A tiger by the tail.
"Phoenix (Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.) Said to live a certain number of years, when it makes in Arabia a nest of spices, sings a melodious dirge, flaps his wings to set fire to the pile, burns itself to ashes, and comes forth with new life, to repeat the former one."
1. Death is now the phoenix' nest; To eternity doth rest.
The Chamber was colder than he remembered. The world was.
Air was cold and unfamiliar after so long. It hurt his lungs, burned him, seared. Inside the diary, afloat in years of ink and memory, he'd been warm. And now he was so cold. But now he was breathing. He could feel. Even here in the Chamber, down in the dark, the light was sharp, too bright and cold for his new eyes. It hurt, made him gasp, but he found he didn't mind it so much.
The girl was cold, too. But he picked her up and held her. Her skirt was wrinkled, bunched around her hips, and there were streaks of ink across her knees.
"I suppose I ought to thank you."
She didn't reply. The movement of her chest was shallow; soon it would still. He laid his head against her chest and listened to her heart. He listened to his own, and just for a moment, they beat in time. He curled his hand around her finger, his skin pink and glowing against hers. Her hands were white, the skin beneath the fingernails gone blue.
"It will be all right, you know," he said, at last. And it would, because today was the beginning. Tom was alive. He'd been so long in the dark and alone. Today he could feel and touch and breathe the air. Each breath made him stronger, each moment the light hurt his eyes less. He knew he'd done this before, knew he'd felt this way before. He appreciated it far more this time.
Tom was a phoenix; the stars had said so at his birth. They'd said so again today.
And so, it seemed, was Ginny. Ginny, who was a child and like all children was stupid and boring. But she would not always be a child. And Tom had made her so much more interesting already,
"Would you like to be reborn, Ginny?" he asked softly. "I think it would suit you."
She whimpered and he put one large hand over her face to quiet her.
"I think it does suit you, as a matter of fact," he said and smiled.
It was a good day to be alive. There was always, of course, the possibility that he might fail. But he wasn't afraid. The world went round and round, and eventually it would come back round to him again.
2. Beauty, truth, and rarity, Grace in all simplicity, Here enclos'd in cinders lie.
Ginny should not be alive. She knows this, knows that every moment she does live is stolen, was stolen for her by Harry. She's alive and it makes her pathetically grateful to him.
She hates that.
Sometimes she thinks maybe she hates him. But she knows better. Ginny doesn't really hate Harry; she just hates the way he makes her feel -- clumsy and too young and indebted. Owing. Unbalanced. Harry is so good and true. He's grown up handsome and doesn't know it. He's grown up brave, and it never occurs to him that he might not win. It never occurs to him that he could have almost anything he pleases, anything he likes. Almost.
He likes Ginny.
She can tell. She keeps her distance from him, though. She doesn't like the things the Tom-voice whispers in her head when Harry is close by.
She can tell that Harry likes her, though she doesn't remember when it started. She can also tell that it's never occurred to Harry that she might not like him. She can tell that he still sees in her the summer-morning image of a little girl who blushed and paled with his every word and look. She wonders how he would feel if he knew that her crush on him had, in actuality, lasted an entire week. Because after Harry, right after, there was Tom, and Tom was the whole world. There wasn't room for anyone else.
Sometimes there still isn't.
But these days it's Harry who smiles at her, and when he does she can feel the blood rush to her face and she has to look away, to hide the guilt and shame and anger and, yes, maybe still a little bit of want. But it isn't the same as it was before. She wants him for very different reasons, and that's why it scares her.
It's cold tonight and Ginny is the last one left awake. The younger students are all asleep, snug in their beds, but almost everyone else has gone down to Hogsmeade, pretending to have fun. They've all become reckless. Drink up, for tomorrow we may die. And they laugh, but there's truth in it. Not that it touches them, here behind their magic walls. Not directly, not yet. But there are whispers, in the halls and corridors, in the walls. The walls know what's coming, the ghosts do, and Ginny listens to them whisper late at night when everyone else has gone to bed.
And for once it isn't a ghost or a memory that calls her name. Harry is standing, hesitant, one foot on the stairs, one hand braced against a sharp corner of the wall. He's watching her and she wonders how long he's been there.
"I thought I heard-" He stops. "Never mind. I must have been dreaming."
And that's when she really looks at him. He's still half-asleep, his hair messier than usual, and wearing only a pair of faded pajama bottoms. He blushes with realization, and she knows he must think she feels just as awkward. Maybe she ought to. But Ginny grew up in a house full of men. There's nothing mysterious or strange about boys, dressed or undressed. Ginny has long suspected that she knows more about men and sex than any of her friends or roommates. It always makes her laugh, too, because she's fairly certain they don't know it.
Any of them.
She gets up and walks over to Harry. There's a scar on his side, a long, straight line across his ribs. It's hardly even noticeable. But it reminds Ginny of pictures she's seen and she takes his hands in hers, turning them over and running her fingers over his palms. He tries to pull away, but Ginny is stronger than she looks. And, anyway, they both know he doesn't really want to get away.
"No one understands," he says after a moment.
"Don't they?" she replies mildly, still looking at his hands. She runs her finger over the soft skin in the center of his palm and he shivers. Her finger leaves a white mark on his pink skin when she lets go.
"No, they don't. They're afraid, or they're not afraid -- and either way that's wrong."
"I'm not afraid," she says, and it's true. But she's never said it out loud before. "Should I be?"
"I don't know. I should be afraid, but I'm not. And that's what they can't understand."
"But you know, don't you?" he says then, looking at her like he's surprised, and she realizes that, finally, he understands.
He understands, so she follows him up the stairs when he asks.
No one even pretends to follow the rules anymore. After all, what would be the point? So they're alone and he sits on his bed watching her.
"Why aren't you afraid?" he asks.
"What would be the point? Things will either happen or they won't."
"That's not it," he says. "Maybe that's what you tell yourself, but it's not the truth. Tell me the truth."
But she won't.
She's silent, so he says it for her, "You aren't afraid because you know. Just like I know. We aren't afraid of the story, of the myth of him. Because we've both seen the real thing."
But he's wrong. She's never seen the real thing. "Mine was only an echo."
"And mine's barely even a memory."
Something changes then in his expression. He sits up a little straighter and there's color in his cheeks. He looks the way he always looks when he's getting ready to do something daring, something reckless. The way he looks when he's preparing to be bold.
"Stay here tonight."
"What for?" There's a part of her, a small, mean part, that wants to make him work for this.
"Don't be like that. You know."
He shifts uncomfortably on the mattress. The color in his cheeks rises a little higher. "I want you to stay here with me. You know, here." He pats the bed in a slightly suggestive way. He blushes again.
He can't even say the word. She wonders if he's even ever done it before. She has to admit that she kind of likes the idea that he hasn't.
"Will you stay?" he asks, looking at her like the fate of the world rests on her answer.
And maybe it does.
Or maybe it doesn't, maybe it's just nice to think that. Because if it did, if it were true, then this would be right. It would be all right for her to want it. It might even make up, just a little, for all the things gone wrong.
Or maybe, says the voice in her head that always sounds a little like a hiss, it doesn't matter. Maybe you don't.
But Ginny knows that it isn't true. One way or the other, this matters. And it's a very important choice.
But she needs a reason.
He pauses for a moment, thinking hard, and Ginny realizes suddenly just how serious he is about this. "Because it fits. We fit. You understand what it's like, and sometimes I think you might be the only one. Because you know the truth and you aren't afraid." Another pause. "Because I might not get another chance."
He stops, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
"All right," she says, and puts out the light.
3. Truth may seem, but cannot be; Beauty brag, but 'tis not she; Truth and beauty buried be.
Phoenix feathers and tigers' teeth, lions' manes and scorpion tails, are what little boys are made of.
Harry's son was born in the ashes of the world, to a mother with hair like wildfire. The world was reborn in a year that belonged to the tiger, burning every night in the forests beyond the castle.
They gave him his grandfather's name, wrote it down in green ink and made it real, but the letters never seemed to stay still on the parchment.
He was, they said, hope. A symbol. A new beginning. Things, they said, were being born again. And it was true, but maybe not in the way they meant. They said he'd helped save the world just by being born. And it must have been true because everyone said it, everyone agreed.
But really all he did was cry. It split Ginny's head and she just wanted him to stop.
"Shut up," she whispered, all alone in a house that was too big for the three of them. "Just shut up."
But he never stopped. Wednesday's child and full of woe, he broke things, cast them to the floor, spilt, cracked, burst. He ruined things. What they had to give him was never enough, never what he wanted. He was always reaching, straining, for things that were dangerous and up too high.
That never stopped him, not if he wanted them.
He fell one day, a pitcher of milk broken beside him on the hard, shiny floor. He screamed for his mother, and when she came to him he looked at her as though it was all her fault.
Maybe it was her fault, but Ginny was past feeling guilty.
"I never asked for you in the first place," she said to the child, and left it to cry.
Harry's son looked like his father and not like him at the same time. He had dark eyes like his mother. Or maybe it was that, with those eyes, he looked like someone else. Ginny thought it sometimes, when she looked at him, but she tried not to look at him very often.
She'd wanted to go back to school after, after the baby, after the dark time was finally over. But everyone, Harry, her parents, her brothers, had shushed her and petted her and told her that, really, there was no need. She and Harry would never want for anything. The world was too grateful. They would never need to lift a finger, never need to do for themselves. Money, gifts, food, letters, hand-knit baby things, all poured in by post. Harry, of course, went through each one and wrote a kind note back to the giver. Slowly, when he wasn't looking, Ginny threw most of the offerings away.
But in the end, the one gift, the one reminder, she couldn't get rid of was the house.
They, that same, ever-grateful Them, built it on the foundation of the other house that had been in the hollow, flattened, burned, abandoned all those years ago. They built it back up, better than before, and presented it to Harry and Ginny tied with ribbon.
It was, they said, the perfect monument. Look how everything was starting over.
Harry had been overjoyed, and Ginny had found that she couldn't stop shivering.
Their first night in the house the baby screamed himself purple, taking hold of the bars of his crib and banging his head against the wood. Ginny sat in the handed-down rocker that had come with the nursery and watched him, because the house made her feel the same way.
Harry made swings out of old tires and nailed shut the broom cupboard underneath the kitchen stairs. He planted flowers beneath the windows and built a garden bench. He planned summer barbecues, birthday parties and family dinners. He disappeared into his projects for days on end with a kiss for mother and son, and left Ginny alone with nothing but the baby and time.
There were clocks in the house. In their big, perfect house built on its foundation of ghosts. Ginny could hear them ticking away the long days, could hear them ticking away in the empty rooms.
Sometimes she talked to the lilies by the garden gate. Died of an evening they said. Cold it was, and the moon high in the sky. But, of course, you know how it was, don't you, dear?
"That's not going to happen this time."
No, it won't, the wind whispered through the flowers and a cloud blew clear of the sun, but maybe you'll wish it had.
Time trickled by, slow and heavy. Ginny thought the minutes felt sticky, stuck to the hands of the clocks, stuck to her. Sometimes she felt like she might drown in all that time, heavy and empty all at once.
One night they sat at dinner, the food cooling in the serving dishes, too much of it, thick and grey around the edges. The table was too long. Ginny had to pull the baby's chair close to her end, with Harry at the other. The baby set up a fresh round of wails and flung his cup to the floor. Harry pretended not to notice, smiled at her and took a sip of iced tea.
"I like this," he said. "Summer evenings like this. It's so nice. Maybe I'll make us a nice picnic spot in the garden so we can eat outside when it's warm like this."
"That would be nice," Ginny said automatically, sopping up warm milk from the floor. "I'm going to put him to bed." The baby screamed when she tried to take him from the chair, catching his little feet stubbornly against the wooden slats, but she just yanked a little harder and he came free.
When she came back to the dining room, Harry caught her by the wrist. "Let's go sit outside for awhile."
"All right," Ginny said, picking up the pitcher of iced tea and two glasses.
"This is what I've wanted," Harry said once they were outside. "Our life here is so quiet."
"Is that what you wanted? Really?"
"Of course." Harry looked surprised. "After everything that's happened, how could I want anything else?"
"But don't you think, sometimes-" She stopped, standing up, still holding the pitcher of tea.
"What is it?"
"Doesn't it bother you? We never do anything. We never see anyone. We're just here."
Harry reached out to take her arm. Ginny jumped, dropping the pitcher onto the flagstone path. "I feel so useless!"
"We all had to make sacrifices," Harry said to her, placating, trying to calm the storm. Because above all else, Harry didn't like a fuss, and Ginny wondered just what exactly he'd given up when all was said and done. He caught her hands. "It will be all right, you know."
The leaves turned, and October brought pink moons and spiders' webs. Harry carved jack-o-lanterns and grinned as widely as they did. Ginny lit an extra candle on Halloween night and tried to pretend that she couldn't hear memories that didn't belong to her.
She went to put the boy to bed that night, picking him up off the floor. He howled in outrage and kicked against her all the long way down the corridor to the nursery. He struck at her with a tightly balled little fist, catching her across the chin, and looked up with malice in those dark, familiar eyes. And so, she'd let go and hadn't tried to hold him since.
No one ever said what he really was, but Ginny knew. Not hope, not new, but the first chapter of an old, old story and one they all wished they could stop telling. That was the fate of the thing, and Ginny knew that she was partly to blame.
It wasn't fair that she'd never had a choice, that none of them had. But that was the way things were.
They went round and round like a nursery rhyme and it always came back to them. It always would. She couldn't help thinking that maybe if she'd been a little smarter, a little faster, a little less of a girl, that she could have stopped it. But all she'd done was survive, and she didn't think it was fair that fate kept punishing her for that.
She didn't think it was fair that everything she touched turned to ashes, or that once it burned it never stayed that way. She'd never asked for any of it. She didn't deserve it -- which was funny, because that's what everyone else said, too. Only they, of course, meant it in a very different way.
She was used to it.
She didn't pay much attention to those people or those whispers anymore. But what they didn't know might hurt them and maybe that was why, or at least a little part of why, Ginny kept silent.
*The epigraphs for each section come from Shakespeare's Phoenix and the Turtle. The title comes from my playing around with the Chinese Zodiac. If Tom Riddle was 16 in 1942, he could easily have been born in late 1926, which is, according to the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Tiger. The HP canon will conclude with Harry's seventh year, ending in 1998 -- also the Year of the Tiger. Which is, at the very least, an interesting coincidence. Harry was born in the Year of the Monkey and Ginny in the Year of the Rooster.