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,
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:
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.
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!