Bright rays of sunshine were streaming down with unseasonable warmth that afternoon, drying out the grass and the people there alike. It wasn’t even noon, but the sun was high enough in the sky that Beth Bridger was sweating profusely in her T-shirt and jeans. She wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, brushing sticky strands of her unmanageably curly black hair away from where they clung to her temples, and checked the address on the slip of parchment once more. Life would be so much easier once she was old enough to Apparate – then she wouldn’t have to walk anytime she needed to get someplace, and worry about melting on the way there.

It was a bit strange that this was the first time she would be visiting James Potter, as she was the only one of her group of friends – consisting of James, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew, in addition to herself – who had not yet been there. Granted, she had been the last to join in the camaraderie, and had known them all the shortest amount of time, but it had been long enough that a visit to the Potters’ had been a necessary rite of passage before the seventh year of school. She had heard almost nothing the last couple of weeks before the end of term except for how much everyone looked forward to returning to James’s house for the long summer afternoons. They had, as Remus had so keenly pointed out to them at the end of last year, only one real summer left before they had to get on with their lives as fully responsible adult wizards.

Leaving school, of course, was scary in itself, as Beth had no clue what exactly she wanted to do with her life after her time at Hogwarts ended. But today was not the day to dwell too much on it, she decided. She wanted to enjoy herself. She always thought too hard about everything; it was a sort of curse upon her.

Glancing up, she nearly ran into a lamppost, and only just swerved out of the way in time. She really hoped she was heading in the right direction, because the last thing she needed at the moment was to get lost in a strange neighborhood in southern England. She idly wished she had taken up on her mother’s offer to help her find the place, but then firmly shoved that hope back where it belonged. After all the screaming she’d been witness to that morning, she could very well have gone without seeing either her mother or her father until the next summer holiday.

A large and well-built brick house loomed up on her left as she turned a corner. She looked down at the paper in her hand, and then up at the numbers to the right of the front door, breathing an unrestrained sigh of genuine relief. This was the place. She suddenly felt nervous, although she felt stupid for it at the same time - each of those four boys was like a brother to her, and she could not remember when she had not been herself around them. Standing up straight and pushing her shoulders back, she pushed open the well-oiled iron gate and began walking up the long drive to the front door.

As she reached the porch steps, however, the door was thrown open of its own accord, and she froze. Maybe she had gotten the wrong house – the Potters did live right alongside Muggles, after all, and they might not take kindly to a stranger walking up their front drive so brazenly. But then she recognized the figure on the other side of that door, and it came hurtling down the path at her, limbs flying in only the way a teenage boy’s can, before drastically overshooting its target. As it darted by her, one of its arms gave her an almighty whack in the upper shoulder.

“Merlin, James!” she gasped loudly as her arm throbbed. She instinctively clutched it to her - that was going to leave a pretty big bruise. James Potter just grinned cheekily and thumped her on the other arm for good measure. She knew this was his way of greeting her, but she wished all his greetings didn’t come with so much pain.

“We thought you had gotten lost, you took so long,” he said happily, slinging an arm around her shoulders in a way that was finally not meant to injure. “Sirius was all for calling a search party.”

“I’m not that late,” Beth said defensively, not being able to help laughing at Sirius and his penchant for wanting to stir up a bit of excitement, as always. “Besides, Mum was in one of her moods – she had just had a fight with Dad. I wanted to wait until it was safe to leave.”

Although the tone she used was dismissive, the words weighed far heavier than that – both present knew this. James’s eyebrows rose a fraction further into his messy hairline, but he wisely chose not to comment. Beth’s parents, both of magical blood, had been fighting even more than normal lately. That was another reason she was so glad of an excuse to see her friends. A return to normal companionship was welcome, even if it cost a few sore arms.

The inside of the Potter house was as expected, from everything Beth knew of James and how wealthy his family was. It was richly decorated, and covered in the summer with high drapes to keep the sun from ruining the furniture. The polished wood floors sparkled from the light of chandeliers – Beth would have bet her wand they were real crystal – and everything screamed not to be touched. She felt a bit awkward, and wondered idly how a boy like James Potter had come from a house like this. It seemed too fragile for someone like him; a boy growing up here would be quiet as a mouse, and less like the whirlwind tornado James so often resembled.

“Everyone else is already out back,” James was saying, leading the way around a set of ornately carved stairs to a door hidden halfway under them. “Mum and Dad are out, as always, so you are free to be yourself again.” He shot her a mischievous grin. He knew exactly how hard it was for Beth to open up around most people, and could sense her timidity at the current moment from a mile away.

But they had always had a connection like that, ever since the four of them had met all the way back in their second year. The four boys had already formed a sort of group, but Beth had never really bonded well with the other Gryffindor girls in their year. James and Sirius had sort of taken her under their wing, as it were. They were different from the other people she knew at school, and that was a good thing; she had never had to put on a front before them, and didn’t now, which she appreciated more than words could say.

When, soon after getting to know them, she and the other boys had discovered that Remus was a werewolf, she had been a bit scared at first, having only read about werewolves in class and never thinking she might come face to face with one. In all her life, she never could have imagined that she would be friends with a werewolf. But it had been James who had been most accepting, though – helping him out during full moons, keeping others’ suspicions as ease, and even eventually coming up with the Animagus plan so they could assist in the Shrieking Shack. Encouraged by the other three, Beth joined in this plan, eventually being able to transform into a peregrine falcon by fifth year. It worked nicely with the other boys’ animals – James as a stag, Sirius as a dog, and Peter as a rat. And with all the owls that continually circled the castle, she was never too conspicuous, which was another plus.

She owed a lot of who she was to these boys – she suspected that was why she had tolerated them for five years. Now she followed James into the back garden, where Sirius, Remus, and Peter were sprawled beneath a gnarled oak tree, half-asleep from heat and inactivity.

“Look who I found out on the walk,” James called, and Peter sat up. He grinned and offered her a wave in greeting, which she returned enthusiastically. She had forgotten how good it was to be in the company of her best friends, and only realized it now that she was returning. Beth sat cross-legged between Remus and Peter, and immediately began plucking at the blades of grass that were still growing in the shade, her hands always seeking something to do when she wasn’t doing otherwise.

“So, what have you been up to, Bethy?” Sirius asked, his eyes still closed as he lay sprawled on his back, dark hair falling across his face. He’d always called her Bethy; it was at the same time endearing and annoying. She ignored it now, though, too happy at seeing him again to call him out on it.

“The same,” she said, with a nonchalant little shrug. “Doing summer assignments, writing letters, trying not to get killed during Mum and Dad’s constant fighting.” That last was said, once again, with a note of bitterness she had been unable to hide. All of them, especially Beth, had learned it was better not to dwell on that sort of aspect of life. Sirius couldn’t resist throwing in his own attack on his family, though.

“I hear you there,” he said, his eyes moving behind their closed lids as though seeing something no one else could see. “And added onto that, my little brother is being a pain in the arse, as usual. I would move in here if I could, mate,” he added, directing this last thought towards James. Sirius now had a place of his own, bought with money inherited from a great-uncle of his, but always moaned about having to do his own laundry. There were times, he said, when even he wished his insufferable house-elf was around, if only to do chores.

“You just want free food,” James accused with mock severity, but Sirius just grinned lazily.

“Not going to deny that, am I?” He sat up suddenly, stretching his arms behind him and nearly whacking Remus in the face. “Let’s do something, then,” he said, as though he’d been mulling over this very idea for a while now.

“Like what – sleep?” said Peter scornfully, and Sirius swatted him good-naturedly on the back of his head.

“Let’s go swimming,” Remus burst in excitedly, finally lifting his nose from the book he’d been engrossed in since Beth had arrived. The other four eyed him skeptically, but the enthusiasm on his face was contagious. “We could hike down to that little pond, James,” he continued. “Please?”

“No one brought bathing suits,” said James bluntly. “And that pond is disgusting. Even I haven’t been in there. No one in their right mind would touch the water.”

“Oh… yeah.”

Sirius heaved a great sigh and flopped back onto the grass. “I cannot wait until this year is over,” he said grumpily, waving his arms and legs around as though trying to make a snow angel in the dry grass. “I am so sick of school. I want to get out in the world and do something.”

Beth, who had been a spectator to the fast-moving conversation until that point, piped up. “I’m terrified, actually,” she said, only half kidding. “I have no idea what I want to do, and you know that that’s all they are going to be drilling into us this year.” She brushed the hair off her forehead again, as it had once again begun to cling to her from the perspiration beading there. It was a bit of a stupid thing to be afraid of, really, but she could not help it. It went hand in hand with her penchant for worrying.

“You stress too much, Bethy,” Sirius grinned, as though reading her mind. He sat up again and held his hands out in front of him, ticking things off an invisible list he had created. “There’s only two things to do this year. I plan to not get expelled, first of all. And we’ve had a lot of practice at dodging punishment, anyway, so that’s no big deal. Then I’m on to solving the mystery of why girls think so bloody much.”

“How are you planning on doing that, then?” said Remus, while Peter made a sound that was somewhere between a choke and a laugh at how ridiculous that last bit sounded. Sirius shrugged.

“It’s going to be tough. I don’t think even girls know how they get tangled up in all those meaningless thoughts. No offense, Bethy,” he added, grinning wickedly and waggling his eyebrows at her. She rolled her eyes again and held up her hands as if in total surprise that the conversation had strayed where it had.

“Me? Why on earth would I take offense to that?” she asked sarcastically, and James laughed.

"Besides, if you boys actually used your brains, figuring ours out wouldn't be quite so difficult," she said lightly. Sirius at least had the decency to look affronted, although he knew she was just returning the snide jest.

As the topic inevitably switched to girls – they were, after all, seventeen-year-old boys – Beth drew rather quiet, and for more than the obvious reason. She was always uncomfortable even skirting around the subject of crushes and relationships around her friends, not just because they were boys and she was a girl. It was because of whom she liked specifically, because if they ever found out, they might never forgive her.

She didn’t know why she’d chosen that particular boy, out of everyone, to fancy. It really didn’t make sense, when she looked at it from a bystander’s perspective. Not that those sorts of things ever made much sense, really. He had never even given her so much as the time of day in all the six years she’d known him. It was stupid, and unthinkable, and not worth her time.

That’s what Beth told herself, anyway; she just had a small problem believing that little fact. For six years, ever since seeing him in the Great Hall that first night in the castle, it had been very, very hard for her to get him out of her mind. She knew she should move on, or at least give someone else a chance, but knowing and acting were two very different things. But all other excuses aside, she felt that, as her stand-in brothers, the four boys would probably be very selective about her dating choices – one of the downsides to hanging out almost exclusively with an all-male group of friends.

“Head out of the clouds, please,” James said pleasantly, startling Beth out of her ruminations. She crossed her eyes at him and tried not to let the subject of that boy make itself evident on her face; not for the first time, she was glad of the naivety of teenage boys.

“Like I want to hear about all your talk about the girls you fancy,” she scoffed, going on the defensive. “Going after Evans again this year, are we?”

James puffed out his chest and pretended to polish an apple on his shirt. “Yep,” he said, grinning, and the sun caught the lenses of his glasses, temporarily hiding his eyes from Beth’s view. “This is my year, boys – and, uh, girl. This is the year that Lily Evans will finally say yes to the man that is James Alexander Potter.”

Peter snorted. “You’ve been saying that for the past three years.” Sirius laughed and clapped his friend appreciatively on the back, and Beth offered her own little grin; Remus was once again buried in his book.

“Believe what you want,” said James, “but it is going to happen. I’m absolutely sure of it this time.”

Remus muttered, “You’ve said that for the past three years, too.” James pretended not to hear him as he jumped to his feet, brushing the grass and dirt off his palms.

“I’ve just remembered – Beth, you haven’t heard yet!” he exclaimed, a sudden excitement lighting up his face. “I’ve made Head Boy!”

This news was so shocking that Beth nearly fell over. “What?” she spluttered, looking from James to Sirius to Peter, as though asking someone to let her in on the joke. “You? But you – I mean – we all thought it would be Remus, didn’t we?”

“Beats me,” said James, grinning and unthinkingly running his hand through his hair, causing it to look even messier than it had previously – he was always doing this. “I just know I get to boss first-years around now. This is going to be excellent.”

Beth and Remus groaned at the same time, and James had the decency to look offended, but let it slide for the time being. He reached into the pocket of his jeans and withdrew a pair of bent and tattered Exploding Snap cards, which had been used so much that Beth could now hear they were emitting faint popping sounds.

“Shall we play, then?” The five of them played Exploding Snap almost obsessively – it was a distraction on full moons, when the four of them kept vigil by the Whomping Willow while Remus was in Hogsmeade, and also when they should have been doing homework.

“Nothing else to do, so we might as well,” said Sirius in a bored voice, poking at an ant in the grass, his attention already long gone from the topic of Lily Evans. Beth watched James take the deck into his hands and shuffle them, and her mind, too, wandered off. And as it so often did after a discussion like the one they’d just had, it wandered back to the subject she had never voiced aloud. It was odd enough to voice it in her head without getting grief about it from her friends, as well.

If they ever found out that she had a long-standing crush on Severus Snape, she might as well begin planning her funeral.

A/N: Well, this is perhaps one of the more terrifying things I've done in recent memory. Welcome to my second novel (and how weird it is for me to say that)! It's a bit of a rough-cut path I've made for myself, but I'm going to forge ahead as best as possible. Thanks for reading, and if you've got this far and wouldn't mind leaving a review, that'd be awesome. Hope you enjoy "In The Black"!

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