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Chapter 20: The Unexpected Visitor
Peter and Beth were scheduled to be on guard that night during the full moon, and to say that she was apprehensive about it would probably have been an understatement. It was the first time since they’d decided to use pairs, rather than the full group, that both of the ones going would be smaller animals as opposed to James’s stag or Sirius’s dog. The boys were all confident, but Beth had a tendency to worry, and worry she did. Sirius had said he’d stay up most of the night, watching the map for them, but she knew he’d be out like a torch the moment the clock struck midnight.
The common room was still quite full when the sun began to set behind the frosted windows, and it was difficult for the three of them to leave the common room without making themselves completely conspicuous to everyone sitting around playing chess or working on essays. In the end, Peter was convinced to have a completely fake sneezing fit while Beth and Remus ushered him out on the pretense of visiting the hospital wing for Pepperup Potion; the latter was already looking ill from the impending transformation.
“Honestly, it’s getting harder and harder to hide this,” Beth said a bit nervously, removing her arm from around Peter’s shoulders once they were out of earshot from the portrait of the Fat Lady and moving to stand on Remus’s other side. “I’m not sure how many people believed those sneezes, Wormy.”
“That last one was real,” he said a bit thickly, and Remus fished in his pocket for a handkerchief before handing it wordlessly to his friend. His cheeks became progressively paler in the waning light, and they hurried quickly and silently down the carpeted corridors. Nearly Headless Nick tried to hail them on the grand staircase, but thankfully their particular flight changed direction at the last minute, although this was a bit problematic as it turned them out farther from the entrance hall than they would have liked.
“Hurry, hurry…” Remus muttered feverishly under his breath upon emerging onto the sloping lawns; what grass was visible already looked black in the twilight that painted the sky purple and orange, the remaining January slush a mix of colors. Beth knew he wasn’t really aware of what he was saying – this happened occasionally – but she still felt her teeth grit in mild irritation.
“We’re trying,” she said as soothingly as possible, nevertheless hurrying Peter a bit faster in the direction of the Whomping Willow. The tree loomed up across the grounds finally, waving a bit in the cold air despite the lack of wind. Remus gave a great shudder, and the skin seemed to tighten across his cheekbones. Beth hoisted him a bit higher.
“Hurry,” she whispered to Peter now, stopping at the tree’s perimeter and still trying to support their friend, who had now begun to shake uncontrollably. Peter nodded and, stepping forward, shrunk into the ground; she caught a glimpse of a small black figure weaving across the ground, and then the branches froze where they were. She rushed forward, knowing how behind they were on their schedule and fully aware that she didn’t have much time before Remus became a werewolf.
She was a little more than halfway through the winding, earthen passage leading to the Shrieking Shack when Remus dropped to the ground, landing on all fours, his spine curved in a horribly contorted position. She froze, watching horrified – this hadn’t happened before.
“Come on, Moony, get up, get up…” she whispered, blind panic suddenly coursing through her, trying to urge him further; the turn that led into the Shrieking Shack was just ahead. If she could only get him that far… “Remus, get up…”
Tremors far worse than the ones he’d experienced earlier racked him, and a horrible rasping noise was emitting from his mouth now. She scrabbled and managed to lock her arms under his chest. Pulling with every ounce of strength she could muster from somewhere inside her, Beth tugged him a few yards further up the passage. The entrance to the transformation room was in sight, broken furniture visible through the battered doorway. And so was a shaft of moonlight, shining straight into the room.
As soon as her mind processed this, a howl from the creature – for indeed, he couldn’t be called her friend any longer, this monster she didn’t know – broke the monotony of his previous rasps. With a shuddering gasp she stepped back as far as the tight constrictions of the passage would allow, her back flat against the wall and her fingernails digging into the dirt that made up its walls, as Remus transformed.
It was something she'd only seen once before, and that only briefly, just before locking the room safely and knowing no harm would reach her. It was different this time, magnified beyond reason, horrible and deadly. His whole body seemed convoluted, and thick, dark hair began to sprout on all the skin she could see. He let out another long and mournful howl, and she pressed a hand flat to her mouth lest he should hear her ragged, terrified breathing.
She needed to get him out of the way of harming himself - or others.
Goosebumps crawled up her arms, racing up her spine just as powerfully as an electric shock and causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand straight up. Beth did the only thing she could think to do in her frenzied state, not stopping to really think whether it was the right course of action or not. Stepping forward with as little space as possible, she felt the ground rush up to meet her, wings and talons appearing where none were before. As a falcon, she stepped nearer to the wall again, watching as Remus's own transformation neared its peak. Acting as quickly as she could, she darted amid the tangle of legs and landed on the little steps leading to the door, left open from last month's sojourn. Praying fervently, she opened her beak and let out an ear-shattering screech.
The reaction was instantaneous - the wolf's head whipped around in her direction, ears pricked, and a deep and throaty growl issued from behind bared fangs. He lunged at her direction, and she turned and rushed into the room, flying low to the ground and into a far, dusty corner that appeared to be untouched during Remus’s transformations. He bounded in after her, snarling and looking to see where she’d gone.
She let out another little screech, trying to lure him from the doorway while staying hidden in the shadows as much as was possible. His head turned in her direction again, and he lunged for the corner. She flapped her wings furiously, trying to simultaneously confuse Remus and make a hasty escape for the door. The tip of her left wing brushed his jaws and she balked instinctively, avoiding any contact with his fangs and the potential death they carried; she could never remember a time when her heart had beat so furiously as it did now.
Beth saw her opening just then, a way for her to escape. Hovering only for a moment, she darted through a space made between the wall on her left and Remus on the right. But as she flew, something fell hard onto her right wing, and pain shot through the tendons. She felt herself instantly transform back into herself, still hanging in motion, and was hurled headfirst in the direction of the door. The rough floorboards scraped her arms and neck as she slid along them, and she cried out in pain without thinking about it, already feeling the blood begin to trickle down her arm from where the werewolf’s paw had grazed it.
The quick change back, though, had bought her just enough time. In the space it took for Remus to try and comprehend what exactly had just happened, she’d thrown herself through the narrow doorway and kicked the door closed behind her with as much strength as her legs could give the motion. It swung toward the frame, and she had one final glimpse of him lunging for her before it clicked, locking magically as they’d charmed it to do for such an occasion.
Beth gasped for air once it was over, pain replacing adrenaline, her arm throbbing maddeningly. She clenched it and gritted her teeth, so as to not make any more noise than was absolutely necessary. The castle wasn’t all that far away, and the last thing she needed was a nosy student or two sneaking out to investigate mysterious screams in the middle of the night. She slumped against the passage wall, concentrating only on sucking air into her lungs and forcing it back out again.
Gradually, her heart returned to something like its normal rate, although the wound on her arm still pulsed painfully. Her hair had partially escaped the thick plait she’d put it in before going down to the tree, and curls were sticking to her face from the sheen of sweat her exertions had caused. She jumped as Remus let out another howl, long and low, and much too close for comfort. Pain or not, she needed to get back above ground, if for no other reason than that Peter was still waiting there for her.
He was crouched low by the knot in the trunk when she finally crawled back through the opening between its roots, anxiety and fear etched all over his face, which was rather white, not unlike Remus’s had been earlier. “Where on earth –?” he began, and then his eyes traveled down to the cut on her right arm. He gasped.
“Shut up and let’s get away from this tree,” she said a bit irritably, trying to keep from letting too much blood drip into the slushy ground. She skirted back through the grounds and in the direction of the tree she’d climbed on her last watch with James, not looking back to see if Peter was following. She heard his footsteps crunching behind her, however, and when she nestled herself beneath this tree he sank down next to her soon after.
“What happened?” he said in a hushed whisper, still staring at the cut on her arm.
“We were nearly too late,” she said grimly, pushing the hair off her face. “Give me Remus’s handkerchief.”
“But I sneezed on it –“
“Honestly, I do not care,” she said, gesturing impatiently for it. After a brief hesitation, Peter fished it out of the pocket of his robes. Fumbling slightly in having to use her left hand, Beth tied it so as to cover as much of the cut as possible. It was long, but fairly shallow, and she was extremely grateful it hadn’t been any worse than that.
“Are you all right?” he ventured now, and she nodded, smiling a bit but still unable to quite surmount the facts of what had just happened. She leaned back against the tree trunk, closing her eyes and feeling the cold air pass and soothe her cheeks, her heart still able to be heard pounding in her ears.
They sat like that for a long time, side by side, while the moon made its slow progression across the partially cloudy sky. Peter said absolutely nothing except for the one instance when he used hot air from his wand to melt away some of the slush beneath the tree, to make the ground drier. Beth barely even opened her eyes once during the first few hours; she was content to sit in boredom for the time being.
At about four in the morning, however, when the moon was edging towards the western horizon, Peter made a sudden shifting movement to her right. He got up from the ground, and she heard him take a few hurried yet cautious steps forward. “Who’s there?” he called out suddenly, and her eyes flew open, her pulse quickening at the tremor concealed in Peter’s voice.
“Me,” said a voice in the dark, and it was only then she noticed a figure approaching them across the grounds. His silhouette had blended almost seamlessly with the castle’s until then; it was only when the top of the stranger’s head was framed against the gray clouds that she could see it even was a person. But worse yet, Beth knew that voice.
And she had no idea how Severus had known she was out here.
Peter chanced a quick glance back at her, as though looking for confirmation, but she’d already scrambled to her feet, slipping a bit and wincing as her injured arm jerked in a way she forgot would be painful. “What are you doing here?” she hissed, and he closed the distance between them. She could make out his features now, close as he was, and swallowed involuntarily, a bit annoyed at the butterflies that suddenly erupted in the pit of her stomach.
“I heard your screech, hours ago,” Severus said in a low, insistent voice, as she saw his brows contract slightly in the dim light. “I recognized it as a peregrine falcon’s. I knew it was you.”
Beth was thankful for the cover of the night; her cheeks had suddenly become very hot, and she knew she was flushing. She opened her mouth to try and formulate some sort of coherent response, and was thankfully saved from having to do so by a sudden noise at the edge of the forest. However, realizing that it came from the forest made the relief very short-lived.
Severus had heard it too. He withdrew his wand almost immediately, and they both scanned the treeline, looking for whatever had made the noise; Beth’s adrenaline rush had not faded so much that her heart wasn’t still beating rather quickly under her rib cage. Gradually, an almost-nonexistent form became only barely visible, its body just darker than the trees behind it.
“Oh,” Beth breathed, smiling, her heart rate ebbing. She gathered her feet under her and heaved herself up, crossing a few steps across the grass, her hand outstretched slightly. The skeletal, gaunt figure of a thestral – a fairly young one, from the looks of it – caught a bit of the moonlight, and glinted oddly.
“What are you doing?” Severus’s voice behind her, wary and concerned, made her turn around, and it was only then she remembered how odd thestrals were. They could only be seen by those who had seen death.
“Can you not see him?” she half-whispered, turning back around and edging towards the creature. It sniffed curiously at her wounded arm and gave it an experimental lick with its thin tongue. She pulled her arm away and shook her head mockingly at it, placing a hand on its bony head.
Footsteps somewhere close behind her told her that he had gotten up and moved a bit further towards the edge of the forest. “Is that… Are you petting a thestral?” he said warily. “I’ve read about them, but I –“ He stopped quickly. “Have you known someone to die?” he continued, in a voice both awed and sad.
“My grandmother died when I was ten, in the same bed I sleep in,” said Beth a bit wryly, moving her hand up and down the thestral’s nose as though it was as common as a horse. Severus nodded slowly, and she realized it was probably odd for him to see her petting something invisible.
Another sound issued from deeper in the forest – not a nicker, but something like it, a bit more hollow and unnatural. The thestral turned its head and made the sound back, and then plodded back to whatever had called it home. Beth watched it go, Severus still at her side, straining as though if he looked hard enough the thing would be made apparent to him. After a while, he moved back towards the tree, and Beth followed after him.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally, and she looked at him curiously. “About your grandmother,” he clarified. “That’s… well.” He scratched the back of his neck, searching for words. Beth shrugged a bit.
“She was my dad’s mum. I didn’t know her very well, but I suppose it counts.” She reached out to idly pull a few blades of grass from the ground without thinking about it.
“Are you all right?” he asked suddenly, and as Peter’s had earlier that night, his eyes moved down to her right arm and the bloody handkerchief tied around it, a bit damp from the thestral’s tongue. She didn’t realize until that moment she’d used her right hand to uproot the grass.
“I’m fine,” she said tersely, trying to hide the wound in the sleeve of her robes. “Small accident, but it’s nothing to be concerned –“ She stopped, letting out a small gasp in spite of herself, for Severus had reached out and taken her right arm almost gently in both of his hands. He examined the cut for a long moment, saying nothing, and then wordlessly drew his wand out of his pocket. He pointed it at the cut, but nothing happened.
His brow furrowed, and he tried the silent charm again, but again nothing happened. “How did you get that?” he asked, gesturing to the cut.
“Fell out of the tree,” Beth said, gesturing vaguely at the limbs above. She didn’t know exactly why she didn’t want Severus to know how she’d nearly lost control of Remus in the passage, but something made her refrain from telling him. It was obvious he didn’t believe the story about the tree, but he said nothing about it.
She turned and returned to her place between two rather large tree roots, nestling onto the ground and gazing up baldly at Severus, who was still looking at her. “I’m fine,” she added, seeing he wasn’t about to turn and return to the castle. Although loath to admit it, this fact pleased her somewhat.
“I know,” he replied, standing right where he was and not moving so much as a step back up the sloping lawns. Instead, to her further embarrassment, he crossed the grass and settled a yard or so away from her, pressing his back to the trunk as well. Peter had been watching the exchange between the two as though watching an extremely engaging Quidditch volley, and now looked thoroughly lost as to where he was supposed to go from here. He compromised by moving about halfway around the tree, just inside Beth’s right peripheral.
“So,” said Severus after a long pause, “how did you really get that cut? I know you didn’t fall, so don’t try that rubbish on me again,” he added, smirking a bit upon seeing that she’d opened her mouth to repeat her weak excuse.
“How did you know that?” she blurted. He made a vague gesture in the darkness with his wand.
“The only things that won’t work with the spell I tried are severe injuries - ones that can't be cured by normal magical means,” he said. "Such as those inflicted by werewolves." She turned her eyes to his and he looked quickly down at the thin wooden stick in his hands, as though it were the most fascinating thing he’d ever laid his eyes on. “Just tell me he didn’t bite you… You wouldn’t be stupid enough to stay here if that happened, would you?”
Beth smiled despite herself. “He didn’t bite me,” she conceded softly. “Scratched me pretty well, obviously, but I’m lucky I didn’t get worse.” She cringed, knowing how bigheaded that probably sounded. He probably thought she was full of herself now, acting all brave and tough.
“You are lucky,” he said, still toying with the wand, turning it over and over in his long fingers. She watched them, almost hypnotized. She’d never realized before exactly how elegant his hands looked. And then, as though the thought had scalded her brain, she looked away quickly, fervently hoping he hadn’t been able to read her thoughts. Why couldn’t she just act normal around him – just once?
“And did you – were you a falcon, when it happened?” he asked, after another brief silence. Beth felt a sense of gratitude toward him for continuing to further the conversation; she didn’t want him to stop talking, but the way her mind was running right now, anything she said she was sure she would regret later.
“Yeah,” she said. “Changed immediately back, though, when it happened. I think that’s why it runs the length of my arm.” Beth held up the crudely bandaged arm to a sliver of moonlight that had just peeked from the cloud cover. Severus was toying with a bit of dead grass now, still not looking at her.
“Anything similar to what happened that other night I came out here?” Severus said. The statement was so soft, she could have missed it if the wintery night around them wasn’t so still. Without thinking, she said the first thing that popped into her mind.
“I don’t think so. James said that he read somewhere that time I couldn’t do it, that was probably due to an extreme emotional reaction.” And as soon as the words had escaped her lips, Beth wished they were physical, still hanging in the air, so she could quickly grab them and stuff them back into her mouth. She moved her hand to cover her mouth, horrified at what she’d just said.
His hand froze slightly over the grass, and from the eerie half-light she saw a small smile slowly etch itself onto his face. His head was still bent toward the ground but she could see his expression clearly. Something wonderful and light, lighter than air, purer than sunshine, bubbled within her at the expression, and she fought and failed to keep a shy smile of her own from catching at the corners of her mouth.
Beth almost was sorry when she looked away from the ground at last, her cheeks still pink, to see a gradual lightening of the sky in the east. She wasn’t sure if she was imagining it, or if Severus seemed sorry too, and tried her hardest not to let her emotionally clouded mind do too much thinking. Instead she chose to rise from the ground, brushing the dirt off her robes. As though this was a signal, Severus and Peter both did the same.
The howls gradually lessened from the direction of the Shrieking Shack, until Beth knew that trying to prolong the wait wouldn’t work any longer. “You’ll be okay, then?” she said, speaking directly to Severus for the first time in a matter of minutes, a smile still toying around her face.
“You’re the one with the werewolf’s cut on your arm,” he said, and she laughed, looking down at the bandage.
“How did you know how to heal cuts, anyway?” she said, only now thinking of that. “I’m sure that’s a spell we’ve never learned in class before.”
“I’ve… had to learn how,” he said, his demeanor suddenly changing as though a mask had been drawn across his face; he seemed vaguely uncomfortable at the question, and she wondered what she’d said to offend him. But, glancing up and seeing her expression, he tried to amend the statement.
“I’ll tell you a secret, then, since I know yours,” he said, and she felt a shiver run up her spine involuntarily. “I’ve made up spells… Levicorpus, that was one of mine –“
“That was yours?” Beth said, her mouth dropping open, and he nodded. He looked a bit pleased – that was a tremendously popular prank spell, although its usage had waned a bit that year.
“But another one of mine is for… well, for enemies,” he said, talking a bit softer as he looked up and noticed Peter straining to eavesdrop. “I won’t tell you the incantation – it’s not…” He trailed off, ran a hand through his dark hair, and started again. “It causes cuts, deep cuts. Nearly unstoppable cuts. And in practice, a spell to heal cuts is good to know.”
An inexplicable sort of feeling began to creep into Beth’s throat as Severus began describing this spell. It sounded – there was no other word for it, although she was loath to admit it – cruel, even evil. She looked up at him wordlessly, her heart feeling only the tiniest of aches. Something tight was constricting her throat, closing around it.
“You made up that spell?” she said finally, in a whispered sort of voice.
Severus’s hands fluttered, as though to contradict what he’d just said. “I’ve never used it,” he said hastily. “I would never use it on someone who didn’t truly deserve it, Beth.” Her throat only tightened further at the use of her first name, instead of her last, but the ache in her heart lessened very slightly.
“I’m glad,” she said, and swallowed against the lump in her throat. The feelings similar to panic, almost fear, that had welled up inside her had arisen without warning, and she didn’t know what exactly to do with them. She could only look at Severus, and believe him.
“I’m going to go and get Remus,” Peter said from behind her, and she turned on the spot, having almost forgotten he was there. She nodded dazedly, and she slipped past, heading for the Whomping Willow. Beth watched his small form dart among the branches, disappearing out of sight into the passage. She returned her gaze to Severus. He was still looking at her, his brow creased in something resembling worry.
“I’d better head back to the castle,” he said, eyes flicking to the purplish dawn breaking over the dark grounds. She swallowed again and nodded. “Good luck,” he added, gesturing to her arm. “Feel better soon.” He turned on his heel and swept back in the direction of the castle. Beth watched his retreating back the entire time, unable to shake a decidedly uneasy feeling that had settled in her.
Severus mentally kicked himself the whole way back to the common room, still inwardly cursing as he slipped unnoticed into his now-cold bed in his dormitory. Why on earth he’d decided to tell Beth about his spells – Beth, of all people – he couldn’t have said. And he’d seen the alarmed look in her eyes, too. He wished more than anything in the world he’d kept his mouth shut.
But had he? His mind wandered briefly back to her comment from earlier, the one that had elicited a smile from him as hardly anything else had that year.
“James said that he read somewhere that time I couldn’t do it, that was probably due to an extreme emotional reaction.”
He grinned into his pillow, unable to help it. He could tell she hadn’t quite meant to let that slip. But the fact that it had made him strangely happy.
A/N: I think that this is my very favorite chapter in this entire first book - it's a definite contender. That might be why it ended up being so long, come to think of it, but sometimes chapters sort of get away from me. But anyway, big news - I finished In The Black last Monday! It's thirty-one chapters all said and done, and I'm starting on its sequel sometime this upcoming week, having started planning it out (officially, of course -- the plot's been carried around for months now) yesterday.
So a huge thank you to everyone who's gotten me this far, and to all the incredible reads and reviews this story already has. You guys are fantastic, and really, thank you so much for everything!