Author's Note: Oh. My. Crow. The final chapter. It's over. :sobs into keyboard:
Basically, I just want to say thank you. Sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. You guys have been absolutely amazing and I'm so pleased that you stuck with me on this crazy journey. You've given me so much support and encouragement; literally, you've kept me going. You've made this story what it is, which is an incredible and unbelievable success.
And, as most of you know, I'm writing a sequel to this story. In fact, it's pretty much written. But you won't be seeing it for a while. I want to finish posting this story on all of the other sites I visit first. So, while I will be absent, I have not abandoned you. I may decide to beta in this time of non-posting, so if you're looking for one and think I'd be a good fit, drop me a line and I'll see what I can do.
So, without further ado, here is the final chapter. And, for the last time: read, review, and enjoy.
An Aversion to Change
Within a moment, Hermione was ready. She met Draco at the top of the staircase, which they rushed down at equal speed. He tore open the portrait hole and was about to sprint down the hallway when Salazar called out from the frame. His words, or more accurately, his tone, effectively stopped them both.
"So it's begun, eh?" he said with a sick humor. "I knew it would soon. But why rush to get out there? What good could you two possibly do?"
"One person can change the course of history," said Hermione tersely. "Who knows what will happen with two."
"Wise words from one so utterly foolish," Salazar jibed.
"We do not have time for this," Draco said waspishly. He gripped Hermione's arm and started off quickly down the hallway.
"It is more than just your life that hangs in the balance here, boy!" Salazar yelled to them. Then, after a moment: "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"I don't have a choice!" Draco yelled back. There was an edge to his voice that Hermione had never heard before. Desperation. On only a few occasions had she ever known Draco to be desperate, and neither of them had gone well. The fact that one of those times was now did nothing to quell her mounting fear or allay the ominous feeling that had taken residence in her heart.
"There's always a choice," Salazar replied scathingly.
Unexpectedly, Draco's hand plunged into his robes, withdrawing his wand faster than Hermione thought possible. "Reducto!" he snarled, face more bestial than human.
Salazar gasped and dove out of the way just before Draco's curse hit. The portrait was ripped to shreds, but Hermione swore she heard Salazar's faint cackle. She looked at Draco like he was a stranger, her face a mask of confusion and outrage.
"Draco! What the devil was that for?"
He growled in reply and gripped her hand again. Together, they sprinted through the castle, weaving through the throngs of sleepy students that had risen at the noise. Before the few professors that were stationed inside could get a handle on the situation, Draco and Hermione launched out of the door and onto the grounds. In the distance, she could see beams of light and jerky black figures. The shouts grew fiercer as they approached, but neither tarried.
As the distance between Hermione and the battle lessened, gory details slowly filled in the missing pieces of her mental sketch. Unidentifiable bodies scattered the field, lying stiff and prone, facedown and unnaturally configured on the dark grass. As much as she wanted to know who these people were, either to mourn or rejoice, she did not stop. Those that were still fighting needed her. Chances were, even with what little help she could give, they would not need her for long; already the fight seemed to be narrowed down – only the strongest were still alive.
Draco had disappeared, no doubt fighting his own battles, as Hermione shot Stunning spell after Stunning spell at Death Eaters. Right as she was about to hex a huge, burly man, fog encroached around her vision and her heart became as ice. Her breath caught in her chest. Dementors. Lots of them. Ignoring the Death Eater, Hermione closed her eyes and concentrated. She thought of Draco and only Draco – lying with him, flying with him, the feel of his hands on her face, of his lips upon her neck. She loved him and that gave her all the power she needed. "Expecto Patronum!"
The force of her Patronus's appearance from her wand nearly sent her staggering backward. But what really caused her to step back was the form her Patronus had taken. Instead of an otter, the most spectacular dragon Hermione had ever seen burst from her wand: streamlined, sleek, and a shining pearly white. The Dementors stood no chance. They disappeared immediately, abandoning the battlefield and retreating to whatever dark and terrible place they came from. Mouth agape with shock, Hermione watched her new Patronus fly around her for a moment before disappearing. All she felt was elation as she turned to the battle once more.
From what she could distinguish through the chaos of light and sound, it looked like the battle could not go better. Lupin was to her left fiercely fighting Fenrir Greyback, the former using a wand, the latter attempting to use brute strength. To her right, Hagrid and Madame Maxine were engaging a full-fledged giant, one of the few that had deigned to come from the mountains to fight. Grawp was beyond them, tangling with two more. Luna dodged hexes from a Death Eater, looking more like she was participating in some intricate and foreign dance than a battle for her life. Ron and the Weasley clan were nowhere to be seen.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Neville single-handedly fighting off Bellatrix Lestrange. Her face was contorted and her teeth bared in an ugly grimace as she hexed Neville mercilessly. The Cruciatus Curse brought him to his knees and, when it looked like the fight had been all but finished, Bellatrix's concentration broke. Neville sprang to his feet as if the pain never happened and hit her with one of the strongest Stunning Spells Hermione had ever seen. The mad woman dropped to the ground, stiff as a board. Before the affects wore off, Neville summoned her wand and pocketed the evil bit of wood, then cast a quick, "Incarcerous" and levitated her towards the Forbidden Forest, hiding her behind a tree. Hermione's heart swelled. For the moment, the panorama looked hopeful: it seemed like they were gaining ground. It seemed like they would win.
But as the air before her cleared of smoke, her fleeting feeling of triumph disappeared completely and she was cruelly reminded of just how quickly the tide could turn.
What she saw froze her in place. Voldemort, his long black robes billowing in the wind, held Ginny in front of him like a shield, one pale, long hand wrapped tightly around her neck. She gasped piteously for air, her small hands scrabbling viciously at his. Hermione could see her nails rake into his flesh, but he did not give an inch, instead tightening his deadly grip. Her brown eyes fluttered as she struggled for air; her face took an unnatural pale-blue tint.
She heard a strangled cry and turned her head. It was Harry. His face was contorted into an expression of anguish, all the blood drained from it. Even from a distance, Hermione saw his body involuntarily shake. She drew a deep breath and watched the intense exchange.
"Let her go, Voldemort!" he yelled. "This is between you and me. She has nothing to do with any of it!"
"Ah, but she has everything to do with it," Voldemort said slowly. He caressed the side of her face with the tip of his wand, trailing it from her hairline to her chin, blood dripping from the thin line it traced. She bit back a whimper as her friend grimaced in pain. "She reminds me of someone, Harry. Someone I killed sixteen years ago…Ah, but you never really knew her, did you? She was just a memory to you, and never will be more."
"My mother," Harry said softly, his green eyes widening.
Voldemort smiled, his sharp teeth gleaming in the pale moonlight. "Your mother," he repeated, "who died to save you. You know, I wonder if this girl will do the same…" He pointed his wand against her head and said, "Avada Ked-"
"No!" shouted Harry. "Wait!"
The battlefield stilled: Death Eater and Order member alike stopped to watch the final exchange. Voldemort turned his head back to Harry and barked in what was assumed to be laughter. "Wait, Potter? There is no 'wait' in this situation! I know you destroyed my Horcruxes! Waiting was what allowed you to progress so far! I dare say I underestimated you; Lord Voldemort is not so proud to ignore his…oversights." His snake-like face contorted into a guilty grimace.
He continued. "But if nothing else, I have learned! I will wait no longer! You must make your choice! Your life or hers? Do you save the one you love? Or do you see her die and live the rest of your life knowing that you are the one responsible for her death? That she died because of you!" A silent moment, a moment of hesitation, passed. "CHOOSE, POTTER!" Voldemort yelled, digging his wand further into Ginny's head.
Fear struck Hermione's heart. Harry had worked so hard to destroy the Horcruxes. But had he worked as hard on mastering his emotions, on squelching that damned 'hero complex' which had caused them all so much grief over the past years? As much as she hoped he had, she knew immediately what his choice would be. "No, Harry!" Hermione yelled, now miraculously able to move.
She dashed towards him, legs furiously pounding the ground. Little did Hermione know that another pair of legs was rushing towards the scene as well. They barreled into her with a deep grunt, knocking her brutally to the ground. The breath flew out of her and her wand flew away. Momentarily unable to breathe, she watched in horror as Harry's frame wilted. He lowered his wand and said resignedly, "Let her go."
"Throw down your wand," Voldemort ordered, not missing a beat.
He did, tossing it away violently – too far away to be retrieved. "Let her go, Voldemort!" Harry yelled. His hands were fisted at his sides and his teeth bared threateningly, green eyes flashing.
But his order was met with a cold, cruel laugh. "Avada Kedavra!" A thin shaft of green light was seen for just a moment before connecting with Ginny's frame. There was not even enough time for her to realize what was happening before her body stiffened in Voldemort's arms. He let her drop unceremoniously to the ground, then turned his wand on Harry, who was shocked into stillness. With one more utterance of the Killing Curse, Harry was hit with the spell. He fell to the ground, unquestionably dead.
A shockwave pulsed through the battleground. Everyone had seen what happened. Everyone knew about the prophecy. And everyone knew what it meant. Harry was dead.
Everything around her disappeared. All she could see was Voldemort and his maniacal grin, wand still pointed in triumph at Harry Potter, the boy who died. He laughed, a cold, high pitched sound that made her skin crawl. Slowly, he lifted his arm and sent the Dark Mark into the sky.
The war was over.
"No!" she screamed. "NO!" Hermione squirmed out from underneath the man who was pinning her down and sprinted towards Voldemort, completely wandless, but hell-bent on killing him with her bare hands.
"Hermione, no!" came Draco's voice from behind her. His arms latched around her tightly, possessively, and brought her to the hard ground once more. She struggled to her feet, but Draco's grip would not be lessened.
"I didn't have a choice, I didn't have a choice. This was the only way. I didn't have a choice. Don't you see? Hermione, I love you." he whispered. He chanted it like a mantra, like it would somehow act as an adequate explanation for everything that had just passed. Hermione heard him, but did not understand. Nor did she care. She broke from his grasp and lunged out at Lord Voldemort, who was now directly in front of her.
He lashed out sharply with his wand, an arc of purple light leaving a large and vicious gash across her cheek. With a cry, Hermione fell to the ground. With a flick of his wand, he pinned her there. With a cold, evil smile, he spoke: "Good work, Draco. I know how hard this must have been for you…Lowering yourself to the level of this Mudblood, this…thing, must have been absolutely demeaning."
Something in the air changed. It became tense and frightened and evil and, worst yet, familiar. Within a second, she placed it.
"I suffered for our cause, my Lord. I rejoice now to see that it was not in vain," Draco looked from Hermione to Voldemort, his eyes detached and emotionless. He said it with utmost respect, like a solider reporting to his commander. He showed not an ounce of fear.
Hermione nearly fainted. What was this? What was happening? Was Draco really talking to Voldemort? Lowering himself? Her level? What…
Suddenly, it all clicked. When did information start to leak to the Death Eaters? How did they know about the attacks? How were they able to counter every move that the Order made? Draco. It's how they were so prepared, how they were so ready for the attacks, and the only reason they succeeded. It was Draco.
'No,' Hermione thought, the blood rushing from her head, 'it was me.' The realization hit her like a two-ton anvil. It was all her fault. If she had done as Moody had told her, none of this would have happened. So many people warned her. So many people! Take care in whom you trust, do not trust anyone, do not trust him. But against all their warnings, she had. Her vision was spotted with black as she fought off a faint. If she had only listened, if she had only taken their advice to heart, they may have won. Harry may still be alive, the six people who died in the attacks and the countless now dead on the field may have been spared. Her future may have turned out dramatically different.
But it was not so. Hermione had changed fate. And fate was not something to be so easily rectified.
No less shattering than the realization that she was single-handedly responsible for effectively destroying the world was the harsh truth about her relationship with Draco.
It was a lie. It had to be – everything was a lie. The comfort, the kisses, the sex, the love…Her heart broke, was ripped to shreds inside her chest. It was a physical pain, worse than anything she had ever experienced, worst than any Cruciatus she would ever receive.
But something was amiss. What he did was surreal, and the fact that everything they had together could be a lie boggled her mind. It was so contrary to what had happened throughout the year…And didn't he say he loved her? He couldn't just say that…could he? Hermione wanted to cry with confusion, but the spell placed on her prohibited her from such a necessary release.
These things whipped through Hermione's mind as Draco and Voldemort stood over her, reveling in victory, yet quiet in contemplation. Voldemort's voice broke Hermione from her thoughts. "Indeed, you have been most loyal, Draco. You have redeemed yourself beyond anyone's expectations. You will be greatly rewarded once I have established myself. I'm sure that your father is proud."
Draco bowed low. "Thank you, my Lord," he said expressionlessly.
Voldemort turned to Hermione now. "And what to do with this one?" he asked, fingering his wand lightly. A light smile played across his features as Hermione looked up at him in fear. "Orman!" he barked. "Any ideas?"
The sickening man walked into Hermione's field of vision and her mind nearly burst. While this was less of a shock than Draco's duplicity, it incited her anger even more. With Draco, she felt deeply betrayed. With Channing, she felt rage that she did not act upon her instincts earlier. She had never had a good feeling about him. He was too normal, too nondescript to be completely honest. Hermione saw now what he really was: a sycophant, easily swayed by those with power, and a complete bastard.
Not to mention creep. As he looked down at her and slowly licked his lips, her body tensed as the impulse to hurt him coursed through her veins. She did not see Draco's fists clench. "I don't care, my Lord. Whatever you decide, I'm sure, will be sufficient," he said spitefully.
"Crucio," Voldemort hissed. Hermione braced herself for overwhelming pain, but it never came. Instead, Channing crashed to the ground beside her, screaming in true agony. She felt a small flutter of victory in her chest; she hoped he died from the pain.
"When I ask for your opinion, I expect to be given an answer!" He lifted the curse abruptly, and turned towards Draco, twirling his wand. "Have you an idea, Draco?"
Draco started slightly and moved next to Voldemort to get a better look at Hermione. His cold eyes looked down at her, not meeting her eyes but looking at a point somewhere over her left shoulder. His mouth remained impassive. "Send her to Azkaban."
Voldemort gave him a sidelong glance. "Azkaban?" If his reptilian face had any eyebrows, he would have raised one.
"Yes," Draco said. Now, his silver eyes pierced directly her own and there was a startling and horrifying lack of emotion within them. His apathy was all too evident. Hermione wished it was hate, for that would require him to feel something. But no matter how pleading she tried to make her expression, his did not budge. "Death would be a release," he said in a whisper.
Voldemort was silent for a moment, considering Draco's reasoning. "You show great potential," Voldemort said with a smile in his voice. "Azkaban it shall be. She is your charge until then."
"Yes, my Lord," Draco said. The spell on Hermione lifted. Draco dragged her to her feet and started to haul her away.
Only when Voldemort moved on to either torture or kill the other survivors did Hermione speak. "So it was all a lie?" Her voice shook with emotion as tears spilled down her face, mixing with the blood dripping down her cheek, stinging when they entered the gash itself. She ignored the pain. "All of this, everything that happened, it was all just…"
"All just what, Granger?" The use of her last name was like a slap to the face. "A lie?" He fixed her with a strong stare. His eyes were no longer apathetic, but they were still unreadable. "I did not have a choice." He accentuated every word. "It was the only way."
Hermione furrowed her brow and shook her head in confusion. "What the hell are you talking about?" she breathed, growing frustrated with his ambiguity. "Your only choice? The only way to what?"
"You don't understand…" he sighed, "you'll never understand. But I had no choice."
That was enough. "There's always a choice!" she yelled, ripping herself from his grip. She slapped him hard and glared at him. Unexpectedly, he brought his hand across her face, sending her reeling to the ground.
He bent down low next to her ear, mouth twisted into a savage snarl. "I had no choice," he hissed for the final time. Then, unexpectedly, his voice softened. "I'm sorry, Hermione…so sorry," he said. "Please…please, forgive me." Draco looked at her, eyes shining with tears unshed and mouth contorted into a deep frown. He traced the line of her face softly with one hand, planting a soft kiss at the corner of her mouth. Then, he raised his arm steadily and pointed it at her head. "Stupefy."
With a flash of red light, Hermione's world faded from view.
When she next woke, she was lying against a cold, stone wall on an ever colder, stone floor. She was completely alone and surrounded by darkness. To her surprise, the gash across her face had been healed. But the wound had soaked her robes with blood, and the wetness did nothing to keep out the penetratingly deep chill of the prison. The only noises were the faint weeping of other cellmates and the slow rattle of a Dementor's breath. She did not have her wand.
She slowly pushed herself into a sitting position in the corner of the cell. She heard a faint flutter from above her head. Straining her neck upwards, she caught glimpse of a lone window high above her head. Sitting at it was her owl – Amaris. Hermione wanted to call out to her, but instinct stalled her tongue. Any sign of life would surely attract the Dementors, and she was in no position to handle any more torment.
And perhaps Amaris understood this. She hooted lowly, shuffled nervously from her perch, gave another hoot, and took off into the night. Although she knew it was for the best, it did not make the loss any less painful. Head against the rough stone wall, Hermione began to silently weep: for herself, for her friends, and for all wizard-kind, whose lives would now change drastically because of her.
All because of her.
Draco found himself in the same stone chamber where he had been punished not but a year earlier. But this time, he was being treated with a marked increase of respect. Instead of being thrown to the ground at Voldemort's feet and tortured mercilessly, he was seated at the Dark Lord's right hand, being lauded for his fantastic espionage work. Channing was being recognized too; it was no small feat to infiltrate the Order of the Phoenix for so long and completely avoid detection. Draco had to admit, Orman had done a fabulous job – he did not even recognize him as a Death Eater until Christmas and they were part of the same organization! But despite Orman's successes, it was still Draco who held honors at the table that eve.
"A toast," said Lucius Malfoy, standing and raising his goblet high, "to Draco. You have redeemed yourself." His toast was short, but to Draco, it spoke volumes. He had finally earned his father's respect and, with that, respect from all the Death Eaters. He was the youngest man ever to do so with such apparent ease. And what's more: he had saved his own life. The consequences of Draco's failure had been made quite clear to him since the beginning. And although Draco's motives had surely changed over the past year, his original goal had not wavered. He was to live. He had to live.
The other Death Eaters seated at the table raised their goblets, echoing the toast. Each drank deeply from his cup and talked of their success and their future plans. Orman tried to chat with Snape, who was deep in conversation with Lucius Malfoy. Bellatrix, who Draco had found randomly tied to a tree, was sending lust-filled, seductive glances to Voldemort whenever she possibly could. He, of course, was steadfastly ignoring her. Draco said little, preferring to watch the paradoxical normality with which the table occupants conducted their meal. No one noted his silence; it was no doubt attributed to the sudden release of stress.
The dinner ended after several hours of ominous conversation. As the Death Eaters and protégées mingled, Draco felt a tap on his shoulder. It was none other than the three boys who had been tormenting him throughout the year.
"Malfoy," Zabini greeted smoothly, flanked by a nervous looking Crabbe and Goyle.
Draco's instincts kicked in immediately. Without thinking, without even thinking about thinking, he withdrew his wand and stunned Crabbe and Goyle, who fell to the floor with a thud. A quick Crucio to Zabini brought the third boy to the floor as well, who writhed and cried out in pain as Draco watched, mouth contorted into a sadistic smile. His eyes took in the sight ravenously, Zabini's cries falling on deaf ears.
Revenge was sweet indeed.
He broke the curse eventually, looking down regally at the shaking and broken black boy. "Malfoy," he croaked, "if you had told us, we wouldn't have done…"
Draco cast the curse again: a short burst of pain fueled by his rage, a friendly reminder just who had control. "You shouldn't have been so hasty to act, Zabini," Draco hissed, eyes flashing. Their confrontation had gathered a crowd – even Voldemort was watching the exchange with rapt attention. "I wasn't lying when I said that you would pay for that shite."
"Malfoy…we didn't…we wouldn't have…"
"Quiet!" he seethed, leveling his wand at Zabini's forehead, which was beaded with sweat. "I said you would pay. Now take it!" He cast another Crucio, not noticing the vicious smiles on the faces of the present Death Eaters.
Another hand descended onto his shoulder, cold, with long, spindly fingers. Draco lessened the curse without breaking it, looking over his shoulder and into the red eyes of Voldemort himself.
"That's enough, young Malfoy," he said, baring his small, sharp teeth in a grin that more resembled a snarl. "Not all revenge has to be exacted physically." Reluctantly, Draco let go, ignoring Zabini's pained gasps and wheezes. He looked around at the faces of those present, seeing more proud expressions than he would have liked.
"Excuse me," he said quietly. With a last scathing look at Zabini and the two unconscious crones, Draco Apparated to Malfoy Manor. He pushed open the heavy double doors for the first time in what felt like a century. There, waiting for him in the center of the white marble floor, was his mother. He rushed into her arms, which she wrapped around him in a tight hug. He held her just as tightly.
"Draco…I was so afraid that you wouldn't…that you would…" Tears choked her whispered words as she clutched him tighter and cried into his neck. "I'm so happy you're home."
"I am too, mother," he whispered. Eventually, Narcissa detangled herself from his grasp, taking note of her son's tired grey eyes, which were cast, unfocused, to the floor.
She smiled gently, cupping his cheek in her hand. "Your room is just as you left it, dear. Now go and get some sleep. You've had a trying day."
Draco remembered himself enough to give a small chuckle. "That would be the understatement of the century, mother." She smiled too, although it did not reach her eyes. It was sad, as if she could see some truth behind his words. How much of the truth, however, was another matter entirely.
He trudged up the stairs wearily and shut and locked the door. He rested his body against the solid oak panel, nearly collapsing from exhaustion. He cast a quick spell to soundproof the room then threw two wands upon his bed. Finally, he was able to let go.
He reached for the nearest thing to him, which happened to be his nightstand. Hardly noticing the weight of it, he flung it across the room with a primal scream. It cracked against the wall loudly, splintering against the ancient grey stone. But it was not enough. His bureau next, each of the drawers pulled out and chucked against a wall, the thick wood splintering wildly, embedding its pieces in carpet and flesh alike. The bookcase toppled over, the shelves broken almost beyond repair. It almost hurt him to see the books – books she loved so much – crumpled against the ground, pages torn and spines broken, but he couldn't stop.
Draco ran around the room like a madman, throwing everything he could, breaking his life, destroying everything that had ever meant anything to him, as quickly as possible. His wand. He needed his wand now, sending curses and hexes as fast as he could think of them, reducing his furniture to little more than piles of sawdust and splinters on the floor. He barely resisted the urge to set it all on fire, to set his possessions aflame and go down with them.
Everything destroyed, Draco stood blankly and panted, hand growing limp. He looked around hopelessly. Wand dropping from his useless hand, beads of perspiration dripped down his forehead and neck. Suddenly, the blood drained from his face. He rushed to the bathroom and threw himself to the floor, barely making the toilet. He vomited until there was nothing left, but continued to retch out of disgust, his back and stomach heaving with exertion.
He wiped the vomit from his lips when he finished then threw himself from the toilet to the wall. He dug his pale fingers deep into his platinum hair and pulled. He tore at his clothes, at his skin, ripping both. He writhed on the black floor of his bathroom, blood and tears streaming down his face. He screamed until his voice was nothing but a harsh rattle. He hurt and he bled and he tried to destroy everything, because everything was a reminder of himself.
Then, Draco shuddered. His body spent and bleeding, there was nothing more he could do than curl into a ball on the cool black tile and sob until his lungs ached and his eyes burned. By the time he finished, his soul was little more than a useless lump of black rot, nestled somewhere inside his cold heart.