“D’you want cream dress robes, or are you thinking just plain white?” Mary Macdonald asked, sitting cross-legged on Lily’s bed and leafing through the latest bridal catalogue from Madam Malkin’s. Her tongue was poked between her teeth in concentration, and she removed the quill from behind her ear and circled a potential dress as she spoke.
“I don’t really care all that much,” Lily said; she, in turn, was beside Mary, although hanging upside-down from the bed so her head was touching the floor. “I’ll go in my Hogwarts robes if I have to.”
“Oh, no, you’re not,” spoke up Marlene from across the room. She was kneeling by Lily’s Hogwarts trunk, sorting through it and making piles for Lily to keep and throw out once she’d left home. Only Beth withheld her opinion on the matter, sitting near the door, her knees drawn up to her chest and idly poking a dust bunny with her forefinger.
It had been a month since she’d last seen Severus, and yet it was still a really painful subject to even think about – so she didn’t, or at least tried not to. All her free time was spent practicing spells, mostly with Sirius, as she’d gone to kip at his place until she could get a flat of her own before the Order work really started. She had gone to her mother’s house briefly, to unload the necessary things from her trunk, and was still reeling at how badly her mother had taken the news that she would be moving out.
“Barely wrote all year, never even thanked me for that Christmas present… Didn’t even tell me or anyone else you were planning on moving out… Don’t know what you intend to do with your life…”
But she had remained firm, telling her mum she’d write every now and again. A few more firm good-byes, a chaste kiss on the cheek, and all she’d known for the past three weeks was Sirius’s couch, which she supposed was comfortable enough if not terribly clean. He didn’t mind, of course – his thoughts were focused on the undercover work they’d been doing, too, and she’d never seen him so actively engaged in learning in all theirs years together at school.
“Beth? What do you think?” Mary had looked up from the catalogue and was peering intently at the other occupant of the room, pushing one of her braids behind her shoulders. Beth shrugged.
“I guess Lily can wear what she wants,” she said, and Lily grinned.
“Hey, someone agrees with me!” She swung her legs over her head, righting herself on the ground with a small thunk and combing out her hair with her fingers. “Honestly, though, I’ll just end up picking one a few days before the wedding and James’ll have to love it.”
Marlene let out a snort from over near the trunk, and promptly sneezing after inhaling the dust found there. “He’ll love you in anything,” she said with a wicked grin. “Or particularly without –“ She was quickly silenced by a well-aimed throw pillow, and went back to her chore, laughing under her breath.
As though this was a cue, the sound of a doorbell came from downstairs, and Beth popped up, opening Lily’s own door and emerging onto the landing. The four girls were expecting the boys over that afternoon – all four of them – to go over more wedding details. Beth knew what they’d really do is just sit around talking and getting nothing done, but she supposed it was at least good to have intentions.
James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter were already waiting at the bottom of the stairs when the girls emerged, having been let in by Mrs. Evans, who had been absolutely thrilled to death from the first moment her daughter came back from school to start planning the wedding. Lily’s sister, a Muggle, had already gotten married last year, but having a daughter marry a wizard was a first.
“And don’t you look beautiful,” James called up the stairs, swinging around the end of the banister and raising his eyebrows teasingly. Lily blushed and rushed into his arms as soon as she got down the stairs, burying her face in his chest. Sirius laughed and shook his head.
“I don’t know how you did it, mate,” he said, slapping James on the back good-naturedly. “You need to write a book, I reckon. You’d make heaps of Galleons.” He nudged Beth as she joined everyone in front of the stairs. “Hey, thanks for washing those dishes.”
“Only because you’re a slob,” she teased, nudging him back, and he feigned being hurt by this.
“Don’t forget, Bridger, I’m letting you stay at my place rent-free.”
“Don’t forget, Black, that you’d get cursed in two seconds if I wasn’t helping you out with your wandwork.”
“Ah, touché,” Sirius conceded, grinning again. “I suppose it’s a fair trade, then.” The pair of them began to follow the others, who had begun to trickle out into the back garden, where the eight of them normally held their wedding planning meetings – or a lack thereof.
“Hey, you’re okay, right?” Sirius spoke rather suddenly, hanging back just in case the others heard, and making it so Beth very nearly ran into the back of him. She had wound up telling the boys – not Marlene or Mary, and especially not Lily – about Severus, and they’d all agreed that halting communication was most definitely the best course of action. It wasn’t a course she necessarily liked still, but she was determined to stick with it nonetheless.
Beth didn’t answer right away, instead staring past him to where the others had congregated. James and Remus were telling some sort of story; the former was getting quite animated about it, too, jumping about like a wild hare. Sirius glanced at them, and then looked back down at Beth.
She nodded at long last, looking up at him and forcing something onto her face that she hoped resembled a smile. “Yeah, Sirius, I’m okay,” she said, nudging him again, but this time in sisterly affection. “Now come on, you prat, let’s go join the others.”
The anteroom was dark and smelled like sour milk – Severus could place that smell very clearly, although he wasn’t entirely certain why. It was as though every sense in his body had suddenly heightened a thousandfold, and he could see things he couldn’t before, hear things he’d never heard. It wasn’t as intriguing as he would have guessed; it was merely extremely unnerving.
“I can’t believe we’re here. Can you believe we’re doing this?” Wilkes, overexcited as always, was practically bouncing from where he sat on the floor, as there had been only two chairs set out for the group to wait on. Severus resisted the very strong urge to kick him in the back of his head and instead tried to concentrate, focusing on his fingers, folding and unfolding them experimentally.
He could back out of all of this now. He wasn’t tied to anything yet, but he knew that time was running out, and he had to make a decision. And what lay along each path? One path – the path that ended behind that small black door, only three steps or so across the room – was one of sure power, and perhaps wealth, and work for blood purity in the wizarding world. Along the other lay the hopes of reconciling with Beth, of finding her and fixing whatever had gone wrong and testing those extremely murky waters again. He had to figure out which one he wanted more.
He glanced towards his left, at Rosier, who had commandeered the other rickety chair in the chamber. He was staring at his feet, his teeth audibly chattering, and kept moving his right foot every few seconds as something like a tic. This, too, annoyed him.
He could stand up and walk out right now. There was nothing stopping him, no one to hold him back. But as so many times over the past month, his final and disastrous conversation with Beth played in his mind.
“I can’t do this, Severus. I can’t. Seven years, and it’s just too much, and it’s so much better if we’re not – not friends.”
He sucked in a breath through his teeth as though the words had physically stung him, and Avery glanced at him curiously, scooting a bit farther away on his patch of floor. He rubbed his forehead, trying to get his headache to go away, his heart hammering twice as fast as it should have been.
She couldn’t be right. Were things really better if he never spoke to her again?
The door opened at that moment, and all five boys jumped; Wilkes even winced slightly, as though expecting to be hurt by something, and Severus rolled his eyes. A tall, dark-skinned man Severus didn’t recognize held the door open, his brow so heavy that his eyes were cast in shadow. The light from a grimy window illuminated a broad gold ring on his left thumb.
“He’ll see you now,” the stranger said in a characteristically deep voice. Each boy glanced at the other, waiting for someone else to be the one to make the first move. Sucking in his breath again – less audibly this time – Severus stood up and crossed the room, disappearing over the threshold of the door into the room beyond.
He had chosen his path.
A/N: Oh my gosh, this is just the weirdest thing. I remember the entire process of this story so vividly -- talking about it when it was still just an idea, and then sitting down and writing that first chapter this past summer. And writing this chapter, the last one, in the early months of January, only six months later. It's such a clear memory that it's weird for me to see it here, about to be posted, and think how far this has come. And now I have goosebumps.
Thank you to anyone who's read and reviewed and favorited this -- even if you're not still reading it (and I hope if you made it this far, you are!), you have made this story what it is, and my gratitude knows no bounds. And -- of course -- special thanks to Sarah (ToujoursPadfoot), the Padfoot to my Prongs. Her name's cropped up probably more than Beth's, at this point, but she is the reason Beth came into existence in the first place, and she inspired this story anyway. I really could not have done this without her!
EDIT: The sequel is now posted! If you've liked this story and would like to continue on, you can find 'In The Red' on my author's page. And if you like that and feel like leaving a review, that'd be amazing!