Chapter 2 : A Bit of News
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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.
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!
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