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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 13 : Two Meetings
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 6


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The next Order meeting had been scheduled for the middle of June, early in the evening, and the sun was still fully above the horizon when Beth reached the alley for Number 9, swollen and full as it rested above the neighboring buildings. She was in one of the best moods she could remember in quite some time – a few months, at least. Not since Remus had told her that he and James and Sirius would be working to find Severus’s memories could she remember feeling so hopeful, and she couldn’t put her fingers on just what it was about that particular night that was making her feel that way again. Nonetheless, it was with a light step and an even lighter heart that she pushed open the door of corrugated steel and entered the small sitting room of headquarters.

James and Lily were already seated next to each other in two of the hard folding chairs, across from the door. Sirius was there as well, on James’s right; all three of them looked up as Beth entered, and Sirius instantly slid off the chair and onto the carpet, patting the seat behind him with the palm of his hand. “Saved it for you,” he called across, though there were still several other chairs to be had. Smiling slightly, she made her way toward it.

Beth wasn’t sure exactly where she and Sirius stood, these days. She was as good as her word – she had forgiven him that day he and James had returned from Hogwarts, just like she said she had. But she was the first person in the world to understand that forgiving was not forgetting. And Sirius had apparently sensed this: He had been exceedingly courteous to her in the past two weeks, suspiciously so, and Remus had remarked on it on more than one occasion.

Good old Remus, Beth thought now, with a small pang. Despite the fact that both of them now worked Ministry jobs for the Order, it felt as though she’d seen even less of him since the switch, both him and Peter. Neither of them came to meetings nearly as often as they used to, and furthermore, she couldn’t say why. Tonight the moon was days away from being full, and she suspected he might be feeling ill on that particular night. But all those other unexplained nights…

“Thanks for the seat, Padfoot.” Beth turned her mind away from her two other friends as James beamed up at her, and Sirius tried his best to get in her way as much as possible as she sank into the chair. On James’s other side, Lily gave her a small, slightly apologetic wave, gesturing towards the pram parked behind both her chair and James’s, which her other hand was pushing back and forth in small motions. A sleeping Harry was swaddled in a light green blanket Beth recognized as having been knitted for him by Alice’s mother when she had found out her daughter had a friend with a baby born at the same time as Neville. One small pink fist was curled up by his face, his lips making small sucking sounds.

“He’s teething,” Lily explained in a stage whisper, as loudly as she dared, “and he doesn’t sleep nearly as well as he’s supposed to.”

From near Beth’s feet, Sirius twisted to look up at Lily, frowning a bit. “Doesn’t he already have his teeth?”

“He’s only got four, Sirius,” James explained patiently. “He’s in the market for a few more.” His friend seemed a little miffed at the sarcastic nature of this answer, but did not deign to respond. Beth turned and watched as Harry shifted slightly in the bed of the pram, reaching out and grasping an edge of the blanket.

“Poor guy,” she said sympathetically. “Mind, I wouldn’t mind teething, if it’d get me out of sitting through tonight’s meeting. The last thing I feel like doing right now is listening to Moody.” Beth’s expression soured somewhat as she spoke; more than likely he was going to pretend she didn’t exist, which was the tactic he’d adopted at virtually every meeting since reassigning her to the Ministry position as glorified errand girl.

James gave her a sideways smirk. “Aren’t we feeling a bit touchy?” he said brightly, but there was an ease to the way he said it that made Beth feel almost guilty. She knew she hadn’t been herself lately, but sometimes it took a comment like this from one of the boys to make her remember that whatever happened to her affected them, too, in ways however small.

Sirius leaned his head back against her legs just then; she patted his head and muttered, “Good boy.” And for one moment that felt as though it had been a long time coming, she felt peaceful, at ease, and almost as though everything were right again.

Then, naturally, Harry woke up.

He immediately began bawling, face wrinkling and rapidly turning a near-alarming shade of crimson. “Oh, damn,” Beth heard Lily mutter, reaching hastily over the back of her chair to fumble with the blanket now tangled in his kicking legs. “And he probably won’t be asleep again for ages…”

“Do you want me to hold him?” Beth offered, leaning over James, who was wincing and looked on the verge of stoppering his ears with his pointer fingers if his son continued carrying on the way he was. Lily nodded gratefully, knowing any words of gratitude would have been lost over Harry’s screams.

“Now that’s not fair,” Sirius said in mock protest from the ground, though he, too, looked as though his ears were taking a fair beating from the noise. “That’s clearly his ‘I-want-my-godfather’ cry. Hand him over.”

“You didn’t even know he needed more than four teeth,” Beth shot back, lips curving in a wryly amused smile as she tried settling Harry comfortably in the crook of her arm. Lily was prodding James now, rummaging around in the pocket of his robes, her own turned inside-out. With a small triumphant noise, she produced a teething ring comprised of miniature rubber Golden Snitches, passing it Beth’s way.

The room had filled up rapidly by that point; more people than it seemed had been at headquarters in a long time had turned out for the meeting tonight. Perhaps they, like Beth, had somehow felt better than they had in a long while – something about the unusually nice summer weather, or just the fact that they were all still here, still fighting.

“Moony or Wormtail showing up?” James leaned over and asked Beth in an undertone. “The meeting was supposed to start five minutes ago.” She shrugged one of her shoulders, careful not to jostle Harry too much – he had taken the teething ring happily and now had it clamped firmly between the four teeth already in his mouth.

“I haven’t heard from Remus in a while,” she whispered back. Below her, Sirius strained to hear what they were saying. “It’s not far from a full moon, though.”

“True.” But James didn’t look entirely convinced, and Beth knew that his thoughts were similar to hers: He didn’t understand what was keeping them away from Order meetings, either. He was about to say something else, but at that moment, the door leading out of the tiny apartment slammed open with such force that it bounced back against the wall. Harry instantly began crying again, and Beth hastily lifted him to her shoulder, patting his back.

Alastor Moody stood framed in the entryway, glaring at them all with one dark eye while his magical one whizzed about, so fast it looked more like a shocking blue blur than anything else. He stumped forward a few steps, leaning heavily on his gnarled wooden walking stick.

“Meeting’s been cancelled,” he said abruptly. The occupants of Number 9 looked back at him blankly; more than a few jaws had dropped earthward in perplexity. “Dumbledore’s sent out the word.”

It had not occurred to Beth until just that moment that Dumbledore had not been among the crowd amassed in the small sitting room; she glanced sideways at James, but his jaw was set in a firm, stubborn line, awaiting whatever else it was Moody had to say.

Not surprisingly, it was Sirius instead who broke the silence. “Are you going to tell us why, then?” he called out, folding his arms over his robes languidly. “Or are we expected to trot off to our beds without an explanation?”

Moody fixed him with a hard stare that sent shivers up Beth’s spine just from looking at it. “The Prewetts are dead,” he said in a monotone. “Just been killed by a whole load of Death Eaters, and we didn’t get there in time to stop it.” He paused, and then added, “Dolohov’s rotting behind bars in Azkaban. Are you happy, Black?”

“Are you joking, Mad-Eye?” Hestia Jones’s quivering voice sounded from across the room.

“Fabian and Gideon are gone,” Moody said severely. Both of his eyes were looking at Sirius now, who seemed to be trying to shrink into the carpet. Beth barely noticed that, against her shoulder, Harry had stopped crying, as though even he could feel the import of the words the older man had brought to deliver.

“It’s as I said,” the Auror finished gruffly. “Meeting’s cancelled. Go home.” With a last sweeping glance from both eyes, he left the room as quickly as he had entered it, and was gone. Beth turned her head again to look at James, but he was already turned in Lily’s direction. Slowly, she instead sank onto the floor beside Sirius, still gently cradling Harry.

“I didn’t –“ Sirius started to say, his lower lip caught between his teeth. Among the grief already lacing his features was, even more overwhelmingly, guilt. “Bethy, you know I didn’t mean –“

“I know you didn’t,” Beth interrupted. She laid her head on his shoulder, and despite the news they had just received, everything felt briefly, strangely normal again between them. “I know.”

*

Though the meeting had ended only a few minutes earlier, the Death Eaters’ headquarters was almost completely deserted by the time Severus Snape had descended the crude staircase back to the ground floor. Roark had asked him up there for a brief conversation, which had instead turned out to be what Severus had suspected it would be: Another assignment. He knew that he should have been pleased, that he should have felt honored to have been the only man thus far to have been given a solo assignment, but somehow it had tasted sour in his mouth – a bitter pill to swallow, to be sure.

“And who’s this supposed to be, then?” Severus had asked, taking the proffered sheets of parchment from Roark’s hand.

“Edmund McKinnon,” Roark had replied, looking unconcerned; the thumb and forefinger of his right finger absently twirled the ring on the thumb of his left, back and forth, alternately catching and turning from the light of a distant streetlamp outside. Severus watched it almost hypnotically, not wanting to look at the words scrawled on the parchment instead.

“Blood status?”

Roark gave Severus a sour look. “Does it matter?” he said slowly. When Severus said nothing, he continued, “Half-blood. And we’ve got it on fair authority that he’s involved in whatever little group Dumbledore’s putting together.”

Fair authority?” Severus burst out before he could stop himself. “You aren’t even sure?”

“If you’re not up to the assignment,” Roark retorted levelly, without missing a beat, “someone else would be glad to fill your sorry shoes.” He cast a glance up and down the man opposite him. “The Dark Lord still seems to think you a valuable asset, Snape, but I could make a few points in opposition.”

Wordlessly, Severus had turned on his heels and descended again to the entryway, where he was sitting now, folded into the shadowed space beneath the stairs. He didn’t want to stay here a moment longer than was necessary, but if he returned to his flat, Avery (nosy git that he was) was sure to ask questions, and that was even less desirable. Making sure that no one was in sight, he smoothed the sheets over his bent knees and silently lit the tip of his wand to read the tiny, messy hand better.

Edmund McKinnon. 52 years old (born 18 April, 1929). Half-blood. Clerk – Wizarding Post Services (WPS), Hertfordshire division. Spouse: Leticia McKinnon, 49. Children: Marlene, 21; Brian, 16.

Severus frowned, lowering his wand to the parchment to see better – his vision swam, and he pressed his fingers to his temple, forcing the dizzy feeling away. His eyes focused on one word. Marlene. Hadn’t he known a Marlene McKinnon when he had been at Hogwarts? An image appeared quite vividly in his mind’s eye of a girl in Gryffindor robes, a long blonde plait trailing behind her. She’d hung around Potter’s gang, no doubt – as had Lily, in their final year.

And someone else…

Severus heard Bellatrix Lestrange’s laughter even before he saw her approaching, and instinctively crushed the parchment in his fist before he could look at the rest of the assignment sheet. As luck would have it, nobody was around for him to pretend to be otherwise occupied. For the past few months, whenever he hadn’t been able to avoid stopping by headquarters, Bellatrix always seemed to be there for near-unfathomable reasons. He rather suspected that she rarely left, the better to get a glimpse at the leader she idolized. Unfortunately, the Dark Lord rarely made appearances at the sorts of mundane meetings headquarters usually played host to, and she had found it necessary to bide her time there by talking to those she deemed important enough. In the past few weeks, this had seemed almost exclusively to be Severus himself.

Her cackling seemed to bounce off the narrow walls of the corridor now, and he gritted his teeth, quickly smoothing out the sheet of parchment for the second time and attempting to look as though his studying it at that moment was a vitally important task.

No such luck. Bellatrix swung herself down from one of the crates that made up the stairs, sitting beside him and still giggling every now and then. It disturbed him; he didn’t know what she had to look so pleased about, but whatever it was, he was quite sure that it wasn’t any good.

“Good evening, Severus,” her voice rang out in singsong. Severus nodded his head stiffly back, and wondered if she’d leave if he pretended not to hear her.

“Have you got an assignment?” Bellatrix craned her head over his lap, trying to read the words he hastily covered with his hand.

“Yes,” he responded tersely, “and seeing as it’s mine, that makes it really none of your business, Bellatrix.”

She scowled at him, her face darkening instantly where it had been lined with laughter only moments before. “Selfish, are we?” she snapped. “Are we or are we not on the same side?” He knew she didn’t mean anything by the question, but his insides turned to ice at hearing it, all the same.

“What do you want?” he asked instead. Bellatrix’s eyes crinkled up immediately into another of her triumphant smiles.

“I’ve got news,” she whispered brightly, interest in the parchment sheets on Severus’s lap instantly forgotten. “I’ve just seen my brother-in-law outside, and he let slip a few things that I’m quite sure he have.”

Severus glanced at her warily. “Anything Lucius Malfoy knows,” he said slowly, “is no news to me.”

Bellatrix shook her head gleefully, a cruel smile twisting up the corners of her mouth; her eyes shone oddly in the light from the tip of Severus’s wand. “He’s had it straight from the Dark Lord’s most innermost circle of followers,” she breathed in a heavy whisper. “I don’t fancy anyone else knows, except for Roark.”

Despite his best wishes, Severus felt his stomach drop slightly in disappointment. Why had he not been told? He waited for Bellatrix to say whatever it was she had come to tell him, but she seemed to rather be enjoying holding this sort of information over his head. “Well?” he burst out at last. “Either say your piece or leave me in mine.”

Bellatrix clearly did not appreciate the wordplay. She made a big show of looking about her, though it couldn’t have been clearer that there was no one else around to overhear her words. At last, she leaned even closer, eyes brighter than ever. “There’s talk of action on the Dark Lord’s part,” she hissed. “Regarding your prophecy.”

“Your source is poorly misinformed,” Severus snapped. “I would have –“ But he stopped short. Again there was a feeling of deep shame for not having been privy to this information; he did not believe his own words. He did not think Lucius Malfoy would lie about something this important.

Bellatrix laughed wickedly, seeing for herself that he wanted to know more, and taking great pleasure in that fact. “Nobody knows what they are,” she confessed. “Specifically. I personally would hope that he’ll take action against that Mudblood of Potter’s –“

Before he could reckon with his actions, Severus was on his feet, blood thundering in his ears; the information on Edmund McKinnon was once more crushed in his fists, tight enough that the edges bit into the palm of his hands. Bellatrix, still on the floor, looked up at him in surprise. He said no more; nodding curtly, he strode off toward the door without explaining his actions. If she said anything further, it was lost in the roaring inside his own mind.

“I personally hope that he’ll take action against that Mudblood of Potter’s…” For months, it had been a possibility. Lily, his Lily, killed… Severus would not let that happen to her. Hadn’t he gone to Dumbledore to prevent that very thing from happening? Hadn’t he promised to do anything to protect her, even though it had meant protecting Potter and his brat, too? He had known what he was doing, turning double-agent for the Order of the Phoenix.

He had done it for Lily.

And then, without warning, as he thought of this last – a sharp, searing pain exploded from a point in his head, so strongly that Severus stopped walking. He gripped his head between his fingers, gritting his teeth. Something, someone, swam at the corner of his vision…

It lasted only a few seconds, gone so quickly that he almost thought he had made it up. He had left headquarters; the night air was cool on his face, so why was his forehead suddenly coated in sweat? What had happened to him?

Severus waited, stopped in the middle of the pavement, but the pain did not come again. A few more seconds, and he was headed home, still clutching his assignment in fists in his pockets, as though nothing more had happened since leaving Bellatrix back at headquarters.

A/N: Oof -- I didn't quite get this story done by my expected deadline of May 9th, and actually haven't written any more since I posted last week's chapter, which is a bit of a bummer. No worries, though! I'm planning on working on chapter 28 tonight, and soon here I'll be on a holiday which will mean a two-week hiatus (I'll let you know in a note when exactly that is), so there's plenty of time. And this is only chapter 13, after all!

What did you think of this one? Voldmort's starting to plan out his targets more carefully, and that really can only spell bad news, as long as everything stays canon. The question is, does that actually happen? But I'm not going to tell you now -- that would ruin the surprise!

Thank you for reviewing, and if you've got the time to review this chapter too, I'd really appreciate it!


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