Sometime near the middle of June, Sirius had apparently felt it prudent to call together another session of “bonding time” – which, in this instance, appeared to constitute that the five of them would meet at his flat and do absolutely nothing in particular. Beth would have protested, but somehow this was better than standing in torrential rain under a Muggle movie marquee, as had happened during his last impromptu calling together of such an event, and he had once more agreed to play Exploding Snap with a normal deck of cards, as opposed to his lucky ones.
Unfortunately, the round was still going in his favor.
“Ha! Got you!” Sirius reached over and flicked the top card off Peter’s pile, which had started emitting large, thick clouds of purple-gray smoke a few turns ago. Never having seen this color appear in the game before, Peter had become rather flustered, and therefore susceptible to any of the tricks Sirius had up his sleeve. The card went zipping across the cheap carpet, settling on a frayed bit by the edge where it met the kitchen tile, and setting a few of the fibers instantly alight. Remus, who was currently lounging on Sirius’s armchair and trying to pretend that he was above the game by reading a book, stamped out the sparks with the heel of his shoe without looking.
“Excellently executed, Moony, as always,” James grinned, tossing his cards at Sirius for re-shuffling and stretching his arms behind his back. Beth winced at the loud pop they made and chucked her own cards at him. “Another round, then?”
“No. Sirius cheats,” Peter protested, only half-kidding; Sirius grinned at him and leaned over to ruffle his hair, despite the former’s attempts at ducking to avoid it.
“How is Lily, James?” Remus called over from his chair, just as Peter managed to duck away from Sirius, banging his elbow loudly on the wall in the process. At the mention of his wife, James grinned; Beth couldn’t help but feel a bit of his happiness when he talked about her, as though it sort of spilled out of him and leaked onto the room at large.
“She’s great,” he said genuinely, hopping up from his cross-legged perch on the floor and sticking his hand in an inside pocket of his robes, rummaging about for something there. “Really ready for the baby to be born, I think. We both are.” He took his hand from his pocket and held out whatever he’d retrieved triumphantly; instantly the other four leaned forward for a closer look.
It was, at first glance, a very poorly-taken black-and-white photograph; the picture was entirely out of focus, and though it seemed to be moving, as the people in wizarding photographs always moved, Beth couldn’t quite tell what it was supposed to be a picture of.
Sirius, however, led out a strangled sort of excited cry and made a wild grab for the paper. “Is this one of those weird baby picture things?!” he crowed, holding it up to the flame of the candle on the nearby end table, as though to see if it were a fake or not. “These things are so weird –“
“I’ll thank you not to keep using that word!” James laughed, snatching the paper back, his cheeks pink with embarrassment or excitement – probably a mixture of both, Beth thought, sitting back on her heels and placing her hands on her knees, grinning at him.
“But then you know what you’re having, don’t you?” Remus put in. His book was draped over the arm of the chair to mark its place, forgotten in the excitement of a bad-quality sonogram. “A boy or a girl? Come on, then – out with it, Prongs!”
James mimed locking his lips closed with an invisible key, though he was still grinning through it. “Not saying,” he told them happily. “We wanted it to be a surprise for you lot –“
“Rude,” Sirius told him frankly. “If I’m going to be his godfather –“
“’His’?” Beth leaped on the word eagerly. “Surely you didn’t tell Sirius?” she added in disbelief. “He gets to know and we don’t? I know he’s godfather, but – ”
“No, I did not tell Sirius,” James shot back; Sirius had flopped onto his back and was laughing loudly at having successfully confused the room at large. “He just so happens to have this daft idea in his head that we’re having a boy, and is going to be sorely disappointed if the baby comes out otherwise equipped.” At this, Sirius laughed harder, whatever he was trying to say getting lost amidst snorts and the gulping back of mirthful tears.
“So it’s a girl?” Beth and Remus pressed at the same time. James buried his face in his hands and let out a long, low groan, threading his fingers through his hair. Sirius tried desperately to compose himself on his patch of carpet.
“I’m not saying anything,” James mumbled to his knees.
“Have it your way, then,” Sirius grinned, wiping a final tear from his eye and rocking back into a sitting position. “Otherwise equipped. I think I’ll keep you around, mate.” He clapped his hands to his knees. “Right, well, I’m going to grab a cup of coffee. Anyone else?”
Peter, who had remained quiet while the rest of the group was debating the gender of the forthcoming baby, gave Sirius an odd look. “It’s June, Sirius.”
“I’ll have one,” Beth interrupted. “Never too hot for coffee, Wormtail.” Tipping him a broad wink, which he did not respond to, she held up her hands, imploring him to pull her to her feet. Sirius walked past her with such deliberate steps as to make it painfully obvious he had seen her.
“Chivalry is dead!” she called after him accusatorily, rolling onto her stomach and boosting herself up on her hands. “James?” she directed down at him; he was still sitting with his face buried in his hands. Coffee?”
“Nah, Wormy’s right. Too hot.” James lifted his head – he was still rather pink in the cheeks, she noted with a grin – and leaned back on his hands instead. “Besides, I think he might be up for another round of Exploding Snap as long as Sirius isn’t involved in it.”
Beth grinned. “Fair enough,” she said, and, as James made to take the deck out of his pocket once more, she followed Sirius into the minuscule kitchen.
He was already clattering about with mugs when she got in, and glanced her way as she took a seat at the table and swung her legs up onto it. “Disgusting, Talons,” he said pleasantly, reaching up for the coffee tin and a set of measuring spoons. “I do eat off there, you know.”
“Whatever you ingest is bound to be at least ten times more disgusting than my feet,” Beth retorted, wiggling her boots at him. And then, after a brief pause, added, “You haven’t used my nickname in a while.”
Sirius looked at her curiously over his shoulder. “I call you Bethy all the time.”
“No, not that. Talons.” For some reason, the word had stuck out to her when he’d said it a few seconds ago, even though it had only been in passing. “You said it, just now.”
“Oh.” There was another pause as Sirius carefully measured out the coffee into a paper filter, much more carefully than he otherwise would have done. Then, at last: “I don’t know. Would you rather I didn’t use it?”
Beth blinked at him in surprise. “No. I don’t mind.” Her fingers strayed absently to the small silver bird, dangling from Severus’s bracelet around her wrist. “When was the last time you changed into your Animagus form?” she asked him suddenly.
There was a snap and a rumbling kind of sound as he popped the lid closed on the coffeemaker and it began to brew, and Sirius turned around to face her, arms braced against the sink behind him. “A few weeks back,” he said nonchalantly. “I took a turn around the block. Barked at a few pigeons.” He grinned. “What are you getting at?”
She didn’t answer for a few moments. For some reason, ever since he’d used her old nickname – and she really couldn’t remember the last time Sirius had called her ‘Talons’ – an idea had slowly formed in Beth’s brain. She and Sirius still hadn’t told Dumbledore about their Animagus forms, not quite sure how he would react to learning that the pair of them (let alone James and Peter, though of course they needn’t be mentioned) had spent the better part of their time at Hogwarts trying to learn how to turn into animals.
But perhaps it was time. For not entirely unselfish reasons, Beth thought that being honest with her former headmaster might be in her best interests at the moment. She wasn’t daft enough to think that he wasn’t still suspicious of her and Severus, despite the fact that he had told them there was nothing he could do to stop their getting together as they had been doing for months. Perhaps if she told him this bit of information, and made it seem as though she really was putting her trust in him – and she really had no reason not to – then everything would revert somewhat back to normal.
“I think we should tell Dumbledore about it. Us, I mean, being Animagi.” Beth rubbed her nose and looked up at Sirius; he raised an eyebrow, swallowing hard.
“Why now? We’ve been sitting on this for two years, Bethy –“
“So don’t you think it’s about time we were honest?” she interrupted, balling her hands into fists without quite realizing what she was doing; her nails dug into her palms, bitten as they were. “I just… don’t feel right, hiding this still. Lying.”
“We’re not lying,” Sirius protested; they both jumped slightly as the coffeepot bubbled. “We’re just… not telling the truth.”
She rolled her eyes. “That is so not a significant difference, Sirius. I just – I feel really bad about it sometimes.” And that was the truth – there were times that she felt guilty over not letting her superiors know about something as potentially important as the fact that she could shift in and out of a peregrine falcon’s form. She just didn’t feel it prudent to tell Sirius that Dumbledore had somehow found out about her and Severus, too. That was a piece of information she had no qualms in keeping to herself.
Sirius was gnawing on his bottom lip now, evidently deep in thought. “This really means that much to you, then?”
“Then we’ll do it,” he said, turning back around again as the pot let out a whoosh of steam, evidence that the coffee was ready. He looped his fingers through the handles on the mugs sitting on the sideboard. “I’ll write him a letter and send it to you to check over, make sure it looks okay –“
He was cut off abruptly, letting out a small grunt of surprise as Beth, not quite planning it, stood up and wrapped her arms around his middle impulsively. “Thank you,” she whispered into his robes, feeling both stupid for acting like a maudlin teenage girl and too grateful to pay much attention to that fact.
What she didn’t see, however, was the horribly guilty expression on Sirius’s face.
He cleared his throat and patted her arm with the hand that wasn’t closed around the coffee mugs. “Come on,” he said. “Hurry up and dump half the sugar bowl in your coffee – I’ve got to make sure Peter doesn’t get too confident at Exploding Snap in my absence.”
Severus stopped under the flickering gas lamp just by the front door of headquarters, hooking the clasp of his cloak just under his chin and looking out the small window cut into the small stretch of wall by the door. The rain had been unexpected – it had, he rather thought, come out of nowhere, in great and icy sheets that weren’t customary of the normally-milder summer rains.
“Going home, then?” A voice near his ear made Severus jump a bit, and he turned quickly. Rosier stood at his shoulder, craning his head around to look out the window alongside his friend. He shot Severus a quick grin; the unmistakable smell of pungent, stale cigarette smoke wafted off him as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Yes.” He drew his cloak a bit closer under his chin, though he didn’t really know why. “I’m tired.”
“Come out for a drink. Avery and I are going,” Rosier said, squinting and pressing his forehead to the glass, looking back out the window now at the rain. “Miserable weather, I suppose, but then again, there’s no better time for it, eh?”
“No, thanks. I’m not feeling well.”
Rosier glanced back at Severus again, his eyebrow raised in something like suspicion. “You’ve been acting differently lately, Snape,” he said coolly. “Ever since Roark took a little bit of interest in you. Too good for us now, then? Need I remind you that it was Mulciber, not you –“
“Good night,” Severus interrupted icily, wrenching open the door. “Try not to act too drunk when the pair of you comes in later tonight.” Before Rosier could offer a response, he stepped onto the front stoop and slammed the door firmly behind him, instantly raising a hand to grip his temples with the tips of his fingers.
This was nothing new; tonight’s meeting had been another headache just because of the attitudes of those he might have, at one point in his life – though no longer – considered friends. It was them who had been treating him differently, not the other way around, and had been increasing in exclusion ever since he’d told Roark what he’d overheard from Dumbledore.
He sometimes regretted telling what he knew at all.
The rain soaked through his collar almost instantly, and he turned it up against the rain to no avail. Yes, there were times – mostly quiet times, like now, walking home alone in a veritable downpour – when he tried to imagine what might have happened, should he have chosen to withhold the information. There was the slight chance it might be extracted from his mind via Legilimency. But he wouldn’t have had to confess to Beth, wouldn’t have had to debate putting her at the risk of more danger than he already was… It might have been the simplest route.
Severus gritted his teeth as a passing Muggle car, its headlights wavering, splashed through a puddle, tossing dirty water onto the pavement in a small wave. It was largely for her sake that he regretted telling, as well. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get their recent meeting with Dumbledore out of his mind.
“The path you have chosen – though it is not for me to say it is wrong – is fraught with the possibility that each of you might very well lose the other.”
But they had known the risks, hadn’t they? Time and again they had discussed it between the pair of them, how continuing to write letters, to meet on occasion, was worth the dangers and the threats and whatever else they’d faced, enemies too enormous to name. And yet, it was so very different to hear it spoken from an objective viewpoint, to realize just how true it was, that he might get Beth killed. What was stopping it from happening? All his Occlumency training wasn’t stable enough; hadn’t he folded under once before, the spell seeping into the cracks she put into his otherwise careless façade?
She was his weakness. And he didn’t want that to get in the way of keeping her safe.
Severus stopped dead in the middle of the pavement, despite the fact that the rain was, if anything, coming down harder now than ever. He knew what he had to do, had known what do to, in truth, since leaving 9 Dustund Way several nights previously. There was no way to win the war within him; he stood a high chance of losing Beth in either course of action. But only one way would allow him to be sure she was safe, and her safety – keeping her alive – meant more to him than he thought anything ever had.
He covered his eyes with the tips of his fingers, pressing until small bright lights popped into the blackness, and let out a groan. He couldn’t do this. Surely ignorance was bliss, just as the old adage said; surely Severus and Beth were happier pretending nothing was wrong, pretending they could live on the way they were for the rest of their lives, in their tainted contentment…
He didn’t want that for her. Never mind what he might have wanted for himself, but he could not let her live like that, even if it was only until the war ended – whenever it did end, he found himself thinking bitterly, and who knew when that was going to happen?
He set off for his flat again, his head pounding, his insides feeling as though they were weighted with poisonous lead. He couldn’t do this – but he had to. And there was a very distinct difference between the two.
Severus had to keep Beth safe.
A/N: I honestly didn't plan it this way, but this really is quite a delightful cliffhanger to keep you in suspense for the next several weeks! As you may or may not have heard, the archives are going on their annual Christmas holiday from December 15th to the 29th, and this year it includes trusted authors as well. So this story will be paused at thirty chapters for a while -- but no fear! I hope to have the thirty-first up as quickly as I possibly can. After this, there are only four more to go!
So, what did you think of this chapter? There was a bit more Marauder banter in this story than there has been previously, which always makes me happy -- writing Marauder banter is one of my favorite parts of writing this story in general. I'd love to know your thoughts! Thank you!
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