A few days after she and Severus had met up in the tea shop across from the Leaky Cauldron, the horribly torrential rains that had been plaguing London for weeks had finally let up somewhat, although the air outside was just as bitterly cold. Sirius, sensing that the shift in the weather was cause for celebration, had declared yet another round of bonding time, and Beth had nearly unwittingly been removed from her flat for the evening while she, Sirius, James, and Lily grabbed dinner at a tiny fish and chip stand about midway between all of their flat complexes. It was nearly a full moon, and Remus had begged off for feeling unwell; Peter had also said he thought he might be coming down with something, and had opted to stay home, as well.
“Just like old times,” Sirius was still saying happily, using his last chip swipe up all the leftover vinegar and salt in his paper cone. “Four seems rather a small number nowadays, eh?” He gestured the chip between his companions and stuffed it into his mouth. “I mean,” he added, now talking around massive gobs of potato, “the Order people are great and all, but this is nice, too.”
“This is nothing at all like old times,” James laughed, draping his arm loosely across Lily’s shoulders and smiling down at her. “Lily wasn’t around to tell you what a disgusting slob you are when you eat." Beth grinned at Sirius, who was currently in the process of wiping his mouth with the hem of his sleeve.
“To be fair, James,” she said, “Lily wasn’t around mostly because you wouldn’t stop chasing her and begging for her to give you a chance.”
It was Lily’s turn to grin as James tried to pretend he wasn’t turning a faint shade of red. “It’s true, Potter,” she teased.
“Except I caught you, Mrs. Potter,” James teased back, planting a kiss on her hair. “And if you don’t shut up, Sirius, you’ll find that your nose has been transplanted onto a lamppost come morning.”
Sirius, who had been miming and making gagging noises at James and Lily for Beth’s entertainment, pretended to be hurt. She offered him a sympathetic smile and made to nudge his shoulder with hers, but at the last minute, refrained from doing so. Ever since he’d grabbed her hand, that night outside the theater, he’d been extremely careful to not let so much as his sleeve brush by her when he was passing her. The change was a rather uncomfortable one, for both of them, and she hoped that thing might settle back down to normal before too long.
And, sure enough, at that moment he came close enough to touch her, and seemed to realize this. Hastily, he swerved away on the pretense of throwing away his vinegar-soaked cone, but she knew better than to think it was that innocent. An uncomfortable squirming sensation manifested itself somewhere inside her.
The foursome rounded the corner, and James and Lily’s complex loomed up before them. The couple was still chatting lightly about something, and hadn’t seemed to notice the awkwardness between their friends. Unless Beth had imagined it – and it wouldn’t have been the first time her paranoia had colored her scope of the world. As casually as she could, she made to test her theory, and shifted her steps ever so slightly to the left.
Sirius’s angle of walking matched hers. He was definitely avoiding coming into contact with her. She bit back a sigh of frustration, and the rest of the walk to the door of the building was drenched in silence, apart from James and Lily’s continued conversation. But they only had ears for each other at that moment.
The security guard at the desk looked up when they entered, and seemed only nominally pleased to see Sirius and Beth – clearly he remembered still the time when Sirius had tried to tell him he was Snivellus Greasepants, and, equally clearly, he still had not find the humor in it. James beamed at him and walked over to the counter, playing a tattoo upon it with the palms of his hands.
“Evening, Dwayne,” he said cheerfully. “How’s the crossword coming along?”
Dwayne grunted and waved the newspaper halfheartedly at the spectacled man in front of him. “Finished,” he answered, apparently loath to offer this wealth of information for free. James nodded sagely and tapped the counter twice more before saluting the surly-looking guard.
“Great to hear it, good sir. You have a lovely evening, now.” Ignoring the half-incredulous, half-amused looks on the faces of his companions, James looped his arm through Lily’s and made his way towards the shining silver lifts a few yards across the lobby. Only once they were all safely ensconced behind the sliding doors did he break his pompous demeanor, grinning at Sirius, who smiled back lazily.
“Blimey,” he said a bit wistfully, ruffling his hair from habit. “I’m going to miss him.”
“Miss him?” Beth piped up curiously, sliding her eyes from Sirius, who was now poking at the lift buttons with concentrated ignorance. “Are you guys going somewhere?”
Lily looked shyly up at James, who still had his mouth open in the act of speech. “Great at keeping secrets, you are,” she teased, hitting him playfully on the shoulder before turning to Beth. “We’re just moving complexes – getting a slightly bigger apartment, you know. For the baby.” She laid a light hand on her stomach, barely visible as being larger than normal, as she spoke.
“Oh, that’s great!” Beth said happily, giving Lily’s arm a squeeze. And it was great – even if it was still weird to think that someone less than a month older than her was having a baby. Lily had just turned twenty at the end of January, and she, Beth, was mere days away from that herself!
“And because of – well.” James began to speak, but stopped rather abruptly, now rubbing the back of his neck. “It might be safer, you know. Dumbledore recommended it.”
And just as the lighthearted, slightly euphoric mood had taken hold of the group, it dissipated, shadowed over slightly by this last from James. Dearborn hadn’t heard anything further regarding James and Lily, but the Order was taking no precautions on their behalf. The topic had been one of high importance at the last meeting, something that had made both of the Potters uncomfortable, Beth knew.
“It’s weird, mate,” said Sirius helpfully as the lift bell rung, and the doors slid open at James and Lily’s floor. “We’re getting old.” As casually as if it had been his own, he reached over and turned the knob, pushing his way into the room. James gave Beth a slightly amused look before following his friend in.
“I don’t know,” Beth said lightly, aiming a kick at a box in the foyer that was still yet to be unpacked from their move nearly two years prior. “I don’t think this place is so bad. It has its own charm.”
“Oh, definitely. Sort of an industrial warehouse theme,” Sirius agreed; he had slumped lengthwise on the loveseat and picked up the old Snitch that James still had lying about on his coffee table, tossing it up in the air and catching it repeatedly. The Snitch’s wings had long since gone slack with age and wear.
This comment was so wonderfully Sirius as he hadn’t been for weeks that Beth smiled and plopped onto the armrest beside him. “What happened to your rubber ball?” she asked then, gesturing at the Snitch; somewhere in the region of the kitchen, various clinks and the sound of running water indicated James and Lily were putting on the kettle.
“Rolled into the sewer, the cheap thing,” he answered, mock-scowling. “I mean, I found it in the front garden, but it’s still cheap.” Beth laughed.
They were rejoined then by Lily, who took a seat in the squashy chair across from Beth and Sirius, and James, who sprawled at her feet, lying on his stomach on the carpet. He began picking at stray fibers absently, his eyes glazed over in thought. Beth could hear the tea kettle in the other room, roaring pleasantly as it heated. For some reason – most likely habit, she thought – Lily always preferred to cook the Muggle way, rather than using her wand.
“Hey, James,” Sirius said into the peace, still facing the ceiling, although Beth could already detect the mischievous smile creeping onto his face. “Have you and Lily decided on names yet?”
James smirked. “We’ve got a few picked out,” he admitted, “and no, there isn’t an Elvendork in the bunch, thank you very much.”
Sirius pouted exaggeratedly. “You could at least consider it. It’s a name of champions, that one.” Beth rolled her eyes and rose from the armrest, crossing over to the large mirror above the fireplace and fishing a fistful of hairpins from her pocket.
“Sirius, when you have a kid, I am fully promising you that you can lay first claim to that name,” James said, rolling one of the carpet fibers between his thumb and forefinger before letting it drift back down onto the floor.
“Well?” Beth interrupted, her voice slightly muffled from the pins in her mouth as she deftly twisted her hair around her hand, silently cursing its thickness. “Names! We need names!”
Lily laughed, her cheeks turning slightly pink. She nudged James in the back with her bare foot gently. “Want to break the news?”
“Well,” James said slowly, studiously staring down at the carpet, although he was smiling still. “For a girl, we were thinking Holly Joan. Joan for Mum,” he added unnecessarily; both Beth and Sirius had known, almost without knowing how they knew, that James and Lily’s girl’s name would pay tribute to the mother James had lost only months earlier. He was twisting the gold band on his left hand around and around, as though nervous Sirius and Beth might not like the names.
“That’s lovely!” Beth said, although the words were somewhat lost around some of the pins that she still held clamped between her lips.
“And if it’s a boy,” Lily said, with the same air of shyness, “then we like Harry James.”
Sirius’s face split into a wide smile. “Hey, James, that’s your name!” he crowed, chucking the Snitch at his best friend; it fell just short of him with a very solid-sounding thunk.
“Shut up,” James muttered, but as Beth watched him, he twisted up to look at Lily with a smile. She poked him in between the shoulder blades with her foot again, smiling back. Beth looked hastily back in the mirror and slid the last pin into her hair, tucking a loose strand of it behind her ear.
The kettle whistled from the kitchen then, and Lily hopped to her feet to go and attend to it. Beth, still looking in the mirror, caught Sirius’s eye through it. He stuck out his tongue at her.
“Mature, Black,” she teased, crossing her eyes back at him. As she lifted her hands against to adjust her hair, the left sleeve of her robe slid down her arm a few inches, and the silver bracelet that Severus had given her for her birthday caught the lamp overhead.
She didn’t pay it any attention until it was too late – until Sirius indicated that he had seen it, too. “What’s that you’re wearing, Bethy?” he called over. James had picked up the Snitch and had lobbed it back at Sirius, which had resulted in a sort of lopsided game of catch.
“Oh.” Beth glanced down at it and tried to make her voice as casual as possible. “Erm. It was an early birthday present.” She hastily shook her sleeve down – out of sight, out of mind – but Sirius had already latched onto the statement.
“Oh yeah?” he persisted. He tossed the ball into the air once and caught it before sending it whizzing back in James’s direction. “Somebody must like you a lot to give you something early.” He was teasing, and she knew he was teasing, but Beth felt her throat closing up in irrational fear all the same. “Who gave it to you? Your parents?”
“N-no.” Beth shot a desperate glance at James, who had caught the Snitch and was now staring at her, eyes slightly wider than normal – she could tell now that he’d kept the secret, and Sirius didn’t know a thing about her meeting up with Severus over the past few months, but that information wasn’t much of a comfort at the moment. She made a sort of help me gesture at him, but he could only shrug fruitlessly. James nodded his head a bit toward Sirius, who by now was propped up on one elbow, looking between the two of them curiously.
“Can I help you?” he said slowly. Beth breathed out quickly and closed her eyes, trying to dig down deep and find the inner strength that she knew she was supposed to have, and suddenly couldn’t find a trace of.
“It’s from Severus.” The words came out much quieter, much weaker-sounding, than she meant for them to. And after they were there, hanging out between the three of them, there was one of the most complete and total silences she’d ever heard in her entire life.
“Severus?” Sirius asked at last; his voice was eerily calm, almost disinterested, just as she feared it would be. “Severus Snape, d’you mean?”
Beth laughed, and it sounded nervous to her own ears. “Do you know another one?” she joked feebly, but Sirius didn’t even crack the tiniest of smiles. James hadn’t moved from his spot on the floor, although one hand was poised on the seat of the hair Lily had vacated, as though to prepare to spring up at any moment.
“What’s he doing, sending you birthday presents?” Sirius spat nastily. “And how does he even know your birthday? Take it off, Beth, he’s probably cursed it –“
“That’s really rude,” Beth interrupted, frowning. Her right hand went automatically to hold her left wrist, the chain cold under her fingers. “Why would you even say something like that?”
“I should think you’d know better than to open packages sent from just anyone,” Sirius said. She glanced down absently at his hand and saw his knuckles were white, his fingers closed tightly around the tiny Snitch. “Or has training taught you nothing?”
“He didn’t – he didn’t send it.” Beth tried to lift her head, hoping it might make her appear much braver than she felt at the moment. She could already feel Sirius’s hatred for Severus, rolling off him in waves, and he was still mixed up about the full story. “I said he gave it to me.”
Sirius went still. “In person?” He didn’t wait for her to confirm or deny it. “Blimey, Beth, I didn’t know you were that stupid.”
“Sirius!” James cut in harshly, but his friend waved him off impatiently. His dark eyes were trained on Beth, and in them, she saw equal measures disgust and disappointment. Beth swallowed and forced herself to look back. She had not done anything wrong…
“So, what have you two been doing? I’m going to assume he didn’t just show up out of the blue with that?” He pointed fiercely at her wrist, and she shook her head, lips clamped tightly together. “So, what’s it been? Trading secrets? Having a good laugh over it all, cozied up together, Bridger?”
The word felt like a tremendous slap in the face – never, not once, had Sirius addressed her by her last name. “Shut up, Sirius,” she said icily. “If it’s so wrong to see an old school friend –“
She was cut off as Sirius let out a laugh, unnatural and cold and high-pitched. “Oh, is that what he is?” he cried wildly, standing up and throwing his arms above his head. For a moment, he looked truly mad, and Beth took a step back towards the mirror without realizing it. “That’s a weak argument and you know it. Merlin, you could get us all killed.”
“Knock it off!” James yelled suddenly, jumping to his feet, hand reaching instinctively for the wand in the waistband of his jeans. “She’s not doing anything!”
“James, I’d bet you all the money I have that Snape is one of them.” Sirius had swiveled around to face him, and now jerked his head back in Beth’s direction. “Who’s to say he’s not tailing her, finding out everything he can just so he can choose exactly the right moment to blow us all into dust?”
“He’s not!” Beth cried shrilly; she was ashamed to find hot tears pricking at the corners of her eyes as she spoke. “Honest to Merlin, Sirius, it’s nothing! It’s nothing!”
Sirius glared at her coldly. “That’s not nothing,” he spat out, again making a general motion at her wrist.
“I said knock it off,” James managed through gritted teeth. He moved forward and half-stepped in front of Beth, partway shielding her from Sirius and drawing his wand out, though he didn’t point it at anyone in particular. Even the fact that he felt compelled to do that, broke Beth’s heart.
Sirius opened his mouth to shout something back, but thankfully at that moment, Lily emerged from the kitchen again. There was no way that she hadn’t heard the argument between the three, but she just looked at them all levelly, waiting for someone to speak. At last, James stuck his wand back into his jeans.
“Sorry, Lily,” he said evenly. She shook her head mutely, and her eyes sought Beth’s, silently asking her if she was all right. Beth breathed out a shaky sigh, but she didn’t dare look at Sirius. She couldn’t bear to see the hatred that she knew would meet her if she did.
Without another word to any of her friends, she moved to the front door, yanked it open, and headed for the stairwell, her pace increasing with each step she took. By the time she’d brushed by Dwayne, the security guard, and had reached the pavement outside, the sobs in her throat were cutting off her supply of air.
She had known Sirius would find out that she and Severus had been meeting up eventually – and she had known that it would be bad when he did. But never, in a million years, had she imagined he would look at her with such copious amounts of hatred. But the dark expression that had twisted his face and made it so ugly haunted her all the way back to her flat, blurred by the tears that came at the thought that she might have lost Sirius’s friendship forever.
A/N: Poor Beth -- Sirius really didn't take that very well, did he? But at last he knows about Severus! And as many of you predicted, he really didn't take it very well at all, did he? Perhaps I should be saying poor Sirius instead. Kind of hard to say who got hit worse in this chapter... but then, I'm the one discussing my own characters to nobody. Poor me!
Guys, this story is so close to being done. So close! I'm about halfway through chapter 33 of this story now (I wrote close to 10,000 words of this story in the past week -- I couldn't stop), and after that, I'll only have one more to write. And it really could very well be done by tonight! Where you're sitting, the story's just slightly past the halfway mark, so you've about about sixteen weeks of reading left (hooray!), but I just cannot even fathom being done with In The Red and moving onto Breaking Even...