"This isn't a flower shop, you know."
"No, I quite realize that, Longbottom," said Draco Malfoy, drawling the syllables. The muscles in Neville's neck and jaw clenched reflexively. Familiar reaction to familiar stimulus, instantly and simultaneously tedious and caustic: it surprised him. He hadn't seen Malfoy in nearly two years, nor spoken to him in longer. Apparently he'd not changed much, despite the neat blond beard and wisp of mustache. If it was a disguise, he'd given Neville no chance to pretend not to recognize him. An amusing pantomime, that would have been, beginning as the swirl of snow from the open door met the heat within, and Neville's neutral "Can I help you?" masked his pounding heart.
"I'm not looking for flowers. I want a plant," Malfoy said, as though it were an exotic and foreign request. Neville denied him the nudge toward clarification. "For my mother," added Malfoy.
"We're fresh out of Venomous Tentaculas, sorry," said Neville.
Malfoy's mouth twitched. "Really, Longbottom, your manners. A sale is a sale. Isn't that what your boss would say?"
"There are people we won't sell to. I'm not saying you're one of them. And she's not my boss; she's my partner."
This produced a cackle of laughter: oddly nervous laughter, Neville thought. "Bunking up with Pomona Sprout, are you? We always wondered what you two got up to in the greenhouses--"
"Still living with your mother, are you?" The false assumption was worth only that much response, neither assumption nor false. "Would this be for her birthday?"
Malfoy nodded stiffly.
"What sort of plants does she like?" Neville continued in his best shopkeeper's voice. "We have a wide selection. Generally we sell to the trade rather than to customers off the street, but I'm happy to make an exception for an old Hogwarts classmate. Though I'm afraid I can't give you the wholesale price."
This was more likely a dare than a capitulation. Neville decided to be professional. "We've some lovely orchids. Here" -- he reached for Magical Plants of the Americas and flipped through the pages -- "this is my favorite."
"Ghost orchid," read Malfoy, leaning across the counter. The attenuated lower petals of the white flower, bowed like the legs of a wraithy frog, shivered in a breeze only its picture could sense. Its native Florida swamp was hot and humid with no breath of relief; Neville felt smothered all over again.
"The flower's perfume facilitates communication with ghosts. Fewer misunderstandings due to differing states of existence. So they say; can't agree it works with Sir Nicholas in one of his--"
He glanced up from the book and caught Malfoy's frozen face. Haunted, he might have thought even without the orchid lending its suggestive power. So perhaps the rumors that Lucius Malfoy had killed himself were less than true? Suicides seldom returned as ghosts, unless they'd had second thoughts halfway through. Not that Malfoys were immune from second thoughts. Not that anyone was, really.
"An epiphyte," Neville said, falling back on the comfort of the botanical. "Grows from a root mass attached to other vegetation. Lacks leaves. Perhaps you'd like to see something else?"
Malfoy stared at the orchid a moment longer. "Please," he said; it sounded like a curse. "Something larger."
"What, like a tree?"
A strangled noise that might have been laughter emerged from Malfoy's throat. "It's not like we haven't the space," he said.
"High ceilings?" said Neville. "Sunlight?" The plantsman's litany gave way to old resentment long enough for him to add, "I would have asked Luna, but all she ever saw was the dungeon."
"We have a well-lit orangerie," Malfoy said tightly. "With a fifteen-foot ceiling."
"Hm. Clabbert-puzzle tree?" Neville found it in the book. "A dwarf Araucaria. Can't be climbed or perched on. Nuts used in some repellant potions."
"My mother doesn't care for them."
"All right then." He turned pages. Although the photographs' enchantment was only visual, they seemed to release whispers of scent. The alkaline tang of desert air; the near-painful sharpness of mountain fir and pine; the earth-scented bath of temperate rainforest; the inhaled breath of distant thunderstorm across a grassy plain as he searched for the blue eye of a flower none but wizards could see or care enough about to preserve. Salt in his nostrils and dust in his mouth, falling to his knees on a California clifftop beside the long-sought wolfbush, its shrubby purple fingers reaching for the sun, its faint perfume anointing him as discoverer. Jungles and peaks and lakes he hadn't yet seen, calling him west and south into new lands: seek us; find us. You are not the first, not nearly the first, but every finding sprouts a fresh idea, a new path.
He shut the book abruptly. "Draco, what are you doing here?"
A tiny lift of the eyebrows -- at the question? At the mode of address? -- and then Draco said lazily, "I could ask you the same thing."
"If you did, I'd say earning a living," Neville answered. "Or trying to."
"When your customers cooperate?" Draco grabbed the book out of Neville's hands, opened it at random, and pointed. "Fine, then. I'll take three of those."
"Gargantuan sequoias?" Draco looked down, and Neville almost laughed at his blank expression. "You'd need ceilings a mite higher than fifteen feet. And a forest ecosystem. And in any case we don't carry them." He added patiently, "That's a guidebook. Care for a catalogue? Or a tour?"
He expected his next sight to be the back of Draco's head. Instead, he got the hint of a smile like a snow-buried blossom, and several minutes later discovered himself, with none of the pall of Imperius or the intoxication of potions but only a slight sense of bemusement, making tea for the pair of them in the office kitchen, after clearing the remains of Pomona's latest germination experiment off the worktop so he could get at the cupboard and the kettle.
"What's all that?" said Draco, as the last set of pots, domes and labels settled onto what horizontal space remained in the room.
Neville put his wand down and explained, briefly. "We get shipments of new soils every week," he finished. "These happen to be from--"
"It sounds like Muggle science," Draco interrupted. "Enzymes. Ecosystems."
"Well, it's not completely different. Things grow best where they're naturally planted, but sometimes we can reproduce those conditions and give them an adequate habitat away from home. Magical horticulture means thinking beyond Muggle biochemistry, but that doesn't mean it's irrelevant."
Draco nodded. "You went to America," he said.
Yes, and grew nicely there too, Neville might have said if he'd been sure which part of the conversation this was referencing. He didn't ask how did you know either. Bloody insular... island, Britain. "For a year," he said. "I suppose you could call it postgraduate study. It's where the money went, anyway, if that's what you were wondering."
"Five thousand Galleons, special services to the Ministry."
"A bit retroactive, the 'services to' part. But I thanked them very politely."
"Thanked them--" Draco began in what might have been outrage. Then he shut his mouth and levitated the teapot, pouring more amber liquid into his cup. "Milk?" he said as the teapot whizzed to Neville's side of the table.
"Thanks." Their eyes met, and the ghost-smile was there again, a visitation from another world. "They offered Harry five times as much and he turned them down. I suppose putting a price on Voldemort's head was... insulting? Hypocritical?"
Draco snorted. "Would have been more practical if they'd done it while he was still alive. Twenty-five thousand? I could name you half a dozen Death Eaters who'd have made a try at him for that."
"Not including your father, I suppose."
"Not for money, no."
"Hm. I noticed you didn't ask the prices of any of those plants." Whether that was because he had enough gold for a Clabbert-puzzle burning a hole in his pocket, or because he'd never intended to buy anything, Neville wasn't sure -- they'd keep up the pretense of shopping for now -- but he knew from gossip and the Prophet how well Malfoy Enterprises was doing. Without bothering to state the connection, he added: "I got back in time for Harry's birthday last summer. He got pretty well pissed--"
"Oh, not Strip Quidditch again."
"How'd you know about that? I missed Ron's party; I think I was somewhere in Arizona at the time." Red rocks and sand, dry-season plants searching out water with their roots while we did the same with our wands... amazing we could manage the spell after those mushrooms...
"I was there. By accident. It's a long story." Draco waved a dismissive hand, dissolving Neville's sudden vision of a pale body, thin but muscular, crouched on a broom, executing a Wronski Feint. But that would mean he'd lost...
"Anyway, no. We went to a pub. He got rat-arsed, and started going into raptures about your mother. Not like that," Neville said, holding up a hand against the beginning of a spluttering protest. "Did she really save his life, though?"
"Not that I'm aware," said Draco, going very still but not losing his scornful tone. "I think she'd be shocked to hear it."
"Well, good. Restores my faith in--"
"Malfoys acting like shits?"
I was going to say, in Harry's profound inability to hold his drink. But whatever you'd prefer. Neville raised his cup. "Here's to tradition," he said.
"Tradition," echoed Draco solemnly. "As long as it doesn't involve Ron Weasley naked." He waited for Neville to spray tea onto the table, and then added, "Always lets the Quaffle in. Or is that Granger?"
Neville's mood abruptly shifted from harmless banter at the expense of a friend to you were spot on about Malfoys. "I think they deserve a little pleasure, don't you?" he said. "Considering the events of three years ago. And since. They work hard enough."
"Support the Ministry, shag a Dumbledore's Army veteran? You must have done well out of that, Colonel Longbottom."
"We didn't have ranks." And I note you haven't given me the top one. "And my sex life isn't--"
"Oh, sorry to hear that. I was winding you up about Sprout, by the way. The money was on you and Lovegood being an item. Any joy there?"
Neville gritted his teeth. "Just friends." Then the absurdity hit him. "You mean the Slytherins used to mooch about the common room betting on who was having it off with who? Didn't you have anything better to do?"
"I submit that knowledge of your enemies' shagging habits isn't entirely irrelevant to concocting nefarious schemes against them. Vulgar as it may be. Personally I think it's a facet the Dark Lord ignored to his peril. So not Lovegood, hm?" Draco put his head to one side and examined Neville. "I'm disappointed. Though maybe you're more the" -- a shiver of a wink -- "Dumbledore sort."
"You're the one with the beard."
The fair skin flushed pink, the gray eyes were hastily averted... and Neville was hit by several revelations with the force of Stunning Spells. Draco glanced back, and Neville let all his discoveries but one show in his face; at least so he hoped. Then he raised a hand and stroked his chin, grasping the ghost of the Headmaster's whiskers. "Sherbet lemon," he said in Draco's patrician accent, "or Cruciatus? So difficult to decide."
"Avada Kedavra, more like," murmured Draco, the haunted look showing again.
"Right. We used to talk about that, sometimes, not in the common room so much as later, in the R of R."
"You mean how to use--"
"No. Well, yes, but... the fact that you hadn't. A surprising majority thought it meant you were weak and therefore vulnerable. I didn't agree. You didn't show for much in the battle, but I think in the end I was right."
Draco nodded slowly. "Ambition counts for a lot," he said. "At least when it's battering at you hard enough."
"I wouldn't know," said Neville. "I just do plants."
"You did a hell of a lot more than that. Why aren't you advising on strategy at the Ministry?"
Taken aback, Neville gave a more honest answer than he might have otherwise. "They haven't asked. Anyway, I prefer working for myself. With a partner I respect and like, and the minimum of bureaucracy. I have my own ambitions, but they don't involve going far from Hogsmeade. Except to jungles and mountaintops a few times a year, armed with a shovel."
"In term breaks?" asked Draco, a quick deduction.
"Pomona has to retire eventually. And I'd rather be called Professor than--" He paused, and smiled in reminiscence. Draco raised an eyebrow. "When I was in California," Neville explained, "someone let slip -- it was a cousin of Luna's, I expect that's how -- anyway, they started calling me after this Communist guerrilla fighter a lot of them saw as a hero--"
"Half of them were Muggle-born. Though I think they meant him as a magical talisman more than anything real and historical. One of the wizards had a T-shirt with his face on it, and he transfigured it to look like me--"
"What a godawful fashion statement. I mean, nothing personal, but--"
"Well, that's what I thought. And thank you," Neville added dryly, feeling more comfortable with the gibe than he had with the earlier compliment, if that's what it had been.
"Don't mention it."
He'd removed the T-shirt later, by the light of a secluded fire, with astounding assurance bolstered by Ernesto's urgent whispers. The fire had been charmed to remain in bounds, a necessary caution in that dry climate. Nothing else had been subject to any restraint whatsoever. Viva la revolucion.
"I can see how you wouldn't want to feature on the chests of random Muggle-borns," Draco said, with an air of political correctness about the last word. "As Herbology professor you're probably safe. Though I'm staggered no one's brought out a line of Dumbledore accessories."
"Malfoy Enterprises isn't likely to get away with that one, sorry."
"Mm. Why'd you come back?"
It was a stupid question, on the face of it; hadn't he just explained? Or perhaps it was an insult: we don't want blood traitors here, the old Malfoy showing through. The old Malfoy presupposed a new one, and he'd already begun to feel... And Draco looked sincerely curious.
"Pomona was waiting for the plants," Neville said. "And Gran wasn't well. And... my parents, you know..." Draco did know; his gaze shifted away, and neither of them said a word about Aunt Bellatrix. "Plans, and money, and... friends, and... damn it, I do live here!" He was unexpectedly angry; his hands gripped the table, and for an instant he felt Pennine gritstone under his fingers, and the smell of peat filled his nostrils. An illusion: the greenhouse fan had kicked on, keeping out the Hogsmeade chill, the cold pure snowiness and the bitter wind.
"I never said you didn't," Draco observed. "I... must say, though..."
"What?" Neville threw the syllable at him like a hex.
"I must express that I am obliged to you for going." A formal bow lurked behind the statement. "Family reasons," Draco elaborated slightly, when Neville gave him a perplexed stare.
"Family..." Neville cross-referenced Draco's relatives -- a diminished list -- with anything he might have done on the trip, and came fairly quickly to a possible answer. "You mean Teddy?"
"Cousin Teddy, yes," said Draco. He still sounded as though something unpleasant had got into his mouth, but not nearly so much as Neville would have expected. "The condition he inherited from his father--"
"It wasn't full-fledged lycanthropy. More like a predisposition."
"Nevertheless. I understand the particular species of wolfbush you acquired is an essential ingredient in the curative potion."
"He's a sweet kid. And it was Harry asked me to have a look out." Draco's lip curled. "He is Teddy's godfather," Neville added.
A huff of breath: in the instant Draco's resemblance to his father seemed to increase tenfold. "All the more reason for Teddy's family to watch over him."
"Yeah. I'll bet if Teddy had to choose--"
"He would no doubt attach himself to Potter. The war hero, the master of death, the Dumbledore-anointed. The Chosen One."
"The one who saved bloody all of us from Voldemort. Bugger it, you too. I wouldn't have wagered on your ability to survive that battle, for one thing, even if your side won. Or were you and your parents sloping off to hide until it was all over? Not a scratch on any of you--" Neville broke off. Draco was as pale as some of the corpses he'd hauled at Hogwarts. "And I bet you owe him your livelihood now, and that house of yours with room for trees in it. If it wasn't for him you'd be in Azkaban--"
"I don't need Potter to--"
"You do. We all do. We all owe him... risking his life over and over... generous to a fucking fault... and he can't forget. People died for him... and every time he looks at Ron or Ginny he sees Fred, and he won't even talk to Dennis Creevey, and--"
"No one dies for anyone but himself."
"That's what you think. They did. And that's why he has to do all he can for Teddy. Though," Neville went on, trying to defuse the tension a bit, "at his age if offered the choice Teddy'd pick whoever made the best sparks and noises come out of his wand. You'd best be practicing."
It hadn't been meant as a challenge, but nonetheless Draco rose to his feet. Neville sighed, picked up his wand from the table, and stood as well. He backed up a pace, balancing his weight as he'd been taught long ago in the Army's early days, when he'd never truly thought he'd have to use the knowledge.
"Do you really want to do this?" he said.
Draco had only looked alert before; now he was ready to fight. "Lost your nerve?" he sneered; or was it the years-old ghost of a sneer? Their presence in the moment wavered: today, three years ago, longer. Draco's beard vanished; the shape of his face altered; he seemed fourteen, eleven, and then was twenty again, and the age his father had been when he died. It occurred to Neville, irrelevantly, that skin that fair and sensitive would react badly to shaving even when magically assisted; he wondered if Dumbledore had had the same problem.
"Not at all," he said. "It's just such a bore. You, me; opposite sides; wands drawn. Is this why you came?"
Draco held his gaze, his eyes steady, not flickering to Neville's wand hand as they should. "Yes," he breathed. His face spoke, eloquently and with passion, but Neville was too clumsy to read it. There was life and death in that expression, though. He wants me to kill him, he thought, and then, he wants to watch me killing him. And I am not going to give him what he wants.
"You won't die by my hand, Malfoy," he said. The expression altered subtly, but Neville still could not decipher it: neither quite relief nor disappointment. He took a deep breath and lowered his defenses. Suddenly he remembered Ernesto's dramatic quoting of his hero's last moments, and grinned helplessly.
"Don't shoot," he said. "I am Neville Longbottom and I'm worth more to you alive than dead. Though I don't necessarily promise to be less inconvenient."
"I don't trust you," said Draco. Give me a reason to trust you, said his eyes.
"Well, probably you shouldn't. But you did drink the tea."
Draco's gaze jerked down to the table, his face full of horror and possibilities. No, he hadn't wanted to die. Malfoys were survivors. Given the chance. "Don't worry," Neville added, "it's not poisoned. I wouldn't want to lose a customer. And frankly I think Teddy can use all the family he can get."
"Poison isn't the only--"
"Pure Camellia sinensis, I assure you; no worse effect than stained teeth and irredeemable Englishness. Hardly anyone can make a decent cup of tea in America, you know that? Another reason to come back. I've a whole greenhouse of potion ingredients, but it's hard to get them into your cup and not mine, and the only potion anyone'd want to inflict on both parties is--" He cut himself off before the word aphrodisiac came anywhere close to utterance. "Um, spells are much more fun, at least the legal ones, but even though you left yourself wide open just now, if I did feel up to... turning you into a rubber duck or something, I think I'd refrain. Demeaning. Like Expelliarmus. It may be ridiculous of me, but I like you dignified. I wouldn't push your luck, though. My Gran has a good line in invisible scorpions."
Draco looked a bit staggered by the flood of words, as though he'd never heard anyone express a sense of reprieve that way before. He appeared to be processing the inundation in sections; Neville could tell, unfortunately, when he'd reached the part about the potions. But there was nothing of fulfilled expectations, or confident superiority, in his reaction to the rest of it.
"I was watching from a window," he said finally, "when they brought Potter out of the Forest. Looking out for my mother," he explained, with the implication of not caring whether Harry had been alive or dead. "I saw what the Dark Lord did to you. How you shook it off--"
"His spells weren't... they had no staying power anymore. Amazed me as much as anyone."
"Gryffindors. I ask you."
"All smoke and mirrors."
Draco's wand was still at ready; he'd surely forgotten its existence. "And then the bloody sword... and the snake..." His gaze sharpened; the wand shook. "You were..." He sought for a word; found it. "Splendid," he said. "I've meant to tell you that."
For a second, his face was transformed; no age but his own -- and Neville's -- and no less arrogant in its beauty, but unmistakably touched by desire. Whether the desire was for Neville or for Neville's deeds, or for both, he couldn't tell, and then it was masked again. But wanting hadn't looked very different from haunted.
"I can still summon the sword if I really need it," Neville said, a bluff of cool menace in his voice to stop it quivering; he now knew exactly where he'd picked up that technique. He swallowed and went on. "It's rubbish at pruning, though."
A splutter of laughter forced itself out of Draco's tight mouth. "When you're Headmaster of Hogwarts," he said, "you had better not make a habit of mucking up historical magical artifacts. Because I fully intend being on the Board, and I'll have something to say about it. We haven't got so many of them left, after all."
Neville nodded, and as if in response, Draco's wand finally lowered. "Thank you for the tea," he said. "You'll want to be getting back to your work now." His chin jerked up slightly, and then he pivoted on his heel and made for the door.
"Wait," said Neville. Draco turned, and whatever Neville had meant to say caught itself up with his breath and vanished. "The plant," he managed. "For your mother."
"Oh, that." Draco's eyes shifted toward the greenhouse door, and then back to Neville. "Her birthday's not for two months yet. I'll think about it and come back, shall I?"
"All right," Neville said, before the sensible Borage and Crocus, Diagon Alley escaped his tongue.
"Perhaps I'd better owl first? Wouldn't want to run into Potter here."
"I don't think that'll be a problem," said Neville: a less reluctant admission than he'd expected.
Draco's curt nod firmed up the deal, and then he was gone. The front door opened and closed, but the invading cold air spent itself long before reaching the kitchen. Neville tidied away the tea things and tried to remember what he'd been doing an hour ago. Accounts, perhaps. Though no doubt something needed repotting as well. Something that he had discovered, and cared for, and brought back home.
May you live in interesting times, went the saying, and some had every right to believe it a curse. But he liked one of Ernesto's quotes better. He vivido días magnificos, he'd said: I have lived magnificent days.
And they are not over yet, decided Neville, and went into the greenhouse.