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Chapter 16: Bonding Time
As January moved slowly into February, more turbulent weather came with it. Somehow it always remained just a few degrees too warm for actual snow – no significant amount of snowfall had descended since Christmas, much to Sirius’s chagrin – and so instead the entirety of England was treated to icy rainfall almost every day, cold enough to sting skin as it made contact.
Beth didn’t mind the rain but for the fact that it had rendered further meetings with Severus, for the time being, all but impossible. Slogging about through mud and puddles was something that seemed to appeal to neither of them, although if the rain kept up, it would probably become necessary. But rain was something pleasant at night, inside and away from the cold and the wet. The rest of her friends weren’t quite so content to remain cooped up in their flats, and that was what had prompted Sirius to call together what he referred to as “bonding time.”
And apparently, “bonding time” meant standing about under the awning of a Muggle cinema, waiting for Remus so the five of them could go in and watch whatever drastically horrendous-looking Muggle film Sirius had decided they would all see. Mary, Marlene, and Lily had all gone out shopping someplace, and had elected not to tag along, but Beth knew she probably would have felt awkward going along with them – she was willing to bet several Galleons they’d gone shopping for baby things, although she doubted that the boys had connected the two, being, well, male. They – Lily, Mary, and Marlene – were nice, but she felt infinitely more comfortable around the boys – more free to be herself.
She shivered now, glancing up at the sky, which was moving slowly past in the form of dark, ominous looking clouds. It was, of course, raining again, and there didn’t appear to be any signs that it would stop soon. She hugged herself and shivered again, wishing she’d brought something more adequate than a hooded jacket to cover herself in.
“Remind me again,” she said, speaking through her teeth to keep them from chattering, “why we can’t wait in the lobby like normal human beings?”
Sirius grinned mischievously at her. He, James, and Peter stood in a line to her left, like pigeons in a row. James and Peter looked like they were freezing to death, too; Sirius had obviously chosen to ignore the weather, and was clutching in his right hand something that looked to be a Muggle child’s rubber bouncing ball.
“Because we told Remus we’d meet him on the pavement,” he said cheerfully, “and what kind of friends would we be if we went back on those sorts of promises?”
“Smart ones,” she muttered. James overheard this and grinned at her in a slightly apologetic manner, as though he felt responsible for Sirius’s rather nonsensical argument.
“Can’t imagine why he’s this late, though,” Sirius added, bouncing the rubber ball onto the ground as hard as he could while he spoke. It shot into the air and ricocheted off the metal awning, touching the concrete once more before he caught it neatly in the palm of his hand. “He was supposed to get off work, like, twenty minutes ago, wasn’t he? We’re going to miss the movie if he’s not careful.”
“What a horrible thing that would be,” James said sarcastically. “Then we might have to do something normal people do.”
“You and Bethy are rather preoccupied on normality tonight,” Sirius informed the pair of them. “I don’t ever recall claiming that I was normal.”
“No, you definitely aren’t,” Beth grinned, stuffing her hands in her pockets, though they were as thoroughly dampened as the rest of her jacket. Sirius pretended not to hear her, and smacked the ball into the pavement again.
“Besides, this is what normal Muggles do,” he said. He jerked his head toward the other end of the broad awning, at the ticket counter, causing his hair to fall into his eyes as he did so. A couple was standing outside it, talking to the teller, who was shaking his head emphatically. “And Wormy’s been telling me how much he wanted to see Night of the Undead Brains for weeks. Haven’t you, mate?”
“I have not,” Peter muttered, kicking at a bit of loose gravel by his right shoe. “You’re the only one who likes films, Sirius.”
“They’re good for a laugh.” There was a ping as Sirius chucked the little red rubber ball at a nearby railing; it flew off into the other direction, towards the theater’s nearly-abandoned car park. He stood looking after it for a few moments, and then pointed in the direction it had zoomed off. “Someone go and get that.”
“You’re the dog, Padfoot, not us,” James laughed, withdrawing his wand nevertheless. He glanced to the ticket counter again, but the Muggle couple had already disappeared inside the theater, and the ticket seller had vanished for the time being, too. He muttered a quick “Accio” under his breath, and the little red ball came zipping back to greet them. Sirius caught it happily.
“Catch, Bethy,” he called, making as though to toss it to her. But before he could do so, there was a sharp pop, audible even through the rain that was still streaming off the awning and splattering on the roof. Remus appeared at the near edge of the car park, instantly soaked.
Hunched against the downpour, their friend jogged over to them quickly, ducking his head to avoid the worst of the drops. “What took you so long, mate?” James called over to him. Beth frowned when he drew near enough for her to see his face, however – he looked drawn and worn-out, and more than a little worried about something.
“Are you okay, Remus?” she asked, walking over quickly and grabbing his arm, trying to make him look at her so she could see his face more closely. But he turned his head to James instead.
“Where’s Lily?” he asked abruptly. James looked baffled.
“Out shopping with Mary and Marlene,” Peter offered up, looking between the two with his forehead slightly creased in apparently contagious concern. “Remember? The five of us are going to –“
“I know,” Remus said shortly, waving his hand impatiently. He seemed to be having trouble saying exactly what he meant to. Beth gripped his elbow a bit tighter; the four of them had unconsciously circled around him as he talked, clustering together tightly. “Mate, this isn’t the best time for whatever Sirius planned, all right?”
“Bonding time,” Sirius spoke up helpfully, but James frowned at him in annoyance, shaking his head once. Sirius adopted a wounded sort of expression at that.
“Not now,” James said shortly, apparently having missed Sirius’s reaction. “What’s wrong with Lily, Remus?” His hand, Beth noticed, had moved unconsciously towards the waistband of his jeans, and the wand tucked inside of it. Her stomach tightened with nerves.
“Nothing,” Remus said hastily. “No – sorry, that came out wrong.” He ran a hand through his sandy hair, gripping it. “But I saw Caradoc Dearborn today. He dropped by my desk.”
Beth glanced at Sirius, who was gnawing his lip pensively. “Moody mentioned Dearborn,” she spoke up, and the heads of the four swiveled to look at her as she did. “After our mission,” she added, moving her hand to indicate both Sirius and herself. “Because Lucius Malfoy did, too. I think they – the Death Eaters – they’re following him, or something.”
Remus let out a sharp sort of sigh. “And probably for good reason,” he said grimly. “Apparently in some bit of paperwork he’s working on, he came across something that wasn’t supposed to have landed on his desk. Meant for someone else.” His eyes turned back to James’s. “I think You-Know-Who thinks you and Lily would be valuable assets to his side.”
Peter’s mouth dropped open. “And how is that supposed to have gotten on Dearborn’s desk?” he asked fiercely. “Unless he’s got spies hidden around the Ministry –“
“You-Know-Who’s not daft, Peter,” Sirius snapped; he, too, was looking at James. “That’s probably exactly the sort of set-up he’s got.” Peter’s mouth popped closed again.
James was still staring at Remus expectantly, as though waiting for him to crack up and tell him he was taking the mickey out of him. “Why does he think that?” he asked finally, a bit tonelessly.
“James, you and Lily are great at what you do,” said Beth firmly. “I’m not surprised at all – if he’s found out the two of you are off recruiting for the Order, then there’s no way he wouldn’t try and persuade you to join him. You’re building up his opponent’s forces when he thinks you could be building up his.” Sirius looked at Beth with a sort of surprised expression.
“Blimey. That was a pretty good analysis of the thing,” he said appreciatively, nudging her arm with his. She gave him a small smile, somewhat glad that he was still trying to inject a bit of lightheartedness into the situation.
“Right.” James ran his fingers through his hair in a perfect imitation of Remus’s previous gesture. “Look, mate, I’m sorry,” he added, turning to Sirius. “I’ve got to head home.”
“We’ll go with you,” Sirius said firmly. When James’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline, he grinned. “We missed the movie anyway.” He turned back to Beth and slung an arm over her shoulder. “Come on, Bethy. This is an impromptu sort of mission.”
But she almost didn’t hear him; ever since Remus had told them what Dearborn had found on his desk, she’d been thinking of Severus. Had he known? And if he had – why hadn’t he told her? A sick feeling overcame her as she thought of what else he might have been keeping from her, and a part of her didn’t want to know. But this was James, and surely, surely he would have let her know if the closest person she had to a brother was in any serious danger…
“Bethy? Hello?” Sirius jostled her then, and she blinked rapidly, looking up at him. “Coming, then? It’ll be just as much fun as –“ He stopped short, turning her at a more direct angle to him and placing both of his hands on her shoulders. “Are you all right?”
Beth’s eyes darted over to James; he was looking at her, and somehow, just from the expression on his face, she could tell that he knew what she was thinking. He was the only one she trusted far enough at the moment to know about her involvement with Severus, however far it may or may not extend. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “I – I’ve just got a headache. I’m going to go back to my flat and lie down for a bit, I think.”
Sirius frowned. “What? No, come on –“ He reached for one of her hands, holding it tightly in his warm, rough one. He had never held her hand before this, she realized, not like this, and something about it felt so innately wrong that she gave a tiny gasp and jerked her hand back quickly. Sirius looked mildly shocked.
James stepped forward and threw his arm over Sirius’s shoulder quickly. “Let’s move, Sirius. We need to find Lily, remember?” Not looking entirely convinced, but realizing the seriousness of the situation anyway, Sirius nodded and moved to say something to Peter and Remus, clustered slightly behind him.
James looked levelly at Beth. Thanks, she mouthed, feeling both like bursting into tears and running far away, neither emotion quite explicable to her. He grinned briefly, nodded his head at the group behind him, and turned to engage in their conversation. Feeling she’d been given permission to leave, Beth turned on her heel and quickly headed for the car park to Apparate away. She didn’t care about the rain, or the cold, or whether or not any of the boys were still watching her. A clammy hand was squeezing itself around her throat, and it was all she could to do hope that she and Severus would not so soon be brought to clash in war in this way.
Sirius craned his head, trying to find wherever Beth had disappeared to, but she must have returned to her flat – at any rate, she wasn’t hanging around the theater car park anymore. He turned back to James, who was talking almost a bit too deliberately to Remus and Peter. “Did Beth leave?”
James glanced about with such practiced disinterest that Sirius knew he was faking. He felt himself frown, but in truth, he thought he knew exactly what this was about – and he could feel his face turn red, just thinking about it anew. Why he’d chosen that moment to grab her hand, he’d no idea.
And the look on her face – Sirius swallowed down something like shame as Beth’s expression of slight horror popped into his mind’s eye. She clearly hadn’t been expecting it, and it had been –
There was nothing wrong with what he’d done, he argued firmly to himself. This was how James had won Lily over, wasn’t it? Patience and perseverance, admittedly some of his least present personality traits, but it could work.
And somehow, said a very tiny voice inside of him, the fact that you have to argue yourself into asserting its correctness doesn’t bode well…
He knew James suspected what he was up to, as far as Beth was concerned. But James didn’t understand, did he? He had Lily. He wasn’t the one shunted aside, left to idle in loneliness while it seemed the rest of the world moved on without him. Beth was the one who’d stuck by Sirius – not James – and she was his best hope for getting out of the emotional pit Sirius felt he’d thrown himself into.
“Sirius?” Remus clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, mate, we really need to grab Lily and the others.” His eyes were calm again, the epitome of seriousness and a levelheaded temperament. Sirius felt a sort of swell of gratitude that these things, at least, had remained the same.
He cracked a grin that felt false, and said, “Yeah, Moony, let’s go.” He instantly felt ashamed at just how vitriolic the thoughts he’d been stewing over were. These were his friends…
As the four turned to leave, James reached out and yanked Sirius by the elbow, hard, so that they fell a bit behind Remus and Peter. “I don’t know what you’re up to,” he muttered, eyes narrowed slightly behind his glasses, “but I’m not kidding, Sirius. She doesn’t need this.”
Sirius yanked his arm back, angry once more, his previous shame gone just as quickly as it had appeared. He had no idea what James was talking about, but suddenly, he felt that he didn’t want to know. Without a word of response, he called out to Peter to wait up, and hastened away from James.
He was wrong. He didn’t know Beth like Sirius did – not since they’d left school. Whatever it was that he’d said she didn’t need, he, Sirius, would protect her from at any cost. He had taken James’s place in Beth’s life, just as Lily had taken his in James’s.
A/N: This author's note is starting off with a massive thank-you to you guys. And why? I don't think it's any secret that Dobby season is upon us once more, and because of a few of my fantastic readers -- Amanda, Jami, and Val, namely -- Beth's been nominated and seconded for Best Original Character, which means she's moving on to the voting round! Do you know how incredible that makes me feel?! You seriously are the greatest group of readers ever, all of you. I can't ever thank you properly.
So... how about this chapter? A bit of a filler, but sometimes I like these better than the action chapters. If you've got the time, reviews are, as always, very much appreciated!