Well everybody, here we are: the end. Reviewers, all my responses are after the text. Enjoy!
EPILOGUE: Cheers Again
The Hallowe'en Dance arrived two-and-a-half weeks into their punishment. The event had started as an afterthought, a follow-up to the Hallowe'en Feast – but the teachers had left the decorating (and the publicity) in the hands of some enthusiastic sixth-year Ravenclaws, so by the time October 31st rolled around, the dance was generating almost as much buzz and panic as the Yule Ball of two years ago.
The carillon boomed out nine times, but everyone ignored it; the party was in high gear. The Great Hall was a riot of black and orange, and the enchanted ceiling showed a beautiful starry night. Underneath a huge dance floor had recently materialized, shoving all of the tables to the sides of the hall. While the Yule Ball had been a rather stiff, formal affair, this dance was casual-dress and pulsing with life. Most of the teachers were laughing around a circular table off to the left, the ghosts were here and there, chatting with students or each other, and real live bats were fluttering around, chittering and squeaking and startling some of the party-goers. A large part of the Hogwarts student body was hopping about on the dance floor, shouting at each other excitedly and rocking away to the driving beat of the Hobgoblins' "Without a Broom." The band, hired by Dumbledore for the evening, was blasting away at barely tolerable decibels, and it seemed like everyone was thoroughly enjoying themselves.
One student, however, was watching the dancing and not looking at all happy about it. Hermione sat primly in her pretty red dress and matching robes, facing the dance floor with crossed arms and legs. She wiggled one black-stilettoed foot in annoyance and looked very hurt and angry as she stared at one couple in particular: Ron and Parvati Patil. Hermione had walked in with Ron as she'd promised, but since then, she'd hardly seen him. He spent most of the feast talking to other boys about Quidditch, and as soon as the dancing started he'd run off like a shot, claiming he had to apologize to Parvati for ruining her coat all those weeks ago.
He'd been dancing with her, with great enthusiasm, for the last twenty minutes.
Hermione looked up. Harry was standing next to her, his hands in the pockets of his black trousers. He wore a green turtleneck and plain black robes, and looked as bored and lonely as she did.
"Hi, Harry," she said, glancing one more time at the dancers. Harry followed her gaze and sat down next to her.
"Bothers the hell out of you, doesn't it?" he commented, inclining his head slightly at Parvati and Ron.
Hermione snorted. "Not half as much as knowing I practically arranged it. I was so stupid to say yes to him! Honestly, I saw it coming a hundred yards off. All he wanted was to walk in with some girl on his arm and then go find some other girl to put on his arm. And here I was, thinking for a split second that he actually wanted to spend some time with me."
Harry began to chuckle.
"What?" she snapped.
"Well," he said, now laughing a little louder, "When have you ever been happy spending time with Ron? Come on, Hermione. He's my best mate, and even I know how daft he can be sometimes."
Hermione couldn't help it. Her lips curled up in spite of themselves.
"Ah, there it is," said Harry, gently elbowing her. "There's a smile."
They sat in companionable silence for a moment and watched the dancers.
"So, how's life in the slow lane?" he asked.
Harry was rather hoping to take Hermione's mind off the dancing, but he realized immediately this was a stupid question to ask. Hermione was still … adjusting … to her new situation. Malfoy had taken twenty points off Gryffindor the other day for her hair looking too much "like a muddy dandelion," so she'd slugged him and ended up with a detention.
"Peachy," she said, emphasizing the "p" rather more than was necessary. It made Harry smile – he knew exactly how she felt.
"And the house-elves?" he inquired.
That seemed to brighten her mood. "They're well, thank you," she said. "And I actually think I've figured out why Dumbledore really sent me down there."
"It wasn't to prove to you what a nutcase you were?" Harry suggested, with a grin.
Hermione shoved him gently. "No. Although I do realize now that they don't want freedom. They're just interested in living their lives."
"I see. So what's your purpose down there?" Harry asked.
"To get them noticed," said Hermione. Seeing the confused look on Harry's face, she went on. "I've had a lot of time to chat with the elves down in the kitchens, and the stories I've heard, Harry! It's really quite amazing stuff. Dobby's great great great great grandfather got shipped off to Africa with magical explorers, for instance. Anyway, after all our chatting, I asked the elves if they wouldn't mind people knowing about them. I told them that even if they didn't want to be free, they were important, and their stories were important, too. So…" She pulled a scrap of parchment out of her pocket. "I asked if I could tell those stories. I'm starting more interviews now, and eventually I think I'll write a book. I've been playing with titles. What do you think of this one?"
Harry took the scrap from her and read it aloud. "We Who Are Invisible: The House-Elves of Hogwarts and Elsewhere. They'll really let you do this?" he asked uncertainly.
"Of course! I asked permission, and they said it was all right, but they all wanted to read it before I tried to get it published. So I agreed. It's wonderful, don't you think, Harry?"
"Erm, yeah. It's great," Harry said quickly, with a slight grimace. He wasn't sure this was that wonderful. After all, if Hermione wrote this book, he might be forced to read it.
Fortunately, Hermione hadn't seen his reaction. She was watching the opposite wall, where Snape was skulking, watching the dancing with sharp, beady eyes and a surly expression. "So how's Occlumency?" she asked.
"Actually manageable," Harry said, glad to get away from the old topic and seizing the new one. "I'm sort of astonished."
Hermione smiled. "Really? Snape isn't throwing you to the floor every time?"
"No. We're starting at the beginning, he doesn't yell quite so much, and I'm actually practicing now. I mean, I have to. If I screw up and someone else gets …" Harry stopped and stared at the floor, his throat feeling tight.
Hermione put a hand on his knee. "It's OK, Harry."
Harry snorted. "You sound like Miss Midgefield."
"No, that's fine. She's quite nice, actually."
"Well, that's good. At least you're working with … someone pleasant."
Harry didn't reply. They both watched the dancing for a while, but Harry could tell by the way Hermione was biting her lower lip that she desperately wanted to say something.
"So … how is therapy?" she asked quietly.
Harry sighed. He wasn't sure what tack to take. Should he be coy? Casual? Sarcastic? A few responses floated up, and then he realized that his worrying was madness. This was Hermione. When it came to her, honesty was the best policy.
"It ronks," he said.
Then he caught Hermione's eye. She was looking at him with one arched eyebrow, as though waiting for something else.
So he paused, bit his lip and added, quite truthfully, "It's hard."
Hermione was biting her lip again, as though itching to ask him something else. Harry was frankly amazed he'd said that much. At least he hadn't completely lost his head and admitted how much crying he'd done in front of Miss Midgefield. But the thought of his therapist reminded him of something. Hermione had just opened her mouth to speak when he cut in.
"Miss Midgefield told me to say something to you," he said, ignoring the surprise on her face. "So I'll say it, but I'm not just saying it because she said so. I'm saying it because I mean it, all right?"
Hermione looked rather puzzled. "All right."
"Thank you," said Harry.
"It's all right, Harry. What did you want to say?"
"No, that was it," Harry said, laughing. "'Thank you.'"
Hermione laughed, too. "Thank you? For what?"
"For saving my arse, that's what," Harry said honestly. "And from myself, no less – which, as I understand it, is quite the trick. So thank you, Hermione."
"Any time," she said, smiling.
Harry stood up and faced her then, holding out his hand. "Well, come on," he said.
Hermione blinked in confusion.
"I'm not about to let one of my best friends spend a miserable evening just 'cos my other best friend is a twit," he explained. "Fancy a shuffle?" He checked the dance floor. "Or whatever it is they're doing out there?"
She leaned back, crossed her arms, and studied him a moment. "I thought you didn't dance."
A sudden movement caught her eye on the floor. Ron and Parvati were spinning each other around and Parvati's iridescent robes were shimmering like the inside of an oyster, catching all the light in the room.
"Alone," said Harry.
Hermione looked back at him. "Pardon?"
"Alone," he repeated. "I don't dance alone."
Hermione smiled at him again and stood up. "Well, Mr. Potter, when you put it that way …"
Harry grinned back and led her out onto the floor.
Snape, meanwhile, was watching the dancers in annoyance. This whole thing was stupid. Chaperoning a dance, giving Potter Occlumency lessons again, losing that Christmas bonus … and none of this was his fault in the first place. Well, all right, maybe a teeny tiny part of it was his fault, but still!
He heard a distinctive squeak. Something warm and small was wriggling in his shirt pocket.
"Hush," he said quietly. "Discretion, remember?"
The squeak came again and Snape sighed in exasperation. Out of his trouser pocket he surreptitiously pulled a dead lacewing fly, just as Minerva McGonagall sidled up to him, a smile on her face and a stuffed vulture on her hat. Snape scowled at the vulture, but apparently McGonagall thought he was scowling at her, because she used the opportunity to tease him.
"Having fun, Severus?"
Snape faced her with a cold look. "No."
He turned back to his shirt pocket, hoping that got rid of her. Soon after, he heard retreating footsteps. Assuming McGonagall had left, he held out the lacewing. Two little hooked claws appeared on the rim of his pocket, followed by two large black ears and the distinctive black snout of a small Pipistrelle bat, which, on closer inspection, looked like someone had given it a very bad haircut. It grabbed the lacewing and began to eat it with relish, getting wing scales everywhere.
"Oh, my!" said a voice.
Snape jumped and stared.
McGonagall, as it happened, had not left. She was staring at Snape quite avidly. Snape looked back at McGonagall piercingly, doing his best to ignore the little laws-of-nature display going on in his shirt.
"What?" he snapped.
McGonagall looked less surprised now. "Well, not to point out the obvious, Severus, but you appear to have a bat in your pocket."
"It is no illusion," Snape said stiffly, attempting to recover his composure. "I do."
McGonagall's lips turned up. "Indeed. And what, pray tell, is a bat doing in your pocket? I always thought you preferred your animals cut up and jarred."
Snape pursed his lips, ignored her insult, and sighed. "This bat recently did me a service. He proved to Albus that, despite the best efforts of your students and their stupid poem, I am not a drunk."
McGonagall ignored his scathing remark. "And?"
"And, soon after providing this evidence, Albus and I … well, we had to step out of his office, so we left the bat in there alone. When we returned …" Snape licked his thin lips, resigned to telling the story. "Did you know that Pipistrelle bats are insectivores?"
"I did not," said McGonagall, mystified as to where this was going.
"Among their prey are moths. And moths, as you know, are attracted to light. Albus has many candles in his office, as well as a few bugs. I believe the bat must have chased a moth towards a candle."
McGonagall stared at him. "And?"
"And, when Albus and I returned to the office, the bat was flapping around crying at the top of its lungs, completely on fire."
Snape ignored her and went on. "I put the bat out. He was half-dead; needed all sorts of salves and things. It was rather touch-and-go for a few days. However, as you can see, he's better now."
McGonagall stared again, noting of Snape's choice of pronoun. "This is the bat? The one that erm, cleared your name, as it were?" Snape nodded regally, and the bat squeaked cheerfully at her. She smiled. "Well, it's certainly looking healthier. When will it be able to fly again?"
"He'll fly as soon as he's strong enough. His wings need to heal up and all his fur has to grow back in. For now, though, he can ride around in my pocket."
The bat made another happy squeaky noise. Snape absently scratched the creature behind the ears with a long, tapered finger. His face was completely expressionless, but he couldn't hide the ease of his gesture.
McGonagall smiled again. "I do believe it likes you, Severus," she said, and then added, "and vice versa."
"Spare me," said Snape dryly, digging out another lacewing and handing it off to the bat. "He doesn't like me, he enjoys eating. And as for my liking him – my God, woman, it's a bat. It's impossible to have feelings," he spat the word out like he'd tasted something vile, "for something so … so insignificant."
McGonagall was hardly convinced. "Whatever you say," she drawled. "Does this bat have a name?"
Snape looked rather annoyed, but answered her. "Yes, thanks to Albus. 'Terrence.' What sort of stupid name is that for a bat? I make it 'Terry,' that's slightly less abhorrent, but he won't answer to anything else. Still, he started life as a wild creature. I suppose I should consider it a favor that he answers to anything at all."
'Terry' squeaked again, more vehemently this time. He was so insistent on getting Snape's attention that he pulled halfway out of his cloth hideaway, revealing a sparsely furred back with several other bald spots.
"No, you may not have another!" said Snape to the bat. He sounded slightly annoyed but not nearly as authoritarian as he usually did. "You've had your supper, now –"
"Oh, be quiet!"
McGonagall started laughing then, and Snape wasn't quite sure why. He ignored her cackling and gently pushed Terry back down into his pocket.
Harry and Hermione had some success with a slow ballad (meaning Harry had managed not to step on Hermione's feet and Hermione had steered him properly), but the dances that followed were less easy to fake. So after a pathetic Lindy, a klutzy two-step, and a miserable attempt at the electric slide, they decided it was time for a sit.
Flushed and sweaty, they headed for the punch bowl. Harry, quite relieved that he could finally do something helpful, ladled himself and Hermione each a cup of acid green liquid that smoked mysteriously. It was thick and sweet, bubbly like fizzy water, with an aftertaste of lime.
"Flitwick must have cast the vapor charm," Harry said, as they sat down nearby. He gulped down half of his drink. "I don't think anybody else could make it last so long."
Hermione nodded. She had just taken a dainty sip of her punch when a voice above them said "Oi!"
It was Ron, holding a glass of punch. He had gone far too casual in a t-shirt and jeans under the dress-robes Fred and George had given him, but he looked rosy-cheeked and happy. In fact, he very cheerfully grabbed a seat next to Hermione, as though he hadn't been ignoring her all evening. Hermione looked rather cross. Harry resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
"Hello, Ron," he said evenly. "Having fun out there?"
Fortunately, his tone of voice was enough to slightly sober his friend. Harry flicked his eyes at Hermione and Ron got the hint.
"Er, hi, Hermione," Ron said carefully. "Er, fancy a dance later?"
Hermione eyed him. "Well that depends," she said. "Are you finished ignoring me?"
Ron frowned. "I wasn't ignoring you, I was dancing with Parvati!"
"Riiiight," said Harry.
"I was!" said Ron, turning a bit red.
"Oh stop it, both of you," said Hermione. "Ron, you go off and dance with Parvati. I really don't care. Have fun."
Ron groaned. "Well I can't have fun with you guilting me like that!" He swallowed his punch in two gulps. "Come on, we're dancing."
"Wha – Whoa!" said Hermione as Ron grabbed her hand and jerked her up from the chair. Her punch went flying and splashed Harry in the face.
"Whoops," said Ron. He whipped out his wand. "Accio napkin!" A napkin flew into his hand and he gave it to Harry, who snatched it from him with a dirty look and began to clean his glasses with it.
The punch had stained Harry's turtleneck, though. Ron noticed this. "It's all right, Harry, I'll just give it a scouring charm." He raised his wand.
"NO!" Harry and Hermione said together.
"No, Ron," said Harry, and shooed Ron back out onto the dance floor. "Really, it's fine. You go have fun. Hermione and I will just sit here for a while."
"Go!" said Harry, and he laughed. "We're fine. Just go."
"All right," Ron said warily, and went back out on the floor to look for Parvati.
Harry plunked himself back down and dabbed at his shirt again. After a bit of this a shadow fell over him, and he looked up to see the business end of Hermione's wand.
"Limpiacamus," she said, and the stain on Harry's shirt disappeared, much to his delight. "Honestly, when is Ron going to figure out that 'Scourgify' is designed for hard surfaces?"
Harry laughed. "Knowing Ron, I'd say never."
Hermione laughed too. Harry sat watching the dancing as she got herself a fresh punch and sat down. The hall was only pleasantly warm now that they'd both had a chance to rest. Harry mopped the back of his neck with a napkin.
"Hey, I want to offer a toast," said Hermione.
This surprised Harry. "Oh? All right, let's have it."
Hermione closed her eyes and thought for a moment, before finally holding up her glass. "Here's to worry. Here's to friendship. And here's to everything turning out all right, in spite of nearly going so terribly wrong."
She looked Harry directly in the eyes then, and it finally hit him what Hermione and Ron had done, and how little they really cared about the consequences. Harry gulped. The seconds ticked by. Hermione was giving him a warm smile now, and he wanted desperately to say something kind or witty to her, but his throat was getting a bit tight. So he just smiled back, cleared his throat and, praying she would understand, clinked her glass with his own and thrust his entire response into one word.
Well, that's it. Had fun? I hope so. Drop me a line or leave a review, pretty please. I have some more Harry stories but they'll have to wait until I wrap up another project (it's been dangling for a year). I'll be back, though, I promise. It's been a pleasure writing for you all. :D
Reviewers! EAV: Thanks for your support. I had fun writing this. Glad you enjoyed it! Angel: Yeah, you know how I said, "Snape's not a bat person?" Changed my mind. I'm glad you liked Terry – er – Terrence. I don't think he'll be Snape's familiar, but he'll be something awfully close. Thanks as always for your inspiration and support – some parts of this story literally couldn't have happened without you. Cheers! Shiba, defeater of laziness and her exasperated pony: THANK YOU! I'm so happy you enjoyed this thing. I'm grateful for your praise, support, and enthusiasm. Folks like you make it a joy to write on this site. Freja: Cheers, babe. I appreciate all five of your thumbs. LOL Glad you enjoyed this story. Kiwi: Yeah, I've got your number. You're just in it for the fame and the money. LOL Thank you so much for all of your help and de-facto beta-ing. You've been incredible. Best of luck with all your on-line doings and I hope to be in some sort of contact with you again. Anaticulapraecantrix: Why thank you for putting me on your list! Best wishes.