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Chapter 7: Panic
The whole way back to the Gryffindor common room, Beth wanted to slam her head into the nearest stone wall repeatedly. How could she have been as thick and unthinking as to bring up that morning in the Great Hall? Of course Severus hadn’t been all right – he had nearly run full speed from the scene. If he was all right, he wouldn’t have done so. And she was willing to bet that whatever had made him want to escape, she hadn’t done him any good by bringing it up.
And why had he been so upset, anyway? Unless James had told Lily something, something that Severus was trying to figure out, then Beth couldn’t see any other possible explanation for his wanting to talk to her. Her paranoid side suddenly kicked in, and she began to wonder if maybe James hadn’t accidentally blabbed something. He was a bit loopy on life at the moment, and she didn't really know what to expect from him now that he'd finally been accepted by Lily. Who knew what sort of rampant things were bound to come spewing out of his mouth?
Beth had been back to school for a little over two months at this point, and she still had way more questions about everything that was going on than she did answers. She absentmindedly began rubbing her nose again as she rode the moving staircases up to the seventh-floor corridor, biting her lip and thinking. She hated not knowing things, and worse, she hated having to think about things not school-related more than necessary.
But, unfortunately, she was slowly getting used to wading through drama in her life. She had had another letter from her father at breakfast this morning. Judging from some of the disparaging remarks contained there, he and her mother were still going at it as hard as ever before. This was not news, exactly, but a small and rather childish part of her had halfway hoped that maybe once she had left for school this year, things might have worked themselves out. Or at least they would have stopped trying to drag her into the middle of things. It was foolish, as this had never happened in the past, but she couldn’t stop from hoping.
She had come to be standing in front of the Fat Lady’s portrait without realizing it, and now saw that its occupant was looking rather curiously down at her. “Burnt toast,” she said dully, the password having been changed the previous week, and the portrait raised an oil-painted eyebrow.
“You’ll need to stop looking so glum, it’s almost the Hogsmeade weekend!” she said in what was obviously meant to be a bracing tone, but really just bordered on annoying. Beth stifled a groan as the portrait swung forward and she clambered through the entrance hole. She hated the Hogsmeade weekends, and planned to spend the upcoming one the same way she had spent all the others – sitting in the common room, catching up on homework, as usual.
To her surprise, Peter was in the common room, sitting at a small round table beneath a window. Sun was pouring in onto the table where one of his textbooks lay open, and he was hunched over, brow furrowed in concentration.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” he said with obvious relief in his voice. “I’m trying to work on that Transfiguration essay, but I’ve got no idea what McGonagall was talking about in her last lesson. I need to get a good mark on this, or she said she won’t let me take the N.E.W.T.” He sounded so pathetically endearing that Beth couldn’t help but smile sadly.
“Let me see it,” she said, coming and sitting across from him. He shoved the essay at her gratefully and leaned back in his chair, heaving a great sigh. Beth caught him look longingly out the window to where nearly the entire rest of school was enjoying the nice day.
“You should be out there, you know,” she said, voice slightly muffled as she stuck the quill between her teeth while unscrewing the ink bottle; poor bloke, she’d already found a mistake in his opening sentence. Peter looked balefully back at his essay and then shrugged.
There was silence for a few moments as Beth edited the essay and Peter watched her do so. She wished he’d find something else to do; it was a bit annoying to have him alternately look at her and everyone else by the lake outside. Finally, he spoke.
“Snape was acting a bit weird this morning, wasn’t he?” Beth glanced up, brushing aside a piece of her hair that had fallen into her face, and trying to gauge what true purpose the question had. His face seemed innocent enough, though.
“Yeah. Weird,” she mumbled halfheartedly, circling an incorrect spelling of one of the Transfiguration incantations. She didn’t want to delve further into the subject, not wanting to be reminded of the embarrassing situation in the hall that morning after breakfast, but Peter pressed on.
“Why did he want to talk to Lily, do you reckon?” he said, his gaze flitting once more to the window and the blue sky beyond. Beth knew he was only idly wondering aloud, and didn’t mean for her to give him solid answers to the questions, but it still irked her. She kept silent and, with one last mark at the bottom of the scroll, handed the essay back to him.
“Thanks,” Peter said happily, rolling it up and stuffing it into his bag; Beth winced at the telltale sound of crinkled paper, meaning he’d already managed to wrinkle it. He was forever scrunching up his homework, and upon the rare occasion it wasn't lost to the depths of his school bag, it tended to look as though it had been trampled by a herd of centaurs. She was about to suggest going down and joining the others outside when, rather suddenly, the sound of someone hurrying through the portrait hole caught their ears. Beth turned in her seat and was rather shocked to see Sirius there, just regaining his feet and apparently intent on a mad dash for the dormitory.
He was apparently as surprised to see them as they were to see him. His eyes met Beth’s, and he froze instantly, one hand tightly furled around a thin scroll of parchment. “Hi,” she said cautiously, waiting for him to explain why he’d nearly fallen in his rush; that definitely wasn’t like him.
“Hi!” he responded, a little too brightly. “What are you two doing up here? You should be outside – it’s nice out there, and James and Remus and Lily–“
“What are you doing?” Beth asked suspiciously, cutting him off. She noticed him trying to sneak the parchment into his pocket without her seeing. “What have you got there?” she added, nodding towards his left hand, and hearing the distinctive, guilty crunch of paper that followed her accusation.
“My essay,” he said quickly. “Bloody awful, really – you don’t want to –“
“Nonsense,” she said firmly, a growing hunch welling within her. “I’ve just edited Peter’s, haven’t I?” Glancing toward their friend, she saw him nodding helpfully. She turned back to Sirius and smirked, waving her hand as though for him to put the parchment into it.
Sirius turned a faint red – the most she could ever remember seeing him blush. “No, don’t bother, Bethy,” he said quickly, now taking tentative steps across the room, as if by doing so she wouldn’t see him moving.
“Sirius, if that’s got anything to do with what you’re planning against Snape, leave it,” she said firmly. Sirius rolled his eyes, but apparently chose not to dignify that with a response. He bolted for the dormitory, and they heard his footsteps echo up the stairs before a distant slam of a door rang out.
“Everyone is acting bloody odd today,” piped up Peter from where he still sat at the table. Beth was still staring after the place where Sirius had vanished, shaking her head in disbelief. After a moment, she finally responded, a bit oddly.
“You’ve got that right.”
After dinner that evening found Remus, Beth, and James sitting once more in front of the fire in the common room, playing yet another game of Exploding Snap. She was losing rather spectacularly to the pair of them, having nearly singed off the end of her braid quite a few times. Peter was hanging over the back of the armchair nearest the hearth, cheering on each of them in turn – he’d gotten out of the game ages ago.
Sirius was nowhere to be seen; after his quick dash up to the dormitory, Beth and Peter had ended up going down to the lake, where James, Remus, and Lily were. As expected, James had been made Chaser on the Gryffindor team for the fourth year in a row, and had been trying to teach Lily a bit about Quidditch so she would be more prepared to watch him when the first match rolled around.
Beth was determined to figure out what Sirius had up his sleeve, but unfortunately this time it really seemed to be a secret. When she’d finally been able to get a word in through James’s Quidditch talk to ask him if he knew anything about whatever their friend was planning, he had genuinely seemed to have forgotten all about it.
“It’s probably all talk, anyway,” Remus had pointed out. “He just wants to make you think he’s up to something so you’ll get all flustered.” Beth had had to admit that this was a valid point.
“Got you!” James now said triumphantly, scooping up the cards on the flagstone, as they were in danger of exploding; they stopped smoking at once. He looked up and threw a smile at Lily, who was sitting across the common room, challenging Marlene McKinnon in a game of wizard’s chess. She smiled back, and her friends let out high-pitched giggles.
“You’ve got it bad,” Beth snorted, chucking her remaining cards in the pile and throwing her arms wide in a stretch. Suddenly, a question she’d been meaning to ask James popped into her head, and she turned to him.
“You didn’t tell Lily anything about – us – did you?” she said, lowering her voice so it wouldn’t carry across the room. Severus’s insistence at needing to speak to Lily this morning still bugged her, partially because she didn’t know the reason behind it – she was a girl who liked to know things, and confusion bugged her immensely.
James raised his eyebrows in surprise as he tapped the deck with his wand; they immediately began to shuffle by themselves. “No,” he said honestly. “I swear - I wouldn’t tell her unless you four were all right with it. Why?”
Beth shook her head; she didn’t feel like diving back into that particular pool of conversation right now. “Come on, one more game,” she said, grabbing the cards for a distraction. James looked as though he obviously didn’t believe her, but didn’t push the point further.
Thankfully, at that moment Sirius appeared among them, having scrambled through into the common room in almost as much of a rush as he had earlier that morning. He was panting slightly, and looked wildly excited about something. Beth didn’t trust that expression.
“Dormitory – now,” he said, clutching a stitch in his side, still unable to keep a half-crazed grin from his face. He didn’t seem to care about all the attention he was attracting from their fellow Gryffindors, either; several of the first and second years almost appeared to be hiding behind their textbooks. Without another word, he skirted around the groups of people sitting on the floor, heading for the dormitory. Exchanging bewildered looks with her other friends, Beth nevertheless rose to her feet and followed him.
The four boys shared one dormitory all to themselves, and so Beth had been up every now and again since second year. As it was a room solely occupied by teenage boys, it tended to get rather messy, and she couldn’t help but roll her eyes at the clutter in there currently. Remus was by far the neatest, and so she opted for a seat on his bed, carefully scooting a pair of boxers out of the way as she did so.
“Right,” said James, shutting the door firmly behind him as he brought up the rear of the group. “What’s got you so excited, then?”
Beth didn’t know if she wanted to hear the answer – she hoped it wasn’t about whatever prank he was planning – but as Sirius climbed up onto his bed and stood on his knees, too excited to remain sitting, she got the impression that this was a bit more significant than practical jokes.
“It’s that secret society I was telling you about, months ago,” he said triumphantly, clutching his bedposts as though he couldn’t contain his excitement. “It exists!”
There was a bit of a prolonged silence, and then Peter said skeptically, “How do you know?”
Sirius looked a bit crestfallen at this less-than-enthusiastic response to what he’d obviously thought was big news. “What do you mean, how do I know?” he said, a bit grumpily. “I’ve just overheard McGonagall talking about it! With Professor Dumbledore!” He leaned forward excitedly.
“Sirius, start from the beginning,” said Remus, always the rational one. “Are you talking about that rumor you heard, about that group forming up against You-Know-Who?” Sirius bobbed his head eagerly, and Beth saw more than ever how dog-like he was, even in human form. “And you’ve heard McGonagall and Dumbledore talking about it?” he added, and received another excited nod.
“Blimey, who thought you were telling the truth?” James marveled, grinning and sitting down on his own bed. “You’re lucky they didn’t catch you, mate.”
“Yeah,” said Sirius happily. “So, are you guys in for it?”
“In for what?” Beth asked, not remembering him ever mentioning a plan of any sorts before now.
“Joining!” he exclaimed, as though this were obvious. “Think about it – it’s something to do after school is over, something where we know we’ll be working against You-Know-Who. How often do you think something like this is going to come around?” He looked from face to face, anxiety etched on his own, and Beth knew that if he’d had the chance he would have done everything possible to join that day.
But Beth was less sure. Sirius was right about it being something they could do to help, but she wasn’t sure how involved in that she wanted to be. It sounded like all the members of this society were very involved in things, and were more likely than not doing the investigative sorts of jobs that it was rumored that a lot of Aurors at the Ministry thought they were above. Furthermore, all the danger that would potentially be involved was more than Beth wanted to commit to at the moment.
Remus, too, seemed to be having similar thoughts – his mind and Beth’s often ran along similar wavelengths, it seemed to her. “That’s great,” he said slowly, “except for the fact that we still don’t know exactly what it is these people do.” But Sirius waved this away impatiently.
“I’ll find out,” he said confidently. “I’ll talk to people – maybe McGonagall –“
Peter broke in. “Forget that,” he said. “McGonagall’s not going to tell you anything. She’ll only give you detention for eavesdropping.”
“Fine,” said Sirius, not one to be deterred from his goals. “I will find out more, though.” He had such a determined and set expression on his face that Beth had no doubts that that was exactly what he was going to do.
Before she could quite believe it, the week containing November’s full moon was upon the group, and preparations had begun to be made for Beth and James to accompany Remus to the Shrieking Shack. Those who tagged along always took position near a tree some distance away from the Whomping Willow so as to keep safe, but were close enough to interfere should anything go awry. Beth was excited to get back and have the chance to stretch her wings.
The night of the full moon was clear and bright, and nearly perfect for the sort of job the two would be doing. They set out for the tree while the sun was still hovering above the horizon in the west, tingeing the sky bright orange and pale purple. Remus was already looking a little sick, however, and James had to support him as they walked.
“I’m fine,” he mumbled, coming to a stop outside the range of the tree’s branches, which waved in a sort of bizarre greeting. There were beads of sweat dotting his clammy forehead, and his skin had turned ashen. James glanced around, hitching Remus a little higher on his shoulder and ignoring his protests completely.
“Ready, Beth?” he asked finally, turning to look at her. She nodded once and, checking as he had done to make sure the coast was clear, took a step forward; as she stepped, she transformed.
It was wonderfully liberating, being a bird – Beth resisted the temptation to wheel around and head straight for the sun, which had nearly disappeared over the horizon. Letting out a soft screech of happiness nonetheless, she flew low to the ground, skirting the thin branches, and pressed her beak to the knot. The branches froze, and James and Remus hurried forward, the latter now taking in deep, shallow breaths.
“Meet you out here in ten minutes,” James hissed, and then disappeared through the hidden entrance to the tunnel to the Shrieking Shack. Beth blinked her large, dark eyes in understanding, and then folded her wings, settling in to wait for her friend to reappear.
The weather had turned distinctly cooler now that the sun had almost disappeared; winter was most definitely on its way to Hogwarts, Beth thought, as a chill breeze played among the trunk and through the tree branches. It wouldn’t be long before the whole ground was covered in snow. This was always the worst time for Remus’s transformations – the four of them always left very telltale tracks behind, which could never be fully explained away.
She shuffled her talons around, digging idly in the grass while she waited. Her feet were where she’d gotten her nickname, Talons – each of them had one, so that they might dicuss plans to keep watch without anyone getting too suspicious. She tried to remember what each of them had named themselves – she had been Talons, and she knew that James was Prongs for his stag’s antlers. Peter was Wormtail, owing to his rat’s tail; Sirius was Padfoot for his dog’s paws; and Remus had been nicknamed Moony, which warranted no explanation.
Beth smiled inwardly, the gesture lost in her falcon form. They’d been a group of misfits back then, that was for sure. Although admittedly, they were still a group of misfits, just a bit older now.
James came slinking back through the passage at that moment and, turning in her direction, gave her a thumbs-up, grinning confidently. He scurried back through the still-frozen branches. Beth followed him now, and once outside the reach of the branches, turned back into herself.
“What are you so fidgety about?” he teased, as they began walking to their chosen tree a few hundred yards away. Beth looked sideways at him and grinned, rising up on her toes as though about to take flight.
“Being on the ground is boring,” she said, extending her arms to the side. “Race you to the tree?”
But James had already transformed in the second it took her to look away and then back again; apparently, he had anticipated the request. A stag had replaced the boy who had stood next to her, and it looked at her for a fraction of a second with large, calm eyes before bolting towards the wizened old oak tree in the distance. She took off running after him, and was then rewarded with the welcome sensation of the wind rushing by under her wings.
There was hardly anything in the world Beth loved more than flying – nothing could make her feel better than to see things from a perspective higher than anything else on the ground. She flapped her wings harder, her eyes on James’s antlers far down below, and twirled a loop in the air. How she had missed this!
She passed him easily, soaring over him and landing lightly in the lowest bough of the tree quite a while before he galloped to where she was. She had turned back into herself by this point, and was sitting smugly, one leg crossed over the other.
“No… fair…” James panted, leaning one hand on the trunk and pushing his glasses up his sweaty nose. She merely lifted an eyebrow and smirked, and then turned and began climbing the tree. Trees were some of her favorite things, and she was an adept tree-climber, having practiced all her childhood. She always liked sitting in the tree, rather than at the base of it; James, however, was a bit adverse to climbing, and it was only through her wheedling and taunting that he even did so.
She climbed to a sturdy branch fairly close to the ground, but just high enough so that she could still see emerging stars peeking between the branches. The sun had set fully now, but the sky wasn’t dark enough yet for it to fully be called night; it shone a dark and dim blue. It was Beth’s favorite time of evening. James, who had climbed up to sit beside her, looked out at it too.
“I forgot how great it was to run on four legs instead of two,” he grinned, and she laughed, knowing what he was talking about. She reached out to pluck a leaf almost questioningly from the branch in front of him, twirling it between her fingers before letting it drop. It spiraled back down to the dark grass under their dangling legs. The two settled in to begin the long night vigil.
The moon finally rose, large and bright in the sky – it wasn’t even necessary for either of them to light their wand tips to see. Beth had brought along her Potions textbook to study, and was slumped against the tree, both reading and looking out at the sky. James, easily bored, had climbed to a lower part of the tree, and was throwing acorns from it, trying to hit something far in the distance.
It was during one of her moments of looking out and letting her mind wander that Beth suddenly saw someone moving across the grass.
“James,” she hissed, sitting up a bit farther on her branch to see better. He didn’t respond, and she heard the distant sound of another acorn making contact with the earth. “James!” she snapped, and he looked up.
She motioned him to climb up, and he did so, crawling up next to her with his arms wrapped around the branch above. She pointed across the grounds to where the person was still moving stealthily, a tiny pinprick of light indicating a lit wand. He or she was heading in the direction of the Whomping Willow.
James narrowed his eyes, straining to see whomever it was. Beth’s heart was lurching oddly in her chest; she had a sudden suspicion, but didn’t want to voice it in the childish hope that that might not make it come true. There was a long moment of silence in which the pair of them just looked out onto the spreading lawn in front of the castle.
James finally spoke, and there was nothing calm about his tone – it was full of panic, demanding action.
“Beth! It’s Snape! We’ve got get down there, we’ve got to go now!”
A/N: I'd totally forgotten all about this chapter until I was putting it into the queue. Finding old plot points and picking them back up is like finding old friends - well, not really, but I hope you sort of get the picture. I can't believe I'm posting the seventh chapter already, and what's more, I'm writing the eighteenth! Crazy stuff, man. And, on that note, please don't forget to leave a review when you go. It won't take you but a minute, yes?