Chapter 16 : Chapter Sixteen - Severus
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The night of the Solstice Ball found me wishing I had refused to chaperone after all. I had forgotten when I agreed what a bother it was to pull the old dress robes out of storage and try to make oneself look presentable, especially now that there was going to be someone at the ball whom I actually cared about presenting myself well to. An hour before the ball was to begin, I forced myself from the unforgiving mirror and made my way down to the Great Hall, where several staff members had already congregated to pull together the finishing touches. The night’s band was setting up on the teachers’ platform. The logo on the drummer’s bass read, “The Screaming Crucible,” and the band members’ hair covered a rainbow of colours, such as lime green and blue. Oh, this was going to be wonderful.
Professor Dumbledore was situated in the centre of the Hall, waving his hands and shouting instructions across the space at the several prefects who had volunteered to help set up. Percy Weasley was looking rather ridiculous in scarlet dress robes that, at that moment, matched not only his hair but his face as well, which was dripping sweat from Professor Dumbledore’s frantic pace. Penelope Clearwater, a Ravenclaw prefect, was chasing Weasley back and forth with a glass of water, trying to make him drink something.
I looked around the Hall to see if Avrille had come down yet. She didn’t appear to have, but I did spot Lockhart chatting up The Screaming Crucible’s orange-haired vocalist. Avrille would be pleased to see Lockhart’s dress robes did not disappoint: they were salmon pink.
I tried to make myself useful to Professor Dumbledore, but he insisted the prefects had everything under control and the staff were to “relax.” I therefore sat, absolutely bored, on one of the House benches pushed off to the sides of the room until quarter to eight when students began massing themselves around the entryway. After a minute the crowd began shifting awkwardly as though pushing against itself. Eventually Avrille popped out in front, after having weaved through about a hundred students. Even though her hair was a little dishevelled from the effort, and her robes were slightly askew, she was the loveliest vision I had ever beheld. Her cinnamon-brown strands were fixed in loose ringlets cascading over her bare shoulders and down her back. She was adorned in a strapless forest green gown covered by a sleeveless, sheer silver robe. However, she seemed quite oblivious to her beauty and did not notice how many of the students and even a few of the adults stared at her as she entered.
She walked quickly over when she spotted me, her hands rearranging the pins holding her hair back from her face. “Sorry, am I late?” she asked, slightly out of breath. “I wasn’t sure when to get here.”
I shook my head. “Not at all. Professor Dumbledore’s been having the prefects do all the work, anyway,” I said, pointing to where two of my own Slytherin prefects, Adrian Pucey and Archer Chant, were levitating the last crystal light spheres into place among the ceiling rafters.
“Oh, look! We match!” Avrille proclaimed amusedly, pointing at our green and silver robes. She took a seat next to me, very close indeed, and smoothed out her skirt.
“The Slytherins will appreciate your taste,” I replied, trying to keep my eyes off her bare shoulder inches from me. I was at an absolute loss for words. Thoughts of how she was the most beautiful woman I had ever beheld circled endlessly through my mind. Her exquisiteness making a mute of me, we sat together silently for the next few minutes.
Suddenly remembering—how could I have possibly forgotten—I nudged Avrille gently with my elbow and jerked my head in the direction of Lockhart, who now had the whole band surrounding him and was undoubtedly pantomiming one of his “achievements.” Avrille had to conceal a snigger behind her hand, perfectly manicured with silver lacquer, when she spotted the salmon pink robes and pointed to the hem which sparkled with sequins. Just then the bell tolled eight, and the “musicians” scurried onto the platform and took up their instruments.
Professor Dumbledore beckoned to the mass in the entrance hall. The students swarmed in as the lights dimmed and enchanted snow started to drift down from the ceiling lazily. After introducing her band, the vocalist began belting out a peppy number, and I was reminded once again why I never attended these sort of things when I could help it. Avrille sighed next to me, watching the few students who were dancing. Most were still milling around the benches in gender segregated clumps.
“Did you have dances like this when you were at school?” I asked, rather loudly as to be heard over the pulsing bass.
“No,” Avrille shouted back. “Two all-girl schools, remember?”
“Of course,” I muttered, rolling my eyes at myself. I wished I wasn’t so horrible at trying to make conversation.
“Did you ever come to a Solstice Ball when you were here?” Avrille asked, leaning into me so she didn’t need to yell so much over the music. As she did a few of her curls tumbled on to my robes, and I breathed in her sweet scent of lavender.
I laughed wryly. “Not really.” I didn’t feel like divulging at the moment that while a student at Hogwarts, I had never once roused the courage to ask a girl to accompany me nor been asked by anyone myself. Not to mention spending an evening watching James Potter and Sirius Black violate every girl in the Hall did not especially appeal at the time, either. I usually spent each Solstice Ball reading in the Slytherin common room and wishing for a life that did not so closely resemble hell.
As the band switched to a new song, Lavinia came rushing up to us and grabbed Avrille by the hands. She was dressed in robes of midnight blue that made her skin look even paler than usual, and her black hair was piled precariously on top of her head.
“Avrille! You look absolutely smashing!” she gushed. Then, as if only just realising I was there as well, she said rather stiffly, “Oh. Good evening, Severus. Fancy seeing you here.” I stood and gave a curt nod and tried not to watch how Avrille’s eyes were shining in the light like the magical stars above.
“You just have to come and try the punch. It’s positively divine!” Lavinia continued, pointing to the opposite side of the room, where a refreshment table was being plundered by a group of ravenous seventh-year Hufflepuff boys who had come stag. Lavinia pulled Avrille up and wrapped an arm around her waist. While dragging Avrille away with her, I heard Lavinia state rather loudly, and I’m sure not because of the volume of the music, “When I saw you stuck with Severus, I just had to come rescue you. What a bore! Don’t feel like you have to keep him company.”
Avrille turned and gave me a discreet, apologetic smile before being led off to the punch bowl. With a heavy sigh, I sat back down, reminding myself that even my own colleagues thought me a hopeless case. Just like they all expected, I would undoubtedly spend the entire evening sitting here in the corner, much like what probably would have happened if I had ever bothered to attend one of these as a student myself.
The music was so horrendously manic I wondered how anyone was dancing to it at all. Yet some were, most surprisingly Pomona and Francis Kettleburn, who were trying to manage a frantic jitter-bug. The sight was comical due to Francis’s wooden leg, but also a bit charming. I wondered if those two had ever got together outside of the professional capacity. Perhaps my unconscious was just trying to invent some plausible instances of inter-staff relations, to make me feel like my own secret desires were slightly less inappropriate. My thoughts were interrupted by noticing a lurid pink shape that had appeared suddenly on my right.
“What a night!” Lockhart proclaimed to me. I looked up to see him taking a subtle swig from an engraved golden flask before stashing it back in his robes. Well, well, well … Indeed, Lockhart was swaying slightly and not to the music, his face almost as flushed as the ridiculous colour he was wearing. However, Lockhart was not looking at me but gazing in a direction suspiciously close to where Avrille stood laughing with Lavinia.
“Are you fancying dancing with anyone tonight?” Lockhart asked, trying to sound innocent, but the slurring of his words wasn’t helping.
“Not with you, if you’re asking,” I replied dryly. Lockhart guffawed loudly and clapped me on the back, much to my displeasure.
“Ah, Snape, you need to relax once in a while! You’re going to give yourself grey hairs. Now I, on the other hand, have relaxed myself plenty and am currently keen on asking Avrille for a turn.” So it was Avrille that he was focused on. I especially did not like the licentious look in his eyes.
“Mistress Asphodel has informed me she is not inclined to dancing tonight,” I said sharply. Lockhart remained unfazed and kept fussing with his golden locks by way of his reflection in the window.
“Well, we’ll see about that,” he replied, turning back to me. “Do try to have some fun, old chap,” he said and wandered off in the direction of the stage once more.
An hour passed uneventfully. Lockhart stayed away from Avrille, and Avrille stayed away from me. I dutifully made the rounds twice, shining my wand into dark corners to ferret out any over-amorous couples. I had to admit that the band’s music did improve somewhat after a while, perhaps after their nerves had settled. The vocalist even had a rather pretty voice when she sang those cloying love songs students used as an excuse to grope each other.
By half past nine, almost every student had paired off, and the Hall was filled with dancing couples. I contented myself with watching Avrille inconspicuously while I circled the parameter of the Hall once more. She danced a few times, including once with Professor Dumbledore, who was very accomplished and drew applause from the surrounding students. I even tried be sociable and engage in some conversation. Minerva and Pythagora Vector were having a heated argument about the only proper way to stew jackalope and asked my opinion, to which I replied I had absolutely no idea.
Sometime before eleven, Avrille came back over to where I was situated near the Hall doors, slouched on a bench and seeing how long I could stand to have the mortar wall dig into the back of my skull. She sat down beside me and didn’t say anything but kept glancing at me out of the corner of her eye. Finally, she asked, “Are you having a good time?”
“Absolutely smashing,” I replied tonelessly.
Avrille considered me for a moment. Then she said offhandedly, “Maybe you should dance.” I couldn’t tell if she was looking for an invitation or just telling me to go find myself a partner. Before I could indeed consider asking her, Lockhart oozed his way up to us.
“Would you care to dance, Mistress Asphodel?” he asked smarmily with a low bow. Avrille looked at me for a moment, but I refused to betray any emotion, staring straight ahead with my arms crossed.
“All right,” Avrille replied with a half-hearted shrug and accepted Lockhart’s offered hand. Without letting Avrille see, Lockhart looked back over his shoulder at me and smirked in a nauseatingly triumphant manner. He led Avrille to the centre of the room just as the vocalist switched to a slow ballad. I rose as well and moved back over near the refreshment table so I could keep an eye on Lockhart and make sure he behaved himself. Who knew how much more he had been drinking since earlier?
I found I couldn’t take my eyes off Avrille as she danced with Lockhart, no matter who might notice. The thought that it could be me holding her drove me mad with jealousy. If I could only gather the courage to ask; there was even a decent chance she would say yes. After all, if she had agreed to dance with Lockhart, whom I knew she abhorred, there was no obvious reason why she would not dance with me ...
Through the first verse, Avrille remained a prisoner captured in the arms of that unimaginable fop, although she was smiling pleasantly and making some sort of small talk with him. Unable to stand the sight any longer, I strode away purposefully from that end of the Hall, intending to search for any students breaking the rules of propriety and spread my own misery throughout the room by issuing detentions. But even though I tried to distance myself from Avrille, I could still see a hint of her profile, a shimmer of her hair, or a swirl of her gown through the swarms of dancing students. Realising my avoidance tactic was useless, I resigned myself to just settle somewhere discreet, so I could at least look at Avrille if not be with her.
Lockhart still held her tightly to him, but now looking closely, I noticed that his hand was slowly moving from her waist down to her hip. Avrille shot him a dirty look, but he was either being unobservant or just a plain, ordinary bastard. Well, I certainly couldn’t just sit there and allow Avrille to be manhandled by someone who looked like he should be handling men. Finally steeling my resolve, I pushed my way through waves of grappling students to where Lockhart and Avrille were.
Lockhart stared at me over his reluctant partner’s shoulder as I approached, with the same sort of wide-eyed idiocy I had come to expect from him.
“That will do, Lockhart. I’m cutting in,” I said with the most disdain I could muster. Avrille turned at the sound of my voice, her lovely features awash with relief.
Lockhart backed off with his hands raised in mock defence. “I’ll just get us some punch!” he said with a dopey smile at Avrille.
“Yeah, you do that,” she replied icily and raised her eyebrows at me when Lockhart’s pink back was turned in retreat. I’d half expected her to flee to Lavinia once I had driven Lockhart off, but she remained standing where she was with an expectant look on her face. Taking her continued presence on the dance floor as permission, I reached forward to encircle Avrille’s hand with mine while taking gentle hold of her waist. I tried not to hold my breath as she draped her other hand lightly on my shoulder. The moment we began to actually dance, I noticed an increase in muttering from the students around us. I tried to ignore it and instead watched Lockhart as he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Lavinia to dance with him next. She seemed to reply with some very cutting words before turning back to her conversation with Pythagora, whose dress robes looked like they had come from the eighteenth century. No longer able to postpone the inevitable, I looked back to Avrille, who was, like I had been, trying to look everywhere except at me. I had probably just mortified her, creating a scene with Lockhart in the midst of a horde of prattling sixth-year Gryffindors.
“I’m sorry about that,” I muttered. Avrille glanced up at me then lowered her eyes to the floor.
“No, it’s fine. I was about to tell the creep off, anyway. You just saved me the trouble.” She looked up again and smiled. We were silent for a minute or so, each second becoming increasingly more uncomfortable. Avrille opened her mouth as if to say something once but then decided against it.
“You’re looking … very pretty this evening,” I said finally, though quietly so as not to be overheard.
“So are you!” Avrille replied. “I mean,” she added hurriedly at my raised eyebrow (I’d certainly never been called “pretty” before), “What I meant was, it’s nice to see you out of black for once.”
“Well, we don’t meet much outside of school hours,” I commented.
“Perhaps we could, you know, sometime …” Avrille said trailing off, looking up at me through her eyelashes in a way that made my heart feel close to bursting.
I had to be imagining things. I had to be. There was no logical reason why such a stunning, kind, clever woman should be looking at me, of all people, the way I thought she was. It must have been a simple trick of the shadows. Her words to me, though … Before I could make better sense of them (she must have been about to say something else, she simply could not have been trying to ask to see you outside of the school, it’s unthinkable) or form a reply that could convey a hint of my feelings appropriately without leaving me vulnerable, the song ended. The lights rose slightly, and the vocalist began singing a fast, jazzy number.
Avrille and I retreated to the side-lines quickly to avoid being trampled by the frantic dancing of the students, the boys spinning their dates wildly, who in turn shrieked with delight. I held on to Avrille’s hand as I escorted her from the dance floor; it was simply the proper thing to do, no one would think anything of it. I held on as long as I dared, but once we reached the edge of the Hall, I was forced to let her go. As we settled ourselves back on the benches near the entryway, I clenched my left hand into a fist, hidden against my robes. My palm felt too empty otherwise.
Avrille watched the carefree students with amusement on my right, her dark brown eyes gleaming in the flashing lights. Perhaps tired from the night, Avrille seemed happy to sit out the rest of the dance next to me, which was only two more songs. At the end the students protested loudly but were soon all sent off to their dormitories as the band packed up. Professor Dumbledore insisted the staff should retire as well and claimed to need no help setting the Great Hall to rights. I lingered behind anyway, and so did Avrille. Once the band had departed, the headmaster simply waved his hands, and the decorations vanished while the five enormous tables flew through the air back to their respective places.
I accompanied Avrille to the marble staircase where our paths would part, the entry hall now empty and silent.
Avrille turned towards me in the semi-darkness. The hall candles were burning low in their holders and casting long, dark fingers across the flagstones. “Thank you for dancing with me. I had a really nice time,” she said with her hands clasped behind her back.
“I as well,” I replied and realised I really meant it. Despite most of the dance being a tedious chore, those few minutes of holding Avrille had been worth sitting through one hundred Solstice Balls. Of course I could not convey any of this to her, so I settled with a simple, “Good night,” and headed down the dungeon steps towards my rooms while cursing my unfailing reticence.
After dressing for bed, I decided it would be prudent to take a sedative or else I knew I would be up all night thinking of Avrille, and of those false signals from her I had tricked myself into believing I’d perceived. I had a full day tomorrow of marking and preparing for the end of term. I did not have time to indulge in fantasies. Damn, and Lockhart wanted my input on the duelling club he was planning on running Sunday which, of course, meant I would be running it since he was an incompetent prat. Just what I needed … more work.
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