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,
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.
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!