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Chapter 11: The Letter
The attitude in the common room was festive, fitting after the tremendous win that the Gryffindor team had just accomplished against the Hufflepuffs. This also made it easier for Beth to sneak in among the crowd without being seen, and she was glad of this. A fairly hidden corner near the fireplace, complete with armchair and end table, provided the perfect hiding place while still being able watch the portrait hole for James and the rest in order to avoid them properly, as well as attempt to sort out the thoughts in her own mind.
She took out her Charms homework and snuggled into the armchair, still not angry enough to suit her purposes. Talking with Severus on the grounds and in the entrance hall had changed her focus entirely. Beth smiled slightly as she opened the textbook, not able to help it as she summoned the conversation to mind once more.
Was she imagining things that didn’t exist when she put so much promise in his words? She hoped not – it was the sort of thing she’d do, though, with how much she tended to think about things. Words became twisted in her mind, scenarios altered, and she was constantly making mountains out of a niffler mound. It would be just like her subconscious to get all fluttery over absolutely nothing. The conversation was surely far from Severus’s mind now; he probably didn’t even realize the effect his words had had on her.
That was a bit of a sobering thought, but maybe that was what she needed right now. It made her less starry-eyed, and thinking depressing thoughts made it a lot easier to be as mad at James as he deserved.
At that moment, she happened to glance over at the portrait hole in time to see the head of said boy poke through, Lily’s head of long red hair following close behind. Beth scrunched a bit further down in her chair and hoisted her book higher to hide her face better. But despite all the people milling about the common room celebrating the Quidditch victory, James made a beeline straight for her out-of-the-way chair. It was like he’d known all along where she was – they’d had that sort of connection before, but never had it felt like such a disadvantage.
“Hey,” he said in a voice of strained nonchalance, plopping himself down on the arm of the chair. She turned a page forcibly, not looking at him but staring stonily at the words on the page. They’d gone out of focus for her – hardly anything in the world was farther from her mind – but he didn’t need to know about that.
She saw James and Lily exchange a brief, significant glance and felt her cheeks flush in spite of herself. The fact that it wasn’t just James, but now Lily and the rest of the boys, who knew about Severus was quickly sinking in, and she was more flustered than angry.
“Beth?” James continued – rather bravely, she thought. She looked at him finally, trying to make her expression as stony as possible, although that was hard to do when you were conscious of it. James didn’t look too intimidated, either. He mostly looked relieved that she acknowledged his presence at all.
“Look,” he said, lowering his voice slightly. The humble expression that crossed his face was one Beth had never seen there before, and it surprised her. A bit more of her anger ebbed away without her wanting it to. “I really am sorry,” he continued earnestly. “I didn’t mean to tell everyone. Honest, I didn’t.” Beth’s eyes flicked over to Lily; she looked distinctly uncomfortable, more so than perhaps she should have, which was odd.
“Thanks, James,” she said, looking back at him. There was a rather pregnant pause that hung in the air as she once more dropped her eyes to the book. After a moment, it became pretty clear that James wasn’t leaving. She raised her eyebrows at him.
“I’m not about to lavish forgiveness on you just yet,” she said, a bit sternly but unable to keep a wry smile away. He grinned a bit sheepishly and nudged her shin with his foot.
“Come on,” he wheedled teasingly.
“Go away,” she laughed, shoving him in the arm with the spine of the Charms book. He did as she asked, but her heart already felt lighter with that step toward making full amends. It took her almost a full minute to realize that Lily was still standing there, wearing that same expression of hesitance and discomfort.
“You do know what Severus is all about, don’t you?” she suddenly blurted, as though the words couldn’t be restrained any longer. Beth frowned.
Lily leaned forward conspiratorially. “He is obsessed with Dark Arts. Obsessed.” Her lips twisted in sour remembrance of some event, something Beth didn’t know. “He’s not as innocent as those friends of his might make him seem. They’re worse than he is, but that doesn’t mean his mind’s not skewed that way.”
“Lily, what on earth are you talking about?” said Beth, trying hard to disguise her annoyance. This was the kind of thing Sirius would do, attempting to push her from her feelings. To hear it coming from someone like Lily was both surprising and irritating.
Lily winced just slightly – if Beth hadn’t been watching her so closely, she might have missed it – and shook her head. “You just need to be careful.” She opened her mouth, about to say more, but from across the room someone called her name. Both girls looked to see Mary Macdonald waving her over.
“I’ve got to go. You’ll remember what I said?” Lily said. Beth nodded and watched her go.
Lily had been completely serious about whatever she’d been trying to say – there was no disputing that. What Beth didn’t understand was why her friend had felt that it was so important to say it in the first place. Not for the first time did she sense past history between Severus and Lily that was completely unknown to her. But whatever it was, the enigma would not be revealed to her tonight. She had only to choose to follow Lily’s advice, or to proceed as she wished.
Sometime during her tossing and turning, Beth had decided to act as though nothing was wrong, although her face still burned from embarrassment whenever she remembered anew that her secret was a secret no longer. But acting as though she was embarrassed and actually being embarrassed were two very different things. James had been an idiot, but he was a male, and therefore expected to royally screw things up now and again. She’d have to take any snide comments or teasing with a grain of salt and keep her life moving forward as normal.
Sirius seemed to be avoiding looking at her at breakfast, however – no one wanted to mention anything that might in any way relate to the topic avoided, which was absolutely fine with her. Instead Sirius, Remus, and James took to discussing the finer points of the previous day’s Quidditch match, analyzing again and again the plays used and the tactics seen. Beth and Peter had both retreated behind books – Beth because she didn’t want to talk Quidditch, and Peter because yet again he’d forgotten about their latest piece of Transfiguration homework.
There was a sudden disturbance in the hall as the owls flew in through the high, narrow windows, packages and letters clutched in their sharp beaks. The Quidditch conversation halted briefly as a sullen-looking gray owl nearly flew into the side of Sirius’s head. It dropped the morning copy of the Daily Prophet into the plate of bacon, sending it flying straight into Sirius’s lap.
“Merlin. Sometimes I hate these owls,” Sirius grumbled, pushing his hair out of his face from where it had fell when he’d dived out of the way and rubbing at a grease spot left by the bacon. “You know, I think those Muggles have the right idea about postal service.”
“You wish,” Beth laughed, scanning the flock for sign of her family’s owl. It had been weeks since she’d had a letter from either her mother or her father, which was a bit unusual for them. She thought she’d spotted the brown and white owl, but it flew in the opposite direction instead, toward the Slytherin table.
Sirius, having gotten over his insult at nearly being sideswiped, had now grabbed the paper and was scanning it avidly. He was, presumably, still trying to dig up enough information on his secret society to convince the others to join it with him. He had still been unsuccessful, however; asking McGonagall was definitely out of the question, and no news about a secret society would be printed in the Prophet for the world to read. The only thing Beth saw to do was ask Dumbledore, but although he’d probably be a bit nicer about it than their Head of House, she didn’t see how Sirius could do it, even nervy as he was.
Sure enough, he set the paper down with a little sigh of mixed frustration and disgust, and moodily chomped down on one of the spilled pieces of bacon. James was trying to attract Lily’s attention, as she was sitting further down the table, and Remus and Peter were watching the events with exasperated amusement.
Beth's attention was suddenly and inexplicably drawn to the Slytherin table, all the way across the hall. She didn’t know why exactly that was, but she now noticed that the brown and white owl – the one that had reminded her of her family’s own – was now perched there. Her eyes unfocused as, for the first time in several weeks, she allowed her thoughts to stray tentatively to what might be going on at home.
The lack of letters from home was a bit disconcerting, and led her to think that is might be possible that all was not as it had been for as long as she could remember. Her parents, quarrelsome as they always were, had almost never failed to write her at least one letter a week. Maybe something had gone wrong - but no, she was just being her usual self. Worrying needlessly about something that wouldn't ever come to be realized, although a strong vice of hers, never did her any good. She determinedly looked away, back at the book still cradled in her lap.
Talk of yesterday's Quidditch match had resumed after the excitement from the owls, and how they still found things to talk about was beyond Beth's comprehension. James was now talking excitedly about something that had happened in the locker rooms after the game, some fight between a Hufflepuff Chaser and Miller, one of the Gryffindor Beaters. Peter had abandoned his homework again to listen.
"And then - you're not going to believe this - Miller jumped on him, just as he was turning around," James was saying, as Sirius and Remus were roaring with laughter. "And you know Miller, he's not exactly a tiny bloke, is he?" Five pairs of eyes darted down the table, to where Miller sat spreading marmalade on his umpteenth piece of toast. "And the Hufflepuff just collapses to the ground, just disappears beneath him -"
He stopped his flow of speech abruptly, and for a second no one spoke. Beth glanced up, and felt her heart lurch, coming to beat rapidly somewhere near her mouth. She should have known that quiet mornings were all but impossible anymore. For - and she really should have predicted it - Severus was now standing expectantly near the group. He wore the same expression he had had when he'd needed to speak to Lily before.
"Haven't we discussed this before?" Sirius asked insolently, smirking. "Enjoy skulking around the Gryffindor table, Snivellus? Lily's not sitting with us this morning, if you haven't noticed."
Severus's lip curled, but whatever biting retort he obviously wanted to shoot back never surfaced. Instead his dark eyes sought Beth's, and her heart rate increased still further. "I need to talk to you," he said. The quiet but insistent urgency lurking in his tone startled her.
As one, James, Sirius, Peter, and Remus swiveled in their seats to look at her. Sirius looked highly amused, as though this was the best joke he'd heard in a while; the other boys merely looked a combination of pleased and confused. She wished they wouldn't make their reactions so obvious. "Sure," she said, brushing crumbs from the front of her robes and trying to appear as though all was normal. She rose from the long bench and, putting all her concentration on not tripping over her robes, followed Severus from the hall.
She could not remember a time in her life when she had been more nervous and excited; her heart, she thought, might burst from overuse. She’d expected Severus to stop in the entrance hall, where they’d had most of their other talks, but instead he crossed it and headed towards the archway leading down to the dungeons. She hastened to keep up.
“Where are we going?” she asked, but he shook his head.
“Not here. I don’t want anyone else to hear this.” He turned his head slightly, checking briefly to make sure no one was behind them. Beth turned too, half-expecting to see someone just from Severus’s attitude. It was as though he was about to betray some dark secret to her, and she wasn’t sure whether to be excited or nervous about this.
He led her deep into the dungeons – it was clear that he knew them well, because each stone wall and corner they passed looked the exact same to her. Beth felt like they’d walked in circles, but Severus seemed to know where he was going. Finally, he turned a last corner and stopped abruptly at a dead-end wall.
Without saying anything, he reached into the pocket of his robes. He pulled out a small, square envelope, and wordlessly passed it to her, his face a mask and his expression quite unreadable.
“What is –“ She stopped, turning the envelope in her hands to examine it. It was addressed unmistakably to her, but the handwriting wasn’t Severus’s. It was, in fact, handwriting that was almost more familiar to her than her own. She gaped.
“Your owl delivered it to me by mistake,” Severus said hastily, obviously trying to get an explanation in before Beth could accuse him of anything. “I don’t know why – I think your owl’s getting old and confused, it’s the only thing I can think.”
She still said nothing, a leaden feeling quickly spreading through her insides. Dully she noted that the envelope was no longer sealed, and then it registered in her brain. A sudden panic seized her.
“You read my mail?” Her voice rose in tandem with her tone. “Why would you – did you – I cannot believe you would do that!” She was now extremely close to yelling outright, and Severus winced.
“I didn’t know it was yours!” he said hotly, gritting his teeth and closing his eyes as though the conversation was painful for him. “My mum’s got an owl that looks a bit like him, I didn’t look closely. The address wasn’t facing up, anyway. I thought it was mine!”
She glared at him, and he scowled back in equal measure. It was just her luck that, out of all the people in the entire school who might have gotten this letter, Severus had to be the one who actually did.
Suddenly, his scowl fell, and his eyes fell to the envelope. “Are you going to read it?”
The way he asked the question made the hairs on the back of Beth’s neck stand up, and truthfully, she knew what the letter would contain before she even read it. She lifted the flap, drew the parchment out of the envelope, and opened it. Her mother’s handwriting barely filled half the page.
I would much rather tell you this in person, but circumstances cannot be helped. After eighteen years your father and I have decided to end our marriage. It is nothing you have done, Beth, but it is something that will not change. I trust you will understand.
Beth couldn’t say why the letter came as such a shock for her – it wasn’t like it was any big secret that her parents could barely stand the sight of each other. A divorce had been almost inevitable, but seeing the words written out in ink was very different from thinking about it in her head.
“I’m sorry,” said Severus, and she looked back up at him quickly, having almost forgotten he was there. Adding insult to injury, she realized that he had read the letter. The heavy feeling in her heart only increased.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said shortly, stuffing the letter roughly back in its envelope. She was ashamed to find that hot tears were forming in the back of her eyes, and she furtively brushed them away lest he should see them. “It’s not like they haven’t been fighting my whole life, anyway.”
Awkward silence filled the corridor for a moment, and then Severus spoke hesitantly. “My parents are like yours,” he said dully. “Not – not div-“ He broke off, cleared his throat, and tried again. “My father can’t stand the sight of me. Or my mother. He doesn’t much like magic.”
She looked at him in surprise. Breaking through her own confusion was the slightly random thought that she was hearing something he rarely ever spoke of. The fact that he now trusted her with this information was not lost to her, even when her head was swimming. She swallowed, not knowing what to do next.
“So, we’ve got that in common, then,” she said at last, smiling a bit bitterly and balling up the letter in her fist. Severus looked at her for a moment, and then returned the smile, his a bit more sincere.
Something red-hot seemed to shoot up Beth’s spine, seeing the smile on his face. She had the strange notion to reach forward and take his hand, and it was lucky for her that common sense prevailed over her insubstantial feelings. She looked quickly down, pretending to be fiddling with the hem of her sweater.
“Bit cold in here, isn’t it?” she said, trying desperately to steer the conversation away from wherever her mind had thought it was heading. Severus frowned a bit at the sudden change in topic, and she cleared her throat in a vain attempt to push it away further. “Well, I’m lost. You know the way out of here?”
He smiled briefly again, although it was a different sort of gesture this time. “Yeah. Come on,” he said, and started off once more into the maze of passages. Beth followed placidly behind him, fists curled in the pockets of her robes, angry with herself for sounding like a pathetic idiot.
Change the subject. Real smooth. Bet he didn’t notice a thing, Beth.
The letter she’d crumpled in her pocket scratched lightly against her knuckles, as though reminding her that it and the problems it heralded were still very real. Thinking about it, and what was written on it, caused her insides to twist painfully again. She almost wished her mother hadn’t written to her, for surely living in ignorance would have been kinder.
But Severus understood exactly what sorts of feelings were running through her mind now. From what he’d said, and what she’d inferred, her home life wasn’t much different from his. There were small differences, to be sure, but the premise – and the effect on both of them – seemed to be the same. Both were children of a loveless marriage, and both apparently suffered from it. She didn’t know why, but the fact that Severus could sympathize with her comforted her more than perhaps anything else could have.
They stopped in a narrow corridor quite suddenly – Beth had been so wrapped up in her little fantasies that she hadn’t realized how far they had walked. Light was streaming down a stone staircase from the entrance hall.
“I’ve got to go back to the common room,” Severus said, looking – did she imagine it? – a bit regretful. “But I trust you can find your way out of here now?”
“Not sure. If I’m not in class, you’ll know where to find me,” she teased, and was rewarded with another one of his spine-tingling smiles. Beth felt as though all the air had quickly been Summoned from her lungs; flashing her own weak smile back at him, she mounted the stairs. She could still feel his eyes on her back as she emerged into the sunshine.
The Great Hall was quiet, and the last breakfast stragglers were just now mounting the marble staircase. Class would start in fifteen minutes, and Beth hadn’t grabbed any of her books or supplies yet. She hastened back to the tower, and quickly slipped through the portrait hole and up to her dormitory. When she descended again, the boys were waiting in the common room.
“There you are,” said Sirius, springing up from the couch he’d been reclining on. He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. Beth rolled her eyes and leaned down to adjust the strap on her bag for something to do besides talking to Sirius.
“Ready for Potions, then?” Remus said, obviously trying to ease the tension that had sprung up; she silently thanked him. Beth didn’t think she was ready for such free teasing about her and Severus quite yet, especially after whatever her mind was trying to tell her had happened downstairs.
As they began to file out of the common room, she stuck her hand into her pocket once more. Her fingers closed around the letter from her mother, still crumpled there. The thought to tell the others about it crossed her mind, and she opened her mouth, ready to let the words fall. But something stopped her.
Maybe, just this once, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have a secret. Just between herself and Severus. She might be indulging something dangerous, but right now, she was too far from it to care. There was no harm in playing temporary tricks on herself.
And so she remained quiet.
A/N: And so finally things... happen. It might have been a bit confusing to see a fic categorized as a Snape/OC and to have only sparse snippets of him throughout, but I've got to keep readers interested for three separate novels, ideally. So development is rather crucial, and sometimes he just cannot find his way into a chapter. Poor Severus.
This update is a bit sooner than normal, but I'm going away on a camping trip for a couple of days and I figured this might as well be sitting here while I'm gone. Writing's going well, too - just finished up chapter 22 - so I'm definitely ahead of schedule! Please don't forget to type words into the little blank box below, he appreciates it very much.