LL Chapter 6

Meditate.

How was he supposed to bloody meditate with her warmth cradled along one side of his chilled body throwing his temperature-balance off?

—With her words and deeds and eyes slicing through his thoughts like a bronze blade?

He shuffled his arms a bit more comfortably across his abdomen and sneered at her sleeping form. How! How was he supposed to…Well, he damned-well couldn’t. All of his meditation techniques centered around deprivation and focus, neither of which was possible in his current state or location.

And she was sleeping. How was she sleeping?

He sighed and cast his gaze about the unkempt autumn garden for any sort of answer, to any of his questions.

Shadows crept slowly across the night and the bricked wall surrounding the garden. Dark, leafy fronds curled like gnarled fingers, grasping at the flora dying beneath it as those same fronds were overtaken by great, choking vines of ivy that draped over anything beneath it like a heavy cloak. The overall appearance was a hide-and-seek game of mythical creatures—Adhene—that his mind made of the shadow-shapes, coming to steal a wife or child hidden in the landscape.

Ha. Adhene. Now there was a bit of knowledge from his previous life. He knew the creatures wouldn’t fit in his shaded fantasy, either, especially as he watched his—what? Companion? Duenna?—sleep opposite him. The mythical Manx fairy ignored anyone with a merciful quest and Hermione certainly was no babe or wife.

Severus shook his head free of wandering nonsense and tried to stare at nothing, still incredulous that she was able to steal sleep. It seemed as if she’d stolen that from him as well, but for some gods-forsaken reason, he couldn’t quite hold that candle beneath her feet.

His breathing gradually evened out and that nothing that he so intently focused on became a blurred and opaque movement as his eyes dried without their blinking lubrication and a breeze bent the branching canopies above him. He blinked his vision back to normal and sought out the source of light, a pinprick or a gleam in the corner of his eye. A streetlight.

Finally, as he rested his head back against the twined cotton ropes, another gentle, chilly breeze showed him the twinkling of a star through a break in the boughs and his eyes latched on the dark spot like a focus.

He immediately sharpened on the idea with alacrity. At last! A focus!

Breathing deeply to calm himself again—in, out…in…out—he settled his mind and sought the quiet place in his mind that held—

Something zipped by his vision, something dark, flying—probably a bat or a bird—but his concentration was now completely broken.

He gritted his teeth and tried again.

Breathing. Stillness. Peace. Quiet.

Chirping.

Bollocks.

He glared in the general direction of the shapeless bush the insect noise came from and it instantly stilled. Hmph. Bully to know he was still good at something.

His brows knitted at that problematic thought. Would he ever truly know what he used to be like? Should that be his concern, or should he simply focus on the future? Was he brought back to live from here forward, or to correct the past? How could he correct a past he could not remember?

Hmm. Well, at least, not completely. He looked at his hammock-companion as she shifted slightly in her apparent sleep. How could she have possibly fallen asleep so quickly?

A group of chimney sweeps caught his attention and twittered in a line from one roof to another.

How was he supposed to meditate with all this noise? Looking back at her, he remembered her promise to help him meditate. A promise she was not fulfilling by sleeping. He exhaled and tapped Hermione’s leg.

She startled awake, but moved no more than by a jerk of her head, interestingly enough. “Hrmph?” If someone had done the same to him, he’d have hexed them before…

Dammit, how could he know that? He didn’t…couldn’t. Just like he couldn’t meditate and it was like chewing glass to admit it. “I can’t do it.” Before she asked the obvious, as she was in no state of mind to risk intelligence, he clarified, “Meditate. I can’t focus enough to do it.”

She blinked and stifled a yawn behind the back of her hand. “You can’t do something? Someone call the Prophet. Preposterous.” She closed her eyes and settled back, mumbling as she did so, “Why don’t you just go to sleep and we’ll try in the morning? You’re probably just tired.”

He blinked. Impertinence! Perhaps he’d been wrong about her merciful intentions and the Adhene had reason to come for her: selfish, lazy, inconstant child that she was. He tapped her leg again.

“What.” She sighed and glared between very narrowed lids at him.

“Are you so easily led from your helpful intentions when your own needs are not so readily met?”

She shifted into more of a sitting position and pushed a bit of hair out of her face, hammock swinging dangerously as he grappled the edges to keep from falling. “Regardless of what you may think, Severus, sleep is a general requirement of the human condition.”

He pulled one hand free from its white-knuckled hold on the ropes and pointed to himself. “Yes, and that is something which I will not be able to reach unless I can meditate.”

“I’m not stopping you.” She groused. How could she grouse at him? He was the offended party, here, not she!

Time to point that out! “Nor are you helping me. As you said you would.”

She stared at him and huffed, apparently thinking this over. “You won’t let me sleep unless I help you meditate, will you?”

He arched both brows at her amazing observational skills. Truly deductive reasoning at work, here.

She snorted as if she’d heard him. He blinked but she responded before he could. “Alright. Hang on a sec.” She wriggled around to reach her pocket and pulled out her wand. He tensed. Did she have no respect for his wishes at all?

“Hush. This will help.”

Unless she was able to cast a spell to send him directly there, he was highly doubtful. “How?”

Lumos.” She held the lit wand between them. “Use this as a focus and I’ll talk you through the rest.”

He eyed the pale, pulsating wandlight doubtfully. “Talk?”

“You’ll see. It’s something I’ve done myself to find answers to difficult problems, only I get someone else to talk me through it.” Something nagging in the back of his brain told him she’d always been this irritatingly autocratic with her methods.

He narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t a problem, or a question, Hermione.” Adding particular emphasis to sneering her name, he continued as if she were a rather dense pupil, “It’s a place. It is a part of my mind.”

She rolled her eyes at him—the gall of the witch!—and sighed, “I know, I know. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something different, alright?”

She’d tried to soften her dismissal of his doubt with a small smile, lax though the effort was.

He pursed his lips and sighed out his nose. What choice did he have?

Watching her finger slide infinitesimally up her wand, he observed the light ampering up the tip by a fraction. Something about her was there for him to trust. Why else did his mind remember her as one of the few during his breach with sanity?

All he could think at the moment was: She’d bloody well better be good at this.

He stared hard at her and she did nothing but return the glare.

“Very well. Proceed.”

He couldn’t decide if he should be amused or irritated that she actually preened—birdlike—with a slight smile and leaned forward a few inches. “As I said, focus on the light as I talk you through the scenario.”

Slowly, deliberately, he relinquished control of his locked gaze with hers to drop his line of sight down to the wandlight between them.

“Relax as much as you can.”

He sighed again through his nose and settled as comfortably as the hammock would allow with two people.

“Now, I want you to picture a path. Build it in your mind, what does it look like, how does it feel beneath your feet, what surrounds it?”

He kept his sight on the light and obediently thought of an uneven sandstone path, broken and pocked, gorse and hogweed nearly obscuring it.

“When you have your path, walk down it. Enjoy the walk. Relax as you do so and clear your mind as much as you can. You’re enjoying your walk.”

Was she going to talk the entire time? “Not with your nattering.”

“Hush and take the path, Professor.”

He felt himself arch his right brow but kept his eyes closed. “Formalities, Miss Granger?”

“Path. Walk. Or I go back to sleep.”

“Very well.” He mentally brushed through the flowering weeds and looked down at the foreign-but-not black, leather-soled shoes that scuffed against the sandstone. He was entirely clothed in black, it seemed. Hmm.

The path continued in its redundancy for several steps and in its repetition, he found, much to his surprise, the quietude he’d been searching, rather than the annoyance of a recurring scene he’d expected.

“Up ahead, you will see the path fork. If you take the right fork, you will come to a building. If you take the left fork, you will come to a person. Both will be favored and respected. Which do you choose?”

His mind conjured the fork as well as a large, hulking shadow outlined with parapets and turrets in the swirling mist to his right. The left held a maze of boxwood and yew in an intricate knot, the center of which held the person she suggested.

The place held information but the person held answers. “I choose the person.”

Her voice filtered into his mind, almost far-away, now. “Follow the path as you will to the person. Ask them the question you most desire answered and they will answer it, but once they answer the question they will have to leave, so ask carefully.”

His steps on the path faltered and he turned back to look behind him. Nothing but heathered moor and Giant-thrown stumps of granite there now. No turning back.

Why did that feel familiar? Achingly so?

Every step seemed to lengthen the distance between him and his goal, but he continued, even when he had to backtrack through a maze that, by all rights, he should have known impeccably. It was of his own design in his own mind, after all.

So his own mind wished to occlude him from his goal? Why?

Was it because he didn’t want to know the answers or because he didn’t want to know who was going to give him the answers?

He remembered the kitchen incident with a pang of anxiety somewhere beneath his sternum but kept his focus on finding his way through to the center of the maze. It was that important to get to his Safe Place, now. He peered over the hedges into the gloaming mist and half-heartedly wished he’d chosen the right path instead of the left.

With another nostriled sigh, he forged ahead, cursing his own mind for inventing such a ridiculous occlusion as a maze-knot.

He paused halfway through the next step.

This was his own creation.

He looked at the waxy leaves shimmering in the evening air and wondered if he really should force the situation.

Should he?

Well, it might take forever to wend through this fencing, so why not?

At that thought, the ground grumbled and snaked the roots of boxwood and yew directly in front of him, away. There was suddenly a clear, ten-pace path between Severus and the person that held his answers.

They stared silently at one another, one ever-patient and omnipotent, the other so full of questions he had immense difficulty choking down the outpouring of so much to the one most important thing he needed right now: information on how to get to his Safe Place.

“Severus.”

His heart slammed into his spine, wracking against the knobs of bone and asking to rupture. The construct had initiated conversation? If he responded, would he disappear without telling him what he wanted to know?

“Severus, while our Miss Granger is indeed rather clever, she does not, as you and others have put it, ‘know it all’. You can talk to me.”

His brain shuddered, numb, for once. “H-how?” Was that his voice? So broken…gravelled. Not the weapon he’d spent decades refining…

The aged man smiled kindly over his half-moon spectacles and closed the distance between them, his suede slippers toeing out from underneath his heavy, silk lavender robes that caught on the hogweed at his knees. “The same way you so deftly cleared the obstruction between us, my boy. I am a part of your mind.”

He stopped advancing when the two of them were close enough for Severus to smell…lemons? He wanted to close his eyes to analyze the complex scent more, but weren’t his eyes already closed? Would this scene disappear if he did so?

Even as his doubts tumbled through his mind, he realized the churning, wailing abyss of questions he wanted to ask this man had suddenly vanished.

A low hum thread below his hearing, deep in his brain, something he knew to be a sign of stress or anxiety. He’d come here for something so specific, but how could he possibly choose just one question to ask this man? And in that panicked thought, every question he’d had, fled.

So he stared.

Thoughts of what happened in the kitchen less than an hour ago shot fear up his spine. There was something so…avuncular…so comforting and necessary about this man.

So why was there such a complete and utter feeling that somewhere along the lines, Severus had betrayed their relationship…broken it beyond repair? Why would he do such a thing when somewhere else in his mind, he knew that he would have fought with claws, hooves, teeth, and demons to keep that so very singular person in his life close and protected?

Severus knew with blinding truth that at one time, Trust was the hardest thing to win with him as well as the last thing he gave out. This man—this reflection—would have to mean something deeply to him to hold such an opinion.

Why would he have betrayed that? How could he have betrayed that?

One dark word rippled between them—Voldemort—and the old man’s countenance changed. Love, patience, friendship and mentorship altered immediately into a hardened, gimlet flash of steel, a tightened, calculating pull on the lips.

Had the Dark Lord forced Severus to betray this man?

No…

Some things…some words or statements ring falsely. This was one of them.

So, had Severus betrayed him…

…willingly?

He swallowed, instantly wanting to deny this, needing it to be refuted.

The man before him relaxed his aggressive and shrewd expression into one of shame…

Sadness.

He shook his head ‘No’ at Severus.

His mind cast about for some explanation to this confusion. If he’d not been coerced and he’d not done it willingly, and there was absolutely no possibility he could have done something this guilt-ridden by accident, “Well, old man, you can’t possibly expect me to believe you wanted me to-”

He was interrupted by the other man darting forward and pushing him backwards, hard enough to shove him, make him lose his footing and fall into-

Water?

He rested, suspended in confusion and disbelief in the murky, cool stillness, starting to enjoy the peaceful buoyancy until he remembered he really should be trying to breathe. The surface would be good for that. He kicked to the surface and automatically dipped backwards into the water to float his long hair out of his face.

The dome of the gold and silver arboretum reflecting serenely above the black water shocked him.

“My safe place!” His gravelled and emotional voice echoed back to him from the fluttering aspen and beech leaves. Breathing faster and spinning around in the water, he took in his surroundings, mostly surprised that everything was exactly as it should be…

Except…

His eyes finally landed on the centerpiece of his fantasy.

The only difference from before was that the barren and barkless oak in the middle of the island held no jeweled eyes in its upper branches. There was no crystalline, pulsating, fractured light calling to him from their brilliant facets. It was…empty.

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