Author's Note: I do not own Harry Potter.
Spoilers for Book Six!
If you haven't ever read it, please check out my AU version of Harry Potter, Rules of the Game!
It had been three months since Professor Dumbledore had died and people seemed determined to act like nothing had changed. With Harry in the dorm only rarely, Seamus and Dean never spoke of it. Ron never seemed to speak at all, unless he was sitting with Hermione by the fire in the Common Room. It made Neville very lonely, especially at night. He would stare at the top of his four poster and try to convince himself that Dumbledore would be at breakfast the next morning. When he woke up in the morning, he always felt near tears. Half because he had convinced himself and half because he could never convince himself.
It had been three months since Professor Dumbledore had died and Neville felt like part of him had died with him.
The whole school felt quiet, hushed, a whole school of people in mourning. Even the first years seemed to sense it at the Welcoming Feast, where girls and even boys from every house would look up at the head table and cry because it wasn't Dumbledore giving them the speech. Little Professor Flitwick, barely taller than one of the first years himself, led the group in and, after the Sorting, Professor McGonagall had stood up. Her chin was wobbling as badly as any other person.
"We suffered a grave loss last year," she said, and it was like a dam had broken inside Neville. All the tears he could not cry in front of his grandmother, or Luna, or even Harry and Ron and Hermione, he let them out right there at the table. His plate was in front of him, empty, and his tears hit it with little metallic tinks. Seamus and Dean seemed alarmed and he thought he heard Ginny Weasley go 'It's all right, Neville.' But none of that changed anything, and so Neville let himself cry—great big loud, wet tears of fear and hate and anger at Bellatrix Lestrange, at Severus Snape, at Draco Malfoy, at his parents and himself and at Dumbledore.
"We suffered this loss, and yet that was last year. This is a new year, a new beginning, and we must try to take advantage of what Professor Dumbledore—" Here McGonagall's throat tightened, her eyes watered and she seemed to swallow it all down into herself. "Of what Professor Dumbledore fought for and paid for with dear coin. We must learn and grow and fight the darkness that is feeding on our land. Lord—Lord V-Voldemort—" Her voice wavered and Neville looked at her and wondered how she could stand there and try to take his place. "Lord V-Voldemort will not win, can not win, as long as all of you remember the people who fought him and gave their lives. Cedric Diggory, Professor Dumbledore, so many of your families and friends. You must remember them, and you must push forward." She sat down and Neville saw her wipe at her eyes. Hagrid was weeping into his goblet while Professor Flitwick patted the giant on the arm. Professor Sprout had a distant, deatched look on her face, like when she was healing a plant. Neville wondered what they saw, in the students. Did they see the lack of Crabbe and Goyle? Did they see the solemn first years, the terrified second years? Did they see Neville?
No. No one ever saw Neville. Except Professor Dumbledore.
He couldn't eat. He couldn't look at the food. All he could see was his pale, ghostly reflection on the plate. If only Dumbledore was a ghost. If only he could bring him back.
It wasn't right of him to be so upset, he knew. Not when he didn't really know Dumbledore. Tea in his office once or twice a year isn't really knowing. Harry knew Dumbledore, Harry missed Dumbledore, Harry was the one who should be feeling all this. Not him. Not Neville Longbottom.
He pushed himself away from the table, then, and went for a walk. He didn't get lost once, and he thought how pathetic that was, that as a seventh year he was proud of not getting lost once on a walk through the school. He suddenly turned a corner, though, and had no idea how he had gotten there. He tried to turn back, but the hallway he had come from was gone. He had no choice but to keep walking forward until he found his way out.
He did not know how long he walked, just that each step felt like he was moving farther and farther away from life. He wondered how he looked—wandering the halls silent, pale because he had spent all summer indoors, trying to study, his hair cut like his fathers. Did he look crazy? He felt it, sometimes. Felt like that was all he could grow up to be, crazy, and it was all Voldemorts fault, him and Lestange and Snape and Malfoy and his parents, their fault to. And his, because he was the reason they came out of hiding. So he could have a normal life. And he blamed them for thinking of him and he blamed himself for their destruction and so he went and sat, every Christmas Day and over the summers, he sat near them and accepted the bubble gum wrappers from his crazy mother and listened to his crazy father grunt and saw them smile and tried to remember when they smiled at him and knew him for Neville.
This summer, he had tried to remember and could not.
The walls were blank in this part of the castle, not even a portrait to ask for help. But then, ahead of him, he saw a simple brass portrait frame and started to move a little faster. They had all left the feast now, probably, he would have to go find the new head of Gryffindor and get the password—
He stopped in front of the portrait and saw, with a sinking heart, that it was empty. He kicked the wall and sat down, staring at it. It was a lovely scene, that was true enough. It looked like a small library, with a roaring fire and book shelf upon book shelf. There were squashy blue and green and red arm chairs and a glass of hot chocolate next to one of the chairs. It looked nice, Neville thought, nice and quiet and safe. He wasn't very smart, he couldn't read very fast, but he liked libraries. He liked how safe he felt.
He stared at the portrait a long time, then let out a sigh.
"Hello? Is there someone out there?" came a voice from the portrait, and Neville jumped. He knew that voice. He knew that voice.
"I—Yes, it's Neville Longbottom—I've gotten lost."
There was a pause, then a sigh. "Oh, Neville," said the portrait sadly, and Neville, whose heart had started to thump as soon as he heard hello, scanned the frame desperately to find the owner of the voice.
He was curled in an arm chair by the fire, his robes the same shade of blue as the chair, thus blending him. He had a thick book on his lap and a cup of cocoa on the table next to him. Neville didn't notice all this at first, though. All he saw was his face.
"Professor Dumbledore. Professor—Professor Dumbledore."
"You—you're still—you're still here!" Neville almost started to cry and a huge grin overtook his face, so he didn't know why he felt like crying. Dumbledore was dead, yes, but not gone, and that meant it could all be okay again.
"No," the portrait said, gently but firmly. "I am not here, Neville. Albus Dumbledore is dead—I am just a bit of paint and canvas."
Neville felt like he'd been slapped. "But you—you can talk to me. You—you can talk to us all and still, you can still be there for us even though—"
"Even though I am dead?" the portrait asked. "No, Neville. There is a line between the dead and the living that wizards sometimes ignore—the dead do not stay behind. The dead must move on and learn to let go of the mortal ties. The dead are dead, and portraits are not people. Oh, I may look and speak the part of your headmaster, but that man is in the ground and no one can bring him out."
"But—Harry, you need—I need to get Harry. He—I understand you don't want me, but Harry's been miserable. He's more than that, he's—he's lost, you need to see him, I'll go—"
"No, Neville. No."
Neville stopped. "But—but why?"
"Because Harry needs to accept that I am gone."
"But it's too much for him. He just—he keeps talking about how he won't let it happen again, he won't let anyone else die, he'll be strong, but he's—he's hurting, sir, worse than anyone. He needs you."
"But I am dead, Neville. He cannot have me."
"But he can—he can have this, don't you see? He can have you—"
"It isn't me, Neville. It is only paint and canvas and a clever spell. I am not here. Think of me—think of me as a shadow. I resemble the man, yes, I may even be a part of him. But he is dead and I am only magic."
Neville felt his face crumble and he threw a hand to the portrait. He wanted to travel through and be there with Dumbledore, feel the mans arms around him and breathe in that spell he remembers from when they rescued him in childhood, that smell of soap and candy and safety, that Dumbledore smell.
His hand hits canvas and paint and the tears break forth again.
The portrait looks concerned. "No—don't cry, my boy, don't cry."
"I—I'm not your boy, H-H-Harry's your boy and he n-needs you, we all n-n-need you, Headmaster—"
"You don't. Oh, my boy, you don't need me. In fact, you need to not have me." The portrait pats the edge of the frame. "You have life ahead of you, Neville, you and Harry and all of the others. Life and freedom and happiness—"
"Not while he's alive, we don't."
"But he will not be alive your whole life. And when he falls, you will have days of happiness and families and you will remember me and think how my death helped you."
Neville shook his head furiously. "No, I won't—"
"You will. And I want you too."
"But why—why can't Harry come, just this once—"
"The kindest thing to do for Harry," the portrait said, "—is to pretend you were never here."
Neville wiped at the tears on his face and sniffled and nodded. "We miss you, sir."
The portrait smiled sadly. "I miss him, too."
And then he disappeared and the hallway ahead looked familiar. He took a few lefts and a right and suddenly he was in Gryffindor Tower. Ron, Harry, and Hermione were sitting by one of the fires, talking, while all the other students were probably in their dorms.
"Hello, Neville," Hermione said kindly. "Are you feeling better? You looked very distressed at dinner."
Neville looked at Harry, at the bags under his eyes and the tremor in his hands, in the lines on his face that made him look thirty and the old way his eyes stared into the fire. He thought of how he could change all that.
"Sorry," he said, and he headed up to the dorm.
Neville searched every day for the portrait of Dumbledore until he left the school that June. Everyone knew of him, by then—Neville Longbottom. The first years said that if you vexed him, he made plants come from the earth and tangle round your knees and neck, so it was a good thing it took a lot to vex him, while the other students merely looked astonished at the change in him. He fought against the Death Eaters and inferi and Voldemort and he made all the papers when he killed Bellatrix Lestrange. There was a photo in the Daily Prophet of her—her, face up in the snow, clutching a wound in her belly as blood trickled out and a single black rose grew.
When Neville fell in battle, he took an Avada Kedavra for Harry. He heard the words, saw Harry's stricken face, but let out a yell—triumphant, not downtrodden, not dying—and killed the Death Eater at the same time he fell down dead himself.
By that time he was a legend. He was the man whose memorial Harry Potter visited every spring to plant new roses. He was the man who took down Lestrange, Crouch, the man who got a chunk of Snape's leg, the man who took the bullet.
In Hogwarts, though, where children excitedly whispered his name at the end of the war and talked about his part, in an old, unused part of the castle, there was a picture of Neville Longbottom, painted by Ginny Weasley before she lost her fingers. And in Hogwarts, two corridors away, there was a portrait of Albus Dumbledore.
And Neville knew what he meant, then, because he had thought that, as a portrait, the first thing he did would be to shout from the rooftops he was still alive, in a sense.
But all he felt was like a piece of paint and canvas.