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Chapter 5 : The Bridge
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“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.
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.
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!
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