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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 3: A Change of Plans
She knew she should have expected it, but the fact that nobody at the next meeting of the Order of the Phoenix was willing to meet her eye didn’t make Beth feel great. She supposed that whatever it was that had happened on her last mission with Sirius had gotten out – secrets in the Order were, as far as she was aware, harder to keep than at Hogwarts, and that was saying something. Still, sensing as though she was one wrong word or sentence away from being cast out on the streets wasn’t exactly the world’s most pleasant feeling.
The tiny room that held the meetings was as crowded as it ever was, and in most respects, it looked exactly the same as it had the first time she had walked inside it. The same scratchy, sand-covered carpet covered the floor; the same uncomfortable folding chairs ringed the sitting room, waiting expectantly for the meeting to start. But over the past several months, a subtle change had taken effect, and she knew she wasn’t the only one to feel it.
Less and less people were sitting along the walls now, when Dumbledore stood up to give and take reports on the status of the effort the Order was making against You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters. The chairs were becoming easier to find, even if one was a few minutes late to the meeting. Most of these empty spots were people had stopped coming to the meetings altogether, fearing for the safety of themselves and their families. But some of the blank spots marked those who had fallen in the line of duty, and the knowledge of that was a long, dark cloud, looming over the heads of those who still remained.
This was why, when Beth entered the meeting directly behind Sirius, her stomach twisting nauseously at the thought of what to expect, she was painfully aware of more than one person turning and looking directly at her before whispering none-too-subtly to their companions.
“What’s going on?” she muttered quietly in Sirius’s ear, instinctually taking hold of the elbow of his jumper without quite noticing she had. He shook his head tersely, his lips folded in on themselves to form a thin, hard line McGonagall would have been proud of.
“Maybe they know about the failed mission.” Sirius said it matter-of-factly, and Beth knew that he didn’t mean it to hurt her feelings, but her stomach still sank a few more inches inside her for all that.
“But they don’t know about those sorts of things,” she whispered, a bit of panic now tingeing the edge of her voice. A small, slight woman she recognized, but couldn’t name, raised an eyebrow as she passed, and she fought the rather unexpected and immature urge to stick her tongue out at her. “They’ve never known any specifics on missions before,” she added urgently, as though daring him to contradict her.
Sirius didn’t answer; he had spotted James and Peter across the way and was wending his way toward them. Beth, still holding onto the sleeve of his jumper, was dragged along unwillingly, wishing that he wouldn’t yank her through a crowd of people who all seemed to be looking at her. The fact, too, that he hadn’t answered her question was more than a little unnerving.
“Hey!” Sirius greeted the pair of them a bit more cheerily than necessary, and Peter, who had been in the middle of saying something, looked up in mild surprise. James grinned up at the pair of them, and for the time being, Beth forgot the stares she could feel on the back of her head as she surveyed her friend.
“You poor thing,” she teased, letting go of Sirius and nudging James’s foot with her own. “Was it your night to put Harry to bed last night?” According to James and Lily’s frequent anecdotes regarding their son, Harry had been having a bit of separation anxiety at night; it often took him a couple of hours to get to sleep in the first place, much to the chagrin of both of his parents.
“Ugh. Yes.” James covered his eyes below his glasses with the tips of his fingers. “Is it that obvious?”
“Nope,” Sirius said, sitting down in the chair on Peter’s opposite side and ruffling the blonde boy’s hair good-naturedly. “You look as young as you did at thirteen, mate. That anti-aging cream’s doing miracles.”
“Clever, Sirius,” James said drily, and then looked expectantly up at Beth, who was the only one of the four remaining standing. “D’you know where Remus is?”
“Working late, I think,” piped up Peter. “He mentioned something about that last week. There’s some sort of massive filing job he’s been assigned to.”
“Ha,” said James, though without much gusto; he appeared to have been fighting a large yawn just as the word came out of his mouth. “This might be a horrible thing to say, but I’m kind of glad I’m not working at the Ministry. I mean, it’s important and all that, but –“
“Paperwork.” Sirius nodded his head definitively, as though that settled the matter, and James tipped his head deferentially in his best friend’s direction, admitting agreement.
Beth frowned at Sirius then, as he still had made no comment about her earlier statement regarding the supposed secrecy of their missions, and appeared to be deliberately avoiding the subject. “Sirius –“ she started, but at that precise moment, there was a general exodus towards the spare seats in the circle of chairs. The meeting was about to begin. Shooting him a suspicious look, which he deftly avoided, she slowly sank into a cross-legged position by her friends’ feet.
Dumbledore was seated at the apex of the circle, as usual, nearest the windows looking out onto the alley; once everyone had taken their places, he rose to his feet and patiently waited for what noise there was in the room to quiet down. “There is not much news to report tonight,” he began at once, “save for a small missions report from Alastor.”
Beth felt an icy sensation creeping into the pit of her stomach; behind her, she heard Sirius shift in his seat a bit. The slight woman from before threw a look Beth’s way, and she scowled right back. I didn’t do anything, she mentally defended herself, but even as she thought it, she replayed the night’s events in her mind.
Yes, she had stopped Sirius from hexing Severus, and yes, the pair of Death Eaters had seen both of them before she had Apparated away. But surely the danger was only minimal, at best – nothing more than they were already setting themselves out for? According to Dumbledore himself, Severus was to be trusted. And yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that her avoidance of an evident problem was what people kept glaring at her for. But how had they found out?
From the back of the room, under a small overhang of poorly-installed crown moulding, someone moved forward to stand at the rim of the circle of chairs. There were several small gasps and mutters from the assembled members of the Order as Moody stepped forward, leaning heavily on his staff. Beth squinted her eyes to try and see why – and instantly felt sick.
Where Moody’s nose, beneath his mismatched and somewhat frightening eyes, had once been intact, there was now a deep and freshly-red scar, running the bridge of it. And part of the nose had been entirely removed, as though carved away. There were several smaller and less angry-looking scars slashing the rest of his face as well, though his nose was, of course, the most striking aspect about the picture. Moody’s scowl made it look all the more threatening.
“Looking at this?” he asked gruffly, and rather unnecessarily, jabbing at his nose with a thick forefinger. “As some of you might have heard, there was a bit of a scuffle with some Death Eaters a few days ago. Five of them, if I’m not mistaken.” There was no room for uncertainty in his voice. Behind Beth, Sirius shifted again on the folding chair, making it groan in protest.
“Three of them got away,” Moody continued, as though rehearsing a well-practiced speech. “Two on the corner of Gregory and Cross. One of them at Ash and Fairborough. The other two on Fairborough are dead now.” Again, he pointed to his nose. “That’s all that remains of Evan Rosier.” There was a grim, determined pleasure under the words.
Several people sighed, though Beth couldn’t tell whether it was in horror or relief at the matter-of-fact telling of the story; Elphias Doge, standing near Moody, patted him hesitantly on the shoulder in a sort of congratulatory gesture.
The feeling of deep, horrible cold inside Beth had only intensified, however. It was painfully obvious that Moody wasn’t pleased with what had happened at the other intersection, where she and Sirius had been stationed. She picked at the thin fibers of the cheap carpet in front of her; James’s foot nudged her, but she didn’t dare look back. Moody’s small, dark eye was still fixed on a nonexistent point on the wall behind the opposite side of the circle, but his electric blue eye was focused on her now.
She felt as if she might throw up.
“As a result,” Moody was saying, his voice having grown infinitesimally louder, “there has been a slight alteration in work assignments.” Now he was not the only one looking at Beth; several people had turned their heads in her direction. She could feel her face growing pink with embarrassment.
“What does that mean?” she snapped, before she could stop herself.
“Beth,” Sirius whispered from behind her; his slightly ashamed tone only augmented her anger.
“Yeah, okay, I’m not stupid,” she continued. “I know everyone’s looking at me. And I’d really, really appreciate it if you wouldn’t speak in riddles, Mad-Eye.” There was a slightly horrified silence, and then, grudgingly, Beth added, “Sir.”
It was some time before Moody spoke again; McGonagall looked as though she was thinking about intervening, but did not. “Miss Bridger, this has been a matter of consideration for several months. Due to your – your personal interest in various Order matters, we’ve deemed it best to reassign you to a Ministry position. For the time being.”
Beth felt her cheeks grow, if possible, even hotter. Personal interest? “But that’s not fair!” she cried, rising to her feet, rubbing her nose instinctively. “I belong on mission work – I’ve been doing mission work for –“
“Longevity is not a factor,” Moody said testily. Several heads were turning back and forth between the pair of them, as though at a tennis volley; Beth and Moody were facing each other down like opponents in a duel. “It’s only a temporary assignment, Bridger, until we understand all of the facts as they stand.”
The lack of proper address did not escape Beth; she was breathing heavily through her nose, a great lump welling up in her throat as she suspected that she might begin crying out of frustration at any moment. “That’s not fair,” she managed to repeat at last, her voice breaking slightly on the last word. “I don’t deserve this.”
“It’s not about fair.” Moody switched his staff from one hand to the other, clearly done with the subject at hand. “It’s about the interests of everyone else present here tonight. It’s about putting thoughts of them and their safety before your own. It’s about thinking beyond yourself, Miss Bridger.” He stumped back over to the wall, and resumed his place upon it. And Beth was left standing, trying not to look anyone in the eye, trying not to cry. She was shaking with a mixture of anger and frustration and guilt and sadness, and wave after wave of emotions kept crashing over her…
She broke through the circle of people, squeezing between two of the chairs and flinging herself at the metal door leading back out into the alley. Beth wrenched the door open so roughly it slammed into the wall of the flat, and just as angrily yanked it closed behind her; the metal rattled against the hinges in an almost-welcome grating noise.
As she stomped down towards the mouth of the alley, the back of her right hand pressed against her mouth in a rather fruitless effort to stem her sobs – why was she sobbing, really? – she was painfully aware that this was precisely what Sirius had done, over a year earlier, when he had found out his brother was dead. Did she have the right to do the same?
But she had fled, too, after the events of last June – after Severus had said his final goodbyes to her, after he had kissed her just before he had forgotten her entirely. If it had been the right thing to do then, then it was the right thing to do now. And yet that time she had had somewhere to go and someone to go to. James and Sirius and Remus and Peter were all in the room she had just left; Severus had no idea who she was. Who else was she supposed to talk to about this?
My parents, she thought, and almost laughed aloud at the thought, though it wasn’t necessarily funny. She saw, if possible, even less of Calvin Bridger and Amelia Prescott than they did each other, and that was certainly saying something. For the first time in a very long time, Beth felt as if she had absolutely no one to turn to – and that terrified her.
There was a noise behind her, further down the alley, but she didn’t want to look around and see who it was. If it was Moody, she was liable to hex him. Whoever it was stopped a few feet away, and then for a silent second there was nothing but the wind and the distant noise of cars driving far beyond Dustund Way.
“Beth.” James took a few more steps down the alley in her direction. Somehow she found that she had sunk into a sitting position against the wall, her knees curled up against her chest, and couldn’t remember when she had done so. She didn’t look back at him.
“Beth?” He said her name like a question now, and then he was kneeling beside her on the pavement, the light from the streetlamp a few feet away from the mouth of the alley glinting off his glasses oddly.
“It’s not fair,” she said thickly, because she didn’t know what else to say. She scraped at the undersides of her eyes with the heel of her hand, though it was rather ineffective at wiping away the tears.
“I know,” James replied softly, and in that moment, her heart swelled with so much love for him that it made Beth’s eyes water even more. She gave a sort of hiccup and buried her face in her hands, and James’s arm draped along her shoulders, his arm squeezing her shoulder reassuringly.
“It’s just” – Beth hiccupped once more, and tried again – “it’s just that they don’t get how – how hard it is, seeing him and not b-being able to talk to him, or even have him –“ She let out a shuddering breath, pressing her fingers harder into her eyes. The wind sent dry leaves rattling off down the pavement; the weather vane on the top of the flat complex squealed in protest.
“Beth, you are so brave,” James said at last, giving her shoulder a little shake. “You’re absolutely right. They don’t know how hard it is. I can’t – I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. I mean, if Lily volunteered to have her memories of me removed…” He let the sentence trail off; absurdly, Beth felt her cheeks warm again. It felt weird for James to even begin to draw that parallel.
“And now you’ve got this new assignment, and yeah, Beth, it sucks. But Moody said it was only temporary, didn’t he? And I’ve never known Mad-Eye to lie before,” James added, shaking her shoulder again. “You’re good at mission work – you are. And he knows it. You’ll be back running about town with Sirius and Frank before you know what hit you, eh?”
“Yeah,” she said grudgingly, though she didn’t know if the word came out of her mouth because she sensed he wanted it to, or because she truly believed what he was saying. James stuffed his hand into the pocket of his robes and rummaged about for a bit, finally coming up with a wrinkled, but clean-looking, handkerchief, which he handed over to her. Beth blew her nose and smiled up at him.
“Good old James,” she said, and he laughed brightly.
“Coming back inside, then?” He rose to his feet and held out a hand for her, and she took it, swaying a bit after the awkward position she’d sat in.
“I look stupid now,” she mumbled, swiping again at her eyes.
“Nah.” James grinned at her. “If anybody stares at you, you stare right back. That’ll get them to stop right quick.” And, with a brief, chaste kiss on the top of her head, Beth let him lead her back into the meeting.
The rest of the meeting, short as ever, was apparently over by the time Beth and James reentered the room; people were milling around and talking to one another, though some still sat in the same chairs they had occupied since the meeting’s onset. Beth noticed that everyone very studiously avoided her gaze, which was somehow welcome and even more awkward than the sensation of being whispered about. James herded her firmly towards the back corner, where Sirius was standing, leaning against the wall and listening to something Mary Macdonald was saying. His eyes flitted over to Beth and James, and he called over to them, effectively cutting Mary off; Beth winced in mild embarrassment for him.
“Bethy! You returned!” He slung an arm over her shoulder, accidentally knocking her into the wall behind him. “Erm – sorry,” he added, as she rubbed the back of her head.
“You about ready to go, then?” James asked, shoving his hands into his pockets and looking at the people around them. “Where are Moony and Wormy?”
“Around somewhere.” Sirius stood on his tiptoes, craning his neck to try and see better. “Let’s go and find them, though. Remus owes me a cuppa and I am in dire need of something hot and caffeinated.” He shoved Beth out in front of him again. “Let’s go!”
“Oi! I am not a puppet!” she laughed, turning around to shove Sirius lightly in the shoulder. Just as she was turning back around, however, the door to Number 9 opened, and she felt as though her stomach had dropped out through the bottom of her feet.
Severus walked in the door.
It was amazing, once again, how quickly people could stop talking when their attentions were diverted. This time it was not Beth that everyone’s heads turned to, but Severus; he himself looked stunned, evidently not expecting to see so many people upon walking in the door. James half-raised his arm, as though to shield Beth, but she only dimly registered the action; her brain was filled with a sudden, insistently buzzing hum.
He surveyed them all down his nose, which was wrinkled slightly, and finally Dumbledore emerged from the tiny kitchenette, Moody following closely behind him. Both men seemed as surprised to see Severus there as the rest of them had been.
“You’re quite early, Mr. Snape,” the headmaster said, though not without a certain degree of kindness. “We will move into a back room, I think?” He gestured towards the small corridor that ran the length of the flat, though a command was subtly disguised in the question. Severus nodded jerkily. His eyes made one final sweep of the room.
And came to a stop on Beth.
She felt her breath catch in her throat; James’s arm raised a few inches higher. Nobody in the room spoke, or even moved: They were like statues, rooted to the spot. The buzzing in her ears grew louder, and she wondered, for a small moment, whether it was possible that she might faint.
But he wasn’t really looking at her, Beth noticed now, but at a point ever so slightly to her right, close to the floor. She looked down, and her heart beat even faster. Fastened firmly around her wrist, in very plain view, was a thin silver chain, with a small pendant of a bird dangling from it. It was the bracelet that he had given her for her twentieth birthday.
Beth looked back up to meet Severus’s eyes, and this time he really was looking at her, a mixture of confusion and wariness creating a small line in between his brows. Somehow – at least partially – he had recognized the bracelet…
Wordlessly, he moved to follow Dumbledore down the corridor, and then he was gone from view. The remaining Order members yet again began their conversations, collecting coats and caps and making for the corrugated metal door. Beth remained rooted to the spot, however, staring at the spot where Severus had been.
“What the bloody hell was that?” Remus crossed to them from a spot closer to the door, his eyes flitting back and forth between James, Sirius, and Beth. Peter followed closely behind, padding quietly across the carpet in his trainers. “He was looking at –“ But he cut off the sentence abruptly, only shaking his head in a baffled manner.
“I have no idea.” Sirius’s voice was hushed, almost awed.
“Was he looking at you, Beth?” Peter sounded scared when he voiced the question.
“Can’t have been,” said James brusquely, instantly piping up as though to protect her. “Come on, then, it’s time to head out of here. Everyone else is leaving. Remus, Sirius said you owe him a cuppa.”
“Too right, you do,” Sirius said, with mock cheerfulness. Beth didn’t miss the glance he threw her way from the corner of his eyes, but she didn’t feel like responding in kind.
She instead said nothing, but only reached down to her right arm, closing the fingers of her left hand around the cold metal chain, her heart continuing to rocket along beneath her jawline.
Beth didn’t know what that had been, either, but one word stuck fast at the forefront of her mind.
A/N: Poor Beth... things really aren't going well for her at this point in time. Also, Moody kind of sucks in this chapter. Don't lose hope! I mentioned this in an earlier review response -- things in this book are liable to get depressing, because this was definitey a depressing point in many lives involved in this plot. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel yet!
I completely forgot to mention this last week, but it really needs saying: For those of you who are interested, Toujours Padfoot (Sarah) wrote an absolutely brilliant and amazing rendering of snapshots from Beth and Severus's years at Hogwarts. It's called Seven Memories, and I highly, highly recommend anyone who's enjoyed Sneth thus far to go over and read that one-shot. Seriously, it is fantastic!
Thank you all so much for all your continued support and kind words!