It was a peculiar sort of night that had fallen on the street – a bit musty, as though something were in the air, but clear enough that Beth Bridger knew it would be a long time before the sun disappeared fully behind the tops of the buildings lining the cobbled street. She took a deep breath of it all, smiling a bit without quite realizing it, and set off down the pavement. Despite the lightness of the evening, there weren’t many people out, and she wasn’t entirely ungrateful for this. It made where she was going that much more inconspicuous.
Even thinking this to herself made her check quickly over her shoulder, watching for anyone who looked a bit out of place. So far she’d seen no one like this, but of course, Professor Dumbledore advised them constantly to be on the lookout for anything – anything at all – and she was nothing if not obedient to that man’s commands. He was, after all, the reason she had been a part of the Order of the Phoenix for a year now, and that was no small favor, she knew.
So much had changed since Beth and her friends had left Hogwarts – not only within their own lives, although even there changes were in abundance, but within the rest of the wizarding world as well. You-Know-Who had only gotten stronger during that time, for even though the Order worked almost around the clock attempting to prevent this, they were admittedly a very small group of people, and finding trustworthy ones to add to the ranks wasn’t easy. Training them up to be useful, too, was difficult, especially in the case of the eight nineteen-year-olds, who had no career experience outside of the society to build on. Beth and Sirius still had not been on a single one of the undercover missions they had been assigned, instead having had to attend rigorous training with two highly-skilled Ministry Aurors, Frank and Alice Longbottom, who were only five or six years older than them in the first place.
Beth knew Sirius was bothered by this – he had, of course, thought that he would be immediately heading into action, despite the fact that it had never been explicitly promised – but he was good enough not to mention it too much, and anyway, it wasn’t as though they were doing nothing at all. Frank and Alice were extremely nice people, and kept them busy, learning wand combat as well as the hand-to-hand style Muggles were forced to rely on. The variety kept them balanced, and in recent months they had started walking around London as well, trying to memorize its layout as best as possible in case they needed to make a quick Apparition somewhere in an emergency.
During one such lesson, Sirius had asked them if they’d ever needed to Apparate away in an emergency, and Frank had told them about the one instance in which they had – a group of You-Know-Who’s sympathizers, the ones who hadn’t yet become sucked into his literal forces, had tailed them for a good while before the Longbottoms had realized, nearly following them straight back to headquarters. They’d had to Apparate across town and walk the rest of the way back to lose their pursuers, and Beth had seen the excitement in Sirius’s eyes when he’d heard about this. Admittedly, it had excited her too; hearing firsthand accounts from other Order members made what she was doing that much more real, even if she still harbored doubts that undercover missions were the right job for her.
Headquarters at 9 Dustund Way was where Beth was heading on this night, when the air was thick with something unseen, and yet was still pleasant for a late summer evening, on the cusp of autumn. She had managed to find a small and fairly cheap flat not too far from the building where the headquarters were housed, and so had Sirius, Peter, Remus, and Mary. James and Lily, unsurprisingly, had moved a bit farther away into a larger flat, and Marlene had moved into the couple’s neighborhood as well. They were always a bit later for meetings than the others, but as the three of them, like Beth and her friends, still worked under supervisors in propaganda and Ministry work, their on-time presence was not always imperative.
Beth rounded the corner and Sirius’s apartment complex loomed into view, a very ugly five-story cinderblock structure, and she could already see him waiting outside it, leaning against the slightly rusted lamppost as he always did. Something silver caught the light from the flame high above his head, spinning through the air, and she realized he was flipping a Sickle as he waited.
“You’re going to get robbed, you know, looking like you’ve got so much spare change,” she called out when she was within hailing distance, and Sirius turned, long dark hair as always flopping into his equally dark eyes. Even though a lot had changed since graduation, Sirius’s appearance had been one of the only things to remain almost virtually the same. Not a line of adulthood had been etched into his face; his hair ever long, his eyes ever sparkling with fun, he remained just as youthful as he had looked at school. It was a comfort, actually, to have this sort of tangible piece of that with her. That year, while generally a pleasant one, had been tainted almost beyond repair, and holding onto something pleasant – like Sirius’s innocent look – from seventh year did her good.
“Aren’t we a bit sarcastic this evening,” Sirius laughed, nudging her with his shoulder as she drew abreast of him. He fell in step beside her, pocketing the Sickle and beginning to whistle tunelessly as they continued down the pavement. He had been much happier than she’d ever seen him since he’d gone on duty for the Order – that was plain to everyone – and Beth was secretly glad that she’d been partnered with him on her assignments, although she’d never admit this outright.
“Any idea what we’re going to be talking about tonight?” she asked instead, concentrating on the toe of her right trainer, which she’d noticed sported a large hole – she really needed new ones. Sirius shrugged one shoulder lopsidedly and stopped whistling.
“I haven’t heard from any of the others in a while – oh, no, hang on, I did have a letter from James.” Sirius stuck his tongue between his teeth, rummaging in an inner pocket of his tattered robes and finally taking out a thoroughly crumpled piece of parchment.
“He wrote to me, too,” Beth said, but still made a grab for the letter. She still considered James to be a very close friend, almost a brother, and that hadn’t changed, but she knew that all of them came second now to Lily. James and Lily had married a year earlier, with Sirius serving as James’s best man in a final act in proving the pair’s inseparable nature, and still met with Sirius, Beth, Remus, and Peter regularly for drinks at the Leaky Cauldron.
James’s untidy scrawl filled the entire page, front and back, but the contents of it were very similar to what had been in the letter Beth had found on her doormat the previous evening, along with the summons to tonight’s meeting. His parents had passed away only a few months earlier, within a week of each other, after a brief but difficult struggle with dragon pox – both had been considerably aged when they had had him, and as such were particularly susceptible to the disease. James had been traveling back and forth between London and home since then, trying to settle their estate, and his tone read a bit frazzled when he wrote them. He was there now, and would be missing the night’s gathering, although Lily would be attending for him.
“I feel sort of bad for him, you know,” Sirius said after Beth had handed the letter back; his own eyes dropped to it briefly before he replaced it in his pocket. “Having to deal with all this stuff, and everything.”
“He’s got Lily to help him,” Beth pointed out, tripping slightly over a crack in the pavement. “Although you know, I don’t know if I’d be able to handle all that, even if I were married.” But even as she spoke, she felt a dull flush creep up her cheeks, and she hastily tried to change the subject. In one fell swoop she’d managed to broach two sensitive topics, and both without thinking, as always.
Beth hadn’t had much contact with her parents since graduation, partly out of necessity and partly because she knew they would still remain unsympathetic as ever about her cause. Despite the fact that they were divorced, they were both of such a similar mindset as far as blood purity that nothing would sway them in a hurry from their ideals. Letters were primarily exchanged on holidays, and she’d been back home a few sporadic times, but for the most part, the Order consumed a lot of her time - training, mostly - and that was just how she liked it.
But then talking about marriage – and really, it was stupid that she was still of this mindset, a year later – had conjured up extremely awkward memories of Severus. Not that she had intended to marry him, of course, because she hadn’t. But a seven-year crush was very hard to let go of, and their last year at Hogwarts had so drastically altered the dynamic between the two of them that it was even more difficult.
Sometimes, when she was alone in her flat and knew that no one could scrutinize her expressions, she found herself wondering about Severus – where he was, what he was doing, and if he was all right. The obsession with the Dark Arts, which he’d made quite clear to her, especially in those last few months before term ended, could have landed him in hot water that she was completely unaware of. No letters had come from him, but this was unsurprising, given that she had been the one to turn her back on him for the last time, walking away and refusing to give him the chance she so desperately wished she could have. Against her better interests she scanned the paper for his name nearly every day, but of course he wouldn’t be mentioned there – why should he be?
She had chosen the direction she wanted to take her life, and he most definitely hadn’t been included in it, as much as she had wished for him to be. And that was how it was.
Sirius and Beth turned another corner, crossing the empty street despite the fact that a neon sign flashed at them not to walk – not a single car was in sight in either direction. The sun was hovering over the tops of the buildings on the horizon now, as though perched there like a large, half-circle of a banner, and it painted the sky dusky purples and oranges. She paused for a moment on the corner, watching it.
“You’re quiet,” Sirius said after a moment, having stopped next to her to watch the sunset as well. “Did I say something?”
She knew he was teasing, but there was also a note of genuine concern under the joke, and she smiled reassuringly up at him. Despite the fact that she never talked about it, Sirius seemed to have gained a sixth sense for whenever she might have been lost in thoughts she had no concern thinking about - names would go unmentioned, thank you very much – and he had slipped almost naturally into the role of older brother now that James was married. He almost always found ways to distract her from whatever was plaguing her mind, which was no small comfort at times.
“Trying to figure out how to get that Sickle away from you,” she said instead, turning and setting off back down the pavement. “I’m flat broke now, you know. Cups of instant noodles and mugs of weak tea will only sustain a girl so far.”
Sirius rolled his eyes good-naturedly, brushing his hair off his forehead. “Yeah, right. Sorry, Bethy, you’re not getting one Knut off me.” He nudged her again, and suddenly quickened his pace, turning around and beginning to walk backwards so his face was turned to hers. He grinned and wiggled his eyebrows, and she stuck her tongue out at him.
“Some help you are, mate.” But the use of her old nickname, which he could not seem to let go of, further helped to ease her mind, and she managed to push away the more troubling contemplations for the time being.
A small, battered street sign loomed up just then, pointing down a dark and rather creepy-looking alley to their right. Outside the entrance to this back street hunched two more figures, each with their back leaned up against the plate-glass window of the shop next to it, and Sirius lifted a hand in greeting as they approached.
“Hi, Peter!” Beth gave her friend a hug, and then turned and hugged Remus as well. She had the odd instinct to draw out a pack of Exploding Snap cards at the moment, and grinned as the instinct tugged at her. The familiar camaraderie was still in place despite the fact that those who had built it were all but grown now, and this perhaps more than anything was a comfort.
“Hey, how was the weekend?” Sirius turned to Remus and spoke in a considerably lower tone than he’d used on the walk over, and Beth suddenly remembered that the previous weekend had been a full moon. It was odd how they slipped by virtually unnoticed now, when she’d once all but marked her life by them. Remus flipped Sirius the thumbs-up sign.
“Good,” he said nonchalantly. “Uneventful, and that’s really all I can ask for.” In the sickly flow of the buzzing fluorescent lamp hanging over the alley – none of the more elegant, less annoying gas lamps for this part of town – he looked even thinner and more ragged than he had at the last meeting, but mentioning this didn’t seem necessary. Beth realized he probably knew exactly how he looked, at any rate. She slung her arm through his anyway, and he smiled down at her gratefully.
“James isn’t coming tonight, is he?” Peter spoke up, glancing behind them anxiously as though expecting the missing fifth member of their group to appear in the rapidly-darkening sky instantaneously.
“Nope. He’s down at his parents’ place,” Sirius said. He shoved his hands in his pockets again. “Lily’s supposed to be along in a bit, though, but we might as well go inside.” He jerked his head down towards the unlit part of the alley they were standing near. “Shall we?”
Beth led the way, checking around for any Muggle passersby – she figured you probably couldn’t be too careful – before withdrawing her wand and lighting the tip of it. Number 9 was near the very end, designated with a badly-rotted wooden number, by a rather large and extremely smelly dumpster that quite probably hadn’t been emptied in weeks. The door to the flat was made of corrugated metal, badly rusted, and with no visible knob in sight. She laid her hand flat upon it, waiting, as the three boys clustered around her.
After a moment, there was a click, and the door swung inward of its own accord. She stepped over the dark threshold, and the others followed.
A/N: Words do not even describe how excited I am to post this story! I wanted to as soon as I'd finished the first, but a combination of pragmatism and stubbornness told me it'd be wise to wait. Whether that was true or not -- well, I suppose it doesn't matter anymore. What does matter is that it's here!
This was a bit of an introductory chapter, I suppose -- setting everything up, playing catch up, etc. We'll get launched right into the plot soon enough. If you've made it this far and wouldn't mind leaving a review, that'd be great! Thanks so much, guys!