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Chapter 2: Gossip and Guilt
The day that she spent with James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter was definitely the highlight of Beth’s summer. August dragged slowly into September with no further reprieve from her parents’ eternal bad tempers and occasional shouting matches. By the time September the first finally arrived, her trunk had been packed for nearly two weeks, and she was all too tempted to board the Hogwarts Express and never come home. She might even be able to stand living with Sirius, she figured, if it came down to that.
She had planned to meet the others in front of the barrier between the platforms at ten-thirty, where they would get a compartment together on the train before they all filled too quickly. She should have remembered that not a one of them had a knack for being on time, however, and so fifteen minutes until eleven found her still waiting with her mother, glancing at her watch every two seconds as though to magically conjure up the presences of her friends.
“Bethany, you told me I wouldn’t need to be here for very long,” said Amelia Bridger impatiently, glancing at her own watch as well and running agitated fingers through her short dark hair. Her temper was, as always, short, resulting from a row she’d had with Beth’s father about where he’d placed the Floo powder. It had eventually been found behind the couch, where their cat had hidden it, but each still blamed the other. Beth had been quite tempted to leave her mother at home for that stunt; the fact that she even had to think of things like that was embarrassing enough.
“You know my friends, Mum, I’ve told you about them. They aren’t ever on time,” she said with a strain in her voice, peering around and hoping for a sign of someone she knew – anyone would do at this point. The second hand on the clock ticked a little closer to eleven, and she sighed hugely. Absentmindedly, she lifted a hand and rubbed her nose. It was a habit of hers, as she was very self-conscious about her nose – it was the only thing she’d inherited from her father, and was a little bigger than she would have liked it to be.
“Don’t do that, please,” said her mother upon seeing the gesture. “You’re going to make your nose red.”
Beth gritted her teeth, reluctantly removing her hand from her nose. Someone please get here, now… The longer she had to stand here with her mother, the more her head hurt, and the more tempting it was to make good on her thought of moving in with Sirius, whether he agreed or no.
Finally, as though on cue, the clattering of carts from behind drew her attention. She whipped her head around and, to her great relief, saw not one, but all four boys heading towards her at a quick clip, each pushing a trolley with their respective trunks on them. She watched her mother’s eyes move over each in turn. Beth knew how she hated the idea of her daughter’s closest friends all being male.
“Hey, Mrs. Bridger,” said Sirius cheerfully, accidentally-on-purpose running into James’s heels with his luggage cart, causing the latter to inhale suddenly in pain. “Sorry to keep you, but we were-“
“Just waiting out front,” said James pointedly, throwing Sirius a look that didn’t escape Beth’s notice. Peter snorted in a rather undignified sort of way, and Remus elbowed him in the side quickly. Her mother’s frown deepened.
“Bethany –“ she began, disapproval dripping from her words, but Beth didn’t give her the opportunity to finish the sentence.
“Thanks for waiting with me, Mum,” she said with a cheerfulness she didn’t quite feel, reaching up to kiss her mother quickly on the cheek. “I’ll write to you, okay?” She didn’t wait for an answer, not wanting to hear a snide but well-placed comment on the absence of other females. Remus looked pointedly at Beth now, and then at her mother. She rolled her eyes and mouthed, Don’t ask. Beth waved once more at her mother, and followed the other four through the solid brick that concealed the entrance to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.
They were all waiting for her on the other side of the barrier, trying to look as though they’d been there for ages. “Next time you’re going to be late,” she said, trying to look stern and failing entirely, “try and let me know somehow so I don’t have to spend fifteen uncomfortable minutes with my mother. It gets more nightmarish by the day.”
“Merlin, she looked upset,” said Sirius, not sounding too concerned as he wheeled around his luggage cart and started for the back of the train. “Did you run over her foot or something?” But James kicked him swiftly in the back of the knee, causing Sirius to give a dog-like yelp. James glanced at Beth out of the corner of his eye.
“Everything okay?” he asked in a low voice. She shrugged.
“The same. Some stupid argument over who didn’t close the milk carton all the way, or who hid the Floo powder, or whose fault it was that the cat hid the Floo powder…” She trailed off, bitterness and annoyance twisting her mouth in a rather sour expression. James nudged her in sympathy, and she smiled and nudged him back.
Sometimes he was a pain in the arse, but generally, Beth thought, James Potter was a pretty good friend.
Steam had already begun to expel thickly from the black smokestack at the front of the train, and the five of them broke into a slight jog as they moved towards the last compartment of the train. Abandoning his luggage, Peter jumped aboard and ran to the back. He reappeared at the door a few minutes later and flashed his friends the thumbs-up sign.
“Still there!” he called. Since their third year, they had always made a point to grab the same compartment in the very last section of the train, for no reasons other than they simply felt like doing so. Remus had informed Beth that Peter had been fretting the whole way there about the possibility of it being taken – like Beth, he was a bit of a worrywart. Sirius had finally broken into the conversation and said he’d turn the nose of anyone who’d taken their compartment upside-down, and even if that hadn’t seemed to make Peter feel better, it had at least halted his verbal fretting.
Beth snuggled into her seat at the window, leaving Remus and Sirius to fiddle with her luggage – one of the benefits of having an all-male group of friends. “That stain from where you exploded that Chocolate Frog’s still here,” she said, laughing and poking at a rather ugly brown mark on the cushion across from her with her toe. James, settling his wand and robes into an overhead compartment, looked to see where she was pointing.
“Cool,” he grinned. “Might explain why everyone left this compartment alone, come to think of it.” He flopped down on the seat and took out his Exploding Snap cards from the pocket of his jeans, shuffling them idly. Remus reappeared in the door to the compartment, looking rather red and flushed in the face.
“Stupid git dropped your trunk on my foot,” he said to Beth, hobbling over to an empty seat and pulling his foot up to inspect the damage. “Told him he could do it all by himself if he was going to pull stunts like that. Merlin, that hurt…” He gingerly removed his trainer, grimacing, and at that moment Beth remembered something rather suddenly.
“So, what were you doing that made you all so late to the station?” she asked. Looks passed between James, Remus, and Peter, and she crossed her arms, silently demanding an answer. They appeared reluctant to tell her, and perhaps for good reason. From past history, Beth and Remus had always been the ones to be most outspoken about the wisdom of the frequent pranks the boys pulled.
“Putting plastic wrap on all the toilets in the men’s room at the front of the station,” said James finally, and all three of the boys exploded into laughter. After a moment of stunned silence, Beth joined in.
“Why?” she asked at last, still giggling. “That seems a bit amateur for you three.” Peter shrugged, and the laughter erupted again just as Sirius appeared at the compartment door.
“Sorry about that,” he said quickly to Remus, nodding at his foot. Then he turned to James and burst out, “You’re never going to guess who I just saw down the corridor.”
“Albus Dumbledore.” All heads turned in incredulity to look at Peter, who shrugged. “Well, he said to guess,” he added defensively.
“Why,” said Sirius slowly, temporarily distracted, “would Dumbledore be on the train? That’s just… That doesn’t even make sense.” Peter shrugged, again a bit defensively, and turned pink. Shaking his head slightly, Sirius turned back to James.
“Well, no, it’s not Dumbledore.” He rubbed his hands together as though formulating a plot, his eyes alight with wicked pleasure. “Four words: Marlene McKinnon went blonde.”
James snorted and leaned back against the seat, closing his eyes and yawning widely. “Thought something interesting had actually happened,” he said, unable to keep the smirk from his face. “Wake me up when that happens, will you?”
“Think what you want, but she looks way better blonde,” Sirius said, sitting down next to Peter and immediately kicking off his shoes. “It makes her eyes look bluer.” James let out yet another undignified snort.
“Go and ask her out, then, if you’re going to run your mouth about her, and save us having to listen about it.”
“Nah, she’s too uptight,” Sirius said lazily. “Might be good for Remus, though.” His eyes slid over to the latter, who was rummaging in his bag, looking for his prefect’s badge. He froze, and a firm look spread over his face.
“No,” he said defiantly. “I’m still scarred from the time you tried to set me up with Petronilla Lowenstein, thank you very much.”
“There was nothing wrong with Petronilla –“
“She was half a foot taller than me!” Sirius and James and Beth all burst out laughing, remembering anew what an odd-looking pair Petronilla Lowenstein, a Hufflepuff girl in the year ahead of them, and Remus had looked. Remus was trying hard not to join in, but just managed it, bending over again and resuming the search of his bag. He finally straightened, pinning the red and gold badge to his chest.
“You three are insufferable,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’d better head up to the prefect’s compartment, I’m going to be late for the meeting.” He paused, as though waiting for something, and finally added, “James, you need to come too.”
James groaned and slid a few inches further down in his seat. Remus ignored him and straightened his badge. “Get yours on,” he added, seeing James watch him affix it. James grumpily bent over and pulled his own badge out of his sneaker, mumbling darkly under his breath. Remus’s eyebrows rose into his hairline – whether about the mutterings or where James had chosen to keep his badge, Beth couldn’t say - but he wisely chose not to comment. The two boys disappeared down the corridor, heading toward the front of the train, and the other three fell silent in the wake of their absence.
With a whistle, the train screeched forward, metal wheels grinding on the rails, and they began the journey to Hogwarts. Beth realized this was the last time they would be making the long ride in; the thought saddened her more than she expected it might have.
“Sirius, put your shoes back on,” she said, sinking down and taking out a book from her bag. “You smell worse than a wet dog.” He laughed, the joke not lost on him, but did as she asked.
James came back from the prefect’s meeting looking much happier than when he’d left. “Well, don’t you seem excited,” said Peter skeptically as James took his former seat back, removing a box of Bertie Bott’s beans from his pocket and ripping the top off.
“Unbelievable,” said Remus, who came in after him, shaking his head. “Just wait until you hear this.”
“Gentlemen. Beth,” James added, again slightly too late in remembering the female presence in the compartment. “I knew this was going to be my year. What was I saying to you earlier?” There was a brief pause, and then Sirius cackled with glee.
“Don’t tell me - !”
“Yup.” James grinned, popping a bright yellow bean in his mouth and chewing. “Lily Evans had the great fortune to be made Head Girl this year.” There was a general shout as Beth, Sirius, and Peter reacted to this news; in the tumult, the box of beans spilled all over the floor of the compartment and quickly becoming crushed under heels.
“Blimey, mate,” said Sirius, sitting back against the seat and folding his hands behind his head. “Maybe we were wrong about you; you might get the girl after all.” James smirked and looked with a bit more appreciation upon the Head Boy badge on his chest.
The lights in the corridor, which had come on long ago, flickered in warning, signaling that the train had almost reached the Hogsmeade station platform. The five Gryffindors in the compartment jumped up, picking up the spilled and squished candy, and began grabbing their luggage and preparing to leave the train. With an ear-splitting screech, the train slowed and finally jolted to a shuddering stop.
The platform was dark; there was no moon tonight, and scuttling clouds hid a lot of the stars from view. The narrow beam from Hagrid’s lantern, bobbing over and among the heads of the students clustered on the platform, cut eerily through the steam still trailing from the train engine. Beth clustered close between Sirius and Peter, not wanting to lose her friends in the confusion; Remus and James had gone off to see that everyone made it to the carriages without trampling each other.
A sudden laugh from Sirius on her left made her turn her head. “Well, well,” he said, drawing the words out as he crossed his arms across his chest. His gaze was directed above a group of third-years grouped nearby, and Beth strained to see whatever it was he was seeing. Her stomach seemed to drop right out of her.
Severus Snape himself, looking even more mysterious than normal, surrounded as he was by the steam, was looking determinedly away from where Sirius and Beth were standing. It was all too evident he’d heard Sirius’s comment upon catching sight of him, and was intent on ignoring it as best he could.
“Snivellus! Haven’t you washed your hair all summer? You look even more greasy than normal, and that’s saying something!” Sirius let out another barklike laugh as Severus turned in their direction, eyes flashing, nostrils flaring. Beth’s stomach twisted in guilt as his gaze flickered briefly from Sirius to her.
She hated being seen in her friends’ company when they were like this – the last thing she wanted was to be associated with the boys who, in all honesty, made Severus’s life hell. She tried to convey some sort of compassion over the distance, but it was evidently lost. With a sneer, Severus turned away and began making his way towards an empty horseless carriage.
On her right, Peter was chuckling appreciatively at Sirius. “Did you have to start that so soon in the year?” Beth said angrily, forgetting to maintain her indifferent composure for a minute. “You could have waited five minutes.” Her friend turned to face her, surprised.
“Why?” he asked. “It’s not like he’s a person, really.” Sirius grinned again and he and Peter shared a high-five. Beth’s stomach twisted again, but she merely rolled her eyes and shoved the boys in the direction of the queue for carts, unwilling to say anything else lest something should slip.
“Come on – we don’t want to have to walk all the way up to the castle,” she grumbled. But as they moved up, her eyes found Severus again, who was just entering a carriage all by himself. He didn’t look angry anymore, out of the range of Sirius’s vision. He merely looked upset and – maybe she was imagining it – a bit hurt.
She would have given anything to go over to him, to climb in the carriage with him, to give him a friend when he obviously needed one. She hesitated, hands clutching the sides, thinking about it – wondering if she had the nerve to do it.
“Come on, Bethy!” Sirius urged, poking his head back out. With one last look forward to the carriage Severus had disappeared into, she climbed inside her own cart and shut the door firmly behind her.
A/N: Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed so far. I really do appreciate it, more than I can convey in my responses. Don't forget to keep leaving them - that little box down there looks so empty, and it will only take a minute!