Before the golden tresses of the dead

"Who's there?"

Neville held his wand held steadily at the entrance to Gryffindor and waited, but the noise, a faint but distinct thud then scratching, didn't recur. Peeves, he finally decided, or one of the others, and returned to examining the room. The castle had become theirs, really, in the months since Hogwarts had been abandoned; Neville was the one intruding.

In another lifetime the school would have been holding NEWTs right about then. Instead, he was helping ready the castle to reopen in September. Neville would probably never finish his education now. He would probably never finish a lot of things. But at least, he thought as he cast a quick charm to determine whether the banister had been vandalised by rogue pixies, he was alive. It was more than could be said for a lot of others.

He straightened a pair of empty portrait frames -- who knew where the occupants were, or what they had been up to -- and heard it again, a faint thump and then the familiar creak of the Fat Lady swinging open, just a crack.

Neville didn't say a word this time, just pointed his wand and tensed his back and waited, as patiently as he'd learned how on dark nights in deep dungeons. The door twitched one more time then something passed right through it, of hazy composition and indistinct shape.

Neville lowered his wand as the ghost slipped into the common room, watching its surprisingly awkward progress toward the fireplace. "Sir Nicholas?" he said finally, though he was sure it wasn't. He squinted. "Mary McBride...?"


Neville lost a lot of people during the war, people he still thought about nearly every day. And there was a part of him that hoped that maybe some of them, maybe just one of them, would come back to him in some way. This, despite Neville's growing recognition, was not one of those people.

"No," he said. "Not you."

The figure kept moving towards the fire that Neville had so recently lit, taking step after step instead of floating, reaching out to touch furnishings that his fingers passed right through. "Why not me?" he said finally.

Neville had no answer for that. He hadn't seen Draco Malfoy in a year; as far as he knew, nobody had. "I didn't know you..." he said finally, gesturing meaninglessly.

"Nor did you care," said Draco bluntly, turning about to face him again. "So this is Gryffindor. I'd imagined it... uglier. With a great statue of Potter, right about there." He gestured at the middle of the room, where a slightly scorched rug currently lay.

"Harry died, you--" Neville began, before a shameful flush crept up his neck. "Sorry."

"Yes, there's a lot of that going around," was all Draco said. His feet didn't quite meet the floor as he moved around what had once been Neville's favourite armchair.

Neville would not soon forget those last moments of the war, nor the weeks leading up to that final confrontation, when it felt like everything was fire and flash and destruction. Too much of which was on Neville's head.

"You let them in here," he said finally, when there was no more room for his anger to be directed inward. "The beginning of the end."

"So I did," said Draco, circling to Neville's left. "I thought it was... It hardly matters now, does it?"

"It matters to some of us," said Neville, circling him warily in return. "Some of us are still living with your choices."

"Some of you are still living."

Neville pressed his lips together for a moment. "How?" he asked finally. "When?"

Draco stared past Neville's head. "Near the end," he answered, right when Neville had given up on getting one. "The cottage where I'd been hiding burnt to the ground, or so I heard Mum sobbing to Aunt Andromeda. I don't recall, of course. You should be thankful I died from the smoke; imagine what I'd look like if the fire had got me first."

Neville knew that cottage. "You've been to your home, then," he said finally, when the moment of shocked recognition passed. "Why don't you go and haunt it?"

"Father haunts the manor," said Draco darkly, and left it at that. Given what he'd heard, what he'd seen... well, Neville could blame Draco Malfoy for a lot of things, but not for that.

"Aren't you even sorry?" he bit out after a moment. "Do you even care what you've done? What you are?"

"And what, precisely, is that?"

Neville reached out to grab Draco's arm, before remembering he could not. Draco could tell what he was trying to do, and did not show it to him.

"You haven't any idea what I've done. Nor did you ever know who I was. Nor did you ever care to know. Why start now, Longbottom?"

"You're responsible for my friends."

"I find," said Draco, "I don't feel responsible for much of anything anymore. It hardly matters. In fact, I find this bores me. I thought Gryffindor would be more interesting. Do have the portraits let me know when that monument to Potter goes up."

"I'm not sorry I killed you."

Draco gave up all pretence of walking, whirling round Neville three times before coming to an abrupt stop directly in front of him. He didn't need to say a word.

"I didn't know you were there. I didn't know anyone was there. But I'm not sorry."

Draco stared at him, and Neville swore he could see his eyes flash furiously, though Draco had no eyes to speak of anymore, was nothing but mist and memory. Hundreds of years from now, would Draco still haunt these halls? Would he become a tragic figure of a long-forgotten war, and Neville the villain who put him in this purgatory?

"You're a liar," said Draco flatly. Neville almost believed he could feel Draco's breath on his cheek. "You burned down that cottage without a second thought. Someone probably told you there was a Death Eater inside--"

"--a book," said Neville. "I was told there was a book inside, that we couldn't let fall into Death Eater hands. Someone was coming, I didn't have time to--"

"--but it's obvious you are sorry."

"And there was a Death Eater inside."

Draco circled him again, drifting close against Neville's flesh. "You thought I was a book? You killed me because you mistook me for a book? You haven't changed at all, Longbottom."

He was dead wrong about that, at least, and Neville was sure he knew it. He had changed, Draco had changed, everything had changed. Even Hogwarts had changed.

"All I wanted to do was survive."

Draco stared at him for a moment longer, drifting backwards all the while, then there was a swirl of mist and he was gone.

"Yes, well, so did a lot of people," said Neville to the empty space where the ghost had been.

The pixies really had done a number on the banister. A moment later, Neville rolled up the sleeves of his robe and set back to work repairing it.

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3oct04. heidi: "neville and draco, 7th year"