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Chapter 24 : Among Friends
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She dashed off a quick reply to James, assuring him that she was fine, and no, she didn’t want that on his conscience. Just as Beth was about to send it, though, she hesitated. She really didn’t want to be alone right now, what with all her anger and frustration at her parents still lurking about, volatile and ready to surface at a moment’s provocation. An owl wasn’t much company, especially one that brought word that referenced the very situation she didn’t really want to focus on, but it was company all the same. Beth’s own owl, Oscar, was away hunting, and wasn’t likely to return before morning, and really, this one had flown almost directly into her hands…
“You can stay with me for a bit,” she told James’s owl, feeling, as always, a bit stupid when talking to a pet that wasn’t her own. The bird blinked at her in mild confusion, but took its perch in the spare cage nonetheless, dipping its beak into Oscar’s nearly-full bowl of water and making odd slurping sounds.
Breathing out a long, slow sigh, Beth sank down lopsidedly in her armchair. Beyond her tiny, grimy window, the sun had begun to sink over the dilapidated roofs of the neighboring apartment complexes, a few sparse stars slowly fading into sight. From the corner, James’s owl gave an inquiring sort of hoot, but she paid it no attention.
She didn’t know what she had expected to come out of her visit today, except perhaps to leave early - and even where that was concerned, Beth imagined she’d probably broken a record. Of course she couldn’t tell her parents about the Order, much less about anything else - her mixed guilt and annoyance at Sirius, her whatever-it-was with Severus. Neither her mother nor her father had ever been people she’d felt she could confide in; that had always been James. And it should have been Sirius now, were it not for the fact that she still wasn’t sure where she stood with him after his having found out she was still maintaining contact with Severus. For an idle second, she wondered about the chances of Remus being free tonight to help take her mind off things, of sending James’s owl his way and seeing what he said about meeting at the Leaky Cauldron.
But with a slight pang of guilt - as if she needed more heaped onto her already-generous stack - she realized that wasn’t who she wanted to see.
Slowly, Beth climbed out of the armchair, feeling a smile spreading across her face even as she did so, and not completely sure of the reason why. She reached into the top drawer of her rather battered desk and removed a second sheet of parchment, scribbled a few words on it, and then rolled it up. She swept both that letter and her reply to James into her hand and turned to the cage.
“Do me a favor,” she told it, “and take this letter to Severus Snape first. Then you can go back home and give this to James.” The owl opened his mouth obliging, though still looking a bit confused, and Beth stuck both of the scrolls into its beak with slight difficulty. After a rather muffled-sounding noise from the bird, it took off through her open window.
Beth watched it soar off for a few moments, still smiling a little, and then ran to her bedroom, yanked her cloak out of the wardrobe - it was, she could sense, rather a cool night - and went to stand on the corner in front of her building.
By the time Severus showed up, a distant figure approaching her from down the street, Beth was rather glad that she had had the foresight to throw on her cloak before coming out here. As it was, the tips of her fingers were starting to turn numb, even though she’d jammed them into her pockets. She shifted impatiently as he walked, willing a bit of warmth to return to her toes as well as the rest of her.
He came to a stop in front of her; neither of them said anything, but just looked at the other. She suddenly felt a bit sheepish - was it stupid of her to ask him to come here? How was she supposed to explain to him that all she wanted was just a bit of conversation, reassurance that what had happened today with her parents wouldn’t matter by tomorrow?
As it happened, however, he was the one who provided the opportunity for the segue into a conversation. “I can’t stay long,” he said, dark eyes searching hers; her stomach gave a little flip. “I’ve got a - a meeting.” Severus’s lips twisted briefly at the last word, something Beth didn’t miss, but right now it wasn’t important to her. “Did you need to speak to me?”
“I - well.” And the embarrassment was back, flooding her cheeks and the tips of her ears. “It’s not… not important, really.” Beth cleared her throat and continued, “Mostly I just wanted someone to talk to, and… thought of you.” Oh, why had she asked him to come out here? This was possibly the stupidest thing she’d ever done…
Severus smiled languidly. “I don’t mind,” he said in a low voice. “Are you all right, Beth?” He took another step closer, their hands only inches from touching, and Beth’s stomach gave another flip. She willed herself to remain composed; she already looked idiotic enough, thank you very much.
“I saw my parents today,” she found herself saying instead, already mentally kicking herself for not shutting up about problems that had nothing to do with Severus in the first place. “And, well. They were their usual pleasant selves.”
Severus winced in sympathy. “Got to love that,” he said, a bit bitterly. “And it didn’t go very well?”
Beth sighed and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “It’s just… I can’t tell them anything, and that’s really frustrating. Not about what I’m doing” - her eyes flicked quickly to his, and he looked down at the pavement with equal speed - “or about… anything.” It was a bit of a lame ending, but she had been about to say “about you,” and was very, very glad she had caught herself in time.
“And they’re just so stuck in their ways, and they can’t ever wrap their heads around the fact that I’m different from them, and…” But here Beth trailed off for the third time, her hand snaking up from the folds of her cloak to cover her mouth. Because Severus was the same, wasn’t he? If logic was at play here - and both of them had long ago decided that nothing about what they were doing was logical - then he should have been on her parents’ side of the argument, not hers.
“I’m sorry.” Beth bit down on her lower lip hard - good grief, could she ever stop talking? Severus was still looking at the pavement by his feet as though it were the most fascinating thing in the world. “Merlin, Sev, I’m sorry. I brought you out here to whinge at you.” She smiled weakly, but all she wanted to do at that moment was sink right into the ground and not come back up for a few months, at least. When he didn’t say anything right away, she dropped her forehead into her fingertips, rubbing her temples and trying to massage away her extreme embarrassment.
“Beth, I don’t care.” Severus spoke up at last, sounding both slightly exasperated and amused in one go. Beth lifted her head from her hands, feeling just about as pathetic as she ever had. “You don’t have to apologize for anything.” His mouth twisted again in that funny way, and he let out a sigh of his own, glancing briefly back down the street in the direction he had come. Beth was hit with a sudden realization that, in addition to running her mouth, she’d monopolized the conversation as well.
“Are you all right, Sev?” she ventured timidly, shoving her hands into the pockets of her cloak once more, her bracelet - the bracelet he had given her - snagging on the lining. He turned back to her, and she was surprised to see the look on his face - it was one of mingled resignation and guilt, even a trace amount of sadness. Her stomach twisted for the third time that night, this time not in an entirely pleasant way.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “But Beth?” She looked up at him, holding her breath without being quite aware of it. “I don’t want you to feel like anything you tell me - anything you ever tell me - is a waste of time.”
Beth gave him a small smile. “Understood.”
Severus watched Beth as she turned and glanced back at the door to her building, rubbing her nose thoughtfully. “I don’t want to keep you from your meeting,” she said regretfully, glancing back at him. “Do you have to leave soon?”
“Probably,” he answered, slightly annoyed with himself at how evidently his disappointment was laced through his words. His insides were churning with guilt even standing here, looking down at her, all the while knowing the things he did know. His thoughts jerked back to the prophecy he’d overheard being told to Dumbledore in the Hog’s Head. Should he tell her?
But he couldn’t tell her. That was a part of his life that Beth didn’t touch; if he told her, she’d be tainted with that darkness, the exact same that now coated him, and that was the absolute last thing he wanted.
“I mean it, though,” he added suddenly, as though he had only just now stopped talking. “I didn’t mind coming out here.” Beth grinned at him shyly, and Severus felt his breath sort of hitch around his collarbone.
“I know. I’m going to head back inside, then. Good luck at - at your meeting.” Her eyes flashed something briefly, too briefly for him to analyze what it was - pain, amusement, disgust? - and she turned and headed for the stoop. At the top step, she chanced a look over her shoulder at him, and he nodded, feeling a smile on his face for the second time that night. She smiled back, and disappeared through the doorway.
As soon as she was gone, Severus sighed quickly and raked his hands through his hair. Great. Now, on top of everything else he was feeling lately, he felt horrible for hiding his news of the prophecy from Beth - and after she had been so honest with him tonight, so open… It never even crossed his mind that she might be keeping secrets from him, too; his mind was too concentrated on his own shortcomings for that.
But he hadn’t lied to her on one point; he really did have a meeting to go to, and what’s worse, he was supposed to be at headquarters five minutes ago. Not that he would ever tell Beth that her detour had made him late, of course. And besides, after the news he’d brought back - after what the Dark Lord had done to the Mark on Severus’s arm - Roark could bluster all he liked, but there was really nothing he could actually do about it. But still, it wasn’t a very prudent thing, being late.
Just as he turned to head off in that direction, however, the streetlamp situated a few feet behind him caught the light of something on the ground, glinting and winking silver. Severus frowned slightly and stooped, picking up the object.
It was the bracelet he had given to Beth for her birthday.
Insane, ludicrous thoughts immediately began chasing themselves one after the other through his head. Had she dropped it, or was it there on purpose? But no, the clasp had broken; he could see that now. If she hadn’t dumped it to the ground on purpose, then that meant she probably didn’t know it was gone…
A distant clock tower sounded one bell - fifteen minutes past the hour - and Severus cursed softly under his breath. He shoved the bracelet into the pocket of his robes, resolving to return it to Beth at the earlier possibly opportunity, and then turned once on his heel, disappearing into the twilight with a loud crack.
By the time Beth had reached her flat again, treading with feather-light steps and feeling slightly less embarrassed for having called Severus to this part of London, a second owl was waiting for her. This one, too, was familiar, though it didn’t belong to James. The couldn’t-care-less handwriting on the outside of the envelope clamped in its beak matched Sirius’s owl perfectly.
A small pool of trepidation welled in the pit of her stomach as she reached forward to take the letter. Sirius’s owl - rather less friendly than James’s - eyed her balefully before beginning to preen her feathers with almost sickening pride, especially for a bird. And, seeing as how she’d spent a good deal of her adolescence as a bird, Beth couldn’t help but think, as she often did, that it was a rather stupid creature. Rolling her eyes at it, she ran her finger under the flap of the parchment envelope and drew out the sheet within it.
We haven’t talked in forever - I’m starting to think you’ve put a curse on me, I keep checking the mirror for signs. James was by earlier, and said you’d been to see your parents. Better you than me, although from what he said, I gather you didn’t have a very pleasant time of it. How about dropping in around noon tomorrow and telling me all about it? I promise I’ll make fun of them in all the right places, and Frank and Alice’ll be there, too.
With every word she read, Beth found herself grinning a bit wider. This - this was the Sirius she had missed so much, the one who had seemed so distant ever since their row in James’s flat. This was the Sirius who was one of her very best friends.
She hurried for the quill and ink that still sat atop the desk from when she had sent James’s and Severus’s letters, scribbling a hasty reply on the back of Sirius’s own letter. She could sense his owl judging her for it, sticking her leg out reluctantly so Beth could tie the letter to it.
“You don’t need to give me that look,” she chided. “That’s your job, you know, carrying letters.” When the owl’s rather disgruntled-looking expression did not alter, she stuck her tongue out at the bird. She gave a shocked-sounding hoot and took off promptly from the window, being sure to flick Beth’s curtains with the tips of her wings on the way out. Beth laughed and watched her disappear over a distantly-smoking chimney, her spirits soaring. The night, she thought happily, had turned out rather better than anticipated.
A/N: This chapter was a bit of a filler, but I couldn't help it -- not only did I want more Severus in there (because it's not like he didn't just have three chapters all to himself), but this was actually supposed to be a part of the previous chapter, and the length on that one did get away from me. Besides, there were some important points here -- namely, the bracelet, which does continue to crop up in the story for a reason!
I'll be working on Breaking Even for one part of NaNoWriMo this year -- my NaNoWriMo rebellion, as I should say, as I'll be shooting for about half of the set word count of 50,000 words. I'm very excited, though! That'll be posted February 17 (my birthday -- and, shamelessly, Beth's), if anyone's curious. But anyway. I'm done now. If you enjoyed this chapter and have the time to review, it would be really appreciated!
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