When Wormtail returned over an hour later, he appeared pale, but Hermione saw light underneath the waxy flesh. Hermione didn't know how he managed to hide it for so long. Or maybe it really was new; maybe this was the absolution he was looking for.
"Harry answered yes," Hermione said.
Wormtail nodded. "I read the note before I returned. I—"
He stopped when he saw Voldemort.
"Merlin and Nimue," he breathed, and Hermione thought she heard sorrow mixed with the reactive disgust. Wormtail had seen Voldemort at his weakest before, took care of him out of fear and desire for self-advancement. This time, his fate was not linked with Voldemort's, and he proved he had some measure of compassion. Hermione wondered if he would have reacted this way eight years ago. She didn't think so.
She sighed. Maybe Harry's virtue would rub off on her, too … if he would let her get close enough to absorb it.
"I can carry him, but Harry will trust you more than me, given some of our recent altercations," Hermione said. "Perhaps it was meant for you to deliver Voldemort to him, since you delivered him to Voldemort once. Hopefully that will balance the scales, at least more in your favor."
"I f-feel it will," Wormtail murmured. He hesitated by the bed. "Is he asleep? Will I wake him if I carry him? How should I—?"
Voldemort's eyes were still moving fitfully under his eyelids, and Hermione brushed her fingers over his forehead as though he were a dreaming child. Wormtail abruptly stopped talking.
"Enervate," Hermione murmured, but as she suspected, Voldemort did not wake. He would not awaken again.
She touched his chest and dipped into his mind. She retreated quickly, pursued by the hellish visions of weakness and doubt and desire for death and more than anything, the unfamiliar assault of regret. It startled a stab of heartache and fear that radiated outward from her chest. Strangely enough, she welcomed them, because it made her feel a little more like herself.
Voldemort was dying, but even without the immortality spells, he could not die. He would not wake from this nightmare, and no antidote she ever brewed would rescue him. The images that lingered in her head bolstered her resolve. Hermione looked back up at Wormtail, who took in the way she touched Voldemort. She thought he understood what it was he saw, but not why, and she might have also detected a hint of jealousy. She didn't care. He didn't need to know why. No one did. He just needed to do his part.
"You could use magic to carry him, but it tends to slough off," Hermione said. She pulled the blankets out from under the mattress and tucked them around Voldemort's body. "It would be easier to just carry him. He doesn't weigh much anymore. It should be no trouble."
Wormtail's widening eyes alerted her to the movement behind her, and Hermione reacted automatically, this time foregoing the Killing Curse and choosing Severus's creation. "Sectumsempra!"
Nagini practically shrieked as invisible claws slashed all over her long body, spewing blood onto the floor. Her head hit Hermione's knee as Hermione rolled onto the bed, but Nagini did not bite down.
She hoped Nagini understood her when Hermione whispered, "Sorry." And she was. But Hermione wasn't going to heal her, not when Voldemort's death meant that Nagini would be a threat to Hermione's life as long as the snake lived. Nagini couldn't comprehend the intricacies of Medicus guidelines or that what Hermione was doing was for Voldemort's benefit.
Even so, Hermione doubted Nagini would have survived much longer without Voldemort's protection.
"A-a-are you all r-r-r-r-right?" Wormtail asked. The stress of a venomous snake attack aggravated his stutter, but Hermione brushed away his concern. She wrapped her arms around Voldemort's shoulders and under his knees.
"Here," Hermione said. "Careful."
It was a silly thing to say. If Wormtail dropped him, Voldemort would never know or feel the effects. And she was giving him to Wormtail so that Harry could kill him. A few bruises or awkward handling seemed small in comparison.
Still, Wormtail cradled him like a child, the position familiar for him. Voldemort was bigger than he had been before, but he still weighed next to nothing. Wormtail held his wand in his silver hand, ready to Apparate when Hermione was.
Hermione slipped her hand under Voldemort's pillow and found his wand there, now essentially a useless piece of wood to its owner. She retrieved her own wand and sheathed Voldemort's in her sleeve.
Wormtail swallowed when Hermione gripped his shoulder, and she took one of Voldemort's thin hands as though to reassure him in his nightmare. When she nodded, Wormtail Disapparated them both.
It helped that she did not have to maintain a complicated series of defense spells around them as they Apparated, but that didn't make her enjoy the disorienting journey any more than usual. Especially when they appeared in the dining room of Grimmauld Place.
As she requested, Harry was alone, although she heard some commotion on the other side of the door. She had instructed him in the letter to do whatever he needed to feel secure, but she wanted no one but him and Wormtail to see Voldemort as he was now. And both of them were only by necessity.
She doubted that he would break the agreement, not after what she promised him in return.
Harry tried to appear stronger than he was, but any Healer worth her salt would notice that he braced his weight against a chair and he'd left two canes by the door. The lightning bolt scar was no longer the most prominent on his face. His flesh was pieced together like a human jigsaw puzzle, but whatever serums he took for the pain management and healing process were working. In six more months, he would be walking without the help of the canes and his scars would lighten to pale ghosts of themselves. If he were lucky, they would become almost imperceptible. Then again, Harry was used to scars. A few more wouldn't hurt, even if she was the one who gave them to him.
However, for someone who likely broke every bone in his body several months ago, he looked good. Better than the man in Wormtail's arms.
"Lay him on the table, Peter, please," Hermione said. She had a feeling the use of his given name would get her even further with him than using his crush on her. It told him that maybe, just maybe, she believed him capable of better things. It wasn't quite forgiveness, but it was still a positive step.
When Wormtail put him down, Harry couldn't quite conceal his initial shock. He quickly schooled his expression into something more stoic when he turned back to her.
"Hermione," Harry said stiffly.
"Harry," Hermione replied. She reached out with some hesitation, but he didn't jerk away, so she smoothed his messy hair away from his face to inspect any head damage. "Any complications?"
"I was kind of out of it for a few weeks, but Geraldine tells me I should be Quidditch-ready within a year," he said.
"Earlier," Hermione corrected. "You're smaller than average. It takes less effort for the potions to take effect."
"What happened to you?" Harry asked, withdrawing a little.
"I don't know what everyone's seeing, but I assume it's because I tried to kill him myself," Hermione replied.
The Harry Potter of her seventh year might have recoiled in surprise, but over a decade of war had hardened the man before her. He knew what was at stake.
"I could have tried other ways, like used a gun or run a blade over his throat. But if my Killing Curse didn't work, I don't think anything else would," Hermione said evenly. "Not—not from me."
"You tried to kill him," Harry repeated. "Isn't that against your code, Medicus?"
"For Merlin's sake, Harry, you won. Okay? He's been out of commission for at least a month, and he's been dying even longer."
Hermione looked away from Harry and took in the limp form on the table, everything Voldemort never wanted to be.
"There comes a point when keeping him alive is … cruel. I'm sure you don't mind that he's in his version of hell, a nightmare he can't wake up from. But you know what the prophecy said, that neither of you could live as long as the other one does. This war won't truly be over until he's dead, and I can't do that for him. I can't give him that gift. Only you can, because you have what's left of him, a piece of him. Here."
Hermione brushed her thumb over Harry's lightning bolt scar. "The protection your mother gave you. I need you to be a better man than him, Harry. I need you to kill him and free the both of you. I need you to show him the mercy he wouldn't dream of returning."
Wormtail watched them, bemused. It was probably more explanation than he ever expected to witness himself.
"You're not doing this for me," Harry murmured. "You're doing this for him."
"I have to," Hermione said. "Does it matter?"
"Are you sure your love won't protect him?" Harry retorted.
"It isn't like that!" Hermione protested. "Even if it were … even if it were, I can't save his life, Harry. I just want to help him die. He was always living on borrowed time. Don't bind your misery to his."
"Don't keep him miserable, you mean," Harry said.
"It can mean whatever you need it to mean, Harry," Hermione replied coldly, and Harry cringed at whatever he saw, whatever change the Killing Curse wrought. "Why do my motives matter? I let Wormtail deliver Voldemort to you on a silver platter. I'm sorry I hurt you, but at least Voldemort didn't kill you. I'm sorry Severus is hurt and that Remus is dead. I never wanted these things, but we both had responsibilities we didn't want. We were both bound by fate into doing things we weren't proud of. So if I did love him – and I'm not saying I do – and I wanted you to save him by killing him, why wouldn't you?"
Harry paced, gripping the chairs for balance on his way. As he turned back to Hermione and Wormtail, he curled his lip a little at Wormtail. "Well, I can tell just by looking at you that you want me to do it."
"It would satisfy my d-debt to you," Wormtail admitted.
Harry's contempt softened. "It wouldn't release you from your vow to me."
Wormtail shook his head. "No. I'd still be in your service."
"Do you love him?" Harry asked abruptly, pinning Hermione with his sharp, falcon-like gaze.
"Voldemort?" she asked.
"No, Wormtail," Harry snapped. At her stricken expression, he realized his mistake. Wormtail became engrossed with the toes of his boots, and Harry backpedaled, looking for the first time like the man she knew before Voldemort took her on as Medicus. "I'm sorry, Hermione. I didn't mean it like that. It's just that anyone who saw the two of you together during the battles … Draco told me about the obsession he seemed to have for you. And the way you're acting now…"
"I don't know," Hermione interrupted. "What difference does it make?"
"Severus said you'd say that," Harry said quietly.
"Severus can go to hell." Hermione crossed her arms. "Will you do this for me? Please, Harry. If I need to beg, I'll do it."
Harry pulled out his wand, but he narrowed his eyes. "This isn't a trick, is it? 'Cause I'm pretty sure my death would be helpful for Voldemort, too."
"I know magic can fake a lot, but does that look like a trick?" Hermione asked, pointing at Voldemort. She edged closer to him and adjusted the blankets around him so that some of the sores and scales were visible. Stroking over his collarbone, Hermione experienced a flash of connection, a brief awareness of his presence. He was still locked in dreamstate, but he knew she was there.
I'm trying, she tried to tell him, but she couldn't know if he got the message.
"Look, Harry," she murmured, fighting the impulse to linger within Voldemort's consciousness for just a few more moments, "I would have avoided a death of political significance if I could have. I told you that I already did the Killing Curse. No one else can kill him, Harry. The prophecy is clear on that, and it makes magical sense. The fact that it ends the war is a good thing. And if people know that I and Wormtail were the ones who brought him to you, maybe that'll be a good thing for us, too. But more important to me right now is that it's what Voldemort needs. I also know that it's the most important thing for you as well. Do it with the Killing Curse or with the damn Gryffindor sword if that's what you think is appropriate. But there is nothing bad here, for any of us."
"Except for the Death Eaters not on our side," Harry pointed out. "And Voldemort."
"Most of the ones left can rot in Azkaban for all I care," Hermione replied. She smoothed her fingertips over the scales on his sternum before she forced herself to pull back. "And I already told you that death is the best medicine that I can give him."
Hermione noticed Wormtail nodding his encouragement, and Harry relented, lowering his head. "Fine. Killing Curse is cleaner. Are you sure it will work?"
"Not at all," Hermione said. "Seems to be a trend. With my luck with him, it'll make no difference."
Wormtail made a snuffling sound that was probably a muffled snort. It broke some of the additional tension between her and Harry, and she didn't resist when Harry took her arm and guided her away from Voldemort.
"Don't want to hit you, too," he whispered.
"I don't suppose I have to tell you to mean it," Hermione said. She heard her voice from far away, as far away as Voldemort was.
"No less than you did," Harry said, but hatred didn't twist his face as he pointed his wand at Voldemort and shouted, "Avada Kedavra!"
All three of them screamed. Hermione and Wormtail fell to their knees and clutched their arms. Her forearm burned worse than when Voldemort branded her in the first place, and the burning was slow to weaken. But when she pulled up her sleeve, she knew without looking up that Voldemort was dead. The tattoo was nothing but scar tissue.
Harry clung to the back of a chair. A drop of blood slide down over his lip from where it had fallen from his forehead. The lightning bolt scar had reopened after all these years, and a piece of foreign tissue as small as a peppercorn stuck to Harry's eyebrow.
Wincing as she stood, Hermione wrapped her arm around Harry and brushed the piece of flesh onto the table. It fell wetly next to Voldemort's delicate neck. The rapid eye movement had ceased. Hermione touched his chest and tried to go back into him, but there was nothing to go into. His life force was gone, just like his magic.
Hermione looked back at Harry and saw in him what everyone else must see in her. His face had gone paler than usual, greenish under the new scars, almost like a new Inferius, although it was more impression than just physical appearance.
At least this one had a fair exchange.
The Dark Mark was gone, and the inexplicable link the Medicus commitment made between her and Voldemort had been severed.
Voldemort was dead.
"Are you okay?" Harry asked. The question rang empty, like a bell in a giant ballroom, but soulful color was already beginning to overcome the dullness in Harry's green eyes.
Hermione opened her mouth, but her answer caught in her throat like a jagged rock, and she couldn't say anything. Not yet. She dabbed at the open wound on Harry's forehead with her sleeve. Harry hissed. Something in her chest lurched.
"That hurts like hell," Harry said.
Hermione checked that Wormtail was all right. She coughed to get the obstruction out of her throat, and she managed to find her voice for long enough to say to Harry, "I need Voldemort's body to stay here for now, undisturbed. Can you do that?"
"Is it over?" Harry asked.
"Yes," Hermione replied. "This war is over. Can you keep everyone else from knowing yet? I have to talk to someone else before… before everyone knows."
"Yeah." Harry lowered himself to one of the chairs and held his head in his hands as though it would split like a coconut at any moment. "I won't let anyone desecrate the body if that's what you're worried about. It's over."
Hermione Disapparated while she still had her mind. The wards around the fortress, bolstered by his followers' Marks, had been destroyed with the Marks themselves. There was chaos within the fortress, and Hermione passed through it like stillness in a storm. No one noticed her, at least not until she reached the audience chamber, where all Voldemort's followers who hadn't run away fled for answers.
She peered through the frantic, frenetic crowd until she found Draco and Blaise, calmer in the midst of the throng, but just as confused. As she pushed her way to them, people began to notice she was there and what all this chaos might mean. She threw up reflective defenses when she heard the start of spells. The spells bounced back at their casters, and their minds returned to them as well – she was a Medicus, whether she was Voldemort's Medicus or not, and deliberately attacking her was still punishable by swift and terrible retribution. They were, in fact, lucky that she stopped their curses from hitting her.
"You … you traitorous bitch," Lucius spat, pointing his wand at her. "I was right, you were the one who betrayed us all along."
"Expelliarmus." Lucius's wand flew out of his hand. His expression would have been comical if Hermione could find anything humorous at the moment.
The wand arced over the rest of the crowd, and Draco snatched it out of the air with little effort. After all, he had been a fair Seeker himself.
"I don't think so, Father," Draco said. "I'll bet she was loyal to the Dark Lord until his end, and beyond. In her unique way." He nodded to her, his entire countenance surprisingly warm, even sympathetic.
"Draco. My son. What have you done?" Lucius said, utterly flummoxed. Shame, embarrassment, and fear passed over his face in turns.
"Made the right choice. Backed the right hippogriff, some might say. And you should thank me. It's the only reason you and Mother are alive," Draco said. "Of course, if you make things difficult, I can't guarantee how well things go for you in the near future. But I wouldn't recommend attacking Medicus Granger. She was only doing her job. If she killed him, that was what was best. Isn't that right, Granger?" he added with a slight sneer.
"I didn't kill him," Hermione said.
"You look like you did," Draco replied.
Hermione ignored him. "Lord Voldemort is dead. That was all I wanted to tell you."
When she turned around to leave, she checked whether Carmen had remained, but she could not find him in the crowd or his telltale flying carpet.
"The rest is up to you," she murmured, but like Voldemort himself, her words managed to reach the farthest corners of the room. It seemed like Draco and his friends had the rest of Voldemort's followers well in hand. Good riddance to the fools.
She slammed the chamber doors behind her.
She Apparated to just outside of Hogwarts and unleashed her frustration on the clanking, locked gates until Dumbledore came down and opened them for her. She paused upon seeing him.
"Severus told you," Hermione said. "I should have remembered."
"Well worth the abuse of my gates, I'm sure," Dumbledore said. "Please accompany me to my office, Miss Granger."
Up close, he looked significantly older than when last she saw him face-to-face. His flamboyant robes and long beard and clear aura of power easily masked the frailty in the way he carried himself, in the way the skin on his flesh was riddled with lines and spots. It occurred to Hermione that Dumbledore himself might not be long for this world either, that he might have been holding on for the sake of the war against Voldemort alone to avoid unfinished business.
"Have you told anyone?" Hermione asked as they approached the castle entrance.
"No," Dumbledore replied. "But you should expect that the news will not stay a secret for long."
She said nothing more as she followed Dumbledore into Hogwarts. Her best memories of the school twisted with the worst, nostalgia laced with poison. She received a few curious stares from passing students, but no one but most of the professors and perhaps the portraits would recognize her now. Even the first years from back when she left Hogwarts for good had graduated last year.
The guardian let them pass, and Hermione re-entered his office, mostly unchanged from the last time she'd been here, like much of Hogwarts. The students changed – so much – but Hogwarts stayed steadfast, impartial, and immovable. It kept the secrets of the dark and light, sheltered the stalwart and suspicious, nurtured education of all kinds. Hermione did not think she could have recognized the Dark magic seeped into the history of the stone when she was younger, but she sensed it now.
"Would you like to take a seat, Hermione?" Dumbledore asked. He had to hold onto the edge of the desk to lower himself down on his chair. He did not offer her a sherbet lemon, but unlike the last time he invited her to his office, his gaze was neither hard nor disapproving. She saw no judgment. Instead, he just seemed tired.
She didn't sit. Instead, Hermione fought the urge to pace. Manic energy swirled inside her, building up under her chest behind her ribcage.
"Is Severus's report true?" Dumbledore asked, folding his hands on the desk. "Is Voldemort dead?"
Hermione glanced up at the Headmaster and Headmistress portraits. The ones that had not heard Severus's report snapped to attention at the blunt question.
Dumbledore bowed his head. "Those portraits that remain are sworn to secrecy for anything spoken between us now. Please, Hermione, is Voldemort dead?"
"Yes. Harry killed him," Hermione replied dispassionately.
"And how did Harry manage such a thing, confined to his home as he is and with Voldemort hidden away in his fortress?" Dumbledore asked. His magical power had not faded, but Hermione noted that the strength of his voice, when unbolstered by magic, had diminished.
"I, his Medicus, enlisted Peter Pettigrew's help to bring him to Harry," Hermione said.
"May I ask why?" he asked gently.
"He had nothing left to live for," Hermione replied. "He asked me to. There was no hope for recovery, and I couldn't kill him myself."
"You clearly made an attempt."
Hermione did not lower her eyes in shame. She accepted the consequences of the Killing Curse the way she accepted the consequences of everything else she did for Voldemort.
"Are you certain that he is dead?" Dumbledore asked.
"You understand that the wizarding world believed him dead before, and they were wrong," Dumbledore said. "I will need to confirm."
Hermione yanked Voldemort's wand from her sleeve and snapped the wood in two. The finalistic sound was terribly weak, like trodden twigs. She threw the two parts of the wand at Dumbledore. They clattered on the wooden desk. Dumbledore was unable to repress his flinch.
"How is that for confirmation?" Hermione asked. Her tone remained emotionless, but she caught on the last word, and her vision began to swim. The obstruction in her throat returned.
"Need more proof?" she asked. She raised her sleeve to show him the scar tissue where the Dark Mark had been. "How's this? And for the coup de grace, how about something I can't fake?"
She cast a spell on the fastenings of her Medicus robes, and they split down her back to reveal to Dumbledore nothing but an expanse of skin.
"Is it gone?" she whispered.
"Yes, Miss Granger, the tattoo is gone."
"Then there's your confirmation," Hermione said. She didn't turn back around to face Dumbledore. She clutched her robes against her chest and refastened them, but her hand shook. "I had a permanent binding. It only ended with his d-death."
The first hot tear burned a path down her cheek. Hermione sucked in another breath, but the obstruction caught the next, and grief breached the barriers erected by the Killing Curse's side effects.
"Oh god," she whispered. "It's over. He's gone."
Why was she crying tears of sorrow when they should have been tears of joy? All those people he destroyed and tore down with no consideration for their lives or their potential – the torture, the deaths, the battles, the casualties, the prisoners, Harry, Remus, Severus, Ron, Dumbledore … and herself. She was his victim as well, so why did she feel as if something essential had been ripped out of her?
Tears streamed down her face. When she brought her hands to her cheeks to wipe them away, she almost thought they would come back bloody, she hurt so much all over. She gasped for air but couldn't seem to get enough.
She stumbled, and Dumbledore brought his hand to her back, steadying her as her legs stopped supporting her. He took her hand that held her wand and helped lower her to the ground to lean against his desk, then guided her head between her knees.
"Hermione, I know I disappointed you all those years ago," Dumbledore said. It couldn't have been comfortable for him to kneel beside her, but he stayed nonetheless, rubbing her back as she choked through the sudden onset of every awful emotion wrought from Voldemort's death. "Every year you didn't return to him, every year you worked for one of the most prestigious and respected healing orders – if not the most honorable – I regretted how little faith I had in you. When you did return, I know you struggled, Hermione, with him and with the task set to you by the Oracle. And I know you ultimately chose to embrace your role in his life, but I know not a single moment was based on malice, no matter the anger you felt toward me or Harry or any of us for what we did to you.
"I could see how you might have grown to love him as much as he can be loved. I know that he trusted you implicitly to protect him and to do your best to help him. I know that because he asked you to kill him, and I didn't think that was possible. Whatever you did, he knew that you were his Medicus and did everything in your considerable power to help him."
That just hurt worse, because his death – the erasure of his Mark and the mark of the binding – meant failure to her. Failure to keep him alive, to heal him, to serve the purpose for which he employed her in the first place. He had doomed himself, but she had done nothing but speed up the process from beginning to end – his end, an end he deserved but still wholly unfitting his significance, his achievements, his intelligence, and his power. He should have died in battle, not the crippled, weakened shell he had become, the once proud man begging for mercy – going so far as to give her implicit permission to enlist Harry's help.
She should have done more for him, and now she couldn't change the facts plain before her. Voldemort was dead. She was instrumental in that state. Her fealty to him ended with his death. The war was over. Because she'd had her client killed.
There was only one thing left for her to do for him. In truth, Hermione's obligation reached farther than the Medicus binding, and she understood that now. If no one else would stand behind her, Hermione was accustomed to standing alone. Just let them try to stop her.
Hermione used the skirts of her robes to discreetly wipe the tears away. She couldn't do anything about the unavoidable blotchiness or red eyes, but coupled with the consequences of the Killing Curse, she couldn't care less what she looked like. There were more important matters to attend to, one more thing she needed to do.
Dumbledore held out a handkerchief to her, white cotton dotted with purple pygmy puffs. She brushed it away.
"Here's what I want," Hermione said. "I don't want his body displayed in any way. I want Harry to confirm the death to the Ministry and the media. For corroboration, they can get an official statement from the Medicus Order. They'll have already learned I am no longer bound in service. They may have been called a lot of things by the Ministry, but no one ever called them dishonest."
"That sounds reasonable," Dumbledore replied. He tucked the handkerchief back into his robes, although she could not discern quite where.
"I want to bury him in the Forbidden Forest," she continued. "I know a place. It will ensure that he will remain undisturbed. If I must, I will bury him myself."
"The Ministry will want a public display this time," Dumbledore said.
"Then they can create a dummy corpse and build a giant monument of shame if they so choose, but I want the body, the real burial site, and the funeral. His humiliation is complete. Do you understand that, Albus? I won't have everyone see what he became. They'll feel smug enough that he's dead."
"I cannot ensure—"
"You and I both know that is utter bullshite. Harry just killed Lord Voldemort. I'm pretty sure they'll give him everything he wants. As long as they make sure everyone else perceives they've got their pound of flesh."
"Hermione, I'm not sure whether Tom has earned a quiet, respectful funeral," Dumbledore said softly. She detected no outrage or offense in his statement, which was the only reason she did not attack him right in his office, Medicus laws be damned. "I know you cared for him, and that may have been the best thing anyone could have given him, even though you believe it wasn't enough. But he was not just your client. He was a public figure, and he did many terrible things. You know this better than anyone. Reparations must be made, as best as they can."
Hermione grabbed the edge of the desk to pull herself to her feet. After some consideration, she helped Dumbledore to his feet as well. After all, he helped her to the ground.
"If you knew and if they knew what he went through, especially these last few months," Hermione said, as quiet as she was resolute, "you would understand that reparations have been paid. The universe repaid his deeds back to him in his life instead of his death. These aren't requests. I'm telling you what will happen."
"I do not doubt your determination. I know better than that," Dumbledore said. He led her to one of the chairs and sat himself down as well. This time Hermione accepted the seat, swiping at the rest of the tears that refused to stop entirely, but at least she could speak now. "However, your obligation to Voldemort ended with his death, not his burial. Technically, the Ministry may do as it likes."
"I've never known that to stop you. Or Harry. Or me. Who's been fighting this war again? Certainly not the Ministry. I trust your ability to help give me what I need."
Hermione rubbed her forehead and fought against the nausea twisting in her stomach.
"I am sorry for your loss."
No mention of the last battle, of Harry's injuries, of the vicious attack between Dumbledore and Voldemort with Hermione. They were all just doing their respective duties. Any remnant of resentment or doubt originated from long before.
But his condolences were genuine. She pulled her grief back in anyway, although she felt it fighting to get out in the worst way it could think of. She wanted to hurt someone, something, even if she was the only one available. She could do that when she was alone again. Not here.
"I need to retrieve a few things from the fortress. Then I will arrange the interment of the body, which means that I will be in the Forbidden Forest through the evening."
"Be careful, Hermione," Dumbledore warned. "I can offer no protection in there."
"Nothing in there would dare stop me," Hermione said coldly.
Her Dark magic twined with her grief in icy waves, and Dumbledore knew the truth of her words. It made him sad to see her like this, shadowed and submerged in the Dark magic she had fought against in her younger years and that he feared would overtake her. But at the same time, Dumbledore could see that her soul and heart were balanced in a way that Tom could never have hoped for. He thought Voldemort would be proud of her now, but Dumbledore, weary though he was, was proud of her as well. When she no longer had any need for this Darkness, he believed she could discard it much more easily than before. She was stronger than he had ever seen her.
"Well," Dumbledore said, taking her hand. She allowed him to. "Good luck, Miss Granger. And again, I am sorry."
"Thank you. Goodbye, Albus."
"Miss Granger," he called after her. She stopped at the door, facing away from him. "His journey has not ended. And those we love never really leave us. Remember that."
After her parents died, Hermione only had memories of them. She never sensed their presence again, the whiff of her mother's perfume or the way her father emanated warmth. Voldemort was once with her at all times, through both her Marks, and now he was gone. That was all she expected.
Hermione closed the office door behind her.
She didn't think she would see him again.
After crooning through the liliaths, Hermione removed the dragonhide cloak and hung it on a tree. She lowered the dragonhide bag hovering next to her to the ground. The liliath grove would be an even better deterrent to vandals in the Forbidden Forest than the centaur herd, and centaurs would not take offense at a mausoleum in their woods.
Once she determined she would not be disturbed, she began her casting, conjuring the giant granite stones from the earth and sliding the lid to the side. An empty grave. Magic could raise the lid, but Hermione's wards would last at least three generations if she bound it tightly enough to the stone.
Hermione lowered her wand. The spells settled in, and all that was left was to bury him.
She unzipped the bag. When she had retrieved the body from Grimmauld Place, she kept the blankets around him, but now she took out a set of his robes from her satchel and did the fastenings up by hand. She could have used magic. Even if Voldemort's body rejected magic in death, she could have spelled the robes. But she preferred to do it herself. The heavy robes hid the way his already skeletal body had shrunk even more, hid the bruising from internal bleeding, the sores, the scales, and the places where the decay reached the surface. They were too big for him, but at least he looked more impressive.
It took little effort for her to pick him up and put him in the stone casket. She also put the pieces of his wand in his hand. It was probably better that no one else could use it. It had been responsible for too much Dark magic, and Hermione feared its legacy might infect its next witch or wizard. However, it belonged with him, a testament to the great power he once possessed.
"Good evening, lady." Carmen sank down between the branches, bypassing most of the Forbidden Forest's obstacles. Inhabitants discouraged broomstick flying, but it might have been a while since they last saw a flying carpet.
Hermione rested on the edge of the coffin, staring down at Voldemort. She initially did not acknowledge Carmen's presence, but he took no offense.
"The Prophet is praising your name – less effusively than Harry Potter's, but he seems to have impressed upon them how instrumental you were in Voldemort's death. Witches and wizards are celebrating in the streets once again. The Ministry tried to take responsibility, but there were enough people fighting with Dumbledore this time – even Ministry officials, especially Aurors – that they're having none of it," Carmen said, filling the silence.
Hermione welcomed his chatter, and the presence of the one other person in the world who would want to attend Voldemort's funeral instead of a bacchanalian burning of his effigy. She was glad she thought to summon him.
"I take it you found sanctuary," Hermione muttered.
"You wouldn't believe who if I told you," Carmen replied. "We engaged in a mighty battle and ended with a stalemate. And then he offered me tea."
A small smile briefly appeared on her lips. "Do you bond over missing limbs?"
"We complain like old men," Carmen said. "I think my laidback indifference complements his paranoia."
"But you're safe?"
"For now," Carmen said. "I will likely suffer the consequences of my company, but Moody nearly poisoned me with Truth Serum to find out if I was lying. I think it's still in my system."
"Not that you ever needed it," Hermione said. She took a deep breath. She thought she might cry again, but her body was arid. She had nothing left, and her emotions ran deeper than that now.
"It should have ended differently," she murmured. "He didn't deserve more dignity, but he earned a better death than this. This was so small, humiliating to the very end. One of the most powerful wizards in an age, and this is how he died."
"There is no dignity in death, lady," Carmen replied. "In the midst of a battle or death of old age, death gives no one dignity. The only dignity comes in the acceptance of death, and Lord Voldemort eventually did, if he told you to end him. In that way, he died with more dignity than most. He was lucky to have a Medicus who respected both his will to live and his will to die. And I thank Merlin that he found someone to love before his end."
"He didn't love me," Hermione said.
"In his way."
Hermione shook her head. "I don't think he even loved life, despite how hard he clung to immortality. I think he just couldn't imagine a world in which he did not exist, so he had to rig that outcome."
"He would have never allowed anyone else to do what you did with him," Carmen said. "I do not just mean the act of love. Everything you did for him, everything he did to and for you. It may not have been good as you might have wanted it, lady, but the two of you made your own kind of magic. You were his enchantment, and even the Medicus Oracle knew he was meant for you."
"The Oracle isn't a matchmaker, Carmen."
"I beg to differ." He swept around the grave. "Perhaps you cannot see it yet. And you don't need to. Shall I close the grave?"
"No." Hermione fought the shaking in her legs as she stood. "The wards are keyed to my magic. I must bury him."
Carmen bowed and moved back a few feet into the shadows of the forest.
She would kiss Voldemort's forehead, but he wasn't there anymore. Hermione brought the stone cover up and lowered it until it sealed around the edges, locking the body in. The mausoleum rang with the whispers of the wards and the forest. She thought she heard cheers from Hogwarts coming in on the wind, but it was probably her imagination.
Hermione stepped out of the open mausoleum. Carmen joined her as she wrapped her dragonhide cloak around her again.
"So you are vindicated by the wizarding world, not that it matters much to you. What are you going to do now?" he asked.
She sat on the bed in her cell and stared at the trunk of books she rescued from Voldemort's library. They fairly pulsed with Dark magic, but she thought some open air might diffuse its effect over time, and she didn't fear them anymore. She had walked in Darkness and while she did not escape it unscathed, she hadn't sunk into its morass to emerge a new Dark witch. She was just Hermione, still.
Her letter of resignation from the Medicus Order rested on her lap. Marilyn would hear that she returned soon, and Hermione would give it to her then. She didn't have a place to stay or something new to do with her life, but in spite of the impassioned defense Harry gave her in the papers, she was damaged goods. She wasn't fit to help anyone right now. The Dark magic hadn't destroyed her by any means, but she couldn't be an effective healer with the way the magic and Voldemort had changed her, the way she twisted all her ethics to help him, even if she had followed the letter of the Medicus laws.
Voldemort had been such a unique specimen, with particular needs few in the world required. She could not in good conscience inflict herself upon someone else, not until she figured out again which way was up.
It was time to move on. The salary from the permanent Medicus binding would support her for the rest of her life if she needed it to. She was eminently capable, and she could always go into freelance research or even attempt an entrepreneurial endeavor.
But for now, she just needed to leave and get as far from the wizarding world she knew as she could.
"Come in," Hermione called when she heard the knock.
As Marilyn wrapped her arms around Hermione's shoulders, Hermione accepted the embrace, but it gave her no comfort. Shannon might understand some of what Hermione felt, but Marilyn wouldn't. Marilyn believed she simply grieved, the way any Medicus would after the death of a client, especially after a permanent binding.
"You know, when you left you probably wouldn't have let me do that," Marilyn said.
Hermione handed her the folded parchment.
"Is this what I think it is?" Marilyn asked.
"Depends on what you think it is," Hermione replied.
"You need some time and you've gone through a great ordeal. I understand why you would want to quit now, and under usual circumstances, I might agree," Marilyn said. "But before I open this and accept it … the Oracle passed this request to you."
"Already?" Hermione asked, raising an eyebrow. "My contract only ended this morning."
"You are an exceptional Medicus, Hermione," Marilyn said solemnly. "No one would question that now." She gave Hermione the request letter.
"I do," Hermione muttered.
"It's only a temporary request, so if you still feel like you must leave us after you see it, the Oracle will accept your refusal," Marilyn said. "But I really think you should consider it before I open this." Marilyn held up Hermione's resignation.
Hermione met Marilyn's eyes for a few moments. An Elder wasn't supposed to push a Medicus one way or the other on a request; it could be construed as favoritism for the Medicus as well as for the client. Marilyn could not completely understand how Hermione's last client – and his loss – affected her, but Hermione had always been a special case within the Medicus Order. So if Marilyn was treading the thin line of Medicus law, she obviously did so for a good reason.
Hermione unfolded the request letter and read through the form. When her eyes landed on the signature, she almost laughed.
She refolded the letter and closed it with the Medicus seal.
"Please tell Severus Snape that I accept his request."
Final Author's Note: Those last two chapters were emotionally hard for both me and my beta. I can't believe it's over, for Voldemort and for this story arc.
This has been quite a journey. From the beginning of Abyss to the end of Ascent, I have been working on these fics for eight and a half years and almost 250k words. Of course, there was a three-year gap in the middle of Ascent, and I had a lot of down time between Ascent chapters, but even so … end of an era.
Through this project, I learned how to write novel-length stories and I learned how to write better, period. I know that through the course of the stories, the style changes and I hope my writing improves. I think at this point it would be a fool's errand to try and go back to fix it so that everything feels like it was written by the same person at the same point in her life, so I'll leave it. It's not atrocious or anything, mostly just different.
Since starting Ascent, I've been working on original stories as well. Through writing the original stories, I learned what went wrong with writing Ascent – I don't do serials very well. :) So the next novel-length fic you see from me will be written beginning to end all at once, and as a result, it'll be written much faster and with much more style consistency.
A few notes on the stories:
1) Abyss and a portion of Ascent were written between OotP and HBP. Being a fanfic author of a now-AU fic, I was able to pick and choose as I pleased whether to include post-OotP canon. So I inserted Fenrir and did a number of other nods and winks toward canon, but it would have been impossible to fit Abyss/Ascent completely into the direction Rowling went. Hence the prophecy but no Horcruxes.
2) In case you're wondering about how Severus possibly survived the Killing Curse, the guy that looked like him during the last battle wasn't actually him. Severus was attacked by Nagini during that battle, suffering a fate very similar to the end of DH. Wink and nod. Because Nagini is a unique magical hybrid, Severus and various Healers had trouble counteracting the effects of the venom, hence his need for a Medicus to help with the rehabilitation and physical therapy. I think they'll get along splendidly.
3) I fashioned Abyss and Ascent in such a way that Abyss was Hermione's abyss and Voldemort's ascent, and Ascent was Hermione's ascent and Voldemort's abyss.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank profusely and apologize to all the people who stuck with me over all these years (and those of you who found Abyss/Ascent after their completion, consider yourselves lucky).
The truth was that, in addition to not being a serial writer, I was kind of done with Ascent four years ago, so it was that much harder to get myself to write something whose time had passed. It wasn't that I didn't like Abyss/Ascent, just that I had mentally moved on before it was completed. However, I didn't want to leave everyone hanging. Maybe I just had to wait until I was in the right place to really do the ending some kind of justice. I guess that's up for you to decide. And I would like to give another enthusiastic shout-out to my tireless, patient beta, Bean, who kept Ascent on my mind. Any mistakes left in the story are mine.
In order to get into the mood for writing it, I listened to a playlist on repeat. A friend started me out by making me a mix CD for Abyss, and I built it up over the years. If I had to pick one song to represent each novel fic, it would be respectively "Ice" and "Hold On" by Sarah McLachlan.
If you're interested in the full Abyss/Ascent soundtrack, here we go, in story order.
Abyss: 1) "I Need to Know" Concept Jekyll & Hyde, 2) "Fear" Sarah McLachlan, 3) "This is the Moment" Original Broadway Cast Jekyll & Hyde, 4) "Red Right Hand" Nick Cave, 5) "People are Strange" Johnny Hollow, 6) "The Past is Another Land" Aida, 7) "Palestrina" Allegri Miserere, 8) "Ice" Sarah McLachlan, 9) "Going Under" Evanescence, 10) "Black" Sarah McLachlan, 11) "Lust" Tori Amos, 12) "Torn" Natalie Imbruglia, 13) "Casualty" Snake River Conspiracy, 14) "This One's Gonna Bruise" Beth Orton, 15) "Possum Kingdom" Toadies, 16) "Good 'N' Evil" OBC Jekyll & Hyde, 17) "One Step Closer" Linkin Park, 18) "Pretty When You Cry" VAST, 19) "Heart It All" Emilie Autumn, 20) "Worn Me Down" Rachael Yamagata, 21) "I'll Forget You" Scarlet Pimpernel: Encore, 22) "My Medea" Vienna Tang, 23) "Because of You" Kelly Clarkson, 24) "A New Life" OBC Jekyll & Hyde, 25) "Sleep Now in Your Fire" Rage Against the Machine, 26) "Memento Mori" Kamelot, 27) "Mordred's Lullaby" Heather Dale, 28) "Right Here in My Arms" HIM, 29) "Ruin" The Pierces, 30) "No Good Deed" Wicked, 31) "Learn to Be Lonely" Phantom of the Opera movie, 32) "All Over You" Live, 33) "Whisper" Evanescence, 34) "Addicted" Kelly Clarkson, 35) "White Flag" Dido, 36) "Good Behavior" Plumb, 37) "Survivor" Destiny's Child
Ascent: 1) "Blue Tattoo" Vanilla Ninja, 2) "Sober" Kelly Clarkson, 3) "Taking Over Me" Evanescence, 4) "Where's the Girl?" Scarlet Pimpernel: Encore, 5) "Stand My Ground" Within Temptation, 6) "Send Me an Angel" Real Life, 7) "If I Burn" Emilie Autumn, 8) "Control" Poe, 9) "Dead March" Suicide Commando, 10) "The Devil" Hoyt Axton, 11) "The Future" Leonard Cohen, 12) "It's a Dangerous Game" Concept Jekyll & Hyde, 13) "Do You Love Me?" Nick Cave, 14) "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" Sarah McLachlan, 15) "Hurt" Christina Aguilera, 16) "Please Don't Make Me Love You" Dracula concept, 17) "Cover Me" Thea Gilmore, 18) "Beautiful Disaster" Kelly Clarkson, 19) "Hold On" Sarah McLachlan, 20) "Wild Horses" Charlotte Martin, 21) "Lost in the Darkness" OBC Jekyll & Hyde, 22) "Do What You Have to Do" Sarah McLachlan, 23) "I Am Stretched on Your Grave" Kate Rusby, 24) "The Haunting (Somewhere in Time)" Kamelot
So there you go. It's been a pleasure, struggles and sadness and all. I have another, likely less dismal Voldemort/Hermione novel-length fic bouncing around in my head, but I probably won't get to it this year.