Dust to Dust
"If only because dust is what we go to..."
He built the pyre first, taking care to select hard woods that would burn hot and long. Oak, hickory, ash. He ransacked the small woodpile behind their cabin and then ventured into the forest, searching for dead logs they hadn't bothered to collect before. He was grateful for the traditional tribal instruction he'd had as a boy in the Vinkus, learning to live off the land, to start fires, to coax wood to burn even when it was wet or unseasoned. He didn't want this particular blaze to go out for some time indeed.
They'd led a good life. Lonely, at times, and very simple, but happy. They'd spent the first few years traveling through the Badlands and deserts. At first they'd been so desperately relieved to be together, to be alive at all. They were rarely out of each other's sight, walking hand in hand by day, by night lying curled together under a mass of ragged blankets. He didn't sleep—a man of straw could not sleep—but he held her close and listened to her breathing, his mind playing endlessly through everything that could have gone wrong, every way he might have lost her. When she awoke from her own nightmares—calling for him, Glinda, Nessa; weeping at whatever images her mind had tormented her with—he pressed her close against the crackling, uneven surface of his chest and wished he could offer her the comfort of a warm embrace, a heartbeat under her ear. Those first few weeks passed in a feverish haze of tears and touches and regrets.
But they couldn't sustain that level of terror for long, and slowly they both calmed. She learned to sleep through the night. He learned to close his eyes and let his mind drift into something akin to sleep. They both learned to be simply grateful for the reprieve they'd been given and not to be haunted by the multitude of things that had not gone the way they wanted. To be simply grateful for the gift of time and solitude and peace.
He would occasionally venture alone into the small communities on the Oz border, to learn the latest news and gossip. A talking Scarecrow was unusual, but not as alarming as a woman with green skin. He brought back news of Glinda, of the changes she'd made in Oz, and Elphaba listened with rapt attention and something akin to pride. The pretty, thoughtless child he'd known at Shiz had matured into an intelligent, mature young woman and a capable ruler, and he knew it was Elphaba's influence that exacted that change. Elphaba was the sort of person who influenced others to change; he'd seen that himself.
When she fell ill with a wracking cough, they settled into an abandoned cabin several miles west of the Vinkus border, and when she recovered they stayed. She was in charge of the fire, of course, and he was in charge of hunting and gathering. He didn't need to eat, but he was better at hunting than she was, catching birds and rabbits and occasionally fish. She started a garden in the rich woodland earth behind the cabin, growing wheat and simple vegetables and a handful of hardy flowers. He had never been much of a farmer, but he was quick to learn. He liked to sit beside her in the dirt and watch as she cared for the tiny plants, as green as she was.
The seasons had passed one after another, with little to differentiate the first year from the tenth. She had aged, of course, lines settling into her face, silver threading through her hair. When she wasn't looking, he replaced the straw stuffing inside him.
Occasionally a lone Animal passed through their forest, bringing news, promising secrecy. Their lives were easier under Glinda, but none had forgotten that Elphaba had been their first and finest champion. He ventured into Oz himself perhaps once a year, sometimes selling their extra produce and bringing back a book or two—a rare treasure for her. One year he brought back a blank book and a handful of ink pens, and she'd begun writing in it every night before they went to bed. She refused to let him read what she'd written, laughing when he tried to peer over her shoulder. "It's nothing," she would say, and close the book, and then turn into his arms and kiss him until he forgot about it altogether.
When he was satisfied with the pyre, he went back into the cabin. She lay in the bed, her eyes closed, her hair streaming down over her shoulders. If he looked at her from the corner of his eye, he could imagine she was only sleeping. But he'd spent years listening to the sound of her breathing, and the silence in the cabin now was completely foreign to him. She was gone.
He reached under her, cupped his arms at shoulder and knee, and managed to lift her. It was difficult—he had never been able to do much physical labor in this form, he simply wasn't built for it—but he had no alternative. Stumbling slightly, he carried her out into the forest and lay her down on the massive pile of wood. The sun had set, and the stars were beginning to prick through the sky. He smiled; she would have liked that. He straightened her dress, ran his fingers clumsily through her hair to clear the mess his awkward grip had left. There.
She looked peaceful and elegant and stately. He drew one hand down over her cheek, wishing he could actually feel the texture of her skin instead of the simple pressure of flesh under his cloth hands. He'd had many years to grow accustomed to the limitations of his body, but touch was a sensation he never completely learned to give up.
She had done the best she could, and he did not blame her. He remembered all too well being lashed to the poles, hoisted into the air and carried into the field. They'd started with persuasion—if he would only tell them where she was, they'd let him go. A full pardon, they said. On the Wizard's honor! When that had proven fruitless, they'd taken to blows, with their staffs and the butts of their rifles. His ribs bruised and then broke under the onslaught.
And then they'd resorted to more vicious weapons, spears and swords and daggers. Little wounds at first, more painful than truly damaging, but they'd worked their way up, and he'd watched his blood seep into the earth beneath him, in small quantities and then in larger ones. He hung there in silent misery, half-dazed, sure he was going to die and equally sure he wasn't going to betray her in the process.
After what had seemed like days, he simply lowered his head and waited for death. Reality blurred and melted around him, the abuses to his body fading into a distant dream, and he imagined he could hear her voice. She loved him. Surely she would try to save him.
Let his flesh not be torn. Let his blood leave no stain. Though they beat him, let him feel no pain. Let his bones never break, and however they try to destroy him, let him never die. Let him never die...
"I love you," he managed, delirious, his lips cracked, and he hoped she could hear him. The red wash of pain surrounding him was slowly ebbing, slowly slowly receding, and he could feel nothing but a pleasant lightness in his head, in his body. He breathed a sigh of relief, closed his eyes, and fell into darkness.
When he awoke the Gale Force was gone, and he was alone in the field. It took him a few moments to get his bearings, to realize he felt no pain, and another moment to realize why. He did not remember the imagined spell until far later, and he dared not risk hurting her by asking about it. But he knew, with the strange certainty of the damned, that he'd heard her correctly. He knew what it meant. No reprieve could come without a price.
He bent and pressed his lips to hers, the most sensitive part of his body, and was rewarded with cool, soft skin under his mouth. He closed his eyes and lingered for a moment, but she wasn't there. He drew a deep breath and backed away.
There was a bucket in the cabin, and it took him only a few minutes to carry it to the stream and fill it with water. It was more difficult to carry it back without spilling it all, but he managed.
Then at last he collected her flint and tinder and knelt beside the pyre. She could have used magic to start a fire, but she preferred to do things the simplest way. He was grateful now for her sensibility; he couldn't have called flame from the air. It took him a few tries to get the sparks to catch; it had been many years since he'd started a fire, and his cloth fingers felt clumsy in the falling darkness. At last the tinder caught and heat glowed faintly beneath his hands. He blew gently, coaxed it into flame. Once he had to hastily dunk his hand in the bucket, when a wayward spark caught the ragged threads at his wrist. But he was patient, and careful, and slowly the tiny fire grew.
It took hours for it to grow large enough to lick along the larger logs. He sat beside it and waited until at last the flames grew strong enough to burn the body offered to them. He found himself unable to look away, as the cloth of her gown caught flame, as the shape of her body disappeared within the flickering glow. Unable to turn away, unable to lose this last final memory of her. The Wicked Witch of the West, and the only woman he had ever loved. He imagined that his eyes stung and ran with tears, but he knew better.
Almost over now. His patience was waning at last. He wanted to be sure the fire would burn on without his assistance, burn until there was nothing left of her. Nothing that could be taken as a trophy. As an afterthought, he went back into the cabin and found her old broom, and tossed it solemnly into the fire. He'd given her book to an Owl this morning, with explicit instructions. By tomorrow it would be in the Emerald City.
He circled the small clearing. He must forget nothing, leave nothing undone. When he was satisfied that all was as it should be, he stepped closer, close enough to feel the heat on his face, smell the sickly spice of the smoke in the air. Just one spark, and he'd catch flame himself. He closed his eyes.
Let him never die... Let him never die...
"I love you," he said, because he wanted to say it one last time. And then he took another step, let himself topple forward into her embrace. Fire bled over him in a sweet sharp rush, pain and fever and then release.
I'm coming, he thought, and then there was nothing at all.
Thanks to Lady Shada and YellowDartVader for betareading. And a nod to lfae'sunfinished A Little Faith (on LiveJournal), which focused my attention on the appropriate clause in No Good Deed, and to Jill, who suggested fire and never dreamed I'd take her seriously.