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42
Not long afterwards I arrived home, tear-stained and exhausted. I’d had to stop a couple of blocks away to compose myself enough to stop Mum or Dad asking any awkward questions, and cast a passable Cheering Charm on myself, but I was still less than my usual sparkling self when I pulled into the driveway. And seeing the Potters’ owl waiting for me on the front steps, a note in Sirius’ handwriting attached to its leg, didn’t help.

“Is that you, Laura?” Mum called out as I let myself inside.

“Yeah, it’s me,” I said, hoping to be able to disappear upstairs before she saw me.

“You’re home early,” she said, poking her head around the corner and seeing my face. “Oh, Laura, what’s wrong?”

If you’ve ever had someone ask you that question when you’re trying to hold everything in, you’ll know that it causes you to break down completely. In this case I just dropped my bag and burst into tears, and she rushed over to give me a hug.

“Careful,” came Dad’s voice. “We should make sure it’s actually her.”

“It’s her,” Mum said reproachfully over my shoulder as I cried into her. “You think I don’t know my own daughter? And she’d never be able to answer any questions when she’s in this state, anyway.”

Dad conceded defeat, and once I’d calmed down a little Mum managed to coax a little bit of information out of me.

“I was made a fool of,” I explained, hiccoughing uncomfortably. “I trusted someone I shouldn’t have and it backfired.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

Definitely not, I thought. Instead I just shook my head.

“That’s fine,” she said, “whenever you’re ready. There’s a letter here for you, too,” she went on. “Is that anything to do with it?”

I shook my head again – it was easier to lie when I wasn’t talking. “I’d better go upstairs and answer it.”

Or, I thought, I’ll go upstairs, burst into tears again, and then send the letter back unopened. I knew that I didn’t want to know what he had to say, it was too soon and too painful. To think you believed him, a voice inside my head chastised me. You should have known it was too good to be true.

I gestured to the owl to follow me upstairs. Once in my room with the door shut, I pulled off my new bracelet and daffodil clasp, wrapped them in a bit of parchment and tied them to the owl’s other leg. “Take this and the letter back again,” I told it. “And don’t bother coming back, I don’t want an answer.” Whether it understood me I had no idea, but once I opened my window it flew off anyway, probably back to James’ house.

The next week was torture. I’d written to Mary to explain what had happened, and while she was sympathetic she had her own new relationship that was occupying her attention, and I didn’t want to depress her with my problems. Charlotte would probably have understood, but while we were much closer than we had been, we still weren’t really close enough for me to pour my heart out in a letter to her. And Sirius, well …

He hadn’t even tried to follow me.

This fact tore at me more than anything else. I’d kept an eye on my rear vision mirror as I drove away from James’ house, hoping against hope that he would try to coax me back, that the black motorbike would appear from nowhere and try to make me stop. But all I’d seen was a dog, probably a stray, which seemed to like the challenge of chasing the one car on the roads that early on New Year’s Day. Eventually, as I neared the motorway, even that had given up, its large black shape slowly disappearing behind me as I drove north.

Shows how much you really meant to him, that annoying voice in the back of my mind kept pointing out. If he’d really cared, he would have tried to stop you from leaving. He would have tried to get you to come back. And I knew that was true, because that was what I would have done if the tables were turned. I would have tried anything I could think of to get him to change his mind. But all he did was write a short note – I knew it was short due to the size of the parchment attached to the Potters’ owl’s leg – and leave it at that.

Right, so perhaps that wasn’t fair. There had probably been a dozen letters in the week between the party and school going back, but I hadn’t read any of them; they’d all been sent back, unopened. Cerridwyn was probably sick of the journeys to Somerset and London by now, but whatever he had to say could wait. I probably couldn’t have read his letters, anyway – my tears would have bled the ink across the page before I could have gotten through it. The trouble was that it had all felt so real – more real than anything else in my life – and I was having difficulty coming to terms with the fact that it wasn’t.

My parents, of course, realised something was wrong, but they weren’t very successful in getting any answers out of me, even with Mum at her police-officer best.

“Laura, is this about a boy?” she asked gently one night when she came into my room. “Is that why you’re not talking about it?”

“I’m not allowed to have boyfriends this year,” I said automatically, not looking at her. “I know the rules.”

“Something happened at that party,” Mum said, ignoring my answer. “You were unusually happy before it, and you’re unusually upset now, and all you’ve said is that you trusted someone you shouldn’t have. It looks to me like a broken heart.”

Well, that was uncomfortably accurate. When did she get so perceptive? “I’m fine,” I said stiffly. “I’ll be fine. I’d just rather be alone.”

“Hmm,” she said doubtfully. “I’ll bring a cup of tea up then, shall I?”

“Fine,” I agreed. “Now I need to get this homework done.” I looked pointedly at her and she left the room, closing the door gently behind her.

****

“Laura, can I have a word please?”

I looked up with dread as the train compartment door opened, but it wasn’t Sirius. It was, however, Remus, and I wasn’t sure how prepared I was for this conversation.

“Yeah, all right,” I heard myself saying. Might as well get it over with. Getting out of my seat and following him, I found myself in the roomy bit at the end of the carriage. “What is it?” I asked, trying to summon enough energy to sound interested.

“Padfoot,” he said seriously. “Look, Laura, what happened? All we know is that you left in a huff, and he hasn’t said anything except that he was a stupid idiot for letting you jump to conclusions, and you dumped him.”

“Like he cares,” I said bitterly. “He made it clear that it wasn’t that important to him, anyway.”

“You’re kidding,” Remus said.

“I’m not,” I said. “Like I said, he made it clear.”

“He can’t have,” he protested. “I know Sirius, and there’s no way known he would have done that. And he’s downright depressed at the moment, he’s taking it really badly.”

“Right,” I said. “Whatever. All I know is that I was a fool to believe him and I’m better off how I was before.” And I turned away from him and went back to my compartment, pulling the blinds down as I got inside.

“What did he want?” Charlotte asked. She looked a little strained, and I realised that Remus talking to me like that wouldn’t have been easy for her. I certainly wouldn’t have been comfortable if Sirius had stuck his nose in looking for a word with her.

“To talk about Sirius,” I said shortly. “Which should explain why it was a very short conversation.”

I was sitting with Charlotte and Martha, Lily being busy with Head Girl duties and James, and Mary spending her time with Sebastian. I didn’t blame her for that – if Sirius and I were still together, I would have done the same thing, and the last thing she needed was me dragging her down with my tales of woe – and the other girls were perfectly happy to hold my hand for the duration of the train journey.

Martha kept trying to cheer us up by badmouthing both Sirius and Remus, trying to get us to say how awful they were (and in the process let off some steam), but she was met with a stony silence on both sides. I was heartbroken, yes, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak badly of him to other people, not even my fellow exes. Instead, we concentrated on the food we’d bought from the trolley witch, the passing landscape, and homework – just about anything that wasn’t male.

I couldn’t escape the gossip, though. Because Sirius and I had appeared separately on the platform, had occupied different carriages, and didn’t speak on arrival, it was impossible to ignore the whispers. “I knew it wouldn’t last” … “The amortentia wore off, did it?” … “I see he came to his senses …”

“Ignore them,” Charlotte said steadily as she helped me to the Gryffindor table at supper that night, sounding uncomfortably like Sirius had done before the holidays. “It’ll stop soon enough.”

“Whatever,” I said dully. I was having difficulty putting any effort into anything at all, and seeing Sirius at the same table didn’t help. He looked hopefully at me as I sat down, as though I might have been willing to hear him out, but I wasn’t ready to face him yet and turned away, and he moved onto ignoring me after that. He looked a little different – paler than usual, perhaps, with a bit of a closed look to his face – but he was still Sirius and having him there at all tore at my heart. I didn’t like the constant reminder of what I’d lost.

I barely ate that night. In fact, I barely ate all week. Lily cast a few Cheering Charms on me but even those didn’t have the desired effect, instead wearing off after quarter of an hour or so, though that may have had something to do with the fact that I still wasn’t sure how much I trusted her. In any case, just getting to classes at all was a huge effort and I struggled to get my homework done, something which didn’t go down very well with Professor Flitwick.

“Not at all to your usual standard, Miss Cauldwell,” he said as he handed back a particularly bad Charms essay. “You seem to be losing your flair.”

“Yes, Professor,” I said automatically. “I’m sure it will come back eventually.”

“For your sake, I hope it’s before final exams,” he said kindly, and moved on to the next student. I realised dully that Dad had been right after all – distractions during NEWTs were a bad idea. Boyfriends especially.

As Flitwick left I turned to look at Sirius, hoping that he didn’t realise he was the reason for everything, but from the look on his face I wasn’t convinced he was taking anything in at all. His head was turned towards me, but he looked so blank that for a split second I considered waving a hand in front of his face to see if there would be any reaction. At least, I realised, he wasn’t getting any satisfaction from my despair. In that one sense, I was probably one up on Dione Turpin.

Martha wasn’t really helping, either, though she probably didn’t know she was doing it. In her case, it was more a matter of not thinking.

“What’s wrong with Sirius?” she asked as she came into the dorm one night, joining Lily and me in the room. Mary was out with Sebastian somewhere, and Charlotte was finishing off some Divination homework.

Lily glared at her and put a finger to her lips, pointing at me. “You know that, Martha.”

“Oh.” Martha shrugged as she flung her bag onto her bed. “Really, though? He’s like this over a break-up?”

“He’s like this over this break-up,” Lily said quietly, clearly trying to wordlessly get Martha to understand that, with me there, the dorm wasn’t the place to be discussing this.

“It’s all right,” I muttered. “You can talk about it. I have to get used to it anyway.”

“I must say I’m amazed,” Martha went on. “I thought he must’ve been disinherited again or something, he’s really clammed up like he did in fifth year when he left home.”

Her words made me realise that I hadn’t heard him talking that term at all. He’d come towards me on the train platform as though he wanted to say something, but I’d turned my back on him and concentrated on talking to Mum and Dad, and he’d backed off, and then there was the attempt at contact on the first night at supper. And that was it. I hadn’t noticed any interactions with anyone else at all, not even James. As the week wore on he’d even stopped looking after himself – more often than not hair not combed, face unshaven, robes dirty or haphazardly thrown on. It was like he had shut himself down, like he just didn’t care any more.

“Well, he’s upset,” Lily said.

“Hmmm.” Martha looked at me. “How long were you together again?”

“About a fortnight,” I said. “Two weeks on, two weeks off, so to speak.” Together for a fortnight, broken up for a fortnight. And it still hurt like nothing else. I hated that he had this strong a hold on me, it just showed how stupid I’d been for getting that attached to him in the first place.

“Right.” Martha looked thoughtful before turning to Lily again. “You know, Lils, I think you might have been right. He did fall for someone.” She shook her head. “Too bad for him that it didn’t work out, hey?”

“He’ll get over it,” I said bitterly. “It’s all an act. He didn’t really care, not that much. He made that perfectly clear.”

“Are you sure about that?” Lily asked gently. “Are you sure that this whole thing isn’t just one big misunderstanding?”

“Oh yes, Lily,” I shot back icily. “I’m sure. You can depend on that.”

****

My week improved a little on Friday when Bernie Carmichael approached me after Ancient Runes. “Um, Laura, can I have a word please?” he asked.

“What?” I was so immersed in my own little world that I’d forgotten that other people even existed. “Oh, yeah. Sure.”

He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Look, by all means tell me if I’m being too forward here, but I noticed that you and Black seem to have broken up.”

“Big call, that one,” I said dully. “Yeah, we did.”

“So,” he said a little hesitantly, “I just wondered if, when you’re a bit more over it all, whether you might consider, uh, me?”

I stopped dead. “You’re asking me out?”

He looked nervously at me. “Well, yeah, if that’s okay. But only when you’re ready,” he added quickly, as though I’d looked like I was about to curse him. (And quite possibly I did. I felt like cursing people all the time that week. It was nothing personal against Bernie.)

I considered his offer. He was nice enough, as I’d noted before the Yule Ball when I’d ditched him so unceremoniously. I felt horrible about that now – if I’d known how the thing with Sirius would end up, I would never have done that in the first place. This was my chance to make it up to him, and it would be a relief to think about someone else for a change.

“Thanks, Bernie,” I said with a smile that I didn’t even have to fake. “I’d like that.”

He beamed at me. “That’s great,” he said enthusiastically. “Maybe we could start sitting together in Runes, you know, just get to know each other a bit better. What do you think?”

“Sounds great,” I said, even finding a little enthusiasm. That would mean I didn’t have to sit with Remus – it was like killing two birds with one curse.

Remus, however, seemed to have other ideas. “I heard you and Bernie,” he said quietly as we made our way along the Gryffindor table for lunch. “Look, Laura, I might be completely out of line here, but I think that you and Sirius should try to work things out before you start thinking about seeing other people. You’re both miserable and, frankly, you’re pining for each other.”

I turned to him angrily. “And what would you know, Remus?” I spat. “How do you know what I’m feeling? It’s my life and if I want to go out with Bernie Carmichael, I’ll bloody well do it.”

“Well, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, then,” he said coolly, not blanching from my attack on him. “If it’s just to get back at Padfoot, or to try to get over him, then that’s not really fair on Bernie. Just keep that in mind.”

“Right, I’ll do that,” I said. “Now, if you’ve finished sticking your nose in other people’s business, I’d like to have some lunch.”

Or rather, I thought, I’d like to sit alone at the Gryffindor table, ignoring everyone around me and nibbling at a piece of bread. Because that was all I did at mealtimes these days. My appetite still hadn’t come back – in fact, the dinner at the Potters’ on New Years Eve was probably the last time I’d eaten properly. Mary had stolen into the kitchens a couple of times to try to tempt me with chocolate, but even that wasn’t working. At this rate, I’d waste away to nothing before my birthday.

After lunch it was Lily’s turn to try to talk me around. “I heard you’re thinking of going out with Bernie Carmichael,” she said as we headed up the stairs towards Gryffindor Tower.

“Remus been telling stories, has he,” I said bitterly. “Nice of him.”

She grabbed my arm firmly. “Laura, please talk to Sirius first,” she urged. “This is killing both of you. I’m sure if you just talked it over you could work things out.”

“Really,” I said. “Well, you think that if it makes you happy.”

“Now you’re sounding like him,” she said. “Look, Laura, he’s really suffering. James thinks he’s coping with this worse than he did when he had to leave home, he’s never seen him this down.”

“So you just want him to get over it, is that it?” I asked angrily. “More concerned about him than you are about me. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped. “I’m just as worried about you. I was just about to say that you’re not doing any better: don’t think we haven’t heard you crying yourself to sleep every night, those Muffliatos you’ve been doing haven’t worked. And no one’s been able to get a coherent sentence out of you all week – not one that’s not bitter and, well, venomous.”

“Oh, so you just want me to be better company?” I snapped, trying to keep the bitterness from my voice in deference to her last remark.

“You’re being ridiculous again,” she said. “I saw how happy you were. Both of you. No one could fake what you two had. I was so happy for both of you, and now, for heaven only knows what reason, you’re both miserable.” She paused. “And, well, I know this is selfish of me, but I want James back.”

“I bet you do,” I muttered cynically. “It’s all about you, isn’t it?” Then I realised what she’d actually said. “What do you mean, you want James back?”

Lily sighed. “Ever since you left on New Years Day, James has been concentrating on Sirius, trying to get him either over this, or back with you. I’m lucky if I get a fifth of his time these days, it’s all Sirius. And, to be honest, I miss him. I love that he’s the sort of person who does this for his friends, but I want it back how it was.” She sighed again. “I know it’s selfish, but please, if you won’t do it for your own sake or for his, do it for me? Just talk to Sirius? Please?”

“Why should I do it for you?” I asked. “You’re obviously on Sirius’ side, not mine. Why do I owe you anything?”

“I’m not on anyone’s side,” she said impatiently. “I don’t think it’s a matter of sides, Laura. I think that once you sit down and talk it over, you’ll make up.”

“Yeah, whatever,” I said tonelessly, though I wasn’t so bitter any more. To be honest, I hadn’t considered how this might be affecting Lily and James’ relationship, and I was feeling somewhat guilty for driving them apart like that. No matter what I thought of Lily just then, I didn’t want to break them up.

“You will, I’m sure of it,” she said, steering me into an empty classroom on the fifth floor and sitting me at a dusty table. “I haven’t had a chance to mention this before, but I think you should know what Mrs Potter said over the holidays. It might help sway your decision.”

I looked at her, surprised, as she perched on a nearby chair. “Mrs Potter? What’s she got to do with anything?”

“She was trying to get me to dish the dirt on you,” Lily said smugly.

I stared at her. “She what?”

“You heard,” she said. “She wanted information, and she decided I was the one to give it. You should have heard her talking about you,” she went on. “She was amazed at Sirius’ behaviour. Apparently Clio went to last year’s party and he hardly spoke to her, and so if you compare that to this year …” Her voice trailed off.

“I don’t know,” I said. “James would say he hardly spoke to me this year. Well, until the morning, he didn’t.”

She giggled. “You know that’s not what I meant!”

“What was she saying?” I couldn’t help myself. Mrs Potter was the closest thing Sirius had to a mother, at least one who cared about him, and even if it hadn’t worked out between us I wanted to know what she’d thought.

Lily smiled mischievously, clearly relieved that I was willing to hear her out. “Well, Mrs Potter’s a sly one, I’m discovering,” she began. “She’s got this great façade of being the friendly motherly type, but she’s pretty shrewd underneath. She tried to trick me into saying bad things about you.”

I was stunned. “Really?”

She nodded. “I don’t think she really thought there was anything bad to say, but if there was she wanted to get it out of me. I think she wanted to make sure you were good enough for Sirius. Now,” she went on, “I don’t know if this is her usual behaviour or not. She might have tried to get dirt on Clio last year, or she might not have. To be honest, I got the feeling she didn’t. I think this was prompted by the way he was around you.”

“Right.” I paused, distracted enough from my problems to think about this. What could possibly have come out?

“Anyway,” Lily went on, “she just started out with, ‘tell me about Laura’. Nothing about you and Sirius, just about you. So I told her that we’d shared a dorm for seven years and you came from a half Muggle half wizarding household, that sort of background stuff. Born in Wales, lives in Bristol, big Quidditch nut, you know the type of thing. And I told her that for a long time I didn’t really know you that well, but in the past couple of years you’d really blossomed. And I said you were really smart and a lot of fun to be around.”

She paused and I took the opportunity to interrupt. “Thanks, Lily.”

“No problem,” she smiled. “Of course, that was before you and Sirius broke up, so you were fun to be around then. Anyway, Mrs Potter then started asking about previous boyfriends, really subtly though. I think she was trying to get a feel for how you were going to treat Sirius. Like I said, this was before the fight, obviously. Anyway, I told her about Bertram and what he’d done, and I said that you were really hurt by it but you showed a lot of strength and dignity in dealing with it.” She paused when I snorted in disbelief.

“You call bawling my eyes out after I found out, dignity?”

She laughed. “Of course not, but that was in private. In public you were very dignified. Even James thought so.”

That surprised me. “Really?”

“Yep,” she nodded. “And if James thought that, then Sirius probably did too. Anyway, I told her you had a heart of gold and wouldn’t hurt anyone without a really good reason.” She paused. “Look, Laura, I don’t really know what happened with Sirius, and I’m sure you think you were justified. But I do know that you haven’t heard his side of whatever it is, so just maybe there are things in the background that you don’t know about. This is why I want you to talk to him – at least hear him out.”

“Right,” I said stiffly, unhappy at being returned to a reality where Sirius and I would never work out. “But you’ve changed the subject. Are you done with the Mrs Potter thing?”

Lily clearly saw that she was stepping very close to the mark and backed off. “Right. Mrs Potter. Like I said, you only hurt people if you really think they deserve it. So then she asked about things you’d done to people you thought did deserve it.”

“I can see why you’re calling her sly,” I admitted, my mind going back over everything I’d done to people over the years and wondering what Mrs Potter had thought about it.

She smiled broadly and nodded. “Yep. Anyway I said that it was mostly pretty harmless stuff, and mostly things your sister had taught you. I loved that one where you joined Gibbon’s knees together, by the way – that was a scream.” She paused, still grinning. “I think you passed, though,” she said. “I told her that I thought you and Sirius were a perfect match.” She paused significantly. “And I still think that, no matter what you think at the moment,” she said pointedly. “You just need to give it a chance.”

“Right,” I said again. “You just go on thinking that.”

She made a face. “You’re sounding like him again,” she said. “And you’re still thinking about him, too, aren’t you?”

“Does it matter?” I asked bitterly.

“It might,” she said. I just looked at her. “Right, back to Mrs Potter,” she said quickly. “I was there on Boxing Day, as you know,” she went on, “and she’d heard your name a lot by then even so that was why she was so curious about you. You should have seen Sirius’ face when he was talking about you, it was a bit like a prior warning of how he was going to behave once you did arrive. ’Cause you’d seen each other just before Christmas, right?”

I nodded, trying not to remember how wonderful that day had been. “Two days before, on the Friday.”

She smiled. “Yes, that was it. Anyway, when I was talking to her on New Years Eve she said, ‘I’ve never seen him like this. He hasn’t let go of her since she got here’, or something like that. Which was true, it was like he was scared you were going to get away. Or that you were a dream and if he let go you’d disappear. So I explained that he’d been crazy about you for months so of course he’d look like all his Christmases had come at once. And then I said that you were just as crazy about him. She seemed happy with that.”

I sat in silence for a little while, trying to take it all in. “So, what happened after I left?” I asked.

“The whole place was in uproar,” she said quietly. “Sirius was running off down the lane trying to catch up with the car, and when that didn’t work he came back and wrote to you to try to get you to come back. And then their owl brought the letter back unopened, with another parcel … he was devastated. What was in that parcel, anyway?”

“Gifts,” I said, somewhat surprised she didn’t know. “I didn’t want the reminder.”

She looked shocked. “That bracelet? You sent that back? But you loved it!”

“That, and the clasp I got for my birthday last year,” I said. “That was him, too.”

“Well, that would explain it,” she said, shaking her head. “He locked himself up in his room and didn’t come out again all day. When he did, he just got straight onto the bike and left without saying goodbye to anyone. James was terrified he was going to do something stupid like pick a fight with some Death Eaters, so he Disapparated to London to wait for him there. I’ve barely seen him since, to be honest.”

“I’m sorry, Lily,” I said guiltily. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble for you two.”

“I know you didn’t,” she said, coming over and giving me a hug. “So, will you talk to him? Please?”

I knew when I was defeated. “Yeah, why not,” I said dully. “Not that it’ll make any difference.”

“You never know,” she said quietly. “Wait here, okay? I’ll go and get him.”

________________________________________

43
I felt uncomfortable and rather vulnerable sitting alone in the classroom like that, my tear-stained face on display to anyone who opened the door. To help counteract this – I wasn’t going to leave, I’d made a promise to Lily – I moved from my chair in the middle of the room to a spot on the floor behind the door, hidden from anyone who didn’t know I was there. A little while later the door opened again and James poked his head in.

“Good, you’re still here,” he said when he spotted me leaning against the wall, curled up in the foetal position. “Now give me your wand.”

I stared at him. “Give you my wand?”

He nodded, coming into the room and standing in front of me with his hand held out. “Yes, your wand. We don’t want this turning into a hex battle.”

“I’m not giving you my wand,” I said petulantly.

He shrugged. “Your choice. But be warned, I’m prepared to fight you for it. I’d just prefer it if you handed it over voluntarily.”

Figuring I’d been through enough lately without James Potter using me for target practice as well, I reached into my robes and pulled it out. “Fine. Have it your way.”

“Good,” he said. “I’ve taken Padfoot’s too, just so you know.”

“Right,” I said listlessly. “Whatever.”

James went back out into the passage and a moment later Sirius came in and sat down next to me, not too close but not very far either, maybe a couple of feet. We heard the door squelch as it closed: it had obviously been Colloportused. It looked like we were being locked in this room until something – anything – got resolved.

For several seconds, neither of us spoke. Sirius broke the silence. “Prongs and Lily think we should talk.” His voice sounded a little hoarse, like he hadn’t used it much lately.

I nodded. “Apparently.”

There was another silence. This time, I broke it. “Did you want to start?”

He laughed hollowly. “Why bother? Even if you did listen, chances are you wouldn’t believe me anyway.”

There was too much truth in this for me to ignore so I just sat there, staring at the wall opposite us. After another pause, he leaned over and put a small parcel on the floor next to me.

“You might as well have these back,” he said dully. “I’ve got no use for them. Do what you like with them, I don’t care. You can even sell them, you should get a decent bit of gold for them.” His voice was flat and he didn’t look at me.

I picked up the parcel. It jingled a little in my hand and when I opened it, I saw the clasp and the bracelet he had bought me. The ones I had sent back to him.

“You should keep them,” I said awkwardly.

He shook his head. “No point,” he said, still dully. “I bought them to try to show someone how much she meant to me,” he went on, his voice cracking a little. “Turns out she didn’t care.”

Tears started rolling down my cheeks. “I cared,” I protested. “I probably cared too much. That’s why it hurt so much, finding out it wasn’t real.”

“But it was real,” he said, anger making his voice come alive again. “You wilfully misunderstood.”

“Yeah, whatever,” I said. “I’ve heard that before.”

“Well, then, did it ever occur to you that there might be something in it?” he challenged.

“I know what I heard,” I said defensively. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Sirius. It was pretty obvious what you meant.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter anyway,” he said, his voice dull and expressionless again. “You’re not the person I thought you were. I made a mistake.”

The tears came back again. That was all I was now – a mistake. It was like a knife in my heart.

“What did you think I was like?” I asked tentatively.

He shrugged. “I thought you actually understood me,” he said eventually. “I thought that if anything like this ever came up you would stop to hear my side of it, rather than jumping to conclusions and, well, ditching me like that.” He paused again. “I thought you were special.”

The knife in my heart turned. I ’d thought I’d understood him, too, just as I’d thought he’d understood me. We must have both been wrong.

I pushed the jewellery back towards him. “You take these,” I said. “Maybe you can return them or something.”

He shook his head and pushed it back to my side. “I bought them for you,” he said. “They’re yours. Sell them if you don’t want them, you should get seventy or eighty for them.”

“Seventy or eighty Sickles?” I asked, turning my head to look at him.

He looked offended. “What do you think I am, a cheapskate?”

My eyes widened. “Galleons?”

He nodded. “Only the best,” he said bitterly. “I thought you were worth it.”

“I’m so sorry,” I murmured, trying not to cry again. His words cut at me, and to try to distract myself I picked up the bracelet and fingered it absently.

“Worth every Knut, though,” he said suddenly, his voice coming alive again with what almost sounded like enthusiasm. “We had, what, three full days together?” I looked at him and nodded, the tears blurring my vision a little. He turned to face the wall again. “Best three days of my life,” he went on. “Best two weeks of my life, really, even if I didn’t see you for most of them. If all it took to feel like that all the time was a bit of gold, I’d be shelling it out happily.”

I could have said that myself. Almost word for word, it was exactly how I felt. How could it all have gone so wrong? Trying not to think about it, I took a deep breath and asked the question I’d been avoiding for a fortnight.

“Sirius, tell me about what I heard. You know, at James’ place.”

He turned his head and looked at me, clearly surprised. “Really?”

I nodded, steeling myself. “Yes, really.” I took another breath. “I’m not that different from what you thought. I know I should hear you out. I just didn’t want to in case it hurt me any more.”

He looked a little relieved, but didn’t answer straight away. “Where to start,” I heard him mutter. “Right,” he went on, this time louder. “Well, as a bit of background, the things that we talk about among ourselves are pretty much sports, girls and sex. Though not necessarily in that order.”

I nodded. “Probably not a huge surprise.”

The ghost of a smile crossed his face. “No, probably not. Anyway, well, there are twenty girls in our year group here, so you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that we’ve gone through and rated every one of you over the years. And that sparks off little asides, and in-jokes, and that sort of thing.”

“Right.” I wasn’t sure how much of this I really wanted to know.

“Okay.” He took a breath. “So, keep that in mind as I move on to what you heard that morning,” he said. “We were trying to find Wormtail a girlfriend, because as you know he hasn’t had much success with girls. You know, someone who might actually want to touch him.”

I smiled despite myself. “Good luck with that.”

“Well, yes,” he agreed. “And he doesn’t make things any easier for himself because he’s so picky.”

I stared at him. “Peter?”

He nodded. “Yes, he is. We’d thrown some names at him and he’d found something wrong with all of them. So we summed it up by saying that he just wants someone with a great body but not much in the way of brains.”

“Tits and arse and not much else,” I supplied tonelessly.

He made a face. “I’m not proud of that line,” he said, “but, well, yes. And someone made the connection that, before you, my past history was pretty much that.”

“And then with me,” I said bitterly, “you didn’t even get that because, as Peter pointed out, I don’t have much by way of –”

“No,” Sirius said suddenly, cutting me off. “No, that’s not what we meant.”

I looked at him scornfully. “Yeah, right. Pull the other one.”

“No, it’s not,” he insisted. “We meant that you’re different because you’re more than that, not less.”

“Funny way of saying it, then,” I commented wryly.

“I said we talked about sex, not feelings,” he said with some exasperation. “They’re two completely different things.”

“I guess,” I said, trying to be fair. “Connected, but different.”

He made a noise like he was about to argue the point but thought better of it. “Right. So if anything as – um – personal as feelings comes up, then we try to say it in as, er, as general a way as possible. And if there can be more than one meaning to what you say, if it could be misconstrued, then so much the better.” He sighed again as he took in my sceptical expression. “Look, Laura, I’m not trying to excuse what I said, I’m trying to explain it.”

“Okay.” I tried to hide my irritation. “But you never talk about anything personal? Not even with James?”

“Oh, one on one we do,” he explained, “but not in a group. There are probably exceptions, of course, but usually it’ll only come up in a group situation if we want to embarrass someone.”

“Right,” I said. “So, what you’re saying is, you were speaking generally and trying to give things connotations that weren’t necessarily accurate.”

“I’m the first to admit it should have been worded differently,” he said, looking at the wall again. “I’m not proud of it. We just figured that you were still asleep and Lily was in the shower, so we didn’t think anyone would hear us. Call it not thinking, call it what you like, but it was a mistake.”

“But this is the sort of thing you’d be saying in the dorm,” I said accusingly.

“Well, yes,” he said, sighing again. “Maybe I shouldn’t even be trying this. Trying to get you to understand how a boy’s mind works – I don’t really understand how your mind works, so trying to explain this to you is probably pointless.”

“Try me,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”

He hesitated. “Okay, I’ll try you,” he said eventually. “Just in case you are worth it, after all. So, going back to what you heard. The comment about your … well, that comment, that was a throwback of those ratings of girls we used to do.”

“So that was how you rated me,” I said dryly. “Thanks.”

“Hey, you said you’d hear me out,” he said defiantly. “This is you doing your best?”

I felt chastened. “Sorry.”

He nodded. “Right. Well, that was how I rated you in fifth year. I think you got about a five. Out of ten, that is. Nothing special, I thought, and could do with bigger …”

I looked away from him again. “Right. Thanks for that.”

“And then last term when we did it again,” he said loudly, talking over me, “I gave you a ten.”

My head spun towards him. “Ten?”

He nodded. “I told you in Bristol that you were just about perfect,” he said. “And I meant that. I thought you were.” He shook his head again. “Got that one wrong, didn’t I.”

I realised suddenly that we had both moved from our original positions, towards each other, just subtly but enough that the gap between us was now only a matter of inches rather than feet, and I wondered what that was telling me. Probably it was just something else I didn’t want to think about.

“So,” I pressed, “what you’re saying is, when you were talking about me that day, you were saying – in a roundabout way, by the sounds of things – that I represented more, not less, than, well, that phrase.”

He met my eyes and nodded, clearly willing me to believe him. “Yes.”

“Then why did you say that I made up for it by shagging you?” I asked bluntly.

“I didn’t,” he said defensively. “You’re jumping to conclusions again. I said that they knew what I thought of that comment – which incidentally was that I liked them how they were – and that you made up for it in other ways. And bear in mind what I said about skirting around any feelings in these conversations and saying stuff that could mean several different things.”

I nodded, trying to be fair and hear him out. “Okay. So you were deliberately implying one thing, but you meant something else.”

He nodded. “Yes. And the guys understood that, so they never interpreted it that way. They’d laugh about it, yes, but they knew it didn’t mean that.”

“So what did you mean?” I asked.

He hesitated for a fraction of a second before answering. “I meant that you, as a whole package, were … you know that phrase, the whole is more than the sum of its parts? Or Golpalott’s Third Law in Potions – the antidote to a blended poison is equal to more than the sum of each individual antidote. That’s what it was like with you. That is, the parts were all brilliant, but combined … it was like you were too good to be true. Which in hindsight I guess you were. Because if you were what I thought you were, we would have been having this conversation two weeks ago instead of now, and you would have figured out that there was nothing in it. And none of these past two weeks would have happened.”

I shook my head, my eyes welling up again. “You see, Sirius, this is why I didn’t want to talk to you, why I sent those letters back. You’re too good at this. You always say just what I want to hear. It makes it so much harder not to believe you.”

“Well, then, try believing it,” he challenged. “I’m not just saying this stuff, Laura. I mean it. Think about it – the way people talk about me at this school, do you honestly think that if I said this sort of thing as a matter of course, you wouldn’t know?”

I smiled wryly. “I’ve got to hand it to you, that’s a good argument.”

“Because it’s true,” he insisted. “And believe me, if the guys thought we were shagging, you would have known about it.”

I shook my head again. “Fool me once, shame on you,” I said. “Fool me twice, shame on me.” And I hugged my knees tightly and burst into noisy and very undignified tears.

I immediately felt his arm around me, comforting me, even though I had just called him the worst sort of liar. Before I could stop myself I had collapsed onto him, throwing my arms around him and crying onto his shoulder as he patted my back reassuringly and held me to him. It was incredibly comforting, even though every now and then I felt him shudder a little, as though he too was struggling to stay calm.

“You still don’t believe me, do you,” he said quietly after a while. I looked at him and shook my head mutely. “I thought you would,” he mumbled, releasing his hold on me. “The person I thought you were, would have.”

“I want to,” I whispered. “More than anything I want to. But I can’t risk it.” I looked away. “I can’t go through this again. It just hurts too much.”

“Try,” he insisted. “We can work this out. You won’t have to go through this again. Come on, prove to me that I wasn’t wrong about you.”

I looked at him, sighing inwardly. He did understand me, too well I thought – this was definitely intended to be a challenge and he would have known that I would have trouble backing away from it. But could we do it? After this, could it ever be like it was before?

“I’m not sure I can,” I admitted finally. “It’s probably too late.”

“Try me,” he said. And he gently turned me to face him and put a finger to my wet cheek, wiping away a tear.

Through blurry eyes I gazed at him, longing for it all to be real. And his face was open, it had that look that I’d thought meant he was being genuine. Maybe, a small voice in the back of my mind pointed out, he was. Just maybe, this was true.

Watching me intently, he gently pushed my hair back off my face, where it had been clinging to the wet skin, and leaned in and kissed my cheek, his lips just brushing where a tear was sitting. A moment later, after I didn’t push him away, he did it again, focussing on another tear on the other cheek, further down this time, closer to my mouth. And before I even realised I was doing it, I had moved my head ever so slightly and caught his lips with mine, kissing him hungrily and with all the passion of a broken heart, pulling him towards me to be as close as possible.

After a little while we broke apart, not really sure why we’d been kissing at all. Wasn’t this a break-up meeting? Don’t be silly, that voice in the back of my head told me, this is what you wanted all along. As soon as he came into the room, you wanted to make it up with him.

He seemed to know what I was thinking because he put a hand to my face again and looked at me searchingly. “Laura, what does this mean? Are we back on?”

I hesitated. I wanted more than anything to say yes, but something still held me back. “I don’t know.”

He pulled away from me abruptly and stared at the wall opposite again, his hand raking through his hair in frustration. “For the love of Merlin, Laura, make up your mind. If this is ever going to work out – and deep down you know we both want it to – then you’re going to have to trust me. Tell me honestly, when have I ever lied to you? Think about it. Never, that’s your answer. Never. I might have not answered a question, or I might have dodged it with jokes and sarcasm, but I haven’t lied. Not once.”

Taken aback, I forced myself to think about it. I went through every conversation I’d ever had with him that I could think of, every single one (aside from what had caused the fight in the first place – I was trying to be fair), and I couldn’t remember a definite lie. Evasions, yes, but no lies. So, I reasoned internally, that would tend to indicate that he wasn’t lying now. I had to swallow my insecurities and accept that. Finally, I took a deep breath and turned to him again, saying the words that I knew in my heart to be true.

“I trust you.”

Of course you do, that annoying voice in my head pointed out. You’d trust him with your life, if it came to that.

He was still staring at the wall, but at this he quickly turned towards me. “What was that?”

“I trust you,” I repeated. “You’re right. You haven’t lied to me. Not that I can think of, anyway.”

His whole body relaxed, which surprised me as I hadn’t realised how tense he’d been. “You really mean that? You believe me now?”

I nodded slowly. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, tears welling up yet again as I thought of what I’d done to him. “I’ve been completely unfair to you, haven’t I?”

“It was my fault too,” he said. “I should never have said that in the first place.” He took a breath, his hand running through my hair. “I spent all this week, after you wouldn’t talk to me on Sunday, trying to convince myself that I’d misjudged you, that I was wrong about you. I’m so relieved that I wasn’t.”

“I missed you so much,” I admitted. “I couldn’t cope, knowing you were there and you weren’t mine any more.”

“I missed you too,” he murmured, and we kissed again, still hungrily, needing to make up for those two weeks in as short a time as possible, me starting to wonder why we’d broken up at all. This was what I had always wanted. Even when I didn’t know I wanted him, I knew I wanted this.

Some time later we paused for breath, and he took the opportunity to put a hand to my breast. “And, for the record,” he said quietly, “I would never need a search party to find these, and I certainly don’t want you casting an Engorgement Charm on them. I think they’re perfect just the way they are.” His hand was still there, caressing me through my robes and sending a surge of electricity through me. “In fact,” he went on, “my only complaint is that I don’t know them nearly well enough. They are, like the rest of you, beautiful.” And he leaned down and kissed each one softly – and it sent my heart racing even more.

I put my hand to his chest and made a move to start inching downwards. He lifted his head, a mischievous smile crossing his face. “Do I take it you don’t want to go slow any more?”

“This is slow,” I pointed out, surprising myself with my newfound boldness. “We’re both fully clothed, aren’t we?”

“For the time being,” he teased. A little alarmed, I took my hand away – I hadn’t intended to go any further than that. “Joking, joking,” he said quickly, grabbing my hand and moving it back to where it was. “Though if I’d known this would happen today, I would have shaved this morning.” He put a hand to the stubble on his cheek smiled ruefully.

“I don’t mind,” I said with a smile, reaching up and pulling him even closer to me. “I’d rather that than nothing at all.”

****

Some time later the door opened again, and James and Lily tentatively poked their heads into the room. “It’s been two hours,” Lily said nervously. “How’s it go-” Her voice cut out as she saw Sirius and me, curled up together in a corner, our arms around each other. “Well,” she said, looking so relieved it was almost funny, “I guess you two have worked it out.”

“You could say that,” Sirius said, unable to stop his smile as we stood up. “Oh, and Prongs? I’ll take my wand back now, if you don’t mind.”

“What?” James looked confused. “Oh yeah, right. Of course.” He reached into his robes and pulled out two wands, which he looked at intently before throwing the correct ones to each of us.

“Thanks,” said Sirius, twirling his in his hand before stowing it inside his robes. “Could have done with this an hour ago.”

“Why?” asked Lily.

“Conjure up a mattress or something,” Sirius explained, rubbing his elbow. “This floor’s not very comfortable, if you know what I mean.”

“So, are you saying that you’d like us to leave you here?” James asked, smiling broadly. “That can be arranged. An Imperturbable Charm on the door, perhaps?”

“Now there’s a thought,” I said. “But, you said it had been two hours?”

Lily nodded. “We thought that would be long enough. Looks like we were right.” She looked pointedly at the bracelet I was now wearing again, and smiled.

I ignored her grin. “But that means that classes have finished now,” I said, thinking hard. “And that would mean that supper’s not very far off.” I looked at Sirius. “Food’s sounding pretty good right now, to tell the truth. I’m starving.”

“No problem,” he said, his eyes sparkling. “I might duck upstairs first, though, if you don’t mind. Clean myself up a bit.”

I fingered my hair, hanging limply past my shoulders. I wasn’t sure when it – or my face, for that matter – had last been washed and, like Sirius, I was keen to rectify this as soon as possible. “Good idea,” I said with a smile. “Wait for me, will you? I’ll come up too.”

****

I was saddened but not surprised when our entry into the Great Hall for supper was again greeted by whispers. “What? They’re back together?” … “How did that happen?” … “She must be helping it along a bit …”

I tried to ignore it while Sirius just groaned. “Delightful, aren’t they,” he muttered as we sat down. “You’d think they’d have something else to talk about. There is a war on, after all.”

“Until that starts affecting them directly, though, I think this is the sort of thing they’ll want to talk about,” I pointed out. “And as much as it annoys me, I don’t think I’m going to start wishing a Death Eater attack on the Vablatskys.”

He smiled and kissed my cheek. “Though that would be one way of dealing with it …”

Mary interrupted us by running over from the Ravenclaw table, where she’d been sitting with Sebastian. “Thank goodness ye worked it oot,” she breathed as she gave us the biggest bear hug I’d ever experienced. “Ye were drivin’ us all mad, nae talkin’ t’ each ither when we coul’ all see ye were both dyin’.”

“Nice to see you, too, Mary,” I laughed. “Merlin’s beard, has everyone been talking about it?”

“Jus’ yer friends,” she said, still smiling broadly. “An’, I think, yer fan club too, Sirius. Though they micht nae be as chuffed as we are t’ see ye back together.”

“Was I that bad company this week?” I asked.

She made a face. “Worse. Both o’ ye, horrible t’ be aroond. Bu’ ye’ve made up so we can all relax agin. Nou jus’ promise ye wilna dae it agin, I dinna think any o’ us coul’ stan’ it.” She turned to me. “Oh, an’ dinna worry aboot Bernie. I think he’s worked oot it’s nae goin’ t’ happen.” And she gave me another hug and trundled back to Sebastian, waving merrily at us over her shoulder.

I looked past her to the Ravenclaw table, where Bernie did indeed look somewhat resigned as he stabbed at something with his fork. That was twice I’d let him down, I realised with more than a little remorse. I’d have to make a point of apologising.

Sirius looked at me. “Bernie? As in, Bernie Carmichael? What’s that about?”

“He asked me out,” I explained. “And I said I’d think about it.”

“He’s got a nerve,” he growled. “What jinxes haven’t I used on him yet?”

“Hey, be fair,” I said. “He was really polite and said he’d wait till I was ready. And, well, we had broken up, so it’s not like I wasn’t single.” I squeezed his hand. “But Lily asked me to talk to you first, and, well, that was this afternoon.”

“Right.” He still looked put out. “Thanks, Lily,” he said a bit louder. “I owe you one.” Lily turned and looked at him, clearly a little confused, but he didn’t elaborate.

The meal was almost over when Sirius leaned over and spoke very quietly in my ear. “This is driving me crazy,” he said. “When can we get out of here?”

I swallowed my bite of treacle tart. “I think I’ve just about made up for not eating over the past fortnight,” I said, “but it’s up to you. Do you want to be the first to leave the hall?”

He winked at me. “They’ll talk about us anyway, we might as well give them a reason,” he said, a sly grin on his face. “Come on.”

Our friends smiled knowingly when we stood up to leave, and some whispers came from the other tables, but to my surprise I found I didn’t care. I knew what I had to look forward to once we were out of sight and Sirius didn’t disappoint, stopping in the Entrance Hall to kiss me deeply before we headed upstairs. “I’m not really one for broom cupboards,” he said conversationally on the way up. “Too cramped, generally, and Filch tends to find you. Not to mention the potential for stepping in buckets and things by mistake – most uncomfortable. I got hit in the eye by a mop handle once because I knocked it the wrong way.” He grinned. “Besides, that cupboard just off the Entrance Hall gets used by so many people you almost need to book it in advance. So we’ve come up with some other alternatives.”

I had thought he was taking me back to what would have been an empty Gryffindor Tower, going by the route we took, but that seemed to indicate otherwise. This impression was confirmed when we detoured off route on the fourth floor and stopped outside a large mirror.

“Alohomora,” he said, tapping it with his wand, and the mirror creaked as it came out from the wall and revealed a secret passageway.

Sirius pulled me inside and the mirror closed back up, leaving us in darkness. We both lit our wands automatically and I had a look around.

“This leads to the back of the Three Broomsticks,” he explained. “It’s probably the roomiest of the passages out of the school. Now,” he went on, “let’s make it a bit more comfortable.” And he conjured a thick rug for the floor and a rather plush-looking couch while I just watched dumbly, trying to take it in.

“Right,” he said once he was happy with it, “where were we?” And he pulled me towards him and we kissed again, tenderly, passionately, as though there was no one else in the world.

________________________________________

44
The following Monday I was accosted by Elvira, Greta Catchlove and a handful of other fan club members as I sat in the library in my morning free period. Sirius had just gone to Muggle Studies and I wanted to spend some time catching up on the homework I’d neglected the previous week.

“Okay, tell us how you did it,” Elvira said accusingly, taking the seat next to me. I was a little surprised as I understood she took Muggle Studies too, but maybe she was willing to risk the ire of Professor Penrose by being late.

I decided to play dumb. “Did what?”

“Got your slimy paws on Sirius, of course,” she snarled. “And I thought you were my friend! How could you do that to me?”

I laughed. “For one thing, Elvira, I would never have called us friends. Friends hang out at lunch time and go to Hogsmeade together and catch up over the holidays. That was never us.”

“But what did you do? Was it a love potion? ’Cause we tried that and it didn’t work.”

This was news to me but I wasn’t exactly surprised. Sirius would have to be really thick to eat or drink anything any of this lot gave him. However, it did give me something to work with.

“That’s right,” I said. “I stole some amortentia from Slughorn and fed it to him. Unfortunately it ran out over Christmas, though, and I’ve only just got my supplies up again.”

From the looks on their faces they actually believed me. “How much did you use?” Greta asked.

I had no idea how much amortentia would be needed to get someone interested in you, and unlike Elvira, Greta did NEWT level Potions so I’d have to be convincing. “Half a tablespoon,” I invented.

“So, was it worth it?” Greta demanded. “What’s it like?”

Well, if the fact that I couldn’t stop smiling didn’t give it away, then she and Elvira weren’t as smart as I’d previously given them credit for. Then again, there are none so blind as those who will not see, as my mother would say. “Definitely worth it,” I said dreamily, my mind going back just half an hour to the free period Sirius and I had spent together. “It’s amazing.”

Anyway, I might have been laying it on a bit thick because Elvira was looking suspicious. “Why are you telling us all this?” she demanded. “What if it gets back to him?”

This brought me back to earth a bit, though nothing had been said that offered me any unease. After all, before we got together I hadn’t given Sirius even so much as a breath mint, so I wasn’t overly worried even if they did tell him. “Tell him what you like,” I said. “You think he’d believe you anyway?”

“She’s got a point,” said a sixth-year I knew was in Gryffindor, though I’d not heard her speak before. “He wouldn’t listen to us.”

“She’s lying anyway,” said Elvira, eyeing me shrewdly, and I was reminded suddenly that she was a Ravenclaw. “You never gave him any love potion, did you?”

I grinned. “I admit it,” I said. “Caught out again. How did you guess?”

She didn’t answer, returning instead to her favourite theme. “So how did you do it? What do you have that we don’t?”

Again I refrained from giving the obvious answer – “Sirius” – and instead smiled a somewhat vicious smile. “Well, Elvira,” I said sweetly, “remember how I once suggested you not throw yourself at him but rather just be yourself, be a person who’s nice to be around, and see if it works?”

She blanched a little. “Vaguely. What about it?”

I kept smiling. “Well, guess what? It works.”

****

I got the distinct feeling after that little episode that my previously friendly, or at least cordial, relationship with Elvira was well and truly over. This impression was solidified that very afternoon, when Greta obviously decided I was a deserving target during our Potions lesson.

The seating arrangements in the dungeon had changed yet again, with me moving to Sirius, Lily and James’ table, and Remus taking my spot with Charlotte and the two Hufflepuffs. I was sure Charlotte was just as pleased with the rearrangement as I was, though Remus appeared a little uncomfortable. Slughorn, for his part, didn’t appear to detect that any had alteration taken place, but then again neither Remus nor I were in the Slug Club so we were beneath his notice, so to speak.

In fact, the only ones who paid any attention to the change at all were Leda Madley, who glared at me as I went to the table at the back of the room, and Greta, who looked furious and would occasionally send a hex my way from her position on our left. A simple Shield Charm was generally enough to put a stop to her antics, however, so it was very unusual that anything came of them.

“That’s it, ignore her,” Sirius said quietly, a jinx hitting the invisible shield as we worked together on the day’s assignment. “She’ll get tired of it before too long.”

“Aww,” I complained. “Can’t I turn her fingers into asparagus spears? Just this once? Please?” I checked quickly to see if Slughorn was nearby, but he was paying little attention to us as he explained something to Scylla Pritchard at the Slytherin table.

Sirius grinned. “Tempting,” he admitted. “But maybe you should wait until class is over. I don’t want you getting a detention.”

“But that ruins all the fun,” I pointed out, shaking my head. “Not much point taking control of her fingers away after we’ve left Potions.”

He laughed, almost slicing his hand open as he cut our valerian roots into smaller portions. “You’ve got me there,” he said. “But what happened to the girl who told me she never did anything wrong?”

I looked at him, surprised. “When did I say that?”

“That night you got me out of a detention when we were coming back from Quidditch practice,” he explained. “When Filch caught us out after curfew.”

“Oh, that,” I said, remembering. “If you recall, what I actually said was, no one ever thinks I’m doing anything wrong. Big difference.” I smiled as I sorted the frozen ashwinder eggs that Lily had brought back from the stores cupboard into four piles.

He put down his silver knife and snuck a quick kiss onto my forehead, his eyes flicking to where Professor Slughorn was still engrossed with Pritchard. “Of course, how could I forget?”

“By the way,” I said as something occurred to me, “was that a set-up? The whole I-must-be-escorted-to-and-from-the-Quidditch-pitch thing?”

Sirius laughed. “Of course it was. It’s taken you this long to work it out?” He grinned broadly. “Though Prongs was most disappointed I didn’t make the most of it, weren’t you, mate?” he went on, clapping James on the shoulder.

James, clearly suppressing a smile, shook his head as he dropped the frozen eggs into his cauldron. “I gave him every opportunity I could think of and he kept chickening out. Tell you what, Laura, I never realised Padfoot could be so gutless.”

Lily looked up from her potion and nodded. “Like I said, last term we were that close to locking you two in a broom cupboard. Never have two people been alone so much and never done anything.”

I laughed. “I think you probably need to work on your matchmaking skills,” I said, dropping a scoopful of Flobberworms into my cauldron. “In the end we had to work it out for ourselves.”

James raised his eyebrows, though his hazel eyes were sparkling behind his glasses. “Like hell you did. Padfoot would still be drooling from a distance if I hadn’t physically pushed him towards you at the ball.”

Sirius looked unimpressed. “I was already going, you didn’t have to push me!”

“Yes, of course you were,” James said placatingly. “We know what we saw, don’t we, Lils?” Grinning broadly, he turned back to his potion and began stirring it anticlockwise.

Lily grinned too. “Yes, and it looked a lot like hesitation from where I was.”

“I was going, all right?” Sirius was definitely not happy with the way the conversation was going so I decided to rescue him.

“I believe you,” I said, looking at him fondly. “And I’m going to change the subject and go back to hexing Greta.” We all turned our heads just in time to see another of her jinxes deflect off the shield that Sirius had erected, and I looked at him. “Am I allowed to do the asparagus thing?”

He paused as though thinking about it. “How about, if she manages to shatter the shield, she’s fair game. Do what you like.” I smiled as he dropped two dried Billywig stings into his cauldron and then mine, and then gave me a quick hug.

Of course, Greta didn’t shatter the shield – she may have been good at Charms but Sirius was brilliant at Defence, and I thought even a fully qualified Death Eater would probably have trouble shattering his Shield Charm. As a result she made it out of Potions hex-free, though if she kept up her attacks on me I couldn’t guarantee how long she would remain so. Even if I didn’t lose it first and retaliate, she could well end up with Sirius to deal with, and I wouldn’t have wished that on anyone.

The seating arrangements also changed in Defence, Charms, Transfiguration, and even Herbology as we made the most of every opportunity to be together, even if it was just sharing a desk during lessons. This made things a little awkward sometimes as Remus and Peter occasionally found themselves on the outer, but to their credit neither of them complained or even looked put out by the changes. (Actually, I suspected they were so relieved to have the old Sirius back that they were happy to put up with anything.) Equally Mary, Martha and Charlotte were unperturbed, Mary choosing to sit with Sebastian when he was in our classes, and Martha and Charlotte partnering each other, all insisting that I should take my time to feel my way into this new relationship.

And feel my way in I did, in more ways than one. Quite frankly, Sirius as a boyfriend was a lot more touchy-feely than I had anticipated. I’d seen him with previous girlfriends and there hadn’t seemed to be much in the way of public displays, but now he was always there, holding my hand or with an arm around my waist or shoulders, kissing me at mealtimes in full view of everyone. Quick pecks, that is, not a full snog, but still not what I had been expecting. Occasionally when we were doing homework together he would grab my hand and kiss it, as though without thinking, and without pausing in whatever he was writing. A nd even in class he would sit as close as possible to me so that our chairs were touching. I didn’t mind – in fact, I found it rather endearing and definitely reassuring – but it was still a little surprising.

Martha had noticed it too. “He’s different with you,” she said that night in the dorm. “He won’t let go of you: it’s like he’s stamping his name on you, marking his territory so no one else dares come close.”

I laughed. “You make him sound like a dog!”

She shrugged and Lily looked like she was trying not to laugh as well. “Yeah, okay, maybe that was unfair,” Martha acknowledged. “But it is different. With the rest of us, he didn’t give a toss whether we stayed or went. But with you, if you go, he’ll follow. It’s almost like he’s worried that if he lets go of you, you might disappear again.”

Lily smiled. “No, it’s just that he thinks that time apart is time wasted. And I can understand that,” she said, a bit of a dreamy look on her face. “James is the same.”

Martha shook her head. “No, not even James is this bad,” she said before appearing to reconsider. “Or maybe he was, at the start, but he’s not any more.”

“Well then, give us a couple of months and Sirius will most probably back off too,” I pointed out.

She shrugged again. “Maybe. Like I said, he’s different with you. He may not back off at all.”

Charlotte giggled. “Well, Martha, you did say that he was falling hard. This is just the proof.”

Martha nodded. “Yeah, I think it might be.” She grinned suddenly, looking at me. “And don’t take this the wrong way, Laura, but I never thought it would be you he fell for.”

I grinned too. “If that’s what it is, of course.” Because no matter what they said, I still wasn’t convinced that was in fact what was happening.

Lily snorted and even Martha looked dubious. “Okay, I’ll admit, it’s just possible that it is,” I went on, trying not to sound ungracious and playing to their theory. “And if that’s the case, don’t worry, Martha. Neither did I.”

****

The following day, Sirius and I both had a break in the last period and so absconded to an empty classroom on the fifth floor for some time alone, a hot air charm around us in an attempt to block out the icy wind that insisted on coming through the cracks around the ancient windows. Unfortunately our rendezvous was interrupted when my Imperturbable Charm was broken, and the door opened to reveal Professor McGonagall. She did a bit of a double take as she took in the sight of Sirius on an old chair and me on his lap, facing him, having obviously just been interrupted mid-snog.

“Mr Black, Miss Cauldwell, you are well aware that is not appropriate behaviour,” she said, her eyebrows hovering somewhere near her hairline, though I got the impression she was trying not to smile. “I expect better conduct from students in my House.” She paused, looking at us over her glasses, and dropped her voice slightly. “You would also do well to remember that Imperturbable Charms are by no means foolproof.”

We got sheepishly to our feet. “Sorry, Professor,” we mumbled pretty much in unison, grabbing our school bags from a nearby desk.

She stood by the open door and waited until we had passed her, the ghost of a smile now definitely on her lips. I even thought I heard her mutter, “Good choice, Black,” as we made our way into the corridor.

I looked up at him as we headed downstairs to somewhere a bit warmer. “Did she just say what I thought she said?”

He smiled, his arm around my shoulder. “You know, I think she did,” he agreed. “Seems old Minerva approves of you. Who’d have thought it?”

I never got a chance to respond, though: as we rounded a corner we found ourselves face to face with Regulus Black. I’d seen him around but had never spoken to him; however, from the look on his face as he surveyed me it was evident that this wasn’t to be a friendly family reunion.

Sirius must have seen his brother’s expression but opted to ignore it. “Reg! What are you doing up here? Have you met Laura?”

“So it’s true then,” Regulus said, not answering the questions and looking at Sirius and then me with obvious distaste. “You’ve hooked up with her.”

“And what if I have?” The cheerful tone in Sirius’ voice disappeared with alarming speed and his arm dropped from my shoulder as he looked threateningly at his brother, his hand going inside his robes where he kept his wand.

Regulus sneered. “I’ve looked up to you for years,” he said. “Years. I believed some of that stuff you said. Even when you got Sorted into Gryffindor, I defended you to Mum and Dad. I’ve disobeyed orders to talk to you, defended you to people in Slytherin. But this time you’ve gone too far. I can’t accept this.” He paused. “She’s a Muggle, for Merlin’s sake. A Muggle.”

“Actually,” Sirius said coldly, “she’s only half Muggle. You might want to get your facts straight. Not that it makes any difference anyway. She’s amazing, no matter who or what her parents are. And that’s what my point has been all along. A person is more than just their parents’ bloodline.” He put his arm protectively back around my shoulders.

“Her bloodline makes all the difference in the world,” Regulus said, just as coldly. “I’m sorry, but I can’t defend you any more. It’s her or me.”

My heart stopped in my chest. What if blood won out? He was fond of his brother, he wouldn’t want to lose him entirely, no matter what he’d said about me. I braced myself for the blow.

Sirius’ eyes had narrowed. “If that’s what you want,” he said. “I choose her.” I breathed out again, trying to hide my shock and relief. Did he just choose me over his own family?

Regulus looked at me with obvious disgust. “If that’s your choice,” he spat, his steel-grey eyes turning back to his brother. “But you’ve been warned. Even you must see she’s a target.”

Sirius’ face was stony. “Is that supposed to be a threat?” he asked, his voice colder than ice. “Because if you hurt her … well, you know what I’m capable of. And I won’t think twice, even if it’s you.”

Regulus sneered. “This is one step too far,” he went on as though he hadn’t been interrupted. “I can no longer call you my brother.” And he turned his back on us and walked off.

Sirius stood there and watched his brother leave. “You know, I thought he’d turn out all right,” he said eventually. “I thought he’d see sense in the end. He must be softer than I’d thought. Just goes to show, doesn’t it.”

I gave him a quick hug in what I hoped was a reassuring way. “It’s not your fault,” I said. “You did try.”

He turned to me abruptly. “Don’t take anything he said to heart,” he said, giving my forehead a quick kiss. “It wasn’t personal. It can’t be, he doesn’t know anything about you. Which I think he just proved.”

I was astonished at his reaction. He was worried about how I was feeling? “That’s not what was bothering me,” I said honestly.

He looked surprised. “Then what’s wrong?”

“I was more concerned about you,” I said. “Your brother, who you did still talk to, has just disowned you.”

He flashed a smile at me. “He’ll come round eventually,” he said, contradicting his earlier assessment of Regulus’ behaviour. Sirius Black, the eternal optimist. “It’s in there somewhere, only in Slytherin they don’t exactly encourage people to be open minded. So it’ll just take a bit longer than I’d hoped. Anyway,” he went on, changing the subject, “it’s nearly supper time, so we’d better get a move on if we don’t want to miss that.” And he dropped his arm from my shoulder and grabbed my hand instead, leading me downstairs to the Great Hall.

****

Overall, things with Sirius were progressing very nicely, as Mary discovered later that week when she waylaid me in the dorm. She had followed me up the stairs when I went up to drop my bag off before supper and, smiling slyly, fixed her eyes on me. “So, hoo’s it all goin’?” she asked. “Wi’ Sirius, I mean.”

“Better,” I said, sitting on my bed and grinning at her. It felt like eons had passed since we’d last had a good talk. “I’ve had to learn to ignore any doubts I might have because, like he said, if I don’t trust him it’s not going to work out. And I do trust him, deep down I do. So I’m just trying not to let anything bother me.”

“An’ does it?” she asked sitting down next to me. “Bother ye, tha’ is.”

“Sometimes,” I admitted. “But I’m getting better at it. I saw some tart from the fan club trying to come on to him the other day – pretty girl, too, you know that brunette from Slytherin who’s in about sixth year? Long curls and a body to die for? Yeah, her – and I even laughed at it. And, I think that before, I might have got all worked up over that.”

“Brilliant,” Mary grinned. “’Cause he’s mad aboot ye, we can all see tha’. So if ye’ve managed t’ work that oot, things shoul’ be bonny from nou on, richt?”

“I hope so,” I said with a wry smile. “I’m not sure I’d survive another break-up.”

She laughed. “T’ be honest, Laura, I’m nae sure any o’ us woul’ ge’ through tha’ agin. Pinin’ fer each ither, bu’ every time I tried t’ help, ye herded me off. Wouldna e’en le’ me talk t’ ye aboot it.”

I turned to her, surprised. “Really? Was that how you saw it? Because I thought I was doing you a favour, not dragging you down with my moods. I thought you wanted to be with Sebastian.”

“An’ I did,” she said, “bu’ ye’re my bes’ friend, an’ ye were hurtin’. O’ course I wanted t’ help!”

“I’m sorry,” I said with feeling. I’d said those words a lot this term, I realised.

“Oh, it’s all richt,” she grinned. “I’m jus’ happy tha’ ye’re back t’ normal nou.”

“I talked to Bernie, too,” I said suddenly. “I felt horrible. I’d made him a promise and then I’d gone back on it right away.”

She nodded. “I though’ ye mus’ hae,” she said. “He’s takin’ it as well as can be expected.”

“This whole thing is my fault,” I said, again ashamed of my behaviour. “Poor Bernie, he was so nice about it, but he wasn’t happy.”

“Wha’ did he say?” Mary asked.

“That he understood and he’d most probably been a bit forward anyway in asking. He made it sound like he’d always expected us to get back together anyway, but he wanted to throw his hat in, so to speak.”

“He’s a nice lad,” she agreed. “Bu’ he’s richt. I dinna think anythin’ coul’ keep ye and Sirius apar’ fer too long.”

“In any case, I apologised,” I went on, not really sure how to respond to that. “I wish he’d find someone else, though. Not to get him off my back, but because he’s nice, like you said. He deserves to be happy.”

“An’ I’m sure he will be,” she said bracingly. “Jus’ give him some time, he’ll ge’ o’er it.”

“Anyway, enough about me, Mary Macdonald,” I smiled, changing the subject. “I’ve barely heard from you lately.” I looked at her expectantly.

Mary feigned innocence. “Wha’ dae ye mean?”

I grinned. “Well? Sebastian? How’s that going?”

She licked her lips. “Verra nice,” she said, a bit of a dreamy look on her face. “Nae complaints a’ all, t’ tell th’ truth. Well, aside from Gerry Stebbins bein’ aroond a lo’, nae complaints.”

I laughed. “Ah, poor old Gerry,” I said. “Though I guess he’s finally got the hint by now?”

“I woul’ hope so,” Mary laughed. “Spendin’ half my time snoggin’ someone else from his dorm, ye’d think he micht hae worked it oot.”

“And that’s all?” I asked innocently. “Just snogging?”

She blushed a little. “Well, maybe a wee bi’ more than tha’,” she admitted. “It’s verra nice t’ hae a real man agin, ye know?”

I laughed. “So, how long till you’re sneaking out to spend the night in Ravenclaw Tower?”

“Well, nae jus’ ye’,” she said. “Bu’ give it a few weeks …” She turned to me suddenly. “Tha’ reminds me, wha’s goin’ on wi’ ye an’ Sirius wi’ tha’? Are ye still takin’ it slow?”

I hesitated. “Kind of. Or, not really. Because we lost those two weeks, we’ve sort of sped things up to make up for it. And I get the feeling that it’ll stay that way.”

“An’ ye’re okay wi’ that?” she asked a little hesitantly.

“Yes, I am,” I admitted, smiling a little nervously. “If I wasn’t, then it’d all stop – he’s made that perfectly clear. Something to do with not wanting to freak me out like Bertram did.”

Mary laughed. “Well, I micht hae worded it a wee bi’ differently, bu’ aye, tha’s a goo’ poin’. Ye were on edge a lo’ wi’ him, I tol’ ye tha’ at th’ time. He didna mak’ ye smile, nae lik’ Sirius does.” She paused, eyeing me beadily. “Sirius really does hae ye worked oot, doesna he?”

“It feels like it,” I agreed. “And it’s kind of nice, you know, having the assumption being that it’s NOT going to happen, rather than that it is? It takes all the pressure away.”

“I can understan’ tha’,” she said, then smiled mischievously. “Bu’ maybe ye want it t’ happen anyway? I’m guessin’ tha’ wi’ Sirius it’s a lo’ more – physical – than it wa’ wi’ Bertram.”

I giggled. “Well, I’m older now, so you have to expect that. And let’s face it, if you look at the two of them there’s no comparison, is there? Sirius is an absolute fox, whereas Bertram …” I paused and it was her turn to giggle before I spoke again. “And to think that I once thought Bertram was as good as I was ever going to get.”

We both laughed at that. “Ye definitely ha’ tha’ one wrong,” she said, smiling mischievously.

“Must have been that goat I sacrificed,” I deadpanned. “The planets aligned for me after all.”

She giggled again. “Well, ye’re happy nou, an’ tha’s all tha’ really matters.”

“Yeah, I guess it is,” I said. “And the other difference is, Sirius actually listens to me. You have no idea how much of a relief that is.”

“I can guess,” she said with feeling, then paused again. “Ye know, Laura, I’ve missed this. We dinna talk so much any more.”

“No, we don’t, do we,” I agreed. “Probably something to do with new boyfriends. But yeah, I miss it, too.”

She grinned. “Well, if ye can e’er drag yerself away from Sirius fer ten minutes, le’ me know an’ we’ll dae it agin.”

“Definitely.” I grinned too, even though I realised that dragging myself away from Sirius was in most cases much easier said than done. “Mary, you have my promise.”

****

Unfortunately, not everything kept on going as well as I’d been hoping. In the last week of January Lily ambushed me after supper and I only managed to escape the dorm after an hour or so as she pestered me with Potions revision. Hurrying down to the common room to find Sirius and apologise for being held up, I was surprised to see him in the process of heading out of Gryffindor Tower with James and Peter.

“Where are you going?” I asked, wondering why he was leaving without me.

Sirius paused uncomfortably. “Uh, Laura, I, uh, wasn’t expecting to see you.” He looked searchingly at James and Peter for help. “I thought you were doing revision with Lily tonight.”

“Funny that you knew about that when I didn’t,” I said coolly, a sense of dread enveloping me. This was starting to remind me unpleasantly of Bertram. “What, are you trying to keep me out of the way or something?”

He looked despairingly over my head and I turned to see Lily on the stairs, looking apologetic. “It’s not that, Laura, honestly,” Sirius said pleadingly, his face flickering from the combination of firelight and the cool glow from a full moon coming through the window. “Look, please, we have to go. I can’t tell you why but whatever you’re thinking, I promise it’s not that.”

James stepped in. “Marauder prank,” he said authoritatively. “Male bonding thing. Sorry we didn’t tell you.”

I didn’t believe him. I wasn’t even sure I believed Sirius. All the insecurities I had fought so hard to overcome came back again in droves and I struggled to keep the tears at bay.

Sirius had noticed and tried to comfort me. “Laura, you have to trust me on this. We’re not doing anything you wouldn’t want to know about.”

Scowling, I wriggled out of his grasp. “How about you go and do whatever it is that’s so important you couldn’t tell me about it,” I said coldly. “I can wait.”

“You’ll be waiting a while,” Peter said, sniggering.

I raised my eyebrows. “How long does it take to bond males, then?”

I noticed James look hopelessly in Lily’s direction while Sirius tried to embrace me again. “It’s not like that, I swear,” he said pleadingly. “And I wish I could tell you, I really do. Just please, just this once, don’t ask what we’re doing. You can trust me, I promise.”

I pulled away from his arms. “So it’s like that, is it?” I asked. “I have to trust you, but you obviously don’t trust me. I’m sorry, Sirius, but it has to go both ways.” I swallowed hard, trying not to cry. “And if you can’t do that,” I went on, my voice breaking a little, “then maybe this isn’t going to work after all.”

________________________________________



Author’s note: Once again, sorry about that. And I know I’ve only just got them back together and Laura’s now actively working on her insecurities, so it was all looking so hopeful. However, if you think about it, what Marauder relationship ISN’T going to have some sort of conflict within the first month, when the full moon comes? Assuming the boys were pretty careful who they told what, there were always going to be awkward secrets, especially early on in a relationship as they wouldn’t be close enough to share those particular secrets. So this is how I addressed that.

________________________________________

45
Sirius, who was starting to look rather distressed, stopped suddenly and turned to me, his expression clearing. “Is that what this is about?” he asked, putting both hands to my face, most probably trying to ensure I didn’t pull away from him again. “You think I don’t trust you?”

I looked at him and nodded, the tears making my vision blurry. “It does look like it,” I pointed out. “All this secrecy and sneaking around, you know?”

James, behind Sirius, was fidgeting impatiently. “We need to get going, Padfoot,” he said. “We’ll be late. You can explain tomorrow.”

Sirius looked annoyed and glared over his shoulder. “One minute,” he snapped. “We won’t be any later than usual.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

He stroked my cheekbone and shook his head. “Not now,” he said. “But I will tell you eventually.”

I stiffened. “Eventually? So that means you don’t really trust me, do you?”

“Of course I trust you,” he said quietly, and I had the distinct impression that he was trying to ensure no one overheard our conversation. “How long have you known about the map? Or James’ Cloak? You really think I tell everyone that sort of thing?”

I smiled behind my tears – he did have a point. “I guess not,” I admitted.

“So, then, you have to believe that this is something I’ll tell you too,” he said, kissing me gently. “Just not now, because it’s not my secret.” He wiped a tear off my cheek. “And no more of these, either, okay?” he went on. “I hate it when you cry.”

I nodded, swallowing hard in an attempt to calm down, though I still wasn’t completely appeased. Sirius seemed to think I was, though, as he smiled briefly, kissed my forehead and turned away, following James and Peter through the portrait hole.

I felt absolutely confused as I watched it close behind them. What did it mean? Should I just take him at his word, or was this something I shouldn’t be accepting at all?

Lily, who had joined me at the portrait hole, was shaking her head in frustration. “I told them this was a bad idea,” she muttered crossly.

“So you knew about it?” I asked as she steered me back to the dorm.

She hesitated. “Sort of. I knew they were going out tonight, and James asked me to keep you in the dorm so Sirius could go without you knowing. But it was a bad idea from the start.”

“What should he have done, then?” I asked.

“Tell you,” she said like it was obvious. “At least that he was going to be out of action tonight. Boys’ night out, something like that. Apparently, though, he was worried about lying to you.”

I smiled grimly. “And he thought sneaking out behind my back was a better idea?”

“You’d think people as smart as those two would’ve known better,” she said, opening the door to our dorm and leading me inside. “I didn’t want anything to do with it, I knew it wouldn’t work. But James … well, let’s just say he can be very persuasive.” She blushed and smiled in an embarrassed kind of way.

“So what’s going on?” I asked, collapsing onto my bed.

She shook her head. “I don’t know either. But they do this every so often, and from what I can gather it’s nothing bad. They’re not seeing other girls or anything like that, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s just something they’ve been doing for years and they always go together and they’re out almost till dawn. So you might want to tread gently tomorrow, too, ’cause they’ll be a bit tired I expect.”

“And you just accept that?” I asked. “Not knowing what they’re doing?”

“I trust James,” she said simply. “And I think you should trust Sirius, too.”

“But that’s the problem,” I explained, staring at the bed canopy. “This whole relationship is supposed to be based on trust. But this has got me wondering if he really does trust me.” I shook my head in frustration. “Like I said, it has to go both ways. And now I don’t know what to do.”

Lily nodded. “Yes, I can understand how that would be a sticking point,” she agreed. “But I think it’s really up to you now. If you want to stay with Sirius, you’ll have to take him at his word with this. It’s as simple as that. And he worships the ground you walk on. If you can trust anyone not to hurt you, it’d be him.”

I looked at her helplessly. “It’s just that I’ve been trying so hard, to take things as they are and not get worked up about anything. Because I do trust him, deep down. It just feels …” I trailed off, wondering how I could word it so it didn’t sound petty. “It feels like I’m the one who’s doing all the work here. I’ve been working really hard, because I don’t want it to fail. And now he’s come out and pretty much said, ‘look, it’s all great, only I don’t really trust you.’ It’s like a kick in the guts.”

“I see what you mean,” she said, nodding again. “But I still think it’s worth a try. Put it this way, Laura, there’s a difference between not trusting you and not being able to tell you something. If he says it’s not his secret, then it’s probably not.” I nodded: there was something in that. “Incidentally,” she continued, “how long have you known about the map and the Cloak?”

I considered that. “The night I broke up with Bertram,” I said finally. “Sirius told me about them. Well, he showed me the map, but he told me about the Cloak.”

She looked surprised. “Way back then? He showed you the map?”

I nodded, wondering why that was so strange.

Lily let out a low whistle. “Well, Laura, if that’s not proof he trusts you, I don’t know what is. I didn’t see the map till Hallowe’en.”

I stared at her, surprised. “Really?”

She nodded. “Really. And we’d been together a month by then.”

Stunned, I thought about that. “Thanks Lily,” I said eventually. “I do feel better.”

Sirius sought me out before breakfast the next morning, bags under his eyes and barely able to stifle a yawn. It looked like Lily was right and the boys had in fact been out till dawn, and I had to give him credit for managing a shower and a shave in that state.

“Laura … I’m so sorry about last night,” he said, embracing me so hesitantly I was sure he thought I was going to pull away, and looking at me searchingly. “You’re okay with it though, aren’t you?” He paused. “We’re okay?”

I thought it best to be straight with him. “I don’t like being left in the dark, Sirius. With all that sneaking around behind my back, I felt like you were treating me like Bertram did.” His expression changed from hopeful to dismayed, and I held up a finger as he opened his mouth to protest. “But – Lily pleaded your case. And I think that if she can trust James with whatever it is you’re doing, then I can trust you.”

Relief flooded his face as he pulled me towards him and kissed me gently. “Then we’re all right?”

Ignoring his question, I asked one myself. “When are you going to tell me what it was about?”

“Eventually, I promise,” he said. “It’s just that it’s not my secret and I don’t have permission to tell anyone. Not even you.”

“One of the other three, then,” I said. “Isn’t it? The person whose secret it is, that is.”

He nodded. “Yes. Actually, thinking about it, it’s all of the other three.”

“I can accept that,” I admitted. “Yes, we’re all right. But Sirius –” I pulled back and looked at him again – “next time you’re planning on having one of those nights out, just tell me, all right?”

“I will,” he promised. “You can count on it.”

****

Later that week, I arrived back in the dorm after supper to discover my trunk open and its contents strewn all over my bed and the floor. Gathering them up to put them away, it became very clear very soon that whoever was responsible had also put stink pellets all through my belongings.

“Looks like it’s your turn now, Laura,” Martha said dryly, picking up a shirt and throwing it back to me. “The fan club have been in.”

I made a face as the smell hit me. “Great. I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“But how did they get in?” asked Lily.

“There’s at least a couple in Gryffindor,” said Martha, sorting my clothes from hers on the floor. “Fifth-years, I think.”

“An’ a sixth-year,” added Mary, who was helping me re-pack. “Wendy Savage, if I’m nae mistaken. Eeww, they really go’ ye good, dinna they?” she added, holding one of my jumpers to her nose. “This stinks!”

“The trouble is,” said Lily after a spell, picking up loose clothes from the floor and trying to sort out who they belonged to, “that the smell’s not just on your stuff any more. It’s infected our clothes as well.” She sat on her bed and made a face. “And the bed hangings.”

In fact, it was even in the Gryffindor and Welsh rugby flags on the wall next to my bed – the fan club had done their job well and the five of us were up till two in the morning trying to disinfect everything. As a result we all overslept the next morning, and I was a good half hour later than usual meeting Sirius in the common room. Fortunately it was a Saturday so I wasn’t running late for any classes, but I still wasn’t thrilled: I didn’t like keeping him waiting.

“What took so long?” he asked from his chair by the fire, where he and James were reading discarded editions of the Daily Prophet.

“Overslept. I’m sorry,” I said, not wanting to elaborate. It was my job to deal with the fan club, just as it had been Martha’s two years previously.

Charlotte, however, had other ideas. “Stink pellets,” she said firmly. “Someone put them all through Laura’s trunk. We were up all night cleaning it up.”

The unmistakeable sound of giggling came from a far corner of the room, where Wendy Savage and the two fifth-years we suspected of being in the fan club were evidently watching the results of their actions. Sirius turned swiftly to face them, his expression furious.

“Was that your doing?” he asked harshly, striding over to them and pulling his wand out threateningly. “Stink pellets? Very funny, very mature.” They actually shrank back under his glare. “Listen, did you really think I’d break up with her just because she smelled like something from Zonko’s? What sort of person do you think I am?” He shook his head, obviously still fuming. “And if you’ve got a problem with who I go out with, you take it up with me, not with her, okay?”

The girls nodded, obviously alarmed at this demonstration of his temper, and Martha, who’d been watching the whole encounter, looked like she was even more surprised than they were. “Merlin’s beard,” she muttered. “He’s worse than I thought.”

Sirius had come back to the fire, still looking livid. “Come on, Laura,” he said, grabbing my hand almost roughly, “let’s get out of here. I don’t want to be in the same room as those people.” And he pulled me out the portrait hole, walking so fast that I struggled to keep up with him.

Once we were well clear of the tower he pulled me to one side. “Were you planning on telling me?”

“No,” I admitted. “It wasn’t that big a deal. It happened, we cleaned it up, it’s over.”

“But it shouldn’t have happened,” he said sharply. “They shouldn’t be doing things like that to you.”

I shrugged. “They’ve done it to all your girlfriends,” I pointed out. “Why should I be any different?”

“Because you are different,” he said, putting an arm around me. “I’m not going to put up with it.”

“I think you’re being a bit hypocritical,” I said sternly. “You do things like that to people all the time.”

“That’s me,” he said as though it was obvious. “They can do what they like to me, I don’t care. I’m not important. You are.”

I wasn’t convinced. “Sirius, you can’t be defending me all the time. I’m a big girl, I can look after myself. I don’t need you to fight my battles for me.”

He looked a little hurt. “But I want to,” he said. “If anything happened to you …” His voice trailed off and he kissed my forehead. “But that reminds me,” he went on, suddenly more business-like, “Prongs and I have been talking. We want to teach you – and Lily – how to duel.”

He often changed subjects suddenly like that and it took some getting used to. I blinked. “Duel?”

He nodded, looking very serious. “You need to be able to defend yourselves,” he said. “We won’t always be around to protect you so we’d be happier knowing you’re well equipped to handle what’s out there.”

“Right.” I had to admit my duelling skills weren’t great, and they certainly weren’t a patch on the standard of Sirius and James. “Did you have a particular time in mind or are you just letting me know?”

“We’ve all got Friday afternoons off,” he said. “Probably then. I’ll check with Prongs and if he’s cleared it with Lily we might start this week.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “Friday it is.”

He smiled suddenly and gave me a hug. “Excellent. I’ll tell James we’re good to go. Now, hopefully there’s still some breakfast left, I’m starving.” And we headed off downstairs, trying to catch up with the others who had probably already started on their bacon and eggs.

****

As it turned out, however, Friday wasn’t a good day to start. James got a letter on Tuesday after supper advising him that his father had just died of complications from dragon pox. Lily, who was with him when he read it, told us the story.

“He’s shattered, as you would be,” she said in the dorm. “His dad wasn’t young, but James is an only child so they were pretty close.”

“Did he even know he was ill?” asked Charlotte.

Lily shook her head. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t get told if either of my parents has something relatively minor wrong with them. Coughs, colds, the flu, even measles, they don’t tell me. It seems Mrs Potter thought he’d just get over it, so she didn’t mention it to James in case he got worried unnecessarily.” She paused, her green eyes wet. “But he was rather old and apparently his body didn’t react well. By the time they got him to St Mungo’s, it was too late.”

Martha had clambered over her bed and put an arm around Lily. “Did you want to go to James?”

“No, he wants to be alone with Sirius for a bit,” she said, looking at me. “I can understand that. I was a bit the same when I found out about Mum. Anyway, we’re catching the Knight Bus tomorrow for the funeral, we should be back on Friday.”

I nodded: Sirius was going too. As the surrogate second son to the Potters, he was just as upset as James was by the news. He had wanted me to go too but Hogwarts regulations said I couldn’t leave the school without my parents’ permission, and when I used McGonagall’s Floo fire to ask them they fulfilled my expectations and denied their consent. As I’d noted before, Dad saw NEWTs as the most important part of my schooling career, and missing three days of lessons was, as far as he was concerned, unacceptable, especially considering that all they knew about Mr Potter was that I’d come back from his house at Christmas time decidedly unhappy. I accepted it, but I didn’t like it – it was a heartbreaking side effect of having to keep it all a secret from them.

It was harder than I’d thought it would be, being at school without Sirius. He’d always been there, for better or worse, and it’s funny how used to things you get. I found myself looking for him in the classes we shared, and in the common room, even though I knew that he wouldn’t be there. However, it did let me spend some time with Mary, and get my homework finished, and I was completely up to date when he, Lily and James finally got back on Friday afternoon. Which was probably just as well considering how much trouble I had tearing myself away from him. Homework, I had discovered, generally took a back seat when he was around – it always seemed we had more important things to be getting on with.

“How was it?” I probably should have been asking James, it was his father’s funeral after all, but he wasn’t the one I was concerned about.

“It would have been easier if you were there,” Sirius said quietly, holding me tightly. “But at least we got to say goodbye.”

“How are you doing?” I asked, pulling back to look at him and putting my hand on his cheek.

“I’m all right,” he said. “It’s just so … final.”

I nodded sympathetically and gave him a quick squeeze. “And Mrs Potter?”

“Holding up. Probably not so well now Prongs is back here, but we can’t do much about that.” We followed Lily and James’ example and looked for an empty classroom somewhere so we could catch up properly.

We had found it hard to get much privacy. The common room wasn’t exactly designed with that in mind and besides, Wendy Savage and her cronies were always hanging around. I’d not been invited into the boys’ dorm yet, and knew that invitation – if coming at all – would most probably be months away; and anyway three other people lived there and it wasn’t fair to kick them out. Sirius refused to tell me how they’d got into our dorm so that wasn’t an option, and besides there were four other people living there as well. And while empty classrooms with Imperturbable Charms on the door were a decent alternative, any teacher worth their salt could break the charm and come in anyway, as we had discovered with McGonagall. The best option for not getting caught was the secret passageway behind the mirror on the fourth floor, but it was used fairly often by the boys and some other students who knew about it, and so was more of a last resort.

We didn’t get very far with our trysts anyway. It was still winter and any disused classrooms and secret passages didn’t have fires or anything in them so were icy cold, and hot air charms always seemed to run out at the most inopportune times. If we tried to light a fire in the grate it would invariably summon Filch (he must have had an alarm set on them or something) which meant that wasn’t really an option either. So no matter what people thought we might have been getting up to, the reality was that anywhere we went that had a scrap of privacy, we were more often than not troubled by the cold and therefore kept relatively bundled up.

Regardless of what we actually did, however, the fan club let their imaginations run wild and often pestered me with questions, probably on Elvira’s instructions but as she wasn’t talking to me any more I couldn’t be sure. “Is it true,” Carol Jones asked one day, “that he’s got his belly button pierced?”

“Of course,” I lied. “Twice, once on each side. And he’s got a chain that connects them, and if you pull on it he gets turned on.”

Another day it was a sixth-year Ravenclaw whose name I didn’t know. “Does he really have a tattoo of a manticore on his shoulderblade?”

I smiled. “No, but he does have one on his left bicep that says ‘Mother’.” From the look on her face, she didn’t even get the joke.

Occasionally these stories got back to Sirius one way or another. He thought it was hilarious and very happily invented all sorts of body art and birthmarks for me to tell them about. It got to the point that the fan club had no idea what to believe any more, which suited us just fine.

Of course they made things up as well which evened it out a bit, though their efforts sounded remarkably like Turpin Tales and were just as believable. In fact, some of them may have actually been Turpin Tales for all I knew, considering I’d never been the subject of one before and so didn’t have any experiences to compare it with.

“Jus’ so ye know,” Mary told me one day, “th’ lates’ story I’ve hear’ is tha’ ye’re pregnant an’ it’s nae Sirius’.”

“Lovely,” I said wryly. “Though if I was, you’d think I might’ve known about it.”

“Aye, ye’d have t’ be shaggin’ t’ ge’ pregnant, wouldna ye?” she grinned. “Anyway, Elvira’s nou callin’ ye ‘Whore-a’ because o’ it. So if ye hear tha’, tha’s where it started.”

The nickname didn’t last long once James and Sirius got wind of it, but it did take some getting used to, having things like this said about me. Being the subject of rumours and innuendo that weren’t to do with Bea was an unpleasant reality that I’d never properly experienced before, but while I found it wearing and occasionally upsetting there wasn’t much I could do about it without breaking it off with Sirius. And that wasn’t an option.

Naturally, there were also stories about Sirius, which people ensured reached my ears. I heard one day that he was working his way through the sixth-years – of both genders – behind my back, each conquest becoming another notch on his bedpost. I was also reliably informed that he and I had been caught shagging in a broom cupboard on the second floor by Dumbledore himself and been set separate detentions as a result, but I’d also heard that about Lily and James and I knew that wasn’t true either. Each tale became progressively more wild and outlandish (threesome with a hag and a Roonspoor, anyone?) and I found it incredible that even the most gullible first-year would believe them, let alone Sirius or me.

****

That weekend our attention was caught when the delivery owl dropped my Sunday Prophet on the breakfast table. My mouth dropped when I saw the headline. “Oh Merlin.”

Sirius looked up from his scrambled eggs. “What is it?”

“They’ve killed Nobby Leach!” Leach was a former Minister who had promoted Muggle rights during his reign, and had been found dead in his home the previous evening, the Dark Mark prominent in the sky above.

“You’re kidding,” he said seriously. “But why? He hasn’t been Minister for, what, ten years?”

James looked at us from across the table, his expression dark. “They’re taking out all the blood traitors, one by one,” he said. “I’ll be surprised if they don’t go after us eventually, Padfoot.”

Sirius glanced at James and then back at me. “Make sure your dad’s okay, won’t you?” He’d never even met my father but was as concerned for his welfare as I was.

“He’s pretty cautious,” I said, hoping it wasn’t obvious how worried I was. As the daughter of a police officer I was used to living with some uncertainty, but my family had never been specifically targeted before. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.” I quickly turned the page, looking for some better news.

Of course, before long we were poring over the list of that week’s dead, disappeared and tortured. Some we already knew about: Cadmus Branstone had been taken out of school on Thursday following the murder of his father, and Daisy Hookum, a redheaded Hufflepuff a couple of years below us who was going out with Charlotte’s brother Clarrie, had also lost a parent – her mother was tortured and left for dead in a field somewhere in Northumberland.

“Agnes Chittock,” Lily read from her seat opposite me. “Cursed so her head is covered in fur and she barks instead of speaking.” I had to admire her ability to read upside down like that. “That’s horrific. Do you think she’s related to Glenda?” Glenda Chittock was a loudmouthed Hufflepuff in about third year, so talkative and obnoxious that even we knew who she was.

“Possibly,” agreed James. “Though if she talks as much as Glenda, they might have done the world a favour.”

“Look at that one,” said Charlotte from next to me, her porridge forgotten. “Curtis Sloper and family, found dead with the Dark Mark over their house. Wasn’t he Eileen Sloper’s dad?” Eileen had been a Chaser on the Gryffindor Quidditch team two years previously; Clarrie Trimble had taken her spot after she graduated.

“Looks like it,” I said. “They’ve got them listed here, Eileen’s name is definitely there. Ugh, that’s awful. She was so young! Didn’t even survive a year after graduation.” We’d all known Eileen, James better than anyone, and a cold uncomfortable feeling descended on us.

“Blimey, a Vaisey,” said Peter, like Lily trying to read upside down. “That’s strange, he’s a Slytherin.” Gilbert Vaisey was a quiet Slytherin boy in our year.

“Maurice Vaisey, found dead outside his home,” Sirius read aloud. “Maybe he tried to opt out of the Death Eaters,” he added. “Some people get cold feet, I’ve heard, and I doubt you can just hand Voldemort your resignation.”

“Not all Slytherins become Death Eaters,” James pointed out. “Maybe they tried to recruit him and he refused. Or maybe he’s a blood traitor like you and me, Padfoot.”

“True, true,” agreed Remus from Sirius’ other side. “What’s that one? I can’t make it out.” He reached across and pointed to a name near the bottom of the page.

“Berenice Shingleton,” I read. “Disappeared without a trace on Tuesday. You think she’s related to Gaspard?” Shingleton, a Ravenclaw, had graduated the previous year.

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Lily said seriously. “Gaspard was pretty smart, if she’s anything like him they could have kidnapped her to try to get her to work for them. That’s if she wasn’t recruited, I suppose.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that some of those disappearances are due to them turning,” Martha agreed. “They get taken off to little Death Eater camps and brainwashed. Either that or they’re just not game to show their faces any more in decent society.”

Flippant as it sounded, Martha’s comment lightened the mood and we finished breakfast feeling a little better than we had previously. James and Sirius, however, were still deep in thought and held Lily and me back as we moved to stand up.

“We definitely need to start those duelling lessons,” James said gravely. “This Friday, after lunch. Book it in. And if we can get one done sooner we will.”

“How’s the homework situation?” Sirius asked. “Can you spare an hour or two today?”

Lily and I looked at each other. I had a Potions essay to finish and a Charms assignment that just needed proof-reading so I was probably okay, especially considering I had two free periods on Monday mornings. “It’s fine with me,” I said.

“Me too,” Lily agreed firmly.

“Right, then, just after lunch? I’ll see if I can get us a spare classroom.” James was all business and as Head Boy would undoubtedly be able to find us somewhere appropriate. Lily and I nodded our agreement, and the boys looked at each other and grinned.

James and Sirius were as good as their word, and after lunch Lily and I were led to a large disused classroom on the third floor. “I’ve cleared it with McGonagall,” James explained on the way up. “Said we needed it for some practical exercises before our NEWTs. Which I suppose is true, in a way. And we want to be absolutely clear,” he went on, looking at us sternly, “that this is only as a last resort. We don’t want either of you joining in a fight if you don’t absolutely have to.”

“We’re starting with the basic stuff,” Sirius added. “Disarming, Impediment Jinx, Shield Charm, that sort of thing. Just to make sure you’ve got it all down pat before we move on to the harder ones.”

“And Padfoot’ll be partnering you, Lils, and I’ll be partnering Laura,” James went on, grinning. “For some reason we’re particularly keen to hex you two.”

We could already cast these spells reasonably well but the boys wanted to hone our timing, reaction speed and spell strength, and after a couple of hours they appeared pleased with our improvement. “Doing well,” James said as I threw him back his wand. I’d managed to Disarm him and had even hit him with an Impediment Jinx when he had his guard up. My Shield Charm had held up against the first half dozen hexes he threw at it, but I’d not been able to shatter his no matter what I tried. It was, however, progress.

Finally they deemed the lesson over. “Right, well done,” said James, smiling broadly as we sat down, exhausted, on some old chairs. “You’re both doing really well. Back here after lunch on Friday?”

“Sure,” Lily panted. This sort of thing was very tiring, we were discovering. I just nodded my agreement.

“Good,” said Sirius, also smiling. “We’ll get you trained up properly yet.”

________________________________________

46
The year was wearing on, and with twice weekly duelling lessons, exams getting ever closer and our workloads increasing with equal velocity, I was discovering just how difficult it could be to stay on top of your homework when your boyfriend is constantly within easy reach. I was soon in grave danger of falling behind, but I couldn’t drag myself away from him for long enough to actually finish an assignment without being distracted – when it was just the two of us, it was unnervingly easy to forget that other people even existed.

This all probably wasn’t helped by the fact that Sirius stopped going to Professor Slughorn’s parties, arguing that even aside from the fact that Slughorn still didn’t know my name, with the amount of homework we had he couldn’t justify spending his very limited free time with a teacher instead of with me. While I agreed with the sentiment, it did mean that the free night I might have had every fortnight or so, in which I could have tried to get on top of everything, was taken away. Most agreeably so, admittedly, but still I could probably have used that time in a more productive way, at least in the way that my dad would have defined the word ‘productive’. Even when we made a point of studying as part of a group so that we might actually get something done, things had a habit of turning against us. An example of this happened one evening in the second week of February.

After supper on the night in question Sirius and I went up to the common room along with James, Lily, Remus and Peter to get some homework done, turfing out some second-years from our favourite spot by the fire so we could take up residence. I wanted to finish my Potions essay and so headed to the dorm to get the textbooks and notes I would need, taking longer than usual because my copy of Advanced Potion-Making had managed to drop right down to the bottom of my trunk. When I came back down the stairs, Sirius was on the couch with a mouthful of pink bubbles and the others were trying unsuccessfully not to laugh.

I sat down next to him, my arms full of books and parchment. “What happened?”

“Wendy Savage,” Peter chortled. “That sixth-year giggler. Just sat down right on Padfoot’s lap and tried to snog him.”

Sirius was shaking his head. “Got the tongue in and everything,” he said ruefully, bubbles floating away from him as he spoke. “She caught me off guard.”

“Ugh,” I said, my head spinning around to look for the girl in question, who was sitting in a corner looking distinctly disgruntled. “But why the pink bubbles?”

Remus smiled broadly. “We had to Scourgify him,” he said. “He wanted to get rid of the taste.”

“I think the idea was that you would come down the stairs and catch them at it, so you’d think he was cheating on you and break it off,” James explained, chuckling. “Aside from the bonus of her getting a snog, of course. But you took too long and he got rid of her before you came down.”

I shook my head in frustration – sometimes it felt like they’d try anything to break us up, and it could be a bit wearing – as James conjured a goblet and filled it using Aguamenti so Sirius could rinse his mouth out.

“Thanks, Prongs,” he muttered as the last of the soap bubbles floated away. “Who knew she’d try something like that?”

“Don’t tell me you’re surprised,” Peter said reasonably. “It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. You just weren’t expecting it.”

“He’s right,” Remus agreed, still smiling. “They just needed someone else with enough guts to carry it off. Which apparently Wendy Savage has.”

Lily was shaking her head. “I can’t believe I went out with her brother,” she muttered.

“Nah, Lance was all right,” I said. “He can’t help what his sister’s like.” After all, I was the last person who should be judging someone based on their sister’s character.

Sirius was making a face. “It’s still there,” he said, looking at me. “Right, Laura, you have to fix this. Get the taste of her out of my mouth, the last thing I want is to be tasting Wendy Savage all night.”

I knew what that meant. Smiling (I admit a little triumphantly), I looked over at where Wendy was watching what was going on by the fire with disappointment and frustration etched on her face. Putting my books down on the couch next to me, I moved onto his lap and kissed him deeply.

After a minute or two I pulled away and grinned at him, before turning to Peter who was making gagging noises. “You shut up, I was doing a public service,” I scolded, though I was still smiling.

“Yeah, but did it have to take so long?” he complained.

“Of course it did,” I said. “I had to make sure I got in everywhere. You never know just where she might have contaminated.” James, Lily and Remus laughed as I turned back to Sirius, who was suppressing a smile. “Did it work?”

He considered, his tongue moving around inside his mouth. “You know, I think it did. Thanks.” He smiled at me.

“Good,” I said, successfully (though with difficulty) resisting the temptation to stay just where I was and repeat the treatment, and getting off him. “Maybe now I can finish that Potions essay?”

****

And then, just in case we didn’t have enough distractions to take us away from our studies, before we knew it Valentines Day was upon us. Unfortunately, though, February fourteenth was on a Tuesday that year, so any activity was tempered by the fact we had to attend classes.

As I got dressed that morning I looked at the racy underwear the girls had bought me for my birthday the previous year, wondering if I should put it on. After all, it was Valentines Day, and I suspected Sirius would appreciate the extra effort. In the end, however, after thinking about it a little longer, I opted not to – for the top half, at least. Much as he would appreciate the nice bra, I reasoned, he would appreciate no bra that much more. And, as had been pointed out before, they were small enough that I could easily get away with going without it for one day.

As I expected, he greeted me in the common room before breakfast with a soft kiss and a promise that there would be more to come. “I know we’re going out tonight,” he whispered, “but we can probably make the most of today as well, don’t you think?”

I grinned, thinking, you don’t know the half of it. And on the way downstairs to breakfast I pulled him into an empty classroom and put his hand underneath my shirt. “A little surprise for you,” I whispered as his eyes opened wide with surprise and a broad smile appeared on his face.

“This is for me?”

“Well, it’s not like I did it for James,” I pointed out. “And I thought you’d like to know.”

He dropped his head down towards mine so our foreheads were resting on each other, his hands busy underneath my shirt. “Oh, Laura,” he whispered. “That’s just … that’s just …” His voice trailed off, but I knew I’d had the desired effect.

Suddenly he stopped, straightened up and spoke again, his voice stern this time. “But you shouldn’t have told me now,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to concentrate on anything today. Not now I know.”

I just reached up and kissed him, a smile on my face as well. “I thought that was a risk worth taking.”

Sirius did indeed look like he was having trouble concentrating in Transfiguration, which we had first thing after breakfast. Even Professor McGonagall noticed how distracted he was and singled him out on more than one occasion to make sure he was actually paying attention. It got so bad that on the way to Herbology James started quizzing him about it.

“What’s with you today, Padfoot?” he asked as we all made our way towards the greenhouses.

Sirius just shook his head. “Maybe later,” he said. “Let’s just say I’ve got something else on my mind.”

James looked at me questioningly, his eyebrows raised, but I put on my most innocent expression and pretended not to know what he was talking about. After all, like I’d told Sirius, it wasn’t like I’d done it for him.

Finally Herbology finished and Sirius and I had nothing until after lunch, so we headed as quickly as we could to somewhere a little more private so we could have some time alone. I followed him to the third floor where he led me to a statue of a humpbacked witch, tapping it with his wand and saying, “Dissendium.”

I looked at him as the witch came away from the wall to reveal another secret passageway. “Is this an internal passage or one that goes to Hogsmeade?” I asked.

“Hogsmeade,” he responded as we went inside and lit our wands. “Um, Honeydukes, this one leads to. But I don’t think we’ll be disturbed here with any luck. Now,” he went on, turning to me as the door closed behind us, “where were we?”

I pulled him towards me and kissed him as deeply as I could, wanting to make the most of our first Valentines Day together. He responded in kind but his hands were busy as we kissed, unfastening my black school robes and easing them off my shoulders to reveal the white shirt underneath.

There he stopped, and I looked at him, somewhat surprised that my shirt hadn’t received the same treatment. After all, it wasn’t like it was the first time he’d seen my breasts, though other occasions had been a little rushed as we battled against school timetables and the risk of being caught in whatever liaison spot we had found. I had no intention of being sprung half naked in an abandoned classroom by Professor McGonagall.

Sirius looked at my undoubtedly confused expression and smiled mischievously. “We’ve got over an hour,” he pointed out, “and I want to savour this.” And he pulled out his wand, pointed it at my shirt and said, “Aguamenti.”

I grinned. Of course. He was going for the wet t-shirt effect, and the thin white shirt responded admirably. I was drenched to the skin but it was incredibly erotic, and I just stood there as he slowly unbuttoned my shirt, opening it to reveal only an inch or so of skin across my chest as the wet fabric clung to the rest of me like it was painted on, and then dropping to his knees and resting his face against it.

If I was honest, whenever I’d read about a scene like this in a romance novel I’d always wondered what the girl did on these occasions. But at that point, as I stood there and ran my fingers through his hair, I knew. You just enjoyed it. After all, it’s not every day that you can reduce someone to their most animal instincts and it gave me a feeling of power and accomplishment, as well as goosebumps all over. If we’d been sleeping together by this point I knew that would have been how it would have ended up.

Eventually he pulled away for just long enough to conjure up some cushions for the floor that we could lie on, and peeled my wet shirt off me as he propelled me backwards. His wand soon ended up on the floor, though, as he turned his attention back to me. If only this could last forever, I thought, this was what it was all about. I didn’t even mind when his hands started to move further down, as it felt like something I actually wanted to do just then.

But then, all of a sudden, he stopped and pulled away from me. I looked at him – what had happened? Had I done something wrong?

“What?” I asked, not sure if I wanted to hear the answer. “It’s not lunch time already, is it?”

He was sitting up by now, separated from me by at least a couple of feet. “I’m sorry, Laura, but we have to stop this. Now.”

“Why?” I asked, confused.

He just shook his head. “Believe me, we have to stop this. Otherwise …” His voice trailed off again, but I had a good idea of what he meant. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop if we kept going, and even though it was something I had been actively considering I knew that right then, in that tunnel, wasn’t when I wanted that to happen.

“Okay. Sure, that’s fine.” I pulled my shirt back on and reached for my wand to do a hot air charm to dry it off.

He was still sitting apart from me, not looking at me as he shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said with obvious regret. “You’re just too …”

“Too what?” I didn’t mean to ask the question but it was out of my mouth before I could stop it.

He just shook his head. "Too .... you."

****

That night, James and Sirius had arranged to take Lily and me into Hogsmeade for a drink after supper in further recognition of the day. We sat in the common room with Remus and Peter, the Marauder’s Map spread open on the table in front of us, waiting for patrols to end in the appropriate corridors so we could make our way to the mirror on the fourth floor, behind which was the roomiest of the many secret passageways into the village. We wouldn’t all fit underneath the Invisibility Cloak so this was seen as the best way of managing it.

I had discovered that day, as Clio probably had the previous year, that as Sirius’ girlfriend I received a number of cards purporting to be from various boys in my year. However, the fact that I knew the handwriting of many of the boys in question and these didn’t match, and that several were written in the same hand and with the same scented purple ink, told me that Elvira and the fan club were responsible. I supposed they thought that if I had another offer I might dump Sirius and take it up. Yeah, right, like that was going to happen. I’d left him once, and it had almost killed me. I had no intention of doing it again.

Peter had received a card that day from a girl called Doris, apparently a sixth-year Hufflepuff, and was fussing about whether she was up to his lofty standards, and if he should invite her to Hogsmeade as well. We couldn’t properly offer advice – whether to let a girl in on some of their lesser secrets (like where the tunnels were) was by agreement the decision of the boy concerned – but James and Sirius let slip that it was probably a bit early on in the relationship, if you could even call it that, to be doing that sort of thing.

Remus had received half a dozen or so cards and was looking rather pleased with himself. He knew that some of them were from the fan club, looking for a way in to get close to Sirius, but Charlotte had given him one and so had a couple of other girls in our year, and he had a bit of a grin on his face as he put them in his bag, one by one. For some reason he seemed determined not to act on any of them, but like anyone else he appreciated the ego trip.

“How many cards did you get, Padfoot?” asked James, watching Remus with his collection.

“Didn’t count,” Sirius said unconcernedly. There was a wastepaper basket next to his seat and every time another owl arrived with a card he just threw it away without opening it. Part of me was secretly amazed and rather impressed by how blasé he was about the whole thing. “There was only one that I was interested in.” He grinned at me.

“At least there were no chocolates this year,” smiled Remus.

Sirius groaned. “Tell me about it. But Peter had an interesting time, didn’t he?” The groan disappeared and the boys shared a laugh, Peter appearing so embarrassed it looked like he was searching for a cushion to hide beneath. Lily and I just looked at each other, confused.

“Padfoot got some chocolates last year with a love potion in them,” James explained, smiling broadly. “From Greta Catchlove, you know, the blonde Ravenclaw who keeps trying to hex Laura in Potions.”

“Otherwise known as Deputy Chief Giggler,” Sirius elaborated, grimacing a little.

“Thing was,” Remus continued, a smirk crossing his otherwise pleasant face, “he didn’t eat them, knowing what might be in store. Chucked them out without opening them. He was still with Clio, after all. But Wormtail saw them in the bin and, not realising why they were there, took them out again and had some!”

“He ran off towards the Ravenclaw common room,” said Sirius, now laughing, “going on and on about how wonderful Greta was and how much he loved her. It was hilarious.”

“Yeah, he ended up scratching at the entrance to Ravenclaw Tower, trying desperately to get in,” James went on, ignoring Peter who was very obviously getting more embarrassed by the second. “But he couldn’t work out the answer to the question. So Moony found Hector Bole nearby and talked him into going inside and telling Greta that there was a Gryffindor bloke out in the hall trying to get in to her.”

“Apparently she couldn’t get out fast enough,” laughed Remus. “Tripped over Elvira Vablatsky, of all people, in her rush to the door. And Prongs and I were waiting outside, under the Invisibility Cloak, watching for her reaction when she opened the door and saw Pete instead of Sirius!”

“You can imagine the look on her face,” said James. “Absolutely priceless. Looked everywhere for Padfoot and then it finally dawned why Wormtail was fawning all over her. Got what she deserved, though – you can’t go around slipping people love potions.”

“Too right,” agreed Peter, clearly thankful that the conversation had turned from laughing at him to having a go at Greta for her methods of finding a boyfriend.

“Did you say anything to her?” Lily asked Sirius, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes.

“Nup, I wasn’t even there,” he replied, putting his arm around me. “I’d gone to find Clio. It was Valentines, after all. Not that she was that keen on seeing me, from memory,” he went on. “I was in a bit of a bad mood that day.”

“That’s right,” I said, remembering. “You were in a foul mood for ages. Clio thought it was her fault.”

“Yes, I know,” he said with a grin. “It wasn’t, of course, but we ended up breaking up over it anyway. Though that turned out to be a good thing.” He leaned in and kissed my cheek.

“Right,” said James suddenly and with authority, his eyes on the map. “Filch has left the fourth floor and is now patrolling the third, so it should be safe for us to make it to the passage without being caught. Dumbledore’s in his office so I dare say he’s out for the night. Slughorn’s on duty tonight and he’s still on the ground floor, and Mrs Clay is on the sixth floor, but she’s on the northern side so we’ll probably be all right. Shall we?” He stood up and offered Lily his arm. Sirius did the same with me, and, waving, we headed out the portrait hole for a night out.

****

We learned soon enough the next morning that Peter had been right not to invite Doris into Hogsmeade that night. He sought her out at breakfast time, only to discover that she had sent him the card after losing a bet and was mortified that he had taken it at all seriously.

“Typical,” said Sirius when Peter returned to the Gryffindor table looking disappointed. His voice was steady but I could tell he was trying his hardest to stifle a grin, let alone a laugh. He was right, though, that sort of thing was typical of Peter’s love life. I knew how he felt, though – only two years earlier I’d been asked to dance at the Yule Ball for much the same reason, so I was a little more feeling to his plight than Sirius and James perhaps were.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sirius told me, leading me away just after I had offered Peter some words of encouragement. “He’ll get over it soon enough. It’s not like this sort of thing hasn’t happened before.”

“Yeah, but the more it happens the harder it is to get over,” I pointed out. “He was so hopeful!”

Sirius laughed. “That he was,” he agreed. “Quite funny to watch, actually. Now,” he went on, “I was thinking after we got back last night …”

Oh yes? This could lead anywhere. “What about?”

“I think it’s time you were invited into the inner sanctum,” he said as we wandered down the stairs towards the Potions classroom. “Saturday okay with you?”

The inner sanctum? That had to mean the dorm, the infamous Marauders’ Den. “Are you sure?”

He nodded. “Absolutely. In fact, it probably shouldn’t have taken this long.”

This was interesting. I knew that none of his previous girlfriends had received this invitation, and I also knew that I hadn’t even outlasted Dione Turpin at this point, let alone Martha or Clio. I hadn’t really expected an invitation this side of graduation, let alone this side of Easter, they were that strict about their privacy. (Even though Lily had been inside, James was that keen on her we all saw it as a special case. Girlfriends just didn’t go there.) Maybe Lily and Martha were actually right. Or maybe he had ulterior motives …

I punched his arm. “Sirius Black, are you just trying to get me into bed?”

He grinned. “Of course I am. Why else would I ask you upstairs like that?” He put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze, his voice suddenly more serious. “I hope you don’t really think that’s all I’m after, though, Laura.”

I hugged him back. “Not really. And it’d probably be a bit unfair if I did. Let’s face it, going slowly – not that we still are, but we started off that way – that was your idea.”

Sirius arranged for the dorm to be empty for the whole period between lunch and supper, though he acknowledged an arrangement like that could never be absolutely foolproof so there was always the vague possibility of an interruption. On the day in question he led me up the stairs, tapping the handle with his wand to unlock the door.

It was just as Mary had described though rather neater, and I suspected there had been a bit of a clean-up before my arrival. The bikini babe pictures had gone from the wall (I was unsure whether that was permanent or temporary, but I wasn’t about to ask), but the motorbikes and Quidditch posters were still there, and there was definitely a shrine to Lily next to what had to be James’ bed. I wondered idly if he took it down when she came in or if she was just used to it by now. On the back of the door was pinned a well-thumbed piece of parchment, yellowed and fading, on which their strongly-held code of honour was written. Curious, I paused and read it. It was surprisingly short, for something that held so much sway, but it did seem to cover everything:

THE MARAUDER’S CODE

1. Secrets may (and should) be shared within the group, but not outside. You may only tell someone another Marauder’s secrets with their express permission.
2. Loyalty to the other Marauders must outrank loyalty to any other person.
3. Any girlfriends – past, present or hoped-for – are automatically off limits to the other three. Past girlfriends may occasionally be approached ONLY with the original boy’s approval.
4. All attempts to get a girl must be supported (though jokes are permissible).
5. Jinxing anyone needs a good reason. Unless they’re a Slytherin.

Under this last point something had been scrawled, probably much later than the original text was put down, and in what looked like James’ handwriting. And jinxing Snivellus doesn’t need a reason at all. I stifled a giggle.

Sirius saw me looking at it. “That’s years old now,” he said with a shrug. “We should probably take it down before it falls down, we all know it by heart anyway.”

“You really take all this seriously, don’t you,” I commented.

He shrugged again. “It’s what you do for your friends,” he said simply. “I wouldn’t have thought it was that unusual.” He changed the subject by steering me to one of the beds, the one with pictures of motorbikes on the wall next to it. I’d already picked that one as his, even without the decorations – there was something about the way it was all set up that just said, ‘Sirius’.

“Anyway,” he went on, sneaking a kiss on my forehead, then pushing me backwards onto his bed and leaning over me seductively, “I don’t think you came up here to talk about them, did you?”

I laughed. “No, probably not.”

He grinned mischievously, pulling the curtains closed around us, bathing everything in a scarlet glow. “Just what I wanted to hear.”

****

I sought out Mary in the common room a week or two later – it had been ages since we’d had a proper chat. “I’ve barely seen you lately, young lady,” I chastised her, sitting down at the rickety table where she was struggling with Herbology homework. “Where have you been hiding?”

She grinned. “Aye, ’cause ye’ve bin sittin’ twiddlin’ yer thumbs lookin’ fer me, richt? Or hae ye bin busy too?”

I blushed. “Maybe. Just a little. But?”

“Okay, I’ve bin spendin’ a lo’ o’ time in Ravenclaw Too’er,” she admitted. “They can be verra good t’ dae homework wi’, they know a lo’ an’ they’re happy t’ share.”

“That sounds familiar,” I admitted. “So why aren’t you there tonight?”

She grimaced. “Seb doesna dae Herbology,” she explained. “An’ if I’m in here then, who knows, ye micht tak’ pity on me an’ help oot.” The grimace disappearing, she looked up and winked at me.

I took the hint. “I’m sorry, Mary, I’ve been ignoring you, haven’t I?”

“Nae more than I’ve bin ignorin’ ye,” she said with a grin. “Bu’ a’ leas’ we can gossip after we go t’ bed.”

“Only if you’re in bed before I go to sleep,” I pointed out.

“Or if ye’re back afore I go t’ sleep,” she threw back. I grinned guiltily – she did have a point. “Anyway,” she went on, “wha’s th’ deal t’nicht? Why are ye nae wi’ Sirius?”

I smiled again. “He’s out with the boys. Took off with James and Peter an hour or so ago.”

She nodded. “Tha’s one o’ those nichts ye were tellin’ me aboot, richt?” she asked. “When ye said ye had t’ tak’ a leap o’ faith bu’ ye didna think he was doin’ anythin’ too bad.”

I nodded too, thankful that I didn’t need to say anything else. Mary had heard all about the mini-fight the previous month, but agreed with Lily that I needed to take Sirius at his word. Then again, I suspected none of them wanted us to break up again – that might be too much for anyone to deal with, us included.

“It is good, in a way,” I admitted. “I can catch up on some homework, which you may have noticed is falling by the wayside a bit.” I smiled wickedly. “And, if you’re around, I can bug you.”

“Or help wi’ Herbology,” she said pointedly.

I conceded defeat. “Okay, you’ve talked me into it,” I said, pulling my own Herbology books out of my bag. “What are you having trouble with?”

________________________________________

47
Despite the fact that we were all growing up and should be past petty schoolyard rivalries, the hostility Sirius and James had with Severus Snape hadn’t settled down much at all – as demonstrated by the addition to their code – and they rarely let go any opportunity to hex one another, especially if Lily wasn’t around. While I didn’t exactly approve of this behaviour, it was usually something I could ignore if I wanted to (and let’s face it, I didn’t really want to think about someone like Snape any more than was absolutely necessary). Sometimes, however, I was drawn into it as well, as was demonstrated when Sirius and I were late leaving Potions on Wednesday morning due to Snape deliberately knocking our table on his way out so that half our ingredients ended up on the floor. Professor Slughorn, noticing we were the last to leave, bustled over just as we pulled our bags onto our shoulders.

“Sirius!” he beamed, completely ignoring me as usual. “It seems so long since we’ve had a proper chat. You haven’t been to any of my little suppers lately.” He paused as his eyes followed Sirius’ arm resting on my shoulders, and I saw what could only be described as shock registering on his face. Naturally he hadn’t noticed before, though – it had only been a couple of months, after all, and I wasn’t in the Slug Club so there was a good chance he couldn’t understand why Sirius had even noticed me. “I’m sure Miss Campbell would be happy to let you have one night out.”

“With all due respect, Professor,” Sirius said with exaggerated politeness, “that’s why I haven’t been coming.” Slughorn looked confused. “You’ve been teaching her for almost seven years and you still don’t know what her name is,” Sirius explained. “I think everyone deserves that little bit of respect.”

“Come tomorrow night,” Slughorn said, seemingly unfazed and ignoring me again. “Eight o’clock. We have some very special guests joining us for the gathering – your cousin Bellatrix and her husband. I thought you and Regulus would enjoy having a little reunion with her. Particularly you, since you see so little of her these days.”

Sirius’ face closed off abruptly and he turned towards the door. “Thanks, sir, but not this week.”

Professor Slughorn was looking disappointed as we left the dungeon, but Sirius was doing a very good job of ignoring him so I followed suit. Heading back upstairs, I gave him a friendly jab on the arm. “What, you don’t want to see Cousin Bellatrix?”

“Not particularly,” he said sourly. “Last time I saw her she almost killed me. And she married Rodolphus Lestrange, who I’m pretty sure is a Death Eater. Let’s just say that Slughorn has interesting taste in guests. I’m surprised Dumbledore is allowing it.”

“Worst case scenario I’m sure we could organise you a detention for tomorrow night,” I smiled, trying to improve his mood.

“That may not be a bad idea,” he agreed, smiling again, the bitterness thankfully dissipating. “Anyway, for a second I thought he might actually invite you to come along as well, to try to get me there. But no, he just wanted you to give me permission to go. Getting your name wrong in the process.”

I laughed. “Made a nice change, though. Campbell. I’ve gone from Irish to Scottish!”

As it turned out a detention wasn’t necessary, as Sirius simply ensured he was nowhere to be found when it was time for James, Lily and Charlotte to leave for Professor Slughorn’s office the following evening. That is, he was in a disused classroom with me making the most of a little privacy, an Imperturbable Charm on the door to minimise our chances of interruption, and we didn’t go back to Gryffindor Tower until it was well past eight o’clock.

This turned out to be a wise move on Sirius’ part. Lily and James came back to the tower well before the usual finishing time for Slughorn’s parties, both looking furious. They stormed over to where we were doing some homework with Peter, Remus and Martha by the fire.

“I cannot believe Slughorn allowed that,” Lily fumed.

“Allowed what?” asked Martha, putting down her Astronomy textbook.

“Bellatrix Lestrange,” glowered James, his glasses halfway down his nose. “And bloody Rodolphus. Sorry to speak badly of your family, Padfoot –”

Sirius looked surprised. “Don’t apologise, I know what she’s like,” he said shortly. “Black by name, black by nature. Just like the rest of them. Doesn’t matter if she’s married, she still counts.” He paused, his expression dark. “And don’t forget, I know first hand what she’s capable of.”

James nodded savagely. “Yeah, well, they just tried to recruit us,” he snarled, adjusting his glasses with a very ugly look on his face. “Death Eaters, trying to recruit us for Voldemort. Can you believe it?”

I was lost for words, and by the looks of things so were the others. Remus found his voice first. “They tried to recruit you?”

Lily just about had steam coming out of her ears. “Yes. Us! At Hogwarts, right under Dumbledore’s nose. The nerve of them!”

“They wanted you, too, Padfoot,” James told Sirius. “Asked for you specifically. But of course you weren’t there so they went for young Regulus instead.”

The ugly look on Sirius’ face now matched James’, and I was almost frightened of both of them. Certainly if I didn’t know them as well as I did I would have been. “Oh they did, did they,” he muttered viciously. “The old hag will be delighted. Did he sign up on the spot?”

Lily had calmed down somewhat. “Actually, I don’t think he did,” she said thoughtfully. “He did seem interested though.” She looked up at Sirius, who still looked furious. “I know you thought he’d turn out okay, but I’m not so sure.”

“Neither am I any more,” he admitted. “He and I had a bit of a row in the corridor at the start of term, didn’t we Laura?” I nodded and squeezed his hand comfortingly.

“Anyway, we went straight to Dumbledore and reported it,” said James, who also appeared calmer. “He was livid. Marched straight down to Sluggy’s office and physically ejected them from the room. Full body bind and then a Banishing Charm – they’re in his office now for the Hit Wizards to collect. Death Eaters, inside Hogwarts by invitation, trying to recruit his students. I’ve never seen him so angry.”

“What’s going to happen?” I asked.

“Well obviously Slughorn’s not going to be able to invite people like them back again,” said Lily. “If Dumbledore allows the parties to continue at all, that is.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the end of the Slug Club forever,” agreed James. “Slughorn will be devastated, but it’s his own stupid fault. Why he invited them in the first place …”

“He always liked Bella,” said Sirius. “Raved to me about her when I first started here. I think if I’d been in Slytherin I would have been invited to join the Club straight up, rather than after a couple of months like it was.”

“Besides,” Lily added, “Slughorn’s always tried not to take sides in the war, he likes to stay neutral and choose friends from both sides.”

Just then Charlotte climbed through the portrait hole with her brother Clarrie and a handful of Slug Club members from other years. “What happened?” she asked, looking at Lily and James. “I was being hassled by Barty Crouch and suddenly Dumbledore appeared and broke up the party.”

“Slughorn’s dear guests were trying to recruit students for Voldemort,” Sirius said icily. “Prongs and Lily got the once over, as did Regulus by the sounds of things.”

Charlotte sank into an empty armchair, shock etched across her face. “They what?”

“You heard,” Lily said archly. “So we went and found Dumbledore and told him what they were doing. Hence him getting them away from the students pronto.”

Charlotte’s brown eyes were wide behind her glasses. “I wondered what they were doing, all cloistered up in the corner like that,” she said, “but I never thought of that. How they’d have the nerve …”

“Bet you’d rather be hassled by young Barty,” James said wryly.

Charlotte nodded. “In comparison with what you were hearing, yes, I’d say that details of the several hundred brilliant things his father’s done at the Ministry is definitely a better option. Although I don’t know why he’s bothering with me at all – he’s a bit young for me.” Barty was a fifth-year who always tried to talk himself up thanks to a successful father, who was touted as a possible future Minister of Magic. “So, does this mean no more Slug Club?”

“Quite possibly,” said Lily. “We were just wondering about that.”

“Darn it,” Martha said with exaggerated disappointment. “Now we’ll never know what we were missing, will we?” And she grinned at me, Remus and Peter, those of us who had never received an invitation.

“It wasn’t much,” Sirius said dryly. “Just a stack of students feeling self-important and Sluggy plying them with food and alcohol in an attempt to make them like him just in case they end up being successful. Nice if you need your ego propping up, but otherwise a bore.”

James was nodding. “Yep, that pretty much sums it up,” he agreed.

Lily raised her eyebrows. “And of course you two never needed your egos stroked, the rest of the school was doing that anyway, weren’t they?”

Sirius grinned; he had clearly relaxed a bit. “Absolutely. Why rely on old Sluggy when you can have far more attractive people stroking your ego? Or other parts of you, if that’s what you prefer.” I pretended to hit him and he ducked, laughing. “What?” he asked innocently once he’d recovered himself. “Just telling it like it is.”

I just groaned. “You’re a nightmare, you know that?”

“Of course he does,” James said with a grin. “I’m only surprised that it’s taken you this long to notice.”

****

Despite the dramas of the soon-to-be-defunct Slug Club, the following morning our attention was diverted when the post owls arrived, as one swooped down on Lily and dropped a letter off. We all looked at her seriously as she opened it: owls had come to mean news about her mother, and we were hopeful that this time it was good. However, her face quickly dropped and James put a comforting arm around her.

“What happened?” Charlotte asked tentatively.

“It’s Mum. She’s had another relapse,” Lily said, tears forming in her eyes. “Dad’s pretty worried, he wants me to go home this weekend in case she gets worse.”

“I’m sure we can arrange that,” James said authoritatively. “Let me have a word to Dumbledore, he’s pretty good with things like that.”

Lily looked up at him gratefully. “Oh, would you? That’d be fantastic, thank you. I don’t know that I’d be able to do it myself just now.”

She left that very afternoon on the Knight Bus, straight after Defence, which was her only class on Fridays. James, perhaps surprisingly, had stayed – though it was just for an illness, not for a death, so I suspected he saw this as more of a personal time for Lily’s family. In any case, however, it was a little strange seeing him around the castle without her that weekend. The James and Lily relationship was now so ingrained with us that it felt somewhat surreal seeing one continuously without the other.

We weren’t the only ones to notice this. I heard several whispered comments throughout the Great Hall at mealtimes on Saturday and Sunday, mostly just wondering where the Head Girl had gone, but some were less flattering. Charon Avery, for example, was very vocal in his thoughts about the whole thing as we wandered past him as a group in the courtyard on Saturday.

“Hey, Potty, where’s the Mudblood?”

James flinched and his eyes started flashing, but he appeared to be trying to keep his cool. “Ten points from Slytherin for language.”

Avery just laughed; his companions, Irving Mulciber, Scylla Pritchard and Alecto Carrow, joined him. “Aww, Potter, you’re not missing your Muggle whore, are you?” Avery went on. “Shame on you, I say. And while you’re here, how about you settle an argument between me and my friends here? How long does it take to disinfect yourself after you touch her? I say two hours, but Scylla thinks at least six, and Irving, well, he’s not sure you’d be able to do it properly at all.”

James’ face went very hard and his hand reached inside his robes for his wand. When he spoke, however, his voice had a forced lightness, like he was hoping it wouldn’t come to wands being drawn. “At least I’m getting a shag, Avery,” he said. “Whereas your poor right hand must be getting tired of all the hard work you’re putting it through.”

The insult shut Avery up for a while, and even his friends let out a chuckle or two at his expense.

“Charming, weren’t they,” I said as we moved away from them.

“I’ve got a mind to tell Dumbledore what they were saying,” James hissed, clearly still fuming at their treatment of Lily. “If people are saying that sort of thing out loud at school, then Merlin only knows what they’ll be doing once they get out of here.”

Sirius shrugged. “We all know they’re Death Eater wannabes,” he pointed out. “I doubt Dumbledore would be surprised. And let’s face it, having their recruiting staff on site during the week wouldn’t exactly have discouraged them.”

“It’s still not good enough,” James snarled. “We’re supposed to be stamping out this sort of behaviour, not just accepting it.”

“If you want them to be punished,” Remus said slowly, “I wouldn’t be telling Dumbledore, or any of the teachers for that matter.”

“Then who would you tell?” asked Peter, clearly confused. “No one else can do anything to them without getting into trouble.”

“If they get caught, of course,” James pointed out.

“I’d be telling Snape,” Remus went on, a smirk crossing his otherwise pleasant face. “They’d never say that about Lily in front of him, and if he finds out they’ve been saying it behind his back then – well, I wouldn’t want to be them, let’s put it that way.”

“Now there’s a thought,” James said slowly. “Even now, that would get him riled up. Though it couldn’t come from any of us, obviously … Any brilliant ideas as to how we tell him?”

“I’d offer to tell Reg,” said Sirius, “but as he’s now disowned me as his brother it might be tricky getting his attention.”

“Slip a note into his bag,” I suggested. “Lay it all out so if he confronts Avery he won’t be able to deny it.”

Sirius smiled. “And how would we get it into said bag?” he asked.

“Duh,” Peter said derisively. “Invisibility Cloak?”

James hesitated. “I’d really prefer it didn’t get any grease on it,” he said. “It’s not like we can just ask the house elves to put it in with the rest of the laundry. And getting it that close to Snivellus – well, it very nearly got stained last time.”

“Well, If someone wants to cause a diversion in Potions on Monday, James or I can throw it in,” I offered. “He normally leaves his bag open, it shouldn’t be too hard a shot.”

“But that’s Monday,” James pointed out, his brow furrowed. “Two whole days away. I’d rather strike while the iron’s hot, if you know what I mean.”

“I could drop it in at lunch time or something,” Peter suggested. “He’d never notice a” His voice cut off suddenly, his eyes on me. “He’d never notice me,” he went on, clearly correcting himself from whatever he’d been about to say.

“Nice one, Wormtail,” said James, a broad smile crossing his face. “Think I’ll take you up on that offer. I knew there was a reason we kept you around.”

I didn’t see Peter leaving the note, despite keeping an eye on Snape during lunch, but it didn’t take long for us to find out it had been delivered and Severus had read it. We weren’t expecting anything too much, seeing that he and Lily hadn’t really spoken for the best part of two years, but it was clear that he still fancied her so we were banking on that overriding any friendly loyalties and at least one hex being cast.

This was putting it mildly, as it turned out. The meal was barely over when we witnessed Charon Avery rising upside-down from the Slytherin table in the Great Hall, clearly Levicorpused, before being levitated a good twenty or thirty feet and then dropped to the stone floor below. He landed with an almighty crash so loud that we wondered if there were any bones in his body left unbroken.

“Oh, Avery, I am sorry,” we could hear Severus saying silkily through the stunned silence that enveloped the Hall. “My wand slipped. Shall we take you to the hospital wing?”

In no time at all Professor McGonagall had conjured a stretcher and the hapless Avery was being taken upstairs to Madam Pomfrey’s care.

“Do you think he’ll be all right?” Charlotte asked in a hushed whisper as the doors of the Great Hall closed behind him.

“Who cares?” asked Peter. “It’s Avery. He was just going to become a Death Eater anyway.”

“No, Charlotte’s got a point,” Remus said gravely, and Charlotte smiled to herself. “If he was seriously injured then that’s on our hands,” Remus went on. “Maybe we should have thought this through a bit better.”

“Bit rich coming from you, Moony,” Sirius pointed out. “It was your idea in the first place, telling Snivellus what Avery had said.”

“Yes, I know.” Remus looked troubled. “I’ve got no love for Avery, I admit that, but still …”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” James said placatingly. “Besides, he did bring it upon himself. If we didn’t tell old Snivellus what he’d been saying, someone else was bound to at some point.”

“We just brought it forward a bit,” Sirius went on. “But yes, the reaction was perhaps a little more extreme than I’d thought.”

“Anyway, Moony,” James said, his face brightening a little, “you should know better than anyone what Madam Pomfrey can fix. If she can deal with what you get up to, then she can deal with this.”

Martha, Charlotte and I looked confusedly at each other – Remus wasn’t exactly one to get up to high jinks severe enough to need that sort of attention from the school Matron – but he seemed to concur with James’ statement. And on this mystifying note, the boys turned their attention to the desserts on the table, the conversation very obviously over.

****

By Monday, Lily had returned from Surrey, a little teary but holding up remarkably well, and bringing the news that her mother, while ill, hadn’t deteriorated too much. Avery was also back in classes, I noticed, so Madam Pomfrey must indeed have been able to weave her magic on his injuries. In any case, I was able to push it – and the war – to the back of my mind and concentrate on other things, like homework and, well, Sirius. And, for a bit of a change, Quidditch.

On Wednesday morning the general hum of conversation at breakfast suddenly halted after the post owls had arrived. It soon became clear that the cause of the distraction was the Daily Prophet, so James took it upon himself to find a copy.

“Of course,” he said as he sat down and flicked through it. “Quidditch World Cup. They’ve announced the draw.”

That very quickly got our attention – if nothing else, it was lovely to have something to talk about that wasn’t related to school, the war or Lily’s mum. The World Cup was being held in North America that summer (probably fortuitous due to the lack of, well, Death Eaters across the pond) and, while England were one of the favourites, it really was a mystery as to who would carry off the cup, as more than half a dozen countries were real contenders.

“Right, let’s have a look,” James was saying, scanning the lists quickly. “Ah, here we go. England’s in the same pool as Hungary, Uruguay and … uh oh.” He looked at me. “Wales.”

“Really?” I leaned across the table trying to read upside down. “England and Wales are in the same pool? Gee, I guess it really is drawn randomly then.”

“Bad news for you two, though,” Remus said with a grin, his eyes on me and Sirius. “I can see another break-up coming, if it’s anything but a draw.”

I looked at Sirius. “You know, there could be something in that,” I admitted. “I really don’t want to lose to England. Our national pride is at stake.”

He just laughed. “Ah, but England’s got a much better team,” he pointed out. “You’re going to be hard pressed to find a better front three than Boothby, Sykes and Montgomery.”

“Williams and Griffiths can give them more than a run for their money,” I shot back. “Those two can hit a Bludger like no one else.”

“Enough, you two,” James said loudly, interrupting us. “You’ll find out on July seventeenth. And until then, how about you try to keep the hostilities to a minimum, okay?”

We both grinned and Sirius squeezed my hand underneath the table. “I guess this is what I get for going out with an Englishman,” I muttered.

James and Remus both laughed. “Because there are so many Welsh boys here for you to choose from,” Remus pointed out.

I acknowledged his point. “Yes, fair enough. So, who else is in the Cup?” I asked, changing the subject. “What about Scotland, who did they draw?”

James looked at the newspaper again. “Uh – Australia, Lichtenstein and Tanzania. Tough pool. I’d say they’ll probably get through, along with Tanzania, but Australia is going to be the dark horse there.”

I turned to look for Mary at the Ravenclaw table. “Yeah, I think she’s seen it,” I said. “She’s not looking happy. They could have trouble getting to the next round with that lot.”

Remus nodded. “Yes, Australia beat Latvia in a friendly last month,” he pointed out. “They’re starting to get a reputation for big games. I hope Lorraine Maddock’s Snitch-seeking sense is turned on when Scotland play them.”

“What about Ireland?” Lily asked. “Did they even make it this year?”

“Of course they did,” Peter scoffed. “You try telling Sean O’Hare that he can’t play in the World Cup, there’d be a riot.”

Lily smiled. “Well, yes, but then they did lose to Nepal just before Christmas, so you can’t say they’re in form.”

Remus grinned. “I didn’t know you were a Quidditch fan, Lily!”

She just shrugged. “You forget how much time I spend with James. Do you really think I had a choice?” She smiled again and looked at me. “Though now I kind of get why you love it so much, Laura.”

I smiled back. “Yes, Quidditch can be addictive. Just wait till the summer, Lily, you’ll adore the World Cup. I just wish it was in Europe so we could go again.” I looked sideways at Sirius and grinned mischievously. “And watch Wales bring home the silverware.”

****

That evening our preparations for bed – punctuated by regular musings on who would actually win the World Cup (which, if I was honest with myself, was more likely to be England than Wales) – were interrupted when Mary came into the dorm between half past eleven and midnight. Martha immediately got up to greet her.

“And you must be Mary,” she said dramatically, a wide grin forming on her face. “Pleased to meet you and welcome to our dorm! I’m Martha, and this is Charlotte …” Her voice was drowned out by our laughter.

Mary grinned as she threw her bag on her bed. “Aye, I ge’ th’ point,” she said. “I havna bin aroond much lately, hae I?”

“It does happen when you’re going out with a Ravenclaw,” Charlotte said fairly. “I discovered that when I was seeing Hector. They’re very cliquey, those boys.”

Lily shook her head. “No, I can’t relate to that at all,” she deadpanned. “I don’t know anyone else who fits that description.” Her green eyes sparkled and she grinned mischievously.

“No, I bet Laura doesn’t either,” Martha said dryly. She turned to me. “How are you enjoying your new position as the most hated girl in Hogwarts?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said innocently. “No one hates me, do they?” I grinned despite myself. “I certainly can’t think of any tall blonde Ravenclaws who might have it in for me.”

“Or short blonde Ravenclaws,” Lily added. “Don’t discount Greta – if she put her mind to it she could do you some serious damage.” She smiled again. “Or Sirius damage, if you prefer.”

I groaned dramatically while Mary started nodding, her eyes going from Lily to me. “She an’ Elvira hae bin tryin’ t’ get dirt on ye,” she said. “They’ve bin askin’ me aboot ye in th’ Ravenclaw common room. Ye know, wha’ music ye lik’, wha’ books ye read, wha’ ye lik’ t’ dae i’ yer spare time. Aside from snoggin’ Sirius, tha’ is.” She grinned again. “I think they’re tryin’ t’ ge’ a profile of ye so they can plan a major attack.”

“You’re making them sound like an army,” I said with a giggle. “I wouldn’t have thought they could have gotten themselves that organised.”

“Well, they hae,” Mary said seriously. “Ye’ve forced them int’ action. Even they can see hoo Sirius is wi’ ye.”

“Brilliant,” I said grimly. “Just what I wanted.” Then I realised what she’d said and looked back at her. “What do you mean, how he is with me?”

There was the unmistakable sound of suppressed giggling from each of the other beds. “Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed,” Charlotte said. “He goes all doey-eyed when he looks at you. It’s hilarious. Kind of sweet, but hilarious.”

“And he won’t let go of you,” Martha added. “You’re joined at the hip. And you can’t tell me he was like that with me or Clio or Dione.”

“I guess,” I said hesitantly. “Anyway,” I went on more bracingly, changing the subject, “what sort of thing are they planning, Mary?”

She shrugged. “Goo’ question. I dinna know, an’ they’re nae exactly likely t’ tell me, are they?”

“But you could ask Sebastian to keep an ear out, couldn’t you?” I asked.

Mary made a face. “Tha’s more complicated,” she said. “’Cause Seb’s friends wi’ Bernie, ye know, an’ he’s still nae too happy ye an’ Sirius are back t’gether, so Seb’s nae goin’ t’ stop anythin’ tha’ coul’ break ye up. ’Cause he wants Bernie t’ be happy.” She paused. “We’ve had more than one – discussion – aboot this.”

I shook my head. “But I thought that was done with now. I mean, Bernie’s a nice enough boy, but I good as told him it’s just not going to happen. Not so long as Sirius is around, you know?”

“I think even Bernie knows tha’,” Mary admitted. “Bu’ he’s still hopeful I think.”

Lily was shaking her head too. “That’s not fair on Laura though,” she said sternly. “If he really liked her, that is really, then he’d want her to be happy. And breaking her and Sirius up isn’t going to make her happy, that was proven over the holidays.” She looked at Mary. “It’s not fair on you, either,” she went on . “Sebastian’s not making you choose between your friends and his, is he?”

Mary shook her head. “Nae, he’s nae tha’ bad. He jus’ wanted Bernie t’ ge’ th’ girl. An’ I can understand tha’.”

“We need to find someone else to set him up with,” Martha said. “That should do it. Distract him and get him over her.”

“He shouldn’t need to get over me though,” I pointed out. “It’s not like we ever actually got together, is it? So there was nothing there to start with.”

Mary gave me a look. “Aye, ‘cause tha’ makes all th’ difference, whether ye actually go’ t’gether,” she said . “So if ye an’ Sirius ne’er go’ t’gether, ye’re sayin’ tha’ ye wouldna hae needed t’ ge’ over him?”

“Oh.” I had to admit, she had a point. “But really, though? He never liked me that much.”

“Find him another girl,” Martha said again. “Do you think Gertie Cresswell would do the trick?”

“You’d be better off with Veronica Smethley from Hufflepuff,” Lily said thoughtfully. “She’s more like Laura than Gertie is.”

Charlotte shook her head. “No, she’s going out with Cadmus Branstone,” she said. “I heard her crying her eyes out in the toilets when his dad was killed.”

“Thalia Strout?” Mary suggested. “I saw them dancin’ t’gether a’ the Yule Ball.”

“I guess that’s possible,” Lily said doubtfully.

“No, I’ve got it.” Martha looked triumphant. “Set him up with Elvira. That way they can both whinge about Laura and Sirius to their hearts’ content.”

Mary burst into laughter. “Oh, I love it,” she said with a broad smile. “I’ll drop a word int’ both their ears an’ see wha’ I can dae, shall I?”

________________________________________


Author’s note: I’m not thrilled with this chapter – it feels a little too disjointed and filler-ish for my liking – but I haven’t been able to get it to a point that satisfies me yet. It’s possible that inspiration will strike in the future, though, so if you notice the odd tweak here and there to improve the flow that would be why. In any case, thanks for persevering!

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48
The first Hogsmeade visit of the year was scheduled for two days before my birthday, and Sirius had been dropping hints for ages that he had something planned. Not one for wanting the surprise to be ruined, I obliged him by not asking any questions and just letting him plot away. I was vaguely mindful of the amount of schoolwork I still needed to do, but this was the first Hogsmeade visit we’d had as a couple and I had no intention of not going.

That morning I dressed with great care and attention. Doing much with my hair was useless, as the harsh March wind would demolish anything I tried within seconds of going outside, but I experimented with a bit of makeup and found some earrings that went rather nicely with the bracelet Sirius had given me for Christmas.

By the time we left Hogwarts, it was already eleven o’clock: Filch had held everyone up in the Entrance Hall while he tried to find the list of students who had permission to go, and then scanned us all for anything illegal before we could leave. I’d never properly understood that – why would we be taking contraband out of the school? – but it was a ritual we had to succumb to nonetheless.

Sirius put his arm around my waist as we walked down the driveway towards the gates. “Are you okay?” he asked, looking at me. “I’ve been looking forward to this for ages.”

“I was just thinking about how things can change,” I told him. “Bertram used to say the same sort of thing to me as you do, and after a couple of months he was going around with someone else behind my back.”

He frowned. “I’ve been thinking about that,” he said, “trying to get my head around it, and I can’t . I can’t work out why he would have done it. He must have known how it would turn out.”

“Sick of me, most probably,” I said.

He looked at me incredulously. “You’re joking,” he said. “You must be. How could anyone get sick of you?”

“Bertram must have,” I said. “And it had been about as long as we’ve been together. So part of me wonders whether you might do it too.”

“Now you are joking,” he said, giving me a bit of a squeeze as we made our way through the front gates of the school. “You can’t seriously think I’d do that, not after everything we’ve been through.”

“I’m doing my best,” I admitted. “And I do trust you, I know that.” I snuggled into him. “It’s just that sometimes my brain goes off and thinks things like that before I can stop it.”

He pulled me to one side of the road, and then stopped and turned me to face him. “Laura Cauldwell,” he said earnestly, “you are the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and if you think I’m going to ruin that by screwing around you don’t know me half as well as I thought you did.” His grey eyes were full of sincerity and his face had lost that haughty look, a sure sign he was telling the truth.

“All right,” I said. “I believe you. I guess I just can’t believe my luck.” And I went up on tip toes and kissed his cheek. He held me tightly in a half-romantic, half-reassuring way.

“And I can’t believe mine,” he said lightly. “And now, I thought you might like to go to Madam Puddifoot’s …” He laughed, ducking as I swung a playful fist towards his head.

I did see a few people heading towards the tea-shop, among them Bernie Carmichael and a girl who I thought might be in sixth year. I smiled to myself, hoping that it might work out for them, and congratulating myself for not being that girl – if he liked Madam Puddifoot’s, then we most probably weren’t a very good match anyway.

Instead Sirius and I spent a leisurely hour or so wandering the high street, scoffing quietly at the shabby stalls that seemed to have multiplied exponentially since our last visit, and dropping into places like Dervish & Banges and checking out their Sneakoscope range, and Scrivenshaft’s where I picked up a new eagle feather quill. Just before midday Sirius looked at his watch.

“You hungry?” he asked. “Let’s go to the Three Broomsticks. I fancy an early lunch.”

I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast so the idea of food was definitely appealing. We made our way into the busy pub, the lunchtime traffic just starting to build up, and had a hearty and warming lunch, something I thought necessary considering the weather outside.

On our way out we passed Lily and James, who had just arrived with Martha, Charlotte, Remus and Peter. We waved and Sirius smiled conspiratorially. “We’re just on our way to the hideout,” he said to James, who nodded and looked at me with a barely suppressed grin.

“What hideout?” I asked as we made our way onto the crowded street, using my free hand to pull my cloak closer around me in a vain attempt to block out the cold March wind.

“You’ll see,” he said smugly.

I hesitated. “Do I really want to know?”

He looked at me, his expression serious all of a sudden. “Laura, you still trust me, don’t you?”

“Completely,” I replied, realising it was true. My doubts of the morning, if they had even been doubts at all, had totally evaporated.

“Well, then,” he said, pulling me by the hand, “come on.”

I had no answer to that, but stopped dead in my tracks when I saw where he was leading me. “The Shrieking Shack? You’re taking me there?” I wasn’t sure if I was thrilled or horrified.

“Of course,” he said. “Why not?”

“Because it’s haunted,” I said, stating the obvious. “There are supposed to be all sorts of malevolent spirits in there.”

“Rubbish,” he said confidently, grinning at me. “It’s not haunted . I’ve been in there loads of times. Not with girls,” he added, correctly interpreting my look. “Come on.” Accepting defeat, I allowed myself to be pulled towards the silent building.

It certainly looked foreboding, a feeling that increased the closer we got . The windows were all boarded up and what was once a garden was overgrown and dank. Sirius, however, was unperturbed and seemed to know what he was doing, looking briefly around to make sure no one could see us before leading me to a back entrance.

“Everyone’s probably having lunch so we shouldn’t get too many third-years wandering up to have a look at the place,” he said, “so it’s about as private as we’ll get.” He indicated the door with his thumb. “This is supposed to be sealed up,” he went on, getting his wand out and tapping what looked like random spots on the door frame. “We – the guys and I – unsealed it, but you have to know the code to get in.”

“So this is a Marauder hangout,” I said slowly. “It figures. Why did you bring me here though? I thought your hangouts were like sacred sites.”

“Because this is the only place I could think of,” he said, smiling wickedly as the door opened, “where I was sure we wouldn’t be disturbed.”

We slipped inside. The place looked just as bad on the inside as it did on the outside. There were bits of furniture scattered around the room, looking like they had been torn apart rather than any other explanation. The wallpaper was ripped and there was no glass in the boarded-up windows, allowing an icy draught to penetrate the house.

Sirius took me by the hand and led me upstairs to a dusty bedroom. “This won’t do at all,” he said as if to himself, frowning slightly as he looked around the murky room. “I thought I’d left it in better condition than this.” Again, broken furniture littered the floor, the wallpaper was torn, and the whole place had an odd smell, like a farm or something. Sirius walked around the room briskly, tidying up what he could.

“Right,” he was saying. “Reparo!” The broken furniture dutifully reassembled itself, and some of the wallpaper reattached itself to the wall.

“Incendio! Moliorobex!” A fire started burning happily in the grate, giving the room a more cheerful feeling, and the icy draught coming from the boarded-up window disappeared, immediately making the room warmer. “Scourgify! Tergeo!” The remaining mess on the floor disappeared and the air felt cleaner, less musty. “Renovo!” Fresh linen appeared on the newly-repaired bed.

“That’s more like it,” Sirius said, apparently still to himself. Another wave of his wand and a vase of daffodils was sitting on the dressing table.

I looked at him with admiration. “I didn’t know you were so good at housekeeping spells,” I said, unable to keep the surprise from my voice. Somehow Sirius and housekeeping didn’t seem to mix.

He shrugged. “Got my own place, no house elves, I pretty much had to learn them,” he said unconcernedly. “Now,” he added, that wicked grin back on his face, “we have –” he checked his watch – “three hours or so before we’re due back at school. The guys know we’re here, and no one else can get in, so we’re not going to be interrupted.”

“No interruptions?” I repeated quietly. It was like a dream come true. Without even bothering to answer, he pulled me towards him and kissed me deeply. My hands found their way under his cloak and shirt to his bare skin, and I could feel his muscles tensing as he held me. As I eased his cloak off his shoulders and dropped it to the floor, I knew that I had never wanted anything so badly in my life as I wanted him, right there, right now. There was no hesitation or uncertainty, just the knowledge that this was the right time. Everything we had done to that point had been leading up to this moment.

I pulled away from him just long enough to whisper the words, even though I felt somewhat awkward and more than a little self-conscious to even say them. I knew it was important, though, that there were no misunderstandings.

“Make love to me.”

He smiled softly. “Are you sure?”

“More than anything,” I responded.

“Well, if you change your mind, make sure you tell me,” he warned.

I just smiled. “Fine. If I get uncomfortable, I’ll tickle you.” I’d discovered that he was extremely ticklish if you got him in the right place.

He groaned. “Well, if that’s what it takes,” he complained, then smiled again as we fell together onto the bed, a jumble of limbs meshed together as we fought to get out of our clothes.

****

We lay on the bed, still intertwined, my head on his shoulder and my hand resting on his chest. “I’m not even going to ask if that was your first time,” I said with a sly grin, greedily breathing in the heady musky aroma that was unmistakably Sirius.

He smiled back. “Of course not. If you hand me that quill you just bought, I’ll write you out a list.” He paused, miming writing in the air. “Elvira Vablatsky. Greta Catchlove. Carol Jones. Primrose McLeod. Wendy Savage. Leda Madley …”

“Okay,” I said. “I asked for that.”

“Yep, you did,” he agreed with a grin. “Seriously, though, Dione, yes, a couple of times. Not that I’m especially proud of that, knowing now what she’s like. And a Muggle girl in London last summer who looked a bit like you. Not Clio, though, she had this idea that you had to be in love to do it, and that we definitely weren’t. I wasn’t all that fussed. That is to say, pretty girl, but nothing on you.”

I laughed. “You barely knew me when you were with her!”

“Ah, but you were the reason we broke up,” he said cheerfully, stroking my hair. “That rotten mood I was in? That was because you’d gotten together with Aubrey, and I was insanely jealous.”

I lifted my head and looked at him in surprise. “Really?”

He nodded. “Yes, really. Took me a while to work it out, though, so of course I had the frustration of not knowing why I was so pissed off that compounded it a bit.” He grinned. “Or maybe a lot. But yes, that’s what it was all about. In the end it was Moony who pointed it out. Said I was behaving just as badly as Prongs was with Lily. Suddenly I realised he was right.”

“Goodness,” I said, leaning over so our faces were only inches apart. “You have been patient.”

“You’re not wrong,” he said wryly, moving even closer. “Good thing you were worth it.”

“So were you.” I leaned in that last inch to kiss him and we again gave in to the moment, revelling in the fact that we were absolutely alone, that no one was going to suddenly open the door and catch us.

“You never told me why this is a hangout,” I said a little while later.

“I guess not,” he said quietly, running his hand through my hair again. “It’s not really my story to tell.”

I looked at him sympathetically. “Another one of those secrets?”

He sighed. “Actually, I’ve got permission to tell you now,” he said, suddenly becoming very solemn. “You have to promise not to breathe a word of this to anyone.”

“I promise.” I rolled onto my stomach and propped myself up with my elbows, wondering what on earth could possibly be so secret that he was treating it so seriously.

He took a deep breath. “This all starts with Remus,” he said finally, pulling himself up and leaning against the headboard. “I don’t know if you heard any of the rumours about him that went round a couple of years ago …”

Something stirred in the back of my mind. “Do you mean Snape’s theory?”

He nodded grimly. “Yes, that’s the one.” He paused, watching me, before taking another breath and continuing. “Well, as much as it kills me to admit it, Snivellus actually got it right for once.”

I was staring at him, horrified. “Do you mean that Remus is a – a werewolf?” It seemed too bizarre to credit.

Sirius nodded again. “Yes, he is. He got bitten as a two year old. He’s had a rough life.” He paused. “Prongs and I worked it out in second year – he would say he was going to see his ill mother, but he always looked like the one who was ill. And when he said he was ill, we’d sneak into the hospital wing to see him and he wouldn’t be there. He’d be there the next day, looking more like he’d been in a brawl than anything else, but not overnight. Even Peter was seeing the clues.” He paused again, looking at me searchingly. “Listen, does this change anything? Are you okay with it?”

“Once I get over the shock,” I said wanly . “No, of course it doesn’t change anything. I guess it makes sense, now I come to think of it. But – poor Remus!! What a horrible thing to have to go through!”

“Yeah,” he said dryly. “You can understand why he’s not keen for it to be common knowledge. Most people aren’t as open minded as we are.” He paused again. “It’s funny, looking back,” he said. “Here was me, so worried about how people would treat me for being a Black, when one of my best mates was becoming a monster every month and having to deal with that. When he realised we knew he even assumed we wouldn’t want to be friends with him any more. Which just shows how people had reacted in the past, like what Viridian was talking about last year.” His fist clenched. “Stupid, ignorant idiots …”

“Calm down,” I said, grabbing his hand and kissing it. “So, one of your best friends is a werewolf. What does that have to do with this place?”

He grinned suddenly. “This place was built specifically for Moony. It’s only been here seven years. You know that tunnel underneath the Whomping Willow? It leads here – there’s a trapdoor in one of the rooms downstairs. Each month at the full moon, Madam Pomfrey takes him down to the Willow, which can be frozen if you know how, and he comes in here to transform.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “And that explains the condition of everything,” I guessed, my eyes flicking around the room as I remembered what it had been like when we’d walked in. “He rips things apart. And now I understand why he’s never had a girlfriend. I mean, Charlotte’s been pretty much throwing herself at him for ages. But he’s not game, is he? He’s scared of getting too close to someone in case he hurts them.”

Sirius was looking at me shrewdly. “That’s right,” he agreed. “We’ve tried to convince him that any girl worth her salt wouldn’t care, but he’s too chicken to find out. Seems to think he doesn’t deserve it, or something.”

“Poor boy,” I murmured. “It must be awful for him.” My heart almost broke at the thought of his self-imposed lonely and loveless existence, but then something occurred to me and I giggled suddenly. “Is that what the furry little problem is? There’s no rabbit at all, is there?”

He laughed. “Yes, you guessed it,” he said. “We needed something to call it in public, so that was what James came up with. I think it was in third year that someone came to the conclusion that we were talking about a badly behaved rabbit, and we just never bothered to correct them. That poor animal must have the worst reputation of any creature known to man.”

“Well, it’s a good cover,” I admitted. “None of us ever realised there was anything more to it than that.” I paused, giggling to myself over James’ idea of a good code name, when I remembered a bit of the earlier conversation. “But I thought you said you would come down here? You can’t do that if there’s a werewolf … Merlin’s beard!” I suddenly exclaimed, realising something. “That time James saved Snape’s life! He was going down that tunnel! He would have found …”

“Yep, he would have found a fully-fledged werewolf if he’d made it all the way,” Sirius said stonily, not looking at me. “He should never have done what I said in the first place. Honestly, if Snivellus told me to go down an unknown passageway after dark because I might be interested in what I found there, there’s no way known I’d go without some serious backup and a heap of precautions.” He paused. “I’m not proud of what I did,” he said eventually, his eyes finding mine again. “I was just so sick of him following us around all the time, trying to get us expelled, I thought I’d give him something to really think about. And he was being such a prat about that whole Imperius Curse thing. It seemed like a good idea at the time … I don’t always think things through very well,” he went on, looking somewhat sheepish.

I decided to let it slide. He’d improved on that matter since fifth year. “So, this place as a hangout,” I prompted.

“Right,” he smiled, obviously glad for the change of subject. “Well, we could see how badly the transformations were affecting Moony, he was always zonked afterwards and generally in a pretty bad way. There was no one for him to attack so he’d attack himself.” I shuddered involuntarily, and he gave my hand a comforting squeeze. “So James, Peter and I tried to figure out a way that we could make it easier for him. Make it a time that he didn’t dread so much. And eventually we came up with the idea of becoming Animagi.”

My jaw dropped in astonishment. “Animagi?”

He nodded. “Yep. It was James’ idea initially, I think. A werewolf is only dangerous to people. So, we thought, if we could become animals, we could hang out with him when he’s transformed and not be in any danger.”

I couldn’t fault his logic but what he was saying was beyond belief. “You’re not telling me you’re an Animagus,” I said. “That’s – that’s really advanced, you can’t do that when you’re still at school!”

“Try me,” he said lightly. “We worked it out during fifth year. James, Peter and I can become animals at will.”

I had sat up by now, stunned and amazed by what he was telling me. “You – and James – and Peter – are all Animagi? That’s unbelievable. And what a fantastic thing to do for Remus!”

He shrugged, as he always did when someone complimented him. “It took a long time, the best part of three years, but we managed it. Peter needed a bit of help,” he added, grinning. “But the upshot is that every month when Remus comes down here, we follow him with James’ Invisibility Cloak and transform into animals so we can keep him company. James and I are pretty big, so we can handle a werewolf, and Pete is small enough to freeze the Willow and to keep a lookout for us.”

“So what do you turn into?” I asked breathlessly.

Wordlessly he got up and, suddenly, an enormous shaggy black dog was sitting on the rug next to the bed. Wondering why it looked so familiar, I reached over to stroke its snout and he changed back to Sirius, laughing.

“We weren’t surprised, of course,” he said, getting back onto the bed. “Sirius is the dog star, so as a Black I had to be a black dog. James is a stag, and Pete’s a rat. Same as our Patronuses, you might notice.”

Well, that was probably why it was familiar – it was just like his Patronus. In any case I just stared at him, amazed. Then something else occurred to me and I giggled unexpectedly. “Well, that explains the amortentia.”

“What?”

“Amortentia,” I repeated. “When we did it in Potions, one of the things I could smell was wet dog. I couldn’t for the life of me work out why.”

He smiled broadly. “That potion never lies, does it?”

I looked at him curiously. “So what did you smell?”

He hesitated. “Well, when you’re an Animagus things like amortentia can get a bit warped. And because I’m a dog my sense of smell is heightened as well, so there’s that to take into account. So the dog part of me could smell dog biscuits and rabbits and other dog things, all intermingled with human stuff like hot cross buns and treacle tart and that smell you get outside when it’s just been raining.” He leaned over and put his face in my hair, inhaling deeply. “And that.”

I smiled. “Right answer.” Then I realised something abruptly and stared at him. “But … the dog … you did follow me!” That was why it looked familiar, I understood suddenly – not just because of the Patronus, but because I had seen it before.

He looked confused. “Follow you?”

“When I left James’ place in January,” I explained, a little shamefacedly. We didn’t talk about that time very much, the break-up – things had moved on so far from that now that it seemed pointless, as well as painful.

He laughed. “Of course I followed you,” he said. “I was trying to get you to come back! Why would you think –” His voice broke off as comprehension dawned on his face. “You thought I didn’t! Oh, crap, I was the dog, wasn’t I? Mother of Merlin, what was I thinking? I just transformed because it’s the fastest way to run on snow, but I couldn’t catch the car, so I went back and wrote to you instead. But you thought I didn’t …” He trailed off, shaking his head.

I smiled tersely. “That was exactly what I thought. I was looking for the bike and all I saw was what I thought was a stray dog chasing the car. I thought you didn’t even care enough to chase after me.”

He clapped a hand to his face. “The bike! Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Probably because you had the option of turning into a dog,” I said wryly. “But yeah, I was convinced you couldn’t be bothered.”

“And that was why you sent that stuff back,” he muttered, his hand moving to where the bracelet sat on my arm. “That makes more sense now. Geez, Laura, I’m sorry.”

I grabbed his hand and kissed it again. “Well, we sorted it out eventually, didn’t we? But yeah, it might have been different if I’d realised. ” Then suddenly something else made sense and I changed the subject. “And now I get what you’ve been doing.” He looked at me quizzically. “Those nights you disappeared with James and Peter and told me not to ask questions,” I explained. “There was a full moon, wasn’t there? You were going to see Remus.”

He looked a little uncomfortable. “I hated not telling you,” he admitted. “And you were right, it did look like I didn’t trust you. But it wasn’t my secret, and, well, we were a bit rocky for while there so I wanted that to settle down before I would even consider asking Moony if I could tell you.”

I nodded. “That’s fair enough. I mean, knowing about it now, it’s fair enough, but I wasn’t too thrilled at the time.”

“I noticed,” he said, making a face. “But I couldn’t say anything, and I didn’t want to lie to you.”

I decided to let it slide: it wasn’t his fault, after all. Then yet another thing clicked – so much that had puzzled me in the past was starting to add up now. “Of course,” I said quietly. “Those bloody nicknames. That’s where they come from.”

“Right again,” he agreed with a smile, looking relieved that I’d changed the subject yet again. “Prongs is the stag, Padfoot – me – is the dog, and Wormtail is the rat. And, of course, Moony, which now should need no explanation. And,” he went on, “that’s how we got into your dorm. The stairs only change for people, animals can get up there whether they’re male or female.”

I groaned. That made sense. “But Remus couldn’t get up, then, could he?”

“He can if he rides Prongs,” Sirius said, a broad smile once again adorning his face. “It was a good plan, though, wasn’t it?”

“That scared the hell out of us,” I admitted. “Realising you lot could get in. It shattered our illusions of privacy.”

He laughed. “You should be glad none of you keeps a diary. We could have learned all sorts of things.”

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that,” I said with a grin. “So, no one else knows about this?”

“Well, obviously, most of the teachers know about Moony. They had to be told so they wouldn’t be too hard on him if he missed a lot of school because of it. Not Slughorn, though, he’d have put him straight in the Slug Club and made a curiosity of him, and that’s the last thing Dumbledore wanted. Or Remus, for that matter.” He paused. “And Lily knows too,” he added as an afterthought.

“Yes, I imagine she would,” I said wryly. “James would have told her.”

“Oh, she knew about Moony before that,” Sirius said. “They were both prefects, and he wasn’t able to do all his duties at certain times so, with his permission, Dumbledore told her and asked her to cover for him if anyone said anything. That is, he got through fifth year okay, as by chance the full moon was always at a convenient time, but sixth year was more of a problem for him. Being Lily, of course, she never told anyone.”

“No, she never did,” I mused. Charlotte had been quietly wondering about Remus’ frequent illnesses for ages and Lily had never breathed a word.

“And I expect she knows about the rest of us by now,” he went on. “We gave permission ages ago, and Prongs can never keep anything from her for very long. But that’s it, no one else.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m amazed. But you have my promise, I won’t tell a soul.”

“Thanks,” said Sirius, leaning forwards and kissing my forehead. “I knew you wouldn’t. Otherwise I’d never have told you.” He lifted my chin so I was facing him again and kissed me gently. “Anyway,” he went on a moment later, and throwing a t-shirt at me, “I’d say this one’s yours. We’d better think about getting back to school.”

________________________________________



Author’s note: Well, it is rated Mature! I admit that I didn’t originally intend the full disclosure of Marauder secrets to come out as pillow talk, but I started writing and this is how it evolved. It’s undergone a few revisions since it was first written but I think I’ve included everything. I must say I like the line “and Pete’s a rat” – it is nice to have a bit of foreshadowing in there.

________________________________________

49
My eighteenth birthday fell the following Monday so any activities were, like Valentines Day, tempered by the fact we had to go to lessons. As a result, I wasn’t expecting much by way of attention or special treatment. Sirius, however, had other ideas.

“Hey there, birthday girl,” he said almost shyly as I came down the stairs to the common room before breakfast. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

“Hey there yourself,” I said quietly as I reached him, allowing myself to be kissed. “What kind of surprise?”

“The best,” he grinned as he grabbed my hand and led me out through the portrait hole, me belatedly waving at our friends still inside.

We both had a free period first thing so he could have had just about anything planned. I knew there was a birthday present coming at some point, though – there had been nothing from him in the pile at the foot of my bed that morning and I couldn’t imagine he’d ignore it entirely.

“I’d thought of going into the forest for a picnic,” he said as we walked in the direction of the owlery, “but then I looked outside and decided that might not be such a good idea.” I looked towards the nearest window and laughed – it was pouring down outside, so hard that I thought that even if we tried we wouldn’t make it to the forest without getting flattened by the sheer force of the rain.

“Absolutely right,” he agreed to my unspoken summary of that idea. “So I had to resort to Plan B.”

I looked at him. “And what’s Plan B? Am I allowed to ask?”

He smiled. “Of course not. You’ll have to see.”

“Fine. But, most importantly, will there be food? I’m famished.”

He grinned even more broadly. “Yes, Laura, there will be food. I can’t have you starving on me, can I?”

I smiled back. “Just checking.”

We stopped abruptly by the statue of Wilfrid the Wistful, and Sirius tapped its shoulder with his wand and said, “Dissendium,” making it come away from the wall and revealing a relatively roomy cavern.

“It’s a secret passage for house elves,” he explained. “Roomy at this end, but past about five yards it’s only about three feet high. I don’t know if it actually is for house elves, but it makes a good story. Oh good,” he went on, “Wormtail’s been already.”

I looked around. The cavern had been made rather comfortable, with a rug on the floor, a plush-looking couch and a coffee table, and a couple of torches placed on the walls to illuminate it and also provide some warmth. On the coffee table was a large platter with a lid, a flagon of pumpkin juice and a jug of coffee, and I suspected that was what Sirius had meant by his comment about Peter – the food had arrived.

“Tell me,” I said as I took it all in, “why we have never been here before?” It struck me as a perfect rendezvous location, being so close to the common room and everything.

He chuckled. “To be honest, I’d forgotten about it,” he admitted. “And obviously it’s not usually this comfortable. This stuff is all conjured, aside from the food of course. Oh, and Filch knows about it so there’s always the possibility of getting caught.” I raised an eyebrow at him – he’d never exactly been one to shy from risky behaviour before. “Oh, all right,” he said with a smile. “Sometimes that does make things more interesting, the risk of getting caught. But I’m not sure that you and I need that extra buzz …”

His voice trailed off as he sat me down on the couch and lifted the lid of the platter, revealing a stack of pancakes with butter and maple syrup. “A special treat for a special day,” he grinned. “How many would you like?”

I let him wait on me as we shared a private breakfast. The platter, flagon and jug had obviously been charmed to refill whenever they were emptied – Sirius must have really sweet-talked the house-elves to get that organised, I thought – and we had a lovely meal cosied up together on the couch. Once we’d finished Sirius waved his wand a couple of times and they all disappeared, leaving us alone in the cavern accompanied by nothing but the lingering smell of fresh coffee.

“So, Laura,” he said, leaning back with his arms around me, “happy birthday.”

I looked up and kissed him. “Thank you. It’s been lovely.”

He looked at me with mock horror. “You don’t think that’s all, do you?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “Is it?”

“Never,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice. “It’s only just started.” And he pulled out his wand and waved it again, most probably doing a non-verbal Summoning Charm, and a parcel appeared from the back of the cavern and landed on the coffee table in front of me. “For you, birthday girl.”

I looked at it. “From the size of it, I’m guessing it’s not jewellery again,” I said with a smile.

He chuckled. “I did think of that, but it was probably getting a bit old. And besides, I wanted to get you something a little bit more personal this time.” He let go of me so I could open it.

The package contained – well, I won’t call it lingerie, because that’s probably misleading, but that’s what it was. A magnificent ivory silk slip that fell to mid-thigh, the softest silk I had ever felt in my life. It felt like liquid against my hands as I held it up. “Oh, Sirius. It’s beautiful!” I folded it back into its box and launched myself onto him so I could kiss him properly. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” he said once we had finished. “I thought that with skin as soft as yours is, you shouldn’t be subjecting it to those school robes we have to wear. Far too rough. So I decided that some decent quality silk would probably solve the problem.” He grinned. “With the added benefit being the way good silk just clings to every curve.”

“You’re despicable,” I laughed. “Do I take it you’d like me to model it for you?”

His face lit up. “Well, I wouldn’t say no …”

We stood up and he helped me strip down to my underwear before sliding the slip over my head. It felt just as exquisite on as it did in my hands and I felt like a princess or something, not quite believing that anyone short of royalty would have access to fabric this soft. This was turning into my best birthday ever.

“So?” I asked, pirouetting for him. “What do you think?”

He just stared at me, apparently unable to speak. “I think,” he said finally, “that I’m a very good chance of missing Muggle Studies this morning.” He paused. “I knew you’d be beautiful in it – you look beautiful in everything – but I wasn’t prepared for this. You look … words can’t describe the way you look.”

“Well don’t get any ideas,” I said sternly, though I was smiling. “Now I’ve got this on, I don’t plan on taking it off anytime soon.”

He smiled. “I can’t exactly argue with that, can I?”

And he was indeed on his best behaviour, keeping his hands on the outside of the slip at all times, though they did linger more in some places than others: he was only human, after all. We sat together on the couch for a while, me reluctant to put my school robes back on before it was absolutely necessary as then I’d only be able to feel the silk from the inside, and it felt rather indulgent to be wearing just that.

“I guess we can’t get away with staying here all day,” I said after a while.

He laughed. “Unfortunately not,” he agreed. “If nothing else, this stuff will disappear in another hour or so.” He indicated the furniture, rug and torches. “I thought we might need a prompt to get out of here to go to Potions.”

“And what about Muggle Studies?” I asked with a grin.

He shrugged, looking completely unconcerned. “It’s a piece of cake anyway. I only took it in the first place to annoy my parents, and then kept it up because Prongs wanted to learn about Lily and asked me to keep him company. Missing one class definitely won’t kill me.”

“Right you are then,” I said, giving him a squeeze. “So we have how much time left now?”

He looked at his watch and then pulled me onto his lap so that I was facing him. “Just enough time, I think, for one more of these …” And he pulled my face towards his as we kissed once again.

****

The following Saturday, I looked wistfully at the ceiling of the Great Hall as we filed in for breakfast. The sky was periwinkle blue and the wind seemed to have died down, leaving, for March, what seemed to be perfect weather. I sighed to myself as I sat at the Gryffindor table.

“What’s up?” Sirius asked, as always attuned to my moods.

“Nothing much,” I said. “It just looks like a beautiful day, and I haven’t taken my broom out in ages. So I was thinking how nice it would be to take a spin.”

“Well, why don’t you?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I’d rather be with you,” I said honestly. “I can ride a broom any old time.”

“Tell you what,” Sirius said, “how about we both head out for a ride? I’ll race you, twice around the Quidditch pitch.”

“On what broom?” I asked, thinking of the old Nimbus One Thousand I’d seen in his dorm. “Yours? You’ll never beat me, you don’t fly well enough.”

“I’ll borrow James’,” he said. “That should give me a chance.”

“Okay,” I said, accepting the challenge, “you’re on. What are we racing for, by the way? What does the winner get?”

“How about,” he said very quietly in my ear, “if I win, then I get to do whatever I like to you.”

“As opposed to … what?” I asked. “Last weekend? I thought we’d already done all that.”

He held my gaze. “Again,” he said.

I looked back at him, smiling mischievously, my fingers tracing his spine. “Then what’s the incentive for me to win?”

“Well, then, if you win,” he began.

I cut him off. “Then I get to do whatever I like to you?”

He grinned. “That sounds like a plan.”

We wandered down to the pitch not long after breakfast, taking care to avoid the large puddles that had formed during the week’s rainstorms. Sirius was carrying James’ broom, which he’d talked James into lending him on the strict proviso that it was returned in precisely the same condition that it came out in – him loaning it out in the first place was actually a tidy step for him, as we all knew that he was protective enough of the broom to keep it hidden beneath his bed, lest anyone get hold of it.

This was something I should probably have been doing, too – keeping my broom in the dorm. After less than a full lap of the pitch, I took one hand off the handle to brush a stray strand of hair out of my face, and my broom decided at that moment to lurch unpredictably in the air.

Alarmed, I quickly put both hands back on the handle: I hadn’t been kidding when I told James that my balance deserted me when they weren’t both there. The broom lurched again, quickly up and then down, like it was a wild horse trying to buck me off. I had barely regained my balance when it did it again, this time swinging sideways rather violently, and it was all I could do to hold on. Ahead of me I could see Sirius streaming around the pitch, oblivious to my predicament – I’d have to wait until I was in his path, when he’d almost lapped me, before he’d see what was happening.

“Sirius!” I yelled, trying to get him to turn around. “Sirius!”

The broom lurched again, this time upwards and to one side, and this time I did let go – it had defeated me, and I was no longer able to keep my grip. Whatever had possessed it to try to buck me off had done the trick. The trouble was, I was a good hundred feet off the ground, and I didn’t like how quickly it was coming up to meet me. Closing my eyes, I braced myself for the blow.

Fortunately Sirius had heard my screams and doubled back to me, and while he didn’t manage to deftly catch me while flying James’ broom he did get there in time to break my fall, and when I hit the ground it was at a much lesser speed than I’d feared.

“Are you okay?” Sirius asked, and I blinked to get him into focus. “What happened?”

“Broom bucked me off,” I explained, trying to sit up and wincing a bit from the pain in my right arm and shoulder – I’d landed awkwardly and was feeling the effects. “It was so strange, like it wasn’t even my broom.”

He helped me to sit and then walked over to where my broom was lying on the grass, about twenty feet from me. “Well, it’s definitely yours,” he said, inspecting it closely. “Unless there’s another broom called ‘Cauldwell’ that lives in the broom shed.” He sat down next to me, his face full of concern. “Do you think someone might have jinxed it?”

I thought about that, pleased to have something to take my mind off my throbbing arm. “I suppose it’s possible,” I said slowly. “You know, Elvira or someone. Mary did say they were plotting against me.”

“If they did this, then they’ll have me to answer to,” he snarled. “You could have been killed. I’m not going to stand for it.”

“How about,” I said, letting him help me to stand, “we find out exactly what was wrong with it before we jump to any conclusions. Maybe it just needed a service or something.”

“How likely is that?” he asked. “Not with you, you know when it needs servicing.” He paused as I tried to walk. “Both legs okay?” he went on, changing the subject. “I’m taking you to see Madam Pomfrey, she’ll get you fixed up in no time. That arm looks nasty.”

Surprised, I looked down at it – I knew it was aching but I hadn’t expected anything too major to be wrong with it. But he was right, it was hanging at what even I could see was the wrong angle. Wincing a little, I allowed myself to be taken back to the castle.

****

The school Matron peered into my eyes. “I think you are fine to leave,” she admitted. “But if you feel any headaches whatsoever, you come straight back here,” she went on sternly. “While I don’t think you have a concussion, we can’t take any chances.”

“Thanks, Madam Pomfrey,” I said, feeling my right arm gingerly. It had been broken, and my shoulder dislocated, but they had been fixed within minutes of my arrival in the hospital wing, and now there were hardly any signs it had been hurt at all. Grinning, I thought of how long the recovery process would have been if I’d been a Muggle – sometimes, it almost felt like it was worth potentially facing the Death Eaters if it meant that we could still use magic.

“I took the broom to McGonagall while you were being patched up,” Sirius said as he walked me back upstairs to the common room. He’d wanted to stay with me but Madam Pomfrey, so protective of her patients, hadn’t allowed it. “She said it sounded like there might have been a Hurling Hex on it, so she and Flitwick are going to check it out. They might give it to Perkins too, to look for any Dark Magic.” He paused, letting that possibility sink in. “I wouldn’t be keeping it in the broomshed any more, either, once you get it back,” he went on. “If you have been targeted then that’s a really easy way for them to get to you.” He shook his head. “I should have thought of that before,” he muttered to himself.

“Don’t you dare think this is your fault,” I told him sternly. “I’m a big girl and I can look after myself. Where I keep my broom isn’t your responsibility.”

“Still,” he said, “if I ever find out who did this …”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said bracingly. “The main thing is, nothing too serious happened. I’m okay and the party can go ahead tonight.”

That had been my main concern – the party I was sharing with Remus that night. Sirius had been making noises that suggested they might cancel it if I wasn’t able to take part, and so much work had gone into it already that I didn’t want that going to waste.

The boys all took their usual party roles and with well-practiced actions were able to ensure that everything went according to plan. Music, food and drink were all endless and everyone was getting along famously.

Sirius was standing at a table measuring out shots of Firewhisky for some eager sixth-years when I came up behind him, put my arms around his waist and, thankful I had heels on so I could reach comfortably, started kissing his neck. He tensed ever so slightly. “I hope that’s you, Laura,” he said warily, pouring out another measure of the drink. It was probably fair enough, as Wendy Savage and her fifth-year friends had been eyeing him off a bit blatantly.

“So do I,” I said, holding up my wrist so he could see the bracelet that I always wore. “Otherwise someone else has stolen this.”

He put the bottle down and turned around, smiling at me. “Right, then, birthday girl, what can I get you?”

I considered. “Some chocolate éclairs would be nice. A glass of elderflower wine. And you, once you’ve finished playing barman.”

He smiled. “I think I can just about manage that,” he said. “And where would Madam like her food delivered?”

“I’ve been ensconced by the fire,” I said. “Though if you have any better ideas …” My eyes flicked towards the staircase to the boys’ dorms.

He laughed. “Maybe later,” he said with a grin. “If I can get someone to cover for me here. We’ll have to get permission from Moony, though, it’s his birthday too. We can’t lock him out of his own dorm.”

“And it’s not like we can rely on him to pull, either,” I conceded. “The fire it is, then.”

“I’ll be with you in two secs,” he promised, kissing my forehead. I smiled and went back to where Mary, Sebastian, Lily and James were sitting.

“Odd one out no longer,” I said, acknowledging the couples around me. “He’ll be over in a minute.”

“I’m guessing it didn’t take much convincing,” James said with a grin. “I can just about see the thumbprint on his forehead from here.”

Lily pretended to throw her goblet at him. “And you’re less under the thumb than he is? Shall we ask him?” She smiled. “Or Remus, now he’s an impartial observer.” And she called him over cheerfully.

“What’s up?” he asked pleasantly, sitting down on a spare armchair.

Mary smiled. “We need an independen’ judge. Who’s more under th’ thumb, James or Sirius?”

Remus laughed. “Easy. Prongs is. Lily’s had a lot longer to exert her influence than Laura has.” Lily beamed at him and high-fived Mary on the next couch.

James scowled. “You were supposed to be on my side!”

“And that is why, exactly?” Remus was clearly enjoying himself.

“’Cause Padfoot’s not here to argue,” James pointed out.

Sirius sat down with my wine and éclairs and obviously had just caught that last comment. “What aren’t I going to argue about?” he asked.

“We were discussing who’s more under the thumb of their respective girlfriends, you or James,” Sebastian explained. “And Remus decided it was James.”

Sirius laughed. “Nope, I’m definitely not going to argue with that,” he said without a trace of irony. “Lily’s got you good, Prongs. But then again, she had you good long before you two even got together. She’s just been perfecting it ever since.”

James snorted. “Like you can talk. Mr If-I-do-whatever-she-says-then-maybe-she’ll-like-me.”

Sirius had the grace to look embarrassed, then he grinned. “Worked, though, didn’t it?” And he made a show of feeding me a chocolate éclair.

Remus smiled. “Looks like you don’t need me as adjudicator any more,” he said. “These two are busy digging their own graves.” And, waving, he wandered over to where Charlotte, Martha and Peter were doing some fancy wand tricks for a bunch of earnest-looking fifth-years.

Later in the night Mary and Sebastian disappeared in search of a little privacy, so I went over to what was serving as the bar to join Sirius. He and James were staring gobsmacked at a couple by the far wall, trying unsuccessfully not to laugh. Following their gaze, I saw the couple in question were Louisa Philpott, who was in sixth year, and Peter, snogging as though their lives depended on it.

“Merlin’s beard,” Sirius was saying, “how pissed must she be?”

“You should know,” James responded with a grin. “You’ve been pouring her drinks all night.”

“Well, yes, but I didn’t think I’d put that much booze in them,” said Sirius, frowning slightly. “She must be a really cheap drunk.” He paused, thinking. “Either that or she snuck some down when I was with you.” He smiled at me.

I looked at them. “Has she shown any interest in him before now?”

James shook his head. “We’d have known about it if she had,” he pointed out. “Wormtail’s hardly the type to keep quiet about that sort of thing.”

Sirius laughed. “Yep, he’ll find fault with anyone,” he agreed, putting an arm around me, “but he’ll still snog them if they’ll let him. Remember that kerfuffle with Doris, or whatever her name was?” He grinned. “And look, she’s got to be at least three or four inches taller than him.” That wasn’t saying much, Peter was a good half a head shorter than me at least. If I had to guess I’d have said he’d stopped growing in third year.

“There’s no accounting for some people’s taste,” said James, smiling broadly. “And I’m talking about both of them.”

They had always treated Peter like this, in a kind of derisive, condescending way, but it never appeared to bother him. And you couldn’t deny that they were fond of him in their own way. I was a little uncomfortable with laughing at their friend like this, but then again I happened to agree with them. If Louisa really was interested in Peter, then I didn’t think much of her taste.

I was also conscious of the fact that if Peter did get a girlfriend it would make things rather awkward for Remus, and this was supposed to be a party to celebrate his birthday as well as mine. While it would be fine if Peter’s liaison finished that night, anything extended would make Remus the odd one out, the third wheel, and he’d be hard pressed to explain why he wasn’t hooking up with anyone himself. Having said that, however, he didn’t appear too concerned a minute or so later when he appeared at James’ shoulder.

“You’ve noticed Wormtail, then,” he said wryly, looking at our faces.

“It’d be tricky not to,” James conceded with a grin. “They’re making a bit of a spectacle of themselves.”

“That’s right,” Sirius agreed. “I feel like telling them to get a room. Not ours, though,” he added quickly, grinning as he gave me a bear hug, “we might be needing that later.”

Remus laughed. “Did you want me to create a diversion so you two can go upstairs?”

Sirius pretended to be shocked by the very suggestion. “Moony, you’re a prefect,” he said with mock horror, his arms still around me. “You can’t go around doing things like that!”

Remus smiled again, his brown eyes dancing. “Only for good friends,” he said. “Prongs and I won’t say a word, will we?”

“Not us,” James agreed, a sly grin on his face. “Otherwise you might let slip what Lils and I get up to. And the Head Boy and Girl have a reputation to maintain.”

I wasn’t sure I liked this being the topic of conversation, but the boys seemed completely unconcerned about it all and I supposed that they had no secrets from each other. Idly I thought of what Sirius had said back in January – if the guys thought we were shagging, you would have known about it. Well, if this was the sort of thing they said, I had to admit he was right.

Sirius was laughing. “Ah, Prongs, the stories we could tell,” he said airily. “I’m sure Dumbledore would be thrilled to find out what his Head students are actually doing when they’re supposed to be planning events or patrolling the corridors.”

James picked up an empty Firewhisky bottle and pretended to swipe it at Sirius’ head. “Just as I should let him know what you really use the Shrieking Shack for?”

“Right, because you never do that,” Sirius grinned back, ducking the blow. “Sneaking down to the tunnel under your Cloak when you say you’re going to the library.”

James held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay, you win,” he said. “But don’t think I’m not keeping an eye on you two. I need ammunition!”

“Speaking of which, Padfoot,” Remus said evenly, though his eyes were sparkling, “you never gave me an answer. Diversion, yes or no? And shut it, Prongs, they get first dibs because it’s Laura’s birthday.”

Sirius looked at me, and I smiled. “I think that’s a yes,” he said, grinning as he kissed my forehead.

“Right,” Remus was saying. “Give me a couple of minutes.” And, true to his word, a minute or two later some fireworks went off by the girls’ stairs on the opposite side of the common room, and Sirius and I used the resulting palaver to slip up the boys’ stairs unnoticed.

________________________________________

50
The next morning it took just about all of our self-control not to comment on the fact that Peter and Louisa Philpott seemed to be avoiding each other, confirming Sirius and James’ theory that the previous night’s display had indeed been a one-off. I wasn’t sure who had intitiated the stand-off – whether she’d reconsidered or whether he had decided she didn’t meet his standards – but it probably didn’t matter anyway. In any case it was the subject of much speculation and, frankly, hilarity on the part of Sirius and James, out of Peter’s hearing of course. As the Code said, all efforts to get the girl had to be supported.

I suspected, however, that Peter was pleased when Monday came around and we were all distracted by lessons, which were getting more and more difficult as NEWTS approached. Our Monday afternoon double Charms class, for example, had us practicing Disillusionment Charms, which needed a tidy bit of concentration to master. I was partnering Sirius again, and holding my own quite nicely.

“Nice one,” he smiled as I successfully Disillusioned him. You could tell when it had been done right as you felt a cold uncomfortable sensation down your back, rather like someone had cracked an egg on your head. When re-Illusioned, you had the same sensation but warm.

“Thanks,” I said, re-Illusioning him with a wave of my wand. I knew I was rather good at Charms but it was nice to have that confirmed by someone else. Especially someone I was pretty sure I was in love with. (Though that presented me with a bit of a quandary – should I tell him? Would he say it back or would it scare him away? I wasn’t really sure and I didn’t want to freak him out or anything.)

“Come back with me,” he said suddenly as he Disillusioned me.

“What?” I still hadn’t properly got used to his sudden change of subjects.

“At Easter. Come back to my place with me. Stay with me for the holidays.” He looked at me seriously, re-Illusioning me with a flick of his wand. “Think about it, no curfew, no teachers, no sneaking around, two weeks of just us!”

“I can’t,” I protested. “Mum and Dad are expecting me home, they’ve already made arrangements for a big family lunch on Easter Sunday and they’ll be really cut up if I’m not there.”

He was quiet for a spell as he considered that. “What about after?” he asked eventually. “That’s probably better anyway, there’s a full moon on Good Friday so I’ll go to Prongs’ place for that. And then it’s his birthday on the Monday. But you have to come,” he added plaintively. “I can’t go two weeks without seeing you. That time at Christmas was like torture.”

I thought about it. Frankly, I didn’t want to go two weeks without seeing him either. But actually staying at his flat? Tempting as that was (and believe me, it was incredibly tempting), my parents would have a fit.

“I might be able to manage a couple of nights,” I said slowly, Disillusioning him again as my brain worked at a million miles an hour. It was a bit of a job talking to him when I couldn’t see him properly, so I waved my wand and he was visible again. “I might be able to swing a night or two at Mary’s place. Assuming she goes along with it, of course,” I added. “Then it’s just a case of Apparating to you.”

His face lit up. “You think that will work? ’Cause I’m assuming your dad wouldn’t be too happy with his little girl cavorting with the likes of me.”

I laughed, feeling the tell-tale trickle down my back that indicated I’d been Disillusioned again. “No, he doesn’t want his little girl cavorting with anyone this year,” I said. “Even saying ‘I’m of age’ doesn’t work. If anything, it makes him stricter. That’s the trouble with being the youngest.”

“And the most beautiful,” he said, re-Illusioning me easily. “I can well understand why he’d be protective of you.”

“There’s still the first week, though,” I mused, smiling at the compliment. “Do you think you could drop by Bristol for a spell one day?”

He grinned. “And what will you tell them this time?”

I shrugged. “Probably shopping again. That’s what teenage girls normally do in their spare time, isn’t it? I don’t get much chance to look through Muggle shops because I’m here most of the time, it should be believable.”

“I’d say I can manage that,” he said, checking Flitwick wasn’t watching before sneaking a quick kiss onto my forehead. “Just let me know where and when and I’ll be there.”

I tackled Mary that night in the common room as we worked together on the Herbology essay Sprout had set us the previous week (‘Explain, with examples, some of the difficulties that can be encountered when breeding Venomous Tentacula and the best ways to avoid them’ – minimum two and a half feet).

“Mary,” I began as she flicked through Flesh-Eating Trees of the World, “are you going home over Easter?”

She looked surprised. “Aye, o’ course,” she said. “I always dae. An’ Ma made me promise this time, we’ve go’ Andrew’s wedding t’ organise.”

“Well,” I said, wondering how to word it, “can I stay with you without staying with you?”

She raised an eyebrow. “An’ wha’s tha’ supposed t’ mean?”

“I want to see Sirius over the holidays without my folks finding out,” I explained. “He’s asked me to stay with him.” She looked at me sharply. “Obviously I can’t for the whole holidays,” I continued, blushing, “but I would like to try for a night or two.”

Mary digested what I’d said. “So this means ye’re sleepin’ t’gether,” she said matter-of-factly. “Ye coul’ hae tol’ me!”

“And how should I have done that?" I asked, blushing even more. “‘Oh, by the way, Mary, I’ve been de-flowered’?”

She laughed. “Tha’ woul’ hae done nicely,” she said. “So when di’ it start?”

“Um, Hogsmeade,” I said, wondering if it was physically possible for me to get any redder. “That day just before my birthday.”

She just nodded and grinned at me, most probably figuring I was embarrassed enough and she needn’t continue with that line of conversation. “Richt, t’ put it anither way, ye canna keep yer hands off each ither an’ ye’re wondering hoo ye’re going t’ ge’ through two weeks apar’. Tha’ aboot it?”

“Something like that,” I admitted.

“An’ ye canna stay i’ school?” she asked.

“No, my folks have this big Easter lunch planned, whole family and everything,” I said. “And he’s got an arrangement with his landlord that he has to go back during school holidays, so the flat isn’t vacant for too long.”

“Hoo aboot Apparating?” she asked. “Ye coul’ make day trips.”

“I thought of that. But it’s a tidy step from my place to London, and I’m not very confident doing it over long distances,” I said. It was true – Bristol to London was over a hundred miles and I was terrified of Splinching myself.

Mary laughed. “Remember th’ three Ds?” she asked. “Th’ secon’ one wa’ determination, he’d say tha’ ye needed t’ be sufficien’ly determined on yer destination, t’ yearn t’ be i’ tha’ spot.”

“And?” I asked.

“Well, th’ way ye look a’ each ither, if gettin’ t’ him doesna give ye enough determination, naethin’ will.”

I raised my eyebrows at her.

“Aye, okay,” she said, abandoning that idea. “Floo?”

“You want me to show up at my boyfriend’s house after going through the Floo network?” I said archly. “Covered in soot and ash and Merlin only knows what else? I’d look a mess!”

“Good poin’,” she conceded. “Though I’m nae sure tha’ woul’ bother him much. I think ye coul’ show up tarred an’ feathered an’ covered wi’ Dungbombs an’ he wouldna complain, he’d jus’ be happy ye were there."

“Yeah, whatever,” I said, sure she was exaggerating. “Besides, there’s always the tracking thing in the Floo network – Dad would be able to find out where I’d gone, and we can’t have that.”

She just looked at me and then paused, thinking. “An’ he canna go t’ ye?”

“We can try a day trip, as you called it,” I said. “But that’s about it. There’s the issue of him being at his flat, he’s already going to be away from it over the Easter weekend. And frankly, sneaking around the back streets of Bristol during the day isn’t quite what I had in mind.”

“Where’s he goin’ t’ be o’er Easter?” Mary asked, distracted.

“James’ birthday,” I explained, leaving out the full moon bit. That wasn’t my secret to tell. “All the guys are going to that, and it sounds like it’s a boys-only thing.”

“Richt,” she said. “So ye wan’ my hoose as a base, a cover story.”

“If we could,” I pleaded. “I can Apparate from your place easy, it’s only a few miles.”

Mary was quiet for a minute or two, which felt like forever as I waited for her answer. “I’ll hae t’ clear it wi’ Ma,” she said finally. “She’s unusually good wi’ tha’ sor’ o’ thing, she le’ me stay wi’ Marcus las’ summer. An’ she’d need t’ be i’ on it fer when yer pa checks up on ye, which if I know yer parents is boond t’ happen.”

I nodded, breathing a sigh of relief. This might actually work. “Yep,” I agreed. “Mum would too if she was confident about sticking her head in the fire. Twenty-five years they’ve been married, you’d think she’d be used to it by now.”

“So, le’s ge’ this straigh’,” she said. “Yer parents dinna wan’ ye havin’ a boyfrien’, or doin’ anything else tha’s fun, during yer final year because it will put ye off yer NEWTs. Which is all well an’ good, except alon’ comes Sirius t’ spoil their plans, and ye’re jumpin’ up an’ doon sayin’ ‘Aye’ afore he can ge’ th’ words oot. Oot o’ curiosity,” she added, “wha’ woul’ they hae said if he’d go’ his act together an’ asked ye oot las’ year? Woul’ they hae made ye break it off o’er summer?”

“Probably,” I said gloomily. “Dad’s pretty strict on schoolwork being top priority during NEWTs. And with Bea it wasn’t exactly an issue, not unless she was shagging Sturgis behind everyone’s backs.”

“No, it wouldna hae bin,” she agreed with a giggle, probably at the thought of Beatrice and Sturgis having it off. (Which, if I thought about it, was rather an amusing mental image.) “She’d even bin kicked oot o’ th’ Gobstones Club by then, hadna she? Richt, back to it. So ye dinna wan’ them t’ know aboot Sirius but ye’re gaggin’ fer it –” she grinned as I blushed yet again while rolling my eyes at her – “so ye need an excuse t’ come t’ London so ye can see him.” She eyed me critically. “Ye dinna hae any experience i’ wedding plannin’, dae ye?”

I smiled. “Actually I do. Cousin Gwendolyn, last summer. I was a bridesmaid, remember?”

She held up her hand for me to high-five her. “Brilliant! There’s yer excuse. I’ll write t’ yer folks an’ say Ma and I are plannin’ Andrew’s wedding an’ I remembered ye had some grea’ tips from Gwendolyn’s shindig, so can ye come o’er fer a couple o’ days an’ run us through them. When woul’ ye lik’ th’ letter? Wednesday o’ the firs’ week?”

“Sounds good,” I grinned, relieved.

“Then,” she continued, “I’ll invite ye o’er fer, say, Tuesday, Wednesday an’ Thursday o’ th’ secon’ week, jus’ after th’ long weekend. Ye can give us yer wedding tips i’ half an hour, an’ then off ye go t’ Sirius’. I shoul’ warn ye, though,” she went on, “tha’ Ma’s gettin’ in some security fer th’ weddin’, ye know, because th’ bride’s Muggle-born, so anythin’ ye can suggest micht be impossible anyway.” She groaned. “T’ be hones’, the whole thing is gettin’ t’ be a nichtmare.”

“I can guess,” I said. “We were lucky with Gwendolyn and Morgan because they were both pure-bloods, but with all the attacks on Muggle-borns you can’t be too careful, can you?”

“Ye’re soonding lik’ Ma,” she said, making a face. “Hones’ly, it’s awful. There’s talk aboot Aurors bein’ stationed a’ th’ reception an’ guests bein’ scanned wi’ Probity Probes afore th’ ceremony. Apparently this sor’ o’ weddin’ is bein’ targeted a’ th’ moment, the Death Eaters dinna want pure-bloods marryin’ doon, so t’ speak.”

“Sounds like what Sirius used to have to put up with,” I said a little ruefully. “You’d think they’d just let people marry who they want, it would be so much easier.”

She smiled grimly. “Aye, ye’re nae wrong there.” She shook her head in frustration before looking back at me. “Richt, back t’ yer problem. If ye dae get t’ come, I think you’d better ge’ back hame fer th’ las’ weekend an’ all, so they can see ye afore puttin’ ye back on th’ train on Sunday.”

I could have kissed her. “Mary Macdonald, you are brilliant,” I said. “Whatever would I do without you?”

“Sit a’ hame, lonely an’ increasingly frustrated,” she quipped. “Richt, I’ll hae a chat t’ Ma once I ge’ hame. Ye’ll get yer letter on th’ Wednesday, either inviting ye o’er or sayin’ she’s nae goin’ along wi’ it. Incidentally,” she added, “hoo were ye planning on gettin’ through th’ firs’ week?”

“A day trip,” I smiled. “He came over at Christmas and no one found out, so we can most probably pull that off again.” I paused, looking at her archly. “I’m getting the impression you’ve done this before,” I added. “These ideas are coming a bit sharpish for someone as sweet and innocent as you make out to be.”

Her smile widened. “Modern an’ permissive my mither may be,” she said, “bu’ e’en she draws th’ line somewhere, an’ unfortunately plannin’ Andrew’s weddin’ is t’ her more importan’ than my love life. I wan’ t’ catch up wi’ Sebastian some time o’er th’ holidays, I’m jus’ givin’ ye our ideas.”

“And I love you for it,” I said with feeling. “Thanks, Mary, you’re a life saver.”

“Dinna coun’ yer Diricawls,” she warned as I got up, itching to tell Sirius the good news. "It may nae happen. Ye’d better ge’ tha’ day trip in jus’ in case.”

I raised my hand in a mock salute. “Yes, ma’am,” I said formally, grinning as I crossed the common room and detoured around what looked like several first-years swapping chocolate frog cards in the middle of the floor. “Sirius! Can I have a word?”

****

The weather was fining up and I was itching for another lap of the Quidditch pitch on my broom, but Professor McGonagall hadn’t returned it to me yet. And, if she and the other teachers were checking it for jinxes, that might have been just as well, because I soon learned that it was likely that a hex or two had been placed on it. This came about the following Friday, when Bernie Carmichael came up to me at the end of Ancient Runes.

“Um, Laura, would you mind if I talked to you for a minute?”

I looked at him, surprised. “Yeah, I guess so,” I admitted. “What’s up?”

Bernie looked pointedly at Remus. “In private, if that’s okay.”

I turned to Remus and shrugged. “I suppose so,” I said doubtfully, wondering what on earth Bernie could have to say that Remus couldn’t hear. It wasn’t like I really had any secrets from him. But, Bernie seemed to think it was important so Remus just smiled.

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll save you a spot at lunch, okay Laura?”

Bernie led me to an empty classroom, looking nervously over his shoulder as he did so. “I just don’t want …”

My curiosity was getting the better of me. “Bernie, what’s all this about?” I asked.

He looked nervously down the corridor before closing the door. “It’s Elvira Vablatsky,” he said once he was sure we were alone. “She’s … I don’t know, Laura, she’s got really nasty lately.”

I smiled – was that all this was? “Is this something to do with Sirius?” I asked.

He nodded seriously. “She … she must have heard me in the common room,” he said, his voice apologetic. “I was having a whinge about how he’d stolen you again …” He trailed off, his face as red as his hair, and he was looking out the window rather than at me. “I know, I know,” he went on suddenly, “it’s not exactly mature of me but I was disappointed. And this was ages ago, just after you got back together.” He sighed. “It sounds like I’ve been obsessing over you. And I haven’t, honest, but like I said it was disappointing.”

“Right.” I wasn’t really sure how to take this.

“And it’s not like I want you and Black to split up,” he said, his words so rushed that they almost ran into each other. “You’re more alive when you’re with him. I could never have that effect on you.” He paused. “There are some people you just can’t compete with, you know?”

“I never thought you did,” I said carefully. “Want us to break up, I mean.” I fiddled with the bracelet on my wrist, wondering exactly where he was going with this. “Anyway, didn’t I see you going to Madam Puddifoot’s with a girl the other week?”

He nodded. “Yeah, that was Cecily Wright. It was a nice day, but we don’t have much in common. But that’s by the by. This happened before then, anyway. Elvira must have got it into her head that, um, that she and I wanted the same thing. That is, you two not together. So she came to me for help.”

I stared at him. “Help?”

He nodded, looking nervous again. “She wanted me to … I don’t know, Laura, she’s gotten together with Greta and they’ve made these plans. They want to do some horrible things to you. And they came to me to try to work out how they could carry some of it off.”

“What did they want to do?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I don’t even want to tell you,” he said, “it’s really spiteful. And I couldn’t work out why they wanted me to help them, because it wasn’t nice to you and if I liked you, why would I do that?”

“I was bucked off my broomstick last weekend,” I said, trying to make it sound careless. “Wasn’t really hurt, but it could have been nasty if Sirius wasn’t there to catch me. Was that them?”

“It would have been,” he said, nodding again. “I’m sure I heard them saying something about tampering with your broom. And you might want to watch out in classes, too – they were talking about switching Potions ingredients around on you so your cauldron would blow up in your face.”

“Lovely,” I said, making a face. “I’ll remember that.”

“And there was something else about Bubotuber pus,” Bernie went on, “though I don’t really know what they were planning there.”

“So I should keep an eye out in Herbology as well, is what you’re saying,” I said wryly.

He nodded again. “Yeah, you should.”

“So why all the secrecy?” I asked.

He looked nervous. “I don’t want them knowing I’m talking to you,” he said. “If things go wrong they might take it out on me, you know? And like I said, they’re getting vicious. But I did want to warn you that they’re up to something, to put you on your guard.” He paused. “And that’s why I didn’t want Lupin in on it,” he explained. “The less people who know that I’ve told you, the less likely it is that I’ll get targeted.”

“But if they know I know,” I reasoned, “won’t that stop them in whatever it is they’re planning?”

“I doubt it,” he said darkly. “Look, if I hear anything concrete I’ll let you know, but it’s probably better if you don’t go trumpeting that we’ve had this talk.”

“If you don’t think Remus Lupin can keep a secret, you’re barking up the wrong tree,” I told him. Merlin only knew that the boy had enough experience in the matter. “But don’t worry. I’ll be very discreet.” I looked at him. “I’ll have to tell Sirius, though.”

He looked disappointed. “Do you have to?”

“He has a right to know,” I said. “At the very least, why you would be taking me into empty classrooms, don’t you think?”

“I suppose,” Bernie agreed reluctantly. “Tell him if you think you have to. But no one else, okay?”

Sirius was all questions when I finally made it to the Gryffindor table for lunch. “What did Carmichael want? What took so long?”

I looked at Lily, James, Remus and Peter. “I’m really sorry,” I said, “but would you mind if I Muffliato’d you for a minute or two?”

They looked surprised but nodded, and a moment later they all had white noise in their ears. I turned to Sirius.

“Bernie wanted to warn me about Elvira,” I said quietly. “But he didn’t want me telling anyone because, if what she’s planning doesn’t work because he told me, she might take it out on him.”

“But you’re telling me?” he asked, his eyebrows raised.

“Yes,” I said. “I told him I would. If he’s going to be whispering in my ear then it’s only fair that you know what it’s about. And it’s not like you haven’t trusted me with your secrets. But yeah, he’s a bit worried about being targeted, apparently the gigglers are getting vicious.”

“What are they planning?” he asked.

I shrugged. “He was pretty vague. Something about switching Potions ingredients around so my potion explodes, or hitting me with Bubotober pus. And, well, there have been other things.”

“Like tampering with your broom, you mean,” he said darkly.

I nodded. “Yeah, he thinks that was probably them,” I admitted. “But he’s going to keep an ear to the ground and tell me if he hears anything concrete.”

“And that’s it?” he asked. “That’s all he wanted you for?”

“Why, what else would he want?” I asked.

He looked a little uncomfortable. “Well, we all know he fancies you …”

I looked at him in surprise. “Sirius Black, are you jealous?” This was almost beyond belief.

“Not at all,” he said quickly, almost too quickly. “But I haven’t forgotten that he was very quick to try to claim you back in January.” He put a protective arm around me.

“And that was over two months ago,” I pointed out. “I think he’s over it by now. Anyway,” I went on, changing the subject, “I’m not going to say that you can’t tell this lot what’s going on. I think that it’s reasonable that they know. I’ve kept my side of it by only telling you – if you choose to share this information, though, then I can’t help that.”

He nodded as I waved my wand at the others, reversing the spell. “Thanks for that,” I told them. “Now, what’s food is left? I’m starving.”

****

I got through the remaining week or so of term without getting jinxed, or at least jinxed in any significant way. The Easter holidays, however, came up almost before I was ready for them, and were much more of a job to get through than I had anticipated. Trouble was, I wasn’t used to being alone anymore. I was far too used to having Sirius around all the time, every day, and not having him there was a trial I would have preferred going without. After I’d been home only a couple of days I was already lying to my parents again, which I was getting unnervingly comfortable doing, when I told them I was off to town for the day to have a bit of a wander through Muggle shops.

Like what had happened at Christmas time, I was really spending the day with Sirius, who was perfectly confident Apparating the hundred-plus miles from London to Bristol, and we found a quiet spot overlooking the harbour, hidden when necessary by Disillusionment Charms and enjoying each other’s company in the March sunshine. Like what had happened at Christmas, too, the day felt like it was over before it had begun, and it was far too soon that we were saying goodbye and hoping that I would be able to make it to London the following week, as getting away from my family for even half a day over the long weekend would be almost impossible.

The problem was, I found, that even though my presence was required at home I was having awful difficulties concentrating on what was going on around me. By Good Friday I missed Sirius so much that it hurt – it was like I was an addict who had been forced to go cold turkey, and it was incredibly difficult. Especially since I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, save the odd letter to and from Mary and the other girls – and, of course, to Sirius. I hadn’t realised just how much I’d relied on seeing him every day, how I’d depended on those hours we spent together to get me through the week, until it was taken away from me by the new horror that was school holidays, stretching out unendingly before me.

Mary, fortunately, was as good as her word and the day after Sirius’ visit the following letter arrived from her.

Dear Laura

I hate to bother you like this, especially since you see so little of your mum and dad, but Ma and I are in a fix and were wondering if you might be able to help out? It’s just that we’re trying to get some things sorted for Andrew’s wedding this July and I can’t help but remember that you had some great comments and ideas from Gwendolyn’s wedding last summer. So, if it’s not too much trouble, do you think it would be possible to come and visit us for a couple of days? Just while we get all this sorted out, of course, no longer.

Ma and I were thinking that maybe two-three days, say next Tuesday to Thursday, would probably do us the world of good and would really help us out in a big way. I’m happy to get Ma to write directly to your parents if that would be more likely to make them let you come, but hopefully this wee note will be enough. Pretty please? With a cherry on top?

Write back as soon as you can with an answer, and hopefully we’ll be able to see you on Tuesday next week.

Love, Mary

Smiling to myself at how good Mary was at wording things, I immediately organised permission to go – though my parents, particularly Mum, were obviously a little disappointed I would be leaving them during the holidays as they saw so little of me to start with. I even sent Cerridwyn off to Sirius with the good news before I’d confirmed with Mary that I was coming, that's how excited (and preoccupied) I was. The knowledge that I would be able to see him again before school went back, even if it wasn’t for another week, kept me going throughout the long weekend. While I rued this need for deception, I realised that even if Mum and Dad knew about Sirius, there's no way I would have been allowed to stay with him, so it would have been happening anyway. Sometimes, you just have do make your own decisions in life.

________________________________________


Author’s note: I’m well aware that this story is dipping a little at the moment and it probably doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere any more. And maybe that’s right – I’m the last person who should be judging the quality of my storytelling. I would like to say though that I do have a couple of things up my sleeve which are coming up shortly so hopefully you will bear with me … there are just over 10 chapters to go before the end and there’s a fair bit to cover in that time so I am hopeful that these last few, which I know are a bit filler-ish, haven’t put you off too much.
Thanks, Mel

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51
“You’ve been quiet these holidays,” Mum said at supper one night. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m just a bit worked up about NEWTs, that’s all.” It was the same lie I had told Sirius all those months ago, before we’d gotten together, and it was covering up the same thing – how much I was thinking about him. In fact, I was itching for Tuesday to come, so that I could go to him, but that wasn’t something I could really say out loud, so the lie it had to be.

Mum didn’t look much more convinced than Sirius had, either, but she couldn’t exactly accuse me of lying. “Right then,” she said a little doubtfully. “Well, make sure you get all your homework done, then. Do you need a trip to the library for any more reading?”

“That sounds great,” I said, grabbing the excuse to spend time alone in my room with both hands. And indeed, to complete the charade I spent hours in my room doing the assignments that had been set for the holidays. Not that it was entirely a charade – I had every intention of getting them finished before I headed to London, as I really didn’t want to have to think about anything but Sirius once I was there. What they didn’t realise of course was that I had a couple of photos stashed in my bedside cabinet and I pulled those out to inspire me when writing my essays.

Finally after what felt like several years Tuesday arrived, and not a moment too soon as far as I was concerned. I let Cerridwyn out of her cage to roam free for a few days, not seeing the need to take her with me for such a short visit, and she validated my decision by flying off into the distance before I’d even closed my window. I’d thought she was getting bored.

My father, protective as ever, accompanied me to the Macdonalds’ house via the Floo network, subjecting himself as well as me to the necessary questions to make sure we were in fact ourselves, and fussed around making sure I would be comfortable while I dusted myself off and checked my appearance in the mirror Mrs Macdonald kept conveniently over the mantelpiece. Of course, extra parental attention always happens when you are impatient for them to go, and he was even threatening to have a cup of tea with Mrs Macdonald before I pointed out that he was needed back at work to help deal with a rumoured Inferi attack on a Muggle area the previous night. Looking flustered, he agreed that work was a priority and disappeared into the fireplace.

Dad had just left when Mary’s brother Andrew came into the room. “I’m jus’ aboot t’ – is tha’ Laura?” He looked genuinely surprised.

I nodded. “Hi Andrew, how are you?”

He grinned. “Well, ye’re all grown up nou, aren’t ye? When di’ tha’ happen?”

Mary giggled. “Prob’ly aboot th’ same time as I did, ye big lump,” she admonished.

“Aye, ye’re prob’ly richt,” he agreed. “Well, good t’ see ye, Laura. I’m just off t’ Diagon Alley. See ye all later on.”

After he’d gone I looked at Mary’s mum quizzically. “I didn’t know Andrew was living back here.”

“Just for a few months,” she explained. “While he saves up for his own place place after the wedding. And, speaking of which, young lady ...”

Fortunately Mary’s mum didn’t need much advice from me after all, as only about five minutes later the doorbell rang. Mrs Macdonald peered through the window and looked at me. “That him?”

Looking over her shoulder at Sirius, who looked a little nervous, I nodded. “Yep, that’s him.”

She pulled the curtain closed. “I’d believe it, he looks like a Black. What’s your security question?”

“The form his Patronus takes,” I said.

“Right.” She opened the door a crack. “What shape does your Patronus take?”

“A large dog,” he said, grinning at me through gap between door and jamb.

She looked at me questioningly and I nodded again. “Yes.” Finally, she opened the door the whole way and he was able to come inside.

While I was dying to run over to him and throw myself at him, the presence of Mary and, more importantly, Mrs Mac (and possibly Andrew again) held me back a little, though once introductions were over he did grip my hand so tightly I thought it might break.

I turned to Mary’s mother. “Thanks again, Mrs Mac,” I said gratefully. “I really appreciate this.”

She smiled. “Well, you’re both of age, so you’re old enough to make your own decisions. Just be careful, both of you. I don’t want anything happening to you on what’s supposed to be my watch.”

“We will,” Sirius promised sincerely, his hand still threatening to block circulation to mine. “I’ll look after her, don’t worry.”

“Well, I’ll see you in a couple of days,” I said. “Dad’s coming back at four o’clock on Thursday, so we’ll head back here before then.”

“Not a problem,” smiled Mrs Macdonald.

“Hae fun,” agreed Mary, winking at me. “See ye on Thursday the’.”

We Apparated to a small dingy alleyway, and paused for a bit and embraced again, fully aware that this time the Macdonalds were not there to gawk at us. It felt like it had been forever and we had a tidy bit of catching up to do. Finally we stopped and I had a look around as he led me to the adjacent street. We were next to a large modern apartment building, probably five or six stories high, which was apparently our destination. I followed him through the front door and up a flight of stairs before he halted outside a door in the nondescript-looking hallway.

“Well,” he said, sounding more than a little nervous, “this is it. Welcome home.” He tapped the lock twice with his wand and then stood aside to let me enter, watching my face for a reaction.

Having been a little unsure what to expect, I just looked around and took it all in. It was a modern three-room flat, with large windows facing north and a small private balcony featuring a couple of folding chairs and a small table. The bulk of the flat was one large-ish room which included a small kitchenette and a fireplace, and obviously was to do for kitchen, lounge room and dining room at once. It was rather simply furnished with a couch and an armchair in front of the fireplace, and a small dining table with four chairs, but even with those few pieces of furniture it was a little cramped. That is, room to swing a Kneazle, but only just.

The lack of space wasn’t helped by the fact that next to one wall was Sirius’ enormous black motorcycle with some parts sitting on the floor next to it, and I had the distinct impression that it was often in pieces in the middle of the room. The lone bookcase near the fireplace had a few school books and motorcycle manuals and magazines, some Defence Against the Dark Arts texts, a very thick book called Muggle Mechanics – a guide to adapting Muggle artefacts for magical use and some others that looked to be of a similar ilk, and some yellowing copies of the Daily Prophet that I later learned reported the deaths and disappearances of people we knew. There were also some photos scattered around – a couple of the Marauders, one of me. His broom was propped up against the bookcase and on the wall was a large Gryffindor banner and a few pictures of things like motorbikes and other Muggle engines.

“Do you like it?” He sounded almost hesitant, as though my approval was something he was unlikely to get.

“Of course I like it,” I replied, smiling at him. “It’s very you.”

He visibly relaxed. “I still can’t really believe that you’re actually here,” he admitted, closing the door behind us. “I was so sure something would happen to stop it. You’d have a family emergency, or you’d get a better offer and change your mind or something.”

I dropped off my bag on the table and went to him, putting my arms around him. “It would have taken a Death Eater attack on my house to stop me from coming here,” I told him. “And there’s no such thing as a better offer than you.”

He smiled, though I could tell he was a bit unsure still. He got like that sometimes and it took some getting used to, particularly coming from someone who was normally so self-assured. “We can move the bike out onto the balcony if you like,” he said to change the subject. “Makes more room, but it means you can’t use the balcony.”

“I think I’d rather use the balcony,” I said honestly. “It’s always nice sitting outside for a spell. You can’t always do that in London.”

He nodded. “Tell me about it. My parents’ house had no outdoor area at all, just one of those shared gardens in the middle of the square, which we weren’t allowed to go into because Muggles used it. I had to resort to climbing out my window and sitting on the roof to get any fresh air.”

“Let me guess,” I said, smiling as I leaned against the kitchen bench. “This place is absolutely nothing like where you grew up.”

“That’s right,” he agreed, giving me a hug. “I wanted lots of natural light and somewhere I could sit outside. And it all had to be modern. Almost the complete opposite of Grimmauld Place. If I never set foot in that house again, it’ll be too soon.” I concluded that Grimmauld Place must be where his parents lived, but I’d never heard the address before. “My cousin Andromeda helped me find it,” he went on. “She lives just outside the city so she helped me look. It’s much easier when you’re with someone who’s done it before. Now, the grand tour …” He dropped one arm and I let him show me the other two rooms – a bedroom and, off it, a small bathroom – before going back to the kitchen and pulling out a couple of butterbeers, which we took onto the balcony to drink.

“Andromeda …” I knew I’d heard the name before. “That’s it. Andromeda Black, married a bloke who was Muggle-born. Is that her?”

He looked surprised. “How did you know?”

I smiled wryly. “News like that travels. Someone from your family does something that noteworthy, it might as well be on the front page of the Prophet. I even had a cousin talking about it over the summer.”

He smiled and reached over to squeeze my hand. “Right. Well, yes, Andromeda married Ted Tonks, and was promptly disowned as a result. He was a Hufflepuff, too: with that combination I think Aunt Druella almost died of shame. You should have heard the Howler she got – almost rivalled mine after I was Sorted into Gryffindor.” He grinned again and I had a vague recollection of being almost forced out of the Great Hall on the first day of first year due to the noise that came from that one little red envelope. “So, anyway, Andromeda and I are kindred spirits in a way. I’ve been seeing a bit of her the past year or so, and she and Prongs’ mum helped me kit this place out. She even gave me a rundown on the spells I’d need to keep it in decent order.” He paused, smiling. “Actually, her daughter left one of her toys here last week – I must remember to get that back to her.” I looked back through the open door as he indicated a doll sitting on top of the bookcase, her arms moving up and down on their own in a rather feeble manner.

“I can’t really see you around small kids,” I admitted.

“I might surprise you,” he grinned. “Anyway, she’s not that small, she’s almost five. Nymphadora.” He made a face. “One thing Andromeda doesn’t have is good taste in names.”

“I don’t know,” I said lightly. “I’ve heard worse. She could have gone with Elvendork.”

He laughed. “Elvendork?”

“Yeah. I saw it in a birth notice in the Daily Prophet a month or two ago. I couldn’t quite believe someone would inflict that on a child.”

“Boy or girl?” he asked.

“Good question. It wasn’t clear from the notice. Could be either, I guess. Or both, if the poor kid’s a hermaphrodite.” I had started giggling uncontrollably, a situation Sirius must have decided to make the most of as he reached over and started tickling me.

“What?” he asked innocently as I wrested myself away from his grip. “You were laughing already, I thought I’d just encourage it.”

“Nice try,” I said, ducking my head to evade him again. “If you can’t keep your hands off me, just tell me.”

“I thought you’d never offer,” he said with a grin. “And don’t worry,” he added as I looked around to see if there were any neighbours within earshot, “this balcony’s got half a dozen charms on it. No one can see or hear us.”

“Well,” I smiled, reaching for him, “in that case …”

****

We spent the first evening at a nearby Muggle pub where a punk band was playing loudly, enthusiastically and a little off-key. Sirius was keen on checking out the Muggle music and also wanted to sample all the drinks on display behind the bar, and I noticed in the process that most of the girls at the pub seemed keen to sample him. Sirius being Sirius mostly ignored it but couldn’t fail to respond to some of the more blatant attempts to get his attention, and while he smiled and spoke pleasantly to everyone he kept catching my eye and grinning, making it obvious to even the most persistent of them that he wasn’t available. Smiling, and impressing myself with how well I was taking it all, I just sat back and enjoyed watching him, and fending off the occasional hopeful suitor myself, though when they saw Sirius they tended to back off voluntarily. Even without his eyes flashing dangerously, for some reason other blokes generally seemed to find him rather intimidating.

It was quite interesting, spending time with Sirius outside school, because a reasonable amount of what he did wasn’t necessarily, shall we say, legal. Not that he was a criminal or anything, but more that he didn’t always think that the rules that governed everyone else should apply to him. It was only small stuff – things like using Refilling Charms on our drinks, or a Repelling or Confundus Charm on anyone who looked like they might ask some awkward questions, and I had a strong suspicion that when out on the bike he ignored anything inconvenient such as speed limits or helmets – but it took some getting used to, particularly considering what my mother did for a living. Then again, I reasoned, if you can’t do a bit of rebelling when you’re eighteen, when can you do it? So I swallowed any objections I might have had and instead smiled when my glass refilled itself.

I wasn’t surprised when we got back to his flat at the end of the night to find that he had some Sobering Solution handy to help prevent hangovers, nor that the bottle was close to empty from what was most probably frequent use. Moderation and Sirius weren’t necessarily two words I would have used in the same sentence. I was however grateful for the potion as we only had two days together and I didn’t want one of them ruined by a hangover.

Fortunately the potion was a good one and it was with a mercifully clear head that I woke up the next morning to find Sirius still asleep, one arm around me. He looked so peaceful – I realised that I’d never seen him sleep before, and there was something rather endearing about it. Or maybe that was just because it was him. I nestled in closer to him so I could feel his even breaths and wondered what he was dreaming about.

Not long afterwards he woke up and smiled as his eyes focused and he realised I was there. “Good,” he said sleepily, pulling me in even closer, “it wasn’t a dream after all.”

“Did you want me to pinch you, just to be on the safe side?” I asked playfully, reaching for one of his more delicate areas.

“Not there,” he said, waking up more quickly. “Not a pinch, at least.”

“Okay,” I agreed, “I’ll be more gentle. Though I still need to convince you that you’re not dreaming.”

He leaned in and kissed me, his stubble catching the edges of my lips. “I think we can come up with a way of doing that.”

Once we finally got up and had breakfast we worked out how best to spend the day. With the current climate in the Wizarding world, Diagon Alley and surrounds were decidedly uncomfortable as people scurried around, harried and stressed, trying not to stay out too long in case they had a run in with the Death Eaters. As a result we chose to spend our time together in Muggle London. It was still dangerous, but Muggle attacks were far rarer and more random than those on wizards, and so even with the threat of arbitrary IRA bombings we counted it a safer bet. Besides, even though my dad worked at the Ministry he was very unlikely to venture out into Muggle areas on his lunch break, and Sirius knew Muggle London well as he’d escaped there several times over the years to get away from his parents, knowing it would annoy them.

Sirius was also keen to check out the latest motorbikes on the market in case he could pick up any ideas for his own bike, so we wandered around a few dealerships chatting to sales staff about horsepower and ride quality and trying to talk them into letting him take a test ride even though he couldn’t produce a licence. I’m almost ashamed to say that a couple of times we resorted to using Confundus Charms on reluctant salesmen when there was a bike he particularly liked the look of. (See what I mean about not always being entirely legal?)

Our trawl through the motorcycle dealerships was done on his bike, which obviously didn’t need the spare parts I’d seen on the floor next to it to work. We soared through the streets – as I’d suspected, without helmets – with the bike surging beneath us as Sirius tried to find a way out of the heavy London traffic. Even with us scooting through tight spaces that we shouldn’t by rights have been able to fit through, and avoiding much of the bustle, we were still occasionally overtaken by people walking their dogs or pushing prams, until eventually Sirius had had enough. We jerked to a halt in a dead end alleyway and he turned around to look at me.

“How do you feel about taking off?”

“Over London?” I hadn’t been expecting that, but I couldn’t deny it would be a thrill. “Yeah, why not?”

“Right.” He grinned at me over his shoulder, Disillusioned both of us and the bike, and we took off into the air, narrowly avoiding some power lines on the way up. As before, it was exhilarating, though this time we had the added difficulty of staying away from tall buildings, electrical wires, planes and even the occasional blimp. Finally we landed not far from Sirius’ building, feeling rather windswept but definitely on a high. This was amazing – the whole thing, the motorcycle, the rush of London, just being with Sirius when there were no teachers or parents around, no risk of getting caught. This was how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

****

Unfortunately, while keeping our personal safety in mind while enjoying Muggle London we had forgotten the more minor hazard of getting caught by my family, and it all very nearly went pear-shaped late that afternoon in Hyde Park, when I spotted one of my many relatives in the distance.

“Oh, bugger,” I said under my breath.

“What is it?” Sirius tensed like a dog on a scent.

“It’s my aunt. Quick, hide!” I didn’t think she’d seen us yet, her concentration was on keeping hold of the many shopping bags she was carrying.

Sirius looked around swiftly to make sure no one was watching us, and a second later the huge black dog was bounding alongside me, its tail wagging furiously as it darted around and snapped at birds and swaying tree branches.

“Aunt Gina! Hi!” I said brightly, hoping she hadn’t spotted Sirius before he’d transformed.

“Laura, dear! What a lovely surprise! But what are you doing in London?”

“I’m staying with a friend from school,” I answered. It was true, after all, just not the friend my parents thought it was.

“Right. Where is she?” asked Aunt Gina.

“Oh, she’s back at her place, I just needed some fresh air,” I invented quickly. “She and her mum were busy with wedding preparations for her brother, so I offered to take their dog for a walk.” I looked down at Sirius. “This is – Snuffles,” I added, indicating the dog and hoping she didn’t notice the brief pause as I came up with a name.

Aunt Gina eyed the enormous bear-like dog doubtfully. “Without a lead?” she asked. “I hope it’s well trained,” she added worriedly. “If it gets out of hand you won’t be able to control it, not a dog that size.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” I said. “He’s perfectly well trained, wouldn’t hurt a fly.” ‘Bar Slytherins and Death Eaters,’ I added in my head, though Aunt Gina didn’t need to know that. I smiled brightly – this bit wasn’t even lying.

“If you say so, dear,” she said. “Anyway, lovely as it is to see you, I’d better get back, I’ve got the Sheridans coming over for supper.” And she took off towards the nearest tube station.

Within seconds Sirius was back in human form. “Snuffles?” he asked accusingly. “’SNUFFLES? That’s a cute name! I’m not cute! I’m rugged, and manly, and sexy!” He pouted at me.

I laughed. “It was the best I could come up with on the spot,” I chided. “And I hate to break it to you, Snuffles, but there’s times that you’re very cute.” I squeezed his hand affectionately. “Though you’re a bit bigger than the dog we have at home, I can understand why she’d be a bit uneasy.”

He laughed. “What do you have at home?”

“Cocker spaniel,” I told him. “Called Jessie. Original, isn’t it?”

“Well, it could be worse,” he said, putting an arm around me. “You could have called it Snuffles.”

Suddenly I stopped dead again. “We have to tell Mary,” I said seriously.

“Tell her what?” he asked.

“That she’s supposed to have an enormous black dog called Snuffles. Aunt Gina is Mum’s sister, she’s bound to mention it. She’s probably about to call Mum as we speak, she’s a hell of a gossip, and me walking Mary’s dog for her is the sort of inane thing that Mum’s bound to bring up at some stage,” I explained. “And that means I’ll have to tell Mary about Padfoot. Otherwise it’s not going to make any sense.”

He smiled. “So she doesn’t know?”

“Of course not,” I said impatiently. “I promised not to say anything, and it was never my secret to tell anyway. And there are awful implications for Remus …” I left the sentence hanging. He knew what I meant.

“Right,” he said, clearly thinking furiously. “We tell her about Padfoot. But not about Prongs, or Wormtail, and definitely not about Moony. We’ll just say that I wanted to try it and worked it out on my own. I dunno, to get away from my family or something.”

I nodded. “I can work with that,” I said. “But we’ll have to do it now, you never know when Aunt Gina will get hold of my mother. You know, telephones?” Every now and then I was really pleased he took Muggle Studies, it made some things so much easier. “Let’s go back to your place, I’ll Floo her from there.”

We quickly Apparated back to Sirius’ flat, where I stuck my head in his fireplace and called out Mary’s address. Once I’d convinced Mary it was really me (these precautions due to the war were really getting old, I thought), I explained the situation, and she took the news surprisingly well for someone who was up to their ears in silver and white invitations, balloons and streamers. “Animagus? Well I’ll be,” she said dryly, as if nothing could surprise her any more. “I prob’ly need t’ see th’ dug, though, if it’s goin’ t’ be convincing. Can I Floo o’er?”

I checked with Sirius, who agreed and unlocked the Floo so she could come through. Within seconds she had arrived and was dusting herself off.

“Nice place,” she said without introduction, looking around appraisingly. “Ye’ve made it pretty comfortable. Anyway, this dug I’m supposed t’ hae …” She looked expectantly at Sirius, who transformed for her obligingly.

The normally unflappable Mary froze mid-gesture. “Ye know, I though’ Laura wa’ exaggerating,” she said in disbelief. “Ye’ve really done it. Well done!”

Sirius resumed his human form and shrugged. “You live with a family like mine, and you’ll do anything to get a bit of peace,” he said simply. I had to hand it to him, he did sound believable.

“All richt, Snuffles,” Mary grinned. “Ye can be my dug. If ye lik’, ye can even come o’er when Laura’s da comes t’ pick her up on th’ morra, run aroond th’ back yard lik’ ye live there. I’m sure we can conjure ye up a dug hoose fer an hour or so.”

He grinned at her. “Sounds like a plan,” he said.

“Nae worries,” she responded to his unspoken thank you. “I’d bes’ be gettin’ back nou afore Ma notices I’m gone an’ calls in th’ Aurors.” And with a smile and a wave, she was gone.

****

That evening we sat on the balcony for a spell with a bottle of Firewhisky, watching the neighbours through their windows and making up stories to fit what they were doing. Eventually we headed back inside and sat under a rug on the couch, doing the crossword from the Daily Prophet. The fire was crackling away merrily, the rest of the paper lying discarded on the floor and a Hobgoblins record playing in the background. I rested my head on his shoulder and he was gently stroking my hair as we sat there trying to work out the answer to fourteen down.

We were interrupted by an owl tapping on the window – clearly the post could get through whatever enchantments had been put on the balcony. Sirius hurried over to the door and opened it, and the owl flew straight to me and deposited a letter on the table next to me. I quickly unfolded it.

“It’s from Mary,” I said after I’d scanned it. “Dad’s been asking questions, he’s tried to check up on me three times and I haven’t been there for any of them, and she thinks he’s getting suspicious.” I looked up at Sirius glumly. “It looks like I’m going to have to go home.”

“No,” he said quickly. “No. You’ve only just got here, you can’t leave yet.”

I smiled ruefully. “Only just got here? Sirius, I’ve been here more than twenty-four hours, you can’t complain.”

“Of course I can complain,” he said, closing the door after the owl left again. “I thought I had you for two days. I don’t want to lose you yet.”

“Well, it doesn’t look like I’ve got much choice,” I said, possibly a little more tetchily than I’d intended. “Otherwise we’re going to get caught, and then I’ll have trouble seeing you at all.”

“What, would they stop you from going back to school?” he asked. “I can’t see that, not when you’ve got all these rules to make sure you do well.” He looked at me resolutely. “Look, you’re of age, you’re nearly qualified, it won’t be much longer till they’ve not no control over you. Ignore the letter. Stay.”

“I want to,” I admitted. “I really do. But I don’t think I can. ” I started heading towards the bedroom so I could pack my things up.

“Of course you can,” he said, hurrying over and standing in the doorway, preventing me from going inside. “Come on, it’s only another day. It won’t hurt them.”

“It might hurt Mary,” I said wryly. “Dad can get pretty irate.”

“She’ll be fine,” he insisted. “Stay. Please?”

I shook my head, hating myself for doing this to him. “I can’t.” I pushed past him and started throwing clothes into my overnight bag.

He followed me in and leaned against the wall, his hair falling into his eyes and a disappointed look on his face. “You’re really going to leave because of this?”

“I don’t want to get Mary in trouble,” I said, trying not to look at him and hoping he didn’t notice the tears that were forming in the corners of my eyes. I didn’t want to leave either, but I didn’t see how I could stay and still keep my parents in the dark.

“What if I could take care of Mary?” Sirius said suddenly, his voice hopeful. “Make sure she doesn’t get in trouble for anything?”

I turned to face him sceptically. “And just how are you going to do that?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted, his eyes on the floor. “But I’ll think of something. I have to.” He looked up. “Please don’t leave, Laura. Stay with me. One more night, like we planned. Please.”

I looked at him, wanting desperately to be able to do as he asked. “I really shouldn’t,” I said sadly.

“Please,” he said again, sounding despondent. “Please, Laura. I love you.”

________________________________________

52
I looked at Sirius in shock, not really believing my own ears. Did he just say what I thought he’d said? Or were my ears playing tricks on me, making his words sound like something I wanted so desperately to hear?

“What was that?”

“I love you,” he said again. Right, that was definitely what he’d said. I couldn’t mis-hear twice, could I?

I dropped my overnight bag and went to him, focusing my attention on unbuttoning his shirt all the way down and resting my hands on his chest before I could trust myself to look at his face. His heart was beating so fast I was surprised it hadn’t burst out of his ribcage. Reaching up, I kissed him softly, just a light one, no tongue, and then gave his lower lip a gentle bite for good measure.

“I love you too,” I whispered, not really believing that it had actually come to this.

He wrapped his arms around me tightly, looking relieved. “So,” he whispered in my ear, “will you stay?”

How could I not, after something like that? “Yes, I’ll stay,” I said, pulling back from him only far enough to ease his shirt off his shoulders and drop it to the floor behind him. “Screw Dad.”

“Well, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind,” he teased. “Nice as I’m sure your father is, he isn’t really my type.”

“You know what I mean,” I said, smiling as I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him towards me.

He smiled too as he pulled my t-shirt off over my head, then walked me backwards until my legs hit the bed, and pushed me down onto it. “Now this,” he murmured, “is much more like it.”

It was different than usual, more real, like the airing of those words made everything more intense. I wouldn’t have believed that it could make that much of a difference, but every touch was electric, every caress surging, every kiss extended. If this was what love was really about, I could understand why people would try to move mountains for it. At that moment, I thought I might try to do that, too.

“It’s funny,” Sirius said later as we lay there, arms around each other, “that was much easier to say than I’d thought it would be.”

“What, I love you?” I asked.

He nodded. “Yep. I was terrified, you know. It’s not something I’ve ever had to say to anyone before.”

I looked at him, surprised. “Not even your parents?”

He shook his head. “Put it this way, Laura, displays of affection aren’t exactly encouraged in my family. This has all been a pretty steep learning curve for me.”

I shook my head too. “And to think I was frightened to say anything in case it scared you off,” I said. “I didn’t want to lose you.”

“You know, it might have,” he admitted. “Scared me, that is. Dione said it once and I pretty much ran out the door.” He smiled ruefully. “But I don’t think you would have lost me. I would have just needed some time to get my head around it.”

“But you’re okay with it now?” I asked.

He paused. “I must be,” he said, frowning slightly. “The thing is, it’s been like this for ages,” he went on slowly, like he was trying to find the right words. “I just didn’t realise what it meant. It’s like – you fill in the gaps where I’m missing things. I’m a better person because of you … I think about things more, about consequences and things. You complete me. And I don’t ever want to lose that.”

I snuggled in closer. “Well I’m not planning on going anywhere,” I said. “And you’d better not, either, I don’t think I could live without you.”

“Nah, you’re stuck with me now,” he said, smiling. “Whether you like it or not. I have no intention of letting you go.”

I giggled suddenly. “You do realise we can never get married, though.”

He looked surprised. “Why not?”

“We’ve killed off all the criteria for someone to marry into the House of Black,” I explained with a grin. “I don’t pass a single one of them. In Slytherin – no. Pure-blood – no. One of the oldest wizarding families – no,” I went on, counting the conditions on my fingers as I ticked them off. “No Muggles or Squibs in the family – no. No interest in you beyond surname and Gringotts vault – big no. And obedient and virginal – no. That’s it, I’ve ruled myself out entirely.”

He laughed and pulled me towards him again. “You’re right, I don’t think you’d survive the vetting process,” he agreed. “My dear mother would probably have a heart attack if you were even suggested. That’s if she actually had a heart, of course.” He paused and kissed my forehead lightly. “I knew there was a reason I escaped.”

Suddenly I sat bolt upright. “Oh no. I never replied to Mary!”

Sirius looked at me gravely. “What are you going to tell her?”

“Just to tell Dad that I’m not there,” I said with a shrug. “I’ll wear it. Like you said, short of pulling me out of school, which is pretty unlikely, there’s not actually all that much they can do to me.”

He made a bit of a face. “I wish my family was like that,” he muttered.

“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.

“Not getting wands out when they don’t like what you’ve been doing,” he explained. “My folks were pretty strong on – er – discipline.”

I stared at him, horrified. “They attacked you?”

“You could say that,” he said dryly. “How do you think I first learned to fight?”

“So that’s what James’ dad meant,” I said quietly. “When he said you showed up on Christmas Day covered in cuts and bruises.”

Sirius shrugged. “They all healed,” he said. “It wasn’t much worse than any other time.”

“Well, thank goodness you got out,” I said, wrapping my arms around him protectively. “I don’t want anything to happen to you. You’re mine now.”

He smiled and allowed me to kiss him, but then pushed me away again. “Weren’t you going to talk to Mary?”

My hand went to my mouth – with everything else, it had once again slipped my mind. “Right. Of course. I kinda forgot.”

“I noticed,” he said. “Now, what were you going to do? Letter or Floo?”

“Floo’s probably better,” I acknowledged. “Quicker, you know?”

“Then you’d better put some clothes on,” he pointed out. “Not that I encourage that, of course, but you probably don’t want to stick your head in the fireplace with nothing on. I don’t want any sparks getting you.”

Recognising the truth in this, I hurriedly found some clothes and made my way over to the fireplace. Sprinkling in the Floo powder and calling out Mary’s address, I soon found myself face to face with her and her mother.

Mrs Macdonald immediately pointed her wand at me. “Middle name?”

I grinned. “Elizabeth.”

“Nickname you give haggis?”

“What,” I asked, “rotting sheep gut? That’s not a nickname, that’s the truth.”

She finally lowered her wand and smiled. “Okay, Laura, I’m convinced,” she said. “Sorry, but we just can’t be too careful at the moment.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I understand,” I said. “I was there yesterday, remember?”

“Anyway, I’m pleased to see you,” she went on, her expression changing from friendly to warning. “Your father’s been asking questions. We can only cover for you for so long, you know.”

“I know,” I said. “Sorry about that. I didn’t expect him to be this persistent, he’s been that busy at work lately that I thought we could get away with it.” I took a breath. “If he comes back, tell him I’m not there. Tell him I’m staying with someone else, that you didn’t want to let me but I went off anyway, but I’ll be back tomorrow at four o’clock like we arranged. That way you don’t get in trouble. I’ll cop whatever’s coming to me.”

Mary looked concerned. “Are ye sure?” she asked, picking a bit of silver streamer off her shoe. “Wha’ will ye tell them?”

“The same thing,” I said resolutely. “That I was staying with someone else. They don’t need to know who.” I looked her in the eye and gave her the same argument Sirius had used on me. “Look, I’m of age, I’m almost qualified, they’ve got very little say in what I do any more. I’ll wear the consequences.”

“Well, if that’s what you want to do,” said Mrs Macdonald, looking a little doubtful. “Are you going to them yourself now?”

I nodded. “I think I’d better. Wish me luck!”

Pausing only to rub my knees a bit where I’d been kneeling on the hearth, I sprinkled some more Floo powder into the fire and called out my own address. When the living room materialised, Bea was sitting on the couch, immersed in a book. “Laura!” she said with surprise as she looked up. “What are you doing here?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” I said wryly. “You’re not usually back from work this early, are you?” With the war the way it was, both Bea and Dad were not often home much before eight o’clock. It drove Mum round the twist when it came to working out when dinner time would be.

She shrugged. “Felt a bit off this morning, thought I’d take a sick day.”

That’d be right. Typical Bea. She didn’t look ill in the slightest. Swallowing my immediate reaction, which was to figuratively beat her about the head a bit, I changed the subject. “Mum or Dad home?”

She nodded. “Mum is, on call as usual though. Dad’s working late - again. Laura, where are you? You’re in so much trouble. Dad’s been going spare.”

“I’m safe,” I said. “And that’s all you need to know. Can you get Mum, please?”

“Sure,” she said, rolling her eyes a bit and putting her book down with the page marked. “Back in a mo.”

Seconds later my mother arrived in front of the fireplace, her face a combination of concern and anger. “Where have you been, young lady?” she demanded. “We’ve been worried sick. Never at Mary’s, and then Gina said she’d seen you miles from the Macdonalds’ house with the biggest dog she’d ever seen. What’s going on?”

“I left Mary’s,” I said. “They didn’t want me to, but I did. I’m staying somewhere else for tonight. But I’m safe, and I’m happy, and I’ll be back tomorrow at four o’clock like we arranged.”

She came over and tried to pull me through the Floo, but I evaded her grip. “Don’t even try it,” I warned. “If you try that again I’ll disappear. I’m not risking this being traced.”

Her face fell – even as a Muggle, she knew that the Floo tracking system only worked when it was used for an actual journey rather than just a communication like this. Giving up, she sat back down again, looking resigned.

“Why, Laura?”

“I had things I wanted to do,” I told her. “And I couldn’t do them at Mary’s house.”

“So why didn’t Mary’s mother let us know you’d gone?” she asked.

I shrugged, forgetting she wouldn’t have been able to see that. “I asked her not to,” I said simply.

She eyed me beadily. “Have you and Mary fought?”

I shook my head. “No, we haven’t. This has nothing to do with Mary, really.”

“Is it about a boy, then?” she asked. Typical Mum, always getting to the bottom of things. Sometimes I really wished she wasn’t so perceptive. In any case, I made my face as blank as I could.

“Why would you think that?” I said innocently. “I’m not allowed to have anything to do with boys this year, remember? It might put me off my NEWTs.”

An expression of worry was coming back to Mum’s face, no matter how hard she tried to hide it. “Well, these people you’re staying with, whoever they are,” she said, “are they trustworthy?”

I nodded. “Yes. Absolutely.”

She didn’t look convinced. “Are you sure? Can you even be sure? You’ve heard your father talking about it, at the Ministry no one can tell who’s on what side, who’s been Imperiused, who might have been recruited. They all SAY they’re working against the Death Eaters, but if the Ministry doesn’t know who to believe … I don’t know, Laura, I was confident about the Macdonalds, but I can’t be confident about anyone I don’t know, no matter what you think about them.”

“I can understand that,” I admitted. “But I’d stake my life on it. The person – the people I’m with, they’re completely one hundred per cent on our side.” I looked at her. “Just try to trust my judgement on this, okay?”

She looked doubtful. “I don’t know, Laura,” she said again.

“I’m safe,” I insisted. “I promise.”

“I’m amazed Bev Macdonald let you go,” she went on, shaking her head a bit. “With all the precautions they’re taking with Andrew’s wedding, letting you go off with strangers like this seems irresponsible. It’s not like her.”

The ghost of a smile danced around my lips – this offered me another argument. “Well, maybe she thought I’d be safer where I was going, than with them. She clearly thought thatwhere I was going was safe. Maybe you should be willing to trust both of our judgements.”

Mum frowned. Clearly still not convinced, she tried another tack. “Are you still in London?”

“Yes, I’m in London,” I admitted. “Why?”

She just shook her head. “If you don’t start giving me some information I can use, I’ll get the force over there to look for you,” she warned.

“Right,” I said. “You do that. Look,” I went on, “I’ve got to go.” I wasn’t kidding, either – my knees were killing me. “I’m safe, I’m secure, and I’ll be back tomorrow at four. Bye!”

While I’d been in the fire Sirius had got dressed and pulled a couple of bottles of Butterbeer out of the cupboard, and was in the process of putting a Cooling Charm on them. “How did it go?”

“Not really sure,” I admitted, pulling the top off my bottle and having a drink. “I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.”

“But no wands drawn?” he asked as I joined him on the couch.

I shook my head, trying to suppress a smile. “Would have been funny if there were considering it was Mum I spoke to. I don’t think she’d even know which end to hold.”

He just sat there for a little while, watching me. “Look, you’re not regretting this, are you? I know I put a lot of pressure on you.”

I pretended to think about that. “Hmm, going home and being grounded for the rest of the holidays versus being here with you. Not that hard a decision, really.” I grinned at him and picked up the Daily Prophet that we had discarded earlier, finding the page with the crossword again. “Now, where were we up to?”

****

I woke up the next morning to find Sirius kissing the back of my shoulders. Smiling, I rolled over and looked at him through bleary eyes.

“Ah, she awakes,” he said, putting his arms around me.

“Hard not to with you doing that,” I said sleepily, stifling a yawn and returning the embrace.

“I was just enjoying you being here,” he said. “I could get used to this very easily, waking up next to you every morning.”

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” I agreed with a smile. “But we shouldn’t get too used to it,” I went on, tracing his spine with my finger. “I’m going home this afternoon to goodness only knows what punishments, and then we’re going back to school, so it will be back to sneaking around empty classrooms and behind tapestries again.”

“You had to remind me,” he said, pouting. “I guess we’d better make the most of this morning, then.” He kissed me seductively and I smiled again, running my fingers down his back in anticipation.

An hour or so later we emerged and I settled down with the previous evening’s paper while he set about making breakfast. I’d discovered that generally he wasn’t much of a cook but he did have breakfast down pat, so I let him fuss over eggs and bacon and toast and tea to his heart’s content.

“Oh, that’s nice,” I said, my eyes roaming the wedding notices. “Frank Longbottom married Alice Bradley. Do you remember him?”

Sirius looked up and grinned. “Of course I remember Longbottom, he was a riot,” he said. “What was he, three, four years ahead of us?”

“Two years ahead of Bea,” I said, thinking back. “So that would make him four years ahead of us. Alice, if she’s that Ravenclaw girl I’m thinking of, was in the year below.”

“I heard he’s an Auror now, or in training to be one if he hasn’t finished it,” Sirius went on. “Alice Bradley, was it?” He frowned. “I think she might be too.”

“Well they’ll never be out of work then, will they?” I said with a bit of a sour smile, turning the page. “Ugh. Speaking of which.” I had seen a report of an attack a couple of days earlier on a Muggle village. “Dementors swarmed a village in Kent. Seventeen people Kissed, including a ten year old boy. Dad will just love that.”

His face got very serious. “I heard about that,” he said grimly, pointing his wand at the bacon to make it turn over in the pan. “No wizards around, of course, so no one could cast a Patronus in time. Just Muggle baiting. It makes me sick.”

“Me too,” I said. “Ooh, looks like an Avery’s been arrested,” I went on. “Not for the Dementors, this is for something else. Tartarus Avery, suspected of being connected with the torture and murder of Ian Crockford. That could well be Charon’s dad, don’t you think?”

“Very likely,” he agreed. “We all know what Charon’s capable of. Just ask Lenny Dodderidge.”

“And here’s a Muggle family who got attacked, the Dark Mark was over their house and everything,” I went on, my attention caught by another article. “Seems their son had married a witch. That’s the sort of thing Mrs Macdonald was talking about, I guess – targeting intermarriages. No wonder they’ve got all that security organised. And no wonder Mum was worried, she’ll be thinking it’ll be her and Dad next.” I paused, my eyes roaming the text as I tried to avoid thinking about an attack on my family. “It doesn’t actually say if the son of this family was a wizard or not, but I think it’s implied.”

“Who was it?” he asked.

“Clearwater’s the surname,” I said. “The son’s name isn’t mentioned but there wouldn’t be too many of those around, would there?”

“Probably not,” he agreed, carrying two plates of food to the dining table. I got up to join him. “I think there might have been a Clearwater in one of the upper years when we were just starting at Hogwarts,” he continued, frowning slightly as we sat down. “I could be wrong, though.” He paused, looking at me. “You’re worried about your folks, aren’t you.” It wasn’t even a question, more just a statement that wanted confirmation.

I nodded. “If they’re targeting intermarriages,” I began, letting my voice trail off. He knew what I meant.

He looked very serious. “Yep, I’ve heard that too,” he admitted. “Though it seems they’re focussing on the new marriages, not the older ones that already have children. You know, send a warning that this sort of behaviour isn’t acceptable, try to stop anyone else doing it.”

I breathed out, not having realised till then that I’d been holding it in. That did make me feel just a little better, though another concern soon struck me. “What about Lily and James?”

He shrugged, though his face was still rather grave. “It’s an issue, but I suspect that by the time they get to that point the focus will have moved to something else. I can’t see them targeting intermarriages for years on end, not really. And Prongs and Lily are years away from getting married I would have thought.” I nodded, wondering if he was trying to convince me about this, or himself.

In any case I felt a little appeased, and turned back to my breakfast. “How long do you think this will all go on for?” I asked, piling scrambled eggs onto my fork.

“Until someone takes Voldemort out for good,” he said somewhat viciously. “And if I can help that to happen …”

“Just don’t get yourself killed in the process,” I warned, knowing that nothing I said would convince him not to fight. And I wasn’t sure that I wanted him not to fight, in any case – his abhorrence of what Voldemort stood for and his determination to do something about it was part of who he was and what I loved about him. Besides, as the daughter of a police officer I was used to living with a little uncertainty. “I don’t want to have to live without you.”

“No fear of that,” he said, leaning back on the rear legs of his chair and smiling suddenly at me. “They’d have to catch me first.”

“There’s nothing I can do, is there?” I asked a little tentatively as I nibbled on a piece of toast. “To protect Mum and Dad, if they are targeted?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think there is,” he said gravely, the front legs of his chair hitting the floor again. “If there’s a real threat, the Ministry will do what needs to be done, I’m sure of it. The best thing you can do, aside from following any security protocols that get set up, is to keep yourself safe at all times.” He paused. “And you can always come here, use it as a safe house if you need to. Oh, that reminds me,” he went on, “give me your wand.” Abandoning the rest of his breakfast, he stood up and held his hand out expectantly.

Another sudden change of subject, and one that took me completely unawares. “What?”

“Give me your wand,” he repeated. “I have to set it up for the locks here.”

My jaw dropped. He was giving me wand access to his flat? That was a big step, the equivalent of handing over a key to the front door, even if it was only because he was offering it as a safe house. However, I wasn’t about to argue. Hastily swallowing my eggs, I fished in my pocket and handed it over. “Here you go.”

He gave it a bit of a twirl. “Nice,” he said, looking like he was weighing it in his hand. “What is it?”

“Cherry and unicorn hair,” I replied. “Ten inches, from memory.”

“Right,” he said. “Mine’s twelve and three-quarter inches, this feels a bit short for me. Suits you though.” And, opening the door, he tapped the lock first with his wand and then with mine, and did a couple of very complicated-looking movements before hitting the lock again, first with my wand this time and then with his. “That should do it. I’ll lock up and we’ll try it out. Tap it twice,” he went on. “The spell’s just Alohomora, but it has to be done with your wand, and most of these flats are Muggle so you should probably do it non-verbally.”

We went into the corridor where he got his own wand out and locked the door. I followed his instructions and sure enough, the door unlocked for me.

Sirius looked pleased. “Excellent,” he said, smiling. “Now it’s your place as well.”

I was still taking this in when we were interrupted by the frantic knocking of an owl on one of the windows that opened onto the balcony, and as we let it in I realised it was Cerridwyn.

Taking the letter from her leg, I opened it, a sinking feeling in my chest as I realised it could only really be from one person. One look at the handwriting told me I was right. “Oh, crap. It’s from Dad. Now I’m really for it.”

Sirius tensed. “What does he say?”

I shrugged. “Probably outlining what punishments I’ve got waiting for me once four o’clock comes around.” I scanned the letter, wondering what was in store.

He said something else but I didn’t hear him – everything was drowned out by what Dad had written. Wordlessly, I dropped the parchment to the floor and clutched at Sirius, feeling the blood draining from my face. “Oh Merlin,” I whispered, beginning to shake uncontrollably. “It’s Mary …”

He somehow picked up the letter while still holding onto me – there was no way known I was going to let go of him anytime soon – and sat both of us down on the couch. “Laura, what’s going on?” he read aloud. “I don’t know where you’re staying but if you’re not with the Macdonalds you may not have heard. I’ve just been at the their house after word came in at work that someone had seen a Dark Mark above it …” His voice trailed off. “The Dark Mark? Above Mary’s house? But that must mean …”

I nodded, still clutching at him. "It can't be true," I managed to get out. "It just can't."

Sirius swallowed and looked back at the letter. “A Dark Mark was reported above it, and Bev, Mary and Andrew are there – who’re Bev and Andrew?” he asked, clearly a little sidetracked.

“Her mum and her brother,” I whispered, hiccoughing uncomfortably.

“Right. I met her on Tuesday, didn’t I?” I nodded dumbly, my breath uneven, and he went back to the letter in his hand, his voice breaking a little. “Bev, Mary and Andrew are there … I’m sorry, Laura, they’re all dead. Do you know anything about what happened? Is this why you wouldn’t stay with them? Are you even still alive?” Sirius dropped the letter to the floor and swallowed again, and when he spoke once more his voice was tense and shaking, not like his usual voice at all. “I can’t believe it,” he said finally, his face pale as a ghost’s and his arms wrapping around me tightly. “They’ve killed Mary.”

________________________________________

53
There had to be some kind of mistake. It couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t. I’d only seen her, spoken to her the previous night, and everything had been fine then.

“Not Mary,” I said unevenly, hoping against hope that there had been a mistake. “They haven’t killed Mary. They can’t have.”

Sirius looked very grave. “Would your dad lie to you about something like this?”

“She can’t be dead,” I insisted, hiccoughing uncomfortably. “I was only there last night, she was fine. She can’t be. It can’t be true.”

“I don’t want to believe it either,” he said, his face still pale, his voice still shaking.

“I have to go home,” I decided. “Dad will tell me it was all a mistake, that they’re all fine. He has to. It can’t be true.”

“Of course,” he said dully. The shock had got to him, too. “I’ll take you to Bristol, okay?”

I got up and packed up my belongings, even extricating myself from Sirius, who’d had a very firm grip on me as he muttered continuously, “What if you’d been there, what if you’d been there.” It was true, of course – I was supposed to be there, and I couldn’t help but feel that it should have happened to me, too. If Dad’s letter was true, then I was only alive because I had lied to him. It was a horrible thought.

Somehow Sirius managed to Apparate both of us to central Bristol, and from there I took us to a small park around the corner from my parents’ house, usually abandoned and so useful for appearing suddenly out of nowhere. As Padfoot he walked with me to my front door, and as I let myself in I glanced over my shoulder at the black dog, sitting silently underneath the oak tree across the street, half hidden in the shade.

Still not really understanding how I managed to function that well, I fumbled with my keys and soon found myself inside the entrance hall. Mum came into the room cautiously, having clearly heard a noise.

“Laura, it’s you!” she cried, sheer relief written all over her face. “You’re alive!!” She dropped the kitchen knife she had been holding warily in front of her. Not being magical, she had next to no defences against Death Eaters, but clearly she had wanted to do what she could in case ours was the next house targeted.

“I’m alive,” I said shakily, sinking into her as she wrapped me up in the biggest bear hug I’d ever had. “It’s okay, Mum. I’m okay.”

“Oh, thank God,” she whispered.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked, looking around for him. “He’ll tell me it was all a mistake, that everyone’s okay.” My face fell when I saw her expression. “No,” I insisted. “It can’t be true. I was only there last night, everything was fine. It has to be a mistake.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly, her arms still around me.

“No,” I said again, panicking slightly. The idea that I could be wrong was more than I could accept. “Not Mary. She can’t be dead. Not Mary. They made a mistake, they were all unconscious, they weren’t dead. They made a mistake.”

She shook her head slowly. “They called the Healers in to make sure,” she said. “I’m so sorry, Laura.”

“It was a mistake,” I repeated. Maybe if I said the words enough times it would make them true.

Trying to get through my denials, Mum walked me into the living room and sitting me on the couch with her. “Your father says they were all hit by Avada Kedavras. So, at least, it wouldn’t have been painful for them.”

“But she can’t be,” I hiccoughed. “Mary can’t be. It’s just not right.”

“I know,” she murmured reassuringly.

I looked up at her, my heart sinking. Surely this was just some horrible game they were playing? But Mum had clearly been crying and her eyes were grave. She looked just like someone who was telling the truth. “But why?” I asked a little hysterically. “Why would someone do that? Mary never hurt anyone!”

“They think it was because of Andrew’s engagement,” she said. “Death Eaters don’t leave notes explaining their actions, of course, but the fact that intermarriages are being targeted makes the Ministry think that was why.” Her voice was shaky and I could tell she was worried about her own safety - after all, if Andrew Macdonald could be killed just for intending to marry a Muggle-born, what might be in store for Auster Cauldwell?

“No,” I insisted. “If it was that, then they would have gone for the Muggle-born, not the pure-blood. It’s not that, and they’re not dead.”

She shook her head again. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “They think that this was intended to be a warning … you know, not even the pure-bloods are safe if they do the wrong thing.”

The awful realisation started sinking in – this was real after all. No matter how hard I wished otherwise, Mary wouldn’t be coming back. I sank back onto the couch, the tears flowing freely.

Mary.

Mary my best friend, the one who’d been there for me since I was eleven years old. Mary, who had agreed to be complicit in taking in my parents for this trip to London. Mary, who had shared all her secrets with me. Mary, who I would never see again.

I felt absolutely hollow. I’d never lost anyone before, not anyone close like this, and I just couldn’t believe that Mary wouldn’t be around any more. She’d been so much a part of my life for the past seven years that her absence, even for a short while, seemed impossible. Let alone forever.

My sobs were interrupted by Dad’s arrival – for some reason he’d not gone to work that day, maybe so he could be home in case I did come back. “Is that you, Laura?” he asked quickly.

“Yes, it’s me,” I said, blinking through my tears. “It’s okay, Dad. I’m okay.”

Dad pulled his wand out suddenly and looked sternly at Mum. “Let go of her, Denise, and move slowly away.”

Mum looked surprised, but then understanding dawned across her face and she did his bidding. Dad pointed his wand at me.

“What was your first word?”

“Wand,” I said dully. It looked like he was going to give me twenty questions to make sure I was really me – which I suppose was understandable, considering what had just happened.

“The name of the little girl who lived next door in Wales?”

“Megan,” I said. “Megan Williams. And she had a brother called Gareth, who was a couple of years younger than she was.”

“And your last Muggle teacher?” he pressed.

“Mrs Johnson,” I said, resenting this all of a sudden. After all, I’d just lost my best friend, and he was bugging me about my childhood? “Is that enough or do you want to know my favourite storybook character as well? Or the last record I bought?”

“No, that’s all right,” Mum said. “Put your wand down, Auster, it’s her.” Dad put his wand away obediently and Mum came to embrace me again.

“Thank Merlin you’re all right,” Dad said quietly, giving me a quick hug as well, which showed how worried he had actually been. He was never very demonstrative. “Where were you?” he asked. “We had no way of knowing what might have happened, no way of finding out if you were even alive or not.”

“I was in London,” I said. “I was safe. I was secure. I encountered absolutely no Death Eaters.”

“But what was wrong with the Macdonalds’ house?” he asked. “That was where you’d asked to go, where we’d given permission for you to be.”

My eyes filled with tears again. “It’s got the Dark Mark over it, Dad,” I pointed out. “I would have thought that meant that something was horribly wrong there.”

“But you didn’t know that would happen,” Dad pointed out. “Or did you? Is there something you’re not telling us?”

I glared at him through tear-filled eyes. “Do you really think that, if I knew Mary was going to be attacked, I wouldn’t have said something? What sort of person do you think I am?”

Dad baulked. “Of course,” he said quietly, looking down. “Sorry.” After a moment, though, he raised his head again. “So why weren’t you there? I f you didn’t know this was going to happen, then why would you leave?” He hesitated. “Look, Laura, there are Death Eaters out there and you’ve learned that they can attack anywhere, at any time. We just need to know that you’re safe.”

“There was somewhere else I wanted to be,” I said simply, hugging my legs. “Mrs Macdonald knew where I was and she thought it was fine. And like I said, I was safe.”

“Thank heavens you weren’t with the Macdonalds,” Mum said quietly. “I dread to think …”

“But I should have been,” I pointed out tearfully. “I was supposed to be there. So I should have died, too.”

“It’s not your fault,” Dad told me. “Don’t feel guilty. You were lucky, that’s all. Sometimes we all need a bit of luck in our lives.”

“But I was supposed to be there,” I said again. It seemed vital that they understood how important that was.

“Maybe you shouldn’t be going back to school this term,” Mum said hesitantly. “At least if you’re here we’ll know you’re all right.”

I froze. That would be awful. How was I supposed to get through something like this without Sirius? I’d already lost my best friend, I couldn’t lose him too, even if it was only for a couple of months. That would be worse than anything.

Fortunately Dad came to the rescue. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he told her over my head. “Hogwarts is much safer than this house is. Everyone knows that You-Know-Who’s scared of Dumbledore, he’d never dare attack the school.”

“I have to go back,” I said a little plaintively. “I have to finish. Mary would be horrified if I didn’t get my NEWTs because of her.”

“What about whoever you were staying with last night?” Mum asked. “Will they be at Hogwarts, too?”

Dad looked at her, clearly surprised. “What do you mean?”

“I still think this is about a boy,” Mum explained, astonishing me that she was still worrying about that after everything that had happened. In any case, I had to put a stop to this idea before Dad thought about it too much.

“Why would you think that?” I asked, trying to look innocent through the tears. “I’m not allowed to have boyfriends this year, remember?”

“Just as well,” Dad said. “Good to see you know the rules.”

“Though, by the looks of things, she has no problem breaking them,” Mum pointed out. “You did notice that, I take it?”

“I hate to break up this little party,” I said quietly, “but my best friend has just died. Can we deal with this another time?”

“Of course,” Mum said comfortingly, holding me even tighter. “This should be about Mary.”

It was like I had a hole in my chest. Just talking about it was like a knife running through me. The very idea of Mary not being around any more was so unfeasible that I couldn’t really get my head around it. And Mum, while she could give a good hug, was a very poor imitation of Sirius. If I’d had a choice I would have wanted him there, holding me, rather than her. Somehow he was just that little bit more comforting.

Owls flew thick and fast around our house for the next couple of days as my classmates all exchanged condolences, and Lily even called me on the telephone to see how I was coping with things. The answer, of course, was badly. I could hardly convince myself that it was all true and not some horribly bad dream, and I was overwhelmed with guilt. Guilt for not spending as much time with Mary as I should have over the past several months, guilt for making her last days uncomfortable with having to lie to my father, guilt for simply being alive when she wasn’t. I should have been there. I was supposed to have been there. Therefore, I should have died too.

Mum and Dad, and to a lesser extent Bea, tried their hardest to make me feel better, but all their efforts just felt strained and, while I appreciated it, they didn’t really help. Probably the fact that they were in shock as well contributed to how unreal it felt. I spent a lot of time alone in my room, casting hexes on myself in an attempt to feel something, alternating between staring at old photos of Mary and me together, and hurling them across the room for reminding me that she wasn’t around any more. The only thing that helped keep me sane was Jessie, our cocker spaniel.

Right, so that’s probably not quite accurate. I did make a point of taking Jessie for her daily walk, choosing a nearby park that was fenced and therefore designed for dogs to run loose, off their leads, but I wasn’t alone when I did it. Halfway there I would be joined by another dog, huge, black, bear-like, and once we reached the park it would transform back into Sirius and he would sit with me, more often than not silently, just putting a comforting arm around me as we both tried to take in what had happened. Meanwhile, Jessie gambolled around carelessly, happily snapping at butterflies and stray leaves and sniffing other dogs. After all, her life wasn’t any different to how it had been the week before. She had everything she could ask for. She hadn’t lost Mary.

****

Mary’s funeral was held on Sunday morning, and the school had arranged that the Hogwarts Express leave an hour later so students could attend. The event itself was held in a funeral home just off Diagon Alley, which had been getting a lot of business over the past few years due to the war. That day was no exception – the Macdonalds’ funeral was just one of six being held that day, from what I could tell from the notices by the entrance.

The room was a sea of black as hundreds of people came to pay their respects. There were a number of Hogwarts students and also some teachers, Professor McGonagall noticeable due to the tartan cloak she wore over her black robes. Sebastian was near the front, looking like he didn’t know what to do with himself, his Ravenclaw friends forming a close barrier around him.

Not long after I arrived with my parents and Bea I saw Lily, her face red and blotchy, hurrying towards me. “Laura!” she cried, pulling me away from them as she hugged me. “Isn’t it awful?”

I was having trouble saying anything. I was barely even seeing her, to be honest. I was just a shell of my former self, struggling to take anything in, furious with myself for not being there when my best friend was killed.

“I should have been there,” I muttered, having told myself this fifty thousand times over the past few days. “I was supposed to be there.” Then I realised who I was talking to. “And you know, Lily, maybe I could have done something, you know? I mean, we’ve been learning all this stuff, maybe I could have saved her.”

Lily looked at me sternly. “This isn’t your fault, Laura,” she said. “Never think this is your fault. If you’d been there, they would only have killed you too.”

“But she didn’t deserve to die,” I pointed out tearfully. “She never hurt a fly. She was Mary, you know?”

“No one deserves to die,” Lily said quietly. She looked over my shoulder to my parents, a few yards away, and lowered her voice yet again. “They still don’t know about Sirius, do they?”

I shook my head, my eyes filling with tears again. This was breaking my heart. My best friend was lying in a coffin at the front of the room, and I couldn’t go near the one person who could have made me feel anywhere near human.

“It’s so unfair,” I said, hiccoughing as I tried not to cry again.

“Yes, it is,” she agreed. “The whole war’s unfair.”

I looked at her. “Does it ever make you think of going back and living as a Muggle?”

She shook her head and her eyes, while wet, were suddenly fierce. “No, it makes me want to fight. Stop them in their tracks. Make them suffer.”

And there’s the Gryffindor courage, I thought. I wondered if I would feel the same way – that is, when I could feel anything again. At that moment I just felt numb.

“But aren’t you worried?” I asked. “About James? I mean, if they killed Andrew because of his girlfriend …”

“James can take care of himself,” she said, though I thought I could detect a note of concern in her voice.

“You’d better go to him,” I murmured. “I’ll stay here with Mum and Dad.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

I nodded dumbly and, after looking doubtfully at me, she steered me back to my parents and took off to find James.

I already knew where James was, of course, because he was with Sirius. They were about twenty yards away, to my left and up a bit, and it took all my strength not to go straight to them and fall into Sirius’ arms, letting him kiss my tears away. Instead, though, I let Mum and Dad lead me to a pew near the front and sat down, my eyes fixed on the three coffins in front of me.

It was so hard to believe that Mary really was in there.

Mary shouldn’t be in there, I thought furiously. Mary should have been with me, making the sorts of comments that only she could come up with. Mary should have been seeking out Sebastian for a quick snog. Mary should have had a future.

There was movement on the row behind us and I thought I could smell Sirius there. It was incredibly comforting, the thought that he was close by even if we couldn’t talk to each other, and I let one hand drop in between the back rest and the set of my pew, just hanging there behind me. Almost immediately I felt someone take it and squeeze it. The knowledge that he was trying to be there for me was almost enough to bring another tear to my eye – I hadn’t realised I could feel so much gratitude for such a small thing.

The service started, with a man I’d never seen before saying platitudes that I supposed were about Mary, Andrew and Mrs Mac. The thing was, of course, that so many people were dying as a result of the war that you could say pretty much the same thing at any funeral and it would still be appropriate. I yearned, however, for someone to get up there and say something personal about them, because it might finally hammer home that this was indeed real.

Finally someone else stood up, someone I didn’t recognise but who was apparently Mary’s uncle, her mother’s brother. He didn’t have the Scottish accent I was longing to hear, but he did say some things that at least made me feel like he knew them, like he loved them, like he was hurting just as much or even more than I was. Eventually, however, even his words were lost, undecipherable against the background of sobbing, of sniffling, of the red eyes and tear-stained cheeks of just about everyone in the room.

“Be strong,” Mum said bracingly to me once the service was over and the three coffins had been taken to the crematorium. “Mary wouldn’t have wanted you to fall apart over this, not now when exams are so close.”

“How can you even think about exams?” I asked, somewhat hysterically. “Mary’s about to be burned to a crisp and you’re thinking about my NEWTs?” I took a breath, my voice getting louder and shriller. “We shouldn’t be talking about what Mary, or Andrew, or Mrs Mac, WOULD have wanted. They should be here to tell us themselves! They shouldn’t be in there! They never hurt anyone!”

“Calm down,” Mum said. “People are staring.”

“Let them,” I said feverishly. “If anything, I should be in there too! I was supposed to be there! But no, the one time I decide to do something for myself for a change, my best friend, who was covering for me, gets killed. This shouldn’t be happening,” I went on, getting onto a roll and unable to stop myself. “This needs to stop. What are the Aurors doing, or the Hit Wizards, if the Death Eaters can just swan up to someone’s house and kill them like that? What sort of world do we live in?”

Dad looked like he was trying to suppress a smile. “Still got that Welsh spirit, haven’t you?” he said fondly. “Look, there’s Alastor Moody from the Auror’s office,” he went on. “How about you go and tell him what he’s doing wrong? Who knows, you might be able to fix things.”

“I don’t want to have to fix things,” I said miserably, finally calming down a little, though my face was still wet. “I just want Mary back.”

****

The ride on the Hogwarts Express was, unsurprisingly, far more subdued than usual. Even those students who hadn’t known Mary were aware of what had happened, and no one seemed to feel much like talking and even less like joking around. Aside from people like Snape, Mulciber and Avery, of course, who we all knew aspired to join the Death Eaters and probably approved of it.

I sat in a corner of the compartment, not really talking, clutching at Sirius like my life depended on it. Thank Merlin I had him, I realised – if this had occurred a year or so earlier I would have been absolutely lost. Sirius, however, was able to make me calmer just by being there; as I had discovered at the funeral, something as simple as his touch could make all the difference.

The trouble was, of course, that I was having difficulty coming to terms with the fact that Mary wasn’t around any more. Every time the compartment door opened I automatically looked up, half expecting to see her smiling face pop in to tell me the latest bit of gossip, or just to say hello. And every time I looked up, it was someone else, someone who wasn’t Mary. It didn’t even matter who it actually was, most of the time, it was who it wasn’t that hit me the hardest. I would never look up and see her poking her head around the compartment door again. I would never hear her laugh. I would never be able to tell her what a great friend she was.

I would never see her again.

Lily, James and Remus clearly didn’t want to go on patrols for this particular train journey, but they didn’t have much choice. Fortunately those teachers who had attended the funeral were also on the train, so there was less chance of people acting up, but they still had to do it.

“It just feels wrong,” Lily said quietly. “That we’re going about our business like nothing’s happened.”

I attempted a smile. “Mary would have hated people making too much of a fuss because of her,” I said weakly. “Maybe you can just go through the motions.”

Martha and Charlotte had joined us in the compartment, clutching each other tightly, their faces wet and blotchy. After James, Lily and Remus came back from their rounds I noticed Remus holding Charlotte’s hand, and wondered if this tragedy might help bring them closer together. Mary would have liked that.

The journey, nonetheless, was the quietest I had ever experienced. It almost felt surreal, how silent the compartment was. No one really felt up to talking much, and if someone tried then invariably Mary’s name would crop up at some point, sending the girls at least into yet another flood of tears. Like me, I knew they kept looking for her whenever the door opened or anyone walked past, half expecting to see her. Like me, I knew they were having trouble dealing with the fact that it would never happen.

The feast that night was also a sombre affair. Black drapes lined the walls and the usual buzz of chatter in the Great Hall was conspicuous by its absence. Even the Slytherins, many of whom we suspected felt no grief whatsoever for the Macdonalds, seemed reluctant to make too much noise.

“Tonight,” Professor Dumbledore said in his speech, “we are brought together by a tragedy. Last week one of our own, Mary Macdonald, was taken from us in the cruellest way. Mary’s death,” he went on, “is a brutal and heartbreaking reminder that none of us are immune from the effects of this war, no matter how distanced we may sometimes feel from it. No longer can any of us honestly say we have not been affected.”

He paused again. “Mary Macdonald was a good student,” he went on eventually. “She was loved and respected and was to have been sitting her NEWTs this coming June. She was a loyal member of Gryffindor House and a role model to younger students. She was the sort of girl who wasn’t disliked by anyone. She was even, though this should not matter, a pure-blood. Yet, still, despite all these things, Mary was still murdered by Lord Voldemort’s followers.”

There were a number of audible gasps in the room at the Headmaster’s use of Voldemort’s name, but I respected him for doing it. Hearing the name, somehow, made him seem more human, more defeatable, than saying ‘He who must not be named’.

“And what was her crime?” Professor Dumbledore asked after another pause. “What did she do that upset Voldemort so much? She agreed to be part of a wedding, a union between a pure-blood wizard and a Muggle-born witch. She agreed to do a favour for her brother. And, because of this, she died.” He paused, his eyes resting on the Gryffindor table. “No, this is not fair,” he went on. “It is not even logical. It is, however, the sort of thing that is all too common in this war.”

He looked around the room, his gaze resting on each House table individually. “You all know that we are living in dark and dangerous times. Some of you have already experienced this first hand, with loved ones falling victim to the Death Eaters. Only a few days ago, this school lost a student.”

He paused again, looking around the room over his half-moon glasses, and nodding in the direction of Sebastian, who was sitting at the Ravenclaw table, an empty space next to him and his head in his hands. His shoulders were shaking and I was sure he was crying. “I would like to propose a toast,” Dumbledore said clearly, “in memory of one of our own, who learned the hard way that the family home is not always a safe place to be. Who had a bright future ahead of her and friends and family who loved her. Whose death must serve as an unwelcome reminder that, outside these walls, nowhere is truly safe. Who will be sorely missed.” He raised his goblet. “To Mary Macdonald.”

“To Mary Macdonald.” The words were muttered by some, said loudly by others, and ignored by many of the Slytherins. Through my tears I glared across the Great Hall at them.

“They don’t even care,” I said furiously. “They’re probably celebrating. How could they?”

“It was probably their parents that did it,” James pointed out, his face dark.

Sirius gave me a squeeze. “Try not to think about it,” he murmured, though he was clearly angry as well and part of me wondered if he and James were already planning some kind of retaliation. “They’ll pay for it eventually.”

It was with trepidation that I eventually went up to the girls’ dorm, not really knowing what to expect. Would Mary’s bed be there, taunting us with its emptiness? Or would it have been taken away and the other beds moved over a bit, like she’d never existed? Fortunately Lily, Martha and Charlotte all shared my thoughts and we clasped hands as we made our way up the stairs, unsure of what would confront us.

Of course, our eyes were immediately drawn to the space that Mary used to occupy. Her bed was gone, as were her things (most probably boxed and sent to the rest of the family, what was left of them), but whoever had organised this had left the place the bed used to be empty. Our own beds hadn’t been moved to split the dorm into quarters instead of fifths, there was just this gap there, this stark reminder that what had once been a life full of promise was now no more.

Lily dropped my hand and began fussing in her trunk, eventually pulling out a photograph of the five of us. Wordlessly, she took it to the blank wall, where the Scottish flag once sat, and stuck it there with a Fixing Charm.

“This is now Mary’s wall,” she said, hiccoughing a little. “This is how we’re going to remember her, how we’re going to honour her just in this room.”

“Good idea,” said Martha. She too opened her trunk, soon resurfacing with a photo of Mary and herself. “Here’s my first contribution.”

Before long the wall was plastered with our remembrances of Mary: photographs, notes she’d written, a drawing she’d done of the golden eagle that had been her Patronus. I wrote a quick note to my parents asking them to pick up a Scottish flag somewhere, too – it didn’t feel like it should be Mary’s wall without one. It was a poor imitation of the real thing, of course, but it was the best – and the least – we could do.

Charlotte, fumbling due to her tears, found a candle and placed it, alight, at the base of the display.

“We should see if we can get some Gubraithian Fire,” Lily said, her eyes on the flame. “You know, to make sure the candle doesn’t go out.” She paused. “I’ll ask Dumbledore.”

Martha was fishing around in the bottom of the wardrobe and eventually pulled out a bottle of Firewhisky and four goblets. “We’ll drink another toast,” she said somberly, and we all filled our glasses and clinked them together, our faces wet.

Our voices came together as one, a little choked, a little shaky, but very determined. “To Mary.”
________________________________________



Author's note: I'm not thrilled with how this chapter turned out, but I've been playing with it for so long now that I think that if I made any more changes it would probably become worse, not better. So, I guess I'm trying to say that it may get more of an edit in the future once I've worked out how I can get it the way I want it. In the meantime, thanks for muddling through.

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54
The next morning, on the way down to breakfast, Lily and I confronted James and Sirius, a new resolve in our hearts. “These duelling lessons we’ve been having,” Lily began.

James looked at her. “What about them?”

“We need more of them,” I told him. “The more the better.”

Lily nodded resolutely. “We want to learn to fight,” she explained. “Properly, not just this defence stuff you’re teaching us.”

The boys both stopped in their tracks. “You’re not fighting,” Sirius said, looking at me.

“No, Lily’s not either,” James added quickly. “That was never the point of the lessons. You were just supposed to know how to defend yourselves.”

I glared at him. “So, with what happened to Mary, we’re supposed to just sit back and take that? Not raise a wand in retaliation? I’m sorry, but that’s not going to happen.”

Lily nodded again. “If we can help take down whoever did that to her, then that’s the least we can do,” she said.

“You can’t do anything,” Sirius pointed out. “You’re stuck here. Look, the Aurors will take care of whoever attacked Mary, they’ll be in Azkaban before you know it. All we can teach you is the small stuff, which might not even be much help in the real world.”

James was also looking worried. “Please don’t think you can go out and avenge Mary’s death,” he said pleadingly. “This is bigger than any of us, you’ll get in way over your heads. And we want you to be safe.”

“While you both go off fighting?” I asked scathingly. “That’s not fair. One in, all in.”

Sirius looked sadly at me, and when he spoke his voice was quiet. “Fighting isn’t going to bring her back, you know.”

I faltered: until he’d said it out loud, I hadn’t realised that was exactly what I’d been hoping for. Unconsciously, unrealistically, I had thought that doing something practical like that would in some way reverse what had happened. It was a purely emotional reaction but it was also a false hope, and the finality of that realisation was almost more than I could bear. Fortunately Sirius somehow realised this – he was incredibly good at reading me these days – and wrapped both arms around me as I tried to fight my tears.

“Can we talk about this later?” James was asking. “Fine, we’ll try to book in more lessons, but please don’t go out seeking a fight, okay?”

Lily looked at me and paused. “We make no promises,” she said eventually. “We still want to learn. But we’ll consider it.”

The truth was that this close encounter with the war meant that everything seemed so much more imminent. Little things that had interested us before like who was going out with who or how someone had done her hair were now only minor distractions, completely irrelevant when compared with what really counted – winning the war. Mary’s death must not have been in vain, we’d realised. Her fate, awful as it had been, was spurring us on to make sure the bigger picture was taken care of. Voldemort must be defeated. There was no other option.

We weren’t the only ones to feel this way, either. The first Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson that term was much more intense than usual, with not only the Gryffindors but also all the Hufflepuffs we shared the class with working extra hard.

“It’s fantastic to see you all applying yourselves so hard to this,” Professor Perkins said wryly at the end of the class. “I just wish that you would have taken it so seriously before this tragedy. I’ve been seeing a steady improvement from only four of you this year - ” she nodded at Sirius, James, Lily and me – “but I hope that this newfound enthusiasm for the subject will last long enough for you to get a good lead-in to your NEWTs. Awful as the events of the holidays were, maybe some good can yet come out of them.”

Charlotte was fuming as we left the classroom. “That was a bit insensitive, don’t you think?” she asked, her eyes wet behind her glasses. “Wanting to put Mary dying to good use?”

“Her timing could have been better,” I agreed, “but I can see her point. Mary would have hated it if we’d all failed because of her. She’d probably like us to use it as motivation. She liked to feel useful.” My eyes teared up again and Sirius gave my hand a squeeze. “I do miss her,” I admitted.

“We all miss her,” Lily said quietly. “I dare say we always will.”

****

Later that week I found myself walking alongside Bernie Carmichael as I headed from Ancient Runes to the Great Hall for lunch. “How are you going?” he asked quietly.

“Coping,” I said. “Just.”

He seemed to know exactly what I meant and nodded. “Seb’s having a really hard time of it,” he said. “He’s not doing well at all.”

“I’d figured as much,” I admitted. I’d noticed Sebastian looking rather haunted as he made his way around the castle to lessons. “Though, it’s not something anyone should have to deal with, is it?”

“Is it true you were supposed to be there?” he asked, his voice still quiet.

I nodded. “Yep. And I should have died too.”

“Don’t say that,” he said, grabbing my hand and giving it a comforting squeeze. “Losing Mary was a big enough blow without you being killed as well.”

I looked at him, my eyes filling with tears as we went through the doors to the Great Hall. “It’s just … it’s so completely unfair,” I said. “Mary never hurt anyone. She should never have been hurt.”

He squeezed my hand again, but dropped it very quickly when he noticed Sirius moving quickly towards us, his eyes flashing. “Carmichael …” he growled.

“Don’t worry, we were just talking about Mary,” Bernie said rapidly, moving away from me.

“Well, don’t,” Sirius said threateningly, standing between us and pulling me towards him. “She’s having enough trouble coping with it without having other people bring it up all the time.”

“It’s okay,” I told him. “Sebastian’s having trouble, too, Bernie was just worried about me.”

Bernie by now had gone to the Ravenclaw table, clearly seeing he wasn’t wanted, and Sirius walked me to the place he’d saved for me with the Gryffindors, his arm still protectively around me. “He shouldn’t be holding your hand like that,” he muttered.

“He was only trying to comfort me,” I explained. “There was nothing in it. You know that.”

“I don’t like him talking to you all the time,” he said uncomfortably. “He still likes you. He might try something.”

“He won’t,” I told him. “If anything, I won’t let him. Okay?”

He seemed only mildly appeased, sending a Bat-Bogey Hex across the room at Bernie, and was still in a rather dark mood when we did our duelling lesson that afternoon. For the first time, I was pleased that Lily had to partner him instead of me, as she was the one who had to deal with his temper. To her credit, she used it to her advantage and spent a lot of time honing her reaction times as he pelted her with different jinxes.

“Now, about you two fighting,” James said to Lily and me as we took a break halfway through the lesson, our Revulsion Jinxes now almost as good as the boys’ were. “We’ve decided that we’ll teach you some offensive spells, but that doesn’t mean that we want you to use them unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“And why wouldn’t we?” Lily said archly. “We’ve made up our minds on this. We want to fight.”

“You might change your minds once you see what it’s really like out there,” James pointed out. “Look, it’s really nasty. Dad used to tell stories from when he was in the Ministry, and that was before this war got to the extent it has.”

“And with people like Cousin Bella on the other side, it’s not going to get any nicer,” Sirius said grimly, his mood only mildly improved. “I know what she’s capable of. I don’t think the woman actually has a heart.”

“But she got caught,” I said, confused. “Didn’t Dumbledore give them to the Hit Wizards after Slughorn’s party last term?”

James looked surprised. “Didn’t you hear? They got away last week. Imperiused their guards when they were being moved prior to the trial. One of them must have had a spare wand or something tucked away that they hadn’t found when they searched them. It was in the papers.”

Sirius reached over and grabbed my hand. “On the weekend,” he pointed out, looking at James. “Laura had other things on her mind then.” He squeezed my hand comfortingly. “We all did.”

“Of course,” James said, a little subdued. “But the thing is, out there, against Death Eaters, if you make one false move then you’re dead. It’s as simple as that.” He paused, looking at Lily and me. “And you wonder why we don’t want you out in that?”

“But you’re going to fight,” I pointed out again. “How do you think we like that?”

Lily nodded. “Like Laura said the other day, one in, all in. If you’re fighting, we want to be right there with you.”

Sirius and James looked helplessly at one another. “And like James just said, maybe you’ll change your minds once we get out of here,” Sirius said quietly. “We’re nice and insulated from it all at Hogwarts, everyone knows Voldemort’s scared of Dumbledore so we’re about as safe here as anyone can be right now. But out there … well, it’s a completely different story. Just bear that in mind, okay?”

Lily set her jaw stubbornly. “We want to fight,” she repeated. “And we’re not learning anything sitting here talking. How about we get back into it now?”

I nodded, looking at James as I got to my feet. “Now, these offensive spells you mentioned …”

****

After supper, Lily disappeared for a little while without James, which raised a few eyebrows. We were so used to them being together all the time that something like this was most unusual. However, all was explained when she came back into the common room, a red candle in her hand. “Come upstairs,” she told me, Martha and Charlotte. “I’ve got it.”

“Got what?” Martha asked as we dutifully followed her to the dorm.

“The fire,” she said, opening the door with her spare hand. “Dumbledore found some Gubraithian Fire for us, we’ve got an everlasting candle now.” She put the red candle down on the floor by Mary’s wall, where it dwarfed the original one Charlotte had found. “I tried to Charm the candle so it had the Macdonald tartan,” she went on, “but unfortunately the charm didn’t work with the everlasting flame, and I thought that was more important. Mary would have understood.”

We all looked at the flame, which was somewhat larger than that you would normally see on a candle, and cast long shadows on the wall behind it. On the wall itself, images moved of their own accord, different shots of Mary smiling, Mary laughing, Mary trying in vain to ride a broom, Mary cheering at a Quidditch game, Mary giving me a comforting hug.

“We’re like the fire, aren’t we?” I said suddenly. They all turned quizzical faces to me. “We’re not going to go out,” I said, trying to explain myself and this sudden epiphany I’d had that I wasn’t sure I even understood properly. “This friendship. No matter what happens, we’ll always be friends, won’t we?”

They didn’t answer immediately, clearly thinking this over. “I think you’re right,” Charlotte said slowly after a spell. “This has brought us closer together, hasn’t it? It’s like a weird kind of bond.”

Martha nodded. “Yeah, I think so too,” she said. She looked at Mary’s wall, her expression intense, before turning back to us. “Another toast, do you think?”

Lily nodded. “It’s needed, I think.”

Once our goblets were all full again, once more we clinked them and raised them to the wall of photographs.

“To Mary.”

****

Of course, not everyone had the same reaction to Mary’s death as we’d had. A lot of our fellow students hadn’t known her very well (or, in the case of those in younger years, at all) and so couldn’t have been expected to mourn for extended periods, and after a couple of weeks of rather sombre behaviour things eventually started getting back to normal. Unfortunately, that also meant that the fan club started getting back into the swing of things, and I had to cope with minor annoyances such as ink being spilled on my essays, or my things being Transfigured when I wasn’t paying attention. Eventually, as Remus and I made our way towards Ancient Runes one day, this culminated in Elvira swallowing her pride and actually talking to me.

“Laura!” she called, making me stop in my tracks, and ignoring Remus entirely. Why she did that I couldn’t understand – as one of Sirius’ best friends, surely he would be just as good a source of information as I was?

“Elvira,” I said, unable to contain my surprise. “How’s tricks?” Remus stopped as well, most probably wondering what would happen here.

As usual she skipped the preliminaries. “I heard you went to Sirius’ place over Easter,” she said without breaking step. We hurried to catch up with her.

I smiled wryly – news certainly did travel fast at Hogwarts. I hadn’t even told anyone except the girls in my dorm, and that had only been to explain my guilt at not being at the Macdonalds’ that fateful night. “Yes, Elvira, I did. It stopped me getting killed, actually,” I said pointedly. “What about it?”

“So it’s true, then,” she said aggressively. “He’s got his own place now.”

I smiled despite myself. “He’s had his own place since July. Wherever you’re getting your information from is a bit behind.”

She just scowled at me. “So? Where is it? What’s it like?”

I groaned inwardly. Really? After everything that had happened, she was worrying about something as trivial as THIS? She must have been shallower than I’d previously given her credit for. “It’s a twelve-bedroom mansion with two house elves, overlooking Hyde Park,” I invented. “He lets homeless people stay in it while he’s at school.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Remus trying to suppress a grin.

She stopped walking in surprise. “Really?”

I raised my eyebrows. “What do you think?”

“Fine,” she said, glaring at me. “Don’t tell me. But don’t think I won’t find out another way!”

I smiled to myself, unable to think of a single person who might have been to Sirius’ flat who was even the remotest chance of telling Elvira about it. “Then find out another way,” I said evenly. “Frankly, with everything that’s happened lately, that’s the least of my concerns.”

“I still can’t believe you got your hands on him,” she muttered, fingering her wand threateningly. “It’s been months and he’s not bored yet or anything. You must be such a good shag.”

She had such a lovely way with words sometimes. I raised my eyebrows and hoped I didn’t look as uncomfortable as I felt. “Well, why don’t you ask him?”

She glared at me, her wand still out. “Yeah, right, ’cause he’d definitely tell me. But that’s the only thing that would be keeping him so long. Next thing we know he’ll even be giving you wand access to his place.”

I stayed silent as we reached the classroom and filed in, heading for our usual desks and me putting a hand to my face to try to work out if she had in fact jinxed me. Finding no evidence, I asked Remus. “Did she get me?”

He looked me over critically. “Doesn’t look like it. Not that I can see, anyway. It might be slow-acting, though, you never know with her.” We had reached our desk and he looked at me out of the corner of his eye as we sat down and pulled out quills, ink and parchment. “He’s already given you wand access, hasn’t he?”

I looked at him, surprised. “How did you know that?”

“Call it a lucky guess.” He smiled. “From what I know of Padfoot and from the look on your face when she mentioned it. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together. Did he give you a reason for it? Somewhere to crash, anything like that?”

I nodded, wondering what he meant. “He said to use it as a safe house if I needed to.”

Remus looked like he was trying not to laugh. “Of course he did,” he said. “That’s so much like him. But don’t let it fool you, it was just an excuse. He just wanted you to have access.”

“But I’ve been thinking about that,” I said. “Would it really be safe? I mean, if it’s known that he lives there, it might be targeted itself, mightn’t it? Blood traitor and all that?”

Remus shook his head. “I doubt they’d be able to find it,” he said. “Sirius, no matter how much he hates his parents, still learned a few things from them. His family home had every enchantment known to wizardkind on it to keep it hidden from everyone who wasn’t actually invited in, and I would imagine his flat is the same.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t thought of that. “So I had no problems because I was with him?”

He nodded. “To an extent. Any of us would be able to find it because we’re welcome guests and you can teach doors to recognise people. But, well, I don’t think any of us have wand access. Aside from you, of course.”

“I was surprised when he did it,” I admitted, not really sure what to make of that. “But it makes more sense now, and I’m certainly not complaining. It’s nice to have a base in London!” Or, more particularly, I thought, it’s nice to have a base where Sirius is, particularly now that my other London base had been removed in the worst possible way.

“Especially when it’s a twelve-bedroom mansion overlooking Hyde Park,” he agreed with a chuckle.

I sighed. “It seems such a long time ago, now, though, if you know what I mean. It’s like years have passed since then. I’m surprised that Elvira’s even thinking about it.”

Remus smiled grimly. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” he said. “I think that’s just the way she is, Laura. And, no matter how ridiculous you think that is, you’re going to have to get used to it again.” And he looked away from me and focused on the front of the classroom, where Professor Babbling was preparing to begin the lesson.

****

Remus, as usual, had been uncommonly perceptive, and it wasn’t just Bernie dragging me into an empty classroom to tell me that Elvira had something big coming up that proved this to me. It was only a couple of days later that I reached into my bag at the lunch table, looking for a quill to write myself a reminder to write home when I got a chance, when I realised that something had spilled inside the bag, soaking everything in its reach. “Uh oh,” I muttered, “looks like I’ve broken an ink bottle. Oh, no, it’s not ink,” I went on quickly, correcting myself. “Ow.”

Sirius looked at me, clearly concerned. “What is it?”

I pulled out my hand and looked at it – blisters were forming and my eyes watered in pain. Something that smelled suspiciously like petrol flooded the air. “Bubotuber pus,” I said weakly – this hurt just as much as my broken arm had before the holidays. “Undiluted Bubotuber pus.”

“It was in your bag?” James looked surprised. “How’d Bubotuber pus get in your bag?”

“You need to ask?” Lily shot back. “Look at the Ravenclaw table, that should tell you.”

I didn’t need to turn my head to know that the fan club were behind this. Bernie had been warning me continuously for the past couple of weeks, after all. Thinking back, I could remember Elvira brushing past me as I left Ancient Runes in the last lesson before lunch – she must have dropped the pus in my bag then, without me noticing. In any case I knew that lunch could wait, I needed to get to the hospital wing so Madam Pomfrey could fix this.

Sirius, who seemed to be able to read my mind at times, had already risen from his seat and grabbed my arm, above the hand, ready to take me upstairs.

As always Madam Pomfrey was quick and precise, but unfortunately there was no fast remedy for Bubotuber pus and I had to be content with my hand being bandaged to the wrist, to stop anything aggravating the blisters. This meant that my wand hand was now useless.

“Good thing it’s Friday,” I muttered to Sirius as we went back downstairs. “No more classes.” I grinned suddenly. “Do you think James will let me off this afternoon’s duelling lesson?”

He laughed. “Well, considering you can’t hold your wand, I would expect so,” he said.

“Not that I want to,” I went on thoughtfully. “Get out of the lesson, I mean. Not really. If I’m going to make a difference in this war I have to be able to fight properly.”

“You’re not to fight if you don’t have to,” Sirius said sternly. “We’ve been over this before. I don’t want what happened to Mary, happening to you.”

“Mary died,” I pointed out. “We have to make it right somehow.” I looked at my bandaged hand ruefully. “Though, I will have to be able to hold a wand to do that, won’t I.” Looking up at his somewhat alarmed face, I smiled suddenly. “And you’ll have to feed me my lunch,” I went on mischievously, wondering how long I could pull this off for. “I expect to be waited on hand and foot from now on.”

“Certainly, Your Highness,” he grinned; he seemed to have relaxed a little now I wasn’t talking about fighting any more. “And will Madam need help undressing this evening as well? I’m sure I can assist with that, too.”

“Nice try,” I said, trying and failing to suppress a giggle. “I think I can do that one myself. Just lunch, if you don’t mind.”

He looked disappointed. “If you’re sure,” he said as we walked into the Great Hall again. “Though if you change your mind, remember I’d be happy to volunteer.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, smiling as we sat back down at the Gryffindor table and got stuck into what was left of lunch. “Like I could forget.”

****

My hand remained bandaged for most of the weekend, and pretty much as soon as Madam Pomfrey took the bandages off on Sunday afternoon and declared me cured, I made my way upstairs to the Ravenclaw common room and went in. Five years of looking after Bea had made me very good at answering the questions the door-knocker came up with, and I entered without difficulty. Once inside, I found Elvira in a comfortable armchair by the window, walked straight up to her and gave my wand a flick. “That’s for the Bubotuber pus, and for tampering with my broom,” I snarled, watching with satisfaction as cow horns sprung from her head, and a bell appeared around her neck. “I’m warning you, Elvira, don’t try any funny business with me, okay? Because this is positively affectionate compared to what I could do to you.”

She stared at me. “Is this supposed to be some sort of joke?” she asked indignantly.

I smiled sweetly. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Though, the spell didn’t quite have the effect I wanted. I was going to turn you into a cow, but, then again, you’re one already, aren’t you?”

“You made me like this,” she hissed, her eyes flashing. “If you’d just stayed away from him …”

“What?” I asked scathingly. “Kept him free for you? Yeah, because that’s worked so well for you over the past five years. He won’t go anywhere near you, and you know it. And in the greater scheme of things, this is honestly what’s important to you? People are dying and you’re worried about the love life of a boy who never even looks at you?” She flinched, and I knew that my words had hit the mark as I went on. “Of course, it’s not exactly mature, taking it out on me like this, and if you keep going then I’ll tell McGonagall who was responsible for jinxing my broom. I’m sure she’d be very interested in that information.”

“You can’t prove anything,” she said defiantly.

“Really?” I asked. “So, if Dumbledore is interested enough in this case to get out the Veritaserum, you won’t incriminate yourself? I have to say, Elvira, that’s news to me.”

“And if you try anything behind her back,” said a voice behind me, “you’ll have us to deal with.”

I turned around to see Bernie and Sebastian looking absolute daggers at Elvira, and she actually paled a little when she saw them.

“You might want to watch your step,” Sebastian said coolly. “You’ve done enough damage for a lifetime. Give it a rest.”

“You’re losing friends, Elvira,” I said. “Lay off. Like I said, I’m sure Professor McGonagall would be very interested to learn what you’ve been up to.” And, smiling gratefully at Sebastian and Bernie, I turned and made a dramatic exit from the room.

“It was hilarious,” Bernie told me before supper that night. He had pulled me aside as I approached the Great Hall, looking apologetically at Sirius for taking me away from him. “She didn’t know what to do with herself. And then Greta took her down to the hospital wing but Madam Pomfrey’s had awful trouble undoing the spell. That was a good one.”

“It was one of Bea’s,” I admitted. “I don’t know that she used it much at school though so Madam Pomfrey may not remember how to undo it. Not that I’m offering to go tell her,” I went on, smiling broadly.

“Well, this might go down in legend,” he said, beaming at me. “You did well.”

As we went into the hall I spotted Elvira at the Ravenclaw table, the cow horns the Matron had been unable to remove poking out from underneath a scarf she was wearing to try to hide them. It appeared, however, that Madam Pomfrey had in fact managed to remove her bell.

Sirius was glaring in Bernie’s direction as I sat down. “What did he want?” he asked suspiciously.

“Just to congratulate me,” I told him. “Apparently Madam Pomfrey tried all sorts of things but she couldn’t get rid of the cow horns. The other Ravenclaws are finding it very entertaining.”

He looked only slightly placated. “Was that one of your sister’s? I don’t remember it. Did you teach it to us?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure, to be honest,” I said. “It was a while back and my memory isn’t what it used to be. I’m getting old, you see.”

“Yes, eighteen really is the stepping stone to old age,” James grinned. “I don’t know how you senior citizens manage to keep up with young bucks like me. Look at Pete, he’s going grey already.”

Peter blushed. “Only because of all the stress you put me through,” he said with an attempt at a smile. Not that we could really tell, I thought, Peter’s hair was that colourless sort that meant that even if he was going grey, it would have just blended in. “I’ve aged significantly since I met you lot,” he went on.

Sirius laughed. “I would hope so. You were eleven then.”

“See, his memory’s going too, he can’t even remember when we met,” James said, smiling broadly. “Been eighteen for three whole months now. No wonder he’s losing it.”

I laughed. “Didn’t you turn eighteen over the holidays?”

He blushed, his face now matching Peter’s. “Damn. You do remember that.” He grinned suddenly. “Though I’m still the youngest, you can’t deny that.”

“No, Mary’s the – yeah, okay, you are.” I had to correct myself mid-sentence: these days, James was indeed the youngest of our group. Mary would never reach eighteen.

“Yep, you should be able to tell just from looking at me,” James smiled, clearly trying to lighten the mood again. The times when Mary came up in conversation accidentally like this were getting less awkward, though there was still an air of gloom that accompanied them, and Sirius put his arm around me and gave me a bit of a squeeze, possibly noticing that I had once again become a little teary. “Those extra months really count,” James went on. “No wrinkles around the eyes, no grey hairs …”

“And no cow horns,” Lily added, also trying to lighten things up a bit. “Unlike Elvira. Though I must say it suits her.”

“It was too easy,” I said, allowing myself to get caught up in the conversation again. “She was that much of a cow anyway, this just added some finishing touches.”

James grinned. “You know, Laura, I’m starting to wonder if Padfoot isn’t a bad influence on you. You were never this aggressive before, were you?”

“Of course I was,” I said. “You just didn’t know me as well. And admittedly, I didn’t get quite this much opportunity because I was never really anyone’s target before. If anything, they’d steer clear of me because of Bea.”

“I told you she was a wild one,” Sirius said with a smile. “Just because she never turned her wand on us doesn’t mean she didn’t do it to anyone else.”

“Particularly Slytherins,” Lily said, smiling reminiscently. “Scylla Pritchard did look better with a banana instead of a nose. It really suited her.”

I giggled. “I’d forgotten about that one. But yeah, it did suit her, didn’t it?” I turned to look at the Ravenclaw table. “Hopefully, though, Elvira will back off a bit now. I’m getting a bit sick of it. I mean, in comparison with what we should be focusing our attention on, it just seems so trivial.”

“I guess at least she knows you mean business now,” James said. “Now it’s just a case of wait and see. She’ll either back off entirely, or up the ante even more.”

“Brilliant,” I muttered. “Just what I want. This thing to be escalated above what it already is. Just for once, I’d really like to be able to give at least some attention to my NEWTs, you know?”

“Cheer up,” Peter said encouragingly. “It might go the other way.”

I smiled suddenly. “You said it, Peter. Fingers crossed.”

________________________________________

55
After supper I went upstairs to the dorm to get the books I’d need for my homework that night. As always, my eyes flicked to Mary’s wall when I went inside – it was full now, covered from floor to ceiling with memories of her, all illuminated by the Gubraithian flame that Lily had managed to talk Dumbledore into giving us.

The gaping hole where her bed used to sit was an apt metaphor for the hole inside of me which her death had left. I still found myself looking for her in classes and when I woke up in the morning, or listening for her distinctive voice and laughter in the Great Hall or the common room. The only thing that really helped, aside from Sirius, was the duelling lessons he and James were still giving us, three times a week now.

Charlotte noticed me pause. “Are you okay?” she asked.

I started, having not realised she was in the room with me. “Yeah, I think so,” I said, thinking about it. “I’m trying to get used to her not being here. It’s just … it’s just hard, you know?”

She nodded, getting up from her bed to give me a hug. “We all miss her,” she said quietly.

“Well, once I learn how to fight properly, Merlin help whoever did it,” I said.

She looked at me, concerned. “You’re not going to go looking for them, are you?” she asked. “I don’t know, Laura, taking on a Death Eater …”

I giggled a little despite myself. “You’re sounding like Sirius,” I told her. “But no, I’m not going to seek them out. I just feel like if I can fight, then that will make me feel less … responsible, I guess. Being here, we’re helpless, we’re stranded. Out there, I can do something about it.”

“I get that,” she said, “but still, please don’t go out looking for revenge. We’ve already lost Mary. We don’t want to lose you too.”

I smiled grimly. “Well, I’m not planning on it, if that’s any consolation.” Pausing, I looked at her and decided to ask what I was thinking. “Hey, what’s going on with you and Remus? Has anything happened since the train ride?”

She sat back down on her bed, looking frustrated. “Why are you asking me?” she asked cynically. “How would I know what’s going on?”

Things were worse than I’d realised, if someone as easy-going as Charlotte was reacting that way. I sat down next to her. “He hasn’t run away again, has he?”

She nodded. “I’ve got no idea any more, Laura, absolutely none. Sometimes I think he likes me, but sometimes it’s like he can’t stand to be around me. It’s driving me batty.”

“Much as I hate to say it, it does sound like him,” I admitted. “Tell you what, how about I have a word to him?”

She looked glum. “It won’t make any difference. But do what you like. I guess it can’t get any worse, can it?”

By the time morning came around, I was re-assessing my offer. I was having enough trouble coming to terms with my own issues without helping other people through theirs – only as the month closed was I starting to get used to the fact that Mary was no longer around. Sirius could fill some of the void, of course, and knowing that he loved me and intended to always be there for me was unbelievably reassuring, but I had a feeling that no one would ever completely take her place. Some holes, I realised, can never truly be filled.

However, no matter how much I missed Mary, the truth was that the living had problems of their own and I might be able to help them in some little way. And, having made the offer in the first place, I really didn’t want to let Charlotte down. So I took a deep breath and approached Remus in the common room after Sirius had taken off for Muggle Studies. He was sitting alone by the fire, steadfastly ignoring Charlotte, who was at the table by the window. I sat down and jerked my head in her direction. “Why don’t you give her a chance?” I asked quietly, having Muffliato’d the nearest groups of students. “You’re pining for each other.”

He shook his head. “Laura, you know why,” he said, clearly surprised but keeping his voice low. “She deserves someone whole and undamaged. I can’t inflict myself on her.”

“But you’re only dangerous one night out of twenty-eight,” I reasoned. “And I really don’t think she’d mind. Charlotte’s a good person, she’ll look past that. She’s just about in love with you already.”

“But it’s not just about Charlotte,” he said wearily. “I’m not exactly a preferred dinner guest, people stay well away once they find out. Not everyone is like you,” he went on, giving me a small smile. “And I don’t want to get between her and her family. Can you honestly imagine the Trimbles welcoming a werewolf to their table? You’ve read what her uncle wrote in his book. If they reject me, she’ll take it personally, and then they’ll probably reject her as well. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

I thought about that, and how my parents might react if I announced my boyfriend was a werewolf. And, I had to admit, he had a point. But that wasn’t fair, it wasn’t his fault he’d been bitten, and he shouldn’t have to be ostracised because of something he couldn’t do anything about.

“You could try them,” I said. “You never know, they might accept you. Once they realise what a great person you are, they should be able to get past it.”

He smiled weakly. “Thanks. But forgive me if I’m not as optimistic as you are. Besides, I’m not much of a catch. I’ll probably be unemployable once I leave here – who’d want to hire me? Having sick days all the time and potentially dangerous, not to mention the prejudice most people have. I can’t ask her to put up with that, to support me. It’s not fair on her.”

“I hadn’t really thought about that,” I admitted. “You having trouble getting a job. Is it really that hard?”

He nodded gravely. “Like I said, most people have a prejudice against werewolves. And I can understand that, we’re not exactly safe to be around if you catch us at the wrong time. You heard what Viridian said last year, you read the book. Well, that’s exactly what it’s like. I could have written the thing myself.”

“But what will you do?” I couldn’t abide the thought of Remus starving and homeless because he couldn’t get a job.

“James has offered to look after me,” he said, almost bitterly. I wasn’t used to hearing that tone in Remus’ voice and it surprised and saddened me. “He can do that with some authority now, he’s the head of the family. It’s not ideal but at least I have a fallback if the employment thing doesn’t work. Though I understand now how Padfoot felt,” he went on. “You need to sacrifice a certain amount of pride and personal dignity if you’re going to let someone else support you.”

I followed his gaze to Charlotte, who saw us looking and made a point of going back to her study. Next to me, Remus let out an almost imperceptible sigh.

“At the very least,” I said softly, “you could tell her why you’ve been so hesitant.” He threw me a sharp look before returning his gaze to the other table. “Look,” I went on, “school’s nearly over, there’s only a couple of months to go. You may never see her again after June, and what happened to Mary is proof enough that we might not have much time. Don’t you think she’s entitled to know why she’s been rejected? She probably already thinks no one will ever love her.”

“Of course someone will love her. Geez, I pretty much love her.” He tore his eyes from Charlotte and looked at me. “I can see your point. But it’s not as easy as that.”

“Why not?” I asked. “She read that book. She was really cut up by it, to tell you the truth. She’ll understand.”

He watched her again for a little while and then turned a tortured face to me. “Can you tell her?”

I shook my head. “It has to come from you.”

“I’ll think about it,” he muttered, looking at his knees. “I don’t know whether I should be thanking you or not.”

I smiled at him, even though he was still refusing to look up. “That’s fine,” I said. “Once you’ve told her, then you can thank me.”

****

Frankly I felt like a stiff drink after that little counselling session, but life had other plans for me. It seemed that that day I was needed to sort out all sorts of personal problems, and generally not my own. Not long after class finished for the day an owl arrived for Sirius, from his mother of all people, and after reading it he fell into a bit of a funk.

“This does happen occasionally,” James told me quietly as Sirius hurled the letter into the fire and stormed out of the common room. “They tell him he’s useless and has brought shame on the family name. You might want to go and see if you can reverse the damage.”

I looked at him in surprise. “But he doesn’t believe that, does he?”

“He tries not to,” he explained, “but some of it does hit home. It’s not nice, having the person who gave you life saying she wishes she didn’t.”

I was quiet for a bit. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I admitted. “I’ll go see what I can do, shall I?”

James looked relieved. “If anyone can bring him back, it’d be you.”

The extremely useful Marauder’s map in my hand, I soon found Sirius in the passage behind the mirror on the fourth floor. “Don’t take it to heart,” I murmured comfortingly, sitting down next to him and putting an arm around him. “They don’t even know you any more.”

“But they do,” he muttered. “It’s all true. I am a useless piece of crap who’s not worth wasting any time over.”

“No you’re not,” I said reassuringly. “They’re the ones who should be ashamed, rabbiting on about that blood purity rubbish and judging people based on who their parents are. You know as well as I do how stupid that is. You should be proud of yourself, the way you got out.”

“Yeah,” he sneered, “jumping headfirst into homelessness and poverty and having to live off charity. That was really heroic of me.”

“But that didn’t last,” I pointed out. “You’re not homeless or poor now and you’re not living off charity. And that’s due to someone else in your family, your mother’s own brother no less, also realising what a great person you are and figuring you were worth paying some attention to.”

“But he only did that after he died,” Sirius said pointedly. “He didn’t bother when he was still alive.”

“It still counts,” I insisted. “He didn’t have to leave you that gold. He did it because he thought you were worthwhile.”

He was quiet for a bit. “Why are you bothering with me anyway, Laura?” he asked suddenly. “You could do so much better than me. Why don’t you find someone who’s actually worthy of you?”

Where did that come from? Him not worthy of me? Picking my jaw up from where it had dropped, I grabbed his hand and kissed it, not missing the irony that it was now me comforting him about this relationship. The tables really had turned. “Don’t say that,” I told him. “No one’s more worthy of me than you are.”

He looked at the floor, the light from our wands casting odd shadows on his face. “You’re way too good for me,” he muttered. “You should be with someone who deserves you, there are so many blokes here who would kill for you and they’re so much better than I am. Every day I thank my lucky stars that you haven’t realised that yet.” He paused. “Though me saying that now probably hasn’t helped my cause much.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, hoping this was just symptomatic of his general mood and would soon pass. “I’m not too good for you. No way.”

“Of course you are,” he said quietly. “I’m nothing. Just a flashy combination of showing off and talking myself up so no one knows what I’m really like.”

“Actually,” I said, “you’re not like that at all. You’re smart, and you’re kind, and you’re funny, and you’re incredibly attractive.”

He looked at the floor again. “Don’t lie. I’d rather you just told the truth.”

I gave him a squeeze. “This is the truth. Why would I want to be with anyone else?” He didn’t look convinced. “Look, if I thought I’d be happier with someone else, if I thought they were better than you, then why would I be wasting my time here with you right now? I’m here because this is where I want to be. But if you don’t want to believe that then nothing I say will convince you.”

He looked at me again, his face looking more vulnerable than I had ever seen it. “I want to believe it,” he said quietly. “I really do. But I don’t deserve someone as great as you.”

“Too bad,” I said briskly. “That’s my choice, and I’ll have to live with it. Because I’m not giving up on you now.”

“You’re making a big mistake,” he said, but his voice wasn’t quite so despondent now. “You’ll regret it.”

I decided to change tack. “Right. Sirius, do you think I’m dumb?”

He looked shocked. “No, of course not. You’re smarter than I am in a lot of ways.”

“Right, then, do you value my judgement?”

He nodded. “Yes, of course I do. Probably more than my own.”

I smiled. “Then if I’m not dumb and I can make reasonable decisions, why on earth would I still be with you if you were as bad as you’re making out?”

He was quiet for a while. “I guess,” he said eventually. “Though I still think you’ll regret it.”

“Then I’ll deal with that when the time comes,” I said firmly, giving him another squeeze and kissing him lightly on the cheek.

“You mean it?” he asked quietly. “You’ll stick with me, even if I’m not worth it?”

“Always,” I promised. “That’s what ‘I love you’ means.” I paused. “And guess what? I still love you. Even when you’re being an idiot, like you are now.”

He smiled suddenly. “I am a bit of an idiot, aren’t I?” he said wryly. “Thanks, Laura. I do feel better.”

****

Once Sirius was back to normal, things went on much the same as usual for the next week or so, until Professor McGonagall called me back after Transfiguration one day. “A word, please, Miss Cauldwell,” she said as we packed our things into our bags, ready to head to Charms.

“What is it, Professor?” I asked, signalling to Sirius to go on without me.

She gave me the ghost of a smile. “It’s about your broom,” she said. “Professors Flitwick and Perkins have looked it over and tested it for known jinxes, and it was found to carry both a Hurling Hex and a Confundus Charm.” She looked concerned. “It is highly unlikely that a student would have the skills to perform such charms on a broom without it reacting badly. Can you please describe again what happened that day?”

I thought back. “It seemed okay when I first got on,” I said, “but once I got a bit of speed up it started, well, misbehaving.” I paused. “Are you sure a student couldn’t have done this?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Do you have anyone particular in mind, Miss Cauldwell?”

I hesitated. “There are a couple of people here who don’t like me very much,” I said finally. “Students, that is. Smart people, too. I had thought it was them.”

“And are you prepared to name these people?” she asked.

I looked at her. “What would happen if I did?”

“Well,” she said, folding her hands on the desk, “if they were proven to be the culprits, there would certainly be some significant punishment involved, though its exact nature would of course depend on the guilty parties’ Head of House. This is a very serious charge, as I’m sure you are aware, considering what could have happened if you’d fallen from a great height.” She paused. “I suppose the question is whether you want this followed up or not.”

“Can I think about it?” I asked.

“Certainly,” she said. “And you may collect your broom from the staff room whenever you are ready. All jinxes have been removed and it should be safe to use again.

I smiled gratefully. “Thanks, Professor.”

As I left the Transfiguration classroom and headed up towards Charms, I came across Sirius, James, Remus and Peter darting into an empty classroom, their faces alight as they pored over the Marauder’s Map. “All right,” I said as I reached them, “what’s so funny?”

“Snivellus,” said James, who was laughing so much he had trouble getting the word out. “We got his wand first so he couldn’t fight back. You’ve gotta love Expelliarmus, it has so many applications! Then we cast a knee-reversing jinx on him and then Tarantallegra, so he was dancing backwards.”

“Then,” added Peter, wiping his eyes, “we put him in the girls’ toilets on the second floor, you know, where Moaning Myrtle is.”

Remus continued the narrative. “We put a Shield Charm around him so he couldn’t go anywhere and put his wand on the floor just outside the Shield, so he can see it but not do anything.”

“Seems he’s been making a bit of noise,” Sirius went on, smiling as he pointed at a spot on the map, “’cause McGonagall’s gone in to see what the matter is. I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with for this one.”

I cast a sour look at them. “Won’t he tell her it was you?”

“Nup,” said James, struggling to get the words out. “’Cause Moony was back around the corner, Padfoot and I were under the Cloak, and Pete had transformed, so he couldn’t see who it was!!”

“He probably guessed it was us,” Sirius said with a grin, “but he can’t prove it. He doesn’t know about the Cloak, and anyone who saw it won’t be able to identify us. So we’re home free.”

Their laughter was infectious and I found myself grinning. “All right,” I said, “what did he do to deserve this one?”

“He was hassling Lily again,” explained James, suddenly serious. “He’s been making life difficult for her lately, keeps stopping her in the halls. He was trying to get his greasy hands on her.”

“Not to mention trying to cast the Finger Removing Jinx on Prongs,” Sirius added rather grimly. “Fortunately he missed and hit the plinth behind us, but that’s now missing a couple of claws at the base. It could have been nasty if he’d got us.”

“So they ducked out of sight and put the Cloak on,” Remus went on, “before he could finish saying the Scalping Hex, so he missed them with that too.”

“And where was Lily for all this?” I asked, wondering why the Head Girl hadn’t put a stop to things.

“She went to the library with Martha and Charlotte to look something up before Charms,” James said unconcernedly. “Went straight there after she got rid of Snivellus. So she didn’t see any of it.”

“Oh, look,” said Peter, changing the subject with his eyes on the map, “McGonagall’s dragged him out of the toilets, and it looks like Myrtle’s following him! Blimey, that’d be worth seeing. And that looks like a whole class has stopped to watch! Um – yeah, Lenny Dodderidge, that’d be, what, fourth-years?”

“That’s nice for Snivelly,” said Sirius, his fingers running through my hair. “He likes being the centre of attention.”

James was laughing again. “When do you think they’ll notice he’s speaking in German?” he asked. “That won’t wear off for at least forty-five minutes. I can still hear him. Topfer! Schwarz!” He dissolved into laughter as we all huddled around the map, watching the drama unfold.

Soon, however, we were interrupted by the classroom door opening – no one had thought to put an Imperturbable Charm on it once we were all inside, and we had been making a tidy bit of noise – and the dank head of Argus Filch appeared. “Oh ho ho,” he muttered as he saw the five of us gathered around a desk, “what have we here?”

James hurriedly got his wand out and muttered “Mischief managed,” before tapping the map quickly. The map disappeared entirely, leaving just the blank parchment I had first seen Sirius take out a year or so beforehand. Unfortunately, Filch had noticed him doing it.

“So, Potter, caught red-handed,” he gloated. “What’s that you’ve got?”

“Nothing,” said James, a bit too quickly. “Spare bit of parchment, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” asked Filch, his eyebrows raised. “So you won’t mind if I take it, then?”

“No,” Sirius said before he could stop himself, then recovered. “I mean, why would you bother with a scrap like that?”

“I think this is highly suspicious,” said Filch. “I think I need to inform the Headmaster of this little gathering.”

“Come now,” said Remus, his best prefect air about him, “why would you bother Professor Dumbledore with something as small as this? We’re just going over some schoolwork together, that’s all.”

“Nice try, Lupin,” scowled Filch. “But you haven’t convinced me. I think I’ll take that ‘spare bit of parchment’, Potter, if you don’t mind.”

James sighed and handed it over with obvious reluctance. Filch, however, hadn’t finished. “And you’ll all follow me,” he continued. “Detentions all round, I think!”

This was a bit rich considering we hadn’t actually broken any school rules as far as Filch was aware, but that minor point had never bothered him before. He marched us to his office and looked lovingly at the manacles that hung behind his desk. Rumour was that he kept them clean and oiled and was always pestering Dumbledore to let him string the students up by their ankles, but for some reason this was always refused. Maybe Dumbledore thought that the outbreak of Levicorpus a couple of years previously had been enough on that score.

“Names,” Filch was saying, writing clearly on what looked like a ledger book. “James Potter. Sirius Black. Remus Lupin. Peter Pettigrew. And – ” He paused, looking at me, having clearly forgotten my name. That was probably fair enough, I’d not been in his office for at least three years.

“Scylla Pritchard,” Sirius said quickly, grinning at me.

Filch appeared to have taken the bait. “Scylla Pritchard,” he mumbled, writing it down. “Crime,” he went on. “Creating a nuisance by excessive noise.” He paused, looking at what he had written. “Hey – she’s not Scylla Pritchard!” He looked up at me nastily. “Scylla Pritchard was in here last week for befouling the castle.” I smiled to myself, wondering what exactly that had entailed. “Name!”

“Elvira Vablatsky,” I said confidently, spelling out the surname for him. “Ravenclaw.” I was pretty sure Elvira had never been in trouble with Filch. With teachers, yes, for hexing other students, but not with Filch. I noticed James suppressing a chuckle behind me.

“Elvira Vablatsky,” he repeated, having scribbled out Scylla Pritchard’s name. “Suggested punishment – fifty lashes each.” We all looked at each other with raised eyebrows, knowing Dumbledore would never allow corporal punishment on his watch. “Suggested punishment,” went on Filch, scrubbing out the lashes, “detentions to be held at a time suggested by the Headmaster.”

Finally he had finished his paperwork and we were allowed to go. I’d heard that Filch wasn’t actually allowed to set punishments without approval from a staff member, so there was the possibility that our detentions wouldn’t have to be served at all. The main problem, so far as the boys saw it, was that their wonderful map had been put into a drawer in Filch’s filing cabinet marked ‘Confiscated and Highly Dangerous’, and it was unlikely they would be able to retrieve it in the foreseeable future. After all, you couldn’t break into Filch’s office and be sure of not being caught if you didn’t use the map, and we couldn’t do that as the map was what we wanted to retrieve.

“Nice one, ‘Elvira’,” said James, giving me a grin as we hurried towards the Charms classroom – break was well and truly over and we were running late. “You almost had me convinced in there.”

“Why dob myself in when it will most probably be thrown out anyway?” I reasoned. “And even if the detentions stand, I’m sure Elvira would be happy to stand in for me if you asked her to, Sirius.”

He considered. “You know, I think you might be right,” he said. “Though then I’d have to spend a detention with her. Not a good idea. I almost wish he’d believed you were Pritchard!”

Remus laughed. “Shield Charm, Padfoot, Shield Charm. That’d do the trick.”

As it turned out the detentions were overturned by Dumbledore, who apparently felt that having a bit of a chat in an empty classroom during a break between lessons wasn’t really a punishable offence. However, we did share a chuckle at Elvira’s face when Flitwick told her at supper that evening that she didn’t have to serve her detention – she obviously had no idea what he was talking about and continued to look confused all through the meal. It was only a small revenge on my part, but it was certainly still satisfying.

****

Once I got my broom back, things were quiet on the fan club front for a spell, especially after Madam Pomfrey finally succeeded in removing the horns from Elvira’s head. “Don’t get too comfortable, though,” Bernie told me after breakfast one day in an empty classroom. “They’ve got something up their sleeves.”

“Yes, I expect they do,” I replied. “But, if they do anything too bad, I’ll tell McGonagall it was them who jinxed my broom. Elvira knows she could be expelled for that.”

“Even so,” Bernie warned, “you should be careful, okay? Keep an eye on things.”

I shrugged. “Fine. But like I said, I’m not all that worried.”

This was a mistake, as it turned out. I should have realised, when I didn’t hear much from Elvira for a couple of weeks, that she hadn’t really given up her attacks on me, more that she was just planning something more substantial. I should have been paying more attention to what Bernie was telling me when he pulled me into empty classrooms and issued his warnings. And I should have been more prepared when it eventually did happen.

They struck in the second week of May, on a Wednesday, after we’d left double Potions. I headed to the library to finish my Ancient Runes essay and Sirius went to Muggle Studies, so we arranged to meet again at lunch time. Once the hour was up and lunch was about to be served, I left the library and headed down to the Great Hall.

I got a nasty shock when I found Sirius at the Gryffindor table and he gave me a filthy look. “Not you,” he spat, deliberately turning away. “I don’t want to see you.” And, leaving his lunch uneaten, he stood up and stormed out of the hall.

I stared, horrified, at the seat he had just vacated. What had just happened? What had I done? James, from across the table, was looking daggers at me as well, so it appeared that whatever had got Sirius so upset, James also believed. “You’ve got a nerve, showing your face after what you’ve been doing,” he snarled. Fortunately Charlotte came to the rescue.

“Elvira. And Carol Jones,” she said, hurrying to my side. “Apparently, in Muggle Studies they were passing notes to each other, and Professor Penrose picked it up and read it out loud.” She hesitated. “It said … it said that all those times Bernie’s been warning you about Elvira, well, what’s actually been going on is you’ve been seeing him behind Sirius’ back.” She looked worried, her brown eyes wide behind her glasses.

I was stunned. “And he believed that?”

She looked at me seriously, tears in her eyes. “The way James and Sirius are talking, they thought it was pretty convincing. And you did walk in here holding Bernie’s hand a couple of weeks back. So now they think that’s what’s been happening … Laura, you haven’t, have you? You wouldn’t do that, not to Sirius?”

“Of course not,” I said, staring out the doors into the Entrance Hall. Sirius was out of sight and I had no idea where he’d gone. “I couldn’t do that. And I’ve got to find him.” And, any thought of food completely forgotten, I dumped my bag at the table and hurried off in the direction he had last been seen.

________________________________________

56
It took a while for me to find Sirius, especially as I wasn’t sure if I was looking for a person or a dog and he could easily have escaped into the forbidden forest, in which case I’d never find him. However, eventually I spotted him, in human form, at the bottom of the stairs that ran down the cliff-face to the boathouse by the lake. He saw me coming and turned away, scowling, his hands deep in his pockets as he stared resolutely across the black water.

“Sirius!” I was almost desperate.

“I don’t want to know.” He sounded distraught. “I don’t want your excuses.”

“I’m not making excuses,” I said, breathless as I reached him. “I’ve got nothing to make excuses for.”

“So you think it’s okay?” he spat, whirling around. I noticed his eyes were glistening slightly and his cheeks were wet. “After what Aubrey did? How did you think I’d react?” He turned his back on me again and stared out over the lake, though I think he made sure I heard him muttering, “We never should have stopped them calling you Whore-a.”

This was like my worst nightmare. I’d already lost Mary, I couldn’t lose Sirius as well, could I? In an attempt to put us face to face, I got in front of him and put both hands on his shoulders, but he shook them off violently. “Don’t – touch – me,” he snarled, venom oozing from each word. “I trusted you. I gave you everything. And this is how you repay that?”

I stood my ground in front of him, tears welling in my eyes. “Sirius. Listen to me. What they said, it’s not true.” I looked into his eyes as earnestly as I could, willing him to believe me.

He looked away, hurt and betrayal evident on his face before he mastered himself and put up the shutters, making him look cold and closed off. “How do you know what they’ve been saying if it’s not true?”

I sighed, frustrated. “Charlotte told me that Elvira and Carol were passing notes in Muggle Studies, and Professor Penrose read it out loud, and it accused me of cheating on you with Bernie Carmichael. That’s all I know.”

His eyes caught mine again, and they were cold and hard. It was like a knife running through me. “I did wonder why he kept taking you out of my sight,” he said bitterly. “It said they were amazed you’d been able to get away with it for so long without me finding out, that they couldn’t believe I’d fallen for the line you were spinning me. It was pretty convincing.” He looked away again. “And we both know he deserves you more than I do.”

I groaned inwardly – not that again. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “No one deserves me more than you. We’ve been through all that already.”

“Not denying that you’ve been seeing him, though, are you?” he said shortly, looking pained again. “Tell me, how many times when we were together were you thinking of him? How long have you been faking wanting to be with me?”

“Never,” I shot back, thankful he hadn’t got his wand out. I dreaded to think what he might have done to me if he had, and took a small consolation in the fact it hadn’t happened yet. “I’ve never thought of him, and I haven’t been faking it. And of course I’m denying it, it’s not true.” I wondered what he’d do if I grabbed his shoulders again to try to shake some sense into him. “When would I have even had time to do that anyway?” I went on. “We’re together almost the whole time.”

“When I’m in Muggle Studies,” he said quietly, his face expressionless once more, though his eyes betrayed how he felt. “You’ve got a spare hour. And he’s in Ancient Runes with you.” He paused, shaking his head. “All those times he just whisked you away, right under my nose. I should have realised what was going on.”

“Remus is in Ancient Runes, too,” I pointed out, my eyes welling up again. “If you don’t believe me, why don’t you ask him? He would never take my side over yours. All Bernie’s been doing in those classrooms is telling me what Elvira’s been up to.”

“Like this, you mean?” he said sceptically.

I nodded. “Exactly like this. He’s been trying to put me on my guard.”

“So, if he’s been doing that, why didn’t you warn me they would say this?” he asked accusingly. “If he’s been telling you what they’re doing, surely you would have known about this in advance?”

I shook my head and gazed at him, searching desperately for the Sirius I knew behind those steely eyes. “All he knew was that they were planning something big. He didn’t know what. If he’d known about this, he would have told both of us, I know he would have.”

“A likely story,” he said coldly.

I tried again. “Look, there is absolutely NOTHING going on with me and Bernie,” I said earnestly. “He hasn’t even laid a finger on me since the ball.”

Sirius looked coolly at me. “Really. So that time I saw him holding your hand, that wasn’t laying a finger? Or have you conveniently forgotten that?”

Oh. The problem was, I had forgotten about that, that’s how insignificant it had been to me. “Okay, yes, there was that one time, when I was upset about Mary,” I admitted. “But that was it, and it wasn’t anything inappropriate. If he’d ever tried anything, I wouldn’t still be talking to him, and I would have told you. I haven’t hidden a single thing from you, not one. If you need proof, I’d be happy to take some Veritaserum or something.”

It was a desperate offer, but I meant it. I’d do anything to have him believe me. “I’ve only ever been alone with Bernie for about a minute at a time,” I went on, “and you know yourself that that’s not nearly long enough to do anything. Even if it was, think about it – if it was over that quickly, why on earth would I be going back for more?”

For a split second I thought I saw him smile, and I might have pierced his armour with that question. Feeling emboldened by this, I tried again. “Yes, Bernie held my hand for about thirty seconds last month,” I said. “He was comforting me. But aside from that, the only time any man has even touched me since we got together, aside from you and my dad, is James helping me up from the floor during those duelling lessons. That’s all. I promise you.”

He still didn’t look convinced. I took a breath, unable to stop the tears from falling down my cheeks, and put my hands back on his shoulders, feeling rather heartened when he didn’t shake them off. “Sirius, I love you. I love you so completely and utterly that I couldn’t do anything that might hurt you any more than I could, I don’t know, eat a dragon. I just couldn’t do it, that’s not me. You should know that.” I gazed into his eyes, trying frantically to see behind their shutters. “You said this to me once, but it’s so true I’ll say it back now. Sirius Black, you are the best thing that ever happened to me, and if you think I’m going to stuff that up by screwing around then you don’t know me anywhere near as well as I thought you did.”

He still didn’t speak, but I thought I saw a flicker behind his eyes. I tried yet another tack. “You’re supposed to be a dog, for Pete’s sake. Can’t you tell by my scent that no one else has been near me? And besides, Muggle Studies is on at the same time as Care of Magical Creatures, and I’m pretty sure Bernie takes that, so we couldn’t have been doing anything while you’re in class anyway.”

As if to back me up, Peter came scurrying down the stairs from the castle. “Prongs told me what happened,” he said, breathless in his hurry. “And I’ve just come from Care of Magical Creatures, and Carmichael was definitely in the class for the whole time. He hasn’t missed one all year.”

Never had I been so happy to see Peter. His slightly repulsive appearance, squeaky voice and voyeuristic tendencies forgotten, I could have kissed him. I looked at Sirius, my hands still on his shoulders. He was staring at Peter as though scrutinising him, but finally his face cleared and he relaxed a bit. “Right, Wormtail, I believe you. You wouldn’t lie.”

“But I would.” My voice was quiet and I looked at the ground, my cheeks wet and my heart threatening to break in two. Was that really what he thought of me? And I’d believed him when he’d said he loved me.

He turned to me again. “No, you wouldn’t,” he said, just as quietly. “I never really thought you would.”

I looked up at him through tear-filled eyes, vaguely conscious of Peter, looking relieved, sidling away up the stairs back towards the castle. “Then how could you even think for a second that it might have been true?”

He pulled me towards him and I put my arms around him. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess they were playing on my insecurities. And the way they put it, it did sound credible.”

“But why would you be insecure?” His forehead was now resting on mine and my voice sounded loud. “I’ve never given you any reason not to trust me.”

“You’re way too good for me,” he said, lifting his head from mine. “I keep thinking you’re going to realise that and leave me. I thought that’s what was happening.”

“I’m not too good for you,” I told him. “Why would you think I could ever consider leaving you? You should know I won’t do that.”

He was quiet for a spell. “I fell in love with you,” he said eventually. “Love. Do you have any idea how unheard of that is?” I looked at him questioningly. “Blacks don’t fall in love,” he explained. “Especially not the men. That hasn’t happened since … since forever, I think. You know what it’s like, our job is to keep the name going. Love just doesn’t come into it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Warlock’s Hairy Heart was actually written about someone in my family.”

He paused and a sigh escaped his lips. “We have a pretty comprehensive education before we come here,” he went on, looking beyond me to the black surface of the lake, “and it’s been hard trying to break away from it all and re-learn everything. Muggles are scum, that’s one thing we’re taught. The Blacks are such an old and important family we might as well be royalty. Don’t say please or thank you, you’re above things like being nice to your inferiors – and just about everyone is your inferior. And of course the basic things like women don’t join the workforce, they just marry well, and whatever happens at home stays there, you don’t talk about it. And one key thing we’re taught as boys is that forming an emotional attachment to someone, particularly a romantic attachment, is a sign of weakness. Well, the Blacks aren’t weak. We can’t be seen as being soft like that. So, it’s not an option at all. And you know, before you I must have believed that because that was what I did. I didn’t let myself get attached to anyone.” He paused, and something flickered behind his eyes as he looked back at me. “Laura, you and me, this is something I know so little about that James’ mum had to explain it to me over the holidays. That’s how clueless I am with all this. It’s all brand new for me.”

He paused again. “So, what I’ve done is,” he continued, “according to everything I was brought up to believe, a form of weakness, a way of telling the world that I’m soft. And that makes me vulnerable because I’ve given people a target, a way they can get to me, which is through you, and of course I’ve never done that before. So you’ve got a Black who’s allowed himself to get vulnerable, and that just doesn’t happen. If I hadn’t been disowned already I certainly would be now, because I’ve demonstrated a weakness of character that definitely isn’t acceptable.”

He shook his head, his eyes coming back to mine, and there was a pleading look to them. “And you, Laura, you’re fantastic, but you’ve got no idea.” His voice softened. “You’re just there, being beautiful and amazing, and you have no idea that you’ve turned my whole world upside down. And I love it, I wouldn’t change a thing because it’s been better than anything I could have imagined, but it’s been a lot to get my head around. And so I’m sort of feeling my way through it, because I don’t really know what I’m doing, so then if I hear something like that then I think I must have been doing something wrong and you were just too polite to tell me. And then part of me keeps reminding myself that I’m just setting myself up to get hurt, because no one could hurt me anywhere near as badly as you can.”

I have to admit that I was both taken aback and a little shocked by this narrative, but not really surprised. And it did explain a lot about his behaviour over the years: it must have been awful to have a childhood so removed from normal human relationships that love was such an alien concept. But before I thought too much about that, I had to respond – he had to know that he had nothing to worry about. Everything else I could deal with later. All that mattered now was that I didn’t lose him.

“I would never hurt you.” It came out as barely more than a whisper but it felt like the most important thing I would ever say. He looked back at me. “I couldn’t do it. I would never even touch anyone else. And you’ve done nothing wrong, nothing at all.” I paused, making sure he was taking in what I was saying. “Sirius, I love you,” I said again. “Always remember that.”

He smiled suddenly, his eyes looking into mine, and to my relief I could tell it was the old Sirius back again, the one who trusted and believed me. The one who loved me. “Oh, Laura,” he said softly, “how could I have ever believed Elvira Vablatsky over you?”

“My thoughts exactly,” I said, cracking a smile for the first time. Relief was flooding through me. “I mean, Bernie Carmichael? Really? He was the best they could come up with? Lovely bloke, but he does absolutely nothing for me. And if it was him I wanted to be with, I wouldn’t have ditched him to be with you. Twice, I might add.”

He just stood there staring at me for a bit, his grip on me tightening. “I thought I’d lost you,” he said eventually, his voice somewhat hoarse and his eyes starting to glisten again. “And I don’t know, maybe I love you too much. Because I’m not sure I’d know how to live without you.”

“You’ll never lose me,” I promised, meaning every word of it. “You’re stuck with me for life now. So you’ll never have to find out.”

He nodded and his hand came to my face and traced my cheek where a teardrop had been sitting, then pushed my hair away from my mouth. This was a bit futile considering the wind kept pushing it back, but it was one of his favourite preludes to kissing me. I reached for the back of his head, my fingers running through his hair, and pulled him towards me until our lips met.

The kiss was tender, reconciliatory, relieved, and extended, but part way through it transformed into one better described as passionate, frenzied and urgent. During this frenzy Sirius pushed me into the boathouse, leaned me up against the dusty table inside and started unfastening my robes. I pulled my face away from his. “You want to do it in here? What if we get caught?”

He smiled but didn’t stop what he was doing. “The risk makes it all the more exciting, don’t you think?”

I had to admit, the moment did seem to call for it; in fact I was as eager as him. I pulled him back towards me and reached for his belt. “Well, when you put it like that …”

Eventually, driven by hunger from our missed lunch and me not wanting to be late for Ancient Runes, we climbed back up the stairs towards the castle.

“Was that really true?” I asked on the way up. “That thing about not really caring about anyone before me?”

He laughed that bark-like laugh of his. “What, about those other girls? Absolutely it was true.” I must have looked sceptical because he put an arm around me and gave me a squeeze. “Clio, Dione, Martha, anyone else you care to name, there was definitely nothing there. Hell, I barely even liked them. They were just pretty girls who seemed willing but not too desperate, and it was something to do while James was in detention.”

Well, Martha had guessed that much, but it was nice hearing it from him. He went on. “But you, Laura, there’s something about you. You get inside me somehow. I don’t think I could fight that even if I wanted to.”

I smiled. “And you know what? You do that to me, too.”

He grinned wickedly and winked at me, and I smiled with relief. Things were getting rather back to normal, by the looks of things.

Lunch hour wasn’t quite over yet and there were still about a third of the student body in the Great Hall when we got there, finishing off all the food. At the Gryffindor table were our friends, empty plates in front of them and the anxious looks on their faces erupting into relief as we entered hand in hand.

“Thank goodness you sorted it out,” Lily breathed as we sat down where I had dumped my school bag earlier. “James told us what happened. He was livid at you, Laura, till we worked out it wasn’t true.”

Charlotte nodded. “Yep, Peter and Martha came in from Care of Magical Creatures and told us that Bernie hadn’t missed a class all year. So he couldn’t have been shagging you while Muggle Studies was on, because the classes clash. So we sent Peter out to find you.”

“And with how long you were off in those classrooms, no one could do anything in that time,” Martha added. “A minute or two? Half the time it takes that long to get your robes out of the way. So notwithstanding the fact that it’s you, Laura, and you’d never do that, it wasn’t physically possible. Not without a time-turner, and I don’t think that there are any of them at Hogwarts.”

“Sorry about that, mate,” James was saying to Sirius. “She did a good job, though, didn’t she?” He cast a filthy look at the Ravenclaw table, though Elvira appeared to have left already.

“You should have seen him,” Remus added, obviously referring to James. “Once it was clear the whole thing was bollocks, he stormed over to Elvira and had a real go at her. Said that even if you did believe it, with the amount of school we have left you wouldn’t get over Laura till exams were well over so it was pointless anyway, you still wouldn’t have been single. Not in the way they were hoping for.”

“That wouldn’t bother Elvira, though,” Martha pointed out. “She’d be happy to be the rebound.”

Lily giggled. “I haven’t seen James so angry since Bellatrix Lestrange tried to recruit us for Voldemort. I don’t think any of them will be taking him on again anytime soon.”

I was wolfing down some cold roast chicken – Ancient Runes was only minutes away and I needed some sustenance to get me through the hour. “They must have planned to have the note confiscated,” I said to no one in particular.

“Yeah, Penrose always reads things like that aloud when he notices them,” James agreed. “It was worded so well, and of course you weren’t there to defend yourself. They planned it well.”

Remus looked at me. “Runes is about to start. Are you coming, or do you have some making up to do?”

I downed my pumpkin juice quickly. “I’m coming,” I said. “Too close to exams to miss a class if I can help it. Besides, we’ve already made up. ” I looked at Sirius and grinned, then scooped up a lukewarm Cornish pasty to take with me. Sirius stood up as well.

“I’m coming too,” he said firmly, grabbing my other hand. “Vablatsky’s in that class, right?”

The three of us made our way to the third floor and Professor Babbling’s classroom, where indeed Elvira and Bernie were waiting outside. Bernie had obviously been on the lookout for us and intercepted us before we got to the gathered students.

“Black, I heard what they said, you do know it’s not true?” He looked apprehensively at Sirius, who smiled wryly.

“Carmichael, if I thought it was true, you’d be in the hospital wing by now.” He looked down at me and squeezed my hand. “But Laura wouldn’t do that.”

Bernie nodded. “No, she wouldn’t. And neither would I. I’ve only been trying to help.”

Sirius didn’t appear to have heard him as he was looking over Bernie’s shoulder at the tall blonde figure of Elvira, a very nasty expression on his face. He pushed his features back to normal and looked again at Bernie. “Sorry, but I’ve got something to deal with here.” His voice rose. “Oi! Vablatsky!”

Elvira looked over nervously. It had been obvious she knew we were there and was ignoring us, but she couldn’t do so forever. Even Remus, calm and even-handed as he generally was, was fingering his wand as he glared at her. Eventually she lifted her chin proudly and walked toward us.

“Sirius! What a nice surprise! To what do I owe this honour?”

“Nice try,” he snarled. “Mildly convincing, yes, but honestly, how long did you really think I’d believe that nonsense for?”

She feigned ignorance. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know,” he said coldly, anger and loathing etched on his face. “Even Carmichael’s ticked off his name was dragged through the mud. You don’t care who you hurt so long as you get the result you want, do you?”

Elvira, to her credit, was looking rather uncomfortable, but soon mastered herself. “It would have been worth it if it had worked,” she said defiantly. “You’re too good for her. You deserve someone better.”

“I think I can work out for myself who I’m too good for,” he said, still coldly. “Though really I’d say she’s too good for me.” His grip on me tightened. “I suppose, by ‘better’, you mean yourself?”

Her nerve seemed to have fired up. “That’s right,” she said brazenly, clearly determined to make the most this rare opportunity to state her case. She had moved close to him and was pushing her chest up against him, as though the promise of an extra cup size would be enough to lure him away from me. And I was right there, holding his hand, for Pete’s sake. Did she not see me? “I could make you happy,” she went on. “More than she does. And I’m a pure-blood, we’re a better match.” Behind her I could see that Babbling had opened the classroom door and was allowing the students in. This needed to be over soon.

Sirius laughed, a sour, mirthless laugh that I very rarely heard from him. “Don’t tell me you’re spouting that pure-blood nonsense as well? I thought you had more sense than that.” He paused. “Then again, thinking about it, I’m not convinced that you have any sense at all, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.” He looked down at her with pure loathing, and the next time he spoke his voice was fierce and he had pulled out his wand. “If you come near Laura, or any of my friends, again, or if you say one word about any of them, ever, you’ll have me to deal with. And I won’t show any mercy.”

I joined in, standing up a little straighter and looking her in the eye. “And I’ll be making a visit to McGonagall’s office to tell her who jinxed my broom. You could be expelled for that, couldn’t you? Oh, and I think you need these back.” I flicked my wand at her and the cow horns and bell reappeared.

Putting a hand to the new horns, Elvira quickly gathered up her bag and hurried off in the direction of the hospital wing. Sirius glared after her, then turned to me, putting his wand away. “You’ll tell me, won’t you, if she gives you any more trouble?”

I nodded. “Believe me, Sirius, if she tries anything else, you’ll know about it.”

His face relaxed and, to my left, so did Remus’. I hadn’t realised he too had been on edge during the confrontation. “Good.” Sirius put both arms around me and his voice dropped to barely a whisper as he spoke very close to my ear. “I love you. Always remember that.” I smiled at his repeating what I’d said earlier, and it was certainly reassuring to hear. I kissed him briefly and it was very reluctantly that we let go of each other and I went into class.

Remus gave me half a smile as we found our desk. “It’s nice to be reminded occasionally why I’m friends with him,” he said quietly. “’Cause I definitely wouldn’t want to be his enemy.”

I shuddered as I pulled out my quill and parchment. “Me neither. That would be downright scary.”

Professor Babbling was looking at us with a bit of a smile on her face, though it was quickly replaced by her more customary firm expression. “Now, then, everyone, if we can stop talking about people’s love lives and get back to the subject of Ancient Runes,” she said sternly, her eyes resting on Bernie and then me. Merlin’s beard, I thought, even the staff knew about it. Next to me I heard Remus still chuckling to himself, and I forced a more serious expression on to my face as I pulled my textbook and ink bottle out of my bag. I couldn’t hide my disappointment, though, when Elvira turned up halfway through the lesson minus both bell and horns.

“Damn,” I whispered to Remus. “I hoped they’d stay on longer again.”

He chuckled. “Madam Pomfrey’s fixed them once, she knows how to do it now. Maybe pick a different hex next time.” I smiled and nodded, then turned my attention back to the front of the room before Professor Babbling noticed us talking.

Once class finished, Veronica Smethley caught up with me pretty much as soon as the bell rang. “Laura, I just wanted to say how glad I am you two worked it out,” she said, casting a malevolent glance at Elvira’s retreating form.

I was surprised – I hadn’t been expecting support from people I barely knew. “Thanks, Veronica.”

She smiled. “I mean it. You’re so cute together, it would be a real shame if you broke up over her.”

I laughed, hoisting my bag onto my shoulder. “Don’t let him hear you say that. He hates being called cute.”

“Doesn’t he just,” said another voice, and I looked around to see Clio Zeller had joined us, which surprised me even more – not only was I not expecting support from people I barely knew, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it from Sirius’ exes. “But you are cute together. You obviously adore each other. Old ferret-face there is just jealous.”

I smiled at her as we made our way out the door. “And you’d know all about that, too, just as I do.”

“Too right I do,” she agreed with a grin. “But it was never as bad as this. It was mostly wand stuff, Transfiguring my nose, that type of thing, which is easy enough to deal with. Or the extremely mature Dungbomb attack.” She rolled her eyes. “Most of it I didn’t even need to go to Madam Pomfrey to fix.”

“Yeah,” said Veronica. “They never tried character assassination. I thought that was a bit low even for them. More along Dione Turpin’s line, I would have said.”

I nodded. “And I could deal with it when it was so outlandish it obviously wasn’t true. You know, I was pregnant to someone else, that kind of rubbish. But they hit on just the right level of believability this time, it seems.”

Clio was nodding. “I’m in Muggle Studies, too. It did sound plausible. Though, considering who it was coming from, I was surprised he took it as seriously as he did.”

Suddenly I heard my name called out and looked up to see Sirius hurrying toward me. “Great, I’ve caught you.”

“What’s up?” I asked, aware that Veronica and Clio had just made subtle exits.

“Listen, I’m sorry about before,” he said, falling into step with me and grabbing my spare hand. “The boathouse. I didn’t force you to do anything, did I?”

“Of course not,” I said, smiling. “If I didn’t want to you would certainly have known about it.”

“And I didn’t hurt you? I wasn’t too rough or anything?”

I shook my head. “No. Again, you would have known about it if that was the case.”

He was visibly relieved. “It’s been bothering me,” he admitted. “But I want to make it up to you. The Shrieking Shack, tonight. Prongs will even loan us the Cloak.”

I dropped his hand and put my arm around him. “You don’t have to make anything up to me,” I said, just happy that everything was back to normal. “Like I said, if I wasn’t comfortable I would have said something.”

“Even so,” he said, “these things should be done properly. Besides, I made you cry and there’s absolutely no excuse for that. Is your homework all up to date?”

I thought about it. Thursday was a big day – double Transfiguration, then Charms, then double Herbology. “Yeah, I’ve finished all those.”

“Excellent,” he said, smiling. “We’ll go down after supper – or we could have dinner in the village if you like. Either way, pack a toothbrush, we don’t need to be back till morning.”

________________________________________

57
That very afternoon I made the trip to Professor McGonagall’s office. “Come in,” she said in response to my knock.

“Elvira Vablatsky,” I said without preamble as I went inside. “And Greta Catchlove. Possibly there are more, but those are the two I think were responsible.”

She looked confused. “Responsible for what, Miss Cauldwell?”

“Hexing my broom,” I explained. “I confronted Elvira and she didn’t deny it. And I want her to be punished.”

She looked at me wryly. “This doesn’t have anything to do with any notes that were confiscated by Professor Penrose this morning, does it?”

I faltered. She knew about that? News did travel fast at Hogwarts. “Well, yes,” I admitted. “I’ve had enough. She’s been making my life hell all year and that was the last straw.”

“And you’re sure about the broom?” she prodded.

“I think so,” I said. “I asked her what would happen if Professor Dumbledore got the Veritaserum out and she did look worried.”

McGonagall nodded. “Well, I will advise the Headmaster and also Professor Flitwick of your allegations. Should they prove accurate, it will naturally be up to Professor Flitwick to decide on the nature of the punishment, as he is their Head of House.” She paused, looking at me over her glasses. “Thank you, Miss Cauldwell.”

I nodded, feeling better already. It was amazing how cathartic telling on someone could be. “Thanks, Professor.”

Of course, news may travel fast at Hogwarts, but it also passed quickly into the ether as it was replaced by more interesting gossip. Before long most people seemed to have forgotten about the whole episode with Elvira and Carol and my alleged dalliance with Bernie Carmichael. The fact that not only had Sirius and I not broken up but had actually come through it potentially stronger than we were already appeared to have stymied the fan club for a while, who were conspicuous by their inaction. This of course was a welcome change, and we were able to spend the time previously spent fending off various insinuations and the like in a more productive manner – that is, actually studying. (And if you thought I meant something else … for shame on you!) After all, NEWTs were approaching at a rate of knots and I was very keen to keep on top of everything, which was much harder for me to achieve than it was for someone like Sirius.

Having said that, there were still the occasional side trips, usually inspired by Sirius who, even without the still-confiscated Marauder’s Map, still knew every nook and cranny of the castle and grounds and was slowly introducing me to them. Not only was I now on first name terms with the house elves in the kitchen, but I could dart down any one of over a dozen secret passageways when trying to avoid someone or when running late to class, head into Hogsmeade whenever I liked, or find secluded corners of the corridors or greenhouses that were almost invisible unless you knew exactly where to look. The boys had really gone to great lengths to find out as much about the castle and grounds as they possibly could and I felt honoured that they were sharing this considerable knowledge with me.

Naturally, I did most of these things in Sirius’ company. One such excursion happened one Tuesday morning as we were leaving Herbology, when he steered me not towards the castle but across the lawns, past the Whomping Willow.

“Come on,” he said, “I want to show you something.”

I was somewhat confused but allowed myself to be led, overriding any possible objections in my head by telling myself that we had no more classes until after lunch, more than two hours away.

“Where are we going?” I asked, not entirely sure I wanted to know the answer.

“The forest,” he said easily, ignoring my involuntary stumble at his words. I’d been inside the forest a few times, not very far and always as part of a Care of Magical Creatures lesson, but as I had no desire to meet hostile centaurs or Acromantulas I had never ventured in there on my own.

“Right.” I was a little unsure but he’d never taken me anywhere dangerous before, so I decided to go along with it. “Why?”

“Got something to show you,” he repeated with a smile. We had reached the edge of the forest and he grabbed my hand as he led me inside. We walked in silence for ten minutes or so, pausing occasionally while he tried to work out his route. Clearly he knew the forest well and was taking me to a particular spot.

Eventually we reached our destination. Even I, who had no idea where we were headed, knew it was the place – a lush green clearing, unusually open to the elements as though the trees had decided to leave it alone. The grass – what you could see of it – was soft and springy and was almost completely covered with wildflowers which had obviously decided that was a good place to bloom, making the air heavy with their perfume.

Sirius took in my smile as I looked around. “It’s nice, isn’t it?” he said quietly. “We found it last full moon – why we’d never spotted it before I have no idea, but then again the centaurs hang around this area a bit so we often stay clear of them.”

“Full moon?” I looked at him sharply. “I thought you went to the Shack for that.” I put my school bag down on a patch of grass and sat down nearby, trying to avoid damaging any of the flowers.

“We do,” he explained, sitting so close to me that our hips were touching. “But really, can you see a werewolf and a stag staying in there all night? No, we come back through the tunnel and wander around in here. Or sometimes around Hogsmeade. Either way, much more room.”

I stared at him, a feeling of horror flooding through me. “But what if you came across someone?”

He shrugged. “We’ve seen people around a few times but that’s what Prongs and I are there for, to stop Moony from attacking anyone,” he said. “No one’s been in any real danger.”

He seemed to be either unaware of or blasé about the risks involved, but I realised that if he didn’t take it seriously now then nothing I said would make a difference. He was a bit stubborn like that. I decided to change the subject.

“Are we likely to run into any centaurs here today?”

He shrugged again. “It’s possible. You can never rule things like that out. But I don’t think we will, I saw some of them this morning on the other side of the forest so hopefully they’ll be hanging around there today. And I can’t smell any sage or mallowsweet burning so that’s a good sign.”

I nodded, having heard about the centaurs’ habit of burning herbs to divine the future. “And what other creatures might we see?”

He was quiet for a bit. “Various birds, of course,” he said eventually. “Thestrals – though neither of us can see those. You know they’re in here though ’cause you see them eating sometimes. Looks a bit freaky, let me tell you. Unicorns, which are more likely to come near if you’re here – they tend to keep well clear of us. A few Hippogriffs, maybe, but they don’t generally come into this area so it’s not very likely. Little things like Bowtruckles and Knarls, of course. We’re not far enough in to disturb the Acromantulas or the forest trolls so don’t worry about them. We might see some Porlocks, they like the grassy spots, but they’re usually scared of people so they’ll probably hightail it out pretty quickly.”

I laughed. “Quite a menagerie then.”

He nodded, smiling. “Yep. Though like I said, most of them are a bit wary of people, so we’re not likely to see much. Oh, and Hagrid might stumble through, I suppose, but you can generally hear him coming from a mile off so I wouldn’t be too worried about that.”

I turned a smiling face to him and he took the opportunity to kiss me, just a brief, gentle kiss that we might exchange in the Great Hall at lunch time, for example. I responded in kind, bringing my hands up to his face, and before long the quick pecks had segued into something deeper, more passionate, and we had fallen backwards and were lying together on the soft grass surrounded by crocuses, our arms around each other.

We didn’t usually succumb to temptation like this in the middle of a school day, but then again we weren’t usually somewhere quite as private as the clearing in the forest was. Sirius clearly intended to make the most of it as after a couple of minutes he started to unfasten the front of my robes. I put my hand on his, shaking my head.

“We don’t always need to do that,” I pointed out, just enjoying the snog without moving on to anything further.

He looked chastened. “No, of course not. I’m sorry.” And to his credit he moved his hand back to my face and smoothed my hair away from my eyes, kissing me again without missing a beat.

Within five minutes I was forced to eat my words, however, as he got me to a point where I was barely able to hold on myself. I pushed his face from mine and looked him in the eye. “I’ve changed my mind.” And I grabbed his hand again and put it on my thigh, underneath my robes, and then reached for his belt.

He grinned mischievously. “You are magnificent,” he whispered, his face two inches from mine, his eyes sparkling.

I smiled back. “I know.”

****

We headed back to the castle, hoping to get to the Great Hall before lunch break was over so we could get something to eat, as there was no way we would get through double Defence that afternoon without some sustenance first. Fortunately we made it on time, after a quick stop on the lawns not far from the Whomping Willow ensured that neither of us had any grass or petals in our hair or anywhere else that might indicate what we had been doing.

It was a good thing that we managed to eat, we discovered shortly, as Professor Perkins had decided that it was a good time to try duelling again, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying that on an empty stomach.

“With your NEWTs coming up,” she pointed out, “you will be required to demonstrate your duelling ability in the practical component of the exam. It would be useful if we spent a couple of lessons fine-tuning your skills so you can get through that section with a minimum of pressure. Now, if you could please find a partner and some space on the floor, and we will begin on my whistle.” The desks and chairs were again Banished to the walls and we all looked for a willing adversary.

I automatically sought out James, expecting him to partner me as we did in our weekly duelling classes, but when I turned to him he grinned and said, “You and Lily can probably do this yourselves now.” Smiling, I nodded and looked at Lily, who also had the beginnings of a broad smile on her face. This would be our first proper duel since Sirius and James had begun teaching us, and she had clearly been looking forward to it.

Before Perkins had even blown her whistle for us to begin, however, Sirius and James had already provided another distraction. Aware that the duels hadn’t started yet, they began tossing spells at each other almost randomly in what I was sure they would describe as a warm-up. The rest of the class, however, saw it as a proper duel and had stopped to watch, so the boys upped the ante and, grinning broadly and clearly enjoying themselves, treated us to what could only be described as a demonstration event.

“You can’t even see what they’re doing, it’s so fast,” I heard Thalia Strout murmuring in astonishment. “How could you stop them?”

I suppressed a grin. I knew exactly how to stop them, or Sirius in any case. Parts of him were so ticklish that a well placed Rictusempra was pretty much guaranteed to stop him in his tracks, no matter what he was doing. I wasn’t about to mention that, however – like I’d already noted, gossip travelled fast at Hogwarts and if there really were budding Death Eaters in our year, I wasn’t about to give them any ammunition against him.

They fought for a few minutes and Professor Perkins, clearly impressed, began to use them as examples of how everything that should be done in a duel, pointing out different moves so long after they had been finished that we had trouble keeping up with them. Needless to say, James and Sirius soon became the poster boys for duelling and I was sure they would be called on to demonstrate various actions to the rest of us once the class got underway properly. They earned ten points each for Gryffindor just for being brilliant.

Eventually Perkins asked them to stop so we lesser mortals could have a go without distractions, and Lily and I bowed to each other and set to work. I must admit I was pleased with our efforts, and in the corner Sirius and James looked equally impressed. While we still weren’t anywhere near their level we had both certainly progressed, and were able to put on a good enough display for Perkins to award us each ten points for most improved.

“Well done, ladies, you have obviously been practicing since our last duelling lesson,” she gushed. Lily and I just looked at each other and suppressed giggles. If you could call three or four hours a week of intense training ‘practicing’, then yes, that was certainly what we had been doing.

James and Sirius clearly agreed. “Much better,” James said with a grin after we had finished. “Still not perfect, but you’re good enough not to make any stupid mistakes.”

Sirius nodded. “Yep, we might almost let you out in public, where you might need to do it, before too long.”

Lily and I looked at each other again and smiled. If the boys were that happy with our progress, we were probably looking at an O for our Defence practical exam. With Sirius and James as our instructors, we knew that nothing less than that standard would have been good enough.

I noticed Remus and Charlotte had partnered each other and wondered if there had been any progress on that front, or if they were still dancing around each other without really communicating at all. Not seeing any evidence that Remus had actually come clean, I asked Charlotte that night in the dorm.

“He’s been trying to tell me something,” she acknowledged, her head framed from the light of the Gubraithian flame by Mary’s wall. “Every few days he comes over and sits with me and says something like, ‘please don’t hate me,’ but then he can’t go any further. Do you know what it’s about?”

I hesitated. While I knew exactly what was going on, I thought that admitting that probably wouldn’t go down very well. “Not really,” was what I said. “He’s got something on his mind. I’m sure it’s not too bad.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “If it wasn’t bad, then why would I hate him if he told me?”

Martha, who’d been listening to the conversation, laughed. “Come on,” she said. “Do you really think Remus would have any deep, dark secrets? James, Sirius, even Peter I could believe, but Remus?”

Well, that just proved how good he was at hiding things, I thought. Hoping my face didn’t give anything away, I decided to back her up. “It’s Remus,” I said simply. “We know him. It’s like Martha said, he wouldn’t do anything bad.”

Charlotte smiled. “You sound like Lily,” she told me. “She’s been saying the same thing.”

Good, I thought. Weight of numbers. “Well, then,” I said, “we can’t both be wrong, can we?”

“No, probably not,” she admitted. “And you spend much more time with him than I do. It’s just – it’s frustrating,” she said. “I’m getting the feeling that whatever he’s trying to tell me is keeping us apart, but I can’t help if I don’t know what it is.”

“It’s Remus,” Martha repeated. “Like I said, if anyone’s going to be above board, it’s him.”

“That’s right,” I said. “I think you can trust him, Charlotte. Just give him some time.”

****

A couple of days later, Professor McGonagall came to see me at the Gryffindor table at lunch time. “Miss Cauldwell,” she said, “can you come with me, please?”

I got up to follow her and noticed Sirius had come with me. “What’s wrong, Professor?” I asked.

She looked grim. “Please come to the Headmaster’s office,” she instructed. “Yes, Black, perhaps you should come too.” She walked swiftly up the marble staircase and I hurried after her, completely confused. The Headmaster’s office? What had I done wrong?

McGonagall didn’t elaborate as she led Sirius and me up yet more stairs and finally stopped outside a statue of a gargoyle. “Cockroach Cluster,” she intoned, and the gargoyle moved away from the wall and revealed a winding staircase.

I looked at Sirius and mouthed, “Cockroach cluster?” It seemed to me to be an unusual password for somewhere as austere as the Headmaster’s office. He, however, looked completely unsurprised so I gathered it couldn’t have been that strange a choice. Then again, I reasoned, Dumbledore was in some ways an unusual man, so perhaps it was just one of his quirks.

When we reached the top of the staircase – which moved by itself, rather like a Muggle escalator – Professor McGonagall knocked on the door, then opened it without waiting for an answer. “I have Miss Cauldwell, Professor,” she said tersely. “And Black, who I believe was a witness to the event.”

Already inside and apparently waiting for us were Professors Dumbledore and Flitwick, and Elvira and Greta. With a sudden rush of understanding it was immediately clear to me what this was about – the broom-tampering incident. This would be, for want of a better word, the trial.

“Ah, you are here,” said Dumbledore lightly, as though this was nothing more serious than afternoon tea. “Please take a seat, both of you.”

We obediently sat down on adjacent chairs, and McGonagall took the last remaining seat on Dumbledore’s right.

“You have been called here,” the Headmaster explained, “due to a very serious allegation which was made against Miss Vablatsky and Miss Catchlove. Professor Flitwick has accompanied them as Head of Ravenclaw House.” I nodded – it didn’t seem like I needed to say anything yet. Dumbledore was continuing. “I ask everyone here to think back to Saturday the eleventh of March, and the days leading up to it. Miss Cauldwell, can you please tell me, in your own words, what happened that day?”

****

“Well,” I said to Sirius on the way back downstairs, “that was painless.”

“More painless than being bucked off your broom, in any case,” he agreed.

“I must admit, though,” I went on, “they surprised me with how quickly they capitulated. I thought they’d deny it or something.”

He laughed. “Really? I didn’t think that was surprising at all.”

I looked at him, confused. “Why not? Didn’t you think they’d try to hedge for a while to get out of it?”

He reached over and gave me a squeeze. “Dumbledore’s a Legilimens, Laura,” he said as though he was explaining something to a three year old.

I was confused again. “A what?”

“A Legilimens,” he repeated, looking at me in surprise. “What, don’t you know what a Legilimens is?”

“No,” I admitted, shaking my head. “I’ve never even heard the word before.”

He paused. “Legilimency is the ability to look into someone’s thoughts,” he said.

“Like reading minds?” I asked, trying to work out what he was trying to say.

He hesitated. “Sort of. Unless you know how to block it, a Legilimens can look inside your head, so to speak, and see what’s foremost in your mind. That’s why no one can ever get away with lying to him, because he can always tell.”

“Oh.” This was a reasonable amount to take in, and I really wasn’t sure that I liked the idea of the Headmaster probing my thoughts like that. “Is that what he’s doing when he gives you that really intense, penetrating stare? He’s looking inside your head?”

Sirius nodded. “Something like that. And I think those two gigglers worked that out pretty quickly, that there wasn’t any point in lying to him.”

“Well, they are in Ravenclaw,” I acknowledged. “What do you think will happen to them?”

He shrugged. “Search me. I doubt they’ll be expelled, because Mulciber wasn’t, and neither was Avery. And neither was I, for that matter. A prank that could result in death isn’t the same, in Dumbledore’s eyes, as a prank that does. But really it’s up to Flitwick.”

I giggled suddenly. “They had a rather nasty time in there, though, didn’t they? When they tried to convince Dumbledore that we’d been going outside the rules?”

He laughed. “But we have,” he said. “Oh, did you mean anything they’d know about? Yes, that was good. I doubt they’ll forget that in a hurry. What did Dumbledore say again? ‘Sorry, Miss Vablatsky, but it is not the policy of Hogwarts School to punish people for falling in love,’” he quoted, doing a surprisingly good impersonation of the Headmaster in the process. “At least now the staff know this whole thing was just jealousy on their part. With any luck, it’ll blow over in no time.”

****

The following week found me in the common room, knee deep in homework. It was getting towards the end of May and with everything that was going on, from the loss of Mary to Sirius to the fan club shenanigans, I was having some difficulty keeping up with it all. Sirius had agreed to leave me alone for a while so I could get some assignments finished so I was surprised when, about three quarters of the way through my essay, he joined me at my table in the common room, taking the seat opposite.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Homework,” I said, scribbling down another sentence before I lost my train of thought. “Remember? I told you I had to finish this.”

“That’s right,” he said, leaning back on two legs of his chair and looking like he was going to settle in for the long haul. “Well, don’t mind me then.” He pulled a rather tattered-looking motorcycle magazine out of his bag and started flicking through it.

Before long, however, he’d given up on that and was alternately playing footsies with me underneath the table, or reaching across it to push my hair out of the way. It was distinctly annoying and after a while I gave up trying to ignore it and glared at him instead.

“Stop that, would you?” I asked, trying to reach past him so I could get my Rune Dictionary. “I need to get this finished.”

He pouted at me. “I’m bored.”

“I gathered that,” I said dryly. “How about you go find James and bug him instead?”

“He’s with Lily,” he said.

“All right, Remus then.”

“Hospital wing,” he said. “He’s still a bit beat up from last night.”

Of course. I’d forgotten it had been a full moon. I was a bit annoyed with myself for being so insensitive but then again my essay wasn’t writing itself and it was getting late.

“Peter?” I asked.

“Extra Astronomy lesson,” Sirius responded. He jerked his thumb at my essay. “Come on, that can wait, can’t it?”

“No, it can’t,” I said rather irritably. “It’s due tomorrow, and I don’t want to have to rely on that free period beforehand. Because knowing you you’ll want to do something and if I say no you’ll keep on bugging me like you’re doing now.”

He paused, obviously thinking, before his face cleared and he beamed across the table. “Well, let me help then,” he said brightly, as though that was the most brilliant idea he’d ever had. “Which one is it?”

“Ancient Runes,” I said. “Remember? That subject you don’t do?”

His face fell again. “That’d be right,” he complained. “How much more do you have to write?”

I looked at my parchment. “About six inches,” I said. “And the more you distract me, the longer it will take me to write it.”

“So why didn’t you do that last night?” he asked.

“Because I was finishing my essays for Charms, Transfiguration and Herbology last night,” I pointed out, more tetchily than I’d meant. “Besides, I’ve got that much to do that if I’d tried to finish it all last night, I think I would have been up even later than you were.”

He looked slyly at me. “How do you know how late we were?”

“I don’t,” I said with some frustration. “I’m guessing. Now will you please be quiet so I can finish this?”

He pouted again. “Well, what am I supposed to do?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Go find Snape or someone.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Snape?”

“Yeah. Give him a flamingo neck or something. That should take up some time.”

“I thought you were trying to stop us from hexing him too much,” he said with a sly grin.

“Yes, well, when I need to get this finished and you’re not letting me, I’m prepared to make that sacrifice,” I said pointedly. “Besides, Lily’s so sick of him trying to talk to her all the time I thought it might distract him.”

“Okay, okay, I get the hint,” he grumbled. “I know when I’m not wanted. I’ll go.” And he stood up and started to walk towards the portrait hole, only to pause half way across the common room, turn around and come back.

I looked up at him wryly. “That was quick.”

“I didn’t want to leave you,” he said, taking the seat opposite again and reaching for my hand so he could kiss it. "So I’ve come back to beg your forgiveness and ask if I can stay.” He gave me his most winning look. “Please?”

I gave up. Let’s face it, I could never hold out against him for too long, particularly not when he was saying things like that and looking at me so hopefully. “You can stay,” I said, “but you just need to stop touching me for a spell so I can finish up.”

He raised his eyebrow again. “And how am I supposed to be near you and not touch you? That’s asking the impossible.”

Smiling at the compliment, I thought about that. “Full body bind?”

“Very funny.”

“It’d work, though,” I pointed out. “Come on, I’ve only got six inches to go, it shouldn’t take too long – if you’d just let me do it. Please? I really want to get something better than a T for this.”

He accepted defeat. “All right. I’ll try to behave. So now I can stay?” He looked at me expectantly.

“Yes, you can stay,” I said wearily. “But if you’re going to be here you can at least make yourself useful. Hand me that book on the top there, please, would you?”

****

Even with these little separations so I could catch up with my schoolwork, however, everything went haywire for me the following day after a nasty altercation in the dungeon. We had just finished a rather gruelling double Potions class in which we had attempted to make a Mandrake Restorative Draught (which was rather more difficult than any of us had anticipated), and I headed out of the room with Sirius, James, Lily, Remus and Charlotte. The boys were going to see Lily, Charlotte and me off at the library so we could get some revision done, but on the way out James just couldn’t resist sending a passing shot at Snape, who had looked hopefully at Lily once again as she passed him.

“Ah, Snivellus,” he said with mock politeness as Snape, alone at the Slytherin table, packed up his cauldron and school bag with his eyes still pleadingly on Lily, “I thought you were asked to stay away from the Head Girl?” He paused, a broad grin on his face. “By the Head Girl, if I’m not mistaken.”

Lily, who had been glaring at Snape, turned her attention to James and looked just as annoyed with him. “Why do you always need to push him?”

James pretended to think about that. “It’s just the fact that he exists, I think …”

We all laughed, remembering the argument by the lake back in fifth year. So much had changed since then, and Lily’s expression softened as she looked at James.

“Not much of an existence, though,” I pointed out as we followed Lily to the door, not thinking that he could probably hear me. “In Slytherin, ugly, greasy hair, no friends, Death Eater wannabe …”

Our laughter was interrupted by Severus, who made an angry hissing noise that echoed through the dungeon before uttering a curse I’d not heard before. I felt a burning sensation around my ribcage and blood was gushing from fresh wounds in my left arm and side. Before I could articulate anything, however, I felt myself go dizzy and collapsed on to the floor of the dungeon, knowing no more.

________________________________________



Author’s note: I hate this chapter. There are bits in it that I like, and bits which are important, but overall it reads horribly – the segues are stilted, the narrative feels forced, and the flow is terrible. However, a week ago it read MUCH worse than it does now, and I don’t think I’ll be able to improve on it any more in the short term, so I’ve posted it.

Oh, and Laura’s not dead, just in case you were wondering. She got hit with Sectumsempra and quite frankly she’s felt better, but no, this isn’t my way of ending the story. There’s still a little bit to go.

________________________________________

58
I woke up what must have been some time later, undeniably in the hospital wing and with blood-stained bandages all down my arm, from shoulder to hand, and some more on my side, just where the ribcage sat. Idly I tried to wriggle my fingers, and they moved okay so there couldn’t have been all that much damage done, though it did cause a shot of pain all the way up my arm. But I was alone, and that confused me. Where was Sirius? Or Lily, or James, or any of the others? Where, for that matter, was Madam Pomfrey?

The first question was answered almost immediately as I heard an argument outside the door. Most probably not very far outside, from the volume of it, but then again I was still a bit woozy and wasn’t game to trust my judgement too much. In any case, Sirius was definitely involved.

“What the hell did you think you were doing??” I heard him yell. “You could have killed her!”

“I would have thought you, of all people, would have no problem with trying to kill someone, Black,” came Severus Snape’s voice, calm as ever. “You tried to kill me, after all, only two years ago.”

“That’s got nothing to do with this!” Sirius shouted. “She could have died! She was that close, if we hadn’t been there …” His voice trailed off.

“But how much of a loss would that really be?” Snape asked silkily. “Mediocre skills, no particular talents, spawn of a Muggle and a blood traitor … Why, you seem upset, Black. What is it, you don’t want to lose your whore? Don’t tell me you’ve become attached to it …”

Gee he had a lovely way with words, better even than Elvira and fantastic for improving my self esteem. I could almost feel the tears welling up on the spot – after all, no one wants to be branded a whore and I had no idea how many others in the school shared that opinion. Fortunately Severus was cut off mid-sentence: I heard nothing more except a sharp cracking sound and then a thud, which I soon learned was Snape hitting the floor after Sirius punched him in the face. I discovered this fairly quickly as Severus was the next student admitted to the hospital wing and I could see the broken nose and cheekbone, and the bruising that was already starting to come up. He was clearly unconscious: it looked like it had been a good punch.

And it also demonstrated where Madam Pomfrey had been – there was another bed occupied, towards the back of the room and surrounded by privacy screens, and she had clearly been attending to whoever was in that. She came bustling out looking most concerned and immediately set to work on fixing Snape.

I’m afraid I didn’t react well to that, seeing the school Matron hovering with such care and attention around the person who had attacked me for what had felt like no good reason. I felt myself getting nauseous and started dry-retching into my hands, not having anything else to use. Let him rot, I thought bitterly, let those bones knit together just like they are. If he was casting cutting curses on people then he shouldn’t be entitled to be fixed up.

Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall and Slughorn had accompanied Severus into the hospital wing and once Madam Pomfrey had changed my bandages (behind a privacy screen, obviously) and given me a potion to help with the nausea, they sat around my bed.

“I understand you have been cursed, Miss Cauldwell,” Dumbledore began, and it occurred to me that I had seen more of him in the last week or so than in all of the previous seven years. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“We were leaving Potions,” I said slowly, trying to remember the sequence of events. “James had said something that got Snivellus a bit worked up. I don’t remember what it was but it was probably something to do with Lily. We all laughed and I said something that extended it and he got really ticked off. Next thing I knew he’d thrown a curse at us and it hit me here.” I indicated my left side with my other hand. “There was a tidy bit of blood and then I woke up here.”

“Would you say you were deliberately antagonising Mr Snape?” Professor Dumbledore asked quietly.

I thought about lying but decided very quickly against it – if he was a Legilimens there wasn’t much point, and it would have required too much effort anyway. “Yes, probably,” I admitted. “I didn’t intend for him to hear me, but I don’t think I would have minded much if I’d realised. I don’t like him and neither do the others. He’s nasty and he gives me the creeps.”

“And this is mutual?” Dumbledore prompted.

“Yes and no,” I said, unable to stop what had to be irrational tears spilling down my cheeks. “He hates James mostly because of Lily, it’s obvious he’s still got a thing for her. He doesn’t like Sirius either which I think is because of the tunnel under the willow thing a couple of years back. I don’t know that he’s got much of an opinion of me either way, though, we’ve never had that much to do with each other.” I took a breath and looked at the Headmaster, hiccoughing a little. “But don’t say that justifies what he did; we never got our wands out, not once.”

“I never suggested it was justified, Miss Cauldwell, I was just looking for motive. And getting a feel for our student dynamics,” Dumbledore explained, his eyes twinkling a little behind his half-moon glasses as Professor McGonagall handed me a tissue I could mop my eyes with. I tried to use my left arm but the muscles obviously weren’t fixed yet and the movement caused a stab of pain down that side, so my good hand took over.

Professor Dumbledore waited politely until I’d finished, though I was still hiccoughing rather uncomfortably. “So, in your opinion, do you think Mr Snape was trying to hit you with the curse, or someone else?”

I thought about it. “At the time I thought it was me because I’d just said something that made him pretty irate. But he might have been aiming for James, he was on that side of me and Snape really hates him. But I really don’t know. You’d have to ask him.”

Slughorn snorted. “Unfortunately Severus has been knocked unconscious, so we’re not able to ask him anything at the moment,” he said bluntly. I smiled to myself – Sirius had done well there, I was rather proud of him. “And I hope, Albus, that you’ll be punishing the one responsible.”

“That is up to Professor McGonagall, as Mr Black is in her House,” Dumbledore said firmly. Slughorn scowled, though I was unsure whether that was because Dumbledore had left his punishment up to McGonagall, or because Sirius wasn’t in Slytherin like Slughorn had hoped he would be.

“Thank you, Horace,” Dumbledore continued, making it obvious that the conversation was over, then turned back to me. “And thank you, Miss Cauldwell, you have been invaluable. We will leave you to your recovery.”

I soon heard McGonagall speaking to Sirius out in the corridor, sounding less than impressed. “Muggle fighting, Black? I expected more of you than that.”

Sirius was clearly unrepentant. “He attacked Laura. He could have killed her.”

“I am aware of what Mr Snape is accused of,” Professor McGonagall said tersely, “but that is still not a reason to lose control like that. I expect students from my House to behave in a more appropriate manner.”

“Right.” Sirius sounded like he was getting stubborn again.

“Might I ask,” McGonagall continued, “why you chose to retaliate in that particular way?”

“James had taken my wand off me,” Sirius admitted. “I think he was worried about what I might do.” He paused. “Probably just as well, though, because I might have killed him otherwise. I don’t particularly want to spend my life in Azkaban.” He paused again, and when he spoke once more his voice had a resigned sound to it. “So, Professor, how many points have I lost this time?”

There was another pause, though very brief. “I will deduct ten points from Gryffindor for fighting. I will, however, let you off a detention. In this particular case I think you have suffered enough.”

“Thanks, Professor.” I waited for the sound of footsteps leading away but there were none. After a pause, Sirius spoke again. “Can I go in now? To see her?”

“That is up to Madam Pomfrey,” said McGonagall’s voice. But then she appeared to soften. “I’ll see what I can do, Black.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Sirius said quietly.

Please, Madam Pomfrey, let him in, I thought furiously. If I ever needed to be held, this was the time Unfortunately she decided to start fussing over me again, checking my bandages even though they had only just been changed and force-feeding me some potion or other, before I could get a word in and beg her to allow me visitors.

“I think not, you need rest,” she insisted as she took my pulse, first in my good arm and then my bad one, then peered into my eyes and asked me to stick my tongue out.

“But I’ll rest much better if I’ve seen people,” I pointed out hopefully once I’d complied with her requests. “Please, just five minutes, please?”

Eventually she relented. “All right,” she said, sticking a thermometer into my mouth. “But only five minutes, not a second longer.”

I looked at her gratefully. “Thanks, Madam Pomfrey.”

Within seconds Sirius was by my side, glaring at Snape’s figure across the room as he came in. “Are you okay? Does it hurt? Will you be able to use your arm again?”

I laughed as he put his arms around me, carefully avoiding contact with my injuries. “Yes, yes and I don’t know. But probably.”

“And what about here?” he asked, gently touching the spot under my arm where the curse had also hit. I winced involuntarily as pain shot through the area with even that minor contact.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “It hurts. I think I heard Madam Pomfrey telling someone that it’s only skin damage, he didn’t hit any organs or slice through the bones or anything. But she hasn’t told me much so I don’t really know.”

“I was so worried,” he admitted quietly. “There was so much blood and you looked like you weren’t breathing. Fortunately Moony had his wits about him and conjured up a stretcher to get you up here, I think I would have tried to carry you and that might have made it worse.”

“Looks like you got it all out of your system, though,” I said wryly, looking at Snape. “I think you improved his appearance.”

His face set grimly. “Deserved everything he got. If you knew the sorts of things he was saying about you …”

He loosened his grip on me and I lay back against my pillows, the hurt coming back as I recalled Snape’s words. “Actually, I do know. I’d just woken up and I heard everything.”

“What?” Sirius looked horrified. “Don’t let it get to you, he was trying to get me riled up. He didn’t really mean it.”

“I don’t care anyway,” I said, suddenly resolving to try to make this actually true. It was only Severus Snape, why should I heed what he said? “I don’t care what he thinks. It’s not worth getting worried about.”

Sirius picked up my good hand and kissed it. “No, it’s not,” he agreed. “But you take it easy, okay?”

I nodded. “I’m just glad it’s my left arm. If he’d hit my wand arm I would have been in all sorts of trouble for the rest of term. Not to mention the exams.”

“You’ll be fine,” he said resolutely. “And we’ll make sure you’re kept up to date with everything. I know how important that is for you.”

I smiled weakly, feeling rather tired all of a sudden. Maybe Madam Pomfrey had been right to restrict my visitors. “What would I do without you?”

He smiled back but didn’t answer the question. “You just take it easy,” he repeated. “Go to sleep if you need to, don’t worry about me. But I’m here if you need me.”

I was in the hospital wing for close to a week, though if you’d asked me how long it had been I wouldn’t have been able to say. I spent so much time, especially initially, dozing on and off and waking up at all sorts of strange hours that I had no idea of what day it was, let alone what time. I did know that my parents – even Mum – made the trip north to see me, to make sure that I was recovering okay and to reassure themselves that the perpetrator was being punished, but I wasn’t really up to talking to them much or even being able to stay awake, so their visit was only a brief one. After about the fifth time I fell asleep in front of them, exhausted from the effort of trying to behave normally, they decided they weren’t really helping by being there and took off back home again.

That was probably a good thing, as their presence was keeping Sirius away, and that was a trial for both of us. In fact, aside from the time Mum and Dad were at Hogwarts, it seemed that every time I woke up Sirius was almost always there, in the chair next to my bed and probably most uncomfortable, particularly considering he seemed to sleep there. Charlotte told me that Madam Pomfrey had tried to make him leave several times, even attempting to physically eject him from the room, but he simply refused, leaving only when he had classes of his own, and I had the impression he only went to those so he could tell me what I was missing.

And then, there were other things to talk about. “Have you heard?” Lily breathed one day as she hurried in after lunch. “They’ve arrested someone over Mary!”

I sat up straight in my bed, wincing in pain as my injuries protested. “Really? Who?”

“There were a couple of them, people called Leon Bletchley and Felicity Gamp, apparently,” she said. “They got arrested last night. Low-level Death Eaters, according to the Aurors, but at least they’ve caught them.”

“I hope they rot in hell,” I said vehemently. “Mary’s family should never have been attacked like that.”

“Well, they’re likely to be sent to Azkaban, which is pretty much the same thing,” James said. “The Prophet says that the trial’s scheduled for July, so we’ll be able to keep an eye on it.”

“I wonder if we can go?” I wondered aloud. “To see them get taken down.”

“Not sure,” said Sirius, who seemed to be keen that I not get too worked up about this. “We’ll know more later. Don’t worry about it just yet.”

I leaned back onto my pillows and smiled, attempting to calm down. “Okay. I’ll try.”

As my strength increased, I was allowed visitors more frequently, though Madam Pomfrey still cast a resentful eye at Sirius whenever he was in the chair next to my bed. He regularly conjured up a desk that fit over the bed that I could use if I needed to make notes myself or to do the homework that was set, and at other times used it himself to get his own homework done. When he was away at Muggle Studies, Remus would take up residence in his usual chair and work me through what I’d missed in Ancient Runes, as well as making observations of the sort only Remus came up with.

“I’ve been talking to Sirius a bit lately,” he said matter-of-factly one day as he sat down. “You realise that he’s changed since he started going out with you?”

“Uh oh,” I said, worried. People don’t tend to like it much when their best friends have changed, and I didn’t want to get any of the boys offside.

“No, in a good way,” he explained hurriedly as he got out Friday’s Ancient Runes notes. “He’s not so impulsive or reckless, he thinks things through more.”

“Not always,” I said with a smile, my mind flicking to the episodes in the boathouse, the forbidden forest, and others like them.

He looked at me, his eyebrows raised, though he was smiling and his eyes had a bit of a twinkle to them. “I don’t think I want to know what you’re thinking about.”

“No, you don’t,” I agreed. “But I know what you mean, as a general thing. Though I put that down to growing up a bit. Plus what happened here,” I went on a little ruefully, indicating my still-useless left arm. “What does James think?”

“He’s too busy going through the same thing because of Lily,” Remus said frankly. “Probably the growing up thing is part of it too.” He frowned slightly. “I’m not sure about you being cursed, though,” he went on, “it was happening well before then. Besides, Lily wasn’t attacked and, like I said, James is doing it too.” He paused, looking at me as though trying to work something out. “I like you as a couple,” he said eventually. “You’re different, but you complement each other, balance each other out a bit. It works well.”

“Thanks,” I smiled. “Sirius said pretty much the same thing at Easter.”

He looked surprised. “He did?” he asked. “What did he say?”

“Um,” I began, trying to remember the words he had used. “He said that I filled in the gaps where he’s missing things, that he’s a better person because of me.” I could feel my cheeks burning as I said it out loud, it felt a bit like telling secrets and I felt uncomfortable singing my own praises.

Remus let out a low whistle and looked at me as if with new respect. “He said that? Merlin’s beard, Laura, you have done a good job, if he’s recognised that!”

“What do you mean?”

“Put it this way,” he said, pulling out his Rune Dictionary and putting it on the desk Sirius had conjured. “Introspection and self-analysis have never been Sirius’ strong points. If he’s looking critically at himself, that means he wants to improve himself. And he’d never do that just for us. That, Laura Cauldwell, is your influence.”

I just stared at him, trying to take it all in. I had no reason not to believe him, and Remus was generally pretty cluey so if anyone would notice something like that, he would. He noticed my face and laughed.

“Don’t think about it too much,” he said gently. “You’re probably the best thing that’s happened to him, in more ways than one. Just enjoy that.”

I blushed. “Okay. Thanks.” I paused. “He said that, too.”

“I’m not surprised.” He grinned at me. “Now, here’s what we did in Runes last Friday …”

****

By the time I was finally released from the hospital wing my injuries had improved rather significantly, though my arm was still a little weak and both scars a bit sore. Madam Pomfrey explained that because I’d been cut with a curse, and one that she hadn’t seen before, she wasn’t able to seal the wounds like she would normally have been able to do, and it had taken a while before anything she tried had worked. In the end she’d had to call on Professor Dumbledore to help out, and between them they had finally managed to close the wounds, though I was warned that the scarring down my arm and across my ribcage would most probably be permanent. In any case it explained why I had been drinking so many Blood Replenishing Potions – if she wasn’t able to stem the bleeding then I would have been in trouble otherwise. No wonder I’d felt weak.

Severus Snape escaped serious punishment and, even more unfairly, left the hospital wing looking as though Sirius had never hit him in the first place. Anyway he lost fifty or so points for Slytherin, which apparently did not enamour him to his dorm-mates, and suffered a half dozen detentions, but he didn’t seem to have lost his petty and vindictive hatred for James and Sirius and made a point of referring to me loudly as 'Black’s whore' at every given opportunity. Then again, Veronica Smethley told me before Runes one day that he’d been calling me that for a while, it just hadn’t made it to our ears until the cutting curse incident. Charming, really, and while it stung a bit every time I heard it I resolved to never give him the satisfaction of knowing that. I could well understand why Lily had cut off her friendship with him. (Of course, I found no evidence he had ever referred to her as “Potter’s whore” – obviously the fact he still fancied her was enough to stay his tongue on that score.)

Sirius seemed to find Snape’s label of me even more offensive than I did – like I’d decided in the hospital wing, he wasn’t worth getting worried about, and I rather successfully put an imaginary shield between him and me so that what he said usually just bounced off. But Sirius saw it as a slight on my honour, which I suppose it was, and kept trying to defend me. Whenever we heard the reference he would pull his wand on whoever said it and cast what usually turned out to be one of Bea’s hexes on them, before turning to me looking worried. “You know you’re not just that, don’t you?” he would ask.

“Of course I know that,” I reassured him at lunch the next day, trying to ignore Maggie Flint doing an impression of me as, well, a whore. (Honestly! Had they never heard of subtlety? They had so much to learn from even someone like Dione Turpin.) “Do you really think I’d believe Severus Snape over you? They’re just trying to get a reaction out of us.”

“But I don’t like them saying it,” he said staunchly. “They’re spreading lies and they shouldn’t be able to get away with it. You’re so much more than that.”

“Are you going to have a go at Dione and Elvira as well?” I asked. “They all do it, just in different ways.”

He grinned. “Not Elvira, not any more,” he said a little triumphantly. “She and Catchlove in detention for the rest of the year. Separate detentions, that is, so they can’t plot anything else against you. Oh, and the Ravenclaw House points are looking even sicker than Slytherin’s.”

“Nice to see they got their just desserts,” I admitted with a smile. “But yeah, Dione’s still spreading her stories and you haven’t wanted to jinx her.”

“I guess,” he admitted. “But I don’t like it. If there’s one person at this school who’s irreproachable, it’s you.”

I shook my head wearily – I was still getting tired more quickly than usual, despite the potions I was still taking. “No one’s irreproachable,” I pointed out. “You just have a selective memory.”

“Of course you’re irreproachable,” he insisted. “You never do anything to anyone except in retaliation. You can’t say that about many people here.”

I gave up. “Whatever.” If he wanted to believe that I wasn’t going to bother arguing: it was so much easier to just agree with him. Then something else occurred to me. “Anyway,” I went on, feeling a little more energetic all of a sudden, “we’ll be out of here in another month or so, then it doesn’t matter what they say because we’ll never see them.”

He put an arm around my waist and gave me a squeeze. “That’s the spirit. And of course eventually you’ll be a Black yourself, so that particular label will be null and void anyway.” He froze suddenly, as though realising what he’d said. “Maybe. And only if you want to, of course,” he hurriedly added.

I smiled and relaxed into him. “That sounds nice.”

****

Sirius took me aside as we headed upstairs after lunch. “I hadn’t said that before, had I?” he asked a little sheepishly.

“What, that I’ll become a Black?” I asked with a smile. “No, I can’t say that you have.” I knew why he was a bit bothered by this – he and James were always very careful not to say anything like that to anyone. Apparently someone in James’ family had once made a similar off-the-cuff statement to a girl he was seeing and she’d taken it to be a proposal, and he’d felt honour-bound to abide by her acceptance. The story went that the marriage ended up being a disaster so James, and by extension Sirius, had learned to mind what they said in that regard.

He nodded, looking a little uneasy. “I … I …geez, Laura, I’m sorry, I don’t really know what I’m trying to say. I’ve just thought that so many times that I’d forgotten I hadn’t said it out loud.” He hesitated. “But you do know I meant not yet, right?”

I smiled again. “Well, the fact you used the word ‘eventually’ would generally indicate that, I think,” I pointed out. “Besides, I suspect it would be a bit of a giveaway to my dad that I’d been ignoring his orders this year.”

He chuckled, obviously relieved. “Yes, let’s get school out of the way first,” he agreed, putting his arms around me again. I winced slightly as he put pressure on my injuries but ignored the pain – he made me feel safe and secure and that was exactly what I needed after what had happened with Snape.

“Brilliant idea,” I said. “And speaking of which, we really should be getting to Charms. I can’t afford to miss any more classes.”

That was undeniably the truth. NEWTs were only a week away and we were up to our ears in study and revision. Fortunately I’d been attacked late enough in the year to not miss much that was actually new, as our teachers had been going over what we’d done in the two previous years, but I still had some catching up to do. At least I had a tidy bit of support, though – Sirius and James were more than happy to share their considerable knowledge, which Lily topped up for Potions and Charms and Remus for Ancient Runes, and the other girls not only helped me organise my thoughts but also made sure I didn’t get too worked up over anything.

Of course, the rest of the seventh-years were in a similar boat, and it was a common sight to see more than one person at mealtimes propping a textbook up against various bottles or dishes and continuing their revision while they ate. Even Cadmus Branstone, who’d gone home earlier in the year on the death of his father at the hands of the Death Eaters, had returned and was frequently seen knee-deep in textbooks and parchment as he tried frantically to catch up on everything he had missed.

Someone must have been looking after me, though, because my strength returned just three days from the beginning of exams. Whatever combination of potions Madam Pomfrey had been giving me had obviously worked, and aside from my scar still hurting on contact, I was pretty much as good as new. Okay, I still got tired a bit more easily, but overall you could say that I was cured.

Just in time, too, as I intended to use that weekend to get stuck into non-stop revision. After all, you only get one chance to sit your NEWTs (unless you fail and have to repeat the year – I had my fingers crossed that that wouldn’t happen) and a lot of Dad’s hopes were riding on my results so I didn’t want to disappoint him. I’d been blatantly disregarding his directive about having no distractions during the year, so it was really up to me to prove that the rule wasn’t really necessary.

________________________________________

59
Finally, the first week of exams was upon us. This was what it was all about, we realised, what our seven years of education at Hogwarts had been leading to. This was the point of no return. This, in other words, was NEWTs.

I was very grateful that I didn’t do Astronomy, because that was the only exam held on the first day. Actually, to be precise, the theory exam was held on the first day, but the practical was that night at midnight. I didn’t appreciate Martha charging around the dorm on her way out when I was trying to get to sleep, but at least I wasn’t the one who had to go. If nothing else, I probably would have fallen asleep half way through, due to both the tediousness of the subject matter and the fact, even with my strength pretty much returning, that I was still getting tired more easily than I’d done previously. Not that I admitted this, mind: Sirius was overprotective enough as it was without me giving him further ammunition.

My first exam was held the next morning. Ancient Runes was one of the few NEWT subjects that only had a theory exam but no practical one – something I hadn’t realised when I chose it as a subject, but that I was revelling in now – and, unlike the previous year, I managed to get through without any mistranslations that necessitated an entire re-write of the exam paper.

“That wasn’t too bad,” I said to Remus as we left the Great Hall. “It wasn’t brilliant, but I reckon I passed.”

He laughed. “Yes, one down, ten to go.” Which was correct, if you counted each theory and practical session as a separate exam.

“Thanks for reminding me,” I said, pouting. “I was all ready to just enjoy the fact that this one’s over, and you had to bring up the rest of them.”

“Well, considering the next one is right after lunch, I thought you might need the reminder,” he pointed out. “Though it looks like we might have another distraction anyway ….”

I followed his gaze to the courtyard outside, which appeared to have been covered in streamers. It also featured the occasional puddle, which was surprising as it hadn’t been raining. A look at the sky above the courtyard, however, solved the mystery very quickly – Peeves, who was also clearly responsible for the streamers as, now I could see them better, they spelled out rather rude words, was having a lovely time dropping water balloons on people.

“Really?” I asked as we joined the throng on the edge of the courtyard, out of range of the balloons, watching the spectacle. “Second day of exams, and he’s doing this?”

“Be thankful it’s only water balloons,” came Sirius’ voice from behind us. “He was threatening to drop the bust of Falco Aesalon on a bunch of third-years the other day. Prongs said McGonagall had all sorts of trouble coaxing him out of it.” He put an arm around me. “How’d the exam go?”

“Fine,” I said with a smile. “No monumental stuff-ups this year, and I didn’t get tired halfway through. I thought that was a good start.”

“Yes, well, you’ve got Herbology this afternoon, so you’d better get some rest now,” he said sternly. And there I’d been, thinking that me saying I didn’t get tired would reassure him rather than give him cause for concern. I’d have to try something else if I wanted him to leave me alone on that score. “Come on, we’ll leave the Head Boy to try to deal with Peeves,” Sirius went on. “And if he can’t do it, well then we’ll just have to make sure he hears about it for the next month.”

****

After breakfast the following day, those of us who did Herbology waited patiently in an empty classroom on the ground floor while the Great Hall was set up for the practical exam. The room was filled with an eerie quiet, punctuated only by people muttering things under their breath, trying to remember every little bit of information they could.

Like the theory exam had been the previous afternoon, the test itself wasn’t particularly onerous. We were led into the room in pairs, me alongside Gertie Cresswell, and matched with an examiner who asked us to do things like prune a Devil’s Snare without raising its ire, attempt to breed a Venemous Tentacula, and identify the bulbs of a Bubotuber from those of a Mimbulus Mimbletonia.

Once Sirius and I had been let out, we waited as the others joined us one by one. Finally James, as a P the latest in the alphabet out of all of us, exited the Great Hall and, joined by Martha, Charlotte and Peter, we headed as a group down to the beech tree by the lake, where Lily and James had had their shouting match two years previously. The mood was rather different this time as James and Sirius weren’t in the middle of a hex battle with Snape, and we spread out in the shade, our bags sitting randomly on the grass, and chatted amongst ourselves.

“Well, I thought that was a piece of cake,” James said easily, his arms around Lily, who was sitting directly in front of him. “What about you, Lils?”

Lily considered. “It could have been worse,” she said. “At least I didn’t get attacked by the Devil’s Snare. Unlike Maggie Flint.”

Sirius laughed. “Is that what happened? I wondered why you all got held up.” He was leaning against the tree trunk, me lying down with my head in his lap as he stroked my hair absently.

“Devil’s Snare?” James asked incredulously. “But we learned how to deal with that in, what, first year? How thick does she have to be to get attacked by it now?”

“She tripped over it,” Lily explained, unsuccessfully trying to stifle a giggle. “It didn’t seem to like that much. And then a Screechsnap followed her as she tried to run out of the hall. It was hilarious.”

We all shared a laugh at the thought of Maggie Flint being chased through the Great Hall by a wayward plant, but sobered up remarkably quickly when Remus cleared his throat.

“So what’s next?” he asked, looking unusually distracted as he pulled some books out of his bag. “I should probably try to get some revision in.”

“Charms,” Charlotte said promptly. “Theory this afternoon, practical in the morning.”

“Do we know why they’ve done it that way?” Martha asked. “Every other year, it’s been theory in the morning, practical in the afternoon. Why spread it out over two days like this?”

Lily shrugged. “Not sure,” she admitted. “I think it had something to do with when the plants could be taken out of the greenhouses, that sort of thing. They had scheduling nightmares, apparently.”

“And at least they took some pity on us,” James said, smiling broadly. “Nothing on the first Monday morning or the last Friday afternoon, no matter what subjects you had. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?”

“And nothing on the morning after the Astronomy practical exam,” Peter added. “I for one thought that was fantastic scheduling.”

James chuckled. “You would, Wormtail. I’ve never met anyone who needs quite as much sleep as you seem to.”

“But Ancient Runes was on then,” I said, propping myself up on my good arm and looking confusedly at Peter. “Astronomy was Monday night, right? Well, we had Runes on Tuesday morning. So there was one organised for then.”

Lily shrugged again. “Probably there weren’t any crossovers,” she said. “You know, no one who does Runes did Astronomy as well, so it wasn’t an issue.”

“Yeah, okay, fair enough,” I acknowledged, lying back down again. “That makes sense.”

“They’ve only broken it up for the first week, too,” Martha added, looking at the exam timetable. “Next week it’s theory in the morning, practical in the afternoon, just like every other year.”

“And it’s Charms next,” Charlotte repeated, clearly noticing that Remus was still looking flummoxed.

“Right.” Smiling a little in thanks, Remus dug around his bag, found The Standard Book of Spells Grade Seven and his Charms notes and started flicking through them.

“Good idea,” I said, lifting my head to see where my bag had ended up. Finding it nearby, I pulled out my copy of the same book, wincing slightly as the muscles in my left arm twinged. “Sirius, would you test me please?”

“Of course,” he said easily, taking the book from me and scanning the index, holding it so I couldn’t see the pages. “Right, what’s the definition of a Disillusionment Charm?”

****

Like Herbology, Charms was fairly straightforward as far as the exams went, and even though I was still tiring a little I didn’t feel I exerted myself too much in either of them. I was grateful, however, for the afternoon off after the Charms practical exam – Muggle Studies was being held then, and I was happy to comply with Sirius’ not-so-subtle suggestion to escape to the dorm for a couple of hours and just relax.

“It’s not the same without you,” I told Mary’s wall, looking at a photo that was eye level with me as I sat on my bed. “There was a gap in Herbology where you should have been, and I wanted to show you my Impeturbable Charm.” I went over to the wall and picked up the everlasting candle. “We still miss you,” I whispered. “But at least they’ve caught the low-life scum who did this to you. They’ll be sent to Azkaban, I know it. And maybe then we’ll get some closure.”

I was interrupted by the dormitory door opening, and Charlotte coming into the room. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Having a rest,” I said. “Sirius’ orders. Though you’ve got to love the irony, really – climbing seven flights of stairs in order to rest.”

She giggled, though quickly adopted a look of concern. “Are you still getting tired?”

“Sometimes,” I admitted. “It’s much better than it was, but it’s still there. I don’t really want to tell him, though, because he fusses about me enough as it is.”

“You’ve got a point there,” she said, smiling broadly. “Okay, I won’t say a word. You have my promise.” She paused, looking around the dorm and glancing through the open bathroom door before speaking again. “Isn’t anyone else in here, though? I thought I heard voices.”

“Oh, that was me,” I said a little shyly. “I was talking to Mary. I do that sometimes.”

She nodded. “I do too,” she said. “I think we all do. Only when we’re alone, but we do it.”

“It just feels weird, not having her doing the exams too,” I said. “It’s like there’s this big hole that shouldn’t there.” I put the candle back in its place, feeling a little embarrassed to be talking like this. Fortunately Charlotte understood.

“And she should be downstairs right now doing the Muggle Studies exam,” she went on. “Yes, I know.”

I giggled suddenly, lying on my stomach and looking at her. “Not that she’d mind missing that,” I said. “She hated Muggle Studies. She thought it was fun at first, but she didn’t like the last year or so. Said it was getting too overwhelming. If Sirius and James weren’t in the class to lighten it up a bit, I think she might have dropped out entirely.”

Charlotte looked surprised. “I never knew that!”

I shrugged. “She didn’t tell many people. I dare say Sebastian knew, and Sirius and James certainly did because I think they bore the brunt of her complaints about it, but she could be a bit, well, secretive, for want of a better word.” I sighed, rolling onto my back. “Her mum did SO well here that Mary didn’t like people to know when she was struggling. She felt like she wasn’t living up to expectations.”

Sitting on her own bed, Charlotte shook her head in astonishment. “You live with someone in the same room for seven years, and you find out you barely know them,” she murmured. “I had no idea.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said reassuringly, propping myself up again. “She was happier that way. And it wasn’t a huge thing with her, just one of those family things that we all have. You know, like me not being allowed to have a boyfriend this year.” I giggled. “Because that’s worked so well as a rule.”

She looked at me. “When are you going to tell them?”

I shrugged again. “Graduation? Once I get home? Haven’t really decided, to tell the truth.”

“And what do you think will happen to you?”

“I have no idea,” I admitted. “The main thing is getting through these exams and doing as well as I can. Because if I pass, and pass well, then their argument becomes irrelevant. If it doesn’t affect my grades, then they’ve got no grounds to complain.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself,” she said with a grin.

“I think I have to be,” I said. “It’s got to come out eventually, so I need to have an argument ready as to why it doesn’t matter.”

“At least you’ve got that to worry about,” she said dryly. “I’d love to be in that situation.”

My heart sank. He still hadn’t told her. After everything that had happened this year, he still hadn’t found the courage to say it. “I’ve tried, Charlotte,” I said sadly. “I’ve done what I can.”

“I know,” she said. “I just wish I knew what it was all about.”

I grinned suddenly, propping myself up on my right elbow. “Well, how about we put that exasperation to good use?” She looked at me, clearly confused. “We’ve got Defence on tomorrow,” I explained. “Practical Defence exam. If that’s not a good place to get some frustration out of your system, I don’t know what is.”

Understanding danced across her face and her eyes sparkled behind her glasses. “Want to practice?”

“Better not,” I admitted. “I’m supposed to be resting and all, remember? But I’m sure we can rope Martha in. Let’s go find her, shall we?”

****

I’d been looking forward to the Defence exams, particularly the practical one. The training Lily and I had been doing for the past few months had given me a real boost of confidence, despite how easily fatigued I was at the moment, and I was sure I would be able to deal with anything the examiner sent my way.

First, though, we had the theory exam, which was held right after breakfast. Sirius had been keen to get me eating as much protein as possible to give me energy for what was ahead, and so filled my plate with eggs, bacon, sausage and kippers, ignoring my protests that I would have preferred toast.

“You need to have your strength up for today,” he pointed out, taking away my pumpkin juice and pouring me a coffee instead. “We don’t want you collapsing half way through the exam. So eat, okay?”

Figuring it was easier than arguing with him, I set to work on my over-large breakfast and managed to eat far more than I’d anticipated. Finally I pushed my plate away, finished the dregs of my coffee, and turned to Sirius.

“I’m ready.”

We all headed off to the classrooms that doubled as waiting rooms – needing more than one due to the extremely high numbers of students taking the subject that year – and talking quietly among ourselves as the Great Hall was put into its exam configuration. I was more confident for this exam than I had been for any of the others, even Herbology, simply because of the time I’d spent with Sirius and James, and their vast knowledge and experience of the subject matter. Injuries and fatigue notwithstanding, I felt that there was nothing that could be asked of me that day that I wouldn’t be able to fulfil.

As I’d thought, the theory component wasn’t easy, but I didn’t have any particular difficulties getting through it. I knew enough about things like Patronuses and the like to rattle off the theory without even thinking, and my knowledge of Unforgiveables and other Dark spells had increased a hundredfold since what had happened to Mary.

The practical exam was even better. I’d really been looking forward to this one because, if I thought I got through it all right, then I knew I would be more confident about fighting when I got out into the real world. Fortunately, the duelling lessons and other time spent with James and Sirius paid off – not only did the half hour with the examiner feel closer to five minutes, but I pulled off each and every spell and defensive move that was asked of me, first time every time. It was exhilarating, made even the more so when I was able to look at Greta, at the next table, when casting some of the nastier hexes on the spiders provided for the purpose. If nothing else, it was wonderful to be told to put a Shield Charm between us. It looked like having our surnames so close together alphabetically could be a blessing as well as a curse after all.

“How did you go?” Sirius asked as I came out of the Great Hall that afternoon, glowing.

“Fantastic,” I said, sitting down next to him in the room set aside for those people who had completed their exams. “It was brilliant. Didn’t miss a trick. Even with only one arm, effectively.” As a lingering effect of the attack on me a couple of weeks previously, my left arm was still sore and couldn’t really be used in any useful way. Fortunately, once I explained this to my examiner (on the advice of Professor McGonagall) she agreed to take it into account in the marking process. I grinned. “And I had a lovely time looking at Greta over the examiner’s shoulder when I was casting Stunners and the like on those poor spiders. It was very therapeutic.”

“Good on you,” he said, laughing a little. “I knew you could do it.”

“Well, what it means is, I’ll be able to hold my own out there,” I said. “I might even be able to make a difference if I can fight properly.”

His face fell again. “You’re not back on that, are you?” he said, clearly disappointed. “I thought that with Mary’s killers arrested, you might not be so keen.”

“Mary died,” I said defiantly. “Absolutely needlessly, too. I want to help make sure that that doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

He sighed. “Can we talk about this later?”

“There’s not much ‘later’ left,” I pointed out. “In another fortnight we’ll be just about ready to board the train home again, and then it IS the real world that we’ll be living in. And I’ve told you I want to fight. Why should that change just because an arrest or two were made?”

“But I want you to live,” he said quietly. “Is that too much to ask?”

“Same goes for you,” I pointed out, “and you’re going to fight. What makes me so different?”

“Because if something happens to me, it doesn’t matter,” he said, like he was explaining something obvious to a three year old.

I stared at him. “What do you mean, it doesn’t matter?” I asked incredulously. “Of course it matters! That would kill me, if anything happened to you.” I paused. “Never think that you don’t matter,” I went on quietly. “You matter more than anything. You should know that.”

He just shrugged, and I knew that this was a fallback from being rejected by his family. I wondered if he would ever get over that, if he would ever understand that he was in fact worthy in his own right. Some wounds take a long time to heal.

****

The second week of exams was much less stressful, for me at least. I’d got most of my subjects out of the way in the first week, leaving only Transfiguration and Potions. Admittedly these were probably the two most difficult subjects to master (unless you were James and Sirius for the former, or Lily for the latter), but at least it meant that I could focus all my revision time on just those two. This made my week much easier than Martha’s, for example, who had Care of Magical Creatures, Transfiguration, and Arithmancy, or Charlotte’s, whose timetable didn’t feature Care of Magical Creatures but included Divination and Potions. Given the choice, I much preferred my schedule over theirs.

The Transfiguration exam wasn’t till Wednesday, so I had all weekend and Monday and Tuesday to prepare for it. Unfortunately, for this one Sirius wasn’t as much help as you might have thought, because he knew it all so well that he sometimes had trouble explaining exactly how it worked.

“But isn’t it obvious?” he asked one day as I was trying to work out how he applied the theory of human Transfiguration to doing it in practice. “Look, any of this stuff has to be done by instinct, otherwise it’s not going to work.”

“But how does that work?” I asked. “What if you don’t have the right instinct? Does that mean I’m going to fail if I can’t just sense it?”

“Well, I guess instinct can be taught,” he said doubtfully, frowning slightly. “Wormtail didn’t seem to have much to start with. But those theory books, they don’t really teach Transfiguration the way I learned it.”

Well, that was a useless conversation. I would never be fully confident about any aspect of human Transfiguration (even those things I had done well enough on in my OWLs to pass) with that sort of vague advice. Frustrated, I approached Peter.

“I don’t really know,” he said vaguely when I asked how to get what Sirius called the instinct. “It was so long ago now that I don’t really remember. Laura, that was fifth year. I’ve done it so many times now that it’s second nature.”

“No hints?” I prodded. “No little things that you can remember? No tips or tricks?”

He shook his head. “Sorry. Like I said, it’s kind of second nature by now. I honestly don’t remember how I learned it.”

Again, not much help. With nothing else to fall back on, I reverted to Charlotte’s advice back in fifth year: approach it like Bea was teaching me. I’d not really spoken to Bea much in the past year – obviously she wasn’t at Hogwarts any more, and her job at the Ministry meant that she wasn’t home all that much in the holidays, either – but my years of being the beneficiary of her boredom had to pay off somehow, didn’t they?

Sending Sirius off somewhere with Remus while Peter was doing his Divination exam (and James was, of course, with Lily), I settled down in a quiet corner of the common room to attempt to do some proper revision, safe from any major distractions. Fortunately, the rest of the students were also busy revising for exams, so much so that even Wendy Savage decided she had better things to do than bother me, and I was able to get it done in peace. And, at the end of three or four hours, I thought I had it.

“Get it worked out?” Sirius asked as I joined him at the Gryffindor table at supper time.

I nodded, smiling. “Thanks to Charlotte.”

Charlotte turned to face me, clearly confused. “What did I do?”

I grinned at her. “You helped me out two years ago, and the advice was still good. I think I’m ready for Transfiguration tomorrow now.”

“Oh.” Charlotte still looked confused, but was obviously happy to take the credit. “If it helped, then I’m glad I said it.” She paused. “Whatever it was.”

“Well, it definitely worked,” I told her. “I’m ready to take on the world now. But first, food. I’m starving.”

I admit to having some difficulty getting through the Transfiguration exams the next day, even with the renewed vigour I had from using Charlotte’s advice from OWLs, but then again it was the subject I had the most trouble with in general so that perhaps wasn’t all that surprising. My second hardest subject, Potions, was the next day and I was looking forward to that even less, though fortunately Lily was a much better tutor than Sirius had been.

“Base ingredients first, then auxiliary,” she said like it was a mantra. “Make sure you follow the instructions – read every line twice or three times before you move onto the next one. You don’t want to forget to add the powdered Graphorn to your Mandrake Restorative Draught, do you?”

I shuddered. Larry Gibbon had done just that in class one day, and his potion had ended up smoking rather horribly and leaving a smell rather like burnt cheese. It was distinctly unpleasant and, of course, had ruined his work for that day. The thought of getting a zero for my practical exam did not appeal to me one little bit.

“Good point,” I said. “Right. Base first – and that ALWAYS includes animal parts – and then the auxiliaries, and make sure I read every line three times. I think I can do that.” I smiled at her. “And thanks for not saying it’s all down to instinct. That really doesn’t help.”

She giggled. “James was the same with Transfiguration, unfortunately,” she admitted, launching into a rather good impersonation of her boyfriend. “‘But you just know!’ Completely useless,” she went on in her normal voice. “But we got through okay, didn’t we?”

I grinned. “Yep. And now, just Potions to go, and we’re qualified!!”

She glared at me. “For you, perhaps. I’ve still got Arithmancy on Friday. So no celebrating till after we’ve done that one, okay?”

Somewhat sobered, I nodded. “Of course not. Sorry, Lils.”

****

Theory of Potions was something I had never really gotten my head around, aside from Lily’s snippets of advice like adding base ingredients first. But the properties of moonstone or how hellebore will react when combined with aconite were things that I had never really understood. As a result, I was less than happy with my exam the following morning.

“How’d you go?” Martha asked as we traipsed out of the Great Hall just before lunch and headed out into the June sunshine.

James grinned. “Brilliant, as always.”

Sirius clearly agreed. “It wasn’t all that hard, I didn’t think. I’ll be surprised if I don’t get at least an E for it. And probably an O.”

Martha groaned. “And now I’ll ask some REAL people,” she said. “You know, ones who don’t get Os in everything no matter how little they study.” She turned to me. “Laura?”

I shrugged. “Not great. But not too horribly, either. I had some trouble with how sneezewort reacts to powdered Erumpet horn, but overall I think I passed.”

“That sounds more normal,” she grinned as we all sat down on the banks of the black lake. “How about you, Charlotte?”

Charlotte blushed a little, and I wondered if that had more to do with the fact that Remus was sitting rather close to her than anything else. “I struggled a bit,” she admitted. “I always confuse Boomslang parts with those from regular snakes, and I think I muddled up Roonspoor and Ashwinder eggs.”

Remus laughed. “You know, I think I made that exact same mistake.”

Charlotte grinned, pushing her glasses up her nose and blushing even more. “But that’s only a small bit, right?” she went on. “Hopefully I did well enough with the rest of the paper.”

The practical exam that afternoon was much easier. Yes, the potion itself was incredibly difficult, but as Lily had pointed out, it was only a matter of going through the instructions very carefully and it was hard to completely muck it up. Having said that, however, there was a bit of a commotion when Leda Madley from Hufflepuff managed to melt her cauldron halfway through, so clearly not everyone was as calm as I was.

And then, finally, it was over. Yes, the other girls still had Arithmancy, but for me, school had officially finished. It was the strangest feeling, because it had been my whole life, particularly considering I’d been living at the school for the past seven years, but this was it.

“I can’t really get my head around it,” I admitted to Sirius as we relaxed in the common room after supper that night, free of cares and responsibilities for the first time. “Not having to do anything. It’s weird.”

“That it is,” he agreed. “But I think I could get used to it, don’t you?”

I grinned at him. “It sounds like you’ve got something in mind. Do I want to know?”

He smiled back. “Well,” he began, drawing the word out to be as long as possible, “it did occur to me, that since you’re finished, and Lily’s not, then the Shack might be free tonight …”

I laughed. “Is the Cloak included in this package? Does James know?”

He nodded, his grin widening. “Yep, Cloak and all. So, what do you say?”

I pretended to think about it. “Well, I’m an adult, I’m qualified – assuming I didn’t fail, which I’m pretty sure I didn’t – and I am now entitled to make my own decisions.” I smiled again. “In other words, when do we leave?”

________________________________________


Author’s note: Yes, a bit of an uneventful chapter, but then again it WAS about exams, and don’t you think Laura’s had enough drama in her life lately? Besides, I also had to write it almost from scratch over the past week with the word “NEWTs” my only prompt. If you’re on the forums or on Twitter you may have noticed my progress as I went along. It was quite interesting, actually, because I think that, aside from the one-scene chapters, this is the first one I actually wrote in the same order that it came out in.

________________________________________

60
The seventh-year students had a graduation ceremony on the day before we were due to leave Hogwarts for the last time, and just about everyone’s parents – and some siblings – had made the journey north to attend. (Okay, for some people it might have been south, east or west, but for almost all Hogwarts students the school was north of where they lived.) We were all dressed up in our cleanest school robes, complete with matching hats, and those in positions of authority had polished their badges until they gleamed.

The ceremony was due to begin after lunch and we all spent the morning in a state of mild nervousness combined with a bit of trepidation and apprehension, partly due to the ceremony and partly because we had suddenly realised that this was It. The end. No more Hogwarts, no more study (unless you became a Healer or an Auror), and quite possibly no more seeing people we’d seen pretty much every day for the past seven years. Unless we made a point of catching up with each other, or got jobs where our paths crossed, there were people we had known rather well who we may never see again. We suddenly realised that this was actually rather significant and a mild feeling of tension pervaded the atmosphere.

I had to admit, part of me was thrilled I would be leaving. I had no qualms whatsoever about never seeing Elvira again, or Severus Snape, or Scylla Pritchard. My fellow Gryffindors, yes, I did want to see them (and I was sure I would), but just about everyone else, I’m ashamed to say, could disappear from my life without any regrets on my part.

Once lunch was over the Great Hall was cleared and we were told to wait in the Entrance Hall for the tables to be removed and new seating put in. Sirius and I kept close together, realising that we were about to be separated from each other for the afternoon and wanting that to happen as late as was humanly possible. The closer it got to two o’clock, which was when people were expected to start arriving, the more we held each other, almost in defiance of the coming ceremony.

“Now remember,” I said sternly, though I didn’t let go of him, “we have to keep a low profile today, at least till after the ceremony. If we’re going to have long explanations with my parents, I’d prefer not to be rushed for time during them.”

He made a face. “Do we have to?”

“Please?” I asked. “Just another couple of hours, tops. Then I’ll tell them, okay?”

“I suppose,” he said grudgingly. “And you have to promise that I’ll see you over the summer. As often as possible.”

I smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“I do worry about you,” he admitted. “Going back to Bristol. You might not be safe.”

I smiled again – keeping me safe after graduation was his latest crusade. He seemed to think that unless I was in his direct line of sight at all times I would somehow be more at risk, particularly with my blood traitor father and Muggle mother. I had pointed out that he was just as much of a blood traitor as my dad was, but he was convinced that he was better equipped to look after me.

“I’ll be just as safe there as I would be anywhere else,” I said. “And I can look after myself. After all, I was taught by the best!”

“It’s not enough,” he said. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

I gave him a look. “And just how do you propose we manage that?”

He smiled briefly. “Well, the first thing would be for you to not go anywhere that you might need to fight. Stay away from the Death Eaters.”

I shook my head. “While you go out risking your life every day? What am I supposed to do, just sit at home and wait for you on the off chance you survive and make it back?” I frowned at him: the way it was going I wouldn’t even be allowed to go out to get milk. “I’ve told you, I want to fight. I want to be right up there next to you. If you wanted a nice submissive girl who’s just going to follow orders, you shouldn’t have picked me. You know I’m not like that.”

He paused, thinking about it. “No, you’re not,” he admitted. “But I do want you to be safe. I don’t think I could live without you.”

“There’s a war on,” I pointed out. “No one’s safe. But I’ll do my best. And the same goes for you, by the way; you’re not allowed to get yourself killed either. Do you seriously think it’d be any easier for me to live without you?” I shuddered involuntarily – life without Sirius just didn’t bear thinking about. “You can’t have it both ways, you know that. You can’t teach me how to fight and then tell me that I’m not allowed to do it.”

His face fell. “You’re still being stubborn about this, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely,” I agreed. “But you knew that anyway, that I’m not going to just sit back and let the bad stuff happen to everyone else.”

“All right then, move in with me,” he said, very seriously. “I’ll be able to protect you then, and there’s the added benefit of you always being around.” A grin flitted across his face.

I laughed despite myself. “Last of the true romantics, aren’t you, Sirius?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re asking me to move in but you’re not saying, ‘I love you, I can’t stomach being apart from you and I want you to be the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning and the last thing that I see before I go to sleep at night’. No, it’s ‘move in so you don’t get killed’. Really smooth.” I smiled broadly.

He looked a little taken aback. “But you know that’s all true anyway. It goes without saying.” He paused, smiling again. “How about, move in so all that stuff you said goes on for as long as possible.”

I looked at him, thinking about it. I was sorely tempted – always being with him would be like a dream come true – but I knew my parents would have a fit. Besides, I couldn’t contribute financially and I wouldn’t be comfortable with that. “I think we should wait until I get a job, I can’t afford to leave home yet.”

“I’ll look after you,” he said immediately. “I can afford it.”

I realised suddenly that I didn’t even know if that was true. I’d never asked him how much he’d inherited from his uncle and he’d never mentioned an amount. It wasn’t important enough to me to ask: that is, it was important that he was able to provide for himself, but whether or not he was what you might call rich was never a consideration in how I felt about him. Obviously it had been a tidy sum – he could pay a year’s rent in advance and various bills – but I had no idea how long it would last.

“You know how you felt when you were living at James’ place?” I asked. “That’s how I’d feel. I’d need to be able to pay my own way.”

“I guess.” He looked disappointed.

“Besides,” I went on, “are you sure you’d want all my face creams and hair potions cluttering up that tiny bathroom of yours?”

He nodded, the ghost of a smile almost visible on the corners of his mouth. “You’re right, that’s a big consideration. I think I could only accept it on one condition.”

“And what’s that?”

“That you’re there with them.” His eyes were sparkling again, and I smiled and put my arms around his neck so I could kiss him.

We were interrupted by the noise of people outside, and broke apart abruptly in case my parents were among them. After all, the front doors of the castle were open so we could potentially be seen. Most of our classmates were in a group not far away and we hurried to join them, soon becoming part of a group of eight who to all intents and purposes appeared to be just friends.

I had been right to be concerned, as Mum and Dad were indeed part of the original influx of parents now swarming into the Entrance Hall. I hurried over to them, hoping that they hadn’t seen anything untoward, and to my great relief there was no indication from either of them that they had.

“How’s it going, sweetheart?” Dad asked fondly. “Relieved it’s all over?”

I wasn’t sure about that, as it meant I wouldn’t be able to see Sirius every day, which I was anticipating would be even more of a job to cope with than it had been at Easter. “Yeah, I am,” I said in what I hoped was a convincing voice, deciding to evade the question rather than outright lying. “If I never have to sit another exam that’ll be fine with me.”

I cast a look over at where my friends had been gathered, and noticed that many of them had dispersed as various parents arrived. Through the crowd I could see Lily’s distinctive auburn hair, talking to her father and a woman I supposed was her mother, the scarf on her head presumably to hide her hair loss from the chemotherapy she was undergoing. Lily’s sister Petunia, who I’d heard so much about and had wanted to see, was nowhere in sight.

Not far off were James and Sirius, who were both with Mrs Potter, though neither of them seemed to be paying her much attention – James’ eyes followed the back of Lily’s head, and Sirius kept catching my eye as he watched me with my parents. I hoped my cheeks weren’t as red as they felt as I tried to turn my attention back to Mum and Dad, who were asking something about career options.

“Have you thought about what you want to do?” Dad asked.

“Law enforcement,” I said promptly, forcing myself to concentrate on their conversation. “Something that involves getting rid of Death Eaters – I want to help win this war.”

Dad started – he hadn’t realised how determined I was about this. “Are you sure?”

I nodded stubbornly. “Mary died,” I explained. “We need to make sure that it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

“I thought you might be like this,” Mum said sadly. “There were hints in your letters all term. Do you think you’ll get the marks?”

“Not sure,” I admitted. “Though I’m pretty confident I did fairly well. Or, as well as I could, considering.” I looked at my left arm, which still bore the scars from Snape’s curse.

She nodded. “Should we be looking for you in the awards?”

I shook my head. “I doubt it. I got better, but I don’t think I’d have topped the year in anything.” I could guess who did for many of the subjects, but I wasn’t going to go into that – even mentioning Sirius’ name to my parents could end up being a minefield.

“Not to worry,” she said sympathetically. “I’m sure you did very well in any case.”

Just then Professor McGonagall got everyone’s attention and called the families into the Great Hall, which had been set up in a theatre-type style for the occasion. Mum gave me a quick hug and they both trailed off through the doors, leaving the Entrance Hall much emptier as the forty or so seventh-years again found ourselves alone, almost trembling in anticipation of the coming ceremony.

I soon felt Sirius’ arms around me again as we moved to group up in vague alphabetical order, with Lily and James at the helm. Eventually by necessity he let go and I counted five people between us, ruing the fact that we weren’t grouped by House so I could be next to him. People kept adjusting their robes and hats, trying to make sure that everything looked right, and more than one person (not just the girls) had mirrors out as they tried to style their hair. I found myself put between Greta Catchlove and Gertie Cresswell, Greta eyeing me malevolently and playing with her wand. I did have to feel a bit sorry for her, with me on one side and Alecto Carrow on the other, but if she jinxed me today of all days I wasn’t going to take it lying down.

“Try one thing and you’ll end up with a pumpkin for a head, earthworms for hair and you’ll be honking like a goose for the rest of the day,” I hissed out of the corner of my mouth. After all, why stop at one jinx when you can combine three? Greta blanched a little and threw me a filthy look but obediently put her wand away, influenced no doubt as well by the harsh glare Professor McGonagall was giving us.

Eventually we were filed into the Great Hall in alphabetical order and directed to the first four rows of seats, and I was gratified to discover that with James and Lily at the lead as Head Boy and Girl, I was the eleventh student and therefore put on the row behind Greta, meaning I was unlikely to fall victim to any errant hexes, from her wand at least. Of course, I was also directly behind James, which meant that my view of proceedings was somewhat obstructed, but at least I could lean forwards and talk to him and Lily while we were waiting. Lily was sitting on one side of her seat more than the other, towards James and away from Charon Avery, and I noticed that she and James were holding hands, their arms dropped towards the floor between their chairs so no one would see. Looking around, I noticed that the seat directly behind me, next to Leda Madley, was left empty; that was obviously where Mary would have sat if she’d still been with us. I smiled grimly, wondering if, wherever she was, she knew what was happening here today. Her mum would have been so proud.

Eventually, after what seemed an endless wait, Professor Dumbledore entered the hall and stood on the raised area at the end of the room that the High Table usually occupied.

“Good afternoon,” he said calmly. The chatter in the room stopped abruptly and everyone looked expectantly at him. “Thank you all for coming,” he went on. “I realise that it is not always possible to have time off work or other duties to attend family events, especially in the current climate.”

He paused, and there was a bit of movement behind me, like people were fidgeting and indeed did need to get back to work, or to wherever they had left in order to get to the ceremony. I fought the urge to turn my head to try to see if my parents were among them.

“We are here today,” Dumbledore said, once again effectively silencing the crowd, “to farewell our seventh-years. They have been part of Hogwarts since they were eleven years old and have made their own impact on the school. And, of course, they will be missed.

“I must pause here, though,” the Headmaster went on, “to mention one person who is NOT graduating here today. Who was taken from us only weeks ago in the most tragic manner. I refer, of course, to Mary Macdonald.”

The empty chair behind me started to glow, and everyone turned to look at it. It was so stark, so sad, that I felt another tear come to my eye.

“Mary Macdonald and her family were murdered by Death Eaters at the end of the Easter holidays,” Professor Dumbledore said bluntly. “She was to have taken her place among us today, but she was never given the opportunity. I would like to propose a minute’s silence to honour her memory.”

The silence in the hall was deafening, and I was pleased to notice that even Slytherins like Charon Avery were observing it. Then again, perhaps the fact that he was sitting on the front row, right in front of the Headmaster and next to the Head Girl, who had shared a dorm with Mary, was enough to stay his tongue, and I shouldn’t have been reading too much into it.

“Mary Macdonald’s absence,” the Headmaster continued after the minute was up, “is a stark reminder that we are in the midst of a war. It grieves me to be sending these students out to live in a world like this, but I hope that their years of study at this school have adequately prepared them for it. Some of the graduating students here today are as talented as any I have seen in all my years of teaching, but it is my wish that they could be returning to a life of peace and tranquillity instead of what they will in fact be facing.”

Thanks, I thought. Great way to make us feel good about leaving here. I recognised that he did have a point, but I would have liked to be in a good mood for my graduation.

“Of course,” Dumbledore went on, “this does not detract from the significant achievement of those students who are here today. You have borne seven years of trials and tribulations of all kinds, have completed seven years of study with honours, and have grown from naïve, eager eleven year olds to the qualified adults you are today. The school has gone on this long and wonderful journey with you and we sincerely wish you all the best in whatever you choose to make of your lives. You have finished the first stage of life. What comes next is up to you.” He looked at us over his half-moon glasses and smiled. “Congratulations again to all our departing seventh-years. This school is the richer for your presence.”

Well, that was short, sharp and to the point. You could say what you liked about our Headmaster, but he didn’t waste time on long speeches, and before long Professor McGonagall had started reading names from the parchment she was holding for the students to go up and receive their certificate. Of course we didn’t have our results yet so the certificate didn’t really mean anything formal, but it was something to represent our leaving the place that had been our home for seven years. I watched politely as Charon Avery and Elsie Baddock went up, shook Dumbledore’s hand and posed for photographs, then smiled broadly as Sirius did the same, catching my eye and winking at me as he collected his scroll, and I blew him a kiss as he strolled back to his seat.

Soon afterwards it was my turn, and even Elvira was on her best behaviour as I didn’t hear one hiss or anything similar amongst the polite applause. I could see Mum and Dad in the audience and tried (without success) not to look at Sirius as he grinned perhaps even more broadly than I had. A few more students passed through and then it was Martha’s turn, and a couple of Hufflepuffs after her was Remus.

“At this point,” Professor McGonagall said once Remus had returned to his seat, “we should have been giving Mary Macdonald her certificate. As Professor Dumbledore has already explained, Miss Macdonald was tragically taken from us only a couple of months ago. Her certificate will be forwarded to the remaining members of her family.”

I nodded sombrely, a tear in my eye. This was unexpected but I really appreciated the fact that the school had still made Mary a certificate, and that what was left of her family would still have this remembrance of her. Professor Dumbledore really did understand how to honour the dead.

After a brief pause the presentations continued, with Leda Madley’s name being called. My attention waned until Peter had his turn, and then there was another gap during which people like Severus Snape received their certificates, before Charlotte was called up. She was next to Dione Turpin and had managed to get to that point relatively unscathed, which was no small feat, and we clapped her enthusiastically, aware that she was the last Gryffindor until Lily and James came up at the end of the list.

I had known that the Head Boy and Girl were popular – who didn’t? – but I hadn’t been prepared for the rapturous applause that greeted their arrival onto the stage. Or maybe it was just because they were last and people thought it was the end of the ceremony. In any case, they almost had a standing ovation and I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had started bowing to the audience. Or, more to the point, if James had started bowing. He certainly looked like he was enjoying the attention. Fortunately eventually sanity prevailed and they sat back down in their seats in the front row, looking rather pleased but also a little embarrassed.

Dumbledore waited for the applause to subside and then advised he would be announcing the awards for each subject. These were variously described as medals or prizes but were actually just certificates, saying the winner had scored the highest cumulative marks during the school year. Of course they couldn’t be based on our exam results but they were certainly an indicator of how people had gone and held a reasonable amount of kudos for the winner.

“To begin the proceedings,” the Headmaster said, his voice carrying effortlessly across the room, “I am pleased to announce that, for Ancient Runes, the special commendation goes to Mr Hector Bole. And that means that the prize will be awarded to – Miss Elvira Vablatsky, from Ravenclaw.”

The hall broke into applause and Elvira gloated as she made her way to the platform to collect her scroll, beaming at Sirius as she walked past him off the stage and even rather brazenly blowing him a kiss. I wasn’t in the least concerned – we all knew what he thought of her.

Arithmancy, Astronomy and Care of Magical Creatures were announced and awarded without my paying much attention. The first name of any real interest to me came with the Charms prize, which to no one’s surprise went to Greta Catchlove (not the interesting part), with second place going to Lily. She was in front of me but I could see her cheeks go rather pink as Dumbledore read her name out and James gave her a tender smile.

“For Defence Against the Dark Arts,” Professor Dumbledore continued as Greta sat down amid the requisite applause, “this year’s special commendation goes to Mr James Potter, who I believe in any other year would have claimed the prize without question. But instead it has been won very narrowly by – Mr Sirius Black, of Gryffindor.”

The only question here had been which of those two got the prize and which the commendation, as they were so close to each other on ability that it could have gone either way. I was, however, thrilled for Sirius and glowed with pride as he sauntered onto the platform to get his scroll from Dumbledore and, if my eyes didn’t deceive me, have a bit of a joke with him while he was up there.

Next was Divination, which again I paid little attention to once it became obvious that neither Charlotte nor Peter would be taking out a prize. (It ended up going to Elsie Baddock from Slytherin.) But after that came Herbology.

“For this subject,” Dumbledore said as the applause for Elsie died down, “the special commendation is awarded to Miss Laura Cauldwell.”

I almost fell off my chair in shock. Me? I was second in the school in Herbology? I mean, I knew I enjoyed it, but this definitely astonished me, albeit pleasantly. Sirius turned around in his chair and beamed at me, distracting me enough to miss Dumbledore announcing the actual winner of the prize. Not that it mattered – that was a fait accompli anyway – and I wasn’t surprised in the least to see Tilden Toots from Ravenclaw on the platform collecting his scroll.

Sirius got one over James for Muggle Studies as well, and I watched proudly again as he wandered gracefully onto the stage, hands in his pockets, to take the scroll from the Headmaster. He winked at me as he came off the platform and then grinned triumphantly at James, and part of me wondered how our Head Boy would take it if he got pipped for the Transfiguration prize too.

But before we got to that there was Potions. “The special commendation,” Professor Dumbledore announced, “is awarded to Miss Lily Evans. And the prize has been won by – Mr Severus Snape, from Slytherin.” Even with just about everyone in the Great Hall applauding him, Snape still managed to ooze bitterness and resentment as he went to get his certificate, glowering at James and Sirius as he went past them. He never had gotten over Lily choosing James instead of him. Lily didn’t move as he was on the stage, not even applauding him, and remained motionless, staring ahead of her, as he walked past her on his way back to his seat.

“And finally,” Dumbledore said, “we come to Transfiguration.” On the row in front of me I could see both James and Sirius sit up a little straighter, clearly expecting their names to be called out. And that was probably fair enough, of course, as to have perfected the Animagus transformation while still at school was probably a fair indication of their abilities. “The special commendation goes to Mr Sirius Black. And that means that the prize will be awarded to – Mr James Potter, from Gryffindor.”

James was obviously relieved he’d managed to get one of them, and I suspected that Transfiguration was the one he’d really wanted considering the whole Animagus thing had been his idea. Lily was beaming and James flashed her a brilliant smile from the platform, where he too was sharing a joke with the Headmaster.

Finally the formalities were over and a parchment containing a list of all graduating students, as well as the prize winners, appeared on each chair for our families to take home as a souvenir. Soon enough Professor Dumbledore had Vanished the wooden chairs that had filled the room, leaving it a large empty space for everyone to catch up in. The House tables soon reappeared, this time lining the walls and covered in different drinks and finger foods, and everyone gathered around in small groups as students found their families once again.

The Gryffindors stayed in a large group initially, but eventually we all drifted off as our parents came to find us, Sirius giving my hand a subtle squeeze even as Mum and Dad led me off to somewhere with a bit more space.

I gave them my scroll and listened while Dad talked proudly about my special commendation for Herbology, obviously convinced that it was his directive about no distractions that earned me the award. Well, if he wanted to believe that I wasn’t about to enlighten him. Now that it came to it, if I was honest with myself, I was dreading the inevitable conversation about Sirius, and wondered if I could put it off till I got home the next day. I really didn’t fancy justifying myself to Dad in the middle of the Great Hall like that, in full view of the rest of seventh year. If I could do it in private, I thought, it would be that much easier.

My musings were interrupted by Mum, who was still talking about the ceremony. “I thought you’d said you weren’t going to get any awards,” she said with distinct pride in her voice.

“I didn’t,” I pointed out, trying again to concentrate on what she was saying. “Tilden Toots got the gong. I just came in second.”

“It’s still very impressive,” smiled Dad. “Second in the school in Herbology. You even did better than Beatrice!”

I grinned. “Don’t tell her that, though,” I said. “I rather fancy the thought of not getting jinxed. Merlin only knows what she’s come up with over the past year or so.”

Suddenly Dad spied someone he knew in the crowd. “Nice thing about graduations,” he said, “is you can corner people who have been avoiding you at work. And there’s Lionel Bole.” He smiled wryly. “Hasn’t been returning my owls, and I have to talk to him about that werewolf attack in Hampshire on Tuesday night. Excuse me a minute, won’t you?”

As I watched him push past Sirius on his way to Hector’s dad, I noticed Mum was eyeing me shrewdly and had settled her index finger on one name in the list of graduating students. “Now that he’s gone, Laura,” she said quietly, “answer this for me. How long have you been going out with Sirius Black?”

________________________________________


Author’s note: You would think, after the amount of time I spent on it, that the graduation speech would have read better. I really hated writing that, which is why it’s not really up to scratch. Aside from that, again, a little uneventful, but then again the next (and last) chapter will be a bit longer than usual as I try to wrap everything up, so maybe that will make up for it.

________________________________________

61
I froze. Had we been that obvious, that Mum had worked out about Sirius and me? “I’m not,” I protested feebly, knowing my cheeks had gone scarlet. “I’m not allowed, remember?”

“That’s your father’s rule, not mine,” she said. “Don’t lie, Laura, it doesn’t become you.”

“How did you know?” I asked, my face falling.

“Do you forget how well I know you?” she asked. “He hasn’t taken his eyes off you all afternoon, and you’ve been trying to pretend to ignore him but you keep looking over there. As a matter of fact, you’re watching him so much that you’re not listening to what we’ve been saying. You’ve been grinning like a maniac all day. And, to cap it off, I saw you kissing when we arrived.”

Rats. I hadn’t realised they’d seen that. So much for keeping a low profile. “Six months,” I said finally. “Since just before Christmas.”

She looked like she was thinking hard, then her face cleared. “And you had a fight at that party, didn’t you,” she said. It wasn’t even a question. “That was why you were so happy beforehand and so upset afterwards. But then you made it up?”

I sighed. “Yes, you’re right, of course,” I admitted. “We fought, and then we made up. But you understand why I couldn’t tell you, don’t you?”

She nodded, smiling broadly. “I wish you had said something, though,” she said. “I might have been able to help. He’s a good looking boy,” she went on. “Smart, too, if those awards were anything to go by.” Her face suddenly went serious. “I suppose that’s where you were at Easter, too, wasn’t it? When you weren’t at Mary’s?”

I nodded gravely. “It saved my life,” I said quietly. “Not being at Mary’s.”

“And Bev Macdonald thought you were safe, God rest her soul,” she mused. “She didn’t trust easily, either.”

I smiled bitterly. “I was safe, as it turned out,” I pointed out. “Safer than if I’d been at Mary’s.”

Dad had finished his conversation and had clearly overheard that last bit on his way back to us. “What about Mary?” he asked. “What have I missed?”

“I’ve found out where Laura was at Easter, when the Macdonalds were attacked,” Mum said, doing a remarkably good job at staying calm. So that was how she was going to approach this, I realised, wondering how Dad would take it all.

“Really?” Dad asked, looking questioningly at me. “Where?”

“With that tall dark boy over there,” Mum said promptly. “They’ve been going out since Christmas.”

Right. Say it all at once, why don’t you, I thought. I braced myself, ready for whatever Dad might throw at me. (Figuratively speaking, of course – I didn’t think he’d get violent or hex me. Dad wasn’t like that.)

Instead he bristled, his ears going red. “They’ve WHAT? Since Christmas? Laura, I thought you were more sensible than that.” He had managed to keep control of his anger but he was obviously disappointed in me for this behaviour. I wasn’t sure which was worse.

I took a breath, working out the best way of defending myself. In the end, teenaged belligerence won out, perhaps against my better judgement. “It was my decision,” I said coolly. “And I did bloody well in my exams, thank you very much. Second in the school in Herbology, remember?”

Dad looked like he still wanted to bluster about but had no answer to that, instead clearly forcing himself to calm down a little.

“I knew that whole thing at Easter was about a boy,” Mum said, a reminiscent smile on her face as she ignored Dad’s discomfort. “You were far too happy for it to have been anything else, and it was the sort of thing that Bev Macdonald would have agreed to. And you panicked when I suggested that you didn’t come back to school.”

I smiled suddenly. “You know what, Mum? I think you are WAY too good at your job. I can’t keep anything from you, can I?”

“Believe it or not, I can remember what it was like to be your age,” she said.

Dad had now become all business-like and, well, fatherly. “Well? Which one is he? Is he good enough for you?”

Mum pointed him out again, where he was standing with James, Lily and James’ mum, and trying not to make it obvious that he was watching us. “His name’s Sirius Black,” she said.

There was a pause and Dad went absolutely still, the colour draining from his face. “Black? BLACK?? Laura, are you out of your mind?”

“Dad, he’s a Gryffindor Black,” I reassured him. “He’s not like that. Really.”

He looked at me doubtfully. “Since when has a Black ever been in Gryffindor?”

“Since Sirius,” I insisted. “Look, it’s okay, he’s a good person.” And I grabbed the class list from Mum and pointed to Sirius’ name, which definitely had ‘Gryffindor’ written next to it. Several times, in fact, as he was listed not only as a graduating student but also three times on the honours roll.

Mum was looking confused. “I’ll explain later,” Dad muttered.

She looked at me again as I gave her back the parchment. “Well, he obviously makes you happy,” she said. “Is he kind? Does he make you laugh? Is he good to you?”

”Yes, yes and yes,” I said, relieved. “Absolutely.” This was going much better than I had anticipated.

“Does he treat you well?” asked Dad, looking very serious.

“Of course,” I said indignantly. “Do you honestly think I’d stay with someone who didn’t treat me well?”

He took longer to answer than I would have liked. “A year or two ago, Laura,” he said eventually, “I’d have said yes. I wasn’t sure that Bertram treated you well. But you’ve grown up.” He looked at me steadily. “No, I don’t think you would.”

I smiled. This really was acceptance. Dad was willing to trust my judgement on this, which could only be a good thing.

“Well,” Mum said briskly, “he looks like a lovely boy, and he clearly has excellent taste in girls. So are we going to meet him? When were you planning on introducing us?”

I hesitated. “Did you want me to do that now?”

“Why not? Unless there’s something else you’re not telling us,” said Dad.

I shook my head, unsure why I was so nervous about this. “Please give him a chance,” I said quietly. “I really want you to like him.”

Dad smiled. “I’ll do my best, sweetheart.”

I went to get Sirius, who had seen me coming and moved away from the Potters. “The game’s up,” I said, grabbing his hand. “Not only do they know, but I suspect my mum wants to adopt you.”

He grinned. “Better and better,” he said. “I knew you had to come from good stock.”

I brought him over and, still holding his hand, introduced him to my parents, who he graciously addressed as Mr and Mrs Cauldwell even though Mum tried to insist he use their first names. He was probably wise in doing so, however: Dad kept looking at him suspiciously, as though expecting him to treat my mother badly because she was a Muggle. Not even a Muggle-born, but an actual Muggle.

Not only suspicious about Sirius’ attitudes but also his motives, Dad was determined to give him the third degree, which he started almost as soon as the introductions were over. It made the whole thing horribly awkward and I cringed as the conversation went on around me. “So you’re fond of Laura here?” he began.

“Absolutely, sir,” Sirius said earnestly. “She’s everything to me. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

“And can you protect her? There’s a war going on, you know, and I’d prefer it if my daughter wasn’t a casualty of it.”

“So would I,” said Sirius. “I’d do anything to keep her safe. Why do you think I tried so hard in Defence this year?” He smiled and squeezed my hand. “James and I have taught her how to defend herself, but it won’t come to that if I have anything to do with it. And they’d have to kill me first if they wanted to get to her.” Which would probably take some doing, I reflected, thinking of his duelling ability.

Dad was obviously sceptical. “Are you saying you’d volunteer to take an Unforgivable if it meant it would save Laura?”

Sirius looked surprised, as though that went without saying. “Of course I would. Cruciatus, Avada Kedavra, anything. She’s far more valuable than I am.”

I gasped with astonishment – that was a pretty big thing to say. And his face was absolutely sincere, without a hint of arrogance of haughtiness, so he definitely meant what he was saying. Dad looked taken aback.

“That’s a big claim,” he said. “How can I be sure you mean it?”

Mum interrupted. “He means it,” she said, indicating me. “Laura believes him. That should be good enough for us.”

Eventually the third degree was over and Sirius appeared to have got through it reasonably well – even Dad seemed struck by him. Whether or not he liked him, I wasn’t sure, but he was at least convinced Sirius wasn’t a regular Black and that he cared about me. Which, I reflected, was quite a good start. However, after a while Dad hinted he wanted to talk to me alone so Sirius made a gracious departure and went back to Mrs Potter’s side.

As I watched him leave I soon realised that Dad was looking at me with a bit of an odd expression on his face. “You know, if I didn’t know he was a Black I’d never have credited it,” he said. “I mean, he looks like one, but I knew both Orion Black and Cygnus Black and they were nothing like him.” He paused a little. “Do you know which side of the family he’s from?”

“His middle name’s Orion, so I’d assume that’s his dad,” I said, thinking about it, suppressing a smile as I remembered Sirius complaining about being given the initials SOB. “And he said once that his parents were second cousins, so he could be from Cygnus’ side as well. He doesn’t talk about it much though.”

“Sounds like the Blacks,” Dad said rather bitterly. “Keeping it in the family to make sure no ‘impure’ blood gets in. Well, you’d never know it from talking to him,” he went on with a bit of a wry smile.

“Probably because he doesn’t see them any more,” I pointed out. “They can’t be a bad influence if he never talks to them.”

Dad looked surprised. “He doesn’t?”

I shook my head. “You didn’t notice they’re not here? He ran away from home halfway through fifth year because he couldn’t stomach being around them any more. So they’ve disowned him. If you were hoping I might be getting my hands on some of the Black fortune, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.” I grinned despite myself.

Dad snapped his fingers in mock disappointment. “And I’d thought you were on a winner. Damn it.”

Mum was looking confused. “But does all that mean he’s got nowhere to live?”

“No, he inherited some gold last year from a wayward uncle,” I explained, catching Sirius’ eye across the hall and smiling at him a little reassuringly. He had looked a bit worried that he’d not been approved of, but this was actually going rather well. “He’d been living with James until then – James Potter, that is – but now he’s got his own place.”

Dad looked curious, something having obviously clicked in his mind. “James Potter? As in, Head Boy James Potter?” He looked impressed.

“Yep, him,” I said. “He and Sirius are like brothers. Why?”

Mum was looking at the awards sheet. “James Potter who got two special commendations and one prize today?”

“Well,” I pointed out, “there’s only one James Potter at this school, so yes, that would be him.”

“The one whose house you went to for that party at Christmas time,” she went on.

I blushed. “Yes. And the one whose father’s funeral you wouldn’t let me attend.”

“Well, did you expect us to?” Dad asked fairly. “We didn’t know him from a bar of soap.”

“Anyway,” I said, changing the subject, “Sirius lived with James until he could afford to move out. So no, Dad, he doesn’t see his family any more.”

Mum frowned a bit at this. “So, you’re saying he lives alone, with no parental supervision?”

“He’s eighteen and a half, does he really need it?” I asked with a touch of exasperation. “Besides, Mrs Potter keeps an eye on him, whether he wants her to or not.”

To my surprise Dad interjected on Sirius’ behalf. “I think it’s better having no supervision than having Orion Black telling you what to do,” he said with a vehemence I hadn’t expected. “And apparently he was one of the better ones.”

I smiled – it was getting increasingly obvious that I had more than half the battle won. “Does that mean you approve of him?”

Dad hesitated. “From one meeting I’d say he seems all right,” he said finally, and I allowed myself to relax. This might work out after all.

****

“How did the meet-the-parents go?” Charlotte asked me as we moved around the dorm that night, putting things away and getting ready for the Leaving Feast.

“Seemed to be okay,” I admitted. “Awkward, obviously, but okay. Mum guessed – which I should have figured she would – and me getting that commendation for Herbology really helped my argument. In any case, Dad didn’t curse him back to London, or even look like he wanted to, so that’s got to be a good start, doesn’t it?”

“Better than nothing,” Lily laughed. “He was so nervous, though, it was hilarious.”

I stared at her. “Really? I didn’t notice that.”

“Well, you were that bloody nervous too, I’m not surprised,” Martha said with a giggle.

“I guess it had to happen sometime,” I mused. “Pity there’s almost no way you can make it easy.”

“You’ve got it easy,” Martha pointed out. “You never need to meet his folks.”

I sighed. “I know. But, you know what? Sometimes I wish I did. It can’t be easy for him, being rejected like that.”

“Well, I met Remus’ parents,” Charlotte said nervously. We all whirled around to face her.

“You did?” Lily asked, her face lighting up. “That’s fantastic! How’d it go?”

Charlotte shrugged. “Not really sure,” she admitted. “I was only introduced as a friend.”

I looked at Lily and sighed. It seemed that Remus would never allow Charlotte to get close to him. Looking around for something to talk about to change the subject, which it seemed Charlotte would appreciate, I indicated Mary’s wall.

“Hey, what are we going to do about this?” I asked. “We can’t just leave her here.”

“I spoke to Dumbledore,” Lily said, accepting the subject change and looking up at the photographs and other memorabilia. “He said to take what we want from it now and leave the rest here, and the school will put it in the Memorial once we’re gone.”

Of course. The Memorial was a room on the ground floor, set aside to honour former students who had died while attending Hogwarts. I’d never been in there – it felt too creepy, to be honest – but it was the most appropriate place for our tribute.

“She would have liked that,” I said. “Part of her always being here. Like her mum had those trophies, you know?”

Charlotte paused. “But we can take stuff from it now, can’t we?”

“Absolutely,” Lily agreed. “They’re our memories of Mary. Of course we can take them with us.”

I walked over and pulled off my favourite photo of her, taken between fourth and fifth years as she struggled to control the broom she’d got for her birthday. “I’ve always loved this one,” I admitted. “She hated it, but that was because she fell off the broom straight afterwards. It’s a lovely photo, though.”

“I want the flag,” Martha said suddenly. “The Scottish one. If anything says ‘Mary’ to me, it’s that.”

We spent a good half hour going through what was on the wall, sharing memories as we pulled different things off and put them with our own trunks. It was final, yes, but it felt right. Then, suddenly, I paused. “We’ve forgotten someone.”

“Who?” Charlotte asked.

“Sebastian,” I explained. “We need to give some of these things to him.”

“How could we have forgotten Sebastian?” Lily asked, looking horrified with herself. “That’s awful. Yes, we have to give him some of these. We probably should have done it months ago.”

Martha shrugged. “Better late than never, I suppose.”

We nodded. “Yes, better late than never.”

****

The final event of the school year was a celebration party for the graduating seventh-years, held after in the Great Hall after the feast. This really was a time where we could let our hair down, and talk was that not only would alcohol be available, but the staff wouldn’t bother breaking apart snogging couples (unless they were getting too carried away) or do anything else that would interfere with us having a good night. The theory behind this was, according to Lily and James, that we were adult witches and wizards who were both qualified and of legal age, and that aside from any illegal activity the staff didn’t have much authority over us any more. Not that this was ever said explicitly, as some students might use it as an excuse for bad behaviour, but we understood the intention.

On arrival, before we did anything else, the other girls and I made a beeline for Sebastian, an envelope full of memories of Mary for him. “We thought you might like these,” Lily said quietly, handing it over. “It’s not much, but at least it’s something.”

Sebastian, clearly confused, took the envelope and peered inside. “Thanks,” he muttered thickly, not lifting his head. Taking this to mean that our presence was no longer welcome, we left him with his friends to grieve in private.

“I might go back to check on him later on,” Martha said quietly, surprising me with her thoughtfulness. “He might want to talk to one of her friends, you know?”

I looked at her. “Now you’re making me feel guilty for not thinking of that first.”

She shook her head. “No. You’ve got Sirius, and Lily’s got James, and Charlotte, hopefully, has Remus. Go to your men. I’m happy to do the friend stuff.”

Still feeling guilty, I reluctantly complied with her instructions. After spending a while doing the social thing and having a quick chat with everyone I was even mildly friendly with, I found Sirius and we started making plans for the summer, punctuated regularly by a quick snog. Or, as time went on and we became less and less aware of those around us, a slightly longer snog as we made the most of the lack of staff intervention. Eventually we were interrupted by a voice saying, “Oi! Not in public, please!”

We pulled apart and looked over to see James, camera in hand, beaming at us. “That’s it, you two, break it up,” he said. “We need souvenirs of tonight and I’d prefer you to keep your hands to yourself in them please.”

Sirius put on his best ‘offended’ look. “What are you talking about, Prongs?” he asked indignantly, trying but failing to hide his grin. “Our hands were on their best behaviour!” Which for once was true – mine were around his neck and his were resting at the small of my back.

James chuckled. “If you say so, Padfoot.” He obviously wanted us to pose for a photo so I pulled one arm down and rested my hand on Sirius’ chest, smiling for the camera. James grinned as he took it. “That’s a nice one, I’ll get you a copy,” he said. “Cheers.” And he moved away to find some more victims, telling another couple to break it up.

My gaze followed his progress. “Oh, look who it is,” I said quietly, indicating with my head where James had gone. He had just interrupted Remus and Charlotte, doing just what Sirius and I had been doing prior to his arrival.

Sirius grinned. “Well, what do you know,” he said. “I guess a farewell snog is better than no snog at all!”

“He must have told her,” I said. “I can’t see him doing it if she didn’t know. He gets so worked up about it.”

He considered that. “Maybe. Either way, I doubt we’ll see either of them again all night.”

****

Later in the night Lily and James came to find us, their official duties for the evening obviously finished.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

Lily groaned. “We’ve only just managed to get rid of Slughorn,” she admitted. “Keeps wanting to talk to us, you know, farewell his favourite students and recommend us to people he knows at the Ministry. The usual thing.”

James nodded. “You’re lucky to have steered clear of him so far, Padfoot,” he said with a grin.

“All due to Laura,” Sirius laughed. “Old Sluggy’s worked out not to come near us if he can’t remember what her name is.”

James laughed too. “Well done! A nd, speaking of Laura, we’ve got an offer for you.” He grinned broadly, and I noticed Lily was looking rather self-conscious.

“Do we want to know?” I asked, smiling.

“Oh, I’d say you do,” James replied easily. “It’s the last night, our official duties are just about over, and we’re all going back to the real world tomorrow. Which means one last hurrah.”

Sirius was shaking his head. “I don’t know, Prongs, I hadn’t even thought of a final prank,” he began, but James interrupted him.

“Who said anything about pranks? No one’s thinking about that – even Moony’s got a better offer. No, I was talking about the Shrieking Shack.” He paused, smiling, as realisation dawned on our faces. “Now, I was going to take Lils down there, but she thought we should offer you two the option as well.”

Sirius laughed. “You mean you’re not pulling rank as Head Boy?”

Lily shook her head, her cheeks rather pink. “We did consider that. But I wanted to be fair to you two, and because we can’t all use it at the same time I thought the best way out of it was if we toss you for it.” She fished in her pocket and pulled out a Galleon. “Heads, we get the Shack tonight. Tails, it’s yours. What do you think?”

Sirius was looking suspicious. “Can I see the Galleon first, to make sure it’s not a two-headed one?”

Lily laughed and handed it over, and Sirius and I both inspected it closely. It appeared legitimate.

“What’s the consolation prize?” I asked. “We don’t really have a fallback if the Shack’s not available.”

James pretended to think about that. “There’s that rather roomy passageway behind the mirror on the fourth floor,” he offered with a grin. “Or maybe you can convince Moony and Wormtail to sleep in the common room. But that’s about all I can think of, sorry.”

I’d figured as much. It was the Shrieking Shack or, well, not at all. But a fifty percent chance of getting the Shack was better than no chance, and we of course agreed to the coin toss.

It fell on heads. Rats. Though, if I was fair, it did seem only right that the Head Boy and Girl should get first dibs on the Shack for their last night of school. James, though triumphant, was at least gracious in victory. “Sorry, Padfoot,” he said with a grin. “But you can’t say you weren’t given the chance.”

“Have a good night,” I smiled at them, and they wandered off, arms around each other, most probably about to make a subtle exit.

“Well,” said Sirius, facing me again and putting both arms around me, “now they’ve got me thinking. If we make sure Moony and Wormtail don’t go back to the dorm for at least another, say, couple of hours …”

“We’ll have a tidy bit of time to ourselves before we get any company,” I finished for him. “I was thinking the same thing.”

Sirius went off to talk to Remus and Peter and I looked for Martha so I could let her know that neither Lily nor I would be sleeping in our dorm that night.

“Let me guess, you’ve both had better offers?” she asked.

I nodded. “You could say that.”

“No problems,” she smiled. “I’ll let Charlotte know. Though I might end up with a better offer myself …” She let her voice trail off and smiled mischievously.

I stared at her. “Is there something I haven’t been told?”

She grinned again. “Believe it or not, I’m really hitting it off with Bernie Carmichael. He’s an absolute sweeheart.”

Smiling at the idea of Martha and Bernie, who did seem to make a decent match now I thought about it, I looked around for Sirius. Before I got very far, though, I was accosted by Elvira. “You won’t hold onto him,” she hissed, brazenly grabbing my arm with surprising force. “Not once school’s out, there’ll be too many temptations for him to stick with the likes of you. You won’t last another month.”

Thankful that she’d chosen my right arm and not my left, I wondered what she’d say if I let slip that he loved me and had asked me to move in with him. However, I’d never been overly keen to share too much of our relationship with anyone, let alone her, so I held my tongue, instead reaching into a pocket with my left hand and pulling out a small bag.

“Here’s some Floo powder, Elvira,” I said sweetly, dropping the sachet down her front. “Tell someone who gives a rats.”

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to tonight,” she said viciously, her grip on me tightening. “Leaving the party early. I’ll tell Dumbledore.”

This time I laughed. “And what do you think he’s going to do?” I asked. “Burst in so he can catch us? Goodness, Elvira, we’re both adults, it’s the last night, why in Merlin’s name would he care?”

We were interrupted by Sirius, looking rather like he would have liked to Crucio Elvira, who still had my arm. “I thought I told you to stay away from Laura, Vablatsky,” he said coldly. “Do you want me to get my wand out?”

Elvira dropped my arm abruptly. “We were just having a friendly chat,” she lied, her face switching from loathing to adulation as she looked at him.

“Really?” he asked. “It didn’t look too friendly from what I saw. But, if you’re done harassing my girlfriend …” He stressed the last word for added emphasis.

I turned to him. “I’m ready. Shall we?” And he leaned in and kissed me deeply, probably for Elvira’s benefit as much as anything else, and we took off, arms around each other, towards the marble staircase and Gryffindor Tower.

****

I woke up in Sirius’ arms once again, revelling in the closeness it afforded us. Before long he too woke up and smiled at me as I leaned in to kiss him.

Outside the bed hangings we could hear the telltale sounds of people getting ready for the day ahead. Clothes were being pulled out of trunks and the door to the bathroom opened and closed regularly as Remus and Peter, and possibly James if he was back from the Shack, went about their morning routine. Eventually Remus’ voice called out to us.

“Wormtail and I are going down to breakfast now,” he said mildly. “The dorm’s yours.”

After the door closed with its Colloportus–inspired squelch, Sirius looked at me. “I guess we’d better get up,” he said, not releasing me from his hold.

“I guess we’d better,” I agreed, also not moving.

“Do you know what the time is?” he went on almost abstractedly.

I fished under his pillow for my wand. “Accio clock,” I muttered, putting the wand back down as the clock soared between the curtains. “Half eight, or close enough to,” I said, peering at its face before dropping it to the floor. “We’ve got about two hours.”

“How long do you think we can get away with staying here?” he asked.

I thought about it. “Realistically? Maybe another half hour. But we’d miss breakfast.”

He grinned. “Why do you think I made friends with the house elves?”

“Considering how long you’ve been sneaking out food from the kitchens, I’m guessing it wasn’t for this,” I said, smiling as his hand traced my hip.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said airily. “Maybe we were planning ahead.”

I kissed him again. “Or maybe you were just hungry.”

It was after nine o’clock when we finally got up, me hurriedly throwing on the previous night’s clothes before heading back to my own dorm so I could shower in the girls’ bathroom. I think I surprised some first or second-years when I came down the boys’ staircase looking decidedly bedraggled, but hey, it was the last day, what did I care?

There were still some remnants of breakfast in the Great Hall when we eventually got downstairs, so we finished those off and downed a cuppa or two before heading back to Gryffindor Tower to pack.

It was an emotional process, packing up what amounted to seven years worth of memories, taking things off the walls and out of cabinets, clearing out the bathroom, digging around under beds for lost socks, stray Sickles and anything else that may be hiding there. This was it, we were never coming back, so we couldn’t rely on the house elves collecting everything we’d left behind and holding it for us the following term.

All four of us were in the dorm by now, Lily well back from the Shack. And it was just as well, as we were all needed to identify different items that were uncovered on top of the wardrobe, or on the canopy of Charlotte’s bed, or in any number of previously unseen nooks and crannies around the room, that had ended up there at various times during the year.

Finally we were all finished, the four trunks sitting in the dorm packed and closed, the walls – aside from Mary’s – bare, the floor devoid of shoes, clothes or scrap bits of parchment. It looked odd, like it wasn’t really our dorm. Silently, reluctantly, we all looked around it one more time before going back down the stairs to the common room.

****

By half ten all the seventh-years were grouped outside the Entrance Hall, waiting for Hagrid to lead us to the boats. It was a Hogwarts tradition, as much as the first-years arriving by boat when they got off the Hogwarts Express, that the seventh-years would get to the train that way for their final journey.

“Jus’ a warning,” Hagrid said cheerfully as he led us down the stairs to the lake’s surface, “the boats will seem a bi’ smaller now.”

He wasn’t wrong. While four people had fit easily in first year, it was going to be a tight squeeze to get that many in one of the boats now. Fortunately there were more boats available for just this eventuality, and in the end we were arranged two to a boat for the trip back across the lake.

Needless to say I shared my boat with Sirius, sitting comfortably in a loose embrace as it propelled itself along the water. Pushing through the wall of ivy, it took our eyes a little while to adjust to the bright sunshine on the other side, but the uncomfortable sensation soon passed and we enjoyed the short journey, laughing to ourselves as the giant squid almost overturned the boat Severus Snape was sharing with Charon Avery a little way ahead of us, and casting a quick smile at each other as we floated past the boathouse. Finally we arrived at Hogsmeade and, after Hagrid secured our boats once again, climbed out and onto the station platform.

The train ride itself was in some ways a little surreal. Lily and James, though still Head Girl and Boy, were reluctant to patrol the train or even address the prefects for very long, no doubt figuring that it was their last journey and they didn’t really care what the younger students did to each other. In fact, there was only one event on the journey that caused me any disquiet at all. Going with Sirius to try to find an empty compartment for a bit of privacy, we heard Remus and Charlotte, in a compartment of their own, having a bit of a row. They’d seemed to be going so well that what I heard broke my heart.

“You know it’s impossible,” Remus was saying. “It can’t possibly work out. You have to realise that.”

“Says you,” Charlotte said accusingly. “I’m happy to try, but you won’t even give it a chance.”

“But what if I hurt you?” Remus asked. “There’s always that danger … I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.”

“Too late,” Charlotte’s voice came back sadly. “You already have.”

I dragged Sirius away, out of earshot – we shouldn’t have overheard that. “I thought he’d got over it,” I said quietly. “I thought that with Charlotte being in our carriage today, that he was okay with it.”

Sirius shook his head grimly. “I’m not surprised,” he admitted. “He gets pretty uptight.”

“But poor Charlotte,” I said. “I feel awful for her.”

“It’s not something we can do anything about,” he pointed out, pulling me into an alcove at the end of the carriage. “But, if you want me to try to help take your mind off it …” His finger traced my jawbone as he pulled me towards him with the other arm.

When we returned to our compartment, Charlotte and Remus appeared to have reached an uneasy truce, and we complied with what seemed to be their wish for it not to be mentioned. Eventually the landscape effectively distracted us as it started changing from rural to urban, and we knew that our last trip on the Hogwarts Express was almost over. Almost nostalgically we began to wander down the train, looking in the various compartments we’d used over the years, pulling Martha from the Ravenclaws’ compartment in the process as we laughed over what the younger students were doing. Occasionally we were accosted by people like Alecto Carrow or Severus Snape, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle and more than one Slytherin ended up suffering the effects of a Twitchy Ears Hex or a Jelly-Legs Jinx. After all, we might have been leaving, but we weren’t perfect.

Finally it was over as Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters came into view. We got off the train and Sirius found a couple of trolleys for our trunks, pushing through the crowd to find me again. The avalanche of students and their parents was, predictably, a little overwhelming.

We farewelled the others, promising to write as soon as possible, and pushed our trolleys towards the gate, where my parents were waiting on the other side. About halfway there, though, Sirius stopped suddenly and pulled me to one side, out of the way of the teeming hordes.

“This is it,” he said seriously. “I don’t know when I’m going to see you again.”

“Day trips,” I said, thinking about it. “Maybe even tomorrow. Now my folks know about you I don’t have to make up excuses, I can even go to you.”

“And you can show me around Bristol,” he agreed. “I didn’t see much of it the last couple of times I was there.”

“I don’t know,” I said, grinning at him. “You’ve seen the art gallery and the harbour, I’m not sure that there is much else.”

“If you moved in to my place, we’d be together all the time,” he said almost plaintively. Once he got an idea into his head, it could be hard to dislodge. And for the life of him he couldn’t understand why my parents might possibly object to their youngest daughter, only just eighteen, moving halfway across the country to live with a boy they’d only just met.

“After I get a job,” I said. “I’ll try to convince my folks. I promise.”

As we headed towards the barrier, Sirius suddenly tensed up a little and stopped in his tracks. Following his gaze, I saw his brother Regulus with a couple in about their fifties, their dark hair flecked with grey, obviously the Mr and Mrs Black I’d heard so much about. They were very good looking for their age but had the Black haughtiness and disdain etched onto their faces. I saw the woman’s eyes travel over her eldest son with no sign of recognition and no change of expression, as though he was unworthy of acknowledgment. Part of me wondered whether Regulus had told them about me and my Muggle blood, and whether if Sirius had been alone there might have been a different reaction. Or, really, any reaction. I supposed I would never know.

Sirius’ face was expressionless as he watched them, though his eyes were steely. “You know,” he said after a spell, “this could be the last time I ever see them.”

I grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “Did you want to talk to them?”

He shook his head. “Got nothing to say to them any more,” he said, and I felt a tear form in the corner of my eye as I thought of what it would be like to have absolutely no relationship with your parents. I couldn’t imagine it, yet Sirius had had to live with that for years, and I marvelled inwardly at how strong he was. “Not even to Reg, it seems,” he muttered, interrupting my thoughts. “Looks like he’s made his choice.”

“I’m sorry,” I murmured. “Maybe you can make up some other time.”

He smiled grimly. “And maybe one day he’ll see sense.” He shook his head again. “Sorry, Laura, I shouldn’t let it get to me. He’s probably a signed-up Death Eater by now, or if he’s not he will be by the time summer’s out.” He paused again. “It’s just disappointing. He had so much promise.”

“I know,” I said, giving his hand another squeeze. “You did what you could.”

“Ancient history now anyway,” he said bracingly. “Come on, let’s go find your parents.” He paused, turning to me. “Did you want me to hang back a bit once we go through?”

I smiled tersely. “They seemed to like you okay yesterday. I say come with me. They have to get used to you being around anyway, don’t they?”

He grinned. “No matter what?”

I nodded. “Yes. I’m of age, I’m qualified, and I’m old enough to make my own decisions. I can live my life the way I want to. And that includes you. So yes, they have to get used to you, no matter what.”

He gave my hand a squeeze and, taking a deep breath, we walked together towards the barrier, Muggle London, and the rest of our lives.

________________________________________

Author’s note: A nice long chapter to finish up on! Even though technically it’s not the end – it could be, but there’s still the epilogue to come which finishes things off quite nicely I think. So there will still be another update next week.

And credit must go to Josie, who had the idea of getting Martha and Bernie together. Thank you! I thought they both deserved to have someone nice. :)

________________________________________
62
Three months later


The Healer went into the fourth floor waiting room of St Mungo’s. It was a Friday morning in mid September and the sun was shining brightly through the eastern windows. “Mr Black?” she asked, looking around. Two dark haired boys looked up, along with a pretty auburn haired girl who was holding hands with one of them. The other one got to his feet.

“Healer Kirke? I came as soon as I got your message.”

She flicked through her notes, slightly flustered, and then looked at the young man standing in front of her. He was tall – over six feet – and looked just like the picture they’d found: very good looking, though with a somewhat arrogant air. “It took a long time to find you, we’ve been trying to get hold of you for days,” she said. “Your family didn’t know where you were …” The boy’s face hardened slightly, and she indicated he should follow her. The couple who were with him got up as well, so she nodded to them.

She decided not to go into detail about her correspondence with the boy’s family. How she had just the name, Sirius Black, to go on, and so had written to the Black family in London looking for him. They were all named after stars or constellations, he had to be related. How she had received a response from Walburga Black, spewing vitriol and denying knowledge of any such person. How an hour or so later another owl had arrived, this time from the boy’s brother, explaining that Sirius did exist but had been disowned by his family for ‘conduct unbecoming of the family name’. Well, she knew enough about the Blacks to guess what that meant: she would wager anything the girl wasn’t a pure-blood. She didn’t mention any of this, though – if this boy had written the letter they’d found in the girl’s pocket, he would be going through enough in a minute or so without her bringing a family feud into the mix.

She continued her narrative as though she hadn’t seen his reaction. “So we just sent off an owl with your name attached, hoping it would find you. Fortunately it looks like it did.” She smiled grimly. She hated this part of the job, and it was happening more and more often these days. And they were so young! The girl’s records said she was only eighteen, and if this boy was any older than that, it wasn’t by much.

The young couple were following at a short distance behind them, obviously wanting to be near their friend but trying not to intrude on whatever was going to happen here.

“It’s about Miss Cauldwell,” she said after a pause, flicking back through her papers again. “Laura Cauldwell,” she clarified, having found the page. The boy had stopped dead at the name, his face pale but unreadable.

“What’s happened to her?” he asked sharply, clearly forcing himself to go on.

“Well, that’s the problem,” she said. “We don’t exactly know. We do know that she was with her sister, and they were attacked by – by Death Eaters. Possibly targeted, I don’t know.” She entered a ward and stopped outside a pulled curtain. “She was hit by a curse … well, you’d better see for yourself, I think.”

She pulled open the curtain, trying to ignore the shock and confusion now obvious on the boy’s face. He saw the motionless figure inside and stopped. “She’s not … she’s not …” He couldn’t finish the sentence, couldn’t say the word.

“No, she’s not dead,” she said quietly. “Not in body, anyway. You can see where the curse hit her” – indicating a large bruise that went from the girl’s forehead to her chin, skirting around the right side of her face – “but we don’t know which curse it was. Or curses, there could have been more than one. She was already like this by the time the Aurors got there.” She paused. “It seems she Stunned a couple of Death Eaters before she got hit, if it’s any consolation. Took them out, cast a Shield Charm over her sister, then got hit herself.” The boy nodded silently, his grey eyes on the ugly bruise on the girl’s face. “We’ve had all sorts of curse specialists through,” she added, “but no one has been able to match the bruising with the other symptoms.”

She had moved over to let the three young people in, the other boy and the girl still hanging back a little to give their friend space.

“What other symptoms?” The boy looked a little hopeful that there was more to it. She hated to crush him like that.

“We – we can’t find any evidence of brain activity,” she said quietly, not wanting to look at him as she said it. “I’m so sorry.”

“No.” The boy’s voice was pained. “No …”

She wanted to leave them to their grief but had to say one more thing. “Her family have been here, that’s how we got your name. They’ve – they’ve decided to withdraw treatment. There’s nothing we can do for her anyway, and physically she’s had some major trauma. But they wanted us to find you first … you meant a lot to her … but the girl you knew, well, I’m sorry, but she’s not in there any more.” Her voice sounded loud in the otherwise quiet room. “I’ll leave you with her for a while.”

The handsome face was frozen, blocked off. He nodded, not taking his eyes from the motionless girl on the bed. She left.

****

Sirius felt unable to move. He stared at the figure on the bed, still breathing but, according to the Healer, nothing else. Somewhere in the distance he heard James’ voice … “Oh, mate, I am so sorry …” … and then Lily’s … “Sirius – we’ll leave you to it for a bit.” They sounded a million miles away. He felt someone squeeze his shoulder sympathetically, and then, back to silence.

He sat down in the solitary chair, still looking at Laura’s motionless form. She looked just like she did when she slept, except for the ugly, yellowing bruise that framed the right side of her face. Automatically he moved a few stray strands of hair away from her nose and mouth.

He couldn’t believe it. Laura couldn’t be gone, she had to be in there somewhere, no matter what the Healer had said. She had to be wrong, there had to have been a mistake. Maybe what was in front of him was a Boggart, rather than it really being Laura. This was certainly his greatest fear, that something would happen to her. It had to be a horrible trick, because the alternative was too awful to contemplate.

He fished inside his robes for his wand, muttering the charm more from false hope than anything else. “Riddikulus.” If this was a Boggart, that should defeat it, even if he didn’t feel remotely like laughing. But no, nothing changed – the girl on the bed didn’t alter at all.

Sirius tried to talk, to call her back from wherever she was, but the words wouldn’t come. Eventually he managed her name, calling frantically, waiting for her eyes to open and that smile to cross her face.

“Laura,” he said, hoping desperately that her eyes would open, that she would move, that anything would happen. “Laura, wake up. I know you’re in there, you have to be in there …” He put his arms around her, pulling her up towards him, waiting for her to stir. “Laura, answer me, wake up! Laura, it’s me, I’m here now, answer me …”

His voice trailed off – she still didn’t move. He tried again. “Laura, come back, you have to come back! Please, Laura, it’s me, it’s Sirius, I came back for you …”

It was the same thing over and over and again as he did everything he could think of to rouse her, but nothing worked. Even when he leaned in to kiss her, there was no movement, no response. Desperately he said her name one last time, his voice now pleading, heartbroken.

“Please wake up, Laura … please …”

His shoulders shaking, he held her to him again, grateful he was alone with her so no one would witness his tears.

Deep down, he knew it was hopeless – the fact that she wasn’t responding to him proved that. Even in her deepest sleep there was always some reaction to his touch, whether it was a twitch of the facial muscles, a brief smile, or a sigh as she changed position. But this time there was nothing, not even when he shook her and spoke in her ear. That told him more than anything that the girl he loved wasn’t coming back.

Nothing in the world could be worse than this, nothing had prepared him for it. He had poured his heart and soul into loving her and now it felt like they had been ripped from him, torn in two and discarded. The pain was overwhelming. She had been his reason for coming home, his beacon in what was becoming an increasingly dark world. But that was all over now, there would be no more. No more stumbling through his front door, alone and exhausted, to find she’d arrived a day early and was making a pot of coffee in the tiny kitchen. No more losing himself in her eyes and her arms when what he had seen was almost enough to take away his faith in humanity. No more waking up to the scent of her hair and the warmth of her body next to his. No more of anything that made it all worthwhile.

There was no doubt in his mind that he was responsible for what had happened to her. It was his fault, he should never have stayed away for so long. He should have been there, he could have saved her. He’d made the promise to protect her, and he had failed in the worst possible way.

Tears rolling silently down his face, he dropped to his knees to embrace her one last time, staying there until he could no longer bear her perfect stillness, her lack of reaction to her increasingly wet face and pillow.

As he pulled away, his elbow knocked a box sitting on the floor by the bedside cabinet. Looking inside, he saw her personal belongings – those items that she’d had on her when she’d been brought in. Her wand, money pouch, the jewellery he had given her, a small sachet of Floo powder, a handful of owl treats, some odd bits of parchment. He fingered them absent-mindedly – receipts from Madam Malkin’s and Honeydukes, a note from her mum reminding her to pick up some robes she’d had altered, a slightly crumpled photo of him and Laura together. He paused at this, looking at their happy smiling faces, their arms around each other. He had a vague recollection of James taking the picture at the party following their graduation. She must have carried it around with her since. He put it in his pocket, just then needing a memory of those happier times, when she was whole.

The last piece of parchment was bigger than the others, folded over several times. Straightening it out, he saw his own handwriting staring back at him. The last letter he had ever written – or would ever write – to her, dated last Monday. Just before this happened to her … no wonder she hadn’t responded. Gulping slightly, he started to read, desperate for another good memory of what they’d had.

11 September ‘78

Dear Laura

Thanks for your letters, they’ve made the past few days easier after hearing from you. I’m not used to us being apart for so long, and frankly I’m finding it much harder than I’d anticipated. Roll on next Saturday when our schedules finally match and I can see you again!

The guys and I are all okay so far in doing our errands for Dumbledore. Only a few days now until we can sign up for the Order officially so we can actually do something constructive about all the awful things that have been going on. (Order Marauders! Prongs and I like the sound of it, but Lily keeps groaning.) Now you’ve got this job I can’t tell you how relieved I am that you’ve agreed to be Dumbledore’s eyes and ears at the Ministry rather than coming out and fighting with us – while I miss you, you’re so much safer there and it means I can sleep soundly at night knowing you’ll be there when I come home.

All of that brings me to this – I’m worried about you. Still. They can’t use my family to get to me but they could use you, and no one wants a repeat of what they did to Mary. I can’t imagine the rest of my life without you in it, and if you were hurt I’d never forgive myself. (And then I would find whoever did it and personally tear them limb from limb.) So we really need to talk about this, the best ways to protect you. Dumbledore has some ideas so I’ll talk you through them, but you might come up with something too. Think about it between now and the weekend and we’ll work it out together.

Like I said, we should be done by Saturday morning - well, probably Friday evening, but that’s a full moon - so I’ll be with you as soon as I can, bearing gifts and anything else you may be after. I hate being away from you but you know what Dumbledore’s like, the greater good and all that. And it’s not like you haven’t been busy yourself, you probably wouldn’t have much had much time to see me even if I had been around.

Until Saturday then!

All my love,
Sirius.

He gave a small smile despite himself. James, who had seen the letter as he was writing it, had expressed concern that the line ‘I can’t imagine the rest of my life without you in it’ might sound a bit like a proposal. Sirius had left it there, not completely sure that his subconscious hadn’t intended that in the first place. Maybe she had read it like that. It didn’t matter now anyway.

He looked at Laura’s motionless body once again. Dumbledore had told them to take time to think it through, warning about the potential dangers to friends and family, but he wanted a decision about the Order on the weekend. There had only ever really been one answer, and now there were no other factors to take into account. Sirius leaned in and kissed her again, a steely resolve taking hold of him. He would fight. He would fight to stop this horrible thing happening to anyone else. It was the only way he would get through this now. He had nothing left to lose.



________________________________________


Author’s note: To everyone who requested that I NOT kill Laura, I would like to take this opportunity to apologise. To me, though, it felt like the best way to end the story. There is an alternative version on my author page where I write them breaking up instead, but on the whole I prefer this one. If you really want to see a happy ending, though, please read chapter 30 ("Starting again") of The process of becoming tamed, also on my author page.

Thanks to everyone who has read, reviewed and/or favourited this story. I’ve had a lovely time sharing it with you and your feedback has really made a difference in making the story what it is now. I couldn’t have done it without you. Cheers, Mel xxx

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63
Author's note: This is something I wrote as an exercise to see if it could actually be a convincing ending to HTM. I quite liked it at the time and I liked it last week when I worked it up to a postable standard, but I read it again this morning and now I'm not so sure. However, I did promise that I would post it today so I'm just putting it out there to see what people think. It doesn't fit canon as well as the one that's in the main HTM document, but it is one I think could have potentially been believable.

I will reiterate that if you haven't read HTM all the way to the end then I don't recommend reading this. If you've not started HTM then it won't make any sense; if you have started it but not finished it, it's a spoiler. Thank you.

So, here goes .... tell me if it's too terrible, won't you?
________________________________________



September 1978


I got up, showered and changed, and somehow managed to Floo my way into work, not really conscious of what I was doing. I couldn’t even have said with any surety if I’d had breakfast, that’s how distracted I was. The truth was, that week was turning into every other week that he was away. I tried to get through it without imposing on anyone else, but of course I was unsuccessful, which I discovered one morning when Celia, my boss, came into my office and looked at me sympathetically.

“How long has it been this time?” she asked gently.

I looked up, hoping I didn’t look too drained or blotchy. “Over a week,” I admitted. Nine days, to be precise, had passed since he’d picked up his rucksack again and headed out on assignment for the Order, and I’d heard nothing from him since. “Not a word. Nothing. I don’t even know if he’s alive or not.”

She pulled up a chair and sat down next to me. “I might be completely out of place, Laura, but you need to do something about this. You haven’t been yourself in I don’t know how long and your work is suffering.”

I sat up straighter and tried to pull myself together, at least outwardly. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll try to do better.”

“I’m worried about you,” she said after a pause. “I don’t know how to fix it, but something needs to be done. Can I talk to whoever his boss is?”

I laughed bitterly. “Dumbledore? Yeah, because that will make such a difference.”

She sighed. “I don’t know what to say. But your standard of work really drops when he’s away. We need to work something out to address that.”

“I’ll try,” I promised her. I couldn’t lose this job, I needed it if I didn’t want to move back home again. And I couldn’t do that, it would just be proof that Dad had been right all along.

****

Four days later, the owl finally arrived. “I’m coming home,” Sirius wrote. “Everyone’s okay and it’s safe to open the channels of communications again. And I can’t live another day without you.”

It was always the same. He would come back for a few days, maybe even a week, and I remembered why I put up with it all the time. Those few days were so precious that they kept me going throughout the long separations. I would take whatever time off work I could and we would just collapse into each other’s arms, not knowing if this might be the last chance we’d have. And then, just as I was getting used to having him around, as I was becoming truly happy once again, an owl would come with another summons from Dumbledore, and he’d be off again.

“I wish I could come too,” I had said one time as he packed his rucksack yet again.

“It’s too dangerous,” he’d told me, kissing me on the forehead. “And we need the contacts at the Ministry, we need you to stay there and keep an eye out for anything strange.”

“But it’s so hard,” I’d admitted. “Being the one left behind all the time, never knowing if I’m ever going to see you again.”

“I know,” he’d said. “I hate it too. But it’s only for as long as the war lasts. Then we’ll have the rest of our lives to be together. Just us.”

After the owl left again, I hurried to the shower to clean myself up. I’d fallen into the habit of not really looking after myself when he was away – what was the point? – and wanted to wash away all evidence of this before he got home. There was also the matter of the flat, which looked like a tip ... dishes unwashed, clothes and shoes all over the floor, and newspapers on almost every surface, where I had thrown them after scouring them for any information about his welfare. If something bad had happened, it might have been reported on. No news, I thought, was perhaps good news.

Fortunately magic came to my aid and both I and the flat were pretty much presentable by the time he got home. I knew that there was always at least an hour between owl and arrival, because he had to go to Dumbledore to debrief before he could come home, so it gave me a bit of leeway. And when he arrived, when the door opened and he walked through it, dumping his rucksack on the floor, all the suffering seemed worth it.

“Laura,” he breathed, pulling me towards him. Pushing him away, I looked at him sternly.

“You don’t know for sure it’s me,” I pointed out, hating myself for delaying the reunion.

“It’s you,” he said confidently. “No one else smells like you. Not even Polyjuice Potion could replicate that.”

I smiled – this was why I loved him. “I missed you so much,” I admitted, throwing myself on him. “I hate being left behind like this, I never know if you’re all right, if you’re even alive.”

He buried his face in my hair. “If I could change one thing, it would be that rule about no owls on site,” he said quietly. “If I could hear from you, too, that would make all the difference.”

“If I could change one thing,” I said, “it would be to finish the war. Then we wouldn’t need to worry about it.”

He kissed me, and I relished the familiarity of it all, predicting exactly when his tongue would find its way into my mouth, when his hand would cup my breast, when he would start removing my clothing and lead me into the bedroom. Him being home was always worth waiting for. It was why I put up with the separations, the uncertainty, the nightmares that plagued what little sleep I had. It was what made everything worthwhile.

****

This time, he was only home for two days. Thank goodness it was a weekend, I thought, because it meant I could spend every minute with him. When the owl arrived, though, I groaned.

“They think they’ve found where Voldemort’s hiding,” Sirius told me after he’d read the letter. “Dumbledore wants me to go check it out.”

“No,” I said automatically. “Say no. Stay. Please, it’s only been a couple of days, I can’t stand it if you leave again.”

“I have to go,” he said, looking pained. “If we can take him out, once and for all ...”

“But why does it always have to be you?” I asked plaintively. “There are other people he could send, Aurors, people with years more experience. Why does it have to be you?”

“Because James and I would be able to do it,” he explained.

I sighed. It was always this way. “I can’t live like this,” I said finally. “You being off fighting all the time, never knowing if I’m going to see you again. I can’t do it.”

He pulled me towards him. “It’s only temporary,” he said comfortingly.

“But how temporary?” I asked. “Another month? Two? Six? A year? Two years? Five?” I pulled away and looked at him, tears forming in my eyes. “This war has been going on for as long as I can remember,” I said. “Who’s to say that it won’t last our whole lives? And I can’t live like this, being the one left behind. Whenever you’re gone, I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I’m this close to being sacked because I can’t do my job properly.” I looked at him sadly, unable to stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks. “I hate this, being left hanging all the time. I want to live. I want to be happy.”

“But you are happy,” he said, looking concerned. “Aren’t you?”

“Only when you’re here,” I admitted. “The rest of the time, I’m like a shell. And even when you are here, I wonder how long it will last, how long I’ll have you till you have to go away again. It’s like a time bomb, ticking away, and as soon as you walk out that door I fall to pieces again.”

“It’s not that bad, surely,” he murmured into my hair. I pulled away again.

“And how would you know?” I asked. “You’re never here.” I looked pleadingly at him. “Sirius, this is killing me. I can’t live like this for much longer. It’s too hard.”

“But I love you,” he said, a pained look on his face. “And you love me. Isn’t that enough?”

Tears pouring down my face, I looked at him and shook my head slowly. “I don’t know any more. Maybe it’s not.”

****

“How’s it going?” Mum asked at lunch the following week. “Everything okay?”

I hesitated. Why did Mum always know exactly the wrong question to ask? Or, really, I guess, the right question, if she wanted the truth. “It’s hard,” I admitted finally. “He’s been away almost a week now, and I haven’t heard anything.”

“Not even a message so you know he got there safely?” she prodded.

I shook my head. “The protocol is no owls when you’re on a mission,” I explained for what felt like the hundredth time. “If there are owls going back and forth, the Death Eaters might be able to find them. It’s a security risk.”

“What about that mirror you told me about?” she asked. “The two-way one?”

“It’d be brilliant,” I said bitterly, “but James and Lily have that. And so it’s only of any use when James and Sirius are together, and I can get hold of Lily.”

“You’re looking pale,” she said. “And if I know you, the only reason you’ve got your hair back like that is because you haven’t washed it. And you haven’t touched your lunch.”

I looked at my still-full plate, the food taunting me as I’d pushed it around with my fork. “I’m not really hungry,” I admitted.

“And haven’t been since he left, I’m guessing,” she said firmly. “Come on, Laura, you can’t keep putting up with this. It’s bad for your health.”

“But when he comes back ...” I began, letting the sentence hang.

“Is it really worth it?” she asked. “Is it really worth all the suffering, just for a couple of days?”

“The war’s only temporary,” I said mechanically. “It won’t last forever. And then we’ll have the rest of our lives.”

“The war’s been going on since before you went to Hogwarts,” she said sternly. “That’s half your life so far. Do you want to be thirty and still waiting by the door for him?”

“He’s worth it,” I said, not sure if I was trying to convince her or myself.

Mum shrugged. “Well, I won’t try to talk you around, but I do ask you to think about it. I hate to see you like this. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, I don’t want you to ruin it by wasting away.”

****

Martha too looked worried when we caught up a week or two later. “You look awful,” she said.

I tried to smile. “Thanks, Martha. I love you too.”

“I mean it,” she said. “What’s wrong?”

I sighed. “He’s away again,” I said. “Fighting. Merlin only knows where, I’m not allowed to know.”

She looked confused. “But aren’t you in this Order, or whatever it’s called, too?”

“Yeah,” I said resentfully, “but I’m to stay here. Apparently my job at the Ministry is too important to have me out on assignment. So I have to stay, while he’s off doing whatever it is they’re doing. Maybe he’s dead. I don’t know.”

“Wouldn’t they tell you?” she asked. “If he died, that is?”

I shook my head. “Having owls going back and forth compromises the mission,” I explained. “They leave all communications till the end. Even if someone’s died, they wait before they tell the family.”

Martha nodded sympathetically. “No wonder you look so bad,” she said. I smiled weakly, realising that I had to look awful if Martha was this worried about me – she had always been the type to shrug things off. “How long has he been away?”

“Three days,” I said dully. “Three days, four hours and – erm – seventeen minutes,” I elaborated, looking at my watch. “Not that I’m keeping count or anything.”

“How often does this happen?” she asked. “Him going off like that, fighting?”

“More often than I’d like,” I admitted. “He’s away for a week or more, then home for a few days, then he’s off again. I think I got spoiled when we were at school, you know, with him being there all the time.”

“Lily’s not doing so badly,” Martha mused. “I saw her the other day and she was looking much better than you are.”

“Yeah, well she’s allowed to go with them,” I said bitterly. “And even when she’s not, she and James have a two-way mirror they use. She can check on him any time she likes.”

Martha nodded again. “Whereas you’re stuck here not knowing.”

“I hate it,” I said vehemently. “I hate it. All I wanted was a normal life, and I’m more like an army widow. I can’t live without him, but because of this damn war I’m not allowed to be with him. It’s tearing me apart.”

“Are you eating?” she asked.

I looked pointedly at the plate in front of me, which I hadn’t touched since it had arrived. I really should stop meeting people for lunch, I realised. “Does it look like it?”

“Sleeping?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Not really. And to be honest, you’re lucky I brushed my teeth today and had a shower. That doesn’t always happen.” I paused. “No one should have to live like this,” I said bitterly. “Never knowing. It’s horrible. If I didn’t love him so much I wouldn’t put up with it.”

“What does he say?” she asked.

“He doesn’t like it either,” I said, “but he doesn’t really see an alternative. You know how hard it is to say no to Dumbledore. And he feels like he’s contributing – every Death Eater that he brings in is a badge of honour for him. And you know Sirius. He needs to feel like he’s doing his bit. It’s probably about rebelling against his parents still, but that’s what he’s like.” I paused again, looking at her. I didn’t have a best friend any more, not since Mary had died; Charlotte had her own issues with Remus, and Lily wasn’t around to speak to. Maybe Martha could be my confidante.

“Can I talk honestly?” I asked her, a little hesitantly.

“Of course,” she said. “Weren’t you?”

I sighed. “Right at the start, when we got home from Hogwarts and Dumbledore started talking to us about the Order, Dad warned me that it could be like this. He didn’t want me to move out because at least then I’d have someone to talk to when Sirius was fighting, and I wouldn’t get like this. And I laughed it off because, of course, Sirius and I were going to be together, whatever happened. I didn’t know that I’d get this job and then Dumbledore would want me to hang around the Ministry collecting information. I thought that if Sirius was off fighting, I would be too.”

“That’s logical,” Martha agreed. “You couldn’t have known how it would turn out.”

“Exactly,” I said. “But now, of course, he’s been proven right. I’m stuck in that flat for days on end, by myself, not being able to concentrate or anything, not eating, not sleeping, crying because I’m just so alone and I’ve got no one to talk to about it. When I do sleep I keep having nightmares about him getting killed or tortured and me not being able to do anything about it. Then, during the day, I go into work because I need the job if I’m going to pay my share of the bills, and because Dumbledore tells me he’s relying on my reports, but I’m not doing a good job. Not with what I’m being paid to do, and not for the Order. I can’t concentrate on anything because I keep expecting to get an owl telling me that Sirius isn’t coming back. And then Dad pops his head into my office to see how I am and I’m trying to put on a happy face because I don’t want him knowing he was right.”

Martha reached across the table and gave my hand a squeeze. “You need a friend, don’t you?”

I nodded, mopping my wet cheeks with a napkin. “And Mary’s dead, and Lily and Charlotte are dealing with their own problems. So you draw the short straw, I’m afraid.”

She hesitated. “You might hate me for suggesting this, and by all means tell me if it’s absolutely out of the question, but have you ever considered, well, leaving?”

I stared at her incredulously, not believing my own ears. “Leave Sirius?”

She nodded. “Look, Laura, you’re not coping, that much is obvious. And from what I can see the only way around it is either getting both of you out of the Order, or getting you out of this relationship. And, knowing Sirius, I think that the second one is the only real possibility.”

“I couldn’t leave Sirius,” I protested. “He’s the only thing that’s keeping me going.”

“And not having him around is breaking you,” she pointed out. “Like I said, you’re not coping. Is it really worth going through all this?”

I stared at her again, not really taking this in. “It’s Sirius,” I said. “I can’t live without him.”

“This isn’t life,” she said gently. “This is existence.”

I shook my head. “I can’t leave him. It’s Sirius. I’d be better off cutting off my own arm than leaving him. My wand arm.”

She shrugged. “Forget I suggested it, then,” she said. “It was just an idea, that’s all.”

****

The thing was, what Mum and Martha had both suggested kept coming back to me, making me think about it. The idea of leaving Sirius was almost more than I could take in, but even I could see that not having this worry and heartache all the time would make me more human again. Getting the owl saying he was coming home, though, pushed it from my mind with remarkable haste. He was coming home. Life was worth living once again.

However, he was only home for a day before the summons came yet again. This time, even Sirius looked annoyed. “Come on, give me a break,” he muttered crossly. “Just three or four days. That’s all I ask.” He shook his head irritably.

“Say no,” I said hopefully, looking over from the kitchenette where I was making a coffee. “Let someone else do it for a change.”

“It has to be me, unfortunately,” he said bitterly. “They want inside info on Cousin Bella. Not that I can really tell them anything, I haven’t seen her in years.”

“Please,” I said, aware I was begging but not caring. My hands trembled as I put my coffee mug down. “Stay. I can’t stand it if you leave again.”

He shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Laura ...”

I sat down at the table, crying. “I can’t do it,” I said after a while. “I can’t see you leave again like this, not knowing if you’re going to come back or not.”

“It’s only for a day or two,” he said comfortingly, coming over to the table and wrapping both arms around me. “Then I’ll be back again.”

“You say that every time,” I said resentfully. “I hate Dumbledore. I hate the Order. I hate that they keep taking you away, before I’ve even had a chance to get used to you being back. I hate being away from you all the time and not knowing if I’m ever going to see you again. I hate searching the Daily Prophet looking for hints on how the mission is going. I hate everything about this war.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again, kissing my cheek where a tear sat.

“Say no,” I told him through my tears. “Tell them you won’t do it. Stay with me, just for a week or two so I can remember why I love you so much.”

“I have to,” he said helplessly.

“No you don’t,” I shot back. “You said yourself that you haven’t seen Bella in years. What can you tell them? You don’t know what she’s doing, you don’t know what she’s planning.”

“But if I can help ...” he began.

“Screw the war,” I said loudly. “This is killing me. I’m not alive when you’re gone, I just go through the motions. I might as well be an Inferi for all the use I am to anyone. All this living with uncertainty – I can do that to a degree, but asking anyone to put up with this is too much. And I don’t blame you,” I went on hurriedly, “I blame Dumbledore. He’s the one that’s putting the hard word on you, he’s the one who’s making the decisions. He should know that no one can live like this. He shouldn’t be asking this of us.”

“But what can I do?” he asked.

“Ask him for a break,” I told him. “Tell him you need some time off. It’s not like he’s paying you, he shouldn’t refuse.”

“I don’t know,” he said, his brow furrowing. “There’s a lot going on right now, he’s going to want everyone on board.”

I hesitated. I knew, suddenly, what the answer was, but I hated to say it. I didn’t like ultimatums when really it wasn’t his fault. But I had to say it. Martha and Mum had been right. It was the only way.

“Well, then, if that’s the case then you’re going to have to make a decision,” I said finally, bracing myself to speak the hardest words I would ever say. I couldn’t even look at him when I said them, I looked at the wall instead, so I didn’t have to see his face, and so he couldn’t see my heart breaking. “You have to choose. The war, or me.”

****

A week later, I looked around at the bedroom I had grown up in, the one I had moved out of only a couple of months previously. I had thought I’d never live here again. I had thought my life would be in London, with Sirius. I had been wrong.

Intellectually, I knew it had been the right decision. What I’d had in London wasn’t a life. It was barely even an existence. Even in the few days I’d been home, in my parents’ house, I’d settled down remarkably. It was amazing what a difference a bit of company, and less worry, could make.

In my heart, though, it was the worst possible thing I could have done. I hated myself for leaving him, for putting him in that position and making him choose. I hated myself for breaking his heart as well as my own. And I hated myself for not coping better. Every time I thought of him I couldn’t stop the tears forming in the corners of my eyes.

As for less worry, well it wasn’t that I wasn’t worried. I would always worry about him, I realised. He would always be off fighting and, even if it was from a distance, I’d be hoping he made it through in one piece. What had changed was that it wasn’t the only thing I was thinking about. Yes, I cried myself to sleep, and yes, he had left a hole in my heart that I was convinced would never be filled, but he was no longer my responsibility.

“How are you coping?” Mum asked at breakfast.

“Not very well,” I admitted. “But at least I’m eating.” This was true, too, my plate was almost empty. Yes, I’d only had toast, but it was more than I would have had if I’d been at the flat in London.

She gave me a hug. “Well, that’s one improvement, at least.”

I burst into tears suddenly, unable to keep them in. “I miss him so much,” I said. “I don’t know if this really is better, you know?”

“If it’s any consolation, I think you did the right thing,” she said quietly. “It’s hard, I know. But the effect it was having on you was hard to take.” She paused. “And maybe, if the war ends, you can pick it up again.”

I nodded tearfully. “If he’s still alive. And if he still wants me.”

“I’m sure he’ll still want you,” she said comfortingly. “He really does love you.”

“Then why did he choose the war?” I asked. “If he loved me that much, why wouldn’t he give it up for me?”

“Because he wants the world to be safe for you,” she said. “He good as told us that.”

I took a sip of the tea she had poured me. “I’ll never be that happy again,” I said. “I know that much. It’s not possible.” I put the cup down and looked at her. “And really, what’s the point? If I know that the best part of my life has already been?”

“You’re not going to like me saying this,” she said, “but try not to think about it. That part of your life has been. You’ve got years and years still to look forward to.”

“But not with him,” I pointed out bitterly. “He was what made it worthwhile.”

“Well, maybe it will be with him,” she said. “But don’t rely on that. Think about everything else you’ve got in your life. Focus on that.”

I didn’t like it, but she did have a point. Life without Sirius, as impossible as it sounded, was what was in front of me. I just had to accept that.

“Okay,” I said after a pause. “I’ll try.” And I went upstairs to my room, lit a candle, and stood by the window.

“Goodbye, Sirius,” I said tearfully. “I love you, and I’ll miss you. But this is the end, I have to move on.” I paused, not even trying to stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks, and took a breath. “Good luck out there. Take down as many Death Eaters as you can. But don’t think of me. I’m not there for you any more.”

I blew out the candle. The flame, like that part of my life, was extinguished. The door was closed. Maybe it would open again, but probably not. I would move on.

****

A minute later, Bea stuck her head around the door. “You okay?”

I smiled through my tears – explaining this to her seemed too much like hard work. “Yeah, sure.”

“You’re upset, aren’t you,” she said, coming into my room and plonking herself down unceremoniously on the bed. “You’re wondering if you made the right decision.”

I nodded, surprised she was this perceptive. “That’s exactly what I’m doing,” I admitted. “But it has to be like this, really, I do get that. It’s just … hard.”

She nodded, taking my hand and giving it a squeeze. “I thought it might be,” she said. “Which is why I thought I’d come in and offer to take your mind off it for a little while.”

I stared at her. “Take my mind off it?” The very idea seemed impossible, the concept so alien that I had trouble understanding what she meant.

“Absolutely,” she said staunchly. “Since neither of us are working today, I thought you might like a day at Barry Island. My shout.”

I kept staring. Barry Island was a Muggle amusement park, just over the border into Wales. It was something I would never have even thought of doing, but she was right – it would take my mind off things for a while, and it was somewhere that would have absolutely no memories of Sirius. Finally, after thinking about it for a little while, I smiled.

“Thanks, Bea,” I said, not even having to fake my gratitude. “That’d be great. When can we leave?”

________________________________________

The end.
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