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Chapter 21: Opinions and Omens
Beth hardly slept at all the rest of that night, equally distracted between her mixed-up thoughts and the sharp jabs of pain shooting periodically through her arm. She sat huddled in a squashy armchair in the Gryffindor common room, watching the sun climb the sky with her arms clasped around her knees, which were drawn up to her chest.
The fact that Severus and his friends had a somewhat darker sense of humor than most people wasn’t news to her - that had been apparent almost as long as she'd known him. That wasn't what was causing the nervous, slightly alarmed twists in her stomach. It was the fact that she’d witnessed it firsthand that bothered her. Somehow, knowing something about a person and actually hearing proof of that knowledge come from his mouth were two extremely different things. She was forced to remember what Lily had said to her after that Quidditch match a couple of months back.
“He is obsessed with Dark Arts… He’s not as innocent as those friends of him might make him seem. They’re worse than he is, but that doesn’t mean his mind’s not skewed that way...”
But despite all of that, Beth couldn’t allow herself to think about him less.
Just as the sun began to pierce the glass next to her chair, patterning the floor, she heard stirring from somewhere in the direction of the spiral staircase. She turned slightly, her chin still resting on her knees, and was surprised to see Sirius emerge there. Unless Peter had told him that Severus had shown up – and somehow, she didn’t think that was the case – there wasn’t really any rational explanation for his being up so early.
Clearly, he thought the same about her. “Fancy seeing you here,” he yawned widely, dropping to the floor at her feet and leaning his head back heavily on the cushion. She smiled and nudged the top of his head with her foot.
“I haven’t been to bed,” she said. “Probably going to regret that later. Did Remus get back okay?”
“Sleeping like a rock,” Sirius confirmed. His eyes found the makeshift bandage on her arm, and they widened slightly. “Bloody hell, you could have mentioned that,” he added, gesturing toward it.
She shook the sleeve of her robe down over the cut impatiently, ignoring the twinge it gave at the motion. “Never mind,” she said. “Honest, it’s really not a big deal.” She quickly continued before Sirius could interrupt. “So, you didn’t exactly explain what’s got you up at the crack of dawn.”
There was only the slightest of pauses before he answered her. “Haven’t been to bed either,” he admitted, which was unusual – usually he prized his sleep before almost everything else. “Something James said yesterday stuck with me.”
“What’s that?” Beth asked, scooting forward a fraction. The gravity in his tone was a rare thing, and she instinctually knew it was imperative that she listen.
There was another long silence. “I guess I’ve never really thought about how it’s going to be after Hogwarts,” he said at last, gazing up at something unseen on the wooden beams crossing the tower ceiling. “I mean, we’re in the Order – but what’s that?” He let out a small breath, almost a sigh but not quite at that level of despondency.
“What do you mean?” she asked, not quite following his train of thought.
“Like…” Sirius trailed off, gesturing his hands and trying to grasp at the words he needed to express what he was trying to say. “I feel like this whole time, up until yesterday, I’ve only been playing at being an adult. It’s like the whole thing, all the meetings, was me play-acting.” He made another futile gesture before his hands dropped uselessly back into his lap. “And it wasn’t until yesterday, after our prank – our last one, I can now see – when it’s like… I had to let it go.” He leaned his head back a bit further to catch Beth’s eyes. “Does that make any sense?”
She nodded a bit pensively, resting her elbow on her knee and balancing her chin in the palm of her hand. “I get what you’re saying,” she said. “It’s like… a step forward.” He nodded, and then yawned, closing his eyes.
“You could have saved me so much sleep deprivation if you’d come and found me last night to talk about that,” he said, and she pushed his head with her foot again.
“Sorry,” Beth said sarcastically. “I was a bit preoccupied.” She suddenly leaned to the right and rifled in the pocket of her robes, extricating one of her many packs of Exploding Snap cards. “Are you too old for a game?”
“Excuse you, I never said I was old,” Sirius grinned, eyes popping open as he reached for the cards. “I’ll shuffle.”
When the other three came down from their dormitories after several hours, all looking considerably more rested than the pair on the ground before them, Sirius had successfully won four out of the five long rounds they’d managed to play, and was looking in considerably less solemn spirits than he had previously.
“Did I miss a championship round, then?” James said, crossing over and tying the final knot on his school tie. Sirius carefully balanced the last card on the heavily quivering stack and, seeing that no explosion was imminent, threw up his hands in a victorious motion.
“I am the greatest,” he said gravely, and Beth rolled her eyes, chucking her last card at him; it landed on his kneecap with a small pop, and he let out a dog-like yelp, brushing it away quickly.
“Congratulations,” she said sarcastically, climbing stiffly to her feet and stretching her hands over her head to ease the cramping in her spine. “I’m starved, though, so if you don’t mind we can end your gloating and head down to breakfast.”
“Touchy, touchy,” Sirius smirked, pushing the stack back together and handing it to Beth. The five exited the portrait hole and walked down the grand staircase to the Great Hall for breakfast. The room was fairly deserted – it was still a bit early in the morning for many people to have arrived so far.
Remus hadn’t said a word the entire morning, which wasn’t unusual for the day following the full moon. But as they sat down in their usual places around the Gryffindor Table and Beth reached for the platter of scrambled eggs nearest to her, he suddenly reached out a hand and halted her arm.
“Erm… do you want them first?” she asked, confused by the seemingly nonsensical action.
“What’s on your arm?” he asked, his voice slightly scratchy as though an aftershock from the long hours he spent howling. Beth glanced down to where he was looking, having completely forgotten about the handkerchief still tied there in place of an actual bandage.
“Did I do that?” he continued sharply, his fingers tightening without his realizing it; she winced and tried to jerk her arm out of his grasp.
“It’s nothing, you’re making it worse,” she said irritably. James was watching her intently from across the table, having ceased chewing the mouthful of porridge he’d recently spooned in.
“You need to go to Madam Pomfrey. Now,” Remus insisted, looking if possible even sicker than he had a few minutes previously. “I’m serious, Beth,” he added when she rolled her eyes. “Go.”
She didn’t recall ever having seen him so insistently firm about something before, and despite herself was a bit scared. “Fine,” she snapped, trying to hide her worries, and stood up roughly from the table. “Try and save me something, if you can.” She stormed off, clutching her arm to her without thinking about it and feeling the stares of the four boys on her retreating back.
As soon as she entered the entrance hall, Beth regretted letting her temper snap – she didn’t know where it had come from, and she knew that Remus’s intentions had been nothing but well-meaning. He was concerned he’d done something to her while transformed, and she knew that, but she hated feeling as though she was someone they had to protect.
The sound of footsteps coming up from the dungeons caught her attention – she hadn’t realized she’d been listening for them, halfway hoping, until that moment – and almost wasn’t surprised to see who emerged. Coincidental run-ins with Severus and his friends were becoming the norm this year.
Rosier looked at her coolly as she stopped dead, still holding her arm across her chest. “Something the matter?” he said without preamble, halting whatever conversation the three of them had previously been engaged in. “Fall down the stairs again, Bridger?”
“Oh, that was so funny I forgot to laugh,” she snapped, glaring at him, her hand instinctually moving up to rub her nose; she didn’t feel up to this right now. Her eyes flicked over to Severus, who was looking intently at her, trying to gauge where she was going while cradling her hurt arm.
Rosier’s mouth curved up into an elegant sort of sneer, but apparently the conversation wasn’t worth continuing to him, either. His cold eyes darted once over her before he swept off across the hall, Wilkes trotting after him, sniggering slightly. Severus stayed behind.
“Is it your arm?” he asked in a low voice, stepping a fraction closer to her. Her breath caught momentarily in her throat.
“Remus’s making me go to the hospital wing,” she said bitterly. “Thinks something might have happened last night. I feel fine,” she added, seeing his brows contract slightly.
“He’s right,” Severus said shortly. “I wouldn’t want it to be serious.” There was a fleeting pause, and he abruptly turned and walked off after his friends. Beth’s mouth dropped open slightly in his wake, the flittering creatures in her stomach making a rapid reappearance.
She needed to get a grip on herself; this was getting to be a bit too much, these stupid reactions. She was minutely ashamed of them. Trying hard to regain control of all her emotions (honestly, pathetic) she hurried the rest of the way to see Madam Pomfrey.
The nurse was still in her office when she got there, writing something on a ridiculously long roll of parchment. She looked up when Beth entered, and her gaze came to rest on the obviously bandaged right arm, as everyone’s had that night and morning. Madam Pomfrey stood up quickly and bustled over to her, sharp eyes alert. Although she knew about Remus’s condition, she was completely unaware about the other four becoming Animagi to help him out during transformations. All she knew was that her input was now minimal, and as such was always a bit more on her guard during full moons.
“Fell out of bed last night,” Beth interjected quickly, already on the quick to fend off unwanted questions. “Cut it on the corner of my nightstand.” The woman raised a thin eyebrow with skepticism but said nothing, merely taking Beth’s arm and inspecting it precisely.
“Quite a nasty cut, but fairly shallow,” she said crisply after a minute or so. “Looks to be nothing serious, it should heal up quickly enough.” Beth breathed out an inward sigh of relief, not realizing how much she’d actually been worried. If Madam Pomfrey couldn’t tell the injury had been sustained by anything other than normal means, then she was safe.
“Thanks,” she said, and hurried out into the corridor before the nurse could start asking any sorts of suspicious questions. The briefer her visit to Madam Pomfrey, she figured, the better.
All four boys looked up when she sat back down at her formerly occupied space at the table; Remus looked away quickly and concentrated on his spoon with intensity. “She said it’s nothing to worry about,” Beth informed the group at large. “And I’m sorry for snapping at you,” she added grudgingly to Remus.
“It’s fine,” he said, relaxing a bit of the tension in his shoulders nonetheless. At that exact moment the owls swooped through the upper windows, carrying the usual swarm of letters and rolled newspapers. The air was thick with dropping paper as the birds released their burdens and headed back out to the Owlery; they never stayed long in the winter, preferring the snug warmth of their straw-sheltered perches.
A copy of the Daily Prophet fell with a slight plunk before Sirius’s plate, and he reached forward and untied the string holding it together carelessly.
“So, did everything go all right last night?” James asked, slathering butter and jam thickly on the nearest piece of toast he could reach. Peter nodded, cutting a kipper into small pieces.
“As well as it could go, apart from Beth’s arm,” he said, jerking his head in her direction.
“I will personally hex the next person who mentions that,” she said through gritted teeth. “Let. It. Go.”
“It could have been bad, Beth,” Remus jumped in seriously. “Maybe you shouldn’t go anymore –“
“You’re joking!” she exclaimed, forgetting to keep her voice down; a second-year sitting halfway down the table gave her a slightly fearful look and shifted nearly imperceptibly to the left. “This is the first time -!”
“And we’d like it to be the last,” James butted in, waving his butter knife in her face and sprinkling her porridge with the butter and jam mixture still heaped on it. “I dunno, Beth. I sort of agree.”
“It could have happened to anyone!” Beth spluttered indignantly, unable to believe the words that were coming out of her friends’ mouths. “Just because it was me this time, that doesn’t mean I’m – I’m incompetent, or whatever!”
“Well, maybe –“ Remus interjected slowly, but suddenly Sirius let out a long, loud gasp from behind his paper at that moment. Beth rounded on him now, annoyed beyond all reckoning. “Don’t tell me you’re going to jump on this, too,” she spat out irritably. “There’s nothing –“
“Not that,” he said quickly, dropping his voice and laying the paper flat on the table; the corner landed in his goblet and began to absorb his milk, but he didn’t seem to notice, hurrying on with whatever it was that had agitated him. “Shut up, shut up – listen to this –“ And he began to read aloud.
“’ Wendell Craig, a Ministry of Magic employee, was found dead in his home last night by a member of his family, who has requested to remain anonymous. The fifty-seven year old wizard, previously head of the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts office, appears to be the victim of a Killing Curse, as reported by the witness.
“’”E ‘ad a lot of enemies,” the family member was quoted as saying, “and I wouldn’t be surprised to ‘ear one of ‘em did ‘im off. Always was a fightin’ one, ol’ Wendy.”
Wendell was a frequent guest lecturer in Muggle Studies classes at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as well as a close friend of the school’s headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Society for Muggle and Muggle-Born Friendliness.’”
The article apparently ended there; Sirius looked up almost eagerly, his eyes burning, but the other four just stared back at him blankly.
“Erm,” Remus ventured at last, clearing his throat a little against the roughness still lingering there, “I mean… that’s a shame, isn’t it? But then again, if he had all those enemies –“
“You don’t see it?” Sirius butted in conspiratorially, leaning forward on his elbows. “He was a close friend of Dumbledore’s.” This statement was met again only with looks; James’s mouth was slightly open as he grasped for the meaning. “It’s got to have something to do with the Order,” he finished grimly, his voice only a register or two above a whisper now.
Peter twisted his mouth skeptically. “That seems a bit far-fetched,” he said slowly. “I mean, Dumbledore’s got to have a lot of friends, hasn’t he?” He cast his gaze about, as though seeking acknowledgement of this point, and Beth shrugged.
“Bound to, hasn’t he?” she said fairly.
“But he was head of the Misuse for Muggle Artefacts office,” Sirius argued. “And isn’t that what those people are all about, the ones the Order is keeping an eye on? Trying to get out the message that magical blood is better than everything else, that it practically makes you royalty?” His voice had taken on a hard, bitter edge, and Beth didn’t blame him for it – his parents and brother were all epitomes of the very thing he was describing. Her parents were the exact same way.
“Look,” said James quietly, gesturing discreetly with his fork across the hall. Beth craned her neck to look where he was pointing, and saw it almost immediately. Dumbledore was sitting in his usual seat at the top table where the teachers took their breakfast. He was listening intently to Professor McGonagall, who was whispering seriously in his ear. There was a dour set to his mouth; a copy of the paper was sitting by his left hand.
“I don’t think he thinks it’s a coincidence,” James remarked. Beth had to agree with him. Suddenly, as she was looking at him, the headmaster’s eyes traveled over and came to rest where the five of them sat at the end of the Gryffindor table. She quickly busied herself to look like she was eating again, although she knew Dumbledore had noticed them staring at him.
“This is going to get ugly,” said Sirius, flicking back to look at the article. “I’ve got a really, really nasty feeling this is only the beginning of it.”
Beth knew instinctually that he was right. The students of Hogwarts might have been young, but they could think – they all had brains – and a lot of them had passionate opinions about blood purity to equal those of their elders. Whatever the “it” was that Sirius mentioned, it was coming quickly, and it was sure to hit strong.
A/N: I am very happy to announce that -- drumroll, please -- the plot has finally arrived! It's going to move at a quicker pace, anyhow. And lots more drama is scheduled to unfold, including a very fun scene (for the readers, not necessarily the characters) in the next chapter. Suspense! Action! Sirius!
As always, thank you guys so much for being such a great bunch of readers and reviewers -- I know I've said it before, but every single review makes my day, and I am so honored to receive them. And as of this posting, we're only five away from two hundred, so even more thanks are doled out for that!