Disclaimer: Not mine, respects paid.
A/N: So this plot bunny bounced around in my head pretty much ever since the release of DH last summer and I have finally managed to spit it all out on paper. This piece is compliant with the DH epilogue, but not with the rest of the events of the book. It is a three-chapter short fic that is already completed, so it should be posted in its entirety over the next couple of weeks.
This is written in part because in the HG-SS genre, we tend to bash Ron a great deal. I cannot deny that this portrayal is somewhat deserved and serves many useful purposes, and often gives us some hilarious results, but I wanted to try my hand at a more mature character – the kind of man who comes from a boy willing to sacrifice himself on a gigantic chessboard at the vast old age of twelve. Although this is HG-SS, it's almost all written from Ron's POV of their relationship.
The movement behind Ron Weasley's shoulder was betrayed in his peripheral vision by a rough-looking cane sinking slightly into the freshly-shifted dirt. He didn't have to turn his head to know that it was his lifelong best friend, leaning heavily on the stick gained almost two decades prior in his final ambush of Rodolphus Lestrange. The last of Voldemort's supporters, running and hiding for more than thirty years, had killed three Aurors and severely wounded another five before Albus Potter had managed to subdue him with the Avada Kedavra. Harry's relief that his son had remained cool in the fight and powerful enough to bring down the wily old wizard had been tempered by the grief that the pride of his heart had the ability and the will to do what his father had never successfully done: cast an Unforgivable Curse. Decorated with an Order of Merlin, Second Class, for services to the wizarding world, the Ministry had ensured that Al Potter would be remembered as a hero. But his father couldn't forget the hardness that had taken residence in those green eyes so like his own after that encounter. Though Mungo's could have healed the Head of Magical Law Enforcement completely, Harry had opted for the staff.
"A reminder of my own fallibility," he had always said when asked, and only a few people knew that he meant closer to home as well as in the field.
"Where's Hermione, mate?" the voice asked. Same pitch, same intonation. It was lower from age, inhalation of smoke in the line of duty and screaming curses in the din of battle, but sometimes when Ron heard it he had to turn, to confirm that Harry's hair was now more silver than black, to see the lines drawing around the mouth that betrayed his age. The eyes never would. They were past their seventieth birthdays, and Harry Potter's brilliant green eyes remained exactly as bright and unclouded as they had been when he had set foot on the Hogwart's Express for the first time. They had grown sharper, narrowed by suspicion and war, not duller, and sometimes their incisiveness rivaled that of the long-dead Dumbledore's.
"Visiting another grave," Ron answered quietly, blue eyes remaining locked on the handsome headstone before them. The other guests – teachers, students, members of the Ministry, family, nearly seven hundred in all – had already migrated towards the Great Hall for the wake, but Ron felt drawn to remain next to the headstone of the woman who had been his Head of House, Transfiguration teacher and fellow member of the Order and who had been Headmistress for more than fifty years as his children and grandchildren trickled through the castle's halls.
The red-head could feel his friend's body twist and knew that Harry had turned to gaze at the white marble tomb of Albus Dumbledore, pure color beacon-bright, weathering the seasons and retaining the smooth, polished shine that it had when it had appeared at the end of the lake the better part of a century before.
But the grass around it was empty, and Harry, squinting, started, "I don't see-"
"Not that grave," Ron cut him off quietly, finally glancing towards his friend as Harry returned his gaze in bafflement. Ron could almost see the roster floating in his friend's mind. Who else was buried here? And where? Ron let him think instead of supplying the answer. Harry would take some time to come to the correct conclusion. It wrapped a secret that his wife didn't even know he knew, a silence he had kept all of their lives together, a private torment that he had endured alone to spare her...what? The need to fake something she didn't feel? A burst of pain if he brought it to light? Guilt? Could he berate her for a passion that existed for one person – that person not her husband? A man who had been exonerated and buried in the ground so long ago that legends of bravery had replaced disgusted sneers in Hogwart's corridors and classrooms?
Ron had known that part of her heart had been buried in the warm earth with the pale, curse-pocked, black-shrouded body. And he had married her anyway.
He distinctly recalled the anniversary celebration, one year after the fall of Lord Voldemort. Ginny had graduated with high NEWT scores, and after the official pomp and circus at Hogwarts, the Burrow had thrown a lavish party. The last of their line had successfully completed school, the Dark Lord was still dead, and the sheer quantity of noise generated by more than one hundred guests kept them all from feeling too deeply the hole that came from Fred's permanent absence. At the end of the night, flushed with excitement, Harry had pulled Ginny to the front of the room and proposed to her in front of the entire crowd. Amidst whistles and cheers, Ron's baby sister had accepted the emerald ring – Lily Evan's engagement ring, discovered in a niche in Godric's Hollow – the gold setting and myriad of tiny diamonds surrounding the central stone catching light as it fitted perfectly on her finger.
One toast later brought broad grins and pointed glances towards the long-acknowledged other half of the quad, Harry Potter's two faithful friends throughout his years at Hogwarts, sitting together on a loveseat, their ease with each other clear in their angled bodies, in their tangled hands. But those hoping for a double engagement that evening found themselves disappointed. The pair was newly reunited, Hermione finally emerging from the depression that had swamped her after the war, and Ron had been ill-inclined to push her. Deft deflection had met those willing to press for details, light-hearted conversation deterring most of the well-meaning jibes and inquiries.
And so it had continued. Two more anniversaries passed, Ron stood as best man and Hermione as maid of honor in their best friend's wedding party, Ginny began to blossom with little James. They attended the glaringly public Ministry events arm-in-arm and the much more private affairs at the Burrow and friends' homes with ready smiles. But still no ring had graced Hermione's finger and Ron had continued to delay.
She had never mentioned it, never pushed him forward, content to have her own flat in London, to work for the Ministry, to throw herself back into her causes as only Hermione could. She did not know what Ron was waiting for – that he was seeking a reflection of emotion in those honey-brown eyes that he had seen directed at another man, a passion and love as strong as the northern wind and as bitterly cherished. The gaze that would tell him her heartbeat depended on his smell, on his glance, on his being.
As a boy, Ron would have dismissed such thoughts, assuming that the girl he had been in love with as long as he could remember simply did not and could not feel that way. That Hermione's true impassioned moments were generated only for books or in the presence of complicated magic.
But the last year of the war had taught him to watch, and watch he had. And he had seen that look of abandoned, naked emotion grace her face several times during those final months, plumbing the depths of a magnificent spirit he hadn't known she possessed. And these glances had not been for him.
They had most emphatically been for a man who was off-limits, and the yearning that marred her features had been breathtakingly painful to behold.
Why? After sharing six years of solid friendship, laced with laughter and devotion as well as mind-numbing danger, what had sparked her interest instead in the coldly distant man? Ron couldn't have said. All of his observation had revealed only that the forbidding professor who held her heart returned her feelings with equal fervor, clear from the haunted look in his black eyes whenever she entered the same room.
And when had it started? Ron didn't know that either, and had not dedicated time over the decades to finding out. Why pour acid over his own wounds when time was the balm to heal them? But he was certain it had only been that year, the year Snape's loyalties came to light, a desperate year of battle after battle, darkness followed by increasing darkness until it seemed impossible that they might actually win.
In spite of his promise to himself not to think of it, it was too easy to cast back to the first night that the tall, forbidding Potions-master-turned-Defense-teacher had ever civily addressed one of the Gryffindors he had made no bones about hating for six years...
June 23rd, 1997
Dumbledore was dying. Harry and Ron were seated just outside the hospital, heads together and whispering furiously as Harry related the events of the evening, fear, awe and no small measure of guilt in his green eyes as professors bustled around them and through the door, vials of potions sparkling with a rainbow of colors in their hands, criss-crossing beams of healing spells humming through the air from many wands.
The Dark Mark blaring poisonous green over the hightest tower of the school had brought Harry and Dumbledore to land on its battlements, and even as they did so, Draco Malfoy had come flying through the door, desperation twisting his cold, sharp features. As instinct had prompted him to turn towards his enemy, Harry had found himself in a full body bind, invisible and unable to act as the scene unfolded before him.
Dumbledore had quietly tried to persuade Draco to turn to their side, and the son of Lucius had hesitated to cast his deadly curse, seeming to consider the older wizard's words-
-and four Death Eaters had pounded into the space on Draco's heels, interrupting the gentle talk with their crass encouragement and taunting as Draco continued to waver. They had been succeeded by Snape, who came ripping up the stairs of the Astronomy Tower as the young Slytherin stood, wand unsteady and countenance uncertain, before the rapidly-fading Headmaster. Blasting onto the ramparts and instantly killing Fenrir Greyback, Snape had proceeded to dispatch the remaining three Death Eaters, Draco crouched safely out of sight behind the formidable duelist. As Yaxley fled – the large blond the only one of Voldemort's followers to survive the fight – Snape had knelt, bundled the greatest wizard of the age into his arms as if he were no more than a child, and sprinted back down the stairs. Harry's curse lifted by Dumbledore's abrupt loss of consciousness and barely-sustained life-force, the young hero had followed.
Through the smoke and haze of battle, ducking curses and flying shrapnel, sent their way both by Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix, Snape had run with his precious burden, Draco Malfoy skittering behind him, jumping swiftly as the staircases shifted underneath them, sliding through shortcuts that would remove them from the main halls.
They had arrived with the venerable wizard intact and instantly set about relieving him of the pain that racked his body, seeking to stop the poison ravaging his veins.
Harry averted his eyes as he mumbled the rest. It was at his own bidding that Dumbledore now lay in such a state, having forced Harry to feed him Voldemort's potion to retrieve the Horcrux bound to Slytherin's locket at the bottom of a cauldron in a cave by the sea.
Ron couldn't think of anything comforting to say as Harry's voice dribbled into miserable silence, so he settled for lightly squeezing his best friend's forearm. Vague thoughts like, He's a powerful wizard, I'm sure he'll be all right and It was obviously really important to get that Horcrux, it's not your fault he ordered you to poison him tramped through his brain, but the red-head knew his friend would appreciate neither platitudes nor justifications. True though both statements were, it seemed Harry would have yet one more death added to the growing list that plagued him.
The door to the ward banged open, and both boys jumped, looking hopefully to their Head of House now standing in the ward doorway, cheeks still smeared with smoke, eyes bright with adrenaline but oddly flat behind the sheen. It was a look of leashed despair.
"Is he...?" Harry could not bring himself to finish the sentence.
McGonagall shook her head exhaustedly. "Nothing either Poppy or Severus can do seems to be helping."
The door to the waiting room slammed open from the other end, and in rushed the Weasleys, desperately supporting their oldest son, his face laid open to the bone and riddled with hideous wounds. Ron felt his throat close in agony as he gazed at his once-rakish brother, ear dripping blood where his proud fang earring had been ripped away. "Poppy?" Molly gasped, forcing speech in spite of her tears.
"Quickly!" Minerva commanded, and as Bill Weasley had been shuffled through with his parents, an ever-increasing torrent of people came trooping through the waiting room door.
The Death Eaters had been routed and now the combatants surged from the dark, curse-marked corridors towards the stark white hospital, needing remedies for injuries major and minor, physical and otherwise. Hermione threw herself down next to her friends and hugged them both, wrapping her arms around them and shivering uncontrollably until her leftover fear and exhaustion transmuted to them and they, too, caved in to their over-ridden emotions, grasping one another in a needed release that surpassed tears.
Seconds had become minutes, mintues added up to an hour and even the additional expertise of the rapidly-congregating professors, instantly clusted around their fallen leader, was failing. From outside the ward, the students of Dumbledore's Army, the unharmed members of the Order, and the Weasley family could hear Dumbledore's labored breathing, punctuated by hacking coughs and gasps, growing weaker.
Snape appeared in the doorway just past midnight, his gaunt face even more so under the twin stresses of adrenaline and grief. "Miss Granger." He walked straight towards her, thrust a thick book into her lap and dropped a key into her hand. "Brew the potion on page two-thirty-six immediately. The key is to my laboratory."
She stared at him for an instant, frozen both by the unusual command and this unexpected display of confidence in her abilities, and his black eyes narrowed impatiently. "You are a barely adequate choice at best Miss Granger, but Horace is gravely injured and we are in a hurry. Use your prodigious memory and creativity to do something other than break rules for once – it might save his life."
No further urging had been required. Ignoring the shocked looks on the faces of her peers and without a second glance for her best friends, Hermione had rushed immediately towards the dungeons where, presumably, Snape kept his private cauldrons.
As she left, only Ron heard the exhaled prayer of his roommate and best friend: "Hurry!"
"Who else is buried here?" Harry finally asked, tearing Ron out of the memory of one of his blackest nights and back into the glorious summer afternoon.
"Other teachers," Ron answered vaguely.
"I know that, Ron, but..." Harry frowned. "Flitwick was claimed by the goblins for burial – even though he was only part goblin, they take care of their own..." He snapped his fingers, green eyes lighting. "Hagrid!"
The half-giant had died only a few years before, and, like their parents and grandparents, the Weasley-Grangers and Potter-Weasleys had made it a habit to visit the aging man until he had passed away quite peacefully in his sleep. It had been Frederick Potter, James' oldest son, who had discovered the body and been found weeping silently at Hagrid's bedside four hours later by his worried cousins and siblings. The families had made it a habit to continue visiting several times a year, each bringing a plant to add to the increasing garden sprawling in true Hagrid-like fashion behind the gamekeeper's cabin.
Ron watched Harry stride purposefully towards the large mound, now covered in wildflowers and sweet grass, surrounded by plants both magical and mundane, that marked their friend's resting place. Hermione would not be there either, but let Harry search for himself while his best friend had a few more minutes reflection in front of Minerva McGonagall's engraved tombstone. Ron was not in the mood to divulge his secret after five decades of keeping it silent.
June 29th, 1997
They had failed.
Ron entered the hospital wing for his customary evening visit to the failing old wizard, and froze just inside the doorway as he watched one of the people he had vaguely, almost childishly, assumed could not die, open his eyes for the last time.
The two people seated by the bed had not noticed him, the unruly curly head of his best friend and the sallow, pointed features of their Potions master and Defense professor locked unerringly on the age-ravaged face as painful conciousness colored the blue gaze.
For six desperate days, Snape's heart had burned in his chest for his infidelity to Narcissa's Vow. He had labored to see the older man survive, convinced that Bellatrix had signed his death warrant with her wand the previous August. Now he only had to wait until the pressure of the Vow burst his aorta and ruptured the chambers of his long-corrupted heart. Even as he sat, the pain seemed to grow sharper...
His student-turned-partner stirred beside the bed as the once-bright eyes had snapped open briefly. Granger was ensconced in a chair across the bed from her professor, and for an instant before reality restructured his life, Severus Snape felt the genuine pull of flying hope. Dumbledore had awakened. The Headmaster would return to them...
"Harry can do it. He must. He is stronger...so much more...than he knows. Help him, Hermione..." A wheezing cough and the old wizard turned his head, sky-colored gaze locking on the man who had left hell to labor in an extended purgatory of Dumbledore's making. The paper-thin, wrinkled hand sought the callused fingers of the Potions master and clasped them. "You should have let me go on the tower, my friend-"
"Don't give up, Albus," the younger man whispered, aware that a student was watching an exchange that would forever change her opinion of him, unable to care that it was one amongst those whom he had hated most. "Miss Granger and I are working. We will cure you."
A dry laugh, and the twinkle that flashed through his gaze made the illusion of improvement fact for less than a second before dullness replaced it. "It is finished. I am old, and we cannot both live. The boy needs you, Severus. Never forget that. He is not his father." A sad smile touched the corners of his mouth. "I am so sorry, my boy...I wish I could have released you..."
His eyes widened slightly as if his words were trying to escape through the blue as the lungs collapsed, slender chest sinking inward. It did not rise again. And as Albus Dumbledore breathed his last, the physical, constricting pain born of Snape's broken Vow vanished, to swamp him with an entirely new sorrow, a gaping hole in his world far worse than the threat of his own impending doom. As Severus felt the twisting within his body cease before his grief coalesced around him, he shivered uncontrollably, dry-eyed and white-faced. Somewhere within a little boy of nine howled to be released, for salt water to flood the hospital floor, but that child had died with his mother. Severus Snape had not wept in the years that followed the dirt covering her coffin, and now his body could not recall how.
He could dimly feel hands on his shoulders, gentle, small, feminine, a voice making soothing sounds over him as he stared at the man who had spared him Azkaban, helped him escape the dementors. The man who had allowed him to be reborn, the only man alive who had trusted him to ascend from the depths of what Severus had become.
The only man he would have died for. A man he couldn't save. His hands were fisted and shaking violently. For what had he lived if he failed in this?
Ron shifted uncomfortably as he observed the unfolding tableau and emotions sliding across Snape's face, his world shifting as much from watching the cold man's reaction as from knowing that the Headmaster and Head of the Order had breathed his last. Ron's dark, usually emotionless professor was staring at the too-still form of their beloved general and confidant fixedly, as if the fathomless black eyes alone could will the old man back into the world of the living. Hermione remained behind him, hands making small motions on his robed shoulders, her tears dripping unfelt into the obsidian-black hair, even as her voice kept up a soft, steady crooning pitch. The youngest Weasley knew he had accidentally stumbled onto a private sharing of grief – Hermione and Snape had together created more than a dozen potions to attempt to stave off the death of this man, and they had lost the race against fate. Failure added to their grief, multiplying it, and in its storm, they reached for each other.
And yet, oddly, nothing bothered him in seeing this strangely intimate pose between two people who should never share it. Professor and student, light and dark, twenty years apart. It was a moment suspended in time, where raw emotions superceded such petty details and the catalyst of their sorrow and mutual guilt conquered six years of hatred in an expression of needed, platonic support.
Though Ron had to admit that, even in retrospect, his memory could summon no other emotion behind the deep-seated pain, that had been the beginning of his wife's transformation, the event that started the unfolding chain that followed. He had shuffled forward after a respectful interval, making his presence known and Hermione had lifted her tear-blotched face, eyes settling on him like a starving woman as she made to move forward, only to be halted by the death-grip Snape had suddenly acquired on her right hand, trapping it to his shoulder. Wincing with the tightness of his hold, Hermione had nevertheless remained still, and Ron had sidled up to her, wrapping an arm around her waist and encouraging her to lean on him, which she had gratefully done.
She had altered gradually after that, so slowly that even though he had combed through every detail as a young man, agnoized by his knowledge of her feelings for their long-despised professor, he could not pinpoint an exact instant where she had shifted. She simply had unfolded a new pair of wings feather by feather, like a baby owl, and one day, he had taken note that she could fly.
He had spent a lifetime regretting that her flight never truly brought her home to roost on his arm.