This was written in response to Livejournal's 30-minute fic challenge #57 "The Lost and Found Challenge" It was done in 27 minutes, including spellcheck and grammar check, and I spent an additional few minutes polishing some typos before posting it here.
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and its characters belong to JK Rowlings. I'm merely playing with her toys.
"A Muggle matchbox? Now, Argus, surely you can just find another. Why don't you-"
Argus Filch shook his head, muttering under his breath as he walked off. Not for the first time, his lack of social skills served him well. Minerva didn't even blink, and certainly didn't pursue him.
There was no way to explain.
He missed its hard edges – they had been sharp once, but years of handling had worn the points to a gentle roundness. The feel of it in his hand, the slight weight, the rattling noise it made when he shook it – lightly, so as not to damage the precious contents. He hadn't opened it, not since that night. Years. It had been years.
Mrs. Norris wove her way around his legs and he stooped to pick her up. "My sweet. We'll keep looking, we will. Ignore them. Ignore the ignorant, right, my sweet?" Cuddling the cat to his thin chest, Argus walked the corridors, his eyes searching the shadows for a glimpse of his precious treasure. Mrs. Norris mewed softly, her eyes searching the students that he passed, watching. They worked in tandem, as always, her sharp eyes and feline senses watching for misdeeds by the students, his suspicious nature and sullen gaze searching the floor and packs for contraband items.
She was his base, his rock… she was what kept him from being swept away on the tides of luck, of ill fortune. When they had fled the memory that could not be escaped, it was Mrs. Norris who had led them to Hogwarts, Mrs. Norris who had led them to the warm welcome of Albus Dumbledore. And she remained at his side, for years immeasurable, his support and his companion. His rock.
He had named her in a Firewhisky-induced haze. Walking through Diagon Alley, bitter with cold and fear and pain and grief, he had come across her. A small cat, young and fierce with glowing eyes that saw too much. She had sensed he needed her; needed something warm and there; needed something to fill the empty hollow in head and heart. The edges of the matchbox had been sharp, then - the points cutting small circles into his palm as he clutched it like a man holding on to a rope as he slid down the cliff's edge.
And so it was his rope, his safety, his heart – that small box was all those things. The only remembrance he had of his love, of his all-too-brief brush with true humanity. It had fled him, now, after she had gone. Humanity had fled, leaving hollows behind. Love had fled, leaving a barren wasteland in its wake.
Trust and love and heart; stone and cold and death.
Laughter from the students echoed in the hallway and he clenched his teeth, holding Mrs. Norris tighter. She mrowled in his arms, echoing his displeasure with their lighthearted ignorance.
He hated them. He had always hated them. Jealousy bit him, disgust filled him, along with the fearsome realization that he would never know the freedom of heart that they took for granted. Never again. Through his own hurt, he had no way of knowing that many of them would face the same horrors in their lives; he was blind to the possibility of anyone else's pain.
And so he hated.
Normally, however, the hate could recede. He would finger the matchbox and stare at them, and sneer, and know that they were young and foolish and did not yet know the truth of life. The truth of death. Envy did not overcome him, when he had his matchbox. For the matchbox was knowledge, it was his rope, his heart, his safety.
Mrs. Norris meowed once more and he came back to himself, blinking rapidly against the tears that formed.
He had to find it.
Scouring the castle, he searched over and again – up to the top floor, down to the bottom, through the dungeons. In grief, he sat on the stone floor and wept, Mrs. Norris bumping her head against his hand in silent sympathy. A shaking hand reached out and stroked the fur: not soft, hard and almost brittle, but a welcome familiarity. She had left him to this. And after she had left the warmth he offered for the cold beyond, Mrs. Norris had appeared to assuage his grief.
One remembrance he had of her, one. And it was gone. He could remember, when he held the matchbox. He could feel. Her laughter, her smile, her wink, her skin glowing in candlelight. Nights and days, arguments and protestations of love. Her mischief, the wicked smile she shot him as she pocketed extra mints or sweets or….
It's free, why not? Here, Argus, you have more pockets than I do! Oh, look! A matchbox – the design is so pretty! Here – take it, quickly!
A crash. Screams. Blood dripped. Brown hair fell across the pavement in a ripple of beauty.
His stomach clenched.
There had been nothing for him in the Muggle world, after that. Still clutching the matchbox, he had fled to the Leaky Cauldron, to the world of his parents. Had yelled at the barmaid when she tried to take the matchbox from the table – he clenched it in his hand, the sweat of his palm blurring the pretty design. Had begged Tom to open the entryway, beyond coherence after too many glasses of Firewhisky to count. Had cried when he stumbled upon the small kitten. Mrs. Norris, I'll call you… after her. After her.
Just then, the bundle of fur at his side shot away. Tears fell freely once more. She had left him. Mrs. Norris had left him.
There was nothing. No purchase for his feet in any world, in any place. Dumbledore had taken him in, in pity; kept him on, in loyalty. There was nothing…
A rattle. Argus looked down, and saw the glowing eyes of Mrs. Norris. Saw the object in her mouth. A trembling hand reached down to pluck the box from her jaws. "My pet… my sweet… thank you…"
He held it, shaking, to his face. The design was there, faded now in reality but sharp in his memory. Tears of joy fell. He closed his eyes, moving the box to his left hand – the familiar edges pressing in familiar lines. With his right hand, he picked up Mrs. Norris and stood straight and tall. Ready once more to face the world, to walk through the motions of life.
Knowledge he held in his left hand. His heart, his safety, his rope.
Love he held in his right hand. His companion, his trust, his friend.
He was home.