A/N The final chapter, you guys! I didn't want to keep you waiting too long after Hermione has that horrible decision to make.
Just a warning to those who appreciate the heads up, there is a rather strong word in this chapter.
The moment seemed to stretch out forever as Hermione tried to comprehend the decision that lay before her.
When the seconds ticked by and Hermione remained locked in her horrific internal struggle, Natasha took the last few steps to the computer stand in the room and began to type the commands that would eventually lead to all of S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA's secrets being released onto the internet. "I'm sorry, Hermione," Natasha murmured lowly.
"I mean it," Pierce warned, looking at Natasha in annoyance, "I'll kill her mother."
Natasha paused her typing to spare him a cold glance. "Then do it." Her eyes flickered to Hermione who was watching Natasha dully, as though not really seeing her. "Get out of here," she instructed firmly. "Now."
"Hermione," Steve's voice suddenly called in her ear, "Where are we with Bravo?"
"You can still save her," Pierce said urgently, moving forwards to block Natasha from Hermione's gaze. "Just stay where you are and your mother will live."
"Hermione, do you copy?" Steve called breathlessly.
"Nine minutes until the helicarriers are in position," Hill informed her gently.
"That's it," Pierce said softly, "You're doing the right – " He crumbled to the floor with a cry of pain, Natasha glaring down at him furiously. "Don't even talk to her," she snarled at him as he gingerly touched the back of his head with a whimper. She looked up at Hermione with an unreadable expression on her face. "You have to do this."
"The second you leave this room, she is dead!" Pierce spat, the malevolence in his voice more than making up for his huddled position on the floor.
Natasha put her hands either side of Hermione's head and locked their gazes together. "Hermione," she began.
Hermione trembled violently. "I can't," she gasped, "I don't – "
"Hey," Natasha said sharply, cutting her off. "You are going to do what you have to. There is no choice here."
"Yes, there – " Natasha kicked Pierce in the face to shut him up without breaking her eye contact with Hermione.
"Go," Natasha urged, "before I throw you off the building myself and don't bother to question whether or not I'll do it."
"Hermione, please respond!" Steve's voice yelled in her ear, explosions and gunshots echoing in the background. "Do you need assistance? Where are you?" Hermione swallowed thickly. He was counting on her; risking his life as a decoy so that she could put a stop to this horrific scheme.
Tears obscured her vision as she drew a shaky breath and whispered, "I'm en route."
Natasha gave her an affirming nod and went back to finish releasing the intel.
"I hope this moment haunts you for the rest of your life," Pierce muttered bitterly as he got to his feet with a look of loathing on his face.
Hermione raised her wand at him furiously, a number of unsavoury spells desperate to burst from her lips, and he flinched. After considering which curse to hit him with, she realised he wasn't worth compromising herself by using dark magic. Instead, she settled for a classic; her voice shaky but clear as her anger, despair and heartbreak writhed within her.
Then she disapparated, knowing that she'd never see her mother again.
She couldn't help but let out a few small sobs as she switched the second helicarrier's targeting blade. "Bravo locked," she passed on shortly, trying to obscure her inner despair and solely focus on the mission at hand.
"OK, last one Hermione and then it's over," Hill said gently, thankfully not mentioning what had happened in the last few of minutes.
"Right," Hermione replied numbly, brushing the tears off her cheeks and moving her position so she could get a good view of the Charlie helicarrier.
A second later, she was on the bridge that ran along to the control panel in the final domed room but she wasn't alone.
The Winter Soldier fired at her, an automatic pistol in each hand, but she'd apparated behind him before he'd even pulled the triggers. Her slicing jinx forced him to drop the weapon in his right hand and he just managed to duck out of the way of her stunning spell as he quickly fired the other pistol twice. She blocked the bullets with a rapid shielding spell and attempted to summon the gun from his metallic grip, but all the charm was able to do was make him lurch unnaturally towards her as he clung to the pistol. They were so close now that if he fired, she wouldn't have time to shield herself, so she apparated again at the same time he pulled the trigger. Unfortunately, their proximity forced the bullet to apparate with her and it brushed along the outer part of her upper arm when she rematerialized.
Hermione cried out at the searing pain but had to put it from her mind as the Winter Soldier leapt towards her, firing again. She aimed a curse at the pistol (before creating a shield against the bullet) and the gun exploded into little fragments. However, that didn't mean the assassin was any less deadly. Undeterred by the loss of his gun mid-leap, the Winter Soldier struck out at her with his metallic fist, the resulting impact against her magical ward sent them both crashing backwards. Hermione slammed into the railing and screamed at the hugely disproportionate pain as the black spots appeared in front of her eyes again. The stopgap healing she'd performed on her back must have ruptured because she was once more in unbearable agony. A fist closed around her throat and pulled her upwards so her feet were dangling in the air and his other hand savagely twisted her wrist, forcing her to drop her wand as her bones and ligaments snapped.
With her other hand, Hermione scrabbled desperately in the pocket of skirt, knowing she was seconds from death. Her fingers closed on what she was seeking. As forcefully as she could, she plunged the syringe at his face, barely an inch from his eye. Taken by surprise, he let go of her neck and she stumbled to the floor, holding out her hand against the railing to steady herself as the pain jarred along her body. He recovered at once, giving her no time to react before he jammed his knee into her abdomen and swiped his combat knife across her chest, the blade scraping against her breastbone. A blow to the head had her seeing nothing but white, leaving her completely disorientated, so much so that when she realised he had pushed her over the railing, she was too late to stop herself impacting sickeningly hard into the platform twenty feet below.
"S-St…" She tried to contact Steve to tell him she'd failed, that she was sorry, that she loved him, but she couldn't even summon enough strength to say his name.
The Winter Soldier's unemotional face loomed above her as he plucked the syringe from his cheek. Hermione closed her eyes so that she wouldn't have to look at him as she died…
"Hill, any word from Hermione?" Steve asked, ducking behind a huge cargo container to avoid some machine gun fire. "I can't raise her."
"Nothing since Bravo was locked and that was three minutes ago," Hill replied, her voice tense.
"I'm going down there," Steve decided, not wanting to consider why Hermione had gone silent on the comm. "Sam, where are you?"
"I'm sorry, Cap, I'm grounded," he replied. "The suit's down."
"Don't worry, I got it," Steve reassured him, holding up his shield and making a dash for the door that would lead him down to Charlie's server room.
"We've got five minutes, Cap," Hill informed him as he leapt down the stairs.
His previous tentative hopes that they were going to succeed were crumbling away rapidly. Hermione had held all the targeting chips and if she wasn't there, they had no chance of swapping the last one in time.
As soon as he stepped onto the bridge in the server room, Steve's heart shattered.
Hermione was dead.
He knew it instantly; her sprawled, blood soaked figure, pale and unmoving.
For a moment, he couldn't breathe, couldn't move, he couldn't even think as his sorrow numbed every part of his being.
And then his brain was willing to register the other person on the bridge; the man who had killed his Hermione, the very last person Steve wanted to fight.
Bucky was braced resolutely for the coming battle; his jaw set, determined.
Steve knew that his best friend was in there somewhere; he had to be. "People are going to die, Buck," he said, trying to avoid looking at Hermione because it hurt too much. "I can't let that happen." Bucky didn't move. "Please don't make me do this," he begged.
Realizing that he had no choice, Steve steeled himself then hurled his shield at Bucky, who used his metallic arm to deflect it backwards. As he ran forwards, Steve caught it, holding it up to block the pistol shots Bucky sent his way. Steve propelled Bucky backwards, making him crash to the metal floor and drop the gun. Steve leapt down to Hermione to search for the chip. As his hand fumbled through the material of her skirt, he kept half an eye on Bucky. His best friend fired again and Steve covered himself with his shield as his fingers finally found what they were searching for and he tucked the device in his pocket. Bucky's gun clicked to show it was out of ammo and Steve leapt back up to the railing above, Bucky now advancing on him with an already-bloodied knife.
Over the next minute, they would exchange blows then break apart for a few seconds and Steve would get closer to replacing the all-important targeting chip. He'd just thrown out the old one when Bucky rushed him, pushing them both over the railing and causing the new drive to slip from his grasp and his shield to tumble away. Their combat resumed with Steve desperately trying to fend Bucky off long enough for him to regain the chip. At one point, he closed his fingers around it, but Bucky knocked it away to the floor far below them. Steve kicked out at Bucky, making slide off the platform, and Steve jumped down to follow him.
Bucky got to the chip first and closed his fist around it. Steve leapt onto his back, holding an arm across his friend's throat, and leant backwards to force the bodies to the floor. Bucky struggled; his metallic hand reaching up to claw at Steve but he twisted his leg to pin Bucky's arm down. He pulled harder at Bucky's throat, restricting his airways, even though it tore at his very being to do it. Hermione had given her life to try and stop HYDRA and Steve was damned if he was going to fail her.
Bucky went limp and the chip clattered from his grasp. Steve released him and snatched up the drive before rushing to get up to the control panel.
"One minute," Hill called in his ear as he swung up to the platform.
There was a gunshot and pain erupted in the back of Steve's leg. He stumbled to the floor, realizing that Bucky must have reloaded the pistol. With no other choice but to continue, Steve ran, ducking low, to the central part of the platform and leapt onto a part that was out of Bucky's line of fire. He hauled himself up.
"Stand by," he replied. All he had to do was place the chip into the slot and the battle would be won. He reached his hand into his pocket, where he'd once more kept it for safety, and retrieved the chip, reaching out to fulfil the mission.
Bucky shot him in the back.
Steve slumped to the floor, the chip still in his grasp. No, he berated himself, they hadn't come this far to fail now. Ignoring the pain sweeping through his torso, he hauled himself up once more to finally slot the chip home. "Charlie locked," he gasped as he slumped back to the floor.
"OK, Cap. Get Hermione and then get the hell out of there," Hill ordered.
"Hermione's dead." Saying the words made it feel more real and an all-encompassing pain, far more powerful than his bullet wounds, swept through every part of him. Now that the targets had been successfully switched, nothing seemed to matter much anymore except that these helicarriers be blown from the air. "Fire now," he countered.
"But Steve…" she began and he angrily cut her off.
"Do it!" he yelled, staggering to his feet. "Do it now!"
There were a few seconds of quiet as he staggered down to Hermione on the platform below. He'd just bent down to lift her into his arms when the helicarriers started firing on each other. He stumbled to a sitting position and scooped Hermione into his lap.
"I'm so sorry, my love," he whispered, pressing his lips to the top of her head as the booms and crashes echoed all around them.
A strained yell caught Steve's attention despite all the chaos and he turned his head, searching for the person he knew it had to have come from. Below them, Bucky was pinned down beneath a huge metal girder that had collapsed amid all the explosions. Steve didn't even hesitate to lower himself and Hermione down to the glass floor as carefully as he could; he wasn't about to lose his heart and his best friend in the same day.
Steve placed Hermione's limp body gently on the floor before staggering over to the large beam that had trapped Bucky. He wrapped his arms around the metal and braced himself, knowing that this would hurt. Steve heaved the girder upwards and it slowly rose a few inches. From the corner of his eye, he saw Bucky crawl out from the under the beam and Steve gratefully let it fall back down with a clang.
Bucky eyed him warily as they slouched, recovering from their efforts. "You know me," Steve panted as he hauled himself to his feet, hoping that he could break through whatever brainwashing Bucky had been subjected to.
"No, I don't!" Bucky cried vehemently, lashing out angrily and knocking Steve down with a heavy blow to the body.
Undeterred, Steve got to his feet again. He could see the doubts creeping into his friend's mind. "Bucky, you've known me your whole life."
Bucky yelled, knocking Steve down again.
"Your name is James Buchanan Barnes," Steve told him between pants.
"Shut up!" Bucky snarled, shoving him away.
Steve's hand brushed Hermione's when he landed and he automatically curled his fingers around hers. With a heavy heart, he staggered to his feet, cradling her body against his chest and turned back to Bucky. "I'm not going to fight you," he told him calmly. "You're my friend."
Bucky stared at him. Then he roared and rushed at him, propelling him to the floor. "You're my mission," he insisted furiously, before punching him repeatedly and mercilessly in the head. "You're my mission!" he yelled between blows.
"Then finish it," Steve murmured, his head pounding. If Bucky needed to kill him, then so be it. "Cause I'm with you to the end of the line." These words, the same that Bucky had spoken to him over seventy years ago, seemed to give Bucky pause because his metal fist stayed aloft.
A large section of the server room collapsed into the glass floor, shattering it. Steve felt himself falling and he tensed his fingers, determined not to lose hold of Hermione as the water of the Potomac River enveloped them, forcing them down into its depths.
The music was the first thing Steve became aware of.
He cracked open his eyes tentatively, taking in the hospital gown he was wearing. He was still in a lot of pain and he turned his head slightly to see Sam dozing in a chair next to him.
"On your left," he said softly and closed his eyes again, ready to drift back to sleep.
There was a moment's pause and then Sam said, "Maybe you'd better check who's on your left."
Steve forced his eyes open and twisted his head the other way per Sam's suggestion and got the shock of his life.
Sam chuckled at the expression on his face. "Yeah, the next time you think one of us is dead, can you make sure first before you give the order for us to be blown apart."
Steve stared, hardly daring to believe he wasn't dreaming. "You mean… She's not?"
Sam got stiffly to his feet and walked over to Hermione's bed. "She's going to be fine," he reassured, "which is more than I can say for you when she finds out you nearly killed both of you."
Steve knew he would happily take any punishment she dealt, so as long as it meant she was still with him. As Sam filled him in on the parts of the battle he'd missed, Steve kept his eyes on Hermione, revelling in the simple way her chest rose and fell with each breath she took.
"Hey, lazybones," a sardonic voice called from the door. "Are you not even out of bed yet?" Natasha smirked as she came alongside him but she squeezed his hand affectionately and kissed his cheek.
"Remind me to come and mock you the next time you nearly die," he retorted and her eyes glinted in amusement. "Some of us suffered a bit more than one of your electric stingers."
The playfulness dropped from her expression as she glanced over to Hermione. "She hasn't woken yet?"
Steve shook his head.
She looked at Sam. "Have you told him?"
"No," he replied gravely, looking at Steve in sympathy. Steve glanced between them worriedly.
"What is it?" he asked. "You said she's going to be fine," he anxiously reminded Sam.
Natasha placed a hand on his shoulder and told him about Hermione's parents. Anger swelled within him at the depths Pierce had been willing to stoop to turn the tide in his favour.
"Hermione's greatest weakness is her heart," Natasha said lowly. "Pierce must have realised she was too strong to beat unless she was emotionally compromised."
"Bastard," Sam muttered, shaking his head.
As he gazed sadly at Hermione's unconscious figure, Steve sent a silent message to Mr and Mrs Granger, repeating the vow he'd made when he'd sought their permission to marry her; promising to love Hermione without condition, honour her each and every day, guide her when she asks for direction, support her when she's sad, challenge her to be a better person, and allow her to do all the same for him…
Hermione crossed her arms across her chest and kept her gaze upwards to look at the trees. Of all the places to meet, why did it have to be a cemetery?
"The path of the righteous man…"Sam muttered, reading the epitaph from Colonel Nicholas J Fury's brand new tombstone. "Interesting."
It had been roughly four days hours since the battle at the Triskelion and the world was still in complete uproar over the unveiling of HYDRA, the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D and the outing of all their secrets. Numerous governments and agencies were scrambling to supress the intel Natasha had released, but they should know better than anyone that once something appeared on the internet, it was almost impossible to hide it again.
A committee had been formed on Capitol Hill to establish who was to be blamed for the crisis and what was to be done about it. Everyone involved in the hierarchy of S.H.I.E.L.D had been summoned to testify but Steve and Hermione had ignored the request to attend. So far, her Fidelius Charm had matched her expectations but she wasn't about to flaunt it by appearing in front of all those cameras to be judged and belittled for trying to protect the people of this world – she was already going to face enough questions from Kingsley when she got back to London.
Fury strolled towards them, his clothes still typically black but far less formal now. It was the first time Hermione had seen him since the battle and both of his eyes were obscured behind a pair of sunglasses.
"So, you've experienced this sort of thing before," he said to Steve as he indicated his grave.
"You get used to it," Steve replied.
"We've been datamining HYDRAs files," Fury told them. "Looks like a lot of rats didn't go down with the ship. I'm headed to Europe tonight, wanted to ask if you'd come," he proposed to Steve and Hermione.
Unsurprisingly, she possessed a great loathing of HYDRA and everything that they stood for and it would give her great pleasure to see every trace of them wiped from the planet – a feeling she knew Steve shared with her. But that would have to wait.
"There are a few things I've got to do first," she replied.
"We've got to do," Steve corrected, reinforcing the promise he'd made to go with her every step of the way.
Fury nodded in understanding and turned to Sam. "How about you, Wilson? I could use a man with your abilities."
"I'm more of a soldier than a spy," Sam admitted.
"Alright then," Fury said evenly, shaking's Sam's hand and then Steve's. He paused when he stood in front of Hermione and his shoulders seemed to sag. "I'm sorry about your parents," he said sincerely.
She and Fury hadn't always seen eye to eye over the last two and a half years, but she knew that he kept the security of the people of the world at the heart of whatever he was doing. He'd made mistakes; they all had, but she recognised that he'd had a big influence on the strong person she was today and she was grateful for that.
Aware that, with the future so unclear, this might be a parting of ways, she hugged him. He stiffened (and she briefly wondered when he'd last experienced a hug), but then he tentatively patted her on the back, which she reasoned was about as cuddly as Nick Fury got. She let go and he cleared his throat.
"If anybody asks for me," he said to them, "tell them they can find me right here." He nodded at his tombstone and then walked off without another word.
"Wow," Natasha's voice called over their shoulders. "I honestly never thought I'd see the day…" she murmured, watching Fury with surprised eyes.
Natasha had visited Hermione in the hospital room not long after she'd first woken up. Steve spent the first few minutes apologising profusely for mistakenly believing her to be dead and putting her life in further jeopardy, which had led to him explaining what had happened after she'd passed out.
"You could have just checked your watch," she murmured sleepily. "My dial would have disappeared if I was dead."
He looked at her sheepishly and apologised again.
Unused to having to undergo muggle medical treatment, it had taken a lot of convincing from Steve to make her lie still and rest before she attempted to heal herself with her wand, which had been retrieved from the wreckage of the helicarrier.
Sam and Natasha appeared, drinking from Styrofoam cups of coffee.
"Well, aren't you a great sight for tired eyes," Sam said warmly when he saw she was awake. "You look amazingly alive for a dead girl."
"Shut it, Wilson," Steve mumbled with mock-irritation and Sam laughed.
Natasha lingered in the doorway, looking at Hermione uncertainly.
"Hey," Hermione greeted softly.
"Hey," she replied.
Hermione weakly held out a hand to her and Natasha walked forwards, accepting the gesture and squeezing her fingers affectionately in response. "I didn't know if you'd want to talk to me," Natasha admitted quietly.
"Why?" she replied in puzzlement.
Sensing that the two women were having a private conversation, Steve and Sam started talking loudly about the music that was playing from some speakers.
"I forced Pierce to kill your mother," Natasha explained, looking uncomfortable to be bringing it up.
Hermione's heart clenched painfully. "You didn't force him to do anything," she pointed out, but, at the objecting look on Natasha's face, added, "but I know what you mean and I in no way blame you for what happened." Natasha looked sceptical at this so Hermione explained further. "I still could have stopped you or ignored you, but I didn't, I left, and I have to live with that decision."
"Then let me carry some of that burden," Natasha suggested.
"Why would you want it?" Hermione asked in surprise.
"Because you don't deserve it," she answered earnestly. "And if I can save you from one moment of," she frowned, trying to come up with the right words, "of whatever you're going through, I will. You're annoyingly important to me."
Tears formed in Hermione's eyes. "Thank you," she responded softly, squeezing her hand again. "You're an incredible friend."
Strangely, an event that could have torn them apart, a moment that was possibly the worst of Hermione's life, had actually made their bond stronger than ever. After an intense few days in each other's company, it would be strange not to have Natasha close by for a while.
"Not going with him?" Steve asked her as she joined them by the false grave.
She shook her head. "No."
"But you're not staying here?" he checked.
She shrugged. "I blew all my covers," she explained. "I've gotta figure out a new one."
"That might take a while," he reasoned and Natasha smirked.
"I'm counting on it," she replied and then held out a paper file to him. "That thing you asked for, I called in a few favours from Kiev." Steve accepted it grimly and Hermione knew that it contained information about Bucky and his time as the Winter Soldier. "Just be careful, Steve," Natasha warned. "You might not want to pull on that thread."
"Thanks," he replied, tucking the file under his arm.
She nodded. "And now you two can do me a favour," Natasha said, addressing both Hermione and Steve and they looked at her quizzically. "There's a priest nearby who owes me. I called him and he's willing to perform a marriage ceremony for you in an hour."
Hermione and Steve gaped at her.
"Woah, I did not see that coming," Sam muttered.
"Y-you're not serious!" Hermione stammered.
"Completely," Natasha replied. "You two belong together. Some people think a wedding is just a few words, some rings and a scrap of paper but I know it means more to you two than that and I'm damned if HYDRA are going to take that away from you too."
Given recent events, Hermione and Steve had agreed to postpone both their wedding in the States and the one in the UK.
"We are going to get married," Steve explained. "Just, you know, when the time's right."
"When will that be?" Natasha asked with a raised eyebrow. "And, I don't mean to be a downer, but how do you know either of you'll still be here by then – you were both at death's door a few days ago."
"This is crazy," Hermione muttered, thinking of the two intricate planning charts still sitting in her apartment. "We can't just have a wedding at the drop of a hat."
"I don't see why not," Sam shrugged. "If all you really want at the end of the day is to be married to each other, I reckon it doesn't matter how it's done."
Hermione turned to Steve. "Are we really considering this?" she asked faintly.
"I think so," he replied slowly, then looked suspiciously at Natasha. "Why does this priest owe you a favour?"
"It's nothing seedy or illegal, I assure you," she replied, holding her hands up innocently. "I do have one stipulation though if you're going to do this; I get to wear that bridesmaid dress – it sounded perfect."
After a little more convincing from Natasha, Hermione and Steve agreed to the spontaneous wedding. They split into bride and groom parties, promising to be at the Church of the Annunciation in Cathedral Heights within the hour.
Steve returned to his apartment and picked up his groom suit which had been hanging in his closet for weeks.
"Here," he said, taking out a groomsman suit and handing it to Sam. "This was going to be Tony's; Hermione didn't trust him to look after it."
"Tony… Stark?!" Sam asked faintly and Steve nodded. "I'm replacing Iron Man at your wedding? That's awesome!"
From the safe in his lounge, Steve took out a sleek, black box and handed it sombrely to Sam. "Just to warn you, if you lose these rings, Hermione will pick a really horrible spell to curse you with."
Sam gripped the box tightly.
The two of them arrived at the church with ten minutes to spare and the monsignor let them get changed in the side chapel.
"How are you feeling?" Sam asked, buttoning up his pale grey waistcoat. "You OK?"
"Yeah, I think I am," Steve replied, sounding almost surprised as he shrugged on his stylish black jacket.
"Did you see this church is next to a school?" Sam commented and then he chuckled. "Imagine how crazy those kids would go if they knew Captain America and the Sorceress were getting married a few feet away from them!"
Three minutes later, they stood in front of the altar and Steve realised he was definitely nervous now. He didn't regret their decision to have this rushed wedding but it was still a daunting moment when you were prepared to formally commit yourself to another person for the rest of your life.
"Here," the monsignor said, handing each man a white rose to attach to their lapel. "I cut these from our garden."
"Thank you very much," Steve said earnestly. "I really appreciate what you're doing for us."
"Natasha is a very hard woman to refuse," he replied. "And it sounds like you two have been through some rough times."
Steve thanked him again and took a calming breath.
A bell tolled nearby to mark the new hour.
This was it.
One minute ticked by.
Steve frowned. "Hermione's never late," he muttered.
Sam laughed and clapped him on the back. "Come on, don't start panicking. It's her wedding; brides are supposed to be late, aren't they? It's like a tradition, right?"
Steve wasn't convinced. He pressed the button on his watch to reveal his Hermione dial and was mightily relieved to see it showing her as 'Travelling'. He was about to move his hand away but then the dial moved to a different option and then indicated a third. Steve stared, stunned, as the dial continued to swing between the three choices: 'Travelling', 'Mortal Peril' and 'Off World'…
A/N And so ends Hermione Granger: Sorceress! I offer absolutely no prizes for guessing the title of the next fic but don't expect to see it for quite a few weeks yet because I haven't finished writing it.
Thank you for all of your support for this arc of Hermione's journey in the MCU. If you have enjoyed this fic, please let me know (and tell me what you think is coming in the future!)
Hopefully it won't be long until I post again,
Lil Drop of Magic