Chapter 4 : Happy Birthday, James
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A light breeze scuttled around the side of the little house, rustling the new leaves on the trees and lifting the small pieces of hair that had escaped Beth’s chignon off the back of her neck. Spring was finally coming to England, albeit in small increments; it was still bitterly cold at night, though the days and the accompanying sunshine were pleasant enough. She was very much not looking forward to morning commutes to the Ministry of Magic, but Muggle buses intimidated her somewhat, and braving the still-cold weather to instigate a routine of walking to work was preferable to trying to navigate those garishly bright red double-deckers.
Her friends had been as nice about her new assignment as possible, and Beth was extremely grateful to them for it, even while she felt a bit like shriveling up every time she woke up and remembered that she was one day closer to having to go to a proper, boring office job.
They’d placed her in a position even worse than Remus’s, and Merlin knew how much he complained about filing. She would be working for Mafalda Hopkirk, ferrying letters to and from the room where the Ministry kept its owls for official announcements and notices. Beth had never before realized how spoiled she’d been, doing mission work with Sirius and Frank and Alice, until that privilege had been rather abruptly revoked.
She drew her shoulders back and inhaled a quick breath. Tonight wasn’t the night to think about her job, or the fact that she’d be starting it before long. It was James’s twenty-first birthday, and Lily was throwing him a small party at the Godric’s Hollow house for all of his close friends. Beth hadn’t seen either of them in over a week, not to mention her godson. And she was determined to let nothing about Severus, or the Order, or the Ministry, spoil her fun evening. Clutching James’s birthday parcel a bit more tightly in her gloved hand, she closed her eyes, clamped her lips together briefly, and opened the door into the house.
The temperature inside the house was everything it was not without: It was warm and bright in here, and, she speculated, exactly the sort of atmosphere that you would expect from a party thrown by James and Lily Potter. The lamps were all blazing and casting out hazy rings of yellow light, throwing onto the wall the thick shadows of the many guests squeezed into the minuscule hall. Music was trickling from the wizarding wireless in the corner – something by the Hobgoblins, she thought, although she couldn’t hear over the multitude of conversations. More people were in the front room, and in the kitchen beyond.
Beth smiled. James could do absolutely nothing small.
“Bethy!” a voice called from the direction of the far front room wall. She turned her head in its direction, knowing even before looking who it was; after all, only one person ever addressed her by that particular nickname. Sirius was wending his way through the crowd toward her, one hand held high, clutching the stem of a goblet so as not to spill it.
“You’re late,” he said simply, finally reaching a small patch of bare floor in front of where she stood and taking a deep drink from the goblet. Beth rolled her eyes at him, shifting forward a bit to let Hestia Jones pass, and nearly bumping the top of her head on Sirius’s chin.
“I’m not late. Lily’s invitation said the party was going until ten o’ clock.” Beth now had to tilt her head back to look at Sirius. “Help me off with my coat, will you?”
“Ugh, okay – hang on, hold this –“ Sirius thrust the goblet into her free hand, the other still clutching James’s present, and yanked on one shoulder of her coat. The cup tipped precariously, and Beth overbalanced to keep it from spilling.
“Mind you,” Sirius said, now working on the other sleeve, “the last spare hook on the coatrack was taken up long ago, so there’s really nowhere to put this.” He tugged it free and held it up for a few considering moments before slinging it onto a pile on the floor, where it joined the other coats that hadn’t managed to stay on their own hooks.
“Thanks,” Beth retorted sarcastically, grinning all the same and taking a sip of whatever Sirius was drinking before handing his goblet back to him. Her face contorted in disgust. “Why are you drinking gillywater? Why did Lily even buy gillywater?”
“I happen to like it,” Sirius said, in a tone of mock superiority. He reached down and tugged on her hand. “Come on, then. You’ve got to give out the proper birthday wishes, same as anybody else.”
“Black.” Sirius and Beth both turned around as someone muttered Sirius’s name, before Sirius could drag her off to the kitchen. Alastor Moody was standing at the base of the stairs, leaning heavily on his staff, both of his mismatched eyes trained on Beth. She felt an uncomfortable prickling warmth begin to creep up the back of her neck.
“Hello, Mad-Eye,” Sirius responded, in a voice that was absolutely too cheerful for the present circumstances. “Been here long?”
“A bit,” he growled, still looking at Beth, and nodded curtly. She felt at once embarrassed and defiant, and couldn’t accurately place either of their origins. “I’d best be heading out, though. Only stopped by to say a quick hello to James.”
“Ah, yes. Bethy’s just in, so we’re off to… erm…” But Mad-Eye had already lifted a hand in farewell and, limping a bit, passed through the front door, letting in a small slice of cold before shutting it firmly behind him. Beth looked after where he had gone; the back of her neck was still prickling.
“I don’t think he trusts me,” she said at last, as mildly as possible, although it wasn’t much of a mild thought to her. The way he had looked at her… Surely he didn’t think that she was a traitor? Wasn’t she just allowed to wish James a happy birthday without Moody or someone breathing down her neck, wondering why she was there?
“Come off it,” Sirius said, tugging again on her hand. “I think he’s still a bit surprised that you stood up to him and screamed like that, to be honest. It’s not worth bothering with, though, honestly.” Beth gave him a small smile, and allowed herself to be yanked through people, apologizing as she went and nearly stepping on the tail of a gray-and-white-striped cat, to reach the Potters’ kitchen.
There were, if possible, even more people crammed in here, most of them squeezed around the table that stood in the middle of the room. James and Lily were holding court here, James telling some story Beth was sure she’d heard before while Lily listened, beaming, Harry on her lap blowing small spit bubbles and looking very pleased at being able to do so. Beth had a sudden sense of seeing outside herself, a snapshot moment: I need to capture this forever. She didn’t know what her brain was doing, coming up with thoughts like that, but it was an incredibly picturesque sort of moment. And, for some reason, it made her throat ache.
But then James had finished whatever story he was telling, and those within earshot were laughing appreciatively, and the sort of spell was gone. He took a drink from the cup in front of him and, looking up, noticed Sirius had returned with Beth in tow. He grinned and rose to his feet, squeezing his way over to her and giving her a hug.
“Happy birthday, James!” Beth managed; her voice was a bit muffled, speaking into his shoulder as she was, but he seemed to understand all the same. She pulled back a few inches and managed to shove the package into his hands. With slight difficulty, due to the lack of moving room, he tore off the wrapping paper.
“Hey! This is great!” He turned the eagle-feather quill over in his fingers, grinning, the light glinting off the rims of his glasses. “And how did you know I needed a new quill?”
“Because I was there when Sirius trod on your best one,” Beth said helpfully.
“Oi!” Sirius called; he had gone over to stand by Lily, and was making faces at his godson, who was still blowing spit bubbles. “Why is it that when you two talk about me you always make it sound like I’m a hippogriff in a china shop?”
“Because you kind of are,” spoke up a new voice from behind Beth and James. She turned around to see Remus standing there, hands thrust deep in the pockets of the overcoat he still wore, a smile turning up one corner of his mouth. She wrapped one arm around his waist and gave him a brief side hug in greeting, which he returned.
She wasn’t quite sure when the next full moon was – she had long since lost the urge, or the necessity, to compulsively keep track – but she suspected that it was soon. The skin on Remus’s cheeks was tightly drawn over his cheekbones, and it looked paler and sicklier than ever. There was a thin scar running along his temple that Beth could have sworn hadn’t been there a few months ago; she wondered how she had missed it at the last Order meeting.
Remus cleared his throat a bit and messed with his hair, as though sensing what she was looking at. She gave a little grimace in apology and turned back around, nearly running smack into Gideon Prewett and fending her way to where Lily was sitting with Harry and Sirius.
“Hi, Lily,” she grinned; Lily beamed back and, with care, reached over and grabbed her wand from where it was lying on the table in front of her, between a flagon of pumpkin juice and a bowl of crisps. She conjured up a three-legged stool from nowhere, and Beth sank happily onto it.
“The party’s going really well,” Beth said, reaching over and snatching one of the goblets, checking first to make sure that it wasn’t any more of Sirius’s gillywater. “I mean, I’ve only been here for a few minutes, but it’s fantastic. Really.”
“I’m so pleased!” Lily ran her fingers idly through Harry’s hair – he really did look very much like James, Beth thought, staring down at her godson. And at that moment, the hairstyle he was sporting made it look a bit like he’d been subjected to a minor Shock Spell.
Harry turned his head at that moment, babbling about something, and saw who was sitting next to him. He reached out his small arms in Beth’s direction, and Lily handed him over to his godmother.
“Hello there, buddy!” Beth laughed, gingerly unwinding a few of the baby’s small fingers from one of the strands of hair around her face, too short to fit the rest of the chignon, where they had grabbed on almost immediately. “Ow, ow, ow. He’s got his dad’s Quidditch muscles, that’s for – ow, Harry, no pulling!”
“Gorshka,” Harry told her seriously, and Beth kissed his forehead.
“Actually,” Lily began again, frowning slightly and twirling a lock of her own hair around one finger; her voice held slight undercurrents of one about to divulge a secret. “I’ve been a bit worried about James, if we’re being honest.”
Beth frowned and shifted Harry so that he sat more firmly on her lap, as he’d just begun wiggling in time to the next song on the wireless. “What do you mean?” she asked.
Lily twisted her mouth slightly, searching for the right words to express what she meant. "It's very difficult on him, being cooped up inside," she said at last. "Dumbledore's been telling us to stay inside more now than ever. The house is protected" - she made a little nod in Beth's direction, as though she was acknowledging one of the two Secret-Keepers of the house - "and he says it's safest for us here. We don't go into the Ministry nearly as much as we did even a few months ago."
A creeping icy feeling had manifested itself in the pit of Beth's stomach. She knew that James and Lily and Harry were in danger; her brain often refused to allow her to remember just how much. "But you... I mean," she tried again, "You-Know-Who hasn't made any moves, Lily. You're going to be just fine." The words crumbled in her mouth with the subjectivity of the promise, but she said it anyway. "You and James and Harry."
Lily nodded and said nothing, tucking a strand of long red hair back behind her ear instead; Beth could tell that her words hadn’t been nearly as bracing as she had meant for them to be.
“It’s just,” Lily began again at last, “that… well.” Beth was slightly surprised to see that the other woman’s eyes had suddenly brightened with tears, and she instinctively shifted a bit closer on her stool. “Dumbledore’s also been telling us – and Mad-Eye agrees – that we need to be really careful, because someone among us… might be working against us.”
It took a couple of seconds for the words to process in Beth’s brain. “They think that one of us is a traitor?” she asked finally, and Lily nodded with an almost unnoticeable movement of her head. “Working for the other side, or something?” Lily nodded again, with even less movement, and the icy feeling doubled.
That explains Mad-Eye’s behavior, then, she thought sourly. She hadn’t used the word “traitor” in her mind in any degree of seriousness, but it was pretty apparent now that that was exactly who he thought she, Beth, was, or at least was suspicious of it. And certainly her past association with Severus wasn’t winning her any points in her favor, either…
Harry blew a large raspberry and wiggled his feet experimentally, interrupting the slightly heavy pause that had settled onto the two women. Beth felt a powerful rush of emotion toward her godson at that moment; he was so innocent, so loved. She leaned down and kissed the top of his head lightly. Could something really terrible ever truly happen to someone so small?
Someone cleared their throat at that moment, and both Lily and Beth looked up to see who it was, startled out of their thoughts. Remus was standing above them, looking almost apologetic. “Beth, can I talk to you for a moment?” he asked, one hand playing with the frayed right cuff of his shirt.
“Yeah, sure.” Beth carefully handed Harry back to Lily. He squirmed in midair.
“Back to Mummy it is,” she grinned, and Harry rewarded her by crinkling up his nose and making a happy noise. She rose from the conjured three-legged stool and, both of them pardoning themselves, made her way after Remus to a fairly secluded corner of the tiny corridor that led to the laundry room. To her slight surprise, James, Sirius, and Peter, whom she hadn’t yet seen that evening, had already folded themselves into the minuscule space.
“All right?” Peter asked her, as she squeezed in between him and Remus, knocking him in the side with her elbow.
“Hi,” she said, a bit breathlessly, and then looked at the rest of the members of their tiny circle; each pair of eyes was staring at her intently. “Have I done something?” she asked. Her stomach was beginning to twist a bit with nerves, and she thought that she had a faint inkling of whatever this might be about, though she didn’t really want to give her mind a voice to express it.
Remus, at last, was the one who spoke first. “We’ve been talking,” he began in a measured voice, as though he were choosing his word extremely carefully. “About… about your situation.”
Beth swallowed hard, scrunching the fingers of her left hand into such a tight fist that the bones protruded sharply from the stretched skin. She lifted her right hand to rub her nose. “Okay,” she said thickly, her voice coming out flatter than she had intended. “What about it?”
Of course they had been talking; she hadn’t been the same in nine months, had she? She had tried hard, but it was extraordinarily difficult to act as though life was the same when it wasn’t, and never would be again. The mission with Sirius, and her adverse reaction to him doing his job, was very solid proof of that. Still, hearing that they had been talking about her – as opposed to knowing in a small, back-door part of her brain – was quite another thing entirely.
She saw James give a sideways glance at Sirius, who was still staring at her intently, like he was trying to will their opinions into her head by force. “You’re different, Beth,” he said bluntly, and then, as she opened her mouth, “Don’t deny it, please. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.”
“I know I’m different,” she shot back, her voice rough and sharp. “What about it? Would you like to be in my position, James?”
“Come off it, he’s not saying it to take a dig at you,” Sirius broke in sharply, and Beth covered her mouth with her hand.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, and was instantly ashamed to find tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. “I – sorry, James. I know that.”
“What we were discussing,” Peter interrupted, with an air of slightly panicked diplomacy, “was whether – whether or not we could help you.” He glanced around at the other three boys, ascertaining that what he had said was indeed correct, and Remus gave a nearly-imperceptible nod of the head.
Beth was silent for a long moment. “Help me how?” she asked finally. Sirius had finally averted his eyes from her face, and was staring at his shoes as though they were the most fascinating things in the world. Her insides twisted again, for a reason different from that of the problem with Severus, and she looked away from him hastily.
Again, Remus was the one to break the quiet. “As it happens, I’m going up to Hogwarts in a few days’ time,” he told Beth. “I’ve got to meet with Dumbledore about Ministry business.” The way he said it – and the way a slight flush had crept into his cheeks as he spoke – told Beth that it was about her, this meeting with their former headmaster, but she didn’t want to dwell on that.
“If you’d like, I can keep my eyes and ears open for something. I don’t know what, mind, but just… something that may get you out of this,” he finished.
“You think there is something?” Beth whispered. For the first time in what felt like years, tiny tremors of hope were coursing through her body, electrifying her senses; her fingers trembled with it.
“There’s a chance, isn’t there?” This was Sirius, and he spoke with such defiance that it almost seemed ludicrous to believe that there wasn’t something to be gleaned from all this.
“Yes. I suppose so.” Beth was still whispering, and then, before even she knew that she was going to do it, she threw her arms around Remus’s middle. He stumbled back a bit, surprised, and then righted himself and hugged her back. “That – Remus, if you would do that – you have no idea what that would mean to me.”
“I’m glad to do it,” he said. Beth felt a huge smile spreading across her face, the most genuine she had known since the previous summer. She shouldn’t get her hopes up – she knew that. And yet, hope was singing in her veins again, and she couldn’t bring herself to stop it singing for the world.
The five of them spoke nothing more about Severus, or Remus’s trip to Hogwarts, for the rest of the night. Lily’s party was pronounced a roaring success by all, and it was very nearly midnight by the time most of the guests thought to check their watches to begin the trip home. Sirius managed to find Beth’s coat amid the heap on the floor, and, after bidding good-night to the Potters, and planting more kisses than necessary on their godson’s head, the pair of them set out from Godric’s Hollow, Sirius having none of Beth’s protests against his walking her home.
“I walked here by myself,” she said, laughing nonetheless, as the pair of them started down the path through the front garden. “I think I can manage it back to my building.”
“Not a chance, Bethy,” he said easily. He stood back to open the small garden gate for her, and then, as she was passing through it, he paused, and, without warning, threw his head back to look at the sky; she mirrored the movement instinctually, though she didn’t know if she was looking for anything in particular. Far overhead, the sky was peppered with tiny pinpricks of stars, some of them winking, some of them burning steadily.
Beth reached out and grabbed the sleeve of Sirius’s coat to steady herself; looking up gave her sort of the opposite effect of climbing a spiral staircase, and both were liable to make her fall right over.
Sirius began humming, rather poorly, and swaying to and fro on the balls of his feet. Beth laughed. “You’ve had too much gillywater,” she informed him plaintively, and then added, catching a few bars of the humming, “Is that Beethoven?”
Sirius grinned over at her. “Good ear,” he said appreciatively. “I didn’t think you’d know Beethoven – my dear mother would keel over if she knew I listened to that sort of Muggle rot. Actually, I might hum a bit of that in front of her just to see that.”
“Charming,” Beth teased, though she wasn’t at all surprised.
“And I’ll have you know,” Sirius added, with mock affront, “I did not have too much gillywater, thank you very much.” He turned left onto the small street toward the center of town, and Beth followed, her head still tilted up at the stars.
“Was it your idea?” she asked suddenly, after a few minutes of quiet had passed between the pair of them, and they were nearly at the old stone war memorial in the town square. When Sirius didn’t respond at once, Beth attempted to clarify, though she didn’t really think that lack of comprehension was the issue. “Were you the one who suggested to Remus that he try and find out something at Hogwarts?”
“I asked James about it first,” her friend responded humbly, shifting his arm a bit to put his hands in his pockets against the chilly night air. “He thought it was a good idea, too.” She could feel his eyes on her again. “I want to see you happy again, Bethy.”
Beth turned her head to look at Sirius dead-on; he had stopped in the middle of the small, cobbled area that comprised the center of Godric’s Hollow. Her palms tingled with something electric, buzzing down to the tips of her fingers; her throat suddenly felt as though it had swollen to three times its normal size. There seemed, all at once, to be hundreds upon hundreds of words that needed to be said to fill the gap between them – and in all that space, how was she supposed to find the right ones?
“Thank you.” It did not suffice, but Sirius seemed satisfied enough with the two words. He cleared his throat slightly and craned his neck back again, humming softly under his breath the same song from earlier.
“Hey.” Beth nudged him in the ribs just then, an idea occurring to her quite suddenly, popping into her head from nowhere. Sirius cut the song short for a second time and looked back down at her. A small smile lifted the corners of her mouth.
“What would you say to a race home?” She glanced behind her then, as though checking the square for eavesdroppers, and turned back around. “A proper one? Paws versus wings?” Despite the fact that Sirius had told Dumbledore about their Animagus forms, neither of them had used them on missions, more to keep up a front of rule-following than anything else. As a result, Beth couldn’t remember the last time she had stretched her wings properly.
A wicked grin lit up Sirius’s face, and his eyes sparked immediately with fun. “Oh, you’re so on,” he laughed, the sound already more barklike than it might have been otherwise. “Last one to your building has to buy a round of drinks next week at the Three Broomsticks?”
“Deal,” Beth smirked, withdrawing her arm from Sirius’s and standing facing him on the pavement. Then she blinked, and Sirius had transformed. She could hear his loud, joyous barks, moving away from her as the giant black dog blended with the shadows, running pell-mell out of Godric’s Hollow.
“Wait! I didn’t say ‘go,’ Sirius! That’s cheating!” she called after him, but his barking was already growing fainter and fainter. With a laugh, Beth took a step forward into the space Sirius had only just vacated, her form changing as she did so, the ground rushing to meet her.
A peregrine falcon, she tipped her head back and looked for a final time at the star-specked sky overhead. Beth let out a long, keening cry, stretched her wings, and took off into flight, beating the air beneath her, feeling it rush over her feathers, and feeling more comfortable – more at home – than she could remember feeling in a long, long time.
A/N: And the plot finally picks up! Sometimes it's tough getting through the introduction chapters of a story, even if the story's already got two other books to back it up, but we're getting into the swing of things now. Beth's started her new job, the boys have offered to help Beth get Severus's memories back... and we don't know what Severus is doing at this moment, but you can be sure it's espionage-y!
Thanks for sticking with Breaking Even so far. I'm so, so happy with how people are enjoying it, and I hope you continue to do so!
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