The Cactus and the Toad

Chapter 28

28

The atmosphere in Grimmauld Place was tense when Neville arrived. He had hurried over as soon as he had finished up in the greenhouses for the day, uneasy because Ron's letter had been so vague.

We're having an intervention for Hermione. Maybe you can make sense of this.

Make sense of what? Neville had naturally wanted to know, but there was no time to answer the owl. The Voracious Vines had strayed from their usual diet of insects and arachnids, and it was up to Neville to explain that slugs, though undoubtedly tasty, would not be digested well. By the time the hungry plants had agreed to their rather less juicy meal, Neville was running late for the mysterious intervention.

"... just trying to understand, Hermione," Ron was saying as Neville approached the kitchen.

Neville paused in the doorway, taking in the scene. Hermione stood defensively in a corner, bristling and scowling, while Ron, arms folded, gave her the sort of look people had used to give Neville's parents, before Snape had helped them. Harry, sitting at the table, looked torn between amusement at Ron's face and alarm at Hermione's, while Ginny sat with her head on her arms, trembling with either tears or laughter, Neville wasn't quite sure which.

"Neville!" Harry greeted in relief. "Come sit down. Kreacher, could you get Neville some tea?"

"Of course, Master Harry," Kreacher answered. Neville realized he, too, had been watching the unfolding drama, and the elf jumped a little guiltily at Harry's request.

Neville sat down. "So what's up? Ron's letter didn't really say."

Harry rolled his eyes. Ginny lifted her head, blotchy and tear-stained, but from the giggles he could now audibly hear, he had a feeling she'd been crying in mirth.

Kreacher had delivered Neville's tea by the time anyone answered him. Tearing his pitying eyes away from Hermione, Ron gave Neville a look. "Something's wrong with Hermione."

"There is nothing wrong with me, Ronald Weasley!"

Ginny erupted in a shrill giggle that Neville realized, with considerable concern, was much closer to hysteria than amusement. Ron rounded on Hermione again. "Of course there is! That git's done something to you, or -"

"How dare you! How dare you make that kind of accusation?"

Harry gave Neville a long-suffering look. "Hermione's meeting Snape for coffee."

Neville experienced none of the shock or horror the others obviously felt at this development, but he did feel a quick, piercing stab of jealousy.

"So?" he said, perhaps a little more sharply than necessary.

"What do you mean, 'SO'?!" Ron roared. "She's going on a date with the Great Bat!"

Ginny buried her face in her arms again, probably laughing, but Neville hadn't quite ruled out sobbing yet.

"It's not a date," Hermione hissed. "We're meeting to discuss his books -"

"Hermione," Ron said seriously, "can you honestly say that isn't your ideal date?"

That did trip Hermione up, but only for a moment. "He's a teacher!"

"Didn't stop you with Lockhart. And anyway, he's not, not anymore."

"This is ridiculous," Hermione said, stomping her foot in frustration. "I am continuing my education, not - not -" She didn't seem able to think of words strong enough.

"Fraternizing with the enemy?" Harry asked, with a large smirk. His remark made Ron flush, and Hermione tremble with rage.

"I suppose that's what you think, isn't it?" she spat at Ron.

"I mean… yeah."

"Well, it's none of your business, Ron, and I certainly don't appreciate you trying to involve Neville -"

"Neville!" Ron said, rounding on him as if he'd just remembered he was there. "What do you think?"

"I think you should leave her alone," he said quietly. "And Snape, too. Who cares if they want to get coffee?"

He cared, but not quite in the same way as Ron, and he wasn't about to admit it.

Ron slumped, clearly not anticipating this betrayal. He looked around at everyone and said, "George's right. The world has gone mad."

No one argued, and Ron, huffing in defeat, left the room. Hermione let out a long breath, clearly trying to regain her dignity. "Thank you, Neville," she said.

He nodded.

She frowned. "It really isn't a date."

Some sort of strangled, high-pitched sound came from Ginny's buried face, but she didn't lift her head to clarify.

"I'm sure he'll be happy to talk about his books with someone," Neville said. That was true, and made him feel a little better, although he also felt disappointed that he couldn't offer that kind of company to Snape.

Hermione looked at him like she knew what he was thinking. Fidgeting, Neville said, "I should get home. I didn't have the chance to owl Mum and Dad that I'd be late."

"See you," Harry said. Ginny lifted her head, opened her mouth as if to say farewell, then giggled uncontrollably and retreated to the shelter of her arms.

"Honestly," Hermione muttered. Neville wasn't surprised when she followed him out of the kitchen.

"Are you all right?" she asked, which also didn't surprise him. He didn't mind this sort of thing with Hermione, though.

He thought about how to answer for a few seconds before responding. "I told him I hoped I'd see him again sometime. But I don't know how we would." He gestured at Hermione. "It's not like we can discuss books."

"Hmm," she said. "Probably not. But you can discuss plants. I'm sure he'll still be working on potions now. And there's this unkempt little dirt patch outside his flat. I'd be very surprised if he wasn't planning to turn it into a garden for potions ingredients."

Neville frowned. It was weird to think of Snape living in a flat, and weirder still to think of Hermione having been there.

"I haven't been inside," she said, as if reading his thoughts. "It really isn't a date, you know. He's twice my age. Ron's just being… Ron."

Neville couldn't help rolling his eyes at that, but he grinned a little, too.

"I wouldn't care if it was, you know. I just wish…"

"You want to be his friend," Hermione said simply.

"Yeah," he said. "Isn't that weird?"

Hermione shrugged. "You're not a scared little boy anymore, Neville."

"No," Neville agreed. "Thanks, Hermione."

"Thank you," she said. "Ron really can be so ridiculous sometimes."

Neville grinned as he opened the front door. "Enjoy your date."

"Neville!"

He Apparated away, still grinning.

Severus was surveying the rather pitiful patch of land adjacent to his basement flat. The house had been built on a slope, at the bottom of which Severus's flat was located, and the landlord had assured him this ugly little plot was available for his use if he could manage to do anything with it.

Fiend eyed it doubtfully, then gazed at him in slight disdain. He couldn't blame her. It was an unprepossessing stretch of dirt. And he felt uncomfortable with the idea of starting a garden here. It was a commitment to stay in this cramped little apartment for at least a few years.

Yet he needed potions ingredients, and the apothecaries in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade charged a fortune. He could justify the expense for rarer potions ingredients, but for those he could just as easily grow himself?

He scowled. He missed the Hogwarts greenhouses.

Shaking the thought away, he turned away from the patch and climbed the stairs up to the street, Fiend bounding up beside him. The coffeehouse Severus had suggested for his meeting with Miss Granger was only a few blocks away, and now that the weather was overcast and cool he thought he might walk. He had just reached the pavement when a small pop sounded just behind him. He wheeled around, wand raised.

"Minerva!" he said sharply. The witch, who had been facing the stairs, turned toward him, a look of surprised understanding on her face when she saw his wand.

Before he could even say anything, she assumed her Animagus form, then shot back into human form almost too quickly to see. Fiend, who had moved to greet her in feline form, mewed a little in disappointment.

"That was reckless," Severus said, pocketing his wand and glancing up and down the street to make sure Minerva hadn't been seen.

She sniffed. "It's the middle of the day, Severus. The Muggles are all at work."

He scowled, wondering if she was commenting on his continued state of unemployment.

"I admit," she said, frowning back at him, "I am rather surprised at you, Severus. Surprised and disappointed."

He crossed his arms. "Why is that?"

"I was in the hospital wing for nearly a week and not once did you deign to visit me."

Severus opened his mouth in surprise, shut it, then stared at her. "I did not think you would wish to be disturbed."

"You mean you thought I would still be afraid of you," she said, pressing her lips together in a thin line. "Or perhaps you were angry?"

"Angry?" he asked, even more surprised. "Why would I be angry?"

She fixed him with a very hard look. "Because I believed Lestrange's ludicrous accusations."

He stared at her in astonishment. "That was hardly your fault! He manipulated your mind!"

She frowned. "As if it had not been manipulated enough already," she muttered. "Between Dumbledore's well-intentioned deceptions and Lestrange's cruel ones, I am realizing I do not have quite the strength of character I had always imagined."

Severus hardly knew how to respond to this. "You have always shown great strength of character," he said, a little awkwardly. "Dumbledore took advantage of your trust. Lestrange took advantage of the damage Dumbledore had already done. You are hardly at fault. I am certainly not angry with you." He shook his head at her in disbelief.

She looked both relieved and a little surprised. "Thank you, Severus."

He didn't immediately know what else to say. He had been hoping their friendship wasn't over, but now that it seemed not to be, he wasn't quite sure what to do. He looked at Fiend, wishing she could talk.

"Are you free for drinks?" Minerva asked, regaining his attention.

He opened his mouth to agree, then remembered that he was late for his meeting with Miss Granger. For a moment he considered inviting Minerva along. But he had been right, before. She had Hogwarts to consider, and she was not asking him for drinks as an Order member, but as a friend.

"I am afraid I have another engagement just now," he said. "But perhaps tomorrow?"

Minerva's brows arched in curiosity at his first statement, but she readily agreed to the second. Perhaps, he considered, if Miss Granger was sufficiently amusing, he would tell Minerva about it tomorrow.

Minerva had just Apparated away when another pop stopped Severus in his tracks. Frank Longbottom stood on the pavement, glancing around at the dusty Muggle street in curiosity. When he caught sight of Severus, he smiled. Fiend sniffed his ankles in greeting.

"Strange place," Frank said, glancing again at the Muggle houses.

"It is temporary," Severus answered, thinking resignedly of the garden.

"Drinks?" Frank asked.

Severus felt bemused. He could count on one hand the number of times he had been invited out for drinks in his adult life, and now twice in one day?

"I am engaged just now," he said, thinking that Miss Granger would probably be fidgeting in her seat. If she raised a hand to wave him over when he entered the coffeehouse, he felt certain the flashbacks to her school days would be inescapable. "Perhaps Friday?"

"Friday," Frank agreed.

Severus watched him Apparate away, his feeling of bemusement only just beginning to fade when a third pop crackled across the dusty air, this one louder than the previous two.

In total bewilderment, Severus watched Neville Longbottom get his bearings. Was this some sort of joke?

"Profe - I mean, sir!" Neville looked surprised to see Severus standing dazedly in the street, his familiar at his feet. "Er… hello."

"Hello, Mr. Longbottom. If you are looking for your father, he has just Disapparated."

"My father?" The boy looked confused.

"The one I labored so long to save?"

"He was here?"

Severus frowned. "Why are you here?"

"Hermione said you might be trying to start a garden. I wanted to ask what kinds of plants you need."

Severus stared, too astounded by the wretched girl's interference and the boy's presumption to respond.

Longbottom, however, was glancing down the stairs toward his flat. "Is it that dark little patch down there?"

"Yes," Severus said, frowning. "But as my residence here will be temporary, I have decided not to waste my time planting a garden."

"Probably a good idea, sir," Neville said, still peering down at the shabby plot. "I don't know how much would grow there."

Severus rolled his eyes. "Mr. Longbottom, I am already late -"

"You know, I'm planning to start a garden at our house in Hogsmeade," Longbottom mused. "Did Dad tell you? We found a cottage. There's plenty of room for a garden, but none of us is really any good at potions."

Severus snorted at that, but Longbottom continued, "If you wanted, I could grow some ingredients for you. Professor Sprout promised me starters from some of the plants in the greenhouses, so I might have some rarer species in addition to native plants."

Severus didn't know whether he could take many more surprises in one day. It couldn't be good for his health. Yet he felt strangely touched.

"That is a very generous offer," Severus said slowly. "I would of course compensate you for any ingredients you provide."

The boy shrugged. "You don't have to. But we should meet to discuss what plants you might want." There was something a little nervous in his eyes as he said it, though he kept his voice casual.

"Certainly," Severus replied. "When would be convenient for you?"

Longbottom considered. "Let me get a better idea of what Professor Sprout can give me first. Can I send you an owl?"

Severus had a vivid memory of Longbottom's atrocious handwriting and even worse spelling, but decided now was not the time to mention it. "Certainly."

"Cool." The boy smiled suddenly. "See you soon. Bye, Fiend."

Before Severus could respond, the boy had disappeared with another pop.

Severus waited several moments more to make sure no further pops were forthcoming, then made his way hastily to the coffeehouse. At least now he had a very legitimate excuse for being late. Miss Granger's nosy interference was entirely at fault.

To his relief, she was not bouncing up and down on her seat waiting for him to arrive. She was sitting quite calmly in a corner, sipping at her coffee as her bushy hair cascaded down around a book. Of course. He should have known.

When Fiend snuck across the room to jump into her lap, the girl patted her without looking and said absently, "Hi, Crookshanks."

Snorting, fully content that Miss Granger would provide him with plenty of amusing material to share with Minerva the next day, and with Frank the day after, Severus ordered his tea and joined her.

Neville sagged, panting, against the wall of the greenhouse, wiping sweat from his brow as he watched the Voracious Vines sulk in a corner. He had found them trying to eat a toad this morning, and for one wild moment he'd thought they were about to kill Trevor. Then he'd remembered that Mum, unlike Gran, had allowed him to get a terrarium for Trevor, and that his toad was safe at home, probably sleeping by the edge of his miniature pond.

Still, he couldn't let the Voracious Vines eat the toad, both for its sake and theirs, so he had spent the next thirty minutes wrestling the hungry plants back into place. Now he was enjoying his well-deserved rest, feeling relieved that Snape had not requested one of these in his garden. With any luck, the problem with the plants' appetite would be resolved soon enough. Snape had promised Neville the unusable remnants of several different insect species to try to satisfy the Voracious Vines' cravings.

Their garden was coming along nicely. Neville had set aside a rather large corner for Snape's potions ingredients, and Snape had been stopping by once a week to check on it, and, at Dad's insistence, he and Fiend usually stayed for dinner afterward. Ron had been apoplectic when Neville had told him this, but Neville found that it wasn't nearly as weird as he might have expected. They were all catching on to Snape's sense of humor, and Mum had even coaxed him into talking about Lily once or twice.

Ron might have staged an intervention for Neville's entire family, if not for the fact that Hermione was openly pursuing a research project with Snape. In Ron's mind, this was much more disturbing than Snape eating dinner. He knew how Hermione felt about research.

Wiping the last of the sweat off his face, Neville straightened up the workbench that had been jostled in his struggle with the vines, then went to tell Professor Sprout good night. As he made his way past the greenhouses in the late afternoon gloom, a thin shaft of sunlight split through the clouds and across the leaves of the many plants under their care. From beneath, the green leaves practically glowed with the golden light. Smiling slightly, Neville reminded himself to tell Mum and Dad when he got home.

That was, after all, his favorite color.

THE END

Author's Note: Thank you so much to all the readers, reviewers, followers, and the people who added this to their favorites! This was my first full-length fanfiction and I really enjoyed sharing it with you all!

A couple of people have asked me about a sequel. I'm actually planning to further explore the idea of alternate realities, so my tentative intent is to write a couple of other Harry Potter stories in alternate realities to this one, and then to tie them together in a future fic, with different versions of the same characters interacting with each other. It's a bit of an ambitious project, so I'm planning to make all of the stories work as stand-alones in case I change my mind, and so readers don't have to feel obligated to read all my stories if they're only interested in a specific pairing/plot. Feel free to follow me as an Author if you're interested in the idea!

Thank you again to everyone who read the story!