Disclaimer: I sincerely disclaim everything I might possibly have claimed at this point. That includes an exclusive right to world domination, the award for being the sexiest man alive and the intellectual property of the Harry Potter franchise, among other things. Now I'm sad, so there you go.
Introduction: As you might have guessed from the summary, this is not exactly the most light-hearted story ever written since the beginning of writing (roughly coinciding with the invention of the Internet). Some might even go so far as to call it sad, which is by far the worst anything in the existence of the entire cosmos could ever be.
While not directly inspired by, this story was nevertheless carried to no small degree by the song "How It Ends" by DeVotchKa. For me personally, "On the Nature of Daylight" by Max Richter and "Together We Will Live Forever" by Clint Mansell greatly contributed to the writing process as well. That musical spectrum might give you an idea of what to expect, if – of course – I succeeded at all in my intended conveyance of themes.
Also, I just turned a year older the other day. Again. I hate it when that happens. It's like "BAM! You're older!", and against popular belief among teenagers of every single generation in human history, that's totally not cool.
So if you would be so kind to excuse me now, I need to get obsessed with finding the fountain of youth and eternal life and all that stuff. In the meantime, here's a story about death.
Anyway, let's get depressed!
Here at the End
He knows the whole plan is on a knife-edge. When he uses a moment's respite in which for once no spell seems to be coming his way and takes in the burning world around him, the realization hits him harder than anything else that has been thrown his way possibly could have. For whatever plan there might have been in the first place, he now sees it crumbling within the eschatological chaos that engulfs him all around. The pieces aren't in place. Hell, there seem to be hardly any pieces left on their side at this point, but sometimes you just have to strike with whatever you have left. Sometimes a well placed pawn is worth more than all the armies in the world. And he knows with all the piercing clarity of his mind who that pawn is. He knows what he has to do.
She runs through the broken corridors, akin to the arteries of her youth's innocent heart that have been ripped apart by fire; through a world that's falling apart all around her. Sizzling missiles of energy fill the air and electrify it with currents of doom and peril, causing death and destruction wherever they hit. Windows break and shatter into a thousand stinging shards, cutting through flesh and life alike. Wooden doors burst into a hundred jagged splinters, sudden and deadly. Stones explode in blinding flashes of light and walls crumble. Smoke rises from gaping black holes where there was solid matter merely seconds earlier. The once so lively pictures on the walls get ripped apart and flung away, quickly burning into ashes. But she keeps running, and she cannot stop.
He notices a familiar mane of red hair not far from him, bright and blurry through the rain, and he feels a sting of guilt when he ducks to avoid being seen, breathes a sigh of relief when he sees how his friend successfully dodges an attack and counters right back with a spell of his own. But he can't help him. Not anymore. He forces his attention back to his perilous surroundings and the shadowy trees ahead, just in time to jump forward and roll through the wet grass to avoid being hit by a tellingly green flash of light, then he reflects another energetic missile coming right at him with a well placed flick of his wand. He knows they have no way of actually killing him, but instincts are hard to fight. Besides, getting knocked out wouldn't exactly play out to his advantage either. He has to get through this open crossfire – he just has to. He has to get through hell in order to meet his maker. They all depend on him.
She doesn't even know where the tears are coming from anymore. It might be the stinging smoke in the air, clouding her vision and hurting her eyes. It might be the bodies; seeing people she has known for years in that one harrowing moment when they stop being human and start being a mere body. A body she has to dodge or jump over, looking down into the lifeless faces of people she saw laughing once; their voices now silenced with utter finality. But all the pain and fear as well, she thinks – that too is over for them.
She tries to take solace in that as she fiercely sends a spell towards a darkly hooded figure at the far end of the hallway, who's just raising his wand to cast a spell of his own at someone outside her field of vision. It hits him right in his chest and the force of the impact catapults him through the window behind him, out into the night. She sees George raising his thumb at her in a gesture of appreciation. She tries hard to force her lips into something resembling a smile. He doesn't yet know. He hasn't seen his brother fall. She has. But she still keeps running, for there is someone she needs to get to.
He pushes the heavy body off of him. A werewolf's bite would still have killed or eventually turned him, and he can't allow that. So when the primal monstrosity did suddenly jump at him from the shadows of the trees and there was no time to cast a spell, his more mundane instincts took over and the creature ended up with his wand stuck in its neck. With its dark, thick blood still trickling from his grim face, he pulls his wand out of the gaping wound, giving way to another gush of red liquid.
His breathing is heavy, straining his lungs. Standing still for what seems to be the first time since the sun set and the fires rose, he feels all the exertion creeping up in his body that the constant flow of adrenaline has suppressed up until now. His eyes wander over the fields before him, flashes of light illuminating scenes of battle – many of them marking the end of another life. And up above, sitting enthroned on the hill with a crown of ashes and smoke: the burning, breaking husk of what was once his most beloved haven. The only place he's ever called home.
With his eyes mirroring the unforgiving flames he looks upon it one last time, and for a fleeting moment he sees it the way it used to be. And with that image deeply engraved in his heart, he turns around and enters the forest, already knowing how this will end.
She can see the ravaged Great Hall through the gaping doorway, both heavy wings of the former door lying broken and shattered to its sides, and the view inside is no more than a macabre epitaph to all the voices that once filled it with laughter. For a brief moment, her thoughts take her back to that time when the most defining turn of her life was yelled out into the crowded, candle-lit hall by a hat, sorting her into the same house as him; her future best friend. But before her eyes can linger, a sound so loud her eardrums seem to tear abruptly takes her attention away from that silly reverie and right back into the bleak reality. She turns around just as the great chandelier comes crashing down from the ceiling above; golden arms breaking off and hundreds of sparkling crystal prisms shattering in an instant, joined by bursting candles and blazing flames to form a short-lived firework that even in its destructive nature seems utterly out of place for its sheer beauty.
For a bizarre moment everyone in the entrance hall seems to forget the world, and for no more than a second she's nearly willing to believe that it's all over; that everyone has just suddenly realized the futility of it all. But then somebody screams and havoc breaks loose again as if this interlude of wonder never existed. Instantly, she snaps out of it as well and makes straight for the exit, dodging and countering all the spells that come her way, except one that painfully hits her in the side yet seems to be otherwise ineffective.
When she finally crosses the threshold and steps outside with a hand pressed against her hurting abdomen, a gush of cool night air gently brushes her features, washing the dust and the smell of burnt flesh out of her lungs. In this reinvigorating moment, with the rain slowly washing dirt and blood alike from her skin, her eyes immediately dart towards the edge of the forest down at the foot of the hills. She's sure she can see a single human figure entering the dark woods just now and her heart makes a jump in her chest. Without wasting even a fracture of a second, she starts running again – with only one thing on her mind. Only one person.
He can barely see a thing amidst the shadows of the trees, but he realizes it doesn't matter where he goes anyway. Not anymore. He's gone where he needed to go. He's held his end of the bargain, now it's his turn. He will come, he knows. He's already here – somewhere. But he still keeps walking. Maybe just for the sake of doing something – anything at all. Suddenly he has to think back to his very first year here, when he entered the forest with Hagrid, Fang and Malfoy, of all people. He feels the faintest hint of a smile creeping over his lips, but moving them actually hurts and it's only now that he realizes how dry and rough they have gotten. He involuntarily tries to wet them with his tongue, but the metallic taste of blood immediately makes him regret that reflex.
He thinks he's lucky there's no Yule ball or something like that coming up anytime soon, because kissing someone with these lips would be an outright imposition. He actually chuckles at himself for that silly thought, the sound of his weak laughter leaving a strangely loud echo in the unearthly silence around him. However, the thought of kissing brings up something else; something he can't use right now. Regrets don't help him going forward. So he stumbles on, his legs growing weaker with every increasingly unsteady step. Where is he, anyway? What's he waiting for?
"Where are you?" he actually speaks out loud, right into the darkness and just for the lack of anything better to do.
"Here," the darkness says right back.
She stumbles over something disturbingly organic lying on the dark, wet ground and falls over, breaking her fall with her hands held out in front of her just in time, but she loses her grip on her wand in the process. Cursing, she hastily searches for it in the grass and mud around her, yet before she finds it, something else is about to find her. An explosion of red light right next to her makes her throw her arms up around her head in a desperately instinctive attempt to protect herself, the force of the magical energy throwing her to her side.
"Never thought I'd live to see the day," a familiar voice says. "You're welcome."
She looks up at him with an expression of relief that abruptly turns horror-stricken. She yells out his name, but it's too late. With his eyes widened in shock he falls flat to the ground. Fearing the worst, she quickly crawls over to him and turns him around onto his backside. When she finds his eyes looking back at her, relief washes over her like the rain never could. She takes his wand and breaks the spell with an ease that other witches strive to attain a lifetime.
"Just petrified," she says, letting out a breath she's been holding in her lungs up to this moment.
"You or me?" he tries to joke, barely able to move his lips.
She smiles at him encouragingly. "You'll be fine in a few minutes. You'll be fine."
"What kind of Death Eater would use third grade prank spells?" he asks, looking at her as quizzically as he possibly can with his muscles still taking their time to loosen up. "I think we might yet win this thing after all."
She shakes her head at him and his incorrigible attitude. "Might have been a stray spell. Probably one of ours."
"Friendly fire, you say?" he asks, playfully annoyed. "Typical. Just typical."
Smiling at him, she quietly uses his wand to call for her own and it indeed comes back to her from somewhere behind her within the blink of an eye, drenched in mud but otherwise unharmed.
"Listen," she hesitantly starts, putting his wand back into his right hand and firmly closing his stiff fingers around its handle. "I… I need to go somewhere."
He looks at her intently for a moment. "Where's he? What's he doing?"
"I'm not sure, but I have an idea."
"What do you mean? You're not saying he's… ?"
She nods. "I think he is," she says pensively. "I don't know why. There must be something he hasn't told us. Something we missed. All I know is he's all alone, and I can't have that."
"Let's go then," he says without hesitation, but his attempt at standing up fails when he can barely move anything below his neck at all. He curses bitterly.
"It's okay. You'll need a few more minutes," she tells him, gently brushing a strand of red hair off his mud-splattered forehead. "But I don't have those. I must go."
He looks at her miserably, but then nods his head in grim acceptance. "Go then. Find him. Be where you've always been."
She gives him a look of uncharacteristic incomprehension, and to her surprise he smiles lopsidedly in response.
"By his side," he just says.
Her features take on a thoughtful expression, but it doesn't take the clamor all around them for her to realize that she has no more time to lose. Somehow, the moment feels like something it shouldn't be in a better place than this, but she shakes it off for now.
"Just… survive," she tells him, and his eyes meet hers.
"You too," he says weakly, his voice breaking off. His eyes shimmer wetly in the moonlight and he tries to blink the tears back. He takes a heavy, quivering breath and then rasps two last words: "Go, Hermione."
She halts for another second, then rises from her knees and turns away in one quick motion, starting to run the last distance between her and the fatefully looming woods, never looking back.
He spits the blood out of his mouth and pushes himself off the ground once more, straightening himself up as much as he's able to, barely keeping the balance.
"So this is how you roll?" he scornfully asks his mortal enemy. "Instead of entering the fray you hide in the trees and wait for the boy to come out to play?"
His pale-faced counterpart ejects a hiss through pointed teeth, hard to define as something between anger and amusement.
"Mockery doesn't suit those who fail," he speaks with a voice as thin and slashing as a snake's tongue.
He makes a step toward him with his long arms outstretched at an angle to both his sides, his wand pointed at the ground and loosely held in a slender, long-fingered hand with white skin tightly clasping sharp bones.
"Tell me, why would I bother?" he asks the staggering boy in a cold whisper, his voice barely rising above the rustling of the leaves, and yet clear and sharp as a shard of glass. "I did not wish for any of this folly to happen. I gave them a choice, and they chose unwisely. Every death out there is a servant lost to me, which I severely bewail. Your life, Harry Potter, is the only one I desire; the only one I came here tonight to take. Alas, if you had only come to me earlier. You might have spared so many innocent lives…"
A searing flush of anger washes over him, silly as he realizes it is at this point.
"They weren't mine to spare," he spits at him, full of disdain. "There is only one murderer here, and that's you, Tom."
Within an instant he finds himself ferociously pushed against the rough bark of a tree he's sure he was standing many feet away from just a second earlier, and the violent impact takes the air out of his aching lungs.
"Don't call me that, you fool," the piercing voice lashes out at him, exuding malice, and he can feel his foul, cold breath on his face.
"Or what?" he sneers right back when he finds the breath to speak. "You'll kill me?"
He meets his hateful gaze unflinchingly, looking right into the fathomless abyss of those two, black slits amidst orbs of ice blue, and the abyss stares right back at him. Slowly, the thin, bloodless lips beneath stretch out, growing into no more than sharply defined lines, finally forming the most grotesque grimace of a smile imaginable.
"Do you know the true art of the Imperius, boy, and why it is my favorite curse of all?" he slowly, calmly asks with every syllable imbued with relish, holding the boy's head tightly gripped in his raw-boned hand. "It is such a beautifully multifarious spell, yet commonly used so amateurishly. It pains me to see it being wasted in the feeble hands of a dilettante, of which we have far too many in this most pitiful world. Lacking in both knowledge and faculty, they resort to something as utterly vulgar as the Cruciatus to inflict pain, or something as pathetically simple as the Avada to cause death, while for the apt mind the Imperius renders them both redundant.
"I don't need it to make mere humans obedient. Fear alone entirely suffices for that purpose. When I use the Imperius," he goes on in a low, nearly inaudible voice, then suddenly releases the young man before him from his harsh grasp and takes a step back, "I control my subject utterly and completely."
For a moment, nothing seems to be happening, and he can't help being surprised when he discovers that he still seems to be able to move freely at his own will. He feels somewhat feverish, but that must be just due to his general condition. It does seem to be getting warmer, however, and he's not sure if it's him or the air around him. His breath begins to feel uncomfortably hot in his nose and there's that strange droning sound in his ears. His vision grows blurry and he has trouble focusing on that dark figure watching him patiently. Those chilling eyes, glowing in the night, seem to be burning white-hot in flames of ice. Or is it him who's burning? He sways from left to right and tries to hold on to the tree with shaking hands, to somehow keep standing.
"I can feel the blood rushing through your veins," the sound of the voice penetrates his ears like a thousand needles, reverberating inside his tormented head until it seems to be coming from within himself. "I can feel it boiling under the constant pressure of your ever pounding heart. I can hear every compulsive spasm of that feeble muscle. I can see every drop of blood flowing through your mortal flesh. I can taste the hot iron that burns your fragile body from within. I can hear the symphony of your combustion. And I control every, single string of its music. You are but an instrument that I play however it may please me, and there is nothing you can do about it. Now let the choirs rise and scream, little boy. Scream."
She rushes through the thickening undergrowth in near-blindness. The moonlight barely reaches the ground through the dense canopy of leaves above, and wherever it does it casts a grotesque shadow play; crooked, twisted and many-fingered arms greedily reaching out at her from pitch black nothingness. Using her wand for light is out of the question, though she's quite sure the noise she's making alone is enough to draw any attention to her. Her hurried steps on uneven ground are daring in the dark, and more than once she barely manages to avoid tripping over an upturned root or slipping on a wet stone.
She has to force herself to resist the constant urge to call out his name, for whatever dire straits she has no doubt he's in right now, the last thing she intends to do is to worsen them even more. But doubt follows her on every step: would she actually help him by drawing the attention to her, or even so much as cause a moment of confusion he might be able to use to his advantage?
She slows down, the pain of all the strained muscles in her body instantly spreading through her. Breathing rapidly through her open mouth she comes to a halt, the silence of the night enclosing her like a chilling blanket. She sees a silvery mist creeping over the ground wherever there's a spot of light, and she can feel its cold dampness mingling with the sweat on her warm skin. She turns her head from side to side, peering into the dark tunnels between the gnarled old trees; every one of which seems to lead into the same black pit.
Helplessness takes hold of her, and slowly but surely panic follows in its wake. She has to do something. She has to find him; think of something. She always knows what to do, right? It's what everyone always says. It's what they rely on. And it's why he ever needed her in the first place, isn't it? She can't fail. Not now. She mustn't fail him.
Like an invisible lightning, the most agonized scream a human voice could possibly eject into the world suddenly cuts through the air, sending a violent chill down her spine and right into the depth of her flinching heart. Instantly she jolts up from her inner disunity and turns her head into the vague direction she's sure the petrifying sound came from; a sound she's so often heard as the last echo from the nightmares she's woken up from many times before. This time, however, she can only wish it were a mere bad dream. But this time, her nightmare has come real.
So she starts running again. Not away from it, but right into its dark embrace.
He finds a part of him is surprised at how easy it is to give up, but once you've suffered enough; once the pain just gets too much to bear; once you begin to truly embrace the inevitable, it comes easy. And it comes to you as the greatest relief, like a wave of warm water washing over you and a gentle breeze blowing right through you into every fiber of your being, lifting you up – disconnecting you. From the bloodied earth below your feet and the broken bones in your body; from that part in your brain that just wants to keep fighting no matter what; from the images of your past and your unknown future self. From everything.
But then he feels the strings again. Invisible strings, pulling him up from the ground like a puppet and holding him vertical, dangling in the air with his feet barely touching the ground. Blood keeps running over his lips and from countless wounds, continuously soaking the grass below him in a widening circle of deep red. His head keeps swaying back and forth and from left to right in a slow, circular motion. His eyelids are heavy and his breathing is weak. But there isn't much pain left at this point. It's more like a weak resonance of the excruciation, under a thick, heavy blanket of numbness.
Then the voice rises again, disturbing his serene departure from earthly realms.
"Arteries have burst. Muscles have ruptured and sinews have ripped. Bones are fractured and joints are shattered. Nerves are torn. Organs are failing. And all that without so much as me having laid one finger on you," he tells him in a sickening rapture. "Isn't that just… magical?"
He slowly closes the distance between them until he's standing right in front of him. Then, with a flourish of his hand next to his head, but without touching it, he makes him look up at him. Then he raises both his arms in a grand gesture, as if to present his triumph to an invisible audience.
"The boy who lived is broken," he announces ceremoniously, then goes forth to address his victim more personally, his voice entering a feigned sympathetic tone, "Do you realize that you are dying, Harry Potter?"
Somewhere within the hazy fever dream, he finds what seems to be a last ounce of control, so he raises his eyes at his nemesis and just looks at him in silence. His eyelids keep wavering and falling shut, but he fights them up again every time. He looks right into the bottomless, black pits that stare right back at him, devoid of anything resembling that which has kept him alive for nearly eighteen years.
He searches for anything but all-consuming hatred, greed and obsession, yet finds naught. There might be a last remnant in there of something akin to life, but in the shape of a forsaken, withering infant, trapped in the confines of the dark; its eyes blind, its cries unheard, its skin untouched by any warmth. But then, it might just be a projection of his delirious mind, seeking absolution even for the unredeemable. A part of him feels utter repulsion, but the greater part of him is too exhausted, too spent to get lost in such luxurious emotions, and in the end he merely pities the empty creature before him.
"I'm rudimentarily aware of it, yes," he finally, slowly answers with visible effort. "But I'm wondering, do you even have the slightest clue what that means, Tom Riddle?"
He can feel a shiver run through the strings, their grip on him loosening ever so slightly. His cold eyes narrow into slits, scrutinizing him with unsettled suspicion and the faintest hint of doubt.
"It means triumph," the creature that was once a boy whispers, unable to mask the uncertainty that has crept into his voice, like the snake that suddenly finds the mouse to be a mongoose.
His opposite, a boy still, sighs at him, the very sound only contributing to his increasing irritation.
"Since I'm in no position to waste any time with great theatrics, I'm going to make it real simple for you," he tells him, weak as he may be still savoring this last of all pleasures granted to him. "The diary is gone. The ring is gone. The cup, the locket and the diadem are gone. And I'm pretty sure that scaly pet of yours is gone by now as well. Now riddle me this."
Eyes widen and inhuman nostrils flare as something enormous sets the black pits ablaze. The strings are cut and he instantly slumps down onto the ground, his knees sinking into the blood-soaked grass. He exhales a heavy breath, half a moan of pain, then looks up at him.
"Exactly," the boy who lived says, a corner of his mouth turning up into one last, blood-trickling smile. "Triumph."
But just as he is about to take his final solace in this mother of all pyrrhic victories, something else catches his attention, and as soon as his tired eyes are able to focus on that something, sheer horror replaces everything else within him.
She knows it can't be far now. Every scream comes louder to her than the one before, cutting deeper into her frantically beating heart. Her mind is frozen and racing at the same time, constantly revolving around only one single thought.
She fights her way onward through the dense undergrowth with her hands protectively stretched out before her, low hanging branches lashing out at her like hard, knotted whips. One of them slashes right across her face, leaving a bleeding gash over the length of her left cheek. She barely takes any notice of it, no more than she registers any of the other parts of her body that are bruised and bloodied.
Even though the ear-splitting screams make her whole body freeze up from the inside every time they cut through the shapeless dark, the real horror sets in when they abruptly stop, leaving a silence hovering between the trees that is like a death sentence to the hope that has been urging her ever onward. Now, sheer despair carries her the last distance.
Then, when she's sure she just saw something move not far from her, like a sinister shadow silently moving on its own, she quickens her step against her better judgment. Caution, it would seem to her, is a luxury she doesn't have at this point. And sure enough, there is light ahead. A little more than around her, at least. A clearing, maybe. Yes, she's sure. That has to be it. She's nearly there. Just a few more steps. It can't be too late. She's finally there.
And then she suddenly steps out of the shadows of the trees and into the moonlit clearing, the rain falling unhindered from the night sky above onto the grass-covered ground, and she stops dead.
He forces his eyes to turn away from her and directs them back up at him, who is standing perfectly still with his unmoving eyes gazing into something or nothing at all in a far off distance. Maybe he's shocked enough to not have noticed her presence yet, he thinks, however unlikely that might be. He just has to keep his attention somehow.
"Feeling mortal yet?" he mocks him bluntly, yet he remains motionless.
If only she could read his thoughts and just turn around again. Run away. Just run. She probably thinks he'll react as soon as he feels her attempting even the slightest movement, and under different circumstances he wouldn't doubt she would be right to do so. But maybe she has a chance. She must have a chance.
"I think my heartbeat just slowed down a bit," he goes on to taunt him, his voice raspy. "How about yours, Tom?"
If only the broken piece of wood lying next to him were still intact, he might be able to do something himself, but the damn thing splintered under the brutal force of his attacks after he had blocked them as long as he could. Besides, he's probably too weak to cast anything useful anyway. If only his head would be clearer. If only there'd be something left in him.
"Come on, Tom, it's not that bad," he says in a delirious slur, just to keep talking. "Getting beaten by a teenager who can't even legally drink the good stuff yet? Could've happened to anyone."
He coughs up some more blood, his aching throat feeling sorer with every spoken word. His eyes flicker over to her, blurry in the background. She seems to make the smallest step towards him and her wand-hand twitches ever so slightly. He tries to shake his head, but isn't sure if it's more than his involuntary swaying.
Then he speaks, his voice a mere whisper carried by the wind; hollow and deceptively weak.
"The game is yours, old friend. But before I fall at your pawn's hand, I shall take your most precious piece."
And only then he finally directs his eyes down at him, and they are like hell frozen over. One final, all-consuming fire blazes up in their pale, blue light when he says,
She hears him scream in agony as she's flung backward through the air, but even in this fleeting second does she take solace in the certitude that this time it's not his own pain that makes him scream. When she hits the ground and an intense pain immediately spreads from her abdomen, she instantly knows it's not an effect of whatever spell just hit her, but something very physical.
He looks on as the ray of baleful light hits her right in the middle of her torso, every bit of weariness pushed out of his consciousness as his eyes widen in horror. When the other sizzling missile likewise hits the husk of a man standing before him, making him stagger, something savage switches inside of him as he grabs the jagged piece of his former wand, sticky from his own blood.
She fights the unconsciousness coming over her with all her strength of will and tries to lift her buzzing head. When she does, she sees a sharp piece of wood protruding from just above her right hip, about an inch wide and maybe five inches high above the exit wound. Just when her eyes manage to focus somewhat on the two figures in the middle of the clearing, she sees him throwing himself forward with a cry of exertion, thrusting his arm up and into his opponent's upper body. He seems to be holding on to something, practically hanging there half-risen from the ground.
He holds on to his wand's handle with his right arm uselessly dangling to his side, remains still for a moment and then pulls himself up with all the strength he can muster, until he's standing once more face to face with his arch enemy. Their eyes lock one final time, and in this moment his own are really those of his mother. And for the first time, there is no arrogance, no power and not even an echo of hatred in those two, pale orbs he bores right into with the memory of everything he has lost. They are just empty.
He staggers back a step, still looking at him. Then his eyes slowly wander down to the piece of wood sticking out from his chest, the blood oozing out of the deep wound a sharp reminder of his regained mortality, and with life slowly flowing out of him even the last sign that he ever was alive at all.
He sways to the side, turns around and falls to the ground, barely breaking his fall with his feeble hands, trembling under the weight. A moment later, the stress on his weakening muscles is too much and he slumps down completely, pushing the shard of the wand even deeper into his chest. He buries his long fingers in the ground, trying to pull himself onward; to crawl away from the inevitable. But ultimately, his weak flesh betrays him and his mortal body finally goes limp, his black robes becoming his burial shroud.
She tries to push herself up high enough to get the branch out of her stomach, thinking that it's too firmly stuck in the earth, but it actually loosens up when she makes the effort and she's able to turn to the side. The pain that comes over her when she moves nearly makes her faint, but then the pain is numbed by something far worse when she, even through her blurry vision, sees him collapse to his knees, then fall to his back. She calls out for him, but there's no response.
With despair and determination guiding her hand, she grabs the thicker part of the branch protruding from her back, takes a deep breath and then pulls as hard as she can. Her nerves quake and tear as her spine is set afire. A gut-ripping scream takes the air out of her lungs as she feels the wood leaving her flesh. Yet as soon as she has gathered her senses, she tries to stand up, but a sharp pain in her leg sends her right back to the ground, groaning.
Cursing, she raises her left pant leg to look at her calf and finds a deep, bleeding cut she's sure wasn't there just a moment ago. It doesn't take her a second to suspect its cause, but it doesn't change anything. There's still just one thing she has to do, and when you can't run you crawl.
He's floating, floating above the ground or someplace else entirely. He doesn't know. He doesn't care. There are voices in his head, but they aren't like the one that tormented him before. They are warm, gentle, whispering words of care and consolation. There's a white mist around him, engulfing him completely. Maybe he's flying above the clouds. He's always loved flying. Nowhere else has he ever felt so free, so unbound. It's second on his list of things he loved in his life. He's grateful there was love in his life. He can feel it now. Right now, right here. He can see all their faces flashing by before him. All the beings he ever cared for, all those who he knows are worth it all. And there aren't many regrets. One, maybe. Just the one.
He never told her. She's smiling at him now, and he can hear her calling out his name from a great distance, even though she's floating right here in front of him, smiling so warmly, so beautifully at him. He wants to tell her now, but somehow he doesn't seem to be able to speak. She will know, won't she? He's sure there's a place and a time for them. He's sure. Somehow, someday, somewhere. He'll wait. He'll always wait for her. But for now, he's going to his parents. They aren't far away now. He can see them waving at him, showing him the way. He just has to follow their lead. It'll be alright.
They aren't far apart now as she determinately pulls herself ever on, slowly and unswervingly closing the distance between them even as she sees another red gash opening on her right arm. Seeing him lie there in a crimson bed of grass makes her heart falter, and again she calls out is name, though her voice is weakened not merely by an overwhelming exhaustion, but a sense of foreboding, all the more the nearer she gets. When she finally reaches his outstretched left arm with the last effort she can muster, she collapses. With tears blurring her vision, she grabs his limp arm.
"Harry?" she asks again, virtually pleading; her voice now a mere whisper.
And for one brutal second that makes the foundations of her being crumble away beneath her, she thinks everything is lost. Yet suddenly, a sign of life goes through his form as the slightest movement, and she can see his chest going up and down; slowly, weakly – but breathing still. When he turns his head around, he smiles dreamily at her, and for a fleeting moment her world is pure again.
"Hermione?" he drowsily asks in utter wonderment; his features worn out, his right eye completely bloodshot and his voice drained of all strength. A shiver runs through her as she notices the countless wounds in his face; the deep cuts on his cheeks and the dried blood on his forehead, under his nose, on his lips and as dark trails coming from his ears. Where there is no blood there are ashes and dirt. Across his neck is a deep, purple mark, as if he's been strangled. All his clothes are ripped and blood-soaked in far too many places.
Then his eyes widen all of a sudden and he blinks repeatedly, like someone who's just waking up and trying to get the sleep from his eyes.
"Hermione!" he breathes, outright horror-stricken, then goes on to violently shake his head. "No, no, no! What are you doing? Why are you here?"
"Hush now," she gently tells him as she pulls herself just a little further so as to lie down next to him, ignoring the excruciating pain the motion sends through her entire body. "It's okay."
"No! No it's not! This is all wrong," he goes on to protest and despairingly repeats, "Why are you here?"
She fixes her gaze on him, and his eyes flicker back and forth between her own in search for an answer.
"Because I needed to be."
He's silent for a moment, looking at her pensively.
She shakes her head feebly, and he relents.
"It was all falling apart," she begins to tell him, her voice soft and imbued with emotion. "All around me, I witnessed our shared past being ripped asunder. I watched our memories being consumed by fire. There was pain and suffering everywhere. I had to look on as people died, without the power to do anything about it. People I have known for years and people I never got to know. Some of them were younger than we are. And it all seemed so… entirely pointless. So wrong.
"And when I saw the lamenting living holding and rocking the bodies of the dead in their arms, calling out their lost ones' names and cursing fate and happenstance over and over again, I suddenly realized that I was not where I was supposed to be. I thought of a person that I would break down so completely for that I would forget myself even in the middle of all havoc; a person I could neither bear losing, nor having all alone and apart from me. I thought of someone irreplaceable – and I thought of you."
He stares at her with an unreadable expression, although his wetly glistening eyes betray at least a facet of his emotional kaleidoscope. He opens his mouth as if to speak, yet no sound comes forth.
She smiles at him warmly.
"I'm sorry, but I thought if ever there was a time to not hold back, repress and pretend, it surely must be now," she apologizes. "They say there's no time like the present, don't they? And I don't mean to unnecessarily alarm you, but I do have a feeling this could be the last present we'll ever have..."
"I love you," he whispers.
"I know you do, Harry," she assures him soothingly.
"No. No, you don't," he disagrees, dead serious. "I love you, Hermione, and I love no one else like I love you."
Her smile gives way to a mixture of surprise and disbelief, the latter quickly waning as she studies his face intently and realization hits her.
"'mione?" he asks.
"Will you go to Hogsmeade with me next time we get a chance?"
She exhales a jittery breath through slightly trembling lips and nods at him decisively, teary-eyed and smiling at the same time. He smiles right back at her in response.
"Will you go to the graduation ball with me at the end of the year?"
A first tear falls, and sobbing she replies, "Of course. Of course I will."
He looks down to where their hands lie merely an inch apart, admiring the shape of her elegant fingers. As he gently folds his own around hers, he raises his eyes back up to her face and finds her looking down at their entwined hands. Only when he speaks again does she look up to meet his gaze.
"Miss Hermione Jane Granger?"
She looks at him a moment longer before she once more whispers, "Yes?"
"Will you marry me?"
The tears now flow freely, leaving traces in the layer of dust and blood on her warm skin beneath, as she closes her eyes and leans her head in towards his, and he meets her halfway.
Their kiss is tender, their dry and blood-encrusted lips just brushing against each other, yet their touch is deeply felt.
"Yes," she then says very softly in between her sobs, while the tips of their noses are still touching. "Yes, I will."
Even with his own tears running down his face, he nonetheless smiles a beaming smile at her.
"We'll find a nice place for us to settle down. Just you and me," he further paints a future that is seeping from their veins minute by minute. "And Crookshanks, of course."
She laughs at that, all the while weeping without restraint.
"We'll settle down someplace quiet and serene," she agrees. "Grow old together."
"Maybe we'll have kids someday," he offers. "Ron and I will bet on how their hair will turn out: messy or bushy."
She scrunches up her nose, then flinches as another sharp sting of pain goes through her, but she pays it no mind.
"They'll be brilliant, our kids," she says, smiling dreamily.
"Brilliant, yes. Definitely," he agrees. "So what will I contribute?"
Again she laughs, though it seems to hurt her more than before. She coughs, but gets control over it.
"I would seriously consider slapping you right now if I thought I could manage the effort," she tells him tiredly.
"Lucky me," he says, a sad smile slowly fading from his features.
For a while they just lie there in a mutually savored silence, letting their eyes fall shut while their nose tips gently brush against each other in small, circular motions. After a minute or two, he opens his eyes again and watches her peaceful face for a few seconds. Not even when the skin on her forehead seems to be cut open by an invisible knife does that change anything about the fact that he just sees his Hermione, and his Hermione only. Then, however, as he becomes aware of the time that has passed, a streak of panic comes over him.
"Hermione?" he worriedly whispers, his voice unable to rise any higher by now.
To his relief, her eyes open and their warmth and affection calm him with immediate effect.
"I'm just feeling sleepy," she assures him, her lips barely parting as her eyelids drop. "Just a little sleepy."
"Yeah, me too."
She forces her eyelids up again to once more gaze into her favorite emerald depths.
"This isn't as bad as they say, is it?"
"Could be worse," he consents as a faint, coy smile turns up the corners of his mouth. "We could get expelled."
Mirroring his smile, she gives his nose the gentlest nudge with her own. "You're a muppet."
"You're right, though," he says, in a much more serious answer to her question. "It's not bad at all. It's just one more journey we take; one more challenge we brave, side by side."
With the tears returning she looks at him, and into him. And when she finds herself and his calm, steady eyes reveal to her the true depth of his own affection, she feels infinite, and there are no more tears to be shed.
"Just one more journey. One more challenge," she repeats. "Together."
"Together," he echoes.
After that, they keep gazing into each other's eyes as long as they can manage to hold them open, immersing themselves in their love and trust; the blissful simplicity of it all filling them with a lightness that makes them float. When their eyelids finally get too heavy and the blinking too tiring, their connection merely switches planes, their noses still touching and assuring one another of each other's presence. A warm, soothing blanket seems to envelope them as all the pain, all the fears and worries of the mortal world – slowly, surely, gently – seep out of them, and they enter their last good night – side by side.
And thus, there they lay, in the middle of the moonlit clearing, with their hands forever entwined between them.
~ The Very End ~