The summer was starting to wind down. Professor McGonagall brought their Hogwarts letters herself as she was still staying with them during the days while Remus recovered at St. Mungo's. There was a brief flurry of excitement when the restored laboratory was discovered, but it quickly died down. Everyone had too much on their minds these days to spare even for good news. But Neville didn't mind. Dumbledore had been pleased, and that was enough for him.
He and Harry didn't talk any further about what had happened, and that suited Neville just fine, too. Instead, they concentrated on their summer assignments, kept the greenhouse up, and even did a few chores around the house that they thought Remus might appreciate.
Neville didn't tell anyone about how he'd resisted the Cruciatus curse. For one thing, the right time never seemed to turn up. Nor, he told himself, did he want to tell people and have them refuse to believe him. After all, he'd never accomplished much in his life, and he'd gotten along fine for years without external praise. He knew the truth, and that was enough. But more to the point, it felt like something secret he shared only with his parents, and he didn't want anyone else poking and prodding at it with their questions and doubts. The Order knew all the details from his mother's memories; let them figure the rest out for themselves.
Almost a week after the night when Bellatrix Lestrange had been killed, Remus came back from St. Mungo's, leaning heavily on Snape's arm and looking like a sneeze would knock him over. He insisted on inspecting the laboratory right away. Upon entering the room, Remus shuddered briefly, and Neville could easily imagine what gruesome images haunted his eyes. But Remus gave himself a little shake and immediately returned to good humor. Neville and Harry filled him in on all the details about the procedure.
"An excellent job, boys!" Remus cast a mischievous eye toward Snape, who was skulking in a corner as if inspecting for rats. "Wouldn't you agree, Professor? I daresay they managed just as well as if you had done the work yourself."
Dusting off his robe, Snape straightened haughtily. "I would hardly go that far. They ought not to have attempted it with only Miss Tonks for supervision. We should all be thankful they did not completely botch the job."
Remus flashed a grin at Neville and Harry. "My, my! Your potions master says you didn't botch the job. Has anyone ever received such high praise from him before?"
"You know, Lupin," growled Snape, "I liked you better when you were comatose."
"And now he likes me. Our professor is becoming downright amiable. I might just faint from shock. What say we go downstairs and have a butterbeer? That might revive me."
Neville and Harry were relieved and delighted to have Remus back. They far preferred him to McGonagall as a guardian, and the house was restored to the three of them the way it should be, with Snape occasionally visiting at odd hours to pour various potions down Remus's throat and grumble about how inconvenient it was to have to play nursemaid to a stubborn werewolf.
At last Neville's grandmother was declared well enough to be released from hospital. She and Neville would return home, and Harry would spend the last week of summer with the Weasleys at the Burrow. The boys worried about what would happen to Remus without them, but he said only that he had work to do for the Order that would keep him quite busy once the boys were gone.
They packed up all their things, and before they knew it, their last morning had arrived. Harry insisted on preparing them all a huge breakfast, and though the food was delicious, no one was very cheerful to be parting ways. Harry's trunk was in the kitchen, waiting to be flooed to the Weasleys, when he suddenly said, "I forgot Ron's Quidditch magazines! Neville, would you help me get them?"
Neville mumbled around a mouthful of toast, "I helped you pack, and I know we put them in the trunk."
"No I, uh - I think there was another one that I - I left in the library."
Finishing the last of his tea, Remus mildly said, "Neville, go help him look. I'll let the Weasleys know Harry's on his way."
Shrugging, Neville got up and followed Harry to the library. They hunted around for a few minutes, but the magazine didn't turn up. "I guess we packed it after all," said Harry.
"I told you."
"Yeah, well." Running a hand through his hair, Harry looked around the room as if searching for something else. "It's kind of weird to be leaving."
Neville stood behind one of the armchairs, running his hand over the faded fabric. They'd spent so many hours sitting in these very chairs, looking through his parents' medical records. He really didn't want to talk about leaving at all.
After a long, awkward silence, Harry began, "Look, Neville, I just wanted to say --." He stopped abruptly, mouth opening and closing silently, as if the words were just on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn't quite spit them out. At last he heaved a great sigh and said, "When you get home, you'll write to me, won't you?"
Neville frowned in confusion. "We'll be back at school soon."
"I know, but I'd like it if you wrote."
Neville didn't know what to say, so he said, "Okay."
Something eased in Harry's expression, and he smiled. "Good."
Then he turned and left to floo to the Burrow, leaving Neville alone in the library.
When Neville arrived at his grandmother's hospital room he found her in the midst of having her hair dyed lavender by a beauty witch.
"Good heavens!" Mrs. Longbottom exclaimed when she saw Neville. "You're here awfully early, aren't you?"
Neville stammered, "You said to come at ten."
She twisted her head to look at the clock, causing the beauty witch to send a spray of purple at the wall instead.
"Mrs. L, you must hold still," the beauty witch scolded, muttering a cleansing spell at the stain.
Glaring at the clock, Mrs. Longbottom said, "Is it ten o'clock already? Mercy, I'm far behind. Neville, why don't you go visit your parents? I need at least another hour. After almost two months in this frightful place, I look like a baboon."
"All right. I'll see you later, Gran."
Aiming her wand at a scraggly lock of hair, the beauty witch said, "Now, Mrs. L, hold still."
Neville ducked out of the room just as his grandmother shouted, "Call me 'Mrs. L' one more time, and I'll stick your wand up your nose!"
He took the lift to the fourth floor, exchanging a barely polite nod with Nurse Nettlethorne, who still hadn't forgiven him for disgracing Dr. Driftwood. Just as he reached for the door, it flew open, narrowly missing hitting him in the face. An astonished Dr. Chatterjee gasped, her eyes round in alarm.
"Goodness gracious, Mr. Wheelbarrow, I didn't see you there! Did I hit you?"
"No, of course not," he assured her.
"Thank Merlin! Well, I've just been visiting with your parents."
Neville peered through the doorway to see his parents sitting at the far end of the ward. "How are they?"
"Much the same, I'm afraid." She gave him a sympathetic look. "I know you're looking for good news, but we just can't know when that will be - or if it will come at all. It has been such a long time. But I assure you, I am doing everything I can for your dear parents."
Neville nodded. "I know you are, Dr. Chatterjee, and I'm very grateful. Even if nothing ever changes, I feel much better knowing they're in your care."
"Oh, my dear young man." Dr. Chatterjee fretted for a moment, twisting her hands in front of her. Suddenly she brightened. "I say! A new school term will be starting soon."
"Yes," he answered politely.
"You must be looking forward to more lessons from our favorite potions master. Do give my kind regards to Professor Snape, won't you? He is always so very droll!"
"I will." Privately Neville could guarantee he would never be taking potions again.
Dr. Chatterjee favored him with a bright smile. "Well, do have a nice visit with your parents. I'll take good care of them while you're at school."
"Thank you, Dr. Chatterjee."
The doctor bustled through the door, and Neville continued on down the center aisle toward his parents.
His father was seated in his armchair, while his mother stood at the window rapping at the pane with the knuckles of her left hand. Neville gently took her hand in his. "Good morning, Mum. You look well today."
In truth she looked the same as always, but the sight of his parents was always dear to him. "Why don't you come sit down?" he invited, leading her to sit on the bed. Opening the drawer of the bedside table, he found the hair brush. She immediately snatched it from him and he perched next to her.
As he mother started brushing his hair, he looked over at his father, sitting mutely in the chair. "You won't believe what happened, Dad," Neville began. "Or rather, what I did. They were making this laboratory, see, only there was a...," he shuddered at the memory, "...a problem." He'd already decided not to tell them about the Cruciatus curse, either, as he didn't want to upset them. If they even understood. "But the next night, me and Harry - you remember him? The boy who has come with me sometimes this summer? Anyway, him and me fixed the laboratory ourselves! Well, Tonks helped. I don't know if you know her. She's very funny. I like her a lot. Anyway, we did all the spells ourselves, including me! Really! I wasn't just handing them stuff. I did the spells too, with my new wand. I do miss yours, Dad, but I suppose it's better this way. I really did well! I think you would have been proud."
He fell silent, his head being tugged back by his mother's steady brushing. He hoped they would have been proud. Closing his eyes, he savored his mother's touch. She pulled roughly on his hair, but he didn't mind. It was his mother's touch. Even if they never got any better, at least he would have them. It was enough just to be here like this.
His mother began to hum as she brushed his hair, the old lullaby she'd sung to the doll. His lullaby, even if she didn't know who he was. He closed his eyes and listened to her soft humming, and he imagined what it was like to be a baby, what it might have been like for his mother to brush his wispy hair and cradle him against her cheek. It almost seemed like he could remember it, sitting in a high chair by the kitchen table, mashing boiled carrots with his spoon while his mother bustled about, her hair full and brown, and his father sat at the table reading something, maybe the Daily Prophet, and looking up at Neville and smiling, "What a big boy you are!"
In a way, that's how things were with his parents now. As a baby he couldn't have understood them, wouldn't have been able to fathom their minds. As a baby, all he would have known is that they loved him and cared for him. Now they were the infants and he was the parent. But the relationship was fundamentally the same. Did he really need to know what was going on in their minds? He already knew what was important.
His mother continued to brush his hair, and Neville quietly joined in humming along to her lullaby. He was out of tune, but then so was she. No doubt anyone listening would feel the urge to cover their ears against the flat notes. It wasn't pretty. But it was good.
As he hummed, words rose from somewhere deep inside him. He tried to think about them, but they slipped from his mind like water through his fingers. He relaxed into the tune again, letting his mind drift, and the words rose up again. He let them form on his lips, and he began to sing.
The sun's fading out of sight, baby dear,
But I'll be close by all night, so do not fear.
Within your little room, the shadows creep,
But love watches over thee. Sleep! Do not fear, baby dear.
The brush in his hair stilled. Neville blinked his eyes open, already missing that touch.
Across from him, his father sat motionless in his armchair. But his eyes were fixed on Neville. They communicated nothing, the expression vacant, the mouth hanging slightly open, head drooping a bit forward. But the watery blue eyes were focused on his. He was staring directly into his father. In all the years that he could remember, his father had never, ever looked at him.
Cold thin fingers brushed against his cheek, and he turned. "Mummy?" he whispered, breathless. "Mummy, did you see it? Dad's looking at me. He's -."
"Baby," she said, stroking his face. "My baby. Baby dear."