Chapter 14 : An Awkward Encounter
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The Order had been lulled into a false sense of security since Caradoc Dearborn’s death, it seemed. Sirius couldn’t seem to stop repeating, time and time again, that they should have been more alert, more wary, more watchful. But every time this suggestion was tossed out, James or Remus or even Beth would retort the truth: If Gideon and Fabian had been targeted (and it was rather apparent that they had been), then they never would have stood a chance, no matter how many eyes were turned in their direction.
No one said the last argument to this, but it was painfully obvious, hovering on the lips of anyone who had known the Prewetts, dark and ominous: If the Prewett brothers had been targets, who was going to be next?
Beth shook her head slightly – whatever might be going on in the rest of the world, she knew that she couldn’t think about them here at work. The stack of envelopes at her left elbow seemed to have only grown larger in the time she’d been sitting at the cramped corner desk, the list of addresses even more than that. Her right hand had long since cramped around the shaft of the poorly-cut quill Mafalda had lent her for addressing the envelopes, and her inkpot was running low. And as if that wasn’t enough, Magical Maintenance was apparently angry about something – Beth had heard rumors of angry goblins splashing about in the Fountain of Magical Brethren after a meeting with a few of the officials in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures – and the sky outside the low window was slate-gray and dull.
Beth was in a foul mood.
The sound of footsteps in the small corridor behind her workspace made her turn in her chair, eager for a respite – anybody was more welcome than a gloomy view and a gloomier mindset. Mafalda Hopkirk’s heels clacked loudly on the floorboards as she approached, her mouth set in a no-nonsense line.
“You may go to lunch now,” she announced without preamble, coming to a halt a few feet away from the desk, her eyes roving over the stack of envelopes that were still blank. “You may run these to the owlery after lunch, and then please finish the rest.”
Small worms of guilt crept into Beth’s stomach at the look in Mafalda’s eyes; she knew she should have been a bit farther in her work than the progress showed. Unbidden, small tears pricked her eyes, and she blinked hard to make sure the older woman didn’t see.
“Yes, of course,” she muttered, but Mafalda was already walking away. Taking a deep breath and holding it for a few seconds, Beth rose, gently pushed in her chair, and headed for the atrium.
She knew what was wrong with her, something that had nothing to do with the nasty weather or working conditions – though, admittedly, neither of those things helped matters much. The problem was the actual fact that the past two weeks had been so quiet and uneventful – no one breaking into Hogwarts looking for the memories Severus had had taken from him, no quarrels to smooth over, no death announcements to make her feel as though small holes had been punctured in her lungs. It felt as though the entirety of her small world had been waiting on tenterhooks for the next big moment to happen, and as it hadn’t yet, the strings inside each person were wound tighter and tighter with each passing day. Beth was afraid of what would make the snap – but she was also afraid of what might happen if they didn’t soon.
Nobody else at work that day looked as though they were having a particularly nice time of it, either. The faces of the witches and wizards accompanying her downstairs in the gold lift looked just as grumpy and miserable as she herself felt. In the far left corner, a pudgy woman with dark, watery eyes caught Beth’s gaze, and frowned heavily at her from beneath a thick fringe of flat gray hair. Beth hastily pretended to pick at her fingernail, her chest tight and anxious with the need to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Just five more hours, she told herself, like a small mantra. Eat lunch, deliver envelopes, address more envelopes, and then you can go back to your flat and drink tea and sit on the couch and not worry about any of this until tomorrow… But the weight of tomorrow was already pressing on her shoulders, a reminder of what was to come.
The grille finally clattered into place with a loud crash, and almost immediately those at the front of the throng packed into the lift threw back the grilles, the sooner to be out of there. Most were headed in the same direction as she herself was, toward the small food trolleys lining the west edge of the atrium.
The longer she waited in line, the more anxious Beth felt; she forced herself to take deep, slow breaths, drumming her fingers on her thighs. She looked over the heads of the people around her, searching for Remus, but he didn’t appear to be anywhere. That wasn’t that unusual – she knew that he occasionally worked straight through lunch – but right now, she really wanted someone here to talk to, to reassure her that she wasn’t going crazy in feeling like she was.
At the front of the lunch queue, Beth grabbed a bottle of pumpkin juice and smacked it on the counter, her appetite having disappeared almost immediately. The bored-looking wizard behind the trolley eyed it listlessly. “Four Sickles and six Knuts,” he said in a monotone.
“That’s a crime,” Beth muttered under her breath, too annoyed to much care if he overheard – which, judging from the sour expression that appeared on the wizard’s face at that moment, he most certainly had. Reaching deep into the pocket of her robes, she brought up a fistful of bright silver and bronze coins, plunking a few down onto the counter.
The wizard counted them with painful slowness, tongue sticking out between his yellowed teeth. “You’re ten Knuts short,” he informed her tersely. From somewhere behind Beth in the queue someone groaned in annoyance. She felt heat course through her cheeks.
“I’ll owe you,” she said desperately, fingers curled around the neck of the bottle, wondering how this day could possibly get any worse. “I’m good for it, I promise –“
Just as the trolley wizard opened his mouth to retort, someone strolled up to the cart and slapped a Sickle in the man’s palm. “Keep the change,” said a deep voice to Beth’s right, and her stomach sank even further. Timothy Parrish glanced briefly at her before looking back at the trolley wizard, one eyebrow raised. The man slipped the Sickle into his till wordlessly and motioned the next customer forward.
Beth’s cheeks tingled even worse as she and Timothy stepped aside to a less-crowded part of the atrium; she couldn’t bring herself to look him in the face, stupid as it probably looked on his end. Ever since their lunch date, which she had ended on a somewhat embarrassing note by artlessly dodging Timothy’s attempt to kiss her cheek, she had gone out of her way to do everything in her power to avoid him at the Ministry. The pair of them hadn’t had a proper conversation since that afternoon; how she was going to explain her act of ignoring him now, she hadn’t the faintest idea.
She finally mustered the courage to face him like a normal person; Timothy’s mouth was quirked in a small smile. “It’s been a long time since we’ve talked,” he said casually, leaning his shoulder against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. Beth’s eyes skittered to a point behind him, pretending to be vastly interested in those Flooing home for lunch while she swallowed against her nerves.
“Yeah,” she responded breezily. “Isn’t that weird? I guess work’s been… busy.” She didn’t realize until that moment that she was twisting and tightening the cap to the pumpkin juice in her fingers, and hastily stopped.
Timothy tipped his head to the head slightly, studying her. “How have you been?” he asked, and Beth’s stomach gave a nauseous twist at the tone of his voice; just as always happened when he was around, guilt crept through her like ice through her veins.
“Good,” she replied calmly, biting the inside of her cheek. “And you?”
“Oh, yeah, fine.”
Tension thick enough to cut with a Severing Charm, this, Beth thought nervously, nodding and tucking a piece of hair back behind her ear to give herself something to do. But before she had to come up with any more small talk – she was drastically close to resorting to discussing the weather – Timothy spoke again.
“I had a really good time on our lunch date, you know.” Was she imagining things, or did he lean slightly closer as he said it? Beth didn’t respond, looking instead down at her shoes and focusing again on taking slow, long breaths. If she said it back, she felt she would be leading him on – and it wasn’t as though she hadn’t had a perfectly pleasant time herself. But whatever Timothy was thinking was going to happen between the two of them, Beth knew that it wasn’t going to.
He fiddled with his collar, looking suddenly nervous, and her heart seemed to shrink with guilt. “Would you, erm…” Timothy’s cheeks colored slightly. “We could do it again sometime… if you like.”
There seemed to be a small lifetime of intensely quiet moments stretched between them after that offer had been extended. Beth felt her throat tighten in embarrassment, her heart thrumming in her chest at twice its normal speed.
“I – Timothy, I’m really, really sorry,” she said at last. “I just – it’s just that –“ Why was this so hard to say?
Timothy’s forehead creased in a puzzled frown; the anticipation on his face fell away as she stammered over finding the right words to see. Beth looked up and met his eyes again, trying to convey to him just how sorry she was without having to come up with a way to say it – and she was sorry she wasn’t more interested in him. If circumstances had been anything other than what they were, then perhaps something might have happened.
But no matter how hard she tried, how much she wished it was different, she couldn’t shake the thought of Severus from her mind. There was hope there still, in the bottle of memories, and as long as it was alive, she couldn’t bring herself to look at anyone else even remotely in the same way as she looked at him.
“There’s… sort of someone else,” Beth managed at last, when Timothy continued to look at her a bit dazedly. “There was before too, and I know I should have told you, but… it’s complicated.”
“’Sort of’ someone else?” he parroted. “What’s wrong? Did something happen? Was it something I did?”
Beth bit down hard on her lower lip, feeling worse and worse with each passing second. “I honestly can’t explain –“
“So that’s a no, then.” Timothy’s tone was flat and unaffected; the lines on his forehead had smoothed away, and a vacant expression had come into his eyes, staring at a point just slightly shifted away from her face. “You could have just said no.”
“I’m telling the truth!” She could no longer tell if she was apologetic or angry – she was both, which was a combination she wasn’t extremely fond of. Bright tears welled up in her eyes, and she tried to blink them away, but they stayed burning at the corners of her eyes. “I’m not lying to – to get out of –“
“Kind of sounds like you are, though,” Timothy snapped before she was able to finish the sentence. Beth’s mouth dropped open slightly, unable to quite believe how rude he’d just been, and then shoved her bottle of pumpkin juice into his arms furiously.
“Thanks,” she said hotly, cheeks flaming, and spun on her heel. She marched out of the alcove and back towards the lifts without looking over her shoulder, ignoring the strange looks given her by the witches and wizards still in line for the food trolleys. She knew she would regret it later – not to mention the fact that she’s just given up her only lunch and would have to make it the next five hours on an empty stomach.
One of the golden lifts was mercifully empty when she arrived back at that end of the atrium. Beth slammed the grille shut and slumped against the back wall, swiping angrily at the tears pooling underneath his eyes.
She wished so much that she could move on from Severus. But she knew too that if things did work out as planned – if she got his memories back, and could restore them to him – then she would never forgive herself for forgetting him in her own way.
Severus had told Beth to remember him. It was the last promise she had ever made to him, and though it may have been better to break it, she knew she never could.
The rest of the day passed even more slowly than the first half, and Beth felt like screaming the entire time she walked home home, the tight strings in her chest closer than ever to snapping. She absolutely could not have imagined a worse day, with the work and Timothy and the feeling that something was just around the corner, something foreboding and unwelcome. By the time she arrived on the landing outside her flat, she was too tired to bother with her Muggle keys when her wand was that much more accessible.
But as she was opening the door, there was an odd shuffling sound. Beth froze immediately, shoulders tensing, wand poised in front of her, but nothing in the shadowed entryway moved. She stepped over the landing, and kicked something light; it went slithering across the linoleum. A letter landed in the patch of light shining from the crack under the kitchen door.
“What?” Beth muttered aloud. Other letters had been under the one she’d kicked. She bent and picked one up, running her finger quickly under the flap and pulling out the parchment inside. It appeared to have been stuffed inside hastily; the corners were bent and crushed.
Write me back as soon as you get this.
Panic welled up in her chest, the miniature strings singing with tension, and she fell to her knees, hands scrabbling for the other letters. Her wand rolled, forgotten, against the near baseboard. An earlier letter from Sirius, cursing her Ministry job… Sirius again, telling her something had happened… Her pulse was skyrocketing, temples throbbing with sudden adrenaline.
She launched herself dizzily to her feet, grabbing one of the letters in her first and yanking a quill from her coffee table. She scribbled on the back of the letter, ink blotting horribly, and asked Sirius to come over immediately before running at full tilt into her bedroom. Oscar, her owl, blinked sleepily at him as she threw the door open.
“I need you to send a letter,” she told him, a bit more harshly than she intended; he glared up at her balefully, but obediently stuck out his leg all the same. Beth tied the letter on quickly with one of the strings she kept by his cage, stroked his head distractedly, and sent him off into the night.
The cracking sound of Apparition couldn’t have come any more than ten minutes after Oscar had disappeared with her letter, but it seemed like a small lifetime. Beth, waiting on the sofa in the sitting room with her fingers lacing and unlacing by turn, had the door open before he could even knock. Sirius’s face was drawn, stretched tight across his cheekbones, his eyes hollow.
“What’s happened?” she asked at once. Sirius entered the room and ran his hands through his hair. He didn’t say a word. “Sirius.” Her voice cracked on his name. “Who is it?”
He didn’t contradict her; that was perhaps the worst of it. He turned slowly to face her, looking haunted, looking hunted. “They got Marlene,” he said at last, his voice so low she had to take an unconscious step forwards to catch the words. “Her entire family, Bethy. They’re all dead. She’s dead.”
Images flashed across Beth’s mind in rapid succession: A slim girl with blonde plaits, part of the inseparable trio that was Lily and Mary and her. Marlene flirting casually with Sirius, Marlene sorting their trunks for them as she always did at the end of every school year. The last proper conversation Beth had had with her… she couldn’t even remember. Marlene had been an integral part of the small group of Gryffindor girls Beth had spent nights with in her school dormitory. She had talked with Marlene about lessons, exams, and their lives away from school. And now she was dead.
The tension in her chest seemed to snap.
“I’m sorry,” Sirius whispered raggedly, and it was almost worse to see the tears in his own eyes than to hear the news his mouth spoke. Beth felt her face crumple, her lips trembling, and she let out a choked sob, throwing herself at Sirius.
He wrapped his arms around her so tightly she could feel his fingernails digging into her spine, as though he wouldn’t let go again for anything. Beth could feel him shaking, and she tried to be strong for him, though it was a lost cause.
Something was going to happen, Beth told herself, bunching her hands into the material of Sirius’s robes, eyes shut fruitlessly tight against tears. You knew the Prewetts weren’t the end. But the worst of it all was that she knew Marlene wasn’t the end, either. She had a horrible, horrible feeling that the end wouldn’t be in sight for a long time to come.
A/N: IT IS FINISHED. Breaking Even is officially completed at just over 100,000 words as of yesterday evening! *cue fanfares and confetti* I still don't think I've quite absorbed and processed the fact that I've finished writing this entire storyline, and it's been hitting me at odd moments here and there. I'm kind of mourning it, which sounds a bit stupid, but I'm really excited now for you guys to read the rest of the chapters (16 after this one!) and see where everything ends up.
Speaking of posting chapters, though, I'll give you a heads-up now that there won't be an update for a couple of weeks after this one. My family's going on summer holiday and I'll be without my laptop for the next two Sundays, but Sneth will return as scheduled on June 8th!
Okay, so I kind of like this chapter because of Beth's incredibly awkward confrontation with Timothy. Mostly because it's unbelievably accurate as far as certain events in my own life go. But then there's the sad news about Marlene, too... Gah. Sometimes writing sad things kind of hurts. What did you think? Reviews are always so appreciated, and thank you so much for reading this chapter -- I hope you enjoyed it! ♥
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