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Introduction:

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On Friday I had lunch with Betram, who had a free period afterwards which we decided to spend together before I went upstairs to get set into homework before the weekend started in earnest.

“We don’t do this nearly often enough,” he murmured into my ear as we settled ourselves in a nifty little alcove he’d discovered behind one of the staircases on the first floor.

“Don’t talk about that now,” I said. “Just make the most of the fact we’re together.”

He grinned at me. “I like the sound of that.” I smiled back and pulled him in closer.

He was right, we didn’t catch up nearly often enough and so I tried to make the most of it when we did. Within reason, of course – I was still wary of heading back into the Hufflepuff common room or, worse, his dorm, and therefore preferred to stay in places just a little more public. The seductive part of it was, of course, the fact that when we were making out it meant that we weren’t talking and that meant in turn that I was less likely to stew over what was wrong with our relationship, instead focusing on what made it good. And lazy hours like this one certainly helped me do that.

Of course it was over much too soon and it seemed like no time had passed when we had to call a stop to it. “Bloody school,” Bertram grumbled as he put his arms around me again. “We have to do this again. Soon.”

I smiled as I reached up and kissed him. “Sounds good to me.”

We stayed for as long as we could but unfortunately we eventually did have to part, or at least we did if Bertram wanted to pass Charms, so at long last he grabbed his school bag and headed off to that class and I went in the opposite direction and started making my way up to Gryffindor Tower.

The quickest route from Bertram’s little alcove took me past the library, and as I walked past its entrance the door suddenly opened and I was bowled over by Sirius, who was looking a little fraught as he barrelled along at a rate of knots. The collision was pretty forceful and we both ended up rather awkwardly on the floor.

“Oh, Laura, sorry, I didn’t mean to run into you like that,” he said apologetically as we picked ourselves up and I gathered my scattered books back into my bag. “I was just trying to escape …” His voice trailed off.

Getting back to my feet, I looked at him in confusion. “Escape? What from?”

He looked a little uncomfortable. “More like who from,” he muttered, and I looked up to see Elvira Vablatsky and Greta Catchlove standing at the open the library door, noticing him talking to me and throwing death looks in my direction.

Sirius followed me around the nearest corner where I waited while he got himself sorted out, putting two or three library books into his bag. I grinned at him. “What, you don’t want to spend your afternoon with Elvira and her friends? Whyever not?”

He raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Do I have to answer that?”

“Of course not,” I said, “but I thought it might give you an opportunity to vent your spleen a little. You look rather like you want to.”

He laughed. “Yes, fair enough, it can get a bit irritating. And all I wanted was to go in, grab a couple of books for that Herbology assignment, and get out again. And it ended up taking me –” he looked at his watch – “three quarters an hour?” Looking shocked it had been that long, he shook his head in frustration.

I looked back in the direction of the library, but Elvira and Greta had obviously decided not to follow him. Maybe that three quarters of an hour had been enough for them. “What were they doing this time?”

“Inviting me to Hogsmeade, believe it or not,” he said, making a face. “We don’t even know when the next visit will be, but they thought they’d get in early. And they had an answer for everything I said, too – I think they must have planned it or something.”

“Well, at least they weren’t trying to force feed you some amortentia or anything,” I pointed out, trying not to laugh at his expression of discomfort and – was that embarrassment? Sirius Black, embarrassed by female attention? I mean, I knew he found Elvira and the fan club annoying, but it had never occurred to me that their behaviour might embarrass him. I swallowed my surprise. “Did you want company back to the tower, just in case?”

He looked at me gratefully. “That’d be great, thanks,” he said, and we headed in the direction of the nearest staircase. “So,” he went on, “any brilliant ideas? What can I do about them? Pr- James and I haven’t come up with anything that’s worked yet.”

I giggled. “Drench them in dragon dung. It’d do it for me.”

He looked sideways at me. “Or Bubotuber pus?”

I shrugged, struggling to contain a grin. “Hey, why not? It’s worked once, it would probably work again.”

“Ah, but you need access to the Bubotubers,” he pointed out, “and to be honest I’d rather not lead any of them into the greenhouses. They’d probably get ideas.”

“Yeah, you’ve got a point,” I conceded. “All right, how about one of Hagrid’s Nifflers?”

He shook his head, though he’d started to laugh. “Not enough jewellery,” he pointed out when he could get a word out. “Now someone like Mulciber, on the other hand ...”

I giggled again, remembering what the Nifflers had done to him during Care of Magical Creatures in fifth year. “Oh, that medallion,” I said with exaggerated exasperation. “Someone really needs to tell him that you can’t get away with that unless you’ve got at least some hair on your chest.”

“What, the smooth-as-a-baby’s-bum look doesn’t appeal to you?” he asked with a grin.

“Not really,” I admitted, for some reason feeling a little discomfited to be discussing my personal preferences in this sort of thing with someone like Sirius. I decided to change the subject. “But that’s not really the point. If a boy wants to unbutton his shirt half way and wear a medallion he should at least have something to show, don’t you think?”

It worked – my change of subject went without comment. In fact, Sirius was still laughing and I found it rather hard not to join in: it really was quite infectious and something about him just seemed to set me off. “He may prefer the hairless look,” he said eventually. “You never know, he might have Charmed it all off. Why he’d want to, I have no idea, but …”

“You know, you could be on to something there,” I said through my giggles. “And does anyone else think it’s weird that a boy wears more jewellery than any of the girls in the school? Or do you think he’s trying to tell us something?”

“Definitely trying to tell us something,” Sirius agreed. “Too bad Pritchard is so thick, otherwise she might have figured it out by now.”

“Either that or she thinks she’s got it made because he never tries anything,” I said dryly. Sirius stopped laughing for a second and looked sharply at me, but before I could work out his expression he’d looked away again, so I went on with my train of thought. “Or do you think that it’s because of her that he’s leaning that way in the first place?”

“Now that I like,” he said, chuckling again. “Scylla Pritchard is so appalling that she’s turned him gay. I almost feel like spreading that as a rumour to see how long it takes to catch hold.”

“If you start it,” I said, “about five minutes. If someone else starts it, it could take a little while longer, maybe up to two or three days depending on how reliable the source is.”

“So if you started it?” he asked, his eyes sparkling.

I shrugged. “I’ve never started a rumour before – that I know of – so I’ve got no idea. Considering no one ever listens to me, though, I’m leaning towards about a week.”

“Now that’s got to be an exaggeration,” he said with a grin. “I would have put it more about the two-week mark.”

He was still smiling and I wondered what he would do if I succumbed to the sudden urge to grab a book out of my bag and hurl it at him. The heavier the better, of course. But I didn’t know him quite well enough to get away with something like that, so I settled for glaring at him. “Gee, thanks for that,” I said sarcastically. “It’s so nice to know how much I’m looked up to.”

He suddenly looked mortified. “You didn’t take me seriously, did you?”

I grinned. “Sirius Black, how much of anything you say should be taken seriously?” His face visibly relaxed. “If I took that sort of thing seriously,” I went on, “I’d have such an inferiority complex that I’d never leave my dormitory.” I grinned as we reached the Fat Lady and Sirius, looking rather relieved, gave the password so we could go inside. “Well, it looks like you made it intact,” I said, having a quick look around the common room. “Not a groupie to be seen. Now do you think you can get up to your dorm without being molested, or would you like a chaperone up the stairs as well?”

He raised his eyebrows. “And you say you’ve never started a rumour? What do you think that would do?”

“Good point,” I conceded. “Though to be honest, if anyone actually believed that I’d be worried. Let’s face it, it’s no more believable now than it was when that story went around last Christmas.” I mean, really, Sirius Black, Hogwarts pin-up, with someone as uninteresting as me? Yeah, right, like that would ever happen. In any case I was somewhat relieved that I didn’t need to accompany him up to the dorm and wasn’t even sure why I’d said it in the first place, preferring instead to join the other girls at the table by the window to try to get a start on my Defence homework from that morning. “At least it looks like you’ll be able to start that essay in peace and quiet,” I went on. “Have fun!” And I waved cheerfully as I crossed the common room and set myself up next to Lily and Mary, only vaguely aware that he just stood there for a while looking thoughtful before disappearing up the boys’ stairs.

****

Saturday morning found me pulling things out of my trunk and emptying my bedside cabinet in a vain effort to locate my Charms textbook. We had an assignment due on Thursday and unfortunately the book was required, so wherever it had ended up last time I threw it in the direction of my trunk, I had to find it.

Mary noticed my agitation. “Wha’ are ye lookin’ fer?”

“I can’t find my copy of Quintessence,” I told her. “It’s here somewhere but I have no idea where.”

Charlotte giggled from the other side of the room. “Have you tried a Summoning Charm?”

I sat down and pulled out my wand, rather embarrassed that something that simple had evaded my thought processes. “Accio Quintessence!”

I waited for the book to dislodge itself from its hiding spot and soar into my hand. And waited. And waited.

After a minute or so Charlotte laughed again. “Okay, looks like it’s not in here at all,” she admitted. “Any idea where else you could have left it?”

I shook my head. “That’s just it, I have no idea where else it could be. It has to be here somewhere.”

Mary grinned. “Anyone woul’ think ye’re nae good a’ Summoning Charms. If it’s here, it woul’ hae come t’ ye. Here,” she went on, pulling her copy of the book out of her trunk, “use mine, ye can give it back when ye’re done.”

I smiled at her gratefully. “Thanks Mary. I’ll have it back to you in no time.”

And I meant to, I really did. Trouble was, it was soon Wednesday and I still had the book, and if she was going to use it for her own essay I would need to get it back to her soon. So with this in mind I went to meet her after my free period (in which I’d put some finishing touches on the paper concerned and done some more work on the Herbology assignment also due the next day) and her Muggle Studies class. However, my best intentions were stymied by Dione Turpin, of all people.

Not that Dione was actually there in person, it was more the effects of her actions. I headed to the second floor, where the classroom was, only to be greeted before I could even see her by Mary’s very characteristic laughter. (I swear, even that had a Scottish accent.) Rounding the corner, I saw her standing outside the classroom with James and Sirius, both of whom were looking a little concerned.

“Laura’ll back me up,” said Mary as she saw me, failing to suppress a giggle. “Wha’ dae ye say t’ this, Laura, James has heard tha’ Lily only got i’ Slughorn’s goo’ books by offerin’ him favours, if ye know wha’ I mean.”

Reaching them, I laughed too. “That is a good one,” I agreed. “How bad would her taste have to be for that to be true?” I giggled with Mary and then caught James’ face. He looked worried sick. Catching myself, I said to him, “Don’t tell me you believed it?”

He seemed to take some solace from the fact that both Mary and I thought the very idea was ridiculous. “You’re sure it’s not true, then?”

I shook my head and grinned at Mary. “Sounds like a Turpin Tale to me.”

Mary nodded. “Aye, one o’ her leas’ believable, too.”

I giggled. “Absolutely. I’d say the Toadstool Tales had more truth to them. Or the ones Beedle the Bard wrote. Honestly, if Lily had been half as busy as those stories have made out over the years, she’d never have had time for anything else. And let’s face it, she’s been in Slughorn’s good books since first year, so she’d have to have got started pretty young.”

“What’s a Turpin Tale?” Sirius looked confused as we started to make our way downstairs for lunch.

“Rumour spread by Dione Turpin,” I explained. “You know the type.”

He shook his head. “No, I don’t,” he said, plainly baffled. “Is she known for this sort of thing?”

I laughed as I realised just how good Dione was at hiding her true nature from some people, and Mary clearly had the same reaction. “Tha’s richt, ye’re male,” she said. “She’d ne’er let anythin’ slip in fron’ o’ ye. But aye, she’s bin sayin’ stuff lik’ tha’ since a’ least secon’ year.”

I smiled broadly at the incredulous faces of both boys and continued the explanation. “You remember that rumour that Lily had been plagiarising stuff from the library for her assignments and not writing them herself? That was a Turpin Tale. So was the one saying Charlotte was having it off with Professor Mopsus. Which is pretty similar to the current story, you might notice.”

James looked aghast. “But why would she say things like that?”

“Jealous, we suspect,” I said with a shrug. “She only picks on people she feels inferior to or threatened by so of course Lily, who’s pretty much perfect, is her prime target. But she’s also had a go at Charlotte, obviously, and Martha, and Clio, and Elvira, and Veronica, and even Greta Catchlove because she’s so good at Charms.”

“She is almost perfect, isn’t she,” said James quietly as if to himself, a dreamy look coming to his face as he obviously thought about Lily. He snapped out of it at a growled “Prongs!” from Sirius and went on. “But still, Turpin shouldn’t be saying stuff like that. If people start believing it she could do a lot of damage.”

Mary shrugged. “Only if, as ye said, folk star’ believin’ it an’ all. An’ nae much has stuck so far, so she’s nae bin doin’ tha’ goo’ a job.”

Sirius was frowning, and I remembered too late that he’d gone out with Dione the previous year. Oops, I thought, maybe I should try to be more sensitive before I spout off about people. He interrupted my slightly guilty reverie.

“Has she ever said anything about you?”

I looked at Mary and giggled a little. “Us? Goodness, no. We’re not anywhere near conspicuous enough.”

James looked puzzled. “Conspicuous?”

Mary laughed again. “Ye know, nae one notices us. We fade int’ th’ backgroond, especially when someone lik’ Lily or Martha is aroond. So we’re almos’ immune t’ things lik’ Turpin Tales ’cause Dione hasna any reason t’ feel inferior t’ us.”

Sirius frowned again. “But that’s not right, you’re just as good as they are.” He sounded eerily like Remus had a year or so earlier.

“But we can’t compete with them,” I said placatingly. “Mary’s right. If Lily or Martha or Charlotte is in the room, who pays any attention to us? And don’t say it’s not like that,” I went on, cutting off an interruption I could see coming, “because you know it is. And we don’t mind, either, so don’t apologise. It’s just the way things are. And there’s times that it’s nice, being close to invisible.”

Sirius looked like he wanted to say something, while James was shaking his head. “And to think you went out with her, Padfoot,” he muttered. “We had no idea.”

I laughed. “Don’t worry about it, she’s a dab hand at hiding it. You two aren’t the only ones she’s hoodwinked. Anyway, how was Muggle Studies?”

Sirius groaned dramatically and shook his head. “I never thought it could happen,” he said, “but Penrose has finally done the impossible.”

“And that is?” I asked.

“He’s managed to make a subject even more boring than History of Magic,” Sirius explained, and Mary groaned as well and nodded vigorously.

“Not possible, surely,” I protested. “Nothing could be more boring than History of Magic.”

“I would have thought so too,” said James, “but Padfoot’s got a point. He got us started on Muggle economic systems. Currency trading and the gold standard and – what was that other one?”

“Controlled versus market economy,” Sirius said with an exaggerated shudder. “And something else that even I can’t remember, that’s how enthralling it was.”

“And that really weird thing where different countries have different money,” said James, shaking his head. “That’s just bizarre. How hard would that make it to travel?”

“Because that’s something you do every weekend, is it, James?” I said wryly. “Quick jaunts over to the continent or across the pond to America.”

Sirius chuckled at this while James grinned. “Well, maybe not, but Mum and Dad do like to take me away every summer holidays. But we stay in the wizarding areas as a rule, and of course they’ve all got the same currency. Imagine having to go into Gringott’s and change money every time you get into a new country, it’d be a nightmare!”

“Aye, it’s bad enough havin’ t’ change t’ poonds an’ all when we go int’ Muggle London,” Mary agreed.

“Well, if it’s any consolation,” I said, “even Muggles find that sort of thing boring. And they live with it every day.”

We had reached the Great Hall and Mary, James and Sirius automatically headed to the right to where the Gryffindor table was. I stayed in the middle of the hall, my eyes searching the adjacent Hufflepuff table for Bertram, who I had arranged to sit with. “See you later on!”

Sirius, who was last in the line, whirled around. “You’re not eating?”

I grinned. “Of course I am. I’m just with the Hufflepuffs today.” And I waved cheerfully as I made my way to where Bertram was waiting for me.

He beamed at me and budged up a little so I could fit in the spot he had saved for me. “Get your essay finished?”

“Almost,” I said, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek before grabbing a plate and heaping it with beef casserole and mashed potatoes. “But I’ve got another free period after Ancient Runes so I should get it done then.” The next day, Thursday, was full-on, with double Transfiguration, then Charms, then double Herbology, so I liked to make sure I had most of my homework for it done before Wednesday night so I wasn’t in too much of a panic.

“Pleased to hear it,” he said, pouring me a pumpkin juice. “Does that mean you’re free tonight?”

I grinned. “I might just be,” I said. “What did you have in mind?” We saw each other so little these days, with the amount of homework that we were both being set, that it was almost a special treat to catch up. Bertram apparently felt the same way.

“What do you say to a picnic on the North Tower?” he asked with a wink. “I’ll grab some things from the kitchens on my way up.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “I’ll just let Mary – oh, damn it!”

“What?”

“I’ve still got her Charms book.” I leaned down to my school bag and fished in it for some parchment and a quill. “I’ll flick her a note, that way I won’t forget to give it back to her.”

Bertram looked confused. “But didn’t you come in with her? I would have thought you’d have given it back then.”

“I meant to,” I said ruefully, flattening out my parchment on the table in front of me, “but we got waylaid by James and Sirius, they were taken in by a Turpin Tale, and I forgot about it.”

A bitter look crossed his face and I remembered too late that he had something against them. I still hadn’t figured out what exactly it was because none of his explanations made much sense to me, but it was usually easier to avoid mentioning them entirely. Deciding that I shouldn’t need to justify my friendship with them, I concentrated on scrawling a note on my parchment (I’ve still got your book – don’t let me leave the Hall without giving it back to you) and, scrunching it up, threw it across the two tables to where Mary was sitting.

Unfortunately Mary put her drink down at just the wrong moment and the note I had thrown bounced off her goblet and fell to the floor. I didn’t think she’d even noticed it. Sirius, however, was next to her and did seem to have noticed, so I got his attention and tried to convey with hand gestures that the note was for Mary. He was looking rather irritated and appeared to be stabbing moodily at the food on his plate so I felt bad for interrupting him like that, but Mary needed the book for her Charms essay and I had Ancient Runes just after lunch.

Fortunately whatever was aggravating him – quite possibly, I reflected rather guiltily, what we had said earlier about Dione – didn’t extend to Mary’s note and he graciously picked it up and gave it to her. I smiled at him gratefully, then turned my attention to Mary. She opened the parchment, read it, and then looked for me at the Hufflepuff table, nodding her head and grinning as I caught her eye. Good. I beamed at her and turned to Bertram.

“Just don’t let me leave without giving it back to her,” I told him, thinking that if both he and Mary were to remind me then it wouldn’t slip my mind again.

“No problem,” he smiled, his arm reaching around my shoulders. I relaxed into him with a smile. Bertram went on. “I think I can let go of you for that long.”

“But no longer?” I asked, still smiling fondly as I looked up at him.

He gave me a squeeze and kissed me gently. “Definitely no longer. That, Laura, would take a lot of convincing for me to agree to.”

****

On top of everything else we had to do, we were told during our next Apparition lesson that for those students who were of age, there would be tests available to be taken in Hogsmeade in early May. This was greeted with a flurry of interest from the sixth-years, most of whom would be seventeen by that time if they weren’t already. Mary, however, didn’t have her birthday until the end of June and was feeling distinctly disgruntled.

“Tha’d be richt,” she muttered in the common room after supper. “Everyone else will be able t’ Apparate an’ I’ll be stuck behin’ waitin’ on a licence.” We were already well into our Charms homework so I was a bit surprised she was still thinking about it.

“Don’t be like that,” I said. “Tell you what, I’ll not take the test this time. I could probably do with the extra practice anyway. Then we’ll go to the Ministry in the holidays, after your birthday, and take the test together.”

She looked at me incredulously. “Why woul’ ye dae tha’?”

“Let’s face it,” I said, “I’m still not the best at it.” And to illustrate my point I rubbed my eyebrow, which had needed to be reattached after the previous week’s lesson when I’d left it behind. “And I don’t feel the need to have my licence yet anyway. I’m happy to wait.”

She smiled at me. “If ye’re sure, then,” she said.

I smiled back. “Of course I am. I wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t.”

“Thanks, Laura. I knew ye were a goo’ frien’.”

I went back to Spellotaping my copy of Quintessence: A Quest back together – it had turned up, torn and a little crumpled around the corners and generally looking the worse for wear, wedged between my bed and the wall and hidden behind a jumble of shoes and other oddments – and Mary started back on the latest essay Quintessence was supposed to be helping us with. Before long, however, we were interrupted by the portrait hole opening noisily and I looked up to see Sirius rushing into the room. He looked around, visibly agitated, until he found our table.

“Laura, I am so sorry, but you’ve got to see this,” he said, gasping for breath and obviously in a hurry. “Come on.” I looked at him, baffled. “NOW!” he shouted.

Figuring it was easier than arguing the point I got up to follow him, and he grabbed my hand and virtually yanked me through the portrait hole. Once out, he pulled out the two-way mirror. “Prongs! Got her,” he whispered into it, nodding significantly. “Don’t let them leave.”

“Are you going to tell me what this is about?” I asked as he pulled me along corridors and down staircases. More than once we took short-cuts I hadn’t previously known about, using tunnels hidden behind suits of armour or random paintings.

“You have to see,” was all he would say. “So long as we’re not too late …” He was still clutching my hand and it felt like my arm was going to be pulled from its socket – his longer legs were propelling us much faster than I felt comfortable going.

Finally we reached the tapestry of Andros the Invincible, where I had seem him talking to his brother on his birthday all those months ago. James and Remus appeared from nowhere, James raising an eyebrow at Sirius who promptly let go of my hand.

I was panting, worn out from the multi-storey sprint we had done. Sirius looked at me and said again, very quietly, “I am so sorry.” I was about to say something but James held up a finger to keep me quiet and let me catch my breath before grabbing the tapestry and tapping it with his wand. It immediately came crashing to the floor, revealing yet another secret passageway and, at its entrance, a couple locked in a tight embrace. Their surprised faces turned towards us and revealed a seventh-year Ravenclaw girl and – Bertram.
________________________________________


Author's note: Again, I'd like to request that any potential reviewers refrain from using bad language in their reviews. Remember all reviews must remain 12+ and if they're not then they'll be deleted, and I'd hate for that to happen. Thank you. :)
26
Bertram.

Bertram and a girl.

Bertram and a girl who wasn’t me.

Hands all over her – well I knew what that felt like, though seeing him doing it to someone else was a little like an out-of-body experience. Shirt half off, belt undone and trousers open, and her robes pulled up around her thighs. Snogging as though their lives depended on it. And he was supposed to be my boyfriend?

So this was what Sirius had wanted to show me. My boyfriend being overly friendly with someone else. I didn’t know what I had expected to see when the tapestry fell, but I did know it wasn’t that.

In any case, I stood there in shock for what seemed an eternity. Suddenly I found my voice. “Something you wanted to tell me, Bertram?” I asked coldly.

“Laura! It’s not what it looks like! I can explain!” He sounded panicked, fumbling as he tried to do his trousers back up.

“I think it’s pretty obvious what it is,” I said, mustering as much dignity as I could find under the circumstances.

“No! Please!” He looked hopefully at James, Sirius and Remus, who had cold fury emanating from their faces.

“I’ve seen enough,” I said, still coldly. “How about you just keep on doing whatever you think it is that you’re doing. Do whatever you like – or whoever you like. I don’t care. I never want to see you again.” And I turned on my heel and walked calmly away.

At least, I hoped it was calmly. I had a storm raging inside me but I was determined to get out of sight before I would let it take over. After what seemed like forever I reached the bend in the corridor where I had hidden back in November and, rounding it, sank to the floor and leaned up against the wall, relieved to be out of sight.

I was sure I had steam coming out of my ears. Why did he do it? How could he do that to me? What did I do wrong? After everything he’d said, after all the romantic gestures, how he’d behaved over the holidays, insisting on meeting my parents and everything, how could he do that? I wasn’t sure if I was more angry or upset. I didn’t love him but I was fond of him and had been increasingly growing fonder, and he had seemed so sincere. Clearly I wasn’t as good at reading people as I had thought.

And I understood why Sirius had refused to say anything on the way downstairs, why I’d had to see. Because if they’d just told me it was happening I may not have believed them. Bertram didn’t like them at all and I had the occasional impression that the feeling was mutual, so I could well have thought that they were just trying to discredit him for whatever reason. But this, this was proof. There was no talking his way out of this, there was nothing else he could possibly have been doing. And to think I’d been starting to actually believe him when he’d said how special he thought I was, how exceptional, how beautiful …

Through my inner turmoil I heard footsteps moving quickly away, and wondered if the boys were letting Bertram escape or if they would do something to him for me. Make him suffer. “Thanks, Wormtail,” said James’ voice, sounding further away than it actually was.

Sirius had come around the corner to check on me. “Geez, I am so sorry,” he said again, seeing my face as he sat down beside me. “But you had to know.”

“Did I?” I asked scathingly. “What if I was happier not knowing?”

“It would have hurt more in the long run,” he said reassuringly, putting an arm around my shoulders and giving me a squeeze. It was warm and surprisingly comforting and I allowed myself to relax. “Would you rather have gone on, maybe for months, and then found out about it?”

I thought about it. “Probably not,” I agreed finally. “But why would he do that?”

Sirius shook his head. “I can’t work it out either,” he said. “He needs his head read. He must have known what would happen.”

It was a bit feeble but I appreciated the show of support, and he gave me another squeeze as we sat there, me feeling rather comforted by his presence as I attempted to work my way through what were definitely some conflicting emotions. My eyes were dry but I wasn’t sure how long they’d remain that way, though I was doing a fairly good job at keeping the tears at bay for the time being. Eventually I felt ready to stand again and Sirius helped me up and back around the corner to the scene of the crime, his comforting arm still around my shoulders.

I stopped dead. Peter and Remus had disappeared, but Bertram was still there, thankfully fully clothed by now. It looked like he was in a full body bind and his head had ballooned to double its normal size. James had levitated him and was pushing him along the corridor impatiently.

“Thanks, guys,” I said weakly.

James turned around and looked at me. “How’s she doing?” he asked Sirius.

“Holding up,” he said. I nodded, though I suspected it looked a little half-hearted. “I think she needs food though.”

James surveyed me critically, then nodded. “Chocolate. She’ll feel like she’s been through a Dementor attack. Take her down to the kitchens. I’ll find somewhere prominent to dump this git.”

I found I didn’t mind them talking about me as if I wasn’t there. Somehow it was easier to not actually participate in the conversation. James was right, I did feel a bit like I’d encountered a Dementor, and it wasn’t a particularly nice sensation.

“You all right to walk?” asked Sirius, looking at me. “It’s not far, just down from the Great Hall – do you think you can make it?”

I took a deep breath, wondering if I needed to convince him or myself. “Should be able to.”

“That’s the spirit,” he grinned, dropping his arm from my shoulder and taking my hand instead. “Let me know if you’re having trouble, though, okay?” He began to lead me through the very passageway Bertram and his hussy had been hiding in, which went down steeply, in some places becoming stairs. Every now and then he said “Duck,” as the roof dipped significantly and then levelled out again. Fortunately we were now moving much more slowly than we had on the way down from Gryffindor Tower – I didn’t think I would physically have been able to go at that pace again. Eventually we emerged from behind a statue and, after moving down another couple of corridors, stopped next to a still life of a bowl of fruit.

We were unnervingly close to the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room and I felt more than a little on edge just being there. Fortunately, as I was to discover, we wouldn’t be there long. Dropping my hand, Sirius tickled the pear and the painting giggled and swung from the wall, revealing the Hogwarts kitchens.

I had never seen so many house elves in my entire life. Upon seeing us, they clamoured around like a class of primary school children, none any taller than waist height, all offering their services to Sirius, who they seemed to know well.

“Mr Black! Mr Black! How can Totty help Mr Black?” came a high pitched voice, only to be outdone by what seemed like hundreds of like voices as they all clamoured around him. Sirius started laughing.

“Hey, hey, calm down,” he said, waiting for the palaver to subside. “Now, everyone, this is Laura. Laura has just had a bad shock. I was thinking she needs chocolate, maybe some treacle tart, that sort of thing. What can you do for her?”

In an instant I was bombarded by house elves. “Miss Laura, here is some food!” squeaked one, forcing on me a tray containing a pile of chocolate frogs, some éclairs, a slice of treacle tart and a jam doughnut. Another house elf was trying to give me a huge mug of hot chocolate with at least a dozen marshmallows in it. I felt a bit overwhelmed, so was relieved when Sirius again took control and took the tray and mug from me.

“You’ve been more than kind,” he called above the general turmoil, and the excitable elves rushed to him once again. “Thanks, all of you. But I think we’d better be going.” And, expertly balancing the tray on one hand, he grabbed my hand with his other one and led me out of the kitchens.

“So that was the kitchen,” I said as he settled me in an empty classroom nearby, though thankfully well out of sight of the corridor that led to the Hufflepuff common room. “Is it always that chaotic?”

He shrugged. “Pretty much. They’re always really keen to help.”

“And I used to think you lot were so smart, raiding the kitchens for food all the time,” I said wryly, unwrapping a chocolate frog and grabbing it absent-mindedly before it jumped away. “You’re not exactly forcing them at wandpoint to hand it over, are you?”

He grinned as he watched me wolf down another chocolate frog and start on the treacle tart. “You feeling better now?”

“Yeah, I am,” I realised. “Thanks.” I started on the hot chocolate.

He watched me in silence for a while, distractedly raking his fingers through his hair. “I meant what I said before,” he said eventually. “This way will be easier in the long run.”

“I know,” I said with a sigh. “Doesn’t make it easy now, though.” Suddenly a thought came to me and I looked up at him. “How did you know about it?”

He hesitated. Finally he reached into his robes and pulled out a blank piece of parchment and, unfolding it, laid it on the nearest desk and tapped it lightly with his wand. “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good,” he intoned, looking at it. Suddenly it sprung to life, with lines and dots reaching to all corners of the parchment, which now I looked at it was rather large. I suspected it was the same thing we had seen them poring over in the common room a couple of weeks earlier. He beckoned me over.

“It’s a map,” he said as I bent down to look at it. “The guys and I wrote it.”

I looked at him in awe. “But this is incredible! It shows everybody at Hogwarts on it!” Sure enough, it did – the map, which seemed to feature every room and passage in the castle, also had little dots moving around it, each accompanied by a name in miniscule writing. In a room near the kitchens I could see two dots labelled ‘Laura Cauldwell’ and ‘Sirius Black’, indicating where we were. Finding the Gryffindor common room, I could see ‘Lily Evans’ and ‘Remus Lupin’ next to each other, probably discussing prefect duties, and ‘Martha Hornby’ and ‘Charlotte Trimble’ looked like they were at the table I’d been sitting at before all this started. I grinned despite myself when I noticed ‘Mary Macdonald’ and ‘Marcus Ogden’ in an empty classroom just down the hall – at least Mary’s boyfriend chose her to make out with. Looking further over the parchment, I noticed several passageways I hadn’t previously been aware of, and ‘Severus Snape’ was moving quickly down one of them that came out near what appeared to be the Slytherin common room. In addition, there were a number of tunnels leading out of the castle which went off the boundaries of the map in the direction of Hogsmeade.

He let me have a good look at the map before he spoke again. “We were checking the map to come – well, down here, actually, to the kitchens for a night-time feast – when we saw them in a small enclave behind that tapestry with the dancing trolls on it. Well, what else would they be doing in a place like that at nine o’clock at night? So we sent Wor- Peter out to check – he’s, er, good at sneaking around without being seen – and he came back and confirmed it.” He stopped as I looked up sharply, my brain finally working out the implications of what he’d just said.

“You’re saying this has happened before?”

He nodded. “Yep. We found out just after the holidays.” I nodded, leaning in closer to the map and staring at the spot Bertram and the Ravenclaw girl had been. Sirius had sat down on the desk opposite and was continuing. “I wanted to tell you straight away, myself, but Pr- James pointed out that it might’ve been a one-off, that these things can happen even in the best relationships. You know, caught off guard, a moment of weakness, that type of thing. And you never know, he might have got a fit of the guilts and told you himself… So James thought we should wait … and if it happened again … then we’d … tell you …”

His voice trailed off and I looked up at him, wondering if he’d meant to stop there because I had the feeling he hadn’t. And he did look somewhat distracted, eyes glazed over a little, though I couldn’t for the life of me think why that might be the case. Noticing me watching him, however, he very quickly came to, shaking his head a bit and looking almost embarrassed as he put his feet on a chair in front of him and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together. “Right. Well, since then we’ve been checking periodically to see if they did it again, and, well, tonight they did. So we put Pete inside the tunnel to stop them escaping that way, and James and Remus stood guard in the passageway under James’ Invisibility Cloak, and I – ” He paused again as I looked up once more: it was my turn to be distracted.

“James has an Invisibility Cloak??” That had to be how he and Remus had seemed to appear out of nowhere. But really, old money, a two-way mirror, and now this? Not to mention looks, popularity, sporting ability and brains. What did the boy not have? (Oh yeah. The girl of his dreams. But I was pretty sure that was coming.)

Sirius waved a hand impatiently. “Yeah, yeah, he has an Invisibility Cloak. Anyway, they stood guard and I came to get you. You know the rest.”

“I’m glad I dumped him, then,” I said, and my voice sounded more bitter than I’d intended. “James is right, once you can sometimes explain away, but twice …” I trailed off, not able to think of something to say that didn’t sound petty and vindictive, and I straightened up and made my way back to my original seat, my gaze focused on my plate. I had finished the treacle tart and was starting on the jam doughnut, the last thing on my tray, and I was definitely feeling better. In fact, from this distance, I was almost okay that my relationship with Bertram was over – at least I wouldn’t spend any more time fending him off or trying to justify who I talked to. Though, come to think of it …

“What did you do to him?” I asked, looking up again, though I was pretty sure I knew.

“Full body bind, simple Engorgement Charm,” he said, looking at me carefully. “We wanted to make his head a more appropriate size, considering what he thought he was good enough to get away with.” He was still watching me, looking for any reaction.

I smiled wanly. “And where did James leave him?”

Sirius came back over to the table and scanned the map. “Outside Dumbledore’s office, by the looks of things,” he said. I smiled to myself briefly – I didn’t even know where Dumbledore’s office was. “He’ll find him when he comes out in the morning,” Sirius went on. He looked sharply at the map for a second, but the expression of unease was gone as soon as I noticed it, and he shrugged quite unconcernedly.

“But you’ll get in trouble!” I said, suddenly horrified they would have to go through a detention because of me. I found I was much less worried about Bertram, with his swollen head, having to stay on a cold stone floor all night, unable to move.

He raised his eyebrows. “So? We’ll cop that. It was worth it.” I looked at him quizzically. “Look, Laura, it’s not like we’ve never done detentions before,” he said defensively, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “It will probably even be fun, if they don’t split us up again. And he deserved it, he should never have done that to you in the first place.”

I nodded vaguely, not really concentrating on what he was saying as my mind persisted in going at a million miles an hour. Despite the chocolate – and I did feel a bit better, I hadn’t been lying about that – the full implication of what Bertram had done was beginning to sink in and I was starting to feel in danger of breaking down, and I didn’t want to do that in front of Sirius. That was what people like Mary were for, after all. So I stood up, surprising myself by doing it without too much effort and without shaking, and said, “I think I’d like to go back to the tower now.” My voice still wasn’t at its usual tone, but it was getting there.

“Of course,” Sirius said, reaching for my hand again. “I’ll get you back in one piece.” He paused. “Oh – and Laura?”

I looked up at him. “Yes?”

“Would you mind not mentioning the map to anyone? We don’t want word about it getting out, we’d never hear the end of it.”

I nodded. “Of course not. I’d assumed that went without saying.” The map was clearly one of the boys’ secrets and I’d felt privileged to have been allowed to see it.

He smiled. “Thanks.” And with that he picked up the map with his other hand and, flicking it expertly, got it in the right place to check the corridors to make sure we didn’t encounter Filch, Mrs Clay, Peeves, or anyone else who might not take kindly to us being out after curfew.

Once back in the common room, I thanked him again and headed straight up to the dorm. Mary, who was obviously back from her detour with Marcus and had seen me come in, followed almost immediately.

“I hear’ wha’ happened,” she said quietly. “Remus came an’ tol’ us an’ then James came ba’ wi’ some more details an’ all. He said ye were i’ th’ kitchens gettin’ some food?”

“Yeah, Sirius took me in,” I said, suddenly realising what that would sound like to, say, Elvira.

“Are ye okay?” she asked.

I shook my head and all of a sudden I was crying. All the anger and pain and frustration came to the surface and I couldn’t stop myself. “So much for feeling wanted,” I sobbed.

“He’s a lyin’, cheatin’ scumbag who doesna deserve someone as good as ye,” said Mary loyally, as Lily, Martha and Charlotte all joined us in the dorm.

“Laura, we’re so sorry!” exclaimed Lily. “James and Remus told us what happened. How could he do that to you?”

I smiled at her through the tears. No matter how bad I felt, the indignation that the girls were showing on my behalf made me feel calmer. “I thought I knew him,” I said, hiccoughing, aware my cheeks were wet and my eyes red. “And I thought he was special. Now, I guess he’s not.”

“Anyone who can do that to a person is definitely not special,” Charlotte said savagely, squeezing my hand.

“But why did he do it?” I asked plaintively. “What did I do wrong?”

“Don’t be silly, you did nothing wrong,” said Lily firmly, sitting next to me and stroking my hair gently. “He just didn’t realise how good he had it. Deserves everything he gets.”

I smiled again despite myself. “Even if it comes from James and Sirius?”

Lily nodded. “Even then,” she admitted. “Actually, I don’t think I could choose anyone better at it than they are.”

“They go’ caugh’, too,” Mary said suddenly. “James, tha’ is. Filch foond him ootside Dumbledore’s office tryin’ t’ dump Bertram.”

“What!!” I sat up on my bed, horrified. Of course. They most probably only had one map, and Sirius had it which meant James wouldn’t have been able to see where Filch was patrolling. They’d decided my need was greater than theirs. I’d never realised they had that in them.

“Yeah, he did,” confirmed Martha. “Apparently Filch went straight to Dumbledore, who reversed the jinxes and got the story from Bertram. And James didn’t deny anything.” She paused. “Bertram named James and Sirius as the ones who had done it – I guess Peter and Remus had gone by then?” She looked enquiringly at me.

“Yeah, they left,” I said hoarsely.

“Right, so he named James and Sirius, and they’ve been given a double detention. I guess Sirius has found out about that now, too.”

I sank back down again. Sirius had told me that would happen, had been completely blasé about the whole thing, but I felt terrible that they had done this for me and been rewarded with a double detention. I felt like going to Dumbledore and asking to serve it with them, as it was my fault they’d done it in the first place.

“Who was th’ girl? Dae we know her?” asked Mary.

I shrugged. She had looked vaguely familiar but frankly I didn’t care who she was. “Some tart from Ravenclaw. Obviously she’ll put out, which I’m guessing would be why he chose her.” My voice, while still a little weak, sounded more bitter than I had intended it to.

Lily looked at me sternly. “Don’t you ever think this is your fault because of that,” she said almost severely. “If he really cared about you he’d respect your decision and not be pressuring you all the time. If he didn’t really care, then he was only after one thing and you’re better off rid of him.”

I thought about it. What she said made sense, and when my mind was in less turmoil I’d probably appreciate the advice. “Thanks,” I said, still a bit weakly. This had taken more out of me than I had realised.

“I thought Hufflepuffs were supposed to be loyal,” Charlotte mused. “Bertram mustn’t have got that owl.”

“They are loyal,” Martha pointed out. “Bertram’s loyalty just happens to reside with his you-know-what rather than with his girlfriend.” I smiled wryly – while her choice of words wasn’t what I would probably have used, she did have a point. “I’d offer to plot revenge,” she went on matter-of-factly, “but it looks like the boys have beaten us to it. Unless you wanted him to suffer any more?”

I thought about it. “I don’t know,” I said. “I feel like he’d deserve it, but then I’m not sure he’s worth spending the extra effort on.”

Lily nodded. “Well, if you do decide you want us to do something, just say the word. We’d be happy to.”

Mary pretended to look scandalised. “Is this a prefec’ offerin’ t’ break th’ rules?” she asked with a grin.

Lily put on her best ‘I wasn’t doing anything’ face. “Of course not,” she said, eventually failing to hide her grin. “At least, not any rules worth worrying about. However, if Bertram happens to be in the way when I’m practicing my spells, I won’t be held accountable.”

I had stopped crying and my cheeks were drying at a rate of knots. Charlotte was sitting on the bed holding my hand, and Martha had started rummaging through her trunk. “Chocolate?” she asked brightly, holding up a block of Honeydukes.

I shook my head. “Thanks, but I’ve had heaps. Sirius took me to the kitchens afterwards to help me calm down.”

“That’s right,” said Martha, shaking her head at herself. “James did say, but I’d forgotten. Well, since I’ve got it out … anyone else?”

Mary, Lily and Charlotte all helped themselves to a chunk of Honeydukes’ finest and lay on the beds talking about men, in particular hurling abuse at those deemed unworthy for whatever reason. Oddly enough, that night Bertram was at the top of that list. It was, however, a conversation that I didn’t really need to participate in which suited me just fine, especially since my brain was in turmoil and I was having trouble concentrating on anything. And then, out of the blue and surprising me by how reassuring it felt, it occurred to me that I’d just spent the best part of an hour and a half holding hands with Sirius Black.

________________________________________




Author’s note: We already knew what they did to Bertram Aubrey, so this is my version of why they did it. And before you complain that it wasn’t enough … well I’d just like to give James some credit as a moderating factor – yes, James – as well as the fact that Sirius didn’t actually get to touch him (despite getting the detention for it). Also a rather nifty introduction of both the Invisibility Cloak and the Marauder’s Map, don’t you think?

Finally, I'd like to remind all potential reviewers to watch their language in reviews so they don't end up getting deleted. Thank you!

27
One good thing about going out with someone from a different year group is that when you break up, it’s much easier to avoid them. Bertram and I didn’t have any classes together and we weren’t in the same House so steering clear of him was, in theory, simpler than it had been when, for example, Cadmus and I had broken up in fourth year.

However, Bertram apparently had other ideas. He kept coming up to me when I arrived in the Great Hall at mealtimes and hovering outside my classrooms waiting for me to finish, all the time trying to get me to reconsider. I reflected somewhat bitterly that I was probably seeing more of him now we’d broken up than I had when we’d still been together.

Fortunately the other sixth-year Gryffindors had taken my side and provided a protective barrier between us. Never had I been so pleased that I had so many classes with James and Sirius – they were certainly the most intimidating boys in the year (save some of the scarier-looking Slytherins) and they were absolutely furious with Bertram, meaning that they moved in to protect me every time he appeared.

For the first few days after I dumped him, I was pretty upset with him and was keen to avoid seeing him at all. I sat with my back to the Hufflepuff table at mealtimes and Mary and Lily made a point of stationing themselves on either side of me, giving me occasional hugs and talking about anything but boys. I noticed James and Sirius were often sitting directly opposite and usually had their wands on the table in front of them, most probably as a deterrent to Bertram coming up behind me to try to talk to me (though my proximity to Lily was most probably an added bonus as far as James was concerned). Whether he did actually try to talk to me or not I couldn’t say with any certainty, however, as whenever the boys glared at someone over my head and fingered their wands viciously I made a point of not turning around. It was easier said than done, but I managed it.

However, one day almost a week after we broke up, Bertram managed to slip through the protective net and talk to me. I was leaving Ancient Runes with Remus – probably my most vulnerable time as he and I were the only Gryffindors in the class – and heading downstairs to lunch.

“Laura!” I recognised his voice but still stopped automatically, more out of habit than anything.

“What is it you want?” I asked coldly, noticing Remus had also stopped and had his wand hand inside his robes.

“I need to explain,” said Bertram, almost desperately. He had reached us by now and glanced nervously at Remus before turning back to me. “Can we talk? Alone?”

I glared at him. “You can’t have anything to say to me that Remus can’t hear,” I said. “But no. I don’t want to talk to you. Ever.”

“But it wasn’t what it looked like!” He sounded rather forlorn, and part of me started enjoying his discomfort.

Remus stepped in. He was the same height as Bertram but he did a good glare and Bertram seemed to shrink in comparison. “We all saw it, Aubrey,” he said. “And it’s not like you were rehearsing a play or anything. What else could it be?” Remus was slow to anger but when he did it could be terrifying, something Bertram was just discovering.

Bertram looked shaken. “Okay, it was. But it was a lapse! A one-off! I didn’t even enjoy it!” He looked searchingly at me. “It would never have happened again, Laura. Please believe me.”

Behind me I heard a sour laugh that sounded a bit like a bark. Only one person laughed like that: Sirius. I smiled to myself – there was safety in numbers and Sirius was a powerful friend to have. And, usually, where Sirius went, there went James as well. I turned around to see them both, and Peter, walking purposefully along the passage towards us with their wands out, and a feeling of comfort and security flooded through me.

“A one-off? Really? That’s not what I heard,” Sirius said coldly, a very ugly look on his face. He gave his wand a swish and Bertram was suddenly propelled backwards across the floor and into the stone wall on the other side of the corridor, hitting it with rather a loud thud. And there he stayed, apparently unable to move away, looking most uncomfortable and with his whole body shaking a little, Sirius’ wand still trained on him. Whatever spell he was being held with was obviously a powerful one.

James nodded. “Yeah, it happened at least twice that we know of,” he agreed, making a show of fingering his wand as well. “And Peter is our witness.”

Bertram, still trapped against the wall, was getting red-faced in his discomfort. “Witness? You can’t have a witness.” He composed himself as best he could behind the spell that was holding him back. “Because it didn’t happen.” He looked back at me, almost begging me to believe him.

I looked at Peter. “Tell him what you saw.”

Peter stood with his hands behind his back and started almost reciting. “You and Esther Davies were behind the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy on the seventh floor. There’s a small enclave behind it that will just fit two people, if they’re standing close together. It was nine o’clock at night on Tuesday the nineteenth of April, I was going past on my way back to Gryffindor Tower after a detention and heard a noise so I peeked behind the tapestry to investigate. You were so busy – erm – doing other things, that you didn’t notice me.”

I knew that at least part of that wasn’t true – Peter hadn’t been on his way back to the tower after detention – but the rest was most probably accurate. From the way the colour was draining from Bertram’s face, I decided that it was.

James’ face was stony as he walked towards Bertram and stared down at him. At about six foot he was only a couple of inches taller but he made that seem significant. “Care to explain your way out of that, Aubrey?”

Bertram mumbled something incomprehensible to the floor, then looked back at me. “Laura, I can make it up to you. I promise. Please? I … I love you!”

I blinked. The first time he’d said it, the first time anyone other than my family had ever told me that, and I didn’t believe a word of it. Could my choice of boyfriends be any worse?

“No you don’t,” I said coldly, hoping the tears I could feel coming stayed put. “You barely know me, really. If you love anyone, it’s the person you think I am, because you never bothered to find out if she and I actually had anything in common.”

He looked gobsmacked and I felt rather pleased with myself. I thought I might even be able to get out of this without crying.

“Of course I know you,” he protested, rather feebly I thought. “You’re wonderful. I’m crazy about you.”

I shook my head again. “You can’t be. Because if you were, you’d never have run around with someone else behind my back.” James and Sirius made noises of agreement behind me and I felt buoyed by their support. Looking coldly at Bertram, who seemed speechless, I gave him what I hoped was my most disdainful look. “Anyway, Bertram, what part of ‘I never want to see you again’ did you not understand? Because I meant it. I’ll even say it again if you’re not convinced.” I paused for dramatic effect. “I never want to see you again.” And I walked past him towards the stairs that would take me down to the Great Hall.

Remus soon caught up with me and put a comforting arm around my shoulders, which were threatening to start shaking. “Well done,” he said in that wonderful measured voice of his. Remus was always a lovely calming influence and could diffuse almost any situation when he chose to – in this case, me looking like I was about to burst into tears.

“I just hope it worked,” I said quietly, my eyes still welling up a little. “So he stops bugging me. I don’t need a constant reminder of how stupid I was.”

“You weren’t stupid,” he said. “Things like that have been happening for time immemorial and it’s got nothing to do with being stupid. If anything, you were smart enough to get out once you found out.”

I smiled at him, though I felt rather drained. “Thanks. But where are the others?” I had just realised we were alone.

“Probably making sure he knows not to bother you again,” Remus said mildly. “I suspect we don’t want to know exactly what they’re up to. Remember, if we don’t know then we can’t testify against them.” We arrived in the Entrance Hall and he gave me a quick squeeze before dropping his arm from my shoulder as we made our way into the Great Hall for lunch, probably not wanting to start any rumours or give Dione any ammunition for one of her stories.

I was rather surprised when a minute or two later I saw Bertram enter the Great Hall, obviously freed from whatever holding spell Sirius had used on him and seemingly unhexed and unscathed. Remus and I looked up at James, Sirius and Peter, who had also just arrived and sat down opposite us.

“What, no feathers?” I asked them. “I’m almost disappointed.”

James shook his head. “We just had a bit of a talk with him,” he said carelessly. “Pointed out that if he’s going to do such a dumb thing then he’s got to be prepared for the consequences.”

Remus raised his eyebrows. “And those consequences don’t involve you cursing him into next week?”

Sirius grinned. “Tempting, but no. But don’t worry, if he tries to talk to Laura again we will. Call it a warning.”

I wasn’t convinced. “What did you say to him?”

“What Prongs said,” said Sirius, fixing his eyes on me. “I think it’s a case of not knowing what you’ve got till you lose it. And he’s just realising that.” He almost made it sound like I was someone worth having and I appreciated the show of support.

James nodded, heaping sausages and jacket potatoes onto his plate. “He’ll beat himself up about it just as much as we could,” he added. I raised my eyebrows incredulously but if James noticed he ignored it. “Makes it much easier for us, too,” he went on. “He suffers and we get to watch it and don’t even get detention for it. It’s a win-win situation.” He grinned at us.

Remus was nodding. “I can’t argue with that,” he said, looking over his shoulder towards the Hufflepuff table. “He looks pretty miserable.”

“Serves him right,” I said bitterly. “I hope he’s so cut up that he fails all his NEWTs because of it.”

Sirius laughed. “Are you sure? That might mean he’s back again next year.”

I shook my head. “Nah, he wouldn’t have the guts to front up. Not with you lot around. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but he finds you a bit intimidating.”

James grinned. “We’d figured as much. Which is why we came to meet you after class today. And I’m sorry we were late, we got held up.”

Peter smiled reminiscently. “Poor Snivellus. He never should have tried to stop us.”

Remus and I looked at each other and shook our heads, though we were both smiling. “Now we definitely don’t want to know,” said Remus, and we focused on finishing our lunch.

****

I wasn’t the only one with boyfriend troubles. Charlotte and Hector Bole had also broken up, though in less sensational circumstances – it was more of an understanding that it wasn’t going anywhere and they weren’t actually all that interested in each other. While she wasn’t quite as upset as I had been she was still down in the dumps, convinced that no one would ever find her attractive, and it was a good distraction for me to help her get through it as she had helped me. It was probably also a good thing that Mary, Lily and Martha were around to ensure we didn’t just feed off each other’s misery and end up wallowing in self-pity.

Fortunately for us our teachers seemed to have a similar idea and were piling on the homework even harder than they had been previously. Our exams were coming up in less than two months and every class seemed to emphasise this point, which managed to succeed in taking our minds off any personal problems we might be having.

We were further distracted one evening a week or two later when we went back into the dorm after supper, only to find that someone else had been in there. Not that it was ransacked or anything, but it had certainly been, well, looked at, for want of a better term. This was confirmed by the odd behaviour of Mary’s cat, Circe, who pounced on us as soon as the door was opened, her claws sticking into Mary’s arm where she had lodged herself.

“Something’s not right,” said Martha, screwing up her face as she looked around the dorm.

“No,” agreed Lily. “It’s almost like someone else has been in here.”

I looked at my bedside cabinet. The clock and book I kept there were definitely not in the same place they’d been that morning, and when I opened the cupboard below the books were stacked in there in a much neater pile than I had left them in. “Yeah, like they’ve searched it or something.”

“Hoo strange,” Mary muttered, trying in vain to extricate her sleeve from the cat’s claws. “An’ whoe’er it was, they’ve freaked Circe oot badly.” She started trying to calm her down, stroking her back and making soothing noises.

Martha looked around critically. “Anything missing?”

We all had a quick look through our things but no one could think of anything that should have been there but wasn’t. The whole thing was, to tell the truth, decidedly baffling.

That is, it was baffling until Lily opened the door to the bathroom and groaned loudly. “I think I’ve worked it out,” she said over her shoulder.

“Who?” Charlotte went to her eagerly, and Lily pulled a note off the bathroom mirror and handed it to her. Charlotte read it and groaned as well.

“What?” My curiosity was getting the better of me.

“This is what it says,” said Charlotte, sitting on Martha’s bed, which was nearest. “Dear Lily, Laura, Charlotte, Mary, and Martha. Thanks so much for allowing us to have a look at your dorm. We found it so much more interesting than ours is! Sincerely, James, Sirius, Remus and Peter.” She looked up. “And they’ve all signed it individually, so they were all here.”

“Ye’re kiddin’,” gasped Mary, who had by now settled her cat, who was lying purring on her lap. “They were i’ here? Bu’ hoo?”

“I have no idea,” said Lily, shaking her head as she sat down on her own bed. “The stairs should have changed for them, they shouldn’t have been able to get up this far. Even if they climbed the slide, you can’t get past the second-year dorm unless you’re really good at climbing, and if nothing else I wouldn’t have thought Peter could have done it.”

“And the stairs are too wide to go up with a foot on each wall, even for someone as tall as Sirius, let alone Peter,” agreed Martha, who had joined Charlotte on her bed so she could have a look at the note. “Yep, the handwriting matches,” she went on, scrutinising the signatures. “They all wrote on it.”

Mary giggled, though it sounded a little hollow. “Nae wonder Circe was so upse’. Havin’ those lads i’ here woul’ be enough t’ try anyone’s patience.”

I sat on my bed in a mild state of shock. “You do realise what this means, though,” I said, trying to put my thoughts into words.

“What?” asked Charlotte.

“We have no secrets from them any more,” I said. “If they can get in here, then they can find out almost anything about us. We have no more privacy from them.”

Lily was sitting stock still as she took in what I said. “You’re right,” she said eventually. “Goodness, what are we going to do?”

Mary looked around. “None o’ ye keep a diary, dae ye?” I too looked at Charlotte, Lily and Martha, who were all shaking their heads. “Well, tha’s one goo’ thing a’ least,” she went on. “We canna hae had too many secrets let oot.”

Martha nodded. “Good thinking, Mary. From now on, no diaries, no compromising notes or letters, anything like that either has to be charmed so that you can’t see what it really is, or destroyed.” She paused. “Any of you have anything really embarrassing like a picture of someone underneath your pillow?” Again, we all shook our heads. “Good,” she went on. “And might I suggest that now would not be a good time to start doing that.”

“Definitely not,” Charlotte agreed somewhat nervously.

“Hang on,” Mary said suddenly, a broad smile on her face. “James was i’ here? Lily, hae ye checked t’ make sure ye’ve still go’ all yer underwear?”

Lily went a rather fetching shade of scarlet and hurriedly opened up her trunk and went through it. Eventually she resurfaced, still her cheeks still glowing. “I think it’s all in here,” she said. “Though I can’t guarantee he hasn’t looked at it. How can I ever look him in the eye again?”

“More to the point,” I told her, “if that’s what he’s done, how can he ever look you in the eye again. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. That is, unless you’ve got some knickers that have ‘I love James’ embroidered on them.”

Lily, still crimson, hurled her pillow at me. “Very funny.”

Martha grinned. “Not denying it, I notice.”

“I shouldn’t have to.” Lily was steadfastly trying to hold on to as much dignity as she could. “Innocent until proven guilty, remember?”

“Right,” said Charlotte, who was looking more comfortable now and had a bit of a wicked smile on her face. “And we’ll remind you of that next time you accuse James of anything.”

****

The next morning before breakfast I had a sudden epiphany in the dormitory. “You know,” I said, pulling on a shoe, “Bertram and I could never have worked out long-term anyway.”

“Why not?” asked Lily, sounding surprised.

“The name’s all wrong,” I explained. “Laura Aubrey. It just sounds stupid.”

Mary giggled. “Aye, tha’ it does,” she agreed with a grin. “Hoo does Mary Ogden soond?”

“That’s all right,” said Martha, who was doing up her schoolbag. “What about Lily Potter?”

Lily threw a book at her. “Not funny, Miss Hornby.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be funny, I was being serious,” said Martha, grinning. “And I thought it sounded fine. But you’ve hit on another reason I need to find myself a boyfriend. We need to get me a new surname.”

“Well, why don’t we find the name you like best and pick the boy to suit?” I suggested. “How about Martha Mulciber? If nothing else it’s alliterative.” I ducked as Martha threw Lily’s book at me.

“Martha Hopkirk’s okay,” suggested Charlotte, coming out of the bathroom. “Or Martha Carmichael.”

“Martha Toots?” Lily offered, referring to Tilden Toots of Ravenclaw.

Martha shuddered. “Toots is a nice enough bloke - when he's clean, of course - but you’ve got to admit that’s a dreadful name. Like Dearborn, that’s another shocker.”

“Anither reason fer ye t’ hae dumped Hector, too, Charlotte,” said Mary, who was drying her hair with a hot air charm. “Bole’s a terrible name. Makes ye soond lik’ a bi’ o’ crockery.”

“Charlotte Lupin works,” Lily said quietly, looking at Charlotte, who went a rather fetching shade of crimson.

“Yeah, you know I could never go for Remus,” I said, handing Lily her book back. “Laura Lupin. Ugh.”

“Or Lily Lupin,” agreed Lily, putting the book back on the pile next to her bed. “That’s just as bad.”

“I thought you liked alliteration?” Martha asked, grinning and winking at me.

I smiled back. “Not when it’s me. Anyway, my cousin is about to become Gwendolyn Llewellyn,” I went on. “That’s a pretty unfortunate combination.”

Martha made a face. “I can’t argue with that. Now I’ve got one. Elvira Black!”

Charlotte laughed. “In her dreams! But why not go for the lot of them? Greta Black!”

“Tha’ woul’ be a scream,” Mary said, grinning. “Tall, dark an’ han’some matched wi’ shor’, blonde an’ dumpy.” Harsh as it sounded, it was a fair description of Greta Catchlove, the top of whose head was maybe level with Sirius’ chest. And that was in platform shoes, too. Chubby was another word Mary could have chosen, I reflected.

Lily was continuing Charlotte’s theme. “How about Carol Black? Or Primrose Black?” She was obviously having fun trying to remember who else was in the fan club. For some reason these suggestions made me feel rather uncomfortable and I wasn’t quite sure why, but I giggled along with the other girls.

“Well then, changin’ tack sligh’ly, Alecto Gibbon?” suggested Mary, an evil grin on her face. “Tha’ woul’ be perfec’, she e’en looks lik’ one!”

Still feeling a little disquieted, I was smiling about the concept of Alecto becoming a Gibbon when unbidden, and unnerving me somewhat, a new name came into my head. Laura Black. And it sounded good.

****

I grabbed Mary after supper and dragged her to an empty classroom. “I’ve got to talk to you,” I muttered. “Somewhere private.”

She obediently sat down on an old desk and looked at me. “Wha’s up?”

“I have done the most incredibly stupid thing any girl could possibly do,” I said, plonking myself down on a table facing her.

“An’ tha’ is?” she prompted, her eyes narrowing as she looked me over.

I got back up and went to the door, looking up and down the corridor to make sure no one was there, and then closed the door for good measure. After all, I hadn’t forgotten that James had an Invisibility Cloak, and I didn’t want to take a chance on anyone overhearing what I was about to say. Finally, once I was satisfied that we were quite alone, I put the words in order for the first time, even to myself. “I think I’ve got a crush on Sirius.”

It had been bugging me all day, compounded every time I saw him, and I needed someone to slap some sense into me. Someone who wouldn’t laugh at me but also wouldn’t plant false hope in my head.

Mary, to her credit, didn’t look horrified, or suppress a snigger, or look at me sympathetically, or do anything else I’d been worried she might do. What she did look was confused. “Ye think?” she asked. “Ye mean ye dinna know?”

“Hard to say,” I said, trying to explain myself. “It’s been coming on so gradually that it’s taken me by surprise a bit. But I’m pretty sure it’s there. He makes me laugh, you know? And there’s times that I get that telltale tingling you get when they touch you, that sort of thing.” I paused for a second, my cheeks burning. “And ‘Laura Black’ came to me this morning when we were going through names.”

“Hmmmm.” She frowned slightly at me. “Soonds lik’ ye’re keen on him, all richt. Aye, it’s a dumb thing t’ dae. Tha' is, ye’re in a better position than ye were say a year ago, he a’ leas’ talks t’ ye an’ all, bu’ I woul’ still say yer chances are nae grea’. I’m sorry, Laura, but tha’s th’ way it is.”

“That’s the problem,” I said. “I mean, when I didn’t know him, I didn’t like him. You know, the arrogant berk thing. But since I’ve got to know him better he’s grown on me, and I can’t seem to shake it off.”

“Ye shoul’ prob’ly ge’ tha’ looked a’,” she said seriously. “Large growths lik’ tha’ are generally nae a good thing. Hae ye seen Madam Pomfrey aboot it?”

“Very funny,” I groaned, though I was having trouble stopping myself from giggling. “Can we get back to my problem?”

“Richt,” said Mary, a grin crossing her face. “Shall I aler’ Elvira tha’ th’ fan club’s aboot t’ ge’ a new member an’ all?”

“That’s the other problem,” I said, my giggles stopping abruptly. “We know what he thinks of people like that. If he ever found out he’d probably never speak to me again.”

She nodded, now looking much more serious. “Aye, ye hae a poin’ there, so I’ll keep this quiet. T’ recap, ye fancy him and ye’re thinkin’ it’s prob’ly a lost cause. I’m guessing it doesna help when he looks tha’ good, either,” she commented dryly. “Though unlike James he doesna hae his dream girl richt i’ fron’ o’ us, so there may still be a chance fer ye.”

I just looked at her. Yeah, right, like he would ever look at me in that way. He could have anyone he wanted, he wouldn’t bother wasting his time with the likes of me. “Come on, Mary, be logical here,” I said miserably. “If I’m that awful that Bertram had to cheat on me, then what chance would I have with someone like Sirius?”

Mary rolled her eyes. “Stop bein’ daft,” she scolded. “Tha’ wasna yer fault. Ye were way too goo’ fer him. He jus’ couldna keep it i’ his pants so when ye said nae he wa’ dumb enough t’ look elsewhere.” She paused, ignoring the sceptical look on my face. “Richt, so wha’ dae ye want me t’ dae? Support ye through it jus’ i’ case, or try t’ ge’ ye o’er it?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “I might get back to you on that one. Can we leave it for now that you won’t give me crap about it? It’s embarrassing enough without that to cap it all.”

“Ye drive a har’ bargain,” she grinned. “Bu’ okay. After all, ye didna tease me aboot my James thing, so it’s onla fair.”

“Thanks,” I said with a smile. “And with any luck I’ll just snap out of it like you did with James. It shouldn’t take me too long to come to my senses, should it?”

________________________________________



Author’s note: Yep, she’s finally worked it out. Frankly Laura can be a bit clueless with regard to this sort of thing, but then again Bertram did distract her for a while. Anyway, roll on the rest of the story …

28
I wrote to my mother that night, feeling that I really should let her know what had happened with Bertram now that I was comfortable telling the story again. I didn’t want to get into too much detail lest I say too much about Sirius, knowing that Mum would be able to read between the lines, but I laid out the bare bones and explained that we wouldn’t be seeing each other any more.

Mum’s response surprised me. She had appeared to like Bertram a lot that day he visited during the holidays, so I wasn’t expecting her to be cheering. However, this is what she wrote:

Dear Laura

It was with great relief that I read your letter. I hope you’re not too upset by what happened, because I’m not sure Bertram was worth getting upset over. I didn’t want to say anything while you were seeing him, but there was something about that boy that made me uneasy.

Please don’t get angry with me, I realise you may not be over him yet and therefore may still be sensitive to any negative comments. My main objection to Bertram was that he plainly didn’t make you happy. You were constantly on edge that day he came to visit, not at all your usual self, and you didn’t smile much or laugh at all. If my little girl is going to be falling for anyone, I would like them to be someone who makes her smile without her realising she’s doing it.

Also I am falling back on many years experience in the police force when I say that Bertram wasn’t entirely what he was making himself out to be. There was a shiftiness in his eyes that I didn’t like and he looked at you with greed rather than with affection. So your revelation that he was seeing someone else behind your back quite honestly didn’t surprise me. I wish it wasn’t so, but it was.

On the other hand, the boys who looked after you when you found out sound much more dependable. Maybe next time you should be looking closer to home for someone to bestow your affections upon?

Take heart and best of luck. Y ou will get over him and you’ll be much better for it once it happens. And know that we love you and you can always count on us to help you to feel better.

Lots of love,
Mum.

Mary raised her eyebrows when I showed her the letter. “Yer ma’s really go’ ye figured, hasna she?” she asked. “Th’ girl who go’ cheated on bu’ didna seem t’ min’ much because o’ who tol’ her aboot it.”

“I mind,” I pointed out crossly. “It still hurts that he did that. I’m just trying to distract myself by thinking about something a bit more pleasant.”

She grinned. “Wha’, Sirius? Aye, I dare say he is more pleasant t’ think aboot.”

“Sshhh,” I whispered, conscious that we might possibly be overheard from our spot in the common room – and this was definitely something I didn’t want anyone overhearing. To be on the safe side, I quickly cast Muffliato at all the nearby groups of students.

“Yer ma’s richt, though,” commented Mary once I’d finished. “Aboot Bertram, tha’ is. He didna make ye smile. E’er since yer birthday party, ye were on edge a lo’. Ye’re more relaxed nou.”

“That’s because he kept making inappropriate suggestions,” I pointed out. “You’d think that after the tenth time I said no he would have got the hint. But still …” I trailed off, not really sure what I had been intending to say.

“Still wha’?” Mary wasn’t going to let me get away with it that easily.

“I do miss him,” I said. “There’s something missing now.”

“Naethin’ a good snog canna fix,” Mary said with a smile. “Nou, we jus’ need t’ fin’ ye a willin’ collaborator …”

I looked quickly at the armchair by the fire that Sirius was ensconced in, blissfully ignorant of my predicament. Mary caught the action and groaned.

“Nae, tha’s nae wha’ I mean’,” she admonished. “A willin’ collaborator who’s nae him. Or James, fer tha’ matter, ’cause then I micht kill ye afore Lily does, even.” I looked at her in surprise. “Aye, I micht be over him,” she said, “bu’ only fer her. I’ll be richt miffed if anyone else ge’s a han’ on him.”

“Okay, I’ll accept that,” I said: it did sound reasonable. “But what about Marcus?”

Mary shrugged. “I lik’ him a lo’,” she admitted, “bu’ I’ll always hae a sof’ spo’ fer James, I think.”

“Right,” I said, changing the subject as her cheeks had gone a little pink. “But why can’t my collaborator be Sirius? That’d solve all my problems at once. And apparently he’s good at it, too, if we believe what Martha had to say on the matter.” I kept my voice down despite the Muffliato, just in case someone had missed being caught by the charm.

Mary grinned. “He can be yer collaborator,” she said, “bu’ I’d sugges’ ye go fer someone a wee bi’ more realistic i’ th’ shor’ term. Remember, they hae t’ be willin’.” My face fell. Of course, I’d forgotten that bit – she certainly had a point. In any case she started looking around the common room as though expecting to find someone appropriate just sitting there waiting to be asked.

“No you don’t,” I said sharply as her gaze rested on the boys by the fireplace, who were talking rather furtively among themselves and kept looking at the clock. “Not Peter, I absolutely refuse.”

“Remus?” she suggested with a grin.

“He’s not around, is he?” I asked, looking towards the fire again, where Remus was indeed conspicuous by his absence. “I’m sure I heard James saying something about his furry little problem cropping up again. Which reminds me, I’m not sure I’d want someone who’s always running around after a rabbit anyway. Not to mention the fact that Charlotte would most probably have me drawn and quartered if I even tried it.”

“Okay,” she agreed reluctantly. “Richt, ye can hae Gerry Stebbins, that’ll ge’ him off my back fer a bi’ as well. Kill two birds wi’ one curse!”

I groaned. “Must I? I thought we were looking for someone I wouldn’t mind snogging. And I’m sorry, but Gerry really doesn’t fit the bill.”

“Damn,” Mary said cheerfully. “Worth a sho’, though.”

“Ah, you can’t ask Peter now anyway,” I said a little triumphantly as he, James and Sirius got up from their spot by the fire and headed rather furtively out the portrait hole. “So you’ve lost your opportunity.”

“Damn,” Mary said again. “Richt, hoo aboot Avery? He’s a charming lad an’ all.” She ducked as I picked up a rather heavy Charms textbook and swung it at her head.

We were still going on the same track half an hour later when Martha came over with Lily and Charlotte in tow. “Right, Mary, you coming?” she asked briskly. “Astronomy’s starting in ten minutes. Good night for it, too, the moon’s full so we should be able to see loads.”

“Oh, aye,” said Mary hurriedly, quickly looking through her piles of books for the appropriate texts. “I’d fergotten, we were jus’ tryin’ t’ fin’ Laura a lad t’ snog t’ ge’ her mind off Bertram.”

“Where’s Peter?” Martha went on, looking at the couch and armchairs by the fire where a handful of first-years had now settled in, making the most of the sixth-year boys’ sudden departure.

Mary shrugged. “They all wen’ off oot th’ portrai’ hole aboot half an hour ago,” she said. “Maybe he’s skivin’ off again.”

“Must be,” said Martha, shaking her head. “That boy misses so many classes I’ll be surprised if he passes this year.”

Once Mary and Martha had taken off, Lily looked at me mischievously. “Right, Laura, what was it that you and Mary were up to before we came over?”

I blushed. “Uh – she was trying to find me someone to snog so I’d forget about Bertram.”

“That was it,” said Lily with a grin, her eyes flicking to Charlotte who was also smiling playfully. “I’m sure Charlotte and I can come up with someone for you. Now, who have you ruled out?”

****

Before long we were being reminded of the final Hogsmeade visit for the year, which was scheduled for late May. We were all looking forward to getting out of the castle and enjoying the spring weather, as well as stocking up on anything we might have been running low on and checking Honeydukes for new lines. However, as the wizarding world was becoming less safe, the rules and restrictions on those of us wanting to visit Hogsmeade were ever increasing, as Professor Dumbledore outlined at supper about a week beforehand.

“I regret to advise of some further security measures,” he announced, “which are becoming necessary to ensure the safety of all students.” We all groaned as he gave an outline of what they entailed: we could only travel in groups of three or more; we weren’t to leave the village proper, meaning no trips to the Shrieking Shack or anything else outside the confines of main street; we weren’t to talk to anyone we didn’t already know. Half a dozen teachers were to accompany the students on the walk to and from the village, and they would patrol the main street during the day to ensure that nothing untoward happened.

Mary, who had planned to spend the day with Marcus, complained about the arrangements more than once. They meant that couples would have to either double-date or take other friends along in order to spend time with each other, and I suspected that a tidy few of them would enter places like Madam Puddifoot’s in groups of two pairs before separating to sit at individual tables.

The girls and I – minus Mary – had intended to go down as one group, and the boys from our year as another (Sirius having successfully evaded Elvira’s advances), but we all converged in the Entrance Hall at the same time before leaving and ended up as a group of eight. I had a suspicion that the other girls were rather relieved at this, not because they necessarily wanted the proximity but because there was additional safety in numbers, and James and Sirius in particular exuded a feeling of security that we all appreciated.

Just as we reached the gate I noticed Bertram and his Ravenclaw squeeze – the same one we’d caught him with behind the tapestry of Andros the Invincible the previous month – heading arm in arm in the direction of Madam Puddifoot’s along with a couple of other seventh-years. He must have decided to cut his losses and make the most of what options he had left, I reasoned, and at least he had stopped bothering me. Sirius, who was walking next to me, noticed me make the briefest of pauses and followed my gaze to Bertram’s retreating figure.

“You okay?” he asked, looking at me sharply as we fell into step again.

“Yeah. Yeah, I am,” I said, and I was. I realised that I’d rather be just where I was than with Bertram and his pals, and the realisation gave me a bit of strength. And at least I wouldn’t be subjected to that atrocious tea-house again.

Sirius was throwing a filthy look in Bertram’s direction, and I noticed with some satisfaction that the older boy had suddenly sprouted a very cumbersome-looking set of antlers. I looked back at Sirius, who was putting his wand away with what appeared to be an attempt at subtlety. “You never liked him, did you?” I asked.

He looked uncomfortable and even a little guilty. “Ah, Laura, don’t ask me that.”

“Why not?” I asked, surprised. “I value your judgement.”

He seemed pleased but still wouldn’t answer my original question. “Look, you’re not over him yet, so you don’t actually want to know what any of us thought of him. If we liked him you’ll be second guessing your decision, and if we didn’t you’ll want to know why we didn’t say anything. It’s better not to ask, trust me.”

I looked at him shrewdly. There was a ‘but’ there, hanging, so I decided to provide it. “But?”

He appeared even more uncomfortable and I got the impression he was choosing his words carefully. “I think he’s a prick for doing what he did, and I think he should have appreciated what he had. But I also think you’re better off without him.” He paused, as though trying to decide whether or not to continue. “I think you deserve better.”

“Thanks,” I said, thinking it over. “You may be right.” I wanted to point out that not everyone had their pick of the student body, that some of us had to take who we could get, but that would have sounded petty. And besides, he was right, I did deserve someone who didn’t cheat on me. The tricky bit would be finding them.

He put his arm around me and gave me a bit of a squeeze, which once again was surprisingly comforting. “That’s the spirit,” he said. “Pick up and move on.” His arm was still around me and I had a sudden almost overwhelming urge to respond in kind, and I smiled to myself as I wondered, if I actually did it, just how many seconds it would take for him to realise what was happening and sprint off. As it turned out it wouldn’t have mattered, because James turned around from his conversation with Lily at that moment and saw us, and Sirius’ arm dropped abruptly to his side.

I looked again in the direction Bertram had disappeared in, thinking. “It’s just –”

Sirius gave me another sharp look. “Just what?”

“He was the first person who ever told me I was beautiful,” I said. “Apart from family, of course.” This had only just occurred to me and I realised it was the reason I had been feeling bereft since Bertram and I had broken up. I didn’t miss him, per se, but I missed the way he had made me feel about myself. I wanted to feel beautiful again. Why I had said it out loud, however, I had no idea, and I was wishing I hadn’t. Why couldn’t these epiphanies come when I was talking to Mary? It would have been a lot less embarrassing.

Sirius made a noise that sounded like he had been about to laugh but then thought better of it. “Is that what’s been bothering you?” he asked, pushing his hair out of his eyes as he looked down at me. “’Cause he won’t be the last person to say that. You are beautiful.”

I smiled briefly at him. “Thanks,” I said, “but you don’t have to humour me.”

He looked like he was about to say something again but checked himself, choosing instead to grab my hand and squeeze it, and dropping it straight afterwards. I wasn’t sure if I felt comforted or not, part of me very aware that he hadn’t denied that he was humouring me. We walked the rest of the way to the village in silence.

The eight of us had been rather keen to enjoy the May sunshine but for some reason there was a really uncomfortable mood in the village when we got there, so to shake it off we trundled into the Three Broomsticks and ended up having an early lunch, accompanied by a few butterbeers and the occasional Firewhisky. Once we’d finished our feast, we left the pub and wandered out to a main street that was suspiciously deserted. The uncomfortable feeling was still there and immediately the boys formed a protective cordon around us, James and Sirius at the front, and with their wands out they surveyed the surrounding area, trying to locate the cause of this lack of activity. Baffled at what was happening, I stayed with the girls inside the protected circle, looking around frantically to try to work it out.

The streets were so hushed it was quite eerie, and even the amulet sellers appeared to have packed up and moved on. We couldn’t see any other Hogwarts students, nor any of the teachers who were supposed to be patrolling the immediate area. And then, without warning, Sirius tensed like a dog on a scent, and James followed his gaze to the top of the hill.

A mob of dark figures were coming down towards the village: there appeared to be at least a hundred of them. They too were eerily quiet, moving silently and purposefully down the gentle slope. They appeared to be weaponless, though it was a job to tell at that distance – they were still several hundred yards away. But the silence was becoming oppressive, and I felt a cold chill and inexplicable sense of dread come over me.

“Dementors,” muttered James, and I looked at him in shock, and then at the other girls. They too looked horrified, and Charlotte made a sudden move to go back into the Three Broomsticks.

James had noticed. “Yes, go,” he said, directing us back to the pub. “Go inside and close the door, and don’t let anyone out. Try to find a teacher in there,” he added, “any teacher will do.” Charlotte and Martha both dashed back across the road and into the safety of the pub and so, I saw, did Peter. Lily, I noticed, was staying and, not wanting to leave her alone, I decided to stay with her.

James looked around at Lily, who hadn’t moved and had a determined look in her eyes. “Lily, please,” he said softly, almost pleadingly. “We want you to be safe.” I looked at her, wondering if she realised it was probably the first time he’d called her by her first name.

If she did realise she hid it well, as there was no change on her face as she stood her ground. “I’m a prefect,” she said resolutely. “It’s my responsibility to make sure all the students are safe.”

“And they will be, if they’re in the pub,” Sirius said reasonably, his eyes and wand still trained on the approaching menace.

James nodded. “If you want to help, go in there and try to make sure they don’t panic. If they do, then this is going to be a whole lot harder to deal with.”

Lily shook her head. “We can’t be sure they’re all in there, though,” she said logically, watching the Dementors slowly progressing towards us. The cold chill in the air was escalating and I could feel all the happiness draining from me. “I think I should do a quick scan of the other shops and tell anyone inside them not to come out.”

James and Sirius looked at each other with exasperation, then focused again on the Dementors. “Let her,” I said quietly. “I’ll go too. It’ll be quicker with more than one person, and once we’re done I’ll make sure she goes into the pub.”

“Not you, too, Laura,” Sirius said, taking his eyes off the creatures briefly to look at me. “Can’t you just get to safety like we’ve asked? Please?”

Remus, who too had his wand trained on the approaching mob, spoke up. “How about I take the girls to check all the shops,” he suggested. “I’m a prefect too, it will look more official. Then you two can tackle this lot.”

“No, we need you here,” said James. “We need as many Patronuses as we can get, looking at the number of them.”

“Then I’m staying too,” said Lily firmly, changing her mind. “I can cast a Patronus just as well as Remus can.”

James sighed, still not looking anywhere but directly in front of him. “All right, then. But make sure you stay behind us, okay? Out of harm’s way. Where are those teachers?” he went on, clearly frustrated at their non-appearance.

Remus grabbed Lily and me and dragged us to well behind James and Sirius, who were now in battle mode. We stood behind them, wands out, trying desperately to think of something happy enough to conjure a Patronus in front of so many Dementors.

It appeared that James and Sirius knew each other well enough to be able to guess the other’s actions without being told. They waited until the army of Dementors were less than fifty yards away, and then suddenly their wands moved in unison as they bellowed “Expecto patronum!” A silvery stag and a huge dog erupted from their wands, charging down the approaching army and scattering the first onslaught. Remus, Lily and I followed suit, and though our Patronuses weren’t nearly as strong as James’ and Sirius’ had been, we still managed to dispel a few of the Dementors.

James and Sirius had re-cast their Patronuses and the two large animals were once again careering towards the Dementors, driving even more away. There were less than a dozen of the creatures left by now and the air was feeling much less compressed, much more cheerful. Looking around, I could see at least two dozen faces pressed up against the windows of the Three Broomsticks, watching the proceedings.

Another round of Patronuses from Remus, Lily and I helped disperse the remaining creatures. Again, they were much weaker than the others, and I felt my strength draining, but it seemed like we’d broken the back of it and one more Patronus Charm could very likely finish them off. So I couldn’t understand just why James was still looking so worried.

“Get inside, will you?” he said almost weakly, looking around at Remus, Lily and me. “Just to be on the safe side.”

Just then, however, a teacher finally appeared on the scene, five minutes too late to really be of any use. It was Professor McGonagall and for once I was thrilled to see her, as she was most probably the most capable member of staff at the whole school. (Aside from Dumbledore, of course.) We called James’ attention to her as soon as we had spotted her.

“McGonagall, thank goodness,” he breathed, before belatedly realising that Remus, Lily and I were still with them, that we hadn’t yet gone to the safety of any of the adjacent businesses. “GET INSIDE!!” he bellowed at us, “it’s not safe yet! There could be more!” He looked almost frightened and we quickly stepped inside the nearby doors of Honeydukes. Lily, however, kept the door ajar, evidently wanting to hear as well as see what was happening.

“What happened, Potter?” we heard McGonagall ask, looking around and taking in the surroundings.

“Dementors,” said James. “There were over a hundred of them. I think we got rid of them all, but we don’t know who sent them. Someone has to have sent them, and they’d have to be pretty powerful to have control of that many.”

McGonagall nodded, her expression tense. “And the students are all safe? No one was Kissed?”

“No one was Kissed that we know of. No one’s been attacked since they reached the village, we’ve made sure of that,” said James. “Most of the kids are in the Three Broomsticks, Martha and Charlotte know not to let them leave, and we kept an eye on the other shops in case someone came out. Though they would have felt the effects inside, so I can’t imagine anyone coming out by choice.”

McGonagall looked impressed. “Black,” she said, “please keep an eye out in case any more of them show up. Assistance should arrive shortly.” Sirius nodded, his face resolute. “Potter,” she went on, “come with me. In the absence of any other members of staff, it will have to be you. We need to find who is responsible for this attack.”

Professor McGonagall waved her wand and sent a silvery wispy thing that looked from our distance to be a Patronus that hadn’t formed properly off in the direction of the school, and then she and James walked determinedly up the hill to where the Dementors had first been seen.

Lily closed the door of Honeydukes, her face pale. “Where have they gone?” she whispered.

“Trying to find whoever’s responsible,” said Remus. “They could still be out there.”

“But he could be – he could be killed!” she said, her voice no louder, her green eyes wide and anxious.

“I’m pretty sure he can take care of himself,” Remus reassured her. “McGonagall wouldn’t have taken him if she didn’t think so.” She looked unconvinced and started shaking uncontrollably.

“Oh, look,” I said, giving her a bear hug and trying to distract her. “Dumbledore’s arrived.”

And indeed he had – somehow he had found out what had happened and had hurried down from the castle. Almost immediately afterwards four wizards Apparated onto the main street, and Remus said he thought they were from the Ministry, probably Aurors. They took responsibility for the after effects of the attack and Sirius, after a lengthy conversation with Dumbledore, came and joined us at Honeydukes.

He was visibly relieved when he saw us. “You all okay?” he asked, looking searchingly at each of us in turn. We nodded, thankful it was all over. “All right, then, chocolate all round,” he said, pulling out his money bag. “We’ve all had a shock.” And he went straight to the counter and bought at least three dozen blocks of chocolate, some of which he started breaking apart and handing around to everyone in the shop.

“Thanks,” I mumbled with my mouth full. “But why so much?” I pointed at the pile of chocolates in his arms.

“You forget, Laura,” he said, “there are about a hundred kids in the Three Broomsticks who need it just as much as you do. Moony,” he went on, looking at Remus, “would you mind? I’m beat.”

Remus nodded, a surprisingly indulgent look on his face as he took the chocolate from Sirius, who promptly collapsed onto the floor to my left. “You have a rest, Padfoot,” he said with a grin. “I’ll take these across to the pub.”

Suddenly exhausted, I too sat down, and must have looked even worse than I thought because Sirius looked at me with a very concerned expression on his face. “Don’t worry,” he said quietly, putting an arm around me. “They’re all gone now. It’s over.” I nodded vaguely, still finishing my chocolate, as we watched Remus march across the street to where a number of dazed teenagers were slowly emerging from the safety of the Three Broomsticks.

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Author’s note: We never learned from JKR why James ended up as Head Boy when he wasn’t a prefect, considering that would certainly be an unusual chain of events. I figured it would have to be something pretty big, so saving half the school from the Dementor’s Kiss seemed a reasonable extrapolation of that. (Originally I wrote it as Inferi, considering we’ve had another Dementor attack already in this story, but from what’s been said about Inferi it seems they wouldn’t be out in daylight so that got canned. As were most other Dark Creatures – having it happen during the day was more limiting than I’d thought. And I just couldn’t get a Death Eater attack to work in a way I was happy with.) Anyway, I’d be interested to know what other people think of this idea. Thanks!

29
That night all of us who had been involved in holding off the Dementors, however minor our role might have been, were called in turn to give the Headmaster our version of what had happened that day. We were told that James and Professor McGonagall never found the perpetrator, who must have Disapparated once his or her charges were dispersed, but that James and Sirius’ quick thinking, and James’ leadership, had almost certainly saved more than one person. I didn’t think any of us (aside from James and Sirius) had realised the gravity of the situation at the time, as it had always felt like it was under control, but it was certainly drummed into us that night by the teachers how lucky we had been.

Madam Pomfrey, it transpired, was also rather pleased with Sirius, as his distribution of chocolate immediately after the event meant that she had a much smaller number of traumatised students to deal with, and word was that by way of rewarding him she was pressuring both Dumbledore and McGonagall to let him off a couple of detentions he had yet to serve. He had refused reimbursement for the chocolate, though we understood this was down to pride more than anything else as since he’d left his family the previous year he’d had very little gold of his own.

On the whole it ended up a pretty good day for Gryffindor House. Peter, Martha and Charlotte were each awarded ten points for their efforts in keeping everyone in the Three Broomsticks calm and off the streets. Remus, Lily and I received twenty-five points each for our role in repelling the attack. Sirius received fifty points for his part in stopping the Dementors and for providing chocolate to the students afterwards, and James sixty for not only his wandwork but also the leadership he displayed, particularly in negating the panic that undoubtedly would have ensued if he wasn’t so composed.

“You know, Laura,” Lily said as we left Dumbledore’s office and made our way back to the common room, “I suspect that all these points probably cancel out the last half dozen or so detentions and points lost that James and Sirius have cost us.”

I laughed. “You’re probably onto something there,” I agreed. “I’m looking forward to seeing the hourglass tomorrow morning, it’ll have to have topped up a fair bit.”

She grinned. “Yes, I suspect you’re right,” she said. “I think I’m just glad it’s all over, though. I feel pretty drained after going through it again for Dumbledore. What do you think the chances are that the boys have raided the kitchen for us?”

“Middling to good,” I said, thinking about it. “And I hope they have, too. I’m starving.”

****

Unfortunately for us, our involvement in the affair meant that we were deluged with requests for information almost as soon as we made it back to the castle, and this only increased over the following days. As usually happens in these cases, the re-telling of events made them seem much more impressive than they really were.

I heard one person telling anyone who would listen that Voldemort himself had been behind the attack and was now bound to come after James and Sirius for personal revenge for preventing his taking over the village. Instead of being worried by this suggestion, upon hearing it the boys just grinned at each other and said, “Bring it on!” They never were ones to shrink from a challenge.

And that wasn’t the only variation on the story that was going around the school. “I heard that Potter fought off a mob of Dementors AND some vampires,” I heard a boy who looked like he might be in fifth-year saying at the Hufflepuff table during the week.

“Don’t forget the werewolves,” his friend corrected as they held a group of younger students spellbound. “There were at least half a dozen werewolves there as well.”

“Yeah, and he just held them off with a flick of his wand and then bound them with a ring of fire until the Aurors got there to deal with them,” the first one went on. “They’re talking about giving him an Order of Merlin because of it!”

I just looked at Mary and giggled as we made our way down the table and sat opposite the person in question. How anyone could be naïve enough to credit this version was beyond me – even first-years knew that vampires and werewolves didn’t come out in daylight. Though, I supposed, why let these minor details get in the way of a good yarn?

“I just heard you’re getting an Order of Merlin,” I said conversationally to him as we sat down. “Did you know about that?”

He laughed. “Nice one,” he said. “Which version of the story is giving me that?”

“Dementors, vampires an’ werewolves,” Mary explained from my other side, where she had found a spot next to Marcus. “An’ ye held them off wi’ a ring o’ fire till th’ Ministry go’ there.”

James looked at Sirius, in the spot next to him, and grinned. “Well, that is a new one,” he admitted. “Though if I’m not mistaken, the full moon isn’t due for another week or two, so I’m not quite sure what sort of werewolves they’re talking about.”

“Not to mention the fact that the sun was out,” Sirius added wryly, a note of exasperation in his voice.

“Honestly,” James went on, shaking his head a little, “the way rumours spread at this school is ridiculous. Anyone would think I did the whole thing single-handedly. Let’s face it, there’s bugger all I could have done without you lot to help out.”

This was pretty typical of James’ attitude to the whole thing. While he generally enjoyed the attention the events of Hogsmeade had inevitably given him, he did pass off as much credit as he could to Sirius, and to a lesser extent to Remus, Lily and me, and by the end of the week he was almost getting uncomfortable with how far the story had been exaggerated as it was re-told around the school.

And I couldn’t help but notice that his attitude and determination to share the limelight had one further implication that I was sure he would be ecstatic about. As he pushed the attention aside, it was becoming clearer and clearer that Lily was starting to take him much more seriously as a potential partner. She still thought he could be an arrogant berk, as indeed he was at times, but she had realised he was maturing and I was thinking that, the next time he asked her out, she’d probably say yes. His potentially saving her life was bound to have some fringe benefits, and I expected them to surface sooner rather than later.

****

After the excitement of Hogsmeade it was almost a shame to get back to normality within the castle. However, exams were only a couple of weeks away and, while sixth year exams were only really practice for NEWTs, they were still important enough for us to be worried about them. Some of the teachers let us off a bit of homework as reward for saving Hogsmeade, but the assignments still piled high and most of us were staying up past midnight as a matter of course trying to get more revision crammed in.

In addition, the last Quidditch match of the season was only a week away, where Gryffindor would be playing Slytherin. We had no idea how those students on the Quidditch team were managing to train for that, as well as studying for their exams, but even James (who never appeared to study at all) seemed a bit tired. The two seventh-years on the team, Anna Vector and Marcus Ogden, were looking decidedly stressed as their NEWTs approached and the Beaters, who were both in fifth year and therefore doing their OWLs, looked worse still. Only Clarrie Trimble, Charlotte’s little brother who was in fourth year, and Persephone Alderton, the third-year Seeker, seemed to be immune from the general panic.

Interest in the game was higher than usual because, due to the sudden influx of points to Gryffindor House after Hogsmeade, if we won we were likely to take the House Cup as well as the Quidditch Cup if the victory was by more than ninety points. If Slytherin won, or we won by less than ninety, then Slytherin would take the Quidditch Cup, and a defeat would also mean Ravenclaw would get the House Cup. At least, this is what I was told – I’d given up working out all the permutations and combinations and so relied on others to work out all the possibilities.

There was also a heightened desire for victory from James, because the Slytherin Seeker was Sirius’ little brother Regulus. Sirius took great pleasure in Gryffindor beating Slytherin for anything, and he was particularly vocal in his support of the Quidditch team when they were up against his brother, knowing the news would get back to his parents.

The Quidditch game had the school in high spirits. Even those Houses not involved in the match were looking forward to a distraction from the upcoming exams, and there was also a desire from all other Houses that Slytherin not win the Cup. We Gryffindors who weren’t on the team made a point of forming protective cordons around those who were, as random Slytherins had taken to hexing them in the corridors in an attempt to sabotage our chances. On Wednesday, for example, Severus Snape took his opportunity in Potions to conjure up a swarm of wasps and send them to attack James when Professor Slughorn’s back was turned, though this of course may not have had anything to do with Quidditch.

“Look at that,” Lily whispered as the wasps crossed the dungeon, buzzing angrily as they went. “Why does he keep doing that sort of thing?” She shot a surprisingly dirty look in Snape’s direction.

“You really need to ask?” I whispered back. “They hate each other. The Quidditch match is probably just an excuse.”

Lily just nodded as we watched James, who appeared competely nonplussed, Vanish the wasps quickly before casting a Shield Charm between himself and Severus. He had barely even looked up from his veritaserum to cast the spells before turning back to his cauldron, though I was sure I saw his eyes dart very quickly towards Lily in the process.

“You know,” Lily whispered with obvious admiration, either ignoring or not having noticed him watching her, “I would have thought James would have retaliated more than that. Maybe he’s growing up.”

Or maybe he’s just growing on you, I thought, but I decided not to say that. Instead I glanced at Professor Slughorn, who had been helping Dione Turpin with her potion and didn’t even appear to be aware anything had happened. Then again, both James and Snape were members of the Slug Club, so it was always possible that he had decided to ignore the hex so he wouldn’t have to punish either of them.

As for James not retaliating, however, I did notice that Severus appeared to be suffering from a Twitchy Ears Hex as we left the dungeon after class. And I decided not to point that out to Lily.

There was another unfortunate incident outside the Charms classroom the following day when Persephone Alderton was hit with an Insect Jinx and scuttled around the floor for quarter of an hour before Professor Flitwick could actually hit her with the appropriate anti-jinx. Wilkes from Slytherin was suspected, as he had been passing at the time, but because the spell had been non-verbal no one could say for sure.

In any case, by forming our defensive barriers and casting the occasional Shield Charm around the team members, we managed to get to Saturday morning without any further incidents, and the seven Gryffindors who walked out onto the Quidditch pitch for the start of the game were all definitely in the same number of pieces and the same condition as they had started the week.

The eight remaining sixth-years clambered into one of the stands took two sets of four seats, one behind the other. I had tried to follow Sirius unobtrusively in an attempt to keep close so I would have an excuse to sit next to him when we found our places, but then noticed with a start that Charlotte was doing the same with Remus. I hoped fervently that I wasn’t as blatant as she was, I couldn’t abide the fallout: in my mind’s eye I imagined Lily’s sympathetic looks and Martha trying not to laugh. In any case, it was too late to do anything about the seating arrangements without being obvious, so I decided to follow the original plan and just enjoy the match.

Not long after we sat down, though (me in between Mary and Sirius in the front row), Sirius leaned in very close to my ear. “Uh, Laura, do you mind if we swap places?”

I looked at him, surprised. That would put me on the edge of the group and him next to Mary, who had Lily on her other side. “Why?”

He just jerked his head towards his other side, and I saw that the space there had been filled by the two Hufflepuff girls who had been in our detention way back before Christmas, both of them squeezing into a spot better suited for one so they could be next to Sirius Black. I’d wondered why we all had to budge down a little. “Oh,” I said. “Yeah, sure.”

We stood up and awkwardly swapped seats, me very aware of just how close we were. Not that there was a lot of room to manoeuvre, but it was a little hard to keep my concentration, let alone my balance, when I was pressed up against him like that. And, to my horror, it seemed like he realised just how much it was affecting me, as he put a hand on my back to steady me. Fortunately we managed to change places before I tumbled headfirst down the grandstand, though I’m sure I was starting to resemble a Quaffle as I finally sat down. It was with a sinking heart that I was discovering that the potential for him turning me into a quivering wreck was increasing by the day, and I was starting to get a very nasty suspicion that snapping out of it wouldn’t be nearly as simple for me as it had seemed to be for Mary with James.

“Thanks for that,” he muttered, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees so his shoulders wouldn’t be so cramped in the narrow space he was occupying, and to my great relief ignoring my discomfort. “She was rubbing up against my leg. It was a bit uncomfortable.”

“Right,” I said, just as quietly. “Though, to be fair, there’s not much room. Maybe she wasn’t doing it deliberately.” After all, my leg was in contact with his, and it certainly wasn’t deliberate on my part. Rather pleasant, yes, and I certainly wasn’t complaining, but not deliberate.

“Well, yes, that’s certainly possible,” he agreed, “but if I have to have someone’s leg up against mine, I’d rather it …” He trailed off, a rather uncomfortable expression on his face.

“If it was someone you actually don’t mind being around,” I finished for him. “Yeah, I can understand that.”

He just nodded, looking somewhat relieved. I hadn’t realised just how much the fan club got to him sometimes, though it had to be a bit wearing. Especially when he gave them no encouragement whatsoever. In any case he was saved from saying anything more about it, as Madam Hooch blew the whistle to start the game.

As always it was fast and furious, with blurs of red and green chasing each other through the air. James, on his new Nimbus Fifteen Hundred, was particularly quick and it was almost impossible to see his arm action as he hurled the Quaffle past the Slytherin Keeper and through the hoops. Clarrie, small and light, dodged Bludgers with ease as he passed off to Anna Vector, who tapped it straight back to him as he flew past. Almost a blur, he caught it and tossed it through the left hoop all in one movement. With the following action having similar results, after just five minutes Slytherin were on the ropes with a deficit of seventy points to ten. An impressive Woollongong Shimmy from James less than ten seconds later meant it moved up eighty to ten, and an Anna Vector feint shortly afterwards pushed it up another ten points.

Mary and Lily, sitting in our row next to Sirius, had formed an unofficial girlfriends’ club, with Mary watching Marcus’ every move on the pitch and Lily James’. It was irrelevant that Lily and James weren’t actually going out, as we could all see that it was coming – the only question was whether it would happen before the summer holidays or after them. She and Mary were holding each other’s arms tightly as they watched their respective love interests dodge, defend, bash, throw and score.

It was half an hour later and with the scores at two hundred and fifty to one hundred and thirty when we first noticed the glimmer of gold that was the Snitch. Unfortunately, Regulus Black appeared to have spotted it before Persephone did, as he hurtled towards a spot just above the left goal hoop for Slytherin. On the best racing broom money could buy, he looked sure to get it first. Fortunately for Gryffindor, our Beater Fin Quigley found an obliging Bludger at just the right moment, and thumped it hard at the spot Regulus’ hand was about to be. Contact was made, and Regulus faltered just long enough to have the Snitch fly away again out of sight. Had he got the Snitch, with the hundred and fifty points it brought, Slytherin would have won both the game and the Cup.

Of course, being a Black, Regulus wasn’t about to let a broken hand stop him from winning the Quidditch Cup for his team, as well as taking the House Cup from his renegade brother. He glared at Fin and repositioned himself on the broom so that he would be able to steer with his knees the next time the Snitch showed itself, which would enable him to use his non-preferred but intact left hand to catch it. Sirius groaned.

“Too proud for his own good,” he muttered to me, just loud enough for me to hear over the commentary. “He should just cut his losses and get that hand fixed.”

“They’d have to forfeit,” I pointed out. “They don’t have a reserve Seeker. And what Slytherin would abandon the opportunity to take Gryffindor off the top of the pile?”

He paused for a while as though considering what I’d said. “Particularly him,” he agreed eventually. “He’d lose an opportunity to gloat at me.”

I stole a glance at him. I was having trouble understanding exactly what the two brothers’ relationship was. Sometimes they appeared to be at constant loggerheads, exchanging vitriolic attacks and leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to outdo the other, and other times I noticed a fondness and respect there and a reluctance to hurt or offend each other. It seemed to be a constant contradiction and I wasn’t quite sure which extreme it was at now.

Another hush fell over the crowd and we turned our attention back to the game. This time it was Persephone who had spotted the Snitch. Regulus, just behind her and on a much faster broom, was struggling to control it properly with only one good hand and while normally he would have been able to easily sweep past her and gather up the small golden ball, this time he just wasn’t able to get in the right spot. Persephone, still in front, was probably unaware of what was happening behind her, and grabbed the Snitch easily as it hovered about two hundred feet above the ground not far from the grandstand we were sitting in.

The stands erupted as cheers and whistles came from all corners except, of course, the Slytherin contingent behind their goals – Gryffindor had won four hundred and sixty points to one hundred and eighty, thereby securing both the Quidditch and House Cups, unless for some reason someone lost over a hundred points between now and the end of exams. (And James and Sirius, out of all Gryffindors the most likely to do something that had the potential for losing that many points, were being held in such high regard by the senior members of staff at that point that it looked very improbable.) The girlfriends’ club was ecstatic – Marcus had let in just eighteen goals, and James had scored eleven – and everyone stood up and started hugging each other in excitement. When it came to hugging Sirius, though, I noticed an awkwardness in the action, though whether it came from me or from him I couldn’t have said. In any case, we seemed to hold on to each other for a little longer than necessary, trying to shake off the discomfort I was sure we both felt.

****

The party in the Gryffindor common room that night was more raucous and high-spirited than any I could remember. Remus and James disappeared for a spell and reappeared with cases of butterbeer, and Sirius and Peter similarly showed up with trays of food from the kitchens. I admit to feeling a little smug that I knew exactly how they got all of these, having been to the kitchens with Sirius and also seen that amazing map they had written. It seemed the whole House had decided to join in and Anna Vector was doing laps of the common room, carrying the Quidditch Cup around over her head, the butterbeer it had been filled with sloshing over the edges and dripping onto her robes.

“Three cheers for Gryffindor!” someone yelled from somewhere near the window, and the resultant sound should have been nearly enough to lift the roof off the common room, as Anna, James, Marcus, Clarrie and the rest of the team found themselves forced into the middle of the room amid tumultuous applause and almost forcefed butterbeer and anything else that people may have managed to smuggle in.

The party went well into the night, and as expected people started pairing off after a while. Mary and Marcus found the closest proximity to a secluded corner that they could and spent several hours ‘getting to know’ each other better, and Martha was doing likewise with Duncan Abercrombie from seventh year, who had been sitting next to her in the grandstand during the game. I understood that Peter had been on her other side so she had welcomed the distraction Duncan had provided. I had been half expecting Lily and James to pair up that night as well, but she obviously wasn’t quite ready for that yet, though she spent a tidy spell early on watching him through her hair, thinking that no one realised what she was doing.

I spent much of the night with Charlotte who, even though she still denied that she liked Remus, spent a lot of time talking about him, how he looked, whether he was well, and how he was behaving towards her. Unfortunately, however, that wasn’t the only thing she noticed.

“What’s wrong with Sirius?” she asked about halfway through the night. “It’s almost like he’s avoiding us. Have you upset him or something?”

I kept my face as impassive as possible. The trouble was that she was right, he did seem to be avoiding us. Whenever we moved in his direction he hurriedly took off somewhere else so our paths wouldn’t cross, and even when he’d been at the bar he would disappear as we approached rather than get us our drinks. I didn’t have a clue what I’d done – if it was to do with me in the first place – and it was rather unsettling.

“I have no idea,” I said quite honestly. “Maybe it’s got nothing to do with us at all, it just seems that way.”

She looked at him shrewdly, even taking off her glasses and cleaning them before putting them back on and watching him again, and shook her head. “No, I think it’s to do with us. And I’ve barely had anything to do with him lately, so it’d have to be you. Are you sure you haven’t said anything to offend him?”

I wracked my brain trying to think of anything it could be, going over every conversation we’d had in the previous few days, but nothing stood out. The only thing I could think of that might possibly be right was that he had guessed how I felt about him and was trying to put me off gently – but there was no way known I was going to say that out loud. Charlotte and I were getting reasonably close, but we definitely weren’t that close. Admissions like that were strictly reserved for Mary’s ears only.

Meanwhile Lily and James started getting cosy by the fire, still not touching each other but actually having a conversation that went for longer than five minutes and didn’t involve any wands being drawn, which we thought might have been a record as far as they were concerned. It looked like James was determined not to mess it up this time, and was letting things run their course without trying any bad pickup lines or asking her out at inopportune moments, and Lily appeared prepared to go with the flow.

By the time the party wound up at about three in the morning, half the people there had found a special someone to share the evening with and were snogging in various corners of the common room. Charlotte and I, however, were both just as single as we had been when the night started, and Lily and James were still sitting by the fire, talking. Sirius had disappeared up the boys’ staircase not long after midnight and hadn’t reappeared, and Remus and Peter were sitting on the floor with a couple of fourth-years, chatting away amiably without paying the slightest attention to what was going on around them while Mary’s cat played with a pile of butterbeer corks in the middle of their circle. Charlotte and I looked at each other and, agreeing that it was time for bed, picked our way over the squashed-in food and smashed bottles that littered the floor to the girls’ staircase, pitying the house elves who would have to clean up the chaos before the sun rose.

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Author’s note: I feel like this chapter needs more dialogue to make it read better, but I just couldn’t get any more in there in a way that I was happy with. And in order to keep the story’s flow going right I had to break it up here so adding scenes wasn’t really an option. So I just hope you will forgive me this one transgression and bear with me for the next chapter, which does flow a little better.

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30
Once the Quidditch Cup had been settled, we really had nothing to take our minds off the upcoming exams. Every spare minute was spent with our noses in various textbooks or re-reading our notes and essays from the year, as we all frantically tried to work out what we were most likely going to be tested on. It was a frantic time and there never seemed to be enough hours in the day to get everything done. In fact, Martha’s idea the previous year of breaking into the Ministry to steal a few time-turners had never sounded so appealing.

Like all girls with what was – to my horror – developing into an increasingly ridiculous obsession, I welcomed this time as it meant I barely had a spare moment to think about Sirius. That is, I saw him, of course, it would be impossible not to when we had almost all the same classes and shared the common room as a homework and revision space, but if I wanted to pass sixth year then I really couldn’t waste time watching him over my Potions textbook or pretending to stare absently at the fire (okay, read that as staring at someone who was usually in close vicinity to the fire) when I was trying to remember a spell. It worked as an occasional distraction – especially since he’d stopped avoiding me, with me none the wiser as to what that had been about in the first place – but getting my revision done was important enough to give me quite enough to be getting on with.

Finally the exams themselves began. First up was Ancient Runes, which was made more difficult when I made a right hash of my first attempt at Runes translation. Fortunately I realised my error and was able to undo most of the damage, though it did leave me feeling more than a little flustered and it meant I didn’t do as well for the rest of the exam as I might have hoped. I was pretty sure I hadn’t botched it badly enough to make me repeat sixth-year Runes, but it was still not the result I was looking for. Why did Fehu and Ansuz have to look so similar anyway?

“Don’t worry about it,” Remus said as I fretted to him as we left the large classroom being utilised for sixth year exams after it had finished. “If that’s the worst thing you’ve done today, you’ll get through fine.”

“But it changed the whole meaning of the text,” I pointed out. “I had it talking about money instead of communication. I pretty much had to re-write my whole analysis.”

“Well, it was only one essay out of four,” Remus said placatingly. “It could have been worse. You could have confused Eihwaz and Inguz, those are opposites so you would have been in all sorts of trouble.”

“Thank goodness we don’t have anything this afternoon,” I muttered, more worked up about it all than I wanted to admit. “I think I need a stiff drink before I get on with anything else.”

Remus grinned. “If you’re sure about that, I’m sure the guys can come up with something for you,” he said airily. “What would you prefer, Firewhisky, redcurrant rum or elderflower wine? Or I’m sure Padfoot could lay his hands on some mead, if you’d rather that.”

I cracked a smile for the first time since leaving the exam, and it wasn’t just from hearing Sirius’ nickname. “Hmm … well I did say a stiff drink, didn’t I? So that’d be Firewhisky or rum. You know, I might just take you up on that.”

I was only half joking. A stiff drink would also serve to make me more relaxed around Sirius, who I was bound to see sometime during the afternoon considering we both had it off and it was becoming more and more common for the sixth-year Gryffindors to converge in the same place on these occasions. And Remus made sure of it at the lunch table, when he cocked an eyebrow at James, Sirius and Peter when they arrived and seated themselves opposite us.

“How did the exam go?” Sirius asked carelessly as he found a plate and piled it high with roast chicken and vegetables.

I just rolled my eyes and let Remus respond, which in hindsight was probably a mistake. “Not too bad, but Laura had a bit of a shocker.”

“Mistranslation,” I explained when they all looked at me quizzically. “Two runes that look similar but mean completely different things. I had to re-write my whole essay.”

“Not fun in an exam,” Peter said sympathetically. I looked at him and smiled – for someone who had been pretty much terrified of girls for the past six years, he was getting more and more self-confident. He might even find himself a girlfriend before seventh year was out.

“She got a bit worked up about it,” Remus went on, ignoring the fact that I was starting to get increasingly embarrassed, probably due more to who was sitting directly opposite me than anything else. “Said something about needing a stiff drink before she gets on with anything this afternoon.” And I could have sworn I saw him wink across the table as he said it.

“Really?” asked James, looking at me in surprise. “You? Well, not what I was expecting, but –”

Sirius cut him off. “No, she can be a bit of a wild one, Laura can. I caught her months ago sneaking into the common room at two in the morning after a night on the piss.”

I threw him a look – he may have been gorgeous but I wasn’t about to let him get away with that. “That’s rather an exaggeration, don’t you think? I had a few glasses because it was my birthday, that’s all.”

“And could barely walk up the stairs afterwards,” Sirius pointed out, a broad smile on his face. “I heard someone had to break into Sluggy’s stores the next morning and steal some Sobering Solution so you could make it to class.”

That shut me up: I had no intention of getting Lily into trouble. Besides, I suspected James would probably find that story a bit of a turn-on (I’d noticed that Lily breaking the rules usually got him a little bit – er – enthusiastic), and I figured that he already fancied her enough without me adding any ammunition to his fantasies.

“So, do you still need that drink?” James asked easily, also ignoring my increasing discomfort. “We’ve got a few things stashed away if you want something. Whisky, rum, wine …”

I shook my head. “No, I’ve calmed down now. Besides, I don’t think that alcohol would be a good idea when I’m supposed to be revising for Transfiguration. That human Transfiguration stuff is difficult enough even when I’ve got full control of my facilities.”

James looked at me doubtfully. “Sounds to me like you’re making excuses,” he said. “You know we’d be happy to help you out if you need a hand, too.” He turned towards Sirius. “You don’t have anything on this afternoon, do you, Padfoot?”

I froze momentarily. An afternoon alone with Sirius while he tutored me in Transfiguration? While I couldn’t deny I would most probably enjoy it immensely, there was always the very real possibility that I’d do something that would let on how I felt about him and that was the last thing I wanted. And I’d be likely to be so distracted that I wouldn’t learn anything anyway. Especially with the way he looked that day, which had to be more striking than usual? Or maybe I was just noticing it more. As a result, even while Sirius was confirming James’ offer of help, I was coming up with excuses as to why it wouldn’t be necessary.

“No, thanks anyway, but I’ll be fine,” I said, hopefully sounding more sure of myself than I felt.

Sirius looked surprised and even a little disappointed, as though he had been looking forward to showing off how much he knew to a lesser mortal such as me. “I thought you were having trouble?”

“I’m fine,” I repeated. “Right as rain. Really.”

“If you’re sure,” James said doubtfully, looking shrewdly at me in a way I rather didn’t like. “Well, drink, then?”

It was almost like he was making up reasons for me to spend the afternoon with them, and I wasn’t sure that would be a good idea. And I definitely didn’t know why Remus seemed to be finding the whole thing so amusing, but he definitely was – I could feel the bench we shared shaking a little as he tried not to laugh. In any case, I shook my head once more. “I just remembered, I have to meet Mary this afternoon,” I invented quickly. “But thanks anyway.”

“If you’re sure,” James said again, his eyebrows hovering somewhere near his hairline. “Though I don’t know why you’re making excuses, it’s not like we’re going to force it down your throat if you don’t want any. Forced consumption of anything isn’t something Dumbledore takes lightly.”

“And we’ve got a fairly good idea of what he takes lightly and what he doesn’t,” Sirius added, stating the obvious, though it occurred to me that it mustn’t have clicked with him yet that spiking people’s drinks at parties probably fell into that category. “If not, we probably wouldn’t have made it to the end of sixth year.”

Peter looked surprised. “What do you mean, Padfoot?” he asked, confusion all over his face as he gnawed at a chicken wing.

Sirius grinned conspiratorially at me and rolled his eyes. Great, that helped my mental state enormously. What was I saying about him turning me into a quivering wreck? Fortunately I was saved from actually speaking by Remus, who took it upon himself to (once again) break off a potential argument.

“He meant we haven’t been kicked out yet,” he said gently, throwing a warning look at Sirius in the process. “We know where to draw the line.”

“But you went right over that line last year,” Peter said earnestly, his eyes on Sirius. “Even Dumbledore said he couldn’t believe you would risk Moo-”

“So, Laura, you definitely don’t want that drink?” James asked loudly, cutting Peter off and giving him a surprisingly dirty look as he did so. “It might settle you down a bit for that revision if you’re still worked up about this morning.”

I had no idea what Peter had said that had made James feel the need to shut him up like that, but I couldn’t deny that the vibe at the table had become considerably more uncomfortable since he’d said it. In an attempt to lighten things up again, I decided to agree with James.

“Yeah, why not,” I said. “Just let me finish my lunch first so it’s not on an empty stomach.”

James looked relieved. The mood hadn’t lightened enough for me to dare glance at any of the others just yet, but it was clear that the change of subject was welcomed by everyone. Except perhaps Peter, who had brought up whatever it was in the first place and in all likelihood, like me, wasn’t entirely sure why what he’d said had been so controversial.

****

Despite turning down Sirius’ offer of instruction in Transfiguration, I made it through the exam with less difficulty as I had imagined, even the theory component which was so full of complicated rules and theories that I was sure even the boys would have had trouble getting their heads around it all. In any case I was pretty sure I’d done enough to pass and was feeling much more confident in my own abilities.

That night, as Mary studied for the Herbology exam on Wednesday, I was sitting by myself in the common room playing a few rounds of Muggle Patience with a deck of Self-Shuffling Playing Cards. Lily was out on patrol with Remus, Martha was in a broom cupboard somewhere with Duncan, Charlotte was reading her Divination textbook, and Mary was at our favourite table by the window, still up to her ears in what were essentially gardening texts. I’d finished revising and found that the solitary game helped clear my head, especially when it was too late for me to take a quick ride around the Quidditch pitch.

“Stuck again,” I muttered to myself, packing up the cards into one pile where they dutifully re-shuffled themselves. I had started on a new game when a shadow came between me and the light. I looked up to see James hovering by my table.

“Laura, have you seen – oh, what’s that you’re doing?” he asked, clearly distracted by the cards set out on the table in front of me.

“Muggle Patience,” I said. “It helps calm me down before exams.”

“Ooh, would Lily know that game?” I had to smile at his enthusiasm. James even took NEWT-level Muggle Studies in an effort to learn more about the world Lily had come from.

“I’d say so, most Muggles know it. Whether they bother with it or not is another matter,” I said lightly.

“So how do you play it?”

I sighed. “How about I show you another time,” I suggested, missing my quiet time. “Anyway, that’s not why you came over here, is it?”

His face dropped. “Oh yeah. Have you seen Padfoot?”

Just who I wanted to talk about. Sirius. It would be a test to discuss him with James of all people without making a fool of myself, so I just said the first thing that came into my head, which ended up being rather flippant. “Have you looked down the back of the couch? I often find lost things down there. You know, odd socks, stray Sickles, missing best friends …”

James laughed. “And that of course is why,” he said with a grin. I looked at him, confused – what on earth did that mean? James went on, ignoring my quizzical expression and clearly deciding to play along. “Yeah, I did try there, but there wasn’t much room once we pulled Wormtail out from underneath a cushion.”

“Well, I haven’t seen him for a while,” I said, just wanting to get back to my Patience. After all, I played it to calm down and settle my nerves and talking about Sirius was rather counterproductive there. I also thought I might get this game out, it had started well, but I decided that I really should be polite. “Should I have?”

“I don’t know where he’s gone,” he said, not answering my question. “And he’s got the map. Normally he’s easy to find, you just look for –” He stopped, checking himself, but I could finish that sentence myself – ‘the crowd of girls’ – and I wasn’t really in the mood to play along with boosting their egos. Particularly when it concerned Sirius and the extent of my competition, which I really didn’t like thinking about.

“Look, James,” I said with a touch of exasperation, “just because I’m female doesn’t mean I automatically know where Sirius is. Not every girl is so hung up on him that they keep tabs on his whereabouts.” While technically true it wasn’t the case with me, of course, but I’d never tell James that. I had seen a breathless fourth-year passing a note to Sirius earlier in the night, and he’d read it and disappeared out the portrait hole without a word to anyone.

James’ face was a combination of confusion and surprise. “But that wasn’t what I meant,” he said. “I just thought … oh, forget it.” He turned and traipsed back to the armchairs by the fire where the other boys were perched.

His question was answered a minute or two later, however, when the portrait hole opened and Sirius climbed in, his face blank with that closed look that he got when something was bothering him.

“Padfoot!” came the cry from the fireside. “Where have you been, mate?”

I watched with interest over my cards as Sirius joined the throng by the fire. “Went to see McGonagall,” he said noncommittally, looking absently around the room. He caught my eye and I looked back at my cards, embarrassed to have been sprung listening in on their conversation.

“Not another detention?” came Peter’s voice, easy to recognise as it was somewhat higher and squeakier than those of the other three.

“No, no, nothing like that,” Sirius answered wearily. I wondered why his friends were pushing it when he so obviously didn’t want to discuss whatever it was. “I think I’ll go to bed,” he said finally, ignoring the silence around him.

Through my hair I saw him glance my way again as he made his way through the common room to the boys’ stairs, and I shuddered involuntarily. There were all sorts of things he could have read into my little display of eavesdropping, not all of them incorrect, and I hoped sincerely that I hadn’t just killed off what fledgling friendship we might have had.

****

We had our practical exam in the morning, with the theory to follow that afternoon. I thought that I got through the practical part pretty well, having (among other things) successfully identified an Alihotsy and pruned a Devil’s Snare without being strangled. Feeling confident, I was guided with Greta Catchlove out of the exam room and into a small classroom nearby where we were to wait until everyone had finished, where inside waited several other students who had also completed the morning’s tasks.

Most of them were sitting around in groups testing each other for that afternoon’s theory exam, and I heard Hector Bole reciting the list of flesh-eating trees to himself. Sitting in the corner looking bored – but handsome – was Sirius. I realised that it would look suspicious if I ignored him so, taking a deep breath to get my nerve up, I went to join him.

“How’d you go?” I asked as I sat down next to him, leaning back against the wall so I didn’t have to look directly at him. After all, there was less chance I would embarrass myself that way.

“Brilliant, of course,” he said unconcernedly, raking his fingers through his hair. “How about you?”

“Definitely a pass,” I replied. “Probably an E, hopefully an O, though it depends on this afternoon, obviously.” I paused for a minute, wondering if I should say anything about the previous evening.

“Look, about last night in the common room,” I said finally. “I didn’t mean to listen in or anything. James was just being pretty loud.”

He looked surprised, clearly racking his brain to work out what I was on about. “Don’t worry about it,” he said after a moment. “Everyone hears everything in the common room, I didn’t think you were eavesdropping or anything.” I sighed inwardly, immensely relieved. He continued. “I’d just had a bit of bad news, that’s all.”

I let that sit for a spell as Gertie Cresswell and Caradoc Dearborn came into the room, their exams obviously over as well. “Well, if you want to talk about it, I’m here,” I said quietly. “If you don’t, that’s fine too.” I noticed his eyes had narrowed so I wasn’t expecting him to talk, but since we were supposed to be friends I felt honour-bound to offer him the option.

He hesitated, looking at me out of the corner of his eye and apparently pondering the idea. “My uncle died,” he said eventually. “One of the only people in my family I actually liked. And no one bothered to tell me.”

Normally I would have asked whether it was connected with the Death Eaters but with the Blacks I suspected that was unlikely. In any case it wasn’t pleasant news. I looked at him sympathetically and had a strong urge to grab his hand and squeeze it. “That’s awful,” I said, successfully mastering the impulse. “Was it sudden?”

He laughed bitterly, his grey eyes steely. “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen him since I left two Christmases ago.” He paused again. “They told Reg, he went to the funeral and everything, and they didn’t tell me. And Reg didn’t tell me either, the git.”

“You’re joking,” I said. I knew Sirius had a mixed relationship with his brother, but not telling him about a death in the family seemed a little low even for Regulus.

“Following orders, I don’t doubt,” Sirius spat. “Anyway, I only found out because apparently he left me some gold. That would have gone down well,” he added cynically, “aiding the prodigal son. Good thing he’s already dead or they would have disowned him, too.”

“So that’s why you had to see McGonagall?” I guessed. “To sort out what’s in his will?”

“Yep, that’s right,” he said, suddenly more business-like. “That’s the only good thing to come out of it. I can afford to get a place of my own now.” He smiled wryly.

“I thought you were living with James,” I said. “That not working out?”

“Well, that’s not really the point,” he said. “Prodigal son or not, whoever heard of a Black living off charity? I appreciate it and everything, but I’m not exactly comfortable with it.”

“Ah, the Black family pride,” I said airily, trying to cover my surprise that he was even discussing this sort of thing with me in the first place. “I thought I’d heard a rumour about that at some point.”

He looked at me and smiled suddenly, his good humour seemingly restored. “Something like that.” He paused for a moment, watching me. “Thanks, Laura,” he said finally, smiling again. “I do feel better.”

I was saved from responding by the door to the Great Hall opening again, revealing Lily along with Maggie Flint from Slytherin. Lily beamed at us and came over to join us, the conversation turning to more mundane matters.

****

The next day was a day off for pretty much all of sixth year – for some reason the History of Magic exam had been scheduled for the afternoon and nothing at all in the morning. As practically no one was still taking History of Magic, we all saw it as a time to prep ourselves for the Defence exams the following day. At least, most of us did, though we did decide to make the most of the June sunshine by doing our revision outside on the banks of the black lake.

Even though it was a weekday, the fact that we had no exams at all meant that we felt no compulsion to wear our school robes, and instead the girls and I wandered down to the lawn in jeans and t-shirts, which as always were far more comfortable. It was a decidedly agreeable way to spend the afternoon, lying on my stomach underneath the beech tree, a quill tucked behind my ear and my Defence textbook open in front of me as the girls and I tested each other on curses and counter-curses and practiced our Patronuses.

The boys weren’t far away, dressed pretty much as we were and throwing a Quaffle they had obviously procured from the school supplies somehow to each other, James regularly looking furtively over his shoulder to see if Lily had seen his latest pass or catch. He was obviously the best of the four which was hardly surprising considering his years on the House Quidditch team, but Sirius and Remus were also holding their own rather nicely, Remus in particular impressing me with a couple of spectacular takes that I wouldn’t have thought him capable of. Only Peter, as usual sorely lacking in talents the others had in spades, regularly dropped catches or missed the Quaffle entirely, and his throws generally went rather wide of the person he was aiming at.

We were well into the afternoon when Charlotte suddenly stopped mid-sentence while she was trying to recite the difference between a curse and a hex, and we all followed her gaze to the boys’ game. “Look at that, would you,” she muttered underneath her breath.

We didn’t need telling twice. The sun had come out and, obviously feeling the heat, the boys started taking their shirts off, so all thoughts of Defence revision disappeared abruptly as we enjoyed the spectacle. Though soon enough Mary had torn her eyes from James, Sirius and Remus (particularly James, I suspected) and was struggling to suppress a giggle.

“Poor lad,” she said quietly, her eyes on Peter. “Hoo can he hope t’ live up t’ th’ ithers? Dae ye think he’d be too offended if we asked him nicely t’ put th’ shirt back on?”

She was right: Peter looked much better covered up. The other three, however, were another matter entirely – even Remus, though he did have some scars across his abdomen that I was surprised Madam Pomfrey hadn’t been able to remove – and I was sure they were enjoying the attention they were getting from just about everyone in the vicinity.

“Do you think we should get a petition organised?” Lily asked mischievously, her eyes darting to Peter only briefly before they returned to James, who from the grin on his face had to be fully aware he had her almost undivided attention.

“Brilliant idea, Lils,” Martha agreed. “Here, give me your quill, will you, I’ll be the first name on it.”

By this point I was only vaguely taking their conversation in. Study? What study? I was too busy drooling (unfortunately I mean that literally) to concentrate on anything as complicated as Defence, and Mary kicked me more than once as I faltered when trying to recite various definitions and counter-curses. To tell the truth, when Sirius had taken his shirt off in the first place my mouth had dropped open in awe – some things looked so good they just shouldn’t be shown. It was far too much of a tease, flaunting it like that, particularly when I knew he was beyond my reach.

In fact, the only thing that stopped me from giving up my revision entirely and just watching them was the fact that soon enough my eyes had caught Sirius’ enough times for me to realise it must have been blatantly obvious that I was checking him out, and I was sure he’d be convinced that I was just like Elvira. And this, while true it its own way, was definitely not an impression I wanted to propagate. Then again, just about the entire female population of Hogwarts was watching either him or James or Remus by then, no matter what year or House they were from, so perhaps I wasn’t as bad as I thought, and in any case I didn’t think I was being as obvious as Lily. Despite that, however, I was terrified that my secret might get out so I forced myself to change my position so that I couldn’t see them any more. It was a sacrifice and much harder to actually do than I had anticipated, but it was also the only way I was guaranteed not to make a fool of myself.

Needless to say we all got significantly less revision done that afternoon than we had hoped, and it was with a twinge of guilt that we settled into the common room after supper to try once again to get our heads around everything we needed to know. After all, not all of us had the brains of a James or a Sirius, both of whom seemed to be able to do anything that came up in Defence with both hands tied behind their backs and without a wand, and with the exam the next day we really did need to be on top of it all. Fortunately this time the boys didn’t distract us with a strip show (or whatever you wanted to call their display that afternoon – they probably were hot and wanted to cool down, but Martha kept insisting that for James, at least, it had been for Lily’s benefit) and, by mostly keeping our backs to them in the common room, we did manage to almost completely concentrate on the task at hand.

Fortunately there were no further diversions, and by the time we felt the need to pack up and go to bed we’d all got through enough to be feeling relatively confident about the following day’s exams. And we all got through them relatively unscathed, even Peter who this year hadn’t made a mess of anything or Vanished anything or anyone he wasn’t supposed to. That left for the second week just Charms, Potions, and a couple of electives – Mary and Martha had Astronomy, Mary had Muggle Studies and Charlotte had Divination, with Care of Magical Creatures and Arithmancy having already taken place.

Potions, first up the following Monday, as always was a bit of a trial. Let’s face it, making something as complicated as Polyjuice Potion is difficult enough at the best of times, let alone under exam conditions. I didn’t even have Lily at my table to help out and to tell the truth I missed her significantly, even without the distraction of Al Jorkins melting his cauldron halfway through and needing a replacement. However, I persevered and it was with great relief that I realised the sample I handed up at the end of the exam looked more or less like it was supposed to.

The theory paper that afternoon was less difficult than I had thought it would be, which kind of made up for the practical that morning. And Charms a couple of days later was comparatively a breeze – I was even smiling as I successfully cast a Refilling Charm, an Imperturbable Charm and a Confundus Charm (among others) for my elderly examiner. And then it was over: sixth year, as far as I was concerned, had officially finished. Naturally Lily, Charlotte and I waited on Mary and Martha, who still needed to do their Astronomy exam, before we started celebrating, but celebrate we definitely did. It was over, it hadn’t been as bad as we thought, and we only had one more year before we were done, dusted, and qualified.

________________________________________


Author's note: I've had a few reviews about this so I thought I'd better qualify the Potions exam. I know that Polyjuice Potion takes a full month to make properly - you have to pick the fluxweed at the full moon and stew the lacewing flies for a month or something (I don't have the book with me to check, sorry). My thought for this exam, though, was that the students would have all those ingredients provided - fluxweed picked at the right time, pre-stewed flies and the like - and have to put them together, along with a part of the examiner also provided, under exam conditions. That would still be hard, right? After all, it's supposed to be an incredibly complicated potion. So yeah, I know that they wouldn't be able to make it from scratch, but that was what I had in mind for this exam. Thanks!

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31
The first few weeks of the summer holidays were in many ways all about mobility. Pretty much as soon as I got home Mum got me straight back in the car so I could get some practice in before going for my full drivers licence. Since I was the only one of her children who showed any interest in driving whatsoever she took to the task rather enthusiastically, and before I had been home two weeks she thought I was probably ready to sit the test.

Of course, with her job it wasn’t exactly difficult to set a time for that, and she even convinced one of her colleagues examine me on a Sunday when she wasn’t working so she and Dad could both be there. I was nervous but also looking forward to the prospect of getting my licence, so I practiced diligently and even stopped using Supersensory Charms so I would do everything expected of me in the test. That is, I would drive like a Muggle.

The test itself was surprisingly un-scary, and once I successfully executed a three-point turn, reverse parallel park and hill start (along with everything else), Mum’s colleague advised me that I’d done enough to get my full licence. It was an odd feeling – if I was an ordinary Muggle teenager this would be my ticket to freedom, but as a witch it was more a curiosity than anything else, as my proper ticket to freedom would be my Apparition licence, which I still needed permission to go to London to sit for. However, I agreed with Mum that driving was a useful skill to have, and agreed to take regular trips in the car, even when I was legally able to Apparate, so I didn’t lose the skills. So I had fun driving Bea around Bristol, including a couple of narrow escapes due to inexperience, and a trip to the local cinema to see a film called Star Wars that Mum insisted all the Muggles were raving about.

In late July my parents finally agreed that I could go with Mary to get our Apparition licences, provided that I went to London with Dad in the morning, stayed at the Ministry with him until the time of the test, and then left with Mary and her mother. I could Floo home from Mary’s place later that afternoon (amazingly enough, alone – I was astonished they would let me do that unaccompanied!). According to Mum, the streets of London were unsafe for young women travelling alone, and in any case I had no desire to be hassled by shabby stall-holders wanting to offload their latest good-luck charms. Having said that, I wouldn’t have minded being set loose in Muggle London for a few hours, just for a change, but even that was off limits as far as my parents were concerned.

Fortunately we had booked our tests for eleven o’clock in the morning, so I was only at the Ministry for a couple of hours (spent with my nose in a book) before I went to meet Mary and her mum. The test itself was a fairly simple affair – we had to Apparate to the next room and then back again, without losing so much as a nose hair. Fortunately Wilkie Twycross actually had taught us well, despite our complaints about his teaching style and the Three Ds, and we managed it without issue.

I couldn’t stop smiling when the examiner signed my certificate and handed it to me. Ah, I thought, this was it. This was the sense of liberty that I should have had when I got my drivers licence. This is what Muggle teenagers felt when the driving examiner told them they’d passed. This was my ticket to freedom, to independence, to what being a proper witch was all about. Scrolls in hand, Mary and I gave each other a big hug in recognition of the fact that we were now really adults. Not just seventeen, but seventeen with Apparition licences. Until right now I hadn’t realised what a difference that made.

Mrs Macdonald had elected to wait in the Atrium with the latest copy of Witch Weekly while we did the test so all we had to do was head back down there with our licences afterwards. However I was keen to let Dad know I’d passed, so first we went up to level three to give him the good news. He was very pleased but warned me, as parents do, not to try to Apparate home from the Ministry as it was a lot harder going as far as Bristol as it was getting into the next room. I rolled my eyes at Mary – did he have to be so fatherly? – and we headed back to the lifts.

You could have knocked us over with a feather when the lift doors opened to reveal James and Sirius. Needless to say they were just as shocked to see us, Sirius in particular looking like he couldn’t quite believe his eyes.

James found his voice first. “Laura! Mary! What are you doing here?”

“Apparition tes’,” said Mary, and we both held up our scrolls as though we needed to prove it.

“Both passed, I see,” said Sirius, smiling as he raked his fingers through his hair distractedly. “But isn’t that downstairs somewhere?”

“It is,” I agreed, “but I wanted to tell my dad, and he works on this floor.”

“What does he do?” James asked with polite interest.

“Muggle Liaison with the Obliviators,” I said, recognising that most likely neither of them actually cared but had felt it only courteous to ask.

“Wha’ are ye two doin’ here?” asked Mary, looking at the boys sharply as she changed the subject.

“I had to register change of address details,” Sirius explained.

“Oh, you found a place? Great!” I couldn’t have said why I was so pleased for him but I was; I knew he was really keen to get a place of his own.

“Yep, in Wimbledon, down south a bit,” he said, smiling back and pushing his hair out of his eyes. Ah, that smile again, I thought, feeling my knees go a little weak. I hadn’t seen him for the best part of a month and had forgotten just how attractive he was. Settle down, Laura, settle down. Expelling any improper thoughts from my mind, I forced my face into a more solemn expression.

Mary looked confused. “I though’ ye were living wi’ James?” she asked.

James laughed. “He was, but he came into some gold and insists on paying his own way,” he said. “Stubborn, I call it.”

Sirius was looking uncomfortable and changed the subject. “Hey, we’re about to head out for a bite to eat – did you want to join us?”

“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head, “can’t. We’re meeting Mary’s mum in the Atrium.” The lift stopped and two short wizards and a few owls carrying inter-departmental memos got inside.

Mary was grinning. “Aye, someone’s parents won’ let her oot i’ London wi’oot a qualified chaperone. They’re worried th’ Death Eaters will ge’ her.”

I shook my head and groaned. “Even Muggle London, can you believe it? And to think I was hoping to get some driving in.”

“Right,” said James. “I guess we can’t argue with parental orders. For those of us who still listen to our parents, that is.” He grinned at Sirius, who was looking at me with a rather odd expression on his face.

“Driving? You mean Muggle driving?”

“Yeah, why?” I asked.

“You can drive?” asked James, looking impressed. “That is so cool!!” The lift doors opened and we all trundled out and headed back to the main reception area.

As I smiled to myself at the irony of James Potter calling me cool I could hear Mary laughing again. “James, Sirius, mee’ Laura, half Muggle, whose mither works fer th’ Muggle police. Aye, she can drive. She ha’ th’ best instructors ye can fin’.”

“I don’t drive very well, though,” I qualified. “I’ve only just got my full licence. Hence the need for practice.”

“You can teach us, though, right?” asked James, his eyes on Sirius.

“Yes, and you can explain the licensing to me, that makes no sense,” agreed Sirius, that smile back on his face.

I rolled my eyes – just when I would be able to teach them to drive was beyond me. I mean, it wasn’t like we could take a run on a Hogsmeade weekend or something. “Yeah, why not,” I said resignedly.

The boys exchanged wicked grins which left me wondering exactly what I had just agreed to. Fortunately just then I spied Mrs Macdonald in her seat just beyond the Fountain of Magical Brethren, Witch Weekly apparently finished. “Okay, guys, there’s our lift,” I said, indicating her. “Nice to bump into you, we’ll see you at school.” And we grinned and took off, me hoping my cheeks weren’t scarlet, and went to show Mrs Macdonald our new Apparition licences.

“Look, Ma!” said Mary happily. “Both passed!”

“First time and all,” I added.

She looked very pleased. “Well done, girls! Ready to go now then?”

“Sure, Mrs Mac,” I said, making a strong effort not to look over my shoulders to see if I could see where Sirius was. It was with a tidy bit of self-control and concentration on things like breathing out and in that I made it to the Floo exits without once looking after him and James, and I wasn’t sure if I was pleased or not that I succeeded.

After we arrived back at the Macdonald household, our Apparition licences in hand, Mary tackled me over lunch. “Hoo di’ ye ken Sirius was movin’ oot?”

“What?” My mind was still on his smile and I wasn’t quite concentrating on what she was saying.

“Ye’re still thinkin’ aboot him, aren’t ye,” she said shrewdly.

I tried to look ashamed, hoping it wasn’t too obvious he’d pretty much turned me into a quivering wreck. Which, if I was counting, would make my score Quivering Wreck 1; Laura 0. “Maybe,” I admitted. “I’d forgotten just how gorgeous he is.”

She laughed. “Ye are gone on him,” she said. “I’ve definitely seen him lookin’ better than he di’ today, he looked like he’d jus’ go’ oot o’ bed. Hadna shaved or anythin’. Anyway,” she went on, smiling at my embarrassment as I tried (unsuccessfully) not to imagine Sirius getting out of bed, “ye soonded lik’ ye already knew he was leavin’ th’ Potters’ an’ all. Hoo di’ ye ken tha’?”

“Oh,” I said, “he told me. After the Herbology exam.”

Her eyebrows rose. “He tol’ ye? I though’ he ne’er tol’ anyone tha’ sor’ o’ thing.” Thinking about it, she was right, he never was one for talking about his domestic arrangements.

“I must have beat it out of him,” I said, casting my mind back to the conversation. “Something was bothering him so I asked him what it was. And he sat and thought about it for a bit, and then he said that he’d inherited some gold and he was pleased because it meant he could move out of the Potters’. He wasn’t comfortable living off charity, I think was how he put it.”

Mary whistled. “I dinna ken wha’ it is aboot ye,” she said, looking rather impressed, “bu’ ye always manage t’ ge’ this sor’ o’ stuff oot o’ people. Good thing ye’re nae th’ gossipin’ type, isna it.”

“If I was, I suspect no one would tell me anything,” I said dryly.

“Where’d he ge’ th’ gold?” Mary asked suddenly. “I though’ he wa’ disinherited.”

“So did he,” I agreed. “Apparently he had an uncle who he got along well with, and he died. He was a bit upset no one had told him about it, it was only when McGonagall told him about the will that he found out it had happened.”

“Nasty,” said Mary. “I knew there wa’ a reason I still ge’ along wi’ my family.”

“Absolutely,” I said, nodding. “Though, to be fair, his does sound like one of the worst.”

Mary nodded. “Aye, th’ Blacks are a strange lot,” she said. “All fer blood purity an’ tha’ sor’ o’ bollocks. He did well t’ ge’ oot.”

I smiled wryly. “Well, let’s face it, Mary, if he didn’t then we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. Not with me a half-blood.”

She grinned. “Aye, yer richt, o’ course. Though tha’ woul’ mak’ my life a wee bi’ easier …” And she ducked, too late, as I threw a bread roll at her.

****

In early August I had another obligation, which was to act as bridesmaid when my cousin Gwendolyn married Morgan Llewellyn, who she’d met at school. Bea and I had been chosen for the role as her closest female relatives, and I’d been in close contact with her via owl regarding dress measurements and dancing lessons, which she was insisting we take so we didn’t embarrass her or ourselves on the dance floor.

“Okay, Bea,” I said the day before we were due to leave for their hamlet a few miles beyond Cardiff, “our dresses have been finished so we just have to collect them from the dressmaker when we get there.”

She stopped hexing the dog, whose ears were emitting sparks, and looked at me. “Our dresses?”

I rolled my eyes . “Remember, bridesmaid duties? Why do you think we’ve been taking those dancing lessons?”

She scrunched up her face, thinking. “Oh yeah,” she said finally. “When’s the wedding again?”

Typical Bea. No interest in anything beyond her own little world. “Saturday. And the rehearsal’s tomorrow so we have to get there by midday.”

“And what’re the dresses like?” Bea asked. I pulled out the photograph Gwendolyn had sent me of the finished gowns, which were simple, straight and violet-coloured, and showed her. “I’m not wearing THAT,” she pronounced immediately. “I’d look like a stick of lavender.”

“Better than looking like a chrysanthemum,” I muttered to myself. Unfortunately she heard me.

“Chrysanthemum?” she asked. “That dress I liked doesn’t look like a chrysanthemum!”

“Right,” I said. “You think that if it makes you happy.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Look, Bea, we’re bridesmaids. Not the bride. We don’t actually have a say in what we wear. Whatever Gwendolyn wants to put us in, we put on. Get it? So no whinging about a dress you saw at Gladrags ages ago that did, I repeat, make you look like a chrysanthemum.”

Bea pouted. “I still don’t want to wear that,” she insisted, poking a finger at the picture. “It’s too plain. I want something fancier.”

I sighed. “Whatever. How about you send an owl to Gwendolyn now and let her know? That way she still has, I don’t know, almost two days to find something else for us. Because it’s not like she’s got much on her plate right now, trying to organise a wedding and everything.”

She looked chastened. “I suppose you’re right,” she admitted. “I still say I’ll look like a stick of lavender though.”

“It could be worse,” I pointed out with a grin. “She could have dressed us as Banshees. This way at least we can still pass for human.”

She grinned too. “Well, I guess, when you put it like that …”

The next morning Bea accompanied me as I Apparated – fortunately successfully – more than a few miles for the first time. The rehearsal went fine and all of us except the groomsmen gathered at Uncle Boreas’ house for supper afterwards. The older generation made their excuses after supper and retired early, leaving the rest of us with the best part of a case of wine. Before long the conversation turned to the war and what we knew of Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

“They’ve been mostly Slytherins, from what I’ve heard,” my cousin Rhys was saying. “You know, people like Selwyn and Yaxley. The old pure-blood families who are dead keen on staying pure-blood.”

“It’s not just the old families, though,” said Gwendolyn, pouring out several goblets of wine and handing them around. “Goyle from our year has signed up too. His picture was in the paper after that attack on Diagon Alley, his mask had slipped and it was definitely him. And they haven’t been around all that long from what I know.”

“Travers and Macnair, too, I understand,” added Morgan. “You’re right, Rhys, they are all Slytherins.”

“Don’t forget Lucius Malfoy,” said Beatrice, already half way through her glass. A few years above her, Malfoy had made her life difficult for much of her early time at Hogwarts. “I’m sure he’s joined up, he was spouting that stuff all the time.”

Gwendolyn and Morgan shared a look. “Yeah, he was pretty nasty,” Morgan agreed, and I realised Malfoy had probably been in their year. “Arrogant, thought that being a pure-blood made him royalty.”

“A bit like the Blacks, then,” Rhys said. The sudden reference to Sirius’ family took me by surprise and I dropped my goblet, making quite a mess as it shattered on the floor and drenched me in elderflower wine in the process.

“Sorry,” I muttered as I fiddled with my wand and cast Reparo to reassemble my glass, keeping my face down and hoping any blushes would be attributed to the accident.

Fortunately Rhys ignored my discomfort and just poured me another drink as he went on talking. “I know that Bellatrix Black, who’s now Bellatrix Lestrange from what I hear, is right in there with the Death Eaters.” He had been at school with Bellatrix, who was Sirius’ cousin and from all accounts was a brilliant but nasty piece of work. “But not all the Blacks have joined up. Seems Andromeda Black – she was the middle sister – married Ted Tonks, and he’s definitely Muggle-born.” I grinned despite myself: the Black family would certainly have loved that. I wondered if she had been disinherited like Sirius had.

“There was even a Black put in Gryffindor, wasn’t there?” asked Gwendolyn. “I’m sure I remember that happening, something like my sixth or seventh year. It was a pretty big deal at the time.”

I was trying not to look at anyone, hoping that I wouldn’t be called on to comment on this. And to think I’d been under the impression that a weekend with my cousins might have been enough to temporarily expel him from my mind. (Yeah, like that was even possible.) Unfortunately Bea, as always, didn’t notice my discomfort and said the precise thing I was hoping she wouldn’t. “I remember that. He’s in your year, isn’t he, Laura?”

I raised my head. “Uh, yeah, that’s Sirius,” I said, hoping my cheeks were their usual colour. “He’s in my year, and he’s definitely in Gryffindor.” I drank some wine as another excuse not to look at any of them.

“There you go, then,” Rhys said triumphantly. “With him and Andromeda, maybe the Blacks are turning.”

I shook my head, inwardly chastising myself for being unable to keep out of this conversation. Honestly, any chance to talk about Sirius and I was jumping at it. Couldn’t I have just a little more self restraint? “I don’t think so,” I said. “His younger brother is in Slytherin like the rest of them were. And I think his parents have disowned him. So maybe he’s the black sheep, so to speak.”

“Or the white sheep, considering they’re the Blacks,” Bea added.

Morgan’s shocked face disrupted the general laughter. “They disowned him just because he was put in Gryffindor?”

“No, he ran away from home or something,” I explained, pretending I wasn’t keenly interested in the story. “A year or two ago. He’d had enough, apparently. They disowned him then, he’s living with a mate of his now as far as I know.” Not strictly true, I realised, but for me to know too much might have raised an eyebrow or two.

“You seem to know a tidy bit about it,” said Gwendolyn anyway, flashing me a grin.

I shrugged and Bea – to my surprise – came to my rescue. “Remember, Laura’s in Gryffindor too,” she said. “So they’re in the same House.”

“That’s right, so you were,” said Gwendolyn. “I’d forgotten that. I’m so used to us all being Hufflepuffs that I’d forgotten about the traitors in our midst.” She smiled broadly at Beatrice and me.

“Back to the Blacks, Narcissa Black is going to marry Malfoy, I saw that in the paper,” said Bea, changing the subject to my great relief. When did she get so perceptive, I wondered. “So it looks like she’s reverting to type.”

Morgan just nodded, though this was clearly news to him. “Like I said, he thought he was just about royalty, just like the Blacks do, so that had probably been planned from childhood.”

Gwendolyn shuddered. “Yep, she thought a lot of herself, too, from memory. Narcissa was such a good name for her. They’re probably a perfect match.”

We all nodded our agreement as Rhys got up and opened another bottle of wine. “Right, then,” he was saying. “Who’s up for a refill?”

The wedding the next day went off without a problem. We hadn’t been particularly worried about Death Eater attacks as Gwendolyn and Morgan were both pure-bloods, but there was always a risk that someone in the party could have offended the wrong people. (Like Bea, for example. She was a bit of a prime candidate for that sort of thing.) In fact, with the war on, it was almost surprising that the bride and groom had waited seven years to get married, as quick elopements were fast becoming the preferred option.

Gwendolyn looked absolutely stunning in her ivory gown and train, and Bea and I looked nice but not nice enough to steal the show in the dresses she had selected for us. The guys were dressed in navy dress robes with the occasional shot of violet in the trim, just enough to set off our dresses. Looking at Bea and the Best Man posing for their photos, even I appreciated how well it looked.

However, it was with great relief that we reached the end of the reception. Gwendolyn and Morgan did a lap to say goodbye to everyone, and, waving shyly, Disapparated away to their honeymoon destination. This meant that my official duties were over for the night, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat down with a glass of wine. Bridesmaid duties aren’t exactly onerous, but I’d felt a certain amount of pressure to ensure Gwendolyn’s day went off perfectly, and fortunately even Beatrice had behaved herself which I couldn’t always rely on, especially when there was alcohol involved.

****

The next morning, still in Wales and nursing a minor hangover, I was surprised by Cerridwyn’s appearance at my bedroom window. She came with a letter from Lily, which surprised me as I hadn’t realised she’d been anywhere near Surrey. Ah well, this is what happens when you give an owl its head, I thought, opening the letter with interest.

Dear Laura

I wasn’t sure where you were at the moment to write to you, so I was so pleased when Cerridwyn came to visit!

I wanted to get in touch because I’ve had an idea. After the attack last week on Diagon Alley I thought that you might have trouble getting permission to go to London to get your school things. Charlotte has been having the same problem and even my parents, who don’t know what’s happening in our world, are getting a little hesitant.

So, to get past this, I’m proposing that the five of us girls get together in London in the week before school goes back, and do all our shopping as a group. I’ve already contacted Mary about this and her mum has agreed to accompany us, as has my dad (he needs to change money at Gringotts anyway before I can buy anything). So we’ll be well chaperoned.

I was thinking that we could meet in the Leaky Cauldron on Thursday 25th at ten o’clock. You can either Apparate or Floo there, and if your mum or dad wants to come too they’re most welcome to.

Anyway, please write back with your answer as soon as you can so I know who can come, and if the day’s bad we have time to change it. But, like I said, there’s definitely safety in numbers and with five of us, all of age now, plus two chaperones we should be fine.

Love,
Lily

PS I’ve been made Head Girl, can you believe it? I got the letter last week. Even my parents are excited, they might be Muggles but this is something they can understand.

I smiled to myself as I found some owl treats for Cerridwyn after her long journey. If anyone was going to come up with a way we could catch up before school started, as well as ensuring we could get our school supplies, it would be Lily. And of course she’d been made Head Girl – who else could they possibly have chosen? Leda Madley, Dione Turpin and Elsie Baddock just weren’t Head material like Lily was.

I showed the letter to Dad once we got back home, thinking he would be more likely to agree to Lily’s proposal than Mum. Because she was a policewoman Mum had seen the very worst of society, even wizarding society, and was therefore more hesitant to let Bea and I do very much at all lest we be set upon by the Death Eaters she was convinced were lurking around every corner. And, let’s face it, the Dementor attack the previous summer hadn’t exactly quelled her fears.

Fortunately Lily had made her arguments well, and that afternoon I was able to send Cerridwyn off on the return journey to Surrey saying Dad had agreed I could go. He didn’t seem to have clicked that Lily’s dad was a Muggle, and therefore probably useless as a chaperone against Death Eaters, and I saw absolutely no reason to enlighten him.

The other four girls were already at the Leaky Cauldron by the time I arrived in the fireplace, dusting myself off and making sure I still had my wand, money pouch and daffodil clasp. We all gave each other hugs and I greeted Mary’s mum and Lily’s dad, who I’d met just once previously, before we set off out the back to the entrance and into Diagon Alley.

It was a year since I’d been there and I was struck by how much it had deteriorated. Last time, half the shops had been closed and shabby stalls were sprouting up peddling protective amulets the like. This year, it was even worse. The only places that seemed to still be trading, aside from the stalls which appeared to have multiplied exponentially, were Gringotts, Flourish & Blotts, Ollivander’s, Madam Malkin’s and Bobbin’s, and they were very possibly only open for the back-to-school traffic. Further up the lane I could see what looked like a curse battle taking place, jets of light bouncing off the empty buildings, and generally people were moving quickly, in large groups, no one looking at anyone else to see if they recognised them, let alone stopping for a quick chat. Overall the mood was rather depressing and I guessed the disappointed looks on the girls’ faces were mirrored on my own.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that beyond the duel up ahead we could see what looked like the back of some Death Eaters, hooded and masked, who appeared to be just wandering up the street being generally intimidating. This happened reasonably frequently, and when they were accosted by Aurors they either Disapparated or entered into a full battle right on the street. Yes, some were occasionally caught, but we were under the impression these were junior members, expendable, who probably patrolled Diagon Alley as part of their training. In any case, not wanting to be caught up in anything to do with them, we all caught our breath and waited, frozen, until they were out of sight. No one wanted to do their shopping in the shadow of people like that.

“Wands out, girls,” Mrs Macdonald muttered, rather belatedly as we had already done so. “We don’t know if there are any more of them. Stay here till I give the word.” We obediently grouped up tightly, Mr Evans looking extremely pale as he realised the extent of the war in his daughter’s world.

Finally the hooded figures disappeared and we started breathing normally again, and Mrs Macdonald allowed us to venture into the street proper. First stop was Gringotts, where we all had to pick up some gold so that we could actually shop. The bank too had had its security increased, and there were waits of up to two hours to get access to your money. In this case Lily was the lucky one, as the queue to change Muggle money over to Galleons, Sickles and Knuts was significantly shorter than that to get into the vaults below.

Luckily for whatever reason we managed to get through comparatively quickly, and by quarter past eleven we all had jingling purses and made our way back outside to the dank street. Ignoring the large Ministry of Magic posters that featured on every empty shop façade, we hurried to buy our school supplies and then get out of there. Even the usual schoolgirl chatter that we engaged in so easily was tempered as we moved through the bookshop and apothecary in silence, the gravity of the atmosphere around us almost overwhelming.

Finally we found ourselves back in the Leaky Cauldron. That too was empty, with a foreboding air to it, and Lily suggested that we go out into Muggle London for some lunch, surprising me when she pointed out it was only one o’clock. We all agreed eagerly and Mr Evans, who looked rather harried after his sojourn into the wizarding world, even offered to pay on the condition that we became cheerful again. After all, with an ill wife he probably had enough anxiety at home to last him a lifetime. Mrs Macdonald, however, said she had to be getting back to work and took her leave of us, leaving us a group of six, and once we had farewelled her we stepped out onto Charing Cross Road.

“So, Lils, Head Girl,” Charlotte smiled as we settled in a nearby café. “You must be pleased with that.”

“Depends on who the Head Boy is, though, doesn’t it,” Martha said perceptively.

Lily smiled and nodded. “Yes, I don’t think I could work with Gibbon all year,” she agreed, giggling slightly. “But seriously, it’s a great honour, I didn’t realise Dumbledore thought so highly of me!”

“An’ why wouldna he?” demanded Mary. “End o’ las’ term ye were e’en keepin’ James Potter in check!”

“And that’s saying something,” agreed Martha. “Though I suspect he was keeping himself in check. But then again, that was due to Lily as well, so you might as well take credit.” She winked at Lily across the table.

Lily had been casting furtive glances at her father ever since James’ name was mentioned, but he appeared impassive. Regardless, she changed the subject.

“So, is there any gossip from the summer that I don’t know about?”

Mary looked at me. “We bumped int’ James an’ Sirius las’ month a’ th’ Ministry,” she said, instantly disappointing Lily if she had hoped to keep James out of the conversation. “Sirius was changin’ his address a’ th’ Hall o’ Records; he’d jus’ moved oot o’ th’ Potters’ place.”

Martha looked most surprised. “What?”

“An’ wha’s even stranger,” Mary went on, “was tha’ Laura knew aboot it an’ didna tell us.”

“That’s not strictly true,” I protested. “I knew he planned to move out. I didn’t know it had happened.”

“How did you know that?” asked Charlotte interestedly.

“He told me,” I said. “After one of the exams last term.”

Martha and Charlotte looked surprised and demanded more information, though through their questions I could hear Lily muttering something that sounded like, “Of course he did.”

Deciding to ignore Lily and answer the others’ questions, I took a deep breath and hoped my cheeks were their usual colour. “You know how sometimes people like to talk to me about their problems? Well, that was one of those times. He had something he needed to get off his chest and I just happened to be there.”

Lily was looking at me shrewdly and I could almost see the cogs in her brain moving. I hoped ardently that she hadn’t guessed my guilty little secret about Sirius: Lily was pretty cluey and I wasn’t sure I liked the look on her face.

“So this was a problem, was it?” she asked. “Why did he move out? I thought he and James were getting along fine.”

“He came int’ some gol’, apparently,” Mary explained. “Too prood t’ live off charity, was tha’ it, Laura?”

“Sounds about right,” I agreed. “He wasn’t comfortable living off someone else’s money, so as soon as he could afford it he was out. Got an inheritance after a renegade uncle died.” I looked at Lily. “That was the problem, by the way – the uncle had died and no one had told him about it. He wasn’t too pleased.”

“Why was he a renegade?” Charlotte looked curious.

“Renegade to the Blacks,” I clarified. “That is, he left Sirius some gold so he had to be a renegade, by definition.”

“Right,” said Martha. “Well, watch the fan club swell up once this gets out. Independent, financially solvent and living alone, no less. They’ll probably be camped out on his doorstep.”

Mary was grinning. “Well, then, Laura, we’d better mak’ sure we dinna leak where it is. Elvira woul’ be doon there quicker than ye can say Quidditch.”

“You know that too?” Lily looked surprised this time. “He’s not normally that open with that sort of information, is he?”

“Not usually,” agreed Martha, her eyebrows too moving up her forehead.

“We don’t know precisely where it is,” I explained. “Just the suburb. I couldn’t tell you though if it’s a house or a flat or a hole in the ground.”

“Still,” mused Lily, as if to herself. Again, I wasn’t sure I liked the look on her face.

“In other news,” said Martha, changing the subject, “Duncan and I have broken up.”

“What?!” They’d seemed such a good match.

“Yeah, well, I’m going back to school next week,” she explained, “so I’d not be able to see him until Christmas. So we thought we’d call it a day and, if we’re both single and interested this time next year, we’ll pick up where we left off.”

“That’s awful,” Charlotte said sympathetically. “Are you very upset?”

“A bit,” Martha admitted. “But it’s the only option. We can’t keep going if we’re never going to see each other. And let’s face it, I would probably have got bored of him in another couple of months anyway, like I do with everyone else.”

Mary nodded. “Marcus an’ I are breakin’ up too. Same reason. Well, nae th’ bored one, bu’ th’ nae seein’ each ither one.”

I looked at her. “I didn’t know that!” And I was supposed to be her best friend.

She nodded again, looking a little sad. “Well, I’m nae exactly thrilled aboot it, bu’ wha’ else coul’ we dae? If we were still together an’ I didna see him fer four months tha’ woul’ be worse, I’d be wonderin’ aboot him all th’ time, an’ hopin’ he’s nae doing a Bertram on me, an’ feelin’ guilty fer checking anyone oot myself.”

Lily, in the seat next to her, gave her a sympathetic hug. “That’s very noble of you, Mary.”

Eventually the conversation wound up and Mr Evans, true to his word, paid what I suspected ended up being rather a hefty bill. We all thanked him profusely as we made our way back to the Leaky Cauldron. “See you next week, girls,” I grinned as I stepped into the fireplace. Their smiling faces stayed with me as I hurtled through the Floo network back home.

________________________________________


Author’s note: Another overly long chapter but I needed to break it here because the next one really has to stand alone, so my apologies for that. I do try to keep them in the 4000-5000 word range but sometimes I just can’t get them to break in the right spots. And I’m very sorry that this one wasn’t quite up to standard (yes, I know, very filler-ish) but I just couldn’t get the balance right. I’ll work on it later when I have some more time and try to improve it a bit.

________________________________________

32
The first of September that year was unseasonably warm as summer insisted on stretching on longer than usual. As a result most of the students turned up at Kings Cross station in light summer clothes, trying to stay cool before we headed north. True to fashion many of the girls were wearing miniskirts, which didn’t go unnoticed by the boys on the train, and James in particular I noticed looked awestruck by Lily when he saw her short dress and platform heels.

We all met up on the platform and before long Lily had hurriedly put her robes on over her dress, no doubt disappointing James and half the other boys there. “If I’m Head Girl,” she explained, “I really should be setting a good example.” She affixed the Head Girl pin proudly and twirled around for us. “Well? How does it look?”

How did any pin on black school robes look? Small, to be truthful. But we weren’t about to say that. “It looks great, Lils,” said Martha with a grin. “Really sets off your hair.”

Lily shot her a look and stopped pirouetting. “I’ll find a compartment with you but then I’ll have to head up to the prefects’ carriage to give the newbies their instructions. Has anyone seen who the Head Boy is yet?”

As if to answer her question James stopped while walking past our gathering. “Morning, ladies,” he said airily with a grin. “Uh, Lily, can I have a word please?” He was already in his school robes as well, which was most out of character for him, but maybe he did it to impress Lily. She looked as baffled by his request as the rest of us were – I mean, we all knew he fancied her, but it wasn’t like him to be so, er, polite about it all – but she nodded her acquiescence and followed him to a spot about five yards away.

My parents, who had been catching up with Mary’s mum in the background, beckoned me over. “Sweetheart, we have to head off,” Dad called, looking a bit harried. He was more stressed than usual due to the war and its implications for all Ministry employees, not just those in law enforcement, and was keen to get to work even though it was a Sunday. My mother would never stay on the platform alone in a million years, being uncomfortable with all the magic in the air, so would obviously join him. I hurried over to farewell them properly.

“Now, remember what we talked about and study hard this year,” Dad reminded me. “A lot depends on your NEWT grades and I want you to be able to do what you want to once you’ve finished.” I smiled but groaned inwardly – we’d had this talk several times and all it seemed to reinforce in me was the fact that as far as Dad was concerned I wasn’t allowed to have any fun until the following June.

“And look after yourself,” Mum added. “Don’t do anything reckless and stay in groups when you go to Hogsmeade, I don’t like the sound of the security up there.” Typical. She always did have a copper’s perspective. Though I wasn’t convinced Hogsmeade visits would be going ahead at all this year anyway, what with the Dementors the previous May. Mum must have seen my face because she gave me a sudden smile. “And don’t forget to have fun,” she added indulgently. “Make sure you enjoy this year, it’s the last year you’ll have of no responsibility. Try to make the most of it.”

This time I smiled for real. “Thanks, Mum,” I said. “I’ll be fine, I promise.” And I gave them both a hug and waved them off the platform.

By the time I got back to the group Sirius, Remus and Peter had joined the girls and Sirius, the tallest by at least four or five inches, had obviously seen me coming over everyone else’s heads and moved over to make room for me. The conversation was focusing on speculation about what Lily and James were taking so long to discuss. So far the money seemed to be on a declaration of undying love (from James, that is), until Remus let slip another alternative.

“I’d better grab them before it’s too late,” he said, looking at his watch. “We’ve all got to get to the prefects’ carriage before the fifth-years beat us to it.”

“All?” Charlotte asked sharply. “Why would James need to go there?”

Sirius looked surprised. “Didn’t we say? Dumbledore’s made him Head Boy.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather, and by the looks on Mary’s, Charlotte’s and Martha’s faces they were having the same reaction. Mary found her voice first. “James? Head Boy? Where di’ tha’ come from?”

“No idea, we were as surprised as you are,” he laughed. “But it’s not a joke, he’s got the badge and everything.”

Martha giggled. “This should be interesting.”

Remus nodded. “I know. James Potter, Head Boy. Merlin only knows what he’ll get up to.”

Martha shook her head. “That’s not what I meant. Lily’s Head Girl.”

Now it was the boys’ turn to look gobsmacked. Remus’ face was a cross between horror and amusement, Peter looked like he was in shock, while Sirius just started laughing. “Oh, that’s brilliant,” he said. “Those two having to work together all year. He won’t know what’s hit him.”

Peter clearly agreed. “How long before she caves in, do you reckon?” he asked no one in particular.

Charlotte grinned. “If James knows what’s good for him, he’ll not push it at all,” she said rather wisely. “Lily’s much more likely to take the bait if it’s not forced down her throat all the time.”

“You’re not wrong,” Sirius said rather heavily, and I suspected he wasn’t thinking about Lily and James at all, but rather Elvira and the rest of the fan club, who unsurprisingly were perched nearby watching him.

Remus’ face had an expression halfway between a smile and a frown. “In any case, I think I’d better rouse those two lovebirds out of their stupor,” he said. “It’s almost ten to eleven, we really have to get a move on. More so if they’re Head Boy and Girl.”

A moment later Lily and James came back to the group, their faces both a little bit pink which made me wonder what exactly they had been discussing. Lily looked at the rest of us. “We’ve got to go,” she said a little breathlessly. “Can you load up my trunk and save me a spot in the compartment? I don’t think we’ll have to be up at the prefects’ carriage all day.”

“Sure, Lils,” said Martha with a grin that I was sure Lily didn’t like all that much. At least, if it had been me I wouldn’t have liked it.

“Same for us, Padfoot,” added James. “Find a compartment and we’ll join you when we can.”

Loading our trunks onto the train gave me a welcome diversion from Sirius, who was looking better than ever. If that was even possible. I hadn’t seen him since we’d bumped into him at the Ministry back in July and was almost awestruck by his appearance - his hair was at just the right length, his eyes had a most attractive sparkle to them and I wasn’t convinced that cheekbones that perfect were even legal. And I hadn’t failed to notice that I’d been standing next to him during the conversation and that his arm had kept brushing against mine as people pushed past us to get to the train. Due to the warm weather, we both had short sleeves on so that contact meant skin on skin. I still had tingles from it. (Quivering Wreck 2; Laura 0. But who’s counting?)

Unfortunately my diversion wasn’t to last, as Sirius and Peter insisted on helping us with our trunks. What with five trunks, two bird cages and a cat carrier thrown into the mix, it was always going to be a convoluted process, especially since the other girls all had miniskirts on and were therefore moving very carefully. I had bucked the trend somewhat by wearing shorts and a t-shirt, more for practical reasons than anything else as I didn’t relish the thought of clambering around with trunks and bird cages and the like with a short skirt on, and the end result of that was that I ended up packing various things onto the luggage rack for everyone else, the others not keen on showing their knickers to the wider world as they tried to get everything in position.

The trouble was that this again put me in close contact with Sirius, who was really the only option to help us out in any meaningful way. After all, he was significantly taller and also more sensible than Peter who, realising he was just in the way, had gone to secure another compartment for the boys. Together we manoeuvred various bits of luggage, trying to make sure everything fit and nothing would come tumbling down on our heads the first time the train went round a bend, me trying not to let on that my knees were a little weak at his proximity to me. (Quivering Wreck 3; Laura 0. Great. I really was coping with this so well.) Finally everything was in place, which would have been good except that my left hand was wedged underneath Charlotte’s trunk and I couldn’t get it out, a result of my not paying enough attention to what I was doing.

“Uh oh,” I said, wincing as the heavy trunk pressed down on my hand. “Little help?”

Sirius, who’d looked a bit distracted as though he was thinking of other things, suddenly noticed what was wrong. “Oh, geez, Laura, I’m sorry,” he said, lifting the trunk effortlessly so I could extricate the trapped item. “Is your hand all right?” He looked amazing and I was more than a little unfocused. Why I hadn’t just pulled out my wand and levitated the trunk myself I had no idea, but then again I didn’t always think clearly when he was around.

I sat down in my seat and shook the hand in front of me. It felt okay and I didn’t think anything was broken, though it was throbbing slightly. “It’s fine,” I said vaguely, feeling it with my other hand to check for broken bones. “Doesn’t matter anyway, I’ve got another one.” I felt myself tensing up, a physical reaction to his presence that was fast becoming my defence mechanism, making sure I didn’t do anything that would embarrass me.

He chuckled but his smile was replaced very quickly with a look of concern. “You should get that looked at,” he said seriously. “Look, once we get there, don’t try pulling any of that stuff down yourself, okay? That’s what the porters are for.”

I nodded, pretending not to notice the grin Mary was flashing at me from the seat opposite. “If you insist.”

“Yes, I think I do.” He paused, looking around the compartment. “If I’m done here, I think I’ll go find where Wormtail has landed us.”

Fortunately Mary realised I was rather preoccupied and, once we were alone again, quickly steered the conversation away from Sirius. “Wha’ dae ye think o’ Dumbledore makin’ James Potter Head Boy?”

“A surprise, to say the least,” said Martha with a smile.

“Yeah, he wasn’t a prefect,” Charlotte agreed, a perplexed look on her face. “He can’t be Head Boy if he wasn’t a prefect. That’s unprecedented.”

“Not quite,” I corrected, glad to have something else to think about. “I’m pretty sure it’s happened before, but only like a dozen times in the thousand or so years Hogwarts has been going. I think it’s mentioned somewhere in Hogwarts: A History.”

“Bu’ why him?” asked Mary.

Martha was frowning. “Thinking seriously about it, though, who would you have given it to?” She started counting the previous term’s sixth-year prefects off on her fingers. “Caradoc Dearborn – he’s nice enough but I don’t know that he’s Head Boy material. I think the extra responsibility might finish him off, personally. Bernie Carmichael – he’s okay, actually before today he was my tip for it, but frankly I suspect he might struggle in too much of a leadership role. Remus – keeps getting the lurgy which probably counts against him, as well as chasing around after that darn rabbit half the time. And Gibbon – I really can’t see Dumbledore giving the Head Boy job to a Slytherin, not in this day and age.”

“And James did show exceptional leadership with that whole Dementor thing last term,” I added, thinking back. “Dumbledore commented on it more than once when he was debriefing us afterwards.”

“Tha’ micht hae bin it,” agreed Mary. “Ye canna deny he di’ tha’ verra well an’ all.”

“Poor Lily,” Charlotte giggled. “If she thought she’d be able to avoid him this year she’s had a horrible shock.”

Martha shook her head. “Who says she wanted to avoid him?” she asked, that wicked smile back on her face. “The only problem is that she won’t be able to see him just on her terms. Which will be a bit of a shock to the system, I suspect.”

Our conversation was interrupted again when we noticed some flashes of light in the passage outside our compartment and the door opened to once more reveal Sirius and Peter, who were apparently bored and had come to see us again. “You don’t mind, do you?” Sirius asked with a grin as he climbed over the prone body of Severus Snape lying on the floor of the corridor. “It was a bit quiet with just Wormtail.”

Charlotte just raised her eyebrows at him. “So what happened there?” she asked, pointing at the spot where Snape was now hidden by the closed compartment door.

Sirius shrugged as he sat down next to Mary, his movements almost awkward as he tried to find room for his long legs. “That? Oh, he’s just been Stunned. No permanent damage.” He looked slightly disappointed by that fact.

“And why was he Stunned?” Martha asked archly.

“He was in the way,” Peter explained.

“Trying to get in to see Lily, I expect,” Sirius elaborated, shrugging again. “I didn’t actually stop to ask, to be honest. I don’t think he even realised she’s not back yet.”

“An’ ye’re jus’ going t’ leave him there?” asked Mary.

“Fair point,” Sirius conceded, standing up again. “I’ll go dump him somewhere. Any suggestions as to where? Out the window, perhaps?” He grinned at us and I felt my cheeks starting to burn.

Fortunately leaving Severus wherever he did leave him took long enough for me to recover my composure, and by the time he re-joined us in the compartment I was almost breathing normally again.

“That’s better,” he said, taking the seat next to Mary again. “Good thing I moved him, too, it wouldn’t have been very nice for the others to come back from the prefects’ carriage and find that sort of rubbish lying around outside.”

I smiled to myself as I leaned over to pick up Mary’s cat, which was nestled by my feet. Having Circe on my lap, I theorised, would give me something to pay attention to that wasn’t Sirius. “Who would have thought you, of all people, would end up with your best friends as authority figures?” I said lightly, playing with the cat’s fur as I tried not to look at him too much.

He grinned again, validating my resolve to play with the cat a bit more. After all, no one should have a smile that seductive. It just shouldn’t be allowed. “Can’t argue with that,” he agreed. “Prongs, too, the king of detentions. I think he’s even had more than I have over the years. He may never live this down.” He shook his head resignedly, leaning forward in his seat and resting his elbows on his knees. “Don’t know what’s got into him, myself.”

Martha nodded, giggling. “Absolutely. James and Remus both in positions of power. Merlin only knows how much will go to their heads.”

“At least one thing’s for certain,” Peter piped up from Lily’s seat, where he was lounging back looking rather comfortable. “We won’t be getting in nearly as much trouble with him to back us up.”

We all shared a laugh at the thought of James passing off all the boys’ pranks as things necessary for him to perform his Head Boy duties properly. He did have the gift of the gab, so it was possible that he might just pull it off sometimes, though probably not if he was trying to convince McGonagall or Dumbledore. I stayed relatively quiet throughout the conversation though, not wanting to say too much in case I embarrassed myself or, worse, let on anything at all about what I thought of Sirius.

Eventually Lily poked her head back in the compartment, indicating that the Head duties were completed and James and Remus were also free. She looked pointedly at Peter, in her seat, and Sirius, next to Mary, before coming back in.

“I’m not sure that we’ll all fit, people,” she said with a grin. She had a point – while six of us could fit reasonably well, there was no way known that the compartment would take nine.

James poked his head over Lily’s shoulder. “I think it’s high time you were getting back to our compartment anyway, Padfoot,” he said. “That’s if it’s the one I think it is. The gigglers have found your trunk.”

Sirius groaned. “I knew we shouldn’t have left it unattended,” he muttered, shaking his head, though I caught his eye and it was twinkling. “What are they doing this time, trying on my clothes or planting love potions?” Even though he was smiling I got the distinct impression he was only half joking.

James grinned. “Both, probably. And I think that some of them have even had a go at my trunk, just for good measure. Now come on and leave these girls in peace, will you?”

Lily stepped back outside while Peter and Sirius left, then came in and plonked herself down with a smile. “This could be a rather interesting year,” she admitted.

“We heard James was Head Boy,” Charlotte said with a grin. “And you’ll have to be working closely with him all year …” She let her voice trail off.

Lily nodded. “And, you know, a year or two ago that would have been a nightmare. Always watching me or propositioning me and making lewd suggestions and goodness only knows what else. But he was most restrained today, not a hand out of place, not one inappropriate comment or even a leer. I think he’s growing up.” She looked rather pleased with the situation.

Martha was smiling. “So are we taking bets? How long before he jumps you? Or do you think he might even have grown up enough to not even try without getting permission first?”

Lily looked rather pink. “How about we leave the betting for now,” she suggested, colouring even more. “I’ll let you know in another week or so.”

Mary had a rather wicked look in her eye. “I thin’ we’d be better off takin’ bets on who jumps who firs’,” she said with a grin. “If James is this restrained it micht jus’ be Lily here who caves i’ afore he does.”

Martha grinned at her. “Mary, you’re a girl after my own heart,” she said fondly. “I think you might be spot on.”

Lily was shaking her head furiously. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said, though it was clear she was trying harder to convince herself than anyone else. “But, in other news,” she went on, looking at us with a sly grin, “I couldn’t say this when we went to Diagon Alley ’cause Dad was there, but guess what? Petunia’s got a boyfriend!”

I’d heard about Petunia, Lily’s older sister, who was apparently jealous of her for being magical and therefore tried to distance herself from Lily as much as possible. Lily had always been a bit touchy about this as they had been close as children and she missed her sister’s company.

“Petunia??” Martha’s voice couldn’t contain her surprise. She and Charlotte had met Petunia whereas Mary and I hadn’t, though we understood that the older Evans girl wasn’t much like Lily at all and was in fact rather plain and bossy. “Really? Petunia, a boyfriend?”

“What’s he like?” asked Charlotte eagerly. She was always up for a love story, even if it was Petunia’s.

Lily smiled, then made a face. “His name’s Vernon,” she said, “and he’s appalling. The sort who knows everything and will tell you so himself. And he’s revolting-looking too – huge, with a round face and piggy eyes and a moustache, of all things.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Honestly, I think he looks like a walrus. Kind of like a younger version of Slughorn.”

We all giggled at the thought – Lily’s description, while short, was undeniably eloquent, and we all had a mental picture of the unknown Vernon. Which was less than attractive, I might add.

Martha grinned broadly. “I’d pay to see that,” she said. “Horsey Petunia and Walrus Vernon. They could start their own zoo!” S he then clapped her hand over her mouth, realising she’d insulted Petunia. “Oh, I’m sorry, Lils,” she went on hastily. “I didn’t really mean that, I was just having some fun. Petunia doesn’t really look like a horse.” She gave Lily a hug in a show of contrition, though she did look at Mary and me over her shoulder and mouth, ‘Yes, she does!’ And Charlotte, witnessing the whole thing, nodded significantly at us in obvious agreement.

Mary chose to change the subject to get Martha off the hook. “Hoo’s yer ma going, Lily? Copin’ wi’ th’ treatmen’ all richt?”

Lily looked up and Martha gratefully dropped the bear hug. “She’s in remission at the moment,” Lily said, her face brightening. “She was pretty ill at the end of last term, apparently, but Dad said my being home perked her up a bit. I almost felt guilty to be coming back.”

“Oh, don’t beat yourself up,” I said with feeling. “You can’t help having to come back to school. At least you were able to give her a couple of months, and you’ll be going home at Christmas.”

She smiled appreciatively at me. “I know. And she was loads better, almost like the old times before she was ill.” And we fell deep into discussion about various family members and, immersed in gossip, didn’t notice the time until the train was slowing down.

To my combined disappointment and relief we didn’t see the boys again until the train had pulled into Hogsmeade station. We ran into them on the platform as we milled around looking for the horseless carriages, and shared a giggle at their faces when they saw us.

“Oh,” said Peter, looking rather disappointed. “You’ve changed into your robes.”

“Funny aboot tha’,” said Mary. “Considering we’re a’ school nou an’ we hae t’ wear them.”

“Colder here, too,” Charlotte pointed out, struggling to contain a smile. “It being much further north, and night.”

Sirius was also looking disappointed. “I guess,” he said, holding out a hand for Charlotte’s owl as she struggled to hang onto it in the bustle. It had been complaining towards the end of the train journey so she’d let it out of its cage in an attempt to shut it up for a while. “Though maybe it’ll stay hot till the weekend.” He looked at us hopefully.

Martha shot him a look. “And what if it does?”

“Calm down, Padfoot,” came Remus’ measured voice from behind us. “You’ve had all summer to eye off girls, how about you let these ones be for a while.”

I froze involuntarily: I hadn’t even thought of that. I suddenly had all sorts of mental pictures of what he’d been up to over the summer, and to my dismay I was feeling rather jealous of all the unknown girls he’d found attractive and possibly hooked up with. I even started looking surreptitiously at him to see whether I could see any telltale signs, such as love bites or even lipstick marks. Stupid, I know, especially considering most of the relevant parts would be covered by either his robes or his hair, but then again I didn’t always exactly see reason where he was concerned. To my ever-increasing horror I was discovering that I was becoming more like Elvira every day, so to take my mind off it I busied myself with letting Cerridwyn out of her cage so she could fly up to the owlery, and putting the empty cage with a nearby pile of trunks which would be collected and transported to the school later.

Sirius for his part looked like he had been about to say something but caught himself in time, settling instead for shrugging as Charlotte’s owl perched on his shoulder, above the heads of younger students, clearly not wanting to make its own way to the owlery just yet.

In the jumble to get into the carriages we found ourselves muddled up a bit with the other students, and as a result no one ended up sitting with who they had thought they would, though I noticed that James was already pulling rank to get him and Lily in the same carriage (“Sorry, folks, but the Head Boy and Girl have to arrive together”). However, I lost Mary and Charlotte in the crowd and ended up in a carriage with Martha, Remus and Sirius, who was still carrying Charlotte’s owl, which seemed to have taken a liking to him. Of course he’d be in my carriage. I couldn’t avoid him even when I was trying to.

“How’s that hand going, Laura?” Sirius asked almost immediately once we sat down, fixing me with a look of concern as he pushed his hair out of his eyes.

“Right as rain, thanks,” I said, somewhat surprised he’d remembered it was even hurt. To demonstrate I moved it around and flexed it a few ways and only winced once. “I’ll be juggling Bludgers again in no time.”

A smile crossed his face briefly but was quickly replaced by the look of concern he’d worn earlier. “You should still get it looked at,” he said seriously. “I’ll take you up to see Madam Pomfrey when we get there. Once I’ve given this back to Charlotte.” He gestured at the bird on his shoulder.

That was the last thing I needed. Time alone with Sirius. Merlin only knew what I might do without supervision, and I really didn’t want to embarrass myself. Or him, for that matter. “That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

He shook his head. “You shouldn’t be wandering around the castle alone after dark,” he said, still without a hint of humour. “Dumbledore stressed that to James in his letter, to make sure everyone’s extra careful.”

Uh oh. It looked like he’d meant it, he was really going to insist on accompanying me. Fortunately something occurred to me that meant I could avoid the trip to the hospital wing. “It’s fine,” I said. “And Madam Pomfrey will be at the feast anyway, I’ll just go and see her before we get started and she’ll have it fixed like a shot.”

His expression cleared and I breathed an inward sigh of relief. “Right, that should be okay,” he acknowledged. “We’ll save you a seat.” And he looked pointedly at Martha and Remus who hurriedly agreed.

To my relief Martha changed the subject. “So, how was your trunk?” she asked Sirius, a mischievous smile on her face. “Elvira nick any of your underwear?”

Ah, the benefits of being an ex, I thought. I would never have had the guts to ask him about his underwear, be it in jest or otherwise.

He and Remus both laughed. “Not that I know of,” Sirius said with a grin. “I think we caught them just in time.” His eyes were sparkling and I wasn’t sure just how serious he was being.

Remus joined in. “Though I did see Elvira stuffing something down the front of her robes,” he said, his eyes dancing.

Sirius looked surprised. “You did? What was it?”

“Probably anything with your home address on it,” Remus said lightly. “Or possibly that blow-up doll you carry around. I couldn’t be sure.”

Sirius looked mortified until he realised Remus was joking, which wasn’t until Martha and I had joined in the laughter. Which I admit was probably due as much to the look on his face as it was what Remus had said. I wasn’t sure whether he actually had a blow-up doll and was annoyed with Remus for letting it slip, or whether Remus had made it up and he was worried we might have believed it, but for once I found I didn’t really care. I mean, if he did, then maybe he’d stay on the market for longer and I might have a chance. (Yeah, right. I know, pie in the sky. But a girl can dream.)

Once we got to the castle and filed into the Great Hall I marched straight up to Madam Pomfrey at the staff table to have my hand looked at. I wouldn’t have bothered usually except I didn’t want Sirius bugging me about it ad infinitum and possibly taking matters into his own hands. Fortunately Madam Pomfrey, excellent at her job, had a quick look at it and fixed it in no time at all, and I was back at the Gryffindor table, ready for whatever the new school year would hold, well before the first-years came in for their Sorting.

________________________________________

33
The school year started the following day pretty much without incident. We received our timetables from Professor McGonagall (oddly enough, exactly the same as we’d had the previous year) and shuffled around to different classrooms listening to different teachers give us the same spiel about how important NEWTs were and how much we would have to study and improve on last year in order to pass. It was all a rather familiar routine by now and, while the classes were definitely getting harder, it wasn’t any worse than we had expected, though we had yet another Defence curriculum to work to due to the person teaching it changing yet again – Professor Viridian had for some reason left the post and been replaced by a rather young witch by the name of Perkins.

Early in the second week of term, Mary and I had our breakfast unexpectedly interrupted when James and Sirius, followed closely by Remus and Peter, sat themselves down next to us at the Gryffindor table. I was surprised, especially since Lily was sitting on the other side of us and there were spare seats nearby, but it appeared James for once had something else on his mind.

“Morning, ladies,” he said airily from his spot next to me, reaching for a pile of plates and doling them out to his friends. “Quidditch trials are on this Friday,” he added casually, looking at me. “You coming?”

“Why would I do that?” I asked, pouring myself some orange juice.

“Come on,” said Sirius from opposite him, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “I saw how well you throw. You’d be a cinch for the spare Chaser’s spot.”

“She dodges darn well, too,” Mary put in, helping herself to more kippers. “Ye shoul’ see her i’ a snowball ficht.”

I glared at her. I had no intention of trying out for the House Quidditch team, I knew I’d be useless and I wasn’t particularly interested in humiliating myself in front of the whole school. Or, more importantly, Sirius.

“Sounds great,” James said with a grin. “You know I’m captain this year? What with Anna graduating and all. We could definitely do with someone with a good arm on the team.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said. “I’m really not the sporting type.”

“You don’t like Quidditch?” asked James, looking shocked.

Mary almost choked on her kippers. “Tha’s nae wha’ she said,” she pointed out. James looked confused.

“I love Quidditch!” I clarified, wondering that no one had mentioned to him that I’d been to all the games the previous year. And every other year, for that matter. “Didn’t have much choice, with my childhood. My dad’s a mad Quidditch fan. I think he was disappointed he had two girls and no boys, but he took us to games all over when we were kids. Still does, occasionally, when he has time, but not so much lately ’cause he thinks the games might be targeted. We all went to the last World Cup, though. I just can’t actually play.”

There I was again, talking too much because I was nervous. Sirius often had that effect on me these days. Thank goodness he was on the opposite side of the table, it was reassuring having that physical barrier between us to stop me doing anything I may later regret.

James was grinning, having obviously decided to test me on my Quidditch knowledge. “Who’s your team then?” he asked, pouring himself a drink.

“Caerphilly Catapults,” I said immediately. “We are Welsh, after all.”

Sirius was smiling too. “’Dangerous’ Dai Llewellyn,” he said . “Too bad they’ve been in a bit of a funk since he got eaten.”

Peter laughed from his spot on the other side of James. “Yeah, like twenty years ago!” It was true: since the Catapults had won the European Championship in 1956 – four years before I was even born – they had gone downhill and stayed there.

I smiled grimly. “I can’t help it if my team’s going through a bad – er – generation. At least we’re not as bad as the Cannons.” The Chudley Cannons had changed their motto about five years previously to ‘Let’s just cross our fingers and hope for the best’. It didn’t seem to have worked yet.

“Why not the Harpies?” asked Remus. “If you’re from Wales, you could have picked either. And they’re in better form.”

I shook my head. “Holyhead’s way up north,” I explained, “in Anglesey. I’m from just outside Cardiff. Caerphilly’s only five or ten miles from where I grew up. And there’s a big difference between south Wales and north Wales.” I recognised the irony of talking about Holyhead as being ‘way up north’ when I was currently in Scotland, but I was sure they knew what I meant.

He nodded. “Right. I must admit, Welsh geography isn’t one of my strong points.”

“Nor anyone else’s, who’s not from there,” I agreed with a smile. I had noticed that a lot since moving to England – English people as a whole didn’t seem all that interested in the other parts of the British Isles.

“So why don’t you play?” asked James, never one to give up. Just ask Lily.

Peter clearly agreed. “Yeah, you can throw, you can dodge, what more do you need?”

“Well, yes, but I can’t do either of them very well if I’m on a broomstick,” I said wryly, pouring myself a cup of coffee.

James nodded. “Right. I can’t say I’ve seen you fly, but I won’t argue with you,” he said. “I’ll let you off, just this once.”

“Besides, my broom’s still in pieces in the bottom of my trunk,” I went on, realising I was talking too much again. I’d have to have a word to Mary about stopping me when I was doing that. “I haven’t had a chance to reassemble it since we got back to school, and I don’t know that I’d have time before Friday. Not if I’m going to do it properly.”

They all looked dumbstruck, and Mary giggled to herself across the table at their reaction. “I didn’t know you were a broomstick whiz,” Sirius said eventually, looking impressed. “That is to say, not many people can just take their broom apart and put it back together again.”

James was nodding. “Even I have trouble with that sometimes,” he acknowledged, helping himself to more toast and fried eggs. “It never seems to fly so well afterwards.”

“I imagine there’s a lo’ ye dinna know aboot us,” Mary said with a broad smile. I suspected she was thoroughly enjoying the conversation going on around her, including any discomfort I might have been feeling, and it crossed my mind that I really should talk to her about that sadistic streak. She went on, still smiling. “Laura here’s nae jus’ a pretty face.”

Well, that was asking for a response. “Not even a pretty face, you mean,” I said, grinning at her, throwing back the line we always used with each other. “Anyway,” I continued, turning to James before anyone could comment on what I’d said, “you are putting the tail back on before you re-do the flying charm, and not after?”

“Does it make a difference?”

“Of course it does,” I said, a little surprised he of all people didn’t realise that. “If you do the charm first, the broom adjusts to what its features are at that time. You need to reattach the tail first and clip it down and all that, and then re-do your charm so that it applies to the whole thing. That should probably sort out any problems you’re having.”

James was looking flabbergasted. “Are you sure you don’t want to join the Quidditch team?” he asked. “Your broom knowledge alone could get you a spot I’d think.”

I laughed. “Not a hope, sorry, James. Couldn’t play anyway,” I went on. “Dad’s really keen for me to do as well as possible during NEWTs, so he doesn’t want me distracted by anything. Meaning, no extra-curricular stuff. Bea had the same rule.”

“Adviser, then,” he suggested. “Come and give us tips.”

“I’ll think about it. But only if it doesn’t interfere with NEWTs.” I grinned. “Can’t go against darling daddy’s rulings!”

“By the way,” Remus said, changing the subject, “we hear you’re going out with Caradoc Dearborn. Were you ever planning on telling us?”

“Am I?” I asked, baffled. This was the first I’d heard of it. “That’s weird, you’d think I would have noticed.” I suddenly realised what Remus had said. “And why would I tell you something like that anyway?”

“Because we’re your friends,” James said easily, raising an eyebrow at Sirius across the table. “But do we take you to mean you’re not seeing Dearborn?”

“Not that I know of,” I said carelessly, having some more coffee. “Where’d you hear that one?”

“Not telling,” said Sirius, pretending to lock his lips and throw away the key. “But that makes things easier.” He looked a little relieved, truth be told.

“How so?” I asked, dreading the answer. The boys clearly had something planned, and that could never be a good thing.

“It means we don’t have to threaten to curse him into next week if he mucks you around, after what happened with Aubrey,” James replied, shrugging as he piled a forkful of bacon and eggs into his mouth.

“I don’t see you being so protective of Mary here,” I said.

“But she’s with Ogden,” said Sirius, looking surprised. “He’s fine, nothing wrong with him.”

“Nae any more, we brok’ up,” Mary pointed out. “Ye havna hear’ any rumours aboot my love life?”

James looked like he was thinking about it as he swallowed his mouthful of food. “Uh – no,” he said after a pause. “Just Laura’s. And Dearborn’s. Though if our information’s wrong, we don’t have to challenge her sanity for going out with a prefect.”

“You’re a fine one to talk,” I shot back at him. “Head Boy – and Quidditch captain, I might add – who’s pining after the Head Girl. And you have a problem with me dating an authority figure?”

Sirius, with a mouthful of food, was trying rather unsuccessfully not to laugh, and in the process knocked his fork onto the floor.

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” James said nonchalantly, ignoring my jibe. “If it’s not happening, we don’t need to do anything about it.”

“Well, it’s definitely not happening,” I agreed. “While there’s been a lot to take in since term started, I’m sure I would remember if I’d been snogging someone on a regular basis. Especially Caradoc – he’s really not my type.” I winced involuntarily. While Caradoc was a nice enough bloke, his pale hair and eyes, bulbous lips and weak chin all distinctly turned me off. “Besides,” I went on vaguely, helping myself to more bacon and fried tomatoes, “I’m not allowed to go out with anyone this year anyway, so it’s a bit of a moot point.”

This was clearly a surprise for them – while the girls in my year knew the story, it was obvious the boys didn’t. James’ fork stopped about two inches from his mouth and sagged in his hand, its bacon and eggs dropping back onto his plate. Sirius, who had ducked beneath the table to retrieve his fork, hit his head on his way back up. Peter accidentally snorted some tea he had raised to his mouth at the time, and even the normally composed Remus looked surprised, though why any of them would have cared anyway was a bit beyond me.

Peter found his voice first. “What do you mean, you’re not allowed to go out with anyone?”

“Same as the Quidditch,” I explained with a shrug. “No extra-curricular activities. That includes boyfriends.”

Mary was looking at the boys scornfully. “Ye didna know? An’ ye call yerselves her friends!”

“Well,” Remus said evenly, “if no one tells us something, we can’t reasonably be expected to know it. Laura here obviously didn’t think it was worth mentioning.”

“Slipped my mind,” I said glibly as I tried to corner an errant piece of tomato that was evading my fork.

“You’re not going to keep to that, though, are you?” asked James, his eyes flicking to Sirius, who was still rubbing his head where it had hit the table.

“Yeah, how would he find out anyway?” Sirius added. It was a bit hard to hear him as he was now concentrating on pouring tomato sauce over his scrambled eggs and didn’t raise his head. “It’s not like he’s got any spies here, and what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“Well, I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it,” I said, having successfully captured my bit of tomato. “Though I don’t anticipate it will be much of an issue anyway.” I stole a glance at Sirius when I said it – it was true, but one word from him and I would have abandoned any idea of following Dad’s rule. Hopefully he didn’t realise that though, I couldn’t stand the humiliation.

This time it was James who dropped his fork and stooped beneath the table to pick it up. I suspected he was trying not to laugh, as his shoulders were shaking so much he knocked my knees as he scrounged around trying to find the wayward utensil. Eventually he resurfaced, face a bit red, glasses askew, and wordlessly reached for more eggs. For the life of me I couldn’t work out what was so funny.

“And, on the bright side,” I went on, opting to ignore this little show, “at least I won’t have to go into Madam Puddifoot’s again!”

Sirius groaned with me. “Hear, hear,” he said with feeling. “Clio dragged me in there at the start of the year. It was appalling!”

“Wasn’t it though,” I agreed, shuddering. “Chintz and floral and lacy doilies everywhere – it was like going to Grandma’s but without the good cakes, and far more claustrophobic.”

Mary got my attention by pushing her empty plate away from her. “I’m done,” she said, looking at me. “Shall we?”

“Why not,” I agreed, hastily swallowing the last of my bacon and standing up with her.

“See ye aroond, lads,” she said airily, waving as we made our way out of the Great Hall. The boys waved us off and then followed James as he shuffled down a couple of places to where Lily was.

Mary looked at me once we’d left the hall and were heading towards the Transfiguration classroom. “I though’ I’d better ge’ ye oot o’ there an’ all,” she said with a smile. “Ye were gettin’ a wee bi’ carried away.”

“It took you that long to notice?” I asked sharply. “You could have stopped me when I was rambling on about Quidditch or brooms. Did myself no favours there.”

She laughed. “I’m nae so sure,” she grinned. “James wa’ pretty impressed, he micht e’en encourage it nou.”

“Great,” I said glumly. “We’ve convinced James, now all we need to do is convince Sirius. That should be a breeze. I mean, it’s not like I’ve got any competition or anything.”

“Dinna bea’ yerself up aboot it,” she scolded. “An’ ye micht hae half th’ battle won. Everyone knows tha’ if there’s one person Sirius listens t’, it’s James. Same as Sirius is th’ only one James will listen t’. So I think ye were jus’ helpin’ yer chances, if anythin’.”

I looked at her, considering. “You know, Mary, you might just be on to something there.”

She grinned. “An’ if naethin’ else,” she went on with a wink, “ye’re one up on Elvira an’ th’ fan club,” she went on.

I raised an eyebrow. “How?”

“A’ leas’ he talks t’ ye.”

I nodded, half a smile crossing my face – that much at least I had to concede.

As it turned out, it appeared that the boys’ information source about me actually was good, it was just a bit premature, as Caradoc Dearborn did indeed ask me out as we left Herbology later that week. Like I’d said, he really wasn’t my type in any way, shape or form – Sirius he definitely was not – so using Dad’s rule was a good way to turn him down without hurting him too much. I was surprised, however, that it had come up so quickly, and decided that was probably what James had found so amusing that day at the breakfast table.

****

That weekend I settled in to get my part of the dorm the way I liked it, putting up my Catapults poster, Gryffindor and Welsh rugby banners on the wall, and some photos and books from home on my bedside cabinet. I had also set aside the requisite hour or two to get my broom ready for the school year – as I had told James, there was no chance I would have been able to do that properly before his Quidditch trials were scheduled on the previous Friday.

Once I’d put my broom back together and re-adjusted the charms on it I felt much better. While I was never going to try out for the Quidditch team, it did mean that I could take it for a spin whenever things were getting too much for me, which I had heard could happen a lot during one’s NEWT year. Or whenever I’d been seeing too much of Sirius and needed the equivalent of a cold shower, which I had the feeling would soon be getting to be more and more often.

However, while going to or from the solitary rides I did take, I would occasionally get interrupted by James and various other Gryffindor Quidditch players, who had got it into their heads (probably thanks to James) that I was the person to ask for help whenever they had any broom problems. While I didn’t mind helping them out, I preferred it when they asked me once I’d got back from my ride rather than on my way out, and more than once I’m afraid I even snapped at someone who had got me at the wrong time. (I blamed Sirius, of course – if he hadn’t got me into such a spin I wouldn’t have had to re-set myself so often.)

James also got it into his head that he wasn’t going to let me forget my promise to teach him to drive. No matter how many times I pointed out that we didn’t exactly have a car at our disposal, he refused to give up the idea and insisted that as well as Sirius, who I had also promised (like I could forget), I should also be teaching Remus and Peter. In the end, as a way of shutting him up, I wrote to Mum and got her to send me half a dozen copies of the Highway Code so I could give it to the boys for some background reading. Like my mother I thought it an excellent idea that they have some understanding of the road rules before attempting to get behind the wheel of a car. The ploy worked in as much as they stopped bugging me about teaching them until they had studied the manual – which, in the case of James and Sirius at least, seemed to take approximately fifteen minutes. Oh well. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the end, it turned out to be Lily who finally got James off my back, at least as far as driving lessons were concerned. After we had been back almost a month she was getting increasingly frustrated.

“I never thought I’d say this,” she complained during Charms one day, “but James is too much of a gentleman.”

Charlotte dropped her wand in surprise. “What did you just say?”

“He’s too much of a gentleman,” Lily repeated, trying in vain to make the Gryffindor lion on her parchment change shape and replicate. “I’ve been waiting since we got back to school for him to ask me out, or even make some sort of lewd comment that I could respond to, and he hasn’t done it yet. He keeps on being polite and respectful and concentrating on Head Boy duties. I’m starting to lose patience.”

I laughed, forgetting the wand movement I was supposed to be practicing. “You’re right, Lily, we never thought you’d say that either.”

“Why dinna ye ask him oot?” Mary asked reasonably. “It’s nae lik’ he micht say no.”

“I don’t know,” Lily said nervously. “I’ve never asked a boy out before. How do you do it?”

“Simple,” said Martha. “You go up to them and ask if they want to go out with you.”

“Ah, but we’re not all as bold as you,” Charlotte pointed out, casting what she probably thought was a furtive glance at Remus.

“Yes, I don’t know if I could do that,” Lily agreed.

“Ladies,” came Professor Flitwick’s voice, “more practicing, less chatting.” He came over to us. “How are your Protean Charms going?”

I looked him in the eye and, muttering the spell he’d taught us, changed my Gryffindor lion to a Ravenclaw eagle. All the other lions on my parchment also obediently changed shape, mimicking the original. Flitwick blinked in surprise.

“My apologies. Carry on, carry on,” he said, and shuffled off to inspect the girls at the Ravenclaw table.

“Good one, Laura,” Martha muttered under her breath. “Now, can you show us how you did that?”

****

As it turned out, Lily did have it in her. That evening after supper, she walked right over to James in the common room and looked him in the eye. “James, can I have a word please? Outside. Heads’ business.”

James looked surprised but nodded and followed her. After an hour they hadn’t returned, and we were all getting more than a little suspicious.

Suddenly I had an idea and, working up some courage, headed over to where the boys were sitting in their usual spot by the fire. “Do you know where they’ve gone?” I asked quietly, taking a seat on James’ empty armchair.

“No idea,” said Sirius, looking up from what appeared to be a Muggle motorcycle magazine. Ah, I thought, Mary had guessed right about whose bed was whose. “She said it was Heads’ business, though.”

“Heads’ business my foot,” I snorted. “If they’re still talking I’ll eat a Hippogriff. Have you got that map of yours handy?”

Remus looked vaguely surprised, but fished around in his bag and pulled out the enormous bit of parchment. “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good,” he said, spreading it out on the seat next to him and tapping it with his wand. Once the map appeared on the parchment, he scanned it quickly. “They’re in that old classroom just down the hall,” he said. “The one opposite the statue of Lachlan the Lanky.”

“Hmm,” I mused. “I guess we can’t borrow that Cloak of his without asking, can we? Just to take a peek, I mean.”

“You’re not proposing spying on the Head Boy and Girl, are you?”Sirius asked with mock indignation, though he was smiling. “You can’t do that.”

“Of course we can,” Peter piped up. “He’d do it to us.”

“That’s true,” Remus conceded. “But no, Laura, we can’t borrow his own Cloak to spy on him. That would be beyond the boundaries of honour.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” I admitted. “You’re right. I guess we’ll just have to sit here and speculate on what they’ve been doing for the past hour then.”

“Peter will do it, won’t you Wormtail?” Sirius said suddenly, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “He doesn’t need a Cloak.”

I looked at Peter, surprised and more than a little confused, but he just smiled an almost malevolent smile and nodded. “Okay. I’ll go.” He climbed out of the portrait hole and was back within a minute. “Uh, Laura, what exactly was it that you thought they were up to?” he asked, looking slyly at me.

“If I had to guess, I’d say they were giving their tongues a good workout without saying a word,” I said archly, leaning back in the armchair and trying not to look at Sirius. I had tensed up again, inwardly thanking Merlin that we were sitting on separate chairs and therefore weren’t likely to come into any physical contact.

“Got it in one,” he said, smiling again. Sirius and Remus grinned maniacally and high-fived each other with gusto.

“About bloody time,” said Remus.

“Yeah, hopefully he’ll stop pining now,” added Sirius, who then frowned slightly. “Though he’ll probably go all soppy and revolting and won’t spend any time with us any more.” He looked at me suddenly with new interest. “How did you know?”

“You forget, I share a dorm with her,” I said, getting up from my chair. “Thanks, guys. I’d better share the news.” And I went back to our favourite table by the window, smiling broadly.

“So?” Mary asked immediately. “Where are they?” The girls had obviously guessed why I had been talking to the boys by the fire.

“World’s biggest snog-fest, apparently,” I said. “In an empty classroom down the hall.”

They all got the same maniacal grins that Sirius and Remus had worn. “Brilliant!” said Martha. “So she did get the guts up.” And, abandoning our homework, we spent a good half hour speculating on what would happen with Lily and James from here on in.

Lily didn’t come back until after we had gone up to the dorm to get ready for bed. She looked deliriously happy and more than a little dishevelled, and was obviously hoping we’d gone to sleep already and wouldn’t quiz her: the look that came to her face when she saw me in the bathroom and Charlotte still getting changed into her pyjamas was one of disappointment.

Martha had seen it too. “Sorry, Lils, you were sprung,” she said with a broad smile. “What happened?”

Lily pouted. “If we were sprung, you shouldn’t need me to tell you,” she pointed out.

“All we know is that you and James were snogging each other senseless,” I said, putting my toothbrush away and coming back into the dorm. “What we don’t know is how long that took to happen.”

Lily sighed, sitting down on her bed. “About five seconds, actually,” she admitted. “I took him to an abandoned classroom, and he looked at me with those eyes and said, ‘Right, what’s up?’, and I just kissed him. I couldn’t help myself.”

Mary raised her eyebrows. “Couldna help yerself? Tha’ was why ye go’ him oot o’ th’ common room i’ th’ firs’ place, wasna it?”

“Yes, all right,” Lily said. “I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it, you know, asking him out, and it just seemed the easiest way. And he didn’t seem to mind.”

“Of course he didn’t,” said Charlotte, who had finished putting her pyjamas on. “Did you actually talk at all?”

“You know, we did,” Lily admitted, sounding surprised herself. “For ages. In between snogging, of course. He’s a great kisser.” She paused for a bit, smiling to herself with a dreamy expression on her face. “I really don’t know why I waited this long. We could have had all summer.” And she lay back on her bed, looking at the canopy above her head.

“I think she’s down for the count, girls,” said Martha, still smiling. “How about we leave her to her daydreams for a bit and get some sleep? And, in the morning, I’ll organise a plaque for that classroom down the hall to commemorate this momentous occasion – it has taken six years, after all.” She grinned mischievously while Lily made a vague movement to throw her pillow at her, but didn’t follow through.

“I micht hold ye t’ that,” smiled Mary, settling into bed herself and turning off the lamp closest to her. “Nou goo’ nicht everyone.” And we all settled down into our beds and pretended not to notice the occasional contented sigh coming from Lily’s direction.

________________________________________


Author’s note: Ah, Lily and James finally getting together. I wanted them to have as long a time as a couple as I could realistically manage within the narrative, so about a month after school went back seemed reasonable. And James, of course, had finally got the hint and backed off a bit to give Lily room, so it was up to her to make the first move … I’m smiling at the very thought.

________________________________________

34
We saw very little of Lily and James over the next few days. That is, they made it to class and mealtimes and the like, but they were conspicuous by their absence from the common room after supper, and they spoke to very few people besides each other. We didn’t really mind, as this sort of thing was par for the course for any new relationship, though we did notice the boys initially seemed a little at sea at the temporary loss of their friend, apparently unsure what to do when he wasn’t around.

The couple in question, however, were both obviously so deliriously happy that no one even thought of begrudging them anything, and before long Sirius, Remus and Peter seemed to get used to the new state of affairs and went back to wreaking the occasional havoc among themselves. Even the half dozen or so girls who made up the James Potter fan club appeared to accept that they had well and truly lost their chance. In fact, the only person who really seemed very put out by the relationship was Severus Snape.

To no one’s surprise, the seating arrangements in Potions changed after Lily and James got together, in that Charlotte replaced her at my table. While something like this would normally have had no impact on the class at all, especially since they were both members of the Slug Club and were therefore treated indulgently by the teacher, it was impossible not to notice that Snape was less than thrilled with what had happened. If looks could kill James would have been dead twenty times before the next class even started and, while he put on a show of ignoring Severus’ repeated attempts to sabotage him, I had a sneaking suspicion that he was just storing up each incident in his memory, to exact revenge at a later time. If nothing else I was impressed with the strength of his Shield Charm, which stayed intact no matter how many hexes were hurled at it.

This sort of carry-on, which continued throughout the term, was naturally a rather significant distraction for the rest of the class. This was a bit of an issue as the potions we were supposed to be making would have been difficult enough even if we’d been able to give it our full concentration. In truth I was feeling Lily’s loss rather significantly, and Charlotte was feeling the loss of James and Sirius, as we had both relied on their expertise to get us through the increasingly complicated potions Slughorn was having us make. Leda Madley and Al Jorkins, the Hufflepuffs we shared a table with, weren’t of nearly the same calibre as Lily and couldn’t provide much by way of assistance, so we struggled through on our own.

“What do we do next?” Charlotte asked one day as we stumbled our way through the instructions for a Blood Replenishing Potion.

“Powdered moonstone, I think,” I said, pulling out an elastic and tying my hair back to get it out of the way before picking up my copy of Advanced Potion-Making once again. “We’ve added the crocodile heart, right? Well, that’s the last of the base ingredients. So we stir it three times anticlockwise and then four times clockwise, and put in the moonstone one teaspoon at a time, stirring six times clockwise in between each spoonful.” I looked at her and grimaced. “This is a nightmare.”

“No arguments from me there,” Charlotte agreed, a look of concentration on her face as she followed my instructions, before looking intently at her own book. “Oh, we need some nettles, do you want me to get them?” And she took off towards the students’ store cupboard in search of further ingredients, taking a rather wide berth around Lily and James’ table on the off chance she might get in the way of a Snape jinx.

Eventually we finished our potions and they even looked pretty much like they were supposed to. Maybe a year of sitting with Lily during this class really had made me better at it. I lined up with everyone else when the class was over to hand over my sample to be marked.

“Thank you, Miss Collins,” Professor Slughorn said rather absently as I gave him my sample and hoisted my bag over my shoulder in readiness to leave the dungeon. Hmm, Collins. Not that far off the mark, Slughorn definitely was improving. At least we had the right number of syllables, which wasn’t always the case. And at least he acknowledged my existence, which again wasn’t always something I could rely on.

Heading back upstairs Sirius fell into step beside me, his hands deep in his pockets and a look of disapproval on his face. “Did I hear that right?” he asked almost angrily. “He’s been teaching you for over six years and he can’t even get your name right?”

I laughed. “It’s pretty funny, really, he keeps trying to make me Irish. Collins, Connolly, Carroll, Connor …”

He still looked annoyed, his grey eyes flashing. “But that’s not good enough, he should know who you are by now.” He seemed to be taking the whole thing far more seriously than was warranted – after all, it had been happening for years and had turned into such a game for me that if it stopped now I’d probably be disappointed.

“Not him,” I said, pulling my hair out of its ponytail and stowing the elastic in my pocket. “I’m not in the Slug Club, which means I’m not important enough to worry about. You know he only picks the brightest and the best-connected.” I let out a giggle. “Maybe I should let slip that my cousin married Dai Llewellyn’s nephew last summer, that might get me in.”

He looked at me curiously. “Did she? I didn’t know that!”

I shrugged. “That’s probably because I never told anyone. It’s not important.”

He grinned. “Prongs might disagree with you. Anything Quidditch-related, he wants to know.”

“You think?” I asked, trying not to notice how that smile always affected me, trying not to tense up too much. Sometimes it felt like a never-ending battle. I took a deep breath, re-composing myself. “Dangerous Dai’s dead, so it’s not like he can get me free tickets or a discount at Quality Quidditch Supplies.”

He laughed that bark-like laugh of his. “You have got the measure of him, haven’t you, Laura? You’re right, that probably is what would interest him the most.”

“In which case,” I pointed out, “there’s not much point in my mentioning it. Which has been my strategy all along, you might notice.” I had realised that I couldn’t escape him – it was lunch time so we were both going to the Great Hall, and if I tried to do something else it would have been really obvious I was trying to avoid him.

He had a bit of an unusual look on his face. “You know, there are a lot of kids at this school who would be making sure everyone knew they had a connection to Dai Llewellyn, however tenuous. You really don’t like drawing attention to yourself, do you?”

I thought about that. “I don’t think it’s that, necessarily. I think that if I’m going to have people’s attention, it’s better if it’s for something that’s actually about me, not about random relations.”

He was quiet for a bit, apparently thinking. “I can understand that,” he said eventually, frowning slightly. “It’s an extension of what you said to me the other year. Don’t judge someone on the bad stuff their family has done. And don’t take credit for something someone else in your family has done either. Is that right?”

Again he had surprised me by his insight, not to mention his memory, considering when I’d said that to him (in fifth year) he’d barely acknowledged that I existed. “That’s exactly right,” I agreed. We had reached the Great Hall by now and filed in for lunch, me trying my hardest to ignore his proximity, his smell, his hand resting on my back as we made our way to the Gryffindor table. What was the score again? Quivering Wreck 35; Laura 0. Or something like that.

Mary, who didn’t take Potions, was already there and had saved me a seat in between her and Martha. Thanking her inwardly for ensuring I didn’t have to sit next to Sirius, I climbed into the gap. Sirius took a spot on the other side of Mary, and James, Lily, Remus and Charlotte soon filed in and occupied seats across the table with Peter. Mary leaned in close to my ear.

“Wha’s he bin sayin’? Ye’re drooling.”

I shut my mouth very quickly and mopped it with a napkin. “Nothing much,” I said quietly. “Could do with a broom ride though.” She shot a very knowing look at me and changed the subject.

“We’ve bin up i’ th’ common room an’ all,” she said more loudly, indicating Martha and Peter. “They’ve announced th’ nex’ Hogsmeade visit. Las’ weekend i’ October.”

Lily nodded. “We considered having it not go ahead at all after the Dementors last year, but Dumbledore said he’s done a risk assessment and he thinks it should be safe enough.” She looked at James fondly and he put an arm around her.

I’d forgotten that the Head Boy and Girl organised dates for Hogsmeade visits as part of their duties, and part of me was a little surprised they had managed to achieve anything at all since they had got together. Martha, apparently thinking along the same lines, was smiling broadly.

“So you two have actually been doing work? I thought that was just an excuse to hole up together in an empty room for a while!”

Lily blushed a little but James took it in his stride. “Of course it was an excuse. We’re just using up the plans Lily had made at the start of the year to make it look like we’re doing something productive. Good thing she’s so organised, really.”

Sirius grinned. “I thought you said what you were doing was productive. Are you saying you lied, mate?”

“Depends on how you define it, really,” said Remus, who appeared to be resolutely not looking at Charlotte next to him. A smile was dancing around the corners of his mouth. “I’m sure they think it’s very productive. Whether or not Dumbledore would agree is, of course, another matter.” Lily and James both laughed, Lily a little self-consciously, as we all settled in for lunch.

****

Even though Lily was undoubtedly taking up much of his time and certainly most of his thoughts, and there was a noticeable decrease in his pranking that we were sure could be dated from the day they got together, James was still somehow managing to do his other duties, including those associated with captaining the Gryffindor Quidditch team. And he hadn’t forgotten that I had suggested I might be induced to talk to his players about broom handling and maintenance and so, rather predictably, kept insisting that I attend Quidditch practices occasionally, being rather keen on the idea that I give tips to his team all at once, rather than on the ad hoc basis on which I was currently doing it (that is, whenever someone cornered me after I’d been out for a ride). Unfortunately, most of the practice sessions were on days where I had a mountain of homework to finish, or a detention for hexing someone, or some other reason that meant I couldn’t make it. Finally towards the end of October he managed to find a time that suited me, so I agreed to go down and have a chat to anyone who wanted help.

I was rather surprised when, on my way out of the portrait hole at the assigned time, I was assailed by Sirius who insisted he was coming with me. “James’ orders,” he said almost a little smugly. “He doesn’t want you wandering around the castle or the grounds alone after dark, which it could well be by the time you’re finished.” He walked downstairs with me, hands in his pockets, moving with an effortless grace that I could never hope to emulate no matter how hard I tried. Great, I thought, watching him. Way to make a girl feel inadequate.

I scowled at him, an action that was most probably influenced by my aforementioned feeling of inadequacy. “Anyone would think I was helpless,” I complained. “What does he think’s going to happen to me?”

He shrugged. “Search me.” Ooh, I thought involuntarily, can I? No, Laura, focus. I forced my face into a more serious expression as he continued. “Though we’re playing Slytherin in the first game, so he might be worried they’ll have a go at his secret weapon.”

I laughed. “And that is?”

Sirius looked surprised. “You, of course. The go-to girl for all things broom-related. Apparently our Seeker has been having trouble with her broom jerking towards the left when she goes too fast. Which I dare say can be a problem if the Snitch is on her right.”

“Hmmm.” I thought about that, glad to have a distraction from Sirius who had to be walking closer to me than necessary. What was he going to do, physically shield me if someone tried to attack? “I think she might have a Cleansweep Six. In which case there’s not much we can do about it, they all seem to do that after a few years. But I’ll have a look at it.” I looked up at him suddenly. “’Cause I’m guessing we want to make sure the Slytherin Seeker doesn’t get the Snitch.”

He laughed that bark-like laugh of his. “You’re not wrong. If Reg gets one up on me this early in the year I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“I can just see the Daily Prophet headlines now,” I said with a wry smile. “Slytherin triumphant over Gryffindor: Black family feud magnifies. They’ll be up here before you know it, pestering you for an interview.”

He laughed again. “Yep, definitely front page material,” he agreed. “Complete with an in-depth exposé with my dear sweet mother telling them what a disappointment I am. With material like that, she’ll be able to keep going for months.”

“In that case, there will have to be a spinoff book released as well,” I said, getting into the swing of it, “just to cash in on the story’s popularity.” Elvira and the fan club would be lapping it all up, I thought, even if no one else did.

“You’re right,” he said in a serious voice, though I was sure his eyes were sparkling. I didn’t quite trust myself to look into them, though, so I couldn’t be certain. “What do you reckon, Fantastic Blacks and Where to Find Them? Though finding a fantastic Black would take some doing, I dare say.”

I laughed despite myself, thinking that it was really just a case of knowing where to look. “Or Tales of Beedle the Black.”

“That could work,” he agreed thoughtfully. “And I don’t doubt my dear old mum has some lovely tales to tell. Tale of the Two Brothers, one of whom is unworthy of the name, that type of thing.”

I felt a bit bad for bringing it all up now – he was talking lightly but I was sure there was still some latent discontent in there that his family had abandoned him. And if what he was saying was true, if his mother had constantly been on about what a disappointment he was, then that just made it that much worse. He must have noticed my reticence, because before I realised what was happening he had an arm around my shoulders and was giving me a squeeze.

“Don’t worry about it, Laura, it’s ancient history,” he said reassuringly. “I’m well used to what they say about me by now.”

“Okay.” I gave a bit of a terse smile, noticing that my shoulders had rather predictably tensed from the contact with him. I was also very aware that he still had his arm around me, which had to be an oversight on his part, and twisted my torso a bit in an attempt to dislodge his hand. He realised what I was doing and promptly let go, and I felt a combination of disappointment and relief. However, I also still felt bad for talking so blithely about something that was bound to be a little upsetting to him (when did I become so insensitive?) and decided to change the subject. “Anyway,” I went on, “are you sure you should be coming out at all tonight?”

He looked surprised. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“Put it this way,” I said, “I’m not the one who got in trouble with McGonagall this morning for not handing in my Transfiguration homework.”

“Oh, that.” He shrugged, looking completely unconcerned. “She’ll keep.”

I looked at him curiously. “That’s not like you, though,” I pointed out. “Normally you’d hand up something, even if you thought it was rubbish.”

“Yes, well,” he said, looking a little uncomfortable, “I had something on my mind at the time and couldn’t really concentrate.”

Again, not like him. I was getting more and more curious. “Good or bad?”

He looked even more uncomfortable. “Um … both, I guess.”

“Did you want to talk about it?” I was feeling more sympathetic than accusatory by now; he didn’t usually let things get to him very much as far as I was aware so it was all a little odd.

He hesitated. “No, probably not,” he said eventually, raking his fingers through his hair distractedly. “It’s nothing, just a blip. Don’t worry about it, I’ll deal with it.”

Obviously now was not the time – strange, if he was happy to discuss his family but not whatever this was. Anyway, I let it slide. “Fine. Just don’t do it again, you do enough detentions as it is without being lumped with one for not doing your homework.”

He laughed, all discomfort apparently gone. “Yes, you’re right,” he smiled, looking at me. “If I have to serve a detention I’d much rather it was for something I enjoyed doing.” He changed the subject abruptly. “Hey, what are you doing for Hogsmeade?”

I looked at him, a little taken aback. He had a habit of sudden subject changes like that and it took some getting used to. “Hogsmeade? The girls and I were going to go robes shopping. Why?”

He shrugged, his eyes on the marble staircase which we were fast approaching. “Oh, nothing. Just wondered, that’s all.” Or, I thought, more like you were just making small talk to get away from talking about whatever it was that stopped you from doing your homework. Sometimes he was just a little too transparent.

Eventually we made it to the Quidditch pitch and I got my own broom out of the broom shed in case I needed to demonstrate anything. James pounced on me as soon as I reappeared.

“Right, you’re here,” he said. “I thought you might have … forgotten.” He grinned at Sirius who suddenly looked a little discomfited.

I laughed. “How could I possibly forget when you keep bugging me about it?” I asked.

“I don’t bug you,” James protested, looking hurt. “I just thought you might want to do your bit in helping your team win the Cup this year. Persephone,” he called to the Seeker who was flying in circles (anticlockwise) about twenty feet above us, “can you come here for a bit?”

Persephone Alderton was a very short, slight fourth-year girl who had an uncanny knack for finding and catching small objects, such as Snitches. She looked a little odd next to James, who was at least six foot and rather broad, but she was doubtless used to that by now and wasn’t in the least intimidated. She came to ground level immediately and strolled over, her broom over her shoulder.

I’d been right, it was a Cleansweep Six which had a bad habit of veering off to one side after about five years. There wasn’t much anyone could do about it, but we did remove the Flying Charm and re-cast it, which might confuse the broom into thinking it was a bit newer and stop the veering for a little while at least. If nothing else it was worth a try. The other thing worth trying was putting the Cushioning Charm on both sides of the broom, so if it did start jerking towards one direction and she needed to go in another, she could rotate the broom while still in flight and use the fault to her advantage.

Next in line was Fin Quigley, the sixth-year Beater, whose Shooting Star wasn’t responding to direction changes as well as it should have been. Unfortunately the best thing for this was a complete disassembly of the broom and starting again from scratch, which took a good hour or two when done properly, and therefore having it fixed before practice wasn’t really an option. I did offer to help him do it at another time, which James overheard and promptly included himself in the party for broomstick assembly instructions.

Finally Jasper Stimpson, a third-year who had just been appointed Keeper, came to me. He had a brand new Nimbus Fifteen Hundred, a gift from his parents for making the team, but wasn’t confident on how best to fly it. This however wasn’t really my area and I sent him to James, who had the same broom and was much better qualified to answer those sorts of questions. I could see that young Jasper was rather intimidated by his captain, but if they were going to be on the same team all year then the sooner he got over that the better it would be.

Throughout the whole process Sirius had been sitting on the ground propped up against the broom shed, watching the proceedings and clearly waiting for me to finish. It hadn’t really clicked until that point that I needed escorting back to the common room as well, but I couldn’t exactly tell him to take off before I lost all self-control. (Maybe, I considered, if I just did that it would make life easier as he’d be bound to avoid me afterwards, but I still couldn’t face the rejection. Yes, I was a coward. And I didn’t want to lose him as a friend.)

I looked at him once Jasper had gone to James, my broom in my hand. “Sirius, do you mind waiting a bit longer? I feel like taking a spin.”

He looked surprised but nodded. “Sure. Whatever you like.”

A fast, furious trip around the pitch was exactly what I needed, I had decided. I was sure to be much better behaved around Sirius if I got any excess tension and frustration out of my system before he took me back to the castle. I got onto my broom and took off firmly, taking myself rather higher and wider than the practicing players so I wouldn’t be in the way, and doing a few laps of the pitch while I let off a bit of steam. My Nimbus One Thousand and One, while not as fast or durable as James’ and Jasper’s Fifteen Hundreds, was still a good broom and could get up to a hundred miles an hour in good conditions. After several laps (or maybe a few dozen), I felt calm enough to head towards the ground and was putting my broom away in the shed when I heard James’ voice behind me.

“Oi, Laura,” he said accusingly, having also obviously just landed, “I thought you said you couldn’t fly.”

“I can fly,” I protested, looking at him over my shoulder. “I just have to keep both hands on the broom to be able to do it. Which means I’m crap at Quidditch,” I went on, correctly interpreting his look as I turned to face him.

His brow furrowed. “Sounds like an excuse to me,” he said. “If you didn’t want to play, why didn’t you just say so?”

I smiled. “I did say so, if you recall,” I pointed out. “And I also said that I can’t throw or catch very well if I’m on a broom. Because I can only fly two-handed.”

James still didn’t look convinced but fortunately Sirius joined the conversation on my side. “Lay off her, Prongs,” he said easily. “She did what you asked her to.”

James just raised his eyebrows at Sirius and shook his head. “That’d be right, gang up on me,” he grumbled. “Though the team’s looking all right, I guess I shouldn’t complain.”

I smiled again. “Good. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’d best be getting back, I’ve got an essay to finish. And you’d better get back to your practice before your team start wondering where their captain is.”

The flight had worked – I was incredibly calm as Sirius walked me back to Gryffindor Tower, even managing to control myself when he smiled at me. I was getting much better at this self-discipline thing, I decided. Quivering Wreck 47 (or something); Laura 1 – this had to count as a victory of sorts. However, once we got back to the common room I was very pleased to be able to make my excuses and head directly for the dorm, claiming the need for a shower so that I didn’t need to spend any more time in his company. And even though it was still early, I stayed in the dorm for the rest of the evening, lying on my bed to finish my Herbology essay rather than heading back downstairs and potentially facing him again.

****

Of course, even if I had wanted to avoid Sirius – actually wanted to, rather than making vague noises in Mary’s direction that suggested it might be a good idea – it would have proved more difficult than I’d anticipated, as no matter what I did he always seemed to be somewhere nearby. “This is getting ridiculous,” I said to Mary at the end of the week in a rare moment of privacy. “If he was actively trying to torture me he couldn’t do a better job. It’s almost like he’s making a point of hanging around or something.”

Mary groaned sympathetically, though I was sure she was sick to death of my grumbling about Sirius. If I was honest with myself, I recognised that if I’d been on the receiving end, I would have been too. But I needed to talk to someone about it and, as my best friend, she drew the short straw. “Is it really tha’ bad, though?” she asked after a pause.

“Well, look at this week,” I said, counting off the days on my fingers. “Monday – walked me to lunch after Potions, and then he was sitting just behind us in Charms and kept talking to us when we were practicing the Charm. Tuesday – worked on the next plant during Herbology, and helped me out during Transfiguration when I couldn’t get the spell right. Plus walked me down to Quidditch practice and back again, though that was on James’ orders so maybe I shouldn’t count it. Wednesday – was waiting after Ancient Runes because he had to tell Remus something, so walked with us to the library. Thursday – asked for advice during Herbology, where he was on the next plant, again. And today, sat just behind us during Defence and kept interrupting our conversation, and kept offering hints when Professor Perkins asked us to duel. So even if I try to avoid him, I can’t.”

Mary was nodding. “Ye’re richt,” she admitted. “It does seem beyond th’ norm. Bu’ then again, tha’ does ten’ t’ happen when ye’re friends wi’ someone.”

“I know,” I said miserably. “But does he have to be so bloody nice about everything? It was so much easier when I thought he was arrogant.”

“O’ course it wa’,” Mary said reasonably. “When ye though’ he was arrogan’ ye didna lik’ him at all. So there wasna a problem.”

“Yeah, all right,” I conceded. “But what do I do about it?”

“Jus’ enjoy it,” she suggested. “After this year ye may ne’er see him again, so ye micht as well mak’ th’ mos’ o’ it nou.”

I thought about that. “You might be right,” I said eventually. “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”

________________________________________


Author’s note: Yes, I know, a bit of a filler, but like all fillers it had some important stuff hidden away in there that needed to be covered. And I should confess that I made up most of which brooms were around at what time, and any issues they may have associated with them - we don't have much info about that sort of thing from canon so I had to invent it.

35
The first Hogsmeade visit took place on the last weekend in October. As I had told Sirius, the girls as a group had decided that as we were all single (aside from Lily), we would go together and have a lovely girls’ day out, trying on dresses in Gladrags and even going to Zonko’s and Dervish & Bange’s, which were rumoured to have stocks of things like love potions if you knew where to look or who to ask.

Hogsmeade itself was getting more and more depressing, just like Diagon Alley and anywhere else only wizards went. Heavy with memories of the Dementor attack less than six months earlier, we stayed together in a group and had our wands within easy reach at all times, keeping a safe distance from anyone who looked like they might possibly be Death Eaters out for a bit of arbitrary intimidation of the locals. (Not that the Death Eaters had been reported as being in Hogsmeade – if they had, then I doubted that Dumbledore would have allowed the visit to go ahead – but then again, they might have decided that was a good day to start, and we weren’t in the mood for taking any chances.) We also spent a lot of time trying to avoid the various amulet sellers and other stall-holders that had also increased since last year, though sometimes the temptation to hex them got to be too much, and more than one ended up with tusks, or wheels where their feet used to be. (Generally, the more they hassled us to buy their products, the more likely they were to be hexed by the end of the day.)

On our way to Gladrags we were almost bowled over by a rather thin and unkempt-looking wizard with ginger hair being physically ejected from the Hog’s Head, the other pub in the village which had a somewhat shady reputation, with what appeared to be considerable force and a Banishing Charm to boot. While there wasn’t much to see once we had all dusted ourselves off and the subject of the disturbance had wandered with a bandy-legged gait down the main street and out of sight, the event itself was more than a little thought-provoking.

“Wonder what that was about,” Martha said quietly. “Must have been pretty bad, whatever it was.” We and most of Hogwarts had been under the impression that there was nothing under the sun that would force someone to be kicked out of the Hog’s Head.

“Maybe he was casting Unforgivables,” Charlotte suggested, casting a nervous glance in the direction the man had last been seen.

“Didna look lik’ much o’ a Death Eater, though,” Mary pointed out. “An’ I canna imagine someone bein’ kicked oot fer cursin’ Death Eaters, either.”

“Good point,” I agreed. “If nothing else he didn’t really look like he’d be capable of casting anything as strong as an Unforgivable.”

Coming up with ideas and theories as to what the ginger-haired wizard could possibly have done to deserve such a punishment kept us occupied for a good half hour, extending even when we ducked past a few more stall-holders to get into Gladrags to see what their latest range of beautifying robes could do for someone like me. Overall, however, even Gladrags was rather unsatisfying in general and it was in a more sombre mood than we had hoped that we converged on the Three Broomsticks at about quarter to one for lunch.

The difference between the inside of the pub and the pallid atmosphere outside couldn’t have been more palpable. The place was bustling with light, music and chatter and we soon realised that we would have trouble finding a table, a problem that none of us had ever faced before. Clearly, the rest of the pub’s clientele felt the same about the mood outdoors as we did and had decided to stay inside for the long haul.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view of it, we were spotted by Remus and called over to share the table he was at with Sirius and Peter. Four extra chairs were found so quickly I wondered if they had been Summoned and we all squeezed up, seven around a table better suited for four.

“Well,” said Martha, looking around after we’d all sat down, “this is cosy.”

“You’re not wrong,” agreed Sirius, who as the tallest and broadest was most probably the most cramped by the arrangements. “Anyone know how to do an Undetectable Extension Charm?”

Grinning at the idea, we all shook our heads – that one had yet to come up in our Charms class.

“Not to worry,” he said. “Though I think I’ll grab some drinks. Butterbeers all round, or would you prefer something stronger?”

We placed our orders and he took off towards the bar, where over my shoulder I watched him flirt unashamedly with Madam Rosmerta, the curvy landlady, as he ordered the drinks. When they were poured, however, he apparently realised the flaw in the plan.

“Oi, who wants to help me carry them?” he called over his shoulder, his voice just discernable over the din.

Mary looked at me and winked almost imperceptibly. “Laura, ye’re th’ closest,” she said, though it wasn’t strictly true – Peter next to me was probably closer. I took the hint, though.

“Okay, I’ll go,” I said with fake reluctance, not sure if spending time in close proximity to him was necessarily a good thing. It was, however, a bit of self-indulgence and he couldn’t possibly detect any ulterior motives as I was, as Mary had pointed out, one of the closest.

He looked almost pleased when I got up and pushed my way through the crowd to the bar. “Here you go, Laura, can you take those?” he asked, indicating three frothing mugs of butterbeer on the bar. Next to them were four glasses of Firewhisky on the rocks. “I can deal with these so we should be right.”

Obviously a Levitation Charm would on the surface have been an easier option, but if you’ve ever tried to control something via a Levitation Charm when you’re in the middle of a crowd you’d know it’s generally not a good idea. Especially when it’s something that can spill without too much assistance. Fortunately Sirius was tall enough to part the waters for me, so to speak, and we made it back to the table with all drinks intact. When we tried to pay him for the drinks, though, he insisted on footing the bill, saying almost ridiculously that if he couldn’t buy drinks for some friends then he had no business having friends in the first place, and I had the feeling this was part of the strict code of honour the boys seemed to share.

We all ended up staying in the Three Broomsticks for a good couple of hours afterwards, both enjoying the company and atmosphere and not really wanting to face the stall-holders outside, even if they did have antlers. Eventually, as different people got up to do different things (order lunch, visit the toilets, get another round of drinks), and people shifted to talk to someone else, we all ended up in completely different seats to those we had started in, and I was thrilled to find myself next to Sirius again for much of the afternoon. Which, I hasten to add, was through no design of my own, just the luck of the draw, but it certainly beat my original spot next to Peter. Charlotte was probably just as pleased with the arrangements, which had put her at Remus’ side for a similar length of time.

Halfway through the afternoon we lost Martha, who disappeared on her way to the bar – and by this I mean a completely innocuous disappearance rather than anything even vaguely sinister. The only thing was that she had been going to get our drinks order so we were starting to get a little miffed at her non-return.

“I did see Davey Gudgeon stop her on the way,” Charlotte said as we looked through the crowds for her. “Maybe she’s gone over to where the Hufflepuffs are.”

Peter suddenly sniggered, and Remus and Sirius turned to him sharply. “Something you’re not telling us, Wormtail?”

“Not really,” Peter explained. “But I’ve found Martha now and I don’t think she’s with the Hufflepuffs. Or, not with more than one of the Hufflepuffs,” he went on, his eyes glinting.

We followed his gaze to a spot by the far wall, slightly obscured by a large pot plant, where Martha and Davey were cloistered up together having one heck of a snog. Ah well, good luck to them, I thought. Davey was a nice enough boy, even if his sister (who’d been in Bea’s year) had to have been one of the ditziest girls I had ever come across. But then again, I couldn’t exactly judge someone on what their sister was like, could I?

“Well, that would explain it,” Remus said with a grin. “Though it looks like we’re going to have to get our own drinks. What did you want again?”

As we all gave our orders again and fished around for some gold to pay for it, I noticed that Peter was still watching Martha and Davey by the back wall, as though that was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. Maybe he was something of a voyeur, I thought, reasoning that it might be his only option considering most of the girls in our year wouldn’t have touched him with a ten foot pole. Remus, coming back to the table with the drinks, caught my eye and just grinned, his eyes flicking towards Peter. Right, I thought, that pretty much confirmed it – this was his usual behaviour.

Martha’s departure meant there was a bit more room at our table which was both a curse and a blessing, as while it gave us some breathing space it meant that I had no excuse to rub my arms and legs up against Sirius any more. It had been nice, being able to pretend for a bit that we actually were a couple and he wouldn’t be horrified if he knew that I was doing it deliberately, so I did feel a little disappointed when it had to end.

To my horror this coincided with me starting to feel more self-conscious from his proximity, though why this hadn’t happened before was slightly beyond me. Maybe the claustrophobic conditions had made me immune or something. Anyway, before long the requisite tension in my shoulders began and I started clamming up, only speaking when spoken to and then using monosyllabic responses. Why did I let myself get so intimidated by him? He was only human, flesh and blood and two arms and two legs like the rest of us, and he was supposed to be my friend, so there was no logical reason why I should have been reacting that way. However, he was also as close to my dream man as I was ever going to meet, and seeing him every day, usually for hours on end, definitely didn’t help me stop thinking about him.

I’m afraid I wasn’t the best company for the rest of the afternoon, only coming out of my stupor when the six of us started heading back towards the castle at about half three, and that was due to a sharp nudge in the ribs from Mary. “Ye okay?” she whispered to me as we left the Hogsmeade main street. “Ye’ve nae bin yerself.”

“I know,” I said miserably, still in a whisper as the cause of my agitation wasn’t far away, walking just ahead with Remus and Peter. “All of a sudden I got all intimidated and I couldn’t shake it off.” This had to be a try for Quivering Wreck at the very least, and probably a conversion as well. How about, Quivering Wreck 72; Laura 1. That was probably fairly close to the mark. I really had to work on this.

“Ye’re gettin’ worse,” she said in a tone that was both warning and sympathetic. “Do ye want me t’ line up a snog fer ye t’ try t’ ge’ him oot o’ yer system?”

I thought about that, but the very idea of kissing someone who wasn’t Sirius just left me cold. Merlin’s beard, I did have it badly. Come on, Laura, snap out of it, I thought, you’re not doing yourself any favours here. I looked at Mary. “We could try,” I said doubtfully, “but I’m not convinced it would work.”

She gave me a comforting hug as we made our way through the school gates. “I’ll say one thin’, Laura,” she said cheerfully, “yer pa’s rule aboot nae seein’ anyone this year is plain daft. No relationship coul’ ge’ ye more distracted or preoccupied than nae bein’ wi’ him is.”

I gripped her arm fiercely. “For goodness sake keep your voice down,” I hissed, having noticed Remus in front of us pause ever so slightly and turn his head at her remark. “Or at least Muffliato people first.” Damn. Hopefully he wouldn’t work out what she was on about, though I wasn’t convinced he wouldn’t: Remus could be pretty sharp. And hopefully no one else – specifically, Sirius – heard it either.

Mary just looked at me. “An’ ye’re miserable an’ all, too,” she went on as if I’d never interrupted her. “I hate seein’ ye lik’ this.”

I flashed her a quick smile. “I’ll be okay. I promise.”

She frowned slightly. "Sometimes, Laura, I'm nae so sure."

****

The following week was a frenzy of activity, including the annual Hallowe’en feast and the announcement of the biennial Yule Ball, which was to take place on the Saturday a week before Christmas. I wasn’t sure if I was looking forward to the ball or not this year – the events of the last one kept flashing through my mind, and I certainly didn’t relish the idea of having to watch Sirius getting cosy with someone else all night. Having said that, however, it was bound to be a good night if I could just get over my hang-ups, and was an excuse to let our hair down a bit before the holidays.

The ball set off the same sort of enthusiasm in our dorm as it had done two years previously, with hours of discussion about whether magical adjustments of dress robes were necessary, how to accessorise, and, in the case of Charlotte, Mary and me, who to go with. Naturally, Lily would be attending with James, who was going around looking like Christmas had come early in his anticipation, and Martha would be going with Davey, who she had continued seeing since the Hogsmeade visit.

There were some harsh words said in Lily and James’ direction, however, due to the timing of the announcement – there were several students who were dirty with them for not saying anything before the Hogsmeade weekend so they could have done some shopping.

“They’ll live,” Lily shrugged after a fifth-year accosted her in the Great Hall after lunch. “It’s not like they didn’t know it was coming.”

James put a protective arm around her. “And if they hassle you any more they’ll have me to deal with,” he added. Lily, while seeming a little embarrassed, looked up at him affectionately.

“Anyway,” she went on, “if we get ourselves organised we might be able to swing another Hogsmeade visit before Christmas.”

Martha giggled. “Does that mean, if you can keep your hands off each other for long enough to actually do something?”

Lily blushed but James just shrugged it off. “Ah, Martha, you’re just jealous. Or did you need some new dress robes, too?”

Martha just grinned and shook her head. Like the rest of us, she had taken some time over the summer to find some nice dress robes for the ball, and was therefore just making the most of the opportunity to stir them up a bit.

In fact even I – someone with very limited interest in clothes, even with the influence of people like Lily, Martha and Charlotte – had brought some decent dress robes from home in preparation for the ball. I took some pride in my success in overruling Dad’s idea that I just wear my bridesmaid’s dress from Gwendolyn’s wedding or some of Bea’s old robes: this was my final year and I was determined to look my best.

However, the palaver over the Yule Ball was gradually overtaken by the ever increasing mountain of homework we were being given. Four or five three-foot essays a week were becoming commonplace, as well as other things like extra rune translations and practicing different Charms and Transfiguration spells. It was soon the norm for the seventh-years to be up till past midnight trying to get everything finished, and even James and Sirius had been spotted more than once going over their notes when writing their assignments, something never before seen in over six years of school. For those of us not gifted with brilliant minds it became a never-ending grind, and we looked forward to the weekends when not only did we have a bit of spare time, but we could actually spend some of it outside before winter decided to set in in earnest.

There were also the occasional pranks and other jokes initiated by the boys that served as ways to take our minds off study, as was exemplified one Friday. Having been in classes at opposite ends of the castle in the period just before lunch, the girls (minus Lily, of course, who spent most of her time with James these days) and I congregated in the Entrance Hall before all going into the Great Hall as a group, only to see Charon Avery shuffling past with difficulty, having clearly been hit with what looked like a Sponge-Knees Curse. However, we’d not had time to do more than raise our eyebrows and look quizzically at each other before we noticed Sirius leaning lazily on the wall behind the marble staircase, throwing his wand in the air and catching it with a satisfied smirk on his face. Peter, not far away, was looking at him with what could almost be described as reverence, though Remus looked more annoyed than anything else.

“What do you think he did this time?” Martha asked wryly.

I shrugged. “Turn up at the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“Prob’ly,” Mary agreed. “Le’s face it, he’s a Death Eater wannabe so I wouldna be surprised if they jus’ use him fer practice.”

“I don’t know, though,” Charlotte said thoughtfully as we settled ourselves at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall. “I know Sirius has taken over official pranking duties now James isn’t doing it, but does anyone else get the feeling his heart’s not really in it?”

I thought about that, casting a look down the table at the boys’ arrival as the table started heaving under the weight of the lunchtime feast. “You know, Charlotte, I think you might have something there,” I said. “They’re not nearly as elaborate as they used to be, are they?”

“Or as often,” Martha agreed. “Aside from Avery just then, and Snivellus honking like a goose after Charms on Monday, I don’t think I can name anything they’ve done all week.”

“Wa’ tha’ e’en them, though?” asked Mary, a broad grin on her face. “Snivellus, I mean. I though’ Lily micht hae done tha’ one.”

“Yes, good point,” Martha said with a giggle. “But you know what I mean.”

“It’s something I’ve noticed,” Charlotte went on. “Because those pranks used to annoy the hell out of me, especially the really big ones. Yes they were funny, but half the time all they did was distract me and I was having enough trouble keeping up with schoolwork as it was. But since James and Lily got together, it’s really dropped – both the standard and the frequency. It’s almost like Sirius’ mind is on something else.”

“You mean something other than running amok or hexing Snivellus?” Martha said archly. “What, isn’t he well?”

Charlotte shrugged. “No idea. Though I will say that Remus seems to have had the same reaction I have,” she went on with a grin.

Suppressing a smile – of course Charlotte would notice something like that – I looked at Remus. She did have a point: while Peter generally seemed disappointed in the lack of practical jokes, Remus was just as obviously relieved by it, quite possibly, like the rest of us, needing to spend as much time on homework and the like as possible.

“Well, I canna say I miss it,” Mary said with a smile. “Ye’re richt, Charlotte, it’s much better t’ be able t’ concentrate on schoolwork an’ all.”

“Hear hear,” I said with feeling. After all, Sirius distracted me enough just by being there – the last thing I needed was to have my attention diverted even more by any pranks or other shenanigans he might have been getting up to. At least, that was if I wanted to have any chance whatsoever of passing my NEWTs.

****

Speaking of distractions and Sirius (because, let’s face it, the two always seemed to be connected for me these days), another one came in the second week of November in the form of his eighteenth birthday, which as always was marked by a party in the Gryffindor common room. For the first time Mary and I were personally invited, as opposed to invited by default by being in Gryffindor, and I wasn’t sure if it was a curse or a blessing. It was nice to be in the inner circle, so to speak, but the chances of me becoming a nervous wreck on the night were increasing by the hour.

On the night in question James offered to take up the bartending duties and let Sirius be host, as it was his birthday, but it seemed he preferred being responsible for the drinks to any other role. And, as he pointed out, it did guarantee he would be able to talk to everyone. As the night progressed I suspected it also meant he could get as drunk as he wanted, as the Firewhisky certainly seemed to be flowing faster than usual.

By midnight he was very definitely under the influence and had taken to spouting outlandish theories and saying ridiculous things, almost rivalling Hambledon Quince in their absurdity. Lily, away from James for maybe half an hour, had remarked to us that she thought it was about getting some Dutch courage, but there didn’t seem to be anything he needed courage for aside from singing along to the latest Hobgoblins record at the top of his lungs, looking even more than usual like their singer, Stubby Boardman, in the process. (And yes, even that drunken singing was in tune. Sometimes he just made me sick.) By one o’clock he had progressed to doing things like asking for a birthday kiss, though by that time I wasn’t convinced he could pull even that off.

“Ah, Laura, where’s my kiss?” he slurred, lunging at me as I went to get myself another butterbeer. “Just the one, I promise I won’t try anything.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said with a forced smile as I determinedly found my way back to the fireside. While I would have died for a proper kiss from him, this definitely wasn’t the time to indulge my little fantasies.

Mary grinned at me as I sat down. “Wha’, ye’re nae going t’ tak’ th’ opportunity?” she whispered in my ear. “Ye may nae ge’ a better chance.”

I grimaced. “If he doesn’t throw up on me in the process,” I said, trying to ignore the loud display of disappointment Sirius was engaging in by the bar. “I don’t think he’s exactly in a fit state to be asking for anything like that. Look at him, he can barely even stand up!”

Remus had apparently overheard the last part of what I’d said. “Come on, Laura, give him a chance,” he said evenly. “It is his birthday, after all.”

I shot him a look. “Remus, you’re supposed to be one of his best friends, you should be the one doing damage control,” I said sharply. “Okay, James is out of business thanks to Lily, but you can still step in. Stop him doing that sort of crap.”

“What sort of crap?” He looked genuinely confused.

“Stuff that he’s going to regret doing in the morning once he’s sobered up,” I explained. “If he’s propositioning the likes of me he definitely needs your help.”

Remus looked at me seriously. “With all due respect, I’ve known him for longer than you have and I think that I have a better idea of what he’s going to regret in the morning than you do,” he said, and his voice was measured but his eyes were flashing. “Believe me, if I think he’s going too far then I definitely will step in.”

I shrugged. “Fine. It’s your funeral. Or, if he keeps drinking like that, it’s his.” Despite my flippant manner I was in fact a little worried about Sirius, but the boys had apparently seen this sort of behaviour a tidy few times before and weren’t fussed about it in the least.

“Relax,” he said, appearing to have calmed down a little. At least, his eyes weren’t flashing any more, and he had probably guessed that I was in fact rather concerned about his friend. “Padfoot can look after himself. And if you’re still not convinced, Prongs has gone over there now to prop him up a bit. Even if we can’t lay our hands on any Sobering Solution, he’ll have a headache in the morning but otherwise he’ll be fine.” He smiled suddenly. “And with no regrets, at least not the sort you’re thinking of.” And he got up and went over to the bar where Sirius was now drinking straight from a bottle of Firewhisky, his arm around James’ shoulders as they relived some prank or other.

****

Maybe I should have taken my opportunity at his birthday party. At least then I would have had some experience of being held by him and kissed by him, even if it would have just been a drunken peck. It would have been better than what I currently had, which was – nothing.

These thoughts consumed me in the following days. Was it stupid to say no, even in a situation like that? Should I have made the most of what would most probably have been the only opportunity I would ever get? Would a memory of what would in all likelihood in his view have been substandard (I refer here to his state at the time, rather than any comment on my own abilities or lack thereof) have been better than what my imagination could produce?

I spent half my time kicking myself for saying no, and the other half congratulating myself on escaping something which could well have been disappointing, especially considering his condition on the night and how much I had built it up in my head as to what it might be like. I was doubly pleased with myself when I thought about how he might have reacted to me the following day once he’d sobered up a bit: I couldn’t stomach the thought of him avoiding me because he was embarrassed about what he’d done. I was just thinking about the implications of this – and shuddering – as I wandered towards the library after Ancient Runes that Wednesday, lost in my own thoughts and paying little attention to what was going on around me.

Unfortunately, my blissful contemplative state wasn’t to last. As I rounded a corner on the second floor I almost walked right into the subject of these musings, who seemed to be entwined with a girl I didn’t know.

I stopped dead. While they weren’t in the middle of a snog, it did look like they had recently finished one, and I could feel the colour draining from my face. I’d thought I was getting better with this whole Sirius thing, I could almost control myself when I was around him (usually), I’d even found myself another point that week against Quivering Wreck, and then something like this had to happen. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, he’d not had a girlfriend since he and Clio had broken up back in February and it was now November, but it still tore through me. I had been hoping against hope that I might have had a chance with him. Unfortunately, though, the reality was that Hogwarts was full of girls far prettier than I was, and this girl must have caught his eye in one way or another. In any case, it was a reality that I really wasn’t sure I would be able to face.

He had another girlfriend. And it wasn’t me.

________________________________________


Author’s note: Yep, a cliffy! Sorry about that, and please don’t hurl the nearest heavy object at me. Or at Sirius, for that matter (though he’d probably just cast a Reductor Curse on it anyway). All will be explained, I promise. :)
I will also apologise if I confused anyone with the rugby reference in the Hogsmeade scene, but with Laura’s upbringing, from her mother at least, I thought it was pertinent. For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, a try is what rugby calls the grounding of the ball over the goal line whilst retaining control. It’s worth five points, but if you convert the accompanying goal kick then you get seven points all told. Well worth it, especially considering a penalty or field goal is only worth three. (I understand that the scoring is similar to a touchdown in American football, and the conversion the point after touchdown.) Nothing ignites the crowd quite like a well-run try …

________________________________________

36
Frozen to the spot, I looked at the girl wrapped around Sirius. She was probably a sixth-year, I thought, looking at her, and she had Hufflepuff robes on. (And at least they were still on, a part of me pointed out with more than a little relief. I hadn’t interrupted anything too serious.)

Sirius, for his part, seemed to be trying to distance himself from whoever she was and looked almost anxious as his eyes went from her to me.

“It’s not what it looked like,” he said quickly, wriggling around uncomfortably as the Hufflepuff girl adjusted her hold on him.

“Of course it was,” she cooed, looking up at him adoringly. “Why don’t you want to admit that we’re together now?”

He wrenched himself away from her. “Because we’re not!” he snapped, his face rather red as he looked back at me. “Honestly, Laura, there’s nothing going on here.”

I just stood there, unable to say anything, though that didn’t really surprise me all that much. I had just walked into my worst nightmare and I was expected to be able to talk? That didn’t happen. Not in my world, anyway. I was discovering just how much of my emotional wellbeing was tied up in the idea of him being available, and by the look of things it was way too much.

(Speaking of worst nightmares, part of me wondered idly if this was what my Boggart would be now. Sirius with another girl. I had a very nasty suspicion that it would.)

The Hufflepuff girl was still cooing at him and trying to run her fingers through his hair while he pulled away from her. I wasn’t sure why he was so worked up – she was quite pretty and they hadn’t been doing anything that would cause embarrassment if witnessed – but then again my brain had frozen and I wasn’t thinking clearly at all. Finally it switched into gear and my defensive side took over.

“What does it matter who you’re snogging, Sirius?” I asked, hoping he didn’t notice the tears that were starting to appear in the corners of my eyes. “Do what you like. I really don’t care.”

It killed me to lie like that but what else could I do? Collapse into tears on the floor because he felt up another girl? That would be ridiculous, not to mention embarrassing. Instead I turned on my heel and walked back the way I’d come, heading towards the common room. I could hear him saying something in the background and was vaguely aware of the racket caused by what sounded like a falling suit of armour behind me, but there was no way known I would have been able to stay to hear him out: that collapsing in the middle of the floor thing hadn’t happened yet, but if I hung around it could well have. And I needed to get into my dormitory – the library could very definitely wait – and hurl things at the wall before anyone else found out.

Quivering Wreck had just caught the Snitch.

****

A flood of tears and several broken lampshades later (thank goodness for Reparo, let me tell you), I had just about calmed down enough to put on an impassive face for the other girls. I wasn’t expecting any of them in the dorm anytime soon – the last lesson of the day was not yet over – but someone like Sirius Black getting a new girlfriend was the sort of gossip that Hogwarts thrived on, and I would need to be strong if I was going to get through a discussion about that without crying. Yes, I was devastated, but I couldn’t let anyone know that without them realising just what Sirius meant to me, and I couldn’t handle that information getting out. I’d never hear the end of it.

It didn’t take long for me to recognise that I couldn’t face going down to dinner that night. So, I feigned illness. I pulled the curtains around my bed and lay face down, hoping the pillow would muffle any sobs. When the girls came in to drop their bags off I tried to cast a non-verbal Cheering Charm on myself so that when they spoke to me I didn’t sound like I was crying, more like I was just ill.

“What’s wrong?” asked Lily, all concern and compassion as she peered through the curtains at me. Sometimes I wished she wasn’t so nice, it would have been that much easier to keep things from her.

“Just feeling flat,” I said. It wasn’t even a lie. “I think I’ve been trying to do too much, I just need a night of peace and quiet and I can try to get some more sleep.” Okay, that one wasn’t entirely true, but I wasn’t about to tell Lily what had me so down.

“Are ye okay?” Mary asked, parting the curtains and sitting on the bed, her hand on my back.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” I said. “I just need a rest.”

“Richt.” She looked back through the curtains at the other girls. “Can we hae a minute please?” Clearly, someone nodded or something, and Mary waited till the door clicked shut before speaking again. “Nou, hae ye hear’ aboot Sirius an’ tha’ girl? Glenys Marsh?”

I turned my head and looked at her, rolling my eyes. “Yes, I know about that.”

“Richt,” she said again. Another pause. “An’ ye’re sure ye’re okay here by yerself?”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, realising that we were both repeating ourselves and wondering why it all felt so forced.

“Well, if ye need me, jus’ Summon my hair tie,” she said. “I’ll be sure t’ notice if tha’ goes flyin’ off.”

“Fine,” I said, somehow finding the strength to smile. “I’ll do that.”

“Okay,” she said doubtfully. “Jus’ ge’ yer rest, then.”

As she left, I lay there wondering why I had pushed her away. Maybe it was because I felt like such an idiot in the first place for getting myself into this position. In any case, just then what I wanted was solitude. (Okay, not quite right – what I really wanted was for Sirius to come bursting in and explain that it was all a misunderstanding and he was in fact madly in love with me. Trouble was, that was never going to happen so I had to settle for what was realistic, and solitude seemed like my best bet there.) I had to get my thoughts and emotions in order before I had any hope of facing the world outside, so a few hours alone looked like a good way of doing that.

The next morning, after a rather sleepless night, I considered not going down to breakfast either. Or even down to the common room. The problem with this, however, was that Lily was threatening to take me to the hospital wing if I wasn’t feeling better, just to make sure all was well and maybe get me some Pepper-Up Potion. Explaining a broken heart to Madam Pomfrey wasn’t exactly high on the list of things I wanted to do that day, so in the end I decided that breakfast couldn’t really be all that bad, could it? And if I sat as far away from Sirius as possible then maybe I could ignore this whole new girl thing. What was her name again? Gladys something-or-other? Not that it really mattered, but I supposed I needed to get used to it.

So, finding some resolve, I made my way down to the Great Hall for breakfast. I was a bit later than the other girls, having needed a long bath to get myself in the right frame of mind (in private); they had reluctantly gone down ahead of me after making me promise to join them once I was ready. And I meant to, I really did. I had every intention of walking into the Great Hall with dignity, not letting on how upset I was by what had happened the previous day.

Unfortunately, Alecto Carrow had other ideas. She appeared in the Entrance Hall at about the same time as I reached the top of the marble staircase, and she was clearly itching for a fight. “Oh, look, it’s the Muggle-lover,” she hissed, her wand hand going into her robes.

“Oh, look, it’s the midget,” I shot back, not bothering to reach for my own wand. She wasn’t the best at spellcasting – in fact, I was rather surprised that she’d made it as far as seventh year – so I wasn’t exactly worried.

“Better to be short than a Mudblood,” she retorted.

“I wouldn’t know,” I said, “not being either. But you think that if it makes you happy.”

Antagonising an irate Death Eater wannabe, particularly before breakfast, probably wasn’t a very good idea, as I discovered a moment later when she hit me with a remarkably well-placed Trip Jinx. Not even halfway down the marble staircase, I promptly lost my footing and hurtled head-first to the stone floor below.

Alecto was gloating as I landed unpleasantly close to her feet. “Oh, Cauldwell, are you hurt?” she asked mockingly, kicking me a few times for good measure. “All you deserve … Muggle.”

****

Remus found me first, sitting on the floor nursing my injuries. Both legs were throbbing and my left ankle had swollen rather significantly, so quite frankly the idea of standing up without help wasn’t one I was relishing.

“What happened to you?” he asked.

“Trip Jinx from Alecto Carrow,” I said a little ruefully. “I fell down the stairs.”

He looked surprised. “Her spell actually hit you?”

I smiled despite myself. “Yeah, I was surprised too. Maybe she’s been working on that.”

“Or maybe she was aiming at something ten feet to your right,” he said wryly. “Anyway, it looks nasty,” he went on sympathetically, pulling his wand out. “Tergeo. There, that’s got rid of the blood on your face. Now, do you need a hand getting up?”

I looked up at him gratefully. “That’d be fantastic, thanks.” And I hoisted an arm around his shoulder to try to get some leverage to stand.

“No worries,” he said. “We’ll get you to Madam Pomfrey, she can fix just about anything.”

I got to a standing position but winced when his hand grabbed my side. “Do you mind?” I asked, moving it a little lower to my waist. “Thanks. I think I might have cracked a rib or two.”

“How far did you fall?” he asked as we tried to get back up the same stairs I had just tumbled down.

“More than half way,” I said. “Ooh, watch the neck too, that’s a bit sore.”

In fact, the only way I could walk, with his help, was to put both arms around his neck (from side on, of course) and put most of my weight on his shoulders. I did feel a bit sorry for him because it couldn’t have been easy, trying to drag me upstairs like that, but with my injured ribs and ankle – which was now so swollen it looked rather like a Quaffle – there wasn’t much alternative.

As we reached the top of the stairs I caught a glimpse of James, Sirius and Peter in the Entrance Hall, probably on their way to Transfiguration. I was a little surprised that Sirius was with the boys rather than that tramp (sorry, his new girlfriend – I had to remember to be nice about her) but then again he tended to pick and choose when he wanted to behave all boyfriend-y so this was clearly not one of those moments. In any case I didn’t want to see him – I could almost feel the tears welling up just from that glimpse – and was grateful to be able to concentrate on getting to the hospital wing. I’d never thought I could ever be indebted to Alecto Carrow for anything, but she had very successfully given me something else to think about. I might even have to thank her.

Remus for some reason didn’t want to speak to them either – in fact, he looked almost uncomfortable as he glanced over the balustrade at them – but again, for this I was grateful. Maybe Remus understood my problem (always a possibility, especially after the Hogsmeade visit the previous month) and realised I needed to keep away from Sirius. In any case, it was a welcome surprise.

We were soon in the hospital wing and Madam Pomfrey, very good at her job, managed to mend all the minor abrasions, fix the ribs, put my neck back in and get the swelling down in my ankle in less than a couple of minutes. However, she was worried about concussion so insisted on keeping me in for a few hours for observation.

“But I’ve got double Transfiguration this morning, I really need to go,” I said helplessly as she fussed around my bed. “At least to hand my homework in.”

“Nonsense,” she snapped, peering into my eyes and taking my temperature. “I need to make sure you’re completely cured, I’m sure Professor McGonagall will understand.”

I groaned. I couldn’t even give it to Remus to take in for me – as soon as he’d seen me safely to Madam Pomfrey’s office he’d taken off, saying there was something he needed to take care of before class. “Is there any chance I might make it to Charms after break?” I asked hopefully. This was seventh year, after all, and I didn’t want to miss any more classes than I could help.

“We’ll see,” she said.

Not long afterwards Mary came in to see how I was. I was thankful for the company, not least because Mary was the only of my friends who didn’t do Transfiguration and so there was no way our conversation might be overheard by anyone I wanted to keep my secret from.

“So ye are i’ here,” she said, dumping her bag on the floor by my bed. “I hear’ Remus talkin’ an’ it soonded lik’ ye were pretty badly hur’.”

“Fell down the marble stairs,” I said a little ruefully. “Tripped, actually – Alecto Carrow somehow managed to get a Trip Jinx to work. I’d be impressed if I wasn’t so sore.”

“So why di’ she trip ye?” asked Mary, sitting down on the bed next to my knees.

“The usual,” I said, attempting to shrug but giving up when the bruising around my ribs started to object – Madam Pomfrey had warned me that it would take a couple of hours for the healing paste she’d used on them to work. “I’m a Muggle-lover, apparently. But then I called her a midget and she didn’t take it very well.”

She started laughing. “Ye actually said tha’ t’ her face? Good on ye. Bu’ I can see why she micht nae lik’ it much.”

“Well, I wasn’t in the best mood,” I conceded. “I was a bit worked up about this whole Sirius thing. The only reason I came down for breakfast in the first place was to stop Lily marching me in here for a Pepper-Up Potion.”

Mary looked surprised. “Ye were worked up? Why?”

I gave her a look. “Why do you think?”

“Bu’ it’s nae lik’ he had any say i’ it,” she said, frowning. “Why woul’ it bother ye?”

“Hang on,” I said, confused, “are we talking about the same thing here? Sirius and that Glinda whatever-her-name-is?”

“Aye, Glenys Marsh,” said Mary, looking just as confused. “Wha’ dae ye think happened?”

“I walked in on them having a snog,” I said. “Or, to be precise, just after a snog. I was assuming they were an item now.”

She looked horrified. “Tha’ wa’ ye?”

“What do you mean, that was me?” I asked.

To my surprise, Mary suddenly burst into laughter. “Oh, Laura, ye really hae go’ this backwards,” she said eventually. “Ye’re on completely th’ wrong track.”

“What do you mean?” I asked suspiciously.

“Glenys Marsh is i’ th’ fan club,” she explained, smiling broadly. “Seems lik’ she cornered him an’ tried t’ jump on him an’ snog him. He didna e’en ken who she wa’, apparen’ly she’s a new member or summit who wa’ tryin’ t’ impress Elvira, so ye can imagine his reaction, this lass he’s ne’er seen afore throwin’ herself at him while he’s tryin’ t’ escape. An’, word wa’ tha’ some lass ha’ walked i’ on them a’ th’ wors’ possible time, bu’ nae one knew if tha’ wa’ true because we couldna fin’ who it wa’, an’ he wouldna say. Bu’ if tha’ wa’ ye, Laura …”

I sat dead still, my brain very slowly taking this information in. This was a fan club stunt? He had been caught off guard?

He was still single?

I suddenly realised I was staring at Mary, open-mouthed, in astonishment, and hurried to close my mouth before I did anything as undignified as dribbling. “So this was all a misunderstanding? Some tart just lunged at him and he was trying to get rid of her? But then … why did she say they were a couple now?”

“Jus’ tryin’ t’ see if ye’d believe it, prob’ly,” she suggested.

I groaned. “And I did.”

She grinned. “Well, look on th’ bricht side, ye dinna believe it nou. He’s nae seein’ anyone. So ye’ve still go’ a chance. Well, as much o’ a chance as e’er.”

Suddenly the whole thing seemed to be much funnier than it had previously, and I started laughing. “Merlin, of all the times I had to run into them,” I said, “it would be then. Poor him. No wonder he looked so uncomfortable – I thought it was just because they’d been sprung.”

“So ye’ve been torturin’ yerself aboot it all nicht,” Mary said sympathetically. “Nae wonder ye didna mak’ it t’ supper.”

“Well, that was a sleepless night wasted,” I admitted. “And now I’ve gone and missed Transfiguration. I didn’t even give Remus my homework to hand in – you’d think I’d be better organised.”

She frowned suddenly. “He micht nae hae handed it in anyway,” she said thoughtfully. “He seemed a bi’ worked up.”

“Remus?” I looked at her, surprised. “Why? He was fine when he left here.”

Although, thinking about it, he wasn’t – he had appeared a little agitated as he left the hospital wing. Why, I had no idea. Agitation and Remus weren’t two things I normally associated with one another.

“I hear’ him an’ Sirius an’ James havin’ a richt row after breakfas’,” she said. “Summit aboot fudgin’ a code. James an’ Sirius were on him aboot breakin’ rules o’ some sor’. It wa’ all verra strange.”

“That is weird,” I conceded. “What were they saying?”

Mary hesitated. “I think Sirius said summit lik’ it didna look lik’ naethin’, and James said ye’d better hae a bloody good reason t’ fudge th’ code lik’ tha’, an’ Remus said tha’ it wa’ naethin’ an’ they jus’ needed t’ hear him oot. They all soonded really angry, they were yellin’ so half th’ school coul’ prob’ly hear them. So James said go on, explain yer way oot of it, an’ Remus said tha’ he’d nae broken any rules, an’ he helped write them so he wouldna break them. An’ Sirius said tha’ wasna good enough an’ give him one reason nae t’ curse Remus richt nou, an’ Remus said tha’ ye were i’ th’ hospital wing after bein’ hur’ pretty bad from a jinx.”

I frowned. “What? That’s a bit of a jump. What would me being jinxed have to do with rules that Remus helped write?”

She shrugged. “I wondered tha’ too. Anyway, tha’ wa’ hoo I foond oot ye were i’ here so I came up richt away an’ didna hear any more. An’ I woul’ think th’ lads wen’ straight t’ Transfiguration anyway, it wa’ aboot tha’ time.”

We were interrupted by Madam Pomfrey, who seemed to have suddenly realised that Mary had been with me for at least half an hour, which was about twenty-five minutes longer than she usually allowed visitors for. “Right, that’s more than long enough,” she said sharply. “This girl needs rest. Out. OUT!”

****

I was finally allowed out of the hospital wing at lunch time, having caught up on some sleep and convinced Madam Pomfrey that I had no lingering effects from my fall that morning. I rejoined my classmates in the Great Hall and wolfed some food down hungrily (I’d not had breakfast, after all), noticing in the process that the boys seemed to have made up after their argument; in fact, there was so little evidence that there had been an argument at all that I started wondering if Mary had imagined it.

As we left the Hall, I was a little surprised to find a troubled-looking Sirius walking next to me on the way to Herbology. “Look, about yesterday,” he began, his voice quiet like he was hoping no one would overhear us.

“What, the giggler thing?” I asked, interrupting him.

“Yeah, that,” he said, his face clearing. “You know she was a giggler, then?”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t realise how relieved I had been at that information. “It did look like something else, though.”

He groaned. “That was the worst possible moment you could have chosen to interrupt us,” he said. “Any other time and it would have been obvious what was going on. And I didn’t want you to think …” His voice trailed off.

I stole a glance at him, not trusting myself with anything more than that. “Really, what does it matter what I think?” I asked, bracing myself for what I was about to say. “It’s your life, you can do what you like.”

“But –” He trailed off again, as though not really sure what he wanted to say.

“Look, Sirius,” I said, “I can understand you not wanting anyone to think you snogged a giggler. That would open up way too big a can of worms. But aside from that, what difference does it make?”

“There was nothing there,” he said, and even without looking at him I could feel his eyes on me. “I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I just wanted you to understand that.”

I wanted nothing more than to grab his hand and squeeze it, or, even better, put an arm around him, to let him know that I didn’t blame him at all. But the potential for something like that being misinterpreted (or, to be honest, interpreted correctly, but you know what I mean) was way too high so I just smiled at him, grateful we had reached the greenhouses.

“Fine,” I said, moving towards Mary, just wanting to escape before I said too much. “I understand.”

****

The year was wearing on and, to my surprise, even with our sizeable assignments I was still managing to keep my head above water. My spare time, however, was becoming more and more limited and I realised with a degree of disappointment that Dad hadn’t been kidding: this really was a year to buckle down and get into it. Not that I was convinced yet that keeping me from doing anything fun was a good idea – maybe I’d be more willing to hurl myself into yet another three-foot essay from Professor Sprout (on this occasion, ‘Explain the different methods of extracting venom from poisonous plants and ways to increase its supply, referring to at least six different species of plant’) if I had some distractions occasionally.

Sirius, of course, was my most common distraction. He was thankfully still single, despite the fan club’s best efforts, and looking better than ever if that was even possible. And, as I had complained to Mary several weeks earlier, avoiding him was much easier said than done, not least because we had such similar timetables. Add to this the fact that James still kept asking me to go to Quidditch practices as a consultant (I felt like charging him an hourly rate sometimes), and insisted that Sirius chaperone me to and from the pitch, and it was impossible not to spend time with him. It was both good and bad – I really did enjoy his company, and we got along very well, but there was always that man-of-my-dreams thing that kept getting in the way.

“You know, you do fly very well,” he said as we wandered back to the castle after yet another Quidditch practice I’d been talked into attending, this one in late November. “I can understand why Prongs keeps pestering you to join in.”

I threw him a look. “I’ve told you, I can only do it two-handed,” I snapped, somewhat exasperated as I’d just had this very argument with James himself. “And how does he expect me to catch a Quaffle or hold a Beater’s bat if I need both hands on my broom?”

“Even so,” he said, “your broom control is pretty good. Just accept it as a compliment for once.”

I looked at him, feeling chastened. He had a point, he and James were being perfectly nice to me and I kept jumping down their throats. “Sorry. Thanks.”

As we made our way through the oak front doors and reached the top of the marble staircase, heading towards the next flight that would take us in the direction of Gryffindor Tower, I noticed he kept looking at the ceilings as though trying to commit them to memory.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

He looked almost embarrassed. “Peeves keeps moving where the mistletoe is,” he explained, “and I don’t want to get caught by any of the gigglers.”

I nodded as we skirted around a suit of armour trying to sing carols – Christmas trimmings had been up for less than a week and I was still getting used to them. “You mean like what happened the other week?”

He made a face and shuddered dramatically. “Don’t remind me.”

I smiled. “Sorry.”

“No problem,” he said, smiling briefly. “Anyway, I’m just trying to remember where I have to avoid.”

“Yeah, that’s probably fair enough,” I said. Thinking about it, it must have really been tricky trying to keep on top of things so a repeat of that earlier incident didn’t happen.

He shook his head in frustration. “I must sound like I’ve got such a big head, talking like that …”

And you know, a year or so earlier I’d probably have agreed with him, but now I knew he wasn’t like that. “No you don’t,” I reassured him. “If I was in your shoes I’d probably do the same thing. You’re just being sensible.”

Sensible? Sirius Black? What potions was I on? He seemed to have the same reaction as he had a bit of a strange expression on his face, and to my surprise he stopped near the top of the stairs on the second floor, unnervingly close to some of the very mistletoe he was trying to avoid.

I stopped with him, acutely aware that we were alone in the deserted corridor. “Was it something I said?”

He just looked at me, an expression on his face that I didn’t recognise. “Laura …”

I looked back at him, perplexed and wanting to get back to the tower before I did something stupid. Quivering Wreck 293; Laura 2. Or something like that. “What?”

But whatever it was I never learned, as at that moment Peeves, most probably bored with moving bits of mistletoe, decided to interrupt us by bowling the head of a stone gargoyle down the hallway at us. Distracted, we both jumped out of the way, breaking into laughter as we watched the head roll down the stairs and knock over a suit of armour when it reached the bottom.

The accompanying crash unsurprisingly brought Filch, and we spent a good five minutes explaining to him why we were out of our common room after supper. Fortunately we weren’t far from the office of Professor Perkins, the new Defence teacher, and she surprised us by coming to our defence – her window overlooked the Quidditch pitch and apparently we had been noticed attending practices before. In the end we were allowed to go back to the tower without punishment.

Sirius laughed quietly as we reached the top of the short-cut stairs behind the tapestry and headed up towards the seventh floor. “You know, Laura, I should hang around with you more often. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten out of a detention so easily.”

I laughed too. “You’ve got too much of a reputation by now,” I said. “Whereas me, I get detentions maybe five or six times a year, no one ever thinks I’m doing anything wrong. Although,” I added, frowning, “they might think you’re a bad influence on me so my charmed life might be coming to an end.”

He looked shocked, but I caught the ghost of a smile dancing around the corners of his mouth. “Me, a bad influence? Never!”

I smiled. “You’re right, I don’t know where I could possibly have got that idea from. Please forgive me for even thinking it.”

“I should say so,” he teased. “Next you’ll be saying that Prongs and I make a habit of being out of the common room after hours. And we all know that’s not true.”

“Of course not,” I deadpanned. “It’s certainly not you two who have an entire drawer to yourselves in Filch’s filing cabinet.” Okay, this was just a rumour, and I’d not been sent to Filch’s office in years so I couldn’t verify it, but chances were it was true. And besides, he didn’t deny it. “It must be two other people who just happen to have the same names as you,” I went on. “I’m so sorry. How could I have even thought it? However can I repay you?”

He winked and put a suggestive arm around my waist. “Well, now you come to mention it …”

I froze involuntarily. Please don’t do that, I thought. Even as a joke, I can’t take it. It’s far too difficult not to give in and respond in some highly inappropriate manner. It took a significant effort for me to stay calm and keep moving (yep, yet another point for Quivering Wreck), and I rolled my eyes in what I hoped was a convincing way.

“Sirius, are we really going that far off reality? Oh, gillywater,” I went on, noticing we had reached the Fat Lady, who had been in conversation with her friend Vi and appeared unimpressed at the interruption. She eyed us beadily and then grudgingly swung open, revealing the portrait hole. Sirius let go of me when we climbed through, but grabbed my arm before I could head up the stairs and turned me to face him.

“Why do you keep doing that?”

“Doing what?” I asked, baffled.

“Saying stuff like that, being so far off reality. You’re selling yourself short. You know it’s not true.”

I glared at him, almost hating him for what he was making me say. “I know what’s realistic, what’s believable. And that’s not.” Saying it out loud made it seem so final, so real that it almost killed me, but it was true. No one would ever be convinced by Sirius with someone like me.

He shook his head, not letting go of my arm. “A year or two ago, maybe. But not now.”

I just looked up at him resignedly. Why was he so perfect? It made it all so much harder to admit. “You’re being nice. And I appreciate that. But we both know I’m right, so stop pretending I’m not.”

I didn’t think what I’d said was all that noteworthy – in fact, I thought it was pretty obvious – but Sirius looked stunned and released his hold on me. Not bothering to wonder why he might have reacted like that, I made the most of my opportunity to escape up the girls’ stairs.
37
As December dawned I realised that my obsession with Sirius was beginning to have an adverse effect on my behaviour. I had started to withdraw into myself a lot, not talking much, seeking little company but Mary’s, succumbing to daydreams whenever I felt the need. It wasn’t healthy but I wasn’t sure how to pull myself out of it, short of either confessing all or avoiding him altogether, which if I thought about it probably amounted to the same thing in the end. Eventually Mary started casting Cheering Charms on me whenever I was about to get any company, in the hope that it would fool people enough so that I wasn’t quizzed on my conduct.

Unfortunately Sirius – the unwitting cause of everything – wasn’t fooled, and had noticed that I wasn’t exactly myself. Worse still, he seemed concerned enough to tackle me on the subject, as I discovered one Wednesday. We were leaving the Great Hall after lunch when he herded me into an empty classroom and sat me down on a table, standing in front of me. “Laura, what’s the matter? You can tell me, surely.”

It’s better that I don’t tell you, I thought. You really don’t want to know that knowing I can’t have you is driving me crazy.

I looked at him, very uncomfortably aware of how close he was – so close that I got distracted by stupid things like how long his eyelashes were, and the fact that there were specks of blue in those grey eyes. The urge to grab him and kiss him was almost overwhelming. His face was just there, that flawless face, and all I would have to do was reach up and pull his head towards me. No, Laura, steady, I thought, realising with alarm that my hand had actually started moving upwards to do just that. With an effort I put it back on the table and sat on it to ensure it didn’t go on any further excursions, hoping he hadn’t noticed anything. Imagine the rejection, I told myself. Imagine him thinking you were the next Elvira. The thought was as effective as if a bucketful of snow had been dumped over me.

“Nothing’s the matter,” I said, fixing my gaze on a spot just past his left shoulder, thinking that if I wasn’t looking directly at him I would be less likely to be tempted to do something I’d regret. “I’m fine. Really.” I paused, wondering just how soon I could leave the room without seeming rude. My eyes flicked toward him again. “Look, Sirius, I need to be going. Ancient Runes …” That at least was true, if I didn’t get a move on I might be late, and Professor Babbling didn’t look kindly on latecomers.

He didn’t look convinced. “All right then, don’t tell me. But something’s wrong. You haven’t been yourself lately, there’s something bothering you.” He paused. “Is everything okay at home?”

Was that what he thought? “No, it’s not that, they’re all fine,” I said earnestly, realising too late that this was pretty much an admission that there was something bothering me.

He smiled briefly. “Good, so we can rule that out. But I’m your friend and I’m starting to get worried about you. I’ll be keeping an eye on you and if it gets worse we might have to take action.”

Friend. The very word cut at me like a knife. Mary was my friend. So was Lily, and Martha, and Charlotte. James was my friend. Remus was my friend. Even Peter, who was fast getting over his general fear of all things female, could just about be counted as my friend. But Sirius … it wasn’t enough. No matter how much I tried to convince myself that being friends was a good thing, that I should make the most of it as it was as much as I was ever going to get, I couldn’t do it. Friends just didn’t cut it as far as Sirius was concerned. I wanted – no, I needed more.

And that was the problem, the root cause of everything. And him saying he’d be keeping an eye on me just added to my inner turmoil – the more attention he paid me the tenser I got. Why did he have to be so considerate? When I’d thought he was a bit of a berk it was so much easier to not like him.

I took a breath. “Don’t worry about me. I’m just a bit worked up about NEWTs, that’s all.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure that’s all?”

“Yes. Yes, of course,” I lied. “Right as rain otherwise. And like I said, I really should get going.”

“Right. If you’re sure.” He stood back to let me pass, still looking a bit sceptical. “I’ll see you later on then.”

I hurried out of the room, heading quickly upstairs with a sigh of relief. Ancient Runes was the only class I didn’t have with him, so I could relax a bit. A bit, only, though – Remus was the only other Gryffindor in that class so I was aware that anything I did or said could potentially get back to him.

Back at the start of sixth year when I’d decided on my NEWT subjects, what Sirius was doing wasn’t even a factor. Now, it was more important than anything, though I still hadn’t worked out whether I wanted him in my classes or not. When he was there I felt nervous and uncomfortable; when he wasn’t there I missed him. (Quivering Wreck 371; Laura 2. Or maybe I was up to 3 by now. In any case, it was still a bit of a hammering.)

Anyway Ancient Runes, while it didn’t have Sirius, did have Elvira, who occasionally still hassled me about Sirius’ behaviour. I put her off as gently as I could, mainly because I was terrified I’d let on that I was just as obsessed as she was, and fortunately the fact that I sat with Remus was generally enough to shut her up. Today was no exception.

“Laura!” she gasped as I hurried up the corridor to the classroom. “What do you think of –” She was cut off by the door opening, and I pushed my way to Remus’ side as we moved inside.

“Sorry, Elvira,” I called over my shoulder. “Some other time, maybe.”

Remus grinned at me as we found our usual desk. “Perfect timing,” he said quietly.

“It’s a skill I have,” I said lightly, pulling out my copy of Magical Hieroglyphs and Logograms and putting my bag on the floor. “Avoiding Elvira. Harder than it sounds, let me tell you.”

He laughed. “I’d believe it. Padfoot says pretty much the same thing.”

Oh yeah. Sirius. Everything always came back to him, didn’t it. Hoping my cheeks were the same colour as the rest of me, I reached into my bag and found ink, quill and parchment, and tried with mixed success to focus my attention on Professor Babbling.

****

“Well, tha’s it,” Mary announced a couple of days later in the common room where we were trying to make inroads into our mountains of homework. “I’ve had it. I canna dae any more tonicht, I need a break t’ clear my brain.” Her unfinished Herbology essay sat on the table in front of her.

“I’m not done yet,” I mumbled, frantically scribbling another sentence down. I was on a roll and didn’t want to break the momentum.

“Richt,” said Mary. “Well, I’m off t’ bed. Goo’ nicht!” She smiled brightly at me and, gathering up her books, quill and parchment, disappeared up the stairs.

The common room had quietened down: it must have been getting close to midnight and people were gradually drifting upstairs to the dorms. Through the dwindling chatter I heard snatches of a muttered conversation somewhere behind me.

“Go on, this is your best chance yet …”

“I don’t think so … Look, it’s not as easy as all that. And what if it doesn’t work out?”

“It will, just do it! Come on, you’re running out of time.”

I shuddered. It was Sirius and Remus, and it sounded like they were planning a prank of some sort – or Sirius was, solo as it so often had to be now that James was otherwise occupied, and Remus, although a prefect, was egging him on. I scribbled down another sentence in my essay, my senses alert for whatever it was to occur. But it was a false alarm – after a couple of minutes nothing had happened, Sirius obviously deciding there would be a better time for whatever they were planning. I dipped my quill in the inkwell and tried to regain my train of thought.

Unfortunately, the distraction had cut short my concentration and I wasn’t able to do any more of my assignment. Frustrated, after ten minutes or so I too packed up my books and headed to the dorm, hoping a good night’s sleep would be the tonic I needed.

Just as I had finished getting ready for bed, Charlotte came bounding into the room in great excitement. “Guess what!” she exclaimed to no one in particular. “Remus just asked me to the ball!!”

We all rushed at her with hugs and congratulations: she’d been wanting this for years. I started to re-light the lamps as she beamed at us.

“Just now?” Lily asked eagerly.

“Yeah, I just got back from the library,” she breathed, “and he came right up and asked me as soon as I got into the common room.”

“About time,” Martha said loyally. “He hasn’t known what he’s been missing out on.”

“That makes three of us with dates,” Charlotte said happily. “We just need to find blokes for Laura and Mary, and we’re set.”

“How about Peter?” asked Martha, looking at Mary and me with a wide grin on her face. “He doesn’t have a date yet, and I’m sure he’d be thrilled to take either one of you.”

We both laughed. “Sorra, Martha, I’m nae quite tha’ desperate ye’,” Mary said lightly. “Think I’d prefer a man who’s a’ th’ verra leas’ my height, an’ preferably taller.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” I nodded. “Particularly with heels on, I don’t want to be half a head taller than my date. Or more.”

“Okay then, Mulciber?” joked Charlotte.

“Probably has a date already,” I said, relieved to have a good excuse why he wouldn’t do. “Scylla Pritchard has her talons in him like you wouldn’t credit.”

“Gibbon, then,” Lily suggested with a grin.

We both grimaced. “Too much o’ th’ gorilla,” said Mary.

“Yeah, he walks like he’s got a watermelon under each arm,” I agreed. “Can you imagine how that would feel to dance with?” I got off my bed and started an (admittedly bad) impersonation of Gibbon dancing.

“Too har’ fer him t’ stop his knuckles draggin’ on th’ ground an’ all,” Mary added.

Lily was laughing. “Never was a person more appropriately named,” she said. “Gibbon by name, gibbon by appearance, gibbon by nature. How he got to be prefect is beyond me.”

Charlotte smiled again. “Okay, how about Gerry Stebbins?” This was aimed at Mary, who had been trying to avoid Gerry for the best part of two years.

“Oh please,” said Mary, laughing. “I’d rather go wi’ th’ gian’ squid.”

“No, sorry, he’s Lily’s,” I grinned. “After she said she’d rather go out with the giant squid than James, and now she’s going to the ball with James, the squid has got to be disappointed.”

“There’s always Sirius,” Martha said carelessly, making my heart skip a beat. “He doesn’t have a date yet.” I held my breath anxiously, just waiting for her to look up and smile mischievously at me. Had she worked out that I liked him? That would be a nightmare. However, she didn’t appear to be paying me the slightest attention, not even out of the corner of her eyes, so it looked like my secret was still safe. For the time being, at least.

“Of course he doesn’t have a date yet,” Lily said absently, heading into the bathroom to brush her teeth.

“Why would you say that?” Charlotte asked, assuaging my curiosity.

Lily stopped in the bathroom doorway and turned around. “Haven’t you noticed?”

“Noticed wha’?” asked Mary, her eyes flicking to me.

Lily just sighed and looked at Martha. “Remember how you said once, ages ago, that when he falls for someone, he’ll fall hard?” she asked, leaning against the door frame.

Martha nodded. “Yeah, what about it?”

“I think that’s actually happened,” Lily explained. “Normally he’d have a date sewn up by now, just to get the fan club off his back, but this year he’s not asked anyone, and I think that he’s trying to get the guts up to ask someone in particular.”

My heart sank and I could feel a tear forming in the corner of my eye. If Lily was right, there went any hope I had with him. Not that I’d had any to begin with, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

“Ye’re sure?” Mary was asking. “Merlin, imagine if tha’s true …”

I shook my head. “I can’t imagine him ever being insecure about a girl,” I said, trying to convince myself as well as the others, and stubbornly refusing to catch Mary’s eye.

“I don’t know,” Charlotte said slowly, pulling off a shoe. “I think I can back Lily’s theory up.”

“How?” Martha asked interestedly.

“Oh, I overheard something in the library the other day. Or was it yesterday?” She frowned slightly. “Sometime recently, anyway. James and Sirius,” she added, taking off the other shoe and looking around at us. “What they were doing there, I don’t know, but it was definitely them.”

“Sounds suspicious already,” Martha said, giggling. “What did they say?”

“James was saying something like, I’m probably not the best person to ask considering it only happened when Lily jumped on me,” Charlotte began. Lily blushed scarlet. “And then he said, you might as well try it, and since when has any girl ever turned you down anyway? Which, you’ve got to admit, with Sirius it’s a good point.” She paused. “I never intended to listen in, you know what I think of that, but this sounded too interesting to miss.”

“Fair enough,” I said, almost dreading what she was going to say but unable to contain my curiosity. “Go on.”

“Well, Sirius said James should know this was different, and James said go on, why, which I admit was my reaction as well,” Charlotte continued, throwing her socks into the laundry basket. “And Sirius said something like, this time it matters if she says no.”

Mary didn’t often look surprised, but in this case her eyes looked like they would pop out of her head. Martha was distinctly taken aback, but Lily just looked thoughtful, pleased this was confirming her theory. More than a little concerned that my heart was about to break, I busied myself with pretending to find myself a new book to read in the pile next to my bed, hoping no one had noticed the look on my face.

“Anyway,” Charlotte was saying, “James said something like, well I don’t think she will anyway. Say no, that is. And Sirius said, no, she hates me, or something like that. So James asked why he thought that, and Sirius said that he’d just gone to talk to her and she wouldn’t even look at him. So whoever she is, it sounds like she’s in a bit of a strop with him. He sounded pretty upset about it at any rate. So yes, I think he’s definitely insecure about someone.”

I found myself shaking my head in amazement. Imagine being annoyed with Sirius. Imagine talking to him and not even looking at him. Was that even possible?

Charlotte was still talking. “So James said that it didn’t sound good if that was true, and then he said well, I guess you’re not going to tell her anytime soon then. He sounded a bit disappointed, it was like this has been going on for a while and James just wants it over already.”

“Di’ they name her?” Mary asked.

“No, they didn’t,” admitted Charlotte. “I was hoping they would, but no luck. And Sirius said he’d tried but had lost his nerve, and now he’d only say something if things improved, and then he said that James wasn’t allowed to tell her either. He sounded like he wanted to be sure that whoever she is will react in the right way when he does say something.”

I raised my head and looked around at them, hoping desperately that I didn’t look too distraught, and even more desperately that Lily and Charlotte were wrong. “Well well well,” Martha was saying as she pulled on a nightshirt. “Looks like it has happened at last. This should be great to watch. Wonder who she is?”

Lily smiled. “I think I’ve got a fair idea,” she said slowly, as if to herself.

“Well?” Charlotte demanded. “’Fess up, come on!”

Lily shook her head. “No, I’m not a hundred percent sure,” she said, more loudly this time, looking at all of us in turn. “That is, I thought I was, but this has confused me a bit. See, the girl I’m thinking of isn’t annoyed with him, so something’s not right there. And if I am right and it is who I’m thinking of, she won’t want me telling tales.” She paused, her face screwed up in concentration, before going on. “Though I also think she’d probably need some convincing, I’m not sure she’d believe him even if he did tell her.”

Mentally I vowed to keep a close eye on things over the next couple of weeks, to see who he was watching or talking to, or who was giving him the cold shoulder. After all, everyone likes to know what they are up against. I’m ashamed to say I was also hoping that whoever she was would put him off a bit longer – after all, if he was single then there was a vague, remote possibility that he might give up on her and need someone (okay, me) to get his mind off it.

Mary groaned. “Tha’s nae fair,” she said. “If ye’re nae goin’ t’ tell us, ye shouldna hae said anythin’ a’ all.”

Lily smiled. “I’ll check with James,” she said. “He’ll know what’s going on. And he’ll know if I should tell you or not.” And she ducked, laughing, as Martha hurled a slipper at her head.

****

Sebastian Quirke from Ravenclaw had been asking Mary to the ball about once or twice a fortnight since it was announced. He was a nice enough boy and was clearly rather keen on her, but Mary was hesitant as he shared a dorm with Gerry Stebbins, who had been after Mary ever since he’d taken her to the ball in fifth year, and she felt it would be a little too awkward for her to be comfortable. However, after the fifth time he asked her, this time well away from Gerry as he cornered her when she left the library, she decided to give him a chance.

That left me as the only female Gryffindor without a date, which I admit was a bit stressful. Surely I wasn’t that repugnant that no one wanted to take me? Ordinary, yes, I could deal with that, but not repulsive. (Even I had an ego that needed maintaining.) I was almost at the point of asking someone myself, but I couldn’t work out who would be the best candidate. After all, it could end up as an actual date, so it had to be someone I could imagine myself snogging. Of course, I wanted to ask Sirius, who was also still dateless, but if he really had his heart set on someone else there wouldn’t have been much point, and I wasn’t sure I’d have the guts to do it anyway. To use his words from six months earlier, I had to ‘pick up and move on’ and find myself a consolation prize.

“Don’t worry so much about it, Laura,” Martha said as we left Charms one day in the first week of December. “You’re a good looking girl, someone is bound to ask you soon. And you’ve still got a fortnight.”

I smiled wryly. “I hope so. I couldn’t handle showing up at the ball by myself. Even Peter has a date!” Which was true, but he was going with his cousin Fortuna, so if I was being honest it didn’t really count as a date.

Bernie Carmichael, walking in front of us, whirled around in surprise. “Laura Cauldwell, you seriously don’t have a date yet?”

“No,” I said, wondering why that was so strange.

“You’re kidding,” he said, falling into step with Martha and me. “No one’s asked you?”

“No,” I repeated, looking at him curiously. “Why?”

“My word,” he said as though to himself. “I thought for sure you would have been snapped up weeks ago.”

He made me sound like a limited release broomstick or something, but I was grateful for what he was trying to say. “Thanks, Bernie,” I said. “I appreciate that.”

“You, uh, don’t want to go with me, do you?” he asked after a short pause.

I looked up at him, I’m ashamed to say giving him the once-over as a potential date. Average height, red hair, green eyes, lots of freckles, but a very friendly face and one you couldn’t possibly dislike. Looked like a decent physique as well, though it was hard to tell through the school robes. If it came down to it, if I tried to forget Sirius had ever been born, I probably could give him a decent snog. “Thanks, Bernie,” I repeated. “I’d love to go to the ball with you.”

He gave me a broad smile, which lit up his face. “For real? You’re sure? That’s great! I’ll meet you in the Entrance Hall at eight, then?”

“It’s a date,” I said, smiling again, and he took off towards Ravenclaw Tower, tripping over his own feet somewhat but beaming all the same.

Martha grinned at me. “Told you someone was bound to ask you soon!”

“Yeah. I didn’t realise you meant immediately, though.”

“Well, neither did I,” she conceded, “but still, it worked out well, didn’t it!”

“And he’s not too bad,” I said. “If it doesn’t work out, I can always fall back on Dad’s rule about not going out with anyone this year.” It had worked with Caradoc earlier in the year, after all, so why not use it to my advantage again if I needed to?

By the end of the week Sirius, whose temper seemed to have been getting the better of him lately, had asked Anne Mockridge, a very pretty sixth-year from Ravenclaw. Rumour had it she had already had a date when Sirius asked her, but ditched him on the spot for what she saw as a better offer. I was pretty sure she wasn’t the girl Lily had been thinking of that night in the dorm – if nothing else, he didn’t seem overly thrilled that she’d said yes – but from all my careful observations I couldn’t for the life of me work out who the girl actually was. No one seemed to be in a bad mood with him, no one was avoiding him, and he wasn’t acting any differently than how he had been all year. Frankly, it didn’t seem to make any sense at all.

****

The morning of the ball dawned bright and cold, and the grounds were covered in a fresh blanket of snow that must have fallen overnight. It looked rather enticing but not enough to lure us from the warmth of the Gryffindor common room.

The nine seventh-years had breakfasted together and went back to the tower as a group to sit by the fire, a habit which was becoming more and more common since Lily and James’ relationship had brought us all together. Eventually, as often happens at that time of year, the conversation drifted to holiday plans.

“How are you spending Christmas, Charlotte?” Lily asked lazily.

“We’ve got a big lunch at Uncle Quentin’s place,” Charlotte said. “Whole family’ll be there, which should be interesting – more than forty of us in one dining room.” She smiled at the thought. “What about you, Lils?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” said Lily, frowning slightly. “Family dos have become more difficult since I came here. Most of the extended family don’t know about me, and Petunia’s not talking to me any more, so it might be a quiet day. Though I’ll head to James’ place after lunch on Boxing Day,” she added, beaming at James, who looked like Christmas had just come early.

“I can relate to that,” I said. “Not going to James’ place, obviously, but family events being tricky because of the whole magic thing. ’ Cause Mum’s a Muggle, and most of her family have no idea about us, so we always have to have separate parties, one with magic and one without. I think they’re both going to be on the same day this year, and both at our place, which will keep us on our toes a bit.”

“How does that work?” Remus asked with a grin.

I shrugged. “Lunch with one lot, dinner with the other. And lots of cleaning up using magic in between. Means you’re absolutely stuffed by the end of the day.”

Martha was nodding. “Yeah, we’ve got two different stops too, to see each set of grandparents. But they’re not at our place, though, so I guess that makes my day easier than Laura’s. Peter?” She looked at Peter, who was sitting on the floor leaning against the arm of James’ couch.

“Lunch with Mum and Dad, then over to Prongs’ place for dinner,” he said.

Remus nodded. “Same with me.”

Charlotte looked surprised. “Do you lot always have Christmas dinner together?”

“Not at all,” James said hurriedly. “This year is a special case. We’re expecting Moony’s furry little problem to be making an appearance.”

“What?” Martha asked what I was thinking. How could they know when his pets were going to misbehave?

James clammed up. “Never mind,” he said, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Let’s just leave it as they’re all coming over for Christmas dinner.” He quickly changed the subject. “What’s going on at your place, Mary?”

Mary, also sitting on the floor, looked up. “We’re headin’ back t’ Scotlan’ fer Christmas Day this year,” she said. “Catch up wi’ all Pa’s family, we dinna see them tha’ much since he died. Though wi’ Uncle Magnus tha’ micht be a goo’ thing.” Her father’s brother, Magnus, was widely regarded as something of a nutter and had even tried to reintroduce Creaothceann, a Scottish sport that involved hurling rocks at people’s heads and oddly enough had been banned in the eighteenth century, back into mainstream wizarding society. There was a reason his nickname was ‘Dent-head’. Mary went on. “Then back t’ London on Boxin’ Day an’ lunch wi’ Ma’s side an’ all. Shoul’ be grand.” She grinned in anticipation.

“How about you, Sirius?” Charlotte asked. “What are you doing for Christmas?” I started a little – it occurred to me that this discussion about our family gatherings had probably been a bit insensitive, and I didn’t fancy the thought of getting his temper up. However, if it bothered him he didn’t let it show, instead shrugging with a bit of a distracted look on his face.

“What I always do,” he said indifferently, as though she had asked him about the weather. “Spend it with the Potters.”

“Do you ever miss it?” Lily asked a little tentatively. “Being with family, I mean.”

Fortunately his irritability seemed to have taken a holiday that day, and he just laughed that bark-like laugh of his. “Are you kidding? I miss it like I miss a hole in the head.”

She just looked at him sceptically. “They can’t be that bad, surely.”

This time James joined in the laughter. “Put it this way, Lils,” he said, giving her a hug, “if he was still talking to them, he wouldn’t be talking to us.”

Sirius nodded. “Well, maybe Charlotte and Martha. And possibly Mary, though I doubt it. But that’d be it of you lot.”

Charlotte smiled. “Why us?”

“Pure-bloods,” James said promptly.

“But so are you,” I pointed out.

He shook his head. “Nah, I’m a blood traitor, he certainly wouldn’t be allowed to talk to me.”

Sirius plainly agreed. “Yes, the Potters used to be okay, but then they started agreeing with some of the pro-Muggle legislation so that pushed them right out to the edge of who’s acceptable. And then Prongs is going out with a Muggle-born, so that definitely puts him on the banned list.”

“And Moony and Wormtail are both half-bloods, so they’re on the outer right there,” added James. “Plus there’s Moony’s furry little problem, which would also count against him.”

“They’d discount him because of a rabbit?” Charlotte was incredulous and I noticed Remus looking a little uncomfortable.

“You’d be surprised,” Sirius said almost ominously. “So Prongs, Moony and Wormtail are out, so I’d definitely need to find some new best friends. Mulciber, perhaps, my mother’d like him. And then there’s you, Lily, a Muggle-born, so like James said that definitely rules you out as someone to even speak to. And Laura’s a half-blood, but not just any half-blood, you’re the worst type,” he went on, looking at me.

I looked at him in surprise. “There are types?”

“Of course there are,” he said. “You’re not half Muggle-born, but actually half Muggle. Admittedly they don’t see it as much of a difference, but it’s definitely a step down. And your dad, who as a pure-blood might have been your saving grace, works in Muggle relations and even married a Muggle, so that makes him more of a blood traitor than Prongs is. So you’re way out, almost as bad as Lily.” I was very thankful he wasn’t talking to his family any more, if that was what he would have to deal with.

“But Charlotte and I are okay?” asked Martha, her eyebrows raised.

“To a point,” Sirius agreed, nodding. “I think the Trimbles and the Hornbys would pass the test as acquaintances and maybe even dinner party guests, but I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to marry either of you. Families not nearly old enough. And being in Gryffindor would be a mark against you, too – not as bad as Hufflepuff, but definitely not good.” He paused and looked at Mary. “And Mary, though you’re a pure-blood, crazy Uncle Magnus would probably count against you.”

Mary nodded. “Tha’, an’ my brither’s marryin’ a Muggle-born this summer.”

Martha feigned disappointment at this news while Sirius groaned. “Right, that pushes you out completely. Forget we ever spoke.”

“I’ve heard aboot th’ Blacks,” Mary agreed with a grin. “Though I’m nae sure ye’d be able t’ fin’ anyone t’ marry, if they’re tha’ strict.”

James laughed again. “Got it in one, Mary. There are so few pure-bloods families left, particularly the really old ones, that it’s no surprise they’ve resorted to marrying their own cousins.”

“Second cousins,” Sirius corrected, the look on his face halfway between a smile and a glare. “They’re second cousins. I’m not quite as inbred as you like to make out.”

Lily gasped. “Your parents are second cousins?”

He nodded, his expression sour. “Yep. Both Blacks as well, which is why I’m such a disappointment to them. Not nearly enough pride in the family name for their liking.”

Charlotte looked confused. “I’ve never understood that. What’s the difference between a first cousin and a second cousin?”

“The connection goes back one more generation,” Sirius explained. “First cousins have the same grandparents, whereas second cousins have the same great-grandparents. If you’re someone’s second cousin then your respective parents would have been cousins. And that means that inbreeding is considered to be less of an issue.”

“Oh, right.” Charlotte looked like she was having difficulty trying to work out the logistics in her head, but I had a question burning in me and decided to leave her to her machinations.

“So,” I asked, “who would you be allowed to marry?” Not me, obviously, but I wanted to know what he’d have ended up with if he’d kept to the family traditions.

He looked at me curiously. “Well, as eldest son and principal heir to the ‘Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’” (this complete with his fingers acting as inverted commas), “there’s a considerable screening process. She’d have to be a nice, respectable pure-blood girl from one of the oldest families, preferably personally chosen by my dear old mum and vetted several times to make sure she’s appropriate and doesn’t have any skeletons in her family tree. No Squibs, or anyone who married a Muggle, that sort of thing. It would help if she’d been in Slytherin, of course. And she’d be obedient and virginal – yes, definitely virginal,” he added, responding to Peter’s snigger, “we can’t have any soiled goods arriving at the House of Black.”

Martha snorted in disgust. “Soiled goods? You make her sound like – I don’t know, a commodity or something!”

Sirius smiled sourly. “Well, that’s what she’d be. Women who marry Blacks are only there to provide heirs. They’re chosen based on their breeding potential.” He grinned suddenly, looking around at our faces. “You all look shocked. What did you think it was like?” We were all dumbstruck so he went on. “Where was I up to?”

“Obedient and virginal,” provided Peter, a smirk coming back to his face.

“Right,” said Sirius. “So she’d be obedient and virginal and in all likelihood have absolutely no interest in me beyond my last name, birth order and Gringotts vault. And we’d be married in an all pure-blood ceremony, and then she’d be expected to pop out an heir every couple of years. Preferably male, obviously, to keep the name going, and hopefully more than one of those in case something happens to the first one. Like running away, for example.” He smiled briefly and for a split second I was sure I saw a sparkle in his eyes. “An heir and a spare, as they say,” he went on, making a face. “Once there are enough of those, I suspect, we’d end up in separate bedrooms and I’d drink myself to an early grave out of sheer boredom.” He stopped again, looking back at me since I’d asked the original question, and when he spoke again his voice was bitter. “What I want, of course, is completely irrelevant, as my duty to the family is far more important than anything as trivial as personal preferences.”

I noticed again how aristocratic his features actually were, and realised with a start that if he lived in the Muggle world he’d probably be a member of the nobility. Which might have been a blessing in one way, because it would have meant I’d never have met him and therefore wouldn’t be obsessing about him like I was. Fortunately the wizarding world was more egalitarian – no royalty, no upper class, so to speak, though some families (like the Blacks) had appointed themselves as that anyway. But the expectations heaped on him were worse than I’d thought – no wonder he ran away, if he’d had that to look forward to. And I wasn’t the only one to think that, from the look of the faces around me, though Remus, James and even Lily looked suspiciously like they were trying not to smile.

Charlotte spoke first. “I knew it was bad but I never realised it was as bad as that,” she said. “No wonder you got out. You’d end up with Scylla Pritchard!”

He shook his head and grinned suddenly. “I did say virginal, remember? No, more likely Maggie Flint, but I suspect she’s probably got too much of a mind of her own to make the grade. The Carrows aren’t an old enough family I wouldn’t think, and Baddock and Urquhart are half-bloods so they’re out.” He paused, his face turning sour again. “But why stop at our year? Age is irrelevant when you’ve got a dynasty to continue.”

“Well,” Lily said bracingly, “now we know why you left. I’d say it’s definitely better to be broke and homeless than having to deal with that sort of rubbish.”

He grinned again. “Yep, now it’s Regulus’ turn,” he said. “The spare to replace the heir. He can deal with all the rules and expectations and marry the lovely respectable Slytherin virgin our dear mother picks out for him. I think I’d rather get Kissed by a Dementor than have a life like that.”

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Author’s note: A nice long chapter to welcome you back after the break! Hope you enjoyed it. And a big thank you to Georgia Weasley who helped me ensure it complied with the ToS. :D

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38
At lunch time my attention was diverted from my beef casserole by my date for that evening, Bernie Carmichael, stumbling into the Great Hall suffering, yet again, from a jinx of some sort. I groaned.

“Looks like Bernie’s been in the wars again,” I muttered to Mary.

She giggled. “Wha’ is it this time?”

“Jelly-Legs, by the looks of it. Or something similar.”

To be honest, I was starting to have second thoughts about going to the ball with him at all, as this sort of thing appeared to be business as usual as far as he was concerned. I didn’t know him all that well and hadn’t really paid him much attention in the past few years, but from what I had noticed (admittedly, I’m ashamed to say, only dating from the time he had asked me to the ball) he did seem to be a regular target for practical jokes and errant hexes. One day he had wandered into the Great Hall at lunch time quite obviously suffering from a misplaced Hair-Thickening Charm. Another time he’d had to leave Charms early after he found himself in the path of a wayward spell that made him grow feathers, and on yet another occasion he was sent to the hospital wing after being hit with a Babbling Curse which meant that he was unable to stop talking, something that didn’t go down very well with Professor McGonagall in that day’s Transfiguration class.

After we watched him very gingerly try to climb over the bench to take a seat at the Ravenclaw table, I turned to Mary again. “Has he always been the butt of everyone’s jokes, or does he just have really bad luck with being in the wrong place at the wrong time? And, in either case, how on earth did he end up a prefect?”

“I dinna ken,” she said dismissively, reaching for some steak and kidney pie. “Bu’ it prob’ly doesna matter much, anyway. Ye just need t’ dance wi’ him a couple o’ times an’ then ye can fin’ someone better t’ talk t’.”

“So long as he’s not jinxed in the meantime,” I said grimly. “Really, it looks like the sort of boy I attract hasn’t improved in the slightest. Rather than a decent date for tonight, I’ve been landed with an eternal patsy. With my luck he’ll miss the ball entirely because he’s stuck in the hospital wing after being hit with yet another hex, and I’ll be sitting there on my own all night.”

“Aye, good poin’,” she conceded. “Ah, well, maybe ye’ll be in luck an’ he’ll mak’ it t’ the ball i’ one piece.”

I nodded. “Yeah, fingers crossed.”

Fortunately Bernie opted not to join the throng of students having a snowball fight after lunch on the lawns, probably figuring he’d be likely to break a leg or something. Mary and I, however, had no such qualms, and were having a lovely time hurling snowballs at whoever happened to be in our way at the time. Or (in my case) whoever was near Sirius, because it gave me a good excuse to look in his general direction. Sad, I know, but it was as good as I was ever going to get so I allowed myself this one indulgence.

James, as a Chaser for and captain of the Quidditch team, was an excellent throw and was busy showing off to younger students, demonstrating both range and accuracy to wide acclaim. He was making a show of hitting each one in turn smack on the chest just below where the collarbones met, not too hard but enough to leave a damp spot on their cloaks, which they all laughed at until it was their turn to get hit. Lily stood off to one side, smiling indulgently but occasionally shaking her head as she watched him, and way off by the castle Severus Snape watching from a distance, fury and resentment leaching out of him as their relationship showed itself to be even more established and pronounced.

So far I had managed to avoid getting hit by a snowball myself – as well as being a pretty accurate throw I was also, as Mary had pointed out at the beginning of term, rather good at dodging things, a throwback from a childhood spent getting out of the way of whatever spells Bea shot at me. Then suddenly I was cleaned up from behind by a large snowball, and turned to see a grinning Peter.

“That was a cheap shot,” I said, picking myself up, “hitting me when my back was turned.”

“I’d never have got you otherwise,” he pointed out. “You’re dodging them too well.”

“Right you are,” I grinned, sending a snowball his way and catching him square on the nose, which to be fair was reasonably long and therefore easier to hit.

“Oi,” said Sirius’ voice from one side, “no hitting my friends.”

“He hit me first,” I protested, glad to have another excuse to look at him. “And from behind, no less. I was just defending myself.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said loftily. “Do you have permission to throw snowballs at us?”

That was a bit rich, pretending that I needed his permission to take part in the fight. And taking exception to my hitting Peter, of all people, when I suspected he had been about to take aim at him himself. Man of my dreams or not, he wasn’t going to get away with that.

“Well, Your Highness, I didn’t realise that I needed permission to engage in a snowball fight,” I said archly, rolling up another ball and throwing it at him. He moved to avoid it too late and it glanced off his right temple. You know, for someone who was so good at dodging spells in a duel, he was surprisingly slow in a snowball fight. Anyway, he retaliated by throwing one back at me, but it was off target and I evaded it easily. I sent one back quickly and hit him on the chest. Admittedly I might as well have been pulling his hair in the primary school playground, but it was still distinctly satisfying.

James had stopped pelting fifth-years and was watching us, laughing. “I think she’s got you beat, Padfoot,” he said.

Sirius pouted. “It’s not fair. She’s cheating,” he complained.

I laughed too. “Sirius Black, there is probably only one thing in the world that I am better than you at, and it’s throwing rolled up bits of frozen water at people. It’s not much to brag about. Can’t you at least give me this?”

“I guess,” he conceded, trying unsuccessfully not to smile. “But just this, mind, and don’t go telling too many people. We can’t have you getting delusions of grandeur.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, damn, I was going to put it in my CV,” I said, starting to write in the air with an imaginary quill. “Can beat Sirius Black in a snowball fight. That’ll help me get a job, won’t it?”

He retaliated by sending another snowball my way, and the fight was back on in earnest, only ending when I hit him in the nose and it started bleeding. Oops. Sometimes my aim was too good.

“Oh, Merlin, I’m sorry!” I exclaimed, hurrying over to him. He was holding a handkerchief up to his face to try to stem the blood flow, but unfortunately it had been a good shot with a very compacted snowball and his nose looked broken. I pulled off my gloves and got my wand out.

“Episkey!” I commanded, and the nose realigned itself. Thank goodness, I didn’t want to be responsible for him looking less than perfect on the night of the ball. Even if it was for Anne Mockridge, or whoever it was that he wanted so badly he didn’t have the courage to tell them. (I kept reminding myself of that, to make sure I didn’t get too carried away with my daydreams.) I ran my finger lightly down his nose, looking for any breaks, trying to make sure it was definitely fixed. It appeared to be so I moved on to cleaning off his face. “Tergeo,” I continued, siphoning most of the blood off with my wand.

He was looking at me strangely as I fussed over him, an odd look in his eyes that I couldn’t place. I took his bloody handkerchief and cleaned that off as well (noticing in the process that it was monogrammed – just in case I needed reminding of how far out of my league he was), and then looked critically at his face, which aside from a bit of blood was just as flawless and handsome as it had been before he’d been hit. “I’ve missed a bit,” I said, reaching up with the now clean handkerchief to wipe a few drops of blood off his cheek. Suddenly I realised how close we were – I had one hand on his face and the other on his shoulder – and I tensed up again, hoping I would be able to pull this off without making a fool of myself. Our faces were only inches apart and he was staring at me, his grey eyes inscrutable, and one of his hands had come up to my face and was gently wiping my hair away from my mouth. It was one of the most surreal things I’d ever experienced.

Then, as abruptly as it had started, the moment ended. He had apparently realised what it looked like and pulled away, taking his handkerchief back from me in the process and shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Laura,” he muttered as he hurried away. I was left standing there, flustered, trying not to notice the death looks Elvira and her cronies were sending me.

(Quivering Wreck 965; Laura 5. Or that was how it felt, at least.)

Mary dodged a few snowballs on her way over to me. “Wha’ was tha’ all aboot?” she asked as she guided me to safety, away from the fight.

“I have no idea,” I said, feeling absolutely confused. It had felt for all the world like he was about to kiss me, but obviously that couldn’t be right. In any case he had come to his senses before he’d embarrassed himself in front of half the school. “I broke his nose with a snowball, but then I fixed it, and I was trying to get the rest of the blood off him …”

“I can tell ye wha’ it looked lik’,” she said, “bu’ ye prob’ly know tha’ anyway. Actually …” Her voice trailed off and she looked rather thoughtful as she glanced over her shoulder at the boys. Before I could quiz her about what she was thinking, though, we had reached the rest of our dorm-mates, who looked like they were about to ask exactly the same thing Mary had. Thankfully she silenced them with a look – I didn’t have a clue what had just happened and needed to work that out myself before I could tell them. I was disquieted a bit by Lily’s expression, though: Martha and Charlotte were clearly agog with curiosity, but Lily just smiled to herself, as though she knew exactly what was going on. I made a mental note to ask her once we were safely out of the way, meaning away from the boys, so she could enlighten me as well.

“Oh, look at the time,” Lily said suddenly, her voice somewhat louder and higher than usual. “We’d better get upstairs and start getting ready!” It was only four o’clock but I was grateful to her for making our excuses. Looking around to wave our goodbyes, I saw that most of the students had red spots on their faces and arms from where they’d been hit and Charlotte, clearly wanting to make small talk until we were out of earshot, made a comment that without bruise-healing creams, most of the people at the ball would be looking decidedly the worse for wear. Relieved to be able to follow her lead, we spent much of the journey up to Gryffindor Tower speculating on who would look the most black-and-blue if they let nature take its course on their skin.

****

We spent a leisurely four hours preparing for the ball, trading jewellery depending on what matched our dress robes best, experimenting with makeup styles and colours, and checking out each other’s perfumes to find what we liked best. Lily was steadfastly refusing to share her theories of the snowball incident that afternoon, so in the end I gave up and was content to let her try several different hairstyles on me to work out which one suited me the most.

By the time we were ready to head downstairs, I thought Lily looked the best of all of us. In robes of ivory with a gold and emerald-green trim, and with her thick auburn hair up in a French knot, she was absolutely stunning, and sure to send James into a frenzy when he saw her. She had accessorised with quite minimalist gold and emerald jewellery which set off her eyes just right, and with the help of one of Mary’s lipsticks she exuded a glow I was sure she hadn’t had before she’d finally gotten together with James.

Martha had opted for pale apricot-coloured robes with a revealing neckline and a bit of a frill around the base of the skirt. She had left her hair down but had opted to turn her usually straight hair into round waves which rolled down her back in a golden cascade, and she wore one bold necklace on that complemented her neckline nicely. It was a look I would never have chosen personally, but she pulled it off brilliantly and was bound to send Davey into a spin.

Charlotte had, as usual, chosen bolder colours and wore robes of scarlet which fit her figure like they were sewn on. Her normally braided hair she had let out and tied it partially off her face with a golden scarf, giving her skin a glowing appearance. Of course, this might also have had something to do with the fact she was going with Remus, but I was happy to attribute it to her choice of colours if she insisted. Her tan-coloured skin was highlighted with light makeup and golden earrings and she would have stopped traffic in any metropolis you could care to name.

Mary also went for bold colours and had selected robes of a deep violet, with a deeper neckline than I had expected and a flowing skirt. She again pulled out the silver bangle her father had given her before he died, and we found her a silver pendant with a stone that matched the colour of the robes perfectly, and for her hair she too opted for a French knot. The overall effect was very impressive, and Mary hardly recognised herself when she looked in the mirror. “Amazing,” she breathed. “I look almos’ bonny.”

I had decided on blue robes, kind of a muted royal blue, with a neckline so wide we had to do some fancy wandwork to keep my bra straps out of sight. Lily and Martha had worked wonders with my mousy brown hair and managed to make it look rather stylish in a half-up-half-down hairdo, despite the fact it emphasised rather than camouflaged the annoying curl my hair refused to abandon, and I accessorised with the daffodil clasp I’d got for my birthday and some gold earrings Charlotte had found at the bottom of her trunk. On the whole I was very pleased with the outcome and, like Mary, wasn’t convinced it was me looking out of the mirror. Lily clearly agreed, as she beamed at me once we had all finished and promised, “You’ll knock his socks off.”

Finally it was almost eight o’clock, so we headed out of the dorm and into the common room. Lily and Charlotte met their dates there, and the looks on the boys’ faces was worth bottling as they took in the visions who would be accompanying them. James, in very stylish dress robes of dark green, seemed unable to speak for a full minute, while Remus, in robes very similar to the navy blue ones he’d worn two years previously, was doing his best impersonation of a fish, his mouth opening and closing silently as he took in Charlotte’s appearance. Even Sirius, looking incredible in extremely tasteful black robes with a grey trim and about to climb through the portrait hole, did a decided double take when he saw us, and opted to wait for us to join him before he headed downstairs to meet his date. Peter, it appeared, had already taken off with his cousin Fortuna.

And so Mary, Martha, Sirius and I all headed down the stairs together to meet our dates, we girls walking more slowly than usual to make sure we didn’t trip over our robes or take a tumble down the stairs due to our heels. Sirius laughed at us for declining the short-cut staircase from the fourth floor to the second, but with the trick step halfway down none of us trusted ourselves to keep our footing. Our timing was spot on anyway: it was pretty much right on eight o’clock when we arrived in the Entrance Hall.

Mary and I found Bernie and Sebastian fairly quickly – Bernie’s red hair always was very distinctive, and fortunately he didn’t appear to be suffering the effects of any wayward jinxes. He actually stared blatantly when he saw me, smiling broadly.

“Wow, Laura, you look unbelievable,” he said, offering me his arm.

“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at him. “You look pretty good too.” It was true. He’d managed to find some navy blue dress robes that complemented rather than clashed with his hair, and without the heavy bag of school books I always saw him with he was distinctly taller. Which was probably a good thing, as with my heels on there wasn’t much of a height difference.

“I still can’t believe you’re coming to this with me,” he chattered as the four of us made our way into the Great Hall. “I was so sure that – that someone else would have asked you.” It almost sounded like he had someone particular in mind, though for the life of me I couldn’t think who.

“Well,” I said, grinning, “they didn’t. I’m clearly not as popular as rumour makes out.” It was said as a joke but he took me seriously.

“Oh, don’t think that. You’re one of the belles of the ball here tonight.” We found a table with room for four people and prepared to settle in for the night.

The food was excellent and the company just as good: Bernie and I were getting along very well, though there was a slight awkwardness to the conversation even despite the fact that the punch had the distinctive aftertaste of Firewhisky, an indication it had been spiked by someone or other. However, I did my best to appear interested in Bernie’s chatter, using all my willpower to focus on that and ignore Sirius and Anne, who were with Peter and Fortuna at a table not far from the one Lily, James, Charlotte, Remus and the other prefects from fifth year up – and their dates – were sharing at the front of the room. They were pretty much right in my line of sight and it was very difficult not to look at them, but I really didn’t want to know what they might be up to. After all, he might have decided to gorge on the punch and use her as a way taking his mind off whoever it was he was after.

After the meal Lily and James came over to have a chat – well, Lily did, and I didn’t think James was game to let go of her hand in case she escaped – and I used the conversation as another excuse to not look at where Sirius was. I even pulled it off: I had to admit, my self-discipline was getting better. (Another point against Quivering Wreck! Yes!) Eventually the band got underway and we all got up to dance.

Bernie and I danced to several songs, then took a break while he went off to find some Ravenclaw pals. He’d been a perfect gentleman but it didn’t really feel like a date – more like I was a precious thing he was scared of breaking, or something out of his reach he didn’t dare get too close to. It was a bit baffling and distinctly unsatisfying, so I found Mary, who was at the bar with her date getting a drink, and we sat down at an empty table to talk it over while Sebastian tactfully went over to join Bernie and the other Ravenclaws.

“It does seem odd,” she agreed. “So there’s naethin’ there? Nae sexual tension, nae hands goin’ where they shouldna, nae flirtin’?” Mary always was one to get straight to the point.

“No, nothing like that. It’s not that he’s not perfectly charming and he doesn’t say all the right things, it’s just …” I paused, looking for the right words. “It’s just that while he keeps saying how great I look and how amazed he is that I came with him, he’s – distant.” Still not quite the right word, but probably as close as I was going to get at the moment. “Oh, I don’t know how to explain it really. Let’s talk about your night. Having fun?” I asked, grinning at her.

“Fantastic,” she replied, letting the change of subject pass without comment. “I dinna ken why I e’er considered nae comin’ wi’ Seb. We’ve bin gettin’ along lik’ a cauldron on fire.”

“So you don’t mind the concept of seeing him after tonight?” I asked, referring obliquely to the ball in fifth year after which she had tried to ditch Gerry Stebbins.

“Definitely nae,” she said, licking her lips. “I think thi’ one coul’ las’ a while.” She grinned wickedly and I groaned and pretended to avert my eyes.

Bernie and Sebastian were still at the bar with their friends so we sat and watched the dancers for a bit. Lily and James, holding each other closely, made such a cute couple, even if they were invariably tailed – at a distance – by an increasingly jealous Snape. Charlotte and Remus were dancing together, closely but somewhat awkwardly, but that could have been due to the fact that Irving Mulciber and Scylla Pritchard kept intentionally bumping into them, trying to knock them over. Our silent reverie was interrupted by Sirius, smiling that devastating smile and looking incredibly striking in those dress robes.

“My turn now?” he asked easily, offering me his hand.

“Sure,” I grinned, standing up and trying not to let on that my knees felt a bit like jelly. Based on Bernie’s behaviour and the fact that I couldn’t see him anywhere, he wouldn’t be too cut up if I danced with someone else for a spell, and there was no way known I would have ever been able to say no to Sirius. With that smile, if he’d asked me to jump off a cliff with him, I would most probably have agreed.

Not counting Bernie, who’d barely touched me really, and Gwendolyn’s wedding, where I was doing a job, the last time I’d been this close to a boy, face to face, was with Bertram. Fortunately, I reflected, being held by Sirius was nothing like being held by Bertram. For a start Sirius was rather taller, probably by about four or five inches. Luckily I had two-inch heels on which made the height difference more manageable, though usually it probably wasn’t too bad. (In flat shoes I was about eye level with his shoulders.) They were also quite different shapes – Bertram was stocky and rather burly from his years of playing as a Beater, whereas Sirius, while he had broad shoulders and wasn’t what you would call small by any stretch, had a leaner, more wiry build. And while Bertram would never have danced like this without a suggestive hand moving either up or down from the small of my back, Sirius as nothing more than a friend was never going to try anything improper. Even without my obsession with him, I had to admit that dancing with him felt nice – comfortable but not too intimidating.

We danced in silence for a while, enjoying the companionship and moving seamlessly in time with the music, though perhaps he was holding me a little closer than I would have expected. Whether I’d had too much of the punch or what it was, I didn’t know, but for whatever reason once we had started I felt absolutely comfortable in his arms. No tension, no panic, just comfortable. Maybe, if I closed my eyes and let my mind wander a bit, I could even convince myself that, just for those few minutes, we actually were a couple.

Eventually, realising I should do something before I got too immersed in that idea and potentially did something embarrassing, I decided to break the silence, pulling back a bit and looking him in the face. “Do you remember the last time we danced together like this? Back in fifth year?”

“Don’t remind me,” he shuddered. “Bloody Prongs, handing out dares left right and centre. I felt so ashamed of myself.” He paused. “Things have changed a bit since then, haven’t they?”

It sounded like a rhetorical question, but I decided to answer it anyway. “Well, I guess I’m not the least likely candidate any more,” I said, stating the obvious.

“It’s hard to believe you ever were,” he said quietly. “And this time you actually know how to dance.”

I smiled. “Yeah, I was pretty ordinary back then, wasn’t I?”

“I would never call you ordinary,” he replied, his eyes twinkling a little. “But yes, maybe not the world’s best dancer.”

I giggled a little at the memory – it was a bit unpleasant, but I had to admit it was funny. “Frankly, I was surprised you even knew my name back then.”

He looked scandalised. “How could you even think that? I’d been calling you by name for years!”

“I meant my first name. I’m not sure that you’d ever used that before.”

He was quiet for a bit, evidently contemplating what I’d just said. I rested my chin on his shoulder, feeling his heart beat rather quickly through the robes.

“You know,” he said a minute or so later, “I was going to ask you to this ball myself.”

I looked back up at him, surprised. “Really? But I thought …” I trailed off, thinking furiously. Was he saying what I thought he was saying? I mean, if Lily’s theory had been right … no, that couldn’t be me, I had to have misunderstood. I thought I’d better bite the bullet and just ask. “Are you sure you didn’t want to ask someone else and just didn’t get around to it?”

“Why would I want to do that?” he asked, a surprised look on his face. “What on earth gave you that idea?”

“Oh … nothing.” I wasn’t about to put Lily’s name out there. Hoping it wouldn’t matter, I rested my chin back on his shoulder and we danced the song out in companionable silence.

When the music stopped, however, he didn’t let go of me. I had intended to go and find Bernie again – after all, he was my date – but Sirius held fast. “I don’t think so,” he said quietly into my ear.

“What do you mean?” There was no point trying to force my way out – firstly he was much stronger than me, and secondly I was actually quite enjoying being held by him. “I really should be getting back to Bernie.”

“The thing is,” he said, still quietly and almost nervously, “now that I’ve got you, I have absolutely no intention of letting you go.”

I looked at him, somewhat dazed. “What do you mean?” I said again, aware I was sounding like a broken record.

“And definitely not with you looking like that,” he continued. “You look incredible. I’ve hardly been able to take my eyes off you all night. In fact, Anne ditched me half an hour ago because I wasn’t paying her any attention, I was watching you too much.”

The next song had started by now, so he gently steered me across the floor again. I needed all my self-control to keep going and not just collapse in a heap on the floor. Was he really saying what I thought he was saying? This was the stuff of dreams, it didn’t really happen, and definitely not to me. Surely not?

Suddenly he stopped moving, and I realised we were close to the door into the Entrance Hall. “Come on,” he said, gripping my hand firmly, “let’s get out of here.”

________________________________________


Author’s note: Sorry for the cliffhanger-ish ending there, but I just couldn’t resist the temptation to make you all wait just that little bit longer. *grins evilly* Feel free to pelt me with whatever rotting fruit and vegetables you have handy. :)

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39
Feeling more than a little dazed, I let Sirius lead me outside. The winter air was cool against my skin but I didn’t really feel it, there was too much going on inside me. We rounded a corner or two and found ourselves by the greenhouses.

He stopped and turned me to face him. “So, Laura, this thing with Bernie Carmichael. Is it an actual date, or is he just someone to come to the ball with?” he asked, looking more nervous and vulnerable than I’d ever seen him.

“Bernie?” I repeated. “No, it’s not a date. He asked me to the ball and I said yes. That’s about it. Why?”

“Nothing more?” he asked.

I laughed. “Definitely not. He’s been holding me with kid gloves all night. It’s almost like he’s scared to touch me.”

He grinned, though even that looked nervous. “In that case, maybe I can get away with stealing you away from him.”

“You haven’t really stolen me,” I pointed out. “We’ve only been gone a couple of min-”

He cut me off by kissing me, hesitantly at first, just a brush of his lips against mine, as though he was worried I might pull away or something. And while that was never going to happen – I wasn’t stupid enough to throw this opportunity away – it did take a moment for me to get over my surprise. Having said that, though, my brain was obviously a bit behind the rest of me because before I realised what was happening I had my arms around his neck and was pulling him back towards me, seeking his lips again. And, when I found them, this time they stayed.

Wow. Double wow. And to think I’d thought kissing Bertram was good. This was unbelievable. So tender, so delicate in some ways, so self-assured in others. His lips were soft and warm against mine and he tasted delicious. Martha had been right – he was a sensational kisser.

And then, suddenly, he stopped, and so did I, horrified that he might have come to his senses and was wondering what he was doing. But he just smiled softly and said, “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.”

“Really?” The word was out of my mouth before I could stop it. “But why me?”

“I just can’t convince you how amazing you are,” he said with mock exasperation, his hand running through my hair. “Don’t –” he knew I was going to ask about Martha, or Charlotte, or Anne Mockridge – “that argument hasn’t held water for ages, and you know it. You are every bit as beautiful, and talented, and smart, and special – in fact you’re more than they are, more incredible than any other girl I’ve ever met.” I gazed at him, searching for any sign he might be joking around before I let myself believe him, but his face was open – it had lost its haughty look like it did when he was being genuine. So that must mean that he actually … meant this?

I didn’t know what to say, so I settled for, “Thank you”.

He kissed me again, and suddenly we didn’t need to say anything else. This time it quickly became more intense, more passionate, as I let myself give in to what I’d been longing for all those months, and soon enough I found myself pushed up against the wall of Greenhouse Three, trying in vain to pull him closer to me … the miniscule gap of air between us meant that we were nowhere near close enough. If a single hair could have fit in the gap, that meant we needed to be closer. The need I felt for him right then was the most powerful sensation I’d ever had and I couldn’t have fought it even if I’d wanted to. I didn’t know (or care) how much time was passing, all that mattered was that we were there, that we were together. I didn’t even feel the snowflakes that started landing on us until we each had a soft white coating on our dress robes.

Finally the snow got heavy enough so that even we noticed it, and we reluctantly broke apart and made our way back inside to the ball. Sirius put his cloak around my shoulders (“I can’t have you catching cold on me, not now”) and held me tight as we walked into the Great Hall. While I had no particular desire to rejoin the party, I did understand that I had to apologise to my date for running out on him like that.

I spotted Bernie’s red hair right away: he was dancing with Thalia Strout from Hufflepuff. I caught his eye and reluctantly moved away from Sirius, smiling apologetically. He lost no time in coming over to me, Thalia waiting a few yards behind him while we talked.

“I’m so sorry, Bernie,” I began, but he cut me off.

“Come to tell me you’re ditching me for Sirius Black?”

I nodded, looking as remorseful as I could. “I never intended to, but …” I trailed off. What could I say? The man of my dreams had just swept me off my feet and so everything else had paled into insignificance? While it was the truth, I didn’t think it would be very tactful.

He smiled, though it came out a bit sour. “I saw you two dancing together,” he said, breaking the uncomfortable silence I had left. “The way you looked at each other. Then saw him take you outside, and you were gone for almost an hour. It didn’t take Merlin to work out what was happening, he’s been after you for ages and you didn’t exactly discourage him. Besides, he’s been hexing me every chance he got for a couple of weeks now, so from my perspective this is probably safer.” He paused, and when he spoke again his voice was bitter. “I won’t say I’m not disappointed. My own fault, though. It was dumb of me to leave you alone, it was only a matter of time before he moved in. Then again, you were so obviously not interested in me in the slightest that I wasn’t sure why I was even trying.”

I stared at him, surprised – I thought I’d put on a better show than that. “It’s not that I don’t like you, Bernie …”

He cut me off again. “Yeah, yeah, but as a friend. I know.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, ashamed of my behaviour. I must have been an awful date. “I didn’t realise …”

He smiled again, still sourly. “Hey, you tried,” he said. “At least you didn’t spend all night gawking at him like he was at you.” He shook his head irritably. “Why he didn’t just ask you to this thing in the first place is beyond me, it would’ve made things so much simpler.”

Suddenly I remembered something he’d said earlier, and even as he turned to go to Thalia I called him back, unable to stop myself from asking the question. “Bernie, did you say that he’s been after me for ages? How long is ages?”

Bernie looked surprised as he paused and faced me again. “You didn’t know? It’s been going on, I don’t know, most of this term at least. I guess he probably was trying not to be conspicuous, though … and you do sit in front of him in classes so you probably couldn’t see him … but it was a bit obvious, really. To some of us, anyway: if your competition is Sirius Black, you tend to notice,” he said, his voice bitter again. “Listen, I should get back,” he added, indicating Thalia, “the next song’s starting.” He turned his back on me before I could say anything else and walked Thalia back to the dance floor.

Sirius came and joined me as soon as Bernie had gone. “Looks like he took it okay,” he said, standing behind me and putting his arms protectively around my waist.

“Yeah, kind of,” I said, still trying to take in what Bernie had said. “He’s not all that happy, though. I feel a bit bad for him.” I paused, thinking. “Sirius –” I turned around, his arms still around me – “Bernie said he wasn’t surprised, that you’d been after me for months.”

He blushed. “And here was me, thinking I was being subtle,” he complained.

“If it’s any help,” I said, “I didn’t have a clue.”

He grinned and kissed my forehead lightly. “That’d be right, the one person I did want to know, and you had no idea. Though I was terrified you’d laugh in my face.”

I smiled. “Do you want me to do that now? ’Cause I could if you like,” I teased. “Just to make you more comfortable …”

He laughed and pulled me closer to him. “Can you think of any reason why we should stay in here rather than finding somewhere more private?” he asked quietly in my ear.

I looked around vaguely. I could see Charlotte and Remus with Peter and Fortuna at the bar, and Mary and Sebastian in a far corner having a snog. Good luck to them, I thought, smiling: Mary was having a good night. Lily and James were cosied up on the dance floor, seemingly engrossed in each other until Lily looked up and caught my eye and, taking in the sight of Sirius and me, directed James’ attention to us and beamed. This clearly wasn’t a surprise to her – somewhere in the back of my mind it registered vaguely that it must have been me she’d been talking about after all. Martha and Davey were nowhere to be seen. It looked like no one would miss us.

“None whatsoever,” I responded.

“Good. Neither can I.” And he led me back out of the hall and up the marble staircase, only to stop at the top and turn to me again. “Now, are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, looking at me searchingly.

I stared back at him, surprised. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because you’re not allowed to,” he said, as though it was obvious. “Didn’t your dad say no boyfriends this year?”

“Oh, that,” I said. “No. Well, yes, he did, but I think I can ignore that if I want to, don’t you?”

He smiled briefly. “You’re sure about that? I don’t want to make you do anything you’ll regret later.”

“Absolutely sure,” I said. “Rule? What rule?” And I pulled him towards me to kiss him again, probably enjoying it just that little bit more now he’d reminded me it was forbidden.

Eventually we settled in an empty classroom on the third floor, one in the middle of the castle so there were no windows to let in an icy draught. Sirius found a sturdy chair and sat down on it, pulling me on to his lap, and started running his lips along my jawline, then down my neck and along my exposed shoulder, his breath warm against my skin.

I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. This was nothing like Bertram: he was being the perfect gentleman. He touched only the most chaste parts of me, but he just about reduced me to a swoon anyway. He had this thing were he massaged me underneath my hair at the nape of my neck, and it was unbelievable how a simple kiss on the inside of my elbow could make me feel. I kept on the theme and focused my attention on his face, neck, shoulders, wrists and hands. It was far more intimate than I would have expected and incredibly erotic.

The chaste theme also had some unexpected side effects. At one stage he even apologised for brushing my breast with his hand, and I almost fell off his lap in surprise. Since when did a boy say sorry for that? I was more used to it being the first thing they reached for. I asked why he was apologising.

He looked at me solemnly. “I think we should take this slowly,” he said. “Enjoy each stage as much as we can before moving on to the next. And we’ve only just started the first one.”

I had felt like I was almost ready to jump him then and there but I could see his reasoning. After all, we had plenty of time, we could do this properly.

“All right,” I agreed. “Slowly it is.”

“And you’ll tell me if you’re ever not comfortable, won’t you?” he said, looking almost anxious.

“Of course I will,” I said.

He smiled. “Good.” And he picked up my wrist, gave it a bit of a rub with his thumb and brought it up to his mouth.

Eventually, realising it was very late and the ball was long over, we reluctantly made our way up to Gryffindor Tower. There were still a few stragglers in the common room who looked at us with surprise as we climbed through the portrait hole arm in arm, and Sirius didn’t let go of me until I was three steps up the staircase to the girls’ dorms. I leaned over the banister to kiss him one more time before regretfully making my way up to bed.

I was the last one into the dorm. Inside, Charlotte was lying on her bed crying angry and confused tears. It seemed that she and Remus had been getting along famously until he apparently got cold feet. “I thought it was actually happening,” she said miserably. “He kissed me, and it was wonderful, and then he stopped suddenly and had this horrible apologetic look on his face. And he said, ‘I’m really sorry, but I can’t,’ and ran away.” She hiccoughed uncomfortably. “What did I do wrong? Am I that bad a kisser?”

“I’m sure it’s not that,” Lily said reassuringly, giving Charlotte a hug. “Maybe he doesn’t know what he wants.”

“It’s not fair,” she said. “You’ve got James, and you” – she looked at Mary – “have got Sebastian, and you” – she looked at me – “have apparently got Sirius. And the only one I want is Remus, and he won’t have me. And he was giving me such mixed signals all night, I don’t know what I’ve done.”

“If it’s any consolation,” Martha piped up, “I’ve got no one too. Davey and I have come to the conclusion we weren’t a particularly good match.”

“But we were a good match!” Charlotte wailed. “And he thought so, too, otherwise why would he have snogged me like that?”

None of us could explain it; we were all as baffled as she was. I was sure Remus did fancy her, but that meant his behaviour was even more mystifying. Though, to be honest, I was having trouble concentrating on her problem, as my mind was somewhat preoccupied with what had happened to me that night.

Lily had noticed it. “Oh, Laura, don’t feel guilty,” she said, giving me a smile that seemed a little too understanding. “No one here is seriously expecting you to be paying us the slightest bit of attention.”

Martha was laughing. “You know, I really didn’t see that one coming,” she admitted. “Mary and Sebastian, yes, but not you two.” Mary gave us a bit of guilty grin from her bed.

“You can’t have been paying attention, then,” Lily snorted, though she was still smiling. “I’ve thought it for months.”

“A’ leas’ we nou know wha’ tha’ snowball ficht thing this afternoon was aboot,” Mary grinned. “Exac’ly wha’ it looked lik’, after all.”

“Not that any of us actually saw you once you stopped dancing,” Martha went on, looking at me. “You just disappeared without a trace. We had to rely on Lily to find out what had happened.”

I smiled. “We wanted to get away from the crowds.”

“Goo’ thinkin’,” said Mary. “McGonagall came o’er an’ physically broke Seb an’ I apar’. Said I wasna conducting myself i’ a manner befittin’ a member o’ Gryffindor Hoose and woul’ I min’ bein’ more discree’ in future.” She started giggling.

Charlotte laughed, and for the first time since I’d got inside the dorm her eyes were almost dry. “For goodness sake, Mary, what exactly were you doing?”

“Jus’ snogging,” Mary said with a shrug. “We micht hae bin gettin’ a bi’ enthusiastic, I’m nae really sure. I ferge’ where we were up t’ when she interrupted us. Anyway, we jus’ wen’ ootside and carried on oot there an’ all.”

I took Lily’s advice and opted out of the conversation, trying to relive everything that had happened since those first moments by the greenhouses. And those most agreeable thoughts occupied my mind until I eventually drifted off to sleep.

****

I woke up the next morning wondering if it had all been a dream. Surely I couldn’t have been so lucky as to catch Sirius’ eye? I had to have imagined it, I thought, not really daring to think otherwise in case I was wrong. Lily, however, soon cleared the matter up for me.

“You go in first,” she said with a smile as we lined up for the shower, waiting for Mary to finish. “You want to get downstairs to Sirius, don’t you?”

I looked at her gratefully, not only for the offer but for the confirmation that it had in fact all been real. I hadn’t imagined being kissed like that, being held like that, feeling his breath on my cheeks. It had actually happened. And I think I showered and dressed in record time in my eagerness to get down to the common room.

Of course, soon enough I experienced the downside of going out with someone like Sirius. The Great Hall erupted into whispers when we walked in for breakfast, hand in hand. I caught snippets of conversations as we went past – “Don’t know what he sees in her” … “It’ll never last, they’re too different” … “Who is she, do you know?” … “Do you think it was a love potion?” It didn’t really surprise me – like I’d noted before, someone like him getting a new girlfriend was absolute bread and butter for the gossips of the school – but it was something that would take some getting used to.

“Ignore them,” Sirius said, squeezing my hand as we sat down at the Gryffindor table. “They’ll stop eventually.”

“I’m not really used to being the centre of attention,” I pointed out, feeling distinctly uncomfortable as my hair went bright blue before my eyes. I pulled out my wand and changed it back to its original colour, hoping Sirius hadn’t noticed.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll scare them off,” he said, glaring over his shoulder at the girls I supposed were responsible the spell. “Anyway, they’ll forget all about it over the holidays.”

He was good as his word, too – he barely left my side all morning, leaving me only when I had go into the dormitory to pack my suitcase for the journey home for Christmas. By the time we clambered onto the Hogwarts Express together just before eleven o’clock the whispers had gone, at least while I was in earshot.

Lily beamed at us as we found our seats. We were running a bit later than everyone else, having stopped for a quick snog before heading to the horseless carriages and, as is usually the case with new couples, it ended up going slightly longer than anticipated. Lily, James and Remus had been about to head to the prefects’ carriage for their official duties, but they stopped for a spell as we arrived.

“Saved you a seat, Padfoot,” James said nonchalantly, ignoring the half dozen members of the fan club who were hovering outside the compartment and glowering at me. “We figured you two would only need one between you.” We opted to ignore his smirk, but he was pretty much spot on anyway.

Peter laughed, but Remus didn’t. “Give him a break, Prongs, he’s waited long enough. Just let him enjoy it for a day or so before you get stuck in.”

Peter stopped laughing. “Just why did it take so long, anyway?” he asked. “That’s not like you, Padfoot, you’re normally pretty quick off the pitch.”

James grinned as he pulled down the window coverings, blocking us from the corridor outside. “He was terrified she’d say no, weren’t you, mate?”

Sirius was looking distinctly embarrassed, and I suspected he would have preferred the conversation take a different turn. I however was rather curious about it all, so decided to let it continue.

“Well, yeah,” Sirius mumbled. “I had no idea what you thought of me,” he added, looking at me, “so I had to try to win you over.”

“Win me over?” I was flabbergasted. “No you didn’t. If anyone didn’t need winning over, that was me.”

“But I didn’t know that,” he said defensively. “Every time I came near you, you made some excuse and ran away. I thought sometimes that I was your absolute last choice.”

It had never occurred to me that he might have seen it like that, and I suspected that fact was plainly displayed on my face from everyone’s reaction. Lily and James were laughing so hard they had tears in their eyes, Remus had a look on his face that plainly said ‘I told you so’, and Peter appeared to have just accidentally snorted his pumpkin juice.

Sirius was looking confused. “Well, am I wrong?” he asked defiantly. “What did I have to go on?”

Lily dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “You could have asked someone,” she said. “I’ve known Laura fancied you since, ooh, last June at least.”

“You have?” I asked, distracted. Clearly I wasn’t as good at hiding things as I’d thought.

“Of course,” she said confidently. “You were trying so hard not to let it show that it wasn’t hard to catch on. And I already suspected he liked you, I first thought that when you were still with Bertram,” she went on. “Anyway, if something didn’t happen last night, James and I planned to lock you two in a broom cupboard for a couple of hours, didn’t we?” She and James shared a smile. “Though from the look on your face, Sirius, when she came down the stairs last night, I thought it probably wouldn’t come to that.”

Sirius groaned, his cheeks rather pinker than usual. “Are you saying I’ve just wasted the last six months?”

“Pretty much,” Lily agreed, smiling.

“And you knew too?” he shot at James.

“Well, mate, Lily’s pretty perceptive,” James said with a smile. “She pointed out a few things that backed up her theory.”

“And you didn’t mention this, why?” Sirius asked, glaring at him.

“We tried,” said Remus. “You didn’t listen. You were too convinced that she wasn’t interested.”

“It’s not worth worrying about,” I said reassuringly. “It’s happened now.” And I leaned in and kissed him, trying to ignore the wolf-whistles and applause coming from our companions.

Before long James, Lily and Remus disappeared in the direction of the prefects’ carriage, leaving Sirius and me alone with Peter. To our great relief he took one look at us, still only taking up one seat in the corner of the compartment, and made some futile excuse before also disappearing, almost tripping over Elvira who was still camped outside in the corridor. I felt a little bad for forcing him out but we did relish the idea of a bit of privacy, especially considering the blinds were still down. Of course it was over all too soon as our companions did return eventually, claiming they had stayed out for as long as was humanly possible. Checking my watch, I was surprised to discover they actually meant it – we’d had the compartment to ourselves for the best part of two hours, interrupted only by the trolley witch, but the time had flown by so quickly it felt closer to twenty minutes.

Once the train arrived in London – much too soon as far as I was concerned – I quickly scanned the crowd from inside the carriage, looking for my parents. “I don’t see them,” I said, leaning over to try to see more of the platform, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not here.”

“Well, why wouldn’t they be here?” Sirius asked.

“Mum,” I explained. “She gets a bit overwhelmed with all the magic on the platform so they usually wait for me on the other side of the barrier. However, if I assume that they’ve done that …”

“They’ll be just outside the compartment door when you get out,” he finished for me.

“Exactly,” I said, still searching the crowds for them. “The day I walk off the train holding your hand is the day they break with tradition and come in to find me.”

“What would they do?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Good question. I haven’t actually gone against them like this before so I don’t really know. But I’m not sure that I want to find out.”

Ever cautious, I stepped out onto Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters alone, Sirius a couple of people behind me, and juggled my suitcase and Cerridwyn’s cage as I searched fruitlessly for my parents. Eventually, I decided that they weren’t there after all.

“The coast’s clear,” I said, going over to where Sirius was waiting for me. “They’re not here.”

“Excellent,” he said quietly, putting his own suitcase down next to mine so he could wrap his arms around me. “Then I assume we can do this?” And he leaned in and kissed me again.

“This is going to be awful,” I murmured in between kisses. “Three weeks apart. I don’t think I’ll be able to do it.”

“Why do you think I’m making the most of this now?” he asked. “I’m grabbing every last second that I can with you.”

Finally we broke apart, realising that there were only a couple of dozen people still on the platform so it would look very suspicious if we stayed much longer. Grabbing my suitcase and reaching into my robes for an owl treat for Cerridwyn, who was hooting dolefully at me, I turned to Sirius again.

“Will you write to me?”

“Of course,” he said. “And if I can wrangle a way to see you, I’ll do that too.”

I got up on my tip toes and kissed him again. “I can’t wait.” And with that, I very reluctantly made my way through the barrier.

Mum and Dad were looking anxiously at the wall between Platforms Nine and Ten as I emerged, dragging my suitcase and owl cage. “Sorry I’m late!” I said brightly, racking my brain frantically for an excuse.

“What happened?” Dad asked. “We were about to go in and look for you. Your mother’s on call, we shouldn’t take too long in case she needs to go in.”

Phew, I thought, that was close. Good thing I’d come out when I did. “Sorry, I didn’t realise,” I said. “My suitcase got stuck,” I went on, putting it on the floor next to me so Dad could carry it. “We couldn’t get it down from the luggage rack, we think it must have got hit with a jinx of some sort. I had to find one of the porters to help get it out.”

“And that took all that time?” Mum asked, her eyebrows hovering somewhere near her hairline. “Mary came out ten minutes ago.”

I shrugged, noticing out of the corner of my eye that Sirius had, after waiting for a suitable amount of time, also left the platform. “They were getting everyone else’s things out first, I couldn’t find one for ages,” I invented. “And then he needed to work out how to reverse the hex before he could get it down. It took a while. Sorry, I should have got Mary to let you know. She does have a new boyfriend, though, so she may have forgotten anyway.”

“Well, at least you made it through eventually,” Dad said. “So, are you ready? Let’s go home.”

________________________________________


Author’s note: Otherwise known as the “about bloody time” chapter. Of course it could have happened months earlier, but Laura was so convinced it was impossible that she missed all the signs.

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40
I spent much of that Christmas break alone in my room, quietly bouncing off the walls. I couldn’t tell my parents what had happened, what with the no-distractions-during-NEWTs rule, and Bea wouldn’t have cared, so I had to resort to a combination of frequent letters to Mary and lying back on my bed, daydreaming and losing myself in some very agreeable memories of Sirius – his arms around me, his breath on my skin and his tongue in my mouth. Though every now and then I just sat there in astonishment that I would have memories like that at all, that it wasn’t just daydreams, that it had actually happened.

Sirius hadn’t been kidding – he did write to me. Every day, and sometimes more than once. Occasionally it was just a scrap of parchment that said something like Miss you, but usually it was rather more substantial as we tried to work out a way we could see each other as quickly as possible, and I was very grateful that owl post didn’t cost by the message because I was no lighter on the quill than he was. I hadn’t realised it was possible to miss someone that much, though I recognised it was probably due to the length of time we’d been together juxtaposed with the length of time we now had to spend apart more than any real closeness. It was better when he was at the Potters’ house in Somerset (as I soon learned – I’d had no idea it was so close) as it was much nearer, but when he was at home in London it could take a day or two to get a response. A couple of times I even had to borrow Dad’s owl, Koukou, as Cerridwyn hadn’t returned in time.

“You do seem to be getting a lot of mail these holidays,” Mum said one morning as Cerridwyn flew through the kitchen window and landed on my shoulder, a bit of parchment with Sirius’ handwriting on it tied neatly to her leg.

I shrugged, hoping that my cheeks were their usual colour. “Just comparing homework notes,” I invented. “We’ve got a lot we need to get through before we go back to school, so we’re all helping each other out.” I detached the letter from Cerridwyn’s leg and let her fly back outside.

“I remember what that was like,” Bea said, surprising me by backing me up. “Seventh year’s a cow, really. What assignments do you have?”

Right. Of course. She hadn’t been backing me up, she was digging me a hole. Now I had to think about schoolwork, which I really didn’t want to do. After all, I had much better things to occupy my thoughts with.

“Transfiguration,” I said quickly, trying frantically to remember what we had in fact been set. “Animagus transformations – theory only of course, she doesn’t expect us to be able to do something like that by the time we get back.”

“Of course,” she said, leaning forward enthusiastically. “That was really fascinating, and obviously she marks that pretty hard because she can do it herself so she knows what she’s on about. Don’t forget to take effects on the human form into accout, there’s usually some sort of lingering residue from the transformation, and when we did it not everyone picked up on that so there were some bonus marks awarded. That’s worth remembering.”

I was only vaguely paying attention, though I recognised that Bea was probably giving me some quite useful tips for that particular assignment. I was, however, distracted by the letter I hadn’t yet opened, dying to read what he’d written this time.

We were interrupted by the phone ringing, and Mum went to answer it. Within a minute she was looking terse and Bea and I looked at each other and groaned.

“Right. Okay, thanks, I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Mum said into the receiver. She hung up and turned to us. “That was work,” she said redundantly – we’d already worked that much out. “They’ve found some people – Muggles – who have turned up halfway to Bath with no idea of who or where they are. Looks like they might have been cursed or something. I have to go check it out.”

“Will Dad be there too?” Bea asked.

Mum shrugged. “Depends on how bad the damage is,” she said. “We’ll probably need some Obliviators there, though – hopefully your Ministry has been told already so we don’t have any delays.” She was moving quickly around the kitchen as she spoke, grabbing her purse and keys and shoving them into her handbag. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” she said over her shoulder. “Good luck with the homework, Laura!”

Well, that was a nice escape, I thought, clutching my letter tightly in my hand and picking up my cup of tea with the other. “I’m going back upstairs,” I told Bea. “Need to get this homework done, you know?” And without waiting to hear if she responded to me or not, I hurried up to my room and closed the door so I could devour my letter.

Dear Laura

Well, I’ve worked it out. Working around what you’ve already said about family obligations, I can get to Bristol on the Friday before Christmas, so if you can think of an excuse (Christmas shopping, perhaps? I’m sure you’ll think of something) we can maybe meet up then? You know the area better than I do so you can nominate a spot, but somewhere out of the way would be good, don’t you think? Because I don’t think I can last another day without seeing you, or at least knowing I can see you soon. I need something to look forward to that’s closer than the train trip back to school.

Please write back as soon as possible and tell me if it might work out. December 23rd isn’t that far away so if I knew we could get together then, that’d be fantastic. And you can talk me through the security systems you’ve got in place so I can know for sure that you’re safe.

Sirius

This last bit was unnervingly common in his letters. Dad, although a pure-blood, was seen as a blood traitor because of his work, and Mum was a Muggle, so Sirius was concerned in case any of us became targeted by the Death Eaters. I had the feeling that he would come to Bristol in a second if I gave any hint of any sort of trouble whatsoever, and while I was dying to see him again I didn’t want to risk my parents’ wrath, so I put a lot of effort into trying to convince him that our home was safe and that I wasn’t doing anything that would put me in danger.

And so it was that two days before Christmas I told my parents I was off to do some last minute Christmas shopping – a front for a clandestine day with my new boyfriend. Oh how I loved calling him that: it made all the months of suffering worthwhile. It had taken a good half an hour to convince Mum that I would be safe enough if I kept to Muggle areas – the war hadn’t really hit Bristol yet, despite the Muggles half way to Bath who had indeed needed their memories to be modified – but fortunately in the end she agreed. Sirius and I arranged to meet at the city museum and art gallery, which was open but almost guaranteed to be deserted as most of the Muggle population was doing exactly what my parents thought I was doing.

He was already there when I arrived, leaning against the front of the building, looking amazing in a dragon-skin jacket, dark red jumper and jeans. I’d come feeling almost an impostor – what if I turned up and he said it was all a mistake? – but when he saw me he came straight over to me, kissed me deeply and held me so tightly I thought my ribs might crack. Okay, I thought, it wasn’t a mistake. I didn’t dream it. This is real.

“I missed you,” he said between kisses. “It’s far too long since I saw you.”

“I missed you too,” I said, holding him just as tight as he was holding me and savouring the taste he had left in my mouth. Eventually we parted and he put his arm around my waist as we went upstairs to the gallery to find a nice out-of-the-way spot where we could catch up properly and without interruptions.

“You know, you really are lovely,” he said, standing back to get a full view of me. “I can’t believe it took me five and a half years to realise it.”

“Six and a half,” I corrected him automatically.

“What?”

“We’ve been at school for six and a half years,” I explained.

He grinned. “Ah, but I noticed after five and a half,” he said smugly. “It just took me forever to get up the guts to tell you. Oh, and that reminds me …” He pulled a package out of his pocket and pressing it into my hand. “This is for you,” he said quietly. “Merry Christmas.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said.

“Yes I did,” he said. “I bought this ages ago, in the hope it might be appropriate to give it to you at some point.”

I unwrapped the package, revealing a flat box about one by five inches. Opening it, I saw a gold bracelet, delicate yet bold, boasting a single daffodil charm. Clearly goblin-made, it was one of the most stunning things I’d ever seen.

“It’s beautiful!” I gasped, awestruck. “Exactly what I would have chosen if you’d asked me to pick one. But it must have cost you a fortune!” I looked up at him, angry yet pleased he would spend so much on me.

He smiled, ignoring the cost jibe. “I knew you’d like it. After I saw how much you liked the cla– ” He stopped, checking himself.

“The what?” I asked. “The clasp?” He nodded mutely. “That was you?” I asked in shock, fingering the item in question which was as always attached to my clothing.

Wordlessly he got out his wand and, tracing the air, drew with fire the strange symbol on the back of the clasp. The one I had assumed was a goblin mark. I saw now it was his initials superimposed over each other – SOB – in an elegant script. “You’re not angry with me?”

“Of course not!” I said, giving him a hug and reaching up to kiss him on the cheek. “Why would I be angry with you? I love it! But how … why …” I trailed off, not exactly sure what I was trying to ask.

“I bought it for you for your birthday,” he said, his arms back around me. “I was in Hogsmeade and Clio and I had had a fight, so I went off to get things ready for the party. Bought some Firewhisky and a few cases of butterbeer to be collected later, that sort of thing, so that was one less thing to organise. And I was going to get you something small, you know, a token, since you were having a joint party with Moony and it would be rude not to, but I didn’t know you that well so I dropped into that jeweller’s. Thought I’d get some earrings or something, I wasn’t sure.”

He paused, watching my face. “And then I saw the clasp and I just knew you would love it, and before I knew what I was doing I’d bought it and was having it inscribed. So that was that. Until on the way back to school I realised I’d just spent more on you than I had on Moony, and way more than I’d spent on Clio for Valentines Day, and that it might not be appropriate to give it to you since I was with Clio – or not, we’d just broken up – and you were with Aubrey. And I couldn’t hold on to it or take it back ’cause it’d been engraved, and anyway I knew I wanted you to have it. I couldn’t have said why, but I did. So I sent it anonymously.”

I kissed him again. “And I loved it!”

He smiled again, somewhat ruefully this time. “You could have fooled me. You didn’t wear it for weeks; I thought I’d completely misjudged you and what you liked. And then we had the Easter holidays and I didn’t see you for a fortnight, and suddenly I realised why it had felt so important to give it to you, but you were still with Aubrey so I was jealous as hell. I thought if he’d given it to you, you would have worn it for sure, like you did with that awful cloak.”

“Didn’t you know?” I asked, surprised. “Because it was anonymous, we took it to McGonagall to get it checked for jinxes. I’d been identified as a target, apparently. It took ages to get it back.”

“Is that all?” he asked. “And here was me, imagining all sorts of things. I even thought Aubrey had told you not to wear it ’cause he didn’t give it to you.” He let go of me and started fastening the bracelet around my wrist. “Now this, I’ve had it sized down a bit, your wrists are so tiny,” he said. “Hope I got it the right size.” He finished, and I flung my arm towards the ground in an effort to dislodge the bracelet, to see if it would drop down over my hand. It stayed put.

“Perfect,” I said, unable to stop smiling. “But then again, so are you.”

****

After a couple of hours we wandered back outside into the cold December air to find somewhere for lunch. I wasn’t keen to spend too much time outdoors on the off chance I was seen by someone I knew, so we found a nearby pub and grabbed a table near the back of the room.

He smiled at me as we sat down. “Now, what would you like to drink? I hear there’s a micro-brewery around here somewhere …”

I shook my head. “I’m not eighteen yet, remember?”

“So?” He looked surprised. “Why would that matter?”

“Legal age for Muggles,” I explained.

He just winked at me, smiling broadly. “Laura, why do you think Confundus Charms were invented?” He stood up. “I’ll be right back.”

A minute or so later he returned, beaming at me and carrying two pints of lager and a couple of menus. “This has taken far too long to happen,” he said, handing me a drink. “You and me. We could have had months already. If only I’d realised!”

“And if only I had too,” I agreed, grabbing his hand and squeezing it. “It never even occurred to me that I had a chance, though, not realistically. I mean, half the school was after you. What chance was there that you’d even look at me?”

He laughed as he sat down again. “Well it’s not like I didn’t have any competition for you, either.”

I was stunned. “Competition? For me?”

He smiled. “You never believe people when they tell you how lovely you are, do you? Yes, of course there was competition. Carmichael, Dearborn, Whitby – and that’s just who comes to mind now. Even Moony was threatening to ask you out, though I think that was more his way of pushing me along a bit.” He paused. “What is it with you and prefects, anyway?”

“I have no idea,” I said vaguely, struggling to take in what he was saying. “You’re actually serious, aren’t you?”

He smiled mischievously. “Of course I’m Sirius.”

“Ha ha ha. But you know what I mean.”

“I do, and that’s exactly my point,” he said, more gravely this time. “You need to start realising how incredible you are. I remember spilling my guts once and telling you you were beautiful, and you thought I was humouring you.”

I thought about when he might have said that and realised it must have been that day at Hogsmeade, way back when I had just dumped Bertram. “You weren’t?”

He shook his head in mock exasperation. “Come on, Laura, do you really think I tell people they’re beautiful at the drop of a wand? Of course I wasn’t humouring you. You are beautiful, and you’re smart, and you’re funny, and you’re – well, you’re just about perfect. You just need to believe it.”

He really meant it. This was astonishing. I clearly wasn’t as ordinary as I had always believed. “Oh Merlin,” I said, shaking my head at my own behaviour. “I spent all of last term obsessing over you, absolutely convinced it could never happen. I was even making myself miserable because of it.”

“And all that time I was crazy about you,” he admitted. “But you never gave me any clues, you didn’t flirt, you barely treated me any differently to, say, James. I had no idea what you thought of me.” He shook his head in frustration. “I spent months trying to weasel my way closer to you but each time I got near enough to say anything you got all tense and turned away. Half the time you looked so scared that I thought you must have known and were trying to put me off.”

I smiled wryly and took a sip of my lager. “No, that was because I didn’t trust myself around you. I was petrified I’d do something that could end up humiliating me. Quite frankly, Sirius, I thought that if you found out how much I liked you you’d think I was just like Elvira.” I shuddered involuntarily – the idea that he might have not only rejected me but started avoiding me altogether had been enough to stop any thoughts I might have had in letting him know.

He looked surprised. “But I could never think you were like her. The two of you have nothing in common. Well, species, perhaps, but thinking about it I’m not even convinced of that.”

“I don’t know,” I said dryly. “I thought we had a lot in common. We were both borderline obsessed with you. Only difference was that I didn’t want anyone to know. I mean, if you knew, and you didn’t like me, I would have been mortified, and you most probably would have stopped talking to me. And you can call me a coward if you like but I couldn’t handle that, I needed to have you around.”

He laughed. “Did you really think that? But that’s absurd. Assuming there could be a world where I didn’t realise how amazing you are, I might have been a bit uncomfortable, but I would never have stopped talking to you.” He kissed my hand gently, smiling at my incredulous look. “Think about it, Laura, how many of them have I ever been friends with?”

I thought about it. “None?”

“Exactly.” He smiled at me. “There’s a big difference between someone who actually knows you, and someone who has this idealised image of you that you couldn’t live up to even if you wanted to.”

“That makes sense,” I admitted, realising I was grinning from ear to ear. Actually, it was rather like the problem I’d had with Bertram. “And to be honest, before I really knew you I wasn’t interested in the slightest.”

“Which is fine by me,” he said. “It means you’re more interested in what’s on the inside. Proof that you’re nothing like Vablatsky.”

I looked at him. “So what made you finally do something?”

He paused as if thinking. “I couldn’t stand not knowing,” he said eventually. “I couldn’t work out what you thought of me. Everything I heard and saw pushed me in different directions as to how you might have felt. Like I said on the train, sometimes I thought I was your absolute last choice, and you telling me that day with the giggler that you didn’t care who I snogged didn’t help.”

I blushed. “It was what I thought you wanted me to say. And I was just in shock, it was like walking in on my worst nightmare.”

He shook his head. “Well, if you had to see that, what I wanted was for you to get jealous. Visibly, that is, not some hidden thing that I didn’t know about. And, from what I could see, you didn’t.”

I smiled wryly. “Didn’t you notice I didn’t go down to dinner that night? That was because I was crying into my pillow. I felt like the world had ended.”

“Was that what it was?” he asked, looking surprised. “Lily just said you weren’t well, so I guess I took it at face value, and it explained why you’d looked a bit pale that afternoon. And then I wanted to explain everything to you the next day but you weren’t at breakfast either.”

I laughed. “That was when I fell down the stairs, wasn’t it? Alecto Carrow actually hit me with a Trip Jinx, what were the chances? And then Remus had to help me to the hospital wing. I was a right mess.”

“I was worried as hell about you that day,” he admitted. “Couldn’t concentrate during Transfiguration at all, ended up getting a detention from McGonagall because I wasn’t paying attention. And then I borrowed Prongs’ Cloak and snuck into the hospital wing to see you during break, but you were asleep so I didn’t know if you were still hurt or not. I was so relieved when you showed up at lunch time.”

I shook my head a bit. “And you never realised how upset I was about that girl? Goodness, I must be better at hiding things than I thought.”

He nodded. “You certainly are. I had no idea. I just knew that I had to keep trying or I’d never know. But every time I did try, something would happen to interrupt or I’d just lose my nerve.” He paused again, looking at me. “But then the way you looked that night, any modicum of self-control I might have had just disappeared. So I thought I’d just do it before I chickened out again.” He grinned. “If it didn’t work, you would have got a long letter of apology by the time you got home from the train.”

I smiled again. “Right. I’ll just say that I’m glad you took the chance.” Then something else occurred to me and I changed the subject. “By the way, what happened with Charlotte and Remus? Did he get cold feet or what?”

He looked a little uncomfortable. “ Yeah, kind of,” he admitted. “That’s not really for me to say, though, he hasn’t said I’m allowed to tell anyone. Not even you.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “I’m guessing that would be one of those rules you guys have, then, wouldn’t it.”

He looked surprised. “You know about those?”

I smiled. “Only that they exist. I don’t really get what they are, but it’s clear that you’ve got, I don’t know, a code of conduct or something that you all stick to.”

“Well, that’s one way of looking at it,” he said. “Yes, you’re right. In this case, answering that question in any detail would be breaking a confidence. And I can’t do that.”

“Of course not,” I agreed. “Well, then, I won’t ask you any more.”

He looked pleased. “Now,” he said, changing the subject, “talk me through the defences you’ve got set up at home …”

After we had eaten and I had finally convinced him that my father’s precautions for our house and family were good enough, we found a quiet corner nearby and picked up where we had left off earlier. I cast an Impervius Charm on us to shield us from the snow that had started falling, and standing there in his arms I felt absolutely blissful. There could not have been a more perfect day.

Eventually we broke apart, uncomfortably aware of the darkening sky. “I should be getting back,” I said, unable to wrench myself away from him. “Can we do this again?”

He started suddenly. “I almost forgot,” he said, pulling an envelope out of his jeans pocket. “This is for you. Party at Prongs’ place, for New Years. Tell your folks the whole year’s been invited, kind of a final bash before school finishes. That is, they haven’t, but your family don’t need to know that. Come early and stay as long as you can.”

I took the envelope, smiling broadly. The Potters’ New Years party happened annually and half the school coveted an invitation, probably because it meant bringing in the new year with the two most popular boys in school, but obviously I had never been included before. I knew Lily had been invited every year since fourth year, but I was pretty sure this would be the first time she would accept. It was perfect, a brilliant excuse to see him again before we went back to school.

“And don’t forget these,” Sirius said, waving his wand and conjuring up some shopping bags. “You are supposed to have been doing your Christmas shopping today, after all.” Struck by his attention to detail, I took the bags.

“Good thinking.” It was just as well I’d already done all my shopping, as the bags would disappear after a few hours like all conjured items, but they would definitely do as cover for when I arrived home. I looked at him and, dropping the bags, put my arms around his waist underneath his jacket. “I don’t want you to go,” I said, sounding unnervingly like a small child.

“I don’t want to go either,” he said gently, returning the gesture and resting his forehead on mine, “but I don’t think we have a choice. Not unless you want daddy dearest to find out about us. And I’d see you safely home, but …” His voice trailed off, but I knew what he meant. Even showing up on my street was risky if we didn’t want to get caught.

“I know.” I reluctantly loosened my grip but put my hand to his face, where the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow were starting to appear around his cheek and jawline. He leaned in and kissed me, a gentle yet purposeful kiss that lasted somewhere between a few seconds and half an hour, I really couldn’t say.

“See you next week, then,” he said once we had finished. “Promise you’ll come.”

“I promise,” I said happily. “Dragons couldn’t keep me away.”

He smiled and Disapparated, leaving me standing in the snow with a pile of ‘shopping’. Smiling to myself, I followed his example, appearing in our back garden a second later laden with shopping bags.


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Author’s note: Cliché alert! Yes, I admit it, I have succumbed to another cliché for fics of this era, which is to put a big party on at the Potters’ place during the Christmas/New Year period. And my excuse? Well, it fit my story, and we don’t have anything from JKR that says it didn’t happen …

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