A/N: I apologize for the delay in posting the final chapter. For some reason, I thought I'd posted it ages ago.
The route was walked automatically: to the second floor, into the lavatories, beside the tap with the snake carved on it. Then down, down, down, until at last he reached the cold stone passage.
He walked along the dark corridor for a bit, an unconscious Ethelred still bobbing along in front of him. Salazar did nothing to prevent the other wizard's head from occasionally scraping against the ceiling; perhaps this was intentional, or perhaps Salazar simply didn't notice – it was unclear which.
When they reached the main room, Salazar dropped Ethelred onto the floor with a slight flick of his wrist. Ethelred hit the ground with a very sickening crack from his head, but Salazar paid no attention to this. His eyes were scanning the room, his every sense on alert. The basilisk was probably not used to having company after this many years, and if he was not careful, his companion might accidentally kill him before realizing who it was . . .
"It is I," Salazar said as loud as he could in Parseltongue (a language that, being spoken in hisses, does not lend itself to being very loud). "I have come for a brief return."
The walls began to rustle with noise – the noise of something long and heavy sliding around.
A smile lit Salazar's face.
"I require a favor, my friend," hissed Salazar. "On the ground lies a man. I want thee to kill him. I do not care what thou does with him before or after this deed, so long as he eventually dies."
A heartbeat of silence, and then a hiss of a reply that reverberated from within the walls themselves –
"It shall be done."
A flame of vindictive carnality ignited in his soul as he faced Ethelred for the final time. He flicked his wand, and Ethelred awakened, blinking around blearily.
"What is – where has thou – ?" he questioned disjointedly, as his eyes took in the scene.
Salazar turned around and began to walk out of the chamber. He did not want to see what his basilisk would do. He was afraid that if he did stay to watch, the vengeful burning would overtake him until it would be all he had left. He had already lost too much of his humanity (already lost all of it, if one were to ask Godric, he thought to himself with vague wryness); he didn't want to lose anymore.
Out of the chamber, exit the lavatory, down the corridor, toward the staircases so as to reach the Entrance Hall and finally leave. He never made it to the staircase, stopping instead in the middle of the second floor corridor, frozen.
For one wild, fleeting, heart-stopping moment, he thought it was her, her, her long tresses and graceful limbs and slender neck and inquiring mouth, all returned, all come back as a ghost. Then he took in the high cheekbones, the straight and narrow nose, the long-lashed eyes. His cheekbones. His nose. His eyes. All staring back at him.
"Thou came back," said the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw.
He spoke when his heart returned to its normal pace. "No, I am only a visitor."
"As am I," she murmured.
"Does thou not live here?"
"No, I – ran away many months ago."
So that was why Rowena had been running through the villages, asking if anyone had seen her daughter. Still, that did not explain why Helena had felt the need to leave . . . or how and when she had died. He arched an eyebrow at her, indicating she should elaborate.
"I stole Mother's diadem," she said flatly, as though past being able to feel any emotion on the subject.
"I desired to be knowledgeable – talented in some way."
"Helena, thou did not need to thieve to accomplish that, thy talents were always great and plentiful – "
"The last time thou saw me, I was ten years of age. Hardly an age to judge a person's intellect." She did not try to hide the scorn in her voice.
"There is nothing wrong with being ten years old," said Salazar.
"That was not my point, and thou knows it."
He did know it, but he had not known what else to say.
"I had tried other ways to make myself more powerful – magic charms – potions – " The Cauldron-Confidence Potion must have been hers, then. "Everything I could think of. None of it made a difference – neither did the diadem. Least of all the diadem." Absently, she pulled back her cloak to touch at a dark gray spot at her side, a bloody wound.
"How did thee die?" he asked softly.
"When Mother fell ill, she sent a former suitor of mine to find and bring me home, so she could say good-bye to me. He found me, but I refused to return to Hogwarts with him. He became enraged at my apathy, and stabbed me. And then he killed himself out of remorse, so there is no need for thee to hunt him down," she added, for Salazar's eyes had darkened at her tale.
"But that is neither here nor there," she continued, straightening her ghostly form. "I have come here today to do what I never had the courage to do in life. I've come to make amends with Mother. I know that it won't be the same – this situation I have created cannot ever be righted. But I am going to try."
She spoke with such clarity, such determination, such ignorance to the facts, that he nearly faltered in his next words.
"Your mother is dead, Helena."
She looked for a moment as though she had not heard him, for nothing in her expression shifted.
"How?" she whispered, her lips hardly moving. "It was because of me, wasn't it? She fell ill after I left."
Salazar shook his head. "Do not take all the blame, Helena. The death of a human is never solely for one reason. We are all dying for various reasons, even we who are still presently alive. It is a build up of reasons, accumulating over time and eventually becoming too many, that kill us, not any one thing."
"I was one of the reasons," she replied with flat recognition.
She spoke so firmly that he knew it would be futile to argue.
"When did she pass?" she asked then.
"Three days ago."
She dropped her eyes. "Oh, Helena," she murmured to herself, the words broken and pained, ending on a slightly hysterical laugh. "Too late again."
"I as well," he said quietly.
Her eyes swam back to his, and in the same pitch of voice as before she said, "I guess we are alike in that way."
She did not say it as a question, but he could hear the hidden inquiries behind the words, all the issues between them they had never addressed aloud, all the things they did not want to say even if they already knew them. He traced his eyes over her, and all the best and worst of her, of him, of them stared back at him. Yes, she was his daughter. The words may have never been said by anyone, never confirmed by any spoken voice, but some part of him had always known, even if he had tried to pretend otherwise.
But he would not answer her hidden questions. There would be no point. They both knew. They had always known. Saying it aloud wouldn't make any difference.
"Yes," he said simply, "yes, we are."
She folded her hands in front of her, twisted her fingers. "Is thou going to be staying long?"
"No – no, I was just on my way out, actually. What about thee? Does thou plan on staying?"
"Hogwarts was always my home. I cannot see myself residing anywhere else."
A silence seeped between them.
"I must . . ." said Salazar, indicating the staircase behind her.
"Yes," said Helena quickly, "I also. I think I'll go see Godric and Helga."
"They'll have missed thee."
"I do doubt that; they are most likely still mad at what I have done. But I suppose I should try and at least apologize." She unlocked her fingers. "Well – farewell, Salazar."
There was a tense moment where neither moved nor spoke, then Helena drifted sideways through a wall and out of sight. Salazar, then, continued onward.
He did not realize his feet had carried him to the wrong place until he stood there. He blinked rather stupidly. Yes, he had intended to come to a door, but he had intended for the main entrance door . . . not the one leading to Rowena's bedchamber.
There is nothing left for you here, Slytherin, he told himself, staring at the door. You've done all you intended to do here. You've seen her, and you've found out all the contributing reasons for her death. It's time to leave Hogwarts.
But he did not move.
Then in one movement, he had grasped the handle yet again and flung himself inside, shutting the door behind him.
The sky outside was dark now, so the room was nearly pitch black. With slight reluctance, he lit his wand. The room seemed just as it had when he had been in here earlier today, and Rowena, too, looked the same. Still, despite this, his eyes scanned every space, every gap, every corner there was, looking for – he didn't know.
He dropped down to his knees, fingertips running over the stones. His eyes landed on the book with the bloody flower again, though this time, he saw that another book was sitting beneath this one. With careful fingers, he extracted the lower book and pulled it to him.
There was no title upon the cover. It was not a book, he realized, but a journal, a black-feathered quill stuck in its middle. Perhaps Rowena had not want anyone to read it, then. He shouldn't intrude on her privacy. He shouldn't open it.
He opened it.
Empty white parchment gazed up at him with blank eyes. He flipped to the next page and was greeted with the same sight. The entire book was unfilled.
And with sudden clarity, he realized he had seen this journal before. He had given it to her. It had been a gift. He had told her to pen her own book within its pages, as she already had all of the books in the world, save for one that she had written. She had chuckled and said it was a lovely journal, but she would simply be too afraid to soil such a permanent thing with her frantic and nonsensical scribbles.
That had been years ago, and she had still never written in it. Well, to be honest, he would've thought she'd have thrown it out after he'd fled. Yet she had kept it all these years.
He shook his head. He was getting lost in the past again. It was time to leave.
Still, he did not get up. Something was bothering him. Something had been bothering him since his arrival here, and even though it was something he knew he could not change, it nagged at his mind, tugged at his side, pulled at his gut.
I never said good-bye to her . . .
Which was his own fault, of course. His fault, for never returning to Hogwarts during that long period of time, for never contacting anyone from that distant part of his life. He could hardly even remember the last words he had said to Rowena. They certainly hadn't been the words that he should have said: of how special a person she was, of how much she had impacted his life, of how much his stomach would clench and his head ache and his heart tear when she was gone . . .
It was too late for such words. Too late for any words.
He stared down at the blank pages of the journal. Or maybe . . . maybe it didn't have to be too late. Too late for him to speak them to her, perhaps . . . but not too late for him to speak them. Or write them.
He picked up the quill nestled between the journal pages, and withdrew a bottle of ink from within his own cloak, which he then placed on the ground and uncorked. He dipped the tip of the quill in the ink and then poised it over the page. But although there was so much he wanted to say, he did not know how to say it.
He tried to formulate all that he wanted to express to her into words. He could not. The words had never been there, and they still weren't. Salazar had never been adept at dealing with his emotions – normally, in fact, he pretended they didn't exist. Yet even when he admitted their presence, he remained unable to articulate them.
The quill in his hand remained still as his thoughts raced in an incomprehensible whirl. Now was his opportunity to write down what he should have said to her while she was still living, now was his chance. She may not be able to read his penned words, but perhaps her spirit would sense them somehow, or read over his shoulder as he wrote. He hadn't ever believed devotedly in any religion, but he knew there were spirits out there, knew there were souls; they could be closer to Earth than some might think.
The words still did not come.
He stayed there for a long time, quill in his unmoving hand, blank parchment pages in his lap. At last, he wiped the ink off the tip (it was nearly dry by that point anyway), replaced the quill between the journal pages, and closed it.
He stood up, and, walking over to her bed, tenderly lifted one of her hands that was lying at her side. He placed the journal over her heart, and then put her hand over its cover.
There was no need to write anything, he came to realize as he stared down at her forever-sleeping form. The blank pages said more than any mere words could ever say. The blank pages showed everything he did not know how to put into any language. The blank pages expressed just how impossible it was to condense the depth of what he wanted to tell her into some flowery, meaningless phrases.
She would understand, he knew. She had never liked flowery, meaningless phrases either.
He brushed his fingers one last time over the back of her hand, then strode over to the door, opened it, and departed.