Beth had sent a letter in haste as soon as she had Apparated away from the theater, and still it had been nearly three days before Severus had written her back. She didn’t know if he’d been away from his flat for that time, or if he’d been avoiding her, trying to find a way out of admitting that he’d not told her that Death Eaters were currently looking for James and Lily, but neither one was something she wanted to think on for long periods of time.
Worse yet, she hadn’t even been able to take her mind off it by distracting herself in Sirius’s company. He had been notably absent as well, although as far as this went, she largely suspected James as having influence in that decision. She knew she wouldn’t be able to hide the fact that she and Severus conversed forever, and a part of her wondered why she was still hiding it from Sirius. Over and over again, she tried to convince herself to summon the courage to do it – after all, James hadn’t minded, had he? But Sirius was headstrong and stubborn; it would be different for him.
The icy rain persisted relentlessly as the week dragged on, and the only break in the monotony had been having Frank and Alice over for takeaway the day before Severus’s response had arrived. It had been a long time – several months, she’d realized – since she’d really spent time with either of them, and Alice was already showing slightly through her robes. It was a bit weird for Beth to comprehend, someone so close in age to her being pregnant, and then knowing that Lily, who was her age, was going to have a baby around the same time.
But other than this, there was no respite until the early days of February, when there came once again the familiar tapping at the window, heralding the arrival of an owl. And, sure enough, when she’d thrown wide the sill and ushered in the bird, it had been Severus’s barn owl, dripping wet looking thoroughly disgruntled at having to fly in such weather.
Awkwardly wondering if she was supposed to apologize to it, she quickly fumbled with the cord at its leg, nearly ripping the parchment in her haste to see what the letter said. She hadn’t said much in writing to him initially – just that she felt like a cup of tea, and did he care to join her at the shop across from the Leaky Cauldron? – and his response was equally as brief.
Sorry for the delay in responding – events have necessitated my being out of the flat for a few days. Tea would be great. Tomorrow afternoon at two o’ clock?
Beth breathed out a sigh, a mixture of relief and apprehension. So he hadn’t been ignoring her – but she wasn’t entirely sure what “events” he was referring to. For a wild moment, she almost debated forgoing the entire meeting, but felt bad almost at once for it. They’d agreed in the beginning, that night by the bridge, that it would be dangerous, and that they would fight through these dangers. But how naïve they’d been, she knew now, to imagine their paths wouldn’t cross in such a way as they had now.
No. She didn’t know for sure yet if he’d had anything to do with whatever You-Know-Who’s supporters wanted with the Potters. And the only way to find out was to confront him about it tomorrow.
Severus tapped his fingers impatiently on the wrought iron metalwork of the tea shop tabletop, feeling distinctly out of his element here – or maybe it was the fact that, yet again, he’d dressed in Muggle clothes to blend into the environment better. Robes went unnoticed amongst the people he associated with from day to day; here, he more than likely would have been escorted out for dressing oddly, or something equally as stupid. He tried to suppress the curl in his lip as he lifted the cup of tea to his lips and blew across its surface to cool it. A man sitting across the way was wearing a short-sleeved shirt in such a loud pattern it nearly made his eyes water; how that was accepted, and wizard’s robes weren’t, he would never be able to guess.
Admittedly, he wouldn’t have chosen this for a meeting spot, but nevertheless it was quiet and out of the way, and that was really all he asked for. And after going home to Spinner’s End for the past two days for his mother’s funeral, sitting down and being able to think for a few seconds was a welcome change. He’d gone out of obligation, a sense of duty that hadn’t been present when his father’s liver had failed him the year before. The moment he’d been able to get away, he headed straight back for London and the anonymity of the work he was doing here.
Severus took a sip of the tea and frowned a bit; it was weak and extremely bitter. He glanced behind him at the door of the coffee shop, but Beth was nowhere to be seen, and already it was ten minutes past two. His eyes fell on the swinging Leaky Cauldron sign across the road, Muggles passing it by as though it didn’t exist. What wouldn’t he give for a firewhisky in place of this tea right now?
Finding Beth’s letter upon his returning home had surprised him somewhat, but he would have been lying if he’d said he wasn’t pleased. In fact, the entire trip home he’d been thinking of writing her himself – no, since he’d left her that day in the park.
Severus grinned a bit to himself, hiding it behind the rim of the battered yellow china cup in his hands. Merlin, what she’d done to him… He slipped a hand into the pocket of his mackintosh and wrapped his hands around the slim, paper-wrapped package inside.
The bell over the door tinkled, and he turned around quickly, withdrawing his hand from his pocket as though its contents had burned him. Beth hesitated in the door of the otherwise empty shop, lit from behind by the lamps and shop window lights – they were already lit, despite the earliness of the afternoon, because of the darkness of the sky, thick with heavy rain clouds still. She looked about, as though searching for him, and then began winding her way through the tables to where Severus sat.
“Hi.” He pushed the second mug of tea over the table towards her, and Beth blinked in surprise, looking at him as though she expected him to snatch it right back from her. When he didn’t, she slowly lowered herself into the chair opposite him and wrapped her hands tentatively around the cup.
Severus frowned; there was something off about the way she was acting, although it wasn’t anything he could quite put his finger on at the moment. “How have you been?” he asked instead, lifting his own mug up to take a second drink of tea.
He watched her run one thumb over the curved handle of her own mug, finger pausing slightly each time at the line that marked where the two pieces that made up the handle were joined. “I have something to ask you,” she said abruptly, her voice flat. Severus frowned even more, and somewhere inside his chest, nerves fluttered faintly.
“Okay,” he said slowly, setting the cup down with a clink on the table and leaning back, folding his arms across his chest.
Beth flicked her dark eyes up to meet his, and almost immediately looked around at the other people sitting in the shop. The only other occupants were an old man sitting by the front window, shuffling slowly through a newspaper, and a bored-looking teenage boy at the till. Finally, her eyes traveled back to his again. “It’s James and Lily, Sev.”
She leaned forward a bit on her arms and looked at him intently, but he didn’t have a clue what that was supposed to mean. She didn’t offer any more information, and after a slightly prolonged pause, he said, “All right… what about them?”
Beth rubbed her nose in apparent frustration, and glanced again at the boy at the till. “Look. There’s not a great way to say this, okay? But they’re… your group…“ She rubbed her nose yet again and closed her eyes briefly, not in a gesture of exhaustion – oddly enough, it spoke of fear more than anything else. “Sev, Death Eaters are looking for the Potters. Actively looking. They want them on your side.”
Severus stared at her, feeling a bit stupid even as he did so. It was taking a long while for what she’d just said to him to process. Why would they want James and Lily, and why hadn’t he heard about it until Beth had told him? But as he thought that, a more pressing question appeared before him. “How did you find that out?”
“Dearborn did. Caradoc Dearborn. I’m still not quite sure how the information found its way to him.” Beth resumed running her finger over the crack in the mug’s handle. She seemed unconcerned, but Severus knew better than to think it was something to be taken lightly. If someone in the Order had found out something like that, it could spell bad news – for all of them. And he knew he wasn’t supposed to care, but sitting across from him was a prime example of why he did.
“Why does it matter, though?” he burst out suddenly, laying both of his palms down on either side of the mug on the table. “I mean, it’s not you they’re interested in, is it?” And as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew that they were wrong. Beth pressed her lips together.
“He’s like a brother to me,” she said flatly. “And because of the baby –“ She broke off suddenly, clapping her hand over her mouth, her eyes widening. Severus felt a sort of jolt somewhere in the region of his stomach.
“She’s pregnant?” Somehow, he felt he should have reacted a bit more strongly to this news. Beth cursed softly and slowly lowered her hand.
“That’s not the point,” she said defensively. “If you’ve heard anything about this, you should have –“
“Do you think I wouldn’t have told you if I had?!” It was Severus’s turn to glance around at the shop’s other occupants. The old man had long since left, and their only company was the boy operating the till, who was counting the pence in the drawer for what surely was the fifth time at this point. He stood up hastily. “Let’s go outside.”
It was currently still raining, and both of them knew it, but Beth didn’t argue. Leaving their lukewarm mugs of tea on the table, and with a curt nod toward the boy, Severus moved quickly for the door, standing aside to let Beth pass through ahead of him before following her out. She looked up at him expectantly, although still a bit sullenly, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet.
“This way.” He jerked his head to the left, pulling his collar up a bit higher around his neck to prevent the rain from soaking through. “So we’re not so near the Leaky Cauldron.” Beth nodded shortly, and they headed down the pavement, with her following just a half-step behind him.
Severus walked until they were a good distance from the pub, about two blocks, and he and Beth were standing under the green-and-white striped awning of a closed florist’s shop. He turned to face her, and she looked up at him mildly, hands resting in her pockets.
“Look,” he said, running a hand through his hair and wincing at how wet it was. “Beth, this shouldn’t have to happen, all right? I never wanted to contend with you on our choices – I mean…” He trailed off, trying to find the right words; he had no idea what the right thing to say about all of this was. “I don’t even want to think of what they’d do to me if they knew I was even associating with you and letting you walk free after it all.” He smiled bitterly. “I don’t want to think about what they’d do to you.”
Beth sighed. “Sev,” she said wearily, “I don’t want to fight with you, either. Merlin knows I’ve said that enough.” She gave him a small, encouraging smile, which he returned gratefully. “But we can’t just ignore the signs that – I mean, we can’t pretend it’s not going to touch us forever.”
“I know,” Severus said sharply, and then repeated himself, a bit more gently. “I know. But you have to believe me, Beth. If I’d had any idea –“ He swallowed hard against the words. “I had no idea they were after Lily. Or James. I swear to you, I didn’t.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” And then, in an unexpected – but not at all unwelcome – gesture, Beth stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his waist, and it was all Severus could do to remember to hug her back.
I have no clue what I’m supposed to be doing, he thought desperately, acutely aware that, at this proximity, he could smell her shampoo. And even as he was thinking it, he knew how stupid it sounded, even to himself. But the way she fit into his arms was perfect, as though they’d never been meant for anyone else.
After several moments that felt like both years and milliseconds at the same time, Beth pulled away, grinning a bit. He grinned back, and suddenly remembered the small wrapped package in his pocket, the one he’d been checking when she’d walked into the tea shop. “Here,” Severus said quickly, clearing his throat and fishing it out. “There’s something I wanted to give you.” He held out the thin box, feeling his cheeks warm.
A small line appeared between Beth’s eyebrows. “What’s this?” She took the package hesitantly, holding it by the very tips of her fingers, but didn’t open it yet. Her eyes flicked to Severus’s for confirmation, and he gave her what he hoped was an encouraging nod.
“It’s your birthday present,” he said, as casually as possible. He had suddenly become aware of his own voice, and could no longer tell how it sounded to other people. When it mattered most, he could never remember just how to act natural.
“Sev, my birthday isn’t for two weeks.” Her own cheekbones flamed pink. “And besides – I missed your birthday.”
Relief flooded through him – that’s what she was worried about? “Oh, that doesn’t matter,” he said, waving his hand unimportantly. “And I might not see you on your actual birthday.” Severus said this without thinking, and almost immediately wished he hadn’t, for the second time that day.
In fact, he knew for certain that he wouldn’t see her on the seventeenth. He’d been scheduled, along with Avery and a Death Eater called Goyle – he was near Lucius Malfoy’s age, Severus knew – to collect the last bit of information Roark needed about Caradoc Dearborn. Just what would happen once all the information was collected wasn’t particularly clear, but after what Beth had told him in the tea shop, he was a bit glad to be kept in the dark on this one.
Thankfully, Beth didn’t seem to take the announcement as strange, preventing him from having to lie to her about what he was supposed to be doing in two weeks – something he was infinitely grateful for. Gingerly, she turned the box over and ran her finger under the flap. Severus watched with apprehensive excitement as she drew out the russet-colored box and lifted the hinged lid.
“Oh,” she breathed, looking up at him; he realized he had balled his fists in nerves, and hastily unclenched them. From inside the box she held up a bracelet – a thin silver-colored chain with a small charm dangling from it, in the shape of a bird. She looked up at him, and Severus found that he couldn’t read the expression in her face.
“I was trying to find a falcon,” he said, trying to apologize and wondering why at the same time. He suddenly wondered if his idea had been as drastically stupid as it now seemed. “But that was the only bird they had, and –“
“Will you put it on me?” Beth’s cheeks had turned pink again, but there was a sort of light in her eyes that made Severus’s stomach drop pleasantly. He reached forward and extricated the chain from her fingers, wrapping it around her wrist and closing the clasp with a soft click. She turned her way this way and that, and the metal caught the light from the window of the closed shop they stood in front of.
Beth swallowed hard. “This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” she said sincerely, and Severus felt his face relax into a smile. “I love it.”
“I’m glad,” he responded, and fought heavily against the urge to wrap his arms around her again. “And look, I really am sorry –“
“You don’t have anything to be sorry about,” Beth laughed, her eyes still warm and bright. “Why are you apologizing?”
Severus grinned abashedly. “Dunno,” he muttered, although that was halfway a lie. He knew, even while standing here under this awning, smiling at Beth and watching her smile in return, that it couldn’t last. It was a small spot of sunshine in otherwise endless rain, and before long, those dark and heavy clouds would move to block the warmth again.
Severus arrived at headquarters early that evening, anxious to get having his mind poked and prodded over with. It had become fairly routine in the past few weeks. The whispers of Legilimency and Occlumency had started when Carrow had administered the Veritaserum to the five of them, and he, Severus, had somehow managed to fight it. Since then, they had increased momentously until Roark, one of the Dark Lord’s closer supporters and the tall man Severus had met at the end of his seventh year, had caught wind of it. He had been placed in charge of headquarters in this section of London, and Carrow hadn’t been the only one to take interest in the Veritaserum event. Apparently seeing potential in him, Severus’s Occlumency training, if it could be called that, was now being personally seen to by Roark.
There were several doors leading off the second floor landing, and he made for the second-to-last at the far end of the hall, hanging somewhere over the hidden room behind the foyer’s wall paneling. He could hear the voices of Amycus and Alecto Carrow coming from behind the first door, just to the left at the top of the stairs. He sneered slightly; the Carrows were always hanging about, and he was never quite sure exactly what it was that they were doing. The fact that they were so secretive made him uncomfortable.
Roark was already waiting when Severus entered the room, his back to the door as he surveyed a long row of tall shelves crammed with books that smelled like mothballs – unless, Severus thought idly, that smell actually was mothballs.
“Close the door,” Roark said imperiously, not bothering to turn around. He said this every time they had one of these little meetings, and so Severus was halfway to closing the door anyway, but he had half a mind to think that Roark was a man who got pleasure in thinking that people did things just because he commanded them to. He continued studying the shelf until Severus was seated in a hard, straight-backed chair, facing an identical one just behind where Roark was standing. His, Severus’s, back was to a window so thick with dust not even a scrap of the outside world was visible.
The older man turned at last, robes turning softly on the well-worn hardwood floor, and placed two rough hands on the back of the chair. He studied Severus with hard eyes.
“Are you prepared?” he asked. This, too, was a familiar inquiry, but Severus nodded his head once, as though it was the first time he had heard it. He refrained moving his lips along with Roark’s as the latter continued, “You have been practicing?”
“Yes, sir,” Severus said smoothly. Roark stood tall then and, from one of the seemingly numerous pockets inside his robes, he withdrew his wand. He pointed it at the man in front of him almost carelessly.
Something completely unexpected happened. For quite a while now – days and days of practice – Severus had been gaining in skill at Occlumency, his thoughts growing fainter and harder for Roark to read with each session. And for the past few weeks, Roark hadn’t been able to gain access into Severus’s mind at all. He was prepared for that again: That shimmering sense of reality that meant blocking the invasion. But at once his mind was jerked sharply back to the green-and-white striped awning under which Beth stood, looking up at him, a small smile creasing her face.
Severus watched in abject horror as his own hands reached forward and fastened the chain of the bracelet he had given her earlier that day around her wrist. His mind jerked again, and he was sitting beside her on the roundabout, lightness floating through him in dizzying waves of contentment.
With a gasp, as though he had been doused in icy water, Severus was yanked back into the present. He was huddled on the ground in front of his chair, curled tightly, his wrists clamped together, arms raised above his head. He was shaking slightly, and the tremors worsened as he realized what must have happened.
Never before, in his weeks of practicing like this, had he let his mind become so open.
Roark was sneering from where he still stood behind the opposite chair, upper lip curled into an expression of utter disgust. “What,” he hissed through his teeth, his voice cold enough to freeze, “was that about, Snape?”
“Lost – lost it,” Severus mumbled, only half-realizing what he was saying. He hauled himself back onto the chair and tried to make the woozy feeling in his head dissipate, rubbing at his forehead with the heel of his hand. When he glanced up again, Roark was still staring at him, eyes narrowed dangerously into slits.
“I’d suggest you find it again,” he said at last, curling and uncurling his hands from around the back of the wooden chair. There was silence again, and for a horrible moment, Severus thought he might press into who Beth was. He didn’t think he could keep the truth from Roark – not after what had just happened. But all he said was, “Control your emotions, Snape, lest they should control you.” And with that, he strode quickly from the room, heels slapping the ground, the sound fading away as he descended the stairs.
Only once Severus was absolutely sure he was gone did he lean back against the chair, a heavy sigh escaping through his lips. The training had drained him, but even more than that – what had caused him to mess up so drastically today? He hunched back forward and pressed the tips of his fingers into his eyes until bright lights popped in front of them. It had to have been something new, something he wasn’t used to…
A derisive sound left his lips. Of course – seeing Beth today. The present, and her rushing forward to hug him… Even as he thought it, his cheeks warmed, and he clapped his hands to them, though there was nobody around to see. That had to be it.
He drew in a deep breath and stood, brushing down the dirt and dust from his robes. He refused to give her up – such thinking was ludicrous – but now he seemed to know the dangers of not curbing his emotions where she was concerned. He would have to work hard, and train harder, to maintain control, or whether or not to give up seeing her might no longer be his choice.
A/N: Sometimes it really just doesn't feel like I go a week between posting chapters. It definitely feels like I uploaded chapter 16 only yesterday -- and yet, here we are again! I'm rather fond of this chapter, though, and I was grinning, reading back over it. I'm not sure if you're supposed to be entertained by your own stories, strictly speaking, but then again, it makes writing them much more fun! How about those Sneth moments, then? Ooh, I love this chapter. Pardon my gushing.
And now for a small update! This book's going to be 34 chapters long (the same as in In The Black!), and I'm about halfway done with chapter 30 right now, so I really don't have very far to go. I'm so excited! And sad, at the same time, because I don't like thinking about how starting the next book will mean starting the last book. Wow. Weird. Anyway -- I'd love to hear what you thought of this particular chapter, and thank you very, very much for reading, as always!