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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 5 : On The Job
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 9


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“And this one goes to Wallace Mirkins. Got so angry at his aunt that he blew up one of her toilets in Sussex, apparently.” Mafalda Hopkirk tapped a parchment envelope with her wand, causing it to instantly seal itself, and handed the letter to Beth, who was waiting in front of her desk.

“I see,” Beth said, clasping her hands behind her back solely so she had something to do with them. She still wasn’t entirely sure whether she was supposed to react to some of these situations with amusement or disapproval – personally, she found an exploding toilet rather funny, but wasn’t entirely sure that Mafalda would agree.

She had spent the entire morning on her feet, running back and forth from Mafalda Hopkirk’s office to the Ministry’s owlery, which in itself could have fit at least three of Hogwarts’s own inside of it. They had, she thought, given her perhaps the most menial job in the entire building: That of ferrying official letters back and forth, warnings of magic in the presence of Muggles, or underage magic, or whatever some witch or wizard in some far-off corner of Britain had done now. Beth suspected that it was a job conjured out of thin air, simply for the need of one; no doubt it was Mad-Eye’s doing. He had far more weight around the Ministry than he arguably should have.

There hadn’t been another Order meeting since the last one, when she had had her outburst with Mad-Eye, and she hadn’t seen him since James’s birthday party either. Sirius had met with him and Frank the other day, but he hadn’t said much to her about the meeting; Beth knew that she probably really hadn’t been mentioned at all. That was almost worse than being force to take a Ministry position, knowing that they were pretending she hadn’t done mission work at all.

She suspected that one of the reasons that she felt so uncomfortable – apart, of course, from the fact that it was her first day on the job – was that this particular assignment had already made her distinctly aware of the consequences of magical rule-breaking. Despite her somewhat questionable Hogwarts activities (which were rather natural when your closest group of friends was made up in part of James Potter and Sirius Black), Beth had never done anything to warrant receiving one of the letters she was now in charge of sending out.

But, as a wartime precaution, Dumbledore had informed Beth and Sirius that they would not be registering their Animagus forms with the Ministry just yet. If word got out that Beth moonlighted as a peregrine falcon, she could forget Mafalda’s letters; that sort of crime would present her with a one-way ticket for a month’s stay in Azkaban. In some ways, working in this particular office was a bit ironic, and this irony was not lost on her in the slightest.

Mafalda handed over the letter, and Beth added it to the top of the small stack clutched in her hand. There didn’t appear to be anything else her boss had to say to her, and so she made for the office door tentatively; when no one stopped her, she emerged into the corridor and breathed out a slightly frustrated sigh. Menial labor indeed, when she could have been out on the streets, watching for potential Death Eaters…

But she had made her choice, unconscious thought it might have been. In seeking to protect Severus, she had landed herself here. She had to think of it as a necessary sacrifice.

But as her mind was churning over that fact, attempting fruitlessly to make herself see the best of an admittedly poor situation, her eyes were completely unfocused as to where she was going. Rounding a corner more sharply than she meant to, Beth ran smack into someone, and the letters in her hands were sent flying.

“Sorry!” she gasped, feeling heat rise to her cheeks and dropping immediately to her knees to scoop up the parchment envelopes. She reached out a hand for Wallace Mirkins’s letter, but was beaten to it by whoever she’d run into.

“Quite all right,” said a man’s deep voice, and she met the stranger’s eyes for the first time. Whoever he was, she thought at once, she thought he must surely work in the Department of Magical Games and Sports; he looked a bit like a professional Quidditch player himself, all broad shoulders and square lines. Quidditch Man handed her the last letter, and Beth stuffed it back into the pile, feeling even more embarrassed with each passing second.

“Timothy Parrish. Director of the Department for Broom Regulatory Control.” Timothy stuck out a large hand, and Beth shook it. She was mildly disappointed that her supposition had been wrong, and apparently showed it in her face, because he added, “I know. It’s not the greatest.” He grinned, and she saw that one of his top teeth was chipped. “I’m vying for something a bit more desirable eventually, though I have taken a confiscated broom or two out for a spin – that’s a perk.”

“Beth Bridger.” She motioned to herself with the envelopes. “I’m – you know, I’m not even going to tell you. I will tell you that your job’s loads better than mine.”

“Is that so?” Timothy grinned again. “Well, then. I’ll suppose that I’ll see you around, Beth Bridger.”

“Right. See you,” she said, already hurrying away toward the Ministry owlery, and not looking back over her shoulder to see if he was still standing there. A sick sort of feeling had begun to creep up Beth’s throat, and for some reason, Severus was at the forefront of her mind even more now than before she’d nearly run Timothy Parrish over.

It’s over, she reminded herself firmly, taking another corner at a wider berth, to avoid smacking into anyone else on her way. Whatever it was between Severus and me, it is most definitely over now.

But she had a horrible notion that what she was feeling was guilt – unwarranted, irrational guilt. Beth blew out another frustrated breath, closing her eyes and waiting until the nauseous, squeezing feeling in her chest, the urge to suddenly burst into tears, had subsided somewhat. And then she forged on ahead, deigning to do her job; no other alternatives were left.

*

Beth had always liked the atrium of the Ministry of Magic, with its shining, dark wood floors, and the golden Fountain of Magical Brethren in the center, and the bright blue ceiling with its tilting and whirling symbols. There had been something pleasant about the busy rush of witches and wizards coming and going, consulting pieces of parchment or talking in serious voices to their coworkers.

But all of these things were thrown into a different light now that she actually worked here. The glamor of the building had long since faded away, to be replaced by both a sense of obligation and a longing for getting things back to the way they had been, as fast as was humanly possible.

And it hadn’t even been a whole day yet.

She hadn’t known what to expect from her first day working at the Ministry – if, indeed, she had expected anything at all. The truth was that, despite Remus’s promise to help and keep his eyes out while at Hogwarts, and the other boys’ additional support, she’d been trying to move through life thinking as little as possible about the drastic changes that had affected it of late, and moving off of mission work was certainly one of these changes. Up until this morning had actually arrived, Beth had attempted to live in blissful ignorance of reality. It was a childish and stupid maneuver, but she did it anyway. Running into Timothy earlier that day hadn’t helped at all, either; she’d been plagued by an inexplicable guilt for the rest of the morning.

You need to stop being so pessimistic, she told herself firmly, wriggling her shoulders a bit, as though to lessen invisible tension from them. She was standing a few yards away from the fountain, leaning against one of the long, lean pillars that ringed the domed blue ceiling. Her head was tilted up, watching the clicking gold symbols, though she periodically checked the watch on her wrist. Remus had promised to meet her in the atrium so they could grab lunch together from one of the food stalls. But he was, a bit surprisingly, nearly fifteen minutes late – Remus, who was so apt at being punctual most of the time.

She didn’t think she could wait much longer to hear his news – good or bad.

A familiar figure across the way caught her eye at that moment, and she craned her head to see him better: He and his companion had just disappeared behind one of the large gold ears of the house elf in the middle of the fountain. Puzzled, Beth frowned and moved a few feet away from the pillar, and the person came into view once again. She frowned.

What was Peter doing in the Ministry?

She couldn’t see the person he was with, but the fact that she didn’t recognize him – she felt almost sure that she would have recognized, even at a glance, anyone from the Order – felt somehow off to her, like a shoe that had been put on the wrong foot. But that was Peter Pettigrew she was looking at, without a doubt.

Feeling a slight tingle at the base of her spine, the same she had felt on missions with Sirius, Beth approached the basin of the fountain. Water was splashing down into the pool at the base of the gold statues, and gold and silver sparkled up from the tiled bottom. She knelt gingerly on the edge, trying not to fall in, peering around the base of the wizard’s robes. Peter and the strange man had stopped on the opposite side of the fountain, in perfect view; he looked almost frightened as he listened to whatever his companion was saying.

She inched just a bit closer –

“Beth!” A voice called her name, and Peter’s head began to turn in her direction. Beth jumped a bit turned around as quickly as possible, nearly losing her balance; overcorrecting, she slid onto the wooden floor with a thump. Remus was standing behind her, head tilted to one side.

“Erm. What are you doing?”

“Look – isn’t that – “ Beth started to say, flustered. She clambered to her knees again, hands gripping the slick edge of the fountain basin, and glanced around the statue’s edge again. Peter, and whoever he’d been talking to, had disappeared. “I thought I saw – never mind.” She glanced back at Remus again, and this time he looked almost as though he thought she might be going mad.

“Are you ready for lunch?” he asked slowly, sticking out a hand and helping her back onto her feet. Beth brushed off the front of her robes, and it was only then that she realized that she’d caught the attention of quite a few of the surrounding Ministry workers. A man passing by, with a small, wrinkled brown face, gave her a haughty look and picked up the hem of his robes, as though afraid of contamination.

“Is the recruitment team here today?” she asked abruptly, subtly steering Remus in the direction of the line of food stalls, on the wall opposite from the gilded fireplaces. He frowned; that obviously hadn’t been the question he anticipated she’d ask.

“I don’t think so. James didn’t mention anything about him or Lily coming in today. And,” he added, a bit pointedly, though in good fun, “I’m doing very well, thank you for asking. What’s up with you today? You seem really distracted.”

“Sorry.” Beth shook her head a bit to clear it. “It’s – well, you know. First day on the new job, and all that.” She grinned up at her friend apologetically. “You are doing well, then? How’s your – ah – what did we always call it in school?”

“My ‘furry little problem’?” Remus laughed. “Blimey, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard that. It’s as under control as it’s ever been.” But even as he said it, the light from one of the high-up windows caught the planes of his face in such a way that he looked just as sick and drawn as he had at James’s.

He seemed a bit pensive the entire time the pair of them were in line, and said nothing more until they were seated at one of the small iron-wrought tables dotting the atrium. Beth knew that she shouldn’t press him for information regarding his Hogwarts visit; it was why she had led with the small talk, after Remus had helped her off the floor. But watching him carefully drizzle his chips with vinegar was something that she couldn’t watch in patience for much longer. At long last, after what felt like several hours had passed – but had, in reality, been about three minutes – she sighed, drumming her fingers significantly on the tabletop.

Remus smiled wryly, reaching with measured slowness for one of the paper napkins on his try and wiping his mouth with precise, neat movements. Beth was instantly aggravated at how tidy he was all the time, even though she knew it wasn’t fair to him.

“So,” she said, with a forced, casual tone that instantly belied how she felt. “Did you happen to find out anything interesting, up at Hogwarts a few days ago?” She didn’t realize just how hard she was twisting the napkin in between her fingers until it tore, with a soft sound; she didn’t even look down at it. Her eyes were fixed intently on Remus; his eyes were fixed anywhere but back at her.

The silence stretched out between the two of them, but at last, Remus looked up at her. He pushed the basket of chips away from him and leaned back against his chair, folding his arms protectively across his chest. Beth felt as though her lung were constricting, squeezing out all the air; she imagined she almost felt dizzy.

“You have to understand,” he said at last, “that I’m not supposed to be telling you this. If Dumbledore had any idea – Merlin.” He leaned forward restlessly, clutching his hair in his hands and pulling slightly. “He can’t find out that you know, Beth.”

Tell me,” she said urgently; her voice sounded as though it were being forced through a small tube, thin and tight. Her heart rate had suddenly doubled, and the dizzy feeling in her temples increased.

Remus blew out a long breath between his lips. “Severus’s memories were kept, Beth. They’re somewhere. They’re not destroyed.”

She had imagined – had hoped – this very thing so often, had dreamed about it in her sleep, that now that the words were hanging almost tangibly in the air between the pair of them, Beth almost didn’t want to believe it. She didn’t want to think about the implications of the fact: That she could somehow restore them, that she could get things back to the way they had been before last summer.

“How do you know?” she whispered at last; her eyes dropped to the table. She began tracing the iron curlicues of the tabletop with her index finger while her heart thumped along under her ribs, so loud that she was positive Remus could hear it.

“He told me,” her friend responded simply. A thin, frizzy-haired witch passed close by their table, and both of them leaned forward instinctively, shielding their words from potentially listening ears. “I asked about it, and he told me that they were being kept safe.” And then, after a pause, Remus added, “I kind of think Dumbledore wanted you to know that. To – to alleviate what you’re feeling –“

“So he thinks he knows what I’m feeling?” Beth spat, without quite knowing she was going to. She was suddenly viciously angry – angry at Dumbledore, for removing Severus’s memories; angry at Mad-Eye, who clearly thought she couldn’t be trusted; and even angry (though she hated admitting it, even to herself) at Severus, for going to such lengths, for her...

“Beth.” Remus reached across the table and rested his hand, palm up, near her own untouched lunch. “Dumbledore also said something else. Listen to me, okay?” When she didn’t protest, he continued. “He said that Severus chose this. Is that true?”

She nodded shortly.

“Don’t do anything stupid, Beth. I’m serious.” Remus fixed her with a stern look, one she hadn’t really seen him wear since his prefect days; the sight was both nostalgic and obnoxious. “If Severus chose this, to protect you” – she didn’t miss the slight wrinkling of his nose that indicated how strange he felt, saying it – “then you’ve got to respect that.”

But I need him, Beth thought, her throat suddenly closing with tears that she refused to shed in the middle of the atrium of the Ministry of Magic. He never knew how badly I need him. I never told him. She nodded, and Remus seemed, if not satisfied, finished with the subject for the moment. He returned to his chips.

The topic of Severus, and of his memories of Beth, didn’t come up again for the rest of the hour they sat there, talking about work and Harry and anything else they could think of. But she had, intentionally, made Remus no promises. She would get James or Sirius to help her, if she needed to, but a burning resolve was welling within her, stronger with each minute. She would find his memories. She needed Severus.

A/N: Well, this is a bit early in the morning for an update from me! I completely forgot that I was going to be going out of town this weekend, but thank goodness for portable computers and mothers who wake you up in time to post the chapter so you don't have to worry about it the rest of the day. 

So -- who's Timothy Parrish? Was that Peter that Beth saw in the atrium? What's Beth going to do, now that she knows Severus's memories weren't destroyed? There was a lot of information coming your way with this chapter! You'll find out all the answers in due time, of course. But if you've got theories, I'm all ears!

Thank you so much to everyone who's read and favorited and reviewed this story so far. You guys are seriously the greatest!


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