Disclaimer: Not mine, all non-profit work, rights are fully owned by JKR, WB and others.
A/N: The third and final chapter of this three-part story – please read, enjoy and review!
Where the Heart Lies
The silence had fallen heavier than the regular thump of Harry's staff, lending the surprisingly pleasant summer day a stifling layer that did not truly exist. Ron had made non-committal noises to Harry's continued, gentle, inquiries, and eventually, the hopeful chirps of a few early crickets and the occasional warbling bird were the only sounds to bounce in their ears as they walked to Hogwarts' least-visited and most-hidden grave-site.
Passing the lake, a huge arm slid through the surface, barely disturbing the glass-smoothness to flip at them lazily before vanishing again.
"You don't suppose it's immortal, do you?" Harry ventured finally with the air of someone reaching for a common ground that seemed suddenly shaky.
Ron allowed himself a smile, striving to bury the odd feeling the day had brought him, chastising himself for bringing Harry unease on today of all days. "No. Hagrid probably got one of our children to wrestle fifty merpeople, fight a herd of centaurs and harness thestrals to bring it a mate and produce offspring."
"All adventures conveniently left out of those oh-so-thorough letters they sent home?"
This received an outright snort. "I'm trying to remember what Mum ever knew we'd done while we were still at school. I think before the Department of Mysteries disaster, I managed to keep it mostly secret. Remember the Howler for the Ford Anglia? Mum would've yanked me out of school outright if she'd ever known I let myself be knocked around by a chess set almost twice my size, or gone chasing after werewolves."
"And she would have been right to," Harry said slowly, all laughter gone from his voice. "I think of what I did at Hogwarts...what I led you into...did Ginny ever tell you that I almost couldn't let James come? I had nightmares for months before he left. Sixteen years after I killed Voldemort, I was well accustomed to being the father of three...and I suddenly realized what any caring parent would have felt if they'd known what we did here. I would wake up in the middle of the night convinced that sending James to school was paramount to signing his death warrant..."
Ron tilted his head gently. Although neither he nor Hermione had ever had such severe fears, they had both expressed unfounded misgivings when first Rose and then Hugo had entered the castle's walls. Old soldiers never die...he thought, without a trace of whimsy. Memories faded, but the blinding terror, long-since consigned to the world of dreams, never left, and it had ambushed them occasionally – resulting in hastily sent owls to confirm that their children were all right.
The wind picked up slightly, and they were within sight of Snape's grave. They could see the long, whipping silver-and-brown mane – she had loosed it from the traditional long plait and it rode the breeze freely, as unmanageable in her seventies as it had been at seventeen – blowing away from Hermione's face as she kneeled in front of the stone, unconscious of them, her world narrowed to the strip of ground under her knees and the black marble that she reached to brush with just her fingertips, the caress of an old lover.
Ron halted in his tracks, unwilling to venture any closer.
Fear was not the only emotion that had never vanished.
Ron was pacing in circles on the well-worn rug, glancing at the fireplace every few seconds, unable to keep his gaze from the crackling, persistently flame-colored fire that blazed there. Each sideways flicker of his eyes hoped to reveal the peculiar, almost neon-green color that betrayed Floo powder.
"Sit down, Ron, you're making us all worse," Harry ordered in exasperation. He was leaning against the mantle, his own face steadfastly fixed on the cheerful fire, his green eyes briefly darting to the third member of their trio, white-faced, tight-fisted and ensconced in a chair directly in front of the flames.
Their Potions master had forbidden anyone to come with him to retrieve the Horcrux stashed in, of all places, Longbottom Hall. It suited Bellatrix Lestrange's cruel sense of humor to have woven Hufflepuff's cup into the venerable, and largely destroyed, family's ancestral home. When Ron had asserted that it should be the easiest to retrieve, being in the house of staunch allies, Snape had turned to him with a pronounced sneer.
"That statement can only be founded on two assumptions that could prove fatal to all of you. Never, ever, deliberately trigger a trap without first understanding the psychology of the one who set it and the history of the place where it was created. This Horcrux will likely prove to have the most dangerous wards – Bellatrix would have wanted to leave her distinct mark."
He had disappeared four hours ago under the black marble mantle in his office, leaving the three of them to wait, with one of Harry's former DA Galleons tucked into the hero's pocket to summon both Headmistress McGonagall and Madam Pomfrey if Professor Snape required assistance on his return.
The fire finally roared an unnatural shade, and, instinctively, all three students edged closer to it, wands drawn in case their professor were followed – or, worse, if someone entirely unfriendly were coming through.
Ron felt the tension in the room release slightly when it was Snape's sallow features and too-skinny form that spun from the ashes, although Harry's wand remained trained on the magical entrance in case it should flare again.
Snape emerged, wordlessly extended a twisted lump of gold that might have once been a goblet, took two steps, and crumpled. Hermione's hands flashed upward to catch his shoulders before his torso hit the floor, and she gently lowered him the rest of the way to the ground, placing his head gently in her lap, her wand hastily running the basic diagnostic spells they had all learned months ago.
Ron swallowed hard as her chin jerked up, heart in her expressive dark eyes, pleading with Harry before she could form the words.
"I've already called them," Harry assured her swiftly. "They should be here any minute."
Hermione gave him a slight sigh of relief, a swift twitch of her lips that might have been a smile, and instantly turned her attention back to the man on the floor, brushing his straggly hair, slick with sweat, dirt and a touch of blood away from his face in small, infinitely careful movements. Her would-be boyfriend was forcibly reminded of his mother hovering over his father in St. Mungo's after Nagini's attack – the same, hesitant motions – simultaneously confident and fearful – expressed by both women.
With a sharp gasp that rasped painfully in the older wizard's throat, the black eyes snapped open. There was no confusion there, but as the usually cold, aloof orbs focused on his best friend, catching her concerned brown, another, previously unseen, emotion darkened them. Ron felt his gorge rise in his throat, choking off air, almost strangling him as more feelings than he knew he could feel stormed his senses as he understood the tenor of their shared gaze.
Snape's usually empty obsidian eyes sparkled with a look comprised of faint worship, intense gratitude and a bittersweet, shared pain. A touch of longing shadowed it as Hermione met her professor's eyes, mutual affection flowing freely between them, uninhibited by the presence of others, by the pain he was feeling. It told of complete vulnerability and total trust. It was a look reserved for one person, the kind of glance that narrows even the crowds of Trafalgar Square to the connection between two souls.
His mouth moved, as if he were going to speak-
"Where is he?" demanded a no-nonsense female voice from the door, and the starched white uniform of the school's nurse swept over, commanding the attention of the two on the carpet and severing their connection. Hermione stood as rapidly as she could, deferring to the medi-witch's expertise as the boys turned their full efforts on the Horcrux still partially melded onto Snape's scorched left fingers, encasing part of his hand in molten gold.
But even as they had brought their learning to bear on prizing it off their professor's hand, Ron could not shake the image, could not still the too-quick pumping of his blood, could not banish his stomach's writhing in betrayal and heartbreak.
"How often does she come here?" Harry asked quietly, stopping next to Ron, observing the privacy of the moment in the relaxed line of Hermione's body and willing to grant her space for a few more minutes.
"Twice a year," Ron said, and knew his voice was rough with remembrance. Harry shot him a penetrating glance and couldn't help the next question that tumbled past his lips, his lifetime of training as an investigator too strong to override.
"That's kind of often, don't you think?" he asked casually.
"She was rather devoted to him that last year, when we only lived at Hogwarts part-time." He had expected that this, too, would earn him no reply, but to Harry's surprise, he heard a pained exhale and Ron's equally hurt whisper.
"Yes, she was."
Guilt assailed the one-time hero as all the myriad implications of his statement crashed through his mind, confirmed by the unshed tears glossed Ron's bright blue eyes. Of all the times for his damned curiosity to get the better of him. Ron clearly knew and just as plainly had elected not to tell him about it, whatever it was – and the Boy-Who-Lived-Twice suddenly had no desire to fill in the details of the picture he had unexpectedly painted.
"Don't," Ron said, and although the water still stood in his eyelids, his voice was steady. "I haven't spent the last fifty years being sorry for myself and I am not going to start now."
"Ron!" Harry tore into the library, skidded to a halt and grabbed the youngest Weasley boy's arm, green eyes wide with panic as he thrust his silvery Invisibility Cloak into his best friend's hands. Ron stared at him, nonplussed.
"Kingsley just sent word through McGonagall. They Death Eaters have attacked the Ministry! Find Hermione and get the DA together, then go through the Floo in Snape's office. Kingsley says the Auror's office has a direct connection and Tonks is standing guard, waiting for the Order."
Ron stared at his friend, dread settling like a lump in his stomach. They had not made provisions for being separated during what would, hopefully, be the decisive battle of the war. "Harry...Ravenclaw's diadem..."
"I know," Harry curled his fists in displeasure, the agony of decision-making shining in his eyes. "You know I don't want to abandon you, but we can't finish this battle without destroying every Horcrux. Nagini will be at the battle, and so will Voldemort. Take everyone with you to defend the Ministry. Tell Luna to meet me at the entrance to her common room – I think I can work with her to get it, since she's a Ravenclaw, and then we'll both be coming as soon as possible." His face hardened, and for an instant, Ron saw the face of their Potions professor appear on Harry's youthful features – a mask of rigidly set lines telling of duties to be done, eyes lit with the steady fires of service and determination.
"Leave Voldemort to me. Tell everyone that. He'll probably hang back until I show up anyway, but tell people not to go looking for him. Our wands match cores – it will be safest if the only person he duels is me. I can turn his magic back on him."
"All right. Anything else?"
"Take care of yourself. And Hermione. And...Ginny." Harry swallowed hard. "There's no Felix this time."
Ron seized his arm, and looked into the too-old eyes of the boy who had been the best friend he'd ever had. He made himself say the words he could only hope to believe. "We are going to win, Harry. This is the Auror's home turf – we hold the high ground. I'll see you at the Ministry. Good luck."
And then Ron was running himself, already knowing where Hermione would be, where Hermione spent much of her time whether researching or brewing...
His feet scrambled for purchase as they nearly slipped against the stone outside Snape's dungeon classroom, the area in front of the door worn smooth by a millenia's use. He prepared himself to barge through the solid oak when the desperation in Hermione's voice stopped him, and instead, his fingers automatically tugged the cloak over his head as he peered through the sliver of open door.
"But he knows you're a traitor. If you go-"
"I am in precisely the same amount of danger as any member of the Order or the Auror Core," Snape replied wearily. "And in considerably less than a few others – like Potter."
"Untrue, and we both know it," she countered, her worry plain. "Professor – as a traitor, you are right after Harry on the list of people Voldemort wants disposed of. And Harry still has Ravenclaw's diadem to destroy here before he can go to the Ministry. You will be the prime target."
"All the more reason for me to be there." Again, Ron found himself struck by the supple dexterity of his teacher's voice. Though in class it remained within the same range of indifference to viciousness that it had always carried, the eloquent expressiveness when he spoke to Hermione was truly impressive, and underscored more deeply than any physical gift could how much he cared for her. "We will need to delay. Potter's wand is connected directly to the Dark Lord's. If my former master can be prevented from entering the battle – for instance, hunting me through the bowels of the Ministry – much less damage will be done while we wait."
"Necessary, Miss Granger. In war, one makes sacrifices." And Ron could vividly hear his twelve-year-old voice snapping at a tearful Hermione, "That's chess." "Potter has made his, Albus, his, and you, yours. I must make mine."
Ron could see the slump of her shoulders through the crack, and watched as Snape reached over to lift his chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. "You have already given so much," she whispered brokenly, and Ron could see her cracking heart written on the features he loved so. "Promise me I will see you again."
The bitter smile on his face spoke of a vow he wished he could have given, but that all the gold in Gringotts could not induce him to lie to her. Sweetness grazed the black eyes as they drank in her face, now cupped in both of his hands, tension singing in the gap between their mouths.
But then he was stepping away, the bone-white mask he had not worn for a year clutched in his fingers. "You, too, will be a much sought-after prize. I, at least, have this to buy me time," he told her. "No displays of foolishness," he whispered.
And then he disappeared into his office, leaving her to stand, posture slack, the yearning on her face both wonderful and terrible to behold.
Ron sagged against the wall, fighting the urge to vomit even as he knew tears were coursing down his invisible face. He had tried so hard to deny it...
His Hermione, his beautiful, intelligent, loyal, courageous Hermione, was undeniably and deeply in love with the ex-Death Eater.
Snape had perished in the battle, slain by Voldemort in the Department of Mysteries after leading the Dark Lord a chase that lasted nearly two hours through its extended passageways. By the time the self-styled lord had emerged, Harry Potter had incinerated the diadem Horcrux and arrived at the government building-turned-bloodbath, Neville Longbottom had taken Godric Gryffindor's impressive sword to Nagini, and Voldemort had found his once-formidable forces in significant disarray. Within the hour it had been over – yet another rebounded AvadaKedavrahad this time succeeded in completely destroying the wizard who had been a bane on the wizarding world for more than two decades.
Their teacher had been buried with two of his colleagues – Viviane Vector and Madam Hooch – and all three had been posthumously awarded an Order of Merlin, First Class. Hermione had not wept at the funerals, but gone through all of them with the pale grief of a young widow, her sorrow too deep to be released with tears.
Other than the necessary statements for the press, and the minimal small talk required with her friends, she had not spoken for six months after the war ended, and her academics had gone untouched. Eventually, Minerva McGonagall coaxed her out of her isolation with the offer of an apprenticeship in Transfiguration, and by the time the first-year anniversary arrived, Ron had been delighted to be re-admitted to his friend's confidences and welcome in her life.
And so he had stayed. Stayed to be graced with long years of laughter and teasing, of lightheartedness, constant support, and, of course, the peppering of facts and people that were a side benefit of her never-ending quest for knowledge. A permanent part of her world, immovable as the foundations of the castle in front of them.
Hermione was rising gracefully to her feet, the irritations of older bones and joints not yet making their appearance in his wife's movements. Her hands went automatically to re-plait her tangled hair, and Ron could almost see her putting away the girl she had been with endless hopes, plans and soaring passions, easily returning to her lived-in persona as her fingers nimbly tamed the mane. His Hermione. A woman with children and grandchildren, who had lived some dreams and cast others aside, whose inextinguishable fire had once again been trained on the world of her books.
She had clearly seen her two oldest friends, and she crossed the lawn quickly, black robes pulled behind her by the stiff breeze now blowing over the lake.
"I thought you two would be inside by now," she said quietly, smiling up at the two men as she slipped her arm through her husband's, any hint of the emotions that might have flooded her while in front of her professor's grave consigned to the recesses of her heart. "What with all the food..."
"And the press," Harry added, his 'wistful' voice strongly sarcastic.
She laughed cheerfully. "You could avoid them anytime, Harry. Just sic an over-enthusiastic trainee on them. But...thank you for waiting for me," she added in a more subdued voice.
Ron leaned over and pressed his mouth to the top of her head as the three started back towards the castle, replaying a scene they had repeated many, many times since they had befriended Hagrid at the ages of eleven.
"Always, love. Always."
A/N: As usual, all feedback is appreciated – for those who wish to leave flames or touch critiques, my only request is that you sign them so that I might have a fair shot of defending myself – I promise not to flame in return!
lipasnape: I hope this section didn't disappoint with Snape's death!
Maridee: Thank you for the comment about Ron – he's gets knocked around a fair bit in this 'ship, and it was nice to play with him as a real human being.
DanniV: Thank you – I enjoyed writing Ron as a narrator. An unlikely one, perhaps, but grimly fascinated nevertheless.
Maddie50: Ah, the things we do for love...in spite of the fact that Hermione was not "in love" with Ron in the same way that she was with Snape, she still did love him and they had a good marriage – they were compatible, even if they didn't share a great deal of passion. And thank you for the line about character relationships, the slow development is the method I prefer, in spite of how I have written Forbidden Fruit. I'm glad that it works for you here!
Mother of Tears: Thank you. I struggled with that scene precisely because I think simplicity was the key. I'm gratified to know that it worked for you.
BDSanta2001: Thanks for reading and reviewing!
felinegirl121: Aha! Thank you for the grammar nitpicking, this story had no beta, so it's just me and my prejudiced pair of eyes scanning for errors. I am glad to be increasing your respect, albeit minutely, for the HG-SS 'ship.
Beth5572: Thank you, as always, for reading!
BuckNC: An RW-HG fan?? I think I can honestly say I don't think I've ever had one comment on my pieces, so, hmmm...I am glad you enjoy the writing, although you clearly have issues with my portrayal of the characters, which is, I grant you, totally fair. As for Ron's lack of self-respect and jealousy: as you have pointed out, he has had 50 years to get over it, and although this story focuses on his observations of Snape and Hermione as 7th years, those intervening years have been good for them. Perhaps not an entirely reasonable explanation, but it's what I was thinking when I wrote it. As for Snape's character as a human being – keep in mind that we are seeing only what Ron sees. I deliberately decided to forgo any interactions between them that he does not witness, which means that we are only seeing the culmination of their time together, not many of the steps in Snape and Hermione's growing attraction. As for time healing all wounds – I agree 100. But I can't have a story if she's not still carrying a torch for him, and so in this particular version of Hermione, she is. And as for the last point, Hermione's faults: again, we see her through Ron, who loves her dearly, and we see only those moments that really stand out for him, because these are memories. I agree with your assessment of her character, but I have chosen not to use that here. Sorry – that was a rather long reply, but you raised good points and while I don't think this will change your mind about the story, I wanted to respond with my thought process while writing. Thank you for leaving me such an honest review!