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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 21 : The Secret-Keeper
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 6


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Peter had never been to Dustund Way for anything other than Order meetings; it seemed like the sort of place you weren’t supposed to go unless you were told. It was dingy and dark and smelled like dust, and he didn’t even like it when he was there among his friends.

But he was told to be there, in fact – just not for the usual reasons. So nine o’ clock found him walking down a shadow-stretched street with his hands in his pockets, watery eyes darting back and forth and behind him to ascertain for the hundredth time that he was being neither followed nor watched by unwanted eyes. The instant the letter had come for him, he was almost certain it had meant the end of things for him, but nothing had seemed amiss. James had asked him very nicely to turn up at headquarters, if he wouldn’t mind, and would he come as close to nine o’ clock as possible?

Somewhere in the distance, a clock tower chimed. Nine bells. Peter’s mouth went horribly dry, and he swallowed painfully against it. Even if James’s letter had been perfectly friendly, it was hard, almost impossible, for a traitor to feel anything but near-constant guilt, and he had absolutely no illusions about what sort of a man he was. Cowardly, traitorous… and for his own survival, he was destined to stay that way forever.

In some way, Peter was massively surprised that his ruse hadn’t been found out before now. It had been well over a year since he’d gone to the Death Eaters’ headquarters to give himself up as a spy for the sake of protection. And here he was, still alive, still breathing… What did that mean, then, if not that he had picked the right side? That he was getting the right protection from the right sorts of people?

He jumped at a noise in an alley across the street, a squeak of fright escaping from his mouth before he could hold it back. But it was only the wind, banging the lid of a rubbish bin against the brick wall, and as he watched, it swung back again with a sharp crash. Peter looked down and found that he’d drawn his wand with a shaking hand. He didn’t remember doing it.

Slowly, he pocketed it, drew a deep breath, and continued on his way.

The streetlamp at the mouth of Dustund Way was nearly burnt out, and the end of the alley was bathed in black; he couldn’t even pick out the corrugated metal door at this distance. Peter approached it hesitantly, fighting the itching urge to draw his wand again. You will not look like the enemy, he told himself stubbornly. His palms were sweating, his neck was itching, and he was quite sure that he would collapse.

It’s only a letter. Just a letter.

He pressed his palm to the door, and it creaked open on silent hinges – someone must have actually thought to oil them, and that meant that someone didn’t want anyone else to monitor the comings and goings of whoever happened to be at Number 9 tonight. He peeked over the threshold cautiously, stepping into the room and shutting the door behind him.

In contrast to the alley at his back, headquarters was brightly lit, unnaturally so – certainly more than he could ever remember it being lit before. It was as though the occupants had picked this night to combat darkness. Lily and James were sitting on chairs directly across from where he stood, each on the edge of their respective seats so that they might as well be sharing one between them. Dumbledore stood over them, talking to them in a low voice Peter couldn’t make out.

To his surprise, however, two – no, three – other people were also there. To the right of James, on a chair set further apart from the other two, Sirius was slumped so low that his nose was nearly level with his knees. He was chewing sullenly on his fingernails, eyes staring distantly at the stretch of wall across from him. Peter didn’t think he’d noticed that anyone had entered the room at all. And even further right, Beth was pacing up and down the far wall, the wall that bordered the brick wall where Dustund Way ended. In her arms was slumped the third unexpected presence: One-year-old Harry’s head was pillowed on Beth’s shoulder. She appeared to be humming to him, as his green eyes were only half-open with encroaching sleep.

Beth looked around as the door clicked shut behind Peter, although Sirius continued staring at the wall for a few seconds too long. James stood up to greet him, but Dumbledore got there first, smiling gently and extending a hand. Peter shook it, his insides turning to water.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice, Mr. Pettigrew,” Dumbledore said, eyes twinkling behind his glasses. Peter hated the way Dumbledore’s eyes had about them, as though they could tell everything about you, all at once, without you having to give a single thing away. Was it possible he knew what Peter was up to?

“No, it’s nothing,” he mumbled, eyes sliding over to James and Lily. Lily was wearing a brave smile on her face, open and honest, but tension laced her shoulders. James wore an almost identical expression on his face, but he kept fiddling with his glasses and ruffling his hair – dead giveaways to nerves.

Sirius, who had by now rejoined the world of the living and seemed aware of what was going on around him, popped up from his chair and gave Peter a hearty clap on the shoulder. It nearly threw him off balance. “Good old Peter,” he said genially.

That was nearly enough to make him flee right there.

Beth wandered over to where Sirius and Peter were standing now, moving slowly so as not to wake Harry, who had dropped off to sleep in the brief amount of time he’d been in the room. “Hi,” she whispered.

“So, I didn’t mean to scare you with that letter or whatever,” James said, grinning a bit abashedly. “Lily reckons I shouldn’t have made it sound so mysterious.”

Peter tried on a joke, seeing if it fit well on his tongue. “Yeah. I thought I’d done something wrong, you know. You were going to yell at me or something.” If he’d meant it as a joke, it was extremely poorly executed, but his friends had the decency to smile anyway.

“No worries,” James said, throwing his friend a quick grin. “The truth is – well, there’s a favor we’d like to ask you, mate.” He and Sirius exchanged a glance, and Peter felt his stomach sink, like it had suddenly become weighted with stones. This was it. He was done for.

Dumbledore stepped forward to take the helm of the conversation. “Peter, do you know very much about the Fidelius Charm that protects James and Lily?”

“N-no.” Peter cleared his throat, desperate to keep the quiver out of it. “I mean, I know that I wasn’t allowed in until Sirius or Beth told me the location… Right?” he added, suddenly unsure. Dumbledore and Beth both nodded. “But that’s about it,” he finished hastily.

“That, in essence, is what the charm does,” the old man said. “It protects a place from unwanted eyes.”

“Is there something wrong with the charm?”

“Not at the moment, no,” Dumbledore said. “But our present concern is that quite a few people have been let into the charm’s hold. Naturally, of course,” he acquiesced to James, “we wouldn’t have wanted you completely isolated this past year.” He turned back to Peter and adjusted his spectacles more comfortably on the end of his crooked nose. “But recent events have transpired which makes it a bit more prudent to reset the charm, if you’ll let me use the meaning rather crudely. And resetting the charm means resetting its Secret-Keepers.”

It took a few moments for Dumbledore’s meaning to fully sink in. “You want me?” Peter blurted out, before he could help himself. “Why not you, Prof – Dumbledore? Or Sirius again, he’s James’s best mate…”

“No good, am I?” Sirius said lightly. He was hiding whatever bitterness he felt quite well; only traces of it skimmed along under his words. “I’ve already been Secret-Keeper before, people are bound to suspect. And –“ He cut himself off sharply, looking over at Beth, who was swaying with Harry as he slept.

“And Sirius isn’t sure,” she said as lightly as she could, “but he thinks it’s possible that he may have been compromised.”

“What?” Do I sound surprised enough? Can they tell I’m hiding something? Oh God, oh God, this is it… And then he realized that no one was looking at him, but instead his friends were looking at each other, their mouths set, hard lines creasing their faces. And in a moment of sudden illumination, Peter understood. One person was missing from the room. “You don’t mean… Remus?” he asked timidly.

“Well, he’s not been around a lot, has he?” Sirius said bitterly. Peter winced, and prayed that tone would never, ever be used in conjunction with him.

“So we were wondering if you would be Secret-Keeper instead,” Lily said, speaking for the first time in minutes. She tucked a strand of long red hair behind her ear, and there was something in the gesture that made Peter open his mouth, even while hating himself for doing so, even while knowing that he would regret the words as soon as they’d left his lips.

“Of course.”

*

The following Monday at work, Beth felt as though she might not be able to look Remus in the eyes without his knowing exactly what had transpired that weekend. She felt horribly guilty for changing Secret-Keepers without telling him – what did it say about the friendship the five of them had shared for so long? – and she was sure he’d be able to tell that something had happened. They had arranged to pop down to the food trolley in the atrium for lunch again, but as the hands of the clock above Mafalda Hopkirk’s desk ticked nearer and nearer to noon, her insides seemed to grow ever more leaden.

It wasn’t just the dread of accidentally revealing that she was no longer one of James and Lily’s Secret-Keepers, though. Beth felt sick for another reason too, and it was something she hadn’t yet had the courage to bring up to any of her other friends. Telling Remus first was, maybe, her way of alleviating a bit of her guilt, but that didn’t mean it was going to be any easier to do for that.

As soon as the minute hand had joined the hour hand to line straight up with the twelve, Beth shoved away the stack of envelopes she was addressing, breathing a huge sigh and pushing a tightly-wound curl off her forehead. It might have been October, with November less than a month away, but somehow her boss’s office felt as stuffy and hot as it had been during the peak of the previous summer. Beth realized with dismay that she was probably sweating with nerves.

Great.

The corridors outside the office were swarming with people, all pushing for the atrium to get to lunch. Beth flattened herself against a wall across from one of the magically enchanted windows – it was snowing today, for some reason – and waited for the throng to pass, telling herself that she definitely was not delaying things on purpose –

“Hello, Beth.”

Oh, bugger. Beth fixed a polite smile on her face and turned toward Timothy Parrish, who had rounded the corner without warning. What he was doing on this floor in the first place, a fair distance from his own department, she hadn’t a clue. “Hi!” she said brightly, even while her insides twisted with more guilt than she already felt at the moment.

“Doing all right?” Timothy came and stood next to her, pressing his own back to the wall while a river of people churned past in the direction of the golden lifts. There was something under his voice, a question that lay beneath the one he was asking on the surface. Beth felt a hot flush creep up her neck.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, licking her lips and wondering if it would be completely rude to dart into a gap in the crowd and leave Timothy behind. “Um, just working, you know. I’m about to go grab lunch with Remus Lupin,” she added, just in case.

“Ah.” He raised an eyebrow. “So –“

“Oh, no! I’ve left my cloak in the office,” Beth blurted out, even though she knew she wouldn’t need it; she was just going downstairs after all. “Sorry, hang on, let me grab it.” And before he could protest, she had ducked back into Mafalda’s office and closed the door behind it, leaning against it and laying her palms flat to the wood. Her chest rose and fell as though she’d just been running.

“I am a horrible person,” she whispered, but she couldn’t bring herself to fully believe it. And anyway, she couldn’t think about that now, not today of all days…

After five minutes had passed, Beth peeked around the door again. The crowd had all but disappeared entirely; Timothy was nowhere to be seen. Breathing a sigh of relief and trying not to concentrate on feeling too guilty about what she’d just done, she hurried toward the lifts and descended towards the atrium.

Remus was already waiting by the Fountain of Magical Brethren, and he gave Beth a small smile when he saw her wending her way through the press of people towards him. “Hi,” she said, slightly out of breath, shoving another curl away from her face. “Sorry – I ran into Timothy just outside Mafalda’s.”

Remus gave her an appropriately sympathetic grimace. “Yikes?”

“Yeah, yikes.” Beth stepped into the fish and chips queue, and Remus followed suit. “Have a good morning, then?”

His face fell. “No,” he moaned, dragging out the word and scrubbing a weary hand across his eyes. “I’ve been sorting files on dragon regulation for weeks, and it turns out I was supposed to be sorting them by date instead of in alphabetical order, like Gerrits told me. He’s thicker than anyone I’ve ever met, I swear.”

“Okay, yeah, you win,” Beth said, patting his arm sympathetically.

A few minutes later, Beth and Remus made their way to the rim of the fountain and seated themselves upon it, gingerly balancing wax-wrapped fish and paper cones on their laps. Beth looked down at the food in front of her and realized she didn’t feel like eating a bite of it; there was still a small lump in her stomach, and it wasn’t going to go away until she told her friend what she’d been thinking about for the past week.

“Hey, Remus?”

He looked over at her, caught by surprise, so that a bit of fish was still sticking out of his mouth. “Yeah?” he mumbled, wiping crease from the corner of his mouth with his already-greasy fingertips. Beth handed him the paper napkin she’d thought to grab, and he smiled in thanks, cheeks bulging.

“I – can I ask you something?” She removed one of the chips from her paper cone gingerly, only to replace it again almost at once. She felt sick.

Remus’s forehead wrinkled concernedly. “You all right?”

She shoved her lunch aside, brushing the crumbs from her hands, and looked up at him boldly. “I want to sneak into Hogwarts. On Halloween. And get Snape’s memories back.”

If there hadn’t been a crowd of other lunch-goers around, and if Beth and Remus hadn’t been sitting by a fountain that was making subtle, rushing water sounds, there would have been a complete and stunned silence. Remus’s eyes bugged out of his head slightly, as though Beth had just told him that she wanted to renounce magic and join a Muggle convent.

“Are you serious?” he hissed at last, his own lunch nearly sliding off his lap.

Beth looked down, suddenly feeling a bit abashed, and reached out a finger, tracing some of the intricate gold scrollwork set into the edge of the fountain with her nail. But defiance still raced hot through her veins, and she met Remus’s gaze again, setting her mouth in what she hoped looked something like determination.

“I feel absolutely useless,” she said firmly. “I have for months and months, ever since I got yanked from mission work. I’m not doing anything, Moony.”

“Fair enough,” Remus said, still frowning, “but how is sneaking into Hogwarts – a place you’re really not supposed to be without permission, I might add – and stealing from Dumbledore’s office going to bring back your sense of purpose in life? We don’t even know how to restore memories yet!”

“Sirius said he was going to find out,” she argued stubbornly. “He told me he was.”

“And no offense to Sirius, but he’s no closer to finding that out than he was when he made that promise to you.” Beth thought she detected a note of bitterness in Remus’s voice, as though maybe he did mean to offend Sirius, but wondered if that was her own guilt playing out across her friend’s face, or maybe Sirius's suspicions of Remus creeping into her daily habits.

She changed tack instead. “Those memories are just sitting there,” Beth said. “And they’re doing no one any good while they’re hanging about on a shelf in Dumbledore’s office. Remus, we’ve been talking and planning and we haven’t done anything, and I know you boys mean well – I do – but I’m tired of it. I want to do something.”

Remus arranged his expression so that he looked slightly less as though he’d just gotten an electric shock. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Let’s say for the purposes of discussion you did decide that you wanted to sneak into Hogwarts” – he paused, consulting a mental calendar – “five days from now. Do you even know how you’re going to get in?”

“James could lend me his Invisibility Cloak,” Beth said at once, absurdly proud of the fact that she had that small bit planned, at least. “And Sirius still has the Marauder’s Map somewhere, too. They worked in school, didn’t they? This is basically just another prank. Just like the nifflers in seventh year,” she added coaxingly.

“Minus sneaking into the castle from the outside,” Remus reminded her.

“Minus that.”

He heaved a long sigh, crumpling his now-empty wax paper in his fist and roughly cleaning flakes of batter from his lap. “Beth –“

“Remus? I’m going to do it.” She spoke as gently as she could, but nothing he said was going to sway her differently. There was a factor he didn’t know about, and Beth couldn’t tell him about it, guilty as she might feel for it – he was never to know about the switch in Secret-Keepers. How could she possibly be expected to tell Remus that they were suspicious that he was a traitor, even if she’d been allowed to say anything at all?

He looked for a few minutes as though he desperately wanted to make more arguments against Beth’s plans, but something shifted in Remus’s face, and his mouth dropped closed again. What he said instead was, “Have you asked James yet?”

Beth shook her head. “You’re the first I’ve told,” she said, half-grateful that he wasn’t trying to dissuade her anymore and half-guilty that the offering of exclusive information came with strings attached. It was somehow hard to reckon with the idea that she was doing this solely because she felt bad for hiding other things from him. Just don’t ask why you’re the first to know, Remus, please.

The corner of her friend’s mouth lifted in a smile, and he stood up from the fountain rim, crossing a few steps to a rubbish bin and chucking his lunch wrappings inside. “I’d do that, if I were you,” he said. Beth grinned and stood up, coming alongside him and nudging him with her shoulder in jest.

Heart considerably lightened, she made her way back toward the lifts, matching Remus’s strides and brimming with hope. Not even addressing Mafalda Hopkirk’s envelopes was enough to dampen the prospect of the long-stretching afternoon ahead.

*

A vibrantly-colored cardboard box was thrown haphazardly on Lily’s side of the bathroom counter, the bright pink on its cover looking even more unnaturally bright against white marble. She wasn’t looking at the box, though, and in fact hadn’t looked at it since tossing it there roughly five minutes earlier. Her eyes were focused instead on the strip of white plastic in her hands.

Lily’s eyes traveled up and looked at her own reflection in the mirror: Flushed cheeks, bright eyes, and a smile that wouldn’t have dropped from her lips even if she’d wanted it to. Gingerly, she laid the plastic wand on the counter and folded her hands across her abdomen.

Hurriedly, she swept the box and wand off the counter, into the small bin at the side, and tied the top of the sack together quickly. She wanted to surprise James with the news, and was determined to leave no evidence behind.

And won’t he be surprised…

A/N: THIS IS WHERE THINGS START TO SNOWBALL. I am almost breathless with impatience -- first Peter becomes Secret-Keeper, then Beth makes firm and decisive plans to go into Hogwarts on Halloween... and I'll have you know that that's the next chapter! Remus is suspected of betrayal, Lily's pregnant with her second child, and even Timothy cropped up again here. Basically, everything is going to happen fast in these next nine chapters. Guys, I can't even tell you how badly I want to go ahead and post them -- I'll keep to my schedule, but man, is it going to be difficult!

So what do you think's going to happen to Beth in Hogwarts? She still doesn't know how to restore memories, even if she manages to get them back, so it's probably a safe bet her mission will fail... but hope is, after all, the word for this book. I'm eager to hear any theories you've got!

Thank you for reading! ♥ I hope to see you back next Sunday!


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