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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 17 : The Time Is Now
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 4


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Beth was very nearly late to the next Order meeting; she burst through the door at five minutes past the hour, her hair windblown and her cheeks pink with the exertion of running the last few blocks to 9 Dustund Way. Her chest was rising and falling rapidly, and she tried to fix her appearance to make herself look somewhat more presentable than she currently did.

She hadn’t meant to be late, of course – although no one really ever meant to be, she supposed. Beth had spent the morning at her mother’s as a gesture of politeness. Calvin Bridger’s funeral had been early the previous week; she had received the letter from St. Mungo’s over two weeks ago. But her great-aunt Elspeth hadn’t been able to travel up from Marseilles, where she had long since retired, until just yesterday, and putting in an appearance at her mother’s while Amelia pretended to actually care what had happened to her husband wasn’t something Beth had been able to get out of.

Naturally, Great-Aunt Elspeth, who hadn’t seen Beth since she was thirteen years old, had let the conversation wander much longer than was socially acceptable. By the time Beth realized what time it was, and had told her mother and great-aunt that, yes, she actually did have somewhere very important to be, it was fifteen minutes until the hour, and she’d cursed Dumbledore’s rather strict rules about Apparating within three blocks of Dustund Way the entire way there.

She tried now to act like she wasn’t breathing hard, scanning the room for a glimpse of one of the boys, or Lily or Mary. But even as she did so, offering small, polite smiles to the people whose eyes she caught as she looked, Beth could tell that the atmosphere amongst the others gathered there was tense, just as it had been at the last meeting. Postures were stiff; neighbors muttered to one another in undertones, as though if they spoke too loudly, the rumors they were passing from lip to ear might actually be true. When she had entered the room, the conversational tones had lowered, all eyes turning to see who else had entered. The meeting didn’t seem to have started yet, either, which was strange in and of itself; Order meetings, as a general rule, were punctual.

Across the room, Remus was standing against the wall, his lips folded together, seemingly alone. Beth ducked through the crowd to stand by his side, her heart still thudding uncomfortably behind her rib cage from her sprint – but also, she thought idly, gnawing on her bottom lip without realizing it, from nerves about whatever was making her friend’s expression so serious.

“What’s going on?” she asked without preamble. Remus started slightly and looked around at her as though he’d only just noticed that she’d appeared at his side. His eyes traveled back to a point across the room, and Beth turned to see what he was looking at. James, Sirius, and Peter were all clustered around Moody, looking somber. Moody was saying something to Sirius, looking stern.

“Benjy Fenwick’s dead.” Remus’s tone was clipped, lacking any sort of emotion, and Beth felt the words like a punch to the gut.

Her eyes flicked to James; there were deep lines on either side of his mouth, lines she would have sworn hadn’t been there at Harry’s birthday party. The corners of his mouth were deeper in a frown, too. She thought she knew why, too; she remembered how excited James had been to have convinced and recruited Fenwick to join the Order in the first place. Now he was dead, and it was obvious that James felt responsible.

“Oh, no,” Beth murmured, and Remus blew out a long breath through tightly pursed lips, nodding once. She felt her chest grow tight. “Oh, no,” she said again, because nothing else seemed to fit. All her insides felt as though they had been turned to stone.

She reached out and squeezed Remus’s arm, and then started towards the other three, still listening to whatever it was that Moody was saying to them. Peter had his arms folded tightly across his chest, his eyes slightly wider than normal. Beth came up alongside him on the fringes of the group.

“… what there is to do about it.” Mad-Eye’s voice was even lower than normal, a thing that was barely possible, and contained considerably more of a growl. He was leaning heavily on his gnarled wooden staff. His dark eye was fixed on Sirius, although Beth saw that his magical eye had fixed on her, quivering slightly in its socket. It only served to make her feel sicker.

Sirius and James didn’t seem to have noticed Beth, or Moody’s wandering eye; in any case, they didn’t look in her direction. “This has to stop,” Sirius said desperately, angrily, and James nodded, swallowing hard. It didn’t look as though he trusted himself to speak. “We’re dropping like flies, Mad-Eye.”

The older man’s mouth twisted humorlessly, making his face look even more grotesque than it already had. Beth noticed several new scars across his face, printing the weathered skin in pink and red. “Unless you’ve got some brilliant plan, Black, you can’t concern yourself too much with this. It’s war. This is the reality of it. Maybe Dumbledore didn’t tell you what it was going to be like, but you’re staring it in the face now.”

Sirius’s expression was thunderous. He opened his mouth to spit back some retort, but at that moment Beth stepped forward, her brain buzzing angrily. She didn’t remember consciously planning the action, or the words that popped out of her mouth afterwards.

“Put me back on missions, then.”

Sirius and James turned to her in surprise; Moody turned both of his eyes to fix them on her coolly. “Miss Bridger?”

“I could help,” Beth said hotly, already feeling her cheeks growing warm with emotion. She folded her arms across her chest as she had seen Peter do only a minute earlier. “Sirius is right. Too many people are dying out there, Mad-Eye. Frank and Alice and Sirius are good, but they’re not enough.”

“Your motives are compromised,” Mad-Eye snapped angrily. Several heads turned in their direction, and the Auror had to fight to lower his voice a few decibels. “There was a reason you were taken off in the first place, Bridger. What happened to Snape – “

“Has absolutely no bearing on how well I can do my assignments, thanks,” she hissed through gritted teeth. “I’m not meant to be running letters back and forth in a dead-end, nothing job at the Ministry. And you said it would only be temporary, anyway! It’s not fair –“

“And your temporary period hasn’t expired yet. I’ve told you once before that it’s not about how fair it is.” Moody smacked his cane onto the ground once for emphasis.

“Why shouldn’t she go back on?” Sirius jumped into the conversation furiously, his hands curling into fists at his sides. “We worked well together. She’s had her punishment, Mad-Eye, you can lay off now.”

“Watch it, Black,” Moody said evenly. “Or it’s you who’ll be shuffling paperwork next. This isn’t about partnership or punishment. It’s about doing the job that the Order tells you to do” – he pointed a finger at Beth – “and not complaining about it. That’s called being an adult. You were consorting with a Death Eater.”

“I was not consorting!” Beth’s voice came out as a high-pitched, angry wail, and bit down hard on the knuckle of her right index finger to keep herself from saying anything else that would draw attention to her. She could feel tears pooling in her eyes, and was instantly ashamed of them.

Moody looked as though he had several more things to say about this, but at that moment the door leading out of headquarters opened, and the noise in the room fell to a whispered hush for a second time. As the person stepped into the room, closing the door behind him, Beth nearly laughed aloud for the stupid, painful irony of it. She would have, if her throat hadn’t seemed to suddenly close in upon itself.

Severus looked neither right nor left at the circle of people seated upon folding chairs as he strode forward, heading for the miniature back room of the tiny flat, where no one ever went unless they had a reason to. But as he passed by the group of them, his eyes flicked left, and they locked onto Beth’s.

To her complete horror, he paused briefly. For less than a second, Severus was standing still, and looking at Beth, and she couldn’t do anything but look back. Her heart was thudding at the base of her throat, so loud that she was sure he could hear how his presence made her react.

And then it was over. Severus ducked into the back room and shut the door behind him, and he did not look back at her once. Beth felt her knees go quivery, and, reaching out a hand, grabbed onto Peter’s shoulder for support. He patted her hand awkwardly.

Moody turned back around to face the four of them, his mouth twisted again in his grim, no-nonsense half-smile. There was a sort of quiet triumph in his small, dark eye. “That,” he said softly, “is why you’re off mission work.” He stumped away in the direction Severus had disappeared to, and was gone.

Beth’s chest was rising and falling quickly, her eyes fixed on the front door. From the corner of her eye, she could see that the boys were watching her warily, as though she might slump to the floor any moment. She took her hand off Peter’s shoulder roughly.

“I’m going home,” she said flatly. None of them stopped her as she moved toward the door, through the curious onlookers who were trying to pretend they weren’t looking, and out into the dingy alley that was Dustund Way.

*

Mad-Eye Moody shut the door tightly behind him and leaned against it, walking stick clasped loosely between his scarred hands. Severus tried to pretend he wasn’t staring at the older man; he sensed that Moody was staring at him, and the last thing he wanted was to make himself look suspicious. The old Auror knew that Severus was a double agent for the sake of the Potters, but old habits died hard, apparently. Severus was sure that he’d be staring at the inside of a cell in Azkaban if Moody found half a chance to convict him of something.

Dumbledore had already come and gone, something Severus wished he had known before making his way through the rest of the Order meeting. He’d already heard about the death of Benjy Fenwick, which was why he suspected his old headmaster was absent in the first place. Still, it would have saved him a trip, and an uncomfortable scrutiny.

“Do you have anything to report?” Moody’s voice broke the silence harshly, suspicion laced in every syllable, as expected. Severus turned to the tiny window and looked at his hazy reflection, the night outside too dark and starless to see much beyond the glass besides the faint outline of a brick wall.

He couldn’t help looking at Bethany Bridger as he passed through the room. But he hadn’t expected her to look back, much less to bear the stares of Potter and Black, too. (And Pettigrew, if they only knew…) Something in the way she’d looked at him, too – it was as though she knew things about him, things he wouldn’t have wanted other people to know. A wildly paranoid side of him imagined that she might know he had been the one to, essentially, kill her father.

But that was absurd. No one knew that, not even the idiots at St. Mungo’s, and they’d been the ones he’d crawled to in the end, like a worm. The Bridger girl couldn’t have even guessed that he, Severus, was even involved with the Dark Lord. It was unthinkable, impractical, improbable.

He had to stop focusing so much on this. He had to stop focusing on Bethany Bridger at all. Every moment he spent wondering who this girl was, what her importance was to him, was a moment wasted in working to keep Lily safe. Bethany’s face swimming into his mind’s eye, the creeping, icy feeling in his gut, the stuffy feeling that pressed against his temples – it meant nothing. Just a coincidence, that was all.

Severus turned to look at Moody again, who was waiting impatiently for the answer to his question.

“No, sir. I’ve got nothing.”

*

Beth was only a block or so from headquarters when she heard footsteps running behind her, the soles of shoes slapping the pavement loudly as they came. She didn’t need to turn around to see who was approaching – there were only a handful of people who would come after her after that sort of exit, and only one of them would be running.

“You walk fast when you’re angry,” Sirius said as he came to a stop beside her, sounding just slightly out of breath. He swept a lock of thick dark hair out of his eyes and shoved his hands into the pockets of his robes.

“Yeah, well.” Beth didn’t know what else to say. Her arms were still tightly furled across her chest, and she realized that she was frowning heavily. With a conscious effort, she smoothed her forehead and let out a long sigh. “I’ve got a good reason.”

“You do,” Sirius affirmed with bitter conviction. “He’s full of rubbish, Moody is. He’s a brilliant Auror, but I don’t know what he’s thinking, keeping you off mission work after all this. That’s five people dead now, counting Caradoc last year. I’d want all the help I could get, if it were me.”

Beth said nothing; again, she didn’t really know what to say. Five people dead at You-Know-Who’s hands, directly or otherwise, and that was only among their small organization. There were numerous others, names she would never know, who were casualties of this war. Her own father was dead because of it – that much had been obvious the day Beth had gone to see her mother. Was Moody really so stubborn and foolish to let that number climb higher, just to put her in her place?

Sirius looked down at Beth as they came to a stop under a buzzing streetlamp, waiting for rain-washed taxis to trundle by in the darkness. “Are you okay?” he asked. She almost couldn’t stand the note of pity in his voice, but at the same time, it was something of a comfort – he, at least, was on her side.

But as to whether or not she was okay… well, that was obvious. She lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug and leaned against the streetlamp, rubbing her nose.

“Are you ever going to cut that out?” Sirius asked, a small smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.

Beth tried smiling back and shook her head, though she lowered her hand again. There was an idea beginning to form in the small corners of her mind, taking shape and weighing heavy on her tongue as it did. She was almost afraid – no, she was afraid to tell Sirius about it, knowing what his reaction would be already. But reaching beyond this fear was a bone-aching tiredness at the past year, and a frustration that she had done almost nothing to change it. Beth felt she had changed so much even since seventh year. She was a different person then, or so it seemed to her. The old Beth was stronger in some ways, even if she hadn’t said more than a few words to Severus in all the years she’d known him. And she missed that past version of herself.

As the light turned green, and the pair of them set off together across the faded white stripes of the crosswalk, the idea tumbled from her mouth in the form of words.

“I want to rekindle my friendship with Severus.”

Sirius nearly tripped on the curb. “What?”

Beth tipped her chin up. “You heard me,” she told him staunchly, her insides already recoiling. But she pressed on. “I hate this, Sirius. I’ve said it for a year. And I was just thinking – I shouldn’t have to sit around and wait for things to get better on their own. I can make friends with him like he’s a completely new person. There isn’t any harm in that.”

“There’s a lot of harm in that,” Sirius burst out, staring at Beth as though she’d unexpectedly grown another head. “Are you out of your mind, Bethy?”

“Listen to –“

“You listen to me,” he interrupted her firmly, coming to a full halt on the pavement and turning her to face him, hands gripping her shoulders. “I am going to set out a list of why that is a terrible, horrible idea, and I don’t want you speaking until I’m finished.”

Beth glared at him, but he pretended not to see it. “Number one,” he started, taking his hands off her shoulders and ticking his list out on his fingers. “He had his memories of you removed. It is a painful truth, but it is a truth nonetheless. Number two” – his index finger popped up – “he did it to protect you, and you would be stupid to throw away that last wish of his.”

“But –“ Beth started to argue, but Sirius just raised his voice.

“Number three, he is still working for the Order while pretending to work for You-Know-Who, and you could compromise that, and everything would basically be blown to metaphorical bits. And number four, please do not even try and pretend that what was going on between the two of you was only friendship. I don’t think you’re going to be able to go back from that with a brand-new Severus, Bethy.”

Beth’s entire body went warm at that; she became intensely interested in her shoes. She hadn’t even told Sirius about the kiss at headquarters, before she’d ran away from Severus. And yet he was still right. In the same way that she missed the old version of herself, Beth missed what Severus had been. And what he was now would never be the same man she had known.

Had loved.

A small shiver darted up her spine. Never before had she thought the words aloud in such plain, simple, unarguable terms. Never before had she known something so unequivocally.

Beth turned her eyes up to meet Sirius’s. He had apparently reached the end of the list; at any rate, he had closed the fingers he had used to mark his list. She felt one corner of her mouth lift in a half-smile, and, hesitantly, Sirius mirrored the gesture.

“Which is why we have to get his memories back,” she ventured at last, her voice sounding small and timid, even to her own ears. Sirius hesitated for a brief second, and then nodded.

“We’re sure as hell going to try.”

She and Sirius started moving off down the pavement again, heading for home. Already her mind was turning over small beginnings of plans. The time for grieving, for waiting, for hanging back – that time had ended long ago.

She made a quiet, internal promise to herself. No more sitting around and waiting for miracles.

A/N: Ugh. Moody is the worst. I didn't intend to write him as an unlikeable guy in this story... but I've got to say, for most of it I was not fond of his presence. He's so suspicious and cautious, though, that I'm sure he's rubbed more than a few people the wrong way in the course of his life. Beth definitely included! And I should say that this is the definite turning point in Beth's thinking, where she does start resolving more towards action, for those of you who've been waiting for it. 

She loves Severus! She does!

Thank you to everyone who reviewed the last chapter, and to everyone who read it, too. I honestly can't wait to share more of this story with you, almost more than any of the other two books -- and I really hope you can't wait to read it too!


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