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Chapter 13: Montgomery Park
“Can he do that?” James sprang from the couch, threading his fingers through his hair and looking for all the world like a wild animal - but, of course, Sirius figured he shouldn’t be one to talk. He had just finished telling James and Peter about the last Order meeting, while Remus sat in to verify facts.
“Why didn’t Dumbledore stop him? Or McGonagall?” James cast a sort of helpless look at Sirius, but the latter only shrugged.
“I don’t think there’s anything anyone could have done. He didn’t specifically say my name until I called him out on it,” he pointed out. From a somewhat distant point of view, he was rather proud of himself for acting as calm as he did. No matter how glibly he might discuss the topic, he was still seething on the inside. The nerve of Caradoc Dearborn to suggest that he was playing spy for You-Know-Who - when he had been the one to bring his friends around to the idea in the first place! Even now, he was gritting his teeth thinking about it.
James collapsed back on the couch, breathing out forcefully, making his fringe lift away from his forehead. “The prat,” he said resolutely.
Remus laughed. “You should have seen his face after you and Beth left,” he said, looking extremely amused. “I made it a point to keep shooting him nasty looks. I think he wanted to sink into the ground.”
“Good,” said James firmly, although there was a smile playing about his mouth, as well. “Although, you know. He could be nasty to you at work now, because of Sirius’s traitorous behavior.”
“Yeah, I’m a real rebel,” Sirius yawned sarcastically, draping himself over the arm of the tiny armchair in Remus’s flat, where the four were assembled. He wished Beth was here - she probably would have had a choice word or two to add in about Dearborn - but she’d begged off the get-together, claiming previous plans. What those might be, he hadn’t the foggiest, but he just figured she’d gone to visit her parents. Something mundane of the sort.
“You did collapse a brick wall on a couple of people a few months back,” Remus snickered, still apparently highly fond of his remembrance of Dearborn’s expression.
“Yeah, well. That’s a bit different.” Sirius stood up from the couch and stretched, and nearly stepped on Peter’s foot in the process. It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t heard him speak once the entire conversation; it wasn’t highly unusual, but he felt the need to comment. “You’ve been awful quiet, Wormy.”
“I - I’m not feeling well.” Peter shifted a bit restlessly on the ground, clasping his hands and almost immediately afterward unclasping them to fiddle with the hem of his frayed-looking coat. “I think I’m coming down with something.”
James craned his head to look at his friend’s face. “You do look a bit peaky. D’you want to head home? One of us could -“
“Yes,” Peter said hastily, and then amended, “I mean, no. I - I’ll go home. You can stay here. I’ll just go.” He stood up from the floor quickly, and swayed a bit, as though dizzy. Sirius quirked an eyebrow and watched him wobble over to the door, shutting it sloppily behind him.
“That… was weird.” He stretched and yawned again. “Poor bloke. He probably stepped on a caterpillar on the way over and it upset him.” James laughed, but Remus frowned at the pair of them.
“You know he’s not like that.”
“Yeah, but he always goes along with it when I say stuff like that. Good old Peter.” Sirius sprang from the armchair. “Let’s grab something to eat. I’m starving.”
“The Leaky Cauldron?” piped up James, already reaching for his jacket, which was slung over the back of the chair Sirius had just vacated. “Lily’s over at at St. Mungo’s, she won’t be back for a bit -“
“Why’s she at the hospital?” Remus paused in the act of yanking his own coat on. “Is she okay?”
James froze. “Oh - I mean, she’s fine,” he said quickly. “It’s just a routine sort of… check-up… thing.” He glanced quickly at Sirius, his expression thoroughly guilty; excitement bubbled up in his chest.
“No!” he crowed, all pretense of going to the pub momentarily forgotten. “No! You’re - aargh, James!” He hopped up onto the seat of the armchair, bouncing up and down a bit.
“Sirius, get off my chair -“
“Remus!” Sirius waved wildly pointing fingers at James, who had remained sitting on the floor, his face buried in his hands, his shoulders shaking with laughter. “Lily’s pregnant!”
“I didn’t mean to let that slip out!” James howled, tears of laughter running sporadically down his cheeks. “Oh, Merlin - I can’t believe I just said that…”
“So? Come on!” Sirius leaped gracelessly from the armchair and began punching James’s arm in excitement. “I want details! Details, James!”
James wiped his cheeks, still grinning broadly. “We don’t really know any yet,” he said, shrugging. “I mean, that’s why she’s at the hospital, isn’t it? But I found out that day Frank told us that Alice -“
“You’ve been sitting on this news for over a month?” Remus choked, only half-pretending to be indignant about it. “Prongs, we’re disowning you! You’ve got to tell us these things, mate!”
James laughed incredulously. “Peter left at a really bad time, I guess,” he said, waving his hand in the general direction of the door. “I’ll have to go through this whole thing again.”
Sirius was doing a sort of wildly improvised dance, largely consisting of flailing limbs, very nearly knocking Remus in the head. “Mate, this is so weird! You’re going to be a dad! You’re so old!”
But judging by the look on James’s face, Sirius thought - he was smiling so hard it was very probable his face would crack in two - even the threat of the elderly couldn’t touch that sort of happiness.
The afternoon was cold, it being January, but unnaturally bright. The grass was emitting a faintly earthly smell, whispering slight promises of the spring that was still dormant beneath it, and Severus was trying to breathe the scent in as deeply as possible. He didn’t know when his next chance to smell that might be.
He fiddled with the sleeve of his T-shirt irritably, not at all comfortable with the way it felt on his skin. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d worn Muggle clothing in his life - it wasn’t the way he was brought up, despite the fact that his mother had married one - and he never wore T-shirts or jeans if he could get away with wearing robes. There was something distinctly bizarre about it all, but the less he might be recognized, sitting here on a wrought-iron bench in Montgomery Park, the better. And he knew that his friends wouldn’t be on the lookout for a pair of dark jeans and a faded T-shirt bearing an even more faded map of the London Underground, so that was what he wore.
Another thing - and this, he thought sourly, was even worse than the awkward cut of the shirt itself - was just how starkly his Dark Mark stood out now that he had no sleeves to cover it. The white of the T-shirt and the white of his skin made it that much stronger and powerful-looking, and he half-wished he didn’t have to look at it. Even more so, Severus knew that there was nothing to hide it from Beth’s eyes anymore, and that was infinitely worse. He hated knowing that she might see it; he didn’t want their meetings to be tainted with the reminder of just how fundamentally different they should have been.
But of course, he shouldn’t be complaining - she had agreed to meet him here, after all, and he’d been half-expecting her to say no. He had to trust in that fact, if nothing else.
His head still ached, and if anything, it was even worse now than ever. A few weeks ago he had finally caught the words that many of the older supporters of the Dark Lord had been passing amongst themselves in hushed voices. Legilimency. Occlumency. And further research had indicated exactly what they were supposed to be: Invasions of the mind, and the practice of warding away said invasions. What they had to do with him, however, was less clear.
The only thing Severus knew to hope was that it wouldn’t be detrimental in the long run.
The children’s play park across the way was deserted, devoid of creaking swing chains or the groans from the rusted roundabout. The only noise was the wind through the grass and the barren tree branches, and it was this absence of sound that enabled him to hear Beth’s footsteps, crunching through the gravel a ways to his left.
She, too, had worn Muggle clothes, and Severus had to smile in minute relief - they would blend in perfectly, he imagined. Two people on a bench in a park, like normal, everyday - well, whatever they were to each other.
“You’re laughing at me,” she called over in mock accusation, once he was within earshot. The wry smile on her lips made his stomach turn slightly, an unexpected sensation, and he tried to regain composure, as though he’d felt nothing at all upon seeing her.
“I’m not,” he protested lightly, shifting as he did so to make room for her on the bench. As she did so, Severus noticed the thin white scar trailing up her right arm - the mark of one of her nights spent as an Animagus. He remembered the makeshift bandage rather vividly, and gave an involuntary grimace. Mirror images, he thought, not of his own volition; his left forearm and the Mark upon it tensed as he looked hastily away from Beth’s arm.
Severus noticed suddenly that her eyes traveled to the design of the map on his abdomen, and Beth grinned wickedly. “I like your shirt. Were you worried about getting lost on the way over here?”
He frowned, glancing down at it, but Beth just nudged him in the side with her elbow. “I’m teasing,” she laughed. “It’s very nice - although I really don’t think I’ve seen you in a T-shirt before. Last time by the bridge, actually - but you were wearing a jumper -“ She clamped her lips together suddenly. “I’m spewing nonsense.”
“I’m not going to be looked for if I’m wearing Mudb - Muggle clothes.” Severus caught his words too late, mentally kicking himself for the slip. He stood up suddenly from the bench, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his jeans, already feeling guilty for what he knew must seem like strange behavior. He looked about the park nervously, half-expecting someone he knew to be there, looking for him in turn.
“Well, I’m glad you’ve come out this way, anyway,” he ventured again, and immediately Severus knew how stupid it must have sounded. He just couldn’t seem to say anything right today, could he? Beth was probably already regretting her decision - maybe she was rethinking this whole keeping-up-the-friendship deal entirely…
He heard her rise from the bench behind him and come to a stop near his right elbow, just beyond the range of his peripherals. Her trainers crunched pleasantly on the gravel, and he felt a sort of lump in his throat, wishing he knew how to talk to her like Black or Potter might have, without this sort of thickness in the air. Severus turned to look at Beth. Her brows were creased in concern.
“Is something wrong?” she asked gently, swallowing hard, as though there was something in her throat, as well. “If another time’s better -“
“No!” he broke in emphatically, and the shout caused the left side of his head to throb intensely; he raised his hand to it automatically. He saw her watch him, her frown deepening. “It’s just -“ he started, and then sighed roughly. “I don’t want all our conversations - every meeting, or whatever, that we have for the foreseeable future - I don’t want them laid over with this feeling that it’s wrong.”
Beth was silent for a moment, and then it was her turn to take a few steps away from him, across the brittle winter grass towards the still-creaking roundabout. “I know what you mean,” she said quietly. She turned back to face him, a strand of hair catching on her eyelash, a black line across her otherwise pale face. Severus had a sudden urge to push it back into place. “And all I want is - is to be independent of it, have us without this… war.”
The word made her mouth twist, as though it tasted bitter, but Severus knew that that was exactly what it was. His side - those who supported the Dark Lord - were actively seeking people like her, and even he wasn’t sure to what extremes. It was extraordinarily dangerous even being with her, and he wished so much, like she did, that they could meet like this without that danger.
“Then let’s not think about it,” he found himself saying, walking again to stand next to her. She glanced up at him, the hair still out of place. “Beth, I don’t want to argue and I don’t want to fight. I just want… this.” He gestured vaguely about the deserted park.
She followed the slight arc his hand made with her eyes, smiling slightly. Finally, Beth nodded once, slipping her hands into the thin pockets of her jeans. At the gesture, Severus felt a slight tension release from his shoulders, and he looked down at her. He imagined that, in the chill of the afternoon, he could feel the heat of her body from where her shoulder nearly touched the upper portion of his arm.
“Mother and Dad and I used to go to this park,” she said at last, her eyes trained on the set of slightly dilapidated swings beyond the roundabout. “When I was little. The slide was always my favorite, but I guess they’ve taken it down, haven’t they?”
Severus smiled at that - he thought he could see it, in his mind’s eye, if he concentrated enough. Beth as a little girl, her hair as equally wild as it was on this day, climbing the ladder of a slide that no longer stood. He looked back down at her to find she was already looking at him, grinning.
“You’re laughing at me again,” she accused. He shook his head yet again, and crossed to the roundabout, moving still further from the bench. Severus took a seat on the edge of it, and it groaned in protest; already he could imagine the reddish rust stains he’d pick up from it.
“How are your parents?” he asked, suddenly remembering, with a slight twinge of embarrassment, the letter he’d intercepted from her mother’s owl - that would have been nearly a year and a half ago now. It felt like much longer, whole lifetimes away from this moment, this forbidden get-together in a strange park.
Beth shrugged, leaning against the railing above him but not sitting on the equipment platform itself. “They’re surviving, I suppose. They don’t really know what I’m doing - I haven’t quite felt the need to tell them in explicit details, you know?” A look crossed her face then, as though she thought she’d said something she shouldn’t have.
Severus looked back toward the bench they’d come from, eyes narrowed against the slight breeze. He did know - his own mother would have died if she’d known some of the things he’d even talked about doing - and he thought guiltily of his old book of made-up spells. Where had that gone, anyway?
“But I guess that’s one of those things we’re not supposed to talk about. It’s hard to find conversation buried among war,” Beth continued wryly, her face turning slightly pink. “Maybe we’re not meant for talking, Sev. Maybe we’re just not supposed to be together.”
He felt his own face color. “What do you mean by that?” he said, a bit more sharply than he meant to - the words had taken him by surprise. He regretted it as soon as the sentence was out of his mouth, even more so when he saw her lift her right hand slightly, as though meaning to cover her own mouth and shove the words back in.
“Just -“ Beth lifted her hand higher and began rubbing her nose. Severus had noticed it was a habit of hers, and he felt even worse. So far, her theory that they weren’t meant for talking was looking more and more accurate.
“No, sorry. I’m being stupid. Forget it.” He stared determinedly at the packed dirt around the edge of the roundabout, hard and unforgiving with the memory of hundreds of children’s’ shoes. He heard the platform wail in protest once more as she slid down by the railing to sit next to him.
“We’ve had plenty of conversations, Beth - increasingly so since our seventh year.” He shifted his gaze sideways in time to catch the color rising in her cheeks. “For now,” he added, more slowly as the words feeling like molasses while his brain tried to process them, “I’m just content to know we’re on okay terms. And if that means sitting on a stupid piece of children’s play park equipment” - she laughed at that, and again Severus had the funny sort of squeezing feeling ripple through him - “then that’s okay.”
It was Beth’s turn to steal a glance in his direction, her brown eyes crinkled up into a smile. “Okay.”
Lightly - so much so that he might have doubted it had he not seen it - Severus watched as she placed her right hand on the roundabout next to his left, the sides of their hands just barely touching. He could feel with burning clarity the exact part of their skin that met - it felt as though the tips of his fingers were crackling with sparks.
“I told James,” she said suddenly, snatching her hand back as though it had been burned. She cradled it in her lap, turning it over and over mindlessly. “That we’re - that I’ve started talking to you again.”
Severus felt an instinctual sensation of loathing creeping up his throat, and hastily suppressed it as best he could. He had to remind himself that James was Beth’s friend - longer than he’d been - and not just one of the four who’d tormented him all throughout his school years. “And what did he say?”
Beth looked at him seriously; the strand of hair was back, a slashing sort of mark dividing her face in two. For some reason he was at a loss to explain, the expression Severus found there was oddly comforting. “He doesn’t care.”
He felt a smile twist his mouth without quite being aware of it. “And Sirius?” he asked suddenly, somehow feeling the need for the air to be cleared in that respect as well. Unsurprisingly, Beth shook her head emphatically. She didn’t elaborate on the subject, but then, she’d already implied his feelings about the matter, several months previously.
“But James - I mean it, Sev. He doesn’t care.”
“I believe you,” Severus responded quietly. “Quite frankly, his wasn’t one of the responses I’m concerned about.” He’d meant for it to come out more sarcastically than anything else, but the sentence was lacking some usual undertone - it sounded sinister, foreboding, even to his own ears.
Severus felt Beth’s hand touch his again, just barely, as it had before. “But it’s a start.”
He smiled and looked out at the bench he’d vacated, pleased to know that Beth was beside him, and that they didn’t have to talk about anything in particular, if they didn’t feel like it. It was okay.
A/N: So, this update's actually going up several hours earlier than I'd normally post an update -- but I'm actually heading out for the rest of the day, and completely forgot last week that I would be absent. And I'd hate to not update on a Sunday without mentioning it in an author's note the week before, so here we are! Hopefully some nice, fluffy Sneth moments will make up for my egregious mistake. Did you like them?
Another thing worth briefly mentioning -- due to the kindness of loads of extraordinary people, I'm a bit backed up on review responses at the moment, but I am working on them! Thank you all so much for them, and, as usual, reviews on this chapter are super-appreciated.