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Chapter 12: A Chance Meeting
Severus watched Beth ascend the stairs into the Great Hall, staring in that direction long after her footsteps had faded from earshot. That had been one of the most interesting, and simultaneously, the most awkward, conversations that he could remember being a part of. After all, there was no easy way to tell a girl that you’d just read a rather private letter of hers.
At the beginning of the year, he had thought of Beth Bridger as nothing but just another one of the Gryffindors, the ones who seemed so intent on setting him up for humiliation at every turn. Granted, she’d never really been a first-hand accomplice, but he’d never had reason to analyze it much. And suddenly this year she’d come in quite unexpectedly and turned all his preconceived notions right on their heads. She was so different from Sirius, and even James, that it was almost a relief. To be truthful, she was different from all other girls he’d ever come in contact with. His experience was limited, true, but it struck him just how different she was from Lily. Beth seemed a bit less sure of herself, a bit more confused, and Severus had the odd notion to protect her as a result of this.
He had lied to her, though – he had no intentions of returning to the common room. That had been more than anything an excuse to try and diffuse the awkward, mixed feelings he’d been having, although he had been loath to deceive her in any way. But more than likely Rosier and the others would be there, relaxing during their free period as well, and he felt a headache coming on that their antics would only intensify. Sighing restlessly, he paced back down the passage and back up, at a loss as to what to do with his seemingly interminable stretch of free time. His thoughts were much too cluttered to be dwelled on right now, but they kept pressing at him, wanting to be solved immediately.
Clattering footsteps at the entrance to the dungeons roused him, and Severus looked around, stopping in case he looked suspicious – no need to cause people to think him stranger than they already did. To his dismay, he realized that it was none other than the Gryffindor seventh years. How he’d forgotten that they had Potions first period, he didn’t know, but all he could process was that he had to get out of sight before Beth realized he’d lied to her, and made him out to be a fool. He quickly ducked into a shadowed alcove, waving his wand at the torch in its bracket; it went out at once.
Sirius and Peter clattered past, their book bags banging about their knees, the former clutching something that evidently Peter wanted – probably a quill, or something trivial like that. Severus couldn’t help the slight curl his lip automatically gained every time Black passed near him. The arrogance of that boy was enough to put Merlin himself to shame.
Remus passed by next, and finally – he noted this with a slight twinge in his stomach – Beth, who was talking animatedly to James next to her. He breathed a sigh of relief that not a one of them had thought to give the corner where he stood a passing glance. That certainly could have been awkward to try and explain. He waited a few moments longer, holding his breath, and finally stepped out.
But he had miscalculated – drastically miscalculated. Of course he’d forgotten that one rather principal person was missing from the group. As he stepped out of hiding, he nearly ran smack into Lily Evans, and it was only through use of honed reflexes from both parties that a crash collision was avoided. The shriek of surprise she gave, however, was rather inevitable.
“Sev!” Her hand clapped over her mouth, and she gaped at him with wide eyes; he felt his stomach twist still further, hearing her old nickname for him, a word she hadn’t spoken in a year and a half. The air around them suddenly became much thicker than it had been previously, both for that word and the apparent conviction on Lily’s behalf that Severus had been spying on the group.
Sure enough, her eyes narrowed quickly with suspicion, and they darted from Severus to the niche he’d just occupied. “Would you care to explain why you were skulking around?” she said coldly, crossing her arms over her chest.
“No, I wouldn’t,” he spat in just as icy a voice. “I don’t see where it’s much of your concern, Evans. And if you must know, I wasn’t spying.” Her eyes narrowed still further; they were hardly more than slits now. “Nice of you to start talking to me again, though. Hasn’t been that long – only about a year, d’you reckon?”
Lily groaned and planted her face in her hands. “Don’t start this now,” she said exasperatedly, her voice muffled. She raised her head, determination overcoming her annoyance. “Look. I need to talk to you.”
Dimly, it registered on Severus’s consciousness that the words didn’t give him the sort of happiness they once did. Now her annoyed patience broke through more than anything, and only prodded at his shot nerves further. He drew his lips in a thin line and looked down at her, waiting for her to continue.
“I just think you need to know that your act isn’t always so obvious to people,” she said cryptically. This was so far from anything Severus had expected her to say that it threw him completely for a loop; he couldn’t think of a single response that would have made sense.
“What?” he said dumbly. Lily rolled her eyes; he wished she wouldn’t, it was rather degrading.
“Am I going to have to put it in black and white for you?”
“Look.” She stopped, pressed her palms together, and put them to her lips, apparently searching for the right words to use in whatever she was trying to say. “I know all about your creepy friends, and what all of you do, and your stupid little sadistic mind games. I know what your ambitions are, outside of school,” From the way her lips were pursing, she didn’t approve of them – he knew that, of course – but she didn’t say anything. “But most people haven’t known you as long as I have. And you need to be really –“
“Are you – you’re talking about Beth?” Severus spat incredulously, indignant anger coloring his cheeks white. From the way she arched her eyebrow just then, he knew he was right. It felt like molten lead was rocketing through his insides at the shock she’d just delivered him.
How on earth did she know he’d just lied to her? Beth didn’t even know, herself! Is that why she thought he was hiding, to lead her on further? It wasn’t as if he’d really meant to lie in the first place, and he didn’t see how not going back to the common room was going to hurt anybody, anyway.
But Severus couldn’t articulate a single one of his panicked, dumbstruck thoughts. He could only gape at Lily, mouth slightly open at her continued expression of disapproval.
“Just watch what you say,” she finished, and glanced down the corridor in the direction her friends had disappeared. “I’ve got to get to Potions, I’ll be late.” She turned and walked quickly away from him, long red hair swinging, but it barely registered on his mind. His brain was still reeling.
Where did Lily get off, telling him what to do, over a year after she’d stopped speaking to him? The whole thing just bloody didn’t make sense. Severus felt that he was missing a very key piece to the puzzle, but he had no idea where to go looking for it. First the whole situation with Remus and the Gryffindor Animagi – enough to boggle his mind for a lifetime - and now this. Seventh year was shaping up to be one maze of riddles after another, and it was only the beginning of December.
And why Beth Bridger kept cropping up in every one, he had no idea.
Sirius Black liked the castle best in that hanging moment between evening and night. The sun had sunk below the mountains that formed the horizon, but not so long ago that the world had yet gone dark. Instead the sky was a mixture of hazy purples and blues, and enough light was still afforded the long windows in the Hogwarts corridors that he could still sneak about veritably undetected, while having the protection of shadowy corners to hide in should the need arise.
That was exactly how it looked now – half-light, half-shadow, and he was doing what he loved to do perhaps best of all. One hand was cupped protectively over the right pocket of his long Gryffindor robes, which, upon closer inspection, could be seen to be wriggling slightly. Inside the pocket were three fat white mice, trying to nose their way out. A byproduct of the day’s fourth-year Transfiguration lesson, Sirius had had difficulty sneaking them into the common room without McGonagall seeing. He was sure she wouldn’t miss them; if anything, she’d just suspect Mrs. Norris had eaten them.
He froze, flat against the wall, as the Grey Lady suddenly appeared at the end of the corridor he was in. She streamed past him with a tragically mournful look on her face, apparently not even seeing him, which suited him just fine. Although ghosts really couldn’t do much if they caught you, the less eyes – dead or living – that laid witness to a prank, the better off for everyone.
A bit of guilt twisted his stomach at the thought of what he was about to do. He knew how much James and Beth, especially, would hate him for it, however temporarily. They still hadn’t gotten over the potential fiasco of luring Snape to the Whomping Willow, no matter how many times he’d expressed remorse. And he was sorry, but now they seemed dead-set against setting jokes of any kind, no matter how minor. And Sirius was having a hard time living like that.
One of the mice in his pocket gave an overloud squeak, and he backed quickly into a corner in case it had attracted anybody’s attention. No footsteps approached, a good sign, and he let out a long breath before stealing back down the corridor. The girls’ bathroom was just around the next corner.
Night was quickly falling, and light was descending into shadow; he needed to hurry before the torches flared to life, for they would eliminate virtually all hiding places along blank stretches of wall. With soft steps he padded down the carpet runner and reached the door to the lavatory. No noises seemed to be coming from inside, and he knelt hesitantly next to the door, careful not to squish the mice. Gingerly he reached up and turned the knob; the door creaked open on severely rusty hinges, and he winced. The noise sounded much louder in the comparative silence.
“Good evening, Mr. Black.”
The voice was so unexpected and so sudden that Sirius quite literally jumped, his knees briefly leaving the carpet; the mice in his pocket peeped in alarm. He whipped around, heart thudding, to see none other than Professor Dumbledore standing only a few feet away from him. He was smiling genially, hands clasped before him, as though merely curious as to what Sirius was doing.
“Hello, sir,” he said with a bravado he didn’t feel, clambering quickly to his feet and trying not to feel like a little boy about to be punished. Dumbledore’s bright blue eyes flicked briefly to Sirius’s pocket, which was still bouncing about from the mice, but he decided not to comment.
“Lovely, erm, weather,” Sirius tried again, gesturing vaguely to the window nearest them. Outside it was so dark hardly a thing could be seen except the stars, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say in the shock the headmaster had just bestowed upon him. To be fair, he rationed he could have said something a lot more stupid than inventing false weather.
Dumbledore beamed again. “The mice in your pocket certainly seem to be enjoying it,” he said, his eyes twinkling mischievously. Sirius’s own eyes darted to the bulging right side of his robes and quickly back again. A guilty flush crept up his neck.
“How did you guess what I was doing?” he asked a bit sheepishly, unable to keep a smile of his own from creeping across his face.
“I admit it was a rather fortunate error that brought me to this corner of the castle,” said the headmaster cheerily. “A simple wrong turn on the way back from dinner has had me wandering about for the better part of half an hour.” He lowered his chin a notch so as to peer more effectively over his half-moon spectacles but said nothing more.
“I’ll just… return the mice to the Transfiguration classroom, sir?” Sirius asked, as though gauging whether this was the correct response. Dumbledore smiled for a third time.
“I think Professor McGonagall might appreciate it,” he said serenely. With a gesture that may or may not have been a wink – Sirius was never quite sure exactly what the headmaster might be doing – he turned to go.
At that moment, something occurred to Sirius, and so suddenly that he nearly gasped aloud. For weeks now, perhaps even months, he had been searching for a way to broach a very sensitive topic. It required tact – something he admittedly didn’t have much of – and so far, he hadn’t found a way to do it. Now, as he watched the retreating figure of Professor Dumbledore, he realized that just such an opportunity had arisen. He called after him before rational thinking could quite catch up.
Dumbledore turned; he rather looked as though he’d expected the summons. He said nothing, however, merely waiting for Sirius to raise the question. Sirius swallowed largely, finding himself suddenly rather short on oxygen.
“I was wondering – that is, sort of hoping – could you tell me about –“ He paused, not quite knowing where to take that question. “I don’t know the name of it,” he began again, more slowly this time, “but I – I overheard you and McGona –“
“Professor McGonagall, Mr. Black?”
“Yes – I overheard the two of you talking about it, and ever since –“ This was a lot harder than he’d suspected, trying to find the right words without making himself out to be a complete arse. But somehow, miraculously, Professor Dumbledore seemed to know exactly what he was talking about. He raised a slender hand, his face grave but his eyes still sparkling slightly.
“I know the conversation you reference, Mr. Black,” said the headmaster, “and in truth, I have been wondering whether you didn’t know about it.” He paused, apparently searching for words himself, and something buoyant seemed to appear in Sirius’s insides. Finally, he seemed about to get some answers.
“This is not the place to discuss such matters, however,” Dumbledore continued. “But if I suspect we are talking of the same thing – and I am inclined to think we are – then you may know that I am not against letting you into the confidence of Professor McGonagall and myself, as an overage wizard.”
Excitement made Sirius’s heart patter, and he unconsciously took a step closer towards the professor in his eagerness. “And James? Remus, and Peter, and Beth?” he asked enthusiastically, unable to control his emotions. Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled again, and he nodded.
“Yes, Mr. Black. Your friends as well, if they are of a mind as you are.” It seemed the headmaster couldn’t keep a chuckle from escaping him. “I must confess once again that this isn’t entirely unexpected,” he chortled, amused with himself. “You can expect to hear word from me within the week.”
“Thank you, sir,” Sirius said breathlessly, all ill humors he might have held previously in the evening at once evaporated. Dumbledore winked again, and this time there was no mistaking it for what it was. Humming to himself, he turned once more and walked back down the corridor, sweeping around the corner and out of sight.
Coupled with the excitement Sirius was feeling was a buzz of adrenaline, so strong it was as though his blood was jumping about in his veins. He just managed to restrain himself from jumping up in the air, mindful still of the mice rolling about in his pocket. He could hardly believe his luck – he was going somewhere, a plan was in motion, a plan to take him beyond the mundane and ordinary. Sirius had known all along that he hadn’t dreamed up the secret society of Dumbledore’s, and now he had everything but solid proof of its existence.
Mice quite forgotten, he broke into a run, heading back in the direction of the Gryffindor common room. There was no way that this kind of breaking news was going to wait one more second; he had to relay what Dumbledore had told him to his friends immediately.
A/N: I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I am that we're finally getting into the swing of the story! Severus thinking, and the Order of the Phoenix becoming fact -- these are the crucial bits of the story, the actual plot details, and I half-wish it hadn't taken so long to get here. But I feel that everything up to this point has been necessary, you know. It would be sort of hard to join the Order if you didn't know what it was, or for Lily to speak to Severus without reason. So, that's my story, and I am sticking to it.
Please don't forget to review if you've read this chapter, I have so many amazing readers that I want to get the opportunity tell you how much you mean to me.