Author's Note: Well, this is the last of it. Before I go, there are several people who must be thanked:Nomad for the staggeringly thorough Harry Potter Continuity Bible; Lauren Snape, for assistance above and beyond the call of duty; the other equally delightful and nasty Devotees of Snape at Lauren's Yahoo Group slytherintales; Caipora for the high flattery of telling me that I do Rowling "better than Gardner does Ian Fleming"; Cooper Black, whose keen perception rooted out the most obscure references, and whose unfailing critical eye caught the one flaw that crushed my hopes of perfect continuity: by Harry's sixth year, the brothers Weasley would have already graduated!; Theresa for the pencil sketch; Dr. M. Patton, who never expected his lecture on Spinoza's theory of time to be used in quite this way; and the best beta-readers a girl could ask for, Elaine, Richard, and Yolanda Parker, who know everything that sadly went to the cutting room floor--Hermione's catfight with Antoinette Sangfroid (thank you, Elaine), Hagrid's extracurricular activities (thank you, Rich), and Dumbledore in a Father Christmas outfit (thank you, Yollie). Rich is now and forever my All-Purpose-Naming-Things Guy: he was the one who could, without a moment's hesitation, spout off the Slytherin password ('now') and the brand name of Jim Potter's imported broomstick (which is a funnier story than most of what appeared here). I'm sorry Hermione dumped you for Ron, Rich--but you're too good for her, anyway.
That's all, except that I still want Snape's dragon lighter.
The sky above was the colour of pewter. The fountain in the courtyard had been drained weeks ago, and only a few dead autumn leaves lay frozen into the shallow ice. Hedwig's shadow fell on the snow before them as Harry, Ron, and Hermione crossed the courtyard bundled in their winter cloaks and scarves. The only thing that had really changed from one year to the next was that Ron's arm was now behind Hermione's neck, under the warmth of her hair, and that the two of them walked in perfect step. It was no more than Harry had expected, sooner or later, but it made him sad to see it.
Looking at the two of them made him wonder. So far the subject had been out of bounds, and they were all three of them careful to talk around that night in the woods, but two weeks had passed. It was time for it, and now was no better place.
"Out of curiosity, Hermione. What song did you hear, before you plugged you ears?"
At once he wished he hadn't asked. Hermione's eyes welled up, but did not spill over, and her voice remained even. Instead of seeming upset, she was grateful. "I had a girl friend, back in the town where I grew up. Her name was Janie. I never heard her sing, but she had an old book of Hans Christian Anderson and we both used to take turns reading it out to each other." She wiped her eyes and nose, then smiled at Harry. "That's what I heard. Janie, reading from 'The Snow Queen'."
"What happened to her?" asked Ron.
"Oh, she died. Ages ago. In a car accident." Hermione wiped her eyes again and turned to Ron with her usual intense interest. "You?"
Ron's voice went rough with embarrassment. "Nah, s'nothing. You don't want to know."
"Come on, Ron," said Hermione, "I told you mine."
Ron suddenly displayed a keen interest in the pattern of the cobblestones. He stuffed both fists in his pockets and mumbled, "You, Hermione. I heard you. Now don't ask me anything more, okay?"
Hermione turned rose-pink. She paused for a moment, then took hold of Ron's chin and gave him a fast hard smooch on the lips. "That's for not saying you heard Britney Spears."
Hedwig's circling shadow fell on the courtyard. Harry extended his arm. After three more perfect circles she landed and settled there, and he fed her a piece of liver he had saved her from dinner. From the high tower the final bell of the year rang on, softer than snow. Less than ten hours remained before the calendar page turned. The old year lingered as they walked.
The question on Harry's mind--on all their minds, but unasked--was what song Snape might have heard the banshee singing, what could have possibly lured him to her. But this question, like the matter of what song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles took among the women, though puzzling, was not beyond all conjecture.
* * *
In the morning, a huge mottled-grey owl with impassive eyes settled on the table before Harry. He dropped a flat package on the table, near the waffles, and seemed to bow before he took wing with the rest of the owls and left through the open windows of Great Hall.
Ron crowded over. "Who's it from, then?" Harry turned the package over, showing Ron the purple ink on the attached envelope. "Snuffles?"
Hermione appeared on the other shoulder. "Another book from your godfather, Harry?"
"Looks like. Could you both please get off my shoulders? I feel like a pirate with a couple of parrots."
Both of them sat to either side at a respectful distance. "Open it up, then," Ron demanded.
The note read only Looking for this? S. Inside was a battered copy of Hogwarts Review: 1972, and Harry had to fight himself from flinging it all the way to the Slytherin table.
"It's the year book for the year your dad graduated," said Hermione. "Isn't it, Harry?"
Nodding again, more slowly this time, he opened it up. On a page toward the centre, he found what Sirius had probably intended for him to find. A picture of the Gryffindor house Quidditch team, captained by Ptolemy Andrew Wood; Keepers, Aidan Desmond and Michael Christopher Hooch; Seeker, James Odysseus Potter.
* * *
Hagrid walked before them, bearing Hermione's ugly peeling trunk down the front stairs, while Harry, Ron, and Hermione, each carrying their smaller bags, trailed behind him. Dozens of students crowded the foyer, lugging suitcases and satchels out the front doors, hugging schoolmates and saying goodbyes.
"We survived it again," said Hermione.
"Seems so," said Ron. "If we can make it one more year we might be doing something right. What are you doing over the summer?"
"Well, my parents might be attending a seminar on forensic dentistry in Miami. If they do, I'll get to go with them. To America. I'll send you a postcard if you like."
"If you want, but overseas travel'll be a real strain on your owl." Behind Ron's back Hermione caught Harry's attention, then shook her head and rolled her eyes. After all their explanations, Ron still did not grasp the concept of Muggle mail.
Harry shrugged back at Hermione, then turned his attention to Hagrid. "What about you, Professor? Any plans?"
"Nah, nothing yeh'd be much int'rested in. Got a man out Edinburgh way as got a crop of crickets he's been crossbreedin' fer volume. Says he's figgered out a way to make a ten stone, 150-decibel cricket. Shatters glass when he chirps. Could be worth a look."
Hermione mouthed at Harry: one hundred fifty decibels?
They reached the bottom of the stairs and Hagrid set down the trunk, which lifted and hung two inches above the floor. Hagrid pushed it along as if it were on wheels.
"And you, Harry?" Ron set his own bags on top of the floating trunk. "What's your plan for the holidays?"
"Same as always. Lay low, keep quiet, stay out of the house as much as possible."
"I wish you didn't have to go back. Think your aunt and uncle would mind if I abducted you for a bit around the first of July? Percy'll be gone on his tour, and Ginny's going to stay at Mildred Hubble's house for a month. It'll just be you, me, and the twins."
"Sounds great. The Dursleys won't object to anything that makes me disappear for weeks on end."
"You, Ron, and those two?" Hermione groaned. "I don't want to know what you'll be up to."
"We'll send you letters," Harry assured her. "All the gory details."
"Spare me, gentlemen."
Dumbledore and a number of the other professors had gathered in the main hall. Lined against the great windows, they stood with pride or perhaps relief at the sight of all their pupils safely banished for another three months. Madame Hooch flagged Harry down, her brilliant orange-yellow eyes gleaming even with the light at her back. "Don't forget, Potter. Next year's your last chance to win the Cup, so I want you in top form in September. No slacking off during the holidays!"
"I won't, Madame Hooch," he called out, waving back to her. Hermione had broken off for a moment to chat excitedly with--or rather, shout excitedly at--Professor Luddivon, and Ron had just met up with Fred and George. George produced a double handful of something from his pocket, and the three of them leaned around it. In a moment there was a loud bang and a small explosion of horrible yellow, stinking debris. Everyone nearby started sneezing, and the rest of the small crowd scattered. Harry reminded himself to find the twins on the train and complain about the quality of their Surreptitious Glowing Wands.
He marvelled that time, which had seemed so endless before Hogwarts, now seemed so fleeting. Days flew by in a flash, blurring, and every fresh year that appeared never-ending at its commencement came to an end almost before the mind could find a home for memory. It was, he decided, what he disliked most about animated wizard photographs: with a proper photo, one could look at a single suspended moment, unchanging. With wizards, the memory shifted again and again; one could never put a finger on it.
Six years down, one year left.
A faint swishing sound, as of a fold of fabric brushing the floor, approached Harry from behind. He did not need to turn to know who was coming, and when she touched his arm he smelled cinnamon and smoke. Professor Evensong, in her rich purple gown, stood beside him, holding her cloak closed at the throat with one slim hand as if she were cold.
She gave a bright, tinkling laugh. With one finger against her lips she drew him into an alcove, away from the noise of the main foyer. "You can call me Yvaine, if you like. I'm only a professor for another hour and a half. Bride's Academy needs a music professor, so I'll be travelling back to Brandubh later tonight." She drew her finger along Harry's cheek and lowered her voice to a soft, anxious murmur. "My offer still stands, Harry. I meant what I said. Dark attracts dark, no matter how strong you think you are."
"I'm sorry. If it's part of me, then it's part of me. If it's a problem, I'll deal with it when the time comes. But thank you."
Her mouth hardened to a thin line. Behind her pupils flashed a bright, burning red, fast as lightning, vanishing before he was sure he'd seen it. "Did you learn nothing from my class, Potter? You never thank the Faerie folk; it's an insult." Her face softened, though one arched brow remained crooked, letting him know she was serious. "I'll forgive you this once. Just remember in the future. Time may come when you'll have to deal with the Faerie again."
Bending slightly, Evensong put her finger between the bars of Hedwig's cage, crooking one in a gentle, beckoning way. Hedwig was antisocial on a good day, but much worse when she was being jarred from side to side of her cage, and Harry was about to warn Evensong when the white owl opened a golden eye, made her low-pitched contented krrlkl, and extended her neck so that Evensong could reach the itchy spot behind her eye ridge. Hedwig purred and snuggled back to sleep.
"So you won't be coming back to Hogwarts." As reassuring as the thought of being rid of her was, he couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed: another teacher he'd had a hand in driving off.
"Bite your tongue! Of course I'll be back. Some aspects of Hogwarts I've found . . . most compelling." Her eyes roved through the throng of mingled students and teachers, pausing on each face, then fixing on one. A slow, provocative smile spread across her face. She stepped backwards with a small, not quite formal bow.
In her ghostly way she seemed to evaporate as she trailed up the side stairs. Harry watched her go, faintly bedazzled, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when she disappeared entirely and unable to do so--the purple velvet melting into the dim stairwell, shimmering, then altogether gone. He almost could have imagined her, if not for the hint of cinnamon she left in her wake.
"Still here, Potter?"
From his stance it looked as if Snape had been there quite a while, one shoulder propped against the wall, a faint, disapproving scowl on his face.
"I thought you'd be the first out the door today, Mister Potter. The train will leave without you."
"I've got a few more minutes before we head across, sir."
Harry shifted his weight, jostling the sleeping Hedwig. She squawked, shuffled her talons more firmly on her stand, and burrowed her head deep between her shoulders again. Hagrid had already steered Hermione's trunk out the door. Ron and his brothers had gone, and there was no sign of Hermione; in fact the hallway was empty save for a few slow-moving stragglers. He and Snape were alone, separated from the other professors and few remaining students by a short, outcropping wall.
"So. I take it you didn't tell her off entirely," said Harry.
He didn't expect an answer. Snape lowered his lids, looked down his hooked nose at Harry. A quick look around seemed to reassure Snape that their absence was not noted. He advanced with no hurry, tall and lean in his black robes, and Harry was overwhelmed with the sudden desire to call for Hagrid.
"No," he said. "But I've told her I don't want to see her again for some time."
"Women." Harry sighed, then grinned. "You have a real death-wish, sir."
Snape hrumphed. It was almost a laugh--not quite enough of one to put Harry entirely at his ease, but near enough.
"So, you're not retiring from Hogwarts."
"Sorry to disappoint you, but no, I am not."
"I'm . . . I'm not entirely disappointed, sir."
"And you haven't been expelled either."
"Good." He was quiet a moment, arms folded, as if debating with himself to say more.
Harry, too, wanted to speak, but he couldn't get his thoughts in order. What on Earth did one say to someone like Snape at a time like this? The words that kept coming to him were you're a hard man to know--something that Snape undoubtedly already recognised and would not be pleased about hearing. Not from Harry Potter, anyway.
"I agree with you on one matter, Potter, and one matter alone," Snape said at last. "Whatever darkness you have, keep it. Creatures like Yvaine only know one sort of darkness--black or white, no grey shades for them. We as humans know better. A lot of strength comes from that part of myself, and I won't have her or anyone else meddling with it." He made the same not-quite-a-laugh sound. "Like some people, I prefer my darkness just where it is."
There was a particularly loud scream and a bang from the main foyer, followed by a long groan. Harry and Snape turned as one to see the disturbance. Agnes Longbottom had gone tail over teakettle down the last three steps, suitcases spilling and bursting open. One of them obviously had a Packing Spell on it; a small volcanic eruption of underthings spewed high into the air, scattering all over the front carpet. A number of her fellow Ravenclaws rushed to help her to her feet, while the rest valiantly rushed to spare the world the sight of a Longbottom's unmentionables.
Harry turned back to hear the rest, but Snape had gone meditative, lost in thoughts beyond Harry's reach.
Seeing no one approaching, Harry put down his bag and the cage containing Hedwig. "I just want to tell you, sir. When I come back, it will be my last year. My last real chance here at Hogwarts."
"You might see it that way."
"I was wondering. When I get back in the fall, couldn't we start over as deadly enemies again? You're really creepy as a nice guy."
The corner of Snape's mouth twitched upward. This time there was no mistaking the humour in it. "If you insist, Mister Potter."
He held out his hand. After a moment's indecision, Harry shook it.
Uncertain as to what came next, Harry stepped back, hoisted his shabby bag under his right elbow and with his left hand took up Hedwig's cage. After a long last look at Snape, he turned and joined his fellow students as they left Hogwarts. Snape's laughter followed him all the way down the entrance hall as he stepped out the door and back into the Muggle world.
* * *
This small story is hereby dedicated toJohn Edward Hancock, II., born 20 November 2001, who graciously chose not to be born in a theatre lobby in order to allow his mother to see the Harry Potter movie, and whose father's efforts in the magical world have merited that a statue be erected in his honour in the halls of Hogwarts.