Harry awoke with his mouth stuffed full of petals. He didn't realise this straight away. Bewildered by the soft, damp crepe clotting his mouth, he picked and spat it out and found it was hawthorn blossom; what d'you call it, may.
He rolled back the bedcovers and, arrested, stared at his abdomen; tender, pale skin disrupted, broken, by jagged writing. Writing scratched into the dermis, apparently with some instrument not especially designed for the purpose; a needle perhaps. The lines were heavily repeated, as though the author had lurked there, patient, scratching each letter over and over until it became readable.
The words read, "Death In Love".
That night, Harry fetched a needle and scratched irritably into his leg, Sod off, Tom.
The answer came, very slowly, with painful punctures; "Oh, my darling, I am not Tom Riddle."
The writer left a long, sharp point in Harry's leg; he pulled it out, and found it was a hawthorn. Sick of being scratched, he found some school parchment and stuck it to his leg with Spellotape. Picking up his quill, he scrawled: Returned to author due to spelling & puncturation; and went to sleep.
Once again he woke in confusion, wrapped and wrapped in drab delicate gauze. He picked it off his eyes, his hair, and realised from its lightness that it was cobweb. He disliked the feeling of being mummified. He brushed the web off his body, and it drifted across the floor and the dusty sunlight. The bed also turned out to be full of empty, dry snail shells, which rattled across the floor like marbles.
He paused in shock: pain. Minor itching pain on his arse, and left leg, and right arm, and... Death had helpfully added a further eight "Death In Love"s.
When Harry pulled the cobwebs off his leg, a piece of paper came with them. The serviceable Hogwarts parchment had gone, replaced by a soft, creamy page that looked several hundred years old. It was just the colour of old bone. Harry wasn't sure about this, but when the first lines appeared and were written in charcoal, rather than his blood, he decided it was an improvement.
"I must protest, Mr Potter," said Death. "What a frightful piece of paper you tried to palm off on your taker!"
Harry didn't have any charcoal. He wrote in ink, Isn't that maker?
"I am Death, Harry, not life. I give nothing; I only take away. Are you ready to come to me yet? I have missed you. There have been times when you've come so close to me I could smell your skin, but alas, you always drift away. It's heartbreaking, your continued freedom. Will it be over soon, d'you think?"
Harry wrote back: No. You'll have to make do with someone else.
"And who is there, my dear? Who else could hold my interest for even a moment? I won't abandon the Chosen One for some mannequin with a prettier face, compare a scintilla to the sun. I don't go shopping for souls, Harry. Souls, in the end, come to me."
I'm nothing special.
"You were, are, and will be special. Must I drag this awareness out of you? A tragedy, Harry; so gifted, so young, so determined to be 'normal'. To be normal means never to innovate, to deviate, to excel; who would ever want that?"
I just want people to leave me alone, all right?
"That, Harry, will never happen."
When Harry looked in the bathroom mirror, he found his hair was still full of dust and cobwebs, as if he were already dead.
The snakes curled in Harry's bed, twining round him: his legs, his arms, his neck. Their scales rubbed against the scabs of his hawthorn marks. It was difficult to escape their touch; he was afraid to move in case he crushed them.
"Have you seen Death lately?" he asked the snake that was weaving lazily above his face.
"The masssster?" replied the snake. "He'sss in love with you. Are you going to go to him?"
"No," Harry said uncertainly, enjoying the slide of the snakes across his body.
"Bona," said the snake. "We can ssstay here in your nicccce warm bed. Nighty-night."
Harry and the snakes lay in for an hour in hot, writhing scale-bliss, until the paper on Harry's leg got irritated and folded itself into an aeroplane. It zoomed up the bed, prodded Harry in the nose to get his attention, and unwrapped itself.
It read, "Be a good boy and talk to me, Harry. If you don't I'll materialise a hawthorn branch in your jacksy, and you won't like that. Are you coming to me?"
The gay snake was fast asleep on Harry's face. He woke it up by poking it with his tongue, then said, "D'you think you could get me a pen?"
"A pen? What'sss a pen?"
"Or a quill. Or a charcoal pencil. Anything."
The levitating piece of paper rolled itself up, and unrolled to reveal a charcoal pencil.
Harry extracted one arm from the mass of snakes, against a background hissing of groans, grumbles and general discontent; the paper placed itself against the wall and he wrote carefully, I can't come to you. I'm in bed with a load of snakes.
"I see that you are. Is it enjoyable? You always liked snakes."
Yes. It's so enjoyable, I've decided to stay here instead.
"But Harry, my luscious little mammal, do you think snakes are better lovers than I am? They can't hold wands."
Er... and since when d'you need a wand to have sex?
"D'you mean you've been doing it the Muggle way all this time? Clumsy appendages jutting tediously into two or three holes? Such a good thing Death found you before the tedium could drive you insane."
I'm not listening, I'm not listening. La la la la la!
"Oh, my darling, you were meant to be mine. Death will take you one way or the other. Run away from me, and I'll take you from behind. Wouldn't you rather meet me face to face?"
It depends. Does your face look like the back of a bus?
"My dear, I make up for it in other areas."
The snakes got up around noon and took over the house, poking their noses into every crevice and cranny, and demanding rats.
Harry slept on the sofa to escape from Death. At first, he thought it had worked. He woke up on Thursday morning clean, dry and unreptiled, albeit somewhat rumpled and with a crick in his neck. His triumph was tremendous.
But a smell creeping down the stairs; a strong, demanding smell, somewhat ripe and discoloured. Harry stood for some time at the bottom of the stairs, breathing the smell in, savouring it; then tried to pretend to himself that he hadn't.
At length he stole up the stairs like a serpent.
Every free space within his bed had clumps of lilies packed into it. Lilium regale, the purest redolent bliss; the velvet box had become a grotto of white wings. Orange pollen had spilt onto the bedcovers, earwigs crept over the pillow; the petals were curling at the edges, brown and distorted, and the fragrance was a weapon; there was no place in the room where Death was not; no way Harry could avoid letting him in.
The scent was overwhelming, overpowering. Harry tried to escape, and failed.
"Death In Love" ripped across his skin.
Harry sat up in one smooth movement before he realised he was awake, and stared in amazement at the... thing he was wearing. It seemed inappropriate to domesticate it with the word "garment". Around six yards of rough, off-white linen had been wrapped round his waist and over one shoulder like a sari or a toga, held in place with sprigs of hawthorn, the thorns of which had been thrust through the fabric.
He stood up and took a few steps across the room, feeling the oddness of the borrowed plumage. He face felt stiff; he headed for the bathroom.
The stained mirror showed an amazed stare between broad strokes of red. Someone had roughly painted his face and chest with clay, and it had dried into a crust. On his head, to finish off the picture, was a chaplet of bramble blossoms.
He took the charcoal pencil, talked to Death.
What is this thing?! Looks like a sheet.
"Oh, it is a sheet, my darling; but not the kind you think; but, perhaps, more kind... It's a winding-sheet."
You're off your head. Why am I covered in clay?
"You're all clay, beloved, in the end. Everyone dies, except me. Death waxes fat and profits from your wars. The mortals, every one, will shrivel and rot, but not me; and not you either. Will you come to me, Harry? I want you. Life is very sweet when you are loved by Death."
I don't think you're Death. I think you're Voldemort. And he can't love.
"Do you really think I love you the way your mother did: pure and selfless? That, I'm afraid, was quite a different type of emotion. Did a teacher of yours not once mention... hm... 'Obsessive Love'?"
Go away. Leave me alone. Sod off. Die.
Harry flung the charcoal and paper down in a sudden fit of temper, and walked to the bath. He struggled with the winding sheet toga for a few moments, as the thorns seemed impossible to extract, and finally lifted it over his head and threw it on the floor. The brambles followed it. Harry jerked at the tap. Nothing happened.
Then a slow spill of water issued elegantly into the bath; lifted off the enamel, tilted its head as it looked up at Harry; and it was a snake.
Harry sighed, defeated. "I wish you'd bugger off."
"It's cold in here," the snake shivered. "Could you take me outside in the sssun?"
"I never underssstood why you humans have exxxtra ssscales," she said. "But I'm freezing to death here, oh, and the Dark Lord sssays he will be coming to claim you sssoon. D'you have any ratsss?"
Harry went shopping; he had to get away from his Deathbed, and from the ankle-deep bed of dewy moss that now carpeted the bedroom. He wandered aimlessly through the dank pavements and the drizzle. Snow joined the water on his face.
A shop window, a bland and uninspired display of robes. He wondered if he should buy something for Ginny; leaned closer to get a look; his breath dyed the window silver.
The first letter appeared in the steam, drawn by an invisible finger.
D E A T
"Stop it!" hissed Harry, scrubbing out the word with a hasty palm. "Don't do it here where anyone can see!"
He rushed, embarrassed, between shoppers, blushing so hard his lips tingled. He had to get somewhere safe, somewhere nobody could see invisible perverts talking to him. He felt guilty, paranoid; ashamed at bringing Death among ordinary people; but it was a pleasurable sort of guilt, like carrying a vibrator around in a shopping bag. He was looking forward to being wooed by Death again, he realised; it was flattering. Few Dark Lords had ever devoted their time to following him, wooing him, praising his attractiveness; it was intoxicating and he was drunk.
"Gah!" he said, sprinting towards the Leaky Cauldron; if passing pedestrians doubted his sanity, he didn't even notice.
Dark wood, very dark; a cave for Harry to hide in. He anxiously scoped the room and, when he judged it to be safe, produced a notebook that he hugged to his chest almost coyly.
"Why, Harry! You've got me my cave at last."
"Have you forgotten? You were to provide me with a cave, hot and wet, for my snakes; with a nice red cushion where I could lay my head."
Harry got the hint, and blushed like a robin. I thought you didn't like orifices.
"Oh, they add variety; I don't mind them once in a while. What about you?"
What about me?
"I don't mind giving you what you want, my dear. Especially since what you want most is me. Aren't you bored and depressed? You are quite wrong to feel glum. Death loves you, and will wrap you up and cherish you and keep you warm."
And kill me.
"You will never die. Surely you must have noticed at your age that everything dies but Death? You will be my bride; husband and wife are one flesh; therefore, you will live forever. I will make it so. I have had a fresh grave dug, next to my own; all is prepared; you will come to me soon."
I feel an urgent appointment coming on.
"You mean you don't want to. But tell me one thing, darling: the gifts I sent you, the trousseau. Did you find them very ugly?"
Harry paused, caught up in a sudden memory of lilies and hawthorn and brambles and snakes. He wrote, No. It didn't seem enough. He paused a little longer and added, I found them very beautiful.
"That's why I love you. Your perception, your senses, are beyond the quotidian: you see the richness in snakes, in thorns, in sere and dying flowers. I crave you, adore you, bask so much in the pleasure of your beauty that I never want to feel the obverse; I never want you to die. I'm not asking much, my darling. I want to spare us both death and pain. I know you can love me; I can make you happy; why leave us both struggling in sorrow and pain when we can glow?"
Harry looked out of the window, whose glass was still freckled with blobby snow. He was beginning to realise that the reason Death's arguments troubled him so much was because they were partly true.
He sighed, slumped like a punched pillow, and wrote, I'll talk to you again later. Then he shut the notebook hastily before Death wrote back.
He walked slowly back to Grimmauld Place, restless through the snow. It turned to rain, and to patches of grey intermingled with gorgeous gold; and then quite suddenly, as Harry passed a row of boarded-up shops, he realised that the rain had stopped and the road was the sky, and the clouds were now limned with eternity.
Phone box. He stared into the glass. Breathed on it lightly, carefully, as if kissing a lover.
He said out loud, "I don't know why you never come to me at night."
The patch of breath was fading quickly, quickly, and it seemed the invisible writer would never answer in time; but the words came neatly:
Harry walked on into the light, with the feeling that some kind of struggle was over.
Through the graveyard, blinking in confusion; may and plum-blossom petals sticking to his lips. The may was falling in the fresh spring wind, confetti under a playful sun.
At first he didn't know where he was, nor why he was there; afraid, he hugged the bouquet of lilies like a teddy bear.
No, wait, he knew this place; he recognised it now, though it had been dark, and three years ago, and he'd been distracted; there were the familiar gravestones, and the church beyond. The bell was tolling on one note.
The winding-sheet round his hips and over his shoulder, held together once again with hawthorns; blood dripping from his scratches, marking the linen: Death In Love, etched forty-nine times. The sheet trailed behind him, drawing a path through the dew. Beaming snakes wriggled forth from the gravestones, accompanying Harry towards Death.
He was walking towards the centre of the graveyard. He passed by Tom Riddle Senior's grave, carried on towards a tremendously large slab of stone with a twee urn on top, almost as large as an altar; Death was waiting there, smiling, his face white as snow above a high-collared robe. His smile so broad that Harry, dazed, assumed all was well.
He met Voldemort at the slab, nervous and mesmerised. Voldemort bowed and kissed his hand, then turned round and blasted the pretentious urn away with a casual Reductor Curse. The snakes gathered round and hissed happily. Their altar was perfect.
A strong stem of grass for the ring, plucked from the ground and tied gently around Harry's finger. Though Harry fumbled slightly, he managed to do the same for Voldemort.
Death smiled, took hold of Harry's face; pulled him closer and closer until they were nose-to-... well, to where Voldemort's nose would be were it not in absentia. He gently lifted the cobwebs falling down from the bramble wreath; Harry's veil.
For two breaths the eyes stared back at him, blank as cameras, then a hand rose, vague and slow. Harry stroked his fingertip gently down the snaky septum.
With a little smile he said, "I knew it was you."
Voldemort saw, as if in a documentary, the aqueous film on the corneas, the quick contraction of irises in the sun: receptive eyes; not accusing, not hating or recoiling; he held the impossible, and he saw that it was good.
He grinned, leant in for the kiss.
"Oh, Harry," he said, "Death is in love."