Chapter 12 : Accusations and Agreements
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She looked around at those who had showed up for that night’s meeting with such a tangible fondness that Remus nudged her in the side, grinning.
“You look like you’re assessing us, Professor Bridger,” he teased. ““Am I passing inspection?” She crossed her eyes at him, drawing her knees further towards her chest and wrapping her arms around them.
“Actually, I’ve been meaning to ask you about… your furry little problem,” Beth answered, and waggled her eyebrows at him, laughing when he only scowled. “Well, come on, you let James call it that!”
“I’d thought you had a higher level of intelligence,” Remus retorted, still managing to look angry despite the laugh already evident in his voice. “James and Sirius are keeping tabs on me enough as it is. They’re fine, Beth, if you’re really so concerned.”
“I am,” she said honestly. “Well, no, maybe concerned’s not the word - but, I mean, it used to be a part of my life, too. Relatively speaking. It’s not often I get the chance to fly anymore.”
Remus frowned, but this time it wasn’t borne of mock anger - it just looked confused. “Don’t you use that during missions, though? You and Sirius? I mean, that’d be a pretty good trick to have in your bag…”
Beth squirmed, feeling a bit uncomfortable. “Well, no,” she said. “No one else really knows, do they? I mean, we’re sort of illegal, aren’t we?” She fidgeted with the hem of her robes, and was very grateful when Caradoc Dearborn sauntered over that that moment, giving her an excuse to stop making lame excuses for not having explained away the whole turning-into-a-falcon part of who she was.
There was something about Caradoc that Beth couldn’t pinpoint, but for some reason, she had taken an instant dislike to it upon meeting him for the first time, at the first Order meeting. She knew that he was Remus’s mentor, for lack of a better word, and that she really had no reason to feel as she did about him - but he just seemed sort of… arrogant. Even just standing above the pair of them, running a slim hand through his springy red-brown hair, he exuded a sort of air that, to her, clearly spoke of his being better than them.
“How are you, Lupin?” he said in a tired voice. “And, ah… Betty, isn’t it?”
“Beth,” she responded, a bit sourly, and Remus coughed to hide a chuckle. She elbowed him firmly in the ribs, but Caradoc didn’t appear to notice.
“I’m doing well, thanks,” Remus said, still smirking faintly. “And yourself?”
The tall man, who had seemed extremely uninterested in the response to the question in the first place, let out a long-winded sigh. He made it seem as though he’d been carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and had just found the perfect people to unload it onto. “Dismal,” he said, with an overly graceful shake of his head. “You cannot possibly imagine how busy I am - it’s quite stressful, balancing Ministry duties and overseeing you and those two girls who tag along with you. Not,” he added, after a pause slightly too long for comfort, “that it’s a burden, of course.”
It was Beth’s turn to laugh, although she didn’t disguise quite as well as Remus had. Caradoc looked at her oddly.
“Anyway,” he said, his voice a few degrees colder; he drew his robes about him and puffed out his chest slightly, which only served to make him look even funnier than he already did. “I’ve got to go and say a word to Dumbledore - he’ll be wanting to see me, I reckon -“ And he cut his way neatly through the chattering crowd without another word, robes flapping crisply about his ankles as he went.
“He’s quite the prat, isn’t he?” Beth said conversationally, watching him go with a still-amused expression on her face. Remus opened his mouth to respond, but the conversation was again interrupted, this time by Sirius, who burst into the room in a manner more resembling a whirlwind dervish than a human being.
“I’m late, I’m late,” he gasped, to no one in particular, and his dark eyes flitted down to where Remus and Beth were, just on the inside of the circle of chairs. “I overslept -“
“And you look it,” said Remus pleasantly. “Your hair’s sticking up brilliantly on that side, mate.” Sirius ran a lazy hand through the hair his friend indicated, although he really didn’t look too concerned about it. He plopped into the chair Beth was leaning against, accidentally kneeing her in the back of the head.
“Has the meeting started? Where’re Peter and James?”
Beth shrugged one shoulder. “I think Gideon mentioned something about them being out with Fabian - Benjy Fenwick’s not here either,” she added, casting a cursory glance around the Order members already assembled in the tiny room of the flat, although she knew she was right. “They might not show up until late.”
“Pity,” said Sirius, closing his eyes and stretching out his legs, so that they fell over each of Beth’s shoulders; she wrinkled up his nose, noting that, unsurprisingly, his trainers smelled rather unpleasant. “I was having a very odd dream involving James and a large bowl of porridge.”
“Care to elaborate?” she asked, wriggling her shoulders and trying to dislodge his gangly legs. Sirius grinned and raised an eyebrow.
“Not in present company. It’s not really suitable for female ears.”
“Pig!” She let out a little noise of protest as Sirius attempted to fold his legs across her face, tipping her precariously backwards, not to mention bringing his horrible-smelling trainers even closer to the proximity of her nose.
At that moment there was a general sort of hush, and as though driven by an unseen force, the rest of the Order began migrating towards their respective seats. Sirius quickly disentangled his legs from around Beth’s face, leaving her gagging with the smell as Remus rolled his eyes. Dumbledore moved over from the corner where he’d been talking to Edgar Bones to stand between two of the chairs, beaming, as always.
“It is an extremely pleasant occurrence to see that you have all returned for another meeting,” he began, tucking his hands smoothly into the hidden pockets of his star-speckled robes - Dumbledore, Beth thought a bit absently, could never do anything plainly. “I must only beg a small amount of your time this evening. If we might have the reports?” He motioned a bit to Edgar, still in the corner, who pushed his gold-rimmed spectacles up a bit higher on his broad nose and stepped into the middle of the circle.
Sirius leaned down and muttered in Beth’s ear as Edgar began speaking, causing her to jump slightly. “Hey. I’ve got news.”
“Can’t it wait?” she hissed from between her teeth, not daring to turn to look at him; she felt just as she always had when she’d passed notes in class, although that felt like a long, long time ago. “This is probably the most inopportune time -“
“Well, I don’t really feel like listening to Bones rattle on about things we already know. Ministry statistics are the precise reason I didn’t go skipping off to join that dull crowd after school.” He paused, glancing up, but everyone else seemed to be intent on listening to whatever was being read off the scroll of parchment in the man’s slightly trembling hands. “Alice is pregnant.”
Beth’s eyes immediately shot around the room, but Alice was out of her range of vision - probably standing somewhere behind her, she thought with a dull pang of regret, somewhere she couldn’t see her. “Really?” she hissed back, ignoring Remus’s annoyed look from her right. “How do you know?”
“I’ve got Seer powers.”
Beth snorted so loudly that she imagined Edgar might have paused briefly in his monotone monologue, and quickly clapped a hand over her nose and mouth.
“Yeah, no, but Frank did tell me. Isn’t -“ Sirius cut off his sentence quickly as, with a raspy, dry sort of cough, Edgar finished whatever it was he’d been saying and made an absurd sort of small bow in Dumbledore’s direction. The old wizard smiled politely at him.
“As usual, Edgar, your assistance is highly valued.” There was a slight murmur of agreement, and Beth felt a bit guilty that she hadn’t listened to him more closely - she’d get Remus to tell her what he’d said, later on. Dumbledore glanced briefly in her direction, eyes twinkling, as though he’d read her mind, and she squirmed a bit more.
There was a loud cough from someone across the circle, and Beth fought to keep a slight smirk from her face - Caradoc Dearborn, sitting on his flimsy folding chair like it was a throne, had his hand raised primly in the air. It was a bit of a funny sight - not a lot of people went through with formalities at these meetings, and she thought he looked more like a schoolboy than anything else.
Dumbledore offered an acquiescent nod in his direction. “You have something you wish to say, Caradoc?”
“Yes, yes. Thank you, Dumbledore,” Caradoc added, as a bit of an afterthought. He got to his feet sharply, clasping his hands behind his back. From behind her, she heard Sirius make a soft noise of contempt; he disliked Caradoc on principle almost as much as Beth did, and was much more vocal about it when it was just their group of friends.
“It has recently come to my attention that we have, ah -“ He paused, and twirled a hand about in the air, as though hoping to pluck words from nothing. “To put it delicately, I suppose I might be able to say that the interests of some of those amongst us might not be of the highest caliber.”
Beth frowned; to her right, Remus shifted slightly, and she tried not to notice that his eyes darted quickly to Sirius. She didn’t understand why and was about to shoot him a nasty look - how did he know Caradoc meant Sirius? - but then noticed that Caradoc himself had glanced in her direction, just over her head, to where Sirius was sitting.
Please be rational, she caught herself thinking fervently, but her silent pleas fell on equally deaf ears. With an icy quality in his tone that Beth had rarely heard before, Sirius spoke up; she stifled a gasp. “Anyone in particular, mate?”
The smile on the older man’s face didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I don’t think naming names is quite appropriate, Mr. Black -“
“You just named one right there.”
Remus began gnawing on the fingernail of the forefinger of his left hand; Beth rubbed her nose unconsciously, staring determinedly at the sand-colored carpet. She wanted to tell Sirius to shut up, that he was being thick, but there wasn’t really a way to do that in front of all these people. The eyes of everybody in the room, Dumbledore and McGonagall included, seemed trained on him now.
Caradoc smiled - not even smiled, really, but more leered. “Well,” he said, lowering his eyes in mock deference, “if you’d like to talk about this, then I could certainly arrange it, but this isn’t the place for it, Black.” The lack of a title before his surname was not lost on Sirius; he stood up quickly, and Beth shuffled to the left to make room, at the same time trying to think of a way to get him to calm down. Rage was pouring off him in near-tangible waves.
“Anything you’ve got to say to me, you should certainly be able to say in front of my friends at the very least.” Sirius’s tone was like chilled steel; his dark eyes snapped, looking extremely sunken in their sockets. “Trying to insinuate something? Go on, then!”
Caradoc’s upper lip lifted in a delicate sneer. “It’s been suggested that some of the more, ah, prominent wizarding families, with generally unsuitable ties to -“
“Yeah, all right, my brother was a Death Eater,” Sirius snarled, taking a step forward. “And if you’ve been beating around the bush trying to get me to come clean about it, then you’ve got your answer. But he’s dead now and you think I’m going to - I don’t know, carry on his legacy, or something?”
“Sirius -“ Beth whispered, catching Remus’s eyes; he looked just as panicked as she did. But the former ignored her.
“Reg was an idiot,” he was saying savagely. “He made a lot of stupid mistakes.” With such a ferocious gesture Beth was almost surprised that the fabric didn’t rip, he yanked up the left sleeve of his robes, exposing the smooth, unmarked skin of his forearm, lined with crisscrossing blue veins. “But I’m not bandying about branding myself with that mark, am I?”
There was a motion from behind Beth at that moment, and a retort that had appeared to be forming on Caradoc’s lips died instantly; his mouth snapped shut, his eyes fixed on a point behind Sirius. Beth turned to see what had become so fascinating.
Alastor Moody had stepped forth from a corner of the room, shadowed so thickly that Beth hadn’t noticed he had been standing there until he’d left. He cut an impressive figure, staring levelly at Sirius and Caradoc, leaning slightly to favor his false leg. But that wasn’t nearly the most stunning thing about him - not by a long shot. Where Moody’s once-dark and beady right eye had once been, on the previous occasion Beth had seen him, there was now an oversize electric blue eye - and what was more, it was spinning rapidly, in all directions and even out the back of his head.
Clearly the arrival of this strange new feature wasn’t news to the other Order members as well; a flurry of whispering, like dry paper rubbing together, broke out amongst those assembled. “What happened to his eye?” Remus whispered hoarsely, but Beth just shook her head, feeling slightly nauseous. Moody might have been one of her mentors assigned by Dumbledore, but he was nearly always absent, someplace or another, and most of the training and things had been left to Frank and Alice.
Moody’s normal eye was fixed firmly on Caradoc now, the other trembling in its socket as it roved around the circle of chairs. “Got something to say, Caradoc?” he asked in an even voice; he shifted his weight slightly, and Beth was close enough to him to hear his leg creak slightly.
Caradoc swallowed; he looked quickly at Moody’s roaming eye, and then determinedly at anywhere but. “I think I’ve made myself clear,” he said stiffly. “I’ve got no proof, of course, but -“
“But that’s not really stopping you,” Sirius spat. Beth saw his hands were clenched into fists at his sides, the knuckles jabbing sharply through the skin. Moody stumped forward a few steps and laid a thickly scarred hand on the younger man’s shoulder, as though to restrain him.
“We don’t pay for the sins of our family here,” he growled. “And I’d best be watching where you step, Caradoc, or I’ll unearth a few rotten limbs on your family tree, as well.”
The room was cloaked in a thick, anticipating silence; eyes had been swiveling from Caradoc to Moody as though watching a Quidditch match, waiting to see who would speak next. With a little noise of impatience, Caradoc turned to Dumbledore, only to find that he, too, would do nothing but look at him over the tops of his half-moon spectacles.
“Nothing further to add,” he said bitingly, and sat down in his seat hotly. Beth bit her bottom lip and glanced up at Sirius; there were large, irregular red patches blooming furiously on his cheeks. Without a word, he shrugged off Moody’s hand and stomped over to the door leading out of the flat. Order members parted obediently to let him through, seeming to fear touching him. The door clicked shut behind him.
Dumbledore gave a polite cough and rose to his feet once more. Behind him, Professor McGonagall was shooting daggers at Caradoc Dearborn, and Beth felt a slight swell of admiration for her old Head of House. “If we might move on to our next point of discussion -“ Dumbledore began, and at that moment Beth felt a sharp jab in her thigh. It was Remus.
“Go and see if you can find him,” he muttered out of the corner of his mouth. “I promised Marlene I’d walk her home since James and Lily aren’t here.”
Fighting back a pang of regret at having to miss the meeting, Beth nodded, rising to her feet as inconspicuously as possible. She knew that she should stay and hear what Dumbledore and the rest had to say, but more likely than not, Sirius was pounding the pavement looking for trouble, and heading him off before he could begin was her safest option.
She hurried to the end of the cramped alley that housed the entrance to headquarters, and, peering left, could just make out a small, dark figure a few blocks ahead, walking quickly. “Sirius!” she shouted, hastening to catch up to him. His stride was long, even when she was jogging. “Sirius, stop!”
He turned around under the awning of a dilapidated antique shop, an old Muggle wireless rotting away in its display window, which looked as though it hadn’t been washed for a few years, at least. “Did he insult your family too?” he asked sourly, once she was within earshot.
“He doesn’t know my family,” Beth said coolly, falling into step alongside her friend. “But even if he did, I wouldn’t have let it get to me, Sirius. You know the things he said weren’t true.”
Sirius came to such an abrupt stop that Beth very narrowly avoided colliding with him altogether. He ran his hands through his hair roughly and breathed out through his nose. “I should have figured that’d come up sooner or later,” he said bitterly. “As if one of us is supposed to be a traitor!”
“I know,” Beth said calmly, reaching out for his elbow - the closest bit of him she could reach - and squeezing it gently. “It’s preposterous, and that’s exactly the reason you shouldn’t be so flustered about it.”
Sirius looked off into the distance unseeingly, refusing to acknowledge her hold on his arm. “I need to clear my head,” he said roughly, although not terribly unkindly. He looked down his nose at her, eyes still glinting dangerously from their deep cavities. “You should head home, Bethy.”
Beth swallowed against a lump that had risen suddenly in her throat, but felt that, for one night, appeasing him might be a good thing. “Okay,” she said, and squeezed his elbow again for good measure. “Don’t do anything stupid, Sirius.”
He smiled thinly down at her. “I won’t.”
On the way back to her flat, however, the front of level-headed calm Beth had put up for Sirius’s benefit began to crack slightly. Caradoc’s knowing smirk, as well as Sirius’s livid expression, played like pictures on the backs of her eyelids every time she blinked. She thought of Sirius yanking down his sleeve - physically proving he didn’t have the snake-and-skull tattoo that the Death Eaters, You-Know-Who’s followers, had so proudly branded on the pale skin there.
“I’m not bandying about branding myself with that mark, am I?”
Maybe she had been wrong to tell James that she and Severus were still in contact - look at what had happened the last time she’d trusted him with one of her secrets! He’d run off and told Lily almost as soon as the words had left her lips, hadn’t he? Admittedly, this one was a bit more large-scale, and Lily had had a certain influence on him since they’d started dating. But who was to say that he wouldn’t let something slip?
She would hurt so many people if it got out that she was knowingly associating with a proven Death Eater: Caradoc, and Dumbledore, and McGonagall, and all of her friends - especially Sirius. Just how violently he had reacted to the false accusations against his loyalty tonight was proof enough of that. What would he say if he could have seen her pulling Severus’s sleeve over his own Mark, pushing it out of sight, willing herself that it didn’t matter as long as it was out of sight?
Beth’s breathing was coming quickly as she finally reached her building and let herself into her flat; it smelled stale and disused, cooped up against the firm wintery weather all day, and the smell did nothing to calm her down. She was scared, and she hated being scared, and she didn’t know what to do about it -
As if in answer to her thoughts, she became aware of a sort of tapping noise, coming from the direction of her bedroom. On the sill of the window perched a barn owl, looking at her expectantly, a thin scroll of parchment clamped firmly in its beak. Beth all but launched herself at the window and yanked it open, paying no attention to the blast of cold air that wrapped its icy fingers around her as she scrabbled to open it, praying it was from one person - surely he, of all people, could calm her fears…
She breathed a minute sigh, a combination of relief and happiness, upon seeing Severus’s spiky script marching in slightly crooked lines along the thin paper. Before even reading them, she could feel the knot in her chest loosen slightly, replaced by a warm, internal giddiness as the letters formed themselves into words:
We haven’t met since our first arrangement. When can I see you again?
Beth squeezed her eyes shut and scrunched the parchment slightly between her hands, hope floating lightly within her. She knew she shouldn’t read too much into his words - but at the same time, she wanted to read everything into them, just to reassure herself that she had made the right decision in continuing to keep in touch with him, and in confiding in James.
She dashed for a piece of parchment and a quill, a grin slipping across her face quite before she knew it was there. The ink blotted messily across the page as she scribbled, but she didn’t take the time to extract her wand to vanish the spots away. It was trivial, unimportant.
Tuesday afternoon at Montgomery Park?
“Go fast,” Beth whispered to the barn owl, still perched on the sill as though expecting her answer. It gave a dutiful sort of hoot and spread its massive wings, vanishing over the flat, concrete rooftops of the neighboring buildings. Her heart gave a slight squeeze of longing at the sight of the bird, wanting so much to fly again. Soon…
Severus’s response came within minutes, as though he, too, had been expecting her answer. It was just one word, but within it was the promise of a hundred, a thousand more.
A/N: And they meet again! Or have arranged to, anyway. I think I've said this before, but it warrants saying again -- sometimes it's a bit odd, being so far ahead in writing this story and then turning around and revisiting older chapters through posting them. This one must have been written in... April, maybe May? Probably around the time I started posting this story in the first place. I think I'm just shocked that things are getting tied in better than my paranoid self often thinks!
I'm currently working on the finishing touches of chapter 26 of 34 (just like the last book!), and I don't think my outline's going to be shifting drastically between now and the end. (I did just split a chapter in two quite recently, but I can't foresee that happening again.) I'm so excited for everyone to read it, too! Thank you so, so much for all the reviews and reads and favorites, and as always, if you feel up to reviewing this chapter -- even a line or two -- that would be tremendous!
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