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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 8 : A Proposal and a Promise
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 9


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Beth’s job at the Ministry got better over the course of the first month – but only slightly. It still remained that the essence of her job could have been solved by a simple matter of reorganization of Ministry services, but pointing this out to them could be hazardous to her employment status. Still, it was tempting: Only the day before she had narrowly avoided having her face pecked to ribbons when she’d attempted to attach a letter addressed to Mirabelle McFlinty to the leg of an apparently irate barn owl, and she now felt that she had reached an all-time low. There was, she figured, only so far up a person could climb on the corporate ladder when that person was ferrying mail between Mafalda Hopkirk and a bunch of owls, and Beth seemed to have reached the top of that ladder within her first week of work at the most. Moody had told her that she needed to keep her ears open for valuable information, just in case, but she wasn’t buying it – she highly doubted that Mafalda would keep her in one place long enough for her to overhear anything, even if something should be said.

And there were worse repercussions of her job, too. It felt as though it had been ages since she had properly hung around with her four best friends – what was it about mission work that had made them so accessible to her? She understood now what had made Peter and Remus so distant during the past year and a half; all she really felt like doing when she got home from work each day was making beans and toast and a mug of tea, and then crawling into bed and sleeping until she had to get up again to drag herself back to the daily grind.

Beth knew it made Sirius frustrated; the sheer amount of letters from him that had piled up on the unused half of her front room loveseat was evidence enough of that. But she also knew that his frustration went further than that, that he still thought she was depressed over her losing Severus the previous summer. Maybe she was depressed.

She had told him and James about what Remus had said about Severus’s memories still being intact somewhere, and both of them were willing to help her get them back. How that was supposed to be done, she didn’t know, but she was still intensely grateful that they were willing to help her. And that made Beth feel even worse for being so busy lately, for doing nothing but working and sitting around her flat and working some more.

This wasn’t who she was, or who she wanted to become.

James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter were on Beth’s mind again one particular lunch break in the middle of May. One of Sirius’s many letters – most of which she was amused to see consisted only of one or two lines in and of themselves – had proposed the five of them getting together at James and Lily’s for dinner, along with Frank and Alice Longbottom and their son, Neville. Tonight had been the night that had worked best in everyone’s rather varied schedules, and she was looking forward very much to seeing all her friends again; not even for recent Order meetings had they all been able to gather together under one roof, and she couldn’t remember the last time they would be doing so under the pretense of something other than official work.

But for right now Beth was standing in the small cupboard off of Mafalda Hopkirk’s office, putting on her cloak in preparing of going and grabbing a coffee to get her through the rest of the afternoon. The cupboard had, essentially, become Beth’s office – not that she spent enough time down here to warrant her having a proper one, anyway. Mafalda seemed just as annoyed with her assistant’s presence as Beth was at having to be there at all, and on the few rare occasions all letters had been sent out for the day, the Ministry woman had made sure she had enough inane errands to keep Beth occupied.

“I’m off for lunch,” Beth called out to her now, popping her head around the doorjamb, fingers slipping on the brass clasp of the cloak near her collarbone. “Would you like anything, while I’m out?”

“No,” Mafalda replied crisply; she drew her quill in an impossibly straight line across the parchment in front of her, in an unusually sharp gesture. “Do try and be back in twenty minutes, Beth. These letters must go out before the afternoon is through.”

Then you could just, I don’t know, send them yourself, Beth thought savagely, though was instantly paranoid her thoughts could be overheard. “I will,” she said instead, and gave Mafalda a wide, pleasant smile. Her boss sniffed once and made another miniature note on the parchment. Quite pleased at having apparently confused her, and thinking that Sirius should be quite proud of her, Beth closed the door of the cupboard behind her and moved out into the corridor, heading for the set of golden grilles and the lifts that would lead her back down to the atrium.

“Beth!” She turned at the sound of her name, just about to press the button to take her back down to level eight. To her slight surprise (and embarrassment, as she felt heat begin to trickle into her cheeks), Timothy Parrish, the man who worked for the Department for Broom Regulatory Control, slid into the lift beside her.

“You remembered my name,” she blurted out, and instantly wished she’d thought of something more intelligent to say. Timothy pressed the button for the atrium, of all floors, and smiled briefly at her as the golden grilles rattled shut.

“I’m good with names,” he said mildly, and then shot her a wicked grin that looked not unlike one she had seen from Sirius and James many, many times. “You remember who I am, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she said quickly, and felt her cheeks grow even redder. The lift ground to a smooth stop on level four, and the cool female voice up above them intoned, “Level Four, Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, incorporating Beast, Being and Spirit Divisions, Goblin Liaison Office and Pest Advisory Bureau.” Beth and Timothy were joined by a rather squat goblin on this floor, who eyed them suspiciously as he jammed the button for the Department of Magical Cooperation.

“I suppose you’re going to complain about that, are you?” he asked out of the blue, showing his pointed teeth to Timothy and Beth in what was obviously supposed to be a smile, though it faltered somewhere along the way.

“No, of course not,” Timothy said, before Beth had a chance to say anything. He shot her a look when the goblin wasn’t looking, and she pressed her lips tight together to keep from smiling; it was frowned upon, in general, to take lifts between single floors, and they all clearly knew it. But he didn’t speak again until the goblin had waddled off down the corridor, muttering to itself.

“I know we’re supposed to like them,” he said with a confidential air. “But sometimes those goblins are a bit smug, wouldn’t you say? It’s like they own Gringotts, the way they act.”

“Mm,” Beth said noncommittally, wishing now that she hadn’t displayed such obvious amusement at the admittedly stuck-up goblin; the familiar feeling of guilt was beginning to creep through the pit of her stomach again. Severus is gone, she reminded herself firmly as she felt the lift begin to slow down again. You’re not doing anything rash just by talking to this man.

But for some reason, a thought popped into her mind as the grilles slid open on the eighth floor, revealing a harried-looking queue of witches and wizards already back from their lunch break. She could picture Severus nearly perfectly as she had seen him the last time before his memories were wiped – the insistent look in them, the pain that had twisted his mouth enough to make her cry before she even knew why she should. She could remember the pressure of his hands on hers, the smell of his cloak, the feeling of his lips on hers for the first and last time in her life…

“Beth?”

She realized, with a massive shock of humiliation, that Timothy was looking at her expectantly, a bit warily, obviously waiting for an answer to a question that it couldn’t have been clearer she hadn’t heard. Her right hand instantly went to her nose, and she yanked it back down to her side again; no need to expose him yet to her bad habits, after all.

“Sorry – I thought I saw –“ But for some reason, the words of anyone she might have seen across the atrium died on her lips. Beth peered up at him meekly. “What did you say?”

Timothy smiled at her again, and again she felt a hot flush rising in her face, cursing it even as it did so. “I asked you if you were stopping for lunch,” he repeated, nodding his head at the food trolley where she and Remus had grabbed chips after her first morning on the job. “You can eat with me, if you like.”

“Oh! Well, I –“ Beth nodded her head apologetically at the marble fireplaces across the shining wood floors, which were, as always, flashing intermittently with bright green flames. “I was actually about to pop out for a coffee, actually. Desperately needing caffeine, and all that.”

“Oh.” Was she imagining it, or was that disappointment in his voice? Cut it out, she told herself, but Timothy was talking again, and Beth hastily switched her attention back to him so she wouldn’t have to ask him to repeat himself a second time. “Another time, then? Or we could grab lunch elsewhere, if you like.”

For a fraction of a second, she hesitated. Half of her brain was screaming at her to run, make an excuse, do anything to get out of these potentially dangerous waters. She didn’t want this, she didn’t want anybody else – and she certainly would feel terrible leading him on…

But surely this was a sign. It had been over a year, and as much as she might want to, Beth couldn’t hang onto Severus forever. Not when he had, however necessarily, however decisively, already let her go.

She mustered up the brightest smile she could, already moving away towards the fireplaces. “That would be great.” And, waving a small good-bye with the tips of her fingers, she turned and fled, heart hammering in her chest, not waiting to see Timothy’s reaction.

*

Beth was the first one to arrive in Godric’s Hollow for dinner that night, a fact she knew even before she entered the house – everything was quiet from a passerby’s perspective, which clearly meant that Sirius was nowhere to be seen on the premises. She knocked loudly on the door and hunched her face into the neck of her cloak, drawing it up over her nose while she waited for someone to answer it; though spring was already blowing through London in full force, she hadn’t anticipated the drastic drop in temperatures that sunset had brought on.

There was the sound of a rattling lock from the other side of the door, and through the small pane of pastel stained glass set into the top of the door Beth glimpse Lily’s dark, slightly wobbly form. “Damn,” she heard her mutter, the voice muffled through the wood, and then, after a moment, “Alohomora.” There was a louder click, and the door swung inward to reveal Lily, balancing Harry on her left hip.

“Sorry,” she grinned apologetically. “I keep forgetting how many stupid locks we put on this door."

“No worries,” Beth laughed, although she hadn’t overlooked the meaning underlying that sentence – she didn’t like to think about how protections Dumbledore had insisted the Potters put around their house, or how many he’d told the Longbottoms to do likewise. She switched her attention instead to Harry, who was looking up at his godmother patiently, as though waiting for her to notice him.

“Hi, Harry!” she said happily. Harry babbled and reached out his small arms in Beth’s direction. Lily grinned and passed him over, and Beth held him to her, planting a kiss on his impossibly wild dark hair as she stepped into the house so Lily could shut and lock the doors again. She was promptly rewarded for this kiss with a small puddle of spittle on the shoulder of her cloak.

Lily grimaced. “Sorry,” she said again, tapping the spot quickly with her wand; it dried up at once. “He’s still a bit… I’m hoping once he’s got all his teeth in he won’t drool quite so much, or we’ll have to invest in a swimming pool.”

“Poor boy,” Beth teased, kissing the top of Harry’s head again before looking back at his mother. “How are you, Lily? It feels like forever since I’ve had the chance to ask you that properly.”

“Really good, thanks,” Lily beamed up at her. “Well –“ She glanced over her shoulder, as though checking for eavesdroppers. “James is getting a bit… restless. Which is to be expected, I suppose, but it’s really not making things easy right now.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard,” Beth said, following Lily into the kitchen, where a suspicious clattering noise told her that James was up to something. Remus had told her as much a few days earlier in passing at the Ministry, which was one of the few times she was able to hold a proper conversation with him anymore. “Can’t blame him, I suppose.” James came into view just then, stirring something in a saucepan on the stove, and looked over his shoulder as Beth entered with his son.

“Who are we blaming?” he asked pleasantly.

“Sirius,” Beth responded immediately, smoothing Harry’s hair back from his forehead in an automatic gesture; it sprang right back into place. James nodded, as though this made absolute sense, and resumed cooking. But as Beth was about to turn back to Lily, there was another knock at the front door, and she went to answer it, leaving her husband, her son, and her son’s godmother to their own devices.

“So.” As soon as his wife had left the room, James turned to face Beth, letting the wooden spoon he’d been holding fall with a clatter into the sink. “I’ll make this quick, since I know Lily won’t want us talking about it all night. This is supposed to be a nice, friendly dinner, all that.” His mouth twisted wryly at one corner. “But you know that Sirius and I are trying to help you with Snape’s memories.”

Her mouth suddenly dry, Beth nodded. She moved an egg-covered spoon out of Harry’s reach almost absentmindedly, as he had been reaching for it, and said nothing, waiting for James to continue.

“We think we can make it up to the castle in a few weeks,” he said carefully, rolling his sleeves carefully up to his elbows and leaning back on his hands against the counter. “A month, at most. There’s another mission two weeks from tomorrow, and Sirius reckons he can find some excuse to lug me up to Hogwarts with him. We can poke around the castle while we’re there.”

Beth tried not to feel a small sting of annoyance that James knew about a mission before she did – but why would she, anymore? “Okay,” was all she said. “I mean – yeah.” She looked up at him, her heart racing in her chest without her quite knowing why. “If you can…”

James tilted his head to the side, studying her through his glasses. “Do you still want us to?” he asked in a low voice; Frank and Alice Longbottom could now be heard clearly in the front hall, and it was quite evident that he, James, didn’t want to risk them being overheard. Her close group of friends were more accepting of what had happened concerning Severus and mission work than some of the other members of the Order.

“Yes,” Beth said, without thinking. “I can’t – if you can get his memories back, if you can make him remember me –“ But there didn’t seem anything else to say on that front. James knew how much she wanted that, had wanted that for nearly a year. Repetition at this stage seemed pointless.

It was like an ache inside her, knowing that she could remember all these things about Severus, stretching back years and years… and to him, she was virtually nothing. Beth could remember every accidental point of contact that had sent shivers up her arms, every single look that she’d questioned as being perhaps something more than he’d meant to convey. Or had she been mad? Was this really for the better?

James was still watching her, and she suddenly became painfully aware of just how long she had been silent. Harry was amusing himself by playing with his toes, trying to reach for them as she held him against her hip. “Yes,” she repeated, and he nodded once.

Just at that moment, while Beth was casting about desperately in her mind for something to say to break the slightly awkward pause that had descended over the pair of them, Sirius bounded through the archway; neither of them had heard him come in. “So here’s where you’re hiding!” he said cheerfully, and then spotted the baby in Beth’s arms. “Harry! It’s been far too long since I’ve held you. Come to Uncle Sirius.”

“So it’s ‘Uncle Sirius’ now?” James smirked, as Beth passed Harry over; he instantly grabbed a hank of Sirius’s hair, again growing a bit on the long side, and pulled mercilessly.

“’Course it is,” Sirius responded breezily. “I’m as good as family, I should get a proper title. Shouldn’t I?” he added to Harry, lifting him up in the air and making whooshing noises. Harry giggled, wiggling around as he zoomed about. He looked over at Beth then, mouth already poised to ask a question, but it snapped shut instantly. “You okay?”

Beth realized she had been gnawing on her bottom lip and simultaneously rubbing her nose – dead giveaways to the boys, who had known her long enough to recognize those sorts of signs. “Fine,” she lied, hastily stuffing her hands in her pockets to give them something to do. “James and I were talking about – well, the memories, you know.”

“Ah.” She didn’t miss the look that passed then between Sirius and James. “Still on for it, then?”

“Yep,” she responded, a bit more aggressively than she might have otherwise; a faint, lingering note of hostility lurked beneath Sirius’s question, and she could guess why. He was loyal to a fault, but that still didn’t mean he had to like Severus as a person, a fact that she knew he didn’t try terribly hard to hide unless she was around. And then – perhaps because of that, and knowing exactly what Sirius thought – she blurted out the first thing that came into mind. “I’ve actually got a date next week.”

“You what?” said James suspiciously; he had gone back to stirring the saucepan, which had become quite forgotten in his conversation with Beth.

“With a guy from work,” she said, as nonchalantly as possible, though she could feel her throat closing slightly with emotion even as she did. “Nothing big. I just –“ She raised one shoulder in a shrug. “I don’t know.” Severus’s face swam up before her mind again, and she shoved it hastily away. She could not cry here, not now.

“But that’s brilliant!” Sirius lifted Harry a bit higher on his hip and grinned widely. “That’s really excellent, Bethy. I’m proud of you.” But James said nothing; he had gone back to considering her with his head tipped to the side, and she looked away. Anywhere but him.

“Brilliant,” he echoed at last, though with considerably less conviction than his best friend. Sirius didn’t seem to notice; Harry was pulling on his hair again, and had a much firmer grip this time around, which preoccupied him slightly.

“Yep,” Beth repeated. Her voice, too, sounded hollow to her own ears. There was another knock at the door, and a few seconds later, Remus’s muffled voice could be heard from the front of the house. Apparently taking this as a sign that the present conversation was now a closed topic, Sirius wandered off in that direction, still wrestling with Harry and the baby’s amazingly firm grip on his hair.

Beth clutched her elbows, arms folded tightly across her stomach, and studied the linoleum intently. She knew James was still looking at her, but maybe if she ignored him, he’d stop, change the subject, talk about anything else…

“Beth?” James stepped lightly in front of her, resting his hands on her shoulders. “You’re okay?”

She tried to form a third affirmative, but the word wouldn’t come to her lips. “I miss him,” she said instead, feeling tears prick at the outside corners of her eyes. And she knew that James understood she wasn’t talking about Timothy, or Sirius, or anyone but him. “I miss his letters, and making him laugh, and…” Her voice broke.

“Oh, Beth.” James’s arms went around her, pressing her face into his shoulder; she drew great shuddering gasps of air, close to sobs but not quite there. “I know you miss him,” he said in a low voice. “I’m sorry.”

Beth clutched the back of his robes with her fingers, bunching her fingers into the fabric. “You’ll get his memories back, won’t you?” she said.

“I’ll try my hardest,” he said. “I promise.” And Beth believed him.

“What I want to know,” she said thickly, as though the thought had just occurred to her, “is why it had to happen at all.” James pulled away slightly, frowning down at her, and Beth swiped at the tears under her eyes impatiently. “Someone told,” she said staunchly. “Dumbledore knew about Severus and me before he decided to… before –“

“Yeah,” he interjected hurriedly, sounding a bit uncomfortable, but puzzled, too. This was information she hadn’t shared with any of the boys before, and now it was pouring out of her uncontrollably, like water from a tap. She had purposefully kept them in the dark about most of the details, largely because recounting them was like enduring tiny wounds, all over her skin.

“Someone told,” she repeated, but the hiccup in her voice belied her confidence, or whatever strength she’d feebly managed to inject into the words. James only nodded, and drew her to him again.

It was at least a full minute later, and perhaps longer, when she drew back at last, wiping the tears from under her eyes and laughing shakily. “Wow, okay. I’m a mess now.” Beth sucked in a deep breath and smiled up at James; he returned the gesture, although it looked a bit sad. “Thanks,” she told him, and hugged him once more around the middle, for good measure.

“Any time,” he said, nudging her with his shoulder, and Beth laughed again, this time a bit more strongly.

By the time she returned to the rest of the group, gathered in the front room, watching Harry and Neville play on the rug, what was left of Beth’s tears was hardly noticeable at all. Her spirits had risen considerably. I will enjoy tonight, she told herself firmly. I’m going to have fun, and I’m going to enjoy it.

James had promised, and she had always known him to keep his promises.

A/N: I told you that Timothy Parrish would come back into the story! And he has returned indeed -- to ask Beth out on a date, no less. I don't want to say too much about him, but I will say he's inspired quite heavily by someone I know in my own life, and it impacts how he's written here and later on. Make of that what you will.

In case anybody was wondering, I'm currently writing chapter 22 out of 29 for this story (good grief, when did I write 21 other chapters?), and I've made it my personal goal to have them all finished by the end of April, and definitely no later than May 9, which is when I'm out of uni for the summer. So this story's rapidly coming to an end! I already get sad thinking about not having more Sneth to write. Goodness knows how it'll be when it actually comes to pass.

But enough about me. Theories? Questions? Let me know -- I really do love hearing from you all! Thank you!

(The female voice in the Ministry lift and her announcements at each floor are graciously taken from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; I do not own them.)


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