While the rest of the castle slowly began to panic over the rapid approaching of end-of-term exams – fifth years and seventh years especially – Beth found herself more and more grateful to Professor Dumbledore for finding a way to get the eight of them around taking their N.E.W.T.s. She was more than willing to sit for a few hours at a mock examination than to have to wake up in the middle of the night, frantic with the urge to study, as was normally the case.
Sirius, of course, could waltz right into the beginning of May with his usual nonchalance, so nothing was really different for him. There was a sort of pervading restlessness about him, borne from not having been able to go to an Order meeting in months, but even that wasn’t as bothersome as it might have been. In his mind, at least everything was prepared, and July was only two months away; as far as he was concerned, he was already done with school.
And so one night in the Gryffindor common room found them not studying, as most of their fellow students were, but playing a perhaps typical game of Exploding Snap – the first time they had been able to play with the optimal five players for as long as any of them could really remember. They were clustered in a tightly-knit group on their favorite rug in front of the hearth, and Beth could not help but notice the exasperated glares being cast their way from students nose-deep in textbooks, sprawled on every other available surface in the little tower room. One fifth-year in particular looked like she had been tearing out large chunks of her hair from the stress, and constantly sniffed derisively in their direction.
“I think she’s not particularly pleased we’re here,” said Beth in a conversational undertone, happily swiping a card from the top of Peter’s deck; the pile beneath began to smolder slightly, and he picked them up and began to toss them from hand to hand like in a Muggle child’s game of hot potato.
“What do you mean?” James said distractedly, his own eyes focused intently on the deck as it passed back and forth; although it wasn’t the nicest strategy in the world, the four of them had discovered long ago that it was easy to get Peter flustered if they could set his deck to smoking early on in the game, thus eliminating him as a threat in later rounds.
“I mean that she sounds as though she’s got a runny nose from all the sniffling she’s doing,” Beth laughed, this time not bothering to keep her voice down; she could see the girl’s ears turning pink as she pretended very hard to be absorbed in her moldy-looking textbook. She sucked in her breath through her nose and turned a page so sharply that Beth distinctly heard it rip.
“Well, then, that’s her problem,” Sirius said, making a move towards Peter without really intending to grab a card, so that their friend twitched violently and emitted something that registered between a squeak and a yell. He grinned and tapped the side of his nose. “Watch it, mate.”
“After all,” Remus interrupted, clutching his own still-intact deck firmly in his hands so that Sirius couldn’t steal a card, “it’s not our fault that we have already taken our O.W.L.s and passed with flying colors, thus sparing us the horrible sleepless nights and probable sickness beforehand.”
The fifth year glared at them again from over the pages, not bothering to hide it now, and turned her nose up in the air. With as much dignity as she could muster, she closed the book and tucked it deftly under her arm, retreating with trotting little steps up the staircase that led to the girls’ dormitories.
“I do think that was a bit of overkill,” Peter said, panting slightly as his eyes darted around for an opportunity to steal a card before his deck exploded; the rest of them had their hands clamped firmly over their cards and were grinning broadly at him. “After all,” he added, “I don’t think you can say that all of us really passed with, you know, solid marks.”
“Remus and Bethy both at least passed everything, and that’s as high as my colors would ever fly,” Sirius sniggered, juggling his cards from hand to hand tauntingly. “So it wasn’t a total lie, was it?” This last remark was punctuated with a noise like a very small canon, in which Peter’s cards burst into flames, littering the hearth with fiery cards.
“Got you!” James cried out, and they all shuffled around, trying to find the cards before the allotted magical fire could run out and start burning up the furniture – this, of course, being the primary cause for most of the scorch marks to be found in Gryffindor Tower, although no one ever deemed it necessary to tell Professor McGonagall of them.
Beth stretched out her hand for the cards, and they all piled them into her waiting palm, watching as she fastened a rubber band around them and hoped they weren’t still hot enough to melt it. “So, it’s Sirius and Peter tomorrow night, right?” she asked, lowering her voice and leaning forward a bit. Tomorrow was another full moon, the second-to-last of term, and James had a Quidditch match the following day that he needed to sleep in for.
“Right,” Sirius said, reaching down to his toes to try and stretch some of the stiffness out of his legs. “And Merlin, I’m glad the weather’s warming up at least a little. I hate sitting watch in the cold and snowy – ”
“You do realize you won’t have control over the weather going out on missions?” Peter grinned, elbowing Sirius in the ribs. Sirius rolled his eyes and elbowed back.
“I know that,” he scoffed. “But… I don’t know. I feel like then, I probably will have bigger things to worry about than whether I’m freezing my –“
“Watch it!” Beth said, pocketing the deck of Exploding Snap cards as James roared with laughter. She grinned nonetheless, seeing how proud of himself Sirius looked, and sat back against the base of the armchair that the fifth year girl had recently vacated.
“Hey, guys?” Remus spoke suddenly into the silence, toying with the edge of the hearthstone underneath him. “Can I ask you something?”
James glanced sideways at Beth before saying, “Yeah, mate, anything.” The expression on Remus’s face – the rather uncharacteristic solemnity – was not only a little disconcerting, but it had a sobering effect on the rest gathered there as well. He didn’t say anything for a brief moment after this, continuing the pick at the stone.
“I’ve just been thinking about something lately,” he breathed out at last, in one great rush as though unloading a great burden. “I just – how long are you planning to keep this up, this… keeping watch thing?” His eyes met each of theirs, but Beth merely felt confused.
“What do you mean?” she blurted out.
“Just said,” he said simply. “I mean – I’m of age now. Shouldn’t I be doing this by myself?” James glanced at Beth again, and she was a bit relieved to see that a similar look of incredulity to the one she was feeling was mirrored there.
“You’ve been of age for over a year though, Moony,” Sirius pointed out, folding his long legs underneath him and leaning his head against the sagging cushion of the loveseat.
“Well, it’s bothered me a bit since then,” Remus admitted, shifting uncomfortably. His gaze darted up and around, and he leaned his head instinctively closer, through the left side of his face into deep shadow from the fire in the grate. “But now that we’re going to do this thing –“ he motioned vaguely to something unseen, indicating their joining the Order “– then I really think it might be best if – if I started learning how to do transformations on my own.”
“Come off it,” said Sirius at once, as though this settled the matter. “You’ve always had help.”
“That’s the point, though!” This burst so forcefully from him that Beth felt her eyebrows rise quickly in surprise, and she leaned back a bit. Remus closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “Look,” he said. “For as long as I’ve been here, yes, I’ve had help. But how long can that go on? I mean, you and James are working for recruitment.” He turned to Peter, and then swiveled around to look at Beth. “You and Sirius are going to be Merlin knows where, and I’m going to, what, rely on Mary and Marlene?”
James fidgeted a bit, apparently not having thought that far. “You could –“ he began slowly, but Remus cut him off; it appeared that he had had a long time to think this over.
“I need to learn how to do this myself,” he said firmly. “I think that’s why Dumbledore placed me apart from you. I need to stand on my own two feet – or four, as it were.” He smiled grimly, and Beth tilted her head to the side, a lopsided smile of her own twisting her mouth.
But the prospect of not going out every few months, not transforming into a falcon and watching the moon as it moved overhead, was a bit of a strange thought. It had become so ingrained into her routine that Beth hardly even stopped to think about how it must seem to others anymore; it was just something she did. And even this year, not going out every month, a dog and a stag and a rat always by her side, was strange enough, enough of a jolt to the past years’ normalcy. But Remus was right, as he usually was. He needed to learn to do this alone.
“I think you’re right,” she said at last, and a look of gratification passed through Remus’s eyes at her words; the lopsided smile returned.
“I know I am.”
There was a brief silence in which a log in the grate shifted, crackling loudly and sending a flurry of yellow and orange sparks up into the sooty chimney. James stared unseeingly at it, the light reflected oddly off his glasses, so that from the angle Beth sat at it appeared as though he didn’t have eyes at all. “Well,” he said at last, “then at least let’s do one last thing.”
“And what’s that?” Remus said quickly, grateful to grant any request, apparently, if his larger one was to be acquiesced. James grinned, looking sideways at Beth for the third time that evening, although this time she could clearly see the glimmer of mischief behind his eyes.
“I think that, this one last time, we should all go out together, transforming just like the old days,” he said, and Sirius grinned back.
“The old days meaning last year?” Peter said sarcastically, and James laughed.
“Okay, yes, but they feel old,” he said defensively. His eyes swiveled back to Remus. “We’ll let you go everything by yourself, but we’ll, you know, be there. Just in case.” He stuck out his hand, arching one eyebrow and smirking. “Agreed?”
These appeared to be terms Remus could agree with. Grinning back and looking as though he had released a large weight off his shoulders, he stuck out his hand and shook James’s firmly. “Agreed,” he repeated.
“Now wait a minute,” Beth laughed, suddenly remembering something and causing the four boys to look around at her in surprise. “James, you’ve got Quidditch the day after tomorrow!”
“Who cares?” he said, although it apparently caused him to remember the Snitch in his pocket; he took it out, its little wings fluttering, straining to be released, and he let it go only to snatch it back with a deft move of the wrist. “Besides, it’s Hufflepuff. We’ll beat them with our eyes closed, and a little tiredness never hurt anybody. I’ll be fine.”
“Just don’t come crying to me when you fall off your broom when you can’t keep your eyes open,” she teased, grinning. For all her teasing, though, she was secretly pleased they’d get one last night together – one final transformation as Hogwarts students, completing a very odd sort of circle.
James lightly punched her in the shoulder, using the hand still wrapped around his Snitch. “Yes, Mum,” he teased back. But Beth could tell he was happy, too.
The night of their last watch was extremely overcast – a good thing, for the full moon’s effects didn’t penetrate nearly as quickly when the rays weren’t glaring. Remus was supported by Peter and James as they stole across the dark spring grass, the owls in the Owlery hooting so loudly that it could be heard from across the castle.
“Blimey, it’s weird that this is the last time we’re going to do this,” said Sirius conversationally, walking with an experimental spring in his step as though testing the ground for something.
“Speak for yourself,” Remus groaned, looking very much as though he was about to be sick. Unconsciously the four of them walked faster, the outline of the slowly-waving Whomping Willow branches only just now visible in the dim light. Peter stumbled over a hidden rock and nearly took James and Remus down with him as he tried to regain his balance.
“That’s the second time you tripped tonight,” Beth hissed in his general direction, and even though she couldn’t see him clearly she could sense the embarrassing effect her words had on her friend. “Come on, let me take him, it’s not that far –“
“You’re not doing that again, I told you,” Remus snapped, still cognizant despite the fact that he was already panting slightly in a very canine fashion. Beth glanced down briefly at the faint scar on her forearm and scowled, shaking her sleeve over it. She didn’t know if he’d ever let that go, and it annoyed her to no end.
“I’m fine – sorry, mate,“ Peter, a bit breathless himself, said, hitching Remus a bit higher on his shoulders. “Come on. If we stop now, I’ll never get going again.” Sirius shook his head wonderingly, but refrained from taking over, as he might have done. He apparently felt it was important to let Peter take it this one last time.
They reached the outer circle of the area the branches could reach, and James moved to take on the full amount of Remus’s weight, preparing to help him down into the passage leading to the Shrieking Shack. “Be back in a minute,” he said, and before Sirius and Beth could blink, both he and Peter had transformed. Remus was slung oddly across James’s back down, and when the branches stopped moving, they both inched into the shadows.
“Come on,” Sirius said, nudging Beth in the shoulder; she was still staring after the place where the stag and the rat had disappeared. “Or don’t you want to stretch your wings?” He grinned cheekily and, with a rather smarmy wink, stepped forward, instantly taking his the form of the large black dog he was so fond of. Beth needed no further encouragement and, mimicking his movements, found herself airborne in a matter of seconds.
Beneath her, almost invisible on the dark grass, Sirius bounded towards their usual tree, and she could tell that he would be barking, had he the option. She soared along above him, the familiar rush of the wind in her ears wonderfully soothing, and watched as the black below her changed in depth and intensity as the scenery moved from grass to shore and finally to the impenetrable black water of the lake. She wheeled around, dipping, not quite wanting to relinquish flight to sit in a tree and play cards for the next eight or so hours.
Another dark shape began to make its way toward her as she wheeled around and headed back for the tree where Sirius waited, barely outlined against the steely sky behind it. Beth dove, fluttering about the stag’s head with careful precision and trying to avoid getting smacked by one of its antlers. Precariously, she perched upon one, and the stag let out an indignant snort. It slowed as it reached the tree, Sirius on the lowest branch and now completely human again, and all at once Beth found she was perched on James’s head.
“Please get off,” he said through gritted teeth as Sirius snorted with laughter, seeing who – and what – had appeared in the dark before him. Beth hopped neatly back to the ground and turned back into herself at once, brushing a bit of invisible dirt off her robes as though what she had just done was normal.
“You need to watch where you put your talons, Bethy,” Sirius said helpfully, watching as James tenderly massaged his scalp, wincing slightly. “He doesn’t have a lot of brains, and you might gouge them out.” James showed Sirius a very rude hand gesture and swung up onto the branch next to him, acting as though he were going to shove him off.
“And you might wash your hair,” Beth added, unable to help it and grinning as she surpassed the branch the two boys sat on, aiming for a higher one. “My feet feel all greasy now.”
“Nah, you’re confusing him with – ouch!” Sirius gave out a bark-like yelp, immediately clapping his hand over his mouth when he realized what he’d done, but not before shooting James a questioning look. The fact that James gestured subtly upwards at her did not escape Beth’s notice, but, feeling kind, she pretended not to see it.
Peter popped out of seemingly nowhere; as a rat, his speeds did not quite match that of the others’, and he was usually the last to arrive. He sank beneath the trunk of the tree and took out a book from inside his robes, promptly burying his nose in it.
“Are you – are you reading?” Sirius called down softly, as though he dared not believe his eyes. Peter looked up and nodded once before immersing himself in it once more. “But we don’t have to study for our exams, or didn’t you hear?” he persisted.
“It’s not a textbook, though,” Peter called back up. “I’ve borrowed it from the library – Madam Pince recommended it to me.” Beth shook her head fondly, recalling that, of the five of them, the crotchety old librarian had always found the least amount of fault in Peter.
Sirius was now pulling bits of bark off the tree, trying to see if he could drop them in the spine of Peter’s book, his tongue poked out in concentration. Beth turned sideways, slumping against the trunk; through the spaces in the leaves, she could make out bits of the gray sky.
“This is strange,” James said into the amicable silence that had fallen, looking up at Beth from his branch. Peter let out a noise of disgust as, in looking up as well, Sirius managed to drop a bit of bark on his face; the latter grinned triumphantly and ceased.
“Strange how?” Beth asked, swinging her legs back and forth.
“Strange as in, we’ve grown up and it doesn’t feel like it at all. We talk about it, and then we go back to doing what we’ve always done.” James motioned to the tree, the same tree they had been sitting in for years. “I just… I don’t know. It’s strange.”
“Yes, well,” Sirius interrupted, grinning slyly again, “you’re getting married, and you can’t say you’ve done that before. That is, if you buck up the nerve and actually ask the girl someday.” James turned a deep shade of maroon, visible even in the poor light the clouds afforded. Beth felt a sympathetic twinge for him, knowing how nervous he was. She was sure that Lily’s ring was still snug in its box in the table drawer, untouched since he had shown it to them.
“At least he’s going to get a girl to say yes, Padfoot, and that’s more than you can say at this point,” she called down lightly. Sirius scoffed.
“I fly solo for a reason,” he said firmly, and, swinging his leg over the branch, dangled in the air for a few moments before landing lightly on the ground next to Peter, who obviously wasn’t expecting it; he jumped a bit, and the book he was holding fell onto the grass. “Come on, Wormy, let’s have your pack of Exploding Snap cards. One more early morning game before James and Bethy get too old to play.” He looked pointedly up at them, and Beth rolled her eyes, smirking.
When Sirius and Peter had become appropriately engrossed in the cards, however, she dropped down to where James was still sitting, looking out over the expanse of dark ground before him. “Are you scared?” she asked quietly, and he knew what she was asking about.
“A bit,” he admitted, chewing absently on his lower lip. “I mean… I haven’t always been, you know, the nicest guy.” He rubbed the back of his neck, frowning. “And she’s so… There’s just…” He couldn’t seem to be able to find the words, and, seeing the need to choose them for him, Beth nudged his shoulder gently.
“Hey. For all your faults, James, you’re a good guy,” she said, and James looked up, smiling thankfully. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I’m sure she’ll say yes.”
James nudged her back. “Thanks, Beth.”
“Did you lot think I was joking?” Sirius called up at that moment as loudly as he dared, kneeling next to Peter by the base of the tree. “You are going to play Exploding Snap. Now get down here.” James and Beth grinned at each other, and, scooting off the branch, went down to play cards.
A/N: I don't like having my characters grow up. It's necessary, but a little part of me wants to keep them in this Hogwarts bubble forever, playing Exploding Snap and cracking jokes and not having to risk the dangers of the world.
Then again, that would mean no plot, and a story is nothing without its plot! I'm nearing the end of the sequel's ninth chapter right now, and it's still a little funny not to be writing solely in the Hogwarts setting. I'm really pleased with the way it's going, though, and I'm excited for everyone to read it in the months to come.
Don't forget to review the chapter, and thank you!