If a tree had hands, fingers to clasp, Hermione would have said Neville's tree—for that's what it was, she realised, Neville's—had reached its out to take his wand. For an instant, Neville trembled, his body shaking as if the earth trembled beneath him, and then so did the branches above him until, without warning, the wand was swallowed into the vibrant wood that cradled it.
And Neville sank onto an indentation in the tree roots and fell asleep.
At least Hermione hoped he was asleep. She ran to him, felt for a pulse, breathing a sigh of relief when she found one. Slow and steady.
It was a good thing they hadn't had a plan, thought Hermione, because there wasn't a force on earth that could have stopped the rest of them from finding their trees.
Without thought, without discussion, with an almost compulsive zeal, they circled the grove. Frozen, Hermione watched them go. Arthur, to a rowan tree that birthed his wand, and Harry to a holly that had given him his. Ron, to a willow whose flowing branches seemed to swallow him whole, and Ginny, whose hazel leaves seemed to embrace her, welcoming her arrival.
She watched them, one by one, as they fell into trance, lulled by the trees that understood their magic. Even, or perhaps especially, their broken magic.
They slept, all but Hermione, and she saw in their steady breathing and relaxed bodies a peace that she had lately felt only in the arms of the man she loved.
The vine wood was calling to her, like thin strains of music lulling her to come close, to surrender, to sleep, but she stayed far away. She couldn't go, not yet. Not until Severus was here. Otherwise, how would he know to follow? How would he find them?
She called to him. With all her heart and the gentlest of tugs on the gossamer thread that connected them, she bade him come to her.
Severus, I need you. You need to be here, she begged him whilst, across the clearing, graceful branches dotted with lush, green leaves reached for her, thick stems of vine wood wrapping around its brilliant, white trunk.
Severus. Her voice in his head. Severus, come. I need you.
Now, he thought, was not a good time to start hallucinating.
He was so tired. It had been hours. Hours holding this nimbus of light that might as well have been a living organism. Hours, until he was sure the moon would set again and they would have missed their chance, lost in the maw of the cave. And when the illumination of each of the strands in turn began to dim, and then disintegrate, until only one tethered him, his heart sat firmly in his throat.
He Occluded almost without thinking about it. The silence deafened him, leaving him more cut off and alone than he had been since the night he saw Hermione drowning in her shadow. His heart hurt, and it occurred to him that this was the farthest he'd been from her since that night not so terribly long ago.
He dropped his shields.
Severus. There it was again. Hermione's voice. Urgent. Insistent. Maybe it was a trick. Part of the enchantment that guarded this place.
But no. He knew her. He felt her. She was in some sort of danger. She needed him. He'd worry about finding the way back later. None of it would matter if she were hurt. If she were—
She had called for him, and he would come.
He stepped into the water and shivered. So cold.
The sheet of glass stood before him, a frozen sentinel. He breathed into the ice and felt the heat of his body reflected back at him.
He touched the surface with his fingertips and felt it vibrate against his skin.
Would the shield allow him to pass through? He, who had always been a creature of darkness?
Severus stepped closer to the barrier and held the nimbus in front of him as a guide…
This time, he would carry the light with him.
…and shivered just a little as he pushed through the threshold to the other side.
It was dark, the nimbus giving off only the faintest light. But he was used to that. Dark and dank and lonely, only the faintest illumination to guide him.
Severus, I need you. Her voice again. Perhaps she could feel him now just as he could sense her.
I'm coming, Hermione. Hang on.
A pulse of relief rushed through him—hers, then his.
On and on he walked. Tripping on stones in the path, scraping against the rough walls, dripping with damp. How he wished he hadn't had to do this so many times alone.
I'll wait for you. You're nearly there.
So grateful that, this time, he wasn't.
The moon was low in the sky when he met fresh air, taking in great lungfuls as remedy for the long moments years… a lifetime spent swimming in the heavy darkness.
She was there, right at the mouth of the tunnel. Waiting for him, her arms around him almost simultaneous with those cleansing breaths, as if she might be the source of his oxygen, clearing the poison of Dark magic from his body once and for all.
She was talking, but he couldn't think, couldn't listen yet. Disoriented, he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair. No matter where they were, he was safe here, right now, the scent of her skin reminding him. Calming him.
"Where are we?"
She looked up at him, her eyes red-rimmed, eyelids heavy.
"Where magic is born."
As soon as he emerged from the mouth of the cave, she knew.
She tried to tell him, but he was exhausted. Distracted by the trees, and the figures lying still beneath them—and who could blame him?
Still, he needed to know. The heartbeats of the others were steady, but growing weaker. They were linked, she saw. Linked by a common injury and a common need.
"We have to finish it," she said. "Together."
"Finish what?" He looked concerned, eyes resting on his sleeping companions.
"The wand trees. Our wands. It must be the link between our selves and our magic. I think—" She swallowed hard. "I think we have to return our wands. To their source."
"To their—what?" He looked alarmed. "They relinquished their wands? Made themselves completely vulnerable? What were they thinking?"
No, she reminded herself. Terrified. For them. For her.
"Severus, wait." She laid one hand on his chest, the other circling around his waist. "Listen." She pressed her fingertips to his lips. "Listen."
"We're already vulnerable. The thing you're most afraid of—that we've all been so frightened of, it already happened. The barrier that protects us from the darkest parts of ourselves, it was breached a long time ago. We've been as vulnerable as a person can be—for years. Severus, compared to that, this—" she looked at the others, immobile on the soft ground, thought about their wands, one after the other, melting into the wood that bore them "—is nothing." She took another breath. "We have to trust. Surrender. Severus, surrender with me. Look."
She took him by the hand and turned towards the birch tree. Its white bark obscured by the tendrils of vine wound around it, twining through its branches until it looked as if the two had always grown together as one.
"My wand," he said. "It's birch."
"I noticed," said Hermione. "And mine is vine."
Together they stood, the trees that held the root of their magic winding together. Vibrating, as if impatient for them to get on with it.
"I don't understand," he said.
"I don't either, not really," she told him. "But I can feel it. The magic, the shadow, it's all there. It's always been there. We've just been pushed so far from its source." From where it found balance. Ebb and flow. Dark and Light informing each other. Enhancing and deepening their humanity.
Voldemort, terrified of all that made him human, all that left him vulnerable, tearing into the fabric of everything inside himself that might be peace, and joy, and love, and light. Embracing only the Dark and destroying the light inside of himself. Ripping it end to end, grotesque and pained. Broken and alone. Tainting anyone who came near him with the same poison. Dragging them further from the essence of themselves where both Dark and Light coexist. Balanced. Ultimately cracking the barriers that kept the Darkness all people carry within themselves from drowning their Light.
"Our magic hasn't been working properly," he said, almost to himself. "But Ollivander said that the wands weren't damaged. You told me Ollivander said it." He looked at her, his expression turbulent.
"I don't think it's the wands that are the trouble," she said, thoughtful. "It's just… I think our wands must be tuned in to our magic, and our magic is at the core of our selves. The trees—" She looked around at the low-hanging branches and the soaring ones. At the blooms and leaves wafting through the spring air, falling to earth under the moonlit sky.
"The trees aren't just trees."
"I suppose not," she agreed.
"What happened to their wands?" he asked. "If the trees took back the wand woods, where are the wand cores? Aren't those the wand's magical essences?"
Hermione looked over at the grove, at the people who lived in her heart, who lay now peacefully beneath sheltering trees. What had happened to their wand cores? Had the trees taken their magic back in payment for—she hoped—healing?
As if he knew her thoughts, he said, "What if we wake up and have no magic? What if they've given their magic back to the source?"
She paused. What might it be like to live without magic? Without the ability to reach out her hand and transform what she touched. She looked at Severus. He was stroking the delicate skin on her hand with his thumb, unconsciously grounding himself, and her. The shadow lurked, yes; it always had, she realised with a start. Stalking her with anxious whispers in the night, driving her to push ever harder, no matter the cost.
But here, now, it occurred to her that it had never been magic pushing aside the shadow. No enchantment or trick of the ether. Only his gentle touch—his respect, compassion and ultimately his love for her kept it at bay. This sort of magic was not connected to wand wood and wand cores; this sort of magic would always be hers, and his too, to keep.
"If we survive, if you are with me, I can live without magic," she said. "If it repairs the breach so that we can live, the trees can have my magic back."
He closed his eyes and nodded, and Hermione wondered what sort of bargain he was striking, what hopes and fears he might be sending into the heavens. She drew his face closer to hers and kissed his closed eyes, one at a time, and then his forehead, lingering there.
His eyes opened, and warmth flooded her at the passion there, the trust. The love. He drew out his wand, light wood, darkened by years of wear, and laced his fingers with hers.
Hand in hand, they crossed the clearing under the setting moon.
He hadn't expected the bark to be warm. Almost like living flesh, it pulsed beneath his hands, as if there might be a heartbeat beneath its rough exterior. It called to him in a voice that rode the whisper of its leaves and the rustle of its branches.
Let it go, it said. Leave it be.
He lay his cheek against the trunk, rough bark scratching his skin. He would leave it; he would, if only he knew what it was he had to let go of. But the tree didn't answer him, only beat its steady tattoo against his skin and warmed him.
Hermione crouched beside him, and he heard her gasp when she made contact with the wood—but he couldn't move to soothe her. The vibration beneath his hands reassured him. This was a journey they must each make alone, no matter that they were intertwined as surely as the birch and the vine.
Slowly, gradually, his heartbeat thrummed in time with the one within the wood. A synchronous dance between them. A tuning of the instrument that was his heart, his soul, his magic.
And he slept.
And he dreamed.
The ice was cracking again, and the weight of all of them on it was doing it no favours.
"About time you got here, Snape," said the Weasley boy. "Where's Hermione?"
Her voice, the touch of her hand, the taste of her mouth when he kissed her—the rest of them be damned—reassured him that she was real, for all that this must be, had to be, a dream. There had been no frozen lake, no precariously cracking ice in the grove where they all, presumably, still lay sleeping.
"Where is here, then?"
Damned if he knew, he thought, looking around. Nothing but ice as far as the eye could see. Ice, and a thin slice of what must be the shore.
"I've been here before in my dreams," he muttered.
"The ice isn't going to hold up much longer," said Harry, as if he were commenting on the weather.
"It's a long way to shore," mused Ginevra, eying the horizon.
"I doubt I swim well enough to make it that far." Arthur looked worried.
"You're not alone, Arthur," said Hermione, putting her hand on his arm. "We'll make sure you get there."
"We'll stick together, then," said Ron.
Harry nodded, his arm securely around his wife's shoulders.
"We will," said Severus.
They stood for a time on the wide expanse of ice, watching the cracks widen as the sun made its way across the sky. Stood until the cracks beneath their feet had no more purchase and let go.
They plunged into the water below.
The water was warm, and the sun was hot. The ice evaporated into particles of air and sea, leaving them swimming in what felt like lukewarm bath water.
Hermione would never have predicted that Neville would be so playful, splashing and ducking as they made their way towards the shore. She sputtered and hid behind Severus until she, too, discovered the thrill of gliding through the water, ambushing her friends with unexpected showers. Harry and Ron made it a game to see who could stay beneath the water longest and, when that grew old, diligently attempted to create a tidal wave in the placid waters until Arthur made them stop.
There was far more laughter in the middle of that uncharted lake than there had been between any of them in a solid decade.
When Arthur had, as he'd feared, tired, Severus offered him a shoulder to lean on, and with hardly a blink of hesitation, he accepted.
Hermione thought it to his great credit that Severus didn't retaliate when Ginny splashed him later on, ribbons of water streaming off his face, his former student diving beneath the dark water to escape his possible wrath.
At last, that hazy strip of land became firmer, and Hermione thought it no small miracle that they'd made it to shore. Rising from the water, soaked, exhausted, and still giddy, they fell upon the sand, reaching out to one another, hands clasping hands, or ankles, or elbows. Limbs askew and tangled in oddly reassuring knots. Grateful for the solid presence both of the earth and of one another.
And they woke.
Soaking wet, warm, cradled in Severus's arms. In all, not exactly what she'd expected.
They were huddled together in the middle of the clearing, wand wood trees all around them. The sun was rising, and Hermione wanted to sing. She sat up and stretched, magic thrumming through her body, flowing like lifeblood. Clean. Clear. Pure.
Severus was looking down at his hands, as if amazed at the intricacies of bone and tendon. And magic.
"Some dream," murmured Severus, pointedly squeezing out his cloak. Water sluiced off all of them, as real as the grass beneath them and the arching branches above.
"Didn't feel like a dream to me," said Harry, stroking Ginny's hair as she leaned into him. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't usually wake up drenched when I dream about swimming."
"Awfully strange turn of events, nonetheless," said Arthur. "Ice and water. Swimming to shore. Rather strange, I'd say." He looked around. "Though I suppose it's in keeping with the rest of the night."
"I should say so," agreed Severus.
"What do you reckon happened to our wands?" asked Ron.
"Gone, I guess," said Neville, unconcerned. "I suppose we'll get new ones when we get back."
"It's been almost eleven years since Harry vanquished the great snake," said Ron. "It's right on time, then, right?"
Hermione sat up straighter. "Ooh, Ron! You're right!"
"Always with the tone of surprise*," he said with a smirk. But then he was laughing, and so was she, the others rolling their eyes in amusement.
Eleven years, she thought. Eleven years since Harry died, and Severus nearly did.
Both reborn, too, she thought. Severus into a world without secrets. Still alone. And now, again, into what she knew was, for him, a wholly unfamiliar place filled with people who smiled at him and a woman who loved him.
"I don't fancy trudging back through that tunnel soaking wet," said Ron, shaking the water out of his hair with a sharp toss of his head. But he looked awfully eager despite his words, Hermione thought, and he and Harry wandered off to peer into the mouth of the tunnel like two boys about to set off on an adventure.
"We haven't got a guide wire to get back," said Neville. "We took a whole lot of turns on our way through."
They had, Hermione thought. More twists than she'd been able to remember, though she'd made every effort during the first leg of the journey before letting it go.
"There's no way, mate," Ron was saying to Harry. "The mouth of the tunnel's too narrow. How did we all fit through there, anyway?"
Hermione looked over to where the boys were standing near the tunnel's opening. A narrow slit barely wide enough for a Hogwarts first year opened into the clearing.
How had they come through so tight a space?
Severus walked over to the boys and peered through the opening into the dark.
"It would appear," he said, "that we will not be going back the way we came."
"No," said Arthur thoughtfully. "I don't suppose one ever does."
The sun beat down, warming and drying them with each step forward. The copse of trees was thick, but just beyond were more hills, and they decided that on the whole, reaching higher ground was a worthy strategy.
The young men took the lead, bursting with energy—especially Neville, who had taken to describing the intricacies of every tree and bush they passed. To their credit, the others seemed genuinely engaged, interested in what their friend had to share.
Arthur and Ginevra walked just behind them, arm in arm, talking softly with one another.
Trailing behind, he and Hermione took their time, meandering off the path when a particularly interesting specimen of foliage or beast caught their eyes. The others would wait for them, Severus knew. If they fell too far behind, they'd not go on too far without them.
He pulled Hermione in close for a lingering kiss. Her body moulded against his, and he felt the heat rise between them. There were patches of soft grass all around. They could stop here, under the blue sky and the sun's caress, to lose themselves in one other—passionate and tender. She had the same thought, he saw, the glint in her eye playful. But neither of them wanted to leave the others for so long. Neither had said it aloud, but it felt important that they arrive together—when they found the castle again at last.
One more caress, her lips brushing his, their fingers intertwined, and they set off once more. She hadn't stopped touching him all the way, he realised. Her hand was constantly in his, or her arm twined around his waist. Now and again, she'd stop and throw her arms around him as if overcome with the joy of it all.
He shared the sentiment.
Free of it now, he more fully appreciated the weight of the shadow that had dogged him for so very long. It was as if his lungs could expand to twice their usual size, suffusing every fibre of his body with light and peace and love. It was, he thought, just like magic.
And when they crested the next hill, the castle rising, inexplicably, before them, its towers and turrets brilliant in the morning sun, the others were there, waiting, spread out in the tall grasses, talking. Laughing. The Weasley boy lay on his back, arms flung open as if to embrace the sunshine that streamed down on them.
"Oi!" he shouted. "Slowpokes! Where've you been?"
Hermione smirked. "Sorry, Ron. We just got a bit distracted—"
"Wait!" he said, his hand shooting straight up in the air as if to stop the flow of information. "Never mind. That's already way more than I needed to know." But he was laughing, and Hermione was blushing and smiling, and Severus couldn't help but join in.
The others stood up and all at once they were huddled together, survivors. Choosing life. Choosing peace. Choosing joy. Choosing light.
Hermione hung back, looking up at Severus, her eyes bright.
"Do you think we'll be able to find this place again?" she asked. This place of healing. Of magic.
"I do," he said, leaning down to brush her lips with his. "It's ours."
She deepened the kiss, and with a toss of her head, turned to join the others, her hand firmly in his.
As they made their way down the hill to Hogwarts, Hermione's hair, corkscrew curls bursting wildly in every direction, glinted like copper in the sunlight.
A/N: *These were also Hermione's words to Ron when he compliments her appearance right before Bill and Fleur's wedding. From DH, p. 125.
Acknowledgements: And so we come to the end of our tale. Finishing this story feels like a milestone in a way that completing no other story has done. I'm a different writer than I was when this story was first begun, and I can't click "complete" without indulging in some (possibly long-winded) acknowledgements.
Thanks to all of you, enthusiastic and faithful readers, who stayed with the story through long gaps in posting, and welcome to new readers who waited patiently for it to be complete. I have enjoyed each comment and review, and very much enjoy dialoguing about the story. I look forward to questions, reflections, and comments now that the story is complete as well.
Some writers write in isolation, keeping their story and their storytelling under wraps until they feel it's ready to see the light of day. I, however, am not one of those writers.
I would never have put metaphorical pen to paper to write fiction had it not been for both the urging and support of Annie Talbot. Annie reads more drafts of each chapter (for this and every other story I've written) than any human being should ever have inflicted on them with neither a word of complaint or fatigue. Moreover, she made every single chapter better with her touch.
"King of Swords" would never have been born at all had Ariadne not poked me one night and dragged me over to the Potter Place prompt list on The Petulant Poetess. "It'll be fun!" she said. And it has been. I was still a really brand-new writer, wibbling over every word and shaking with each revealed image. I still do that, but not nearly as much (or for as long) as I did. Thanks to Ariadne and Annie for tolerating me, especially in those early months of writing.
Thanks also to Juno Magic, Mia Madwyn, and Drinking Cocoa who have each weighed in on story structure, style and content at various parts of its development. I am fortunate beyond measure to have such generous and talented alpha readers. To Lady Karelia and Kittylefish who were both so enthusiastic about this story from the time it was a tiny thing with only a handful of chapters posted. Kitty has been an unflagging admin for each chapter, patient with her corrections, and enthusiastic with her response to the story. Karelia has been spectacular in both adminning and (speed of light) beta reading, supporting and encouraging me all along the way. This story owes so much to all of you.
*hugs you all