At first, Beth wasn’t quite sure what had woken her up so early in the morning. There was barely any light filtering in through the tiny window beside her bed, and what light did intrude was soft and gray, the sort of pre-dawn light that was not meant for eyes to see by. She groggily rolled over and was about to head back to sleep when the sharp tapping sound came again. She sat bolt upright, heart hammering somewhere near her jawline. A multitude of scenarios chased themselves through Beth’s mind.
It’s Severus, and he’s in trouble. It’s the Death Eaters, and I’m in trouble. It’s Sirius, needing help after accidentally burning his flat down…
Grappling for her wand, which had rolled behind her now-cold mug of tea on her nightstand, and trying not to wince at how cold the old, musty floorboards of her bedroom felt underneath her feet, she shuffled over to the door and peered out into the tiny corridor that ran the length of her flat. There was no apparent sign of entrance, but the knocking sounded again from the direction of her front door. Holding her breath, she halted by the entrance to the kitchen.
“Melius Oculae.” A Supersensory Charm to enhance her eyesight – probably not the smartest move, all things considered, especially for someone who had been trained for a year and a half in more advanced fighting spells. But it was the thing that made the most sense to her sleep-fogged brain, and now, as she felt the charm take effect, she was able to feel, more than literally see, who was standing on the other side of that door.
“Sirius,” she muttered under her breath, half-annoyed and half-relieved. It would be like him to sneak over here this early in the morning, despite the fact that she and James and Sirius had sat up until late last night, talking at James and Lily’s. A small smile brushed over her face as she hurried to unlock the door and let Sirius in; James and Lily had told her last night that they were expecting a baby, around the same time that Frank and Alice were.
The door swung inward to reveal her friend, dressed again in Muggle clothes and bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. “Morning, Talons,” he said cheerily, twirling his wand in the fingers of his left hand. “Sleeping on the job, then?”
“Shut up,” she said, the words distorted by a massive yawn in midsentence. Beth ran a hand through her hair nevertheless, painfully conscious of how horrid and ratty it must look from sleep. “You’re the one who woke me up, in case you’ve forgotten. What, all the other charity houses full this time of day?”
“We’ve decided to be pleasantly vitriolic this morning, I see,” Sirius said, stepping over the threshold without being asked. He carried with him a subtle aura of near-tangible excitement, and Beth frowned a bit as she shut and locked the door behind him, wondering what it was all about. “Unfortunately, you’ll have to change your tune, because we’ve got work to do.”
Beth blanched. “Come again?” She froze in the action of passing through the kitchen door with the intention of making a pot of very strong coffee.
Sirius grinned at her, crossing over and tapping her on the nose with his forefinger; she rubbed it, scowling half-seriously. “You heard me. Frank’s been by my place, says we’ve got something to do. A bit of eavesdropping, as I understand it, only he’s sadly lacking in the time needed to accompany us -“
“Wait, stop. You’re talking like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus.” Beth felt her brows crease again, although the excitement that was plain on Sirius’s face had begun to infect her own demeanor, as well. “We’ve got a mission? Today?”
“Right now, as a matter of fact,” he answered, beaming again. “We’ve got to be over at Knockturn Alley as soon as possible. So get dressed, grab your wand, and I’ll explain a bit more on the way. Let’s go!” He slung an arm around her shoulders, hugging her briefly before squeezing past her into the kitchen. Beth paused briefly, her brain buzzing, and then trotted off quickly toward her bedroom.
As she wrestled on an oversize gray sweatshirt, marked with a blue-and-white logo of a Muggle office supply company, and her oldest and most comfortable pair of jeans, she thought about what Sirius had told her. Knockturn Alley - it was a place of rumors, she knew, talked about in whispers among Hogwarts students, a place one wasn’t supposed to venture into if they could help it. In fact, she didn’t think anyone in her group of friends, blatant disregarders of rules as they were, had ever so much as set foot on the street. The thought made her a bit apprehensive, even without the fact that she was supposed to be on an Order mission, too.
Frank wouldn’t be going with them, either, and that was a bit more than unnerving. She’d figured Alice would be understandably absent from most of the grunt work, and she supposed it was natural to assume that Frank would be, too. But thinking that, and being faced with its repercussions, were two entirely different things. Sirius and Beth’s second mission, and they’d be going it alone…
Sirius knocked on the bedroom door at that moment. “You are being rather slow,” he said pleasantly. “I’ve already made the coffee.”
“That doesn’t count,” she called back from the other side, her voice muffled through the elastic band in her mouth; one of her hands had become tangled in her hair as she tried to tie it into a bun. “You can just wave your wand at a piece of china, it doesn’t count as ‘making coffee.’” She thrust her wand into the waistband of her jeans and opened the door; Sirius was immediately on the other side, dark hair falling into his face.
“Coffee,” he said, smiling down at her and proffering her one of her own mugs. She grinned back, unable to help herself, and took it. “Ready?”
“You bet.” She took a deep swig from the mug, grimacing at its unnatural bitterness, and plunked it down onto her coffee table. Sirius followed suit, and the two left the building, heading off down the pavement in the direction of the Leaky Cauldron.
“So apparently sometime last night Moody got some sort of a tip, or whatever, that one of the people we’ve been watching is going to be at Borgin and Burke’s - that’s a curio shop or something in Knockturn Alley,” Sirius said, launching right into his explanation, as though he’d planned it out.
Beth’s heart stopped beating for a brief moment. Please, please don’t be him…
“Do you remember Lucius Malfoy?”
She let out an almost inaudible sigh of relief, and her forehead puckered in thought, grateful to be distracted from the momentary sense of fear and panic. “A few years ahead of us - blonde hair, sort of pointy face?”
Sirius smiled appreciatively. “That’s the one. Anyway, Moody heard from one of his contacts that something’s supposed to be exchanged there early this morning. We’re not sure what - or if it’s even something physical, it could just be information. But it’s our job to figure out what that’s supposed to be. Strictly hands-off sort of stuff.” He glanced down at Beth. “What?”
She was smiling up at him as he spoke, a bit sadly. Somehow, the way he had been talking just now - the words he was saying, the tone he was using to say them - had made him sound significantly older than she’d realized he was. Gone was the prankster of their school days, the fun-loving boy who put his friends before all else. He had turned into a grown-up when she wasn’t looking - but she felt funny voicing these thoughts aloud.
“Nothing,” she said instead, shaking her head slightly. “So we’re supposed to eavesdrop on this - this exchange, or whatever?”
Sirius bobbed his head yes. “And then run to the Ministry, I think,” he said, reaching up and brushing a bit of hair out of his eyes impatiently. “Moody wants to know about whatever we overhear. He wrote an owl about it, Frank said it arrived at something like two this morning - he showed me the letter when he ran by my place.”
The battered, swinging sign of the Leaky Cauldron came into view as Beth and Sirius rounded the corner at that moment, and any further conversation was halted. Somehow being here, at such a previously innocuous doorway, and knowing what she was about to do upon passing it now, sent a small shiver up Beth’s spine. Sirius glanced sideways at her; she could see that his hand was closed around his wand in the right front pocket of his jeans.
“You nervous?” she asked lightly, although it was a tone that did not reflect her feelings. But upon looking at him closer, she could answer the question for herself – and surprisingly, he wasn’t nervous. There was anticipation and determination and excitement etched all over his face, but nothing that spoke of nerves. He gave a noncommittal shrug, and stood back to let her pass through.
The haze of smoke that, more often than not, hung over the pub and its inhabitants was still there, even at such an early hour. Sirius hated the smell, Beth knew, and wrinkled up his nose immediately, but she sort of liked it: It was heavy, but familiar, and familiarity was something she could do with a bit more of nowadays. A pair of wizards was sitting at a distant corner table, steaming mugs of something that was burnt orange and bubbling slightly in front of each of them.
“Morning,” Sirius said cheerily, one hand on Beth’s shoulder to guide her toward the small back courtyard. The wizard nearest them craned his head to inspect the newcomers, raising a thick black eyebrow and muttering something in an eastern European language she couldn’t quite make out. She stifled a small laugh as Sirius paused, momentarily distracted, and then pressed on toward the back.
“I think you confused them,” she said in a half-whisper; it was her turn to wrinkle her nose as she tried not to breathe in the oppressive smell of the rubbish bins. He shrugged again, more nonchalantly than before, and whipped out his wand, tapping a few of the bricks with fervor. She noticed a bit of varnish flake off the already-battered wand, but kept silent; her stomach was now jolting with nerves of her own.
Diagon Alley, like the Leaky Cauldron, was hushed and quiet in the dawn hours. The sun was just peeking its rosy golden head over the top of Gringotts, sitting crookedly at the head of the winding cobbled street, directly across from where Beth knew the entrance to Knockturn Alley was located. Everything else was still bathed in dim, dusky shadows, including the shopkeepers, who were already bustling about behind shop windows. They looked at Sirius and Beth curiously as the pair walked down the street.
“What’s our cover?” Sirius muttered suddenly from her right, speaking from the corner of his mouth. Beth looked at him blankly. “Our cover,” he repeated, half-impatiently. “Like, if someone asks us what we’re doing…?”
“Oh.” Beth frowned. “I don’t know… we could be going to Gringotts? Why didn’t you figure this out before we got here?”
“Excuse me, Bridger, but you’re as much a part of this team as I am.” Beth opened her mouth to snap back at him before seeing the glint in his eyes, and realizing that he was teasing her. She rolled her eyes.
“Fine, then. Gringotts.” She glanced over her shoulder, checking to make sure that no one unwanted was following them. She saw nobody, but a vague feeling of unease and apprehension still settled somewhere in the pit of her stomach. “Follow me,” she hissed, grabbing Sirius’s elbow none too gently and jerking him in the direction of a narrow alley, between Quality Quidditch Supplies and a stationery shop, crossing the street awkwardly to do so.
“Hold still,” she whispered in response to his confused look; it did nothing to abate it.
“What’re you - ?” he began, but Beth had already withdrawn her wand from the waistband of her jeans. She shoved up the sleeves of her sweatshirt to her elbows and rapped him on the head smartly with her wand. He let out a shuddering sort of gasp, and slowly, as though some odd liquid were trickling over him, he faded to blend with the background of the dingy alleyway behind him.
Sirius held up his hand before his face – Beth thought he might be grinning, although she couldn’t really tell for sure. “A Disillusionment Charm. Perfect,” he said happily. She didn’t respond; she’d already performed the charm on herself, and her lips still felt a bit weird, tingling and slightly numb.
They set back off in the direction of Gringotts, the sun a bit higher in the sky now, although still streaked with pinks and faint purples. Nobody paid them any heed now, and as they walked, Beth felt the knot in her stomach ease somewhat.
The goblin sentries stood outside the doors to the magnificent snow-white bank, as always, but Beth and Sirius focused their attention to the left instead. The entrance to Knockturn Alley looked – there wasn’t really a better way to describe it – sinister. Instead of leading straight on, as normal, innocent alleys were supposed to do, a crude set of half-wood, half-stone steps led down a few yards, so that most of it lay beneath Diagon Alley proper.
Sirius stopped at the head of the stairs; the scenery behind him shimmered slightly as he turned his head to look at her. “Shall we?” he asked.
Beth nodded her head, and then, realizing he might not be able to see her, said aloud, “Yes.” Impulsively, in an attempt to maybe feel a bit more secure, she reached forward and grasped his near-invisible shoulder with her similarly transparent hand. He hesitated for a moment, and she heard him suck in a quick breath, as though about to say something. But in the end, he just walked forward.
Borgin and Burke’s was small and out of the way, its front window coated in the thickest layer of dust Beth had ever seen. It wasn’t hard to find – most of the shops were curiously unmarked, as though only certain people deserved to know what was inside them. The curio shop in question stood on a narrow corner, jutting harshly into the cracked stone street.
“Here we are,” Beth muttered under her breath, more for her own benefit than Sirius’s, although he nodded.
“Here we are,” he agreed. She saw the wall behind him shift again as he turned his head and peered up the lane, back the way they had come. “Do you see anyone about?”
“No.” Beth gnawed on her lower lip, worries beginning to churn inside her. She knew it was a bit stupid, worrying like this – but then again, not everything had changed, and her anxiety was such that she rarely even considered it after nearly twenty years of living with it. “Do you think it’s a trap?”
“Moody wouldn’t have sent us all this way if he’d suspected something was amiss, would he?” Sirius said, although he sounded a bit dubious. “Maybe –“
But at that moment, there was a grating sort of sound, like metal on metal, and Sirius quickly cut off his sentence. The door to the shop, only a few feet to the left of them, inched open. A squat, stooped man with a mess of wild gray hair, slick with grease, poked his head around the frame, muttering sourly under his breath. Beth grabbed Sirius’s shirtsleeve and edged sideways, a bit further away, but not so far as to be unable to hear what he was grumbling about.
“Late again,” he said, in a voice not unlike the sound of the door to his shop – this, Beth figured, was either Borgin or Burke, although it would have of course impossible to discern who was who just by sight. He checked a funny-looking watch on his wrist, held there by what appeared to be snakeskin; next to her, she felt Sirius shudder slightly.
“Why Malfoy insisted on meeting on this corner, in front of my shop – bloody coward, that’s what he is.” The old man sidled out to the pavement in front of the window, folding his arms across his chest in a surly manner. “I told him, didn’t I, I said I hadn’t got any news for him. But does he listen to me? Like hell he does! If I’ve told him once, I’d told him a thousand times, I’ll contact him…”
Sirius whipped his head around to look at Beth, and even in his see-through state, she could sense the excitement rolling off him. The shopkeeper was staring back up the street in the direction of Diagon Alley, rocking back and forth and still muttering to himself. She wondered if he wasn’t a bit mad.
Distant footsteps echoed down the alley, and three heads – Sirius’s, Beth’s, and that of the stooped shopkeeper – turned in the direction of the noise. Even from this distance, and after a considerable number of years, Beth recognized Lucius Malfoy at once; that shade of blonde hair, nearly white in the still-low sunshine, was unmistakable. The old man’s mutterings immediately ceased, and he adopted a simper that was nearly painful to look at.
“Lucius. A pleasure, as always,” he said, inclining his head deferentially. Lucius sneered and raised a slim, pale eyebrow; it couldn’t have been clearer as to how he felt about the shopkeeper.
“Borgin,” he said coolly. His eyes darted idly over to the spot where Beth and Sirius were frozen against the wall, and his eyes narrowed slightly. She felt her heart come to a rocketing stop at the base of her throat; her hand, still grabbing onto Sirius’s sleeve, tightened convulsively.
“You wanted to see me, Malfoy.” It was a statement, not a question, that Borgin uttered now, fiddling with the snakeskin strap of his watch. Malfoy glanced back at him, and Beth breathed a completely silent sigh of relief. Her eyes darted to the left, through Sirius, and she saw a small metal ladder hanging crookedly on the mossy brick of Borgin’s shop. It appeared to reach all the way up to the slanted roof, covered in peeling shingles.
Sirius appeared to be looking at her as she stared at the region of his chest, where the ladder began. She motioned with her head, and he glanced behind him. She thought he might have comprehended; at any rate, she could barely make out the outline of his hand as he raised a finger to his lips, needlessly urging her to be silent. Slowly he rummaged in his right hip pocket, and, with a slight thrill of horror, she was distinctly aware that his wand wasn’t Disillusioned like the rest of his body. Whatever spell he wanted to cast would have to be quick, or they’d risk being seen.
Borgin was listening with increasingly evident displeasure as Malfoy talked on; Beth strained her ears, trying to hear what he was saying, willing Sirius to wait just a few more seconds.
“I don’t know what it is about the task I set you that you find so hard, Borgin,” Malfoy was saying silkily, toying with a silver-tipped black cane in his left hand. He was keeping an unusually tight hold on something so trivial; Beth wondered idly what its real purpose was, all the while straining not to lose the thread of conversation.
“It’s not difficult,” Borgin said petulantly, sounding like a schoolboy himself; he even pushed his lower lip out a fraction. “All I’m telling you is that there’s not been anything new to report –“
“This is one of the few solid leads we’ve got,” Malfoy interrupted stiffly. “The Dark Lord’s adamant that these people, these – whatever they call themselves – be found and stopped.” He tapped his cane once on the ground for emphasis. “And Dearborn, arrogant bastard that he is, was overheard only last week –“
“You don’t need to tell me. I’m the one who reported all this to you, aren’t I?” Borgin said, growing red in the face, although he lowered his voice, his eyes darting left and right. Malfoy opened his mouth to respond, but Sirius took the brief pause in the conversation to make his move. With a noise like a thousand fireworks, the wall of the weed-covered garden opposite Borgin and Burke’s exploded.
Borgin gave a yell of fright, and Malfoy ducked, covering his hands to avoid being pelted with pieces of brick and mortar. With a great leap, and aided by the noisy confusion, Beth scrambled for the ladder, hauling herself onto it and shimmying up the groaning rungs. Sirius was hot on her heels.
“What the bloody hell was that?!” Borgin roared, one hand raised to his stubble-covered cheek; the tips of his fingers came away red, dotted with blood from a fresh cut on his cheek. Malfoy brushed a bit of rubble away from the front of his robes angrily.
“Does it look like I know?” he snapped. His eyes cast about in the direction of the stretch of wall to the left of the shop’s door, but Beth and Sirius were already on the roof. She gripped the gutter with her fingers, so hard they ached, but she didn’t dare let go; she could feel her heart hammering in her chest. Next to her, Sirius was desperately trying to control his breathing, loud from the burst of adrenaline.
Malfoy edged over to the smashed wall, jerking the small silver statue – it looked like some creature’s head, at this distance – from the top of his cane. Beth saw, with a small gasp, that his wand was concealed inside it. He brandished it at the loose pile of bricks, dust still settling around him, but nothing happened.
“Come on,” Malfoy said shortly, jamming the wand back into the body of the cane and casting another furious glance about the place. “Inside your shop. We’ll finish this conversation there.” His cloak flapped about his ankles as he strode broadly across the street, disappearing into the interior of Borgin and Burke’s. Borgin stood alone on the pavement for a second, already beginning to mutter darkly, before he followed Lucius Malfoy inside.
Sirius turned his head, oddly colored with a combination of the sky and the nondescript clapboard shop across the street. “Dearborn,” he whispered hoarsely. Beth nodded, her throat suddenly dry – she couldn’t tell if the effect was from fear, or the excessive amount of brick dust now in the air. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
“We should go to the Ministry,” she hissed back. She swallowed the lump in her throat, and realized, a bit abashedly, that she was trembling uncontrollably from shock. She pushed the sleeves of her sweatshirt back up, as they’d fallen over her wrists in the commotion.
“Beth.” She felt, rather than saw, Sirius reach over and give her hand a comforting squeeze. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” She glanced over and gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile, not even sure if he could see it or not. He squeezed her hand again, and then crawled gingerly over to the edge of the roof, preparing to descend the ladder again. Beth followed suit, and Sirius helped her back down to the pavement, again clutching her hand tightly in his as they made their way cautiously back towards Diagon Alley.
Even though it couldn’t have been more than seven or eight o’ clock in the morning – neither Beth nor Sirius was privileged to possess a watch with a band made of snakeskin – the Ministry was already bustling with people preparing for the day of work ahead. Both had successfully been rid of their Disillusionment Charms, and it was more of a relief than she had anticipated to be able to see herself solidly once more.
“We’re going to Moody’s office, then?” Beth muttered under her breath, trying desperately to avoid a middle-aged wizard in deep crimson robes, who she’d just managed to make eye contact with.
“Yeah. Second level, I think. Department of Magical Law Enforcement.” Sirius was darting his gaze about nervously, as well, as though expecting someone to walk up to the pair of them at any moment and demand that they leave. “This way.”
Beth hadn’t ever had much occasion to visit the Ministry before, but Sirius was moving at such a quick clip that she didn’t get a lot of time to take in her surroundings: The dark, highly polished wood of the atrium floor, the deep blue and gold of the markings on its ceiling, and the gold fountain in the center were little more than blurs as they sped toward the opposite end of it. Gold lifts stood in small formation, queues leading into them already spilling out into the atrium itself.
Sirius swore lightly under his breath. “Aren’t there stairs in this place?” he asked. A small witch with flyaway mouse-brown hair passing by stopped, giving them a toothy smile with teeth only a shade or two lighter than her hair.
“By the fireplaces,” she cackled, laying a hand on Beth’s forearm; it was uncomfortably clammy. “I remember my first day at work, too. Such young people!” Beth smiled her thanks as Sirius led them back off the way they’d come, and they found a dark, narrow stairwell by a long range of stone fireplaces, the orange fire in their grates constantly switching to green as people Flooed in.
Moody’s office was all the way down at the end of the second level, in itself laid with footstep-muffling purple carpet, and was evidenced by a tarnished brass nameplate affixed to a stout oak door. It was oddly battered, as though it had taken several beatings in its time, and Beth knew that she should have been more surprised than she was; somehow, it fit Moody as any other door just wouldn’t have been right.
There was a slight pause, and then, from within the office, Moody growled, “Come in.” Sirius shot Beth a slightly wary sidelong glance before pushing the door open, gesturing for her to go first. Coward, she mouthed silently, smiling wryly as she stepped over the threshold.
For a moment, she had completely forgotten about Moody’s eye, and stopped dead a few paces before his desk as he turned to face her, the eye still swiveling about madly. He chuckled, a low, throaty sound, as Sirius swung the door shut behind her and walked to stand next to her. “Yeah, it’s a bit startling,” he said, not unkindly. “It comes with the job description.”
Sirius opened his mouth, and Beth was afraid he’d make some sort of rude or sarcastic remark about it; she hastily dug her elbow into his side. “We found Malfoy,” she said loudly, talking over the indignant noise Sirius was making at having been silenced.
Moody’s thick gray eyebrows rose with interest; he shifted in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. Beth could see the scars and cuts that littered them, an intricate web of crimson lines. “Oh, yeah?” he said. “Did you also blow up that brick wall down there, too?”
Sirius’s mouth fell open in astonishment. “How did you -?”
Moody chuckled. “Knowing things like that’s also in the job description, Black.” He leaned forward, all traces of dry humor disappearing from his lined, weathered face. “What was he talking to Borgin about?”
“Something about… about stopping people. Us,” said Sirius, frowning a bit as he spoke. “And he mentioned Dearborn. I think Dearborn talked, or… or something.”
Moody’s expression darkened. “I’m sure he did,” he muttered sourly, and let out a rapid string of curses. Beth winced, and instantly felt stupid for doing so. “Idiot would almost deserve it if he hadn’t put the rest of us in danger in the process.” He was looking down at his feet, frowning still, but his right eye, the magic one, was fixed on a point just over Beth’s left shoulder.
“Well, now we know.” He turned his eyes - both of them - back on Sirius and Beth, and she repressed a shudder. “So. Your first mission alone, eh? How’d it feel?”
Sirius’s face broke into a grin. “Excellent.”
Moody laughed roughly. “Thought so. Next time we need something blown up, we’ll let you know - you seem to be getting the hang of it.”
Beth grinned; she wasn’t at all surprised by his evaluation of their morning. This sort of thing, sneaking around and listening in on conversations, not to mention causing a ruckus, was right up his alley. Probably why Dumbledore assigned him the job, she thought dryly. But nonetheless, she was proud of him - he was doing what he loved, and he’d more than likely saved both their skins by blowing up that wall. When it came down to it, wasn’t that all that mattered?
A/N: YAY. I have been waiting for about... three months to post this chapter, I think. It's something around that amount. Because this is one of my very favorite chapters in the entire book, and it's the first time I've written a mission scene that feels completely right! It's a bit hard sometimes, translating what I can picture onto the page, but I feel like everything here -- Sirius, Beth, the conversation between Malfoy and Borgin, the reporting to Moody -- just really fit my mental image. And I hope that you enjoyed it, too!
Many, many thanks to CassiePotter for being the 100th reviewer on this story! Gah, that's such an awesome number. Thank you all for reading, and reviewing, and I know I say that every chapter, but I need to tell you as often as possible, so you don't forget. I'd love to hear your opinions on this chapter as well!