for himself.
"You'd do the same for me, or any of our friends, I'd like to think."
Remus nodded, though he looked almost frustrated at the turn the conversation was taking. "I would, if they asked, but I didn't even have to ask you, just like Stuart didn't just now."
Neville chuckled. "You're just immune to his hungry gaze," said Neville teasingly, referring to a conversation they'd had with Ian where they established that Remus was terrible at reading the plant's moods.
"You're no better with people than I am with plants," said Remus cryptically, though Neville had to concede he was right.
"Why d'you think I like the plants so much?" replied Neville with a wink, taking another sip of sweet, hot tea.
Remus laughed and they ate in silence until there was no more, and Neville felt wonderfully sated, at least with the hunger in his belly. "Delicious as always," he said as Remus took their dishes into the kitchen to wash, making up a fresh pot of tea. Neville spotted a familiar box in the rumpled sheets of Remus' bed and grinned. "Planning to kick my arse at gin again?" he asked, pulling out the deck and starting to shuffle.
"We could always do strip poker instead," said Remus, returning with a fresh pot of tea and a rakish grin.
Neville blushed, more glad than he could ever express that Remus hadn't made Snape go through with the promised game, and not just because he was terribly uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of 'Snape' and 'naked.' "No way," said Neville, fumbling the shuffle. He gathered all the cards back up into a neat stack again and clarified, "I know how many layers you wear, remember. You'd have me naked before you even got all three pairs of socks off."
Remus laughed, though there was an edge to it that Neville couldn't pin down. He was definitely better with plants, which didn't help at all when it was a man whose moods he wanted to decipher. "Well," said Remus, pausing dramatically for a moment, "I suppose we could always wait for our game with Snape."
Nev paled. "I never, ever want you to make me think of Snape naked again, ever," he said, setting the cards down for Remus to cut before he could flub the shuffle and send them flying.
That seemed to chase away the shadow from Remus' gaze and replace it with relieved laughter. "Well, gin it is, then," he conceded, cutting the cards and handing them back to Neville for dealing.
And that was that, at least for the moment, but Neville spent the whole game wondering over what that little shadow had been, and just what Remus had gotten relief from, hearing that Neville was just as scared of some aspects of Snape's life now as he was as a student. Eventually the tea was drunk, the games were won and lost, mostly the former by Remus and the latter by Neville, teeth were brushed and pyjamas donned, and finally the lights were doused with a quiet Nox, except for the seven lazily blinking pinpoints of Stuart's eyes. Neville snuggled up under his covers and gazed across the scant dark space between their beds, and wondered what it would be like to have the freedom or perhaps just the courage to reach out and bridge the gap.
The next morning, they got their gear together and headed back into the forest, this time the two of them together aiming for the bushes Neville had spotted yesterday. The gully they were nestled in was deep and cold, the thick snow at the bottom hiding any number of traps for the unwary, from rocks and deadfall to a sneaky clump of Albino Devil's Snare, also colloquially known as Snowball in Hell since it only grew in regions of perpetual cold. Even with the obstacles, it didn't take them long to make their way over to the full, dark green bushes, each rainbow-slicked leaf rimed with frost and the varicoloured berries just visible where they hung, ripe and ready to be picked, in the shadows. The plant's magic kept the berries plump and defrosted, just a little warmer to the touch than everything else around them to tempt the sort of birds that would disperse the seeds to maximum effect.
"We'll sort as we pick," said Neville, setting his pack down and pulling out a stack of miniaturized baskets. They had one for each colour of berry, though Neville privately thought it was just wishful thinking in the case of the rare, glittering rainbowberries, or the slightly more common goldberries.
"Right," said Remus, waving his wand to resize the baskets into proper bushels. They weren't likely to get that many of even the more common colours, but they could transfer all the harvest into bags and store them one or two of the bushels once they were done for the day, and reuse the rest for other fruit and other days. "Anything I should know?"
Neville thought about it, and nodded. "Be careful with the berries when you pick them, especially the ripest ones. Um, and mind the leaves, they're not poisonous or anything, but they'll catch in your skin and clothes," he said; they'd use wands as much as possible, but they'd still have to touch the bushes.
"Careful of the berries and my tender skin, got it," said Remus. He gave Neville a grin and a little mock-salute, then went around to the other side of the thicket.
Neville started on this side, carefully lifting a branch with one hand and directing the berries into their respective baskets in a steady stream. As he'd expected, there were mostly the common fruits, but he found a few goldberries nestled near the base of one branch, and felt encouraged. "Make sure you look all along the branches," he said to Remus, getting a grunt in reply that made Neville worry he'd caused Remus to slip and hurt himself. "You all right?"
"These are long branches," said Remus, his voice cranky and slightly muffled.
Neville chuckled. "You should feel right at home, then, though I suppose yours is thicker," he said teasingly; despite the lack of strip poker, he and Snape had been using Remus' size as a way to cheer him, or at least themselves, up for weeks.
"If it was this long, I'd be doomed to celibacy," said Remus, and Neville thought he heard a bit of good humour peeking out.
"Don't expect sympathy from me on that count," said Neville cheerfully, and he couldn't resist adding, "Healer Ian not coming across?"
"I could never love a man who won't do the Jack of Diamonds," said Remus dramatically, referring to one of the naughtier playing cards, the couple on which had a distinct fondness for licking in interesting places. Ian had objected that the lack of cleanliness had distracted him during their last game, when he'd accidentally discarded that one instead of the Jack of Hearts he'd intended to lay down, losing him the game.
"At this point, I'd do the Queen of Clubs if I thought it'd get me laid," said Neville mock-dramatically; once he'd been goaded into admitting his current state of virginity, it had become as much a source of amusement as Remus' size and Ian's fastidiousness.
There was a pause long enough that Neville was worried he'd somehow offended Remus, and then Remus' voice drifted quietly over the crisp winter air. "What do the rainbow ones look like again?"
Neville tried not to get his hopes up. "They're sort of shaped like a blackberry, only clear, and if you bring them in the sunlight they refract rainbows everywhere," he said, directing a nice batch of indigoberries into one of the baskets with a satisfied grin.
"I think I might've found one, but you'll need to come around," said Remus, and Neville's brows knit. He got the last of the berries off the branch he'd been harvesting and went round the thicket, only to find Remus on his knees, practically buried headfirst in the foliage.
Neville couldn't help but laugh, and Remus replied grumpily, "You did say to check all the way to the end of the branches, and this is a really big, old bush."
Neville resisted the opening to tease, knowing that this just wasn't the right moment. "I did say that, and if you really found a rainbowberry then it'll be worth the trouble," Neville replied, sliding into the space next to Remus and trying not to notice the warmth radiating from his body. "Point me?"
Remus wriggled a bit, distracting Neville for the space of a few heartbeats before he managed to divert his attention to something glittering in the darkness down near the very base of the bush. "Lumos," said Neville quietly, and his wand flickered to life to reveal a cluster of no less than half a dozen of the precious berries, surrounded by a few dozen scattered greenberries and goldberries as well. "Remus, we'll be able to pay for the repairs to Snape's conservatory!" he said excitedly, giving Remus a one-armed hug before carefully levitating the whole lot up and out of the hole past them, letting them all settle in the same basket.
Remus laughed and scrambled out, pulling Neville with him, both of them ending up with leaves stuck to their hair and clothing. "Trust you to think of the greenhouses instead of being rich," said Remus walking around to inspect their harvest. The rainbowberries threw little spots of colour all over the inside of their basket, making the surrounding golden spheres shine; they'd all be carefully preserved and sold, not to a potions' supplier, but a jeweller, who would make baubles for some wealthy woman out of the lot.
"I think we've got enough, let's leave some for the birds," said Remus with a smile, pulling out the small cloth sacks that had been one of his projects during his convalescence. They were sewn from scraps and bolt-ends gotten from the fabric shop on the cheap, and spelled to keep the contents from bruising; Snape had added a preservation charm so they wouldn't lose valuable ingredients to rot, or waste stasis orbs on things that merely needed to stay fresh rather than alive.
Neville grinned, took one of the smaller bags and began to levitate the indigoberries inside, inspecting them for insects or bruising as they drifted past. "I'm really glad we came back to check these, and that you made us bags for harvesting," said Neville, closing the sack and settling it in the bottom of the bushel.
"Me, too," said Remus, doing the same for the delicious-looking redberries, stealing one out of the stream of them not because of a flaw, but as a snack.
Neville giggled, then went to the next basket; Remus handled the edible berries, and Neville the more valuable potions ingredients, and in the end they stood together and looked at the small pile of shining berries, barely a double handful now that all the greenberries had been sorted out. "I'll put those in a sphere, I think," said Neville, setting down his pack and pulling out one of the small egg-shaped stasis orbs they'd bought separately that had their business name etched on. He carefully levitated the valuable objects into it and closed it, watching the magic reseal the glass as though it had never been split.
"It looks like some sort of snow globe," said Remus, staring at it for a long moment. "I keep wanting to shake it," he added, shaking his own head instead.
"You're just not used to seeing rare and beautiful things up close," said Neville a little wistfully; he wasn't, either, unless you counted the look on Harry's face when he caught Neville's Remembrall that first time, or Remus when he was laughing and didn't care what he looked like, or even Snape, standing in the sunlight with a genuine smile on his lips.
Remus chuckled and looked over at the baskets; they'd ended up with almost a bushel of berries for jam and about a third of that for Snape's cupboards, all in all not a bad morning's work. "In with the others, or back in your pack?" Remus asked, changing the subject.
"What? Oh, no, I'll carry them. This one's got its own carry case back at camp, you can shrink it and hide it in the tent if you like." Remus tore his eyes away and began nesting the bushels together and readying everything for transport back to camp.
Neville grinned and tucked the orb away obediently, but he resolved to see if he couldn't get something nice for Remus once they'd found a buyer for them. Nev wanted Remus to have some small bit of beauty he could wear every day to remind him that his days of starvation and poverty were over, that his future was as bright as the light refracted through the rare, gem-like berries.
They had no more finds quite so interesting for the rest of their trip, though they managed everything on Snape's wish list and more, including a whole bunch of extra plants from the area where Neville had found the Fire Briar Rose. They hadn't had a whole lot of luck with birds and bees until Neville nearly fell on top of a Bubblebee hive new and small enough that they could Stupefy the whole lot and bring it to their greenhouse and hope the tiny Queen didn't send all her translucent warriors out to get revenge for the indignity. By the last day, they still hadn't found any birds that would sit still long enough for capture.
"I can hand-pollinate some stuff, I guess," said Neville over breakfast, unable to be too morose given the rest of their good fortune.
"That sounds naughty," said Remus teasingly, waving a bite of pancake at Neville.
Neville ate it off the end of Remus' fork with a smug little look, then shrugged. "What can I say, I'm better with flora than fauna and most plants won't say no to a little cross-pollination."
"Have you ever asked any people?" said Remus, almost too casual, and definitely suspicious to Neville's ears.
Neville shrugged. "Took Ginny to the Yule Ball, that was how I figured out I wasn't so much for the girls," he said, shooting Remus a speculative look. "I'm afraid most of the men I've been interested in were straight, or at least thought so at the time."
Remus chuckled. "That last has got to be a reference to Harry," he said, and Neville blushed and nodded. "Well, why don't you ask someone out when we get home?" Remus asked. "We'll be home most of the winter, especially if the Lunar Lilacs flourish."
Neville shook his head. "I don't think that'd be a good idea," he said, ducking his head and blushing. "I'm pretty sure the bloke I like has eyes for someone else."
"So, there is someone," said Remus, his voice so neutral Neville had to look at his face, just to see that odd darkness back in Remus' amber eyes.
Neville shrugged. "There's always someone. I just never pick the right one, I guess," he said, thinking back on all his various crushes, from Ginny to Ron, with Harry in between and a brief moment of even liking Malfoy, before he'd realised that not being evil didn't actually make you a nice person.
Remus looked at Neville for a long moment, brows knitted and eyes sharp, as if really seeing him for the first time. "Neville," he said slowly, reaching out to gently touch the back of Neville's hand, "you do know that you deserve to have who you want, don't you?"
Neville's eyes went wide, and he shook his head. "N-no, that's not right, I don't... he deserves who he wants, and that's not me," Neville babbled, not sure now if he was talking about Remus or something more basic, though he'd known for a long time that deep down, he didn't believe anyone could want him.
Remus looked almost angry at that, and it shocked Neville out of his bout of self-pity. "No! Whoever he is, he's an idiot not to want you," said Remus, hand balling into a fist. "Anyone who can't see that doesn't deserve you anyway," he added almost sullenly.
Neville just sat there and stared at him in shock, barely remembering to keep his mouth closed, let alone having any idea of how to respond. If Remus wanted Ian, then why would he be so angry at Neville's secret crush, and if he didn't want Ian, why didn't he just bloody well say so? Neville stared so long that Remus flushed and looked away, finally mumbling, "Sorry, sorry, I just... I hate to see you put yourself down like that."
"I, er, it's all right, I g-guess... I guess I was surp-prised to see you d-defend me like that," said Neville, some of his old nervousness coming back and stealing away the clever repartee they'd been sharing these past weeks. He took a sip of tea and tried to wash it all away with the warm, sweet liquid, to not worry about Remus and how he felt and concern himself instead with finishing breakfast and getting them off this mountain. "You're sure you didn't get into the cloudberries?" he teased after a moment, remembering Remus telling him that, while benign to humans, werewolves found them almost like catnip in their intoxicating qualities.
Remus laughed, shaking his head, and the last of the tension ran out of him. "I promise, these are blueberry, blackberry and redberry, and all the cloudberries are packed safely away with the potions ingredients."
Neville had a feeling that some of Remus' change in mood was just a front he'd put up for Neville's sake, but it wasn't worth arguing about. The main goal now was to get packed and get home, and they could worry about Neville's love life, or lack thereof, once they'd taken care of business. "Well, if you promise," said Neville, swinging a foot forward and nudging Remus', something he was normally careful not to do despite the scant space between the beds.
Remus grinned and nudged back, toes warm where they slipped over the top of Neville's foot and tickled at his ankle, giving Neville something else to worry about, though he knew from experience that he could make his body behave with sufficient life-and-limb motivation. Remus' toes slid back down Neville's foot and retreated, and Neville was determined to pretend that he hadn't, in fact, made a little sound of regret when they left.
They finished the rest of the meal in silence, Neville giving the last of his tea to Stuart as a refill while Remus cleared up and put even the tray away in preparation for packing the tent. Neville was almost out the flap when Remus said, "Just think about what I said, Neville. Maybe you don't know what he wants."
Not having any idea of what to make of that, Neville fled into the forest to check and collect their inexpertly-made bird traps, not a single one of which had been successful in acquiring them a specimen. When he got back, Remus seemed to have forgotten all about their conversation, instead putting him straight to work pouring dried leaves into jars and breaking down the drying rack. Once everything was packed, they retrieved Stuart, washed and put away his saucer, took a last loo break each and then Remus packed the tent away while Neville checked the ground to be sure they hadn't dropped anything valuable or left any rubbish. Even the grass was springing back up where it had been flattened by their footsteps and equipment, and Neville thought it was fitting that they leave the place as pristine as they'd found it, minus a few berries and bugs that he was fairly sure could be spared.
"Ready?" said Remus, interrupting Neville's musings. Neville nodded and took the outstretched hand, and next thing he knew they were back in the tiny Floo station, facing the dour attendant.
"Brought you a treat," said Neville with a grin, bringing him a big leaf folded over a dozen of Remus' pancakes, still warm from breakfast.
The attendant grunted, then grinned when he saw what the packet contained. "Them redberries?" he asked, snagging the pot of honey from beside his teapot.
"Red, black and blueberries," said Neville proudly, glad he'd been right in thinking a bit of a warm treat would go over well. "Remus made them, I'm a terrible cook."
The old man snorted, drizzling honey over the top one, then picking it up, folding it in half, and taking a great big bite out of it. "Mmm," he said, chewing with an expression of bliss on his wrinkled features, "S'good."
Neville chuckled, and Remus looked pleasantly abashed at the brusque praise. "I'm glad you like them. You seemed like you don't get many visitors this time of year."
"Too damned cold," said the attendant between bites, his attention obviously far more occupied by the pancakes than their providers.
"How much for powder to London?" Neville asked, though he already had the coins in hand, same amount as last time.
One sticky finger pointed to the worn sign with prices on it, spelled to show whatever currency the viewer had on him, and Neville nodded and set down their Galleons. "Two, then, please."
The first and second pancakes a mere memory, the attendant grinned and set two pre-measured packets on the counter, twists of thin paper that would break in the fire on impact. "Fanks," he said, mouth already full of the third treat.
Neville chuckled. "Welcome," he said, handing Remus his packet, then going back over to the fire. "You first?"
"More afraid of Snape than you were of the mountain, huh?" said Remus, giving Neville a wink.
Neville shrugged and said, "The mountain would only kill me by accident."
Remus was still chuckling when he threw the powder on the fire, stopping only to give Snape's address, and even Neville was still smiling when he followed, returning the nameless attendant's wave as he disappeared into the whirlwind of Floo travel.
When they got back, their business paperwork was waiting for them along with Snape and a few choice complaints about having owls sent to his home. They had lunch, unpacked the bounty from the trip and spent the afternoon at the painstakingly satisfying task of weighing and pricing everything, and when all was said and done, there was a single trunk of ingredients from this trip, plus a fair portion of the forest harvest that Snape had no need of, which L&L, Ltd. could use to start establishing themselves. Snape also laid claim to a few of Neville's live specimens, and when they retired to the parlour for tea, some gold had exchanged hands, and their land rental was credited for a full year, with a small credit balance that Snape had agreed to pay as soon as he could raise the funds.
"Is Mrs. Weasley still sending you food?" Neville asked, amused to see the sideboard loaded with familiar pasties, the little fork-poked holes in the side making a distinctive 'W' pattern.
Snape shrugged. "She knew when you would be back, but she also seems to have decided that I am undernourished and incapable of keeping myself fed."
"Some of that's no doubt because of Harry," said Remus, already curled up in his favourite chair and sipping his cup of tea.
Neville returned to the love seat with his own food and drink, then put Stuart under the coffee table in the dim shadows there, and gave him a saucer of tea with a small dollop of jam from a cherry pasty off to one side. After all that time in Neville's robes, he deserved a treat.
"Molly likes to adopt people," said Snape, "but I expect you are correct in your assessment of her reasoning. I admit a certain relief that I am not entirely responsible for filling the boy's appetite."
Neville laughed, snorting his tea, and Remus said serenely, "I expect one of his appetites is enough for any man to fill."
"Though you said yourself you're amply equipped to keep him filled up," said Neville, still chuckling.
Snape's eyebrow went up, and he took a sip of tea. "If you two would stop pussyfooting around and shag, then none of us would have to go hungry," he said, and Neville blushed all the way to the roots of his hair.
"We're, I mean, that's not..." Neville babbled, and Remus laid a hand on his arm.
"What he means to say is, we've been waiting until I was declared one hundred percent fit and off the potions," said Remus, and Neville turned huge eyes on him. Remus' own mouth held an impish smile, but his eyes bored into Neville in a manner that boded no good at all.
Snape nodded, as though he discussed pairing off his friends every day, and said, "That is wise, I suppose. I shall have to owl Ian and make sure he checks you for rabies while he's at it. I expect the boy hasn't had a chance to contract anything, if his social life at school is anything to go by."
"I'm right here, you know," said Neville, glaring at Snape. "And how do you know Remus isn't wanting Ian or someone instead?"
Snape glanced from one to the other, and then shrugged. "I may not be the most socially adept of men," he said, getting a snort from Remus, "but I am not blind, Neville."
Remus laughed. "Somehow, Severus, I just don't think matchmaking is your calling. Neville and I will sort out whatever needs sorting in our own time, you just make sure you keep Harry pleasantly full."
"Perhaps he is the one keeping me pleasantly full," said Snape, calmly eating a pasty and acting as though they weren't discussing his sex life.
It was Neville who had a rejoinder for that, however. "I'm not blind, either, and I lived with Harry for years. If you've got anything to rival what Remus has been blessed with, he's the most fulfilled bloke in all of England."
They all laughed at that, and Neville marvelled at how easy it was, if he could just ignore the gnawing doubt in his belly that said they were just messing with him, and he'd be banished to his cold bed even after Remus finally stopped having to take the last of his doses and was declared fit as could be expected for a werewolf.
"So, Neville," said Remus after their mirth died away, "d'you have some things I can plant while you're out hocking our wares tomorrow?"
"Well, there's... wait, what?" said Neville, staring at him. "Oh, no, no, you can't make me go do it all by myself."
"Few reputable businesses will buy from a known werewolf, even one so lauded as Remus," said Snape, in that tone that said he was disappointed the student hadn't lived up to expectations, or perhaps just lived down to them.
Neville looked from one to the other, then sighed. "Right, of course. But I'm terrible at the resizing spells, and I can't haul the whole trunk around," he said, looking back and forth between them.
"You will take a list, and a few samples to assure quality," said Snape, as though everyone should know how to be a door-to-door weird ingredients salesman. "I will give you a list of apothecaries worth your time, and mark which can be trusted with credit, and which cannot. Remus and I will also price the list, with a charmed second set of prices that you may bargain down to, though with the rarest berries, you'll want to make a separate trip and take the goods with you in their case, and include the cost of the container in your calculations."
Neville blinked, then grinned when he realized the upshot of what Snape was saying. "You're going to help!" he said, feeling suddenly a lot more cheerful.
"I'm not sure I've ever seen you this keen on being helpful," said Remus, confirming Neville's feeling that this was an unexpected gesture, coming from Snape.
Snape froze, then sighed and said, "I am hoping that, if you manage to breed the Rose, I will be allowed to privately bid on a specimen before you put the rest up for market. It is worth a few hours' time here and there aiding in your success, to be considered more than just a landlord and client when such rarities become available."
"Very Slytherin of you," said Remus, and Neville couldn't help but giggle at the surprise on Snape's face as they both nodded.
"I'm not one to look a gift snake in the mouth," said Neville, shrugging. "And you're right, the more you help, the more likely I am to think of you first when we find really rare stuff."
Snape smiled a small, satisfied smile and nodded once. "Then we have an understanding."
It seemed they did, one that managed to push all Neville's worries about Remus out of his head for the rest of the evening as he instead wondered at Snape's helpful, if still sarcastic, commentary while they drew up the list of items, quantities, and the double columns of prices. Neville also made note of the fact that there were a few potions that used the goldberries, and thought that perhaps he'd keep a few aside as a special surprise. After all, Christmas was coming up, and it would be highly amusing to see Snape's face when he saw the precious commodity he'd thought out of his reach, sitting in a box with his name on it.
The next morning, Neville checked his new robes one more time in the glass of the shop's front window before heading into the busy interior of Anise & Anise, Apothecaries. He headed for the counter, hoping he could catch someone free in order to speak with them about his supplies, brand-new business card case -- a gift from Gran that had come with their paperwork, and the cards inside as well -- clutched in one slightly sweaty hand. The counter was, sadly, mobbed with people picking up overnight orders, and Neville waited patiently for several minutes before giving up and turning to go.
"Excuse me, may I help?" said a voice to his left, and Neville nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Um, yes, sorry, I'm, um," Neville stammered, then stopped and forced himself to calm. "Sorry, you startled me. My name's Neville Longbottom, and I've started a business growing and harvesting magical plants for potions ingredients, and I was wondering who I might speak to?"
"Got a list?" said the older wizard, that indeterminate age of bearded grey where he might be sixty or a hundred and sixty.
Neville smiled and nodded, setting his sample case down and pulling the list from the inner pocket of his robes. "Here you are, quantities are what I've got available, prices are calculated from fair market value," he said, pulling one of the creamy white cards out of their golden case and handing one of those over to him as well.
The man took the card, glanced at it and pocketed it, then looked back at the list. His eyes went wide briefly and Neville felt properly smug, knowing there were some ingredients on there that could make a difference in what sort of commissions a business could offer, as Snape had so deftly pointed out when choosing what to put in his own stores. "I'm Abbott Anise, why don't you follow me to the back and show me what you've brought?" he said, his manner suddenly far less brusque and more accommodating.
Neville grinned and followed. "I've only got samples, to show quality you know, but anything you wish to purchase can be delivered tomorrow morning at the latest, and sooner if you need it and I can send an owl to my partner."
"Excellent, excellent," said Abbott, leading Neville back into what appeared to be the employee tea-room, complete with a self-heating kettle and mugs with people's names on them. "Have a seat. Cuppa?"
"That would be lovely," said Neville, trained long ago by his grandmother than you never refused hospitality, even if you only sipped the tea once it was set in front of you. He sat and opened his case, carefully removing the various vials and orbs while Abbott made them both cheap, strong tea, the sort that any working man might expect to have on his break. It reminded Neville of Hogwarts, where the food had been good but utilitarian like this, and he accepted the cup with a smile.
"That's a fine Adam's Apple," said Abbot, picking up the object in question and looking at it closely, making Neville blush. Snape had left them a good bushel of the apples for sale, though he'd kept even more for his own stores, now that the grove had long since fertilized itself, and Neville had taken a medium-sized one for his sample kit, knowing that people would want to see it was this year's crop, still fresh and firm, no sign of wrinkles or rot.
"Thank you," said Neville, not knowing what else to say with the old man fondling the phallic fruit like that. "There's about a bushel of them, varying in size."
"Good for a lot of commissions, those," said Abbott thoughtfully, eyes going back to the list. "You've got a lot of good samples here, boy, an excellent harvest for this time of year. Keep this up, and you'll do well."
"Thank you, sir," said Neville again, this time far more heartfelt. "My partner and I are also establishing a couple of greenhouses so we can grow certain things year round."
Abbott looked pleasantly surprised, as though he'd been expecting the whole thing was just a bit of a lark for Neville, and found instead responsibility under his nervous surface. "Excellent, excellent, I'll definitely keep the card, then, if this is the quality you can provide," he said, lifting up a bottle with one little wriggling Albino Devil's Snare vine in it. Neville hadn't been about to let the rare find go to waste when he'd tripped over it, and now it was resting in a stasis orb along with the rest of his stores.
Neville smiled and nodded, then scooted his chair around just enough so he could see the list. "Now, were there specific things you had an interest in?" he asked; Snape and Remus both had cautioned him not to let people make promises to consider it for later, since they wanted to get things sold before there was any problem at all with preservation or storage. They had better things to do than check stores and renew charms on things no one wanted to buy, after all.
"Hm? Oh! Oh, yes, yes," said Abbott, setting down the bottle and turning back to the list. "I can't afford it all, much as I'd love to, but at these prices I've got to pick and choose," he said, running his finger down the list while Neville noted the pauses.
Neville smiled and took a sip of his tea. "If you were buying enough volume, I might see about a small discount," he said, thinking of all the times that he'd seen Gran bargaining in Diagon Alley as a boy, an activity she seemed to enjoy more than the shopping itself.
Abbott grunted, tapping his finger next to the listing for indigoberries. "You really have that many?" he asked, picking up the small vial that had one indigoberry, one greenberry, and one orangeberry in it. "You checked for insects?"
"Yes, when we did the harvest, and they're under preservation and cushioning charms to prevent bruising," said Neville, knowing that was a big concern; he'd heard Sprout and Snape arguing over it once as a boy, that the fruit ended up too bruised to be of use if students were allowed to pick it. "Wand-picked, as well."
"Hm," he said, then pulled a small strip of parchment from his apron. "I'll just make a list... you can have it brought today, you say?"
"If I can borrow your owl to send back to the greenhouse, yes," said Neville, figuring this was a reasonable request since it was obvious he didn't have an owl stashed in his robes.
"Of course, of course," Abbott mumbled, busy scrawling down a list of his own, having produced a quill from somewhere. "I'll want one of the boys to look at this as well, but we're so busy I'll have to take over. Aurelius does most of the love philtres nowadays, and you've got several excellent ingredients for that."
Neville nodded. "Something about the high altitudes, I guess," he said, though of course the Adam's Apples had come from the Forbidden Forest.
Abbott handed over his list, which had quantities and prices listed next to each item. Though none of the proposed prices were less than the lower limit Remus and Snape had set, Neville knew it was expected of him to make a counteroffer, so he went through and raised prices here and there on the commodities he expected to be most in demand. "You haven't taken my full stock of anything, so it shouldn't be any trouble to do this," he said, handing back the list.
Abbott scanned it and grunted, then levered himself up out of his chair. "Wait here, I'll send Aurelius back," he said, giving Neville a slap on the back. "It's a pleasure doin' business with a fellow who understands the value of a Knut."
Neville packed away most of his kit while he waited, though he left the berries, embarrassing apple, and several other flowers and herbs out for Aurelius to see. It didn't take long before a strapping young blond man poked his head back, grinning. "I hear you've managed to get my dad to part with a Galleon or two, congratulations," he said, going to fix himself a cup of tea.
"Well, he hasn't parted with them yet," said Neville, sipping his own drink, "but I'm hopeful."
Aurelius laughed, and sat down next to Neville, moving his chair quite a bit closer than his father had and setting Abbott's messy list down next to the neater one Neville had brought. A quick glance showed nothing had been changed, which made Neville relax a little; Snape had said these were honest people, but you never knew when gold was on the line. "I see you've got some excellent samples here," said Aurelius, fondling the Adam's Apple much as his father had, though his hands were gentler and more sensuous. "You say you've got all sizes?"
"About a bushel, and yes, that's the middle size, but there's smaller and larger both," said Neville, trying very hard not to blush and knowing he was failing rather spectacularly.
"Excellent, dad didn't want to take the lot unseen, but we could use them; Adam's Advantage is a popular potion among the older set," said Aurelius, making a note on the little paper. He looked over Neville's list and added a few things to the bottom of theirs, changing quantities on some other things, and then putting some proposed prices on the last few things.
Neville raised his eyebrow at the low number he'd picked for the Two-Thyme, and Aurelius had the grace to flush. "Sorry, but I had to try... we can't afford a lot of it unless we have commissions, and we can't accept commissions unless we have a lot of it."
Neville nodded his understanding, writing his counter-offered prices in and passing the paper back. "Perhaps a small line of credit could be established for a few of the specialty items?" he offered, getting a blinding grin from Aurelius that made his knees a bit weak. "I can see why they've got you on love potions, anyway," he said, unable to stop himself before the words came out. "You'll never have to hit your own stores."
"If only that were true," said Aurelius, giving Neville's shoulder a friendly squeeze. "A bloke can use all the help he can get, sometimes."
Neville shrugged. "I prefer to rise or fall on my own merits," he said, rewriting the Anises' list onto one of the bits of parchment he'd brought just for that occasion in his own, neat writing. "Mostly fall," he added sheepishly.
"I expect you could get enough of a rise out of someone, if you set your mind to it," said Aurelius, then watched as Neville transferred all the numbers carefully, then added everything up. At the bottom he put the total, and then what would be due today and another amount that he felt was a fair line of credit for a first-time customer, especially considering they'd bought nearly half his stores and he still had the jeweller to see tomorrow. "Dad'll have final approval on that, but if we can get a little credit, that will go a long way toward convincing him," Aurelius piped up as Neville was checking his maths one final time.
"Take this out to him, then?" Neville asked, handing Aurelius the final list and keeping the hand-scrawled note for reference, so he could change his own master list, accordingly.
Aurelius smiled, looking a bit puzzled, and Neville realised he'd been expecting some sort of response to his flirting earlier. "Thanks for everything," he said, laying one hand on Aurelius' and thinking that Remus' skin was always so much warmer.
That seemed enough to placate Aurelius' ego and he winked and disappeared back into the front of the shop. Neville finished his tea, then charmed a copy of the list with the alterations, so he had both the original and a neat, unmarked revision to help him keep track of his successes throughout the day. Later on, once he'd got the hang of things, he didn't think he'd need to go to such elaborate measures, but for now the physical evidence of his success was a comfort.
It was Abbott who came back through this time with the final invoice in one hand and a small purse in the other. "Fair prices all, and kind of you to give us credit," he said abruptly. "Our owl's out with a delivery, and Aurelius says he can wait for his purchases until tomorrow. Can we expect you before opening?"
"How about eight thirty?" said Neville; he'd grown used to waking early with school, and never changed the habit, since a lot of plants liked attention first thing in the morning, including Alice, who had spent the time while Neville was away hanging in Snape's bathroom to enjoy the extra humidity and human contact.
"Perfect," said Abbott, handing Neville the pouch and invoice both, the latter of which was now signed by them both. Neville made a magical copy and handed it to Abbott, and they shook hands with a smile, business concluded. Abbott got a twinkle in his eye and said, "I'll have Aurelius down to meet you, shall I?"
Neville flushed and nodded, though truthfully he wasn't sure how to handle the handsome young man's attentions. "Thank you for your business, Mr. Anise," said Neville, shaking the old man's hand, finding the grip strong and sure. "I'll stop in next time we've had a harvest, and do feel free to owl me with special requests. I've no qualms with trying to find something you haven't the time to hunt up yourself."
Abbott grunted again, this time sounding pleased, and ushered Neville out with a bit of friendly small talk. Neville left feeling confident and competent, gold tucked away in his robes and his very first sales call a rousing success.
The next place he visited had their own harvesters on staff, but bought the rest of Neville's stock of Pacer Pears anyway, having missed them at their peak ripeness. Neville went from business to business, smiling and making deals, or just leaving his card and his name in case anything was wanted at a later date. By the end of the day, he'd sold nearly everything on the list aside from the rest of the pricey Two-Thyme, and a few more common items that had been readily available this year and would keep in Snape's stores or their own until someone wanted them. The contacts he'd made more than made up for any lingering soreness of foot, and only once had he been tempted to go below Snape's lower limit on something, and he'd resisted by thinking of the tongue-lashing he'd get if he did.
He came home triumphant and tired, only to find the living room fully occupied with Snape, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ian, Remus and even Gran, all of them dressed and determined to take him out to eat and congratulate them both on their success.
"You may call me Augusta, young man," Gran was saying to poor Ian when Neville stepped out of the Floo, dusty and grinning.
Everyone crowded around, not that there was much choice with this many people in their tiny living room, and began to talk at once, mostly all asking the same question: "How'd it go?"
"It went brilliantly," said Neville, wending his way to the kitchen counter and hiding on the other side, where he opened his sample case and pulled out orders, putting a bag of money from his pockets on top of each. "We've sold nearly everything I had, and I get to wake up absurdly early to weigh out and deliver the orders, so you're not allowed to get me drunk or keep me up until all hours," he said, but he was grinning as he said it.
A cheer went up, and Remus came forward to look everything over. "You did really well, even giving just the right amount of credit to the two that asked for it," said Remus, going over the various invoices with a practiced eye.
"Thanks," said Neville, warming under the praise. "Can you tuck this all away until we have to count the payments and fill orders?" he asked, putting everything neatly in his sample case. "There's a few that I want to let sit overnight before we try counting."
"Not everyone on the list was reputable," said Snape, joining them. "I trust you only gave credit to those I marked?"
Neville nodded. "Just Anise & Anise, so they'd take the whole bushel of apples and not make me weigh or grade them, and Slug & Jiggers, who've been having trouble with that commissions versus ingredients problem you have, Severus, and needed a bunch of the greenberries."
Snape nodded, obviously satisfied, and Remus took the case and ducked into his bedroom to hide it wherever it was that he hid such things.
"You've done all right," said Gran, coming up to sit on one of the stools. "I've nothing to be ashamed of, and a lot to be proud of in you."
Neville thought his jaw might drop out of his head, but he managed to pull himself together. "Thank you, Gran," he said warmly, taking her hand. "I couldn't have done it without you, or at least not like this. The money made a huge difference in letting us do things the right way from the start, and so did your support and your connections."
Gran gave him a sharp little smile. "It's a good thing you realise it," she said, and Neville sensed that the brief moment of familial bonding was over. "Anyway, you younglings will be out well past my bedtime, so I'm going to take my leave. I wanted to make sure you'd done well for yourself, but I'll leave you to your celebration."
"Aw, Gran," said Neville, though inwardly he was relieved. Everyone would relax once she was gone, especially now that Snape had given in and started being human to nearly everyone in the room, except perhaps Ron, who usually didn't deserve it. "I'm really touched you came." He brushed a kiss over one wrinkled cheek, smelling powder and her faint perfume, familiar scents from his childhood now softened by her acceptance of his adult success.
"I wouldn't leave my only grandson to celebrate his adulthood without me," she said, and Neville smiled to himself; that was Gran, making sure she attended exactly the right events to make herself look good, but in this case he couldn't complain.
"No, you wouldn't. Will you Apparate or Floo?" he asked, coming out from behind the counter to help her off the high stool.
"Floo, I think. Easier on the bones," she said, and he escorted her to the fireplace. "You take care, and keep me posted on your numbers if you're not going to hire a proper accountant for me to badger."
Neville laughed and squeezed her hand, then pulled down the flowerpot of Floo powder and held it out to her. "I promise. Thanks again."
"You're quite welcome, I'm sure," she said, then tossed the powder down and disappeared into the flames.
Neville chuckled and put the pot back, then turned to the group. "So, do we have reservations, and is there time for me to get cleaned up?" he asked the group at large, Remus having rejoined them to stand over with Snape and Ian. Neville was amused to see how they'd separated into little trios, though he knew Harry was longing to bridge the gap and stay with Snape; Harry's eyes never hid anything anymore, not that they ever had.
It was generally agreed that their reservations were far enough off that Neville could shower, if he was quick, so he hurried and emerged damp and smiling twenty minutes later in his proper dress robes, his hair hopelessly mussed from his brief reunion with Alice. "Everyone ready?" he asked as he stepped into the living room, amused when Hermione came over and straightened out his hair and collar.
"You look nice, Neville," said Ian, his smile just a touch warmer than Neville had been expecting, adding yet another bit of confusion to Neville's rather confusing day.
"Thanks, you all look good," Nev replied after a moment of startled silence, wanting to spread the compliment around rather than flirt with Ian just at this second. He'd spent all the time today he wasn't selling plants thinking about Remus, their talk with Snape the night before, and a dozen other snippets of conversation that he'd taken one way and wondered, now, if he ought to take another way entirely. He'd spent so long believing that no one he wanted could want him back that it required a lot of work to assimilate the idea that perhaps Remus felt just the same, not necessarily about Neville, but about being wanted in general.
His eyes had wandered to Remus while he was woolgathering, admiring the new dress robes that their success had afforded him, the shy smile and handsome, familiar features. "So, where are we headed?" said Neville, tearing his eyes away from Remus in hopes no one saw quite how hungry his gaze had become.
"Le Chat Gris," said Snape, his voice making the French seem smoky, dangerous, his eyes on Harry. Neville followed Snape's gaze and saw that the velvety tones had been entirely for Harry's benefit, as he looked enraptured, his eyes promising Snape something delicious for afters.
"And it's our treat," said Ron hastily, seeing the surprise on Neville's face. "All of us, I mean, for you and Remus."
Le Chat Gris was a very nice wizarding restaurant, the only one of its kind, specializing in avant-garde magical French cuisine, situated just off the Gringotts end of Diagon Alley and very hard to get into. "Harry did it," said Remus with a little smile, which told Neville whose idea it had been to get Harry to try and make reservations at the exclusive restaurant.
"Least I could do," said Harry, his attention drifting back to the room and out of Snape's trousers, much to Neville's private amusement.
"And much appreciated," said Neville with a grin. "I've always wanted to go there. Did they really give you a portkey?"
"Yep," said Harry with a grin, pulling out a small gold pocket watch. He checked the face and said, "In fact, it's about time to go. Everyone grab on," he said, swinging the long chain free and keeping the watch in his hand. Neville snagged the fob at the other end, a stylized cat done in shining silver, just before it could brush against Remus' hand. Fortunately the chain was gold, and they all managed to get at least a finger on it before the navel-tugging force swept them away.
The landing was impressively gentle, for a portkey anyway, setting them all down in a room full of cushions that apparently served as a foyer. They were all standing and straightened by the time the maitre d' entered, smiling jovially and reminding Neville of Professor Flitwick both in temperament and stature. "Mr. Potter, excellent, your table is right this way," he said, bowing and leading them out without a single batted eyelash at the motley group.
"Now that's service," said Harry with a grin, following along with everyone trailing after in a long line that reminded Neville of many of the processions they'd walked, back when all they'd wanted to do was fall down and ignore everyone awhile.
They were led into the main dining room, to a large, round table right in the centre, set for seven. "They can even count," Snape remarked, confirming Neville's assumption that the initial reservation had been for something other than their current number, probably including Gran.
"It's not that hard to adjust from eight to seven," said Harry, falling back enough to give Snape a little nudge with his shoulder. "Don't be mean to the staff, or I'll make you get the tip."
Snape snorted. "It might be worth it."
Neville giggled, and they all seated themselves, with Snape to Neville's right, then Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ian and finally Remus on Neville's left. The maitre d' smiled, and Neville was once again surprised that he made no remark and showed no recognition of the varying levels of fame and infamy around the table, aside from his initial comment to Harry. "Mr. Potter informs me this is a celebration, would you like champagne at the start or end of your meal?" he offered, and Neville couldn't help but return his smile.
"After, I think," said Remus, getting agreeing nods from around the group. "We've got an early day tomorrow, so it's best to avoid temptation."
"Of course, Mr. Lupin. A single glass of wine with each course would not go amiss, I hope?" said the little man, and this time it was Harry who answered.
"No, that's fine, go ahead and choose appropriate wines for everyone's food," he said amiably, confirming Neville's suspicion that the 'we' paying for the meal would largely be Harry, who could afford a few extravagant dinners on his pay packet as a Seeker both talented and beloved by the populace.
"Excellent," replied the maitre d' with a bow, gliding away to consult with several men waiting off to one side, all dressed in classic black waiters' robes and white aprons.
One of them glided forward, shadowed by the other two. "I am Etienne, your waiter, and this is Laurent, the sommelier who will choose your wines, and Sebastian, who will assist me in your care," he said; though the maitre d' had been undeniably English, it appeared the waiters were as French as the food.
Neville resisted the urge to say, "Hello, Etienne," in the same singsong voice he'd used to greet his kindergarten teacher; instead he smiled and looked around for a menu.
Etienne began to recite their choices for an appetizer, not that Neville had any idea of what any of it was, since it was all in French. There was an expectant pause at the end of his recitation which was just beginning to stretch embarrassingly long when Snape came to everyone's rescue and said, "Seafood, chicken, various things on toast, or more seafood."
Laughter ran around the table and Neville smiled. "I'll have the third one," he said, looking around. "Is it individual servings?"
"Oui," said Etienne, looking both perturbed and relieved. Neville had a feeling that he'd earn every Knut of his tip, and Harry would make Snape pay dearly.
"I'll have the scallops," said Remus calmly, and they went like that around the group while everyone ordered.
Sebastian nipped away, presumably to the kitchen to relay their orders, and Laurent stepped forward, trading places with Etienne. "May I suggest a bottle of..." he began.
"One bottle of whatever you suggest for the group per course," said Snape, not even letting him start his spiel. "Everyone has to work in the morning, so smaller portions are preferred, and make sure Sebastian keeps our water glasses full."
Laurent looked a bit like someone had popped his balloon, and Neville smiled and resisted the urge to pat his hand.
Hermione came to his rescue. "We're sure to enjoy whatever you recommend, but we've all got to be up early so we can't risk overindulgence. We'll trust your judgement on the variety and portion of each wine," she said, and they all nodded along, knowing that it was a bit of a stretch to serve seven people on one bottle of wine, especially during the main course.
"Of course, mademoiselle," said Laurent, mollified. He and Etienne moved away, and the whole table breathed a sigh of relief, relaxing back to just being friends despite the swanky surroundings.
"You are so getting the tip, and it had better be generous," said Harry teasingly, nudging Snape's arm. "Even Neville was smoother than you."
"At least I understood the menu," Snape replied, trying to look grumpy and ending up more pleased than anything.
"I'm sure they would have explained the choices, had anyone asked," said Ian mildly, sipping his water.
Remus chuckled. "I notice we're the only table with golden flatware, is that your doing, Harry?" he asked, changing the subject from Snape's incorrigible behaviour to something a bit more pleasant.
Harry ducked his head and grinned. "Yeah, I, er, asked for no silver on the table."
"Thank you, that was very thoughtful," said Remus, looking unaccountably pleased.
Neville squirmed a little, remembering his mistaken belief that Harry and Remus had been trysting, and his own foolish jealousy. "Yes, thank you, Harry. I know this must have been mostly your doing," said Neville, smiling shyly.
"You're both welcome, and of course it was really Hermione's idea, she just made me take care of the execution," said Harry with a sheepish, pleased little smile, obviously happy at how everything was turning out.
"Well, thank you to Hermione as well, then," said Remus smoothly, and Neville felt a warm rush of rather proprietary pride, not only that Remus was his friend and partner, but that all these people were his friends, that they forgave his bumbling and his faults, and wanted to spend an evening in a posh restaurant celebrating the one area in which he'd turned out to be competent. Even if he never made a go of things with Remus, this moment meant a lot to him, sitting at this table and knowing that Harry, Ian, even Snape had seen past what he had been and found value in who he was.
It was the sort of feeling that could almost make a bloke confident enough to try and pull a man of twice his age and experience.
By the time they'd got around to the final course and champagne, Neville was feeling more than a little giddy, as much from the atmosphere as the wine. Everyone had laughed, even Snape, and the waiters had eventually become, if not happy about, then at least resigned to their role in the merriment. Their smooth dance was constantly interrupted by people switching plates, couples kissing while Laurent was trying to pour wine between them, Ron or Harry asking for odd utensils to add to the glittering sculpture they were creating in the centre of the table, and even the occasional other patron who would brave faux pas and Snape's reputation to try and speak to the Man Who Lived and his table full of heroes.
Laurent had a Magnum of champagne and an odd machete-like knife, and stood quietly by waiting for them to notice him. "In the days of old, Muggle generals would celebrate their victories on the battlefield this way," he said, once he was sure all eyes on the table were turned to him. He slid the knife back along the surface of the bottle, then snapped it forward, sending the cork through the silverware sculpture with a pop and clink, though the various cutlery merely drifted apart and back together again, held as they were by Harry's magic.
Harry caught the cork when it passed between himself and Neville, grinning as he tossed it up into the gently spinning metal shapes until it integrated itself neatly into the whole. "Nice," said Harry, giving Laurent a wink that got him an accompanying glare from Snape.
The rest of the group applauded, as well as a smattering of people in the rest of the restaurant who had stopped to watch the show. "Thank you, Laurent," said Neville, as he was handed a glass of bubbling golden wine.
"You're welcome, of course, Monsieur," said Laurent, already moving along to pour for the rest of them, Remus next and Harry last.
"Which makes it time for a toast, of course," said Ron with a grin and a wink. "Who'll do the honours?"
"I will," said Remus, standing before anyone could protest, not that Neville had been about to. Amber eyes roamed the room before fixing on Neville's brown ones, and Remus cleared his throat and raised his glass. "To friends and partners, may you always find someone to appreciate you for who you are, rather than berate you for who you are not."
Neville smiled and touched his flute to Remus', turning to clink glasses with Harry as well before taking a sip of the excellent and likely expensive champagne. "Words of wisdom indeed," said Snape, sipping and then pressing a wine-soaked kiss to Harry's lips, much to everyone's amusement. It was amazing how quickly they'd grown accustomed to the two of them as lovers rather than enemies, but then, anything that mellowed Snape's acerbic wit was welcome, as was anything that gave Harry's life more meaning than the one-offs he'd been indulging in prior to his interest in Snape.
Ron, of course, had to improve upon this, and he dipped Hermione back and fed her champagne in a dramatic kiss, much to everyone's delight and her embarrassment. Ian shrugged and sipped his own wine in peace, though Neville didn't miss the note of longing in his face, and knew it echoed the longing in his own. Neville looked up to find Remus staring down at him intently, and his mouth went suddenly dry. "An excellent sentiment," he said, though it took two tries to get the words out.
"You know I appreciate you, don't you, Neville?" said Remus softly, fingertips brushing against Neville's where they clutched his wineglass.
Neville nodded dumbly, swallowing, unable to look away and feeling quite a bit like a rabbit caught in the wolf's gaze, wondering if he's about to be dinner or if the wolf had already fed.
Whatever Remus meant to do, the moment was lost when Sebastian and Etienne returned with two floating trays, each laden with plates of the evening's final treat. Le Chat Gris was famous for its pastry chef as much as anything else, and Neville could appreciate why -- they'd allowed him free reign to top off their celebration, so long as he minded Ian's allergy to peanuts and Snape's general dislike of tropical fruit, and from what Neville could tell, they'd been amply rewarded.
At the centre of each plate there was a pyramid that looked as though it might be chocolate cake, but that was just the start of their treat. It was surrounded by four smaller domes of what Neville thought was likely ice cream, each one decorated with a spiral of rich purple sauce of some sort. Spun sugar rose up from the pyramid in golden swirls, like caramel frozen in the midst of pouring down from above. At the very height of the creation was a single cloudberry pierced with sugar, just waiting to be plucked and eaten, which made Neville glance at Remus' plate to see that his was decorated with a round little redberry instead. There were berries scattered around the plate as well, each nesting in the centre of a little swirl of chocolate sauce, about a dozen in all.
"It's too lovely to eat!" said Hermione, admiring the way the sugar glistened in the understated lighting.
Etienne looked pleased with himself, and Neville couldn't help but agree that the creations deserved a smug look or two, especially if he'd chosen for them. "I'm sure they're as good as they look," said Neville with a grin, though he, too, hesitated to pick up his fork and dig in.
"There is one more thing," said Etienne, and suddenly a whole crowd of waiters surrounded them, each one with a small golden pitcher and their wands drawn. "En flambe!"
Each waiter poured something that smelled like brandy into the dishes with a deft touch, then lit the alcohol with their wands, making the whole plate burn with blue and green fire. Neville watched as the ice cream, strangely, stayed frozen, but the golden tower of sugar began to run and melt until the pyramid was covered in gooey caramel, with the now-caramelized cloudberry resting neatly on its point, and all traces of the brandy burned away by the magical flame.
That engendered a great deal more clapping from the table, and Neville was grinning from ear to ear even as he picked up his fork. "Now is it safe to eat?" he asked, grinning up at Etienne, who had lit his plate personally -- the waiters had quickly discerned who were the real "stars" of their meal and had given Neville and Remus special treatment ever since, much to Harry's delight and Neville's bemusement.
"It is safe and delicious, Monsieur," said Etienne, smiling. "May I recommend you drop the cloudberry into your champagne?"
Neville smiled back, blushing, and did so, watching the bubbles rise around it as the sugar coating began to dissolve. He turned to see Remus had done the same with his redberry and clinked glasses, grinning. "To new experiences," he said shyly, toasting the group at large and getting a laugh and raised glasses right back, each with its own berry. Neville took a sip, appreciating how the trick had sweetened the wine with subtle flavours of caramel and fruit. "Is it good with redberry?" he asked Remus, setting his glass down and digging into his pyramid, eager to taste the caramel-soaked treat despite the many courses they'd already eaten.
"Delicious," said Remus, digging into one of the little mounds of ice cream to find that there were iceberries inside, no doubt what had kept it cold during the show.
The pyramid proved to have a centre of molten chocolate that made a delicious sauce for everything, and before Neville knew it he'd devoured half his plate, enjoying the sharp bite of the iceberries and the lingering warmth of the cake, the cool creamy ice cream and delicate cloudberries. He looked up, embarrassed, only to find that everyone else had tucked in as well, though Snape and Harry were busy feeding bites to one another, and Ian had been much more methodical with his, keeping his plate as neat as possible while Neville's was a gooey mess.
"I see you've all enjoyed my treat! Good, excellent," said a voice right behind Neville, and he jumped and let out a little squeak, turning to see the source, a tall, thin man with tiny round glasses and a wide, grinning mouth. He was dressed in white chef's robes, complete with puffy hat, and watched them eat with an expectant air. "I am the pastry chef, Yvon."
This time it was Ian who came to their rescue. "We're honoured you've decided to come out and see us, the petit gateau is delicious," he said, gesturing toward his plate. "The visual artistry is only a small part of its hidden delights."
Yvon looked terribly pleased at this, and Neville breathed a sigh of relief. At least someone seemed to know how to get around nearly all of the social hurdles, any one of which would have tripped Neville up, had he been alone.
"Yes, thank you," Harry was saying, his wine glass in one hand and the other twined with Snape's. "Everything tonight has been perfect, if you could pass our compliments on to the other chefs."
Yvon's smile widened, which Neville actually found a bit creepy, and he gave a little bow. "So it shall be done. Enjoy the finale to your grande banquet!"
A chorus of thanks followed him as he disappeared back into the kitchen, and Snape smirked. "I think you annoyed him, asking him to be your message boy," he said, freeing his hand to take another bite of cake.
"You're still getting the tip," said Harry with a wink, and as if summoned, the maitre d' appeared at Harry's side where they held a whispered conversation over a small folder containing, no doubt, the exorbitant bill.
"As you wish," said Snape, though a chorus of protest rose up when it was revealed that Harry had gotten the rest, and in the end Snape only had to come up with a quarter of the rather substantial tip, with Ian, Ron and Hermione getting the rest, and Neville and Remus only allowed to put in a token Galleon each, for luck.
That taken care of, they polished off the rest of their sweets amongst much laughter and teasing, though Neville mostly sat apart and considered the life he was celebrating. He was happy, he thought, really happy to be here with his friends, but he wasn't so foolish as to think that it would last if he kept allowing himself to pine for Remus without summoning the courage to do something about his unrequited affections. Tonight wasn't the right time, despite the brief moment they'd connected during the toast, not with so much wine in his system and so much to do the next day, but as Neville popped the champagne-soaked cloudberry into his mouth and ate it, he resolved that it would be someday very soon indeed.
Neville was very glad the next morning that they'd had a healer and a potions expert along to provide everyone with vials of Sobering Solution and Harbinger's Hangover Helper, and doubly grateful that Remus had awakened enough before him that there was tea waiting to wash the taste away when he staggered out of his room and into the kitchen. It was barely past dawn, but they needed to pack all the orders and still make it to see Aurelius by eight thirty.
Ian was there, too, not having wanted to try and Apparate back to his flat, looking sleepily at them from the chaise lounge by the fire. "You two are up far too early," he said accusingly, throwing off the blankets and padding over, looking somewhat absurd in one of Neville's nightshirts. They'd all been too drunk to transfigure anything, so Ian had worn it as is, too small in the shoulders and baring a length of leg that might have been sexy if the shirt hadn't also been covered in a print of happily snoring kittens, a few of whom opened an eye to glare at them for the disturbance.
Neville giggled. "You knew we had work. Are you going to come along with me to deliver? What about you, Remus?"
"I don't think I should," said Remus, setting mugs of tea in front of both of them with a wry grin. "Besides, this way I can spend the morning pestering Snape to buy the rest of the Two-Thyme while you two are out."
Ian snorted. "You're a wicked man, Remus," he said solemnly, then spoiled it with a wide yawn. "I'll go with you, Neville, I've been meaning to stop by Anise's anyway for some stock for the infirmary." He paused for a sip of tea and added, "Don't give me that look, you know Snape won't touch commercial potions and I need some Skele-Gro and the like."
"You're just hoping to see the blond one," said Neville teasingly, giving Ian's shoulder a little nudge. "What's his name again?"
Ian blushed, and Neville's grin widened a bit. "Aurelius," Ian mumbled into his tea, and Remus chuckled.
"If you're done playing matchmaker," said Remus, with his usual amused calm, "I was thinking of making breakfast. Berry pancakes, perhaps?"
Neville grinned; he'd been bragging about them to Ian, but Ian hadn't believed his tales of their deliciousness, so Remus was offering to defend their honour. "Brilliant," said Neville, stretching. "Do I need to get the berries, or did you already save some out?" The bushel basket of edible berries for jam had come home with them, but was still packed away with their things as far as Neville knew.
"Got them already," said Remus, pulling a sieve full of wet fruit out of the sink. "Eggs as well, boys?"
"And sausage, please," said Neville sweetly, pretending to bat his eyelashes. "We'll need all our strength to carry everything around."
"Ian's perfectly capable of managing the resizing spells," said Remus, but he pulled the sausages out of the cold box anyway, much to Neville's delight.
Neville was actually glad Ian was going along with him, since their last stop would be the jeweller they'd decided was most likely to want their bounty, Pedro Corundum, a Spanish wizard who specialized in natural rarities and commissioned work. Neville wanted to see if he could find or commission something for Remus, some small token to show how much his faith meant to Neville, and he wanted Ian's opinion on his choices.
Breakfast was a quiet affair; Ian nearly fell back to sleep waiting for it to cook and then limited himself to appreciative sounds while he ate the pancakes, while Remus and Neville fell into their established routine of simply enjoying one another's company without the need for pointless chatter. Especially at six thirty in the morning.
Eventually everyone was fed and showered and they all took the Floo to Severus' parlour, amused to find the house quiet and its occupants still abed, presumably with one another. They put a silencing spell up in the storeroom to keep from disturbing Harry and Snape's no doubt well-earned rest, and began to sort the orders. Ian made himself useful counting the payments, not a one of which turned up short though one did have a sneaky charmed coin included that would allow the owner to retrieve the whole bag once he got his delivery or, if he were lucky, their whole vault full of gold. Instead they left it for Harry to give to Ron, along with the would-be thief's name and address, and filled his order anyway, since he had, after all, paid in full.
Neville and Remus weighed and measured, making sure no one was shorted and adding the last of each batch to the orders of those who had ordered most -- it cost them nothing to overfill the orders, since there wasn't enough extra to be worth selling wholesale, and would hopefully bring in goodwill from their customers. In the end Neville got to check over the lists one last time while Ian and Remus packed them up and charmed them down into half a dozen small boxes, each with the customer's name and their business name as well emblazoned on the top, burned into the wood with a bit of showy wandwork. "They can send the boxes with their owl if they order," Remus explained, not mentioning that they didn't expect to be seeing the seventh client again, whose meagre order was packed in a plain cardboard box instead.
"It's brilliant," said Neville, carefully stacking them in one of their packs in the order in which they'd be doing the deliveries, then handing that bag off to Ian and packing the case full of goldberries and rainbowberries in another and slinging that over his own shoulder.
"Eight twenty-five," said Neville, checking his pocket watch. "We'll just have time to Floo to the Leaky Cauldron and walk." He dismissed the silencing spell and headed upstairs, amused to find the house still quiet, though he thought he could hear a soft susurration coming from upstairs, of someone either talking softly or snoring loudly. Neville snickered at the idea that it might be the latter, especially considering the sizeable instrument Snape possessed for creating such a sound.
Ian and Remus followed along. "I'll see if the lovebirds want pancakes, too," said Remus with a twinkle in his eye, his way of reassuring them that he didn't mind missing out on this aspect of the business.
"Off we go!" said Neville cheerfully, Flooing into Diagon Alley with Ian right behind.
Fortunately the many cups of tea and busy morning had woken them both sufficiently, and nothing got broken as they stumbled out into the dingy bar and then made their way up the sunlit street toward the apothecary. "You won't say anything to him, will you?" Ian asked just before they got to the door.
"I won't, but you've got to help me do another errand this afternoon, all right?" Neville replied, though of course he'd been planning on getting Ian's opinion anyway.
"Neville!" said Aurelius cheerfully, opening the door for them both. "And Ian Fizzitsh! We haven't seen you in awhile, I had thought you might have gone to another supplier."
Ian flushed and Neville grinned. "He's helping me on my deliveries today," he said cheerfully, going inside with Ian trailing along behind. "He's been a good friend to me and my partner since Remus fell out of a tree and took ill."
"A kindness indeed," said Aurelius, and Neville couldn't help but notice that the look he gave Ian was much warmer than the one he gave Neville, though both were amusingly speculative. "You have our full order?"
That was Ian's cue, and he managed not to fumble as he pulled the small box out of the pack and set it on the counter. He pulled their shrunken items out and began enlarging them, while Neville closed the box and handed it to Ian. "If you need anything, send this box along with your owl order and we'll get it back to you right away," said Neville cheerfully. "There's a preservation charm built into the box, and as long as you've got someone who can resize the items, then you're set."
"This is very clever," said Aurelius, his eyes warming up to Neville once again, as if he'd just been reminded why he'd been looking forward to seeing Neville this morning. "You'll go far if you keep this up, good service is worth a lot in this business."
"Speaking of which," said Ian, walking back to where they were and leaving the entire counter covered with bags, boxes and vials of ingredients, though he'd left the bushel of apples on the floor, "I'm in need of some things to restock the infirmary. I don't suppose you'd be willing to fill my list a little early?"
Aurelius glanced at the bounty they'd brought and looked torn. "Could you leave the list and come back?" he said, then brightened. "We could all have lunch!"
Neville smiled. "That sounds perfect, it should give us plenty of time to do the rest of our deliveries. I might have to bow out, but I'm sure you and Ian will have plenty to talk about."
Ian blushed, but he recovered quickly. "Yes, that's fine, is noon all right?" he said, fishing a bit of parchment out of his pocket and handing it over.
Aurelius scanned the list, then smiled back at them. "Yes, that's fine, I think we've got everything here in stock so it won't be any problem." He glanced back at it, then at Neville speculatively. "I don't suppose this is on your tab?" he asked.
"No, no," said Neville, chuckling. "Ian's got plenty of funds for his infirmary to pay for his own supplies. He's just doing me a favour today."
Aurelius nodded, looking surprisingly pleased for someone who'd obviously been hoping to reduce his debts. "Excellent. Well, I'll have this gathered and a bill put together when you get back. Noon?"
"Noon," said Ian, shaking his hand.
Neville shook his hand as well, happy that everything went so smoothly, and happier that he'd managed to transfer Aurelius' surprising attentions onto Ian. "He liiiikes you," Neville teased, unwilling to let such a brilliant opportunity pass.
"Let's hope so," said Ian with a little blush. "I mean, he might've just wanted to please a good customer, I've been giving Snape all my commissions lately and that's got to have hurt them a little."
Neville snorted. "He likes you, and was perfectly happy to be having you for lunch all by yourself."
"Having lunch with me," Ian corrected, though his cheeks stayed amusingly pink.
They arrived at the next customer's business, and then the next and the next, until they'd managed to deliver everything and still have some time to spare. Neville had filled Ian in on his idea while they walked, and was pleased that Ian, too, thought Remus would appreciate something of beauty to remind him that he wasn't starving anymore, so long as it wasn't too flash.
They arrived at the rather imposing shop front, the marble above the door inlaid in gold letters that read, "Pedro Corundum, Jeweller, est. 1898." The windows were full of glorious examples, both of the bounty of nature such as a single glittering blue Sapphire Rose kept safe in a stasis orb much nicer than the ones Neville used, and of the delicate craftsmanship he offered. There were a dozen butterflies flitting through one window, coming to rest on flowers made of gold and crystal, each insect built of platinum and stained glass or perhaps even gemstones and charmed to move just as though they were real and alive. It was impressive, and Neville suddenly felt rather small and underdressed.
"No rainbowberries in the window," said Ian, coming to stand beside Neville and admire the butterflies. "There was a goldberry bracelet, but I think if he had anything made of rainbowberry, it'd be in the window with the Sapphire Rose."
Neville took a deep breath and nodded. "Well," he said, turning to the heavy marble doorway, "Let's see if anyone's home."
The door swung open as they approached, and Neville was surprised to see a Goblin on the other side, assessing them with beady black eyes that didn't seem to miss much. "Master Corundum is with a client, but I can show you anything that catches your fancy," he said, waddling over to the cases and walking under the little lifting counter without it even brushing his hair. He reappeared momentarily, presumably standing on something, and said, "Well?"
"Oh, sorry," said Neville, realising he'd been staring. "Actually, I'm not here to buy, well, I am, but not primarily," he said, pulling out one of his cards and handing it over. "L&L, Ltd., Herbologists and Suppliers of Potion Ingredients, Commissions Accepted," the little rectangle said, with their names and the Owl address of their greenhouses below.
"Hm," said the Goblin, cocking his head. "You've found something the master might be interested in?" he said, sounding doubtful but curious.
"Yes, sir, we found a rainbowberry thicket, and I've got thirty-six goldberries and six rainbowberries," said Neville, forcing himself to sound confident. He'd saved five goldberries out for Snape, the most any one potion generally needed, and left them with an even three dozen, a surprising number for a single harvest even without the precious rainbowberries.
"Indeed. How old?" said the Goblin, doubt still clouding his voice, not that Neville could recall ever dealing with a Goblin who didn't think all humans deserved some measure of mistrust.
"Four days, but they were stored in a stasis orb within minutes of picking. They were wand-picked, no human hand has touched them, though they were inspected for insects before I sealed the orb," Neville babbled, though truthfully it was all information the Goblin would likely demand anyway.
"Hm. Let me check on the master," said the Goblin tersely, then disappeared back behind the counter again.
"That was abrupt," said Ian, shaking his head.
Neville shrugged. "Goblins," he said. "Help me look for something for Remus while we wait?"
"Easier than selling treasure to a Goblin," said Ian with a wink, an old saying that was more than applicable at the moment.
They perused the sparsely filled cases together, each item getting ample space to be appreciated on its own, the implication being that quality far outstripped any need for quantity. Most of the things were for women, or men with much more ostentatious tastes than quiet Remus, though even the most gaudy were tasteful in their own way if only because the gaudiness stemmed from the use of natural beauty.
There was a white velvet half-mannequin wearing a pair of earrings made of Ice Dragon tears, with the matching necklace arranged to make it seem as though the droplets had dripped from the earrings and fallen upon the shoulders and neck; the charmed platinum chain was fine as thread but stiff with magic so that each gem would lie precisely where the jeweller meant it to. On a shelf next to the odd mannequin there were three pairs of cufflinks, one big chunks of gold with a glow like lava showing from the cracks on their surface, one a pair of Peridot Eyes that reminded Neville uncomfortably of Stuart, and the third a set of spiralling snakes in silver that moved endlessly through and around the loops holding them loosely caged.
Neville bent close to another case, admiring a subtle gold ring that seemed to shimmer and flow with all the colours that gold could be mined in, as though the ring were still liquid and the different metals refused to mix into a homogenous whole. Remus might like that, or the one next to it of similar make with three small gemstones set in it, like rocks breaking the surface of a river.
"I'm glad to see you admire my wares," said a new voice, and Neville looked up to see a tall, heavyset man with a huge handlebar moustache and a very white grin beneath it. "Grizznock tells me you have something to show me?"
"Yes, Master Corundum, sir," said Neville, feeling eleven again and as though he was meeting Hagrid for the first time, though truth to tell Corundum was really only an inch taller than Ian and quite a bit better groomed than either of the two of them, let alone Hagrid. "Would you like to see them?"
Corundum pulled a velvet tray out from some hidden shelf and placed it on the counter, putting a jeweller's scope and other small tools next to it. "Yes, yes, I will examine and make an offer, should the merchandise suit my needs," he said cheerfully. "Did you want to consider a trade, perhaps?"
"More a separate purchase," said Neville, taking the pack off his shoulder and pulling out the wooden orb case. "Can't use company funds for a gift for a friend," he explained, setting the case on the counter.
"Good brand of orbs, not as good as what I use, but very serviceable. I approve," said Corundum, surprising Neville with his easygoing attitude.
"Thank you, sir, they came highly recommended," he said, opening the case to reveal its contents, the egg-shaped stasis orb nestled against green velvet, the berries shining against it like some ancient treasure hiding among jungle greenery.
"Lovely," said Corundum, his tone more serious and with a note of wonder. "You truly found six rainbowberries in one harvest?" he said, lifting the orb out with long fingers that seemed almost too thin compared to the bulk of his body, slender and dextrous like a piano player's. "I can already tell you I wish to purchase most if not all of them," he said, opening the orb carefully and directing a single berry onto the black velvet, where it floated just above the surface, safely nestled in cushioning charms. The berries would still be susceptible to bruising so fresh, and only a handful of wizarding jewellers in the world knew how to cure them so they could be worn safely and still keep their beauty.
"Thank you, sir," said Neville, breathing out. Ian, he noticed finally, had backed off to give them space, going back to one of the cases they'd mostly skipped because of the silver -- or possibly platinum, which would have been safe for Remus but out of Neville's budget -- that seemed to dominate the pieces inside.
Neville went back to admiring the rings while Corundum examined each berry for flaws, lining them up in shining rows, the goldberries decorating the velvet like very expensive beadwork. Grizznock came over and silently pulled out the tray of rings for Neville, earning him a grateful smile and a nod of understanding -- the master needed silence while he made such an important decision.
Neville put his hand over the tray and got a nod of permission before he picked up the ring that caught his eye the most, turning the smooth metal over and examining the tiny stones caught in the river of flowing metal. "Moonstones," said the Goblin shortly, and Neville nodded, knowing he'd already decided to buy it, provided he had enough gold in his vault.
"Bring that here," said Corundum, and Neville nearly dropped it in startlement, managing to catch it in his palm and bring it over. All of the berries were now out on the velvet, the rainbowberries throwing colour all around the room, shining as if with an inner illumination rather than simply reflected light. Corundum took the ring and examined it. "Who is it for?"
"My, er, partner, sir. He can't have any silver against his skin, though, is this all gold?" said Neville, though of course the card had both their names on it, and Remus was nearly as infamous as Snape these days.
Corundum nodded. "You will want two that match, then, both moonstone?" he said, pulling out a small card made of creamy paper and writing something inside with a quill.
Neville considered protesting, but he knew how the gift of a ring would look to someone who didn't know them, and might look to those who did, depending upon the finger Remus chose to adorn with it. He didn't have a chance to answer anyway, because Corundum thrust the card at him and then turned to speak to Grizznock in guttural Goblin, presumably about their purchase.
Inside the card it had a list of three items and three numbers, and it took Neville a moment to process that this was his offer. He walked over to Ian and looked down at the case, wondering just how they'd managed to fall into such a situation. "Ian," whispered Neville, feeling a little dazed, "Remus sent that book along with you, right, the one with prices in?"
"Yeah, of course," said Ian, pulling the small volume out of his pocket. He handed it over without a word, and Neville skimmed until he found the entry for the rainbowberry bush. There it was, each of the berries with a price per ounce next to it, the numbers getting progressively larger as he went down the list. The goldberries were reasonably offered for, assuming they weighed about an ounce apiece, but the rainbowberries had no price at all, just a notation that said, "None in market."
"None in market, what's that mean?" said Neville, a little too loudly.
"It means, my boy, that you have walked in and offered me the only six rainbowberries currently for sale, a matched set that I can use to make jewellery even the Minister would be hard pressed to afford, and his wife would make him mortgage the house to own," said Corundum, much to Grizznock's vexation. "I believe the price is fair, but if you wish to go to open auction you could, no doubt, make more."
Neville nodded slowly; he'd known the berries were worth a lot, but the number on the card seemed to have too many digits to be money that wasn't going to buy a house. "It's fair," said Neville, walking back to admire their precious find one more time. Even if they kept most of the cash in the L&L, Ltd. vault that he was supposed to go open with Remus when this business was done, he could easily withdraw enough of a salary to pay for the extra ring. "I accept," he said, sensing that in this case to dicker over a few hundred Galleons would be an insult to them both. "You're welcome to keep the orb if you don't have a free one," said Neville, and Corundum nodded and began levitating the berries back into the open egg.
"This is a good bargain," said Grizznock, taking the paper from Neville's limp grasp and nodding. "You said the rings were to be paid separately?"
Neville bit his lip; he wasn't sure he had that much in his vault until they got the funds from Corundum to transfer over. "Can I pay for this one now, and the other when it's ready?" Neville asked, hoping he wouldn't offend anyone.
"Of course, that's very common," said Corundum, his demeanour just as cheerful as before, but warmer somehow, as though he appreciated that fortune had smiled on all of them today. "Do you have a vault for your company yet?"
Neville blushed. "We're opening it today," he said, watching as the final gleaming berry nestled itself on top of the pile and the orb was closed. "Pretty much directly after this, in fact, I'll need to Floo Remus."
"You are the Lupin and Longbottom from the war, no?" said Corundum, his gaze suddenly sharp as he looked down at Neville's young, earnest face.
Neville nodded. "Yes, sir, Harry's efforts with the Ministry have allowed Remus to be a person again," he said, wanting it understood that they were truly partners and not just names. "It was his idea, actually, he found the site where we've done most of our harvesting, and invited me to help once he thought of also raising some of our own."
Corundum nodded. "Perhaps you can have him Floo here, and we can share a cup of coffee before you brave the Goblins of Gringotts, eh?" he offered, smiling in a way that Neville found disconcertingly fatherly. "We will talk about the sorts of things I wish you to find for me."
Ian came forward and gave Neville's shoulder a squeeze. "I'll leave you to it, then, it's almost time for my lunch, er, thing."
Neville grinned. "It's a lunch date, Ian, don't think it's not. Give Aurelius my regrets."
"I will," said Ian, turning to Corundum. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Master Corundum, and I hope someday I have someone to gift with your work and the money to do so."
Corundum grinned at that and slapped Ian on the shoulder. "You keep helping out this one, and your luck will come to you," he said, and Neville felt his cheeks pinking again.
Ian took his leave and Corundum himself led Neville back into the depths of the shop and into an open courtyard that shone with afternoon light. "We will have coffee here," he said with a surety, then pointed Neville a door on the far side. "Fireplace through there. I will box up your gift and arrange the bank draft with Grizznock, who handles all money."
"Smart move," said Neville with a shy grin. "I don't suppose he's got a brother who freelances?"
Corundum laughed, a big belly laugh that showed his white teeth off and made Neville feel clever, and small. "I'll ask him, so he can give me his favourite stupid human look."
Neville chuckled and nodded, then Corundum went back into the shop and Neville walked over to the far door. It opened easily under his touch, the hinges well-oiled so that even the heavy wood wasn't a challenge to move, revealing a Floo room, a tradition as antiquated in England as the courtyard. Neville tossed the powder in and tried Snape's place first, lucking out when the dust cleared and he could see all three of them sitting in the parlour, enjoying a cup of tea and, from what Neville could see, breakfast for at least two of them. "Remus, Master Corundum would like to meet with us both, can you come through for a coffee?"
"He hasn't tried to cheat you on the berries, has he?" Snape asked sharply, sharing a concerned glance with Remus.
"No, no," said Neville hastily. "His offer was more than fair, that's settled. He wants to discuss future commissions, things for us to keep an eye out for. I think he mostly wants to meet you, he seems very curious about us, you know how it is."
Remus did indeed know how it was and said so; fortunately he hadn't begun work in the greenhouses yet, so a quick freshening charm was all it took to make him presentable. He stepped into the fireplace, tossing powder at his end and letting the existing Floo connection draw him into London while Neville scrambled to get out of the way. Another charm got the soot off them both, and Neville couldn't help but give Remus a hug. "Oh, Remus," he said excitedly, glancing around though of course they were alone in the small, sturdy inner room, "I didn't know how much they were worth!"
"What do you mean?" said Remus sharply, turning a worried eye on Neville.
Neville told him what they'd got for the goldberries, which got an appreciative whistle, then dropped the real news -- the rainbowberries' true worth. "The book just said, 'None in Market,' so I decided to trust him, I mean, he offered to let me try to auction them instead but he seemed so keen on having the whole set, apparently it matters when they grow all in a clump like that, they match somehow."
Remus let out a low whistle. "I knew there were none on the market, but I didn't realise they were worth that much. Corundum's honest, he wouldn't want it to get out he'd cheated you, so you can definitely trust the price; though it might be ten percent lower than you'd get otherwise, it's worth it not to have the hassle."
Neville was amused that Remus was thinking out loud, but he wanted to make sure they weren't being rude to their very generous host. "Come on, let's go meet him," said Neville, giving Remus' hand a tug.
"What? Oh, of course, I'm sorry," said Remus sheepishly, grinning like a boy who's suddenly found out that he's getting what he wanted for Christmas after all.
Neville just shook his head with an indulgent smile and led Remus back out into the open courtyard, where Corundum was already seated with steaming coffee in front of him. "I took the liberty of choosing cafe con leche for your English palates," he said with a wink, pointing to small cups of muddy-looking drink that steamed gently in the sun.
Remus held out his hand for Corundum to shake and got a smile in reply. "You are Remus Lupin, yes?" he said, and his grin widened when Remus nodded. "Not so fierce, you are a man as your boy said. I am Pedro."
"You may call me Remus of course," he said, sitting down and taking up one of the cups, sipping carefully. "Neville tells me you're interested in having us find other items for you?"
"Yes, yes," said Corundum excitedly, setting his coffee down and leaning forward, talking with his long-fingered hands like a conductor. "There are many rare things in my shop, but many more I do not have access to, and I am no longer young and limber like you and your boy," he said, shooting Neville a wink. "I wish for you to find me treasures to sell, I pay fair value, Neville can tell you."
"It's more than fair, yes," said Remus, unabashedly admitting that they'd discussed it before emerging. "If you're always so generous, I'm sure we will be more than happy to find what we can, though only things within our purview, plants and certain insects."
Corundum nodded. "Of course, of course, I have no use for treasures I did not make myself, and I can buy precious metals and gems like any jeweller. No, I want plants such as the rainbowberries, and perhaps a few rare animal items, though of course you may refuse any commission I offer."
"It sounds like we can easily come to an agreement," said Neville, not wanting to be forever relegated to the status of 'boy'. "I might have another specimen for you, but right now I'm trying to see if I can grow more in the greenhouse."
Corundum looked properly intrigued. "I won't ask, because such vagueness means it is of a value to tempt even a man such as myself to try and convince you to part with it early," he said, nodding.
Remus shot him an odd look, but Neville knew that Corundum would do much better selling the Fire Briar Rose in his shop window than Neville and Remus could hope to do on open auction with their lack of a proper reputation. They sipped their coffee and talked for several minutes, Corundum bringing up examples of things he'd love to see and the two of them taking mental notes, Neville already planning a trip to the South American jungles in his head, but not until spring for them, when it would be fall south of the equator, and time for another harvest.
Eventually Grizznock came looking for Corundum, who passed Neville the box and bank draft with a wink. "I will send Grizznock with you to authenticate the draft and get your payment," he said, nodding at the box.
"That would be wonderful, thank you," said Neville, both happy and nervous about spending more time with the Goblin.
Remus eyed the box but Neville mouthed 'later', pocketing it instead, and tucking the draft away as well, once he'd shown Remus the impressive number on it. Grizznock returned, scowling, and led them out a side door that led almost directly onto the front steps of Gringotts bank. They trooped up, curious eyes following the unlikely procession of a Goblin, a werewolf and a teenager on their way into the bank.
Once inside, Grizznock took them directly to a desk, baring his teeth at the other Goblin behind it in what Neville supposed might be a smile. "Blopsnit," he said, his voice even and just a bit threatening. "I have a draft for these fine people, who also wish to open a business account in which to deposit it, and then the young one needs to transfer personal funds to Corundum."
"Busy, busy," said the other Goblin, reaching a hand out, presumably for the paperwork. Neville handed over the draft, as well as the papers that Gran's lawyers had said the bank would want. "You are Lupin and Longbottom?" he said sharply.
"Yes, sir," said Neville, and Remus nodded, his shoulders tense.
"Good to see werewolves with rights again," said Blopsnit, teeth bared again in that unnerving smile.
Remus returned it and it was just as predatory, sending shivers up Neville's spine. "Better on this end, I assure you," he said, fishing in his robes and pulling out the pouch with all their thus-far-accumulated gold. "This is to go into the business vault as well."
"You kept out household expenses?" said Neville, glancing at the bulging little sack.
"Of course, and once the vault is open we'll be able to transfer into our personal vaults, and draw from it as Corundum has done as well," said Remus, smiling reassuringly.
Neville relaxed and Blopsnit's quill flew over parchment as he did all the necessary paperwork for them.
"Master said you need an accountant," said Grizznock suddenly, making Neville jump, though he did manage not to squeak.
"That's correct," said Remus. "I've kept the books up until now, but the size of this sale makes it clear to me that we should hire an accountant."
Grizznock nodded. "Owl to the address on the card?"
"Yes, just have him use your name as a referral," said Neville, unable to keep from grinning a little. "We'll know we can trust him then."
Grizznock seemed to take this for the compliment it was, and he nodded. "He'll be ages, too much parchment for businesses, bah," he said, obviously part of an old argument.
"Would you like me to get the draft at another teller for you?" Neville asked, sensing his impatience. "Your master must need you back as soon as possible."
Grizznock nodded, looking almost pleased at Neville's ability to handle his temper, and anticipate his needs as well. He turned to Blopsnit and said formally, "You accept the authenticity of the draft?"
"Yes, yes, take the boy and go. I'll need him to sign things, though, so don't leave the building," he said, turning back to the pile of papers in front of him.
"You'll be fine?" Neville asked, touching Remus' shoulder.
"Yes, of course," said Remus, pulling a smaller version of their ledger from his pocket. "I'm going to make a few notes from our meeting with Corundum."
"Brilliant," said Neville, giving his shoulder a squeeze and then allowing Grizznock to lead him up to an unoccupied Goblin at one of the tall counters. He managed to get the transfer done without having to go down into the vaults, a state of affairs that pleased everyone involved, and soon Grizznock was making his way out the door while Neville wandered back over to Remus.
"What did you buy, anyway?" Remus asked nonchalantly, though Neville knew him well enough to recognize the burning curiosity that lingered under his tone.
"Something for you," he replied, sitting down and grinning. "You'll get it over lunch, so long as it's your treat."
Remus chuckled. "Not a hard bargain at all," he said, touching the back of Neville's hand once, gently, before going back to his note-taking. "Where d'you find Diamond Dew, anyway?"
"Plants growing on saint's graves," said Neville nonchalantly, though of course it was more complicated than that. It had to be a specific plant, specific saints, and the dew had to form naturally during certain very specific planetary alignments, and then if it wasn't harvested before morning, it would dissolve with the rest of the morning's dew come sunrise. "Usually you've got to get a Divination, check the Astronomy charts, see what's coming up that might be a big event for the forces of light."
"Hm. Special trip, then," he said, making a notation.
"We should do South America in spring, when it's fall there. The platinuts and goldfruit he wants will be ready to pick then, and there's a lot of other things we can harvest for Snape and his lot as well," said Neville, pointing to a small grouping that Remus had already written down. "Phoenixes of Paradise are said to bloom in May, and not flame until the solstice in June."
"Good, good, we'll have to get different gear, so planning ahead..." Remus trailed off, making more notes, using his wand to drag plants of the same local area together. Neville chimed in with potions ingredients they could harvest in the same places, and slowly an itinerary began to form.
"Will you be able to care for the greenhouses if we're gone that many times?" Remus asked, staring at their suddenly busy schedule.
Neville bit his lip. "I'm not sure? I haven't got a good idea of how much work it is yet, and Hermione's said she's willing to help, when she's not busy lobbying for nonhuman rights."
"Snape will help as well, since helping means he can harvest," said Remus, referring to another agreement they'd made -- Snape assisted with the building, and even some planting and watering, and in turn he got to harvest from the greenhouses as needed so long as he left the parent plants alive, with certain exceptions like the Rose which was too valuable to fall under such a bargain.
"Brilliant. And that means Harry, too, when he's home," said Neville with a grin and a wink. "I'm glad he picked Snape," Neville added.
"Me, too," said Remus, closing the little book and tucking it away. "Will this take much longer?" he asked the Goblin, trying to decipher the upside-down mess.
"No," said Blopsnit, making a few more notations and then shoving the papers at them. "Both of you must sign at each red X." he said, pointing to the golden quills on either side of the desk.
Neville felt the tingle of magic as he picked his up, but he knew it was harmless; well, harmless in the sense that he wouldn't be in any danger unless he broke some part of the binding contract, or attempted to sign with a false or incomplete name. He signed his full name just as Remus had, penning it neatly below Remus' messy signatures and passing the Pages back to Blopsnit until they were all done.
"Want to see it?" Blopsnit asked, tucking the stack of papers away and pulling out a small velvet box with two keys nestled inside.
"That won't be necessary, we trust the integrity of Gringotts," said Remus, reaching out to take a key.
Neville took the other, holding it close for a moment before adding it to the small chain on which he kept his personal vault key, noting the differences between the two. "We know the full amount of our deposits will make it in safely," said Neville with a smile.
Blopsnit looked very satisfied with his hour's work. "Good," he said shortly, then his attention immediately turned to something else on his desk in an obvious dismissal.
"I'd be offended," said Neville, once they were safely on the street, "but in a way it's a compliment, that he doesn't expect us to require the same coddling a normal patron would."
"Goblins and werewolves have a strange history," said Remus with a shrug, leading Neville to a small Indian place where they sometimes got takeaway. "Let's see what it's like inside, shall we?" he said with a boyish grin, one of the expressions that made Neville realise that they weren't so far apart in age as all that, especially not for wizards.
"Let's," said Neville, following him into the dim, fragrant interior, stomach suddenly feeling as if it were full of Corundum's metal butterflies.
The interior dining space was draped in rich fabrics, making Neville think longingly of the quiet little tent they'd shared twice now. Beautifully carved screens were scattered around the room, creating private spaces, each with a lantern burning on the table, throwing patterns of light and shadow on the walls. The hostess led them to a small niche with a smile on her face. "It is good that you have finally decided to experience our food properly, Remus," she said, making a show of pouring them rose-flavoured water from a silver pitcher and then disappearing back up front with a mysterious little smile.
"What did she mean by that?" Neville asked, looking at the menu idly. He was surprised to find it had very little in common with the one they normally ordered from, the food arranged in a variety of full-course meals, for one or two or more people. "Oh, there's a tandoori meal."
Remus laughed, and Neville blushed a little at how easily distracted he was, but figured Remus had to know by now that food was one of Neville's vices. "I think hot and fresh, served in courses in the proper atmosphere, the food will be a world away from the half-congealed takeaway we usually have."
Neville chuckled, but he couldn't argue. "What will you have?" he asked, taking a sip of the water and finding it cool and soothing to his palate, the floral flavour a mere hint that tickled his nose as he drank.
"I was looking at the tandoori as well, but what if we shared this?" Remus replied, leaning around to show Neville a two-person meal farther down. It was more elaborate than the single meal, with several courses and an assortment of sweets to finish along with hot cardamom tea.
"Looks brilliant," said Neville, and just in time.
A waiter stopped at their table and took their orders, looking pleasantly satisfied when they chose the two-person mini banquet. "An excellent choice, one that will give much energy for later," he said, and Neville squirmed. "Will you want tea during the meal, rose milk, mango lassi, or perhaps something else to drink?"
"I'd like a mango lassi," said Remus, smiling.
"Rose milk, please," said Neville, craving more of the sweet flowery scent that lingered over the cool water.
"Just so," said the waiter, disappearing into the maze of screens.
"I didn't mean to embarrass you," said Remus unexpectedly, and Neville shook his head.
"No, I don't mind, I mean..." Neville faltered, then soldiered on. "I like that people think we could be together like that."
The smile that lit Remus' face was blinding, and warmed Neville like standing in a ray of sunshine. "So do I," said Remus softly, laying his hand over Neville's, his eyes warm and full of promise.
Neville wriggled a bit, half happiness and half embarrassed desire, then remembered the ring hiding in his pocket. "I've got something for you," he said, reaching in and pulling out the little box of midnight velvet. "I... after I saw you with the berries, I wanted you to have something that was lovely, that you could carry with you always to remind you that you're not starving and you're allowed beautiful things just like everyone else." The words came out in something of a rush, and Neville shoved the box at Remus without looking up, blushing furiously and nearly knocking over the little spinner rack of sauces that had appeared in the centre of the table, along with their drinks and a basket of crispy papadums.
Remus steadied the sauces and took the box, holding onto Neville's hand until he looked up, the butterflies in his stomach growing and multiplying with each passing second. "You bought me something just so I'd always have beauty with me?" said Remus, not opening it just yet.
Neville nodded, his words used up and voice struck dumb. Remus flipped the small box open with his thumb, the hinge giving a tiny creak of protest, his face turning from pleased to wondering. He let go of Neville's hand to draw out the small ring, which glowed in the candlelight, the flow of metals giving it a subtle sheen that seemed to go deeper than the polished surface. "You bought this for me? It wasn't part of the deal?"
Neville nodded, then shook his head, then flushed more and took a sip of water to try and calm down his racing heart. "I bought it, that was why I had to give Grizznock a draft off of my account. I wanted something that wasn't flash or anything, but that you'd always remember what it meant."
Remus tilted the ring so the milky-white moonstones caught the light as well, shining softly in their river of gold. "I'll always remember, Neville," he said, slipping the ring back into its box and closing it, "but only if you tell me what it is you really want."
Neville bit his lip and shook his head. "I'm not saying I won't tell you, or that I don't want more from you, but that's not what this," he laid his hand over Remus' on the box, careful of the food this time, "is about. This is just what I said it was, something beautiful for you, because you deserve it."
Remus let out one soft chuckle and smiled, then nodded. "I suppose I do deserve something lovely in my life now and again," he said, turning his hand over and pulling Neville's hand up to his mouth, slowly enough that Neville could easily pull away. "I just wanted you to be that something."
Neville allowed Remus to kiss his hand, then pulled it back and gave Remus a long look. "The ring is something lovely," said Neville slowly, making sure Remus understood that this wasn't just semantics. "I'm a lot more than that, but I'm also yours if you want me." A voice louder than the rest drifted over one of the screens, and Neville giggled. "Well, after lunch."
Remus smiled, pocketing the ring and picking up a papadum. "After lunch," he agreed, his voice heavy with suggestion. Neville squirmed again, sipping his water, and had a feeling that this was going to be a one of the longest meals of his life. "Have a papadum," Remus added, looking remarkably smug as he opened one of the little jars and spooned a spicy mint sauce onto a section of thin lentil bread. "You'll need the energy."
"Planning on wearing me out?" said Nev, unable to believe he was actually flirting. Remus' fingers brushed over his as he accepted the section of papadum, and he shivered with ill-concealed lust. He crunched into the wafer, only to have it shatter and drop all over him, leaving little green stains where the mint sauce dribbled down his front.
"Oh, Nev," said Remus, his voice fond rather than exasperated as he pulled out his wand and cast a quick cleaning spell to banish all traces of Neville's mishap. "I'll have to tie you up so you can't elbow me in the eye," he added with a leer.
Another plate appeared between them, this one bearing a variety of pakora dumplings that steamed gently. "How do I know an elbow in the eye isn't some sort of foreplay?" said Neville playfully, snagging a few of the hot appetizers. He spooned plum sauce onto his plate as well, managing to get only a little on the tablecloth, which Remus spelled away without comment.
"It's not my sort," said Remus with a shrug, giving Neville an interested look. "You really have no idea how it all goes?"
Neville flushed, and then shrugged, nibbling on what turned out to be some sort of cheese pakora to avoid having to answer right off. "I know enough to know I have no idea, I guess," he said, thinking back to the things he'd overheard in the dorms.
Remus scooted himself around the table so he was sitting next to Neville instead of across from him, his dinner following along in a merry little parade and settling in front of his new place. "I promise I'll take good care of you," he said gently, laying a hand over Neville's.
"I know you will, that's part of your appeal," said Neville, nearly missing his mouth with the next bite. "I mean, I can't imagine you'd hurt me, though you might teach me something odd as a joke."
Remus laughed. "Since I intend to keep being your only partner for as long as you'll have me, that would be counterproductive, wouldn't it?" he said, fingers stroking along the back of Neville's hand, fanning flames that were already burning quite brightly in Neville's centre.
"I suppose so," said Neville, jumping a little when the table sprouted a number of dishes more, including a basket of fresh Naan bread, a plate of rice, and decorated aluminium bowls of lentil curry, spicy tamarind soup, and cool yogurt raita. "Oh, more food!"
Remus chuckled and served them both this time, dishing the soup into small bowls that had appeared with it, pouring the lentil curry over some rice and putting a spoonful of raita on each plate. He sat back and began to tuck in, and Neville followed suit, finding he was hungry after the morning's walking, despite the butterflies still fluttering about in his slowly filling stomach. He even managed not to spill anything, at least until Remus' stockinged foot began to run gently up and down his shin, at which point he sprayed the table with sweet rose milk.
It took Remus four tries to cast the cleaning spell, he was laughing so hard, and Neville thought his cheeks would never stop burning, though he supposed he could see the humour in it. "I'm just not suited to seduction, I guess," said Neville with just a touch of misery in his tone.
"Nonsense," said Remus, brushing a soft kiss over Neville's cheek. "I find you very seductive, sprayed milk and all."
Neville smiled at that, and then leaned forward and bravely pressed his rose-scented mouth to Remus'. It started out as a chaste kiss, but Remus licked along Neville's lips and Neville couldn't help but return the favour, tasting spices and mint and just a touch of tangy yogurt and sweet mango from Remus' drink. He made a small sound in the back of his throat and reached out, needing to steady himself against something before he swooned like some foolish maiden. Instead, of course, he hit the edge of his plate, sending everything on it launching through the air at the two of them in an impressively dramatic splatter.
Neville thought it must be love after all when Remus looked amused and somewhat smug. "You're very lucky I'm good with cleaning charms," he said, spelling away the food once again and serving Neville a whole new plate.
The arrival of the waiter with their still-sizzling iron plate piled high with tandoori chicken, lamb and fish was sadly anticlimactic.
Neville was very careful after that, eating in small bites and sipping his drinks with an eye out for Remus' wandering hands. Remus didn't intrude so much as gently invade Neville's personal space, brushing against his arm and thigh, running curious fingers up the inside of his wrist, or down the outside of his leg. Their conversation was minimal, Neville so he could concentrate on getting the food in him instead of on him, and Remus presumably for a similar reason, though he kept shooting Neville glances full of curiosity and desire.
Two more dishes showed up after the tandoori, a rich lamb curry and a creamy chick pea marsala, both of which Neville ate happily with plenty of warm Naan to keep it from being too messy. Remus stuck mostly to the meat, and even then they barely made it through half the feast before running out of room. "I don't know that I can eat another bite, and I'm dying for some gulab jamun," said Neville with a shy little smile.
"We may have to have a nap before we get home," Remus teased, tapping the small brass bell on the table with his wand. Everything vanished, and the tablecloth rippled until it was once again pristine and smooth.
"I think we've got a bit of stomach potion that will do the trick just as well," Neville offered, eyes wide and innocent as he could make them, considering he was proposing the use of medicinal remedies to speed them toward sex.
The waiter appeared at the tableside, a young woman in a sari to either side, one carrying a tray of sweets and the other a tea tray that smelled of cardamom even from where Neville was sitting. "The tea will help settle your meal as well," said the waiter, that knowing smile back on his face as the women set down their burdens and disappeared. "I will pour."
He made a show of it, pouring from a great height without spilling a drop, and Neville would have applauded if he hadn't thought it rude. Instead of large serving bowls for them to share, the sweets were each in their own individual dishes, and only spoons and fresh napkins appeared at their place settings once their teacups had been handed over with great dignity.
"Thank you," said Neville with a shy smile, then remembered the hostess' earlier remark and added, "It really is an experience that enhances the food."
This seemed to please the waiter immensely, and he sketched a little bow and left them to their sweets. Neville took a dish with two little balls of pastry floating in a thick cardamom-spiced syrup, and Remus snagged a little bowl of milky kheer. "Thank you, too," said Neville shyly, carefully bracing his hand safely on the table's edge before leaning in to share another warm, sweet kiss, this one slightly less swoon-inducing than the last. "I know you'd have done this even if I wasn't letting you into my pants later, and I'm really glad you shared this experience with me."
Remus smiled back and took a sip of his tea, which had been sweetened in the pot and left his mouth warm and fragrant for the next kiss. "I'm glad I had you to share it with," he said softly, then pressed a last kiss to Neville's mouth and sat back. "Eat your gulab jamun," he ordered teasingly.
"Yes, sir," said Neville with a warm little leer, digging in. He always loved Indian sweets, just as spicy as the food in their own way but softer and of course thickly sweet enough to dampen the last of the curry's fire in his mouth. He took a sip of his tea, and then another, feeling his stomach calm just a little. "You'd really pick me?" he said shyly, not quite looking at Remus but wanting one last reassurance before they left for their flat and the time for reconsidering would be past.
"I have picked you," said Remus, laying his head on Neville's shoulder.
It was strange, but somehow this gesture, more than the smiles and teasing and even the kisses, was what pushed away that last doubt. "I chose you as well, you know," said Neville softly, glad that he could be a comfort to Remus, who had always been a comfort to him, even as a nervous student.
Neville could feel Remus' smile against his shoulder, but he looked down just to be sure. "That's what makes it so wonderful," said Remus, pressing a kiss to the warm fabric and sitting back up for more tea.
They finished their meal in companionable silence, not rushing as they tried some of the other sweets on the tray and drank most of the pot of tea. Eventually Neville knew it was time, and it was his wand that rang the brass bell this time, sending everything away, to be replaced with bags of leftovers, a small bowl of sugar-coated fennel seeds to freshen their breath, and the bill.
"It's my treat, since you did all the legwork today," said Remus, taking up the bill, but Neville stayed his hand.
"Make it a business lunch instead," said Neville with a teasing wink. "We deserved some celebration for that sale."
Remus smiled and nodded, though of course it didn't change from whose pockets the Galleons came, just from which ledger the expense was ultimately drawn. Neville smiled when he saw the generous tip, crunching a few fennel seeds to add to the melange of spices still lingering on his tongue. "Ready?" Remus asked, standing and holding his hand out to Neville.
"As ready as I'll ever be," said Neville shyly, a gentle reminder that Neville really had no idea what he was doing past this point.
Remus handed Neville one bag and took the other, and then walked him hand in hand out to the foyer. "I'll get us home," he said, stepping close.
"You always do," said Neville, the words nearly lost in the strange rush of Apparition.
Neville arrived at the flat extremely grateful for the stomach-settling qualities of the tea, having somehow managed to push out of his mind the somewhat dreadful squish-and-pull sensations of Apparition. Remus took one look at Neville and smiled wryly, taking the bag of food out of Neville's unresisting hand. "Go on," he said, giving Neville a peck on the cheek. "You go use the loo and take some of that potion, and I'll be along once I've put the leftovers away."
Neville nodded gratefully and turned, then turned back almost fast enough to overbalance himself. He pressed a shy kiss to Remus' lips and disappeared down the hall, hoping really hard that he wasn't going to balls this up somehow. The potion was right where they'd left it in the medicine cabinet and left a gingery aftertaste going down, so Neville took that as a hint and brushed his teeth as well, then patted his flushed face with a cool cloth, staring into the mirror.
He wasn't quite ready to emerge yet, however, so he went over to find Trevor nestled happily in Alice's pot once again, and spent a few minutes and some of his nerves playing silly snatch games with her fronds and letting her rearrange his hair however she wanted. Trevor croaked just before a soft knock sounded and Remus' voice said, "Neville, can I come in?"
Nev smiled; trust Remus to know how to handle him, gentling him down to what he really wanted and needed like some sort of frightened, exotic beast, topiarius virginitas, the virgin gardener. "Yes, it's safe," said Neville, turning slowly so as not to tug on Alice's busy fronds or his own tangled hair.
Remus came in slowly, his face going from careful neutrality to a tender smile when he saw what Neville was doing. "Trust you to find comfort in here," he said, coming over and curling himself around Neville, arms around his waist, body cradling close and lips pressing to Neville's in a kiss just this side of needy. "Want to have a bath with me?"
Neville looked around the room, bright and warm with the afternoon sun, still festooned with plants despite the ones Neville had already transplanted into the greenhouses, and thought that it might actually be the best place he could imagine for his first time. "Yeah," he said, nuzzling at Remus' cheek before stealing another kiss. "We can do... make love in the bath, can't we?"
Remus' smile was blinding, that same joy he'd shown earlier let loose from the fetters of social politeness and blooming into something brilliant here in the space they shared. "Yeah," he said, kissing Neville again, "we can make love in the bath."
They started to pull apart and stopped, laughing, when they realised that Alice had twined their hair together while they kissed. "I think she approves," said Neville, pulling them slowly out of her reach while Remus untangled their hair.
"Smart plant," said Remus, chuckling into the kiss that followed.
"Everyone knows, don't they?" said Neville, more for something to occupy his mind while his hands went wandering over the contours of Remus' body, feeling how thin he was still, revelling in that lovely warmth that always rose off his skin almost like a fragrance, the way it drew Neville to him.
Remus chuckled more, kissing down Neville's neck, his own fingers busy on the many fastenings of Neville's layered robes. "I think so, yeah," he murmured, getting a couple of Neville's collar buttons open, enough that he could bury his nose against Neville's skin and inhale as though Neville was wearing some rare scent.
"You don't mind?" said Neville, trying not to be embarrassed about the way his voice had gone all breathy and his knees more than a little weak. His fingers moved their way around to the front of Remus' clothing, but his robes were far simpler and Neville was oddly shy about picking up the pace quite that much, so he only managed one button before his courage gave out.
Remus smiled at him, then gave him a fierce, quick kiss and said, "No, I don't mind that you've been marked as mine for a while now, so I had time to woo you properly."
Neville blinked dumbly; that certainly wasn't how he would have phrased it. "It was awfully good tandoori," he said, hiding his confusion in humour.
"This will be better," said Remus sensually, and suddenly Neville found that all his robe fastenings were undone, and Remus' as well. Remus gave him a boyish grin and explained, "I got impatient," demonstrating further by shrugging out of everything until he was naked, clothes kicked into a corner.
"I... you.... wow," said Neville, knowing he sounded incredibly intelligent and not caring one whit. His knees gave and he sat down on the edge of the tub, staring his fill, watching the way the golden light played over Remus' brown skin and silvery scars, the difference it made when Remus was healthy and about to shag him, rather than wan and limp and too sick to even bathe himself.
The best part was that by the time Neville managed to force his eyes back up to Remus' face, Remus had begun to blush ever so slightly, adding a rosy tinge to his cheeks that made his casually rampant nudity all the more appealing. "Your turn," said Remus softly, amber eyes boring into Neville's, half hope and half dare, both emotions swimming in currents of lust and want and need.
"Right, sorry," said Neville, glancing away from that intent gaze and forcing his legs to hold him long enough for him to shuck his kit and snag his wand, banishing his clothing back to the wardrobe where he could figure out what needed laundering later, and not wrinkle the rest. Even the shoes and socks went and Neville was left standing there, prick jutting out from under the belly he'd never managed to be rid of, his body entirely too soft and round next to Remus' lean angles.
Neville's own cheeks were bright red, and the blush crept up his ears and down far enough that the last edge of pink just reached nipples that were hard and ready. Remus' eyes were drinking in the sight of him just as hungrily as he'd looked at Remus, though he rather suspected his expression hadn't been quite so predatory. "You're lovely," said Remus, his voice gone low and hoarse, what Neville might have called a growl if it hadn't been followed up with a real growl as Remus stalked over with a wolf's grace and pulled Neville into his arms. "You're lovely and you're mine."
Neville felt a bit like a girl despite the way his erection slipped and rubbed along one of Remus' hairy thighs, arms going automatically up around Remus' neck and knees going all wobbly again. "Yours," he agreed, not daring to contradict the other assessment, especially since he knew that Remus didn't understand what beauty Neville saw in Remus' body, either.
Remus' kiss this time was rougher, the carefully banked desire of earlier fanned to a fierce flame that Neville thought might burn him up from the inside out, and him too happy to mind. Remus' cock felt huge and even hotter pressed against Neville's belly, and he quashed the voice that wondered if perhaps he wasn't starting out a bit large and might want to throw this one back and try for a smaller bloke to start. He had less luck with the urge to rub himself against Remus' leg like a naughty puppy, but the warmth of skin felt divine against his cock, especially once it slipped into the crease of Remus' thigh and hip and bollocks, cradled in the sweat-slicked warmth. "Want you," he gasped between kisses, and he wasn't sure if he ought to be pleased or disappointed when Remus pulled away to rest his forehead on Neville's and pant.
"I want you, too, Nev, but slowly," Remus explained, his voice warm and just a little guilty, like a boy who's been caught snitching apples and isn't sure he'll be in trouble, having left the cookies alone. "I want to do things right with you."
Neville kissed him and nodded, waving his forgotten wand at the bathtub to start the water filling. "Did you want it bigger?" he asked, then glanced down and giggled inappropriately. "Er, the tub I mean."
Remus chuckled and palmed the back of Neville's cock, pressing it closer to his own body, thumb teasing at the sensitive head. "I think they're both just the right size," he said, kissing Neville thoroughly enough that Nev was grateful for the spells that turned the tap off once the bath was full and kept the room from being flooded during his long, sweet moments of inattention.
"D'you have, er, oil and stuff?" Neville asked, hiding his face in the crook of Remus' neck and pressing little kisses and kitten-licks to the skin there. "I want you in me, you know," he added as nonchalantly as he could manage.
Remus' hand slipped back to cup and squeeze one of Neville's cheeks, the fingers soft compared to Neville's work-roughened hands as they trailed into his cleft. "Are you sure? It's a lot to take your first time," he said without a trace of mockery, though there was a hint of self-deprecation to his tone.
Neville kept his face hidden and nodded. "If you work me open enough, I should be able to, erm," he paused, gathering his courage, knowing he'd have to just blurt it out or Remus would be too gentle. "I, er, I kept an Adam's Apple from the batch and preserved it and it's only almost as big as you but I didn't want to stretch anything too far and anyway three fingers and oil and being careful and you should be fine," he said in one long rush, ending in a little squeak as one of Remus' fingers touched his entrance.
He could just feel Remus very carefully not laughing, but he stayed hidden and still, his prick in one of Remus' warm hands and his arse in the other, trapping him in a cage of his own desires as surely as bars or manacles, and that was an intriguing thought to set aside for later. "You did that for me?" said Remus softly, his hips rocking into Neville just a little, cock rubbing against the soft flesh of Neville's belly.
Neville nodded again, but didn't say anything this time. He was rewarded with a low moan and a gentle press of that one teasing finger, just the tip disappearing inside him. Remus leaned in and whispered, "I want to see that someday."
Neville hadn't thought he could blush more, but apparently he was wrong, and what was worse, he found himself nodding anyway, rutting back and forth between Remus' hands at the very thought of sharing such a private moment with anyone, let alone Remus. At Remus' moan, Neville gathered his courage and kissed his way up Remus' neck, lapping at the salt taste of him, working his way back for more heady kisses. "I want you in me soon, please," he said, amused that it came out a bit like he was asking that they break for lunch, plaintive and hungry.
"Very soon," said Remus, kissing him just as hungrily. Remus scooped Neville up, getting a squeak and a giggle out of him, and deposited him in the steaming water, then followed, slipping himself in behind Neville, hard cock curving along his spine in the dip just above Neville's arse so there could be no mistaking his intentions. He stretched up and pulled down a little opalescent glass bottle that Neville hadn't bothered to identify, since it didn't smell like much and Nev had his own soap and shampoo. "Snape made it, so you know it'll be good," said Remus with a laugh in his voice, arms coming around to hold Neville close.
Nev basked in the embrace for as long as his overactive libido would let him, then wriggled and squirmed until he could steal a kiss over his shoulder. "You can't reach my arse like that," he mock-scolded, glad that the sense of fun had been restored, no matter how much he'd enjoyed being the focus of Remus' intense passion. Somehow it was easier when they were both smiling, laughter in the air like bubbles in champagne, just waiting to be released.
"I suppose that's true," said Remus, snagging the wand still clutched in Neville's hand and using it to cast a cushioning charm over the other end of the tub that would act like a big pillow, shielding Neville from any jabbing of the fixtures into his tender bits. He then rearranged Neville by the simple expedient of moving them both so they were bent over the front of the tub with his body plastered to Neville's back for a breathless moment before he sat back in the water. "Now that is a lovely view," he said, hands running up and down Neville's thick thighs and round bottom.
"You've got strange ideas of lovely," said Neville, wriggling his bum teasingly. "But who am I to argue if it gets me laid?"
Remus laughed as he was meant to, then leaned in to surprise Neville into an entirely different sort of sound, spreading Neville's cheeks wide and burying his face between them, mouth pressing kisses and licks to the puckered opening hidden there.
"R-remus!" Neville gasped, though it wasn't truly a protest; he couldn't object when the sensation was so spine-meltingly pleasurable, far nicer than his own fingers had been, hot and wet and terribly intimate. "God, Remus," he moaned as Remus' tongue breached his body, slipping inside like a French kiss gone wonderfully backward. Neville couldn't imagine it tasted too good but apparently Remus didn't care a whit, because he kept on licking, each thrust going deeper, forcing more of his slick tongue into Neville's body.
By the time he'd finished to his own satisfaction, Neville was grateful to have the cushioning charm to sink into; his whole body was trembling and his vocabulary long since reduced to "please" and "God" and "Remus" with the occasional "yes" thrown in for good measure.
"Ready for fingers, love?" said Remus, sending a frisson of something newer and more fragile than lust shivering up Neville's spine. He just nodded and moaned, and Remus chuckled and kissed one round cheek, rubbing his face against it for a moment like some big cat. "Tell me if anything hurts," said Remus, and Neville spared a thought to resent terribly that Remus could be so level-headed about it all, though of course someone had to be or they'd never get Remus' huge prick into Neville's greedy arse.
Two of Remus' fingers found their way into Neville first, slipping in easily with the aid of Snape's potion, not to mention the prior and very thorough use of Remus' tongue. "God, you're still so tight," he said, a little of that control slipping away to let the rough need into his tone.
"I d-didn't... often... ohgod," gasped Neville, too distracted by the sensation of fingers, other fingers, Remus' fingers in his body to explain how seldom he'd been brave enough to touch himself this way; in truth he'd only put the toy inside himself three times, and each time he'd come so fast it would be a miracle if he held out today.
Remus came up out of the water and leaned over Neville, whispering in his ear even as his hand kept moving, fingers caressing the inside of Neville's body. "Did you call my name when you came?"
Neville nodded and mewled, and then Remus crooked his fingers and found that place inside him, and it was embarrassingly, humiliatingly all over. "R-remus!" he cried, spilling his seed into the water in thick strands that swirled and sank, too thick to disappear completely.
He started to apologize, stammering his way through the words, but Remus cut him off with a finger to his lips. "Ssh, love, that was perfect, I wanted to see you come, make you come, and now you're relaxed enough for this, see?" he said gently, slipping a third slick finger into Neville, his long body warm against Nev's back the way the water was against his front, comforting in its familiarity.
"I-it's okay?" Neville asked, voice small and unsure, broken by a whimper as Remus' three thick fingers began to move, twisting gently, opening him with a skill that brought a quick-fading flash of jealousy. One of them had to have some skill at this or they'd never get anywhere, and Neville knew that Remus had learned these touches long ago, likely before Neville was even alive, let alone old enough to be anyone's lover.
"Yes, love, it's more than okay," said Remus, using that word again, that sentiment they hadn't really spoken of hanging in the air for a moment before Remus continued, "I wanted to see you come, to feel you around my fingers and know that my touch was enough to make you lose control." His voice was low and sensual, the sound tripping down Neville's spine and adding to the heat building up again in his bollocks, never even banked so much as briefly burned low after that glorious explosion, desire fuelled anew by Remus' words and touches.
Neville moaned, wishing he could spread his legs more, do something to show Remus how truly eager he was. He arched his back instead, rocking back into each gentle thrust of Remus' fingers until they grew rougher, and then vanished entirely. "Are you ready, Neville?" Remus asked, trailing damp hands over Neville's back and arse and thighs, weighing his bollocks and slipping up to test and tease his renewed erection.
"Yes, please, please!" said Neville, shameless now with the moment so close at hand.
"Yes," Remus growled, sending a shiver of primal fear and lust through Neville's body that only added to the experience.
Neville made a small sound when he felt the slick head of Remus' cock against his entrance, then pushed back against it just a little, his body flaring open, just as greedy for Remus as Neville was. Remus pushed forward slowly, almost too slow though he was big, fatter than the obscene apple, just as long and so very wide as he pushed his way inside past the involuntary resistance. He gasped and slipped several inches in once the head finally breached Neville's body, then paused, rocking in and out just a tiny bit as he waited for Neville to adjust.
Nev tried to catch his breath but it was driven out of him, stolen away by the decadent pleasure of having someone inside him, of being made love to by the man he'd chosen, the man he wanted above all others. "Please, please," he gasped, fine tremors running through his limbs as he tried to push back and get more, thwarted by Remus' gentle grip on his hips.
"God, yes," groaned Remus, sliding in the rest of the way in one inexorable, endless stroke. He was big enough there was no avoiding Neville's prostate, the pressure almost unbearable as first the ridged head and then the long glide of cock slipped over it, pressing, a demanding pleasure that stole the rest of Neville's control.
Neville whimpered and went limp, everything open from his gasping mouth to helplessly impaled arse, his whole body suffused with a languor that put him entirely at Remus' mercy. "Please," he whispered, letting his eyes fall shut, one less distraction from the myriad sensations; the pressure of Remus' fingers holding him, the unbearably pleasurable glide as Remus pulled out of him, the lap of water around his cock and bollocks and even the rasp of Remus' thighs against his own.
A shudder ran through him and he felt himself contracting, clenching even tighter around Remus as though trying to keep him from retreating. Remus obliged by surging forward, thrusting back inside with real force this time, then back out almost before Neville knew what was happening, and in again and again, a rhythm so primal that Neville thought his heart might speed to match it. The water splashed all around them, a wild dance of droplets in honour of their union, hot and cold at once where it licked at Neville's skin, fell upon his back and even kissed his cheek once or twice while Remus' lips were occupied gasping out his name over and over.
Their lovemaking seemed to stretch on forever and at the same time, Neville knew his fuse was too short to keep the inevitable explosion from tearing him apart all too soon. He rode out the thrusts, his body pliant and ready now, everything stolen from him but pleasure and him with the best of the bargain. Remus thrust and growled, grip growing harder, enough to bruise and Neville knew he'd cherish every mark as a memento for as long as they lasted, or were overlaid by more. He never wanted it to end, wanted to drown himself in the heady sensation of belonging to someone and never come up, live on nothing but this perfect give and take of heart and body, pleasure and need.
It was Remus who broke first, growling and thrusting roughly into Neville's greedy body, bending down over him as he thrust in as deep as he could go, teeth finding Neville's shoulder and biting down, one last brilliant spark as he came. Neville cried out softly, not from the pain but the delicious pleasure of it; he imagined he could almost feel it, the pulse of seed coming from Remus' tight balls and filling him up, hot and perfect. "Yours, oh, I'm yours," he gasped, shuddering again, drawing a growl from Remus' throat and, he hoped, another few drops of come.
"Mine," said Remus, pressing a kiss to the place he'd bitten, then laying his forehead against Neville's neck. His breath was ragged and hot against Neville's sweaty back, but it was a welcome feeling, sending little tingles of anticipation dancing over his skin. He was still hard, but he was content for the moment just to lay there with Remus, to wallow in the feeling of having given so much pleasure and gotten so much in return, in the smug satisfaction of having made Remus come with his body, the body he'd always thought wasn't good enough for anyone but himself.
He smiled to think how wrong he'd been, and let out a little hum of pure happiness at the thought. Remus lifted his head and pressed another kiss to the mark, then pulled gently out, drawing a whimper from Neville. "It's all right," he soothed, petting Neville's flank for a moment while Neville's body adjusted to the sudden emptiness, closing up to keep Remus' come inside him for a little while longer.
The petting turned to gentle nudges, and Neville found himself rolled over, head lolling back and one leg draped over the edge of the tub, hips thrust obscenely up out of the water and prick laying hard and ready against his belly. Remus moved into the space between his thighs and kissed him deeply, his spent prick heavy and slowly going limp, dragged down by the weight of the water to lay against one thigh. It pressed into Neville's balls, warm and soft, a tender sort of caress now that all its demanding hardness had been stolen away by Neville's body, by giving in to those demands and sating its needs. Remus' mouth found Neville's for a proper kiss, hot and wet and open, slow and languid just like the ebb and flow of desire still running through Neville's blood.
"I want to taste you," Remus murmured, kissing one more time, nipping at Neville's lower lip. "God, you look so debauched," he said when he pulled away.
"You must've done a good job, then," said Neville with an impish little smile, giving his hips a tiny thrust to remind them both that he wasn't completely used up yet.
Remus chuckled and kissed him one more time, then slid down in the water, feet sticking up and knees pressed to the wall of the tub, face hovering where it was most wanted, over Neville's wet, needy cock. "Not quite finished, though, am I?" Remus teased back, then turned his teasing to action, leaning in to lap the water from Neville's balls. His tongue felt rougher here though Neville had always thought this skin less tender than his entrance, though no less greedy for touch.
Neville threaded his hands in Remus' hair just for something to do with them. "Y-you're on your w-way," Nev stammered, losing the train of thought when Remus sucked one bollock into his mouth completely, rolling it around before switching to the other. "Please," Neville begged, needing that mouth one last place before he exploded just from wanting it so badly.
Remus pulled back, stretching the skin out gently with his lips before letting it snap back into place, then sliding his tongue up the length of Neville's cock. "Yes," he whispered, his very breath a sweet caress against the sensitive head, followed up by the more substantial sweep of his tongue. He didn't linger here, though, swallowing Neville down after just that one indulgent lick, working carefully to get the whole modest length into his heated throat, to take it over and over again as his head bobbed. His tongue lashed against the shaft, teeth conspicuously absent, and he slipped two fingers back into Neville's body, palm cradling his balls, Remus' whole hand feeling impossibly large and wonderfully warm as the fingers splayed out over and in his arse.
"Re-, oh!" Neville cried, the last an utterly undignified squeak of surprise; those probing fingers brushed over his prostate just as the head of his cock plunged into Remus' throat, and that was it for Neville. Pleasure rushed through him and he came, his brain shorting out with white static and golden sparks, hips bucking and hands clenching just once before his whole body went limp. "Oh, god," he groaned, feeling more spent than he ever had in his life, sensations slowly returning as the final tingles faded away and his body became his own once again.
Neville felt Remus' throat contract one last time before he pulled back, grinning and licking his lips. "Delicious," he said, though privately Neville thought he wouldn't have had a chance to taste much.
"Perfect," said Neville, gently tugging a lock of Remus' hair until he got the kiss he wanted, warm and sweet and just a little tangy from his own seed. They lay there kissing until the water grew cool, then did a sketchy wash and got out, Neville swaying as though drunk while Remus dried them both and looked thoroughly pleased with himself, and Neville as well.
"Transfigure something in the living room, or squash into my bed?" Remus asked, nuzzling Neville affectionately.
"If you can think, the living room would be better," said Neville, the last words almost lost in a huge yawn. He kissed Remus' ear and then whispered, "I need a nap b'fore we can do that again."
Remus laughed and kissed him hard and hot, then pulled back and fished his wand out of his clothes, snagging Neville's wand from the side of the tub as well. "If a nap and more sex are my rewards, I can do most anything, for a few minutes anyway," he said, leading Neville out into the hall. He summoned their motley collection of extra sheets and blankets and wrapped Neville up in one, putting him on the couch before Transfiguring the chaise into a bed that was, while not huge, definitely big enough for two wanting to get cosy. A few more charms and the bed made itself, with the blanket Neville was sitting on going last, once Neville had stood up and moved back into the warm, safe circle of Remus' arms.
"We'll change 'round the rooms somehow, right?" Neville asked, his eyes big and pleading, all of his normal restraint stolen away by the love and trust Remus had shown him, not to mention the wanton pleasure.
Remus smiled and kissed him. "Tomorrow, I promise," he said, tucking Neville into the slightly lumpy new bed and giving him a warm kiss. They snuggled like that for long enough that Neville had nearly dozed off when Remus said, "Oh!" and sat up.
"What?" said Neville, blinking sleepily, worried they'd forgotten some important detail.
"Accio ring box," said Remus, and the little blue case came smacking into Remus' palm. "I was waiting to wear it until I knew if it was all right that it meant more to me than just something beautiful," he explained, a little bit shy as he pulled the ring out of its velvet nest.
"Means I love you," said Neville, too sleepy to censor the words.
Remus melted, leaning down to give Neville a long, fierce kiss. "I know that now," he said, then slipped it onto his left ring finger, turning it so the moonstones could be seen glinting in their stream of mingled rose, yellow and white gold. "I love you, too, you know," he said, sounding just a little shy as he ran one finger over the stones again and again.
"I know," said Neville with a little smile, pulling him down for another kiss and a proper snuggle. "I wouldn't've shagged you otherwise," he explained, cuddling up with his head pillowed over Remus' heart, right where it belonged, the ring pressing ever so gently into his shoulder where Remus' hand rested.
Remus laughed, then kissed the top of his head. "Very wise," he said, then yawned wide enough that Neville knew it was safe to drift off to sleep now.
Remus would follow him soon enough.
The decision on when to tell people was taken out of their hands when Ian Flooed into the flat later that afternoon with takeaway and a bottle of nice wine. "Finally!" he declared, putting the things in the kitchen and then leaning on the counter and staring at them with a wicked grin on his face. "Which one of you finally did it? Was it good? Should I go?" he asked, clearly happy to leave them to it so long as "it" was more sex.
"It was brilliant," said Neville, sleepy and unashamed, though he did burrow under the covers so not even his naked shoulder could be seen anymore, just his eyes and hair and a tiny flash of grin in the shadows.
"It was a little of both of us," said Remus, far more alert than he had any right to be. "Neville bought me a ring, which I'm going to assume from your grin you knew about, and it sort of spurred me into action."
"Really lovely action," said Neville, his voice muffled as he sank just a little deeper under the covers and sent his hand to wandering, leg moving up to disguise the motion of wrapping it around Remus' cock. "Which I'd like a bit more of now, so you ought to go and maybe we can Firecall you back when we're ready for a spot of dinner?"
Ian grinned and nodded. "I'll just put a stay-fresh spell on these," he said, doing so and then coming out from behind the counter to sit on the edge of the bed. "You're really both happy, right?" he said, just wistful enough to tell Neville that he had harboured some hopes toward one of them, no matter what Remus thought.
"Really happy," said Neville, peeking out just enough to flash Ian an encouraging smile. "Speaking of which, how was lunch?" he asked, fluttering his eyelashes.
Ian blushed, confirming Neville's suspicion that it had been a date after all. "It was lovely, and I'll fill you in over fish and chips," he said, standing up.
"I'm happy, too, you know," said Remus, his voice mock-teasing. "Not that it matters."
Neville giggled, feeling silly and light, and Ian chuckled. "Yes, well, I can tell even through the blankets when you're happy," he teased, giving Neville a considering look. "You're not sore are you?"
"Nope," said Neville, giving Remus' cock a little squeeze. "He took care of me, and Snape made us a potion."
"Snape's lubricant is the best," said Ian with another cute little flush. "I'll leave you to it, then."
"We'll Floo in an hour or so," said Remus, looking insufferably smug. Neville hid again.
"Just don't wear him out," said Ian, giving Neville the stern look, much to both of their amusement.
"Yes, Dr. Fizzitsh," they replied in singsong unison, and Ian rolled his eyes before Flooing out.
Neville gave Remus' prick one long, slow stroke, then asked impishly, "Am I going to wear you out, Remus?"
Remus chuckled, then bucked and flipped them over so he was on top and Neville's arms were trapped overhead, wrists crossed and held in one of Remus' hands. "You can try," he said wickedly, leaning down for a deep, possessive kiss.
Neville gave a little wriggle underneath him, spreading his legs wide and aligning their pricks so they rubbed together in the scant space between their bodies. "Oh believe me," he said, rocking his hips up sensually, "I will."
They were dressed and sated when they called Ian back, and Firecalled Snape and Harry as well, getting Ian to bring two more servings of fish and chips along on his way. Harry took one look at Neville, mussed and still a bit sleepy looking, with a grin like the cat that's eaten the canary, the hamster, and the fish as well. Harry bounded over to him and gave him a big hug, then whispered, "Well-fucked is a good look on you."
Neville laughed and hugged back. "I'd disagree, but I can't," he said, letting go before Snape murdered him where he sat. "Did I ever tell you how happy I am that you're with Severus?" he said, giving the scowling man a saucy wink.
"Not nearly so happy as I," said Snape, coming over to steal Harry away. "I see you two have finally sorted yourselves out."
"It's about time, too," said Harry, snuggling happily up to Snape's side and looking like a cheerful barnacle attached to a very stately and grumpy old ocean liner.
"This means you'll help with the flat, then?" asked Remus, just as cheerful and shameless as Harry and Neville were, moving to sling an arm around Neville's waist. Neville pulled him close and nuzzled him, inhaling the comforting scent of his skin with a secret little smile.
Harry laughed and Snape scowled more, but Ian said, "Of course we will, we can't have Neville trying to Transfigure the furniture or anything."
"Heaven forbid," said Snape, rolling his eyes. "I expect I shall be roped into assisting, one way or the other."
Harry kissed one sallow cheek and said, "I'll make sure you feel properly motivated."
"It won't be much, I mean, there's no fixing the bedrooms without hiring it out," said Neville with a shrug. "We were thinking we'd make one of them all bed, and the other just wardrobes and storage."
"Sensible," said Snape, which was quite the compliment, from him.
Ian got the last of the food transferred to plates and nodded toward the restored living room furniture. "Come on," he said, sending the plates off to settle on the coffee table, "let's eat and talk."
"Oh, yes!" said Neville, a wicked glint in his eye as he remembered, "You need to tell us all about Aurelius."
Snape's eyebrow rose at that. "Aurelius Anise, purveyor of love philtres and beauty potions?"
"Ian had a lunch date with him," said Neville, dragging Remus over to the smaller couch so they could cuddle and be disgustingly cute. Harry didn't mind, Snape would roll his eyes no matter what they did, and Neville had a feeling that Ian wouldn't be feeling left out for long.
Ian flushed and conjured himself an armchair so that Snape and Harry could share the other couch in peace, then sat, plate of food in his lap and glass of wine hovering to one side. "He's a very charming young man," he said defensively, which of course only got more teasing looks from Harry and Neville both. "I wasn't even sure it was a date, but it turns out that he gets a lot of unwelcome attention from women because of his profession, a state of affairs I could sympathize with, and since Neville was so obviously smitten with Remus, he decided it might be worth a shot to ask me out."
Neville made a derisive sound. "He asked you out because you're an attractive, single, professional bloke and you gave him the eye."
Ian laughed. "All right, well, that, too. But he did have designs on you before he realised you were taken."
"If it was so obvious, why didn't anyone tell me?" said Neville, exasperated. "I could've been shagging him blind for ages!"
Everyone laughed at that, and they spent a few minutes on their food before Harry prodded Ian back into his story. "So, this Aurelius bloke, is he hot?"
Ian's eyes went a bit dreamy, much to Neville's amusement, and he said, "Oh yes, he's tall and has all this lovely summer blond hair that I just want to sink my fingers into, and he's built like a man, you know, broad shoulders and narrow hips."
"He's smart, too," said Neville, feeding Remus a chip to pre-emptively mollify him. "He's got a good head on his shoulders, and you can tell that he's ready to settle down with the right bloke, which is obviously Ian, since they're both big and tall and want to nest like a pair of robins in spring."
Ian flushed red as a robin's breast, but didn't deny it, which only made the rest of them laugh harder. "Yes, yes, it's not like you four aren't settled in quite happily with your lives now," he said a little testily. "Anyway, if it's all right, maybe I can get him to come help with the remodelling and you all can tell me if I'm crazy for wanting to keep him."
Neville grinned, feeling quite proud that their little group had become family enough for such things. "I'll have Ron and Hermione come help, too, we'll make a party of it."
"You'll end up with a whole new decorating scheme," said Snape wryly, looking around, "Not that that would be an unfortunate occurrence."
Neville threw a chip at him.
Remus and Neville, with quite a lot of help from their friends that would someday become favours owed, managed to get their flat and both greenhouses organised before the first orders started trickling in. At first they got away with day trips out to the Forbidden Forest or up into the mountains, or in one case outright refusal of the order, but eventually enough things piled up that Neville had to set up the watering spells, show Snape and Harry what needed to be done by hand, and take Remus on another trip into the mountains.
The Bubblebees were happily making a home in Greenhouse Two, and they'd managed to lure a few late-migrating birds into Greenhouse One for the winter, so they had some wildlife to help support the thriving plants. Even the breathworms seemed to be doing well, despite the differences in the soil and barrier charms keeping them inside the boundaries of Greenhouse Two. Neville's only real concern was for the Fire Briar Rose, which hadn't changed one bit since he'd transplanted it, neither growing nor wilting, just smouldering quietly in its little plot of earth. And even then, his main concern was that something interesting would happen, and he'd miss it.
Fortunately early November wasn't a particularly mystical time, and had even less going on for most plants; unfortunately it was bloody cold and sure to be worse up in the Dovrefjell Mountains. "We've really got it down, Neville," said Harry, sitting in their living room while Neville went over the instructions one more time just to be absolutely sure.
"I know, I'm sorry," said Neville, fidgeting with the strap of his pack. "It's just, you know, when we went before..." He leaned in and whispered to Harry, "we weren't lovers before, and I'm worried how it'll be, when it's just us."
Harry, rather than laughing as Neville feared, gave a knowing nod. "Yeah, it was hard to trust it when Severus let me move in, and even then I was always worried he'd just boot me right back out if you two didn't show up every day to give him someone else to snipe at."
"You'll be fine," said Neville, giving him a wink. "After all, you can just distract him with sex. I still don't really know what I'm doing."
Harry gave Neville an odd look, and then shrugged. "I can't help you there. Just, I don't know, do what you like to have done and then adjust for what gets the best noises, that's what I always do."
Neville blushed and giggled, which got Harry laughing as well, and they both lost it completely when Snape said, "Just what is so amusing?"
After that it wasn't so bad, like the laughter had washed away some of Neville's anxiety, though he still flushed a bit whenever he looked at Remus, unable to stop thinking of the things he liked that he hoped Remus would want as well. He'd been too intimidated by Remus' size to spend much time using his mouth down there, and too shy to even properly consider putting his cock where he liked Remus' best, but perhaps some of that lovely licking wouldn't go amiss.
His head was still full of the possibilities as they Flooed out, though he did have an ever-warm cup of hot cocoa for the poor attendant, and an erection for Remus when he was pulled into now-familiar arms to Apparate them up to their favourite camping spot. As usual, Remus pitched the tent while Neville set up the plant-gathering equipment, so Neville got a surprise when he'd finished his task and went inside to find Remus.
"You made us a bed!" said Neville happily, even more delighted to see that space had been left for the nightstand and Stuart's usual niche. Neville crawled over the big bed and deposited the sleepy-warm plant in the space under the nightstand, getting a few little caresses before Stuart retreated back into the shadows to finish out his nap.
Neville nearly overbalanced and fell on his head when a warm hand smoothed itself over his arse, and Remus' voice whispered, "I couldn't imagine sleeping without you, even for a night."
Neville shivered with delight, moaning as Remus lifted his robes to see that Neville was wearing woven silk pants underneath that hugged his legs and arse and not so incidentally would help keep him warm despite any drafts that got past his robe's warming spells. "I'm very h-happy about that," said Neville, breathless, wishing they could while the afternoon away finding out just which of Neville's newfound pleasures Remus might enjoy as well.
Unfortunately, Remus stood up after pressing a quick kiss to Neville's cloth-covered opening, moving back into the kitchen to finish stocking the miniscule pantry. "Tonight," he said, poking through the cupboards.
"Tonight," said Neville with a little sigh. He stood up, wriggling a bit to situate his erection better in the clinging silk, then went over and put his arms around Remus from behind, resting his head on Remus' shoulder briefly. "Let me take care of you tonight," he said, trying very hard not to squirm at the thought of it.
Remus turned in his embrace, then kissed him with a sweet passion. "I like taking care of you," he said, giving Neville a squeeze, "but I'd like that, too, I think."
Neville grinned and allowed himself to wriggle just a bit, just to see Remus' face take on that distracted look of resisting temptation. "I'd better get gathering, then."
Remus chuckled and kissed his nose. "Do you need me? I wanted to start dinner, but..."
"I'll be fine," said Neville, kissing him quiet. "I know where the pond is, I'm just getting some Viscosity Vines today because ours is too young to trim, and anything more than that I'll mark for tomorrow." He patted his pocket, where his tiny version of the ledger resided, containing the maps they'd made and blank Pages for him to make notes that they could transfer into the bigger book, with a compass set in the cover in case he ever got himself really lost.
"Don't fall in," Remus teased, and they luxuriated in one last, lingering kiss before parting to their separate tasks.
Neville went on out and collected his cloak, gloves, a hovering witchlight and the pack he'd already loaded up with orbs -- normal glass jars just grew liquid and flowed away when used to store the volatile vines -- thinking all the while of how lovely it was to have someone who understood that sometimes you could skive off, but other times the work was too necessary to be put aside for personal gratification. He walked the path in the gathering dark, feet remembering the way while his brain gathered wool and wove little jumpers of contentment in his head, each one emblazoned with the name of his love.
The Viscosity Vines had flourished after their pruning, which Neville would remember if his continued to grow slowly, and a small crop of Bluestar Blossoms dotted the snow around them, chiming gently in the afternoon air. Neville took a pair of full plants for the greenhouse pond, and plucked about half of the rest for Severus, remembering his tirade about how hard they were to get because they only bloomed in snowfall and had to be plucked after dark for full potency. Not that there would be much daylight at all this far north at this time of year; they'd wake up in time to use it all tomorrow and then keep harvesting well into the long, cold night. Tonight might be the only time they had the energy for lovemaking, and Neville wanted to make the most of it.
That in mind, he headed back rather than check out the intriguing clump of bushes that had sprung up off to the right, though he did make a note of them in his book. Different plants drew his attention at night, he noticed; glowflies danced around the copse of Pummel Pines to warn him off, night-blooming flowers gave off sensual and alluring scents, and there were even some bushes still carrying late berries that might be worth looking into tomorrow. He took notes on all of them using the witchlight and a Quick-Quotes Quill as he made his way back to the tent and Remus.
He was shivering a little even with all his charmed clothing, and he left the pack outside to deal with in the morning, heading straight into the blessed warmth of the tent. "Oh, that smells heavenly!" he said, stopping at the threshold to shed cloak, gloves, and boots, then returning to his former position of wrapped around Remus. "I found some Bluestar Blossoms for Severus," he said, then stuck his cold nose behind Remus' ear, gaining him a yelp and a laugh.
"He'll only find something new to complain about," said Remus, shaking his head. "Food's nearly done."
Remus twisted obligingly for a kiss, then gently directed Neville to get the trays ready; they'd need two again, since there was no longer a between-the-beds space for them to share, not that Neville minded one bit. Fortunately the extendable legs also retracted without the use of Transfiguration, so Neville was able to get them resized and set up with utensils, drinks and serviettes while Remus dished up the chicken and rice thing he'd been cooking, something that smelled like cheese and cream and utter decadence, rich energy they'd need tomorrow and in portions small enough that they'd still have room for a bit of vigorous activity tonight.
They made short work of the meal, Neville swallowing through butterflies to get it down and making small talk about his trip to the pond to avoid having to think too hard about what would come next. He was pushing the last of the rice around his plate when Remus laid a warm hand on his shoulder and said, "All right there, love?"
That shook Neville out of his fugue, the simple epithet enough to drive away his doubts, the touch reminding him that Remus had always seemed warm to him even before the fevers. "Yeah," he said with a guilty little smile, rubbing his cheek against Remus' hand. "I always forget how warm you are until you touch me."
That obviously wasn't what Remus had expected him to say, and Neville's smile turned impish at the surprised pleasure suffusing the familiar features. Nev sent the trays back to the tiny kitchen with a flick of his wand, then pulled Remus down into the soft bedding and kissed him with the passion and affection that had been simmering inside him all day. "I want to touch you tonight, remember?" he said gently, hands already working at the fastenings of Remus' robes.
Remus grinned up at him and nodded. "I'm all yours," he said, leaning up to steal a kiss anyway. "And I do mean all, if that's what you're wanting," he said, hips giving a little rock to let Neville know just what sort of offer he was making.
The butterflies in Neville's stomach did a swooping roll, and he had to take a deep, shaky breath before he could answer. "I-I might, I don't really have a plan," he said, kissing Remus again just because he could, then sneaking his fingers through the layers to find and pinch a nipple, grinning when Remus gasped. "I th-thought I'd see what you liked and go from there."
"I liked that," said Remus, his voice rough and smile faltering to show the desire beneath.
Neville nodded, tongue poking unconsciously out between his lips as he stripped Remus down layer by layer, first the outer robes and then the shirt beneath. They fell into a giggling heap when Remus tried to get his arms free only to find the fabric trapped beneath them, and Neville helped as best he could. "Sorry, sorry," said Neville, rolling off enough that they could wrestle the hopelessly tangled fabric free and shove it off the end of the bed.
Remus just smiled and kissed him. "If I only loved you when you were graceful, we'd be in trouble," he joked, fingers working Neville's robes open as well, Remus' nipples peaking as the cool air of the room caressed the bare skin of his torso, legs still encased in woven silk just like Neville's, feet snug in their woollen socks.
Neville giggled, knowing it was one of the things that he counted on, and never found hurtful when it was Remus saying so. "Good thing, or you'd be sleeping alone a lot more," he teased right back, slipping out of all his clothing while he had the chance, even the silky pants he knew Remus had been wanting to toy with. There was always tomorrow, since the charmed underthings were all they'd both brought this trip.
"I never get tired of looking at you," said Remus, and Neville squeaked and blushed at the unexpected compliment. He covered his embarrassment stealing Remus' socks and tickling the vulnerable feet, getting a laugh and kick in response that he was, fortunately, expecting and managed to duck away from.
"I never get tired of touching you," Neville replied, turning around and curling up between Remus' legs, laying his cheek on one clothed thigh, feeling the warming charm on the cloth mingling with Remus' natural warmth. Whatever Remus might have said in reply was lost as Neville nosed his way upward, using the cloth's smooth texture as an extra caress while he nuzzled and mouthed at Remus' bollocks, breathing in the scent of him like an aphrodisiac.
Remus moaned, fingers clutching at the quilt, and Neville smiled. He rubbed his cheek against Remus' erection, feeling the heat and solidity of it, the silk pants not quite as soft as he knew the skin beneath to be. He pressed a kiss to Remus' stomach and said softly, "I want to make you feel as good as you make me feel."
Remus swallowed and nodded, eyes bright with lust and other things, things that warmed Neville's heart even as the heat from Remus' body warmed his cooling skin. He crawled up Remus' body and kissed him, long and slow, feeling nervous and powerful and a just little drunk on the permission to do what he'd been longing to, the sheer weight of possibility the evening held. He let the kiss break, then slid down Remus' body, manfully ignoring the little 'oof' he got when he put his weight wrong on Remus' stomach and promising silently to be more careful. Remus was still smiling when Neville looked back up the line of his body, and he lifted his hips and wriggled helpfully as Neville divested him of his final layer, socks and all.
"In bed?" asked Neville, pointing to the covers; Neville might want to look at and explore every inch of Remus, but Remus might not want to be out in the cold the whole time he was doing it.
"Please," said Remus gratefully, scrambling underneath in a slightly undignified manner. Neville was still fairly warm, but he was also better padded than poor Remus, who put out heat like a furnace but got cold far too easily.
Neville climbed under with him but didn't put out the light just yet; he'd take what visibility he could get, especially if it kept him from elbowing Remus in the eye or something equally awkward. "I-is there anything, you know, you've been wanting me to do?" he asked as he snuggled up, a little of the old shyness flooding back now that they were in a more familiar position.
Remus smiled back and kissed him, shaking his head. "I love everything we do, and although I am glad you've decided to take some initiative, I'd have been happy to keep taking it and you as long as you needed," he said with a wink, too many words for such a simple sentiment but that was part of Remus' way sometimes, overexplaining just to be sure he was understood at all.
Neville giggled and kissed the tip of his nose. "Yes, Professor Lupin," he said in a singsong voice, moving down to lap at Remus' nipples, the rosy peaks easy to find among the curls on Remus' chest, since they occupied much the only bare spots. Remus' skin here was a little different, more metallic and saltier, and Neville found he enjoyed the flavour nearly as much as the feel of crinkling skin and the noises that Remus was making above him.
At least until he got one of those wonderful, lush chest hairs caught in his throat, and had to pause to make inelegant hairball sounds and get the thing extricated. Remus was blushing and chuckling when he was done, and Neville bit the closest nipple in remonstration, which got a very intriguing gasp out of him, so Neville did it again. That got another gasp and a little moan from Remus, which Neville filed away for future reference since apparently the respectable Mr. Lupin liked things a bit rough once in awhile. Neville squirmed his way in between Remus' legs again and bit his way down Remus' chest, getting some lovely moans and even a whimper or two for his troubles.
"God, Nev," Remus gasped when Neville tried out this new idea on his hip, the jutting bone a perfect place to nibble and suck while his hands wandered along the soft skin of Remus' inner thighs and fingers tangled in the dense fur around his cock.
"Not god, just me," said Neville impishly, curling his body up like a contented cat and resting his face in the hollow of the other, unbitten hip, gazing up at Remus' flushed, hungry face with undisguised glee. "You never told me how much fun it is, being the one to d-do things."
Remus laughed at that, at least until Neville licked his cock and turned it to a wonderfully embarrassing squeak. "Y-you never seemed to mind," said Remus, the last word trailing off into a moan as Neville began licking his cock in earnest, lapping at the soft skin and even daring a very gentle nibble or two as he worked his way up the shaft to the plum-like head, ruddy and glistening, inviting Neville's mouth as surely as any sweet he'd ever had.
"I don't mind either way, really, as long as I have you," said Neville, and then proceeded to, he hoped, demonstrate why Remus ought to let him be on top more often anyway. He suckled at the head, finding even that much huge in his mouth, the skin full and ripe, intriguing to his tongue as it explored the edges and then dipped into the slit, tasting the salty fluid welling upward.
"Keep it... in mind," Remus gasped, hands moving up to cup the back of Neville's head and tug it downward just a little. Neville nearly gagged as a few more inches of thick cock forced his jaws open and hit the back of his throat, and he gave Remus' leg a little pinch to let him know the move had not been appreciated. "Sorry!" said Remus, pulling back right away and letting Neville move off.
"S'alright, I'll learn properly one of these days and then I won't mind," said Neville shyly, hoping it was true. He'd read that some blokes could take a whole cock in their throats, even one as big as Remus', and he held out hope that he might eventually learn the trick of it. Instead of pursuing that today, however, he came up and claimed a proper kiss from Remus, nearly spilling the Slicking Solution when he reached blindly to retrieve it from the nightstand.
He was giggling and blushing by the time he got it safely over to them, and Remus smiled and held out his hand, offering silently to hold the bottle. Neville got it on his hands first and then used them to coat Remus' cock with the wonderfully slippery stuff, just stroking for a few moments to savour the sensation of thick, slick cock under his fingers, unlike anything else in the world. Remus writhed beneath him, looking wild and lovely, and Neville almost gave up on what he'd been doing to make Remus come just like this, but he held onto his newfound resolve.
Neville knew what he wanted, now, and he wasn't going to let himself get distracted.
"Watch," he said, turning around a little awkwardly and nearly putting his foot up Remus' nose, but knowing it would be worth it to share the view.
"If you don't put an eye out first," Remus teased, though Neville could hear the affection in his tone and knew there was no malice in it.
"Hush," admonished Neville, bracing himself with one hand and slipping the other down between his legs and up, slick fingers seeking and finding his greedy entrance so one could dip inside.
Apparently the show was worth nearly losing an eye, as Remus moaned, then reached out and spread Neville's cheeks wide, affording himself a better view. "You're so lovely, Neville!"
"Only for you," said Neville, meaning a dozen different things and hoping Remus would understand the good ones and forgive the less self-assured ones. He plunged a second finger in with the first, squirming a little as he stopped to think about just what he was doing right here while someone else watched, never mind that that someone had done it himself a dozen times and more.
"Mine," Remus growled, and Neville moaned, imagining he could feel Remus' breath on his skin, the hot breath of a predator about to get exactly what he wants out of his prey. Neville moaned and added a third finger, whimpering a little when he proved to not quite be ready and making himself ride the burn of it anyway, until it turned to something better, hungrier.
Neville sat up and back, body engulfing his fingers greedily now all the way to the knuckles as he worked himself open, then pulled his hand away and turned laboriously back around, every movement too clumsy and taking far too long when all he wanted was to feel Remus inside him. "R-ready?" he asked, once he was once again facing Remus, poised over the rising tower of Remus' cock.
"More than ready," said Remus, sliding his fingers up Neville's thighs to cradle his quivering hips.
Neville guided Remus' cock inside himself with one hand, made himself move slowly, gasping and throwing his head back in shameless abandon as the fat head popped inside with a little jolt. He could only imagine how he must look, wanton and shameless as he kept lowering himself inch by slow inch onto Remus' prick, whimpering all the way down. Finally he was sitting on Remus' hips, his own substantial weight pushing every last millimetre of Remus inside him, Remus' balls a plump heat against his arse while his own rested on the soft thatch of Remus' grey-speckled brown hair.
"Beautiful," Remus breathed, and Neville blushed and ducked his head, then leaned in as best he could to claim a kiss. Remus' cock slipped out a bit while they kissed and that seemed to Neville like the perfect cue to sit up and take it all back inside again, getting shocked groans from them both.
Neville braced his hands on Remus' thighs and lifted himself up a little, feeling the strain on his thighs, then let himself fall carefully, giving his hips a little rock as he did so, adding some force to the shallow thrust. "N-not gonna last," he gasped out to Remus; though his own cock was untouched the whole length of Remus pressed against that spot inside him whenever he moved, and his skin tingled all over as though it was his body and not Remus' that had got all the attention.
"Don't need to," Remus confessed, helping Neville move this time with hands and hips, tilting his own up in a thrust that met Neville's downward stroke. Remus' fingers slipped down between Neville's legs, cupping his balls and caressing the place where they were joined, just to hear him whimper.
Neville kept wanting to say something, anything, to show Remus how good it felt, how much it meant to him to see the desire on Remus' face, to watch each bit of pleasure darken those amber eyes and add to the hunger in Remus' lean features. To know he'd caused it, not just by being there but by his own active choices, that he'd sucked and licked and bitten and now taken Remus' pleasure into himself, just as Remus was stroking his cock while they made love. But his breath was gone, voice stolen by moans, and Remus' seemed to be as well as no more words fell from the kiss-swollen lips.
Neville felt his world narrowing down further, to the feel of Remus' firm thighs under his fingers where he was bracing himself, the hot thrust of Remus' cock inside him, the sensual slide of Remus' fingers along his cock and around and behind his balls, and he threw his head back and gave a choked cry as his release escaped him in a flood of white-hot pleasure. His breath caught in his throat and his whole body bucked and clenched, riding Remus to completion until they were both limp and panting, sweaty and grinning as they cuddled up under the covers.
"That was brilliant," said Neville smugly, utterly satisfied.
Remus chuckled and kissed his hair, then his lips. "I can only agree," he said, fumbling for his wand and giving them a sketchy clean-up, though usually Neville brought them a warm flannel instead. Neville let out an appreciative murmur; all his energy had gone into the before this time, and he had none left for any afters beyond snuggling, kissing, and hopefully sleeping very soon.
The bottle of lubricant made it back to the nightstand, as did both their wands after a quick Nox. "Smart wolf," Neville said with a small, private smile, tangling his fingers in Remus' chest hair, more brave now with his touching now that he'd done so under more heated circumstances.
"Smart man," said Remus, kissing Neville's forehead. "You're officially allowed to be on top whenever you want."
Neville giggled and captured Remus' mouth for the sort of long, slow kiss he'd always hoped he'd have a lover to share, then said softly, "I'll think about it. I mean, it's an awful lot of work."
They shared a laugh, and Neville fell asleep with the smile still gracing his lips, illuminated by the only light left in their little tent -- the familiar glow of Stuart's approving gaze.
The rest of the trip was largely uneventful; there were no finds of particular value, their harvest of Hellebore would hopefully be enough to keep Snape in stock for a full year without having to purchase more, and they found that being lovers only made their routine smoother, with the motivation of the night's play to keep them on their toes as they worked. When they came back, Neville spent another day trolling the apothecaries to fill orders and offer up their late harvest, then he and Remus got down to the very serious business of cultivating their greenhouses enough that there would be ingredients to sell someday soon.
The first big harvest would be on Midwinter, an auspicious time for certain ingredients that they chose to spend at home rather than up on the mountains, in deference to the holiday. The day was spent with Snape and Harry, all four of them preparing a traditional dinner of roast beef and all the fixings, Neville doing his part by polishing up the golden utensils Gran had sent over and setting the tables with her beautiful antique dishes. She'd arrive for the meal, of course, since it was a time for family, but was spending the day visiting her old friends, another long-standing tradition.
"You're really sure it's OK to have our feast here?" Neville asked for the umpteenth time, venturing no further than the doorway for fear of spoiling something by osmosis. The kitchen smelled heavenly, most of the foods already cooked and under preservation charms as they waited for the huge roast and its accompanying gravy to be finished.
Snape turned and Neville wasn't sure he could explain the expression, not the irritation or anger Neville had expected but something sharper, more personal. "I assure you," he said, coming over to stand by Neville for a moment, "I am more than happy to share this time of year with someone other than myself."
"It's a little like having a real family," said Harry almost wistfully, and Neville swallowed and looked up at Snape, finally understanding. Neville had his Gran, but none of the rest of them had anyone, and instead of going to crowd around the Weasleys' already crowded table, they'd made their own family and their own celebration, which counted for a lot, for all of them. Even Snape, it seemed.
Neville relaxed, face showing his comprehension and the warmth of affection he felt for all of them. He laid a hand on Snape's arm, something he wouldn't have dared to do six months ago, and smiled up at him. "It's a lot like finding our own family."
"And if that werewolf would make an honest man of you, it would be even more so," said a familiar terse voice from behind him.
"Gran!" said Neville, turning and restraining the urge to give her a hug, instead planting a polite kiss on one powdered cheek. "You look lovely today."
"I look old," she said irritably. "Where should I leave my wrap?"
"I can take care of your things," said Snape smoothly, shooting Neville a look of dark amusement as soon as he was out of Gran's line of sight, carrying her tatty fox wrap, vulture hat and red handbag.
She thanked him absently, then moved into the kitchen to give the food a critical eye, though to Neville's knowledge she'd never actually cooked such a feast herself. "Good enough, I suppose," she said, turning to Remus with a determined glint in her eye. "Well, young man? You're wearing his ring, when will I see yours on his finger?"
Remus blushed and mumbled something too low for Neville to hear, and she raised an eyebrow at him but, much to Neville's shock, let the subject drop.
"That's the last of it," said Harry, putting the freshly-made gravy in a porcelain gravy boat and looking at the spread. "The roast should rest for awhile, though, can we offer you a cup of tea while we wait, Augusta?"
"Tea would be splendid," she said, her smile going a bit sharklike as she noted the lack of rings on Harry's fingers. "Will the two of you continue to live in sin, as well?"
"Gran," said Neville just a touch warningly, not that she'd ever listen to him. "Harry and Severus..."
"Are practically family, as you said, which gives me leave to pry into their lives just as I do yours," said Gran with a rather unholy glee.
"I had not intended to broach the subject with Harry so soon," said Severus from the doorway. "He is young yet, to be tying himself to someone..."
"In other words, as soon as he gets the bollocks to ask me," Harry interrupted, much to Neville and Remus' amusement.
It was worth every ounce of embarrassment that Neville expected to experience that afternoon just to see the look on Snape's face at that declaration. "Ah, I suppose that does shed a different light on things," said Snape after a long moment of stunned silence.
"I'm sure Corundum will work something out for the rings," said Neville, only partly in jest; he expected his own to be finished any time now. The delicate process of creating the flowing metal rings was much like alchemy and took time to get right, so the money for it rested safely in his vault just waiting for Grizznock's final bill.
"Indeed," said Snape a bit darkly, and Neville had to bite back a giggle. Neville had known all along that once Harry chose someone, it would be forever from the very first kiss, and he was highly amused to see that Snape still half expected Harry to up and leave him for some strapping young Beater one day.
"Tea's ready," said Harry with a cheerful little smirk, and they all preceded him out the door, the floating tray of tea things following after like an obedient puppy. They took their usual seats despite Gran's inclusion, Neville and Remus on the chaise lounge and Snape with Harry on the loveseat, Gran presiding over them in the extra chair usually reserved for Ian -- though lately it, too, had often been expanded into a loveseat when Aurelius joined them as well.
Harry busied himself making up cups for everyone, needing to ask only Gran since by now they all knew how the others liked it, Neville's sweet and Remus' creamy, Snape's with lemon and Harry's according to his mood, either strong and black or so full of sugar and milk it barely looked like tea at all, which is how he had it today. Gran took one sugar and sipped delicately, smiling as she tasted the familiar brand of "good tea" she herself used. "An excellent cup, Harry, thank you."
"You're welcome, ma'am," said Harry diffidently, sipping his own and snuggling shamelessly up to Snape on the tiny couch.
"Did all your visits go well today?" Neville asked, turning the conversation away from all of their love lives a bit desperately, and starting her on an incredibly boring narrative that took up the rest of the time before dinner was finally ready to be served.
Remus, Snape and Harry went to levitate the food in while Neville carefully installed Gran on Snape's left; Snape sat at the head of the table as was proper, since it was his house, with Gran and Neville on his left, Harry and Remus on his right, and the other end of the table left empty so they could all talk more easily. Conversation continued on the subject of old friends, this time the Order and their doings, including the news that Fleur Weasley was expecting her first child, Kingsley had apparently taken up with a scandalously young witch from the Department of Games and Sports, and Charlie would be home sometime in spring for an extended visit.
Finally the meal wound down with talk of the night's work ahead of them, with Remus and Harry going into the Forbidden Forest for one harvest while Snape worked in Greenhouse One and Neville in Greenhouse Two, allowing them to get the largest possible quantity of viable ingredients with the smallest possible travel time -- everyone would be meet up shortly after midnight, barring accident, so they could all Apparate to a promising graveyard and try to get Diamond Dew for Corundum, which Hermione's calculations said was in the stars. Neville had been happy one of them had passed Astronomy, despite the fact that it meant none of them would be abed before dawn.
Fortunately, even Remus' health was restored enough that one sleepless night wouldn't do him much harm.
Neville noticed it was getting on in the afternoon, and gently suggested that perhaps it was time for pudding, since Remus and Harry would want to get out before the early dusk to scout and plan a bit more. "Shall we adjourn to the parlour?" Snape suggested; the tea things were still there and none of them would mind using spell-cleaned cups, not even Gran now that she'd had some wine with dinner, and some assurance that Neville wasn't being taken advantage of like some Victorian maiden.
"I'll get the tea going again," said Neville, disappearing into the room to make sure she didn't actually see the spell that cleaned the cups, just in case. He refilled the pot with a tap of his wand and set the water to steaming, getting the sherry and five delicate glasses as well, to help keep her from wondering how he'd made tea without using the kitchen; Gran disapproved of using magic for the task, saying it made the tea taste flat and metallic. Neville had always thought she just liked disapproving of things, but it didn't stop him from using her method most of the time anyway.
Snape escorted her into the room a few moments later, the two of them deep in a discussion of investments that had Neville completely lost and perfectly happy to be ignored as he poured drinks for everyone. Harry and Remus came in a few moments later with individual servings of the traditional solstice pudding, smelling sweet and sharp, soaked in brandy and dotted with raisins. "Pudding is served," said Remus with a smile, spinning the tray and then offering them each their choice, since one of them had the traditional silver Sickle hidden inside.
"If I get my wish, you'll all be married by Christmas," said Gran tartly as she bit into the sweet with her spoon, though she was smiling as she said it.
"I think that'd be a bit soon," said Neville, blushing and extremely conscious of Remus' warmth at his side, and how very badly he wanted that warmth there always. "Don't you want to see me have a garden wedding?" he teased, though a part of him wanted that probably more than she did, to wear formal robes and say vows beneath twining roses or perhaps gently glowing lilacs.
Harry and Snape were both watching this whole exchange with great amusement, Harry's expression filled with that same lightness that he always seemed to have these days, Snape's dark and promising that Neville would be held accountable for this unexpected predicament. "Oh, I've got the Sickle!" said Remus suddenly, holding up the sticky coin. He flushed a bit and laid it on the side of his dish, then set the dish down and said cryptically, "I suppose that's as good a cue as any."
Neville cocked his head curiously as Remus slid off the chaise and onto one bony knee, pulling something out of his pocket. "Will you marry me, Neville?" he asked, holding out a small blue velvet box.
Neville took the box, opening it with a sudden suspicion about just what was taking Corundum so long with his commission. Inside there was a ring nearly identical to Remus', except the three gems weren't moonstones, but emeralds that glittered like dew-coated leaves drifting on the flowing gold. He looked up to find Remus' face carefully neutral, and doubt swimming up behind those familiar, beloved eyes. "Oh, Remus, of course I will," he said with a smile, leaning forward to kiss Remus warmly. "Silly."
That got everyone to laugh, and Remus' hands were only shaking a little when he put the ring on Neville's trembling finger. "A garden wedding, huh?" he said, smiling back at Neville, all that painful doubt vanished by joy and hope and love.
Neville chuckled. "Yeah, something like that. Now get back up here or you'll spoil your knees and I'll have to go out into the forest tonight."
"Don't get your hopes up too much," said Snape darkly to Harry, who looked for a moment like he might cry until Snape explained. "I expect a very small and private ceremony with no garden involved."
Neville thought privately that this house hadn't heard so much laughter in a long time as it did that afternoon, each of them teasing the others about the bonds of matrimony and possibilities for celebration. He knew Snape wouldn't ask right away, being a man who severely disliked being pressured into things, and he also knew that in a way Snape had already asked and been accepted, and the rest was a mere formality.
Gran, of course, had to get in the last word. Just as she was preparing to Floo out she gave Remus and Snape stern looks and said, "You'd better both take care of your young men, and I expect to be asked to give them both away."
"Does this mean you'll pay for the wedding?" Harry teased, while Snape silently helped her into her wrap.
She stepped into the fireplace, powder in hand and said, "Of course."
The flames took her away before any of them could manage a response.
Harry sat down, looking a bit stunned. "It appears I've been adopted."
"She'll have to fight Mr. Weasley to give you away, you know," said Neville cheerfully. "Maybe she can give Snape away instead?"
"I think not," said Snape darkly, though Neville could already see his resistance crumbling, when faced with the idea of having people who not only thought of him as family, but liked it that way.
Harry, of course, put the whole thing in perspective when he swept Neville up into an absurdly boisterous hug and said, "You're getting married!"
Neville laughed and planted a kiss on Harry's cheek, then let himself be handed off to Remus' arms. "Yes," he said, looking up at Remus with adoring eyes. "I am."
Sudden, unexpected engagement didn't obviate the need for their harvest, and so they broke up quickly enough to their separate tasks, Neville and Snape cleaning up after the feast while Harry and Remus rechecked their equipment and Apparated out to the Forest. Neville had finally lost most of his nervousness around Snape and nothing could have brought him down from his high tonight anyway, not even the anticipation of a whole evening of work ahead of him, first in the greenhouse and then some mouldering old graveyard. The latter he had lots of practice carefully not thinking about, really; they'd all four be going, because more than one sort of magic was strong on Midwinter night and Harry, Snape and Remus would need to be on the lookout for danger while Neville carefully harvested the delicate Diamond Dew, assuming any actually formed.
"Diamond Dew would make a pretty good engagement ring," said Neville suddenly, putting the last of Gran's gold-plated tableware back in its velvet-lined chest to await the next big holiday celebration.
Snape froze, then continued to dry and stack the fine china plates by hand, their designs too delicate to be trusted to magic. "The thought had occurred to me," he admitted.
"If you help, then part of the harvest, the profits, should be yours. I'm sure Remus must have..."
"We had discussed it," said Snape quietly. "I... had thought to set some aside for... a future date."
Neville smiled and closed the chest, then came over to lay a hand on Snape's arm. "He's sure now, but don't rush it if you aren't," said Neville softly, the only advice he could give on a subject he wasn't exactly an expert on himself.
Snape looked surprised, then nodded. "I would not have let him invade my home if I wasn't sure I wanted him to make it his own," Snape explained, and Neville smiled. He remembered how Harry had moved in, not so much asking to as slowly transferring his possessions from his flat to Snape's house, and then closing the flat once it was empty and demanding a key from Snape the next day.
The only surprising thing had been how readily Snape acquiesced to Harry's demand.
"I'll make sure he gives you enough to pay Corundum for both settings," said Neville with a shy little grin, "Assuming we find any, that is."
"I possess some small amount of faith in Hermione's calculations, not to mention your inexplicable luck in these matters," said Snape gruffly, which was about the best thing he could possibly have said and still been him.
Neville grinned and took the first stack of plates back to the enchanted china hutch in which they'd arrived. "I'll try not to disappoint, then."
Once everything was put away and the dusk was thick around them, they parted ways to their respective greenhouses in comfortable silence. Neville went to his bench, all the tools and containers neatly laid out yesterday just as Snape's were in Greenhouse One, and took up his pruning shears and a bushel. They'd managed to get a little stand of Frostplum bushes to flourish in one corner of the greenhouse, covered in magically produced snow, and now was the time that Snape assured him was best to harvest the pale leaves for maximum potency. The flowers would be plucked separately in the spring, and the fruit in the summer, each ingredient lending a different property to whatever concoctions the alchemists and potion brewers would make from them.
He hummed contentedly as he snipped, and once he finished up with those there was Ice Ivy to be cut back, and more plants after that until it was nearly midnight and Neville only had one more to be done, the pernicious Windpine berries that had to be carefully extricated from their needle-filled branches. He'd left them for last because the bushes were right next to the Fire Briar Rose, and he wanted to be very sure his mind was on his task and his feet were nowhere near the fragile blossom -- he'd never live it down if he managed to keep the plant flourishing all these months only to step on it.
It was still in its little cleared patch of earth, its glow bright and the air above it shimmering with a heat incongruous with the chilly night air of their artificial mountaintop environment. Neville got to work on the Windpine berries the same way he had the rainbowberries what seemed like ages ago, marching them into their bushel with his wand and taking care not to puncture them on the needles -- they'd deflate and be useless skins, which would only annoy Snape, who had a use for them in some sort of Inflating Infusion for a customer who wanted a bit of help keeping certain parts of her anatomy in defiance of gravity.
Neville had nearly denuded the tree -- he didn't have any birds in this greenhouse to feast on the leftovers -- when something off to one side caught his attention. He looked over and saw that the ember-like burn of the Fire Briar Rose had grown to something more akin to the heart of a metalsmith's furnace, dull red and orange giving way to white heat tinged with gold. At what Neville would later be absolutely certain was the precise stroke of midnight, it sent up seven brilliant sparks, which came down in a perfect circle around the original flower. They sank into the earth like pebbles into butter, the glow slowly fading until Neville was sure the show was over and began to turn back to his previous task.
That was, of course, when the seven new flowers shot up, fully formed, each one a near-perfect replica of the original. The first rose, which Neville had cared for all these long months, had changed as well. Its black petals were burnt to ash, blown away and replaced by new growths that looked like crystal or frost, more delicate and fragile than the most translucent butterfly's wing. The stem, too, had lost all its colour, turning to clear ice before Neville's eyes, each thorn tipped with just a tiny tinge of red, as though someone had pricked themselves. The leaves didn't fall the way the petals had, but they changed, all their solidity leeching away until there was only a thin membrane stretched along each network of crystalline veins like shimmering soap bubbles. The whole thing looked as though it might melt away the moment anything touched it.
Neville was sure he'd never seen anything so beautiful in his life, and he knew exactly what to do with it.
Corundum had loaned Neville a few of the very fine stasis orbs that he himself used, the charms guaranteed to work not for months but years and on even the most stubborn of things, though of course there were exceptions to every enchantment. "Don't move," Neville whispered to the lovely plant, getting all six of them and hoping he was doing the right thing -- he certainly hadn't seen six other roses in the same clearing as his one, so he could only surmise that something either found them tasty, or they had trouble sharing the meagre resources of that northern soil, and only one had survived.
Or, thought Neville as he came back and noted that they seemed a little less perfect in their circle and a bit further apart, perhaps they just up and walked off. Either way, he captured five of them in stasis orbs, saving the sixth for this amazing new plant and hoping that even the orbs' gentle magic wouldn't be too much for the fragile-seeming flower. He whispered at the orb and flower both as he thinned it out with magic and carefully lowered it over the flower, just the opposite of how he'd planted it months ago, and breathed a sigh of relief when the glass reformed with the beautiful bloom intact.
"Now," he said, turning to the two remaining flowers, "can you be trusted not to wander out of the greenhouse? You're welcome to choose any spot you like, though it should be off these paths," he said, pointing to the enchanted stones and the pebbled footpath lying beyond.
He got the feeling the plants understood him, just as he often did with Stuart and Alice, and furthermore that the spot he'd planted the first one in would be just fine for one of them, now that the incompatible parent plant had been so kindly removed, while the other would gladly find a place of its own inside the safety of Greenhouse Two's predator-free walls. Neville smiled and gathered the orbs up, settling them in their case and deciding not to activate the shrinking charms, just in case. "There's a little stand of Devil's Snare in that corner," he said, pointing to the shadowed corner where he was cultivating some offshoots of the Snowball in Hell. "Otherwise, I don't think there's anything here that will hurt you."
It seemed to him that the little plant glowed just a bit brighter, and he hefted the box of orbs and set it on the path, using his fingers to till and flatten the loose soil, covering over the indentations where he'd taken the six roses. Then he stood and finished with the Windpine berries, grateful that nothing had happened to them while he dawdled with the admittedly more valuable Roses, singing softly to himself while he worked. This was the luck Snape had spoken of, and Neville couldn't deny that some days he felt as though he'd traded places with Harry, going on adventures and stumbling over fortunes while Harry stayed home or played Quidditch, a career that suited him even better now that he was living somewhere the press couldn't easily find.
Neville was just packing up the last of his harvest, transferring the fragile berries into one of Remus' charmed sacks for Snape to deal with later, when the door to the greenhouse opened and a familiar voice rang out. "The great hunters are home with their prize!"
Neville laughed and waved, watching Remus wend his way through the whole greenhouse to get to the work area in back. He finished up the last of the berries and closed the sack, then said, "I have something to show you as well." He pressed a kiss to Remus' lips when the opportunity presented itself and then asked, "But you first, what'd you bring me?"
Remus grinned. "Everything on the list, including those weird starlight blossoms that Severus wanted, and a couple of things we've no idea what they are but figured you'd want."
"Brilliant!" said Neville. "I'll probably want to replant them before we go out again, did you take them to Greenhouse One?"
"Harry and Snape are already looking around for possible locations, based on where we found them and what you've already got planted," said Remus, nuzzling at Neville's cheek. "Now, what've you got for me?"
Neville thought about drawing it out, but he just couldn't wait. He flipped the lid of the trunk open, their faces bathed in red-gold light -- the icy skeleton of the first Rose didn't glow anymore, but somehow changed the light that did hit it, cooling it to a blue-white radiance. "Wow," said Remus, looking from the box to Neville. "I mean... wow."
"Apparently," said Neville, brushing his fingers over one of the globes, "At midnight on Midwinter, the Fire Briar Rose sends up seven sparks which become seeds and grow into new roses, which then proceed to meander away from their parent plant. The original rose turns into this," he said, pointing though not quite daring to touch the sixth plant.
"That's... wow. Even if we don't find Corundum's Dew, he'll be... ecstatic. How fragile is it?" Remus asked, fingers hovering over the glass.
"I've no idea, but I'm going to assume very, as I've never seen or heard of anything like it before. I suspect it probably melts with the dawn, or in spring or something, and of course the seven child plants have already wandered far and wide, so there's no reason to associate it with them anyway, other than the similar structure." Neville pointed out the same spiralling shape of thorn-and-leaf along the stem, the same wild rose blossom with its seven petals and seven icicle-like stamen inside. It really was as though it had sent away all its inner warmth into its children, and left behind only a frozen skeleton.
"It's beautiful, Neville," said Remus, turning and pulling him into a warm kiss. "Did you save the other two, or did they wander away?"
Neville kissed him back and laid his head on Remus' chest. "I think I convinced them to stay; one of them settled in back where we'd planted the original, and the other was going to find a spot for itself. Next year we'll have more, Remus. If they really do what I expect them to, we'll never have to worry about making ends meet, just from this one find that I almost tripped over."
"Severus always says you have the dumbest luck," said Remus kissing him again. "I'm just glad I get to share in it."
Neville giggled, then kissed him again. "Me, too. And this doesn't get you out of South America, either."
Remus laughed with him, and they locked the greenhouse carefully behind them when they went to find Snape and Harry and relay their good news. Replanting was quick and simple; Neville could at least generally classify most of the plants as useful, though he did make them destroy one of the mystery fungi that would prey on some of their other, more valuable plants. It was a cheerful group that headed out into the graveyard around 3am, the grass already promisingly wet as they trudged up the hill to the saint's grave.
Neville's good fortune held and there were night-blooming Angel Hearts decorating the entire hillock just below the statue, each blossom sporting a single shining droplet at its centre. Their biggest worry was another wizard looking for the same bounty, but in a graveyard on such an evening there was always the danger of ghouls or other Dark creatures as well, so Neville tried to stay alert even as he carefully eased each droplet into the pure silver bowl they'd brought just for tonight's endeavour. The tears clinked softly as they slid down the side, going from liquid to solid so smoothly Neville could never quite tell at what point in the process it occurred. He knew that it would take dozens of them to make the necklace that Corundum had in mind, so he kept going long past the point when he was chilled and wet and wanted to go home, even managing to garner a few of the rare double gems, which ended up as a heart-shape rather than a teardrop or tiny orb.
He'd just gotten a third one when their luck ran out. A roar off to the left alerted him and he ducked, holding the precious bowl to his chest -- if the gems didn't stay in it until dawn, they'd just be so much water once the sun broke the horizon. Neville tried to calculate if he'd gathered enough for Corundum's commission and Snape and Harry's rings, and gave up when he heard Snape's deep voice sending a curse off into the night. Instead he covered the top of the bowl in silk and put the whole thing in the special container Corundum had loaned them along with it, which would keep the bowl upright no matter what happened to the box or the person carrying it.
Neville was tucking the box back into his pack when he was hit by something heavy, and he looked up into the terrifying face of a fiend, one of the many that lurked in places like this at night. All of his Defence classes drained out of his brain as sheer terror overwhelmed him, the fiend's power combining with its hideous half-human appearance to send him into a frozen panic. Fortunately Neville never got to find out if it was going to eat him alive for kill him first, because a curse caught it in the side and it went flying off of him to land in a dark, still heap.
"Neville, are you all right?" asked Remus, his voice worried. "Snape's been bitten so we have to go find Ian, do you have the tears?"
Neville nodded, pointing to the half-open pack and the box inside, within arms' reach where he'd dropped it in his fright. He buried himself in Remus' arms and tried not to cry, feeling like a big girl's blouse but unable to fully shake off the terror. "I g-guess I'm not so lucky after all," he said, clinging as Remus gathered up the pack and Neville both. "Harry, Apparate to Ian's!"
Neville didn't have enough presence of mind to prepare himself, so he staggered and nearly took Remus down with him when they arrived in the dimly lit infirmary to find Harry already helping Snape to a bed. "I'll get Ian," said Remus worriedly, tucking their doubly valuable prize into Neville's arms and sitting him down in the little waiting area. "You've been scratched but I'll be right back, I'm sure that Ian has enough fiend antivenin for both of you."
That idea barely penetrated Neville's fear, but a part of him recognized that the gibbering, paralyzing terror was from the creature's claws and not his own lack of courage, just as he finally recognized Snape screaming, not in pain but the unreasoning panic caused by a much larger dose of the fiend venom rampaging through his system.
Time seemed to slow and skip after that, Snape getting a potion and then himself, his robes taken off while he felt the welcome numbness spread through him and his shoulder bandaged where the creature had gotten in a glancing blow. Ian performed a number of spells on Snape and managed to get him calmed and the bleeding stopped, and Neville felt his awareness returning with a sharp pop like ears clearing up after the trip up the mountains, just as Ian was telling Snape that there wouldn't even be much scarring if he could be trusted to stay off his feet until Boxing Day.
"I'm sure Harry can manage to keep him horizontal," said Remus jokingly, pulling the box out of the bedraggled pack and bringing it over to Neville. "It's well past dawn, love, want to see what we've gotten for our pains?"
Neville smiled up at him and accepted the box, then pressed a kiss to his mouth. "Thank you for taking care of me," he said softly, cradling the warm wood in his hands.
"Consider it a bit of repayment," said Remus, kissing his forehead. "Go on."
Harry wandered over with a relieved little smile and said, "Yeah, go on. I want to see what was worth the risk."
Neville nodded and opened the box, the silk-covered bowl resting neatly in its bottom and not a single drop of wetness staining the cloth. "Let's hope it worked," he said, then took a deep breath and gently pulled the silk away to reveal the shallow silver bowl, full nearly to the brim with glistening gems. They caught what little sunlight had made its way into the infirmary at this hour and began to sparkle, not throwing rainbows the way the berries had but simply shining with pure white light.
"Wow," said Ian, reaching toward the bowl. "Er, may I?"
"Yeah," said Neville, pulling out one of the droplets himself. Somehow it had managed to harden with no flat edges, despite being in the bottom of a bowl, magic making it a perfect teardrop shape that was clear as the purest water and yet somehow still reflected the sunlight in glimmering sparkles of white.
"They're lovely," said Ian, holding one of the perfectly round orbs. He chuckled and slipped it back into the bowl. "You're lucky I don't ask for one as my payment for being woken up before dawn," he added with a wink.
"If there's any left after we see Corundum, you're welcome to one," said Harry instantly, getting nods of agreement from Neville and Remus. "I know Severus... I know you saved his life."
"And Remus' life before him," said Neville; he hadn't really been in any danger himself, since the small dose would have worked itself out of his system in an hour or two now that he was away from the fiend's influence.
Ian grinned and picked up the little round, holding it up to his right ear. "I've always fancied myself with an earring, what d'you think?"
They all laughed, the moment passed, and Neville and Harry exchanged looks that would be sure to commission a pair of them for Ian and whoever he might want to give its mate to. "Why don't Remus and I go home and then pay Corundum a visit, while you two get Snape tucked away in bed so he can start complaining?" said Neville with a little grin, getting a grateful smile from both Remus and Harry.
"Sounds like a plan," said Harry, and he dragged Ian over to Snape while Neville tucked the little box back into its pack.
"I am getting tired of seeing the inside of this place," said Remus wryly as Neville got himself properly dressed again, lamenting the rips in his robe, though in truth he'd worn an old one tonight on purpose, knowing it might get stained or damaged.
"Let's go home and you can see the inside of me," said Neville teasingly, getting a heated look from Remus. They used Ian's Floo and did just that, making it out to Corundum's well before noon anyway, with their commission and the unexpected bounty of the night's harvest as well.
The shop was closed for the day, but they'd owled ahead weeks ago to let the jeweller know they expected to have his Diamond Dew today if at all, so their arrival at his private Floo was greeted with smiles and coffee.
"I see you have much for me, sit, sit!" said Corundum cheerfully, eyes flickering to their hands. "And much to tell me as well, yes?"
Neville chuckled and held out his hand, the emeralds glinting in the morning sun. "Remus used it to propose last night, because he's utterly daft, and we'll probably be married in spring or early summer," said Neville cheerfully, much to Remus' embarrassment.
"Good, good. Spring is a time for new things," said Corundum, pouring the tiny cups and handing them each some of the fragrant, milky brew. "So, first the diamonds," he said, holding out one big hand.
Neville handed over his box; they'd taken the time to examine the lot and pull out a few likely suspects for Snape and Harry's rings, and Ian's earrings, though Neville wasn't sure if Harry would want his wedding band to be a reminder of this latest of Snape's many brushes with danger. Those were in a small silk pouch to one side, and the rest sparkled in the bowl as Corundum opened it up. "More than enough!" he said with a huge grin, looking inside the little silk bag, "And something you want me to make, I take it?"
"Harry and Severus want wedding bands, though I'm not sure they'll want to use these particular gems since Severus nearly got his leg bitten off by a fiend acquiring them, and Ian would like a pair of earrings. We picked out a few likely stones, but we'll trust your judgement, really," said Remus, while Neville took a sip of the stimulating coffee, the caffeine chasing away the last cobwebs of fear, and the lingering lassitude from a morning spent confirming their vitality.
Corundum nodded. "I will save aside some gems, and give Ian a good price on the earrings."
"The, er, earrings are more of a gift from us," said Remus softly, and Neville nodded.
"Just don't pay us for the two stones, and take the price of setting them out of our fee," said Neville with a nod. "Severus and Harry are to get half the remaining fee, and if you set a few stones aside for them that they can buy back wholesale or leave for you, then they can come by later and talk to you about what they want."
Corundum looked thoughtful, then closed the lid. "You're fair with those that help you, I like that," he said, setting the box aside. "I will do as you've asked, and be sure to send more commissions your way. How is Grizznock's friend working out for you, anyway?"
Neville smiled, knowing by now that it wasn't just polite curiosity, but a gentle reminder that the jeweller was also a friend and ally. "Jix has been wonderful," said Neville, sipping his coffee with a smile. "Was there a new commission you wanted to give us?"
Corundum laughed. "You're smarter than you let on, boy," he said, shaking his head. "We'll talk about that after I see what new surprise you've brought me."
Remus laughed as well, and Neville just chuckled at himself; dealing with Snape had made him start to think in entirely too Slytherin a manner. "This is actually the item I mentioned that first day, which isn't really in your area of expertise, but I thought you might be able to help us find a proper buyer for."
Neville opened the box and was happy to see that the delicate ice flower had kept its shape, though it seemed to shimmer when the sunlight hit it. "I don't know if this one will survive even in stasis," he said, pointing to it, "but I can assure you the five are genuine, and just bloomed yesterday."
"You have found a way to cultivate such a treasure?" asked Corundum, looking from Neville to the box with a new respect that gave Neville the small hope that Corundum might stop calling him "boy" sometime soon.
Neville shrugged, unwilling to give away his secret just yet. "I know they're valuable; Severus wants to bid privately for one, and I'll let him, but I wanted your opinion before I try to go to market with them."
Corundum looked thoughtful, lifting out one of the orbs containing a normal -- if that word could be used for a plant so rare that most people had only read about them -- Fire Briar Rose. "If I arrange the auction, I will get commission?"
"Yes, of course," said Remus, sipping his coffee and looking entirely too pleased with himself. "If you can find a way to preserve the other rose, we thought you would want to be the first to offer for it as well."
"Indeed, it is a thing of beauty deserving of all my skill," said Corundum, putting the one flower back and hovering his hand over the other. "What is it?"
"I'm not sure," said Neville honestly. "It's what happened to the parent plant, after the new ones bloomed." That it had all happened in the space of a few minutes wasn't something he needed to share, not with the glitter he could see in Corundum's eyes that showed he wasn't entirely the generous, affable man he showed to the public. "I think it normally melts in the sun by now, but your stasis orb seems to be holding it together."
"They are very good orbs, it was wise of you to use them this way," said Corundum. He sat back, looking at the plant, and shook his head. "I would not know where to begin to offer for such a prize, but I know I must have it."
Remus exchanged looks with Neville, and Neville nodded; they'd talked about it this morning, and they all knew that in a way it didn't matter what Pedro offered, because he was the only possible buyer for what they had to sell. No other magical jeweller or herbologist would have the skills to preserve the specimen in all its glory. "How about you take it as your commission?" Neville offered casually.
Corundum looked at them both sharply, and then laughed. "Yes, yes, I can see that would be best for all of us." He closed the lid and put the box of Diamond Dew on top, then stood. "I will have another job for you, but right now I wish to put my mind to the task of preserving my prize, and finding buyers for yours. I will return Severus' flower once I have preserved the... parent plant."
"What if we called it Star Frost Rose?" Neville asked, remembering how the whole thing had seemed to form of frost and ice and starlight.
Corundum nodded. "You have found this treasure, and the name is a good one, so a Star Frost Rose it shall be. If I can get it to be anything other than a puddle in my work room."
Neville grinned. "I trust in your skills," he said, setting down his cup and standing up to offer Corundum his hand.
"And if not, we will work something else out on the commission. You'll send an accounting of the Diamond Dew, and forward a draft for our half to Gringotts?" said Remus, neatly summing up the business end of things; they liked and trusted Corundum, but only as much as you could with so much money at stake.
They were on their way to the Floo room when Neville thought of something. "Oh!" said Neville, turning back to him. "One more thing, don't open the Fire Briar Roses near the Star Frost Rose. I don't think they're good for one another."
"Good to know, though I don't plan on opening your Fire Roses at all, only my lovely flower," he said, sitting back down to finish his coffee. "Thank you both for your business and your trust. It is a good thing you came to me, b- Neville. We will have a long partnership, the three of us."
"We will. And we'll send Harry and Severus to see you after Boxing Day," said Neville, nodding to him.
There wasn't anything more to say after that, so they left to give Severus and Harry their good news, and check up on the invalid. After all, Christmas was only a few days away, and life would go on whether or not Snape could walk, Neville's shoulder ached or Remus still coughed once in a while.
That was the thing about life, it just kept going.
By Christmas, Snape was heartily and loudly tired of being confined to the bed or chaise lounge, so they made sure to plan plenty of distractions. Remus and Neville stayed home for breakfast, giving both couples a chance to exchange gifts and celebrate the season in a more personal manner, but they Flooed in before lunchtime with Stuart, Remus' infamous cards, and a whole assortment of Christmas biscuits in a tin for use as poker chips, since Neville still adamantly refused to play strip poker with Snape. The afternoon was punctuated by sarcasm and Weasleys, and dinner was a wonderful mix of Remus' cooking and Molly's leftovers.
Boxing Day brought Snape's clean bill of health and a day spent helping him clean his lab and safely disposing of old ingredients whose potency was suspect. The day after, Snape locked himself inside to brew commissions while Remus and Neville roped Harry into helping in the greenhouses, along with Hermione, who made Neville tell the story of the Fire Briar Roses over and over again after he made her promise to keep their secret for the time being. Between the four of them, everything got weeded and pruned, watered and fertilized and adjusted for the right amount of waxing winter sunlight, and they even managed to get Snape and Ron to join them for a fancy dinner out at the Indian place in Diagon Alley.
Once Harry went back to his Quidditch season, caring for the greenhouses slowly took over all of Neville's time so that they began to get another backlog of orders, and Neville suggested they spread a bit of their wealth around and hire an assistant to care for the plants while they hared off to South America -- a trip that would be much more arduous and lengthy than even their first jaunt up the mountains, since Remus hadn't had months to find the perfect harvesting spot this time. Neville consulted Professor Sprout and hired Ernie Macmillan, who seemed very content to find work in a small but successful company working with green growing things, rather than in his father's accounting firm.
Just a few days before they were scheduled to make their trip, Neville found himself standing in the ruins of Snape's old conservatory. Spring was just beginning to rear its head, the snow melted and plant life inside rampant, just waiting for them to return from their planned adventure and begin harvesting, potting and replanting, readying the space for a more orderly rebirth. He stared out over the broken paving stones, a little smile playing around the corners of his mouth at the first tenacious little clumps of bloodmoss and dandelions just starting to spring up in the exposed earth between the jagged slates.
"My life's a little like that," said Neville, just as Remus' steps slowed and warm arms wrapped around his waist.
"Like what?" said Remus curiously, his eyes following Neville's to the patches of red and green and black earth showing around the grey stones.
Neville nuzzled against his cheek. "Like the dandelion there, finding the spot no one really wants and making a go of it, figuring out it's not such a bad place after all once you've pushed past the first big obstacle."
"A lot of people think bloodmoss is just a weed," said Remus, giving Neville a little squeeze to show he hadn't misunderstood or ignored what Neville was saying, "but a smart wizard knows you can use them for things, bandages where there're none around, ingredients in some healing potions. It's not bad or useless, but you have to look to find the value."
"Smart wolf," said Neville with a little grin. "Shall we make dandelion wine this summer, then?"
Remus laughed, his whole body shaking with it, lungs clean and breaths full and easy now that Ian's expert advice, Snape's potions and Neville's care had healed him. "Smart man," he said, giving Neville a warm, sweet kiss. "I think we should."
Art by Brevisse:
Title: Flora and Fauna