I didn't move. My lip only just barely twitched. I felt like I hadn't felt in months, which is to say, revolted at the human race. I simply sat, staring at the woman who had just uttered the awful sentence.
"You want me to be a part of this... chicanery?"
"I do." McGonagall nodded solemnly from her chair. "I would like you to attend the End of Year Ball this year for the graduates." I kept staring. She clicked her teeth. "Severus, you've been so keen on trying to be more personable these past few weeks. Why the change of mind now?"
I swallowed, trying to keep this feeling down long enough to respond. "You hadn't asked me to dance before." I cleared my throat, and tried again. "Why this year? Why am I not permitted to stay in my rooms and ignore the event, as I've always done?"
"Because next year you will be Headmaster and have to attend, and this year you need the training. And the shopping." she added, narrowing her eyes at my clothes.
I stiffened. "My wardrobe is fine."
She tutted, the only person I'd ever known to tut and it be intimidating. "Do you even know if your dress robes fit you anymore?"
"What are you talking about? Of course they-" I stopped, remembering the outing to Hogsmeade, and how the clothes that hadn't fit me in over a decade were loose My dress robes, like those clothes, were not magically made to always be my size. Realizing what this likely meant, I sighed. She nodded.
"Very well. I'll buy some new dress robes my next hour to myself."
"That will be acceptable." She pulled out a long piece of parchment, eying it sternly. "You are expected to dance, as well as supervise. There will be a number of guests there, ambassadors from possible employment agencies for our student graduates. If anything gets out of hand, or a certain representative isn't taking 'no' for an answer, you are required to step in."
I raised an eyebrow. "Is it really all that dangerous?"
She lowered the paper. "No. There has never been an incident like that at Hogwarts. Nor do I truly foresee such events. However, there's no such thing as too many precautions."
I didn't dare argue with this logic. She continued, keeping me there for fifteen more minutes, triple and quadruple checking security measures before I was permitted to leave. This I did, hurriedly, closing the door behind me with a firm movement.
I leaned my head against the door, taking deep breaths. When I was sure I wasn't going to be called back inside, I walked to the tall windows. The sky looked clear, and I still had plenty of morning left. Idly I reached into my pockets, feeling the coins. Plenty of spare money on me. Now seemed a good a time as any...
I hurried down the hall.
I was sitting in a spare classroom, feeling defeated. Tomorrow, TOMORROW, was the N.E.W.T. for Defense Against the Dark Arts, and it seemed like everything I had learned had been Vanished from my mind. Slowly, I raised my head to look at the chest, trying to ignore the wet streaks on my face. Spells, words, books memorized, all for nothing... because for some reason right now I couldn't beat a boggart.
Alright Hermione, I said to myself. One more time, I've got to do this... I raised my wand, hand trembling, and walked to the chest. I looked at it squarely, drew myself up, and opened it.
A darkness rose from the box, starless and growing. It rushed at me, clouding my vision. In it's place, memories flashed: Dumbledore laying broken on the ground in front of the Astronomy Tower... Watching hidden as my parents left the house, laughing about how excited they were now they were finally traveling... Ron walking off in the forest and then in Hogsmeade, glaring at me both times... Snape sitting in the Headmaster's chair, hands clasped, telling me he didn't want to see me anymore... And over it all a voice in my mind blaming me for it all...
I fell backwards, sobbing, and slamming a fist into the floor. How could it have gotten this bad? My fear of failure had been bad, sure, but I thought it could only get as frightening as McGonagall telling me I'd failed in everything. I'd studied hard, assured myself I could do it, and practiced spells to turn the boggart's voice into a helium squeak. Then I'd celebrated. I was sure I had it. I hadn't faced one recently, but I didn't think it had changed. It was really all precautionary, anyway... Until I learned I'd be facing one again for my N.E.W.T., and wanted a practice... Then it had become a disaster...
I shook my head, wiping my tears with the back of my sleeve. I had to do something, had to try again, had to stand and raise my wand and be ready to face this. But the voice in my head that was saying it was weak, and now my whole body was shaking. The tears I was trying to ignore were increasing. Slowly, eventually, I broke down to sobs.
I looked up and turned a stricken face to the door. Snape stood silhouetted in the entrance a white hand on the frame. He stepped into the room, and the shadow left his face to show a look of concern.
"Professor, I..." I tried to stammer out something, an excuse, a reply, anything, but I failed. He looked at me, then his eyes slowly took in his surroundings, as though he was just realizing where he was. After a long moment looking at the chest, and my wand laying beside me, his eyes locked back on me. I expected him to say something, a word of encouragement perhaps? More likely a stern warning about practicing in an unattended room with an unsecured dark creature. But the seconds passed, and his lips didn't move. My mind went frantic. Please say something...
"Would you like to go out with me, Miss Granger?" his crisp voice took on a business tone, as though he had simply seen me studying in the common room and had an errand he needed me to attend. "I was on my way to Hogsmeade on school business, and I wondered if you could use a outing yourself."
I nearly fell over. "Um... Sure, I guess. Let me change."
"No need for that, Granger. Come with me." He held out a hand, and I pulled myself up. Nodding curtly, he took off out of the room. I had to rush to keep up with him.
The oddness of the situation instantly dried my face. The few students that were in the hall parted ways for us, looking scared. I felt for them, but if I wanted to keep up with the swift figure in front of me I couldn't stop to reassure anyone. Don't worry, I tried to think at those I passed. I'm not in trouble! At least... I think I'm not...
As we left the castle, he slowed down, likely due to the downward slope. Wordlessly he raised his wand and flung the tip at the sky. A burst of light issued forth, and somewhere, something called. My curiosity won out my nervousness, and I asked, "What was that?"
"I have summoned a pair of thestrals to us, and alerted them that we wish to take a carriage into Hogsmeade immediately."
"Ah, so you've hailed us a cab?"
He turned sharply, looking, if I didn't know better, confused. "What?"
"It's a... never mind."
He looked at me for another second, before rolling his eyes, along with his head, and resuming pace. I jogged next to him. "Professor, where are we going?"
He raised a hand to me, and rushed up next to the dirt path. The carriage seemed to materialize in front of us, Hogwarts symbol shining in the sun. He opened the door for me, then climbed in after, tapping his wand on the wood. When we had started moving, he turned his eyes to me.
"I have been informed that I am attending the Graduation Ball. I am going to Hogsmeade to purchase new dress robes. I felt you too could use an outing, and perhaps purchase new robes of your own."
He wasn't wrong, but I didn't believe him. Not about the ball, I believed him about that, but I seriously doubted he'd brought me along because he had a feeling I didn't shop a lot. But I knew better than to bring that up. Instead, I asked the light question that had popped into mind. "You have dress robes though, don't you? Why not just wear those?"
He stiffened, looking out the window. "I was told my clothing choice is... inadequate." Instantly his eyes turned severe, and I knew he was remembering my very pointed outburst involving his clothes not long ago.
Do not laugh. Laughter is the student killer. I want to see tomorrow. "That's... too bad."
He looked away again. "Indeed."
I sat in silence the rest of the trip. When we got to Hogsmeade, I inhaled deeply, momentarily lost in the smell of food that filled the air. It was nearly summer, and the mixture of roasting meats and baking breads were intoxicating. A faint smell of flowers and grass mixed to create a cornucopia of scents that were utterly delectable. My mouth watered.
"Rein yourself in, Miss Granger. It's hours yet to lunch."
I opened my eyes to see Snape looking bemused. I scowled, then smiled. "Were you attempting a joke?"
He shrugged his shoulders and changed the topic. "We've got to get moving. There's still work to do for Tuesday come tomorrow. And I have a Final to head this afternoon."
I nodded, remembering the time, and started off. "We're going to Gladrags then?"
"Yes." he affirmed.
"I used to go into that place to buy horrendous socks for a friend of mine."
"Really?" He replied without looking. "It also sells rather elegant dress robes, if one looks for them."
We walked up to the light pink building together. He was right, in the window was a dress the same shade as the brick, covered with ribbons. Not my style... I thought, but it IS here...
The bell chimed, and a funny little witch bobbled over to us, speaking a bunch of how-do-you-dos and right-this-ways, before Snape brushed her off unceremoniously and said, "We'll just look around." She took it well, disappearing behind a row of taffeta in a flurry of lace and polka dot. I watched Snape rub his temples, and then started down the isles.
After what felt like a football field of walking, I ended up in the dress robes section. Most of it was lace and silk and frilly ends, and very, VERY pastel. I've worn something floaty before... I thought as I felt my way over the multitude of selections. I need something... different...
My eyes roamed the long lines of dresses hanging. A smile briefly touched my lips as, from far away, Snape yelled something at someone about a pin in the wrong place. At least he knows what he wants.
Time was passing quickly, and I was beginning to think the whole thing was futile. This IS all of a sudden... I reasoned. And I'm not even sure I have a lot of money in my bag today... Maybe I should just wire my mum and see what she can make and send up here...
Suddenly my eye caught something on a rack, half hidden between two dresses of a very neon purple.. My fingers hit a soft, almost sighing fabric, and pulled. The skirt I held was covered in stars set on a dark velvet. The end of the dress, where the color was at it darkest and richest, waved and fanned. As the folds met the waist it clenched, turning into a bodice with a higher neck that sliced wide into the shoulders. The sleeves were opaque at the top of the shoulder, then halfway down the arm turned translucent to be barely there by the time they hit the wrists. What struck me most was the 'sky' itself; at the bottom and up to the waist, rich midnight blue was a backdrop to twinkling stars. Then, at the waist, the color started to lighten, and the stars faded slowly as they got closer to the 'light' of a fist sized crescent moon near the left shoulder.
Almost reverently, I lifted the dress from the rack and draped it across my arms. It felt light, so much lighter than I thought all the fabric would be. Carefully I brought it to the front desk, where the bubbly witch stood ready.
"Yes miss?" she asked kindly.
"I... I would like to purchase this."
"Wouldn't you like to try it on first, miss?"
I shook my head, my hair getting everywhere. "No I... I have a good feeling about this."
She looked at me funny, then she smiled. She reached across the desk and clasped my hand. "You know, I think you're right." She pulled her hand back and reached for a book behind her on the wall, and opened it. I saw a bunch of scribbled writing and numbers. "Looks like this particular gown is... one galleon."
I stared. "But... that can't be right!" I didn't mean to be so loud. The dress was so gorgeous, surely it was worth more. She looked at me evenly.
"No miss. One galleon please." I stared a moment longer at her kind smile, then reached into my bag and handed her the money. She took it, closing her hand around it and smiling at me. "Thank you. Enjoy your new dress, miss."
She was handing me the bagged gown when Snape appeared around the corner, looking very perturbed and carrying a parcel of his own. "Finally." he mumbled. "Never had such a horrible experience..."
"If you don't like being stuck, sir," the bubbly witch began, "then perhaps sir shouldn't squirm so much while being fitted."
Snape's cheeks turned red, and once again I had to fight very hard not to laugh. He nodded and I said my thanks, then we hurried out the door.
The sun that greeted us was mid-day, and I was instantly worried. It hadn't seemed like that long in the shop. Had we over-stayed? Snape pulled out a small watch and looked at it, nodding to me. "We've still got time. But no waiting, we have to get back to the carriage now."
Quickly we headed to where it was parked, and got in. Snape touched his wand to the wall again. The threstrals, feeling the command, turned around and head back the way we'd come.
At first, we listened only to the sounds of the road. Then Snape ventured a conversation. "Did you find a dress?"
I nodded. "What about you?"
He looked away. "I will refrain from answering."
I scoffed, smiling. "Then so shall I."
He didn't say anything. I wondered if I had made him speechless.
"You are having problems with the boggart again, aren't you?"
I heard myself sniff and felt my resolve crumble. He reached out a hand and I took it, holding tight. He sighed. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't know!" I cried, breaking suddenly. "I thought, since I had practiced on dealing with the boggart as it was before, I could do it easily! Then I actually tried and..." My head sunk, and the man sitting across from me was hidden by my curtain of hair and the memories in my mind. I felt new tears falling down my face, and then a soft hand cupping my chin and pulling my head up. I raised my eyes to meet a very worried teacher looking at me.
"Do you need to go to the nurse?"
I pulled back. "No." My shoulders dropped and I looked out the window. "I just... I don't know..."
He put on what I knew was his thinking face, then blinked. "Try talking to me about it."
He looked serious. He smiled, and suddenly stopped being Professor Snape and started being Severus again. It almost made me cry anew, because of how much it meant just then. Instead, I began talking. "I don't fear anything or anyone in particular... I just feel like I'm going to fail. Like everything I've worked so hard for is meaningless... I'm meaningless... I've been so powerless to stop anything, from losing my parents to Ron walking away twice... And then feeling for a night like I'd lost you too..."
He was quiet for a minute. I think he was waiting to make sure I was done talking. After another ten seconds had passed, he spoke. "You were able to get your parents back. Ron and Harry are still your friends. I'm still your friend."
"I still feel awful, though." I replied. "I'm still hanging onto all these things... I'm still afraid if I give myself any slack, everything will just fall again..."
"I understand how you feel." His voice held so much gravity as he said that I looked up. He kept going. "Believe me. And it's with everything I have ever held dear or learned in my life when I say, you can't hold onto things like that."
"But how do I do it? How do I let go?"
"You have to put your trust in something. Hold onto something that isn't going to let you down."
I shook my head, soft sobs coming unbidden. "Like what?"
He looked at the floor of the carriage for a moment. I barely heard what he said, but barely still counts. "Hold onto me."
I blushed. "I don't know if I can, though..."
"Why not?" he asked, raising his head.
"For one thing, you're my teacher."
"I'm aware of that, painfully aware... But I'm willing to get over that soon evaporating fact to be there for you."
"For another, you already told me once you wanted to stop seeing me."
"Are you still throwing that in my face? I already apologized for that."
"I'm not throwing it in your face!" I said, flinging my arms down. "I'm just... it's still a fact."
"A fact I'm still sorry for." He balled his hands, and then wrapped his fingers around the edge of the seat. "I thought I was protecting you. I think about that. Protecting you."
"You were being overly so."
"It doesn't make it a bad quality to have, especially in someone who you're going to trust not to let you down."
I folded my arms, looking him squarely. "How can I do this? How do I know you're not going to go away again? That you'll always be there?"
He was quiet. I wondered if he was trying to figure out how to say something, or if he was fighting not to say something. When he did speak, his tone spoke volumes more than the words themselves. "I will be."
The carriage stopped. Neither of us moved. I felt my defenses dropping, like against someone so sure of themselves and their motives like that, there was nothing more I could say or argue... This was it.