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!