The wind that twisted down the narrow street was bitter, snapping shop awnings and whistling through cracks as it went, and Beth Bridger was kicking herself for yet again overestimating England’s notion of spring. Proper spring weather never really came until late April, at best, and yet here she was, standing on the pavement in late March, wearing only a thin jumper and thinking longingly of her cloak, which she could mentally picture, slung over the back of the faded loveseat in her flat just where she had left it the evening before in favor of the hook on the wall.
She shivered violently, wrapping her hands around her upper arms in a futile sort of way, nearly poking herself in the face with her wand in the process. The wind was blowing her hair across her eyes and making it nearly impossible to see. “Remind me again,” she said, speaking through teeth gritted against the cold, “why I let you drag me out here again tonight?”
To her left, a man moved forward, his face suddenly thrown into cold white light from the illuminated tip of his wand. Sirius Black grinned down at her and waggled his eyebrows once; the chill wind didn’t seem to be affecting him at all. “Because it’s your job, Bethy,” he said plaintively. “Now hush up and do it, please.” He batted his eyelashes at her, and turned his head away again.
Beth scowled at him, even while she was aware that he wasn’t intending his words to be taken rudely. She blew a bit of hair off the end of her nose in frustration and let her teeth chatter audibly, just so he could hear it. “It’s freezing out here.”
“It is, in fact, seven degrees. Balmy.” Sirius glanced up and down the deserted-looking street. “Are you sure this is the place Moody said we were supposed to be looking?”
Beth glanced up at the signpost, sitting squarely on the street corner a few yards to her left. “Gregory and Cross,” she read aloud. “Yeah, we’re in the right place. Everyone’s just inside because of how bloody –“ Her words were abruptly cut off with a gasp as another gust of wind snaked its way down her spine, creeping in through the neck of her jumper. “Merlin. Why can’t we ever look for Death Eaters in a coffee shop or something?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Sirius asked innocently, and for that, she had no answer.
For all her whinging and complaining, however, Beth really wasn’t all that put out at being asked to go on another mission. It might have been, as Sirius had put it only a few moments earlier, her job, but for some reason, certain people had apparently found it prudent to keep her away from the line of action for the past few months. They had pretended, with rather adept theatrical skill, that they weren’t doing it, or that they weren’t doing it for the reasons that they were. Beth knew better.
After what had happened last June – and what had happened following that, at the Order meeting soon after Harry Potter was born – she figured that a fair number of the Order of the Phoenix members didn’t really know what to make of her anymore.
It was entirely probable that many of them thought she shouldn’t be doing missions anymore, and, grim as it sounded, even to her own ears, Beth rather thought that it was only a matter of time until she was pulled from them entirely. She had not spoken to Severus once since his memories of her had been wiped; that would have been too painful, reintroducing herself to him, as though she were a stranger. She wasn’t even sure that was wise. But there was no mistaking how obvious it was when she looked at him, and she knew that others had noticed, as well.
It had been nine months. Nine months had never, in her entire life, felt longer. Beth missed Severus more than she thought possible, even more than she had expected. She had Sirius, and James, and Remus, and Peter; she had Lily, and Harry, and Marlene and Mary. She even had her parents, though they were only around in small, nearly intolerable doses (she didn’t think they had yet forgiven her for running out on their nice family gathering nearly a year previously). But it wasn’t the same. And it wasn’t ever going to be the same. No amount of Sirius’s “bonding time” or visits to her godson were going to fix what Severus had left behind, much as she might have wanted them to.
She felt a none-too-gentle prod in her side, courtesy of Sirius’s elbow, and turned her head back to him quickly. “Hey,” he said, in a low voice; she could tell he knew exactly what she had been thinking about. “You ready, Bethy?”
She swallowed and gave him what she hoped was a bracing smile, feeling incredibly stupid for having to try at all. “Yep.” She wrapped her fingers infinitesimally tighter around the handle of her wand. “Where are we going? Someplace warm?” she added, not because she expected it, but because she imagined that it might make Sirius smile.
“We’ve got to do work, you nutter,” he said, but it was in such an endearing way that Beth instantly felt horrible, a reaction she had been prone to feeling over the past months. She wasn’t acting like her old self, and she knew it; she hadn’t been the same. And Sirius and James had tried to break her out of that funk, but it had, of course, been to no avail. No matter how happy they made her during the day – no matter how much they made her laugh, or distracted her – Beth would have to return to her flat every night, alone, and her mind would replay their final conversation over and over:
“I would never, ever want to forget you.”
“I wouldn’t trade any of it, do you understand me?”
“Please remember me.”
And Severus had kissed her…
“Bethy?” Sirius, who had apparently been talking for her for the past several seconds, had evidently gotten the hint that she wasn’t taking in a word he was saying. “Look, if you’d rather go home, or something… I’m sure Moody will understand…”
Guilt washed afresh over her; she could feel her cheeks tingeing pink, even in the chill wind. “No, I’m fine,” Beth told him hastily. “I just, erm – should we walk, or something?”
Sirius looked at her for a moment. He knew they were supposed to watch at the intersection – Moody had said that Ministry informants had seen Death Eaters passing Gregory and Cross too often for it to be a coincidence – and she knew it, too. But he only said, “That’s fine with me.” Looking as though he wanted to say something else, but couldn’t find the words, he pulled himself away from the side of the building and, making sure Beth was following him, started off down the street.
Beth watched as Sirius balanced on the curb, his hands held out to his sides for balance, wand held carelessly in his right. A surge of affection for him – good old Sirius – welled up inside her, and she took a few quick extra steps to catch up to him.
“And where are we going, Miss Bridger?” he called over his shoulder, wobbling on a bit of cracked cement. Beth looped her arm through his and shrugged, which was slightly more difficult to execute than she had anticipated.
“Around the block, I suppose,” she said, relieved to hear that her voice sounded, for the time being, somewhat normal once again. “We’ll come right back to the corner. I just wanted to stretch my legs, you know…”
“Sure,” Sirius said brightly, tipping precariously sideways in an attempt to overbalance nearly falling off the narrow concrete strip. “D’you want to fly? You haven’t flown in a bit.”
Beth’s fingers went automatically to the thin silver chain on her wrist, and the small bird pendant dangling from it. She hadn’t had the courage to take it off yet; she’d kept it carefully concealed during Order meetings, but removing it entirely was an act of bravery she didn’t yet feel ready to commit. “No, thanks.” And then, as Sirius nearly slipped off the curb again, Beth added, “You’ve got horrible balance.”
“Walking on curbs is easier with four paws,” he huffed indignantly, and she laughed; he looked almost relieved to hear it. They walked almost the entire rest of the way around the block in silence, Beth pressed close to Sirius. It was partly for warmth, as the wind still cut bitterly through the thin material of her jumper, but it was also as a reassurance that he, one of her best friends, was there, and would be there for a long time. It was a nice thing to be able to know.
As the pair of them rounded back onto Gregory and started toward the Cross intersection once more, however, Sirius stopped dead; Beth, still in the momentum of her stride, nearly fell herself, her arm still being looped with her now-still friend’s. “What -?” she began, but his eyes were locked on a spot ahead of them. She turned back around, craning her neck to see whatever Sirius was seeing.
There were two figures at the end of the pavement, just outside the reach of the lamp on the corner. Gregory was a broad avenue, but it was poorly-lit; this was, Moody had told Sirius and Beth earlier, one of the reasons he suspected the Death Eaters liked to use it so much to commute to and from wherever they were meeting up.
The men on the corner – at least, she thought they were men; their builds spoke of masculinity, even at this distance – had their heads pulled towards each other, clearly engaged in conversation. As silently as possible, Sirius slipped into the thicker shadows by the office building they stood next to, and Beth followed suit.
“Death Eaters?” she whispered. Sirius shrugged, and began, as quickly as he dared, to creep toward the pair of them, hands splayed against the broad glass office window.
Beth didn’t know what they were supposed to do if the men actually were the Death Eaters they had been sent to seek out – apprehend them? Hex them? Kill them? Her joints felt rusted with disuse, her wand movements suddenly thick and slow; she wished she’d kept herself in a bit better shape during her time away from missions. The palms of her hands felt slick and clammy with nervous sweat, and she hastily wiped them on the legs of her jeans.
“Stay here, Beth,” Sirius said at once, and she looked back up at him quickly; the sharpness in his tone, and his abandonment of her customary nickname, startled her. He was still pressed flat against the office building, his wand gripped more tightly in his hand now.
“What are you doing?” she asked, frowning, but he shook his head tersely to silence her. Beth glanced back down the road to the men on the corner, who, as far as she could tell, had noticed neither her nor Sirius at the other end. He made a wild, desperate motion at her to be quiet, but she had already seen what he had seen. One of the men had shifted positions, and one side of his face was lit by the lamppost.
It was Severus.
She had seen him several times in the nine months since his memories of her had been wiped – she would have been stupid not to expect to see him at Order meetings, always after the meetings themselves had ended. Dumbledore and Severus always had things to discuss, it seemed, though nobody else was ever privy to that information. But James and Sirius were good at distracting her then, often making her leave entirely, escorted by one of the boys.
She could expect him then. She could almost handle seeing him then. But now, having him sprung on her like this, so unexpectedly… Beth felt as though every single cell in her lungs had suddenly become coated with thick, impenetrable ice; she clutched absently at the neck of her robes, feeling her eyes grow wide without having to see herself in the thick, artificial reflection from the front of the office building. Sirius’s eyes were widened as well, his gaze flicking between her and Severus at the other end of the street.
“What is he doing here?” Sirius whispered furiously. “That’s Carrow he’s standing with – traitorous little –“ But whatever Severus was, Sirius didn’t seem able to articulate it. Blind fury had creased his brow and lit his eyes dangerously.
“Stay. Here.” He punctuated the repeated order to Beth with as much force as he could give it, but they sounded fuzzy in her ears; he might as well have whispered them, for all the attention she paid. Beth’s wand trembled in her hand.
“Sirius,” she said hoarsely. “Don’t go after him, Sirius – he’s on our side, he’s got Dumbledore, he’s not –“
But he was already moving, creeping again along the fronts of shops, stepping nimbly over their concrete stoops, his wand trained on the pair under the streetlamp. Hot, burning panic replaced the icy feeling in her chest. He was going to kill him if he had to; it was his job, wasn’t it? And what should it matter to her?
Beth’s head swam; the pavement tilted dangerously under her feet, and she stumbled into the front of the building. Whether or not Severus still knew she existed – whether or not whatever they had had for a brief, tenuous year was irreparably destroyed –she couldn’t stand idly by and let anything happen to him.
After only a second’s more hesitation, she charged off down the walk after Sirius. The two men didn’t seem to have noticed him of yet, for which she was infinitely grateful, but he was edging nearer to them quickly. Beth’s shoes slapped the pavement with loud, unnatural sounds, and she stretched out her hand for Sirius’s wand arm, without thinking, because it was raised and she couldn’t let him hex Severus –
She grabbed it and pulled; Sirius, in the process of turning around to face her again, let out a loud, barklike noise of pain as his arm twisted. Beth let go immediately, as though she’d touched a red-hot poker, but it had been enough. Severus and Carrow lifted their heads in one motion, looking towards where Sirius was trying to throw off Beth’s grip still, swearing in a long, continuous string.
Severus’s mouth twisted into a sneer, visible even from this distance, and then his eyes locked onto Beth’s. There was nothing there, not a trace of recognition. Beth felt as though something was squeezing and twisting her chest, and her eyes pricked with sharp, hot tears.
Still holding onto Sirius’s arm, she turned on the spot, and they Disapparated.
They reappeared on a small stretch of pavement a block or so from Beth’s flat complex, having overshot the target. Sirius, still trying to recover from Beth’s distracting him, slipped sideways into the gutter, landing ankle-deep in a puddle left over from a rainstorm a few days previous. He swore violently again.
“Beth –“ he gasped, jumping back up and jabbing his wand at his ankles, drying the cuffs of his jeans instantly. “What the fuck are you on about?”
“Oh, don’t swear at me, Sirius,” Beth snapped, instantly ashamed as her voice broke on his name. His expression morphed at once; the corners of his mouth turned down, and the murderous expression that had drawn his brows together retracted slightly.
“I wasn’t going to – I wouldn’t have done anything unless I thought I would have needed to,” he said in a low voice. Both of them knew it was a lie, but she didn’t want to argue with him right now. “It’s our job, Beth. You have to be strong for it.” But it appeared Sirius instantly felt bad for saying that; he pressed his lips together briefly, eyeing her askance. “You all right?” he ventured at last.
Beth nodded, though that, too, was a lie. She felt limp, and broken, and wanted to crawl into bed and pull the covers over her head and shut out the rest of the world.
“I hate this,” she said instead, burying her face in her hands. Nine months. Nine months of trying to move on, knowing he had forgotten her; nine months of pretending like she was feeling better, when all the time she was feeling worse; nine months of having to see Severus, when he no longer saw her – not really.
There was the sound of shoes on the pavement, and she felt Sirius’s arms go around her shoulders. She pressed her face into his shoulder, hating even as she did so the feeling of needing to be comforted over this. Enough time should have passed by now that she should have been over this; she should have moved on by now.
“It’s okay, Bethy,” Sirius said, in what was perhaps the gentlest tone she had ever heard him use with her. “You’re going to be okay. Just think of how you’re going to look back on this in a few more months, yeah?”
I won’t be okay in a few months, Beth thought defiantly, though she didn’t voice it aloud – she appreciated his trying to make her feel better. Not months, not years. Things aren’t ever going to be the same without Severus around again.
They stood like that for a long time, not saying anything, and then she finally drew back, pressing her fingers under her eyes to sop up the few tears that had escaped. Sirius raised his eyebrows at her, asking a quiet question; she nodded in response. I’ll be fine. It was the third lie she had been witness to in a space of ten minutes.
She couldn’t stop seeing Severus, his eyes locked on her, no flash of recognition behind the dark iris. He had forgotten her. And she couldn’t seem to forget him.
A/N: IT'S HERE. And so we begin again! Thank you for coming back by to check out Breaking Even, and I hope you'll choose to continue reading. I'm really excited to share the ending part of this story with you, and I've already written the first 17 chapters, so I think saying that updates will once again appear every Sunday is a promise I can afford to keep.
Not much more to say, really. Thank you so much for sticking with Snape and Beth for this long, and I hope you are happy with the rest!