Chapter 21 : Chapter Twenty-One - Avrille
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It was finally Christmas Eve. I’d barely slept since Monday. I’d done practically everything I could think of to keep myself awake all night. I’d written extensive letters to my mom, then thrown most of them away in fear that the sudden increase in writing would make her suspicious and worry. I spent hours playing with Caligula, something I hadn’t done since he was a kitten. I read books while pacing around my room so the reading wouldn’t make me sleepy. I knew this couldn’t continue much longer. After Christmas vacation it would be back to work, and I couldn’t afford to go without sleep like this. But what could I do? The thought of having another vision paralyzed me with fear. Knowing that this fear was irrational didn’t do anything to help me stop feeling it. Of course, one solution would be for me to make a dreamless-sleep potion, but I really didn’t trust myself to brew it correctly in my present sleep-deprived state. Also, there was no guarantee a simple potion would be enough stave off dreams of such magical power. I’d never heard of a case like mine where the person having the visions wanted to stop them.
On the evening of Justin’s attack, I had gathered my spirits and courage to go see Severus again. I wanted to thank him for his support earlier and for sending the tea to me. I also wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help him finish up grading or whatever, although I don’t know how much use I would’ve been to him, given my disjointed state of mind. It turned out not to matter because Severus wasn’t in his office nor in any of the dungeon classrooms. I was much too shy to go his private rooms, so I returned to my own and spent the night writing my first two, eventually-scrapped letters to my mom.
I had been debating whether or not to go see Madam Pomfrey when she herself visited my rooms the next afternoon to inquire after my health. It was true I’d missed several meals, but I had no idea my absence would be noticed. I lied and told the nurse I was fine, just a little stressed due to the attacks and the end of term work. She gave me a vial containing Draught of Peace and instructed me to take a tablespoon every four hours as long as any anxiety persisted. She also recommended plenty of bed rest now the term was officially over. I found that to be especially ironic since it was the thought of bed rest that was giving me the fits of anxiety.
I did take the Draught of Peace as Madam Pomfrey instructed, and it helped to calm me down a little. I found that if I took long naps during the day, a time when I’d never had a vision and therefore seemed safer to me, I could stay up all night. Caligula absolutely loved this new nocturnal habit of mine and yowled angrily if I desisted playing with him for even a moment.
Yesterday morning I’d been startled by a sudden rapping outside my window. I opened it to find an ornery brown owl with bedraggled feathers holding out an envelope to me. As soon as I removed it from his talons, he took off like a shot arrow in the direction of the owlry in West Tower. After only a few wing flaps, he was swallowed by the white swirls of the morning snow shower. Looking out across the stormy grounds, I was instantly brought back to the other night when another blizzard had forced Severus and me into a carriage together, and we had almost kissed …
A fierce gust of wind nearly tore the letter from my hand. I clutched it tighter and quickly latched the window closed before I had an avalanche to deal with inside. I’d just been getting ready for a power nap when the owl had arrived, so I dashed across the icy-cold stone floor and jumped into bed. As I arranged my pillows into a soft cocoon, I wondered who on earth would be writing to me. I almost never got mail. I thought maybe it was my mom, somehow alerted across the ocean by maternal instinct that not all was well with her daughter lately. I was due for a letter from her anyway.
But once I pulled up the coverlet and had a chance to look at the envelope’s address more closely, I knew immediately who it was from. My heart leapt into my throat. I’d seen that wonderfully distinct handwriting nearly every day since I started my apprenticeship. In fact, I kept a small box next to my bed filled with samples of it, from the few notes I’d received on my classroom observations. It was so precious to me because it belonged to the man I loved.
Barely able to rein in my excitement, I broke the seal with painstaking carefulness and shaking hands. Severus had never written to me before, and I didn’t want a single tear to mar the envelope. When I finally had it opened, I removed a piece of expensive-looking note parchment and read by the dim morning light:
I hope that this letter finds you well. A personal duty has called me away from Hogwarts for a brief time, but I shall be returning to the castle late tomorrow afternoon. We had previously discussed a return visit to the Three Broomsticks, and I would be honoured if you would accompany me there once more tomorrow night. Please forgive my assumption, but I believe some time away from the castle in light of recent events would do us both a world of good. If this meeting is not convenient for you, please leave a message at my office. However, if it is, I shall be awaiting you outside the Three Broomsticks tomorrow night at eight o’clock.
With Sincerest Regards,
I didn’t know what to make of it. Mostly I was impressed that Severus had remembered our conversation from the last time. Yet there was still a small part of me that was hesitant. If he remembered our impromptu arrangement to return to the Three Broomsticks, then he most likely remembered that awkward episode in the carriage. We hadn’t had a real conversation since then. Of course, we had talked a little the other afternoon about my vision, but how had that ended? With us embracing. I knew for myself, I’d wrapped myself around Severus for reasons far more ardent than just a need to be consoled. However, Severus’s motivations for initiating that incredibly personal contact, as always, had been nearly impossible to interpret. I was just so confused.
I did a quick mental run-through of everything that’d happened between Severus and me since I first arrived at Hogwarts. The beginning had been shaky, that was for sure. There was a while there when I wasn’t even sure if Severus liked me. Then later we started to sort of click, and up until these past few days, I would even go so far as to call us friendly acquaintances, but certainly no more than that. Severus had never flirted with me. So what the hell had happened between last week and now where I was, against my better judgment, seriously considering the possibility that he might be attracted to me?
Somehow I had the feeling this next meeting would be the determining factor. I would try to act as naturally as possible and be observant. It was dangerous for me to read too much into the letter. Although it was disheartening, I had to act according to the conclusion I’d reached the other day, that Severus only cared for me as a colleague, and the events of these past few days had been the result of him simply being concerned over my obviously upset state. It was a real possibility that any more inappropriate actions on my part could lead to Severus deciding I was too unprofessional and expelling me from the apprenticeship.
I slept very poorly after that, the rest of the day lost in a haze of half-forgotten dreams. That night I must have reread Severus’s letter a hundred times, studying the nuances of every word. By morning I’d reached no new conclusions. I would have to play this evening out by ear.
I started to get ready at five o’clock. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time trying to look “casual” before. In the end I settled on a simple, belted tunic over warm, wool pants. Since under normal circumstances I never bothered, I didn’t put on make-up or do anything special with my hair. It wasn’t snowing out, but it looked very windy and chilly, so I put on my fur-lined coat and grabbed my wool scarf and mittens. I might’ve almost gotten kissed last time because I was cold, but I didn’t want Severus to think I was a moron for not dressing appropriately for the weather yet again. I was going to be warm tonight.
At half past seven, I kissed Caligula and whispered, “Wish me luck!” I left my rooms and headed down the stairs. The castle looked absolutely gorgeous. All of the banisters had been wrapped with holly and tinsel, and every single surface was polished to a shine. Enchanted baubles of gold and silver light floated near the ceiling, delicately chiming whenever they gently collided midair.
It was quite cold outside, but as soon as I’d made my way past the castle gate and into the cover of the trees, it wasn’t too bad. I walked as quickly as I could down the icy path and mentally ran through all of the things I was not going to talk about tonight. First off, I would not ask where Severus had gone yesterday, even though I was curious since he’d mentioned before that he didn’t have any family to visit. It wasn’t my business, and it would be rude to pry. I was certainly not going to bring up anything from the last Hogsmeade outing, given that I wasn’t sure exactly what Severus remembered about it. I hoped he wouldn’t mention my breakdown in his office because, frankly, I was still pretty embarrassed about that. He was my superior, and I really shouldn’t have bothered him with my personal problems. I obviously didn’t want to talk about all of the attacks because that was just horribly depressing. So what in the world was I going to talk about?
I passed the train station and started to hear the pleasant noises of the village. It sounded like there were at least two groups of carollers, whose jumbled songs actually complimented each other. I entered the village proper through its gates and saw what could’ve been the front of a Christmas card. The new snow had blanketed all of the roofs, making each little building look like a gingerbread house topped with icing. All of the street lamps glowed brightly, and strands of lights shone draped back and forth between them. Many of the trees and bushes had been decorated and looked like frosted pastries. The streets were absolutely mobbed with laughing, singing people. It looked like every single resident of the village was out and about that evening. The stores were all closed up tight, but brilliant light and noise burst forth from the windows and doors of each restaurant, café, and pub.
I slowly made my way up the High Street, weaving through crowds and politely separating myself from a few young men who tried to entice me to dance with them. Small children were running about everywhere, ducking between legs and under their mothers’ skirts. I passed the lane Lavinia and I had taken earlier in the week and noticed that the line for Madam Puddifoot’s stretched out down the stairs. It was certainly a wonderful night for a hot cup of coffee.
As I approached the Three Broomsticks, my first thought was how to find Severus in the crowd. The pub was crammed so full that tables had been set up out front despite the cold. It looked like Madam Rosemerta had at least two other girls helping her dole out mulled wine and hot spiced cider to the throng of chilly patrons socializing outside. I was about to start forcing my way inside when I felt a gentle tug on my elbow. I turned to see Severus holding the sleeve of my coat, looking strikingly dramatic against the town’s bright holiday colours in a sweeping cloak and suede gloves of black. He gestured for me to follow him down a side street, where it was a little quieter and we could actually hear each other talk.
“Hi!” I said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to get in right away.”
Severus looked over my shoulder back toward the bar and shook his head. “I apologize. I’ve never been down here Christmas Eve. I had no idea it would be so crowded.”
I shrugged. “Is there somewhere else you would like to go instead? The Hog’s Head isn’t the best, but there might be less people …”
Severus’s expression was unreadable as he glanced up and down the street. “I’m actually not feeling very sociable at the moment. Would you mind if we just walked?”
“Whatever you feel like doing is fine with me,” I replied with a smile, glad I’d dressed warmly after all.
Severus graced me with half of a thin smile in return and started to walk out of the alley. I trailed a step behind, unsure how close I should be to him. Severus took a left and continued on up the High Street past Zonko’s Joke Shop and Honeydukes. Honeydukes was the only store still open, and it was positively buzzing with kids getting all nice and hyped up on sugar before bed. I had to move quickly to follow Severus, who was walking at a brisk pace as though he had a destination in mind rather than simply strolling for pleasure. A few people on the street called out a greeting to him, and he acknowledged them with a nod or a careless wave of his gloved hand. Pretty soon we were out of range to hear any more commotion from the town square. The wider, commercial avenue gave way to lanes of cozy cottages with neatly swept walkways. Nearly all of the houses were dark since most of the residents were in town celebrating. I did my best to keep up, walking beside Severus but not too close, wondering what was running through his mind. We were quickly approaching the village limits.
Severus turned to me and said simply, “There are some nice paths up here.”
“Oh,” I replied. What else was I supposed to say? Severus was being oddly silent and introspective, even for him. Whenever I glanced over, he was either looking straight ahead or with his eyes slightly downcast as though deep in thought.
We passed through the far village gate and stepped into the woods beyond. It was amazingly beautiful out here at night. Though the sky was partially overcast, what fragile starlight there was reflected off the new snow, illuminating our path as though by a spell. By now the only sounds were the crunching of our boots on the ice and the wind whistling shrilly through the trees. Even with the protection of the woods around us, it was still bitingly cold.
I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable with our mutual silence.
“I’m sorry I didn’t check in with you the past few days,” I said finally. Severus’s eyes flicked toward me for an instant, but he kept up his quick pace down the path.
“There is no need to apologize. I knew you were upset.”
I huffed quietly in annoyance into my scarf. I still felt guilty for abandoning him when I knew his grades were due. We came upon a fork in the path. Severus continued to the left without hesitation. By now he finally seemed to have noticed the difficulty I was having keeping up with his long strides, because he’d slowed down a bit. When the wind wasn’t blowing, the night was so quiet I could hear the almost indiscernible rustle of Severus’s cloak gliding over the snow.
After the fork the trees started to thin out. We eventually came into a clearing, and I could see up ahead what looked like a weather-beaten fence, separating the path from a steep hill. I walked up to the fence to see what lay beyond it, while Severus wandered a little further down and rested his arms on the highest wooden rung. He stared mutely across the clearing. I followed his gaze and saw a decrepit hut nestled on top of the hill, looming eerily among spindly pines and birches. Out of the shelter of the trees, the wind gusted fiercely and blew up clouds of snow that left my coat dusted with white. Our hair whipped around us, mine constantly blowing into my mouth since it was too cold to breathe through my nose.
I moved closer to Severus and leaned over the fence as well. “Maybe this isn’t the best night for a walk, after all,” I commented.
“Well, we could go sit up in there and … talk … for a while,” Severus said slowly, pointing up to the hut.
That seemed like an odd suggestion after we’d spoken only a dozen words since meeting up. “But doesn’t someone live there?” I asked, as I tucked my hair into my collar and pulled up my hood.
Severus smiled wickedly. “Of course not. That is the Shrieking Shack.”
I stared hard at Severus, he looking back with complete innocence. He seemed serious.
“Are you kidding me?!” I exclaimed. “That’s the most haunted building in Britain! I don’t care how cold it is; there’s no way I’m going up there.”
Severus scoffed and turned to lean his back against the fence, hooking a foot behind a rail. “It’s not haunted.”
Ok, now I knew he was joking. He certainly had a weird sense of humour, though.
“Yeah. Ha ha. Not haunted. Very funny,” I replied sarcastically.
“It isn’t. I swear.” I must have still looked quite incredulous, for his expression fell into one of boyish hurt, which I wasn’t sure was feigned. “You don’t believe me?”
What on earth was he talking about? The guidebook I’d read before coming to Hogwarts mentioned in its chapter on Hogsmeade that the Shrieking Shack was absolutely avoided by everyone in the area. Occasionally some Hogwarts kids would throw a stone at it from a distance, but no one had ever been inside.
Hesitantly, I said, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s just that I’ve …”
“… Heard so many horrid tales about it,” Severus finished. I nodded, trying to look brave and confident, but to be honest the thought of a host of vengeful spirits scared the hell out of me. My own spirits fell further as Severus climbed through the fence slats to the other side. He held out his hand.
“Trust me,” he said simply. I somehow got the feeling this was important to him. I walked up to the fence and took his hand as he helped me climb through. Still holding my hand tightly in his, Severus strode purposefully through the snow toward the Shack. I had no idea what had gotten into him. Five minutes before, he wouldn’t even look at me, and now he had me by the hand, dragging me up a hill because of some bizarre whim. I was thankful that if I had to be led into this crazy adventure, at least it was by one of the most powerful wizards in the land.
As we approached our destination, I could’ve sworn I began to hear a low wailing. I think I must’ve made a worried noise because Severus turned back to look at me.
“It’s just the wind,” he said, with an eyebrow raised in amusement. Of course it was. Just the wind making those horrible moaning noises that were increasing in intensity. They’re not ghosts because Severus says so. I had to admit it was not very comforting following the man I loved into a possibly perilous situation in which I would be completely useless in defending myself, but how could I have refused when he asked me to trust him? Naturally, the only answer was I couldn’t because I did.
Far too quickly we found ourselves right in front of the Shack. I did have to admit standing in its lee did block most of the wind, and up close like this, those moaning noises did sound more like restless air than restless souls. Severus let go of my hand and began circling the perimeter, trying to find the easiest way inside. Thoughts of ghosts aside, the building was disheartening enough in itself. It was, in fact, much larger up close than it’d seemed from the safe distance of the fence. All of its numerous windows and doors were boarded over rather haphazardly, contributing to its dilapidated appearance. The roof seemed mainly intact, although numerous shingles had slid off over the years and now jutted up through the snow like tiny gravestones.
I followed Severus as he walked to the rear of the building. Here he found a window where half of the boarding had rotted away. Though it looked like the boards should’ve given way easily, they held fast and resisted Severus’s first attempt to pull them down. He then removed his wand from an inner pocket and stared at the window thoughtfully. As he considered the decomposed wood, I stood to the side, shivering in the full blast of the winter air. I was still wondering why on earth he had gotten the urge to trespass in this creepy place, that was absolutely without any redeeming qualities besides the fact that it was a shelter from the elements. But then so was the Three Broomsticks. Or the Hog’s Head. Or Madame Puddifoot’s or … anything else!
With a single wave of his wand, Severus nodded his head in confirmation, and I felt a slight tingling pass through the air around me. It seemed he had broken some sort of charm meant to keep people out. After stashing his wand back in his pocket, Severus reached forward once more and gave the window boards another good wrench. This time they broke apart no problem, revealing fully the filthy window underneath. Severus opened the window with surprising ease, given that it’d probably stood closed for countless years. Seeing the gaping, black hole of the window hammered home that he really did intend to bring me inside.
“You know, it really isn’t that cold out …” I lied. I’ll admit it; I was still completely freaked out.
“Come now, Avrille. Where is your sense of adventure?” Severus asked in a completely irresistible teasing voice. That said, he stepped onto a pile of rubble and with a swish of his cloak and a deft leg up he was inside. He leaned out of the window and offered to assist me. Heaving a sigh of inevitability, I grasped his hands and allowed myself to be pulled up, the effort being a little more difficult with my shorter legs. Once we were both in, he shut the window and pulled closed what remained of some ancient drapes.
Severus’s wand burst forth a brilliant light which stung my eyes for a moment. Once they’d adjusted, I could see that the Shack was by far the gloomiest place I’d ever been inside. The glow from Severus’s wand shone over scattered pieces of broken furniture covered in dust. More mouldy drapes hung from the windows, through which the palest slivers of starlight shone in between boards. The only sound was that of the wind whistling through hidden cracks. It was very obvious no one had been in here for a long time, spirit or otherwise.
“There really is nothing here,” I said, more to myself than anything.
Severus looked long and hard at me before stating quietly, “I would never subject you to any danger.” He walked over to the far wall while holding his wand out front for light. There was a cold hearth that was completely empty, its ashes strewn across the floor. With a graceful flick, Severus lit a smokeless fire in the grate. With a sweeping gesture, he had the ashes blown away into a corner. I moved appreciatively in front of blaze, pulled off my mittens, and began to warm my hands. Severus slipped off his cloak and laid it in front of the hearth for us to sit on.
“Now that we’re warming up, you have to tell me,” I said, sitting in front of the fire.
“Tell you what?” Severus replied as he dropped beside me and removed his gloves.
“How you out of everyone knew this place wasn’t haunted, of course.”
The flickering light cast strangely shaped shadows on the walls, which wriggled and danced as the draughts played with the flames. Severus stared pensively at them for a few moments, unconsciously rolling his wand between his fingers.
“I’ve never actually been in here before,” he said suddenly, as though he’d just realized it. He looked around, appraising the Shack’s meagre contents.
I glanced around as well at the destroyed furniture and piles of old leaves and twigs that were probably rat nests. “Well, there’s not much to see.”
Severus smiled grimly. “Not much now, anyway.” He placed his wand back into his waistcoat and stared at his hands. I wondered if he was going to explain himself at all. I decided not to press. If he wanted to talk about it, he would. If not, then it obviously wasn’t my business to begin with. For a long while, he was silent, and I thought he’d lapsed back into his taciturn mood. But then he began to speak again, though slowly and quietly as though he were reliving something painful.
“When I entered school here, there was a boy in my year who had been bitten by a werewolf. No one knew this at the time, but Professor Dumbledore arranged it with the boy’s parents so that he could attend Hogwarts, and no one would ever have to know his secret. When he was ‘safe,’ he attended classes like the rest of us, but when it was time for the full moon, he was secreted away to a place far removed from anyone whom he could hurt until the spell passed. Through a secret passageway that led from the Hogwarts’s grounds, he was brought here.”
I shivered, despite the warm fire, now understanding why absolutely every piece of furniture in the room was completely demolished. “But he might’ve escaped at any time. That was incredibly risky,” I said.
“It was, but it proceeded that way nevertheless.” Severus’s voice rose slightly with annoyance. “I suppose the plan worked well enough, at least for a few years, until three of the boy’s … friends … thought it would be amusing to send another student down the passageway to see where it led. He had just glimpsed the werewolf when one of the others lost his nerve and pulled him back.”
“That’s horrible!” I exclaimed. “He could have been bitten … or killed! How could anyone think that was funny?!” Severus didn’t reply to my outburst. He sat almost motionless with his gaze set hard on the dusty floor in front of him. He seemed on the verge of an explosion.
“That was you, wasn’t it? The one they pranked?” I asked quietly. Severus still didn’t reply, but I understood. The things Lavinia had mentioned the other night, well, they gave me a fairly good idea of what life must’ve been like for him, an introverted teenage genius, at Hogwarts.
I sighed. “You shouldn’t be ashamed. Children can be viscously cruel to each other. At the Institute I had girls picking on me all the time.”
Severus looked up, incredulous. “You?” he asked.
“Ha! Especially me.” I stretched my legs out in front of me so my boots could dry and leaned back on my elbows. “I had a few good months right after I enrolled, but as soon as the first quarter grades came out with me on top, most of the girls turned against me. The school was just so incredibly competitive. There was one girl in particular, Heather, who absolutely hated me from then on. She’d always been the best in everything, so once I began to threaten her position, she did all that was in her power to keep me down. I mean, most of it was just petty and annoying, like spreading rumours or ruining my homework, but she did some pretty nasty things as well.
“She’d yell insults at me in the hallways, trying to make me hex her so I’d be the one to end up with detention. In the dormitory, where there weren’t any teachers around, she would hex me until the other girls finally made her stop. My roommates thought I was really mature and noble for never counterattacking. They didn’t know that I couldn’t.
“At first the bullying really upset me. I’d never been in school before, and it ruined all of my expectations. After a while I learned to just ignore Heather and the others and get my revenge by putting all of my effort into outdoing them all in school. I did manage to make a of couple friends, who thought I was a virtual saint for putting up with everything. The next year I became Valedictorian, and then once I graduated, I never saw any of them again.”
I turned to Severus and smiled. “Sorry, I sort of got lost on a tangent there.” I stopped and listened to the sounds of the night for a moment. From directly above us came the sound of a light scurrying, perhaps from a nest of mice or squirrels. The fire was still going strong; Severus must’ve been renewing the spell non-verbally.
“I’ve never spoken of my troubles at school before,” I continued, since Severus didn’t appear to mind listening to me ramble on. “I think maybe I felt like if I complained to anyone about my treatment, then I’d be giving into it. I’d all of a sudden be labelled a victim and lose the respect of my teachers for not sticking up for myself. I was terrified the staff would think I couldn’t handle school after all, and they’d send me home. I know that must sound crazy now, but I just wanted so badly to be ‘normal’ like the other girls …” I trailed off on the thought. Severus had turned his head slightly and was watching me out of the corner of his eye.
“I don’t think any of it sounds crazy at all,” he said quietly.
I shrugged and sat back up. The noise around us had lessened; it seemed like the wind had finally died down.
“I believe that the way you treat people will come back to you in the end. Even though it’s probably dishonourable of me, I still hope that someday, someone will be as cruel to Heather as she was to me. Just for a little while, only so she would know what it feels like. But maybe someone already had. Maybe that’s why she was so nasty to begin with. I don’t know. It’s just so hard to forgive someone when they’ve hurt you so badly.”
Severus nodded, then gave a wry smile. “I suppose I’m even more dishonourable, then. Some rather horrible things did happen to those boys who bothered me, and I’ve never once felt sorry about it.”
“I think it’s just human nature to feel that way. As long as you don’t use your own hurt as an excuse to hurt others, then it isn’t so bad. If you don’t mind me saying, I think for you, the fact that you’re still teaching at this place that held bad memories shows how strong you are. You aren’t letting your past dictate your future.”
Severus was silent and staring into the fire once more. I hoped I hadn’t just overstepped myself. I laughed a little to lighten the mood and said, “How did this conversation get so serious?”
“I have no idea,” he replied. “I suppose it’s my fault for bringing you in here. I’m sorry. It was just something I felt I had to do all of a sudden, and I didn’t want to do it alone.”
“I don’t mind,” I said, pulling my knees up to my chest. “Maybe if you ever visit Salem, then we can meet up and go sit in my old dorm room together for my closure.”
I had meant it as a joke but Severus grinned and said, “It’s a deal.” He then stood up and stretched. “We really don’t have to stay here. I suppose I just wanted to see it once properly for myself.”
I stood as well and shook out Severus’s cloak before handing it to him. He donned it and led the way back to the window we’d entered through. I was able to climb out easily this time. The wind had indeed slowed, leaving small drifts of snow everywhere like motionless, white-capped waves. I watched Severus turn from the window once, as if taking one last look at the place, before extinguishing the fire with his wand and climbing out himself. With one more wand movement, he replaced what remained of the old boards over the opening, sealing it reasonably shut once more.
I stepped away from the roof overhang and tilted my head all the way back to look at the night sky. Most of the clouds had blown away, leaving a blue-black expanse filled with tiny points of light. The new moon had climbed to its zenith, casting rays of shadow across the forested hills and making the snow seem to shine even brighter from between the black tree trunks. Severus came to stand beside me, looking at the dark moon as well.
“It turned out to be a beautiful night, after all,” he commented while pulling on his gloves.
After having warmed up inside the Shrieking Shack, the air outside didn’t seem to be quite as frigid as before. It smelled sweet and damp, almost more like March than December. I bent over and picked up a handful of glistening snow. Holding it between my woolly palms, I inhaled the clean scent deeply before packing it together into a small mound.
“This is absolutely the perfect snow for snowballs,” I said. With a well-trained precision, I fired the snowball directly at the window we had just exited. It struck right in the middle with a satisfying smack.
Severus stared at the window for a beat before commenting, “It’s a good thing I put a Strengthening Charm on those boards.”
I laughed and scooped up another pile of snow, rolling it between my hands to make another ball. “Now, now, Professor, as I said inside, we are being altogether too serious. We’re finally on holiday, you know.” I tossed the snowball skilfully up and down with one hand.
“And what are you proposing to do with that one?” Severus asked, clasping his hands behind his back.
“You’re not going to let all of this prime snow go to waste, are you? Haven’t you ever had a snowball fight?” I asked teasingly.
Then, out of nowhere, I felt something strike the back of my left shoulder. I looked round and saw a clump of snow sticking to the fabric of my jacket. I turned back to Severus, who was smirking at me with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, I have,” he said simply before another phantom snowball hit me, this time on the back of my right leg. I shrieked with indignation and flung my snowball straight at his head. Severus spun just in time and raised an arm in defense so it hit his shoulder instead.
“Avrille!” he exclaimed, sounding absolutely scandalized. “Now, I know that is never allowed. Faces are always off-limits.”
“Fine!” I shouted while bending over to gather more snow. “Then so is magic. You know that isn’t fair!”
Severus’s face took on a look of imitation sobriety. “I understand, my lady,” he said with a mock bow. He placed his wand, which he’d been using behind his back, into his coat pocket once more. Then, as quick as a tiger, he had bent over, formed a snowball, and launched it straight at me. I threw mine wildly in his direction then ran screaming like a little girl down the opposite side of the hill from which we had come until I reached the cover of the trees.
From behind a giant oak, I risked a look back up at the Shack. Severus was still in front of it, laughing at my retreat.
Go ahead and laugh! I thought. You just try to come over here. I’ll be ready!
I fell to my knees and starting forming snowballs like mad, stacking them like cannon shot on top of each other. After making about twenty, I peeked around the oak again. Severus was gone from the hilltop. The bright starshine showed no footprints but mine running down the length of the hill. Uneasy, I spun around. No one was there. Could he have Disapparated? I’d said, “no magic,” but he might’ve thought that only applied to the actual snowballs themselves.
With the cold of the snow seeping into my wet knees, I murmured, “Goddamn it.”
I heard, “The language, Avrille!” before, SMACK! ... right between the shoulder blades. Without even stopping to turn and face Severus, I grabbed a snowball in each hand and ran for it again, after stomping on my arsenal so it couldn’t be commandeered by the enemy. I circled behind a cluster of young pines and crouched among their needled branches for cover.
“AND NO APPARATING!” I yelled out into the cold night.
“You’re taking all the fun out of it!” I heard Severus call from somewhere to my left.
“Ha … fun for who, I wonder?” I muttered as I peered through my camouflage in the direction from which his voice had come.
There. I saw him. Severus had made the mistake of standing behind a slender birch tree, whose white bark made his black cloak stand out magnificently. I shot up through the pines and launched both snowballs in his direction. The one from my weaker right hand went slightly awry and hit the birch, but the left one sailed true to its target and hit Severus squarely in the chest. I heard him breathe a curse himself before withdrawing into another tight cluster of pines. I ducked back down and packed together another snowball.
As I was forming a second, a stray patch of cloud passed across the dark moon and bright stars, blanketing the forest in deeper dimness. Peering through the pines once again, I could see no trace of Severus at all. He could still be within his thicket or have moved somewhere completely different. Deciding to use the unexpected darkness to my advantage as well, I crept from the pine cluster to another ancient oak. This tree was entwined with a neighbour, creating a hollow in between the two just the size for a small-framed person like me. I crawled into it and pulled my knees up. I clutched my two snowballs preciously to my chest and strained my hearing for the slightest sound of movement. The air was completely still and silent, and nothing around me moved.
Suddenly a black shadow swooped to the ground beside my perch; Severus had somehow climbed the tree I was in (probably unable to resist the temptation of using magic) and had dropped deftly right next to me. In an utter panic, I tried to jump out of my hollow but instead fell splendidly on my face. I scrambled up hastily, but Severus had already darted around the trunk and was right in front of me. My back was to the tree. I had nowhere to go.
Severus leaned in and grabbed my hands with his, crushing my poor last snowballs to pieces. The clouds passed from overhead, and pale light shone through naked branches to illuminate our faces. Severus’s cheeks were flushed, and he was breathing slightly heavily, but he was smiling.
“Did I win?” he asked quietly.
“It looks like it,” I replied.
“You fell. Are you alright?” He was still holding my hands captive.
I didn’t answer. I don’t know what made me do it all of a sudden. I think some of it had to do with the vulnerability he’d shown up in the Shack. Possibly it was the adrenaline still running through my blood. Maybe I just couldn’t deny my feelings any longer.
I kissed Severus.
His lips were cold but soft. I kept mine pressed lightly against his for an entire second then pulled back, pretty much horrified at what I’d just done. I think I must’ve totally stunned him, as well, because for several heartbeats he did nothing.
Then his brow furrowed, and he let go of my hands.
Instantly I thought, That’s it. You’ve gone and done it. It’s over. He’s never going to want to keep you on the apprenticeship now.
But even before those thoughts had finished sinking into my heart, Severus leaned into me, slowly and hesitantly as though I were a forest creature he might startle, and kissed me back. His kiss was just as gentle as mine had been. Then suddenly, he pulled off his gloves and cupped my face in his warm hands, kissing me harder, more hungrily. I threw off my icy mittens and slid my arms up under his cloak, grasping his shoulders with my fingertips. Severus dropped one of his hands from my face and instead wrapped his arm around my back, cushioning it from the rough bark as he pushed me back against it. I could feel the muscles of his back tauten as he pulled me closer to him.
After a minute we parted. Severus rested his cheek against the top of my hair and took my hands back into his, this time interlacing his fingers with mine. He kissed my forehead. As he moved in to kiss me again on the lips, I realized I was crying.
“What’s the matter?” Severus whispered. Once more, he took my face in his hands, now slightly cooled by the brisk air, and he wiped my tears away with his thumbs. I looked up into his dark eyes, that were full of concern and unmistakable love.
“I’m ju … just so ha ... happy,” I managed to choke out in between sobs. Severus laughed softly and pulled me tightly against him once more, just as he had done in his office the day of the recent attack. And just as it had been that day, his heart pounded like music against my cheek.
He ran the fingers of one hand over my wet, snow-crusted hair and murmured, “I know how you feel.”
I pulled away slightly so I could look him in the eyes once more. “I mean, is this really … real? Do you really …” I didn’t want to say the words. I was still terrified of somehow driving him away. I should’ve known him better by now.
Severus smiled then pressed his lips against my temple. “I have loved you from the very moment I saw you.” He paused then added, “Although I must say, I did have a bruise on my shoulder the size of my fist after that.”
I groaned in embarrassment. “I’m sorry!”
Severus laughed. It was a loud, healthy-sounding laugh I’d never heard him use before. “I love you, Avrille,” he said, pressing his forehead against mine. Tears started to flow from my eyes again, blurring my vision of him. Severus lightly kissed the trail the tears had made from my eyes down to the corners of my mouth. His fingertips softly caressed the space on my throat left bare above my scarf. I sincerely doubt he realized that he could’ve had all of me at that moment, if he’d wanted. His kiss had completely dissolved my remaining willpower. I wanted to be completely his.
From faraway, the castle bell sounded nine o’clock with an almost mournful peal that echoed across the forested hills. Severus straightened when he heard it and rested his hands on my shoulders.
“I have patrol duty in an hour,” he said, looking off in the direction of the castle, though it wasn’t visible through the trees.
I sighed heavily. The evening seemed to have passed in an instant.
“We’d better go, then,” I said, smearing the last of my tears with my already damp sleeve. Severus still had his hands firmly on my shoulders.
“I don’t want to go back yet. I don’t want to leave you.”
“I know,” I said, taking his hands off of my shoulders and holding them at waist level, “but you have your duty to Professor Dumbledore.”
“I’ll go but … just one more kiss.” Severus pulled me to him once more and kissed me passionately as though this night were the only time we’d ever be together like this. Then Severus roughly pulled himself away and took a step back, perhaps not trusting himself if he were near me.
“Cheer up, I’ll see you at breakfast,” I said, as much for my own conciliation as his. I stepped forward to run a finger down his cheek.
“It won’t be the same,” he replied, almost angrily. Then he softened his tone, “We’re going to have to be very careful.” The remaining rush left in me from his kiss froze cold.
Believe me, I’d already been thinking about it. As it was, there were probably at least a couple people who were suspicious of us. Everyone had seen Severus tell-off Lockhart at the Solstice Ball. Ok, that could’ve just seemed like Severus being chivalrous. But then Hagrid had seen us two together at the Three Broomsticks. Would Hagrid be inclined to gossip? Perhaps if he got enough beer into him … Professor Sprout had then seen us exiting the carriage together, but she’d seemed too concerned with the mandrakes and the blizzard to really notice. Or was she just being discreet? Half the population of Hogsmeade had just watched us pass through an hour ago, but everyone would most likely be too absorbed in their own holiday joys to take note of a couple of Hogwarts teachers. I chewed my thumbnail as I started to analyze all of the time Severus and I had spent in the company of others within the last couple of weeks. Now that I knew for sure he had been in love with me, our behaviour around each other seemed that much more obvious.
“Avrille …” Severus quiet baritone brought me back to the present. I looked up at him, probably with visible gears working behind my eyes. “We’ll figure something out. For now, let’s just return to the castle.” He held me close for one more minute then stepped back again. He bent over and retrieved our cast-offs, handing my mittens back to me after drying them with his wand. Without anything else to do, I started walking back toward the village, Severus at my heels.
“Wait,” I said suddenly, stopping in my tracks. I turned around to face him. “If we’re going to be careful, we’d better start now. You need to get back to the castle immediately. It might look strange if someone happens to see us walking all the way back from Hogsmeade together.”
“That is a good point,” Severus said.
I thought for a moment. “Why don’t you head up by yourself. You can Apparate right to the castle gates. I’ll think I’ll try to get into the Three Broomsticks and have a drink or something to eat. How does that sound?”
“Will you be alright walking back by yourself? I’ll be worried about you,” Severus asked, with a protective edge in his voice that made me want to melt.
I laughed melodramatically and placed my fists on my hips in a superhero-like pose. “Me? I’m the first woman in living memory to brave the dreaded Shrieking Shack! I can handle anything!”
Severus laughed genuinely as well; it really was the most wonderful sound I’d ever heard. “You’re right. How daft of me to forget. I suppose I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow, then.”
“You can bet on it!” I said and kissed him quickly on the cheek. I turned and started striding purposefully back toward town, trying to sort out my emotions so I wouldn’t be a complete giggling and/or crying mess while in the tavern.
“Avrille, wait!” Severus called before I had gotten very far. I turned to see him running toward me, his cloak billowing behind him. Dear Lord, he was amazing …
When he reached me, he grabbed my hand and pulled me behind a tree so we were blocked from the view of the path.
“What?” I huffed in feigned exasperation.
“Happy Christmas,” Severus murmured and kissed me gently once more.
“I guess it will be after all,” I replied with a smile and took off running away back in the direction of Hogsmeade before he could catch me again. I didn’t turn back even after I passed the fork. I knew that if I looked back and saw Severus standing under the tree watching me, I wouldn’t be able to leave him tonight after all.
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