The entrance hall was dim, the torches that normally lit it having been extinguished hours ago – not that that was any surprise. Severus recalled the last time he had snuck out of his dormitory at this hour, when he had gone to meet Beth under the tree, and knew that all the castle torches were instantly put out after a certain hour to deter students from getting out of bed. Of course, that was not about to stop him tonight, nor would it stop his friends.
“It’s clear,” he whispered over his shoulder, and moved quietly out to stand in front of the marble staircase leading up to the various other moving staircases. Rosier walked out behind him, the other three trailing in his wake, and the group of them came to a stop in a tight cluster.
“It feels weird to be out of bed this late,” said Wilkes, grinning widely. Rosier smirked and rolled his eyes.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never snuck out of the dormitory,” he said, and the grin dropped from Wilkes’s face, to be instantly replaced by a scowl. He muttered something about having been out of bed lots of times after curfew, but Severus hushed him impatiently.
“We’re not here to argue about that sort of thing,” he said. “We’ve got to get out onto the grounds without being spotted, and I’d rather that not be the reason we’re caught. Have you all brought your wands?”
“Why wouldn’t we have brought our wands?” Mulciber said in an insulted tone of voice. “You’re going to teach us Patronuses, aren’t you?”
Severus gritted his teeth. “Never mind,” he snapped. “Just come on – we’ll go out to the grounds, there’s a lot of space to work with out there.” Motioning again for everyone to keep quiet, he tiptoed over to the large double doors and eased them open, wincing as, from behind him, Wilkes coughed into the sleeve of his robes, and Severus gritted his teeth again.
Considering that, yet again, the last time he had been out here was several months previously, and there was a full moon besides, the grounds were comparably dim in the sliver of the crescent moon that hovered overhead. There was enough light from the stars to see, but only just, and for this he was grateful; it meant there was less chance of detection.
“I think we should go around to the side of the school,” Avery said, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his robes; he looked as though he were nervous about breaking the rules. “Just in case somebody sees, you know.”
“There are windows on that side,” Rosier said coolly. “We’re fine here –“
“There are windows everywhere,” Severus said, rolling his eyes. “And that’d probably be better, we won’t be so near the door then.” Avery looked smugly at Rosier and began to walk in that direction; Severus started to follow, but Rosier reached out a hand and grabbed his elbow before he could take more than three steps.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Snape,” he said spitefully, “or this is all just going to be a big waste of time.”
Severus jerked his elbow away and fixed Rosier with a hard stare. “I do,” he said firmly, “and you’ll be thanking me later when this might just save your sorry life. If you don’t want to do this, no one’s stopping you from going back inside.” Rosier glared at him but said nothing. “All right, then,” Severus continued, and started off after the other three.
The broad expanse of dark ground where Avery had finally stopped was well hidden among a few bordering trees, their leaves spread wide, and Severus nodded. “Right, then, if we’re all ready?” he said, casting a glance backward at Rosier, who still looked a bit sulky.
“Show us yours, Sev, c’mon,” Mulciber said eagerly, all vestiges of previous annoyance or disbelief now gone. Wilkes agreed in a rather spitty fashion, and so Severus, feeling a bit awkward in the center of the attention, withdrew his wand from his pocket and squinted his eyes slightly, trying to conjure up the happiest moment he could think of.
Quite unexpectedly, the time he and Beth had spent by the lake in the tree flooded into his mind, and he didn’t question it. He pointed his wand firmly and tried to think of nothing but sitting on that branch, looking up at her. “Expecto Patronum.”
From the end of his wand burst a massive silver doe, unfolding itself gracefully and then proceeding to bounce across the grass in large leaps. It stopped about ten yards from him and turned its head, gazing at him with its blank silver eye, before taking off again and eventually dissolving into silver mist.
Rosier raised a slim eyebrow and folded his arms across his chest. “Your Patronus is a deer?” he said scathingly. “That’s not very intimidating, is it, Snape?” He smirked as Severus’s grip on his wand tightened, although he dared not let it show.
“Right,” he said instead, turning sharply on his heel so he could no longer see Rosier’s leering face. “You heard the incantation, then – Expecto Patronum. The most important thing, though, is to think of something that makes you extremely happy, and concentrate on that thing, that memory. That’s the only way the spell will work.”
“Like what?” Avery called out, his eyes the only part of him that Severus could see in the blackness.
“Like… I don’t know, someone you really love, your parents or somebody,” Severus said, again feeling distinctly uncomfortable; having to talk about it in such frank terms really didn’t sit well with him. “Just make sure it’s a good feeling, and make sure it’s strong.”
Wilkes’s eyes immediately popped closed as he concentrated; looking a bit leery, but not averse to following suit, Avery and Mulciber did the same. After a very pointed pause, Rosier took out his wand, his lips moving as though reciting the spell, although his eyes remained open.
Severus looked down at his own wand while his friends concentrated on trying out the spell, unable to keep a small shock of disappointment from beginning to radiate through him. His Patronus had never changed before – it had been a doe since he had been able to perform the spell – but he had heard they could in times of emotional change. He had thought that maybe, just maybe, his might have changed due to recent circumstances.
Perhaps he was wrong, then, about whatever he had been thinking about lately – but he was sure he was right. When was the last time he had even spared Lily more than a brief thought, and when was the last time that thought wasn’t in some way connected to Beth? He looked at his wand again, as though willing it this time to show him something different.
“Expecto Patronum,” he whispered, but the doe appeared again, the other four stopping to watch it as it cantered once more across the grass and dissolved at the distant line of trees. Severus cleared his throat, trying to tangibly push away his frustration, and looked at his friends again.
“Rosier – give it a shot,” he said abruptly, tipping his head in the direction of the boy he’d indicated. He looked disgruntled, but raised his wand anyway and firmly spoke the spell aloud.
Nothing happened, and from the right, in the dark, Wilkes gave a hearty snigger. Rosier aimed a kick in his direction.
“Let’s see you do it, then,” he drawled. Wilkes raised his wand as well, but again, nothing came out of it – no silver animal, not even a wisp of silver smoke. Severus couldn’t help the smug smile that slipped across his face then, taking pleasure in the fact that it was not as easy as his friends had clearly assumed.
“All right, well, just keep practicing,” he said curtly, and stowed his wand back in his robes to watch them try time after time. He would try again later, one final time, to see if his Patronus would sense what he knew to be right.
“I still think it’s a bit stupid that I had to sneak out with you to nick food for my own party,” James said in a whisper, his voice still containing traces of laughter as his hand held up the thin fabric of his Invisibility Cloak. Beth grinned, although she’d seen it coming; Remus and Peter had gone last time, and Sirius was too lazy for his own good. He’d moaned about a hurt ankle but she knew he’d be up and hopping about by the time they returned to the common room with the treacle tart.
“To be fair, ever since you got engaged you’ve agreed to pretty much anything anyone asked you to do,” she teased, jabbing a finger in his ribs. “You’re becoming a right pushover.” James tried to look offended.
“I am not.”
“Remus told you to do your own homework yesterday - and you did.” She grinned again and watched as they passed by a low-burning wall sconce, double-checking to make sure that their Cloak completely hid any shadows they might have been making.
This time, the offended look didn’t make it very far before James’s own smile slipped through. “Yeah,” he said, “but then again, I’d rather be a pushover under these circumstances than a pain in the arse without.” The smile lingered on his face as they turned the final corner leading to the top of the grand staircase, and quickly descended, both trying very hard to mask the sounds of their shoes on the marble. Thankfully they’d been practicing for years, and slipped into the kitchen passage undetected.
The torches burned even more dimly in this corridor, and Beth knew that was because the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room was somewhere in here, although she couldn’t be sure where it was. Too many Hufflepuffs passed in and out of here to make it not conspicuous, though. But she didn’t bother dwelling on where their common room might or might not be, and instead walked until she and James came to a halt in front of the painting of the large fruit bowl. Reaching out a hand, she tickled the pear, and it let out its customary giggle before turning into a doorknob as always.
“Excellent,” James said, throwing off the Cloak to reach out and grasp the knob, holding the revealed door open so Beth could walk through. “I haven’t been down here in ages.”
The house elves who worked in the kitchens cooking and cleaning were so used to the presence of the five Marauders that it didn’t even faze them to see any one of the group entering. One particular favorite of theirs, a chubby elf with wispy white chin hairs and a prodigious amount of skin hanging over the tea towel he wore at his waist, was polishing the legs of one of the great tables in the center of the room. Upon hearing the portrait open, he looked up and gave a pleased, high-pitched grunt.
“It is James Potter, come back to visit at last,” he cried happily, pattering over on stout feet and throwing his arms around James’s knees; Beth remembered now as she laughed that this elf, who for some reason was called Finsby, had always had a particular fondness for him.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m back,” James said, patting Finsby a bit awkwardly on the head between his large ears. Finsby beamed up at him toothily and massaged his belly.
“And what’ll I be getting for James Potter today, sir?” he said, in a voice much lower than that of normal house elves, but still higher than anyone Beth knew. “A bit of crumble? Some sugar buns? A bottle of butterbeer or five?”
“We’ll take the lot, Finsby,” Beth said, shooting James yet another grin as the house elf continued to simper. “James Potter’s just got engaged to Lily Evans.”
Finsby gave a grunt-like gasp of delight and once more threw his arms about James’s knees. “Oh, sir!” he said, speaking into James’s robes so that his words came out very muffled. “Finsby is having no idea James Potter was to marry Lily Evans! What an honor that Finsby has heard this news!” He dabbed at his eyes with his ears, as his tea towel did not provide this access, being stiff, and beamed happily at the pair of them. “Finsby shall make sure to give you as much as you can carry!”
The house elf made very good on his promise, too; not more than five minutes later, James and Beth found them loaded down with boxes stacked up to their noses, including two crates of butterbeer, which had somehow found their way into the kitchens in a manner the elves would not disclose. Finsby had now climbed on the table and was attempting to throw James’s Cloak back over them.
“Finsby wishes you all the luck in the world, James Potter,” he said, giving yet another grunt and throwing the Cloak as far as his arms would reach; Beth felt the material descend on her, and another house elf tugged it from the front so it would cover their feet. “And to you, Beth Bridger, to you too!”
The elves all waved merry goodbyes as James and Beth left through the portrait door with promises to come back and visit just as soon as they could. Once they were out of earshot, Beth nudged James with her shoulder. “I think he just wished me luck on a marriage.”
James laughed. “Well, you know, you are of age,” he said teasingly. “Who’s the lucky lad?” He seemed to instantly regret these words, but not before Beth had the opportunity to shoot him a piercing glare, only half in jest.
“Come on,” she said, hitching her stack of boxes a bit higher and shifting so as to distribute their weight more evenly. “Let’s get back to the common room before my spine telescopes, all right?” James rolled his eyes, but, saying nothing, moved with her back in the direction of the marble staircase.
The torches that lit the corridors had burned even lower in their brackets by the time James and Beth, staggering under their heavy load, had made it to the second floor – and they still had five more floors to go, Beth thought, wincing as she shifted the weight of the crates again.
“James. Break. I’m weak,” she gasped, already feeling the Invisibility Cloak slipping off her hair as she bent to set the boxes down. James complied, his knees cracking as he bent down beside her.
“I’m getting old,” he said with a mocking pout, removing the Cloak completely now and wadding it up before stuffing it in an inside pocket of his robes. She sat down and leaned against the wall under the dim torch, stretching her legs straight out in front of her.
“You’re getting married. It’s a package deal,” Beth teased, smirking. James grinned back and stretched his arms behind him, crossing to the window across the corridor and looking out of it. But just as quickly, the grin fell from his face to be replaced by a slightly puzzled expression.
“Hey. Beth. Come here.” He jerked his head, and she stood up from her rather comfortable position to stand next to him at the window.
“I don’t see –“ But right at that moment, she did see what he was talking about. The light from the stars mixed with small pinpricks of light – they looked like the lit ends of wands – illuminated four or five dark figures on the lawn below. She squinted, and suddenly she realized that she knew the walk of one of those figures. She’d been subconsciously studying that same walk for seven years.
“That’s Severus,” she said, trying her absolute hardest to keep any and all inflection out of her voice. James’s eyes slid sideways to look at her, but he didn’t say anything. She knew she was right, though. “And those are probably his friends,” she continued, and then, more to herself than to the boy standing next to her, “I wonder what they’re doing?”
But almost as soon as she’d voiced the question aloud, a jet of red light shot from the end of one of the invisible wands, darting toward the distant tree line; there was a very small crackle of something like electricity where the spell hit, and then, extremely faintly, a sort of triumphant shout.
That sick, twisted feeling began forming in Beth’s stomach again as another jet of light, bright blue this time, shot from yet another wand. She had a sinking feeling that they weren’t just out for a midnight duel, and knowing Rosier and Mulciber and the rest of them – and, although it was almost literally painful for her brain to admit it, even Severus – the real reason probably wasn’t anything too cheerful or friendly.
“Strange,” James murmured, and Beth could see that similar thoughts were crossing his mind upon seeing this as well.
And then another light, but larger and brighter and more solid than either of the two lights they had seen before, shot out of one of the wands, and for the briefest of moments, Beth caught a glimpse of the tiny profile of its caster. She knew who it was before she’d even processed it, and watched as Severus’s large, silver Patronus cantered across the grass.
“A Patronus!” James exclaimed; he seemed to be mirroring her thoughts, and he clapped a hand over his mouth as he realized how loud his voice had probably sounded. Beth didn’t move, but stared at the form until it disappeared into the trees as the red light had done.
“You know, that looked a bit like mine,” James said thoughtfully, “but no antlers. I wonder if one of them has the same Patronus as Lily, I think hers is going to be a doe…”
He continued talking, but for all Beth could understand, he might as well have been making sounds underwater. Her mind instantly reverted to a conversation almost six months previously, the time Lily had taken her aside right after she’d found out James had spilled her secret to the rest of their friends. She knew that she had sensed something had happened between Severus and Lily, and now – now she had a pretty clear idea of what that was.
So Severus had loved Lily, all along - well, the Patronus was proof, wasn’t it? More than likely, he was using Beth to get closer to her, a last-ditch effort in their final year, and she had fallen for it as though she were six years old. All the times he’d made conversation or caught her eye, they’d only served to draw her further into his clever trap. How stupid she had been, thinking – perhaps fruitlessly wishing – that maybe he had paid her special attention because, just maybe…
Well, she wasn’t going to think that any longer. She wasn’t going to think about him at all. Let him pine over Lily while she ran and married James, let him get involved in whatever Dark and twisted magic he was so interested in. Beth wasn’t going to have a damn thing to do with it any longer.
She was ashamed to find tears prick her eyes, burning and hot, and she brushed them away impatiently before James could see and know that something was wrong. “Come on,” she said brusquely, turning back and taking up her stack of crates once more. “We have to get these back to the common room. Sirius’ll be wondering.”
For the rest of the journey to the corridor where the Fat Lady’s portrait hung, Beth didn’t utter a word, scared of betraying something she didn’t want anyone else to sense. Besides, the heavy, pressing feeling in her throat more than likely rendered her incapable of speech right now, anyway. Somehow, she barely registered how heavy the load was, even after having to stand out in the corridor for nearly five minutes while James tried to wake up the snoozing portrait.
Sirius was the picture of hyper impatience when Beth and James finally stumbled through the portrait hole. “About bloody time,” he said promptly, rubbing his hands together in anticipation as the crates were deposited on the rug by the fire.
“I’m going to bed,” Beth said abruptly, cutting off whatever he was about to say next and not really caring. “I feel ill.” James’s eyebrows rose slightly on his forehead, but she was already moving toward the staircase leading to the girls’ dormitory, actually feeling physically ill now. A cold and clammy sweat had broken out on her forehead and she wiped it away hastily, ashamed of the tears still in her eyes.
Thankfully, the dormitory was empty – Lily, Mary, and Marlene were all downstairs still – and she crawled under her covers still fully dressed, drawing the curtains around her four-poster and pulling the sheets up to her chin. And there, finally, she allowed herself tears for what she had lost so unexpectedly, and should have known she would lose all along.
A/N: Guys, there are TWO MORE chapters left after this, and then In The Black is officially finished! Oh my gosh, that is so intensely crazy. I don't even know what to do right now, it's so crazy. Never mind that I'm starting the tenth chapter of In The Red this week, because it's still so weird that this is nearly all said and done.
And drama unfolds! Things certainly aren't looking good for Beth. Or for Snape, really, although he might not know it yet. Such is the way of the teenage mind. But anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts -- and thank you so much for reading thus far!