Ron’s hand, grimy and slick with sweat, slipped from Hermione’s yet again, and she wrapped her fingers even more securely about his own. It was like living one of the horrible nightmares that had recurred so frequently over the past few weeks: Spells were hurled across space with reckless abandon, voices rising and falling in painful cadence. But this time would be different, because she would keep him by her side. She was determined.
“All right, ‘Mione?” His voice crashed against her eardrum, close enough to rattle her teeth; Hermione hadn’t realized until joining in the second battle for Hogwarts that one could become unaccustomed to loud noises. She nodded, clamping her lips together, and, with a circular motion of Luna’s wand, raised a Shield Charm around the pair of them just as Rookwood sent a streak of crimson light their way. But Luna’s wand – although it didn’t feel nearly as wrong as Bellatrix’s had – was nothing like Hermione’s own, wherever it was now, and the barrier was weaker than she had hoped.
She had not anticipated her life would be like this. Would she always be fighting battles that couldn’t ever be truly won? Was this a glimpse of her remaining years – or did she even have years left? Was it only months, or weeks, or days, or even minutes? The thought made Hermione squeeze Ron’s hand even more tightly; seeming to think it was a plea for reassurance, he squeezed back.
Another dark-hooded figure advanced on the pair of them just as the last vestiges of the Shield Charm trickled away, like unseen drops of water. Hermione caught Jugson’s eye; he instantly recognized her as the prey he had let slip through his hands only half an hour before. With an indistinguishable noise of rage, he lunged for them.
“NO!” Ron jerked Hermione to the side, and Jugson’s spell missed by mere inches. “Don’t touch her!” He shot a Stunning Spell at the Death Eater, but it was easily blocked. They stood, two on one, all of them panting slightly, and for an eerie stretch, nobody made any moves at all. Then Jugson’s eyes flicked downward, to where Ron and Hermione’s hands were still tightly intertwined.
“Touching,” he sneered, and raised his wand again. Hermione shut her eyes tightly without being able to help it; she felt calm. It was an unnerving thing to feel in battle.
She waited to die.
But nothing happened.
Hermione peered through her closed eyelids; Jugson had knelt to the ground, his wand at his feet. He was clutching his left forearm in his right hand, his mouth ajar, as though he had completely lost all interest in Ron and her. It was Ron’s turn to squeeze her hand.
The dark skull on Jugson’s forearm was wriggling, as though the ink under the pale skin was alive; a snake curled in and out of the skull, darting through its blank, gaping eye sockets, staring at the star-strewn sky, and out of its leering mouth. Jugson raised his head.
“He is coming.”
And just as the last word had left his mouth, the entire battlefield seemed to shift, parted by an unseen hand. Opposing forces drew back from one another, and in the blank center column, newly created, strode Lord Voldemort himself, coming down from the ruins of the castle at last.
Nobody seemed to breathe, Death Eater or Order member; all eyes were fixed on the imposing figure of the most terrible wizard in existence. And yet for all that, there was something odd about him, something that Hermione couldn’t quite place: He looked broken and worn, somehow, and very different from the impression he’d cut at the previous battle.
“My friends,” he laughed harshly, and a palpable tension rippled through the onlookers. “You have returned, I see. I must say that I have expected you.” He placed his palms together, neatly overlapping his fingers one over the other.
Hermione cast a glance up at Ron; a muscle was working fiercely in his jaw, as though he were clenching and unclenching his teeth to an unheard rhythm. Lord Voldemort was mere yards away from them now, slowly pacing down the line of those assembled in front of him. Somehow, in the brief few minutes since his appearance, everyone had turned to face him, so that it looked more like he was addressing a gathered crowd than anything else.
Lord Voldemort stopped and looked down at a crumpled Death Eater at his feet, and Hermione saw, with a thrill that was equal parts elation and horror, that it was –
“Bellatrix,” she breathed, but only Ron seemed to hear her. He shifted a fraction of an inch closer, the rough material of his jacket scraping her upper arm, and wrapped the fingers of his left hand around her healed wrist.
Voldemort made a tsk sort of noise. “The loyal will always fall,” he said, but there was no sadness or anger in his voice. And in an absurd moment, Hermione almost felt sorry for Bellatrix, despite the hell she had caused when alive: Torturing Neville’s parents, torturing Hermione herself, killing countless others. All she had done had been for nothing if her beloved master did not even mourn her.
Still no one spoke, and the fragile-looking man in front of Hermione raised his head. The stars shone brightly off his skull-like head, and for a shining moment, he looked skeletal and deathlike. What is it about him? she wondered, though knowing better than to speak aloud again. Her mind ticked again over the conclusions she had reached in her cell.
Harry’s blood, killing Voldemort by seeking to rejoin the person from whence it had come. Was it her imagine, or the light playing tricks on her – or did he truly look more pale than normal? With great effort, she squinted at his hands as moved a step closer to the rest of the crowd. Was she only inventing the reddish tint on the white skin?
“Yes, they always fall,” Voldemort repeated, his mouth twisting into a humorless, leering grin. “And you, who are so loyal to your cause – you will fall, too. Your losses are too great –“
“We won’t!” Hermione jumped as, from next to her, Ron let out the words indignantly; his ears had reddened again, this time in anger. He wrenched his hand from hers to step forward, the other hand raising the wand almost unthinkingly at the man (could he still be called a man?) in front of him. “You’re not going to win, Tom –“
Hermione reacted before she knew what she was doing, almost without thinking; Voldemort’s wand moved a hair, and she only had time to shriek, “Protego!” before thick, snaking black ropes sprung from the end of the Elder Wand in Voldemort’s hand. They bounced off the invisible shield, falling to the ground and disappearing in small puffs of black smoke.
“Clever girl,” he snarled, mouth twisting dangerously. “Tell me,” he continued, his blood-red eyes flicking back to Ron, “how it feels to be protected by someone of her status?”
“Don’t say a word against her!” Ron took a step closer, and there was a small cry from behind where e and Hermione stood, quickly muffled. She spared a fleeting glance over her shoulder; Mrs. Weasley’s mouth was covered from behind by her husband’s hand. Mr. Weasley’s head was turned away, as though he couldn’t bear to watch.
Voldemort laughed again, high-pitched and cruel. “Oh, certainly not,” he sneered. “Have you forgotten, Ronald Weasley? Your dreams, your fears…” He let his voice trail away. “And now Potter –“
Ron brought his wand through the air so fast it whistled, bright gold and orange sparks whizzing from its end; Voldemort deflected the spell almost lazily. “Potter is gone!” Voldemort screamed, all traces of mirth he did not feel wiped now from his face. “And what did his death do? Nothing.” He turned his head and spat on the ground.
“He died for us!” Ron roared. Hermione was struck with a sudden sense of déjà vu – Neville, speaking those very words, only weeks earlier, still alive… She swallowed against a sudden thick feeling in her throat. “He died so that we could have a chance at defeating you! Your Horcruxes are all gone – you’ve got nothing left –“
“Idiot boy,” Voldemort sneered. “I don’t need my Horcruxes anymore. Potter is dead; I have done exactly as the prophecy said. I killed him. And I have the Elder Wand.”
“But you’re weak.”
Hermione did not know where she had gotten the courage to speak; she did not remember making the conscious decision to open her mouth. But all at once, she had found herself beside Ron, speaking as levelly as ever she had.
“Your blood is dying,” she said firmly, and was gratified to see Voldemort’s eyes dart briefly to the hand holding his wand. “It’s leaving you – it’s Harry’s blood, it’s not yours. It’s died along with him.” She did not know how she was continuing to speak so calmly. “And you will die, too.”
There was a fraction of a pause, crackling with unseen electricity, and then Voldemort laughed; it was even more forced. “You know nothing of the ancient magic of which you speak, Mudblood,” he hissed. “The Elder Wand –“
“Isn’t even yours, is it?” she interjected, raising her own wand to be level with her shoulder. “You didn’t win it from Dumbledore – and neither did Professor Snape.”
“What are you talking about?” Voldemort’s voice was almost nonexistent in its pitch, low and slithering, much like the snake to which he had entrusted a piece of his soul. Hermione glanced sideways at Ron, whose face had changed from red to white in a brief span of time.
“It’s Harry’s,” she said quietly. “The wand belonged to Draco Malfoy, until Harry won Malfoy’s wand from him.”
“But I’ve killed Potter!” Her opponent’s voice had risen again to a scream, but she shook her head, still near-scared at how calm she was. What was happening to her? All her time in that makeshift dungeon cell, all the pieces of the puzzle that had clicked into place… She was revealing them all.
“Harry gave himself up to you,” she told him. Her voice broke only slightly on her best friend’s name, but she would not break down – not here, not now. “You didn’t conquer or overpower him. The power of the Elder Wand died with Harry Potter.”
There was another silence; this one seemed to stretch for much, much longer, as though it might never be broken. There was only the soft noise of humanity to bridge the gap between Hermione and Ron and Voldemort.
“You’re wrong,” he snapped at last, and she felt a small surge of bitter triumph. Stubborn as ever. He wheeled around to face the assembled masses, pointing his wand over their heads, and several people ducked on instinct. “I’ll kill Draco myself –“
“You will not.” And to everyone’s surprise, but no one’s more than the man himself, Percy Weasley extricated himself from the front of the gathering to stand beside his brother in front of Lord Voldemort.
“If Hermione’s right – and I’ve never before known her to be wrong,” said Percy firmly, “then you’re nothing, V-Voldemort.” The name was slow coming through his lips, but he said it bravely; for one of the first times in her life, Hermione felt genuine affection for this most stoic of the Weasley brothers.
“You cannot stop me,” Voldemort whispered. He raised his wand, and the blood on his palms shone, clearly visible now. It seemed to pulse with vibrant life, sensing that it was about to be avenged, that it would soon join Harry…
“Oh yeah?” Ron taunted, newfound bravery cloaking him at the appearance of his brother at his side. “I think Harry would have something to say about that, too.”
It was not prearranged, but all three of them knew what to do, without looking at each other, or speaking, or moving in the slightest. They raised their wands in one swift, unified motion, and the same spell was uttered by all three pairs of lips in a single breath, a miracle.
And three identical jets of light hurled themselves through space, all converging on a single spot on Voldemort’s chest, where his utterly inhuman heart still managed to beat with foreign blood. For a moment, he looked only shocked. And then the Elder Wand slipped through his fingers, falling onto the dark grass and instantly becoming lost in the shadows.
With painful slowness, he crumbled to the ground, broken and defeated. And at last – at last, at last - the war was over. Voldemort was defeated.
A/N: They did it!! The war is over at last, Ron and Hermione are together again -- it's so weird to be this far along in this story. I always feel a bit funny, coming to conclusions like this. But there's one small epilogue to go, and then I'll be able to mark this story as completed, and let me tell you, that is strange. What are your thoughts?
It almost feels like it's time for farewells and thank-yous, and maybe that's because I've got a sad-sounding song playing in the background right now. But I hope to see everyone back here for the finale -- that would be fantastic! You all have made this story something I never imagined it would be. Thank you so, so much. I can't wait to come to the end of this road with all of you!