rabbit: (who always thought that poor Sev was going to find his name engraved on the snake's supperdish.) I think your plotbunny has attached itself to my ankle.
jinx: (who always held out a shred of hope that the flaming bird would turn up in the nick of time.) No, no, your plotbunny has attached itself to my ankle.
rabbit and jinx: Time to start writing then...
A/N: This was written before I saw Jinx's "Five People You Meet in King's Cross", and vice versa. Really.
Disclaimer: It's still all JKRowling's if she wants it.
Asphodel and Wormwood
His eyes were dry.
With an effort, he blinked, and blinked again, to force the tear ducts to operate. And then he let the lids stay closed a while until the pain receded.
Not that it was the only pain, but he was going to need his eyes.
His head felt oddly empty, and he couldn't remember why. Blood loss, perhaps. He could smell the iron scent, mingled with the alchemical odors that had permeated his life for so long, feel the unmistakable thickness of it in his mouth. His neck hurt worse than his eyes, stung like someone had poured acid into a raw wound, throbbed with a bright heat which left numbness in its wake.
It wasn't until he felt something bumping up against his lip that he recalled that he had planned... planned for...
"Please, Master, Winky is having you drink this." The high thin voice had been there for some time, like the cloth that was pressed against his neck, the glass phial being pressed against his mouth, but only now could he understand that it was using words. He moved his lips reluctantly, allowed the bitter potion to ooze down over his tongue. Wormwood, yes, for forgetfulness and was that asphodel? Asphodel for... for...
It didn't matter. He drank, obediently, and did not protest the small hands that smoothed his hair back from his face. "Yes, Master, yes. You will be resting now."
Resting? Truly? It has been so long...
He awoke feeling refreshed, as he hadn't felt in years. Young. Fluid.
Confined. Or rather, coffined.
When he had planned for this he had expected that it would be simple to lie still and wait. He had been frozen for so long, what would a day or two of stillness matter? When he had planned for this he had expected to make his return for one reason only – someone had to explain to Potter... to Harry... about the final horcrux, and there was no one left alive in the world who knew. No one at all, if Tom Riddle had had the sense to bring down the Headmaster's tower at the start of the battle.
It would have been simpler if the boy just happened to have the right Chocolate Frog card in his pocket. If he'd thought of that Albus could have found him months ago. Explained. I wouldn't be lying here, in the dark, waiting.
There was something resting on his chest. He explored it by touch, knew it to be the Order of Merlin by the octangular shape of the brass. First class, by the extra pleats in the ribboning. That was Harry's doing, no doubt. Being the owner of a Pensieve had been enlightening, to say the least, and after months of looking at objective memories he knew that it was like the boy to insist on honoring courage, to admit that he'd been wrong, loudly, publicly, irrevocably. It was like the boy to insist on truth, once he'd found it, and not keep hoarding old secret griefs like oddments suspended in jars on the shelf.
It was like the boy to risk dying for the sake of others, and had been since he was no more than a first year.
I wonder if he'll find it harder to live for the sake of others, as I have done.
Dying had been easy after all, once he'd known that he had finished his task. Once Harry had the memories that would explain what he needed to do. It was coming back that would be hard. Somehow he'd never considered how badly he would fill the role of plaster saint.
Perhaps I should go to Tibet. Or Australia. Somewhere that Riddle barely touched with his venom. Somewhere where all of this pain has been merely an item now and then in a newspaper, a story from far away
He closed his eyes, tried to summon sleep -- but he had slept so long that all that came to him was the echo of dreams. A bright place, and Lily's arms around him, her laughter dancing in his ears; James and Sirius and Remus crowded around, pounding him fondly on the back, and thanking him; Tonks and Mad-Eye waving from the crowd; Fred Weasley leading young Colin Creevey toward the boats, along with far too many other young people that he had known best from the wrong side of a student's bench.
He didn't know how long they'd sat and talked in that place that was and wasn't the office where they had shared so many conversations over the years. They spoke of this student and that, of prices paid. And whether it had all been worth the cost, he didn't know, and neither did Albus, and it hurt that he hadn't been able to save them all, even the Weasley boy, although Fred had always been far better an alchemist than his youngest brother. White and Black and Red, and all of them gone through to the other side of death to forge a path for Harry.
Harry, who had taken the path that Albus had planned for him, but had been saved by Tom Riddle's own arrogance. Harry, who had proven at the last to be worth all of the long years of lies and hidden grief, who had taken all of the sacrifices made on his behalf and brewed them into an Elixir of Life so powerful it had spilled over to offer healing more potent than a phoenix's tears.
And so at the last he had come to a choice he hadn't thought he'd be granted the power to make: Albus before him, telling him that he would lose nothing no matter which path he chose, but still had a chance to gain what he had never known; Lily beside him, telling him that he deserved a life in exchange for the one he had given, not a death; and Dobby at his knee, telling him that Winky was waiting.
So foolish, to return for the sake of a grieving house elf. So foolish to lie here, hoping she would come and open the grave before he died again. And yet... He'd needed someone to keep his secrets, once Albus was gone, and she had had so much practice at it – her delight in the soft bit of towelling he'd found for her to wear had been one of the few bright spots in a grim year.
She had been so afraid of him at the start, despite her hunger for a proper Master. Persuading her that she owed no loyalty to a dead Family had proved impossible, after all, but she had agreed that serving a dead Family would be impossible too, and in the end she given her allegiance to him almost gratefully. The other house elves hadn't known what to make of him at all. They approved of her new contract – couldn't understand why he left Dobby a free agent – and yet they were afraid of him, hated him, as they'd feared and hated Dolores Umbridge. She had been quick to restrict the menus for the students, to deny the house elves even the chance to solace their charges with a favorite sweet or a special dinner. He did nothing of the sort, claiming that as long as the school's rooms were clean and the students weren't lining up in the infirmary with indigestion he cared little about the servants, but still they were afraid, catching the emotion like a disease out of the very air around them.
It had taken weeks for Winky to realize that he was not going to abuse her, not going to shout at her. He had had to forbid her to punish herself without permission before she began to lose the annoying cringe. It hadn't been until Halloween that she had begun to truly help him learn which students were being harassed, which students needed the safety of spending their evenings doing remedial work under the eyes of their Heads of House. Hadn't been until Christmas that she had admitted to meeting Dobby in the Come and Go Room for something besides the butterbeer which had been denied her. Had those meetings borne fruit, perhaps, she would not be facing a life of pure grief. He would not wish that ill upon anyone, much less the one living soul that had been witness to the impossible, dreadful masquerade that he had danced for all that he had left to love.
He'd never known before what it meant to have someone who made sure that his clothes were neatly mended, that his tea was ready when he was ready to drink it, that his bed was turned down for him at night... The closest he'd ever come to that was discovering that Albus had deliberately kept a stock of the anise biscuits he preferred in a tin in the corner of his office.
And so I am here. Waiting. Hoping.
The lid of the crypt was moving. Stars glittered above him in the night, outlining the familiar turrets and towers of the school. They'd entombed him next to Dumbledore. How appropriate. And what an anticlimax if they ever discovered that the gesture was unnecessary. Whatever urge he'd felt to stay and show himself died away. There was a world to explore, a thousand million discoveries waiting to be made. Perhaps even another friend somewhere, now that he had learned what it meant to be one in return.
He took a deep breath, the night air cool and fresh and sweet in his lungs. For now it was enough that there was one small soul to soothe, one person who knew the worst of him and still saw only the best. He couldn't fall very far from a pedestal so short to start with. In the end it wasn't being worthy that made you loved, it was being loved that made you worthy.
"Yes." His own voice sounded odd to him, as if the mangling his throat had taken had changed something irrevocably. Perhaps even phoenix tears lost potency after so long a time preserved in glass.
He raised a hand and she caught it, her tears cool against his fingertips. "You is coming back!" she sobbed triumphantly. "You is alive!"