The Cactus and the Toad

Chapter 10

10

Neville surveyed the ruin of the greenhouses in horror. The skeletal frames arched their twisted limbs, shards of glass clawing at the misty air while condensation dripped like tears. Half-dead plants flinched beneath the impact of each drop of water, leaves and petals shivering, cowering, and occasionally falling, defeated, to the ground. The earth was horribly churned, severed stalks and blossoms stamped into the black muck all around. There was a tatter of someone's bloody robe clinging to the ragged edges where one of the greenhouse doors used to be. Neville tried not to look at it.

"Greenhouse Two was the worst," Professor Sprout said, in a tone that, for all its practicality, still shook. "I cleared it out completely. That's where I've been putting the salvaged plants for now, until I can get the rest sorted."

Neville nodded grimly. Greenhouse Two had been roughly rebuilt, its sagging frame filled with intact, albeit rather grimy, panes of glass.

"I've been recovering as much as I can from Greenhouse Three," Sprout said. "I think it would be best if you started with One, today…"

Neville nodded. He was comfortable with all of the plants in the greenhouses, but the plants in Greenhouse One were less dangerous, easier to care for, and (hopefully) more willing to be recovered. He didn't imagine the Venomous Tentacula, whose tentacles kept wrapping around the shattered greenhouse frame only to wince and writhe away from the protruding glass, would be very good-natured about a transplant today.

Once Professor Sprout had shown him her tentative plan for the refugee plants inside Greenhouse Two, she left him alone, a sign of trust in him that might have made Neville happy if the sight of the ravaged gardens weren't so distressing.

"Just save what you can," Professor Sprout told him. "We'll help them regrow."

Just save what you can, Neville repeated to himself, as the hours passed. It might have been his imagination, but the fragile, innocent, harmless plants he was rescuing seemed to reach for him, desperate for every little bit of care he could give them before he left them in Greenhouse Two and returned for the next survivors. He had always felt like plants were vividly alive, as sensitive and sentient as any animal, but less confused by the stress of striving to stay alive. Plants didn't have to look for nourishment, they only had to open themselves up and it poured down on them.

Today was a gloomy day, sunless and gray, so Neville let himself be their sun, pouring out his care and concern as he gently lifted each little being from its devastated home.

"You're not supposed to have to move," he told them. "You're supposed to stay in one place, drinking up the sun and the water, safe and secure in the earth. It's not fair that this happened to you because of wizards. But we'll try to set you right."

Most of the plants seemed forgiving, but some were scared, even violent. A Rueful Rose sank its thorns into his hand when he approached it too quickly, and a Noisy Nettle burst into frightened tears, which left his ears stinging for hours. Still, with quiet words, he managed to coax them to Greenhouse Two eventually, though the Noisy Nettle attached itself desperately (and painfully) to his arm, terrified of the new environment.

He was just persuading a Devouring Dandelion (which had apparently spread from Greenhouse Three, where it was usually kept in containment) to settle into a pot he was holding when a soft mew alerted him to another intruder.

"... have a whole corner all to yourself," Neville was promising the Dandelion. The flower shook itself, baring its fangs at him. "I know the others say you're a weed, but you're a war hero now, I saw what you did to that Snatcher's leg…"

The mew interrupted him. Immediately, the Devouring Dandelion twisted to face the newcomer. Neville didn't need to look. He recognized the meow, and sighed.

"Trevor is one thing, Fiend. A Devouring Dandelion is another."

A sneering voice answered him: "Really, Longbottom, do you think my familiar can't contend with a flower?"

Neville gave him a skeptical look. "This Dandelion's been chewing up glass and rocks all day. As soon as it feels threatened, it's going to regurgitate -"

"Very well, very well. Fiend, don't be absurd."

The Kneazle kitten gave him a disappointed look, but the Dandelion chose that moment to gag threateningly, and she darted back to the safety of Snape's robe.

"All right," Neville told the flower. "You can stay here for now, but I'm going to find you a terrarium. The last thing we need is Devouring Dandelions spreading all over the grounds."

The flower bristled. Neville sighed. "There's a time and place for sowing your seeds, but this isn't it."

Belatedly, he remembered Snape was standing right behind him. Determined to avoid looking at him until his face had cooled off, Neville rummaged around in the half-demolished storage cabinet until he found an appropriate container.

"Here you are, then," he said. "Completely bite-proof."

"Do you always talk to plants?" Snape asked, his tone less contemptuous than curious.

"Most of the time," Neville said, shrugging and turning to face the older man. "They get uncomfortable if you just start touching them without saying anything, you know."

"Indeed," Snape replied, arching an eyebrow. "You seem to have quite the rapport."

Neville, whose blush had only just faded, felt heat flood his face again. "Devouring Dandelions are very, er, potent."

Snape was still giving him a disdainful smirk, but Neville thought he saw a little pink color the man's face as well. Perhaps too hastily, Neville asked, "What are you doing here?"

"Impertinence, Longbottom."

"Sorry. What are you doing here, sir?"

Snape arched his eyebrow again. Neville arched his right back. "You're in my greenhouse, sir," he pointed out.

Snape looked around at the devastation, as if to say, "What greenhouse?"

"I know," Neville said, deflating. "It's awful, isn't it?"

Snape's sarcastic expression faded slightly. "It doesn't look as though anything survived."

Neville shook his head. "Most of the living plants are in Greenhouse Two now. I'm just finishing up here. The Dandelion was the last survivor I found…" He trailed off, giving the ground another despairing look, but there was no sign of anything living.

"Perhaps you should look up," Snape offered.

Neville frowned at him, confused. Snape rolled his eyes, then stared pointedly at something above Neville's head.

A swaying tendril of Mourning Glory clung to a bent piece of metal, its blossoms tightly closed. Tears had pooled at the tips of the furled petals. The plant looked desperately sad and frightened.

"How long have you been up there?" Neville asked, lowering his voice in sympathy. He frowned at himself. How could he have waited this long to offer to help Professor Sprout? She had been injured in the Battle of Hogwarts, badly enough that her restoration efforts had only begun this week. How much more might have been salvaged if Neville had started work right after the battle?

When there were still bodies here? Neville reminded himself. Bodies you might have killed?

He shuddered. He and Professor Sprout had both used their plants as weapons. Neville knew he had brought down at least one Death Eater with Devil's Snare, and another with Flaming Fungus. As far as he knew, not even Harry, Ron, or Hermione had killed anyone, unless you counted Voldemort's backfiring spell as a kill.

And I used plants, Neville thought. Plants I was supposed to protect.

The Mourning Glory shuddered, wrapping in on itself in misery.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "You don't have to be alone up there anymore."

He reached up, and the plant flinched away from him, turnings its furled blossoms away.

"I shouldn't have waited so long," he told it. "You shouldn't have had to wait here all by yourself. I'm sorry."

The plant didn't come near him, but it didn't curl up tighter, either.

"It must have been very lonely up here. You must have been very frightened. Seeing all of this," Neville could barely bring himself to look at the ruin, "and not knowing whether it would happen to you. You should never have had to go through all that."

The flower rustled, almost like a sniffle.

"I know," Neville said. "I know. But you'll be safe very soon. And we'll help you grow. There are a lot of sunny days ahead of you."

He reached up again, and the flower leaned toward him tentatively.

"Just trust me," he said. "I'll bring you someplace safe."

Slowly, fearfully, the flower unwound itself from its perch and descended into his hands. It felt frail, feather-light, as it seemed to faint over his fingers.

"That's it," he said. "You're safe now."

All at once, the blossoms burst open. Tears slid out into his hands. Neville felt a swelling of pity, but also a sudden awareness that Snape was still there, and that he'd probably want to collect such rare potions ingredients. Especially if this was the only Mourning Glory left at Hogwarts.

Turning, Neville was about to hold out his hands in offering when he saw the look on Snape's face. He appeared unsettled, troubled, even disturbed.

"You are obviously quite busy," he said suddenly. "I will return at another time."

Neville opened his mouth to say something, startled, but Snape had already spun on his heel and swept away, Fiend bounding along behind him.

Severus Apparated to Saint Mungo's before he could think better of it. He had already visited Frank that morning for their daily foray into his increasingly sane mind. They were even beginning to consider revealing their progress to the Healer, to whom they had yet to entrust the secret, for fear of its ending up on the cover of the Daily Prophet.

The revelation, Severus decided, would have to wait a little longer. The consequences would not only affect Frank, after all.

The Healer looked surprised to see him again, but she had already mentioned to him that she had noticed an improvement in Frank's temperament, and she seemed happy to let him visit as often as he liked. It helped that the Longbottom boy had granted his stammering consent.

Perhaps sooner than he would have liked, Severus was standing between the Longbottoms' beds.

Frank frowned. "Twice a day, now?" He looked suddenly concerned. "Is it tomorrow?"

"No and no," Severus said, seating himself after erecting the usual wards. He hesitated. Alice was curled up at the foot of her bed, staring at the ceiling, where the bubbles she had blown that morning were beginning to deflate. For the first time, he noticed that her eyes were the same shade of blue.

"I think," he said slowly, "that it is time I examined Alice's mind."

Frank was silent for several seconds. Severus turned away from Alice to look at him.

"You wanted to wait," Frank said finally, in an inquiring tone.

"I did," Severus said, then added, "and I have. But… I see no further reason to delay." He felt uncomfortable suggesting it, uncomfortable at the idea of doing it. If Severus had been in any doubt about Alice's feelings toward him, Frank's memories had made her disgust with him perfectly clear. He was aware, too, that she was Frank's wife, that he might resent the idea of another man Legilimizing her. More than anything, he was aware that he might fail.

"You are afraid," Frank said helpfully.

Severus tensed, then nodded. "She may not share your resilience." At Frank's rebellious look, he amended, "She may have suffered more than you."

Frank shrank back as if Severus had struck him. Severus gritted his teeth, wishing he hadn't spoken. They had thus far avoided exploring Frank's memories of the torture. Neither Severus nor Frank knew exactly what had happened. They had agreed it would be better to restore as much as possible of Frank's mind beforehand. During the past week, they had been primarily focused on his early childhood - an inane although occasionally amusing task that Severus vastly preferred to their previous excavation of his school years.

Once they had recovered as many of the early memories as they could, they would move on to his Auror training, his service to the Order, his role in the war.

Then, and only then, would they delve into the torture.

"Not your fault," Frank said. "If… if you can't find her."

Severus nodded, though he was not remotely comforted. Seeing Frank's tattered mind had been bad enough. The idea of finding worse in Alice's mind, of finding destruction or violation or emptiness, reminded him horribly of the dread he had felt when he had first seen the curse on Dumbledore's hand. He had known, even before he identified the curse, that he was too late.

He didn't want to be too late again. He thought he probably was.

With an effort, he Occluded his fear. Handing Fiend to Frank to guard, Severus turned to Alice.

"Alice," he said.

She didn't respond.

"Softer," Frank said. "Speak softly to her."

Severus resisted the urge to make a face. "Alice?"

The gentler tone drew her attention. She tilted her head toward him and smiled vacantly.

It was different than with Frank. Severus could not warn her about what he was about to do. He could not explain.

Gritting his teeth, he met her innocent eyes. "Legilimens!"