A/N: This is a story about life and death and love and the choices we make. It's also a story about magic and violence and what it means to be a soul.

If it sounds like too much to tackle, that's likely because it is. I've decided to give myself permission to try and fail with this one, though. (Cause that's how growth happens, right?)

Content warnings for blood and graphic violence. I will add more warnings if they become applicable. I don't consider it a spoiler, however, to let you know that sexual violence and coercion will not be present in this story.

Last but not least—thank you, sweetasylums, for looking over the first couple of chapters for me. Your help has been invaluable. Any remaining mistakes are entirely my own.

"You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you'll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no... anything. There's no chance at all of recovery. You'll just exist. As an empty shell."

—Remus Lupin, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The Roots of This Tree

Hermione is fourteen.

She hangs back in the shadows, feet planted at the ring of the tide. Black, muddy water laps, recedes, and laps, nearly soaking her shoes through. Harry huddles next to her, head turning, frantic eyes searching for something — for someone.

Another heartbeat, and the water shifts, violently twisting into crackling, screaming sheets of ice.

Hermione stares straight at the scene ahead, paralyzed.

The wand in her hand is useless. She is useless. This — the second time around, and she should know better, should do better, but she doesn't. She can't. She has tried, and she has failed — has failed over and over, always, already, again.

Above, inky hooded shapes eat the intervening space between her and her in careening, ravenous gulps. The her here and the her on the ground, unconscious, between Harry and Sirius.

Their bodies are pale and cold and slack, warmth siphoning from them at an unnerving rate.

They look dead.

Unmoving, she watches as the moisture dotting their skin clinks to crystalline solid. Water, she knows, freezes from the outside in.

An overmastering panic solidifies in her.

There is so much ice.

Ice and dark, hungering hands, which point and summon and pull. Sirius Black is lifted, floating limp as a ragdoll in the air. His head lolls back, exposing a bright white throat.

The darkness crowds around him now. Swirling, demanding, devouring — excited.

Incandescent light rips from Sirius's mouth and nose and eyes in a violent burst, leaving his body a wretched husk. Forgotten, it plummets to the ground and crumples on the ice. She notes shallow breathing, slow, barely-there movements of his chest cavity. Above, the light is white-blue, hot, and pulsing.

It is energy.

It is alive.

It is, unmistakably, him.

And it is wholly alone in the darkness.

The soul, she sees then, is a physical thing. Not a metaphor, or a feeling, or a chemical reaction in the brain. A thing.

And things can be taken from you.