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Chapter 29: Worth It
“So? What do you think?” James jumped down the last few steps, completely ignoring the fact that they existed and landing lightly on the carpet at the bottom. “Suitable enough to live in, yeah?”
“For you, sure,” Beth grinned back, choosing to walk down to the entrance hall like a normal person. “It’s a great house, James,” she added honestly, seeing that her words had touched a slight nerve and had caused a few worried lines to appear on her friend’s forehead. “I think you’re going to be really happy here.”
“Dumbledore recommended it to me,” he responded, rubbing a fond hand up and down the short stair banister twice and beaming proudly. “He used to live in this neighborhood – a few places down, I think. Something like that.” He opened his mouth to continue, but was cut off abruptly by a cry from Lily.
“James! Could you help me, please?”
James looked back at Beth and grinned, holding up a forefinger. “Give me a minute. Coming!” he called, in the direction of the tiny kitchen that sat at the back of his house, and began winding his way in that direction, stepping carefully over cardboard boxes haphazardly labeled with things like ‘Dishes’ and ‘Sofa Cushions’ – in Lily’s handwriting, of course, as James would never be so prescient as to think of labeling the moving boxes.
Beth smiled after him and sank down onto the bottom step, stretching her aching shoulder blades and tucking back a wayward strand of hair that had escaped its bun. She had meant what she’d said to James, about it being a good house – not that she knew much about it. But Godric’s Hollow seemed as nice a place as any to raise a family in, and with less than two more months left before James and Lily’s baby was due, such a thing seemed to be of rather high import at the moment.
The house was small, but comfortable: Two bedrooms, one bath, a dining room, a living room, and a small kitchen were all it contained, but then again, it was all the Potters really needed for now, anyway. It would at least keep them safe while Lily and James remained tucked away, out of the range of Voldemort’s influence, which, for all intents and purposes, it looked like he was still trying to exert over the pair of them. The neighbors were friendly, the air was good, and Beth had to believe that it was these things that would keep her best friend out of harm’s way.
Admittedly, it wasn’t only for the good deed of helping that had driven her to help James and Lily move in, though she would have offered to do it anyway; three moves in such a short span of time was hard on anyone, she could imagine. But there was the added factor of wanting to be around to protect the Potters, just in case. She had been asked to be a joint Secret-Keeper for James and Lily, along with Sirius. Sirius had, in fact, wanted to come along to help with the move, but was instead currently sitting at home, sleeping off the effects of a Pepperup Potion.
“Honestly,” he’d said angrily, when Beth had refused to allow him to come along, “who gets a cold in May?” She was rather surprised he’d complied at all, in the end, but she’d mentioned something about preventing Lily from getting sick. The logic behind her words had appeared to get through his rather stubborn head and guilt him into staying; he’d crawled into bed at last, letting her depart on her own, though not without a rather long string of curses and ill feelings.
There was, at that moment, a loud yell from the kitchen – James – followed by a distinctly high-pitched shriek – Lily. Beth stood up quickly from the stairs, yanked abruptly from dwelling on Sirius’s current condition, and took an instinctive step toward the kitchen at the back of the house. “Are you okay?” she half-yelled, her heart beginning to beat quickly in her chest out of adrenaline-fueled instinct.
“Peachy!” James yelled back, and, to Beth’s mild relief, his yell was now tinged with laughter. “There was a rather large spider hiding under the sink, but nothing my masculinity can’t handle!” Lily’s giggle sounded from the room now. “Go back to what you were doing!”
Beth laughed as well, and crossed to one of the boxes perched precariously on the lumpy sofa, unable to close for all the framed pictures someone had jammed into it. There were both wizard and Muggle pictures in this box, and Beth extracted a picture of Lily’s parents with slight difficulty. It was distinctly odd to look at a picture of stationary occupants, she thought, tilting her head as though to make the small people in the photograph move. The light from the living room fixture wavered on the face of an older man, but other than that, his smile remained quite fixed in place.
There was a tapping just then at the front window, which curved out slightly over the front garden. Beth glanced over at it quickly. “James, you’ve got an owl,” she called, setting the pictures of the Evanses on the sofa and reaching for the next one in the box. There was another clattering in the direction of the kitchen, and James emerged again, the sleeves of his robes now rolled up to the elbows. Beth looked at them and grinned sarcastically.
“That must be some spider,” she remarked, nodding her head at them.
“You might keep your comments to yourself as long as you’re not trying to kill it and its extended family,” James retorted pleasantly, crossing to the front door and opening it. “Oi!” he yelled at the owl. “That window doesn’t open, you’ll have to come in through here.”
The owl gave a sort of cross hoot and flitted out of sight of the window; after a few moments, Beth saw it soaring away behind a large oak tree in the house’s front lawn, and James closed the door, a parchment envelope clutched in his hands.
“It’s for you, Beth,” he said, sounding a bit nonplussed. Beth frowned and stepped over a box, reaching her hand out for the letter. Watched by James, she ran a finger under the envelope flap and extracted the sheet that was folded inside of it, her eyes skimming over the lines quickly:
Dear Miss Bridger,
Your presence is urgently requested at headquarters tonight, at eight o’ clock. Please do not delay.
Your humble servant,
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore
“Headquarters?” Beth wondered aloud; she barely noticed that James had crossed to her shoulder and was now reading the letter for himself.
“He’s got a long name, hasn’t he?” he remarked nonchalantly, pointing at the curling script of their former headmaster. “It’s weird – all this time, and here I was thinking his first name really was ‘Professor.’”
“What does this mean, though?” Beth jabbed an insistent finger at the line above the signature. “What sort of urgent business? Do you know about this?”
“Nope.” James shrugged, apparently unconcerned. “It’s probably some mission thing, though, isn’t it? I’ll bet Sirius has got a letter like that. You could write and ask him.”
Beth bit her lip, turning her attention back to the letter. “No,” she decided at last, folding it up and stuffing it into the pocket of her robes. “He’s still supposed to be sleeping; he wants to come out here tomorrow to help you wallpaper the nursery. Anyway, if he did get a letter, I’ll see him tonight, won’t I?”
“Fair enough.” James grinned at her cheekily. “Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got a rather large infestation that I must return to.” He bowed exaggeratedly and started back in the direction of the kitchen. Beth didn’t acknowledge his departure, her thoughts still focused solely on the parchment in her pocket as she turned back to the box of portraits.
It was entirely possible that Sirius had received an identical letter, yes. But something deep and instinctual told her otherwise. Some nagging feeling told her that it had nothing to do with either Sirius or any missions Frank or Moody might have up their respective sleeves; the language used in the letter, and the fact alone that it was from Dumbledore, were all but proof of that.
Until eight o’ clock, then, Beth thought to herself, and then tucked the idea firmly out of her mind, focusing only on the unpacking, and not what might lie in wait for her afterwards.
Waiting for eight o’ clock to come around, however, was a task that was much easier to accomplish in theory. Beth found that, aside from helping James and Lily with some of the finer points of their transition to Godric’s Hollow, there wasn’t a great amount she had planned to do with the rest of her day. The grunt work had been finished several hours before she was due to be at headquarters, and Beth had returned to her flat, with no other options left to her.
It was at this point that she had rather regretted impressing upon Sirius the severity of his need for rest. The minutes had never dragged more slowly, the hands of the clock made such slow circular progression, as when she was curled up in the beaten armchair by the window, arms wrapped around her knees and brain tossing back and forth potential scenarios for Dumbledore’s request.
The thought that he somehow might have found out about Severus did, of course, flit through her mind, but she couldn’t tell if she could attribute it in this instance to her tendency to worry things to death anyway. And how was he supposed to have found out? Beth and Severus had proceeded with utmost caution through everything they did, covering their tracks as soon as they made them. He had advised her to burn all his letters to her, and he did likewise with her letters to him.
There was no way he could know.
At seven forty-five, Beth rose from her chair with almost automatic motions, barely registering her actions as she crossed to the door, took her cloak from the hook, and patted her pocket twice to make sure her wand was still safely lodged inside of it. Catching her breath and rubbing her nose once, briefly closing her eyes, she turned the handle of the door and stepped over the threshold.
The street was very quiet, despite the fact that night had only recently fallen upon the flat complexes and small shops sitting flush with the cracked pavement stones. Beth could hear the slight buzz from the electric lamppost as she passed by it, drawing the hood of her cloak over her face and casting it in deep shadow. She felt very much like being invisible tonight: not seen, not heard. Somehow it seemed that if she did this now, the sensation would carry on into this impromptu meeting.
You’re being stupid, she told herself firmly, reaching up and yanking the edge of the hood a bit farther over her face. It’s you who’s making this out to be a deal. This is routine Order business, nothing more.
And still, Beth arrived at the rusty, corrugated-metal door of 9 Dustund Way much, much sooner than she would have otherwise liked. She paused once on the step, poised as though to run – and then laid a hand on the door, waited for the telltale click, and pushed her way inside the dim meeting room of the Order of the Phoenix.
Though it wasn’t very bright outside, it still took a few moments for Beth’s eyes to adjust enough to see the inside of the room. At first glance, it appeared completely empty – her heart slowed down a few infinitesimal increments. Perhaps she had been worrying for nothing after all…
And suddenly, she realized what had seemed so vaguely different about the room, something that she hadn’t been able to immediately place her finger on upon entering. The customary circle of chairs that normally was in prominence at Order meetings was gone, the folding chairs stacked against the walls. Instead, two high-backed chintz armchairs had been dragged into the room, sitting alone in the middle of the sandy carpet. As Beth watched, a tall, lean figure rose from one of them, turning to face her.
“Pr – Dumbledore,” she corrected herself, still not rid of the habit of addressing him as a professor. But just as she was about to open her mouth to ask why he’d summoned her to headquarters, there was a shifting noise from the second armchair, and another person rose from it.
Her mouth dropped open; her hands, which had before been folded in front of her, as though in expectation, fell slack at her sides in surprise. But it wasn’t surprise, not really, because it wasn’t as though she hadn’t expected this…
Severus took a step toward her, his right hand already wrapped firmly around his wand. “What are you doing here?” It wasn’t a hostile question; his dark eyes were wide with shock and horror, and Beth imagined that she probably wore a very similar expression.
He can’t be here, she thought frantically, taking a step back to cancel out the distance between them. Hot tears pricked her eyes; her throat suddenly felt horribly swollen with more of them. Because if he’s here, then it means that someone knows… There was an unreal quality to the entire scene; it was true that she worried things to death, but the sole good quality of that trait was that, more often than not, her fretting never came to fruition. And now Severus was here, standing in front of her, just as she’d feared he would be, and it was very nearly too much to believe.
“If you would take a seat, Miss Bridger.” Dumbledore, too, had stepped toward her. His question was polite as ever, but something very crucial was missing. His eyes, normally twinkling with kindness and good humor, were flat and cold tonight; she had never seen an expression on her former headmaster’s face quite like that. And this, perhaps more than anything, was what made what was happening so horribly and vividly real. This was happening; it was, for the pair of them, quite possibly over.
With tremulous steps, Beth approached the chair Dumbledore had just vacated, her knees feeling weak and quivery, as though they might give at any moment. Severus resumed his seat as well, not speaking, though he continued to look at her as though she were a ghost, or a figment of his imagination. Silently, they turned to face the older man, who had taken a standing place a few feet in front of the chairs and looked for all the world as though he were about to reprimand misbehaving students. He didn’t speak either.
Slightly to her surprise, it was Beth who at last broke the tension. “How did you find out?” she asked quietly, somehow managing to keep her voice calm. The lines around Albus Dumbledore’s mouth hardened.
“It is something that has been a matter of suspicion for some time,” he said, clasping his hands behind him and rocking slightly backward on his heels, gestures that bespoke of trust in those he was talking to; she wasn’t blind enough not to realize they were false ones.
“Then why have you called us both down here?” Severus managed through gritted teeth, his hands impulsively clutching at the arms of the chintz armchair. “If you knew so much, your aim was – what, to get us to deny it? I’m not denying anything.” Beth couldn’t help a slight, tingling feeling of warmth at this. Despite the almost-sure consequences that could come of it, Severus – for all intents and purpose, the enemy of both of the others in the room with him – that he wasn’t about to deny being associated with her.
“If I was in your position, Mr. Snape, I might remember to keep a civil tongue,” Dumbledore said, in as frosty a voice as Beth could ever remember him using. “The Mark on your arm tells me everything I’d ever need to know about what you have been up to since passing from my scrutiny two years ago.”
His eyes were even icier when they fell upon the man in front of him, and, not for the first time in her life, Beth wondered if his perception was significantly sharper than the rest of the world’s; it was not uncommon to have him look at you, she knew, and to feel like you were telling Dumbledore much more than you might have meant to. But as she glanced at Severus, she could see for herself the left sleeve of his robes, raised just a few inches up his forearm, enough to show the tip of the twisting serpent inked onto the pale skin.
Severus said nothing in response; his fingers turned an even brighter shade of white as he convulsively dug his fingers into the arms of the chair again. His lip was curling in evident distaste.
“Look,” Beth broke in hastily, her mouth running quite before she could think of the words that were coming out of it. “It’s not his fault, Dumbledore, he didn’t – I was the one who wrote him first. He’s absolutely clean –“
“You wrote me after I found you under the bridge!” Severus interrupted hotly; Beth frowned at him, willing him silently to stop talking. She was on Dumbledore’s side, and therefore Severus was in much, much hotter water at the moment than she herself was. There were a thousand horrendous outcomes that this meeting could result in, and all of them spelled terminating contact with Severus. Beth was far beyond willing to sever that contact.
“That’s not true,” she said desperately. “You made your case, Severus, that’s all you did. I was the one who told you I’d owl.” Beth swiveled back in her chair to face Dumbledore, who was watching the pair of them with a calculating look. “It’s my fault. And I’ll take whatever punishment you’ve got to give me as long as you don’t give it to Sev.”
“Beth,” Severus interrupted, but she didn’t look at him. The eyes of her former headmaster were trained solely on her now; she could very nearly hear the small ticks of his brain, whirring away at the puzzle in front of him.
“It is not merely causes I am interested in,” he said at last; his fingers were twisted ponderously in the ends of his long silver beard, though he didn’t seem to be aware of it, deep in thought as he obviously was. “It is also the effects of your relationship – effects that might have gone beyond the two of you.”
Beth cursed inwardly at how her cheeks turned hot, though this was neither the time nor the place to get embarrassed over such casual words. Before she could respond, however, Severus cut in. “She’s not telling me anything,” he said firmly. “She’s completely clear. Beth hasn’t done a single thing wrong, Dumbledore.” The last word was spat out, as though it tasted sour in his mouth.
Yet again without stopping to think about what she was doing, Beth instinctively reached out her right hand, searching for Severus’s. He took it automatically, lacing his fingers within her own and squeezing tightly, as though he sought the same strength from the gesture that she herself had been looking for in initiating it.
There was another long silence, weighted heavily with tension. There was nothing in the room save for the sound of breathing and, in Beth’s own ears, her heartbeat; she could feel Severus’s as well, nearly in sync with her own, racing through the tightly-clenched veins of his left hand.
“You are in danger,” Dumbledore said quietly. “The path you have chosen – though it is not for me to say it is wrong – is fraught with the possibility that each of you might very well lose the other.”
“We know.” Beth’s voice was so quiet, it was very nearly like she hadn’t spoken at all. Severus’s hand suddenly twitched in hers, and she gripped it still tighter. Dumbledore turned his pale blue eyes on Severus, and looked at him, and him alone, for what felt like a stretch of hours instead of seconds. The younger man stared back, an unreadable expression in his eyes.
“If you are aware of these risks,” Dumbledore said at last, “there is nothing I can offer you.”
Beth’s eyes, which had been briefly closed against an unwanted verdict she was sure was coming, flew open at his words. “I – we can go?” she said stupidly. But Severus had already risen swiftly from the depths of the chintz armchair; hand still gripping hers, he yanked her across the carpet and out the door of the small flat.
“Severus, what are - ?” Beth started, but just as the words were leaving her mouth, Severus stopped short. They were at the mouth of the cramped, dingy alleyway that opened back onto Dustund Way; the lamps washed out the faded sky over their heads, rendering the stars nearly invisible.
“Beth, I need you to tell me it’s worth it,” he said, without preamble, fingers flexing in hers, though still he didn’t break the contact between them. “You heard what he said. I’m putting you in danger just by being here, with you, right now. I could kill you.”
She blinked at him in shock. “Of course it’s worth it,” she said softly. “I told you months ago it was worth it. I’m not going back on my word now.”
Severus looked at her for a long moment, and then closed his eyes, just as she had only moments ago. He let out a long, slow breath, the color beginning to drain away from his face. “Are you all right?” she asked worriedly, reaching out with her free hand to touch his arm.
He nodded, still not opening his eyes. “I can’t keep doing this to you, Beth. It’s not worth it, stealing this time just to let something happen to you.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to me.” Her heart was racing again, for an entirely different reason. “Severus, what are you talking about?”
He hesitated for a fraction of a second before saying, “Nothing.” And, leaning forward, he placed a brief, chaste kiss on her forehead. The place where his lips had touched her skin suddenly radiated heat, as though he had placed the lit tip of his wand there instead. But that expression in his eyes, the one she had found so difficult to read inside headquarters, was still there as he pulled away, glancing up the street. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”
A/N: Cue the excited noises from over in my writer's chair, because this chapter has been waiting in the wings a long, long time -- and I'm just really, really pumped that I finally get to share it with you all! And everything's really winding down now, isn't it? We've only got five weeks of updates left! (Oh, goodness. That doesn't seem like a lot at all.) Added into that equation is the fact that I'm eight chapters into writing the twenty-eight chapter Breaking Even, and, well... I've been writing Sneth for a year and a half, and now the end is in sight. I refuse to believe it's so close.
But those are thoughts for another time. Thank you so, so much to everyone who's read and reviewed and favorited thus far! I know I say that every week, but it stands to remind you, just so you know how appreciative I continue to be. And if you're inclined to review this chapter, too, I'd be so grateful!