And then he was falling. Falling away from life, away from pain, away from the boy he tried so hard to protect, away from the people who had wanted him dead. They had won, succeeded. He was here, falling, dying, at the hands of his friend. But if Albus Dumbledore had learned anything from Nicolas Flamel, it was that death was the easy part of life.
He suddenly stopped falling. It was nothing painful, just a gentle depositing on soft grass. He blinked and looked at the tree in front of him. It was a tall tree, an old tree, with one or two scarred places where low-hanging branches had been stripped away by young feet, eager to climb. He had been here before. Many times. Once upon a time, it had been a home. Then it became a prison. And then, in one night, it had become a living hell.
Albus stepped forward and touched the bark of the tree. It was comfortingly rough against his fingers. He wondered why he was here, and then suddenly he felt a gentle tug on his robes. He looked down.
“Ariana,” he murmured. She was tiny, much younger than she had been when she died. She smiled shyly and looked down. “Why are you here?” he asked her gently. Ariana looked up at him through her lashes with bright blue eyes brimming with tears. “For you,” she whispered.
“For me, now, is it?” He tried to remember how to talk to her. She didn’t like to speak, he knew. And she disliked being touched, so he knelt down there in his old backyard and faced her. “Because you’ve been here before?”
“I know,” she told him. “I know.”
“You know how it feels, is that it?”
She nodded. “Death. It’s cold.”
“It is,” he agreed. “But it’s warm here, isn’t it?”
“Why you’re here. I’m here. It’s warm. You like warm, so you came.” And suddenly there was a heartbreaking smile on her face. “You came,” she repeated, like this was the most blissful sentence in the world. “You came!” she whispered fervently. Ariana never shouted, not ever.
“That’s right, I came.” Albus felt like there was something wrong here. There was something not right about this scenario, something that needed to be fixed before he could move on. “Ariana…”
“I missed you,” she said abruptly, suddenly solemn. “I missed you. I cried here, I made it cold. I could see you. You and Aberforth.” She reached out, timid and yet firm, and gripped his arm. “You hurt each other beside my shell,” she whimpered, sounding as if she would burst into tears at any moment.
That was when he knew. Albus knew that he felt guilty, still guilty for her death. Perhaps she could tell him, to ease his fears and doubts, ease the suffering that had plagued his mind for decades, ease the panic that still burned fresh in his mind when the boggarts saw him and turned into this child before him, dead on the floor…
“Ariana,” he began. “Ariana. Please tell me, I need to know, do you remember Grindel—”
“I remember the other. I didn’t like him.” Her response was quiet. “He was cruel on the inside. He was cold.”
“That night. When you… came here? Do you remember?”
She looked straight in his eyes, her own brimming with tears that barely clouded the sharp, piercing blue. “That night,” she stated. It was as good a response as any.
Albus chose his next words carefully. “Who… was it, who hit you? Do you know? Whose light was it? Whose wand did it come from? Could you see? Who was it?”
Ariana suddenly shocked him by flinging herself into his arms. “You” was all she said, as her hot tears spilled over and she cried on his shoulder. “And you cried, and I saw, but you wouldn’t feel better, you made everything cold...”
He felt like he was falling again. “I killed you.”
“No, no, no no no no no!” Ariana sobbed heartrendingly. She was close to shouting, but not quite. Ariana never shouted. Not ever. “No, you were warm, you were good, it was the other one that was cold and cruel inside, he did it, he made you!”
Albus went very still in an attempt to calm her, despite his mind locked in place. He had killed her. He had killed his little sister who just wanted everyone to stop fighting…
“I knew because you were sorry.” Ariana’s sudden words pulled him roughly out of his self-deprecation. “I saw you cry. And I saw how you killed him later. And I saw you tonight, when the dark things made you see me again and how sorry you were.” Her eyes were still shimmering with unshed tears, but she looked at him squarely.
“The Horcrux,” Albus realized. “Ariana… how did you know what I saw?” The memory made him shiver.
She looked at him with her innocent, blatant openness. “Because I know,” she said simply. “The things you know are the things I know, and more.”
Albus took a moment to process that. “And now what?”
The simplicity of this sentence suddenly struck him. Now what? Now he was free.
Now what? Now he could do anything, and for the first time he was not held back by anything or anyone who needed him. He was not a Headmaster any longer. He was not a part of the Wizengamot. He was not a son or a guardian or a teacher or a mentor to anyone.
Now what? Now he could reach out and touch his baby sister, whole and alive and happy, like he had wanted to for over a century.
Now what? Now he didn’t have to worry or plan or fight or teach.
Now what? Now he could let go of whoever he had been before. He had left nothing undone. He was complete.
Now what? Now he could release his fear and strain that a hundred and fifty years had inflicted on him.
Ariana reached out and took his hand in hers. Albus noticed that her skin was warm, just like everything else in this new world. She looked up at him, her bright, tearless eyes suddenly bluer than ever and filled with happiness and joy and warmth and a love that dwarfed every other good thing in this strange place. To see that love was all he had wanted. When he had looked into the Mirror of Erised, what he had seen there was nothing, nothing compared to what he saw in this child’s face as she looked into his soul.
“Isn’t it strange,” she whispered in a wondering sort of tone, “that only when you’ve died can you really live?”
And she was right.
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