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Chapter 6 : Somewhat Reconciled
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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!
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