Chapter 7 : Homecoming
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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.
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!
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