~ Chapter Seven ~
Narcissa and Severus spent the afternoon brewing a very powerful Draught of Living Death. The dose they would be giving Hermione would all but kill her, leaving only the barest of functions to prevent her from crossing over.
Lucius studied every variation of magic-binding charm he could find, wanting to be sure he found one that was quickly reversible.
Just before she was to leave, Hermione knocked on the door to the classroom, and Severus met her. He held her tightly, wishing he were well enough to venture out of the castle and feeling certain that she wasn't. After kissing her, he held her gaze and opened his whole heart to her with a look. "For the unicorns, it will help. If they ask why they should spare your life, tell them, know without a shadow of doubt, that there is someone who loves you. It is only the glimmer of what it will someday be, but I do love you."
"I will remember. I love you, too."
Hermione, flanked by Ron, Harry, Ginny, Neville, and Luna, prepared to go into the forest to ask the unicorns for a freely given offering of blood. Professor Grubbly-Plank had brought a vessel used only for unicorn blood and shown Ginny and Luna how to seal it so it would be safe no matter what happened to it.
Lucius left his studying to accompany the young adults to the edge of the forest. He would wait on the outside and watch for signs of trouble. They took four broomsticks with them for a fast getaway in case of trouble.
They walked through the forest, the row of young men following the row of young women. Hermione was the only one who could approach the unicorns, the only one not carrying a wand, and the one that had the deepest need. As before, they followed the stream. Luna was the first to see the unicorns. This time the two foals were accompanied by a female and a large male. She gestured for the boys to fall back. They were only to guard against centaurs now. Luna and Ginny stayed within sight, but did not cross the stream to the other side. Depending on the boots Narcissa had given her to keep her feet warm and dry, she slowly approached and did not attempt to touch. Kneeling on the ground before the mother, she pleaded with her words, eyes and heart.
"Please, an evil has touched me, and only an offering of your blood will preserve my life."
Meeting the male's gaze, she knew he was searching her very soul and finding her unworthy.
"Please, there is someone who loves me. If you will not for me, then for my friends who came with me into the forest to protect me, then for the man who has almost died and now needs me? He has sacrificed much for the protection of the young."
Tears flowed down Hermione's cheeks, and she was startled to feel a tiny tongue lick the tears away. Looking up at the foal, she felt that she had already been blessed. Even if she didn't live to solve the mysteries of the world, she had been touched by something pure and sacred.
She watched as the adults faced each other, knowing that the horseish nuzzling belied deep communion between the two magical creatures. In a flash of understanding, she saw that, though the unicorns were thought of by all as the creatures most closely associated with virgins, they knew ardor in their hearts--that the two golden foals had not come from some base instinct, but they were pure creatures that came from the purest passion.
Now, their mother stands, head bowed.
Now, their father makes a tiny, precise cut with his horn.
Now, the supplicant raises the vessel made to hold the shimmering essence that can save one from the very brink of death.
When the precise amount had been given, Hermione closed the lid and watched, still mesmerized, as the male licked the cut until the blood stopped and the wound healed. This creature had known pain for the sake of Hermione's life, but she would not carry a scar.
"Thank you," Hermione said as the unicorns nodded to her and disappeared into the forest.
Ginny splashed across the stream to take the vessel and seal it. Handing it to Luna, she helped Hermione back. When they reached a clearing, Ginny helped Hermione onto Ron's broomstick. Luna riding with Neville, the adults newly minted by war left the forest with their prize and a very tired Hermione, who had bathed in elemental magic.
When she woke up… when she opened her eyes, she realized that she wasn't awake. She was surrounded by silvery mist. She wasn't hot or cold. Her feet didn't feel wet, in fact she didn't feel anything.
"What happened?" she cried out, but no one was there to answer.
She began to panic. They hadn't let her say goodbye to anyone. She wasn't ready. She hoped someone would inquire after her parents. She didn't know where she was. She wasn't supposed to be alone.
"Severus! Severuuuuuus!" She fell to her knees in the mist, sobbing and crying out. He said he loved her. He had said she wouldn't be alone. "Severus, how will you find me?" she asked the mist.
She thought she heard voices. Standing up, she tried to walk toward them, but she was disoriented. The voices seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere. She wandered until she stumbled. Stumbled over nothing, over air, over mist?
"How will I find you?"
"There is no need, my love." Strong arms lifted her to her feet.
"Severus?" Those very arms lifted her off her feet and held her to his chest, to his heart.
"Yes. Did you doubt?"
He was carrying her through the mist, but she wasn't afraid anymore. He knew from whence the voices came, and he was taking her there.
"I was afraid. What happened?"
"Spontaneous magic. You didn't believe me, but your outpouring of love and gratitude manifested itself, and that was the last bit of magic you could handle. We'd planned so carefully to bring you to the point of death, but you always think you can do everything better."
"The antidote was for the Living Death. We didn't need that either. The unicorn's sacrifice caused your last outpouring of magic, and it is all Narcissa will need to bring you back at the right moment."
"I'm taking you to the room. This is what you did for me, though you did not know it. I followed your voice, and those of my other friends, back to my body. But you do not have as much time as I did, so I've come for you."
"Dreamer's Sleep. Look, that's us."
She turned her head to see the bedroom emerge from the mist. There was Severus, looking peaceful in sleep. There was herself looking… dead. She shivered.
"It will be alright. We can hear them if you listen. Listen to Narcissa."
Hermione strained to hear through the mist. "Her aura is reaching for him."
"Is that what I'm supposed to be doing?"
"Yes. It would not be wise to release your aura into the ether for fear it would never find it's way back. You need to reach for me with your aura."
"I can't see it. How can I do that?"
"See with your heart, my Hermione. Reach for me with your heart."
"How? I don't know what to do!"
Suddenly, Severus plunged them down until they were just hovering over his body. He positioned himself above his sleep-stilled form and then draped her over himself. "If you need a physical representation, then hold onto me here. Hold onto me with every fiber of your being until you don't know where you end and I begin."
Hermione clutched at him with her hands and then rearranged her hold until she was embracing him as tightly as she could.
"Now your legs, love. You can do it."
She wrapped her legs around his waist, locking her ankles together behind him.
A disembodied voice cut through the haze. "It's working. He must have found her. She's bridging the gap."
"Closer, love. You must get closer. Lift your face to mine."
She instinctively obeyed, and he met her mouth in a searching, devouring kiss. He would have stolen her breath had there been any to steal. He caressed her in places his real hands had not yet dared, but he needed to incite her desire. She gasped and cried out and kissed harder. As though suddenly frustrated with his lack of leverage, he rolled her over in mid air and took control. Clothes meant as little to them as cold or gravity or the hard ground. Though removed from their physical bodies, they were becoming one. Hermione felt him grinding against her, and suddenly he occupied all of her senses.
She had never seen her aura or Severus', but she suddenly found herself engulfed in that peridot glow that someone had once described to her and knew that their auras had fused.
She was suddenly very tired, as though they had physically joined. She felt the illusion of gravity asserting itself, but suddenly, he flipped them again, and she was again draped as though boneless over his body.
"You need to hold on a little longer. Your aura has anchored itself; now Lucius is binding your magic."
"I'm tired, Severus. I want to go back."
"You can't. Not yet. Stay with me. Focus on me." He shifted them until she was propped in his lap. "Look, you're so interested in synergy. Watch Lucius and Narcissa."
"Hermione, look. That is synergy, the magic that is produced by two people who have loved each other for decades."
"Some day we'll have that."
"I will need nothing more out of life when we do, my love." He held her to himself, and she began to relax. "No! Not yet. Stay awake. Stay with me. Watch."
Hermione pried her eyes open and was in awe. From her vantage point, she saw two fair heads bent over her body: arms and wands and voices in perfect unison. The power blew through their unbound hair, giving them an even more ethereal appearance. They reminded her of the two unicorns, two magical creatures living in one accord.
"Will we have children, Severus?"
"If you want them, we will."
"I will. I've been thinking I wanted to become an Unspeakable--to study love and synergy. I don't think I would really understand it until I've experienced it for myself."
"Well, do you think we can spend some time experiencing love and synergy before we start experiencing parenthood?"
"Absolutely. We're still young. We've got plenty of time." She leaned her head up for a soft kiss. Moments later, he took control of the kiss. She sighed in deep satisfaction, then felt a shiver. "What was that?"
"That was the curse. I didn't want you to see it."
"So they did it? It's gone?"
"It certainly appears to be that way."
"Now they have to restore your magic."
With elegant sweeps and chanted words, Hermione's magic was restored to her body. It was strange to watch Lucius prop her up and Narcissa pour the unicorn blood down her throat, but she felt warmer somehow when they were done.
"And now…" Severus manipulated the ether and stood her in the air. Bending for the lightest of kisses, he said, "You may return to your lovely body and wake up."
"I don't want to leave you yet."
"I'm right there."
Hermione whispered into Narcissa's ear, "Put me back with Severus." She watched with satisfaction as Lucius picked her up and placed her at Severus' side. Squeezing his hand, she said, "Now I'm ready to go back."
Floating through the green and gold haze, she retook control of her body just as Severus regained control of his.
Hermione took gasping breaths as she reacquainted herself with the practice, then reached for Severus and fell contentedly asleep, knowing she was safe in his arms and secure in his love.
~ Epilogue ~
As a teenager, Severus had enjoyed sitting under this particular tree. Here he'd shared secrets with his childhood sweetheart when the leaves clung autumn-hued to the branches. Here he'd yelled nasty insults at her when the tree was full of hearty summer foliage.
He had thought it was her forgiveness he'd lacked all those years until another young woman stormed into his life and taught him that he was worth forgiving but that he had to forgive himself. He had never before experienced the intensity of such unwavering, unconditional love. She wanted to study the magic of love, and he thought she was uniquely qualified to unlock the mysteries of that which had saved her life.
It wasn't in the study of essays, letters, or sonnets that she would gain insight into that unutterable magic. It was the way she knew when to argue and when to listen. It was kissing him even though he had morning breath. It was accepting his friends and standing by him even when the world didn't know what to do with him.
When the Prophet had announced that he was alive, her friends had figured out that her speech to the unicorns had referred to him. Ron had apparently turned uncomplimentary shades of red and green.
The Ministry had awarded Severus the Order of Merlin, First Class, then placed him under house arrest at Hogwarts.
Inhaling the breeze blowing off the Lake, Severus thought that he was only missing one thing that would make his 'incarceration' utter paradise.
And there she was in a yellow sundress, hair bouncing. He had suggested a conditioning formula to replace her Muggle one, and the result was simply magic. He couldn't quite see what she was brandishing, but her words floated down to him.
"Severus, I got accepted!"
"Which program?" he asked when she got closer, knowing only one answer would produce that level of excitement.
"Unspeakables. They liked my essay. I won't be taking my N.E.W.T.s until December, but I'll never have to return to Hogwarts as a student."
"That's too bad. I was thinking it was time for your private tutorial."
Pressing a light kiss to his lips, she gestured at the landscape. "I like the way you've decorated your office, Professor."
Severus suddenly found himself Disillusioned and under the faint buzzing of a Muffliato.
Their minds had reached out for each other; their hearts had touched. After days that felt like weeks, they had discovered synergy on a physical level, and Severus had had the honor of separating Hermione forever from the creatures who had saved her life. Neither thought it was a sacrifice.
~ the end ~
A/N: Yay, the end! Thank you so very much to everyone who reviewed! You're an amazing encouragement. Thanks for your patience, too!
Thanks to Southern Witch for the fast beta when I was first trying to get this done for the exchange. Thanks to Lauren who took the time to make wording and flow suggestions as I nervously prepared to archive this baby of mine. Thanks to my Hubby who listened to me go on and on about every aspect of this as I wrote and edited and edited again.
Thanks again to the whole fandom for providing so many neat ideas that I integrated into this story. I hope some of you readers have enjoyed the stories that inspired me as I wrote this.