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In The Black by TenthWeasley

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 34
Word Count: 121,084
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Mild Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Drama, Romance
Characters: Lupin, Snape, Sirius, Lily, James, Pettigrew, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Snape/OC, James/Lily, Sirius/OC

First Published: 08/01/2011
Last Chapter: 04/22/2012
Last Updated: 04/01/2013

Summary:





2012 Dobby Finalist: Best Original Character | 2011 Dobby Nominee: Best Marauders

Beth Bridger had loved Severus Snape from afar for seven years, and not a soul knew, least of all the boy in question. James was pining after Lily, Sirius was plotting pranks, and nothing was going to change. Until quite suddenly, everything did.

Book one in the Beth Bridger trilogy. Beta'd by ToujoursPadfoot. Banner by the terminator @ TDA!


Chapter 1: Same Old Secret
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Bright rays of sunshine were streaming down with unseasonable warmth that afternoon, drying out the grass and the people there alike. It wasn’t even noon, but the sun was high enough in the sky that Beth Bridger was sweating profusely in her T-shirt and jeans. She wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, brushing sticky strands of her unmanageably curly black hair away from where they clung to her temples, and checked the address on the slip of parchment once more. Life would be so much easier once she was old enough to Apparate – then she wouldn’t have to walk anytime she needed to get someplace, and worry about melting on the way there.

It was a bit strange that this was the first time she would be visiting James Potter, as she was the only one of her group of friends – consisting of James, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew, in addition to herself – who had not yet been there. Granted, she had been the last to join in the camaraderie, and had known them all the shortest amount of time, but it had been long enough that a visit to the Potters’ had been a necessary rite of passage before the seventh year of school. She had heard almost nothing the last couple of weeks before the end of term except for how much everyone looked forward to returning to James’s house for the long summer afternoons. They had, as Remus had so keenly pointed out to them at the end of last year, only one real summer left before they had to get on with their lives as fully responsible adult wizards.

Leaving school, of course, was scary in itself, as Beth had no clue what exactly she wanted to do with her life after her time at Hogwarts ended. But today was not the day to dwell too much on it, she decided. She wanted to enjoy herself. She always thought too hard about everything; it was a sort of curse upon her.

Glancing up, she nearly ran into a lamppost, and only just swerved out of the way in time. She really hoped she was heading in the right direction, because the last thing she needed at the moment was to get lost in a strange neighborhood in southern England. She idly wished she had taken up on her mother’s offer to help her find the place, but then firmly shoved that hope back where it belonged. After all the screaming she’d been witness to that morning, she could very well have gone without seeing either her mother or her father until the next summer holiday.

A large and well-built brick house loomed up on her left as she turned a corner. She looked down at the paper in her hand, and then up at the numbers to the right of the front door, breathing an unrestrained sigh of genuine relief. This was the place. She suddenly felt nervous, although she felt stupid for it at the same time - each of those four boys was like a brother to her, and she could not remember when she had not been herself around them. Standing up straight and pushing her shoulders back, she pushed open the well-oiled iron gate and began walking up the long drive to the front door.

As she reached the porch steps, however, the door was thrown open of its own accord, and she froze. Maybe she had gotten the wrong house – the Potters did live right alongside Muggles, after all, and they might not take kindly to a stranger walking up their front drive so brazenly. But then she recognized the figure on the other side of that door, and it came hurtling down the path at her, limbs flying in only the way a teenage boy’s can, before drastically overshooting its target. As it darted by her, one of its arms gave her an almighty whack in the upper shoulder.

“Merlin, James!” she gasped loudly as her arm throbbed. She instinctively clutched it to her - that was going to leave a pretty big bruise. James Potter just grinned cheekily and thumped her on the other arm for good measure. She knew this was his way of greeting her, but she wished all his greetings didn’t come with so much pain.

“We thought you had gotten lost, you took so long,” he said happily, slinging an arm around her shoulders in a way that was finally not meant to injure. “Sirius was all for calling a search party.”

“I’m not that late,” Beth said defensively, not being able to help laughing at Sirius and his penchant for wanting to stir up a bit of excitement, as always. “Besides, Mum was in one of her moods – she had just had a fight with Dad. I wanted to wait until it was safe to leave.”

Although the tone she used was dismissive, the words weighed far heavier than that – both present knew this. James’s eyebrows rose a fraction further into his messy hairline, but he wisely chose not to comment. Beth’s parents, both of magical blood, had been fighting even more than normal lately. That was another reason she was so glad of an excuse to see her friends. A return to normal companionship was welcome, even if it cost a few sore arms.

The inside of the Potter house was as expected, from everything Beth knew of James and how wealthy his family was. It was richly decorated, and covered in the summer with high drapes to keep the sun from ruining the furniture. The polished wood floors sparkled from the light of chandeliers – Beth would have bet her wand they were real crystal – and everything screamed not to be touched. She felt a bit awkward, and wondered idly how a boy like James Potter had come from a house like this. It seemed too fragile for someone like him; a boy growing up here would be quiet as a mouse, and less like the whirlwind tornado James so often resembled.

“Everyone else is already out back,” James was saying, leading the way around a set of ornately carved stairs to a door hidden halfway under them. “Mum and Dad are out, as always, so you are free to be yourself again.” He shot her a mischievous grin. He knew exactly how hard it was for Beth to open up around most people, and could sense her timidity at the current moment from a mile away.

But they had always had a connection like that, ever since the four of them had met all the way back in their second year. The four boys had already formed a sort of group, but Beth had never really bonded well with the other Gryffindor girls in their year. James and Sirius had sort of taken her under their wing, as it were. They were different from the other people she knew at school, and that was a good thing; she had never had to put on a front before them, and didn’t now, which she appreciated more than words could say.

When, soon after getting to know them, she and the other boys had discovered that Remus was a werewolf, she had been a bit scared at first, having only read about werewolves in class and never thinking she might come face to face with one. In all her life, she never could have imagined that she would be friends with a werewolf. But it had been James who had been most accepting, though – helping him out during full moons, keeping others’ suspicions as ease, and even eventually coming up with the Animagus plan so they could assist in the Shrieking Shack. Encouraged by the other three, Beth joined in this plan, eventually being able to transform into a peregrine falcon by fifth year. It worked nicely with the other boys’ animals – James as a stag, Sirius as a dog, and Peter as a rat. And with all the owls that continually circled the castle, she was never too conspicuous, which was another plus.

She owed a lot of who she was to these boys – she suspected that was why she had tolerated them for five years. Now she followed James into the back garden, where Sirius, Remus, and Peter were sprawled beneath a gnarled oak tree, half-asleep from heat and inactivity.

“Look who I found out on the walk,” James called, and Peter sat up. He grinned and offered her a wave in greeting, which she returned enthusiastically. She had forgotten how good it was to be in the company of her best friends, and only realized it now that she was returning. Beth sat cross-legged between Remus and Peter, and immediately began plucking at the blades of grass that were still growing in the shade, her hands always seeking something to do when she wasn’t doing otherwise.

“So, what have you been up to, Bethy?” Sirius asked, his eyes still closed as he lay sprawled on his back, dark hair falling across his face. He’d always called her Bethy; it was at the same time endearing and annoying. She ignored it now, though, too happy at seeing him again to call him out on it.

“The same,” she said, with a nonchalant little shrug. “Doing summer assignments, writing letters, trying not to get killed during Mum and Dad’s constant fighting.” That last was said, once again, with a note of bitterness she had been unable to hide. All of them, especially Beth, had learned it was better not to dwell on that sort of aspect of life. Sirius couldn’t resist throwing in his own attack on his family, though.

“I hear you there,” he said, his eyes moving behind their closed lids as though seeing something no one else could see. “And added onto that, my little brother is being a pain in the arse, as usual. I would move in here if I could, mate,” he added, directing this last thought towards James. Sirius now had a place of his own, bought with money inherited from a great-uncle of his, but always moaned about having to do his own laundry. There were times, he said, when even he wished his insufferable house-elf was around, if only to do chores.

“You just want free food,” James accused with mock severity, but Sirius just grinned lazily.

“Not going to deny that, am I?” He sat up suddenly, stretching his arms behind him and nearly whacking Remus in the face. “Let’s do something, then,” he said, as though he’d been mulling over this very idea for a while now.

“Like what – sleep?” said Peter scornfully, and Sirius swatted him good-naturedly on the back of his head.

“Let’s go swimming,” Remus burst in excitedly, finally lifting his nose from the book he’d been engrossed in since Beth had arrived. The other four eyed him skeptically, but the enthusiasm on his face was contagious. “We could hike down to that little pond, James,” he continued. “Please?”

“No one brought bathing suits,” said James bluntly. “And that pond is disgusting. Even I haven’t been in there. No one in their right mind would touch the water.”

“Oh… yeah.”

Sirius heaved a great sigh and flopped back onto the grass. “I cannot wait until this year is over,” he said grumpily, waving his arms and legs around as though trying to make a snow angel in the dry grass. “I am so sick of school. I want to get out in the world and do something.”

Beth, who had been a spectator to the fast-moving conversation until that point, piped up. “I’m terrified, actually,” she said, only half kidding. “I have no idea what I want to do, and you know that that’s all they are going to be drilling into us this year.” She brushed the hair off her forehead again, as it had once again begun to cling to her from the perspiration beading there. It was a bit of a stupid thing to be afraid of, really, but she could not help it. It went hand in hand with her penchant for worrying.

“You stress too much, Bethy,” Sirius grinned, as though reading her mind. He sat up again and held his hands out in front of him, ticking things off an invisible list he had created. “There’s only two things to do this year. I plan to not get expelled, first of all. And we’ve had a lot of practice at dodging punishment, anyway, so that’s no big deal. Then I’m on to solving the mystery of why girls think so bloody much.”

“How are you planning on doing that, then?” said Remus, while Peter made a sound that was somewhere between a choke and a laugh at how ridiculous that last bit sounded. Sirius shrugged.

“It’s going to be tough. I don’t think even girls know how they get tangled up in all those meaningless thoughts. No offense, Bethy,” he added, grinning wickedly and waggling his eyebrows at her. She rolled her eyes again and held up her hands as if in total surprise that the conversation had strayed where it had.

“Me? Why on earth would I take offense to that?” she asked sarcastically, and James laughed.

"Besides, if you boys actually used your brains, figuring ours out wouldn't be quite so difficult," she said lightly. Sirius at least had the decency to look affronted, although he knew she was just returning the snide jest.

As the topic inevitably switched to girls – they were, after all, seventeen-year-old boys – Beth drew rather quiet, and for more than the obvious reason. She was always uncomfortable even skirting around the subject of crushes and relationships around her friends, not just because they were boys and she was a girl. It was because of whom she liked specifically, because if they ever found out, they might never forgive her.

She didn’t know why she’d chosen that particular boy, out of everyone, to fancy. It really didn’t make sense, when she looked at it from a bystander’s perspective. Not that those sorts of things ever made much sense, really. He had never even given her so much as the time of day in all the six years she’d known him. It was stupid, and unthinkable, and not worth her time.

That’s what Beth told herself, anyway; she just had a small problem believing that little fact. For six years, ever since seeing him in the Great Hall that first night in the castle, it had been very, very hard for her to get him out of her mind. She knew she should move on, or at least give someone else a chance, but knowing and acting were two very different things. But all other excuses aside, she felt that, as her stand-in brothers, the four boys would probably be very selective about her dating choices – one of the downsides to hanging out almost exclusively with an all-male group of friends.

“Head out of the clouds, please,” James said pleasantly, startling Beth out of her ruminations. She crossed her eyes at him and tried not to let the subject of that boy make itself evident on her face; not for the first time, she was glad of the naivety of teenage boys.

“Like I want to hear about all your talk about the girls you fancy,” she scoffed, going on the defensive. “Going after Evans again this year, are we?”

James puffed out his chest and pretended to polish an apple on his shirt. “Yep,” he said, grinning, and the sun caught the lenses of his glasses, temporarily hiding his eyes from Beth’s view. “This is my year, boys – and, uh, girl. This is the year that Lily Evans will finally say yes to the man that is James Alexander Potter.”

Peter snorted. “You’ve been saying that for the past three years.” Sirius laughed and clapped his friend appreciatively on the back, and Beth offered her own little grin; Remus was once again buried in his book.

“Believe what you want,” said James, “but it is going to happen. I’m absolutely sure of it this time.”

Remus muttered, “You’ve said that for the past three years, too.” James pretended not to hear him as he jumped to his feet, brushing the grass and dirt off his palms.

“I’ve just remembered – Beth, you haven’t heard yet!” he exclaimed, a sudden excitement lighting up his face. “I’ve made Head Boy!”

This news was so shocking that Beth nearly fell over. “What?” she spluttered, looking from James to Sirius to Peter, as though asking someone to let her in on the joke. “You? But you – I mean – we all thought it would be Remus, didn’t we?”

“Beats me,” said James, grinning and unthinkingly running his hand through his hair, causing it to look even messier than it had previously – he was always doing this. “I just know I get to boss first-years around now. This is going to be excellent.”

Beth and Remus groaned at the same time, and James had the decency to look offended, but let it slide for the time being. He reached into the pocket of his jeans and withdrew a pair of bent and tattered Exploding Snap cards, which had been used so much that Beth could now hear they were emitting faint popping sounds.

“Shall we play, then?” The five of them played Exploding Snap almost obsessively – it was a distraction on full moons, when the four of them kept vigil by the Whomping Willow while Remus was in Hogsmeade, and also when they should have been doing homework.

“Nothing else to do, so we might as well,” said Sirius in a bored voice, poking at an ant in the grass, his attention already long gone from the topic of Lily Evans. Beth watched James take the deck into his hands and shuffle them, and her mind, too, wandered off. And as it so often did after a discussion like the one they’d just had, it wandered back to the subject she had never voiced aloud. It was odd enough to voice it in her head without getting grief about it from her friends, as well.

If they ever found out that she had a long-standing crush on Severus Snape, she might as well begin planning her funeral.

A/N: Well, this is perhaps one of the more terrifying things I've done in recent memory. Welcome to my second novel (and how weird it is for me to say that)! It's a bit of a rough-cut path I've made for myself, but I'm going to forge ahead as best as possible. Thanks for reading, and if you've got this far and wouldn't mind leaving a review, that'd be awesome. Hope you enjoy "In The Black"!


Chapter 2: Gossip and Guilt
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The day that she spent with James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter was definitely the highlight of Beth’s summer. August dragged slowly into September with no further reprieve from her parents’ eternal bad tempers and occasional shouting matches. By the time September the first finally arrived, her trunk had been packed for nearly two weeks, and she was all too tempted to board the Hogwarts Express and never come home. She might even be able to stand living with Sirius, she figured, if it came down to that.

She had planned to meet the others in front of the barrier between the platforms at ten-thirty, where they would get a compartment together on the train before they all filled too quickly. She should have remembered that not a one of them had a knack for being on time, however, and so fifteen minutes until eleven found her still waiting with her mother, glancing at her watch every two seconds as though to magically conjure up the presences of her friends.

“Bethany, you told me I wouldn’t need to be here for very long,” said Amelia Bridger impatiently, glancing at her own watch as well and running agitated fingers through her short dark hair. Her temper was, as always, short, resulting from a row she’d had with Beth’s father about where he’d placed the Floo powder. It had eventually been found behind the couch, where their cat had hidden it, but each still blamed the other. Beth had been quite tempted to leave her mother at home for that stunt; the fact that she even had to think of things like that was embarrassing enough.

“You know my friends, Mum, I’ve told you about them. They aren’t ever on time,” she said with a strain in her voice, peering around and hoping for a sign of someone she knew – anyone would do at this point. The second hand on the clock ticked a little closer to eleven, and she sighed hugely. Absentmindedly, she lifted a hand and rubbed her nose. It was a habit of hers, as she was very self-conscious about her nose – it was the only thing she’d inherited from her father, and was a little bigger than she would have liked it to be.

“Don’t do that, please,” said her mother upon seeing the gesture. “You’re going to make your nose red.”

Beth gritted her teeth, reluctantly removing her hand from her nose. Someone please get here, now… The longer she had to stand here with her mother, the more her head hurt, and the more tempting it was to make good on her thought of moving in with Sirius, whether he agreed or no.

Finally, as though on cue, the clattering of carts from behind drew her attention. She whipped her head around and, to her great relief, saw not one, but all four boys heading towards her at a quick clip, each pushing a trolley with their respective trunks on them. She watched her mother’s eyes move over each in turn. Beth knew how she hated the idea of her daughter’s closest friends all being male.

“Hey, Mrs. Bridger,” said Sirius cheerfully, accidentally-on-purpose running into James’s heels with his luggage cart, causing the latter to inhale suddenly in pain. “Sorry to keep you, but we were-“

“Just waiting out front,” said James pointedly, throwing Sirius a look that didn’t escape Beth’s notice. Peter snorted in a rather undignified sort of way, and Remus elbowed him in the side quickly. Her mother’s frown deepened.

“Bethany –“ she began, disapproval dripping from her words, but Beth didn’t give her the opportunity to finish the sentence.

“Thanks for waiting with me, Mum,” she said with a cheerfulness she didn’t quite feel, reaching up to kiss her mother quickly on the cheek. “I’ll write to you, okay?” She didn’t wait for an answer, not wanting to hear a snide but well-placed comment on the absence of other females. Remus looked pointedly at Beth now, and then at her mother. She rolled her eyes and mouthed, Don’t ask. Beth waved once more at her mother, and followed the other four through the solid brick that concealed the entrance to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.

They were all waiting for her on the other side of the barrier, trying to look as though they’d been there for ages. “Next time you’re going to be late,” she said, trying to look stern and failing entirely, “try and let me know somehow so I don’t have to spend fifteen uncomfortable minutes with my mother. It gets more nightmarish by the day.”

“Merlin, she looked upset,” said Sirius, not sounding too concerned as he wheeled around his luggage cart and started for the back of the train. “Did you run over her foot or something?” But James kicked him swiftly in the back of the knee, causing Sirius to give a dog-like yelp. James glanced at Beth out of the corner of his eye.

“Everything okay?” he asked in a low voice. She shrugged.

“The same. Some stupid argument over who didn’t close the milk carton all the way, or who hid the Floo powder, or whose fault it was that the cat hid the Floo powder…” She trailed off, bitterness and annoyance twisting her mouth in a rather sour expression. James nudged her in sympathy, and she smiled and nudged him back.

Sometimes he was a pain in the arse, but generally, Beth thought, James Potter was a pretty good friend.

Steam had already begun to expel thickly from the black smokestack at the front of the train, and the five of them broke into a slight jog as they moved towards the last compartment of the train. Abandoning his luggage, Peter jumped aboard and ran to the back. He reappeared at the door a few minutes later and flashed his friends the thumbs-up sign.

“Still there!” he called. Since their third year, they had always made a point to grab the same compartment in the very last section of the train, for no reasons other than they simply felt like doing so. Remus had informed Beth that Peter had been fretting the whole way there about the possibility of it being taken – like Beth, he was a bit of a worrywart. Sirius had finally broken into the conversation and said he’d turn the nose of anyone who’d taken their compartment upside-down, and even if that hadn’t seemed to make Peter feel better, it had at least halted his verbal fretting.

Beth snuggled into her seat at the window, leaving Remus and Sirius to fiddle with her luggage – one of the benefits of having an all-male group of friends. “That stain from where you exploded that Chocolate Frog’s still here,” she said, laughing and poking at a rather ugly brown mark on the cushion across from her with her toe. James, settling his wand and robes into an overhead compartment, looked to see where she was pointing.

“Cool,” he grinned. “Might explain why everyone left this compartment alone, come to think of it.” He flopped down on the seat and took out his Exploding Snap cards from the pocket of his jeans, shuffling them idly. Remus reappeared in the door to the compartment, looking rather red and flushed in the face.

“Stupid git dropped your trunk on my foot,” he said to Beth, hobbling over to an empty seat and pulling his foot up to inspect the damage. “Told him he could do it all by himself if he was going to pull stunts like that. Merlin, that hurt…” He gingerly removed his trainer, grimacing, and at that moment Beth remembered something rather suddenly.

“So, what were you doing that made you all so late to the station?” she asked. Looks passed between James, Remus, and Peter, and she crossed her arms, silently demanding an answer. They appeared reluctant to tell her, and perhaps for good reason. From past history, Beth and Remus had always been the ones to be most outspoken about the wisdom of the frequent pranks the boys pulled.

“Putting plastic wrap on all the toilets in the men’s room at the front of the station,” said James finally, and all three of the boys exploded into laughter. After a moment of stunned silence, Beth joined in.

“Why?” she asked at last, still giggling. “That seems a bit amateur for you three.” Peter shrugged, and the laughter erupted again just as Sirius appeared at the compartment door.

“Sorry about that,” he said quickly to Remus, nodding at his foot. Then he turned to James and burst out, “You’re never going to guess who I just saw down the corridor.”

“Albus Dumbledore.” All heads turned in incredulity to look at Peter, who shrugged. “Well, he said to guess,” he added defensively.

“Why,” said Sirius slowly, temporarily distracted, “would Dumbledore be on the train? That’s just… That doesn’t even make sense.” Peter shrugged, again a bit defensively, and turned pink. Shaking his head slightly, Sirius turned back to James.

“Well, no, it’s not Dumbledore.” He rubbed his hands together as though formulating a plot, his eyes alight with wicked pleasure. “Four words: Marlene McKinnon went blonde.”

James snorted and leaned back against the seat, closing his eyes and yawning widely. “Thought something interesting had actually happened,” he said, unable to keep the smirk from his face. “Wake me up when that happens, will you?”

“Think what you want, but she looks way better blonde,” Sirius said, sitting down next to Peter and immediately kicking off his shoes. “It makes her eyes look bluer.” James let out yet another undignified snort.

“Go and ask her out, then, if you’re going to run your mouth about her, and save us having to listen about it.”

“Nah, she’s too uptight,” Sirius said lazily. “Might be good for Remus, though.” His eyes slid over to the latter, who was rummaging in his bag, looking for his prefect’s badge. He froze, and a firm look spread over his face.

“No,” he said defiantly. “I’m still scarred from the time you tried to set me up with Petronilla Lowenstein, thank you very much.”

“There was nothing wrong with Petronilla –“

“She was half a foot taller than me!” Sirius and James and Beth all burst out laughing, remembering anew what an odd-looking pair Petronilla Lowenstein, a Hufflepuff girl in the year ahead of them, and Remus had looked. Remus was trying hard not to join in, but just managed it, bending over again and resuming the search of his bag. He finally straightened, pinning the red and gold badge to his chest.

“You three are insufferable,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’d better head up to the prefect’s compartment, I’m going to be late for the meeting.” He paused, as though waiting for something, and finally added, “James, you need to come too.”

James groaned and slid a few inches further down in his seat. Remus ignored him and straightened his badge. “Get yours on,” he added, seeing James watch him affix it. James grumpily bent over and pulled his own badge out of his sneaker, mumbling darkly under his breath. Remus’s eyebrows rose into his hairline – whether about the mutterings or where James had chosen to keep his badge, Beth couldn’t say - but he wisely chose not to comment. The two boys disappeared down the corridor, heading toward the front of the train, and the other three fell silent in the wake of their absence.

With a whistle, the train screeched forward, metal wheels grinding on the rails, and they began the journey to Hogwarts. Beth realized this was the last time they would be making the long ride in; the thought saddened her more than she expected it might have.

“Sirius, put your shoes back on,” she said, sinking down and taking out a book from her bag. “You smell worse than a wet dog.” He laughed, the joke not lost on him, but did as she asked.

*

James came back from the prefect’s meeting looking much happier than when he’d left. “Well, don’t you seem excited,” said Peter skeptically as James took his former seat back, removing a box of Bertie Bott’s beans from his pocket and ripping the top off.

“Unbelievable,” said Remus, who came in after him, shaking his head. “Just wait until you hear this.”

“Gentlemen. Beth,” James added, again slightly too late in remembering the female presence in the compartment. “I knew this was going to be my year. What was I saying to you earlier?” There was a brief pause, and then Sirius cackled with glee.

“Don’t tell me - !”

“Yup.” James grinned, popping a bright yellow bean in his mouth and chewing. “Lily Evans had the great fortune to be made Head Girl this year.” There was a general shout as Beth, Sirius, and Peter reacted to this news; in the tumult, the box of beans spilled all over the floor of the compartment and quickly becoming crushed under heels.

“Blimey, mate,” said Sirius, sitting back against the seat and folding his hands behind his head. “Maybe we were wrong about you; you might get the girl after all.” James smirked and looked with a bit more appreciation upon the Head Boy badge on his chest.

The lights in the corridor, which had come on long ago, flickered in warning, signaling that the train had almost reached the Hogsmeade station platform. The five Gryffindors in the compartment jumped up, picking up the spilled and squished candy, and began grabbing their luggage and preparing to leave the train. With an ear-splitting screech, the train slowed and finally jolted to a shuddering stop.

The platform was dark; there was no moon tonight, and scuttling clouds hid a lot of the stars from view. The narrow beam from Hagrid’s lantern, bobbing over and among the heads of the students clustered on the platform, cut eerily through the steam still trailing from the train engine. Beth clustered close between Sirius and Peter, not wanting to lose her friends in the confusion; Remus and James had gone off to see that everyone made it to the carriages without trampling each other.

A sudden laugh from Sirius on her left made her turn her head. “Well, well,” he said, drawing the words out as he crossed his arms across his chest. His gaze was directed above a group of third-years grouped nearby, and Beth strained to see whatever it was he was seeing. Her stomach seemed to drop right out of her.

Severus Snape himself, looking even more mysterious than normal, surrounded as he was by the steam, was looking determinedly away from where Sirius and Beth were standing. It was all too evident he’d heard Sirius’s comment upon catching sight of him, and was intent on ignoring it as best he could.

“Snivellus! Haven’t you washed your hair all summer? You look even more greasy than normal, and that’s saying something!” Sirius let out another barklike laugh as Severus turned in their direction, eyes flashing, nostrils flaring. Beth’s stomach twisted in guilt as his gaze flickered briefly from Sirius to her.

She hated being seen in her friends’ company when they were like this – the last thing she wanted was to be associated with the boys who, in all honesty, made Severus’s life hell. She tried to convey some sort of compassion over the distance, but it was evidently lost. With a sneer, Severus turned away and began making his way towards an empty horseless carriage.

On her right, Peter was chuckling appreciatively at Sirius. “Did you have to start that so soon in the year?” Beth said angrily, forgetting to maintain her indifferent composure for a minute. “You could have waited five minutes.” Her friend turned to face her, surprised.

“Why?” he asked. “It’s not like he’s a person, really.” Sirius grinned again and he and Peter shared a high-five. Beth’s stomach twisted again, but she merely rolled her eyes and shoved the boys in the direction of the queue for carts, unwilling to say anything else lest something should slip.

“Come on – we don’t want to have to walk all the way up to the castle,” she grumbled. But as they moved up, her eyes found Severus again, who was just entering a carriage all by himself. He didn’t look angry anymore, out of the range of Sirius’s vision. He merely looked upset and – maybe she was imagining it – a bit hurt.

She would have given anything to go over to him, to climb in the carriage with him, to give him a friend when he obviously needed one. She hesitated, hands clutching the sides, thinking about it – wondering if she had the nerve to do it.

“Come on, Bethy!” Sirius urged, poking his head back out. With one last look forward to the carriage Severus had disappeared into, she climbed inside her own cart and shut the door firmly behind her.

A/N: Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed so far. I really do appreciate it, more than I can convey in my responses. Don't forget to keep leaving them - that little box down there looks so empty, and it will only take a minute!


Chapter 3: Unforeseen Suspicions
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Despite the slightly uncomfortable scene that had just occurred outside, Beth’s spirits could not help but lift at the sound of the incoherent chatter already issuing from the Great Hall. Just being back at Hogwarts again – even if it was her last year – brought joy such as she had never experienced anywhere else. She followed Sirius and Peter into the hall, sitting across from them at the Gryffindor table. James and Remus entered a little later, the former still looking thrilled about who had been paired with him as Head Girl.

“You are going to need to wipe that smirk off your face, mate,” said Sirius as James sat down. As one, the five of them looked down the table to where Lily Evans was sitting with her friend Mary Macdonald. She glanced up, apparently sensing the eyes on her, and smiled at James. Beth’s eyes nearly popped out of her head; ever since she had known her, Lily had hated James’s guts with an unrestrained passion. In fact, if memory served, she was fond of calling him a toerag.

Well, this was certainly an interesting development.

“Hey, so I’ve been doing some thinking,” said Peter suddenly, leaning forward conspiratorially; everyone else mirrored him. “This year, during Remus’s transformations –“

The reaction was violent and simultaneous. Remus, who was next to him, clapped a hand over his friend’s mouth. Sirius swore loudly, and Beth knocked her elbow hard into the golden plate set in front of her.

“Do you want Beth to eat you?” James said, his words humorous but a dark look appearing in his eyes. “I swear I will let her do it, falcons aren’t going to turn up their noses at rats.” He leaned forward a little more to offset the strange looks now being given to them. “You know you can’t go shouting about that.”

“I wasn’t shouting,” said Peter stubbornly, his nose and cheeks bright red from embarrassment despite his protestations. “You guys are the ones who made it a big deal.” Nevertheless, he lowered his voice. “But I was thinking – this year, we don’t all need to go together, do we?”

“What do you mean?” said Beth skeptically, craning her head around to see if the first years had arrived yet; the sooner they moved off this topic, the better, in her opinion. All four of them went with Remus to the Shrieking Shack together, as James had said it would be safer that way, in case something went wrong.

“Well, think about it,” he urged. “Last year, we never really needed all of us there, did we? There’s really only two of us needed, and the other two could catch up on homework, or something –“

“Wormy,” said Sirius, cautiously slipping into his nickname for Peter lest anyone else should hear, “let us think. When was the last time anyone besides Beth and Remus really cared about their schoolwork?”

“Well, he has a point,” Beth pointed out. “Using all four of our Animagus forms is a little bit… conspicuous. We could try it.” She turned to James, who seemed to be considering the idea carefully in his mind. As he was the person under discussion, Remus didn’t offer his opinion, but merely looked mildly interested in the thing as a whole.

“It does make sense,” said James finally, with tentative placement in each word. His gaze flickered around the table once more to see if anyone was eavesdropping, and then added, “But we’ll discuss it later – it’s too risky right now.” By silent agreement, the matter was immediately dropped.

Glancing back toward the doors again, Beth saw that a line of students had just entered, single-file, with Professor McGonagall at the front. She was glad for the distraction, because the last thing they needed was attention drawn to the matter. But her eyes shifted to the right, towards the Slytherin table, which was situated closest to the door. And quite without meaning to, she caught the gaze of Severus Snape; he was staring intently in the direction of the Gryffindor table with an expression she couldn’t read.

She turned around quickly, heart racing. It looked as though Severus had seen the entire conversation about Remus and the others’ Animagi forms – although that was utterly impossible. But it was possible that he'd realized they were talking, and what's more, realized they were talking secretly. He was all the way across the hall, and no one could eavesdrop from that far away. But he definitely looked like he wanted to know what they’d been talking about so secretly, and would have paid dearly to have heard it. The blood thudded in Beth’s ears, and she did not dare to turn around again.

The first of the new students stumbled forward suddenly to place the Sorting Hat on her head; she had managed to miss the whole sorting song while she had been lost in her thoughts. Facing forward with a slightly more resolute expression on her face, she doggedly watched the rest of the ceremony, finally clapping for the last time as a boy called Archibald Young was sorted into Ravenclaw.

Dumbledore rose from his chair to give a few start-of-term announcements, and Beth finally chanced to sneak another glance at the Slytherin table behind her. Severus was no longer looking in the direction of the Gryffindors; he was talking to a rather slimy-looking boy Beth thought was called Wilkes. Maybe she’d imagined the whole thing, muddling it up with her own foolish crush. That had to be the explanation.

Dinner had been finished, and the dishes cleared for pudding, when Sirius leaned forward suddenly, as though about to impart more news that was for their ears only. “I’ve only just remembered,” he said excitedly. “I overheard Mum and Dad talking about something right before we left. It’s got something to do with… You-Know-Who.”

A collective shiver seemed to run through the group. Beth didn’t know a lot about You-Know-Who, as it was understandably not printed a lot in the papers, but she knew he was an extremely powerful and dark wizard, a strong proponent of blood purity among the magical world. Sirius’s family ran along the edges of this crowd as well, and supported the idea of eliminating Muggle-borns from wizarding society.

“Apparently there’s some group,” he continued, “that’s setting about getting together to put an end to You-Know-Who. It’s supposed to be led by Dumbledore himself.” All eyes turned to Dumbledore, seated at the top table; Beth thought that this might be false information, as he looked too old to be leading much of anything except Hogwarts.

“Well, what does this group… do?” said Remus, sounding a bit confused. Beth did not blame him; the whole thing sounded a bit vague and half-real, as though it was all speculation and rumor at the moment. Sirius gave a sort of half-shrug and, as the pudding appeared before them, speared a caramel apple on the tines of his fork.

“Go after all of You-Know-Who’s followers, I assume,” he said, and the frown on James’s forehead deepened.

“What do you mean, followers? Doesn’t he only have like a group of select friends, or something?” he asked. Sirius shook his head, mouth full of sticky apple, and swallowed.

“No, he’s been collecting more. The Ministry won’t say it, but Mum and Dad both say that the Minister and all them are a bit frightened of him. They don’t know what he wants or why he’s collecting followers, but it definitely can’t be good.” He said this last with a note of finality, and took another monstrous bite.

Everyone else, however, didn’t seem so nonchalant about the subject; if anything, Peter looked a little scared, which Beth secretly thought was a little silly. “So, who’s in this group?” she asked, mainly to distract from the topic of whatever it was You-Know-Who was up to. Again Sirius shrugged; apparently the question hadn’t really occurred to him, overshadowed as it had been by the grand picture of a resistance movement.

“People who are loyal to Dumbledore, I guess? Look,” he said, switching subjects, “the real thing is, this is something we could actually do. You know, to – to fight back, or whatever.” He looked around at his friends, gauging their reactions. The idea seemed to be growing on them, and Beth couldn’t help but feel a bud of growing excitement, as well. If what Sirius was talking about was actually real – and judging from his enthusiasm, he certainly believed it was – then this really could be something they could do to help in the fight against the recent emergence of dark magic.

Pudding cleared suddenly, and the chattering that had still run rampant and echoing around the hall’s stone walls died in magnitude as Dumbledore rose once more from his chair. He beamed genially upon those gathered before him. Beth felt a swell of liking for the man; she had always admired Dumbledore. Idly she wondered if he really could be leading a secret rally behind closed doors.

The headmaster bid them all to sleep well and rest up for their lessons tomorrow, and both Sirius and James looked slightly more gloomy after being reminded of the resurgence of schoolwork. Beth took the opportunity to sneak another glance back at the Slytherin table. With a jolt, she saw that Severus was once more looking in their direction, eyes narrowed in concentration.

“What does he want?” she murmured, quite forgetting that she was speaking aloud instead of just to herself. Absentmindedly she rubbed her nose again, wondering. Remus turned in her direction at the sound, distracted from the moans from James and Sirius.

“Sorry?” he said curiously, quirking an eyebrow. Beth felt her face get hot, and she shook her head, muttering that it was nothing. Remus studied her for a fraction of a second longer, and then turned back to James, who had begun to head back to the common room with Sirius and Peter.

“James, you have to help get the first-years to their dormitory,” he said, sounding every bit the authority figure. James halted, heaving a great sigh and running his hand through his hair. “Look,” Remus continued, “you didn’t have to accept the job, you know –“

A voice called over the rather scared-looking group of young students, effectively cutting Remus off. “First years, if you’ll step this way, please!” Lily Evans, wearing her badge prominently on the left side of her robes, was herding the younger ones into some semblance of a formation. With a mischievous grin at his friends, James turned in her direction with a loud, “Hey, Evans!”

“The git,” said Sirius fondly, laughing. “Come on, I’m dead tired. I just want to get into bed.” He began plodding toward the entrance, and Beth followed closely behind him, sudden weariness overcoming her as well.

As she reached the entrance hall, she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. She turned, puzzled, brushing her hair out of her face – and thought that the floor beneath her shoes might have dropped from beneath her.

Why on earth was Severus Snape standing there, wearing that same look of intense concentration he’d worn earlier? And why, moreover, did he seem to want to talk to her? She gulped, hoping he didn’t notice, and half-wishing she could think of an excuse to be anywhere but here. This was not good for her; this would only feed that pathetic attraction she’d felt for seven years, and she knew it, but she also knew it was really no good wishing it away.

“What’s going on with you and Remus?” he said abruptly, looking not quite at her but at a point just above her head. Beth’s brows knitted; of all the questions she might have guessed he would ask her, that one was certainly not one of them.

“What?” she said dumbly, not being able to think of any other sort of coherent response. His gaze didn’t shift from above her head, and she found herself wanting to yank his face down and force him to look at her. What was she going to do – hex him?

Focus, she willed herself, steeling her nerves. He’s never going to talk to you again if you act like a blibbering idiot now.

“Isn’t that what you were talking about earlier? You and your friends?” he continued doggedly, a slight sneer raising his mouth. It wasn’t a secret to anyone in the school that he couldn’t stand James and Sirius, and by association, pretty much anyone who hung out with them – another mark against her. Despite herself Beth felt heat creeping up and tingeing her cheeks. “Are you going to tell me what you’re up to, or am I going to have to find out myself?” Severus continued.

“I – what – no, I can’t tell you,” she spluttered, his frank and forthcoming questions breaking down all manners of resolve and firmness she might have had up. “Why are you asking me? And why were you spying?”

“I wasn’t spying,” Severus snapped, his eyes flicking briefly down to hers before jerking back up as though what he’d found there had scalded him. “If I was spying I could have found this out on my own. I am asking you a question. I’ve been watching you for years.”

“I know th – you’ve been watching us?” Beth said, mind switching tracks in the middle of her sentence. She was trying to maintain control over her emotions as she tried to think of what to say next. Was she supposed to be angry? Condescending? Should she try and be his friend through this, hoping that it would pay off in the future? She opted for the defensive route yet again. “I can’t tell you because it’s not my place to tell,” she said, turning her nose in the air. Severus sneered again.

“There’s something going on between the five of you,” he said, eyes flicking down once more before returning to the blank stretch of wall. “And if you’re not going to tell me, I guess I am going to have to spy. I’m going to find out what’s going on.”

Beth was in shock, completely unable to think of a response to that. She did the only thing she could think of doing, and turned on her heel, walking quickly away. Some small, stupid, flighty part of her hoped that he might stop her from leaving, but she walked away without him speaking another word to her.

Her mind was in turmoil the whole way back to the common room. Half of her was elated that Severus had, for the first time in recent memory, initiated a conversation with her at all, albeit a rather direct and less than friendly one. The other half was puzzling over why he was so curious about the discussion the five Gryffindors had been having before dinner. That had been when Peter had brought up the subject of using two Animagi to help Remus, instead of four.

What did Severus suspect? And why was he so desperate to know about what clearly did not concern him?

She stopped dead outside the stretch of wall where the Fat Lady’s portrait hung, concealing the entrance to the Gryffindor common room. With a horrific thrill, she realized that she had absolutely no idea what the password was. The woman in the painting looked at her expectantly.

“Oh, you know I’m a Gryffindor,” Beth said huffily, suddenly too tired to feel much like arguing with a piece of art. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Can’t you just let me in?”

“You must give me the password,” said the Fat Lady, peering regally down from her gilt frame at the girl. Beth rolled her eyes.

“I don’t know the password,” she said. “You know who I am. Please?” She sounded a little whiny right now, but was too mixed up with the conversation she’d just had to care at the current moment. The Fat Lady remained solid and unmoving, and Beth groaned, placing her head in her hands. She so did not need this right now.

“Deflating Draught,” said a voice behind her, and Beth turned gratefully to see Lily Evans walking up behind her, a grim smile on her face. Reluctantly, the Fat Lady swung forward to allow the two to pass, muttering something under her breath that Beth didn't quite catch, although it was sure to have been nasty.

“Thank you. I was set to sleep out here for the night,” said Beth, and Lily’s smile widened slightly.

“No worries. I’ve just had to run to Professor McGonagall – already caught some of the third years with Fanged Frisbees.” She shook her head slightly, and Beth shrugged as if to say, What’s new?

“I’m not going to hang around all night waiting for you girls to end the gossip,” said the portrait suddenly, sounding irritable despite her voice being muffled by the wall she now faced. The girls entered the common room together, and Beth was immediately set upon by Sirius.

“Spill, Bethy,” he said immediately, steering her to a seat on the couch in front of the fire. “Why were you talking to Snape, and how many scoops of frog spawn should find their way into his underwear drawer?”

“It’s nothing,” she said tiredly, waving away his pesky questions; she really was nearly dead on her feet by now. “He was just asking a question, that’s all.” She rose from where her friend had pushed her down and stretched, rubbing her nose idly. Sirius looked dumbstruck.

“I’ll tell you in the morning,” she muttered. “I’m sorry, I’m just exhausted. ‘Night, Sirius. Say good night to the others for me.” Not waiting to hear his protests, she turned and climbed the winding staircase up to the Gryffindor seventh year girls’ dormitory, not even stopping to take in the fact she was back at Hogwarts again, but solely concentrated on getting into bed as quickly as possible.

It was only once she’d changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, and slipped beneath the covers that she gave memories of her conversation with Severus full rein. Why did he insist on probing into the business of Beth and her friends – and how much about Remus and the rest of them did he already know?

A/N: So, we actually saw Severus talk in this chapter, and I'm sorry he's been virtually absent until now. I love him too much to do that without guilt, but the plot just worked better that way. So many apologies! Have a brownie, on me.

This chapter is dedicated in large part to Sarah, who is probably my biggest inspiration and is just a truly amazing person in general. And of course to the mafia of the raverpuffins, who I just couldn't do without - this is for you, too.


Chapter 4: The Confrontation
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Beth woke as late as possible the next morning, not necessarily dreading beginning her classes, but mourning the lack of sleep that went along with that. During the course of the night, she had attempted to get herself to believe that she'd successfully reached the conclusion that it was much too risky to prolong her crush on Severus Snape any longer. He was probing, and that was never good, especially given the situation he was probing into; besides, seven years was, she had to admit, a bit pathetic.

She entered the Great Hall for breakfast, still rubbing sleep from her eyes, and sat down heavily at her place at the Gryffindor table. Looking up, she overheard Sirius telling James about his newest plans for pranks that year, including one which sounded suspiciously like turning Filch’s hair lime green. James had evidently forgotten that he was Head Boy for the moment, rolling laughter as he was as he tried to drink his orange juice. Peter was avidly following the conversation while Remus read the paper with his lips pursed, the perfect picture of disapproval.

Sirius glanced over as Beth reached for the plate of kippers, and then did a double take. He stopped talking midsentence and turned to face her head-on, nearly jumping up and down in obvious anticipation.

“What?” she asked thickly, putting down the kippers and reaching for the flagon of pumpkin juice nearest to her. As though the dam had been released, a torrent of words suddenly poured from his mouth; he had obviously been waiting for her a long time.

“Okay – out with it. Why were you talking to Snivelly last night? Was he asking you anything? And if you’re thinking, even remotely, about anything to do with him, Bethy –“

“Sirius!” she cried, a bit louder than perhaps she might have hoped, but only concentrating on shutting him up right now. “Please,” she added, lowering her voice but increasing the annoyance in it. “All he was asking about was what we’d been talking about before the sorting. And you know me, I’m not about to blab it. He doesn’t know a thing.”

“The little sneak,” Sirius laughed after a pause, leaning back and relaxing his shoulders. “I knew he’s been skulking around, trying to see what we’re up to.” His face suddenly changed into a more pensive and mischievous expression. “Gives me an idea, actually.”

“Whatever you’re thinking about, it’s probably against every school rule in the book,” said Remus warningly without looking up from The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 7. “So you can forget it right now, none of us are going to go along with you.” He said this last especially to James, who scowled; he’d momentarily forgotten his duties as Head Boy, it seemed, and had looked eager at the prospect of anything involving Sirius’s ideas about Severus.

“Besides, why are you so suspicious all the time?” Beth blurted out, quite forgetting to stop to consider the wisdom of her words. “Maybe he was just curious.” Four incredulous faces turned in her direction, Remus even looking up from his textbook to raise an eyebrow at her. She ducked her head and concentrated on pouring sugar on her porridge.

So much for the morning’s resolution about not prolonging anything.

“Severus Snape,” said Sirius, matter-of-factly, “is one step away from being a literal ball of slime. He wants something.” He said this as though it solved the matter, and turned back to Peter, apparently continuing a discussion they’d been having about Sarah Wright, a Hufflepuff seventh year whom Sirius had always liked to verbally admire whenever he had the chance. He and Peter were now arguing on exactly the best strategy to go about winning a date from her – all in fun, as neither had ever so much as made a move in the direction, although it was one of their favorite topics.

Beth took the opportunity to glance surreptitiously across the hall for a sign of Severus at the Slytherin table, but he was nowhere to be seen; she suspected he’d finished breakfast long before she’d found her way downstairs. Maybe he’d even done it on purpose, to avoid talking to her… But why would he avoid conversation now when he’d been the one to start it last night?

She knew that she was, as usual, over-thinking things. Heaving a frustrated but silent sigh, she turned back around.

Quite suddenly, she noticed that James was still looking at her rather curiously, as though trying to work something out in his head. Please tell me he doesn’t suspect anything, Beth thought silently, ducking her head further and pulling an abandoned copy of the Daily Prophet towards her. She didn’t need her friends’ influences to complicate her mixed emotions further; she was good enough at doing that herself.

*

Beth, James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter had, in general, passed all of the same O.W.L.s and so were taking the same classes to prepare for the N.E.W.T. level. The Gryffindor seventh years who were taking the Care of Magical Creatures N.E.W.T. classes walked together out onto the grounds and down to the edge of the forest first thing that morning. They clustered by the usual paddock, waiting for Professor Kettleburn. This group, to James’s delight, included Lily Evans. Upon seeing her, his hand immediately went to his hair, ruffling it to make it look messy. When she saw this, Lily rolled her eyes, as usual, but it didn’t escape Beth’s notice that this gesture was accompanied by a totally new and unexpected smile.

Sirius, apparently, also saw this new addition, because his jaw nearly hit the grass. Beth quickly nudged him in the ribs and leaned over to mutter in his ear before anyone else – namely Lily – noticed the rather dramatic reaction. “Shut up,” she hissed, smirking as James looked around at them and pretending like she hadn’t seen a thing.

He opened his mouth, about to say something, when the sound of footsteps padding through the grass from the front doors of the castle met their ears. As one, the Gryffindors turned to find the seventh year Slytherins approaching – each and every one of them wearing an identical expression of superiority.

Severus Snape stood among them. Beth felt her stomach drop once again, as though she had missed a step going down a flight of stairs; she clutched it before thinking about it, and Peter looked at her confusedly.

Evan Rosier, an arrogant-looking Slytherin with a thin face, was at the forefront of the arriving group. He gave the Gryffindors assembled by the paddock fence a rather cold and patronizing nod which contained no sentiments of friendship. “Care of Magical Creatures, then?” he asked in a slightly nasal voice, jerking his head in the direction of the fence; Beth thought it looked like a twitch, and she had to clap a hand to her mouth to stop herself giggling.

“Why else would we be here?” Sirius asked, in a voice dripping with sarcasm. Remus trod heavily on his foot to shut him up, disguising the movement as a sudden spastic cough, which fooled no one. Rosier raised a slim black eyebrow and smirked at Sirius, turning slightly in his direction.

“Black,” he said curtly. He cast a gaze over Sirius, from head to foot, and the sneer on his lips twisted even further. “You look more and more like a mangy dog every time I see you. Fleas treating you well?”

Sirius lunged forward, but four pairs of hands – James’s, Beth’s, Remus’s, and Peter’s – grabbed him and pushed him back just as Professor Kettleburn turned the corner of the paddock. He looked surprised, stopping in the middle of wiping his hands on a rag, but apparently couldn’t judge the situation well enough to issue punishment. With a little cough, he stepped back and motioned them all to follow him. Rosier gave a demeaning laugh, swept his gaze over the group once more, and shoved his way promptly to the front of the line, followed by the other Slytherins.

The five of them dwindled at the back of the group, letting everyone else move ahead. “What did he mean by that?” Peter asked in a whisper, eyes darting from his friends to the spot where Rosier had disappeared.

“Nothing,” said James vehemently. “He was just pushing buttons; it doesn’t mean anything. That was coincidence, and you’d better shut up before they start rethinking it, too.” Remus nodded confidently, but Beth and Sirius were both less than certain of this assertion. They shared a glance, and the words that Snape had spoken to her last night floated to the forefront of her mind.

“There’s something going on between the five of you. I’m going to find out what’s going on.”

Suddenly, as though thinking of him had caused him to materialize there, Beth realized that Severus hadn’t followed his friends through into the forest. He was still standing, fingers barely touching the wooden fence, almost as if he were waiting for them. His eyes were narrowed, darting between them, clicking pieces of a puzzle into place, a puzzle only his mind could see.

James looked at Beth, and then, seeing her slightly wide-eyed expression, followed her gaze to see Severus standing there as well. “What do you want, Snape?” he snapped. Severus’s glance moved over to James’s face, and an expression of hate Beth had never seen before appeared there. He didn’t answer the question, but just swept off in the direction everyone else had gone, robes flapping.

“What was that about?” said Remus, looking at Beth. She shook her head slowly, dazedly, and could offer no answer.

*

For the rest of the morning’s lessons, Beth had a hard time concentrating on what was actually being taught. She couldn’t stop wondering exactly how much they had accidentally revealed to Severus after the dog comment Rosier had made, if anything, and how much more he needed to know before he made the connection that Remus was a werewolf. At lunch that afternoon, she voiced her concerns to the others.

“Beth, the more you worry about it, the more he’s going to watch you,” Peter pointed out, waving his fork and causing peas to bounce and roll on the table. “Overreacting isn’t going to help anyone.”

James clapped Peter heartily on the back, sending more peas flying. “Wormy’s right,” he said. “Don’t give him any reason to be suspicious, Beth.”

“He’s already suspicious,” Beth said urgently, gripping the edge of the table and leaning in to speak more closely to them. “That’s the point. He thinks he knows something – Sirius saw, that’s what he was asking me about last night.” The others looked a bit surprised at this news; Sirius had been visibly up in arms about it all, that much had been obvious, but they hadn’t known the details of the conversation.

Then Remus gave a shrug, carefully cutting a piece of shepherd’s pie. “So he may or may not know. So what?” Beth gaped at him, not quite sure that he understood the implications of that statement. He delicately chewed the pie, swallowed, and then continued. “I mean, so he finds out I’m… that I’m a werewolf,” he said, lowering his voice. “What can he do?”

“He can spread it around the school!” Beth burst out. She didn’t want to believe that Severus would do that sort of thing, but it had to be taken into account. Remus shrugged again. “And then you might be forced to leave Hogwarts,” she added, still trying to make him see the severity of the situation. But he didn’t seem to get it.

“Why are you so concerned what he thinks, Bethy?” Sirius broke in. “He’s a walking grease rag. It doesn’t matter. He’d be too much of a coward to tell anybody, and if he finds out, we can just hex him until he doesn’t remember which way’s up.” James laughed, but Beth’s mouth twisted in disapproval.

“What about if he finds out… what we did?” she continued, not willing to let the subject drop. “You know it’s not technically legal, and I for one enjoy being able to fly too much to give it up because you four weren’t careful. What we’ve found out how to do – that’s way worse than breaking school rules, you know.” She gave them all a long look.

James rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. “You are making this into too big of a deal,” he said, stressing each word so the message would get into her head. “He will not find out, because it’s almost impossible – it is impossible – unless one of us tells. And no one here’s thick enough to do that.”

The matter was dropped, and nothing further was said about Severus or what he may or may not know about their situation during that lunch period. Still, for the rest of the meal, and the rest of the day as well, there was a tiny seed of doubt sown in the back of Beth’s mind that wouldn’t leave her alone. She knew he was up to something, and was going to do everything in her power to stop him from finding out too much about Remus, or about herself. It might potentially wreck whatever she wanted to happen as far as he was concerned, but if she was honest with herself, she knew that if he hadn’t made a move after seven years, the chances of reciprocated feelings were slim. It was best to put up defenses before one had to.

By the time evening fell and dinner was being served, it looked very much as though everyone’s protests about Beth worrying too much had yet again been right. Severus hadn’t so much as glanced in the direction of any of the five whenever they passed him in the halls, nor had he said anything further to Beth to try and obtain more information. Nevertheless, the five were very mindful about what they said, and would remain so until further notice.

But they couldn’t keep silent about it forever, and a full moon was approaching the next weekend; plans had to be made. They moved to their own section of the table and put their heads close together, sacrificing nonchalant attitudes for a guarantee of a totally private conversation.

“So who’s going to take it this weekend?” Beth was saying, glancing around. Remus, as always, looked a little uncomfortable; the fact that his friends treated his lycanthropy so casually, as though it were no big deal, always made him squirm a little. It was no big deal to them, helping out, but he was perpetually concerned he was inconveniencing them.

The question hung in the air for a minute, and then Sirius finally spoke up. “James and I will go,” he volunteered. “I haven’t barked at any owls all summer, I’m out of practice.” Remus rolled his eyes as James and Peter laughed, but no one had any protests as to the assignation, and the matter was settled. Beth determinedly did not chance a peek at the Slytherin table; that would only serve to attract Severus’s attention more. She was sure he had seen the huddle, and the cogs of his mind would no doubt be turning fiercely at that moment.

As though sensing Beth’s determination to avoid the subject, however, James spoke up suddenly. “Any more from Snape, Beth?” he asked, twirling his fork in his mashed potatoes. “He’s been rather quiet today - we haven’t had the opportunity to trip him once yet.”

Her insides contracted with guilt at that, but she ignored this; it was just a remnant of her long-standing affections, which, she was sure, were now over. “Not a word,” she said. “I’m sure he’s still got ideas about the whole thing, but I haven’t heard them.”

“Wonder why he chose you to ask about it, anyway,” Peter mused, half to himself. “Doesn’t he hate you as much as he hates us?” Beth shrugged, ignoring the very faint stirrings of hope that surged deep within her. Maybe he didn’t hate her – not that it mattered much anymore, of course.

“I guess not,” she said. “That would be nice.” She only realized how oddly the implications of that sentence could be taken once the words were out of her mouth; she sucked in a breath quickly as James gave her that same odd look, as though examining her. She hastily stood up to avoid any awkward questions.

“Better get back to the common room, tons to study,” she said quickly, and, ducking her head, started walking briskly from the hall. She hadn’t even been able to finish dinner, but an empty stomach was much, much better than having her friends discover that she was attracted to Severus.

Footsteps clattered behind her as she reached the base of the sweeping marble staircase. “Beth!” The raised voice made her freeze, one hand poised on the railing.

This was not happening; she was imagining it. Of all the possible outcomes of her flight from the hall, it had to be him that had followed her. She turned slowly, gritting her teeth, and Severus stepped forward to meet her halfway.

The small smile that played on his features sent her heart racing; he smiled so rarely that each one was liable to make her swoon. Get a grip, Beth, she urged herself, and attempted to rearrange her features into a more composed expression.

“Yes?” she said, her voice cracking slightly. He moved a bit closer towards her, and now there was only about a foot of space between them. The sheer proximity to him was intoxicating; small bubbles burst in front of her eyes from a sudden lack of oxygen.

Still smiling that tantalizing smile, Severus leaned down and said in a low voice, “I know.”

A/N: I admit it - I have a passion for moderately cruel cliffhangers. Even if they only seem cruel to me, I like leaving myself guessing when I write from chapter to chapter. How can I suck myself into coming back to write the next chapter if I don't make it exciting? Although, if I do say so myself, I'm rather proud of this one.

Please, if you've read this far, don't forget to leave a review in that little box down there! It'll only take a minute, and I don't bite hard enough to dissuade you. Reviews are like bread and Nutella to authors, and if you've ever had Nutella you'll understand. And if you haven't -- well, reviews are love. 

Thanks so much to all the wonderful responses I've received so far!


Chapter 5: Unsuspected, Unexpected
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It took a long moment for the full meaning of those words to make a connection inside Beth’s brain. She merely looked at him for a long second, and finally her heart began to pound – for an entirely different reason. It had only been a day, she reasoned. He couldn’t have discovered so fast.

She was so going to Azkaban.

“What are you talking about?” she said, playing for time. Maybe if she acted dumb, Severus would think he was mistaken and would leave her alone to get over him in peace. He was making it rather difficult at the moment, to be sure.

Severus raised his eyebrows but apparently chose not to answer the question. “You know what I’m talking about,” he said smoothly. Beth was very tempted to blurt out that no, she didn’t, because she didn’t know how much he knew. Thankfully, she was still sane enough to withhold the comment. She just studied him, gauging his knowledge – or trying to; he was a very hard person to read, even at the best of times.

“So,” Beth said finally, pulling at words from thin air, “what are you going to do about it?” She hoped that this would provide her with more information, and Severus with no more than he already had. He shrugged, although she could immediately tell that it was only for her sake.

“Well, you could tell me,” he said. “I mean, just… tell me why…” And then it hit her quite suddenly – he knew nothing at all. It was all a very poorly-concealed bluff.

“Oh, please,” she snapped, relief making her words a lot brusquer than they would have otherwise been. “If you think you’re going to be able to get me to tell this way, you might as well leave right now before you waste breath.”

Severus looked steadily at her, his lip curling ever so slightly. And then, quite suddenly, he turned on his heel, moving quickly in the direction of the door that led to the dungeons. Beth’s mouth was still open, preparing to deliver another reprimand. His footsteps echoed on the stone, fading with distance, and then all was silent save for the continued chatter from the dining hall.

Two emotions – satisfaction and confusion – fought for prevalence in Beth’s head, and she pressed her fingers to her temples, willing herself to think while trying to fight off unwanted feelings. Her secret, and the secrets of her friends, were safe, she felt sure – for now. But that had been much too close a call for comfort.

The pressing question of why he was so interested in the first place swam again to the top of her long list of problems that needed to be addressed. For some reason it was very hard to believe that his interest was solely for curiosity’s sake, and no more. It was true that he had a very noted vendetta against James and Sirius – was this about revenge on them for seven years’ worth of intense loathing? But still, what did he actually stand to gain?

She sighed heavily; her head was beginning to hurt. She was tired of thinking so much about this, and it was only the second day back at Hogwarts. But it was nearly the only thought that had consumed her mind the entire time there. Drawing herself up and pushing it firmly from her mind, Beth mounted the stairs and headed back to Gryffindor Tower.

Sirius and Remus, upon hearing about this exchange later that evening after they came back from dinner, were confident that Severus had found out all he could with the resources available to him. “It’s really not a huge deal,” Remus said reassuringly, once again having to play the go-between in Beth’s frazzled state and Sirius’s annoyance to this. “We know he’s not going to tell anyone, even if he –“

“No, we don’t,” Beth snapped. “And I don’t want to be the one responsible for a mass riot when people find out they’ve been going to school with a werewolf for seven years.”

“Beth, you don’t even know what he suspects,” Peter pointed out, annoyance evident in his voice – that was quite an accomplishment, as it took a lot to get him fairly passionate about pretty much everything.

She knew that she had argued this to death, and that they were only going in circles now. Truth be told, the more she advocated caution, the weaker her protests sounded to her own ears. But a stubborn streak made her keep going even though she knew she needed to just shut up and move on as though nothing had happened.

“And besides –“ she began to say, but Sirius, who had been leafing through his Potions textbook without taking in anything, suddenly slammed his head onto the table. Everyone jumped and looked at him apprehensively.

“Bethy,” he said, almost begging with her now, “I am begging you. Give it a rest. You are beating a dead hippogriff, and it is extremely annoying to listen to. So please, please – shut up.” He said this all to the pages of his book, face-down; Beth knew he was speaking from annoyance at having to do homework again, but decided to listen to him anyway, if only to prevent further quarreling. She got out her own Potions book and began working on her essay (“A Brief History of Prominent Tenth-Century Potions”) in silence.

*

As the weeks inched by, and the seventh years became more and more buried in their homework and extracurricular activities, Beth began to think that maybe her friends really were right, after all. Certainly Severus hadn’t done anything to further his investigations – if that was indeed what they were – and he hadn’t approached her to say anything else, either. She figured that he had stopped caring or was waiting for a better time to approach her for information again. Both solutions were acceptable to her.

The first full moon passed without incident, and everything went just as smoothly as normal despite that fact that Beth and Peter stayed behind in the common room. They were decidedly anxious, and talked several times about going down there to make sure that everything was going all right, but morning came with a clean report from Remus, Sirius, and James all. Using two, instead of four, seemed like a plan that would most definitely work. It was decided that Peter and James would go and keep watch next month. James would go again in November, this time accompanied by Beth, and Peter and Sirius would sit watch in December.

All in all, if things had continued along as they had been doing, it would have been a rather uneventful year. But just as October was breaking and the leaves on the trees had begun to don their fall colors, James apparently decided all of their lives needed a little shaking up.

He and Sirius had gone down to the Quidditch Pitch after dinner one evening in early October; their tryouts were the upcoming weekend, and they wanted as much practice as possible. Peter had gone down to watch, and so Beth and Remus were left in the common room to tackle a rather nasty assignment for History of Magic. It was one of the few quiet times that the Gryffindor common room had known that year; a fire crackling in the grate and the scratching of quills on parchment were the only sounds to be heard.

The portrait swung open suddenly, just as Beth had started the last essay question, and Sirius stumbled through loudly, tracking mud everywhere. He seemed not to notice the quiet atmosphere, walking heavily across the room to flop down between the two on the sofa, accidentally knocking Remus in the head with his broomstick.

“Sirius, when did you get here? I didn’t hear you come in,” Beth said sarcastically, scooting her homework away from him so he wouldn’t drip mud on it. He rolled his eyes and flashed her what he apparently thought was a winning smile.

“Sorry about that, mate,” he added, noticing Remus rubbing the top of his head and glowering in his direction. Peter came through the entrance then, too, and joined them, making considerably less noise than the former had done.

“Where’s James?” he asked, sitting down on the hearth and holding his hands up to the blaze. Surprised, Sirius looked about him.

“Dunno,” he said. “He left before I did – thought he’d be back by now.” Apparently unbothered by the thought, he stretched out his legs and glanced around the rest of the common room. Mary Macdonald, Lily’s friend, was sitting in a corner reading a thick book; she looked up as Sirius turned his head in her direction, and instantly ducked behind the book. The still-visible tips of her ears turned bright pink.

Remus and Beth both saw this, and nudged Sirius at the same time. “Looks like someone’s got eyes for you,” said Remus, slightly sing-song, but quietly enough to spare the girl her feelings. “Or, rather, eyes behind the book.” He and Sirius snickered under their breath, shooting glances at Mary’s corner.

Beth rolled her eyes. “Leave her alone,” she said. “Girls hate being teased about that sort of thing.” She forced down a rather guilty sort of twist, trying not to attribute those words to her own life – not that it mattered anymore, of course, as she wasn’t interested in a boy at the moment – and bent with a new resolve over the History of Magic assignment.

But James didn’t show up for a very long time – not once Remus had finished his question set, nor once Beth had finished hers, nor once both of them had denied letting Sirius copy them. The only person to come through the portrait hole at all was Lily Evans, who had not stopped to chat but had gone straight up to her dormitory, pulling Mary from the chair and dragging her along.

Peter forced back a large yawn and, glancing at the watch on his wrist, helpfully informed everyone that it was a quarter to eleven. The schoolwork had long since been packed away, and Remus had pulled out a pack of Exploding Snap cards, persuading them all into a game. And finally, twenty minutes later and just as Sirius was about to explode the pile, the portrait hole finally creaked open, and James Potter crept inside, still wearing his Quidditch things. Upon seeing his friends clustered before the fire, he froze.

“And where have you been? I’m sure we’d all like to hear this,” said Sirius, instantly tossing up his cards; Peter reached out wildly to snatch them from the air before they landed too hard, as they’d already blown up several hearth tiles in their time at Hogwarts while playing the game.

James just grinned and feigned a yawn, stretching his arms a little too widely over his head. “Blimey, I’m tired,” he said, yawning again for effect. He made to move in the direction of the boys’ dormitories, but four cries of protestation stopped him.

“Well, what are you so up in arms about?” he said, pretending to be cross, but the self-satisfied smile he’d entered wearing was apparently was stuck in place. “I had some things to do after practice.”

Peter snorted in a rather undignified manner. “Must have been a lot, it’s past eleven now.” But suddenly Beth jumped up from the couch, halting any further attempts that may have been made towards conversation. Something had suddenly clicked into place in her mind – James’s lateness, Lily’s strange behavior upon returning to the common room earlier.

“You didn’t,” she said incredulously, yet with not a doubt in her mind that her theory was correct. “James!” She burst out into a fit of laughter, and his smile was now about to split his face in two.

“What? What’d he do?” Sirius said, still lost. He hopped up on his knees and leaned his arms on the back of the sofa, anticipation written all over his arrogantly handsome face.

“He’s asked Lily Evans out, and she’s said yes!” she accused, still laughing and pointing her finger at him. There was a moment of silence save for Beth’s giggles, and then all five of them exploded into noise.

Beth and Peter were both rolling on the ground, finding the fact that Lily has finally agreed hysterical; Remus was shaking his head, looking as though he couldn’t believe it; and Sirius wouldn’t stop beating James with a pillow, yelling over and over, “You idiot! You idiot!”

“All right!” James finally yelled, holding up his hands to ward off yet another blow from Sirius. “Cut it out, or McGonagall’s going to be all over us in a minute.” He was still smug about the whole thing, though, and looked as though he didn’t quite believe it himself.

“But Lily came back here ages ago,” Peter said now, having pulled himself together.

“I was walking,” James said, shrugging. “Trying to – to take in the news.” His voice was still tinged with laughter; it was going to be a long time before any of them could take the subject seriously. Remus shook his head disbelievingly again.

“I still can’t figure out why anyone would ever agree to go out with you,” said Beth, grinning almost as widely as her friend. James responded to this by picking up the discarded pillow and giving her a firm but friendly whack round the head.

*

The next morning at breakfast, Lily and Mary joined them for breakfast. Beth found this to be a refreshing change of pace – even though she shared a dormitory with both of them, she spent most of her time with the boys, and a little female company was much appreciated. She was glad that Lily had finally given James a chance – he wasn’t really the git she’d always seemed to think him to be, no matter how much he acted like it sometimes.

Sirius was in the middle of telling them about how he had nearly failed his Potions exam last year by managing to melt his cauldron; Beth had heard the story several times, but listened so as not to make him feel bad. Mary Macdonald was so enthralled that she was completely oblivious to the fact that her hand was now resting in her bowl of porridge.

Suddenly, as he was reaching the climax of the story, a shadow fell over their table. As one, the eight turned to look at who was standing there. Beth, who had just taken a sip of pumpkin juice from her goblet, choked, and Remus whacked her helpfully on the back.

Severus Snape was, for some inexplicable reason, standing there, wearing the sourest expression Beth had ever seen cross his face. She idly wondered as she tried to save face why he had to keep popping up whenever she’d finally managed to convince herself she was completely over him.

He was making this rather difficult; even as angry as he clearly was, she couldn’t help but admire him from where she sat trying to regain her breath.

“What do you want?” Sirius said rudely, looking at Severus as though he was something to be found crawling in the dirt. Severus sneered.

“I’m not here to talk to you,” he said curtly. “I need to speak with Lily.” James casually but purposefully put an arm around Lily’s shoulders at those words, and Beth’s heart sank at them without her quite meaning for it to. She firmly pushed those stupid thoughts away – there was no reason why Severus shouldn’t have had a very good and innocent reason to speak to Lily.

Not that she cared. Because she didn’t.

Lily was looking coolly up at him, eyebrows slightly raised. “Yes?” she asked, sounding almost bored.

“Not here,” Severus amended hastily, eyes flicking around the group, coming to rest on Beth last. They lingered there for a fraction of a second longer than they had on the others, and then returned to Lily. She shrugged and speared a sausage on the end of her fork nonchalantly.

“I’m not really all that interested in whatever you have to say,” she said bluntly, and Beth looked at her in disbelief. This didn’t seem to be news to Severus, oddly enough; scowling darkly, he turned and walked away, not returning to the Slytherin table but instead leaving the hall altogether. Beth was still gaping dumbly at Lily, not sure she’d heard her correctly. No matter what she thought of him, no one deserved to be treated as Severus just had.

Sirius looked impressed. “Blimey, I like you even more now,” he said, and everyone laughed. “Severus has been sort of nosy lately, hasn’t he?” he continued. “Hard for him not to be, with a nose like his, come to think of it. But I think it’s high time someone taught him a lesson…”

“What are you going to do?” said Peter cautiously; Remus was trying to look as though the whole conversation wasn’t happening at all. Sirius just waggled his eyebrows and raised a glass of orange juice to his lips.

A sick sort of feeling welled in Beth’s stomach – whatever Sirius had up his sleeve, she knew that it probably didn’t bode well for Severus, knowing as she did the former's feelings about him. Nothing more was said about anything having to do with him the rest of breakfast, but Beth’s eyes kept wandering to the door to the Great Hall, hoping Severus might reappear there. He never did.

A/N: The first twenty thousand words of this story were written in one big rush during the first half of July, and it's fun getting to look back over them now and fall in love with my story all over again. I'm surprised I was even able to function then, much less type coherently, but posting the chapters here for you guys has been giving me a chance to revise my later work and tie in things I'd completely forgotten about. It's such a big storyline -- three books' worth -- and I want to make every bit of it count. And I hope I'm doing a good job! Please, don't forget to review, it's always very much appreciated. Thank you very much for  making it this far into the story!


Chapter 6: Seeking Refuge
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Severus Snape could not remember the last time he had been in such a foul mood. He walked briskly away from the sounds of talking and eating that filled the Great Hall, equal measures of anger and hurt pounding through him, making his temples throb. He didn’t even know where he was planning to go, but anywhere was better than wherever James Potter was at that moment.

He couldn’t believe this had happened. He had ruined things with Lily, and he knew that. He’d accepted that fact a long time ago, although his brain still didn’t seem to be able to stop registering whenever she entered the room. But never did he think that she would stoop so low as to begin dating James Potter. She’d always hated James – what had changed?

Apparently, she had.

The castle was veritably empty right now, and Severus was glad of this – less people meant fewer questions later on in the day. He almost wished that it wasn’t a Saturday, so he could have had his lessons to distract him, but he faced the stretch of a day with no prospects for it. He would have relished anything to get his mind off of the firm and solid reality – Lily and James, together, a couple.

He had laughed in Rosier’s face when he’d come into the common room last night bearing that particular piece of news. The idea of it was ridiculous, utterly so. How many times in past years had Snape joined in with Lily on discussing how arrogant and foolish the Gryffindor boys were? The only person she hadn’t minded was Beth, it seemed. Severus didn’t know her all that well, but figured that anyone who was willing to hang around with James and Sirius wasn’t to be held too highly in esteem. And now Lily had crossed all the words she’d ever spoken, willingly throwing herself into their seemingly eternal company.

But as he stormed heatedly through the empty corridors, not knowing exactly where he was headed to, Beth’s face swam into his vision, momentarily distracting him. She had looked almost as hurt as he felt when Sirius had laughed at him at breakfast, and when Lily had dismissed him so icily. The look that had crossed her face had stopped him for a moment.

Maybe she wasn’t all bad, he reasoned. He had, after all, gotten up the courage to approach her to try and find out exactly what was so odd about their little group. What was even more interesting was that she had actually been willing to hold a conversation with him, and hadn’t turned away in disgust, as so many of her friends would have done. That had surprised him more than anything - he'd just naturally assumed from afar that she would treat him as something lower than dirt. That was the attitude her friends seemed to have adopted.

His steps had led him straight to the doors of the library, and after hesitating for a few moments, he strode inside, quite forgetting any further thoughts about Beth and the demeanor that seemed to set her apart from her friends. Thinking about Beth, he was sure, would only send his thoughts racing back to Lily and the unfairness of having her, for once, completely snatched from his reach.

It was cool and dim inside the library, which seemed to somewhat ease the tension straining at his temples. He nodded curtly to Madam Pince, the thin, sour librarian behind the wide desk in the center of the room, and moved silently to the rows of shelves he had haunted for the past few weeks.

No matter how hard he looked for something to finally cause those pieces of the puzzle to connect, he still hadn’t been able to do anything but give himself a long-winded headache. Beth had revealed absolutely nothing about what the five of them might be up to, and he had no idea where to begin looking. At a loss for anything better to do, he’d started filling up his spare time in the library, randomly pulling books from the shelves and flicking through them, half-hoping something in them would finally jump out at him and reveal to him the answer to the mystery. But he had no idea what he was looking for, and there were veritably thousands of books to look through. He stood a better chance by outright asking Beth again, and that said something.

Severus pulled one of the thicker tomes from its shelf as he passed, already feeling himself a bit calmer as he began to bask in his newfound knowledge, and retreated to a further corner of the room. The austere chairs and solid tables welcomed him, and he settled into them quite comfortably. The book was heavy and firm on his lap. He sighed loudly, ruffling the pages. Madam Pince poked her head around the end of the nearest stack and glared at him. Once she’d returned to whatever she'd been doing previously, he slumped back in his chair; the idling thoughts of his mind had allowed the grief to come creeping back in.

He hated being left alone to his own devices like this, wrapped up as he was in his thoughts. The mind was an evil thing, really, capable of smothering if you didn’t watch it closely. But how on earth was it fair that James Potter could just swoop in and steal Lily’s heart when he, Severus, had been trying for nearly seven years?

Loud voices at the entrance to the library suddenly caught his attention, and he looked up quickly. Evan Rosier, Neil Avery, and Ernest Wilkes had all come in from breakfast to Madam Pince’s intense disapproval. Upon seeing Severus sitting by himself in the corner, Rosier began making his way over, and the other two followed like dogs.

“Thought this might be where you ran to,” said Rosier rather smugly, standing so close that Severus was forced to look up to see into his face. His eyes roved over the scene, and stopped on the book. “What are you reading?”

“I… just something I grabbed off the shelf,” Severus said, stuffing it out of sight beneath the table. Wilkes looked like he’d discovered some juicy secret, however, and craned his neck around, trying to look under the table.

“Come on,” he said, wheedling in a way that made Severus want to jinx him. “I’ll bet it’s something you’ve stolen from the restricted section. Let’s have a look, then, don’t be shy.”

Severus looked upon the boy with undisguised disgust. Out of everyone in his group of friends, Wilkes was by far the person whom he least liked – he had a crop of thick, curly amber hair he never brushed, and a protruding upper jaw that caused him to spit when he talked. “I told you,” he said, gritting his teeth and talking through them, “I just grabbed it off the shelf.”

Wilkes, for some reason, was making it clear that he wasn’t buying that story, but before he could pester Severus further, Rosier cut him off, sinking into the chair across the table. “So what was with the sudden flight, anyway?” he asked, raising his eyebrows questioningly. “That’s not really like you, you know.”

Severus didn’t respond; thinking about Lily dating James made him want to shout and punch something at the same time. He pretended to be rifling through his bag and acted like he didn’t hear the question. Sometimes he felt extremely alienated from those he called his friends – there were some things, like this, that he could only keep to himself – and he sensed that they felt this rift now. He looked up in time to see Avery and Wilkes exchanging annoyed expressions, and felt like hexing the pair of them.

“You’ve been acting weird lately, you know,” he continued, all traces of humorous, friendly jabs now gone from his voice. “Going off by yourself, skulking around, and now this… It’s just strange.”

“So?” Severus snapped. “I don’t really care what you think about it, you know. What I’m doing’s got nothing to do with you, so drop it.”

Rosier looked surprised at the sudden and heated outburst, but regained his composure quickly. “Fine,” he said coolly. He rose from the chair just as quickly as he had sat down in it, and moved swiftly from the room, Wilkes and Avery following close behind him.

Great. So now, on top of the maddening news about Lily and James, his friends weren’t speaking to him. He had to admit, he was great at royally messing up relationships with everyone he came across, friendly or otherwise. Without realizing it, he balled his hands into tight fists, the skin stretching painfully against his knuckles.

Attempting to distract his mind from the rather disastrous conversation that had just occurred, he withdrew the book from his lap and flipped it open to a random page. He couldn’t see any of the words, however; the words were blurring before him from the anger he was still trying to surmount. Letting out a frustrated sigh, he restlessly slammed it closed.

Madam Pince came skulking around the corner of the stacks again, clutching a pile of books for shelving, and gave him a piercing stare with her beady eyes. “Do you need something, Mr. Snape?” she said icily, sounding as though she would hate nothing more than to offer him assistance.

He thought about making a rather sarcastic retort – it was what his currently caustic mood called for – but he thought better of it. “No, thank you,” he said forcibly.

She narrowed her eyes at him, as though trying to judge whether or not he was making fun of her. “Then I’d suggest you leave before you disturb anyone else’s studies,” she said. He glanced around at the empty library and looked back at the librarian in slight disbelief, but chose not to argue. Rising and leaving the lycanthropy book on the table, he made for the exit.

Upon his arrival back in the corridors, however, he was once again without somewhere to go or something to occupy his thoughts for the rest of what seemed an interminably long weekend. He’d already completed all his homework last night after Rosier had told him about James and Lily; his go-to coping method had run out. It was fortunate that the castle was so big, and so he began to walk.

The bad thing about walking, however, was the ample time for thinking it left him. Severus hated feeling so helpless and alone, and although he was loath to admit it, and certainly would never have done so out loud, the only thing he wanted at the moment was a friend like Lily had once been to him. Someone whom he could talk to, who wouldn’t judge him for his thoughts or talk down to him as though he was an inferior. The longing had never been as strong as it suddenly was now.

He was rounding a corner near the third floor – it was impossible to say how he’d ended up there – when he nearly ran smack into someone heading in the direction he was coming from. It was only through sheer reflexes from both parties that they avoided a full-on collision.

“Sorry!” The other person – a girl, from her voice – jumped back a few steps. She had apparently been as wrapped up in her thoughts as Severus himself had been. He was about to make some sort of condescending comment when, upon closer inspection, he realized that he’d nearly bowled over none other than Beth Bridger.

It took everything in him not to turn and walk the other direction. Oddly, Beth’s face had gone a vivid shade of pink, and her eyes quickly dropped to the ground. Yet she didn’t walk away, as Severus half-hoped she would; the other half of him thought he might engage her in conversation just for the sake of talking to someone.

Beth suddenly looked up quickly, as though she’d come to a sudden decision to say something she’d been thinking about. “Are you all right?” she blurted out. Severus frowned; that was not what he’d expected her to say. It didn’t really seem to fit.

“I’m fine,” he said, a bit more severely than he meant to. “I didn’t even run into y-“

“No,” she interrupted, and her face took on even more color; it was obvious that she quite regretted having said anything. Severus was bemused by the curious range of emotions she seemed to be experiencing. “I mean… after what happened this morning…?”

His stomach gave an odd jolt, and he felt clammy. So she had noticed. Well, of course she’d noticed, he hadn’t exactly made his exit a secret – but still, he didn’t want to be reminded of how thoroughly rash and unthinking he’d been at that moment.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated hastily, looking horrified at what she’d just done. “I shouldn’t have asked – I mean – sorry.” An awkward and almost tangible silence pervaded the corridor once she’d stopped speaking. Neither of them really knew what to say next – whether to acknowledge the comment, or pretend like it hadn’t been uttered at all. He stood looking down at her, just looking, while she idly kicked a spare dust bunny on the carpet runner.

“It’s… fine,” he finally said, not sure what sentiment had caused those words to pop out of his mouth, but realizing that he didn’t mind too much; she’d given him an excuse to talk to someone without biting off their head, and it was a welcome change. She looked up at him, smiling hesitantly, and he found himself returning the smile.

“Well, I was just heading back to the common room, so…” She trailed off, motioning vaguely to the corner behind him. He flicked his eyes away quickly and focused on the pattern of the panes in the window behind her, for something to do. “I’ll see you around, then,” she added, and continued on her way.

Severus stayed rooted to the spot for several moments, trying to remember the last time he’d had an interaction with someone that had ended so… normally. He hated thinking like that – it made him sound like an antisocial freak – but he had to admit, he hadn’t talked so freely with someone since his friendship with Lily had ended over a year earlier.

But she was one of the Gryffindors, he reminded himself firmly. There had to be some kind of reason she was talking to him, some ulterior motive that he was missing. No one who was a willing friend of Sirius Black could possibly have had reason to talk to him.

He crossed to the window and looked down, watching the rest of the students out enjoying what might have been the last nice day until next spring. Bodies were sprawled everywhere – across the lawn, under trees and beside the lake. He half-wished he were out there with them…

Something on the far side of the Black Lake caught his eye – a flash of red hair, exactly the shade of Lily’s. His heart leaped into his throat and all thoughts of Beth were pushed aside as the hurt and anger renewed in him. He narrowed his eyes, straining to see whatever that was.

Sure enough, it was Lily – accompanied by James, of course. His other friends were nowhere to be seen. It was just the two of them, sitting alone, laughing at something that must have been uproariously funny, and Severus had never been more jealous in his entire life. He was ashamed of the hot tears that stung his eyes, and furiously brushed them away, almost savagely, lest anyone should see them.

No matter how hard he looked, no one would ever replace the gaping hole that Lily had left inside him. It was as simple as that, and no manner of thinking otherwise would ever put that to rights. He turned away and began walking briskly in an entirely new direction, disgusted with himself.

No one from that group meant anything good for him. The sooner he stopped making conversation with Beth, the better.

A/N: Every now and again, you'll get a chapter like this one told from the point of view of someone other than Beth. Not only was it just plain necessary in order for me to get events to move as I want them to, but I think it's important to get a little omniscient sometimes. It's still very much Beth's story, however! I just can't resist a bit of Severus, though, so that's why he cropped up. He'll pop up again, too, never fear -- by the end of this, there's going to be something for everyone, I gather, so hang in there! And while I'm at it, I owe so many thanks for the current reviews. I can't believe we're already in the fifties. That just astounds me, and I cannot thank you all enough for it. That being said, that little review box down there still requires feeding, and you wouldn't let him starve? A word or two will suit me fine!


Chapter 7: Panic
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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.

“What?”

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?


Chapter 8: Rescue and Revelation
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Beth remained on her branch, clutching the Potions book without even thinking about it. Adrenaline of the worst kind had frozen her there, unable to move, stricken with terror. She watched, helpless, as Severus continued on towards the tree.

“Beth!” James’s voice, and the fear in it, shook her to action. He was already halfway down the tree, and was looking up at her insistently. She shook herself slightly and hurriedly stuffed her book back in the bag before following James as quickly as she could. He was waiting for her at the bottom; there was no mistaking the fear in his face. If something happened to Severus – if they didn’t get to him in time – the consequences were dire for all five of them.

Before her feet had even touched the ground, James had already transformed and was running flat out towards the Whomping Willow. Beth felt as though her heart was going to beat out of her chest, and she found herself whispering, over and over, as though it might calm her down. “Please be all right… please be all right…” The branches scratched her arms and legs in her hasty descent, but she barely felt them.

She hit the ground hard; looking up, she saw James still running, but the Whomping Willow was still quite far from where he was. Beth cursed herself for picking a tree so far from the shack, but took off running after James, fear lodged quite firmly in her throat. She prepared herself to transform into a falcon.

And it didn’t work.

The fear gripped her more strongly – it had never failed to work before, not once she’d been able to master the transformation. She tried again, but there was nothing, no wind beneath her, no sense of weightlessness. She suddenly felt oddly confined and trapped on the ground.

“James!” she screamed, panic-stricken; she knew he was much too far away to hear her, but she was too scared to think logically at the moment. Crossing a small rise and now gasping for air, she saw James still pounding towards the tree, which was waving its branches menacingly, daring him to come any closer. There was no sign of Severus. She let out a small moan and kept running, her lungs straining for air, not daring to stop for even a needed moment.

She screamed James’s name again, not caring if anyone up at the castle could hear her – she was beyond trying to keep a secret at the moment - and finally the Whomping Willow came into view. James was cantering around the edge of it just at the edge of the waving branches, looking for a way in. With a shock Beth realized that there was no one to press the knot on the trunk.

He looked around wildly as she sprinted toward him, begging her silently to help him. Beth could see he was just as scared as she herself was. “I can’t do it – something’s wrong –“ she said, now near hysterics, trying not to faint from lack of breath. “James, I can’t!”

He seemed to think something over for only a minute, and then just as quickly changed into himself. “Stay here!” he roared and, bracing himself, lunged forward. The tree’s branches changed their path immediately, moving from idle wavering to targeting James directly. She felt stupid and useless, only standing, watching as he wove among them, trying to avoid getting hit.

By some stroke of sheer luck, she watched him dive to the left, roll, and his hands caught the edge of the entrance to the Shrieking Shack passage. With a tremendous amount of effort, he heaved himself through head-first, and disappeared. Their threat eliminated, the branches stopped thrashing madly and resumed their old, gentle swaying.

A deep silence fell outside, so loud in its absence of sound that it pressed heavily on Beth’s ears. She paced back and forth, back and forth, across the grounds, never straying far from the tree. Her heart was still beating swiftly, more so than it ever had before, wondering what was taking the two boys so long. Again and again she tried to transform into a falcon, but every time she failed. Her breath caught in her throat; if she had to stand through this prolonged waiting any longer, she might scream at the top of her lungs.

It had to have been Sirius and his stupid pranks – Beth could have hexed him into oblivion without a second thought at that moment. This was far beyond anything else he’d ever done, and it had nearly gotten someone killed. How could he have been so thick, so stupid, as to even go so far as deluding himself that this was a good idea?

James and Severus still hadn’t reappeared, and the only thing that gave Beth hope was the fact that no sounds had come from the shack yet, either. She debated the wisdom of running back to Gryffindor Tower to wake Sirius and Peter, but knew that it would take too long to get there and back – and they’d have to dodge teachers on the way, not to mention Peeves.

Finally – finally – James emerged at the mouth of the tunnel. Beth heaved a dry sob and sank down onto the grass, shaking hands rising to cover her mouth lest he or Severus should see. It would not do to lose her cool now. But the scene before her began to unfold, and she realized that James seemed to be dragging Severus backwards, for an inexplicable reason. Panic clutched her heart anew – was he actually hurt, then?

Severus’s voice, loud and indignant, reached her waiting ears. “Let go of me!” he was snarling; he appeared to be struggling against James, who reached out with one hand to prop a stick against the knot, not listening to Severus. The branches froze, and Beth found her legs again. She quickly climbed to her feet and ran over to where the pair had stopped.

Severus wrenched himself from James’s grip just as Beth reached them, and, turning around, his eyes found hers. She opened her mouth, but no words came out. “You!” he said venomously, turning a cold eye on her; without her quite meaning it to, Beth felt her heart sink into the pit of her stomach at the hatred in his voice.

“Are you all right?” she blurted, not knowing what else to say. A fleeting look of confusion crossed Severus’s face, but he masked it immediately.

“I should have known this was another one of your immature and idiotic pranks,” Severus snapped. “You’ve sunk to their level, Beth. How sad.” Beth’s eyes darted away from the knowing sneer on his face, and despite herself she felt hot tears sting her eyes. She swiped them away furtively.

“Cut it out,” James said coldly, coming over to them. “She’s done you a favor, Snivelly –“

Don’t call me that!”

“ – and one you can only hope to repay in your lifetime,” James finished, crossing his arms stubbornly in front of his chest. Severus looked between the two, obviously unsure as to how to take that. Clearly he chose not to believe them, because his lip curled still further.

“You’re not making sense, Potter,” he said.

“You could have died,” James said sourly, gritting his teeth. “Look, I don’t know why I’m still talking about this with you – you’re obviously going to be a prat about it, as usual.”

Severus had gone oddly quiet. “What do you mean?” he said, slowly, his tone much less venomous than normal. James shot Beth a quick, panicked look, which Beth returned. Severus had obviously known nothing; they’d just revealed to him too much about their secret. Childishly, Beth wished the words were tangible, so she could take them back without Severus seeing.

She stepped forward tentatively. “We’ll tell you, but… Severus, please,” she implored, gazing at him levelly, “you cannot tell anyone else.”

“Beth!” James hissed angrily, but she ignored him. Severus looked down at her for a long moment, and then slowly nodded. Beth drew a deep breath, wondering at the wisdom of what she was about to do, and hoping that her heart wasn’t leading her brain.

“Every month on the full moon, we come out here,” she said in a rush, swallowing hard and closing her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at Severus. “Two of us, and Remus – always Remus.” Her heart quickened, and she willed herself to stay calm. Her eyes fluttered open in time to catch the look of dawning comprehension on Severus’s face. He had quite clearly understood her implications.

As though on cue, a high-pitched and eerie howl suddenly sounded from the village down the path, causing all three of them to jump simultaneously. Severus’s head swiveled in that direction, and then he turned back to Beth, gaping in shock.

“Werewolf,” he said dully, and she closed her eyes again and nodded, a lump welling in her chest. Behind her she could hear James swearing under his breath, but determinedly ignored him. No one said anything for a very long time.

“Severus, you can’t –“ Beth began to repeat finally, for a lack of something else to say.

“I won’t tell!” he snapped. There was a tension-fraught pause. “I won’t,” he repeated, his voice softer than Beth could ever remember hearing it. Her eyes swiveled back to him; he was looking at her intently, and she believed him without even really knowing why she did. A slight flush crept up her neck and stained her cheeks, and she was grateful for the cover night afforded.

“But I do have a question,” he continued, turning back to James. “What makes you think you are any more likely to handle a werewolf than I am?” His smug and superior attitude towards James had returned, and Beth almost smiled to see the latter bristle under the question. James’s eyes flicked over to her, wondering how far he should answer that question. She shrugged, although this next part of their secret was going to be a lot harder to have to share, she knew.

“Well, the four of us – that is, we’ve done something –“ James broke off, rubbing the back of his neck. Severus quirked an eyebrow at him, but said nothing, merely waiting for him to continue.

“We’ve figured out how to do something,” he began again, choosing his words carefully. “The four of us – Beth and Sirius and Peter and I – we’re Animagi.”

The shock and disbelief were etched plainly on Severus’s face; it looked very much as though he half-thought this was just an extension of a big practical joke. Beth clasped her hands behind her back, nails digging into her sweaty palms. Being thought of as a freak was the last thing she wanted – and especially by Severus, of all people.

“Show me,” he said, revealing nothing in his voice. He still hadn’t looked at Beth since his promise not to reveal Remus’s secret. James instantly transformed into a stag, and then quickly back again, looking not a little embarrassed.

After this, an awkward and rather uncomfortable silence encircled the three. None of them knew what to say, or where to go from here. Beth’s eyes darted towards the eastern horizon. Although the sky overhead was still dark, it was definitely growing lighter by the second; the sun was beginning to rise.

"James,” she whispered, “we’ve got to get Remus soon.” The sentence caused Severus to look distinctly uncomfortable and out of place, as though he knew that he was intruding on what had formerly been a private conversation. He could sense he did not belong there, but his insatiable curiosity was preventing him from stalking away and leaving the pair of them to their own devices.

James checked the watch he wore on his wrist; his mouth drew into a thin line, apparently not pleased at the time he saw, but he nodded anyway. “Can’t imagine what he’ll say when he sees you here,” he said ruefully to Severus. The latter opened his mouth to issue a retort, but apparently thought better of it, and swallowed it back, nevertheless shooting James a rather vindictive look.

James slunk for the third time down the passage, and Beth realized too late that now it was only her and Severus left waiting. “You can go back to the castle,” she suggested, wanting to bite her tongue for how stupid she sounded. Apparently Severus thought this as well, for he merely rolled his eyes.

“So you can laugh at me behind my back? No thanks. You still haven’t convinced me this isn’t one of your childish pranks. I know your lot and how much you despise me.” He scowled and crossed his arms, studying a leaf on the ground with great intensity. It seemed to take a lot out of him to say this.

Beth looked at him, a mixture of surprise and hurt conflicting in her expression. “I wouldn’t laugh at you,” she said softly. “And I wouldn’t have come to save you if this was a joke.” His eyes darted over to her, and his expression became less harsh – fleetingly so. She wondered why he always had to be prompted to look at her, as though otherwise she’d only hurt him.

She had to stop thinking things like that; it wasn’t doing her any amount of good.

Finally, after what seemed like several hours had passed, James reemerged from the tunnel, bending slightly under the near-dead weight of his friend. Remus looked both utterly exhausted and though he was about to become violently ill at any moment; this was a normal reaction after full moons, and one that couldn’t be much helped. To the relief of all three of them, he didn’t even cast an eye in Severus’s direction, and they walked up to the castle in total, thick silence.

*

Feeble early morning sunshine had just begun to tint the windows gold when James, Remus, and Beth reached the corridor of the Fat Lady’s portrait. Severus had left them in the entrance hall, turning right to descend into the dungeons where the Slytherin common room was apparently located. He said no words in parting, which caused Beth mixed emotions. But she determinedly suppressed these; her emotions were unstable enough as it was due to everything that had occurred.

The Fat Lady was snoring in a most unbecoming fashion when they arrived back. Beth and James each tried yelling the password several times before James resorted to giving her a good kick where her painted skirts met the frame. She started awake and glared down at them all; if she hadn’t been oil on canvas, Beth supposed that look would have frightened her.

“And what –“ she began, but Beth cut her off, too tired to want to hear a lecture.

“Burnt toast.”

The painting’s occupant looked affronted; she wasn’t used to being cut off. The Fat Lady liked to think of herself as a sort of honorary Head of Gryffindor and treated the students as such. Nevertheless, she swung inward, frowning disapprovingly down at the three of them, and they climbed through.

James had said nothing the entire way back to the dormitory, but now a determined sort of look overcame his features. He unceremoniously sat Remus down on one of the couches in front of the fireplace; the fire had long since gone out, and was only cold ash now. Beth glanced at him, but was more concentrated on James, who was now moving purposefully towards the boys’ dormitory staircase. Not stopping to think it through, she followed him.

It was still dark in the dormitory, much too early for Sirius and Peter to have already been awake. Jaw set, James snapped on the lights and marched over to Sirius’s bed. Sirius was blinking blearily in the sudden light, his tousled hair falling every which way except the right way.

“Everything all right?” he yawned, rubbing a hand tiredly over his face. “I’m up, I’m up –“ His eyes focused on Beth, and he started back. “What are you doing here?” he said. “You didn’t even knock, I’m in my pajamas and everything.”

“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” James said coldly, hands clenching into fists at his sides. Sirius looked confused. He untangled himself from the sheets, sweeping his hair out of his eyes. “Don’t you ever pull something like that again.”

“What did – what are you talking about?” Sirius said defensively, his eyebrows knitting together. “I didn’t do anything!”

“You know bloody well what I’m talking about!” James said, his voice rising to a shout. He took another step closer to Sirius. Beth had never seen him this mad before; although she felt his anger was justified, it was a little frightening to watch. Peter was sitting up in bed now, too, watching the scene unfold through confused and still-sleepy eyes.

A small amount of comprehension seemed to dawn on Sirius. “Are you talking about that thing with Snivelly?” he said, snickering slightly. James said nothing, continuing to look at Sirius stonily. “How did that go, by the way?” he continued eagerly.

“You nearly got him killed, that’s how it bloody went!” James said, and suddenly he stepped over and shoved Sirius square in the chest. “Are you that stupid, Sirius? I wouldn’t have thought it, but I cannot believe how far you took this."

Sirius regained his footing, fumbling for his wand in his pajama pocket, eyes blazing. “It was a joke!” he roared. “You know I was only messing with him!”

“He – nearly – died!” James was screaming at the top of his lungs now, making sure every word was clearly emphasized, and Beth knew that he was going to wake half the castle any minute. He had withdrawn his own wand now, and pointed it at Sirius, who did likewise. Beth sank to the floor, covering her ears with her hands.

She didn’t want to hear this – it wasn’t only the yelling that disturbed her so much, but all the emotions she’d been pushing down were floating rapidly to the surface. The fear she had felt, watching Severus crossing the lawn, and the sense of panic and paralysis that had gripped her when she hadn’t been able to transform to help him; the tension now permeating the room, and the anxiety about seeing Severus later on in the day. It all came back to hit her square in the chest at that very moment, and tears clogged her throat before she could become aware of them. She pressed her hands so tightly to her ears that it hurt, but she didn’t dare remove them.

She eventually became aware that the room had gone silent, except for the deep breaths she didn’t realize she’d been drawing, breaths that were half sobs and half to help her calm down. She chanced to open her eyes and saw that the boys were staring at her, looking concerned. She tried to speak, to explain herself, but nothing came out except a sort of choked, garbled sound.

“Bethy?” Sirius said hesitantly; she realized in a sudden and rather odd fit of clarity that none of the boys had ever seen her cry, and despite herself she was embarrassed. She didn’t even know why she was crying, other than the fact that she’d been so scared earlier – but that had been over an hour ago, at this point.

James lowered his wand and crossed over to her on the floor. He knelt beside her and wrapped a brotherly arm about her shoulders, and she hid her face in her hands, shame now definitely the prevalent emotion in her stomach. “S-sorry,” she stammered out, wiping her eyes fruitlessly with the back of her hand.

“It’s okay,” piped up Peter from the bed where he still sat. Beth gave a shaky laugh and sniffed, looking up at them and smiling shakily. Only a slight tremor was left in her hands to hide the fear that she still somewhat felt, remembering thinking she’d been too late; the moment had passed.

Still sniffing, she climbed unsteadily to her feet, aided by James. He gave her shoulders a squeeze and then left the room, not looking back at Sirius, who had evidently hoped for an apology.

“Blimey – I’ve never seen him that angry,” said Sirius wonderingly, staring after his friend. “I mean – you know it was a joke, Bethy.” He sounded a bit like he was pleading, wanting her to tell him everything was all right and that they would all laugh about it in the morning.

“Just please don’t ever do anything like that again,” she said seriously, looking him firmly in the eyes, now laced with guilt and remorse. He nodded solemnly, swallowing hard. Beth nodded almost imperceptibly, and then turned and followed James out the door. She wasn’t angry with Sirius so much as she was scared of what might have happened had James been too late.

A/N: Ah, Sirius. I loved this bit from canon, with James saving Snape's life - I always have - and I loved being able to incorporate it into the larger storyline even more. It was pure fun to write, and it moved the plot forward substantially, which is always good. This story is a part of me, and it's very rewarding, getting to share it all with you. Thanks so much for the reads and reviews and favorites, they mean a lot to me. Much more than I can tell you here.


Chapter 9: Concession
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Breakfast the next morning was a bit of an awkward affair. James was still furious with Sirius for the stunt he had pulled, and determinedly refused to respond to a single one of his questions or observations. Sirius, in turn, was acting falsely cheery, as though to make up for his prank gone horribly wrong. Peter looked like he didn’t know what to think, and so mostly just laughed at everything anyone said, whether it was supposed to be funny or not; Remus was shut up in the dormitory, still recovering from the full moon. And to top it all off, Lily, Mary, and Marlene had all chosen that morning to sleep late, so their presence couldn’t serve to ease the tension somewhat.

Severus hadn’t shown up in the hall that morning, either, and Beth was sure he was just as clueless as she was on how to proceed from here. It was unquestionable that she and James had saved his life last night – if he’d been allowed to progress further into the Shrieking Shack, it was almost certain that Remus would have killed him in his lycanthropic state of mind. But Severus loathed James, and had for as long as either could remember; even Beth he only seemed to tolerate.

What were you supposed to do when your sworn enemies were the ones who had saved your life? There was nothing in any book on etiquette about this, Beth was certain.

“So, James,” Sirius was saying pointedly as Beth leaned her head on her hand, toying disinterestedly with her omelet, “I was thinking that we should do something today.” James ignored him, rifling the copy of the Daily Prophet he held in front of his nose and giving a small cough. Sirius shot Beth a swift glance, and she scooted backwards on the bench slightly, as if to say, Leave me out of this. Sirius tried again.

“We could plant Dungbombs in all the girls’ bathrooms – reckon they’d think it was us? We might get away with it -”

At this point James slammed the paper down on the table, startling everyone and upsetting a pitcher of milk. Beth unobtrusively waved it back, not wanting to risk pushing James’s obviously thin temper to the edge. “I should think you’ve done enough playing tricks on people for a while,” he said coldly, raising his eyebrows. The guilty expression returned to Sirius’s face, and he sat there, gaping like a fish for a few moments, mouth opening and closing but no words coming out. Finally he was able to splutter a sentence into existence.

“All right, then – how about –?”

“I think I fancy taking a walk,” James said, rising from the table and swinging his legs neatly over the bench. “Anyone coming? Beth?” He said this last with a look in her direction so full of meaning that she knew there was no way she could have turned him down. Giving Sirius a brief, apologetic look, she followed James out of the hall and through the doors to the grounds.

It was a bitterly cold November morning; the ground underneath their feet was thickly coated in frost, and their breath hung before them like tiny clouds. She wasn’t dressed for this kind of weather, not wearing either cloak or gloves, but she knew better than to say something. Beth watched him apprehensively as he began making his way towards the Quidditch Pitch, where she could see the Ravenclaw team already practicing for their upcoming match against Slytherin the coming weekend.

He didn’t appear to make any entrances into conversation, and so she finally took matters into hand, hoping she wasn’t throwing herself under the carriage for doing so. “You really should go a bit easier on Sirius,” she said tentatively, biting her lip and crossing her fingers surreptitiously. “He is your best mate, after all. You two have never fought like this before.”

James’s jaw worked silently, giving his face a set and determined look, but he said nothing. “You know he never would have done that had he actually thought Severus might have – well, been hurt,” she continued, unable to say the action Sirius’s prank might have led to. It still turned her stomach. “And he wouldn’t be doing this to you if the tables were turned.

“I know,” said James brusquely. “And under different circumstances, I might have gone along with his stupid prank. I might have thought it was a great idea.” Beth frowned – that sentence confused her, and she couldn’t work out its exact meaning – but he didn’t elaborate. They fell into quiet companionship again, broken only by the crunching of their feet through the frosty grass. Finally, James spoke again.

“So, what do you reckon happened last night? I mean…” He trailed off, apparently searching for the right words. “With you not being able to transform, and everything?” He didn’t look at her, but kept looking straight ahead, apparently on the pretense of watching the dark-blue clad players zooming about on broomsticks above their heads.

“I don’t know,” Beth said, remembering anew the sense of helplessness that had overcome her when she had found she couldn’t fly. “It’s never happened before, and I don’t think I did anything differently than normal. Has something like that ever happened to you?”

James shook his head. “But I’ve heard –“ He stopped, and for some reason looked a little embarrassed. He ruffled up his hair on instinct, and started again. “I think it can sometimes happen when – when the Animagus is too emotionally unstable, for whatever reason – nerves, or personal attachment…” A redness that had nothing to do with the coldness of the weather seeped up into his cheeks.

Beth’s inside felt as though they’d been Vanished – surely he couldn’t have guessed, he couldn’t be talking about what she thought he was talking about. “Huh. Weird,” she said, and now it was her turn to deliberately direct her attention to the Ravenclaws. She could feel James looking at her, waiting for her to say something more, but she would rather have kissed a salamander at that point. And they breathed fire.

“Beth, you’ve been acting weird about Snape all year,” James said gently. Beth turned to him and gave him her fiercest glare, trying to tell him wordlessly that the subject was not open for discussion.

“I thought we came out here to talk about your problems,” she said in a clipped voice, crossing her arms in front of her to keep warm. James gave a slightly bitter laugh.

“Not this time, no.” He was silent again for a moment, and Beth hoped he’d finished with the interrogations, brief as they had been. If he kept going like this, she was almost sure to spill something incriminating, and she was going to avoid that at all costs. They both squinted into the steely sky, bright despite the grayness, and each waited for the other to ease into the silence.

James finally shattered it again, as he inevitably did – he hated not having noise. “Beth, do you – do you like him?” This was said in a rush, as though he couldn’t wait to get it out. She felt her insides drop completely and come to rest somewhere about her knees; how unfair was that that he couldn’t even give her any warning?

“I – that’s –“ Beth’s tongue couldn’t even seem to form a coherent word, and that was answer enough for James. He smiled mischievously, the first expression of that sort she had seen from him in a while. It was almost worth it to spill a seven-year secret in a matter of fifteen minutes for that.

Almost.

“I knew it!” James crowed, looking rather pleased with himself. Beth buried her face in her hands so he wouldn’t have to see, feeling the heat plainly on her numb fingertips and racing down to settle in the pit of her stomach. She’d halfway suspected he knew more than he was letting on, but it was a lot different to hear him say so.

“You can’t tell any of the others,” she mumbled into her hands. “None of them – especially not Sirius. He’d never understand.”

“I promise,” he said solemnly. She looked up, and he looked so understanding and true to his word that she couldn’t help but smile a little bit. “After all,” James added, cracking a grin again, “I know what it feels like to be on the other end of that spectrum of taunts.”

Beth grinned, remembering a bit sheepishly how much she’d contributed to teasing James about Lily. “Sorry,” she said, giving him a slightly abashed look. James shook his head.

“Don’t worry about it.” He stamped his feet, which had apparently gone numb with standing in the frozen grass. “So… how long have you…?”

“You’ll laugh at me,” she said, laughing herself a bit – it was nice, she realized, to be able to share this secret with someone. James just looked at her sternly through his glasses, imploring her to tell. Beth mimed zipping up her lips, and laughed at the rather hurt expression on James’s face.

“Nope,” she said teasingly. “Now come on - it’s too cold to stand out here and scour your competition. Let’s get back inside, and you can make Sirius feel less guilty while you’re at it.”

James groaned; it seemed, for the time being, he’d forgotten he was supposed to be mad at his best friend. But he didn’t argue, and he and Beth turned to head back inside the castle.

*

They never tried to pretend what Sirius had done was all right, nor that it never happened – both were too dangerous to become left behind in memories. But it sure was nice to become more or less a unified group again, rather than to have some of its members going at each other’s throats.

Severus still hadn’t spoken to Beth since that night, though, and she was a bit sadder about this than she would have liked to admit. She didn’t know what she expected – repayment, thanks. Truthfully she didn’t expect either of those things, but anything was preferable to him passing her in the halls with his gaze going straight over her head, as though she simply wasn’t there. That had been worse than the well-placed and slightly condescending comments of earlier.

With all the dramatics that had happened in such a short time span, it was sort of hard to believe that life had gone on as normal in the castle. Lessons and homework certainly continued on in a tiresome and uninterrupted flow, and other activities as well. Hogsmeade weekend came and went, with Beth as always remaining behind to catch up on homework. Going to the village didn’t interest her nearly so much as not having to stay up until four in the morning, looking up facts about self-potting shrubbery.

Perhaps the biggest preparation being made – at least by her friends – was for the Quidditch season, which had started in full swing after Ravenclaw had suffered a tremendous loss to the Slytherin team in the middle of November. Beth, Lily, and Mary had started staying up nights in the common room, decorating old sheets with logos and slogans for the House to hoist at their first match, which would take place the coming weekend, the first in December. Lily was especially excited, it seemed – it would be the first time as James’s girlfriend that she would get to see him play.

“I’ve heard he’s great,” she was saying happily, the last night before the match. She and Beth were in the common room, painting flashy gold and red stripes on the last banner. Painting alongside, she could see that Lily was extremely happy – a good sign, as previous experience had taught her to be on her guard where James and Lily intermingled.

“He is,” said Beth honestly, vanishing a spot of red paint she’d dripped on her skirt. A log shifted in the fire, sending a flurry of orange and yellow sparks up into the flue. “I think he’s really excited that you’re going to watch him, too.” Glancing sideways, Beth saw Lily flushing demurely, a small smile crossing her face as she concentrated on a thin gold line.

“What made you decide to finally give James a chance?” she blurted out, quite before she knew what she was saying. Lily looked at her in surprise. The girls had become much closer since the beginning of the year – partly by default – but they weren’t that close just yet. “Sorry,” Beth added quickly, pushing one of her tangled curls behind her shoulder and determinedly resuming painting.

To her surprise, though, Lily answered. “I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully, sitting back on her feet and plopping the brush back in the paint. “It was sort of gradual, I guess. He wasn’t totally annoying last year, after all.” Beth laughed, and Lily continued. “And then when I found out he’d made Head Boy this year, I figured Dumbledore knew what he was doing, giving someone like that that kind of responsibility.” She shrugged. “I think I just sort of went with it, actually.” A sudden, sort of luminescent expression lit up her face just then. “Do you like any of them? The boys, I mean?” she asked with an air of secrecy.

Beth wrinkled up her nose before she could stop herself. “No,” she said firmly. “Well – not that way, in any case. And this banner looks great, I’d say we’re done!” She’d quickly switched the subject before Lily could venture any further into those treacherous waters – judging from earlier this year, the subject of Severus didn’t sit any better with her than it did with Sirius, and she didn't want Lily to get the chance to go nosing around the subject of who she actually did fancy. That was someplace best kept private, at any rate.

The following morning, high tension radiated from both the Gryffindors and the Hufflepuffs, the two opponents in that day's Quidditch match. James was the picture of confidence at breakfast, and admittedly looked better than the rest of the team, who were in varying states of nerves. Sirius was talking loudly about how badly the Hufflepuffs would lose, and was earning several glares from the yellow-and-black-clad table.

“You’re antagonizing them,” Beth laughed ruefully as the Hufflepuff captain made to stalk out of the hall, nose in the air. “Lay off, Padfoot, at least until we’ve beaten them.” Looking pleased with the use of his nickname, Sirius did as she asked, and Beth resumed spreading marmalade on her toast, smiling. It was nice to have the normal Sirius back, as opposed to the secretive one, or the overly-nice Sirius they’d had to briefly endure after his little joke.

“Beth, we’d better get going, we’ve got to grab the banners for the match,” Lily called suddenly from down the table, where she had taken a seat next to James. Beth grabbed Peter’s wrist and checked his watch. Lily was right – there was only half an hour until the match began. People were already leaving breakfast to grab good seats at the pitch. The two girls stood up from the table and, having been promised seats by Remus and Sirius, left the hall to return to the common room.

As they were crossing the entrance hall, however, and speculating about the upcoming match, a band of Slytherins ascended from the dungeons, apparently late to breakfast. Slytherins never much cared about the Quidditch matches apart from their own, so this was no surprise to Beth. However, her heart sunk when she realized the group was led by none other than Evan Rosier.

And – yes, there was Severus at the back. Her stomach gave a funny sort of twist, as it always did. Rosier and the curly-haired boy, Wilkes, swept past without so much as acknowledging the girls. Severus’s eyes flicked to Lily, and then to Beth, and his mouth turned down slightly; Beth didn’t know who the gesture was directed at.

“Evans,” he said, giving her a curt nod. “Bridger.”

Lily turned her nose a fraction of an inch higher in the air and continued on her way, but Beth wasn’t going to be so rude – after all, he hadn’t done anything to her. “Severus,” she said placidly, returning the nod. He hesitated, and then, to her incredulity, a flicker of a smile darted across his face.

Her heart swelled, and the same small smile appeared fleetingly on her own mouth, as well. She ducked her head slightly and followed Lily up the marble staircase, not chancing to look back at Severus’s retreating back.

But that had been an encouraging gesture, to say the least. Maybe all hope was not lost as far as he was concerned. And maybe the other night's disastrous occurrence hadn't wrecked her in his eyes forever.

A/N: Poor Beth. Poor Severus. Such teenage angst! Back and forth all the time, it seems. I think the girl needs a break, don't you? But then that wouldn't make for very exciting reading. I've got to keep people coming back here somehow! So I think the tension and dramatics will keep building at this rate. 

I do love a good angsty story.


Chapter 10: Just Words
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Even from just stepping onto the castle grounds, Beth could already hear the clamor of noise that seemed to come from the direction of the Quidditch Pitch. It had been too long since she’d last seen a match played, and after all the crazy stuff that had happened to her so far in the year, she was ready for a bit of normalcy. Arms full with red-and-gold painted bed sheets, she and Lily hurried down to the pitch, eager not to miss the beginning.

Beth couldn’t help but speculate, though, on her friend’s odd treatment of Severus earlier in the entrance hall. Despicable as some people, like Sirius, may have thought him to be, going so far as to ignore him completely – going so far as to turn her nose up in the air – seemed like a bit much. Whatever had happened in Lily and Severus’s past, Beth suspected it must have affected Lily quite severely.

One half of the pitch was almost solid red and gold; the other, yellow and black. Midway up, Beth caught sight of Sirius waving frantically, trying to attract the girls’ attentions, and she waved back to let him know she saw. “Come on,” she said to Lily, but a shout from behind distracted them for a moment.

James was jogging toward them from the players’ entrance to the pitch, grinning. “Aren’t you supposed to be in the locker rooms?” Lily said, laughing. “They’re going to start the game without you.”

James’s smile widened. “Nah. Glad I caught you, though,” he added, smiling down at her, and she beamed back up at him. “You promised me a kiss for luck.” Leaning down, he and Lily embraced.

It was, Beth speculated, one of the oddest things in the world to have to watch two of your friends kiss. She nearly wished she had a watch so she could have timed them; it seemed to last forever. Finally they broke apart, and Lily, blushing light pink, gathered up the bed sheets she’d dropped and hastened off to find her seat.

Beth raised a sarcastic eyebrow at James, but said nothing. “Oh, shut up,” he grinned, rolling his eyes good-naturedly. His eyes suddenly darted to the ground, as though trying to remember something, and the smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. His lips twisted, and for a minute he didn’t look happy to remember she was there – in fact, quite the opposite.

“Well, good luck, then,” she said, keeping the confusion from her voice. James lifted a hand and turned to go back into the locker rooms, his eyes still concentrated on the grass. Frowning slightly, but assuming he’d just had a late case of pre-game nerves, Beth followed Lily up to where Sirius, Remus, Peter, Mary, and Marlene were waiting for the pair of them. A banner was now stretched between two people each, with Sirius holding the limp end of the last one. She climbed up on the seat and grabbed hold of it.

“Who were you talking to?” he asked, the wind nearly carrying away his words as it whipped around their heads; Sirius had chosen a place that was very high up. Beth looked at him in mild surprise, half-wondering why he was so curious.

“James came out of the locker rooms,” she said. “Why do you ask?” But Sirius merely shrugged and turned back to the pitch, where Madam Hooch had just strolled out onto the field, crate under her thin, wiry arm. Beth frowned for the second time in five minutes, knowing that Sirius was not satisfied with that answer – or, at the very least, it hadn’t been the one he’d been expecting – but she soon put it out of her mind. Her thinking was a bit skewed lately; in her view, it seemed everyone was hiding something, and that wasn’t a way to think – first accusing James of hiding something, and now this. She was going to wind up in a ward at St. Mungo’s at this rate.

Seven yellow blurs shot out onto the field then, followed on the other side by seven flashes of scarlet; Beth cheered as hard as the others as she caught sight of James’s messy hair, black against the blue sky, as he flew a lap around the pitch. Madam Hooch gave a sharp blast on her whistle, and the teams huddled around her.

“Looks like the Slytherins are supporting Hufflepuff,” piped up Sirius in a voice of feigned nonchalance, nodding towards the other side of the stadium, where some green specks mingled with the yellow and black. Beth turned to give him another odd look.

“Yes,” she said, not being able to think of anything else. “Looks like it.” Sirius studied her face, and she self-consciously raised a hand to her nose. He appeared to be searching for something, some giveaway of expression, and she had no idea why, nor what it was he was looking for.

Another screech of the whistle, and cheers once more erupted from the stands as the players rose to the sky, and the game began. To Beth’s right, Lily was clutching the corner of her banner tightly in her hands, excitement written quite clearly on her face. Her eyes darted from player to player, always coming back to rest on James.

The commentator, an overly enthusiastic boy from Ravenclaw, was already talking excitedly into the microphone from up in the commentator’s box. “And Finch of Gryffindor has the Quaffle, closely tailed by Rainier from Hufflepuff. He’s darting up the field – passes to Potter – back to Finch – near miss with that Bludger there, Finch – back to Potter – POTTER SCORES!”

The red and gold section screamed their approval as, once more, James flew a lap around the field, one arm raised high in a gesture of victory. “Has Quidditch always been this exciting?” Lily joked, her fingers now intertwined in the old bed sheet. Beth couldn’t help laughing at her.

“You’ve got it bad,” she said, not forgetting that she had said the same thing to James about Lily previously. “Yes, I’d imagine Quidditch would suddenly get more exciting once your boyfriend’s the one making the scores.” Lily stuck her tongue out at Beth, but laughed along with her.

James was on fire during that day’s match – hardly a single Hufflepuff Chaser could even come close to matching him, and the few that did never stayed at that pace for long. He scored goal after goal, making moves no one expected – least of all the Keeper, to the delight of the Gryffindors. When the Seeker for Gryffindor, Warren Tennison, finally caught the Snitch about half an hour into the game, the winning margin was nearly a record, and Beth’s voice was hoarse from all the cheering.

“Fantastic game!” Remus said excitedly, grinning broadly from ear to ear and tucking the banner under his arm. The group began heading back down to the area around the pitch to meet James, Lily leading the group and chattering away to Marlene. Mary was lurking in the back, eyes fixed firmly on Sirius, which didn’t escape Beth’s notice.

“Those Slytherins are going to be disappointed tonight,” Sirius said loudly as a group of them shouldered past. A second year with long, curly blonde hair glared at him over her shoulder, and he waved exaggeratedly and shot her a winning smile. Beth rolled her eyes.

“Knock it off,” she said, “no need to rub their faces in it.”

This seemed to be the reaction that he was hoping for, however, and she immediately regretted saying anything at all.

“What’s the matter, Bethy?” he said, smirking slightly; she was struck by just how arrogant he could twist his features sometimes. “Going to go and comfort them now?” he continued.

“No,” she said, both perplexed and annoyed. “And if you would stop being a git for five seconds and tell me why you keep bothering me about stuff like that, I’d really appreciate it.” Her scowl deepened as they threaded their way through the throng to the doors leading into the locker room.

“Come on,” Sirius said, grinning easily and moving a little away from the crowd so that the only ones in earshot were Beth, Remus, Peter, and himself. “We know you like Snivellus.”

She stopped still, her heart suddenly skipping several beats, a dull rush sounding in her ears and increasing to a roar with every second. Her eyes swiveled to Sirius’s laughing, taunting ones, and then found Remus and Peter, who were both desperately trying to pretend as though they had no part in the conversation. She tried to speak, to deny the claim, but found her mouth had gone very dry. And to that effect, her silence confirmed their accusation more than words ever could have.

“I can’t… how did you…” She couldn’t find enough words in her current befuddled vocabulary for all the questions that begged to be asked. Remus began to fiddle with the collar of his shirt nervously, still intentionally avoiding her probing look.

“Personally, I don’t see it,” said Sirius loftily, stretching his hands high above his head and yawning. “He’s foul, really. We could find you someone better –“

“Sirius, for the love of Merlin, shut up,” Beth snarled, quite past putting up with him. He looked surprised, but she was glaring at him so ferociously that he apparently thought it better not to pursue that train of thought.

And then at that moment, James suddenly appeared among them, freshly changed out of his Quidditch robes, his hair still damp from the shower. He saw Lily first, and threw his arm around her shoulder, oblivious to the others for the time being.

“Like the game?” he said, smiling fondly down at her. She nodded and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and he subtly drew his arm more closely about her shoulders. Finally he looked up, and was met with Beth’s very insulted stare.

“Erm… hello,” he said, turning a bit pink in the cheeks. Suddenly his abnormal attitude from before the match made perfect sense in her mind. She said nothing but just looked at him, a strong emotion that as of now had no name rising within her.

“You told,” Beth said at last, embarrassed at the way her voice broke slightly on the last syllable; she didn’t want to seem like some maudlin damsel in distress, not now. She couldn’t help but take a savage pleasure at the wash of guilt that seemed to engulf James, though.

“Beth,” he began, but then stopped, sensing he was beginning to breach into troubled waters. Her chest rose and fell much more quickly than she would have liked, but humiliation and anger were scratching at her chest, begging to be set free.

“How could you? You – you promised you wouldn’t tell anyone,” Beth said, a lump rising in her throat. Her hands found her wand in her robe pocket, and she clenched it as though it was a lifeline, not intending to use it but liking knowing that it was there.

Sirius’s presence – the fact that he knew, moreover – weighed heavily on her, and she was painfully aware that he knew exactly what James had been sworn to secrecy about. Pink patches blazing on her cheeks, she shouldered past them, stomping up to the castle.

“Beth, I’m sorry!” she heard James shout over the people who were closing the distance between him and her. But she didn’t care, not at that moment. For the time being she thought she might have been happy to never see James or Sirius, and even Remus and Peter, ever again. Some friends all of them had turned out to be. Friends didn’t sneak about behind their friends’ backs, or tell their secrets.

Friends who would do that, in short, were no friends of hers.

*

James was looking after Beth, a knot twisting his stomach painfully. His arm was still around Lily, although he barely noticed, and she was giving him a questioning look. “What was all that about?” she asked, drawing a little away from him.

He said nothing, not sure he could even convey the whole situation to her – nor, indeed, even if he’d want to. He’d told Sirius about it, after all, and that had blown up rather spectacularly in his face. He felt awful now, and knew that spilling a secret that wasn’t his to spill had been wrong on more levels than he could count.

That Head Boy badge seemed to be giving him a conscience.

“I told you, you shouldn’t have told us,” Remus said quietly, rubbing salt in James’s already sore wounds without quite meaning to. “She was bound to take it this way.”

“She’ll come round. This is just one of those things girls do to get boys all messed up,” he said, sounding a lot more confident than his expression revealed. It was clear that he, too, regretted letting anything about Beth’s crush on Snape slip, no matter what he denied in front of Remus. Peter alone remained silent, although he looked worried, as he normally did whenever rifts, however minor, formed between the friends.

Lily still looked perplexed. “Is this about what you were telling me the other day, James? Your suspicions?” she asked. James nodded his head and smiled a bit sadly down at her; he’d halfway forgotten he’d even mentioned anything to Lily. Just how much had he run his mouth without realizing it?

Lily’s lips pursed in disapproval, and it was clear that the idea of Beth’s crush wasn’t any more pleasing to her than it was to Sirius. But she didn’t elaborate on her reasoning, and for this James was grateful. He didn’t really want to talk about it much anymore – he felt guilt enough as it was.

James heaved a sigh that sounded weary of the world, and glanced at Sirius. “I just hope you’re right, mate.”

*

Quite suddenly, as she had almost reached the doors leading into the castle, Beth became aware of the fact that someone had been calling her name. In her blind anger, she had barely registered it. She now thought it might have been one of the boys, trying to entice her into forgiveness again, but she’d need a bit of cooling off first.

The voice insistently repeated the call, and she groaned aloud, causing two Ravenclaws who were passing her to give her an odd look. Gritting her teeth, she turned around, a choice phrase hovering on the tip of her tongue.

But her tongue remained in check, for it was not James walking in her direction, or Sirius, or Remus. It wasn’t even Peter. It was Severus.

Hope and confusion joined the battle now raging full-fledged inside her, and she attempted to keep her face neutral. He didn’t smile as he closed the distance between them, but something that resembled amusement flickered in his dark eyes.

“Can I talk to you?” he said, speaking so quietly she had to lean in to hear him. She shoved down the happy feelings that suddenly swelled within her, trying to use her brain for more rational thought.

“You already are, but you can continue,” she said, as lightly as she could muster. Severus’s mouth twitched, and his eyes searched hers, trying to gauge if she was joking or serious. He apparently found something satisfactory there, for his expression became a bit more at ease. But for several moments, he said nothing. His lips might well have been glued together, so tightly were they pressed.

“Look… I just wanted to… say thanks,” he said at last, the words coming slowly as though stuck in his brain, where they’d been lodged for a bit. “I’ve been meaning to for a while, but I just… never got the chance.” He didn’t have to say specifics; both were acutely aware of the subject avoided. He looked as though he’d never been forced to say something more uncomfortable in his life.

A sort of awkward silence fell between them as both wondered where they were to go from here. As though by instinct, they each began walking, following the movement of the crowd back up toward the castle. Severus remained stolidly silent, and she cast about frantically in her mind for something – anything – to say to fill the void. But her tongue seemed frozen, unable to formulate a single word.

It had taken a lot of courage, she thought, for him to express gratitude, but it was also puzzling why he’d chosen that moment. Doing so in the middle of a large crowd after a Quidditch match didn’t make a lot of sense, at least in her mind. She looked at him from the corner of her eye, trying to gauge what might be going on inside his mind.

He suddenly glanced over at her, and she looked away quickly, trying to pretend she’d been doing nothing of the sort. Her breath caught a bit in her chest, tensing up from the embarrassment. Severus continued to remain noiseless, however.

Beth reached the middle of the entrance hall, and let the crowds throng past her on either side; Severus followed her example. They still said nothing, though, and the intensity and longevity of the silence was making her more uncomfortable by the second. Neither looked at each other; they chose instead to look at the floor, or the ceiling, or the passersby.

But it was in Beth’s nature to be rather blunt, and, drawing a deep breath, she finally raised her eyes to his. “For the record,” she said in a rush, hurrying to express her thoughts before the courage left her, “I’ve never – never hated you.” Heat crept up and singed the tips of her ears at the admission.

Severus’s eyes flicked upwards to hers, and that ghost of a smile darted around the corners of his mouth once more. Beth’s heart soared inexplicably, and she tried desperately to remember how to breathe. It had been the most encouraging sign to date, as far as Severus went, and her feverish emotions were taking it and running wild with it.

“I’ll see you around, Beth,” he said, and she realized it was the first time he’d spoken her name without the word being laced with malice or scorn; it was a nice sound, and only served to increase her heart rate. All his words spoke of promise, and things yet to come – at any rate, no finality and no ending. Or at least, this was how she imagined it, and even if she was deluding herself she saw no reason to end the fantasies quite yet.

“Talk to you later,” she said, managing to keep her voice from shaking. Severus nodded and turned, heading off towards the dark archway that opened on to the staircase down to the Slytherin dungeons. Beth stared after him for several moments, biting the inside of her cheek, and then moved off to her own dormitory as well.

Her heart felt feather-light, and her mind was absolutely reeling in the clouds. She almost forgot, in her buoyancy, that she was mad at her friends – giddiness was rapidly replacing any ill feelings she was harboring. She didn’t mind at all.

A/N: This story has been progressing at a MASSIVE rate of late - over 10,000 words just this week! Of course, I'm currently writing the twenty-second chapter, and I've got pretty high hopes for finishing book one totally before Christmas. I'll also let you in on the very slim details: At its current planning, 'In The Black' will have a little over thirty chapters, but I've added a new one this week alone, so don't quote me on that.

Honestly - I don't remember the last time I've had so much fun writing something, and it's a pleasure to do it. I really hope you're enjoying reading it as much as I am writing it. Don't forget to feed the hungry little box down there!


Chapter 11: The Letter
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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.

“Sorry?”

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.

Beth,

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.

Mother


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.

“Guess so.”

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.


Chapter 12: A Chance Meeting
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Severus watched Beth ascend the stairs into the Great Hall, staring in that direction long after her footsteps had faded from earshot. That had been one of the most interesting, and simultaneously, the most awkward, conversations that he could remember being a part of. After all, there was no easy way to tell a girl that you’d just read a rather private letter of hers.

At the beginning of the year, he had thought of Beth Bridger as nothing but just another one of the Gryffindors, the ones who seemed so intent on setting him up for humiliation at every turn. Granted, she’d never really been a first-hand accomplice, but he’d never had reason to analyze it much. And suddenly this year she’d come in quite unexpectedly and turned all his preconceived notions right on their heads. She was so different from Sirius, and even James, that it was almost a relief. To be truthful, she was different from all other girls he’d ever come in contact with. His experience was limited, true, but it struck him just how different she was from Lily. Beth seemed a bit less sure of herself, a bit more confused, and Severus had the odd notion to protect her as a result of this.

He had lied to her, though – he had no intentions of returning to the common room. That had been more than anything an excuse to try and diffuse the awkward, mixed feelings he’d been having, although he had been loath to deceive her in any way. But more than likely Rosier and the others would be there, relaxing during their free period as well, and he felt a headache coming on that their antics would only intensify. Sighing restlessly, he paced back down the passage and back up, at a loss as to what to do with his seemingly interminable stretch of free time. His thoughts were much too cluttered to be dwelled on right now, but they kept pressing at him, wanting to be solved immediately.

Clattering footsteps at the entrance to the dungeons roused him, and Severus looked around, stopping in case he looked suspicious – no need to cause people to think him stranger than they already did. To his dismay, he realized that it was none other than the Gryffindor seventh years. How he’d forgotten that they had Potions first period, he didn’t know, but all he could process was that he had to get out of sight before Beth realized he’d lied to her, and made him out to be a fool. He quickly ducked into a shadowed alcove, waving his wand at the torch in its bracket; it went out at once.

Sirius and Peter clattered past, their book bags banging about their knees, the former clutching something that evidently Peter wanted – probably a quill, or something trivial like that. Severus couldn’t help the slight curl his lip automatically gained every time Black passed near him. The arrogance of that boy was enough to put Merlin himself to shame.

Remus passed by next, and finally – he noted this with a slight twinge in his stomach – Beth, who was talking animatedly to James next to her. He breathed a sigh of relief that not a one of them had thought to give the corner where he stood a passing glance. That certainly could have been awkward to try and explain. He waited a few moments longer, holding his breath, and finally stepped out.

But he had miscalculated – drastically miscalculated. Of course he’d forgotten that one rather principal person was missing from the group. As he stepped out of hiding, he nearly ran smack into Lily Evans, and it was only through use of honed reflexes from both parties that a crash collision was avoided. The shriek of surprise she gave, however, was rather inevitable.

“Sev!” Her hand clapped over her mouth, and she gaped at him with wide eyes; he felt his stomach twist still further, hearing her old nickname for him, a word she hadn’t spoken in a year and a half. The air around them suddenly became much thicker than it had been previously, both for that word and the apparent conviction on Lily’s behalf that Severus had been spying on the group.

Sure enough, her eyes narrowed quickly with suspicion, and they darted from Severus to the niche he’d just occupied. “Would you care to explain why you were skulking around?” she said coldly, crossing her arms over her chest.

“No, I wouldn’t,” he spat in just as icy a voice. “I don’t see where it’s much of your concern, Evans. And if you must know, I wasn’t spying.” Her eyes narrowed still further; they were hardly more than slits now. “Nice of you to start talking to me again, though. Hasn’t been that long – only about a year, d’you reckon?”

Lily groaned and planted her face in her hands. “Don’t start this now,” she said exasperatedly, her voice muffled. She raised her head, determination overcoming her annoyance. “Look. I need to talk to you.”

Dimly, it registered on Severus’s consciousness that the words didn’t give him the sort of happiness they once did. Now her annoyed patience broke through more than anything, and only prodded at his shot nerves further. He drew his lips in a thin line and looked down at her, waiting for her to continue.

“I just think you need to know that your act isn’t always so obvious to people,” she said cryptically. This was so far from anything Severus had expected her to say that it threw him completely for a loop; he couldn’t think of a single response that would have made sense.

“What?” he said dumbly. Lily rolled her eyes; he wished she wouldn’t, it was rather degrading.

“Am I going to have to put it in black and white for you?”

“Apparently so.”

“Look.” She stopped, pressed her palms together, and put them to her lips, apparently searching for the right words to use in whatever she was trying to say. “I know all about your creepy friends, and what all of you do, and your stupid little sadistic mind games. I know what your ambitions are, outside of school,” From the way her lips were pursing, she didn’t approve of them – he knew that, of course – but she didn’t say anything. “But most people haven’t known you as long as I have. And you need to be really –“

“Are you – you’re talking about Beth?” Severus spat incredulously, indignant anger coloring his cheeks white. From the way she arched her eyebrow just then, he knew he was right. It felt like molten lead was rocketing through his insides at the shock she’d just delivered him.

How on earth did she know he’d just lied to her? Beth didn’t even know, herself! Is that why she thought he was hiding, to lead her on further? It wasn’t as if he’d really meant to lie in the first place, and he didn’t see how not going back to the common room was going to hurt anybody, anyway.

But Severus couldn’t articulate a single one of his panicked, dumbstruck thoughts. He could only gape at Lily, mouth slightly open at her continued expression of disapproval.

“Just watch what you say,” she finished, and glanced down the corridor in the direction her friends had disappeared. “I’ve got to get to Potions, I’ll be late.” She turned and walked quickly away from him, long red hair swinging, but it barely registered on his mind. His brain was still reeling.

Where did Lily get off, telling him what to do, over a year after she’d stopped speaking to him? The whole thing just bloody didn’t make sense. Severus felt that he was missing a very key piece to the puzzle, but he had no idea where to go looking for it. First the whole situation with Remus and the Gryffindor Animagi – enough to boggle his mind for a lifetime - and now this. Seventh year was shaping up to be one maze of riddles after another, and it was only the beginning of December.

And why Beth Bridger kept cropping up in every one, he had no idea.

*

Sirius Black liked the castle best in that hanging moment between evening and night. The sun had sunk below the mountains that formed the horizon, but not so long ago that the world had yet gone dark. Instead the sky was a mixture of hazy purples and blues, and enough light was still afforded the long windows in the Hogwarts corridors that he could still sneak about veritably undetected, while having the protection of shadowy corners to hide in should the need arise.

That was exactly how it looked now – half-light, half-shadow, and he was doing what he loved to do perhaps best of all. One hand was cupped protectively over the right pocket of his long Gryffindor robes, which, upon closer inspection, could be seen to be wriggling slightly. Inside the pocket were three fat white mice, trying to nose their way out. A byproduct of the day’s fourth-year Transfiguration lesson, Sirius had had difficulty sneaking them into the common room without McGonagall seeing. He was sure she wouldn’t miss them; if anything, she’d just suspect Mrs. Norris had eaten them.

He froze, flat against the wall, as the Grey Lady suddenly appeared at the end of the corridor he was in. She streamed past him with a tragically mournful look on her face, apparently not even seeing him, which suited him just fine. Although ghosts really couldn’t do much if they caught you, the less eyes – dead or living – that laid witness to a prank, the better off for everyone.

A bit of guilt twisted his stomach at the thought of what he was about to do. He knew how much James and Beth, especially, would hate him for it, however temporarily. They still hadn’t gotten over the potential fiasco of luring Snape to the Whomping Willow, no matter how many times he’d expressed remorse. And he was sorry, but now they seemed dead-set against setting jokes of any kind, no matter how minor. And Sirius was having a hard time living like that.

One of the mice in his pocket gave an overloud squeak, and he backed quickly into a corner in case it had attracted anybody’s attention. No footsteps approached, a good sign, and he let out a long breath before stealing back down the corridor. The girls’ bathroom was just around the next corner.

Night was quickly falling, and light was descending into shadow; he needed to hurry before the torches flared to life, for they would eliminate virtually all hiding places along blank stretches of wall. With soft steps he padded down the carpet runner and reached the door to the lavatory. No noises seemed to be coming from inside, and he knelt hesitantly next to the door, careful not to squish the mice. Gingerly he reached up and turned the knob; the door creaked open on severely rusty hinges, and he winced. The noise sounded much louder in the comparative silence.

“Good evening, Mr. Black.”

The voice was so unexpected and so sudden that Sirius quite literally jumped, his knees briefly leaving the carpet; the mice in his pocket peeped in alarm. He whipped around, heart thudding, to see none other than Professor Dumbledore standing only a few feet away from him. He was smiling genially, hands clasped before him, as though merely curious as to what Sirius was doing.

“Hello, sir,” he said with a bravado he didn’t feel, clambering quickly to his feet and trying not to feel like a little boy about to be punished. Dumbledore’s bright blue eyes flicked briefly to Sirius’s pocket, which was still bouncing about from the mice, but he decided not to comment.

“Lovely, erm, weather,” Sirius tried again, gesturing vaguely to the window nearest them. Outside it was so dark hardly a thing could be seen except the stars, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say in the shock the headmaster had just bestowed upon him. To be fair, he rationed he could have said something a lot more stupid than inventing false weather.

Dumbledore beamed again. “The mice in your pocket certainly seem to be enjoying it,” he said, his eyes twinkling mischievously. Sirius’s own eyes darted to the bulging right side of his robes and quickly back again. A guilty flush crept up his neck.

“How did you guess what I was doing?” he asked a bit sheepishly, unable to keep a smile of his own from creeping across his face.

“I admit it was a rather fortunate error that brought me to this corner of the castle,” said the headmaster cheerily. “A simple wrong turn on the way back from dinner has had me wandering about for the better part of half an hour.” He lowered his chin a notch so as to peer more effectively over his half-moon spectacles but said nothing more.

“I’ll just… return the mice to the Transfiguration classroom, sir?” Sirius asked, as though gauging whether this was the correct response. Dumbledore smiled for a third time.

“I think Professor McGonagall might appreciate it,” he said serenely. With a gesture that may or may not have been a wink – Sirius was never quite sure exactly what the headmaster might be doing – he turned to go.

At that moment, something occurred to Sirius, and so suddenly that he nearly gasped aloud. For weeks now, perhaps even months, he had been searching for a way to broach a very sensitive topic. It required tact – something he admittedly didn’t have much of – and so far, he hadn’t found a way to do it. Now, as he watched the retreating figure of Professor Dumbledore, he realized that just such an opportunity had arisen. He called after him before rational thinking could quite catch up.

“Professor?”

Dumbledore turned; he rather looked as though he’d expected the summons. He said nothing, however, merely waiting for Sirius to raise the question. Sirius swallowed largely, finding himself suddenly rather short on oxygen.

“I was wondering – that is, sort of hoping – could you tell me about –“ He paused, not quite knowing where to take that question. “I don’t know the name of it,” he began again, more slowly this time, “but I – I overheard you and McGona –“

“Professor McGonagall, Mr. Black?”

“Yes – I overheard the two of you talking about it, and ever since –“ This was a lot harder than he’d suspected, trying to find the right words without making himself out to be a complete arse. But somehow, miraculously, Professor Dumbledore seemed to know exactly what he was talking about. He raised a slender hand, his face grave but his eyes still sparkling slightly.

“I know the conversation you reference, Mr. Black,” said the headmaster, “and in truth, I have been wondering whether you didn’t know about it.” He paused, apparently searching for words himself, and something buoyant seemed to appear in Sirius’s insides. Finally, he seemed about to get some answers.

“This is not the place to discuss such matters, however,” Dumbledore continued. “But if I suspect we are talking of the same thing – and I am inclined to think we are – then you may know that I am not against letting you into the confidence of Professor McGonagall and myself, as an overage wizard.”

Excitement made Sirius’s heart patter, and he unconsciously took a step closer towards the professor in his eagerness. “And James? Remus, and Peter, and Beth?” he asked enthusiastically, unable to control his emotions. Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled again, and he nodded.

“Yes, Mr. Black. Your friends as well, if they are of a mind as you are.” It seemed the headmaster couldn’t keep a chuckle from escaping him. “I must confess once again that this isn’t entirely unexpected,” he chortled, amused with himself. “You can expect to hear word from me within the week.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sirius said breathlessly, all ill humors he might have held previously in the evening at once evaporated. Dumbledore winked again, and this time there was no mistaking it for what it was. Humming to himself, he turned once more and walked back down the corridor, sweeping around the corner and out of sight.

Coupled with the excitement Sirius was feeling was a buzz of adrenaline, so strong it was as though his blood was jumping about in his veins. He just managed to restrain himself from jumping up in the air, mindful still of the mice rolling about in his pocket. He could hardly believe his luck – he was going somewhere, a plan was in motion, a plan to take him beyond the mundane and ordinary. Sirius had known all along that he hadn’t dreamed up the secret society of Dumbledore’s, and now he had everything but solid proof of its existence.

Mice quite forgotten, he broke into a run, heading back in the direction of the Gryffindor common room. There was no way that this kind of breaking news was going to wait one more second; he had to relay what Dumbledore had told him to his friends immediately.

A/N: I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I am that we're finally getting into the swing of the story! Severus thinking, and the Order of the Phoenix becoming fact -- these are the crucial bits of the story, the actual plot details, and I half-wish it hadn't taken so long to get here. But I feel that everything up to this point has been necessary, you know. It would be sort of hard to join the Order if you didn't know what it was, or for Lily to speak to Severus without reason. So, that's my story, and I am sticking to it.

Please don't forget to review if you've read this chapter, I have so many amazing readers that I want to get the opportunity tell you how much you mean to me.


Chapter 13: Joining Up
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For Sarah, whose endless support I do not deserve and am so honored to have.

*

Hogwarts had had a fairly dry season that autumn, but now that winter had set its claws deep into the castle, the wet weather was following on its heels in the form of sleet and snow. The sound of small particles of ice was a familiar sound now during evenings spent in the common room, students warming themselves by the ever present roaring fire and doing homework or playing games. Beth enjoyed the sound, curled up as she usually was in the armchair with a book or roll of parchment tucked cozily onto her lap. It was peaceful, she thought, to be in here while the elements raged outside.

Remus and Peter were on the ground in front of the chair, playing Gobstones - Peter was beating Remus rather badly, and Remus kept cursing silently under his breath in spite of himself, as he more than any of them hated losing at games. James was in the adjoining armchair to Beth’s, trying to copy off her homework without making it blatantly obvious that he was doing so. And Sirius was nowhere to be seen, although she had a hunch that he was off doing something that was against at least five school rules, and probably more. The fact didn’t please her necessarily, but there wasn’t much that she could do about it.

With a clatter, Peter took the last of Remus’s Gobstones, winning the game. He cackled gleefully and proposed a rematch. “Not a chance,” said Remus, a yawn stifling his words. He reached back and stretched, rubbing his hands over his eyes. “Blimey, I’m beat.”

“You played three games of Gobstones,” said James flatly, rifling through the pages of a textbook; Beth had just covered an answer subtly with her elbow, and having to find his own answers was putting him in an irritable mood. “I weep for you if that wears you out.”

“Yes, and it’s got nothing to do with the full moon coming up,” his friend shot back sarcastically, albeit in a low voice so their surrounding classmates wouldn’t catch wind of the conversation. James said nothing, already tuned out to the conversation as he pored over a page in his book. Remus rolled his eyes and got up from the rug, stretching again.

“Beth? Up for a game?” Peter asked, rattling the bag of Gobstones in what was apparently supposed to be a winning sort of way. He looked so hopeful that she hated to turn him down, but she hated the game. She shook her head and gave him a sad sort of smile.

“Guess I’m heading up too, then,” he said gloomily, stowing the back in the pocket of his robes. “Wait up, Remus.” The two boys disappeared up the staircase leading to the boys’ dormitory, and at that moment James let out a little noise of frustration.

“For the love of Merlin,” he said through gritted teeth. “Beth, I beseech you. What on earth are goblin’s teeth used for in potion making?”

“You beseech me?” Beth smirked, not looking up from carefully sketching a diagram of a newt’s eye. She thought it rather funny to see James in such a state about his schoolwork – not only did it speak volumes about his desperation, but it was just plain fun to watch him get so worked up sometimes, simply because it was a rare occurrence.

The other Gryffindors in the common room began to trickle up to bed in small groups as the sleet gradually began to beat upon the windows with more insistency. Beth finished her diagram but stayed in her armchair, knowing that eventually she’d cave to helping James, who was still looking through his book in vain for the answer that was eluding him.

It really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to them when Sirius barreled into the common room once more, leaping over people and furniture when he spotted his friends around the fire. He wore the same wildly excited look he’d adopted on the other occasion he’d done this, when he’d come sprinting in to confirm the existence of that secret society he was fond of blathering about. Beth watched him with raised eyebrows as he finally stumbled to a halt in front of their chairs.

“Sirius, do you know how gob-“ James started to say, his nose mere inches from the book, but Sirius cut him off with a curt wave of the hand.

“Not important. I need to talk to you in the dormitory, right now. It’s urgent. Crucial. Now move.”

“You just kicked that second year’s book clear across the common room,” Beth said helpfully, pointing to a boy seated by the window, who was now scowling mightily in their direction. Sirius rolled his eyes, positively dancing from foot to foot now.

“Is your pocket squeaking?” Beth asked, eyes now moving to the right pocket of his robes, which – now that she examined it closely – was bulging rather strangely. Sirius clapped a hand to it and snapped the fingers of his other hand impatiently.

“Doesn’t matter! Up! Dormitory! Now!” he said; he really sounded as if he might burst from whatever he needed to share. Beth and James shared a swift glance across the end table that separated their chairs. Shrugging, James closed his textbook and put it in his bag. With nothing else to do, Beth followed suit, and the three of them quickly ascended the staircase and barricaded themselves inside the seventh year boys’ dormitory.

With an almost impatient flick of his wand, as though he didn’t have the time to do it, Sirius lit the lamps ranged along the circular dormitory walls. The two lumps in the beds that Remus and Peter occupied stirred sleepily, roused by the sudden light. Remus rubbed a hand over his face.

“D’you mind?” he croaked, burying his face in his pillow now, so his voice was oddly muffled. “Some of us like sleep, mate.”

“I have news,” said Sirius importantly, climbing atop his own bed and balancing himself carefully on the bed’s footboard to survey them from his newfound height. Peter let out a rather undignified snort from the far wall.

“If it’s as important as the last time you did this, it can wait until morning,” he said, sounding a bit more awake than Remus but not much. “Honestly, I was just about to –“ He stopped in midsentence, frowning in Sirius’s direction. “Why are your robes making funny noises?”

Sirius made a noise of disgust deep in his throat. “Will you all stop talking about that?” he cried impatiently. “This is serious!” He waited, eyeing them each in turn to make sure he had the full attention of the room, and only then did he continue.

“Remember that secret society? The one I’ve been telling you about for months?”

“You mean the one you overheard McGonagall and Dumbledore talking about?” said Peter. Beth rolled her eyes, unable to help herself after the already-trying night she’d had with James and his inability to do his own homework.

“Can you think of another one?” she asked. Peter looked a bit embarrassed, and made a sort of general motion for their friend to continue with his announcement. Sirius cleared his throat and again surveyed his small audience with a bit of pomp.

“Well, I’ve been talking to Dumbledore, and-“

The effect of these words was immediate: Beth clapped a hand to her mouth, eyes wide. Peter tumbled out of bed, James leaped up onto his own bed, bag of books forgotten, and Remus pursed his lips in obvious skepticism. “You talked to Dumbledore about this secret society?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Sirius frowned; it was clear to Beth that he hated the continuous flow of interruptions. “Yes,” he said testily, crossing his arms moodily over his chest. It was Remus’s turn to snort, this time in evident disbelief.

“And how exactly is it you came to be talking to Dumbledore?” said Beth, not without doubts of her own. Sirius had certainly been known to spin a tall tale or two before now – and even if he was telling the truth, there was no innocent reason as to why he would have been wrapped into a conversation with the headmaster. Sure enough, a fleeting look of guilt crossed his face.

“Never mind that,” he said hurriedly, suddenly becoming engrossed in picking an invisible piece of lint off the arm of his robes. “It’s not relevant – look, do you want to hear what I’m trying to say, or not?” A note of desperation crept into his voice.

James was now doing a ridiculous sort of series of hops on his bed, clutching the bedposts excitedly, and Beth giggled. Like Sirius, the idea of belonging to something covert, something that would be working to bring down You-Know-Who, appealed immensely to his sense of adventure. She had to admit herself that the prospect of a plan for once she left Hogwarts – a plan where she knew she’d be doing something important – intrigued her greatly.

“So, did he say exactly what it is?” Remus continued, looking a bit more convinced but still unable to rid his mind of the more practical aspect. “Like, do we know anything more than we knew before?”

“I can’t say,” said Sirius a bit vaguely, adopting a haughty expression.

“More like you don’t know,” Beth piped up, grinning and leaning against the bedpost on Sirius’s bed. He scowled down at her, and James laughed.

“You ruin all my fun, Bethy,” he said sulkily. “You’re worse than Remus, sucking all the fun out of everything.”

“I don’t - !” Remus began indignantly, but Sirius just shot him a winning smile.

“Only kidding, Moony, mate,” he said cheerfully, and relieved the slight tension in the dormitory by deciding to aim a kick in Beth’s direction for her comment. He hadn’t really been intending to make contact, but accidentally nudged her in the temple with his foot, unused to his lofty height from where he stood on his bed. Looking rather pleased at how that had turned out as he watched her rub the side of her head in a wounded manner, he turned back to the others, who still looked mildly expectant; James looked as though he might wet himself with excitement at the news.

“Okay, yeah, Dumbledore didn’t say a lot. Or, well, much of anything. But,” he added defensively, “he said that he’d send word within the week. Guys, don’t you see? We’re going someplace!” He leaped off his bed, seemingly unable to stand still any longer, and paced up and down in front of the end of his bed.

Beth felt a shiver of excitement of her own run up her arms, tingling the back of her neck and around the place where Sirius had kicked her in the head. Peter was still sitting on the floor, a look of creeping anticipation creeping slowly across his face, and even Remus looked like he was warming to the idea.

For several moments no one said anything – everyone in the room seemed to be basking in the prospects of things yet to come, possibilities as yet untouched but very real. Beth could only imagine what sorts of things would be occupying her mind this time next week; thoughts of Potions homework and Gobstones suddenly seemed trivial and far from her mind.

*

True to Sirius’s word, only a few days passed between his announcement and the day that a letter was delivered to him over breakfast. Since their tension-fraught exchange in the dungeon corridor, Beth and Severus hadn’t exchanged a single word – she assumed that he didn’t really know what to say about the divorce and his knowing about it, and she supposed this was natural.

No further letters had arrived from either Beth’s mother or her father, which was expected but still not appreciated. The more she tried to make things make sense in her mind, concerning the divorce, the more glad she was that Sirius had stuck with his secret society plan. Not only would it be something to do, but it was guaranteed to keep her far away from all but necessary contact with her parents – a plus from every angle.

She still felt a bit guilty about not letting James, Sirius, Remus, or Peter into this secret, although it wasn’t as though they had a right to know. She was well-practiced, it seemed, at hiding bits of her life from them. But, foolish as it was, she couldn’t get rid of the slightly romantic notion in her head of having a secret just between her and Severus.

Would she have let her friends in on it, she wondered, if Severus hadn’t intercepted the letter first? She told herself that she didn’t know, although she had a pretty good idea what the answer was. But dwelling on her parents’ divorce, and who did or didn’t know about it, didn’t do anything for her mental situation. Turning her attention to the big news – this anti-You-Know-Who secret society, which she was all but already enlisted in – was what needed to be her sole focus at the moment.

When the unfamiliar, regal-looking tawny owl landed gracefully in front of Sirius’s pancakes a few mornings after his news about his society, the five of them at the table looked at it with equal measures of reverence and apprehension. Lily, Mary, and Marlene, who were eating with them, were the only ones who didn’t seem to register its appearance. After all, it wasn’t as though owls were uncommon.

Trying to look nonchalant, but fully unable to hide his evident excitement, Sirius reached forward and quickly untied the letter from the owl’s leg. The slanting handwriting on the scroll was unfamiliar, but there was absolutely no question as to who it was from.

Sirius,

As to the matter discussed three evenings ago, I request that you and your friends kindly join me in my office this evening at eight o’ clock. Professor McGonagall will meet you outside the large gargoyle in the entrance courtyard to escort you there.

Professor Dumbledore

The look of ecstasy that crossed Sirius’s face upon finishing the rather brief letter could not have been any plainer. “Told you!” he gloated in a frenetic whisper, hastily stuffing the roll of parchment into an inner pocket of his robes. “What about it, eh? Shall we go?”

“Are you mad?” James asked incredulously, a wide grin of his own nearly splitting his face in two. He glanced to his right at Lily, who was talking animatedly to Mary, and leaned forward a bit toward the others. “Of course we’re going, this is nearly all you’ve been able to talk about the whole year!” This seemed to settle the matter, and everyone reverted back to breakfast as normal, although a sort of electric current of adrenaline seemed to be running through the lot of them.

Picking up her fork once more, Beth cast a furtive look up at the high table, where Dumbledore was chatting pleasantly with Professor Flitwick. Upon turning in her seat, however, his gaze flickered over to her for the briefest of moments. She was sure he winked at her over his goblet.

*

Eight o’ clock seemed to be forever in coming; lessons dragged on worse than ever, and studying in the common room after supper was even worse. Beth glanced at her watch every five minutes, willing its minute hand to move faster. The closer it came, the more excited and anxious she grew about it. It was a strange feeling to be a part of something elite, a feeling she’d never before experienced.

James and Sirius had abandoned their homework completely by seven-thirty, claiming they couldn’t work, and by a quarter until eight Peter had joined them in playing Exploding Snap, essays for Herbology forgotten on the round table by the fire. At five minutes until eight, as though by mutual agreement, they all looked at each other for confirmation. Beth closed her book, the Exploding Snap cards were abandoned on the hearth, and in a group they left for the entrance courtyard.

Night had already settled over the castle, and the torches set along the walls cast long shadows in front of the group as they walked. They were quiet – something that rarely ever happened – as all tried to guess exactly what sort of thing they were about to get themselves into. Beth’s mind still bore tiny seeds of doubt, and she found herself hoping once more that Sirius knew what he was talking about. But she’d seen the note from Dumbledore – surely any misconstrued words wouldn’t have made it this far into the planning.

Just as expected, Professor McGonagall was waiting by the large stone gargoyle, a wary and slightly disapproving expression pursing her lips. The five came to stand in front of her; Beth couldn’t shake the absurd feeling that they were being punished for something. “I do hope Dumbledore knew what he was doing,” she said, more to herself than to them, and turned to face the gargoyle.

“Fudge Flies,” she said crisply; at once the gargoyle leaped aside, revealing a moving spiral staircase. Wordlessly Professor McGonagall motioned them forward and, feeling a bit apprehensive, Beth took the lead.

The stairs led upward in a tightly revolving spiral, and Beth closed her eyes – she hated spiral staircases, as they gave her a nasty feeling of vertigo, and a moving one only took it a step further. Behind her, James gripped her elbow, knowing of her fear and not wanting her to fall backwards onto him. Finally she stepped off onto a little platform, and the door there swung open, seemingly of its own accord. Still not speaking, the five of them filed in, McGonagall trailing them and shutting the door after her.

Dumbledore was seated at a desk in the middle of the large circular room, writing something with a large phoenix-feather quill. Portraits of past headmaster and headmistresses on the walls began to mutter and whisper at the entrance of the five seventh-years, but were silenced with a stern look from the deputy headmistress. An unseen clock ticked loudly into the silence; Beth, who had come to stand in front of Dumbledore’s desk, moved her feet nervously.

Finally, the headmaster looked up from his parchment, smiling warmly as though he couldn’t have been more pleased to see them all standing in front of him. McGonagall moved around to stand on the right side of his chair and a little back, her lips still pursed and a slight frown creasing her eyebrows.

“I trust that you all know why you are here, correct?” said Dumbledore mildly, folding his hands atop his desk and surveying them all from over his half-moon spectacles. Sirius and Peter shared a swift glance and Sirius nodded, stepping forward a bit as though proffering himself as the spokesman of the group.

“Perhaps you could begin by telling Professor McGonagall and myself exactly what it is you already know,” he suggested, smiling slightly behind his long silver beard. So Sirius told Dumbledore what he knew, although fresh in Beth’s ears it sounded like not much to go on at all. The whole premise from his version sounded weak and unfounded, and she idly wondered how he’d ever gotten the headmaster to believe him in the first place.

When he’d finished, Dumbledore nodded and took a moment to think, seeming to choose his words carefully. “First, I think, is the name,” he said at last. “The society you speak of, Mr. Black, has termed itself the Order of the Phoenix. And you are correct in saying that our sole aims are to work to undermine the movements of Lord Voldemort.” Beth shuddered at the use of the name and instinctively clapped her hands to her ears.

“How many people are in the Order?” James asked, stepping forward too, so as to be level with Sirius; Beth could see the eagerness had returned in full swing to his features.

“Few enough to keep us busy, but not so little as to keep us from doing our self-appointed jobs effectively,” the headmaster replied – rather cryptically, Beth thought. “Forgive me for not being as explicit as you might wish. The walls may have ears,” he added, and James nodded.

“So – if we joined,” Remus said hesitantly, sounding as though he didn’t quite believe the words that were coming out of his mouth, “what would we be doing?”

Dumbledore again took a minute to mull over his answer to this. “Quite simply, there are no set jobs,” he said. “Certain things that need doing, but there is always something else to do. I couldn’t say for certain unless and until you became active, however.” Beth’s head began to ache dully from the riddles this man was talking. Remus seemed satisfied with this answer, though.

There reigned another awkward silence; Professor McGonagall was glaring imperiously from one to the next, as though defying them to ask any more questions. Beth’s own mind was a blank, buzzing with the feeling of doing the impossible, and quite empty of any questions.

“I must impart on you the seriousness of this decision,” Dumbledore finally spoke into the silence. “This is not a commitment to take lightly. I offer it to the five of you because I trust you to bear it well. You have, after all, managed remarkably well to keep yourselves out of detention.” His twinkling gaze lingered on James and Sirius in particular, who grinned knowingly at each other. “You are all overage, and so I have no qualms. But keep in mind it is not an obligation.” He peered at each of them now, as though to judge their reactions to his statement.

Quite suddenly, Beth was filled with a surge of something like confidence. She knew absolutely that this was what she wanted to do after school. She would find ways of earning money – it was more than likely she could guilt her parents into giving her money if it came to that, especially in light of their situation. For the first time she saw a positive, albeit selfish, side to the divorce. “I want to do it,” she said firmly, so loudly into the silence that all heads swiveled in her direction.

Dumbledore nodded, and James spoke up too. “I’m in,” he said excitedly, smiling broadly.

Sirius, Remus, and Peter all replied with equal convictions; Dumbledore beamed at them all, delighted. McGonagall gave an almost inaudible sniff, but said nothing to the contrary. He rose from his desk and said simply, “I think it wise to leave further discussions to a minimum until you leave school. Professor McGonagall, if you could escort them back to Gryffindor Tower?”

And, as simple as that, the conversation was over just as quickly as it had begun. Back through the door, down the spiral staircase, and out into the courtyard. Once again, no conversation passed between them, until McGonagall left them at the portrait of the Fat Lady and swept off to her own office.

“Can – you – believe –it?” Sirius crowed ecstatically, practically dancing from foot to foot right there in the middle of the corridor. James’s own attitude mirrored that of his friend’s; they both seemed about to take flight from giddiness. It was infectious, and Beth found herself laughing without quite knowing why.

“We’ve done it!” she said, unable to believe it herself. It was a bit much to take in, but she only knew that she was happy – deliriously so – that she had agreed to be a member of the Order of the Phoenix. She, Beth Bridger, would be working towards the betterment of the entire wizarding community – the entire world!

It was only once she’d crawled in bed nearly half an hour later, unable to return to her school work after the excitement of the night, that her mind drifted back at all to the still-pending news of her parents’ divorce, still unshared with her friends. She shoved it down, turning over to look out of the window at the sliver of moon in the sky.

That news could wait; it had waited thus far. No harm in prolonging the secret she shared with Severus just a bit longer, if only for her own selfish and slightly foolhardy pleasure.

A/N: I forgot to mention this in the last author's note, so I thought I might as well talk about it quickly here - better late than never! I'm writing an original fiction novel for National Novel Writing Month, and as such, I won't be focusing terribly much on this story until December. That being said, however, you can still expect fairly regular updates, as I've got a pretty healthy backlog of chapters to submit. But in case I seem a bit distant (as if most of you could tell, anyway!), that's why.

I am so, so grateful for all of you - the fact that you read this and leave reviews, you cannot begin to know what it means to me. You are the reason I keep doing this, and I thank you so much. It is the world to me. But of course, that little box below is always hungry. Toss him a line or two if you've got the time! Thank you!


Chapter 14: Conversations and Catalysts
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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.

Beth –

Meet me in the entrance hall in half an hour. Wear your cloak, it’s cold outside.

James

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!


Chapter 15: The Map
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“I hate you.”

Beth looked up from her Potions textbook, a bit alarmed, to see Sirius scowling intently at the quill clutched in his right hand. From the expression on his face, she might have thought he was looking at a Slytherin, although she roughly shoved this thought away. She set the book down warily on the table.

“Feeling all right, Sirius?” she asked in a voice of deliberate sarcastic concern, and his eyes briefly darted up to meet hers before looking back down at the quill and giving it a frustrated little shake.

“It blotted ink onto my paper. That is the fifth time today,” he said, and, leaning over slightly, Beth could see that there was indeed a large and rather luminous splotch of black ink covering a marvelously large area on the surface of his parchment.

“I don’t think that was the quill. I think that was you,” Peter piped up from across the table, a splotch of ink of his own speckling the tip of his nose. Sirius opened his mouth to issue an unthinkingly biting retort, but Beth stepped hard on his foot lest he say something he’d regret five minutes from now.

They were all in relatively low spirits lately, despite the rapid approaching of the Christmas season. Winter exams were inevitable, tied firmly to the break that followed after, and Sirius had slacked off just enough all semester that he felt suitably panicked now. While he might not have overtly cared about school, he preferred not to be expelled or held back for his horrible marks.

“I swear, holiday break cannot come fast enough,” he said, flopping back in his chair with a restless sigh, tossing the offending quill onto the parchment and blotting the paper still further. “I cannot concentrate on a single bloody thing anymore. Every time I so much as look as a textbook, I get a headache.”

“If you had spent more time with them earlier, you might be friends now,” James quipped in a failed attempt at cheering his best friend up, but if anything, it made the expression on Sirius’s face that much surlier. Beth leaned over and pointed her wand at the blots on the page, muttering, “Tergeo.” The ink appeared to be sucked into the wand’s tip, leaving the page blemish-free. However, he did not appear as though he were about to thank her for this particular random act of kindness.

“Let’s do something,” he said, sitting up straight in his seat and bouncing slightly, gaze alternating restlessly between his friends and the scenery outside. James glanced up sharply, eyes glinting behind his glasses.

“No pranks,” he said firmly.

“I didn’t say pranks,” Sirius retorted, although his face fell a slight degree; Beth almost felt sorry for him, until remembering how horrendously his last prank had gone. “I said let’s do something. Anything. Come on, we’ve been studying enough,” he added, reaching over and snatching Beth’s book from underneath her nose. She let out a little exclamation of dismay.

“What do you want to do?” Remus asked in a voice that was not quite monotonous, but very close to it; he had not lifted his head from the sentence he was painstakingly writing on his own homework. Sirius cast his eyes around the common room for inspiration, finally coming to rest on a very old and faded map of the world tacked haphazardly onto one of the walls of the common room.

“Let’s make a map,” he said suddenly, and his eyes suddenly lit up with a boyish sort of intensity. Beth paused in the motion of dipping her quill into her inkwell and raised her eyebrows high onto her forehead.

“A map,” she stated plaintively, wanting to be absolutely sure that she had heard him correctly; it didn’t seem like the sort of thing he might normally have found fun. “What, like one of the astronomy star charts?”

Sirius waved this idea away impatiently, already seeming to get more and more engrossed in whatever scheme his brain had newly concocted. “No, like a map,” he emphasized, rummaging around in his bag now and emerging with a large, fresh sheet of parchment. Beth admired this about Sirius perhaps more than anything else, the fact that his brain could latch on to one idea, seemingly from nowhere, and take it to the absolute ends of the earth if necessary.

“A map of what, though?” said James, who nevertheless looked intrigued by whatever thoughts were flitting around Sirius’s head.

“The castle,” Sirius said slowly, looking up and glancing around; it appeared as though he all thought them a trifle slow. “C’mon,” he added, “who knows the castle better than we do? We know all the secret passages, all the corridors.” He was getting more excited by the minute, and Beth felt as though it was infectious, despite the fact that she wasn’t one hundred percent sure what he had in mind still.

Looks of growing enthusiasm had begun blooming on James and Peter’s faces now. “What we need to do, if we can find a way to do it,” Peter said – he had begun to bounce a little in his seat – “is to make it so that we’re the only ones who can read it. Especially if we’re putting secret passages and stuff on there.”

“Brilliant, Wormy!” Sirius crowed happily, his tongue protruding between his teeth as he concentrated on drawing a straight line with the tip of his quill, which he seemed to have forgiven for its previous blotting. Remus looked over skeptically, and finally sighed, twitching the parchment away from his friend.

“Hey!”

“You’re never going to get it done at that rate,” Remus said with an enigmatic little smile. “Hang on, let me grab something from the dormitory –“ And before Sirius could protest further, Remus was off his chair and heading up the stairs to the dormitory, taking the parchment with him. Beth decided that no more homework was getting done for at least the next hour or so, and closed her Potions book with only small regrets.

A few silence-filled minutes later, Remus was back, and a thick tome was now tucked securely under his left elbow. “Got it,” he said, panting slightly. “Was at the bottom of my trunk, of course –“ He let it fall with a thump onto the table the five occupied, causing it to shake a little. He immediately began to rifle through it.

“Would you mind telling me why you stole my brilliant idea and ran amok with it?” Sirius said sarcastically, trying to take back the parchment with its single ink line, but Remus swatted his hand away impatiently. Beth tilted her head sideways, attempting to read the cover of whatever book he had fetched from his trunk.

Basic Architectural Magic: A Guide for Beginners,” she read aloud, and laughed. “That sounds dead boring, Remus. Why on earth would you buy that in the first place, let alone bring it to school?” Remus shot her a glare and didn’t respond, continuing to flip pages and muttering unintelligible words to himself. His finger was zooming along the small lines of print as fast as his eyes were.

“Here it is!” he said in a whispered voice of extreme triumph, bending his head a bit closer to the book; the other four unconsciously did the same. From her upside-down vantage point, Beth could see a small, moving illustration of a man casting a spell on what looked like a blank stretch of wall. Something like the ghost of that wall shimmered by his wand’s tip for a moment before it floated down and sort of morphed with a book at the illustrated man’s feet. The drawing picked up its book and showed it to the reader, so a pen-and-ink copy of the wall he’d just charmed showed up on the pages.

“Basically, it’s like lifting a copy of the castle away from itself, and putting it on paper,” Remus explained, seeing as both Sirius and Peter only looked confused as they tried to take in what the little illustrated man was now repeating to perform. “Saves you a lot of drawing, and a lot of inaccuracies. It’s what they do in the Ministry’s Construction Department when they’re just starting out, to learn from already-constructed buildings.”

The lines of confusion cleared from Sirius’s brow and he looked, if possible, even more excited than he had before. “I might kiss you,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone, ignoring the way Remus’s nose wrinkled up as he yanked the book to his chest for closer inspection. “So, you can do this?” he asked, looking up at his friend.

“I… think so,” Remus said; Beth and James caught the brief pause between the first two words and darted quick, smirking expressions at each other. It was obvious that Remus had never tried the charm before, but he wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity to flex his magic skills.

“Try it,” Peter said excitedly, now snatching the parchment away from Sirius and thrusting it eagerly at Remus, still standing up over the book. Remus took the parchment gingerly, as though it might bite him, and glanced down at the book for the proper incantation.

“It looks difficult,” he said doubtfully.

“Well, you brought it up, you’ve dug your own grave,” said James cheerfully, leaning forward on his folded arms and grinning excitedly. “Come on, the worst that could happen is, what – setting the castle on fire? We’ve had enough close calls to make that prospect a fairly boring one, I’d say. Try it, mate!”

Beth leaned forward in anticipation, mirroring James, as Remus pushed Sirius’s map slightly to the side to make room to see in the incantation. He lifted his wand, cleared his throat, and suddenly looked up across the table at Sirius. “Give me more parchment,” he said tersely. “This isn’t going to fit on this one sheet.”

In one fluid movement, each of the four swooped down into their bags and withdrew copious amounts of blank parchment, veritably throwing them at Remus so that he briefly disappeared beneath an onslaught of yellowish sheets. He made vain grabs for them and eventually had laid enough out so it looked like a sort of misshapen yellow paper blanket was covering the table.

Grandly, and perhaps a bit nervously, Remus checked the book’s incantation once more before swiveling to face the tapestry-covered wall of the common room. James, Beth, Peter, and Sirius waited with bated breath as, for a moment, he hovered between breathing and speech.

Iterum Aedificus,” he half-whispered, as though potentially afraid of what the spell might do, and he even visibly winced. Beth thought with a slight bit of amusement that it was entirely possible he was afraid he might blow the castle up, although she had more faith in him than that.

What happened was both very interesting, and extremely weird. It was as though the castle lifted away from itself, or perhaps more literally, a transparent shadow of the castle; it spread over the literal stone and wood where the five were sitting, and then condensed automatically. Remus, who seemed to be holding his breath, moved his wand over to the sheets of parchment, the shadowlike thing moving with it. It adhered to the paper at once, as though knowing what to do – which, as it was a spell, Beth rationed it probably did.

They all crowded around as Remus, looking a bit more confident now, pointed his wand once more at the paper. This time no spell was needed, it seemed, for the castle shadows that had briefly hovered on the paper were now being inked over by an unseen hand, right before their eyes. Another wave of the wand, another wordless spell, and the loose edges of the parchment sealed themselves together, as though they had never been separated at all. Beth’s mouth dropped open, and similar reactions occurred on the faces of the other three boys.

“I think we need to build you a statue,” James said solemnly, and reached forward, hesitating a bit before his hands grasped the newly-made map eagerly. “This is without a doubt the best thing I have ever seen in my entire life. And I was the one who got to witness Mulciber fall into the lake last year in the dead of winter.”

“Yeah, I don’t think the giant squid was very happy about that,” Peter said, snorting with laughter, but the rest of them shushed him anxiously, their eyes still greedily poring over the map that Remus had made.

“The rooms are even labeled correctly,” Beth said in a sort of reverent voice, pointing to the nearest square through James’s extended arms; it was in the exact shape of the Transfiguration classroom, and was labeled exactly that. It was certainly one of the more impressive pieces of magic she’d ever seen, and she’d seen James and Remus conjure their corporeal Patronuses before. “This is great, Remus!”

“Look at what else it did!” Sirius burst in, his hand knocking Beth’s aside as he jabbed with an excited finger at the map. He was indicating what looked like one of his earlier ink blots, but suddenly Beth saw that there were tiny words lettered in white on the dot – and it was moving.

“Oh, I didn’t know it did that!” Remus exclaimed, his nose, like Sirius’s, mere inches from the map as he ogled this newfound discovery. “I guess that sort of just goes with the rest of the blueprint. A map of living people.”

“This is wicked,” Sirius cackled gleefully, snatching the map from James’s hands and turning it this way and that, his eyes gleaming excitedly. “We still need a protection sort of thing, though. Like Peter said.” He nodded his head in his friend’s direction.

“What about –“ Remus began, but Sirius was already drawing his wand out from his pocket, brows suddenly furrowed in something like concentration. He tapped it a few times pensively against his chin – Beth noticed he’d forgotten to shave again – while the rest just watched him a bit warily. Finally, a look of comprehension cleared his brow, and he cleared his throat authoritatively.

Claustrum Contego,” he said with a bit of a flourish, waving his wand in an attempt at the correct motion. Beth had never heard of this particular spell before – it was probably one of those joke ones only boys like Sirius would know, anyway – but before she could open her mouth to tell him so, a brilliantly large spray of dark black ink squirted up from the parchment, completely coating his face.

There was a moment of sustained silence, and then James and Beth began roaring with laughter as Sirius continued to sit there with a blank and slightly stupid look on his face. Remus wordlessly passed a handkerchief over to him, fighting laughter himself.

“What exactly were you trying to do?” he asked once Sirius had cleaned off most of the ink, and could now see a bit of the humor in the situation.

“A… an ink alarm,” he said a bit ruefully, now crossing to the window and attempting to see his reflection in it to evaluate how much ink he’d managed to remove. “So if anyone picked it up we didn’t want seeing it…” He trailed off, shrugging his shoulders in an attempt at nonchalance. “It was a good idea,” he said defensively, seeing that Beth and James were dangerously on the point of hysterics now. “Shut up, you two.”

“Complicated, though,” Remus said, frowning and tapping his own wand against the table thoughtfully. “Something subtler, I think –“

As though Remus’s words had triggered a reaction, James suddenly let loose a sound that sounded like a cross between a snicker and a snort, his eyes scrunched up in mirth. Sirius looked at him strangely. “I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” James said, tears sprouting in his eyes as he stood up. “Back in a flash.” And, like his friend before him, he began a brisk trot up towards the boys’ dormitory.

“Does anyone else have a slight feeling that we don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into?” said Beth cheerfully, after a moment of silence. Peter snickered and raised his hand.

James came hurtling back down the stairwell so fast that he careened right into the wall, his shoulder slamming hard against the curved stone, but he didn’t let it faze him; he charged straight for the table and slammed a book down so hard that one of his quills rolled off the table and clattered onto the floor, where it lay forgotten for the time being.

Sirius snatched it up as though it were something much more valuable. “This… is that prank book I gave you last Christmas,” he said. “As a joke.”

“Thanks for that, by the way, and I bought you that new bottle of ink and everything,” James grinned ruefully. “But no – there’s a spell in there, hang on –“ And he yanked it back, rifling through its pages with such eagerness Beth was afraid he might rip one in the process. “Here it is!” he crowed after a minute of terse silence. His head shot up so fast that his neck popped distinctly. “You can embed spells into magical objects, right?” he directed at Remus.

“I – I think so,” he answered, though for the second time that evening he didn’t look at all sure. James shoved the book toward him and Remus read aloud. “The Critic’s Curse – insult your enemies, mess with your mates, and enjoy a string of over two thousand nasty insults.” He quirked an eyebrow and looked from James to Sirius, who were both laughing in obvious pleasure at this sort of idea.

“You write your name down on paper, see,” James said, gesturing to the map for emphasis, “and then you do this spell, see, and it gives you all sorts of wicked insults – I tried it out, it called me a foggy-eyed troll –“

Sirius was now laughing so hard he had to pause and wipe tears from his eyes. “Let’s do it,” he grinned, “everyone – write your names down – no, no, your nicknames, that’s better –“ Talking so fast his words were barely intelligible, he seized the map, which was already looking thoroughly battered, and grabbed the offending quill, scribbling down his name hastily and shoving it toward Beth. She took the quill and wrote ‘Talons’ in slow, careful letters, still a bit unsure of what exactly she was doing but feeling a bubbling of excitement nonetheless.

The map made its rounds, and then Sirius snatched it back to add a final touch. Underneath their list of names – the order now reading Moony, Wormtail, Talons, Padfoot, and Prongs, as Sirius had typically not started at the top of the parchment – he wrote “Proudly present the Marauder’s Map” in large script underneath. Everyone made exclamatory noises of approval at this.

It was wordlessly decided that Remus, the best at spells, should be the one to attempt the prank – and he studied the book intently before clearing his throat for a second time, pointing his wand again at the paper.

“Wait!” He was cut off right before speaking by Peter, who looked a bit anxious. “How are we supposed to get it? Unless we just want a piece of paper that hurls insults at everybody?”

“Oh. Good point.” Sirius paused, leaning his chin pensively in his hand. “Um. Well, what about like, a password?”

“What about the portraits?” Beth cut in quickly, the excitement simmering in her insides rising just a notch higher. “They have passwords, don’t they? Some of them, the Fat Lady –“

“The Fat Lady is not going to just give up whatever magic is behind her passwords,” said James a bit glumly, mirroring Sirius and dropping his head onto the palm of his hand. There was a brief moment of silence, and then Beth tried again.

“What about Sir Cadogan?” The rather boisterous old knight, who was supposed to live in a painting near the Divination tower but really roamed where he pleased, sometimes stood in as a substitute for password-protected paintings. “I’ll bet you anything he could tell us.”

This idea seemed to be new to the others present; dawning looks of realization appeared on each face in turn. “What are we waiting for, then?” Sirius cried at last, jumping up from his chair so fast it skidded a few feet behind him before toppling over outright. “Let’s go!”

Nobody needed telling twice. Remus snatched the map up in the tumult, and almost as one solid entity they fled the common room, ignoring a rather irate Fat Lady shouting at their retreating backs, and dashed toward the Divination tower, Beth hoping that this would be one of the days they would see the knight as they went.

To her immense relief, a suit of armor that more than likely housed the oil-painted man could be seen lounging by his rather fat pony, snoring softly. They slammed into a halt in front of his ornate frame, and Sirius jabbed a rather rude finger into his canvas middle.

“What ho, heave to, and hold the fire!” Sir Cadogan cried, starting awake so suddenly that the visor of his helmet swung shut to block his vision with a bang. He gave a sort of trumpety snort and glared up at them. “What do you mean by it, scallywags? Startling a good sir out of –“

“Long story,” James interrupted hastily, leaning forward so that his nose almost touched the painting. “Look, could you tell us what sort of spell Dumbledore puts on paintings to allow them to have passwords?”

Sir Cadogan emitted a series of annoying clanks as he struggled to his feet, using the unhappy-looking horse to regain his balance. He drew himself to his full height and said in a rather unmistakably haughty voice, “I do not see as to how it is any concern of five young hooligans –“

But his sentence was cut off further as Sirius poked him again.

“What, what, what, what!” Sir Cadogan blustered, not seeming to know exactly what he was saying, as his visor had fallen again. He pushed it back and shook his fist at Sirius. “I’ll have you know that that is a move not permitted in the grand, noble tradition of the duel –“

“Hey, there’s an idea! Duel him for it!” Remus said, poking Sirius in the shoulder. Sirius’s eyes lit up, and he began scrambling in his pockets for his wand.

“Winner gets the password,” Beth said eagerly, prepared to referee as Sir Cadogan tried his hardest to get a word in edgewise. “Ready – set –“

“Now hold on one moment!” the knight roared, but Sirius pointed his wand at the frame, and a minor explosion ricocheted through the tight corridor. He dove behind the pony – a fruitless attempt, it was to be discovered once the smoke had cleared, for it had spooked and run into a painting several yards down.

“All right, all right, you blistering coward!” Sir Cadogan shouted, arms having flown up to cover his head. “Portus Passum, but for Merlin’s sake stop making things bloody explode!”

“Excellent, much obliged,” Sirius said eagerly, once more pocketing the wand and turning to Remus. He had already performed the spell – rather quick of him, Beth thought – but nothing appeared to happen.

“You’ve got to say the password aloud,” Sir Cadogan muttered spitefully from behind them.

At the same moment, James and Sirius spoke –

“I solemnly swear I am up to no good.”

“Mischief managed.”

The map in Remus’s outstretched hands glowed a faint sort of orange color before returning to its normal state. James and Sirius looked at each other, neither really knowing what to say. “Which one is it?” Peter asked at last, in sort of an awed whisper.

Beth leaned over, feeling a bit silly, and put her mouth close to the folded parchment, the ink still showing through as clearly as ever. “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

The ink didn’t fade in the slightest. Biting her lip, Beth tried again. “Mischief managed.”

At first, nothing – but then, slowly, the lines of the rooms and the tiny, moving dots that were people seeped back into the parchment, as though being sucked through by something invisible. Remus gave a little yelp, a huge smile splitting his face.

“It worked! It worked!” they all cried in turn, Sirius looping arms with Beth and Peter and doing a sort of jig right there on the faded green carpet runner.

“The spell, Moony, the insults spell!” he cried suddenly, nearly losing his head completely and tossing his hands about in excitement. Remus, who appeared to have forgotten, quickly withdrew his wand and leaned over to speak to the map again.

“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.” Beth felt another thrill shoot up her spine as the ink seeped through – “Moony, Wormtail, Talons, Padfoot, and Prongs proudly present the Marauder’s Map” – and as the tiny, moving black dots came into focus, he tapped them with his wand tip.

Foedus Verba.”

A sickly sort of green light seemed to snake around the map before it, too, sunk into the paper. “That should be all right,” Remus said, still grinning as his eyes roved over the map, taking in each detail greedily.

“I don’t know how Christmas is going to top this,” Sirius said happily, slinging an arm around James’s shoulder, and Beth felt rather inclined to agree.

A/N: I wasn't looking forward to writing this chapter intially, but the more I worked on it, the more fun I had creating my own version of things. J.K. Rowling never told us expressly how the map was created, so it was a bit of a puzzle, trying to figure out how four seventeen-year-old boys (and, in our case, one seventeen-year-old girl) could work such a tricky piece of magic. I hope it worked for you!

Please, don't forget to leave a review -- a line or two always makes my day, and the poor review box is crying for nourishment. Would you disappoint such a handsome fellow? I rather think not. Much obliged!


Chapter 16: Christmas Boys
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The entrance hall was full of noise, as it always was at this time of year, when everyone was preparing to leave for home for the winter holiday. Trunks, tightly bound and secured, lined the walls and were stacked three or four high, waiting to make the trip down to Hogsmeade Station to return home for the Christmas holidays. Everyone’s voices seemed ten times louder than normal from the excitement and bustle, and echoed largely off the cavernous ceiling and stone walls.

Beth stood out of the way near her friends’ trunks, feeling a bit separated from it all. The fact that her trunk wasn’t among these, and that she would be staying at the castle with Sirius, hadn’t quite sunk in yet – it was still a bit of a strange and foreign notion to her. Granted, she would much rather be here than at either of her parents’ places – that wasn’t even a question – but a small part of her brain didn’t even want to register their divorce, even now.

If any of the boys had thought it suspicious that she had suddenly decided, in her seventh year, not to go home for Christmas, they never voiced it to her. Their plans hadn’t altered, and for the most part life was moving on in the same direction for each of them. She was still a bit guilty about not bringing up her parents’ divorce to any of them yet. It seemed like the longer she waited – and she had no idea why she was waiting – the more awkward it would eventually be.

James and Sirius bounded over like playful dogs at the moment, their energy restored tenfold now that their exams had been completed and they didn’t have to do any more schoolwork for at least another week. “You should have come to join the festivities, Bethy,” Sirius said.

She raised an eyebrow. “Where have you two been, and what sort of festive things have you been doing?” she asked skeptically. “The most exciting thing that’s happened around here is Gregory Whitburn’s cat got loose again, and it took them about ten minutes to wrestle it back into its cage.”

“Funnily enough, we also have been messing about with cats,” said James happily, thrusting his hands in his pockets and leaning against the stack of trunks. “Mrs. Norris, in particular. Gave her a little kick each so she won’t forget us over the holidays.”

There were few inhabitants of the castle that James and Sirius in particular, but all of them in reality, hated more than Mrs. Norris, the caretaker’s cat. They were always searching for ways to antagonize her, much to Filch’s intense displeasure. Beth rolled her eyes. “Sorry I missed it,” she said dryly. “What, not skulking about with that map thing?”

Sirius’s face suddenly darkened, and he shook his head, dark hair flopping in his eyes. “I’ve been told I can’t muck about with it while the others are gone,” he said, sending a glance James’s way. “Apparently, I’m ‘not to be trusted’.” He exaggerated this last by making small quote marks with his fingers in the air.

“Too right you aren’t,” James responded cheerily, tipping Beth a broad wink. “It’s packed away in my trunk, disguising itself well as a bit of spare parchment.”

Slender white hands closed over James’s eyes from behind at that moment, and Lily suddenly appeared there, a warm smile brightening her face. “Aren’t you going to say goodbye?” she teased. James smiled and removed the hands from his face.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he beamed fondly. “Come here, I want to give you your Christmas present.” He took her by the hand and led her to a more private corner of the hall. Beth and Sirius watched them, the latter shaking his head as though in slight disbelief.

“He’s totally smitten,” he said wonderingly, seeming unable to quite comprehend it. “Poor bloke.”

“It’s not a bad thing,” she laughed. “He really likes her, he always has.”

“Talking about James, then?” said Remus, sidling up to them with Peter behind him. Their eyes were in the direction of the corner, too. James was removing a small, stout box from an inside pocket in his robes, and he presented it a bit shyly to Lily.

“Can you see what it is?” Peter whispered, standing on tiptoes to try and crane his neck around to see what James had snuck out to get Lily. But he had rather effectively turned his back on the four of them, shielding whatever it was from view.

He glanced around briefly at them, and then did a double take to see them all watching so avidly. Sirius waved exaggeratedly, and Beth slapped his arm quickly to his side. “Cut it out, you prat,” she laughed.

But then the two of them parted after James bent down to kiss Lily, and she moved back up the steps in the direction of Gryffindor Tower. James stood by himself a few moments, smiling at nothing in particular, and finally turned on his heel to saunter back over to them. He raised his eyebrows at the blatantly expectant looks on their faces.

“What?” he asked innocently, although he couldn’t conceal a grin from slipping about the corners of his mouth. Sirius shook his head ruefully, and Peter punched him playfully on the arm.

Filch, who had been moving about the hall signing off tags on trunks and giving all the happy students especially dirty looks, now moved over to the doors leading onto the grounds. “All students preparing to take the train back to King’s Cross assemble in one straight line,” he said in an annoyed voice, eyes bulging slightly as always.

“Guess this is it, mate,” said Sirius cheerfully, clapping James on the back. “Try not to blow up too many things while you’re away, then.”

“I could say the same about you,” James laughed, patting Sirius back in return. Goodbyes and hugs were exchanged, and Beth again felt that sense of displacement when James, Remus, and Peter went to join the long queue of students while she stayed by the trunk with Sirius.

“Well, that’s a promise that’s soon to be broken,” Sirius said cheerfully, rubbing his hands together briskly. “My Christmas won’t be nearly complete unless I’ve blown up at least five toilets by the time they all get back.”

Beth rolled her eyes and nudged him. “You’re incorrigible,” she said. “The last thing you need to be doing on holiday is taking out imagined frustrations on innocent toilets.” Her eye roved unconsciously about the hall, but she saw no sign of Severus.

Not that she was looking for him explicitly, of course.

“Come on,” she said, nudging Sirius again and gesturing with her head in the direction of the Great Hall. “I’m going to go and beat you in a game of chess.”

“You’re on,” he laughed. With a final wave at their three friends, they turned and entered the warmth of the dining hall, parting ways for Christmas.

*

The first thing that Beth’s mind registered when she awoke early the next day, Christmas morning, was the rather obnoxious sound of tinny, false Christmas carols. She scrunched her eyes shut further, trying to block out the noise, but it persisted on, beating against her eardrums. Her eyes reluctantly opened, and the whiteness of the new-fallen snow outside her window nearly blinded her.

Beth squinted, blinked some more, and finally adjusted to the icy light. Her eyes slid over to the pile of parcels at the foot of her bed, and then, yawning a bit, she checked the watch on her bedside table. It was only five o’ clock in the morning. And then she realized that the stupid carols were still playing from somewhere, and what was more, it seemed to be disturbing her roommates.

“Will someone cut out the noise? First owls and now this,” mumbled an indistinguishable voice from across the room. Beth grinned, thinking of James’s owl tapping on the window, and quickly swung her feet out of bed, shivering slightly as they touched the icy hardwood floor. But this time the source of the noise was not as apparent, and she paused in the center of the room, listening hard. It seemed to be coming from somewhere right over her head.

A tiny cluster of jingle bells, attached to a few leaves and berries of holly evidently snuck out of the Herbology greenhouses, was floating in midair as though held by a string. It twirled about slowly, now playing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” slightly off-key. And as she became aware of something cold and wet falling on irregular intervals on her face, she realized someone had bewitched these particular jingle bells to snow.

“Sirius,” she muttered under her breath, and snatched her wand from the drawer of her nightstand. She pointed it quickly at the revolving bells, and they fell with a clatter to the floor, their music and the falling snow stopping at once. Someone else groaned and Beth hastily scooped them up and shoved them in the drawer her wand had occupied. Then, gathering her parcels in her arms, she nudged the dormitory door open and slipped down the spiral stairs, her feet still bare and the floor still stinging them with its coldness.

Every year, Sirius had said, whoever was left at the castle for Christmas would open their presents together around the tree in the common room – it was a sort of tradition, apparently, although Beth herself had never been a part of it. And, as expected, Sirius was already in position beneath the tree, the vision of cross-legged impatience, bouncing slightly up and down.

“Finally,” he said, drawing out the word in a melodramatic moan when she appeared at the bottom of the staircase. She rolled her eyes and chose not to comment – probably wisely – and sat across from him, plopping the parcels from the end of her bed on the worn hearth rug. Sirius’s own pile was neatly stacked, and considering he did almost nothing neatly, it was fairly obvious he’d been waiting for some time.

“Thank you for the bells,” she said sarcastically, pulling the top package – a square box from James – off her pile and untying the string from it slowly. “I think everyone in my dormitory wants to murder me now, what with all the noisy distractions you guys keep sending up so early in the morning.”

“They should thank us, think of all the money they save on alarm clocks,” said Sirius, already through with his present from Remus, a new pair of carpet slippers – James had accidentally chucked Sirius’s in the fire last Christmas, and he’d been hinting heavily for a year about new ones.

“You’re awful,” Beth laughed. She removed James’s present from its box – a large tin of treacle fudge, which she hated and he loved, a fact well known to him. She shook her head, smirking slightly, and gingerly set the tin aside. Her hands moved to the next box in the pile, and then stopped just short. Her mother’s large, looped handwriting stuck out on the wrappings, clearly visible and instantly recognizable. But she couldn’t let Sirius know her apprehension as to its contents, because of course he didn’t know anything was wrong. She carefully lifted it down, hands shaking slightly, and was surprised by its weight.

“Is that from your mum?” said Sirius interestedly, stopping the process of ripping the paper off his next parcel to watch. “You’re bound to get a better one than I did from mine. She decided it would be a good year to send me the crumbs from their fruitcake. And not even the whole fruitcake, mind. I think I’m a bit insulted.” He paused, as though a thought had just occurred to him. “I think that fruitcake’s been in the pantry for a while.”

Beth laughed, not being able to help it – Sirius loved telling horror stories about his family almost more than anything. The laughter died quickly, however, as her attention returned to the box on her lap. A bit warily, she lifted its lid – there was no string to tie it down – and her eyes fell on a large sheet of parchment covering whatever was underneath. Like the letter sent to Beth after the divorce, Amelia Bridger had barely bothered to write more than three lines to her daughter:

My dearest and most darling Bethany,

Happy Christmas to my most wonderful and special daughter. I hope that you’ll find great joy in using these, and in being a member of the Prescott family, as I have. Many Christmas and New Year’s blessings, and hoping to see you soon,

Mummy

It took every ounce of her self-restraint not to literally gag at the sappy words that had positively oozed from her mother’s quill. Her subtle hinting at Beth’s being a Prescott and not a Bridger, nor the fact that she seemed to place a rather sudden emphasis on their nonexistent mother/daughter relationship, passed Beth’s notice. She flung the parchment away almost in disgust. If Sirius seemed to think that odd behavior, he said nothing about it.

Now even more hesitant about what might be in the box, she carefully took out the first of three boxes, each made of blue velvet and looking old and careworn. Inside the first large box was a heavy necklace made out of some rainbow-colored gem Beth couldn’t identify; in the second box, a matching bracelet, and in the third, heavy earrings. None of the pieces of jewelry would have made their way onto her wrists at any time, and Sirius was apparently thinking the same thing.

“Merlin, those are ugly,” he said, taking the necklace box and tilting it this way and that. “Family heirlooms always are.” His joking demeanor faded somewhat as he added, “Any idea why she sent these to you, anyway?”

“No idea,” Beth mumbled, not really wanting to get into family dynamics at the moment, although she could already feel her emotions beginning to crack under the strain of her warring parents, more evident now than it had been for a good while. Her curiosity calling to be sated, she rummaged about her stack (Sirius had now abandoned his own to watch her), and withdrew the medium-sized box with her father’s tiny cramped scrawl on it. She ripped off the paper hastily and opened the box, which was even heavier than her mother’s had been. The note inside was, if possible, even more brief:

Bethany,

Happy Christmas to you – you are growing into such a young woman. I hope your schooling is proceeding well, and I hope to hear more from you when you return here this summer.

Your loving
Father


Almost without thinking she crushed the letter in her fist, hot tears stinging her eyes before she could stop them welling up. She was sick of it – sick of being a pawn in a game she didn’t want to play, sick of having to witness the fights even from Hogwarts, once a relative sanctuary from her parents’ arguments. And now they’d started to play each other against her through wholly unsentimental letters, a new low.

“Are you all right, Bethy?” She’d almost forgotten Sirius was there, and blinked at him for a moment as though trying to place him. Finally she swallowed and nodded, shoving the parchment roughly into the grate behind him.

“Yep,” she said gruffly, and roughly extracted a leather bag from her father’s box; from the way it clinked and jingled, she knew it would be filled with Galleons to bribe her. Opening the bag would make her sick, and she didn’t bother, but shoved it back where it came from and pushed both boxes far from her.

“Doesn’t seem like you’re all right to me,” Sirius persisted, fiddling with his pajama trousers for something to do. She looked up at him again, and as she swiped furiously at her eyes, a wave of tension seemed to ebb from her. Words poured out before she could stop them.

“My parents are getting a divorce. I’ve known for a while, but – but it’s never seemed like a good time to bring it up. It’s not exactly the most pleasant thing to hear, is it?” She stopped, her face flushed and her eyes bright, although she felt a little better now it was out in the open. Her stomach squirmed uncomfortably and she chanced to glance up at Sirius. The lack of shock on his face surprised her, however.

“We thought it was something like that,” he said, and her mouth dropped earthward before she could catch herself in time. “I mean, you haven’t been yourself, have you?” he continued, apparently not noticing the effect his words had. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Well, it’s like I said, isn’t it? It’s not something I’m rather fond of talking about,” Beth said a bit defensively. “So you guys knew about it all this time? You could have said something too, you know!”

“Guess we didn’t want to talk about it either,” he grinned, reaching across and untying the string from one of her parcels almost without thought. Beth didn’t mind; it felt as though a huge weight she hadn’t even realized she’d been lugging around had been lifted instantly from the pit of her stomach. No more hiding anything from her friends – and it was an unprecedented relief.

The rest of Christmas morning passed in what Beth assumed to be a usual – namely uneventful – fashion. She’d given Sirius a book on prank jinxes, ones she hoped were fairly harmless, as she hadn’t looked closely through the book; he’d taken to trying some out on the second-years clustered across the room, trying to escape their notice, although it was a bit conspicuous when he had a suspicious coughing fit after one of them sprung antlers from his thick dark hair. Beth silently thanked Sirius for having the presence of mind to remove the offending adornments when the boy screwed up his face, preparing for tears – the last thing they needed was to get a detention during the holidays.

At noon they descended the steps to the Great Hall for Christmas dinner. This was, if possible, the thing Beth had been looking forward to most about staying at school for the holidays. A Christmas dinner without some sort of argument was nearly a foreign concept for her, and meals – especially feasts – were sure to never be dull with Sirius around. He was a bit brash, and more than a bit of a nuisance at times, but there was always excitement with him.

Fat snowflakes were falling from the ceiling, a handy improvisation of Professor Flitwick’s, and unlike the snow that was actually falling outside, these didn’t melt but stayed squarely on their victim’s heads and shoulders, and scattered about the table. Within seconds of entering the hall everyone looked as though they were covered in nasty dandruff, but it made the Christmas trees look picturesque and wintery, so no one offered too many complaints. Beth and Sirius pulled a handful of wizard crackers, and Sirius eagerly put on the boater he’d received in his, laughing uproariously at how ridiculous it looked; Beth opted not to don her own jester’s hat.

In fact, the day might have continued to be pleasant and ordinary had Sirius not gotten up for ten minutes to talk to Sarah Wright.

And what was unfair was that Beth didn’t even see it coming – her back was turned toward the door, and she was bent over trying to extricate her shoelace from the leg of the table, where it had momentarily become entangled. Upon emerging from the table, her face was level with Severus Snape’s, and she nearly fell off the bench in shock.

“Would it be all right if I sat down for a moment?” he said politely – a bit too formally, Beth thought, her insides giving a bit of a jolt nonetheless. She nodded mutely, not trusting herself to speak, and Severus sat down next to her in the seat Sirius had vacated only a minute before.

He said nothing for a minute, but only appeared to grow increasingly uncomfortable – she wondered if he’d even had anything in mind when coming over here, and for some reason the thought both increased her own confidence and sent a shooting feeling of warmth swimming through her insides. “How are your holidays?” she asked, simply for lack of any better vein of conversation.

Severus shrugged a bit and smiled blandly. “They’re not horrible,” he said. And then his face resumed its sort of uncomfortable expression again, and Beth frowned slightly, seeing something seemed to be occupying his mind. Finally, drawing in a breath, he spoke.

“I was – well, sort of just coming to see if your holidays were going well,” he mumbled, suddenly finding an intense fascination in the flagstone floor. “Given… well, you know.”

Awkwardly worded as it was – that probably was as far from Severus’s normal sentiments as possible – the fact he’d even given it a thought both touched her and sent her brain into rapid work. She tried to remember how to speak, but had suddenly lost all motor control of her tongue.

“Fine,” she said, her voice so squeaky she visibly winced; Severus was either very polite or very inobservant, and either way said nothing. “I mean… well, for the same reason, I guess.” She grinned a bit sheepishly, and he returned it; her heart thudded madly against her rib cage and she anxiously willed her conscience to get a grip for five seconds. He suddenly seemed much closer than he had been a few seconds ago.

“I’m glad,” he said, and without any warning brushed some of the fake snowflakes from the shoulder of her robe.

The place where his hand had made contact with her shoulder felt like it was on fire, and she could only stare dumbly at him, her lungs constricting so suddenly it was as though she was being suffocated. Almost immediately Severus snatched his hand away and returned it to the top of the table. His dark eyes were still fixed on hers, though.

“Well, happy Christmas, Severus,” she said at last, her confidence surging once more and attempting to break whatever barrier he’d just erected with the gesture. And the most natural, peaceful smile she’d ever seen him wear slid over his face. He stood up, the smile still fixed there, and looked down at her.

“Happy Christmas,” he returned, and, with a look that lingered only slightly longer than normal, moved away back toward his table.

She checked to make sure he was not looking, and then to make sure Sirius was still down talking to Sarah, and buried her face in her hands, unable to keep a huge grin from appearing there. Her face burned against the relative coolness of her hands, and she knew that she was probably as red as the holly berries on the Christmas trees.

But she couldn’t have cared less at the moment.

A/N: I certainly didn't plan to have this chapter out right around Christmas when I was planning it, but I think it's pretty cool that that's how it turned out. I love this time of year, don't you? Although I'm sort of more inclined to think as Beth does -- the less time I have to stand about in the snow, the better!

We're definitely getting into the more moving-the-plot-along bits now, rest assured, and I'm so excited. On the actual draft I have around five or six chapters left to write (I'm much further along than this posting -- about ten chapters!), and then I'll get to begin book two, which is so exciting. That being said, if anything gets a bit confusing, or something in an earlier chapter doesn't line up with these later ones, please let me know. I've written and re-written the outlines for these books so many times, things can get a bit maddening! As always, looking forward to your reactions and responses. Don't forget to leave a review!


Chapter 17: A Few Truths
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Beth didn’t see anything more than brief glances of Severus here and there for the rest of the holidays. She didn’t know whether this was a good or bad thing, and so tried her very best not to call it to mind at all, although this was hard considering that she was a seventeen-year-old girl. Quite frankly, she was at an utter loss to even begin to make sense of what had happened in the Great Hall on Christmas, or indeed, if anything had really happened at all. It would be in her nature to try and make something out of nothing, and she wasn’t about to start worrying if she didn’t have a good reason to. But she had to be glad that Severus had – probably intentionally – picked the moment to walk over when Sirius had been away talking to someone else. Whether it was something to fret about or not, Sirius would have been sure to make a fuss about it regardless.

James, Remus, and Peter were due to return from their holidays the day before classes resumed. The ground was still slick with snow and ice, dented over by footsteps of people who’d been brave enough to venture into the grounds for a walk by the greenhouses or to the Quidditch Pitch. Beth, who had been cooped up inside the castle all break due to a combination of Sirius’s laziness and his hatred of the cold, was anxious for her other friends to come back so she could stretch her legs, and if no one was watching, her wings.

Both Sirius and Beth were waiting at Hogsmeade Station when the scarlet steam engine rolled in with all its usual screeches and bangs, finally coming to a halt and expelling its last thick plume of steam with a whoosh. The doors flew open and the three boys descended almost at once in a tumble of limbs. Again Beth felt the distinct oddness of being on the other side of the spectrum, watching people come out of the train while she herself was on the platform.

“Hi!” she said brightly, wrapping her arms first around Remus, and then Peter, and finally James. Sometimes she thought she took the boys for granted; a reunion of the five of them was that much more rewarding for it, though. James ruffled her hair in brotherly affection and she pretended to mind.

“Well, I can’t say I’m glad to be back,” said Peter in a slightly mournful voice, hauling his trunk a bit further away from the edge of the railings, where a porter had dumped it unceremoniously. “I didn’t finish any of my homework, I’m going to be swamped tonight…” He glanced hopefully at Remus, who often grudgingly let the other four copy his work, but he pretended not to hear.

“I am,” said James, stretching his arms behind him and casting an eye around the station whilst trying to act casual. Sirius slugged him in the arm.

“Yeah, we all know why you are,” he grinned, waggling his eyebrows, and James hit him back, turning a bit pink but smiling in admission nonetheless. Beth felt a bit bad that the teasing about Lily had already started – he had just gotten off the train, after all – and quickly changed the subject to spare James any more snide comments.

“Did you have a nice holiday?” she said, a bit lamely, but it was the first topic of conversation that came to her mind. James shrugged a bit.

“All right, you know. Nothing especially exciting or interesting. And you? How did you like spending Christmas at Hogwarts?” Beth’s insides burned a bit, and she glanced up in time to catch a rather knowing look passing between James and Sirius. How had she been so oblivious to their suspicions for so long?

“If you’re referencing something, you might as well be out with it,” she said, just a bit more harshly than she meant to. Her eyes flicked to Sirius’s, and unbelievably, he cracked a wide grin. James coughed a bit to shift his embarrassment at being called out, but Sirius jumped in to take the fall for him.

“Her parents are getting a divorce, all right? And now we can move on with our sorry excuses for lives,” he said, as though settling a rather mild debate. Beth couldn’t help but smile a little, even through the odd sensation of having to hear spoken aloud what used to be her closely guarded secret. Private thoughts were becoming harder and harder to contain this year.

A sort of relaxation ran through the boys, and Beth couldn’t say she didn’t feel a bit more relieved, too. Out of an impulse borne on a surge of closeness to her friends, she slung one arm around Sirius’s waist on her left and Peter’s on her right. In linked unison, they made their way back up to the castle and the Gryffindor common room.

The walk down to the station hadn’t been enough to sate her restlessness, however – her limbs still felt cramped and unused, and she itched to get back out into the fresh air for a bit more. None of the boys seemed to feel the same containment, though. Remus, Peter, and James began unpacking their trunks, which had appeared at the foot of their respective four-posters during the walk up from Hogsmeade. Beth sat cross-legged on Remus’s, watching him dutifully re-fold all his socks, as they had become strewn about during the journey. It was hard to conceal how fidgety she was.

“So, James,” Peter finally said, having unpacked to his satisfaction and shut the lid of his trunk with a sharp snap. “You never did tell us what you got Lily for Christmas. And I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we’ve been feeling a bit left out of the loop.” He glanced around surreptitiously at the others, and everyone immediately chorused their agreement.

James grinned and held up his hands as though to ward off the barrage of questions. “Sorry,” he said, looking at each of them in turn to make sure they got the message. “That’s strictly between Lily and me. If you’re so curious, ask her yourself.”

“Now wait a minute,” Beth said, rising higher on her knees and placing her hands squarely on her hips. “You made me wait for you for nearly an hour in snow that came up to my ankles. I, for one, deserve to know exactly what the heck I was waiting around for.” Remus laughed, but James just mimed zipping his lips shut, and no further information on the subject was to be gotten out of him. He bent over his trunk and extricated his History of Magic textbook from the jumble within.

“Anyone up for Exploding Snap?” Remus piped up, taking a bent pack of cards from an inner pocket of his robes and shuffling them experimentally. Peter and Sirius instantly voiced their interest.

“Beth?” Remus asked, proffering her the deck. She stood up from the bed, her legs suddenly tingling from inactivity.

“I’m going to go for a walk, I’ve been cooped up all holiday,” she said, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet and stretching her arms behind her to emphasize her point. Peter glanced out at the snowdrifts on the window ledge and gave a theatrical shiver.

“Better you than me,” he said, turning away and taking the pack of cards from Remus. “These are a bit singed, d’you want to use mine?”

“James, you’re coming with me,” Beth said decisively, and he dropped the shirt he was holding at the sudden mention of his name. He groaned, picked it up, and buried his face in it.

“Do I have to?” he said, his voice slightly muffled through the fabric.

“Yep,” she said cheerfully, pulling on his sleeve; he tried his very hardest not to budge. “Because you have successfully reminded me that you owe me a favor, and I’m bored. So get on your cloak, I haven’t been out in forever.”

“You came down to the station!” he moaned, clearly against the prospect of venturing out into the cold right after he’d come inside.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, feeling rather smug and still sounding too perky for the present situation. “Now come on, then.”

Throwing dark looks at Sirius, Peter, and Remus, who were now sitting cross-legged on the dormitory floor and looking very pleased they didn’t owe Beth any favors, he snatched his cloak from where he’d thrown it on the bed and moodily followed her out of the door.

She grabbed her own cloak, scarf, and gloves from the girls’ dormitory quickly, and the pair left the tower and started for the entrance. The hallways were drafty, and were letting in copious amounts of icy air; barely anyone passed them as they descended staircases and ducked down corridors. The torches had been blown out by the wind and the cold seemed to seep out of the stone walls and form a sort of barrier into which Beth charged with excitement, James following a bit less enthusiastically.

Thin, flat clouds were skirting the distant horizon as they emerged onto the broad steps leading down to the grounds, but the sun was shining down marvelously, although it was still too cold to hope that it would melt any of the thick snow. Beth glanced up at James’s profile, and was pleased to see he didn’t look quite so sullen anymore.

“Want to walk around the lake?” Beth asked, gesturing with her head in its direction. James, who had since been looking appraisingly over the wintery ground, gave a noncommittal shrug. She took that for assent and headed out for the iced-over lake shore, the snow crunching pleasantly under both pairs of feet. After a few minutes of this otherwise silent trek, James broke the companionable silence.

“I’m really sorry to hear about your parents, Beth,” he said gently. “Is that why you didn’t go home for Christmas?” She expected he already knew the answer, but just wanted to hear it straight from her, and nodded.

“At least I won’t have to listen to their endless fighting anymore,” she said. Beth realized that the more she talked about it – with Severus, with Sirius, and now with James – the easier it was becoming to deal with, and the barb that her parents had thrust in her stung a bit less with each consecutive conversation.

“True,” James said, shrugging again. The conversation trickled away there, and she could tell it was still a bit awkward for him to have to think so carefully about exactly what to say on the subject. She didn’t mean to make him feel awkward about it, of course, but this was one of those subjects where awkwardness was sort of unavoidable. She cleared her throat and searched about for a new thread of discussion, but none came readily to mind. She couldn’t believe that after two weeks apart, both of them couldn’t find something to talk about. Or maybe they were just avoiding certain subjects.

They came to a large tree about halfway around the lake, its branches spread wide and inviting against the backdrop of the cold, clear January sky. “Come on,” she said, nudging James in the ribs and walking a bit off the path to stand at the base of the tree. “Let’s go up.”

He looked up at the top of it, as though to gauge how high it was. “I don’t know,” he said doubtfully. “Do you remember the series of events that happened last time we climbed a tree? I’d really like not to have to play the hero so soon.” She grinned, knowing he was half-teasing.

“Wimp.”

“Okay, fine,” he laughed, and a bit more of the tension in his shoulders seemed to ease – Beth was glad of this, she didn’t want him to have to feel uncomfortable about her just because of the divorce. It wasn’t something he should have concerned himself with.

Beth stepped off to the right of the lake path and walked forward a few feet, enjoying the feeling of fresh, untouched snow crunching over and around her shoes. A small ring of grass was still visible at the very base of the tree, protected from the snow by the laden branches above. The trunk was covered with a thin sheet of ice, as were some of its lower limbs. She pulled out her wand and pointed it wordlessly at the bark; the ice fell away in pieces, leaving the tree wet but safe to climb.

“Come on,” she repeated, beckoning with a gloved hand to James upon seeing him still standing on the path, continuing to gaze up at the tree apprehensively. He moved forward, stepping in the footprints Beth had already made, and gingerly made his way over to where she was standing by the base.

She placed one foot on the lowest limb and hoisted herself up, beginning to scale the tree limbs steadily. The feeling of power and freedom that she’d felt climbing the tree back in November, or truthfully whenever she climbed or perched in a tree, returned to her instantly. She didn’t stop climbing until she was about midway up the tree, level with a long and thick branch that would support both her and James. He was still down below, stepping carefully and seeming to think intensely about each further move before he actually made it.

“You do know you’re slower than a paste-covered Flobberworm?” she called down cheerfully, swinging her legs back and forth and looking out over the cold blue and white landscape now stretched far before her. James glared up in her general direction, half-amused, half-exasperated, and doggedly kept climbing. The snow dropped as he jiggled the branches, falling with soft whumps into the snowdrifts below. He finally reached her branch and scooted a bit hesitantly out onto it.

“Took you long enough,” she said, rubbing her nose absentmindedly as she squinted down at the lake. A white, waving tentacle appeared briefly above it before sinking back into the water. James didn’t dignify this was a response but merely turned up his cloak collar against the wind now whistling through the branches.

Another silence descended as both James and Beth looked out at the grounds, wavering slightly on their branch. The bark was cold and slick, and she concentrated on hanging on and not falling off. It would not be a pleasant trip back down.

“So,” she finally said, a topic of conversation popping into her head, “what did you give Lily for Christmas? Oh, come on,” she added, seeing James screw up his face in reluctance. “There is no way I don’t deserve to know. You owe me, James Potter.”

“You’re going to be mad,” he said, laughing. The reaction was unexpected, and she frowned, a bit confused. He cleared his throat, pushed his glasses up a bit further on his nose, and only then continued. “Remember that morning you came out with me so I could get something for Lily from Hogsmeade?”

“I nearly froze to death, as I recall,” she said, wriggling sideways a bit to regain feeling in her backside. He smirked; the memory was obviously a rather amusing one to him.

“Well. I didn’t exactly find anything in Hogsmeade that day,” he said tentatively, and she scowled.

“You’re not telling me I nearly froze my a-“

“Language, Miss Bridger. What would your mother say?”

She scowled even more deeply. “I am so thoroughly angry at you. I could have lost toes.”

“And you’re a stronger person because of it,” James said, and it was his turn to be sarcastically cheerful. “Anyway, then I remembered something Mum had told me when I was small. She’s got this ring from Dad – Dad’s great-aunt, actually, it’s a bit of a long story – and apparently it gets passed down through all the women in our family. And Mum said that whenever I found the girl I wanted to marry –“

Beth was so startled she nearly fell out of the tree. She clenched the branch harder and just stared, mouth open as wide as it would go, not really able to believe her ears. “The girl you want to marry?” she screeched. James turned a brilliantly violent shade of scarlet.

“It’s this little silver ring, with some kind of red stone,” he said quickly. “And – well, you know, I didn’t exactly tell her what it meant – she thought I was just giving her a ring –“ He suddenly looked a bit panicked, and Beth felt bad for reacting as she had. “Did I mess it up?” he asked hoarsely.

She considered the question, and then shook her head. “Like you said… she doesn’t know,” she said slowly. “And if you do want to marry her, then, I mean, it’s your ring… I guess,” she added, not being able to help herself, “the only problem you’re going to have is if she turns you down. Getting that ring back might be tricky.”

James scowled. “Great.” She nudged him, and laughed.

“Don’t worry so much about it.”

“Look who’s talking!” he choked, and it was his turn to laugh. “Overanalyzing everything that comes your way? What about Severus?”

Her laughter died on her lips just as quickly as it had appeared there. “Cheap shot,” she snapped, and James grinned mischievously. When she didn’t respond, he ruffled her hair playfully. She glared at him.

“Oh, come on,” he said, still laughing. “It’s sort of the same thing, you like him –“

“It is not the same thing,” she said stubbornly. “For one thing, you and Lily are actually dating.” She regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth – the last thing she wanted was to sound as though the fact depressed her – but James didn’t seem to give them much thought.

“I suppose,” he said, shrugging. “You still do like him, then?” Beth looked at him sourly, and this was answer enough.

She didn’t really know why James’s questioning, coming from a place of complete innocence, was putting her off so much. Her friendship with Severus was about as antipodal from James and Lily’s relationship as could be found, and there weren’t any pretenses in her mind about that. Even the word friendship was one she used hesitantly, because before Christmas she didn’t even know if it had gone that far – and her doubts still lingered slightly, as they were wont to do.

“So, Beth,” James said after a bit of an awkward pause. “I want to get your opinion on something.” He paused, as though expecting her to respond to this declaration, but she wasn’t in the mood for trivialities. He continued, in a rush, “What would you think if I asked Dumbledore to invite Lily and Mary and Marlene into the Order?”

The question was a rather unexpected one, although not much was going to come as a surprise now that Beth knew James’s true intentions where Lily was concerned. She shifted around to try and regain feeling in her limbs, buying for time.

“Does Sirius know?” she asked finally, and James laughed a bit hollowly.

“I’m not sure he’d much take to the idea,” he said, and for the first time she could remember, his features darkened slightly at the mention of his best friend. “I reckon he’s under the impression it’s a sort of adventure for just the five of us. And convincing him otherwise could potentially… Well. You can probably guess.”

“He is your best mate,” Beth said pointedly. James sighed and nodded, looking a bit defeated and rubbing a hand through his messy hair without seeming to realize it. “I see no problem in it,” she added. “She’s going to have to find out one way or another, if you do get… married.” The word felt heavy and foreign on her tongue, especially in application to James Potter. “You might as well try it.”

James brightened a bit at that suggestion. “So you’re not against it?” he asked, and, after the confirming shake of the head from his friend, said, “Well, then, I suppose I might ask Dumbledore.”

“I’d wait until he’s got in contact with us again,” she advised, snapping off one of the tree’s smaller twigs and rolling it between her gloved fingers before dropping it. James nodded, and then, once more, drew in his breath to break the pause.

“It would require her knowing... about us.”

For some reason, the statement didn’t catch Beth off guard; it was almost as though, subconsciously, she had been expecting it. She didn’t think Lily would react adversely to the news that her boyfriend and his friends could turn into animals –granted, it wasn’t normal, but life at Hogwarts never really was. And although she hated to admit it, even to herself, now that Severus knew, the initial shock of outside reactions had subsisted dramatically.

“I think that’s fine,” she said, and the look of relief that crossed his face anew showed plainly. He seemed to have unloaded all the worries that had seemed to be plaguing him, for he volunteered no further conversation; he seemed to be lost in other thoughts he wouldn’t express.

“Come on,” she said at last, wriggling a bit more on the branch and arching her back to stretch it out. “I’m freezing, I’ve had enough of being outside for one day. Let’s head back in.” They quickly climbed down the tree and landed in the large, leaf-speckled snowdrift, and started back along the path they had traveled in the direction of Hogwarts.

*

Later that night, lying in his bed in the boys’ dormitory and listening to Remus’s rather impressive snores, James was still thinking about what he and Beth had talked about while sitting up in the tree. He felt sure that giving Lily the ring had been the right move because he knew – he had known – that he wanted to marry her. She may not know it yet, but it was the strongest thought on his mind. He would never have given her the ring if he didn’t think that there was a chance she’d say yes, someday.

He turned over, trying to find a cool spot on his pillow, which had become uncomfortably wrinkled under his cheek. Beth’s expression when he’d brought up Severus, that was another matter entirely. He could have been seriously wounded from the sparks that had been shooting from her eyes. It was rather clear that the subject was still a sore one, and he was loath to bring it up again. Beth very clearly did still like him, and that was enough for him to go on.

Severus had been acting very strangely, ever since that night out by the Shrieking Shack when he’d found out the truth behind Remus and the others. James was sure he and Beth were talking now when they never had been before, and that was strange in itself. What was more, more than once he’d caught Severus staring in the general direction of the five of them at meals, or in one of the few classes they shared. He didn’t think Beth had noticed, and wasn’t about to bring it up, but it hadn’t slipped past him.

Somehow the whole thing made him a bit ill at ease. Severus had changed, and he didn’t know what it meant for Beth, or for the rest of them. But something was different, and he was going to do whatever he could to make sure she stepped carefully as far as Snape was concerned. He was still the same slimy git James had always known him to be, and he knew that Beth couldn’t see that. If she didn’t watch out – or he didn’t watch out for her – she was going to get hurt.

A/N: I hope all my readers had lovely holidays! Mine was uneventful, but that's totally fine with me -- I'm not much of one for wild times -- and I'm just very glad to be getting back into the normal swing of things. Apart from having to go back to work, of course, but such is life.

And, seeing as this is chapter seventeen, that makes this story about halfway posted! Wow, that's weird. I'm currently finishing up chapter twenty-seven, and the story's planned to have about thirty-two chapters -- my outline keeps fluctuating, so don't quote me on that, but it'll be somewhere near there. 

And, of course, as always, please don't forget to leave a review! Thank you for reading!


Chapter 18: 9 Dustund Way
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“Well, that’s it,” said Sirius suddenly, throwing his quill down on the table and stretching his arms above his head. “I officially give up on this stupid assignment. Flitwick can give me a ‘T’ and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash.”

Remus leaned over to look critically at what Sirius had written. “All you have down is your name and the title,” he said blankly, pointing with his own quill for emphasis. James snorted from across the table but didn’t look up from his own work.

“It’s pretty bad when you don’t even attempt to butcher an introduction,” said Beth, scooting her feet up under her on the armchair and using a finger to mark her place in her book; her own essay had been completed last night. “What’s the story?”

With a magnificent flourish, Sirius scrunched the parchment and tossed it gracefully into the blazing fire beside them. “I am so utterly sick of homework at this point, it’s not even worth it,” he said, swinging his legs up over the side of his own chair so that he was now sitting sideways. He promptly closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the chair.

It was only the first weekend since the winter holidays had ended, and if Beth had thought that the professors would take it easy on their workload after the break, she was rather sorely mistaken. The upcoming N.E.W.T. exams at the end of term had harried them all, it seemed, and the essays and question lists had rarely ever poured in so thick. Beth hardly blamed Sirius for feeling as listless and overwhelmed as he apparently did.

“Well, at least we only have half a year left,” said Peter positively. “And then we get to go and do stuff for the Order.” He said this last in a bit of a hush, in case ears were turned in their direction. Sirius sat up quickly in the chair, no longer slumped and bored.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” he said, eyes bright with excitement. “I wonder when we’re going to hear from Dumbledore, he’s bound to give us a bit more information soon, don’t you think?” His entire manner conveyed one of almost dog-like eagerness.

“You’d think,” said Remus, hunched back over his own essay. He scratched out a sentence and began to scribble away again, brows furrowed. “I mean,” he added, looking up at the rest of them, “we don’t know much at this point, do we?”

“Sort of depends on how much we’re going to start out knowing,” Beth pointed out. “I don’t think we’re going to do much hands-on work right at the beginning, do you reckon?”

Throughout this entire debate, James alone had remained virtually quiet. The concentration he seemed to be devoting to his essay was feigned; Beth, glancing at him while Sirius and Remus argued about the amount of experience they’d need, knew he was thinking about what he’d asked her about in the tree. He still hadn’t brought up the fact that he was going to ask Dumbledore if Lily and her friends could join the Order.

She felt a sort of pity for him, knowing how nervous he was about broaching the subject to the other boys. Asking her about it was different, as she was a girl, but that sort of conveyance of feelings to Sirius or Remus was bound to be difficult for him.

“Talking about it’s going to make me feel worse,” said Sirius, curling back up in his armchair and once more closing his eyes. “The sooner we get word, the sooner I’ll be happy again.”

Beth rolled her eyes at his dramatics, and scrunched down further in her chair, pulling her book closer to her. The only other sounds that disturbed the evening were the fire’s cracklings and the scratching of quill and ink on parchment. Nobody said anything more about the Order, and Beth could sense James’s relief at the silence.

*

Luckily for Sirius – and for the other four, as he grew increasingly more apathetic and annoying about his load of school work – the next letter from Dumbledore was not long in arriving. The four of them were walking back from their last class only the following Monday when a small second-year Gryffindor girl ran up to them, seemingly out of breath. Her messy black braid was flopping over her shoulder in untidy strands, and when she spoke Beth noticed a large gap between her two top teeth.

“Professor McGonagall said I should give this to you,” she said, licking her lips a bit nervously and thrusting the scroll in her hand at the five of them collectively. Her eyes kept darting from the prefect badge on Remus’s chest to the Head Boy badge on James’s.

“Thanks,” said Peter kindly as the other four continue to stare at her. He took to proffered paper and, with one last look at James, the girl scurried away just as quickly as she’d appeared.

“She was a bit twitchy, wasn’t she?” said James, grinning broadly after her. “Blimey, you’d think I was about to hex her or something.”

“More like put her in detention,” Sirius smirked, craning his head to peer eagerly at the parchment Peter had just unfurled with a little tap from his wand. “What’s it say? Is it from Dumbledore?”

“Yep!” said Peter, lowering his voice a bit. The five heads crowded together as they read aloud to them the note that Dumbledore had sent:

Beth, James, Peter, Remus, and Sirius,

I would request you to come to my office this evening the ninth of January at eight o’ clock, as before. Should you follow the trail of Ice Mice you will find where you need to go.

Professor Dumbledore

Remus laughed and rolled his eyes. “I sometimes wonder whether he’s not half-mad,” he said in wonder, shaking his head a bit. Peter was still staring at the scroll, looking confused.

“Don’t you guys think following a trail of sweets would be a bit obvious?” he said, and Sirius snatched the scroll from him, stashing it in an inside pocket of his robes. All four of them set to laughing.

“There aren’t literally going to be sweets on the carpet, that would drive Filch mad,” said James, sniggering. “I’ll bet that’s the password to get into his study.”

“Oh,” said Peter, his brow relaxing to normal but his cheeks turning a bit pink.

“This is excellent,” said Sirius, rubbing his hands together and looking, in Beth’s opinion, rather comical. “Couldn’t have come at a better time, either. I was just about to run away and leave school forever, N.E.W.T.s or not.”

“Oh, you were not,” said Beth, giving him a small shove in the shoulder. “We’re all just glad you’re going to stop moaning about it, actually. Maybe now you’re actually going to get something besides sleeping finished with any amount of regularity.”

“And if you try and deny that, we’re locking you in the dormitory tonight,” cut in James firmly as Sirius opened his mouth to protest the unfairness of Beth’s last statement. He did his best to look serious, but there was a sort of shine to his eyes that conveyed exactly how far he was really going to take that threat. Sirius did him the decency of looking offended, however.

At that moment, loud footsteps behind them sounded down the corridor, and they all turned to see who was coming. Evan Rosier, flanked on each side by the other Slytherin seventh year boys, was strutting down the hallway as though he owned it. Beth’s stomach gave a small flip as her eyes found Severus behind him. His own gaze landed on her, and he gave a small smirk. She lowered her eyes to avoid smiling back; making herself conspicuous was exactly the last thing she needed.

“Mind you don’t take up the entire corridor,” said Rosier in a bored, drawling voice, walking right through the group of them as though they didn’t exist.

As before, the time until Remus’s watch clicked over to five minutes before eight was unbearably slow, even though the waiting time was considerably less than it had been the first meeting. It was obvious that Sirius was working hard to restrain his impatience – he was always waiting for the next thing, Beth thought – but every so often, a sort of comment would come bursting out of him.

“Are we ready to go yet?” he asked for the hundredth time, shoveling custard into his mouth at a rather impressive speed, as though late for something. With forced patience, Remus humored him by glancing at his watch. His eyes widened dramatically.

“We’re going to be late!” he gasped, half-rising from his seat on the Gryffindor bench. Sirius, who had been taking a large swig of pumpkin juice, choked and made to get up from his seat, as well.

“Really?” he spluttered.

“No,” said Remus flatly, sitting back down and smirking. “And if you ask me again I’m making good on James’s offer to lock you in the dormitory.” Sirius, too, sank back into his seat as Beth and James howled, barely able to breathe for laughter.

“Some friends you are,” he muttered, stirring his spoon violently in the custard. “Need I remind you that I’m the reason we’re even going tonight?”

“We’re just teasing,” Beth said, still giggling and wiping her eyes from the tears that appeared there. “You’re too much fun to rile up when you’re like this.” But Sirius, apparently preferring to act like a wounded soul, didn’t speak again until Remus finally checked his watch and announced that they had better go.

The entrance courtyard was slick with snow that had been packed down by hundreds of pairs of feet, and making their way to the gargoyle that concealed the entrance to Dumbledore’s office. James nearly went down and it was only by grabbing onto the back of Peter’s robes that he managed to keep his balance.

“Ice Mice,” said Sirius excitedly, bobbing from foot to foot in front of the gargoyle, all his previous ill humor gone now that the event he’d been anticipating was upon him. The gargoyle cocked its head and looked at him before springing aside, and Sirius stared blankly at it.

“You must look suspicious,” said Peter, unable to help one more snide remark at their friend’s expense. The five of them clustered onto the slow-moving spiral staircase and rose up once more in tight, dizzying circles; Beth closed her eyes and gripped James’s arm as the sense of vertigo hit her as it had before. Finally the staircase came to an end, and the door at the top creaked open to admit them.

Dumbledore was seated behind his desk again, but he appeared to have been waiting for them. His attention was diverted out the window at the night sky, which had fallen rapidly a couple of hours before and was now speckled with stars. Beth noticed absently that the moon was rapidly approaching full; Peter and Beth were scheduled for the January watch, and she found herself already selfishly mourning her loss of sleep.

“Good evening,” said the headmaster politely, as the five filed in. This time five chairs were arranged in a line in front of his desk, and each took one. Professor Dumbledore’s hands were clasped upon a thin stack of parchment on his desk, and a quill was balanced to the side of his left hand, curling over and sweeping bits of nonexistent dust off the surface.

“I thought it was time to give you a bit more information about what you’re going to be doing after term ends,” Dumbledore continued, and his blue eyes twinkled as Sirius was apparently unable to help wriggling a bit excitedly in his seat. “Not much,” he added, upon seeing the gesture. “I don’t think I need to remind you of how well the walls can listen, should they have a mind to.

“But there are some things you five should know. For example –“ He removed his hands from the pieces of parchment in front of him and handed one to each. “I urge you to commit this to memory.” Beth took her paper and, glancing sideways at Remus beside her, saw that they bore the exact same sentence:

The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix is located at 9 Dustund Way.

Almost simultaneously the five of them looked up from their papers, and each of them looked just as perplexed as Beth herself felt. Dumbledore collected them and, humming a few notes, set fire to the stack with his wand.

“The information you have just received,” he said at last, only then looking up and surveying them from over the tops of his half-moon glasses, “is strictly confidential, as I am sure you are aware.” He smiled gently at the group of them. “The address refers to a small apartment located in a district outside London that has been rented for the society’s purposes. It is here where the Order operates, and where most of the work is being done.”

Sirius looked as though he was about to faint with excitement. “What sort of things are we going to be doing?” he burst out, scooting forward a bit in his chair and leaning his hands on his knees. “Chasing down You-Know-Who?” He was only half-kidding.

Dumbledore chuckled as though Sirius had told a rather amusing joke. “Not right away,” he said, the ends of his long silver mustache still turned up in a smile. “Your assignations are still as-yet undecided. Not everyone’s job is running about the town loose with wands, chasing down the Death Eaters.”

“Death Eaters?” Peter piped up, half-raising his hand as though unsure whether he was supposed to or not. “What’s a Death Eater?”

“It is what Voldemort has termed his followers in recent years,” said Dumbledore evenly; everyone reacted to the name in various shudders and gasps, which he appeared to have expected. The headmaster continued as though nothing had happened. “We have a select few members out working toward the aim of locating and apprehending them, but there is much more to the Order than that, of course.”

By the fanatic light that gleamed in Sirius’s eyes, Beth could tell that being out chasing down You-Know-Who’s followers was exactly what he wanted to be doing. She felt a certain thrill deep within her at the prospect, as well, and an image of herself capturing some of the most wanted people in the country rose to her mind. It was an intoxicating vision, to be sure.

“And the others? The ones who aren’t out capturing people?” asked Remus.

“Recruiting members, taking Ministry positions, and jobs of that type,” said Dumbledore. “I think you’ll find that the Order is much more widespread than you might have thought it to be.”

“There are people from the Order in the Ministry?” said Beth; it had never occurred to her that a witch or wizard she might have seen walking normally in Diagon Alley might be part of an underground anti-You-Know-Who movement. Dumbledore nodded.

He glanced again out of the window and stood, leaning lightly on his desk with the tips of his fingers. The five Gryffindors immediately stood as well. “And if you will excuse me for the brevity of the interview, I think that will conclude today’s meeting,” he said. Beth glanced at Remus’s watch; they had hardly been in the office fifteen minutes. She felt only a bit more prepared than she had walking into the office. Apparently seeing puzzled expressions on each face, the headmaster beamed at them once more.

“I realize it does not seem like much to go on,” he said gently, “but I can assure each of you that you will be well-prepared. That being said,” he added, “there is still no forcible action being taken on any of you to participate. This is not a requirement.” He peered at each face in turn, but no one said a thing.

“Until our next meeting, then,” he said lightly, resuming his seat.

*

James watched Sirius, Beth, Peter, and Remus file out of Dumbledore’s office, a sort of nervous apprehension twisting his insides. The entire time he had been meaning to spit out the question that was on his mind, but somehow saying it in front of the guys didn’t enthrall him too much. He waited until they had disappeared down the staircase, and made a little noise deep in his throat. Dumbledore, who had been looking out of the window again, turned in his direction. James knew the headmaster had noticed he’d stayed behind.

“Is there something you wish to ask, Mr. Potter?” he said amiably.

“Erm –“ James stopped, not exactly sure how to go about bringing the topic around. Dumbledore looked at him expectantly, and he was struck by a sudden feeling as though the professor knew exactly what was running through his mind. Oddly, the thought braced him.

“I was wondering, sir,” he said quickly, with the air of getting over a rather unpleasant task, “how many other students are going to be allowed in the Order after term ends?” He caught his breath – he liked to think he was a fairly brave person, but asking a question like that of Professor Dumbledore…

The headmaster tilted his head, thinking about it. “Are we referring to Lily Evans and her friends?” he said, and before he could stop it, James’s jaw went earthward.

“How did you…?”

“The question was written fairly plainly on your face,” said Dumbledore, his eyes twinkling again. James’s mouth was still gaping open, and as he came to this realization he shut it, grinning a bit sheepishly. He wasn’t sure he entirely believed him, but that wasn’t the issue at stake right now. He cast a hopeful sort of look in the headmaster’s direction.

“I think extending the invitation to them as well would not be met unfavorably,” Professor Dumbledore said. “I have in fact been thinking about addressing Professor McGonagall about that very subject – new and young members are needed in the Order, I’m afraid.” He let out an uncharacteristically despondent sigh, and James felt a bit uncomfortable through his delight.

“Well, erm – thank you, Professor,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck and wondering if this was the moment when he should take his leave. “I mean –“ He cast about for words and found himself at an utter loss for them. Dumbledore had returned to staring pensively out the window.

“Good night,” he said finally, hoping a bit absently that the headmaster had really meant what he’d said about inviting Lily and her friends into the Order. He didn’t think he could go through the slightly awkward ordeal of asking him again. When Dumbledore nodded his head, he turned and went down the staircase after his friends.

They were grouped at the bottom, waiting on him; Beth gave him an encouraging sort of smile when he came out. “Go all right, then?” she said cheerfully. James nodded and returned the grin.

“Did what go all right?” said Sirius nosily, frowning. “You’re not thinking of dropping out of it, mate?”

“Nah,” said James, shaking his head. “But –“ He hesitated for a fraction of a second before continuing on. “I’ve asked for Lily to be allowed to join in.”

Remus and Peter met this suggestion with general enthusiasm, and Beth squeezed his elbow reassuringly, but Sirius’s face fell a bit. “Lily’s in?” he said doubtfully. “You’ve asked to have her in?”

“Yeah, I have,” said James a bit defensively. “Because you know what? I love her.”

*

The quiet that filled the section of the entrance courtyard was one of deafening proportions. Beth was half-embarrassed, half-amused, and Remus and Peter were just staring at James rather blankly, as though not quite sure they’d heard what he’d said. Sirius let out a derisive sort of noise.

“Come off it.”

“It’s true,” James said lightly, and Beth found herself rather impressed at how composed he was keeping his demeanor. The expression on his face made her believe his words, too. He looked at each of them in the eye, nodded once, and added, “Right, then. I’m off to the common room.” Without further ado, he strode away across the stone towards the doors leading back into the castle.

Sirius swiveled to gape at Beth, apparently not knowing whether to laugh or look furious. “He’s not serious?” he asked. She merely pressed her lips into a line, gave a non-committal sort of shrug of the shoulders, and set off after him, silently cheering James on all the way. 

A/N: Go James! He can be a bit of an idiot sometimes, but mostly I think he's the most level-headed of the lot. Or it might be Remus. Yeah, probably Remus, but I wanted James to have a strong foundation of affection for Lily, and he's got to think things through for that to happen. Ergo, he thinks sometimes.

And -- I'll only be on my soapbox for a moment here -- recently I've been the victim of a bit of plagiarism on some of my stories, so if you ever see anything of mine posted anywhere other than here, please let me know. I don't say that there's going to be a lot of instances of that happening, because I'm only a mildly well-known writer here, but there's a first time for everything. And now I'm done! Thank you so much for the reads and reviews and favorites, and I really hope you'll think to leave a review for this chapter, too -- you cannot imagine how they brighten my day.


Chapter 19: Nifflers on the Loose
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As January progressed, it turned out to be a fickle sort of month. Seemingly undecided as to whether it wanted to be snowy or simply very cold and wet, it turned out to be both. The snow on the ground melted and re-froze so many times that it was as if the entire grounds were covered in a sheet of rather hazardous ice. The falls and injuries resulting from this, not to mention the usual yearly round of colds, kept Madam Pomfrey indefinitely busy.

Even Beth didn’t want to stretch her legs too much anymore, if only for fear that she’d break one of them going down the slippery path. She, James, Sirius, Peter, and Remus were much more content to spend what time they weren’t doing homework indoors, preferably near a source of heat. The armchairs around the Gryffindor common room fire became molded into their shapes as they spent more and more time in them.

Nothing had been said about James’s declaration that night outside Dumbledore’s office, and Beth didn’t really see exactly how to go about saying anything – or if she wanted to say anything at all. She knew enough to leave it alone, because it was one hundred percent James and Lily’s affair, and not hers. And from the sincerity he’d had in both face and voice – and it was a bit absurd, considering he was just under eighteen, only a year into adulthood – she knew that he meant it. No one said a thing about it, and so she kept quiet, too.

She hadn’t heard from her parents since they’d sent her the competing, loaded Christmas gifts, and she wasn’t going to say that that fact didn’t relieve her somewhat. She loved both her mother and her father, but refused to be the pawn in whatever games of revenge they were trying to play with each other. She supposed she’d hear from them in the middle of February for her birthday, if not before; already she was in a sort of nervous anticipation about what new low they’d sink to then.

And so life continued as normally as possible for the five of them – James and Lily’s relationship forged on smoothly, their workload in preparation for the N.E.W.T.s seemed to increase by the day, and Sirius still spent what seemed like half of his waking moments devising new methods of mild torture for the first and second years. It should have come as no surprise to any of them when he proposed on one particularly wet and depressing afternoon, the day of the full moon, yet another prank.

“I don’t think so, Sirius,” said Remus, a little flatly, from where he was curled up with another one of his thick books in his usual chair. No one had yet forgotten Sirius’s mistake in trying to trick Severus, and whenever he mentioned another trick they all had the tendency to get a bit wary. But their friend was adamant.

“We haven’t pulled anything big all year,” he said with an edge of a whine in his voice, shifting his long legs on the floor restlessly. Apparently he was edging around the midnight prank issue, too, for he talked about it as though it hadn’t happened. “Can we do something? Please?” he added, as though hoping his politeness would sway the attitude.

James had an eager and yet apprehensive look on his face; Beth thought he was probably torn in both directions on the subject. “As long as it doesn’t involve nearly killing people,” he said, only half-kidding, "I’m up for it.”

Sirius looked hopeful and glanced around at Beth where she sat on the ground next to him. “Bethy?” he implored, widening his eyes slightly as though hoping this made him look more innocent. She rolled her eyes but a small smile twisted the corners of her mouth. She’d been a bit bored, as well, although she was certainly reluctant to admit it to him.

“So that’s all settled then,” he said happily, seeming to decide that majority ruled in this decision. Remus raised one eyebrow but said nothing; he was just as bored as the rest of them, prefect or no, and a bit of practical joking seemed to meet his standards of what he could and couldn’t do as such.

“So what do you have in mind, mate?” said James, tossing aside his heavily scratched-out Potions assignment and sitting up a bit further, his fresh excitement nearly tangible. Sirius shook his long dark hair from in front of his eyes.

“We could go down to the dungeons and shrink all the cauldrons,” spoke up Peter from beside Remus. Peter was also buried nose-first in a book, but was evidently less engaged in it than the other.

“No, that’s no good,” said Sirius, waving his hand dismissively. “Slughorn won’t let us back in there between classes ever since James and Beth bewitched all the wall sconces to shoot wads of sparks at anyone closer than six feet.” Beth grinned proudly at the memory; that had been one of her more brilliant prank ideas in the years she’d been friends with these boys. It had been rather amusing to watch Evan Rosier's face as he realized how badly his hair had been singed, although the burnt hair smell had taken a few hours to completely disappear from her nose.

The five sat in unified puzzlement, each brow furrowed. Then, of all people, Remus began to get a rather pensive and mischievous look in his eye, which the others noticed almost simultaneously. It wasn’t often that he was the mastermind behind whichever joke they decided to pull – he had more conscience than the rest of them put together – but when he did, it was always brilliant.

“Do you suppose the house elves have set up the dinnerware yet?” he said casually, but his quill had stopped moving along with the lines in his book, a sure sign he was thinking. Beth couldn’t follow his train of thought at all but decided to go with it.

“Could be,” she said, shrugging her shoulders slightly. “Any particular reason why you’re asking?”

“Yep,” he said, and revealed nothing further. The book landed with a thump on the sagging cushion next to him as he tossed it aside and rose to his feet. The other four immediately followed suit, despite still having no idea what sort of prank Remus was planning. In a wordless file they climbed through the portrait hole and set off in the direction of the Great Hall.

It was nothing short of lucky that they didn’t meet anyone on their way down, especially due to the fact that the weather outside was still an oppressive gray. The five congregated just to the left of the doors into the hall, near the antechamber where first years waited before the start-of-term feast, and everyone looked at each other. No one spoke.

“Well, are you going in, then?” Sirius said finally, his eyes darting pointedly between Remus and the door at his back. It was clear the latter was now regretting his decision to even bring up whatever his idea was; his conscience was catching up with him. As Beth and the others watched, he sucked in a deep breath through his teeth and turned.

“They’re going to catch me and I’m going to get sent to Dumbledore’s and I’ll get my badge taken away and I’ll be expelled –“ He started muttering in a nonsensical stream, taking slow and determined steps toward the door.

“They’re elves,” Beth called pointedly at his slowly retreating back. “The worst they might do is kick you in the shins, and more than likely they’re going to offer you coffee.” With a sullen look back at her, Remus cracked the door open a few inches and sidled through.

“Blimey, what do you reckon he’s doing?” said Peter with a bit of relish, standing on his tiptoes to see if he could peer inside. “I hope he’s doing something with the floating candles – I’ve always said –“

But what he’d always said, they never found out, for Remus had apparently gotten what he needed in absolute record time. His face flushed, his hair falling limply onto his forehead, he trotted over to them, clutching a bundle of something in the front of his robes. Whatever it was, it was giving off an odd and somehow familiar clanking noise.

“Let’s see it, then. What did you do?” said James, stretching out a hand to take whatever Remus had. He fumbled around the neck of his robes and pulled out one of the standard golden goblets that sat by the plates every meal. James took it with a sort of disappointment.

“You... nicked a goblet,” he said, as though he hoped he was seeing things.

“Not one. Four,” said Remus, and sure enough, he procured four more from seeming oblivion, passing them around until everyone except himself held a cup. Beth studied hers, trying to see if something had changed about it, but it looked exactly the same as every other cup she’d ever drank from at school.

“This is a bit of a tame thing, compared to what we’ve done before, isn’t it?” said Sirius, tossing the goblet up in the air; it twirled around and he caught it easily by the stem. He held it up to the light, but the torch only shone on it; it was otherwise unchanged.

“No, listen. We can do a bit of Transfiguration on these, and – here, let me show you.” From another pocket in his robes Remus drew out his wand, along with the parchment and quill he’d stuffed there before they had left the common room. Wand clenched delicately between his teeth, he knelt on the floor and tore the paper into four pieces.

“One… two… three… five,” he muttered aloud, writing the numbers in large, careful handwriting on the parchment pieces.

“I think you missed one,” said Peter cheerfully, craning his neck to look over Remus’s shoulder, but he was immediately waved off with an air of impatience. Remus climbed to his feet again and took the goblet from Beth, who was standing to his immediate left.

Verto Invertus,” he said, tapping the rim of the goblet; it transfigured almost instantly into a rather large niffler, and both Beth and Peter jumped back a few steps.

“Clever, isn’t it?” said Remus proudly, handing the niffler back to Beth, who took it gingerly, thinking that she picked a good day to leave her bracelets safely tucked in her jewelry box. She still didn’t understand exactly what they were going to do with nifflers and four out-of-order numbers, at any rate.

Sirius apparently shared this concern. “I’m afraid you’ve lost us, mate,” he said baldly.

“We tie the numbers around their necks, see,” said Remus patiently, leaning over Beth’s niffler as he spoke and doing so with the parchment quarter labeled with the number one. “And set them loose about the castle. They’re sure to find something to catch their attention, Hogwarts is full of shiny objects. And they’ll go mad looking for it, won't they?”

Something dawned on James’s face. “But even though we’ll only release four... they’ll think we’ve let off five?” he said, motioning toward the other squares, and Remus nodded proudly.

Sirius let out his usual loud bark-like laugh. “That really is brilliant!” he said gleefully, nearly tossing his goblet halfway across the entrance hall in his excitement. “Quick, Moony, do mine, before someone catches us.”

Within five minutes, the nifflers were assembled in the Gryffindors’ hands, snuffling about curiously and batting their little feet, anxious to start looking for the metal objects they seemed to sense. “You four split up and meet back in the common room in fifteen minutes,” said Remus, shaking back his sleeve to check his watch. “I’ll head back up there now.”

“I’ve got the corridor near the trophy room,” said James, and immediately turned and trotted off in that direction. Sirius claimed the corridor near Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom, and Beth spoke up.

“I’ll go near the Divination Tower,” she said. Remus nodded, eyes still trained on her watch, and clutching the niffler tightly around its furry middle she set off at a quick clip in that direction. The sky outside the windows had begun to lighten only slightly, and small shafts of sunlight began peeking through the clouds. She hoped no one else was noticing its emergence, though; she didn’t want to meet anyone on her way there.

The Divination Tower was all the way at the other end of the castle, and she was panting by the time she reached the set of stairs that led up to Professor Amelon’s trapdoor, the only way to enter the classroom. She took one look at the stairs and decided that this was as far as she felt like going at the moment.

“Here you go, buddy,” she said, bending and setting the niffler down in the middle of the worn purple carpet runner. It looked curiously up at her with its dark eyes, nose still snuffling slightly, and then a glint of something caught its eye. It lunged for the nearest window casement, snout quivering, and Beth turned away quickly before she would have to lie about being a witness to the havoc it would wreak.

The other four were already assembled back in the common room when she clambered as nonchalantly as possible back through the portrait hole; grins were barely concealed on each face. Sirius shot her a covert, questioning thumbs-up, and she gave the briefest of nods before picking up the abandoned pack of Exploding Snap cards on the hearth. She began to shuffle them idly, hoping that it wouldn’t be long before Filch discovered the nifflers.

*

As it turned out, it wasn’t long at all – an hour later, the Gryffindors in the tower were just beginning to prepare to head down to dinner when an enraged yell echoed along the corridor outside where the Fat Lady’s portrait hung. There was no mistaking that yell anywhere, for the caretaker’s bellows had fallen on the years of nearly every Hogwarts student at least once. Eagerly, five heads swiveled in the direction of the cacophony, each hoarse scream like music to their ears.

“PEEVES, YOU BLITHERING – SETTING NIFFLERS – I’LL HAVE YOU – DESTROYING SCHOOL PROPERTY – HOW YOU GOT HOLD OF – GOING TO DUMBLEDORE – !” His footsteps thundered past; they were accompanied by heavy and wheezy breathing which was completely audible even from where they sat around the common room fire. Peter and Sirius were double over with extreme and completely silent laughter.

Curious students had begun to edge tentatively toward the portrait hole, trying to look like they weren’t being blatantly nosy, but James brushed past them all and scrambled out the portrait hole; like a signal, nearly half the house followed, not wanting to miss a good Filch tirade.

At the end of the corridor, near the turn that led to the grand staircase, Peeves was bobbing in midair with an innocent expression on his wide, tricky face. Filch was standing a bit below him, his nose red and quivering in his anger. He looked as though he’d torn out great lumps of his hair.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t,” said Peeves, doing a little twirl in midair and experimentally bouncing into a stone wall. “Perhaps old Filchy has cracked.” He opened his mouth and burst into a sort of humming, wordless ditty, complete with a jig. This only seemed to infuriate Filch more; he looked as though he were about to pop.

“What’s happened, then?” piped up a small second year boy, in what he apparently thought was a quiet whisper. It was unfortunate that the whisper carried, however, and Filch spun around, fixing all the Gryffindors with an extremely menacing and bloodshot glare.

“I’ll tell you what’s happened,” he growled, his jaw trembling. “Someone’s gone and nicked five nifflers and set them loose on the castle and one of them’s gone missing.” He looked angry anew at the very spectacle, and appeared to be estimating just how much damage he’d be cleaning for the next few days. He turned back to Peeves, who was now eyeing the students with a gaze that spoke of malicious intentions.

“I’m heading straight off to Dumbledore, Peeves, the moment I catch that last niffler,” he scowled, brandishing his fist as though hoping to take the poltergeist one-on-one. “And then you’ll be banished, and oh, won’t you be sorry…” With a final excruciatingly nasty look at Peeves, he strode off toward the staircase just as the Ravenclaw students appeared on their way down to dinner. Peeves watched him go and then made a rather rude gesture at his retreating back before giving a mad cackle and zooming off in the other direction; a loud clank followed soon after from the end of the corridor.

Unable to hold it in any longer, James let out a loud roar of laughter, sinking weakly to the floor and burying his face in his knees. Upon seeing this, Sirius joined him, and the passing Gryffindors looked warily at them as they headed off down to dinner.

“Remus, you are without a doubt the most brilliant, flawless, handsome, wise –“ James choked, tears streaming from beneath his glasses. He tried finishing the list of sugary compliments but humor caught him in the middle, and he began howling again, holding his stomach now.

“Save it, James,” Remus said, but he looked rather pleased with how well the prank had come off. Sirius stretched out his hands to be helped up from the floor, breathing the after-hysterics wheezy laugh and still grinning madly.

“One of our best, I’d say,” he said finally, clapping first Remus, then Peter, and finally Beth on the back. James somehow managed to struggle to his feet and swallowed down the last of his uncontrollable giggles.

“Great way to end off seven years, at any rate,” he said, and Sirius turned to look at him as though he didn’t quite understand.

“End off?”

James raised his eyebrows, fiddling a bit with his glasses. “Well, we’re not going to be able to do this much longer,” he rationed. “We’re about to join up, aren’t we?” He didn’t use the name of the Order, but Beth saw it was obvious that’s what he was talking about.

Something fell slightly in Sirius’s face. He didn’t seem to have given thought to having to give up the tomfoolery entirely. “Oh… yeah,” he said at last, sticking his hands idly in the pockets of his robes. “Well then… this was a good way to end it.”

Beth felt a slight jolt in the pit of her stomach; it was as though it was the end of something, the start of another epoch entirely in their lives. She couldn’t say exactly what had brought those words to her mind, because she knew that they sounded sort of stupid, but it was a very real feeling nonetheless. Her eyes darted between the four boys – her best friends in the entire world, James and Sirius and Peter and Remus – and knew that each of them felt it as well.

As one, they started for the entrance hall, all knowing that it was – at least in part – something symbolic, and beyond words.

A/N: So, I was looking over my well-worn outline for this story the other day, and trying to change what I'd written and crossed out and re-written to fit the actual chapter content of my draft. And then I realized -- I only have two chapters left to write for this. So I can say with an air of near-confidence that this story will wind up being thirty-one chapters. That's crazy that I'm so near the end! Where did time go?

Thanks so much for all the reviews, guys. It's just incredible. And please don't hesitate to keep leaving them, really! Even one line will completely make my day!


Chapter 20: The Unexpected Visitor
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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!


Chapter 21: Opinions and Omens
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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!


Chapter 22: Sirius Versus Slytherin
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Beth, Peter, Remus, James, and Sirius weren’t the only ones to notice the article that ran in the Daily Prophet on Wendell Craig’s death, and certainly weren’t the only ones to see the small blurbs that followed thereafter. Although the rest of the student body may not have realized its significance for what it was, the death of a Ministry official wasn’t exactly a common occurrence, and almost nothing else was discussed in the weeks that followed the initial announcement. Ensuing coverage was thin, true, but a small mention or aside appeared without fail at least once every week. For many of them, it was one of the biggest news stories they’d ever had the opportunity to follow.

Though she hated to think it – maybe it was because she simply didn’t want to believe that it was true – Beth knew that Sirius’s inclination that the accident was more sinister than it appeared was probably correct. In class and at meals, she could see that Professor McGonagall wore an almost permanently grim look now, although it hardly differed from her usual sternness; it could only be seen if it was looked for specially. Professor Dumbledore too had changed slightly, the twinkle normally living in his cheerful blue eyes all but gone. The pair could as well have been advertising their concern in large signs hung around their necks for how obvious it was to the five of them.

Sirius, too, was moodier than normal. This was readily apparent throughout the end of January, but with his decreasing mood came a new sense of determination. On a drizzly sort of afternoon, a Sunday afternoon, in one of the early weeks of February, in the comparative coziness of the library, he embarked yet again on the now-tiresome rant he’d been issuing forth ever since the publishing of the original article.

“I just don’t understand,” he said bitterly, twirling his quill in his fingers, the homework questions he should have been working on far from being completed, “how some people can be so incredibly thick and bigoted as to actually believe it matters whether you’ve got magical blood in you or not.”

Beth was listening to him without looking up at him, staring unseeingly at the corner of her parchment, where ink was dripping and forming a rather interesting-looking ink blot.

“I mean, there are some real idiots in Slytherin,” he continued disgustedly. “If they’re supposed to be the superior people in all their good, clean blood, we might as well all cop out now. Go and mix with the Muggles like normal people.”

Peter clonked his head down on the table, giving a faint, suppressed groan. “If you’re going to keep going on about this, you can write this essay for me while you talk,” he said, the heavy wood of the table they sat around muffling his voice slightly.

“Yeah, you sound like Beth, earlier this year,” James interjected, looking over at Beth and shooting her a wicked grin completely with an arrogant wiggling of the eyebrows. “Whining about how Snivellus was going to find out about us, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a –“

Wordlessly, Beth reached over and jabbed the corner of James’s Potions textbook with the tip of her wand. The corner was instantly enveloped in bright crimson flames. James gave a little squawk and flung it to the ground in a panic, the resulting thud echoing marvelously throughout the silent library. He stomped on it quickly to extinguish the flames

“Shut up,” she intoned dully, flipping a page of her own book as though nothing had happened. James was glaring alternately between her and the slightly singed cover of his book; Sirius was slumped on the table, dark hair falling messily into his eyes, worries forgotten momentarily as he tried to breathe through his laughter.

Madam Pince’s angrily clacking heels were heard only seconds before the librarian herself rounded the corner, staring down her beaky nose at them all, small eyes alight with a malicious glint. She crossed her thin, bony arms over the ill-fitting white blouse she wore and shifted her gaze between each of them. They looked mutely back at her; both Beth and Sirius were in serious danger of busting out laughing again.

The woman’s eyes fell at last on James’s book, and she let out a gasp, as though one of them had done her a personal wrong. “Destroying literature?” she hissed, snatching the book up off the table before James could grab it and stuff it out of sight. Her shrewd eyes darted over its cover. “A textbook, too,” she spat. “I’ll just have to see what Professor Slughorn says about this, won’t I?” She stomped away amidst the stacks, effectively confiscating the book.

James whirled on Beth now, ignoring the laughter that now issued from each of the other four mouths. His own mouth was wide open in a look of incredulity at what had just happened. “You’re doing my homework now!” he said indignantly, but a ghost of a smile was flickering across his face, try as he might to ward it off. She grinned maddeningly and kicked his leg under the table in a sisterly fashion.

“Not a chance, Prongs,” she said cheerfully. From outside in the corridor came the distant sound of thundering footsteps, signaling the start of dinner; the five Gryffindors began scraping their things together and jamming them haphazardly into their school bags.

Sirius moved more slowly than the others, and this didn’t escape Beth’s notice. She instantly slowed her pace as well, and finally Remus and Peter and James moved off, seemingly unaware that they were short two members of the group.

“You okay?” she said in a low voice, sitting back down in the chair she’d just vacated. Sirius arose restlessly and moved to the nearest window, streaked with small drops from the misty rain still falling outside. He brushed a hand through his hair.

“Sometimes I don’t think they understand,” he said, launching immediately into whatever had obviously still been occupying his mind. “It’s – it’s everything my family stood for, and it’s awful. This blood purity thing, it makes no sense, and the whole world seems to be going mad over it. People here, too,” he added, waving his hand around to indicate the school. “You haven’t heard some of the Slytherins talk about it – they agree with You-Know-Who, they figure we need to eliminate Muggle-borns.” He looked helplessly at Beth.

“I understand,” she said firmly, a sense of conviction she hadn’t known she possessed suddenly gripping her tightly. And she did understand, more than she’d realized she had. “My family is the same as yours, Sirius, in case you’ve forgotten. They’re right up there with the proponents of wizard-only superiority.” Beth’s mouth twisted slightly in bitterness. “That’s part of the reason I joined the Order.”

And though she’d never expressed this before, even to herself, she knew instantly it was true.

“Exactly,” Sirius said, sounding a bit relieved. “We’ve just got to work at stopping them, Bethy.” The look he turned on her was full of earnestness and sincerity. “We need to help make this right.”

“And we will,” she said simply, nudging him slightly with her shoulder, in part to relieve the tension that had suddenly cropped up at the seriousness of his words. “It won’t be long now before we’re out there fighting for that equality you and I both know is the right thing.”

The footsteps outside were dying away as the last stragglers passed on their way to the Great Hall. “Come on,” Beth said, seeing that Sirius had disappeared into his mind again, still staring out the window. “Let’s go. I’m starved.”

*

After that conversation, Beth did indeed notice that some of the Slytherins seemed to be conversing more about the articles in the paper. She didn’t know quite how she’d missed it before, but there always seemed to be a group of them in the corridors or around the table at mealtimes, one of them clutching a copy of the Prophet and all of them conversing in low tones, looking up furtively whenever someone passed too near. She wondered if all of them, as Sirius said, felt the way that You-Know-Who did, that anyone who was not purely magical shouldn’t be allowed to practice magic.

She had hardly heard anything from her parents since Christmas – she suspected they hadn’t been too pleased about her lack of response concerning their bribe gifts – but had seen a small notice about the finalization of their divorce in a column in the paper, which she and her friends were now scanning cover to cover. James had hastened to cover it up with his elbow before anyone else saw, and she was grateful for it, but that didn’t stop a sick feeling to creep into her stomach for the rest of the day.

But her parents, despite being separated, were sure to both be on this side, the side of pureblood supremacists. They always had been before the split, and that wasn’t likely to change matters. It made Beth even more determined about what she was doing, knowing that joining the Order would prove, if only to herself, that she was not like them. She would not make the same mistakes as they had if she separated herself from everything they stood for.

No further word about the Order had come to them from Dumbledore, and Sirius was getting restless again in light of Craig’s murder. James reasoned that it was bound to be trickier now, what with the extra members Professor Dumbledore had agreed to take on at their last meeting, but that logic didn’t seem to comfort Sirius any.

“He’s busy, Sirius,” Remus reasoned as patiently as he could; they were walking through a seemingly deserted corridor about a week after the events in the library, heading back to the common room for their free period. “If your reasoning about Craig is right, especially. Think what that’s got to mean for the Order.”

“I know,” Sirius snapped, “I’m not a child.”

“I know you’re not,” Remus persisted exasperatedly, “but stop cramming your theories down our throats. We’ve heard them all before, you know.” Beth, glancing at him from the corner of her eye, saw Sirius’s mouth pop open to respond, but Peter interjected before things got ugly.

“What does it mean for the Order?”

“Well,” Beth piped up, “they’ve got to figure out what to do – or who to do it to. They can’t just pop up anywhere they please and start having people arrested on suspicions of being – whatever it is those You-Know-Who followers are called –“

“Death Eaters,” said Sirius promptly, stooping to tie a shoelace that had become unfastened. “And it’s not like they’ve got much to go on, finding exactly the right person or people who killed Craig –“

“Still talking about that Ministry bloke, Black?” The five of them turned around, Sirius standing up so quickly he lost his balance and had to right himself using James’s shoulder. Severus’s friend Avery was striding down the corridor, looking very much as though he owned it, a perpetual sneer lifting his top lip a bit above his bottom one. Beth heard Sirius grinding his teeth.

“Shove off,” he said hotly. “Just because I’m actually informed as to what goes on in the world –“

“You haven’t got a clue,” Avery drawled lazily, examining his fingernails as though bored; he’d come to a halt in the middle of the carpet, and he and Sirius were now facing off squarely, the rest of the Gryffindors bunched around them like spectators. Tension fairly crackled in the air, white-hot and dangerous.

“What do you mean, I haven’t got a clue? I can read, can’t I? What are you on about?”

“It doesn’t matter whether you can read or not,” Avery said, as though talking to a three-year-old he didn’t particularly like. “What matters is whether you can read between the lines.”

James stepped forward to stand alongside Sirius. “Close your mouth if you know what’s good for you,” he snapped at Avery, nevertheless trying to pull Sirius back around in the direction of Gryffindor Tower again. “You shouldn’t be running your mouth about things you’re not involved in, no matter if you believe in them or not.” Beth caught the underlying meaning – both boys were talking about You-Know-Who – and she could tell Avery saw James knew it, too. He raised an eyebrow and Sirius turned to leave.

“If you want to go on being friends with his kind,” Avery said, jerking his chin in Remus’s direction, “then don’t let me stop you.” His voice dripped with contempt, and Sirius whirled back around, brows contracted, anger bubbling inside him and staining his cheeks. Beth’s insides gave a nervous twist; Remus was, in technical terms, a half-blood.

“His kind?” he said angrily. “Care to explain?”

Avery smirked knowingly. “You know. People with dirty blood.” He turned to look at Remus and made the motion of spitting on the ground at his feet.

The reaction was instantaneous, and happened so fast Beth couldn’t have stopped it even if she had been absolutely prepared. Sirius left the ground in a leap that was more animalistic than any action she’d ever seen a human perform, his arms outstretched. It was as though he hovered in the air for a brief second before his curled fists met Avery’s torso. The latter gave a grunt and fell back, Sirius crashing on top of him.

What followed appeared to be a whirlwind of fists and kicking feet as both fought equally, Sirius raining punches down on every bit of Avery he could reach and Avery trying his hardest to deflect them while keeping his face intact. Curses flew as thick as the punches and James darted about, seeking for a way to pull his friend off Avery without getting whacked as well.

“Don’t – ever – say – that – again - !” Sirius grunted between blows; Beth saw that one of his eyes was already swelling magnificently, the skin around it becoming puffy and almost pure black. She couldn’t ever remember seeing him so angry, and it was almost terrifying just to watch.

“Sirius, mate! Get off him!” James cried, ducking one of Avery’s blows and trying to grab Sirius's shoulder, missing in the attempt. “He’s not worth it, let it go!” But if either of the fighting, squirming boys heard, they chose to ignore him. The sound of fist meeting jaw fairly echoed in the corridor, and Beth winced, averting her eyes despite herself.

Students, apparently having heard the commotion, began to appear at either end of the stretch of corridor, eagerly clamoring for a better view at the excitement going on. A small group formed around the five of them, standing back so as to not be associated with the proceedings, and still Sirius and Avery scrabbled on the ground, throwing punches just as hard as ever.

“What is going on here?” The loud and extremely angry voice of Professor McGonagall sliced through the din of students’ voices and pounding fists, somewhere behind the near-solid wall of spectators. A small group of them parted and McGonagall broke through, closely followed by Professor Flitwick, who looked taken aback at the sight of the two seventh-years on the ground.

“Black! Avery!” she barked, but they were deaf to everything other than their mission to pound the other into dust. Mouth set into a thin line, she shook back the long sleeves of her robe and took out her wand from a pocket. The boys were blasted apart at once, hitting opposite sides of the corridor; Avery’s robe flew over his head.

“No!” Professor McGonagall barked, waving her wand again as Sirius scrambled for Avery again. Some kind of field seemed to materialize, splitting down the middle of the hallway and preventing him from reaching his opponent. “Enough, Black! And you, Avery – enough!” Her beady stare swiveled around to the other four Gryffindors clustered there.

“All of you!” she said grimly, eyes glinting like steel. “My office, immediately.” She gave an irritable jerk of her head in its general direction. “And the rest of you, to your classes!” she added, addressing the people still clustered around to watch the fight. Talking excitedly amongst themselves, the student body dissembled slowly, casting backwards glances over their shoulder as though hoping to catch a glimpse of something they might have missed before.

“You idiot,” James muttered as Sirius walked over, nursing his elbow and shooting absolutely filthy looks at Avery, who was still disentangling himself from his robes. “You didn’t have to go and hit him, you know.”

“You heard what he said, didn’t you?” Sirius snarled, jamming his fists into his pockets.

“Hard to miss that,” said Peter, glancing over his shoulder at Avery, “but still.”

Throughout the entire ordeal, Beth suddenly realized that Remus had kept absolutely silent. He remained so now, staring unseeingly at the floor as though deep in thought. He was chewing his lip concernedly, and she reached out and touched his arm. He looked up; there was something in his eyes that shocked her, almost a sort of pain.

“Are you okay?” she said, and the other three turned when she spoke; they seemed to see for the first time, too, that Remus was bothered by something.

“All this time,” he said in a low voice, and now the hurt was even more evident, “I never even thought that what I’d be judged for was for not being a pureblood.” His eyes swiveled to Sirius, whose mouth had dropped open slightly. “I’m sorry, mate.”

“You’re not going to be so thick as to apologize for who you are,” Beth burst in angrily. “I know you didn’t just – Remus, it doesn’t matter.” They had all forgotten Avery was still walking behind them, but she could have cared less at that moment. Hot, bubbling anger was welling inside her at what this notion – this idiotic idea of blood purity, that some wizards were actually better than others – was already doing to the school and the students.

“Well, it’s already gotten him in trouble, hasn’t it?” said Remus defensively, gesturing at Sirius and the large, purplish-black bruise around his eye. “It’s already turned him against us!” He gestured again, this time in Avery’s direction.

“Yeah, because he liked us so much before,” James said sourly, but Beth shot him a very pointed look, and he shut up quickly.

“Remus, anyone who cares what sort of blood you’ve got is no one you should associate with,” Beth said firmly, her heart swelling already just with the conviction of her words. And she knew she meant it.

*

“Well, Mr. Black,” said Professor McGonagall sarcastically, not looking up from the parchment she was writing on with decisive motions, “I must say that you might have outdone yourself today.”

“He was provoked, Professor,” James argued, shifting in his seat slightly and gripping the edge of the desk urgently. Avery had already been sent away with two weeks’ worth of detentions with Filch, the caretaker, and now it was only the five Gryffindors left in McGonagall’s office.

“Nonsense,” she replied crisply, pausing to refill the nib of her quill from the ink bottle on the upper right-hand corner of her desk. “If anyone was provoked, it was Mr. Lupin, and I don’t see him sporting any sort of fighting injuries.” She looked up as though half-expecting such injuries to have blossomed in the time it took her to make the statement.

Sirius scowled as best he could through his black eye. “The git,” he muttered, kicking the leg of McGonagall’s desk idly with the toe of his trainers. Beth secretly felt like doing the same – although she hadn’t been punching Avery, she had been just as outraged as Sirius – but was glad in the next moment that she had refrained from kicking.

“Mr. Black,” said the woman now, replacing her quill in the ink pot for good. “You are going to have to learn to deal with these sorts of things in a calm and rational manner.” She peered at him over the tops of her brown spectacles, making sure he was listening. “When you’re working for the Order of the Phoenix, you can’t go attacking people left and right simply because what they’re saying isn’t what you want to hear,” she added in a softer voice, though with no addition of gentleness. “It’s exactly that that will get you killed.”

Sirius seemed to see the rationale in this; at any rate, he looked slightly ashamed, which was a step in the right direction. “Yeah,” he muttered, withdrawing his foot under the hem of his robes once more.

“You’ve got to control your temper,” McGonagall finished, and rolled up the parchment she’d written on in a sharp snap. “Two weeks of detention with Professor Slughorn, starting next Monday evening.” Sirius’s mouth dropped open; it was clear he hadn’t expected to be punished in the same vein as Avery had been.

“Next meeting is February twenty-seventh,” she said in an undertone. “Professor Dumbledore will send for you as he has done in the past.”

“Lily, too? And Mary and Marlene?” James spoke up hastily. The woman’s mouth tightened slightly - McGonagall still didn’t much approve of how many students would be joining the Order after the end of the year, which was understandable. But she nodded, and James suddenly looked happier than he had all day.

“You may go,” she added, and the five stood up simultaneously, filing out of Professor McGonagall’s office in one line.

A/N: Any sorts of wind-like sounds you might have heard during this chapter would be me, sighing over it. Because, as I've said before, I just love reading over old chapters -- it puts the newer ones in a different light, which is great, especially now I've started the second book. And this chapter in particular, with Sirius and Beth and all their hot-headed attitudes... Got to love them!

Thank you guys so much for the reviews, seriously. They honestly make my day, each and every one of them, and I can't tell you what it means to have them!


Chapter 23: The Row
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If any of the five of them hoped that the fight between Sirius and Avery would go unnoticed, they couldn’t have misplaced their wishes further. Almost immediately upon entering the Great Hall for dinner that evening whispers began buzzing among the tables, and more than one person pointed outright at Sirius’s blackened eye. All the way across the hall, even with the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables separating them, they could hear Avery moaning about his lip, which had swollen after Sirius’s fist had collided with it.

“You would have though the bloody git had lost his spleen or something,” Sirius growled; he was still slightly put-out at having been issued two weeks’ worth of detentions. Beth thought about pointing out that, to be fair, he had punched another student, but the murderous look on her friend’s face told her that probably wasn’t the best thing to say at that moment.

Peter took hold of Sirius’s elbow and steered him forcibly in the direction of their table, so as not to have another scene like the one in the corridor. “Let it go,” he said, casting a glance over his shoulder at the Slytherins, who were still jeering. “He’s not worth it.”

They were a bit early to dinner, and the end of the table nearest the back wall was virtually empty. Beth swung her legs over the long bench and looked up towards the top table, without knowing why. Her eyes fell immediately on Professor Dumbledore, in the middle of the table; he was consulting quietly with Professor McGonagall about something, just as he had done after the article about Wendell Craig was published. She frowned.

“What’s Dumbledore doing?” she said in a low voice; Remus was the only one to hear her, as the others had been distracted by the arrival of Lily and Mary and Marlene. The six of them were now beginning a vehement argument, of which the only word Beth caught was “potatoes”.

“What’s that?” he asked, leaning toward her slightly, but his question was answered before Beth could open her mouth. Dumbledore stood up suddenly from his throne-like chair, looking placidly out at the students assembled before him, and the crowd stopped talking almost at once. Apart from at the feasts at the start and end of term, mealtime speeches were few and far between; it was bound to be something serious.

“I’m sure most of you are wondering why I’ve chosen tonight to get up from the table,” he said, smiling at them and pinpointing exactly the source of the sudden silence. “And for those of you who are concerned about this sudden interruption of your dinner, let me assure you it will not become a nightly occurrence.”

There were a few weak chuckles from those assembled, but for the most part silence reigned. “However,” Professor Dumbledore continued, his features suddenly becoming grave, “there is an issue I feel the need to address.” Beth’s heart constricted in something like guilt, although she couldn’t really imagine what she had to feel guilty about. Her gaze shifted and locked with James’s; he seemed to be having similar emotions.

“You are well aware of the political strains our world is facing,” he said, placing a hand placidly on either side of his golden plate, as if he were merely making a toast or some other trifling speech. “I do not feel it necessary to mention them explicitly, but they are there, making themselves felt inside our own walls.

“What I must impress upon you is how important it is to maintain your characters in times such as these. Hold fast and do not let your morals waver; stand firmly arm in arm and do not let your friend become your enemy for inconsequential reasons. Be true and brave, and our world will not crumble.” He paused, and in the space of the silence the headmaster seemed almost to consider each student individually. It was an uncomfortable feeling.

“Remain united,” he said finally, “and they will not win.” And on that mysterious, hanging sentence, Dumbledore’s speech was finished. He sat down just as easily as he had stood; the entirety of his monologue had lasted two minutes, at most.

Sirius let out a low whistle as the chatter in the hall began to gradually increase, and everyone clustered around him turned in his direction. “Well, that was a loaded thing to talk about, wasn’t it?” he said conversationally, dunking a chip in an enormous mound of ketchup.

“I’ll say,” said Lily, turning back and frowning in the general direction of the table. “What do you suppose he was on about? Is this about that man who was killed? The one in the papers?” When no one responded, she turned back around, eyebrows raised slightly. Peter gave Sirius a very blatantly obvious look, and Beth could have smacked him for making it so noticeable.

“We’ll tell you later,” James murmured in an undertone. “Not here.” This answer didn’t seem to satisfy Lily, but apparently it was the only one she was going to get, for James refused to say another word even hinting at the subject. But she did need to know – she and her friends were going to be members of the Order, after all, just like the rest of them.

Beth’s eyes sought out the Slytherin table unconsciously; she found Severus at once, as though her eyes went automatically in his direction. He and his friends were conversing in a tight-knit group, their heads close together. A small shiver darted up her spine; they didn’t look happy at all.

*

Beth thought she knew exactly what Severus and his friends had been whispering about that night at dinner, and she didn’t have to wait long to have her suspicions confirmed. It wasn’t even twenty-four hours later, and considering how long he’d waited to find out why she and her friends kept conspiring over the dinner table, that was no time at all.

“Blimey, I hate Thursdays,” said Sirius gloomily the next morning at breakfast, his head almost coming to rest on the table as he fought waves of sleep. He had a very persistent habit of staying up much too late, which was good for nights when he needed to help out Remus on the full moon, but completely deleterious the rest of the time.

“What’s so bad about Thursday?” Beth said, yawning herself and smothering it by taking a large gulp of tea.

“History of Magic too early in the morning,” he said grumpily, poking the remains of his toast glumly, as it had become soggy from the heaps of butter he’d slathered onto it as normal. Remus laughed at him from across the table.

“That’s gross,” he said, pointing at the toast in question. Sirius’s response was to rest his forehead on the table’s edge, groaning a bit.

“Oh, no – hang on a minute,” Beth said, Sirius’s words suddenly processing themselves fully in her brain. “I’ve forgotten my textbook – shoot –“ She reached down and heaved her school bag onto her lap, rummaging a bit and hoping she was mistaken. The book wasn’t there; it was more than likely still in her trunk from where she’d pitched in on Monday.

“See you guys in class,” she said, and popped up from the table quickly, silently cursing herself. Gryffindor Tower was a fair journey from the Great Hall, and History of Magic was quite a ways off besides. She wondered if Professor Binns would even care if she was late – although she’d never tested it before, she couldn’t imagine how much he’d be affected by it, or indeed if he’d be affected at all.

“Hey – Beth!” A shout from behind her made Beth turn, and a smile crept onto her face unwittingly. Severus, also smiling a bit, was jogging up the base of the grand staircase to where she stood at the top. She waited for him to catch up.

“You’re in a hurry,” he said, panting only slightly and brushing a strand of his dark hair out of his eyes.

“Forgot my textbook,” she said, rolling her eyes again at having done so and not enjoying the thought of walking up to the tower. She began to head in that direction, and Severus fell easily in step alongside her, as though he was meaning to walk there the entire time.

“Some busted lip Black gave Avery,” he said after a while, and Beth’s eyes quickly darted to him, wondering how she should respond. The smirk on his lips reassured her and she laughed aloud.

“Nothing compared to his black eye, though,” she pointed out. “I don’t think he was expecting Avery to fight back so hard.” In her mind’s eye, the whole scene again, how genuinely livid both boys had been. When looked upon objectively as she was doing now, it didn’t even make a whole lot of sense.

Severus had grown sort of quiet next to her, and she looked at him out of the corner of her eye again. He was staring firmly head and was chewing slightly on his bottom lip, apparently in deep concentration. She waited a few moments longer, wondering if she’d said something amiss; furiously she wracked her brains, trying to find what it was she might have said to offend him.

He didn’t speak until she’d stepped onto the staircase heading up toward the tower, and he nearly missed it. “Sorry,” he said hastily, and then leaned back against the banister, staring at one of the steps. “So, erm – about the fight – where do you stand?” He said this last in a great rush, as though he couldn’t wait to be rid of the thought.

“Where do I… what do you mean?” she repeated, frowning. A sick, sort of icy feeling had started to manifest itself in her lower abdomen, slowly crawling upwards. “Are you talking about blood purity issues?”

“Yeah,” he said at once, head jerking up. His dark eyes bore a feverish sort of intensity; the icy feeling grew that much stronger, and she swallowed to try and counteract it. It was extremely unpleasant, almost nauseating, and she willed it to go away, knowing that they were embarking upon a discussion she had feebly hoped she and Severus would never have.

She knew where he stood on the matter; she knew he, like his friends, believed those with non-magical blood were inferior to purebloods. It wasn’t something she liked to accept, and so she never thought about it. Before this year – before these past few months – she had never had cause to dwell on it, because he had never paid her any special attention. Severus had been the boy she could admire from far away solely for superficial matters, but now they were something close to friends, and hiding from it was no longer an option.

She sucked in a deep breath and prayed that whatever happened, he wouldn’t hate her.

“I don’t believe any wizard is better than another just because of where their heritage comes from,” she said shakily, gripping the strap of her shoulder bag so hard her fingers hurt. Something shifted at once in Severus’s eyes, as plainly as if it had been tangible, and a lump formed in Beth’s throat. She forced herself to continue on. “There is no reason that having one or two Muggles for parents should in any way affect your magical ability.”

“But you’re pureblood,” he broke in heatedly, blotches of red appearing high on his cheekbones with the outburst. “You’re completely – it’s like – “ He was scrambling for words as they became lost in his frantic exclamations. “You have everything,” he finished at last, a note of desperation in his voice.

Beth stared at him in shock. “That doesn’t mean a thing,” she said, her own voice rising slightly as her emotions caught up with her. “You’re loads better in Potions than I am, aren’t you, and your dad’s a Muggle. My parents split up and they’re purebloods.”

She hadn’t realized how passionately she’d felt about the issue until that moment, but it was as though one realization after another was crashing over her like breakers. He knew how messed up her family was, knew how much she couldn’t stand either of her parents’ attitudes. Her heart was beating rapidly, sharp pains under her ribs, but she stowed the thought away. She needed to search for redemption in all of this, the like-mindedness she knew that they must share. They had to.

Severus’s brows had contracted sharply, angular lines marring his forehead. “They don’t deserve to live in our world,” he said hotly, “they’re not us –“

“And yet we live in theirs!” Beth cried out sharply, flinging her arms wide. “It’s prejudice, Severus – that fight, that got started because of Remus, and not because of what he actually is. Avery said what he did because of something imagined, something that will never, ever matter.” She breathed deeply, raggedly; a stitch had formed in her side.

His mouth was thin and grim, his eyes cold, so different from how they had looked only minutes ago. “I would have thought that you of all people would realize how important this is,” he spat. “It would benefit you, Beth –“ he took a fraction of a step closer – “you would stand to gain everything –“

“Not if you were getting rid of my friends,” she said firmly, standing as tall as she could, knowing that if she actually stopped for a moment she’d probably begin to cry. “I don’t understand you, your dad is a Muggle –“

“Would you stop saying that?” Severus said; he was very close to shouting now. He climbed the rest of the stairs in a second, needing to move through his anger, and she hurried up after him angrily. “D’you think I’ve forgotten, or something? He is scum, my dad, he’s the sort of person we need to be rid of. If my mum hadn’t married him –“ He broke off and made a disgusted sort of noise.

As quickly as the shouting and anger had risen, it suddenly broke off; Beth could hardly believe it had happened, and almost wanted to believe it hadn’t. Both of them were breathing furiously, staring hard at one another, as though daring each to be the first to crack.

“So, you really feel that way?” she said coldly, hating the words and their tone as they spilled out of her mouth. Severus’s mouth twitched once, and he nodded.

Something broke inside of her. Lily’s warning, several months ago – she had never heeded it. She’d thrown herself into the friendship blindly, willing to overlook anything. But this, this was Severus as he truly was, walls and façades broken down. This was the boy she’d thought of for seven years, and she’d never known him at all.

Beth hurried away quickly, without another word, tears burning her eyes so she could hardly see. She couldn’t let him see the hurt she felt. She couldn’t let him know how deeply it affected her. It would only hurt her worse in the end.

*

Severus watched her go, feeling as though he was about to be sick. He didn’t know why he’d asked her that question, and he didn’t know why he’d gotten so mad when her response wasn’t the one he’d wanted to hear.

But he was completely certain that he’d just ruined everything. She might have been able to forget about the spells he’d said he’d written in his Potions textbook, but this – this was something that clearly meant so much to her, more than he’d ever guessed. And what had he done? He’d shouted at her, very nearly screamed at her. Told her how wrong she was.

He pressed his forehead to the wall, breathing deeply, but calm wouldn’t come. It was all over for him now, just as it was beginning, and it was all his fault.

*

The argument had taken up too much of Beth’s time, and by the time she got to her dormitory and had searched her trunk for the missing History of Magic textbook, the first bell had already rung. It didn’t help at all that she couldn’t see straight; her anger was nearly blinding, especially when coupled with mingling feelings of sorrow and hurt.

She didn’t know why she was so surprised by it – and maybe she wasn’t surprised at all. Lily had told her that Severus loved the Dark Arts, and this was a natural extension of that. But it was one thing to hear it from the mouth of a friend; it was another entirely to have it played out before her. Part of her had vainly and foolishly hoped that Lily was blowing things out of proportion, or that perhaps Severus had changed. Even after telling her about his spells – the one that required him to also know how to seal wounds – she never would have seen it coming. She’d been blinded, and it was her own fault.

The castle was empty when she finally set out for class, all the students in their lessons, and Beth hurried as quickly as she possibly could to History of Magic without drawing attention to herself. She had calmed down substantially but could feel the telltale itchiness around her eyes signifying she’d recently been crying. Hopefully the boys wouldn’t notice; they weren’t always very observant.

Professor Binns had assumed his usual post behind the podium at the front of the class and was droning away at the day’s lesson as though he’d been monologuing for years on end. There was an empty seat beside Marlene McKinnon, directly behind the desk that Remus and Sirius occupied, and she slipped into it casually.

Sirius turned around in his seat, creasing his eyebrows questioningly, but she shook her head, gesturing in Binns’s direction, as though she actually wanted to hear the lesson. Sirius frowned and turned hesitantly back around; she could tell she hadn’t fooled him for a moment.

A small square of parchment landed with a small thump on her desk, coming from somewhere on her left. Turning, she saw James sitting next to Lily, trying to appear as though he was taking notes. His eyes slid over to her behind his glasses. Scooting the parchment beneath the desk, she opened it and read James’s untidy scrawl.

Are you okay?

She reached for her quill and suddenly stopped, hand poised. She wasn’t okay – she didn’t see how she’d be okay for a long while – and thought about telling it all to James. But she didn’t want to see the smug look of triumph on Sirius’s face, or the look of knowing on Lily’s, or the look of pity on James’s own. This was her own private affair, and would stay that way.

She slowly removed the quill from the inkwell and wrote two words in small, deliberate print:

I’m fine.

A/N: I love this chapter. I just... I am sorry if that's a bit pretentious, but all the emotion makes me all super-charged and reminds me why I wanted to write this story in the first place. It was never supposed to be slow-paced, and although the first half was a bit, out of necessity, now I feel like it's getting to the vision of the plot as I first had it -- and that's really, really exciting for me!

As always, if you've made it this far, please don't forget to leave your opinion. I am seriously so blown away at your comments and reads, and I love hearing from you all. Thanks!


Chapter 24: Forgiving
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If there was one thing Beth was absolutely sure about, it was that she wouldn’t let on to any of the others – not James, not Sirius, not Lily – the real reason for her being upset. It was nothing against any of her friends, and it wasn’t that she didn’t trust them, but she still remembered painfully what had happened the last time she’d told any of them anything with intentions to keep it private. This sort of pain was hers and hers alone, and she wanted to bear it as such.

But it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, why she felt the way she did. She and Severus had differing viewpoints – that much had been clear even before this year, when they’d been virtually strangers, and she’d only seen him from afar. Beth knew that the real barb lay not in the shouts and screams that had issued from both, though those had been hard enough. It was the fact that she’d allowed herself to be so blind for seven years and to pursue something so recklessly, without heeding the countless warning signs and symbols. And there had been plenty this year alone – the actions of his friends, Sirius’s reaction to learning about her crush, Lily’s warning, and even only a few weeks previously, upon finding out about the spells he wrote in the margins of his textbooks.

And she had ignored them all selfishly, heedlessly, carelessly – and for what? It all came down to this. None of it mattered anymore, because he would never look twice, not even for a moment, at a girl who’d brashly shouted at him in the middle of the stairwell as if she were mad.

It wasn’t hard to see that she was upset, though – everything about her was more listless, less carefree, than in months previous. Remus and James especially poked and prodded, trying to find out the source of whatever it was that had gotten under Beth’s skin, but they stopped once she mentioned her parents. They were all still tip-toeing around the subject of the Bridgers’ divorce, and for once Beth was glad to have the excuse to bring them up, if only so it would quiet the others.

Beth still hadn’t heard a word from either her mother or her father since Christmas – apparently her cold reception of their gifts had hardened their hearts a bit, which she wasn’t entirely sorry about. She loved her parents, it went without saying, but this was unlike them. And so it happened that one very wet night in late February, a week after her birthday had come and gone and no outside word had come from anyone, she faced the music and sat down to pen identical letters to her parents. She had needed to do this for a long time anyway, for it was becoming more and more necessary to let her parents know vaguely about what she was planning to do after school.

I haven’t heard from you in a couple of months, so I thought I might as well take the time to write to you. Thank you for the Christmas gift, I appreciated it very much. All of the boys say hello and that they hope you’re doing well – none of her friends had ever said to tell her parents hello in recent memory, but she always included that in letters anyway to fill up space – and that we’re all doing well in school.

I’ve been meaning to write this letter for a long time, but it’s a bit hard, and even now it’s difficult to find the right words, but I need to say it. I know you’ve had high hopes for me my entire life, and you always saw me as a Healer, or as a Ministry official. But something’s come up – I can’t give a lot of details – and I’ll be working for a cause I believe in. Money’s not an object, but as I’ve said, there’s not a lot I can tell you here.

I’ll only be home for a little bit once term ends in June, and then I’ll be going off to work. Don’t worry too much about me, I’ll write when I can.

Lots of love,

Beth

It was vague, and it told almost nothing; it would work.

Beth glanced over from the hearthstone where she sat with her parchment and ink, legs tucked up beneath her, looking around for someone she could coax into going to the Owlery with her before curfew. James, who was always good for being bullied into an evening walk, was nowhere to be seen; she presumed he was with Lily, who he’d been spending more and more of his free time with. She remembered now that Remus and Peter had gone to bed early, and was about to face a cold walk down to the Owlery alone when Sirius emerged from the boys’ dormitory staircase as if from nowhere.

He evidently didn’t see Beth by the fire, and she was thankful for the large loveseat that blocked her way; he had a sneaky, prankish look about him. He crossed carefully to one of the lopsided tables, where some of the fourth-year boys who had been working there earlier had left their book bags in a heap. He gently opened one and took out a large brown leather book, set it aside, then took out a slightly smaller one.

Beth watched as he slowly emptied the contents of all four bags, not daring to breathe loudly lest he should know she was there before she wanted him to. Once the books were stacked neatly, he surveyed his handiwork for a brief moment before beginning to stuff them back into bags at random.

“I thought we agreed we were done with pranking?” Beth stood up a bit unsteadily, not realizing all the circulation had stopped in her legs, and Sirius jumped about three metres into the air. He shot her a filthy look.

“You’re a right sneak, you know that?” he scowled, jumping back from the books as though they’d burned him. She laughed and crossed over to him, arms folded, looking at the bags.

“I could say the same about you,” she said lightly. “And now I’m… I’m seeing your pawn, and raising you a knight, or whatever the term is.” Although she had long since mastered the art of Exploding Snap, chess somehow eluded Beth, and the ill-gotten reference seemed to confuse Sirius for the moment, drawing his mind away from being caught at the prank.

“I – did you just try and combine chess and poker?”

“Never mind that,” she said quickly, trying to regain the upper hand in this conversation. “You just can’t resist, can you?” She jerked her head toward the books; Sirius said nothing but continued to look a bit sullen, and yet triumphant at the same time. She laughed again and poked him teasingly in the side.

“I’m kidding,” she chuckled. “Although now you owe me if you don’t want me to rat you out.” She rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. “Care to assist me in taking a couple of letters up to the Owlery?”

“I – but it’s nearly eight o’ clock!” moaned Sirius, all pretense of acting moody gone.

“So let’s go before we break curfew,” Beth said firmly, already crossing back to the hearth to fasten her cloak about her shoulders. When Sirius just stood there, she beckoned with the letters clutched in her hand. “Come on, then!” Muttering something under his breath, he shoved his hands in his pockets and followed her out of the portrait hole.

The castle corridors were drafty and a bit damp, and Beth hurried along toward the Owlery, knowing how far she had to go and not wanting to get in trouble for staying out past nine o’ clock. Sirius, who didn’t have his cloak to keep him warm, had hunched his shoulders against the chill.

“So, who’re you sending letters to?” he asked finally, and she laughed at the sound of his teeth clacking together. Somehow, through making Sirius miserable (and she knew that, although he might moan about it, he really didn’t mind too much), her own slightly ashamed and angry feelings were faded a bit into the background of her mind.

“My parents,” she said, gesturing again with the square parchment envelopes. Sirius’s face clouded a bit at once, and he looked slightly uncomfortable at this. “Got to tell them about the Order,” she added in a bit of a lower register. “Somehow, at any rate, since they’re not exactly going to be jumping for joy about it.”

“You worried?” he asked. Beth shrugged a bit, but did not reply. In truth, she wasn’t worried – that wasn’t the word for it. She knew that she would fight for what she thought was right no matter what their opinion was. But it was going to be hard to continue on what might be the rest of her life without either of their support.

Beth tried shrugging off the thick, somber atmosphere that seemed to have descended around their shoulders, but the anger and hurt that had seemed to swallow her since her quarrel with Severus had returned. It was as though everything in her life had suddenly started revolving around this secret society, and she wasn’t sure how much she liked that.

*

Another scroll arrived in between Transfiguration and Charms a few days later; by this time, the headmaster’s thin and slanting handwriting was very recognizable to the five of them. Beth took it eagerly and skimmed it before handing it off to Sirius:

Kindly report to my office at the usual time this evening. Although I generally feel I have grown too old for sweets, I have a particular weakness for Jelly Slugs and would not say no to some.

Professor Dumbledore

James laughed. “He’s casual, isn’t he?” he snickered, jabbing a forefinger at the last line and shaking his head.

“His letters are getting shorter,” Sirius frowned, hastily stuffing the parchment into his pocket as a group of loud fifth-year Slytherins walked by, shoving each other into the walls. “I wonder if that means something?”

“He’s got to be busy, hasn’t he? Being headmaster of a school and all,” Remus rationed, stooping without warning to pick up a broken quill someone had dropped on the stairs, so that Beth nearly ran into him.

“Sorry,” she said, sidestepping him quickly and stumbling on the hem of her robes. She felt her shoulder slam into something mildly solid and looked up, about to make another apology – but the sentiment was lost on its way up, turning instead into an involuntary gasp. Out of everyone in the entire school, she’d managed to run into Severus.

He looked down at her curiously as though not sure how she’d gotten there, and she quickly stepped back, nearly tripping again. Beth felt her cheeks tingle and knew they’d turned some shade of pink; she hoped it wasn’t too noticeable. From the corner of her eye she could see the boys watching the exchange with poorly-concealed interest.

Severus opened his mouth, as though to say something, but before he could utter a syllable she turned briskly away and began hurrying up the stairs towards the Charms classroom. She didn’t want to hear any sort of reprimand or smart comment, or anything else he had to say. Beyond all reasonable thought, Beth was still both ashamed and annoyed at his presence, remembering how easily she’d been fooled into believing he was different than he actually was.

It was only once she’d nearly arrived at class that she registered the heavy sounds of Sirius’s feet trying to catch up to her; the others were close behind him.

“Hold up, Bethy,” he panted as she slowed her pace a bit, her cheeks still flaming. “D’you mind telling me what that was all about? Some sort of lovers’ spat?” He grinned cheekily and waggled his eyebrows.

“Shut up,” she snapped, brushing her hair out of her eyes and still walking forward at a brisk pace. “It is absolutely and equivocally none of your business what Severus and I talk about.”

“So you did fight,” Sirius said gloatingly, walking sideways beside her and matching her stride easily with his long legs. “Can’t decide on where to –“

“Sirius Black, if you don’t shut your stupid, fat mouth this instant, I will tell the entire school that you still sleep with your childhood blanket, and don’t think I won’t,” she said firmly. Sirius came to a dead halt in the middle of the corridor.

“That’s a lie –“

“And we’ll see who they believe,” Beth added, not being able to conceal a slight hint of pride at the threat despite the hot feelings still simmering inside her. James was trying to pull Sirius back a few steps now, desperately trying to conceal his own sniggers at what she’d said.

A crease formed on the right side of Remus’s forehead in confusion. “But what was –“ he began, and was thankfully at that moment interrupted by the squeaky voice of Professor Flitwick.

“Come in, come in, seventh years, we’ve got a lot to cover today!” he said, beaming up at all of them from where he stood barely three feet above the ground. “Hurry in, there – mind your step, Wright,” he added quickly, as the Hufflepuff girl walked smack into him. Beth thought a bit detachedly that there seemed to be a lot of one-on-one collisions in the corridors today.

“Sorry, Professor,” Sarah Wright said a bit feebly as Flitwick rubbed his nose.

“Quite all right!” he said genially. “Come on, boys, in we go!” he added, seeing the five still clustered in a huddle in the middle of the corridor. Beth could feel that they were still not satisfied with her story, but she wasn’t about to give them any more information on any quarrels she may or may not have had. Nose turned up just slightly, she marched into class.

*

It was definitely getting harder and harder to hide the growing number of students preparing for the Order; at a quarter until eight, all four boys and Beth were grouped in the common room, trying to appear as nonchalant as possible. And this evening Lily, Mary, and Marlene had received a scroll as well, meaning they were attending the meeting. All in all it meant eight people leaving the common room at eight o’ clock, trying to look as though it was all for innocent purposes. Beth felt a little twist of nerves in her stomach at the very thought, although she wasn’t so sure that she couldn’t attribute that to the embarrassment that had happened to her earlier in the day.

Lily and James were sitting a bit apart from the rest of them, both hunched over one book which they were very obviously not reading; James was saying something into Lily’s ear, and she was giggling behind her hand. Watching them, Beth sort of thought they looked like a picture you might find waving up out of one of the Witch Weekly serials; it was both sweet and maddening, like eating a Cockroach Cluster, and not to mention just plain odd to watch.

But she was a bit cynical on such things at the moment, not being lucky in that particular field, and tried to steer her mind away from the negative thoughts.

“They look like an old married couple already, don’t they?” murmured Sirius in her ear; Beth jumped, not realizing he was so close. She snickered and nodded in agreement, eyes sliding back over to them. “I reckon we’ll need to hose him down a bit afterward,” he continued thoughtfully.

“Oh, lay off,” she said, reaching back and smacking him in the arm. “They’re having fun, you know. And anyway, just because you can’t get Sarah out on a date with you –“

“That’s not it at all,” said Sirius easily, grinning lazily and stretching out his legs on the rug. “I haven’t asked her, it’s sort of futile, isn’t it? It’s all for the best, anyway, I’m not really into dating –“

“Then stop leading the poor girl on,” Beth said firmly, raising an eyebrow at him, “and talking her up at meals.” She paused, and then, curiosity getting the best of her, added, “Why aren’t you interested in dating?”

Sirius gave a noncommittal shrug. “Dunno,” he answered. “I just think it’s a bit pointless in school, if it won’t come to anything afterwards.” He nodded towards James and Lily. “It’s going to be rough on him when they break up.”

Beth frowned, suddenly recalling the conversation she and James had had in the large tree by the lake, right after Christmas. He’d given her that ring of his great-aunt’s, and that wasn’t something that she thought he’d throw around lightly. Peering a bit closer, she saw that the ring was currently residing on the middle finger of Lily’s right hand. A perfect fit.

James hadn’t told Lily its significance, but there was something inside her that just knew that Lily felt the same about James as he did about her. The dynamic between the two of them had shifted radically this year and what Sirius was saying just didn’t seem plausible. But Beth didn’t argue – debating about something that was neither of their affairs wasn’t really a good way to waste time.

“We should head down soon,” spoke up Mary, glancing at the thin watch on her left wrist. Looking up, her eyes met Sirius’s, and she blushed a very furious shade of scarlet which he seemed to pass right over.

“Right, then, let’s go,” he said, clapping his hands together eagerly. A first-year boy sitting in a lone armchair gave them a curious look as the group stood up and began to file out of the portrait hole, and Beth tried not to visibly wince, praying the boy just chalked it up to something that all seventh-years did. Nothing to concern himself with, moving on..

“So,” Marlene said, tossing her long, thick blond plait over her shoulder impatiently, “what are these meetings actually for? What goes on in them?”

“To be honest, not much,” said Peter, frowning a bit in thought as they traipsed down a long and echoing stairwell towards the courtyard. “Dumbledore’s keeping a lot of things hushed up, doesn’t want to tell us too much before he has to.”

“Which is understandable,” James butted in, one arm thrown casually around Lily’s shoulders. “We can’t go spreading too much around ourselves. He’s bound to tell us lots more this summer, after everything becomes official, you know.”

“It’s a bit surreal, isn’t it?” Lily said a bit thoughtfully. “I didn’t really expect to be doing this sort of thing after school – but I’m really excited at the same time.” Beth glanced at her, and could see the girl meant it; her eyes were shining with a sort of brightness that had nothing to do with the torch they’d just passed by.

They emerged into the little anteroom before the door leading out into the courtyard, their feet clattering loudly on the flagstones in the emptiness, and Remus reached out a hand to push the heavy door out. But before his fingers could make contact with the wood, it swung back of its own accord, and the group took a step in surprise at the same time.

The dark-haired boy who stepped through looked surprised to see them all there – and Beth groaned aloud without even thinking about it.

This could not be happening. This could not be happening.

Severus’s lip curled as his eyes traveled from one face to the next. “What are you doing here?” Sirius cried out in frustration, quite forgetting himself.

“I suppose I could be asking you the same question,” he responded coolly, his gaze finally coming back to stare insolently at Sirius. “I don’t suppose posting a letter is against the rules now? You would know, Black, you’ve broken just about all of them –“

“So what were you doing, writing home for shampoo?” James broke in, grinning smoothly. Everyone laughed except Beth and Severus, the former watching the latter apprehensively. She noticed his thin hands curling into tight fists at his sides, but he didn’t rise to the bait.

“You’ve never answered my question,” he said coldly.

“Don’t have to,” Sirius said, “I reckon you’re being a bit nosy for your own good.” Beth pressed her lips together, her stomach sinking; Sirius and Severus hadn’t tossed words like this in quite a while, and she’d forgotten how horrible it made her feel to have to witness it. Despite whatever feelings she may have been having about Severus at the moment – and, admittedly, most of those were now directed at shame towards herself – he didn’t deserve this.

Severus turned sharply and shouldered past them, making for the corridor the eight of them had just come from. Peter looked back fleetingly over his shoulder but was the only one; Remus made to push open the door again.

“That was horrible, Sirius,” Beth spat without thinking. “Tell Dumbledore I’m going to be a bit late.” She didn’t wait for a reaction, but turned on her heel and walked quickly after Severus’s retreating form. She called his name, and he turned, eyes flashing.

“What?” he said angrily, and she came to a halt in the middle of the hallway, still several yards from him. His fists were still balled in unreleased rage.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted out. She didn’t know what she was apologizing for – her friends’ words, or her own attitude, or something else – and Severus didn’t seem to make sense of it, either. He blinked once, only staring, and Beth felt her heart skip several beats in the region of her chest.

“You didn’t say anything,” he said at last in a tight voice. Slightly reassured, she took a few steps closer to him.

“I know, but… it wasn’t fair,” she forced out at last. “And more than that – I’m sorry for yelling at you.” She could feel her face growing hot just saying it, but the relaxation that entered his features at the apology made her feel a thousand times better all at once. He offered a small smile, and she returned it.

“I am too,” Severus said, and it was his turn to step forward. “I don’t want to be angry at you, Beth. You’re – well.” He stopped and suddenly became very interested in the hem of the right sleeve of his robe. “You’re one of the only people I have to talk to. These last few weeks…” He trailed off, his sentence unfinished.

They weren’t romantic words, or much of anything at all, but their effect was instant; bright lights popped in front of her eyes and the world spun for a moment. Beth tried desperately to maintain her composure under such conditions. Her smile widened slightly.

“Well… I mean, I need to…” She gestured vaguely over her shoulder at where her friends had gone through the door. “I’ll see you, though,” she finished lamely, and Severus nodded.

“See you,” he said, and turned back around to continue down the corridor. Still feeling a bit woozy, Beth did the same, pushing through the heavy door Severus had recently entered through and hurrying quickly over to the stone gargoyle concealing the entrance to the headmaster’s office, the relief tremendously liberating.

A/N: Many thanks to Sarah (ToujoursPadfoot) for the chess/poker gag, which is really what comes of late-night conversations and lots and lots of coffee. This entire story's sort of hers, really -- it wouldn't be here without her. And if you're an astute reader, you may have noticed someone cropping up in the story now and again who's also called Sarah -- and that's no coincidence! She's actually in this chapter, just in case you missed her...

Seven more weeks of steady updating until this story is all posted! Wow, that's weird. But good weird. Always good when a story's getting finished, right? As always, don't forget to feed that little review box down there, and thanks so much for the reads and reviews!


Chapter 25: The Order Assignments
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The rest of her friends were all already arranged in a neat row in front of Professor Dumbledore’s desk when she finally arrived at the top of the winding spiral staircase to his office. It was looking a bit crowded in the small circular room now, eight chairs having been squeezed into it for the purpose of tonight’s meeting. Professor McGonagall was standing behind Dumbledore’s right shoulder again, and Beth wasn’t surprised to see her mouth was drawn into an extremely thin line.

“Sorry, Professor,” she said a bit stiffly, feeling awkward as every eye in the room swiveled in her direction. “I had – stuff –“ Her cheeks flushed as she stumbled over the words, and she didn’t know why she was having this sort of a bizarre reaction, unless it had something to do with the accusatory look on Sirius’s face at the moment. The headmaster didn’t seem to mind, however.

“Not at all, Miss Bridger,” he said, almost cheerfully, touching just the tips of his fingers together on the surface of the highly polished desk in front of him. “Mr. Potter informed me that you would be running a bit behind schedule. Please have a seat.” He indicated the far right seat with a tilt of his head, still unoccupied, and she shuffled over and sat down quickly by Lily before she could attract any more unwanted attention.

“As we were discussing, this is the first meeting for the three of you,” Dumbledore said, apparently moving right on with a previous thread of conversation Beth had missed as he nodded toward the other Gryffindor girls. McGonagall’s lips tightened a fraction of an inch more at these words, which was an admirable feat. “I assume your friends have told you a fair amount about how the society works?”

James shuffled his feet back and forth on the floor, revealing his answer to that question at once. “Not a lot,” he said quickly, glancing up and seeing Dumbledore’s knowing yet kind smile. “I mean… just the basics…” Lily offered him a sideways smirked as he returned his gaze to the floor, rubbing his neck in something like embarrassment. The headmaster did not seem to mind, however, and did not touch on the point further.

“Then I won’t spend any more time dwelling on it here,” he said, sitting a bit straighter in his chair and adjusting his half-moon spectacles on his long, crooked nose. “I am afraid that this will be our last meeting before term ends –“

“What?” Sirius burst out from the opposite end of the row of chairs, half-rising from his seat, his mouth open in evident horror. “Is something wrong?”

“Sit down, Mr. Black,” spoke up Professor McGonagall crisply from behind the headmaster’s chair. “The problem is that, with so many of you joining at the end of term” – and here she looked rather miffed at the general idea, which was nothing new – “things are becoming rather conspicuous, and the less people are suspicious, the better it is for all of us.” Her dark eyes shifted down to Dumbledore, who nodded in agreement.

“It has been deemed best to put these meetings at a halt until the summer, when we can convene on somewhat safer ground,” he explained. “There are several reasons, one of which Professor McGonagall has already listed.” He bowed her head briefly in her direction. “The other being that there is a sort of mission, if you will, being undertaken in June, and preparations are to be made from now until its enactment. I trust you all remember the address of headquarters?” he asked abruptly, quickly changing tact. It was directed this last question at the four boys and Beth, but Remus was the one to speak up.

“9 Dustund Way,” he said promptly; Peter squirmed a bit in his chair, looking both relieved and uncomfortable, and Beth was willing to bet her wand that he’d completely forgotten all about the address until Dumbledore had brought it up.

The headmaster looked pleased that at least one of them had remembered the information. “This is the address you will meet at, once it has been decided when that shall be,” he explained. “No sooner than July, I am thinking.” His eyes sparkled as he watched Sirius’s expression fall more and more with each successive word. “Is something troubling you, Mr. Black?” he said, not unkindly.

“It’s just… well, that’s a long time away,” he said after a momentary pause; Beth thought it was rather brave of him to contradict his superiors at all. “Are you sure there isn’t anything we can do until then?” he said, a pleading note creeping into his voice. At any moment now he’d actually clasp his hands together, perhaps get down on his knees. Beth let out a little chuckle and tried to disguise it as a cough that fooled nobody, and instantly felt a bit bad for having done so.

Professor Dumbledore exchanged a look with Professor McGonagall, and her thin eyebrows rose so high on her already-creased forehead that they were liable to disappear altogether. It was clear which of the two was the authority figure, however; with a small and yet imperative cough, the old man turned back to face them, seeming to only just conceal a smile in his long silver beard.

“As a bit of a compromise, Professor McGonagall and I have discussed a matter at some length, and she agrees that revealing this bit of information would do no harm – provided, of course, as with everything else we have discussed, that it not leave the confines of this room.” McGonagall gave a distinctly disapproving sniff, but not a single occupant of the room gave her as much as a fleeting glance; the eight students ranged before the headmaster had leaned forward in their chairs almost as one, eager to hear whatever was about to be divulged. Professor Dumbledore continued.

“Various members of the Order have been notified that we will have eight new members among our ranks this summer, and have agreed to take on positions as sort of mentors, aiding you in your assigned tasks.” Sirius was nearly bouncing in extremely tangible excitement; Beth, too, felt a flutter of nerves and anticipation stir in the pit of her stomach.

“Your assignments have been prepared –“ Dumbledore began, and this time it was certain that a smile was lurking underneath his beard. That was as far as he got with the sentence, however; with a gasp that was almost a sort of shout, but not audible enough to be so, Sirius leaned forward and clenched the edge of the headmaster’s desk with taut fingers. At this, even Professor McGonagall smiled.

“Keep in mind that what you are going to do requires no small amount of training,” Dumbledore said firmly, the twinkle in his eyes contradicting the sternness of tone. “Years, perhaps.” He directed this last comment especially to the boys at the far end, Sirius now both doing a sort of odd dance of anticipation. “Several years.”

“Can we hurry up and get to the good stuff?” James burst out suddenly, and Lily laughed. Beth did not miss the slightly sheepish, incredibly pleased look he gave her at that.

Dumbledore, with a final and perhaps most twinkled look of all (he seemed to be using that particular gaze of his a lot tonight), reached forward and took a thin sheet of parchment from the upper corner of his desk. There was a short list of a few names in some sort of tiny, unrecognizable handwriting, although Beth didn’t know if she could have recognized anyone’s handwriting upside down. With a small cough, he began to read the list, and another shiver shot up her spine like fire.

“Remus Lupin, Mary Macdonald, and Marlene McKinnon,” the headmaster spoke in a surprisingly grave and somber tone. “You will be working within the Ministry, under Edgar Bones and Caradoc Dearborn. Official sorts of work, getting the Order grounded.” He looked up and smiled as Remus drew himself up a bit with something like self-importance, and Mary and Marlene giggled simultaneously behind their hands. McGonagall’s forehead creased dramatically.

“James Potter, Lily Evans, and Peter Pettigrew, you will be working under Gideon and Fabian Prewett on recruitment and propaganda.” Lily smiled up at James, and he slipped his hand into hers, giving it a small squeeze. Glancing over her head, however, he caught sight of Beth, who was giving him an odd look; she raised one eyebrow, and he crossed his eyes in response.

A sort of thrilling fear spread through her bones now, knowing her name – along with Sirius’s – had not yet been uttered for an Order assignment. Sirius was looking as though he might either faint or run around the room shouting various obscenities. She edged unconsciously forward on the uncomfortable seat of her wooden chair, hands clasped in her lap.

“Sirius Black and Beth Bridger,” he said at last, a small and rather amused smile twisting the general area of his moustache, “will be working under Alastor Moody and Frank and Alice Longbottom in the assisting of locating and apprehending known Death Eaters –“

Whatever else he might have been about to say was cut off from an abrupt and yet not all that unexpected shout from Sirius, who had jumped from his chair at last, fist raised in celebration as though he’d made a spectacular goal in a game of Quidditch. It was a sort of odd thing to be celebrating, but Beth knew how much Sirius had wanted to do something exactly like this, and apparently, so did everyone else in the room, for no one made any attempts at any sort of reprimanding, or even eye-rolling.

“Excellent!” he said enthusiastically, when at last he’d found his seat again, and everyone laughed, Professor Dumbledore chuckling merrily as though at a particularly humorous anecdote. But as his words started to process the slight numbness of her brain, Beth felt another rather familiar sensation begin to cause the hairs on her arms to stand on end. The thought of being one of the ones picked out for that job, in particular – nothing in her life before this had made her this nervous.

Dumbledore replaced the parchment to the corner of his desk and surveyed them all over the winking tops of his half-moon spectacles, peering at each in turn; when his eyes met Beth’s own, she felt as though he could see a lot more about her than what he let on. The feeling unnerved her even more, and she swallowed.

“Your assignments will be explained in more detail this July,” he said calmly, pushing back his chair slightly and rising, the light from the numerous silver spindly lamps around his office catching the shining folds in the fabric of his robes, making them shine. “Until then, all I must ask of you is that you practice – work on your wandwork, your spells, your charms.” His eyes twinkled especially at Peter, who admittedly had the poorest concentration of the lot of them – it was not an unfriendly gaze, but merely a knowing and sort of complacent one. The boy flushed both with embarrassment and acceptance at being denoted as such.

“And now,” Dumbledore added, “I am afraid that we must say goodbye, in the knowledge that it will not be the last.” He smiled serenely once more, this time including all eight of them under the scrutiny, and Beth felt somehow that his speech was oddly formal for a mere evening departure.

To her right, Marlene and Peter both nodded solemnly; the rest of the group said nothing, merely looking at the staid figures of the headmaster and deputy headmistress. They both appeared as though they had nothing more to say, and so, a bit awkwardly, the eight all stood up from their chairs. One by one, and without the usual sort of chatter that accompanied leaving in a fashion, they left through the door and down the spiral staircase. But Beth remained temporarily behind; the knot in her stomach was still very much present.

“Professor?” she asked hesitantly, taking a tentative step towards the desk, where Dumbledore had resumed his seat. Professor McGonagall moved out from behind him and crossed to the other side of the room, concentrating intently on a piece of parchment; it was evident that she was just trying to appear busy, not wanting to intrude on the conversation about to be had.

Beth toyed with a strand of hair that had fallen over her shoulder while the headmaster looked expectantly at her. “I don’t… Are you sure you gave me the right assignment?” she asked hesitantly. “I just – I’m not sure if I can do it.” The thought of going after and actively seeking some of the most dangerous wizards in the wizarding world currently was, quite simply, terrifying, and was only growing more potently so the more she thought about it.

Professor Dumbledore placed the tips of his fingers together and looked intently at her over them. “Not sure you can be a part of the Order?” he asked gently.

“Not that,” she fumbled. “But the – the seeking, and the apprehending…” Her tongue suddenly felt as though it was much too large for her mouth. “I want to do it, but I’m scared of not being able to,” Beth said at last, although it sounded lame even to her own ears.

Dumbledore seemed to consider this for a moment. “We have thought over your assignments very carefully, yours and those of your friends,” he said at length. “I feel as though you are more capable than you might perhaps think you are. It is not an easy task, but you are not one to give up easily, I would wager.” He raised his eyebrows slightly. “If you should like to change, however, it could be easily arranged.”

Beth didn’t know exactly where Professor Dumbledore’s convictions of confidence in her were coming from – the headmaster had never taken particularly special interest in her – but in hearing him voice them, she was oddly compelled to believe him. Something about her had given him the notion to place her along the passionate, enthusiastic Sirius in perhaps one of the more dangerous Order jobs (although she couldn’t speak much about that, not knowing the full extent of them), and if he thought she could do it, then there must be something inside her that could.

“No, I want to do it,” she said quickly, feeling as though a bit of the knot in her intestines was unraveling with each consecutive word she spoke. “I mean – if you think I can –“ Dumbledore smiled, and she almost swore he winked at her. A warm surge of self-confidence surged through her. “Thank you,” she added, a smile of her own turning the corners of her mouth. Feeling considerably better, she followed the others out of the door.

*

When Beth had left the room, Professor McGonagall looked from the parchment she had still been poring over, disapproval etched in every line on her face, and crossed over to stand in front of the other’s desk. Professor Dumbledore seemed not to notice, instead absentmindedly beginning to tinker with one of the spindly silver objects on the corner of his desk. After a prolonged pause, she gave a sharp and pointed cough, and he looked up, smiling.

“You see? They are too young,” she said crisply, folding her arms tightly over her chest and sitting down in one of the recently vacated chairs. “Even they feel it themselves.”

“They are young, but they will learn,” said Dumbledore patiently, his fingers tapping on a long rod connected to a thinly-constructed silver sphere, which was twirling and emitting a faint tune that one had to strain one’s ears to hear properly. “We were all young once, Minerva.”

She said nothing for a few seconds, although her nostrils still flared. “Do you think it wise to send them out on missions, Albus?” she asked at last. “The Ministry work and the recruitment, yes – but actively looking for followers of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?”

“They are the ones who joined for the largest reasons,” Dumbledore said firmly. “Sirius Black and Beth Bridger are perhaps some of the strongest proponents of our cause. I’m sure haven’t already forgotten what Mr. Black did to Mr. Avery only a few weeks previously?”

“Of course I haven’t,” the woman said brusquely. “But strength does not always equal capability, Albus. Force only goes so far.”

“Which is why they are only one cog in the clock, if I may use the metaphor,” said Dumbledore now, turning from the silver sphere and looking the deputy headmistress squarely in the eye. “I trust in their ability to do the job assigned to them, and so do the ones under whose care they were placed.”

Professor McGonagall’s argument faltered, and she merely opened and closed her mouth for a few seconds while no sound issued out of it. Dumbledore’s repeated strong convictions, the second of its kind in less than five minutes, was a bit hard to argue against.

“Perhaps you’re right,” she conceded at last, crossing and uncrossing her ankles restlessly. “Only time will tell.”

*

James was the last to arrive back in the boys’ dormitory later, having said a thoroughly prolonged good-night to Lily in the common room for a solid fifteen minutes. Beth, who had been sitting cross-legged on his empty bed while she and the rest of the boys talked about the meeting, gave him a knowing sort of smirk as she shifted over to allow room for him to sit down.

“Got lots of good snogging in?” said Sirius from the bed to the left, chuckling in a self-satisfied manner and rocking back and forth a bit. James picked up his pillow and lobbed it at his friend, but it missed, falling with a sad sort of noise to the floor.

“See if you get that back,” said Sirius, and then turned to him. “So what did you think?”

“What did I think about what?”

“The assignments!” Peter burst in from Sirius’s other side, already tucked up under his covers, his feet sticking straight up and making a sort of tent. “We’re really members now,” he added in an awed sort of voice, earning him a snicker from everyone else in the room.

“They’re great,” said Remus enthusiastically.

“Because you’re with girls!” Sirius crowed now, sitting up on his knees. His whole demeanor spoke of ecstatic excitement, and everything that came out of his mouth sounded giddy. Beth found herself laughing along with him without even knowing why, unless it was that the nervous twisting in her stomach abated more and more each time she remembered the headmaster’s words to her after everyone had left.

A sort of content silence fell about the room now, each looking at something unseen, each with smiles larger than was perhaps necessary on their faces. Finally James cleared his throat a bit, and all heads swiveled in his direction.

“So, I’m thinking about proposing to Lily… within the next month or so.”

Sirius and Peter both fell off their beds in one motion, with sorts of squawking sounds that might have been better attributed to pigeons or chickens. Beth’s mouth dropped open so fast it was a wonder it didn’t land square in her lap. “You’re what?!” she screeched; Remus’s mouth had fallen too, although he remained silent.

“What on earth would possess you to do something that stupid?” Sirius added ferociously, having clambered back onto his bedspread. Peter was still attempting to extricate himself from the tangle of sheets that had fallen to the floor with him.

“It’s not stupid,” James said, a bit defensively. “I’ll be eighteen next month, that’s not too young to get married. You parents –“ he began, turning towards Beth, and quickly shut up before the thought could be fully completed. But she knew what he had been about to say – she’d once mentioned something about her parents getting married at eighteen, and look where that had ended up. But she knew that James and Lily were different from her parents; they actually had things in common.

“So you’re really going to do it?” she asked, turning toward him. James gave her a sidelong look through his glasses and nodded.

“Already got the ring, too – Mum sent it –“

“Your parents are okay with this?” Sirius interrupted.

“Yes, they are,” James said firmly, his mouth setting into a thin, hard line. He reached over and rummaged about in the drawer of his nightstand, finally emerging with a slightly battered black velvet box. Lifting the lid, Beth saw a ring nestled on the black silk inside – it was surprisingly plain, a silver band dotted with small, modest diamonds.

“It was my grandmother’s,” he explained a bit sheepishly, snapping the lid back down over the box and tucking it away in his drawer once more. He glanced at Sirius, as though defying him to say something else about it, but he appeared to having nothing else to say.

“Well, I mean – congratulations, mate,” he managed at last, still looking a bit confused and lost, but with the air of wanting to be happy for James about something that obviously meant so much to him. Beth understood, for she was having small inclinations of similar feelings – like Sirius, it felt a bit as those she were losing a part of her best friend at this declaration of intention.

“I’ve got to head to bed,” Beth said now, feeling a bit uncomfortable at how much her present emotions lined up with Sirius’s just then – always a sure sign she was tired.

“Don’t tell Lily!” James gasped then, pausing in the motion of climbing out of bed to get his pyjamas from his trunk. He looked so alarmed that she had to laugh aloud.

“I won’t,” she promised solemnly. As a look of relief crossed his face, her eyes slid over to Sirius, who had fallen back against his pillow, still fully clothed. He looked to be in deep thought, his eyes trained unseeingly on the canopy of his bed. Feeling a twinge of pity somewhere near her heart, she retreated from the room, closing the door softly after her.

It was only once she was in her own bed in the darkened dormitory that she had time to process James’s news. The fact that any of them were even old enough to think about getting married was an abstract thought, and one she couldn’t quite wrap her head around. Things were changing at an unprecedented speed, and she wished for something to hold onto – something to slow it down, and let her know that life might still be somewhat normal after everything was over.

A/N: I guess it never really occurred to me how strange it was that James and Lily got married right out of school until I realized just how young eighteen really is. And in the wizarding world, they live longer than normal, but they come of age at seventeen, so their eighteen is like... our nineteen, I guess? Well, now my brain hurts, but my point was, writing this made me feel like a mum watching her baby boy grow up before her eyes. Weird stuff, that.

Not that my characters are my children. Because most of them aren't even mine

I'll stop this ramble before it gets too long. Thoughts? Predictions? And did Dumbledore make the right decision on Beth's assignment? Looking forward to hearing from everyone!


Chapter 26: A Plan and a Patronus
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Severus Snape hated sitting in the Slytherin common room in the winter – it was by far the worst time of year to belong to that particular House. The perpetual dull gray of the sky outside meant that almost no light was able to filter down through the lake to light the windows of the common room, and as a result all the lamps needed to be lit at all times, giving the rather forbidding stone walls and floors a sort of ominous and gloomy look. And if nothing else, it was dead depressing.

But, of course, there was really nowhere else to go this late at night, long after curfew had passed, and he was much too restless and awake to try and climb into his four-poster to attempt sleep. He had come out here almost immediately after dinner, carrying one of the thick black books he had managed to smuggle from the restricted section – Professor Slughorn was easy to persuade into writing a note of permission, the soft-hearted old man – and had been sitting on this dark green leather sofa since that hour, perusing its thick, stained parchment pages idly. It was not a highly amusing task to be involved in, however, when one’s mind kept wandering.

He couldn’t explain this restless feeling that had been hanging around him lately – it just felt as though everything, whatever he was doing, wasn’t enough, although he wasn’t sure either what he was comparing it to. His eyes fell on the slightly blurred print of the book on his lap, open to a page that listed out a rather gruesome series of spells that seemed to turn an opponent’s body inside out bit by bit, complete with rather detailed illustrations.

He sighed, and the book closed with a depressing sort of thump, Severus’s head making the same sound moments later as it fell back on the back of the couch. The knot of disquiet inside him did not abate; he felt vaguely guilty, he now realized, and couldn’t pinpoint why.’

The blank stretch of wall across the common room – the entrance to the Slytherin dungeons – opened at that moment with a sort of slithering noise, and Severus’s friends entered through it single-file, Rosier leading the group and Wilkes, Avery, and Mulciber following like ducks in a row. Severus’s mouth turned up in a sort of sneer, but he pressed the book further into the couch cushions anyway, not wanting the unnecessary questions it might provoke.

“There you are, Sev,” Rosier said, his black eyes dancing with some sort of malicious fun at the sight of his friend. “We’ve been looking out for you.”

“And you didn’t think to check the common room, seeing as it’s after curfew?” Severus said, not able to keep the dryness out of his voice. These boys were his friends, true, or the closest thing he had to them – unless Beth Bridger was to be counted, and he wasn’t sure of that yet – but sometimes the little quirks about them got deep under his skin.

Rosier ignored this retort and sank onto the couch next to him, and the other three boys found various chairs and couches around them, scooting imperceptibly closer. Severus now saw that the same strange light seemed to burn behind each of their expressions, which was curious in itself, and was intrigued despite the continual pervading restlessness he’d been feeling of late. “What’s up?” he asked, when none of them seemed about to volunteer information.

Wilkes’s eyes darted to the doors leading down to the boys’ and girls’ dormitories, as though afraid of being overheard. “We’ve got some news,” he confessed at last, seeming not to notice as Severus recoiled slightly, afraid of being hit by a spray of spittle. “Or, at least, Mulciber does.”

All eyes now turned towards the boy in question, who sat up a bit, looking important. He, too, looked quickly around the empty common room – a fruitless effort, really, Severus thought a bit wryly – and flicked a piece of his sand-colored hair away from where it was falling into his eyes.

“Well,” he said, with not a little bit of pomp. “You know my father, right?” His eyes sought confirmation from Severus, as this apparently wasn’t news to the others, and Severus nodded. Mulciber’s father – although the information was well-concealed from those who didn’t need to be privy to it – was part of the Dark Lord’s inner circle. Severus knew this from half-whispered conversations he had participated in while sitting in the half-light the lake made in the dormitory, listening to the water swish back and forth while tales of Dark magic were spun by greedy teenage mouths.

“I’ve been sending him letters recently, since… that bit in the Prophet,” he said, nodding his head as though there were an invisible newspaper sitting next to him. “About – about what we’ve always talked about.”

“There’s no real reason to be so vague,” said Severus, a bit harshly. “There hasn’t been anyone down here for hours.” Mulciber flushed a dull sort of rosy color, but nevertheless raised his voice a bit as he continued what he had to say.

“He thinks that he may be able to get in touch with some other people, and we might be able to join at the end of the year,” he said, the common room fire sparking oddly in his light brown eyes, and the others shifted in one fluid motion, having heard the news but still somehow excited by it.

A dull tremor of excitement thrummed somewhere deeply within Severus, and he too shifted on his seat. Join the Death Eaters – become a part of the greatest wizarding movement in history? It was almost too much to process, despite the extended hours of tactfully discussing it and laying out plans for it. Now here it was, very nearly tangible, at least closer at hand than it had been a few hours previously, and he wanted to laugh and scoff at the same time.

“Are you sure?” he asked now, leaning his elbows on his knees and wanting to make sure that this wasn’t all some horrible joke. Mulciber nodded with deep-set conviction, and Avery piped up from his left.

“We have to make sure we’re serious about it, though.” He looked a bit nervously at the rest of the group. “I mean… once you’re in, you’re in, there’s no backing out.” But this wasn’t even a factor in Severus’s mind – he knew, without knowing exactly how he knew, that he was going to do this at any costs.

“Then let’s write him back,” he said urgently, now lacing his fingers together and looking down at them, black eyes glinting. He looked sideways at Rosier, whose arrogant face was arranged in an expression somewhat like pleasure, and gave him a wry smile, which was returned. “We’re going to do this, then?”

“We’re going to do this,” Rosier confirmed, quirking one thin black eyebrow and nodding.

“I’ll go write to Father now,” Mulciber said, all previous restraints lost as he leapt up from the sofa and scurried down in the direction of the dormitory door. The rest of the boys began in that general direction, and Severus, not wanting to be left out, picked up the thick black book he’d been reading and followed suit, his heart considerably lighter and the knot in his stomach looser than he could remember it being in some time. He was doing something, making strides, on his way to be somebody… He would show them all… He clutched the book tightly to his chest, swelling with some unnamed emotion, a smile unable to resist crossing his lips.

But in the cool stairwell, when the receding voices were only unintelligible muffled sounds, and the water was barely audible, he remembered his fight with Beth, only a month or so prior, and it halted him in his tracks. This was precisely the thing they had argued about, wasn’t it? The fact that she was so blind in her views on blood purity, the fact that he wanted so badly to have this for himself and her stubborn side would not allow him to do it guiltlessly.

But why should he care what she thought? They were on speaking terms now, possibly friends, but since when had he let friendship stand in the way of his goals? Rosier and Avery, Mulciber and Wilkes – he had never allowed their opinions to influence his if he was set on something, and if nothing else, he was set on doing this. She just didn’t understand yet, but somehow she would. Someday, Beth would see how right he was.

Nevertheless, the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach returned in full force as he slowly walked the rest of the way to the boy’s dormitory.

*

“Ready to do this?” James flashed Lily a grin, lifting down a small wooden box from where he had stored in on the mantel of the Gryffindor common room earlier that day. It was late – any of their saner classmates had long since been asleep, the rest of the boys and Beth included – but for some crazy reason, Lily had agreed to practice spells with him at midnight. Just another reason, he supposed, why he loved that girl – she was always up for a bit of abnormal activity if it spoke of adventure.

Lily nodded eagerly from where she sat perched on her knees on the old hearth rug, the fire casting a warm sort of glow on half of her pale face and making her hair seem even redder than normal. His stomach gave a pleasant sort of flip, and he sank to kneel next to her, lifting the lid of the box gently. Inside was a random jumble of small stones, none of them appearing to be anything out of the ordinary.

“Rock collection?” Lily teased, picking up a large and lumpy black stone from the center. She hefted it in her hand, as though testing its weight.

“Don’t pretend you never collected anything essentially pointless,” James laughed, taking out a round white stone and tossing it jauntily in the air, catching it in his palm. Lily laughed too.

“I think the fact I like best is that you have them here with you,” she smiled. She put the black stone back in its box. “Is this what you’d intended to have us practice with?”

James nodded, taking his wand out of the back pocket of his jeans. Ever since Dumbledore had assigned them the task of practicing their spells – a thing that James and the others weren’t about to take lightly, noting the seriousness of his expression when he’d said it – he’d been searching for something fairly small to practice on, so as not to seem too suspicious. Thankfully, he noted that anyone who saw them practicing might think they were only preparing for their N.E.W.T.s – something James wasn’t even registering at the moment.

“So, what sorts of Charms are you best at?” he asked now, tossing and catching the stone for a second time. Lily tilted her head a bit to the side, twirling her wand in her fingers, and eyeing the black stone she’d just set down. With a little flick of her wand, it came zooming back towards her instantly, coming to rest in her outstretched palm.

Another flick, and it grew to twice its original size; another, and it shrunk to the size of a pea. James watched as the stone was put through a small gymnastics routine, his mouth slightly open. After a rather tremendous backflip, it found its way back into the wooden box, the lid of which swung closed and clicked, and Lily looked expectantly at James.

“I don’t know what you expected me to teach you,” he said a bit ruefully, nudging her slightly with his arm. “You’re loads better at that than I could ever be.” She laughed again, and James took a moment to savor it, realizing just how much he enjoyed hearing her laugh – it was clear and honest, with no false humor about it anywhere. He could have listened to that sound forever.

“Well, then, you can just teach me something else,” Lily said now, closing the lid of the box and scooting around on her knees to face him better, hands clasped over the wand in her lap. “You know – tricks for sneaking around the castle, charming all the professors into accepting late essays…” The smirk that crossed her face was not vindictive, and James did not take it as such.

A thought suddenly occurred to him, and his brown eyes lit up behind his glasses. He leaned forward conspiratorially, and Lily instinctively did the same. “Do you know how to make a Patronus?” he said in a whisper, and her eyes widened slightly.

“Do you?” she asked, and he nodded eagerly, his hand tightening slightly on the handle of his wand. Lily’s bright green eyes grew even larger, and her eyebrows all but disappeared into her hairline.

“Show me!” she said eagerly, shuffling even closer. “What’s the incantation?”

Expecto Patronum,” James said, and Lily repeated it immediately, perfectly, her lips forming the words carefully so as to be sure that she got them right. “And you have to think of the happiest memory you have – whatever makes you happier than anything else, and concentrate hard on that.” Lily nodded fervently and her eyes immediately popped close, the better to concentrate. James watched her as she lifted her wand.

Expecto Patronum,” she said, her voice quavering only slightly and her eyes popping open at the last second. The air near the tip of her wand shimmered briefly, as though in a heat wave, and the barest amount of silver and white mist erupted from it. Her face fell until her eyes slid over to James, who looked thoroughly impressed.

“That was good, Lil! No, really –“ he added, laughing at the look of disbelief that crossed her face. “That was loads better than my first try – I had to do it about ten times before I even got that far.” He climbed up on his knees and walked over on them, closing his hand over Lily’s and said, “Now, try again. Concentrate hard.”

It didn’t take Lily long to get the hang of the spell, tenaciously difficult as it was, and around the fifth or sixth try, she was producing something that looked vaguely animalistic – what exactly it was, James couldn’t exactly tell, although – and his mind was, he thought, probably construing things in an odd fashion – it looked a bit like his, though without the addition of antlers.

“Can I see yours? Can you do a real one?” Lily asked, scooting a bit closer to him and laying her chin on his shoulder. James could feel the heat radiating from the spot, and tried hard to focus on the bit of magic he was about to attempt. He cleared his throat and brandished his wand perhaps a bit elaborately in front of him, concentrating hard on the happiest memory he had – the day Lily had agreed to go on a date with him. He spoke the spell aloud firmly.

After a brief moment, a brilliant, luminescent stag burst from the tip of his wand, thicker than a ghost and shining more brightly than the moon outside the common room windows. Lily shielded her eyes, but only slightly, seeming not to want to miss a moment of what was appearing before her eyes. The stag turned its head to regard them solemnly with its opaque eyes before turning and bounding straight through the tower wall, disappearing from sight. Lily turned to James with an awed look on her face.

“That was brilliant,” she said in a sort of hushed whisper, flabbergasted.

“Yours will look like that someday, too,” James said confidently, and a sudden and slightly wild thought occurred to him at that moment – although admittedly it was not the first time it had done so, especially recently. He looked down at his lap suddenly, turning his wand over and over in his hands. “Can I tell you something?” he asked in a rush, as though by saying it quickly it would make it less potentially awkward.

“Yes,” said Lily sincerely, laying her own wand in her lap and turning to him with such an expression of sincerity that James felt even worse for concealing this bit of information as long as he had. He cleared his throat slightly and adjusted his glasses.

“Have you ever… that is, have you noticed that my friends and I sort of… disappear sometimes?” He cast an anxious look towards her, hoping that perhaps he might have gotten his meaning across, but Lily merely looked confused.

“If you’re talking about your Invisibility Cloak, I already –“ she began, but James cut her off quickly with a fervent shake of his head, causing his hair to flop around a bit.

“Not that sort of disappearing,” he amended. “But like…” He struggled to find the best way to explain what he was trying to say. “Every month, for one night, some of us will just sort of… leave the castle. And we do it for a reason.” He locked his eyes with hers, willing her to imbibe the meaning without his having to be too explicit, but Lily just looked levelly back.

“And – and basically,” he said at last, clearing his throat again simply for something to do, “it’s because Remus is a – he turns into a –“ He blew out a long breath, looking up at the ceiling and idly wondering why this was so difficult; he had sudden sympathy for Beth, knowing that she’d had to tell Severus this very thing a few months previously. “He’s a werewolf, and the four of us are Animagi,” he said, so fast that he himself could barely understood what he’d just said.

If he’d expected a look of uncontainable shock – mouth dropping open, eyes nearly falling out of their sockets, a sharp intake of breath – then James was sorely disappointed. Lily’s eyebrows once more climbed a bit higher on her freckled forehead, but other than that, the surprise was fairly minimal.

“I sort of suspected something was going on,” she admitted at long last, after a slight but not terribly uncomfortable silence. “I mean, not – not that…” Her voice faltered, and her bright green eyes slid up to rest on James’s; a sort of lump formed around his Adam’s apple, but it wasn’t formed from sadness, which confused him for a bit.

“I’m glad you told me,” she said at last, and Lily’s smile looked so natural that James was slightly taken aback.

“So you’re not going to, like, dump me, or think any differently of me?” he blurted out, before he could contain himself. And there came her laugh again, warming his heart before he even knew why she was laughing.

“Why would I do that?” she said, still giggling. “You’re still James, aren’t you? You can just – you know – turn into an animal.” She suddenly sat up a bit straighter on her knees, as though an idea had come to her. “Can you turn into a stag? Is that why you told me, because of your Patronus?” She gestured to the wall it had disappeared through, as though it were waiting just beyond the stretch of stone, and James nodded for what felt like the thousandth time that evening.

“I love you, Lil,” he said suddenly, honestly, and the warm smile that crinkled her eyes sent his heart into dizzying, contented spirals.

“I love you, James.”

And he believed those words more than anything else he’d heard before.

A/N: Aww, Lily and James! They are cute forever. Except I've always thought it a bit odd that Lily was able to switch around to dating, and then marrying, James so quickly, but I suppose that's plot convenience for you. And no matter what it is, it makes for a good story nonetheless!

And after this we have... five more chapters, guys! That's a bit nuts, considering that I finished this story nearly two months ago. And now I'm about to finish it for real, being all posted and tidied up and whatnot. It's really exciting, though, all the same! I've got the first six chapters of the sequel written as of this afternoon, so it won't be long before that's up, too.

Thanks for all the reviews and reads, though! I know I say that every time, but it always needs to be said, because I truly am grateful. You are amazing!


Chapter 27: One Morning
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It was a rather fascinating thing, Beth thought, leaning her chin pensively on the palm of her hand, to watch as others tried to eat apples. Everyone seemed to have their own way to tackle it – some ate a bite out of the top, some nearer the bottom, and some ate straight from the middle. And then there was the question of whether to eat in columns or rows, or just take random bites from whatever side looked most appealing. Jack French, a Ravenclaw boy at the next table over, appeared to be taking the neat and logical route, chewing same-sized pieces of his red apple in neat rows while he perused a textbook.

It was a testament to Beth’s complete state of boredom that she was even thinking about this at all. But the book in front of Jack made her think of her own final exams, and though they were still three months away at this point, she felt a small twist of nervousness in her stomach all the same. A chronic worrier, she usually began studying months and months in advance, and had recently been thinking it was time to start taking notes. She turned and mentioned as much to Peter, who was sitting to her left, while not taking her eyes off the Ravenclaw boy still.

“You’re nuts,” he said promptly, although this was not a new reaction. “We’ve got ages left, you know.”

“Don’t tell me you’re already thinking of preparing for your exams, Bethy?” Sirius spoke up from where he sat, across and one over from Peter. He pointed a crumpet at her sternly. “You promised us last year you wouldn’t do this –“

“But they’re our N.E.W.T.s,” she argued, folding her arms her chest. “They’re really important, Sirius – and look, he’s already got his books out –“ She pointed vaguely in Jack’s direction, but her friend only afforded him a passing glance before waving his hand dismissively.

“Doesn’t count. He’s a Ravenclaw,” he said, as though this settled the matter. She half-frowned, not sure whether to be offended or not, but resisted the urge to take her Herbology book from her bag, at any rate.

The truth was – and she was loath to voice it, knowing Sirius would be pleased as pumpkin juice to hear it – that ever since Dumbledore has told the group of them that meetings would be put on hold until July, a sense of restlessness worse than the other hiatuses had overcome her. She was still more than a little nervous about being partnered with Sirius, sent out to try and apprehend some of the Darkest wizards currently living in wizarding Britain, but another part of her was anxious to begin proving herself.

Unfortunately, unless doing well on the N.E.W.T.s counted towards fulfilling that requirement, she wouldn’t be doing a lot of proving of anything for a while at least. Her friends seemed to be feeling the same way – classes held less for them than normal, if it could be judged from James’s last antic in Slughorn’s most recent Potions lesson. She didn’t know how long it would be before she – or anyone present, really – might have forgotten how purple the skin on Remus’s hand had turned before Slughorn was able to stop it.

“Besides,” Sirius continued, half a muffin now hanging out of his mouth, “if we’re going to do – well, what we’re going to do…” He lowered his voice several registers. “Then how useful are our N.E.W.T. scores really going to be, in the long run?”

“Well, You-Know-Who’s not going to be around forever,” she argued pragmatically; Remus and Peter were swiveling their heads from side to side during the whole course of this conversation. “And once he’s stopped, there’s not really going to be a need for an Order, is there?”

“But at that point, we’ll all be so famous and wonderful and brave that people will be lining up at our doors to offer us jobs,” said Remus sarcastically, complete with a splendid rolling of the eyes. Beth caught onto the joke and giggled, but Sirius waved his hand triumphantly in the direction of his would-be savior, as if to say, See?

Peter’s head turned towards the opposite end of the table, evidently bored with the cyclic nature of the conversation, and his eyes lighted on James. The latter had been choosing to sit with Lily and her friends with increasing frequency of late, ever since he had begun to talk more seriously about proposing to her, and the slightly sullen and hurt looks that came over Sirius’s face now and again did not escape Beth’s notice.

“Hey,” she said, reaching over and snatching a piece of ham off Sirius’s plate to distract him. “How’s it going with what’s-her-face? You know, that Hufflepuff girl?” If it was a cheap blow, the diversion technique worked; Sirius’s face whipped back in her direction so fast that he very nearly swallowed a mouthful of hair.

“What have you heard?” he said, choking and spitting slightly; Remus thumped him on the back for good measure, despite the presence of any immediate danger. Beth raised her eyebrows innocently and widened her eyes slightly.

“Nothing’s happening,” said Sirius, drawing himself up to his full height on the bench.

“Yeah, that’s right. He’s still after Marlene McKinnon and her lovely blonde hair,” Peter snorted, this time really choking as he accidentally inhaled a mouthful of tea. Judging by the way he winced shortly thereafter, Beth surmised that he’d received a good kick in the leg for that comment.

“Hey,” said Remus suddenly, and it became obvious that his mind had wandered far from Sirius’s love life at that moment. “Do you know what I haven’t heard in a while?” He glanced around, as though hoping for a verbal response, but the other four of them just looked at him a bit blankly. “There hasn’t been a single comment about… you know…” He shrugged his shoulders, searching for a nonexistent euphemism. “Any blood status, or anything.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Beth said suddenly, frowning. It just now occurred to her that he was right – the number of insults and threats that had been subversively passed in the corridors between classes had faded dramatically. She wondered how it had taken her this long to notice at all. Despite the fact that an onslaught of reports and speculation about Wendell Craig’s death continued to appear in the Daily Prophet, there hadn’t been word of it beyond the printed pages for a while.

“Maybe things are, you know, sort of calming down,” Peter spoke up hopefully, with an almost identical shrug, but Sirius shook his head, frowning pensively.

“Can’t be that. Things are still a bit heated, what with You-Know-Who getting stronger –“

“And how do you know he is?” Remus pointed out.

“I’m pretty sure we would have heard something if he wasn’t still out there,” Sirius retorted. “They only don’t publish anything about it now because it’s actually dangerous. They’d be all over a non-threatening story.” This made sense to Beth, but Remus characteristically pursed his lips doubtfully, although he knew better than to continue arguing.

“At any rate,” Sirius continued, still directing the conversation at Remus, “I heard that that big Hufflepuff bloke – what’s his name, Tate or Trent or whatever – he got sent to the hospital wing yesterday as he was coming back from Care of Magical Creatures.”

“So?” Remus asked, taking a sip of pumpkin juice. “Lots of people –“

“Lots of people aren’t sent to the hospital wing with lumps the size of an egg on their forehead,” Sirius interrupted grimly. “That wasn’t some chance illness that sent him there – I’d bet fifty Galleons he got sent there because of something one of those idiots did to him.” He jerked his head stiffly in the direction of the green-and-silver-clad table across the hall.

Beth sighed heavily, laying her fork and knife down by her plate with dull thuds. “But it’s not like we can prove anything,” she said with an air of what she hoped was finality. “And you’d better not go trying,” she added, sensing the somewhat defiant air that Sirius was gathering about him.

Suddenly, without any warning at all, Professor McGonagall materialized at Sirius’s shoulder, and Beth looked up at her in surprise. “Good evening,” she said a bit stiffly; it was clear that leading into a conversation with pleasantries wasn’t a normal occupation for her.

“Good evening, Professor,” Peter and Remus responded back automatically; Beth and Sirius continued to stare up at her dumbly. Darting her eyes briefly downward, she noticed that the woman carried a small roll of parchment in her left fist, and a blossom of hope bubbled within her. Perhaps Dumbledore had changed his mind about the lateness of the next Order meeting.

“I am to give you this, from Professor Dumbledore himself,” she said crisply, holding out the scroll as though it might burst into flames like a Howler. Sirius reached for it, but McGonagall passed right over his outstretched hand, delivering it to Remus instead, whom she apparently thought more reliable. There was something in the set of her mouth that indicated she did not like whatever message this parchment contained, but said nothing further, sweeping back up the aisle as quickly as she had come.

Curious eyes were now trained on the four of them, and not just from their fellow Gryffindors – several Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs were looking at them inquiringly, as though perhaps one of them might stand up on the bench and read the letter aloud. Sirius snatched the scroll from Remus and slid the length of the bench toward where James was sitting with the other girls.

“Pardon the interruption,” he said as loudly as he dared, obviously not caring whether they pardoned it or not, “but I believe a meeting in our dormitory room is of the essence at this moment.” Mary Macdonald giggled, her ears instantly turning a bright and blotchy pink, and Sirius was kind enough to pretend not to notice.

“What’s that, then?” said James, only glancing at the scroll before looking back at Lily. Beth rolled her eyes.

“Dormitory. Now,” Sirius said, as though James was a bit slow. “Not all at once, though, if you please – we don’t need everyone wondering what we’re up to. James, you and me first, and the rest of you follow in pairs as quickly as you think you can manage.”

It didn’t escape Beth’s notice that Sirius had paired himself off with James, but really, she couldn’t blame him for it. Seeming to realize how fruitless it would be to question or argue, James rose off his portion of the bench with a quick word to Lily, and the two boys left the Great Hall.

It was almost half an hour before all eight of them had finally left and were able to assemble in the boys’ dormitory, their only guaranteed private spot. Beth and Marlene, the last pair to leave, had been unexpectedly detained by a second-year girl, who had spilled the entire tureen of buttered peas down Beth’s robes. She still smelled faintly of vegetables, too, when she finally plopped down on Peter’s bed in the circular tower room.

“Dumbledore seems to do a lot of communication by conveniently-delivered scrolls,” said Marlene as, without further ado, Sirius whipped out his wand from the pocket of his robes and slit the parchment open.

“Well, and you said you got to read it?” said James, sounding highly amused, his right arm draped loosely over Lily’s shoulders from where she sat next to him on the floor in front of his bed. Sirius waved a hand at him, dark eyes skimming the text written there, and then skimming again.

An unbelievable expression of pure and uncontained joy lit up his face so violently that for a second, Beth was afraid he might faint; he even swayed a bit on his feet in the center of the room. His fingers curled around the edge of the parchment and a roguish grin nearly split his face in two.

“Read it aloud, Sirius!” she said, an infectious sort of delirium seeping its way inside her without her knowing why. Her hands twisted the bed sheets beneath them excitedly and Peter gave her a slightly askance look.

I have recently informed all professors that, due to compromising circumstances, the sitting of your N.E.W.T. examinations will no longer take place as previously planned,” Sirius read aloud in a voice that was tensed and choked with ecstasy. “The eight students to whom this message is visible – I didn’t know only we could read them, that’s brilliant – will instead sit false examinations at the discretion to their peers, and their performance on said examinations will not affect their job status come the end of term.” He looked up; the entire room was staring at him open-mouthed.

“Bloody hell,” James said at last; his arm fell to the floor with a sort of thud. “I… you’re joking, mate.” Sirius all but threw the letter at him in his haste to prove that the words were real. James grabbed it and skimmed it the way Sirius had done, Lily leaning over his shoulder to check.

Quite suddenly, he threw back his head and laughed, and Sirius seemed to take this as a sign of acceptance; at any rate, he did the same, and within seconds the entire group was in hysterics, passing the letter around to ascertain its truth, tears of laughter pooling in their eyes for no reason at all.

“This is the absolute best day of my life,” Sirius snorted, wiping away the mirth as he fell back contentedly against his pillow. “If I die tomorrow, I die a happy man.

“You’ve had too many best days of your life this year,” Beth choked, dabbing at her eyes with Peter’s sheet, although he didn’t seem to mind too much. Sirius shrugged happily, not willing to debate that statement. He leaned over and reaching into the school bag he had propped by his bedside table, promptly threw his History of Magic notes into the air. Beth had to admit, the carefree shuffling sound they made as they landed was gratifying.

*

But despite the fact that the news received had been good, Beth found it extremely difficult to sleep that night. It was the weekend, and her workload was minimal – a rarity these days. There was nothing she had forgotten to do, no one she was on ill terms with, and yet her bed felt like the most uncomfortable thing in the world.

The moon shone through the dormitory’s tiny window, and Beth faced it, curled up in a small ball, while she tried to let her mind far enough off that she could will it into sleep. Staring at a light source seemed to be having the opposite effect, however; her mind, although working quickly, remained firmly stuck in its thoughts.

She hadn’t really talked to Severus since their reconciliation before the final Order meeting, and it was bothering her a lot more than she was willing to admit. Granted, it had only been a couple of weeks, but things always seemed to work out this way – they talked, something happened, and they didn’t end up speaking for weeks on end, other than to say a quick hello in the corridor between classes. And sometimes even this last didn’t happen. It was nice not to have to avoid him in anger, but to not see him at all… Well, it was a bit disheartening.

Beth shifted slightly under the quilt, painfully aware of the loud creaks the bedsprings made whenever she moved even the slightest amount. Thinking about it made her stomach twist a bit, although she wasn’t sure whether it was from nerves or something a bit more frightening. She curled up, hugging her knees to her chest, and tried to think of something – anything – else. But her brain seemed to be stuck in a rather cruel groove, at whatever ungodly hour it happened to be now.

The sky gradually began to lighten as the moon dipped below the distant line of black forest trees, changing from black to deep blue and finally bringing around evidence of purple in lighter and lighter shades. Part of her was glad it was almost morning, for the excuse to get up, and part of her was angry that she had managed to evade sleep as long as she had. Beth was positive that she would regret it highly the next day – well, today, technically.

A sudden thought occurred to her as she watched the moon dip below the horizon, however, and she sat bolt upright in bed, a pleasant flurry of butterflies winging their way through her insides. She was reminded of the other time this year when she had been forced to get up earlier than she might have liked, the morning James decided he needed her help picking out Lily’s Christmas present. She had met Severus outside that morning.

“I walk a lot in the mornings.”

With indecent haste, she swung her legs out of bed and tiptoed as quickly as possible over to the end of her bed, rummaging in her trunk for a clean set of robes. It had been about three months since she’d last known him to be walking around outside in the pre-dawn hours, but she had nothing else to do – and a defiant part of her wanted to see if he’d be there.

From across the room, either Mary or Marlene breathed in deeply and mumbled something about marmalade, rolling over in her bed, and Beth froze with her shoes still clutched in her right hand. But thankfully, her roommate did not wake up – it wasn’t as though she was doing anything wrong by waking up early, but where she was going might be a little difficult to explain. It was even difficult to explain to the more sane and rational portion of her brain, which was currently urging her to put down the trainers and crawl back between the sheets.

The castle was, as it had been before, deserted, although the corridors were a bit less drafty as Beth made her way surreptitiously down to the entrance hall. She was probably pushing her luck, and half-expected to run into Filch or Peeves around every corner, but the trip was just as uneventful as it had been on the previous occasion. Still, there was no indication that anyone else was up yet, much less already on the grounds.

At the base of the marble staircase, she stopped, resting one hand on the wall, and tried to evaluate her steps. She was doing this – and, as painful as it was for her to admit it, there really wasn’t any doubt – solely to chance meeting Severus to talk with him after a couple of weeks. Before this year, she had lasted months without ever speaking a word to him. Was this even natural now, or was she just turning into some sort of blubbering and stereotypical teenage girl? For the sake and sanity of those she hung out with, she sincerely hoped not.

But you’re friends, argued a little voice inside her head, no doubt the same part of her that had urged her out of bed so mindlessly. You’ve talked before – he won’t mind now. And if you don’t go, you’ll always wonder…

Still, swallowing hard against the butterflies still inside her and trying very hard to ignore how loudly her pulse was beating in her ears, Beth crossed the entrance hall and slipped through the large oak double doors leading out onto the grounds.

March had released its grip on the brutally icy and snowy weather, but it was still early enough that the evening’s frost had not yet faded from the ground. The very tips of the grass were white where they would normally be green, except in small spots where disturbances had touched the lawn. To her elation, Beth saw footprint-shaped marks leading away from the spot where she now stood, heading down in the general direction of the lake; surely no one else but Severus would be out this early…

She drew her robes a bit more closely about her neck and followed the steps down, glancing at the large oak tree where she had sat with James, looming up around a slight turn in the path. With every crunch of gravel under her feet, the small argument in her head was further drowned out, although she still wavered between pushing on and turning to run straight back to the dormitory.

But as she rounded another slight turn, and saw a dark figure lying prone on the small rocky strip between lawn and shore, she froze; any thoughts she might have had of running were gone. Severus was indeed lying out this morning, stretched out on his stomach on the gravel. He appeared to be reading, his head bent low over something on the coarse sand, and Beth hesitated before starting toward him again, drawing deep breaths to calm herself.

Severus appeared to be very intent on whatever he was looking at; in any case, he never lifted his head as she approached despite the fact that the rock was not the quietest thing in the world to walk over. She was within a few paces of him now, and, at a loss for anything else to do, cleared her throat with rather painful embarrassment. And still he didn’t look up.

“Hi,” she ventured at last, her voice coming out as more of a squeak than anything, and she instantly regretted that she hadn’t sounded at least a bit more in control of herself. Severus’s head shot up, one hand moving to cover the pages instinctually. He seemed to register who was standing before him, and a smile creased his face.

“You could at least warn someone when you’re coming,” he said smoothly, rising up to sit on his knees while deftly closing the book in the same movement. Beth sank down and crossed her legs, grinning, the nervous feelings abating almost at once; they always did, once the thing she dreaded actually came to pass.

“I wasn’t exactly walking quietly,” she retorted sarcastically, and he laughed, shrugging.

“Fair enough.” A slight breeze blew through the silence, toying with the ends of Beth’s hair, and she thought instantly that she wished she’d brushed it a bit better this morning; it was rife with tangles and knots. Severus looked down at the pebble-strewn ground, picking up a few and playing with them before letting them fall back on the ground.

“So,” Beth said, once more finding it necessary to break into the conversation. “Are you worried about exams?” As soon as she brought it up, she wished she hadn’t; the N.E.W.T.s were on her mind solely because she didn’t have to take them any longer, but talking about that probably wasn’t the best of ideas. Not to mention the fact that they were still around three months away.

Severus shook his head, looking back up in the direction of the castle as though he had seen something there, or was trying to focus on whatever it was he saw. “No, I’m not worried,” he said. “I… they’re not going to matter too much to me, really.” But after he said this he immediately clamped his lips shut, as though refusing to speak any more. Beth frowned, but chose not to comment; perhaps it was better not to know.

“I’m in sort of the same position,” she responded instead, with lightness in her tone that she didn’t really feel – stepping carefully around secrets, while a practiced habit of hers, still made her subtly nervous. Severus’s dark eyes darted down to hers briefly, a slight crease forming on his brow, but it disappeared almost as soon as it came.

Great. She had confused him.

Beth craned her neck around, looking over her shoulder at the large oak tree, which was still visible by the side of the path. Without warning, she stood up suddenly and walked over to it; a tingling sort of sensation erupted in the tips of her fingers as she heard footsteps behind her, indicating that Severus was following. He was taller than her, and his stride was appropriately longer, for he reached her side as she extended her arms to hoist herself onto the bottommost branch.

“What are you doing?” he said, a smile seeping through his words and barely turning up the corners of his mouth. She beamed back, feeling a slight shift in the atmosphere toward relaxation, and breathing an invisible and internal sigh of relief.

“Climbing a tree,” she said matter-of-factly, laughing at the way he rolled his eyes. She swung her foot onto the branch and immediately reached for the next one, pulling herself up. Severus remained where he was by the tree’s trunk. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid,” she taunted, seeing that he was in no position to move.

The taunt worked. Smirking, Severus reached up and climbed onto the branch Beth herself had just vacated. He was surprisingly more nimble than he appeared; he appeared to have no difficulties in seating himself on it.

“Happy?” he said, still smirking up at her, reaching up and hanging onto the branch above him for support. She tilted her head as though thinking it over, although he wouldn’t have needed to ask if he could have heard the way her pulse quickened at how untypically near he was. It was private and isolated in that tree, a small world of its own – a world only the two of them currently occupied. Her cheeks grew warm, all the more noticeable because of the still-cool breeze blowing on them.

“I suppose so,” she said finally, and his smirk turned into something more genuine.

“What made you come out here so early in the morning?” he asked, abruptly changing the subject as he swung his legs idly back and forth. The heat that had briefly stung her cheeks now made quick progress towards her throat, and she swallowed.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said honestly, not feeling the need to divulge that she wouldn’t have physically come outside had she not had a chance of seeing him. That was unnecessary information, Beth felt. Severus continued to swing his legs, as though they were oddly-shaped pendulums. “I did remember you went walking early,” she finally muttered grudgingly, regretting the words almost as soon as they were out of her mouth.

Severus’s mouth twisted into a slow and lazy smile, although he still stared at the ground instead of choosing to look up at her. She was glad that she had the heightened perspective in this instance. He stopped swinging his legs and looked up at her suddenly.

“The sun’s nearly fully risen,” he said without preamble. Beth tilted her head up as well, and, by peering through the gaps in the budding leaves on the tree, could see he spoke the truth. The sky, which had been sparsely dotted with stars and various shades of blue only twenty minutes previously, was now lightening to pinks and reds and blues so pale they could be called white. Now that she was paying attention, Beth could hear the birds high above her head beginning to twitter.

“I guess we should probably head inside,” she said, unable to keep a bit of regret out of her voice no matter how hard she was trying to act as though she didn’t much care. Severus nodded, looking out at the sun and then back up to her branch. He dropped to the ground with almost catlike skill and watched as she lowered herself to the bottom branch.

“Here.” He reached up his arms, fingers outstretched a bit in her direction. “I’ll help you down.”

“What, do you think I can’t do it myself?” she asked, twisting her mouth in a rueful grin, and instantly wanting to slap her palm across her mouth for how coarse it probably sounded to him. Quickly, as though to amend her error, she reached down and clasped both of his hands with hers on the pretense of lowering herself to the ground, before he could draw them away.

His fingers were cool in hers, which was to be expected, she supposed, after having been sitting out in the chilly morning as long as he had, but she didn’t doubt for a second that they could support her until her feet were firmly planted on the frosted grass. And indeed, he didn’t let go until she was sure of her footing, and perhaps – she was probably only imagining it, with the way her brain had been running loose these days – a bit longer than that.

With the barest added pressure, he held onto her hands for a moment more and then dropped them, shoving his own in his pockets and hastily looking at anything but her face, blowing a strand of hair from his face in vain. She resisted the mad urge to giggle – if he ever needed any proof she was crazy, that would definitely be a strong contender – and pretended to fiddle with a nonexistent string on the hem of her cuff.

“Shall we?” he said at last, gesturing vaguely back up the path towards the castle, the turrets of which just peeked over the top of the sloping grounds. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak still in case she laughed, and in step they started back up toward the double doors.

The entrance hall was, thankfully, still deserted, despite the light filtering in through the windows now – it was not the first time Beth was grateful that the general population of the school enjoyed sleeping in on Saturdays. They halted by the dark entrance leading down to the dungeons, where Severus evidently was returning.

“Go and get some sleep,” he said, finally meeting her eyes for the first time since helping her down from the tree. “You look dead tired, all those bags and lines under your eyes.” But the slightly turned corner of his mouth and the peculiar, almost foreign look in his eyes betrayed what intentions lay beneath the words. A smile of her own really did break across her face now.

“I don’t look half so bad as you do,” she shot back, and he laughed aloud; her heart beat against the base of her throat so palpably she was sure he could see it. “Good morning, Severus.”

“Good morning, Beth.” They paused, and at the same moment moved away, each going back to their respective dormitories. Beth idly wondered as she half-walked, half-floated along the staircases and corridors if he mightn’t have moved if she hadn’t. The thought was not an unpleasant one.

A/N: Finally. I have been waiting to post this chapter for... probably two or three months, at this point. And now I finally get to, and I'm actually a little nervous! It's the "shippiest" chapter yet, I'd say, if that's even a word. And we'll pretend it is, because I think you'll understand what I'm getting at.

And -- this is a bit embarrassing, really -- somehow I've made a drastic miscalculation! After this chapter, there are seven chapters left. Not four, as I somehow thought there was... I'm sort of confused on how that happened, because I haven't changed anything major since early January, but that's staying up late for you. So there's a bit more to this story than I previously thought!

Thank you so much for the reviews and reads, and don't forget to tell me what you thought of this chapter! You all are amazing!


Chapter 28: Quidditch Again
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There were a lot of things Beth had done over the years that she might not have otherwise if her group of friends had consisted solely of girls – namely, spent a considerable amount of evenings up in the Gryffindor boys’ dormitory and in the Great Hall, where there was nearly always food the four could demolish. But the thing she hated most was having to hang around in the Gryffindor Quidditch locker rooms on account of James. They were small, they were a bit crowded, and the pervading odor of sweat was always a bit nauseating. She tried her hardest to breathe through her mouth, subtly covering her nose with her robes as they stood around in a small circle right before the Gryffindor versus Slytherin Quidditch match.

Since the November game, earlier in the year, Gryffindor had slammed Hufflepuff in the last week of January, and were looking to be a strong contender for the school championship, as usual. Unfortunately, Slytherin was also pushing strong, and today’s match was sure to be uncharacteristically brutal – not just because both teams wanted sorely to come out on top, but in the recent months when the blood purity question had come to stronger light, the members of the Houses were more opposed than ever.

And, if that weren’t enough, last night had been another full moon, and Beth and Peter were both half-asleep on their feet, along with Remus. She stifled a large yawn, still trying not to breathe any more than she had to, as Sirius chattered about something that sounded vaguely like feather pillows, but she wasn’t sure she was following the conversation correctly.

James gave Sirius’s wristwatch a quick glance as the latter reached up to scratch his nose. “You guys had better get out into the stands, you know – you’re not going to get good seats if you don’t hurry.”

“Lily and the others have some seats for us,” Beth said, migrating subtly towards the door leading back out to the pitch. “I don’t think any of us want to miss this – it’s going to be a bit of a bloodbath, though, don’t you think?”

“Dunno,” said James as they emerged into the spring sunshine, squinting upwards as though gauging the weather conditions. “Knowing the nature of our lovely Slytherin classmates as I do, it’s pretty likely.”

As though talking about them had conjured them out of thin air, a small cluster of emerald-clad players from the Slytherin team materialized at that moment as out of thin air. Leading the pack was Wilkes, one of Severus’s friends, who played Beater; Beth had a hard time seeing how he’d got on the team, as he wasn’t the brightest boy. Then again, you didn’t need to be innately smart to whack a ball around with a club. She instinctually scanned the crowd around him for Severus without realizing what she was doing, but he was nowhere in sight.

“Well, look who’s here,” smirked Wilkes, small bits of spittle flying everywhere as he spoke; those within a two-foot radius beat a hasty retreat. “I don’t think anyone but the players are allowed to skulk around the locker rooms, Black.”

Sirius ground his teeth together so hard that Beth, who was standing to his right, could hear them snapping plainly. “Watch your mouth before I knock you in the head with your own club,” he spat. Wilkes raised an eyebrow derisively, although it didn’t have the same effect as when Rosier did it; his buck teeth stood in the way of that.

“Not very nice, that,” he said, subtly wiping his mouth as Peter had done only a few minutes earlier. “Afraid I’m going to pick on your little half-blood friend?” He jerked his head in Remus’s direction, not even bothering to look him in the eyes. “Defending him so he won’t have to waste breath doing it himself? He’ll need to save it, there won’t be many more of his kind before too long –“

Anything else the ginger-haired boy might have been about to say was quickly cut off as Sirius lunged for him, scrabbling furiously in his pockets. James and Beth each caught one of his arms without thinking, restraining him before he could get in even more trouble for fighting. He squirmed, desperate to be free, but neither was willing to give him even an inch.

“You – I’ll get – mark my words –“ Sirius blustered, face turning rapidly red as he searched for something nasty enough to say to Wilkes. The group of Slytherin players roared with laughter as, with considerable effort, James and Beth hauled Sirius out of their earshot, Remus and Peter having to throw in their weight to the effort.

“He’s – a – git –“ James panted, finally depositing their friend unceremoniously on the ground as the fight seemed to go out of him. “Why do you even listen, Sirius? Haven’t we told you - ?”

“What you’ve told me doesn’t make up for the fact that he’s lower than scum,” Sirius said, correcting the sleeves of his robes where they’d been twisted as he’d been dragged away. He stood up, scowling and brushing dirt from his trousers. “Come on,” he snapped. “Let’s go and find our seats.”

*

The roar of the crowd was nearly deafening as James circled around two of the Slytherin Chasers, anxious to block them from getting the Quaffle, constantly turning his head back and forth to see whether Finch was ready to pass yet or not. For all his skill as a Chaser, he was sorely lacking in knowing the right time to play off to others; it got on James’s nerve to no end.

“Come on… come on…” he muttered, diving low and veering to the right to cut off one of the Slytherin players, who’d made a sudden start forward. “Pass, you idiot, pass…”

So far, the match had been just as brutal as Beth had worried it would be, and Gryffindor was only ahead by twenty points at this stage in the game. Several players on both sides had taken minor injuries, although nothing necessitating a trip to the hospital wing yet, but James knew that if Tennison didn’t get the Snitch soon, almost anything could – and probably would – happen.

“Hey, Potter!” roared a voice in his right ear, and he whipped around to see none other than Wilkes leering at him, tossing his Beater club from hand to hand as though he weren’t hundreds of feet up in the air. “Are you still going to be so brave about defending your pal up here?”

“Lay off!” James spat bitterly, knowing what Wilkes was all about – psyching players up in order to get them to lose concentration was no new tactic in Quidditch. He scanned the sky a bit above him for Finch, who had now passed to Mumford, and the two were engaging in a sort of volleying play to keep the Quaffle away from the encroaching opposing Chasers.

“I suppose you’re not quite as cool without all your mates behind you, though,” Wilkes persisted jeeringly, now flying down so that he was directly in front of James, taunting him. “You’re all Muggle-lovers, the lot of you.” His tone became distinctly more biting as he added, “Aren’t you dating one of them? That ginger-haired Muggle-born?”

“I said get away!” James elbowed Wilkes roughly as he flew past him, hoping that it might persuade him to find some other mid-game hobby, but that seemed to incense him even further. Finch had finally spotted that James was open, and lobbed the bright red Quaffle at him. James rushed up and felt his fingers close around solid leather, barely even pausing as he wheeled around and made for the bright gold goalposts at the opposite end. He was almost there – ducked Wilkes, who looked furious – ducked another Slytherin player, probably a Chaser, he didn’t know – he was almost there –

“POTTER SCORES!” The red and gold mass on one side of the stadium went wild, jumping and screaming, and James waved at them proudly, smirking at Wilkes’s reddening face, visible even from this distance.

He didn’t see him speeding straight for him, however, until the Slytherin collided with him in midair; something heavy and wooden collided with James’s jaw, and he distinctly heard a loud crack before the pain made him black out.

*

Sirius was gripping the wooden partition dividing their seats from those in front, his hands looking more like claws with the amount of force they were exerting. More than ever, Beth thought, he wanted Gryffindor to win, if only to be able to rub it in Wilkes’s face later on.

“What is James doing?” Lily said in a slightly breathless voice from further down the row, her hands clasped anxiously under her chin. Beth, who had turned to look at her as she spoke, glanced back at the pitch, searching for James. He was doing an odd sort of darting maneuver, which Wilkes seemed to be blocking.

“Shove him in the gut, punch him in the face… Do something, mate,” Sirius was muttering; apparently he had been looking in this direction, too.

“You’re going to snap that, you know,” said Beth, grinning and gesturing at the partition, but Sirius shushed her, his eyes still riveted on the game. Finch, a sixth-year Chaser, had finally passed the ball to James, and he was streaking up the field, more blurred than solid. The screams mounted as he neared the goalposts and, almost effortlessly, put the ball away inside the left hoop.

“Yeah!” Sirius shouted, his face breaking into a grin and his arms raised above his head, but the expression disappeared almost at once. Beth knew why; Wilkes had suddenly turned his broom and was making straight for James, who couldn’t see him coming, his face red and the arm holding his club poised to strike.

There was a collective gasp as the two boys collided; Sirius’s mouth had dropped open, and he looked ready to vault the partition. Beth clapped her hands to her mouth and felt her eyes go wide as James went limp and, to her horror, slipped off his broom.

“No!” she shrieked, reaching out her hands as though in some way hoping that that would slow his fall. Someone, at least, seemed to be able to intervene, for as he neared the ground he slowed, hitting the turf as though he’d only fallen a few inches.

Without a word to anyone, Sirius bolted, making straight for the stairs that led down to the grounds, and Lily followed close behind. Beth looked wildly around at Remus, who appeared just as horrified as she felt. He shrugged, and, taking that as confirmation, Beth ran off after Lily.

By the time the group of them had clustered together once more, near the cut-out section of the pitch that led onto the field, Madam Pomfrey was already there with a levitating stretcher. A small ring of staff had formed around his limp body, warding off curious students who were already trying to see what the commotion was; the players hovered on their brooms, unsure of what else to do.

“Make room!” barked the nurse, hastening to take her wand from a pocket of the apron she wore around her waist. Pushing up her sleeves, she pointed it at James’s jaw; Beth could see through a small gap between two elbows that it was already swollen and turning a nasty purple color.

“Is he all right?” Sirius said, trying to shove through the crowd still.

“Stand back, Mr. Black!” Professor McGonagall snapped, holding him off firmly with one of her hands. Sirius looked indignant.

“I’m his best mate!”

“And you can see him in the hospital wing after the match, like all his other well-wishers,” the woman said irritably. “I said stand back, we need to get Potter to the hospital wing.” Sirius looked as though he might have been willing to argue this a bit longer, but Peter stepped forward and pulled him back, and the group of them watched as James was levitated up the grounds and into the castle.

“Let’s go,” he said, as soon as the other onlookers had dispersed to return to their seats for the rest of the game.

“What about the match?” said Remus, gesturing towards their now-abandoned seats. Sirius glared at him.

“Who cares about the match?” he said through gritted teeth. “Or did you not see his jaw?”

“I was only – well, fine, let’s go!” said Remus testily, although the other boy didn’t really seem to catch on to the bitter note in his voice. He charged up the sloped grass towards where James had been carried off to, and Beth, shrugging at Remus apologetically, followed. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, she was more inclined to Sirius’s plan of action at the moment.

Seeing as how the rest of the castle was still out at the pitch, watching the conclusion of the match, they were not at all delayed in climbing the staircases that led to the hospital wing. The double doors to the ward were closed, although a small crack permitted small bits of sound to filter through; from what it sounded like, James was already stirring.

“Professor!” Sirius shouted, banging on the door with a raised fist. “Can we come in, Professor?” Despite the gravity of the situation, Beth had to clap a hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle. The door swung inward sharply, and Professor McGonagall glared down at him, her nostrils flared and white.

“I thought I told you –“ she began crisply, but was interrupted by an unseen voice from far down the ward.

“Could you let them in, Professor? I’d like to see them.” McGonagall rolled her eyes, sucking her breath in noisily through her teeth, but it didn’t appear as though she was about to deny any invalid a request made, no matter how much she disagreed with it. Opening the door just enough to let them pass through, she clucked her tongue once disapprovingly before passing out herself.

James’s jaw was certainly black and blue, although whatever Madam Pomfrey had done to it had made the swelling go down considerably. He grinned a bit sloppily as they clustered around his bed, immediately reaching up to take Lily’s hand as though he didn’t even need to think about it.

“Was it Wilkes?” he asked bitterly, and Marlene nodded mutely, fiddling with the end of her blonde plait. James’s brow furrowed. He looked mutinous. “I’ll kill him,” he muttered. “Making more comments about Remus –“ His brown eyes quickly darted up to look at Remus from behind his spectacles, which had somehow miraculously survived the fall.

Sirius swore under his breath. “If you kill him, I get to help out,” he said, eyeing the bruises. “What’s the verdict, mate?”

“Cracked jaw,” said James grimly. “It’s fixed now, though, although Madam Pomfrey says it’s going to be sore for a fair bit. She healed it in a quick second, though – I’ve always had a fond spot for that woman.” He winced, as though talking irritated it – which, Beth realized, it probably did. She grabbed the nearest elbow to her, which happened to be Peter’s, and talked loudly.

“We should let you rest,” she said, tugging Peter towards the door they had just entered; he looked mildly confused. Sirius looked at her, mouth open to protest, and she squinted her eyes meaningfully at him. It had just come to her attention that James might have wanted to speak to Lily alone, as well, for the way he had drawn her subtly nearer to the bed. Sirius caught onto this at last, and his face fell slightly.

“Erm – yeah, rest up,” he said, patting James’s leg bracingly, if a bit awkwardly. Beth tried very hard not to roll her eyes as she turned and led the group out of the ward. Near the end of the room, she slowed down, looking subtly over her shoulder, not being able to help it. Lily was now sitting on the edge of James’s bed, talking animatedly about something. He had an unequivocally sappy look on his face as she talked.

Beth shook her head, smiling a little smile of her own. A brief thought to tease him about it later crossed her mind, and she nearly began tucking away small jokes in the back of her mind, but remembering how decent he had been about Severus – minus blabbing it to everyone, of course – kept her mind firmly closed. He’d had enough to deal with for one day.

A/N: And with this chapter, this story officially hits one hundred thousand words on the archives! I never, ever thought I'd see a number that big for a story of mine -- it's absolutely amazing to me. And you guys have been so supportive throughout, too, I'm so grateful! Things are getting slightly hectic around here, and it's good to know that fan fiction goes on the same as always -- posting once a week, responding to reviews, catching up on my favorite stories. Thank you for being here! And don't forget to let me know your thoughts in the box below!


Chapter 29: The Malleable Future
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The responses to the twin letters Beth had sent her parents in late February, telling them of her vague and shrouded plans after the end of term, came so late that she was frankly quite surprised that either her mother or her father had bothered to write her back at all. She was completely prepared for the silent treatment, and in fact thought that that had been the case until she received a thin envelope one morning at breakfast, in the middle of April. Her mother wrote in a cool, almost distant tone:

Bethany,

Although it was disagreeable for both of us, your father and I have discussed your letter of February at great length – you appear to have sent us the same one, allowing little to no information in either. As your parents we feel it is necessary to garner more information as to your speculated whereabouts and plans. Kindly respond in full; one letter will suffice.

Mother

James, who had read this letter over her shoulder almost immediately after she herself had opened it, swallowed a great mouthful of scrambled eggs and shook his head emphatically. Lily and Marlene had both slept in that day, and he was back in his usual spot between Beth and Remus.

“You don’t have to tell them anything,” he declared vehemently, before a single word had issued from her mouth. “It’s your life, Beth. Before anyone else, you choose what to do with it.”

She smiled a bit and crumpled the letter in her hands, placing it gently alongside her spoon. “They’re not going to like this Order business, you know,” she muttered, instinctively looking to her right to make sure that no one was eavesdropping. “It’s definitely not the sort of thing they’d be promoting.”

“So?” he snorted. “You’re eighteen – you’ve been of age for over a year. I’d like to think you can damn well make your own decisions at this point.” He gestured with the fork he was still holding, jabbing it viciously in the direction of the crumpled letter. “You can respond if you want to, but just remember you don’t have to.”

“You know, sometimes your wisdom scares me,” Beth said simply, prodding the smashed letter a bit further from her as though it carried some sort of disease. “But you’re right – that’s one letter that’s definitely not going to get answered.”

*

Severus watched the light April rain sprinkle the damp ground under the roots of the tree, a smile barely visible on his face so as not to be seen by his friends – if circumstances had been different, of course, it most likely would have been considerably wider. He’d thought it pleasantly ironic that Mulciber had chosen this for the day’s meeting spot, seeing as how when he’d been here last, it had been with Beth, the morning she had come to find him before the rest of the castle was up.

It was less pleasantly ironic that Mulciber was currently the only one in their group who had yet to make an appearance, but he was trying not to dwell too much on that particular aspect of the thing.

But having to focus Beth – admittedly more pleasant than gritting his teeth about certain people who couldn’t keep to schedules they themselves made up – meant having to focus on what Wilkes had done to James Potter at yesterday’s Quidditch match between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and that wasn’t something he wanted to think about, either. That process came with a nasty and sort of foreign surge of guilt that was singularly unpleasant. He didn’t know why he should feel guilty – after all, he hadn’t cracked Potter’s jaw – but seeing as no one else seemed to, he felt a bit obligated to bear some of the burden, as good of terms as he was on with one of Potter’s good friends.

Wilkes was lounging against one of the more twisted and gnarled roots at that moment, a lazy and arrogant grin across his freckled face because of the very thing Severus was trying not to think about. Although the penalty Gryffindor had received for what he’d done had put them far up enough to guarantee their winning the game by a good margin, most of the Slytherins were treating Wilkes like a hero anyway. In their eyes, anyone who would go so far to inflict damage on a Muggle and Muggle-born sympathizer was a winner in any case, despite an outcome of points.

“He did shove me, though,” Wilkes was saying now; Severus couldn’t see the flecks of spit flying from his friend’s mouth, but knew instinctually that they were present. He wiped moisture off his cheek by force of habit, even though he knew it was probably just a bit of the misty rain. “He was asking for it, really, even before he’d begun dating Evans.”

Rosier snorted, running a slim hand through his coiffed black hair, and Severus’s lip curled without him quite meaning for it to as he observed the gesture. For some reason, everything Rosier, and really all his friends, had been doing or saying since the blood purity problem had arisen had been annoying Severus increasingly. “They’re the perfect pair,” he sneered. “It’s not as though he’s much of a benefit to the wizarding community, even if his blood is pure. He’s too noble to properly preserve it.”

“Shut up,” Severus snapped, drawing his knees a bit closer to his chest amid the nods of agreement from the others. Avery looked at him in surprise, his eyebrows inching up high on his tan forehead.

“Surely you’re not defending him?” Rosier said coolly, hitching himself up a bit higher and staring insolently at Severus, who looked at him just as levelly. “I thought you out of all of us would –“

“I’m not defending him,” Severus amended, feeling a sort of heated flush creep up his color, and was thankful that none of the others could see it in the dim light that the mist was causing. “But you can’t go about putting labels on which purebloods you’re going to – to keep, or whatever. That’s just as detrimental in the end, isn’t it?”

Rosier seemed to consider this, and then shrugged, as if already bored with the topic. “I suppose,” he said, and thankfully at that moment large and sloppy footsteps could be heard running in their direction down from the large wooden doors of the castle. Severus was extremely grateful for the interruption – that had been a very close call. A few moments more, and for all he knew he would have had to tell all of them just how often he’d been talking to Beth this year. She might have been a pureblood, but he had a funny feeling that in Rosier’s eyes she would have been more the sort like James – that is, hardly worthy of the title of ‘pureblood’ at all. And of course there was the fact that he’d have to answer as to why he’d taken such an increased interest in talking with her in the first place. That wasn’t even a question he could answer when his own conscience asked it, and the continued inability to do so was gnawing at him; he preferred to just ignore the troublesome conversation bits his brain sometimes plagued him with.

“Nice of you to show up,” Wilkes called out, hiccupping a little as he choked on a bit of spit while talking; Severus smirked, eyeing the boy with considerable distaste, much as he had with Rosier earlier. Mulciber came to a halt in front of them and the tree, skidding a bit in the mud and panting heavily. In his hand he clutched a square and slightly wrinkled parchment envelope, and it became clear that it was to this all attentions were suddenly drawn.

“Excuse me,” Mulciber snapped back sarcastically, rolling his eyes and sinking onto the driest bit of ground he could find. “The Owlery isn’t exactly close to this tree, you know. Cut me some slack.”

“So it makes perfect sense that you picked this spot to meet at,” drawled Severus, smirking again at the glare Mulciber gave him while the others laughed appreciatively. All fell silent, though, as he drew out the envelope again and held it almost reverently before them.

“So, I got the answer from my father,” he said unnecessarily, and there was a general movement among the other four to not appear exceptionally interested while at the same time each knowing that they would give several Galleons to read the contents of that letter first. With a sort of smug flourish, Mulciber extracted it from its covering and smoothed out the creases; from this distance Severus saw that the letter itself was not actually parchment, but something that had been hastily used for it in a pinch. For some reason, that revelation thrilled him., the fact that proper paper could not be found in the haste to write it. He began to read aloud from an apparently relevant part of the letter:

As to the inquiries that you and your friends made into what we have discussed – and you’ll have to forgive me for not being more explicit here – matters have been arranged in a generally satisfactory manner. I have spoken with those in more prominent ranks and it is agreed that you may – if your loyalties are as true as you claim – be permitted to join our ranks after the close of term.

This letter should be burned upon reading and shown to no one but those to whom it applies. Harrison, I trust that you will be firm in this matter and know that what I am saying must be upheld. Further contact can be made towards this time, but please do not send your owl until that time. Silence is key.

Rosier had been listening to the reading of this letter with a sort of bored and disdainful look on his face, but he was the only one who was trying to maintain that sort of front any longer. Wilkes had popped up in his knees in excitement, and Avery was clenching and unclenching his hands, as though he were trying to tangibly grasp the prospect. Even Severus, practiced as he was in hiding his emotions, could not conceal fully the excitement he felt at this, the first real and proven confirmation of what they were about to do.

Finally, Mulciber crumpled the letter and, solemnly, drew his wand from the pocket of his robes. While the other four watched, he prodded the balled-up paper with his wand tip, and it instantly ignited, glowing orange, then red, and finally curling into shriveled scraps of black ash that melted with the mist and blew away with breeze.

“Whoa,” said Wilkes at least, looking at them all with a sort of childish fervor, the emotion given considerable strength due to the prominence of his two front teeth. “So we’re in?”

“We’re in,” confirmed Rosier, a small and almost twisted smile briefly appearing on his pale and pointed chin before receding. Severus studied him, but did not comment; something about the smile unsettled him, and he couldn’t place what it was.

“Right,” said Severus, now sitting up on his own knees and placing the tips of his fingers together, unconsciously assuming an authoritative pose. “What we need to do now is sort of practice our spells, you know – see what we know, and teach each other.”

The faces of his friends stared back at him blankly. “You know,” he coaxed, feeling a bit irritated now. “Like, spells we’ve read in books, or ones we’ve…” He faltered, dark eyes roving from face to face with a slight mix of incredulity and disappointment. “Hasn’t anyone else been reading up on this sort of thing?” he finished lamely.

Avery let out a sort of snort like the one Rosier had emitted earlier. “Are you suggesting that some people actually do work beyond what’s necessary to pass classes?” he said, as though even the mention of it was laughable. “Or, what – we’re supposed to have started making up little curses and things on our own? Writing a book are you, Sev?”

The resulting laughter after this snide comment grated on Severus’s ears, and he felt himself flushing red again. “No,” he snapped, lacing his fingers together and looking down at his clasped hands; he was surprised the rain didn’t sizzle and evaporate as soon as it touched him, the heat of embarrassment was so strong. More than almost anything else, he hated to be laughed at.

“Fine, then, so I guess I’ll be teaching you,” he said maliciously, looking at them darkly from under his brow.

“And just what is it that you know how to do that we all should learn?” Rosier drawled, yawning as though even the idea bored him. Severus’s eyes flashed dangerously. He decided that, if he was going to do this – and he didn’t know why, but it somehow seemed imperative that he impart his knowledge – he was going to have to start with something to grab their attention.

“Corporeal Patronuses,” he said, drawing himself up an inch or two further. To his satisfaction, the reactions this statement received were positive; even Rosier looked mildly impressed, and Merlin knew that he liked to be as big a git as possible whenever he could.

Wilkes, naturally, was the first to speak in his eagerness. “D’you know how?” he said in a hushed, almost awed sort of voice. Severus shrugged as though it were no big deal, although he was quite pleased to play the superior.

“Taught myself a year or so ago,” he said with a nonchalance he certainly did not feel. “I’ll show you in a bit, if you like.” Mulciber nodded enthusiastically.

“I’ve always wanted to learn to do one of them,” he said happily, brushing away a bit of the ash from the burned letter from the sleeve of his robe. “This is excellent. Thanks, mate,” he added, nodding a bit deferentially to Severus, who felt extremely smug in his current role as the bearer of knowledge, as it were.

“I suppose we’ll see if you can do one, then,” Rosier said, but a glimmer of excitement had made itself evident on his features, as well. Severus curled his lip a fraction but said nothing more. The rain began to fall with increasing intensity at that moment, having shifted from a vague mist into something more substantial, and Avery squinted up into it.

“Should we head back inside?” he said, perhaps a bit needlessly, Severus thought, as a raindrop apparently fell straight into his eye; he quickly shook his head to clear it, rubbing the affected eye with his hand.

“Guess so,” Rosier said, nimbly climbing to his feet and brushing the stray leaves and dirt from his robes; as though it was a signal, the other three boys copied the motions. Severus, however, remained seated on the ground, staring at the surface of the lake, which was now being pockmarked by the rain.

“Hang on – I’ll be along in a moment,” he said, waving his hand impatiently in their direction. Rosier looked at the other boys, raising his eyebrows, but they just shrugged; Severus’s behavior seemed to have taken them by surprise as well, for indeed the sort of thoughtfulness that had just overtaken him had come out of nowhere. He did not want to go back inside with them, he realized, but only desired to be alone for a few moments, although explaining this felt a bit rude. He watched briefly as they began to trudge back up to the castle, and then turned back to watching the black, rippled surface of the water.

He wasn’t going to tell them about the spells he’d written in last year’s Potions books – of that much he was absolutely sure. Patronuses, various curses, yes – but not the ones of his own making. Although the thought occurred to him that he hadn’t hesitated to tell Beth about it, that night under the tree (and why did so many of their interactions happen under trees?), but that, he argued, was different. She wasn’t plotting any sort of subversive acts after seventh year; she had nothing to gain from the knowledge that he’d invented those spells.

But was that really the case? He ran a hand thoughtfully through his hair, narrowing his eyes as he strained to remember exactly what she’d said to him, sitting above him in the very tree he now sat near. She had mentioned exams, and he had said he wasn’t concerned about them because they would not mean much to him, or something of that sort. Well, that had been a risk, saying that, but she hadn’t seemed to make anything of that. And she had said something else… She had agreed, saying they didn’t mean a lot to her either.

He grinned without realizing it, burying his face in his knees and hoping against hope that he wasn’t reading into a conversation. But surely – that sounded like she was plotting the very thing Severus had assumed she wasn’t. Beth had always been the sort of girl who worried herself sick over exams when she didn’t need to, who studied when she already knew the information. It wasn’t in her nature to not care about exams.

Another recollection popped into his mind without warning, that of the argument they’d had a month or so ago – he had lost track of time, as it was yet another thing that he didn’t want to think about, that argument. But it certainly seemed as though she’d changed her tune, if he wasn’t misreading things, and he was rather certain that he wasn’t.

He stood up, easing the stiffness from his joints, a smile still fixed firmly on his face, foreign, but not at all unpleasant. Yes, he was certain that he was correct. It was almost too good to be true – being able to perform a great service to the wizarding world, and having converted Beth to seeing the rationale of this same service.

And then, at last, he could finally admit to her – well, that was best saved for later. No need to get stupid when he was only talking to himself. But the smile was still fixed there on his face as Severus followed the others back.

A/N: I think one of the more interesting facets of Snape's character -- and this could just be me, because I spend a lot of time just thinking about things -- is how one-track his mind is, and how stubborn he can get. In canon, that's especially true, and it's something I thought was important enough to try and incorporate here. If he thinks something's right, it's right, no matter how many people might be against him. Which, of course, presents difficulties later on, but he isn't a largely forward-thinking person.

Anyway. Enough of that ramble -- just a bit of insight into how some of these character traits are appearing. Thanks to everyone who's been reading this, silently or otherwise, and to those of you who have left reviews, as well. You cannot imagine what it means to me, all this support, and this small bit of gratitude doesn't even begin to cover my feelings!


Chapter 30: Remus's Request
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While the rest of the castle slowly began to panic over the rapid approaching of end-of-term exams – fifth years and seventh years especially – Beth found herself more and more grateful to Professor Dumbledore for finding a way to get the eight of them around taking their N.E.W.T.s. She was more than willing to sit for a few hours at a mock examination than to have to wake up in the middle of the night, frantic with the urge to study, as was normally the case.

Sirius, of course, could waltz right into the beginning of May with his usual nonchalance, so nothing was really different for him. There was a sort of pervading restlessness about him, borne from not having been able to go to an Order meeting in months, but even that wasn’t as bothersome as it might have been. In his mind, at least everything was prepared, and July was only two months away; as far as he was concerned, he was already done with school.

And so one night in the Gryffindor common room found them not studying, as most of their fellow students were, but playing a perhaps typical game of Exploding Snap – the first time they had been able to play with the optimal five players for as long as any of them could really remember. They were clustered in a tightly-knit group on their favorite rug in front of the hearth, and Beth could not help but notice the exasperated glares being cast their way from students nose-deep in textbooks, sprawled on every other available surface in the little tower room. One fifth-year in particular looked like she had been tearing out large chunks of her hair from the stress, and constantly sniffed derisively in their direction.

“I think she’s not particularly pleased we’re here,” said Beth in a conversational undertone, happily swiping a card from the top of Peter’s deck; the pile beneath began to smolder slightly, and he picked them up and began to toss them from hand to hand like in a Muggle child’s game of hot potato.

“What do you mean?” James said distractedly, his own eyes focused intently on the deck as it passed back and forth; although it wasn’t the nicest strategy in the world, the four of them had discovered long ago that it was easy to get Peter flustered if they could set his deck to smoking early on in the game, thus eliminating him as a threat in later rounds.

“I mean that she sounds as though she’s got a runny nose from all the sniffling she’s doing,” Beth laughed, this time not bothering to keep her voice down; she could see the girl’s ears turning pink as she pretended very hard to be absorbed in her moldy-looking textbook. She sucked in her breath through her nose and turned a page so sharply that Beth distinctly heard it rip.

“Well, then, that’s her problem,” Sirius said, making a move towards Peter without really intending to grab a card, so that their friend twitched violently and emitted something that registered between a squeak and a yell. He grinned and tapped the side of his nose. “Watch it, mate.”

“After all,” Remus interrupted, clutching his own still-intact deck firmly in his hands so that Sirius couldn’t steal a card, “it’s not our fault that we have already taken our O.W.L.s and passed with flying colors, thus sparing us the horrible sleepless nights and probable sickness beforehand.”

The fifth year glared at them again from over the pages, not bothering to hide it now, and turned her nose up in the air. With as much dignity as she could muster, she closed the book and tucked it deftly under her arm, retreating with trotting little steps up the staircase that led to the girls’ dormitories.

“I do think that was a bit of overkill,” Peter said, panting slightly as his eyes darted around for an opportunity to steal a card before his deck exploded; the rest of them had their hands clamped firmly over their cards and were grinning broadly at him. “After all,” he added, “I don’t think you can say that all of us really passed with, you know, solid marks.”

“Remus and Bethy both at least passed everything, and that’s as high as my colors would ever fly,” Sirius sniggered, juggling his cards from hand to hand tauntingly. “So it wasn’t a total lie, was it?” This last remark was punctuated with a noise like a very small canon, in which Peter’s cards burst into flames, littering the hearth with fiery cards.

“Got you!” James cried out, and they all shuffled around, trying to find the cards before the allotted magical fire could run out and start burning up the furniture – this, of course, being the primary cause for most of the scorch marks to be found in Gryffindor Tower, although no one ever deemed it necessary to tell Professor McGonagall of them.

Beth stretched out her hand for the cards, and they all piled them into her waiting palm, watching as she fastened a rubber band around them and hoped they weren’t still hot enough to melt it. “So, it’s Sirius and Peter tomorrow night, right?” she asked, lowering her voice and leaning forward a bit. Tomorrow was another full moon, the second-to-last of term, and James had a Quidditch match the following day that he needed to sleep in for.

“Right,” Sirius said, reaching down to his toes to try and stretch some of the stiffness out of his legs. “And Merlin, I’m glad the weather’s warming up at least a little. I hate sitting watch in the cold and snowy – ”

“You do realize you won’t have control over the weather going out on missions?” Peter grinned, elbowing Sirius in the ribs. Sirius rolled his eyes and elbowed back.

“I know that,” he scoffed. “But… I don’t know. I feel like then, I probably will have bigger things to worry about than whether I’m freezing my –“

“Watch it!” Beth said, pocketing the deck of Exploding Snap cards as James roared with laughter. She grinned nonetheless, seeing how proud of himself Sirius looked, and sat back against the base of the armchair that the fifth year girl had recently vacated.

“Hey, guys?” Remus spoke suddenly into the silence, toying with the edge of the hearthstone underneath him. “Can I ask you something?”

James glanced sideways at Beth before saying, “Yeah, mate, anything.” The expression on Remus’s face – the rather uncharacteristic solemnity – was not only a little disconcerting, but it had a sobering effect on the rest gathered there as well. He didn’t say anything for a brief moment after this, continuing the pick at the stone.

“I’ve just been thinking about something lately,” he breathed out at last, in one great rush as though unloading a great burden. “I just – how long are you planning to keep this up, this… keeping watch thing?” His eyes met each of theirs, but Beth merely felt confused.

“What do you mean?” she blurted out.

“Just said,” he said simply. “I mean – I’m of age now. Shouldn’t I be doing this by myself?” James glanced at Beth again, and she was a bit relieved to see that a similar look of incredulity to the one she was feeling was mirrored there.

“You’ve been of age for over a year though, Moony,” Sirius pointed out, folding his long legs underneath him and leaning his head against the sagging cushion of the loveseat.

“Well, it’s bothered me a bit since then,” Remus admitted, shifting uncomfortably. His gaze darted up and around, and he leaned his head instinctively closer, through the left side of his face into deep shadow from the fire in the grate. “But now that we’re going to do this thing –“ he motioned vaguely to something unseen, indicating their joining the Order “– then I really think it might be best if – if I started learning how to do transformations on my own.”

“Come off it,” said Sirius at once, as though this settled the matter. “You’ve always had help.”

“That’s the point, though!” This burst so forcefully from him that Beth felt her eyebrows rise quickly in surprise, and she leaned back a bit. Remus closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “Look,” he said. “For as long as I’ve been here, yes, I’ve had help. But how long can that go on? I mean, you and James are working for recruitment.” He turned to Peter, and then swiveled around to look at Beth. “You and Sirius are going to be Merlin knows where, and I’m going to, what, rely on Mary and Marlene?”

James fidgeted a bit, apparently not having thought that far. “You could –“ he began slowly, but Remus cut him off; it appeared that he had had a long time to think this over.

“I need to learn how to do this myself,” he said firmly. “I think that’s why Dumbledore placed me apart from you. I need to stand on my own two feet – or four, as it were.” He smiled grimly, and Beth tilted her head to the side, a lopsided smile of her own twisting her mouth.

But the prospect of not going out every few months, not transforming into a falcon and watching the moon as it moved overhead, was a bit of a strange thought. It had become so ingrained into her routine that Beth hardly even stopped to think about how it must seem to others anymore; it was just something she did. And even this year, not going out every month, a dog and a stag and a rat always by her side, was strange enough, enough of a jolt to the past years’ normalcy. But Remus was right, as he usually was. He needed to learn to do this alone.

“I think you’re right,” she said at last, and a look of gratification passed through Remus’s eyes at her words; the lopsided smile returned.

“I know I am.”

There was a brief silence in which a log in the grate shifted, crackling loudly and sending a flurry of yellow and orange sparks up into the sooty chimney. James stared unseeingly at it, the light reflected oddly off his glasses, so that from the angle Beth sat at it appeared as though he didn’t have eyes at all. “Well,” he said at last, “then at least let’s do one last thing.”

“And what’s that?” Remus said quickly, grateful to grant any request, apparently, if his larger one was to be acquiesced. James grinned, looking sideways at Beth for the third time that evening, although this time she could clearly see the glimmer of mischief behind his eyes.

“I think that, this one last time, we should all go out together, transforming just like the old days,” he said, and Sirius grinned back.

“The old days meaning last year?” Peter said sarcastically, and James laughed.

“Okay, yes, but they feel old,” he said defensively. His eyes swiveled back to Remus. “We’ll let you go everything by yourself, but we’ll, you know, be there. Just in case.” He stuck out his hand, arching one eyebrow and smirking. “Agreed?”

These appeared to be terms Remus could agree with. Grinning back and looking as though he had released a large weight off his shoulders, he stuck out his hand and shook James’s firmly. “Agreed,” he repeated.

“Now wait a minute,” Beth laughed, suddenly remembering something and causing the four boys to look around at her in surprise. “James, you’ve got Quidditch the day after tomorrow!”

“Who cares?” he said, although it apparently caused him to remember the Snitch in his pocket; he took it out, its little wings fluttering, straining to be released, and he let it go only to snatch it back with a deft move of the wrist. “Besides, it’s Hufflepuff. We’ll beat them with our eyes closed, and a little tiredness never hurt anybody. I’ll be fine.”

“Just don’t come crying to me when you fall off your broom when you can’t keep your eyes open,” she teased, grinning. For all her teasing, though, she was secretly pleased they’d get one last night together – one final transformation as Hogwarts students, completing a very odd sort of circle.

James lightly punched her in the shoulder, using the hand still wrapped around his Snitch. “Yes, Mum,” he teased back. But Beth could tell he was happy, too.

*

The night of their last watch was extremely overcast – a good thing, for the full moon’s effects didn’t penetrate nearly as quickly when the rays weren’t glaring. Remus was supported by Peter and James as they stole across the dark spring grass, the owls in the Owlery hooting so loudly that it could be heard from across the castle.

“Blimey, it’s weird that this is the last time we’re going to do this,” said Sirius conversationally, walking with an experimental spring in his step as though testing the ground for something.

“Speak for yourself,” Remus groaned, looking very much as though he was about to be sick. Unconsciously the four of them walked faster, the outline of the slowly-waving Whomping Willow branches only just now visible in the dim light. Peter stumbled over a hidden rock and nearly took James and Remus down with him as he tried to regain his balance.

“That’s the second time you tripped tonight,” Beth hissed in his general direction, and even though she couldn’t see him clearly she could sense the embarrassing effect her words had on her friend. “Come on, let me take him, it’s not that far –“

“You’re not doing that again, I told you,” Remus snapped, still cognizant despite the fact that he was already panting slightly in a very canine fashion. Beth glanced down briefly at the faint scar on her forearm and scowled, shaking her sleeve over it. She didn’t know if he’d ever let that go, and it annoyed her to no end.

“I’m fine – sorry, mate,“ Peter, a bit breathless himself, said, hitching Remus a bit higher on his shoulders. “Come on. If we stop now, I’ll never get going again.” Sirius shook his head wonderingly, but refrained from taking over, as he might have done. He apparently felt it was important to let Peter take it this one last time.

They reached the outer circle of the area the branches could reach, and James moved to take on the full amount of Remus’s weight, preparing to help him down into the passage leading to the Shrieking Shack. “Be back in a minute,” he said, and before Sirius and Beth could blink, both he and Peter had transformed. Remus was slung oddly across James’s back down, and when the branches stopped moving, they both inched into the shadows.

“Come on,” Sirius said, nudging Beth in the shoulder; she was still staring after the place where the stag and the rat had disappeared. “Or don’t you want to stretch your wings?” He grinned cheekily and, with a rather smarmy wink, stepped forward, instantly taking his the form of the large black dog he was so fond of. Beth needed no further encouragement and, mimicking his movements, found herself airborne in a matter of seconds.

Beneath her, almost invisible on the dark grass, Sirius bounded towards their usual tree, and she could tell that he would be barking, had he the option. She soared along above him, the familiar rush of the wind in her ears wonderfully soothing, and watched as the black below her changed in depth and intensity as the scenery moved from grass to shore and finally to the impenetrable black water of the lake. She wheeled around, dipping, not quite wanting to relinquish flight to sit in a tree and play cards for the next eight or so hours.

Another dark shape began to make its way toward her as she wheeled around and headed back for the tree where Sirius waited, barely outlined against the steely sky behind it. Beth dove, fluttering about the stag’s head with careful precision and trying to avoid getting smacked by one of its antlers. Precariously, she perched upon one, and the stag let out an indignant snort. It slowed as it reached the tree, Sirius on the lowest branch and now completely human again, and all at once Beth found she was perched on James’s head.

“Please get off,” he said through gritted teeth as Sirius snorted with laughter, seeing who – and what – had appeared in the dark before him. Beth hopped neatly back to the ground and turned back into herself at once, brushing a bit of invisible dirt off her robes as though what she had just done was normal.

“You need to watch where you put your talons, Bethy,” Sirius said helpfully, watching as James tenderly massaged his scalp, wincing slightly. “He doesn’t have a lot of brains, and you might gouge them out.” James showed Sirius a very rude hand gesture and swung up onto the branch next to him, acting as though he were going to shove him off.

“And you might wash your hair,” Beth added, unable to help it and grinning as she surpassed the branch the two boys sat on, aiming for a higher one. “My feet feel all greasy now.”

“Nah, you’re confusing him with – ouch!” Sirius gave out a bark-like yelp, immediately clapping his hand over his mouth when he realized what he’d done, but not before shooting James a questioning look. The fact that James gestured subtly upwards at her did not escape Beth’s notice, but, feeling kind, she pretended not to see it.

Peter popped out of seemingly nowhere; as a rat, his speeds did not quite match that of the others’, and he was usually the last to arrive. He sank beneath the trunk of the tree and took out a book from inside his robes, promptly burying his nose in it.

“Are you – are you reading?” Sirius called down softly, as though he dared not believe his eyes. Peter looked up and nodded once before immersing himself in it once more. “But we don’t have to study for our exams, or didn’t you hear?” he persisted.

“It’s not a textbook, though,” Peter called back up. “I’ve borrowed it from the library – Madam Pince recommended it to me.” Beth shook her head fondly, recalling that, of the five of them, the crotchety old librarian had always found the least amount of fault in Peter.

Sirius was now pulling bits of bark off the tree, trying to see if he could drop them in the spine of Peter’s book, his tongue poked out in concentration. Beth turned sideways, slumping against the trunk; through the spaces in the leaves, she could make out bits of the gray sky.

“This is strange,” James said into the amicable silence that had fallen, looking up at Beth from his branch. Peter let out a noise of disgust as, in looking up as well, Sirius managed to drop a bit of bark on his face; the latter grinned triumphantly and ceased.

“Strange how?” Beth asked, swinging her legs back and forth.

“Strange as in, we’ve grown up and it doesn’t feel like it at all. We talk about it, and then we go back to doing what we’ve always done.” James motioned to the tree, the same tree they had been sitting in for years. “I just… I don’t know. It’s strange.”

“Yes, well,” Sirius interrupted, grinning slyly again, “you’re getting married, and you can’t say you’ve done that before. That is, if you buck up the nerve and actually ask the girl someday.” James turned a deep shade of maroon, visible even in the poor light the clouds afforded. Beth felt a sympathetic twinge for him, knowing how nervous he was. She was sure that Lily’s ring was still snug in its box in the table drawer, untouched since he had shown it to them.

“At least he’s going to get a girl to say yes, Padfoot, and that’s more than you can say at this point,” she called down lightly. Sirius scoffed.

“I fly solo for a reason,” he said firmly, and, swinging his leg over the branch, dangled in the air for a few moments before landing lightly on the ground next to Peter, who obviously wasn’t expecting it; he jumped a bit, and the book he was holding fell onto the grass. “Come on, Wormy, let’s have your pack of Exploding Snap cards. One more early morning game before James and Bethy get too old to play.” He looked pointedly up at them, and Beth rolled her eyes, smirking.

When Sirius and Peter had become appropriately engrossed in the cards, however, she dropped down to where James was still sitting, looking out over the expanse of dark ground before him. “Are you scared?” she asked quietly, and he knew what she was asking about.

“A bit,” he admitted, chewing absently on his lower lip. “I mean… I haven’t always been, you know, the nicest guy.” He rubbed the back of his neck, frowning. “And she’s so… There’s just…” He couldn’t seem to be able to find the words, and, seeing the need to choose them for him, Beth nudged his shoulder gently.

“Hey. For all your faults, James, you’re a good guy,” she said, and James looked up, smiling thankfully. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I’m sure she’ll say yes.”

James nudged her back. “Thanks, Beth.”

“Did you lot think I was joking?” Sirius called up at that moment as loudly as he dared, kneeling next to Peter by the base of the tree. “You are going to play Exploding Snap. Now get down here.” James and Beth grinned at each other, and, scooting off the branch, went down to play cards.

A/N: I don't like having my characters grow up. It's necessary, but a little part of me wants to keep them in this Hogwarts bubble forever, playing Exploding Snap and cracking jokes and not having to risk the dangers of the world.

Then again, that would mean no plot, and a story is nothing without its plot! I'm nearing the end of the sequel's ninth chapter right now, and it's still a little funny not to be writing solely in the Hogwarts setting. I'm really pleased with the way it's going, though, and I'm excited for everyone to read it in the months to come.

Don't forget to review the chapter, and thank you!


Chapter 31: A Question
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It seemed that the sort of miniature pep talk that Beth had given James in the tree had worked, or at least, was on its way to working. Only a week later, as April was drawing to a close and bringing the beginning of true springtime, the box was in the pocket of his robes and now being carried about everywhere he went.

“It’s mentally strengthening me,” he said one day at lunch, looking surreptitiously sideways to where Lily and Mary were talking animatedly about something. “If I get used to it being there, maybe it won’t be so terrifying when I actually get around to proposing to her.”

“That’s about the stupidest logic I’ve ever heard,” said Sirius matter-of-factly, buttering a roll and not looking at James. “At that rate, you’ll never do it, and we’ll all have wasted perfectly good emotions this year dealing with you.”

James rolled his eyes. “Pity,” he muttered, again looking down the table; it seemed that he couldn’t help himself. Beth, who was sitting across from him, became aware of the fact that he was jiggling his leg nervously.

“You’d better cut that out,” she said, nudging him in the shin with your foot. “That’s going to get annoying fast. Look, James –“ She leaned forward, as though about to convey a secret, and James mirrored the movement desperately. “It’s not going to take a lot of effort on your part. Ask her out for a walk, like you’ve done a million times before. Pop the question. She cries a bit, you hug, and then you’re engaged.” The words felt odd on her tongue again, as they had when he’d first brought up the fact that he wanted to get married, but she wasn’t about to show that to him at a time like this.

“Your lack of sympathy astounds me,” James said sarcastically, chewing on his lower lip. Beth sighed and buried her head in her hands, rubbing her nose viciously. James, like veritably every other boy she had ever come in contact with, really could be a prat about things like this.

“You can disregard my advice,” she said warningly, “but seeing as I’m currently the only female present here, I might think twice before doing so.”

“Beth’s plan isn’t a difficult one,” Peter pointed out, “and it sounds like all the other proposal plans I’ve ever heard. You could just try it.”

“When have you been listening in on ways to get a girl to agree to marry you?” Remus asked incredulously, but he was promptly ignored. Sirius clapped a hand on James’s back, shaking him a bit.

“Look,” he said, waving his hand in the others’ direction, as though they didn’t matter. “You can listen to advice, but mate, just do it. You’re going to feel loads better when you do.” James blinked a few times, and then nodded, although it was a slow and delayed response.

“So… so tomorrow night, then?” he said hoarsely, looking at all of them. Beth nodded firmly, just to give him a visible and positive reaction, and he nodded back, reaching into the pocket of his robes and feeling around as though checking to make sure the box was still there.

Movement from the doors leading out into the entrance hall caught her eye at that moment, and, turning around, she saw Severus moving through them, and – it was a coincidence, surely – he was looking in her direction. Their eyes met, and his mouth twisted into a smile, visible even from this distance. Her heart jumped into the base of her throat, beating ferociously there and feeling as though it would break through the thin skin.

“Excuse me,” she said quickly, and, not stopping to acknowledge the odd look the other four gave her, Beth stood up quickly from the table and walked towards the double doors. Severus had disappeared through them at this point, but she was confident she would find him not far on the other side. Sure enough, he was standing on the third step of the marble staircase, drumming his fingers on the banister. She grinned, unable to help it, and wondering exactly when she had reached this point – that she would leave a meal to meet him in the entrance hall.

“What?” he smirked as she stopped in front of him. She laughed aloud.

“You brought me out here!”

“I did not. You just followed,” he said, grinning, and she felt a sort of tingling in her cheeks that had nothing to do with the sunlight pouring in from the high windows lining the entrance hall. She rolled her eyes good-naturedly and leaned against the banister, so that he was now distinctively higher than she was.

“And what’s put you in such a good mood?” Beth asked pointedly, seeing that the grin was still firmly fixed on his face. Severus shrugged, now drawing intricate and invisible patterns with his finger on the post on the end of the banister. She watched him unseeingly, the ghost of her smile still apparent on her face. The silence between them was thick, but amicable.

“You looked like you were talking seriously,” he said at last, eyes darting up to hers and then quickly back down. “Is…” He swallowed. “Is Remus okay, and everything?”

Beth stared at him in shock. She knew for a fact that Severus hated her friends, and even “hate” wasn’t a strong enough word. Why would he be asking about them now? “He’s fine,” she said, shaking her head slightly as though clearing water from her ears. “It’s James, actually, he’s dead nervous about proposing to Lily tomorrow.”

As soon as the words had escaped her lips, she clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes going wide, but of course Severus had already heard them. He lifted his head, one eyebrow raised inquisitively. “He’s what?” he said.

“I don’t think I was supposed to tell you,” she whispered, mortified, but something in his expression made her smile nonetheless. “He’s – he wants to marry her. He’s got the ring and everything, he’s proposing tomorrow.” She watched his face closely, searching for signs of reaction – disgust, happiness, anything – but found only cool indifference.

“That’s certainly not something you hear every day, anyway,” he said at last, and Beth nodded, if only for something to do while she continued to scrutinize his features. He looked up and seemed surprised to see her watching him so intently, and she looked down quickly, that crawling, blushing feeling regenerating in her cheeks.

At that moment the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch and the start of afternoon classes, and people began to pour with more frequency out of the Great Hall, chattering incessantly. Severus pressed himself closer to the railing to move out of the way of a giggling bunch of fourth-year Hufflepuffs, although they didn’t spare him a passing glance as they moved up.

“Hey, nice talking to you again,” Beth said, touching Severus on the elbow lest he couldn’t hear her. “It’s Herbology next for me, I’d better get going. I’ll see you around, okay?” He nodded, the same smile – almost cynical, but not quite – crossing his face.

“I’ll see you around, Beth,” he repeated, and, nodding once, she turned and headed for the grounds.

*

Severus watched Beth go, feeling his forehead crease in puzzlement, and looked after her until she had slipped through the crack in the doors and had disappeared. This, he thought wryly, was certainly a new development.

So James was proposing to Lily. From past experience, he knew that he should be angry about this - at the beginning of this year, as recently as that, he had been livid upon learning that she’d finally agreed to date James Potter in the first place. So why wasn’t he feeling similarly now?

But, of course, his eyes darting unconsciously back across the hall, he knew why – or he had a strong guess, although he wasn’t exactly one to search his emotions. Besides, saying it – even to himself – was hasty, and he’d made that mistake before, Merlin knew. But perhaps this was the final test, the proving moment in which he knew – and, yes, he was sure of at least one thing.

Whatever else had happened, he was no longer in love with Lily. He had to talk to Beth about whatever she was planning after term ended, and the sooner the better.

*

“Stop chattering your teeth.” Beth tried in vain to get James’s hair to lie flat on his scalp, but as normal, it had a life of its own, springing right back up again as soon as she removed her hand.

“I can’t help it. I’m nervous,” James spat back, checking his reflection anxiously in the spotted mirror Sirius was holding up before his face. “Of all the times for my stupid hair to not lie flat, it had to be today…”

“Because it behaves so well the rest of the time,” Remus laughed, not even bothering to glance up from the book he was reading on his bed across the room. James shot him a look and continued to pat the top of his head anxiously.

“She’s going to say no and laugh in my face and tell the whole school and I’ll never be able to get a date again and I’ll have to leave the country and probably change my name…” he muttered in a rapid stream, and Beth didn’t even think he really knew what he was saying anymore. Sirius scoffed.

“You are being stupid,” he said, point-blank, and snatched the comb from Beth’s hand. “Stop messing with his hair, it’s making him twitchy.” He looked in the mirror alongside James, who was still pressing his hair to his head, almost as though he were trying to rip it out.

“James, you’re going to be late,” said Peter, who was apparently the only one of them who had thought to check his watch in the past five minutes. James jumped as though he had just received an electric shock, and Remus snorted.

“I need to meet Lily,” he said desperately, searching Beth’s face as though waiting for her to confirm this, and she nodded in the gentlest way she knew how. With a little shooing motion, she got him to stand up, and for what seemed like the hundredth time that evening he check his pocket to make sure the box with the ring was in there.

“Okay. Here I go,” he said, Sirius clapped him bracingly on the back.

“Best of luck, mate,” he said sincerely, and Beth felt absurdly proud of him for being so encouraging. “When you come back you will officially be attached to a ball and chain,” he continued, and the pride was silently retracted.

“Nah,” said James, smiling softly and shaking his head. “I want to do this.” And through his nerves, Beth could understand the sincerity that lay there. She knew that he was serious about this.

“Just remember what I told you,” she said, smiling and nodding and trying desperately to soothe his frayed and shabby nerves. James swallowed hard and nodded back, his hand going yet again into his pocket, fiddling with the ring box.

“Right,” he said, and took a deep breath to steady himself. “Well, so long, boys. And Beth,” he added, forgetting as always. “And if I don’t come back, well, use your imaginations.”

“Good or bad?” Peter said, snorting with laughter. James only grinned and wiggled his eyebrows before giving the four of them a mock salute and heading out the dormitory door.

*

Lily was already waiting in the entrance hall when James got there, his heart doing mad sorts of gymnastics routines with the rest of his insides at this point. She was sitting on the base of the staircase, and as his footsteps resounded throughout the dimly-lit hall, she looked up, a smile crossing her face.

“I’m almost never early for these walks, you know,” she said teasingly, standing up and brushing dust off her skirt. “What’s different tonight? Setting up a prank for first years?”

James shook his head, grinning, and unconsciously reached to take her small white hand in his. “Not tonight,” he joked back, “although that’s not a bad idea, that. D’you want to walk to the Quidditch Pitch tonight? We haven’t gone on that path in a while.”

“I don’t care,” she said, still smiling, and it took all of James’s resolve not to plop down on one knee right there. But he’d planned this out in his head too minutely to stray from his plans now, and so only swallowed deeply and hoped she didn’t see.

The late April night was thankfully mild, and it didn’t appear that it would be visited by the rains that had been so continuous the last few days this week. James squinted up at the sky, evaluating the few clouds left and silently demanding cooperation of them. Rain was not in his carefully-laid plans.

“Anything interesting up there?” Lily laughed, craning her head to try and look at whatever James could apparently see. “You’re acting a bit odd tonight. It can’t be exams stress, so what’s up?”

James found himself cursing the policy of honesty that the two of them had implemented into their relationship earlier in the year. He coughed and muttered something he knew Lily wouldn’t be able to make out – something about sprouts and earmuffs, he thought, just picking whatever words entered his brain – and quickly tried to drown it out with his footsteps on the sodden dirt path down to the Quidditch Pitch.

Lily frowned slightly, but said nothing, continuing to walk complacently beside him with her hand in hers. James eyeballed the sky again, now making mental threats in his mind. If you rain, I am going to do something drastic… You’d better not rain…

Dear Merlin. He was losing his mind.

“So, how are Mary and Marlene?” he said, instantly wanting to smack himself but not able to think of any other veins of conversation. He never asked after her friends, and Lily obviously knew this, judging from the strange look she then gave him, but apparently decided this was just another facet of the strange mood she thought he was in.

“They’re… good,” she said, and then giggled. “Actually – did Beth tell you this? – Mary did the funniest thing last night right before we were going to bed…” And that is where James lost the thread of the conversation, relieved that Lily was able to talk long enough to give his mental faculties a bit of time to calm down. He knew he would feel bad later for not paying more attention, but there were more pressing matters on his mind at the moment – namely, that he was preparing to propose to her.

The Quidditch Pitch inched into view over the tops of the trees, and James felt his pulse quicken considerably as Lily continued to chatter away to his left. They came to a halt outside the entrance leading onto the field, and Lily’s words died away as she looked up at it.

“Do you think we’re allowed to go in?” she said, tilting her head to the side, her smile changing into something slightly more mischievous. James grinned back; he had fully intended for them to do so, although whether it was against the rules or not didn’t really matter to him.

“Absolutely,” he said firmly, and then, so as to try and appear a bit more like himself, said, “I’ll race you to the top!” Before she could react, he sprinted forward, heading for the wooden stairs leading to the top row of stadium seats and grateful for the distraction of running. It took his mind off what he had to do, if only briefly, and it would look normal to Lily, too – a bonus.

He heard her shoes clattering behind him on the stairs, and slowed his pace just slightly so he wouldn’t get too far ahead of her. But he had drastically underestimated the distance he had put between them, for almost as soon as he did so, two arms wrapped around his knees, and he fell onto the steps with a crash and a rather painful sensation immediately radiated through his knees.

“Hey! Ouch, that hurt!” he laughed, twisting around and wincing to see Lily lying on her stomach, laughing.

“That hurt me too, but you had a head start!” she giggled, flipping over onto her back and staring up at the sky (which, James ascertained with a quick glance, still did not look like rain, thank goodness). It didn’t look especially comfortable, lying like that on the stairs, but James slid down next to her anyway, still grimacing – his legs really did hurt from that unexpected fall.

Lily reached for his hand again, and they just lay there, on the stairs, looking up and saying nothing. They didn’t have to; for now, it was enough. And James knew that although it was not in his plan, this was the moment. The box in his pocket seemed to weigh a ton as he became aware of it and, finding the ability to breathe had mysteriously disappeared, he sat up slowly. Small beads of sweat dotted his brow, and he wiped them away hastily.

“Lily?” Why did his voice have to crack at that moment?

Lily looked up at him, still not moving, although that same smile crossed her face again. “James?”

He cleared his throat, willing it not to crack again, and took the deepest breath he thought he could manage without making it overly conspicuous that he was doing so. “I… Well.” He cleared his throat again, and slipped a hand unnoticeably into the pocket of his robes, clutching the box like a lifeline. “You mean a lot to me, Lily. I’m so glad you finally agreed to go out with me.” A grin reminiscent of his normal self slipped across his face.

Lily laughed aloud, sitting up on her elbows. “I’m glad too. Really,” she said, when James raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think I’d have wanted to miss all this.”

“I’m so glad – well, I mean,” he stammered, realizing how much that word had been used in the past ten seconds, “I’m just really happy – would you do something for me?”

Lily frowned, sitting up an inch or so higher. “Are you okay?”

“Yep,” he said quickly, and in one horrible moment James suddenly realized that, due to the way they were sitting on the steps, his face was level with Lily’s. This would not do if he meant to get down on one knee, as planned. Trying to act as though it were normal, he looked behind him and dropped down a step, then another.

Lily was now looking at him as though pumpkins had begun to sprout from his ears. “Are you ill?” she asked again, but James had just gotten up the nerve to do it, and he wasn’t about to back down. Clearing his throat for a third – and, he prayed fervently, last – time, he slowly withdrew the ring box from his pocket. Lily looked at it for a few moments, and then her hands flew to her mouth.

“James?” she said, although the word was considerably muffled. He grinned, his heart doing a terrific set of somersaults inside his rib cage, and opened the lid of the box to reveal the ring inside.

“Lily Evans, will you marry me?” And his voice didn’t even crack.

Success.

Tears had formed rapidly in Lily’s bright green eyes, and she blinked them away hurriedly, her hands still pressed firmly over her mouth. She lifted them away shakily and looked at the ring, then at James, and back at the ring. The wind blew through the stadium and James felt the collar of his robes grow uncomfortably tight. He wondered idly if they might be Peter’s.

“Yes,” Lily said at last, but it was in a voice so breathy and faint that he thought for a moment it might have been the wind.

“Sorry?”

“Yes, James, I’ll marry you!” she laughed, swiping at the tears in her eyes and holding out her left hand for James to slip the ring on. Dumbfounded and not quite believing that what was happening was real, he did so. It was a perfect fit.

Lily was still crying, and – although he was loath to admit it – it was making him tear up a bit, too. He sniffled loudly, and she laughed again, her eyes still torn between looking at him and admiring the ring on her finger.

“I love you, Lily,” he said thickly.

“I love you, James.”

And as he moved to hug her to him – and it was highly debatable if he’d ever let go – James thought that, despite the intense amount of nerves that had preceded this moment, he would do it all again in a heartbeat if it meant another chance to make her this happy.

A/N: FLUFF. It exists! *hugs* And what's more, it exists in two places! I love it -- which may come as news, considering it's been pretty nonexistent in this story up until this point, but it's true. That little floaty feeling that comes from reading the romantic is irreplacable and must be made to be felt as often as possible. 

I am just happy right now. You can feel free to ignore the rambling. So, what'd you think? I'd love to hear from you, even if it's only a few words!


Chapter 32: Lost
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The entrance hall was dim, the torches that normally lit it having been extinguished hours ago – not that that was any surprise. Severus recalled the last time he had snuck out of his dormitory at this hour, when he had gone to meet Beth under the tree, and knew that all the castle torches were instantly put out after a certain hour to deter students from getting out of bed. Of course, that was not about to stop him tonight, nor would it stop his friends.

“It’s clear,” he whispered over his shoulder, and moved quietly out to stand in front of the marble staircase leading up to the various other moving staircases. Rosier walked out behind him, the other three trailing in his wake, and the group of them came to a stop in a tight cluster.

“It feels weird to be out of bed this late,” said Wilkes, grinning widely. Rosier smirked and rolled his eyes.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never snuck out of the dormitory,” he said, and the grin dropped from Wilkes’s face, to be instantly replaced by a scowl. He muttered something about having been out of bed lots of times after curfew, but Severus hushed him impatiently.

“We’re not here to argue about that sort of thing,” he said. “We’ve got to get out onto the grounds without being spotted, and I’d rather that not be the reason we’re caught. Have you all brought your wands?”

“Why wouldn’t we have brought our wands?” Mulciber said in an insulted tone of voice. “You’re going to teach us Patronuses, aren’t you?”

Severus gritted his teeth. “Never mind,” he snapped. “Just come on – we’ll go out to the grounds, there’s a lot of space to work with out there.” Motioning again for everyone to keep quiet, he tiptoed over to the large double doors and eased them open, wincing as, from behind him, Wilkes coughed into the sleeve of his robes, and Severus gritted his teeth again.

Considering that, yet again, the last time he had been out here was several months previously, and there was a full moon besides, the grounds were comparably dim in the sliver of the crescent moon that hovered overhead. There was enough light from the stars to see, but only just, and for this he was grateful; it meant there was less chance of detection.

“I think we should go around to the side of the school,” Avery said, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his robes; he looked as though he were nervous about breaking the rules. “Just in case somebody sees, you know.”

“There are windows on that side,” Rosier said coolly. “We’re fine here –“

“There are windows everywhere,” Severus said, rolling his eyes. “And that’d probably be better, we won’t be so near the door then.” Avery looked smugly at Rosier and began to walk in that direction; Severus started to follow, but Rosier reached out a hand and grabbed his elbow before he could take more than three steps.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Snape,” he said spitefully, “or this is all just going to be a big waste of time.”

Severus jerked his elbow away and fixed Rosier with a hard stare. “I do,” he said firmly, “and you’ll be thanking me later when this might just save your sorry life. If you don’t want to do this, no one’s stopping you from going back inside.” Rosier glared at him but said nothing. “All right, then,” Severus continued, and started off after the other three.

The broad expanse of dark ground where Avery had finally stopped was well hidden among a few bordering trees, their leaves spread wide, and Severus nodded. “Right, then, if we’re all ready?” he said, casting a glance backward at Rosier, who still looked a bit sulky.

“Show us yours, Sev, c’mon,” Mulciber said eagerly, all vestiges of previous annoyance or disbelief now gone. Wilkes agreed in a rather spitty fashion, and so Severus, feeling a bit awkward in the center of the attention, withdrew his wand from his pocket and squinted his eyes slightly, trying to conjure up the happiest moment he could think of.

Quite unexpectedly, the time he and Beth had spent by the lake in the tree flooded into his mind, and he didn’t question it. He pointed his wand firmly and tried to think of nothing but sitting on that branch, looking up at her. “Expecto Patronum.”

From the end of his wand burst a massive silver doe, unfolding itself gracefully and then proceeding to bounce across the grass in large leaps. It stopped about ten yards from him and turned its head, gazing at him with its blank silver eye, before taking off again and eventually dissolving into silver mist.

Rosier raised a slim eyebrow and folded his arms across his chest. “Your Patronus is a deer?” he said scathingly. “That’s not very intimidating, is it, Snape?” He smirked as Severus’s grip on his wand tightened, although he dared not let it show.

“Right,” he said instead, turning sharply on his heel so he could no longer see Rosier’s leering face. “You heard the incantation, then – Expecto Patronum. The most important thing, though, is to think of something that makes you extremely happy, and concentrate on that thing, that memory. That’s the only way the spell will work.”

“Like what?” Avery called out, his eyes the only part of him that Severus could see in the blackness.

“Like… I don’t know, someone you really love, your parents or somebody,” Severus said, again feeling distinctly uncomfortable; having to talk about it in such frank terms really didn’t sit well with him. “Just make sure it’s a good feeling, and make sure it’s strong.”

Wilkes’s eyes immediately popped closed as he concentrated; looking a bit leery, but not averse to following suit, Avery and Mulciber did the same. After a very pointed pause, Rosier took out his wand, his lips moving as though reciting the spell, although his eyes remained open.

Severus looked down at his own wand while his friends concentrated on trying out the spell, unable to keep a small shock of disappointment from beginning to radiate through him. His Patronus had never changed before – it had been a doe since he had been able to perform the spell – but he had heard they could in times of emotional change. He had thought that maybe, just maybe, his might have changed due to recent circumstances.

Perhaps he was wrong, then, about whatever he had been thinking about lately – but he was sure he was right. When was the last time he had even spared Lily more than a brief thought, and when was the last time that thought wasn’t in some way connected to Beth? He looked at his wand again, as though willing it this time to show him something different.

Expecto Patronum,” he whispered, but the doe appeared again, the other four stopping to watch it as it cantered once more across the grass and dissolved at the distant line of trees. Severus cleared his throat, trying to tangibly push away his frustration, and looked at his friends again.

“Rosier – give it a shot,” he said abruptly, tipping his head in the direction of the boy he’d indicated. He looked disgruntled, but raised his wand anyway and firmly spoke the spell aloud.

Nothing happened, and from the right, in the dark, Wilkes gave a hearty snigger. Rosier aimed a kick in his direction.

“Let’s see you do it, then,” he drawled. Wilkes raised his wand as well, but again, nothing came out of it – no silver animal, not even a wisp of silver smoke. Severus couldn’t help the smug smile that slipped across his face then, taking pleasure in the fact that it was not as easy as his friends had clearly assumed.

“All right, well, just keep practicing,” he said curtly, and stowed his wand back in his robes to watch them try time after time. He would try again later, one final time, to see if his Patronus would sense what he knew to be right.

*

“I still think it’s a bit stupid that I had to sneak out with you to nick food for my own party,” James said in a whisper, his voice still containing traces of laughter as his hand held up the thin fabric of his Invisibility Cloak. Beth grinned, although she’d seen it coming; Remus and Peter had gone last time, and Sirius was too lazy for his own good. He’d moaned about a hurt ankle but she knew he’d be up and hopping about by the time they returned to the common room with the treacle tart.

“To be fair, ever since you got engaged you’ve agreed to pretty much anything anyone asked you to do,” she teased, jabbing a finger in his ribs. “You’re becoming a right pushover.” James tried to look offended.

“I am not.”

“Remus told you to do your own homework yesterday - and you did.” She grinned again and watched as they passed by a low-burning wall sconce, double-checking to make sure that their Cloak completely hid any shadows they might have been making.

This time, the offended look didn’t make it very far before James’s own smile slipped through. “Yeah,” he said, “but then again, I’d rather be a pushover under these circumstances than a pain in the arse without.” The smile lingered on his face as they turned the final corner leading to the top of the grand staircase, and quickly descended, both trying very hard to mask the sounds of their shoes on the marble. Thankfully they’d been practicing for years, and slipped into the kitchen passage undetected.

The torches burned even more dimly in this corridor, and Beth knew that was because the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room was somewhere in here, although she couldn’t be sure where it was. Too many Hufflepuffs passed in and out of here to make it not conspicuous, though. But she didn’t bother dwelling on where their common room might or might not be, and instead walked until she and James came to a halt in front of the painting of the large fruit bowl. Reaching out a hand, she tickled the pear, and it let out its customary giggle before turning into a doorknob as always.

“Excellent,” James said, throwing off the Cloak to reach out and grasp the knob, holding the revealed door open so Beth could walk through. “I haven’t been down here in ages.”

The house elves who worked in the kitchens cooking and cleaning were so used to the presence of the five Marauders that it didn’t even faze them to see any one of the group entering. One particular favorite of theirs, a chubby elf with wispy white chin hairs and a prodigious amount of skin hanging over the tea towel he wore at his waist, was polishing the legs of one of the great tables in the center of the room. Upon hearing the portrait open, he looked up and gave a pleased, high-pitched grunt.

“It is James Potter, come back to visit at last,” he cried happily, pattering over on stout feet and throwing his arms around James’s knees; Beth remembered now as she laughed that this elf, who for some reason was called Finsby, had always had a particular fondness for him.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m back,” James said, patting Finsby a bit awkwardly on the head between his large ears. Finsby beamed up at him toothily and massaged his belly.

“And what’ll I be getting for James Potter today, sir?” he said, in a voice much lower than that of normal house elves, but still higher than anyone Beth knew. “A bit of crumble? Some sugar buns? A bottle of butterbeer or five?”

“We’ll take the lot, Finsby,” Beth said, shooting James yet another grin as the house elf continued to simper. “James Potter’s just got engaged to Lily Evans.”

Finsby gave a grunt-like gasp of delight and once more threw his arms about James’s knees. “Oh, sir!” he said, speaking into James’s robes so that his words came out very muffled. “Finsby is having no idea James Potter was to marry Lily Evans! What an honor that Finsby has heard this news!” He dabbed at his eyes with his ears, as his tea towel did not provide this access, being stiff, and beamed happily at the pair of them. “Finsby shall make sure to give you as much as you can carry!”

The house elf made very good on his promise, too; not more than five minutes later, James and Beth found them loaded down with boxes stacked up to their noses, including two crates of butterbeer, which had somehow found their way into the kitchens in a manner the elves would not disclose. Finsby had now climbed on the table and was attempting to throw James’s Cloak back over them.

“Finsby wishes you all the luck in the world, James Potter,” he said, giving yet another grunt and throwing the Cloak as far as his arms would reach; Beth felt the material descend on her, and another house elf tugged it from the front so it would cover their feet. “And to you, Beth Bridger, to you too!”

The elves all waved merry goodbyes as James and Beth left through the portrait door with promises to come back and visit just as soon as they could. Once they were out of earshot, Beth nudged James with her shoulder. “I think he just wished me luck on a marriage.”

James laughed. “Well, you know, you are of age,” he said teasingly. “Who’s the lucky lad?” He seemed to instantly regret these words, but not before Beth had the opportunity to shoot him a piercing glare, only half in jest.

“Come on,” she said, hitching her stack of boxes a bit higher and shifting so as to distribute their weight more evenly. “Let’s get back to the common room before my spine telescopes, all right?” James rolled his eyes, but, saying nothing, moved with her back in the direction of the marble staircase.

The torches that lit the corridors had burned even lower in their brackets by the time James and Beth, staggering under their heavy load, had made it to the second floor – and they still had five more floors to go, Beth thought, wincing as she shifted the weight of the crates again.

“James. Break. I’m weak,” she gasped, already feeling the Invisibility Cloak slipping off her hair as she bent to set the boxes down. James complied, his knees cracking as he bent down beside her.

“I’m getting old,” he said with a mocking pout, removing the Cloak completely now and wadding it up before stuffing it in an inside pocket of his robes. She sat down and leaned against the wall under the dim torch, stretching her legs straight out in front of her.

“You’re getting married. It’s a package deal,” Beth teased, smirking. James grinned back and stretched his arms behind him, crossing to the window across the corridor and looking out of it. But just as quickly, the grin fell from his face to be replaced by a slightly puzzled expression.

“Hey. Beth. Come here.” He jerked his head, and she stood up from her rather comfortable position to stand next to him at the window.

“I don’t see –“ But right at that moment, she did see what he was talking about. The light from the stars mixed with small pinpricks of light – they looked like the lit ends of wands – illuminated four or five dark figures on the lawn below. She squinted, and suddenly she realized that she knew the walk of one of those figures. She’d been subconsciously studying that same walk for seven years.

“That’s Severus,” she said, trying her absolute hardest to keep any and all inflection out of her voice. James’s eyes slid sideways to look at her, but he didn’t say anything. She knew she was right, though. “And those are probably his friends,” she continued, and then, more to herself than to the boy standing next to her, “I wonder what they’re doing?”

But almost as soon as she’d voiced the question aloud, a jet of red light shot from the end of one of the invisible wands, darting toward the distant tree line; there was a very small crackle of something like electricity where the spell hit, and then, extremely faintly, a sort of triumphant shout.

That sick, twisted feeling began forming in Beth’s stomach again as another jet of light, bright blue this time, shot from yet another wand. She had a sinking feeling that they weren’t just out for a midnight duel, and knowing Rosier and Mulciber and the rest of them – and, although it was almost literally painful for her brain to admit it, even Severus – the real reason probably wasn’t anything too cheerful or friendly.

“Strange,” James murmured, and Beth could see that similar thoughts were crossing his mind upon seeing this as well.

And then another light, but larger and brighter and more solid than either of the two lights they had seen before, shot out of one of the wands, and for the briefest of moments, Beth caught a glimpse of the tiny profile of its caster. She knew who it was before she’d even processed it, and watched as Severus’s large, silver Patronus cantered across the grass.

“A Patronus!” James exclaimed; he seemed to be mirroring her thoughts, and he clapped a hand over his mouth as he realized how loud his voice had probably sounded. Beth didn’t move, but stared at the form until it disappeared into the trees as the red light had done.

“You know, that looked a bit like mine,” James said thoughtfully, “but no antlers. I wonder if one of them has the same Patronus as Lily, I think hers is going to be a doe…”

He continued talking, but for all Beth could understand, he might as well have been making sounds underwater. Her mind instantly reverted to a conversation almost six months previously, the time Lily had taken her aside right after she’d found out James had spilled her secret to the rest of their friends. She knew that she had sensed something had happened between Severus and Lily, and now – now she had a pretty clear idea of what that was.

So Severus had loved Lily, all along - well, the Patronus was proof, wasn’t it? More than likely, he was using Beth to get closer to her, a last-ditch effort in their final year, and she had fallen for it as though she were six years old. All the times he’d made conversation or caught her eye, they’d only served to draw her further into his clever trap. How stupid she had been, thinking – perhaps fruitlessly wishing – that maybe he had paid her special attention because, just maybe…

Well, she wasn’t going to think that any longer. She wasn’t going to think about him at all. Let him pine over Lily while she ran and married James, let him get involved in whatever Dark and twisted magic he was so interested in. Beth wasn’t going to have a damn thing to do with it any longer.

She was ashamed to find tears prick her eyes, burning and hot, and she brushed them away impatiently before James could see and know that something was wrong. “Come on,” she said brusquely, turning back and taking up her stack of crates once more. “We have to get these back to the common room. Sirius’ll be wondering.”

For the rest of the journey to the corridor where the Fat Lady’s portrait hung, Beth didn’t utter a word, scared of betraying something she didn’t want anyone else to sense. Besides, the heavy, pressing feeling in her throat more than likely rendered her incapable of speech right now, anyway. Somehow, she barely registered how heavy the load was, even after having to stand out in the corridor for nearly five minutes while James tried to wake up the snoozing portrait.

Sirius was the picture of hyper impatience when Beth and James finally stumbled through the portrait hole. “About bloody time,” he said promptly, rubbing his hands together in anticipation as the crates were deposited on the rug by the fire.

“I’m going to bed,” Beth said abruptly, cutting off whatever he was about to say next and not really caring. “I feel ill.” James’s eyebrows rose slightly on his forehead, but she was already moving toward the staircase leading to the girls’ dormitory, actually feeling physically ill now. A cold and clammy sweat had broken out on her forehead and she wiped it away hastily, ashamed of the tears still in her eyes.

Thankfully, the dormitory was empty – Lily, Mary, and Marlene were all downstairs still – and she crawled under her covers still fully dressed, drawing the curtains around her four-poster and pulling the sheets up to her chin. And there, finally, she allowed herself tears for what she had lost so unexpectedly, and should have known she would lose all along.

A/N: Guys, there are TWO MORE chapters left after this, and then In The Black is officially finished! Oh my gosh, that is so intensely crazy. I don't even know what to do right now, it's so crazy. Never mind that I'm starting the tenth chapter of In The Red this week, because it's still so weird that this is nearly all said and done.

And drama unfolds! Things certainly aren't looking good for Beth. Or for Snape, really, although he might not know it yet. Such is the way of the teenage mind. But anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts -- and thank you so much for reading thus far!


Chapter 33: All Fall Down
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Beth didn’t want to tell any of the boys outright what had happened, partially because nothing had, as yet, physically happened, but there were certainly other reasons as well. Sirius, if no one else, would be sure to put forth at least one I-told-you-so statement, he being perhaps the least fond of Severus, and that was absolutely the last thing she wanted to hear at the moment.

Why hadn’t she been able to predict that it would come to this? After everything – seeing the example his friends set, and knowing about his own made-up spells, and especially having heard, and argued about, his views on blood purity – she had blindly forged ahead, forgiving and forgetting. No one went out with their friends to practice spells, after all, and especially not the extremely challenging Patronus Charm, without strong and possibly dangerous reasons. It had all been a sham, a way to get closer to Lily while furthering his goals as well. And whatever goals these were, she wasn’t all that sure she wanted to know about them. They wouldn’t have been in line with what she would have wanted.

Yet, she did want it – at least a small part of it. And that was the worst admission of all.

Her change in attitude did not go unnoticed, however. Subtly – or as subtly as she could make it – she had tried to stop talking to Severus, wanting to break things off without harsh exchanges, but she had seen the hurt expressions on his face when she had ignored his greetings in the corridors or before meals. She had become a bit quieter as well, despite her efforts to pretend like nothing had happened, and James was constantly asking her if she was all right. He had been there when Beth had seen Severus’s Patronus, after all, and even if he didn’t know its implications, he had definitely noticed that it had upset her.

One weekend afternoon in the common room, the four boys were playing Exploding Snap as usual, this time under a small window near the door to the girls’ dormitory. Beth had tried playing with them, but had lost on purpose and gratefully bowed out of the game. She didn’t feel like herself anymore, and felt stupid for taking this so hard. It shouldn’t have meant all that much to her – she had seen it coming.

James wandered over to her as she drew up her knees on one of the squashy armchairs by the fireplace – currently cold – with a book open on her lap, although she wasn’t reading it. He sank into an adjacent chair and said nothing for a few moments, drumming his fingers idly on his knees. Beth chose not to acknowledge him, knowing why he had come over.

“What’re you up to?” he asked at last, a bit lamely, and she raised her head to look at him levelly. The expression on his face was so sincere that a lump formed in her throat, and she desperately wanted to tell him all of it, no matter how immature and foolish it sounded – the hurt that, after this entire year, she has discovered that Severus really didn’t like her as she’d thought he might have; the shame that she had been deceived so that Severus might get closer to Lily; and, most of all, the guilt that she hadn’t stopped to consider the numerous warning signs and save herself all this trouble before it had even happened.

“Studying,” she said instead, looking back down at the book. The words on the pages didn’t make any sense, though, and she couldn’t figure out why until James awkwardly reached over and turned it on its head, righting it. She felt hot patches bloom on her cheeks.

“What’s wrong, Beth?” he asked gently, now closing the book he had so embarrassingly turned over and taking it from her hands. “You haven’t been yourself since the night Sirius decided to throw that little engagement party.” He swallowed a bit uncomfortably, suddenly deciding that his glasses were in need of a desperate cleaning. He hunched over his shirttail, polishing from the lenses, and from this stance he muttered, “It doesn’t bother you that I’m going to marry Lily, does it?”

Another surge of guilt – now for a completely unprecedented reason – washed over her, and she shook her head vehemently. “Not at all,” she said, reaching forward and setting her hand on top of his, squeezing it lightly. “I am so happy for you, because I know you’re happy, and that’s really all that matters.” There was a slight pause, in which James ventured no other suggestion, and for lack of better things to talk about she asked, “Have you set a date?”

“Almost,” he said, a smile transforming his face. “Sometime in early July, I think. We don’t want to wait.” He grinned a bit at this, and she laughed at his eagerness, squeezing his hand again before returning it to her lap.

“That’s great,” she said honestly, but watched his smile fade almost as quickly as it had come.

“Will you tell me?” he said, and her smile disappeared as well at the question. She forced a small amount of air through her pursed lips, nerves and guilt twisting her stomach. But this was James – James, perhaps her best friend in the world, more a brother to her than anyone else, whose company she’d bullied into having more than anyone else. He’d helped rescue Severus earlier that year, and she was the first person he’d told about wanting to marry Lily. And that certainly couldn’t have been easy for him, either. She owed him.

“Can we go to the library?” Beth said in an undertone, and it was her turn to drop the eye contact. James stood up at once, gesturing to the other three, who were continuing their game still.

“We’ve got a book to return,” he called over. “Be back in a few minutes.” Sirius raised his eyebrows, and he shot James a rather pointed look that Beth didn’t miss, but James shook his head almost imperceptibly. She didn’t miss that either.

“Have fun, then,” Sirius said with extremely forced nonchalance, breaking the slight tension that had arisen by snatching a card off Remus, who had also been watching the exchange. He turned back, and Beth led the way out of the common room at that moment, James following close behind.

They weren’t five paces from the portrait of the Fat Lady, however, when he burst into speech. “Okay. Go,” he said anxiously, looking down at her, and Beth’s mouth twisted into a wry sort of smile before she could stop herself.

“It’s stupid,” she muttered, and the feeling that stones had decidedly settled into her stomach returned at once as she faced the prospect of having to speak her thoughts aloud.

“No, it’s not,” he argued, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Or you wouldn’t be so reluctant to say anything about it.” He shot her a look over the tops of his glasses, and she crossed her eyes back at him. But now that she thought about it, perhaps talking about it would put it in perspective, and make it not seem so serious to her. She drew a deep breath.

“All right. Well… that night – the night of Sirius’s party – you and I saw those people on the lawn, practicing spells.” Beth shot an anxious look up at James, but he just nodded, willing her to go on. “And we saw that Patronus, that doe Patronus, and you commented that it was like Lily’s… and I know whose Patronus it was. It was Severus’s.”

“Wait,” James interrupted, frowning slightly. “But why does that even matter?”

“Patronus charms are supposed to be kind of symbolic, remember?” she said. “We did all that research on them – yours is a stag because that’s your Animagus form, stuff like that. And so it’s like… his matches hers. And before Christmas,” Beth rushed on, seeing James was about to interrupt again, “Lily had warned me against Severus with the implications that they’d been friends before.”

“They were,” said James. “Really good friends, apparently, until he started acting like a git and – “ He cut off that sentence rather quickly. “Sorry,” he added.

“Well, doesn’t it seem obvious to you?” Beth cried out then. “He was using me, James. He just wanted to get closer to Lily and I completely fell for it.”

The pair of them had stopped in the middle of the corridor, their voices echoing along the stone walls, and she turned around then, squinting in the sunlight coming in through one of the high windows. James waited a long time before he spoke. “Did he confirm that?”

“No,” she snapped. “I don’t exactly like to get on good terms with people who do things behind my back.” She crossed her arms tightly across her chest and tried to blink back the hot, shameful tears that had welled up in her eyes. She looked up at James, whose own eyes looked sad and sympathetic. The expression didn’t make her feel any better.

“I don’t understand,” he said at last, ruffling his hair as always, making it stand up even straighter than normal. “You guys seemed like you’d really gotten along.” Beth remembered then that he probably didn’t know about that occasion when she and Severus had screamed at each other, but she certainly wasn’t about to bring it up now.

“I just didn’t see it,” she said instead. “Besides, he –“ But she suddenly decided that she didn’t want to tell James about Severus’s extremely strong pureblood views, or the fact that he had made up spells and written them in an old textbook. Those were things she could afford to keep to herself.

James kicked at something invisible on the flagstones with the toe of his shoe, seemingly at a loss for words. “Do you… are you still interested?” he asked. “Or would you rather just sort of break it off?” The question seemed to cause him some degree of embarrassment, if the sudden increase in color on the tips of his ears was any indication.

Beth hesitated for the briefest moment. “No,” she said firmly. “We’re done.”

But she knew even as she spoke aloud that she was lying. Her heart was too weak for that.

*

But when Beth woke up the next morning, she was almost positive that she had convinced herself of the resolution she’d made to James in the library corridor. If she kept telling herself that she was through, by some sort of logic she might really be through. Time would pass, and she would get involved in work for the Order, and maybe someday find someone else – although that, she knew, would be a long, long time coming. But time was something she had plenty of.

She had not anticipated external factors, however. The very next morning she was heading down to breakfast with Peter and Mary, and the three of them were talking rather quietly about how glad they were they wouldn’t have to take the extraordinarily difficult Potions N.E.W.T., which was taking place next week. Beth was about to ask them what they were supposed to do with their Potions textbooks – normally turned into the instructor at the end of the exam – when she felt a tap on her shoulder, and turned around to see who it was.

She felt as though her heart had plummeted straight down to the floor as she looked up at Severus – the very last person in the entire world she wanted to see at that moment.

“I need to talk to you,” he said quickly, his dark eyes glinting slightly, and she thought that she had never seen him like this since the beginning of the year, before the two of them had really become on speaking terms. She swallowed against the panicked feeling that has arisen in her throat and glanced sideways at Peter, whose eyes were darting between the two a bit nervously.

“Can it wait?” she said coolly, hating herself even now for how disgustingly rude she was acting.

“I’d prefer it didn’t,” he responded in an equally chilly voice. “Will you walk with me?” He jerked his head slightly in the direction of the doors to the grounds, to his right, and she felt the palms of her hands go cold and clammy with sweat.

“Fine. Peter, you’ll save me a seat?” she said, unable to hold Severus’s gaze anymore and instead turning to her friend. Without waiting for an answer, she walked boldly toward the oak doors, her nose tilted into the air, and Severus followed quickly after.

She didn’t know why her feet led her where they did – it certainly wouldn’t have been her first choice of a conversation spot, should her head have been allowed to actually do the deciding – but by some amount of painful irony, she wound up at the tree where she and Severus had sat together the last time they had properly talked. She turned sharply on her heel as he covered the distance between them and crossed her arms.

“Yes?” she said, without preamble, and Severus’s brow lowered slightly.

“I’d just like to know whatever it was I did wrong,” he said bluntly through gritted teeth, “or whatever other reason you’ve decided to ignore me this week, because I can’t think of a damn thing.”

The sort of anger that contorted his face now – and she took a step back in spite of herself, unprepared for it – was not like the passionate rage that had led to their yelling match on the staircase when discussing blood rights. This was calmer, cooler, and carried a much more distinct undertone of hurt and wounded pride. She felt so bad then that she almost gave in, but her own pride was on the line too, and that was rather a precious commodity.

“I really don’t want to talk about this,” she said, rolling her eyes and biting her lip – the tears were already beginning, and unless she was extremely careful, they would let loose at any moment.

“Look, we’re not going to have a lot of time to talk about it –“ Severus began impatiently, his teeth still gritted, but Beth cut him off before he could get more than these words out.

“No, we’re not, are we? You and your little friends running off to perform those spells you made up – probably dangerous ones, aren’t they? – and doing Merlin knows what to everyone who doesn’t meet your expectations.” His mouth dropped open, but she plowed on, unable to stop the words now if she tried.

“And maybe if you had actually stopped to think about what you were doing, you could have left me out of this entire mess, but you didn’t think and you did drag me into it and I just…” She trailed off, gasping in a deep breath, and brushed her hair out of her face, her vision going blurry now, but she would not let herself cry. Certainly not in front of him.

“What are you talking about? Beth, I thought –“ But Severus broke off too, as though he didn’t know what to say. “I thought you were along for it, you know – I thought you’d changed your mind, that we were on the same page!” His right hand was clenched around his left forearm, gripping it so tightly the skin there was bone-white.

This latest sentence gave her brief pause – changed her mind about what? – but she shook her head firmly. “I’ve got my own things to do after school, and it’s recently become clear to me that you just – I don’t want to do this anymore, it’s not good for me,” she said, her hands, her knees, her entire body shaking. She bit her lip in an effort to keep her voice from shaking as well.

“I thought you… I thought…” But he couldn’t manage what he was trying to say any more than she could, and Beth shook her head again.

“I know about your Patronus, all right? And Lily warned me and I just didn’t listen, but it’s okay now – I’m sorry, it’s fine, I just wish you hadn’t dragged me into it,” she repeated lamely, and that was when the first tear, warm and fast, hit her cheek. The others followed quickly.

Severus’s forehead was creased again. “What’re you –“ he said, but, yet again, he wasn’t allowed to finish whatever thought had been forming. Beth wanted to get this over quickly, and the less he had to talk, the less of her heart she’d take with him. The conversation she’d had the previous day with James had not prepared her for this at all.

“I can’t do this, Severus. I can’t. Seven years, and it’s just too much, and it’s so much better if we’re not – not friends.” She swiped at her cheeks, ashamed of the tears and the way she was carrying on, blabbering as usual, but there was absolutely no way to stop it anymore.

“Beth, please.” It was one of the only sentences he had finished in its entirety since coming out to the tree. And, to her horror, he reached out a hand, as though meaning to take hers. And she knew that if she allowed that to happen, then she wouldn’t be able to let go, and she would just get sucked into his trap again. She could not let that happen.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her breath coming in short, shallow gasps, and she backed away a few more steps, away from the reach of his hand. “Severus, just please – I need to go to breakfast.” His face fell, and he looked at his hand for a moment as though wondering why it was extended out into the open. He let it fall back to his side.

She saw his mouth open again, to say something else, but she had already begun to walk up the grounds towards the castle at this point, and anything else that might have been uttered to urge her not to go was lost before it had the chance to be spoken. Something was shouted behind her, into the wind, and she was grateful the words were lost. Clutching her ribs and feeling as though she very well might be sick, she hurried back into the relative safety of Hogwarts.

She did not go into the Great Hall – the state she was in made appearing in front of virtually the entire school unsuitable – and did not return to the common room, either. Instead, Beth began blindly climbing staircases. Any she found, she took, trick ones and hidden ones and carpeted ones and stone ones, and did not stop until she had reached the very top floor of the castle, and found a corner in which to hide herself away from everyone else.

Beth buried her face in her knees, sobbing as loudly as she dared, her hair falling in thick, messy clumps around her face and shoulders. Now that he knew that she knew – and that she had told him exactly what she thought – she knew she’d be lucky to ever speak to him again, but she knew it would never happen.

For all intents and purposes, and after seven years, she was determined to forget Severus Snape had ever existed. It was the only option left to her.

*

Severus watched Beth hurry back up to the castle, feeling as though someone had just punched him in the stomach extremely hard. His heart was beating uncomfortably loud in his ears, and he shook his head just slightly, trying to block out the noise, but to no avail.

There were parts of that conversation that had completely confused him – he didn’t understand what his Patronus had to do with it – but he’d gotten enough out of it to know that Beth had for all intents and purposes shut down whatever sort of relationship they’d had, and for the life of him he could not figure out why.

He sat down numbly on the ground and realized that, like Beth’s had minutes before, his hands were shaking with shock. He tried clenching them into fists, willing the tremors to go away, but his brain wasn’t listening to him anymore. He pressed his temples with his fingers, closing his eyes and breathing through his nose and willing himself to think

He had been wrong about whatever her plans were for after term ended – that much was plain to him – but he couldn’t see where else he had gone wrong. Merlin, he’d even thought things were going well… A derisive, mocking sound escaped from his mouth unconsciously, laughing at his past and optimistic self. He certainly was spectacular at losing the girls he cared about – first Lily, and now Beth…

But now Lily was gone, and for some reason, it hurt worse this time around, because he had been so sure of a viable chance.

He pressed the tips of his fingers harder into his forehead, something about that argument not quite sitting right within him. Something clicked slightly in his brain, and found himself wondering – and he didn’t know why he hadn’t thought to ask her before – how she had even known about his Patronus. He hadn’t had time to tell her or show her, she’d been too busy ignoring him…

He gritted his teeth, anger flashing through him briefly. One of his friends must have let something slip, and had ruined everything. Before he could stop to think anymore, he was on his feet, his legs moving in unconscious and long strides along the grass, mind intent on one goal. Without pause, he turned left, still aware of the sounds of voices from those eating breakfast, and descended the steps to the dungeons. He would wait in the common room until his friends got back.

But to his surprise, Mulciber was already sitting on one of the long, low couches in the center of the common room, reading a letter. He looked up as Severus entered the common room, and opened his mouth to speak, but the latter cut him off before he got the chance.

“Did you say anything to Beth Bridger recently?”

Mulciber frowned; if he had been expecting a question, it certainly hadn’t been that. “Bridger? Isn’t she that girl that hangs around with Potter and Black?” Severus offered the barest of nods, and his friend scoffed. “Uh, no, thanks. I’ve got nothing to say to her.”

Severus’s hands curled into fists, and he thrust them slightly behind his back so Mulciber wouldn’t see. “Did anyone else?” he persisted, and Mulciber shrugged.

“I don’t know. Why do you care? What’s any of us supposed to have said?” He peered up at Severus’s face curiously, but Severus didn’t bother responding – there was far too much to explain, and he didn’t even want to explain it, anyway. Instead he turned abruptly on his heel, sweeping over to the door leading to the boys’ dormitory and descending the stairs into his own room.

The seventh year dorm was, thankfully, quiet and empty, but he locked the door behind him just in case. He sat down limply on the bed, rolling his wand between his fingers and still trying to maintain a normal rhythm of breathing. It was over. It was all over, and he could almost have sworn that this time it had been different…

Anger surged through him again, and he lifted his wand blindly, bringing it down in a slashing motion. His trunk sprang open, books tumbling out of it at random and lying spread-eagled on the stone floor. And again, and a large rip formed in Wilkes’s pillow, feathers bursting from the seam and floating slowly through the air.

Again, and again, and still more times he slashed at nothing, slowly wrecking his own dormitory in his anger, upsetting books and lamps and hangings until he had exhausted himself. Severus slumped back on the bed, finally dropping his head into his hands, his entire body shaking with suppressed emotion.

He was, once again, utterly and completely alone.

A/N: I don't want to say too much here, for fear of saying something that'll give away either the last chapter or the events of next book, but -- WE ARE SO CLOSE. One more short chapter and this entire thing will be all finished and posted and tidy! Can you believe it? I realized recently that it's been almost an exact calendar year since I first started planning this story. And now I'm entrenched in the second book... Life. What even.

I hope you'll turn in for the next chapter, and please let me know what you thought of this one! Thank you!


Chapter 34: The Path
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One Month Later

“D’you want cream dress robes, or are you thinking just plain white?” Mary Macdonald asked, sitting cross-legged on Lily’s bed and leafing through the latest bridal catalogue from Madam Malkin’s. Her tongue was poked between her teeth in concentration, and she removed the quill from behind her ear and circled a potential dress as she spoke.

“I don’t really care all that much,” Lily said; she, in turn, was beside Mary, although hanging upside-down from the bed so her head was touching the floor. “I’ll go in my Hogwarts robes if I have to.”

“Oh, no, you’re not,” spoke up Marlene from across the room. She was kneeling by Lily’s Hogwarts trunk, sorting through it and making piles for Lily to keep and throw out once she’d left home. Only Beth withheld her opinion on the matter, sitting near the door, her knees drawn up to her chest and idly poking a dust bunny with her forefinger.

It had been a month since she’d last seen Severus, and yet it was still a really painful subject to even think about – so she didn’t, or at least tried not to. All her free time was spent practicing spells, mostly with Sirius, as she’d gone to kip at his place until she could get a flat of her own before the Order work really started. She had gone to her mother’s house briefly, to unload the necessary things from her trunk, and was still reeling at how badly her mother had taken the news that she would be moving out.

“Barely wrote all year, never even thanked me for that Christmas present… Didn’t even tell me or anyone else you were planning on moving out… Don’t know what you intend to do with your life…”

But she had remained firm, telling her mum she’d write every now and again. A few more firm good-byes, a chaste kiss on the cheek, and all she’d known for the past three weeks was Sirius’s couch, which she supposed was comfortable enough if not terribly clean. He didn’t mind, of course – his thoughts were focused on the undercover work they’d been doing, too, and she’d never seen him so actively engaged in learning in all theirs years together at school.

“Beth? What do you think?” Mary had looked up from the catalogue and was peering intently at the other occupant of the room, pushing one of her braids behind her shoulders. Beth shrugged.

“I guess Lily can wear what she wants,” she said, and Lily grinned.

“Hey, someone agrees with me!” She swung her legs over her head, righting herself on the ground with a small thunk and combing out her hair with her fingers. “Honestly, though, I’ll just end up picking one a few days before the wedding and James’ll have to love it.”

Marlene let out a snort from over near the trunk, and promptly sneezing after inhaling the dust found there. “He’ll love you in anything,” she said with a wicked grin. “Or particularly without –“ She was quickly silenced by a well-aimed throw pillow, and went back to her chore, laughing under her breath.

As though this was a cue, the sound of a doorbell came from downstairs, and Beth popped up, opening Lily’s own door and emerging onto the landing. The four girls were expecting the boys over that afternoon – all four of them – to go over more wedding details. Beth knew what they’d really do is just sit around talking and getting nothing done, but she supposed it was at least good to have intentions.

James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter were already waiting at the bottom of the stairs when the girls emerged, having been let in by Mrs. Evans, who had been absolutely thrilled to death from the first moment her daughter came back from school to start planning the wedding. Lily’s sister, a Muggle, had already gotten married last year, but having a daughter marry a wizard was a first.

“And don’t you look beautiful,” James called up the stairs, swinging around the end of the banister and raising his eyebrows teasingly. Lily blushed and rushed into his arms as soon as she got down the stairs, burying her face in his chest. Sirius laughed and shook his head.

“I don’t know how you did it, mate,” he said, slapping James on the back good-naturedly. “You need to write a book, I reckon. You’d make heaps of Galleons.” He nudged Beth as she joined everyone in front of the stairs. “Hey, thanks for washing those dishes.”

“Only because you’re a slob,” she teased, nudging him back, and he feigned being hurt by this.

“Don’t forget, Bridger, I’m letting you stay at my place rent-free.”

“Don’t forget, Black, that you’d get cursed in two seconds if I wasn’t helping you out with your wandwork.”

“Ah, touché,” Sirius conceded, grinning again. “I suppose it’s a fair trade, then.” The pair of them began to follow the others, who had begun to trickle out into the back garden, where the eight of them normally held their wedding planning meetings – or a lack thereof.

“Hey, you’re okay, right?” Sirius spoke rather suddenly, hanging back just in case the others heard, and making it so Beth very nearly ran into the back of him. She had wound up telling the boys – not Marlene or Mary, and especially not Lily – about Severus, and they’d all agreed that halting communication was most definitely the best course of action. It wasn’t a course she necessarily liked still, but she was determined to stick with it nonetheless.

Beth didn’t answer right away, instead staring past him to where the others had congregated. James and Remus were telling some sort of story; the former was getting quite animated about it, too, jumping about like a wild hare. Sirius glanced at them, and then looked back down at Beth.

She nodded at long last, looking up at him and forcing something onto her face that she hoped resembled a smile. “Yeah, Sirius, I’m okay,” she said, nudging him again, but this time in sisterly affection. “Now come on, you prat, let’s go join the others.”

*

The anteroom was dark and smelled like sour milk – Severus could place that smell very clearly, although he wasn’t entirely certain why. It was as though every sense in his body had suddenly heightened a thousandfold, and he could see things he couldn’t before, hear things he’d never heard. It wasn’t as intriguing as he would have guessed; it was merely extremely unnerving.

“I can’t believe we’re here. Can you believe we’re doing this?” Wilkes, overexcited as always, was practically bouncing from where he sat on the floor, as there had been only two chairs set out for the group to wait on. Severus resisted the very strong urge to kick him in the back of his head and instead tried to concentrate, focusing on his fingers, folding and unfolding them experimentally.

He could back out of all of this now. He wasn’t tied to anything yet, but he knew that time was running out, and he had to make a decision. And what lay along each path? One path – the path that ended behind that small black door, only three steps or so across the room – was one of sure power, and perhaps wealth, and work for blood purity in the wizarding world. Along the other lay the hopes of reconciling with Beth, of finding her and fixing whatever had gone wrong and testing those extremely murky waters again. He had to figure out which one he wanted more.

He glanced towards his left, at Rosier, who had commandeered the other rickety chair in the chamber. He was staring at his feet, his teeth audibly chattering, and kept moving his right foot every few seconds as something like a tic. This, too, annoyed him.

He could stand up and walk out right now. There was nothing stopping him, no one to hold him back. But as so many times over the past month, his final and disastrous conversation with Beth played in his mind.

“I can’t do this, Severus. I can’t. Seven years, and it’s just too much, and it’s so much better if we’re not – not friends.”

He sucked in a breath through his teeth as though the words had physically stung him, and Avery glanced at him curiously, scooting a bit farther away on his patch of floor. He rubbed his forehead, trying to get his headache to go away, his heart hammering twice as fast as it should have been.

She couldn’t be right. Were things really better if he never spoke to her again?

The door opened at that moment, and all five boys jumped; Wilkes even winced slightly, as though expecting to be hurt by something, and Severus rolled his eyes. A tall, dark-skinned man Severus didn’t recognize held the door open, his brow so heavy that his eyes were cast in shadow. The light from a grimy window illuminated a broad gold ring on his left thumb.

“He’ll see you now,” the stranger said in a characteristically deep voice. Each boy glanced at the other, waiting for someone else to be the one to make the first move. Sucking in his breath again – less audibly this time – Severus stood up and crossed the room, disappearing over the threshold of the door into the room beyond.

He had chosen his path.

A/N: Oh my gosh, this is just the weirdest thing. I remember the entire process of this story so vividly -- talking about it when it was still just an idea, and then sitting down and writing that first chapter this past summer. And writing this chapter, the last one, in the early months of January, only six months later. It's such a clear memory that it's weird for me to see it here, about to be posted, and think how far this has come. And now I have goosebumps.

Thank you to anyone who's read and reviewed and favorited this -- even if you're not still reading it (and I hope if you made it this far, you are!), you have made this story what it is, and my gratitude knows no bounds. And -- of course -- special thanks to Sarah (ToujoursPadfoot), the Padfoot to my Prongs. Her name's cropped up probably more than Beth's, at this point, but she is the reason Beth came into existence in the first place, and she inspired this story anyway. I really could not have done this without her! 

EDIT: The sequel is now posted! If you've liked this story and would like to continue on, you can find 'In The Red' on my author's page. And if you like that and feel like leaving a review, that'd be amazing!


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