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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 22 : The Memory Bottle
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 6

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It had all come down to this.

Beth was shaking from head to toe and couldn’t keep herself still for the world, despite the fact that this Halloween night was rather mild for late October. Her jaw ached from pressing her teeth together, but she didn’t want James to see how nervous she was.

It had been more than gracious of him, venturing out here with her tonight at all. She’d only asked him to lend her his Invisibility Cloak for the night, swearing up and down that she’d return it when she was through. Instead of just handing it over – or, worse, refusing outright – he’d offered to walk her to the gates so she could lean on him as a bit of moral support.

But if he could sense how apprehensive Beth was about the entire operation, he might try and stop her from going into Hogwarts, and she didn’t want him to get the opportunity. More than that, she didn’t want to have the opportunity. She didn’t want to find out if she’d take it or not.

A sliver of a waxing moon hung in the sky, but it wasn’t bright enough to fully illuminate the grounds of Hogwarts below it. Stars were scattered across the ink-dark sky, and wind scuttled through the grass, stirring up eddies of dead leaves and twigs and tossing her hair across her face and neck. Beth craned her neck back to get a better view of the distant turret of Ravenclaw Tower, closest to the gate. There was a yellow spot of light shining from a window midway up; she wondered who was awake at this time of night.

I didn’t think I’d be returning like this.

“You all right, Beth?” James’s voice spoke out of the darkness next to her, sounding just as hesitant as she felt. It was not a comforting thought. She closed her eyes as another breeze manifested itself from the direction of the lake, carrying the scent of mud and water across the grass to her.


“You don’t have to do this, you know,” he told her now. He shifted a step forward, so that he was standing halfway in front of her. The Invisibility Cloak was pooled in his arms, the odd silvery tints of its fabric glinting oddly with reflected moonlight. James’s glasses winked with the same refractions. “You have plenty of time, Beth. We can come back and do this later.”

Beth didn’t answer, but slipped a hand into her pocket, pressing the tips of her fingers against the crinkled parchment inside. Sirius had been more than willing to lend the Marauder’s Map to her, when she’d asked; she thought he still felt guilty for having written Dumbledore about her and Severus in the first place. She suspected that was one of the main reasons he’d wanted to help her attempt to restore Severus’s memories in the first place, but then she wasn’t about to question it.

James was wrong. There wasn’t plenty of time – she’d already wasted so much of it. She’d taken the Ministry job instead of fighting to stay on mission work; she’d let herself get angry and suspicious and jealous of her friends, time and again. And all along, she could have been doing the one thing she knew had the chance to make her happy again. She felt as though her entire life was an hourglass, and instead of turning it around, keeping it running, she’d just been watching grains of sand trickling through the glass.

“It’s got to be tonight,” Beth told James, moving her right hand from her pocket and clasping it with her left. She brought her hands to her chin, and shifted her gaze from Ravenclaw Tower to her friend, her best friend. A sad smile tilted James’s lips, and she knew he understood. “Thank you for coming out here with me, though.”

James’s smiled widened into a grin. “Well, ‘course,” he said with mock indifference. “Got to help you keep your nose clean up until the last second, haven’t I?” He reached out a fist and knocked her shoulder lightly.

“Seriously, though,” she said, a small frown tugging at the corner of her mouth. “I don’t think Dumbledore would really advise leaving Godric’s Hollow, you know.” She said the words carefully, as though setting them on thin ice. James was understandably frustrated at being a prisoner in his own home, even more so than he had been before, when he was less of a threat than the Order now knew he and Lily were to You-Know-Who.

“I needed to get out,” James said, running a hand through the back of his hair and squinting, like he was trying to remember something. “And I think Dumbledore would approve a damn sight less of what you’re doing, Little Miss Breaking-And-Entering.” Beth stuck her tongue out at him, and he stuck his out right back. “Besides,” he added, sobering, “it means a lot to you.”

Beth nodded, feeling the smile slide from her face as she fought a sudden lump in her throat. It took her a few tries at clearing it before she could speak. “That it does.”

The plan seemed stupidly simple: Get through the gates, into the castle, and up to Dumbledore’s office. Grab the bottle of memories from where James and Sirius claimed to have seen it, on the bottom of a shelf behind the headmaster’s desk. Get out safely.

Beth didn’t know where Severus was, but she knew where to start looking – she still had letters he’d sent her well over a year ago, and her owl Oscar had to know where they’d come from. The fact that Severus might have moved apartments had crossed her mind more than once, feeding small doubts into the back of her brain, but it was a start. The first thing to do was get those memories. Everything would be downhill from there.

She hoped.

James shifted the Invisibility Cloak over one arm and lifted the sleeve of his robes, checking the time. “Half past nine,” he informed her. “Going in, then?”

Beth swallowed and nodded again. As something was doing cartwheels inside her stomach, she stepped forward, trying not to look too closely at either of the winged boars framing the gates; they looked more massive and imposing from this angle, much more so than she’d anticipated. Dumbledore’s voice trickled unbidden into her mind, echoing words she’d heard him say so long ago, the night Severus had had his memories erased:

“There are certain doors I have locked against those I have not deemed trustworthy to enter.”

“Don’t let me be one of them,” she muttered to herself, and laid her palm against the cool iron. For a heart-stopping moment, nothing happened – and then the bars melted away as though they’d been nothing more than gas. Beth let out a huge sigh of relief and turned to look at James over her shoulder. He beamed encouragingly, flashing her a thumbs-up; Dumbledore had enchanted the gates to let members of the Order through in times of emergency, something he’d told them long ago, but Beth had held fairly reasonable doubts about her ability to use that charm since March.

James shuffled forward through the dark, handing over his Invisibility Cloak to her. “I’ll see you soon,” he promised. “The password to his study is ‘Every-Flavour Beans.’ The gargoyle shouldn’t have to ask why you’re there as long as you’ve got the password, so you’ll –”

“How d’you know that?” Beth asked in incredulity, slipping the Cloak around her shoulders, unnerved at the instantaneous way her body just seemed to fade from existence.

James smiled mischievously. “It’s kind of amazing, actually, the sort of information Dumbledore’ll cough up when I sound worried enough. Going into hiding has its perks.” But Beth didn’t miss the strain in his voice or the tension around his eyes when he said it, and before she knew what she was going, she’d thrown her arms around his neck, nearly choking him in her gratitude.

“Thank you,” she whispered into his neck, feeling hot tears spring to her eyes, burning at the backs. She blinked them away quickly, stepping back into the gap between the boar pillars and scrubbing at her eyes with her knuckle.

“Don’t mention it,” James said. “Just come straight back to us as soon as you get the memories, yeah? And then we’ll all figure out what to do next together.”

“I will,” Beth promised. “And thank you. Again.” He scoffed, and she laughed at him, rather aware that she couldn’t seem to stop appreciating him for all he’d done for her tonight. “I’ll see you soon, James.”

He waved, one hand ensconced in the pockets of his robes, and for a moment he seemed framed in silhouette: Dark hair, dark glasses, dark hand against a star-strewn sky. Then he moved away a few steps and turned on his heel, and he was gone. Beth blew out a quiet breath, turned in the opposite direction, and started for the massive oaken front doors of Hogwarts.

She half-expected someone to be waiting for her behind the scrub brush or boulders that lined the carriage path up to the school, but it was silent as a tomb. James’s Cloak was large even for him, but it completely dwarfed Beth, who stood a good hand shorter, and the back of it trailed along the ground behind her. She wondered if its being invisible meant that no one could hear it, too, but wasn’t about to test the theory.

She had not been back at Hogwarts since her last day of seventh year, and still everything looked the same. The stone on the castle was washed pale in the sliver of moonlight, the green grass bathed silver-white, and in the distance she could hear the Black Lake lapping at its pebbled shores. Even though she was more than nervous for what she was doing, the reason she’d returned at all, pangs of pleasant nostalgia rippled through her.

The cavernous ceiling of the entrance hall was lost in the gloom, and Beth gulped instinctively as she cracked open one of the two front doors, pulling it behind her as soon as she’d slipped inside. Dust motes danced in the moonbeams shooting down from the high, narrow arched windows under the rafters, and she could smell the must and faint mildew that always appeared to lurk just out of sight of Filch’s mop and broom.

Get to Dumbledore’s. Get the memory bottle. Get out.

There was a sudden noise from the first floor landing, just as Beth had begun to make her tentative way across the flagstones, and she froze instantly, halfway between the doors and the first flight of steps. There was silence, and then a noise like the first – a loud, crashing sort of bang that echoed off the walls. Beth clapped her hands to her ears, heart thudding, and then scrambled in her pocket for the Marauder’s Map.

“I solemnly swear that I’m up to no good,” she hissed under her breath, jabbing the tip of her wand at the parchment. Ink blossomed over its surface, and tiny labeled dots bloomed to life on the sketched floors and towers of the castle. Her eyes darted over Mrs. Norris, patrolling the fifth floor, and a tiny dot labeled Eustacia Marvin, who had apparently found her way into the kitchens, and found the dot on the first floor. Peeves’s dot was bouncing back and forth rather quickly between the walls. Judging by the noise, the suits of armor were taking the brunt of the blow.

“Right,” she whispered aloud, and then remembered that whatever the Cloak might sound like on its own, it definitely did not smother the noises she made. Beth hissed, “Mischief managed,” and the inky lines on the parchment faded back into the paper, leaving it blank and innocent-looking once more. She stuffed it haphazardly into her pocket and pressed her fingers over her lips, a physical reminder that she needed to move quietly.

She started for the stairs again, gripping tight to the railing, and approached the first floor as slowly as she could manage. Just as she was about to round the corner, Peeves came zipping out of it, floating through the air on his back. His bright orange bow tie was hanging a bit crookedly about his neck, but judging from the delighted cackles the poltergeist was emitting, he either hadn’t noticed, or didn’t mind.

Them knights are so cranky and so full of sass,” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, twirling about in midair like a torpedo. “And all of the men of steel and of brass, will turn right around and kick Peevesy’s –“

“PEEVES!” came a roar from the opposite end of the corridor, and Beth, who had stopped to listen to Peeves’s rather rude song, slammed her back against a stone wall so fast her head nearly cracked against it. “I’LL HAVE YOU, PEEVES, I’LL HAVE YOU!”

Apparently, Filch did not mind waking half the castle in pursuit of his favorite quarry, despite the anger he spewed when he found students out of bed. Beth did not have to check the map to see who was shouting now. The caretaker, his long hair much grayer than she remembered, came pelting around the corner, lantern swinging wildly and spattering the carpet runner beneath him with oil.

Peeves had turned himself fully upside-down in front of a large stained-glass depiction of the wizard Baruffio and the large buffalo sitting on his chest. The bells on his hat tinked merrily. “Evening, cappy-tan,” he said, saluting Filch with an intentionally rude hand gesture.

“WHIZZING ABOUT CORRIDORS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT! THIS IS THE LAST STRAW!” Filch was apoplectic with rage; his nose had gone bright red and was quivering slightly. He passed in front of the wall Beth had pressed herself against, so close that she felt the wake of his passing stir the hem of the Cloak. She drew in a quick breath and held it, sucking in her stomach uselessly. As soon as he was past, she began to shimmy along the wall, praying that over his yelling and the bells on Peeves’s hat any noises she might make would be lost.

“Saw your cat prowling about, I did.” Peeves made a neat little upside-down pirouette. “Said to myself that she’d look a spot nicer with black fur. You’re welcome.” He began tugging on his earlobes and trying to touch the tip of his nose with his tongue.

“What have you done to my cat?!” Filch hissed in an almost-whisper. His anger had surmounted yelling; the hand that clenched the handle of his lantern was white with rage. He didn’t wait for the poltergeist’s answer, but instead turned and began jogging back the way he’d come, muttering obscenities under his breath, lamp bobbing wildly like a will-o’-the-wisp.

For anyone listening, here’s what I think,” Peeves began singing again, bobbing along in the direction of the stairwell. “Never leave Peeves alone with the ink!” Finishing off his couplet with the scraping of his fingernails along the stone banister, raising the hair on Beth’s arms, he zipped off toward the entrance hall, whooping loudly.

As soon as she was sure the coast was clear, and that Filch wasn’t going to come back this way in search of Peeves any time soon, Beth started off again down the hall, making for the gargoyle that guarded the third floor entrance to Dumbledore’s office.

Her anxiety had dimmed somewhat in the face of Peeves and Filch, but a tight, compressing feeling returned to her chest as she slipped along the hallway, keeping close to the walls and eyeing every plinth she passed in case of a quick need to hide. No one approached her path, but it wasn’t only being intercepted by Filch, or Mrs. Norris, or a wandering student, that she was concerned about.

Assuming she did manage to get into Dumbledore’s and sneak the bottle from his shelf – what then? Despite her thoughts earlier, standing outside the gates with James, finding Severus might not be nearly as easy as she would have liked to have hoped. And she would have to act quickly, lest Dumbledore should find the bottle gone, which he inevitably would. The number of people he would suspect for stealing a bottle of Severus Snape’s memories would be understandably slim.

And there was the issue of memory restoration itself, too. Beth had no idea how to go about putting memories back in someone’s brain, especially since Severus had had them removed by choice – if that even mattered. Would he take them back, if she turned up on his doorstep? What would she have done, if a man appeared at her flat with a suspicious-looking bottle, insisting that they’d known each other, possibly even loved each other, at one point…

Stop that, she told herself. Pausing in the middle of a moonlit stretch of a corridor on the second floor, Beth closed her eyes, pressing her lips together. In her mind’s eye she called up an image of Severus, the kiss they had shared the night he forgot about her.

He felt love, too. I know he did. And I have to trust him now.

Her eyes flew open again, and she reached for the thin chain on her right wrist, the tips of her fingers closing over the bird charm dangling there.

The rest of the brief journey to the third floor passed by very uneventfully. Wherever Filch was – presumably on the fifth floor, tending to a cat that was no doubt covered in ink – he did not retreat towards the third floor, and Beth heard no more from Peeves, poetic or otherwise. She rounded a final corner and came face to face with an imposing-looking gargoyle stationed at the end of a corridor that was otherwise completely useless. It stared at her with blank, unseeing stone eyes, crouched on a low pedestal and half-hidden in nighttime shadows.

Beth could feel her pulse throbbing in her neck, just under her jaw. She had no reason to doubt James’s password, but if it didn’t work…

She came to a stop in front of the gargoyle and threw back the hood of the Cloak – she didn’t think you had to actually make yourself visible for the password to work, but then again, she didn’t want to take any chances. The air felt cool on her face after spending the previous fifteen minutes underneath fabric.

“Every-Flavour Beans,” she whispered hesitantly. Even though she was whispering, the sound of her voice sounded extremely loud in the deserted corridor. Beth caught her breath, waiting.

For a few painfully still seconds, nothing happened, and her heart plummeted like a rock. And then, with a great scraping of stone on stone, the gargoyle lumbered sideways, revealing a door and a slowly-moving spiral staircase, curving up into darkness.

“Thank you,” Beth breathed, even though she knew it obviously couldn’t hear her. Looking straight ahead, she stepped onto the bottommost stair.

She closed her eyes as she wound upward, trailing her fingertips along the tight stone walls and trying to will away her feeling of nausea. The last time she had been on this staircase, Beth remembered idly, she’d been going to one of Dumbledore’s little Order meetings, before the Order itself was realized in the minds of the seventh-year Gryffindors who’d been so keen to join. Was it really only a few years ago that she’d been a student here? And now Marlene was dead. There was such a difference between what she’d thought life would be, eighteen and young and naïve, and what life had turned out to be.

She stumbled as the stairs merged into solid stone, bracing her hand against the wooden door at the top, closed tight against the stairwell. A sudden thought ran through her like an electric current, cold shivers zipping up and down her arms: If Dumbledore was inside, she was done for. She’d not planned on him being there, knowing he must have had somewhere besides his office to sleep, but anything seemed possible now.

With trembling fingers, Beth eased the door open, ready to bolt back down the stairs at the first sign of movement.

But nothing happened. The office was as empty as the rest of the castle had been, minus her run-in with Filch and Peeves, and its many high windows let in enough of the weak light from the moon and stars that it almost looked well-lit. The pale silver light glinted off the numerous silver instruments dotting the room on spindly tables, whirring and clacking gently in the silence; one near the far wall was periodically puffing out sickle-shaped clouds of dense indigo smoke.

Beth closed the door behind her gingerly, sliding the Cloak from her shoulders, and at the precise moment the door clicked shut, there was a soft caw from behind it. She jumped, whirling around, and came upon a scarlet-and-gold phoenix, sitting primly on a golden perch that had been hidden from sight until this moment. It blinked dark, beady eyes at her, tipping its head almost inquiringly.

“Sorry,” she hissed, raising her hands and backing away. “I’ll just – five minutes tops, I swear.”

The bird let out another caw, shuffling a few inches to the right. Its talons clacked on the gold, echoing in the silence, but it made no alarm to alert Dumbledore that someone had entered his study. She continued to watch it, but after a few moments it lost its interest, turning its head and preening itself with a narrow golden beak.

Beth sighed in relief and spun on the spot, eyeing the shelves ranged behind the headmaster’s desk. The books were stacked in extraordinarily neat piles – from what she could see, they were arranged not only by color, but by author name as well – and not a single spine was misaligned or out of place. The stacks of parchment and books on the desk were immaculate, as well, all edges aligned and laid square with the corners of the desk.

She averted her eyes from the books, creeping gingerly around the edge of the desk to see the bottoms of the shelves. Thick brown books, an award for an accolade so distant that the letters had rubbed off with time –

And there it was.

The bottled memories seemed to generate a moonlight all their own, the small patch of wood around it glowing bright silver where the windows did not touch the space. A gray-white gas was swirling around the glass, it seemed, undulating gently, and Beth stood for a few moments watching it as though transfixed.

I’m in there. I’m that vapor. It was the most absurd and ludicrous thing she could ever remember thinking, and yet it was true – that was her, as Severus knew her and thought of her. For a hallucinatory second she envisioned tipping the contents of the bottle into her own mind, just to know how he perceived her…

The phoenix behind her ruffled its great wings with a sound like a giant rush of air, and it jerked Beth back to reality enough for her to swoop down and grab the bottle before she could think twice. She stuffed it into her pocket, closing a hand around it for safekeeping, and only then did she allow a small bubble of hope to blossom inside her chest.

“Get out,” she muttered, repeating the final step of the plan to herself. James would be back at Godric’s Hollow now, but he would be waiting to hear from her, to know that she’d gotten the memories, and so would Sirius, and even Lily. She squeezed the bottle once for luck and then headed for the door, catching the eye of the phoenix on the way out.

“Thanks,” she whispered, although she wasn’t entirely sure why. The bird dipped its head at her, and she smiled in spite of herself, and then slipped through the door and back down the stairs, even more quickly than she’d ascended them in the first place. Beth was flying now, scurrying along corridors striped in alternating patches of moonlight and shadow, her heart singing. I can do this, I can do this, I’m already halfway there!

She had nearly rounded the corner at the end of the third floor, heading back for the stairwell that would take her to the second, when she heard it. It was quiet, but years of pulling pranks alongside her friends had trained her ears well to listen for unexpected noises, and the sound of feet moving along stone and carpet was nearly unmistakable. She halted where she stood, robes swirling about her feet and stirring up dust. Her hands clutched at her shoulders to wrap the Cloak more securely about her –

But the Cloak wasn’t there.

Bright lights popped in front of her eyes, a side effect from the sudden dizziness a rush of panic had brought on. Beth scrabbled at the fabric of her robes, as though it had only slipped out of place, but even now she knew what had become of James’s Invisibility Cloak. She had a distinct memory of removing it in Dumbledore’s, and had let it fall to the floor –

The headmaster would know she had been in there. He would find Severus’s memories missing, and now he wouldn’t have a single doubt as to where to go looking for them. And even if he didn’t suspect her outright, he knew that the Cloak was James’s, and from there it was only too easy to connect the rest of the dots. How could she have been so stupid, so bloody stupid as to leave such damnably incriminating evidence behind?

For a millisecond, she debated running back to the office to grab the Cloak and try for a second attempt at a getaway from the castle. But a low groan escaped her before she’d realized what she was doing, and even though Beth clapped a hand over her mouth almost at once, she knew it was too late. The footsteps around the corner stopped, and faintly she heard a man. “Did you hear something, Annette?”

“No,” drawled a bored-sounding girl’s voice. “I’m too tired for your games, Quincy, let’s just go back to the common room –“

Students out of bed, thought Beth desperately, but didn’t pursue the train of thought any further. Back the way she had come was the entrance to a secret tunnel under the main stairwell, hidden by a frayed tapestry of Langdon the Lackluster, and she didn’t have time for a better plan. As quickly as she dared, she turned and ran for the tapestry, just managing to throw herself behind it as Annette and Quincy came around the corner.

The passageway behind the tapestry was narrow – much narrower than Beth had remembered it being, although she didn’t feel as though she’d changed that much since school. Her shoulders brushed the stone walls on either side of her, and without glancing up she knew the ceiling was only a few inches above her head at most. She focused on keeping her breathing even and steady, listening as the pair of students continued to approach. Quincy was speaking again, his voice an arrogant whine in the silence as he tried to coax Annette to stay with him for a few more minutes.

“… make a whole evening of it,” he was saying now. Beth rather thought he was speaking much too loudly for someone sneaking around the castle after hours. “No one’s even awake, anyway. We’re not going to get caught.”

“The caretaker’s still prowling around,” Annette responded sniffily. “And that horrible cat of his.” The sound of steps on carpet ceased, only a few feet from the tapestry that concealed Beth. If they knew about the passageway, if they decided to take it tonight, she was done for…

“We’ve only been caught once before,” the boy’s voice argued back. “We could go to the dungeons –“

“I don’t fancy getting caught down there,” Annette interrupted. “It’s damp and scary down there. And that new potions professor absolutely gives me the creeps.”

“Professor Snape’s not going to catch us –“

Quincy kept talking after that, Beth was sure, but that was the last sentence she heard clearly. As soon as the name was out of his mouth, she felt her blood turn to ice in her veins, her heart thudding against her windpipe painfully. Her fingernails clutched at the walls in a desperate attempt to keep herself upright.

Professor Snape.


He’s in the castle.

A/N: I HAVE WAITED SO, SO LONG TO POST THIS. This is the first of two chapters that involve Beth breaking into Hogwarts -- it was supposed to be one, but take a look at the length of this chapter and you'll see why I split it up. (And chapter 23 is even longer!) Most of this was written in one sitting, too, because I absolutely could not stop, and it feels surreal that we've reached this point in the updating schedule. But this is the "snowball" referenced in last week's author note. Everything just gains momentum from here!

Theories! Is Beth going to make it to Severus? How is she going to convince him she's who she says she is? Are they going to get his memories restored? Oh, I really can't wait to see what everyone thinks. I'm basically having fits of excitement over here anyway. 

SO EXCITED. ♥ Thank you so much for reading! If you have the time to leave a review, it's really appreciated, too. 

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