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Chapter 14: Conversations and Catalysts
In the weeks between when Beth and her friends joined the Order of the Phoenix and when the Christmas holidays were finally within sight, Sirius became, if possible, even more annoying about the group that he had been previously. At least once a week he took the time to ruminate on what they’d do as members, who else might know about it, what was going on in the Order right now, and how they had all been wrong while he had been right. Remus finally lost his patience with him during an otherwise uneventful Care of Magical Creatures lesson and docked him House points, something he’d never done before, much to the delight of the Slytherins looking on.
It would be the first Christmas Beth would spend at Hogwarts – her father had moved into a little flat in London, away from her mother, and neither could agree on where she should spend her holidays. She had been so tired of the arguing that she hadn’t even responded to her father’s sole letter, asking her what she wanted for Christmas. Lately Beth had turned into the tool in what seemed like a popularity contest between her parents, and she was sick to death of it.
Sirius would be staying behind, too, but the person Beth really wanted to know about – as much as she hated to admit it, even to herself – was Severus. He still hadn’t struck up conversation since the whole letter fiasco, and she was convinced that somehow she’d managed to blow a chance she may or may not have had. She thought that they’d been close to becoming something like friends, or at least acquaintances, but it was remarkable how quickly that had gone wrong. It was yet another reason to be angry with her family. Somehow it felt good to channel all her misgivings about her life into the divorce, because that was a far easier thing than to blame herself for them.
Her spirits began to lift as the castle started to undergo its yearly cleaning in preparation for the Christmas decorations, however. Twelve tall Christmas trees now lined the walls of the Great Hall, and garlands of pine and holly were wrapped around every banister in the castle – no mean feat, considering that there were one hundred and forty-two staircases in the castle. The whole place had a sort of fresh smell of pine needles.
On the Saturday afternoon before December’s full moon, and during the last weekend before students would be leaving for the holidays, Beth and her friends were sitting at a deserted end of the Gryffindor table, closest to the teachers’ platform. A roaring fire had been set in the wide fireplace, and the twinkling fairy lights strung high on the rafters combined with the flames made for a rather pleasant place to spend a cold and rather bitter snowy December afternoon. Their books and quills were in an ordered mess before them, but as usual, only Beth and Remus were the ones with half a mind on their studies. And, as it was right before the full moon, even Remus wasn’t nearly as attentive as normal – he always felt a bit ill on these kinds of afternoons.
It was this hushed and fairly peaceful silence that Peter finally broke, abandoning all pretenses of studying his Transfiguration textbook. “What are you getting Lily for Christmas, James?” he said bluntly, absently trying to balance a quill on the tip of his right index finger, as though he hadn’t just asked something extremely odd.
The question was so sudden and unexpected to the others, however, that it was no wonder everyone’s mouths fell open simultaneously. James especially looked rather flustered, and it was clear that the question caught him completely off-guard. For years he'd only had to concern himself with buying presents for Beth, Remus, Sirius, and Peter; he hadn't anticipated this change.
“I – well, I mean –“ He cast about for the right words, and, finding none, turned to Beth, obviously due to the fact that she was the sole female influence at the table. “I was supposed to get her a gift?” Sirius clunked his head down on the table exasperatedly, and Beth bit her lip. This was an extremely funny situation to be a witness to, but to James it was apparently the exact opposite.
“Well, that is the general practice,” she said patiently, patting his back sympathetically. James looked panic-stricken, and grabbed his hair, pulling it slightly and staring unseeingly at the roll of parchment in front of him. He began a relentless string of barely audible curse words under his breath, although Beth knew them for what they were.
“You only have a couple of days before we go home for Christmas,” Peter chimed back in helpfully, having succeeded in balancing the quill. James shot him a filthy look that Beth knew was only brought on from the sudden tension he’d been plunged into.
“Thank you so much,” he said sarcastically. He cast his eye about the rest of the group helplessly. “I am so doomed. She’s never going to forgive me. I spent years trying to get her to go out with me, and just as I’ve got it, I have to go and –“
“Relax,” Sirius said firmly, cutting off his friend and reaching across the table to place his hands firmly on James’s shoulders. “Think. What would Lily like? You’ve got to have an idea by now, you’ve snogged her enough -”
“Beth, you’re a girl,” said Remus, sounding inspired as he interrupted Sirius’s rather cutting train of thought. The four boys all turned to her, and she rolled her eyes. “What do girls like getting for Christmas?”
She shrugged, her mind drawing a bit blank. “I don’t know… tea? Chocolate? Perfume?” The withering stares she received from the four boys didn’t improve her mood. “It’s not that hard to shop for a girl,” she said defensively, returning a bit haughtily to her as-yet incomplete essay. “Just pick something.”
“Second dilemma. How on earth are you going to get – whatever it is?” Sirius said, leaning his chin on his hand thoughtfully. He seemed to like thinking this over, if only to avoid doing his school work for a few moments. There was silence again as everyone except Beth pondered this as well.
Peter’s face suddenly split into a wide and slightly mischievous grin. “You could,” he said slowly, “just sneak into Hogsmeade under the Cloak.” A look of incredulous and gratified delight appeared on James’s own face.
“Wormy, you are brilliant,” he said, working hard to keep his voice down under the excitement. “An absolute genius. Beth, are you up for it?”
It took a few moments for his question to sink in, and then she gaped at him. “Excuse me?” she squawked. “I don’t want to –“
“You have to,” he said, a bit smugly, “because Peter and Sirius are sitting watch tonight. Or don’t you remember?” Beth opened and closed her mouth like a fish for a few moments, searching for the proper retort to this, but none came to her. Glaring at him, she slammed her book closed.
“Fine. But at least do me the decency of coming up with some semblance of a plan.”
“Can do,” he said easily, the picture of relaxation as he stretched his arms behind him and shot Beth a maddeningly confident grin. How that boy was able to jump so rapidly between emotions, she would never even pretend to know.
Sunday morning dawned as one of the coldest Hogwarts had yet seen that winter; all the windows were fogged over as a result of the competing ice without, and warmth within. Beth awoke in the early hours of the morning, not quite sure why she was awake. She blinked blearily, trying to see the dial of her watch without too much effort, and saw that it was only half past five in the morning.
“Someone do something about that damn tapping noise,” mumbled the muffled voice of Lily Evans rather suddenly from across the room; it sounded as though her face was buried in her pillow. Dimly it registered on Beth’s sleep-swollen brain that there actually was a tapping sort of noise coming from somewhere to her right. Turning her head and blinking again to clear the film of sleep from her eyes, she made out the form of a tan-and-white owl perched on the window ledge outside, looking imperiously at her with its large dark eyes from over the note it held clamped in its beak. It was James’s owl.
Beth cursed softly, swinging her feet out from under the covers and shivering when they landed on the icy floor. She knew what this was about – it could only be about one thing, really. She opened the window outward and hurried the owl inside. It landed with a soft thump on her nightstand and dropped the letter into her waiting hand, clicking its beak idly while she read it.
Meet me in the entrance hall in half an hour. Wear your cloak, it’s cold outside.
Beth snorted in a rather unladylike fashion. There was bloody snow on the ground – of course it was cold. Just like James to pretend to be the caring friend by reminding her to wear warm clothes when the snow was at least as deep as her ankles. It would relieve himself of a bit of guilt, she was sure.
Then it registered on her conscious that, if she was inferring correctly, she would actually have to go outside and stand about in the snow. Beth groaned this time, crumpling the letter slightly in her icy hands.
James was like a brother to her, true, but even brothers were absolute morons sometimes.
She dressed quickly and silently, trying her best not to wake up any of the girls she shared the dormitory with. As she clasped the fastenings on her cloak and turned to grab her wand, her eyes lit upon James’s owl. It was still sitting on her nightstand, watching her with an oddly human look of interest on its face – she’d never thought that bird was quite right in the head.
“Go back to the Owlery,” she whispered, hoping it would understand her. It clicked its beak and tottered over to the still-open window, flying out of it. She shook her head, latched the window after it, and stole down to the common room. It was deserted – no question there – and she quickly let herself out the portrait hole and into the seventh floor corridor.
A weak sort of winter sunlight was just beginning to filter through the high windows when she descended the final flight of stairs into the entrance hall. James was already sitting there, his back against the small stretch of wall between the doors to the Great Hall and its antechamber to the right. He looked as though he’d been waiting for some time, judging by the relaxed slump of his shoulders and limbs. Something both silvery and gold was darting madly about his head – at first she thought something was reflecting the faint sunshine, and finally realized he’d pulled out his old Snitch again. James had the sometimes maddening habit of playing a sort of solo catch with it when bored; although he held one of the Chaser positions for Gryffindor, he could passably stand in for any of the players, making him a valuable asset to the team.
The sound of her footsteps clattering loudly in the otherwise empty hall caused him to look up. He grinned broadly, hopping to his feet with more enthusiasm than the early morning called for. She was sure his smile was as bright as it was just to annoy her, and she scowled more ferociously in return.
“Good morning, Bridger,” he said, using her last name as he inevitably did when he wanted something out of her. “Ready to get going?”
“Your owl is a nuisance,” she said sternly, purposefully avoiding the question. Unfortunately, he looked pleased to hear it.
“Well, come on then,” he said, reaching into a deep inner pocket of his robes and withdrawing the silvery, fluid material Beth knew to be his Invisibility Cloak. He shook out invisible wrinkles and held it up with a flourish, as though waiting for her to get under it. But she just stared at him blankly.
“I – what? You didn’t tell me I’d actually be going with you!” she said, a bit too loudly – her voice echoed off the tall ceiling and drafty stone walls. James hissed and held up a finger to his lips.
“Of course you’re not going with me,” he said, once he was certain no one unwanted had heard her. “But I need you to open the gates once I come back. And I think if anyone sees you they’ll have a lot more questions than answers.” He waggled his eyebrows and gestured again with the cloak.
“You – owe – me – so – much,” she said through gritted teeth, forcing each word through as though it was an effort. There were a lot of things she’d prefer to be doing, rather than standing about in the snow – sleeping, for one. James tossed the cloak over both of them and, checking quickly over his shoulder to make sure no one had seen them, started out for Hogsmeade.
James hadn’t lied – the morning air whipped right through the cloak, chilling Beth straight to the skin, and even further beyond. Her feet quickly became soaked as she and James shuffled as quietly as possible through the snow. She thought about pointing out that two pairs of footprints would look rather silly, but upon turning to look behind, she saw only clean snow.
James’s wand was pointing in the direction they’d come, and a disturbance was rippling from its tip, as though steam was issuing from it. “You think I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said smugly – it was obvious he’d known what she was checking for. Beth bit back a sour retort and fixed her eyes forward.
The gates to the castle, flanked on either side by tall pillars atop which winged boars made of stone perched, came into view. The snow was a bit more packed down here, evidence of people coming and leaving the castle for the village beyond. Out of sight of all except the highest windows now, James threw off the cloak; the wind became that much more biting.
“I’ll be back before you’ve missed me,” he said quickly, still sounding too chipper for Beth’s tastes. “You can stay under the cloak, I won’t need it.” She yawned mightily to prove to him how tired she was, but James either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. Glancing quickly up the path they’d just descended, he pushed open the large iron gate noiselessly, slipped through, and pulled it shut after him.
As annoyed as she was that she’d been roped into keeping vigil for him, Beth admitted to herself that things grew ten times worse once he’d left. Not only was she tired enough to fall asleep right there in a snow bank, but now loneliness factored into the picture. She slumped against one of the pillars, well hidden under the cloak, and tried to pass the time by seeing how many different colors of sparks she could make appear from the end of her wand.
The wind whistled a bit eerily through the gates and the tops of the trees lining the way back up to the castle. Beth shivered and tried to draw the cloak more tightly about her, although it was fairly useless for warmth. The sun was higher in the sky now, but it didn’t serve to warm her up, either; it merely reflected blindingly off the snow on the ground and straight into her eyes. If it had been a bit warmer, and a bit less bright, it might almost have been peaceful and pretty; as it was, it only served to further Beth’s bad temper.
Finally, after what she would have sworn to have been hours, but was in reality probably only thirty minutes, she heard footsteps crunching in her direction from the other side of the gate. James’s mop of perpetually untidy black hair came into view around the path leading to Hogsmeade, and she walked forward and pushed open the gate, allowing him to squeeze through.
“Successful trip?” she asked, only half-sarcastically.
“Oh, yes,” he said, patting his chest in the region of the inner pocket of his robes. It looked rather flat, but she assumed he’d bought something inconspicuous so they could get back into the castle without attracting any more attention. “Come on,” he added, “let’s get inside. They’re bound to be serving breakfast now, and I’m starved.”
He took the cloak from her and slung it carelessly over his left arm. “Uh, we need that,” Beth said, in what she thought was a helpful tone for six o’ clock in the morning.
“Nah, we just needed it to sneak out,” he said carelessly, already starting back up the path to school. “It’s not that suspicious to be walking out in the morning, lots of people do.” Beth wanted to tell him that she’d never exactly seen these people, and was sure he hadn’t either, but hunger was replacing her need for biting sarcasm, so she merely trooped up after him.
But she was wrong – other people did walk the grounds in the mornings. Proof of this was received as the front doors to the castle loomed once more into sight around a gradual curve in the path. James was still a few paces ahead of her, and his eyes were to the ground, so he didn’t see the boy descending in their direction. But Beth did.
James was almost nose-to-nose with the other student before he realized, and looked up. An instant and unthinking expression of dislike crossed his face, and was just as quickly mirrored in the other boy’s. Then the newcomer’s eyes flicked to Beth.
“Bridger,” said Severus, nodding in acknowledgement. She was gratified, although not put out of her anxiety, by the fact that the curl his lip had acquired upon seeing James had disappeared when he’d looked in her direction.
James said nothing, but apparently decided to pretend Severus was not there; nose slightly higher in the air, he merely scooted around him and continued on his way to the castle. A bit embarrassed at this behavior, Beth took a step closer.
“Haven’t seen you around in a while,” she said lightly, wondering where on earth that phrase had come from. It was hard to concentrate on her brain when her stomach was currently doing handsprings just because she’d come most unexpectedly into the presence of Severus Snape.
“Haven’t seen you, either,” he shot back, and folded his hands into his black cloak - identical to the one Beth was wearing. She shook her head mutely, casting about for something to say to further the conversation. This was going nowhere fast.
“Out for a walk, then?” she finally managed, and had to work very hard not to slam her palm into her forehead immediately afterward, knowing how ridiculous she must have sounded. Indeed, Severus’s mouth curved into a sort of wry smile at the question. But to her relief, he answered it as though it were genuine.
“Yeah. I walk a lot in the mornings.” He cast his dark eyes up at the sky, and then they fell back to her. “Going home for Christmas, then?”
She opened her mouth to respond when she saw him grimace slightly; it was clear that he, like her, had also spoken a bit unthinkingly.
“It’s fine,” she grinned, feeling for some reason more relaxed now that they were once again at equal levels. “I think you know the answer to that question.”
He laughed briefly – a pleasant sound, and one that she couldn’t ever remember hearing from him before. Her insides warmed and she forcefully shoved down the stupid, idle thoughts that swam to the forefront of her brain. “Should have thought before I spoke,” he said, the slightly bitter smile returning to his face. “It’s the same way at my place – anywhere’s better than there.”
That feeling of equality, of knowing someone else understood, even to a small degree, her problems, made her insides turn even warmer, so that it felt hot liquid was running through her. She fiddled absentmindedly with a strand of her hair that had fallen over her shoulder, and – again – blurted out the first idiotic thought that ran through her mind.
“So, don’t be afraid to, you know, just talk. Whenever. I mean –“ Her tongue seemed about five sizes too large for her mouth, and she clamped her teeth over it to keep it from spewing out more words she couldn’t take back. A bit helplessly, she looked up at Severus; he seemed amused.
“All right. I won’t,” he said, smiling again – the more he smiled lately, the lighter her heart felt, and she had no idea where on earth her senses had gone to. The only thing Beth knew she must do was get herself away from him, and quickly, before she spilled more things she’d rather keep locked away inside her head.
“See you around, then,” she said, and all but ran up the path toward the school, a fierce but not unpleasant hotness tingeing her cheeks – and not just from the cold.
Severus watched Beth hurry back up to the school, right up until the hem of her cloak disappeared through the large double doors. Quite suddenly he realized the ghost of the smile – the smile she’d put there – was still lingering on his face, and he shook his head quickly, as though to clear it. He turned brusquely and started off in the opposite direction Potter had come from, toward the Black Lake.
Whatever he was feeling – whatever sort of mad thoughts this girl was driving him to think – were taking him completely by surprise. She was one of them, and yet she was so unutterably different that whenever she was around, it was as though he was talking to a person completely unlike anyone he’d ever met.
Well, that was stupid. She was unlike anyone he’d ever met. But for some reason, she didn’t bother him as most people – and certainly as most Gryffindors – did. He enjoyed being in her company, and didn’t mind talking to her other than to exchange pleasantries. That wasn’t something that happened a lot, to be sure.
No matter how hard he tried as he circled the Black Lake, and then circled it again, Severus could not shake Beth from his mind. There was something about her that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but it made him want to continue talking to her – to know more about her. To even, dare he even think it, strike up a friendship with her.
He was hesitant to do it. Looking back on the sort of thing that had happened before, he could see exactly where it was destined to end up – he should know better than to put himself in that kind of situation again. But for some reason, when thinking of Beth Bridger, any and all thoughts of Lily Evans were put far from his mind.
And though he didn’t even realize it, painful memories of Lily were already shrinking, and becoming less of him. A change was occurring, and Beth Bridger had been its catalyst.
A/N: I love, love, love writing about winter and Christmas, although for some reason I'm not much of one for the cold. There's something so festive about it, and it's almost like Christmas any time of the year whenever you're writing about it. Not to mention all the plot opportunities the holidays open up...
Please don't forget to read and review, while I'm thinking about it! My brain's on slight overload, but I still read and will eventually respond to every review that comes my way -- I promise. Your reviews mean the world to me, I cannot express it enough. Thank you so much for them!