It seemed to Severus that, ever since setting out to become a Death Eater, half of his waking hours had been spent in the dark. It probably came with the line of work, he figured – there was no question as to which was more adept to hiding traces of deeds better left unsaid – and after two years, he even imagined that he functioned better once the sun had gone down. Still, it did tend to make one feel just a bit less normal, a bit less human. Perhaps that was the point.
March had tumbled in after February, with no respite from the cold or the rain, and bringing wind besides. The weather was brutal enough that pushes to eradicate the unworthy – that is, the Muggles and Muggle-borns – had been rather few and far between in the winter. When a sort of excursion party, the term used in the loosest sense, had been organized, Severus had signed aboard without even thinking twice, desperate to get out of the stuffiness of headquarters.
Now, for some reason, he kept thinking of Beth, and what she’d say if she knew what he was doing right now. He sent up a quick, unsaid wish that she’d never have to find out; what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. It was the oldest, least painful lie in the book.
Malfoy walked up and stood next to him on the corner of the pavement at that moment, interrupting Severus’s thoughts, although he didn’t take the moment to actually look at the younger man. It was an odd group that would be going out that night – from the group of them that had come from Hogwarts, only Wilkes would be there. Severus selfishly wished he’d had his pick of the others, or could have gone it alone, without his old school friends.
“So. Your first hands-on work, eh?” Malfoy laughed, though there was no fun in it, and squeezed Severus’s shoulder in a brotherly sort of way. Severus gritted his teeth and tried to think what would be the most polite way to get Malfoy’s hand away; he hated being made to feel like he knew less than him, simply because he was a few years younger.
“It’s not a matter of whether I’m ready or not, Malfoy,” he said coolly. He fixed his gaze on a flickering streetlamp on the opposite corner and held it there. “It’s a duty. It’s a service. It’s not something I have to be ‘ready’ for.” From the corner of his eye, however, he could see the blonde man frown slightly, and had to bite back a smirk of his own.
“Yes. Of course.” Malfoy tapped his cane on the pavement a few times, the jeweled eyes of the silver snake adorning it catching the light as he did so. Finally, he said, “We’ll set out in a few minutes. Amycus is running late, but once he’s here -” He left the sentence unfinished, paused for a second or two, and then abruptly strode off.
As he walked back to say something to Wilkes, standing pale-faced on the stoop of the townhouse they called headquarters, Severus sucked in a breath through his teeth. It’s a duty. It’s a service.
But however well he’d eluded the question Malfoy’s question, it all boiled down to this: He didn’t know if he’d ever be ready.
“Ready to go, Bethy?” Sirius’s nonchalant tone didn’t fool her – Beth could tell how nervous by the way he was turning his wand, handle over tip over handle, over and over in his hands. She shrugged on her jacket and yanked her hair out of the collar. But she didn’t blame him – it might not have been their first mission, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t scared, too.
“Yeah,” she said, not wanting to say anymore. She and Sirius had taken to doing that since their confrontation in James’s flat – they each said what they needed to say, the very basics, and not much else. She glanced up and caught Sirius’s eye; he gave her a tight, brief smile, and suddenly became drastically interested in his wand once more.
Moody stumped into the room, eyebrows lowered over his mismatched eyes. He surveyed the two of them, leaning lopsidedly on his cane to take the weight off his wooden leg. Beth hadn’t been fully surprised to hear that he was going with them that night to search out the band of Death Eaters who were, apparently, going to be causing a bit of trouble in the heart of London that night. Alice, especially, wouldn’t have taken on something that dangerous in current condition, and Beth was willing to bet Frank had been allowed to sit it out because of the baby, too.
“Come on,” the older man said gruffly, once Beth had buttoned the top button on her jacket and turned to face him, awaiting instructions. “It’s time to leave.”
They had returned to the large, spacious cobbled courtyard where Severus and Rosier had completed their initiation many months previously – unsurprising, although still unwelcome. The steeply-arched black bridge that he had met Beth under loomed up out of the darkness; it had been there he'd first laid eyes on her for the first time since their school days, but that was really the only pleasant thing he could say about the place. The rest of it, for him, was tainted with memories of murder, and of fiery, soul-ripping sensations.
Wilkes recognized the place, as well; he had chosen to walk along Severus during the entirety of the journey, something with greatly irked the latter. “Back to the old hunting grounds, eh?” the curly-haired man sneered in his friend’s ear. Severus winced at the customary barrage of spittle that accompanied the whisper, and moved to stand closer to Amycus Carrow. Company was limited, but he’d rather stand by Carrow than have his face spit on any day.
Malfoy, apparently having heard Wilkes, turned to him with a barely-disguised expression of disgust plain on his pale, pointed features. Severus grinned nastily, taking care to hide it lest someone should ask him what he was smiling about.
“Did you bother to tell them what they’re doing, Malfoy?” Carrow grunted then, looking down at his nails and picking at one of the cuticles. He looked rather bored with the whole process. “Or d’you want to show them by example?” He looked up and gave his companion a rather nasty grin.
Malfoy smiled back coldly. “Whatever you think necessary.” Severus could already see that that was a lie, the way Malfoy was already moving for his wand. He twisted the top of his cane with a deft motion of his wrist; it came off neatly, revealing the wand concealed beneath the snake’s head. He checked it over, and then, apparently satisfied with what he saw, replaced it with a neat click. Carrow leered.
“Excellent,” he said croakily, rubbing his hands together in the anticipation of what was to come; Severus felt a sort of twisting in the pit of his stomach at the sight. On his left, Wilkes had gone rather quiet, and Severus knew that he was probably having thoughts similar to the ones running through his own mind: Would he walk away from this place with fresh blood on his hands again?
“There’s one, over there,” Carrow said, cackling and pointing across the square. Severus’s eyes followed the direction his finger indicated without wanting to, although he was totally at a loss to prevent it. Sitting on a small iron-wrought table outside a café was a small, thin young woman, probably around his age, or just a bit younger. A cardboard cup of coffee sat at her left hand while she made small marks on a steno pad with a pen in her right hand. She was, quite undoubtedly, a Muggle.
“We’re not going to… to kill her, are we?” Wilkes’s voice was high and breathy, and even though he didn’t particularly want to murder anyone else either – Muggle or otherwise – Severus rolled his eyes. Idiot.
With an irritated jerk of his head, Malfoy set off across the square. Carrow turned his head to Severus and dipped it in the direction the blonde man was heading, as if to say, Well, go on, then. He curled his lip at the older man and strode briskly off after Malfoy, nausea turning his intestines over even as he did so.
He couldn’t make sense of whatever was wrong with him. This was what he’d signed up for, hadn’t he? And he’d already done it once before – he and Rosier had killed those two Muggle businessmen, after all. This was a walk in the park, and all he would have to do while Malfoy moved in for it was stand off to the side and try not to think of Beth…
The girl looked up as the two men approached her table and smiled politely, although a bit warily. He didn’t blame her – they were dressed in their normal wizarding robes, not Muggle attire, and to her they probably looked utterly ridiculous. Then again, Severus thought, smirking a bit, the same could be said for her. Some of the current Muggle fashions were so beyond the point of ridiculous it was laughable – couldn’t even dress themselves, the stupid creatures.
Malfoy took up a post by one of the wide columns that supported the balcony overhanging the café. At this range, Severus could hear some of the café’s other patrons up on that balcony, chattering amidst the rather tinny sound of clinking cutlery. He stood beside Malfoy, not leaning with the same sort of casual aplomb but instead standing stock-still, hands thrust roughly into his pockets. His fingers closed around the handle of his wand instinctively.
“We’ll just wait,” Malfoy murmured smoothly, one finger absently stroking the nose of the snake on his cane. His light eyes were trained intently on the girl at the table, who, it was clear, was still aware of their presence, and growing more unnerved by it as the seconds dragged.
“We could just kill her now,” Severus said coldly, with liberal amounts of sarcasm layering the suggestion; Malfoy apparently was pretending it wasn’t present. “Instead of just standing about watching her like mass murderers.
“You flatter me.” A pause, and then, “We’re not going to kill her.” Malfoy smirked and raised one of his pale, slim eyebrows.
“But you told Wilkes –“
“Your friend Wilkes is only a shade more intelligent than that,” Malfoy interrupted, pointing his cane lazily in the direction of the Muggle girl sitting at the table. “And that’s really only because he knows which end of his wand to point at people.” He laughed harshly, but Severus didn’t join in. “We’re simply going to be having a bit of fun,” he added, smirking. “Playing with our food, if you will, instead of eating it.”
The very idea made bile well up in the back of Severus’s throat.
There was a sudden movement from the table; the girl, apparently too unnerved by the position the two men had assumed, had gathered up her cup and notepad and was pushing her chair in under the table. The sound of the iron grating on the rough pavement set Severus’s teeth on edge.
“Time to move,” Malfoy said, almost sing-song, and, after waiting a moment or two to let the young woman get far enough ahead of them, he strode after her. Severus cast a glance over his shoulder, looking for Carrow and Wilkes, but neither of them was anywhere to be seen. Cursing under his breath, but with no other options left to him, Severus followed after Malfoy and his chosen victim.
His footsteps seemed louder than normal; even his breathing seemed amplified, and even though he knew that is was a result of his tensed and heightened nerves, that didn’t make him feel any less concerned about it. Malfoy was mere paces away from the young woman, and Severus watched as he withdrew his wand from the cane. He stopped dead in the middle of the pavement and closed his eyes.
He was not a coward. But he did not want to see this.
There were voices – one male, one female – muddied and vague, as though coming from deep underwater. A laugh, and the female’s voice became panicked and shrill. And then, after a pause, the most terrified scream Severus had heard in his entire life. It numbed his spine and his brain and his eyes flew open of their own accord, his feet propelling him forward.
The young woman writhed on the pavement in clear and evident pain. Her half-drunk coffee was strewn in front of the copy shop to her right, dripping into the gutter; her notepad lay beside it, a few of the pages already stained brown. Malfoy was pointing his wand straight at her heart, his face twisted into a smile that might have resembled pleasure under more normal circumstances, but here was harsher, crueler.
Severus’s eyes were trained on the contorted face, the scream still ringing in his ears. And for some reason, he saw Beth lying there instead of this stranger.
“Stop that,” he snapped, without thinking. His left hand shot out, and he pressed down hard on Malfoy’s forearm. Caught off guard, the blonde man stumbled sideways, his wand jerking away from the young woman, and the curse seemed to be instantly lifted. Her muscles relaxed, her face shining with tears, and Severus still couldn’t get that image out of his head…
Malfoy looked at him furiously. “What the hell are you doing?” he said, straightening his robes, which had become twisted when he lost his balance. Severus tried to speak, but no words came out when he opened his mouth. How was he supposed to explain what he saw – and even if he could have explained it, why should Malfoy have listened?
The other’s pale eyes flashed dangerously. He thrust his wand back into the top of his cane, smashing his heel down on the pavement. The girl, who had been trying, wincing, to crawl feebly away, had her hair pinned under his shoe at the gesture, preventing her from going anywhere.
Malfoy straightened, panting slightly – whether from exertion or excitement, it was hard to tell. “Now,” he said, “it’s your turn.”
“Are you not ready for this, after all?” Malfoy smirked. “Having second thoughts, Severus?” Another emotion flitted through his eyes, something like mania, and for a moment Severus was convinced that his companion was mad.
“Shut up,” Severus hissed, disgusted with himself at the same time for rising to the bait. He yanked his own wand from his pocket and tried desperately to hide from Malfoy the fact that his wand arm was quivering. He yanked up the sleeves of his robe and pointed his wand at the Muggle girl, her hair still pinned beneath the heel of Malfoy’s shoe. She looked up at him fearfully, her brown eyes seemingly twice as wide as normal.
Severus bit his lower lip, so hard he could taste blood almost immediately. He raised his wand –
There was a shout from the end of the street – no, more than one shout – and four or five dark figures burst into view at the end of the lane, small jets of different-colored light darting among them. Malfoy and Severus whirled in place simultaneously, the girl on the pavement behind them letting out a small cry of pain that neither acknowledged.
“What…?” the blonde man said quietly, speaking aloud through his teeth, although Severus could tell that the question was directed at no one in particular. He fumbled with the top of his cane, trying to extricate the wand from it once more, and seemed to be having a hard time of it. Severus yanked up the hood of his cloak to hide his face properly from whoever Carrow and Wilkes had found to duel with.
“No! Don’t move!” Malfoy roared, as Severus made to rush off to the heat of the battle – he could recognize Wilkes from this distance now, as the fighting group inched closer to where Severus and Malfoy stood over the young Muggle woman. “Wait for them to come to us –“
But Severus didn’t hear him; he suddenly felt as though he’d swallowed a world’s worth of ice, and it was churning his stomach something horrendous. Because across from Wilkes’s familiar profile was one he knew equally well, perhaps more…
Malfoy’s arm jerked out to restrain him, but he shoved it away roughly; he could hear his heart pounding in his ears, and feel it in his throat and fingertips. The world seemed to be moving in slow motion as Wilkes ducked one of Beth’s curses, her face profiled eerily in the blue light from the spell that the man fighting next to her had just cast.
Severus watched as Beth’s foot caught on a loose cobble from the reverbing blast of the spell, and she pitched sideways much as Malfoy had done earlier.
He kept watching as Wilkes raised his wand to retaliate while she tried to regain her balance, his face eerily lit from below, like a lopsided jack-o’-lantern and his brain whirled, suddenly alive with thought.
No – not her…
Wilkes was positively blasted off his feet by the intensity of the spell – the charge of emotion must have somehow affected it, Severus thought a bit absently – and sent sprawling on the pavement limply. Beth whirled around, mouth open, but she immediately raised her wand upon seeing Severus – no, he told himself firmly, she couldn’t see his face under the hood. He yanked it back quickly, and her eyes widened.
He tried not to think of the Muggle woman still lying on the pavement by the copy shop.
Without another word, he reached out and grabbed her by the wrist before she could protest and turned in the other direction, away from the mass hysteria of spells and jinxes, perfuming the air with their smoky, bitter scent. Malfoy, Severus could see, had joined the fray; his hair seemed almost luminescent when lit by wandlight.
“Severus, stop – what the hell –“ Beth’s breathing was loud behind him as he tore down the next street, then turned up a narrower lane, apparently used for delivery vehicles, if its state of disrepair meant anything. He finally stopped outside the back door of what looked to be a storage unit of some sort and bent over, hands on his knees, panting slightly.
“What are you doing here?” he spat at last, looking up at her with all the sternness he could muster. He was still trying to recover from the shock of nearly seeing her – well, who knew what spell Wilkes had had on his mind when he’d raised his wand?
“What are you doing here?” She looked as equally surprised that he’d shown up as he’d been when she had. She winced a bit and reached down to touch her ankle with the tips of her fingers; Severus glanced down at it as she did so.
“Are you hurt?” He knelt down to inspect the damage without thinking, quite aware that neither of them had answered the other’s inquiry.
“I’m fine,” she said, trying her best to sound tough and failing miserably; he smiled while his head was still bent, not wanting to insult her pride. She yanked her foot away and crept down to the end of the narrow alley, poking her head around it, and he felt his stomach clench for some reason. There was a reason, he thought, and he felt stupid even as he thought it, why she had been placed in Gryffindor. With slow, cautious footsteps, he joined her there.
“I don’t see anyone,” she half-whispered, and then turned around, evidently not expecting him to be as close to her as he was; their noses were perhaps six inches from each other at this distance. She smiled a bit. “You understand that I’m supposed to have jinxed your ear off by now, or something.”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t,” Severus responded coolly, although his mouth curved into a smile of his own. It faded just as quickly, however, as he added, “Beth, you need to leave. This is dangerous.”
Her expression darkened; she bit her lip, although it was more of a stubborn gesture than a contemplative one. “You’re in this just as much as I am,” she said, glancing back at the entrance to the alley. There was no sound from outside of it, and Severus couldn’t tell whether that was a good thing or a bad one.
“You’re going to get hurt. And I –“ Severus stopped, drew in a deep breath, and plowed on before he could think too much about what he was trying to say. “I don’t want to have to see that.” He felt his cheeks warm, and was extremely glad for the darkness that covered it.
Beth reached up and rubbed her nose, very nearly brushing his with the back of her hand. He didn’t dare move away. “Sev –“ she began, but he cut her off.
“Can’t you transform, or something?” he asked her. “Surely as a falcon, that’d be better, right?”
“Moody doesn’t know about that. Or about Sirius,” she said in a low voice, studying her shoes. “I don’t think it’s an option.” She glanced back up at him, and he could see every eyelash, every ridge in her skin, as she looked at him steadily. “I’m not backing out of this.”
There was a sudden noise, like a very small explosion, and the ground seemed to rock slightly beneath their feet. Beth fell back against the brick wall behind her, and Severus instinctively reached forward and caught her by her upper arms. Bits of stone and debris that had apparently littered the roof above them rained down on their heads, and he ducked. Outside the relative safety of the little lane the pair of them had hidden away in, all was deathly quiet.
“What -?” Severus started to ask, but before he could get the rest of the question out, a shout broke the stillness.
“Beth!” It was Sirius’s voice; Severus’s lip curled instinctively at the sound. He glanced back down at her, waiting to see if she’d respond, but she wasn’t looking in the direction that the yell had come from. Instead, her gaze was fixed slightly downwards.
With light fingers, Beth suddenly reached out and traced the Dark Mark on his left forearm, newly revealed as his sleeve had fallen when he’d reached out to steady her. And for the first time since receiving it, he did not feel proud to wear it – he felt ashamed.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, without quite knowing why, and even in the deep shadows lining the alley, he could see her swallow hard at his words.
And she raised herself up on her tiptoes and brushed his cheek with her lips – a gesture so wonderfully uncharacteristic of her, he could only stare dumbly. She carefully extricated herself from the tangle of his arms and made to leave, to follow Sirius’s voice.
“Beth!” Her name broke from his lips; she turned, one hand still braced against the alley wall, waiting to hear what he had to say. But that was all he could manage; he smiled, the gesture feeling more and more natural the more he did it, and he hoped it was enough.
She grinned back, and disappeared around the corner.
A/N: So, after a slight delay -- I was out of town overnight, and didn't know last Sunday in time to tell you guys! -- this chapter's posted, and you really should see me. I'm sort of cackling over a cup of instant coffee right now, and I'm not sure if it's justified. I just get really excited to share this story with you guys, and especially moments like that! What'd you think, then?
Thank you so much to everyone who's already voted for Beth for Best Original Character, too. I need to say that, because you guys seriously don't know how much that means to me, that my character's had enough of a pull to get even one vote! That's the best feeling in the world. Truly, it is. Thank you so much! And if you've an opinion on this chapter, and would like to leave it, that would be really awesome, too!