The Forest of Seasons
The forest was still, full of dead sounds and dead leaves that seemed to be a part of the earth. Sunlight and shadows filtered through the trees like voices in faraway rooms, and the air felt thick yet chilled. The forest was a contradiction and an unearthly mystery, a place that should not have existed, but did.
It gave off a thin sense of magic––a different kind of magic.
Rose stood with her back to the path that wended its sleepy way through the trees, her hand still in Scorpius Malfoy's as it had been when they arrived. The moment her head cleared, she tried to let her hand drop, but he held fast for a split-second too long.
"Sorry," he muttered. His pale cheeks reddened.
She shrugged. "Don't worry about it."
It was a simple exchange, one that could have occurred between any two people that might or might not have been strangers. Rose pondered. Were they strangers? Or were they acquaintances, not quite friends, due to a mutual thread that had run through their adolescence? Did Hogwarts connect them when words did not? She hardly knew.
"Do you know where we are?" she asked at length, turning around and beginning to walk.
He was silent for a beat. "...No."
"So you haven't ever been here before?"
Rose frowned. "Neither have I."
This was the last they would speak to each other for some time.
Rose worried, as anyone who unexpectedly found him- or herself in a strange place was wont to do. Apparition of any sort was not supposed to work in this way; one had to have a clear destination in mind, a vivid desire manifested as a single picture of that solitary place. She squeezed her eyes shut, still walking, almost trusting. She tried to remember what she had pictured, but all she could recall was the before, and the after.
The before was a rainy street in Muggle London, where nothing was quiet; even the puddles had made noise, and the sidewalks whispered. The before was crossing that street from the park beneath someone else's unknowing umbrella, head down against the cold, one piece of a small, mottled crowd that happened, for thirty seconds, to be heading in the same direction. The before was glancing up at a sudden shrieking sound and realizing that a bus had lost control to the weather, and was careening toward them, toward that crowd of people and wellies and unknowing umbrellas. Rose had grabbed the hand of the man next to her, and had Apparated them both away before the bus hit.
The after was here. This place, where the eyes of the one she had in her panic saved were familiar. Unexpectedly so.
The in-between was lost to an adrenaline rush.
What had happened to all the others?
She remembered Scorpius from Hogwarts, vaguely. It hadn't been that long ago, less than three years, but he had been quiet then, as he was quiet now; age had not seemed to weaken the habit. They had been in the same year, but of course in different houses; different classes, too, once they had reached the point in their schooling where schedules became more flexible. She remembered trying to talk to him once, a friendly, diplomatic gesture to make her mother proud.
He had ignored her.
It was strange, the stories she had heard about his father from her own father, when he bothered to speak of him. Scorpius Malfoy did not fit into the mold his family for generations had left for him, an apple tossed carelessly far from its tree.
She had almost not recognized him today, though he looked the same.
She was startled from her thoughts as she stumbled heedlessly over an abnormality in the ground's smooth plane. Scorpius's hand shot out once more to catch her arm, but only briefly; she had to steady herself.
"Thanks," she remarked, biting back sarcasm. She did not want to sound unkind.
Mystery pulled at her bones, awakening an old, once only fleeting curiosity. Quiet people had always intrigued her, not because she was quiet, herself, but because they kept everyday things a secret. Quiet people were something to be uncovered, hidden away with complicated locks that had to be diligently picked. But some people were too quiet and shut tight. That was why they had hardly spoken as children.
Now that he at least acknowledged her, though, innocent, rekindled interest slowly began to whir away within.
She wondered how he had remembered her name.
They trudged on, and while hours seemed to pass, the light did not shift or fade. The forest, too, was endless; it was never exactly the same, for each tree and patch of moss seemed distinct from the next, and they never quite wandered in circles, hopelessly lost. There was always something more, just ahead along either side of the path, but never a clear way out.
Rose did not trust it, and neither, she thought, did Scorpius. He looked uneasy in the sidelong glances she sometimes cast him, though the atmosphere was one of safety, and perhaps comfort. It was difficult to put words to it––to anything in the after. She thought once that perhaps she was dead, that the bus had hit her, after all, and that this was only a dream that came between lives, but when she pinched her forearm, it felt real enough. Scorpius had felt real enough, the few times she had touched him. When she exhaled slowly into her palm, her breath felt warm and moist. Her heart beat.
At least, she thought, that was one less thing to worry about.
Scorpius regarded her curiously as her hands flitted about her body, checking for life, but still, he said nothing. Sooner or later, his silence was going to make her burst.
"I won't bite, you know," she told him.
"I should hope not." Almost a joke; no smile.
Rose chewed at her lip.
Eventually, the sunlight did begin to dim in a drawn-out sort of manner, as if in slow motion, or as if it knew it was allowed to take its time here. The air, however, grew colder at a much quicker pace, no companion to the light. Rose could almost see the warmth being sucked away. She crossed her arms, glad of her coat and scarf. Beside her, Scorpius looked skinny and pale, like frost.
"We should stop," he said. It was the first time he had initiated any conversation, and Rose almost gasped.
But she was fast to recover.
"Not just yet," she replied evenly. "We must have nearly an hour of light left."
There was no way to be sure, at the measure of strangeness upon which everything seemed to operate here, but it was a solid guess.
Scorpius shook his head firmly. "It's better to be safe. There's a secluded spot over there. It would be difficult to find one an hour from now, in the dark."
He pointed belatedly to a large rock that seemed frozen in the act of surging up from the ground. Obscured from cursory glances by bushes and grass, it was nevertheless simple to see that it would make for an ideal campsite. Another such place was not likely to come upon them again so soon.
"I don't like the idea of wasting an hour of walking time," Rose admitted, torn.
"At this point, we aren't really walking anywhere, are we? The farther we go tonight, the more foolhardy we'll become."
How peculiar it was, not being the logical one. Scorpius's assuredness surprised her.
"Okay," she agreed, just as startled to hear herself concede so quickly.
She stood there a moment, uncertain of what to do. She had been camping before, but very few times––and even so, never like this. This would be making something out of nothing just to survive the night. She shivered.
"You should probably gather wood," Scorpius told her. "Even a magical fire will need a lot if we're to keep it burning until morning."
"Right." Rose nodded, and in accidental togetherness, they stepped off the path.
Gathering wood was a simple task easy for even the most inexperienced, Rose decided as she cradled a small bundle in her arms. A deep dusk was now upon them, and it was nearly dark, but there were plenty of sticks, and even narrow, stubby, broken-off stumps aplenty, as if never before had anyone bothered to pick any up. The forest felt undisturbed, even when mixed with her and Scorpius's presence.
Her breath clouding a little, she deposited her finds near where Scorpius sat, crafting a circle of stones. Rose assumed it was where the fire would eventually be, and edged the pile of sticks closer to it with her foot.
Scorpius looked up. "Is that all you can find?" he asked.
Rose frowned, but he did not seem to be criticizing her. "No," she said, hands on hips.
He stared at her oddly.
"That is," she corrected herself embarrassedly, "I can find some more."
When Rose returned with another armful, Scorpius had already set to work, balancing a small lean-to of wood in the center of the circle. He was stuffing handfuls of dry moss and tiny sticks inside of it as she dusted off her hands. He appeared to be concentrating very hard.
"What, are you an Explorer Scout, or something?" she laughed.
After a pause, she shook her head. "No, I suppose you wouldn't be. It's... more of a Muggle thing."
"Then how do you know about it?"
They had briefly forgotten who their parents were, difficult as it was to think of them when one no longer saw them every day. Rose sighed. Her mother had never relinquished what Muggle influence she could provide, never letting go of the part of her that had become the past. With her mother, Rose had been in limbo all her life, one foot in one world, and one foot in the other. She wanted to choose for good.
Somberly, Scorpius dug into his pocket, and pulled out a handful of thoroughly folded and perused wads of paper. There was writing on them, though it was faded; they might have been letters. After a short pause, he tossed them on top of the dry moss.
"What's that?" Rose inquired curiously.
"Kindling," he said.
"I know, but what––?"
"It's nothing. They're nothing." He chewed at the inside of his cheek. "I'm going to start the fire now."
He was somewhat awkward, now that she thought of it, as if he was unaccustomed to taking part in a two-sided conversation. Surely, he had had friends at Hogwarts. He was still a Malfoy, and while he had hardly been the schoolboy his father or grandfather had been, his name alone ought to have attracted people to him. But perhaps that was it; perhaps he had never attracted the right sort of people, ones who would like him for himself after they realized he was not simply the manifestation of a legacy. Many of Rose's friends had only approached her because of her family name, and the ones that mattered had stayed after getting the chance to shake her hand. People were kind to her because of her red hair and her freckles. Perhaps that was not the way it worked with the Malfoys. Or, not anymore. She knew almost nothing about them, in spite of her father's bitter recollections.
Scorpius lit the fire with little struggle, fumbling only momentarily with the spell, so that by the time it was truly dark, they felt safe and warm in the firelight. Smoke floated upward toward the unnaturally bright stars. They did not sit together, but not quite apart, either, so that the presence of the other was felt, but did not intrude. Rose hugged her knees to her chest, strumming her fingers idly.
"You're going to have to tell me, you know," she said at length.
"I don't have to tell you anything."
She frowned at the abrupt rudeness. "Well, no, you don't, but I'd like to know, since we're spending so much time together."
"Since we don't have any choice about it, you mean."
She stopped strumming her fingers, leaning forward slightly. "So if you aren't––or weren't––an Explorer Scout, or anything, then how do you know so much about building a fire? I'm half-Muggle, for all intents and purposes, and I can't even come close to doing that."
He shrugged. Perhaps he was relieved that she had not pressed further about the letters he had burned. "I used to run away a lot," he said, poking at the fire with a long, brittle stick. A flurry of sparks shot upward into the night. "Sometimes it was only for a few hours, but once, I got lost, and had to sleep outside."
"How old were you?" Her voice was soft now.
He shrugged again. "Seven. Eight, maybe."
"But why?" Rose breathed. "Surely your parents loved you."
"Of course they did. But I never liked being at home. I don't know why."
He finally met her eyes then. "You must have had trouble with it, though, your parents being who they are."
For a moment she thought, and then she nodded. "Sometimes at home," she began tentatively. "People would visit, or come up to us on the streets, or wherever we happened to be. Dad usually enjoyed the attention, and mum would always act embarrassed, but I don't think she minded as much, once she was recognized just as often for all her work at the Ministry, and everything she's published. Not just a hero, but a scholar, you know? Anyway, everyone would also smile at Hugo and I––he's my brother. And they'd expect us to be exactly like our parents. We look just like them, if you combine traits, and everyone tells me I'm a lot like Mum, even if I do have Dad's temper. We both even ended up in Gryffindor. That's okay, though. Just..." Here she sighed. "We're already famous, but we're expected to do great things and become even more famous on our own. It wasn't so bad at school; I was pretty smart, I think––"
"You usually got top marks."
She flushed. "Sometimes. I was never very good at taking exams. But it was different at home. I suppose I don't know why, either. I grew up in such a loving environment, it doesn't make sense."
Scorpius nodded. "That's something of how it was for me, minus the genius mother... And the brother. I never liked being an only child."
A crooked smile wended its way onto her lips. "Be careful what you wish for," she said, nearly laughing. "It usually wasn't just Hugo and I in one place, but all of our cousins. I've got ten of them."
"That is a little much," he agreed, but he sounded wistful, all the same.
Rose glanced up at the sky, at the way the firelight cast flickering shadows onto the treetops. She was beginning to feel peaceful, as if she were here by choice, and not chance.
"I never ran away, though," she said.
"Which is why you were in Gryffindor, probably. Escapism doesn't quite go hand-in-hand with courage."
She shook her head. "No, it's not that. It was more that I was afraid of how my parents would worry when I was gone. They'd probably have sent all of Wizarding Britain out to search for me, anyway, and I didn't want to leave Hugo. There's nothing courageous about fear. And besides," she added, "I was almost sorted into Ravenclaw."
That made him smile. "Me too," he told her. "I'm also a lot like my mother."
Rose paused. "Is it different for you, now that you've grown up?"
"Not really. Father did a lot after the War. It's hard to live up to."
"I know what you mean."
Occupied by their discourse, they had not noticed that the temperature had continued to drop, but with a temporary lapse of silence upon them, it became uncomfortably apparent. Where the fire's heat did not immediately touch, there were thin lines of frost tracing delicate patterns around the edges of fallen leaves. And then suddenly, something tiny and blueish-white spiraled out of the sky, disappearing with a sizzle as it met the fire.
Scorpius stared. "It can't be..."
Together, they looked up. More tiny flakes were falling toward them, and the frost seemed to spread, now undaunted by the warmth. It came at them like an ocean wave.
"What is this place?" Rose gasped, scrambling to her feet. Scorpius was quickly at her side. The fire to their backs, they faced the onslaught of frost, while snow collected heavily in their hair.
It was winter now; there could not be any doubt of that. The air smelled differently than it had when they had arrived, a cool autumn morning then. The cold had become tangible. Quickly, Rose conjured a pair of gloves for herself, and a pair for Scorpius; as she turned to hand them to him, he was already wrapping a thick, grey scarf around his neck. He thanked her for the gloves.
"Is this where you tell me we ought to huddle together for warmth?" she asked weakly.
For the first time, she saw him smirk, and then he rolled his eyes. "We might be better off running."
"Running where?" she wondered aloud, serious again. "The snow will be everywhere we try to go."
"But it's not... It's not normal snow, or frost, is it? It's as if it's alive, or something."
Rose considered what that would mean as the icy blanket swept closer. If something was alive, that meant it could feel, could even possess some semblance to emotion. Could it be capable of fear?
"Scare it away," she murmured.
"Scare it away! Use fire!" She yanked her wand out of her pocket. "Incendio!"
The frost and snow halted as they met the fiery blast from Rose's wand; she could almost feel them questioning, calculating, wondering. Quivering.
"Scorpius!" she cried.
He caught her meaning, and drew his wand.
"INCENDIO!" they bellowed together. The two same spells combined, rushing out in a solid mass of crackling orange and blue flame.
Engulfed and melting, Winter's might fell back, and then retreated.
"Are you all right?" Scorpius asked. His voice was uneven, and he kept his eyes upon the moonlit trail of frost, watching it even after it had disappeared from sight.
"Bloody. Hell," was Rose's only response. She sank to her knees wearily.
The attack had shaken them, transforming the night from one of comfort to one of unease. Every sound thereafter, even that of the wood shifting in the campfire, caused them to start, or their eyes to dart up expectantly. Instead of sitting apart as they had done before, they huddled side-by-side, elbows touching lightly as they leaned their backs against the sheer, flat face of the rock behind them.
"Do you suppose it'll be back?" Rose asked once.
"I don't know."
She was silent for a while.
"Is this the sort of thing our parents had to face?"
They did not speak much after that, for words made them weary. In the end, Rose fell asleep against Scorpius's shoulder, breathing deeply in troubled dreams.
The next morning was bright, the stillness of the hour punctuated by the drip, drip, dripping of clear liquid from the trees; spring had come to dissolve the cold. Birds sang freely.
Feeling stiff, Rose opened her eyes. She felt warm, and her feet were bare, though she did not remember removing her shoes. There was dew in her hair, and pale flower petals had scattered themselves over the forest floor like leaves. Moss coated the lee of the rock. No longer was Rose leaning against Scorpius; instead, moist, springy ground cradled her head.
She sat up. The fire still smoldered within its circle, but Scorpius was not crouched beside it, nor did he seem to be anywhere nearby. Alarmed, Rose stood. There were no footprints, no indentation in the earth where he had slept. It was as if he had never existed at all, and she had always been alone.
"Scorpius?" she called. Her voice echoed in the awakening wood. "Scorpius! Where are you?"
But he was gone.
Reluctant as she was to leave their campsite, Rose decided it was best to continue on, if only for a short while. If need be, she could always turn back––at least, so she hoped. She did not think of food, for in this place she felt no hunger; she thought only of Scorpius. Where had he gone?
It was warm, and she moved to shrug off her coat, but only then did she notice that it, too, was gone; her scarf, her gloves, the many layers she had donned the day before––all were gone. In their place was a loose, off-white cotton dress, something that would have been at home in a painting, or a field full of fairies and lightning bugs. She fought the urge to braid her hair. There was a thin circlet of purple flowers tied around her wrist.
And then she saw the first shoe.
It lied there in the middle of the path, appearing at first as a rock; but a step closer and a sharpening of the eyes revealed laces and a shape too human to have been created naturally. Moss ran up its sides, and a mushroom had sprouted from the heel, yet Rose still recognized it.
It was Scorpius's shoe, and it looked as if it had been there, right there, in its place on the path, for months. All of winter. Part of spring.
The sight made her heart thrum like a frightened bird. It had crossed her mind that perhaps he had left her of his own will sometime during the night, that for some reason unknown he could no longer tolerate her company. But perhaps he had never meant to leave her at all. Rose felt her face go white, for just an instant too cold despite the sun. She drew her wand. What if he was hurt? Foolishly, she thought nothing of her own danger.
She studied the shoe a moment, the way it was angled. Where one shoe lies, there must be its match nearby; if not here, then farther down. In the connecting of two dots, there was a chance that they would create a trail. Breadcrumbs. She scooped her hair out of her eyes and looked around her. There was so much green now, so much life, that it was nearly enough to blind her; it might as well have been covered in snow again, for it all appeared the same. Her head spun. Sleep dusted her gaze. But it was beautiful... all... so... beautiful...
Rose closed her eyes. Calm, she thought. Think. Move. Simple, monosyllabic words to cut through the encroaching haze.
Opening her eyes, she squinted, fighting against the unseen force that seemed intent upon reversing her actions.
There. Another anomaly in the scene. She struggled toward it, bare feet heavy and awkward, until she was close enough to touch it and brush away the moss.
When she did, she briefly drew back in surprise; it was her own shoe this time, worm holes chewed into the toe. She staggered past it, giving it only a sidelong glance more. There had to be another shoe...
There was. And another. And another. They were all unfamiliar now, everything from a lady's pointed slipper to a baby's tiny boot; and they were all older, decaying. Rose did not touch them, for they unnerved her. No longer did they seem whimsical, but wild, and sad. Magic lingered here, but not of a kind that she knew.
She followed the trail of stolen shoes, each shoe placed closer and closer to the next the more she passed, until they bent around an unforeseen curve. At that she paused, an indescribable sensation washing over her; but she soon pressed it from her thoughts.
On she went, only to stop at the base of the Tree.
Thick and gnarled, it stretched up only half as high as any of the others around it, yet it seemed to tower above them, casting them all in its shadow even though there was no visible darkness. Its branches, too many to count, reached out like old hands; its trunk was so wide that if she chose to walk briskly around it, it would have taken over a minute. If there had been five of her, together they could not have put their arms around its girth.
And scattered about the roots, and hung from the branches, were the shoes. Hundreds and hundreds of shoes. Some swayed in a breeze she could not feel, like wind chimes, others crouched in cave-like holes of dirt beneath upturned roots, as if alive and hiding. Once, she almost thought she saw a face, but it disappeared when she whipped her head back around to look.
Birds did not sing here, but there was still song.
Rose moved closer to the tree, beginning to pace slowly around it. She did not know why. It drew her in, as if to orbit. Closer and closer, to something.
That was when she found Scorpius.
He was draped across the roots in a place that seemed to cradle him carefully. His eyes were closed, and he looked peaceful but for the odd downward twist in one corner of his mouth. Just as had happened to her, his clothes had been replaced; he now wore a loose white shirt that came almost to the bottom of his shorts. They made him seem smaller, like a child.
"Scorpius?" she whispered, picking her way among the roots until she stood beside him. For a moment, panic gripped her, and she thought he might be dead, but then she saw his chest slowly rise and fall as he breathed.
Rose bit her lip. "Wake up," she said.
He did not.
Reaching out her hands, she tried to touch him, but something was wrong. His skin, though pale and smooth in appearance, felt rough, and dry. There were hidden cracks and curves, and when she pulled her hands away, her fingertips contained a thin coating of dark dirt.
He felt like bark.
Now she was truly frightened.
"SCORPIUS!" she screamed. "SCORPIUS!"
She pulled at him, clawed at the space around and beneath him so that whatever held him captive would release him. She tried to hold his hand, so that any part of him that was sill present would grab hold, and she could yank him safely away. But he was solid, immobile; he was a part of the Tree.
A line of perspiration ran down her spine like a chill, and tears she was unwilling to shed clouded at her eyes. Never before had she experienced such helplessness, and it angered her as much as it terrified her.
"LET... GO!" she cried.
She gave one final, desperate tug, and the ground opened up beneath her.
Scorpius's legs were tangled with hers and their noses were almost touching. Groaning, Rose rolled to the side to extricate herself. She felt her head and checked her limbs for cuts and bruises, but she seemed unharmed, aside from a bit of dirt.
Next, she looked to Scorpius. He was the real Scorpius this time, and within a moment or two of feeling her touch him, his eyes shot open, and he sat up with a jolt. Unfocused and distrusting, his gaze slid around directionless until it came to rest upon her.
"Careful," Rose told him. "It's just me."
He relaxed when he recognized her, and there was a small part of her that triumphed to bring him comfort.
"Where are we?" he asked, somewhat groggily.
"It's difficult to say," Rose replied slowly. "I think, right now... we're in a tree."
"Do you remember anything?"
He shook his head, and then winced. "Not really."
"You disappeared last night," she began, "and this morning, I found you here. Or, 'here,' more or less. There's something even more peculiar about this place than we thought."
She told him what had happened. As they spoke, their voices hit deadened, darkened walls, and it was as if the sound was absorbed into them.
Scorpius shook his head again, toying with the strange cloth of his new shirt. "The last thing I remember is being by the fire," he said. "With you."
"I'm glad you're all right."
Their eyes met, and then departed. Rose swallowed.
"How did you remember me?" she blurted suddenly. "Yesterday, I mean, right when we had got here. You acted like you knew me. Like you weren't surprised that you had ended up here with me. But we've only ever spoken once before."
There was a long silence.
"I saw you across the street," he began at length, "when you were in the park. I haven't... talked to anyone from Hogwarts in over a year, haven't even seen anyone. I was startled to find you there."
"I like Muggle London," she shrugged. "Why didn't you come over? I wasn't with anyone."
Matching her shrug, he kept his eyes on his feet. "Like you said, we'd only ever spoken once before that. And if you haven't noticed, I'm not particularly adept at being social." A half-smile.
"But how on earth did you remember me?" she asked again. "I hardly ever saw you."
"Well... you were hard to miss."
"I mean," he said hastily, "I mean, everyone knew who you were. And... when I was younger, your uncle––Harry Potter, that is––he'd visit with Father sometimes. He'd mention his family. He'd mention you and your brother, often. They'd tell stories like they were old friends. It doesn't really make sense, I suppose, since... well. They didn't used to be. But you know that. I liked being at home when he came."
Rose sucked in her breath, suddenly ashamed, but she could not quite place her finger on an explanation for it. Her father had talked only of his own schooldays.
"I wish I'd heard stories about you when I was little," she murmured. "I wish... I wish I'd known you."
What a pity, it seemed, to have gone so many years without knowing him, actually knowing him. They had so much in common. It was not the first time in recent memory that she had felt the sentiment.
"Anyway, that was how I knew you," he concluded, almost embarrassed. "I was surprised that you grabbed me, though. And that we ended up here."
She nodded. "Wherever here is."
They paused once more, as if waiting for something to occur; and when it did not, Scorpius spoke.
"Well, come on," he said, rising. In a familiar gesture, he held out his hand, and after Rose took it and was on her feet, she did not let go. She could feel his eyes upon her, questioning, but she only looked straight ahead into the darkness with a smile.
A maze of long, earthen tunnels stretched every which way, gaping black mouths that led to unknown destinations. Rose could not decide whether they were still inside the tree once they reached the tunnel entrances, or if they had proceeded somehow underground.
"Lumos," Scorpius muttered, shining his wandlight into the nearest tunnel. Even reaching as far as it could, there were still only shadows at the end.
"I suppose there's no use in splitting up," Rose said wryly.
Scorpius did not bother even to roll his eyes at that.
"We ought to just pick one," he suggested at last. "They're all the same until we do."
Again, he surprised her. Though she had not grown up hearing stories about him, she had certainly been privy to tales about his father. Scorpius did not act like any other Slytherins she had known; he was brave, reasonable. She considered telling him this, but found the words too silly to say aloud.
They chose the widest tunnel, and began to wander down it. Rose kept her wand aloft, angled more toward the ceiling, and Scorpius kept his pointed more downward toward the ground, to prevent them from wandering or falling into something at their feet. They kept quiet, on the chance that they were not alone in that unknown space.
Eventually, the ground began to slope steadily upward, until it became a veritable climb, exhausting and almost completely vertical. Rocks jutted out of the floor and walls, and were soon the only things to keep them from tumbling down the way they had come. Even so, Rose felt her fingers grow perilously sweaty and her feet slip far too often for comfort; she attempted several Charms, both on the rocks and on herself, but nothing seemed to stick.
"There's one there," Scorpius said once when she felt she was stuck. He pointed as best he could without letting go to a foothold she had not seen.
"Thanks," she said, gritting her teeth. She shifted her feet.
As they climbed, the air grew lighter, clearer. It did not become thin, as it sometimes does after ascending great heights. At least, then, it was not difficult to breathe.
Rose still panted from the exertion, however, and could hear Scorpius doing the same just slightly above her. This sort of exercise was not customary to her––to their?––lifestyle; danger of this variety was no less uncommon.
Then, all of a sudden, there was light shining down upon them. Sunlight. And there was a decisive end to the floor-turned-wall that they had been scaling; cutting off abruptly above, it appeared to be like the flat top of a cliff. Arched above it was the exit of the tunnel. Rose blinked, eyes watering in the unexpected stream of light. There had been no sign of it from below, and now she felt the dizzying sense of vertigo; the world had twisted and turned while they crawled through darkness.
Scorpius reached the top before her, and guided her up the remainder of the way. As he was intent upon this, and his back was to the exit, Rose was the first to see what lie beyond the tunnel.
Struggling onto flat and solid ground, she gasped. Scorpius, once he had led her away from the edge, let his mouth fall open slightly.
Outside it was summer, but that was not the most striking thing. What caught their breath, stole it, was the garden. More beautiful than anything a human eye had ever seen, one could not describe it. It simply was, though such a definition seemed understated.
Thin, silver trees with shining leaves ran thick, purple-flowered vines wending around their trunks like an embrace. Blossoms of all colors––unreal colors––were clustered everywhere in natural bouquets; the air was thick with their scent. In the middle, or what seemed the middle, babbled a narrow, twisting brook, its water a shimmering blue; it curled around a stone fountain that spat liquid gold. Moss-covered cobblestones disappeared in blankets behind deep, green hedges, tiny, colored lights fluttering amongst their branches.
Rose could not tell where the garden began or ended; there seemed to be no walls, and yet it possessed the feeling of comfortable containment.
But something was off, an uneasy shiver amidst the summer air. Rose glanced around, trying to detect the source of her discomfort, and then she saw it.
There were people in the garden, all dressed in the loose white clothing that she had ceased to notice some time ago. None of them wore shoes, and they meandered about as if they could see no one else, and were all alone in the wonder surrounding them.
"Look," she said, but Scorpius was already looking.
The people were like ghosts. They almost seemed to float, and their hair was always windswept, never still.
Soon, a woman appeared, lovelier even than the garden itself, though she wore the same plain garb as everyone else. Her hair was a deep, earthy brown that shone with her soft eyes. Her skin was pale, her structure lithe, as if her bones were made of willow branches. Rose thought her simply to be one of the others until the woman looked up, straight at Scorpius and Rose, and her pink lips curved at the strange intruders.
"Hello," said the woman, for in a split-second, she was right before them, acting as though she had never moved at all. Her voice was like lavender. "Welcome to my garden."
"Who are you?" Rose demanded. She did not trust the beautiful woman, and did not like the way that Scorpius stared at her.
"I am the Keeper," was the only reply she received. Her expression, calm as it was, refused any queries of further explanation.
Rose did not care. "Of what?" she pressed. "Of them?" She gestured around to the people.
The Keeper cast her a thin, almost friendly smile.
"At least tell me where we are." Rose nudged Scorpius slightly, and he blinked, shutting his mouth.
The Keeper nodded. "You are in the Forest of Seasons," she said. "It is the place to which you go when there are no other places left."
That explained the changing weather well enough, but satisfied nothing else.
"Is that what happened to them, then?" Rose asked, once again glancing at the ghostly forms. They seemed to flicker at the attention. "Did they have no place left?"
"Everyone who comes here," said the Keeper, "believes that."
"So then it's not true? They do have some place left, all of them."
"The ones that remain are blind to it."
"But there's still hope for them to escape."
The Keeper shook her head. "No. Not anymore. They have already made their choice."
"That's not fair," Scorpius mumbled, voice like sleepy syrup. "They're prisoners here."
"Have you not considered yourselves? Are you both not also prisoners until you choose?"
Rose stopped, and then confessed, "I don't understand."
The woman stepped closer, and kneeled down to meet their eyes, for they still sat in their observation. "Everyone who comes here," she said, "is given a choice, no matter their origins or their thoughts. They may either stay in my garden, or leave."
"But they don't have a choice," Rose said, frowning. She dug her fingers into the soft earth beneath and watched as the sun played at the surface of the brook. "You kidnap them once they're in the forest, instead of allowing them to come to you, or to wander out alone."
"No one may wander the Forest of Seasons forever, for it leads nowhere. A pathless path is never safe or true."
"So you say. But then why doesn't everyone leave?"
"Because you must leave something of yourself behind to do so: the thing that is closest to your heart."
Before she could stop herself, Rose looked askance at Scorpius, and he at her. She flushed, feeling foolishly smitten and indiscreet.
The Keeper laughed. "No, not that. It is too soon for you, and for that, you are lucky. You must only part with a piece of yourself."
"Oh, yes, because that's only a trifle."
"It is not. Come with me."
She beckoned to them in a subtle, windy motion, and they followed without hesitation, only realizing what they had done until they stopped beside her. They were at the edge of the brook, their toes sinking comfortably in the damp bank. With a wave of her hand, the woman stopped the steady flow of the water, and their reflections gazed up at them as clear as glass.
Reaching into Scorpius's reflection without the faintest ripple, she withdrew several folded papers and held them out for the real Scorpius to take. He furrowed his brow in confusion until he apparently recognized what he was being given.
"My letters!" he exclaimed, and then looked furious. "Those were destroyed!"
"Nothing is beyond repair here," the Keeper told him gently.
Rose peered at the papers, suddenly recognizing them herself. She had seen them unceremoniously tossed into the fire the night before, burned with a bitterness that could not come from flame.
Scorpius scowled, and shoved the letters back. "If that's what you want me to leave behind, then I've no trouble doing what you ask. You can have them. I never wanted them in the first place."
"They are yours to have, as they always were," said the Keeper, quietly tucking them into his grasp. "What you must leave behind is only your anger, nothing more."
"I'm only angry at you," he snapped. "You brought me here, and you gave these back."
"I am not the one who brought you here."
Rose looked down at her feet, suddenly feeling very conspicuous. She waited for him to lash out at her, to cut her. She could feel his hot stare. It had been her fault, after all. She had Apparated with no particular place in mind, she thought; Scorpius had simply been dragged along, an afterthought made to suffer the consequences of what she had done.
Her life was without direction; she had no place left to go.
She had had everything, and yet nothing. Shadows. She was not her own person, but could not claim to be a puppet. Who was she, then?
Seemingly far away, Scorpius's shoulders sagged in subtle defeat and exhaustion.
Rose remembered bowing her head down to the wind, facing into the rain as she hurried across a crowded London street. She remembered sharing an umbrella that was not hers, remembered sitting in the park an hour before, not minding as the misty droplets collected in her hair and lashes. She remembered glancing up, once, and noticing a man who might have been looking at her; he might have been familiar, too, but his stance was sad.
"And you," said the Keeper, turning to face her with little mercy. "You must leave your resentment."
She remembered the moment she first realized the bus was swerving toward them, just them, headlights like eyes in the grey. She remembered for a split-second wondering if she should simply stay there, not invincible, simply human, simply a name in watery newspaper print. She remembered shaking her head after that, shaking in reason; she saw it as a flash, like lightning. She remembered remembering herself, in the before, and when she reached out blindly in hope, she found a hand, and squeezed, and she thought of home.
Home was the in-between, after the before, and before the after. Yet she had never arrived, simply skipping over it in her hurt, and her refusal.
She had brought them here.
She remembered her mother, a tall, beautiful thing to young eyes. Proud. She remembered being driven from point to point, pushed toward success without pause by hands with expectations. Hands from all sides. She remembered the disappointment when she could not achieve what everyone expected, the consolation of a you'll try harder next time, I know you will; you can do better than that, you are better than that turning sour with the fervent whispers that happen behind closed doors.
She remembered the warmth of an embrace, and obtaining the unattainable smile like Mrs. Darling's Kiss. Rare. Cherished.
"So which will you choose?" asked the Keeper of them both. She held out her hands, palms facing upward toward the sky. An autumn leaf drifted toward them. "Will you stay, or will you go?"
The rain was still falling outside the window, striking the glass on the occasions it bent with the wind. The clouds were a dark grey, but not a gloomy one, as if they were cheered in spite of themselves by the very colors they concealed. There was a drumming against the sill as water splashed down from the gutters on the roof.
Rose watched this display from her corner chair, her knees pulled up to her chest thoughtfully.
The pensive line of her lips was instantly drawn into a smile; it was sunlight enough for a sterile hospital room.
Scorpius sat up in his bed, making a face upon remembering where he was.
"They let you out," he remarked.
"Finally," she huffed. "Such an unnecessary amount of fuss for a couple of scratches. The Healers had me sleeping, of all things. I see they've done the same to you."
Grimacing, he nodded. "Apparently, I sprained my wrist."
"Was that my fault?"
He snorted. "Hardly. If all those Muggles hadn't been jostling about trying to get out of the way, I never would have fallen. We're lucky we came back where we did."
Rose glanced down to her own wrist, where the bracelet of dried purple flowers still encircled it. "So it really did happen, then," she said, quiet. "That place."
It was not a question, but not a statement of fact, either. The in-between.
Scorpius's eyes were far away, but he flicked them briefly to the table beside Rose's chair. There were half-finished letters and already-addressed envelopes there, fresh bottles of ink. A stack of old, folded papers stood beside them.
"I don't know," he admitted after a moment. "But I think so."
A beat. "Me too."
"I think I'm going to live there. In London, I mean."
"I want to get away from everything, but not..." She frowned. "But not for the same reasons as I did before. I'm tired of not knowing where I ought to be, so I'm making a choice. I told Mum," she added. "She's okay. I told her I know what I'm doing."
"Do you?" A little teasing.
"I think so." Mattress sinking under her weight, she sat down on the edge of the bed. "What about you? What will you do?"
"I'll start by doing what I should have a long time ago, I suppose," he shrugged with another glance at the letter-covered table, and then he grinned wickedly. "Perhaps I'll ask your uncle for more stories. It's been a while."
She made a little groan, and leaned over to cup his cheeks in her palms. She stared at him for a moment, caught there like that at her fingertips. The rain was falling softer now. Something in his eyes unlocked.
"Let's just forget about the past," she said, and brought her lips to murmur against his.
With that, the last chills of winter melted away.