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Chapter 17 : Chapter Seventeen - Avrille
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After the Solstice Ball, I lay in bed reliving over and over the moment when Severus had come to my rescue after Lockhart had basically tried to cop a feel. Every time I thought of him saying, “That will do, Lockhart. I’m cutting in,” I couldn’t help but squeal into my pillow like a love-struck preteen. Then, Severus had said I looked pretty. But he hadn’t commented when I’d brought up the possibility of seeing each other away from the classroom; maybe he hadn’t heard me. I had said it fairly quietly, then that really loud song came on, and we had to move. Thinking back, I actually hoped he hadn’t heard me say that, after all. What had possessed me to? I blamed the shot of vodka Lavinia had spiked my third glass of punch with. I’d appreciated it at the time, to help me settle my nerves and buck up the courage to go sit next to Severus again near the end of the ball, but I was glad I hadn’t said anything worse to him in my affected calmness.
What I wouldn’t I have given to dance with him for just one more slow song. I had felt so safe and content as he held me. It was beyond depressing to know there would be no other excuse for contact like that again.
Thoughts of Severus kept me awake for hours, but I didn’t care since I had nothing planned for the following morning. At long last I was able to settle down by promising myself first thing tomorrow, I would go see Severus and ask him out for a Christmas drink. I felt like I needed to say something to him, in case he’d heard me after all near the end of our dance. I mean, that wouldn’t be so strange, would it? Just two co-workers, hanging out, having a toast to celebrate the imminent end of a long term? It didn’t seem to imply anything, but could if he wanted it to …
No, I needed to stop thinking like that. He was my superior, and it wasn’t healthy to keep hoping for something that was never going to happen. Nevertheless, I did think that a Christmas drink was still a good idea. Severus needed to get out of the castle once in a while and be more sociable. The term was finally almost over, and it would be nice to go down into the village and do something fun to make up for all the hours we’d been shut up in the dungeons, grading thousands of papers. That was the only reason. No ulterior motive. Finally, I fell asleep after the bell tolled two, not happy but at least satisfied with my plan.
The next morning I over-slept horribly and simply couldn’t rouse myself until eleven o’clock. I sighed, knowing breakfast was long over along with any chance to talk to Severus there. But it being the last week of the term, I had a fairly good idea where he would be for the entirety of the day.
It took me a while to shower since I had to wash my hair three times just to clean out all of the “Esmeralda Noggin’s ‘Hold it Right Thair’ Styling Wax” I’d used to keep my hair in curls the night before. After dressing I headed straight down to the dungeons, where Severus’s office door stood wide open, casting a flickering rectangle of light onto the shadowy flagstones. Though I couldn’t make out any words due to the echoing stone passageway, I could hear two voices coming from the office: the low pulse of Severus’s baritone mixed with a higher voice sounding slightly whiny. As I approached nearer, I could hear the latter belonged to Draco Malfoy, and he seemed to be disputing his last grade from the Swelling Solution.
“But sir, you gave Goyle a perfect ten!” Malfoy was arguing. “You simply can’t mark me lower than him!”
“Mr. Goyle was compensated due to the inconvenience he suffered from that puerile attempt at sabotage.” Severus’s voice sounded dangerously out of patience, and I had a feeling he was about to kick Draco out of his office. “And I sincerely doubt your father would be pleased if I wrote to him to report his son was begging his Head of House for marks he did not earn.”
This seemed to shut Draco up. I heard a muttered, “Yes, sir,” before Draco slinked unhappily out of Severus’s office with an ugly scowl twisting his face. When he saw me, the scowl vanished and was replaced by a look I have to assume was intended to be Malfoy Charm.
“Good afternoon, Mistress Asphodel,” Draco said pleasantly with a little bow of his head before withdrawing toward the Slytherin dormitories. I rolled my eyes at his retreating back then stepped into Severus’s office.
He looked up as I entered and sighed, “Would you mind closing the door?” I obeyed quickly while noting his office to be in more disarray than I’d ever seen. Seeing my eyes wandering over the endless stacks of parchment, Severus smiled grimly and said, “Welcome to the end of term. If you’ve come to offer your services, I would gladly accept them.”
“I’d be happy to,” I replied and pulled my usual chair up to his side.
“You can finish the second-years’ assignments. I had better handle the N.E.W.T.s, but you are welcome to review my notes when I’m finished,” Severus said, offering me a half-empty plate of Honeydukes chocolate biscuits, which had apparently served as his nutritious breakfast. I gladly took them and poured myself a cup of lukewarm coffee from a pot on the sideboard.
“Just wake up?” Severus asked with a raised eyebrow, tapping my coffee cup with his wand to reheat it for me.
“How’d you guess?” I replied sarcastically, painfully aware I must’ve had some horrible circles under my eyes. At least my hair wasn’t sticking up in gravity-defying directions anymore. Holding a biscuit between my teeth, I quickly shuffled through the small pile of second-year homework Severus had already graded. I noticed Draco’s paper in there, and indeed, he’d “only” received an eight out of ten grade for his practical and a nine out of ten on his theory. I nearly dropped my biscuit when I saw the paper underneath: Harry Potter’s. Severus had given him a passing seven on his theory homework but only a two for his potion.
“Um … Severus?” I inquired hesitantly.
“Yes?” He started a bit. He’d been very engrossed in one of the N.E.W.T. level essays.
“Is this score right?” I held up Harry’s paper.
Severus took a quick glance at it and cleared his throat slightly. “Yes, that is correct.”
I stared at the paper, wondering if it was my place to argue a grade he’d already set. My conscience got the better of me. After all, I was supposed to be here to learn, so Severus must expect me to question him once in a while.
“It’s just that I watched you test Mr. Potter’s Swelling Solution, and it worked fine, even if the viscosity was a bit low.” I looked up nervously. Severus had gone back to reading the N.E.W.T. essay. Refusing to relent without an explanation, I continued to stare at him until he glanced up, looking slightly annoyed.
“Potter threw the firecracker,” he stated definitively. I was taken aback. Had someone seen and come forward? Or had a Slytherin just claimed it to get Harry in trouble?
“Who told you that?” I asked suspiciously.
“No one. Call it … professor’s intuition.” Severus replied, resting his temple on his fist, his hair falling as a black screen over his face and obscuring my view of it.
“You can’t penalize a student based on intuition!” I retorted, slightly scandalized he’d done such a thing.
Severus straightened up and stared at me, his dark eyes hard. It was the sort of look my father used to give me when talked back to. I thought for a moment Severus was going to reprimand me, but then his face softened. He looked exhausted.
“You’re right. That was unwarranted. Please re-mark it as you see fit.” Severus waved his wand, and his corrections vanished.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, staring at Harry’s clean paper. “It really wasn’t my business.”
“On the contrary, what you did was absolutely correct. Although I dislike Mr. Potter, it was not right of me to take my anger out on him without solid proof,” Severus said, taking a sip of coffee.
Before I could think the better of it, I blurted out, “Why do you dislike him so much?” As soon as the words had left my lips, I knew I’d touched on a very sensitive subject. Severus’s posture stiffened, and the corner of his mouth twitched slightly. Before he could say anything, I amended quickly, “I’m so sorry. Once again, not my business,” and turned back to Harry’s paper. I snuck a look from the corner of my eye and saw Severus was still gazing at me thoughtfully.
“It is …” he began, then stopped. I looked up and met his stare. He smiled faintly. “Maybe another day.” He went back to his essay.
Feeling like a nosy busybody, I also buried myself in work after giving Harry an eight. We worked in silence for over an hour. When the bell tolled two, Severus put down his quill and declared that if he didn’t take a break, he would lose his mind. I agreed and gratefully stretched my cramped fingers. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why I’d chosen a profession where I would most likely be doing school work for the rest of my life. I mentioned this to Severus and asked why he’d decided to become a professor.
“School was the only thing I did well in,” he remarked simply. He stood and poured the last of the cold coffee into his cup.
“I find that hard to believe,” I said. “I bet you were good at lots of things.” Severus fixed me with his cold stare once more. I was certainly getting the impression that his past was not something he liked to discuss. So I decided to change the subject and go for Operation Ask-Severus-Out-For-Christmas-Drinks.
“So, I was wondering,” I began hesitantly, hooking my hair behind my ears. How exactly was I going to go about this? “Um, wondering if you weren’t engaged … engaged …”
Oh my God …
“I mean busy tomorrow night, I thought, maybe, you might like to go get a drink or something like that. You know, just to celebrate the end of term, and Christmas, and … um, early New Year’s ...” I mentally hit myself over the head with a stick while Severus looked down at me curiously. Why couldn’t I be collected like he was all the time?
Severus kept me in suspense for a moment as he settled himself back at his desk with his refilled cup of caffeine. “Yes, I don’t see why not,” he said at last. But then, “Oh damn, I have to supervise Lockhart’s little duelling club at eight.”
He did look genuinely sorry, so I said, “It doesn’t have to be tomorrow night. I’m free whenever.”
Apparently Severus didn’t have as open a schedule as me, for he stared off vaguely in the distance with his eyes squinted, as though he were trying to read a calendar on the far wall. He then declared with a slight shaking of his head, still sounding mildly disappointed, “The rest of the week will be even more difficult. Marks are due, and I … have another commitment as soon as the term concludes.”
Crossing my fingers under the desk and praying that he hadn’t been simply trying to let me down easily, I offered one last option, “I don’t mind being out late tomorrow. I actually prefer it. I could hang out in Hogsmeade until you’re done with that duelling thing. Maybe we could just meet at the Three Broomsticks whenever you’re ready?” I hoped my tone hadn’t sound as desperate as I felt.
To my relief, Severus gave a small smile at my persistence, took up his quill once more, and replied, “I should be done by nine.”
A little before eight the following night, I was trying to hurry down the flights of stairs from my rooms but ended up virtually swimming through tides of Gryffindor and Ravenclaw students headed down to the Great Hall for the duelling club. From the snippets of conversation I heard, it seemed everyone was incredibly excited, and I started to rather wish I would be around to watch it, after all. Nevertheless, I continued on through the entrance hall and quickly spotted Lavinia waiting for me by the outside doors.
“Ready to go?” she called as she saw me approaching.
“I suppose,” I replied. “Do you think this will be warm enough?” I asked and flapped my twill cloak pathetically.
“You’ll be fine. Anyway, it’s usually steaming hot inside Madam Puddifoot’s. Let’s go!”
Not used to having people vying for my time, I’d been flattered yet frustrated earlier in the day when Lavinia had stopped by my rooms to see if I wanted to go out and grab dessert after dinner, at this apparently really cute teashop. Of course she’d ask the one night I already had plans with Severus. I couldn’t think of a good excuse on the spot like that as to why I couldn’t go out with her, that wouldn’t then lead to her asking a thousand questions, so I’d agreed. I was planning on going down to Hogsmeade before meeting Severus anyway, so at least now I wouldn’t be waiting alone in the village.
I followed Lavinia through the castle’s front doors. A light snow was falling and dusting everything in sight, making the steps and cobblestones treacherous.
“Watch it!” Lavinia called out and grabbed my arm as I skidded a few inches on a patch of black ice. She laughed and said, “What we need are some of those spiky shoes Muggle footballers use!” We decided to link arms in case one of us slipped again. Although it was snowing, the air didn’t seem that chilly, except when a chance gust of wind bellowed by and whipped our cloaks around. The woods surrounding us seemed eerily quiet after being accustomed to the constant noise of the castle.
As if reading my thoughts, Lavinia commented, “I hate coming down here on student weekends; everything is mobbed. It’s much nicer when it’s only adults. Honestly, working at Hogwarts all year makes you feel like your fellow professors are the only adults in existence.”
By now we’d passed the Hogsmeade station and were on the High Street. Even though it was after dinnertime, the street was still filled with people socializing or taking advantage of the stores’ late Christmas hours. Lavinia led the way down a side lane brightly lit up with holiday candles.
“This is it,” she said, stopping in front of a quaint stoop under a sign with a large, flowery teacup on it. The shop had a large picture window, but it was impossible to see inside since it was completely fogged over. Lavinia opened the door, adorned with a wreath of bells that tinkled merrily. The shop was cramped but cozy and seemed to resemble an old spinster aunt’s formal living room. There were fifteen or so small tables covered with lace runners and doilies. Shelves along the wall held colourful bags of tea and coffee for sale, while a large glass display stood to a side filled with delicious-looking pastries.
“Shall we sit here?” Lavinia asked, pointing to a table near the window. We pretty much had the pick of the place. There were only two other parties in the shop: two young witches out for a girls’ night like us and a middle-aged couple, who were sneaking kisses behind their table’s holly arrangement.
“This must be quite the date spot for students,” I observed as I removed my cloak and draped it over the back of my chair.
Lavinia laughed derisively. “Exactly why I come here on nights like this.” We’d just taken our seats when a portly little woman with curly black hair hurried over to take our orders.
“What can I get for you tonight, Professors?” she asked brightly. I felt a rush of pride when she said that and didn’t bother to mention I wasn’t technically a professor yet.
I quickly read over the menu board behind the counter. “I’ll have a peppermint mocha and a cranberry scone,” I said. Madam Puddifoot nodded and looked to Lavinia.
“A French roast for me, please. Black. And something with chocolate in it. Lots and lots of chocolate.”
Madam Puddifoot bustled away to make our drinks. I rubbed my sleeve against the foggy window and peered outside.
“The snow’s really picking up,” I commented loudly over the clamour of the coffee grinder.
“Well, we can head back as soon as we’re done,” Lavinia replied. I froze for a moment, realizing I still hadn’t thought of an excuse to shake off Lavinia later so I could meet Severus at the Three Broomsticks. I couldn’t just tell her what I was doing; I had the definite feeling she’d think I was insane. Still looking out the window, I could just barely make out two owls taking off from the direction of the post office around the corner. That gave me an idea.
“Actually,” I said, turning back, “I think I might send a letter to my mom while I’m down here. I need one of those overseas owls, so you can just go back up to the castle, if you want.”
Lavinia shrugged her shoulders. “I can wait, if you like. Doesn’t matter much to me.”
“No, really, it will take a while to write the letter, and I think I might do a little Christmas shopping afterwards, too. You can just go ahead so you’re not up too late.”
“Dear Avrille, I’m the Astronomy teacher! I’m used to being up late!” Lavinia laughed. “But, perhaps you’re right. There are a few things I wanted to get done before bed, not to mention I still have an absolute mountain of essays to mark.”
I nodded in mutual understanding. “I bet. I was helping Professor Snape with his yesterday. We spent four hours at least, and there were still piles left.”
Lavinia made a face. “I feel terrible for you, being stuck in the dungeons with him for four hours! Must just bore you to death!”
I gave a little non-committal shrug for a response. Nope, I was definitely not going to tell Lavinia where I was headed after this.
“Still,” Lavinia continued on, “I have to admit he did turn out to be a rather nice dancer, and it was very classy of him to pry Lockhart off of you like that. I just don’t know what drove him to do it. I mean, Severus doesn’t dance at the Solstice Balls, at least not at the four or so I’ve seen since I started teaching here.”
Just then Madam Puddifoot returned with our order, and I was able to hide my red face in my steaming mug. I’d had no idea Severus didn’t dance at the balls. I had just assumed that he must once in a while, like everyone else. So what exactly had made him come dance with me?
“So, you mean, he’s never danced before?” I asked casually.
“Not once. I think he has to attend them as a Head of House but just spends the whole time stalking after the students. I’ve asked him to dance once or twice, just to be nice, but he always turned me down. Thank God.” She paused to blow on her coffee. “Can’t imagine it was much better for you: Lockhart to Severus … Well, I suppose even though Severus is about as interesting as a wooden plank, at least he has manners.”
“Yeah …” I said offhandedly, lost in my own thoughts. Was there a remote chance Severus thought of me as more than just an apprentice? If he never danced whatsoever, why did he go to so much trouble to tell off Lockhart for being too familiar with me? Could he possibly have been jealous?
But then reality sunk back into my mind. After all, we’d spent countless hours alone over the term without one hint of any feeling beyond that of total professionalism, not to mention everyone knew how much Severus hated Lockhart for taking the Defence Against the Dark Arts position, as well as making a veritable mockery of the class itself. It was much more likely that Severus cut in out of dislike for Lockhart than affection for me.
Having thoroughly depressed myself, I tuned back into Lavinia, who was trying to ascertain my opinions on the latest skin creams.
“It’s just that having to teach at midnight all the time really takes a toll on my complexion,” she was musing.
After a few more minutes of shallow girl talk, Lavinia surprised me by remarking, “It never ceases to amaze me how this place hasn’t changed at all since I used to come here on Hogsmeade weekends.”
“You mean, you were a student here, too?” I asked, wondering how the subject had never come up before.
Lavinia gave one of her high, tinkling laughs. “Of course! Where else would I have gone, Beauxbatons?!” I must have looked slightly embarrassed, for Lavinia took my hand and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Avrille! I forgot you have so many schools to choose from in North America. Practically every professor here is a Hogwarts alum.”
“So, did you have Professor Flitwick and Professor McGonagall as teachers?” I asked, completely fascinated.
“Yes, and I also had Pomona, though she’d just started … and Pythagora, of course. Francis still had his own leg then, come to think of it. But the Astronomy professor I had, bloody hell! I like to think of myself as a vast improvement on him!” Lavinia said with a playful flip of her hair.
Wanting to proceed cautiously, I asked, trying to sound aloof, “So then you must’ve gone to school with Professor Snape, as well, right?”
Lavinia made a scoffing noise. “Well, yes, though he is a bit older than me, you know. Let me think … He was already a fifth-year when I entered, so I really didn’t know much about who he was. Oh except, of course, that he and James Potter were mad rivals for the Head Boy spot.” Lavinia sipped her coffee while I stared out of the window again.
Of course. It made so much sense now. Why hadn’t I made the connection that Severus had placed second in his class behind James Potter, Harry Potter’s father? No wonder Severus didn’t like Harry. He was the son of his schooldays rival!
Lavinia placed her empty cup down on the saucer and continued, “I remember everyone wondered how the race could even be so close; James was a perfect student, charming, handsome, and Captain of his Quidditch team. Severus was just this odd kid who had his head buried in books about the Dark Arts all the time. I remember I thought he was kind of creepy, but besides that, I didn’t really meet him until I was hired here. Then I realized he wasn‘t creepy, just dull as hell!” Lavinia laughed again, and I faked a laugh as well. However, on the inside, my heart was heavy for Severus. I knew what it was like to not fit in.
Since our drinks and sweets were finished, we rose to leave. Lavinia insisted on taking the bill, citing the fact that she was the only one of us with a paying job. I thanked her, and we stepped back out into the cold night, thoroughly warmed inside from the coffee. At the end of the alley, we parted. I made toward the post office, keeping Lavinia in sight discreetly. I stamped my feet outside the post office door, waiting until I saw her turn the bend leading to the station, then continued on to the Three Broomsticks with my mind swimming.
The air had turned bitterly frigid while I’d been in the coffee shop and seemed even more so as it began to seep into my skin through my light cloak. Bright lanterns hanging over doorframes showed the snow to be falling even more heavily now in large, fat clumps of flakes. Fortunately, the tavern wasn’t too far up the street from the post office, for my feet and hands felt about ready to freeze solid. Before I could even see it through my white eyelashes, I heard the tavern’s hinged sign banging in the wind. I scurried through the drifts and up to the door as the wind whipped off my hood, sending my hair streaming around my face. Keeping my cloak held tightly together with one hand, I pushed open the thick wooden door and was immediately hit with a pleasing wave of heat.
As I stepped over the threshold into the Three Broomsticks, I shook out my cloak vigorously, hurling clumps of snow onto the stone floor. The tavern was boisterously noisy, as one would expect the week before a holiday. Most of the tables were filled with celebrating witches and wizards toasting with eggnog and mulled wine. A small group of musicians sat by the cavernous fireplace, their dizzying jig adding to the tumultuous atmosphere. An elderly couple was dancing madly to the tune. The witch’s cheeks were flushed, and she glowed as though sixteen, her partner huffing but smiling nevertheless with a wreath of holly wound around the crown of his top hat. I couldn’t help smiling as I entered that scene and found it very hard to stand still while the coatrack picked my cloak from my shoulders.
The air inside was almost oppressively hot after the outside chill, and a thin, bluish fog of pipe smoke gave everything a blurry edge. My eyes scanned for an empty table but were directed back to the bar when I heard a voice call out, “Miss Avrille!” in a cheery tone. Looking to my right, I saw Hagrid perched unsteadily on a barstool, holding an ale mug the size of a small barrel. I made my way through the tables to him.
“Happy Christmas!” he said and raised his ale to me. “Can I buy yeh a drink?”
“Oh, thank you, Hagrid, but no. I’m meeting Professor Snape here in a little bit,” I replied, overwhelmed by the yeasty smell emanating from the rivulets of ale running down Hagrid’s incorrigible beard. Hagrid’s face took on an enlightened expression at my words as though he had just put two and two together and realized it did in fact make four.
“Ah … Professor Snape’s already here, and I daresay he’s started withou’ yeh.” He pointed to a table far away from most of the commotion surrounding the hearth. Puzzled, I looked in the direction of his finger just in time to see Severus put back a rather impressive shot of what appeared to be firewhisky before handing the empty glass to Madam Rosemerta, the proprietress.
“I see,” I said. The edges of Hagrid’s mouth were twitching.
“Seems ter be nervous about summat,” Hagrid said, hiding his face once more in his immense tankard. I stood there for a moment, suddenly quite nervous myself. After all, meeting Severus in a bar for drinks really did sound like a date, no matter how I tried to rationalize it …
“Snow’s fallin’ heavy now,” Hagrid remarked, squinting through the caked windows. “Looks like a storm comin’.” With a grunt he heaved himself from his stool and downed his ale with a last swig. “Goin’ back ter the castle m’self now. I can call down a carriage fer yeh, if yeh like. Wouldn’ want two of Hogwarts’s greatest minds fallin’ down and thumpin’ their heads.” Hagrid still seemed to be fighting back a smile.
“That would be great, thank you! Good night,” I bade him before winding my way toward the far side of the tavern, turning back once when Hagrid upset a table with a crash trying to manoeuvre through the crowded room. As I approached him, Severus rose to meet me.
“Good evening,” he said and pulled a chair out for me. He was looking positively arresting in a crisp white shirt and waistcoat of dove-grey. I had never seen him in “casual” clothing before and was very pleased with the result. The firewhisky had brought a slight flush to his normally pale face.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting too long. I didn’t expect you’d make it down here this quickly,” I said as I took my seat.
Severus resettled beside me, rather stiffly, and signalled to Madam Rosemerta. “No, I just arrived a moment ago myself. There was a slight mishap with the duelling club, and we ended early.”
Before I could ask what’d happened, Madam Rosemerta came bustling over; I couldn’t help rolling my eyes to myself at how she swung her hips with every step.
“Yes, Professor, what else can I get you?” She smiled warmly at Severus, as if I wasn’t even there, and I had the urge to kick her in the shins. Severus looked politely to me to order first.
“Just a honey mead for me, please,” I said as pleasantly as I could manage. Madam Rosemerta scribbled on her pad and turned her attention solidly back to Severus.
“Any specials?” he asked in the now very familiar bored tone he used when speaking to students who annoyed him.
“Yes, we’ve added a new drink to the menu just this week: The Golden Gilderoy! Ginger ale and ginger beer with a golden cream float and a pink sugared rim; a favourite of Professor Lockhart himself!” she remarked delightedly, her bust swelling with pride to an almost indecent degree.
Severus stared at her with all seriousness for a beat before remarking dryly, “I’ll have a scotch.” Madam Rosemerta’s face fell slightly, but she wrote down his order and flurried away. As soon as she was out of hearing range, Severus shocked me by bursting out laughing. His laughter infected me immediately, as well, and it was almost a whole minute before we were able to get control of ourselves. A table of old wizards near us kept glancing over with concerned expressions.
“Forgive me,” Severus said breathlessly, once he could speak again. “It’s just that I really want to kill that man sometimes.”
“Don’t we all?” I muttered. We passed the next few minutes in silence, the complete negative to our levity a moment before. Madam Rosemerta returned with our drinks, and I sipped mine gratefully, glad to have something to do with my mouth and hands. Severus sampled his drink as well, his dark eyes settling more than once on me before flicking away.
Finding the silence unbearable, I asked, “What do you plan to do for the holiday?”
“Work, mainly,” he replied, setting his drink down.
“You don’t visit family or anything?”
He considered me with steely eyes that chilled me despite the warmth of the tavern. “I do not have any family. I find working during Christmas is optimal since I have little time for personal research during the term,” he said, twirling the glass around with the tips of his fingers.
“Oh, I didn’t know you didn’t … I’m sorry,” I said quietly and looked down at my lap. I felt bad, bringing the subject of family up when Severus appeared to spend the holidays alone. I didn’t have much of an immediate family myself, but I couldn’t remember a Christmas when I hadn’t been with at least someone I loved.
“You have no reason to be. I just have a complicated past.” Severus had fixed his stare on me once more, and I hinted a sense of danger in his voice that was slightly frightening but also slightly exciting. But then, before I could ponder it, it was gone and he spoke in a lighter tone. “I have always been a solitary person by nature. It isn’t really an issue for me. I am very happy with my present situation at Hogwarts.” He hesitated as if considering something, his gaze fixed on the naked, splintery rafters above. “I … well …” he paused and looked at me once more. “Forgive my rudeness, how will you be spending your own holiday? Do you have plans to return home?”
“No, I decided it would be too much trouble. I’ll just be staying here, alone too.” I realized my words might’ve sounded callous, for at least I had the option of going to see family. However, it didn’t seem to bother Severus, for he smiled faintly and finished his drink.
After a minute he said slowly, “Well, perhaps, if you are not otherwise engaged Christmas, we could … come here again.”
My heart swelled at his words, but I quickly stifled it. Stop reading into things, I thought. Seriously. He probably just feels sorry for you.
“That would be nice,” I replied, hoping my face wasn’t blushing as hot as it felt. Severus nodded and sat back in his chair with his arms folded, staring at the tabletop. We didn’t say anything more to each other. I finished my drink for lack of anything else to do and allowed Madam Rosemerta to sweep the glasses away.
Finally Severus said, “We should probably head back. The snow doesn’t seem to be slowing.”
I suddenly remembered Hagrid. “I almost forgot, but Hagrid said he’d send down a carriage for us. He figured a storm was coming and wanted to take precaution.”
“Good of Hagrid,” Severus said. I’d never really heard him speak much of Hagrid before, and I didn’t know what sort of relationship they had. Hagrid seemed like the type of man of whom Severus would disapprove, but he’d never hinted one way or the other to me.
I made to reach for my wallet, but Severus stopped me with a raised hand. He removed two Galleons and a handful of Sickles from his waistcoat pocket, making me wonder if he was leaving a huge tip, or more likely, guessing Severus’s disposition toward Madam Rosemerta, he’d been drinking quite a bit more firewhisky before I’d arrived. I didn’t have to wait long for confirmation. After stacking the coins neatly on the table, Severus stood. Well, stumbled up would be more accurate, for he had to grip the table and almost fell back into his seat, making me realize that he was, in fact, very drunk. However, that was the only indication, for he’d spoken as coolly and evenly as always. Regaining his balance and composure, Severus moved aside to allow me room to rise. I followed him back through the maze of tables and revellers, glad that he didn’t fall into anyone’s lap.
At the door Severus reached for my cloak before I could and held it out for me. As he draped it lightly over my shoulders, his hands brushed against the sides of my neck, and I couldn’t help but shiver. While he retrieved his own cloak, I tried without much luck to look out the windows, which were now completely blocked up with snow. A faint draught whistled through the cracked sash, bringing with it the scent of ice and pine. Severus moved past me and opened the heavy oak door, spilling a mini avalanche of snow onto the tavern floor. I kicked at it as I passed through but was unsuccessful at pushing it back out. It looked like Madam Rosemerta would have a lot of mopping to do tonight, I thought with a smirk.
Outside, the wind was howling shrilly, sending fat cold flakes into my eyes and hair. It was quickly becoming a blizzard, and the visibility was horrible. I was very appreciative to see one of the Hogwarts coaches waiting a dozen yards down the lane. The poor thestral attached had a blanket of snow on its back already, but it stood immobile like a statue. Severus surprised me by gently taking my arm, of which I was thankful, for I slipped more than once on our shuffled trek to the carriage. Severus had seemed to regain his sobriety miraculously, probably due to the cold shock of winter, and guided me steady and true. My heart pounded away like it had when we were dancing two nights ago, even though I knew he only wanted to prevent me from falling flat on my face.
When we reached the carriage, I couldn’t stop myself from trundling over to the thestral to brush the snow off its back with my cloaked arm. I only realized after the thestral was cleared off the implication of what I’d done. Severus was studying me keenly with a mixture of surprise and what seemed like concern on his face. I had no idea if he could see the thestral at all; the greater population probably couldn’t. But something in his look told me he could and was disturbed that I could as well.
“Sorry,” I muttered as he opened the door for me. I clambered rather ungracefully inside and moved to the window, hoping with a girlish wish that Severus might sit next to me. At the very least, it would help to dispel the memory of the last time I’d ridden in a Hogwarts coach four months ago, sandwiched quite unhappily between Hagrid and the perfumed Professor Lockhart. To my delight Severus stepped in beside me, pulling the door shut with a scatter of tiny ice flakes. Like Hagrid had, he knocked twice on the wall behind us, and the coach took off.
We sat in silence for a while until Severus said simply, “Who was it?” I knew immediately what he was asking.
“My father,” I murmured and looked down at my hands, which were red and stinging from my lack of gloves. I could feel Severus’s gaze weigh down on me and heard him sigh quietly, but he asked me no more. The carriage bumped and slipped over the snowy road, throwing Severus and me together more than once.
“You’re cold,” he said suddenly. It must’ve been obvious, even though I was determinedly trying to control my shivers. But the coach offered no warmth, and my cloak was unsuitable for a storm such as this.
Then, I could hardly believe it, Severus gently took my hands in his, massaging them slightly. His hands were burning hot as though he had a fever; indeed, he had an almost feverish look in his grey eyes as he stared deeply into mine. I felt as though under the sweetest of spells, unable to say or think anything that was not the will of the man who was slowly bringing his face nearer. He moved one of his hands from mine and cupped my cheek with it, wrapping his fingers in the damp tendrils of my hair. I didn’t dare to breathe, afraid that this moment was a waking dream, and a single movement of mine would chase it away like the crystals of ice flying by our window. I closed my eyes, dying for his lips to touch mine. He was so close I felt the tips of his hair brush my chin and could smell the sweetness of the alcohol on his breath.
But the coach stopped suddenly, signalling our arrival, and the lurch parted us for an instant in which the moment was lost. We fell back into our respective places and held a silence. Then Severus opened the door and stepped down, holding out a hand to help me exit. Gripping his hand, I descended onto the slippery cobblestones and was about to say something, I’m not sure what, when a frantic voice called out to me, “Oh, Avrille! Just the person I needed!” I dropped Severus’s hand like a phoenix on fire and turned to see Professor Sprout huffing and puffing toward us with her arms full of a hodgepodge of knitting.
She stopped in front of me, her ample bosom heaving, and gasped, “I’m so glad I found you. I’m headed out to outfit the mandrakes with some winter wear. This storm just has me worried so. Of course Filius was kind enough to place a new Shielding Charm on the greenhouse glass, but we just can’t be too careful with those mandrakes now that they are so desperately needed.” She stopped for a moment and looked at Severus, just noticing he was there as well. She looked back and forth between the two of us a couple of times but then continued in her breathless rush at me, “So, are you coming? You’re not busy, I assume?”
“No!” I gasped, probably much too loudly and obviously. “No, I’m not busy. Not at all. I’d be glad to help.”
“Well follow me, then,” Professor Sprout said. “Good night, Severus,” she said with a nod and a narrowed gaze in his direction before trotting off in the direction of the greenhouses.
I remained next to Severus for a moment, reluctant to leave him. He had me fixed with his intense stare once more, and it rooted me to the spot. “Right, well, good night,” he said finally then walked quickly away toward the castle steps. I breathed an enormous sigh before shuffling my way through the snow after Professor Sprout.
The going was fairly easy, for it seemed like Professor Sprout had melted a path ahead of her with her wand. I soon caught up. My heart was still hammering and my mind still hadn’t fully comprehended what had just taken place in the coach. I stood impatiently behind Professor Sprout as she unlocked greenhouse three and stamped my feet trying to keep warm. After she opened the door, Professor Sprout waved her wand to light the place up, exposing several rows of surly-looking “tween” mandrake plants. They were buried past their noses to prevent their deadly screaming, but those exposed eyes glowered and glared with every measure of pre-pubescent angst they could produce.
“Right,” Professor Sprout said and dropped her armful onto a nearby empty table. She divided the pile in two, one for me and one for her, and started to wrap a blue and white knit scarf around the nearest mandrake, which shook its leaves angrily. One could almost imagine it saying, “I don’t need that! It’s not even cold out!” Nevertheless, Professor Sprout wriggled a matching woolly hat over its leaves, which seemed to weigh it down so much it couldn’t fight any more. Pulling on a spare pair of dragon hide gloves to be on the safe side, I followed her example and gently wound scarves around the mandrakes who returned the favour by blinking furiously. I had to admit the mandrakes were sort of cute like this, all helpless and bundled up. They looked just like someone’s ugly little children going out to play in the snow.
When the last mandrake was wrapped and capped, Professor Sprout extinguished the light. We made our way back to the castle through the melted path that was already accumulating a layer of snow once more. We said our good nights at the entrance hall, and I breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn’t asked any questions about Severus and me being in the carriage together.
I had really meant to go to bed, but without being able to control the impulse, I found myself walking down to the dungeons. It was quite late now, the portraits around me all snoring contentedly, but I wasn’t surprised when I arrived at Severus’s office and saw a light flickering through the crack under the door. I stood outside shifting my weight from one foot to the other, debating with myself whether or not I should check on him, to make sure he hadn’t passed out from alcohol poisoning or something.
Then I tried to imagine what I’d say if I did knock, and I was face to face with him once more so soon after the almost-kiss. I mean, what if he’d already forgotten it? As thrilling as it was to toy with the idea that he might be attracted to me, it was possible he’d been so drunk when we left the tavern that he had no idea what he was doing. I chewed on my thumbnail considering that disappointing thought. With yet another sigh, this one of resignation, I quickly left the dungeons before I did something stupid, like throwing open the door and taking advantage of his inebriation.
The castle was so eerily quiet that I shivered despite myself. I could almost feel something sinister in the air, although couldn’t find anything specific to pin the feeling on. Practically running, I dashed up the three flights of stairs to my rooms and shut the door fast behind me, then bolted it. I leaned against the door out of breath and tried to make myself laugh over my ridiculousness. After all, there hadn’t been any sort of attack in well over a month, and I was most likely safe, coming from a pure-blood wizarding family. But something in the corridors just then felt so … off. I gave my head a quick shake and pushed away from the door.
My fireplace was lit already, and I stood in front of it while changing into a nightgown. My thoughts kept wandering to Severus … how warm his hands had been … the dark fire in his eyes. Somehow I felt better knowing he was awake right now, too, as though he could frighten away whatever was troubling me if I needed him to. Exhausted from the long, confusing night, I climbed gratefully under my down comforter and pulled it up to my chin. Outside, the snow was falling heavier than ever and was blowing horizontally past the frosted windows. Even with thoughts of Severus still streaming through my mind, I quickly fell asleep.
I slept soundly until sometime in the early morning; I remember waking up just as the four o’clock bell had finished tolling. After drifting back asleep, I dreamt I was walking alone down one of the school’s deserted corridors like I’d been a few hours earlier. All around me I heard a cold, high-pitched, hysterical laughter, and I covered my ears with my hands to try and block it out. Suddenly it stopped as I turned a corner. Standing in front of me was Justin Finch-Fletchley, an amiable Hufflepuff second-year, who often talked with me when I observed his Herbology lessons with the Gryffindors. He was smiling, but I saw that a thick green snake was coiling itself around his neck, choking him with its weight. I ran toward him, but he held up a hand in a motion for me to stay away.
“Please don’t worry,” he said to me in a very clear voice. “Would you tell Professor Sprout I won’t be able to hand in my mandrake essay on time?” he asked then collapsed to the floor. As he hit the stones, the snake vanished. I knelt by his side and brushed his long, curly hair from his face. He was still smiling, but it was a grotesque sight since he was completely petrified, with his eyes wide open and glassy. I bent over him and cried, my tears falling into his unblinking eyes.
I must’ve awoken with a scream, for the air seemed to echo around me as I lay in bed with the sun streaming through the windows onto my face. I rolled over onto my stomach, hugging a pillow and trying to dispel the horrifying dream from my mind. I supposed that’s what I got for drinking coffee and beer so late at night.
I thought of Severus instead and smiled but then started to feel panicky at the thought of seeing him today. I couldn’t deny that we were quickly finding ourselves in an increasingly awkward situation. I didn’t know if it was allowed for staff members to be involved with each other, and I wasn’t even a full-fledged staff member at all. I rose and looked out the window to a world blanketed in waves of rolling white purity. A brisk wind still blew and sent curtains of snow swirling off the rooftops and towers. I leaned my overly warm forehead against the cool glass, wondering what on earth I was going to do.
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