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Chapter 37: The worst news possible
As December dawned I realised that my obsession with Sirius was beginning to have an adverse effect on my behaviour. I had started to withdraw into myself a lot, not talking much, seeking little company but Mary’s, succumbing to daydreams whenever I felt the need. It wasn’t healthy but I wasn’t sure how to pull myself out of it, short of either confessing all or avoiding him altogether, which if I thought about it probably amounted to the same thing in the end. Eventually Mary started casting Cheering Charms on me whenever I was about to get any company, in the hope that it would fool people enough so that I wasn’t quizzed on my conduct.
Unfortunately Sirius – the unwitting cause of everything – wasn’t fooled, and had noticed that I wasn’t exactly myself. Worse still, he seemed concerned enough to tackle me on the subject, as I discovered one Wednesday. We were leaving the Great Hall after lunch when he herded me into an empty classroom and sat me down on a table, standing in front of me. “Laura, what’s the matter? You can tell me, surely.”
It’s better that I don’t tell you, I thought. You really don’t want to know that knowing I can’t have you is driving me crazy.
I looked at him, very uncomfortably aware of how close he was – so close that I got distracted by stupid things like how long his eyelashes were, and the fact that there were specks of blue in those grey eyes. The urge to grab him and kiss him was almost overwhelming. His face was just there, that flawless face, and all I would have to do was reach up and pull his head towards me. No, Laura, steady, I thought, realising with alarm that my hand had actually started moving upwards to do just that. With an effort I put it back on the table and sat on it to ensure it didn’t go on any further excursions, hoping he hadn’t noticed anything. Imagine the rejection, I told myself. Imagine him thinking you were the next Elvira. The thought was as effective as if a bucketful of snow had been dumped over me.
“Nothing’s the matter,” I said, fixing my gaze on a spot just past his left shoulder, thinking that if I wasn’t looking directly at him I would be less likely to be tempted to do something I’d regret. “I’m fine. Really.” I paused, wondering just how soon I could leave the room without seeming rude. My eyes flicked toward him again. “Look, Sirius, I need to be going. Ancient Runes …” That at least was true, if I didn’t get a move on I might be late, and Professor Babbling didn’t look kindly on latecomers.
He didn’t look convinced. “All right then, don’t tell me. But something’s wrong. You haven’t been yourself lately, there’s something bothering you.” He paused. “Is everything okay at home?”
Was that what he thought? “No, it’s not that, they’re all fine,” I said earnestly, realising too late that this was pretty much an admission that there was something bothering me.
He smiled briefly. “Good, so we can rule that out. But I’m your friend and I’m starting to get worried about you. I’ll be keeping an eye on you and if it gets worse we might have to take action.”
Friend. The very word cut at me like a knife. Mary was my friend. So was Lily, and Martha, and Charlotte. James was my friend. Remus was my friend. Even Peter, who was fast getting over his general fear of all things female, could just about be counted as my friend. But Sirius … it wasn’t enough. No matter how much I tried to convince myself that being friends was a good thing, that I should make the most of it as it was as much as I was ever going to get, I couldn’t do it. Friends just didn’t cut it as far as Sirius was concerned. I wanted – no, I needed more.
And that was the problem, the root cause of everything. And him saying he’d be keeping an eye on me just added to my inner turmoil – the more attention he paid me the tenser I got. Why did he have to be so considerate? When I’d thought he was a bit of a berk it was so much easier to not like him.
I took a breath. “Don’t worry about me. I’m just a bit worked up about NEWTs, that’s all.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure that’s all?”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” I lied. “Right as rain otherwise. And like I said, I really should get going.”
“Right. If you’re sure.” He stood back to let me pass, still looking a bit sceptical. “I’ll see you later on then.”
I hurried out of the room, heading quickly upstairs with a sigh of relief. Ancient Runes was the only class I didn’t have with him, so I could relax a bit. A bit, only, though – Remus was the only other Gryffindor in that class so I was aware that anything I did or said could potentially get back to him.
Back at the start of sixth year when I’d decided on my NEWT subjects, what Sirius was doing wasn’t even a factor. Now, it was more important than anything, though I still hadn’t worked out whether I wanted him in my classes or not. When he was there I felt nervous and uncomfortable; when he wasn’t there I missed him. (Quivering Wreck 371; Laura 2. Or maybe I was up to 3 by now. In any case, it was still a bit of a hammering.)
Anyway Ancient Runes, while it didn’t have Sirius, did have Elvira, who occasionally still hassled me about Sirius’ behaviour. I put her off as gently as I could, mainly because I was terrified I’d let on that I was just as obsessed as she was, and fortunately the fact that I sat with Remus was generally enough to shut her up. Today was no exception.
“Laura!” she gasped as I hurried up the corridor to the classroom. “What do you think of –” She was cut off by the door opening, and I pushed my way to Remus’ side as we moved inside.
“Sorry, Elvira,” I called over my shoulder. “Some other time, maybe.”
Remus grinned at me as we found our usual desk. “Perfect timing,” he said quietly.
“It’s a skill I have,” I said lightly, pulling out my copy of Magical Hieroglyphs and Logograms and putting my bag on the floor. “Avoiding Elvira. Harder than it sounds, let me tell you.”
He laughed. “I’d believe it. Padfoot says pretty much the same thing.”
Oh yeah. Sirius. Everything always came back to him, didn’t it. Hoping my cheeks were the same colour as the rest of me, I reached into my bag and found ink, quill and parchment, and tried with mixed success to focus my attention on Professor Babbling.
“Well, tha’s it,” Mary announced a couple of days later in the common room where we were trying to make inroads into our mountains of homework. “I’ve had it. I canna dae any more tonicht, I need a break t’ clear my brain.” Her unfinished Herbology essay sat on the table in front of her.
“I’m not done yet,” I mumbled, frantically scribbling another sentence down. I was on a roll and didn’t want to break the momentum.
“Richt,” said Mary. “Well, I’m off t’ bed. Goo’ nicht!” She smiled brightly at me and, gathering up her books, quill and parchment, disappeared up the stairs.
The common room had quietened down: it must have been getting close to midnight and people were gradually drifting upstairs to the dorms. Through the dwindling chatter I heard snatches of a muttered conversation somewhere behind me.
“Go on, this is your best chance yet …”
“I don’t think so … Look, it’s not as easy as all that. And what if it doesn’t work out?”
“It will, just do it! Come on, you’re running out of time.”
I shuddered. It was Sirius and Remus, and it sounded like they were planning a prank of some sort – or Sirius was, solo as it so often had to be now that James was otherwise occupied, and Remus, although a prefect, was egging him on. I scribbled down another sentence in my essay, my senses alert for whatever it was to occur. But it was a false alarm – after a couple of minutes nothing had happened, Sirius obviously deciding there would be a better time for whatever they were planning. I dipped my quill in the inkwell and tried to regain my train of thought.
Unfortunately, the distraction had cut short my concentration and I wasn’t able to do any more of my assignment. Frustrated, after ten minutes or so I too packed up my books and headed to the dorm, hoping a good night’s sleep would be the tonic I needed.
Just as I had finished getting ready for bed, Charlotte came bounding into the room in great excitement. “Guess what!” she exclaimed to no one in particular. “Remus just asked me to the ball!!”
We all rushed at her with hugs and congratulations: she’d been wanting this for years. I started to re-light the lamps as she beamed at us.
“Just now?” Lily asked eagerly.
“Yeah, I just got back from the library,” she breathed, “and he came right up and asked me as soon as I got into the common room.”
“About time,” Martha said loyally. “He hasn’t known what he’s been missing out on.”
“That makes three of us with dates,” Charlotte said happily. “We just need to find blokes for Laura and Mary, and we’re set.”
“How about Peter?” asked Martha, looking at Mary and me with a wide grin on her face. “He doesn’t have a date yet, and I’m sure he’d be thrilled to take either one of you.”
We both laughed. “Sorra, Martha, I’m nae quite tha’ desperate ye’,” Mary said lightly. “Think I’d prefer a man who’s a’ th’ verra leas’ my height, an’ preferably taller.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” I nodded. “Particularly with heels on, I don’t want to be half a head taller than my date. Or more.”
“Okay then, Mulciber?” joked Charlotte.
“Probably has a date already,” I said, relieved to have a good excuse why he wouldn’t do. “Scylla Pritchard has her talons in him like you wouldn’t credit.”
“Gibbon, then,” Lily suggested with a grin.
We both grimaced. “Too much o’ th’ gorilla,” said Mary.
“Yeah, he walks like he’s got a watermelon under each arm,” I agreed. “Can you imagine how that would feel to dance with?” I got off my bed and started an (admittedly bad) impersonation of Gibbon dancing.
“Too har’ fer him t’ stop his knuckles draggin’ on th’ ground an’ all,” Mary added.
Lily was laughing. “Never was a person more appropriately named,” she said. “Gibbon by name, gibbon by appearance, gibbon by nature. How he got to be prefect is beyond me.”
Charlotte smiled again. “Okay, how about Gerry Stebbins?” This was aimed at Mary, who had been trying to avoid Gerry for the best part of two years.
“Oh please,” said Mary, laughing. “I’d rather go wi’ th’ gian’ squid.”
“No, sorry, he’s Lily’s,” I grinned. “After she said she’d rather go out with the giant squid than James, and now she’s going to the ball with James, the squid has got to be disappointed.”
“There’s always Sirius,” Martha said carelessly, making my heart skip a beat. “He doesn’t have a date yet.” I held my breath anxiously, just waiting for her to look up and smile mischievously at me. Had she worked out that I liked him? That would be a nightmare. However, she didn’t appear to be paying me the slightest attention, not even out of the corner of her eyes, so it looked like my secret was still safe. For the time being, at least.
“Of course he doesn’t have a date yet,” Lily said absently, heading into the bathroom to brush her teeth.
“Why would you say that?” Charlotte asked, assuaging my curiosity.
Lily stopped in the bathroom doorway and turned around. “Haven’t you noticed?”
“Noticed wha’?” asked Mary, her eyes flicking to me.
Lily just sighed and looked at Martha. “Remember how you said once, ages ago, that when he falls for someone, he’ll fall hard?” she asked, leaning against the door frame.
Martha nodded. “Yeah, what about it?”
“I think that’s actually happened,” Lily explained. “Normally he’d have a date sewn up by now, just to get the fan club off his back, but this year he’s not asked anyone, and I think that he’s trying to get the guts up to ask someone in particular.”
My heart sank and I could feel a tear forming in the corner of my eye. If Lily was right, there went any hope I had with him. Not that I’d had any to begin with, but a girl can dream, can’t she?
“Ye’re sure?” Mary was asking. “Merlin, imagine if tha’s true …”
I shook my head. “I can’t imagine him ever being insecure about a girl,” I said, trying to convince myself as well as the others, and stubbornly refusing to catch Mary’s eye.
“I don’t know,” Charlotte said slowly, pulling off a shoe. “I think I can back Lily’s theory up.”
“How?” Martha asked interestedly.
“Oh, I overheard something in the library the other day. Or was it yesterday?” She frowned slightly. “Sometime recently, anyway. James and Sirius,” she added, taking off the other shoe and looking around at us. “What they were doing there, I don’t know, but it was definitely them.”
“Sounds suspicious already,” Martha said, giggling. “What did they say?”
“James was saying something like, I’m probably not the best person to ask considering it only happened when Lily jumped on me,” Charlotte began. Lily blushed scarlet. “And then he said, you might as well try it, and since when has any girl ever turned you down anyway? Which, you’ve got to admit, with Sirius it’s a good point.” She paused. “I never intended to listen in, you know what I think of that, but this sounded too interesting to miss.”
“Fair enough,” I said, almost dreading what she was going to say but unable to contain my curiosity. “Go on.”
“Well, Sirius said James should know this was different, and James said go on, why, which I admit was my reaction as well,” Charlotte continued, throwing her socks into the laundry basket. “And Sirius said something like, this time it matters if she says no.”
Mary didn’t often look surprised, but in this case her eyes looked like they would pop out of her head. Martha was distinctly taken aback, but Lily just looked thoughtful, pleased this was confirming her theory. More than a little concerned that my heart was about to break, I busied myself with pretending to find myself a new book to read in the pile next to my bed, hoping no one had noticed the look on my face.
“Anyway,” Charlotte was saying, “James said something like, well I don’t think she will anyway. Say no, that is. And Sirius said, no, she hates me, or something like that. So James asked why he thought that, and Sirius said that he’d just gone to talk to her and she wouldn’t even look at him. So whoever she is, it sounds like she’s in a bit of a strop with him. He sounded pretty upset about it at any rate. So yes, I think he’s definitely insecure about someone.”
I found myself shaking my head in amazement. Imagine being annoyed with Sirius. Imagine talking to him and not even looking at him. Was that even possible?
Charlotte was still talking. “So James said that it didn’t sound good if that was true, and then he said well, I guess you’re not going to tell her anytime soon then. He sounded a bit disappointed, it was like this has been going on for a while and James just wants it over already.”
“Di’ they name her?” Mary asked.
“No, they didn’t,” admitted Charlotte. “I was hoping they would, but no luck. And Sirius said he’d tried but had lost his nerve, and now he’d only say something if things improved, and then he said that James wasn’t allowed to tell her either. He sounded like he wanted to be sure that whoever she is will react in the right way when he does say something.”
I raised my head and looked around at them, hoping desperately that I didn’t look too distraught, and even more desperately that Lily and Charlotte were wrong. “Well well well,” Martha was saying as she pulled on a nightshirt. “Looks like it has happened at last. This should be great to watch. Wonder who she is?”
Lily smiled. “I think I’ve got a fair idea,” she said slowly, as if to herself.
“Well?” Charlotte demanded. “’Fess up, come on!”
Lily shook her head. “No, I’m not a hundred percent sure,” she said, more loudly this time, looking at all of us in turn. “That is, I thought I was, but this has confused me a bit. See, the girl I’m thinking of isn’t annoyed with him, so something’s not right there. And if I am right and it is who I’m thinking of, she won’t want me telling tales.” She paused, her face screwed up in concentration, before going on. “Though I also think she’d probably need some convincing, I’m not sure she’d believe him even if he did tell her.”
Mentally I vowed to keep a close eye on things over the next couple of weeks, to see who he was watching or talking to, or who was giving him the cold shoulder. After all, everyone likes to know what they are up against. I’m ashamed to say I was also hoping that whoever she was would put him off a bit longer – after all, if he was single then there was a vague, remote possibility that he might give up on her and need someone (okay, me) to get his mind off it.
Mary groaned. “Tha’s nae fair,” she said. “If ye’re nae goin’ t’ tell us, ye shouldna hae said anythin’ a’ all.”
Lily smiled. “I’ll check with James,” she said. “He’ll know what’s going on. And he’ll know if I should tell you or not.” And she ducked, laughing, as Martha hurled a slipper at her head.
Sebastian Quirke from Ravenclaw had been asking Mary to the ball about once or twice a fortnight since it was announced. He was a nice enough boy and was clearly rather keen on her, but Mary was hesitant as he shared a dorm with Gerry Stebbins, who had been after Mary ever since he’d taken her to the ball in fifth year, and she felt it would be a little too awkward for her to be comfortable. However, after the fifth time he asked her, this time well away from Gerry as he cornered her when she left the library, she decided to give him a chance.
That left me as the only female Gryffindor without a date, which I admit was a bit stressful. Surely I wasn’t that repugnant that no one wanted to take me? Ordinary, yes, I could deal with that, but not repulsive. (Even I had an ego that needed maintaining.) I was almost at the point of asking someone myself, but I couldn’t work out who would be the best candidate. After all, it could end up as an actual date, so it had to be someone I could imagine myself snogging. Of course, I wanted to ask Sirius, who was also still dateless, but if he really had his heart set on someone else there wouldn’t have been much point, and I wasn’t sure I’d have the guts to do it anyway. To use his words from six months earlier, I had to ‘pick up and move on’ and find myself a consolation prize.
“Don’t worry so much about it, Laura,” Martha said as we left Charms one day in the first week of December. “You’re a good looking girl, someone is bound to ask you soon. And you’ve still got a fortnight.”
I smiled wryly. “I hope so. I couldn’t handle showing up at the ball by myself. Even Peter has a date!” Which was true, but he was going with his cousin Fortuna, so if I was being honest it didn’t really count as a date.
Bernie Carmichael, walking in front of us, whirled around in surprise. “Laura Cauldwell, you seriously don’t have a date yet?”
“No,” I said, wondering why that was so strange.
“You’re kidding,” he said, falling into step with Martha and me. “No one’s asked you?”
“No,” I repeated, looking at him curiously. “Why?”
“My word,” he said as though to himself. “I thought for sure you would have been snapped up weeks ago.”
He made me sound like a limited release broomstick or something, but I was grateful for what he was trying to say. “Thanks, Bernie,” I said. “I appreciate that.”
“You, uh, don’t want to go with me, do you?” he asked after a short pause.
I looked up at him, I’m ashamed to say giving him the once-over as a potential date. Average height, red hair, green eyes, lots of freckles, but a very friendly face and one you couldn’t possibly dislike. Looked like a decent physique as well, though it was hard to tell through the school robes. If it came down to it, if I tried to forget Sirius had ever been born, I probably could give him a decent snog. “Thanks, Bernie,” I repeated. “I’d love to go to the ball with you.”
He gave me a broad smile, which lit up his face. “For real? You’re sure? That’s great! I’ll meet you in the Entrance Hall at eight, then?”
“It’s a date,” I said, smiling again, and he took off towards Ravenclaw Tower, tripping over his own feet somewhat but beaming all the same.
Martha grinned at me. “Told you someone was bound to ask you soon!”
“Yeah. I didn’t realise you meant immediately, though.”
“Well, neither did I,” she conceded, “but still, it worked out well, didn’t it!”
“And he’s not too bad,” I said. “If it doesn’t work out, I can always fall back on Dad’s rule about not going out with anyone this year.” It had worked with Caradoc earlier in the year, after all, so why not use it to my advantage again if I needed to?
By the end of the week Sirius, whose temper seemed to have been getting the better of him lately, had asked Anne Mockridge, a very pretty sixth-year from Ravenclaw. Rumour had it she had already had a date when Sirius asked her, but ditched him on the spot for what she saw as a better offer. I was pretty sure she wasn’t the girl Lily had been thinking of that night in the dorm – if nothing else, he didn’t seem overly thrilled that she’d said yes – but from all my careful observations I couldn’t for the life of me work out who the girl actually was. No one seemed to be in a bad mood with him, no one was avoiding him, and he wasn’t acting any differently than how he had been all year. Frankly, it didn’t seem to make any sense at all.
The morning of the ball dawned bright and cold, and the grounds were covered in a fresh blanket of snow that must have fallen overnight. It looked rather enticing but not enough to lure us from the warmth of the Gryffindor common room.
The nine seventh-years had breakfasted together and went back to the tower as a group to sit by the fire, a habit which was becoming more and more common since Lily and James’ relationship had brought us all together. Eventually, as often happens at that time of year, the conversation drifted to holiday plans.
“How are you spending Christmas, Charlotte?” Lily asked lazily.
“We’ve got a big lunch at Uncle Quentin’s place,” Charlotte said. “Whole family’ll be there, which should be interesting – more than forty of us in one dining room.” She smiled at the thought. “What about you, Lils?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” said Lily, frowning slightly. “Family dos have become more difficult since I came here. Most of the extended family don’t know about me, and Petunia’s not talking to me any more, so it might be a quiet day. Though I’ll head to James’ place after lunch on Boxing Day,” she added, beaming at James, who looked like Christmas had just come early.
“I can relate to that,” I said. “Not going to James’ place, obviously, but family events being tricky because of the whole magic thing. ’ Cause Mum’s a Muggle, and most of her family have no idea about us, so we always have to have separate parties, one with magic and one without. I think they’re both going to be on the same day this year, and both at our place, which will keep us on our toes a bit.”
“How does that work?” Remus asked with a grin.
I shrugged. “Lunch with one lot, dinner with the other. And lots of cleaning up using magic in between. Means you’re absolutely stuffed by the end of the day.”
Martha was nodding. “Yeah, we’ve got two different stops too, to see each set of grandparents. But they’re not at our place, though, so I guess that makes my day easier than Laura’s. Peter?” She looked at Peter, who was sitting on the floor leaning against the arm of James’ couch.
“Lunch with Mum and Dad, then over to Prongs’ place for dinner,” he said.
Remus nodded. “Same with me.”
Charlotte looked surprised. “Do you lot always have Christmas dinner together?”
“Not at all,” James said hurriedly. “This year is a special case. We’re expecting Moony’s furry little problem to be making an appearance.”
“What?” Martha asked what I was thinking. How could they know when his pets were going to misbehave?
James clammed up. “Never mind,” he said, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Let’s just leave it as they’re all coming over for Christmas dinner.” He quickly changed the subject. “What’s going on at your place, Mary?”
Mary, also sitting on the floor, looked up. “We’re headin’ back t’ Scotlan’ fer Christmas Day this year,” she said. “Catch up wi’ all Pa’s family, we dinna see them tha’ much since he died. Though wi’ Uncle Magnus tha’ micht be a goo’ thing.” Her father’s brother, Magnus, was widely regarded as something of a nutter and had even tried to reintroduce Creaothceann, a Scottish sport that involved hurling rocks at people’s heads and oddly enough had been banned in the eighteenth century, back into mainstream wizarding society. There was a reason his nickname was ‘Dent-head’. Mary went on. “Then back t’ London on Boxin’ Day an’ lunch wi’ Ma’s side an’ all. Shoul’ be grand.” She grinned in anticipation.
“How about you, Sirius?” Charlotte asked. “What are you doing for Christmas?” I started a little – it occurred to me that this discussion about our family gatherings had probably been a bit insensitive, and I didn’t fancy the thought of getting his temper up. However, if it bothered him he didn’t let it show, instead shrugging with a bit of a distracted look on his face.
“What I always do,” he said indifferently, as though she had asked him about the weather. “Spend it with the Potters.”
“Do you ever miss it?” Lily asked a little tentatively. “Being with family, I mean.”
Fortunately his irritability seemed to have taken a holiday that day, and he just laughed that bark-like laugh of his. “Are you kidding? I miss it like I miss a hole in the head.”
She just looked at him sceptically. “They can’t be that bad, surely.”
This time James joined in the laughter. “Put it this way, Lils,” he said, giving her a hug, “if he was still talking to them, he wouldn’t be talking to us.”
Sirius nodded. “Well, maybe Charlotte and Martha. And possibly Mary, though I doubt it. But that’d be it of you lot.”
Charlotte smiled. “Why us?”
“Pure-bloods,” James said promptly.
“But so are you,” I pointed out.
He shook his head. “Nah, I’m a blood traitor, he certainly wouldn’t be allowed to talk to me.”
Sirius plainly agreed. “Yes, the Potters used to be okay, but then they started agreeing with some of the pro-Muggle legislation so that pushed them right out to the edge of who’s acceptable. And then Prongs is going out with a Muggle-born, so that definitely puts him on the banned list.”
“And Moony and Wormtail are both half-bloods, so they’re on the outer right there,” added James. “Plus there’s Moony’s furry little problem, which would also count against him.”
“They’d discount him because of a rabbit?” Charlotte was incredulous and I noticed Remus looking a little uncomfortable.
“You’d be surprised,” Sirius said almost ominously. “So Prongs, Moony and Wormtail are out, so I’d definitely need to find some new best friends. Mulciber, perhaps, my mother’d like him. And then there’s you, Lily, a Muggle-born, so like James said that definitely rules you out as someone to even speak to. And Laura’s a half-blood, but not just any half-blood, you’re the worst type,” he went on, looking at me.
I looked at him in surprise. “There are types?”
“Of course there are,” he said. “You’re not half Muggle-born, but actually half Muggle. Admittedly they don’t see it as much of a difference, but it’s definitely a step down. And your dad, who as a pure-blood might have been your saving grace, works in Muggle relations and even married a Muggle, so that makes him more of a blood traitor than Prongs is. So you’re way out, almost as bad as Lily.” I was very thankful he wasn’t talking to his family any more, if that was what he would have to deal with.
“But Charlotte and I are okay?” asked Martha, her eyebrows raised.
“To a point,” Sirius agreed, nodding. “I think the Trimbles and the Hornbys would pass the test as acquaintances and maybe even dinner party guests, but I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to marry either of you. Families not nearly old enough. And being in Gryffindor would be a mark against you, too – not as bad as Hufflepuff, but definitely not good.” He paused and looked at Mary. “And Mary, though you’re a pure-blood, crazy Uncle Magnus would probably count against you.”
Mary nodded. “Tha’, an’ my brither’s marryin’ a Muggle-born this summer.”
Martha feigned disappointment at this news while Sirius groaned. “Right, that pushes you out completely. Forget we ever spoke.”
“I’ve heard aboot th’ Blacks,” Mary agreed with a grin. “Though I’m nae sure ye’d be able t’ fin’ anyone t’ marry, if they’re tha’ strict.”
James laughed again. “Got it in one, Mary. There are so few pure-bloods families left, particularly the really old ones, that it’s no surprise they’ve resorted to marrying their own cousins.”
“Second cousins,” Sirius corrected, the look on his face halfway between a smile and a glare. “They’re second cousins. I’m not quite as inbred as you like to make out.”
Lily gasped. “Your parents are second cousins?”
He nodded, his expression sour. “Yep. Both Blacks as well, which is why I’m such a disappointment to them. Not nearly enough pride in the family name for their liking.”
Charlotte looked confused. “I’ve never understood that. What’s the difference between a first cousin and a second cousin?”
“The connection goes back one more generation,” Sirius explained. “First cousins have the same grandparents, whereas second cousins have the same great-grandparents. If you’re someone’s second cousin then your respective parents would have been cousins. And that means that inbreeding is considered to be less of an issue.”
“Oh, right.” Charlotte looked like she was having difficulty trying to work out the logistics in her head, but I had a question burning in me and decided to leave her to her machinations.
“So,” I asked, “who would you be allowed to marry?” Not me, obviously, but I wanted to know what he’d have ended up with if he’d kept to the family traditions.
He looked at me curiously. “Well, as eldest son and principal heir to the ‘Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’” (this complete with his fingers acting as inverted commas), “there’s a considerable screening process. She’d have to be a nice, respectable pure-blood girl from one of the oldest families, preferably personally chosen by my dear old mum and vetted several times to make sure she’s appropriate and doesn’t have any skeletons in her family tree. No Squibs, or anyone who married a Muggle, that sort of thing. It would help if she’d been in Slytherin, of course. And she’d be obedient and virginal – yes, definitely virginal,” he added, responding to Peter’s snigger, “we can’t have any soiled goods arriving at the House of Black.”
Martha snorted in disgust. “Soiled goods? You make her sound like – I don’t know, a commodity or something!”
Sirius smiled sourly. “Well, that’s what she’d be. Women who marry Blacks are only there to provide heirs. They’re chosen based on their breeding potential.” He grinned suddenly, looking around at our faces. “You all look shocked. What did you think it was like?” We were all dumbstruck so he went on. “Where was I up to?”
“Obedient and virginal,” provided Peter, a smirk coming back to his face.
“Right,” said Sirius. “So she’d be obedient and virginal and in all likelihood have absolutely no interest in me beyond my last name, birth order and Gringotts vault. And we’d be married in an all pure-blood ceremony, and then she’d be expected to pop out an heir every couple of years. Preferably male, obviously, to keep the name going, and hopefully more than one of those in case something happens to the first one. Like running away, for example.” He smiled briefly and for a split second I was sure I saw a sparkle in his eyes. “An heir and a spare, as they say,” he went on, making a face. “Once there are enough of those, I suspect, we’d end up in separate bedrooms and I’d drink myself to an early grave out of sheer boredom.” He stopped again, looking back at me since I’d asked the original question, and when he spoke again his voice was bitter. “What I want, of course, is completely irrelevant, as my duty to the family is far more important than anything as trivial as personal preferences.”
I noticed again how aristocratic his features actually were, and realised with a start that if he lived in the Muggle world he’d probably be a member of the nobility. Which might have been a blessing in one way, because it would have meant I’d never have met him and therefore wouldn’t be obsessing about him like I was. Fortunately the wizarding world was more egalitarian – no royalty, no upper class, so to speak, though some families (like the Blacks) had appointed themselves as that anyway. But the expectations heaped on him were worse than I’d thought – no wonder he ran away, if he’d had that to look forward to. And I wasn’t the only one to think that, from the look of the faces around me, though Remus, James and even Lily looked suspiciously like they were trying not to smile.
Charlotte spoke first. “I knew it was bad but I never realised it was as bad as that,” she said. “No wonder you got out. You’d end up with Scylla Pritchard!”
He shook his head and grinned suddenly. “I did say virginal, remember? No, more likely Maggie Flint, but I suspect she’s probably got too much of a mind of her own to make the grade. The Carrows aren’t an old enough family I wouldn’t think, and Baddock and Urquhart are half-bloods so they’re out.” He paused, his face turning sour again. “But why stop at our year? Age is irrelevant when you’ve got a dynasty to continue.”
“Well,” Lily said bracingly, “now we know why you left. I’d say it’s definitely better to be broke and homeless than having to deal with that sort of rubbish.”
He grinned again. “Yep, now it’s Regulus’ turn,” he said. “The spare to replace the heir. He can deal with all the rules and expectations and marry the lovely respectable Slytherin virgin our dear mother picks out for him. I think I’d rather get Kissed by a Dementor than have a life like that.”
Author’s note: A nice long chapter to welcome you back after the break! Hope you enjoyed it. And a big thank you to Georgia Weasley who helped me ensure it complied with the ToS. :D