A/N: Thank you so much for your reviews, comments and suggestions, dearest readers! Now that we've reached the end of this story, here's longish A/N to answer two of your main questions:
But why isn't there more to this story? There's so much I don't know! – Yes, I'm aware there are a lot of questions this story doesn't actually answer and a lot of sub-stories it doesn't tell. That's deliberate, I'm afraid, and giving a complete explanation of both worlds was never my intention. But if there are any questions you feel you absolutely need the answers to, feel free to ask them in a review here and I'll answer them on my livejournal (the link's in my profile). You're also most cordially invited to discuss the story over there, if you're interested in doing so…
What will you do next, story-wise? – At the moment, I'm fairly swamped in work, so there are no new stories planned for the near future. The next two steps for me will be to finish "Had I Known" (so look out for updates on that one) and to edit "When A Lioness Fights" (if things work out the way I plan, updates starting with a re-written Prologue and additional scenes will begin on livejournal and the ao3 in about a month. You'll find links to both in my profile). There are a few one-shots I'd like to do, but finishing the work you all know (and some of you like) is my primary concern at the moment.
I hope that cleared things up! Now enjoy the epilogue, and as always, if you've reached the end of this journey with me, I ask you to drop me a review and tell me what you thought, what you liked or didn't! In other words: Review, please!
– A Year Later –
Deep in the mountainous forests of Romania, Hermione and Harry were watching a dragon.
The Welsh Greenback was flying low to the ground, rolling and dancing in the currents of the wind, and the joy of it was enthralling. They were watching him silently, their hands lying open on the rough wood of their bench, palms up, almost touching but not quite.
From the outside, they looked much better than they had during their unplanned visit of another dimension. Hermione had gained weight, and Harry had lost his manic edge. Both were clean and well clothed.
It was a good thing that no one could look inside them, since the bleakness there was not a pretty thing to behold.
"Today's a bit warmer, don't you think?" Hermione asked casually, her hand inching closer to his. "Sunnier, too."
Harry didn't answer.
"Neville walked from the house to the edge of the clearing and back today," she continued. "Luna told me. She was quite chuffed."
"I've had another letter from Fleur. She and the child have settled down well in France, although she's still completely torn up over Bill. She's invited us to come and live with her. Again."
There was no sound except the wind currents caused and manipulated by the dragon's mighty wings.
"Harry," Hermione said, turning fully towards him. "If you don't start talking soon, I will be forced to read Lockhart's books to you. Every single one of them."
Harry met her eyes, but she wasn't sure if he could see her. She hadn't been sure what he saw ever since he'd died and come back. She wasn't sure if he had come back, if she was honest with herself.
She wasn't sure if she had, come to that.
Voldemort was gone, but all was not well.
Of course it wasn't. Only an idiot or a romantic fool would have expected that, and Hermione was neither. Most of those who had fought against Voldemort were dead, leaving the Ministry and law enforcement in shambles and sycophants climbing over each other to fill the vacant spots. Neville had lost his right leg in the second attempt to get to the cup, and Luna her left eye in the final ambush that finished off Voldemort. Most of their friends were gone. So were their reasons to stay in Britain.
Hermione tried to keep her one-sided conversations light and amusing, most days, but today was a special anniversary, not one of the many where they mourned for their dead and wondered why they hadn't joined them yet, but the day that marked their return from that other world, the place where they had been, for a short time, almost content.
Today Hermione couldn't keep pretending that everything would be alright, because she was reminded of a place where it might have been, and that hurt more than all war memories ever could.
"Talk to me, Harry," she whispered. "Please. It's been three months, and I need you. You can't go on like this. I can't go on like this."
Harry moved, his breath misty in the winter air. His head turned, and she could see his green eyes glimmering under the bangs of too long dark hair.
He looked at her, and today, something about his eyes was different. They seemed almost to see her.
He cleared his throat once, twice, and almost in reflex she reached beside her and handed him a cup of steaming tea.
He actually took it – a first – and sipped it gingerly, grimacing when the hot liquid ran down his throat.
Her breath caught at that human – almost normal – expression. To her own embarrassment, she felt her eyes fill with tears. She had been crying like a sentimental old woman these past months.
"Are you…" she whispered, not quite knowing how to end that sentence, afraid to interrupt these first stirrings of reaction.
He shook his head and continued to sip his tea, but it wasn't a gesture of refusal, only a request for time.
Finally, he lowered the cup, and again he looked at her.
"It's been a year today," he said hoarsely.
Her tears spilled over. She couldn't help it. She was crying wildly, utterly out of control, but at the same time she was smiling so hard that her face hurt.
"I know," she whispered. "It's what I've been thinking about all day, too."
Silence again, but this time it was companionable and, at least on Hermione's side, almost content.
"Do you remember," she then whispered, hesitatingly, because memories had become sharp-edged, dangerous things since he'd walked to his death. "How it felt, sitting in that room on Christmas eve, watching them telling stories and laughing and being happy?"
It took him a long time to answer, so long that the worry clenched around her heart again, pushing it down into her stomach, so long, in fact, that she began to wonder whether she hadn't just imagined his voice, had finally snapped as she'd been secretly expecting to for some time now.
"I remember…" he then said slowly, like a child testing speech for the first time, like an old man relearning it painfully after a stroke. "Mum. Telling me that she…"
"… was proud of you," she finished the sentence for him. "Yes, Harry. That happened. She told you that."
He shook his head, and the hand around his cup tightened almost into a fist.
"No," he disagreed. "Not that Mum. This one. My own Mum. She appeared, along with Dad and Sirius and Ron and… and Ginny, before I…"
He had never talked to her about that long, solitary walk into the Forbidden Forest, where he had met Voldemort. She had been so furious at him for giving her the slip, for not letting her be with him in those last moments.
She had found the thought of him going to his death alone unbearable.
"What did she say?" she asked softly, and in answer, his face grimaced, twitched, stretched and warped into the ruin of a smile.
"That she was still waiting for me," he said quietly. "The other her. That she would always wait. That they hadn't forgotten us."
Hermione found that hard to believe, found the whole concept of dead people appearing to the living downright fantastic, to be honest, no matter that there were magic and ghosts and speaking portraits in her life. For a moment she wondered if Harry had imagined the ghosts of his loved ones surrounding him, but then she decided that it didn't matter. Not if it had given him the strength he'd needed.
"That's good to know," she therefore whispered. And it was. It really was.
Harry didn't speak again until the dragon had left and the wind had calmed.
"Do you think they'd still want us, Hermione?" The like this didn't need to be spoken.
Hermione hesitated to answer, but it had been burned out of her in those last, desperate hours – all the lying and the strategizing and the doing what's best for others. So she told the truth.
"I don't know, Harry."
He nodded, as if he had expected nothing else.
Then he closed his eyes and seemed to curl in on himself in that way she'd become used to see, even if it hurt her every single time to witness it. She didn't know where he hid when all life went out of him and his skin looked like an abandoned cloak, left worn and useless. She hoped it was a better place.
She expected their talk to be over – it was a wonder he'd talked to her at all, and perhaps it was something she could cling to in the coming weeks, could hold herself up with, just until the spring when everything would be easier to bear.
Emptying the cups into the frozen grass to her right and carefully replacing them in her backpack, along with her thermos (she'd become used to not employ magic for mundane things in those last months, because every spell could be detected, every charm could mean their deaths), she rose to her feet and clenched her jaw when the hip that had been shattered gave its familiar protesting sting of pain.
She stretched out a hand towards Harry – a useless gesture, but it was better than telling him to come along like a dog or a child – and once again a surprise waited for her on this day of good, unexpected things.
Life returned to Harry, and he tilted his head until he looked up at her.
"Could we go back?" he asked, and oh, she had waited for that question, had waited longer and harder than she herself had known, and suddenly she was filled with a longing that was so wild and raw, all the more overwhelming because it was entirely unexpected, and she did not give herself time to think, just blurted out the truth.
"Yes," she said, sounding breathless even to her own ears. "Yes, we could. I have the amulet, and everything with us to create a portal. We can go back. Tomorrow. If we want to."
He gave no sign that he had heard her answer, but then he never did.
His eyes rested on the woods around them, on the grass below their feet, on the sky. He seemed to search for something.
"Do you want to?" she asked. She had long ago stopped asking him questions, because it hurt too much when he didn't reply. But perhaps this time. Perhaps things would change?
He lowered his head, and his fingers reached out to touch his forehead, right next to his scar, as if he wanted to remind himself of something.
He did not answer her question.
But he did take her hand, and his grip was warm and surprisingly strong, and alive.
It took them a long time to return to their hiding place, a three-room hut in the middle of nowhere. Not because it was far, or because they didn't have the strength to move quicker than the slow shuffling of their feet allowed. It rather seemed to Hermione that they both needed this walk, needed a time of quiet, steady progress from one place to another, a journey, short and undramatic as it was.
They did not speak while they walked. Hermione kept her eyes on the deep and lovely woods around her. She did not look at Harry, and he did not turn his head towards her.
But both were aware that something was building between them, that in the middle of winter, among the black silhouettes of bare trees, a seed had begun to grow in them.
And when they'd crossed the meadow and came to stand in front of their friends, Hermione holding onto Harry's hand and he for the first time in months answering the touch, when Neville and Luna looked at them, calmly and quietly, as if they had been waiting for them and the seed they carried with them for quite some time, when Harry met their eyes, and Hermione nodded quietly –
Luna's head came up, her eyes searching the sky as if it whispered its secrets to her.
And she smiled.
"Finally," she said.
Meanwhile, in a world very much the same and yet fundamentally apart, four friends were strolling along the frozen banks of the Great Lake.
Neither Severus nor Sirius lived at the castle anymore. Whether it had been the taste of danger or the need to do something more hands-on than teaching, Sirius had given up his position as DADA teacher when the school year ended and had returned to active duty as an auror instead.
And since the defeat of Voldemort and his Death Eaters had made additional guards for the castle unnecessary, and even the Order of Phoenix had quietly disbanded three months ago, Severus had happily moved back into his cottage with its large underground lab.
But this week they had reunited at their old home - to celebrate the New Year and to remember the events of the last, momentous one. But more than anything else perhaps to commemorate the four travellers that had left them behind a year ago yesterday.
A year. It had passed quickly, but still it was such a long time in comparison to the not even two weeks they had spent with Harry, Hermione, Neville and Luna.
By now, they had given up almost all hope of their return. A year. They had no knowledge of what had transpired in that other dimension, but surely they couldn't have held out for this long against Voldemort and survived. Or perhaps they'd won and chosen not to come back here, or they'd won but had been too injured or tired to go on.
"I still wonder if we could have done more. I mean, we simply let them leave," Lily reiterated a thought that had kept every single one of them awake at some point over the last year.
Severus had pondered it while he'd continued his research on horcruxes into the late hours of the night. Remus had wondered when he'd visited the Luna Lovegood of this world, only to meet a young woman that was perhaps just as clear sighted as their Luna, but so very much alone and closed off from the world that he couldn't connect to her at all.
And Sirius had held one, horrified thought in his mind as he'd confronted Voldemort, along with Albus, his friends, and every other capable fighter of the Order – We let them do this on their own!
But regrets and worries about the past were futile, and perhaps it was better to be thankful for their short time together – better, in any case, than to dwell on dreams and possibilities and fail to live their lives.
As always, it was Sirius who led them out of the darkness those thoughts had caused.
"It was a wild ride though," he commented, chuckling. "Remember when Hermione made Albus choke on a lemon drop?"
"And when Harry stormed into his office with bits of basilisk in his air," Severus added dryly. He was wearing black today, an unusual choice for him. It was fitting though, because in some ways they weren't just remembering the travellers they'd actually met, but also the men and women of that other dimension, their counterparts, who had died and left those four on their own.
"And when they burst in on that first Order meeting," Remus reminisced. "All dragon hide and stormy faces and attitude, and we had no idea what that was all about…"
They kept sharing memories as they strolled to the edge of the Lake and further on across the grounds, going over their anecdotes like polishing a small hoard of jewels they'd collected and were now guarding carefully, and for a moment it was as if the four were among them, ephemeral and just out of reach, but blissfully alive.
So strong was that impression, so tangible, that it took them a while to realize that the sounds they were hearing were real, not just in their heads and memories, but here, now, right now!
Lily flicked her wand.
"A magical discharge, huge," she whispered, as breathless as the others. "And the wards have been breached. Intruders – over there!"
They met each others' eyes for a heartbeat, hope and disbelief warring in them.
Then they were off, rushing across the grounds towards the hill Lily had indicated, running with all they had as if another second could make a difference.
A singing sound accompanied their flight over stick and stone and meadow, the unearthly susurrations that had begun the last opening of a portal in their presence. It surrounded them, sneaked into their heads, whispered promises and dreams to them, and Lily laughed, clasping Remus' hand tightly, but she was also crying, and Sirius kept so close to Severus that only a miracle could lead their feet steadily over the frozen earth.
"There," Lily said again, pointing at the hill and what was behind it. "We're almost there!"
And so they are.
They are cresting the hill, their hearts straining in their chests, their eyes straining to be the first to see.
It will not be real until they behold it, will remain an idle hope like all hope is idle, in the end, a necessary lie that only earns its mantle of verity when we can cast our eyes on it.
In their minds they see it already, the valley stretching out below the hill, frosted blades of grass glittering in the sunlight, and four bundles of clothing and flesh and bone, four unconscious travellers they've been conjuring in their dreams a thousand times.
But it is not yet truth.
In a moment it might be.
Let us leave them here, then, in the cold of a January forest, with the figments of their hopes about to take form. We deal not in realities, but in maybes.
Let us leave them.
Both worlds are safe, and this story is told.
It is time for our Chosen Ones to be at peace.