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In The Red by TenthWeasley

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 34
Word Count: 120,033
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Mild Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Drama, Romance, Action/Adventure
Characters: Lupin, Snape, Sirius, Lily, James, Pettigrew, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Snape/OC, James/Lily, Sirius/OC

First Published: 05/13/2012
Last Chapter: 01/20/2013
Last Updated: 06/30/2013

Summary:





2012 Dobby Finalist: Best Original Character | 2012 TGS Finalist: Best Original Character

The wizarding world is splitting itself in two, and war is rapidly approaching. Beth is focused on the Order, on her friends - and on anything but Severus, convincing herself he's a thing of the past. If only she knew how wrong she was.

Book two in the Beth Bridger trilogy; beta'd by ToujoursPadfoot. Banner by Violet @ TDA!


Chapter 1: A Year Later
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It was a peculiar sort of night that had fallen on the street – a bit musty, as though something were in the air, but clear enough that Beth Bridger knew it would be a long time before the sun disappeared fully behind the tops of the buildings lining the cobbled street. She took a deep breath of it all, smiling a bit without quite realizing it, and set off down the pavement. Despite the lightness of the evening, there weren’t many people out, and she wasn’t entirely ungrateful for this. It made where she was going that much more inconspicuous.

Even thinking this to herself made her check quickly over her shoulder, watching for anyone who looked a bit out of place. So far she’d seen no one like this, but of course, Professor Dumbledore advised them constantly to be on the lookout for anything – anything at all – and she was nothing if not obedient to that man’s commands. He was, after all, the reason she had been a part of the Order of the Phoenix for a year now, and that was no small favor, she knew.

So much had changed since Beth and her friends had left Hogwarts – not only within their own lives, although even there changes were in abundance, but within the rest of the wizarding world as well. You-Know-Who had only gotten stronger during that time, for even though the Order worked almost around the clock attempting to prevent this, they were admittedly a very small group of people, and finding trustworthy ones to add to the ranks wasn’t easy. Training them up to be useful, too, was difficult, especially in the case of the eight nineteen-year-olds, who had no career experience outside of the society to build on. Beth and Sirius still had not been on a single one of the undercover missions they had been assigned, instead having had to attend rigorous training with two highly-skilled Ministry Aurors, Frank and Alice Longbottom, who were only five or six years older than them in the first place.

Beth knew Sirius was bothered by this – he had, of course, thought that he would be immediately heading into action, despite the fact that it had never been explicitly promised – but he was good enough not to mention it too much, and anyway, it wasn’t as though they were doing nothing at all. Frank and Alice were extremely nice people, and kept them busy, learning wand combat as well as the hand-to-hand style Muggles were forced to rely on. The variety kept them balanced, and in recent months they had started walking around London as well, trying to memorize its layout as best as possible in case they needed to make a quick Apparition somewhere in an emergency.

During one such lesson, Sirius had asked them if they’d ever needed to Apparate away in an emergency, and Frank had told them about the one instance in which they had – a group of You-Know-Who’s sympathizers, the ones who hadn’t yet become sucked into his literal forces, had tailed them for a good while before the Longbottoms had realized, nearly following them straight back to headquarters. They’d had to Apparate across town and walk the rest of the way back to lose their pursuers, and Beth had seen the excitement in Sirius’s eyes when he’d heard about this. Admittedly, it had excited her too; hearing firsthand accounts from other Order members made what she was doing that much more real, even if she still harbored doubts that undercover missions were the right job for her.

Headquarters at 9 Dustund Way was where Beth was heading on this night, when the air was thick with something unseen, and yet was still pleasant for a late summer evening, on the cusp of autumn. She had managed to find a small and fairly cheap flat not too far from the building where the headquarters were housed, and so had Sirius, Peter, Remus, and Mary. James and Lily, unsurprisingly, had moved a bit farther away into a larger flat, and Marlene had moved into the couple’s neighborhood as well. They were always a bit later for meetings than the others, but as the three of them, like Beth and her friends, still worked under supervisors in propaganda and Ministry work, their on-time presence was not always imperative.

Beth rounded the corner and Sirius’s apartment complex loomed into view, a very ugly five-story cinderblock structure, and she could already see him waiting outside it, leaning against the slightly rusted lamppost as he always did. Something silver caught the light from the flame high above his head, spinning through the air, and she realized he was flipping a Sickle as he waited.

“You’re going to get robbed, you know, looking like you’ve got so much spare change,” she called out when she was within hailing distance, and Sirius turned, long dark hair as always flopping into his equally dark eyes. Even though a lot had changed since graduation, Sirius’s appearance had been one of the only things to remain almost virtually the same. Not a line of adulthood had been etched into his face; his hair ever long, his eyes ever sparkling with fun, he remained just as youthful as he had looked at school. It was a comfort, actually, to have this sort of tangible piece of that with her. That year, while generally a pleasant one, had been tainted almost beyond repair, and holding onto something pleasant – like Sirius’s innocent look – from seventh year did her good.

“Aren’t we a bit sarcastic this evening,” Sirius laughed, nudging her with his shoulder as she drew abreast of him. He fell in step beside her, pocketing the Sickle and beginning to whistle tunelessly as they continued down the pavement. He had been much happier than she’d ever seen him since he’d gone on duty for the Order – that was plain to everyone – and Beth was secretly glad that she’d been partnered with him on her assignments, although she’d never admit this outright.

“Any idea what we’re going to be talking about tonight?” she asked instead, concentrating on the toe of her right trainer, which she’d noticed sported a large hole – she really needed new ones. Sirius shrugged one shoulder lopsidedly and stopped whistling.

“I haven’t heard from any of the others in a while – oh, no, hang on, I did have a letter from James.” Sirius stuck his tongue between his teeth, rummaging in an inner pocket of his tattered robes and finally taking out a thoroughly crumpled piece of parchment.

“He wrote to me, too,” Beth said, but still made a grab for the letter. She still considered James to be a very close friend, almost a brother, and that hadn’t changed, but she knew that all of them came second now to Lily. James and Lily had married a year earlier, with Sirius serving as James’s best man in a final act in proving the pair’s inseparable nature, and still met with Sirius, Beth, Remus, and Peter regularly for drinks at the Leaky Cauldron.

James’s untidy scrawl filled the entire page, front and back, but the contents of it were very similar to what had been in the letter Beth had found on her doormat the previous evening, along with the summons to tonight’s meeting. His parents had passed away only a few months earlier, within a week of each other, after a brief but difficult struggle with dragon pox – both had been considerably aged when they had had him, and as such were particularly susceptible to the disease. James had been traveling back and forth between London and home since then, trying to settle their estate, and his tone read a bit frazzled when he wrote them. He was there now, and would be missing the night’s gathering, although Lily would be attending for him.

“I feel sort of bad for him, you know,” Sirius said after Beth had handed the letter back; his own eyes dropped to it briefly before he replaced it in his pocket. “Having to deal with all this stuff, and everything.”

“He’s got Lily to help him,” Beth pointed out, tripping slightly over a crack in the pavement. “Although you know, I don’t know if I’d be able to handle all that, even if I were married.” But even as she spoke, she felt a dull flush creep up her cheeks, and she hastily tried to change the subject. In one fell swoop she’d managed to broach two sensitive topics, and both without thinking, as always.

Beth hadn’t had much contact with her parents since graduation, partly out of necessity and partly because she knew they would still remain unsympathetic as ever about her cause. Despite the fact that they were divorced, they were both of such a similar mindset as far as blood purity that nothing would sway them in a hurry from their ideals. Letters were primarily exchanged on holidays, and she’d been back home a few sporadic times, but for the most part, the Order consumed a lot of her time - training, mostly - and that was just how she liked it.

But then talking about marriage – and really, it was stupid that she was still of this mindset, a year later – had conjured up extremely awkward memories of Severus. Not that she had intended to marry him, of course, because she hadn’t. But a seven-year crush was very hard to let go of, and their last year at Hogwarts had so drastically altered the dynamic between the two of them that it was even more difficult.

Sometimes, when she was alone in her flat and knew that no one could scrutinize her expressions, she found herself wondering about Severus – where he was, what he was doing, and if he was all right. The obsession with the Dark Arts, which he’d made quite clear to her, especially in those last few months before term ended, could have landed him in hot water that she was completely unaware of. No letters had come from him, but this was unsurprising, given that she had been the one to turn her back on him for the last time, walking away and refusing to give him the chance she so desperately wished she could have. Against her better interests she scanned the paper for his name nearly every day, but of course he wouldn’t be mentioned there – why should he be?

She had chosen the direction she wanted to take her life, and he most definitely hadn’t been included in it, as much as she had wished for him to be. And that was how it was.

Sirius and Beth turned another corner, crossing the empty street despite the fact that a neon sign flashed at them not to walk – not a single car was in sight in either direction. The sun was hovering over the tops of the buildings on the horizon now, as though perched there like a large, half-circle of a banner, and it painted the sky dusky purples and oranges. She paused for a moment on the corner, watching it.

“You’re quiet,” Sirius said after a moment, having stopped next to her to watch the sunset as well. “Did I say something?”

She knew he was teasing, but there was also a note of genuine concern under the joke, and she smiled reassuringly up at him. Despite the fact that she never talked about it, Sirius seemed to have gained a sixth sense for whenever she might have been lost in thoughts she had no concern thinking about - names would go unmentioned, thank you very much – and he had slipped almost naturally into the role of older brother now that James was married. He almost always found ways to distract her from whatever was plaguing her mind, which was no small comfort at times.

“Trying to figure out how to get that Sickle away from you,” she said instead, turning and setting off back down the pavement. “I’m flat broke now, you know. Cups of instant noodles and mugs of weak tea will only sustain a girl so far.”

Sirius rolled his eyes good-naturedly, brushing his hair off his forehead. “Yeah, right. Sorry, Bethy, you’re not getting one Knut off me.” He nudged her again, and suddenly quickened his pace, turning around and beginning to walk backwards so his face was turned to hers. He grinned and wiggled his eyebrows, and she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Some help you are, mate.” But the use of her old nickname, which he could not seem to let go of, further helped to ease her mind, and she managed to push away the more troubling contemplations for the time being.

A small, battered street sign loomed up just then, pointing down a dark and rather creepy-looking alley to their right. Outside the entrance to this back street hunched two more figures, each with their back leaned up against the plate-glass window of the shop next to it, and Sirius lifted a hand in greeting as they approached.

“Hi, Peter!” Beth gave her friend a hug, and then turned and hugged Remus as well. She had the odd instinct to draw out a pack of Exploding Snap cards at the moment, and grinned as the instinct tugged at her. The familiar camaraderie was still in place despite the fact that those who had built it were all but grown now, and this perhaps more than anything was a comfort.

“Hey, how was the weekend?” Sirius turned to Remus and spoke in a considerably lower tone than he’d used on the walk over, and Beth suddenly remembered that the previous weekend had been a full moon. It was odd how they slipped by virtually unnoticed now, when she’d once all but marked her life by them. Remus flipped Sirius the thumbs-up sign.

“Good,” he said nonchalantly. “Uneventful, and that’s really all I can ask for.” In the sickly flow of the buzzing fluorescent lamp hanging over the alley – none of the more elegant, less annoying gas lamps for this part of town – he looked even thinner and more ragged than he had at the last meeting, but mentioning this didn’t seem necessary. Beth realized he probably knew exactly how he looked, at any rate. She slung her arm through his anyway, and he smiled down at her gratefully.

“James isn’t coming tonight, is he?” Peter spoke up, glancing behind them anxiously as though expecting the missing fifth member of their group to appear in the rapidly-darkening sky instantaneously.

“Nope. He’s down at his parents’ place,” Sirius said. He shoved his hands in his pockets again. “Lily’s supposed to be along in a bit, though, but we might as well go inside.” He jerked his head down towards the unlit part of the alley they were standing near. “Shall we?”

Beth led the way, checking around for any Muggle passersby – she figured you probably couldn’t be too careful – before withdrawing her wand and lighting the tip of it. Number 9 was near the very end, designated with a badly-rotted wooden number, by a rather large and extremely smelly dumpster that quite probably hadn’t been emptied in weeks. The door to the flat was made of corrugated metal, badly rusted, and with no visible knob in sight. She laid her hand flat upon it, waiting, as the three boys clustered around her.

After a moment, there was a click, and the door swung inward of its own accord. She stepped over the dark threshold, and the others followed.

A/N: Words do not even describe how excited I am to post this story! I wanted to as soon as I'd finished the first, but a combination of pragmatism and stubbornness told me it'd be wise to wait. Whether that was true or not -- well, I suppose it doesn't matter anymore. What does matter is that it's here!

This was a bit of an introductory chapter, I suppose -- setting everything up, playing catch up, etc. We'll get launched right into the plot soon enough. If you've made it this far and wouldn't mind leaving a review, that'd be great! Thanks so much, guys!


Chapter 2: A Bit of News
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It took a while for Beth’s eyes to adjust to the dim interior of the little room she found herself in, despite the fact that the alley outside hadn’t been all that bright, either. But it had been long ago decided that, whenever they had a large gathering in headquarters, such as for meetings, using as little light as possible was probably for the best. There were innumerable precautionary charms placed on the tiny, dingy flat, but it was always better to be safe than sorry.

The one large room was already crowded with people, either standing about in small clumps or sitting a bit awkwardly on the flimsy plastic folding chairs that had been set up in a lumpy circle in the middle of the area. There was nothing about it that spoke of grandeur or elegance – the floor under their feet was a sandy, industrial sort of carpet, and the linoleum in the tiny kitchen to the left the same color. The walls were dull gray and tinged with smoke in the corners from the candles and pipes lit there with regularity. And really, that was it – a small back room offered only enough space to toss coats and shoes when the weather was bad, and Beth usually kept hers on, not willing to dig through mounds of others before locating them again.

“You’re on my foot, Moony,” she heard Sirius mutter in an undertone behind her, and tried to squeeze further into the room. It was unnerving to have him breathing down her neck at such close range. No one seemed to have yet noticed the four new arrivals to the little group, as the conditions were already crowded enough, and Beth inched over to the partition dividing kitchen from main room. Across the way she saw Mary and Marlene, who were by one of the room’s two high, narrow windows, talking to Dorcas Meadowes – a very prominent and powerful witch at the Ministry, Beth knew – and she waved to them.

“Beth!” She turned at the sound of someone calling her name, and from the direction of the back room where the coats were piled she saw Alice Longbottom waving her hand over her head, grinning. Beth grinned back and made in that direction, pardoning herself as she very nearly ran smack into Elphias Doge, who had emerged from the kitchen at that moment.

“Lovely to see you, Miss Bridger,” the old man said in a wheezy sort of voice, beaming up at her – he was rather short – and trying to hold his mug of tea so it wouldn’t slosh. He patted her on the elbow and edged around her, heading for the other side of the circle of chairs. Alice laughed.

“There seem to be more people here tonight,” Beth panted, having finally reached Alice’s side and catching herself on the thin wall before she toppled over outright. Alice shook her head.

“No, I don’t think so. Dumbledore didn’t say anything about it.” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t think we ever anticipated getting this many people, to be honest. I mean, it’s a good thing, but rooms can only hold so many people…”

Beth nodded in agreement as Frank emerged from the coat closet, panting slightly, his round face flushed pink. “I don’t think we’re ever getting those back out of there,” he said to his wife, and then, glancing up and seeing Beth standing there, lifted a hand in greeting.

Beth really liked the Longbottoms – although they were only a few years older than herself, no more than six, she looked up to them immensely, and not just because they were extremely good Aurors – although that was no question, either. They were very loyal to their cause, and they had made it their goal to work as hard as possible for it. And it showed in how valuable Beth knew they were to Dumbledore and to the Order, without even having to be told.

“So, Beth, we were talking to Alastor the other day –“ Frank began, but at that moment Sirius appeared from nowhere, tripping slightly and as such nearly pitching headlong into Frank as he was speaking. The older man caught the younger before he could fall outright, and Sirius grinned at him.

“Thanks, mate,” he said, clapping the Auror on the back. “Sorry about that.” He glanced from face to face eagerly, rubbing his hands together eagerly – he loved Order meetings almost more than anything else. “What’s up, then?”

But just as Frank opened his mouth again to relate what exactly he’d talked to Alastor about, there was a sort of popping sound from across the room, and all heads swiveled in that direction. Professor McGonagall was standing in the middle of the circle of chairs, her wand pointing out; it was still smoking slightly. “Please take your seats!” she said crisply. “We will begin the meeting in a few minutes.”

It had been very difficult for Beth to adjust to seeing her old school professors outside of Hogwarts, and even still there were times – like now – when she couldn’t help but feel as though she were about to receive a detention for something. Sirius had a similar expression of guilt on his face, and she couldn’t help but laugh at it.

“Come on,” she said, nudging him in the ribs and jerking her chin in the direction of the main room. “Let’s go grab seats.” She said a hasty good-bye to Alice and Frank, and she and Sirius squeezed their way over back near the door, where Remus and Peter were slumped against the wall, the former apparently having grabbed a twist of crackers from the kitchen – crackers and coffee were really all the tiny room was big enough to hold. He held out the sleeve to Beth.

“Want one?”

She smirked. “I just ate dinner, you know. That’s what normal people do at this time of day.”

Peter rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Beth, if you’ve learned nothing by now, then you definitely should have learned that it is possible for guys to eat at any time of the day, no matter what.” She laughed and admitted that this was true, watching as Remus slid another cracker into his mouth and pocketed the rest for after the meeting.

They had long since run out of enough space to procure chairs for anyone, and all of the younger members – like Beth and her friends, and Alice and Frank, and Mary and Marlene – automatically took spaces along the walls to allow the older ones a chance to take the seats, flimsy and uncomfortable as they might have been. There was a sort of collective murmur as everyone tried – and, for the most part, failed – not to step on anyone else’s feet in the process of trying to get situated. At that moment, the door opened, and Lily slipped through, nearly hitting someone in the face.

“Sorry,” she cringed, and then her eyes darted downward to where Beth was sitting with her knees drawn up, almost directly under her friend. They shot each other wry smiles. No one else seemed to notice her late entrance, however, and the beginning to the meeting went without a hitch.

Dumbledore – Beth had to work not to put a ‘Professor’ before his name, even in her mind – had stepped into the center of the circle, and was smiling fondly around at the group assembled there, as though they were the students he saw when not cavorting about with secret societies. He, of course, looked exactly the same as he always did, from the top of his pointed, star-speckled hat to the toes of his buckled boots. He folded his hands before him and spoke.

“I’m pleased to see everyone assembled here, as always,” he said, and Beth could have sworn he winked. “And, of course, apologize for the cramped conditions that necessitate our meeting in this space.” Beth shot Sirius a little sideways grin, and he returned it in kind.

“And now, to matters of discussion –“ But the old man was interrupted as, for the second time since being assembled, the door to the little flat swung open once more, and this time everyone noticed. Heads turned as someone stepped through, apologizing for stepping on fingers and running into knees of those seated before the door in a low, gravelly voice. He finally managed to shut the door and gazed levelly at Dumbledore.

Beth didn’t ever know whether she was supposed to be afraid of Alastor Moody or not, and so always felt a little cautious whenever he entered a room, just in case. He certainly cut an intimidating figure, to be sure, swathed as he was in a long leather traveling coat and stumping about with that gnarled cane of his. Sometime right before Beth and her friends had joined the Order, Alice had told her once, he’d lost his leg in some duel with one of You-Know-Who’s supporters. Moody had heard her recounting the story and had stumped over to throw in his two Knuts.

“You should have seen the other guy,” he’d growled, dark eyes darting between the young women and a small smirk twisting his lips. “Bet he wishes he’d only lost his leg.” Beth hadn’t been able to tell if he’d been joking or not, but knew that Moody had a fantastic reputation for filling the cells in Azkaban – he’d caught over half its occupants personally, if one believed the rumors – and he was one of the best Aurors in the Ministry to boot. She figured he was allowed to be a little creepy.

Now he stood on the recently-cleared threshold, water dripping from the hem of his coat onto the scratchy carpet beneath him, and this was the first odd thing Beth registered about his appearance – it definitely had not been raining before the meeting. He had obviously come from somewhere outside of London.

Dumbledore had stopped speaking when Moody had opened the door, and now merely looked at him expectantly, although Beth thought she detected a trace of worry in the man’s bright blue eyes. She looked from one to the other, a small knot of nervousness forming in the pit of her stomach with her knowing why.

“Sorry to disturb you like this,” Moody growled now, leaning heavily on his walking stick, his dark eyes darting from face to face, as though searching for someone in particular. His gaze fell upon Sirius, and rested there; the tension inside her increased. “I need to speak to Mr. Black for a second.”

Sirius looked from Moody to Dumbledore, as though ascertaining whether he was really supposed to go with him, but Dumbledore just blinked.

“Yes, of course,” he said at last, making a sort of motion with his hand, and some sort of understanding passed between them. Moody nodded almost imperceptibly and motioned for Sirius to stand up. He cast a quick glance at Beth, but she just shrugged; she had no idea why Moody, who had probably spoken only two sentences to Sirius in the year they’d known each other, would want to speak to him privately now.

As soon as the two had gone back through the door Moody had just entered, Dumbledore cleared his throat, and the attention turned back to him. “As I was saying,” he said, smiling once more, although it looked just a touch more forced than before. “There is one note of importance that I must announce, and unfortunately, it involves Mr. Black as well as Miss Bridger.”

Remus’s face lit up, and he reached over and punched Beth lightly in the shoulder as, for the second time, all heads swiveled in her direction. Across the circle, through a gap in the sea of heads in front of her, Beth saw Alice and Frank looking extremely pleased, and the nervous knot in her stomach temporarily dissolved to be replaced by excitement.

“After much discussion with Mr. and Mrs. Longbottom, as well as several other superiors,” the man said, his smile gradually turning more genuine, “we think this is an appropriate decision. A week from now the pair of you – that is, you and Mr. Black,” he added, nodding almost deferentially in Beth’s direction, “will accompany Mr. and Mrs. Longbottom on a sort of mission that has been in preparation for some time.”

Beth’s jaw dropped, and there was a sort of cheer from someone across the circle – it sounded a bit like the easily-excited Dedalus Diggle – followed by a smattering of applause. She laughed at the absurdity of the reception, but a pleasant tingling crept into her cheeks nonetheless.

After a year – a year’s worth of preparation and training and waiting – it was finally going to happen! She caught Lily’s eye again, and the two shared yet another grin.

“If you could stay behind after the meeting,” Dumbledore was saying, “then we might get you two properly situated.” Beth nodded, and ducked her head, grinning into her lap and twisting the laces of one of her trainers in her fingers. This, certainly, had been an unexpected and extremely gratifying surprise to the evening.

But at that moment, Dumbledore was yet again interrupted by the entrance of Moody, and he stopped speaking for the second time in five minutes. It was as though the rest of the group were watching a tennis volley, she thought absurdly, as their heads swung around collectively for the umpteenth time. But Moody merely shook his head and stumped over to the kitchen, disappearing around the partition. Sirius did not come in after him.

Beth’s eyes slid down to meet Lily’s, and the latter shrugged, apparently as clueless as she was. Peter and Remus looked just as baffled, and the nervous twist in Beth’s stomach reappeared. Without waiting to hear what Dumbledore said next, she rose to her feet, one hand already reaching out to grasp the knob.

“Beth,” she heard Remus hiss from somewhere near her feet, but she ignored him. The heavy wooden door slammed behind her as she left the tiny flat, and her eyes strained to readjust to the darkness, which had fallen even more thickly over the alley since she had been inside. Nothing moved for the barest instant, and she held her breath, listening for Sirius while knowing he couldn’t have got far.

A sudden skittering of pebbles from somewhere to her right startled her, and, squinting slightly, she caught sight of a dark, hunched figure sitting at the end of the alley against the wall of the apartment building, where it opened back up onto the street. Sirius’s familiar profile was unmistakable even at this distance, but she found herself saying his name aloud anyway.

“Sirius?” He looked up and picked up another pebble, chucking it at the opposite wall, and it hit something metal with a light chink. She approached him gingerly, sinking to her knees next to him and brushing a bit of hair away from where it had fallen in her face.

“Regulus is dead.”

She felt herself physically waver, and had to hold out a hand and brace herself against the brick will to try and absorb the impact. Sirius’s brother Regulus – whom the former had had nothing but bad things to say about, ever since Beth had known him – had, Beth knew, joined the Death Eaters when he was only sixteen. Sirius hadn’t found out about it until only a few months ago, through a slip of the tongue on his mother’s part, as she had apparently been extremely proud of her youngest son. The brothers had never been close, it went without saying, but for some reason he had refused to outright tell anyone in the Order that his own brother was one of those oddly-named pureblood fanatics that they were searching for. That had said a lot about him, that small act of brotherly protection, although Sirius would never have admitted that that was what it had been – and now Regulus was dead.

“What?” she croaked finally, slumping sideways so that she sat awkwardly on the pavement, her legs tucked uncomfortably underneath her. Sirius picked up another pebble, but instead of throwing this one, he clenched it tightly in his fist before just letting it fall back to where he had taken it from.

“That’s all Moody knows,” he said at last, in a low sort of voice, as though he were struggling to keep any signs of emotion back; that alone brought tears to Beth’s own eyes and a hard lump in her throat. She found, a bit ashamedly, that her hands were shaking, and clenched them together to stop them. “And he heard it from someone who knows my parents… And they found out through our idiotic house elf…” He sucked in a deep breath and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.

“I hadn’t even talked to him since leaving school,” he said at last, now rubbing his eyes as though to force something back into them lest she should see. “I mean, yeah, he was a git” – Beth smiled a bit in spite of herself, scooting a bit closer to Sirius, trying to offer support where words failed her – “but he was still my brother.”

“I know,” Beth tried at last, the words sounding fake and insincere to her own ears. “I’m really sorry, Sirius.” At a loss for anything else to do, she scooted a fraction of an inch closer and set her head on Sirius’s shoulder, and he let his fall there too. They sat there in a companionable and yet stifling silence, the weight of the knowledge of Regulus’s death closing over them like a sort of perverse bell jar.

Sirius cleared his throat and shifted, and she quickly lifted her head. “Stupid idiot probably tried to back out,” he said bitterly, with a wry and humorless smile. It was obvious to Beth that he was trying to inject a bit of dark humor into the situation – it was his go-to reaction in the most pressing of circumstances to try and make jokes – and she knew he didn’t mean to call his brother names for it, no matter what he might have said otherwise. Regulus and Sirius had never gotten along particularly well, and Sirius had called him plenty of names before, but this time was different and rang of falsehood.

“Got in too deep, panicked and wanted to get away, or something,” he was saying now. “Always was one for going back on promises he made. Coward.” He forced a large amount of air through his pursed lips, but the angry tension seemed to have dissipated some.

She reached for his hand and gave it what she hoped was a comforting squeeze. “You’re here, and that’s what matters,” she said. “Doing work for the –“ She let out a sudden and involuntary gasp, and Sirius glanced at her quickly, eyes shifting about for whatever she’d seen. “I didn’t tell you, did I?” she exclaimed, remembering now her partial reason for seeking him out here in the first place. “We’re going on our first mission!”

Some of the old, mischievous light filtered back into Sirius’s eyes at this. “What? You’re joking!” He leapt to his feet with reckless abandonment, limbs flailing, and Beth stood up too, privately glad to have taken his mind off his brother for the time being. “When are we going?”

“A week!” she crowed, and Sirius let out one of his characteristic bark-like laughs. Without warning he grabbed her hands in both of his and did a sort of absurd jig in the cramped alleyway, very nearly slamming her into one of the brick walls on either side of them.

“This is the best. The best,” he said eagerly, letting go of her hands now but continuing the little dance steps – they appeared to be ones of his own devising, for she certainly didn’t recognize them – on his own. Beth laughed aloud, pleased to see him like this – she couldn’t really remember the last time she had seen him so visibly excited.

“Come on, you dolt,” she giggled, tugging at his arm, his excitement infectious. “We’ve got to head back inside, the meeting’s probably nearly over by now, and everyone will be wondering where we are.” Sirius stopped, looking as though he’d quite forgotten a meeting was even going on then.

“Oh. Oh, yeah.” His face brightened a bit again with something resembling boyish enthusiasm, and she was put instantly in mind of the expression he never failed to wear after pulling off a really good prank. “Thanks, Bethy,” he added, and she beamed.

“Any time.” Allowing herself to wrap her arms briefly around his waist in a final gesture of sisterly affection, she hurried back onto the threshold of Number 9, Sirius following excitedly at her heels, thoughts of Regulus already seeming to be fading – if only slightly – from his conscious.

A/N: It's kind of ridiculous how long it seems between Sundays, when all I really want to do is write this story and focus on getting more chapters up for you guys! But I am nothing if not a creature of habit, and Sunday updates it shall be. And now that summer is pretty much here, I'm hoping to really get cracking on churning out a lot of chapters for this story. I'm making a very weak attempt at a June novel-writing month, and it'll be solely dedicated to the Snape/Beth stories. Yahoo!

I'm really excited for this! Thanks for the reviewers and readers so far, and if you've made it this far, I'd love to hear your continuing thoughts!


Chapter 3: Dreams and Duties
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Severus Snape thought that the room he was in might have once been some sort of large ballroom, although that certainly wasn’t what it was being used for now. The floors were covered in dust – he could see his footprints from where he’d walked to stand in the middle of the cavernous room – and the drapes had long since been drawn for good over the floor-to-ceiling windows.

He spun about him, looking for some clue as to what had brought him there, for he couldn’t remember why it had been so important to get there in the first place. His heart still beat rapidly from the waning adrenaline rush that had hurried him to the middle of the dusty parquet, but he didn’t know why, and that was perhaps what bothered him most of all.

Suddenly, from a distant door – he didn’t recall that door being there until now – someone stepped into the room, face hidden very well in the dark shadows. Severus wondered if he should light some candles, and felt a twinge of guilt for not having lit them already.

“Can I help you?” he called, although he knew the shadowed figure had to be here for him. There was no one else. The figure took a few steps forward and threw back the hood of the cloak it was wearing.

Severus felt his heart climb in his throat, and instinctively reached into his pocket for his wand. But it wasn’t there. And yet he didn’t know why he needed his wand, for this person didn’t pose a threat… He might have been mistaken – they could have been an imposter – but surely he could never mistake the black curls or the serious brown eyes…

“Hello, Beth,” he said with difficulty, embarrassed to find that his voice had been reduced to something only slightly above a whisper. She looked back at him steadily, an enigmatic smile he couldn’t read twisting her lips. Severus waited for her to respond, but Beth just kept staring back at him before finally reaching into her own pocket, and withdrawing his wand. She turned, very suddenly, on her heel and began walking back towards the door she’d emerged from only moments ago.

“Wait!” The word burst from him before he could think about it, and he reached out a hand. He wanted to tell her not to go, to stay here with him, but the plea stuck fast in his throat. His eyes fell to the floor, to the footprints she had made in the dust. There were two sets – one leading toward him, and one leading away. And as Severus watched, those approaching him faded, until it only looked like she had ever walked away…

Severus jerked awake, already extremely conscious of the cold, clammy sweat that beaded on his forehead. The room was filled with the waning light of late afternoon, and, as consciousness slowly returned to him, he realized with a small amount of embarrassment that he had fallen asleep on the small couch in the flat he, Rosier, and Avery shared; Mulciber and Wilkes were in another, equally squalid one a few floors down.

He realized his hand was still outstretched, and hastily replaced it in his lap, only to bring it up to rub the sleep from his eyes. He shouldn’t be sleeping in the middle of the afternoon – tonight’s stakes were much too high for him to risk, even on a small scale, letting his guard down for even a moment. He had never let it happen before, but he wasn’t about to start now. Tonight – after over a year – was initiation, and he was determined to perform to his highest capacity.

Mulciber had intimated that they would be in right away, that his father had all sorts of deep and intricate connections with the Dark Lord’s followers; so, naturally, Severus hadn’t been at all surprised to find out that that wasn’t exactly the case. While it was true that his father was a Death Eater, what was less-than-accurate was that he held a position of any amount of prestige. The society was grouped into circles, and Mulciber’s father resided firmly in the middle one – contact with the Dark Lord was scarce there. The five boys were not immediately admitted into even this, and had spent the past year on the fringes of the group, along with the other sniveling, pathetic men and women who were trying to get into the Dark Lord’s good graces.

Severus had hated it – the entire year, the whole process, had been a hellish ordeal of knowing whose ear to whisper in, who to avoid, and who would make a good stepping stone for the next spot in line. But he was good at playing the political field, and success was close – he knew it. This initiation was meant to test whatever loyalties and ideals he’d claimed to hold up until this point, and he was determined to emerge victorious.

But lately he had been having dreams – dreams like the one he had just had, and sometimes worse. For some reason, Beth had cropped up in very nearly all of them, and he knew that if he wasn’t careful, he would lose focus of what he had set out to do. There was no telling her true reason for turning her back on him nearly a year ago, and he knew he could not continue obsessing over it. He had chosen his path, and she had chosen hers, and the two were not ever destined to overlap again.

And yet in the small corners of his mind, he could not let it go.

The sunlight streaming in through the narrow, cracked archway separating living room from kitchen was temporarily blocked out as Rosier appeared there, a tall glass of something that looked like firewhisky in his hand. He sank down onto the sofa next to Severus and looked over at him wordlessly, something like anxiety etched all over his pale, arrogant face.

“You ready for this?” he said, lifting the glass toward his companion in a sort of pointless toast before draining half its contents in one swallow. Severus shrugged noncommittally and ran a hand through his hair.

“Doesn’t really matter if I’m ready for it or not, does it?” he said brusquely, now stretching to get a crick out of his neck. Rosier gave a humorless laugh and swirled the drink around, ice cubes clinking against the glass faintly. “Do you know what we’re doing?” he asked now.

Rosier shook his head briefly. “None of us do, do we? I mean, we’re not supposed to have any of that information at our fingertips.” Severus’s lip curled slightly at the contemptuous note in his friend’s voice, but didn’t comment.

“We’d better head over soon,” he said instead, glancing at the small clock perched on the opposite wall, which dutifully ticked out the time on a face with no numerical markings. “Are the others ready?”

Rosier swallowed the rest of the firewhisky and burped, and again, Severus could feel the sneer on his face. “Avery’s downstairs,” he said, tapping the floor with his shoe to indicate the direction of Mulciber and Wilkes’s flat. “Have you got the address?”

Severus nodded and stood up from the sofa, rubbing the last of the nap from his eyes and trying not to remember the expression in Beth’s eyes, in that stupid dream of his. He didn’t know what it had unnerved him so much, but he couldn’t erase the image of the disappearing footsteps from his mind, or the sort of leaden weight that accompanied it. Without another word, he swept towards the front door, and Rosier followed him out.

Loud voices indicated that the other three were already waiting on the landing for Severus and Rosier to descend, and sure enough, Wilkes hung over the railing as they cleared the last flight of steps, grinning in a way that suggested something much more lighthearted than initiation into a secret society. “Thought you lot might have forgotten what today was,” he said in his usual spitty fashion. “Mulciber here was saying we shouldn’t have trusted you with the address, Sev!”

Severus raised an eyebrow in the boy’s direction as Wilkes clapped him on the shoulder in what was apparently supposed to be a friendly gesture; Mulciber was staring determinedly at his feet. “Well, we’re here now,” he said shortly. “Come on, then, before it gets much darker.” Instructions had specifically demanded they meet at the street corner indicated on the parchment in Severus’s pocket before night fully descended, and disregarding rules at this stage seemed highly imprudent.

“You’ve got to stop looking so serious,” Wilkes said now, linking arms with Severus, to the great displeasure of the latter. “We’re in the home stretch now! We’re unstoppable!”

He withdrew his arm from the ginger boy’s and instead felt in his pocket for his wand – the dream still haunted the very corners of his mind, and he was compelled to check now that it was actually there, and that Beth didn’t have it. Not that she could have, of course – he hadn’t spoken to her since the day she’d turned away from him…

He could not think of her now.

“I don’t know what this night meant to you,” he said coldly, smirking, “but this initiation is of rather high importance to me, and I’ll thank you to keep your opinions where they belong.” He felt only a little bad at the sour expression on Wilkes’s face at having been told off with such terseness; of all of them, he was the one who had apparently refused to grow up since leaving Hogwarts, and it had the tendency to annoy.

A purple, dusky light was on the small neighborhood as Severus and the other emerged onto the pavement, and the silhouettes of the leaf-ridden trees dotting the lane at intervals cast long, reaching shadows onto the asphalt. He glanced around instinctively for signs of anything suspicious, but everything appeared normal – quiet, hushed, run-down. The area, consisting almost entirely of apartment buildings, was ideal in its out-of-the-way locale – it was nearly twenty miles from London proper.

Wordlessly, Severus motioned for the others to take hold of the sleeves of his robes, fishing the parchment with the street corner address out and studying the careful black print upon it. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the words, burned into his mind’s eye, before turning on the spot; he and his friends were sucked into the oblivion of Apparition at once.

Time and space compressed his chest, and then he was stumbling onto a new stretch of pavement, the others equally unstable about him. Severus checked his pocket once more – the wand was still there – and cast his eyes about for a street sign, something to indicate where they had ended up. A few yards away there was a post, and he squinted to read the words on the perpendicular signs jutting from them.

“This is the place,” he said shortly, stuffing the parchment back in his robes and catching Avery’s eye; the latter was biting his lip unconsciously, and looked distinctly paler than normal, even under the artificial light of the street lamp. Severus wondered if he looked any different too – the anxiety of the thing was starting to sink in – and he cleared his throat to smother the question.

“D’you think they remembered we were coming?” Wilkes whispered into the expectant silence that had settled over them, rubbing his arms bracingly, although it wasn’t especially cold now, at the very end of August – or was it September now? Days had a curious habit of slipping by him when the actual dates didn’t matter as much as they once did.

Rosier bestowed upon him an especially withering look. “Idiot,” he said conversationally. “They didn’t forget.” Wilkes glowered briefly, but before he could retaliate, Mulciber spoke up, almost hesitatingly.

“So… what do you think we’re doing?” He shuffled a bit, kicking some small pieces of the pavement that had cracked and broken off at some point. “Like, complicated spells, or…?” He let the question trail off, but Severus distinctly noticed him cast a sidelong look in his direction. He had helped the other four with their wandwork toward the end of last year, in preparation for their joining up, and he suddenly wondered if he should have done that – perhaps it would have been better to have the upper hand…

Footsteps approaching from behind, adjacent to the street the boys had just come up, met Severus’s ears, and he turned quickly, drawing his wand and holding it out defensively. The newcomer hesitated briefly, and then approached with noticeably less speed, hands held up in a sort of surrender.

“Easy there, Snape. It’s just me.”

The voice was familiar, and as the figure stepped into the small circle of light that Severus and his friends clustered under, the face of Lucius Malfoy could be seen more clearly than before. He pocketed his wand, slightly abashed, but not before noting a sort of approving look in the older man’s eyes.

Severus and Malfoy had briefly known each other at Hogwarts, but the latter had been considerably older – around six years or so – and they hadn’t spoken until earlier that year. Malfoy had risen fairly quickly in the ranks of the Dark Lord’s most trusted, no doubt because he had the sort of money to grease the many palms he encountered along the way. Now the blonde man stood there, regarding them all as though evaluating them for auction.

“You know, I presume, why you are here?” he said at last, his icy eyes lingering last on Severus, who felt a twinge of something in the pit of his stomach. He pushed it away firmly, and instead nodded. To his right, Wilkes nodded as well, albeit a bit more enthusiastically. Without further ado, Lucius set off across the street, his own wand held aloft. With a brief glance around at the others, Severus followed.

The last vestiges of daylight had now disappeared behind the buildings in the distance – he couldn’t say expressly what sort of buildings they were, as he was unfamiliar with whatever part of town they were in, although he assumed it was just outside London. Mulciber’s father had told them that the group was focusing primarily on England’s capital first, as well as a few undisclosed and discreet cities across the continent.

The sound of swishing water reached his ears, and, rounding a gradual, curving corner, the small group came in sight of a river – not a proper one, but an apparent tributary to the Thames. A bridge made of dark, almost black stone crossed the narrowest part in a tight arc. It was at the foot of this bridge that Lucius stopped, resting one hand lightly upon the end of it.

“Any particular reason we Apparated to the street corner only to walk here?” Rosier spoke up, a bit sourly, as he leaned down and adjusted the heel of his shoe. Malfoy watched him with some amount of distaste, and Severus smirked.

“I suppose secrecy isn’t a high consideration of yours, but it is a very important one to our cause,” he said coldly, lifting his wand imperceptibly higher. Rosier turned a funny sort of maroon color and muttered something under his breath. “The task at hand is relatively simple,” he continued, as though the previous statement hadn’t been said at all.

Severus sucked in his breath without realizing it, something cold – anxiety, or excitement, or maybe misgivings? – flickered up his spine, and goose bumps rose on his eyes despite the mildness of the night.

“All you have to do” – and here he smiled with a darkness nevertheless hanging at the corners of it – “is… well.” His eyes flickered over across the street, at a door which had just opened, letting a square of yellow light out into the darkness. A sound of drum music briefly hit the air before the door was shut again, and a throng of Muggles, laughing drunkenly, began meandering down the pavement.

Severus’s eyes dropped to Malfoy’s wand, and in a rather sudden flash, he knew what he was getting at. The weight in his stomach, still left over from his disturbing dream, grew tenfold, and his hands moved unconsciously to clutch it.

The other four still looked confused, but Malfoy had seen Severus’s movement, and turned toward him. “Are you serious?” he asked in a low, urgent voice. Half of him wished it was a joke, and the other half was angry at the first for feeling the need to question in the first place. Malfoy’s grin widened.

“Come, now,” he said, clapping the younger man’s shoulder and giving it a brief squeeze. “You can’t tell me you never thought this would come?” The delight, the absence of any sort of conscience, on Malfoy’s face made Severus feel as though he were about to be sick. The image of Beth from his dream, staring boldly at him, just looking, swam up before his eyes, and he pushed it firmly away.

“Hang on,” said Rosier loudly, with the desperate air of needing to make up for his earlier mistake. “You don’t mean… Are we going to…” At a loss for words, he made a sort of slashing motion with his finger in the general direction of his throat. Wilkes’s mouth popped open.

Malfoy nodded.

A/N: This book is, overall, a lot darker than the first book, and although I haven't started the third yet, I think it might be the darkest of the lot. For some reason, a lot of these chapters, especially the earlier ones, take place at night, so maybe that has something to do with how I perceive it! There's just a lot more secrecy, more nerves, more espionage. It's different, but a lot of fun to write!

I've got to give credit to HarrietHopkirk and her story Dominique for inspiring me to start out this chapter with a dream sequence. If you've not yet read that story, it's one I highly recommend! Thank you for reading, and as always, please let me know what you thought!


Chapter 4: Severus's Task
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The previous calm of the night seemed to fracture instantly, hairline cracks through the stars dotting the night that was brightly lit by a sliver of a moon. The world seemed to tilt for a moment, so much that Severus actually had to reach out and steady himself upon the opposite supporting post from the one Lucius Malfoy leaned on. No one seemed to notice how suddenly off-balance he had become, but he didn’t even know if he’d care if they did.

He would have been lying if he had tried to use the excuse that he hadn’t known something like this would come along eventually. Wasn’t it what he’d expected, even wanted, from the onset? And wasn’t it what he had defended to Beth, all those months ago in the castle stairwell? But somehow, on this night, watching Muggles return from an otherwise ordinary evening at the pub, he felt sick to his stomach at the prospect.

A sort of eager grin had spread across Wilkes’s freckled face now, and he was looking from one to the other of them, trying to evaluate their responses. Severus’s own eyes searched his friends; with a sinking sort of feeling in his stomach, he realized that, for the most part, they looked as eager as Wilkes had. Avery’s face had paled slightly, but he didn’t look nearly as sick as Severus felt.

What was wrong with him?

Malfoy was regarding them all coolly, absently toying with the hem of his left sleeve. “One per man,” he clarified, out of the blue, again turning his pale eyes on Severus as though he could see the turmoil roiling in his gut. “So as to make it fair.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. How ironic, Severus thought, to be discussing fairness when five human lives – Muggles, but humans nonetheless – were being tossed about as little better than rubbish.

“I’m game,” Mulciber popped up, rubbing his large hands together in excitement. “Finally getting down to do a bit of action, eh?” Wilkes let out an impulsive sort of laugh, spit flying as he did, and was immediately shushed by the others.

“Splitting up, I think, will best accomplish the task,” Malfoy told them; he had now moved on to inspecting his already-immaculate fingernails. Severus remained silent, feeling his lip curl at the blonde man’s lack of emotion. And at the same time, he hated these emotions; he felt distinctly like they were betraying him in some way, going against what his mind was telling him to do.

“Snape, we’ll go this way,” Rosier said with a tiny jerk of his head towards the pub, still spilling its yellow light onto the pavement; it was more of a twitch than an intentional movement. “The others can head down around the corner and find out what’s down there.”

“Where are we supposed to go when we’re finished with the job?” Severus asked Malfoy now, speaking for the first time since being told what they had been sent out onto the London streets to do.

“You’re to return to the corner where I met you,” Malfoy said. “Someone else will be there to assign you your next move.”

“It won’t be you?” Avery blurted out. The older man grinned then, his too-white teeth gleaming very oddly, almost sinisterly. Severus was put suddenly in mind of the grinning teeth of the werewolves in the books he’d studied in the library after finding out about –

But he needed to stop pushing his mind in that direction. It had strayed too close to that group far too often lately for his liking.

Malfoy was shaking his head. “Too risky,” he said. “We’ve got to be just about as careful as anything.” He grinned a bit at Severus, who tried to smile back – anything to dispel the queasy feeling in his stomach – but even to himself, the gesture felt fake.

“So. You all know what you need to do?” Five nods confirmed the question.

“What happens if we don’t do it?” Severus asked suddenly, imbibing as much confidence and arrogance into the question as possible – better to sound that way than like a coward. Malfoy raised a slim eyebrow, and to his left, one of his friends let out a barely audible gasp. “How are you going to know?”

“He’ll know,” said the blonde man, so quietly it was almost a whisper, and another chill darted up Severus’s spine, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to rise. He continued to meet Malfoy’s gaze, cold and impertinent, and finally the latter nodded in return, as though pleased with what he found in the look. With an elaborate turn of the wrist, he tucked the cane he carried under his arm and strolled back off in the direction that the six of them had come, melding with the night until it was as if he’d never been there at all.

“Right, so – around the corner?” Wilkes said at last into the slightly heavy silence that the older man had left behind. Rosier nodded, his eyes slightly unfocused as they turned towards the little pub across the street. With Malfoy’s disappearance had come a sense of unease that seemed to affect all of them, and Severus was glad that he wasn’t alone now. With a small jerk of his head not unlike that which Rosier had done earlier, Mulciber set off for the distant corner, and the other two followed. Finally, it was just Rosier and Severus by the bridge.

His friend cursed softly under his breath, hunched up under his cloak. Both pairs of eyes were set on the little yellow square of light across the street. From that direction, there was the sound of tinkling glass as something dropped, followed by a loud, raucous laugh as the door opened and shut again. Swallowing hard and trying to squash the feeling of nausea rising up within him, Severus glanced both ways and crossed the street, Rosier’s footsteps heavy on the asphalt behind him.

They stopped just outside the door to the little bar, the noise from outside that much clearer as they grew closer in proximity to those inside. “What do you want to do?” Rosier muttered under his breath, stuffing a hand in the pocket of his robes; Severus saw his fist clench around something through the material. “Are we just going to wait for someone to come out and…?”

The matter-of-fact way that they were discussing murder made Severus feel any sicker. He tried to think. “Let’s go inside,” he said, already stretching out a hand to push the door open. “We’ll be a bit less conspicuous that way.” The paint on the door was peeling badly, and the glass was waved with age. It was almost too innocent a place for this.

But really, when he thought about it, any place was too innocent. And so he pushed the door open and entered into the pub’s heady, warm atmosphere.

Already he could see that this was the wrong sort of place to have picked for what he and Rosier needed to do. It was too… normal, if that was the word he was searching for. The walls were painted a dark maroon, which made the interior seem darker than the small lamps hanging from chains, the source of the yellow light spilling out the door and windows, already did. Everything from the long bar – stretching the entire length of the left wall and made more crowded by the steins hanging from hooks overhead – to the small patron’s tables – all full, it looked like, with Muggles trying to relax after a day at the office – was made of rich, dark wood that may or may not have been mahogany. Framed newspapers and pictures crookedly dotted the walls at irregular intervals, and in the far back corner, a black quarter-circle stage, raised about half a foot off the wood floor, held abandoned karaoke equipment.

It was not a place for murderers.

For a minute, Severus wondered what would happen if he just turned his back on the whole operation, Apparated back to the flat he and Rosier shared and made himself a mug of tea instead of going through with all of this. It was frighteningly tempting – and that was even scarier, somehow, than the prospect of the punishment should he choose not to go through with what he’d pledged to accomplish. He had been so passionate about this when it was all theorizing, and presumably he would be passionate about it again – it was for the betterment of the entire wizarding world, he kept telling himself – but right now all it was giving him was a feeling of sickness.

Rosier nudged him in between the shoulder blades. “Come on,” he muttered. “We’re blocking the door.” Severus realized just then that there was a man – reeking of alcohol, too – standing in front of them, blinking blearily but waiting politely nevertheless for the chance to exit. Muttering apologies he didn’t feel, Severus stepped over to the long bar and slid onto one of the stick vinyl stools. Rosier followed suit.

“So what’s the plan?” his friend muttered, hunching over again so that his nose was nearly level with his knees; it was as though he was trying to make himself as small as possible, so as to not be seen by unwanted eyes. Severus’s own eyes scanned the place a second time as he tried to figure out the best course of action.

“Something I can get for you?” The barman, who had been occupied with a pair of men at the opposite end of the bar until then, walked over to them cheerfully, setting his arms wide on the counter and leaning toward them in a friendly manner. Rosier recoiled instinctively.

“Two, uh… surprise us,” Severus muttered, realizing even as he did so that the only money in his pocket was Sickles and Knuts. The man’s eyebrows, white and bushy, rose a fraction of an inch in surprise on his heavily wrinkled forehead, but he turned to the taps anyway and began filling two large mugs. Making sure no one was looking, Severus reached over and swiped a five-pound note from the nearest table, heavily laid with dirty dishes, which had presumably been left there for the tip. He fervently prayed it would be enough to cover the drinks – he had almost no knowledge of Muggle money.

Rosier waited until the barman had set the mugs in front of them and walked away before speaking again. “The plan?”

“I’m thinking,” Severus whispered harshly, rubbing a finger against his right temple, which had suddenly begun to throb uncomfortably. Across the bar, at a large table in the back, a woman let out an obnoxious, high-pitched laugh, and he gritted his teeth in annoyance. But anything elaborate was beyond his current comprehension; they could fix any mistakes with magic, surely. He’d have to go for the simplest thing that he could think of.

“We’ll wait for two people to get up and leave,” he said in an undertone, speaking over the rim of his mug in an effort to conceal the conversation further. There was a pair of men, looking like they were conducting a business meeting – papers and folders surrounded the drinks on their table – in the corner nearest the door. Rosier, seeing where Severus’s gaze had strayed, nodded in confirmation. He took a sip of his own drink and wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“Gross,” he whispered, taking a paper napkin and wiping his tongue on it. “Where’s a bottle of firewhisky when you need it?” He nudged Severus in the ribs, and his friend gave him a grim, obliging smile.

It was very odd, almost surreal, to be sitting here in an everyday pub, with everyday Muggles, discussing drinks while subconsciously plotting how best to murder somebody. So instead, Severus tried to think about what he was doing – not at this moment, but in the long run. Wizards were superior beings, after all, and what was this if not a way of enforcing that? This was one step closer to the Dark Lord’s inner ranks, too, and the privileges that awaited anyone who made it into them.

He was doing the right thing. It had to be the right thing.

The barman wandered back over to them, his other bar patrons having switched to an unoccupied table. He wiped his hands on a slightly filthy rag that was frayed at the edges, tucked it into the apron knotted about his waist, and began drumming his fingers on the counter in front of the two men. Severus wished he wouldn’t; it was intensely annoying.

“So where are you gentlemen coming from?” he asked, looking a bit curiously at the cloak still tied around Rosier’s throat. “Halloween’s not for well over a month.” He winked conspiratorially, as though letting them in on a grand joke, and Severus found it within him to conjure up a humorless laugh.

“Office party,” he muttered, hoping the lie would slide by undetected; he wished Rosier hadn’t worn the stupid cloak, too, although none of them could have known what they’d be facing that night. The barman made a little noise of comprehension and continued to tap his fingers in an irregular rhythm.

There was a shuffling sort of sound from behind them. Severus glanced over his shoulder as quickly as possible and saw that the businessmen were gradually replacing their papers in the folders, chatting away and reaching under the table for nearly-identical leather briefcases. Rosier saw them, too, and his gaze met Severus’s. He gave the tiniest of nods, which the old man across the bar didn’t seem to register.

Severus’s heart had suddenly jumped into his throat; he could feel it beating there, jammed against the thin skin under his jaw, and was sure anyone else could have seen it too should they have thought to look. He drained the last of the disgusting drink and stared unseeingly at the foam that clung to the sides and rim of the glass.

“Another round?” the barman said, in a very transparent effort to continue the nonexistent conversation. One of his crooked and wrinkled hands reached over, trying to take the glass, and Severus jerked it back towards him quickly before the old man could do so.

“No, thanks,” he said hastily. “I’m – not finished.” It was a painfully obvious lie, but the barman just stared for a moment and turned away, taking the rag back out of the waistband of his apron and starting to wipe down the area where the other men had been sitting previously.

“They’re starting to get up,” Rosier whispered, looking down into the depths of his own half-finished drink. “How long do we wait after they leave?”

“Not long,” Severus hissed back; it was hard to hear his friend over the sound of his pulse in his ears, which had only grown louder as the seconds ticked away on the stupid clock behind the bar, decorated with the same logos on the taps that the barman had drawn Severus and Rosier’s drinks from. He watched from his peripherals as the last of the folders were stuffed away, the briefcases closing with distinct clicks. The two men shook hands and continued to exchange pleasantries. It looked like they might do so forever.

“Come on… come on…” Rosier was muttering under his breath, but it didn’t appear that he knew quite what he was doing. One of the men had a dark stain on the front of his light button-down; Severus wondered what it was from.

They began moving towards the door, and then they had disappeared through it, and the small bell above had stopped tolling out their exit. Severus couldn’t take his eyes from it for some reason; he knew what he needed to do, but his body refused to listen to what his brain was screaming at him.

“Snape, let’s go,” Rosier said, another sharp jab in the ribs accompanying his words. He shook his head slightly to clear the confused fog and placed the stolen five pounds on the bar under his stein. With a quick glance around to make sure he and Rosier weren’t as suspicious as he felt them to be, they exited into the night after the two businessmen.

They had turned right, heading back in the direction of the spot where Malfoy had Apparated, the other five in tow – had that really been only about an hour ago? – and away from the corner where the other three had set off to pursue their own quarry. He was a bit glad that this meant they wouldn’t run into the others and risk one of them getting to the Muggles first; he didn’t want to go through the tedious ordeal of picking out another victim. One was enough for tonight.

Merlin, how could he actually think like that? Was he even sane anymore? Or was he finally sane for the first time all evening?

They kept a good distance back, half a block or so, in case the men should glance over their shoulders and see Snape and Rosier following the pair of them. Both men had their hands around their wands, waiting for the perfect opportunity, whatever that was. Severus’s palm was already slick with sweat, but he was too nervous to bother losing his grip on his wand; Beth in his dream was still near the forefront of his increasingly paranoid mind.

The men stopped on the corner ahead, under another buzzing streetlamp, one of the many identical ones dotting this section of town. They appeared to be parting ways for good this time, chatting amicably, their hands hovering as though inching towards another inevitable handshake. It was now or never; Severus felt his insides tense and knot themselves, and bright lights popped in front of his eyes. He gave Rosier a sidelong glance, and found his friend was already looking at him for confirmation.

Now? he mouthed, and Severus nodded briefly, tossing a strand of hair out of his eyes as though he needed to see better. In an identical and simultaneous motion, both men lifted their wands and pointed them at the two businessmen. They stepped into the outer edge of the glow of the streetlamp, and the heads of the two Muggles turned in their direction.

They spoke together. “Avada Kedavra.” It was a spell Severus had practiced in his head, over and over, but the words had never before left his lips. They felt heavy and strange, hanging in the air in the millisecond before they were spoken and the jets of green light that burst from the end of each wand found their targets.

The men collapsed at once, and the briefcases each had been clutching in their hands made dull and ugly sounds as they hit the concrete shortly before their owners. Death was instantaneous with the Killing Curse, and that was perhaps the only good thing to be said for it. Severus, after a brief hesitation, walked over to the two heaps that had, a few minutes ago, been living and breathing people. Rosier stayed behind, biting hard at his lips, which had already turned white.

There was a funny sort of burning in his chest, like his soul was splitting. Perhaps it was – maybe that was what killing people did to you. He nudged the man with the toe of his shoe, trying desperately to ignore the bilious taste that was very quickly rising up in his mouth.

Heavy footsteps approached, and Rosier came along Severus’s right side; now that the streetlamp hit his face more strongly, he could see that his friend’s face was slick, dotted with beads of sweat. “Are they…?” he said, his voice cracking; his tongue tried in vain to moisten his lips.

“Dead,” Severus said hollowly. He sought for the triumph that should have reached him in that moment, in his first physical work for the Death Eaters, but he could only stare disbelievingly down at the man on the pavement, the dark stain still marring the fabric of his dress shirt.

It was then that a massive explosion shook the air around them; turning quickly, wand aloft, Severus just glimpsed Rosier’s panicked face before the corner of the nearest building rushed toward them in a mass of bricks and mortar.

A/N: Oh, Severus. I feel so, so badly for him in this chapter -- and this is really the first time it's had to hit home for him just what he's done, you know? I could talk for hours on this story, actually, so I won't start launching into analysis on his mindset and motives. But poor guy, really.

As I write this, I should be writing more of this story -- I had the first 50,000 words done by the end of May, and the next 50,000 are my project for this year's Camp NaNoWriMo. I finished chapter 16 last night, so things are going really well, and hopefully the entire novel will be finished by the end of the summer! How cool would that be?

As always, reviews are really appreciated. Thank you very much for taking a look at the chapter!


Chapter 5: The Bridge
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Beth could see Sirius’s doglike qualities most when he was excited, like he was at the moment. His laugh was already a bit like the bark of a dog, but nothing compared to now, hopping about her flat and waiting for her to get ready, when he looked almost exactly like a puppy dog, boundless energy almost visibly exuding from him.

“About done?” he called over from his seat on her kitchen counter, swinging his legs back and forth and knocking the heels of his shoes on the cabinets below. Beth stuck her head out of the bathroom and frowned at him.

“Nearly. Stop pestering me.” He grinned wryly, and she couldn’t help it – she smiled back, rolling her eyes nonetheless. “And stop doing that,” she added, gesturing with her hairbrush at his dangling legs. “You’ll leave marks.” She could already see the faint black smudges on the blonde wood from where she stood, but right now, there were slightly more important things to concern herself with.

She would have been lying if she’d denied being excited as well – although maybe “excited” wasn’t the best word the situation called for. Tonight was the night that she and Sirius would be heading out on their first physical mission with Frank and Alice, and she really wasn’t sure what to expect. The Longbottoms had been a bit cryptic, saying they preferred not to discuss details. And that made sense, of course, but it definitely didn’t ease the nervous twist her stomach seemed to have gained as the week ticked by.

The person in the mirror staring back at her above the sink didn’t look like her, for some reason. She was still Beth Bridger, and she was still a member of the Order of the Phoenix, and she was still best friends with James and Sirius and Remus and Peter. But somehow everything seemed a bit heavier tonight, a bit more real. There had been a year of talking and training and making plans, but it was put into a completely different light once plans were coming to fruition, and her reflection might as well have been a complete stranger. It was someone who mirrored her movements as she replaced the brush in the drawer under the sink, and brushed nonexistent lint from the front of her shirt, but was not actually her.

“Beth!” She laughed as Sirius’s voice rang out from the kitchen again, drawing out her name to a rather absurd number of syllables. “You are not getting ready for a date and we are going to miss all the action.”

“If you would kindly take the flame out from under your cauldron and simmer down, I’d appreciate it,” she said lightly, flicking her wand at the lamp and walking out of the bathroom. “And stop kicking my cabinets, Merlin’s beard.” Sirius waggled his eyebrows and hopped down onto the ugly brown linoleum, nearly losing his balance.

“You look strange in Muggle clothes,” he informed her, and she whacked his shoulder with the back of her hand.

“You’ve seen me in Muggle clothes during the summer! Like when we met at James’s? I wore a T-shirt then!” But Beth cast her eyes downward anyway, suddenly a bit wary of her clothing choice. Alice, having said that they’d stand out too much in robes, and that it would be better to attempt to blend in, had lent Beth clothes to wear, as most of her Muggle things were still at her parents’ house, where her mother still was, her father residing in a flat on the other side of town. She hadn’t been back there in months; the last time she’d tried, her mother had tried to lecture her on trivialities such as how she styled her hair.

She was dressed down in a nondescript, muted purple T-shirt, a dark jean jacket with a high collar, and tan trousers that hit under the knee, along with her own black low tops on her feet. Sirius, who’d had all his Muggle clothing with him – and he had quite a lot, to spite his parents – was in a T-shirt and jeans and trainers. Somehow, it looked more natural on him, like he belonged in a T-shirt rather than in a set of robes.

“You look marvelous, darling,” he amended, drawling in a horribly melodramatic way and bowing low so that his hair flopped over the top of his head. She gave him a good-natured shove and he nearly went sprawling into the cabinets he’d recently been kicking.

“You’re nuts,” she laughed, slipping her wand into the pocket of her jacket and quickly wrestling her hair into a plait. “Come on, or we’ll really be late, and it’ll be your head. Are we walking there, or do we get to ride your motorbike?” Sirius, along with buying a flat, had decided upon moving out of his parents’ place that the time had come for him to buy a slightly illegal black market motorbike – the “slightly illegal” part being that someone had tampered with it in order to make it fly.

Sirius scowled. “It’s currently sitting, broken, in my bedroom,” he said moodily. “And I’m too lazy to get it fixed. It’s getting to be a problem, though, having my bedroom smell like motorbike.”

Beth rolled her eyes, unable to help laughing anyway. “Well, come on, then. I wasn’t kidding about being late –“

“Wait. Bethy.” Sirius’s tone of voice changed – he suddenly sounded a bit more somber than he had previously, and he shot out a hand to catch her upper arm before she could leave out the front door. “We’re not telling them about the Animagi thing, are we?”

They’d discussed this a while back, during the early months of their training, when Moody had tried to help them with their disguising techniques. No one but the five of them knew about their Animagus forms – six, if Beth counted Severus, and she tried very hard not to count him now – and there wasn’t really an excellent way of broaching the subject that you could illegally transform into an animal.

“What d’you mean?” she said now, chewing her bottom lower lip in slight consternation. “What, are you reckoning on changing into a dog?”

“Can’t know for sure until I’m out there,” he said darkly, his brows lowering a bit over his eyes.

“I say don’t tell them still. It’s too complicated to bring up last minute.” But Beth felt a small twist of guilt in her insides at keeping such a large secret from Frank and Alice, and, looking at Sirius, she could see he felt the same. But he just nodded, and followed Beth out of the flat.

Frank and Alice were waiting under the lamp on the corner where Sirius had stood flipping the coin a week earlier. They were dressed in Muggle clothing, as well – Frank in jeans and a shirt not unlike Sirius’s, and Alice in cropped shorts and a flowered tank top – and Beth almost didn’t recognize them until she could see their faces properly.

“Excited?” the older woman said without preamble as Beth and Sirius approached. Her hands, which had been clasped behind her back as she waited, were both wrapped firmly around her wand, the gesture belying her easy tone of voice. Sirius nodded at once, Beth a little after him.

“Nervous, more like,” she said, instinctively reaching into her pocket for her own wand again. “It’s definitely odder now that it’s actually here.”

“You two will be fine,” said Frank, smiling, although his eyes were serious. “You’ve trained well.” He lowered his voice and fished something awkwardly out of the back pocket of his jeans, motioning the others together for an impromptu huddle on the street corner. ”Do you recognize him?”

Clutched in his hands was a photograph, bent and crumpled as though it had passed through many hands. The upper left corner had been torn away, but it did not detract from the photo itself, and Beth drew in a sharp breath of recognition as Harrison Mulciber’s square, arrogant face blinked up at her, as though it had better things to do.

“Yeah,” said Sirius bitterly. “We know him. He was at school with us, in our year.” His eyes darted up to Frank and Alice’s; the couple was watching their reaction intently. “He’s got something to do with what’s going on tonight?”

The taller man nodded, folding the photograph and stuffing it back into his pocket. “His dad’s supposed to be big with You-Know-Who, or at least among them – we’re not really sure. There’s some association, and rumor’s got it now that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”

Beth’s mouth had acquired a sort of sour taste as she’d listened to him speak. Mulciber had been one of the ones that Severus had hung around at school, and if he’d joined up… Well, Severus already had the inclination, hadn’t he? More than that, if she was being honest with herself. This wasn’t news to her by any means.

But still, there was no confirmation he was one of them. She’d had no word from him since seventh year, and for all she knew he was comfortably ensconced in some shop or another, or studying at St. Mungo’s, or scratching away in a cubicle at the Ministry. The quickly-dimming hope that she’d selfishly carried in her chest wasn’t about to be snuffed so quickly.

She had to believe that he was different from Mulciber.

“So what exactly are we aiming to do?” Again, Sirius interrupted her thoughts, and she wasn’t entirely ungrateful. Beth caught the look that passed from Frank to Alice before the latter spoke.

“What we’re hoping is that we can arraign them without having to use too much – force.” There was a faint pause between her last two words, but that small space of silence felt like a shout. “So far a lot of the ones we’ve caught have been able to be subdued without a lot of struggle. And I say ‘a lot’ with a bit of reserve, of course, since it’s only been four or five so far.”

“You’ve caught people?” Sirius’s mouth had dropped open slightly.

Frank smiled grimly. “Their memories have been properly modified,” he said, his mouth still twisted a bit. “They wouldn’t know if we had, but the information’s still been pretty valuable.” He gave a short, humorless laugh, and then added, “That’s what we’re trying to do tonight – get our hands on this Mulciber boy, and anyone who’s with him. Chances are he knows something we don’t.”

And anyone who’s with him. Beth physically shook her head, willing the unwanted thoughts out. “And we know where they are?” she asked instead.

“We got information out of one of the others that there’s a certain corner in London the society’s made a sort of meeting spot,” said Frank, shrugging one shoulder up so that, in the half-light, he looked a bit lopsided. His head turned toward his wife. “It’s the only thing we’ve got to go on, but if we don’t act we’ll only be sitting around watching an already cold trail grow colder.”

Something passed between the Longbottoms, and it was a look so intimate that Beth felt she needed to look away, already knowing her cheeks would have been tinged slightly in better light. She pretended to fumble with the hem of the unfamiliar jacket Alice had lent her.

Sirius cleared his throat at last, sounding just as awkward as Beth herself did; she grinned, making sure he couldn’t see. “We’re going now?” he asked.

“Whenever you’re ready,” said Frank, a bit more his old self, and Sirius mimed cracking his knuckles. Wordlessly, Alice held out her hand, and her husband placed his on top. Beth realized that she was going to Apparate them away, and followed suit. The petite woman turned on the heel of her trainer, and the four disappeared from under the lamp with a large crack.

For a moment, it didn’t look like they’d gone anywhere – they had only moved from one street corner to another – and then Beth heard the buzzing fluorescents, and noticed the significant difference in the lamp on this one. Small dark bugs moved about the sickly yellow light in the stuffy summer evening; they made her feel sick as well, just looking up at them. Although that could have been nerves, admittedly.

“Are we splitting up, Frank?” Alice said in a hushed undertone, her hand once more gripping her wand more tightly than she might have otherwise. Frank’s eyes looked from Sirius to Beth, and then some point behind them, as though searching for something; they both turned to glance over their shoulders instinctively.

“Yes,” he said at last, drawing the word out slowly. “Alice, you and Beth are going to head down around there.” He pointed off into a dim sort of courtyard area; there was the faintest sound of trickling water, a fountain or something slightly larger. Beth nodded once, an odd sort of lump suddenly stuck in her throat. She didn’t really think she’d have to do this without Sirius.

“We’ll head back that way and sort of meet in the middle,” he added, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. Beth didn’t really think that that sounded like much of a plan – there were quite a lot of gray areas in those directions – but she felt that saying something at this point might be a bit rude.

But Alice was nodding before she had time to process it, and Sirius was looking at her a bit oddly, as though he hadn’t anticipated that they would be separated, either. She tried to manage a smile, but it felt all wrong on her face; he didn’t even attempt to smile back, just gave her a brief sort of nod.

“You be careful,” he said, running a finger under the collar of his T-shirt. Beth swallowed and stuck her hand in her pocket again, feeling around for her wand. With her free hand, she absentmindedly began to rub her nose.

“You too.”

Sirius cracked a small grin and swatted her hand away from her face. “Stop that, Bethy. I swear you’re going to make it fall off.”

But before she could think of a witty retaliation to this – before she could even think of anything else to say – Sirius and Frank had both turned and were walking away. Sirius glanced briefly over his shoulder at her, and she felt her throat close up with nerves as their footsteps faded. Alice turned to her with a smile that didn’t quite reach her dark eyes.

“Wand out,” she said, withdrawing her own from her pocket. “Better safe than sorry.” Beth mirrored the movement, feeling her palm already slick with sweat as she did so. She tried to steel her nerves, to prove that she was in fact supposed to be on this sort of mission and not sitting in some Ministry cubicle, but it just felt like her insides had turned into jelly.

The trickling water, it could now be seen, was not coming from an invisible fountain, but a small stream, a tributary of the Thames, that wound its way among the concrete and cobbles. Alice stopped by the left band and peered over it, wand held aloft, as though checking for someone there.

“I always hate walking about in the dark,” she muttered, wordlessly flicking it so that the tip lit up and casting an eerie white-blue light that shot dark shadows up over her cheeks. “Much prefer the day stuff, at any rate.” She gave Beth a sympathetic smile, which the latter tried to return with trembling lips; her teeth had started to chatter anxiously.

Get a grip.

There was no one outside this time of the night, for although the hour wasn’t particularly late, anyone who wasn’t already at home would surely be found in one of the several pubs framing this stretch of courtyard. Beth counted at least three from where she walked slowly behind Alice, her own wand out and lit. The door of one of them opened, and two men walked out, silhouetted oddly in the yellow light, their shadows long and distorted and quite visible even from this distance. After a brief interlude, two other men followed.

Alice was watching across the street as well, brow slightly puckered. “They’re heading in Frank’s direction anyhow,” she murmured as if to herself. “Probably harmless.” She darted a quick glance over her shoulder to where Beth was watching her. “Come on, before I lose all my nerve.” Alice’s teeth glinted in a brief smile, and it was vaguely comforting to know that she, too, was nervous.

The women’s footsteps seemed even louder as they moved further away from the tiny bridge and the river it spanned, and soon the only sound apart from those steps was the slight humming of the still-lit wands. Beth cast about for something to say just to break the silence. “How did you wind up in the Order?” she asked, realizing it was a question she’d never even considering posing before.

Alice smiled again, more genuinely this time. “It was Frank’s idea,” she said. “He found out about it through his parents, I think – his mother’s hearing is about ten times better than anyone else I’ve ever met. Like a falcon’s, they are.” Beth laughed breathily, the sort of laugh that came when you were obligated to make a response, as the mention of falcons made her pulse quicken for an instant.

“And it’s a good thing we’re doing, you know,” she was saying, not facing Beth but still walking a pace or two in front of her, wand held high and searching for signs of anything suspicious. “If we – if things go wrong, it’ll be for a good cause.” Beth didn’t miss the slight change of sentence, but felt a bit gratified that Alice’s thoughts about the Order seemed to mirror her own.

“My parents wouldn’t really approve if they knew exactly what I was doing,” she said, tucking a strand of hair that had come loose from her plait back behind her ear. “They’re sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum, if you know what I mean.” Alice looked quickly back over her shoulder at her.

“They don’t know?”

Beth laughed that short, humorless sort of laugh again. “They know I’m doing something, but I felt like details shouldn’t have been given. They… they’re rather into the idea of pureblood supremacy.” But this conversation was reminding her of similar conversations she’d had about this subject, and she couldn’t think about that now. So she shut her mouth, and walked on in silence.

The streets remained empty, sprinkled sparingly with patrons entering and exiting pubs, and Alice seemed to be checking each of these faces to no avail. It was a rather quiet thing, Beth thought – not dueling every other time they turned a corner, or having to run from enemy pursuit, like some of her earlier visions of mission work had afforded her. It was almost pleasant, until the explosion.

The sound came from rather far away, but even so, a few loose pebbles rattled under their feet. Beth let out an audible gasp and quickly clamped her hand over her mouth. Alice’s face had drained of color so that it looked even more sickly in the wandlight; her eyes appeared to nearly pop out of her skull.

“What was that?” Beth hissed, not even needing the question answered. A sick and sinister feeling was creeping along her arms and up the back of her neck, the hairs there prickling uncomfortably. Her insides twisted almost painfully.

“I’m going to go and find out,” Alice said in a low voice. She turned to Beth abruptly. “What you need to do is get back to that bridge we passed and hide out there. Don’t move until I come and get you.”

“Are you serious?” Beth cried out angrily, forgetting herself for a moment, forgetting that staying quiet was probably key in a moment like this. “Hide out under a bridge? Why?!”

The older woman’s eyes darkened. “Because nothing like this has ever happened before, and you’re new at this,” she said frostily, and Beth immediately felt guilty; she and Alice had always gotten along perfectly well before. The slight hostilities were something she knew she shouldn’t take personally.

“But isn’t this what I’m supposed to be preparing for?” she continued anyway, feeling red patches blooming on her cheeks, a mixture of defiance and shame.

“Quite honestly, if we’d known something like that “ – Alice waved her hand in the general direction of where the explosion had come from – “was going to happen, you wouldn’t have been on this mission tonight.” She looked across the square, her face set into hard, determined lines. “Don’t argue, Beth. I just need you to get back to that bridge.”

And before Beth could open her mouth to say anything more, Alice had set off running across the courtyard, a distant point of receding light, until Beth couldn’t see her anymore. She swore under her breath, fighting between following orders and heading after her, but responsibility won out. Still muttering whatever curse words her brain could manage, she set back out for the bridge, half-expecting to see fleeing Death Eaters around every turn.

But, as expected, the area around the bridge was silent save for the sound of the river. She crouched just under the arch of the stonework, concealed behind one of the large posts that flanked it, and began rubbing her nose again, completely forgetting that Sirius had caught her doing it once that evening already. Prudence told her to extinguish the tip of her wand, but survival instincts told her that she should at least be able to see her potential attacker.

“Sirius, where are you?” she whispered aloud, more to hear a human voice than anything else. If he was caught in that explosion… If anything had happened to him… A chill wind blowing off the river slipped under the collar of her jacket, and she pulled it more closely about her, shivering slightly. “Sirius, come on…”

And just as that last sentence escaped Beth’s lips, a hand closed over them from behind, effectively silencing her. Her heart jumped into her throat, beating five times its normal speed; bright lights popped in front of her eyes from fright, and to her immense horror, her hand immediately unclenched from around the handle of her wand. It rolled a few feet, stopping just within her line of vision, its tip still ignited.

She was going to die.

“Don’t move.” The voice was rough, something constricting it, but she knew that voice. She tried to identify it without breathing as the rough tip of a wand poked her in the small of her back. She tried reaching for her wand, but the wand jabbed harder into her spine as she tried.

“I said don’t move!” the voice snapped, carefully removing its hand from over her mouth. And quite suddenly, she knew that voice. How she’d failed to immediately recognize it in the first place was a mystery. She turned her head around, completely forgetting that she was supposed to stay motionless if she valued her life. Because right now, this moment was much more important than that life.

He wasn’t supposed to be here. Not now. Not tonight. Not ever.

“Severus?”

A/N: Aha -- cliffhanger! Oh, you didn't think I'd leave Severus out of Beth's story for too long, did you? That would have been cruel. Not to mention the plot might have been slow as molasses, but you're going to have to wait until next week to see how that goes down, anyway!

For those who are curious (which, I'm sure, is all of you), I've written six chapters and twenty thousand words of this story since June 1, so things are moving really well! A few minor setbacks have come to mean I probably won't make my ultimate goal, but I'm going to try and write as much as I can, and that's what counts.

That being said, thanks so much for reading this chapter. If you have the time, I'd love a review -- even a few words is great!


Chapter 6: Somewhat Reconciled
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For an interminably long moment, neither of them spoke - Beth could only look at Severus with a sort of dumb, mute horror, unable to believe that he was actually standing in front of her. He had dropped his hand from her arm in shock and took a few steps back, his mouth open, eyes wide.

He was the first to regain the ability to speak. "I - you - what are you doing here?" he hissed, instinctively glancing around him, as though to make sure that nobody else was concealed in the shadowed spaces below this bridge. Beth knelt quickly to the ground, scrambling for her wand, which still lay several feet away with its tip lit.

"What do you mean, what am I doing here?" she returned hotly. She had prepared herself never to speak to him again, was just getting ready to accept the turn of events. He had used her to try and get closer to Lily, he still loved Lily; she had no purpose wishing that things were different, because the fact of the matter was that they weren't. They never had been, and they never would be.

"I thought it was a fairly simple question," he said coldly, drawing himself up a few more inches, and she frowned. The expression of shock still registered on his face, however. "Why were you hiding under the bridge?"

Beth felt her mouth go slightly dry as she realized that Severus didn't know a single thing about the Order of the Phoenix. She'd grown used to being around people that knew, apart from her parents, and it wasn't like she talked to them more often than she had to. For one wild and stupid moment, she considered it.

Severus's brain had been working ferociously while her mouth opened and closed, trying to formulate the best response to his question. "Is Sirius here?" he asked now, eyes looking about once more as though, again, he expected him to materialize from thin air.

"No," Beth answered, grateful to get at least one coherent word out. And it wasn't a lie, really - he wasn't under the bridge. "And what are you doing here, anyway?" she added, finding that she didn't know his reason for skulking about under bridges, either.

"You didn't answer my question," he said and - did she imagine it? - the barest flicker of amusement flashed briefly in his eyes. One corner of her mouth twisted before she could stop it, and she hastily rearranged her features, hoping he didn't see. The last thing she needed was to make a fool of herself in front of him yet again. The current circumstance called for utter composure.

Beth tried to assuage the awkward moment by holding her wand higher, scanning for signs of anyone else. The courtyard was peaceful enough, with no signs of anyone since Alice had run off to investigate whatever had blown up.

"Stop that," Severus hissed, reaching up and grabbing her wand again, forcing her arm down by her side. "Do you want to call attention to yourself?" Beth jerked her arm away, scowling.

"There's no reason I shouldn't if I want to," she said hotly, and, before Severus could argue again, asked, "Did you hear that explosion?" She watched his face carefully; it darkened slightly at the mention of the noise. He nodded his head.

"Happened pretty much over my head, if you're going to get technical about it," he said shortly. "And now I'd really like for you to answer my question."

"What I'm doing here is my business, and certainly none of yours," Beth said. But now that the initial shock of his sudden and unexpected reappearance was starting to wear off, a sick, clammy feeling of nerves was beginning to set a vise grip on her insides.

It couldn't just be coincidence that they were both here, on this night, in this spot, and she was tracking one of his old school friends. Even coincidences didn't stretch that far, she was sure. And from the unsatisfied expression on his face, it was pretty apparent that he didn't believe in those sorts of coincidences either.

A thick and heavy silence descended on the pair of them; from somewhere nearby, there was a faint splash in the tributary behind them, and she instinctively ducked, training her wand in the direction of the noise.

Severus, who had crouched too, looked at her for a moment, face illuminated strangely by her wand. And again, there was that faint expression on his face, telling her that whatever she was doing amused him slightly. She frowned to smother the need to smile back.

"It's good to see you again," he said, breaking the thick tension. Her heart jumped, doing somersaults in her chest, and she closed her eyes lest she should do or say something stupid. "It's been a while. A year?"

"More than that." Beth swallowed hard against the painful lump that had arisen in her throat quite suddenly. "And don't do that, all right?"

Severus's expression clouded. "Do what?" She made a vague gesture at him with the wand, sending bouncing light over the underside of the bridge, damp with moss and something that might have been mold.

"That," she answered, when he still looked faintly confused. "Act as though we're just old friends, out for tea or something. Don't you think it's a little odd - ?" But she broke off before she could say too much, and instead crawled forward slightly on her hands and knees, peering around the edge of the bridge. The courtyard was as deserted as ever.

"No, I don't think it's odd," said Severus, sounding cold again, and much closer than she had expected him to be. Her fingers dug into the ground slightly, willing herself not to lose her cool over something so utterly stupid as this. "Considering that -" But he broke off too, and the thick silence hung over them once more, so tangible it was almost a physical presence.

She finally steeled herself enough to look back at him, and immediately wished she hadn't. The look in his eyes was hard, challenging, and she could already sense the onset of a difficult conversation even before it began. "All right. What?" she said, a bit testily, not willing to give in quite that easily. Her heart was thudding so loudly in her ears she was positive he could hear it; she wasn't sure if it was from nerves, or excitement, or perhaps a combination of the two.

"It's been a year," he said bitterly. "You owe me an explanation, Beth." She felt some sort of bilious taste well up in her mouth, and thickly swallowed it back. "You were the one who walked away," he added, his voice so low she almost couldn't make out the words. "Not me."

"I'm not about to get into whatever I did when I was still in school," she whispered fiercely, eyes still trained on the dark stone, elevated slightly above her head from her current position on the riverbank.

Severus swore softly, and she looked back at him, although her brain screamed at her not to. There was an unfamiliar, nearly unreadable expression on his face now - hurt? Guilt? Her own guilt must have been evident enough on her own face.

Never had she imagined - or never had she wanted to imagine - that having to turn her back on him by the lake over a year ago would have been something that had stuck in his mind as it had in hers. She had thought of it constantly and had never allowed herself to think of how she might have hurt him. And now, in this absurd circumstance, grouched in the damp grass and mud by a river tributary next to him, she allowed herself to wonder for the first time in a long time.

Just what exactly had she given up? Was it even possible that maybe - just maybe - she had been mistaken? The light of her wand shone oddly for a moment in the corner of her eye, and Beth's mind jumped back instantly to Severus's Patronus. It had been Lily's. He loved Lily. That was what it came down to now, and she couldn't let herself forget that.

"Are you even going to tell me what I did wrong, then?" he snarled, brushing his hair away from his face angrily. The hurt, now blatant below the angry words, made her stomach turn over.

"Look, it's not your fault," she said at last, ducking her head back around the corner of the bridge and sitting facing him for the first time all evening. "Okay? It was more because of my stupidity that I told you it was best that we weren't friends."

Severus glowered. "What you said was that it was because of - of our differences," he said, and she didn't miss the slight pause. "Is that still true?"

Beth laughed humorlessly. "I think that answer's pretty obvious," she said, gesturing at where she sat in the dirt, knees now drawn up to her chest, and then out at the world outside the small sphere the two of them seemed to have drawn around themselves. "Explosions generally don't happen without a reason, Severus. And I think it's quite clear that you and I are under a bridge for a reason, too."

His name had felt odd on her tongue - heavy and unused, but familiar - and he lifted his head just slightly upon hearing it.

Another silence fell over them, as though the world was waiting to see what might be said next. The river trickled by, and a slight breeze blew around the bridge, whistling faintly into the otherwise still night. Beth wondered where Sirius and Frank and Alice were, and it crossed her mind to leave the cover of the bridge. Going and looking for them might have been rash, but sitting here under the bridge with Severus of all people seemed even stupider, somehow. She made to get to her feet.

"Where are you going?" Severus scrambled to his feet as well, wand clutched tightly in his right hand. It looked like he was thinking of restraining her again. Beth stared at him coolly, trying not to betray how rapidly her heart was beating against her throat, how quick her breath was coming since seeing him again.

"I've got to go and meet Sirius," she said at last. Severus's mouth dropped open again.

"You said he wasn't here!"

"He's not here. I'm going to meet him somewhere else." His mouth twitched, as though unable to decide whether she was being funny or not. He finally looked down at his feet in disgust, kicking something nonexistent with the toe of his shoe.

When he looked back up at her again, he had a sort of resolute and determined expression on his face, different from any he'd yet worn that night. "I don't want to keep doing this," he said, the words sounding as though he had to force them out. "We did this all seventh year, dancing around the issues and moving backwards and forwards in our... friendship."

Beth swallowed again. "There aren't any issues," she said, but even to her own ears the protest sounded like a blatant lie. "I really have to go."

"Wait - stop." Severus's hand had darted out seemingly before he'd thought to check it, and he wrapped it firmly around her wrist, preventing her from taking more than a few steps in any direction. The place where his skin touched hers burned as though it had been set aflame.

She was immensely glad he kept it there.

"I mean it," he hissed, sounding angry, although for some reason she knew he wasn't. "I let you walk away by the lake and I'm not about to let you walk away again without a decent set of answers."

From somewhere far away, but not quite far enough, there was the sound of faint voices and distantly echoing footsteps. Severus's hand closed infinitesimally tighter around Beth's wrist, anticipating that she might make a run for it. She raised her eyes to meet his.

And there was an understanding there - not a healing, for they weren't there yet, she knew. But something recognizable in both of them manifested itself there, something like a precursor to getting back to the way things might have been. It was dangerous, and terrifying, and Beth couldn't remember the last time she had wanted something this badly.

Severus nodded his head just as if she'd spoken aloud and slowly released her wrist. Beth kept it still hovering in the air, her senses significantly numbed. "I'm going to owl you," he said, slowly and deliberately. "Okay?"

Beth didn't make a response, scared of either her heart or her brain outweighing whichever one was supposed to be correct. But he seemed satisfied by the nonverbal answer, in any case, because he took a step back, and she understood this to mean that she could go now.

She set off up the slope of the riverbank, and only once did she cast her gaze behind her. Severus was still looking up at her, the barest ghost of a smile at the corners of his mouth. She had to work hard to conceal one of her own.

*

Severus watched Beth scramble up the slight slope next to the bridge, feeling all at once confused and shocked and happier than he could remember being in a long time. The feeling of her wrist was still imprinted on his fingers, and he looked down at them, as though expecting them to look different than they had earlier that night.

He had never expected to run into her there, beneath that stupid bridge, of all places. That had been the one spot in this entire section of town that he thought he’d be safe from whatever lunatic had set that building down upon his and Rosier’s heads.

But who had done that, anyway? He frowned, something gnawing away at him, although he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was. For some reason, he had a hunch that Beth was involved in some way, small or large. And his hunches were usually pretty accurate.

But he was going to send her an owl. He knew that much. Severus had already too many things slip past him to let this one go again.

He returned to the shadows of the bridge and waited for Rosier to show up.

*

Sirius was on the point of almost being physically restrained by the time Beth caught up with him, Frank, and Alice across the courtyard. Seeing her coming, Alice’s face had taken on a sort of pinched look, but she didn’t dare launch into a reprimand about disobeying orders now.

“I could have done it,” he was saying staunchly, brow creased, wand clenched tightly at his side. Frank was looking equally grim next to him. “They were completely taken by surprise –“

“Just because they were taken by surprise doesn’t mean anything,” the older Auror said shortly, coming to a stop so quickly that his wife nearly ran smack into the back of him. “I know you didn’t do it on purpose,” he said loudly, talking over whatever argument Sirius had been about to offer and sounding as though the conversation had come full circle from where it had started, “but just trust me when I say it’s for the best.”

The men suddenly seemed to realize that Beth had joined their little group; she stuck her wand in her pocket and crossed her arms over her chest. Seeing Sirius again suddenly reminded her of just how horribly he’d take it, should he find out exactly who she’d met up with that night.

“Where’ve you been?” he said, as though able to read her mind. She tried to ignore the slight clammy feeling that gripped the pit of her stomach at the question.

“Under a bridge,” she said with a wry smile, trying to pass the whole thing off as a joke. “So you were the cause of that explosion?”

Sirius scowled darkly, and Alice answered, “Yeah, he was. No harm done, though, and it’s all fixed.” But she shot Frank a look that Beth didn’t miss. “We’d better get back to headquarters to report everything.”

“Not a lot to report, though,” said Frank, looking back over his shoulder to where the three of them had come from. “Unless either of you saw someone, all we’ve really got to report is the two dead Muggles on the corner and the two men standing over them, and we didn’t even get a good look at them.”

Beth felt like she was going to be sick. “What?”

Sirius’s mouth folded into an even grimmer line. “Yeah. Killing Curse, by the look of it.” He fiddled with the left sleeve of his T-shirt, picking off invisible threads, and she suddenly realized that he didn’t want to talk about it. She let the matter drop, but on the inside, her heartbeat had picked up again. She thought about the two Muggles she and Alice had seen exiting the pub, not long before the explosion.

Please don’t let that have been because of Severus.

“Are we going, then?” Alice asked, her eyes darting between her husband and Sirius, who now looked considerably paler than before, having been reminded of the dead men. Frank nodded, and he and Alice set off in the direction of the initial corner. Sirius and Beth trailed a bit behind.

He looked so awful that, without thinking, Beth reached forward and took his hand, squeezing it in what she hoped was a comforting way. Sirius glanced down at her hand, and then at her, and smiled feebly.

“You okay?” she asked. He nodded.

“It’s just… it’s different when you see it,” he said softly, so that the two ahead of them couldn’t hear. Beth realized that somehow, he seemed older in that moment, more soft-spoken, and not his usual self. She felt a pang of nostalgia for the older days of their friendship, which were, compared with now, virtually worry-free.

For an instant, it flickered across her mind to tell Sirius about meeting Severus, but she discarded the notion almost immediately. It would only worry him further, and the last thing she wanted right now was to miss even more the boy that Sirius wasn’t; she had to come to terms with the man he was.

A/N: So Severus is back! For the most part, anyway, although I suppose you'll have to wait and see how "back" he is. He and Beth are actually both aware of the other's existence, at any rate, and I suppose that's the best we'll do for now.

I'm actually going to be out of town next week, so there won't be an update for two -- but I'm a trusted author, so the summer queue closure won't affect me much in that respect. And to be fair, I could have left you hanging at last chapter's ending, which would have been worse! As always, thank you for your reviews, and if you'd like to take the time to leave one it would be very much appreciated!


Chapter 7: Homecoming
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There was, James Potter thought happily, really no place quite like home.

It felt like ages since he’d had been back here, and there were no words that could convey just how happy he felt at walking down this street again, across this corner, and towards the door of the complex where his and Lily’s flat was. He hadn’t been entirely against returning to his childhood home, but, of course, the circumstances for doing so had been less than ideal.

It had been a few months since his parents had died, but, of course, there was something about losing both of your parents within a week of each other that threw you more off balance than you otherwise might have been. James had flitted back and forth between home and here – although really, the rambling old house was hardly ‘home anymore – so often he knew the route by heart, and he was glad he was nearly done with the proceedings. The house would be sold off before long, the will settled, and he could start to move on with his life. There was something intensely satisfactory about it, the promise of a somewhat-fresh beginning.

He crossed a final corner and gazed up at the large concrete box that made up the exterior of his building – it was a rather ugly place, but then, all the flats he and Lily looked at early in their marriage had been of a similar mold. Muggles weren’t the most creative people in the entire world, but they built sturdy flat complexes, if nothing else, and these made for innocuous-enough places to live while the eight of them did their work for the Order.

The security guard at the front desk was hunched over a grimy-looking newspaper as James pushed open the door into the lobby. He looked up at the disturbance, and from the looks of things, he hadn’t shaved since James had last seen him.

“Dwayne, it’s a pleasure to see you, as always,” James said cheerily, bowing just low enough so as not to be offensive in his sarcasm, the knapsack on his back, which had held the things he’d brought for the three-day trip, nearly falling over his head. Dwayne gave a little grunt and scratched one of his paunchy, stubble-covered cheeks with a meaty hand. He glanced down at the imitation-metal nametag he wore, as though expecting to see a different name written there, before looking back up at the young man in front of him.

“Evenin’. You’re back late.” The guard poked his tongue out from between his lips and scribbled something on the newspaper with a ballpoint pen that had been thoroughly chewed on. “Fifteen across,” he muttered, and then looked back up at James, who was studying the crossword interestedly. “Need something?”

“Nope.” James rocked back and forth a bit on the balls of his feet, enjoying the squeak of his trainers on the linoleum. And then he remembered – as though he’d forgotten – that Lily was upstairs, and he hadn’t seen her in days. “You finish that crossword, now,” he said with mock sternness, jabbing a finger at the page, “and let me know if you figure out fifteen across.”

And, rather enjoying the confused look on the guard’s face, he turned and headed for the door leading to the stairwell – the lift was perpetually broken, and judging from the look of that dented door, he wouldn’t have trusted it anyway. On the journey up, he found himself wondering if Dwayne even knew his name.

As he mounted the steps, the squeak of his shoes now echoing oddly in the stairwell, he felt a little ball of nerves beginning to mount and twist in his stomach. It hadn’t been that long since seeing Lily, but she could still make his heart flip just coming back from the kitchen after putting her mug in the sink. The sensation was only heightened by absence, and he resisted the urge to break into a run until he was standing in front of the door to his flat once more. Part of him still couldn’t register, after over a year of marriage, that he really could have been so lucky.

The corridor of the third floor was empty and smelled slightly of day-old fish and chips, no doubt from James and Lily’s neighbors, who sent out for greasy takeaway more than was humanly acceptable. But even the smell was welcome now, for it meant home, and home meant Lily. He ran a hand through his hair instinctively – a schoolboy habit he’d never quite dropped – and inserted his key into the lock, pushing the door open tentatively.

“Lily?”

At first he thought the flat was deserted, and a slightly crestfallen expression fell on his face. There was no reason she should be here – he’d not given her an exact time he was coming back, and for all he knew, she was out running errands – but he’d really been looking forward to seeing her. And then there was a sort of scraping sound from the kitchen, and the sound of a pot crashing, and Lily came hurtling out of the narrow doorway into the even narrower front hall.

“James!” she shrieked, and before he could react, there was a sort of blur of red hair and vanilla perfume and apple-scented shampoo, and quite suddenly she was in his arms and kissing him like mad. He wrapped his arms dizzily around her, trying to find some sort of ground amidst the floating feeling kissing her was giving him, and failing entirely.

She pulled away, her fingers still laced around his neck, pulling at the hairs there. He didn’t mind at all, grinning down lazily at her and drinking in everything about her – the exact color of her eyes, the pattern of freckles across her nose, and the slight twist her own smile had. “Hi, Lils.”

“Welcome back,” she said, drawing close to him again and laying her head on his chest. He set his chin on her hair and tried to imprint this into his memory, letting every moment, every sensation, entire into the pores of his skin. James and Lily stood like that for a long time, content just to stand together and wish fruitlessly for time to stop and allow them these moments.

She pulled away again and grinned a little self-consciously, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “So,” she said, a bit breathlessly, “How was your trip?”

James laughed, giving Lily a quick kiss on the tip of the nose. “Trip was fine,” he said, smiling and picking up his knapsack, which he had been on the point of dropping when Lily had attacked him with that kiss. He turned and started to head to the bedroom with it. “What’ve you been up to? Moping around missing me?”

“Every night,” she laughed, trailing him naturally to the back room and leaning against the doorframe as he swung the knapsack onto his side of the bed.

“Hey, do you want to ask everyone over tonight?” Lily half-swung on the edge of the frame by her fingertips as James slipped off his shoes; they fell next to the radiator with slight thuds. “They haven’t seen you in forever, the last meeting was dead boring without you there.”

“You’re just biased,” he teased, but a small bubble of excitement welled up within him at the prospect of having his friends over. “Yeah, let’s do that! D’you think Marlene will let us use her owl?”

Lily shrugged, and the hair she’d tucked back before came loose again. “I’ll go and ask,” she said, but a barely-suppressed excitement lit up her face. “I did miss you,” she added, as though he could have possibly dreamed otherwise. James took few steps, clearing the small room, and kissed her again.

“Not quite as much as I missed you,” he grinned, and she blushed before turning and heading back out into the hall. James sank down onto the edge of the bed, his smile still fixed firmly in place.

He would never understand how on earth he’d convinced her to love him. But he didn’t need to question it – it was enough just having her there.

*

Sirius was the perfect picture of impatience, waiting again on the street corner, as Beth emerged from her apartment building and turned to face the street. “You are so slow!” he called down to her, hopping up and down with wild happiness.

“You’re too eager!” she called back, a bit lamely, but laughing at his absurd half-dance. “I told you ten minutes until seven, didn’t I?”

“It’s five minutes ‘til!” he howled back, doing a sort of swing and skip around the lamppost now. “We haven’t seen James in over a week!” By now Beth had come up to him and was shaking her head in bemusement as he grinned down at her, dark hair flopping into his eyes.

“Get a haircut, you mutt,” she laughed, ruffling it fondly before setting off down the street. Sirius barked mockingly and wagged an invisible tail before trotting alongside her, subtly hurrying her along. “What’s your rush, anyway?”

He shrugged now, spreading his arms wide and tilting his head towards the overcast sky above them. “It’s like a little reunion, isn’t it?” he said, glancing at her and waggling his eyebrows a few times before turning right around and walking backwards for a change of pace.

Beth frowned. “We see each other every week, Sirius.”

Sirius flapped his hands impatiently. “Not my point,” he said. “This is just how it was – the five of us, Exploding Snap deck in my pocket, the girls jabbering away in the corner –“

“I sometimes think you forget I’m a girl,” Beth said mildly. “It’s very flattering, that.”

“You need to stop taking everything so seriously, Bethy,” Sirius grinned, turning back around and stuffing his hands in his pockets. “It’s life we’re living!”

He started up with a jaunty whistling tune, and Beth laughed, shaking her head at him again. But somehow, something within her saddened at his analysis of the situation. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard him talk about the “old times” with that sort of faint nostalgic air. She sometimes thought that a part of her friend resented everything that had happened since joining the Order – James growing up almost faster than necessary, their gatherings tainted with darker overtones of secrecy and importance. They weren’t those four seventeen-year-olds clustered around the Gryffindor common room anymore, and Beth wondered how hard it was for Sirius to realize that sometimes.

But she supposed she kept enough from him – and, upon thinking this, a slight clench of nerves tightened her intestines. She hadn’t dared breathe a word about her run-in with Severus to Sirius, and the more time went by, the less she was inclined to bring it up. She knew that she should have said something, and probably should have voiced her suspicions as to why he’d been there at all.

But for some inexplicable reason, Beth wanted to keep this to herself. Selfishness declared that she wanted to wait and see how things unfolded before she revealed she’d seen him – after all, who was to say they’d bump into each other again? He’d promised to owl her, and had seemed like he meant it, but how much stock could she put in his promises?

James and Lily’s hulking apartment building came into view as the pair of them turned another corner, and upon sighting it, Sirius grinned instinctually, flashing Beth an eager glance. She smiled back at him. No use dashing his visions, after all.

“If you ask me to race you to the top,” she said, seeing him open his mouth, “I will jinx you.”

The security guard in the lobby didn’t look at all pleased to see Sirius and Beth there, but then again, he didn’t look much the sort to be pleased at much. Sirius crossed one leg behind the other and leaned on the desk, hands partially obscuring the crossword that the guard had been working on.

“If you could let James and Lily Potter know we’re here, please,” he said genially. “It would be much appreciated.” The guard raised a surly eyebrow and reluctantly reached his large hand towards some sort of electronic box under the overhang of the lobby counter. He pressed a button, and a few seconds later, James’s voice seeped through the box, heavily distorted by static.

“There’s a couple of people here to see you,” the man said grumpily. He looked up at Sirius and Beth again. “What’d you say your names were?”

“Snivellus Greasepants,” Sirius responded immediately, with an impressively straight face, and Beth felt her own face grimace involuntarily at the jab. The security guard glared at Sirius, but from the little box, James’s voice burst into fuzzy laughter. He said something unintelligible which the security guard appeared to understand.

“Go on up,” he said nastily, as though he’d like nothing more than to turn the both of them out on their backsides. With an obnoxiously loud buzzing noise, the door to the nearby stairwell opened up. Beth thanked him politely and shoved Sirius through the door before he could annoy the guard further.

“You might try acting older than five, Black,” she said, her voice echoing oddly in the stairwell. Sirius batted his eyes in an expression that was apparently supposed to exude innocence.

“You adore me anyway.”

“Yeah, sure. Now keep moving, before I trod on your heels.”

James was already standing outside the door to his flat when Sirius and Beth had climbed the stairs. With an almost animalistic noise of happiness, Sirius threw himself at his best friend, engulfing him completely in an affectionate hug. James laughed loudly.

“You’re such a dog, mate!” he said, nevertheless appearing pleased at the welcome. Sirius stepped aside and Beth wrapped her arms around James’s middle, hugging him tightly. He smelled familiar, of soap and catsup and something boyish she couldn’t place, and it was amazingly comforting.

“Sorry about him,” Beth teased, smirking at Sirius, who had the good grace to pretend to be affronted. “I shouldn’t let him off his leash so much, but you know how excited he gets.”

“And you, my dear, can go and eat worms,” Sirius said breezily, sweeping past the pair of them and into the flat without so much as a formal invitation from James. Shrugging and grinning happily nevertheless, James followed him in, and Beth took up the rear.

Remus and Peter were already sitting on the one lumpy two-seat sofa that James and Lily owned, immersed in conversation, and both looked up as the other three filed back in. Despite her thoughts earlier about Sirius’s seeming reluctance to let go of the past, she felt a warm feeling tingle through her at the thought that for the first time in what seemed like forever, the five of them were back together again in mostly normal pretenses.

Sirius folded his long legs under him almost at once, plopping down onto his customary spot on the rug, and Beth followed suit. “Want a game?” He took the pack of cards out of his pocket and began shuffling them.

“I’m a bit insulted you had to ask,” Remus said nonchalantly, and immediately they shifted into a comfortable rhythm, as though they’d never been apart. Beth wiggled a bit on her spot on the carpet, and Peter raised an eyebrow at her.

“Nothing,” she said dismissively, grinning nonetheless, and noticing that James had disappeared into the kitchen, where she could hear him talking with Lily. “Are we the only ones, then?”

“Marlene should be up in a bit,” Remus said, watching as Sirius dealt the cards to make sure he didn’t try anything underhanded. “And I think Mary’s got a cold, or something? She’s at home, at any rate.”

Sirius grinned wickedly, flipping a card up in the air and catching it on his outstretched palm. “Look at you, knowing what the girls are up to,” he said. “Work at the Ministry’s going just fine, I take it?” He laughed as Remus turned beet-red and muttered something under his breath.

James poked his head back out of the kitchen, and made an affronted noise when he saw the cards. “I know you’re not playing without me,” he said, popping open the top of the butterbeer he held in his head and taking a large gulp.

“Never,” said Sirius, continuing to deal out cards methodically. “And now you’re late. Wait your turn, Potter.” At that moment, the same sort of buzzing that had announced Sirius and Beth’s entrance into the apartment sounded, and James leaped up to speak into the intercom.

“Well, then, he’s not getting any cards,” Sirius remarked conversationally, scooping up the remains of the deck and placing it in the middle of the little circle the four of them had automatically formed. Marlene shuffled into sight and gave them all a smile and a wave, and Lily poked her head out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a hand towel.

“Are you lot playing that game again?” she said, rolling her eyes good-naturedly. James gave her a quick peck on the cheek and flopped down cross-legged by Sirius again in response.

“You nicked my cards!”

“You’re sitting out this round for playing host,” Sirius told him sternly, flipping over the top card on the pile; it immediately began smoking, smelling acrid, a bit like burnt plastic. It was a smell Beth had missed, and she was almost glad it was as pungent as it was. Dozens of little memories trickled right to the forefront of her mind just smelling it again.

“Oh, hang on!” James burst out suddenly, making Peter jump; his cards slid everywhere, and he hastened to scoop them up before anyone else could snatch them. “You two went on a mission, didn’t you?” His fingers made a sort of wiggling motion between Beth and Sirius. “Spit it out, then! How was it?”

Sirius immediately launched into a detailed account of the mission, Beth interspersing comments here and there when he took a breath – but really, she became sort of distant from it all, her mind slightly fogging over and tuning her friend out. If she started talking about this, then she was terrified she might reveal something that she didn’t want the others to know. So she sat with her mouth clamped shut, talking only when needed, and let Sirius’s steam run out.

“And it was just… I wish you were there, mate,” he finished enthusiastically, punching James’s arm. James grinned back – a bit wistfully, if Beth interpreted it correctly – but he shook his head.

“Nah. I’d be no good at that sort of thing,” he said, and instinctively reached for Lily’s hand, just as he’d done in the hospital wing when he’d gotten his jaw cracked in Quidditch their last year at school. “You and Beth, you’re the only ones.” He turned to look at Beth then, and quite suddenly, an expression flickered across his face. It was only for the barest moment, but in that short space of time, Beth’s insides twisted, because she could have sworn he knew about Severus.

Lily turned away to talk to Peter about something just then, and James scooted a fraction of an inch closer to her, a little crease forming between his eyebrows. “You okay?” he said in a low, brotherly sort of voice, glancing quickly at Sirius to make sure he didn’t overhear. That alone was enough to cause her to swallow guiltily.

“Yeah. Why?” But the sentence came out a bit more accusatorily than she’d meant it to, and she could see James noticed; he leaned back slightly on his heels, still studying her intently. “I’m fine,” she reiterated, with a little shrug, still kicking herself for making her voice slightly as a go-to defense.

“Hey, mutt,” she said, turning quickly back to Sirius. “Stop taking peeks at my cards, cheater!” But, although Sirius really had been sneaking glances at her deck, which she’d left discarded on the rug, she really wanted just to escape from James’s unnervingly knowing look. His finding out yet another one of her secrets concerning Severus was the absolute last thing she needed.

A/N: I'm back! And complete with a lovely sunburn to boot, so that's always evidence of a good time. I'm quite pleased to be home, though, because it's very hard to write when you're away, and I get all twitchy when I can't write for long periods of time. Such is life!

Today marks exactly a year since I first started writing the Snape/Beth books, and considering as how I'm currently finishing up chapter 21, that's not too shabby! Thanks for reading, and as always, reviews are so appreciated!


Chapter 8: The Patronus Charm
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“I still don’t really understand why we’re here,” said Wilkes in a low, slightly nervous voice as he came to a halt next to Severus. Severus wished he wouldn’t - his own stomach was already squeezing enough with nerves without the added outside pressure of Wilkes’s shoulder too close to his.

“Shove up,” he said in a whisper, as though afraid whoever was inside the house they stood outside of could hear them. “I don’t know why we’re here, all right?”

Wilkes glared at him. “Don’t recall asking you outright,” he muttered, but scooted a bit further away. Severus tried to feel bad for being so short, but it wasn’t within him at the moment. There had been no contact from headquarters for quite a while after completing the mission Malfoy had set them - no letters from any owls, no Aurors at their door, and not so much as a word from someone higher up in the chain of command than them.

And then, almost when they had given up hope, the summons here, to a narrow and run-down townhouse in the middle of scenic nowhere. None of them had ever been here before, and for a while Mulciber had resisted their going, sure it was a trap or a joke. When Rosier had pointed out that the letter had been written in a nearly identical hand to one that had been sent them earlier, and furthermore, that it was cursed in the event it should fall into the wrong hands, he’d reluctantly agreed to come along. Now, however, he seemed to be having the same anxieties as Wilkes, although was admittedly less vocal about them.

Severus tipped his head back and looked at the top floor of the house; he thought he saw a curtain move, just barely, as though tapped with a hand or blown slightly away from the glass. The thought that someone might have been watching made the hair on his arms stand up, although that might have been the odd, chill wind that suddenly turned the corner without warning.

“Are we knocking on the door, then?” drawled Avery from somewhere behind Severus’s left shoulder, in a sort of bored, monotonous voice. Rosier shot him a look and, as though in defiance, stepped forward and rapped with the back of his hand on the peeling black paint covering the door.

For a long and rather hesitant moment, there was no sound from within, and Severus made to step back. Perhaps they had gotten the wrong house - but there was that disconcerting fact of the moving curtain. And then, so silently that he didn’t even see it until it was more than halfway open, the door shuddered inwards, and a dark face appeared in the crack between the door and its frame.

The dark-skinned man with the deep voice - the same one who’d admitted them into that first room, over a year ago - glared at them all, challenging their presence. “We were sent here,” Rosier said boldly, and to his left, Severus heard Wilkes whimper, just barely audible. He sneered and moved a bit further away, wanting nothing to do with that display of cowardice, minute as it may have been.

“Inside.” The door opened a bit more, and Rosier stepped quickly over the threshold, Severus following close at his heels. Once Avery had come inside, the door was shut behind him, and the entrance hall was in near-complete darkness. There was a little hiss, following by a rapid succession of short, staccato pops, and gas lamps burst into clarity all along the walls, the wallpaper surrounding them peeling just as badly as the paint on the front door had been.

There was a sort of shuffling sound, as though someone was dragging a heavy length of cloth over the floor, and then, to Severus’s right, a previously seamless panel of wall swung inward. The dark-skinned man jerked his head at the opening, and he led the way in, not a little nervous.

“What’s all this, then?” Wilkes finally spoke up; they were in darkness again, whatever lamps might be in this room not having appeared yet, and Severus rolled his eyes in annoyance. But the man who’d led them in didn’t speak again until the section of wall had folded back into place, and for a minute, there was only the sound of breathing.

At the moment a brilliant chandelier over their head burst into being, an unknown voice spoke from the corner. It belonged to a squat, misshaped sort of man, his arms crossed uncaringly over his chest while the plant of his feet spoke to the fact that he did, in fact, care very much.

“Well, boys, I’d assume all this is because you’ve got a few ounces more guts than some who’ve come before you.” He arched an eyebrow at Wilkes, whose mouth had popped open in the shock and fear of the stranger’s sudden appearance.

“Amycus Carrow.” He stepped a bit further from the shadow that fell across the corner, and now Severus saw that there was a sort of table in the middle of the room, five seats ranged along one side of it. The table did nothing to ease his nerves.

“I’ve heard of you,” said Mulciber suddenly, stepped forward a bit into the clearer light of the chandelier. “My dad said something about you once - you went to school together, the two of you did.” Carrow’s lip curled in obvious disgust.

“Yeah, I know who you are. I can tell. Carbon copy of your dad, aren’t you?” He gave a great sniff and drew a massive fist under his nose, and Severus felt his own lip curling. “Yeah, right, well, we’re not here to discuss genealogy,” Carrow added, jerking with his flabby chin at the chairs. “Sit.”

“You might tell us what we’re actually going to be doing in this room,” Severus called out suddenly, the only one of his group to not immediately take his place at the table, “instead of just herding us around like cattle for slaughter.” Carrow raised his eyes to his, and for a long, level moment, they just looked at each other.

The dark-skinned man, who was just about to pass through the section of wall that concealed the small anteroom, looked at Severus in something that might have been approval. Carrow glanced at him - it looked as though he’d never really been stood up to before - and, with a little shrug, the first man passed out of the room.

“Guess that’s fair,” Carrow said, wiping his nose again and placing his hands on the opposite side of the table from the boys. His ugly fingers, splayed in front of him, were covered in equally ugly, knobbly rings, made to look like gold and yet chipping to show the true metal beneath.

“Why haven’t we seen the Dark Lord?” Severus was still standing, his hands resting on the back of the chair in front of him with a casualness he did not feel. Carrow laughed harshly, in a rather good imitation of Wilkes’s propensity for saliva.

He shook his head with enough force to make his chins wobble. “You won’t be seeing him for some time yet,” he sneered, and drew himself up a bit, obviously feeling himself superior to the boys in front of him. “You’re, well. Amateurs, as it were. You’ve got a lot to go through to even prove you’re good enough to be working for him.”

“Like you are,” Rosier spat suddenly, looking just as angry as Severus felt. “Stuck telling us how to get there, why aren’t you off with him?”

He had struck a nerve. Carrow’s face took on an ugly, twisted look. Severus took his seat at last, satisfied that, if nothing else, they’d be progressing now that they’d targeted this stupid-looking man’s weaker point.

“That is none of your business,” he said roughly. “What is your business” - and here he reached inside an inner pocket of his robes, extracting a small box of sliver-thin vials, and setting it on the table -“is your next bit of training.” The vials were set before the five boys, and they all stared at them a bit dumbly. All except Severus, who knew exactly what the trace amount of liquid that little glass container was.

“Do you know -“

“Veritaserum.” He spoke smoothly, interrupting Carrow, and, with a small surge of some powerful feeling, noticed how all eyes turned to him. “Colorless. Tasteless. Causes the drinker to spill their deepest secrets.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, extremely pleased at the disgruntled expression on Carrow’s face. He looked ready to spit.

“Go on, then, if you’re so smart,” Carrow sneered again, shoving the vial at him roughly. It clattered across the table with a series of small clinks, and Severus only managed to catch it in the palm of his hand. “Have a go. All of you!” He turned nasty expressions on the rest of the group, and they hastily reached for their own vials.

Avery, who had been completely mute up until this point, looked at his with equal measures of fear and expectancy. “We’re supposed to drink this?” he asked, shaking his container a bit, as though there was anything else in the room that it could be confused for.

“Yes, drink!” Carrow snarled, clearly still rather annoyed at being put in his place by someone several years his junior. Severus smirked again and popped the cork off his vial with his thumb. “It’s a mind-control tool, that potion. Messes with your head.” The lumpy man tapped on his temple with a broad forefinger to emphasize his point. “Veritaserum, the Imperius Curse - blimey, you know what that is, don’t you?” he asked, as Wilkes gave him a blank expression.

“Yes, we know,” Rosier snapped, and made a motion that, judging from Wilkes’s reaction, indicated he’d kicked the curly-haired boy in the knee. Carrow rubbed a hand over his face and muttered something indistinguishable.

“You’ve got to learn how to keep your mind away from people who want to use it against our cause,” he said, suddenly deadly serious as he leaned toward them again across the table. “There’s magic, powerful magic - and thankfully we’ve got a bit of it on our side - and it can get further into your mind than even you can.”

Severus was frozen, listening to this man who he already had almost no respect for, because he was suddenly talking sense. With a glance to his left, and noticing that the others seemed to be waiting for him to make the first move, he downed the few drops of potion in one swift gulp.

For a moment, he didn’t feel anything - it felt like water going down, common and insignificant, almost not there at all - and then there was a curious, floating sort of sensation, working its way from the front of his head and slowly wrapping around it. It was a curious and completely consuming fog, and Carrow’s voice pierced it as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

“You. You’re the smart one.” Carrow’s great ugly face twisted again in discontent. “Your worst memory.” He was looking straight at Severus, and the answer was rising steadily to his lips, as natural as breathing…

But the answer wasn’t the one he would have given a little over a year earlier, and he watched the memory play on the inside of his eyelids, puzzled. It should have been Lily, and not Beth - it was supposed to be the day he’d called her that word, out of thoughtless anger. And there was the lake, but it was definitely Beth… He could hear her voice in his ears as though she’d only just spoken.

“I’ve got my own things to do after school, and it’s recently become clear to me that you just – I don’t want to do this anymore, it’s not good for me… I know about your Patronus…”

And he had stood there, by the lake, watching her go and not even making an attempt to stop her when it was everything his body was screaming at him to do…

“Didn’t you hear me?” Carrow’s voice broke through the fog again, but it was not natural anymore - it was a rough and painful thing to be called away from, and Severus’s temples suddenly throbbed with the pitch of it.

“I’m not telling you,” he muttered, his tongue suddenly thick in his mouth, as though he’d swallowed a large amount of cotton. He stood up roughly from the table, his thoughts racing along a track that had nothing to do with this, nothing to do with the Death Eaters, and nothing to do with anyone else sitting in that room with him. The other five watched with slightly gaping mouths as, under the influence of the Veritaserum, Severus stumbled out of the room without telling the truth, wrenching back the hidden section of wall and lurching into the corridor beyond.

*

Rosier gaped after Severus with increasing measures of incredulity. “I… he just fought that,” he said, sitting back in his chair, his own potion untouched in his left hand.

“Was that supposed to happen?” Wilkes spoke up stupidly, craning his neck to see where Severus had gone. Carrow looked ready to punch something, and was actually eyeing the wall nearest him - his entire being spoke of how annoyed he was that whatever had just happened, had not happened according to some predetermined plan.

But, despite himself, Rosier knew Carrow was impressed, if nothing else.

“You. Drink that,” he snapped, waving a beefy hand at Avery. “Then go and grab your friend, make sure he didn’t get far with that stuff. Let’s see if any of you’ve got the control he’s got.”

*

There was a small alley next to the townhouse, although Severus did realize that he wasn’t sure quite where the townhouse actually was. It didn’t matter, of course, unless Aurors were to run across him where he stood, and then he’d be in a spot of trouble - but really, those thoughts were sort of secondary now. Somehow, something in that Veritaserum had cause his brain to light upon a fact that he’d managed to overlook in his near-obsessive musings of the past year.

He had been wrong when he’d thought that she was going off to join the Death Eaters - he knew that. But she clearly had to be doing something, and that something involved her being near the exact bridge he’d passed by when out with Malfoy and Rosier and the rest. How could that be a coincidence? It was all so clear to him now.

His worst memory had shifted entirely, to that moment when he’d let Beth get away, over a year earlier - and yet he’d found her again, hadn’t he, by that bridge. A second chance? A false hope? What was it supposed to mean?

And his Patronus - she’d talked about his Patronus, a fact he still couldn’t quite grasp the concept of. He pressed the tips of his fingers into his forehead, wanting to grasp the abstract concept that kept slipping away from him right when he thought it was in reach.

His Patronus was a doe, and James’s Animagus form was a stag. Stag and doe, James and Lily - but his worst memories had shifted themselves.

Had his Patronus shifted too?

He couldn’t extricate his wand from his pocket fast enough, heart beating rapid time against his throat, feeling as though it might rip the thin skin there from the pressure of it. The spell was in his mouth, a tangible and fighting thing, and he didn’t need to speak it.

From the end of his wand, there blossomed a massive silvery shape - and it was not the same shape it had been before. It was a horse, but more skeletal, more deathly, almost more reptilian than equine. Its milky eye turned and looked at him balefully, and from either side of it, great leathery wings flapped once in a halfhearted gesture.

He had never seen a creature like this, but he had read enough about them to know exactly what it was, almost without any doubt at all. This was a thestral - a creature that could only be seen by those who had witnessed death - and it was as far from a stag as could possibly be hoped. But what was it doing here, in front of him?

“My grandmother died when I was ten, in the same bed I sleep in.” Beth could see thestrals - she had seen one while he was there, in those dark, early-morning hours underneath the tree near the forest. The night she had let it slip that her emotions had prevented her from changing into her Animagus form. Her emotions about him.

He gasped audibly, his hands covering his mouth to contain the sound even as it escaped his lips. This was it, then. She’d assumed something wrong, and there had been a verbal mix-up of extreme proportions, and now - now he had to do everything he could to set it straight. He could fix this.

He jumped as there was the sound of a door closing behind him, and spun around, wand drawn. But it was only Avery, a bit pale and sweaty-looking, coming out from the narrow house where the other three were still presumably inside. His pupils were dilated slightly, reflecting every bit of light thrown at them, and Severus could only assume he’d had his measure of Veritaserum.

“I’m supposed to come and find you,” he said, shaking his head a bit as though to rid water from his ears. “You all right, mate? You left in a bit of -“

“I’m fine,” Severus cut him off quickly, shoving his wand back into the pocket of his robes. “I just - sick, you know -“ He couldn’t seem to talk but in short bursts of speech, and thankfully, it was enough that Avery didn’t get overly suspicious.

But Severus’s mind was on anything but what awaited him when he returned back to that inner room. He knew what he needed to do, and it had nothing to do with Carrow, or Veritaserum, or any of it.

*

He waited until Rosier had long since been asleep before sitting down at the kitchen table, blank parchment and quill at hand. He couldn’t remember the last time his stomach had clenched so hard with nerves, and in fact was liable to be sick from the sensation. He couldn’t mess this up - too much was at stake. It really was the last card he had left to play.

Beth hadn’t protested when he said he’d owl her, and that thought alone gave him courage. He slowly dipped his quill into his inkwell, letting it sit for some time while he caught his breath and tried to think with some modicum of rationale.

Slowly, he lifted the quill and began writing, carefully, deliberately:

Beth,

I need to talk to you. Meet me at the bridge next Sunday night- it’s very important.

He hesitated, wondering if he should write more. But what he needed to say was much, much too complicated to put into writing that might go astray - and anyway, the whole point of meeting up was to explain it in person. Besides, simplicity was never overrated.

He hesitated over the signature for the briefest moment before simply signing his name. Now all he had to do was trust Rosier’s owl would find her - and then go to the bridge, and hope she showed up. There was nothing else left to him.

A/N: Yes! Finally I get to post this chapter! I've been waiting for this moment for months, ever since I began exploring Beth and Severus's Patronus Charms in the first place. Severus's Patronus couldn't switch until he had seen death, by killing the Muggle alongside Rosier, because thestrals only appear to those who have seen death. And now... his Patronus isn't symbolic of Lily anymore. -cue dramatic music-

So what's going to happen, do you think? I'd love to hear your conjectures. Thank you as always for reading, and I look forward to your opinions!


Chapter 9: An Overdue Conversation
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The soft sound of water slapping against the bridge supports would have been soothing in any other circumstance, but Beth couldn’t feel anything but nerves right now. She crossed her arms tightly over her chest and leaned against the pillar on the end of it, shivering slightly. Winter was fast approaching, setting its iron claws deep into the city, and she had dressed for the weather in a thick green jumper and jeans. She thought wistfully of her cold weather robes, still tucked away in her tiny flat, and wished they could have been a bit less conspicuous; as it was, wearing them would have made any chance passersby look twice, which was definitely something she wanted to avoid. But it wasn’t only the chill that was making her shake.

Severus's letter had arrived without warning, appearing quite innocently on her desk, where an owl must have dropped it through the open window. She had been unconsciously watching for it ever since the night of the Order mission, seeing Severus for the first time in over a year, despite telling herself it was unlikely he would ever write her. He might have told her that he was going to, and she’d really had no reason to disbelieve him, but things would have been eternally simpler if she’d never heard from him again.

But she had wanted to hear from him; that much was unarguable. It almost didn't matter what Sirius would have thought of it, or James. Even Remus would probably disapprove, but the innate longing to talk to him after so long - to try and repair what had been broken that day outside the lake - was much, much stronger.

The letter was in Beth’s pocket now - a sort of talisman to prove that the whole affair wasn’t something she had dreamed up - and she fished it out with slightly difficulty. It was bent from being stuffed there so roughly, but was still readable under the faint light the night sky gave off:

Beth,

I need to talk to you. Meet me at the bridge next Sunday night- it’s very important.

Severus

She had known that she would go, even before she had finished reading the extremely short letter. Not going wasn’t an option, even though she should have thrown the letter in the rubbish bin. What was she expecting to come of meeting him like this, cloaked in secrecy? For all she knew, it could be a trap, or a joke.

Beth glanced up again at the sky as she returned the letter to her pocket and rubbed her arms forcefully in an effort to get them warm again. The moon was nearly full, and that meant that in a night or two, Remus would be transforming. He didn’t like to talk about them anymore, not since he’d asked to do them alone. In a perverse sort of way, she missed being a part of it - sitting in the tree late at night, waiting for Remus to become himself again. So much had changed in such a short space of time, to the point where she was waiting by a bridge for Severus Snape, when a month ago had no idea where he was, or what he was doing, or if he even still remembered her.

There was a sudden noise from across the courtyard, and she stiffened, hand moving instinctively to her other pocket to hover over her wand. It wasn’t much - something akin to the shuffling of dry leaves on pavement - but then, from the very edge of the distant shadows, she saw a person, taking confident but careful steps in her direction.

Her heart jammed in her throat, beating fast and hot, blood pumping through her ears at a frenetic pace. She would have known him from much further away - the posture, the silhouette, and the way he walked was so distinctive. It couldn’t be anybody else but him.

He seemed to take an eternity to reach her - an eternity was easy to measure out if you had to focus on every breath and every heartbeat in order to not completely lose focus of everything at hand. He walked with a measured casualness that was easily recognized, intent on the spot where she stood.

What did he have to say to her? What would she say to him? She remembered the pressure of his hand on her wrist as she'd scrambled up the riverbank last time, and his insistence that he wouldn't let her run without a decent set of answers. Maybe tonight he would have his answers, and she could return to some semblance of normalcy. But would anything be normal once she had given them?

And suddenly Severus was there, directly in front of her, just standing with his arms by his sides as though he had no idea what to do with them. He was drastically underdressed - and, she noticed with some measure of surprise, in Muggle clothes for the first time in memory - in a thin black shirt with long sleeves and slim, dark jeans. It was no wonder she hadn't seen him until he'd started to make his way towards her.

“So. I’m here.”

Immediately afterward Beth wanted to kick herself for sounding so stupid, and tried to hide it by folding her arms over her chest in a gesture that she hoped looked defensive. Severus was looking down at her as though trying to sort out the puzzle she’d put into the sentence, and gave up at last.

“I’m glad you are here.” And again there was that feeling of her heart lodging right in her throat as he glanced quickly over his shoulder, back the way he had come. “Are you alone?”

“I’m not stupid enough to bring someone with me. Sirius would love to know I’m here,” she said, much more icily than she meant to. His eyes darkened, if possible, and he scowled briefly in her direction.

“I didn’t say you were stupid,” he snapped, his eyes fixed on a point just over her head. Beth was put vividly in mind of their very first proper conversation, in the entrance hall at the beginning of seventh year. For some reason, that made her throat clench up even more tightly than it already was.

He closed his eyes briefly, drew in a long breath, and let it out slowly. "I didn't come here to fight with you. I came here because I need tell you something," he said at last, the words slow and deliberate, as though he were afraid of saying the wrong thing.

"I'm sorry," Beth said at last, but she didn't unfold her arms. "And I'm listening."

But Severus didn't say anything right away; he went on studying her intently, as though trying to figure her out. It wasn't an uncomfortable look, but she could feel heat rising to her face from it all the same. Beth was distinctly glad that it was as dark as it was; her reaction to his presence would be less noticeable that way.

"I've had a long time to do a lot of thinking." He spoke as a man who didn't quite know where to begin, and was attempting to find his footing along the way instead. "Over a year, Beth. And I don't know -" He stopped, swallowed, and tried again. Beth felt her heart squeeze slightly at the obvious care he was placing into whatever he had found so important that he'd called her out here to say it.

"That day, by the lake, you mentioned something about my Patronus," Severus said, and he leaned forward conspiratorially so that his dark hair curtained his face, throwing it into even deeper shadow. Beth unconsciously mirrored the movement. "And I never knew why. It didn't make any sense to me, until - recently."

She didn't miss the slight pause in his words. Her stomach was turning somersaults. "I remember," she said in a low voice, biting her lower lip to stop it shaking with renewed nerves. It was suddenly very clear just how close their faces had become, and she took a step back to try and regain some sense of control over herself.

"I realized," Severus continued, stepping back as well and stuffing his hands into his pockets, "that my Patronus takes the form of a doe." He took his eyes from her for the first time since initiating conversation and looked out over the invisible river, still sloshing gently against its banks. "And you must have known that." He darted a look back at Beth, and she nodded stiffly, crossing her arms tighter over her chest. These were waters she was desperately wary of sailing into.

"And it... took that form because, I think, of Lily. Lily Evans." Severus said this in a rush, and with a noticeable wince, but Beth almost didn't register it for the ice that had seemed to drop into her stomach at those words. She'd thought the very same thing for months on end, but it was different - much different - to hear him say it aloud.

"But the thing is," he amended hastily, seeing something in her expression that made him forge on, "that it's changed." He waited a beat, and then repeated, "It changed forms." He reached a hand into his pocket and extracted his wand.

Beth watched apprehensively, trying to ignore the small bubble of hope rising in her chest and failing entirely. Severus lifted the wand and, as he had a few minutes earlier, closed his eyes to concentrate on some internal thing. A small wisp of silver shot from the end of his wand, growing all the time in size and clarity, and Beth felt her throat close up with anticipation.

One thing was certain - whatever creature it was that had emerged from the wand tip, it was most definitely not a doe. It moved with less grace, and when it turned its long, bony head to look at her, Beth shivered without thinking. It was like a horse, but darker, more eerie, and with large, bat-like wings…

“It’s a thestral,” she said in a flat voice, slightly confused. Severus was looking at her again, and his face fell at her apparent lack of understanding as to what the changed Patronus signified. He swallowed again, and then spoke, the words sounding dredged up from somewhere he’d been keeping them locked up.

“Don’t you remember?” He crossed back toward her, and his hair fell once more in front of his eyes. He brushed it away impatiently. “You and I saw a thestral. Well, you did.” Severus ran a hand through his hair and swallowed hard again.

Beth felt her face go hot again, but even she was unable to keep a powerfully delighted smile from curving up her mouth. She raised a hand to her lips and pretended to scratch a nonexistent itch on her upper lip to hide the gesture. “I do remember,” she said, and found to her slight dismay that her voice quavered with some unnamed emotion. The thestral took off for the distant buildings, and just as it reached them, vanished in small threads of silver vapor. Both of them stared after it for a time.

“It means something,” Severus said emphatically, and the expression in his eyes made Beth’s stomach turn again. She sucked in a quick breath and busied herself with fiddling with the hem of her jumper, not looking back at him for several long moments. “And I - I’m willing to find out what.”

Beth took careful stock of her emotions before finally daring to turn her face back to his. Something had occurred to her, quite suddenly, and a puzzled frown just as quickly replaced the smile he had put on her face. “You couldn’t see the thestral that night, out by the tree.”

And she knew why he could now - there wasn’t a single thing left with which to use to deny it. Severus’s mouth formed a thin line, and he nodded. Beth pressed her lips together as well, knowing exactly what that meant. He had killed one of the men Sirius and Frank and Alice had found - he had to have.

She felt her pulse rocketing along, just under her jaw, and pressed an unconscious finger to the spot while she tried to think of the proper thing to say. “You know what I’m doing, don’t you.” It was not a question, and he didn’t take it as one. Severus looked at her levelly, fingers running up and down his wand like the pale legs of spiders. She forced herself to look away from his hands.

“I know what you’re doing,” he confirmed. “And you?”

But of course Beth knew what he had been up to. Any other hopes or wishes that might have crossed her mind since walking away from him, in seventh year - those were fantasies, built on less substance than children’s dreams. Yes, she knew exactly what he had been doing with himself these many, many months.

The question was whether it mattered to her anymore. And - incredibly - the entire world seemed all at once much larger than the two of them, standing by this bridge under a sky brightly peppered with stars. Were they so different that they couldn’t overcome it? At one time, she would have protested it couldn’t ever happen. Those protests sounded feeble to her ears.

Hesitantly, Beth reclaimed the step she had taken away from him, and they were once more barely a foot apart in distance. Severus’s eyes bored into her, waiting for her answer. There was one option left to her. She already knew what she would find. Without even asking if it was all right to do so, Beth’s hands moved towards his left forearm, tensed from where he still clutched his wand. He didn’t protest as she slid the fabric upwards.

There, branded on his skin in impossibly dark ink, was a tattoo he had not had the last time she had properly talked to him. It was a grotesque-looking skull, jaws open in a silent jeer, with a snake frozen in a twisting motion where a tongue would normally be. She had known to expect it - Moody had told them about the tattoo ages ago, as something that could be used to definitively identify the enemy. But seeing it here didn’t change her convictions at all, she found, and it was the absolute best she could remember feeling in a long, long time.

Just as slowly, she pushed the sleeve back down until it covered the tattoo in its entirety. She did not remove her hands from Severus’s arm, and he made no move to pull away, despite the fact that they were closer now than ever. For the first time all evening, Beth smiled and made no effort to hide it, something liberating coursing through her, making her feel light and dizzy and warm despite the winter cold. She said the first thing that popped into her mind.

“I don’t want to be angry at you, Severus.” They were the exact words he had said to her after their row on pureblood ethics, and she knew he would remember. She watched eagerly as something clicked in his brain, and he smiled more broadly than she could ever remember him smiling before, and all the while, she could feel the pulse in his wrist, matching hers almost beat for beat.

Slowly, Severus lifted his right hand and pushed back a lock of hair that had fallen onto Beth’s forehead, still grinning. The place where his skin met hers burned with the fleeting memory of it; every pore, every cell clung to it. “I’m glad,” he said, in a low voice.

A sudden noise behind them made them both jump, disturbing the charged air that had, until then, seemed to buzz about their heads like a cloud. Severus lit the tip of his wand and brandished it at the spot where the noise had generated from, other arm half-shielding Beth. From the shadows under the bridge, a cat poked its head around the concrete, its eyes glowing eerily in the wandlight.

But the disturbance had shocked some sense back into Beth, if only for a moment, and she crossed her arms over her chest again. Severus turned to look at her. “If we’re going to - to stay in touch,” she began, and he cut her off.

“It’s dangerous, Beth. I know.” He cleared his throat a bit and started turning his wand over in his hands again. “We’re not - well, I reckon one of us is technically supposed to have killed the other by now.” He laughed, dry and humorless, and she smiled bitterly in return.

“Sev.” It was the first time she’d ever used the nickname - she didn’t know where it came from, but he lifted his head quickly at its usage. She stopped, slightly puzzled, but he didn’t say anything. “I’m willing to give it a shot if you are,” she said at last.

He nodded once. “I am.” He paused, and then added, “It’s worth it.” Beth fought hard, and failed, to keep the smile from reappearing.

“I’ll owl you?” she said, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear as a sudden breeze picked up, creeping around her cheeks and tickling the back of her neck. “I promise you, I will,” she said, laughing slightly at the brief look of doubt that appeared in Severus’s face.

He smiled. “I’ll look out for the letter, then.” He stuffed his hands back in his pockets, at a loss for what else to do. “Are we okay, Beth?”

“We’re okay, Sev.” She used the nickname tentatively, and this time, it was received with another smile. Reaching out a hand, she squeezed his shoulder and folded her arms for the umpteenth time that night. “It’s late - I should probably get back to my flat.”

“Oh. Right. Yeah.” Severus looked around him, finally stowing his wand back in his pocket. “I - well, I’ll see you, Beth.”

“Bye, Severus.” With a final look, and a final smile - both returned with equal enthusiasm - she set off in the direction she had come from. It felt like a lifetime ago; the past year had been a bad dream, and now that Severus had reappeared in her life, it was just like waking up.

As she got further and further away from the bridge, however, there was a slight twisting feeling that began to manifest itself in the pit of Beth's stomach. The very real and present dangers of what she and Severus were attempting to do - maintain a friendship that was shaky with the pressures of the societies they belonged to - seemed all the more clear once she was away from Severus, and could think properly again. Unconsciously, she rubbed her forearm, thinking of the tattoo she had seen on his.

What if she got him killed, or was even killed herself? It wasn't unthinkable - and she was supposed to be hunting down and apprehending the very sorts of people that Severus had turned out to be. She felt as though she was betraying the Order of the Phoenix for her own selfish whims, not turning Severus in to Frank or Moody, or even Dumbledore.

Beth began to chew absently on her thumbnail, thinking about what Sirius would say if he ever found out. "Angry" wouldn't even begin to cover his reaction. His own brother might have been a Death Eater, but this was much different. Sirius and Severus had never seen eye to eye, and finding out that he was a pureblood enthusiast would only serve to drive the wedge between them even deeper. Even telling any of her other friends promised disapproval and scorn, but keeping it bottled up inside was almost worse. She was at a loss as to what to do, and already it was beginning to gnaw away at her.

But she had promised to write to Severus, to maintain that friendship, and she knew that she intended to make good on that promise. He had acknowledged the risks and had proclaimed that salvaging the contact they had once had was worth it; and so it was worth it for her, too.

Beth stopped suddenly on a corner of the pavement, looking up at the nearest signpost in mild surprise. Her small internal monologue and debating had caused her to turn down a street too early - this was the corner Sirius lived on. She turned to go back the way she had come, but instead found herself looking up at Sirius's building. The windows were dark, and she knew the people behind those windows were surely sleeping - it was well past midnight by now.

She was seized by a sudden, wild urge to go up to Sirius's and knock on his door and spill everything to him - seeing Severus under the bridge that night of the mission and knowing he was responsible for murdering one of those Muggles, and receiving the letter from him, and seeing him again tonight to renew something that, for all she knew, had never really existed in the first place. Beth wanted so badly to be able to say everything and know that it wouldn't change a thing between them, even while aware that he wouldn't ever stand for any of it.

But before she could stop herself, she was through the small gate and walking up the path towards the building, passing through the lobby and by the sleepy-looking man at the desk, who barely gave her a second glance. A wild sort of feverish adrenaline was causing her pulse to beat loudly in her ears again, and she all but ran to the door of his flat, feeling scared and nervous and excited and alone, all at once.

She jammed her finger on the bell outside the door, and, when there was no immediate response, held it down. Beth found her teeth were chattering slightly and she didn't know why; she was afraid, so afraid, but thrilled at having to be afraid at all...

Sirius answered the door cursing - it wasn't a surprise. His dark hair obscured his eyes, sleep-tousled and sticking out in all funny directions. "Merlin, Bethy," he said at last, pushing aside his fringe to try and see her better and leaning against the door frame. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

Even before he had stopped speaking, however, Beth had flung her arms around him, burying her face in the old, ratty T-shirt he wore over his pyjama trousers. He smelled exactly as he always had, and it was such a Sirius smell that she wanted to cry. Not everything was going to change after tonight, because he would always stay the exact same, and she was more grateful for that than anything else at the moment.

"Hey, what's up? Are you okay?" After a moment's hesitation, Sirius had hugged her back, and she could hear the confusion in his voice. For the tiniest of moments, she did consider telling him about Severus, but the words got lost somewhere in her throat.

"I'm fine. Really. I was just walking." Beth laughed, a bit shakily, and then laughed again at Sirius's obviously disbelieving expression. It wasn't completely a lie - she had been walking, after all - but she didn't feel like getting any closer to the truth then that. "I'm going to crash on your sofa tonight."

"All right, then." It was clear that he still didn't believe her for a second, but he wasn't about to push her into talking about the real reason she'd come up to his flat at almost two in the morning. He retreated back into his flat, and she followed, softly shutting the door after herself.

Sirius vanished for a few seconds, and then came back from the direction of his bedroom, a pillow and blanket clutched to his chest. "Make yourself at home," he said, only mildly sarcastic, and dumped the bedclothes onto the tiny loveseat. He studied her face again. "You sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine," Beth said again, a bit annoyed at how tiny her voice sounded, and then added, "Thanks, Sirius." He grinned and ruffled her hair fondly, and she shoved his hand away. "Go to bed," she laughed, and he walked back towards the bedroom. She smiled a bit and laid down, pulling the blanket up to her chin and trying not to think about the uncomfortable sensation still writhing about her insides.

*

Sirius tried to go back to sleep, but every time he closed his eyes, he became painfully aware of the fact that Beth was sleeping only a few yards away, just on the other side of the door into his bedroom. Why she'd shown up in the middle of the night, he hadn't the foggiest, and part of him wasn't even sure he wanted to know the details in their entirety.

He crept slowly from his bed, opening the door and wincing at the squeaking of one of its hinges. Carefully, he poked his head around the door, squinting in the near-darkness. He could just make out Beth's form on the couch, fast asleep, her side rising and falling slowly in rhythmic breathing.

The fact that she had appeared without warning - well, was he supposed to jump to conclusions about that? What was the proper etiquette for this sort of thing? Was he supposed to make her breakfast the next morning, or wait to use the bathroom until she had? Was this what married couples went through every day of their lives?

Sirius gnawed on his bottom lip and quickly retracted his head, shutting the bedroom door fast. Married couples. James and Lily. He had always known, ever since James had gotten Lily to agree to date him, that he wouldn't really be James's number one anymore. And yet it still stung faintly, playing what felt to him like second fiddle. There were surely things James told Lily that he didn't tell Sirius, jokes they shared that Sirius was left out on. He missed his best friend, and it was just as simple as that. He was lonely.

Before he was able to think about it further, he had opened the door again, and was looking at Beth. It's not love, he told himself. You don't love her. James loves Lily, and this is nothing like that.

But maybe - just maybe - he could make this love. Many relationships had been built on a lot less, in the past. And if he tried this, and it worked, he and Beth would never have to be lonely again. It would benefit both of them.

In the end, he needn't have concerned himself with breakfast, or any other disturbance to his normal morning routine. When he woke up, the blanket was folded neatly and the sofa was cold. The pillow was propped squarely against the armrest, and lying on top of it was a scrap of the previous day's newspaper, one word scrawled hastily upon it: Thanks.

Yes, Sirius could make this work.

A/N: So, bottom line -- this is one of my favorite chapters of this entire plot, period! At least as far as I've written, but it's a bit of a catalyst for a lot of things I've included or am planning to include. And Sneth things happened for, like, the first time, and I shouldn't be having such emotions over my own story. But I am! I really can't wait to hear your opinions on this one -- on both Severus's actions, and Sirius's. 

I'll take the time right now to say a quick apology; I've got a lot of reviews to respond to for this story right now, and I promise, I haven't pushed them to the side. I'm on vacation right now, but I respond to every single review I'm left, no exceptions, so they'll all be answered eventually! Thank you so much for giving them, really. And I hope you liked this chapter!


Chapter 10: Work As Usual
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James rather liked the Ministry of Magic, although his feelings extended only as far as a visiting basis. He didn’t think he was suited for a desk job - and, of course, Dumbledore had seemed to anticipate this when giving out Order assignments - but he found enough reasons to visit. He carefully closed the door to Benjy Fenwick’s office behind him and glanced sideways, to where Sirius was standing outside the door. He was hopping up and down on the balls of his feet impatiently.

He, on the other hand, was not suited much for the Ministry in any case.

“You took forever,” James’s best friend informed him plaintively, already setting off down the corridor, so that James had to hurry to keep up. He grinned, showing that his nitpicking was in good humor, but it was also heartfelt. Sirius had a very ingrained habit of speaking his mind.

“Excuse me for doing my job,” James responded sarcastically, nudging Sirius in the ribs slightly with his elbow. “You’re such a good dog, though, to wait for me -“

“I am capable of hexing you,” Sirius said in a sing-song, holding his arms out to his sides and pretending to balance on the pattern that ran the length of the carpet runner. “I am not a dog.”

“You just smell like one,” James said cheerfully. “On the plus side” - he made a sort of wonky thumbs-up gesture, causing Sirius to snort - “we’ve got another member!”

Sirius halted in the middle of the virtually deserted corridor, squinting a bit at the Ministry-invented sunshine streaming through the windows - the real weather outside was steely and gray, proof positive of the cold Christmas season that was rapidly approaching. “You serious?” he said, shoving a bit of hair away from his forehead. He craned his neck, trying to read the gold-embossed nameplate on Fenwick’s door with fresh eyes. “Why him?”

James shrugged one shoulder and pushed his glasses a bit further up his nose, the sun glinting off them and momentarily making it look as though he had no eyes behind his lenses. “I dunno, do I?” he said casually. “I get assignments from Dearborn, who gets them from Dumbledore. A bit far down in the ranks to question things, wouldn’t you say?” He smirked a bit.

Sirius tossed his hair away from his eyes again, where it had fallen once more. “Hey,” he said suddenly, with the distinct air of changing the subject. “Why do you think Beth didn’t want to come with us?”

James threw his friend a rather suspicious sideways look. “I don’t know,” he said patiently. “Nor did I know the first time you asked. Or the time before that.” Sirius said nothing, and resumed his mock balancing act on the carpet, so James didn’t press the subject.

But his mind was turning, and not just over the new Order member he’d managed to recruit. Getting Benjy Fenwick to agree to be a part of the secret society hadn’t really been all that difficult, once James had laid the facts in front of him. Fenwick had been acquainted with Moody for some time, Dearborn had said, and all his intentions were in the right place. The most surprising thing for the old man had probably been that it was a twenty-year-old boy telling him about it, but that reaction was to be expected, too.

No, it was Sirius who had James frowning in slight concentration as they made their way toward the small areas where the lifts sat - mostly empty now, as it was the middle of the day. Sirius had been acting slightly strangely about Beth all morning, and James couldn’t think of why. He wondered if something had happened - she’d done something stupid on a mission, or whatever - but that wouldn’t have made him like this. Now it was like all he could talk about was something Beth had said or done…

A slight feeling of nerves pinched the very pit of his stomach. That was too weird to think about, and so, for the time being, he shoved it firmly from his mind. Beth and Sirius are friends, he told himself. He knows she’s still a little unsure about the end of seventh year, all that stuff that happened then with her and Severus. He’ll take his time, if those really are his intentions. But it was Sirius he was talking about, and where Sirius was concerned, nothing was set in stone.

Sirius stopped outside one of the lifts with doglike energy - there was no other way to describe it, even if he would have taken offense to the characterization - and whistled tunelessly. “You’re in a happy mood,” James ventured cautiously, that same anxious feeling twisting about his stomach again.

Sirius shrugged in a perfect imitation of James’s previous one-shouldered gesture. “It’s a nice day,” he said, waving a long arm at the windows. James opened his mouth to inform him of the falseness of that sunshine, and that it was only there on the whim of Magical Maintenance, but again, he thought better of it, and kept silent.

The lift rolled into view, golden grilles clattering of their own accord. Sirius stepped onto it and began jabbing at the buttons in impatience.

“No, Padfoot, we’re going down,” James said, but Sirius grinned wickedly at him and waggled his eyebrows. “The atrium’s on Level Eight,” he tried again, but his best friend cut him off.

“We’re not going to the atrium,” he said pleasantly. “I reckon we ought to pay Moony a visit.” James’s own face cracked into a wide grin at this; the fact that another of their friends actually worked here had completely slipped his mind.

Remus had been placed in the Department of International Magical Cooperation - he, Mary, and Marlene had been spread out among the upper departments, so as to provide the Order more coverage in that area, and offer more chance for overhearing potentially useful information. Unfortunately, in this particular department there hadn’t been a lot of room for a new hire, and certainly not one so young. As such, Remus had been unceremoniously dumped in an impossibly small corner at an impossibly small intern’s desk, sloughing papers about for the rest of the office workers there.

The two boys, upon approaching this corner, at first thought Remus was absent from his desk, hidden as it was by mounds of parchment. Many of the sheets were moving, waving about despite the distinct lack of fresh air here. A couple of them seemed to be shouting things at him, waving corners and demanding to be sent to their proper places.

One of the memos was making a particularly vocal bid as James and Sirius peeked over the stack it was sitting on top of. “I don’t know why I’m still sitting on this shriveled stump of a desk,” it said, in a rather high-pitched, throaty voice, “when it clearly states that I was due to the Office of Misinformation yesterday!”

“You shut up, or I will set you on fire.” And at last, Remus emerged from the swamp of paper, looking just as frazzled as one might expect.

“I don’t think that’s a very nice way to greet your two best mates, you know,” said Sirius heartily, resting his chin on the stack of paper; the memo squealed in protest. Remus jumped a foot from the seat of his half-broken desk chair, and James distinctly heard one of its legs crack more than it had already done.

“Blimey! You might announce yourselves a bit more obviously!” But he was grinning as he slung a careless, at-ease arm around Sirius’s shoulders, and then James’s. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“Recruiting,” said James, puffing out his chest importantly. Sirius let out a rather undignified snort, and so, to get back at him, James added, “Sirius played the part of the flea-bitten mongrel I couldn’t shake off on the way up here. But he did refrain from making a mess on the carpets, so…”

Sirius barked accordingly, pretending to look rather pleased with himself. Remus rolled his eyes, smiling and said, “Good to know those canine instincts are kicking in.”

“Hey.” Sirius folded his arms on the memo stack and leaned forward conspiratorially, and James instinctively did the same, although he didn’t know what was going to be said - it was a pose too familiar from years of hushed library conversations not to instantly mimic it now. “How are your things going, by the way?”

James choked. “His things?”

“Oh, grow up, you’re married,” Sirius snapped, nevertheless giving him a devilish sort of grin. “You know. Your…” He let his voice trail off a bit, and then said, in a voice just above a whisper, “Your transformations.”

Remus made an indistinct little noise. “All right. It’s a bit lonely, not having you all there when I come out of it.” He proffered them a sad little smile at that. “I’ve got access to some really well-made wolfsbane here, though. It works wonders, way better than Slughorn’s ever did.”

“Good news, mate,” said James, clapping him on the back; as he did, he was suddenly reminded of something, and added, “Hey, you’re coming over for Christmas, aren’t you? It’s only a few weeks away,” he added, as Remus made a slightly sour face. “Lily’s been bugging me about how much cranberry sauce she needs to buy.”

“That’s a full moon, though,” Remus said in a low voice, his face losing color ever so slightly. Sirius waved this information away as if it were unimportant.

“That’s not until Christmas. You’ll have a whole day.” He pulled a sort of grotesque pouting face that would have done nothing to convince anybody of anything under normal circumstances. “C’mon. Beth and I will be there!”

He says it like they’re a couple, James thought, and then quickly told whatever nagging bit of conscience kept rearing its head to shut up.

“All right, all right. I’ll go,” said Remus, grinning a bit and, bending over, making a sort of curlicue mark on one of the memos on his desk. As he was doing so, the sound of approaching footsteps met the ears of the three boys, and they all looked around at the same moment to see who it was.

“Hey, Frank. Good to see you.” Sirius reached over and shook Frank Longbottom’s hand; James felt awkward doing so, having hardly ever spoken to him and having to reach around a large stack of parchment besides, but followed suit anyway.

The older man bent over the desk and pretended to be reading something that was on it, even going so far as the point out something nonexistent for the benefit of anyone who might be watching. But in a low voice, and speaking from the corner of his mouth, he asked, “What are you up to?”

“Recruiting,” James said back in a similar voice, and had to fight a grin at the sort of pleased expression on Frank’s face. He decided instantly that he liked him - he may not have been older by all that much, but there was a sort of paternal air about all the same, as though James could go to him with any sort of problem and Frank would resolve it.

He wondered if it was weird to think like that.

“Excellent. Did you get one?” Frank was still speaking from only one side of his mouth, and his face was contorted strangely. James nodded, and he made a sort of hand gesture that was supposed to emulate success. Sirius snorted appreciatively.

“Benjy Fenwick,” he answered for James, sweeping his hair out of his eyes. “Hey - Beth was at my place the other night and mentioned that Alice wasn’t feeling well. How’s she doing?” He was looking straight ahead as he said this, and James was sure that he wasn’t looking at him or at Remus for a reason. Which was probably a good thing, because his jaw went south before he could stop it.

“She was at your place at night -?” he began, but for all his blustering, he only received a quick jab in the ribs, courtesy of Sirius’s left elbow. But he didn’t care nearly as much as he did about the news, and that sick, twisted sort of feeling began blooming in the pit of his stomach again. For some reason, his mind flashed briefly back to Hogwarts - not as long ago as it seemed - and how hung up Beth had been on Severus Snape. For years, he saw in retrospect, although being of the male species, he’d been blind to it until that final year. For some reason, the fact that Sirius was intimating that she’d moved on… It didn’t sit well with him.

Frank quirked an eyebrow at the pair of them, clearly unsure as to whether he was still supposed to answer the question or not, but forged on bravely. “She’s doing loads better now. Actually…” And here he trailed off, an uncharacteristically boyish grin slipping across his face. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I reckon we’ll announce it at the next Order meeting, anyway.” His cheeks flushed with excitement. “Alice is going to have a baby.”

The three boys let out simultaneous noises of excitement and congratulations, the distinctness of their words getting lost as they talked over one another.

“That’s great!”

“Congratulations, Frank!”

“You serious, mate?”

James looked at Sirius disbelievingly. “Smooth.” His friend flashed him a winning smile in return, and, reaching over, patted Frank’s shoulder again as though trying to prove he’d only been kidding.

“She’s a bit less than two months, she reckons,” Frank was saying now, a rather infectious grin on his face now that the news had broken, “but we’re really pleased. But anyway.” He straightened up, still hunched over as he was, and cleared his throat. “I’d better head on, but I’ll see you around.” There was only the slightest pause of significance between the last two words, and then he walked off.

Remus looked up at the two of them, his mouth open just slightly. “Blimey, that’s weird,” he said, sounding a bit stunned. “He’s not that much older than us.”

“Yeah,” said Sirius, cracking into that grin again, “but unless you’ve got something you’re not telling us, the only one of us who’s got to deal with that weirdness is James.” He nudged James in the ribs again, and James was rather embarrassed to find a telltale flush creeping high into his cheeks. “Can we expect James the Younger soon? Lily the Second? Or are you going to go for Elvendork? It’s still got kicks, mind you -“

“Shut up.”

*

The entire way home, James tried to find a way to bring up Sirius and his constant mentions of Beth, but there was no good opening into the conversation. Half of him suspected that he was talking a mile a minute on purpose, just to deflect potential awkwardness. It would have been a rather Sirius thing to do.

As it was, James and Sirius parted way in front of the Potters’ apartment complex without so much as a hint in that direction. James let himself into the apartment and waved a friendly hello to the security guard, who couldn’t be bothered to look up from his eternal crossword to do more than grunt at him.

There were clattering sorts of sounds from the minuscule kitchen as James let himself in, slinging his coat over the back of the loveseat jammed right up next to the door for want of space. “Lils?” he called, following his coat onto the sofa’s armrest and draping his body lazily over it.

The banging stopped, and a few seconds later Lily poked her head around the frame of the door. “Hi,” she beamed, wiping her hands on the front of her jumper and seeming to think nothing of it. “Any luck?”

“Yeah, we got Fenwick,” James said, crossing his arms behind his head and grinning up at her. Lily smiled and crossed over to him, perching on the very edge of the seat and kissing him gently once, and then once more.

“I’ve got news,” he said brightly, suddenly remembering about Frank and Alice. Lily straightened expectantly.

“So do I - but yours first.” She tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear and leaned forward, resting her chin on her palm. She’s so beautiful, he thought, a bit sappily, and hastily recalled that his beautiful wife was, in fact, waiting for him to say something.

“We saw Frank today, Sirius and I did,” he said, shifting his elbows a bit so his head perched a little higher. “Apparently Alice is going to have a baby.”

Lily’s mouth dropped open. “No! Are you joking?!” James struggled into something that resembled something like a sitting position, leaning on one arm, and frowned. That wasn’t quite the reaction he had expected - it wasn’t that shocking.

“I… no?”

Lily covered her eyes with her hands, laughing loudly. “Oh, Merlin. James.” He sat up just a bit higher and reached out with his hand, not seeking to grab her hand but just sort of hoping that the gesture might help him to understand what the heck was going on.

She was still laughing, and as she uncovered her eyes, he saw that they were bright - with tears? - and that her hands were trembling ever so slightly. For the umpteenth time that day, a sort of hidden feeling twisted his insides, but this one was clearly labeled as excitement. “Lily?”

She laughed again, and her fingers fumbled until they found his, gripping so tightly it hurt. “I’m pregnant too, James!”

There was a slight pause as James, momentarily forgetting where he was, fell off the sofa gracelessly.

“Are you - Lily! You’re having a baby?” He felt his face split into a wide grin, so large he didn’t even know his mouth could stretch that far. She nodded, and laughed again as he jumped to his feet with surprising swiftness and threw his arms about her tightly, clutching her to him as though afraid she’d disappear if he let go.

“This is horrible timing,” she laughed, a bit shakily, swiping away tears as she pushed away from his chest. “Now I look like I’m mimicking Alice.”

“Trust me, I don’t care a bit,” James said, only half-teasing. He kissed Lily, three or four rapid kisses in quick succession, unable to keep a sort of airy, sunshiny feeling from bubbling up in him like liquid luck. “This is the best news I’ve - Lily, you’re pregnant!”

“I know!” she cried, grinning just as widely as James was sure he was. He folded his arms around her again, wondering how he’d ever survived his early years without being able to hold her, to feel the softness of her hair as she buried her face in his neck.

“So,” he said at last, and she drew away again. “About names - where do you stand on Elvendork?”

A/N: Baby Harry! Baby Neville! Oh, it's kind of a weird thing, writing about their parents when they just found out those boys were going to exist (and really, they didn't even know they were boys yet). I love writing this specific point in Marauders-era, though, because it's like where everything's coming together. And it's even more fun for me to post these chapters after they've been sitting there for months, while I've finished through chapter 23 and giggling at all the things you guys don't yet know. Anticipation!

Thank you guys so much for all the incredible responses to this story -- I've never once requested a review for this, and sitting at 70 is amazing! If you're so inclined, please leave this chapter a review, too.


Chapter 11: Holiday Talk
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The letter slid onto the floor with a sound that might have been mistaken for the shuffling of leaves, had it not been late in December, and had Severus ever really had cause to pay close attention to the sound that leaves made. He glanced around quickly from his post on the sofa, where he’d been trying to distract his mind with reading, just in time to see the owl on his windowsill take flight, stretching its large, tawny wings and turning a corner around the adjacent apartment building.

Thank Merlin that Rosier’s not here, he thought absently, rubbing his temples with the tips of his fingers absently. His head was pounding - he felt as though his mind had been pushed and prodded one too many times lately, a result of whatever they thought he’d done to reject the Veritaserum’s effects. He’d heard covert whispers when they thought he couldn’t hear them, always centered around a funny-sounding word he couldn’t grasp. He knew that he was going to take center stage before long, if for nothing else but that he was mad, but right now that didn’t matter too much to him.

He rose quickly, already feeling his mouth stretch into the immovable grin it always seemed to wear whenever he got a letter from Beth. And sure enough, he could have recognized her handwriting on the thin parchment envelope on his floor from a mile away. Severus stooped and picked up the letter, holding it almost delicately, as though afraid that it might crumble into ash if he handled it wrong.

They hadn’t said a word about meeting again - and partly because both of them knew it was risky - but he would have been lying if he’d said that he hadn’t wanted to bring it up a hundred, a thousand times. He quickly scanned the contents of the letter, idly hoping maybe she’d broached the subject, but in content it was like all the rest.

Severus,

I always hate starting letters - there’s really no great way to set off, is there? Then again, you never seem to have much trouble with it. I suppose that’s one of the many essential differences between us: You always know just what to say, and me, I never do. I always feel fake, writing letters - like there are two sides of me, and this is only one of them.

I hope you’re doing something nice for Christmas. James is throwing a little party - well, I guess ‘party’ isn’t the word I want to use, as it’s really only the five of us, and Lily and Mary and Marlene. It’s like nothing’s changed, and I can’t decide if I like that or not. Maybe we’re all still seventeen, sitting around and dreaming about our futures, while nothing ever comes to fruition.

The holidays always make me like this, though - too much time for thinking about nothing in particular! But I do hope you have good holidays, Sev. Merry Christmas.

Beth

Severus smiled, drinking in the words like so much butterbeer, although even he could sense the sadness that accompanied the gesture. His eyes fell on the final two words above her loopy signature, and something unnamed and feather-light fluttered beneath his rib cage.

Moving slowly, as though waking from a pleasant dream he only half-remembered, he replaced the letter into its envelope and slid both pieces of parchment into the left-hand drawer of his cramped desk. He crossed back over to the sofa and folded his arms beneath his head, thinking about - as Beth herself had mentioned - nothing in particular.

*

“This sucks.” Sirius lifted the yellowed venetian blinds for what already seemed like the hundredth time that evening, peering between them with a sort of squinted face. “There’s supposed to be snow on Christmas. Those are the rules.”

“Hmm?” Beth was slumped on a kitchen chair near him, which had been dragged into the sitting room for the night’s purposes, and had completely missed whatever he’d been complaining about. It wasn’t hard to guess, of course, but responding was more instinct than anything else.

Somehow, her mind was a million miles away tonight, just when she needed it most. It was the first time in quite a long time that the eight of them - James and Lily, Sirius, Remus, Peter, Mary, Marlene, and Beth herself - had gotten together without the pretense of an Order meeting, or something else similar. And Beth knew that if she was going to keep from giving anything away about her correspondence with Severus, she was going to have to be at her most cheerful and attentive.

A tiny part of her didn’t quite understand why she was keeping it a secret, though. After all, these were her friends, weren’t they? They were supposed to be supportive - and it wasn’t as if she was doing anything illegal, after all. Writing letters back and forth to an old school friend was just about as harmless as it got. But of course, Severus was no ordinary old school friend… She gnawed on her bottom lip, trying to imagine what Sirius might say if he found out just where the letter currently crushed in the pocket of her robes had come from. She’d bet a thousand Galleons that ‘happy’ would not be an accurate description of his reaction.

“Bethy? Hello?” Sirius drew out the words, waving his hand a bit in front of her face to draw her out of her reverie. She realized, with a small flush of embarrassment, that she’d most definitely spaced out again. Focus.

“Sorry,” she grinned apologetically. “I just -“

“You are clearly admiring my stunning good looks, and getting distracted in the process,” Sirius said promptly, shooting her a wicked grin and pretending to flex his biceps. “Understandable, of course -“

“You watch that ego, or I’ll have to find something to deflate your head,” she laughed, shoving him lightly in the arm. “And stop whinging about the snow, Sirius. It snowed just a few days ago, or have you forgotten?”

“Doesn’t count. It’s Christmas now.” He stretched out this word, too, imbibing it with all sorts of imagined meaning. He opened his mouth, about to say something further, but was interrupted as the door to James and Lily’s flat swung open, letting in a blast of cold, snow-free air. Peter and James stumbled in, laughing about something and clutching large brown grocery sacks in their bundled arms.

“Eggnog!” Remus, who had been lying on his stomach in the awkwardly small corridor between kitchen and sitting room, playing cards with Marlene, lifted himself up onto his elbows as their friends entered. Beth laughed, remembering suddenly that he’d always had a beyond-normal love for eggnog around the holidays - it had been quite a while since she’d celebrated Christmas with him, come to think of it. Up until seventh year, they’d always parted ways, and even last year she’d made a try to spend it with her mother. That had not ended up so well - her mother had found an excuse to lecture her for seven solid nights before she finally figured she’d paid her dues, heading back to her own flat without a moment’s delay.

“Calm down, Remus, you’ve got to leave some for us,” she called over to him cheerfully, crossing over to James and taking one of the sacks out of his arms. He shot her a grateful look and massaged his forearms.

“You’re letting Beth carry that for you?” Sirius shook his head exaggeratedly. “Chivalry is a dying art, mate. We’ve got to preserve it while we can.”

James made a rather rude hand gesture at Sirius, who pretended to look offended, and jerked his head at Beth in the direction of the kitchen. “In there,” he said. “Lily’s got the glasses all set out, she didn’t realize we were out of pretty much everything until right before you and Sirius got here.”

“I’m spectacular at planning things out, you understand.” Lily, who was just emerging from the kitchen and wiping her hands on a hand towel tucked into the slim waistband of her Muggle jeans, caught the tail end of her husband’s conversation. He grinned at her half-apologetically and bent down to kiss her; Beth looked away quickly and busied herself clinking the glasses about.

“How’re you feeling?” she heard James mutter, so low she almost didn’t catch it. Lily said something that this time around, Beth really didn’t hear, and she banged a few more cups together, just in case it was something she’d regret hearing later. That would be a predicament much too awkward for words. Finally, to her mild relief, James came back into the kitchen, Lily no longer in tow. He smiled sheepishly.

“You’re such a boy,” she teased, rolling her eyes good-naturedly. James ducked his head in acknowledgement of this fact and crossed to the minuscule stove - although “crossed” might not have been the best word, as it was about half a step across the tiny kitchen - and reached into a cabinet above it.

“Tea, Beth?”

“Ooh, yes, please. Remus will drink half of this, anyway.” She jiggled the bottle in her hand, halfway through pouring a glass, and James laughed. Two thick white mugs were set next to the small glass tumblers, and he poured a measure of tea into each, still steaming despite the fact that Beth knew the stove hadn’t been hot in a while.

“How did you manage to chip these already?” she asked, abandoning her duties and studying the mug James handed her; there was already a hairline crack in the curved handle, and one small piece was missing from the rim.

“I am very bad at household spells, as luck would have it,” said James conversationally, “and as such, those are pretty much the only two mugs left in usable condition.” Beth giggled and blew across the surface of her tea to cool it.

She became rather distinctly aware of James studying her then, all traces of the jokes he’d just tossed out gone. He was looking for something in her expression, she realized, and the pit of her stomach seemed to fall away in that moment.

There was no way he’d found out she was communicating with Severus, she reasoned firmly. Not a single person in the world knew about it except for him and her, and, she supposed, the owl that delivered the respective letters. And she wasn’t going to tell Sirius about it, that was certain. Even thinking about how he’d take that news made her cringe.

“You doing okay, Beth?” James asked, turning slightly so that the dim overhead bulb caught his glasses in an odd light for the briefest moment. It was something that had happened often at school, continually surrounded as they’d been by candles and flames, and it sort of sparked a small memory in her mind - nothing specific, but just the general nostalgia of years she couldn’t reclaim.

She had trusted James with a secret once before, that wintery day when she’d confessed to him her feelings about Severus in the first place - and he hadn’t waited long at all to spill it. But that was a younger James, almost a completely different person from the one who stood before her now. This James was married, and had responsibilities the old James would have somehow charmed his way out of.

It suddenly struck her how different he was, almost at the same moment that she felt the sort of crushing weight of a secret she didn’t want to hold inside. It wasn’t fair, argued a small voice within her, that she should have to hide this while James and Lily got to be so happy. Of course, the circumstances were far from the same - namely, Severus was working for a totally different cause. But at its core, the feelings manifested from the same place.

James would understand. He would have to.

“I…” Beth’s voice seemed to catch momentarily in her throat, and she hastily gulped a measure of hot tea, instantly wishing she’d slowed down as it seared her throat. “I think… can I tell you something?”

Good grief, I sound like I’m fifteen years old.

James set his mug down on the counter by the half-filled eggnog glasses and crossed his arms over his chest. “Yeah, sure. Is this about…?” He broke off and cleared his throat, looking, for the first time in a long time, decidedly embarrassed. Beth wondered if he’d already guessed what she was about to say, but pushed herself to forge on anyway.

But she didn’t right away; her hands fiddled with the cracked cup, fingers encircling it tightly as though relying on it for warmth. James would understand. “It’s just… you know that at the end of last year, things weren’t great. Between Severus and me,” she added for clarification, as if she needed to.

James’s brow furrowed; whatever he had thought she was going to say, it hadn’t been that. The thought made her at once buoyant and slightly nauseous. “Yes…?” he said slowly, shifting his shoulders slightly as he settled in for whatever she had to say.

“Well, I mean, we didn’t talk about it, obviously. And then, recently - a couple months back -“ Beth’s eyes darted quickly over to the kitchen door, a paranoid part of her brain checking to make sure Sirius wasn’t eavesdropping. “Well, I mean - we ran into each other.”

“You ran into each other,” James repeated slowly, as though to be sure he heard her right. Beth nodded, the tea feeling as though it stuck in her throat. “Can I ask how?”

She sucked in a quick breath. “Well, on - on a mission. And then, later… again. On purpose.” This was coming out all wrong, she thought fiercely, and without thinking about it spread a hand across her eyes, fingers gripping her temples hard. She could feel blood pulsing faintly through the veins there.

“So…” James seemed to be struggling to grasp the concept. “You’ve talked to Severus. Face to face.” Beth nodded. “And then… you met up with him again?” Another nod. James didn’t say anything for a long moment, but just looked at her, his fingers tapping idly on the rim of the mug near his left hand.

“I’m going to take three guesses on what he was doing there,” he said in a low voice. “And the first two won’t count.”

Beth groaned and buried her face in her hands. “I am so stupid,” she said, voice heavily muffled. “But I can’t not do it, James.” She looked back up at him, already able to feel her face twisting in some abnormal expression. “I am an idiot and it’s like…” She waved her hands around for emphasis. “When I’m around him, I want to be an idiot. Because then we’re both idiots, together.” She rummaged around in the pocket of her robe and fished out a slightly crumpled piece of parchment, waving it in front of James’s face. He made a grab for it, and she saw him read her name on the front of the envelope: Beth Bridger, in Severus’s handwriting.

Finally he looked up at her, wordlessly handing the letter back. Again, he said nothing for a long stretch of time, and what he finally did was rather surprising. Gently, he took her in his arms and clutched her to him, a pillar of strength and support against her rapidly deteriorating emotions.

Beth buried her face in his robes, biting her lip to keep it from trembling - if there was one thing she was not going to do tonight, it was cry. James stepped back and peered intently at her then, a small smile on his lips.

“Beth. It’s okay.” Beth gave a little hiccup. “You’re not doing anything wrong, are you? For Merlin’s sakes, you’re meeting up with an old friend.” His face soured slightly. “Not that I condone what - but that’s not what’s important,” he amended hastily, seeing something in Beth’s face that stopped him from continuing that thought. “What is important is how you feel, and how he feels. And I’m willing to bet all the Galleons in my vault that Sniv - that Snape doesn’t write a whole slew of letters to a string of old school friends.” James grinned. “Would I be right?”

Beth smiled sheepishly, both for the point he made and for the fact, not unnoticed, that he had done away with Severus’s schoolboy nickname in that instance just for her.

“We’re your friends, Beth. Even Sirius,” James added, seeing she was about to interrupt him with that particular point. “And we’re going to be there for you, no matter what.” At this, Beth hugged him again, mumbling a thank you into the fabric, and suddenly remembered both the eggnog and the tea that was growing cold.

Thankfully, it was only then that Sirius stuck his head around the doorframe, looking impatient as always. “Not to be a nudge,” he said cheerfully, “but I could have had about six glasses of eggnog in the time it’s taken the pair of you to fill one.”

Beth rolled her eyes. “Okay, genius. You can come fill them yourself, for that comment.” She motioned generously to the glasses on the sideboard.

“Oh, no, I’ll let you do it,” he said, grinning wickedly. “I just came to nag you about it.” Beth rolled her eyes again and aimed a good-natured kick in his direction. He dodged it gracefully and, cackling, ducked around James and nudged her in the side.

Beth glanced briefly at James as she turned to avoid another blow, and then did a double take. He was staring at his best mate exactly as he’d stared at her, before she told him about meeting up with Severus - calculating, like he was watching for something. For some reason, it made her uncomfortable. She quickly ducked her head back over the eggnog glasses.

“Hey! Bethy, look! Look!” Sirius was leaning over the sink eagerly, head tilted up toward the sky beyond the dark window level with his eyes. “It’s snowing!”

“Come off it, I’m not falling for that,” she said, reaching around him and snatching the small glass container of nutmeg from beside the teapot. “You were having too much fun moping about it to change your story now.”

Look!” he crowed insistently, jabbing an impatient forefinger at the dark glass. Beth finally did - and, sure enough, large, fat flakes were drifting past the window, illuminated by the streetlight outside.

“Well, Merry Christmas,” said James, smirking and shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’ll bet they heard you over in Sweden, Padfoot, d’you want to shout a little louder?”

Sirius yanked Beth’s hands into his own and let her into an absurd sort of reel around the cramped kitchen, treading heavily on both her feet and James’s in the process. He began singing a very off-key and very bad rendition of “White Christmas,” which Lily had brilliantly suggested playing last holiday, and which Sirius had taken to instantly, choosing to play it year-round.

James turned to leave the kitchen, but before he went, Beth caught a brief glimpse of his face yet again. He still wore that searching expression - it almost looked grim. She wondered, fleetingly, what it was that was making him so anxious.

Before she could dwell on it further, however, Sirius was demanding that she sing with him. Nearly yelling the words to drown his awful voice, she collected four of the eggnog glasses, leaving Sirius to get the others, and made her way back into the sitting room, James’s puzzling demeanor already slipping away from the forefront of her mind.

A/N: I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- I absolutely love Christmas chapters! It's a bit weird, though, comparing this one to the one in In The Black. That Christmas chapter was rather further along in the story, actually, those that book and this one will have nearly the same number of chapters, if I've calculated my plans right. But still, it's hard not to get warm, fuzzy feelings when Sirius is dancing around, singing off-key Muggle Christmas tunes.

Posting this chapter's made me realize just how much I need to get back to work on this story! Thank you so much, as always, for all your reads and reviews, and have a lovely Christmas-in-July. If you're feeling up to leaving a review on this chapter, that'd be smashing as well!


Chapter 12: Accusations and Agreements
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Crowded though they might be, Beth found herself looking forward more and more to their Order meetings. There was something to be said for a group of people - especially, she thought fondly, a group like they’d amassed - working together so diligently towards a goal. It was almost like helping Remus with his transformations, but multiplied by a thousand. And for some reason, in the early weeks of the new year - a new decade, Beth reminded herself with a slight bit of pride - the camaraderie was even more tangible than normal. Cheers to surviving another ten years, and here’s to the hope we live to see the next ten…

She looked around at those who had showed up for that night’s meeting with such a tangible fondness that Remus nudged her in the side, grinning.

“You look like you’re assessing us, Professor Bridger,” he teased. ““Am I passing inspection?” She crossed her eyes at him, drawing her knees further towards her chest and wrapping her arms around them.

“Actually, I’ve been meaning to ask you about… your furry little problem,” Beth answered, and waggled her eyebrows at him, laughing when he only scowled. “Well, come on, you let James call it that!”

“I’d thought you had a higher level of intelligence,” Remus retorted, still managing to look angry despite the laugh already evident in his voice. “James and Sirius are keeping tabs on me enough as it is. They’re fine, Beth, if you’re really so concerned.”

“I am,” she said honestly. “Well, no, maybe concerned’s not the word - but, I mean, it used to be a part of my life, too. Relatively speaking. It’s not often I get the chance to fly anymore.”

Remus frowned, but this time it wasn’t borne of mock anger - it just looked confused. “Don’t you use that during missions, though? You and Sirius? I mean, that’d be a pretty good trick to have in your bag…”

Beth squirmed, feeling a bit uncomfortable. “Well, no,” she said. “No one else really knows, do they? I mean, we’re sort of illegal, aren’t we?” She fidgeted with the hem of her robes, and was very grateful when Caradoc Dearborn sauntered over that that moment, giving her an excuse to stop making lame excuses for not having explained away the whole turning-into-a-falcon part of who she was.

There was something about Caradoc that Beth couldn’t pinpoint, but for some reason, she had taken an instant dislike to it upon meeting him for the first time, at the first Order meeting. She knew that he was Remus’s mentor, for lack of a better word, and that she really had no reason to feel as she did about him - but he just seemed sort of… arrogant. Even just standing above the pair of them, running a slim hand through his springy red-brown hair, he exuded a sort of air that, to her, clearly spoke of his being better than them.

“How are you, Lupin?” he said in a tired voice. “And, ah… Betty, isn’t it?”

“Beth,” she responded, a bit sourly, and Remus coughed to hide a chuckle. She elbowed him firmly in the ribs, but Caradoc didn’t appear to notice.

“I’m doing well, thanks,” Remus said, still smirking faintly. “And yourself?”

The tall man, who had seemed extremely uninterested in the response to the question in the first place, let out a long-winded sigh. He made it seem as though he’d been carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and had just found the perfect people to unload it onto. “Dismal,” he said, with an overly graceful shake of his head. “You cannot possibly imagine how busy I am - it’s quite stressful, balancing Ministry duties and overseeing you and those two girls who tag along with you. Not,” he added, after a pause slightly too long for comfort, “that it’s a burden, of course.”

It was Beth’s turn to laugh, although she didn’t disguise quite as well as Remus had. Caradoc looked at her oddly.

“Anyway,” he said, his voice a few degrees colder; he drew his robes about him and puffed out his chest slightly, which only served to make him look even funnier than he already did. “I’ve got to go and say a word to Dumbledore - he’ll be wanting to see me, I reckon -“ And he cut his way neatly through the chattering crowd without another word, robes flapping crisply about his ankles as he went.

“He’s quite the prat, isn’t he?” Beth said conversationally, watching him go with a still-amused expression on her face. Remus opened his mouth to respond, but the conversation was again interrupted, this time by Sirius, who burst into the room in a manner more resembling a whirlwind dervish than a human being.

“I’m late, I’m late,” he gasped, to no one in particular, and his dark eyes flitted down to where Remus and Beth were, just on the inside of the circle of chairs. “I overslept -“

“And you look it,” said Remus pleasantly. “Your hair’s sticking up brilliantly on that side, mate.” Sirius ran a lazy hand through the hair his friend indicated, although he really didn’t look too concerned about it. He plopped into the chair Beth was leaning against, accidentally kneeing her in the back of the head.

“Has the meeting started? Where’re Peter and James?”

Beth shrugged one shoulder. “I think Gideon mentioned something about them being out with Fabian - Benjy Fenwick’s not here either,” she added, casting a cursory glance around the Order members already assembled in the tiny room of the flat, although she knew she was right. “They might not show up until late.”

“Pity,” said Sirius, closing his eyes and stretching out his legs, so that they fell over each of Beth’s shoulders; she wrinkled up his nose, noting that, unsurprisingly, his trainers smelled rather unpleasant. “I was having a very odd dream involving James and a large bowl of porridge.”

“Care to elaborate?” she asked, wriggling her shoulders and trying to dislodge his gangly legs. Sirius grinned and raised an eyebrow.

“Not in present company. It’s not really suitable for female ears.”

“Pig!” She let out a little noise of protest as Sirius attempted to fold his legs across her face, tipping her precariously backwards, not to mention bringing his horrible-smelling trainers even closer to the proximity of her nose.

At that moment there was a general sort of hush, and as though driven by an unseen force, the rest of the Order began migrating towards their respective seats. Sirius quickly disentangled his legs from around Beth’s face, leaving her gagging with the smell as Remus rolled his eyes. Dumbledore moved over from the corner where he’d been talking to Edgar Bones to stand between two of the chairs, beaming, as always.

“It is an extremely pleasant occurrence to see that you have all returned for another meeting,” he began, tucking his hands smoothly into the hidden pockets of his star-speckled robes - Dumbledore, Beth thought a bit absently, could never do anything plainly. “I must only beg a small amount of your time this evening. If we might have the reports?” He motioned a bit to Edgar, still in the corner, who pushed his gold-rimmed spectacles up a bit higher on his broad nose and stepped into the middle of the circle.

Sirius leaned down and muttered in Beth’s ear as Edgar began speaking, causing her to jump slightly. “Hey. I’ve got news.”

“Can’t it wait?” she hissed from between her teeth, not daring to turn to look at him; she felt just as she always had when she’d passed notes in class, although that felt like a long, long time ago. “This is probably the most inopportune time -“

“Well, I don’t really feel like listening to Bones rattle on about things we already know. Ministry statistics are the precise reason I didn’t go skipping off to join that dull crowd after school.” He paused, glancing up, but everyone else seemed to be intent on listening to whatever was being read off the scroll of parchment in the man’s slightly trembling hands. “Alice is pregnant.”

Beth’s eyes immediately shot around the room, but Alice was out of her range of vision - probably standing somewhere behind her, she thought with a dull pang of regret, somewhere she couldn’t see her. “Really?” she hissed back, ignoring Remus’s annoyed look from her right. “How do you know?”

“I’ve got Seer powers.”

Beth snorted so loudly that she imagined Edgar might have paused briefly in his monotone monologue, and quickly clapped a hand over her nose and mouth.

“Yeah, no, but Frank did tell me. Isn’t -“ Sirius cut off his sentence quickly as, with a raspy, dry sort of cough, Edgar finished whatever it was he’d been saying and made an absurd sort of small bow in Dumbledore’s direction. The old wizard smiled politely at him.

“As usual, Edgar, your assistance is highly valued.” There was a slight murmur of agreement, and Beth felt a bit guilty that she hadn’t listened to him more closely - she’d get Remus to tell her what he’d said, later on. Dumbledore glanced briefly in her direction, eyes twinkling, as though he’d read her mind, and she squirmed a bit more.

There was a loud cough from someone across the circle, and Beth fought to keep a slight smirk from her face - Caradoc Dearborn, sitting on his flimsy folding chair like it was a throne, had his hand raised primly in the air. It was a bit of a funny sight - not a lot of people went through with formalities at these meetings, and she thought he looked more like a schoolboy than anything else.

Dumbledore offered an acquiescent nod in his direction. “You have something you wish to say, Caradoc?”

“Yes, yes. Thank you, Dumbledore,” Caradoc added, as a bit of an afterthought. He got to his feet sharply, clasping his hands behind his back. From behind her, she heard Sirius make a soft noise of contempt; he disliked Caradoc on principle almost as much as Beth did, and was much more vocal about it when it was just their group of friends.

“It has recently come to my attention that we have, ah -“ He paused, and twirled a hand about in the air, as though hoping to pluck words from nothing. “To put it delicately, I suppose I might be able to say that the interests of some of those amongst us might not be of the highest caliber.”

Beth frowned; to her right, Remus shifted slightly, and she tried not to notice that his eyes darted quickly to Sirius. She didn’t understand why and was about to shoot him a nasty look - how did he know Caradoc meant Sirius? - but then noticed that Caradoc himself had glanced in her direction, just over her head, to where Sirius was sitting.

Please be rational, she caught herself thinking fervently, but her silent pleas fell on equally deaf ears. With an icy quality in his tone that Beth had rarely heard before, Sirius spoke up; she stifled a gasp. “Anyone in particular, mate?”

The smile on the older man’s face didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I don’t think naming names is quite appropriate, Mr. Black -“

“You just named one right there.”

Remus began gnawing on the fingernail of the forefinger of his left hand; Beth rubbed her nose unconsciously, staring determinedly at the sand-colored carpet. She wanted to tell Sirius to shut up, that he was being thick, but there wasn’t really a way to do that in front of all these people. The eyes of everybody in the room, Dumbledore and McGonagall included, seemed trained on him now.

Caradoc smiled - not even smiled, really, but more leered. “Well,” he said, lowering his eyes in mock deference, “if you’d like to talk about this, then I could certainly arrange it, but this isn’t the place for it, Black.” The lack of a title before his surname was not lost on Sirius; he stood up quickly, and Beth shuffled to the left to make room, at the same time trying to think of a way to get him to calm down. Rage was pouring off him in near-tangible waves.

“Anything you’ve got to say to me, you should certainly be able to say in front of my friends at the very least.” Sirius’s tone was like chilled steel; his dark eyes snapped, looking extremely sunken in their sockets. “Trying to insinuate something? Go on, then!”

Caradoc’s upper lip lifted in a delicate sneer. “It’s been suggested that some of the more, ah, prominent wizarding families, with generally unsuitable ties to -“

“Yeah, all right, my brother was a Death Eater,” Sirius snarled, taking a step forward. “And if you’ve been beating around the bush trying to get me to come clean about it, then you’ve got your answer. But he’s dead now and you think I’m going to - I don’t know, carry on his legacy, or something?”

“Sirius -“ Beth whispered, catching Remus’s eyes; he looked just as panicked as she did. But the former ignored her.

“Reg was an idiot,” he was saying savagely. “He made a lot of stupid mistakes.” With such a ferocious gesture Beth was almost surprised that the fabric didn’t rip, he yanked up the left sleeve of his robes, exposing the smooth, unmarked skin of his forearm, lined with crisscrossing blue veins. “But I’m not bandying about branding myself with that mark, am I?”

There was a motion from behind Beth at that moment, and a retort that had appeared to be forming on Caradoc’s lips died instantly; his mouth snapped shut, his eyes fixed on a point behind Sirius. Beth turned to see what had become so fascinating.

Alastor Moody had stepped forth from a corner of the room, shadowed so thickly that Beth hadn’t noticed he had been standing there until he’d left. He cut an impressive figure, staring levelly at Sirius and Caradoc, leaning slightly to favor his false leg. But that wasn’t nearly the most stunning thing about him - not by a long shot. Where Moody’s once-dark and beady right eye had once been, on the previous occasion Beth had seen him, there was now an oversize electric blue eye - and what was more, it was spinning rapidly, in all directions and even out the back of his head.

Clearly the arrival of this strange new feature wasn’t news to the other Order members as well; a flurry of whispering, like dry paper rubbing together, broke out amongst those assembled. “What happened to his eye?” Remus whispered hoarsely, but Beth just shook her head, feeling slightly nauseous. Moody might have been one of her mentors assigned by Dumbledore, but he was nearly always absent, someplace or another, and most of the training and things had been left to Frank and Alice.

Moody’s normal eye was fixed firmly on Caradoc now, the other trembling in its socket as it roved around the circle of chairs. “Got something to say, Caradoc?” he asked in an even voice; he shifted his weight slightly, and Beth was close enough to him to hear his leg creak slightly.

Caradoc swallowed; he looked quickly at Moody’s roaming eye, and then determinedly at anywhere but. “I think I’ve made myself clear,” he said stiffly. “I’ve got no proof, of course, but -“

“But that’s not really stopping you,” Sirius spat. Beth saw his hands were clenched into fists at his sides, the knuckles jabbing sharply through the skin. Moody stumped forward a few steps and laid a thickly scarred hand on the younger man’s shoulder, as though to restrain him.

“We don’t pay for the sins of our family here,” he growled. “And I’d best be watching where you step, Caradoc, or I’ll unearth a few rotten limbs on your family tree, as well.”

The room was cloaked in a thick, anticipating silence; eyes had been swiveling from Caradoc to Moody as though watching a Quidditch match, waiting to see who would speak next. With a little noise of impatience, Caradoc turned to Dumbledore, only to find that he, too, would do nothing but look at him over the tops of his half-moon spectacles.

“Nothing further to add,” he said bitingly, and sat down in his seat hotly. Beth bit her bottom lip and glanced up at Sirius; there were large, irregular red patches blooming furiously on his cheeks. Without a word, he shrugged off Moody’s hand and stomped over to the door leading out of the flat. Order members parted obediently to let him through, seeming to fear touching him. The door clicked shut behind him.

Dumbledore gave a polite cough and rose to his feet once more. Behind him, Professor McGonagall was shooting daggers at Caradoc Dearborn, and Beth felt a slight swell of admiration for her old Head of House. “If we might move on to our next point of discussion -“ Dumbledore began, and at that moment Beth felt a sharp jab in her thigh. It was Remus.

“Go and see if you can find him,” he muttered out of the corner of his mouth. “I promised Marlene I’d walk her home since James and Lily aren’t here.”

Fighting back a pang of regret at having to miss the meeting, Beth nodded, rising to her feet as inconspicuously as possible. She knew that she should stay and hear what Dumbledore and the rest had to say, but more likely than not, Sirius was pounding the pavement looking for trouble, and heading him off before he could begin was her safest option.

She hurried to the end of the cramped alley that housed the entrance to headquarters, and, peering left, could just make out a small, dark figure a few blocks ahead, walking quickly. “Sirius!” she shouted, hastening to catch up to him. His stride was long, even when she was jogging. “Sirius, stop!”

He turned around under the awning of a dilapidated antique shop, an old Muggle wireless rotting away in its display window, which looked as though it hadn’t been washed for a few years, at least. “Did he insult your family too?” he asked sourly, once she was within earshot.

“He doesn’t know my family,” Beth said coolly, falling into step alongside her friend. “But even if he did, I wouldn’t have let it get to me, Sirius. You know the things he said weren’t true.”

Sirius came to such an abrupt stop that Beth very narrowly avoided colliding with him altogether. He ran his hands through his hair roughly and breathed out through his nose. “I should have figured that’d come up sooner or later,” he said bitterly. “As if one of us is supposed to be a traitor!”

“I know,” Beth said calmly, reaching out for his elbow - the closest bit of him she could reach - and squeezing it gently. “It’s preposterous, and that’s exactly the reason you shouldn’t be so flustered about it.”

Sirius looked off into the distance unseeingly, refusing to acknowledge her hold on his arm. “I need to clear my head,” he said roughly, although not terribly unkindly. He looked down his nose at her, eyes still glinting dangerously from their deep cavities. “You should head home, Bethy.”

Beth swallowed against a lump that had risen suddenly in her throat, but felt that, for one night, appeasing him might be a good thing. “Okay,” she said, and squeezed his elbow again for good measure. “Don’t do anything stupid, Sirius.”

He smiled thinly down at her. “I won’t.”

*

On the way back to her flat, however, the front of level-headed calm Beth had put up for Sirius’s benefit began to crack slightly. Caradoc’s knowing smirk, as well as Sirius’s livid expression, played like pictures on the backs of her eyelids every time she blinked. She thought of Sirius yanking down his sleeve - physically proving he didn’t have the snake-and-skull tattoo that the Death Eaters, You-Know-Who’s followers, had so proudly branded on the pale skin there.

“I’m not bandying about branding myself with that mark, am I?”

Maybe she had been wrong to tell James that she and Severus were still in contact - look at what had happened the last time she’d trusted him with one of her secrets! He’d run off and told Lily almost as soon as the words had left her lips, hadn’t he? Admittedly, this one was a bit more large-scale, and Lily had had a certain influence on him since they’d started dating. But who was to say that he wouldn’t let something slip?

She would hurt so many people if it got out that she was knowingly associating with a proven Death Eater: Caradoc, and Dumbledore, and McGonagall, and all of her friends - especially Sirius. Just how violently he had reacted to the false accusations against his loyalty tonight was proof enough of that. What would he say if he could have seen her pulling Severus’s sleeve over his own Mark, pushing it out of sight, willing herself that it didn’t matter as long as it was out of sight?

Beth’s breathing was coming quickly as she finally reached her building and let herself into her flat; it smelled stale and disused, cooped up against the firm wintery weather all day, and the smell did nothing to calm her down. She was scared, and she hated being scared, and she didn’t know what to do about it -

As if in answer to her thoughts, she became aware of a sort of tapping noise, coming from the direction of her bedroom. On the sill of the window perched a barn owl, looking at her expectantly, a thin scroll of parchment clamped firmly in its beak. Beth all but launched herself at the window and yanked it open, paying no attention to the blast of cold air that wrapped its icy fingers around her as she scrabbled to open it, praying it was from one person - surely he, of all people, could calm her fears…

She breathed a minute sigh, a combination of relief and happiness, upon seeing Severus’s spiky script marching in slightly crooked lines along the thin paper. Before even reading them, she could feel the knot in her chest loosen slightly, replaced by a warm, internal giddiness as the letters formed themselves into words:

Beth,

We haven’t met since our first arrangement. When can I see you again?

Severus

Beth squeezed her eyes shut and scrunched the parchment slightly between her hands, hope floating lightly within her. She knew she shouldn’t read too much into his words - but at the same time, she wanted to read everything into them, just to reassure herself that she had made the right decision in continuing to keep in touch with him, and in confiding in James.

She dashed for a piece of parchment and a quill, a grin slipping across her face quite before she knew it was there. The ink blotted messily across the page as she scribbled, but she didn’t take the time to extract her wand to vanish the spots away. It was trivial, unimportant.

Tuesday afternoon at Montgomery Park?

“Go fast,” Beth whispered to the barn owl, still perched on the sill as though expecting her answer. It gave a dutiful sort of hoot and spread its massive wings, vanishing over the flat, concrete rooftops of the neighboring buildings. Her heart gave a slight squeeze of longing at the sight of the bird, wanting so much to fly again. Soon…

Severus’s response came within minutes, as though he, too, had been expecting her answer. It was just one word, but within it was the promise of a hundred, a thousand more.

Yes.

A/N: And they meet again! Or have arranged to, anyway. I think I've said this before, but it warrants saying again -- sometimes it's a bit odd, being so far ahead in writing this story and then turning around and revisiting older chapters through posting them. This one must have been written in... April, maybe May? Probably around the time I started posting this story in the first place. I think I'm just shocked that things are getting tied in better than my paranoid self often thinks!

I'm currently working on the finishing touches of chapter 26 of 34 (just like the last book!), and I don't think my outline's going to be shifting drastically between now and the end. (I did just split a chapter in two quite recently, but I can't foresee that happening again.) I'm so excited for everyone to read it, too! Thank you so, so much for all the reviews and reads and favorites, and as always, if you feel up to reviewing this chapter -- even a line or two -- that would be tremendous!


Chapter 13: Montgomery Park
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“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.


Chapter 14: Down Knockturn Alley
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At first, Beth wasn’t quite sure what had woken her up so early in the morning. There was barely any light filtering in through the tiny window beside her bed, and what light did intrude was soft and gray, the sort of pre-dawn light that was not meant for eyes to see by. She groggily rolled over and was about to head back to sleep when the sharp tapping sound came again. She sat bolt upright, heart hammering somewhere near her jawline. A multitude of scenarios chased themselves through Beth’s mind.

It’s Severus, and he’s in trouble. It’s the Death Eaters, and I’m in trouble. It’s Sirius, needing help after accidentally burning his flat down…

Grappling for her wand, which had rolled behind her now-cold mug of tea on her nightstand, and trying not to wince at how cold the old, musty floorboards of her bedroom felt underneath her feet, she shuffled over to the door and peered out into the tiny corridor that ran the length of her flat. There was no apparent sign of entrance, but the knocking sounded again from the direction of her front door. Holding her breath, she halted by the entrance to the kitchen.

Melius Oculae.” A Supersensory Charm to enhance her eyesight – probably not the smartest move, all things considered, especially for someone who had been trained for a year and a half in more advanced fighting spells. But it was the thing that made the most sense to her sleep-fogged brain, and now, as she felt the charm take effect, she was able to feel, more than literally see, who was standing on the other side of that door.

“Sirius,” she muttered under her breath, half-annoyed and half-relieved. It would be like him to sneak over here this early in the morning, despite the fact that she and James and Sirius had sat up until late last night, talking at James and Lily’s. A small smile brushed over her face as she hurried to unlock the door and let Sirius in; James and Lily had told her last night that they were expecting a baby, around the same time that Frank and Alice were.

The door swung inward to reveal her friend, dressed again in Muggle clothes and bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. “Morning, Talons,” he said cheerily, twirling his wand in the fingers of his left hand. “Sleeping on the job, then?”

“Shut up,” she said, the words distorted by a massive yawn in midsentence. Beth ran a hand through her hair nevertheless, painfully conscious of how horrid and ratty it must look from sleep. “You’re the one who woke me up, in case you’ve forgotten. What, all the other charity houses full this time of day?”

“We’ve decided to be pleasantly vitriolic this morning, I see,” Sirius said, stepping over the threshold without being asked. He carried with him a subtle aura of near-tangible excitement, and Beth frowned a bit as she shut and locked the door behind him, wondering what it was all about. “Unfortunately, you’ll have to change your tune, because we’ve got work to do.”

Beth blanched. “Come again?” She froze in the action of passing through the kitchen door with the intention of making a pot of very strong coffee.

Sirius grinned at her, crossing over and tapping her on the nose with his forefinger; she rubbed it, scowling half-seriously. “You heard me. Frank’s been by my place, says we’ve got something to do. A bit of eavesdropping, as I understand it, only he’s sadly lacking in the time needed to accompany us -“

“Wait, stop. You’re talking like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus.” Beth felt her brows crease again, although the excitement that was plain on Sirius’s face had begun to infect her own demeanor, as well. “We’ve got a mission? Today?”

“Right now, as a matter of fact,” he answered, beaming again. “We’ve got to be over at Knockturn Alley as soon as possible. So get dressed, grab your wand, and I’ll explain a bit more on the way. Let’s go!” He slung an arm around her shoulders, hugging her briefly before squeezing past her into the kitchen. Beth paused briefly, her brain buzzing, and then trotted off quickly toward her bedroom.

As she wrestled on an oversize gray sweatshirt, marked with a blue-and-white logo of a Muggle office supply company, and her oldest and most comfortable pair of jeans, she thought about what Sirius had told her. Knockturn Alley - it was a place of rumors, she knew, talked about in whispers among Hogwarts students, a place one wasn’t supposed to venture into if they could help it. In fact, she didn’t think anyone in her group of friends, blatant disregarders of rules as they were, had ever so much as set foot on the street. The thought made her a bit apprehensive, even without the fact that she was supposed to be on an Order mission, too.

Frank wouldn’t be going with them, either, and that was a bit more than unnerving. She’d figured Alice would be understandably absent from most of the grunt work, and she supposed it was natural to assume that Frank would be, too. But thinking that, and being faced with its repercussions, were two entirely different things. Sirius and Beth’s second mission, and they’d be going it alone…

Sirius knocked on the bedroom door at that moment. “You are being rather slow,” he said pleasantly. “I’ve already made the coffee.”

“That doesn’t count,” she called back from the other side, her voice muffled through the elastic band in her mouth; one of her hands had become tangled in her hair as she tried to tie it into a bun. “You can just wave your wand at a piece of china, it doesn’t count as ‘making coffee.’” She thrust her wand into the waistband of her jeans and opened the door; Sirius was immediately on the other side, dark hair falling into his face.

“Coffee,” he said, smiling down at her and proffering her one of her own mugs. She grinned back, unable to help herself, and took it. “Ready?”

“You bet.” She took a deep swig from the mug, grimacing at its unnatural bitterness, and plunked it down onto her coffee table. Sirius followed suit, and the two left the building, heading off down the pavement in the direction of the Leaky Cauldron.

“So apparently sometime last night Moody got some sort of a tip, or whatever, that one of the people we’ve been watching is going to be at Borgin and Burke’s - that’s a curio shop or something in Knockturn Alley,” Sirius said, launching right into his explanation, as though he’d planned it out.

Beth’s heart stopped beating for a brief moment. Please, please don’t be him…

“Do you remember Lucius Malfoy?”

She let out an almost inaudible sigh of relief, and her forehead puckered in thought, grateful to be distracted from the momentary sense of fear and panic. “A few years ahead of us - blonde hair, sort of pointy face?”

Sirius smiled appreciatively. “That’s the one. Anyway, Moody heard from one of his contacts that something’s supposed to be exchanged there early this morning. We’re not sure what - or if it’s even something physical, it could just be information. But it’s our job to figure out what that’s supposed to be. Strictly hands-off sort of stuff.” He glanced down at Beth. “What?”

She was smiling up at him as he spoke, a bit sadly. Somehow, the way he had been talking just now - the words he was saying, the tone he was using to say them - had made him sound significantly older than she’d realized he was. Gone was the prankster of their school days, the fun-loving boy who put his friends before all else. He had turned into a grown-up when she wasn’t looking - but she felt funny voicing these thoughts aloud.

“Nothing,” she said instead, shaking her head slightly. “So we’re supposed to eavesdrop on this - this exchange, or whatever?”

Sirius bobbed his head yes. “And then run to the Ministry, I think,” he said, reaching up and brushing a bit of hair out of his eyes impatiently. “Moody wants to know about whatever we overhear. He wrote an owl about it, Frank said it arrived at something like two this morning - he showed me the letter when he ran by my place.”

The battered, swinging sign of the Leaky Cauldron came into view as Beth and Sirius rounded the corner at that moment, and any further conversation was halted. Somehow being here, at such a previously innocuous doorway, and knowing what she was about to do upon passing it now, sent a small shiver up Beth’s spine. Sirius glanced sideways at her; she could see that his hand was closed around his wand in the right front pocket of his jeans.

“You nervous?” she asked lightly, although it was a tone that did not reflect her feelings. But upon looking at him closer, she could answer the question for herself – and surprisingly, he wasn’t nervous. There was anticipation and determination and excitement etched all over his face, but nothing that spoke of nerves. He gave a noncommittal shrug, and stood back to let her pass through.

The haze of smoke that, more often than not, hung over the pub and its inhabitants was still there, even at such an early hour. Sirius hated the smell, Beth knew, and wrinkled up his nose immediately, but she sort of liked it: It was heavy, but familiar, and familiarity was something she could do with a bit more of nowadays. A pair of wizards was sitting at a distant corner table, steaming mugs of something that was burnt orange and bubbling slightly in front of each of them.

“Morning,” Sirius said cheerily, one hand on Beth’s shoulder to guide her toward the small back courtyard. The wizard nearest them craned his head to inspect the newcomers, raising a thick black eyebrow and muttering something in an eastern European language she couldn’t quite make out. She stifled a small laugh as Sirius paused, momentarily distracted, and then pressed on toward the back.

“I think you confused them,” she said in a half-whisper; it was her turn to wrinkle her nose as she tried not to breathe in the oppressive smell of the rubbish bins. He shrugged again, more nonchalantly than before, and whipped out his wand, tapping a few of the bricks with fervor. She noticed a bit of varnish flake off the already-battered wand, but kept silent; her stomach was now jolting with nerves of her own.

Diagon Alley, like the Leaky Cauldron, was hushed and quiet in the dawn hours. The sun was just peeking its rosy golden head over the top of Gringotts, sitting crookedly at the head of the winding cobbled street, directly across from where Beth knew the entrance to Knockturn Alley was located. Everything else was still bathed in dim, dusky shadows, including the shopkeepers, who were already bustling about behind shop windows. They looked at Sirius and Beth curiously as the pair walked down the street.

“What’s our cover?” Sirius muttered suddenly from her right, speaking from the corner of his mouth. Beth looked at him blankly. “Our cover,” he repeated, half-impatiently. “Like, if someone asks us what we’re doing…?”

“Oh.” Beth frowned. “I don’t know… we could be going to Gringotts? Why didn’t you figure this out before we got here?”

“Excuse me, Bridger, but you’re as much a part of this team as I am.” Beth opened her mouth to snap back at him before seeing the glint in his eyes, and realizing that he was teasing her. She rolled her eyes.

“Fine, then. Gringotts.” She glanced over her shoulder, checking to make sure that no one unwanted was following them. She saw nobody, but a vague feeling of unease and apprehension still settled somewhere in the pit of her stomach. “Follow me,” she hissed, grabbing Sirius’s elbow none too gently and jerking him in the direction of a narrow alley, between Quality Quidditch Supplies and a stationery shop, crossing the street awkwardly to do so.

“Hold still,” she whispered in response to his confused look; it did nothing to abate it.

“What’re you - ?” he began, but Beth had already withdrawn her wand from the waistband of her jeans. She shoved up the sleeves of her sweatshirt to her elbows and rapped him on the head smartly with her wand. He let out a shuddering sort of gasp, and slowly, as though some odd liquid were trickling over him, he faded to blend with the background of the dingy alleyway behind him.

Sirius held up his hand before his face – Beth thought he might be grinning, although she couldn’t really tell for sure. “A Disillusionment Charm. Perfect,” he said happily. She didn’t respond; she’d already performed the charm on herself, and her lips still felt a bit weird, tingling and slightly numb.

They set back off in the direction of Gringotts, the sun a bit higher in the sky now, although still streaked with pinks and faint purples. Nobody paid them any heed now, and as they walked, Beth felt the knot in her stomach ease somewhat.

The goblin sentries stood outside the doors to the magnificent snow-white bank, as always, but Beth and Sirius focused their attention to the left instead. The entrance to Knockturn Alley looked – there wasn’t really a better way to describe it – sinister. Instead of leading straight on, as normal, innocent alleys were supposed to do, a crude set of half-wood, half-stone steps led down a few yards, so that most of it lay beneath Diagon Alley proper.

Sirius stopped at the head of the stairs; the scenery behind him shimmered slightly as he turned his head to look at her. “Shall we?” he asked.

Beth nodded her head, and then, realizing he might not be able to see her, said aloud, “Yes.” Impulsively, in an attempt to maybe feel a bit more secure, she reached forward and grasped his near-invisible shoulder with her similarly transparent hand. He hesitated for a moment, and she heard him suck in a quick breath, as though about to say something. But in the end, he just walked forward.

Borgin and Burke’s was small and out of the way, its front window coated in the thickest layer of dust Beth had ever seen. It wasn’t hard to find – most of the shops were curiously unmarked, as though only certain people deserved to know what was inside them. The curio shop in question stood on a narrow corner, jutting harshly into the cracked stone street.

“Here we are,” Beth muttered under her breath, more for her own benefit than Sirius’s, although he nodded.

“Here we are,” he agreed. She saw the wall behind him shift again as he turned his head and peered up the lane, back the way they had come. “Do you see anyone about?”

“No.” Beth gnawed on her lower lip, worries beginning to churn inside her. She knew it was a bit stupid, worrying like this – but then again, not everything had changed, and her anxiety was such that she rarely even considered it after nearly twenty years of living with it. “Do you think it’s a trap?”

“Moody wouldn’t have sent us all this way if he’d suspected something was amiss, would he?” Sirius said, although he sounded a bit dubious. “Maybe –“

But at that moment, there was a grating sort of sound, like metal on metal, and Sirius quickly cut off his sentence. The door to the shop, only a few feet to the left of them, inched open. A squat, stooped man with a mess of wild gray hair, slick with grease, poked his head around the frame, muttering sourly under his breath. Beth grabbed Sirius’s shirtsleeve and edged sideways, a bit further away, but not so far as to be unable to hear what he was grumbling about.

“Late again,” he said, in a voice not unlike the sound of the door to his shop – this, Beth figured, was either Borgin or Burke, although it would have of course impossible to discern who was who just by sight. He checked a funny-looking watch on his wrist, held there by what appeared to be snakeskin; next to her, she felt Sirius shudder slightly.

“Why Malfoy insisted on meeting on this corner, in front of my shop – bloody coward, that’s what he is.” The old man sidled out to the pavement in front of the window, folding his arms across his chest in a surly manner. “I told him, didn’t I, I said I hadn’t got any news for him. But does he listen to me? Like hell he does! If I’ve told him once, I’d told him a thousand times, I’ll contact him…”

Sirius whipped his head around to look at Beth, and even in his see-through state, she could sense the excitement rolling off him. The shopkeeper was staring back up the street in the direction of Diagon Alley, rocking back and forth and still muttering to himself. She wondered if he wasn’t a bit mad.

Distant footsteps echoed down the alley, and three heads – Sirius’s, Beth’s, and that of the stooped shopkeeper – turned in the direction of the noise. Even from this distance, and after a considerable number of years, Beth recognized Lucius Malfoy at once; that shade of blonde hair, nearly white in the still-low sunshine, was unmistakable. The old man’s mutterings immediately ceased, and he adopted a simper that was nearly painful to look at.

“Lucius. A pleasure, as always,” he said, inclining his head deferentially. Lucius sneered and raised a slim, pale eyebrow; it couldn’t have been clearer as to how he felt about the shopkeeper.

“Borgin,” he said coolly. His eyes darted idly over to the spot where Beth and Sirius were frozen against the wall, and his eyes narrowed slightly. She felt her heart come to a rocketing stop at the base of her throat; her hand, still grabbing onto Sirius’s sleeve, tightened convulsively.

“You wanted to see me, Malfoy.” It was a statement, not a question, that Borgin uttered now, fiddling with the snakeskin strap of his watch. Malfoy glanced back at him, and Beth breathed a completely silent sigh of relief. Her eyes darted to the left, through Sirius, and she saw a small metal ladder hanging crookedly on the mossy brick of Borgin’s shop. It appeared to reach all the way up to the slanted roof, covered in peeling shingles.

Sirius appeared to be looking at her as she stared at the region of his chest, where the ladder began. She motioned with her head, and he glanced behind him. She thought he might have comprehended; at any rate, she could barely make out the outline of his hand as he raised a finger to his lips, needlessly urging her to be silent. Slowly he rummaged in his right hip pocket, and, with a slight thrill of horror, she was distinctly aware that his wand wasn’t Disillusioned like the rest of his body. Whatever spell he wanted to cast would have to be quick, or they’d risk being seen.

Borgin was listening with increasingly evident displeasure as Malfoy talked on; Beth strained her ears, trying to hear what he was saying, willing Sirius to wait just a few more seconds.

“I don’t know what it is about the task I set you that you find so hard, Borgin,” Malfoy was saying silkily, toying with a silver-tipped black cane in his left hand. He was keeping an unusually tight hold on something so trivial; Beth wondered idly what its real purpose was, all the while straining not to lose the thread of conversation.

“It’s not difficult,” Borgin said petulantly, sounding like a schoolboy himself; he even pushed his lower lip out a fraction. “All I’m telling you is that there’s not been anything new to report –“

“This is one of the few solid leads we’ve got,” Malfoy interrupted stiffly. “The Dark Lord’s adamant that these people, these – whatever they call themselves – be found and stopped.” He tapped his cane once on the ground for emphasis. “And Dearborn, arrogant bastard that he is, was overheard only last week –“

“You don’t need to tell me. I’m the one who reported all this to you, aren’t I?” Borgin said, growing red in the face, although he lowered his voice, his eyes darting left and right. Malfoy opened his mouth to respond, but Sirius took the brief pause in the conversation to make his move. With a noise like a thousand fireworks, the wall of the weed-covered garden opposite Borgin and Burke’s exploded.

Borgin gave a yell of fright, and Malfoy ducked, covering his hands to avoid being pelted with pieces of brick and mortar. With a great leap, and aided by the noisy confusion, Beth scrambled for the ladder, hauling herself onto it and shimmying up the groaning rungs. Sirius was hot on her heels.

“What the bloody hell was that?!” Borgin roared, one hand raised to his stubble-covered cheek; the tips of his fingers came away red, dotted with blood from a fresh cut on his cheek. Malfoy brushed a bit of rubble away from the front of his robes angrily.

“Does it look like I know?” he snapped. His eyes cast about in the direction of the stretch of wall to the left of the shop’s door, but Beth and Sirius were already on the roof. She gripped the gutter with her fingers, so hard they ached, but she didn’t dare let go; she could feel her heart hammering in her chest. Next to her, Sirius was desperately trying to control his breathing, loud from the burst of adrenaline.

Malfoy edged over to the smashed wall, jerking the small silver statue – it looked like some creature’s head, at this distance – from the top of his cane. Beth saw, with a small gasp, that his wand was concealed inside it. He brandished it at the loose pile of bricks, dust still settling around him, but nothing happened.

“Come on,” Malfoy said shortly, jamming the wand back into the body of the cane and casting another furious glance about the place. “Inside your shop. We’ll finish this conversation there.” His cloak flapped about his ankles as he strode broadly across the street, disappearing into the interior of Borgin and Burke’s. Borgin stood alone on the pavement for a second, already beginning to mutter darkly, before he followed Lucius Malfoy inside.

Sirius turned his head, oddly colored with a combination of the sky and the nondescript clapboard shop across the street. “Dearborn,” he whispered hoarsely. Beth nodded, her throat suddenly dry – she couldn’t tell if the effect was from fear, or the excessive amount of brick dust now in the air. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

“We should go to the Ministry,” she hissed back. She swallowed the lump in her throat, and realized, a bit abashedly, that she was trembling uncontrollably from shock. She pushed the sleeves of her sweatshirt back up, as they’d fallen over her wrists in the commotion.

“Beth.” She felt, rather than saw, Sirius reach over and give her hand a comforting squeeze. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” She glanced over and gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile, not even sure if he could see it or not. He squeezed her hand again, and then crawled gingerly over to the edge of the roof, preparing to descend the ladder again. Beth followed suit, and Sirius helped her back down to the pavement, again clutching her hand tightly in his as they made their way cautiously back towards Diagon Alley.

*

Even though it couldn’t have been more than seven or eight o’ clock in the morning – neither Beth nor Sirius was privileged to possess a watch with a band made of snakeskin – the Ministry was already bustling with people preparing for the day of work ahead. Both had successfully been rid of their Disillusionment Charms, and it was more of a relief than she had anticipated to be able to see herself solidly once more.

“We’re going to Moody’s office, then?” Beth muttered under her breath, trying desperately to avoid a middle-aged wizard in deep crimson robes, who she’d just managed to make eye contact with.

“Yeah. Second level, I think. Department of Magical Law Enforcement.” Sirius was darting his gaze about nervously, as well, as though expecting someone to walk up to the pair of them at any moment and demand that they leave. “This way.”

Beth hadn’t ever had much occasion to visit the Ministry before, but Sirius was moving at such a quick clip that she didn’t get a lot of time to take in her surroundings: The dark, highly polished wood of the atrium floor, the deep blue and gold of the markings on its ceiling, and the gold fountain in the center were little more than blurs as they sped toward the opposite end of it. Gold lifts stood in small formation, queues leading into them already spilling out into the atrium itself.

Sirius swore lightly under his breath. “Aren’t there stairs in this place?” he asked. A small witch with flyaway mouse-brown hair passing by stopped, giving them a toothy smile with teeth only a shade or two lighter than her hair.

“By the fireplaces,” she cackled, laying a hand on Beth’s forearm; it was uncomfortably clammy. “I remember my first day at work, too. Such young people!” Beth smiled her thanks as Sirius led them back off the way they’d come, and they found a dark, narrow stairwell by a long range of stone fireplaces, the orange fire in their grates constantly switching to green as people Flooed in.

Moody’s office was all the way down at the end of the second level, in itself laid with footstep-muffling purple carpet, and was evidenced by a tarnished brass nameplate affixed to a stout oak door. It was oddly battered, as though it had taken several beatings in its time, and Beth knew that she should have been more surprised than she was; somehow, it fit Moody as any other door just wouldn’t have been right.

There was a slight pause, and then, from within the office, Moody growled, “Come in.” Sirius shot Beth a slightly wary sidelong glance before pushing the door open, gesturing for her to go first. Coward, she mouthed silently, smiling wryly as she stepped over the threshold.

For a moment, she had completely forgotten about Moody’s eye, and stopped dead a few paces before his desk as he turned to face her, the eye still swiveling about madly. He chuckled, a low, throaty sound, as Sirius swung the door shut behind her and walked to stand next to her. “Yeah, it’s a bit startling,” he said, not unkindly. “It comes with the job description.”

Sirius opened his mouth, and Beth was afraid he’d make some sort of rude or sarcastic remark about it; she hastily dug her elbow into his side. “We found Malfoy,” she said loudly, talking over the indignant noise Sirius was making at having been silenced.

Moody’s thick gray eyebrows rose with interest; he shifted in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. Beth could see the scars and cuts that littered them, an intricate web of crimson lines. “Oh, yeah?” he said. “Did you also blow up that brick wall down there, too?”

Sirius’s mouth fell open in astonishment. “How did you -?”

Moody chuckled. “Knowing things like that’s also in the job description, Black.” He leaned forward, all traces of dry humor disappearing from his lined, weathered face. “What was he talking to Borgin about?”

“Something about… about stopping people. Us,” said Sirius, frowning a bit as he spoke. “And he mentioned Dearborn. I think Dearborn talked, or… or something.”

Moody’s expression darkened. “I’m sure he did,” he muttered sourly, and let out a rapid string of curses. Beth winced, and instantly felt stupid for doing so. “Idiot would almost deserve it if he hadn’t put the rest of us in danger in the process.” He was looking down at his feet, frowning still, but his right eye, the magic one, was fixed on a point just over Beth’s left shoulder.

“Well, now we know.” He turned his eyes - both of them - back on Sirius and Beth, and she repressed a shudder. “So. Your first mission alone, eh? How’d it feel?”

Sirius’s face broke into a grin. “Excellent.”

Moody laughed roughly. “Thought so. Next time we need something blown up, we’ll let you know - you seem to be getting the hang of it.”

Beth grinned; she wasn’t at all surprised by his evaluation of their morning. This sort of thing, sneaking around and listening in on conversations, not to mention causing a ruckus, was right up his alley. Probably why Dumbledore assigned him the job, she thought dryly. But nonetheless, she was proud of him - he was doing what he loved, and he’d more than likely saved both their skins by blowing up that wall. When it came down to it, wasn’t that all that mattered?

A/N: YAY. I have been waiting for about... three months to post this chapter, I think. It's something around that amount. Because this is one of my very favorite chapters in the entire book, and it's the first time I've written a mission scene that feels completely right! It's a bit hard sometimes, translating what I can picture onto  the page, but I feel like everything here -- Sirius, Beth, the conversation between Malfoy and Borgin, the reporting to Moody -- just really fit my mental image. And I hope that you enjoyed it, too!

Many, many thanks to CassiePotter for being the 100th reviewer on this story! Gah, that's such an awesome number. Thank you all for reading, and reviewing, and I know I say that every chapter, but I need to tell you as often as possible, so you don't forget. I'd love to hear your opinions on this chapter as well!


Chapter 15: The Rat
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There were a lot of things that Peter Pettigrew didn’t want to be doing at any given time, but at the moment, this certainly ranked high among them. He unconsciously stuck his tongue out from between his teeth as he rummaged in the top of his sock, searching for the address he’d scrawled on a scrap of paper – he knew that he’d stuck it in there earlier. It was where he always put things for safekeeping. But his nerves were frayed, his reflexes hexed to pieces, and it was difficult to concentrate.

Not that it wasn’t his own doing, but still - he’d never imagined in a thousand years that he would ever willingly offer himself up as a spy to You-Know-Who’s followers.

There was much that had prompted it, he thought now, with an almost scary lack of emotion about the thing entirely. Mostly he thought it was the sense of fear that accompanied being in the Order of the Phoenix – something he certainly had never even thought about before actually joining. It wasn’t the picture of heroics and noble deeds that Sirius had painted it to be at all. It meant watching your back always, because you never knew when someone wanted to see it gone. It meant the very real prospect that maybe - just maybe - it was possible to lose a war. It meant that you were the weak one, in many ways, and he knew exactly what happened to the weak ones in those sorts of circumstance. And Peter knew he was one of the weakest.

But there were other factors, too, and as guilty as he felt for thinking about them – well, they had contributed. For as long as he could remember, he’d been the butt of Sirius’s jokes. Sirius meant well, and Peter knew that he’d never really meant any of the sarcastic things he said, but that sort of thing got to be extremely tiring after a while. Peter always tried to play it off like he hadn’t minded, but who wouldn’t mind that after over seven years of it?

And he knew he was nothing special in the Order, either, constantly overshadowed as he was by James and Lily. He’d not managed to recruit a single person yet on his own, and while James kept telling him that it was okay, he knew Gideon Prewett especially was disappointed.

If he succeeded in doing this – and being a double agent was a tall order – he wouldn’t have to disappoint people anymore.

“Got it,” he muttered, fishing the twisted scrap of paper out of his pocket, holding it up a bit to the buzzing lamp on the corner in order to try and see the numbers on it better. He knew he should have gone slower in copying down the address, but it had been burning – what sort of lunatics sent messages on fire? – and now he couldn’t tell if that was a zero or an eight. There was a sort of wavy blot of ink directly in his way.

No. It was definitely a zero. And that meant he was here… didn’t it?

Peter craned his head back and looked at the building he stood in front of, but there was absolutely nothing remarkable about it. He fished about in his other sock now and extricated, with some difficulty, the rolled-up letter he’d placed there.

He smirked slightly, so that the lamp caused his face to look a bit skull-like in the shadows. Really, it was because of Sirius, and Beth, that he was able to get this letter, which led to the one that had arrived half in ashes, which had led to him standing about on this particular square of cracked pavement. He’d let it slip one day that Moody was keeping his eye on a man at the Ministry, a low-level worker in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures.

“He’s supposed to be a real nobody,” Sirius had said – Peter recalled that Sirius had snickered to himself at that, as though he found the whole situation highly amusing, instead of one that the Order should have been keeping tabs on. That, too, had always slightly irked Peter, the fact that Sirius found something to laugh about in anything, even things that weren’t supposed to necessarily be humorous.

“Well, You-Know-Who’s not exactly going to wander about trying to convince the Minister to join him, is he?” Beth had responded. “He’s got to start small, Padfoot.”

Taking this information and going to the Ministry on pretense of trying, yet again, to recruit somebody into the Order of the Phoenix, Peter had managed to locate the man in question, who’d listened with interest to the story he, Peter, had presented. The Order was weak, he’d told him, flawed, and Peter was prepared to take it down from the inside, as long as it meant he wouldn’t fall with it. The man had promised he’d get in touch with Death Eaters higher in the ranks, and that had been the end of the conversation.

It was the first time Peter had heard the word “Death Eaters” and was able to conjure up a mental image of something also synonymous with “human.”

He had almost expected nothing to come of the words he and the Ministry worker had had – and in fact, the first few nights afterward had been dotted with cold sweats and nightmares, sure he was going to be killed at any moment for what he knew. But on the eighth night following, the burning letter had arrived:

Remember this address. Meet there on the thirtieth, at half-past eleven at night. Come alone; do not share this information. Someone will meet you and provide further instructions.

609 Neward Court, Ravensbridge, London

Well, it was the thirtieth now, and it was – Peter stuck his tongue out again without meaning to, shaking up his sleeve to check his wristwatch – almost half-past on the dot. And he had confirmed that, yes, the address he’d written down did in fact contain a zero and not an eight. But not another human being was in sight.

He had been fooled.

Just as Peter was about to turn around, call it a wasted effort, and head home, there was a sort of noise that stopped him. But it wasn’t a noise, really – it was more of a feeling, a sensation that he really wasn’t alone in front of this crumbling townhouse on a less-than-appealing street. He strained his eyes through the darkness, trying to see if anybody was there.

“Hello?” he called, with a poor attempt at injecting bravery into his voice.

Even though he was looking nearly right at it, he still jumped a foot in the air when a section of the previously impermeable darkness shifted. Two eyes blinked slowly; he could only tell they were eyes once they opened back up, and the lamp glinted off their reflective surfaces. “You’d best hope,” said a low, slow voice, “that you are Peter Pettigrew.”

“I am.” He winced a bit at how squeaky and shaky his voice sounded in comparison with that of the figure, who was still drenched in inky shadows and didn’t appear to want to meet him in any sort of hurry.

The figure laughed in a wheezy manner, at odds with the deepness of its voice, and finally moved to stand a bit closer to him, so that he could see that it was, in fact, a person. What perhaps startled him most was the fact that it was not a man, as he had previously assumed, but a woman. A rather ugly woman, he thought absently – her red hair was badly in need of a wash, and pulled back so severely that the thin, pale skin at her temples was even further stretched. She was rather short and stocky, and when her fingers fluttered about the clasp of her cloak, he could see that they were as stubby as the rest of her.

“Hello, Peter Pettigrew,” she cackled mockingly. “It is a good thing you’re him, you know, else I would’ve had to kill you, and that would have been messy.”

Peter swallowed, panic unmistakably clenching the pit of his stomach. “I’m here to see –“

“Yes, yes, I know what you’re here for,” she snapped, all traces of humor evaporated from her demeanor. She ran her eyes over him a few times and snorted. “Don’t cut an impressing figure, do you? Get in, then – bad idea to be standing about outside.”

She gestured toward the door of the house she’d hidden in the shadows of, and he pushed his way through the cracked black door, not wanting to have to be asked twice. The foyer of the house wasn’t much lighter than outside it, however; the lamps dotting the walls were barely lit, and a few of them kept sputtering feebly.

Peter could hear voices coming from behind a wall to his right; he assumed the door was further down the entrance corridor. “This way?” he asked, trying to be helpful, and he jerked his head toward the direction of the low murmur of voices.

The woman looked at him as though he were a toad she’d like nothing more than to squash under the heel of her shoe. “No,” she said venomously. She pointed one of her stubby fingers up. “You’re needed up there.” She turned and immediately began ascending a very crude staircase assembled from what looked like packing crates. Peter was fairly sure it hadn’t been there a few seconds before, but maybe his eyes hadn’t adjusted properly to the darkness.

As he climbed behind the stout woman – he realized with an inexplicable feeling of fear that he didn’t yet know her name – his brain turned gears slowly, trying to process exactly what he was doing. Could he even do this – did he have the strength to act like he belonged to two factions, two sides of a rapidly escalating war? There was nothing from stopping the exact same things happening here – pushed aside, shunted around in favor of the more powerful and more successful. And back in the Order, at least, he had had friends to encourage him.

Sirius’s barking laughter met his ears faintly, as though from underwater, and Peter’s lip curled unconsciously. But here he was on the winning side. And that, above all else, was where he needed to be. For him, losing was not an option; he didn’t have enough strength to survive if he lost.

The woman halted at the top of the staircase, so abruptly that Peter very nearly ran into her. She didn’t turn back to face him again, and he nearly asked what they were doing before someone else stepped onto the landing from a corner, adjacent to a tiny, narrow door. Got a thing for skulking about, this lot, he thought.

“Alecto. I thought you were –“ The man who had stepped from the corner leaned to the side a bit to inspect Peter. He grinned in such a way that he, Peter, knew instinctively that the pair of Death Eaters was related. The two the same laugh, the same slightly misshapen features, the same sloping shoulders. “Ah, you found him.” He jerked his thumb at the door behind him. “Roark’s in there.”

“I know,” Alecto said, a bit grumpily; her hands balled into small fists at her sides. “Stop acting like you know more everything in the world, Amycus, or I’ll jinx you.”

The man called Amycus smirked a bit and shrugged his shoulders, as though to indicate that he really did have vastly superior knowledge. “I’ll be downstairs, then,” he called over his shoulder. Peter could hear Alecto grinding her teeth; she stood in front of him for a few more moments, fuming.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” she finally spat savagely, turning on her heel and apparently only just now remembering that he was there. “You heard him, go in!” She shoved his shoulder roughly, and Peter scurried toward the door, trying to prevent her from lashing out at him again more than anything else.

The room was small and damp-feeling, smelling like something that had long since been festering. Peter wrinkled up his nose as he shut the door behind him, taking extra time as he did so. He didn’t really want to look at whoever else was in the room with him, although thinking he might somehow get out of it was foolish.

A dark-skinned man stood in the otherwise bare room, against the opposite wall; his fingers, surprisingly long and thin for one of his bulk, were toying delicately with a dark-wooded wand. A ring on his thumb caught the cracks of light that managed to slip through the grime on the solitary, high-up window.

“What brings you here?” he asked without preamble. For some reason, Peter could only watch the wand in Roark’s hands; his eyes were dark and fathomless and terrifying.

“I’m –“

“I didn’t ask who you were,” Roark said coldly. “If you were someone other than Pettigrew, you’d be dead by now.” He sneered openly as the thought made Peter shudder involuntarily. “I asked why you were here. There’s a difference.”

Peter looked up and made an effort to look Roark straight in the face. “Because I can help you. I can pass you information about the Order of –“

“And we’re supposed to believe – we being the Dark Lord’s followers, his servants – that you’re willing to do this?” Roark almost appeared bored, but for the spark in his eye that belied his flat tone. “It’s a lofty promise, Pettigrew. And one I’m not sure you’re intent on keeping.” He resumed playing with the wand; until that moment, Peter hadn’t noticed that he’d stopped.

“I am,” he said firmly, shoving his hands into the pockets of his robes so that Roark wouldn’t be able to notice their shaking. “If it means – if it means protection from the aftermath. Whatever happens in the end.” His eyes flicked back up to the Death Eater’s. Slowly, Roark grinned.

“Then you’ve come to the right place, haven’t you?” He took a step closer to Peter, who flinched instinctively. Roark smirked. “But if you’re going to do that” – and he waved the wand at Peter’s clenched fists – “we might as well kill you now, for all the good you’ll do us.” He raised his wand, as though contemplating the action.

“No!” Peter yelped, backing hastily toward the door; his back slammed into it uncomfortably, and he flinched again. “No, I – I can do it. But don’t kill me.” He half-raised his hands, like he was about to ward off a very feeble attack.

“Even if it means turning in your friends?” Roark whispered silkily. He turned about abruptly and began pacing, his thick, muscular arms clutched contemplatively behind his back. “If we agree to keep you on as a spy” – and he looked very much like he was disinclined to the idea – “we can still kill you if you disobey orders. And we will.”

For a moment, faces flashed across Peter’s mind’s eye. James and Lily, and Sirius, and Remus, and Beth. Even Mary and Marlene. The seven of them had been the best friends he’d ever had – and protecting himself would mean losing all of them. He swallowed thickly against his Adam’s apple, which seemed to have swollen about three times in the span of a few seconds.

“Yes,” he said, more breath than formed word. “I’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive.” He couldn’t look at Roark as he said it; hot, burning shame was flooding through him, racing through his veins and burning the tips of his ears. He couldn’t have looked at anybody just then.

His chin snapped up swiftly as the sound of the Death Eater’s footsteps drew near again. The man’s face, now hidden even more deeply in shadow as he moved past the infinitesimal pricks of light, was a mixture of amusement and caution, and something unnamed, something darker. He held out his wand again, and this time, Peter stood his ground.

“Amycus.” At the sound of the name, the door behind Peter clicked open; he hurried away from it hastily as the stocky witch’s brother entered the room at that moment, head bowed in slightly mocking deference. Peter had no idea how Roark had known Amycus was out there.

“You summoned?” he said, upper lip lifting slightly as he did so. Roark rolled his eyes.

“Come here,” he snapped. Sullenly, like a reprimanded schoolboy, the misshapen-looking wizard did as he was told. “Get out your wand.” Before Peter could react, Roark’s right hand shot out and yanked Peter’s own, his grip like iron.

“What’re you doing?” he gasped, icy fear trickling through him.

“To make sure you keep your word,” said Roark gravely, “you, Peter Pettigrew, are going to make an Unbreakable Vow.” He laughed humorlessly at the younger man’s expression upon hearing those words. “Oh, yes,” he added nastily. “You’ll remember what I said. It’s not a lofty promise.”

“Are we ready yet?” drawled Amycus. Roark glared at him, and his head jerked toward his and Peter’s hands, motioning for the other to go ahead. Amycus withdrew his wand from the folds of his cloak and placed the tip of it on their interlinked hands.

“Do you, Pettigrew, pledge your allegiance to the cause of the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters?” When Peter didn’t respond right away, Roark looked at him fiercely.

“I do,” Peter said shakily. As soon as the words had left his lips, a thick, coiling jet of flame erupted from the end of Amycus’s wand, looping itself around Roark’s and Peter’s hands. He stared openmouthed, but the Death Eater’s gaze didn’t lower from his face.

“And will you serve, to the best of your ability, the orders you are issued, even if they are unsatisfactory to your conscience?” A wicked grin twisted the dark man’s lips.

“I will.” A second tongue of flame wrapped with the first. The two links glowed brightly for a few seconds, almost pleasantly warm on Peter’s bare skin. He watched it intently, disregarding how the light was burning small patterns into his retinas. Slowly, the links faded, though he could still feel them, bound around his hands.

As soon as it was gone, the horror of what he had done struck him. He looked at Roark wildly; both he and Amycus were wearing slightly cruel half-smiles, as though they’d caught an animal in a trap. Like a rat, said a voice inside his head.

Without looking back, he stumbled blindly from the room, nearly pitching headlong down the stairs in his haste to leave that godforsaken house. How could he have done what he had? How could he ever be forgiven for something like that? Maybe no one will ever find out, he thought, but even as he did, he knew they were false words. The villain was always found out.

He had almost reached the door when, from nowhere – it seemed like it was coming from the wall itself, through which he had earlier voices – a hand shot out and grabbed his arm. Peter pitched forward with the momentum of his flight from the house, and was jerked around roughly. Severus Snape was standing over him, and he looked absolutely livid.

“What are you doing here, Pettigrew?” he spat angrily, glancing quickly around to see if anyone was looking in the pair’s direction. The foyer was empty. Peter, still breathing hard, could only stare at Snape. It had been nearly two years since he’d seen him, back when they were at school together. And somehow, he’d gotten the feeling – mostly from Beth and James and Sirius – that he wasn’t supposed to bring this particular person up in conversation. Certainly Peter hadn’t been expecting to see him here.

Snape sneered. “Are you still as thick as you used to be?” he snapped. “I asked you what you’re doing here.” He paused, and then added, in a lower and somehow sharper tone, “Does Beth know you’re here?”

This seemed to loosen Peter’s tongue. “Why do you care?” he shot back. Snape’s lip curled.

“Get. Out.” He spoke through clenched teeth, squeezing Peter’s upper arm hard before shoving him roughly in the direction of the door. And though Snape’s behavior was beyond bizarre, Peter didn’t need to be told twice. Not stopping to glance back, he bolted through the front door, down the steps, and onto the street once more.

Desperately, he squeezed his eyes shut, still running, his shoes thudding on the pavement. Between one step and the next, he had transformed from man to rat. As a rat, nobody would notice him – he was nobody. And that was exactly what he felt like right now. Still breathing hard, but somehow distant from everything in this miniature body, Peter headed for his flat.

He didn’t change back into his proper human form until he needed to, right outside the locked door inside. It took him twice as long to insert the key in the lock, so badly were his hands shaking – twice as long to open the door – twice as long to find his way to the tiny bathroom. He sank to his knees and threw up into the toilet, gagging and hating himself.

He could still feel the fiery chains on his hands; he looked at them as they trembled, and almost imagined that they were still there, a permanent scar of his treachery.

A/N: I'm so excited to post this chapter! For a couple of reasons, actually. Primarily among them is that quite a few of you have asked about what's going on with Peter at this point in the story, and now it's all kind of set out definitively. Up until this point, he'd been having doubts and misgivings, but this chapter marks the first time he's actually set out to definitively do something. And the second reason I'm glad to post this is just because it's been a very stressful week, and it's nice to know that some things, like Snethday updates, stay the same.

Big thanks to Lia, Becca, and Ty for looking over and critiquing this chapter for me! And thanks to you guys, of course, for all the support. As always, opinions on this chapter are super appreciated!


Chapter 16: Bonding Time
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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!


Chapter 17: An Early Birthday
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Beth had sent a letter in haste as soon as she had Apparated away from the theater, and still it had been nearly three days before Severus had written her back. She didn’t know if he’d been away from his flat for that time, or if he’d been avoiding her, trying to find a way out of admitting that he’d not told her that Death Eaters were currently looking for James and Lily, but neither one was something she wanted to think on for long periods of time.

Worse yet, she hadn’t even been able to take her mind off it by distracting herself in Sirius’s company. He had been notably absent as well, although as far as this went, she largely suspected James as having influence in that decision. She knew she wouldn’t be able to hide the fact that she and Severus conversed forever, and a part of her wondered why she was still hiding it from Sirius. Over and over again, she tried to convince herself to summon the courage to do it – after all, James hadn’t minded, had he? But Sirius was headstrong and stubborn; it would be different for him.

The icy rain persisted relentlessly as the week dragged on, and the only break in the monotony had been having Frank and Alice over for takeaway the day before Severus’s response had arrived. It had been a long time – several months, she’d realized – since she’d really spent time with either of them, and Alice was already showing slightly through her robes. It was a bit weird for Beth to comprehend, someone so close in age to her being pregnant, and then knowing that Lily, who was her age, was going to have a baby around the same time.

But other than this, there was no respite until the early days of February, when there came once again the familiar tapping at the window, heralding the arrival of an owl. And, sure enough, when she’d thrown wide the sill and ushered in the bird, it had been Severus’s barn owl, dripping wet looking thoroughly disgruntled at having to fly in such weather.

Awkwardly wondering if she was supposed to apologize to it, she quickly fumbled with the cord at its leg, nearly ripping the parchment in her haste to see what the letter said. She hadn’t said much in writing to him initially – just that she felt like a cup of tea, and did he care to join her at the shop across from the Leaky Cauldron? – and his response was equally as brief.

Sorry for the delay in responding – events have necessitated my being out of the flat for a few days. Tea would be great. Tomorrow afternoon at two o’ clock?

Severus

Beth breathed out a sigh, a mixture of relief and apprehension. So he hadn’t been ignoring her – but she wasn’t entirely sure what “events” he was referring to. For a wild moment, she almost debated forgoing the entire meeting, but felt bad almost at once for it. They’d agreed in the beginning, that night by the bridge, that it would be dangerous, and that they would fight through these dangers. But how naïve they’d been, she knew now, to imagine their paths wouldn’t cross in such a way as they had now.

No. She didn’t know for sure yet if he’d had anything to do with whatever You-Know-Who’s supporters wanted with the Potters. And the only way to find out was to confront him about it tomorrow.

*

Severus tapped his fingers impatiently on the wrought iron metalwork of the tea shop tabletop, feeling distinctly out of his element here – or maybe it was the fact that, yet again, he’d dressed in Muggle clothes to blend into the environment better. Robes went unnoticed amongst the people he associated with from day to day; here, he more than likely would have been escorted out for dressing oddly, or something equally as stupid. He tried to suppress the curl in his lip as he lifted the cup of tea to his lips and blew across its surface to cool it. A man sitting across the way was wearing a short-sleeved shirt in such a loud pattern it nearly made his eyes water; how that was accepted, and wizard’s robes weren’t, he would never be able to guess.

Admittedly, he wouldn’t have chosen this for a meeting spot, but nevertheless it was quiet and out of the way, and that was really all he asked for. And after going home to Spinner’s End for the past two days for his mother’s funeral, sitting down and being able to think for a few seconds was a welcome change. He’d gone out of obligation, a sense of duty that hadn’t been present when his father’s liver had failed him the year before. The moment he’d been able to get away, he headed straight back for London and the anonymity of the work he was doing here.

Severus took a sip of the tea and frowned a bit; it was weak and extremely bitter. He glanced behind him at the door of the coffee shop, but Beth was nowhere to be seen, and already it was ten minutes past two. His eyes fell on the swinging Leaky Cauldron sign across the road, Muggles passing it by as though it didn’t exist. What wouldn’t he give for a firewhisky in place of this tea right now?

Finding Beth’s letter upon his returning home had surprised him somewhat, but he would have been lying if he’d said he wasn’t pleased. In fact, the entire trip home he’d been thinking of writing her himself – no, since he’d left her that day in the park.

Severus grinned a bit to himself, hiding it behind the rim of the battered yellow china cup in his hands. Merlin, what she’d done to him… He slipped a hand into the pocket of his mackintosh and wrapped his hands around the slim, paper-wrapped package inside.

The bell over the door tinkled, and he turned around quickly, withdrawing his hand from his pocket as though its contents had burned him. Beth hesitated in the door of the otherwise empty shop, lit from behind by the lamps and shop window lights – they were already lit, despite the earliness of the afternoon, because of the darkness of the sky, thick with heavy rain clouds still. She looked about, as though searching for him, and then began winding her way through the tables to where Severus sat.

“Hi.” He pushed the second mug of tea over the table towards her, and Beth blinked in surprise, looking at him as though she expected him to snatch it right back from her. When he didn’t, she slowly lowered herself into the chair opposite him and wrapped her hands tentatively around the cup.

Severus frowned; there was something off about the way she was acting, although it wasn’t anything he could quite put his finger on at the moment. “How have you been?” he asked instead, lifting his own mug up to take a second drink of tea.

He watched her run one thumb over the curved handle of her own mug, finger pausing slightly each time at the line that marked where the two pieces that made up the handle were joined. “I have something to ask you,” she said abruptly, her voice flat. Severus frowned even more, and somewhere inside his chest, nerves fluttered faintly.

“Okay,” he said slowly, setting the cup down with a clink on the table and leaning back, folding his arms across his chest.

Beth flicked her dark eyes up to meet his, and almost immediately looked around at the other people sitting in the shop. The only other occupants were an old man sitting by the front window, shuffling slowly through a newspaper, and a bored-looking teenage boy at the till. Finally, her eyes traveled back to his again. “It’s James and Lily, Sev.”

She leaned forward a bit on her arms and looked at him intently, but he didn’t have a clue what that was supposed to mean. She didn’t offer any more information, and after a slightly prolonged pause, he said, “All right… what about them?”

Beth rubbed her nose in apparent frustration, and glanced again at the boy at the till. “Look. There’s not a great way to say this, okay? But they’re… your group…“ She rubbed her nose yet again and closed her eyes briefly, not in a gesture of exhaustion – oddly enough, it spoke of fear more than anything else. “Sev, Death Eaters are looking for the Potters. Actively looking. They want them on your side.”

Severus stared at her, feeling a bit stupid even as he did so. It was taking a long while for what she’d just said to him to process. Why would they want James and Lily, and why hadn’t he heard about it until Beth had told him? But as he thought that, a more pressing question appeared before him. “How did you find that out?”

“Dearborn did. Caradoc Dearborn. I’m still not quite sure how the information found its way to him.” Beth resumed running her finger over the crack in the mug’s handle. She seemed unconcerned, but Severus knew better than to think it was something to be taken lightly. If someone in the Order had found out something like that, it could spell bad news – for all of them. And he knew he wasn’t supposed to care, but sitting across from him was a prime example of why he did.

“Why does it matter, though?” he burst out suddenly, laying both of his palms down on either side of the mug on the table. “I mean, it’s not you they’re interested in, is it?” And as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew that they were wrong. Beth pressed her lips together.

“He’s like a brother to me,” she said flatly. “And because of the baby –“ She broke off suddenly, clapping her hand over her mouth, her eyes widening. Severus felt a sort of jolt somewhere in the region of his stomach.

“She’s pregnant?” Somehow, he felt he should have reacted a bit more strongly to this news. Beth cursed softly and slowly lowered her hand.

“That’s not the point,” she said defensively. “If you’ve heard anything about this, you should have –“

“Do you think I wouldn’t have told you if I had?!” It was Severus’s turn to glance around at the shop’s other occupants. The old man had long since left, and their only company was the boy operating the till, who was counting the pence in the drawer for what surely was the fifth time at this point. He stood up hastily. “Let’s go outside.”

It was currently still raining, and both of them knew it, but Beth didn’t argue. Leaving their lukewarm mugs of tea on the table, and with a curt nod toward the boy, Severus moved quickly for the door, standing aside to let Beth pass through ahead of him before following her out. She looked up at him expectantly, although still a bit sullenly, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet.

“This way.” He jerked his head to the left, pulling his collar up a bit higher around his neck to prevent the rain from soaking through. “So we’re not so near the Leaky Cauldron.” Beth nodded shortly, and they headed down the pavement, with her following just a half-step behind him.

Severus walked until they were a good distance from the pub, about two blocks, and he and Beth were standing under the green-and-white striped awning of a closed florist’s shop. He turned to face her, and she looked up at him mildly, hands resting in her pockets.

“Look,” he said, running a hand through his hair and wincing at how wet it was. “Beth, this shouldn’t have to happen, all right? I never wanted to contend with you on our choices – I mean…” He trailed off, trying to find the right words; he had no idea what the right thing to say about all of this was. “I don’t even want to think of what they’d do to me if they knew I was even associating with you and letting you walk free after it all.” He smiled bitterly. “I don’t want to think about what they’d do to you.”

Beth sighed. “Sev,” she said wearily, “I don’t want to fight with you, either. Merlin knows I’ve said that enough.” She gave him a small, encouraging smile, which he returned gratefully. “But we can’t just ignore the signs that – I mean, we can’t pretend it’s not going to touch us forever.”

“I know,” Severus said sharply, and then repeated himself, a bit more gently. “I know. But you have to believe me, Beth. If I’d had any idea –“ He swallowed hard against the words. “I had no idea they were after Lily. Or James. I swear to you, I didn’t.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” And then, in an unexpected – but not at all unwelcome – gesture, Beth stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his waist, and it was all Severus could do to remember to hug her back.

I have no clue what I’m supposed to be doing, he thought desperately, acutely aware that, at this proximity, he could smell her shampoo. And even as he was thinking it, he knew how stupid it sounded, even to himself. But the way she fit into his arms was perfect, as though they’d never been meant for anyone else.

After several moments that felt like both years and milliseconds at the same time, Beth pulled away, grinning a bit. He grinned back, and suddenly remembered the small wrapped package in his pocket, the one he’d been checking when she’d walked into the tea shop. “Here,” Severus said quickly, clearing his throat and fishing it out. “There’s something I wanted to give you.” He held out the thin box, feeling his cheeks warm.

A small line appeared between Beth’s eyebrows. “What’s this?” She took the package hesitantly, holding it by the very tips of her fingers, but didn’t open it yet. Her eyes flicked to Severus’s for confirmation, and he gave her what he hoped was an encouraging nod.

“It’s your birthday present,” he said, as casually as possible. He had suddenly become aware of his own voice, and could no longer tell how it sounded to other people. When it mattered most, he could never remember just how to act natural.

“Sev, my birthday isn’t for two weeks.” Her own cheekbones flamed pink. “And besides – I missed your birthday.”

Relief flooded through him – that’s what she was worried about? “Oh, that doesn’t matter,” he said, waving his hand unimportantly. “And I might not see you on your actual birthday.” Severus said this without thinking, and almost immediately wished he hadn’t, for the second time that day.

In fact, he knew for certain that he wouldn’t see her on the seventeenth. He’d been scheduled, along with Avery and a Death Eater called Goyle – he was near Lucius Malfoy’s age, Severus knew – to collect the last bit of information Roark needed about Caradoc Dearborn. Just what would happen once all the information was collected wasn’t particularly clear, but after what Beth had told him in the tea shop, he was a bit glad to be kept in the dark on this one.

Thankfully, Beth didn’t seem to take the announcement as strange, preventing him from having to lie to her about what he was supposed to be doing in two weeks – something he was infinitely grateful for. Gingerly, she turned the box over and ran her finger under the flap. Severus watched with apprehensive excitement as she drew out the russet-colored box and lifted the hinged lid.

“Oh,” she breathed, looking up at him; he realized he had balled his fists in nerves, and hastily unclenched them. From inside the box she held up a bracelet – a thin silver-colored chain with a small charm dangling from it, in the shape of a bird. She looked up at him, and Severus found that he couldn’t read the expression in her face.

“I was trying to find a falcon,” he said, trying to apologize and wondering why at the same time. He suddenly wondered if his idea had been as drastically stupid as it now seemed. “But that was the only bird they had, and –“

“Will you put it on me?” Beth’s cheeks had turned pink again, but there was a sort of light in her eyes that made Severus’s stomach drop pleasantly. He reached forward and extricated the chain from her fingers, wrapping it around her wrist and closing the clasp with a soft click. She turned her way this way and that, and the metal caught the light from the window of the closed shop they stood in front of.

Beth swallowed hard. “This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” she said sincerely, and Severus felt his face relax into a smile. “I love it.”

“I’m glad,” he responded, and fought heavily against the urge to wrap his arms around her again. “And look, I really am sorry –“

“You don’t have anything to be sorry about,” Beth laughed, her eyes still warm and bright. “Why are you apologizing?”

Severus grinned abashedly. “Dunno,” he muttered, although that was halfway a lie. He knew, even while standing here under this awning, smiling at Beth and watching her smile in return, that it couldn’t last. It was a small spot of sunshine in otherwise endless rain, and before long, those dark and heavy clouds would move to block the warmth again.

*

Severus arrived at headquarters early that evening, anxious to get having his mind poked and prodded over with. It had become fairly routine in the past few weeks. The whispers of Legilimency and Occlumency had started when Carrow had administered the Veritaserum to the five of them, and he, Severus, had somehow managed to fight it. Since then, they had increased momentously until Roark, one of the Dark Lord’s closer supporters and the tall man Severus had met at the end of his seventh year, had caught wind of it. He had been placed in charge of headquarters in this section of London, and Carrow hadn’t been the only one to take interest in the Veritaserum event. Apparently seeing potential in him, Severus’s Occlumency training, if it could be called that, was now being personally seen to by Roark.

There were several doors leading off the second floor landing, and he made for the second-to-last at the far end of the hall, hanging somewhere over the hidden room behind the foyer’s wall paneling. He could hear the voices of Amycus and Alecto Carrow coming from behind the first door, just to the left at the top of the stairs. He sneered slightly; the Carrows were always hanging about, and he was never quite sure exactly what it was that they were doing. The fact that they were so secretive made him uncomfortable.

Roark was already waiting when Severus entered the room, his back to the door as he surveyed a long row of tall shelves crammed with books that smelled like mothballs – unless, Severus thought idly, that smell actually was mothballs.

“Close the door,” Roark said imperiously, not bothering to turn around. He said this every time they had one of these little meetings, and so Severus was halfway to closing the door anyway, but he had half a mind to think that Roark was a man who got pleasure in thinking that people did things just because he commanded them to. He continued studying the shelf until Severus was seated in a hard, straight-backed chair, facing an identical one just behind where Roark was standing. His, Severus’s, back was to a window so thick with dust not even a scrap of the outside world was visible.

The older man turned at last, robes turning softly on the well-worn hardwood floor, and placed two rough hands on the back of the chair. He studied Severus with hard eyes.

“Are you prepared?” he asked. This, too, was a familiar inquiry, but Severus nodded his head once, as though it was the first time he had heard it. He refrained moving his lips along with Roark’s as the latter continued, “You have been practicing?”

“Yes, sir,” Severus said smoothly. Roark stood tall then and, from one of the seemingly numerous pockets inside his robes, he withdrew his wand. He pointed it at the man in front of him almost carelessly.

Legilimens.”

Something completely unexpected happened. For quite a while now – days and days of practice – Severus had been gaining in skill at Occlumency, his thoughts growing fainter and harder for Roark to read with each session. And for the past few weeks, Roark hadn’t been able to gain access into Severus’s mind at all. He was prepared for that again: That shimmering sense of reality that meant blocking the invasion. But at once his mind was jerked sharply back to the green-and-white striped awning under which Beth stood, looking up at him, a small smile creasing her face.

Severus watched in abject horror as his own hands reached forward and fastened the chain of the bracelet he had given her earlier that day around her wrist. His mind jerked again, and he was sitting beside her on the roundabout, lightness floating through him in dizzying waves of contentment.

With a gasp, as though he had been doused in icy water, Severus was yanked back into the present. He was huddled on the ground in front of his chair, curled tightly, his wrists clamped together, arms raised above his head. He was shaking slightly, and the tremors worsened as he realized what must have happened.

Never before, in his weeks of practicing like this, had he let his mind become so open.

Roark was sneering from where he still stood behind the opposite chair, upper lip curled into an expression of utter disgust. “What,” he hissed through his teeth, his voice cold enough to freeze, “was that about, Snape?”

“Lost – lost it,” Severus mumbled, only half-realizing what he was saying. He hauled himself back onto the chair and tried to make the woozy feeling in his head dissipate, rubbing at his forehead with the heel of his hand. When he glanced up again, Roark was still staring at him, eyes narrowed dangerously into slits.

“I’d suggest you find it again,” he said at last, curling and uncurling his hands from around the back of the wooden chair. There was silence again, and for a horrible moment, Severus thought he might press into who Beth was. He didn’t think he could keep the truth from Roark – not after what had just happened. But all he said was, “Control your emotions, Snape, lest they should control you.” And with that, he strode quickly from the room, heels slapping the ground, the sound fading away as he descended the stairs.

Only once Severus was absolutely sure he was gone did he lean back against the chair, a heavy sigh escaping through his lips. The training had drained him, but even more than that – what had caused him to mess up so drastically today? He hunched back forward and pressed the tips of his fingers into his eyes until bright lights popped in front of them. It had to have been something new, something he wasn’t used to…

A derisive sound left his lips. Of course – seeing Beth today. The present, and her rushing forward to hug him… Even as he thought it, his cheeks warmed, and he clapped his hands to them, though there was nobody around to see. That had to be it.

He drew in a deep breath and stood, brushing down the dirt and dust from his robes. He refused to give her up – such thinking was ludicrous – but now he seemed to know the dangers of not curbing his emotions where she was concerned. He would have to work hard, and train harder, to maintain control, or whether or not to give up seeing her might no longer be his choice.

A/N: Sometimes it really just doesn't feel like I go a week between posting chapters. It definitely feels like I uploaded chapter 16 only yesterday -- and yet, here we are again! I'm rather fond of this chapter, though, and I was grinning, reading back over it. I'm not sure if you're supposed to be entertained by your own stories, strictly speaking, but then again, it makes writing them much more fun! How about those Sneth moments, then? Ooh, I love this chapter. Pardon my gushing.

And now for a small update! This book's going to be 34 chapters long (the same as in In The Black!), and I'm about halfway done with chapter 30 right now, so I really don't have very far to go. I'm so excited! And sad, at the same time, because I don't like thinking about how starting the next book will mean starting the last book. Wow. Weird. Anyway -- I'd love to hear what you thought of this particular chapter, and thank you very, very much for reading, as always!


Chapter 18: The Truth Revealed
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A few days after she and Severus had met up in the tea shop across from the Leaky Cauldron, the horribly torrential rains that had been plaguing London for weeks had finally let up somewhat, although the air outside was just as bitterly cold. Sirius, sensing that the shift in the weather was cause for celebration, had declared yet another round of bonding time, and Beth had nearly unwittingly been removed from her flat for the evening while she, Sirius, James, and Lily grabbed dinner at a tiny fish and chip stand about midway between all of their flat complexes. It was nearly a full moon, and Remus had begged off for feeling unwell; Peter had also said he thought he might be coming down with something, and had opted to stay home, as well.

“Just like old times,” Sirius was still saying happily, using his last chip swipe up all the leftover vinegar and salt in his paper cone. “Four seems rather a small number nowadays, eh?” He gestured the chip between his companions and stuffed it into his mouth. “I mean,” he added, now talking around massive gobs of potato, “the Order people are great and all, but this is nice, too.”

“This is nothing at all like old times,” James laughed, draping his arm loosely across Lily’s shoulders and smiling down at her. “Lily wasn’t around to tell you what a disgusting slob you are when you eat." Beth grinned at Sirius, who was currently in the process of wiping his mouth with the hem of his sleeve.

“To be fair, James,” she said, “Lily wasn’t around mostly because you wouldn’t stop chasing her and begging for her to give you a chance.”

It was Lily’s turn to grin as James tried to pretend he wasn’t turning a faint shade of red. “It’s true, Potter,” she teased.

“Except I caught you, Mrs. Potter,” James teased back, planting a kiss on her hair. “And if you don’t shut up, Sirius, you’ll find that your nose has been transplanted onto a lamppost come morning.”

Sirius, who had been miming and making gagging noises at James and Lily for Beth’s entertainment, pretended to be hurt. She offered him a sympathetic smile and made to nudge his shoulder with hers, but at the last minute, refrained from doing so. Ever since he’d grabbed her hand, that night outside the theater, he’d been extremely careful to not let so much as his sleeve brush by her when he was passing her. The change was a rather uncomfortable one, for both of them, and she hoped that thing might settle back down to normal before too long.

And, sure enough, at that moment he came close enough to touch her, and seemed to realize this. Hastily, he swerved away on the pretense of throwing away his vinegar-soaked cone, but she knew better than to think it was that innocent. An uncomfortable squirming sensation manifested itself somewhere inside her.

The foursome rounded the corner, and James and Lily’s complex loomed up before them. The couple was still chatting lightly about something, and hadn’t seemed to notice the awkwardness between their friends. Unless Beth had imagined it – and it wouldn’t have been the first time her paranoia had colored her scope of the world. As casually as she could, she made to test her theory, and shifted her steps ever so slightly to the left.

Sirius’s angle of walking matched hers. He was definitely avoiding coming into contact with her. She bit back a sigh of frustration, and the rest of the walk to the door of the building was drenched in silence, apart from James and Lily’s continued conversation. But they only had ears for each other at that moment.

The security guard at the desk looked up when they entered, and seemed only nominally pleased to see Sirius and Beth – clearly he remembered still the time when Sirius had tried to tell him he was Snivellus Greasepants, and, equally clearly, he still had not find the humor in it. James beamed at him and walked over to the counter, playing a tattoo upon it with the palms of his hands.

“Evening, Dwayne,” he said cheerfully. “How’s the crossword coming along?”

Dwayne grunted and waved the newspaper halfheartedly at the spectacled man in front of him. “Finished,” he answered, apparently loath to offer this wealth of information for free. James nodded sagely and tapped the counter twice more before saluting the surly-looking guard.

“Great to hear it, good sir. You have a lovely evening, now.” Ignoring the half-incredulous, half-amused looks on the faces of his companions, James looped his arm through Lily’s and made his way towards the shining silver lifts a few yards across the lobby. Only once they were all safely ensconced behind the sliding doors did he break his pompous demeanor, grinning at Sirius, who smiled back lazily.

“Blimey,” he said a bit wistfully, ruffling his hair from habit. “I’m going to miss him.”

“Miss him?” Beth piped up curiously, sliding her eyes from Sirius, who was now poking at the lift buttons with concentrated ignorance. “Are you guys going somewhere?”

Lily looked shyly up at James, who still had his mouth open in the act of speech. “Great at keeping secrets, you are,” she teased, hitting him playfully on the shoulder before turning to Beth. “We’re just moving complexes – getting a slightly bigger apartment, you know. For the baby.” She laid a light hand on her stomach, barely visible as being larger than normal, as she spoke.

“Oh, that’s great!” Beth said happily, giving Lily’s arm a squeeze. And it was great – even if it was still weird to think that someone less than a month older than her was having a baby. Lily had just turned twenty at the end of January, and she, Beth, was mere days away from that herself!

“And because of – well.” James began to speak, but stopped rather abruptly, now rubbing the back of his neck. “It might be safer, you know. Dumbledore recommended it.”

And just as the lighthearted, slightly euphoric mood had taken hold of the group, it dissipated, shadowed over slightly by this last from James. Dearborn hadn’t heard anything further regarding James and Lily, but the Order was taking no precautions on their behalf. The topic had been one of high importance at the last meeting, something that had made both of the Potters uncomfortable, Beth knew.

“It’s weird, mate,” said Sirius helpfully as the lift bell rung, and the doors slid open at James and Lily’s floor. “We’re getting old.” As casually as if it had been his own, he reached over and turned the knob, pushing his way into the room. James gave Beth a slightly amused look before following his friend in.

“I don’t know,” Beth said lightly, aiming a kick at a box in the foyer that was still yet to be unpacked from their move nearly two years prior. “I don’t think this place is so bad. It has its own charm.”

“Oh, definitely. Sort of an industrial warehouse theme,” Sirius agreed; he had slumped lengthwise on the loveseat and picked up the old Snitch that James still had lying about on his coffee table, tossing it up in the air and catching it repeatedly. The Snitch’s wings had long since gone slack with age and wear.

This comment was so wonderfully Sirius as he hadn’t been for weeks that Beth smiled and plopped onto the armrest beside him. “What happened to your rubber ball?” she asked then, gesturing at the Snitch; somewhere in the region of the kitchen, various clinks and the sound of running water indicated James and Lily were putting on the kettle.

“Rolled into the sewer, the cheap thing,” he answered, mock-scowling. “I mean, I found it in the front garden, but it’s still cheap.” Beth laughed.

They were rejoined then by Lily, who took a seat in the squashy chair across from Beth and Sirius, and James, who sprawled at her feet, lying on his stomach on the carpet. He began picking at stray fibers absently, his eyes glazed over in thought. Beth could hear the tea kettle in the other room, roaring pleasantly as it heated. For some reason – most likely habit, she thought – Lily always preferred to cook the Muggle way, rather than using her wand.

“Hey, James,” Sirius said into the peace, still facing the ceiling, although Beth could already detect the mischievous smile creeping onto his face. “Have you and Lily decided on names yet?”

James smirked. “We’ve got a few picked out,” he admitted, “and no, there isn’t an Elvendork in the bunch, thank you very much.”

Sirius pouted exaggeratedly. “You could at least consider it. It’s a name of champions, that one.” Beth rolled her eyes and rose from the armrest, crossing over to the large mirror above the fireplace and fishing a fistful of hairpins from her pocket.

“Sirius, when you have a kid, I am fully promising you that you can lay first claim to that name,” James said, rolling one of the carpet fibers between his thumb and forefinger before letting it drift back down onto the floor.

“Well?” Beth interrupted, her voice slightly muffled from the pins in her mouth as she deftly twisted her hair around her hand, silently cursing its thickness. “Names! We need names!”

Lily laughed, her cheeks turning slightly pink. She nudged James in the back with her bare foot gently. “Want to break the news?”

“Well,” James said slowly, studiously staring down at the carpet, although he was smiling still. “For a girl, we were thinking Holly Joan. Joan for Mum,” he added unnecessarily; both Beth and Sirius had known, almost without knowing how they knew, that James and Lily’s girl’s name would pay tribute to the mother James had lost only months earlier. He was twisting the gold band on his left hand around and around, as though nervous Sirius and Beth might not like the names.

“That’s lovely!” Beth said, although the words were somewhat lost around some of the pins that she still held clamped between her lips.

“And if it’s a boy,” Lily said, with the same air of shyness, “then we like Harry James.”

Sirius’s face split into a wide smile. “Hey, James, that’s your name!” he crowed, chucking the Snitch at his best friend; it fell just short of him with a very solid-sounding thunk.

“Shut up,” James muttered, but as Beth watched him, he twisted up to look at Lily with a smile. She poked him in between the shoulder blades with her foot again, smiling back. Beth looked hastily back in the mirror and slid the last pin into her hair, tucking a loose strand of it behind her ear.

The kettle whistled from the kitchen then, and Lily hopped to her feet to go and attend to it. Beth, still looking in the mirror, caught Sirius’s eye through it. He stuck out his tongue at her.

“Mature, Black,” she teased, crossing her eyes back at him. As she lifted her hands against to adjust her hair, the left sleeve of her robe slid down her arm a few inches, and the silver bracelet that Severus had given her for her birthday caught the lamp overhead.

She didn’t pay it any attention until it was too late – until Sirius indicated that he had seen it, too. “What’s that you’re wearing, Bethy?” he called over. James had picked up the Snitch and had lobbed it back at Sirius, which had resulted in a sort of lopsided game of catch.

“Oh.” Beth glanced down at it and tried to make her voice as casual as possible. “Erm. It was an early birthday present.” She hastily shook her sleeve down – out of sight, out of mind – but Sirius had already latched onto the statement.

“Oh yeah?” he persisted. He tossed the ball into the air once and caught it before sending it whizzing back in James’s direction. “Somebody must like you a lot to give you something early.” He was teasing, and she knew he was teasing, but Beth felt her throat closing up in irrational fear all the same. “Who gave it to you? Your parents?”

“N-no.” Beth shot a desperate glance at James, who had caught the Snitch and was now staring at her, eyes slightly wider than normal – she could tell now that he’d kept the secret, and Sirius didn’t know a thing about her meeting up with Severus over the past few months, but that information wasn’t much of a comfort at the moment. She made a sort of help me gesture at him, but he could only shrug fruitlessly. James nodded his head a bit toward Sirius, who by now was propped up on one elbow, looking between the two of them curiously.

“Can I help you?” he said slowly. Beth breathed out quickly and closed her eyes, trying to dig down deep and find the inner strength that she knew she was supposed to have, and suddenly couldn’t find a trace of.

“It’s from Severus.” The words came out much quieter, much weaker-sounding, than she meant for them to. And after they were there, hanging out between the three of them, there was one of the most complete and total silences she’d ever heard in her entire life.

“Severus?” Sirius asked at last; his voice was eerily calm, almost disinterested, just as she feared it would be. “Severus Snape, d’you mean?”

Beth laughed, and it sounded nervous to her own ears. “Do you know another one?” she joked feebly, but Sirius didn’t even crack the tiniest of smiles. James hadn’t moved from his spot on the floor, although one hand was poised on the seat of the hair Lily had vacated, as though to prepare to spring up at any moment.

“What’s he doing, sending you birthday presents?” Sirius spat nastily. “And how does he even know your birthday? Take it off, Beth, he’s probably cursed it –“

“That’s really rude,” Beth interrupted, frowning. Her right hand went automatically to hold her left wrist, the chain cold under her fingers. “Why would you even say something like that?”

“I should think you’d know better than to open packages sent from just anyone,” Sirius said. She glanced down absently at his hand and saw his knuckles were white, his fingers closed tightly around the tiny Snitch. “Or has training taught you nothing?”

“He didn’t – he didn’t send it.” Beth tried to lift her head, hoping it might make her appear much braver than she felt at the moment. She could already feel Sirius’s hatred for Severus, rolling off him in waves, and he was still mixed up about the full story. “I said he gave it to me.”

Sirius went still. “In person?” He didn’t wait for her to confirm or deny it. “Blimey, Beth, I didn’t know you were that stupid.”

“Sirius!” James cut in harshly, but his friend waved him off impatiently. His dark eyes were trained on Beth, and in them, she saw equal measures disgust and disappointment. Beth swallowed and forced herself to look back. She had not done anything wrong…

“So, what have you two been doing? I’m going to assume he didn’t just show up out of the blue with that?” He pointed fiercely at her wrist, and she shook her head, lips clamped tightly together. “So, what’s it been? Trading secrets? Having a good laugh over it all, cozied up together, Bridger?”

The word felt like a tremendous slap in the face – never, not once, had Sirius addressed her by her last name. “Shut up, Sirius,” she said icily. “If it’s so wrong to see an old school friend –“

She was cut off as Sirius let out a laugh, unnatural and cold and high-pitched. “Oh, is that what he is?” he cried wildly, standing up and throwing his arms above his head. For a moment, he looked truly mad, and Beth took a step back towards the mirror without realizing it. “That’s a weak argument and you know it. Merlin, you could get us all killed.”

“Knock it off!” James yelled suddenly, jumping to his feet, hand reaching instinctively for the wand in the waistband of his jeans. “She’s not doing anything!”

“James, I’d bet you all the money I have that Snape is one of them.” Sirius had swiveled around to face him, and now jerked his head back in Beth’s direction. “Who’s to say he’s not tailing her, finding out everything he can just so he can choose exactly the right moment to blow us all into dust?”

“He’s not!” Beth cried shrilly; she was ashamed to find hot tears pricking at the corners of her eyes as she spoke. “Honest to Merlin, Sirius, it’s nothing! It’s nothing!”

Sirius glared at her coldly. “That’s not nothing,” he spat out, again making a general motion at her wrist.

“I said knock it off,” James managed through gritted teeth. He moved forward and half-stepped in front of Beth, partway shielding her from Sirius and drawing his wand out, though he didn’t point it at anyone in particular. Even the fact that he felt compelled to do that, broke Beth’s heart.

Sirius opened his mouth to shout something back, but thankfully at that moment, Lily emerged from the kitchen again. There was no way that she hadn’t heard the argument between the three, but she just looked at them all levelly, waiting for someone to speak. At last, James stuck his wand back into his jeans.

“Sorry, Lily,” he said evenly. She shook her head mutely, and her eyes sought Beth’s, silently asking her if she was all right. Beth breathed out a shaky sigh, but she didn’t dare look at Sirius. She couldn’t bear to see the hatred that she knew would meet her if she did.

Without another word to any of her friends, she moved to the front door, yanked it open, and headed for the stairwell, her pace increasing with each step she took. By the time she’d brushed by Dwayne, the security guard, and had reached the pavement outside, the sobs in her throat were cutting off her supply of air.

She had known Sirius would find out that she and Severus had been meeting up eventually – and she had known that it would be bad when he did. But never, in a million years, had she imagined he would look at her with such copious amounts of hatred. But the dark expression that had twisted his face and made it so ugly haunted her all the way back to her flat, blurred by the tears that came at the thought that she might have lost Sirius’s friendship forever.

A/N: Poor Beth -- Sirius really didn't take that very well, did he? But at last he knows about Severus! And as many of you predicted, he really didn't take it very well at all, did he? Perhaps I should be saying poor Sirius instead. Kind of hard to say who got hit worse in this chapter... but then, I'm the one discussing my own characters to nobody. Poor me!

Guys, this story is so close to being done. So close! I'm about halfway through chapter 33 of this story now (I wrote close to 10,000 words of this story in the past week -- I couldn't stop), and after that, I'll only have one more to write. And it really could very well be done by tonight! Where you're sitting, the story's just slightly past the halfway mark, so you've about about sixteen weeks of reading left (hooray!), but I just cannot even fathom being done with In The Red and moving onto Breaking Even...

Thank you all so much for your continued support!


Chapter 19: Epiphany
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Sirius remained standing, staring after the door that Beth had disappeared through, long after the fact. The Snitch in his fist had begun to dig into the palm of his hand, but he was far beyond caring about it. There was a slight ringing in his ears – probably from all the yelling he’d just done – and he slowly became aware of the fact that his chest was rising and falling with heavy gasps.

Almost guiltily, his eyes slid sideways to James, who was staring at him with a look of mixed incredulity and horror. “Oh, stop,” he snapped wearily, finally breaking his pose and reaching up to rub a hand over his eyes. “I don’t want to hear it, James.”

“You’re going to hear it,” his best friend said firmly. Sirius looked up at him again, and James crossed his arms tightly over his chest. “I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing, but that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen you do, Sirius – and that’s saying a lot.” He sank down onto the chair Lily had been sitting in earlier, arms still crossed.

“You can’t tell me that” – and Sirius waved his arm in the direction of the front door, to indicate Beth and what she’d told the pair of them – “didn’t bother you at all?”

James shifted in the armchair, but didn’t respond right away. Lily had, probably intelligently, disappeared back into the kitchen, and seemed to be needlessly washing already-clean dishes to give the boys a bit of privacy.

“I’m not going to say I’m exactly thrilled about the idea,” he ventured at last, tapping the fingers of his right hand on the upper portion of his left arm. “But it’s not our choice, Sirius. It’s her life, not ours.”

“We can stop her from making stupid choices,” Sirius argued stubbornly. “And hanging out with Snivellus –“

“Just what is this about, anyway?” James interrupted him, features creasing in a slight frown. “Because you’re acting like a five-year-old, and this isn’t the first time you’ve acted strangely where she’s concerned. Are you really concerned for Beth’s welfare, or is it something bigger than that?”

James continued to tap his fingers; somehow the motion annoyed Sirius, and he gritted his teeth, but didn’t answer the question. What was he supposed to say? That he was trying to make sure that Beth wasn’t as lonely as he, Sirius, was? It had seemed an obvious choice to make when he’d made it, all those months ago after she’d shown up at his flat without warning. Now he wasn’t so sure that he’d even been anywhere close to the mark.

“Look.” James rubbed his eyes in an uncanny imitation of Sirius’s earlier gesture, although it was slightly more awkward when one was wearing glasses. “Sirius. You’re a great friend to Beth – you are.” He removed his hand from his face and gazed levelly up at him, and Sirius felt unneeded guilt swim inside of him. There was no way James didn’t know – hadn’t known for months – exactly what Sirius was on about.

“But she told me about this whole thing with Severus at Christmas. Nearly two months ago. You might have thought you were doing the right thing, but you were doing exactly what Beth thought you’d do. You freaked out when she was asking you to accept her as a friend, and she’s scared.”

Sirius blinked at him in surprise. “What do you mean, scared?” he said dully. His gaze dropped to the Snitch, his fingers flexing around it convulsively. He didn’t want to look back at James, didn’t want to feel worse for yelling at Beth than he already did.

“She’s just as scared of what might happen as you seemed to be,” James said. “And we’re supposed to be her friends, Sirius. To help her through that.”

Sirius let the Snitch drop to the carpet quickly. “But she wouldn’t need help through that if she’d just –“ He stopped, the words still in his mouth, bitter-tasting and shameful, but he would not say them, either. She wouldn’t need help if she’d just been with me, he wanted to say. But when it came down to it… He knew she never would have, Severus or no Severus.

James was eyeing him shrewdly. “Do you know what I told her, that Christmas when she was talking to me about all of this?” he asked. Sirius sort of jerked his head to indicate that no, he didn’t know. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to, either, but James plowed on ahead anyway.

“I told her she wasn’t doing anything wrong. That it’s important how she feels – and how he feels. And that, as her friends, we were going to support her in –“

“Okay, James. Okay. You’ve made your point.” Sirius ran his hand over his eyes again, feeling as though he’d swallowed several stones, so leaden was the weight in his stomach. “Merlin, I messed up. I messed things up really bad.”

“Yeah, not your finest hour,” James quipped, giving him a small smile. Sirius was both annoyed and grateful with him for trying to inject a little humor back into one of the most serious discussions they’d ever had with each other. Feeling suddenly drained, as though he’d run for miles, Sirius slumped back onto the loveseat.

“Hey.” James spoke up again, leaning forward and propping his forearms on his knees. It was a conspiratorial sort of gesture, as though he was about to reveal a large secret. “This may not be the best timing” – Sirius laughed dully – “but you might need a bit of cheering up, mate. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

“What’s that, then?” Sirius asked, stretching and leaning forward to roll the Snitch back towards him across the carpet with the tips of his fingers. He hefted it into the palm of his hand.

James wore a friendly, knowing sort of smirk. “Well,” he said slowly. “Lily and I wanted to know if you’d like to be the baby’s godfather.”

Sirius froze for the second time that evening, still all hunched up from grabbing the Snitch. “I – what? Are you serious, mate?” He sat up so quickly he nearly pitched over in his excitement.

“That’d be a pretty cruel thing to joke about, don’t you think?” James laughed, his eyes alight with anticipation, too. “You’ll do it, then?”

“Well, yeah, I’ll do it!” All previous vestiges of sullenness were momentarily forgotten as Sirius sprang up from the couch with a whoop. “Prongs, that’s incredible! Wow – thanks! Aargh, I’m going to be a godfather!”

James ruffled the back of his hair with his hand. “Just remember,” he said with mock severity, his eyes still sparking with fun, “that you can only be so much fun. I’ve got to be the favorite, you know.”

“Yeah, right,” Sirius snorted. “He’ll want to come and live with me after a year tops. You just wait. I’ll teach him how to fly a broom, and how to –“

“And you’re sure it’s a boy?” James asked, smirking again, one eyebrow raised.

“Yep,” said Sirius confidently. “No doubt about it, mate. Little Harry James –“ He stopped for an appreciative snicker, again enjoying the fact that, if Lily did have a boy, it would be in part named after the James he now sat across from. “Harry isn’t going to know what hit him,” he finished, and then sobered somewhat. “Hey, James?”

“What?” James was in the middle of a yawn, but instantly looked alert; if he’d been a dog, Sirius half-thought, his ears might have pricked with interest. Sirius glanced fleetingly at James before deciding he found the carpet much more interesting.

“Don’t… don’t tell Beth, all right? About… not the godfather bit. But the other thing… Keep this between us?”

James grinned. “On my word.”

*

Back in his flat, though, Sirius’s good mood was wearing off quickly, and guilty thoughts of Beth and the things he’d said to her in James’s living room were starting to creep back into his conscious. He found himself at midnight pacing up and down the length of his own sitting room, his bottom lip gnawed half raw with anxiety.

He didn’t know where she’d gone after she’d left the Potters’ place – but what if she’d decided to go to Severus? Did they go to each other’s flats? He had no way of knowing, because he’d spent the past however many months – years, if he was being honest with himself – blissfully ignorant of the fact that Severus Snape was still a factor in the life he now lead. He’d thought that after the end of seventh year Snape didn’t matter anymore, and now came the fact that Beth had been meeting him…

But so what? He, Sirius, hadn’t laid a claim to her, had he? She wasn’t something to be claimed, anyway – but stupidly, rashly, he’d naturally assumed that they would end up together. Like James and Lily, he remembered now, his lips twisting into a bitter, humorless smile at his own blindness. And the fact that he was, once again, going to be left alone was a thought that seemed too horrible for him to bear at the current moment.

Curing fluently under his breath, he stalked down the short corridor to his bedroom door and poked his head around the frame. He desperately wished he could take his motorbike out – going flying, or even riding on the streets like a normal person, always helped to clear his head – but he still hadn’t bothered to get his bike fixed, even though it had been many, many months since it had broken down in the first place. He wasn’t completely sure where you could go to get an illegal motorbike looked at, anyway.

Kicking the door frame in frustration, and only being rewarded with a chip in its paint for his efforts – yet another thing he’d have to go and get fixed – he turned and moved back into the living room, his restless eyes searching for something to occupy him. The room felt crowded and stuffy with all this thoughts and guilty feelings massing about him, so much so that he actually yanked on his color, trying to breathe better.

Suddenly, something popped into his mind – and if it wasn’t grasping at straws, then he didn’t know what was, but somehow he felt like he needed to get it out tonight. It was something from back when things made a bit more sense, although saying it out loud in that way would have made Sirius feel extraordinarily stupid. And somehow, he needed that bit of then.

He half-ran back to his bedroom and flopped onto his stomach, squinting at the dimness under his bed for what he was looking for. His hands grasped a thin box, one Sirius had had since he was little and had managed to sneak away from Grimmauld Place under the very watchful eye of the horrible woman that was his mother. Grunting slightly with the awkward angle, he yanked the box out and opened the lid. Inside was a seemingly blank piece of parchment, although Sirius knew better. He hastily fumbled around in his pocket, his fingers finally closing around the handle of his wand, which he pointed to the sheet in front of him.

“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

And, for the first time in nearly two years, he was looking at the Marauder’s Map.

It hadn’t changed much – but then, why should it have? Hogwarts was sturdy and invariable, built over a thousand years ago and likely to stand for a thousand more. Most of the tiny labeled ink dots roaming the castle’s corridors had names that weren’t familiar to him, but there was Professor McGonagall, apparently staying late grading papers in the Transfiguration classroom. Professor Slughorn seemed to be sneaking about the kitchens, and Filch was up on the third floor, standing next to a small dot labeled Peeves. Sirius felt an absurd wash of homesickness engulf him, staring down at the ink lines and dots he’d watched blossom into view two years previously.

Clutching the map tightly and swallowing hard against the lump in his throat, he rose, closed his eyes, and turned once on his feel into crushing, suffocating darkness.

Apparating without a destination completely and solidly in one’s mind was a risky thing, at best – Sirius wasn’t dumb enough to think otherwise. But somehow – perhaps through inner wisdom, or possibly just inner foolishness – he’d known that he would land without a scratch, and wherever he ended up would be the exact place he needed to be at that moment. So when he looked up above him and saw the dangling, creaking signpost for the Three Broomsticks swaying in the slight winter breeze, he had to smirk to himself. Of course his subconscious would know that he needed a drink or three.

Although it was a fairly late hour, time didn’t usually deter patrons from crowding around the tables and barstool at the pub, and Madam Rosmerta, the landlady of the Three Broomsticks, was so popular that she got customers in nearly twenty-four hours a day. Sirius slipped in just as a man was climbing down off the end stool, wobbling a bit from too much firewhisky.

“You’d better take it easy, Mr. Calvert,” Rosmerta was advising him, simultaneously wiping out a glass and keeping a close eye on the tottering old man. “Don’t need to see in the morning’s Prophet that you stumbled into the wrong house again.”

“I’m okay,” Calvert said thickly, although Sirius could see, standing by to give him a wide berth, that he clearly was not. “You just… you just tell Barry I’ve got that hippogriff for ‘im.” He hiccupped, and then added, “But only the right kind.”

“I certainly will,” said Rosmerta with a straight face. Calvert pitched out of the door, and Sirius slid onto the slightly sticky stool he’d vacated, hastily tapping the map with his wand and stuffing it into a pocket, out of sight. By the time he’d looked back up, Rosmerta was staring at him, smiling a bit.

“Sirius Black.” She crossed over to the shelf behind her, replaced the glass she’d been wiping out, and walked back over to him, leaning on the counter. “It’s been a long time since you’ve shown your face around here.”

“Things have been a bit busy, Rosmerta dear,” Sirius grinned, stretching his arms over his head, trying to act as though nothing was wrong. Harmless banter and flirting – surely this was what he needed, right? “Surprise me with something strong.”

She raised an eyebrow at him, pursing her lips as though giving his demand serious thought, though they both knew she’d fulfill it. “You sure about that?”

“Do I look unsure?” Sirius crossed his eyes at her, and she laughed throatily before reaching under the counter and pulling out a tall, thin bottle full of something dark brown and faintly oily. Sirius didn’t recognize it on sight – it sure wasn’t butterbeer – but asking about it didn’t seem important at the moment. If he could lose himself in it, that was good enough for him.

She bustled about with the drink, clinking glass together in an almost inanely pleasant way, and Sirius slouched over the stool, his chin almost level with the top of the counter. He tried desperately hard not to think, and began counting the glasses on the shelf behind the barmaid, just for something to do. He would not think about Beth, or Severus, or any of it…

“Sirius?”

A female voice – absurdly familiar – startled him, and he nearly slipped sideways off the stool. His drink stood finished in front of him; he didn’t remember Rosmerta placing it there, nor had he seen when she’d sidled over to the other end of the bar. Had he fallen asleep?

He half-turned on the stool, and his stomach jolted a bit unpleasantly. Sarah Wright stood there, smiling down at him a bit shyly. “I thought that was you,” she laughed, sounding a bit nervous. “You really haven’t changed a bit.”

“Erm, yeah. Hi.” Sirius rubbed his hand over his eyes for what felt like the millionth time that day, and tried sitting up a bit straighter, reaching for his drink just for something to do. “Sarah, right?” He didn’t know why he felt the need to ask; she didn’t look all that much different from how he remembered her at Hogwarts, either.

She nodded anyway, her fingers playing absently with a bit of frayed thread at the hem of her jumper. “Well, anyway, I was just wanting to say hello. I’ve got to get back to –“ She moved her hand over her shoulder in the direction of the table she’d come over from, and Sirius’s eyes slid in that direction without his being able to help it. A tall man he didn’t know, sitting there with a half-empty bottle of butterbeer in front of him, waved a cautious hand in greeting.

Something bitter and sour-tasting welled up in the back of Sirius’s throat, and he quickly replaced his glass on the counter along with a few coins dredged up from the depths of his pockets, despite the fact he hadn’t taken a single drink of whatever Rosmerta had made him. Sarah watched, frowning, as he mumbled a hasty goodbye and left the pub just as quickly as he’d came in, insides heavily weighed down.

Did everyone but him have somebody? What was so wrong with him that made it impossible for him to do anything but live alone forever, pretending to be content in solitude while the rest of the world paired off in neat rows? His own thoughts sounded so pitiful and self-indulgent that he felt like kicking himself, and a mixture of sadness and guilt more complete than any he’d felt in a long, long time hit him with crashing clarity.

He refused to be this sort of man anymore – the one who hightailed it to a pub to lose himself in firewhisky when things got tough, to wallow in self-pity instead of actually trying to turn things around. He had made a mistake in getting angry at Beth for – well, for wanting to end loneliness. Which was exactly what he was doing too, wasn’t it?

He would move on with his life, and he would be happy – of that he was sure. From this moment on, Sirius resolved silently, looking up at the sky instead of the ground. He would make things right, starting with his friends – his friends, the family he’d been taking for granted up until now – and then he would do more than that. He would make things better.

A/N: Sirius is such a mess right now, yeah? Poor guy -- I really do feel a bit badly for him. Although at this point he's starting to get over his Beth-and-I-are-meant-for-each-other delusions, which is always nice, because I think I prefer bitter and angry Sirius over delusional Sirius any day. He just needs lots of hugs.

Also! As of last Monday (September 17), I have completely and fully finished writing In The Red! I'm so excited like you guys wouldn't believe, while at the same moment I'm wondering where time's gone, and when it came to be that I only have one more book to write in this trilogy. I haven't yet started Breaking Even, but that should be forthcoming before too much longer. Except by my calculations, you guys have 15 more weeks of this story, and then a bit more waiting time before I start posting. Lucky you!

Continued thanks, as always, for all the reads and reviews. Seriously. You guys are awesome!


Chapter 20: Missions and Mudbloods
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It seemed to Severus that, ever since setting out to become a Death Eater, half of his waking hours had been spent in the dark. It probably came with the line of work, he figured – there was no question as to which was more adept to hiding traces of deeds better left unsaid – and after two years, he even imagined that he functioned better once the sun had gone down. Still, it did tend to make one feel just a bit less normal, a bit less human. Perhaps that was the point.

March had tumbled in after February, with no respite from the cold or the rain, and bringing wind besides. The weather was brutal enough that pushes to eradicate the unworthy – that is, the Muggles and Muggle-borns – had been rather few and far between in the winter. When a sort of excursion party, the term used in the loosest sense, had been organized, Severus had signed aboard without even thinking twice, desperate to get out of the stuffiness of headquarters.

Now, for some reason, he kept thinking of Beth, and what she’d say if she knew what he was doing right now. He sent up a quick, unsaid wish that she’d never have to find out; what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. It was the oldest, least painful lie in the book.

Malfoy walked up and stood next to him on the corner of the pavement at that moment, interrupting Severus’s thoughts, although he didn’t take the moment to actually look at the younger man. It was an odd group that would be going out that night – from the group of them that had come from Hogwarts, only Wilkes would be there. Severus selfishly wished he’d had his pick of the others, or could have gone it alone, without his old school friends.

“So. Your first hands-on work, eh?” Malfoy laughed, though there was no fun in it, and squeezed Severus’s shoulder in a brotherly sort of way. Severus gritted his teeth and tried to think what would be the most polite way to get Malfoy’s hand away; he hated being made to feel like he knew less than him, simply because he was a few years younger.

“It’s not a matter of whether I’m ready or not, Malfoy,” he said coolly. He fixed his gaze on a flickering streetlamp on the opposite corner and held it there. “It’s a duty. It’s a service. It’s not something I have to be ‘ready’ for.” From the corner of his eye, however, he could see the blonde man frown slightly, and had to bite back a smirk of his own.

“Yes. Of course.” Malfoy tapped his cane on the pavement a few times, the jeweled eyes of the silver snake adorning it catching the light as he did so. Finally, he said, “We’ll set out in a few minutes. Amycus is running late, but once he’s here -” He left the sentence unfinished, paused for a second or two, and then abruptly strode off.

As he walked back to say something to Wilkes, standing pale-faced on the stoop of the townhouse they called headquarters, Severus sucked in a breath through his teeth. It’s a duty. It’s a service.

But however well he’d eluded the question Malfoy’s question, it all boiled down to this: He didn’t know if he’d ever be ready.

*

“Ready to go, Bethy?” Sirius’s nonchalant tone didn’t fool her – Beth could tell how nervous by the way he was turning his wand, handle over tip over handle, over and over in his hands. She shrugged on her jacket and yanked her hair out of the collar. But she didn’t blame him – it might not have been their first mission, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t scared, too.

“Yeah,” she said, not wanting to say anymore. She and Sirius had taken to doing that since their confrontation in James’s flat – they each said what they needed to say, the very basics, and not much else. She glanced up and caught Sirius’s eye; he gave her a tight, brief smile, and suddenly became drastically interested in his wand once more.

Moody stumped into the room, eyebrows lowered over his mismatched eyes. He surveyed the two of them, leaning lopsidedly on his cane to take the weight off his wooden leg. Beth hadn’t been fully surprised to hear that he was going with them that night to search out the band of Death Eaters who were, apparently, going to be causing a bit of trouble in the heart of London that night. Alice, especially, wouldn’t have taken on something that dangerous in current condition, and Beth was willing to bet Frank had been allowed to sit it out because of the baby, too.

“Come on,” the older man said gruffly, once Beth had buttoned the top button on her jacket and turned to face him, awaiting instructions. “It’s time to leave.”

*

They had returned to the large, spacious cobbled courtyard where Severus and Rosier had completed their initiation many months previously – unsurprising, although still unwelcome. The steeply-arched black bridge that he had met Beth under loomed up out of the darkness; it had been there he'd first laid eyes on her for the first time since their school days, but that was really the only pleasant thing he could say about the place. The rest of it, for him, was tainted with memories of murder, and of fiery, soul-ripping sensations.

Wilkes recognized the place, as well; he had chosen to walk along Severus during the entirety of the journey, something with greatly irked the latter. “Back to the old hunting grounds, eh?” the curly-haired man sneered in his friend’s ear. Severus winced at the customary barrage of spittle that accompanied the whisper, and moved to stand closer to Amycus Carrow. Company was limited, but he’d rather stand by Carrow than have his face spit on any day.

Malfoy, apparently having heard Wilkes, turned to him with a barely-disguised expression of disgust plain on his pale, pointed features. Severus grinned nastily, taking care to hide it lest someone should ask him what he was smiling about.

“Did you bother to tell them what they’re doing, Malfoy?” Carrow grunted then, looking down at his nails and picking at one of the cuticles. He looked rather bored with the whole process. “Or d’you want to show them by example?” He looked up and gave his companion a rather nasty grin.

Malfoy smiled back coldly. “Whatever you think necessary.” Severus could already see that that was a lie, the way Malfoy was already moving for his wand. He twisted the top of his cane with a deft motion of his wrist; it came off neatly, revealing the wand concealed beneath the snake’s head. He checked it over, and then, apparently satisfied with what he saw, replaced it with a neat click. Carrow leered.

“Excellent,” he said croakily, rubbing his hands together in the anticipation of what was to come; Severus felt a sort of twisting in the pit of his stomach at the sight. On his left, Wilkes had gone rather quiet, and Severus knew that he was probably having thoughts similar to the ones running through his own mind: Would he walk away from this place with fresh blood on his hands again?

“There’s one, over there,” Carrow said, cackling and pointing across the square. Severus’s eyes followed the direction his finger indicated without wanting to, although he was totally at a loss to prevent it. Sitting on a small iron-wrought table outside a café was a small, thin young woman, probably around his age, or just a bit younger. A cardboard cup of coffee sat at her left hand while she made small marks on a steno pad with a pen in her right hand. She was, quite undoubtedly, a Muggle.

“We’re not going to… to kill her, are we?” Wilkes’s voice was high and breathy, and even though he didn’t particularly want to murder anyone else either – Muggle or otherwise – Severus rolled his eyes. Idiot.

With an irritated jerk of his head, Malfoy set off across the square. Carrow turned his head to Severus and dipped it in the direction the blonde man was heading, as if to say, Well, go on, then. He curled his lip at the older man and strode briskly off after Malfoy, nausea turning his intestines over even as he did so.

He couldn’t make sense of whatever was wrong with him. This was what he’d signed up for, hadn’t he? And he’d already done it once before – he and Rosier had killed those two Muggle businessmen, after all. This was a walk in the park, and all he would have to do while Malfoy moved in for it was stand off to the side and try not to think of Beth…

The girl looked up as the two men approached her table and smiled politely, although a bit warily. He didn’t blame her – they were dressed in their normal wizarding robes, not Muggle attire, and to her they probably looked utterly ridiculous. Then again, Severus thought, smirking a bit, the same could be said for her. Some of the current Muggle fashions were so beyond the point of ridiculous it was laughable – couldn’t even dress themselves, the stupid creatures.

Malfoy took up a post by one of the wide columns that supported the balcony overhanging the café. At this range, Severus could hear some of the café’s other patrons up on that balcony, chattering amidst the rather tinny sound of clinking cutlery. He stood beside Malfoy, not leaning with the same sort of casual aplomb but instead standing stock-still, hands thrust roughly into his pockets. His fingers closed around the handle of his wand instinctively.

“We’ll just wait,” Malfoy murmured smoothly, one finger absently stroking the nose of the snake on his cane. His light eyes were trained intently on the girl at the table, who, it was clear, was still aware of their presence, and growing more unnerved by it as the seconds dragged.

“We could just kill her now,” Severus said coldly, with liberal amounts of sarcasm layering the suggestion; Malfoy apparently was pretending it wasn’t present. “Instead of just standing about watching her like mass murderers.

“You flatter me.” A pause, and then, “We’re not going to kill her.” Malfoy smirked and raised one of his pale, slim eyebrows.

“But you told Wilkes –“

“Your friend Wilkes is only a shade more intelligent than that,” Malfoy interrupted, pointing his cane lazily in the direction of the Muggle girl sitting at the table. “And that’s really only because he knows which end of his wand to point at people.” He laughed harshly, but Severus didn’t join in. “We’re simply going to be having a bit of fun,” he added, smirking. “Playing with our food, if you will, instead of eating it.”

The very idea made bile well up in the back of Severus’s throat.

There was a sudden movement from the table; the girl, apparently too unnerved by the position the two men had assumed, had gathered up her cup and notepad and was pushing her chair in under the table. The sound of the iron grating on the rough pavement set Severus’s teeth on edge.

“Time to move,” Malfoy said, almost sing-song, and, after waiting a moment or two to let the young woman get far enough ahead of them, he strode after her. Severus cast a glance over his shoulder, looking for Carrow and Wilkes, but neither of them was anywhere to be seen. Cursing under his breath, but with no other options left to him, Severus followed after Malfoy and his chosen victim.

His footsteps seemed louder than normal; even his breathing seemed amplified, and even though he knew that is was a result of his tensed and heightened nerves, that didn’t make him feel any less concerned about it. Malfoy was mere paces away from the young woman, and Severus watched as he withdrew his wand from the cane. He stopped dead in the middle of the pavement and closed his eyes.

He was not a coward. But he did not want to see this.

There were voices – one male, one female – muddied and vague, as though coming from deep underwater. A laugh, and the female’s voice became panicked and shrill. And then, after a pause, the most terrified scream Severus had heard in his entire life. It numbed his spine and his brain and his eyes flew open of their own accord, his feet propelling him forward.

The young woman writhed on the pavement in clear and evident pain. Her half-drunk coffee was strewn in front of the copy shop to her right, dripping into the gutter; her notepad lay beside it, a few of the pages already stained brown. Malfoy was pointing his wand straight at her heart, his face twisted into a smile that might have resembled pleasure under more normal circumstances, but here was harsher, crueler.

Severus’s eyes were trained on the contorted face, the scream still ringing in his ears. And for some reason, he saw Beth lying there instead of this stranger.

“Stop that,” he snapped, without thinking. His left hand shot out, and he pressed down hard on Malfoy’s forearm. Caught off guard, the blonde man stumbled sideways, his wand jerking away from the young woman, and the curse seemed to be instantly lifted. Her muscles relaxed, her face shining with tears, and Severus still couldn’t get that image out of his head…

Malfoy looked at him furiously. “What the hell are you doing?” he said, straightening his robes, which had become twisted when he lost his balance. Severus tried to speak, but no words came out when he opened his mouth. How was he supposed to explain what he saw – and even if he could have explained it, why should Malfoy have listened?

The other’s pale eyes flashed dangerously. He thrust his wand back into the top of his cane, smashing his heel down on the pavement. The girl, who had been trying, wincing, to crawl feebly away, had her hair pinned under his shoe at the gesture, preventing her from going anywhere.

Malfoy straightened, panting slightly – whether from exertion or excitement, it was hard to tell. “Now,” he said, “it’s your turn.”

What?”

“Are you not ready for this, after all?” Malfoy smirked. “Having second thoughts, Severus?” Another emotion flitted through his eyes, something like mania, and for a moment Severus was convinced that his companion was mad.

“Shut up,” Severus hissed, disgusted with himself at the same time for rising to the bait. He yanked his own wand from his pocket and tried desperately to hide from Malfoy the fact that his wand arm was quivering. He yanked up the sleeves of his robe and pointed his wand at the Muggle girl, her hair still pinned beneath the heel of Malfoy’s shoe. She looked up at him fearfully, her brown eyes seemingly twice as wide as normal.

Severus bit his lower lip, so hard he could taste blood almost immediately. He raised his wand –

There was a shout from the end of the street – no, more than one shout – and four or five dark figures burst into view at the end of the lane, small jets of different-colored light darting among them. Malfoy and Severus whirled in place simultaneously, the girl on the pavement behind them letting out a small cry of pain that neither acknowledged.

“What…?” the blonde man said quietly, speaking aloud through his teeth, although Severus could tell that the question was directed at no one in particular. He fumbled with the top of his cane, trying to extricate the wand from it once more, and seemed to be having a hard time of it. Severus yanked up the hood of his cloak to hide his face properly from whoever Carrow and Wilkes had found to duel with.

“No! Don’t move!” Malfoy roared, as Severus made to rush off to the heat of the battle – he could recognize Wilkes from this distance now, as the fighting group inched closer to where Severus and Malfoy stood over the young Muggle woman. “Wait for them to come to us –“

But Severus didn’t hear him; he suddenly felt as though he’d swallowed a world’s worth of ice, and it was churning his stomach something horrendous. Because across from Wilkes’s familiar profile was one he knew equally well, perhaps more…

Malfoy’s arm jerked out to restrain him, but he shoved it away roughly; he could hear his heart pounding in his ears, and feel it in his throat and fingertips. The world seemed to be moving in slow motion as Wilkes ducked one of Beth’s curses, her face profiled eerily in the blue light from the spell that the man fighting next to her had just cast.

Severus watched as Beth’s foot caught on a loose cobble from the reverbing blast of the spell, and she pitched sideways much as Malfoy had done earlier.

He kept watching as Wilkes raised his wand to retaliate while she tried to regain her balance, his face eerily lit from below, like a lopsided jack-o’-lantern and his brain whirled, suddenly alive with thought.

No – not her…

STUPEFY!”

Wilkes was positively blasted off his feet by the intensity of the spell – the charge of emotion must have somehow affected it, Severus thought a bit absently – and sent sprawling on the pavement limply. Beth whirled around, mouth open, but she immediately raised her wand upon seeing Severus – no, he told himself firmly, she couldn’t see his face under the hood. He yanked it back quickly, and her eyes widened.

He tried not to think of the Muggle woman still lying on the pavement by the copy shop.

Without another word, he reached out and grabbed her by the wrist before she could protest and turned in the other direction, away from the mass hysteria of spells and jinxes, perfuming the air with their smoky, bitter scent. Malfoy, Severus could see, had joined the fray; his hair seemed almost luminescent when lit by wandlight.

“Severus, stop – what the hell –“ Beth’s breathing was loud behind him as he tore down the next street, then turned up a narrower lane, apparently used for delivery vehicles, if its state of disrepair meant anything. He finally stopped outside the back door of what looked to be a storage unit of some sort and bent over, hands on his knees, panting slightly.

“What are you doing here?” he spat at last, looking up at her with all the sternness he could muster. He was still trying to recover from the shock of nearly seeing her – well, who knew what spell Wilkes had had on his mind when he’d raised his wand?

“What are you doing here?” She looked as equally surprised that he’d shown up as he’d been when she had. She winced a bit and reached down to touch her ankle with the tips of her fingers; Severus glanced down at it as she did so.

“Are you hurt?” He knelt down to inspect the damage without thinking, quite aware that neither of them had answered the other’s inquiry.

“I’m fine,” she said, trying her best to sound tough and failing miserably; he smiled while his head was still bent, not wanting to insult her pride. She yanked her foot away and crept down to the end of the narrow alley, poking her head around it, and he felt his stomach clench for some reason. There was a reason, he thought, and he felt stupid even as he thought it, why she had been placed in Gryffindor. With slow, cautious footsteps, he joined her there.

“I don’t see anyone,” she half-whispered, and then turned around, evidently not expecting him to be as close to her as he was; their noses were perhaps six inches from each other at this distance. She smiled a bit. “You understand that I’m supposed to have jinxed your ear off by now, or something.”

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t,” Severus responded coolly, although his mouth curved into a smile of his own. It faded just as quickly, however, as he added, “Beth, you need to leave. This is dangerous.”

Her expression darkened; she bit her lip, although it was more of a stubborn gesture than a contemplative one. “You’re in this just as much as I am,” she said, glancing back at the entrance to the alley. There was no sound from outside of it, and Severus couldn’t tell whether that was a good thing or a bad one.

“You’re going to get hurt. And I –“ Severus stopped, drew in a deep breath, and plowed on before he could think too much about what he was trying to say. “I don’t want to have to see that.” He felt his cheeks warm, and was extremely glad for the darkness that covered it.

Beth reached up and rubbed her nose, very nearly brushing his with the back of her hand. He didn’t dare move away. “Sev –“ she began, but he cut her off.

“Can’t you transform, or something?” he asked her. “Surely as a falcon, that’d be better, right?”

“Moody doesn’t know about that. Or about Sirius,” she said in a low voice, studying her shoes. “I don’t think it’s an option.” She glanced back up at him, and he could see every eyelash, every ridge in her skin, as she looked at him steadily. “I’m not backing out of this.”

There was a sudden noise, like a very small explosion, and the ground seemed to rock slightly beneath their feet. Beth fell back against the brick wall behind her, and Severus instinctively reached forward and caught her by her upper arms. Bits of stone and debris that had apparently littered the roof above them rained down on their heads, and he ducked. Outside the relative safety of the little lane the pair of them had hidden away in, all was deathly quiet.

“What -?” Severus started to ask, but before he could get the rest of the question out, a shout broke the stillness.

“Beth!” It was Sirius’s voice; Severus’s lip curled instinctively at the sound. He glanced back down at her, waiting to see if she’d respond, but she wasn’t looking in the direction that the yell had come from. Instead, her gaze was fixed slightly downwards.

With light fingers, Beth suddenly reached out and traced the Dark Mark on his left forearm, newly revealed as his sleeve had fallen when he’d reached out to steady her. And for the first time since receiving it, he did not feel proud to wear it – he felt ashamed.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, without quite knowing why, and even in the deep shadows lining the alley, he could see her swallow hard at his words.

“Me, too.”

And she raised herself up on her tiptoes and brushed his cheek with her lips – a gesture so wonderfully uncharacteristic of her, he could only stare dumbly. She carefully extricated herself from the tangle of his arms and made to leave, to follow Sirius’s voice.

“Beth!” Her name broke from his lips; she turned, one hand still braced against the alley wall, waiting to hear what he had to say. But that was all he could manage; he smiled, the gesture feeling more and more natural the more he did it, and he hoped it was enough.

She grinned back, and disappeared around the corner.

A/N: So, after a slight delay -- I was out of town overnight, and didn't know last Sunday in time to tell you guys! -- this chapter's posted, and you really should see me. I'm sort of cackling over a cup of instant coffee right now, and I'm not sure if it's justified. I just get really excited to share this story with you guys, and especially moments like that! What'd you think, then? 

Thank you so much to everyone who's already voted for Beth for Best Original Character, too. I need to say that, because you guys seriously don't know how much that means to me, that my character's had enough of a pull to get even one vote! That's the best feeling in the world. Truly, it is. Thank you so much! And if you've an opinion on this chapter, and would like to leave it, that would be really awesome, too!


Chapter 21: Things Overheard
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Severus kept his hand raised to his cheek for what felt like a long time, although the reality of it was that it was probably only a few seconds. Absurdly enough, he could still feel the place where Beth’s lips had grazed his skin, like they were still there, and a stupid part of him was worried sensation would fade if he removed his hand. Eventually, though, there was the sound of three loud pops – three Apparitions – and he jolted back to his senses.

The stretch of road just outside the alley where he’d hidden with Beth seemed deserted, although smelled faintly smoky – reminiscent of the duel that had just taken place there, no doubt. He wrinkled his nose at the unpleasant smell and stepped hesitantly out onto the pavement, lighting his wand and holding it aloft in case any of his enemies were left hiding. He didn’t think Beth could get away with not hexing him a second time.

Even thinking her name again, however, brought a rush of blood to the spot where she had kissed him, and again Severus raised his hand to feel the spot – it didn’t feel any different than normal. He hoped that she had gotten herself out of danger, away from Wilkes and Malfoy and Carrow and the rest of them, despite being painfully aware that he wasn’t really supposed to be thinking things like that. She was, after all, the enemy, and no good would come in the end of softening the blow now.

There was a skittering of stones from the direction Malfoy and Severus had approached, and he turned the wand quickly in that direction, the beam of its lighted tip bouncing crazily off the dark shop windows. The Muggle girl Lucius had pinned to the pavement with the heel of his shoe was gone; his throat closed up with relief, immediately replaced by a deep surge of guilt.

The clattering sound came again, and there was a rather loud grunt of pain, quickly stifled. Severus’s heartbeat stilled; he would recognize that high-pitched grunt anywhere. Hastening quickly enough down the pavement so that his cloak flapped oddly about his ankles, he rounded another corner and came upon the other three men in his party.

“Where the hell have you been?” snapped Lucius, his eyes still trained on Wilkes, lying prone on the ground. The curly-haired young man had clenched what looked like a strip of hastily-torn fabric in between his teeth while Carrow, kneeling beside him, poked at his shoulder. The sleeve of his robes was halfway torn off, and the fabric was soaked in blood. Severus’s stomach turned.

“D’you want to be just a little louder?” he said irritably. “I don’t think we can be heard enough as it is.”

Severus turned his gaze away from Wilkes and found Lucius still staring at him, silently demanding an answer. “One of them ran down that alley,” he said shortly, “so I gave chase. I lost her – or him, I couldn’t tell.” He added this last almost as an afterthought, and sucked in a deep breath as the blonde man’s eyes narrowed a bit. Thankfully, Severus was spared further questioning as Wilkes grunted again in pain.

“Do you think you could stab me with that harder?” he snapped, writhing away from the point of Carrow’s wand as the man seemingly butchered whatever healing spell he was attempting. Severus could see that the hand that held the wand was trembling a bit.

“What happened?” he asked tonelessly.

Lucius gritted his teeth in evident annoyance. “Idiot got so caught up in dueling that he forgot to keep his wits about him,” he spat. “Somebody sent that” – he gestured towards the prone Wilkes – “at him just as he got blasted into a wall by a Stunning Spell. Whoever cut him up didn’t like him dueling the other person, apparently – the one you ran after, if I’m not mistaken.” His lip curled higher and higher in displeasure as he spoke.

Severus fought hard to keep his gaze steady, his insides already twisting nervously – he might not have been the one to shoot the spell that had sliced Wilkes’s arm, but he’d definitely been the one to Stun him. “And I’ve already told you that pursuit was unsuccessful,” he said smoothly, wanting to get off the subject as quickly as possible. Lucius sneered again.

“Let me do that,” he snapped at Carrow, as Wilkes groaned through the fabric, fingers scrabbling to clutch at his arm. “Before he gives away our position and we’re all dead.” Carefully avoiding Lucius’s eyes, he knelt onto the pavement and hastily closed up the wound with the old, familiar spell. This curse wasn’t Sectumsempra, but was something milder, and the wound mended neatly.

Wilkes stood up gingerly, poking the newly-closed skin with a tentative forefinger. “You’re fine,” Severus said irritably, stowing his wand in the inside pocket of his robes and drawing them more tightly around himself. He felt suddenly and inexplicably annoyed with the others around him – they didn’t understand, they didn’t know anything.

He could feel Lucius watching him still, as though waiting for him, Severus, to reveal something. It would have been unnerving enough if they hadn’t just nearly been blown to bits, or if the blonde man’s eyes weren’t so pale and icy-looking.

“Are we done here?” Carrow spoke up. His brow was set low over his eyes in something like consternation; he clearly hadn’t like being shoved so unceremoniously to the side by Severus. His arms were folded tightly across his chest, his fingers tapping on them, which Severus found highly annoying.

Lucius switched his gaze away and turned to look over his shoulder, back up the street in the direction they had come. “Muggles,” he sneered. “Are they too stupid to actually see what the shouting was about?” He smirked, and then turned back. “Right, yes, let’s get away before they decide to grow brains.” He laughed coldly. “Go on home, then.”

But suddenly, Severus didn’t want to go home – far from it. He didn’t want to stay here, of course, but home meant inquiries from Rosier and Avery and Mulciber, and it meant Wilkes playing the part of the wounded innocent in a pitiful attempt to garner sympathy. It meant trying to sleep while images of Malfoy’s malice towards the young Muggle woman played through his mind like photographic slides. And he wasn’t ready for any of that.

The four set off for the end of the street in the opposite direction, hopefully to avoid running into any unwanted onlookers – although, he thought a bit sourly, Malfoy wouldn’t really have been adverse to disposing of them. Malfoy turned on his heel without a word to the others and disappeared with a loud crack; after a moment, and looking considerably more wary about it, Carrow followed suit.

Wilkes glanced at Severus from the corner of his eye, and then, upon catching it, made a horribly contorted face that was apparently supposed to signify pain. “Helping me home, then?” he said, in a sniveling voice that made Severus almost sorry he’d healed the cut in the first place.

“You can manage,” he said, waving his hand carelessly in his friend’s direction. Wilkes’s face fell; it was quite evident that that was not the answer he had been expecting. But feeling a bit pleased with himself nonetheless, Severus clamped his hand over the wand in his pocket, closed his eyes, and turned into compressing blackness.

There was a roaring sound in his ears, and he jolted back to Earth on ground so uneven that he nearly pitched forward as he landed. He hastily straightened up, but nobody was around – and why should they be, at this time of the night? But it was the best time, he found, for a drink to clear one’s thoughts, and that was exactly what he planned to do. A part of him hated that he found the need to drink at all, much less the cheap ale that the nameless barman at the Hog’s Head found the need to slosh about, but he liked it for its anonymity. Nobody asked him questions as long as he paid his way through a tankard or two, and that was infinitely preferable to any other pub scene he might have stumbled across.

The ground that he’d nearly turned his ankle on was the brickwork path leading up to the pub door, which was mossy and overgrown, with several bricks missing from the pattern. It was this he traipsed up now, keeping his head low as he pushed open the door into the musty-smelling pub.

The Hog’s Head – a name that, while rather ugly, correctly led people to assumptions about the sort who might inhabit it – was comprised of one room, bordered on one side by a long, low counter and on the other by clusters of rickety tables, absent of lamps, and equally unsteady chairs. These were rarely ever occupied. To the right of the bar was a shadowed staircase that led to two or three rooms on the upper floor, though Severus had never ascended it to find out exactly what these rooms were for.

The barman was a tall man with a perpetual frown and tufts of silvery-gray hair sprouting from his scalp and chin and, oddly enough, ears. He was usually the only other person in the Hog’s Head, but tonight it seemed that a pair of goblins had chosen to make the place their after-hours haunt. They sat at the table closest to the door, a pile of silver Sickles between them, and were cackling over a joke that Severus doubted very much was as funny as they made it seem upon his entrance.

He crossed swiftly to the bar, trying desperately to ignore the continued laughter of the goblins and the pounding in his head that the noise was giving him. “One,” he said quickly, sliding his coins onto the counter with such force that they nearly slid off. The barman gave him a suspicious look and took his time puttering about, finally setting a glass of warm ale in front of his customer. Severus took it gingerly and turned. He caught the eye of one of the goblins.

“Care to make a wager, human?” he said in a high, thin voice, his reedy fingers flipping one of the Sickles, over and over. Severus kept eye contact as best he could; he didn’t want to let him know how unnerved he was by their eyes, small and shining and completely black.

“On what?” he said coldly, attempting to draw himself up to his full height.

The goblin grinned wickedly. “Why, on whatever you want,” he said, grinning and showing a mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth. An involuntary icy shudder snaked down Severus’s spine, and he turned quickly toward the back table, ignoring as best he could the goblins’ renewed cackles.

The air here was slightly mustier than it had been at the front of the room, as though it had been a long time since someone had dusted this particular corner – and, Severus rationed, it probably had been. He saw a small cloud of dust puff up into the air as he sat down and tried to ignore it, pulling his tankard closer to him.

The events of the night were buzzing heavily through Severus’s brain, as though he’d already consumed more ale than sat in front of him. It was a lot to take in: Seeing Beth nearly cursed, or worse, by Wilkes; having to then lie about helping her to Lucius Malfoy, who was by no means an idiot, as much as he might act like one; and, perhaps worst of all, somehow feeling guilty for what Lucius had done to the Muggle on the street.

Yes, that was the worst of all. Severus knew that it shouldn’t matter to him, and he couldn’t put his finger on what exactly had bothered him so much about it. She was a Muggle, and therefore of no value, not really – and yet her screams had been so human. It had been a long time since he’d been of the mindset that he wasn’t superior to her kind. Could that have been why Malfoy had looked at him so suspiciously, and he’d only imagined that he was talking about Beth, out of a guilty conscience?

Severus sighed so loudly that the goblins at the far table turned in their chairs, eyeing him shrewdly with their calculating eyes. He raised a hand to his forehead and rubbed his temples absentmindedly, wrinkling the skin at his brow, and took a long swig from his tankard.

The image of the prone, terrified girl flashed across his vision, and he squeezed his eyes tighter, as though to erase it.

At that moment, the door to the pub swung open, and every occupant swung round to look at it curiously. Severus shrank back instinctively into the shadows, cloaking himself in them to prevent him from being seen; it was another tactic ingrained into his mindset now. A nervous-looking woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, entered first. She was dressed very oddly in long, faded emerald robes, her thick hair tied back with a sequin-covered headscarf. Large glasses magnified her eyes to about three times their normal size.

Severus smirked at the woman’s odd appearance, but the twist dropped from his mouth almost immediately upon seeing the man who had entered behind her. Though he, Severus, had not seen him in several years, the stranger was instantly recognizable. It was Albus Dumbledore, his old headmaster, and what he would be doing at this time of night in a place like the Hog’s Head, Severus hadn’t the slightest clue.

“Good evening,” Dumbledore said cheerfully – the tone was rather out of place, Severus thought absently, in an environment like this. The barman grunted out a response in a tone too low to be heard across the room; the woman who had entered with Dumbledore moved to stand by the far end of the long counter, nearest Severus’s table, although she didn’t appear to see him. She began fidgeting with the end of her scarf and whispering to herself; she seemed quite batty.

The barman, who had continued talking in low tones to Dumbledore, set down his glass at that moment, and Severus’s attention was again diverted back to him. He raised his tankard to his lips, half-hiding his face in a precautionary sort of way, and watched as Dumbledore, the mad woman, and the barman all moved out to stand by the narrow stairwell leading who knew where. With a none-too-pleased motion, the barman jerked his thumb up, and Dumbledore ascended the creaky steps.

“What’re you looking at?” he growled irritably, locking eyes with the goblins across the room at that moment. The goblin that had offered to place a wager with Severus looked at him with obvious distaste and slowly turned back around in his chair, immediately taking up a furiously whispered conversation with his companion. Severus wondered if he, too, would be acknowledged, but the barman merely turned and followed the pair up. There was the distant sound of muffled footsteps, and then a door closed.

Severus leaned back in his chair, instantly alert. It was no secret that Dumbledore was a Muggle sympathizer – one of the best known, arguably, if you were to go by his near-daily mentions in the Prophet. If he was skulking around pubs in the wee hours of the morning, there had to be a very good reason for it, especially as school was still in term. Perhaps this was an opportunity for him. Not only would relaying information back to headquarters get Malfoy off a trail that might lead to Severus’s involvement with Beth, but it could open the door for him, Severus, to rise in the ranks of the Death Eaters – and that was something he wanted more than almost anything.

He was still thinking over the rationale of this decision when footsteps sounded from above again, and began to descend the stairs noisily. But only the barman reappeared at the base of them, muttering under his breath and wiping his hands on the slightly filthy towel tucked at his waist.

“Barking mad, he is.” Severus caught the words as the pub’s owner lifted the hinged door and moved back behind the long counter, letting it fall behind him with a bang. “Coming in here at whatever hour suits him without even bothering to ask if it’s all right with me…”

The goblins seemed to take this as their cue to leave; still speaking in hushed tones between the two of them, they hopped down from their chairs, pointed ears bobbing about level with the top of the table, and fumbled briefly with cloaks and buttons before making their way toward the exit. The barman yanked his wand from his pocket and pointed at the glasses; they floated over to him, and clattered onto the long counter with a bang. One of them shattered.

Cursing under his breath, the barman turned his palms toward the ceiling and glared at it as though asking it why he deserved that. Severus watched as he turned and sidled through a small door set into the wall behind the counter. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, like he had quite forgotten Severus was even there.

Which meant that it was now or never. Rising slowly from his seat, and checking to make sure that the owner wouldn’t come bustling back out the door as quickly as he had slipped through it, Severus swept over to the staircase and ascended it silently, adrenaline and nerves thrumming through him in equal parts, as though the sensations had replaced his very blood.

The narrow corridor he found himself in was in a fair state of disrepair: Some of the planks in the wooden walls stuck out at odd, splintered angles, and the floor itself tilted slightly to the right. Then again, Severus figured anything better wouldn’t have been expected, after the shabbiness of the pub below. There were three doors set along the left wall in close proximity to one another, but only the last one had a strip of pale yellow light shining from under it. Tentatively, he crept toward it, his heart hammering madly in his throat.

Dumbledore’s voice spoke pleasantly from behind it, growing slowly more audible. “And you are a distant relation to the Seer Cassandra Trelawney, is that correct?”

“Her great-great-granddaughter, yes,” said a tremulous female voice, presumably that of the goggle-eyed woman Severus had seen vanish upstairs alongside his old headmaster. There was a slight pause, and then a clunk, as though a heavy glass had been set upon a tabletop.

“Could you tell me,” Dumbledore spoke again politely, “whether you can see anything in that crystal ball?” There was another pause, longer this time, and Severus curled his lip in disgust at being made to wait to long for what was turning out to be a fruitless mission.

“The Inner Eye only sees when it choose to see,” the woman spoke again, although it was painfully obvious that she didn’t believe her own words. “I cannot help you there, Albus.”

“How disappointing,” said Dumbledore mildly; there was another brief silence and the noise of someone settling back into a chair. “Palmistry, perhaps?” He made a noise that told Severus he had proffered his hand in order for the woman to read the lines on his palm.

She spoke again after a while. “You… you will live a long life,” she said with forced bravado. “And you will lead many young people in their quest for knowledge.” Severus had to bite back a derisive laugh at this; surely the woman didn’t think Dumbledore was as stupid as old age normally inflicted upon a person?

Dumbledore heaved a rather large sigh from behind the lit cracks of the little room. “I am afraid,” he said heavily, “that the position you seek is not one I can grant you, Sybill.”

The woman called Sybill sniffed, almost at once, as though expecting the news. “But I – I need this job!” she wailed, and Dumbledore shushed her gently. “If you can’t help me, I don’t know what –“

Her words were abruptly cut off with a great, shuddering gasp, and Severus was so surprised by it that he nearly stumbled over the hem of his cloak. He pressed his ears more fervently to the doorpost, ignoring how the rough wood rubbed unpleasantly on his cheek. Sybill spoke again, and this time it was not in that obnoxious faux-dreamy way she had about her; it was scratchy, grating, and very inhuman.

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches...”

For the second time in less than a minute, Severus had to catch himself lest he should fall over. His hands scrabbled at the door frame, hoping against hope that he would not be overheard by the inn room’s occupants, and very nearly missed the next sentence the woman spoke.

Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…”

“What’re you doing here?”

Severus whipped his head around, mouth raising into an instinctive snarl, and found himself face-to-face with the grubby-looking barman who was perpetually behind the counter of the Hog’s Head. His arms were folded tightly across his chest, and his teeth were bared angrily; he looked more animal than human at that moment.

But how was he supposed to explain his reason for hanging about doors on the second floors of inns?

“Out,” barked the barman in a half-whisper, reaching forward and jerking Severus away from the door; the woman was still speaking, he could hear, but it was impossible to make out what she was saying for all the noise that the barman was making. He jerked again on Severus’s arm when the latter resisted.

“Let go of me,” he snapped, straining to catch something, anything, of what the woman was saying. His words were only met with a sharper jerk of his wrist, and he felt it pop painfully under the man’s surprisingly iron-like grip.

“I said out.” He shoved Severus roughly in the direction of the staircase by one shoulder. “And don’t come back for a long, long time, if you know what’s good for you.” He stood at the top of the stairs as Severus made to descend them, his brow thickly creased and his mouth turned down in displeasure.

Severus fairly flew down the narrow stairs, through the empty main room of the pub and back out into the chilly night once more. All thoughts of Lucius and the Muggle girl, even of Beth, had disappeared completely from his mind for the time being. His thoughts instead echoed with the prophecy he had just heard. The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord...

He had to get back to headquarters. This – this was his ticket into being respected by the inner circle of Death Eaters, by the Dark Lord himself… he would tell them what he had overheard, and he would be a hero for it…

With a small, malicious smile on his face, Severus turned once on his heel. With a loud crack, he vanished from Hogsmeade.

A/N: And the prophecy makes its first appearance! This certainly will throw a few kinks into Severus's dealings with Beth, you can be quite sure of that. It actually feels a bit funny to be posting this chapter, though -- it kind of feels like I just wrote it yesterday. But I'm actually due to start working on the first chapter of Breaking Even tonight, and by my calculations, I'll start posting that in February! Where does time go anymore?

As a quick note: The italicized lines of the prophecy, spoken by Trelawney and then thought by Snape, come from the Harry Potter series itself; I did not write them, and do not own them.

With that being said, thank you for reading this chapter! I hope you've enjoyed it!


Chapter 22: The Dark Lord
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The first thing Severus heard when he Apparated onto the stoop outside headquarters was the wind, whistling high through the eaves of the roof above him. It was a lonely, eerie sound, and he shivered involuntarily upon hearing it. Nerves, tight and painful, were twisting his insides uncomfortably at the prospect of walking in and telling somebody about the conversation he had overheard. There was excitement, of course, at knowing something useful, something valuable… but accompanying it was the prickling sense he knew too well as conscience. And why shouldn’t he know it well? Hadn’t he tried to smother it for years?

He bit down hard on his lower lip and shoved his thoughts firmly away, almost physically, and glad for a moment that he had been training his brain so well in the art of blocking and storing his emotions. With a quick, sure motion, he raised his hand and rapped on the door in front of him; normally, Death Eaters came and went as they pleased, but it was late, and he figured it was probably better to be safe than sorry in this instance.

There was a lengthy pause, and then, finally, the door swung inward. Watery eyes blinked at Severus from a few inches below him, and he felt his lip curl instinctively. It was Pettigrew.

“You’re here, are you?” Severus sneered, forgetting for a second what he had come to headquarters to do in the first place. Thoughts of asking to see Roark flew from his mind as he gazed with undisguised loathing at the man in front of him. He felt just the same as he had upon seeing him at headquarters the first time around, fleeing the scene like – well, like a rat. Severus was quite sure Beth had no idea that he was here, and he had a sickening suspicion that he was masking still being a part of the Order, too. He felt like jinxing Pettigrew right where he stood, right now, just for what he was doing to Beth without her even realizing it.

Pettigrew’s eyes widened a bit, evidence that he was indeed not at all pleased to see who had showed up on the step. Good. “What do you need?” he said, in a voice that wasn’t quite as strong as he evidently hoped it would be.

Severus laughed humorlessly. “What, did they set you to answering the door? That’s all you could bring to the table? Pathetic.” The idea of knocking in the first place suddenly seemed like an incredible waste of time, and he shouldered past his former classmate, not even bothering to apologize when his shoulder shoved Pettigrew into the stretch of wall behind the door.

“You’re here late,” the mousy-looking man persisted stubbornly, in what Severus thought was a tremendous show of will – he’d always seemed before as though he’d been born without a spine, in Severus’s opinion. But, of course, he didn’t admit this aloud.

“Then they figured you were expendable, in case the intruder was unwelcome,” he said smoothly, staring at a spot just above Pettigrew’s head so as avoid looking at him directly as he spoke. “I need to speak to Roark, and as long as he’s got you playing servant, you may tell him I’m here.” His eyes flitted to Pettigrew with relish as the man opened and closed his mouth several times, turned a sort of burgundy color, and then disappeared up the makeshift stairs to the second floor of headquarters.

When he was gone, Severus slumped against the wall, pressing a forefinger into his temple so hard that he could feel a bit of his skull beneath the tightly-drawn skin there. He had to tell Beth – didn’t he? If she ever found out that he was keeping this from her, that he was hiding the fact that one of her friends was very possibly playing double agent… Well, he certainly didn’t want to think about it.

But how much could he tell her without breaching that line himself? If he told her about Pettigrew, he might as well tell her about what he’d overheard Dumbledore discussing with whoever Sybill was, and that was information he wanted to keep as close to him as possible. He felt an odd sort of protection over it, even though it was Dumbledore’s, and not his. And for all he knew, Dumbledore was fighting right alongside her – he’d no idea how whatever she was working for operated, if Dumbledore was a part of it and was going to go running back, spouting about the prophecy. What mattered was that it was the key to greater things for Severus, and right now, he was willing to die with it rather than part with it.

Even to Beth.

Severus drew in a deep breath and straightened, squaring his shoulders just as he heard Pettigrew’s steps on the stairs once more. For the second time that evening, he roughly shoved away the waves of guilt that crashed over him, determined to ignore them enough that they might disappear entirely. No matter what Beth was to him, he felt that he couldn’t risk whatever success might lie in store for him here, just to appease her – no matter how much he might have wanted to.

Pettigrew approached him again across the hall, a bit of a sour expression on his face, which only made Severus smirk again. “He’s upstairs,” he said morosely, hitching his thumb back in the direction he had just returned from. Clearly he hadn’t thought that Severus would have been seen by Roark, and being proven wrong wasn’t sitting well with him. Severus swept past him and ascended the stairs lightly, the weight in his stomach increasing with every step.

Roark was standing on the landing when Severus had climbed the stairs, which was surprising – he had expected his superior to be ensconced away in one of the rooms. He was standing in front of a tall arched window, his hands clasped loosely behind his back, and was staring out through it. At what, it wasn’t easy to discern – headquarters backed up to a narrow, rubbish-strewn alley, a brick wall on the other side of it. There was nothing particularly pleasing or calming about the view.

“I must tell you, Snape, the late hour of your visit intrigues me.” Roark spoke without turning around, and the knots in Severus’s abdomen tightened even more, a thing he hadn’t thought possible until that moment. The way he was speaking was pleasant enough, but there was a sort of barb beneath the words, and it wasn’t quite extending enough to cover his evident annoyance. “Unless my watch is lying to me, and it isn’t nearly two o’ clock in the morning?”

Severus pressed his lips together tightly in order to force back the sarcastic retort that rose to the forefront of his mind; now was not the time for such things. “It’s not,” he said, as lightly as he could manage without sounding overly flippant. “I have information.”

Roark turned to look at him then, raising an eyebrow high on his hairless forehead. “Oh?” he said. “Lucius Malfoy has already been here to report the occurrences of your little mission, if that’s what all this is about.” He smiled thinly. “But unless you actually managed to capture one of the sods who ambushed you, which none of your other companions seemed able to do –“

“It’s not about that,” Severus said quickly, allowing a bit of annoyance of his own to creep into the words now. At least now he could understand Roark’s attitude. He supposed he wouldn’t have been incredibly pleased with the outcome from an independent angle, either. “It’s about something that happened after,” he continued on while he still had the man’s attention.

Roark’s eyes flicked to the stairs as a slight noise from below drifted up to them. “Come with me, then,” he said tersely. “I’d rather not be eavesdropped upon by a man who’s already displayed traitorous tendencies.” The noise stopped abruptly, and Severus knew, just as Roark had sensed, that the disgusting excuse for a human had been poking about underneath them, trying to overhear whatever Severus had come to say.

Roark led him into a little room just to the right of the window, holding the door open for Severus and closing it behind him firmly once both were inside. It looked as though the space they were now in had once been a bedroom, long ago, when headquarters had presumably still been used as a house. There was a wide discolored rectangular patch on the floor, the wood a bit darker there than in other places, where a bed must have once sat. In the far corner a wardrobe still perched, the mirror on the outside of it tarnished and splotched, a spidery crack marring one corner. Next to the wardrobe was a small door, and through it Severus could just glimpse the gleam of the pipes of a small private bath.

“What’re you on about?” the older man said abruptly, before Severus could look around more. His brow was drawn so low over his eyes that the entire iris of them looked black, glinting with a bit of a sinister light. Severus swallowed before he could think about it, and, once again, instinctively reached for his wand before launching into his story.

“After the mission,” he began slowly, “I went to – to a pub.” He gritted his teeth against the eyebrow Roark raised at this, sensing the judgment wafting from his superior in near-tangible waves, and forced himself to plow on. “And Dumbledore walked in.”

At this, the dark-skinned man really did seem interested, genuinely so for the first time all night. “And?” he prompted, when Severus stopped to choose his next words.

“And I followed him upstairs – he had a woman with him –“ He felt a flush rise in his cheeks, wondering how that phrase might have sounded to objective ears. “They were doing an interview,” he added hastily. “I think. That’s what it sounded like. And then this woman, she – she started talking strangely.” He made a vague motion in the direction of his throat, for lack of anything else to do. “And she made a prophecy, a prediction – whatever. But,” he concluded, imbibing as much significance as possible into his voice, “it’s one that, I think, will interest the Dark Lord greatly.”

He could hear Sybill’s voice in his head again, that heavy, rasping voice: “The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches...” He shuddered as Roark stepped closer.

“And? What did it say?”

This was the moment he had been waiting for; if he sought power from this information, then Severus knew he had to assert it now. Telling this information to anyone who might relay it to Lord Voldemort without his knowledge would get him nowhere, and Roark would more than likely take the credit for the information if he had a chance to. “That,” he said haughtily, curling his lip more out of instinct than anything else, “is something that the Dark Lord’s ears alone should hear.”

Roark stared at him for a few long seconds, and then snorted. “You’re a kid,” he said venomously.

“And I have the information he needs,” Severus responded coolly. He drew himself up to his full height, a few inches shorter than Roark, and looked him in the eyes as best he could. “I know the risks; I’m here in part because of them. I wouldn’t be here telling you this if I thought it was something to be taken lightly.”

Roark continued to stare at him, his jaw working, although so sound was coming out of his mouth. At long last, he seemed to have realized that Severus was in earnest, no matter his displaced that earnest might turn out to be, and cursed softly under his breath. “Merlin help you if he isn’t pleased,” he spat, and shook back the left sleeve of his robe. A tattoo was etched onto his forearm, a dark skull with a snake coming out of its mouth like a grotesque tongue – a Dark Mark, identical in every way to Severus’s own. After the briefest of hesitations, Roark reached forward with the index finger of his opposite hand – and pressed it to the inky skull.

At first, Severus didn’t think anything had happened, and he couldn’t conceive why Roark was just holding his finger a bit absurdly to his forearm. Then, all of a sudden, there was a man in the room where a man had most certainly not been before – he appeared swiftly and silently, without a single announcement preceding his arrival, and Severus let out a yell, stumbling over his cloak and nearly falling.

This, he knew at once, as he desperately tried to pick himself back up and compose himself, had to be Lord Voldemort.

At first glance, there was nothing to mark him out as particularly special or different. He looked old, to be sure; his hair had still somehow retained the dark color it had more than likely held in youth, although the hairline had drastically receded. His skin was nearly white with paleness, and there was something about it – the bones, the tightness of the skin? – that made his features sharp, almost cruel. His eyes, which had evidently once been near-black, were now an odd mix between that color and red, a sort of dusky maroon that sent inexplicable shivers up Snape’s arms.

He did not look at Snape directly, though he had faced him when he had first appeared in the room, but instead turned to Roark, who had drawn himself up to full height as soon as his master had entered. “Why have you summoned me?” he asked imperiously, his voice high, cold, and drawling; Severus shuddered with renewed chills.

“My lord,” the other said in a deferential murmur, “the boy” – they both looked at Snape then, Lord Voldemort with a mixture of curiosity and distaste – “brings news he thinks is of importance to you. A prophecy, overheard from Albus Dumbledore.”

Voldemort’s eyebrows rose almost imperceptibly. “A prophecy?” he spat in contempt. In a sleek movement, he removed his wand from his robes; Severus caught a brief glimpse of a tattoo twisting on the other man’s white skin, identical to those of his followers. Voldemort paced slowly over to Snape, who eyed him warily, though he kept his ground.

“And where were you,” he said softly, “that you were near enough to Dumbledore to hear what he was saying? How am I to know your loyalties lie where you say they do?” He flicked the tip of his wand up to hover near Severus’s chin, and the latter swallowed hard against a lump of apprehension thickening in his throat.

“I would not be afraid to swear on it with an Unbreakable Vow,” said Severus, but Voldemort merely laughed, as though the idea was a ridiculous one.

“Don’t play that game with me,” he sneered. “We’ll have no need for vows, Unbreakable or otherwise.” He raised the point of his wand, rising until it rested at a point on Severus’s forehead, right in the center and only an inch or so from his eyes. “Legilimens.”

Instinct told Severus to resist the spell – he had been growing increasingly adept at doing so since his lessons in Occlumency had continued – but something stronger, something like common sense, allowed his mind to be invaded. It would not have done, he told himself, to have hidden his thoughts from the Dark Lord without cause. There was a nauseating sensation while his vision wavered, and then he was falling, falling into memories…

Severus pressed his ear to the door frame, trying desperately to hear what Sybill and Dumbledore were saying just on the other side of it. Sybill’s voice spoke into the silence, low and raspy and unnatural…

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…”

He craned to hear more, and then footsteps sounded behind him –

With a great, shuddering gasp, Severus was returned to the present, feeling like he had just been doused with a bucket of extremely icy water. Lord Voldemort was standing over him (when had he fallen to the ground?) with a peculiar expression on his sharp face; he was twirling his wand between his fingers absently, as though he was not aware of the gesture. Roark was watching anxiously from a shadowed corner of the former bedroom.

“Get up,” Voldemort spat, and Snape scrambled to his feet, his heart racing. “Hold out your arm.” He didn’t need to indicate which arm he referenced; what other arm would he be talking about? He shoved back the sleeve of his robe in his eagerness to do as he was asked, some new emotion accompanying the fear in him now: Excitement, or anticipation, or perhaps even a combination of both. He watched, eyes wide, as Voldemort pressed the tip of his wand to the tattoo.

White-hot pain shot up his arm, and Severus gritted his teeth, but he refused to cry out. Yelling at the Dark Lord’s sudden appearance, falling to the ground when he’d let his mind be invaded – he had already displayed enough foolhardy weakness for one evening. He was strong, and he was determined, and he would not toss away the chances he had just attained for himself on the whim of acting selfish. It was duty before self now; he knew this with painful clarity.

“You will tell no one of this,” Lord Voldemort commanded, and with that, he swept from the room soundlessly – and yet, just before he left, Severus caught something in the man’s eyes that could have been fear. Roark watched him go steadily, toying with the gold ring on his thumb, and only looked back at Severus once the door had shut behind their master.

“What – what is this?” At a loss as to any other questions to ask, despite the fact that a thousand were now buzzing about in his brain, Severus showed Roark his tattoo. It looked no different, although it still tingled faintly with the fiery pain of a few minutes earlier. The other man glanced at his arm indifferently.

“That will allow you to summon him as you saw me do,” he said at last, slowly and cautiously, as though meaning to imprint upon Severus the seriousness of his words. “In the most extreme circumstances, of course – I need hardly warn you of that.” He turned away then, studying his reflection in the wardrobe mirror. He was right: Severus didn’t need to be told.

After a brief pause, Roark turned back. “Snape, I have to impress upon you the gravity of the situation. You are both more secure now – you have told the Dark Lord something valuable – and in a more precarious position than ever before. Watch your steps, lest you should become tempted to renege on the promises you’ve already bound to this place.”

Severus regarded him mildly. “I can assure you,” he said softly, “I’ve no intention of crossing.”

Roark nodded. “Let us both hope that it stays that way.” He swiveled again, back to the mirror. “It would be wise for you to leave now.” And, with no other direction, Snape obeyed.

It wasn’t until he was outside – down the stairs, through the entrance hall, and out the door, with no Pettigrew in sight – that the reality of what he had done hit him. Trembling slightly, Severus sank onto the crumbling stoop, hiding his face in his hands. It had been a very, very long night, and he wanted nothing more than to return to his flat and drift off into sleep without probing questions from Rosier or Avery, or any of the others, if they were still up. He knew this was unlikely, and the thought made him all the more weary.

Unbidden, an image of Beth swam into his mind’s eye, and his stomach was plagued with conflicting emotions of happiness and guilt. If he thought hard enough about it, he could still feel the place where her lips had touched his cheek before she had Apparated away. And how had he repaid her for it? He had become even more ensnared in the very thing that still might cause him to lose her forever.

But this was what he had set out to do from the first – to go places, to make a name for himself. And that’s what he was doing, wasn’t it? Beth could understand that. He had made it this far, and still they had rekindled something – no small feat, to be sure. She would never have to know about this prophecy, it wouldn’t affect her…

Severus raised his head and looked up at the sky, moonless and dull, the stars dim. He let out a sigh, his stomach clenching, and stood at last. This is what I am supposed to do. And yet, as he started for home, the guilt lingered still, toying incessantly with his mind and refusing him peace for the rest of the night.

A/N: And thus marks the end of three chapters that somehow all turned into being focused on Severus, despite the fact that this is Beth's story. But then again, he really is a very large part of her story at this point in the game, so I'm justified in doing that. And the fact that I love writing Snape, of course, didn't factor into it at all... What did you think? If you have the time, a review really would be so appreciated!

As in the previous chapter, the lines of the prophecy that Severus quotes and remembers are written by J.K. Rowling. I do not own any of them and do not pretend to do so.


Chapter 23: A Visit Home
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The bright March sunshine wasn’t particularly warm as it beat down on the houses in the tucked-away neighborhood, but Beth found that she was glad for it anyway. Even before weather factored into the picture, she was tense: Back rigid, arms crossed tightly across her chest, face set and determined about the task at hand. A bit of spring rain wouldn’t have helped to lighten the mood, but now, with some rare sunshine, she felt just a shade or two better, however slightly.

This had been a visit she had been putting off for months – over a year, if she was being honest with herself. Amelia Prescott – formerly Bridger – had been writing to her daughter at least once a month, and usually more, ever since Beth had moved away from home at the end of seventh year. She had stayed with Sirius that summer before finding a flat of her own, but she had resolved never to return home unless it was absolutely necessary, and she had stuck by that promise.

But though she might never admit it aloud, and it was rare that she brought up either the Bridger or the Prescott name in any conversations with her friends or other members of the Order, Beth missed her parents in a way that she supposed was as natural as anything else she felt. She was still mildly angry with them for using her as they had during the divorce, tossing about petty bribes and poorly-concealed barbs about each other, but they were still the people who had raised her, and that had to count for something.

And yet she’d been very reluctant to return either to her home – the Bridger mansion, where her father, Calvin, lived still – or to her aunt’s home, where Amelia was currently staying, despite the fact that each was mere blocks away from the other. Despite her mother’s entreaties at catching up with her only daughter, Beth had seen her only a handful of times since actually leaving, perfunctory holiday visits and the like, and all of these had been in public places: Parks and restaurants, all stiff and uncomfortable, visits that made her feel more like a stranger than a daughter.

She had only agreed to come today because James was running by his parents’ old home, too, and it was a couple of subway stops away from where Beth was headed. He had finally sold the massive house a few weeks previously to a pair of disgustingly rich Muggles – it had been great timing, as he and Lily had just finished unpacking most of the boxes at their new complex – and was returning today for a “final inspection.” This was actually, as he’d told Beth, a guise for fixing all of the little charms his mother had placed on the house to make things more convenient for the Potters in their old age, so as to preempt a need for the Magical Reversal Squad in the future.

Lily was nearly six months pregnant now, and maybe as a result of this, James had been acting just a bit more protective than normal – not just of Lily, which was natural, but in some weird extension, of Beth as well. He’d told her more than once on the way to her parents’ that if anything went wrong, she had every right to let him know at once. In a way, it was nice, having James back in her life as a sort of brother figure, something that had understandably waned since he’d gotten married. Unfortunately, she also knew she was too proud to ever really take him up on the offer – to admit she couldn’t handle a bit of parental tension. It seemed cruel, somehow, to force that upon a man who no longer could talk to his parents.

Beth stepped to the long wrought-iron fence that bordered the property the house sat on, looking down at her knuckles as she clenched the bars, which were turning white. Her mother had agreed to come to this house, to be in the company of her ex-husband, just for her daughter. And she hadn’t seen them in months. The leaden weight in her stomach shouldn’t have been there, and yet it increased with the guilt of knowing this.

She’d managed to mend the hole in her best robes for the occasion, knowing that her parents would never have tolerated knowing their daughter paraded about looking like a Muggle, much less that she strongly considered wearing jeans out today just to shock them. She had changed so much since her parents had known her – really known her – and she always worried that they might find out just how much. An hour or two of conversation, and hopefully Beth would be back at her flat, or maybe at James’s, doing everything possible to wipe the mantle of being an out-and-out Bridger off her shoulders. She blew out a forceful breath through pursed lips, a strand of her hair jumping in the gust. Might as well go inside and get things over with.

Beth crossed a few steps to the left, coming to stop in front of a slightly higher portion of fence, topped with a curling iron letter B. She hated this gate – one of her great-grandfather’s apparent guilty pleasures had been making the house as ludicrously opulent as he could possibly manage – but its one redeeming quality was its apt ability at keeping out anyone the Bridgers didn’t want in. There was no gap in the gate, and it merely looked to be just an extension of the fence, but when Beth laid her palm flat on the metal, it creaked open easily.

“Here goes,” Beth muttered under her breath, although she didn’t quite realize it, and started up the walk towards the house’s front doors. It felt a bit ominous, almost like a mission, and she had to forcibly think of this as anything but. It probably wasn’t a good mindset to enter in, anyway, thinking of one’s own parents as she would of facing down a couple of Voldemort’s supporters in the middle of the street.

The front door wasn’t locked, and she let herself into the entrance as quietly as possible, the door squealing a bit on hinges in desperate need of oiling as she shut it behind her. There were no voices to be heard in the dim corridor – someone had overlooked lighting the lamps – and the heels of her shoes sounded unnaturally loud on the black-and-white checked tile as she moved slowly into the house. There was a knot of fear writhing in the pit of her stomach; this was her house, and she still felt like she was breaking in.

Nothing much had changed since she’d left this house at the end of her seventh year, but she took the time to briefly look around anyway, a luxury she hadn’t been able to afford the one or two times she’d been back here to snatch a few of her things. The same gilt mirrors were spaced at intervals down the hall, the same gray-patterned wallpaper visible everywhere else. She’d never liked how dark this hall was; it was a very large factor in her insistence at painting her bedroom yellow, to sort of counteract that.

The wide, spacious sitting room was off to the right, through a wide and open archway; a large, straight staircase right beside the arch led to the second floor, to bedrooms and bathrooms and not much else. Down the hall and to the left was the kitchen that Calvin and Amelia had hardly ever set foot in, preferring house elves for their manual labor. Through the heavy black door at the end of the corridor was her father’s study, somewhere Beth had rarely been allowed to visit as a girl; it had, she knew, been where her father had met all of the important pureblood men, like Abraxas Malfoy, who’d visited the house, greasing their palms with prodigious amounts of gold for news and Ministry gossip.

A surge of curiosity coursed through her upon seeing this door – really seeing it – for the first time in uncountable years. Still not hearing any footsteps or voices from the sitting room or any of the rooms upstairs, Beth crept tentatively toward it. If her father was still seeing those men, still paying his way through life with Galleons and Sickles, then it was just possible something in there might prove beneficial to the Order in some way. She grinned slightly, Sirius’s voice suddenly whispering encouragement in her ears, and she imagined how thrilled he’d be at the prospect of snooping about in forbidden drawers and desks. For half a moment, she almost wished he was there with her; surely he’d find some way to have fun in a situation like this one.

The study’s windows were thrown wide, and the room was freezing; her father had always kept the house as cold as he’d dared, a frequent source of arguments between him and Beth’s mother. She shivered as she quietly shut the door partway behind her, careful not to let it hit the door frame too loudly, and turned her attention toward the desk in the center of the room. It was neatly kept; only a few sheets of parchment were on its surface, neatly aligned so as to be parallel with the edges of the desk. They were all blank.

She frowned, moving over to a long bookshelf along one wall, nearly empty of books. Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy was placed prominently in a position of pride on an eye-level shelf, and the sparse other books had similar, self-important titles. Mouth twisting in a wry smile, she pushed the book with her forefinger, and it fell over with a thump, a small cloud of dust puffing up from the shelf.

“Bethany?”

She whirled around, hand instinctively reaching for the wand in the inner left pocket of her robes, heart hammering in her throat. Calvin Bridger and Amelia Prescott stood in the doorway, now opened wide, each looking as though they were trying as hard as possible to be as far away from the other. Her mother’s delicate features were creased into a small frown, clearly wondering what on earth her daughter was doing.

“Mum.” Beth’s hands folded behind her back as though of her own accord, cheeks flushing slightly. “Dad. It’s… it’s really good to see you both.” She watched as her father’s gaze slid to Nature’s Nobility on the shelf behind her, and back to his daughter. He frowned too.

“I’ve told you that you’re not to be in this room, Bethany,” he said, crossing his arms loosely over his chest. In the light coming in from the open windows behind her, Beth could see a prodigious amount of gray sprinkled in her father’s dark hair, much more than she remembered, and her heart wrenched despite the fact that she felt like a child being reprimanded for wrongdoing.

“Your father and I are taking tea in the den,” Amelia Bridger said, her voice coated with a thin layer of frost. “Please join us.” Despite the polite words, it was very clearly an order, and not a supplication. Beth bit back a sigh and nodded, following her parents back down the dim corridor, through the more formal sitting room, and into the small, family-only den behind it.

Her mother had decorated this room – she had demanded it be added on once she’d married Beth’s father, claiming she felt imprisoned in the sitting room and needed her own sort of space – and her mark was everywhere on its walls. Though Calvin had been in Gryffindor when at Hogwarts, like Beth, the Prescotts had been in Slytherin for decades upon decades, and it was hard to ignore that fact here. The large fireplace along the wall was made of jet stone, set with small silver designs; the walls were painted dark green, and more silver was studded among them, mirrors and candelabras with bright white flames instead of the normal orange. Beth hated this room; it felt stark and austere, and nothing like the relaxing room her mother claimed it to be.

A small silver tea service was set on the dark-wood coffee table, in the middle of a circle of overstuffed chairs in a dark chintz pattern and a matching sofa perpendicular to the fireplace; it was steaming gently, gray-white vapor curling up to the dark beams overhead. Amelia took one chair, Calvin the one opposite it, and Beth sank onto the middle of the three-person sofa, feeling extraordinarily awkward with the seating arrangements.

Amelia poured a cup of tea and handed it to Beth; again, it was a silent command, not an offer, and though Beth didn’t particularly want to drink it, she took the cup nonetheless. Her mother poured a second cup and sat back in her chair, and Beth’s father shot her a dark, covert look before reaching for the pot himself. “Mum,” Beth said pointedly, hoping beyond hope to avoid any arguments for the time being, “how have you been?”

Amelia took a sip of tea between her tightly clamped lips. “Fine,” she said curtly. “Not that I haven’t given you ample opportunity to –“

“Amelia.” Calvin voice cut across his ex-wife’s, and she stared at him for a few moments before turning her eyes to the ceiling and taking another sip of tea. Beth’s stomach squeezed unpleasantly as her father turned toward her, clenching the handle of his own cup tightly. “We haven’t seen you in a long time, Bethany. I daresay we’d both been hoping” – he flicked his eyes over to Amelia’s, though she was still staring at the ceiling – “that you might have been more in contact with us before this.”

Beth ran a finger idly around the lip of her cup. “I’ve been busy,” she said weakly, the claim sounding lame even to her own ears. Amelia made a ‘tsk’ sound, but said nothing.

“Busy with what?” Calvin interjected sharply. “You’re never seen in our social circles, you don’t work – you’ve completely withdrawn from every value we’ve instilled in you since birth, everything we ever sought for you. You’ve thrown it away.”

“I still see James Potter,” she argued, a bit flippantly, but it was the best she could do while trying to quench her anger. “And Sirius Black, too. Or isn’t Walburga still a part of your circle, Mum?” She made air quotes around the word ‘circle,’ hating the elitist way the word rolled off the tongue.

Amelia smirked. “Orion and Walburga are members of a respectable pureblood family,” she said coolly. “Their oldest son has abandoned that family. You should have disassociated with him long ago. As for the Potter boy…” She sucked in her lower lip briefly before continuing. “The Potters have always been more – ah – lenient in their views than is desirable.”

Beth gritted her teeth, rubbing her nose absently. “It’s not like I’m doing nothing,” she spat, more venomously than she intended. “I’ve told you, Mum, it’s not something –“ But she stopped, because she always stopped. She couldn’t tell her parents about the Order – that much she knew, without even having to think about it. Even with the amount of dissention between them, they agreed on one thing, and that was that Voldemort and his supporters had the right idea in seeking to eliminate Muggles and Muggle-born witches and wizards from being associated with the wizarding world.

“Bellatrix and Narcissa Black have both made decent, respectable marriages,” Amelia spoke up, setting her tea onto the table with a somewhat ominous clink. “You have no prospects, Bethany, no direction in your life. If you would just let me set you up, perhaps with one of my friends’ sons –“

“No.” Beth stood up from her chair, nearly upsetting her tea in the process. Amelia raised her eyebrows high on her forehead, but she, Beth, didn’t care if it was a strange thing to do. “I’m fine, Mum,” she said forcefully. “I don’t want you to do that.”

Her father folded his lips into an obviously displeased frown. “Bethany, grow up,” he snapped. “You’re acting like a child.”

“I’m not.” She reached into her pocket, fist closing around her wand, feeling anger rising within her like a thick, hot liquid. “You can’t possibly understand it, but I’m doing what I want to be doing, and I’m happy. I’m fine with the way I’m handling my life, can’t you see that?! Just because it’s not attending social functions every evening and talking up Ministry officials –“

“That is enough,” Amelia interrupted quickly. “You will not speak like that in our – in this house.” She folded her lips again, standing up to face her daughter; Beth was almost exactly the same height. “Disrespecting both me and your father –“

“Because you two don’t respect me.” She wasn’t yelling any more, not even close; her voice had gone quieter than even she’d meant for it to. “I knew this was the sort of thing you’d do, as soon as I agreed to come back here. Why do you think I’ve put it off for so long?” She began moving toward the door to the den, feeling the neck of her robes tightening around her throat, choking her air supply.

“Bethany,” her mother said sharply, stepping closer to her; behind her, her ex-husband stood up and mirrored the movement. Beth pressed her hands to the door behind her, searching for the knob.

“Whether you want to believe it or not, I am happy,” she repeated firmly. “I have great friends, and I’m doing something I know is – it’s what I need to be doing.” She couldn’t say anything more; they wouldn’t understand, and they never had understood. They weren’t ever going to. “I’ll write,” she said, and, when neither her mother nor her father made a move to stop her, she turned the door’s silver knob and stepped into the sitting room.

Not even an hour had passed, and already she was fleeing the house – surely this was some kind of record. She pressed her lips together firmly and flung open the front door, not bothering to shut it behind her as she stormed down the front walk, through the iron gate, and back onto the pavement. James was nowhere in sight; that wasn’t surprising. He was doubtless still at his parents’ place, sorting out his mother’s charms. Was it right to be jealous of that – was that even ethical?

She brought her hands up to her face and repressed a groan of frustration. It was as she’d told her mother – she’d known exactly what sorts of conversation topics would come up when she’d walked into the house, and still it upset her. She wondered if it would ever not upset her, and despite the fact that she disagreed with so much of what her parents stood for, she didn’t necessarily want to have to keep a large part of her life secret from them.

Beth glanced up, casting her eyes up and down the pavement, but still James was nowhere in sight. He had told her to contact him if things got out of control, but all she wanted to do now was go home, away from here. And when he came back, her parents certainly wouldn’t make it a secret that she’d left in such a rush – they were too mindful of their own image to cover for her…

Taking a deep breath, and looking once more up at the house, Beth closed her eyes, turned on her heels, and vanished with a crack.

*

There was no sign of Beth at the Bridgers’ house when James walked up the pavement, almost an hour later. James looked up towards the top of the house, one hand resting idly on the fence, brow furrowed in puzzlement. She’d given every indication of making the return journey on the Muggle train, and this was the time her visit with her mother and father was supposed to have ended. He could only assume things hadn’t gone well, although that wasn’t something he would take as news. James gnawed on his lower lip, wondering if he should just head home to Lily.

There was the distant sound of a door shutting at that moment, and, peering up through the gaps in the iron bars, he could just make out a figure descending the long walk towards him. It wasn’t Beth – he could tell that almost at once – but it was a woman, and she shared enough characteristics with Beth for James to know who it was almost at once.

“Mrs. Br – erm, Ms. Prescott?” He cursed silently at nearly calling Beth’s mother by her married name. Evidently, she’d heard the near slip as well; her mouth pursed in an unpleasant frown as she looked up, pulling on a pair of gloves. “Is Beth there?” James called.

“She left about an hour ago,” Amelia Prescott said icily, looking at James rather as one might look at a piece of rotted meat. “I do not know where she went.” She smirked unpleasantly. “It’s a wonder she didn’t inform you. I’d say she tells you more than she tells me.”

James frowned. “Erm. Right.” He rubbed the back of his neck with his right hand – what was he supposed to say to that? “Well, I… she’s probably gone on home, then,” he said, a bit lamely. “So, I’ll just… head there.” Amelia raised an eyebrow in mild disdain, but said nothing more. James stepped back as she passed through the gate, walking right by him as though he wasn’t there, and turned right.

As soon as she was out of earshot, James let out a long breath. With a mother like that, he thought idly, I’d have headed home, too… He felt bad that he hadn’t been able to act as a buffer, but then, Beth probably would have rejected the offer, even if he’d been able to make it.

He glanced back up towards the house, but all the windows were dark; he had no reason to disbelieve Beth’s mother’s claim. Feeling slightly guilty for a reason he couldn't specifically pinpoint, James turned and started in the opposite direction, back towards the train and his own home, resolving to send Beth an owl as soon as he got back to his flat.

A/N: Beth's parents do still exist! And their divorce is still as ugly as ever, I'm afraid. They're not large factors in this story (or, really, in any part of any of these three stories), but it's still important that they're mentioned every so often. We did see a quick glimpse of Amelia back in the second chapter of In The Black -- gosh, that feels ages ago -- and now we've seen Beth's father. Hooray for plot developments! I did enjoy writing this chapter, though, and hope that you enjoyed reading it, too. Thank you, and I'm excited to see your opinions! 


Chapter 24: Among Friends
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As expected, James’s owl came for Beth only about an hour or two after she had fled her parents’ house for the relative safety of her flat. The ensuing letter that had been tied to the owl’s leg had expressed concern over her whereabouts, though, of course, he’d suspected she’d left her parents early for a reason, and if he wanted to give a couple of people a good punch in the nose, she knew where to find him. Beth smiled a bit wryly when she read that part; he may be approaching fatherhood, but there were some things about him that remained the same as ever.

She dashed off a quick reply to James, assuring him that she was fine, and no, she didn’t want that on his conscience. Just as Beth was about to send it, though, she hesitated. She really didn’t want to be alone right now, what with all her anger and frustration at her parents still lurking about, volatile and ready to surface at a moment’s provocation. An owl wasn’t much company, especially one that brought word that referenced the very situation she didn’t really want to focus on, but it was company all the same. Beth’s own owl, Oscar, was away hunting, and wasn’t likely to return before morning, and really, this one had flown almost directly into her hands…

“You can stay with me for a bit,” she told James’s owl, feeling, as always, a bit stupid when talking to a pet that wasn’t her own. The bird blinked at her in mild confusion, but took its perch in the spare cage nonetheless, dipping its beak into Oscar’s nearly-full bowl of water and making odd slurping sounds.

Breathing out a long, slow sigh, Beth sank down lopsidedly in her armchair. Beyond her tiny, grimy window, the sun had begun to sink over the dilapidated roofs of the neighboring apartment complexes, a few sparse stars slowly fading into sight. From the corner, James’s owl gave an inquiring sort of hoot, but she paid it no attention.

She didn’t know what she had expected to come out of her visit today, except perhaps to leave early - and even where that was concerned, Beth imagined she’d probably broken a record. Of course she couldn’t tell her parents about the Order, much less about anything else - her mixed guilt and annoyance at Sirius, her whatever-it-was with Severus. Neither her mother nor her father had ever been people she’d felt she could confide in; that had always been James. And it should have been Sirius now, were it not for the fact that she still wasn’t sure where she stood with him after his having found out she was still maintaining contact with Severus. For an idle second, she wondered about the chances of Remus being free tonight to help take her mind off things, of sending James’s owl his way and seeing what he said about meeting at the Leaky Cauldron.

But with a slight pang of guilt - as if she needed more heaped onto her already-generous stack - she realized that wasn’t who she wanted to see.

Slowly, Beth climbed out of the armchair, feeling a smile spreading across her face even as she did so, and not completely sure of the reason why. She reached into the top drawer of her rather battered desk and removed a second sheet of parchment, scribbled a few words on it, and then rolled it up. She swept both that letter and her reply to James into her hand and turned to the cage.

“Do me a favor,” she told it, “and take this letter to Severus Snape first. Then you can go back home and give this to James.” The owl opened his mouth obliging, though still looking a bit confused, and Beth stuck both of the scrolls into its beak with slight difficulty. After a rather muffled-sounding noise from the bird, it took off through her open window.

Beth watched it soar off for a few moments, still smiling a little, and then ran to her bedroom, yanked her cloak out of the wardrobe - it was, she could sense, rather a cool night - and went to stand on the corner in front of her building.

*

By the time Severus showed up, a distant figure approaching her from down the street, Beth was rather glad that she had had the foresight to throw on her cloak before coming out here. As it was, the tips of her fingers were starting to turn numb, even though she’d jammed them into her pockets. She shifted impatiently as he walked, willing a bit of warmth to return to her toes as well as the rest of her.

He came to a stop in front of her; neither of them said anything, but just looked at the other. She suddenly felt a bit sheepish - was it stupid of her to ask him to come here? How was she supposed to explain to him that all she wanted was just a bit of conversation, reassurance that what had happened today with her parents wouldn’t matter by tomorrow?

As it happened, however, he was the one who provided the opportunity for the segue into a conversation. “I can’t stay long,” he said, dark eyes searching hers; her stomach gave a little flip. “I’ve got a - a meeting.” Severus’s lips twisted briefly at the last word, something Beth didn’t miss, but right now it wasn’t important to her. “Did you need to speak to me?”

“I - well.” And the embarrassment was back, flooding her cheeks and the tips of her ears. “It’s not… not important, really.” Beth cleared her throat and continued, “Mostly I just wanted someone to talk to, and… thought of you.” Oh, why had she asked him to come out here? This was possibly the stupidest thing she’d ever done…

Severus smiled languidly. “I don’t mind,” he said in a low voice. “Are you all right, Beth?” He took another step closer, their hands only inches from touching, and Beth’s stomach gave another flip. She willed herself to remain composed; she already looked idiotic enough, thank you very much.

“I saw my parents today,” she found herself saying instead, already mentally kicking herself for not shutting up about problems that had nothing to do with Severus in the first place. “And, well. They were their usual pleasant selves.”

Severus winced in sympathy. “Got to love that,” he said, a bit bitterly. “And it didn’t go very well?”

Beth sighed and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “It’s just… I can’t tell them anything, and that’s really frustrating. Not about what I’m doing” - her eyes flicked quickly to his, and he looked down at the pavement with equal speed - “or about… anything.” It was a bit of a lame ending, but she had been about to say “about you,” and was very, very glad she had caught herself in time.

“And they’re just so stuck in their ways, and they can’t ever wrap their heads around the fact that I’m different from them, and…” But here Beth trailed off for the third time, her hand snaking up from the folds of her cloak to cover her mouth. Because Severus was the same, wasn’t he? If logic was at play here - and both of them had long ago decided that nothing about what they were doing was logical - then he should have been on her parents’ side of the argument, not hers.

“I’m sorry.” Beth bit down on her lower lip hard - good grief, could she ever stop talking? Severus was still looking at the pavement by his feet as though it were the most fascinating thing in the world. “Merlin, Sev, I’m sorry. I brought you out here to whinge at you.” She smiled weakly, but all she wanted to do at that moment was sink right into the ground and not come back up for a few months, at least. When he didn’t say anything right away, she dropped her forehead into her fingertips, rubbing her temples and trying to massage away her extreme embarrassment.

“Beth, I don’t care.” Severus spoke up at last, sounding both slightly exasperated and amused in one go. Beth lifted her head from her hands, feeling just about as pathetic as she ever had. “You don’t have to apologize for anything.” His mouth twisted again in that funny way, and he let out a sigh of his own, glancing briefly back down the street in the direction he had come. Beth was hit with a sudden realization that, in addition to running her mouth, she’d monopolized the conversation as well.

“Are you all right, Sev?” she ventured timidly, shoving her hands into the pockets of her cloak once more, her bracelet - the bracelet he had given her - snagging on the lining. He turned back to her, and she was surprised to see the look on his face - it was one of mingled resignation and guilt, even a trace amount of sadness. Her stomach twisted for the third time that night, this time not in an entirely pleasant way.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “But Beth?” She looked up at him, holding her breath without being quite aware of it. “I don’t want you to feel like anything you tell me - anything you ever tell me - is a waste of time.”

Beth gave him a small smile. “Understood.”

*

Severus watched Beth as she turned and glanced back at the door to her building, rubbing her nose thoughtfully. “I don’t want to keep you from your meeting,” she said regretfully, glancing back at him. “Do you have to leave soon?”

“Probably,” he answered, slightly annoyed with himself at how evidently his disappointment was laced through his words. His insides were churning with guilt even standing here, looking down at her, all the while knowing the things he did know. His thoughts jerked back to the prophecy he’d overheard being told to Dumbledore in the Hog’s Head. Should he tell her?

But he couldn’t tell her. That was a part of his life that Beth didn’t touch; if he told her, she’d be tainted with that darkness, the exact same that now coated him, and that was the absolute last thing he wanted.

“I mean it, though,” he added suddenly, as though he had only just now stopped talking. “I didn’t mind coming out here.” Beth grinned at him shyly, and Severus felt his breath sort of hitch around his collarbone.

“I know. I’m going to head back inside, then. Good luck at - at your meeting.” Her eyes flashed something briefly, too briefly for him to analyze what it was - pain, amusement, disgust? - and she turned and headed for the stoop. At the top step, she chanced a look over her shoulder at him, and he nodded, feeling a smile on his face for the second time that night. She smiled back, and disappeared through the doorway.

As soon as she was gone, Severus sighed quickly and raked his hands through his hair. Great. Now, on top of everything else he was feeling lately, he felt horrible for hiding his news of the prophecy from Beth - and after she had been so honest with him tonight, so open… It never even crossed his mind that she might be keeping secrets from him, too; his mind was too concentrated on his own shortcomings for that.

But he hadn’t lied to her on one point; he really did have a meeting to go to, and what’s worse, he was supposed to be at headquarters five minutes ago. Not that he would ever tell Beth that her detour had made him late, of course. And besides, after the news he’d brought back - after what the Dark Lord had done to the Mark on Severus’s arm - Roark could bluster all he liked, but there was really nothing he could actually do about it. But still, it wasn’t a very prudent thing, being late.

Just as he turned to head off in that direction, however, the streetlamp situated a few feet behind him caught the light of something on the ground, glinting and winking silver. Severus frowned slightly and stooped, picking up the object.

It was the bracelet he had given to Beth for her birthday.

Insane, ludicrous thoughts immediately began chasing themselves one after the other through his head. Had she dropped it, or was it there on purpose? But no, the clasp had broken; he could see that now. If she hadn’t dumped it to the ground on purpose, then that meant she probably didn’t know it was gone…

A distant clock tower sounded one bell - fifteen minutes past the hour - and Severus cursed softly under his breath. He shoved the bracelet into the pocket of his robes, resolving to return it to Beth at the earlier possibly opportunity, and then turned once on his heel, disappearing into the twilight with a loud crack.

*

By the time Beth had reached her flat again, treading with feather-light steps and feeling slightly less embarrassed for having called Severus to this part of London, a second owl was waiting for her. This one, too, was familiar, though it didn’t belong to James. The couldn’t-care-less handwriting on the outside of the envelope clamped in its beak matched Sirius’s owl perfectly.

A small pool of trepidation welled in the pit of her stomach as she reached forward to take the letter. Sirius’s owl - rather less friendly than James’s - eyed her balefully before beginning to preen her feathers with almost sickening pride, especially for a bird. And, seeing as how she’d spent a good deal of her adolescence as a bird, Beth couldn’t help but think, as she often did, that it was a rather stupid creature. Rolling her eyes at it, she ran her finger under the flap of the parchment envelope and drew out the sheet within it.

Bethy,

We haven’t talked in forever - I’m starting to think you’ve put a curse on me, I keep checking the mirror for signs. James was by earlier, and said you’d been to see your parents. Better you than me, although from what he said, I gather you didn’t have a very pleasant time of it. How about dropping in around noon tomorrow and telling me all about it? I promise I’ll make fun of them in all the right places, and Frank and Alice’ll be there, too.

Cheers,


Sirius

With every word she read, Beth found herself grinning a bit wider. This - this was the Sirius she had missed so much, the one who had seemed so distant ever since their row in James’s flat. This was the Sirius who was one of her very best friends.

She hurried for the quill and ink that still sat atop the desk from when she had sent James’s and Severus’s letters, scribbling a hasty reply on the back of Sirius’s own letter. She could sense his owl judging her for it, sticking her leg out reluctantly so Beth could tie the letter to it.

“You don’t need to give me that look,” she chided. “That’s your job, you know, carrying letters.” When the owl’s rather disgruntled-looking expression did not alter, she stuck her tongue out at the bird. She gave a shocked-sounding hoot and took off promptly from the window, being sure to flick Beth’s curtains with the tips of her wings on the way out. Beth laughed and watched her disappear over a distantly-smoking chimney, her spirits soaring. The night, she thought happily, had turned out rather better than anticipated.

A/N: This chapter was a bit of a filler, but I couldn't help it -- not only did I want more Severus in there (because it's not like he didn't just have three chapters all to himself), but this was actually supposed to be a part of the previous chapter, and the length on that one did get away from me. Besides, there were some important points here -- namely, the bracelet, which does continue to crop up in the story for a reason!

I'll be working on Breaking Even for one part of NaNoWriMo this year -- my NaNoWriMo rebellion, as I should say, as I'll be shooting for about half of the set word count of 50,000 words. I'm very excited, though! That'll be posted February 17 (my birthday -- and, shamelessly, Beth's), if anyone's curious. But anyway. I'm done now. If you enjoyed this chapter and have the time to review, it would be really appreciated!


Chapter 25: Missing
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The weather outside the enchanted windows at the Ministry of Magic today was dismal - rain was falling in slanted sheets, and the wind scuttling thick, smoke-gray clouds across the sky. Unfortunately enough, it was also one of the rare days that the inside matched the outside, and the rather gloomy cast it gave to the light inside the building did nothing to cheer up the Monday blues evident on most of the faces of the people scuttling about, going to and from offices and courtrooms and the like.

In the Atrium, however, the moving golden symbols on the peacock-blue ceiling mixed with the gold of the Fountain of Magical Brethren, not to mention the shining coins sparkling up from the water from generous donations of Galleons. The broad hall shone with light as it always did, and here, it was quite easy to forget the outside storm. James Potter, perched on the edge of the fountain and hunching over with his forearms balancing on his knees, thought it was a rather good place to be on a day like today, if you had to be in a government building at all - which, unfortunately, he did.

He wasn’t on Order business - the last documents regarding his parents’ estate had finally been drawn up, and he’d been asked to report to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement today to sign a few last papers, though he felt like he’d written his name at least twice on everything by now. He was rather glad it was all over - he didn’t want to still be dealing with this when the baby came, and that was only a few months away now.

A little shiver of excitement shot through James’s stomach even still when he thought about it. The fact that he was going to be a dad was so simultaneously absurd and wonderful that sometimes it almost didn’t feel real, and was instead a dream he’d had that he’d not quite fully woken up from yet. The crib had been purchased, the nursery painted, and it was still a surprise half the time when Lily reminded him of something as mundane as a doctor’s appointment.

Through the months, though, Frank and James had grown closer over the fact that they were going to be fathers around the same time - though Frank was older, James suspected he was feeling rather similarly about the whole thing. That was, in fact, who he was waiting for now, as he tapped the toes of his trainers on the polished hardwood floor, and enjoyed the gold lighting of the room when it was so dismally black elsewhere in the building.

As he had been coming down from the second floor, intent on heading home, he had run into Frank coming up from the Muggle Liaison Office with a sheaf of parchment clutched in his hand. He’d looked worried, and after exchanging greetings James had asked him what the matter was - only to be directed to wait in the Atrium if he wanted to talk, because Frank had something important to tell him. And now here James was, doing just that.

Despite rather enjoying the view, and thinking about Lily and the baby, James was rather apprehensive about whatever it was that Frank had to say. The older man hadn’t looked particularly happy when he’d requested the impromptu meeting upstairs - that much had been obvious - and for a rather terrible moment, James wondered if something had happened to Alice in her own pregnancy. A twist of trepidation joined the previous feeling of excitement in racing along his spine. James shifted uncomfortably on the rim of the fountain, nearly losing his balance in the process, and wondered how many more minutes he’d have to sit there waiting.

As it turned out, however, he didn’t have to wait much longer at all. Just as his mind had completed its cycle of thoughts - the estate, Lily, Frank, and then back again - Frank Longbottom himself appeared at the end of the Atrium, near the small half-circle of gold lifts. He seemed to see James right away and began striding purposefully toward him, edging around the slower-moving witches and wizards who seemed to be in no particular hurry. James felt a bubble of apprehension well within him; he stood up and wiped his hands on his jeans, as they had become suddenly clammy.

Frank came to a stop next to him and folded his arms across his chest. “Don’t make it look suspicious,” he warned in an undertone, fiddling with the parchment in his hands. “I don’t want anyone to think we’re talking about anything important, got that?”

James nodded; the bubble was growing. Perhaps this trip was going to turn into something having to do with the Order after all. "What's going on?" he said in a low voice, anxious not to catch the attention of a wizard who had just passed by much too close for comfort.

“When was the last time you saw Dearborn?”

“What?” If James had been expecting any question at all, it hadn’t been that one. He looked down at the coins in the fountain; the ripples from the water trickling from the golden statues made the surface waver like a mirage. “What do you mean, when was the last time I saw Dearborn?”

Frank gave him a hard look from the corner of his eye, and James frowned, trying to remember. “I don’t… I can’t have seen him since the last Order meeting, can I? And that was nearly a month ago, wasn’t it, we’ve got another one tonight.”

Frank sucked in a long breath and briefly lifted his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “He’s missing.”

“I – what?!”

“Dearborn’s missing.” Frank’s voice was so low that James couldn’t help it; he took another step closer to his friend, desperate now not to miss a word. “He hadn’t been showing up for work for a couple of days, and we all thought, you know, he was sick or something. Your friend Remus” – he jerked his head at the ceiling, as though indicating Remus’s sorry little corner desk –“sent him an owl, and it came back. So Moody and the Prewetts went to investigate his flat. No sign of him, no sign of a struggle. Just… gone.”

James’s brain suddenly felt ice-cold; Beth’s voice flitted through his mind, and he remembered what she’d said outside that Muggle theater the night Remus had told James that Voldemort’s supporters were after Lily and him.

“I think they – the Death Eaters – they’re following him, or something.”

He swore softly. “And nobody knows – I mean, they haven’t found…?” His voice trailed off; the thought was too horrible to be spoken aloud. Frank shook his head once, more of a jerk than anything else, and James swore again simply because he couldn’t think of what else to do.

“James, you need to be careful. You and Lily both.” Frank swiveled a fraction of an inch in his direction, tautness ranged along the lines of his shoulders. “Dearborn found out You-Know-Who was targeting you. You know he thinks the pair of you would be assets to his side. Don’t get backed into a corner and think that’s your only option.”

James stared unseeingly back down at the water. “Our loyalties lie with Dumbledore,” he said quietly, his voice shaking slightly. “They will always lie with Dumbledore, Frank.” His friend nodded once and clapped him on the shoulder, as though trying to reinforce him through the gesture. When it became apparent that neither man really had anything more to say on the subject, Frank turned and began walking away, heading for the stone fireplaces ranged along one wall, pre-lit with bright green flames for easy departure.

Letting out a trembling breath, James sank back onto the edge of the fountain and dropped his head into his hands, the edges of his glasses cutting painfully into the skin around his eyes. He massaged his temples and tried to calm his jolting heartbeat, but peace was something that evaded him at the moment. And, with a nauseous feeling in his stomach, he realized it was probably something that would evade him for the foreseeable future.

Just as abruptly as he had taken his seat, he bolted to his feet, nearly stumbling over the hem of his robes as he did so. With near-suspicious quickness, he started after Frank, his mind only set on Flooing home and getting back to Lily and the baby, and praying desperately that they would be all right when he got there.

In his haste to leave, he didn’t see the man sitting on the opposite side of the fountain. But the man had seen him – and not only had he seen him, but he’d overheard nearly every word of the conversation between James and Frank. With a rather haughty expression on his face, he strode away in the opposite direction, towards the golden grilles of the lifts, and became lost in the crowd.

*

By the time James got back to the lobby of the building where his and Lily’s apartment was, he had worked himself into a full-fledged panic with absolutely no basis for it whatsoever. His heart was rattling around in his chest, going a thousand miles an hour, and he found that his fingers couldn’t work well enough to grasp the handle of the door.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he whispered in a stream, the words blurring one into the next, all while the inner corners of his mind were telling him to calm down and relax, that nothing Frank Longbottom had said should have gotten him this worked up. But one of the Order members, the one who’d discovered You-Know-Who’s interest in James and his wife in the first place, was missing… It wasn’t a chance he could even begin to fathom taking.

He was halfway across the lobby towards the set of burnished steel lifts when he realized that taking the stairs would be faster, and nearly fell over his robes in his haste to turn around. This particular complex didn’t have a front desk, not like their old one, which meant James could generally get away with wearing his robes without being rewarded with suspicious looks from Muggles. He bolted up the stairs, taking them three at a time, and all but threw himself at the door on the third landing.

“Lily!” James didn’t care if he was yelling, didn’t care if their neighbors heard his shouts. He completely forgot about the door key sitting comfortably in his pocket; with a raised, he banged on the top of the door, hearing the sliding bolt rattle on the other side. “Lily!”

There was no answer. James ran his hands through his hair and clenched his teeth, trying his absolute hardest to keep a level head and quickly failing in his efforts. If she wasn’t here, there were only a handful of places she’d be – she wouldn’t be at Remus’s, or Mary’s, or Marlene’s, they were all at work – maybe Peter –

And then he heard the sound of the bolt being drawn back, and the door swung inward just as he whirled around to face it once more. Lily stood framed in the doorway, one hand on her hip, her lower lip sticking out slightly. She looked rather like she’d done for the majority of the time James had known her at Hogwarts, irked by his very presence, and for some reason that comforted him more than anything else.

“James Potter, what the hell do you –“ she started, but wasn’t able to finish her sentence. James closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around his wife, burying his face in her shoulder, slightly ashamed of the tears of relief that pricked his eyes behind his glasses. For the time being, though, he didn’t care how stupid he was acting; Lily was here, she was okay

“What’s going on?” It was Lily’s turn to sound slightly panicked; she gently shoved James away from him and looked up into his face imploringly. “James, are you all right?” She watched him closely as he moved into the foyer of their flat, gnawing on her bottom lip and stepping aside as James swung the door closed.

“Dearborn’s missing.” He thought it best to get the news out there, without preamble; no sense beating around bushes. Lily’s brow creased in confusion, as though she didn’t understand what her husband had told her.

“What?”

“Dearborn. Caradoc Dearborn. He wasn’t answering letters, and Moody and a couple others went to his place and he was just gone, and he’s the one who found out You-Know-Who was…” James swallowed thickly and sank down to the linoleum, removing his glasses and laying a hand across his eyes. “And I was so scared they’d gotten you and the baby too…”

“Merlin,” Lily whispered, though James couldn’t see her, hand still across his eyes as it was. She gave a slight groan, and then he heard her sink down next to him, though with her being a little over six months pregnant, it was rather difficult.

“James. Shh, James.” She gently lifted his hand from his eyes and then took both of them in their own. I’m fine. Look, we’re all fine… calm down, it’s okay…” James let out a shuddering breath and closed the already-minute distance between them, wrapping his arm around Lily’s shoulders and drawing her closer to him.

“We can’t stay here,” he said at last, his voice low. “If they’ve got Dearborn then it’s too risky – they really could come for you next, and I don’t – I couldn’t –“ He stopped, and cleared his throat. “We need to talk to Dumbledore at the meeting tomorrow night. I want you as safe as possible.”

Again, Lily’s forehead puckered. “We just moved here. All of our things – and we painted the nursery already –“ she protested, but James cut her off with a curt shake of his head.

“I want you safe,” he repeated earnestly. “We’ll go anywhere – maybe get a house somewhere further in the country, away from London. Somewhere where it’s more difficult for them to find us.”

Lily sighed, and offered him what he could tell was supposed to be a bracing, cheerful smile. “Okay. We’ll talk to Dumbledore.

Leaning over, he kissed her forehead gently and then buried his face in her hair, drinking in the scent of her and trying to further calm the blood pounding through his veins. He didn’t know how long they sat like that, the linoleum cold beneath him while his heart thrummed hot. But it was what he needed.

*

“Severus. Come here.” Severus, who had been leaning back against the stretch of wall next to the hidden door at headquarters, opened his eyes as slowly as he could and glanced to his right. Bellatrix Black – no, she was Lestrange now, he kept forgetting – was standing in the far corner, her face half-hidden in shadow, eyes glinting with something he did not particularly like. She gave an unnaturally girlish sort of giggle and beckoned him closer. Reluctantly, he went to join her.

“Isn’t it incredible?” she breathed, pushing some of her dark hair out of her eyes and gazing rapturously up at him. Severus raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment. “That the Dark Lord… he’s here,” she added, and gave another giggle that somehow raised the hairs on the nape of Severus’s neck.

“He’s here often of late, Bellatrix,” Severus said smoothly. “Those of us who are privileged enough to be a part of his audience are well aware of that fact.” Bellatrix’s grin dropped at once; with a sort of hissing noise, she retreated further into her corner, arms folded tightly over his chest.

It was true, Severus thought smugly, smirking a bit and returning to his stretch of wall. The Dark Lord had been around headquarters lately far more often than he had once been, although much of his time was spent alone with Roark, conferring behind closed doors. And, unfortunately, this had required Severus’s presence more and more often, as well.

His stomach clenched uncomfortably at the memory of the previous night, talking to Beth on the corner outside her flat complex. He had, in fact, been on his way to headquarters then, and it was the first time he’d wished he’d been able to skive off a meeting. She’d been rather tense that night – understandable, after meeting with her parents – and he’d just left her. He didn’t have any other choice, but still, every time he thought about it…

He slipped a hand into the pocket of his robes, closing the tips of his fingers around the delicate chain that was pooled there at the bottom. Beth’s bracelet was still there, right where he’d left it – he would have to return it to her soon. Severus would have been lying, though, if he’d said he hadn’t enjoyed having a sort of token of her with him.

“What have they called you here for?” Bellatrix’s voice broke through his thoughts again, and for the second time in a span of a few minutes, Severus opened his eyes in annoyance.

“I am called often,” he said shortly, unable to help a small tingling of pride zip up his spine. Bellatrix’s mouth twisted in displeasure.

“That’s not what I meant,” she snapped. “You act like you are better than me, Severus, but –“

“There are many differences between you and me,” he interrupted her, closing his eyes again and letting his head fall back against the wall with a muffled thump. “Primarily among them is that I am known to be able to be trusted, and you” – he smirked again, though his eyes stayed closed – “are not.”

He heard her take an angry step toward him, but just as she made to take another, the front door of the building swung open roughly. Both Bellatrix and Severus started in shock as a figure was briefly outlined against the steely afternoon clouds outside before the door shut behind him again, and he could only be seen by the poor light of the foyer.

“Travers,” Bellatrix said haughtily. “You’re supposed to be at the Ministry.”

The man called Travers – Severus recognized him by sight, though he’d never had much occasion to speak with him before this – stopped dead, his arms busy in the process of removing his overcoat. “How did you know that?” he said, voice rising incredulously on the last syllable.

“I know plenty –“

“If you’re supposed to be at the Ministry,” Severus said, stepping neatly on Bellatrix’s sentence for the second time, “then why are you here?”

“I’ve got news,” said Travers, and then his eyes alit with a fever not unlike that Bellatrix’s had held when thinking about being so close to the Dark Lord. “I overheard James Potter talking with Frank Longbottom in the Atrium.”

It was as though boiling lava had been poured directly into Severus’s stomach. “You - Longbottom?”

“And Potter,” Bellatrix cackled meaningfully. “Well, Travers, out with it.” The fingers on both of her hands flexed eagerly.

“He won’t come over to our side,” Travers told the pair of them. “Said just as much to Longbottom – all but screamed it, really, it was a pretty thick thing to do.” He laughed nastily. “He’s too protective of his little Mudblood wife.”

Severus was overcome with the sudden, strong desire to hit him.

Bellatrix, however, looked rather annoyed. “He’s still refusing? After all the –“ She tapped the fingers of one hand on the opposite arm. “The Dark Lord… he won’t like it…”

The lava in Severus’s stomach had turned to thick, sluggish ice; there was another reason Lord Voldemort would be displeased, a far more important and grave reason that Travers and Bellatrix couldn’t even begin to imagine… It was no longer a secret that both Lily Potter and Alice Longbottom were evidently pregnant, and the Death Eaters – most of them – weren’t thick enough to miss calculating that they were both due to give birth at the end of July…

If James was an idiot enough to defy the Dark Lord’s wishes yet again – and it very much seemed to Severus that he was – then it placed his entire family in serious danger. James was a rather powerful wizard, Lily an equally strong witch, and having them alone for opponents was enough to put them at risk. With the added danger of a son or daughter born at the end of the seventh month… Severus tried desperately not to think of Beth, knowing how close she was with James, and forced himself to speak.

“So, he – he’s definitely refused it, then?” He couldn’t think of anything more intelligent to say.

Travers gave another harsh laugh, completely devoid of humor, by way of an answer. “Potter’s had his last chance, I’d wager,” he sneered. “I’d be watching my back, if I were him…”

Bellatrix joined him in laughing his time, the sound high and obnoxious and grating on Severus’s ears. He felt suddenly sick to his stomach, and thought, for a horrifying moment, that he very well might vomit. His last chance

Without realizing it, Severus reached again into his pocket and clamped his hand around the chain of Beth’s bracelet. James was her best friend – and if he was in danger, then she, however remotely, shared in that danger. And for the first time since joining the ranks of the Death Eaters nearly two years previously, he felt just a fraction of his loyalty towards them waver. Because he could not – would not – do that to her.

A/N: This author's note is going to be rather quick -- sometimes it's rather a pain, having to post chapters on Sundays, because now occasional Sundays are spent driving back to university after a weekend at home! And it's always at prime posting time, too, those drives... But we're really getting into the story now, and I'm very, very excited. There are only 9 more chapters of In The Red to go!

Thank you, as always, to people who read and review this story. You're truly the reason I do it. And special thanks to Ardeith, who is always so supportive and encouraging and never, ever fails to review! If you have the time to tell me what you thought of this chapter, I'd love to hear your opinions!


Chapter 26: Sirius and Severus
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The small meeting space where the Order of the Phoenix gathered was, as always, quite crowded when Beth arrived for the meeting. Not for the first time, she felt a slight, humid sense of claustrophobia upon squeezing through the front door. There seemed to be as many people there as there ever were – which, admittedly, was a good thing. Dwindling numbers certainly would have been more of a cause for concern, but the press of people did make certain things – for instance, breathing – rather unpleasant for the time being.

She didn’t know why, but there was something about tonight’s meeting that stirred faint fluttering feelings of anticipation in the pit of her stomach. She figured it was about time for another mission, and that perhaps that was the reason – she and Sirius hadn’t really been out on the streets since the evening she had run into Severus. Beth felt her cheeks redden even as she shut the door behind her; that had been the night she’d kissed his cheek, without even thinking about it… and neither of them had said a thing about it when she’d stupidly asked to see him after fighting with her parents, either. Maybe it was best that way; Merlin knew the pair of them had enough misunderstandings in their past to try and interpret exactly what that had meant.

“Beth!” At the sound of her name, Beth turned her head; Lily, Alice, Mary, and Marlene had claimed a few chairs on the opposite side of the room, and Lily was waving her hand over her head to get her attention. She motioned to a spare chair next to Marlene with her foot, and said something that was lost in the drone of conversation. Beth grinned back in acknowledgement and started making the inevitable pardons that accompanied wending one’s way across a crowded room.

It was very strange, having two good friends who were pregnant – well, strange wasn’t the word for it, but Beth, as she all but collapsed into the seat after pushing past Gideon Prewett, still felt as though she didn’t have much to talk about with Lily anymore. Hearing her currently chatting with Alice about something that sounded like baby blankets confirmed this fact; she rather thought it would be a long time before she herself needed to be discussing things like the softest sort of yarn to make them out of.

“Sort of makes you think, doesn’t it?” Marlene leaned over and said to her in an undertone, jerking Beth from her thoughts for the second time that evening. “Weird, isn’t it, that she’s the same age as us and less than three months from having a baby?”

“So weird,” Beth laughed, rather relieved to see that she hadn’t been the only one to find it that way. She leaned back in the uncomfortable folding chair and cast her eyes around for Sirius or James, but saw neither of them. Remus was talking to Frank across the way, looking rather serious about something; Peter had been cornered by Emmeline Vance, who was well-known for her ability to talk up a storm and never let her conversational partner get a word in edgewise. She smiled in sympathy upon seeing it, and was about to make a snide remark about it to Marlene when her friend spoke up again.

“How have you been, Beth? With… with everything?” Marlene adjusted the hem of her skirt and crossed one leg over the other, smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles in an almost compulsive fashion. “I feel like we’ve not properly talked in ages.”

Beth shrugged, feeling a little guilty – the past few get-togethers, she realized, had just been the boys and Lily and her, with Mary and Marlene, she now saw, rather noticeably absent. “I know,” she said, trying to sound as sorry as she possibly could, and immediately feeling even guiltier for having to consciously think about sounding apologetic at all. “My life’s not been terribly exciting, if it’s any consolation. I sort of just hang about with Sirius unless I’m needed here, discussing plans or something.” Beth thought it would have been a bit cruel to mention the rest of the boys, too, at the risk of making Marlene feel excluded, so she said nothing. “Other than that, I just… erm, read?”

Marlene laughed, and Beth gave an internal sigh of relief; no pressing questions meant no having to talk her way around sending letters to and meeting up with Severus, which, admittedly, had happened with increasing frequency in the past month. “Sirius is a character,” she grinned. “You know Mary fancied him, in school?”

“I think everyone knew that,” Beth said, cracking a grin of her own. “Especially Sirius.” Marlene laughed again, and the two looked over to their left; Mary was listening to whatever topic of conversation Lily and Alice had moved onto, her face showing her to be rather rapt with attention.

“He’s doing well, then?” Marlene questioned further, and Beth nodded. “And aren’t you two…?” She made a little motion with her forefinger between Beth and the empty space in front of her chair.

“Oh. Oh, no.” Beth shook her head, feeling her cheeks redden yet again. “No, we are very much just friends.”

“Oh.” Marlene looked mildly confused, but before Beth could divert her off that rather awkward tangent and ask her about her own life, Dumbledore emerged from the minuscule door leading into the flat’s equally tiny kitchen, and a sort of buzzing silence fell over the assembled members. To Beth’s surprise, James emerged from the door behind her former headmaster.

She leaned over to Lily and made a sort of waving motion, straining to tap her friend on the leg. Lily looked at her in mild surprise. “Where’s –“ Beth started to ask, but then Dumbledore stepped to the middle of the circle, and the room quieted even further. Not wanting to be the sole noise in the silence, she leaned back into her seat.

James, Sirius, and Remus were all aligned along the wall separating the main room from the kitchen, and none of them made any move to sit down. Beth’s forehead puckered. What is going on? Her gaze slid involuntarily to Peter, who’d had to sit near Emmeline on the floor. His eyes, too, were focused on their friends, and his cheeks were rather red.

“Does anyone have any sort of announcements to begin our evening?” Dumbledore asked mildly, sounding rather as though he thought this were some sort of innocuous social function. His long fingers stroked his silver beard as he waited for someone to speak up, but now Peter and Beth were not the only ones to have noticed the three men still standing. From the outer edges of the room, querying murmurs began to work their way inward. Beth looked again at Lily; she was staring determinedly at her hands, clasped together over her rather large stomach.

“Well, then, that takes care of that.” The old man smiled pleasantly. “Then, if I may, I would like to call up Remus Lupin to share a bit of news.” He cleared his throat. “Mr. Lupin?”

It was apparent that old habits really did die hard; Remus looked faintly embarrassed at being addressed like he was once again a Hogwarts pupil. He cleared his throat in a rather good imitation of Dumbledore and picked his way to stand beside him, muttering apologies upon nearly squashing several fingers and hands in the process.

He looked, Beth thought, rather more ill than he usually did, though it was still a little more than two weeks until the full moon was once again due to appear in the sky. After a brief pause, and a nonverbal confirmation from Dumbledore, he drew a deep breath.

“As some of you may have noticed,” he said dully, the words coming from in a monotonic rush and sounding very much like a prepared speech, “tonight’s meeting is missing the – ah – presence of Caradoc Dearborn.”

Renewed mutterings broke out at that; Beth looked around, though she knew that she wouldn’t see him amongst those squeezed into corners or sitting stiffly on the chairs. Her eyes locked with Sirius’s, across the way, and she mouthed, What’s going on? Sirius shook his head once, flexing his hands nervously in front of them, and nodded back at Remus, who was apparently waiting for the room to settle down once more.

“After not showing up to work several days in a row, an – an investigative team was sent to his flat, and found the place empty. We suspect Dearborn was being watched and are almost certain his disappearance involves foul play, but – but all measures are being taken to find him.” Remus’s report was peppered with pauses; Beth would sense not only her friend’s nerves, but also what lay beneath, how shaken up he was over the disappearance of someone he had worked alongside for over a year. There was a slightly awkward pause, and then Remus resumed his spot next to Sirius.

“And what’s that supposed to mean, then?” a rather indignant voice squawked, just as Dumbledore made to move into the middle of the circle once more. Edgar Bones had risen to his feet, his eyes popping slightly; he looked almost mad. “Are we all going to be snatched from our beds, with the rest of you searching for our bodies? And when there’s no one left?” His voice was rising steadily.

From next to Remus, Frank Longbottom spoke up coolly. “You knew the risks when you agreed to help us, Edgar. Caradoc knew them, too.” Edgar opened his mouth at that moment to snap back a retort, but Dumbledore raised his hands and interceded.

“Gentlemen,” he said calmly. “There is a time for debating, but this, unfortunately, is not it.” Still bug-eyed, Edgar sank down the wall and resumed his place on the uncomfortable carpet. Beth caught Marlene’s eye, and Marlene shrugged, twisting her mouth in a somehow helpless way.

“As a result of this news,” Dumbledore continued on, speaking calmly and smiling, though his eyes had rather lost their characteristic twinkle, “I urge each of you to do all you can to maintain a mindset of utmost caution in the coming weeks and months. We will not underestimate the power of our enemies; yes, they are strong. Caradoc’s disappearance is proof of this.”

He took a brief moment to adjust the half-moon spectacles on his long, crooked nose. “Keep valuable information close; your lives and the lives of those you hold dear, equally so. Our enemies are strong, but there is strength in our numbers, as well.” Dumbledore seemed to be taking it upon himself to personally look each member of the Order in the eye as he spoke. His gaze fell on Beth, and goosebumps erupted up and down her arms.

“The road ahead,” he finished gently, though not without some measure of severity, “is not to be an easy one. We would all do well to remember that.”

Beth looked across the room; Sirius was looking at her intently, his arms folded across his chest. There was unspoken meaning in the gesture, and for some reason, she was oddly reminded of her second meeting with Severus under the bridge, and their resolve to forge ahead with communicating with each other, despite the obvious risks.

Dumbledore had said to guard information as closely as those you held dear… but what happened when the two conflicted?

Unconsciously, Beth folded her own arms and sat back in her chair, rubbing her nose thoughtfully. He had spoken truthfully – the road ahead would not be an easy one, to be sure. She had known this – both she and Severus had – but somehow, it seemed much more real now, with one of their members Merlin knew where, as good as dead. And her stomach wrenched in guilt at the thought that perhaps, through making distant promises to Severus Snape, she had made the Order’s road that much more treacherous.

*

Severus walked briskly along the street, checking often over his shoulder just to quell the notion of his being followed. He didn’t know why it bothered him so much tonight – and who would follow him? He, who had so quickly reason in Roark’s favor these past several weeks, who was, he knew, quickly inching closer and closer to the Dark Lord’s inner circle? But it was the purpose, and not the plausibility, that made him paranoid tonight. He had resolved to himself never to put Beth in danger, and he intended to stick to that promise.

He reached a hand into the pocket of his cloak and closed his hand around the bracelet there. It had been very hard to concentrate on the meeting that night; it had been one planned rather soon after Travers had relayed the news of his overhead conversation to Roark the evening before, and had accordingly focused largely on discussing the prophecy and the dangers of those who might aid in fulfilling it, namely Potter and Longbottom. And where James Potter’s name was mentioned as far as Severus was concerned, Beth’s name inevitably tagged along.

It had been during the meeting (admittedly, when his attention should have been fully focused on what was being said) that he had resolved to return Beth’s bracelet to her as soon as it was over, without delay. Partially, he knew, he wanted to rid himself of it and thus defer awkward questions, should they ever arise – and part of it was because he wanted to see her again. It was an admission he could not keep from himself.

From a narrow alley to his right, a cat suddenly yowled; Severus stopped short, his heart leaping into his throat, jamming against his Adam’s apple. “Calm down,” he muttered aloud, stepping to the side and leaning for a moment against the wall of the office building he found himself alongside. He glanced again the way he had come, out of instinct, and steeled his resolve. Knock on the door, find Beth’s postbox, drop the bracelet in, and head home. It was a simple enough task; Merlin knew he’d done worse in the past few months…

Rounding the corner, he found himself, almost unexpectedly, on the street where Beth’s flat complex was, which surprised him a bit – somehow he’d thought himself further away from it. His mouth felt dry as he approached the building and he suddenly realized that this would really be the first time since he and Beth had reconciled things that he would be meeting her without prior consent on her part. A wave of something like panic crashed over him at this thought – what would she say? Was it possible that she’d be angry at him, that he was a pocket of her life she didn’t want to deal with when she didn’t have to?

You’re being stupid, he told himself, and drew himself up, throwing back his shoulders as though by walking confidently, he would feel more confident as a result. But if this had been the intention, it failed miserably. Severus felt absolutely no less nervous upon approaching the front door than he had a few seconds previously.

There was a sudden sound of footsteps behind him as he reached for the knob, and as though he had been expecting it – perhaps he had been expecting it – he turned wildly on his heel, hand already halfway to his pocket for his wand despite the fact that he had no way of knowing whether the approaching person was wizard or Muggle. He raised the thin wooden stick, clutching it tightly… and found him staring into the face of none other than Sirius Black.

Severus had not seen Sirius since leaving school nearly two years previously; he hadn’t changed much, he noted with a slight smirk, though he did not lower his wand. He had the same dark hair, the same dark eyes, and the same permanently smug expression, perpetually seconds away from hurling some debilitating insult at whoever passed his way.

Sirius, too, had drawn his wand upon seeing Severus there; he looked no less shocked at meeting in such an unexpected fashion than Severus himself was. The men said nothing for a short stretch of time, neither lowering their wands even a fraction of an inch, and finally Sirius opened his mouth to speak. “What,” he snarled venomously, “are you doing here?”

“As if I’m required to tell you anything,” Severus retorted bitterly; Sirius sneered. “I’ve as much to right to be here as you do, I reckon –“

“Like hell you do,” said Sirius coldly. He took a step forward, and Severus instinctively backed up to the door, cursing himself immediately for doing so. “I know what you are, Snivellus. You don’t need to be hanging around out here, unless I’ve caught you in the act of –“

Severus pressed forward again, the tip of his wand touching the skin below Sirius’s jaw, surprising him into silence. “Don’t you dare talk about things you don’t understand,” he said, in a dangerously calm voice. “Your life is not so valuable to me that I wouldn’t curse you limb from limb where you stand.”

“I’d love for you to try,” Sirius hissed.

And for a brief moment, Severus considered it – Merlin, how he’d love to wipe that smile from Sirius Black’s face, to see him writhing in pain on the ground, pain so unbearable he’d never recover from it… The words were already on the way to his lips; all he needed to do was speak them.

But he knew that he couldn’t, no matter how much he may have wanted to. Sirius was one of Beth’s friends, and though he would never understand it, he could also never do anything about it. And try as he might to give Sirius what he deserved, he wasn’t ever going to be able to. Not anymore.

Half-hating himself for it, he reluctantly stowed his wand back into an inner pocket of his robes and instead fished about for Beth’s bracelet, removing it gently so as not to tangle the chain. Sirius was watching him apprehensively, wand at only half its former height, and Severus held out the bracelet as though it were an offer of peace.

“Here,” he said, still trying to inject as much spite into the word as he could possibly manage. “Beth’s bracelet. She dropped it. I was returning it to her.” When the man across from him did nothing, he waved the chain impatiently. “Give it to her.”

Sirius blinked once; he still didn’t seem to be taking in what Severus was saying. Finally, with careful motions, he reached forward and picked up the bracelet, letting it coil in the palm of his hand before closing his fingers around it. “Why?” he said at last.

Severus gritted his teeth. “Because,” he said slowly, “it is Beth’s.”

This seemed to be a good enough answer for Sirius, who opened his hand once more and looked down at the bracelet. The small charm was resting on top of the chain, as though it were poised for flight. “You gave this to her,” he said unexpectedly, and Severus felt a jolt of surprise in the pit of his stomach; if he had anticipated any further passes at conversation from Sirius, it wouldn’t have been that. There was another long moment of silence between the pair of them, and finally the other man lifted his head, his jaw set and his eyes firmly locked on Severus.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said at last, “but Beth really does care about you. Okay? And if you ever” – his fist over the bracelet tightened, the bones jutting out through the skin – “do something to hurt her, I’m not going to stop until you hurt, too.” And with that, he shouldered past, opened the door, and disappeared into the dim lobby of the flat complex.

Severus didn’t know how long he stared at the spot where Sirius had vanished; his heart was thudding madly beneath his ribs, blood forcing itself almost painfully through his ears so that he could barely hear for the thumping of it. All this time, all these months, he had been so convinced that he was being selfish, that Beth couldn’t possibly… He had felt stupid for even hoping…

He dropped his face into his hands; Severus found that he had sat down on the edge of the crumbling concrete stoop, and couldn’t remember physically having done so. He was shaking – why was he shaking? – and his mind was racing at a hundred, a thousand miles an hour. He couldn’t seem to be able to wrap his mind around a single thought as it flitted by. Except –

“Beth really does care about you.”

The words jumped out at him, and he sucked in a quick breath through his hands. Now that he had the words in front of him, he knew how accurate they were – not just for her, but for him. He did care about her, and possibly more, and never in his life had he wanted anything more than to tell her just that, right now.

She deserved to know how much he felt for her.

But it would have to wait. Because before he could do that, he would have to tell her about the prophecy he had overheard. No more secrets, no more lying, no more pretending people and places didn’t exist. Such things were for fools, and he, Severus, was no fool.

And if she cared for him like Sirius had implied – if she cared for him like he cared for her – then surely she would listen.

A/N: I think it's pretty miraculous that Sirius didn't just hex Severus where he stood. Maybe he's growing up at last! I was just saying this to a friend of mine, and I know I've said it here before -- but I like getting to look back at chapters I wrote months ago, to refresh my mind on what I wrote. That bit at the end, Sirius's threat to Severus -- totally forgot all about it just now. And I love that bit!

I think I ramble too much in these notes, though. I'll try and make them shorter. Thank you so much to everyone who's reviewed and read and favorited since last Sunday, though -- I've had an influx of reviews and favorites, and it makes me feel on top of the world, basically. Your opinions are always very much welcomed!


Chapter 27: The Prophecy Unearthed
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Beth was pacing in front of the tiny window of her flat, her feet dragging over the poor-quality carpet so often that little marks had been scuffed into it, showing up darker than the rest of the fibers. Her hands were knotted in the front of her robes, though occasionally she lifted one to rub her nose, frowning thoughtfully. Several times over the course of the evening she had mentally urged herself to stop her nervous habits, but, then again, tonight probably wasn’t the best sort of night to be quitting those cold turkey.

Severus would be arriving at her door at any moment, and she was hard pressed to keep herself from a full-on panic attack.

At first she hadn’t believed the validity of letter, even if it had been Severus’s owl that had brought it. It would have been very like Sirius to play a prank like this on her, even with the discomfort about the subject of Severus Snape that still hung over the pair of them, like a pall. But it had been his owl, after all, and the handwriting had been very much his – she would have recognized it anywhere – and it had only been after she’d read the letter a second time that the meaning of the hastily-scrawled words had begun to sink in:

Beth,

I need to talk to you. I’ll be at your place in an hour – I hope you’ll be there.

Severus

That was all the letter had said; there was no indication of why he might need to talk to her so badly, or why he was desperate enough to come to her flat (her flat!) without even confirming whether or not she would actually be present. There was nothing she couldn’t take at face value, and that was perhaps the most nerve-wracking thing about the letter. Of course there was a meaning behind it, but Beth was far beyond deciphering it.

Although, she thought now, glancing quickly at the window, and only seeing her slightly harried expression thinly reflected in the dark glass, she supposed it was rather a fortunate circumstance that she was home at all when the letter came. She had, in fact, been preparing to head to the Leaky Cauldron with Sirius and Peter, a long-overdue arrangement the lot of them had made. James was preparing for a second move, repacking the boxes he’d only so recently unloaded, and Remus was still feeling ill from the most recent effects of the full moon, so only the three of them had agreed to go – and Beth had had every intention of going, until the letter.

When Sirius and Peter had shown up ten minutes later, and she’d confessed to not feeling well, Sirius had squawked indignantly about loyalty, and many other guilt-inducing claims, until Beth had told him it was a feminine problem. He had shut up rather quickly then, and he and Peter had hustled off before she could elaborate on what these problems might be. It wasn’t technically a lie – she was a girl, after all, and this could very well be a problem – but such claims were some of the perks to having an all-male group of close friends.

Beth did feel a bit guilty for tricking him. She knew that she shouldn’t be keeping secrets from him, one of her very best friends, and especially now that there really wasn’t a very good reason for her to be doing so. And he had, after all, returned her silver bracelet to her, after having found it on the sidewalk outside – which, if anything, was a show of goodwill in his favor. But there was a small part of her still that felt uncomfortable broaching the topic. And anyway, how would he ever find out?

Not that that made her feel any better now.

The ticking of the battered secondhand clock on her mantel buzzed in her ears as she continued pacing and glancing, and Beth gritted her teeth against the noise. She unwound one of her hands from her robes then, bringing it to her left wrist and toying with the small bird charm on the bracelet. It’s nothing, she told herself firmly, trying to make herself believe it. Nothing at all. He’s probably seen something he wants to tell me about, or remembered something, or…

But she knew the excuses sounded feeble, even inside her own head. He’d never written about something like that before, had he? Why should he have started to do so tonight? The almost embarrassing though of his just wanting to see her flitted briefly through her mind, but she pushed the notion away quickly. There had been an intensity in his letter that belied that.

When a knocking came at the door a few minutes later, it was almost a relief, while simultaneously sending her heart rocketing into her mouth. Beth stopped pacing at once, staring at the door as though willing it open with her mind. And, when that didn’t necessarily work, she breathed out a long breath, tucked an already-placed strand of hair behind her ear needlessly, and crossed to the front door.

Severus was standing on the threshold, his eyes catching hold of hers instantly, as though he knew exactly where to look to meet her gaze when she stood in front of him. His hands were thrust into the pockets of his robes, his expression studiously blank.

“Hello,” he said quietly, and Beth felt her pulse increase just a bit at the word. “May I come in?”

“I – yes,” she managed, somewhat flustered, and stepped back to allow him entrance. He swept quietly into the room, looking out of place in her somewhat shabby sitting room, and yet perfectly at home, all at once.

“Sit down, if you like.” Beth found, rather to her dismay, that she was fighting to keep her tone as casual as possible. What was it about his being here, she wondered in the back of her mind, that made her feel so stiff and formal, and not at all like she normally did around Severus? But he was evidently feeling the same; his posture was stiff, as though a metal rod extended the length of his spine.

There was a slight, mildly awkward pause as Beth watched him take her up on her offer, sinking to sit on the very edge of her sagging loveseat. When he offered no further evidence as to the meaning of his annoyingly cryptically letter, she tried again at normalcy. “Can I get you tea? Or coffee? I think there’s a tin of biscuits, if Sirius hasn’t eaten them all –“

“No, thank you,” he said. “I – I have something to tell you, Beth.” He glanced up at her again, and somehow the look sent a short, sharp chill dancing up the nape of her neck. “Do you want to sit down, too?”

Wordlessly, Beth took a seat on the opposite end of the loveseat, her hands automatically resuming their knotting of the front of her robes without her even realizing it. But if she had thought that Severus would automatically volunteer information after that, she was wrong. It was several moments before he spoke again at all.

“Do you –“ He stopped, cleared his throat, and started yet again. “A few weeks ago, after that – that run-in on the street, where you…” He trailed off and looked at her helplessly, but Beth already felt a bit of warmth begin to creep into her cheeks as he spoke. She knew exactly what he was talking about, despite his being unable to get the words out: That mission, the one that had occurred not long after Sirius had found out she was still in contact with Severus. That had been the time she’d kissed him on the cheek.

“I know,” she interjected quickly, hoping to spare both him and her any more potential embarrassment. “What about it?”

“After that, we patched Wilkes up from your curse” – his lips curved into a half-smile at that – “I took off. I didn’t go back to headquarters; I went to Hogsmeade. To the Hog’s Head.” Severus took in a deep breath, as though to steel himself for whatever he was about to say. “Dumbledore came in then, with a woman – she was apparently a candidate for an open Divination position.”

As he was speaking, Beth could feel her insides tightening with apprehension, but she stifled the unpleasant feeling. She could remember the meeting after the night Severus was describing – and hadn’t Dumbledore been acting just a bit different than usual? This wasn’t really news, of course, as the man wasn’t really sane in the strictest sense of the term. But why hadn’t she paid closer attention?

Severus looked a bit ashamed to be saying the next bit. “Well, I – you know what I’m doing, Beth.” He sounded frustrated, though she could tell it wasn’t at her. Unthinkingly, she laid a hand on his arm, and it seemed to imbibe a fraction of resolve into him. “I followed him up the stairs, to the upper rooms. And… I listened into the conversation.”

He stopped again here; Beth frowned. “Okay,” she said slowly. “Well – but, I mean, what does that have to do with -?”

No,” he interrupted insistently, and she popped her mouth closed at once. “I mean, that’s not it. Their conversation was…” He breathed out, a long, slow breath, and dropped his face into his hands. “I overheard a prophecy,” he said at last, the words heavily muffled through his skin, “that this woman made to Dumbledore.”

Her throat had suddenly gone very dry; she swallowed against it, willing her heart back into its normal place, which it hadn’t resumed to begin with. “What did it say?” she asked, in a rough whisper.

Severus lifted his head at that, and the look in his eyes sent small, stabbing pains through Beth’s heart. He truly looked sorry for whatever he was about to say, and although that made her feel none the better, anticipating what it was, it made her wish more than anything that he didn’t feel obligated to tell her. That they were on the same side in this war, and didn’t need the secrets, the quiet, or the fear about whatever the next day would bring.

“It spoke of a child born at the end of July,” he said, speaking fast, though nothing was ever less pleasant just because it was spoken in a rush. “Who – who could defeat the Dark Lord.” As soon as he had finished, he stood up from the sofa and threaded his fingers through his hair.

But for a moment, Beth still didn’t realize just what this news had to do with her – did it mean that Severus was in greater danger than he already had been? And then something clicked in her brain, the piece that sometimes still refused to acknowledge just how old she really was. Because she did, in fact, know the exact significance that Severus’s words held…

She looked up at him helplessly; his face was drawn slightly, a mask of desperation and apologies. It seemed that he had watched her work out exactly what it meant, a child born at the end of July. And it was a sure bet that Severus himself had come to the same conclusion. It could mean Frank and Alice’s baby – or it could mean Lily and James’s.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered raggedly, and Beth let out a long, shuddery breath she hadn’t even known she was holding. “I know it doesn’t affect you directly, but I –“

“Of course it does.” Her voice was softer than she expected, but Severus stopped talking at once as soon as they had left her mouth. He dropped his hands slowly, silently, to his sides. “You know just as well as I do who that could mean, don’t you? Sev, it could mean my best friend.”

He winced visibly. “You know Lily’s due then,” Beth continued, her voice increasing in pitch as the reality of the fact began to sink in, sending small shivers racing up her arms. “And you’ve been sitting on this information –“

“Because it’s not mine to tell!” His fingers went again to his scalp. “The things that could happen to me if anyone knew I was here at all, if anyone knew I’d told –“

“Then why did you tell me?!” Beth’s voice had risen to a tremulous shout now; she stood up hotly off the couch, turning herself so she faced Severus directly. His mouth was half-hanging open in apparent shock.

“Because I – I thought you’d want to know!” he said, cheeks paling as his voice rose to match hers. “We both said we knew the risks, and this is one of them.”

She bit down hard on her bottom lip, rubbing her nose. “Taking risks doesn’t mean you coming here and putting your life in danger just so you can ease your conscience. We also agreed that we’d keep our affairs separate, if you recall!”

“There are some things more important than who might or might not find out whatever I’ve been doing with my time!”

As soon as the words had left his mouth, a thick, ringing silence descended over the room; no rebuttal was offered, no further defense provided. Beth stared hard at Severus, and as he returned the gesture with equal force, something inside of her caved quietly; His last words had not escaped her, though she couldn’t yet find it within herself to be pleased at the meaning behind the angry tone they’d been said in. For what seemed like a veritable eternity, neither of them made a sound, but just stood looking at each other, challenging the other to make the next move.

She broke first; sighing deeply, Beth pressed the tips of her fingers lightly to her eyes, her heart clenched uncomfortably in the middle of her chest. “I’m sorry,” she muttered. She felt drained, exhausted, as though she’d just sprinted up seven flights of stairs; her head was throbbing horribly. “I’m not thinking. I know you’re right.”

And then, to her immense surprise (though not, she had to admit to herself, unwelcome in the slightest), there was a slight rustling movement, and Severus wrapped his arms around her, hands resting lightly on the blades of her shoulders. Beth rested her forehead on his chest, breathing in deeply and trying desperately not to cry – what was she crying about, anyway? – while he held her to him.

“You don’t have to be sorry,” he said at last, his voice rough. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. And I promise you – I promise you – that everything’s going to be all right.”

Beth said nothing; there was nothing to say, standing here with Severus’s arms around her. But her mind clicked into gear nonetheless. And that, she thought horribly, as silence once again descended around the pair of them, is exactly the sort of promise that nobody can ever end up keeping.

*

“Lily?” James poked his head around the corner of the corridor, his voice slightly muffled from the quill clamped between his lips. He didn’t like the way it echoed, either; it made the flat seem much emptier than it actually was. Then again, this very well might be something he and his wife would have to get used to, at least until things with You-Know-Who and the Death Eaters quieted down a bit. He hated moving, but Lily’s safety – and their baby’s – was much more important than his present opinions about the matter.

“Lily, where are you?”

He worked with difficult to extract a bit of Spello-tape from his finger, cursing softly as it ripped a small patch of hair from one of his knuckles. He’d been stupid enough to try and label and tape the cardboard box of kitchen dishes at the same time, and wasn’t proud enough to deny times when he needed his wife’s help. But still there was no answer, though he’d distinctly heard her puttering around in the near-empty bedroom only ten or fifteen minutes earlier. Still trailing a bit of the impossibly sticky tape on the bottom of his shoe, James scuffed his way in that direction.

He stopped cold in the doorway, bracing himself on the frame of the door with either hand. Lily was looking into the long mirror still affixed to the back of the couple’s closet door, her hands on her hips. She was – James squinted a bit, trying to remember precisely – into her seventh month of pregnancy now, her old robes long having since been switched out for a special set of maternity ones. It was these she was wearing now.

“Lily?” She didn’t turn around, but James knew that she had heard him. She turned her head slightly to the side, studying her reflection, her eyes downcast slightly – looking at the baby, he realized, with a sudden and rather foreign emotion, something like wanting to smile and gasp at the same time. It came out instead as a sort of strangled little cough.

“Do you think we’ll be happy in Godric’s Hollow?” she asked suddenly, as though only voicing one of a stream of thoughts that had been running through her head. James fought back that weird emotion again and, having finally disentangled the Spello-tape from the bottom of his sneaker, padded softly across the carpet towards her.

“Of course we will,” he said softly. “I’ll have you there, won’t I?” She smiled briefly at him in the mirror, and then looked back down again, gnawing on her bottom lip. A sort of ache centered itself around James’s heart at that small gesture, and he closed the rest of the distance between them, placing his hands lightly on her shoulders. “Hey. You’re going to be great, Lils.”

She grinned at him then, and it looked so much more like her old self – not this new Lily, this Lily that made his heart hurt for her – that he grinned back out of relief.

“We’ll be absolutely fine,” he repeated, more firmly. And, for just a minute or two, he could almost bring himself to fully and completely believe it.

A/N: I love getting to post chapters every week for you guys, and I'm always really, really excited to do it. But these past few weeks, I've started to realize just how close to the end I am. And then there will be a short break, like there was between the first two books, and then I'll start posting Breaking Even -- and it's just too weird! How did it get to the point where I was approaching being done with a fourth of the last book in this trilogy (working on the sixth chapter of twenty-eight total)? When did I write all those words? Life's weird.

Mad, mad props to Callie for being such a dear and reviewing most of this story's chapters in one go, by the way! That really meant so much to me. All of your reads and reviews and favorites do! Thank you for stopping back by once again, everyone!


Chapter 28: A Suspicion Confirmed
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Summer was approaching. The night outside was warm, a soft breeze blowing through the sparse trees lining the lane and causing their leaves to rustle pleasantly. Sirius grinned happily at nothing in particular as it swept over him and lifted his hair off his forehead, and he hugged the cloak he’d draped over his arm a bit closer to him –there had been no need for it tonight, not with such mild temperatures. Of course, he was on his way to Beth’s, and suspected that this was a large contribution to his excitement. Even just thinking about it again, his shoes making pleasant, slapping sounds on the concrete, his spirits rose a bit further.

It felt like a long time since he had been at Beth’s flat, though in reality it really hadn’t been too long – only a month, he realized, ever since that night he’d intercepted Severus there, and had been tasked with the returning of her bracelet. But that was something that made him feel a little uncomfortable, and so he simply chose not to think about it. Tonight, Sirius mentally resolved, was a night that would be untainted by anything even remotely unpleasant, and Severus Snape was most definitely included in that list.

He reached deep into one of the pockets of his robes, closing his fingers around his favorite pack of Exploding Snap cards – his lucky ones, even if Beth hated it when he called them that. He rather thought, though, that that was mostly because she tended to lose whenever they played a round with them. There was absolutely nothing that could destroy his good mood tonight.

he opened the door leading into the lobby of her complex, whistling jauntily and pausing to let a man pass him on the stairwell. The man looked at him rather oddly, his top lip rose just slightly in condescension. “Going to a costume party?” he smirked. “Or is that some ridiculous new fashion I’m going to be expected to buy into?”

Sirius blinked at him mildly. “I don’t think you’ve got to worry much about fashion,” he informed the passerby, “as your tie is roughly fifty years out of date.”

The stranger bristled, his nostrils flaring in annoyance. “Not that it’s any of your business,” he said coolly, “but I’ll have you know that I bought this from a department store last –“

“Mate, I would very much enjoy the witty retort I am no doubt about to bear witness to, but unfortunately I have previous engagements to which I must attend.” Sirius adopted the most posh accent he could think of, standing ramrod straight and inclining his head slightly. “I look forward to verbally sparring with you again in the future.” And, without a further word to the man, who by now looked extremely baffled at what had just occurred, Sirius hurried on up the stairs, not even trying to conceal his laughter.

Beth was already waiting in the doorway when he swung himself onto her landing, her face twisted in a mixture of amusement and exasperation. “I could hear you from two floors away,” she said, rolling her eyes good-naturedly. “What poor neighbor of mine did you pester this time?”

Sirius tried his hardest to look offended, and failed entirely; the pleasant night outside had put him into a rather giddy mood, and he was still very pleased with the confused expression on the strange man’s face. “He had it coming, darling,” he drawled, sticking his nose in the air and keeping his posh accent. Beth giggled and stood back, allowing him entrance, and he accordingly stepped into her small living room.

“Do you want coffee?” Beth yelled from the kitchen, already clanking away with mugs and spoons; apparently, his decision had already been made for him. He didn’t bother to respond, sinking instead onto the couch and extracting the pack of cards from his pocket while she made various clattering noises from the tiny room. She reappeared quickly, and passed him a mug.

“Cheers.” Sirius took a long drink and spluttered, nearly dropping the mug onto the carpet. “Merlin, Bethy, that’s hot!”

She gave him yet another mildly exasperated look. “I’m not rude enough to serve you cold coffee, am I? And you can put those away,” she added, jerking her chin at Sirius’s Exploding Snap cards before blowing across the surface of her own coffee. “I’m not playing with that deck, if you’re going to insist on a game. We can use mine.”

“You’re a sore loser, you know that?” he asked, nevertheless slipping the cards back into his pocket and grinning at her. “Have it your way, then.” He picked up his mug again and made to imitate her, blowing across it. Suddenly, Sirius looked at her – really looked at her – and slowly replaced the mug onto the table.

“Are you okay, Bethy?” he asked hesitantly. There were deep lines by the corners of her eyes that he couldn’t remember having seen there before, the sorts of lines that he associated with older people – life lines, he thought idly, that meant you’d seen your share of the world’s hardships. Nearly identical lines creased the corners of her mouth, and her eyes themselves looked worried, even behind the joking and front of good humor.

“Fine,” she said, taking another drink and bringing her eyes to his. And even as she said that, Sirius saw that Beth was lying. He raised an eyebrow and sat forward, balancing his forearms on his knees. She sighed and, reaching forward, placed her mug next to his. He fought a smirk; he was quite good at getting information out of people if he really wanted it, never mind the fact that he’d had a lot of practice over the years in manipulating his friend.

Beth sighed and rubbed a hand over her eyes briefly. “I fought with Severus a couple of days ago.”

Sirius’s brows contracted. “What did he do to you?” he said in a low, quick voice, making as though to stand up from the loveseat without quite being aware of what he was doing. “Did he hurt you? If he’s even laid a finger on you –“

“Sirius.” Beth was frowning at him. “Not like that. We were just… arguing.”

“About what?” Sirius snorted, flopping back onto the cushions and making yet another noise of derision, solely for the pleasure of being able to do so. “Merlin, he’s a right git, isn’t he? A foul little –“

“I thought you were over that?” Her tone had changed from one of friendly warmth to something decidedly more cool and distant in an instant. Weird, how women do that so quickly, Sirius thought to himself, though he knew it wasn’t really the time to be analyzing the mindset of the female species. She was still looking at him stonily.

“Beth, he’s a prat. You deserve loads better than him,” he burst out angrily, immediately knowing it was precisely the wrong thing to say. Beth’s cheeks turned bright red, the color creeping up into her cheekbones and causing her eyes to brighten with anger. “You shouldn’t be with someone you’re going to argue with all the time!”

“I’m not with him!” she shot back venomously. “We’re friends, and honestly, Sirius, it is absolutely none of your business. I didn’t make plans with you tonight just so you could yell at me again about my choice in friendships, and if that’s the reason you decided to come over –“

“He’s making you upset!” Sirius roared. “It became my business when he made you unhappy!”

“He does not make me unhappy!” Beth, too, had risen to her feet now, and her bottom lip was trembling slightly, as though she was trying to hold back tears. Sirius’s heart twisted painfully at the sight of it, and he felt physically sick with guilt, but swallowed it back. This was much more important than tiptoeing around her feelings, much as he might want to.

“Fine. Are you at least going to tell me what you fought about, then?” he said gruffly. Beth let out a long, shuddery breath and sank back into her armchair, wrapping her arms around herself and drawing up her knees.

“I can’t.” Her voice sounded small and watery, driving a metaphorical stake further into his insides. “Honestly, Sirius, I just can’t.” She rested her chin on her knees and looked up at him, her cheeks still pink, though not as violently as before.

Arguments to that buzzed angrily through Sirius’s brain, one after another, like a nasty horde of Billywigs: She was in the Order and shouldn’t be withholding conflicting information; he was her friend, and she should be able to tell him anything; she’d known him longer than Severus, and therefore trumped him. But somehow, all these words died on the way to his lips, and he merely swallowed and nodded, taking his own seat back and reaching for the mug of coffee, though he didn’t want it anymore. Beth did the same; he could tell that she, too, was no longer interested in coffee.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last, the painful, guilty feeling inside of him wrenching a bit further. Sirius wanted to sink right into the loveseat and possible stay there for a decade or two, until the world made sense again. Beth shrugged one of her shoulders lopsidedly, but said nothing. “Exploding Snap?” he offered at last. “I’ll let you break out your own deck.” She gave him a small smile, and nodded.

But as he stood up and crossed to the small cabinet beside her fireplace, rummaging around for Beth’s well-worn card deck, Sirius found that he still couldn’t shake that small, painful, uncomfortable feeling lodged firmly within him.

*

By the time Sirius had gotten back to his own flat that night, the previously perfect weather had been soured with a quick-moving storm. Thunderheads had quickly collected over the sky, and flashes of lightning were now sparking from behind their bulk, briefly lighting the air to day before plunging it back into night. And underneath it all, thrumming steadily, was the tempo of a heavy downpour. It was, he thought sarcastically, rather a fitting metaphor for how the night had gone: All promises of lightness had quickly tapered off into something much more dark and unwelcome.

He could now see that perhaps he had crossed a line in asserting things about a man he’d barely spoken to since the pair of them had left school together – but still, it was Severus Snape, and his brain was functionally unable to get past that fact, so there was no use in trying.

And still Sirius could feel that horrible dull ache of guilt, gnawing contentedly away at his insides. He pressed a hand to his stomach without thinking about it, as though to quell it, and hung his cloak on a nail by the door (it had come in handy, after all). Water dripped steady from the ends of his hair, splotching his robes and forming small lakes on the chipped linoleum entryway.

He had to do something.

The thought of exactly what to do had been one he’d been tossing back and forth in his mind the entire way home, dodging under shop awnings and sparse tree limbs to try and avoid the worst of the rain, and finally giving up entirely. And he had come to a decision at last, waiting for late-night Muggle cars to lumber across the road in front of him – though it wasn’t a decision that he could say he was very much looking forward to enacting. But there were too many secrets, too many lies, and Sirius could put a stop to them. If he sat on this information, he was no better than Snape, and that was the sort of fact that could burn him if he let it.

He stepped quickly into his kitchen, cursing lightly as the toe of his trainer caught on the corner of the cabinet, and slapped an open palm against the light switch by the sink. Dim, brownish-yellow light flickered from the gloomy wall sconces set into the walls. He supposed he should add new oil – they’d been running on the same stuff since he’d bought the place, he thought – but this wasn’t the time for it, to be sure.

Sirius knew what he had to do, but that didn’t mean he liked doing it; even just thinking about it now made his stomach turn slightly. Beth had been angry at him before, had only recently gotten over being angry at him for yelling at her for conspiring with Severus in the first place – was he willing to risk it again?

And yet it was necessary, wasn’t it? If it meant keeping Beth safe – and maybe making her happy again – then it would be worth it, wouldn’t it? No matter how awful the short-term repercussions would be, Sirius had to believe that it would be worth it.

Yanking open one of the cupboards, he took down one of the teacups he’d pilfered from Grimmauld Place, jabbing his wand at the ancient stove under the window; a spark of blue gas-jet flame flared into existence. He sloshed a kettle onto the burner and gnawed on the fingernail of his index finger, trying to take deep, calming breaths. Why was this making him act so stupid?

The kettle whistled, and he nearly upset it in his haste to pour a measure of water into the teacup, drop in a teabag, and – for good measure – add in a healthy measure of firewhisky. Only then did Sirius cross into the sitting room, cross to the table by the window, and take out a blank sheet of parchment.

He didn’t want Beth angry at him, but surely she wouldn’t be angry if she knew the reasons why he was doing this. He was only thinking of her, and the rest of the Order, and the need to keep everyone safe. She would thank him for it, in the end.

Sirius took a long drink from the cup, set it down, and picked up a quill and a bottle of ink.

Dumbledore…

*

“What have we here?”

Albus Dumbledore took the scroll from the leg of the owl perched on his window, frowning slightly; it was sopping wet, though the inside of the parchment looked as though someone had placed a water-impervious charm on it. He had been expecting no letters, other than one from his old friend, Horace Slughorn. And seeing how that letter would have been pertaining to a meeting currently taking place in Albus’s very living room, he couldn’t imagine what a second missive might mean.

“Someone’s sent you a letter, then?” Horace, who had previously taken roost in an old easy chair and had showed no signs of moving, lumbered over to Albus, one fist clamped tightly around a glass of oak-matured mead. But the older man did not respond; he was now reading the letter for a second time, his eyes narrowed slightly behind their half-moon spectacles, the lines on his forehead deepening with thought.

At long last, he looked up from the paper, sighing deeply and folding it neatly in his long, thin fingers. Slughorn looked rather alarmed. “Bad news?” he asked sympathetically, raising his free hand to nervously stroke one end of his walrus mustache.

“Not bad news, necessarily. Not yet.” Albus looked up at his friend. “Although I do believe I must beg your forgiveness for inviting Minerva to crash our little gathering. A rather well-placed suspicion of hers has been confirmed.”

A/N: Oh, Sirius... what have you done now. Though I think it's not really a surprise that he's gone and blabbed, when you think about it. Despite whatever sort of healing's happened between him and Beth, he still hates Severus, and there are probably a few resentful feelings lurking about under the surface there, as well. The man is accepting hugs, if you're offering.

A quick note -- I'm sorry I'm so behind on my review responses! From Tuesday until today I received no less than 56 reviews, and I wasn't even caught up before they came in. I'm working hard to tackle them all through the course of this week, so if you're waiting for a response for a review on this or any other story of mine, it shouldn't be too long in coming. Thank you very much for your patience, and I look forward to hearing your opinions on this chapter!


Chapter 29: Worth It
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“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.

Beth?!”

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!


Chapter 30: A Decision and a Dilemma
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Sometime near the middle of June, Sirius had apparently felt it prudent to call together another session of “bonding time” – which, in this instance, appeared to constitute that the five of them would meet at his flat and do absolutely nothing in particular. Beth would have protested, but somehow this was better than standing in torrential rain under a Muggle movie marquee, as had happened during his last impromptu calling together of such an event, and he had once more agreed to play Exploding Snap with a normal deck of cards, as opposed to his lucky ones.

Unfortunately, the round was still going in his favor.

“Ha! Got you!” Sirius reached over and flicked the top card off Peter’s pile, which had started emitting large, thick clouds of purple-gray smoke a few turns ago. Never having seen this color appear in the game before, Peter had become rather flustered, and therefore susceptible to any of the tricks Sirius had up his sleeve. The card went zipping across the cheap carpet, settling on a frayed bit by the edge where it met the kitchen tile, and setting a few of the fibers instantly alight. Remus, who was currently lounging on Sirius’s armchair and trying to pretend that he was above the game by reading a book, stamped out the sparks with the heel of his shoe without looking.

“Excellently executed, Moony, as always,” James grinned, tossing his cards at Sirius for re-shuffling and stretching his arms behind his back. Beth winced at the loud pop they made and chucked her own cards at him. “Another round, then?”

“No. Sirius cheats,” Peter protested, only half-kidding; Sirius grinned at him and leaned over to ruffle his hair, despite the former’s attempts at ducking to avoid it.

“How is Lily, James?” Remus called over from his chair, just as Peter managed to duck away from Sirius, banging his elbow loudly on the wall in the process. At the mention of his wife, James grinned; Beth couldn’t help but feel a bit of his happiness when he talked about her, as though it sort of spilled out of him and leaked onto the room at large.

“She’s great,” he said genuinely, hopping up from his cross-legged perch on the floor and sticking his hand in an inside pocket of his robes, rummaging about for something there. “Really ready for the baby to be born, I think. We both are.” He took his hand from his pocket and held out whatever he’d retrieved triumphantly; instantly the other four leaned forward for a closer look.

It was, at first glance, a very poorly-taken black-and-white photograph; the picture was entirely out of focus, and though it seemed to be moving, as the people in wizarding photographs always moved, Beth couldn’t quite tell what it was supposed to be a picture of.

Sirius, however, led out a strangled sort of excited cry and made a wild grab for the paper. “Is this one of those weird baby picture things?!” he crowed, holding it up to the flame of the candle on the nearby end table, as though to see if it were a fake or not. “These things are so weird –“

“I’ll thank you not to keep using that word!” James laughed, snatching the paper back, his cheeks pink with embarrassment or excitement – probably a mixture of both, Beth thought, sitting back on her heels and placing her hands on her knees, grinning at him.

“But then you know what you’re having, don’t you?” Remus put in. His book was draped over the arm of the chair to mark its place, forgotten in the excitement of a bad-quality sonogram. “A boy or a girl? Come on, then – out with it, Prongs!”

James mimed locking his lips closed with an invisible key, though he was still grinning through it. “Not saying,” he told them happily. “We wanted it to be a surprise for you lot –“

“Rude,” Sirius told him frankly. “If I’m going to be his godfather –“

“’His’?” Beth leaped on the word eagerly. “Surely you didn’t tell Sirius?” she added in disbelief. “He gets to know and we don’t? I know he’s godfather, but – ”

“No, I did not tell Sirius,” James shot back; Sirius had flopped onto his back and was laughing loudly at having successfully confused the room at large. “He just so happens to have this daft idea in his head that we’re having a boy, and is going to be sorely disappointed if the baby comes out otherwise equipped.” At this, Sirius laughed harder, whatever he was trying to say getting lost amidst snorts and the gulping back of mirthful tears.

“So it’s a girl?” Beth and Remus pressed at the same time. James buried his face in his hands and let out a long, low groan, threading his fingers through his hair. Sirius tried desperately to compose himself on his patch of carpet.

“I’m not saying anything,” James mumbled to his knees.

“Have it your way, then,” Sirius grinned, wiping a final tear from his eye and rocking back into a sitting position. “Otherwise equipped. I think I’ll keep you around, mate.” He clapped his hands to his knees. “Right, well, I’m going to grab a cup of coffee. Anyone else?”

Peter, who had remained quiet while the rest of the group was debating the gender of the forthcoming baby, gave Sirius an odd look. “It’s June, Sirius.”

“I’ll have one,” Beth interrupted. “Never too hot for coffee, Wormtail.” Tipping him a broad wink, which he did not respond to, she held up her hands, imploring him to pull her to her feet. Sirius walked past her with such deliberate steps as to make it painfully obvious he had seen her.

“Chivalry is dead!” she called after him accusatorily, rolling onto her stomach and boosting herself up on her hands. “James?” she directed down at him; he was still sitting with his face buried in his hands. Coffee?”

“Nah, Wormy’s right. Too hot.” James lifted his head – he was still rather pink in the cheeks, she noted with a grin – and leaned back on his hands instead. “Besides, I think he might be up for another round of Exploding Snap as long as Sirius isn’t involved in it.”

Beth grinned. “Fair enough,” she said, and, as James made to take the deck out of his pocket once more, she followed Sirius into the minuscule kitchen.

He was already clattering about with mugs when she got in, and glanced her way as she took a seat at the table and swung her legs up onto it. “Disgusting, Talons,” he said pleasantly, reaching up for the coffee tin and a set of measuring spoons. “I do eat off there, you know.”

“Whatever you ingest is bound to be at least ten times more disgusting than my feet,” Beth retorted, wiggling her boots at him. And then, after a brief pause, added, “You haven’t used my nickname in a while.”

Sirius looked at her curiously over his shoulder. “I call you Bethy all the time.”

“No, not that. Talons.” For some reason, the word had stuck out to her when he’d said it a few seconds ago, even though it had only been in passing. “You said it, just now.”

“Oh.” There was another pause as Sirius carefully measured out the coffee into a paper filter, much more carefully than he otherwise would have done. Then, at last: “I don’t know. Would you rather I didn’t use it?”

Beth blinked at him in surprise. “No. I don’t mind.” Her fingers strayed absently to the small silver bird, dangling from Severus’s bracelet around her wrist. “When was the last time you changed into your Animagus form?” she asked him suddenly.

There was a snap and a rumbling kind of sound as he popped the lid closed on the coffeemaker and it began to brew, and Sirius turned around to face her, arms braced against the sink behind him. “A few weeks back,” he said nonchalantly. “I took a turn around the block. Barked at a few pigeons.” He grinned. “What are you getting at?”

She didn’t answer for a few moments. For some reason, ever since he’d used her old nickname – and she really couldn’t remember the last time Sirius had called her ‘Talons’ – an idea had slowly formed in Beth’s brain. She and Sirius still hadn’t told Dumbledore about their Animagus forms, not quite sure how he would react to learning that the pair of them (let alone James and Peter, though of course they needn’t be mentioned) had spent the better part of their time at Hogwarts trying to learn how to turn into animals.

But perhaps it was time. For not entirely unselfish reasons, Beth thought that being honest with her former headmaster might be in her best interests at the moment. She wasn’t daft enough to think that he wasn’t still suspicious of her and Severus, despite the fact that he had told them there was nothing he could do to stop their getting together as they had been doing for months. Perhaps if she told him this bit of information, and made it seem as though she really was putting her trust in him – and she really had no reason not to – then everything would revert somewhat back to normal.

“I think we should tell Dumbledore about it. Us, I mean, being Animagi.” Beth rubbed her nose and looked up at Sirius; he raised an eyebrow, swallowing hard.

“Why now? We’ve been sitting on this for two years, Bethy –“

“So don’t you think it’s about time we were honest?” she interrupted, balling her hands into fists without quite realizing what she was doing; her nails dug into her palms, bitten as they were. “I just… don’t feel right, hiding this still. Lying.”

“We’re not lying,” Sirius protested; they both jumped slightly as the coffeepot bubbled. “We’re just… not telling the truth.”

She rolled her eyes. “That is so not a significant difference, Sirius. I just – I feel really bad about it sometimes.” And that was the truth – there were times that she felt guilty over not letting her superiors know about something as potentially important as the fact that she could shift in and out of a peregrine falcon’s form. She just didn’t feel it prudent to tell Sirius that Dumbledore had somehow found out about her and Severus, too. That was a piece of information she had no qualms in keeping to herself.

Sirius was gnawing on his bottom lip now, evidently deep in thought. “This really means that much to you, then?”

Beth nodded.

“Then we’ll do it,” he said, turning back around again as the pot let out a whoosh of steam, evidence that the coffee was ready. He looped his fingers through the handles on the mugs sitting on the sideboard. “I’ll write him a letter and send it to you to check over, make sure it looks okay –“

He was cut off abruptly, letting out a small grunt of surprise as Beth, not quite planning it, stood up and wrapped her arms around his middle impulsively. “Thank you,” she whispered into his robes, feeling both stupid for acting like a maudlin teenage girl and too grateful to pay much attention to that fact.

What she didn’t see, however, was the horribly guilty expression on Sirius’s face.

He cleared his throat and patted her arm with the hand that wasn’t closed around the coffee mugs. “Come on,” he said. “Hurry up and dump half the sugar bowl in your coffee – I’ve got to make sure Peter doesn’t get too confident at Exploding Snap in my absence.”

*

Severus stopped under the flickering gas lamp just by the front door of headquarters, hooking the clasp of his cloak just under his chin and looking out the small window cut into the small stretch of wall by the door. The rain had been unexpected – it had, he rather thought, come out of nowhere, in great and icy sheets that weren’t customary of the normally-milder summer rains.

“Going home, then?” A voice near his ear made Severus jump a bit, and he turned quickly. Rosier stood at his shoulder, craning his head around to look out the window alongside his friend. He shot Severus a quick grin; the unmistakable smell of pungent, stale cigarette smoke wafted off him as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“Yes.” He drew his cloak a bit closer under his chin, though he didn’t really know why. “I’m tired.”

“Come out for a drink. Avery and I are going,” Rosier said, squinting and pressing his forehead to the glass, looking back out the window now at the rain. “Miserable weather, I suppose, but then again, there’s no better time for it, eh?”

“No, thanks. I’m not feeling well.”

Rosier glanced back at Severus again, his eyebrow raised in something like suspicion. “You’ve been acting differently lately, Snape,” he said coolly. “Ever since Roark took a little bit of interest in you. Too good for us now, then? Need I remind you that it was Mulciber, not you –“

“Good night,” Severus interrupted icily, wrenching open the door. “Try not to act too drunk when the pair of you comes in later tonight.” Before Rosier could offer a response, he stepped onto the front stoop and slammed the door firmly behind him, instantly raising a hand to grip his temples with the tips of his fingers.

This was nothing new; tonight’s meeting had been another headache just because of the attitudes of those he might have, at one point in his life – though no longer – considered friends. It was them who had been treating him differently, not the other way around, and had been increasing in exclusion ever since he’d told Roark what he’d overheard from Dumbledore.

He sometimes regretted telling what he knew at all.

The rain soaked through his collar almost instantly, and he turned it up against the rain to no avail. Yes, there were times – mostly quiet times, like now, walking home alone in a veritable downpour – when he tried to imagine what might have happened, should he have chosen to withhold the information. There was the slight chance it might be extracted from his mind via Legilimency. But he wouldn’t have had to confess to Beth, wouldn’t have had to debate putting her at the risk of more danger than he already was… It might have been the simplest route.

Severus gritted his teeth as a passing Muggle car, its headlights wavering, splashed through a puddle, tossing dirty water onto the pavement in a small wave. It was largely for her sake that he regretted telling, as well. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get their recent meeting with Dumbledore out of his mind.

“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.”

But they had known the risks, hadn’t they? Time and again they had discussed it between the pair of them, how continuing to write letters, to meet on occasion, was worth the dangers and the threats and whatever else they’d faced, enemies too enormous to name. And yet, it was so very different to hear it spoken from an objective viewpoint, to realize just how true it was, that he might get Beth killed. What was stopping it from happening? All his Occlumency training wasn’t stable enough; hadn’t he folded under once before, the spell seeping into the cracks she put into his otherwise careless façade?

She was his weakness. And he didn’t want that to get in the way of keeping her safe.

Severus stopped dead in the middle of the pavement, despite the fact that the rain was, if anything, coming down harder now than ever. He knew what he had to do, had known what do to, in truth, since leaving 9 Dustund Way several nights previously. There was no way to win the war within him; he stood a high chance of losing Beth in either course of action. But only one way would allow him to be sure she was safe, and her safety – keeping her alive – meant more to him than he thought anything ever had.

He covered his eyes with the tips of his fingers, pressing until small bright lights popped into the blackness, and let out a groan. He couldn’t do this. Surely ignorance was bliss, just as the old adage said; surely Severus and Beth were happier pretending nothing was wrong, pretending they could live on the way they were for the rest of their lives, in their tainted contentment…

He didn’t want that for her. Never mind what he might have wanted for himself, but he could not let her live like that, even if it was only until the war ended – whenever it did end, he found himself thinking bitterly, and who knew when that was going to happen?

He set off for his flat again, his head pounding, his insides feeling as though they were weighted with poisonous lead. He couldn’t do this – but he had to. And there was a very distinct difference between the two.

Severus had to keep Beth safe.

A/N: I honestly didn't plan it this way, but this really is quite a delightful cliffhanger to keep you in suspense for the next several weeks! As you may or may not have heard, the archives are going on their annual Christmas holiday from December 15th to the 29th, and this year it includes trusted authors as well. So this story will be paused at thirty chapters for a while -- but no fear! I hope to have the thirty-first up as quickly as I possibly can. After this, there are only four more to go!

So, what did you think of this chapter? There was a bit more Marauder banter in this story than there has been previously, which always makes me happy -- writing Marauder banter is one of my favorite parts of writing this story in general. I'd love to know your thoughts! Thank you!


Chapter 31: What Severus Told
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It was, Severus knew, utterly stupid and foolish – perhaps even suicidal – to be standing in front of this door for the second time in as many weeks, waiting to be granted admission into 9 Dustund Way. Then again, perhaps suicidal seemed like an overdramatic word for it, but was there any guarantee that he was coming out of this alive? Was it still suicide if it didn’t destroy life in its simplest definition, but merely shattered any hopes of living life as you had been doing for the past twenty-odd years?

He bit his lower lip to keep it from shaking, though whether his teeth chattered with cold or with nerves, he couldn’t rightly say. There was nothing keeping him here as yet, no binding enchantments, forcible or otherwise. He could turn around right now and walk away, walk back home and pretend as though everything was fine. He should walk away, knowing the sort of dangers and risks he was voluntarily diving headfirst into.

But there were things worse than putting himself in danger at stake. Severus might have had the capabilities to walk away, but he had no desire to. This must be done.

The night was clear and cool, the sun no longer baking the cracked pavement stones of London, though the warmed smell of rotting garbage from the bulging dustbins nearby still caused Severus to wrinkle his nose. He wondered for a brief moment what Beth was doing then – sleeping, most likely, or perhaps just getting ready for bed. Reading a book, or brushing her teeth, or maybe even waiting for a letter from him… Blissfully unaware of what he, Severus, was doing for her, for the both of them… Someone, somehow, had found out that the pair of them were in contact with one another, and nothing was even remotely safe or innocent unless he took precautions to avert crises.

There was a soft click on the other side of the metal door of Number 9 – it was missing its doorknob, Severus had noted the last time he’d been here – and the hinges wailed in protest as the door swung inward. Albus Dumbledore was there, in the rusty frame of the door, regarding the younger man with cool surprise; he had evidently not expected Severus to show up, either.

“Mr. Snape.” Dumbledore stepped backward, his eyes narrowed and sharp behind the winking edges of his gold half-moon spectacles, and allowed Severus to pass through. As soon as he had, the door swung shut behind him, throwing the room into near-pitch blackness. There was a hiss, and a series of small pops; old-fashioned gas lamps sprung into life along the walls, casting thick, ominous shadows on the graying walls. Whether they were gray from the smoke of the lamps and candles, or from something else, he had no way of knowing.

Severus turned, thrusting his hands deep into the pockets of his robes just for something to do with them. Dumbledore was bent over the spot where a doorknob should be, his wand out, murmuring under his breath. The door gave a loud click, and chills shot up Severus’s spine, making the hairs at the back of his neck stand up. If he had had a chance to repent before, to turn and flee, it was much, much too late now.

His former headmaster regarded him then, looking neither inquisitive nor reproachful; there was, in fact, no expression on his face at all. “I understand you wish to tell me something regarding the events of our previous meeting,” he said at last.

Severus swallowed hard against the dryness in his throat, and cleared it for good measure. It felt like he’d swallowed an entire back of Pepper Imps whole, raw and fiery. “Yes,” he managed, “but I – I need to make a few things clear first.” Dumbledore raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.

“No one can know I’m here,” Severus said at last. “Not the Dark Lord, not the Death Eaters. They’ll kill me –“

“I will wait to hear what you say before promising that,” Dumbledore said coolly. “You have other requests?”

Severus’s mouth, which had dropped open, snapped quickly closed in annoyance. “What I have to say,” he sneered through gritted teeth, “is of rather high importance, and would interest you greatly, should you care to listen.”

“Then speak,” said Dumbledore. The chintz armchairs of the previous week had disappeared, but he moved to one of the stacks of cheap metal folding chairs ranged along the wall and drew one out, propping it open and sitting on it. It couldn’t have been clearer that the atmosphere had changed; Beth was not here to act as a sort of mediator anymore, he reminded himself. The older man did not move to offer a chair for Severus, but he didn’t much feel like sitting anyway.

Now that he was about to tell Dumbledore about the Potters – how Voldemort knew of the prophecy, how he had decided that it meant the baby Lily was carrying – he didn’t know what to say, or indeed, how to begin to speak at all. The burning feeling came back into his throat, and once more, he swallowed against it.

“You said I was putting Beth in danger,” he blurted out at last, though it wasn’t quite what he had intended to say. “I – is she safe? Right now, is she… I mean –“ He sucked in breath and pressed a forefinger into his temple.

For the first time since he had arrived again at Number 9, Dumbledore seemed to relax, if only an infinitesimal amount. “She is safe,” he confirmed, in as gentle a voice as Severus had ever heard him use. “For now.” He clasped his hands in his lap and looked pointedly over the tops of his glasses at the man in front of him. “The degree to which she remains safe could very well depend on whatever you wrote to me about.”

“I know about the prophecy,” he blurted out, shoving his hands into his pockets again and turning on his feel to face the blank wall behind him; it was somehow easier at the moment to talk to something that wasn’t truly listening. “I overheard it.”

To his great surprise, however, Dumbledore didn’t seem particularly disturbed by this news. On the contrary, he merely sighed a bit and shifted in his seat, and Severus turned to face him once more. “I did think that was a possibility,” he said succinctly. “And I must say I’m not entirely surprised to see that my hunch is correct – as, of course, most of my hunches are.” There was a slight pause, and then he added, “Continue.”

Severus blinked at him for a few moments, not entirely sure what it was that his former headmaster wanted, and then tentatively forged on with his explanation, for a lack of other conversational options. “Well, it’s just – you know, I overheard what you said. That there would be a child born to people who’ve defied the Dark Lord, the one who would defeat him. And that’s when I got thrown out –“

“Pardon?” Dumbledore interrupted. Snape repressed the urge to grit his teeth or roll his eyes.

“That’s when I got thrown out,” he repeated forcibly. “Of the stupid pub.” He couldn’t understand the stupid look that had just crossed Dumbledore’s face, why he was looking so particularly happy all of a sudden. Probably because I got tossed out, he thought absently to himself, and his mood instantly soured further. “And I – I took what I knew to headquarters. And that’s when… I met him.”

He didn’t need to elaborate; Severus could see very well that Dumbledore knew exactly who he was. “And what did he say?” the old man pressed gently, sitting forward a bit on the edge of the folding chair.

“Then? Not much.” Severus turned back to the blank wall again, cursing himself even as he did so for feeling remotely guilty at having to deliver the words he was about to say. “But he… he thinks it could mean the Potters. He thinks it could mean Lily.”

There was a near-deafening silence; it seemed to roar in his ears, or perhaps that was only his own blood, throbbing there while his heart beat at what must surely be twice the speed of a normal man’s. If Dumbledore might have had a hunch about Severus’s being aware of the prophecy, it was rather evident that he hadn’t yet deduced that it was Lily’s child the prophecy referred to. Severus turned gingerly to look at Dumbledore again; he was staring at a seemingly-distant point on the carpet.

“Ah,” he said at last. “Yes.” He looked up at Severus again, and the glinting, icy expression had come back into his eyes, cracked through with something that was, more than likely, sadness. Severus felt renewed pangs of guilt wash through him. “I must ask you a very important question now, Mr. Snape.”

Severus winced. This was it, then – what sort of a question would it be? And (even as he thought it, he hated himself a bit for it) what would it mean for him? What if he didn’t make it out of this place alive –

Calm down, his brain snapped at whatever other part of him had begun to panic. Dumbledore had fallen silent again, hands still clasped delicately in front of him, folded over his long beard.

“Why did you tell me this?”

Severus had not anticipated this particular question. For the second time that evening, he found that his mouth was hanging open, in the process of forming words that would not rise to his lips. “I – but –what?” he stammered, feeling as though he were growing rather more stupid by the minute.

Dumbledore rose from the chair, which groaned in protest. “You have come here of your own volition, after writing a letter to me with equal motivations, to turn yourself in for eavesdropping – which, though suspected, could not have been proven against you.” He turned and began to walk to the opposite wall, now moving his hands to clasp them behind his back. “And now, having confessed this information to your superiors, you are telling me instead of killing me, which would, hypothetically, be to your advantage.” He glanced sharply over his shoulder at that, his eyes seeming to see straight through the younger man on the other side of the room.

Severus felt as though he was about two inches tall; hot patches blazed on his cheeks, and he stood up straighter, as though to make up for the metaphorical lack in height. “Am I that mysterious?” he drawled, fighting hard to keep composure even as he did so. For the first time all evening, Dumbledore smiled, a true and genuine smile.

“Not at all,” he responded, chuckling merrily to himself, as though greatly amused. Severus flushed further. “So often in the ones we love, we seek to set aside the rest of our lives for them. Just as you have done in coming here, Miss Bridger has risked much for you. But then, you knew that, I suppose?”

Severus ducked his head to hide a smile – he wouldn’t allow that sort of thing to be seen, not now – and looked back up at Dumbledore. “Potter means a lot to her,” he said in a low voice. “She’s told me that he’s like a brother to her. And if I help” – he sucked in a short breath before continuing. “If I can help keep Potter and Lily safe, then it would make Beth happy. And if I can do that…”

Dumbledore beamed at him. It was very odd, Severus found himself thinking, just how transient the old man’s moods could be, flitting from disapproval to happiness in less time than it took him to blink; not for the first time in his life, he wondered if his former headmaster was completely off his head.

“I want her safe,” he said at last, and though it cost him something to tell the truth – to Dumbledore, of all people! – it felt, at the same time, immensely freeing. “As long as she’s safe, I – and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure she’s safe and alive and… I want to protect her.” If he stumbled over a few of his words, he didn’t care. There was something about finally letting out what you had been thinking for months and months, and had never had the courage to voice before, or indeed, much of anyone to voice it to.

“Am I correct in remembering that you owe James Potter a debt?” Dumbledore probed gently then, although laugh lines still creased the corners of his mouth. Severus blinked at him.

“How did you – that’s not why I’m here,” he spat, all hints of former trust and truthfulness now switched off, extinguished like a lamp. “James Potter couldn’t be any further from my mind, Dumbledore. He’s probably got you charmed, but I know better –“

“And yet it’s true that you owe him your life, isn’t it?” Dumbledore raised his eyebrows, and jerkily, reluctantly, Severus nodded his head once.

“Except Beth was there too, that night,” he added defensively, almost desperately, as though that somehow alleviated the horror that was a life debt to one’s enemy. The ghost of Dumbledore’s smile turned up the ends of his long silver mustache, and hot impatience flared up within Severus. “But that’s not important. I’ve told you why I’ve come here, Dumbledore. She doesn’t seem to care about the risks, but I… I can’t lose her.”

“And you will do anything to keep her safe?” The question was so quiet so as to have nearly been whispered; if the room wasn’t so empty of other people, Severus rather suspected he wouldn’t have heard it at all. As it were, he took an impulsive step closer to the older man, eyes bright with understanding.

“Anything.”

Keeping within the theme of the fleeting quality of his emotions, Dumbledore’s mouth became suddenly resolute, turned down firmly at the corners. He resumed the chair he had abandoned some minutes ago, and this time, Severus drew one out for himself as well, setting it up to face his former headmaster. He had said all he’d come to say, confessed all he knew, even if he had somewhat doubted it along the way. The Quaffle was in Dumbledore’s hands now, so to speak.

He had once more resumed staring at a patch of the cheap carpeting, his eyes seeming to turn inwards, as though lost in his thoughts. Severus watched him impatiently, clasping his hands before him. The skin was stretched so tightly that the knuckles turned white, though he didn’t notice this, nor would he have cared if he had. Somewhere unseen, a clock ticked the seconds – a rather cruel implementation, he thought. As if the situation weren’t tense enough as it was, the universe had to be counting it down…

He jumped as the clock chimed just then, fifteen minutes past the hour. But what hour? Severus had lost track of the time, of how long he’d been here, and couldn’t remember any other bells to tell him otherwise. His senses seemed heightened, waiting for a verdict – everything was in sharper relief, the shadows deeper, his breathing louder –

“Yes,” Dumbledore spoke up quietly, and though it was clear he was speaking to himself, Severus jumped nonetheless, nearly falling off his chair. The former rose slowly from his seat, the latter following in rapid succession, instinctually mirroring his movements without realizing it.

“There is a two-part solution to this.” The hard, cold look had returned to Dumbledore’s face. “It is, I think, for the best. Beth will be safe, and you will be protecting her. That is what you want?” he inquired sternly, and again Severus had the sensation he was being examined with more than a surface-level depth.

“Yes,” he said breathlessly, without stopping to think about it for a moment.

“The first part is working alongside the Order of the Phoenix, as a sort of… liaison. A spy, to put it more simply; collecting information, and more importantly, keeping your true tasks a secret. It would be no small task, Severus; you must understand this.”

Severus started a bit at that, more so because of the fact that Dumbledore had switched abruptly to using his first name than anything else. Becoming a spy, working for the Order of the Phoenix, right under the noses of Roark and the Carrows and all his school friends, Rosier and Mulciber and Avery… It was one of the most dangerous situations he could picture putting himself into.

But he had told Dumbledore this was what he wanted, hadn’t he? And he was an Occlumens, or, at the very least, on his way to becoming one… he could do it, he could hide it from them, he was good

“Yes.” His stomach gave a funny twist, a mixture of excitement and apprehension, and a small shiver darted up his spine once more. “I’ll do it. I can do it.” And then, after a moment, added, “But that’s not good enough, Dumbledore.”

“Beth will be all the more safe for your actions here,” the older man cut in smoothly. “By working to protect James – yes, both of the Potters” – and here Severus flushed yet again under an uncharacteristically stern look, appropriate to his status as a school headmaster – “you will be, by extension, protecting Beth. She is too familiar with the details of the Potters to overlook that.”

“But if I’m caught!” Severus burst out angrily before he could stop himself. “You don’t understand, you’re not listening – I need her free from any risks I might place upon her, anything that might hurt her –“

“Ah, well.” Dumbledore shut his eyes slowly, and for a brief, nearly nonexistent second, his face was lined with pain and sadness. The excitement drained out of Severus at once, apprehension replacing it immediately. “That is where the second part makes its appearance.”

*

“You have news for me, Pettigrew?”

Peter winced involuntarily at the voice; by all rationale, he should have seen it coming. Hadn’t he come up here solely for the purpose of speaking to the owner of that voice? His nerves were shot to pieces of late, frayed and battered, perhaps beyond any normal sense of repair. James and Sirius probably suspected something, and maybe even Remus… even Beth could be watching him. What had Severus told her? How close to death was he at this point in time?

“Pettigrew.” Roark’s voice spoke again, snappish and abrupt, and yet again Peter jumped. The tall man strode from the distant corner of the room, the moon shining oddly off both the ring on his finger and the smooth, hairless surface of his head. “I don’t want to ask you again.”

“S-sir,” Peter squeaked, and cleared his throat, desperate to get himself under some semblance of control. More and more, Peter, you sound like the rat, the scum that you are, for betraying those who trust you still… Had he made those words up, or had someone said them to him once? “I have the information you’ve asked for.”

There was a pause. “And?” Roark said exasperatedly. “Do I have to yank the words from you by force?”

He regrets making a deal with you. The condescending voice spoke again in his head, high and cool and female, not one he’d ever heard in the real world. It had cropped up frequently of late; perhaps he was going mad. It would be a welcome respite.

“They’re due at the very end of July. Both of them – the exact same time.” He cringed again as Roark stepped toward him. “There is no foreseeable difference… we’ll just have to wait…”

“Wait?”

“There is nothing else to do,” Peter whispered, his voice broken with fear, hating himself for knowing that that was what was breaking him. “Unless we wait, we will never know for sure.”

Roark looked to be contemplating this information. “The Dark Lord will not like it,” he rumbled, heaving a great sigh and rubbing a hand wearily over his face; the moon sparked again off the broad gold ring on his thumb. “Waiting is not part of his plan. But we will wait.”

Peter let out a deep sigh he hadn’t realized he had been holding. There was in him a twisted emotion, some sick manifestation that still hoped it wasn’t James and Lily that Snape’s prophecy had referred to. He was a double agent, an enemy, but old feelings died hard… Could he live with himself knowing he’d seen one of his best friends to his death? Would it ever come to that?

“You may go,” Roark hissed, and Peter realized, with another thrill of anxiety, that it was already the second time the request had been made. He did not wait for a third time; he scampered for the door, closing it shut behind him, trying to block out the nasty voice in his head…

You will be the destroyer of all that is good in your life. You are destruction, Peter Pettigrew, destruction.

A/N: I'm so glad to be posting this story again! I don't think I've ever gone that long without posting chapters, and I have to say not having anything to do or any obligations to keep has made me a bit lazy. But now that I'm on a regular posting schedule again, I'm hoping to hop right back into gear! I've got eleven chapters of Breaking Even, the third book, finished right now, which I'm very excited about. I'm hoping to finish that up sometime between April and May of 2013! What I'm going to do without having these books to plan and write, I can't fathom...

Anyway. If you've stuck around over this break, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this chapter. The next one's huge to the plot of the story, and I'm already anxious to post it. Reviews are always so appreciated!


Chapter 32: The Remembering
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Beth sat back and twisted, trying to ease the dull, throbbing pain in her lower back. She felt very old, all of a sudden, getting aches and pains from sitting cross-legged on the floor of her flat for too long – hadn’t she sat for hours like this once, in the Gryffindor common room? But, such as it were, it was rather horribly uncomfortable now.

“I call break,” she said, wincing as she moved her hip in the wrong direction, and the pain sharpened momentarily. “I think I might lose this leg.” Across from her, Sirius looked up and grinned.

“But we’ve only been at this for two straight hours,” he said innocently, gesturing to the small mountain of envelopes heaped between the pair of them. Both of them had their wands out, and, as Beth watched, he flicked his again at the parchment in his lap, which promptly folded over and sealed itself.

Lily’s baby shower had been two days ago, Alice’s the day before; and, because she hadn’t quite remembered to think before she spoke, Beth had volunteered Sirius and herself for the labor-intensive task of writing and sealing both sets of thank-you notes. She didn’t mind doing it, per se, but as the day was wearing on, she had suddenly remembered her childhood hatred of writing exactly these sorts of notes. It made it slightly worse that Sirius seemed to be rather enjoying himself, but then again, she’d bribed him into following through with this by promising him a butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron.

“I think the entirety of wizarding London must have sent them stuff,” Beth groaned again, feeling rather in the mood to complain about things anyway. Sirius grinned again and ducked his head over a new sheet of parchment, scribbling out something hastily in his spiky handwriting and, twisting his wand, causing it to fold in upon itself before stuffing it in its corresponding envelope.

Beth pushed the pile of her own envelopes and stretched her legs out straight in front of her, reaching down and rolling her shoulders to get rid of the cramped feeling. “I’m making a cup of tea,” she said decidedly, getting to her feet and placing her hands on her hips. “You in for one?”

“Cheers,” Sirius answered distractedly, his tongue between his teeth; he had apparently messed up in writing Mary’s address on an envelope, and was hastily blotting out his mistake with the tip of his wand. Beth grinned and shook her head at him, moving into the kitchen to put the kettle on the stove.

Just as the water had started to boil, however, and the whistle was emitting faint squeaks, Sirius’s voice called over to her from the living room. “Hey, Bethy! Were you expecting a letter?”

Frowning, she popped her head around the doorjamb. “No? Have I got one, then?”

“There is a rather serious-looking owl outside. Maybe it just likes looking in your windows.”

Beth moved to take the kettle off the stove and went back into the living room. Sirius was working on prying up the window, which had apparently stuck fast after the most recent summer rainstorm; he appeared glad for the break from letter-writing, in any case. He managed to lift it six inches before it stuck again, forcing the owl to squeeze underneath it with an irritated hoot.

“I think it’s from Dumbledore,” he said, snatching the letter from the owl’s leg, causing it to once again look angry at not being able to deliver its message to the addressee. “Blimey, he’s been pelted with letters lately, hasn’t he? I wonder how he’s got the time to answer them all.”

Beth froze in the act of reaching for the letter. Had he found out what Dumbledore knew, about her and Severus? “How do you mean?” she asked, as casually as possible, though it was a rather unprecedented effort to keep her tone neutral.

“Oh. Well, you know – our letter, about the Animagi thing,” he said. “And he’s bound to be busy, isn’t he? He can’t have a lot of down time, you know… That’s probably what this letter’s about, anyway. Probably warning me not to knock over any small children when I’m running through a park. Bet I’ve got one waiting for me at home.”

Beth ran her finger under the flap of the envelope, though not completely satisfied with Sirius’s answer, nor the quick way he had seemed to change the subject. She drew out the sheet of parchment, unable to hide a bit of surprise at the brevity of the message on it:

Miss Bridger,

Would kindly request your presence once more at Number 9 this evening at 9 p.m. in another matter of terrible urgency.

Albus Dumbledore

“It’s only for me, Sirius,” Beth murmured, panic welling within her even as she tried to quash it. “Not about us being Animagi.”

Was this something else to do with Severus? It had perhaps been too much to hope that he would just let them be, what with Severus’s allegiances lying where they did; she had been foolish to assume as much. But what more could possibly be said? They both knew and accepted the risks, and really, even Dumbledore himself had said that there was nothing much he could do about the matter…

Sirius tried to grab the letter, but Beth clutched it to her chest, instantly regretting doing so; he furrowed his eyebrows. “What’s it about, then? Are we due for another mission? I thought Moody said we wouldn’t be going out for a while because of Alice and the baby.”

She folded her arms and tried to look casual. “It’s… my parents.” The lie did not come easily to her lips; truthfully, she’d thought almost nothing of her parents since her last rather disastrous visit to them, which had lasted all of ten minutes. “They’ve… given me a bit of gold.”

Sirius opened his mouth to say something, but – rather uncharacteristically – closed it at the last moment, and only nodded. “Okay,” he said, in a somewhat strange voice. “Well then, you’re paying for drinks tonight.” She made a passable attempt at a smile, and he added, “Let’s get these notes done, yeah?”

“Yeah.” But just as he turned away, Beth looked back down at the letter in her hand, mouthing its single sentence aloud to herself before pocketing the paper and moving back toward the kitchen for the tea. Her insides already ached with nerves; whatever she was being summoned back for tonight, she hoped it was nothing too horrible.

But then again, perhaps things had been going too well lately for it not to be horrible.

*

The closer and closer she got to the dingy alleyway where Number 9 was located, the faster and faster Beth’s pulse raced; it felt as though she had been running for miles, instead of only walking a few blocks. Something about the night itself felt different than any other night she had been here before, on this stretch of pavement. It was a bit odd to be making the journey without one of the boys along beside her, but she’d done this alone only a few days ago. This was nothing like that, either.

The letter made a slight rustling sound in her pocket as she walked, and she reached down to press her palm flat against her robes, stifling it; it would be infinitely more preferable at the moment if she forgot that it was there. What was going on, and why had Dumbledore said nothing in his letter? Why was she being called back so soon? Had Severus gotten an identical letter, or was she the only one?

Beth forced her feet to a stop beneath a small, wavering pool of lamplight, bracing her forehead against the metal of the pole and sucking in deep breaths. You have to calm down, she told herself, and this time her voice of reason didn’t have its normal undercurrents of condescension; that was one of the scariest things. It was desperate, nearly pleading. You cannot walk into this acting as agitated as you are right now. You have to be strong.

She summoned up a mental picture of Sirius – Sirius, who hardly ever cracked, who looked forward to taking stupid risks in the name of doing the right thing. It was him she held in mind as she looked up and down the street, rather thankful no one had seen her, and started off again.

The alley was deserted as well, save for a townhouse across the street, where an old Muggle was taking out his bulging rubbish bins and cursing at nothing simultaneously. Beth ducked into the shadows that the mouth of the alley cast quickly, before he could see her, and slid down the wall towards the narrow metal door set there.

She laid her hand against the door. It opened obligingly, wailing as always, and she ducked inside quickly before shutting it behind her.

The room inside was dimly lit again, as it had been a few days’ previously; the lamps on the walls had not been lit in favor of the candles that littered the end tables scattered around the room, as well as a long bureau along one wall. Normally they worked in conjunction with the lamps to try and make the room as bright as possible, of course; tonight, the choice seemed ominous. Beth repressed a shiver as she stepped inside. Nobody appeared to be inside the room, and for a wild moment, she wondered if she had been tricked into coming down here – whether this was an elaborate sort of Death Eater trap.

“Hello?” she called into the emptiness, hoping both that someone would respond, and nobody would. There was a noise from the kitchen, and Beth jumped, backing against the door and slapping her hands flat against it, her wand forgotten in the pocket at her side.

To her immense relief, Albus Dumbledore emerged from around the corner at that moment, and she couldn’t stop a sigh of relief from escaping her. “Have I frightened you?” he asked mildly, by way of greeting, and even in such nerve-wracking circumstances, Beth could hardly deny just how bizarre Dumbledore tended to act at times.

“No,” she said, the breathlessness of her voice rendering her words false even as she spoke them. “I, erm – did you send me a letter?”

“I did.” Dumbledore stepped a bit closer to her, the tiny flames of the candles glinting oddly off his half-moon spectacles. “Though I must beg that I wait to divulge the reason for a few more moments; Severus will be joining us again this evening.”

“Oh.” It felt as though a chunk of ice had just plummeted inside Beth’s stomach; she raised one hand to rub at her nose. “No, I – yes.”

“Would you like a chair?” he asked politely, gesturing to the stack of folding chairs still ranged along the wall to her right. But she shook her head no. She didn’t quite trust herself to speak again; her throat felt as if it had suddenly swollen from anxiety to three times its normal size. She could hear the ticking of the clock’s second hand again, still unseen, and squelched a mad urge to find it and rip it down from the wall.

Dumbledore had conjured up another chintz armchair for himself – identical to the ones he had produced at their previous meeting – and had seated himself in it, bracing his elbows on the arms of the chair and steepling his long fingers before him. Beth paced around the perimeter of the room, walking circles around the former headmaster and trying not to make it look as though she was glancing at the door every few seconds.

Finally, however, the sound of distant footsteps from the alley outside the flat reached her ears; Beth turned instinctively towards the noise, her fingers twisting themselves in the hems of the sleeves of her robes. Dumbledore rose quietly from his armchair and moved towards the door, drawing out his wand as he did so.

“Can’t he get in?” Beth blurted out, before she could stop herself – surely that shouldn’t have been the most pressing question on her mind at the moment.

“There are certain doors I have locked against those I have not deemed trustworthy to enter,” Dumbledore said simply, and he left it at that. Beth wanted to scream at him to be quiet, that Severus was trustworthy, but the latch clicked at that precise moment, and the door swung inward.

As Severus stepped into the small living room, his eyes immediately moved to land on Beth, standing directly across from the door. Even she didn’t miss the small breath he drew in, and then, just as quickly, he turned to look at the floor.

“I’m late, then,” he said, though there was no apology in his voice.

“Miss Bridger and I are simply early,” Dumbledore interjected, locking the door behind Severus. Beth furrowed her brow as Severus looked back up at the older man and nodded curtly, though he still didn’t spare a glance in her direction again.

“Could I talk to her alone?” he murmured under his breath, though she heard every word. The request poured more icy-hot fear into her, and she felt her knees beginning to quiver already. You have to be strong.

“But of course. As it so happens, there is a bit of cocoa in the kitchen, and I fancy a cup.” Severus looked at him somewhat incredulously as, with a small but somehow meaningful look in the former’s direction, he disappeared back into the room he’d emerged from when Beth had entered, and closed the door behind him.

And at last – at long last – Severus met Beth’s eyes again. There was a long, thick silence between the pair of them, and then he reached into his pocket, withdrawing his wand and pointing it at the wall that separated kitchen from living room. “Muffliato.”

Beth frowned. “What was that for?”

“I’d prefer it if he didn’t eavesdrop.”

“But he knows what you’re about to –“

“Look,” he interrupted quickly, talking over her protests. “I don’t have a lot of time to say this to you, Beth. I owe you an explanation.” He took a step toward her, holding out a hand, almost as though he were asking for her to forgive him… Instinctively she took a step back from him, and a measure of hurt crossed his face.

“I’m the reason you’re here,” he blurted out. “Beth, I just –“ He ran his fingers through his hair on impulse; he looked so torn that, instantly forgetting she’d just stepped away from him, Beth crossed to him and placed a hand on his.

“You can tell me,” she said, her voice halfway to a whisper. Severus slowly lowered his hands and looked at her, swallowing hard against unvoiced emotion. She was distinctly aware of how close they were standing; barely six inches separated them.

“I wrote to Dumbledore after our last meeting a couple of weeks ago.” Severus’s voice was low, urgent. “I – I wanted you to be safe, Beth. And I know you said that we’ll be fine, but you don’t understand. I don’t want anything to happen to you, ever. I couldn’t bear it if you got hurt.”

“What did you tell him?”

“The truth. I told him about the prophecy, and how… how in danger James and Lily are.” She could tell her face blanched at this; a somewhat horrified look came into Snape’s eyes. “I’m helping,” he amended quickly. “Beth, James is like a brother to you. Do you think I don’t see that?”

She closed her eyes against his words, wanting to laugh and cry at the same time, sensing for perhaps the first time in her life just how much someone standing next to her cared about her. It was a dizzying feeling – it wasn’t parental affection, it wasn’t friendship. Was there a name for this?

And then what he had said sunk in a bit further. “What do you mean, you’re helping?” Beth asked quickly, unable to keep a note or two of hope from rising in her voice, though the way he was talking made her think that perhaps it was false hope.

“I’m going to be working for the Order. As an… an emissary.”

“You’re a spy.” Surely he doesn’t think big words are a way around the truth? “And what about the danger that’s going to put you in? Am I supposed to pretend like that doesn’t exist?”

Severus sighed impatiently. “It doesn’t matter about the danger to me.”

There was a brief silence, and then she ventured to speak again. “So we’re working together? But then that means everything is okay, isn’t it?” In an act that bespoke of bravery she was far from feeling, she took a step even closer; her forehead was just inches from brushing his, bent low as he was.

“No. We won’t be working together.”

She took a step back quickly, her hand still outstretched on his arm. There was pain in his eyes now, real pain, nearly tangible, and she could feel tears prick her eyes even before she knew why she was crying. “What do you mean?” she said quickly. “Where am I going?”

“You’re not going anywhere, Beth. Listen to me – Merlin, please listen.” He took his hand off his arm and entwined his fingers in his, doing the same with their other hands, gripping so tightly it hurt, though she wouldn’t have dared to ever ask him to let go.

“There’s a second part to the deal I made with Dumbledore. And I – I don’t know how to tell you.”

“Just say it!” she cried. She could feel panic and paranoia and a thousand other cruel feelings fighting for control in her chest, shredding her from the inside out. Severus winced, as though she had physically struck him, and drew in yet another deep breath.

“Beth, after tonight… I’m not going to remember you. Dumbledore’s taking my memories of you to keep me safe.” He clenched her hands even more tightly, a think she wouldn’t have thought possible.

There was a dull roaring sound in her ears now, a sort of rushing. Beth blinked slowly up at him. “What?” she said slowly. “I – oh my God…”

“Beth, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wanted to keep you safe.” Severus’s voice broke in the middle of the last sentence; his face crumpled for a moment, so quickly that Beth was almost surprised she didn’t miss it. “I don’t – Merlin… Beth…”

“You’re going to forget me.” Beth almost couldn’t listen to herself; her voice was flat, toneless, still fighting for precedence over the buzzing, ringing noise in her ears. With difficulty, she extricated one of his hands from “What happens after?”

“I – it could be that someday, we can – that there might be a way to –” He couldn’t finish his sentence. It was more than evident that Severus didn’t believe what he was saying; that, as far as he knew, there wouldn’t be any way to reverse the memories of Beth being taken from him.

“Listen to me.” His voice slightly cut through the fog in her brain, slicing away at it minimally. He took back the hand she’d wriggled away from his. “I don’t regret it. Do you understand me? I don’t regret a single moment of it, finding you under the bridge or writing you all those letters, meeting up with you around London. I wouldn’t trade one second of it, do you hear me?”

“But you’re going to forget it all.” Beth’s voice was breaking, too, and more than that; the air on her face was cool, and she realized that there were tears dotting her cheeks. She made no effort to wipe them away.

“Beth.” He closed his eyes and drew her marginally closer to him, their lips inches away from touching. “I would never, ever want to forget you. Not if it wasn’t the only way I could see to keep you safe. They’ll try and get to me through you if they even suspect for a second you have something to do with me. I couldn’t live with myself if that happened.”

“I don’t want to lose you, Sev. Oh, God –“ She buried her face in his shoulder; he wrapped his arms around her instantly, clutching her, a lifeline in a storm. “I can’t lose you – I don’t want to be the person I am when you’re not here –“

“You’ll be fine. I promise.” Severus drew back and made a shaky attempt at a smile, one that neither of them believed. “And someday you’ll forget all about me –“

“I don’t want to forget about you!” The tears were coming faster now, rough sobs rising from a hidden place within her to render her throat raw. Beth brushed away at them angrily with her sleeve. “There are other ways, Sev – you don’t have to do this for me –“

“Beth, it’s done.” He reached out cautiously with his hands, as though still afraid, after all these months, that she would reject him. Placing one on either side of her face, he carefully wiped away the tears with broad strokes of his thumbs. “I need you to believe me, all right? I wouldn’t trade any of it, do you understand me?”

She nodded, his hands still cradling her face. “I believe you.”

And he leaned forward, and touched his lips to hers – gently, hesitantly at first, and then with more intensity, as though he only realized then it would be his last chance to do so.

Beth flung her arms around his neck, not caring that she was crying still, not conscious of anything other than this. Our first kiss, said a small voice in her head, and then, because it appeared she couldn’t let herself have even that moment, it spoke again: And our last.

Severus drew back at last, his own eyes bright with tears, though he hadn’t shed them. “Please remember me,” he whispered, his voice breaking a second time.

There was, rather suddenly, a noise to their right; Dumbledore stepped out over the kitchen threshold, his old, lined face rather grave and serious. Severus turned back to Beth quickly, a man racing time.

“Do one last thing for me,” he said quickly. “Just do this, Beth, promise me – go home, right away. Stay safe, all right? I need you to stay safe.” He stepped away from her, hands trembling.

“No, Sev – wait, please –“

“Beth, please!” A third break in the voice, and then she was running – the world was blurry, she didn’t know if she was crying again or if she’d gone somehow partially blind – and she was through the door, and running through the alley, and down the pavement, and the world was lurching violently under her feet –

He was gone. Severus was gone, it was all gone. Beth felt as though she was going to be sick, or faint, or both – and suddenly, there was her building, looming up before her. She raced up the stairs and hammered on the door, her brain not reminding her that she, in fact, had a key to the very door her fist was pounding on.

“SIRIUS!” she screamed. “Sirius, open the damn door!” She made to kick it just as it swung back, and Sirius stood in the doorway, looking thoroughly confused, and more than a little apprehensive.

“Merlin, Bethy, it’s – what’re you doing? What’s wrong?” He reached forward and grabbed her shoulders, and that was the last thing she needed; she lurched forward, off balance, and sank to the cold linoleum of the entranceway.

Severus…” She couldn’t say anything else; there wasn’t any way to tell Sirius about what Severus had done, or what he was doing. Her knees were folded painfully beneath her, her chest rising and falling, and still getting no air. He knelt beside her, but she didn’t want to look at him; she felt his arm drape somewhat awkwardly over her shaking shoulders, attempting and failing to comfort her.

“Beth? Beth, you’re scaring me… tell me what’s wrong…” But all she could make sense of was Severus’s voice, already fading in her memory, already starting to grow less familiar.

“Please remember me.”

How could she ever forget?

A/N: SO MUCH GOING ON IN THIS CHAPTER, OH MY GOODNESS. For the first time ever in this story, Beth and Severus kissed! And I know that I'm probably the cruelest person ever for having it happen right before Severus had his memories of Beth wiped. I am fully aware of this. Any rotten produce thrown my way is completely deserved.

There is a lot of credit due to Sarah here, who (very, very long ago) implanted the idea of Severus forgetting Beth in my head in the first place. But then, her name's cropped up so often it probably looks as though she wrote half the story herself. I owe her a lot! But I'm curious -- anyone else predict it would come to this? What were/are your thoughts? 

I am emotionally drained. Whew. But I'm so, so excited to have posted this chapter at last! I've been waiting for... gosh, four months? Excruciating, let me tell you. But please, please let me know how you liked it! Thank you so much for all the reads and reviews!


Chapter 33: July 31, 1980
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In the earliest hours of a Thursday morning, the maternity ward of St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries wasn’t a terribly busy place to be. The rest of the hospital was, as usual, jumping with all sorts of activity, the resulting mayhem and madness from spells gone wrong, or vengeful neighbors, or lovers’ spats. Amid all this, nobody seemed to have much time for having babies. In fact – Beth looked up from counting the linoleum squares for the fifth time that evening – ever since that nice, brain-addled old man from the Permanent Spell Damage ward had wandered off somewhere, she and Sirius had been left quite to their own devices.

There was, of course, one rather crucial exception, which had brought her here in the first place.

She had been ready to crawl into bed that night when loud knocking on her door had nearly sent her into cardiac arrest, and she hadn’t been able to prevent a small flame of hope from flaring in her chest, even as she knew that what she was hoping for wasn’t possible. The past few weeks, Beth had spent a lot of time reading too much into otherwise-innocent noises and actions, staying inside much of the time, obsessively checking her windows for letters, constantly thinking she heard someone at her door. Somehow, her brain was refusing to allow the possibility that Severus really was gone, that he really didn’t remember her anymore.

It might have been a hoax, she found herself thinking rather often, lying awake in bed and staring unseeingly at the ceiling while the moon completed its overheard arch, slowly rising out of sight of her bedroom window to make way for the sun some time later. It could have been a lie, couldn’t it? Severus might have told her his memories of her were being taken, just to keep her away from him. And somewhere, he was lying awake too, thinking about coming to see her…

But it wasn’t a hoax. The rational part of her brain, however diminished, knew that much to be true. If Severus had been lying to her, she wouldn’t have received that letter from Dumbledore the next morning – the last in a long string of communications with him – commanding her not to seek Severus out, not to try and find him, and not to attempt to tell him about what had been taken from his mind. He’d gone on to try and explain the procedure to her, but Beth hadn’t been able to read the rest. She’d balled up the parchment and thrown it onto the floor of her wardrobe, in fact; the letter was probably still there.

Tonight, however, there really had been someone at her door, though of course it hadn’t been Severus. She hadn’t known whether to be angry or relieved when she swung the door wide to see Sirius standing there, excitement radiating off of him in tangible waves, a doglike expression of pure and unadulterated joy on his face.

“What’re you doing here?” she’d hissed at him, looking up and down the hallway to make sure that none of her neighbors had poked their heads out of their own doors to give her rude looks. “Blimey, Sirius, it’s got to be at least midnight –“

“James sent me over.” Sirius had hopped from foot to foot impatiently, waving his wand about as though he’d forgotten he was carrying it; bright green sparks had spurted from the tip of it, nearly setting the wallpaper alight. “Lily’s having the baby! Come on, grab your things – we’ve got to get to the hospital!”

In retrospect, Beth couldn’t remember the last time she had moved so fast. She’d yanked on a cloak over her pajamas and twisted her tangled hair into a hurried plait, only just remembering to grab her own wand from the table by her bed before following Sirius outside. He’d grabbed her hand and Apparated her straight outside the dusty shop windows that concealed the London entrance to St. Mungo’s, and they’d rushed inside, shooed away by a beaming reception witch, who Beth was sure she saw giving Sirius a broad, flirtatious wink as they’d rushed past.

The pair of them had now been sitting in the extraordinarily uncomfortable waiting room for close to three hours. The sky outside the windows of the hospital was still dark, though it had lost some of its velvety midnight quality, slowly inching toward sunrise. There had been no reason to rush, now that Beth thought about it. By the time they’d reached the waiting room in the first place, a Healer in lime-green robes had informed them that James was with Lily, and he, the Healer, would let them know if anything developed further. Besides the spell-damaged wizard – and Sirius, of course, who was now flipping through a sorely outdated copy of Which Broomstick? he’d found lying underneath a chair – the Healer had been the only person Beth had seen all night. She had been rather grateful for the rush, though. Sirius might have been a bit lacking in some qualities, but he knew how to take her mind off of what was troubling her, and Beth was grateful for that.

“When do you think they’ll be out, do you reckon?” Sirius spoke up now, closing the magazine with a snap and chucking it onto the chair next to him; it missed, skidding across and zooming across the floor. He didn’t make any moves to pick it up.

“I don’t know. I’ve never had any kids, have I?” She shifted restlessly in the chair. “Or any siblings. You’re the one with a brother. You should know how these things go.”

Sirius’s mouth twisted slightly, and Beth felt like kicking herself for mentioning Regulus, but he seemed to take it in stride. “You’re the female in this room,” he instead pointed out helpfully. She shot him a withering look, and he grinned. “Well, you are,” he added.

“Thanks for noticing, Padfoot.” Beth wiggled on her chair, trying to get comfortable; whoever’s idea it had been to install such horribly uncomfortable wooden chairs in the waiting room should have been hexed, or worse. The initial adrenaline of the rush over the hospital was beginning to wear off; something invisible was squeezing her chest and making it hard to breathe, and she could not think about that here, not tonight…

There was a creaking sort of sound as Sirius scooted to the side, to the chair next to her. She felt him nudge her with his elbow, but didn’t look at him. “Are you all right, Bethy?” he asked; all traces of joking were gone from his voice now, too.

“Nope,” she responded, trying to sound flippant and not managing to pull it off in the slightest. She hated how weak that made her sound, and cleared her throat, rubbing at her nose and hoping that Sirius wouldn’t press her.

How was she even supposed to begin to tell him what this felt like? He knew, of course – all her friends knew about what had happened. This wasn’t something Beth felt she could have hidden at any rate, because it was too damn obvious just how much it hurt. But how were you supposed to describe something like this? How were you ever supposed to be okay?

Sirius sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Look,” he started, as gently as possible, although she could detect the trace amount of annoyance laced through his tone, all the same. “I know what you’re feeling. I know it’s got to suck – but you have to understand that he was doing it to protect you. Severus may not be much of a –“

“Don’t say it,” she snapped. He swallowed visibly.

“Okay. But Beth, I – look, we didn’t get along. But he cared so much about you. He really, really did. It’s because he cared about you so much that he made the decision to forget about you. He’s keeping you safe, Bethy. And this isn’t the sort of thing I’d lie about to make you feel better, like I would with something else.”

But Beth didn’t want to hear all that, didn’t want to hear his rather sorry attempts at making jokes. Hadn’t Severus said the same thing that night? She knew he was keeping her safe this way, but that didn’t mean she had to agree with it. She folded over and pressed her palms to her eyes, determined not to cry. “I didn’t even say good-bye,” she whispered through her fingers. Sirius bent down closer to hear. “I just – I just – “ She hiccupped. “I just ran. Oh, God –“

You didn’t do anything wrong.” Sirius’s tone was so sharp that Beth couldn’t help herself; she looked up at him, brushing away some of the tears she’d sworn she wouldn’t let out. “Beth, you’re going to destroy yourself over this. And I don’t want to see that happen.”

“You don’t understand!” she cried, brushing yet more of the hot, frustrated tears off her cheeks. “All your life you’ve been so – so independent. I’m not like you, Sirius. I can’t just bounce back, okay?”

There was a small, pointed silence, and finally she felt Sirius drape his arm over her hunched shoulders again. “I know it hurts, Bethy,” he said in a low voice. “I really, really mean that. But you’re going to be okay. And,” he added, “you’ve still got me.”

It’s not the same at all, she thought hotly, but the words wouldn’t come out. “And we’ve got our Animagi forms on our side now, out there in the field,” Sirius was saying. “We’re unstoppable, Bethy, you and me. There’s not a thing in the world we can’t do.” He gave her a little shake. “Eh?”

Beth gave him a watery sort of smile – he was trying, after all – and opened her mouth to respond, but before she could get any words out, someone appeared at the door leading back into the maternity rooms – not the Healer from before, but a very tired- and happy-looking James. Beth and Sirius stood up from their respective chairs in one swift motion.

“What’s going on? Is it -?” It was amazing how rapidly Sirius’s emotions could change, a thought that she had experienced before; where only a moment ago he’d been quietly serious, he was now fairly dancing with excitement and anticipation. Beth quickly scrubbed the last evidence of crying off her face with her sleeve and tried to recompose her features.

James grinned at the pair of them, shoving his glasses up his nose a bit. “Sure you want to know?” he grinned. “I could wait a few minutes longer –“

“Aargh!” Sirius grabbed James’s shoulders and shook him a bit. James burst out laughing.

“All right, all right! It’s a boy!” he crowed, shrugging Sirius’s hands off his shoulders and reaching out to slap his best friend on the back good-naturedly. Sirius let out a loud whoop and threw his hands up, nearly smacking James in the face as he did so.

“James!” Beth threw her arms around his neck, almost relieved to feel a smile slip across her face; and she was, once again, genuinely happy, however briefly. “Oh, congratulations! You’ve called him Harry, then?”

“Yeah, Harry James –“ James started to say, but was interrupted again with another raucous shout from Sirius.

“I told you it was going to be a boy, didn’t I?!” he crowed, doing a sort of victory dance on the middle of the tea-splotched linoleum. “Aha! I’m right, I’m so right! Aargh, I’ve got a godson!” He reached out and yanked Beth toward him, jerking her around in a variation of his victory dance. She felt as though her arms were going to be pulled out of their sockets. It was a bit painful and stupid-looking, really, but she appreciated it nonetheless; she knew, without his having to explicitly say so, that it was an attempt to make her forget about Severus as much as it was an expression of overt happiness at getting to be Harry’s godfather.

“Can we see him?” Sirius was bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, craning his head over the top of James’s, as though he’d be able to see the baby through the swinging doors down the corridor.

James laughed. “You can come back now, if you like. Lily’s doing great.” Sirius didn’t need to be told twice – he was half-running down the hall, robes flapping around his ankles. Beth looked after him in amusement.

“I rather think he’s more excited than you are,” she teased, looking up at James, who rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

“Not even possible, Talons.” He was right, too; he didn’t seem able to wipe away the goofy grin his face was still plastered into. Even his cheeks were tinged pink with excitement, as though he’d run a race and won.

And then he leaned forward and nudged Beth in the arm with her elbow, just as Sirius had done earlier – almost in the exact same place. “You okay?” he asked, lowering his voice slightly as the green-robed Healer passed by them, heading for Lily’s room.

“Nope,” she said once more, though again she tried to use as light a tone as possible, as though to make it seem like a joke. It was poorly-executed; James shot her a concerned look over the tops of his round glasses. “Come on,” she said instead, reaching for the sleeve of James’s robes and yanked him forward a few steps. “I want to meet Harry.”

Sirius was standing at the foot of the bed when Beth and James entered the room a few moments later, gripping the polished metal footboard in his excitement. Lily was lying against propped pillows on the long, narrow hospital bed, the smile on her face every bit as wide as James’s, even if her eyes held considerably more shadows beneath them.

“Hi, Lily,” Beth said, as brightly as possible; out of the three other people in this room, Lily was, perhaps, the one she felt she needed to put on a show for the most. When she’d found out what Severus had done, she’d been ready to confront him herself, talking about how she if anyone could talk sense into him. James had reminded her that Severus wouldn’t technically understand what she was talking about, and that had been when Beth had left. It still made her feel slightly uncomfortable, whatever had happened with Severus and Lily in the past, and she knew James felt mostly the same way. She hadn’t wanted to stick around and see what other sorts of territories that conversation strayed into.

But all that looked far from Lily’s mind today, and rightfully so. “Hi!” she said cheerfully, sitting up a bit higher in the bed. The motion was made with slight difficulty for the small bundle of white blankets in her arms. “Did you want to meet Harry, then?”

With a very gentle motion – already rather befitting a mother, Beth though – Lily pushed away a small fold in the blanket, and Beth and Sirius instantly leaned forward for a closer look. Harry was tiny, and very pink; his eyes were closed tightly against the light from the lamp overhead, one of his small fists curled up by his cheek. And, perhaps most strikingly of all, he had been born with a thick shock of black hair.

“Oh, poor bloke,” said Sirius, turning to grin at James. “He got your name and your hair.”

“That’s a rather nasty thing for his godfather to say, don’t you think?” Lily laughed, looking down and lightly touching Harry’s hair. Sirius had spoken the truth, however; wherever she pressed it, it instantly sprang back into place, looking as though it hadn’t been disturbed at all. Beth couldn’t help but grin.

“Good thing he’s got his godmother around to defend him, eh?” James spoke up; he’d moved around to Lily’s other side now, and mirrored wife’s movements, reaching forward to brush the tips of his fingers over Harry’s tiny balled-up fist. It took a few moments for his words to fully sink in; when they did at last, Beth looked up at him, feeling her mouth drop open.

“I – what?” she said, rather stupidly. Sirius let out a loud bark of laughter and slugged her on the arm so hard that she gasped aloud, shooting him a half-serious glare.

“We thought you deserved it, Beth,” James grinned. Lily nodded fervently. She felt her cheeks warm, and ducked her head to look back at Harry. He made a small noise and shifted slightly in his mother’s arms, and twin smiles lit up James and Lily’s faces.

“I’d love to be a godmother,” she said honestly. At that, Sirius punched her in the arm again, though with less force, evidently too happy to say anything else. She turned around and smiled at him, and for the first time in the several weeks since Severus had had his memories of her wiped, the gesture felt totally and completely genuine.

I have a godson, Beth thought in mild bewilderment, and very nearly laughed aloud at the thought, which nearly made her laugh again, just for wanting to in the first place. Maybe this is a sign that everything would eventually be all right again.

A/N: Wee Harry makes a dramatic entrance! Which is befitting, I suppose. It's been very strange this whole time, writing about Lily being pregnant, and then writing the actual baby Harry into existence, and then thinking about how this boy is going to grow up to be the Chosen One. Sort of weird, that. But for now he's still tiny and pink-faced and scar-free!

Next week's the final installment of In The Red! It seriously just feels like I started writing these books... and I'm nearly halfway done with the third now. What is that. I'm very much looking forward to seeing everyone read it, and I would love it if you let me know what you think of the denouement thus far! Thank you all so much -- I seriously have the best readers!


Chapter 34: The Precaution
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The next Order meeting wasn’t for a few weeks after Harry was born, and so Lily had brought him along with her, much to the delight of those in attendance. He very much stole the show, blinking up at his onlookers with his bright green eyes, though Beth could see he already looked nearly identical to his father in every other respect.

She couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride now, at the meeting’s conclusion, watching him being passed around a small circle of people clamoring to hold both Harry and Alice and Frank’s new son, Neville, who had, to Lily’s relief, been born a day earlier. James still couldn’t help teasing his wife at how close she had come to, in her own words, “mimicking” her. Beth was sitting against the wall with Mary then, arms clasping her knees, watching the two small bundles of blankets being passed around the crowd.

“It’s a bit weird, isn’t it?” Mary asked her then, tipping her head slightly to the side as she watched. “Seeing all that, I mean, and knowing that it could be us. I don’t feel that old, do you?”

Beth shook her head mutely, tapping her fingers on her robes. Her eyes were trained on Hestia Jones, who’d just taken Harry from Emmeline Vance; the latter looked thoroughly disgruntled. Beth grinned a bit upon spotting Sirius, weaving in and out amongst the chattering Order members to keep an eye on his godson. He was nearly more protective of Harry than James and Lily were, she thought idly, watching him stand as close to Hestia as he could manage, on the pretense of idle chatter.

He glanced over at her then and saw her looking at him; a slow smirk twisted his mouth, and he started moving towards her place on the wall. Mary gave a little gasp when she saw he was moving towards the pair of them, her round cheeks instantly turning bright pink, and mumbled something about needing a glass of water before hopping up and quickly scurrying away in the direction of the flat’s kitchen.

“I think you scared her off,” Beth observed, grinning as Sirius sank down next to her, hugging his knees to his chest just as she was doing. “You know, I think she’s still got her schoolgirl crush on you. Poor thing.”

“It’s my wonderfully charming my good looks,” he said instantly, brushing a hand through his hair with such measured movements it couldn’t have been more fake if he had tried. Beth rolled her eyes and pushed him away from her slightly, and he laughed. “Think I should set her straight? I mean, that’s sort of a long time to be hung up on somebody –“

He stopped talking at once; she didn’t miss the quick sidelong look he shot her, nor the equal speed with which he looked anywhere but her. The slightly nauseous feeling, so common of recent weeks, had crept back into her stomach at this words; she knotted her hands together, but said nothing, instead toying with the thin silver chain on her wrist. She hadn’t had the courage yet to remove it.

Sirius glanced down and saw what she was doing, and his expression soured slightly. “You’re still wearing that?” he said, lowering his voice, although no one was around to overhear them anyway. “That’s not doing you any good, Bethy –“

“It’s fine,” she cut in, a bit more sharply than she meant to. Sirius cleared his throat and pretended to be vastly interested in the shoelaces of his trainers for a moment before, glancing to the side, he perked up slightly.

“James!” he yelled over, cupping his hands around his mouth. Beth looked around him, trying to gauge where he was looking, and grinned in spite of herself. In a far, relatively quiet corner of the room sat James, his head lolling to the side slightly, eyes shut fast behind his glasses. He started awake at Sirius’s shout, blinking blearily before his eyes seemed to focus on his friends.

“When you have kids, Sirius,” James yawned largely, scooting over towards them in an ungainly way, “I will personally be there to shout you awake from your much-needed naps.”

“Tired, then?” Beth said, patting the place beside her; James shuffled around and seated himself on her other side, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“You’ve no idea.” He yawned again, and, on her other side, Sirius caught it. “Blimey, and I used to think it was bad staying up to finish all those essays back at Hogwarts. Harry got up seven times last night, and I was too nice to let Lily get up more than once for him.”

“You poor thing,” said Sirius, voice dripping with sarcasm, and James reached around Beth to smack him. She laughed. “Should I go and pry him from Hestia, then? She might run off with him, if you’re not careful.”

James rolled his eyes. “Only if you’re not too rude about it,” he said, hopping to his feet and reaching down to help Beth up. “Lily and I will probably head home soon, I reckon. Are you sure you’re not going to run off with him, mate?”

“I’ll make sure he doesn’t,” Beth teased, grinning up at Sirius, who had adopted a mock-wounded expression at the ribbing of his friends on his behalf. Excusing herself and sidestepping one of the Prewett brothers, Beth moved toward Hestia, who was now engrossed in a conversation with tiny Professor Flitwick.

Just at that moment, however, the door leading into Number 9 opened. Beth wouldn’t have thought anything of this – until she saw who was standing in the doorway. Her heart plummeted into the vicinity of her shoes; from behind her, she felt Sirius’s hand instantly go to her shoulder, gripping hard.

“Severus.” Albus Dumbledore’s voice spoke from behind the pair of them; Severus, who had stopped just inside the threshold of the flat, turned toward the voice of the Hogwarts headmaster. “You’re rather earlier than expected.”

“It went quicker than I had anticipated.” Even his voice sent small, terrifying shivers down Beth’s spine, and, from somewhere deep in her throat, she let out a small noise, something between a squeak and a whimper. And, to her utter horror, Severus turned in her direction.

She wasn’t sure what she was expecting. A small part of her hoped that, once he had seen her, anything Dumbledore had done to remove his memories might have been reversed. Talking about it was one thing, but didn’t she mean enough to him for her to recognize her in some way, however small?

But Dumbledore was a great wizard, and his memory charms looked to be proof of that. There was no recognition in his dark eyes, no indication that he had ever seen her before. Her own memories belied it – the letters, the conversations, the bracelet on her wrist. But Severus had absolutely no idea who she was anymore.

“Snape.” Sirius forced the words out from between his teeth, laced with evident and malignant dislike. Severus looked away from Beth and up at him, and his lip curled in disgust, an expression so long forgotten by Beth that it sent new waves of nausea rolling over her.

“I might request a private word with you, Dumbledore,” said Snape coolly. “Our conversation is for – ah – worthy ears only, I’m afraid.” Dumbledore nodded mutely, his lips folded into a thin line. Without another word, the two men moved off towards the small room set at the back of the flat, once intended to be a bedroom. The rest of the Order, who had grown somewhat quiet upon Severus’s entrance, resumed chattering as soon as they were out of earshot.

Beth remained staring at the place where Severus had entered, her knees weak. She very much thought that the grip Sirius was maintaining on her shoulder was the only thing still keeping her upright. He was saying something, but his voice was faraway, distant, as though it were coming from somewhere underwater.

Severus really didn’t remember her.

Slowly, even as Sirius still talked, Beth slumped onto the carpet, her legs collapsing under her at slightly odd angles, and put her face in her hands.

*

“And she saw him tonight, Albus?”

Albus Dumbledore turned and began pacing the other way, hands clasped tightly behind his back; he had been walking the space behind his desk at his office in Hogwarts for the better part of half an hour. “I didn’t think Severus would be back so soon,” he admitted frankly, turning to look briefly at Minerva McGonagall before resuming pacing. She looked quite as quietly stunned as he felt. “But Miss Bridger gave nothing away to him.”

“Of course she didn’t.” Despite herself, the Transfiguration professor sounded slightly offended that he would suggest otherwise from one of her former students. “Beth Bridger was always a very intelligent girl.” The older woman’s voice dropped a few octaves, however, as she added, “Will she be all right?”

“Severus was adamant that he do this to keep her safe,” Dumbledore answered, though carefully avoiding the real question. How could he say if she would be all right? Beth Bridger was intelligent, as Minerva had said, but intelligence could lead quickly to folly, if one was not careful…

“I don’t like it,” the Transfiguration professor sighed at last, toying with her wand, a look of consternation evident on her face.

“Nor do I,” admitted the older man frankly, removing his spectacles from the end of his long, crooked nose and polishing them deliberately on the cuff of his robes. “But it is much too late to change circumstances now.”

But as he spoke, his gaze wandered over the tall, sturdy shelves behind his desk. Books lined the walls, small nooks in between the stacks cleared to make way for trinkets and gadgets. The Sorting Hat snoozed gently in a small corner near the ceiling; it would be performing its new song for a new group of students before too long.

On the far left shelf, however, and almost at the very bottom of the stack, was a small range of crystal phials, set on a small stand. Most of the phials were empty, but the far right one glowed anew with a silver substance, still swirling slightly in its container. Dumbledore might have removed them, but he could never have brought himself to destroy them completely.

Severus Snape’s memories of Beth Bridger.

Just in case.

A/N: It's very interesting how moments like this one -- posting the very last chapter of a story -- seem to magnanimous in the leading up to them, and so ordinary once they're actually here. Ever since I finished writing In The Red this past September, I've been anticipating posting this last chapter. But now that I'm actually doing it, that I see the words I just pasted and edited and know that I'm going to hop right over and mark this story as complete... it doesn't feel like it at all.

But there's the end of the story! What did you all think? I know it ends on a very unresolved note, and I sincerely hope that if you've made it this far, you'll return for Breaking Even once that starts posting. The first chapter of that will go up on February 17, 2013 (which happens to be both Beth's birthday and mine!), and I haven't yet decided if I'll continue to post every Sunday, or change to every other Sunday due to the slight pressures of this semester. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it!

And, as always, there are an enormous amount of people to thank for helping make this story possible. Always first is Sarah/Toujours Padfoot, because I have been extremely and incredibly blessed with both an extremely loyal reviewer and someone who genuinely loves this story. Ardeith has also been so supportive in her reviews, and I'm incredibly grateful to have her opinions, too! Of course thanks to Susan/violet ephemera, who made the gorgeous banner that I've gotten to stare at for almost a year now. I know I'll forget a few names, but I've had so, so many other reviewers that have made this story what it is: tragicYETmagic, Jchrissy, firefly910, MrsJaydeMalfoy, CassiePotter, and ValWitch21 have my thanks forever. And to anyone who has ever reviewed In The Red, or favorited it, or even read one chapter -- thank you. ♥ You guys got this story to Dobby and Golden Snitch finals; you all are the reason I'm still here.

Thank you so much for everything, and I very much hope you've enjoyed this second installment in the Beth Bridger trilogy! Don't forget to check back on February 17 for Breaking Even


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