The letter slid onto the floor with a sound that might have been mistaken for the shuffling of leaves, had it not been late in December, and had Severus ever really had cause to pay close attention to the sound that leaves made. He glanced around quickly from his post on the sofa, where he’d been trying to distract his mind with reading, just in time to see the owl on his windowsill take flight, stretching its large, tawny wings and turning a corner around the adjacent apartment building.
Thank Merlin that Rosier’s not here, he thought absently, rubbing his temples with the tips of his fingers absently. His head was pounding - he felt as though his mind had been pushed and prodded one too many times lately, a result of whatever they thought he’d done to reject the Veritaserum’s effects. He’d heard covert whispers when they thought he couldn’t hear them, always centered around a funny-sounding word he couldn’t grasp. He knew that he was going to take center stage before long, if for nothing else but that he was mad, but right now that didn’t matter too much to him.
He rose quickly, already feeling his mouth stretch into the immovable grin it always seemed to wear whenever he got a letter from Beth. And sure enough, he could have recognized her handwriting on the thin parchment envelope on his floor from a mile away. Severus stooped and picked up the letter, holding it almost delicately, as though afraid that it might crumble into ash if he handled it wrong.
They hadn’t said a word about meeting again - and partly because both of them knew it was risky - but he would have been lying if he’d said that he hadn’t wanted to bring it up a hundred, a thousand times. He quickly scanned the contents of the letter, idly hoping maybe she’d broached the subject, but in content it was like all the rest.
I always hate starting letters - there’s really no great way to set off, is there? Then again, you never seem to have much trouble with it. I suppose that’s one of the many essential differences between us: You always know just what to say, and me, I never do. I always feel fake, writing letters - like there are two sides of me, and this is only one of them.
I hope you’re doing something nice for Christmas. James is throwing a little party - well, I guess ‘party’ isn’t the word I want to use, as it’s really only the five of us, and Lily and Mary and Marlene. It’s like nothing’s changed, and I can’t decide if I like that or not. Maybe we’re all still seventeen, sitting around and dreaming about our futures, while nothing ever comes to fruition.
The holidays always make me like this, though - too much time for thinking about nothing in particular! But I do hope you have good holidays, Sev. Merry Christmas.
Severus smiled, drinking in the words like so much butterbeer, although even he could sense the sadness that accompanied the gesture. His eyes fell on the final two words above her loopy signature, and something unnamed and feather-light fluttered beneath his rib cage.
Moving slowly, as though waking from a pleasant dream he only half-remembered, he replaced the letter into its envelope and slid both pieces of parchment into the left-hand drawer of his cramped desk. He crossed back over to the sofa and folded his arms beneath his head, thinking about - as Beth herself had mentioned - nothing in particular.
“This sucks.” Sirius lifted the yellowed venetian blinds for what already seemed like the hundredth time that evening, peering between them with a sort of squinted face. “There’s supposed to be snow on Christmas. Those are the rules.”
“Hmm?” Beth was slumped on a kitchen chair near him, which had been dragged into the sitting room for the night’s purposes, and had completely missed whatever he’d been complaining about. It wasn’t hard to guess, of course, but responding was more instinct than anything else.
Somehow, her mind was a million miles away tonight, just when she needed it most. It was the first time in quite a long time that the eight of them - James and Lily, Sirius, Remus, Peter, Mary, Marlene, and Beth herself - had gotten together without the pretense of an Order meeting, or something else similar. And Beth knew that if she was going to keep from giving anything away about her correspondence with Severus, she was going to have to be at her most cheerful and attentive.
A tiny part of her didn’t quite understand why she was keeping it a secret, though. After all, these were her friends, weren’t they? They were supposed to be supportive - and it wasn’t as if she was doing anything illegal, after all. Writing letters back and forth to an old school friend was just about as harmless as it got. But of course, Severus was no ordinary old school friend… She gnawed on her bottom lip, trying to imagine what Sirius might say if he found out just where the letter currently crushed in the pocket of her robes had come from. She’d bet a thousand Galleons that ‘happy’ would not be an accurate description of his reaction.
“Bethy? Hello?” Sirius drew out the words, waving his hand a bit in front of her face to draw her out of her reverie. She realized, with a small flush of embarrassment, that she’d most definitely spaced out again. Focus.
“Sorry,” she grinned apologetically. “I just -“
“You are clearly admiring my stunning good looks, and getting distracted in the process,” Sirius said promptly, shooting her a wicked grin and pretending to flex his biceps. “Understandable, of course -“
“You watch that ego, or I’ll have to find something to deflate your head,” she laughed, shoving him lightly in the arm. “And stop whinging about the snow, Sirius. It snowed just a few days ago, or have you forgotten?”
“Doesn’t count. It’s Christmas now.” He stretched out this word, too, imbibing it with all sorts of imagined meaning. He opened his mouth, about to say something further, but was interrupted as the door to James and Lily’s flat swung open, letting in a blast of cold, snow-free air. Peter and James stumbled in, laughing about something and clutching large brown grocery sacks in their bundled arms.
“Eggnog!” Remus, who had been lying on his stomach in the awkwardly small corridor between kitchen and sitting room, playing cards with Marlene, lifted himself up onto his elbows as their friends entered. Beth laughed, remembering suddenly that he’d always had a beyond-normal love for eggnog around the holidays - it had been quite a while since she’d celebrated Christmas with him, come to think of it. Up until seventh year, they’d always parted ways, and even last year she’d made a try to spend it with her mother. That had not ended up so well - her mother had found an excuse to lecture her for seven solid nights before she finally figured she’d paid her dues, heading back to her own flat without a moment’s delay.
“Calm down, Remus, you’ve got to leave some for us,” she called over to him cheerfully, crossing over to James and taking one of the sacks out of his arms. He shot her a grateful look and massaged his forearms.
“You’re letting Beth carry that for you?” Sirius shook his head exaggeratedly. “Chivalry is a dying art, mate. We’ve got to preserve it while we can.”
James made a rather rude hand gesture at Sirius, who pretended to look offended, and jerked his head at Beth in the direction of the kitchen. “In there,” he said. “Lily’s got the glasses all set out, she didn’t realize we were out of pretty much everything until right before you and Sirius got here.”
“I’m spectacular at planning things out, you understand.” Lily, who was just emerging from the kitchen and wiping her hands on a hand towel tucked into the slim waistband of her Muggle jeans, caught the tail end of her husband’s conversation. He grinned at her half-apologetically and bent down to kiss her; Beth looked away quickly and busied herself clinking the glasses about.
“How’re you feeling?” she heard James mutter, so low she almost didn’t catch it. Lily said something that this time around, Beth really didn’t hear, and she banged a few more cups together, just in case it was something she’d regret hearing later. That would be a predicament much too awkward for words. Finally, to her mild relief, James came back into the kitchen, Lily no longer in tow. He smiled sheepishly.
“You’re such a boy,” she teased, rolling her eyes good-naturedly. James ducked his head in acknowledgement of this fact and crossed to the minuscule stove - although “crossed” might not have been the best word, as it was about half a step across the tiny kitchen - and reached into a cabinet above it.
“Ooh, yes, please. Remus will drink half of this, anyway.” She jiggled the bottle in her hand, halfway through pouring a glass, and James laughed. Two thick white mugs were set next to the small glass tumblers, and he poured a measure of tea into each, still steaming despite the fact that Beth knew the stove hadn’t been hot in a while.
“How did you manage to chip these already?” she asked, abandoning her duties and studying the mug James handed her; there was already a hairline crack in the curved handle, and one small piece was missing from the rim.
“I am very bad at household spells, as luck would have it,” said James conversationally, “and as such, those are pretty much the only two mugs left in usable condition.” Beth giggled and blew across the surface of her tea to cool it.
She became rather distinctly aware of James studying her then, all traces of the jokes he’d just tossed out gone. He was looking for something in her expression, she realized, and the pit of her stomach seemed to fall away in that moment.
There was no way he’d found out she was communicating with Severus, she reasoned firmly. Not a single person in the world knew about it except for him and her, and, she supposed, the owl that delivered the respective letters. And she wasn’t going to tell Sirius about it, that was certain. Even thinking about how he’d take that news made her cringe.
“You doing okay, Beth?” James asked, turning slightly so that the dim overhead bulb caught his glasses in an odd light for the briefest moment. It was something that had happened often at school, continually surrounded as they’d been by candles and flames, and it sort of sparked a small memory in her mind - nothing specific, but just the general nostalgia of years she couldn’t reclaim.
She had trusted James with a secret once before, that wintery day when she’d confessed to him her feelings about Severus in the first place - and he hadn’t waited long at all to spill it. But that was a younger James, almost a completely different person from the one who stood before her now. This James was married, and had responsibilities the old James would have somehow charmed his way out of.
It suddenly struck her how different he was, almost at the same moment that she felt the sort of crushing weight of a secret she didn’t want to hold inside. It wasn’t fair, argued a small voice within her, that she should have to hide this while James and Lily got to be so happy. Of course, the circumstances were far from the same - namely, Severus was working for a totally different cause. But at its core, the feelings manifested from the same place.
James would understand. He would have to.
“I…” Beth’s voice seemed to catch momentarily in her throat, and she hastily gulped a measure of hot tea, instantly wishing she’d slowed down as it seared her throat. “I think… can I tell you something?”
Good grief, I sound like I’m fifteen years old.
James set his mug down on the counter by the half-filled eggnog glasses and crossed his arms over his chest. “Yeah, sure. Is this about…?” He broke off and cleared his throat, looking, for the first time in a long time, decidedly embarrassed. Beth wondered if he’d already guessed what she was about to say, but pushed herself to forge on anyway.
But she didn’t right away; her hands fiddled with the cracked cup, fingers encircling it tightly as though relying on it for warmth. James would understand. “It’s just… you know that at the end of last year, things weren’t great. Between Severus and me,” she added for clarification, as if she needed to.
James’s brow furrowed; whatever he had thought she was going to say, it hadn’t been that. The thought made her at once buoyant and slightly nauseous. “Yes…?” he said slowly, shifting his shoulders slightly as he settled in for whatever she had to say.
“Well, I mean, we didn’t talk about it, obviously. And then, recently - a couple months back -“ Beth’s eyes darted quickly over to the kitchen door, a paranoid part of her brain checking to make sure Sirius wasn’t eavesdropping. “Well, I mean - we ran into each other.”
“You ran into each other,” James repeated slowly, as though to be sure he heard her right. Beth nodded, the tea feeling as though it stuck in her throat. “Can I ask how?”
She sucked in a quick breath. “Well, on - on a mission. And then, later… again. On purpose.” This was coming out all wrong, she thought fiercely, and without thinking about it spread a hand across her eyes, fingers gripping her temples hard. She could feel blood pulsing faintly through the veins there.
“So…” James seemed to be struggling to grasp the concept. “You’ve talked to Severus. Face to face.” Beth nodded. “And then… you met up with him again?” Another nod. James didn’t say anything for a long moment, but just looked at her, his fingers tapping idly on the rim of the mug near his left hand.
“I’m going to take three guesses on what he was doing there,” he said in a low voice. “And the first two won’t count.”
Beth groaned and buried her face in her hands. “I am so stupid,” she said, voice heavily muffled. “But I can’t not do it, James.” She looked back up at him, already able to feel her face twisting in some abnormal expression. “I am an idiot and it’s like…” She waved her hands around for emphasis. “When I’m around him, I want to be an idiot. Because then we’re both idiots, together.” She rummaged around in the pocket of her robe and fished out a slightly crumpled piece of parchment, waving it in front of James’s face. He made a grab for it, and she saw him read her name on the front of the envelope: Beth Bridger, in Severus’s handwriting.
Finally he looked up at her, wordlessly handing the letter back. Again, he said nothing for a long stretch of time, and what he finally did was rather surprising. Gently, he took her in his arms and clutched her to him, a pillar of strength and support against her rapidly deteriorating emotions.
Beth buried her face in his robes, biting her lip to keep it from trembling - if there was one thing she was not going to do tonight, it was cry. James stepped back and peered intently at her then, a small smile on his lips.
“Beth. It’s okay.” Beth gave a little hiccup. “You’re not doing anything wrong, are you? For Merlin’s sakes, you’re meeting up with an old friend.” His face soured slightly. “Not that I condone what - but that’s not what’s important,” he amended hastily, seeing something in Beth’s face that stopped him from continuing that thought. “What is important is how you feel, and how he feels. And I’m willing to bet all the Galleons in my vault that Sniv - that Snape doesn’t write a whole slew of letters to a string of old school friends.” James grinned. “Would I be right?”
Beth smiled sheepishly, both for the point he made and for the fact, not unnoticed, that he had done away with Severus’s schoolboy nickname in that instance just for her.
“We’re your friends, Beth. Even Sirius,” James added, seeing she was about to interrupt him with that particular point. “And we’re going to be there for you, no matter what.” At this, Beth hugged him again, mumbling a thank you into the fabric, and suddenly remembered both the eggnog and the tea that was growing cold.
Thankfully, it was only then that Sirius stuck his head around the doorframe, looking impatient as always. “Not to be a nudge,” he said cheerfully, “but I could have had about six glasses of eggnog in the time it’s taken the pair of you to fill one.”
Beth rolled her eyes. “Okay, genius. You can come fill them yourself, for that comment.” She motioned generously to the glasses on the sideboard.
“Oh, no, I’ll let you do it,” he said, grinning wickedly. “I just came to nag you about it.” Beth rolled her eyes again and aimed a good-natured kick in his direction. He dodged it gracefully and, cackling, ducked around James and nudged her in the side.
Beth glanced briefly at James as she turned to avoid another blow, and then did a double take. He was staring at his best mate exactly as he’d stared at her, before she told him about meeting up with Severus - calculating, like he was watching for something. For some reason, it made her uncomfortable. She quickly ducked her head back over the eggnog glasses.
“Hey! Bethy, look! Look!” Sirius was leaning over the sink eagerly, head tilted up toward the sky beyond the dark window level with his eyes. “It’s snowing!”
“Come off it, I’m not falling for that,” she said, reaching around him and snatching the small glass container of nutmeg from beside the teapot. “You were having too much fun moping about it to change your story now.”
“Look!” he crowed insistently, jabbing an impatient forefinger at the dark glass. Beth finally did - and, sure enough, large, fat flakes were drifting past the window, illuminated by the streetlight outside.
“Well, Merry Christmas,” said James, smirking and shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’ll bet they heard you over in Sweden, Padfoot, d’you want to shout a little louder?”
Sirius yanked Beth’s hands into his own and let her into an absurd sort of reel around the cramped kitchen, treading heavily on both her feet and James’s in the process. He began singing a very off-key and very bad rendition of “White Christmas,” which Lily had brilliantly suggested playing last holiday, and which Sirius had taken to instantly, choosing to play it year-round.
James turned to leave the kitchen, but before he went, Beth caught a brief glimpse of his face yet again. He still wore that searching expression - it almost looked grim. She wondered, fleetingly, what it was that was making him so anxious.
Before she could dwell on it further, however, Sirius was demanding that she sing with him. Nearly yelling the words to drown his awful voice, she collected four of the eggnog glasses, leaving Sirius to get the others, and made her way back into the sitting room, James’s puzzling demeanor already slipping away from the forefront of her mind.
A/N: I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- I absolutely love Christmas chapters! It's a bit weird, though, comparing this one to the one in In The Black. That Christmas chapter was rather further along in the story, actually, those that book and this one will have nearly the same number of chapters, if I've calculated my plans right. But still, it's hard not to get warm, fuzzy feelings when Sirius is dancing around, singing off-key Muggle Christmas tunes.
Posting this chapter's made me realize just how much I need to get back to work on this story! Thank you so much, as always, for all your reads and reviews, and have a lovely Christmas-in-July. If you're feeling up to leaving a review on this chapter, that'd be smashing as well!