"Come on, Mum, Dad," Neville guided his parents gently, with an expertise born of long experience. "It's a nice day. We'll go out and sit in the garden for a while."
It had been a while since he'd dared to visit them – too long, in fact. He hadn't dared before – DeathEaters who would happily go after his Gran to try and make him fall into line wouldn't have hesitated for a moment to take the pair from St. Mungo's and put them through a few more crucios just to see what he would do about it. So, he'd stayed away, and he hadn't been important enough for them to investigate and consider using them for all the trouble he caused them at Hogwarts. That was luck, more than anything and the fact he was still a 'schoolboy' in their eyes and controllable. If they had...
Neville shivered at the thought and tried to shake that thought off, focusing on getting his parents safely outside. Pointless to think about that now when it was over and done with.
He winced at the state of what had once been the St Mungo's gardens; he couldn't help it. What had once been a pleasant green space, where patients could be allowed to sit or wander with their visitors, had been allowed to run wild. People just didn't have time to tend to plants, not when more new patients just kept coming in. It made his 'green fingers itch' as Professor Sprout would often say in the quiet times when it was just the two of them in the greenhouses at Hogwarts away from the Carrows and the expectations of all of the other students.
Well, at least he could do something about an overgrown garden.
"Here, Mum, why don't you just sit down here?" he suggested, patting one of the benches where a preservation charm still worked enough to keep the mildew off. "And you, Dad. And I'll just..."
He was down on his knees before he really thought about it, fingers already starting to dig busily at the soil, not caring that his clothes might end up muddy or grass-stained. His good visiting clothes too. Gran would... well, maybe not say an awful lot, actually. She'd been better since he came home from school. But she would at least look disapproving.
"I'm just helping the poor things out a bit," he said a little apologetically, seeing his mother's enquiring look. It was hard to tell how much they understood – their lucidity seemed to vary so much sometimes. Maybe they were wondering what he was doing, maybe they didn't even know that they were outside, it was hard to tell. Neville preferred to speak to them though, as though they could understand. Just in case. "Poor little lilac seedlings, look. They're just being suffocated by all this mint. Back in your place, mint, and leave the lilacs alone."
Neville separated them gently, carefully pulling the mint up until the little white and blush mauve flowers had room to grow freely again, without being blocked from the sun. He knew that one of them would take and grow to be a tree that would toss cascades of blossoms and scent into the rough winds of May, if they were just given a fighting chance. "Nasty stuff, mint can be," he remarked to his mother, not sure if she was listening or not but chatting conversationally anyway. "Useful in its place of course, but tends to run wild if allowed."
She smiled and nodded at him, repetitively carding her fingers through tangled hair. Neville turned his attention back to the overgrown flowerbeds, investigating what else had been lost underneath all the weeds. "Ha, look, they've got a Resurrection Plant under all this!" he said triumphantly, recognising the primitive little plant with its tiny star like flowers and fern like leaves, trying to hide itself away . "I should have known that would survive. Those things survive anything, they just die and come back to life again. I should tell Harry about them."
He faltered a little at that, remembering how his friend had looked when last they spoke, before they went their separate ways. The look in his eyes that told him even with it all over, it hadn't ended in Harry's head at least. He'd sat with him and listened as Harry told him the full story in halting painful words and told Neville he was a hero for staying, more a hero than people knew in drawing Godric's sword through fire and death and slaying a Horcrux with his own hand like some storybook character. He'd been embarrassed and curiously ashamed at the discussion and Harry's frank revelation that it could've been him living Harry's life. Could've been him dying and coming back to life with veiled shadows in his eyes. It had been the only conversation they'd had before everyone started trying to pretend they were all right and things had to be wonderful immediately because they had won, hadn't they? Maybe a plant that came back from the dead wouldn't be the most tactful thing to discuss with him right now. Neville had a suspicion, somehow, that Harry might not even be able to summon up his usual politely bored expression for it.
"Maybe I'll wait a few years though first," he decided, freeing up the earth around the little plant, and turning to gesture a wordless accio for a watering can to come to him. Just because a plant could survive through anything didn't mean it wouldn't do better given a little care and consideration.
"It's hard sometimes, you know? Knowing what you can talk about." He glanced over again at his parents, checking they were still sitting safely on their bench. His mother was picking flowers and bringing the blooms close to her eye as if trying to read a secret message inscribed into the delicate petals. His father was twining a piece of the mint he had weeded in and out of his fingers and then pressing his hands to his face as if in despair, but Neville was pretty sure he was inhaling the crushed scent of the herb. He remembered Hogwarts and how he had communicated with Professor Sprout using the archaic language of flowers and plants which he had been the only one to remember from one lecture in fifth year Herbology. His mum would've remembered it, he was sure. Professor Sprout said she had enjoyed herbology too. It was a language of love turned to the purposes of their secret war, a language that even Muggles had used, and anything Muggles had used was likely to be safe from the prying eyes of the Carrows. A sprig of mint left for you meant you were under suspicion. A thorn-apple told you to come disguised. Chestnut to pursue justice, avenge a classmate, Rosemary for remembrance of a fallen comrade. Lilac…it was hard to remember what lilac was in the language of flowers. Oh yes, innocence. No wonder.
"It's like you can't talk about Dumbledore, or Sirius or anything like that with any of them, because they get all tense, and you know you just have to change the conversation. And sometimes they'll start to say something, and they'll change the question mid-way, and I'll know they were going to ask me about school and changed their minds." He rubbed a hand over his face, leaving a smudge of dirt behind. "And so we talk about the weather, and the plants, and never about anything that happened at all. It's odd."
Another father might have had some advice to give him, man to man. Another mother might have kissed him, and told him it would get better. Neville had learnt long ago not to expect any reaction more than a nod and a smile at most though. It was rare that his parents were capable of giving any more than that.
"I suppose I can't complain," he admitted with a sigh, as though their patient silence prompted the confession. "It's usually me who brings the plants up. Merlin, sometimes I even make myself think about it in plants, just to make it easier."
His father cocked his head on one side, looking at him quizzically, as though he were curious, letting the crushed mint fall to the ground. Either that or he was hungry. Neville decided to assume it was the former, and continued on, encouraged. "It's just... it gets easier if you put plants to it, rather than faces and names, you know?" Easier without the sharp knife of memory which cut when he tried to remember faces he could never see again but remembering the feel of someone through something living and growing. "The others don't understand that though. I tried to tell Harry once that Dumbledore had been an oak, and he didn't get it. I think he just thought I was saying that he was strong, and he was but...sometimes oaks end up killing seedlings that end up in their shade even as they provide shelter. It's not that they mean to, it's just... part of what they are. But Harry doesn't understand that yet."
He rose to his feet, and looked over towards a particularly elderly example of the tree in question, looking its gnarled trunk and the way it gripped the earth with a solidity that made him believe it had been there forever and would be there long after he was gone. Oak for strength and courage. "And then there's mistletoe," he added quietly. "Mistletoe feeds off oak trees. But that's not it being evil, or anything, it's just that there's nothing else for it to live off. I think maybe Dumbledore ended up with too many people feeding off him because he knew they couldn't survive without him."
His father nodded in what might have been agreement, and Neville relaxed. He was babbling perhaps, but then these were the only two people in his life he could babble at who wouldn't end up thinking he was crazy at the end of that. Some people might think that odd, talking at crazy people so you wouldn't be thought crazy yourself, but when you'd done it for long enough it just became a way of life.
"I always thought of You-Know-Who as a type of fungus," he said thoughtfully, finding a trowel lost in the overgrown grass of the lawn and crouching to attack the flower-beds once more. He could do it all with magic but there was also something very satisfying about feeling the earth with your fingers and realising it had once been mountains and forests before it came there. Sometimes he wondered if he could feel the shape of lost worlds when he tended his plants. "At least, I suppose he wasn't before he died the first time, but afterwards... I don't think he could count as something properly alive then, just as something that needed to keep on devouring death to survive." He shuddered at the thought, ramming the trowel rather viciously under a large toadstool. "And choking life at the same time. Come up, damn you!"
It came up with a jerk, and Neville set to digging a hole where it had been, making sure nothing had been left behind. "And just when you think you've got rid of them, you find out they've been quietly growing underground, getting bigger and bigger. You can never get rid of the bloody things!"
It was a moment before he glanced up again and caught his mother's expression, and when he did he dropped the trowel hastily, by her side in seconds. "I meant toadstools then, not You-Know-Who. Just toadstools, I swear. He's gone now. We destroyed him, I promise, Mum."
She clutched at him wildly for a moment and Neville hugged her back, silently kicking himself for his thoughtlessness. He should know by now to watch what he talked about on the days when they did seem lucid. They had so few moments when they actually understood what was going on, and here he had to spoil one of them by talking about Voldemort.
"It's all right, Mum," he said gently, stroking her hair as though she were the child and he the parent rather than the other way around. "We're safe. He's gone now." But the monster-in-the-closet had been real, the bogeyman-under-the-bed had come out, and maybe it was going to be a long time before anyone could forget that and stop being afraid properly for all their pretending. "I was just talking about gardening, that was all. Just being silly."
It was a few moments before she released him, and when she did her face was damp and grubby where it had pressed against Neville's shirt, a few specks of earth in her hair where he had stroked it. He sighed, and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, quickly cleaning her up. This too he had grown too used to.
"We'll go back in soon, okay?" he offered, crouching so he could meet her eyes as she sat on the bench. "Just a little longer, and we'll go back." He'd come back another time, on his own, and tidy the garden. Maybe it was too much for them being out here as he worked on it. But it seemed wrong to have them consigned back into the glum dullness of their rooms when out here the sun shone brightly. Just a little longer...
She seemed to have relaxed again, and Neville took the chance that it would be all right to continue, though he kept a wary eye on her as he picked his trowel back up. Better to keep the conversation innocuous and easy if she was listening and actually understanding. You never knew how much she did understand.
"These are called eglantine roses, Mum, look – aren't they pretty? Briar rose most people call them." He let himself relax a little when she smiled again, and gently snapped off a sprig for her, making sure it was thornless, and leaned forward to tuck it behind her ear. The little pink flowers were bright against her grey hair, and he grinned as she reached to touch it wonderingly. A wound to heal in the language of the flowers. "Looks lovely, Mum. Just leave it like that."
A moment later though he was frowning again, having spotted a little row of pots lying abandoned in a corner of the garden. "Oh, now, will you look at that..."
The seedlings had wilted until there was almost no hope for them, stems and leaves faded to sickly yellows and browns, with only a few streaks of green amongst the healthier ones. Merlin knew how long they had been sitting in the sun untended, with only rain for water. Still, Neville fussed over them tenderly, pouring just a little water into the bone-dry soil, trying to coax life back into them with the gentlest of magic touches.
His father watched him quizzically, seeming quite unable to work out what his son was doing. "Dead?" he queried finally, his eyes following Neville's hands.
"Not quite." Neville looked up, smiling a little again. Any attempt at communication was to be considered a good one. Perhaps bringing them out into the garden hadn't been such a bad idea after all. "They still have some green here and there, you see? They might die, but they could live." And he would fight for that second option, without being able to ever put into words why it was so important that he should do so. Life had to fight for life, however faint hope might seem sometimes, whether that life was an eleven year old pupil or a dying seedling.
"They'll come back?" Still that confused look as he watched Neville care for the seedlings, ensuring that each one had water and a space in the sun.
"If I can help it, they'll come back." For a moment Neville met his father's eyes, and understood suddenly what sort of plants his parents would have been. Struggling ones, left to cope in harsh conditions that nothing should be able to survive, with only these brief flashes of understanding like the faint streaks of green to suggest that there was anything left at all of what they once had been.
His throat tightened for a second. But life fought for life, and sometimes given sufficient time, love and attention, plants like these could come back from the brink. They would come back.
"You'll come back too," he vowed softly, tending the seedlings with renewed vigour, as though helping one could save the other. "I promise, Dad."
But his father had gone again, back into his own little world, and as his mother started to rock and hum to herself distractedly, her fingers plucking at her skirt, Neville knew it was time to go back inside. Keeping the visits too long only got them over-excited and upset.
"Come on then," he said, making sure that this time the seedlings were in a safe position before he stood up. He'd come back to water them, ask one of the nurses to keep an eye on them maybe. Most of them knew him well enough by now – he'd been visiting long enough. "Time to go in."
He guided them deftly, and was not surprised when, on reaching their rooms his mother turned to press something urgently into his hands. Another Blowing Gum wrapper, he guessed. He'd had a collection for years now, safely stashed away from his gran. When old sweet wrappers were all you received from your mother, even they could be priceless treasures.
"Thank you," he said sincerely, opening his hands to look at it – and pausing in sudden surprise. Not a gum wrapper at all, but a bulb; brown, hard and to all appearances, dead. She must have picked it up in the garden when he hadn't been looking. Ornithogalum umbellatum if he was any judge.
A bulb which appeared completely dead but, if given sufficient care and attention, could sprout and grow into as healthy a plant as it had ever been. Even after years sometimes. It was amazing how long bulbs could last like that.
She was beaming at him, delighted by his surprise. Most likely she had no idea what it was, but gave it as happily and randomly as the gum wrappers. Most likely, there was no meaning at all behind the gift, no words spoken in the language of the flowers just for him and he should try not to put too much thought into it.
But there was hope. As he thanked her, and kissed her good bye, Neville knew that.
As long as life fought for life, there would always be hope.