A/N: Originally written for the seventh round of Mugglenet Fan-Fiction's Gauntlet challenge.
Her hand was cold.
He was used to cold. He liked cold. There was a reason he had chosen to reside in the dungeons during his time at Hogwarts.
He didn't precisely know why he had always been more partial to being in cold than hot, or even being in mild temperatures. Those who disliked him – and there were many these days (there was a reason he had isolated himself) – had likened it to the fact that he himself had such a frigid heart. That might have been true, but there was more to it than that. Something about the cold just naturally appealed to him: from the frost of the winter months; to the cool surface of stone; to the smooth, icy skin of a snake.
He was used to cold. He liked cold.
But not this cold.
The skin of her hand was still as soft as it had always been. He ran his fingers over hers, willing some of his warmth to pass into her, for her skin to be as warm as he remembered it once being. It remained cool, wintry, indifferent to his pathetically hopeless attempts.
The thought blew into his ear and passed through his mind repeatedly, making him shiver. Why had she died? Neither of them were old by any means. One would not have known this from looking at her now, with the way her thick brown hair had faded and thinned, or the way her delicate yet strong-jawed face had wrinkled in on itself and paled . . . this was not the appearance of a powerful witch in her fifties. What had happened to her?
"A broken heart," he had heard the villagers murmur on his travel towards the castle he had vowed to never return to. "Died of a broken heart, poor soul."
He did not entirely believe this. Rowena Ravenclaw, die because her soul was so shattered? The brightest witch he had ever met – the brightest human he had ever met – who always placed her intellect and mind far above any sort of feeling or emotion? No. Not her. His mind would not allow his memory of her to be degraded in such a way.
And even if it were true . . . well, it had been years since he'd left Hogwarts . . . surely her heart would have broken faster . . .
Selfish bastard. Who's to say you're the one who broke her heart?
He gripped her hand tighter at this thought, but could think of nothing that would deny it from being true. It made a good deal of sense, were he to be honest with himself. Who was to say that there was not someone she had loved more than him? Who was to say that she ever loved him at all?
In a fit of either fury or pain (not even he was able to tell which), he released her hand and threw it back at her. It landed with a soft thud against her bedcovers; he winced at the sound, but did not move to take her fingers again. He stared down at her. Were it not for how cold he knew her skin to be, he would have almost taken her for sleeping. Her posture was relaxed against her bed, her head tilted to the left against her pillow, the covers pulled nearly to her chin. And again Salazar couldn't help but wonder how she had died.
An internal cold that caused him to quiver passed over him once more as he looked at her . . . yet, it did not feel so internal. He turned his head. Her window was open. Had no one in this wretched castle thought to close it? Fools. He strode over to close it, trying not to recall all the times he had closed the window before, but paused with his hands half-outstretched. Beside the window, as always, was her wooden desk, where she had liked to sit and merely stare out through the glass, lost in her many insights and thoughts.
But sitting atop the desk now was a vase of white flowers. She had never had a vase there before, or flowers. True, it was not terribly unusual for people to redecorate their rooms – especially when over a decade had passed – but Rowena had never liked flowers. She said their fragrance penetrated her nostrils and interfered with her thinking. She would have never chosen to have flowers in her room.
People change, Slytherin.
He grimaced to himself: how right this was. Still, though he could not decide what, something about the room unsettled him.
Shaking off his feelings of unease, he took the window latch in hand and closed it firmly. It was time for him to go. There hadn't been any reason to him for stay at Hogwarts all those years ago, and there certainly wasn't any reason to now.
He whirled away from the window and prowled towards the door, his eyes unwavering on the door handle, with every intention of leaving the room – until his gaze fell on the floor beside her bed. A book sat on the floor, opened. One of the flowers from inside the vase lay atop it, with one difference: its color was red. Blood red.
He moved towards it without conscious thought and knelt down to examine both objects closer. The book was normal enough considering her vast love of literature; he couldn't see the title, but from the words, it looked to be something about the magical theory behind ghosts and how they come to be.
He turned his attention to the flower next. The red coloring, it quickly became clear, was not just a trick of the light, or the flower's natural coloring, as he had vaguely hoped against hope that it would be. This white flower had truly been stained with blood.
His eyes moved to Rowena's face. Her expression, of course, had not changed in the slightest since he had last looked upon her, and if he had been thinking clearly he might have chastised himself for being as emotional as the witless Godric Gryffindor. But he was not thinking clearly – or at least, he was not thinking clearly about such matters.
The blood upon the flower covered it entirely. A small trickle ran from the petals into the spine of the book, and though he had not touched it, he could tell from the blood's wet gleam that it had not yet dried. Rowena's death had come upon her three days ago. If this were her blood, it wouldn't have looked so new . . . would it?
He stood, his eyes still on her face. Careful not to disturb either the book or the flower, he slipped closer to the bed. His hands hesitated for a fraction of a moment as they reached for the blankets covering her form, then he grasped the materials and pulled them back to reveal her entire body.
Either she had died in her sleep, or had simply lost the strength to rise from her bed and change clothes during her final days, for she was still in her nightdress. Her long hair was loose and spread all over the bed; her limbs were straight and rigid for the most part, though her arms were at slightly odd angles from being thrown back by his forceful jerking back of the bedcovers; her waxy skin was illuminated only slightly by the dim moonlight coming through the window, as there were no candles lit in the room.
In short, she looked like a dead person.
But there were no signs of any recent injuries. Her skin was white and wholly undamaged. Which meant the blood on the flower belonged to someone else.
The word snapped with unbridled anger, grabbing him out of his reverie. He looked up into the face of Godric Gryffindor, whose tall broad frame stood in the doorway, one hand restraining the door that threatened to close on him. He looked older than Salazar had remembered – obviously, given that with the progression of time, people do age – but it was a different old than just natural aging. His features were wearied, fatigued, the age lines on his face long and deep.
"Good evening, Godric," he said softly, showing no reaction to the abrupt arrival.
Godric's eyes were narrowed, his posture stiff, his lips curled back in a partial snarl. "Why is thou here?" His volume was much louder than Salazar's.
"Is that not obvious?" Salazar tilted his head in Rowena's direction, though he kept his focus on the other man.
Godric's eyes flashed. "Thou would not come to see her without ill intent in thy soul," he snarled, growing steadily louder and angrier.
"Ill intent?" Salazar echoed, who, in contrast to his companion's behavior, became quieter and more devoid of emotion. "What ill intents could I possibly have? I have only come to bid good-bye to a woman now forever in the throes of slumber."
"None of those games tonight, Slytherin." Godric removed his hand from the door and stepped inside; the door swung shut behind him with a snap. "Thou never does anything without reasons that would benefit thee in some way."
Salazar did not like the predicament he had found himself in – a room alone with Godric Gryffindor barring his way through the door. Still, he remained calm: riling the other wizard would do no good.
"I do not know what thou wants me to say," said Salazar. "I have never been able to tell what thou wants me to say. Whenever I have spoken what I think, thy response is anger; whenever I have fed thee lies in attempts to have peace remain between us, thy response is also anger."
Godric advanced two paces; Salazar remained where he stood, his eyes not breaking away from the other man's.
"I'm tired of thy riddles and mockery," Godric seethed. "Get out."
A heartbeat of stillness, then Salazar's lips turned up in a droll smile. "The final words thou spoke to me the last time I departed from this castle. History does indeed repeat itself. I now see that I was mistaken when I questioned dear Rowena over that matter, for she was right, was she not?"
The words had barely rolled from his mouth before Godric drew his sword. A gleam of silver plunged in Salazar's direction, and reacting without thinking, he whipped out his wand; the blow of the sword bounced away harmlessly against the invisible shield.
Godric, though he was still breathing heavily, did not make to strike again, but Salazar waited several long moments before stopping his shield charm just to be cautious. They stood, facing each other, neither moving.
"I do not want to fight," said Salazar at last. "Thou can choose to think whatever pleases thee about myself and my intentions, but if there is one matter I want made clear, it is that I do not wish to battle with thee or any other at this school."
The sword held in Godric's grip twitched, catching the moonlight and sending a glare right into Salazar's eye, causing him to squint a bit. Whether this was Godric's intent or not, it was difficult to say.
"Then I'll tell thee one final time," Godric responded lowly. "Leave."
Salazar bowed his head. "I shall leave immediately. Good day." He waited for Godric to step to the side, which he finally did with a wary look. Salazar slipped past him and out the door, feeling the other man's eyes on his back, burning with suspicion and wrath.
His footsteps seemed loud in the empty hallways; where were all the students? It had been slightly before dinnertime when he'd arrived, and he had not seen a single pupil during his entire journey. Then he realized it was the end of December. The holidays. Many of the students had gone home.
He neared the staircase and stepped swiftly onto it as it began to shift locations. How long ago it was when these stairs had been nothing but floor plans on parchment, a mere idea and nothing tangible. How long ago it was when Rowena had waved the parchments detailing the design of the moving staircases in front of his nose, her young face shining with enthusiasm. How long ago it was when they had been young.
The staircase he stood upon swung and then halted on a lower landing, one that was on the ground floor and eventually led to the Entrance Hall (or Exit Hall, as it currently was for his purposes). He stepped onto the landing and made his way through the corridor, but instead of passing to the front of the castle, he detoured when he reached the Great Hall, and dived down the narrow staircase leading to the dungeons.
It had not been a conscious decision to go this way, but when he finally realized where his legs were taking him, he did nothing to stop their movement. His original intention had been to do just as Godric said and exit the castle. He had nothing left here for him. But he couldn't leave yet. A part of him needed to see . . . needed to know. . . . He stopped at a door halfway down on the left and pushed it open.
It looked much as it always has: potion bottles lining the shelves on the walls; a dozen or so cauldrons set up all around the room; a desk against the back wall with papers in neat stacks, along with a potion bottle. The set-up of the room surprised him. He had expected it to look drastically different, assumed they would have done everything they could have to rid the traces of him from the place. Then again, there weren't many changes you could make to a Potions classroom.
He drew nearer to the desk and peered down at the piles of paper, looking to find out which of the three had usurped his position of teaching the Potions class. Her handwriting leaped out at him from the parchment papers. Of course. He'd known it would be her to take over. She was the best at Potions, out of them all (not counting himself, obviously). Her writing was as perfect as it ever had been, with every letter tidy and exact. The exception to this were her g's, which for reasons always unknown to him, were incredibly large and loopy, out of place among the other immaculate letters. Also for reasons unknown to him, were why he'd always been so fond of those bloody g's.
Shaking himself away from his languor, Salazar turned his focus to a potion bottle sitting atop the desk. Wondering why this bottle seemed to have been given preference to over all the others (the rest sat on the shelves instead of her desk), he picked it up to peer at the label. Cauldron-Confidence Potion, the bottle declared proudly in curvy letters.
He raised a brow at the bottle, as though to ask it a silent question. Cauldron-Confidence? What would Rowena have been doing with this? She was the last witch on earth who would need further confidence in her magic abilities. He couldn't see her purchasing this for her students either. She would have wanted them to rely on their own confidence and skill, not those of a little bottle. What, then, was the potion for?
Startled, he spun around, drawing his wand reflexively from his cloak. A shadowed form, that of a woman, stood in the doorway, but he could not recognize her in the dark. Her wand was raised in a menacing stance, but as he turned her arm dropped to her side.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said the woman. She took a step away, falling against the wall of the dungeon corridor; a torchlight burning on the wall threw her features into recognition: Helga Hufflepuff. "I did not mean – I did not know who was standing there – I thought thou was an unwanted intruder – "
"Helga, my dear," said Salazar, relaxing his stance as he replaced the potion bottle to its former location, "I am an unwanted intruder."
She, like Godric, had aged in appearance more than her actual years truly were: the once smooth, rosy skin of her face was now wrinkled and wan; her golden tresses that used to hang in soft curls had dulled in color, their natural bounce gone.
"Thou is always welcome here," she said softly.
Salazar let out a faint snort. "I do not think Godric is aware of that policy."
The corners of her eyes tightened, though he could not read the feeling behind the slight movement. "Thou has already met Godric while here?"
"Indeed. Rowena as well."
"Oh." She seemed to remember the wand she still held in her hand, and stowed it away with trembling fingers. He followed her lead, and tucked his own wand out of sight. Helga had never thought to attack or trick him, and he knew, with the intuition that only comes from knowing the very soul of a person, that she never would either.
"If it is not too much to question," she said then, "is there a reason behind thy visit here?"
He drew his cloak around him and with a final sweeping look at the room, moved for the doorway. "I only wanted to say farewell to Rowena. As I have done that, I'll be on my way."
Helga held up a hand, and he halted his strides. "I did not mean to push thee out the door. Please, stay, if it is what thy wishes are." She searched his face. "Thou is troubled." She said it not as a question, but merely as a statement, and looked up at him with concern.
"I am fine," said Salazar evenly. He was not, of course, but what difference did it make? There was nothing to be done about any of it. Rowena was dead; how or why she had died made no difference, and neither did remaining here any longer. "Please, let me pass by."
But Helga did not move. "Why is thou troubled?"
He did not want to reply, but stall though he did, there was simply no way for him not to reply. Helga simply had a way of compelling people to speak honestly, of making them admit what they did not want to, of forcing them to recognize truths they did not recognize themselves.
"Her," he grunted, unable to articulate more than that, but knowing at the same time this single word was all that was needed.
Crystal-blue orbs held his own for a minute, and no other movement was made. Then she spoke, her voice as low in volume as his had been. "Come with me," she whispered.
She took his hand; her skin was worn, callused, and warm, far too warm, and everything about her touch made him want nothing more than to pull away, but he did not. He let her lace their fingers together, and when she began to pull him through the door and out of the dungeons, he did not fight against her. They moved up the stairs and to the ground floor, wove through the Great Hall, then the Entrance Hall, and at last reached the large doors.
Helga used her free hand to wrench the doors open, then she joined the brisk evening air, tugging him along. Their feet slipped along the grass, moist with dew, and down around the side of the castle, until they came to the side of the Astronomy Tower. Her arm rose, and one willowy finger pointed to an unlit lamp fixated to the wall. The lamps had never gone unlit during the hours of darkness while he was teaching at the school.
"The last place she visited before becoming confined to her bedchambers was right here, under this light." She was forced to lift her volume beyond a whisper in order to be heard above the whistling wind, though her tone was still tender. "She stood against the wall beneath it, and looked up at the light – no, I am mistaken," she amended softly. "She did not look at the light – she looked past it, beyond it, looked at what I could not see – and she said, 'I am ready to fly, Helga.'"
A violent tremor sifted through her body, and she let out a dry sob, eyes lifted upward, examining the sky with wild despair. "And fly she did – the week following – fly she did."
Helga tucked her chin to her chest, shivers continuing to rattle her limbs, and though he knew she was not shaking from cold, he unfastened his traveling cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders.