Characters: Neville Longbottom/Pansy Parkinson
Prompt number: 86 (Poise, plants, patron, pursue.)
Word Count: 9,300 words
Warnings: References major character death from the past: Luna.
Summary: When Pansy comes into his shop acting as if they are friends, not enemies, Neville is confused, and perhaps a bit concerned. As a single father, worried about influences over his daughter, he wonders what the ex-Slytherin who once tried to give his best mate up for death would want from him. But when she offers to help him, first with the shop itself, then with one of the most important expeditions he has ever undertaken since the war, he finds himself accepting her help and more importantly, accepting her.
Disclaimer: The characters and world of Harry Potter are owned by JK Rowling. No infringement is intended.
Author's Notes: Many thanks to EE for the beta help!
Neville was surprised when she came into his shop. She stood at the front, her bag set upon the counter, her gaze flicking around at the various plants dangling from the ceiling. He watched as she paused, head cocked just so, regarding a vine of Ephramosis, one of the rare plants that could regard her back, its eye stalks twisting to follow her movement.
She looked as he remembered, her nosy tiny and almost pug-like, her blue-green eyes clear and sharp, and her hair in a short bob that just brushed the bottom of her pointed chin. Her lips were pursed in a bow, and must be painted, he thought, as red as they were. Her robes showed that she had money still, trimmed in pale gold silk that shimmered against the deep green of the long folds. She tapped one long fingernail--painted as red as her lips--against the countertop, the only sign of her impatience as she waited.
Neville stepped from the backroom, coming around a small tree and into her view as he said quietly, "Lilies. I've King's Ransom lilies, if you'd like them. They'd match your colours brilliantly."
"No lilies." She looked at him, meeting his eyes in a way she never had when they were younger. Her gaze swept up to the top of his head, then down to his toes, and back again, her neck craned slightly to see him properly. He had forgotten she was so much smaller than him. He felt like a lug standing there in front of her.
"Oh." The one word was all he had. He ought to say some pleasantry, but Gran had always told him if he couldn't be kind, say nothing. Neville often found himself saying absolutely nothing at all.
"You look good, Neville."
He blinked, the compliment surprising him.
"I do? You--you do too, Pansy."
And that was truth, he guessed. She didn't look bad, anyway. Her skin was pale and flawless, her poise absolutely perfect. There, a pleasantry had been made, and the world hadn't swallowed him for lying to someone who had once been an enemy.
Why did you try to give him up? No, it wasn't the time to ask. Instead, Neville leaned on the counter and asked, "Why not lilies?"
"Death." Pansy shrugged one elegant shoulder. "There are other meanings for them, of course, but most think death when they see them, before they see the innocence they once meant. I'm planning the decorations for a school concert, and death would be highly inappropriate."
Neville blinked twice. "Which school?"
"The Hedda Rosemorton School for Young Wizards and Witches." Pansy's polite smile never changed. "Why?"
"I'm familiar with it." More than familiar. He sent his daughter through the Floo every morning at exactly five to eight, and she came through the Floo to the shop every afternoon at half three. He glanced at the clock with the thought; that was only fifteen minutes away. For some reason he wanted Pansy gone by then, as if it would be wrong for her to know that he had a child even if he couldn't say why that was a problem. "How did you end up doing decorations?"
"My dearest friend has a child there. Romeo Zabini. Daphne married Blaise, and Romeo is of course, the light of their lives. She's helping with the spring production, and of course, I offered to help."
Neville's gaze narrowed, having trouble thinking of Pansy getting her hands dirty helping with small children. "Just decorations then?" Was she working with his child? How had he possibly missed this? He remembered Saffron talking about Miss Daffy but it had never in a million years occurred to him that it might be Daphne Greengrass from his school days.
"Decorations. Costumes. And I shall be there on the night of the concert as well, to help ensure the children go where they are supposed to go." Pansy's head cocked, her lips pursed in a small, amused smile. "Why, Neville?"
Swallowing hard, he shrugged. "No reason." He excused himself for a moment to go into the back, bringing back armfuls of brightly colored plants, some of which wriggled and moved, despite having been cut that morning. "The children like the Lion's Heart daisies, but they can be a bit loud. Boys love Sonorus Narcissus--the honking daffodil--but those are most definitely too noisy. Blue bells are always good." He raised a long vine of delicate flowers which jingled as he moved them.
Pansy sifted through the flowers, her touch delicate as she lifted each bloom to inspect it. She chose by colour in part, setting aside bright primary colours, and deep bold tones, and leaving out the pastels aside from the blue bells and the white wisps of baby's breath. "I shall need arrangements, can you provide those or will I have to arrange them myself? I understand that you tend to supply potioneers more than those of us simply seeking something pretty."
"There's nothing wrong with wanting a plant because it's beautiful," Neville said quietly. He jotted down notes for each item she had chosen so he would know what to work with. "But the best plants are those that have something to them. Something more than just being pretty."
"That's true of all things," Pansy observed. She stood quietly while Neville wrote, and when he reached the end, he couldn't ignore her presence any longer. He took one of the daisies, wrapping it up with a soft puff of baby's breath and a few blue bells, and handed it over without a word.
Pansy took it and brought it to her nose, inhaling and exhaling quickly with a soft laugh as the scent of talcum powder from the baby's breath tickled her nose. Her thumb lightly brushed the petals, and the daisy roared at her. She smirked, then glanced at Neville.
"Saffron is beautiful," she said, and Neville felt his heart drop down to his toes.
"She is," he managed to say, hands clenched so tightly that he bruised the stems that he held.
"She reminds me greatly of her mother." Pansy paused, and when she spoke again, Neville thought it was with honesty, although he had to admit, it was hard to tell. "I'm sorry," she said. "I heard what happened."
Jaw tight, Neville turned away. "Thank you." The words were rough; even three years later, it still stung sharply. He closed his eyes and dropped the plants on the bench, trying to loosen his muscles.
Silence for several moments, quiet enough that Neville heard the tick tick tick of the clock reminding him that Saffron would be arriving soon. But no footsteps telling him that she was gone, only a soft breath behind him.
"I shall see you on Thursday, then," she finally said. Neville swallowed, not turning back to face her.
"When you deliver the flowers to the school."
Ah. Right. He nodded once. "Thursday then."
He felt fingers touch his shoulder, gentle but firm. "It was good to see you again, Neville. Take care."
He couldn't say the same, so he said nothing, waiting until he heard the door to the shop jingle as she left, just as the whoosh of the flames in the Floo announced his daughter's arrival.
On Thursday, the school hosted a pizza party for all the children as they prepared for their concert. It made things easier for Neville, not having to worry who would watch his daughter while he finished gathering together the flowers and delivering them to the school for decorations. He arrived with an armload of brightly coloured blooms, apparating in rather than taking the Floo and risking dust damage to the delicate petals. He had no sooner straightened up than Pansy was there, her cool fingers brushing against his arm as she took some of the burden from his arms.
"They're beautiful," she said, her smile warming her eyes. Neville simply nodded, uncomfortable in this crowd.
It was Saffron's first year in the school, and he had lingered around the edges of it so far. All of his friends--Harry & Ginny, Hermione & Ron, Seamus & Lavender--they'd all started having children later than he had. Ginny planned to stay home with hers, and Hermione had found a child care office near the Ministry where she worked. Lavender had set up a small shop in Brighton near her family, and their daughter--who was only two anyway--spent the days with Lavender's mother at the hotel. Neville was the only one on his own, and the only one without a support network. Oh, Ginny had offered, but Neville couldn't do that in good conscience, even if Ginny insisted that Luna would have liked it.
It made Neville uncomfortable to take from someone like that. To take and not have anything to give back for it. He'd been raised to be independent, after all, under Gran's influence and without his parents. So he made his own decision to send Saffron to school, even if it meant she was surrounded by children of people who had never been quite friends of his.
He saw the children off to the side, a collection of perhaps thirty or so, ranging in age from the youngest set who were five through the two eldest who were eleven and just about to enter Hogwarts next fall. Saffron sat between a boy with chocolate skin and an engaging grin, and a tiny oriental girl, and as she laughed with them, Neville blinked. He hadn't quite realized how close Saffron had become with her friends. He had been remiss.
"You'll hardly see Saffron without Romeo and Elissa."
He jumped at Pansy's voice by his elbow. She leaned in, not quite touching but close enough that he could feel the warmth of her body nearby. "Those are the two she's with?" he asked, uncertainly.
"Yes. I've already told you about Romeo. The little girl is Elissa Chang." Pansy glanced at him, waiting for a sign of recognition.
Oh. Right. He vaguely remembered that Hermione--or perhaps it was Ginny--had mentioned that Cho Chang had decided to have a child on her own. Or that the father had left. He supposed the details weren't important, any more than the details about Saffron's birth were. All that mattered was that there was a child here, and she was Saffron's friend. "I ought to see if Saffron wants to have them over sometime," he mused, not entirely thrilled about the idea.
"I'm sure she would." Pansy shrugged. "Or they might wish to have her visit. You ought to speak with their parents tonight."
When she walked off, he was left holding half the flowers and not quite certain what to do with them, so he trailed along in her wake. She worked with quiet efficiency to place the flowers, arranging those which were single, and settling arrangements already made into the best locations. "Daphne says she doesn't see you here nearly enough, Neville. You do realize that fathers are as welcome as mothers in their child's school life, yes?"
Neville's jaw set. "I have work, Pansy."
She glanced over at him. "Hire someone."
That was what his mates had been telling him for years. Hire someone. As if it were entirely simple to pull a salary out of what he brought in and still have enough for himself and Saffron to live. Not to mention that the cost of sending her to school came dear enough. He didn't answer.
Pansy tucked a daisy into a corner of the stage, wrapping blue bells around the post. "I'd like to hire your services again," she said, entirely offhand. "I'm hosting a celebration for Beltane, and of course, it must be properly springlike and festive. I'm prepared to offer you a handsome price for it, and perhaps keep you on retainer for future celebrations."
Neville blinked. "On retainer..."
"I entertain every two months on average, sometimes more often. In the holiday season, there will be no less than three galas in the space of as many weeks." Pansy crossed her arms, looking up at him, one eyebrow arched. "So yes. I will keep you on retainer, and you will provide blooms whenever I need them. Your best and most interesting."
He found himself nodding, his subconscious recognizing the offer as something he couldn't afford to refuse.
"On one condition." Pansy turned away, smiling slightly as she checked the flower arrangement.
"What is that?"
"Hire someone," she said firmly. "You need help, Neville Longbottom, and there is absolutely no shame in admitting so. If you have a knowledgeable shopgirl, you can spend more time with your daughter. She idolizes you, you know."
He could almost see the net closing around him, zipped neatly shut. But at the same time, it made sense. It seemed she was offering to pay him enough that he could afford to give her the flowers she wanted, and at the same time pay a salary to someone else. "Why?"
Her head tilted. "Why what?"
"Why would you do that for me?" He frowned deeply. "You don't like me. You've never liked any of us. You tried to get my best mate killed."
He watched shutters come down in her eyes, the gaze going from warm to flat. "That was almost eight years ago, Neville. One would hope that you aren't still fighting a war that's long over."
She walked away, heels clacking against the floor in such a way that he could hear her irritation. All he'd done was ask an honest question, because it made little sense to him. Yes, the war was long ago, but those lines were ingrained in their blood for years before the war began. Drawn by their parents, and their parents' parents. It still made him uncomfortable to mingle with people like Zabini and Greengrass.
He could hear Ron's voice telling him he'd been an idiot, that he ought to've accepted it without questioning why. But he had to wonder. People like Pansy never did something nice unless they wanted something. And he couldn't figure out what she was possibly going to get from this that she couldn't get from any average florist.
It was a Saturday more than three weeks later when he saw her again. In the meantime, he had received a letter with a statement of account at Gringotts and a request for what she should like for her May Day party. When he'd delivered those, they'd been accepted by Astoria Greengrass, who'd tittered and simpered and giggled in ways that only served to make Neville blush. He'd escaped without ever seeing his patroness, as he'd come to think of her.
They communicated by owl, short notes back and forth, where she requested some odd bit of greenery, and he would find it and send it along with instruction of what charms would help it grow best. He wondered where she kept it all, and whether she had a proper greenhouse. She certainly had enough plants for it.
He asked her this, before saying hello, when she arrived in his shop.
She set her purse down on the countertop, turning an amused smile to Neville. "Solarium," she said, "and it looks far better now than it did before. You should come by some time to see it."
"You're inviting me to your house."
Both eyebrows arched. "Of course. Is there some reason I shouldn't?" She looked at him, and he looked back, trying not to glance away. He remembered their conversation, and he was sure she did as well. They weren't friends. They had never been friends. He couldn't understand this sudden assumption that they were both of the same social class.
"Hullo Miss Parks!" Saffron cheerily greeted her, darting out to hug her legs. "Is Miss Daffy with you?"
"Not today, love." Pansy's smile softened as she crouched down, her robes properly arrayed about her legs. "But she'll be sending an owl to your father soon, I suspect. Romeo's been asking you to come for lunch some time. Now that summer holidays are coming, you'll have to make time for him in your busy schedule, else he'll miss you dearly."
"I will!" Saffron gave Pansy a hug and a kiss on the cheek, darting into the back as Neville waved her away.
"She likes you," he said quietly.
"I like her," Pansy replied. She came back to her feet, brushing her robes straight. Her nail varnish was purple today, a deep colour several shades darker than the lipstick she wore. There was a faint brush of colour above her eyes as well, soft and blending in, just enough to highlight her eyes. She was the colour of pansies. "I saw you at the school last week," she continued. "I take it Laura is working out well then?"
Neville nodded. "She's got a good head on her shoulders where herbology's concerned, and a gift with the Asian plants in particular. A bit stubborn, perhaps, but that's nothing I can't deal with. Seems to think I need to be mothered." He flushed faintly at that.
"Perhaps she thinks you need a wife," Pansy said, a faint smile lurking in her expression.
Neville's eyes flew wide. "Oh no, I doubt that. And I don't. Saffron and I are fine on our own."
Pansy's gaze was quietly assessing. "I don't doubt that you are, Neville. But don't close your mind to discovering something simply because you've told yourself you don't need it. Or that you don't deserve it."
He flushed warmly, turning away from her as he began to select flowers, just to have something to do with his hands. It was uncanny, that she said that. After what had happened with Luna, he couldn't possibly deserve another chance. And who would want him? They saw the war hero still, but few actually knew who he was. And he was fine with that. Fine on his own.
"Owls." Pansy's quiet word came just before the sharp rapping of multiple beaks against the glass. Three owls, all tapping impatiently to be let in. She pulled open the door and those and two more swarmed to the front desk, leaving envelopes and then flying back out the way they came.
Neville picked up the first of them, slitting it open with his thumb and tugging the letter free.
I believe I've found Luna. Come quickly.
- Xenophilius Lovegood
His eyes widened as he read the text, the letter dropping from his fingers onto the table. He didn't protest when Pansy lifted it away. It was dated nearly three weeks before, but had apparently taken this long to reach him. "Excuse me," he muttered.
He was stopped by a delicate hand against his arm. "What does he mean, that he's found Luna?"
Neville blinked, not wanting to explain. "I... I lost her. In all senses of the word. We were seeking the... the exact plant doesn't matter. What matters is that she went out, and I never found her."
"So you don't know that she's actually dead."
He didn't know how to interpret Pansy's tone, soft and slightly remote. Careful, perhaps. His mouth worked, unable to form a better response than, "No. I don't."
Pansy picked up another of the owls, slitting it with a careful fingertip. "You need to see this," she said quietly, holding it out to him.
Neville read, and felt the air rush out of his lung. "Xenophilius has gone missing. I've got to go."
"Are you going to rush off into the desert of Africa?" One delicate eyebrow arched. Her hand stayed where it was on his arm, anchoring him there. "What will you do with Saffron?"
He hesitated. "Take her with me, I suppose." After all, if they were going to find her mother, and her grandfather, it seemed only right that she be there. It might be dangerous, perhaps, but he could be sure to keep her safe. He refused to lose anyone else.
Pansy huffed a sigh. "Well then, it seems likely you'll need another pair of adult hands to help out. I'll need twenty minutes to pack, and I've a tent that ought to be more than sufficient for a trek in the desert. Private rooms for yourself and Saffron, of course."
"You're not coming with us." He made his voice firm. This was ridiculous, that this could be happening. Why would she make that assumption? Neville and Saffron would be fine on their own, and he still had the small tent that he'd shared with Luna and their daughter years ago. Somewhere. He'd packed it up on coming home, or perhaps he'd given it to Xenophilius somewhere along the way, he wasn't quite certain.
"You can't be on your own with Saffron," Pansy pointed out, "and who else would you ask? Your friends are all quite busy, I believe, as are the other parents you know. I happen to be free of any entanglements, your daughter likes me, and I shan't be asking for payment. You can't afford to say no, Neville."
Bloody hell, but she was right again. He groaned, shoving his hair back from his face. "Why, Pansy? Why are you doing this? We're not friends. We're not likely to be friends. You tried to kill my best mate during the war."
She made a small sounds in her throat, but ignored the question. "Twenty minutes," she repeated. "Get Saffron packed up, then come through the Floo to Parkinson Hall. I'll be ready to go then."
Neville watched her leave, unable to find words to say either no or thank you, either of which seemed like it ought to be appropriate. Instead, he simply watched the flare in the Floo, then she was gone, and he was expected to be at her home in twenty minutes.
When he glanced at the doorway, Saffron was standing here, her doll clutched tight in both hands. "Daddy?" she asked. "Where are we going?"
"Laura! I'm going out for a few days, so mind the shop!" Neville called into the back, trusting that his shop girl would hear and do what needed to be done while he was gone. He leaned down to pick up his daughter and hoist her onto his hip. In a quieter voice he told her, "We're going to find your mum, love." The words came out slowly, hardly believing that it might be possible. "We're going to find your mum."
They were in the middle of a desert in a tent that on the inside seemed to be larger than the flat Neville lived in on a daily basis.
Saffron loved it. Her room held a four poster bed with a canopy, and once Neville had managed to calm her down, she had fallen asleep with her beloved (and ragged) Puppy clutched in her arms. She seemed tiny amidst the huge bed, but at least it seemed she would finally rest.
He smelled tea as he moved back into the main area, and found Pansy just pouring two cups. "Sugar or honey?"
"Neither," Neville admitted. "I don't like my tea sweet, unless it's derived from a sweet plant, like a tea rose, or strawberries."
"I'm partial to pumpkin tea." Pansy blew carefully over the tea, sending up wisps of steam as she settled onto the sofa. She glanced up at him. "I don't bite. You're welcome to sit as well."
The cup seemed small in his large hands, and far too fine for the rough callouses. Neville sat gingerly on the edge of the sofa, long legs awkwardly bent, body hunched over as he cradled the tea and took a cautious sip. "This is the pumpkin tea?" he asked, tasting an earthiness and spice.
Pansy nodded. "I keep it stocked in here, just in case I find I need tea. After all, it heals all ills."
It didn't heal the awkward way that Neville sat, as if he tried to curl in on himself, not wanting his knee to accidentally brush against hers. It didn't heal the way his heart hammered in his chest, caught in a place of confusion. It didn't stop him from being aware that he hadn't sat next to a woman who wasn't Ginny, Hermione, or Lavender in a terribly long time. It certainly didn't stop him from noticing when she laid her small hand over his.
She took another sip of her tea, but didn't move her hand from his. "I had a brother who was called by You Know Who," she said quietly.
Neville didn't know what to say to that. He wasn't surprised, after all. It seemed some days that almost everyone who passed through Slytherin had family among the Death Eaters, if they weren't one themself. He made a small noise that might have meant go on.
"His name was Cobalt, but I called him Coby. He was seven years older than I, and he finished Hogwarts just before I started." Pansy sipped at her tea as she leaned towards Neville, her shoulder butting up against his. He was acutely aware of her presence there, and the weight of her hand over his. It kept him from doing anything else that might be even more wrong than this already was.
"Why?" he managed to ask.
"My father followed him in the first war," Pansy said quietly. "But my father was too ill when You Know Who called, so Coby went instead. He took the mark and the mask, and he did terrible things. I saw him, that last summer before we all returned to Hogwarts. I was thankful they didn't send him to our school. I don't think I could have watched him become like the Carrows. I don't think he ever took pleasure in it, like they did. But I know he tortured people. And I know he killed." She went silent for a long moment, her breath soft and slow.
"That didn't change that he was my brother," she said quietly. "And that I would have done anything to save him. Even if it meant giving up Harry to do so. I was afraid that if the battle went on, I would never see him again. And I was right. When the battle ended, and the dead were brought into the Great Hall, he lay there, quiet and covered with blood. I don't know who killed him--I forgave it long ago. But I couldn't save him."
"Does Harry know?" Neville gave in to instinct, turning his hand and interlocking his fingers with hers. Her fingers were slender, softer than Ginny's work-roughened fingers, nor nearly so strong as Hermione's grip. Small. Delicate. But there was a strength there as well, her fingers curling into his. A solid determination.
She nodded. "Harry knows. We talked long ago. I've apologized. The war is behind us, Neville. Long past."
"I know." After all, he sat in a desert in a tent with Pansy Parkinson, his daughter sleeping nearby, while they sought his wife and his father-in-law. This was nothing like he had ever expected his life to be. "Thank you for helping us, Pansy."
"You're welcome." She finished her tea, setting it on a table and disentangling her fingers from his just as he was getting used to the feel of them. She turned, pulling her feet up and tucking them under her cross-legged as she sat facing Neville. "In the morning, we'll go out and find her."
"Shouldn't you stay with Saffron?" Neville asked. "That's why I thought you came along. I don't want her left alone."
Her lips pursed in a tight bow. "And I don't think you ought to go off on your own. That is how you lost Luna in the first place. And I suspect how her father came to be lost as well."
"I'll be fine." He patted her hand before he thought about it, flushing once he realized what he was doing and drawing his hand back.
Lips still pursed, she regarded him through several slow breaths. She pushed herself to stand, giving herself height over him, perhaps the only way her petite form could look down on him. She leaned in close, nose to nose, surprising him when he felt the bare brush of lips on his own.
"If you get yourself killed, Neville Longbottom, I will find you and resurrect you so that I can kill you myself," she said firmly. "See if I don't."
She walked off then, leaving him sitting, bemused, on the sofa. He tasted faint spice and tea, and he stared at the door she'd gone through. What had just happened?
It was a long time before he was able to manage to take himself off to bed and find sleep. But he needed to, he knew, if he were going to manage to slip out before she was awake in the morning. Saffron needed her more than he did. He was sure of that, at least.
He woke in the morning to the faint whisper of his name. Neville blinked into the dim light that filtered through a magical window in his room in the tent, realizing that it was barely dawn. He saw no one there, no sign of another person save a faint scent of soap. Sharp apples tinted with cinnamon and vanilla, and he blinked back tears. "Luna?" he called softly, but no one responded.
He lay back down, inhaling roughly, catching that same scent as if her head had lain with his upon the pillow. Fingers dug into the pillowcase, twisting the fabric as he tried to find composure. Wishful thinking, it was, to imagine Luna here. More than likely it was wishful thinking to imagine her alive.
And if she were alive... he pushed himself from the bed, coming to his feet in one motion. He didn't want to think what Pansy was doing here, that she would kiss him, at the same time knowing he sought his wife. He couldn't understand why she would do that. Had he done something to encourage her, made some advance he didn't remember? He didn't think so.
Neville went through the routine of the morning quickly and quietly, washing the grime of travel from his face, then pulling on a loose shirt and trousers. No robes, not while they were in the heat of the desert. It would be too much. Once dressed, he found a few things he could carry to eat and some water, tossing them into a pack which he shouldered. He peeked in on Saffron, making sure she still slept before he headed out, knowing that Pansy still slept. She would take care of Saffron when she realized he had gone, he trusted in that at least. Strange to trust her with his child, but he did. She cared for the children; he'd seen how she was at the school, and the longing in her gaze. She wouldn't let Saffron come to harm.
He wasn't sure how to find Luna, but he trusted that he had come to the right place. There was a giggle off to his right, and he turned, heading that direction without quite thinking first, trudging through the sand, moving while it was still cool from the night. He followed the soft sounds he barely heard and instinct, the sand dragging at his feet as the sun rose and beat down on his head. He heard a voice calling, and confused, he stopped to look around. It was his name, but the voice wasn't right. Not soft and ethereal, it was demanding, almost with an edge of panic.
He spotted her coming over a dune, her dark hair wind-whipped and tangled around her face, her skin reddened from sun and sand. It seemed odd to see Pansy Parkinson without traditional robes, but in this heat, she was instead wrapped in soft white fabric, and he could almost see the lines of her body through it, with the sun behind her. Neville flushed and tried not to look.
"You left," Pansy stomped in front of him. "You were supposed to wait for me."
"How could I wait for you?" Neville protested. "I thought you came to help take care of Saffron." His mouth opened in a look of horror. "Where's Saffron?" He looked past her, as if he would see his young daughter also trudging across the sand.
Pansy grabbed his wrists, catching him before he could start following their pathway back. "She's safe, Neville. She's at the tent, and Astoria's with her." At Neville's blank look, she added, "Greengrass. Daphne's younger sister. You met her the night of the concert."
Neville didn't remember her, not more than a vague impression of a polite woman with a rather too-sweet smile and who was perhaps a few years younger than himself. "When--how--did she get here?"
"I made arrangements for her to come in this morning," Pansy said, her chin lifted defiantly. "If you'd waited this morning, you would have seen. Why do you think I insisted on coming with you?"
"I don't know," Neville admitted. "I was confused. I thought you came along for Saffron, but then you insisted you'd be going looking with me, and I couldn't see how the two matched up."
Pansy released his wrists, patting his hands. "I've taken care of everything. Saffron's safe. Now, let's find Luna."
She threaded her fingers through his, and together they started trudging again through the sand. It took a long moment before Neville realized where his hand was, and he raised their linked fingers and looked at Pansy. "We're looking for my wife," he pointed out.
"I know," she said quietly. "But we don't know yet what we'll find, now, do we?"
He nodded, not having any better response than that.
The wind whipped around them, and Pansy lifted slender fingers to push the strands back from her face. Rose-pink tipped nails were chipped now, no longer perfectly varnished, as if hard work had chipped away at the image she usually presented. No lipstick today, nor any other colours on her face. Only Pansy.
Neville's fingers tightened on hers in a small squeeze. "You don't need all that paint, you know. You look good just like you are now."
A faint pink stained her cheeks. "Thank you, Neville."
"It's only honest," he allowed.
Her brow furrowed, and he worried that he'd somehow insulted her. But she looked past him, into the distance, worry blooming in her expression. "I don't like the look of the sky over there," she murmured.
He twisted around to follow the path of her gaze. The sky was dark and thick, the wind pushing at them as he looked in confusion. Then his eyes widened. "Sandstorm." Which was exactly what had happened when he lost Luna; she had gone out, and been lost in the storm, and he had never found her.
Neville knew Pansy had heard the same story, and he could see the fear in her eyes. Resolve took him hostage. "We need to set spells now, Pansy," he said quietly, not wanting her to worry more. "Protective spells around us, else we'll be buried, or blinded by the sand. Help me work quickly."
She was better than him at the spellwork, but he knew what was needed. Together they laid a framework first, and were just barely starting to bring the shielding spells up when the storm hit. The wind came through the shield, threatening to knock them out of the narrow circle they had cast. Neville wrapped his arms around Pansy and drew her down to the ground. "Sit," he ordered, holding her close. "It'll be easier that way."
She was shivering despite the heat of the day, so he tucked her close, one hand on the back of her head as he cradled it against his shoulder. "The spells will hold," he murmured. "Just keep your eyes closed and stay as small as you can."
"This is what happened." Pansy's voice shook, her fingernails digging into the flesh of his shoulder. "This is how you lost Luna."
Eyes closed, Neville bowed his head against the top of Pansy's. "Yes. She went out to explore the morning and a storm came up. I couldn't find her when it was done. Every trace of her was gone, even her footprints."
Silence for a long moment as Neville stroked small, soothing circles on Pansy's back. "How will we find our way back to the tent?" she finally asked.
There was singing, somewhere, off in the distance. Neville risked raising his head to look out into the maelstrom, unable to see anything, even the light of the sun. But he heard her voice, soft and sweet, calling him. "We'll find a way, Pans," he murmured, unaware that he'd shortened her name to something soft and familiar. "We'll find a way."
Her breath hitched and she burrowed closer, arms around him as she curled against his larger frame. "I trust you," she said softly. "I do."
It seemed the storm went on forever. Neville breathed slow and easy, trying to stay calm to help Pansy stay calm as well. After a time, he thought she slept. She seemed small in his arms, and defenseless in sleep, her thorns stripped away. He couldn't help but touch her--rubbing circles on her back, stroking fingers through her hair--listening to every soft murmur and reply she made, unconsciously leaning into that touch. He felt as if parts of him were awakening that he hadn't thought to find again... and certainly not with someone he had once considered an enemy.
He wondered if she planned it that way, if he'd been pursued.
He decided he didn't care. He wasn't sure what was going to happen, but he might as well find out. If it turned out that the worst was true, and he hadn't been mourning his wife for naught.
"It's alright, Neville."
The soft whisper came from his right, and when he turned his head, he saw Luna crouched there, a pale halo of light all around her. "Luna."
"I was, yes," she said. "Although I'm not anymore. Not exactly." She smiled gently, and in a blink, she was closer, crouched right in front of him, her palm a cool breeze against his cheek. "It's been so long, Neville. I've missed you."
His throat was tight and he tried to swallow back tears and failed. He reached for her, but his hands went through the mist, grasping at nothing as she sighed.
"I'm dead, Neville. But you knew that."
"I knew that," he allowed. "But I had to hope. I've missed you, Luna." The words caught, stuck in his throat, and he coughed them loose in the end. He imagined he looked miserable, his face all red and blotchy like it always was when he cried.
But she only smiled and leaned in, brushing a cold chill across his lips. "You're strong enough to move on, love," she said. "And it's not awful being dead. Did you know, I've finally found the Glittering Brimblebugs? They live in the spirit realm, and they hover around people who haven't learned to let go yet."
Her fingers ghosted through his hair. "You've too many of them, Neville. You need to let go."
"I have," he said, but having her here, with him, he knew he hadn't. "You're a ghost, Luna. Come back with us to Britain."
"With you and Saffron?" Luna's head canted slightly, a small smile tilting her lips. "Or with you and Pansy."
The woman in question shifted on his lap, burrowing in closer, face pressed against his shoulder. Neville flushed. "It's not--"
Luna patted his arm. "Of course it is, Neville. If you let the Brimblebugs hover around you for too long, they'll eat all of your love, you know. That's what they do, sucking the emotion out of your heart until it goes cold. I'd never want your heart to go cold."
Neville swallowed heard. "I love you, Luna. I've loved you since we were teenagers, and it broke my heart when I lost you."
She smiled gently. "I lost myself. And I know you tried to find me. I heard you calling, Neville, but I was already dead. I wanted to tell you how sorry I was, but I wasn't strong enough, not then."
"But you are now."
"I am now."
Pansy stirred again, eyes flickering open. "Luna?" she asked hoarsely.
"Hello, Pansy," Luna greeted her politely. "Thank you for helping Neville with his Brimblebugs."
"His what?" Pansy sat up slowly, a careful veneer slipping into her demeanor as she removed herself from Neville's lap. "Are you here to tell us how to rescue you?"
Neville tried to read Pansy's expression, but found nothing but perfect poise, every emotion trapped in silence beyond that. "She's dead, Pans," he said softly, catching a flicker of something when he used her name.
"I am," Luna said with a sigh. "And my body is gone. Eaten," she said practically. "I didn't quite realize that Dingelwolves could dig so well, but that does explain how they find things to scavenge after the storms. Take care not to meet any of them. They have teeth two handspans long."
"There are no such things as Dingelwolves," Pansy said. "They're a nightmare story, told to scare children who might go wandering at night."
"Just because you've never seen a thing is no reason not to believe in it, Pansy Parkinson." Luna reached for the other woman, her hand stopping when Pansy drew backwards and out of reach. Luna's hand floated slowly to her side as she stood. "We need to go find my father."
How could he have forgotten? Neville stood quickly, groaning. He realized the storm had abated while they slept, and while they spoke with Luna. "Is he alright?"
Luna nodded, standing with her hands clasped in front of her, pale light wreathing pale hair. "He is, Neville, but not for terribly much longer. Each storm is harder on him than the last, and father never did have much sense of direction. I've tried to lead him to a village, but he keeps choosing to go his own way."
"Just like a Lovegood," Pansy murmured, and Neville smiled at that. Yes, it was exactly like a Lovegood, never quite willing to go in the same direction as someone else. He had always loved that about his Luna.
He reached out to take Pansy's hand, fingers tightening when she tried to pull away. "There is nothing wrong with an independent woman," he said.
Luna smiled brightly. "Exactly." She skipped a few steps forward, leaving no marks in the sand that had been smoothed by the storm. "This way."
They followed her, with Luna humming that same soft tune that Neville had followed throughout the morning. The sun was getting lower in the sky, the heat thankfully fading into something more bearable. Neville's only worry was that there were no signs of their earlier tracks, and he wasn't certain how far they had come from the tent. Or in which direction.
"I'm sorry," Pansy whispered as they walked.
"For what?" Neville's head tilted towards her, although his attention remained on the bright shade of his wife who skipped along the sand. "It's good to have closure, Pansy. I've always had to assume she was gone, but I never knew for certain. Now I know."
"But it must hurt all over again."
Neville considered that, touching the spot inside his heart where he'd kept Luna's memory. He nodded slowly. "It does hurt, but not nearly so badly as before. I loved her, Pansy, more than I could ever really say. We grew close at a time when it seemed like we might lose everything, and we fought through it together." He glanced at the woman walking beside him, as different from Luna as different could be. "That world is gone, Pans. It's time to move on."
It was what she'd been saying, after all. It had just taken him some time to pay attention. And he still wasn't entirely sure of it, especially with his dead wife walking backwards, watching them speak. But he had time to figure it out for certain, he figured. They had time.
"Father!" Luna blinked out of existence, and Neville's eyes widened.
"Bloody hell." He started to run, pulling Pansy with him as she worked to keep up, their feet sliding in the sand and almost toppling them to the ground. He had to fight for every step but they made it to the top of the dune and looked down to see the bright splotch of light that was Luna curled over something upon the sand.
Neville glanced at Pansy, who wrinkled her nose. "You run," she said. "If I try to do so, I'm likely to end up tumbling down the hill."
"I'd carry you," he said. But he didn't even need to do that as he remembered that there was an easier way to do it after all. He pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her, twisting in space to apparate across the sands.
Maybe it was a bit of an excuse to hold her, Neville decided, but it was definitely better than falling down the hill.
The desert made apparating over distances difficult, but not impossible, Neville realized. It was something in the sands, some particular stone or gem that made magic occasionally unable to be trusted. But with Luna's navigation, and Neville holding Xenophilius Lovegood upright, they were able to make small jumps until they reached the tent, long after dark had come.
Astoria greeted them in a flurry of worry, fussing over the sand in Pansy's hair and pulling her away, insisting she be cleaned properly. Neville settled Xenophilius on the sofa, while Saffron simply stood there, staring at the pale apparition.
Luna smiled. "Hello, Saffron. Do you remember me?"
The girl nodded slowly. "You're my mummy."
"I am." Luna beamed delightedly. "Only I'm dead now, so I won't be able to go home with you. But I'm so happy that I've gotten to see you one more time before I go on. You're so terribly beautiful. Have you found the flutterbys in the bushes behind the house, yet? I planted those for you, when you were born."
Saffron's expression eased as she beamed back, her expression so utterly like her mother's that Neville's heart wrenched. "I did!" Saffron said excitedly. "The blue ones are my favorite, but the pink ones are pretty too."
Luna offered her a hand. "Let's go into your room here, darling, and you can tell me everything. I want to hear all about your life before I have to go." She leaned in close to whisper, "And I've a few secrets to tell you, as well."
Neville watched them go, then made certain that Xenophilius was resting comfortably on the sofa. He was exhausted and dehydrated, but Neville gave him the proper potions and then pulled a blanket over him so he could rest.
And he realized, then, he was quite alone. Pansy was off with Astoria, and Saffron was with the ghost of Luna. Neville threaded his fingers through his fringe and pushed it back from his face. It had been a long day. Perhaps he could do with a bit of a bath as well.
He went into his room and set the small tub to filling. He made it as far as pulling off his shirt before he sank onto the bed and sat, his head in his hands. What should he do now? How could he take Saffron away from Luna? How could he just forget? Or did he have to forget in order to let go? He'd never heard of Brimblebugs, but that wasn't anything surprising when it came to conversations with Luna. She had always known more than he had. He still felt, didn't he? They hadn't eaten his heart just yet.
But perhaps they would, if he let them stay.
Getting rid of them meant letting go of Luna, though. For once and for all.
He sat upright, startled at the interruption. Pansy stood just inside the door, staring resolutely at the wall, a faint flush staining her pale skin. "I--" He realized that the tub was about to overfill, and quickly stopped the spell.
"The door was ajar, so I assumed you wanted company," she said quietly, slowly turning to look at him. "I didn't mean to interrupt."
"I can bathe any time." Neville searched for a clean shirt. "I'll do it later."
"You don't need to put a shirt on." She was closer to him then, touching his hand and stilling his motion as he searched. "You're not indecent. Nor unattractive."
It was Neville's turn to flush at her blunt words. "What are you thinking, Pansy?"
"I should think that would be obvious," she said.
He only flushed again. "I suppose yes, it is. But why?"
She sat down on the bed, patting the spot next to her and waiting until he sat as well. She took one of his hands in hers, tracing designs upon the back of it. "I saw you at the school," she said. "You'd brought Saffron in, and you seemed so frustrated with everything that day, but it was still obvious how much your cared for her. I hadn't seen you since the war, and I didn't recognize you at first. So I asked Daphne, and she told me who you were, and about Luna."
"So you came to the shop," Neville said, and she nodded. "And Laura?"
"You weren't willing to take my help." Pansy's chin tilted into the air. "So I thought you might be willing to take my money."
There was something about the way she sat there, pointed chin defiant, pug nose tilted in the air. It reminded him of when they were younger, yes, but at the same time, he realized it was just utterly, perfectly, Pansy. She wore her defiance like a wall against the world, but he knew better. He had seen what lay beneath it, how vulnerable she was.
He reached out to her cautiously, and she went completely still as his palm flattened against her cheek. His fingers touched the nape of her neck, drawing her close, and his eyes closed as he kissed her. Her hands still held his, and he heard her breath catch, felt that soft gasp before her finger tightened and she kissed him back.
Neville remembered his first kiss, soft and frantic and confusing, stolen between class and a punishment, hiding from the war. He remembered courting Luna and discovering passion in fear of being caught. It was always something new, always on the edge and just a little off-kilter.
Pansy tasted different. Soft and anchored here on earth, with something held back and uncertain, polished behind the poise. His tongue teased at her lips, trying to break through that barrier, and he felt a rush of pleasure when she gave way and let him in with a small moan. He pulled back to look at her, lips full and flush and slightly parted. Eyes wide, she watched him in return, wary and hopeful, thorns stripped away once more.
"Oh, that's much better, Neville!" Luna's voice was bright and cheerful. "You've chased away so many of the Brimblebugs. I do think you'll be quite alright now."
"Luna." Neville started to move, and she stopped him, holding her hands out.
"I don't want to interrupt," she assured him. "I'm happy for you, truly I am. I just wanted to say goodbye."
Neville hesitated, and at Pansy's light shove he jumped to his feet, crossing the room in quick strides. "Luna, I--"
Chill settled on his shoulders as her hands rested there, and she stood on her tiptoes looking up at him. "I know," she whispered. "I'll miss you, too. Take care of my sweet girl for me, and you," she glanced back at Pansy. "You take care of my Neville. Otherwise I might find my way back to Britain after all."
"That's what I've been trying to do," Pansy said, tone just a bit sharp, although the softness had yet to leave her expression. "If he'll let me."
"He will now, I think," Luna said. There was a soft whisper of breath against his lips and she drew back. "Goodbye, Neville. I love you."
She was gone before he could manage to say, "I love you, too."
The door burst open and Saffron rushed in, followed closely by Astoria. "I tried to stop her," Astoria protested.
"It's alright," Neville told her. "Go on, get some rest." He turned his attention to where his daughter crawled up onto the bed, curling immediately into Pansy's lap.
"I need you to put me to bed, Miss Pansy." Saffron yawned. "Will you read to me?"
"You want me to tuck you in?" Pansy asked, clearly a bit bemused. "Not your father."
"Him too," Saffron allowed. "Both of you."
As his daughter beamed at Pansy, Neville wondered who exactly had been caught in whose net. He knew Pansy had started the pursuit, but he suspected that she was as well caught as he was just now.
And as Pansy stood, offering a hand, waiting while Saffron caught it with her small fingers, Neville had a feeling that didn't matter. Pansy was right where she'd intended to be all along. And luckily, Neville realized he didn't mind one bit.