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.
“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!