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How to tame a Marauder by melian

Format: Novel
Chapters: 62
Word Count: 300,758
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme, Contains Spoilers

Genres: Drama, Humor, Romance
Characters: Lupin, Sirius, Lily, James, Pettigrew, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Sirius/OC, James/Lily, OC/OC

First Published: 02/10/2009
Last Chapter: 01/12/2013
Last Updated: 01/12/2013

Summary:



As Sirius led me around the room, I took a deep breath. "So, was it a bet or a dare?"
"What do you mean?" he asked. When his eyes drifted to James I grinned.
"Don't play dumb. You'd never ask me to dance in a million years. Besides, Potter just gave you the thumbs up."
He groaned. "Are we really that obvious? OK yes, it was a dare."

banner: .Candy @TDA


Chapter 1: Return to Hogwarts
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Author's notes:  This is my first attempt at fanfic so please be kind!  I've kept as close to canon all the way through as I can, though I can't guarantee it's all correct. Bear in mind, though, that this was written before Pottermore so any new information as a result of that website hasn't been included.  Also, it's structured as a coming-of-age story rather than a traditional romance, so if it seems to take a little while to get going, that's why.  (Or, at least, that's my excuse!)  Thanks for reading.

Disclaimer:  OCs and plot belong to me, but everything you recognise is the marvellous work of JK Rowling.

 

 









“Bye, Laura!  Have a good term!”

“Bye Mum!  Bye Dad!!  See you at Christmas!” I called out to my parents as the Hogwarts Express took off.  They waved sadly, always a bit upset when the first of September came around, when their usually noisy house became quiet once more as my sister Beatrice and I took off to school.  I could see them looking for her on the train as well, but Beatrice had already forgotten them and was settled in a corner with her group of oddball friends.  At least Bea would be finishing school this year – next September first would not be quite so hard on our parents.

Beatrice was a bit of a difficult sister to have.  Two and a half years older, she was extremely intelligent – genius level in fact – but, as if to compensate, had no social skills whatsoever.  Whoever handed out the small talk gene in the birth lottery had missed her entirely.  To get around any awkward situations she found herself in – and there were a tidy few, let me tell you – she started hexing people at a relatively young age, and since then had hidden behind that.  At Hogwarts, where she was Sorted into Ravenclaw (where else?), she had found a couple of other kids just as odd as herself, and they had a wonderful time lost in their own little world, inventing spells that did weird things to people like making them sprout antlers or speak in Spanish for an hour.

She was also extremely competitive, something else that seemed to have missed me in the gene pool.  She had single-handedly caused the near demise of the Gobstones Club by alienating those people who had joined because they just enjoyed playing Gobstones, and membership dwindled to less than a dozen as more and more students dropped out.  This competitiveness wasn’t just limited to Gobstones, however – it surfaced in a lot of things, and she had once not spoken to me for two weeks because I got a higher grade in Charms than she did in the end of year exams.

Needless to say, Bea was not particularly popular.  She got herself pretty well known from the start, not always for the right reasons, so when I started at Hogwarts two years later my arrival was surrounded by speculation that I’d be just like her.

This wasn’t helped by the fact we looked very similar.  Not twin-similar, but you could tell we were sisters.  And the look, to my endless dismay, could only be described as ordinary.  We both had mid-brown hair, which she kept rather short but I had a few inches past my shoulders, perhaps as a way of differentiating myself from her.  I generally kept it down except during classes like Potions or Herbology where it would invariably get in the way;  and it had enough of a kink to it to be aggravating, a kink which insisted on staying there no matter how many straightening spells or hair potions I used on it.  This was 1975, after all, and hair needed to be dead straight, which mine steadfastly refused to do.  Our faces weren’t all that different except for eye colour (Bea’s a beautiful clear blue, mine murky brown), and we were both of a middling height and slim-ish, though in about fourth year I had a bit of a growth spurt and ended up a couple of inches taller than she was.  So, not identical, but easily identifiable as related.  This meant that by looking at me that first day on the Hogwarts Express, the assumption that Beatrice Cauldwell the Second had arrived was strengthened.

Fortunately for me, I wasn’t Bea Mark II, something the Sorting Hat recognised when it put me in Gryffindor.  Why there, I wasn’t entirely sure, but maybe it thought I was brave for actually coming to a school where my sister was so universally disliked.  (My dad’s family had traditionally been in Hufflepuff, so the Cauldwells had now been represented in every House bar Slytherin.)  I was, however, somewhat stigmatised for the simple fact of being Bea’s sister, and I spent a tidy bit of time trying to sort out her skirmishes.

Bea and I had grown up with a foot pretty much in each world, wizarding and Muggle.  Dad worked in Muggle Liaison for the Ministry, which meant that whenever something happened that involved Muggles, and for whatever reason Memory Charms weren’t appropriate for the short term, he was called in to diffuse the situation and work with Muggle authorities to rectify things.  He’d met Mum on the job, as she was a Muggle policewoman who’d witnessed a rather grisly attack on a village by a Hebridean Black dragon that had ventured south looking for food during a particularly bleak winter.  He’d already modified her memory when they fell in love, so he had a rather interesting time trying to pursue her when she had no idea who or what he was supposed to be.  Eventually they married and settled in a small village about thirty miles from Cardiff, not too far from his family and also within driving distance from her parents, who had retired to Bath.

Being caught between the two worlds was particularly difficult for Mum, who was bound by the Statute of Secrecy.  The Ministry had perfected a modified version of the Memory Charm for such cases, where the person is aware of the magical community, and can penetrate places like Diagon Alley and Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters, but when in the company of Muggles pretty much forgets about magic.  This works quite well generally, but Mum was always aware of her lack of magical abilities, particularly when Bea and then I came along and were quite obviously magical from a young age.

As children we were home schooled until I was eight or so when we moved to Bristol, just across the Mouth of the Severn, and were sent to the local Muggle primary school.  I went a bit younger than Bea because I could be trusted from a younger age to keep my mouth shut about magic;  besides, anything odd we said was generally attributed by the other kids to the fact that we were Welsh, and from the country.  The move meant that Mum could re-join the police force, and eventually she became the Bristol force’s chief officer for investigating matters related to the magical world.  I suspected many of her colleagues had no idea what exactly she did, but she was good at her job and, with the exception of the odd uncontrolled outburst from Bea, everything went smoothly.

During these formative years I had turned into a bit of a tomboy.  I think my father had wanted a son, and when none arrived he decided to see how open Bea and I would be to things like sports and racing brooms.  Bea, though not interested in dolls either, paid no real attention to these things, but I was more receptive and spent much of my childhood playing backyard Quidditch (quite badly), climbing trees trying to find lost Quaffles and Snitches, soaring about the countryside on a toy broom, and going to see our team, the Catapults, whenever they were playing somewhere that it was easy for us to get to.  I loved watching Quidditch but wasn’t much good at playing it – while my balance, aim and reaction times were pretty good on the ground, for some reason they deserted me on a broomstick.  I could fly fine so long as I kept both hands on the broom, but once one hand left the wooden handle I had all sorts of problems and there was more than one trip to St Mungo’s to repair the bones I broke from falling off.

Beyond Quidditch and flying, I could also strip down a broom and reassemble it, sometimes putting additional charms on to make it do more things, and hold my own in a game of Gobstones or Wizard Chess or even Muggle poker.  I also had a keen interest in the world around me and liked to go around looking in holes in the ground for Nifflers or on trees for Bowtruckles, or tending the garden where we kept a lot of magical plants that looked enough like Muggle ones to not be commented on.  Needless to say, I wasn’t one for playing with dolls or any of the other more girly activities (much like Bea there), my bedroom didn’t have a hint of pink frills or lace in it, and in my spare time (and when the weather was co-operative) I was likely to be found in jeans and trainers outside, poking my nose into different plants or trying to identify the various creatures around.

Mum wasn’t inactive in our childhoods either, and indoctrinated us both very young into the intricacies of rugby, which has been described (with good reason) as the Welsh national religion.  Many times during the years before Hogwarts a catch-up with my maternal grandparents meant going to a Test match at National Stadium in Cardiff, which was always a highlight of the colder months.  Mum would also make sure we were up to date with Muggle culture by giving us books and magazines, taking us to films when she had time and buying the occasional record by Queen or the Rolling Stones.  This of course continued during our formal schooling, and we would come home in school holidays to find examples of recent Muggle innovations, fashions and sounds in her efforts to ensure we could fit into either world.

Once I started at Hogwarts and was, to my delight, assigned a completely different House to Beatrice, my best friend Mary Macdonald and I gravitated together because we never really fit anywhere else, though we became best friends because we really did have a lot in common.  We were both fairly shy and quiet and, as I was someone who liked to keep my home life and my school life separate, she was the only one I had ever really opened up to.

Mary was a displaced Scot, in that she had been born in Scotland and lived there until the summer between second and third years at school, when her father had died and her mother had moved the family to London to be closer to her parents.  Mary and her brother Andrew had held on to their Scottishness for as long as possible, complete with the family tartan, bagpipes and haggis, but despite their best efforts they were eventually assimilated into greater British wizarding society.  I often used the Macdonalds’ house as a base when I had to go to London, to buy school supplies and the like.

Back to the train.  I waved to my parents until I couldn’t see them any more, then sat down and turned to Mary, who was sitting opposite.  A few girls who looked like they were about to start third year had joined the compartment and were jabbering away happily among themselves.  “So, anything exciting happen since I last heard from you?”

“I dinna think so,” Mary said, stroking her cat Circe.  “Didna ge’ prefec’, o’ course.  Ma’s a wee bi’ disappointed bu’ there wa’ nae way I was going t’ ge’ it, nae realistically, an’ deep doon I thin’ she knew tha’.”  She pushed her long dark hair out of her eyes and smiled ruefully.

I grinned.  “If it’s any consolation I didn’t get it either.  But then again my mum wasn’t Head Girl.”  My mother, being a Muggle, hadn’t even attended Hogwarts.  Mary’s mother on the other hand had been a brilliant student in her day;  her name was all over the trophies in the school trophy room for Charms prizes and the like.  Unfortunately for Mary, while she’d inherited her mum’s strong work ethic, she missed out on some of her brains and was, like me, near the middle of the class.

“I expec’ Charlotte go’ th’ badge,” said Mary.  “Tha’s okay.  I’m happy bein’ where I am.  A’ leas’ I dinna hae tha’ responsibility.  One less thing t’ hae t’ think aboot, especially durin’ OWLs.”

“Actually it was Lily,” I told her.  “I saw her on the platform earlier, she was already in her robes and she definitely had the badge on.  We’ll probably see her patrolling the train any minute now.”

“Same diff,” she said dismissively.  “Lily, Charlotte, Martha, any one o’ them coul’ hae go’ it.  Though Lily – I dinna ken, I woul’ hae thought her habit o’ talkin’ back t’ th’ teachers coul’ hae worked again’ her.”

“Yeah, but she picks her targets,” I pointed out.  “Only people like Slughorn who indulge her.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen her talking back to McGonagall, for instance.”

“Aye, good poin’,” she conceded.  “Nae worth worrying aboot nou, anyway, is it?”

The other Gryffindor girls in our year were Lily Evans, Martha Hornby and Charlotte Trimble.  I really liked all of them a lot – they had everything going for them, looks, brains, humour and compassion.  Lily in particular really was one of the world’s beautiful people.  But that was just it.  Not only were Mary and I not in the same league as them, but we weren’t even in the same hemisphere.  There was no dislike or even envy, just a recognition they were different from us.  We did share a dorm, however, and that, if nothing else, meant they knew us and were happy to talk to us, and sometimes we got along very well – though if we’d been in different Houses, I had my doubts whether they would have even known our names.

“Which of the boys do you think would have got prefect?” I asked almost rhetorically.  The four Gryffindor boys in our year were renowned troublemakers – it was almost a shame one of them had to be a prefect, though no one seriously thought it would put a halt to their antics.

“Prob’ly Remus,” Mary said thoughtfully.  “Peter’s go’ nae leadership qualities wha’soe’er, an’ the ither two spend too much time i’ detention t’ be real contenders.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” I agreed, then changed the subject.  “I’m getting hungry, I didn’t have much breakfast.  Do you want to see if we can find the food trolley?”

Pulling out our money pouches, we made our way down the train looking for the trolley witch.  Halfway through the second carriage, however, we were bowled over by two boys who had just been pushed out of a compartment.

“Oh, sorry!” exclaimed the first, a brown-haired boy in our year called Remus Lupin.  The other boy, a pudgy thing with colourless hair named Peter, just looked embarrassed as he tried to disentangle himself from us.

As I pulled myself up I saw the perpetrators laughing at the pile of bodies.  James Potter and Sirius Black, the two most popular boys in the school – and the best looking. When we’d discovered boys, so to speak, in about second or third year, we’d found their extreme good looks more than a little intimidating. We were pretty much immune to them by now, having spent practically every day in their presence in the years since, but every now and then you still noticed it.  Never mind that they were only in fifth year, they still had older students hanging off their every word and, in the cases of some girls, trying to hang off their arms as well.  They knew it as well, adding a little reality to the equation:  no one could be that blessed and not have it go to their heads a bit.

“Girls, girls,” sighed Sirius with mock exasperation.  He was tall and somewhat haughty-looking with features best described as aristocratic, a natural elegance and longish black hair that fell into his eyes, a haircut that Mary derisively referred to as ‘Musketeer-style’.  “We know we’re irresistible, but you really don’t have to fall at our feet quite so obviously.”

“Absolutely,” agreed James, who was just as tall as Sirius, also with dark hair, but his was shorter and stuck up at the back by itself, I suspected with his encouragement.  He also wore glasses, which if anything added to his charm, though he was probably a touch too pretty for my taste.  “There are easier ways to get our attention.”

Mary groaned.  We had by now extricated ourselves from the tangle of limbs on the floor.  “I’m really nae i’ th’ mood, lads,” she said, flicking her wand at them.  “Tarantallegra.”  The spell hit James on the chest, causing him to do a kind of tap dance around the compartment.

We giggled to each other and wandered on down the carriage, looking over our shoulders at them.  I caught the glint of a prefect badge on Remus’ robes – we’d been right about that one.

Before we reached the end of the carriage we heard Sirius call out to us.  “Oi!  Macdonald!”  Mary turned around.  “You know I can’t let you get away with that,” he said, a cocky grin on his face.

Well, we’d expected nothing less – you didn’t hex James Potter and not suffer any consequences.  If he didn’t get you back in one way or another, one of his friends would.  In this case, Sirius pointed his wand at Mary and drew it up slowly.  Without him saying anything, she was lifted off the floor, still in the standing position, until her head was banging softly on the ceiling.  He rotated his wand and she did two full three hundred and sixty degree turns, quite quickly, before he brought her to a halt and let her back down.  “I thought of leaving you upside down,” he said with a smirk, “but you’re not in your robes yet so it’s not nearly so much fun.”  He looked pointedly at her jeans.

I was gaping at him.  “You can do non-verbal spells?”  We weren’t due to start learning those for another year.

He shrugged, making even that look elegant.  “So?” he asked, like it was nothing, and turned back into his compartment.

Did I mention he and James were also two of the smartest kids in school?  Some people have all the luck.

****

The beginning of the school year was always a bustle of activity.  On the first morning our Head of House and Transfiguration teacher, Professor McGonagall, walked along our table in the Great Hall handing out timetables.  Mary and I, who had chosen almost all the same subjects as each other, consulted them eagerly.

“Double Potions wi’ Slytherins firs’ thin’,” Mary groaned.  Lily, who was sitting opposite us, smiled to herself, her sparkling green eyes darting over to the Slytherin table.

Martha had noticed it.  “I don’t know why you’re friends with him, Lils,” she said disapprovingly.  “He’s a nasty piece of work.”  I knew who she was talking about – Severus Snape, Slytherin, and all-round generally creepy boy.  He had a reputation for hexing people for no good reason and, even in first year, had known (and used) more curses than half of the seventh-years.  For some reason Lily had always been friendly with him, despite his keenness on the Dark Arts and seeming willingness to use them on other people.  The people he most often hung around with, fellow Slytherins Charon Avery and Irving Mulciber, were also known for their fondness for the Dark Arts.  People who didn’t like him much – so, most of the school who weren’t Slytherins – had taken to calling him ‘Snivellus’.

Lily shook her head, sending a wave of dark red hair flying around her face.  “No, he’s just misunderstood,” she said.  “Do you really think I would have been friends with him for so long if he was as bad as you make out?”  She looked sternly at Martha.  “And I don’t know how I would have got started in Potions if he hadn’t been helping me out,” she added.

Martha and Charlotte made a point of rolling their eyes at her.  “Lily, you are brilliant at Potions,” Charlotte pointed out, pushing her glasses further up her nose.  “I don’t care what you say, even if you never spoke to him you would still be brilliant at Potions.”

“Yes, but in first year I’d have been completely lost, coming from a Muggle family and everything,” Lily insisted.  “He held my hand all through that first year when I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.”

Martha faked a choke on her bacon and eggs.  “Sure it was just your hand, Lils?” she asked.  “I get the feeling he’d like to hold onto more of you than that.”

“No, we’re just friends,” Lily said, blushing furiously and shaking her head again.

“Just as well,” said James Potter, who was two places down and had obviously been listening in.  “’Cause if Snivellus laid one greasy finger on you, I’d curse him into next week.”

James had had a crush on Lily since third year, but he’d only asked her out maybe three or four times, probably because each time she put him down so scathingly that in all likelihood he needed a week to nurse his ego back to its usual substantial proportions.  In fact, she was one of the only people at the school who could (occasionally) get away with jinxing him without retaliation.  I knew she didn’t hate him as much as she made out – some of that charm had to get through, and he definitely laid it on thick when she was around – but she did think he was a mite arrogant, and was waiting for that to settle down a bit before she considered saying yes.

“Oh, you would, would you,” Lily shot back icily, her eyes flashing angrily.  “Well, Potter, this may have escaped your notice but I’m a prefect now, and if you even try to do that I’ll take points from you quicker than you can say Quidditch.  Yes, from my own House.  So don’t push me!”  She pushed her empty plate away from her, got up from the table and swept out of the Great Hall.

“Don’t think that one worked, mate,” Sirius Black commented dryly from his seat opposite James.  “Maybe you shouldn’t be threatening to hex her friends to her face.  Just an idea.”  He shovelled some more scrambled eggs into his mouth, shrugging at James as he stared, stunned, at the place Lily had just left.

“But it’s Snivellus!  Can’t she see what a greasy git he is?”  James sounded genuinely confused.

“But he is her friend,” said the measured voice of Remus Lupin, who was on the other side of James.  “I think Sirius is right.  Pick on someone else for a change.”

James pouted stubbornly.  “You mean you expect me to get through a double Potions lesson without once doing anything to Snivellus?  That’s a huge ask!”

“You’re right, it is a huge ask,” Sirius conceded.  “Well then, at least make sure she doesn’t know it’s you.”  He grinned, helping himself to more bacon and wolfing it down hungrily.

“Yeah, they sit at the front anyway, so they won’t be able to see you,” added Peter Pettigrew from his spot next to Sirius.  Martha and Charlotte rolled their eyes.

“You guys are lucky we don’t like him either, otherwise we’d tell Lils what you’re up to,” Martha said, flashing a brilliant smile at Sirius as she pushed her empty plate away from her.  “Come on, Charlotte, let’s go get what we need for today.”  They got up from the table and sauntered off, their long hair bouncing behind them.

Sirius turned his head to watch them leave, absent-mindedly chewing on a piece of toast and generally paying so little attention to his surroundings that Peter started waving a hand in front of his face, saying, “Earth to Sirius, Earth to Sirius.”  Distracted, Sirius scowled at him and pretended to concentrate on his still overloaded plate.

Mary and I looked at each other, the empty space between us and the boys meaning we could see and hear everything that was going on.  Mary was clearly doing all she could not to laugh.  “Martha an’ Sirius?” she mouthed at me silently.  I raised my eyebrows at her, signalling that we should make our own move out of the Hall.

“Well, that’s different from last term, to say the least,” I muttered to her as we made our way through the Entrance Hall and towards the marble staircase that led to the upper floors of the castle.  “They couldn’t stomach each other then.  Wonder what happened to change that?”

It was true.  Sirius and Martha had been at loggerheads for much of fourth year, apparently a result of her taunting him about his family, with whom it was rumoured he didn’t get along.  I didn’t know a lot about the Blacks, being half Muggle and all, but Mary was from an old wizarding family and had heard all sorts of stories about them and their pure-blood mania.  She had explained this to me in first year, after I had been confused by the shocked silence that enveloped the Great Hall when Sirius was Sorted into Gryffindor – the first of the Blacks not to be in Slytherin.  Anyway, Martha had got into an argument with him just after the Christmas break, when she had implied that he wasn’t as different from them as he liked to make out and that the world didn’t stop revolving just because a Black had asked it to.  He had none-too-subtly suggested that she get her facts straight before spouting off about things she knew nothing about, and the resultant screaming match had ended with her ears growing to about ten times their usual size and his hair turning pink, curly and cascading down his back.  The ensuing feud had lasted at least until the train ride home at the end of fourth year, when they’d had a hex battle in the corridor.

Martha and Sirius continued flirting with each other throughout the day, like they had reached an unspoken understanding that the new aim was to snog each other senseless.  It was baffling, to say the least, but it at least provided an entertaining alternative to James and Severus trying to hex each other into oblivion, each trying to outdo the other in an effort to win Lily’s affections.

James, true to expectations, hadn’t managed to get through double Potions without trying to sabotage Snape’s Draught of Peace, but realised he had failed dismally when Professor Slughorn, the Potions master, started waxing lyrical about the perfect silver vapour billowing out of Snape’s cauldron.  Severus was easily as good at Potions as Lily was and I was sure they were comparing notes, the way they kept whispering together throughout the class.

James’ potion, on the other hand, was grey and a little gluggy, which was only somewhat better than mine.  While he had undoubtedly been distracted, I couldn’t help but think that, in this class at least, he had nothing on Severus.
 
 


Chapter 2: Changes in Camelot
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The mystery of Martha and Sirius was solved later that night, when all five of us were in the dormitory getting ready for bed.  I was bursting with curiosity but didn’t feel like I knew Martha well enough to ask, or even how to ask, what the sudden about-face in behaviour meant.  Charlotte, luckily, had no such qualms.

“Oi, Martha,” she said, throwing her towel at her through the bathroom door.  Martha looked at her, toothbrush in mouth.

“What?” she mumbled through her toothpaste.

“What’s going on with Sirius?  Long story or not, you promised to tell us tonight!”

“Absolutely, ’fess up,” Lily agreed.

Martha went red, turning her back to us to both rinse out her mouth and hide her glowing cheeks.  After splashing some water over her face, she came back into the dormitory.

Charlotte and Lily were both staring her down.  “Well?” Lily prompted, after Martha didn’t say anything straight away.  “We thought you two hated each other!”

“We don’t hate each other.  We just had a – misunderstanding,” Martha said sheepishly, looking around the dorm and noting that Mary and I, who were both sitting on Mary’s bed, were going to be part of the conversation too, by default if nothing else.  “My dad found out about what had happened, I think McGonagall must have written to him after I sent Sirius to the hospital wing that time.  One too many detentions for hexing people, probably.”

Charlotte giggled, a reminiscent look on her face.  One of Martha’s jinxes had gone haywire and Sirius had come down with a nasty combination of octopus tentacles sprouting from his face, a missing nose and a muscular bind, where he couldn’t move his upper body.  In the end they sent him to Madam Pomfrey in the hospital wing and she had, after much trial and error, managed to undo the damage.

“Anyway,” Martha continued, warming to the task at hand, “Mum and Dad sat me down and gave me a long lecture on stereotyping people.  Apparently Mum went to school with Sirius’ folks and she gave me a rundown on the sorts of things they used to do and say to people, particularly Muggle-borns and half-bloods.”  She looked at Lily and then me as she took a deep breath and went on.  “She made me tell her exactly what Sirius had done, and I realised it was nothing like what she’d been describing used to happen in her day, and nothing like what Sirius must have been brought up to believe.  She pointed out that to even be Sorted into Gryffindor he must be really different from that, and, well, I couldn’t say anything to that.  Because it was all true.  I felt so ashamed of myself.  So then they both sat me down and made me write to him to apologise.”  She was now sitting on her bed, silent tears forming in her eyes.

“He was really nice about it,” she went on finally, breaking into a grin when she saw the dubious look on Lily’s face.  “Yeah, I was as surprised as you are.  It was only because I was so stubborn I wouldn’t admit I was wrong, that he kept it up all that time.  He was angry with me because I refused to see what should have been obvious.  So when I wrote and apologised, he wrote back, saying he forgave me and saying that by apologising I was becoming a bigger person.  So I wrote this really flirty and suggestive letter back, never intending to send it, but just to make me feel better.  I never even finished it.  Unfortunately Mum found it in my room and, thinking I’d forgotten to send it, gave it to Lechuza – our owl,” she explained, seeing Mary’s confused look, “and – well – he read it.  ’Course, he’d just had that other letter so he’d know my handwriting, even though I hadn’t signed it.  So I had three options – pretend it didn’t happen, get horribly embarrassed, or go along with it.”

Lily was getting red-faced from trying not to laugh, while Charlotte abandoned all pretence and thumped her mattress in appreciation.

Martha grinned suddenly, a mischievous twinkle in her damp eyes.  “I figured that the potential benefits of going along with it were far greater than any alternative,” she said.  “I mean, Sirius Black!  If he went along with it … wow! I  couldn’t do much better, could I?”

“True,” Charlotte agreed.  “He’s quite a catch, I must admit.  Rich, too, everyone knows the Blacks are loaded.”  She paused.  “Pity his ego is larger than a Hungarian Horntail!”

“And just as dangerous,” added Lily.  “Between him and James …”

I smiled as I made my way back to my own bed.  Trust her to bring James into it.  That denial thing she was doing just wasn’t as convincing as it had once been.

“It seems to be working, though,” said Martha, grinning even more broadly.  “Proves it definitely was worth a shot!”

“Ye look goo’ together, too,” Mary said shyly.  Martha looked at her, surprised:  Mary rarely included herself in these conversations – she and I usually preferred to sit on the sidelines, taking it all in but not really contributing.  “Bu’ ye dae,” she insisted, getting a bit braver.  “Ye seem t’ match, somehoo.  Prob’ly because ye’re both gorgeous.”

Martha blushed and mumbled something into her bed hangings.  She never was particularly good at taking compliments.

Mary was right, of course.  Martha had dead straight honey-coloured hair that cascaded down her back, cornflower-blue eyes and the sort of face that normally adorned magazine covers.  She was one of the best looking girls in the school from any year group, so when paired with Sirius Black, who was the best looking boy, it did seem a good match.

****

The week wore on and all our teachers seemed intent on pointing out that this year we would take our OWL (Ordinary Wizarding Level) exams which could determine our future careers, and that we should all be buckling down now and spending every spare second with our noses in various textbooks.  It was all a bit of overkill and by Thursday we were sick of what felt like a speech the teachers had all learned.  It was apparently important because we needed a good OWL grade in order to progress to most classes at the next level, which was known as NEWTs (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests), for which we would take final examinations in seventh year.

Charms was my favourite class, probably because I was good at it.  Along with Lily I was one of the best in the year, though no one could oust Greta Catchlove from Ravenclaw from her spot at top of the class.  It was taught by a very short wizard called Professor Flitwick, head of Ravenclaw House, who had to stand on a chair in order to be able to see over his desk, but who was also very good-natured and had a wicked sense of humour.  Charms classes were always a lot of fun because there was so much going on, with a couple of dozen students practicing wand movements and incantation pronunciation, that you could use the time to talk about all sorts of things without Flitwick being any the wiser.

Herbology was another class I enjoyed, because it was basically gardening.  We had a good sized garden at home and I enjoyed working in it over the summer to clear my head, so I saw Herbology as an extension of that.  There were five greenhouses at Hogwarts and the teacher (and head of Hufflepuff House), Professor Sprout, had been working us through them and introducing us to more and more dangerous magical plants.

Transfiguration was trickier, and was taught by Professor McGonagall.  She was head of Gryffindor House, but she never favoured us over other students and was someone you didn’t want to cross.  Occasionally she could smile, which had surprised all of us when we discovered it in maybe second year, but you couldn’t argue that she wasn’t extremely fair even if her classes were, frankly, difficult.  We had progressed to Vanishing spells that year, which required such concentration that I was frequently exhausted by the end of the lesson.  Some of the smarter students seemed to get through without much difficulty, but for most of us it was a twice-weekly struggle to get everything right.

Potions was equally difficult, with Professor Slughorn, head of Slytherin House, as the Potions master.  Short, round and bald, with a grey walrus-like moustache, he had a select group of favourite students and largely ignored everyone else – anyone who was beautiful, brilliant or well-connected was in, and everyone else was out.  Of the Gryffindors in my year, Charlotte had been invited to join the Slug Club, as it was known, straight out of the blocks, as her uncle Quentin had written one of our textbooks.  Once their brilliance became apparent, James and Sirius also received invitations, as did Lily for both brains and spunk.  Needless to say Mary and I weren’t invited, and I doubted if Slughorn even knew our names as he called us something different each lesson.

History of Magic had to be the world’s most boring subject.  I’d read the textbook by Bathilda Bagshot and some of the material was really quite fascinating but our teacher, Professor Binns, was the dullest teacher imaginable.  He was a ghost, which sounds far more interesting than it actually was, and his dry little voice droned on monotonously, no matter how interesting the subject matter may in fact be.  Generally within five minutes half of the class was generally in a bit of a dazed stupor, and within ten minutes the rest of the class had joined them.  Mary and I had a standing agreement to elbow each other in the ribs if we caught the other actually falling asleep during class.

Astronomy lessons were also something of a trial.  While I didn’t mind the subject matter, and sometimes it was nice having classes at midnight gazing up at the sky, I failed to see any relevance to everyday life.  At least the others could be taught with some sort of perspective to them.  Besides, Astronomy often meant the Canis Major constellation, which caused the boys in our class to have giggling fits every time it was brought up.  Sirius, it seemed, was the name of its alpha star – apparently this was a naming tradition in the Black family – so whenever it got a mention it was seen as a huge joke.  One which, needless to say, the rest of us didn’t share in and found rather irksome.

Care of Magical Creatures, an elective subject, was always fun.  Along with Herbology it was one of the few to take place outside the castle proper, and was usually held on the lawns near the forbidden forest.  The teacher, Professor Kettleburn, was an elderly wizard with only one and a half limbs left and a lot of white flyaway hair.  He could get rather flustered if things didn’t go according to how he had planned them, but he did know his stuff and we learned a lot about several interesting and magical creatures.

Much less entertaining but equally interesting was Ancient Runes, which was the closest thing Hogwarts offered to a foreign language.  Runes could be found on ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian wizarding tombs and in libraries from those times, so the class focused on interpretation and translation of the runes and applying their contents to wizarding society.  The Runes mistress, Professor Babbling, was as her name suggested a rather talkative witch who encouraged class discussion about the subject, but she discouraged discussion of any other nature in her lessons and penalties for talking during it were harsh.  Martha and Remus were the only other Gryffindors taking the subject, which was an elective.

The other three elective subjects were Muggle Studies, Divination and Arithmancy, but as I didn’t take them I can’t offer much information about them.  Mary took Muggle Studies, which was as its name suggested the study of the culture, history and society of Muggles.  Many pure-blood wizards knew next to nothing about Muggles so it was often a fairly popular class, though it was seen by some, perhaps somewhat unfairly, as a soft option.  As my mother was a Muggle I had never really seen the point in my taking it. I mean, we even had a television set at home.

Divination was the study of prophesising the future.  Charlotte and Peter were the only Gryffindors who took the subject so I relied on their reports of it, but it seemed they read tea leaves, crystal balls and people’s palms, among other things, to foretell the future.  It seemed a bit vague to me and even Charlotte spoke derisively of it, though she continued taking it all through her NEWT studies.  Arithmancy appeared to be a class that dealt with the magical properties of numbers, and the subject was taken by Lily, Martha and Charlotte, who were often working through complicated number charts and threatening to tell us all about ourselves based on the numerology of our birth dates.

Defence Against the Dark Arts was the final class offered, a core subject and the most important that we took.  This was because of the rubbish spouted by the latest wizarding hatemonger, who had given himself the title of Lord Voldemort.  This Voldemort was waging war on Muggle-borns and half-bloods, claiming that only those with pure blood were worthy of learning the skills of magic, and that everyone else was an impostor and not worth wiping your feet on.  You get the general idea.

Most people were horrified by the undercurrent of ignorance and hatred that Voldemort inspired and thrived on – after all, the last major wizarding war had ended only thirty years ago with the defeat of Grindelwald, and now here was some new upstart trying to dredge it all up again.  Not that anyone dared to say that out loud, of course.  Voldemort had managed to arouse such fear among the community, with random Muggle killings and attacks on the ‘unworthy’, all of which ended with his signature emblem emblazoned in the sky above the scene of the crime, that many people were unwilling to speak his name:  he was increasingly known as ‘You-Know-Who’ or ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’.

So, taking Defence Against the Dark Arts meant that we were equipping ourselves to survive Voldemort and his select group of thugs, known as Death Eaters.  Our education in it had been a little disjointed as we’d had a different teacher each year – some said the job was jinxed – but we were all eager to ensure we did as well as we possibly could, this year under the tutelage of a middle-aged wizard by the name of Professor Dingle.

****

Of course, it wasn’t just the likes of Voldemort’s sympathisers and supporters that we had to deal with.  Much closer to home were the various petty rivalries and jealousies that accompany any school group, and ours was no exception.  Most of them were nothing to write home about – things like James and Severus each trying to impress Lily, for example – but it was impossible to ignore the vicious rumours spread by Dione Turpin from Ravenclaw.

Dione had a nasty habit of launching character attacks against anyone she saw as a threat or felt inferior to in any way, never needing anything as irrelevant as evidence to back up her insinuations.  She was very effective in this because, while spiteful, she was remarkably subtle.  Her attacks were always out of vision and earshot of any of the boys, to the extent that I didn’t think any of them even knew about them, and as a result she was perceived by many people as a lovely person.  No wonder she was in Ravenclaw – you’d have to be really smart to be able to pull off a split personality like that.  The Headmaster had even been taken in enough to make her a prefect.

Dione’s attacks were mostly jaw, all talk and little action, and it was an uncommon sight to see her actually jinxing anyone.  This was quite possibly one of her smartest moves, as it was much harder to undo damage to someone’s reputation than it was to remove bicorn horns or something similar from their head.  (There was that Ravenclaw thing again.)

Fortunately for me I was well outside her radar – as a Cauldwell there was never any possibility she might feel inferior to me, no matter what I as a person might achieve.  Having Bea as a sister was more than enough to lump me well at the bottom of the social spectrum.  People like Lily, Martha and Charlotte, however, were prime targets for someone like Dione, and especially after Lily too received a prefect’s badge she was singled out even more than she had been previously, clearly considered to be fair game.

It had to be jealousy, of course, as there was nothing about Lily not to like.  But she was beautiful and gifted and had half the boys in the year drooling over her, and Dione had taken exception to this.  The rivalry had been going on since about second year, with no encouragement from Lily whatsoever except for the occasional retaliatory hex that invariably couldn’t be traced back to her, but it seemed to be hitting new heights this year.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Dione muttered venomously as Lily walked past.  “SHE’s a prefect?  Dumbledore must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel, picking someone who has to copy all her work from the books in the library in order to pass.”

“Does she really?” asked Gertie Cresswell, her partner in crime.  “Wow, I didn’t know that.  We really should tell someone.  Hey, do you think Elvira knows?”

And so it would start.  I was never convinced that Gertie ever felt any real malice towards Lily (or anyone else Dione was targeting on any given day), but she would generally agree and do her bit in spreading the rumours anyway, possibly just to keep the peace.

Mary seemed to agree with this.  “Ye know, Laura,” she said one day, watching them, “I’m nae sure that Gertie even believes Dione these days.”

“She probably doesn’t,” I agreed.  “She’s fine with Lily and the rest of them when Dione’s not around, it’s just when she’s in full flight that Gertie goes along with it.”

“Prob’ly scared o’ her,” she suggested.

“Well, would you blame her if she was?” I asked.  “I certainly wouldn’t want Dione as an enemy.”

“Aye, goo’ poin’,” Mary said with a grin.  “Well, she is i’ Ravenclaw so she’d hae t’ be smart, maybe this is her way o’ showin’ it.”

Luckily for Lily, she was so well regarded generally that hardly anyone believed anything Dione said about her.  Eventually people started ignoring Dione’s accusations and stories altogether and began referring to them as Turpin Tales.  When this had started I wasn’t entirely sure but it was well entrenched by the end of fourth year and whenever we heard something particularly ridiculous – for example, Martha had been seduced by a vampire on the latest Hogsmeade visit – we dismissed it as a Turpin Tale and therefore no more worth believing than those of Beedle the Bard.

****

As pretty much everyone had expected, Martha and Sirius were an item by the end of the first week of term.  Every now and then I would notice her gazing dreamily off into the distance during classes, or sneaking away during breaks with him to grab a quick snog between lessons.  They didn’t stop hanging around with their respective friends, though, and from what Martha said when she finally made it into the dorm late at night they never actually got around to doing much talking.  They were, however, very much the golden couple, the ones that everyone wanted to emulate, which wasn’t at all surprising considering, as Mary had pointed out earlier, they were both gorgeous.  It was the gossip of the school for a while – until Charon Avery decided otherwise.

Avery, from Slytherin, was another nasty piece of work.  He was from one of the old pure-blood families that thought Voldemort, who I mentioned before, had it right.  As such, people like me, Peter and Remus (half-bloods) or Lily (Muggle-born) were regarded as the scum of the earth.  Of course, we were in the same year as he was, which meant we had the same amount of magical training, so he didn’t pick on us.  No, Avery wasn’t one to pick a fight with someone his own size.  He was much more likely to find a Muggle-born in one of the junior years and have a go at cursing them.  (He always was a particularly brave type.)

The furore started four or so weeks into term, when it was impossible not to notice the whispers throughout the Great Hall during supper one Saturday night.

“Has anyone seen him?”

“Who’s missing?”

“You know, that second-year from Ravenclaw, the blonde kid who nearly made the Quidditch team.  The one who tried out for Seeker.”

“Does anyone know where he might be?”

The boy in question was called Lenny Dodderidge, and it seemed he’d been missing since before lunch.  Professor Flitwick, the Charms master who was also Head of Ravenclaw House, was alerted and a full scale search of the castle was initiated.  After an hour or two they found Lenny with Avery in one of the dungeons, where Charon had decided to use the younger boy, who was Muggle-born, to practice the Cruciatus (or torture) Curse on.  This curse was one of the three ‘Unforgivables’, the use of any of which would normally result in a trip to Azkaban, the wizard prison.

Fortunately for Lenny, Charon wasn’t as good at the Dark Arts as he had thought.  While he succeeded in inflicting a reasonable amount of pain on the younger boy, he didn’t have enough power or ability to actually torture him the way the curse intended.  Lenny spent a week or two in the hospital wing under the watchful eye of the Matron, Madam Pomfrey, mostly for observation, and came out pretty much as good as new.

“I’m surprised Avery didna ge’ expelled,” Mary said at dinner that night.  Because no permanent damage had been inflicted on Lenny, Avery was indeed allowed to stay on at Hogwarts – though he had been sentenced to spend four months in detention and be accompanied by a teacher everywhere he went for a long time.

“I don’t know,” I said, considering.  “Dumbledore’s known for giving people second chances, isn’t he?  I mean, there have been some pretty awful things happen in the past few years due to the war, and no one’s been kicked out yet.  Not Unforgivables, I admit, but still …”

I wasn’t kidding.  Two years previously some seventh-year Slytherins called Jugson and Crabbe had made a bit of a crusade of bullying young Muggle-born students, not to the extent of actual torture but certainly making their lives difficult (for example, hanging them off the Astronomy tower in their underwear in the middle of winter, with no wands), and more than one of their victims had decided to abandon the magical world entirely as a result of this harassment.  And the year before that another Slytherin named Thorfinn Rowle, who had since been confirmed as having joined the Death Eaters, got in a lot of trouble for trying to perfect the Entrail-Expelling Curse, which it was suspected he had planned to use on some Muggles or Muggle-borns.  None of these people had been expelled.

“Aye, ye’re richt,” Mary agreed with a sigh.  “Though he mus’ hae convinced Dumbledore tha’ he wilna dae it again, an’ we all know Dumbledore can tell when ye’re lyin’.”

“Maybe they managed to instil the fear of Merlin into him if he even thought about doing anything like that again,” I said.  “Or, at the very least, the fear of McGonagall.”  Our head of House was such a strict disciplinarian that she could even get the boys in our year to behave, no mean feat in anyone’s language. 






Author’s note: I’m still not thrilled with this chapter but it is better than it was to start with, so it will do for now. I may do some more tweaking later on, though, if I get inspired, so don’t be surprised if it changes slightly yet again.

Chapter 3: Retribution
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It was not at all surprising, following the Avery/Dodderidge incident, that the lessons we shared with the Slytherins became somewhat tenser.  We had Potions and Care of Magical Creatures with them, and Charon had to deal with the contempt of the Gryffindors as we all sent various jinxes his way, all ‘completely accidental’ of course.  None of us actually knew Lenny Dodderidge, not even me who spent a tidy amount of time in Ravenclaw Tower with Beatrice, but in our book anyone who was prepared to do that to a fellow student was nothing short of evil.  Besides, aside from his litany of detentions, there didn’t seem to be any other punishments going his way as a result of what he’d done.  He didn’t even get a Howler.

One day towards the end of what had to that point been a relatively uneventful Care of Magical Creatures class, our teacher, Professor Kettleburn, was engaged in helping Lily and Martha try to catch their Porlock, which had wrested itself from Lily’s grip and was heading off at a rate of knots towards the forbidden forest.  James, Sirius, Remus and Peter, watching Kettleburn hurry off away from the other students, finally saw this as their chance to get back at Avery properly.  Everyone knew it was coming but no one was particularly worried:  their pranks on fellow students were generally aimed to embarrass rather than injure, and this was expected to be no different.

“Watch this,” I told Mary, my eyes, like everyone else’s, fixed on Charon rather like he was a train wreck.  “They’re definitely up to something.”

Mary nodded, holding our Porlock tightly – after all, we didn’t want to lose it like Lily and Martha had – while she looked through her hair at the boys who were slowly encircling the hapless Avery.  He had by now noticed what was happening and had to face them alone, as Scylla Pritchard, who he had been working with, made her excuses and scampered away quickly with their Porlock when she too saw the Gryffindors coming in.  Snape and Mulciber were also watching from a distance – it seemed that none of Charon’s friends had either the courage or inclination to come to his defence.

Cornered, Avery started fumbling inside his robes in what seemed a vain attempt to locate his wand.  “Got a problem, Black?” he growled, looking at the person directly in front of him and giving the distinct impression that he was trying to sound much braver than he was actually feeling.

Sirius pretended to think about that.  “I don’t think so,” he said lightly after a couple of seconds of feigned deliberation.  “But then, I’m not the one who uses Unforgivable Curses on children.  Would have said you had more of a problem, myself.”

Avery, who still hadn’t managed to get his hands on his wand, glanced quickly over his shoulder in search of Professor Kettleburn, but he was still trying to corner Martha and Lily’s errant Porlock.  The boys surrounding him moved in closer, as if for the kill.

Locomotor mortis,” said James, pointing his wand at Charon.  It was the leg-locker curse – Avery couldn’t move without falling flat on his face.

Engorgio,” Sirius added, directing the charm at Avery’s mouth.  His lips started swelling up until he had trouble keeping his head up with the weight of them.

Furnunculus,” continued Peter, making boils sprout out all over Charon’s face.  This time he did fall over, a painful-looking mess of burst boils and foot-wide lips, with his legs jerking around, unable to separate.

“ENOUGH!!!” yelled a voice from behind Avery – it seemed Professor Kettleburn had finally worked out what was going on.  He was hurrying as fast as his limp would allow him towards the disturbance, his wand out and his white hair standing out furiously from his head.  Remus, with his wand out, looked a little disappointed he would not be able to join in the fun.

“FIFTY POINTS FROM GRYFFINDOR!!” Kettleburn shouted angrily, breathless from his short run.  “I don’t know what you were thinking, Mr Black, Mr Potter, but there is NO excuse for attacking a fellow student!!  Even if is Mr Avery,” he added, more quietly this time as he recognised the victim.  I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Kettleburn felt Charon deserved all he got, but as a teacher he couldn’t exactly say that.

“Mr Lupin, you are a prefect,” Professor Kettleburn continued, making each word sound like it should have its own capital letter.  “What in Merlin’s name were you thinking?  Mr Avery, I’ll have to escort you to the hospital wing.  Oh – sorry – Finite incantatem,” he added, unlocking Avery’s legs so he could in fact go where directed.  “Reducio,” he went on, shrinking Avery’s lips to a more manageable size.

Charon threw a filthy look at James and Sirius as Kettleburn marched him off towards the castle.  Of course, with the teachers constantly chaperoning him around between lessons he couldn’t actually do much, but it was clear he’d filed the incident away under ‘reasons for revenge’, to be reopened when it was possible to extract it.

****

Avery’s chance for revenge came rather sooner than he would have anticipated, though it didn’t exactly go off like he had probably hoped.  A week or so after the Care of Magical Creatures incident he somehow managed to slip out of the Great Hall after supper without any of the teachers noticing.

The fifth-year Gryffindor boys and Martha, who for whatever reason had eaten with them that evening and was now firmly attached to Sirius’ arm, had just left the hall and were at the foot of the magnificent marble staircase in the Entrance Hall on their way up towards Gryffindor Tower.  Charon wasn’t dumb enough to take them on alone, and had recruited Severus Snape and Irving Mulciber for his little outing.  Mary and I, exiting the hall behind the Slytherins with the intent of going to the library, stopped in our tracks and watched breathlessly to see what would eventuate.

“Potter!” Avery snarled at James’ retreating form.

James stopped and turned around when his name was called, but turned back equally quickly at the sight of Avery, Snape and Mulciber.  “Remus, did you hear anything?” he asked casually, jumping slightly to avoid a blue flash that had come from Avery’s wand towards his feet.  His reflexes really were excellent, probably a by-product of being on the House Quidditch team for the past two and a bit years, and he evaded it with ease.

“I don’t think so,” Remus said evenly, casting a Shield Charm between them and the Slytherins.

“Must have been my imagination, then,” James commented matter-of-factly, as though he was discussing the weather or something equally innocuous.

“I expect so,” agreed Remus, acting for all the world like he hadn’t seen Charon or his friends at all.  “Peter, did you hear anything?”

“Not me,” said Peter.  “Though I did see some Slytherin scum seeping out of the Great Hall.  Do you think I should see if I can find a teacher?”  He too jumped, though rather later than would have been necessary, as a yellow flash bounced off the shield Remus had erected and hit the floor just behind him.

Martha, standing with Sirius on the second stair, had obviously decided to join in.  “I don’t think so, Peter,” she said, smiling broadly.  “It could spoil our fun.  Silencio,” she added, pulling out her wand and reaching over the Shield to successfully hit Mulciber with a Silencing Charm so he couldn’t send any more hexes.

The Shield Charm by this time was almost shattered by the wave of jinxes that had hit it, so Remus set about re-casting it to make sure all five of them came out of this encounter intact.

Sirius had been watching, expressionless and silent, throughout the whole affair.  He spoke up now.  “You know what?” he said to no one in particular, a rather ugly expression of contempt creeping onto his otherwise handsome face.  “I really don’t think they’re worth it.  Honestly, if this is the best they can do – not even able to shatter a Shield Charm – what are we worried about?”

Snape blanched at the insult, but before he could respond James hit him with another Silencing Charm.  Clearly the Slytherins weren’t yet able to cast non-verbal spells that would enable them to get past that particular impediment, which wasn’t really surprising considering we weren’t supposed to learn them until sixth year.

“Avery?  Did you hear what Sirius had to say?  He doesn’t think you’re smart enough to bother with,” James said with mock politeness.

“Like I care what that little son of a bitch thinks,” Avery growled.

Sirius laughed sourly.  “I didn’t realise you knew my mother, Avery!” he quipped.  Charon scowled, but Sirius was grinning humourlessly.  “Say hi to her for me next time you see her, okay?”  And, grabbing Martha by the hand, he turned on his heel and walked up the stairs towards Gryffindor Tower without pausing or looking back once.

****

It seemed the school year had only just begun but already the teachers were piling on the homework, and those of us who weren’t extremely well organised (in other words, normal people) were having trouble keeping up with it all.  Every night after supper Mary and I could be found in the common room, cloistered away at our table by the window, trying to finish the latest Potions or Herbology assignment.  One night in mid October, however, we had to give that up entirely as it became impossible to study there.

We were halfway through our homework for Defence Against the Dark Arts (‘Explain with examples the situations in which minor curses and jinxes are appropriate’ – eighteen inches at least) when the furniture in the common room suddenly began to spin around randomly, knocking people over and settling itself over school bags, people and other furniture.  Watching triumphantly from a vantage point near the boys’ staircase were James and Sirius, their grins becoming wider as the furniture wreaked more and more havoc.  Our own table became part of the action soon enough, taking our chairs on a merry trip up part of the girls’ staircase, over the banister and then doing pirouettes in front of the fire.

Once it became obvious that the boys had absolutely no intention of returning the common room to its usual state, Remus, who was a prefect after all, walked over to them with a resigned look on his face and tried to talk them into stopping the charm (or whatever it was).  After all, we’d tried Finite incantatem and it hadn’t worked, so this clearly needed something a bit more specific.  Mary and I had been chased by a table and one of the armchairs to a spot close enough for us to hear the conversation.

“All right, you two, let it off.  You’ve had your fun.”  Remus sounded almost exasperated, as though he had hoped in vain that his prefect status would give him some degree of authority over his friends.

“Nah, we haven’t,” came James’ voice above the palaver.  “We’ve only just begun.”

That sounded ominous, and clearly Remus thought so too.  “Just begun what, exactly?”

James laughed.  “Come on, mate, it is Friday night.  Let’s have some fun to get the weekend started!”

Sirius plainly agreed.  “And it’s not like we’re actually breaking any rules.  We checked, and there definitely isn’t one that specifically says you can’t make the common room furniture do cartwheels of its own volition.  So you can’t force us to stop because we’re not doing anything wrong.”

“But that’s not really the point, though, is it?” asked Remus, still in remarkably measured tones.  I marvelled inwardly at how good he was at keeping his temper and not allowing himself to get worked up.  “You’re interrupting the study of everyone in here and basically being a nuisance.”

“So?”  Sirius’ arrogant streak was rearing its ugly head.  “What difference does that make?”

“So you should show some consideration to the other people in the common room.  It’s not all about you.”  Ooh, that last sentence was a killer.  Privately I thought Remus should most probably have quit a bit earlier – saying something like that to Sirius Black, particularly when he had his wand out, was never a good idea.

Sirius, however, just shrugged, in what must have been a testimony to their years of friendship.  Certainly if anyone else had said that to him they would have been flashing orange by now.  Or have suddenly grown some Re’em horns.  “Dunno what you mean,” he said.  “Of course it’s about us.  Who else would it be about?”

James chimed in, a broad smile across his face.  “Absolutely.  We’re just showing a little love to everyone else in Gryffindor House.  A touch of Potter and Black.”

Sirius was nodding.  “And we all know how much people like us to touch them.”  He grinned mischievously, and Mary and I looked at each other and groaned.

“Ge’ yer hand off it, will ye,” Mary muttered under her breath, then turned to me.  “Wha’ dae ye say we finish off i’ th’ library?”  We ducked a wayward armchair which had been hurtling towards us, bouncing over some second-years trying to play Exploding Snap and spinning off towards a furious-looking Lily, who had just come downstairs to discover the mayhem being inflicted on Gryffindor House and was marching towards the perpetrators with her eyes flashing.  Better to not be in the room when she got started with them, I thought, Merlin only knew what might happen.

“Never was there a better idea,” I agreed quickly.  “What did we do to deserve sharing a common room with those two?”

“Must hae bin Grindelwald i’ a previous life an’ all,” she said with a grin as she hoisted her bag onto her shoulder.

I laughed, ducking under the fire tongs as they spun towards my head.  “Can’t have – he’s still alive.  But maybe one of his chief henchmen, do you think?  And now we’re being punished.”

Mary laughed.  “Where dae ye suppose Martha is?” she asked, as though Martha’s status as Sirius’ girlfriend, if she disapproved of what he was doing, would have made any difference whatsoever.

I shrugged.  “Beats me.  Though I have the feeling that if anything she’d probably be encouraging them.”

“Aye, ye’re prob’ly richt,” Mary nodded in agreement as we tentatively made our way to the portrait hole and headed downstairs to the library, grateful to escape the commotion.

****

If the piles of homework being inflicted on us weren’t enough to keep us occupied, every Sunday my Sunday Prophet informed us of the news, most of it quite distressing, from outside the castle walls.  I used to quite enjoy sitting down after breakfast on Sunday mornings to go through it and catch up on the news for the week, but as a by-product of the current war between the Death Eaters and, well, let’s call them sensible people, the paper was now more and more often filled with news of deaths, disappearances and incidents of torture.  My mother, as a Muggle, also kept me up to date with what was happening in the Muggle world, and it became increasingly evident that a lot of things going on there were also due to Voldemort, either attacking the families of Muggle-born witches and wizards, or just Muggle baiting for the hell of it.

“Let’s see what the damage is this week,” I said to Mary one morning as we flicked through the paper looking for the list of the most recent dead, injured or missing.  “Right, here we go.  Forty-three dead definitely due to the war, another eighty-nine dead due to circumstances that might be linked to it.  Seventy-one tortured or otherwise injured by Death Eaters or those acting on their instructions.  And thirty-seven missing, though some of those had the Dark Mark above their houses so anything’s possible there.”

“Aboot normal, then,” she said grimly.  “Hoo’s the Ministry copin’ wi’ it all?”

I shrugged.  “Probably the same as usual, as far as I know.  Which is, they’re not.  Mum reckons Dad’s going spare, no one seems to know what’s going on and the Obliviators are going from place to place without even knowing who they have to modify the memory of or what’s happened this time.  It’s a shambles, apparently.”

“Aye, tha’ doesna surprise me,” she said, rolling her eyes dramatically.  “Makes lookin’ after Bea almos’ seem lik’ an easy job, doesna it?”

“As though that’s ever easy,” I said with a groan.  “You remember how last week she gave Damocles Belby an elephant’s trunk?  Well, that was because he beat her in a Potions essay.  I mean, Potions.  It’s not even like she likes the subject, but she was still ticked off that he did better than she did.  I swear, sometimes I think that girl is going to be the death of me.”

Mary giggled.  “An’ wha’ aboot tha’ thing yesterday?”

I groaned again.  “What, when Stamford Jorkins started reciting poetry for no reason?”

“Aye, tha’s th’ one,” she agreed.  “Tha’ wa’ her, too, wasna it?”

I nodded.  “Absolutely.  I haven’t even been able to get her to tell me what that was about, she’s clammed up for some reason.  But yeah, she and Cynthia and Sturgis have perfected this spell that means you can only speak in couplets.  It took Madam Pomfrey and Professor Dumbledore two hours to work out how to reverse it.”

“I’m gettin’ th’ feelin’ tha’ ye’d rather deal wi’ th’ war than Bea,” she said.  “Shall we ge’ back t’ th’ paper, then?”

“Why not,” I said glumly.  “Who knows, it might even cheer me up.”

Mary busied herself with flicking through the paper looking for anything that didn’t relate to Voldemort and the Death Eaters, while I helped myself to some kippers.  Suddenly she let out a loud groan.  “Ye’re kiddin’,” she said.  “E’en th’ birth notices are linked t’ th’ war.  Here, look, prood t’ annoonce th’ birth o’ Gideon Crumb, son o’ th’ late Wilfred Crumb who wa’ killed las’ week by Inferi, believed t’ be under th’ control o’ Death Eaters.  Th’ Inferi, tha’ is, nae th’ bairn.”  She looked at me and made a face.  “Tha’s it, I give up.”

In fact, aside from the front-page (and admittedly sensational) news that the captain of the Montrose Magpies Quidditch team had been killed in a collision with a helicopter, which we had already discussed at length, and the sports reports, there was virtually nothing in the Prophet that wasn’t connected with the war in one way or another.  Reading the paper was no longer a relaxing event, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing it: I was drawn to the information with the same sort of morbid curiosity that compels people to follow particularly gruesome murder investigations.

Having said that, I often got a little upset by what I had read, particularly when I recognised one of the names, and so afterwards I generally needed to calm down a bit and clear my head, invariably heading down to the Quidditch pitch to take my broom out for a bit of a spin.  Mary soon knew to not even look for me after breakfast on a Sunday until I wandered back up to the common room looking rather windswept but peaceful again.

Not that the castle was necessarily a quiet and serene place where one could forget one’s problems either – though this time I’m not referring to the likes of Charon Avery or even Dione Turpin.  Or even Peeves, Hogwarts’ resident poltergeist who liked to randomly drop heavy objects on people’s heads and could only be controlled by the Bloody Baron, the rather sinister-looking Slytherin ghost.  No, this was more about the threat our peers presented.  The more proficient we got at spell-casting, the more likely it was that we would be hexed in the hallway by someone in our year keen to practice a new jinx.  And, as we were discovering, you couldn’t always rely on the appointed authority figures within the student body to behave themselves in this regard.

Leaving lunch the following day on our way to Defence Against the Dark Arts, we saw James Potter suffering from the unmistakeable effects of a Jelly-Legs Jinx and noticed Lily hiding behind a statue in the Entrance Hall and watching him with a gleeful expression on her face, her wand spinning around in her hand.

“So much fer prefec’s settin’ a good example,” Mary muttered, though she was smiling.

“Wonder what he did this time,” I said.

“Micht nae hae bin anything,” she pointed out rather wisely.  “Sometimes she jus’ feels lik’ hexin’ him.  Though I canna say I blame her.”  Really, Lily and James were sometimes like kids in the school playground, pulling pigtails and the like.  Though it also reminded me of something else …

“Yeah, it’s a bit like him and Severus,” I agreed.  “You get the impression they just jinx each other for something to do.”  And because they both desperately want the same girl, I thought, but that was so obvious it went without saying.

As I sat in my final class for the day I found my attention was waning.  Ancient Runes was held in a normally abandoned classroom on the ground floor that day, as someone – rumoured once again to be James and Sirius, who had a habit of doing this sort of thing when they were bored – had bewitched all the suits of armour on the third floor so that they threw gobstones at anyone who came near them, and the teachers hadn’t managed to catch them all yet to undo the spell.  Professor Babbling had hurriedly cleared out a room not far from the Great Hall and we had moved in there for the day, fortunate that it was a class that we didn’t need anything other than our textbooks and parchment for.

However, as I mentioned, my mind wasn’t really on Ancient Runes that afternoon.  In our Defence class Professor Dingle had taken the opportunity to teach us about Dementors and their effects.  Oddly enough Dumbledore had refused to allow a real Dementor to be brought to class, but Dingle had magically created the effects of an attack and as a result I was feeling less than inspired.  While Babbling droned on about common pitfalls in advanced rune translation I allowed my mind to wander as I gazed outside to the bright October sunshine.

Through the window I could see Lily and Severus Snape, walking along the cloisters that surrounded the courtyard, deep in conversation.  His face had a voracious look as he watched her, but she seemed unaware of it, her arms flapping about wildly as she tried to make a point.  I watched them for a while, wondering why she never noticed the way he looked at her – I was sure that I could never be that oblivious – but she was as impervious as ever, talking unconcernedly as he gazed hungrily at her.

“Honestly, he gives me the creeps,” I said to Mary that night at dinner as I told her the story.  “Every time anyone came near them, even if they weren’t even paying her any attention, he’d reach for his wand and look absolute daggers at them.  I’m amazed she didn’t notice.”

“I’m nae surprised, though, really,” Mary said.  “He’s always bin possessive o’ her, e’er since firs’ year.  Remember, he’d insis’ on walkin’ her everywhere, e’en when he wa’ supposed t’ be somewhere else.”

“Yeah, but that was four years ago,” I said.  “She can look after herself by now, she’s one of the smartest in the year.  By hovering over her all the time like that it’s more like he’s stalking her than protecting her.”

Mary giggled.  “He prob’ly is,” she said.  “Stalkin’ her, tha’ is.”

“Yeah, well, it doesn’t look healthy from this distance,” I muttered, keeping my voice down a bit as Lily walked along the Gryffindor table towards Martha and Charlotte, having just finished another conversation with Severus by the doors into the Entrance Hall.

This opinion was strengthened at the Hallowe’en feast later that week.  When we arrived for supper the Great Hall was a masterpiece of giant pumpkins and hundreds of live bats flying around above our heads.  The Hallowe’en feast was always a highlight of the school year, and this year it was on a Friday so we really could let our hair down, so to speak.  The resident ghosts (with the exceptions of Peeves and Professor Binns) had been talked into doing a bit of formation gliding and put on a very impressive show, and the food and drink surpassed even its usual quality.

Halfway through the night Severus came over to our table to talk to Lily who, knowing the effect his presence would have on the rest of the Gryffindors, stood up and walked with him to the back of the hall.  As usual he eyed her greedily and I was sure I even saw him licking his lips as he watched her.  Lily, as always unaware of this behaviour, was talking to him cheerfully but distractedly, watching the ghosts doing their dance and enthusiastically joining in the applause when it was over.

The drama started when one of the younger students, who wouldn’t have been any more than second year and was probably even younger than that, got a fright from a suit of armour that jumped out rather close to him and ran terrified from the hall.  At least he would have, if he hadn’t run headfirst into Lily by the door and almost knocked her over.  Lily of course wasn’t bothered by it and was more concerned about the younger student’s welfare than her own, but Snape instantly got his wand out and put the boy in a full body bind before hitting him with a jinx that made his toenails grow at an alarming rate.  Lily just stared at him, shocked.

We couldn’t hear what they said to each other due to the noise and palaver in the hall but Lily was clearly horrified by what Severus had done, and before long both hexes had been reversed and the poor child was sobbing in the corner, being comforted by Professor Sprout.  Lily glared at Snape and took off out of the hall, while he just looked like he wasn’t quite sure why she was so upset, like he couldn’t for the life of him work out why what he’d done might have been inappropriate.

“He’s go’ t’ be kiddin’, doesna he?” muttered Mary next to me.  “He reckons he ca’ impress her by cursin’ bairns?”

“If he thinks that,” I said, helping myself to a piece of pumpkin pie, “he doesn’t really know her at all, no matter how long they’ve been friends.  That’s the last thing that would impress Lily.”

“I dinna lik’ th’ way he looks a’ her either,” she went on.  “It’s lik’ ye said th’ ither day.  He looks all greedy, lik’ he wants t’ possess her or summit.”

“He probably does,” I agreed.  “Why she can’t see it I will never understand.  I mean, it’s not like he’s subtle or anything.”

“She’s only e’er seen him as a frien’,” Mary said wisely.  “An’ she canna understand why any o’ us think it micht be more than tha’.  On his par’, a’ leas’.”

“I dare say you’re right.” I watched Snape make his way back to the Slytherin table, having been chastised by more than one member of staff for his little indiscretion.  We could see through the door that the emeralds in the Slytherin hourglass in the Entrance Hall moved, indicating that points had been taken from him as a result, though he still seemed nonplussed about what had happened.  In my opinion, the boy clearly had difficulty telling the difference between right and wrong. 



Author's note:  Again, not brilliant, but certainly better.  And as good as I'm going to get it at the moment!

Chapter 4: The Sirius Black fan club
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In early November notices went up in the common room about the upcoming Yule Ball.  This was held every two years, usually on the Saturday night before Christmas and the day before the Hogwarts Express took us back to London for the holidays, and students from fourth year and up were expected to attend.  While those in third year and below could come if invited by an older student, since every student would get two balls in their last four years of school, most of the younger students weren’t too fussed if they missed it.

The ball was a source of great excitement among the girls in our year but less so among the boys, a tidy few of whom we suspected would rather ask Peeves to the dance than actually take a real girl.  After all, maturity levels among fifteen and sixteen year olds fluctuate wildly.  Some of us had dress robes that we had brought with us at the start of term, but those students with less organised parents, or who didn’t like their parents’ choices, had to make the most of the upcoming Hogsmeade visit to find appropriate clothing.

Lily, Martha and Charlotte were bursting with enthusiasm about the ball and made extensive plans to find the most glamorous dress robes they could at Gladrags in Hogsmeade.  While any of them could have shown up in a hessian sack and still looked stunning, there was something charming about the extent of their preparation – even though as we neared the end of November, only Martha, who was going with Sirius, had a date.

This wasn’t for want of trying on the part of the Hogwarts male population, however.  James had naturally asked Lily as soon as he could (or as soon as he could get up the guts), but as always his timing was slightly off.  In this case, he tackled her as we finished a Care of Magical Creatures lesson, which had been marked by James and Sirius setting their Niffler on Elsie Baddock and Irving Mulciber from Slytherin, both of whom wore several rings and had neglected to remove them for the class;  Elsie had been sent to the hospital wing as a result of the ensuing attack.  The conversation, which we all overheard, went something like this.

“Evans?”  This was said rather tentatively.

“What do you want, Potter?”  Lily had her head in her bag, trying to jam her textbook back inside, and so was rather distracted and a little annoyed.  I suspected that once he started talking to her she also kept her head there so he couldn’t see her face.

“Uh, I was wondering, would you go to the ball with me?  Please?”  I had to hand it to him, he sounded rather endearing, and I wondered whether this would be the day she decided to give him a chance.  I mean, at least he said please.

“And why would I want to do that, Potter?” Lily asked shortly, her head emerging from her bag at last.

This took him aback somewhat.  “Oh, er, well, you see …”

Lily glared at him.  “And you, of course, being irresistible, can’t think how I might possibly not want to go with you?  You’re an arrogant, pig-headed, bullying toerag who thinks that because he’s a pretty boy with money he can get away with anything.  You know, if the Bloody Baron asked me to the ball, I think I’d take him over you.”

Well, it would seem Lily didn’t think that was the day to accept him, not if she’d prefer the company of the Slytherin ghost.  James visibly slumped, his face pale and the swagger in his step definitely gone.

Lily, being beautiful, smart and gifted, was naturally swamped with other suitors, some of whom even managed not to be hexed by James in the process.  In the end she said yes to Severus Snape, of all people, in what was obviously a testament to their long friendship.  He went around for a couple of days looking like Christmas had come early, until James finally got wind of the situation and turned his ears into grapefruit at the breakfast table.

Charlotte was also beating them off with a big stick.  Like James, her glasses made her even more attractive, and at sixteen she was just settling in to becoming a great beauty, a fact which was emphasised by the sheer weight of potential dates.

“Poor Charlotte,” Martha giggled in the dorm one night as Lily prepared to head off to one of Slughorn’s gatherings.  “Tilden Toots just asked her to the ball.”

“Toots?” Lily asked, giggling herself.  “Ooh, that’s unfortunate.  What did she say?”

“What do you think?” Martha said archly.  “She was very polite, of course, but she turned him down.  Honestly, why he even thought he’d have a chance …”

Lily was clearly trying to be fair.  “Well, I suppose it’s possible he might bathe between now and then, to get rid of the smell of dragon dung.”  Tilden, while a nice enough boy, was mad about Herbology and would spend every spare moment in the school greenhouses with Professor Sprout.  As a result, he carried a permanent odour of the various manures used, the most prominent scent being that of dragon dung, which had to be one of the least attractive smells known to man or beast.

“So, how many has she turned down now?” Martha asked.

“Six.  Or is it seven?  I lose count,” said Lily, reaching under her bed for a stray shoe.  “Anyway, I’ve got to go, she’s probably wondering where I am by now.”  And, finding the shoe and putting it on swiftly, she hurried out the door and down the stairs.

Mary looked at Martha a little shyly.  “So why does she keep sayin’ nae?” she asked.  “I hear’ Max Whitby ask her, an’ he seems nice enough.”

I giggled – even I knew the answer to that.  Martha confirmed it by rolling her eyes.

“She’s waiting for Remus to ask,” she said simply.  “She’ll never admit it, of course, but that’s what she wants.”

“She’s fancied him for ages,” I added a little hesitantly.  Martha looked at me quizzically.  “Well, she’s not always that subtle,” I explained, feeling a little emboldened as she appeared interested in what I had to say.  “I figured it out last year.  Remember when she got all uptight when he got ill and Snape and Mulciber kept making those snide remarks?”

Martha smiled suddenly, sitting down on her bed.  “That’s right,” she said.  “I’d forgotten about that.  She was a bit obvious, wasn’t she?”

“Well, does he know?” Mary asked.  “Why doesna he ask her oot?”

Martha shrugged.  “No idea if he knows or not.  I certainly haven’t told Sirius, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”  Her eyes flashed a little at the implication she might have betrayed a secret.

Mary shook her head.  “Nae, I didna mean t’ sugges’ tha’,” she said hurriedly.  Martha relaxed a little.  “I jus’ wondered why he’d wait,” Mary went on.  “Mos’ lads i’ this school’d kill t’ go oot wi’ her.”

“Well,” I said, thinking about it, “perhaps he doesn’t know.  Boys are often really clueless about that sort of thing.  Or, maybe he thinks she’s out of his league.”

“Who knows,” Martha said with a shrug, pulling out a lipstick and applying it distractedly.  “Anyway, I’m out of here.  Sirius was going to sneak out of Sluggy’s party and meet me by that big mirror on the fourth floor.  See you!”

Whatever Remus’ reasoning, he didn’t ask Charlotte to the ball.  Eventually, as November closed, she realised she couldn’t hold out waiting for him forever and agreed to go with Cadmus Branstone from Hufflepuff, a tall thin boy with dark blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, who I had dated early in fourth year.

Mary and I, naturally, weren’t nearly as sought-after.  Near the end of the first week of December Hector Bole from Ravenclaw asked me to the ball when I was sitting in their common room with Bea, trying to dissuade her from playing practical jokes on the Hogwarts ghosts.  (Definitely not a good idea, I argued, especially if Peeves works out who’s responsible.)  Hector wasn’t handsome but wasn’t bad looking either, he seemed perfectly nice and it beat going without a date at all, so I agreed.  Mary accepted a similar proposal from Gerry Stebbins, one of Hector’s dorm-mates, a day or so later.

For almost a week things were great in our dormitory – we all had dates and Mary and I were welcomed into the other girls’ conversations when they were planning hair and makeup styles for the ball, and swapping jewellery according to what would match each other’s dress robes.  However, it wasn’t to last, and one night the cat was figuratively hurled in among the pixies.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Martha came flouncing into the dorm at about eleven o’clock, looking decidedly bedraggled.  The rest of us were getting ready for bed, but Martha was often out until midnight, choosing to spend that time with Sirius in a broom cupboard somewhere.

“That’s it, I’ve had enough,” she exclaimed, hurling herself onto her bed.  “We’re breaking up.”

Lily spun around from her spot in the bathroom, toothbrush frozen mid-stroke.  She hurriedly spat out the toothpaste and came back into the dorm.

“Martha! What happened??  You were going so well!!”  She sat down on Martha’s bed and gave her a bear hug.

“‘Were’ is the key word,” Martha said bitterly.  “Really, he’s fine.  We don’t say much but that never really bothered me.”

Charlotte, who had been unbraiding her hair, joined Lily on Martha’s bed.  “You want to talk about it?”

“Why not,” said Martha, still bitterly.  “Everyone else will be.”  She rolled over and looked at the canopy of her four-poster bed.  “It’s because of the fan club,” she said after a pause.  “Those bimbos who follow him around everywhere.  Half of them aren’t even in his year, so that makes them hanging around his classrooms all the time all the more pathetic.”

We had all noticed them, of course, it was impossible not to:  a bunch of twenty or so girls, from third to sixth year, who had their sights set on Sirius and made it their business to bump into him, sometimes literally, at every given opportunity, particularly now Christmas trimmings were up and mistletoe had been posted throughout the castle.  While they were decidedly ridiculous, and most of the school joked about them behind their backs, their numbers had been swelling significantly over the past year or so, as he became taller and grew into his looks more, becoming even more good looking (if that was possible).  Even people like Mary and me, who barely knew Sirius, knew that he found the fan club irritating and tedious, and would much prefer it if they disappeared entirely.

“They’ve been making my life hell,” Martha continued.  “Jealous, of course.  And I can handle that, but I’m getting sick of them Transfiguring my things or trying to pelt me with Dungbombs or Stinksap or whatever the fad is this week.  So I asked him to talk to them.”

“You didn’t,” said Charlotte, respect clear in her voice.  It was suspected that Sirius would rather dance with the giant squid that lived in the lake next to the castle than even acknowledge the fan club’s existence in public.

“I did,” said Martha.  “I’m sick to death of it.  And even if they don’t listen to McGonagall, or Dingle, or Slughorn, or any other of the teachers, they might listen to him.”

“And how did he take that?” Lily asked mischievously.

“Not particularly well,” Martha admitted.  “He said it would be like opening Pandora’s box, once he started talking to them he’d never be rid of them.  Not that his current approach seems to be working very well,” she added wryly.

“No, but he’s got a point,” said Charlotte.  “I can just imagine how they’d be, they’d feel validated or something, that he was talking to them.  They probably will disappear eventually if he ignores them for long enough.”

“I think Charlotte’s right,” I agreed with some hesitation, my confidence buoyed a little by the fact that I’d been included in their conversations more and more lately.  “If he recognises them as a group they’ll never give up.  They might as well apply to Dumbledore to become an official club.”

“I know, I know,” said Martha, clearly irritated.  “But patience has never been one of my strengths.  And, you know, they’re just infuriating!  And the only way to stop it is to break up with him.  So I told him that, I said it’s either you talk to the bloody fan club, or we’re over.  And he chose the ‘we’re over’.”

Lily was looking serious now.  “And you’re okay with that?” she asked softly.

Martha considered for a bit.  “Actually, yeah, I am.  It was never a deep relationship, it was just a bit of fun.  And it definitely was fun,” she added wickedly, an almost maniacal grin crossing her face.  “But if you can go out with someone for three months and hardly talk to them, well, that was us.  It was all physical.  I’ll miss it, but I’m not broken hearted or anything.”

Charlotte had made her way back to her own bed and pointed her wand at her head, making her braids finish undoing themselves.  “So,” she said matter-of-factly, “do you want us to plot revenge on Sirius or on the fan club?”

Lily smiled mischievously.  “Or we could do both, if you’d prefer.”

Martha grinned suddenly.  “Oh, the fan club, definitely,” she said, her blue eyes sparkling.  “What did you have in mind?”

****

The Sirius Black fan club was unofficially led by a fifth-year Ravenclaw named Elvira Vablatsky, who had been one of the first to latch onto Sirius – or attempt to – in about second year.  She was a statuesque blonde girl with a pretty face and a keen mind, but her infatuation with Sirius made her a laughing stock with the rest of the school.  Due to my spending a tidy amount of time in the Ravenclaw common room with Bea, I knew her reasonably well and as a result she tended to use me as a source of information for anything Gryffindor-related.  I got along with her fine when she was focusing on things other than Sirius, but her one track mind generally made conversations with her rather difficult.

Over the past couple of years she had been joined by a few girls in our year – Carol Jones, a dark haired girl from Hufflepuff, and Greta Catchlove, a short, curvy and somewhat plump Ravenclaw, were the ones which most readily came to mind, though there were others.  There were maybe eight girls from the year below us who had also joined in the throng – a couple or so from each of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, and even a Slytherin who was trying her hardest to be subtle about it.  Another half dozen or so came from the year below that, obviously figuring that two years was an acceptable age gap for at-school relationships.  And I was pretty sure that at least three or four of the fan club came from sixth or seventh year, clearly happy going for a younger man.

James Potter had a fan club of his own, but it was significantly smaller – not because he was that much uglier, but because everyone knew he wanted Lily.  The half dozen girls who had set their sights on him saw him as a much more of a challenge and therefore worth spending some time on.  He was tall, dark and handsome, just as Sirius was (though maybe not quite as handsome), and rich, just as Sirius was, but the Lily thing was either a significant deterrent or a significant turn-on, depending on the girl.  James, of course, was even less interested in his following than Sirius was in his and paid them even less attention, if that was possible.

“Of course, it’ll be easy to get back at them,” Martha said the following morning as she pulled on her school robes.  “They’re so obsessed with trying to get Sirius to notice them that you just have to attack their vanity.  Make them ugly.  They’ll hate it.”

“That won’t be difficult,” Lily mused.  “With Greta and Carol, at least.  They’re pretty ugly to start with, we don’t have to do much.”

“Harder with Elvira, though,” Charlotte pointed out, polishing her glasses on her robes.  “She’s a bit of a stunner, really.  If she didn’t keep throwing herself at him she might have even had a chance.”

“Yeah, well,” Martha said sourly, “don’t let that stop you.  She’s going to have to be the main target, I think, considering she’s basically the leader.  Turn her hair to Murtlap tentacles or something, that’d do the job.”

“Maybe not that,” Lily said slowly, giving her wand a bit of a twirl, “but certainly something along those lines . Leave it with me and I’ll see what I can come up with.”

Over the next twenty-four hours Lily, Charlotte and Martha decided on their course of action.  They picked as their targets the most prominent members of the club, namely Elvira, Carol Jones, Leda Madley, Greta Catchlove and, from fourth year, Primrose McLeod.  Leda and Carol were both Hufflepuffs and the rest were in Ravenclaw, so there needed to be a bit of a combined effort to make sure they were all affected.

The prank itself took place in the Great Hall and was carried out by Lily and Charlotte, so that Martha could be witnessed sitting innocently at the Gryffindor table talking to Mary and me (on Lily’s request) so everyone would think she had nothing to do with it.  Lily and Charlotte positioned themselves on either side of the door before breakfast the next morning and simply waited for their targets to walk in.  As each one arrived, they suddenly became royal blue from head to toe, except for their faces which were bright pink and developed an interesting texture, rather like coarse sandpaper.  The prank necessitated absolute accuracy in spell casting, as they had to be sure not to miss their targets, but Lily and Charlotte were both fairly precise and managed to carry it off without mishap.

The victims, on the other hand, were less than impressed, especially as none of them could seem to work out how to reverse the spells.  Even Greta, who was best in our year at Charms, couldn’t figure out how to do it. In the end they were all sent to the hospital wing for Madam Pomfrey to weave her magic and get them back to normal.

“Oh, that was brilliant,” Martha giggled as Lily and Charlotte eventually joined us at the Gryffindor table.  “Did you see their faces? Magnificent.”

“Well cast, too,” I added with admiration.  “I could never have hit them from that distance.”

Lily just smiled and shook her head a little.  “Course you could have,” she said, going a little pink.  “You’ve got great aim, Laura.  But yes, it was a good shot, wasn’t it?”

“An’ they had nae idea where it came from,” Mary added, smiling.  “Ye could see them lookin’ aroond everywhere fer who micht hae done it, an’ they couldna work it oot. Ye did well.”

“How long do you think they’ll be in the hospital wing?” Martha asked, her eyes sparkling.  “Any chance it’ll be all day, do you think?”

Lily shook her head.  “I doubt it.  They might miss a couple of classes, but even Madam Pomfrey probably won’t keep them too long.  Can you imagine having that lot all locked up in there for any length of time?  She’ll probably let them go just to be rid of them.”

“Nou there’s a poin’,” Mary giggled.

“You’re telling me,” Charlotte agreed.  “Now, what’s for breakfast?  I’m starving.”

Even Sirius seemed to appreciate the prank on his admirers, though he appeared none the wiser as to who was responsible.  As always, Lily got away with everything, and not even Dumbledore seemed to realise she had been involved – or, if he did realise, she and Charlotte escaped a detention for it.  Not that anyone (aside from Dione) resented her for her ingenuity in escaping punishments (though occasionally she was caught), more we appreciated her talent for it.

Martha, of course, now had to look around for another date for the upcoming ball.  Fortunately for her she was Martha Hornby, belle of Hogwarts, and there wasn’t a lack of potential suitors.  Finally, with less than a week to go, she chose Nestor Hopkirk, a sixth-year Ravenclaw boy who, according to rumour, ditched his original date once Martha agreed.  Tall, strong, blonde and handsome, Nestor was one of the few boys at Hogwarts who could give James and Sirius a run for their money.

Sirius, it appeared, wasn’t terribly fussed at being replaced by Nestor.  He also found a date quickly, settling on Fortuna Robins, a fourth-year Gryffindor who was Peter’s cousin and therefore a safe option.  No one expected them to spend much time together at the ball, but for the sake of appearances it was considered important to at least arrive with a date, even if you didn’t do much else with them.

****

On Saturday night the week before the Yule Ball, Professor Slughorn held a Christmas party for his favourite students.  These parties were well known for being sumptuous affairs involving copious amounts of food and drink, as well as having guests from earlier generations of the Slug Club making an appearance.  These guests had in previous years included Bertie Bott (from Every Flavour Beans fame), Quidditch player Karl Broadmoor and breeder of winged horses Laurentia Fletwock.  Even trash journalist Rita Skeeter once got an invitation, according to Lily, though why she would have even been in the Slug Club in the first place was beyond me.

Lily and Charlotte got back to the dorm well past midnight but we were still awake, waiting for their report on the party. While generally we had little interest in Slughorn’s gatherings the Christmas party was an exception, most probably due to the guests and also the season which made people get a little more excitable than usual.  This year the guests included Cornelius Fudge, who was making quite a name for himself in the Ministry and was touted by some as a possible future Minister, Hamish MacFarlan, who used to play Quidditch for the Montrose Magpies and was now also in the Ministry, and well-known nutcase Hambledon Quince, who had publicly spouted a theory that wizards come from Mars and Muggles from mushrooms.

“It was hilarious,” Lily said with a giggle, which I suspected was due more to the drink that was rumoured to flow freely at these parties than anything else.  “Fudge was holding court in the middle of the room, raving on and on about whatever had his goat up –”

“It was the anti-troll campaign that Artemius Lawson keeps trying to set up,” Charlotte interrupted.  “You know, the sort of thing that’s so important that the Ministry has to concentrate on that rather than, well, I don’t know, catching You-Know-Who?”  She rolled her eyes in a bit of an exaggerated way.

“Yes, that was it,” Lily said, giggling again.  “Well, he was droning on and on, so much that even Slughorn was getting bored by it, but then his robes kept changing colour on him.  Every five or ten seconds, just a subtle change, but they went from blue to pink without him noticing!”

“James and Sirius, of course,” Charlotte explained, hiccoughing a little.  “Bored witless, as you’d expect, so they were practicing their Colour Change Charms.  By the time Fudge noticed he was wearing fairy pink.  And the boys were rolling around on the floor laughing while Fudge went the same colour as his robes. It was a scream.”

“But then Hamish MacFarlan arrived, so that was the last we saw of James and Sirius,” Lily went on a little scornfully.

Charlotte nodded, taking up the narrative.  She was far more interested in Quidditch than Lily was anyway.  “Yep, MacFarlane had a group in the corner and started telling us exactly how the Magpies had won so many championships while he was Captain.  You know, bending the rules and, well, cheating – all those things that we’d thought they were doing but couldn’t prove.”

“And he actually admitted to it?” I asked, spellbound.

“That surprised me, too,” Charlotte admitted.  “But I think it had a lot to do with the Firewhisky on offer – the more he drank, the more he told us.  I almost wish I’d taken a quill so I could have taken notes, Dad would love to know some of that stuff.”

“Good thing Rita Skeeter wasn’t there this year, then, wasn’t it?” Martha said archly.

Charlotte nodded.  “Well, if she was, I doubt he would have been nearly so talkative,” she said.  “It certainly was interesting, though.”

“This was the best bit, though,” Lily said, starting to laugh again.  “Hambledon Quince.  I think he was getting annoyed that people weren’t paying him enough attention, so he cast Sonorus on himself …”  She trailed off, laughing so hard she was having trouble talking. Eventually she recovered enough to go on.  “Yes, so he made his voice loud and then announced to the whole party that centaurs were the result of a breeding program of Abraxans and Doxys gone haywire!”

This was very definitely the funniest thing we’d heard all night, and it took a while for the giggles to subside.  “No wonder you’re so drunk,” Martha said after a while.  “I’d be drinking, too, if I had to sit through speeches like that.”

Lily giggled again.  “Clarrie had to walk us back to the common room,” she admitted.  “We were having trouble getting our feet to go the right way.”

“Clarrie?” Martha asked, frowning.  “Why him?  I would have thought you’d have had plenty of other offers.”

“We chose Clarrie,” Charlotte said pointedly.  “I thought that my brother would be a better chaperone than anyone else there.”

“Not even James?” Martha asked, smiling wickedly.  She was always trying to get Lily to admit that she fancied him, a bit of a lost cause in my opinion.

“Hamish MacFarlan,” Lily explained, rolling her eyes.  “We couldn’t have dragged James away from him if we’d tried.”

“Of course,” said Martha.  “Well, how about Snivellus?”  Of course, I thought, he was in the Slug Club too, probably due to his skill at Potions.

Lily glared at her.  “Severus, you mean,” she snapped – she hated it when her friends used Snape’s nickname.  “Good point.  Charlotte, why didn’t Sev walk us back upstairs?”

“He was talking to Hambledon Quince,” Charlotte said.  “I didn’t see any reason to interrupt, not when Clarrie was available.”  Or, I thought, you didn’t see any reason to rescue someone you can’t stand from a torturous conversation with a nutter.

Fortunately the party was on a Saturday night, so Lily and Charlotte had Sunday to recover.  Mary and I helped Martha look for some Sobering Solution when we went downstairs at breakfast time in an attempt to help them get over their evening, but we weren’t able to find any and didn’t know how to get into the kitchens to ask for some.  And Slughorn, who was often quite happy to dole it out, wasn’t at breakfast either, most probably also feeling the effects of the night before.  So unfortunately Lily and Charlotte had to deal with their aching heads in the traditional Muggle way, and there was nothing we could do to help them aside from staying out of the dorm and keeping the curtains closed.

By Sunday afternoon both girls were their usual selves again, both swearing off alcohol for life, or at least until they were required to get through another of Slughorn’s Christmas parties.  Even this close to Christmas there was still a tidy bit of homework to get done, and after lunch Mary and I spied them in the library, looking a little tired but otherwise determined to finish their Charms essays.  By supper they even had their appetites back and were at the Gryffindor table with Martha, joking away as they usually were and entertaining everyone within earshot of the various theories of Hambledon Quince.  The party, it seemed, would live on as a key part of Hogwarts folklore.




Author's note:  Yes, I know, the Yule Ball.  It's my only departure from canon for this story (or at least, the only one I'm aware of).  And my reasoning?  Well, from the way it was discussed in GoF it sounded like it wasn't the first time it had been held, so I just extrapolated that to say that 20 years earlier it had been a regular occurrence.  Maybe something happened later that stopped this practice, I'm not sure.  Anyway, as far as I'm aware canon doesn't specifically EXCLUDE it, and I just couldn't get Slughorn's Christmas party to fit my storyline the same way.  By all means argue against me, but that's why I did it.

Chapter 5: The end of term
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On Monday morning we trundled downstairs after breakfast for double Potions, wondering how Slughorn had recovered from his little gathering that weekend.  This lesson was usually a bit of a trial even without a hung-over teacher, not only because Professor Slughorn thought that we ought to be able to achieve three times as much in a double class, but also because the fact that Snape was accompanying Lily to the upcoming ball meant that James was always looking for an opportunity to jinx him.

Slughorn’s main concession to the aftermath of his party was that he looked even more than usual like he had been indulging in some of the finer things in life.  His walrus moustache was rather droopy and his nose even redder than usual as he welcomed us into the classroom.  As usual, Severus and Lily took their table at the front of the class and started setting up their cauldrons.  Snape kept looking over his shoulder at the table James, Sirius, Remus and Peter were occupying at the back, his wand out and a nasty look on his face.  Mary and I, noticing this, looked at each other and agreed it was only a matter of time before one of them grew bat wings or something similar.

Slughorn, true to form, noticed none of this, or if he did he ignored it as the main perpetrators were all members of his Slug Club.  “Today,” he was saying, “we are going to be making a Befuddlement Draught.  Who can tell me the uses for this potion?”

As usual, Lily’s and Snape’s hands both went up, and Lily ended up reciting the potion’s properties and applications.  Upon opening my textbook, I groaned out loud – this had to be one of the most complicated potions I’d ever attempted, and that included the Draught of Peace at the start of the term.  However, there was nothing to it but to do it, and Mary and I joined the queue of students to collect our ingredients from the students’ store cupboard and set to work.

“Look a’ tha’,” Mary said about halfway through the class.  “Looks lik’ th’ lads hae bin at it again.”

I looked in the direction she was indicating to see that Severus Snape’s nose, already rather large, was steadily increasing in size.  I stifled a giggle.

“Wonder how long that’s been going on for,” I said quietly.  “It’s almost a foot long, surely Slughorn’s noticed?”

“Especially since he’s i’ th’ Slug Club an’ all,” Mary agreed.  “I’m surprised he hasna said anythin’.”  In any case Snape was very obviously incensed, as was Lily, but James and Sirius appeared to be enjoying themselves immensely.

At that point Professor Slughorn, so often oblivious to what went on in his classes, finally looked up from Maggie Flint’s potion and noticed what had happened.  Being the Potions master, he immediately thought that Severus had been hit with some Swelling Solution rather than the Engorgement Charm it patently was.  This resulted in him rushing around trying to concoct a Deflating Draught when all he had to do was get out his wand and say “Reducio”, which in turn meant Snape was getting more and more irate.  To his obvious chagrin, his fellow Slytherins were laughing at him rather than taking his side or helping him out, an indication perhaps that he wasn’t as popular as he had tried to make Lily believe.

Fortunately for Snape, Lily had her wits about her and, pulling out her wand with surprising speed, cast the counter-charm fairly quickly.

“Thank you, Lily,” Professor Slughorn said with obvious relief, watching Severus’ nose quickly return to its usual size.  “I think, though, Severus, that you should still go to the hospital wing.  Just to make sure, you know, that there wasn’t anything else.”

Lily smiled at him and then very quickly turned around to look angrily in James’ general direction.  James, for his part, gave her what I was sure he thought was his most winning expression, though it disappeared rather quickly under Lily’s hostile glare.  However, never one to give up, he recomposed himself with considerable speed and was soon running his hand through his hair again, trying to make it look the way he wanted.

“Come now, Severus,” Slughorn was saying to Snape.  “Pack up your cauldron and go and see Madam Pomfrey.  You’re excused from the rest of this class.”

I turned to look at Snape, who had an expression of abject fury on his face as he made his way out of the classroom.  If I was James, I thought, I would have certainly been on my guard, a feeling that was validated a second later when I saw Severus whip out his wand and send a hex at his rival.

“Ye’re kiddin’,” Mary muttered, a look of horror on her face as she watched the hex’s effect on James.  He had obviously been hit with a Stinging Jinx, and because his attention had been on Lily he hadn’t been able to react in time.  In a matter of seconds his face had swollen up to be unrecognisable.

I looked around at Lily, wondering what she thought of her friend doling out hexes like that, even if it was at James Potter, but she looked more confused than anything.  “You know, I don’t think Lily even realises Snivellus sent that jinx,” I commented.

“Aye, his timing wa’ verra good,” she said.  “They were busy concentratin’ on each ither so he took his chance.”

“I wish it didn’t have to always be in class like this, though,” I said.  “These potions are hard enough to get right even without them trying to curse each other into oblivion every lesson.”

“Aye, nae arguments there,” she agreed, groaning dramatically.

Behind us, James’ new look was causing delight among the Slytherins and general horror among his friends and admirers.  Those of us who were neither just found the whole thing somewhat amusing.  Sirius and Remus bundled him out of the dungeon like a shot and took him either to the hospital wing or somewhere safe where they could reverse the damage – which it was wasn’t clear from their garbled message to Professor Slughorn.

In any case, the end result was that neither James, Sirius, Remus nor Severus were with us for the remainder of the lesson.  Lily appeared to enjoy the peace and quiet immensely and we all managed to get through the class with minimal disruption, a most unusual occurrence when you shared a class with those four.  Mary and I were both rather pleased with our attempts at Befuddlement Draughts that we handed up to Slughorn at the end of the class, and I thought that if left to my own devices without too much interruption I may even get a decent mark in my OWLs.

****

The last school day before the Christmas holidays and the day before the Yule Ball was soon upon us, and no one was paying much attention to classwork.  In our Astronomy theory lesson our checking of star charts was rather predictably disrupted by the boys, as usual making fun of the Canis Major constellation, to such an extent that Professor Dobbs threatened to call in Professor McGonagall to control them.

Herbology wasn’t much better.  The lunch period had been interrupted by Peeves the poltergeist, who seemed to think that an avalanche of Dungbombs was just what everyone wanted in their food, so we were hungry and very smelly by the time we headed towards the greenhouses for the afternoon lesson.

“Wha’ dae ye think?” Mary asked as we left the Great Hall, covered like everyone else in the foul-smelling things.  “Quick shower afore Herbology t’ wash it off?”

“I don’t know,” I said, trying to get a Dungbomb-inspired knot out of my hair.  “Sprout will probably have us working with manure or something, it’s probably not worth it.”

“Aye, ye’re richt,” she conceded.  “There wa’ a full moon las’ week, wasna there?  So she’s prob’ly go’ some mooncalf dung fer us t’ spread aboot.”

And, as it turned out, we were right in that assumption.  Professor Sprout had indeed obtained a fresh supply of mooncalf dung collected at that last full moon, so we spent much of the lesson carefully fertilising the Abyssinian Shrivelfigs and Fanged Geraniums, being extra careful with the latter to avoid being bitten.

Needless to say, after Herbology finished there was a general rush upstairs to the dorms so everyone could have a shower before heading back down to supper.  I hadn’t had to wait that long to use the bathroom in any time in my schooling before, at least not that I could remember.  Fortunately we were all in the same boat so could laugh about it in the dorm while we waited.

Finally it was all over, and we could finally relax now that the first term of OWLs had finished.  All we had left before going home for the holidays was the Yule Ball the following night and most of the teachers, recognising it was Christmas, hadn’t even set much holiday homework.  While the sensible part of me knew that I should be spending my spare time before the ball getting what homework finished that I could, the more realistic part decided that collapsing on a couch in the common room in front of the fire, book in hand, was a much more desirable option.  Either that or hexing various Slytherins who got in my way, as Scylla Pritchard noticed when she tried to jinx me on my way out of the Great Hall after lunch on the Saturday and ended up with a cat’s tail and whiskers for her trouble.

Once lunch was over and Scylla had been safely dispatched to the hospital wing, Mary and I wandered outside and made some snow angels on the lawn near the lake, pausing only to dry ourselves off with hot air charms and throw occasional snowballs at passing students and also at the Whomping Willow, which was more of a challenge as if your aim was good enough it would hit them back.

The Willow, on the lawns halfway between the castle and the forbidden forest, had been at Hogwarts for at least as long as I had, and had the title of ‘whomping’ because its branches would swing around and attack anyone who got too close to it.  We couldn’t help but feel this was a bit of a shame, because there was a hole at its base which rumour had was a tunnel that contained a monster of some sort.  Where the tunnel led no one was sure, but some people theorised that you could get out of the school grounds through it so, if the monster thing wasn’t true, it was a bit intriguing.  When we were younger we used to dare each other to see who could get close enough to the Willow to touch the trunk, but that ended when Davey Gudgeon from Hufflepuff nearly lost an eye and now no one was allowed within fifty feet of it.

In any case it made good sport, hurling snowballs at its branches and seeing where it would hit them, and Mary and I were thoroughly enjoying our afternoon.  The cold air energised us and it was with flushed faces and wet gloves that we finally made it back inside some two or three hours later.  We were on our way back to Gryffindor Tower to have a long bath and wash our hair when we were assailed by Lily, who had apparently been looking for us.

“There you are,” she said with a grin from ear to ear.  “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Why, what’s up?” I asked as she got in between us and hooked her arms into ours.

“The ball, dummy,” she said as she steered us towards the nearest staircase.  “We wanted to all get ready together, and to do that we needed you.”

“Already?” asked Mary with obvious surprise.  “Bu’ we’ve go’ hours ye’, it’s nae e’en four o’clock.”

Lily just grinned even more.  “Well, yes, but there’s bubble baths and hair treatments and all sorts of things we can do,” she said, winking at me.  “Don’t tell me you thought it was just a matter of having a quick shower and getting changed?”

“Not exactly,” I admitted, “but that wasn’t far from the mark.”

“You two are far too much of tomboys,” she said, shaking her head in mock exasperation.  “We have so much to teach you about the good things about being a girl.”  And she would brook no opposition as she frogmarched us into the common room and then to our dorm, where Martha and Charlotte were waiting.

****

Getting ready for the ball took the best part of three hours, as the five of us had long baths with lots of different smelling potions in them, experimented with different shades of eyeshadow and lipstick, and exchanged hairstyling tips.  Mary and I weren’t used to being included with Lily, Martha and Charlotte like this, but as Lily had already indicated that night the importance of getting things right for the ball and making each other over far outweighed minor things like who you would normally talk to.  In the end I thought our efforts were rewarded, and we all looked rather fetching.

Lily, as possibly the prettiest girl in our year, was wearing robes of brilliant autumn colours – rusty orange, deep yellow, that sort of thing – all mixed together in a kind of tie-dye rainbow effect, with a scoop neckline and half length wide sleeves.  Matched with her stunning auburn hair she looked absolutely vibrant. She accessorised with some gold earrings Snape had given her as an early Christmas present, her own locket and a gold charm bracelet that was Martha’s.  A dash of brown lipstick that I contributed completed the effect.  I thought, and the others echoed, that we would be hard pressed to find anyone at the ball who looked better than she did.

Martha, the blonde-haired blue-eyed beauty that she was, wore pale yellow robes with an ivory trim and plunging v-neck. We left her hair down but tied an ivory scarf around it for effect, and with gold hoop earrings and a pendant that sat just inside the V, making it appear slightly more modest, she looked magnificent.  Mary lent her a light pink lipstick and Lily found some matching eyeshadow which made the overall impression amazing.  Then again, she had a tidy bit to work with in the first place – I felt almost as though I would have killed for hair or a figure like that.

Charlotte, our African queen, wasn’t one for pastels and had chosen robes of emerald green.  There had been a long discussion as to whether she or Lily should wear them, since they were the same shade as Lily’s eyes, but after they both tried them on we all agreed they looked better on Charlotte, something to do with her extra height.  We matched them with silver jewellery – earrings of mine, a bracelet of Mary’s and a chunky necklace that Martha had once been given but had never worn – and her hair was out of its usual braids and in a half-up-half-down hairstyle.  Lily then muttered a spell which gave Charlotte’s glasses elegant silver frames of quite a different shape to what she normally wore.  The overall effect was stunning and Cadmus, her date, was sure to be knocked off his feet.

Mary, with her dark hair, blue eyes and alabaster skin, was wearing pale grey robes that sat just off her shoulders, and opted to go with the smoky dark eyes effect with her makeup.  Charlotte found a bold silver and onyx pendant in her bedside cabinet that really made a statement, and Mary had a silver bangle that her dad had given her before he died.  We put her hair in a thick braid, leaving it to curl a bit at the bottom, and some dangly silver earrings completed the effect.  She wasn’t quite the equal of Lily, Martha or Charlotte, but she certainly came up a treat and looked better than I had ever seen Mary looking.

My parents had given me the dress robes Bea had worn two years previously, with some alterations made to make them something I might be seen dead in.  Bea’s taste wasn’t much like mine, and she had worn vivid pink robes with balloon sleeves and a ribbon and bow around the waist.  The pink I could deal with, but a Severing Charm got rid of the ribbon and bow, and a quick trip to Gladrags did the same for the balloon sleeves.  The result, sleeveless pink robes in a rather simple cut, was good enough for me.  After all, it wasn’t like I had anyone to impress, and I wasn’t bothered enough find new ones.  (As Lily said, too much of a tomboy.)

Martha and Charlotte fiddled and fussed with my mousy brown hair but even they couldn’t do anything about the kink that persisted in staying there, and ended up pulling it all off my face in a French twist, leaving a couple of strands dangling around my ears.  Martha found some silver earrings that complemented the look and Lily came to the party with a silver pendant that sat just inside the neckline of the robes, setting it off perfectly.  With help from one of Mary’s lipsticks I looked almost presentable.

The five of us headed downstairs to the Entrance Hall together to meet our dates.  Martha and Charlotte disappeared quickly and just as quickly reappeared on the arms of Nestor and Cadmus respectively before heading into the Great Hall.  Lily found Snape also without difficulty and the two of them were already deep in conversation as they walked through the doors of the hall.  Of course as a pairing they looked completely out of place, with the beautiful and elegant Lily easily outshining the dank, pale, long-nosed, greasy-haired Severus.  However, it appeared he had made at least an attempt to dress up for the occasion: his dress robes, which were simple and black, looked a little shabby but were definitely clean, and his hair looked almost like it might have been washed.

“Ye know,” said Mary, watching them, “I thin’ tha’ micht be th’ firs’ time I’ve e’er seen him whe’ his clothes haven’t bin covered i’ potion stains.”

“And grease marks from that hair of his,” I added, thinking about it.  “You may be right. He looks almost presentable.  I mean, the robes are clearly second-hand, but from what Lily’s said they don’t have much gold so you can’t hold that against him.”

“Hae ye e’er seen him wear any colour ither than black, though?” Mary continued.  “Compared wi’ Lily, he looks lik’ a vampire or summit.”

“Mary,” a voice interrupted us.  “I’ve found you at last.”  We turned around to see Gerry Stebbins and Hector Bole, our dates for the evening.  Gerry, who was the one who had spoken, continued.  “You look fantastic.”  Mary smiled and took Gerry’s offered arm, and I took Hector’s, and the four of us made our way into the Great Hall.

We were happily ensconced at a nice out-of-the-way table and on the verge of ordering our meals when everything stopped suddenly and all heads spun to the doors of the hall, where James and Sirius had made their appearance.  Fashionably late, they walked in as though they owned the place, and well they might have, the way they looked.  Even the staff stopped what they were doing to watch.

I couldn’t think of anyone else who could have frozen the room like that.  Even their dates, who were done up to the nines trying to look as glamorous as they could, couldn’t match them for impact.  This was what happened when the two best looking boys in the school, bar none, decided to make an entrance.

James was wearing robes of a dark red, which set off his black hair.  He looked unruffled and elegant, though his hair was still messy, and I suspected he preferred it that way.  Veronica Smethley, a slender Hufflepuff girl with blonde curls who was his date for the evening, looked very nice in pale blue robes and her hair up in a French twist, but struggled in vain to seem to fit the part of James’ companion.

Sirius, if it was possible, looked even better, wearing simple black robes which were so elegantly cut that they had to have cost something roughly equivalent to Luxembourg’s national debt.  He was with Fortuna Robins, a fourth-year who was also wearing simple and elegant robes, and with someone else she may have looked a million Galleons, but with Sirius she just looked plain.  In a sense it was a real shame he and Martha had broken up, as she would at least have been able to give the boys a run for their money.

“Wow,” breathed Mary beside me.  “They scrub up all richt, dinna they?”  I nodded silently, unable to find my voice.

Next to me, Hector made a noise that sounded a bit like a growl.  “Who do they think they are, swanning in half an hour late?” he said angrily.  “Think they’re better than everyone else, do they?”

My voice came back at that remark.  “Pretty much,” I said, trying to lighten his mood.  The last thing I wanted was a date who was jealous of people whose paths would most probably never cross ours all evening.  “Does it really matter?”

“Probably not,” he conceded, but he was still glowering.

“Imagine the impact if they were actually interested in the girls they’re with,” I mused to Mary.  She nodded, acknowledging it was perfectly clear that they had absolutely no interest in their dates.  If they had been paying them any attention at all, fussing over them or whatnot, I suspected even the most resolute of girls there would have been swooning, dying to swap places with them.  Because Veronica and Fortuna were being ignored, however, the effect was somewhat diminished.

Mary started giggling, and I looked back to see why.  “Poor lads,” she said, indicating Peter and Remus coming in behind their friends.

She was right.  It was an anticlimax to see Remus and Peter with their dates. Remus, a nice enough looking boy, looked great in his navy dress robes, but he suffered in comparison with the other two.  He was also rather pale, and I remembered he had been ill that week and wondered vaguely if he would make it through the evening.  Peter, who was very plain at the best of times and had struggled to find a date shorter than himself, simply looked out of place, and was having trouble keeping up with everyone else.  Even his companion looked slightly repulsed by him as she followed the others to a table.

Besides that distraction, the evening started well enough.  The feast was lovely and Gerry and Hector paid Mary and me a lot of attention, so much so that we almost thought we had been their first choices as dates.  After everyone had eaten the band started playing and we got up to dance.  Hector was rather an awkward dancer, stepping on my toes several times, but it was a small price to pay for what was becoming a very pleasant evening.

After a couple of hours the butterbeer was flowing with ease, and Hector and Gerry found some Ravenclaw buddies and started chatting.  Mary and I, eager for a catch-up, moved away and found a quieter spot by the wall where we could talk.

“How’s the date going?” I asked.

“He’s nice enough i’ his own way,” she said, “bu’ so dull!  I’m startin’ t’ hope he loses interes’, I think I’ll die o’ boredom itherwise.”

“I don’t think that’ll happen somehow,” I said, looking over at the boys.  Gerry was watching us and had a bit of a smile dancing across his lips as he surveyed Mary.

“I ken,” she said dryly, rolling her eyes.  “I’m gettin’ th’ same vibes an’ all.  Hoo aboot ye?”

I sighed.  “Hector’s a nice bloke,” I said, “but it’s about the same as you.  There’s no spark.”  She nodded understandingly.  “I just can’t imagine getting close enough to kiss him,” I went on.  “Besides, he keeps stepping on my toes – I don’t think I’ll be able to walk properly for a week.”

Mary laughed.  “A’ leas’ I dinna hae tha’ problem,” she said.  “Gerry can actually dance – aye, I’m surprised too.  Frankly, I’d though’ –”  She stopped talking mid-sentence and stared at a spot above my right shoulder.

I spun around.  Sirius Black was standing there, his hands deep in his pockets and a rather nervous expression on his face.

“Ah, Miss Cauldwell, I was, ah, wondering if you would, ah, allow me to have this dance?” he said in an amusing mixture of formality and awkwardness.

I was so surprised that he could probably have knocked me over if he’d breathed a bit harder.  I recovered, however, and smiled, aware that next to me Mary was doing her very best fish impersonation, her mouth opening and closing silently.  “Certainly, Mr Black, I would be honoured,” I said, imitating his formal manner.

As he led me away, I looked back at Mary and mouthed, “What the – ?”  She shrugged, a confused expression on her face, until she caught my eye and dissolved into giggles.  Scowling at her, I steadied myself, hoped my face wasn’t didn’t resemble a Quaffle too much, and walked onto the dance floor. 

Chapter 6: The girl least likely
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Sirius was a surprisingly good dancer, which was useful because I wasn’t.  As he led me expertly around the room, I took a deep breath and looked up at him firmly.

“So, was it a bet or a dare?”

“What are you talking about?” he asked, shiftily enough to tell me my guess had been right.  When his eyes drifted to where James was sitting by the far wall, I grinned.

“Don’t play dumb.  We both know that you’d never ask me to dance in a million years.  Not with ninety-five percent of the girls here gagging for it, and, well, I’m not.”  I was right about the ninety-five percent, or at least it felt like it.  Death looks seemed to be emanating from all corners of the room, and I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d be lucky if I got out of this without being hexed by Elvira or someone like that.  “Besides, Potter just gave you the thumbs up.”

He groaned.  “Are we really that obvious?  Okay, yes, it was a dare.”  I grinned triumphantly, though part of me was slightly disappointed.  It would have been nice to be asked because he actually wanted to dance with me.  “I’m sorry,” he continued, putting on the ‘ashamed’ look that he used for teachers when caught breaking the rules.  “Do you hate me for it?”

I considered that.  “Not really.  At least this way it’s clear where we stand.  I’m guessing you’d prefer I didn’t join that fan club of yours as a result of this – which for all you know I would have done if I’d thought it was genuine.”

He looked surprised.  “You wouldn’t do that!”

“How do you know?” I countered.  “We don’t know each other well enough for you to say that with any certainty.”

He paused.  “I guess not,” he said eventually.  “Would you?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I admitted.  We danced in silence for a while.

“Anyway,” I said a bit later, “why would Potter pick me for your dare?”

He looked a little uncomfortable.  “Do I have to answer that?”

“No,” I conceded.  “I was just curious.”

“It killed that cat, you know,” he said airily.  I raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, okay,” he said.  “I feel pretty bad about this now anyway.  It was something about the most unlikely …” He trailed off, looking suitably ashamed.  Not just the ‘ashamed’ look, but actually ashamed. I hadn’t realised he could do that.

Once I got over this mild distraction, I thought about what he’d said.  Was I really the last person he’d ever willingly dance with?  “But surely he could have come up with a better candidate,” I said.  “I’m sure Scylla Pritchard would be dying to dance with you.”

He made a face.  “No Slytherins.  It’s an unwritten rule.  James has at least some honour.”

Well, with the Slytherins ruled out, I knew why it was me.  Beatrice.  Anyone related to her would definitely be in the least likely list.  And speaking of her …

“Oh, for goodness sake,” I muttered in frustration, looking over Sirius’ shoulder.  “Sirius, would James count your dare as being done if I ditch you before the song’s over?”  Oops.  I’d used their first names.  We never addressed the boys by their first names, except possibly Remus.  This had to count as a slip-up of some sort.

He ignored the slip-up and considered my question.  “I’d say so, I asked and you agreed to it and followed through.  Why?”

“Because it looks like I’ve got a fire or two to put out,” I said, pointing.

He looked around.  Beatrice, who had been dancing with Otto Bagman from Hufflepuff, had obviously got upset about something and was in the beginnings of a tantrum, turning Otto’s dress robes inch by inch into pink crepe paper.

“Yes, you’d better go,” Sirius said, letting go of me.  I started to move towards Bea.  “Oh, and Laura?”

I paused and looked over my shoulder at him, mildly surprised that he actually knew my first name.

“Thanks for being such a good sport about this.”

I smiled briefly and headed over to where my sister was making a spectacle of herself, in a futile attempt to put a hold on her reputation before it got any worse.  One of the teachers had already started reversing the charm when I got there, so I bundled Bea out of the room as quickly and quietly as possible.

“Bea, you know better than that.  What did you bring your wand to the ball for anyway?” I asked as we headed towards Ravenclaw Tower.

She pouted stubbornly.  “He insulted me.  Said I was a freak and should just get out of school so everyone else can have a good time.”

“While he was dancing with you?” I asked incredulously.  “Why’d he ask you to dance if he was going to say things like that to you?”

She hiccoughed uncomfortably.  “I don’t even know any more.  I just – just – I didn’t know what to say, I was really hurt, so I wanted to hurt him.  And I knew he was vain, so the pink paper seemed like a good idea …”

I grinned despite myself.  “Bea, Bea, what are we going to do with you?  How many times have I told you, just ignore them.  Walk away, count backwards from twenty, whatever works for you, but don’t respond.  They’re not worth it.  You know they only say things like that to get a rise out of you.  If you don’t react, they’ll stop doing it.”

“I know, I know,” Beatrice moaned.  “Stop giving me lectures.  I’m older than you, ergo, I should be right and you should be wrong.”  She smiled at her twisted logic, then paused at the entry to Ravenclaw Tower.  “Will you come in with me?  I need someone to help me calm down …”

“Of course,” I nodded, as she gave the correct answer to the eagle-shaped doorknocker’s question.  When she was ready for bed, I just sat with her in the dorm, holding her hand till she drifted off to sleep.

When I got back to Gryffindor Tower, the ball was obviously over as the common room was packed with revellers who were not yet ready to go to bed, and several second- and third-years who wanted to know any new and interesting gossip.  Mary beckoned at me furiously from her table.

“Wha’ happened?” she demanded, grinning.

“Took Bea to bed.  She got a bit riled up.  Did you see what she –”

“Nae tha’,” she interrupted, looking over my shoulder to make sure no one could hear us.  “SIRIUS!  Why did he dance wi’ ye?  What’s goin’ on tha’ I dinna ken aboot?”

“Oh, that,” I said. I’d forgotten all about it.  “Nothing.  James dared him to ask me.”

Her face fell.  “Ye’re joking!  An’ he tol’ ye tha’?”

“I beat it out of him,” I said.  “To his credit, he did seem a bit embarrassed about it.  Who knew that Sirius Black had a conscience?”  I said it lightly, wanting to drop the subject, but Mary persisted.

“Hoo dae ye feel aboot it, though?” she asked, clearly hoping I wasn’t too cut up that the only reason someone like Sirius Black would ever dance with me was on a dare.

“Not great,” I acknowledged finally.  “I think I was a bit disappointed when he admitted it.  But I’d rather know,” I continued, “rather than sitting here with you coming up with all sorts of conjectures and maybe getting my hopes up.”

She raised her eyebrows.  “Dae I detec’ a wee crush on Sirius Black, Laura?”

I thought about that.  “I don’t think so,” I said.  “He’s nice to look at but he’s a bit too much of a jerk.  Besides, to get a crush on someone, don’t you need to be able to imagine getting together with them?”  I paused.  “I can’t imagine myself with him.  We’re from different worlds.  He’s destined for someone like Martha or Charlotte.  Or Lily, but I think James would kill him.”  I paused, thinking about it.  “At least, though, now I can tell my grandchildren that I danced with Sirius Black.”  I giggled.  “And then ditched him halfway through!”

“Nou there’s a poin’,” said Mary, grinning.  “Ye’re prob’ly richt.  A shame, though,” she continued, looking over my shoulder at where the boys were entertaining the crowd, still in their dress robes.  “They are verra goo’ looking …”

****

The following morning, suitcases in tow, Mary and I rather surprisingly found ourselves joined by Martha and Charlotte in the horseless carriage due to take us to Hogsmeade station.

“Not with Lily?” I asked, looking at them.

“Nah, she’s had a better offer,” said Martha with a grin.  “You wouldn’t have seen this ’cause you’d taken off already with your sister, Laura, but last night she got together with Lance Savage from sixth year.  He chatted her up while they were at the bar waiting to be served.  Poor old Snivellus was livid.”

“Yeah,” agreed Charlotte, grinning from ear to ear.  “We reckon he’d thought it was an actual date.  She’d never even considered that.”

“She wouldna hae,” Mary agreed.  “She’s i’ a state o’ constan’ denial o’er wha’ he thinks o’ her.  Why aren’t ye wi’ Nestor?”  This was aimed at Martha, who smiled briefly.

“He’s staying at school over Christmas,” she said.  “We might see each other after the holidays.  Or we might not.  It was left up in the air a bit.”

“Does that mean that you’ll hook up if neither of you get a better offer in the meantime?” I asked with a smile.

“Pretty much,” she agreed, grinning.  “Why aren’t you with Gerry, Mary?”

Mary groaned.  “It wa’ a wee struggle t’ ge’ rid o’ him this morn an’ all,” she admitted.  “He seems a lo’ keener on me than I am on him.”

Charlotte laughed.  “Isn’t that always the way?” she said with a grin, and I had the feeling she was thinking of Remus.

“And Laura,” said Martha with a bit of a glint in her eyes, “what’s with you and Sirius?”

“What, that dance thing last night?” I asked.  “James dared him to do it, that’s all.  Nothing to it.”

She nodded, still smiling.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought it might have been something like that.  He’s never spoken two words to you before.”

“I was surprised he knew my name,” I agreed, nodding.  “First name and everything.  It was a bit of a shock.”

It appeared that my little dance with Sirius was a big source of gossip, not least because I’d appeared to storm off in the middle of it and left him in the lurch.  People seemed to think there was a lot more to it than there actually was, which was demonstrated shortly afterwards when Elvira Vablatsky came through the train looking for me.

“Laura,” she began, walking brazenly into the compartment that the four of us had settled in and sitting down without introduction, “why was Sirius dancing with you last night?”  She ignored Mary, Charlotte and Martha, obviously thinking they couldn’t be of any use to her.  A couple of other members of the fan club were hovering just outside the door, possibly to offer support and possibly just to try to listen in.

I looked at Mary, thinking I should have known that Elvira wasn’t going to let something like that slide.  “He asked me to,” I said, not sure just how much of the conversation I wanted to tell her.

“He asked you?” she repeated, her eyebrows going further and further up her forehead.  “You?  I don’t believe it.”

“Well dinna, then,” Mary said shortly.  “Bu’ I was there, I hear’ him ask.  He called her by name an’ everythin’.”  She gave me a quick wink and we both tried to ignore Martha and Charlotte, who were trying rather blatantly not to laugh.

Elvira was gaping.  “It’s not fair, you being in Gryffindor,” she pouted.  “He doesn’t even know my name.”

I was sure he did, since he spent so much time trying to get away from her, but I wasn’t about to say that.  “I can’t help where the Sorting Hat put me,” I pointed out instead.

“But why did he ask you?” she went on, getting noticeably worked up.  “Is there something going on between you?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

I suppressed a giggle and steadfastly refused to look anyone in the eye.  Even if there had been something going on between me and Sirius, preposterous as that idea was, Elvira was the last person I would have told.  We got along reasonably well on a general basis, but this whole Sirius Black thing she had going was simply ridiculous and I wasn’t about to encourage it.  In the end, however, thinking that I’d rather not go through what Martha had suffered at the hands of Elvira and the rest of the fan club, I decided to tell all.

“There’s nothing going on,” I said.  “If you must know, he danced with me because he was dared to.”

Elvira stopped hyperventilating.  “It was a dare?”

“Of course it was a bloody dare, why else would he ask me?” I shot back.

She looked visibly relieved.  “Oh, thank Merlin, I was thinking he’d gotten a new girlfriend or something.  At least he’s still single.  More chance for me then!”

Mary was looking at her, eyebrows raised.  “Hae ye bin pesterin’ Fortuna Robins aboot this as well?” she asked icily.

“Just a bit, before the ball,” she admitted.  “But it was pretty obvious last night that it wasn’t a real date so we weren’t that worried.”

I started laughing.  “Who did you go with last night, Elvira?  Davey Gudgeon, wasn’t it?  How did he like you fawning over another boy all night?”

She had the grace to look a little embarrassed . “I don’t think he was all that worried,” she said.  “He was too busy drooling over Lily Evans.  As most of the boys were.  I think he was a bit peeved when Lance Savage got lucky with her, actually.  But I was trying not to be too obvious, just in case he did get upset.”

Martha, Charlotte, Mary and I exchanged a grin at the thought of what Elvira would consider ‘not too obvious’.  My guess was that it would include following someone around all night but would not include going so far as to deliberately spill a drink on their date, but I wasn’t about to say that out loud.

Anyway, I suspected Elvira was getting the (correct) impression that we wanted her to leave.  I for one had no intention of spending the entire seven hour train journey back to London talking about Sirius Black, which is what would have happened if she’d stayed in our compartment.  In any case she got up as abruptly as she had sat down and made her way to the door.

“Well, if there’s nothing to hear, I’ll be off,” she said airily as she stepped into the corridor, joining the other girls from the fan club who were still hovering outside our door.  “See ya!”  And she waved to us as she wandered back down the train, probably looking for Sirius so she could start bothering him.

The four of us just looked at each other and laughed.  “She is the living end,” said Martha, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.  “Seriously, she’s in Ravenclaw.  How can someone so smart be so dumb??”

“I don’t envy you, Martha,” Charlotte giggled.  “Having to put up with that tosh all the time.  No wonder you dumped him.”

Martha snorted.  “That was an easy one,” she said.  “No wands out or anything.  I was expecting you to at least be glowing purple by now, Laura.”

I shrugged.  “I don’t think she exactly sees me as a threat.  And for some reason she’s decided that I’m the one to give her personal information on him.  Not that I can, considering I know diddly squat about him, but apparently being in Gryffindor makes me an instant expert.”

“Only because tha’s wha’ she’d be if she were i’ Gryffindor,” Mary pointed out with a giggle.  “Ne’er one t’ waste an opportunity, tha’ one.  Prob’ly canna understan’ why ye dinna see things th’ same way she does.”

“Did you see her though?  Looked like she was going to have a heart attack before you let out it was a dare.  Absolutely hysterical.” Martha was still laughing.  “Laura, if anything like that ever happens again, make sure I’m around when Elvira confronts you and then string it out for as long as you can.  I’d pay to watch that.”

“It’s a deal,” I agreed, smiling and putting out a hand for Martha to shake.  “Because of course it’ll be happening weekly from now on, now we’ve broken the ice.”  And I just about managed to keep a straight face when I said it.

Charlotte laughed.  “Do you know, for a second there I almost thought you meant that!”

I giggled.  “I’m getting better at it, aren’t I?  Anyway, in all seriousness, I think I can pretty much guarantee that nothing like that will ever happen again.”

Martha smiled.  “Probably not.  But never say never.  And if it does, make sure I’m there!”

****

My maternal grandparents were visiting when Bea and I got back home that evening.  They’d been to the rugby the previous night and had wanted us to share their experience.

“If only that school of yours could have let you go a day early,” my grandfather enthused.  “You would have loved it, Laura.  We played Australia last night in Cardiff, and hammered them twenty-eight to three!”

I smiled as I sat down in the kitchen.  “That would have been great,” I said, not even needing to fake my enthusiasm.  “Who got all the tries?”

As they waxed lyrical about Wales’ performance the previous night and pointed my attention to the newspaper reports about the win, I tried not to get too jealous.  I definitely felt they had the better end of the stick, as it would certainly have been better than being used as part of a dare at the Yule Ball.  To tell the truth, I’d not particularly enjoyed the ball, and it was years since I’d been to a rugby international as they never seemed to coincide with school holidays.

Aside from that, the Christmas holidays passed pretty much without incident.  It was great seeing my parents again but as usual they were preoccupied with Beatrice, who was taking her NEWTs and feeling the stress of it.  Dad even went to Bobbin’s Apothecary for a Calming Draught after she lost her temper at the dog and streams of different coloured water started coming out of its nose.

As the quiet one, the one who didn’t cause trouble, I was left pretty much to myself.  Not ignored, and there was certainly no malice in it, but Bea always took up a tidy bit of my parents’ attention, so I watched a bit of Doctor Who and some old movies on the television and busied myself in front of the fire with a good book or three.  I had received a good collection for Christmas – Mary had given me a selection of Fifi LaFolle romances, and Mum a number of Muggle mystery novels – so I was well set for a bit of escapism.  In summer I liked to spend a lot of my time outside but with the snow some four inches deep on the ground a bit of fireside reading sounded like a much better idea.

“You’re not going out much these holidays,” Mum said one day when she found me in the living room with my nose in a book.  “Aren’t you going to catch up with Sarah and Mandy?  Go shopping, or to the movies, or something?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t really have that much in common with them any more,” I admitted.  Sarah and Mandy had been my closest friends in primary school, but as they were Muggles and I spent so much of my time immersed in the magical world I found we had very little in common these days.

“That’s sad,” Mum said.  “But what about those magazines and records I’ve been getting you?  Don’t those help with that?”

“They help,” I said, “but they’re not enough.  Their lives are just so different from mine now that I don’t know what to talk to them about.  I mean, I’ve seen photos of the film stars they’ve got crushes on, but I haven’t seen the films so I can’t talk about those, and there’s no way known I could catch up with it all in the few weeks I’m back here each year.”

She nodded.  “I was afraid this would happen,” she said, sitting down next to me on the couch.  “I’ve been trying to keep you involved, but there’s only so much I can do, isn’t there?”

I nodded sadly.  “Yeah, I think there is.  So really, all I’ve got now is Mary.  And Bea, but quite frankly I’m not always proud of that.”

“I wish you had more friends,” Mum said.  “I feel like you’re missing out on something.  I don’t really know what, but I wish that even those other girls in your dorm would talk to you more.”

I smiled.  “Same as with Sarah and Mandy, though in a different way.  Not much in common.  And, well, I often have to spend a lot of time running around after Bea.”

“She can be difficult,” Mum admitted.  “And you’re very different from each other.  Well, I’m sorry that you’re losing touch, Sarah and Mandy were nice girls.  But I can understand how it’s happened.”  She sighed, leaning back against the cushions.  “It just worries me, Laura.  You’re going to get more and more involved with your father’s world, and I’m going to lose you.  We’re eventually going to end up like you and Sarah and Mandy, aren’t we, and run out of things to talk about?”

I leaned over and gave her a hug.  “I’m sure we’ll always be able to find something to talk about.  Even if it’s just what Bea’s been up to lately.”

She laughed.  “Well, yes, there is always that.”  She turned to me suddenly.  “She makes things hard for you, doesn’t she?”

You don’t know the half of it, I thought.  I was humiliated at the school ball because of the simple fact that I was her sister.  But Mum didn’t need to know that, it would only upset her, so in the end I just shrugged.  “Well, there are some people at school who wouldn’t want to visit me here because she’s here too,” I said.  “But they’re probably not worth worrying about anyway, not if they’re that shallow.”

It sounded good, I thought. It sounded nice and mature and exactly the sort of thing I should say, and I should think.  The trouble was, it wasn’t entirely true.  I wanted to be popular.  I even wanted those people to like me, even if I didn’t like them all that much.  After all, no one wants to be ignored.  However, it just wasn’t my lot in life, and I had learned to accept that.

Just before New Years, Bea came looking for me.  This happened at least once each holidays, when she had settled back into herself and was feeling lonely, and always ended in her teaching me all the spells she and her friends had invented that term.  So far I had learned, among other things, how to turn someone’s fingers into asparagus spears, make their neck extend like a flamingo’s, make them honk like a goose, speak in Spanish (or French, or Arabic) for an hour, give them cow’s horns and a matching bell, join their knees together, grow wheels on their feet, or make any dog they encountered follow them around for three days.  I could also bewitch a book to fall open at its most embarrassing or compromising pages (useful when planted in front of someone), set a radio so that it wouldn’t change its station no matter what you did to it, make goblets close over when you tried to drink from them, bewitch a parchment so that your essay always looks six inches too short no matter how much you write, blow up a quill on time delay, or jinx someone’s photos frames so that the subjects never go into them.

This year it was no different.  Beatrice, halfway through her seventh year, was bristling with information from her NEWTs and how she and her friends had adapted some of the spells they had learned.  I knew that a tidy bit of it was showing off but I had nothing better to do and, even if I never used half the jinxes she taught me, it was nice to daydream about Scylla Pritchard with earthworms instead of hair.

Before I knew it the holidays were over and it was time to go back to school again.  Bea started to get mildly hysterical again with the pressure of her upcoming exams and had to be subdued with another Calming Draught, and I reflected that I was about to sit my OWLs, which were from all reports just as nerve-wracking as NEWTs were, and hadn’t needed a single dose.  Not that anyone had noticed that.  Anyway, in what seemed like no time we were packed up again and put on the train back to school, ready for whatever would be sent our way in the next term.
 


Chapter 7: The fan club diminished
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Rumours spread like wildfire in small communities and Hogwarts was no different, particularly when the subject was either James Potter or Sirius Black.  If both were involved it was if possible even faster, as was the case on the Hogwarts Express as we came back from the Christmas break.  Almost before the train arrived back at Hogsmeade, and certainly by the time the return feast had begun, everyone seemed to have heard that Sirius had run away from home over Christmas and was now living with James.  Before two days were out people from other Houses had started hanging around Mary and me, under the mistaken impression that as Gryffindors in the same year as the two in question we would have some sort of inside knowledge.  When it became obvious we couldn’t enlighten them any more they dropped off, most probably attaching themselves to someone else who might be better informed.

All we could tell them, all that we actually knew first hand, was that Sirius was being rather quieter than usual and was more prone to losing his temper at people, often James, Remus and Peter, and often over what appeared from our distance to be relatively minor things.  His face had a closed look to it and he seemed rather withdrawn.  The boys in turn closed ranks around him and didn’t let anyone else get near him, much to the disappointment of Elvira and the fan club, some of whom had plainly felt that all Sirius needed to get through this difficult time was for them to be tending to his every need.

The other consequence of the rumour was to do with the fan club itself. Sirius running away from home was taken to also mean Sirius had been disinherited, and on the news he was no longer the rich playboy, just the playboy now living on someone else’s goodwill, several of the girls dropped out, transferring their attentions to other boys in the school.  Some gravitated onto James, but he blocked them out as effortlessly as Sirius had done, and others found entirely new objects of desire, many of whom couldn’t believe their luck.  Mary and I concluded after a week or so that for at least half a dozen boys, Sirius being disinherited was the best thing that had happened to them in years.

“Look a’ tha’,” Mary said, watching Bernie Carmichael, the Ravenclaw prefect, escorting not one but two girls to supper one evening.  “He’s doin’ well oot o’ all this.”  Both the girls, one in our year and one fourth-year, had the previous term been members of the fan club but had dropped out since Christmas.

“He must have a tidy bit of gold,” I said cynically.  Though I quite liked Bernie as a person, and though I didn’t want to cast aspersions on his attractiveness (though his red hair and freckles did work against him there), it was the only reasonable conclusion if those girls had abandoned Sirius because he was broke.

“Maybe,” said Mary.  “He’s Muggle-born so I canna tell ye anythin’ aboot his family, bu’ it wouldna surprise me.”  Whatever the reason, Bernie was clearly enjoying his new-found popularity and was allowing the girls to take it in turns to spoon feed him steak and kidney pie.

Sirius was still being shielded from the world at large by his dorm-mates, who formed a protective cordon around him whenever he was outside Gryffindor Tower, though that apparently became more of a job a couple of weeks into term when Remus disappeared for the weekend to deal with the rabbit from hell he had at home.  In any case, Sirius barely attended meals in the Great Hall all month, instead choosing (we believed) to raid the kitchens between classes, and I wasn’t sure he’d uttered a word outside of the confines of the tower since term had started.  The remaining members of the fan club tried in vain to get close enough to offer their condolences, or whatever else they wanted to offer him, but they were very effectively blocked by James and co.

“I’m worried about him,” we heard a Ravenclaw girl, who didn’t look any older than third year, fretting at lunch time one day as she hovered around the Gryffindor table.  “He’s not eating, he’s looking so pale, he might be making himself ill!”

“And it’s so hard to get close enough to get a good look at him,” agreed her friend.  “If only we could do something!  But those stupid friends of his won’t let us within spitting distance.”

Mary and I looked at each other, stifling a giggle.  It was so predictable, so absurd.

“Dae ye thin’ they’ve go’ any idea hoo ridiculous they look?” whispered Mary.

“Probably not,” I responded.  “The way things are going, I’m expecting warm towels and hot chicken soup to be delivered to his dorm any day now.”

As it turned out, neither the warm towels nor the chicken soup were needed.  By the end of January Sirius had come out of his funk and was his old aggravating, arrogant self again, to the extent that we almost preferred the withdrawn, surly version, even if it did come with a side order of anxious groupies.  At least it was easier to concentrate in classes when he and James weren’t causing a ruckus from their seats at the back of the room.  However, like all good things it had to come to an end, so we just shrugged and got on with things much as we had for the previous five or so years.

****

James’ protective stance around Sirius had almost caused him not to notice that Lily was still seeing Lance Savage, who she had met at the Yule Ball.  Almost.  His preoccupation with his friend, however, meant that he didn’t do anything aggressive to Lance until Sirius was back on track, by which time Lily was clearly so happy with her life that it was almost like he didn’t have the heart to upset her.  Mary, Martha and I had a discussion about it one night when Lily and Charlotte were out at one of Professor Slughorn’s gatherings.

“Ye know, I’m amazed Lance ha’ made it this far wi’oot growing tusks an’ all,” Mary said honestly.  “James mus’ be really distracted.”

“I don’t know,” said Martha, thinking it over.  “Just after the holidays, I would have agreed with you.  But things are back to normal now, and he still hasn’t had a go at him.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it back to normal, then,” I said wryly.

Martha conceded the point.  “Yeah, okay, I’ll pay that.  But still, he’s definitely holding back.  And he can’t not have noticed, Lily’s been glowing for weeks.”

Mary snorted.  “Since when ha’ James Potter failed t’ notice any wee thing aboot Lily?” she asked.

“Since never,” I said resolutely.  “The boy’s obsessed.”

“Yeah, he is,” agreed Martha, “but I think that this time he might just have put her happiness first.”

“Martha!” Mary protested in mock horror.  “Are ye sayin’ tha’ James Potter is growing up a’ las’?”

Martha laughed.  “That might be pushing it,” she said.  “But seriously, I do think he’s laying off because she’s so happy.  Maybe he figures that if she won’t be happy with him, at least she can be happy with someone else.”

I shook my head.  “That still sounds suspiciously like growing up,” I said.  “Just about anyone else, I might credit it.  But James?”

“Yeah, fair point,” Martha conceded.  “But do you have a better explanation?”

I thought about it, and from the look on Mary’s face she was thinking too.  “No, I don’t,” I said eventually.  Mary shook her head in agreement.

James’ inexplicable behaviour continued for the best part of two months.  While he was unmistakeably in a bad mood, glowered at Lance whenever they were in each other’s presence, and spent a lot of time fingering his wand and whispering to his friends, probably about what he wanted to do to Lance, he restrained himself from actually attacking him, whether blatantly or otherwise.

As the relationship wore on and it appeared Lily wouldn’t be becoming single anytime soon, however, James reverted to type and occasional mishaps would befall the other boy, such as his robes featuring a most attractive floral design in purple and green, his school bag being split in half on his way to class, or his nose suddenly becoming banjo-shaped.  You could never actually link James to any of these events as he was nowhere to be seen at the time, but no one seriously thought that he didn’t have anything to do with them.  Lance, for his part, steadfastly ignored it as much as he could, focusing on the fact that he was having the last laugh as he was going out with Lily and James wasn’t.

And at least Lily had some good memories from the Yule Ball the previous Christmas.  Mine were far less pleasant. In fact, the more I thought about what had happened at the ball, the more humiliated I felt – after all, no one likes to be told they are someone’s total and utter last choice.  Particularly not by the school pin-up, no matter what else I thought of him.  However, there wasn’t much I could do about it now, so obviously the thing to do was push it to the back of my mind where it would do the least amount of damage.

My sister, of course, provided regular distractions from my own problems, almost as though she was aware of them and trying to make me think about other things.  (I didn’t kid myself about that though – Bea would never actually be that considerate towards someone else, not even me.  Not that she didn’t care, more that it just wouldn’t occur to her.)  As term progressed it seemed that every week provided a new story about Bea and what she’d been up to.  One week talk was she had Transfigured her dorm-mate Julie Peasegood into a stoat after they argued over who owned the empty bottle of shampoo that had been left in their bathroom.  Another time she lost her temper after a quarrel with Gladys Gudgeon – elder sister of Davey – and managed to shrink the poor girl so that she was only fourteen inches tall.  Each story pushed her already shonky reputation further down the social scale and people started whispering around me:  “Look, there’s another Cauldwell, be careful what you say,” or “Ooh, Cauldwell’s got her wand out, anything could happen here”.

Suffice to say that I was used to this sort of thing as it had been happening for the best part of five years – pretty much from the moment I got off the Hogwarts Express back in first year – but it was still rather draining.  I knew that I wasn’t about to lose control and hex someone just because I was angry with them.  (If they were about to curse someone, perhaps, but not as a way of ending an argument. I liked to think I was a little more diplomatic than that.)  However, it seemed that Bea’s reputation took precedence over any actual evidence of my character and I was inevitably tarred with the same brush.  It probably didn’t help that much of my time that wasn’t spent studying was filled with attempting damage control on whatever it was she had done most recently.

Breathe in, breathe out. Bea’s leaving at the end of this year and you’ll be able to concentrate on your own problems for once.  By repeating this mantra to myself at least once a day (often several times), and occasionally taking my broom out for a spin whenever it got to be too much, I was able to ignore any whispers about myself and focus on the tasks at hand.

The teachers were also coming to the party by giving me enough homework to push just about everything to the back of my mind.  Every week seemed to result in yet another eighteen-inch essay or practical assignment, and this side of Christmas the staff were even more determined to remind us that our OWL exams were approaching more rapidly than perhaps we realised.  And I had to admit that now the calendar had turned over to 1976 it did feel closer than it had previously, and more than one student was taken to the hospital wing suffering from stress or some other related issue.

In this atmosphere it was a relief to have just about any diversion, even when it came in the guise of a prank by James and his friends, possibly carried out as a means of taking his mind off Lily’s continuing relationship with Lance.  It took place in late February when the castle was being buffeted by gale-force winds and students were all forced inside during break periods.

On the day in question I was with Mary in a disused classroom on the first floor, which was serving as a venue for the purposes of both escaping the hopeful advances of Gerry Stebbins (who had cornered Mary after we left Potions), and attempting to get some extra study in before we headed to Defence Against the Dark Arts after lunch.  Our quiet revision was suddenly disrupted by what sounded like a cat being tortured, the noise magnified and broadcast throughout the castle, and we rushed out into the corridor to find out what the matter was.

“Soonds lik’ a Caterwauling Charm,” muttered Mary as we hurried towards the marble staircase that went down to the Entrance Hall, which seemed to be where the noise was coming from.  When we arrived there we just stood at the top of the stairs, transfixed.

I should say we stood at the top of what used to be the stairs.  The magnificent marble staircase had been transformed into a marble slide, rather like the stairs leading to the girls’ dormitories in Gryffindor Tower would if a boy tried to go up them.  But not only was it a marble slide, but it was a marble slide that flashed a different colour every second, and anyone who tried to go down it suddenly found themselves with a red, hooked nose, curly green hair and draped in a Gryffindor Quidditch banner.

This last item of course wouldn’t exactly count as punishment to us, but it seemed that a couple of sixth-year Slytherins had unwittingly been the first subjects of this particular charm, and they looked less than impressed with their new outfits which they couldn’t remove no matter how they tried.  Frankly it was hilarious, though we did appreciate that we wouldn’t have liked it much if the tables had been turned and we’d been forced into Slytherin garb.

Before long it seemed like most of the school were gathered either at the top or bottom of the slide, Mary noting with satisfaction that Gerry was stuck at the bottom.  Professor McGonagall appeared shortly after Mary and I did, her eyebrows very close together and her lips as thin as I had seen them.  Her appearance was duly noted by James and Sirius, who were standing together at the bottom of the slide with a large stopwatch each.

“Twenty-one seconds for McGonagall or Dumbledore,” said Sirius, a broad smile on his face.  “That’s one of our best results yet.”

James looked around and clicked his watch to stop too.  “And just about the whole school here by thirty-seven seconds,” he added.  “Nice.”

Sirius shook his head.  “Still not as good as that time we Vanished the Slytherin table just before supper,” he said.  “That time we had the whole school in eighteen seconds.”

“To be fair, though,” said James, ignoring McGonagall who had rather quickly turned the slide back into the elegant staircase it really was, “it was almost a mealtime, so those times shouldn’t really count.”

“You’re the boss,” said Sirius, shrugging.  He then looked up and pretended he had only just realised McGonagall had reached them.  “Why, Professor McGonagall!  What a pleasant surprise!”

They were successful in distracting us from OWLs for a couple of hours, but they also got themselves detentions and lost about fifty points for Gryffindor, which pushed us down to the bottom of the race for the House Cup again.  Appropriately chastened, they announced in the common room that night that they were swearing off pranking for a while, or at least any major pranking, in the hope that Gryffindor could get the points back more quickly.  We were all a bit sceptical as to how long this resolution would last, but I think I can speak for just about all of Gryffindor House when I say that it was a welcome one.

****

Just as I thought I’d heard the last of James Potter and Sirius Black for a while, Elvira Vablatsky decided she had other ideas.  She caught up with me when I was on my way to the library after double Potions one morning.  “Laura, can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said.  “What’s up?”  I thought I might know, but it was always good manners to appear interested.

“Sirius,” she said, confirming my theory.  “You’re in Gryffindor.  You know him.”

“I’m in Gryffindor,” I agreed, “but I wouldn’t exactly say I know him.  Until the Yule Ball I think we’d only exchanged about five words in five years.”  I’d told her that before but it never seemed to sink in.  Plus, I thought he was a bit of a berk and I wasn’t all that keen on knowing him any better, so our intimacy levels weren’t likely to improve in the immediate future.

“But you’re in Gryffindor,” she repeated, sounding a bit like a broken record.  “So you’re in the same common room as him.”

I couldn’t argue with that.  “Well, yes, we do share a common room.”  Rather unfortunately, I added in my head, having just that morning been forced to make a rapid escape after he and James had let loose a couple of Cornish pixies, “just to see what happens”.  (Why couldn’t they do things like that in the Slytherin common room like normal people would?  If anyone knew where it was it would be them, and it would have been so much funnier.)

“And you’re in most of his classes,” she went on.  We’d reached the library by now and I made my way to my favourite corner to find an empty table.  Elvira followed me, putting her own books down next to mine. It looked like she was in for the long haul.

“Yeah, I guess I am.” I conceded.  Thinking about it, Ancient Runes was the only subject I had that he wasn’t in (and, oddly enough, it was the quietest.  I wonder if there was a correlation there?).  Elvira, if she realised that, would be especially jealous.

“So you know him,” she repeated, lowering her voice only marginally in deference to our location.  “And you might know what his taste in girls is.  I want to know what I can do to improve my chances.”

I looked at her, considering.  I had a fair idea what she was doing wrong but I wasn’t sure she would want to hear it.  “He doesn’t exactly share these sorts of things with me,” I said.  “I doubt I’d have any more idea than you would.”

“But I’m sure you know,” she said insistently.  “Think about it.”

I hesitated, having never been overly keen to dispense advice, particularly on matters I knew little about.  “Are you sure you want to hear it?  What if you don’t like it?”

“Hit me,” she said.  “I can take it.”

“Okay then,” I said slowly.  “I think your best bet would be if you stopped throwing yourself at him.  Drop it off a bit.  He already knows you’re interested, he doesn’t need that fact shoved down his throat at every given opportunity.”  I took a breath, watching her.  Her eyes had narrowed and she didn’t exactly look appreciative.  “Just try to be yourself around him.  You’re a nice person.  Let him see that, be someone that people like, and maybe he’ll like you.  It might just work.”

She raised her eyebrows.  “That’s your advice?”

“Yes, it is.  Like it or lump it.”

“Well, yes, of course, because that strategy is working so well for you right now, isn’t it?” she said snidely.  “You’re just inundated with offers of dates.  I can see them lining up outside the library as we speak.”

I blinked. If she’d meant to hurt me, it had worked – the barb stung because it was true.  It had taken me forever to get a date for the Yule Ball, and at the ball itself I was humiliated by someone who danced with me on a dare, because there was no other way anyone would ever ask me.

“Well, if that’s what you think,” I said sharply, “why did you ask me for advice in the first place?”

“Because you always seem to notice everything,” she said.  “I thought you might actually have some insight.”  And without another word, she picked up her books and walked out of the library.

Well.  That would be the last time I flattered her with rational thought.

I sat there in stunned silence, watching her go, my mind going over my entire romantic history.  Which, for someone who had just turned sixteen, was very poor by anyone’s standards.  I’d gone out with Cadmus Branstone for about four months early in fourth year, which had been entirely unremarkable.  And that was it.  Not even a holiday fling over summer. Hector hadn’t shown any real interest in me at the Yule Ball and had barely spoken to me since.  Sharing classes with Lily, Martha and Charlotte generally meant that no one gave me – or Mary, for that matter – a second glance.  And having that pointed out so harshly by someone like Elvira wasn’t exactly pleasant.

My brood was interrupted when Remus Lupin crossed my line of vision.  Without a word he sat down in the chair Elvira had vacated a minute or so previously.

“Hi Laura,” he said with a small smile.  I looked at him but didn’t return it.  “Look, I heard what she said,” he said, indicating the direction in which Elvira had last been seen.

“Come to tell me she’s right?” I asked bitterly.  I didn’t mean to snap – Remus had always been remarkably nice considering who his best friends were – but it just came out, an indication of how I was feeling.

“Actually, I came to tell you she’s wrong,” he said quietly.  “I heard what you said to her and you were spot on.  And I think she knows that, too, but doesn’t want to admit it.  Which is why she had a go at you like that.”

“But it’s not working for me,” I pointed out rather sourly.  “She was right.”

“She was being especially harsh,” he said.  “Don’t take it personally.  You might notice that her method isn’t particularly successful either.  And you’re not the subject of general ridicule from the rest of the school.”

I paused, thinking about it.  What he said made sense.  I looked at him.  “Why are you saying this?”

“Because you’re the last one who should be getting an inferiority complex from someone like Elvira Vablatsky,” he said evenly.  “You’re too nice a person and she’s not worth getting worked up over.  She’s caused enough trouble at this school already.”

Finally I smiled.  “Thanks.  I do feel better.  Still unattractive, but better.”

He grinned back.  “Don’t feel unattractive.  Anyone who thinks that just doesn’t know you yet.”  And before I could think about what that could possibly mean, he stood up and walked away.

I wasn’t quite sure how to take Remus’ last comment.  Did he mean that he found me attractive? Or was it just his way of trying to make me feel better?  I didn’t want to raise it in the dorm for fear of upsetting Charlotte, and for the time being I chose not to mention anything to Mary in case I sounded like I was getting a big head.  As a result of all this, for want of any more information I found myself watching him surreptitiously over the next couple of weeks to see if he paid me any attention whatsoever.

Frankly I wasn’t entirely clear in my mind how I wanted this to turn out.  Remus was a nice boy, and one I could maybe even go out with, but his choice of friends was a little intimidating to say the least.  Particularly after what had happened at the Yule Ball, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend any more time with them than I absolutely had to.  Besides, Charlotte would be devastated.  She and I weren’t close but I had no wish to hurt her in any way, shape or form, and if I started anything with Remus it would definitely hurt her.

With my mind full of these conflicting ideas, I soon decided that the best way of clearing my head was to take my broom out for a spin, so after supper on Thursday I went out to do just that.  As always, things seemed much clearer once I’d done a dozen or so laps of the Quidditch pitch, and I landed with a fresh resolve to not do anything but just deal with things as they panned out.

As it turned out, I had all this inner turmoil for nothing.  Remus appeared to pay me no more attention than he paid anyone else, and if anything it was a little less.  He wasn’t nervous around me, or over-confident, or anything that wasn’t how he had always been.  Inwardly I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t said anything to anyone about it, as I would have just looked silly.  However, I had to admit he had been right after all – despite him clearly not finding me attractive himself, I did feel better for what he had said.

Chapter 8: Putting out fires
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Care of Magical Creatures had dropped its interest since the episode with Charon Avery at the start of the year.  Professor Kettleburn kept a very close eye on his students, which had the desired effect of having no further incidents, but also meant that we were studying less interesting creatures as he didn’t want to spend too much time trying to control them.

Occasionally, however, Kettleburn would call on the groundskeeper, Hagrid, to offer a helping hand, especially as Kettleburn had only one left of his own.  Hagrid lived in a wooden cottage on the Hogwarts grounds, just by the forbidden forest, and appeared to have a keen interest in the more dangerous magical creatures.  I’d never really spoken to him but it appeared that several people in my year knew him reasonably well.  James, Sirius, Remus and Peter would regularly call out to him as they passed his cottage, and even Lily and Charlotte had been known to visit for a cup of tea or some rock cakes, though Lily confided to us that these last items had much more in common with rocks than with cakes.

Hagrid was a giant of a man, at least ten feet tall and probably three feet wide, which was most probably why I’d not had much to do with him.  He was rather intimidating at first sight, though I had noticed a twinkle in his eyes that indicated he probably wasn’t as hostile as he appeared.  However, I’d got through the best part of five years at the school without really getting to know him, so to start now felt a little pointless.

Anyway, Hagrid joined the class one day in mid-spring to help Professor Kettleburn teach us about fire crabs.  While Kettleburn was perfectly capable of handling the creatures themselves despite his physical incapacities, he did appear to be worried that some of the class might set them upon each other when his back was turned – a worry that I at least thought was probably well founded.  James and Sirius had clearly not forgiven Avery for his experimentation with the Cruciatus Curse back in September and made the most of every opportunity to remind him of that fact, and Charon was hardly more inclined to behave himself towards them.

Hagrid hovered around James and Sirius for the entire lesson, chatting easily with them and, if my ears weren’t deceiving me, giving them some additional tips on how to feed and clean out a fire crab without sustaining serious burns, which would apparently come up in our OWLs at the end of the year.  They appeared to be enjoying themselves, perhaps in part due to the fact that the presence of such a huge and intimidating man in the class meant that Avery, or any of the Slytherins for that matter, couldn’t do anything to them without getting caught.  (I was under the distinct impression that Kettleburn had in fact wanted Hagrid to shadow Avery instead but really, would you issue orders to a ten-foot man who regularly carried a giant crossbow?)

In any case Hagrid’s remarks, accompanied by Kettleburn’s excellent teaching, meant that we all had the technique down pat by the end of the lesson and the fire crabs were happily fed and cleaned.  Only Elsie Baddock, the Slytherin prefect, had sustained any significant burns at all, and we were generally feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Just as the lesson was ending I noticed some wild daffodils growing just on the edge of the forbidden forest.  I was rather fond of daffodils – ordinary ones, not the honking ones Professor Sprout grew in the school greenhouses – so Mary and I dropped back to pick a couple before heading back to the castle.  Morning break was about to begin so we weren’t worried about being late for a class, and I took my time selecting two or three of the prettiest flowers before using a Severing Charm to cut the stems.

We weren’t the only ones hanging back, it appeared.  The Gryffindor boys had all piled into Hagrid’s cottage to check something out – I didn’t know what – and emerged not far behind us on the lawn, heading back to the castle.

“That was amazing,” I heard Remus say.  “I never thought I’d see one, they’re so rare.”

“Seen it loads of times,” Sirius said dismissively.  “You go into Dumbledore’s office, you can’t exactly miss it.”

Peter’s voice piped up hesitantly.  “But some of us don’t get into quite as much trouble as you do, Sirius.”

“Not my fault you’ve got no sense of adventure,” Sirius retorted rather scornfully.

“I didn’t realise they were so bright, though,” Remus went on, ignoring the brewing argument and probably hoping to cut it off.  “I’d love to see it on a burning day.”

“Actually it’s not that interesting,” said James.  “Just an ugly looking bird that bursts into flame and comes out looking even more ugly.  A bit like Carrow, I guess.”  Alecto Carrow was a short, squat and fairly ugly Slytherin girl in our year – comparing her appearance to any creature was by definition rather unflattering to the creature.

Their laughter masked the sound of me letting out a gasp of surprise – only one bird had a burning day that I was aware of.  They must be talking about a phoenix.  I hadn’t even realised there was one at the school.  I looked at Mary.

“Dumbledore has a phoenix?  Is that what they’re saying?”  I kept my voice low so we wouldn’t be overheard.

“Aye, soonds lik’ it,” she agreed.  “An’ Hagrid’s borrowed it fer some reason.  Wonder wha’ tha’ is.”

“He can’t exactly be breeding it, can he?” I mused as we reached the Entrance Hall and started up the main staircase.  I looked at Mary again and indicated the flowers.  “I’m just going to run upstairs and put these in some water,” I said.  “See you at Transfiguration.”

She nodded and just about walked straight into the boys, who had caught us and were on their own way to the next lesson.  “Oops, sorra,” she muttered, but aside from an apologetic look from Remus they barely acknowledged her as they trampled up the stairs.  So, really, much the same as usual.  In any case Mary didn’t look at all perturbed as she gathered her things together and wandered off herself.

That night at supper I settled down to another excellent meal and a nice long gossip with Mary, both of which were pretty much par for the course after a long day of schoolwork, particularly when we’d had the final lesson of the day apart.

“How was Muggle Studies?” I asked her as I loaded up my plate with lamb chops, jacket potatoes and peas and gravy.

“Passable,” she said.  “We started on Governance an’ Law Enforcemen’ – so ye shoul’ be able t’ help me oot fer th’ nex’ assignmen’.”

I grinned.  “Yeah, I’d say I could do that,” I agreed, wondering just how the Muggle system of law enforcement would be taught.  “Let me know if you want me to write to Mum about anything.”  I took a bite of my lamb chop but spat out a large bit of gristle almost immediately.  “They couldn’t spring for some decent cuts, could they?” I went on rhetorically.  “I mean, how much dearer is Welsh lamb anyway?”

Mary was saved from answering by a sudden commotion coming from the Ravenclaw table, and I realised with a sinking heart that my sister was again at the heart of it.  With her friends Sturgis and Cynthia, she had obviously tried out a spell they had invented and it had backfired, leaving the girl sitting opposite Bea with scorched hair and horns growing out of her ears.

Professor Flitwick, the head of Ravenclaw House, was shaking his head as he moved quickly from the staff table to the centre of the disruption – he’d probably had enough of putting out her fires over the years, and this time it looked like he might have to do so literally, as the poor girl’s head was still smoking.

I looked at Mary.  “Maybe I should go over and offer to help,” I said, resigned to the fact that I would indeed be doing just that.

“Maybe ye’ shoul’,” she agreed.  “Ye’re better a’ sortin’ her oot than anyone else.”

Abandoning the chops on my plate, I picked up a Cornish pasty to take with me and downed my pumpkin juice, then headed over to Professor Flitwick.  “Want me to have a word to her?” I asked him.

He looked up at me, a surprised and gratified expression on his face as he finished dousing the hair of Bea’s unfortunate victim.  “Thank you, Miss Cauldwell, I’d appreciate that,” he said.  “No one can calm her down quite as well as you can.”

I smiled briefly, then walked around to the other side of the table and sat down next to Bea, smiling thankfully at the person next to her who shuffled down a bit so I could fit in.  “What’s up?”

“Spell backfired,” she explained.

“What was it supposed to do?” I asked.

“Gubraithian fire on the head.  I don’t know where those horns came from.”  She looked genuinely mystified.

“And why were you trying to do that at the supper table?”

Bea shrugged.  “Something to do.”

“And this girl did what?” I indicated the girl, now without horns but still with burned hair, deep in conversation with Professor Flitwick.

“Nothing.  She was just in the way.”

I shook my head sternly.  “That’s not good enough, Bea.  You know better than to cast spells arbitrarily like that.”

She grinned at me.  “I thought you were supposed to be calming me down, not telling me off.  Now start calming, girl!”

“Right you are.  And what would Madam like first, a back massage or a foot rub?”

Bea pretended to take me seriously and looked up at the ceiling, her finger in her mouth in a thinking pose.  Sturgis, sitting next to the girl with the smoking hair, took the bait and looked at me enviously.  “How come she gets a back massage?  I did just as much as she did!  I might even be able to work out where the horns came from!”  He ran a hand through his hair and gave me a gap-toothed smile.

I laughed.  “Don’t be daft, Sturgis, no one’s getting a back massage.  Or a foot rub.  I was just winding her up.”  I had never been completely sure that Sturgis didn’t have a thing for me so I was very keen to nip any possible misinterpretations in the bud.  I mean, I might be desperate but I would never be that desperate.

“Again,” Bea pointed out, “you’re supposed to be calming me down.  Winding me up is not calming me down.”

“Okay,” I agreed.  “How about we just get you back to your dorm where you’ll do less damage.”

Eventually she allowed me to escort her and Cynthia back to Ravenclaw Tower, Sturgis following behind us a little like an obedient dog.  I stayed in the common room with them for much of the evening, hearing their conversation without paying much attention to it – my concern was whether Bea would get her wand out again and who she might use it on.  Sturgis had all sorts of ideas as to where the horns had appeared from and was keen to try out different versions of their spell, but the smell of burned hair lingered with them and Bea finally put her foot down and refused to do any more testing until they had more of the bugs ironed out.

At length I took my leave of them and opened the door leading to the rest of the castle, quickly jumping to one side as Dione Turpin pretty much fell inside, completely immersed in a snog with Sirius.  Lucky for them I’d opened the door, really: it didn’t look like they could part lips for long enough for her to answer whatever question the door-knocker came up with.  In any case I’d forgotten they were going out and looked at them with mild distaste – she was the closest thing Hogwarts fifth year had to a proper bitch, and he was an arrogant prat, so they probably deserved each other.  They were oblivious to everyone and everything around them and almost fell into me more than once as I tried to get out of their way, but eventually they found a spot in a corner somewhere and I was free to finally exit the room and head back to Gryffindor Tower.

****

Whether it was because I was so used to dealing with Bea or for some other reason I didn’t know, but I was finding more and more people that I barely knew were coming to see me to work out their problems.  Why me, I wasn’t entirely sure, but I’d been described before as a good listener so it might have had something to do with that.  In any case, the older I got the more it was happening, as I found later that week when I left the library on my way back to Gryffindor Tower after supper.

“Hi, Laura,” came a voice behind me, and I turned to see Veronica Smethley, fifth-year Hufflepuff, hurrying to catch up with me.  I didn’t know Veronica very well but what I did know I liked, as she was someone who was easy to talk to and hardly had a bad word to say about anyone.

“Hi Veronica,” I replied, slowing down so she could catch up.  “What’s up?”

She just shook her head and groaned.  “Dione Turpin’s what’s up,” she said ominously.  Ah, yes, Dione was one person she did have a bad word to say about.

I laughed.  “What’s she been saying this time?”

She fell into step with me.  “You mean, aside from shouting to the world that she’s bagged Sirius Black?”

I laughed again.  “That’s right, how could I forget?  Apparently this time it’s true love, if you credit her side of it.”

Veronica snorted derisively.  “Yeah, right, true love for a couple of sixteen year olds who’ve been together all of a week or two.  Let me guess – he’s not saying the same thing?”

I shrugged.  “I barely know the bloke.  But no, I don’t think he is.  But that’s not why you wanted to talk, is it?”

She grinned.  “You’re right, gossiping about who Dione is shagging at the moment isn’t high on my list of priorities.  But she’s had a go at me and Clio now so we need to go into damage control.”

We wandered into an empty classroom.  “What’s the story?”

She giggled suddenly.  “Lesbian love affair.”

I nodded.  “Right.  And are you?”

“What, having an affair?  I don’t think so.”

I grinned broadly.  “Just checking.  It’s much harder to deny something if it’s true.”

She sat down on a dusty table.  “So what do we do about it?”

“You want my advice?”  That was unusual, people normally just liked to talk and needed a sympathetic ear.  Advice wasn’t exactly my forte – and let’s face it, I’d never been threatening enough to be the subject of one of Dione’s rumours so I couldn’t provide it from experience – though the request for it was starting to become more and more frequent.

She looked surprised.  “Of course.  Why else would I be here?”

I let it slide and changed the subject.  “Out of curiosity, when did the rumour start?”

She considered.  “Yesterday, I think.  Or maybe the day before.  Why?”

“It’s just unusual that she’d be feeling so threatened by you if she’s found true love with the catch of the school.”  I frowned – this didn’t feel right at all.  “What have you done that would have brought it on?”

She coloured slightly.  “Well, if it’s not true love, as we suspect, and she’s worried she won’t be able to hang onto him, then I think it’s aimed at Clio to get her off the radar as a potential rival.”  Veronica’s best friend, Clio Zeller, was a pretty black-haired Hufflepuff who was probably striking enough to catch the eye of someone like Sirius, so there could be something in that theory.

From the look on Veronica’s face she obviously considered that she might be seen as a rival too, but I decided not to mention that.  Quite possibly, like half the school, she had a latent crush on the guy as well, and I suspected that there may well have been some flirting involved (and perhaps even reciprocated) before the rumour started.  Which would explain things quite nicely, I decided.

“Fair enough,” was what I actually said out loud, deciding that if Veronica wanted advice then I’d just suggest she do what I did when confronted with Bea-inspired assumptions about me.  “Well, if it was me, I’d just ignore it.  Most people will recognise it as a Turpin Tale and not believe it anyway.”

She coloured even more.  “But what if some people do believe it?”  I was getting surer by the minute that my hunch was right, and this was more to do with Sirius than Dione.

“Let them,” I said.  “If they want to believe it, then anything you say will just be taken as evidence that it’s true.  And let’s face it,” I went on with a smile, deliberately riling her up a bit, “for some of the boys, it’s more likely to be a turn-on than anything else.  You could always run with it and see where it takes you.”

She was so red she looked rather like a Quaffle with blonde curls by now, but pretended to shake it off.  “You’re probably right,” she said eventually.  “If I challenge it then people will just say, ‘the truth hurts’ or something like that, won’t they?”

I nodded.  “If they think of it.”

She nodded too.  “Right.  So we ignore it and see where things go.  And with any luck. Queen Dione will be the one who suffers from it.”

“Right you are,” I agreed.  “Good luck.”

“Thanks, Laura,” she said briefly and, picking up her bag in one swift movement, was gone.

****

The avalanche of homework we were now getting succeeded in pushing all thoughts of Veronica and Dione from my mind, and I threw myself into study in preparation for our upcoming exams.  Everyone hoped to make the most of our Potions lesson a couple of days later when we started work on Memory Potions, as we all intended to sample the finished product so we could have a head start on studying for our OWLs.  Unfortunately the class ended up being a bit of a shambles, which started when Scylla Pritchard from Slytherin mishandled her dragon liver and it ended up flying across the room and hitting Charlotte square in the face.  This led to a dragon liver fight with people hurling them around the dungeon every time Professor Slughorn’s attention was somewhere else, and before long most of us had green stains on our faces and robes from the dragon blood.

Things were going along swimmingly (except the potions we were supposed to be making, oddly enough) when Lily decided to up the ante by hurling her liver directly at Slughorn, who looked up just as she let go and watched with surprise as it landed on his desk.  He picked it up and held it out in front of him, roaring with laughter.  “Excellent throw, Lily,” he chortled, his eyes twinkling as he handed the liver back to her.  “But you must be careful, you know, as if it’s too bruised it won’t work in the potion.”

Of course he’d behave like that to Lily, and she made the most of it by looking mildly contrite even though her eyes danced merrily.  She had always been his particular favourite and he indulged her at every opportunity, and she played this fact for all it was worth.  Of course, being Lily, no one resented her for this (except perhaps Dione, who seemed to resent her for everything else) and she could just about get away with murder.

Needless to say, as soon as Slughorn’s back was turned the fight was back on again in earnest, and enough noise was made for him to even notice people who weren’t in the Slug Club.  Mary and I, who hadn’t participated any more (or less) than anyone else, were chosen rather arbitrarily for detentions for our involvement in the skirmish, to be held the following evening in Dungeon Four.

We fronted obediently at the required time and giggled to ourselves when Professor Slughorn got our names wrong once again.  (Lisa Coyle, anyone?)  The detention itself was a breeze, with our task being to each take a ten-gallon bottle of armadillo bile and measure it into small one fluid ounce flasks for use in Potions class.  Slughorn explained that the school preferred to purchase it in bulk despite his frequent protests that decanting it into smaller flasks was a waste of his time – time which he thought could be better spent, I was sure, indulging in his weaknesses for crystallised pineapple and mulled mead.  At least, that was if Lily and Charlotte’s descriptions of his Slug Club meetings were accurate.  Because it was a detention we had to complete the task without using magic, but it was the sort of thing you can do on automatic once you get started, so we had a good time having a gossip while we were doing it.  After a couple of hours, we’d finished and were given permission to leave.

We bade farewell to Slughorn and headed upstairs towards Gryffindor Tower.  “Tha’ wasna too ba’,” Mary acknowledged.  “Nou, did ye coont hoo many differen’ names he called ye?”  This was a regular game we played, based on Slughorn’s ignorance of anyone not in the Slug Club.

I laughed.  “Three, from memory: Coyle, Cavanagh, Connell.  All Irish.  I mean, I knew I still had an accent, but oddly enough I thought it was Welsh.  How about you?”

“Four,” she said, furrowing her brow as she listed them off.  “Macdermott, Macdougal, McDaniel, O’Donnell.  Bi’ o’ a mixture there, Scottish an’ Irish.  Maybe he has a thing fer th’ Emerald Isle?”

“That could be why Fin Quigley is in the Slug Club,” I said with a giggle.  “Old Slughorn just lurves that accent.”  Quigley, a Gryffindor in the year below us and Beater on the Quidditch team, was from Galway and had one of the thickest Irish brogues I’d ever heard.

We were on ground level and heading towards the marble staircase when suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, James, Sirius, Remus and Peter appeared just around a corner, apparently oblivious to us.  Before long they saw us looking at them and all put a finger to their mouths in an attempt to keep us quiet.  Eyebrows raised, we looked at each other and then at the direction the boys were gesticulating in and noticed Severus Snape, sneaking around as though looking for something.  We were stationed as to see Snape and the Gryffindors, but they couldn’t see each other, so we were perfectly positioned.

I figured that Snape thought he hadn’t been detected, whatever he was doing, and so decided to make sure he knew he’d been sprung.  “Oh, look Mary,” I drawled, stopping so we would stay in our brilliant spot.  “Snivellus.”  I pulled my wand out lazily.

Severus almost jumped out of his skin with surprise.  “What are you doing out of Gryffindor Tower so late?” he snarled, his own wand already out.

“Detention,” Mary said staunchly.  “Wha’ are ye doin’ oot?”  We didn’t know where the Slytherin common room was so she couldn’t be as specific as he had been.

He ignored the question and eyed us shrewdly.  Eventually he spoke again.  “Where’s Potter?”

We feigned surprise.  “Potter?” I asked.

“I know he’s here somewhere,” Snape went on almost viciously.  “Him and Black and those other two that keep hanging off them like handbags.”

“Sorry,” Mary said evenly, her eyes staying on Severus though I was sure she was very conscious of the boys snickering silently around the corner.  “Havna seen them.  They weren’t i’ our detention, if tha’s wha’ ye’re asking.  Though, wi’ their track recor’, I can understan’ why ye’d thin’ they were.”

Snape just glared at us, most probably guessing we weren’t telling the whole truth.  “I’ll find out what they’re up to,” he spat.  “Then they’ll pay.”

This sounded a bit ominous but as we didn’t have a clue what he was on about we had to let it slide.  “Well, Snivellus,” Mary said archly, “if tha’s all we’ve go’ t’ ge’ back.  As should ye – I’d hate fer ye t’ be caugh’ oot o’ boonds after curfew.”  It was a veiled threat that we would go to the first staff member we saw and advise them of Snape’s antics.  He blanched at the implication.

“But you won’t tell anyone about Potter and Black being out,” he snarled.

“We can’t,” I lied smoothly, “seeing as we haven’t seen them.  We’ve only seen you.  But I’m sure Professor McGonagall would be very interested to hear that you’ve been trying to blame them for your own indiscretions.”  I looked at him pointedly and headed towards the main staircase, indicating that the conversation was over.  Behind us, I could hear Snape scuttling off in the direction of the dungeon we’d just come from.

Once we could no longer hear him, James Potter appeared suddenly from thin air, grinning broadly.  “Thanks, girls, that was a scream.”

“Wha’ was it all aboot?” Mary asked, obviously choosing not to mention his rather unorthodox way of showing himself.

“We were just heading for the kitchens,” he explained, “for a late night snack.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Snivellus was just trying to get us expelled again.”

“Again?”  My eyebrows rose.  “Then this sort of thing happens often?”

“You could say that,” he said carelessly.  “Anyway, we had it covered, but you two were the icing on the cake.  Last thing he was expecting.  It was most entertaining.”  He grinned at us, his hazel eyes sparkling behind his glasses.

“I’m a wee bi’ surprised we go’ oot o’ it wi’oot growing tentacles or summit,” Mary admitted.  “He di’ hae his wand oot an’ all.”

James shook his head.  “Nah, that was for us.  He wouldn’t hex you.”

“Why nae?”  Mary looked surprised.

“You room with Lily,” he explained, and I noticed that he referred to her by her first name, even though he always addressed her as Evans.  Probably it was much like we did with them.  “Old Snivelly wouldn’t want anything like that getting back to her.”

We nodded: this did explain it.  As long as Snape thought he had a chance with Lily, he wouldn’t jinx any of her friends.  Or dorm-mates, for that matter.  At least, not so she might find out about it.

Of course, once something is pointed out to you, you find it almost impossible not to notice it, and this soon became the case with Snape and James and his friends.  After James told Mary and me that it was a frequent occurrence for Severus to follow them around and try to get them expelled, we found we noticed it happening all the time.  They’d wander into class late and we’d see Snape skulking past the door a minute or so later, or he’d be watching them intently during lunch break, fingering his wand, or he’d follow them to Hagrid’s house after Care of Magical Creatures to try to catch them breaking the rules.  It seemed that the resentment Severus apparently felt for James went further than the usual jealous rivalry over a girl we had always thought it was.  We were still none the wiser as to the cause of their mutual loathing, but it was certainly stronger than we had previously taken it to be.

The other outcome of that night was that I had been struck again by how someone like James Potter, who we all considered an arrogant toerag, could be perfectly nice and almost rational when you actually talked to him.  Maybe they were all like that and we hadn’t been fair to them.  Or maybe this was a one-off, an aberration.  Whichever it was, however, chances were we weren’t going to find out without further conversation with them which wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon, so it looked like we would remain in the dark for the foreseeable future at least. 

Chapter 9: Good reasons to ditch Astronomy
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The Easter holidays were a two-week drama of Bea fretting about her upcoming NEWTs.  She was taking most of the more difficult subjects and was finding it much harder than she had anticipated to stay on top of things, and I had a sneaking suspicion that it had a lot to do with the fact that prior to this year she’d just swanned through without really studying, but had now reached her limit and wasn’t familiar enough with even the concept of study and revision to be able to use it to her best advantage.  I had to help her draw up revision timetables and even explain to her the best ways to help refresh her memory of what she had learned over the past two years, and I suspected Dad would soon be looking to buy shares in Bobbin’s Apothecary in an effort to recoup some of what he was spending on Calming Draughts.

This all meant, of course, that my own revision fell behind somewhat, as the homework I’d been assigned over the holidays fell by the wayside as I helped Bea through her tempests.  In the end I had to cram as much into the last couple of days of the holidays as I could, trying to finish some rather hefty assignments for Potions, Charms and Transfiguration.

I got back to school, my rather shoddy essays in tow, to find the common room full of pamphlets detailing different employment options for our perusal.  This indicated that we would shortly need to start thinking about what we would do with our lives, and we spent countless hours poring over them in a vain attempt to decide what we might possibly want to do once our schooling was over.  Shortly afterwards notices went up on the notice board in the common room saying that we were to meet with our Head of House to discuss our future careers prospects.

My appointment with Professor McGonagall was set for ten o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, meaning I would miss out on part of Herbology.  I suspected that the early time was due to my surname beginning with a C, which was confirmed when I bumped into Sirius, the only Gryffindor before me in the alphabet, who was coming back from her office when I was on my way.  True to expectations, he looked at me and then looked away as though I didn’t exist.  In other words, much the same as usual.

“Good morning, Miss Cauldwell,” McGonagall said cheerfully when I knocked on the open door.  “Come in, come in.  Have a biscuit.”

I sat down on the only available chair and watched with surprise as she took the lid off a tartan tin and offered me a ginger newt.  I’d never thought of McGonagall as the type to offer biscuits to visitors to her office, but she did appear insistent and I felt it would be rude to say no. I  sat there in silence, munching on the biscuit as she launched into her spiel.

“Choosing your career is a very important decision,” she was saying.  “You need to ensure that your choice is something you can realistically achieve while still being challenging enough for you to enjoy it.  Have you had a chance to think about it yet, Miss Cauldwell?”

I blinked.  That was quicker than I’d anticipated and I was now expected to spout off my preferred career choices.  I’d looked through all the pamphlets and hadn’t come to any firm decision as yet.  Some of the more glamorous occupations, like Healer or Auror, appealed to me as they did to everyone, but I hadn’t ruled out the more mundane things like working in the more boring Ministry departments.  Really, with my subject choice, the only things that were entirely ruled out were things like Muggle relations (which was probably just as well in the current climate), curse breaking and soothsaying.

“I’ve had a look, Professor, but I haven’t decided yet,” I said honestly, deciding then and there to call on her insight.  “What do you think I’d be good at?”

She gave me a rare smile.  “I must say, Miss Cauldwell, it is rather refreshing to not have a student come straight in and say they want to be an Auror.  At the moment that is becoming increasingly common, and unfortunately not everyone has the temperament for it.”  Thinking about it briefly, she was right, I would probably make a shocking Auror – not ambitious enough, and not the type to seek a fight – and from the look on her face it seemed to me rather likely that her previous interviewee had automatically nominated that very job as his preferred career choice.  Though, thinking about that, from what I knew of him he’d probably be good at it.

She paused, flicking through the pile of parchment on her desk to find the page that dealt with me.  “Your grades are generally good in the core subjects,” she said, having located it, “though you might want to try a little harder with Transfiguration and Potions if you are to progress to NEWT level.  If you are able to keep those subjects you will find you have significantly more options available to you at the end of your schooling.”  She paused.  “Unless you particularly want to, I see no reason for you to continue with History of Magic or Astronomy.  Your grades are comparatively poor and they would probably not assist very well in your employment prospects.”

She paused again, looking at me over her glasses.  “You’re good at listening, Miss Cauldwell, you are logical and you have good powers of deduction.  If you keep Transfiguration and Potions to NEWT level you will probably make a fine diagnostic Healer.  Alternatively you could work in Magical Law Enforcement or, in fact, almost any Department in the Ministry.”  She gave me a sharp look.  “Do you think you could get your marks up for those two subjects?”

I nodded.  “I think I could, Professor,” I said.  “Are there any of the elective subjects you think I need to continue, or are those more optional?”

“Hmm, you are taking Ancient Runes and Care of Magical Creatures.  Unless you are to try for a more specialised occupation like archaeology or dragon handling, I don’t think it matters from the careers perspective if you keep those up.  However, like I said, the core subjects of Charms, Potions, Herbology and Transfiguration will do you well.  You may also wish to continue in Defence Against the Dark Arts.”  She looked up as I nodded vigorously.  “Do I take it you intend to continue in that subject?” she asked.

“Absolutely, Professor,” I said with feeling.  “In this day and age, I think it’s essential.”

“Very wise,” she agreed.  “You will need an Exceeds Expectations to continue with that into NEWT level studies, but you are averaging a low E at the moment so if you persist with your current efforts you should have no problems.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  “So the message is, work hard in Potions and Transfiguration and I should have quite a few options at the end of NEWTs.”

“That’s right,” she said.  “Thank you, Miss Cauldwell, you may go.”

The interview was over, and it had been less traumatic than I’d thought.  I had always thought that having Professor McGonagall as my Head of House was a bit of a curse rather than a blessing – I’d expected to be put in Hufflepuff, where my father and cousins had been, and their Head of House was Professor Sprout, who was much warmer and more maternal.  However, I had the feeling she may not have scared me enough to get my marks up for Potions and Transfiguration the way McGonagall had, and that was with McGonagall at her most gentle.  Really, for my future prospects, Gryffindor probably was a better bet for me.

****

That night we had Astronomy at midnight, so at quarter to we all left the common room and traipsed across the castle to the Astronomy Tower.  I had always found Astronomy a bit of a bore, but conscientious as ever Mary and I had still completed our star charts and were ready to spend an hour in the cold night air looking through telescopes.

Unfortunately, this was one of the nights that the Canis Major constellation was visible and Professor Dobbs spent a fair amount of the class discussing it.  The trouble with this constellation was that its principal star was known as Sirius, which the boys thought was hilarious and shamelessly disrupted the lesson with their patently immature puns and giggles.

The lesson was worse than even we had expected, and seemed to be connected with the fact that the boys had come back from the Easter holidays addressing each other using strange nicknames, most of which seemed to have an animal bent to them.  It appeared to be their own secret code, an in-joke to which the rest of us weren’t privy, and it made life a little more difficult as we were never entirely sure who they were talking about.  The trouble was that the nicknames also appeared to have a relevance to the constellation in question, and that was apparently reason enough for even more laughter and hilarity than usual.

“Canis Majoris, or Sirius,” said Dobbs, making a point of trying to ignore James and his friends, “is known as the dog star.”  The boys immediately began high-fiving each other amid raucous laughter, and it was at least a couple of minutes before it subsided enough for the class to continue.  None of us could work out why it was so funny, though – we’d been told months earlier that Canis Majoris was known as both Sirius and the dog star, and this was just a recap.

Professor Dobbs went on once the boys had settled down a bit.  “It is visible during summer and has been said to be prominent during extremely hot weather, which is why very hot days are referred to as dog days.  Now, if you look though your telescope to these co-ordinates” – and she gave them – “you will notice that it is very bright at the moment, despite the weather being rather mild.”  She paused, casting a weary eye at Sirius, who was grinning broadly and had clearly enjoyed being referred to, however obliquely, as both bright and hot.

“Canis Majoris,” Professor Dobbs continued warily, obviously determined not to mention the star’s alternative name again, “due to its brightness, was an object of wonder and veneration to many ancient civilisations throughout human history.”  All attempts we might have made at ignoring the boys were abandoned as they collapsed into uncontrollable laughter.  Apparently the description of Sirius as an object of wonder and veneration was too close to the mark for them to ignore.

“Tha’ was a nichtmare,” said Mary as we wandered back to Gryffindor Tower after class finally finished.  “If she’d mentioned tha’ ruddy star one more time, I’d hae thumped her myself.”

“Probably safer than thumping him,” I agreed.

“Ye’re nae wrong there,” she said.  “Bu’ honestly, hoo much longer ca’ they go on lik’ tha’?”

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t true,” I said quietly, hoping that no one was close enough to overhear.  “But he is bright, he is hot, and he is an object of wonder and veneration.  Well, to Elvira he is, anyway.”

Mary groaned.  “Ye’re richt, o’ course,” she said.  “An’ it’s a goo’ reason fer droppin’ Astronomy nex’ year.  Ye’re nae keepin’ it up, are ye?”

I shook my head.  “No, and partly for that very reason.  That and it’s boring as all hell.  McGonagall just told me to focus on Potions and Transfiguration, so I’ll be doing that.”

She nodded.  “Aye, I’m droppin’ it too.  Anything t’ stop hearin’ aboot tha’ ruddy dug star again.”  She paused, grimacing slightly.  “Le’s face it, it’s nae exac’ly good fer gettin’ his ego back t’ a more manageable size, is it?”

I laughed.  “But that’s a lost cause anyway,” I said.  “I doubt it ever was a manageable size, and it just gets bigger every year.”

I stopped laughing as Mary’s elbow dug into my ribs and the person in question, along with James, Remus and Peter, came striding through the other students, clearly in a bit of a hurry to get back to the tower.  Or maybe they were going somewhere else.  It didn’t matter anyway.  They were still talking about the class too, finding Dobbs’ descriptions of the star particularly relevant and the cause of much hilarity.  I could just tell that this was going to be one of those things that they’d harp on about for ages and for the rest of us would get old very quickly.

****

Soon enough we had made it through to mid May without killing anyone or keeling over with OWLs-related anxiety, but with everything else going on it seemed to be a bad time for relationships.  Whether it was because of the stress of upcoming exams, or whether everyone had sampled some Hate Potions or what it might have been we weren’t sure, but everyone seemed to be breaking up.

The first casualty was Lily and Lance Savage, who had been together since the Yule Ball and seemed to be going great guns, despite frequent attempts by James Potter and Dione Turpin to sabotage the relationship.  In fact, we thought that Lance most probably deserved a medal for getting through the number of jinxes and hexes he had been subjected to since the end of February when James had gotten himself organised.

“Yes, I am a bit upset,” Lily admitted in the dorm that night as Charlotte deposited a pile of chocolate on the bed in front of her.  “But there’s just too much going on, we never see each other.  What with OWLs coming up for me, and full-on study for him, as well as my prefect duties and everything else that’s happening, it’s probably better all round if we don’t have this distraction.  And getting to see each other was just becoming too difficult.”

Charlotte gave her a hug while Martha just looked at her thoughtfully.  “Is there any truth to the rumour that he was sick to death of being hassled by James?”

Lily shook her head.  “Of course not.  We can’t have James Potter thinking he’s got that sort of power.”

“Not what I asked, Lils,” Martha pointed out with a sly grin.  “I didn’t ask whether you wanted James thinking he has that sort of power, I asked whether he actually does.”

Lily didn’t answer for a while, which suggested to me that Martha had it spot on.  Eventually, when she did speak, she confirmed it.

“Yes, it was a bit like that,” she admitted.  “Every time Lance turned around something else had been done to him.  It wore him down a bit after a while.”

Martha nodded sympathetically.  “I can imagine what it would be like.  Kind of like what I had when I was going out with Sirius, but worse.  It’d drive you batty.”

Lily nodded and Charlotte tightened her hold on her.  “You can’t let James know, though,” Lily said very seriously, breaking off a bit of chocolate and nibbling at it.  “Ever.  I don’t want him knowing that it had anything to do with him at all.”

“We promise,” said Martha equally seriously.  “Don’t we, girls?”  And she looked around at Charlotte, and then at Mary and me, and we all nodded our agreement.

We found out about another relationship that had taken a dive only a couple of days later.  We had Charms with the Ravenclaws, and Mary and I turned up before class to see Dione Turpin sitting alone at her desk, her eyes wet and her face red and blotchy. Gertie Cresswell was hovering around offering her sweets and the like, but she paid no attention to her.  After one such effort I called Gertie over.

“What’s wrong with Dione?” I asked in a whisper.  I didn’t like Dione but I still didn’t want her to be this upset, so much so that it was affecting her public face.

“I’d have thought you’d know,” Gertie said quietly.  “Sirius dumped her this morning.”

“Oh.”  Was that all?  Sometimes it seemed like half the girls in our year had been dumped by him at some point.  “But why would we know?”

Gertie gave us a very disdainful look.  “You’re in Gryffindor, aren’t you?”  And without another word she went back to trying to put a cushion on the seat of Dione’s chair.

Muffliato,” said Mary, pointing her wand at Dione and Gertie.  This was a useful little spell that Lily had taught us, which put white noise in the ears of the people it was directed at so they couldn’t hear what you were saying.  Very useful for having conversations during class.  “Well,” she went on.  “An’ t’ think we thought it wa’ true love?”  She didn’t even try to hide her smirk.

I nodded.  “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer girl, I must admit.  Though she’s more upset than I would have thought.  How long were they together, two months or something?”

“I suppose it depends on hoo keen on him she was t’ star’ wi’ an’ all,” said Mary wisely, though she was still smirking.  “Bu’ I will say tha’ she’s nae set herself up fer much i’ th’ way o’ sympathy, th’ way she treats everyone else.”

Sirius, when he eventually made it into class (with James, late, and giving Flitwick his most winning smile to try to avoid a detention), didn’t look at all cut up about the end of the relationship.  In fact, you’d have been hard pressed to know that he’d been in one to start with.  He didn’t even pay Dione the compliment of ignoring her, as people usually do at the end of such liaisons, but rather just treated her as he treated everyone else, like she wasn’t worth any special treatment.

Despite all this, I did notice that my sympathy for her was extremely limited.  After all, as I’d said earlier to Mary, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer girl.

****

Although Lily said she was generally okay about the end of her relationship with Lance, she definitely harboured some resentment towards James Potter for his role in its demise.  So one day when we noticed James and Sirius pushing people out of their way as they went down the corridors, the unlucky victims ending up, for example, mooing like a cow or suffering the effects of a Jelly-Legs or Trip Jinx, Lily decided to take action.  She clearly agreed with Mary and me in that it was a bit much to hex people just for being in their way, and after a third-year Hufflepuff ended up covered in warts for daring to step in James’ path outside the Transfiguration classroom, she stepped in.

“That’s enough, Potter,” she warned, her wand out threateningly.

James looked surprised, and the next time he spoke his voice was deeper, more mature than usual – something we had noticed happened whenever he was addressing Lily.  “What’s enough, Evans?”

“Act your age, not your shoe size,” Lily spat, glaring at him.  “He was just crossing the hall to pick up his bag.  You didn’t have to jinx him,” she went on viciously.  “Do that one more time and I’ll –”

“You’ll what?” asked James, still in the deeper voice, his hand running through his hair.  He didn’t seem overly concerned at her threat and was smiling at her.

Lily smiled back, and James looked like all his Christmases had come at once.  That is, until he found himself hoisted up into the air, upside down, as though suspended by his ankle.  He flapped around madly trying to make sure his robes didn’t fall down too far, though we saw enough to make some passing fourth-years wolf-whistle appreciatively.

Lily had obviously cast a non-verbal spell, and she was watching his discomfort with increasing amusement.  Eventually she flicked her wand and he crumpled to the floor, looking rather embarrassed.

“What did you do that for?” asked James as he got up and brushed himself off, his ‘Lily’ voice gone in his humiliation.

“Well, Potter,” she said, her voice sounding sickly sweet, “it was either that or taking points from you, and to be honest I’d rather Gryffindor didn’t lose any more points.  Thanks to you we’re almost in the negative as it is.”

Sirius, Remus and Peter were all laughing, their friendship clearly taking a back seat to James’ exhibition.  “Sorry, Prongs, I think she’s got you there,” said Sirius easily.  “And to think I said she wasn’t a good choice!  I take it all back.”  There was that nickname again. I glanced at Mary, eyebrows raised, curious about where it came from.

“Yeah, anyone who can get away with that has to be a good catch,” echoed Peter.  James glared at them as he gathered his books up again.

Martha and Charlotte were casting approving looks at Lily.  “Where’d you learn that one, Lils?” asked Martha quietly, obviously trying to remain out of James’ hearing.

Lily just smiled and shook her head. “I’ll tell you tonight,” she promised.

Shortly afterwards McGonagall opened the door to let us into class, which that day proved to be somewhat more entertaining than it usually was.  The subject matter wasn’t too much of an issue – we were trying to turn an owl into a pair of opera glasses, which required a bit of concentration but no more than was normally required – but some of our classmates seemed to think that a diversion was just what everyone was looking for.

What happened was that halfway through the double lesson James and Sirius, who had already successfully transformed their owls into opera glasses and back again several times and were therefore most probably bored, started Transfiguring other items in the classroom as something to do.  Very likely, as well as being bored, James was trying to win back some respect from his fellow students after the hoisting-upside-down thing Lily had done to him earlier, which had without doubt embarrassed him more than he wanted to admit.

Whatever the reason, people were generally used to distractions during Transfiguration, and no one paid that much attention when the bookcase at the back of the room suddenly became a mahogany Edwardian dining suite, complete with elaborate place settings for twelve people.  However, when Peter was turned into a rat before our eyes and several people’s school bags became billy goats which then proceeded to ransack the room, Professor McGonagall stepped in.

“Potter, Black, that is enough,” she said tersely, her lips as thin as I had ever seen them.  “You will return Mr Pettigrew to his original form immediately.”  Even though she was clearly annoyed, I could tell there was some latent admiration in there somewhere as we weren’t due to start human Transfiguration until at least the following year.

Peter was at once returned to his human form, though part of me thought he almost looked better as a rat.  However, the billy goats were proving harder to catch.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that Peter and Remus seemed keen to join in the mayhem.  While the billy goats remained they treated us to a rare display of colour change, going from red to green to polka dot to stripy, and some of them emitted different coloured sparks or bubbles from their horns as they set about destroying the classroom.  Finally they were all hit with the correct Switching Spell, mostly from McGonagall, and the bags returned to their original owners in mostly the same condition they’d been in when it started.

“Right,” said Professor McGonagall with increasing frustration as she turned her glare to the perpetrators, “ten points will be taken from Gryffindor.  Each.  And the four of you will serve detentions with me tomorrow night.”

“Even me?” asked Sirius with mock indignation.  “But I’m an object of wonder and veneration!”  He sat forward in his chair so that all four legs were on the ground – unusual for him when he wasn’t actually writing something – and gave her his most winning smile, as though the joke from Astronomy class would be able to transfer to something like Transfiguration.

“You are many things, Black,” McGonagall said icily, “but I would not have said that was one of them.  Now if you have finished trying to get out of your detention, I will see you in my office tomorrow evening at eight.”  And my admiration for Professor McGonagall increased dramatically.

****

Lily was as good as her word.  That night in the dorm, after we had all gotten ready for bed, she turned to Martha and grinned.

“Right, that spell,” she said, her green eyes sparkling.

“That was a good one,” said Charlotte.

“Well, Sev taught it to me,” Lily continued, pretending not to notice the look of disappointment that must have crossed all our faces.  That was a Snape spell?  And we’d thought it was funny!  “Yes, Sev,” she went on, not able to ignore us any longer.  “He invented it. It’s a non-verbal, and the counter-jinx is also non-verbal, so no one knows what you’re casting.”  She was smiling from ear to ear.

“What’s the spell, then?” asked Martha.

Levicorpus,” said Lily.  “And you just flick your wand a bit.  Like this – Charlotte, do you mind?”

Charlotte shook her head, and Lily flicked her wand and immediately Charlotte too was dangling from her ankle, upside down.  In another second she was back on the bed, laughing.

“The counter-spell is Liberacorpus,” Lily went on.  “So you just think Levicorpus to get them up there, and Liberacorpus to get them down again.”

Levicorpus, Liberacorpus,” Charlotte chanted, getting the words right in her head.

“Did you want to try it?” asked Lily, looking at Mary and me who were watching the proceedings with great interest.  Nodding, glad to be included, we joined in enthusiastically with Martha and Charlotte who were practicing the spell on each other.

“You’ve got to admit,” said Martha after a while, after she had been once again hoisted into the air and released, “Snape has come up with a good one for once.”  Lily beamed at her, pleased that her friend was getting some of the recognition she doubtlessly felt he deserved.

Lily gave us all permission to teach the spell to one other person, on the proviso we didn’t say who had invented it, and that the one other person wasn’t James or one of his friends.  I didn’t really have anyone to teach it to other than Bea and I wasn’t sure that I wanted her knowing it, so I declined the offer.  Mary didn’t really have anyone to teach it to either, so we settled for practicing it on each other.

Who Martha and Charlotte taught it to I never learned, but within a fortnight it seemed the whole school knew the spell.  True to Lily’s request no one knew where it had come from, but for the rest of the school year it was a job to go anywhere without being hoisted up into the air by your ankle.  People started wearing shorts or trousers underneath their robes as a precautionary measure – James and Sirius suddenly finding some rather stylish black trousers for that very reason – and the girls all wore belts to ensure that nothing above the waist would end up on display.  I noticed Severus Snape going around looking daggers at anyone who cast the spell, but once it was out there was nothing he or anyone else could do to stop it spreading.  As Martha had pointed out, it was a great spell. 





Author’s note: I have to thank Wikipedia for the description of Canis Majoris as being “an object of wonder and veneration to many ancient civilisations throughout human history” – I looked it up to get some info and the wording was just too good not to use.

Chapter 10: A task to perform
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The weather was warming up as spring prepared to make way for summer, and our OWLs were approaching at what seemed a record pace.  Every lesson seemed to begin with the teacher lecturing us on revision and the importance of achieving a good score, and our homework was piling up at an alarming rate.  In addition, the penalties for not completing homework were becoming harsher, as teachers tried to ensure we had completed the necessary coursework to attempt the exams.

It was in this atmosphere that Mary one Thursday had forgotten to pack her Charms homework in her bag, and rushed upstairs to Gryffindor Tower in her morning break to collect it.  She came back rather later than expected, a couple of minutes into the class, and had a bit of a strange look in her eyes, acting somewhat distracted as she made her apologies to Professor Flitwick.

Charms was always a good time to have conversations, as there was so much going on that Professor Flitwick rarely noticed if you were talking more than usual.  And so, while we were practising our Substantive Charms, I asked her what the matter was.

“Naethin’s wrong,” she said vaguely, practising the wand movement necessary to get the spell right.  “I jus’ hae t’ dae summit a’ lunch time, okay?”

“Do something?  Do what?” I asked, muttering the incantation Flitwick had taught us.

“Oh, naethin’,” she said dismissively, still with that glazed look in her eyes.

I was getting more than a little suspicious.  “Mary, what are you on about?” I asked sharply.

“It’s th’ firs’-years,” she explained.  “They need t’ see th’ ferbidden fores’.  There’s some Acromantulas i’ there they need t’ meet.”

I stopped what I was doing, horrified.  “What???”

“I need t’ take them,” she said, as if it was obvious.  “T’ see th’ Acromantulas an’ all.  I hae t’ dae it a’ lunch time.”

“Right,” I muttered.  This was bizarre, and I was starting to wonder if Mary was quite with it.  She hadn’t had any dodgy potions or anything that I knew about, so I wasn’t quite sure what could be wrong with her.  Then something hit me like a ton of bricks, and I leaned over to the next table and asked Lily for help.

“Look at Mary,” I whispered, indicating where my friend was still muttering about the forbidden forest.  “Look at her eyes.  Do you think she’s all right?”

Lily took a long hard look at Mary, then gasped and grabbed Charlotte.  “Quick, Charlotte, what do you know about the Imperius Curse?” she hissed.

Charlotte, no doubt indoctrinated by her uncle Quentin who had written one of our Defence textbooks, automatically rattled off the effects of the spell.  Lily pointed at Mary, who was now looking at us with a vaguely curious expression, and Charlotte promptly dropped her wand mid-action, somehow making it launch half a dozen butterflies from its tip as it landed.

“Professor Flitwick,” she said loudly, summoning the teacher over while Martha set about Vanishing the butterflies.  “I think Mary needs to go to the hospital wing.”

Flitwick bustled over, narrowly avoiding a collision with Peter Pettigrew, who had been hit by a Substantive Charm and was suffering the effects.  “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” he asked briskly.

I took Mary by the arm and explained to the Professor what she’d been saying and what our theory was.  Mary obligingly backed me up, spouting the same nonsense that she’d said before about the first-years needing to be introduced to the giant, man-eating spiders that were rumoured to live in the forest.  Professor Flitwick looked from her to me, stunned.

“Yes, of course, Miss Cauldwell, you must take her to the hospital wing,” he said quickly, rubbing his hands as though trying to clean them.  “Perhaps someone else should accompany you as well, just for security … Mr Potter!” he called out, getting James’ attention.  I let out half a giggle despite the gravity of the situation – Flitwick was so short that James initially seemed to have trouble locating where the summons was coming from.

“Mr Potter, will you kindly accompany these young ladies to the hospital wing?” asked Flitwick, phrasing it as a question but intoning it like an order.  I couldn’t help but think he’d made a good choice.  James was tall, reasonably broad (and so a little imposing), and one of the best in our year at Defence Against the Dark Arts, and so was most probably the student I would feel safest with under the circumstances.  (Gerry Stebbins, who had been watching the proceedings with interest, looked rather disappointed he hadn’t been chosen instead but really, who would choose him over James Potter? For anything?)

James looked baffled at Flitwick’s request but nodded his agreement.  As we left the classroom he looked at me and then at Mary, casting a shrewd look over her that reminded me forcefully of the one Lily had worn only moments earlier.

“What’s wrong with Macdonald?” he asked me quietly, noting her absent expression and distracted air.

“Suspected Imperius Curse,” I whispered back, my hand still on Mary’s arm to stop her getting away.

He blanched.  “You’re not serious,” he said, looking aghast.  “Hey, Macdonald,” he said, more loudly this time.  Mary looked at him blankly.  “Do you feel a need to do anything particular today?”

“Aye, aye,” said Mary hurriedly.  “I need t’ ge’ th’ firs’-years a’ lunch time an’ all.  It’s really importan’.”

“What do you need to do with the first-years?” asked James, his hazel eyes narrowing behind his glasses.

“There’re some Acromantulas i’ th’ fores’,” said Mary, as though it was self explanatory.  “They need t’ mee’ th’ Acromantulas.  It’s really importan’.”

James got a very ugly expression on his face, as though he was in the presence of something he found particularly abhorrent, and he got onto Mary’s other side and grabbed her arm forcefully.  “We’ll take you to get the first-years,” he said as though placating a child, “we just need to get you looked at first.”

“I dinna need t’ be looked a’,” said Mary, getting slightly hysterical.  “I need t’ get th’ firs’-years, we need t’ go t’ th’ fores’!”

“But you’ve got a horrible growth on your face,” he said, still in that placating tone, casting me a quick warning look over her head to ensure I didn’t contradict him.  “You’ll scare them all off if they see you like this.  We’ll take you to Madam Pomfrey, and she’ll take the growth off your face so you don’t scare them.”

Mary hesitated, then nodded.  James was still steering her quickly through the castle, though I noticed that the route he chose was longer than usual, which I belatedly realised was so we wouldn’t go past any mirrors.  Finally we made it to the hospital wing.

I was surprised to see the Headmaster waiting for us, along with an agitated Madam Pomfrey.  Professor Dumbledore acted swiftly when we arrived, pushing us all into the Matron’s office and directing us to the chairs inside.

“Miss Macdonald,” he began gravely, “I understand you have a task to perform?”

Mary nodded enthusiastically.  “Aye, Professor, I hae t’ take th’ firs’-years oot int’ th’ fores’ a’ lunch time,” she said.

“And what will you do once you get there?” he asked, his tone even.

“They need t’ mee’ th’ Acromantulas, Professor,” she said obediently.  “It’s verra importan’ tha’ they mee’ th’ Acromantulas.”

“I see,” said Dumbledore gravely.  He then turned to me.  “Miss Cauldwell, I understand you noticed this first.  When did it start?”

“We’ve just left Charms,” I said, unused to being addressed by the Headmaster.  In fact I was mildly unnerved by the fact that he knew who I was.  It wasn’t like our paths had crossed much in the five years I’d been at Hogwarts, but then again maybe this too was a ‘Beatrice’s sister’ thing.  “She was late getting there, she had to run back up to the tower to get her homework.”

“And before then?” he asked.  “How was she before that time?”

“We had double Transfiguration,” I said, trying to recall the morning’s lesson.  “She seemed fine then.”

“Very well,” said Professor Dumbledore.  “I will check with Professor McGonagall, but it appears that the time in between classes is what we will be interested in.  Kindly fetch her for me, Poppy,” he said, directing this at Madam Pomfrey, who obediently left the room.

“And Mr Potter, what is your involvement in this matter?” he asked James when she had left.

“None at all, sir,” said James; he appeared to be comfortable with the Headmaster, and I supposed that with his litany of detentions they were bound to have made each other’s acquaintance at one point or other.  “Professor Flitwick asked me to escort the girls here, to make sure nothing else happened to Macdonald.”

“Ah yes,” said Dumbledore, “a wise move, I think, under the circumstances.”

Mary was looking agitated again.  “Please, sir,” she said, “if tha’s all, I need t’ ge’ th’ firs’-years, it’s almos’ lunch time an’ all.”

Dumbledore looked at her, and his face was a mixture of pity and fear.  “I think not, Miss Macdonald,” he said sadly, waving his wand at her.  Suddenly ropes appeared from the chair she was sitting on, and within seconds she was bound to her chair, unable to move and mute as a gag appeared in her mouth.  “My deepest apologies,” continued the Headmaster, looking at her gravely, “but we cannot allow you to do so.”

Mary started writhing in her chair, and James and I looked at each other in horror.  This was awful, why couldn’t someone take the curse off her?

Professor Dumbledore seemed to have read my mind.  “The Imperius Curse, Miss Cauldwell, is a difficult one to undo,” he said solemnly.  “We can, of course, wait until it wears off, which is an indeterminate amount of time depending on the strength of the caster.  However, as we do not know who cast the curse, that could take quite a while. Very accomplished dark wizards have been known to cast Imperius Curses that have lasted for years.”  He paused, watching Mary as she struggled in vain against her restraints.  “It is best, therefore, to try to undo the Curse,” he went on.  “Fortunately I have the knowledge necessary to perform this task, although I warn you it may cause Miss Macdonald some physical pain.”

I nodded mutely, aware that any physical pain Mary suffered in the short term was preferable to what she may have had to endure in the long term if the curse held.

Madam Pomfrey returned at this time, with Professor McGonagall in tow.  Dumbledore looked up at them and smiled.

“Ah, Minerva, please take a seat,” he said, conjuring up a very comfortable-looking plush armchair for her to sit on as we had taken all the existing seating.

McGonagall looked at the three of us students in turn, her eyes resting for the longest time on Mary, who was still bound and gagged in her chair.  “May I ask, Albus, why you have restrained one of my students?” she asked acidly, her lips so thin they were almost invisible.

“We suspect Miss Macdonald is a victim of the Imperius Curse,” Dumbledore said gravely.

Professor McGonagall’s demeanour changed at once.  “Macdonald?  The Imperius Curse?  Impossible!” she declared.  “Who could have done such a thing?  She hasn’t left the school grounds!”

“That,” said the Headmaster, “is exactly what I intend to find out.  Minerva, can you advise if Miss Macdonald was her usual self during Transfiguration this morning?”

McGonagall thought about it.  “I believe so,” she said eventually, “but I couldn’t swear to it.”

“Miss Cauldwell also believes she was fine at that time,” said Dumbledore.  “And apparently Miss Macdonald made a speedy trip up to Gryffindor Tower at the conclusion of that class to fetch her Charms homework, and was not the same when she returned.  And now,” he went on, “to find out what happened.”

He turned to Mary and performed what looked like an incredibly complicated bit of wandwork, after which she writhed and screamed with pain and fear.  However, when she stopped, she looked calm, and the glazed look had left her eyes.  She did not, however, appear to be completely herself yet as she relaxed in her chair and did not seem to wonder why she was tied up.

Dumbledore turned to look at us again.  “She is no longer Imperiused,” he said, “but I have cast a charm to help her remember what happened.  If I completely remove the curse at this point, she will fall into shock and will not be able to tell us who is responsible.  I will ask for your patience for just a little longer.”  Madam Pomfrey sniffed: it was obvious she just wanted to have Mary in bed and taking a course of potions for the shock, but she couldn’t overrule the Headmaster.  Dumbledore swished his wand again and the ropes and gag fell away from Mary, leaving her unrestrained, but she didn’t move.  She must still be under the charm, as he had said.

“Miss Macdonald,” said Dumbledore in a clear voice.  “Miss Macdonald, can you hear me?”

“Aye, Professor,” said Mary, sounding somewhat distant.

“Miss Macdonald, I would ask you to kindly cast your mind back to this morning, when you were studying Transfiguration.  Do you remember this morning?”

“Aye, Professor,” said Mary, still distantly.

“Remember the end of the class?” said Dumbledore, prompting her.  “What did you do at the end of the class?”

“I handed in my homework t’ Professor McGonagall,” said Mary.  “I lef’ th’ class.  I had t’ ge’ my Charms homework.”

“And where was your Charms homework?” asked Dumbledore.

“I’ my dorm, sir,” replied Mary, sounding like she was reciting the answer.  “I lef’ it there accidentally, an’ I didna wan’ t’ go t’ class wi’oot it.”

“So you were going to Gryffindor Tower,” Dumbledore prompted.  “What happened then?”

“I got t’ th’ tower, an’ go’ my homework an’ all,” she said.  “There wa’ nae one in th’ common room, they must hae all bin a’ classes still.”

“And on the way back to your Charms class?”

“I met Mulciber on th’ way,” said Mary.  “He wanted t’ talk t’ me.”

“This is Mr Irving Mulciber, from Slytherin House?” asked Dumbledore, obviously making sure there would be no mistake in identifying the person responsible.

“Aye, sir,” Mary said obediently.

“What did you say to him?” Dumbledore asked gently.

“I didna want t’ talk t’ him.  I dinna like him verra much,” said Mary, sounding for all the world like a six year old talking about a playground fight.  “Bu’ he insisted.”

“And what did he say?”

“He said I needed t’ mee’ some firs’-years,” Mary recited.  “He ha’ his wand oot.  He did a spell.  I wa’ scared, an’ then suddenly I wa’ peaceful.”

“What did he say about the first-years?” asked Dumbledore, his face very grave.

“He tol’ me there are Acromantulas i’ th’ ferbidden fores’,” she said.  “The firs’-years need t’ study th’ Acromantulas.  I was t’ tak’ them int’ th’ fores’.”

“Was he particular about which first-years?” asked Dumbledore.

“The Gryffindor firs’-years,” said Mary.  “An’ th’ Ravenclaws.  Particularly th’ Muggle-borns an’ th’ half-bloods.  Those were th’ ones he mentioned.”

Dumbledore looked at me sharply.  “Is this what she was saying?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  James, next to me, nodded his agreement.

“It looks like we have our culprit,” muttered the Headmaster.  “Minerva, can you kindly summon Mr Mulciber to my office, please?  And Horace,” he added, “it’s best to have the Head of House present on such occasions.”  Professor Slughorn was Head of Slytherin House.

“Certainly, Albus,” said McGonagall, and she stood up and left the room.

“Excellent,” said Dumbledore.  And he got his wand out again and tapped Mary on the head three times.  She looked like she had just woken up and looked around at us, obviously confused as to where she was and what had happened.

“Miss Macdonald,” said Dumbledore gravely, “you have been cursed by a fellow student.  There shouldn’t be any lasting effects, but we will need to keep you in the hospital wing to make sure.  You will remain here until Madam Pomfrey allows you to leave.”

Madam Pomfrey took this as permission for her to get on with what she did best.  “All right, Miss Macdonald, bed!” she said briskly.  “You’ll be in shock, you must stay until the course of potions is complete.”

Mary followed her vaguely into the main hospital area, where Madam Pomfrey had already prepared a bed for her.

“Oh, and Mr Potter?” came Dumbledore’s voice, as we got up to follow Mary.  We both paused.

“Yes, sir?” asked James.

“I appreciate the gravity of what Mr Mulciber appears to have done, so please be reassured that I will deal with it appropriately.  I do not want to hear that you have taken matters into your own hands,” said Dumbledore, and I suspected he was referring to the incident earlier in the year with Charon Avery.

“Of course not, Professor,” said James, though it appeared even to me that he was trying to think of a way around this promise.

“Thank you,” said Professor Dumbledore.  “And now, Mr Potter, Miss Cauldwell, if you will excuse me, I have an appointment in my office for which I must not be late.”  And he swept out of Madam Pomfrey’s office and out of sight.

James and I also left the Matron’s office and entered the hospital wing treatment room.  Madam Pomfrey was bustling around Mary’s bed, measuring out some potions into a goblet, which was steaming ominously.

“Can I stay with her for a bit?” I asked, hesitating a little as I knew the Matron’s possessiveness when it came to her patients.

“Certainly not!” she exclaimed, looking horrified.  “This girl needs rest!  Out!  OUT!”

James looked at me and shrugged.  Then, casting a furtive look towards a bed towards the end of the room which was surrounded by privacy screens, he led me out.

“You’ll be able to go back and see her tomorrow,” he said reassuringly as we made our way downstairs to the Great Hall – lunch would have started by now.

“What do you think will happen to Mulciber?” I asked in a small voice.  I was still in shock over what had happened – maybe I should have been in the hospital wing too, taking the same course of potions as Mary was.

James hesitated.  “At the start of the year, I’d have said he’d be expelled,” he said after a while.  “But after what happened with Avery, I don’t know.  He might be able to stay.  But if he does, you can be sure he’ll be shadowed by the teachers for the rest of the school year and probably into next year, too.  It depends on what he says to Dumbledore, I guess.”

I didn’t feel particularly reassured by that, but at least he was being straight with me.  I hated it when people tried to shield me from the truth, feeling for some reason that I wouldn’t be able to take it.

“I hope he’s kicked out,” I said, with a sudden vehemence that I hadn’t realised I felt.  “No one should be able to get away with what he did.  And what he tried to do.  Can you imagine how Mary would have felt if she’d actually followed through with that?”

James nodded, that ugly look back on his face.  “They need to do something about it,” he said savagely.  “There are too many students practicing Dark Magic at this school, it has to be stopped.  I bet they’re all Death Eater wannabes, too.”  The hatred on his face was palpable, and it suddenly hit me just how dangerous an enemy James Potter would be.  I had never seen him this angry before and it frightened me.  If he was moved to anger to this extent, Merlin only knew what he would do if given free rein with his wand.

He must have realised I was slightly spooked by his behaviour because just as quickly as it had come, the anger dissipated, and he gave me a pleasant smile.  “Sorry about that, Cauldwell,” he said, much more gently.  “It just gets me so angry, that some people think they can use others as their house elves, just to try things out, or do get them to do their dirty work.  It’s weak, it’s cowardly, and it’s improper use of magic.”  He paused, looking down at me.  “We’ve been given a gift and we need to think of it like that, not a right.  We have no right to think we’re better than anyone else.”

I smiled back, a small smile but one that I hoped indicated that I accepted his apology.  “Thanks, Potter,” I said.  “Let’s just hope that nothing like this happens again, shall we.”

He nodded in agreement, his hand still clutched around his wand as it had been since we left the hospital wing.  “Looks like we made it intact,” he said, indicating the Great Hall in front of us.  “Lunch isn’t over yet – want to grab a bite?”

****

By supper that night the whole school seemed to know what had happened with Mary and Mulciber, which was fast even for Hogwarts standards.  I made it quite clear I didn’t want to talk about it so most people started bothering James for information, which he only gave out in small snippets.  I wasn’t sure if that was because he was protecting Mary’s privacy or because he had a flair for the dramatic and wanted to keep the suspense going for as long as possible, but I appreciated it all the same.

James, most probably sensing I was feeling a bit fragile, babysat me for the rest of the afternoon, making sure that no one got too close and that I was coping okay.  I’d never seen this tender, concerned side of him before, and I wondered again just why Lily kept refusing him.  However, his friends gave us a relatively wide berth, whether because they didn’t trust me or because James had warned them off, understanding somehow that I wasn’t really up to their brand of humour, I couldn’t be certain.

I was sitting with him at supper that evening, watching vaguely as he fended off yet another student wanting more details of the juiciest story of the term, when my attention was caught by some activity at the Slytherin table by the far wall.  Focusing my eyes I saw Severus Snape, the boy supposed to be Lily’s friend, walking around with his arms outstretched in front of him, as though sleepwalking or hypnotised.  A group of fellow Slytherins, Charon Avery among them, were laughing loudly in appreciation: apparently someone being Imperiused was funny.  I glanced sharply at Lily to see if she had noticed this, but her back was to the rest of the room and she was busy in conversation with Charlotte, so I decided not to enlighten her.

Sirius, on the other hand, had noticed.  I heard the sharp intake of breath on my right hand side and, looking over to where he was sitting, saw his eyes narrow with disgust and revulsion and he was clearly fingering his wand.  “The prat,” I heard him mutter furiously.  “Keeps trying to get us expelled for trivial stuff, and now look what he’s doing about this.  Celebrating it!”  If steam actually did come out of people’s ears when they were angry, then he would have looked like a boiling kettle.  Peter, sitting opposite him, looked more than a little intimidated, and I guessed that an angry Sirius Black was probably just as frightening as an angry James Potter was.

James had seen Sirius’ reaction to Snape’s little performance too, and gave him a warning look before glancing at me to see how much I had noticed.

“It’s okay,” I muttered to him, feeling guilty that I was keeping him from his friends.  “I can handle it.”

James looked at me doubtfully and piled some chocolate pudding onto my plate.  “Eat up.  You’ll feel better,” he promised.  “Don’t worry, we won’t let anything like that happen to you, or to anyone else.”

I spooned some pudding into my mouth absently, then stopped in amazement as I swallowed.  He was right.  James Potter was right, I did feel better.  I’d heard about the healing power of chocolate when we had studied Dementors earlier in the year, but I hadn’t paid it much attention.  Oh well, James was pretty much the best in our year at Defence Against the Dark Arts (it was a close call with Sirius), so I supposed if he didn’t know what he was doing, no one would.

“Thanks,” I said, truly grateful to him as I devoured the rest of the pudding.  In the background I heard a cheer and noticed vaguely that yet another student had been Levicorpused, the perpetrators clearly having had enough of the Mary/Mulciber story for now, and I hoped for Mary’s sake that the rest of Hogwarts would get sick of it as soon as possible as well.  Finishing my pudding, I saw that Lily, Martha and Charlotte had finished their meals as well, so I told James I’d go back up to the dorm with them.  He was hesitant to let me go, but obviously decided in the end that in a group of four I would probably be safe enough, and I was sure he had faith in Lily’s ability to keep me calm.

I was feeling much more comfortable after supper and so I did tell the girls everything that had happened, back in the dorm that night.  No one really felt up for a long stay in the common room, even with the mounting pile of homework we’d been set, and we retired relatively early.  Lily in particular was very good at coaxing the information from me, using just the right mixture of sympathy and prompting, and before long the whole story was out.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Charlotte after listening to the day’s events.  “He should have been kicked out for this.”  Mulciber had received the same punishment as Avery had earlier in the year – detentions for the rest of the year and doomed to be tailed by a teacher wherever he went.

“I know,” Martha agreed.  “Seriously, I know Dumbledore likes to trust people, but this is getting to be beyond a joke.”

“He warned James off doing anything himself,” I said suddenly – that detail had escaped me during the re-telling.

“Really?” asked Lily, her interest piqued.

“Yeah, it sounded like he was pretty much saying, ‘don’t do what you did to Avery’,” I explained.  “Which is most probably a good thing, we don’t need Gryffindor losing any more points because James has blown his top again.”

“That’s one thing you have to admit about him, whatever else you might think,” said Charlotte, pulling out her pyjamas.  “He really does hate the Dark Arts.”

“Yeah,” agreed Martha, “he might do weird things to people, but it’s never Dark Magic.  It never actually hurts them.”

I knew this was all directed at Lily, and she gratified her friends by agreeing.  “You’re right,” she said eventually.  “He’s an arrogant toerag, yes, but he’d never do anything like this.”

“I’ve never seen him so angry,” I added.  “Seriously, he scared me.  But when he calmed down he was really nice to me, he looked after me all day, making sure I was okay and felt protected.”

“I noticed that,” Lily said.  “I thought that was so nice of him, doing that.  After all, he hardly knows you.”

I smiled, and Martha and Charlotte winked at each other, as if this was one more step completed on their campaign to get Lily to admit she fancied James.

“It did look funny, though,” said Martha absently.  “Not you and James,” she clarified hurriedly, looking at me.  “Sirius and Peter.  Because James was with you all afternoon, it was just them hanging out.  Talk about the prince and the pauper!”  She giggled, and thinking of how they would have looked I laughed too.  The tall, dashing, aristocratic, handsome Sirius, paired with Peter, more than a head shorter, plump, pudgy, with his colourless hair, small watery eyes and long nose, his features all weak rather than strong.  It would have been an interesting combination.  There was, however, someone missing.

“Where was Remus?” I asked.  I hadn’t noticed him not being there, but then again after what had happened to Mary I hadn’t noticed much at all.

“Ill,” said Charlotte.  “Apparently he took a dodgy potion or something, he hasn’t been around all day.”  Well, if anyone knew where Remus was, it would have been Charlotte.  I suddenly realised who must have been behind the privacy screens in that bed in the hospital wing, the one James had looked at. 





Author’s note: There are two Death Eaters named Mulciber in Potterverse, of different generations, and while one of them apparently specialised in the Imperius Curse it’s not clear from canon which one.  For the purposes of this story I’ve decided it’s Mulciber the younger as it was a really good example of “what he tried to do to Mary Macdonald the other day” (quote Lily, ‘The Prince’s Tale’, Deathly Hallows.)  Fortunately for Mary it was very inexpertly cast, though to be fair he was still in fifth year and had many years to perfect it between then and when he was a fully-fledged Death Eater.  As for the rest of the chapter, I’m quite pleased with James’ little outburst on the way back to lunch there – I didn’t plan it but my fingers started typing and that’s what came out, and I think it fits what we know of James rather well.

Chapter 11: Snape's theory
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The upshot of Mary being in the hospital wing was that Lily, Martha and Charlotte went out of their way to include me in their little group to prevent me from being alone.  They sat with me at mealtimes, partnered me in class, sat with me in the common room after supper and went with me to visit Mary on her sickbed.  It highlighted to me just how nice they were and I found myself hoping that it would continue even when Mary was allowed to leave the hospital.

Martha appreciated the extra company as well, it turned out.  That Saturday night Professor Slughorn had arranged one of his little parties and Lily and Charlotte were going to attend, so Martha decided she was going to initiate me into the intricacies of a girls’ night in, in the dormitory.  Our evening of doing each other’s hair, playing with makeup and robe styles, and trying on everyone’s clothes was cut short, however, when Lily came struggling in well before her Slug Club meeting was supposed to finish, Charlotte holding her upright. She looked like she was trying not to cry.

“Lils! What’s wrong?” gasped Martha, putting down her hair curling ointment.

“Snape’s what’s wrong,” Charlotte snarled, settling Lily down on her bed before adjusting her glasses, which had fallen down her nose.  “He’s been upsetting her again.”

“Not again,” I said sympathetically, giving Martha back the dress robes that she’d wanted me to try on.  “What was it this time?”

“He was being so unfair,” said Lily.  “Not like Sev at all, at least not the Sev I know.”  We all rolled our eyes and waited for her to continue.

“He was having a go at Remus,” Lily went on eventually, sniffing loudly.  “Remus!  Who could possibly not like him!  He’s so nice!”

“Probably because he hangs out with James,” said Charlotte wisely.  “Tainted by association, or so our Severus thinks.”

“Sev keeps saying awful things about them.  About all of them.  You should have seen the looks he was giving James and Sirius at Slughorn’s tonight,” said Lily, now starting to hiccough.  “And he was making these awful accusations.  ’Cause they keep on sneaking out of the tower, and he wants to get them in trouble, so he follows them.”

I couldn’t help myself.  “Why are you still friends with him, Lily?” I asked.

“He was never like that!” she protested.  “He was always so nice!  I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”  She paused.  “Or maybe I do.  Why he is friends with Avery and Mulciber, I will never understand.”

My hand clenched into a fist involuntarily.  After what Mulciber had done to Mary, after what he had tried to make her do, I would never understand it either.  And he hadn’t even got a Howler for what he did – maybe his parents were Death Eaters or something and therefore approved.

“What happened, Lils?” asked Martha.  “What did he say that got you so upset?”

“Well, you know how Remus was ill this week,” said Lily.  Charlotte tensed ever so slightly, her face steeled to hear what she knew was coming.  “Sev keeps saying that he’s only ill when the full moon’s out.  That he’s a – a – he’s a werewolf.”

What??  Where could he have got that idea from?  And Martha looked gobsmacked, like she’d had the same reaction I had.  “He doesn’t!” she gasped, horrified.

“And it’s not only that,” Lily went on, hiccoughing uncomfortably.  “He says that it’s not just a theory, that he knows it’s true.  But I don’t believe him,” she said, more firmly than she had spoken thus far.

“Why not?” I asked.  Lily turning against Snape was a bit of a big deal.

“Slughorn,” explained Charlotte.  “He was making a big deal of James tonight.  Something about Snape going down that tunnel underneath the Whomping Willow, and James following him and saving him from whatever it is that’s down there.”

My eyebrows shot up.  “Really?  James went after Snape?”

“That was our reaction, too,” said Charlotte.  “Seems completely out of character.  But apparently that’s just what happened.  So we think Snivellus is just ticked off that James actually helped him and so he’s trying to make his life difficult.  You know, just for a change.”

“There’s something to do with Sirius there, too,” Lily said suddenly, her green eyes still bright.  “James was giving him really dirty looks the whole time Slughorn was praising him.  Praising James, I mean, not Sirius.  Like it was Sirius’ fault that Sev went down there in the first place.”

“Why didn’t you ask Snivellus about it, then?” asked Martha, looking sharply at Lily.

Lily glared at her for using Snape’s nickname before answering. “Severus hadn’t arrived yet,” she explained, her hiccoughs now gone.  “He was running late.  Slughorn had moved on to raving about Damocles Belby by the time he got there, and it sort of slipped my mind.”  Belby was a seventh-year Ravenclaw who was apparently extremely good at Potions.  “And then Sev starting going on about Remus, and I got upset.  Because Remus is such a good person, and it’s not his fault he gets ill, so why should anyone have a go at him like that?”

Martha grinned.  “Anyone would think it was Remus you had the crush on, not James, the way you’re going on,” she said.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Charlotte make a sudden involuntary movement.

Lily picked up a slipper off the floor and hurled it at Martha.  “For the last time, I do NOT LIKE JAMES BLOODY POTTER!” she bellowed, her cheeks scarlet.

“Sure you don’t, Lils, sure you don’t,” said Martha, still with that wicked smile on her face.  “Though you might want to say that a bit louder, I think there are some people in Glasgow who didn’t quite hear you.”

“And I don’t like Remus, either,” snorted Lily, throwing the other slipper at Martha for good measure.  “He’s my friend, but he’s not my type.  Anyway, even if he was, a little bird told me that someone else saw him first.”  And she grinned at Charlotte, who made a point of cleaning her glasses at that moment and pretended not to know what she meant.

****

According to the rumours flying around the school for the next few days, Sirius had told Snape how to stop the Whomping Willow, well, whomping, and Snape had made the most of the information and taken off down the tunnel underneath the tree.  Fortunately for Snivellus, James had indeed run after him and dragged him back, most probably kicking and screaming, before he got to whatever monster was down there.  This information was so sensational that it even knocked Mary and Mulciber off top spot of the most-talked-about list.

For whatever reason, James, Remus and Peter were giving Sirius the cold shoulder after this event, avoiding him almost like he had Spattergroit or something, and talk was that he had almost been expelled because of it.  What was confirmed was that he had received detentions for every Saturday and Sunday afternoon for the rest of the school year.  Clearly this was a more serious situation than we had thought – after all, only about half the school even believed there was anything at all down that tunnel, dangerous or otherwise.  After three or four days, though, whatever unforgivable offence Sirius had committed appeared to have been forgiven after all, and the boys went back to what they were best at – wreaking havoc.

During this turmoil life went on for the rest of the student body, and several of the Slytherins were making it their business to try to upset and intimidate Muggle-borns and half-bloods as much as possible.  While this was generally par for the course it was getting worse, and my temper flared just before a Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson the following Monday when Alecto Carrow decided it was my turn to receive the special treatment.  Alecto was a short but burly Slytherin girl in our year who made it no secret she aspired to join the Death Eaters.  Clearly I was to be regarded as fair game as I waited alone outside Professor Dingle’s classroom while most of the other students were still at lunch – to Lily’s chagrin, I had left early to go back to the dorm and pick up my homework, which I had left behind.  I’d taken a bit longer than usual, too, on full alert with my wand at the ready, just waiting for someone like Mulciber to leap out from behind a statue.

Anyway, Carrow saw me waiting there on my own and walked towards me until she was standing over me (or would have been, if she was tall enough) and pushing my back against the wall.  I grimaced – she obviously hadn’t brushed her teeth in a while, and from that close I could smell her breath, which was less than attractive.

“Cauldwell,” she spat.  “Another filthy half-blood.”

“Carrow,” I retorted, looking down at her and determined not to be intimidated.  “Another filthy Slytherin.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she growled, holding her wand aggressively at my chin.

“Just what I said.  You’re a Slytherin, and you’re filthy.”  I knew that her use of the word ‘filthy’ was in reference to my Muggle blood, so me throwing that word back at her was bound to get her a bit irate.  It was an apt description, though – I had always been under the impression she washed only once a month, whether she needed to or not.  Obviously I was playing with fire by taunting her like that, but the group of approaching students on their way up from lunch gave me a bit of courage: she would be less dangerous if there were witnesses.  I fingered my wand inside my robes, determined to give as good as I got.  Suddenly her face changed slightly and knew she was about to hex me, so I decided to go for her at the same time.

Unfortunately for Alecto, my reaction time was quicker than hers, and by the time she tried to speak the curse she already had over a dozen bat-sized bogeys flapping about her face.  Unfortunately for me, Professor Dingle had opened his door at that precise moment and saw the aftermath of the encounter, but not anything that preceded it.  The upshot was that I lost a few points for Gryffindor and received a detention for that evening, to be served with Professor Dingle in his office from eight o’clock.

Detention was a fairly simple affair – Dingle just wanted me to clean out the Grindylow tank and clip the toenails of a few Red Caps in preparation for a fourth-year lesson the following day.  Simple though it was, it took me more than two hours as neither the Grindylows nor the Red Caps were feeling particularly co-operative.

As a result it was past ten o’clock when I left Dingle’s office and started making my way back to Gryffindor Tower.  On the fourth floor I bumped into Remus, who was doing his prefect duty patrolling the corridors and fell into step with me without fanfare.  I didn’t know Remus very well but I quite liked him – he had the knack of making you feel comfortable, and unusually for the boys in our year he actually addressed people by their first names.

“Laura!  What are you doing out so late?” he asked, surprised to see me there.  He appeared to be in a good mood but looked tired, and I remembered he’d been ill the previous week.  If he was still suffering the effects a little I couldn’t be surprised – if he’d taken a potion was a bit iffy, as Charlotte had said, it could do just about anything to you.

“Detention with Dingle,” I replied.  “Remember, I did the Bat-Bogey Hex on Alecto Carrow?  Not that she didn’t deserve it,” I went on, realising I was probably talking too much.  I often did that when I was nervous.

“Oh yeah,” he laughed.  “Improved her appearance, really.  You couldn’t see her face.”  He had a point there – Alecto did look better with bats flapping out of her nose and around her cheeks.  I almost felt proud of myself, though I wasn’t about to say that out loud.

“I thought prefects were supposed to be impartial?” I asked instead, raising my eyebrows.

“Sometimes that’s easier said than done,” he answered, smiling.  “Look, are you alone?”  I nodded.  “I’d better walk you back to the tower,” he went on, “Dumbledore doesn’t want people wandering around by themselves after what happened to Mary.  How is she, anyway?”

“Still in shock,” I said.  “Madam Pomfrey’s giving her a course of potions, and she is getting better, but she’s not great.  And I miss her,” I said frankly.

“Yes, it can’t be easy,” replied Remus.  “I still can’t believe they let Mulciber stay after that.”

I was about to respond but my train of thought was interrupted by Peeves the poltergeist, who had spotted us and started swishing around overhead singing at the top of his lungs.  “Loony loopy Lupin,” he bellowed in what I was sure was supposed to be a singsong voice, “loony loopy Lupin.”  I was surprised – Peeves didn’t normally target students by name like that – but before I could say anything Remus pulled out his wand and cast a Silencing Charm on him.  Struck dumb, the poltergeist retaliated by hurling the helmet from a nearby suit of armour at us, which we dodged easily.  Before long he got bored with our lack of reaction to him and sped off in the direction of the North Tower.

For some reason neither of us spoke a word about the incident with Peeves and the silence grew a bit.  “How are you enjoying being a prefect?” I asked to break it up as we took a short-cut towards Gryffindor Tower.  “I haven’t noticed any reduction in the number of James and Sirius’ detentions.”

“No, I’ve failed miserably, haven’t I?” he said cheerfully, though I could have sworn I saw his face tense slightly.  However, if it did, it disappeared as quickly as it had come, so I couldn’t be sure.

“Yeah, well, Lily hasn’t changed much either, she’s still just as innovative with the badge as she was without it,” I pointed out.

“I know,” he said.  “As prefects, Lily and I spend a bit of time together.  As Pron- James keeps reminding me,” he added.

“He still hasn’t given up on her?” I asked.  “After what she did to him the other week?  Goodness, he has got it bad.”

“That’s James for you,” he said fondly.  “Never does things by halves.”

“If it’s any consolation,” I said, “she does like him, just not when he’s acting like a berk.  Which is most of the time,” I conceded as an afterthought.  “And I’m not sure she’s admitted it to herself, either,” I added, thinking out loud.

“Really?” Remus looked surprised.

“Really.  Don’t let the fact that she barely speaks to him fool you.  But don’t tell her I said that,” I added quickly, horrified at myself for actually saying these things out loud, let alone to a good friend of James Potter’s.  “She’d kill me, that’s like breaking a trust.”  What was it about Remus that inspired people to share secrets with him?

He looked at me seriously.  “Of course not,” he said, and he looked solemn enough for me to trust him, to take him at his word.  “But can you get her to be a bit nicer to him?  Do you think you could ask her?” he went on.  “He’s driving us insane and she won’t listen to me, I’m his friend.”

“I can try,” I said doubtfully, “but I don’t know that it’ll do any good.  We’ve never talked all that much, frankly.  I mean, we talk, we’re in the same dorm and everything, but, you know, people group off.”  I realised as I was saying this that it wasn’t strictly true any more, that since Mary had been in the hospital wing I had actually been included with Lily and her friends.  But I was on a roll now and felt it best to continue as I’d started.  “And we’re not in their league,” I added.

“Not in their league?” repeated Remus.  “What are you talking about?”

“It’s like any school,” I explained, warming to an old theme.  It had been true for the past five years anyway.  “My Muggle primary school was the same.  You’ve got the cool kids and then you’ve got the others.  Well, Lily, Martha and Charlotte are the cool kids, and Mary and I are the others.”

“I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself, Laura,” said Remus.  “You’re just as good as they are.”

“Remus, Remus,” I said, exasperated, “stop trying to always be the nice one.  You know it’s true, it’s just the way it is.  Think about it.  If there was another boy in your dorm, Peter would probably have grouped off with him rather than with you lot, and we’d have the same situation there.”  I will admit I didn’t like comparing myself to Peter very much, but it was the easiest way I could think of to make the point.

He was quiet for a moment, obviously considering what I’d said.  “I guess you’re right,” he said eventually.  “Though I still think you’re being hard on yourself.  I’ll say it again – you’re just as good as they are.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “But you don’t need to try to make me feel better.  It doesn’t bother me.  Really, it doesn’t.  I’m used to it anyway, I don’t think a Cauldwell has ever been one of the cool kids.”

“Wha–” he started, then cut himself off.  “Of course,” he muttered.  “It can’t be easy having a sister like that.”

“It’s not,” I told him honestly, surprising myself.  I didn’t usually talk openly about Bea to people I barely knew.  Remus’ ability to encourage trust was frankly a little disarming.  “Especially when we’re so different.  But she is my sister, and I am fond of her, and I know she’s fond of me in her own way.  You just have to recognise that you’ll never have a normal type of relationship with her.”  I paused, determined to stop myself saying too much to him.  Not that I had anything to hide, but I liked to keep my home life and my school life separate.  Besides, Merlin only knew where this information could end up.  “But on the bright side,” I continued, trying to inject some humour into the conversation, “my diplomatic skills are second to none!”

He laughed with me, lightening the mood.  “So,” he said, changing the subject, “how are you going with that Transfiguration assignment?”

I looked at him gratefully; I think he had realised I wasn’t all that comfortable talking about Bea.  “Truthfully?  Not very well.  I’m struggling a bit this year with Transfiguration.  It’s like I can get the details of what she’s trying to tell us, but the basic concepts are eluding me completely.  Once I get my head around those I’ll probably be fine, but in the meantime …”

“I’d offer to help,” he said evenly, “but it’s not my best subject either.  Now Prongs and – sorry, James and Sirius, they’re the Transfiguration experts.  You want to ask them for a hand.”

I laughed.  “Remus, what was I saying earlier?  About the cool kids?  James and Sirius are beyond cool.  I’m not going to ask them for help!  Besides, I wouldn’t have the guts, I hardly know them.”  Even though James had been so nice when Mary had been attacked, I still wouldn’t have had the courage to ask him for help with my schoolwork.  While they seemed to be easy enough to talk to on a general level, I would never deliberately seek out their company.  That was definitely a lost cause.

He frowned slightly.  “I think we need to get you past this cool-uncool thing.  Right.  Try Peter, he’s got a bit of a talent for it too.  Not as much as James and Sirius, but …”

“Thanks,” I said, surprised – Peter had never to my knowledge shown much aptitude for any of our classes.  “I might just do that. Merlin only knows I need the help!  Oh – shrivelfig.”

We had reached the Fat Lady and I smiled at Remus as I gave the password.  “Thanks for walking me back, I felt much more comfortable,” I said as I turned to the portrait hole.

He looked at his watch.  “My shift is nearly over anyway, I might as well come back in.”  The common room was bustling with activity.  We looked awkwardly at each other and headed to our friends, me wondering just when Remus Lupin had become so easy to talk to.

****

Even though Peter Pettigrew wasn’t nearly as intimidating as James Potter or Sirius Black, even James Potter after the incident with Mary, I still hesitated to ask him for help with Transfiguration.  Quite honestly, part of me just wasn’t convinced he was as good as Remus had implied.  Or maybe I found his long nose, watery eyes and lank, colourless hair just a little repulsive, and I wasn’t keen to spend much time in close quarters with him.  Everyone knew he’d take anything he could get in the relationship stakes, and I didn’t want him to misinterpret my intentions and think I was trying to pick him up.  Or for him to try to pick me up, either – as was the case with Sturgis, I would never be that desperate.  (Put another way, if I had to choose between snogging Peter and living a life of exile with no human contact whatsoever, then the life of exile would be looking pretty damn good.)  In any case I opted instead to spend many hours in the library after supper, looking through old Transfiguration textbooks and immersing myself in the theory, in the hope it would suddenly click.  OWLs were only two weeks away and I was getting more than a little anxious.

As it turned out, none of the books were nearly as helpful as Charlotte was in a comment she made a couple of mornings later in the common room, over the raucous laughter caused by what looked like a second-year hovering in the background, suspended upside down by their ankle.  “Why are you having so much trouble with it?” she asked, watching me swearing at one of the many books I had borrowed from the library.

“I just can’t seem to get my head around it,” I said.  “I’m struggling with the theory. Once that clicks in my head, I should be fine.”

Charlotte shook her head.  “Laura, Laura,” she said despairingly, “I saw you turning Scylla Pritchard’s nose into a banana the other day.”

Oh yes, that’s right.  Pritchard, who was going out with Irving Mulciber, had been making fun of Mary being Imperiused and I’d not reacted well.  In truth I was a little ashamed of the incident – it wasn’t like I’d been acting in self defence, for example – and would have preferred it if Charlotte hadn’t mentioned it at all.

Anyway, I chose to pretend everything was fine.  “And?” I asked.

“What sort of magic do you think that is?” she asked.  “Potions?  Laura, that’s Transfiguration!”

I sat silently as my brain tried to digest this.  I’d always thought of Bea’s spells as charms, but really Charlotte was right.  At least half of the hexes Bea had taught me were Transfiguration spells – giving people flamingo necks, or turning their hair into earthworms, that was definitely Transfiguration.  And I’d never had any trouble with those.

“Thanks, Charlotte,” I said with feeling.  “I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“No worries,” she said, grinning.  “Any time I can help, just yell out.”

I went back to trying to conjure a table lamp, but thought of it as Bea would have taught me, not as McGonagall had.  And what do you know?  It worked.  Charlotte was a genius, and I decided then and there to buy her a lifetime supply of jelly slugs next time I was in Honeydukes.

****

On Wednesday, almost a week after Mary had been Imperiused, Madam Pomfrey deemed her well enough to leave the hospital wing.  She had been taking several different potions to treat her for the shock and for any residual effects of the curse, and finally the Matron was convinced she was healthy enough to resume her usual activities.

I hadn’t realised she would be allowed to leave, and was therefore in the common room doing some revision with the other girls when she walked in after supper that evening, having been escorted back to Gryffindor Tower by Professor McGonagall.  On seeing her we all jumped to our feet and ran over to embrace her, but Mary being Mary wasn’t keen on being the centre of attention and she pushed us off rather quickly.

“Dinna ye lasses hae revision t’ dae?” she asked with mock exasperation, wriggling uncomfortably out of four different bear hugs.

“How lovely to see you, girls!  Thanks so much for coming to visit me so often while I was in hospital, and for saving me from killing off first-years,” I parodied.

Mary smiled.  “Aye, okay, poin’ taken,” she said, walking back with us to our table by the window where we somehow found an empty chair to add to the mix.  “I did apprecia’ it.  An’ thanks fer tryin’ t’ keep Gerry Stebbins away from me, I dinna think I coul’ hae coped wi’ him by my bedside all th’ time.  Did ye know he still reads Martin Miggs comic books?”  She rolled her eyes in disgust while the rest of us giggled at the thought of Gerry sitting there like a hopeful puppy – possibly bringing some mindlessly childish comic books for her to read – while Mary tried casting a Revulsion Jinx to get rid of him.  “An’ thanks fer keepin’ me company an’ fer bringin’ me tha’ homework an’ revision,” Mary continued, “otherwise I think I woul’ hae jumped oot th’ window from boredom.”

“Not to mention failed your OWLs,” added Lily with a grin.

“Tha’, too,” agreed Mary.  “Which reminds me, they star’ week after nex’, richt?  Wha’ dae we hae firs’?”

“Charms first,” said Charlotte immediately.  “Then Herbology, then Astronomy.”

Mary nodded.  “Aye. An’ I’ve go’ Muggle Studies i’ there somewhere too, I think.”

“Right,” said Martha with a grin.  “So do you want to get stuck straight back into your revision, or should we have a bit of a celebration first that you’re out of the hospital wing?”

Mary grinned at her.  “I knew I liked ye, Martha,” she said.  “Defini’ly a celebration firs’, I think.”

“Good choice,” said Martha.  “Now, I’ve got a few butterbeers stashed away upstairs, and I’m pretty sure Lily has some chocolate …”

Lily nodded.  “And I was keeping it for just such an occasion,” she agreed with a grin.  “Well, girls, come on then.”  And despite Charlotte’s protests that we were running out of time for revision, we abandoned our study and headed up to the dorm to commemorate Mary’s return.

Chapter 12: OWLs
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Despite the flurry of study for the fifth-years, lessons were annoying us by continuing, though the teachers seemed to understand our frustration and asked only that we do more revision as homework.  It did mean however that we were required to at least pay lip service to our class schedules and during the last week before exams we could all be found shuffling from one classroom to another, with barely a distraction to be found.  Even Peeves seemed to be imbued with the realisation that peace and quiet were needed, so we couldn’t even rely on him to pull us out of our OWLs-inspired frenzy.

Fortunately Hagrid came to the rescue one day at lunch time and managed to distract us, though even that was only fleeting.  We were all at the Gryffindor table trying to down our food as quickly as possible so we could get back to the library, and some students even now had their noses in various textbooks or rolls of parchment, but we were all diverted by the opening of the heavy doors into the Entrance Hall.

Turning our heads, we saw Hagrid enter the Great Hall, carrying the most dazzling bird I had ever seen on his arm.  With plumage of scarlet and gold, it seemed as though it was drawing all the light in the room, as everything else dulled in comparison.  Just about every head in the Great Hall turned to look at it, lunch temporarily forgotten.  Hagrid, apparently oblivious to the distraction he was causing, peered down the length of the hall to the staff table.

“Where would yeh like him, Professor Dumbledore?” he asked in what I’m sure he thought was a quiet voice.  “Here, or up in yer office?”

I poked Mary in the ribs.  “That must be Dumbledore’s phoenix,” I muttered, unable to tear my eyes from the almost luminous bird.  “Remus was right, they are bright.”

“Amazin’, isna it?” Mary breathed.  “We ne’er go’ t’ see anythin’ lik’ that i’ Care o’ Magical Creatures.”

“Probably a bit rare, I dare say,” I acknowledged, almost missing Dumbledore’s response to Hagrid’s question.

“My office, if you please, Hagrid,” said Dumbledore’s voice, which as always carried effortlessly across the Great Hall.  He appeared to be trying to suppress a smile, as though recognising the humour in Hagrid choosing this time to return his bird.

“Right yeh are, sir,” Hagrid said with a grin, then caught the eyes of the boys from our year.  He winked at them significantly.  “Wing’s fixed now, boys! How d’yeh like him?”

James beamed at him and gave him the thumbs up, which Hagrid seemed to appreciate as he smiled even more broadly and made his way back out of the hall, most probably to wherever Dumbledore’s office was.

Like I said, just a minor distraction, one which barely took a minute but was still appreciated.  And then everything was back to how it had been beforehand. That week was a jumble of nervous students frantically finishing assignments and trying to reconfigure the hours of the day so they could get enough revision in.  Even some of the smarter Ravenclaws, like Greta Catchlove and Sebastian Quirke, could be found at all hours in the library or sitting in the Great Hall at mealtimes with thick textbooks propped open on the table in front of them.  Of all the fifth-years only James and Sirius didn’t seem to be too worried and were conspicuous by their lack of study, but as they were probably the smartest kids in school I guessed they didn’t need to.  For that one week, I hated them.

There was also a roaring black market trade going on in various devices designed to improve your memory, or at least that was what the people selling them were claiming.  Mostly sixth-years, they were peddling an assortment of powders, potions, amulets and even a lucky rabbit’s foot or two, claiming these items were solely responsible for the number of OWLs they had achieved the previous year.  Lily as a prefect was kept very busy trying to prevent the sale of these items, telling anyone who would listen that they didn’t do the job that was attributed to them and the fifth-years’ time would be better spent actually studying rather than relying on anything external that most probably didn’t work anyway.

“Why people are even bothering with old potions is beyond me,” Martha grumbled one day as she pushed aside an eager sixth-year who was trying to sell a bottle of something that if nothing else smelled dodgy.  “That one smelled like something had died in there and was slowly decomposing.”

Charlotte grinned.  “Do you have a better idea?”

“Of course,” said Martha, flashing a wicked smile.  “All we need is for someone to break into the Ministry and steal a few time-turners.  We’ll all have plenty of time for revision then.”

“I almost wish we hadn’t stuffed up our Memory Potions when we were doing them,” I said.  “Fun as that dragon liver fight was, it would most probably have been a better idea for us to actually learn to make something that improves memory capacity.”

“But Memory Potions are easy,” said Lily, her eyes flicking up to us from over The Standard Book of Spells Grade Four, which she was re-reading to try to jog her memory from the previous years’ work.  “You just get some Jobberknoll feathers –”

“Yes, Lils,” Martha interrupted rather loudly.  “We all know you’re brilliant at Potions. But not all of us can just do it in our sleep like you seem to be able to.”

“Yes, right, whatever,” Lily retorted, sounding a little put out.  “I was only trying to help.”

“We know,” Mary said comfortingly.  “Bu’ Laura wasna bein’ serious aboot wantin’ a Memory Potion an’ all, ye know.  She jus’ wants t’ mak’ sure she can remember everythin’ she needs t’.”

“Oh, right.”  Lily looked at her and I could see her gaze sharpen.  “Sorry, I wasn’t really paying attention.  Did you realise that you don’t actually have to be completely specific when you cast a Summoning Charm?  Apparently so long as you’ve got a vague idea of what you want, if it’s close enough it’ll come to you, even if you just say Accio without specifying anything.  I hadn’t realised that.”

Martha laughed.  “Oh, Lily, you’re going to ace Charms anyway.  Why are you even bothering to read up on all that stuff?”

“But it’s the sort of thing we need to know,” Lily protested.  For someone who was so smart, she really was stressing about these exams.  “Really, I don’t know that I’ll ace it at all, there’s so much to remember and what if I’ve forgotten something over the past three years?  It’s easier for you lot, you’ve got wizarding families and grew up with all this stuff.  For me it’s all brand new.”

“I’m not all that fussed how I go this year,” I said honestly.  “The only reason I’m doing OWLs is to get into my NEWT subjects, so as long as I’ve got what I need to go on with something I’m not worried.  Which means I’m not trying to get an O in anything, just Es in the ones I want continue.  And even then it doesn’t matter if it’s a low E, so long as it’s an E.”

“Ye dinna wan’ it t’ be too low an E, though,” Mary pointed out.  “’Cause then it micht end up bein’ an A, an’ ye won’ ge’ through.”

“And that’s what I’m worried about,” said Lily.  “What if I freeze up in the exam, or panic, and I don’t get the E I need?  So that’s why I’m revising so hard, Martha, just in case.”

Charlotte was shaking her head.  “I’m with Martha, Lils,” she said.  “You’re going to ace Charms, and even without you reading that book until three in the morning you’ll do that.  So just try to relax a bit, you’re more likely to freeze up if you’re tense in the first place.”

My own revision was going along rather well, though undoubtedly some subjects were more important than others.  I had already decided to drop History of Magic as a NEWT subject, as the concept of never having to listen to Professor Binns again was far too enticing to ignore.  Also I wasn’t planning on continuing with Care of Magical Creatures or Astronomy, the former because while I enjoyed the outdoor classes I didn’t particularly want to be a dragon handler or anything roughly equivalent, the latter because I was sick of the late night classes interrupting my routine.  (Not to mention Canis Majoris, as there were no guarantees the boys wouldn’t be taking it.)  So my revision focused more on Transfiguration and Potions, as McGonagall had recommended, as well as Defence Against the Dark Arts and Ancient Runes.  I was good enough at Charms and Herbology to be able to get away with less revision with those, figuring that I would get the E necessary to progress to NEWT level without too much difficulty.

Or so I had thought.  The Charms exam, which was the first we had, was harder than I’d anticipated and there were a few questions I wasn’t able to answer fully.  The practical that afternoon was fortunately a little better, even if I did momentarily forget the incantation for Cheering Charms.  At least I wasn’t as bad as Caradoc Dearborn, the Hufflepuff prefect, who somehow managed to confuse a Growth Charm with a Severing Charm, and instead of cutting his piece of fabric in two managed to swell it up until it was a good thirty yards wide, completely covering both him and his examiner.

Herbology was rather better – I was more relaxed going into it and had little difficulty with either the theory or practical portions of the examination, aside from successfully scaring off my Screechsnap by accidentally dropping a bucketload of dragon dung onto it, which forced me to retrieve it from underneath Greta Catchlove’s table where it had escaped to seek shelter.  Astronomy was also less taxing than I had anticipated, though the fact that the exam took place at midnight on top of the Astronomy Tower meant that I was definitely not at my best for the Care of Magical Creatures exam the following morning.  At least I wasn’t too worried if I passed that one or not – I had no idea how I would have coped if, for example, Potions had been scheduled for that day.

Once I had completed my Ancient Runes examination on Friday morning, I felt rather more relaxed.  The first week was out of the way and I hadn’t needed a single Calming Draught, unlike Gilbert Vaisey from Slytherin who had apparently had something of a nervous breakdown halfway through his Herbology practical after he botched his identification of a couple of self-fertilising shrubs.  Heading outside with Martha after the exam, we found Lily, Charlotte and Mary plonked on the lawns not far from the Whomping Willow, enjoying the June sunshine.

“Well, one week down, one to go,” Martha grinned as she flung her bag onto the grass and then sat down herself.  “And you know, I haven’t wanted to hex a single examiner yet.”

“Dinna coun’ yer Diricawls,” Mary warned with a smile.  “We havna ha’ Potions or Transfiguration ye’, ye micht wan’ t’ hex someone i’ tha’.”

Charlotte groaned.  “You had to remind me, didn’t you Mary?” she asked.  “And here I was just thinking how nice it was to have a few days off.”

“What do you still have, Charlotte?” I asked.  Her timetable was a bit different from mine so I wasn’t sure just what the schedule was.”

She counted off on her fingers.  “Well, Potions, obviously, then History of Magic, then Defence, then Transfiguration, like you lot all have.  But I’ve also got Divination after Transfiguration, which is a bit like the calm after the storm.”

“That’s not so bad,” Lily acknowledged.  “I’ve run the gamut of my electives now, all I’ve got is Potions, History, Defence and Transfiguration.  Nice of them to keep the easy ones till last, wasn’t it?”

“Well,” said Mary, “I sugges’ we tak’ this afternoon off entirely an’ then ge’ stuck int’ revision on th’ weekend an’ all.  I thin’ we deserve some time t’ ourselves.”

Martha beamed at her.  “Never were truer words spoken,” she said.  “Right, then. Who wants to go for a swim in the lake after lunch?”  She looked around at us, a mischievous smile on her face.  “Last one in has to snog the giant squid!!”

****

That weekend we could be found sitting around our favourite table by the window in the Gryffindor common room, trying to fill our minds with as much information about Potions as would fit.  Needless to say, most of us could think of a more enjoyable way to be spending our time, regardless of how productive it would (or wouldn’t) be.

“This sucks,” Martha said grumpily, looking wistfully out the window where a full moon was illuminating the grounds of the castle.  “It’s Saturday night, we should be having a night off having fun, not stuck in here up to our ears in revision!”

“Well, go for it,” Charlotte said evenly, not taking her eyes from the textbook in front of her.  “Though don’t blame us when you fail your Potions exam on Monday.”

Martha scowled at her.  “And who would I be out having fun with when you lot are all back here?”

Mary grinned.  “Oh, I’m sure ye ca’ fin’ someone,” she said.  “There mus’ be a’ leas’ three or four lads who ye havna gone oot wi’ ye’.”

Lily smiled too.  “Actually, I think there are three just in Gryffindor she hasn’t gone out with yet,” she pointed out.  “Maybe they’ll be up for a night out.”

Martha shook her head.  “I think I’d rather stay here, if that’s the only other option,” she decided.  “I spent a good three months on the outskirts of their company which was quite enough, thank you.”

“Good,” said Lily, closing her textbook and putting it on the table in front of her.  “Then maybe you can test me on the uses of moonstone in potion making.”

Our study was interrupted by a couple of the boys in question, Sirius and Peter, who almost tripped over Charlotte’s chair as they hurried through the common room.  “Hurry up, Prongs,” Sirius shouted over his shoulder.  “You’re going to miss all the fun!”

“Give me a minute, Padfoot,” came James’ voice from somewhere up the boys’ staircase.  “I can’t get the Cloak out.  And you can’t deny we need that.”

“Well make it snappy,” said Sirius, who was now standing by the portrait hole looking impatient.  “He’ll already be there, we’re late!”  And he stood there tapping his foot, his arms folded, Peter standing with him looking a little nervous, until James appeared on the stairs.  “About bloody time,” Sirius went on irritably.

“Yeah, yeah,” said James, his head turning abruptly as he realised Lily was nearby.  “I’m coming.”  And when he reached the portrait hole all three of them climbed through and disappeared somewhere into the castle.

Martha looked at us.  “What was that all about?” she asked.  “Late for what?”

I shrugged.  “Beats me.  And I didn’t see any evidence of whatever it is James was looking for.”

“Well, they won’t be out too long,” Charlotte said reasonably.  “It’s well after curfew, they’re bound to get caught.”  She paused.  “Maybe that’s why Remus wasn’t with them, he didn’t want to be part of whatever it is they’re doing.”

Mary shook her head.  “Nae, he wen’ hame fer th’ weekend,” she told us.  “Summit t’ dae wi’ tha’ rabbit o’ his.  I hear’ James an’ Sirius gabbin’ aboot it afore th’ Muggle Studies exam.”  Remus apparently had a pet rabbit that for whatever reason couldn’t be controlled by his parents, and three or four times a year or so he had to go home to deal with it.  We had all found it a little odd to begin with but after five years no one even commented on it any more.  The rabbit did however have a rather nasty reputation and an apparently fierce temper, and James, Sirius and Peter even referred to it as Remus’ ‘furry little problem’ as though, like Voldemort, using its proper name would unleash its wrath upon us all.

Lily shook her head.  “Bad timing, right in the middle of OWLs like that,” she said.  “He won’t be too impressed having his revision interrupted.”

Charlotte grinned.  “Though at least he’s missing out on whatever they’ve got planned for tonight.  Maybe they did that deliberately, waiting till he was away so he wouldn’t try to stop them.”

Martha giggled.  “I dread to think what they’re up to,” she said.  “Though I suppose we’ll know all about it soon enough.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, us and the rest of the school.  Let’s face it, they’re not exactly subtle with their pranks, are they?”

“Or mature,” Mary agreed.

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Lily.  “And speaking of maturity – or lack of it – what are those nicknames?”  Her voice was heavy with exaggerated exasperation and I had the impression she’d been dying to bring this up for weeks.

Charlotte nodded.  “And which one belongs to who?”

“James is Prongs,” Lily said promptly, then she paused.  “I think.”

Martha laughed, her blue eyes twinkling.  “Well, I think we can guess where that one came from.”

“Mind out of the gutter, if you please,” Lily said sternly, though she was smiling.

“Is it that high?” asked Charlotte with a giggle.  “I thought it was in the sewer.”

“Oh, come on,” said Martha.  “Think of who we’re talking about.  What in the name of Merlin makes you think that their thought processes are any cleaner than mine?”

Mary laughed.  “While ye hae a poin’, Martha,” she said, “think aboot it.  Prongs.”  She emphasised the ‘s’ sound.  “Exac’ly hoo many dae ye think he has?”

“Doesn’t say much for Peter, though, does it?” I giggled.  “They’re calling him Wormtail, right?”

“Can’t say I’m surprised, though,” said Martha through the general laughter.  “He doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in his masculinity, does he?”  She waved her little finger in the air mischievously and Lily laughed so hard she almost fell off her chair.

“Wha’ are th’ ither two?” asked Mary.  “Moody, is tha’ richt?”

“Moony,” corrected Charlotte, colouring a little.  “That’s Remus.  And something foot is Sirius.”

“Padfoot,” said Lily, who had recovered herself somewhat, though her cheeks were still rather pink.  “I’ve got no idea where that comes from.  I wouldn’t necessarily call him light on his feet.”

Martha shook her head.  “Nup, even I can’t come up with a dirty or perverted interpretation of that.  Though you’d think Moony would be a better name for Sirius than for Remus, with the whole being-named-after-a-star thing.”

“Nae, he’d rather be a star than a moon,” Mary pointed out with a grin.  “Defini’ly thinks he’s star material, tha’ one.”

Lily laughed.  “I can’t argue with that, Mary,” she said, her eyes sparkling.  “Ego somewhere out there in the stratosphere, its borders last seen a few hundred light years from Alpha Centauri.”

“Or Canis Majoris,” added Charlotte.  “Remember, he is an ‘object of wonder and veneration’.”  She grinned while the rest of us groaned at the reference to our Astronomy class.

“Has anyone told Elvira that?” asked Martha.  “If you think our class was bad when Dobbs brought that up, imagine what the Ravenclaw one would’ve been like.”

I shook my head.  “I dread to think.  Though perhaps theirs would have been a little quieter.  I’m surprised we didn’t wake up everyone in Ravenclaw Tower, they were that noisy.”

Mary smiled.  “Maybe we di’,” she said.  “I can jus’ imagine Elvira sittin’ by th’ window, tryin’ t’ listen i’ on wha’ goes on i’ our classes an’ all.”

Lily laughed along with the rest of us but soon recovered herself.  “While I don’t want to stop you having your fun, ladies,” she said with a mock stern look on her face, “we do have our Potions exam in just over a day and I think it would probably be a good idea if we spent some of that time studying.”  And she opened her copy of Magical Draughts and Potions and made a show of continuing her revision.

“You’re right, Lils, as always.”  Martha sounded a little disappointed, but she too opened her textbook and started reading, and soon we all followed her example, trying to make sure we were on top of everything we needed to remember.

****

We all got through the Potions exam fine, Lily probably the best of all, and were soon buckled down studying for our final three exams – History of Magic, Defence Against the Dark Arts, and Transfiguration.  The first one was the only of the final three that consisted of just a written exam, while the others had both theory and practical components, so we were busy making sure our spellwork was up to scratch as well as understanding why things worked the way they did.

History of Magic, as I have already stated the world’s most boring class, was also the most boring exam, as all our revision seemed to feature the droning voice of Professor Binns running through our minds, meaning it was all we could do to keep ourselves awake as we read through our notes.  Fortunately it was over by midday so we could spend the afternoon getting ready for Defence the next day.  The weather was warm and we made the most of the sunshine by taking our books outside and sitting on the lawn by the lake as we practiced spells and tested each other on various dark creatures and counter-curses.

Just after breakfast the next morning, before our Defence Against the Dark Arts theory paper, all the fifth-years were herded into a couple of empty classrooms on the ground floor while the Great Hall was cleared and set up for the exam.  Like most of the others in there, I had decided to use that time to get a bit of last minute revision in, but kept having my train of thought interrupted by Sirius whining about how hard his life was and how tough it was being a Black who wasn’t into blood purity.  Again.

I looked up at Mary and rolled my eyes, and she groaned and nodded.  In the background you could hear Sirius’ voice rambling on.  “And just because of that, she wouldn’t talk to me, said my people had caused enough trouble and if I just went back to my ‘mansion’ and never came out again I’d be doing everyone a favour.”  We’d all heard this story a million times before and it was getting old.

“Oh, give it a rest,” I said quietly, not meaning for him to hear me.  Unfortunately, he was taking a breath at the time and my voice carried in the quiet room.

The front legs of his chair hit the floor with a crash as he spun his head around to look at me, shocked.  “What?”

“I said, give it a rest,” I repeated more loudly, steeling myself as I turned and looked him in the eye.  I’d gotten into this by accident, but I decided to hold firm.  “It’s old, it’s tired, and it’s not even true anymore.  So how about you just get over yourself, Black.”  I emphasised the name to make my point.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Sirius snarled, instinctively reaching for his wand and walking towards me.  I stood up to face him.  “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he went on.  “You don’t know what it’s like, coming here and everyone thinking they know all about you just because of your name.  And you having to fight every step of the way to prove them wrong!  Don’t try to pretend you know what that feels like!  So shut up about what you don’t understand!”  He was losing his temper and stood over me, using his height to gain full intimidatory advantage, his wand pointing at me threateningly.

Everyone was watching us now, wondering how it would end up and, most probably, what I would look like once he had finished with me.  Although a little uneasy (okay, I admit it, I was in fact trembling a little – as I’d noticed earlier in the term he could be rather frightening) I wasn’t actually all that worried:  even if this did make me an enemy of Sirius Black, thanks to Bea I knew enough hexes and the like to be able to give as good as I got, and now I had every intention of following through.  And, frankly, he’d just handed me my counter-argument on a platter, though I doubted he realised it.

“Actually,” I said coldly, hopefully doing a rather good job at pretending I wasn’t intimidated and trying to remain expressionless as I looked from his wand to his face, “I know exactly what that feels like.  I had exactly the same thing coming here, having to fight against what people thought I’d be like because of my family.  Their expectations of me might have been a bit different from their expectations of you, but that doesn’t make my experiences any less valid.  And in any case, you’ve succeeded.  I doubt you could name three people at this school who still care that you’re a Black.”

As if on cue, as if she had come by deliberately at that exact moment just to illustrate my point, Beatrice and her friend Cynthia walked past the open doorway.  Sirius looked at her, then at me, and after a few seconds lowered his wand.  He looked chastened.

“Okay,” he said quietly.  “You’re right.  I’m sorry.”  In the background I could see Remus smiling at me, while James and Peter just looked gobsmacked.

I smiled wanly.  “Apology accepted.  Now can I get back to my revision please?”

He nodded mutely, went back to his table and sat down again, his back to the rest of the class.

Sitting back down, I picked up a spare bit of parchment and wrote a short note to Mary. I think I’ve just committed social suicide.

Mary read the note and nodded sympathetically.  Worth it, though, she wrote back.  It’s a fair effort putting him in his place like that.  I smiled grimly and picked up my textbook again, trying to find where I’d been before the interruption.

“Fifth-years,” came McGonagall’s voice suddenly, cutting across the quiet room.  “Kindly make your way to the Great Hall, please.”

We packed our things away, got up and moved towards the door.  Having just humbled the class hero, I wasn’t really expecting anyone other than Mary to talk to me as we made our way out of the spare classroom and headed to the Great Hall for the exam.  I was therefore a little surprised when Lily, Martha and Charlotte pushed through the crowd to find us.

“Bravo, Laura,” said Lily, grinning.  “That was fantastic!”

“You think?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” agreed Charlotte.  “You’re pretty much the only person in our year who could have set him straight like that.  And that was worth bottling, the look on his face when he realised you were right!”

“Yeah, I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of that again,” Martha said dryly.  “He won’t let it happen, he can’t be brought down like that in front of the whole year.  His ego won’t allow it.”

Lily gave her a friendly punch on the arm.  “And this from the girl who six months ago was going out with him,” she grinned.

Martha laughed.  “Yep, that’s right. If you recall, I was under no illusions about him then and I’m under even less now.”

“Seriously, though, Laura,” Lily went on, “we’re really proud of you, standing up for yourself like that.”  And with a smile and a wink, she turned around and sailed through the now open door into the Great Hall, where Professor Flitwick was waiting for us. 






Author’s note:  I really enjoyed writing this chapter, though parts of it took shape at different times.  The conversation about nicknames was written fairly early on and the argument with Sirius not long afterwards, but the OWLs revision with Martha grumbling about dodgy potions was quite recent.  Fortunately it all came together quite nicely and I think it flows reasonably well. :)

Chapter 13: After the exam
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Disclaimer: All bits in bold are dialogue that come straight from ‘Snape’s Worst Memory’, Order of the Phoenix, pp 569-572 UK ed, paperback.  







Mary and I were joined again by Lily, Martha and Charlotte after the exam finished.  We filed out of the castle and into the sunshine, Charlotte chattering away about what the exam had contained.

“I got the werewolf stuff okay,” she was saying, “but I think I might have stuffed up on vampires.  They’re not all bats, are they?”

“Sorra, nae,” smiled Mary as we made our way down to the black lake.  The sunlight was reflecting off its surface and we sat down on the bank and took of our socks and shoes, bathing our feet in the water.  “I was havin’ trouble takin’ th’ Boggart question seriously,” Mary went on.

We all started laughing.  We’d had a memorable lesson during fourth year where we had learned to fight off a Boggart, which was a shape shifting entity that turned itself into what the beholder feared most.  Unfortunately for our Boggart it had seen me and Charlotte simultaneously, and therefore had two images to choose from.  My greatest fear was a headless corpse while Charlotte’s apparently was a flesh-eating slug, and the Boggart, unable to select one, had decided instead to go for a combination of the two.  The result was it became half a slug, which was definitely more amusing than frightening, and the laughter from the class had nearly been too much for it.

“Oh, look at that,” Lily said suddenly, her eyes just past us to the lake’s edge.  Turning around, we could see James Potter and his friends lounging underneath the beech tree, James playing with a Snitch, letting it go and then catching it easily.  “That was stolen from Madam Hooch’s supplies.  Remus is a prefect, he should be saying something.”  She shook her head in frustration.

Martha looked at her sharply.  “Sure that’s the only reason you’re watching him, Lils?” she asked.

Lily blushed.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself more than she was Martha.  She was now resolutely looking anywhere but underneath the beech tree.

“’Course you do,” Charlotte said easily.  “You’ve liked him for yonks.”

“No I haven’t!” Lily insisted.  “He’s arrogant, and juvenile, and a show-off, and a bully, and egotistical, and …”

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” I said, quoting Hamlet and hoping that Lily as a Muggle-born would get the reference.  Sure enough, she threw me a dirty look.

“Not you too,” she said, pouting.  “I was sure you’d be on my side.”

Even Mary was laughing now.  “Wha’ makes ye think we dinna hae eyes an’ ears, Lily?” she asked, grinning broadly.

“Yeah,” Charlotte agreed.  “Just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean they don’t notice things.  And you are pretty obvious sometimes, Lils.”

Martha suddenly stopped mid-giggle and watched, thunderstruck, over our shoulders at something on the lawn.  We all turned to look.

James and Sirius had left their spot by the beech tree and had their wands trained on Severus Snape, who looked like he’d been hit by an Impediment Jinx.  Like most of the students on the lawn, we watched silently, somewhat apprehensive.

If looks could kill, James would have been dead several times over from the glare Snape was giving him.  It seemed he’d been Disarmed already, as we heard him let out a barrage of swear words and hexes without effect, which surely would not have been possible if he’d still had his wand on him.

“What are they doing?” asked Lily, addressing no one in particular.  She looked horrified.  “That’s four on one!”  Which wasn’t strictly true, as Remus and Peter weren’t taking part, but we knew what she meant.

James appeared unimpressed by the foul language Severus was spouting, and cast a Cleaning Charm on him to wash out his mouth.  Sure enough, on cue a wad of pink soap bubbles started coming out from between Snape’s pallid lips, and several bystanders started laughing.

Lily, who had moved from horrified to furious, stood up and stormed over to them, shouting heatedly across the lawn at James to leave Snape alone.  I could understand why she was angry – here was the boy she had a secret crush on, turning someone she had been friends with for years into a laughing stock.

“You know,” I said quietly, “after this morning, I suspected that might have been me they were having a go at.  Good thing Snivellus is around instead!”

Martha giggled.  “Nah, they won’t come after you, you’re with us,” she said.  I acknowledged her point.  “Besides,” she went on, “I think Remus agreed with you.”

James had jumped at the sound of Lily’s voice and his hand automatically went to his hair, checking it was messy enough and putting on his ‘Lily voice’ as he asked if she was all right.

Lily was unimpressed as she asked him again to leave Snape alone, wondering out loud what the unfortunate victim had done this time.

James pretended to think about that.  “Well,” he said, “it’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean …

We of course knew it was more than that – James, like the rest of us, was convinced that Snape fancied Lily, and therefore lost no opportunity to put him down so Lily would never seriously consider him.  And we couldn’t ignore the fact that Snape would never miss an opportunity to hex James, either.  However, he couldn’t exactly say that to Lily’s face and, judging from the laughter from surrounding students, as well as from Sirius and Peter, what he came up with was reason enough.

“We shouldn’t be listening in,” Charlotte said nervously.  “This has nothing to do with us.”

Martha shook her head.  “Nah, Lily will want to talk about this once it’s over, so we need to be informed.”  She grinned as we turned our attention back to the ever-increasing spectacle in front of us.

While Lily had her back to us, we could feel the glare emanating from her from our spot by the lake.  “You think you’re funny,” she said coldly, “but you’re just an arrogant, bullying toerag, Potter.”  The implication was clear - if James didn't stop picking on Snape, she didn't watn anything to do with him.

Severus had stopped gagging on the pink soap bubbles and the movement was starting to come back to his legs – the Impediment Jinx, if that was what it was, seemed to be wearing off.

James, looking like he’d had a brainwave, suggested hopefully (still in his ‘Lily voice’) that he could be induced to lay off Severus if Lily agreed to go out with him.  Back at the lake, we all groaned.  He really liked her, but his timing was absolutely atrocious. She’d never end up with him at this rate.

Lily obviously agreed, saying in a clear voice that carried across the lawn that she wouldn’t go out with James if it was a choice between him and the giant squid.  James looked like he physically deflated as he turned his face, looking halfway between Lily and Snape, apparently not seeing anything.

Sirius was saying something in the background, looking quite unconcerned at his friend’s evident trauma.  Suddenly his voice got significantly louder as he shouted something at Snape, who was now free.

Severus had managed to get his wand back and had aimed it at James’ back.  James whirled around, and when we could see the other side of him we realised Snape had hit him with a curse of some sort, as a gash had appeared on his cheek and blood from it was dripping onto his robes.

“He shouldn’t have attacked him when his back was turned,” Charlotte said angrily.  “That was low.”  We all nodded our heads in agreement.

Next thing we knew, Severus had been Levicorpused and was dangling upside down, as we had all done at some point or other, as though an invisible rope had him by the ankle, revealing skinny, pallid legs and a pair of mangy grey pants.  I was somewhat surprised that Snape hadn’t started wearing shorts or trousers under his robes like the rest of us had – surely he hadn’t seriously thought no one would use the spell on him?  In any case Lily’s voice cracked somewhat as she ordered James to let him down.  We still couldn’t see her face, but we were guessing she was trying not to smile.

James obliged, but as soon as Snape landed Sirius put a full body bind on him, presumably to stop him doing the cutting curse again.  This was too much for Lily, who got her own wand out at this point and yelled at them both once more to leave Severus alone.  James and Sirius, for their part, eyed her warily, having both been on the receiving end of her jinxes more than once, James muttering out loud that he didn’t want Lily to push him far enough to make him hex her.

I was sure Lily was smiling as she directed James to remove the curse Snape was suffering from.  She had to be having fun with him, as we all knew that she could take it off as well as he could.  Petrificus totalus wasn’t a spell that needed to be removed by the caster – who had been Sirius, in any case.  This was one thing that James hadn’t really had anything to do with.

In any case, James finally relented.  Only for Lily would he stop having a go at Snape mid-hex.  And he made sure Severus knew it, too, telling him in no uncertain terms that it was only because Lily was there that he’d done it.

Snape, clearly both fuming and humiliated, cut him off mid-sentence.   “I don’t need help from filthy little Mudbloods like her!” he snapped.

Lily stopped dead as the watching student body held their collective breath.  Surely he hadn’t just said that?  In front of everyone?  And, thought those of us who knew her well, not to Lily, of all people?

It took her a while to find her voice, but eventually she told him coldly that she just wouldn't bother in future. And then, the death knell for their friendship came from her lips.  "And I’d wash your pants if I were you, Snivellus.”

That, if nothing else, told us just how upset Lily was.  In all the five years we’d been at school, not once had she referred to him as Snivellus, and she’d chastised us repeatedly when we’d done it.  They were friends.  Well, they were friends.  Not any more, apparently.

James was furious on Lily’s behalf, training his wand on Snape as he bellowed at him to apologise to Lily for what he’d just said.

Lily, for her part, was obviously upset enough to take it out on the first person she saw, which was made evident when she turned on James and shouted that he was just as bad as Severus was.  And then, just in case that wasn’t enough, she went on a loud rant about everything about him that aggravated her.  When she finally finished her tirade and stormed off, hurling a filthy look at James in the process, James looked rather like he’d just been through a duel with Voldemort himself.

Lily was still fuming as she made her way back to us by the lake’s edge, stomping her bare feet as hard as she could on the lawn as she came.  Charlotte jumped to her feet and went to meet her.

“It’s okay, Lils,” she said quietly, putting an arm around her shoulders.  “They’re not worth getting worked up over.  None of them.”  From close up we could see that Lily had started to cry, most probably from a combination of frustration, anger and betrayal.

Martha joined them.  “Besides, I think you might wake up the giant squid if you make the ground shake any more, and then you might have to go out with it.  Rather than James, I mean.”  She grinned, and Lily smiled through her tears.

“Why do I let him do it to me?” she asked, sitting down again and thrusting her feet rather violently back into the water, as though that would make it all go away.  “Why do I let him get to me so much?”

“Because you know that, deep down, he’s a good person,” Charlotte said evenly.  “He just hasn’t got to that yet.”

“And it was a bit of a unique situation,” added Martha.  “The boy you like is hexing your friend, and doesn’t listen to you when you ask him to stop.  And then your friend, or should I say ex-friend, calls you the worst name anyone can call you.  So you’re upset by that, and you take it out on James.”

“I did a bit, didn’t I?” she said quietly, for the first time not denying she fancied James.  “But Sev – how could he have said that?”

“He says it aboot every ither Muggle-born i’ th’ school,” Mary said dryly.  “It’s only ye he’s ne’er called tha’.  An’ tha’s because he’s go’ th’ world’s bigges’ crush on ye.”

“No he doesn’t,” insisted Lily, shaking her head and still refusing to see it for what it was.  “He can’t have.  You wouldn’t call someone you fancied that word, would you?”

“I don’t know,” I said, trying to look at it from Snape’s point of view.  “He was under a fair amount of stress and was being humiliated by his arch rival, in front of you no less.  He could have said it as a defence mechanism.”

“I suppose,” Lily conceded, thinking about it.  Her eyes were drying out but she still looked a little blotchy.  “Doesn’t matter now, does it, whether he fancies me or not?  ’Cause I’ve had it.  I’m not speaking to him again.”

“Do you mean Snivellus or James?” asked Charlotte, looking a little worried she might be talking about James.

“Sev, of course,” said Lily, doing another first in ignoring Charlotte’s use of Snape’s nickname.  “I’m sick of making excuses for him, I’m sick of defending him all the time.  But I’m sure I’ll speak to James again.  Oh no,” she gasped, something hitting her suddenly.  “Did I really say his head was too big to fit on his broomstick?”

Martha laughed.  “Yep, and more,” she said airily.  “All true, of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him to hear.”

“But he’ll be horrified!” she said, her green eyes widening.  “He’ll think I’m awful!”

I joined in the general laughter.  “Lily,” I told her, “I wouldn’t get too worried if I were you.  I suspect you could compare him to You-Know-Who himself, and James wouldn’t take offence.”

Lily acknowledged the point.  “Yes, I suppose,” she said wearily.

There was another palaver behind us, and we turned to see that Snape had again been Levicorpused, and James’ loud voice was threatening to remove his mangy grey pants.  Lily looked too exhausted to care, so we made a point of turning our backs on the noise and trying to ignore the cheers that came a moment later.

****

That evening Mary and I made a point of heading to the library to get some more revision done.  While we preferred studying in the common room, sometimes the noise and bustle in there made it almost impossible and our last exam, Transfiguration, was the next day.  Finally, after about four hours, complete with Madam Pince, the librarian, chasing us out and locking the door behind us, we made our way back to Gryffindor Tower.

We were chatting amiably and idly Transfiguring our textbooks into parrots and back again when we reached the portrait hole.  I was just about to say the password when a dark figure stepped from the shadows and we instinctively gripped our wands tightly, not releasing this grip when we saw it was Severus Snape.  Mary in particular was on her guard, this being unnervingly similar to her earlier encounter with Irving Mulciber.

Snape, however, appeared to be unarmed.  Not only that, he looked almost forlorn, as he moved to stand between us and the Fat Lady.

“Cauldwell.  Macdonald.  You have to help me.”  He sounded as bereft as he looked.

Mary eyed him with a mix of dread and revulsion.  “We dinna hae t’ do anythin’, Snivellus,” she scowled.

“Please, I’ll do anything …”

“What is it you want, Snape?” I cut in.  “Why are you hanging around Gryffindor Tower anyway?”  I wasn’t particularly happy that he even knew where the entrance to the Gryffindor common room was – I certainly couldn’t have found the Slytherin equivalent if you’d paid me.

“I need … to see … Lily … to explain …” he mumbled.  “She needs to understand!  Please!”

I looked at him scornfully.  “Didn’t you call her a Mudblood today?”

He went even paler than usual, if that was possible.

“Well then,” I went on, “what makes you think she’d want to see you?”

“She has to!  Please!”  He was begging now, looking rather pathetic, and part of me started wondering how much James and Sirius would pay to see him like this.  Probably quite a lot, come to think of it.  “If she doesn’t come out tonight, I’ll - I’ll sleep in the corridor, I’ll catch her when she comes out in the morning!”

Mary and I looked at each other.  Clearly the boy was desperate.

“We’ll see,” said Mary.  “I’ll a’ leas’ tell her ye’re here an’ all.  It’s up t’ her if she wants t’ defile herself by associating wi’ th’ likes o’ ye.”

You could see the relief flooding through his body as he stood aside and let us get to the Fat Lady.  She had been watching the whole encounter and had an astute look in her eye.

“Girls,” she said before we could give the password, “I don’t think you should say the password out loud tonight.  Not in present company.”  And she swung open in front of our gobsmacked faces.

Carefully shutting the portrait hole behind us, Mary and I looked at each other again.  “Are you actually going to tell her?” I asked.

“Prob’ly shoul’, otherwise he micht stay there all nicht, an’ who wants t’ see tha’ firs’ thing i’ th’ morn?” she replied.  I nodded:  she certainly had a point.

“Oi! Lily!” she called out, searching out the redhead among all the students studying at the rickety tables.  She wasn’t anywhere to be seen, so we made our way up to the dorm where we found her getting ready for bed.

Mary told her briefly what had happened. Lily stood stock still, clearly taking it all in, and then shook her head furiously.  “I told him, that’s it, I’m not speaking to him again!” she fumed.

“He di’ threaten t’ stay there all nicht’,” Mary repeated.

Lily hesitated.  “Oh, if it will just get rid of him, once and for all,” she muttered crossly and, putting her dressing gown on, she stormed down the stairs and out the portrait hole to confront Snape.

She was out there for a good ten minutes, but the thick castle walls insulated us from the sound of their conversation.  Not from lack of trying on our part, but not even Lily’s enraged yells (we were assuming that was what she was doing) could get through the stone.  Eventually she climbed back through the portrait hole, looking surprisingly calm, and came over to where we had settled at an empty table with some Transfiguration revision.

“He’s gone,” she said simply, and went back up to the dorm.

Just as we were trying to work out whether we should be thrilled or astonished that Lily had finally abandoned her long friendship with Severus Snape, we were interrupted by Sirius Black who was hovering by our table, his hands deep in his pockets, looking rather sheepish.  Standing a little way behind him, obviously encouraging him, was Remus.

Sirius indicated an empty chair.  “Is it okay if I sit down?”

“It’s a free country,” said Mary shortly.  “Dae wha’ ye like.”

He sat down uncomfortably.  “Uh, Cauldwell, I’ve, er, come to apologise,” he mumbled, looking at the surface of the table in front of him.

I looked at him in surprise.  “Apologise?  What for?”

“For this morning,” he said, raising his head and looking at me.  “Before the exam,” he clarified, seeing the blank look on my face.

“Oh, that,” I said, remembering our little row that morning.  “I thought you’d already apologised.”

“That was for what I said,” he said, evidently warming to the task.  “This is for what I didn’t say.”

Mary was looking at him with interest.  “Wha’ are ye talkin’ aboot, Black?” she asked.

“You said … you said that I’d succeeded, that there weren’t three people in the school who still cared that I’m a Black,” he said, addressing me.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” I agreed, trying to remember the conversation.

“And by extension, I think,” he went on, “you meant that there are a lot of people who still care that you’re a Cauldwell.  That is, they treat you like they’d treat your sister.”

“Well, yes,” I said, rather impressed that he’d recognised that.  I hadn’t expected him to think past what I had actually said.  In fact, I hadn’t expected him to even remember what I’d said after five minutes had passed.

“And we do that, don’t we,” he said quietly.  “We treat you like ‘her sister’, rather than like you.”

I just looked at him, stunned.  He’d worked that out?  Mary was looking sharply from his face to mine, trying to read what would happen next.

“Yeah.  You do,” I said, just as quietly.  “But then so do a ton of other people.  I didn’t mean to have a go at you for that.”

He sighed.  “But that’s not fair.  Particularly from me.  I’ve been a total hypocrite for the past five years, and you’ve just taken it without ever saying anything.”

“I ‘just take’ a lot of things, Black,” I said.  “Life’s all about ‘just taking’ things.  I just wanted you to realise that it’s not all about you, that other people have problems a lot like yours and they deal with them.  So hopefully you would stop making such a fuss about it, because I know what it’s like and it’s not that important.”

He nodded.  “I’m really sorry,” he said.  “We’ll make more of an effort to treat you like Laura from now on, not like Beatrice’s sister.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  “I appreciate that.”

He nodded again and rose from the table, going back to Remus, who grinned broadly and slapped him on the back as they made their way up the boys’ stairs.

I looked at Mary.  “Who would have thought he was that perceptive?” I said quietly.

“Or Remus is tha’ perceptive,” she corrected me.  “He wa’ hoverin’ i’ th’ background fer th’ whole conversation, it looked lik’ th’ whole thing wa’ his idea.”

“Good point,” I said.  “Makes more sense too.  I wouldn’t have thought Sirius Black paid that much attention to anyone other than himself.”

“Me neither,” she agreed.  “Maybe we shoul’ be makin’ tracks, too,” she added.  “Anither exam on th’ morn, we dinna wan’ t’ be too tired fer it.”

I nodded and, packing up my books, followed her up the stairs.

****

It’s probably unnecessary to mention that we were all incredibly relieved the next day once our Transfiguration exam was over (except Charlotte, who still had Divination).  The theory paper had been simple enough, even if I did temporarily forget the definition of a Switching Spell, but the practical had been more of a trial.  I managed to get through it reasonably well, I thought, and probably scraped a good enough mark to be able to continue the subject during NEWTs, but others seemingly didn’t do so well.  Apparently Leda Madley from Hufflepuff managed to accidentally Transfigure her cricket into a camel, and Peter Pettigrew succumbed to a fit of nerves and somehow Vanished his examiner.  Fortunately Professor Dumbledore was on hand and according to those who were in there did some rather quick spell casting to successfully recover the poor woman, but it was still sufficiently interesting to spread around the Great Hall like wildfire that evening at supper.

The last exam, Divination, took place the following day, and then even Charlotte had finished.  Finally, we could breathe easily again.  It was all over.  All I had left for the remainder of the school year, aside from lounging around in the sun with the other fifth-years, was attending Bea’s graduation ceremony, which was to take place on the last day before we left to go home for the summer.  Mum and Dad were making the trip north to watch her graduate and had expressly written to me asking that I join them in the audience so I felt rather honour-bound to go, even if I wasn’t much inclined.

Not that I disliked Bea specifically, or that I didn’t want to see her graduate.  It was just, well, I’d been ‘Beatrice’s little sister’ all my life and as far as I could tell this was really just an extension of that.  Everyone meant well and it would be nice to have proof that Bea was actually leaving Hogwarts (oops! Did I just say that out loud?), but let’s just say that I would be very surprised if she bothered to come to my graduation ceremony in two years’ time.  I was expected to go because she was my sister and it was convenient for me to attend, but I was hazarding a guess that in a couple of years it wouldn’t be nearly so convenient for Bea to come to mine.

Sour grapes?  Possibly.  Resentment?  I won’t rule it out.  But a recognition, however dull, that I would in fact be doing just what my parents had asked of me and attending anyway?  Definitely.

Anyway, the day came and like a good daughter I went down to the Great Hall at two o’clock to meet Mum and Dad and take my place with them in the graduation audience.  I watched dutifully as Bea went up and collected her scroll from Professor Dumbledore, listened to the speeches from Dumbledore as well as the Head Boy and Girl, and then clapped like everyone else when those students who had topped the school in each subject went up one by one to receive another certificate.

Oddly enough, Bea wasn’t one of them.  Yes she was brilliant, but as I had noted during the Easter holidays she had never really learned how to study, having had it all come to her so easily in the first six years of her magical education that when it got a bit much for her in seventh year she didn’t know how to cope.  So we watched Damocles Belby get the prize for Potions, and Stamford Jorkins for Charms, and Julie Peasegood for Transfiguration, but not Bea.  Not for anything, not even a nod for being runner-up. It was both fascinating and disappointing (from a family perspective) to see the great Beatrice Cauldwell, brilliant witch, sinking to become one of the rest, the also-rans, those who didn’t stand out in any real way.

I think Mum and Dad were rather disappointed in Bea’s non-appearance on stage, but I wasn’t really all that surprised.  Her lack of actual study meant that she was always going to be overtaken by those who did really put the work in and diligently applied themselves to the subject.  And it was a stern lesson to me, that no matter how brilliant you are you can never just rest on your laurels and expect things to fall your way.  I’m not sure that I would have been one to rest on my laurels anyway – being Bea’s little sister meant that no matter how well I did, it was only to be expected because she’d done it first – but it was still a valuable lesson, even if the reward was partly the petty hope of getting one up on her in two years time when it was my turn.  (Yes, I know, not exactly mature, but then what do you expect for a sixteen year old who’s spent her life being overshadowed?)

Anyway, finally it ended.  Bea had her scroll that said she’d finished her seven years of schooling at Hogwarts, Mum and Dad had been there to see her receive it, and we all gathered together as a group in the Great Hall and chatted about what Bea might do with the rest of her life.  As soon as I could I made a subtle exit and joined the rest of the girls on the lawns by the lake, where they’d been enjoying the June sunshine and trying to get pebbles to skip across the water in the direction of the giant squid.  It was all over, we’d finished the dreaded OWL year, and tomorrow we would be going home.  Life was good.


Chapter 14: Diagon Alley
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The summer holidays were much the same as usual with the exception of Bea, now qualified, looking for a job.  And me, of course, having some more friends, which was lovely – while I adored Mary and she was still my best friend, it was nice getting letters from other people occasionally.  Speaking of this, in August I got a letter from Lily, via the Muggle post as she sometimes had trouble getting to an owl office and didn’t have one of her own.  Ever the socialite, she invited Mary and me to join her, Martha and Charlotte for their annual shopping trip down Diagon Alley, ostensibly for school supplies but also to check out the latest robes in Madam Malkin’s and any new stock at Madam Primpenelle’s.  While I had to be in the right mood to get into trying on clothes or looking at beautifying potions, I liked the idea of catching up with them before school went back and hurried to get permission.

Mum was initially a bit hesitant until I pointed out that Charlotte’s mother had agreed to accompany us as a chaperone, and she eventually agreed that I could go, admitting that she was happier with that proposal than the idea of me going just with Dad or as part of a smaller group.  There is, after all, safety in numbers.  So I sent Dad’s owl, Koukou, off on the trip to Surrey to tell Lily that I would definitely be there.

I arrived at the Leaky Cauldron at the appointed time to find Lily and Martha were already there, sitting at one of the dingy tables with some butterbeers in front of them.

“Morning, ladies,” I smiled, moving a pile of Ministry pamphlets advising how to protect oneself if one encounters the Death Eaters to another table so I could sit down.  “How did these get here?”

Lily shrugged.  “They’re on every table, I think,” she said.  “Not that they’re much use I wouldn’t think, but apparently the Ministry wants them to be well distributed.”

Martha nodded.  “Yep, we got a stack in the post the other day. Lots of tosh about travelling in groups and learning how to cast Shield Charms – all really obvious stuff that you’d think a first-year would be able to figure out, let alone a qualified adult.  So anyway, how are you?”

I grinned.  “Right as rain.  I’m really enjoying this summer.  Bea’s finally graduated so she’s running around like a madwoman telling the world she’s qualified, and she’s even talking about getting some of those spells she invented approved by the Ministry.  And for once people are actually paying attention to me, though that might have something to do with the fact I did better in my OWLs than any of them expected.”

Lily smiled.  “How did you go?”

I thought about it.  “O for Herbology, E for Charms, Defence, Transfiguration, Potions and Runes, A for Care of Magical Creatures and History of Magic.  I failed Astronomy though – all I could think of during the exam was bloody Canis Majoris!”

Martha laughed.  “That’d have to put you off.  Though I knew you were smarter than you made out,” she said.  “I got no Os at all – unlike Lils here …”

Lily blushed.  “Well, I did a lot of revision so it was bound to pay off.”

Martha punched her on the arm.  “Always the modest one, aren’t you?  No, Laura, Lily got four Os and the rest were Es.  We all knew she was brilliant, but I hadn’t realised quite how brilliant.”

Lily went even redder, but was saved from responding by the arrival of Charlotte and her mum.  “Charlotte!  Mrs Trimble!  How are you?”

I’d not met Charlotte’s mother before so Martha carried out introductions while we waited for Mary.  It seemed that Mrs Trimble had accompanied the girls on their shopping trip the previous year and so knew what they had in mind, and rather surprisingly encouraged it.  For some reason I’d always imagined Charlotte’s family to be somewhat straight-laced, most probably due to the book on the Dark Arts that her uncle had written, but Mrs Trimble was apparently all for trying out beautifying potions and going into Gambol & Japes looking for love potions.  Needless to say it was extremely clear why she had been chosen as our chaperone.

About ten minutes and two butterbeers later Mary arrived, accompanied by her brother Andrew and apologising profusely for being late.  It seemed that her mother had insisted that Andrew come along to make sure Mary made it to the meeting point all right, and anyway he needed to go to Gringotts so it wasn’t out of his way, but he’d not been able to find his wand when it was time for them to leave and so had hunted around for a few minutes looking for it.  (In the end, a Summoning Charm from Mary did the trick – it had been hiding underneath a pile of freshly-washed clothes, which was somewhere no self-respecting twenty-one year old boy would ever look.)

Martha immediately went into full flirting mode when she saw Andrew – he was tall and dark and I guess rather good looking if you went for that sort of look.  I’d known him for so long that I’d never even considered him as a potential boyfriend: this tends to happen when you grow up feeling like someone is the older brother you never had.  Fortunately (or, from Martha’s perspective, rather unfortunately) he wasn’t interested and, after making sure Mary was well settled, quickly headed out the back so he could get his banking done.

“Mary, you sly thing!” Martha exclaimed once he had disappeared.  “You never even mentioned him!”

Mary shrugged while I giggled to myself.  “Well,” she said, “if ye’d bin payin’ attention i’ aboot secon’ year ye woul’ hae known him then.  He wa’ i’ Gryffindor too, ye know.”

“He was?”  Martha looked very surprised.  “Why didn’t I ever notice?”

Charlotte laughed.  “Probably because you weren’t really interested in boys then,” she pointed out.  “Besides, what second-year ever looks seriously at a seventh-year?  It just doesn’t happen.”

“I guess,” Martha acknowledged.  “Is he single, though?”

Mary shook her head.  “Sorra, Martha, bu’ nae. He’s had a girlfrien’ fer aboot a year nou.  An’ she’s legal an’ qualified an’ everythin’, so ye dinna hae much o’ a chance.”

Lily was getting red-faced from laughing.  “Martha Hornby, you’re a worry,” she said fondly.  “Anything with testosterone and you’re onto it like a shot.”

Martha giggled.  “I know. But there’s not all that much to choose from at school, so I have to keep an eye out during the holidays.”  She winked mischievously at us.  “Anyone else got any brothers I don’t know about?”

Charlotte looked at her mother and laughed.  “How about Clarrie?”  He was a couple of years younger than her and had unfortunately missed out on her classic good looks.

Martha shook her head.  “Sorry, Charlotte, but I think I’d prefer someone a little older than Clarrie.  Maybe even my age.”  She looked hopefully at me.  “Laura, anyone you’re hiding?”

I shook my head.  “Only two kids in my family,” I said, “and I don’t think you really want to snog Bea.”

Lily had recovered herself and took charge.  “Right, girls,” she said, “I can’t help but notice that while we’re in here all the shops are out there, potentially selling out of everything we want to buy.”  She indicated the back of the pub with her thumb.  “So now we’ve all finished our drinks …”

Mrs Trimble nodded.  “Absolutely right, Lily. This shopping isn’t doing itself.  And I got a catalogue from Madam Primpernelle’s the other day, and they’ve got a lot of new stock in just for this season.”  And with that we got our things together and wandered out as a group into Diagon Alley.

The street had changed a bit since the last time I was there.  The fear produced by Voldemort and the Death Eaters meant that a new black market in good luck charms and new defensive spells was starting to flourish, and there were a number of shabby stalls on the street flogging things like amulets, home-made potions and instructions for new shield spells which would, according to the peddlers, protect you even against an Avada Kedavra.  Yeah, right, I’d believe that when I saw it.  No one had ever survived a direct AK and I hadn’t seen any evidence that it had started happening in the last couple of years thanks to these new spells.

In addition, the atmosphere of increasing fear meant that people were less likely to spend their time in the open browsing through different shops, so half the businesses had closed down due to lack of patronage, their now empty windows plastered with poster versions of the Ministry pamphlets I had tossed aside so blithely in the Leaky Cauldron.  The end result was that even though it was a lovely day weather-wise, we preferred to spend our time indoors rather than out.

We had decided to get our school things first, so we could spend the rest of the day browsing around the more interesting shops without having to keep an eye on the clock.  So we traipsed as a group into Gringotts (Martha looking around avidly to see if Andrew was still there) to get our gold, then headed to Flourish & Blotts, the stationery shop and Bobbin’s Apothecary to get what we thought we would need for the year.  This year was a bit tricky as we weren’t sure what subjects we would get into, so it was a bit of a gamble buying the textbooks, but based on our results we did have a fair idea so it was an educated gamble.

Once we had all our school supplies we headed to Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlour to have a bit of a treat before descending on Madam Malkin’s for new school robes and also for a look at the latest season’s fashions.  However, unlike what we would probably have done in previous years we elected to sit at a table inside the ice cream parlour, as no one was all that keen on spending time outside.

Of course, some indoor spots were infinitely better than others.  Madam Malkin’s, for example, was chock-full of new season robes, as well as the ubiquitous school uniforms, so we spent rather a tidy spell in there checking out things like how different colours and cuts suited us, and wishing we had more gold so we could buy some of the more striking dress robes.  Not that there was a Yule Ball this year, but it’s always nice to have a set of nice robes in one’s wardrobe, and I could have really used the beautifying variety.  (Yes, okay, I was turning into more of a girl.  I blamed Lily, Martha and Charlotte, it was all their influence.  I would never have spent an hour in Madam Malkin’s before I started hanging out with them.)

From there we went to Madam Primpernelle’s, which stocked things like beautifying potions and the like.  Not that Lily, Martha or Charlotte needed any, but Mary and I could do with all the help we could get.  Unfortunately, I discovered, those sorts of things are only temporary – the only thing that will give you natural long-lasting good looks are good genes, and those I definitely did not have.  Oh well.  Back to the drawing board.

The mood in Diagon Alley had deteriorated significantly in the time between us going into Madam Primpernelle’s and leaving it, and we all shuddered and looked at each other in despair.  A cold feeling enveloped me and I felt like all the happiness was draining from me.  Mrs Trimble stopped abruptly and pulled her wand out, holding out an arm to stop us from moving.

“Go back inside, girls,” she said ominously.  “Stay there until I say it’s okay to come out.”

“Why?”  Charlotte looked worried.  “What’s happening?”

“Dementors,” Mrs Trimble muttered.  “I’d heard the Ministry had lost control of some of them.”  Her voice suddenly became louder and more authoritative.  “Go on, all of you. Back inside.  I’ll be with you in a jiffy.”

Horrified, we obediently went into the nearest building, which was the fortified structure that was Gringotts.  Some of the goblins inside looked at us oddly but Charlotte, who was suddenly all business, went up to the nearest one and explained what was happening outside, and they seemed to relax and were happy to let us shelter in there for a little while.

Meanwhile, outside, Mrs Trimble was casting furtive looks up and down the street until she spotted someone she recognised and hurried over to him. A fter speaking to him for a minute or so she came into the bank to join us.  “That’s Rufus Scrimgeour,” she explained, “from the Auror’s office.  He’ll be able to call in some reinforcements to deal with this.”

Lily was nodding resolutely.  “We studied Dementors in Defence last year,” she said, “but we never learned how to stop them.”

Mrs Trimble nodded.  “Yes, there is a spell, but it’s rather more advanced than something they would normally teach fifth-years.  I can barely do it myself, and that’s with Quentin trying to teach me.”

I was still feeling cold and miserable, and from the faces of the girls around me they were too.  Professor Dingle had recreated the effects of a Dementor attack during class last year, but I realised now that it had been a poor imitation of the real thing.  This was horrible.  Terrifying, draining, like the sun would never come out again and I would always be trapped in darkness. I clutched my wand tightly, feeling extraordinarily helpless in the face of what I recognised may soon become the norm.

After what felt like hours (but was probably only a matter of minutes) the mood suddenly lifted, and we looked outside to see a number of very confident-looking witches and wizards sending what seemed to be silvery shapes from their wands towards the Dementors, which were tall creatures which wore black cloaks and hoods.  They had scattered under the onslaught of whatever it was that was coming at them and dispersed with surprising speed.

We wandered back outside a few minutes later, Mrs Trimble wanting to make sure that any danger had in fact disappeared before letting us loose in the street again.  However, she needn’t have worried.  We were still rather shaken from what had happened and huddled together in a small group, just wanting to get out of there.

I was still trembling a little when I arrived back home not long afterwards via the Leaky Cauldron’s Floo service.  Whatever spell the Aurors had used against the Dementors had lifted the feelings of dread rather significantly, but it hadn’t taken them away entirely and I was surprised to see that the sun was out in Bristol when I got there – it seemed like I’d forgotten it could come out at all.  Mum, who wasn’t working that day, noticed my mood immediately, so I sat down and explained what had happened.

“I knew it was a risk letting you go today,” she muttered when I had finished.  “What if they’d got you?  I know what Dementors can do to someone if they catch them.”

I shuddered involuntarily – the Dementor’s Kiss, as it was known, was its worst weapon: the creature put what it called a mouth on yours and sucked your soul out of you.  Anyone who was Kissed basically became a shell of a person, their personality, their thoughts, their memories irretrievably gone.  Of course Mum would know about that – it was something both she and Dad dealt with at work on an unnervingly increasing basis.

“I don’t think it would have actually come to that,” I told her.  “Mrs Trimble was pretty quick in ordering us inside, she knew what to do and she got the Aurors there quick smart.”

Mum shook her head.  “But still,” she said, “I wish it hadn’t happened.  You’re all pale and clammy, not like yourself at all.”

I nodded.  “I wish it hadn’t happened too,” I said.  “But I think we did as well as could be expected under the circumstances.  I just wish we knew that spell that gets rid of them.”

“Well, it sounds like the Aurors knew what they were doing in any case,” Mum admitted.  “But I think you need a cuppa and a lie down.  I’ll put the kettle on.  Go to your room and I’ll bring your tea up in a minute.  And how about a couple of pikelets go with it?”

I smiled.  “Thanks, Mum.”  That felt like exactly what I needed, and I went upstairs to dump my things in my room and collapse onto the bed.

Not long after I’d finished my tea and pikelets an owl arrived, surprisingly enough from Lily, though I recognised the bird as the one belonging to Charlotte.  Lily must have borrowed it after our little expedition.  In its beak was a hurriedly scrawled note.

Dear Laura

Did you make it home all right?  What a day!  I can’t believe that Diagon Alley, of all places, had a Dementor attack.  I’m incredibly sorry about what happened, we’ve never had one of our shopping trips interrupted like that before and I feel a bit lost that we weren’t able to finish.  So I just wanted you to know that our days out are not usually like that at all, so please don’t judge us too harshly.

Anyway, if you think you can face it we will try to do another trip, maybe at Christmas time or in any case next summer, and I’ll try to organise it for a day that the Dementors aren’t coming along to spoil things.  And, worst case scenario, I suppose we can try something along the same lines at Hogsmeade one weekend.

So again, I’m sorry.  It’s taken much too long for you and Mary to come with us on one of these trips and this had to happen on your first one!  But hopefully we’ll have lots of opportunities to do this again and things will go according to plan next time.

Love,
Lily. 


I smiled broadly.  Like I could think harshly of Lily – what was there not to like?  (Unless I suddenly became Dione Turpin, of course, but that seemed unlikely in the foreseeable future.  Or any future at all, really.)  Let’s face it, no one could blame her for the Dementors, no matter how they made us feel, because no one could possibly know when they were going to attack or where.  It was just the nature of the war – no matter how well you planned things, or how much you wanted them to go right, some things just couldn’t be relied upon.  I grabbed a quill and some parchment and quickly scribbled a note back, saying of course I wouldn’t judge her harshly and none of it was her fault, and aside from the Dementors I had a lovely time and so would definitely come next time, assuming Mum let me out of the house.  Which after today, I reflected, could end up being my biggest problem.

****

The first of September arrived in what felt like no time at all, and along with a couple of hundred other students I was bundled onto the Hogwarts Express for the journey north, for the first time without Beatrice.  It was strangely liberating and I relished the unfamiliar but welcome prospect of getting through the whole train ride without once hearing a story about someone she had hexed or a skirmish she had been involved in.

After we arrived back at school, we all gathered in the Great Hall for the welcome feast and watched as the Sorting Hat sang its song and another forty or so first-years (were we ever really that small?) were Sorted into their Houses.  Once they were all seated Professor Dumbledore, true to form, made one of the shortest speeches known to man or beast.

“There is a time and a place for speeches,” he said from his position in the middle of the Head Table, “and I am sure that I will be advised if any of you find it.  So, in the absence of anything more formal, dig in!”

The tables immediately started heaving beneath the weight of food that appeared on it.  As always the variety was immense and the quality excellent, and we sat in relative quiet as we all ate as much as we could, while still leaving room for pudding, of course, which appeared in due course and was absolutely delicious.

Once everyone in the Hall had eaten so much they felt like they were going to explode, Dumbledore stood up again.  “It is time,” he said to the suddenly almost silent room, “for the start of term notices.  Firstly, Mr Filch has asked me to remind you that the use of magic is forbidden in the corridors between classes, and advises that winged catapults and Dungbombs have been added to the list of banned items.  This list I believe now totals some two hundred and sixteen items and can be found on the door of Mr Filch’s office for anyone who would like to see it.”  He smiled and I could have sworn his gaze flicked to James and Sirius before he continued.

“I would also like to advise our new students, and remind some of our older students, that the forbidden forest is called that because it is in fact forbidden.  I also recommend not antagonising the giant squid which lives in the black lake, which can have a rather nasty temper when provoked.

“I wish fervently that I did not have to do so, but will remind you all of the dangers we are currently facing, and request that all of you abide by any security or safety-connected instructions you may receive from staff.  Remember, these are for your own safety and any disobedience is at your own, I might add significant, risk.  I will also remind you that students below third year, and any older students who have not had their permission slips signed, will not be allowed to visit the village of Hogsmeade on designated weekends.”

I nodded.  Dad had told me that in his day they didn’t need new forms to be signed every year, that one form signed at the start of third year was enough for the rest of your time at Hogwarts, but it seemed that with the ever-increasing danger outside the walls of Hogwarts it was deemed appropriate that students be required to provide fresh permission slips every year.

Professor Dumbledore was continuing.  “On a lighter note, Quidditch trials will be held in the second week of term, and I would like to inform first-years that for safety reasons they are not permitted to take part.  Notices advising of times and dates will be posted in the common rooms in due course, and those interested in participating should give their names to their Heads of House.

“And finally, I would like to introduce our new members of staff.  Firstly, Professor Penrose, who will be replacing the retired Professor Egg as our Muggle Studies professor.”

An elegant-looking wizard in rather stylish robes stood up and bowed, a wide smile on his face.  The students all applauded in a dutiful if rather bored fashion, most probably figuring that it was only Muggle Studies so who cared what he was like?  (Okay, I admit, that’s probably not fair, but Muggle Studies was often seen as a soft option and the failure rate was less than two percent, so the coursework could hardly have been described as taxing.)

Dumbledore cleared his throat and the applause died a natural death.  “And can we please give a big Hogwarts welcome to Professor Viridian, who will be teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts.”  Apparently Professor Dingle had also succumbed to the Defence teachers’ curse and only lasted one year.  The man who was replacing him, two seats down from Dumbledore, stood up and beamed at the student body.  What had been the beginnings of an applause died and quickly turned to suppressed giggles.

I know it’s not polite to judge someone solely on their appearance, but there’s times that it’s hard not to.  “Gosh,” I heard someone say from further down the table.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite so inbred!”

It was true.  Professor Viridian looked like potentially the dumbest person I had ever seen, with all the clichés of buck teeth, slightly crossed eyes, a receding hairline and a rather bulbous, prominent nose.  I wasn’t willing to pass total judgement on the man until we’d had a class with him, but his looks were certainly against him.

“He looks like he couldn’t find Hogsmeade from the front gates,” I commented to Mary, who was sitting opposite.

She nodded.  “Definitely a butterbeer or two shor’ o’ a six-pack,” she agreed.

“We’ll have to hope he’s better than he looks,” I muttered.  “Defence is too important a subject to have someone completely incompetent in charge.  And I would have thought Dumbledore would have realised that, particularly with the way things are at the moment.”

Martha giggled next to me.  “To be honest, Laura, I don’t think it’s physically possible to be as incompetent as that man looks.  We’ll just have to trust that Dumbledore knows what he’s doing. Wonder what happened to Dingle?”

I shrugged and smiled a relieved smile at her, but it appeared that we were the only ones who had managed to think past the new professor’s appearance.  The boys, for example, were sitting nearby – probably so James could be close to Lily – and were laughing appreciatively at the various disparaging comments we could hear from around the hall.  Sirius in particular was rather loud in his laughter, which sounded unnervingly like a dog barking.  Not entirely sure I’d noticed that before, which for a five year acquaintance was remarkably unobservant of me, I made a mental note to ask Mary about it later.

“Told you, Prongs,” Sirius said with a grin once he had stopped barking, “living proof of why you shouldn’t marry a pure-blood.  Too much inbreeding stunts your development.”

James grinned.  “No fear of that,” he said, looking sideways at Lily, who was sitting on the other side of Mary.  She of course was Muggle-born, so whether he was confronted with a thousand Professor Viridians or not, assuming his affection for her stayed at its current levels there was very little chance that James would marry a pure-blood if he had anything at all to do with it. 


 

 






Author’s note: Okay, I should probably have mentioned this earlier (particularly considering I’m 14 chapters and 60,000 words in) but I’m not British, so if anyone who is spots any words, phrases or references that are out of place or just plain wrong, please tell me!  I’m trying to keep this as accurate as possible so all suggestions and comments are most welcome.  Many thanks. :)
 


Chapter 15: And classes begin again
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At breakfast the next morning Professor McGonagall went down the Gryffindor table handing out timetables.  She left the sixth-years till last as we had to decide what NEWT subjects we would be taking, depending on how we went in our OWLs.

She spent very little time speaking with James and Sirius, and I suspected that they had scored Os for all their subjects and could therefore take what they liked.  She talked to Remus for a slightly longer time before nodding in a satisfied way and handing him a timetable, and then even longer with Peter, who was never up to the other three’s standard in terms of brains.  Eventually she moved down the table to where we were.

“Miss Evans, your results were excellent,” she said, giving Lily a rare smile.  “You may proceed with your chosen subjects.”  And she tapped a blank piece of parchment with her wand and handed it to Lily, who beamed at her and consulted the paper eagerly.

“Miss Trimble,” she went on, “Professor Slughorn has agreed to take you as a NEWT student despite your Potions result, he seems to believe you show more aptitude for the subject than your marks indicate.  So you may also proceed with your chosen subjects.”  This was unusual, to say the least, but then again Charlotte was in the Slug Club and so we shouldn’t have been surprised.  She looked gratified and took the new timetable.

“Miss Hornby, again very good results,” McGonagall said, turning to Martha.  “However, Professor Babbling will not take NEWT students without an E or higher, so you will not be able to continue with Ancient Runes.  Is there a subject you would prefer to take?”  Martha looked a little disconcerted but suggested Arithmancy as a replacement – she had received an E on that at least.  Professor McGonagall nodded her agreement and gave Martha her timetable.

“Miss Cauldwell,” she went on, turning to me, “you had excellent results.  If I might say so, you picked up admirably towards the end of last year.  You may continue in all subjects.”  I grinned – I had elected to drop Care of Magical Creatures, History of Magic and Astronomy (which I’d failed anyway), but that meant that everything else I wanted to do, I could.  I took my timetable from her eagerly.

“Miss Macdonald,” she said, finally looking at Mary, “I’m afraid I cannot take NEWT students in Transfiguration who did not achieve at least an E in their OWLs.”  Mary nodded: she had been waiting for this.  Her marks had been lower than she’d hoped due to her encounter with Mulciber just before the exams, which unsurprisingly had affected her revision, though she had surprised even herself by getting an O in Astronomy, which she therefore decided to keep studying.  “Is there something else you would prefer to take instead?”

“Nae, thank ye, Professor,” Mary said, resigning herself to just the five subjects that year.  She had made up her mind on the train that if she couldn’t continue with Transfiguration, she would just drop a subject entirely.

“Very well,” said Professor McGonagall.  “Here is your timetable, then.”  And she tapped the blank parchment with her wand and handed it to Mary.

I looked at my timetable enthusiastically.  “Great, two free periods first up,” I grinned.  “Nothing at all till after break – not bad for a Monday.”

Mary checked hers.  “I’ve go’ a break in firs’ period bu’ then Muggle Studies i’ secon’ period,” she said.  “Then naethin’ till after lunch, when I’ve go’ double Charms.”

“Lucky you,” said Lily from her spot two places down.  “I’ve got Arithmancy first up – just the thing to get my brain working on a Monday morning.”

Martha groaned.  “And I’ve got Arithmancy and then Care of Magical Creatures, then a break, then double Charms after lunch.  Pretty full day, really.”

I was scanning my timetable.  “Not as bad as Thursdays, though,” I said.  “I’ve got double Transfiguration, then Charms, then double Herbology.  Talk about full-on!”

Lily shot a look at her timetable.  “Goodness, so do I,” she said despairingly.  “Good thing I’ve got almost all of Fridays off, then – I’ll need that to recover!”

Charlotte shook her head sympathetically.  “That’s pretty bad,” she agreed.  “The worst I’ve got is today, which is Arithmancy, then a break, then Potions and double Charms, and Tuesdays where I’ve got Transfiguration, then a break, then Divination and double Defence.  So I don’t have any full days at all.”  She grinned, pushing her glasses up her nose.  “Nice to be able to break it up a bit.”

I looked at Mary and smiled.  “Library or gossip session?”

“Well,” she said, pretending to think about it, “considerin’ we dinna hae anythin’ t’ study, there’s nae much poin’ i’ goin’ t’ th’ library, is there?”  She winked at me.

“My thoughts exactly,” I smiled.  “Right then, common room or outside?”

She looked up at the ceiling of the Great Hall, which was bewitched to look like the sky outside. It was a beautiful clear blue with barely a cloud to be seen.  “I think ootside looks lik’ a fair option.”

Lily threw us a filthy look.  “That’s not fair, you two sitting outside in the sunshine while we’re stuck in Arithmancy.”

I grinned at her.  “Nothing stopping you from joining me once you’re done, is there?  I’ve got nothing till Potions after break.”

She grinned.  “Right.  Okay, Charlotte and I will be down as soon as the bell goes, what do you say, Charlotte?”

Charlotte grinned as well.  “Sounds good to me.  Oh, don’t worry, Martha,” she went on, looking at the blonde who was probably about to protest that she couldn’t come too, “we’ll wave at you as you go past with Kettleburn.”

“We can even blow kisses if you like,” I suggested, winking at her.

Martha scowled.  “I guess I can’t really complain, I’ll be outside as well anyway.  Right, then, I’m off to Arithmancy.  Lily, Charlotte?”  And the three of them got up to make their way to their first class of the year.

****

The first Potions lesson of the new term was an interesting affair.  Six Gryffindors had scored the required E to study it at NEWT level, and we made our way down to the dungeons along with five Ravenclaws, two Hufflepuffs and three Slytherins, Gerry Stebbins looking rather disappointed once he realised Mary wasn’t there.  I knew that Charlotte had only just scraped into the class, but she was clearly thrilled to notice Remus had also made the grade.

Severus Snape made a beeline for Lily while we were waiting for Slughorn to open the doors, and tried to pull her away from the rest of the students.  She stared up at him with disdain and then looked away.

“I told you, I’m not interested,” she said, her tone acidic.

“But please,” he begged, “I’m sorry.  It was the wrong thing to say.”  From what I could see of his face through his curtain of greasy black hair he looked desperate, which I must say didn’t suit him at all.

“Save it,” she said sharply.  “I’ve made my choice.”

James had made his way over to them, his wand out.  “Is he bothering you, Evans?” he asked lightly, though we could see the anger in his face as he looked down at them, standing so as to make the most of every inch of height (both of them!) he had over Severus.

“Thanks, Potter, but I’m fine,” she responded, making a point of looking James full in the face and smiling at him, knowing how Snape would take it.  If she’d had the guts and knew there would be no repercussions, it wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d snogged him, just to see Severus’ reaction.  “Snivellus was just leaving.”  And she pushed past Snape without looking at him and made her way over to where Charlotte and I were standing.  James looked mildly surprised and a little pleased as he walked back to Sirius and Remus.

Severus was watching her with a horrified look on his face.  He looked from her to James, then back again, and we could see the conclusions forming in his mind as he started getting more and more worked up.  Fury and resentment were leaching out of him in floods and I was expecting him to get his wand out at any moment.

The ensuing silence was interrupted by Professor Slughorn opening the door of the Potions classroom.  “NEWT students, welcome,” he said, grinning benignly at us as we made our way inside and seemingly oblivious to the increasingly angry Snape.

There were four tables inside each set up for four students, and we tried to work out the best seating arrangements.  Eventually Charlotte settled at a table with James, Sirius and Remus, and Lily and I set ourselves up in front of them with Leda Madley and Al Jorkins from Hufflepuff.  James looked distinctly unimpressed by the way it had turned out, as did Leda as a member of the Sirius Black fan club, but there wasn’t much either of them could do about it without being obvious.  I did feel sorry for Hector Bole, though, who was the Ravenclaw who had to share with the Slytherins, particularly as Snape was still looking daggers at James and had pulled out his wand.

Slughorn had started talking without me really noticing, and was indicating four shimmering cauldrons in front of his desk.  It seemed he was trying to get us to name each potion based on its appearance and scent, and he was indicating the one closest to our table.

Lily had her hand up immediately.  I noticed that Hector did as well, but he wasn’t one of Slughorn’s favourites so he was ignored as the Professor looked at our table expectantly.  “That’s amortentia,” Lily said, going a little pink.

Slughorn beamed at her.  “And what is amortentia, Lily?”

“It’s a love potion,” she recited, sounding as usual as though she had swallowed the textbook.  “The most powerful love potion in the world.  It smells different to everyone, depending on what they find most attractive.”

I leaned over and smelled the potion, which did indeed have the most seductive aroma coming from it – a combination of a bacon and onion fry-up, cinnamon, something rather musky and attractive that I couldn’t identify, freshly ground coffee and – hang on, was that wet dog I could smell?  That didn’t seem right at all.  Baffled, I shook my head and sank back onto my stool.

“Right you are, Lily,” Slughorn beamed again.  “Ten points to Gryffindor.  And while it is a love potion, let me remind you that it cannot actually create love, just an infatuation.  I believe this to be of the most dangerous potions it is possible to make.”  He looked at us and focused on some of the Ravenclaw boys, who were sniggering into their hands.  “I am quite serious, Mr Stanley,” he went on, getting Gerry Stebbins’ name wrong – he obviously wasn’t a member of the Slug Club.  “Never underestimate the power of obsessive love.”  And it seemed to me that he glanced at Severus Snape before he went to stand by the next cauldron, which had a perfectly clear liquid bubbling away inside.

“And who can identify this?” he asked, looking around.  Lily’s hand again shot into the air, as did Severus’ and James’.  All members of the Slug Club – he’d have trouble showing favouritism with this lot to choose from.

“James?”  Snape looked furious and was still fingering his wand.

“That’s veritaserum, Professor,” said James confidently.  “Liquid truth.  If you feed it to someone they are forced to tell the truth.”  His explanation wasn’t quite as eloquent as Lily’s would have been, but we all got the message fairly easily anyway.

“Very good, James,” agreed Slughorn with a smile.  “Another ten points to Gryffindor.” He moved to the next cauldron, the contents of which were a little syrupy and had a greenish tinge.  It looked like something that no one in their right mind would ever knowingly drink.

Again, Lily’s and Snape’s hands were in the air, and this time Slughorn chose Severus.

“Draught of the Living Death,” said Severus.  He was still casting malevolent sideways glances at James and I wondered if he was planning to slip some of the potion into his morning coffee or something.  “It causes the drinker to fall into a deep sleep, so deep that it resembles death, and from which it is almost impossible to awaken.”  Actually, if that’s what it did, he was most probably almost certainly planning to feed some to James somehow.  If I was him I would certainly have been on my guard.

“Excellent, Severus,” beamed Slughorn again.  “Ten points to Slytherin.  And the final potion?” he continued, indicating the fourth and last mixture, which was dark and gluggy and had a most unpleasant smell coming from it.

Again, Lily and Severus had their hands in the air, but also this time did Sirius, and to keep things fair Slughorn turned to him.  “Sirius?”

“That’s polyjuice potion,” he said, looking at the cauldron appreciatively.  “When you mix it with a part of someone, say a hair or a fingernail, if you drink it you’ll turn into that person for an hour.”  Now I understood why he looked interested in that potion – it would be invaluable for one of their pranks.

“Thank you, Sirius, that is exactly right,” agreed Slughorn.  “Take another ten points.  I have shown you these potions,” he went on, addressing the class as a whole, “as they are the sort of potions that come up in NEWT classes.  You will be required to prepare potions of this sort of complexity for your exams.”  We all looked around worriedly, and I wondered if I was quite cut out for this class.  I mean, Draught of the Living Death?  There was no way known I could make that.

As it turned out, that was exactly our task that day.  Professor Slughorn didn’t expect anyone to actually complete the potion, but he was clearly testing us to see how we would go with something as complicated as that.  Fortunately I was sharing a table with Lily, Potions expert, and she kept an eye on me as I cut up the ingredients and tried to put them in the cauldron in the correct order.  The end result was that my attempt wasn’t any worse than many of those I saw being submitted at the end of the lesson, and I started feeling rather more confident about the class.

As everyone went up to Slughorn’s desk to hand in their potion samples, I noticed every single one of them stop at the amortentia and inhale deeply.  I wondered idly what each of them were smelling, and whether anyone else had discovered an aroma similar to the one I had.  I mean, really, wet dog?  I had another long sniff myself to make sure I hadn’t been imagining things but, sure enough, there it was again.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share that little titbit with anyone, not entirely certain what it said about me.

Once the class was over and we filed into the Great Hall for lunch, Charlotte came and sat down next to me.  “How did you go?” she asked.

“Passable,” I said, “but it would have been much worse if Lily wasn’t helping me out.”

“Tell me about it,” she agreed.  “You know how I only just scraped into NEWT Potions.  Well, it seems Remus had a similar mark to mine and only just made it as well, so between the two of us we’re not particularly confident, especially with something as complicated as we did this morning.  Thank goodness James and Sirius were at our table, let me tell you.”

“I did feel sorry for Hector,” I said.  “Having to sit with Snape, Pritchard and Gibbon.  That can’t have been pleasant.”

“Do you think he got Slytherin germs?” she asked with a grin.  “Though with Gibbon on that table, I’m surprised there was room for Hector.”  Gibbon, the Slytherin prefect, was a great lump of a boy.  Really, he had the most appropriate name out of anyone I’d ever come across.

Other classes were generally just as amusing, and before the week was out we discovered that there were two NEWT-level Defence Against the Dark Arts classes.  This was unusual, but due to the current climate interest was at unprecedented levels, and a large number of students had worked very hard to ensure they got the E required to study it at a higher level, doubtless hoping to learn enough to survive once school was over.  Everyone in Gryffindor had the grades to continue studying it, rather unusually I must admit, and we found our class shared with half a dozen Hufflepuffs.  Apparently Ravenclaw and Slytherin, both of which had similar levels of interest, were taking the same course at a different time.

All through the week Snape was still trying to talk to Lily, attempting to win her forgiveness for the Mudblood comment during OWLs.  She was getting more and more aggravated with him and on one occasion even resorted to using a Revulsion Jinx to get him away from her, though even that didn’t seem to hammer home the message that she no longer wanted to have anything to do with him.  While I had to give him credit for his persistence, I couldn’t help but feel that if he actually listened to her and did what she asked once in a while, he might actually stand a chance of being forgiven.

****

Once the weekend rolled around I finally had time for the important things that needed doing at the start of the school year.  A Caerphilly Catapults poster found its way onto the wall next to my bed via a Fixing Charm, as did some family photos, a Welsh rugby flag and a Gryffindor banner.  The books I’d brought from home were put into my bedside cabinet, and I found my Nimbus One Thousand and One, in parts, at the bottom of my trunk waiting to be reassembled.

I enjoyed this task and always allowed a good couple of hours to do it properly.  The twigs were all perfectly shaped and didn’t need trimming or adjusting (though half a dozen or so had broken in the trunk and needed to be binned), so I took my time and reattached them to the handle individually with delicate care.  Eventually they were all in place and I was happy with the result, though the dorm wasn’t really the place to test it. Nowhere near enough room.  So I adjusted the Cushioning and Flying Charms and headed outside to the Quidditch pitch where I could give it a good workout.

Fortunately it was too early in the year for any Quidditch training to be going on, though there were a few stragglers about who were obviously trying to get some practice in before team trials were held the following week.  I had no intention of trying out for the Gryffindor team but this was the perfect place to test my broom and I took off with gusto, performing all sorts of little moves to ensure my charms were holding as they should be, and the broom was handling as expected.

It was as always exhilarating, streaming above the school grounds at a hundred miles an hour, which I was perfectly comfortable with so long as both hands stayed on the broom handle.  Part of me wished my balance was a bit better one-handed, as I would have enjoyed playing Quidditch and getting out for training every week.  However, I had fallen off my broom enough times over the years to know my own limits, and after zooming around for about half an hour I headed back down, happy with my handiwork.  My broom, the name ‘Cauldwell’ carved into the timber and an Anti-Theft Jinx placed on it, I left in the broom shed, ready for whenever my next excursion would be.

When I got back to Gryffindor Tower I discovered Mary had been looking for me.  “Laura! Where were ye?”

“Quidditch pitch,” I replied.  “I put my broom back together so I had to test it out to make sure I’d done it properly.”  We headed back downstairs towards the library, where she wanted to check out a couple of books for Muggle Studies.

“Anyone else there?” she asked in that careless kind of way that you just know they’re dying for the answer.  I looked at her sharply.

“A few people practicing for House tryouts,” I said.  “No one interesting though.”

She was quiet for a bit.  “Jus’ new ones, though, nae one who’s already on th’ team?  Nae, they wouldna be there,” she went on, answering her own question, “they prob’ly dinna need t’ practice, dae they?”

Mary was obviously interested in someone on one of the Quidditch teams.  Hopefully the Gryffindor one, I thought, not wanting her to start supporting another House.  I decided to test her.

“Did you want to go and watch tryouts next week?”

She started.  “When are they?”

I thought about it – I’d heard the announcement and seen the notice on the common room board, but I hadn’t paid much attention.  “Thursday after school, I think.  For Gryffindor, that is.”

She nodded.  “Thursday’s all richt, an’ all.  If ye dinna min’?”

I laughed.  “Who is it you’re so keen on seeing?”

Immediately she clammed up.  “Nae one.”

I thought my way through the previous year’s team.  Keeper – Marcus Ogden, now seventh-year. Possible, but I wasn’t convinced.  Seeker – spot left vacant by Amelia Towler.  Not that, obviously.  Beaters – Fin Quigley and Barnaby Marchbanks, both fifth-years.  Unlikely.  Chasers – Anna Vector, seventh-year.  I hoped not.  Spot left vacant by Eileen Sloper.  See seeker description.  James Potter.  OH.

“Mary!” I exclaimed.  “You’ve got a crush on James Potter!”

She went beet red and tried to hide her face in her hair.  “Nae I dinna!”

“Then why are you blushing?” I asked gently.

Her face fell.  “Okay, aye, I dae.  Jus’ a wee one.  I thin’ it started whe’ he looked after me wi’ tha’ whole thing wi’ Mulciber.  Ye ken he came t’ visit me a few times?  T’ mak’ sure I was gettin’ better an’ all.  An’ I know, it’s stupid,” she went on quietly.  “It’s nae like I’ve go’ a chance agains’ Lily, dae I?”  She looked thoroughly miserable.

“I’m sorry, Mary,” I said, giving her a hug.  “But I don’t think Guinevere herself would have a chance against Lily.”

She laughed despite herself.  “Ye’re prob’ly richt there.  Oh well.  Guess I jus’ hae t’ live wi’ it then.”

“Come on, now, it’s not all bad,” I said, trying to reassure her.  “There’s always Gerry Stebbins, he’s – uh – inoffensive,” – that was the best thing about him that I could come up with – “and he’s certainly rather keen on you.”

“Nae James, though, is he?” she said shortly, shuddering.

“Well, no, but you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who’s a patch on James Potter.  And Gerry’s not nearly so arrogant, that has to be a plus.”  There, I thought, something else he had going for him.  If I thought about it enough I might even come up with a tidy few things about him that were halfway decent, though if he really did still read Martin Miggs comics then he was probably beyond saving.

“Aye, bu’ I’d be settling,” she mumbled.  “I dinna wan’ t’ hae t’ settle fer someone, and definitely nae him.  I wan’ t’ be swept off my fee’ by a knicht i’ shining armour – or, failing tha’, a Chaser on th’ Quidditch team …”  She smiled grimly, then looked sharply at me.  “But ye hae t’ promise t’ ne’er mention this t’ anyone.  Can ye imagine if it go’ oot?”

I gave her another hug.  “Don’t worry, I won’t breathe a word.  You have my promise.  I know exactly what you mean.”

****

The school term was progressing and to my relief it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d anticipated.  Then again, I had helped things along a little in that regard.  For example, I’d discovered that sitting with Lily during Potions was definitely one of my smarter moves.  She had a proper understanding of the way potion ingredients worked together and was able to tell you the effects of different combinations, even when they were things we hadn’t put together before.  This was exemplified when we started studying Everlasting Elixirs in mid-October, which Slughorn pointed out were some of the trickiest potions to be attempted in sixth year.

“You can’t put the ginger roots in before the Romanian Longhorn powder,” she said sharply, putting her hand over mine to stop me adding the wrong ingredient.  “Romanian Longhorn powder is a base ingredient and needs to settle before you add anything ancillary like ginger, otherwise it’ll just disintegrate and won’t have any effects.”  While she sometimes sounded like she had swallowed the textbook, I appreciated her efforts to help me pass.

I looked at her admiringly.  “What don’t you know, Lily Evans?”

She blushed.  “Sorry, I just didn’t want you to get it wrong,” she said, not being the world’s best at taking compliments.  “You need to separate the base ingredients from the ancillaries and make sure you don’t muck up the order.”

“And I appreciate it,” I said with feeling.  “Now, what category do the Jobberknoll feathers fit into, base or ancillary?”

She grinned.  “Animal parts are always base,” she explained.  “Even Flobberworm – though I’d understand it if you didn’t count them as animals.”

Through Lily’s careful coaching I managed to do a decent job on my first attempt at an Everlasting Elixir, and it occurred to me that I might even have the hang of Potions by the end of the year if I stayed near her during class.

Defence Against the Dark Arts was similarly promising.  Despite the unfortunate appearance of the teacher and the derogatory remarks he had inspired at the welcome feast, the lessons were surprisingly good.  Professor Viridian knew a lot more than his looks made out, especially about curses and counter-curses, and by the time we’d been back at school a month and a half I felt like I’d already learned more than I did all through the previous year.

My opinion wasn’t shared by the whole class, however.  James and Sirius were openly derisive about Viridian and often made jokes at his expense and even people like Caradoc Dearborn, the Hufflepuff prefect and a perfectly nice person most of the time, were less than enthusiastic about his lessons.

I paid them little attention.  I was feeling much more confident about sixth year than I had about fifth year, and each class was like a new challenge for me to complete.  To be frank, the whole feel of school was different.  I felt free, as though a weight had been lifted from me and something had unlocked in my brain that unchained my thoughts in the process.  The upshot of this was that I became more conspicuous, putting my hand up in class to answer questions, being more vocal about what I thought, and in general feeling more confident in my own abilities.

It was a few weeks before I realised why this was so, and I had Martha to thank for it.  “You don’t miss her, do you?” she asked at the Hallowe’en feast, helping herself to some pumpkin pasties.

“Who?” I asked, baffled.

“That sister of yours,” she explained.  “You don’t have to keep an eye on the Ravenclaw table to make sure she’s behaving herself any more.”

I thought about that.  It was true – my new sense of self-assurance most likely had an awful lot to do with Bea’s absence.  I had no responsibility for her anymore, no more putting out her fires (sometimes literally) or making excuses for her strange behaviour.  No more judgemental looks from other students after a Bea-inspired fracas, all muttering that if I’m around it’s only a matter of time before something else happens like it.  No more having to defend my own reputation because of something she’d done.

Well, when I looked at it like that, no wonder I felt free.


Chapter 16: Patronuses
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Leaving the library a week or two later, I looked up from my books to see Elvira Vablatsky at the other end of a long corridor.  Not in the mood to humour her, I darted down a nearby passage to try to make sure she didn’t see me, as I couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t want even more advice on how she could get Sirius Black to notice her.  (Yeah, because I was such an expert on that topic.  Did she really think he ever noticed me?)  Fortunately it worked, but only after I’d gone far enough to round a corner or two so I was well out of sight.  Unfortunately I had no idea where the corridor led, and after a couple of twists and me even going down a flight of stairs I’d not seen in all the time I’d been at Hogwarts, I was definitely lost.

Starting to get a little worried, I soon heard voices up ahead.  Good, I thought, someone I could ask for directions.  It’s a bit embarrassing having to ask where you are when you’ve been living in a building for the best part of five and a half years, but there’s times that it’s best to swallow your pride and just do it.  Unfortunately, the closer I got, the more familiar one of the voices sounded, and if it was who I thought it was I was very reluctant to ask him for help.  He’d humiliated me enough already for one lifetime.

Before I reached them I thought I’d better take a peek to see if my guess was right.  Peering around a corner of the passageway, I saw two figures standing quietly in the shadows by an old tapestry, and they looked very much like they didn’t want to be disturbed.  One of them was saying, “I wrote to Mum, but nothing doing.”

“Thought as much,” said the other one, the one who sounded familiar.  That is, he sounded like Sirius, though he was speaking too low for me to be completely sure.  And to think I’d been avoiding Elvira so I wouldn’t have to talk about him – the irony of the situation didn’t escape me.

“It’s okay,” said the first one reassuringly.  “Did you get my parcel? I was running late at breakfast …”

“Yes, thanks,” replied the other, laughing.  It was Sirius – no one else had that bark-like laugh that I had noticed earlier in the term.  “I did appreciate that.  I just thought …”

“I know,” said the first person.  “I just wanted you to know that I did try.”

I peered around the corner again, wondering where exactly we were and when they might disappear so I could go on.  The two were embracing awkwardly, then, without warning, the shorter and slighter of the two broke away and headed off down the corridor, away from me.  I froze.  The other person – Sirius – was bound to come in my direction.  I racked my brain trying to think of an excuse for being there, listening to what was obviously a private conversation.  “Lost,” despite being the truth, didn’t really seem to cut it.

I was let off, however, lucky this one time – Sirius turned around and slipped behind the tapestry, leaving no sign he’d ever been there.  I breathed out.  There must be a secret passage behind there.  Idly I wondered where it went but, lost as I was, I wasn’t going to risk making matters even worse.  Instead, undeniably curious, I made a mental note to tell Mary and check it out ourselves one day.

To be frank, someone like Sirius knowing where Hogwarts’ secret passages were could not have been less surprising.  He needed all the nous he could get to successfully avoid the fan club which, though it had diminished the previous Christmas due to his disinheritance, had swelled rather significantly once term began as it became obvious he’d shot up a bit over the summer.  Now at least two inches taller than James, he had grown into his already elegant and aristocratic looks even more than he had previously, so a few who had dropped out were re-joining and there were even some new faces in the mix.  They had to be completely exasperating so I felt it would be cruel to deny him the small pleasure of being able to disappear whenever possible.

Anyway, once the coast was clear I continued down my mystery corridor, following its twists and turns and eventually finding myself outside the toilets that no one ever used, the ones with a ghost living in one of the cubicles.  Her name was Myrtle and she was rather contrary and depressing, so had been nicknamed ‘Moaning Myrtle’.  Which wasn’t very nice, I admit, but it was accurate.  In any case, seeing Myrtle’s bathroom meant that I now knew where I was, and I was able to find the staircase that would lead me to the Great Hall in time for lunch without further difficulty.

****

That night we were treated to the sight of James Potter standing on a table in the middle of the common room, its spindly legs creaking ominously under his weight.  After all, three and a bit years on the House Quidditch team had meant that he wasn’t exactly a pixie.  “Ladies and gentlemen,” he boomed, failing to miss Peter snorting into his Firewhisky, probably at the term ‘gentlemen’.  “Ladies and gentlemen,” James repeated, looking furiously at Peter, “you are now looking at the first Gryffindor sixth-year to officially come of age!!”  He turned around dramatically to reveal Sirius Black who bowed extravagantly, beaming at the crowd and dressed ostentatiously in a Muggle tuxedo.  To be wearing that, I guessed, he’d probably lost a bet again.

“Rubbish,” said Charlotte calmly from our table, where we had all turned to watch the proceedings.  “I turned seventeen two months ago.”

Sirius’ face dropped as he turned towards us.  “Can’t I be the first at anything?” he asked plaintively.  “Aside from schoolwork, of course,” he added, grinning.  “Oh, and getting girls …”  He trailed off, looking sickeningly pleased with himself.

Peter piped up.  “You said you didn’t want the girls!”  He looked almost accusingly at his friend.

Sirius looked confused, then his expression cleared.  “Not those girls,” he clarified, and we knew he was referring to the fan club.  “But normal ones, yes.” He cast an appraising eye around the common room at the gathered students, his eyes lingering on a few different girls who were watching him, and grinned triumphantly.

“You can be the first of us to seventeen, mate,” said James, who was now back on the floor, leaving the limelight to his tuxedo-clad friend.  “Just ’cause I’m being generous, mind.”

Peter scoffed, his uncharacteristic boldness probably due to the Firewhisky he’d been drinking.  “Blimey, Prongs, like you can talk.  Even Moony and I will get there before you do!”

“True,” agreed Remus.  “He has you there.”

Lily lifted an eyebrow.  “You’ve got to love the irony,” she said quietly to Charlotte.

James, however, had heard her.  “What irony?”  I could tell he was bursting for an insight into the way Lily Evans’ mind worked.

“The leader of the pack, and he’s the youngest of them all,” she explained, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a smile.  Everyone started laughing.

“Yeah, but I’m not the youngest in the year,” he countered.  Lily raised the other eyebrow.  “Surely not?” he added, now looking worried.  “When’s your birthday, Trimble?”

“September, you dolt, remember, I just said,” Charlotte said acidly.

“Oh yeah.”  He had the grace to look somewhat abashed.  “Hornby?”

“Week before Christmas,” said Martha.

“Oh.”  He did look worried now.  “Cauldwell?”

“March,” I said.

His face lit up.  “When in March?”

“The sixth,” I told him.

His face fell again.  “Damn!  I’m the twenty-seventh.”

Remus was looking at me curiously.  “You’re the sixth of March?”  I nodded.  “I’m the tenth!” he grinned.

“Well there you are, then,” I said, smiling.  “Almost twins!”

James came over to physically stand between us, breaking off the conversation.  “Only one left,” he said, looking at Mary.

“An’ ye’re in luck,” said Mary calmly, though she was probably bursting inside – James hardly ever spoke to her.  “My birthday’s nae till June.”

James grinned maniacally and began high-fiving his friends, chanting, “I’m not the youngest, I’m not the youngest.”  He hadn’t asked Lily when her birthday was – which was late January – but I suspected he already knew it: he seemed to know just about everything else about her.

Sirius stopped him mid-chant.  “You finished, Prongs?  ’Cause it’s my birthday, now, remember?”

“Oh yeah,” James said sheepishly.  “Sorry.  I did hear something about that.  And I’m sure I heard a rumour of a party of some sort, too …”  His voice picked up significantly as he looked around the room.  “This Saturday night, folks!  In here, eight o’clock.  There's no excuse not to come!”

The boys from our year were getting justifiably famous for their parties.  I was never sure how they did it but they always managed to provide copious supplies from not only the Hogwarts kitchens but also from Hogsmeade, both the sweet shop and the pub.  And at least one of them must have had a substantial music collection because the gramophone generally went all night, thankfully without a bar of Celestina Warbeck’s grating ballads to be heard.  The parties were held in the common room so everyone in Gryffindor House was invited, and if one of the boys was going out with someone from another House they were welcome too, though obviously they had to be physically let through the portrait hole as they didn’t know our password.

Having said that, however, Sirius was the only one of the four who seemed to do much dating.  He was very sought-after, of course, so that all he had to do to get a girlfriend was pretty much snap his fingers, but even he didn’t do that as much as he could have.  I didn’t think he’d gone out with anyone since Dione Turpin, and they’d broken up the previous May – though there were occasional rumours, usually spread by the girl concerned and so of doubtful legitimacy, of the odd snog here and there.  Maybe he enjoyed seeing Elvira and the others thinking they might have a chance, maybe the girls at Hogwarts weren’t up to his lofty standards, or maybe he just wasn’t much inclined, I really didn’t know (or care, for that matter).

James, totally hung up on Lily, had had a couple of girlfriends since about third year but no one for more than a few weeks as they got more and more fed up with him gushing about another girl.  Remus to my knowledge had never had a girlfriend in the whole time he’d been at Hogwarts, though that wasn’t from lack of offers.  Maybe he just didn’t want to, maybe he was even gay – though I had never mentioned that possibility in Charlotte’s hearing.  And Peter, who would take anything he could get, was sadly lacking in opportunity, and I got the feeling he would happily have accepted the castoffs of any of the other three boys just to get a bit of experience and maybe even some credibility among his friends.

****

Meanwhile, lessons were going on much as they always did, and in between them we had to deal with Peeves, Dione, Elvira and various Slytherins, all of whom made life difficult in their own little ways.  This was exemplified one Tuesday as I reached Viridian’s classroom for double Defence Against the Dark Arts, along with the rest of the class who like me had just come from lunch in the Great Hall, when I was cleaned up by Severus Snape, who had come in from another corridor without watching and barrelled into me.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he spat through his curtain of greasy black hair, pulling his robes tighter around him as he saw James and Sirius eyeing him slyly.

“I’m sorry, Snivellus,” I said coldly, having regained my balance. “I didn’t realise that you not looking where you were going was suddenly my fault.”

He started to reach for his wand but obviously thought better of it, with pretty much half of sixth-year Defence Against the Dark Arts watching. Scowling, he slipped off down a nearby passageway.

Remus, standing opposite, grinned at me.  “You know, Laura, you’ve really come out of your shell this year.”

“Probably,” I shrugged.  “There’s a theory that it may have coincided with my sister’s graduation.”

He was quiet for a spell, apparently thinking.  “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said eventually.  “Was she really that much of an influence?”

I was looking at my robes where Snape had hit me, searching for any grease marks I might have to clean off, and his question took me by surprise.

“There were times that it felt like it,” I said, lifting my head.  “Can you see any stains on here?”  Okay, Remus probably wasn’t the person to ask a question like that, but he was the easiest as we were already talking. I n any case it didn’t matter because I quickly answered my own question.  “Ah, there’s one.  Tergeo.”  I siphoned off the mark with my wand.

“He really needs t’ dae summit aboot tha’ hair,” Mary commented.

“Definitely,” I agreed.  “I feel like hexing him so that the grease glows in the dark, that way you’d always be able to find where it’s got to.”

Apparently this was a rather humorous idea as half the class started laughing, only to be disrupted by Professor Viridian opening the classroom door to let us in.  Settling down with remarkable speed, we all wandered in and found our usual desks.

Viridian as usual silenced the class with no apparent effort, and announced that he was going to teach us the Patronus Charm.  While you might think this was something that was more likely to come up in Charms, it was in fact the spell used to repel Dementors, and so definitely came under the definition of Defence against the Dark Arts.  In fact, Viridian explained that while this was something that was usually taught in seventh year if at all, the recent spate of Dementor attacks – including the one we had witnessed in Diagon Alley back in August – meant he and Dumbledore had agreed to teach it to us now.

The charm itself was easy enough to remember – Expecto patronum – but it wasn’t just a matter of saying the words and flicking your wand with this one, apparently.  The trick was that you had to think of something that made you happy.  The happier the thought, the stronger the effect of the spell, known as a Patronus, would be.

A Patronus was a silvery being, generally an animal, that would erupt from your wand and, if strong enough, charge down and scatter the Dementor it was aimed at, as we had seen in Diagon Alley the previous summer.  Which was all well and good in theory, but it was much harder to do than it sounded.  Apparently, none of my thoughts or memories were happy enough.

By halfway through the double period all most of the class had been able to achieve was a thin silvery whisp of smoke from the end of their wands.  Most of the class, that is.  I probably don’t need to mention that James and Sirius had well and truly mastered the charm by that point and were treating us to their Patronuses, which if they stayed still for long enough looked like a deer of some sort and a large dog, doing laps of the classroom.  That galvanised the rest of us into trying harder and, half an hour later, I was thrilled to see something that almost had a definite shape appearing from my wand tip.

“Mary, did you see that?” I asked excitedly.  “That was definitely something!”

“Aye,” she agreed.  “Almos’ had a shape an’ all.”

I cast the charm again eagerly, trying my hardest to think of the happiest memory I could.  First kiss?  No, that was a bit of a dud, really (sorry Cadmus!).  Beating Bea in Charms?  Good memory but compromised by the jinxes she sent my way as a result.  Finding out I was in Gryffindor rather than Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff?  No, I was more confused by that than anything else.  Getting an O for Herbology in my OWLs?  Possibly, but it didn’t really feel like what I was looking for.  In the end I decided on a particularly memorable stay at Mary’s in between fourth and fifth years – most probably not the type of memory the charm inventor had in mind, but my life had been uninteresting enough to not provide me with much else.

However, try as I might, I couldn’t get past the vague wispy shape that I’d already achieved, and even then I couldn’t work out what animal it was.  Something medium-sized with four legs, but beyond that I wasn’t sure.  Mary didn’t even get that, having to be satisfied with the silvery whisp that was the first step to a real Patronus.

“A good start, people,” Viridian said as he closed the class.  “Mr Potter, Mr Black, take twenty points each – those were excellent Patronuses for a first try.  The rest of you, keep practicing, and we’ll try again on Friday.”

Mary, still hung up on James, was awestruck by his ability in Defence.  “Did ye see tha’?” she breathed as we headed up to Gryffindor Tower to drop our bags off before supper.  “Mastered it i’ half an hour.  An’ such a bonny animal, too …”

I looked at her, using all my self-control not to laugh at the dreamy look on her face.  Love does do silly things to us.  “Which one was his?  I couldn’t tell.”

“He ha’ th’ stag,” she said softly.  “So bonny …”

I laughed despite my best intentions not to.  “Mary, you’re impossible,” I said.  “Yes, he’s bloody good at Defence.  And he can do a good Patronus.  But seriously,” I went on, remembering something, “don’t get your hopes up, okay?  It was a lovely stag but it went straight to Lily before it started doing laps.  And I don’t want you to get hurt because of this.”

She sighed.  “I ken,” she admitted.  “An ye’re richt t’ stop me gettin’ too carried away.  Bu’ he’s jus’ so … so …”

“So James,” I finished for her.  “I know.  But if nothing else, remember, Lily saw him first.  And he saw Lily.  I’m sorry, Mary, but some things are just meant to be.”  And I gave her a quick comforting hug as we climbed the last staircase towards the tower.

We did practice before the next Defence class, as often as we could, and by the time we got back to Viridian’s classroom on Friday morning Mary had progressed to the almost-solid-looking shape that I had.  They were still hard to recognise as particular animals, though Mary was convinced hers was a golden eagle, which was one of Scotland’s national icons.  Which set me off a bit as the Welsh equivalent was the dragon, and that my Patronus very definitely was not.

Fortunately, under the tutelage of Professor Viridian we both managed to produce a proper Patronus by the end of Friday’s lesson.  Not as strong or forceful as the ones James and Sirius had created earlier that week, but certainly enough to make us feel like we’d achieved something.  Mary was right, hers was a golden eagle, which she was thrilled with as it proclaimed her as a true Scot.  Like her accent didn’t do that anyway, I thought, but she had never really been particularly pleased with moving to England so it was to her a validation of her Scottishness.  My Patronus, on the other hand, wasn’t anywhere near as exciting – a medium to large dog, maybe a Labrador, though it wouldn’t stay still for long enough for me to be absolutely sure.  In any case we were both feeling pretty pleased with ourselves and didn’t even mind the two-foot essay Viridian set us at the end of class – which I suppose has to be saying something.  Like I said, his lessons really were surprisingly good, and I had absolutely no objection to getting better at something like Defence.

****

Elvira came and sat next to me in Ancient Runes later that day.  “Laura, I’ve got a problem,” she said as she sat down, putting her books on the desk.

“Sure,” I said.  “What’s up?”  Although pretty sure I knew, I thought I’d give her the opportunity to surprise me.  After all, you never know your luck.

“Sirius,” she said, confirming my theory and going into broken record mode again.  “You’re in Gryffindor.  You know him.”

“Being in Gryffindor doesn’t mean I know him.”  I’d said that before but it never seemed to sink in.  She didn’t look convinced so I gave up, taking the path of least resistance.  “All right, what’s he done now?”

“He still doesn’t know me from a bottle of Doxycide,” she muttered.  “But that’s not the problem.  The problem is HER.”  She pointed rather viciously at Clio Zeller, a pretty black-haired Hufflepuff who also took Ancient Runes.

Muffliato,” I muttered, pointing my wand in Clio’s direction.  “All right, Elvira, what’s Clio got to do with Sirius?”

“They’re going out,” she hissed, glaring across the room.  “I saw them snogging in the Transfiguration corridor during break.”

I looked at Clio, somewhat surprised that Elvira hadn’t hexed her then and there.  “They may not be going out,” I pointed out, I must say doing a remarkably good impersonation of someone who actually did give a toss.  “It might have just been a snog.  And anyway, he’s a grown man.  Legally of age and everything.  He’s entitled to snog her if he wants to.”

“He’s of age?” she asked, distracted.  “When did that happen?”

I shrugged.  “Week or two ago, I think.  There was a party in the common room, but I don’t really remember when it was.”

Elvira smiled to herself, but then caught sight of Clio again and remembered why she was talking to me in the first place.  “But why her?” she asked petulantly.  “I’m prettier than she is!  I’m smarter!  What’s she got that I haven’t?”

The obvious answer to that was “Sirius”, but I thought it would be more tactful not to say that.  And of course Clio hadn’t been throwing herself at him every week for the past two or three years, but while that very likely had something to do with his decision I decided not to mention that either – I still hadn’t forgotten Elvira’s reaction the last time I’d said something along those lines.  Instead I took the diplomatic route.  “I’m sure he’s got his reasons, but he’s not been very forthcoming with that sort of thing with me of late.”  Or ever, for that matter.  “So I’m sorry, Elvira, but I don’t really have any more idea than you do.”

“You’re in Gryffindor,” she pouted.  “You can find out all sorts of things.”

“Can, but don’t,” I said sternly.  “It’s none of my business.  And I hate to be the one to point it out, but it’s none of yours, either.”

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Remus had been listening in on the conversation, half a smile on his face.  Oops, perhaps I should have Muffliato’d him as well.  Though, thinking about it, I hadn’t said anything I regretted so it probably wasn’t too much of a disaster.

Elvira was saved from responding to my edict by Professor Babbling, who started the class.  Afterwards, she hung back a little watching Clio, and Remus took the opportunity to catch up with me.

“Nice dealing with Elvira,” he said quietly, making sure the subject of our conversation wasn’t anywhere within hearing.

“Thanks,” I said.  “I was right, wasn’t I? It really is none of her business.”

“It’s not,” he agreed, “but she wants it to be.  I’ve never come across anyone quite so persistent.”

“Clio will need to watch her back,” I said.  “Assuming they are going out, that is.  Merlin only knows what they’ll do to her for daring to go out with him.”

Remus shrugged.  “I’m sure she can look after herself,” he said unconcernedly.  “She knows what she’s getting into.”

“But still,” I said, thinking of Elvira.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all.  “How’s her Patronus?”

Remus laughed.  “I can’t say I know, but I’m sure it’s fine.  But I don’t think Elvira is quite as dangerous as a Dementor, do you?”

I giggled a little.  “I don’t know.  I’d say being kissed by her would be just as dangerous as being kissed by a Dementor.  But maybe I’m reading too much into it.”

He laughed again.  “You know, you might just have a point there.”

The conversation ended abruptly as we reached the Great Hall for lunch and Remus headed to where James, Sirius and Peter were already sitting, and I found the girls.  At the Hufflepuff table not long afterwards, Clio’s ordinarily silky black hair suddenly became bright green and rather slimy-looking, and I drew the girls’ attention to it, explaining Elvira’s ‘problem’ as the likely cause.  And then, after the requisite rolling of eyes and groans, we promptly forgot all about it and got on with having our lunch. 





Author’s note: I was pretty pleased when I wrote the scene in the common room, which was one of the first I wrote for this story – originally I had Laura’s birthday as the sixth of March and Remus’ as the eighth (just because that seemed about right for him), and then I looked it up and realised the date I had picked almost arbitrarily was only two days off the birthday JKR had given him.  You have to love it when fate hands you a coincidence like that.

Chapter 17: The best form of defence
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

We were greeted one Friday morning in early December by the Slytherins arriving in the Great Hall with filthy looks on their faces and rather striking-looking hair, and word soon went around that they had woken up to discover that several Gryffindor banners and even a portrait of Godric Gryffindor himself had been affixed to the walls of their common room with Permanent Sticking Charms, and anyone who tried to remove them ended up with red and gold stripy locks.

“That would have gone down well,” I laughed to Mary as I heaped bacon and tomatoes onto my plate.  “Who do you think did it?”

Mary snorted derisively.  “Ye really need t’ ask?” she asked, an incredulous look on her face.  “Who dae ye think?”

“Yeah, okay, fair point.”  Not far away from us were the boys from our year, laughing maniacally and high-fiving each other across the breakfast table.  “I haven’t had my coffee yet, all right?”

She grinned.  “Richt, I’d fergotten tha’,” she admitted, her eyes flicking more than once to James.  “Ye’re fergiven.”

“How could they have got in there, though?” I asked rhetorically once I’d had some coffee and my brain started functioning properly.  “Not only do you need to know where their common room is, but you’d have to know the password as well.”

“I think I can answer tha’,” said Mary, looking across the room to the Slytherin table, where the students’ hair was slowly returning to normal.  “Regulus Black.”

Of course.  Sirius’ little brother.  He was in fifth year and was as unlike Sirius in character as he was like him in appearance.  Probably the best way to describe him was like Sirius but less so – less handsome, less intelligent, less tall, less elegant, less popular, and definitely less common sense.  Which, come to think of it, was probably saying something.  Possibly Regulus had more sporting ability as he was on the Slytherin Quidditch team, but then again for all I knew Sirius was better at that as well and had just chosen not to do it. I knew they still spoke to each other despite the fact Sirius had been disinherited – after all, I’d seen them talking in the corridor a couple of weeks earlier when I’d got lost trying to avoid Elvira – so Regulus had most probably let the password slip at some stage and his brother had decided to make the most of it.

Lily was glaring down the table in James’ direction.  “Is that more points you’ve just lost for Gryffindor, Potter?”

“Well, no,” said James, sounding like he couldn’t work out whether he should use his ‘Lily voice’ or not, though his hand still automatically went to his hair.  “You see, Evans, we haven’t been punished for this one yet, so technically I haven’t lost any points for Gryffindor …”

Lily rolled her eyes.  “I’m sick of us being at the bottom of the House points just because you got bored,” she snapped.  “Can’t you use that brain of yours for something useful for once?”  And with that she stood up and stormed out of the Great Hall.

Remus let out a low whistle.  “You’re moving up, Prongs.”

James, who had been watching Lily’s departure, spun around to look at him.  “You reckon?  She hates me!”

Remus shook his head.  “I think that might be the first time she’s admitted in public that you actually have a brain.  That can only be a good sign.”

James looked so hopeful it was rather endearing.  “Really?”

Sirius was looking at them both shrewdly.  “You know, I think Moony might have a point,” he said slowly.  “You may even be in with a shot.”  He smirked suddenly.  “About bloody time too, I might add, this has been going on so long it’s ridiculous.”

“But don’t ask her out just yet,” warned Remus.  “Give her a bit of time.  You don’t want to scare her off again.”

James nodded.  “And I do that pretty well, generally.  I think I could write a book on it.”

Sirius grinned.  “Well done, mate!  You’ve worked that out!  Only took, what, five and a half years?”  He clapped James on the shoulder.

Remus cut him off with a look.  “Lay off him, Padfoot.  He’s suffered enough already.”

“Yeah, I have,” said James miserably.  “And she’s just perfect.  I think I’ll die if she turns me down again.”

Mary, Charlotte, Martha and I were watching the whole conversation, dumbstruck, though by this point Martha had to turn her head away to hide the fact she was struggling not to laugh.  If nothing else it was astonishing that the boys had said so much about the matter with us in full earshot, and I didn’t think I’d ever seen James looking quite so vulnerable.  Both Mary and the James Potter fan club, if the latter were anywhere near, would have drooling fodder for weeks.

Martha had managed to calm herself down a little.  “I think I have to go, girls,” she whispered as she stood up and walked out the hall, shaking slightly as she went.  We quickly finished what we were eating and followed her.

She didn’t even make it as far as the marble staircase, instead ducking into a nearby classroom and dissolving into giggles.  “Geez, did you hear that?” she spluttered as we joined her and closed the door.

Charlotte joined in.  “We’ve got to tell her,” she said with a broad smile.  “Can you imagine Lily’s face when she hears that one?”

“She’ll be horrified tha’ she e’en le’ slip tha’ much an’ all,” agreed Mary, who was doing a remarkable impersonation of someone who didn’t fancy James.  I was quite proud of her.  “He micht e’en work oot she likes him a’ this rate.”

“And they were so earnest about it all,” I added with a giggle.  “Who knew they had that in them?”

Martha corrected me.  “No, James and Remus were earnest,” she pointed out.  “I don’t think Sirius has an earnest bone in his body.”

“I don’t know,” said Charlotte thoughtfully.  “He did seem to actually consider Remus’ point about what Lils said about brains.  So he might be developing earnestness.”  She giggled again.  “Is that even a word or did I just make it up?”

“I’m not sure, actually,” I grinned, “but I know what you mean.”

“Richt,” said Mary, smiling broadly, which I was still rather impressed by.  “Where dae ye think Lily’s got t’?  An’ who wants t’ tell her which bi’?”

Martha laughed.  “Dibs on ‘I’ll die if she turns me down again’.”

Charlotte scowled.  “Damn.  I wanted that one.  Okay, I’ll take ‘I could write a book on scaring her off.’”  And once all parts of the conversation had been divvied up among us, we left the empty classroom and headed upstairs in search of where Lily might have ended up.  If nothing else we knew she would turn up on the first floor at nine o’clock for Defence, which was our first (and her only) class for the day.  However, talking during those classes was generally impossible, even with Muffliato, so if possible we were keen to fill her in before the bell rang.

In the end we caught up with her as she came back inside – she’d been out in the courtyard in an attempt to clear her head, especially as we had Defence first up – and told her what had eventuated at the breakfast table.  Lily didn’t disappoint and was an entertaining mixture of horror, amusement and discomfort, unsure how she would be able to face James in class that morning.

As it turned out it didn’t really matter whether Lily could think of anything to say to James before we all went into Defence, as we had only just got to the classroom before our full attention was required by Professor Viridian.  Really, our unexpectedly good Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons were progressing very well. Viridian’s speciality was curses and counter-curses, so we had spent a lot of time going through various dark curses, including Unforgivables, and the best methods of repelling them.  Those that could be repelled, that is – for all the claims of the Diagon Alley stall-holders, Avada Kedavra still didn’t have any known defence.

Anyway, that morning he appeared convinced that we had learned enough about defensive charms, hex deflections and counter-curses to have a go at duelling each other.  The desks were Banished to the walls and we were told to find a partner and a spare bit of floor and do our worst.

Mary and I automatically gravitated towards each other, our apprehension no doubt evident on our faces.  I’d never duelled anyone before, not properly, and while I was pretty sure I could do okay in the first instance, I wasn’t so sure I could maintain it for any length of time.  Mary, who didn’t have my background of fighting off various hexes from Beatrice during school holidays, was even less confident.  Tentatively we cast an assortment of jinxes at each other and tried to shatter the other’s Shield Charms.

Very quickly, however, our attention, along with that of the rest of the class, was diverted by James and Sirius, who had partnered each other.  I’d known that they were good at Defence (their Patronuses were a case in point) and had heard they could do a decent duel, but I had never fully realised before just how extraordinarily good they really were.  Their wands were moving so fast they were just blurs of light, and they were dodging each other’s spells just as quickly and apparently effortlessly.  Watching them, I had a sudden very clear understanding that these were not people I would want to cross, clearer even than it had been the previous year when Mary was Imperiused.  Even Lily looked impressed.

After a five minute exhibition, Viridian called a halt to the spectacular duel – awarding the boys ten points each in the process – and asked them to partner other people so that the rest of us could get some practice in without them as a distraction.  The change in their behaviour was palpable – without each other to duel against, they were much more tentative as they were less sure of their partners’ abilities.  James ended up with Remus, who put up a much better fight that I had anticipated, but it was nowhere near the earlier demonstration.  Sirius, on the other hand, was snatched up by Clio Zeller, which I suspected was to his detriment as, because they were going out, he seemed hesitant to curse or jinx her at all, instead deflecting anything she cast at him with apparent ease and even boredom.

Turning to Mary again, I smiled apologetically at her as we resumed our own duel. After what we had just witnessed, anything we could do felt paltry and juvenile.  I’d thought I was pretty good at Defence, even scoring an E for it in my OWLs, but there was no way known I was anywhere near a patch on that.  Inwardly I resolved to try to improve my ability somehow, and it was with renewed vigour that I cast one of Beatrice’s favourite hexes at Mary, shattering her Shield Charm and causing her to bark like a dog for half a minute or so.  Giggling, I had just cast the counter-jinx when she was hit by a falling Peter Pettigrew, who was partnered with Carol Jones from Hufflepuff and appeared to have been flattened within the first minute of active duelling.

Looking around the room, everyone seemed to have a new determination to improve their duelling skills.  Even Martha and Al Jorkins from Hufflepuff, who had got together just a couple of weeks previously and were therefore still joined at the hip, were throwing actual hexes at each other rather than just going through the motions, as Sirius was doing with Clio.

Mary was also intent on bettering herself, and once she had stopped barking and extricated herself from Peter we put on a much better display than we had at the start of the class.  Who would have thought that people like James Potter and Sirius Black could actually be inspiring?  Whatever I thought of that concept, inspiring they undeniably were, and the whole class was trying extra hard in the second half of the lesson.  Professor Viridian appeared very pleased with everyone’s progress and awarded several bonus points to both Houses at the end of the class.

Heading back upstairs for our free period afterwards, Mary pulled me aside.  “Ye know, I think I’ve come t’ my senses a’ las’,” she said as we settled ourselves in an empty classroom.

“In what way?” I asked lightly.  “I’d thought you lost most of those years ago.”

“Aye, I ken,” she agreed with a grin.  “Bu’ this is differen’.  I go’ through tha’ whole Defence lesson wi’oot once droolin’ o’er James.”

I stared at her.  “Really?”

She nodded.  “Aye.  I’m as surprised as ye are.”

I got up and gave her a hug.  “Mary!  You’ve done it!  You cracked it!”

She wriggled away from me.  “Aye.  An’ aboot time, too, I think.”

“So what brought it on?” I asked.

She scrunched up her face a bit as she considered.  “I think it wa’ a combination o’ wha’ he said this morn an’ hoo he fough’ i’ Defence jus’ then,” she said eventually.

I thought about that.  “Yeah, that’s probably fair enough,” I conceded.  If nothing else, during that Defence class he’d probably been too intimidating to drool over.

“It wa’ nice while it lasted,” Mary went on, a bit of a reminiscent smile on her face.  “He’s a goo’ lad t’ daydream aboot.  Bu’ I always knew it woul’ never happen so there wa’ always tha’ i’ th’ back o’ my min’.  Ye jus’ hae t’ see him looking a’ Lily t’ know tha’.”

I nodded.  “Well, Mary, I’m proud of you,” I said, giving her another hug.  “Now we just need to find another boy to take your mind off him entirely – Gerry Stebbins, perhaps?”

She wrested herself away from me and pretended to aim her Defence textbook at my head.  “Nae funny, Laura Caul’well.”

I pretended to be chastened.  “Right, not him.  Okay, how about … well, there’s always Sirius, that thing with Clio probably won’t last forever …”  This time she did let go of the book, though I had plenty of time to duck before it hit a desk several feet behind me.  “Okay, not Sirius either,” I conceded.  “Gee you’re particular!  Ummm – Severus Snape?”

Walking over to pick up her textbook, Mary burst out laughing.  “Ah, Laura, ye’re nae goin’ t’ give up on this, are ye?  Hoo aboot we leave it fer nou an’ when I find a lad I dinna min’, I’ll le’ ye know.”

I grinned.  “You’ve got yourself a deal.”  And we headed back to Gryffindor Tower to get our books for our next classes, throwing names at each other all the way up to the seventh floor.

****

The following Monday night the five Gryffindor girls were gathered around a table in the common room, finishing off stray bits of homework. The room was unusually quiet; the boys in our year weren’t around, probably serving detentions for their stunt in the Slytherin common room the previous week.  I was working on my Transfiguration essay, Mary was flicking through her notes on carnivorous trees for Herbology, and Martha was doing some extra reading for Arithmancy.  Lily and Charlotte had their Potions paper spread out in front of them but they weren’t really doing anything about it – in fact Charlotte was doodling idly on her parchment, and Lily seemed to be staring vacantly out the window, where in a cloudless sky a full moon was giving the grounds an eerie glow.

Suddenly, without warning and seemingly to nobody in particular, Charlotte spoke.  “Maybe he actually will, though,” she mused, as though continuing a conversation she had been having earlier with someone.

“What?” asked Lily, confused.

“James.  Die if you say no to him again,” Charlotte explained.

Lily laughed.  “We can but dream.”

I grinned at her.  “Back to denial, are we, Lily?”

She shook her head furiously.  “I don’t know what you mean,” she said stubbornly.  “But it’s nice to have a bit of a break every now and then.”

“If he did die, he’d prob’ly turn int’ a ghos’ an’ haunt ye ferever though,” said Mary, giggling at the thought.

Martha looked at them from over the top of New Theory of Numerology.  “He can’t,” she said flatly, licking her finger and turning the page.

“Why not?” asked Lily, looking surprised.  “I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“It happened to an aunt of mine,” Martha said matter-of-factly, putting the book down and losing her page in the process.  Unperturbed, she went on.  “She got haunted by this girl she used to know at school who’d died, so she went to the Ministry about it and they put an order or something on the ghost, so she couldn’t go near my aunt any more.”  She picked up the book again and began thumbing through it, looking for the page she had been on.

“Now there’s a thought,” mused Lily, feigning a groan though her eyes were dancing.  “Do you think they could put an order on James while he’s still alive?”

The rest of us burst into uncontrollable giggles.

****

That Friday, I was heading to the Great Hall for lunch after a particularly dull Ancient Runes lesson when someone, most probably Elvira, tried to hex Clio Zeller and missed, hitting me instead.  Unsure exactly what the damage was, I slipped into the nearest toilets to check my reflection in the mirror and do whatever was necessary to fix it.

“Imaginative, Elvira,” I muttered to myself, looking at the boils on my face.  The Furnunculus Curse wasn’t going to break Sirius and Clio up.  I pulled out my wand and muttered the counter-curse, watching with satisfaction as the boils disappeared one by one.  Who needed Madam Pomfrey when I had Beatrice?

I was distracted by Veronica Smethley, friend of Clio’s and also in Ancient Runes, coming out of a cubicle and fussing with soap and water to wash her hands.  She looked up at me.  “Got rid of the boils, then?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Not exactly inventive, was it?”

“Not really,” she agreed.  “Though Clio was pretty pleased it missed her – she and Sirius have something planned after lunch, apparently.”  I wondered vaguely whether Veronica still had a dormant crush on the guy, as I had suspected the previous year, but decided that even if she did she wasn’t going to ruin things for her best friend.

“Good thing then,” I grinned.  “I’m just going to meet Mary.  Doesn’t really compare, does it?”

“It’s about as good as I’ve got,” she said with a smile as she reached for the hand towel.  “Thalia’s keeping a spot for me,” she went on by way of explanation, referring to another of her Hufflepuff dorm-mates.

We were interrupted by the entrance of Maggie Flint, Slytherin and all-round vicious piece of work, who generally looked like she was ready to lord it over anyone she saw.  Her face twisted into an evil grin when she saw Veronica who, I suddenly remembered, was Muggle-born.

“Oh, look, it’s Smethley,” she breathed fiercely.  “A filthy Mudblood polluting our hallowed halls.”

Veronica, a good six inches shorter than Maggie, looked intimidated but tried to stand her ground.  “Mudblood or not, I’ve got as much right as anyone else to be here,” she said, sounding somewhat feeble but clearly steeling herself.

“No you haven’t,” said Flint, now sounding a little bored.  “Mudbloods have no right to be anywhere near here.  Why don’t you go back to Muggleland where you belong?”

“I belong here,” Veronica whispered.  Her wand was still in her bag and she was casting furtive glances to where it lay on the ground, obviously wondering whether she should risk searching for it.

Maggie, on the other hand, had her wand out.  “Listen, Mudblood,” she drawled, “you don’t say who belongs here and who doesn’t.  That’s the job of the elite.  The pure-bloods.  Who, I’m afraid to say, you will never have the honour of even cleaning their shoes.”  (Who needed correct grammar when they were picking a fight?)  Her wand was poised at Veronica’s nose and I was sure she was about to utter a nasty curse.

I’d been standing there the whole time, completely ignored by Flint and probably forgotten by Veronica.  However, I’d not forgotten that I had my wand out and ready, as opposed to Veronica’s which was still in her bag.  So before Maggie could say anything else, I gave it a flick and muttered a few choice words that Bea had taught me, and in less than a second Maggie’s nose began growing. It became longer and longer, and greyer and greyer, until it obscured her face and was reaching close to her knees.  Veronica soon recovered her composure and looked at me.

“How did you do that?  It’s an elephant’s trunk, isn’t it?”

“Yep,” I said, smiling broadly.  “There’s times that that sister of mine can be very useful.”

My hex had distracted Flint enough to stop her from cursing Veronica, but she was still making an inordinate amount of noise as she tried in vain to stop its effects.  Veronica and I were preparing to leave and make our way down to lunch when the door opened once again and Professor McGonagall entered the room.

Uh oh, I thought.  This can only end in tears.  McGonagall, who was strict but fair, looked from Flint to me, still with my wand out, to Veronica, whose hands were empty.  “Miss Cauldwell,” she began, “what is the meaning of this?”

Veronica tried to make excuses for me.  “Flint was about to curse me, Professor,” she said hurriedly, “and Laura just got in first to stop her.”

“Is this true?” she asked me, her eyebrows raised.

“Yes, Professor,” I agreed.  “Flint was threatening Veronica and being quite rude to her, frankly, so I tried to stop her.”

“And a Shield Charm wouldn’t have sufficed?” she asked icily.

“I didn’t think of that,” I admitted.  “This was the first thing I thought of. And I didn’t have much time, she was going to curse Veronica any second.”

“Miss Flint?” McGonagall looked at Maggie.  “What is your version of events?”

Flint gave what was probably her most winning smile, though we couldn’t see it very well, what with the elephant’s trunk protruding from the middle of her face.  “It’s all lies, Professor.  I just came in to use the loo and suddenly Cauldwell hexed me for no reason.”

Professor McGonagall looked at her shrewdly.  “Then why do you have your wand out, Miss Flint?  I take it you don’t usually need that for your ablutions?”

Maggie went a little pink, which I must say almost suited her.  Behind the trunk, of course.  “Self defence, Professor,” she lied.  “I’d only just got it out when you arrived.”

McGonagall’s lips went very thin and I could tell she was sceptical of Flint’s tale.  However, in the absence of any proof either way she did the only thing she really could do.

“I think a detention will be in order, Miss Cauldwell,” she said.  “And ten points from Gryffindor.  Next time something like this happens, kindly notify a teacher before taking matters into your own hands.  You will be informed later as to the nature of your punishment.”

“Yes, Professor,” I said obediently, putting my wand away.

“Miss Flint, you will need to go to the hospital wing to have your trunk removed,” McGonagall continued, looking at Maggie.

Her voice sounded slightly muffled due to the trunk that covered the bottom part of her face.  “But, Professor, my bag’s still in the Great Hall, I’ll need someone to get it for me.”

McGonagall smiled the smallest smile I’d ever seen.  “No, Miss Flint, if you need your bag you can fetch it yourself.  I will be happy to escort you to the Hall.”  And she and Maggie exited the toilets and headed off downstairs.

Veronica and I grinned at each other.  The whole school was going to see my handiwork, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer girl.

****

The following night Slughorn held his Christmas party once again, and Charlotte and Lily were as usual expected to attend.  There were usually some good stories from these parties so Mary, Martha and I decided to stay up until they got back so we could hear all about it.

Unfortunately this party appeared to have been less colourful than the one the previous year, most probably because none of the guests were quite as outrageous as Hambledon Quince had been.  This year’s assortment had included Ambrosius Flume, best known for starting up Honeydukes, author Blenheim Stalk, and Devlin Whitehorn, founder of the Quidditch Racing Broom Company, who, while they were doubtlessly interesting enough in their own right, were never going to provide entertainment of the sort Quince had.

“It was almost dull, really,”  Lily said as she fished in her trunk for some clean pyjamas.  “You had the usual Quidditch crowd fawning over Whitehorn, and Ambrosius Flume brought some of the new fudges they’ve been developing, but it really wasn’t up to the standard of the usual Christmas do.”

“Which reminds me,” put in Charlotte, “we brought you back some of that fudge.  Try the cherry one, here –” she handed Martha, Mary and me some samples – “it’s really good.”

“An’ hoo was Slughorn?” asked Mary through a mouthful of cherry fudge.  “Ye’re richt, Charlotte, this really is verra goo’,” she added, grinning across the room.

Lily shrugged.  “Much the same as usual,” she said.  “Overindulging in the mulled mead and crystallised pineapple – what a surprise.  Raving on about Marcus Ogden, who must be the current Student of the Week.  And he told me again that I should have been in Slytherin,” she added almost as an afterthought.  This was a regular comment of Slughorn’s, who was a little peeved that his favourite student hadn’t been Sorted into his House.  Lily being Lily generally came up with rather amusing responses.

Martha grinned.  “And what did you say this time?”

Lily shrugged again but Charlotte was smiling broadly.  “That she was flattered he’d think so but that sharing a dorm with Alecto Carrow would be enough to drive anyone to jump off the Astronomy Tower.”

“No one can argue with that,” I said, shuddering as I imagined what it would be like to have to live in the same dorm as Alecto.  “Imagine walking in on her in the shower.”

Martha made a face.  “If she ever took one, that is.”

Mary laughed.  “Ye know, I dinna e’en think any o’ the lads woul’ want t’ see tha’,” she agreed, reaching for some more fudge.  “Some things are much better lef’ covered up.”

“Oh, and you’ll be pleased with this, Laura,” Charlotte went on.  “Someone actually did hex old Snivellus so that the grease in his hair glows in the dark.  That was your idea, wasn’t it?”

I nodded, a grin starting to form on my face.  “Wasn’t me who did it though.”

Lily smiled.  “Well, no, we didn’t think you did, but you did announce the idea in front of the whole Defence class, so there are two Houses who could have got to him to do it.  It was a good idea, after all.”

Mary laughed.  “Sure it wasna ye, Lily?”

Lily shook her head, an expression of distaste coming on to her face.  “No, but don’t think it didn’t occur to me.  He came up to me again tonight trying to apologise and I had to use a Repelling Charm to shake him off.”  Really, since she’d made the decision six months earlier to abandon her long friendship with Snape, she had developed a surprisingly strong dislike for him, though that probably wasn’t helped by the fact that he appeared unable to take ‘no’ for an answer.  “If he’d hassled me one more time I might well have done it,” she went on, smiling mischievously.

“So how does it look?” I asked.

Charlotte giggled.  “Much as you’d expect, though I did hope Slughorn would turn off the lamps so we could tell for sure.  Poor Snivellus didn’t look too impressed though.”

“Mmm, poor diddums,” Martha said lightly.  “My heart breaks for him.  So aside from that little diversion, what you girls are saying is, no talent there this year.  I’m disappointed.”

Charlotte winked.  “Except James, of course.”

Lily rolled her eyes.  “Yes, look-at-me-I’m-brilliant-James-Potter-who-won-the-Quidditch-Cup-single-handedly.  The one who followed Devlin Whitehorn around all night like a lovesick puppy and barely even looked at me.”

I grinned.  “You sound disappointed.  Something you’re not telling us, Lily?”

She went a little pink around the cheeks, which I was sure had nothing to do with any alcohol she may have consumed.  “Not at all.  Just an observation, that’s all.”

Charlotte smiled maliciously.  “No, she’s not put out in the slightest.  Though I will admit it was unusual behaviour from him.”

Mary looked at Lily, who had her head in her trunk pretending to look for something.  “I’m guessin’ tha’ ye’ve go’ used t’ him behavin’ i’ a certain way, so when he doesna dae tha’ then ye miss it.”

Lily looked up.  “You know, Mary, that’s probably it.  I don’t like him drooling over me all the time like that, but when it went away I did miss it.  Maybe he’s growing on me.”

Martha grinned.  “Maybe?  I thought we confirmed that months ago.”

Lily’s face was now very definitely red.  “Oh, all right. I was looking for the ego trip and I didn’t get it.  Happy now?”

Martha and Charlotte high-fived each other triumphantly.  “Oh, yes, Lils,”  Martha said merrily, “we’re very happy.” 





Author’s note:  Sorry there isn’t much of the boys in this chapter. Next one is a biggie though – I can promise lots more interaction in that chapter so please bear with me.  You may also have noticed that I’m starting to give my heroine more action now so it will soon be more a Laura story (dare I say even showing potential to become a Sirius/Laura story) and less a James/Lily story – though of course the J/L thing will continue as a subplot.

Chapter 18: Detention
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Fortuna Robins from fifth year came up to me in the Great Hall at lunch time on Monday with a note from Professor McGonagall, advising that my detention for hexing Maggie Flint would take place at seven o’clock that evening in Greenhouse Three, and I was to take my dragon-hide gloves.  Mary read the note over my shoulder.

“Well,” she said, “a’ leas’ it’s nae doing th’ bedpans i’ th’ hospital wing.”

“Actually, it’s not bad,” I agreed with a smile.  “I quite like gardening.  And Greenhouse Three is always rather interesting – who knows, I might get bitten by a Venomous Tentacula after five minutes and have to go to said hospital wing.  Where some other poor unfortunate soul might be cleaning out the bedpans.”

“Aye, ye ne’er know yer luck,” she said.  “Shouldna be too ghastly i’ any case.  An’ if it is, ye can always hae a whinge t’ us i’ th’ dorm afterwards.”

At ten to seven that night I dutifully left the common room and made my way down to Greenhouse Three.  To my surprise I soon discovered I wasn’t the only one serving detention that night: also waiting outside were two girls wearing Hufflepuff colours who were in maybe fourth or fifth year, a burly Slytherin boy who by the size of him had to be in seventh year, and Sirius.

Shortly afterwards Professor Sprout emerged from the greenhouse and looked us over.  “Good,” she said, “you’re all here.  Come in, then.”  We obediently followed her inside.

I had never been in the greenhouses after dark before and looked around with interest.  Lanterns were suspended in mid-air about two feet from the ceiling, spaced so as to avoid contact with the huge umbrella-like flowers that were hanging there, and anything else that might have grown that high.  The greenish-yellowish glow they emitted was scattered by the various thicknesses of foliage throughout the greenhouse, giving a speckled effect and making the overall result rather pretty though a little eerie.

“Gloves on, people,” said Sprout briskly, shattering the ghostly atmosphere with almost surprising speed.  “We’ll be fertilising the pots tonight.  We have recently procured a new supply of mooncalf dung, which is here,” she went on, indicating a large pile of manure near the door.  “Buckets are here –” a flick of her wand produced a pile of red buckets – “get to it.  Try not to disturb the soil too much around the Mandrakes.  Oh, and mind the Fanged Geranium and the Venomous Tentacula, and try not to burst any of the Bubotubers!”

I smiled to myself as I tied my hair into a ponytail to stop it getting in the way.  Once you got past the smell of the mooncalf dung, it wasn’t too bad a detention.  As I had said to Mary, I quite liked gardening, and even fertilising could be good when you wanted to do something a bit mindless.

Not far from where I stood Sirius was surveying the other three students distastefully, and I realised suddenly that the two Hufflepuff girls were members of the Sirius Black fan club.  And the only other person there was a Slytherin.  For want of a better option for someone to talk to, he sidled over to where I was by the Mandrakes.  I didn’t mind – yes he was a bit of a prat, but I was immune to his good looks and he never bothered to put on the charm for people like me, so it would be just like talking to anyone else.  Besides, it was always nice to have company during a detention.

“I don’t normally see you in detention, Cauldwell,” he said lightly.  “What are you here for?”

“The usual,” I said carelessly, pulling on my gloves.  “Hexing Slytherins.  Maggie Flint, to be precise,” I added with a grin, for some reason wanting him to be impressed.  “Did you see her elephant trunk?”

He laughed.  “That was you?” he asked, looking incredulous.

I heard giggling from the other side of the Mandrakes and, looking through the foliage, noticed the two Hufflepuff girls huddled among the Bubotubers, failing abysmally in their efforts to be subtle while they gazed adoringly at Sirius.

“Yeah, well, she’s an ignorant troll and she had it coming,” I said, deciding to ignore the girls and grabbing a handful of dung.  “Only problem was that I got caught.”

“Do I take it that you do that sort of thing often and don’t get caught?” he asked, picking up his bucket and dropping its entire contents over a single plant.  I had to admire how good he was at ignoring the whispering and giggling coming from the next row, but then again he’d had years of practice with that sort of thing.

“Sometimes,” I said noncommittally, taking care not to disturb the soil around my Mandrake.  “But only if they deserve it.”

“And what did Maggie Flint do to deserve it?”

“She was having a go at Veronica Smethley in the toilets,” I said with a shrug.  “For being Muggle-born and all that.  Well, Veronica didn’t have her wand handy at the time and I did, so I jinxed her.  Not much to it, really – except that McGonagall chose that moment to walk in to see who was making all the noise.”

He was grinning.  “More to you than meets the eye, isn’t there, Cauldwell?”

“There’s times that it pays to be a nobody,” I replied unconcernedly, moving on to another Mandrake.  “I don’t think Maggie even realised I was there.  Then again, she doesn’t acknowledge half-bloods anyway, so that might not say much.  But I’m pretty sure she didn’t think I had it in me.”

“Most people wouldn’t think you had it in you,” he said.

“Yeah, well,” I said, looking at him sternly, “what you people need to understand is that, with my sister, I know every jinx and hex she and her friends ever invented.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” he admitted, Summoning another bucketful of fertiliser and unceremoniously dumping it all on another Mandrake.  “But I thought you didn’t want to be thought of as her sister?”

I shook my head, rather surprised that he’d remembered that.  Maybe he paid more attention to other people than I’d previously given him credit for.  “I can’t change that, so think what you like.  What I don’t want is to be judged based on her behaviour, or treated as though I’m just like she is.  Because I’m not.”

He paused as though considering what I’d said.  “Yes, that’s fair,” he agreed eventually.  “Right, I’ll try to remember that.”

More whispering and giggling came from among the Bubotubers and I threw the girls a filthy look.  I could understand why Sirius found it so annoying – I’d experienced it for only five minutes and already I was ready to throttle them.

I indicated them with my thumb.  “What would they be, fourth year?  Do you think they’ve studied Bubotubers yet?” I asked quietly.

He caught my eye and grinned, probably guessing what I was thinking.  “Not sure, it’d have to be touch and go.”

“Well then,” I said slowly, “one way to find out.”  I glanced at the girls again, one of whom was looking curiously at the plant next to her.  Going by the fact she hadn’t put her gloves on yet, I was guessing she didn’t know what they were.  “Going back to my sister, Black,” I said more loudly, looking sideways at Sirius, “one thing that everyone did get right is that if I’m provoked enough, occasionally I can be just as petty as she can.”  And I picked up a wad of mooncalf dung and flicked it at the Bubotubers in the girls’ midst, hitting one of the swellings square on.  It burst and the yellow pus hit the other girl on the arm just above her glove, flooding the air with its strong petrol-like aroma.  Screaming, she ran to where the patched hat and flyaway hair of Professor Sprout could just be seen behind the Puffapods.

“Oh dear, you’ll have to go to the hospital wing,” I could hear Sprout saying to the girl.  “I told you to be careful.”  I smiled in satisfaction as we listened to the poor girl protesting as she was led out of the greenhouse.

Sirius was clearly trying not to laugh.  “Nice shot!  With an aim like that, you should be on the Quidditch team.”

I snorted.  “And who do you think should give up their spot for me?” I asked, noticing that the other Hufflepuff girl, deprived of her safety in numbers, had moved to a spot much further away but which still offered her a view of Sirius.  “You think James would be happy to?  Or maybe Clarrie Trimble?”  Charlotte’s little brother was the find of the season so far, scoring two hundred and fifty points in just two games.  “Or Anna Vector?” I went on, naming the team captain.

“Fair point,” he conceded.  “But you should at least have tried out for it, you could be a reserve or something.”

“Nah, not my thing,” I said, Summoning another bucket of mooncalf dung and Banishing the empty one back to the pile.  “I’m no good at Quidditch.”

Suddenly I heard another voice, almost muffled, saying, “Padfoot?  Padfoot?”  I looked up and saw Sirius pull off a glove and surreptitiously pull what looked like a square hand-mirror out of his pocket.  He walked a short distance away from me and glanced quickly around the greenhouse, noting that Professor Sprout wasn’t back yet from the hospital wing, before looking into it.

“Prongs, mate, how are you?” he grinned.  “And more to the point, where are you?”

“Cleaning up the third floor corridor for Filch,” came what sounded remarkably like James’ voice.  Then again, I reasoned to myself, who else was known as ‘Prongs’?  “Without magic,” James went on.  “Seems he was getting sick of being followed around by Halley’s Comet all afternoon.  How about you?”

“Fertilising plants in Greenhouse Three,” Sirius told the mirror, pulling off the other glove with his teeth and dropping it on the floor next to him.  “I’m not alone, though, so I can’t really talk.”

“Lucky you,” James’ voice said dryly.  “Anyone interesting there?”

“Not particularly,” Sirius replied, sounding like he was a little disappointed by that fact.  Let’s face it, he could have been talking to someone much more interesting than I was.  “Cauldwell’s here, she gave Flint that elephant’s trunk last week.  Rosier from Slytherin.  And a couple of gigglers, though one’s had to go to the hospital wing already.”  Hmmm, they obviously referred to the fan club as ‘gigglers’.  Not a bad nickname.

James laughed.  “What did you do to her?”

“Wasn’t me, mate,” said Sirius, pretending to be shocked by the very suggestion.  “That Cauldwell, we’ll have to keep an eye on her.  She did a great look-away pass with a handful of mooncalf dung and burst open a Bubotuber right next to the giggler so that it splattered her.  You couldn’t have aimed better yourself.”  He looked up over the mirror and grinned at me.

“We’ll have to remember that one,” said James’ voice, chuckling appreciatively.  “Oh, rats, it’s Filch, I’d better go.  Catch you later, eh, Padfoot?”

Sirius nodded and put the mirror away, just in time as Sprout came bustling back in.  She headed towards us.  “Less talking, more fertilising,” she said briskly, then noticed Sirius’ bare hands.  “Put your gloves back on, Mr Black, you could lose a finger if you’re not careful,” she added, looking pointedly at the Chinese Chomping Cabbages next to him before moving to a spot a couple of aisles away where Rosier was wrestling with a Fanged Geranium.

I looked at him curiously.  “Was that a two-way mirror?” I asked quietly, trying to make sure we weren’t overheard.  I’d heard about the mirrors, which allowed conversation over long distances, but hadn’t actually seen one before.

“Maybe.”  He looked a bit shifty as he put his gloves back on.  “Viridian thought it would be a good idea to separate James and I on our detentions tonight.”

I nodded, moving down the aisle to the Chomping Cabbages.  “This is for the model solar system you guys set up on the third floor today?”

“Yep.  For some reason he thought we might egg each other on to do something else if we were in detention together.  Can’t think why.”  He moved around to my other side and selected a cabbage of his own to work on.

“No,” I deadpanned, “that sounds completely out of character.”

“Well, yes, we’re both such good boys,” he said, also straight-faced.  “After all, you’re clearly the troublemaker here.  I wasn’t the one throwing mooncalf dung around and dumping Bubotuber pus on other students.”

“I didn’t do that,” I protested.  “That was completely accidental.  I knocked my elbow as I was trying to get my arm around the other side of the Mandrake.  Where the dung landed was pure chance.”  It made a good story, if nothing else, and was what I had planned to tell Professor Sprout if she asked me about it.

“Surely you can do better than that,” he said, a grin starting to form on his face.  “How about, a Venomous Tentacula nipped you right at the critical moment and, as a reflex action, your arm shot back and you let go of it.”

“I got surprised by a leaping toadstool and everything I was holding went everywhere,” I countered.

“You slipped on a pile of fertiliser I had dropped and were just trying to get your balance back,” he suggested.

“I was tripped by an errant Screechsnap,” I invented, grinning as I Summoned another bucket.

“A Snargaluff bit you on the leg, you tripped and your bucket went everywhere,” he offered, his grey eyes sparkling.  It was like playing Swivenhodge with excuses, hitting them back and forth, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

The rest of the detention passed in similarly pleasant fashion, and when Professor Sprout called an end to it at nine o’clock I was surprised by how quickly the time had gone.  She walked the four of us back to the castle, and Sirius and I headed upstairs after the Slytherin and Hufflepuff students took their leave of us on the ground floor.

“Ah, the delightful smell of mooncalf excrement,” I sighed, smelling my hands as we climbed the many staircases to Gryffindor Tower.  The smell was so pervasive it had even got through the thick dragon-hide gloves we’d been wearing.  “They really should bottle it, you know.”

“Yep,” he agreed, making a face.  “They could call it ‘perfume for Slytherins’.”

“‘Essence of Mulciber’,” I said dryly, pulling my hair out of its ponytail and stowing the elastic in my pocket.  “Scylla Pritchard would love it.”

“How about ‘Eau de Snape’?” he suggested.  “Though really it would have to be ‘Eau de Snivellus’.”

“Now with bonus extra grease,” I added, imitating a bad wireless advertisement.  “Or maybe ‘Avery’s Unction, the thickest you’ll find’.”  We turned automatically on the second floor to slip behind a tapestry, taking a well-known short-cut to the fourth floor.

“‘Flint’s Fragrance’,” he offered, taking a large step over the trick stair partway up.

“‘Spirit of Slughorn’,” I shot back, “‘with the goodness of slugs’.”

“‘Scylla’s Elixir’,” he countered.

“Nice one,” I admitted, thinking that could actually be the name of a legitimate perfume.  Provided Scylla Pritchard’s face wasn’t part of the marketing campaign, that is.  “All right, how about ‘Baddock’s Bouquet, now with added Bulbadox’?”  I grinned as we reached the top of the staircase and emerged onto the fourth floor.

Sirius was laughing.  “Have you always been this funny?” he asked, looking at me sideways with a bit of an odd expression on his face.

I shrugged.  “Well, you know what they say.  You have to watch the quiet ones.”

He muttered something under his breath that sounded like “Clearly.”

I didn’t reply.  Even though we’d been talking easily all evening, I still hadn’t forgotten who I was talking to and knew it would stop the minute we reached the common room where there were more interesting people around.  Sure enough, once through the portrait hole, Sirius smiled briefly at me and headed straight to the fireside where his dorm-mates were waiting, James clearly back from his own detention.

I went upstairs to put my gloves away and wash my hands, then grabbed my bag and went back to the common room to join Mary, Lily and Charlotte.  The absent Martha, I guessed, was probably off in a broom cupboard somewhere with Al.

“Hoo wa’ detention?” asked Mary, her Charms notes on the table in front of her.

“Fertilising the plants,” I said, also pulling out my Charms homework.  “Which should explain why I went upstairs to wash my hands, rather than joining you lot straight away.  Mooncalf dung doesn’t smell very nice.”

Charlotte looked a little confused.  “Sirius was there too?”  She had obviously seen us come in.

“Uh huh.  Apparently Viridian thought he and James should serve their detentions separately.  Beats me why,” I said, grinning.

“So it was just you two?” Charlotte prodded.

“Now, now, Charlotte, don’t get any ideas,” I said, flattening a roll of parchment on the table so I could start my essay.  “There were a couple of Hufflepuffs and a Slytherin there too.  Just as well, too, otherwise we’d still be there.  The Chomping Cabbages were in fine form.”

“Slytherin?” Mary asked sharply.  “It wasna Avery, was it?”

I shook my head.  “Some seventh-year.  Sirius knew who he was but I forget the name.”

“Richt.”  Mary looked rather solemn.  “’Cause I hear’ Avery’s go’ anither detention – apparen’ly it wa’ him who replaced th’ everlastin’ candles i’ th’ suits of armour on th’ fifth floor wi’ poisonous ones.”  Christmas trimmings had just gone up, only for Dumbledore to discover rather promptly that the fifth floor wasn’t safe for that very reason.  Needless to say the candles had been removed immediately.

“He is a charmer, isn’t he,” I mused.  “Just the type you’d take home to meet Mother.  I almost wish he was there, I could have drenched him in mooncalf dung.”  I grinned.  “That sort of thing is always good for stress relief.”

Lily leaned over and sniffed me delicately.  “Well, it looks like you managed to get it all off okay,” she said.  “I’m not sure I’d want to be sitting next to you if you hadn’t.”  She smiled.  “Looks like the boys have no such qualms though.”

By the fireside, James and Peter were taking turns smelling Sirius’ hands and making farting noises, guffawing loudly while Remus rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything.  After a spell, clearly annoyed, Sirius cast a Scouring Charm on his hands to shut them up.  Chastised, they set to work on whatever they had been doing before we got back.

The prevalent sound in the common room for a while was the scratching of quills on parchment and the turning of pages, most of the younger students unwilling to make much noise if the boys from our year weren’t doing so as well.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Sirius glance at our table several times throughout the evening, each time looking as though something was bothering him.

****

If I’d thought that was the end of it, I learned otherwise at breakfast the next morning.  As I walked between the Hufflepuff and Gryffindor tables towards my seat I suddenly noticed that my school bag had been turned into a toadstool.  Shaking my head, I turned around and saw the two fourth-year girls from the previous night’s detention looking daggers at me.

“Come on, girls, you don’t honestly think I’m a threat, do you?” I asked them, pulling my wand out of my robes and changing the bag back without fanfare.

“He spent all last night talking to you,” the girl who had stayed in detention for the full two hours said accusingly.  “There must be something going on.”

I rolled my eyes.  “You really think that?  Look, we’re in the same House, the same year, and most of the same classes.  He knows me.  That’s all.”

“It’s not fair,” muttered the other girl, glaring at me with obvious jealousy, and I noticed without a trace of guilt that she still had bandages on her arm where the Bubotuber pus had splattered her the previous evening.

I laughed.  This was too ridiculous for words.  “Just get over it,” I said.  “You can’t start jinxing every single girl he talks to.  And besides, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but he already has a girlfriend and it’s definitely not me.”

Moving on, I found the other girls from my dorm further down the Gryffindor table and sat down.  Lily looked at me curiously.  “A toadstool?  What was that about?”

“They were in our detention last night,” I explained.  “Them, me, Sirius and some bloke from Slytherin.  And now they’re jealous of me because Sirius chose my company over theirs.”

Lily nodded, satisfied.  “Funny about that, if they were the alternative.”  She smiled and turned back to her porridge, stirring a dollop of honey into it.

Sirius, sitting with the boys across the table and down a bit, looked at me quizzically, plainly not having heard what I’d told Lily.  “What was that all about, Cauldwell?”

“Apparently you and I are having some sort of raging affair,” I explained, grabbing a plate and helping myself to some toast and marmalade.  The idea was so ludicrous I didn’t feel the least bit awkward discussing it as a concept.  “They felt the need to put me in my place.”

Martha and Lily started laughing; Mary and Charlotte, both with a mouthful of food, just smiled.  Obviously my opinion of the likelihood of what I had just said was a common one.

Sirius was laughing too.  “You’re kidding, right?”

“Yes, I can’t work out how they found out about us,” I deadpanned, feeling surprisingly chipper for someone who hadn’t had her morning coffee yet.  “We were being so careful!”

His face assumed its most serious expression.  “You’re right, that’s terrible,” he agreed, ignoring James, who was struggling to keep a straight face, next to him.  “Do you think it might have been that night up the Astronomy Tower that they saw us?”

I pretended to consider it.  “It could’ve been,” I said.  “Whatever should we do?”

“This isn’t good,” he said, still with a straight face, though the corners of his mouth were twitching slightly.  “They might tell Clio, and then where would we be?”

“We’ll have to end it,” I said, my mouth also twitching as I struggled not to laugh.  To hide my expression and recompose myself I poured myself a coffee.  “I can’t have the whole school thinking of me as the ‘other woman’.  My reputation may never recover.”  Considering that as far as I was aware I didn’t have a reputation to begin with, aside from ‘Bea’s sister’, I didn’t have much to lose.

Sirius’ self-control had evaporated and he was laughing again, joining pretty much everyone else from our year.  I joined in as soon as I’d swallowed my coffee.

James soon managed to calm down a little.  “I think they’ve told Clio,” he said to Sirius.  “She doesn’t seem too worried.”

I turned around to look at the Hufflepuff table, where sure enough the two fourth-years had found Clio and were talking to her, pointing extensively at me.  Clio’s eyebrows were raised but she was obviously trying to suppress a giggle, with limited success.  James was right, she didn’t look at all worried.

“They prob’ly though’ she’d dump ye o’ th’ spo’,” said Mary, looking at Sirius.  “Which woul’ make ye single again, which woul’ mean they’d be i’ wi’ a chance.”

He rolled his eyes.  “Yes, of course they would,” he said wearily, pouring tomato sauce onto his scrambled eggs and turning them over listlessly with his fork.  “For some reason they all seem to think that.”

“Loosen up, Padfoot,” said Peter.  “Some of us would love to have your problem.”

“Help yourself,” said Sirius, still sounding rather weary.  “Please.  Be my guest.”

Peter’s eyes darted over his shoulder to the Hufflepuff girls, a rather unpleasant smile on his face.

“Give it up, Wormtail,”  Remus said evenly.  “You don’t want Sirius’ castoffs.”

The rest of the boys’ discussion was lost among the general commotion of the hall, but I noticed Peter still watching the fourth-year girls with what could only be described as a greedy look.  Frankly it made me a bit uncomfortable, so I busied myself with finishing breakfast and concentrating on the girls’ conversation next to me. 





Author’s note: Hopefully this will, for the time being at least, satisfy everyone who’s been asking for more Sirius - bet you weren’t expecting a whole chapter! :) This is another of the very first scenes I wrote for this story. It’s had a few adjustments since then but in essentials it’s the same as it was the first time I put pen to paper when the idea came to my head.

Chapter 19: Lending a hand
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The Christmas holidays were much the same as they had been the previous year, though without the distraction of Beatrice stressing about her NEWTs.  I wondered if I should start doing that just so Dad had something to do, but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of going out to Bobbin’s when I didn’t need a Calming Draught at all.  After all, the snow had come and it was quite nasty outside, so heading out into it when there was no real need seemed a bit pointless.

Bea was still living at home – and would be, I suspected, until she was kicked out – but had managed to find a job doing research for the Committee on Experimental Charms.  We all agreed it was the perfect job for her, but knowing Bea she would botch it completely and end up unemployed before another twelvemonth was out.

Christmas Day itself was a palaver of running around to different family events.  Because Mum was a Muggle, most of her family had absolutely no idea that the magical world existed and so we had to go through a Muggle Christmas as well as a wizarding one.  This meant at least two different Christmas functions, which were usually on the same day.  Fortunately this year neither of them were at our house which made things a little easier, as all we had to do was show up with the right pile of gifts and make sure we took Mum’s car to her parents’ place in Bath rather than going by any magical methods.  Which was easier said than done because a thick layer of snow coated the ground and the roads had iced up, making driving a little more difficult.

The remainder of the holiday was spent, as the previous year’s had been, doing the homework I’d been set over the break, watching old movies and various other things on the telly, and sitting in front of the fire with a good book.  I didn’t get many as gifts that year so I had to scour our bookcases for something I hadn’t yet read, ending up with a sizeable pile which I worked my way through with care and attention.  By the time I needed to start thinking about getting packed up and ready for school again there were only two books left in the pile, which Mum agreed I could take back to Hogwarts with me to read there.  If I ever got a spare moment to read, that is, as I knew our mountains of homework would only get bigger as the year progressed.

The weather hadn’t improved much since the snowstorms had arrived and despite being wrapped up as warmly as possible we were all feeling rather cold and windswept when we arrived at Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters in early January, ready for the journey back to school.  It didn’t take long to find the other girls on the platform, bundled up in heavy coats though we were, and I noticed both Mary’s cat and Charlotte’s owl were huddled in the corners of their cages, shivering and looking for all the world like they would like some heavy coats too.  My parents greeted everyone cheerfully and I stood back to talk to them before it was time to climb aboard the train.

“All set, sweetheart?” Dad asked fondly as I fumbled with the fastener of my suitcase.

“I think so,” I replied, successfully opening the case and pulling out my woollen Gryffindor scarf.  “Good, I’ll need this,” I went on, wrapping it around my neck.  “If we think it’s cold here, it’ll be that much worse in Scotland.”

Mum nodded.  “Look after yourself, won’t you?” she said.  “And don’t get in too much trouble – four owls last term to tell us about detentions, that’s as many as you normally have in a year!”

“I’ll try,” I said with a smile.  “There’s times that I just lose my temper when people start going on about all the blood purity rubbish.  But I’ll do my best.”

Dad smiled indulgently.  “Still got a bit of the Welsh spirit in you, haven’t you?” he said.  “Fair enough then.  But only hex people if they really do deserve it.”  He winked at me.

“Okay,” I agreed, still smiling.  “Only if they really do deserve it.”

“Take care when you go to Hogsmeade,” Mum went on, “and don’t do anything too risky.  We want you to come home in one piece if it’s at all possible.”

“Yes, Mum.”  This was becoming a bit of a lecture now.

“And above all, enjoy yourself,” she said, smiling again.  “Remember, you’re only young once.”

Just how I was supposed to be enjoying myself when I was staying out of trouble and not doing anything risky was a bit beyond me, but I smiled all the same.  “Thanks, Mum.  But I’ve got to go, it’s almost time to get onto the train.”

A couple of bear hugs later and I finally extricated myself from my parents and found a compartment with the rest of the girls, levitating our suitcases onto the luggage rack and settling down for the long journey.

“All set?  Finally got rid of the olds?”  Martha grinned at me, taking off her thick coat as she sat down.  The train was significantly warmer than the platform outside to our immense relief, so much so that Charlotte’s glasses misted up a bit.

“Hey, what can I say, they miss me,” I replied carelessly, making myself comfortable in my spot by the door.  “Though if the alternative is Beatrice, I can’t say I’m surprised.”  I grinned at her.

“Getting a big head in your old age, aren’t you, Laura?” she laughed.

I shrugged.  “Had to happen sometime, didn’t it?  Anyway,” I went on, more seriously this time, “I finally managed to finish that Transfiguration essay – how much of a nightmare was that?”

Charlotte, sitting next to me, nodded.  “You’re telling me.  Who could possibly get three and a half feet out of the principles of rematerialisation?”

Mary, who on the platform had been almost unrecognisable underneath a thick woollen hat and muffler, just laughed.  “I knew there wa’ a reason I didna tak’ Transfiguration this year,” she said cheerfully, shaking her head to get rid of her ‘hat hair’.  “I jus’ had t’ start on a paper fer Muggle Studies tha’ explains hoo a mechanical objec’ works.”

Lily looked at her with interest over the thick Gryffindor scarf she was still wearing, which blended surprisingly well with her hair.  “What did you choose?”

“Television,” replied Mary.  “Can be a bi’ tricky, I know, bu’ I’m doin’ it wi’ Clio Zeller an’ she’s go’ some good ideas.”

“Well let me know if you need a hand,” Lily offered.  “Not that I know much myself, but I can always ask Dad for information if you’re stuck.”  As a Muggle-born, Lily didn’t need to do Muggle Studies but was always a little curious as to what was taught there.

The remainder of the train journey was spent comparing stories of the different family Christmases we had had, and also comparing presents.  Despite the dark way our world was heading, we still managed to do the usual teenaged girl thing and giggled our way back to Hogwarts as well as anyone could, knowing that we would be reminded of the war soon enough and trying to enjoy the brief respite we were giving ourselves.

This turned out to be just as well, as the return feast that evening was a rather sober affair.  Death Eater and dark creature attacks had been on the rise for a while and Professor Dumbledore highlighted the human costs of the war and the need to stick together to fight the evil that was Voldemort.  Several of the Slytherins, I noticed, were looking at him with open derision, and people like Severus Snape and Irving Mulciber were blatantly talking over his speech as though it wasn’t worth even paying attention to.  Whether Dumbledore noticed this I couldn’t have said, but if he did he continued nonetheless.  His point was highlighted by the fact that Rosamund Croaker, a seventh-year Ravenclaw, hadn’t returned after the break as her mother had been killed on Boxing Day, and we were all feeling rather sombre by the time the speech had finished.

The mood didn’t improve as the term progressed, either – not so much from the news of various Death Eater attacks but from the weather, which was if possible getting worse and would have depressed even the heartiest of souls.  January was proving to be rather a trial, with snow storms and winds of almost hurricane force peppering the castle.  Due to the inclement weather students were allowed to make use of selected empty classrooms during breaks, and on a Tuesday before lunch four of the Gryffindor girls were settled in a disused room on the ground floor, Charlotte being in Divination.

“Oh, look,” said Mary, looking out the window, where it had stopped snowing and miraculously the sun had even come out.  “Sirius an’ Clio are gettin’ cosy.  Hope they dinna ge’ blown away oot there!”

It was true – they looked decidedly cosy as they snogged underneath the beech tree by the lake.  Lily looked sharply at Martha to see if this caused any concern for her, but she was completely nonplussed.  They had broken up over a year ago, after all.  “Good luck to them,” she said vaguely, pulling a quill and ink bottle out of her bag.

“Wha’s tha’ bin nou – two, three months?” asked Mary, still watching the figures by the lake.  “They micht be gettin’ serious.”

“Sirius, serious?” Martha snorted, aware of the play on words.  “Please tell me you’re joking.  He’s not going to fall for anyone just yet.”

I giggled.  “Not even Dione?”

She laughed.  “Oh, please.  True love?  Merlin only knows what potions she had to have been on to come up with that one.”

“No different from normal then,” Lily muttered darkly.

Martha turned and briefly looked out the window.  “I wonder what James is doing,” she said almost abstractedly, facing the room again.  “Must be in detention or something.”

“Why would you say that?” I asked.

Martha shrugged.  “Well, that’s the only time he’d be seeking her out,” she said dispassionately.  “When James isn’t around.  Which kind of shows what his priorities are.”

Mary looked at Martha curiously.  “It wasna tha’ bad, was it?”

Martha snorted again.  “You bet it was,” she said.  “Really, I had the feeling it was just something to do when he got bored.  If you’re competing with James for his attention, James will always win.  Remus and Peter not so much, but James, definitely.  And he’ll let you tag along with whatever they’re doing, but you are just tagging along, you might as well not be there at all for all the attention he pays you.”

Lily looked thoughtful.  “Is that why you said he’s not going to fall for anyone?” she asked.  “Because he just doesn’t care?”

“Something like that,” Martha agreed, turning again to look out the window at the couple standing in the snow.  “Looking at him with Clio, well they’re not much different to how him and me were,” she said, turning back to us.  “Or him and Dione, for that matter.  He doesn’t hang out with her much on weekends, he eats at our table, he doesn’t pay her much attention when they’re in classes together.  They weren’t even sitting together on the train, come to think of it.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen them talk much.  So it’s just like, have a great snog and a bit of a feel, and then go on your way.  And it is a great snog, I can tell you,” she added, smiling reminiscently.

“Ye’re prob’ly richt,” said Mary.  “I guess it wa’ jus’ th’ constant snoggin’ tha’ had us thinkin’ it.”

“Don’t let that fool you,” said Martha archly.  “It doesn’t mean anything.”  She paused, her mind obviously going back over her own relationship with Sirius.  “You know that revoltingly annoying thing he says, ‘once you go Black you’ll never go back’?” she asked after a bit, rolling her eyes dramatically.  We nodded – he would occasionally spout that when he was feeling particularly pleased with himself, and I’d heard he’d even used it as a (really bad) pick-up line.  “What’s even more annoying is, he’s right.  No one else compares, he really is that good.  And that makes it so darn irritating!”  She shook her head in frustration while we groaned in agreement.  After all, he already had everything else, why could he not be rubbish at something?

“It’s all that practice he gets,” Lily said with a grin.  “Had to pay off somehow.”

Martha grinned as well.  “Probably.  Although,” she continued, almost as an afterthought, “I have a suspicion that if he does fall for someone, he’ll fall hard.  That is, through the floor hard.  The girl involved won’t know what hit her.  Which should be very funny to watch.”  She winked mischievously at us.

I looked at her thoughtfully.  I mean, I barely knew the boy but there was something in her theory that made sense.  “You know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was true.”

Lily was nodding.  “Me neither.  And you’re right, Martha, when that happens, it will be hilarious.”

****

The following Sunday found us poring over the Sunday Prophet having a look through the list of that week’s casualties from the war.  “A good week this week,” I said with a bit of a wry smile.  “You can count everyone in each list using just your fingers.  How’s this, Julius Mordaunt, Pearl Fawcett and Roland McKinnon were all victims of Avada Kedavra.”

“Tha’s all?”  Mary, sitting opposite, sounded incredulous.

“Oh, and families,” I clarified.  “Fawcett had three kids with her, apparently, they were taken out as well.  All under the age of eight, so they’re clearly high on the list of threats to You-Know-Who.  Same with Mordaunt, two kids with him.”

“Bu’ still,” said Mary, looking rather serious, “tha’s nae many fer a full week.”

“Maybe something happened,” said Martha.  “You know, a bank holiday for Death Eaters or something, and they all took the day off.”

We all giggled and I went back to reading out the names.  “Okay, Barbara McLaggen, Edith Hobday, Glen Deverill, Herb Murray and Beryl Prod were tortured.”

Charlotte, sitting next to me, took up the narrative.  “Disappeared without a trace were Cyril Twonk, Valerie Jenkins, Kevin Pinkstone.  Hey, do you think he’s related to, what’s her name, Carlotta Pinkstone?”  Carlotta was a rather well-known character whose purpose in life was to lift the Statute of Secrecy and have Muggles find out about the magical world.  Last I’d heard she was in Azkaban for her latest effort in breaking the Statute.

“Prob’ly, it’s nae a verra common name,” Mary pointed out.  “Does it say hoo old he was?”

Charlotte looked more closely at the paper.  “Uh, yeah, he’s forty-eight, so he could be a brother or something.  She’s about that age, isn’t she?”

Martha nodded.  “Something like that, I think,” she agreed.

“Right,” Charlotte went on, her eyes going back to the newspaper.  “Okay, disappeared list has Cyril Twonk, Valerie Jenkins, Kevin Pinkstone-brother-of-Carlotta-the-nutter, Phyllis Tremlett, Geoffrey Fancourt and Harold Cattermole.”

“Ugh,” said Lily, wrinkling up her nose.  “Isn’t there a Cattermole in fourth year or something?”

“I think you might be right,” I said, nodding.  “Hufflepuff, I think.  Wonder if they’re related.”

“Again,” said Mary, “prob’ly, it’s nae a verra common name.”

“I hate this war,” Lily said suddenly.  “It’s all so pointless.  No one can help what they were born or who their parents are, so why should anyone be persecuted because of it?”

“We all hate the war, Lily,” I said quietly.  “Everyone does.  Or, I should say, everyone except the Death Eaters and their Slytherin trainees.”

“Hear hear,” agreed Charlotte.

“And they’re picking on Ministry employees now, too,” I continued, suddenly remembering something.  “I got a letter from Dad yesterday and he said that they reckon Robards from the Aurors’ Office is under the Imperius Curse.”  I paused.  “Though, how could you prove it?  I mean, if the Death Eaters are casting that, they’d have to do a better job than Mulciber, wouldn’t they?”  I stole a glance at Mary in the hope she wasn’t too concerned by me bringing that up again, but she just nodded and looked resolute.

“You’d hope they could do a better job than a fifth-year who hadn’t even sat his OWLs yet,” Martha pointed out.

“He’s not the only one, either,” said Charlotte.  “I heard over the break that they’ve targeted a few people for Imperiusing.  Mostly from the Ministry like you said, Laura, but there are some others.  I even think Hambledon Quince was one!!”

That broke the sombre mood that had overtaken our area of the breakfast table.  Lily started giggling and before long we’d all joined in.

“Hambledon Quince?” Lily choked, unable to stop laughing.  “Really?  But how could you possibly tell?  He’s nutso enough as it is without anyone making him more so.”

Martha was looking rather thoughtful.  “That could be why, though,” she said.

The giggles stopped abruptly.  “Why would you say that, Martha?” I asked.

“Well, if he’s got a reputation for being a nutter, like he does,” Martha said slowly, “then no one’s going to question him if he does anything strange.  For him, there is no behaving out of character, unless he suddenly starts doing normal stuff.”

“Ye know, ye’ve go’ a poin’,” said Mary.  “He coul’ well be one o’ their bes’ recruits if he doesna raise any suspicions.”

Charlotte glanced at the ceiling, which was dark with storm clouds and occasional lightning bolts.  “I’m going to the library,” she said, changing the subject.  “That Defence essay isn’t going to write itself and I’d like to get a head start on it before we get back into classes tomorrow.”

Lily nodded.  “Good idea, Charlotte,” she said.  “Wait up, will you, I’ll come with you.”

Not that that went entirely as planned, either.  Lily came back to the common room later that afternoon with her essay completed, but without Charlotte.

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing much of Charlotte for a while,” she said with a grin, her green eyes sparkling.

“Uh oh.” Martha had clearly seen this look on Lily’s face before.  “Who is he?”

“Hector Bole,” Lily told her.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise.  “Charlotte’s got together with Hector?”  As in, Hector who I went to the Yule Ball with?  Somehow it didn’t seem right.

Martha just shook her head.  “I knew she shouldn’t have drunk that old vitamin potion yesterday,” she mused.  “Bound to be dodgy and now look, it’s clouded her judgement.”

Lily laughed.  “A bit unfair, I think, Martha.  Though I was surprised too,” she admitted.  “But I caught them snogging in the Astronomy section, you know the spot, just behind where Madam Pince keeps the Charms journals.  Needless to say she didn’t come back to our table after that.  Though I will say he’s not much like Remus.”

Martha gasped dramatically.  “Are you saying that Charlotte likes Remus?” she asked with fake astonishment.  “I had no idea!”

“Does she seem happy?” I asked.

Lily nodded.  “Yes, I think so,” she said.  “Not my taste, of course, but then again the world would be a very boring place if everyone found the same things attractive in people.”  And Hector looked nothing like James, I noted privately.

Mary grinned.  “So ye were lef’ alone fer long enough t’ finish yer own essay,” she reasoned.

“Spot on, Mary,” Lily smiled.  “Let’s just say that I had no desire to watch them snogging all afternoon, and that was the easiest way to take my mind off it.  It was why I was in there, after all.  And fortunately they stayed well clear of the Defence section so I could do the essay in peace.”  Her eyes sparkled again and she grinned mischievously.

“Ah, well,” Martha mused, “must say I didn’t see it coming, but if that’s what she wants …”

****

A couple of days later I was surprised to be joined by Sirius at the lunch table.  “Got a question for you, Cauldwell,” he said as he sat down, turfing out a couple of what looked like second-years in the process.  “Pr- James has just been hit with a hex that’s stuck his tongue to the roof of his mouth.  Madam Pomfrey hasn’t seen it before – is that one of your sister’s?”

Swallowing my surprise that someone like him was actually seeking my company – and not as the result of a dare – I thought about it.  “I don’t think so,” I said.  “I don’t remember her ever doing that one, and I think she would have fairly often if she knew it.  Shutting someone up is the sort of thing she’d really like doing.”  I paused, looking at him.  “Why?”

He looked disappointed.  “Damn.  I thought you might know the counter-jinx, no one’s been able to fix it yet.”

I shook my head.  “Sorry, but no.  Although …”  I paused again.

He caught on.  “What?”

I hesitated, then decided to plough on with what I’d been about to ask . “If you do find out what the spell is, and the counter-spell, could you let me know?  That’d be a good one.”

He chuckled.  “I can’t disagree, but it’s not likely that we’ll ever find out.  It came from Snivellus, and we’re the last ones he’d share something like that with.”

“Bugger.”  Then something occurred to me.  “Hang on, you said that was a Snape spell?”  He nodded and I looked two seats down the table.  “Oi, Lily!”

Lily, like the other girls, had been listening in on the whole conversation with interest, but now pretended she’d not been paying attention.  “Yes?”

“Did Snape ever teach you a spell that – what was it, Black?”

Sirius obligingly filled her in.  “Sticks your tongue to the roof of your mouth.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, that.”

She thought about it for a bit.  “Langlock,” she said eventually.

“What?”  Sirius looked like he was trying to commit it to memory.

Langlock,” Lily repeated, a smile starting to appear around the corners of her mouth.  “Laura’s right, it’s a Severus spell.”

Sirius looked confused.  “Do you mean he invented it?”

Lily nodded.  “Yes, that’s right.  He’s invented a lot of spells, but not all of them are very nice or even particularly funny.”  She grimaced slightly.

“Right.”  Sirius looked like he wasn’t really sure what to make of that information.  “Do you know the counter-jinx at all?”

“No, sorry,” said Lily, shaking her head.  “Though if I know Severus, I’d guess that Finite incantatem wouldn’t work.”

Sirius shook his head too.  “Nope, that was the first thing we thought of.”  He stood up. “Well, I did try.  Thanks anyway.”

“No worries,” I said vaguely, turning back to my pork chops.  Lily made an equally vague gesture of farewell before she too concentrated on finishing her lunch.

Martha was all curiosity.  “Since when has Sirius begun asking you things like that, Laura?”

I shrugged.  “Since we did that detention together before Christmas, I think.  I let slip that Bea taught me all those hexes she invented.  Though in hindsight that might have been a dumb move.”

Mary giggled.  “I shoul’ think so,” she agreed.  “Ye’ll ne’er see the back o’ him nou, he’ll be wantin’ ye t’ teach him.”

“Oh no,” I shuddered.  “I never even thought of that.  It seemed harmless enough saying it at the time, it’s not like he ever spoke to me before.”

“Heavens,” said Lily, “those four knowing your sister’s spells.  The school won’t know what’s hit it.”

“And you’re a fine one to talk,” I pointed out with a grin.  “The person who unleashed Levicorpus on Hogwarts.”

She smiled.  “Well, yes, but that was to make a point.”

Martha giggled.  “What, that you fancy the pants off James?” she asked.  “I dunno, Lils, there are probably more subtle ways of getting to see him half-naked.  You could just ask, you know, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind, and he might even choose somewhere more private than the Transfiguration -”

“You know that wasn’t what I meant,” Lily interrupted, blushing furiously as Martha dissolved into laughter.

“Are ye sure?” asked Mary, smiling wickedly and winking in Martha’s direction.  “Ye dinna soond as though ye believe tha’ yerself, le’ alone tryin’ t’ convince us.”

Lily tried to take control by changing the subject.  “So, Laura, what are you going to do?  Teach the boys your sister’s spells, or try to get out of it somehow?”

I decided to placate her, thinking she’d probably suffered enough.  “I could always refuse,” I said.  “I don’t know, something like Bea asked me not to share them until they get Ministry-approved.”

Martha laughed again, accepting the change of subject to what I was sure was Lily’s great relief.  “Well, if anyone could pull that off, it’d be you.  How you manage to keep a straight face with some of those things you say is beyond me.”

I grinned mischievously.  “When you’ve got a sister like Bea, you get good at all sorts of things,” I said.  “It’s called self-preservation.  Your survival instinct just kicks in.”

We eventually left the Great Hall and headed up to the first floor for our afternoon Defence lesson, collecting Charlotte from Hector’s side at the Ravenclaw table as we went.  I was somewhat surprised when we neared Viridian’s classroom to see all four boys were already there, waiting outside.

“He must hae ha’ th’ hex removed,” Mary said quietly, looking at James.

“What?”  Charlotte looked confused.

“Apparently Snivellus hit James with a jinx that glued his tongue to the roof of his mouth,” Martha explained.  “Last we heard they’d not been able to fix it.”

“Well it’s certainly fixed now,” Lily said as James’ laugh echoed in the stone corridor.

I wanted to know how they’d reversed the hex but wasn’t really game to go up to someone like James Potter or Sirius Black, especially as part of a group like that, to ask.  Fortunately Sirius noticed the quizzical look my face must have worn and volunteered the information.

“Dumbledore,” he explained, taking a couple of steps in our direction as we approached.  “Once we knew the incantation he could work out the counter-jinx.  The man’s a genius.”  He grinned broadly.  “So thanks for that, Evans.”

James spun around to face us.  “Evans?  Was it you who helped out?”  As always, his hand went automatically to his hair when he realised she was nearby, though at least he’d abandoned that stupid ‘Lily voice’ he’d previously put on for her benefit, having possibly worked out that all she did was laugh at it.

Lily blushed and got rather defensive, something I’d noticed she did sometimes when she was worried that she might let slip something that indicated she did in fact fancy James.  “Only because Laura asked me, Potter,” she said icily, recovering her composure.  “If I’d known it was for you I’d never have volunteered the information.”

I suppressed a smile.  Since no one had actually said directly to her that it was James who’d been hexed, either just now or in the Great Hall earlier, she’d just admitted that she had in fact known all along.  I wondered if James realised that.

“Well thank you, milady,” James said with mock politeness.  “Though if you’d rather think of it like this, you’ve done the school a favour.  If old Snivelly casts that one at anyone again, at least Madam Pomfrey now knows how to reverse it.”

“Absolutely,” Sirius agreed.  “If you’re not careful, doing things like that too often might even see you made Head Girl.”  He paused, a cocky grin on his face.  “Then again, Evans, you might just be enough of a goody-two-shoes to actually want that job …”

Lily shook her head in frustration.  “I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer,” she said, turning her back on the boys and facing us.

“But you just did,” Peter piped up gleefully, turning around with a hopeful hand up in case any of the boys decided to high-five him.  (Only Remus did, and that was half-heartedly at best, as though he felt sorry for him.)

We all groaned.  “Ignore him,” Charlotte muttered.  “How we ended up in the same House as those four …”

Unfortunately James heard her.  “Don’t say that, Trimble,” he said cheerfully.  “You know you love us, really.”  He winked at us, smiling broadly.

“Ignore them all,” said Martha, not caring who heard.  And we were fortunately saved from further conversation by the door opening and Viridian letting us into the classroom.

The funny thing was, as it turned out the conversation in the Great Hall that day wasn’t an isolated incident.  Sirius started being almost friendly towards me, saying hello when our paths crossed and occasionally even initiating a conversation. Only when the other boys weren’t around, of course, but it was still rather odd and decidedly unexpected.  Eventually, after extensive conversations in the dorm late at night, we came to the conclusion that he probably did want to learn Bea’s spells and was just buttering me up before he asked me to teach him.  I wasn’t really sure how to take it but it was only polite to respond in kind, and eventually I found myself actually looking forward to these little encounters.  Like we had discovered about James the previous year, he seemed to be perfectly rational on a one-to-one basis and even, sometimes, a rather nice person.  Unbelievable I know but, then again, stranger things have happened. 

Chapter 20: Werewolves are people, too
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On Friday morning Lily was surprised to receive a letter when the post owls showed up, since her parents were Muggles and didn’t often utilise wizarding communication methods.  When she read it, however, her face dropped and she looked like she was trying not to cry.

Charlotte was closest to her.  “Lils, what’s wrong?  Bad news?”

Lily nodded silently and started to hand Charlotte the letter, then stopped herself.  “No, Laura should read it,” she said.  “You’ll understand.”  And ignoring the other girls’ baffled expressions, she reached across the table and gave the letter to me, then collapsed onto the table, sobbing into her arms.

I understood pretty quickly why she had wanted me to read it.  As Charlotte had guessed it definitely contained bad news but the other three, as pure-bloods, may not have understood why.  Her mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer and the expectation was she had less than three years to live.

Cancer had managed to evade the wizarding world for some reason.  That is, it did crop up occasionally, but very rarely and its impact wasn’t widely known.  And so I needed to find a way I could explain to the other girls what the problem was.

“Lily’s mum’s ill,” I said.  “She’s got a Muggle disease which basically eats the healthy cells inside her.  They’ve only just found out and the prognosis isn’t good.”  Simplistic, I know, but they understood.

Lily was promptly inundated with hugs from those around her and declarations of sympathy.  Mary caught my eye over the general commotion.

“Wha’s th’ disease?” she asked quietly.

“Cancer,” I replied.

She nodded.  “I wondered,” she said.  “We learned aboot Muggle illnesses las’ year i’ Muggle Studies.  It soonds pretty ba’.”

“Yes, it’s not the best,” I agreed, giving Lily a hug across the table.  She was still crying but seemed to be feeling a bit better.

Charlotte was watching her friend sympathetically.  “Did you want to go see Madam Pomfrey?” she asked quietly.  “She can give you something for the shock.  You probably don’t want to go to Defence like this.”

Lily considered.  “Yes, I think that might be a good idea,” she agreed.  “Can you make my apologies to Viridian?”  This was directed to the rest of us, as Charlotte had already started helping her stand up.

“Of course,” Martha said immediately.  “You get yourself looked after.  We’ll fill you in on anything you miss.”

Naturally Lily’s predicament was noticed by James Potter, who confronted Martha, Mary and I as we headed out of the Great Hall on our way to Defence.

“What’s wrong with Evans?” he asked, his face full of concern as he fell into step with us.

“Her mum’s ill,” I said, not sure how much Lily would want James to know.  “She only just found out.”

“You mean, really ill?”  His hazel eyes raked over each of us as though that would give him more information.

“Cancer,” Mary said, looking him in the eye.  Of course, he was in her Muggle Studies class.  He would know what the word ‘cancer’ meant to Muggles.

He looked horrified.  “But that’s awful,” he said.  “Is it very bad?”

“It doesn’t look good,” I said.  “A few years, maybe, but that’s most probably it.  Lily’s pretty upset.”

“That’s right,” Martha added defensively, “and she doesn’t need you stepping in and making things worse.”

He blanched at the implied insult but soon recovered himself and nodded.  “I’ll be good as gold,” he promised.  “But do me one favour?” We looked at him curiously.  “Let me know if there is anything I can do for her?  I mean, anything at all.”

I found myself nodding in agreement.  James was actually quite a nice person underneath the rich-good-looking-and-arrogant façade, as I had discovered the previous year when Mary had been attacked, so this seemed only fair to agree to.  To my vague surprise I noticed Martha and Mary doing the same thing.

“We can prob’ly manage tha’, Potter,” Mary said.  “I’ll keep ye posted i’ Muggle Studies, okay?”

He flashed her a relieved smile and hastened his step so he could join Sirius, Remus and Peter, who were a few yards ahead of us.

Martha made Lily and Charlotte’s apologies to Professor Viridian as we ploughed into his classroom and found our regular seats.  Unsure whether Charlotte would be joining us in the lesson at all, we decided to take copious notes so that we could fill them both in later on.

Viridian silenced the class with ease, as he always did.  Again I was struck with the juxtaposition between his almost imbecilic appearance and his very shrewd mind and behaviour, and, my wand out, I waited with the rest of the class for him to begin.

“Wands away, please,” he said in that quiet voice of his which still for some reason managed to carry throughout the classroom with ease.  We all put our wands away with mutters of disappointment.  We had had very few Defence lessons without using our wands that were remotely interesting.

“Now, then, sixth-years,” he went on, “today we are going to discuss werewolves.”  He ignored the general murmur that resonated through the room as we all tried to look interested.  “I know you studied them extensively last year,” he went on, “and were tested on them in your OWL exams.  However, I have looked at Professor Dingle’s curriculum and I believe that some aspects of his teaching were less than adequate.  I have discussed this matter with Professor Dumbledore and he has agreed to allow me to take one lesson for each class from third year and above to attempt to rectify this.”

There was a sudden movement behind me and I turned to see James and Sirius had not put their wands away and were now clutching them angrily, their narrowed eyes fixed on Viridian.  Remus was making warning sounds at them and Peter just looked intimidated, as he often did when they were in full flight.

Professor Viridian elected to ignore this little show.  “Werewolves,” he said clearly, “are people.  They are simply people who have been bitten by another werewolf, generally through no fault of their own.  This is a key point that I want you to remember at all times when you are studying, reading about or discussing werewolves.”

He paused briefly, his gaze resting on James and Sirius, who I noticed had now put their wands down and seemed to have relaxed a little.  In fact, they looked almost interested in what Professor Viridian was going to say, which was a marked contrast to their normal behaviour during his class.  Viridian went on.  “I am not claiming that werewolves are not monsters who can maim and kill.  However, it is very important to remember that they only do these things when there is a full moon, that is, one night in every twenty-eight.  For that one night they are not in control of their actions.  For that one night, yes, they are monsters.

“However, for the other twenty-seven nights, and at all times during daylight, they are, like I said, people.  They are not a danger to you or to anyone else during those times, unless they are not very nice people, in which case they’re as much a danger as any other wizard can be.  But here I refer to character rather than anything physiological.  For during the time they are not transformed, they are just like you or me in the physiological sense.

“Now, in the current war, some werewolves have openly proclaimed their allegiances to Lord Voldemort.”  Several students gasped at his use of the name, myself probably included, but Viridian ignored it.  “This is because Voldemort has promised to give them full acceptance.  You can understand how that would be enticing for them.  However, as I mentioned before, this is part of a person’s character, whether they would be likely to be convinced by that proposal, not a by-product of their condition.  Not all werewolves have joined Voldemort, and not all of them will.”

Carol Jones’ hand was up.  “But Professor,” she said, “surely you don’t mean to put us off our guard?  Werewolves are still extremely dangerous.”  Her eyes flicked to Remus and I remembered the absurd theory Snape had spouted the previous year – maybe Carol had believed it.  Remus, in turn, was ignoring her and looking stonily ahead.

“I don’t disagree with you, Miss Jones,” said Viridian.  “One night out of twenty-eight, when the moon is full, they are extremely dangerous.  And you would all do well to remember to stay indoors during that time to minimise the chances of an attack.  So I have no intention of putting you off your guard, for that one night.  But what I am also trying to do is address the prejudice that exists around werewolves.”  He was walking back and forth at the front of the class, but he paused and looked us all over.

“I know a werewolf,” he said eventually.  “She’s a good woman. She has friends and a loving family and a job.  Many of the people she knows don’t realise she’s a werewolf.  And that’s because she could lose her job, her friends could abandon her and her family, who support her, could be ostracised by the rest of society.  All because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was a teenager.”

“But why would she lose her job, sir?” asked Davey Gudgeon.

Professor Viridian stopped pacing again and turned to face him.  “Mr Gudgeon, if you learned that one of your classmates was a werewolf, what would you think?”

Davey started visibly.  “I’d, er, um, I’d, um … I’d be shocked,” he admitted, his face scarlet.

“And would you treat that person the same way as you had previously?” asked Viridian.  “Say it’s your best friend.  If Mr Dearborn here was a werewolf, and you found out, what would you do?  Not that I’m suggesting Mr Dearborn is a werewolf,” he went on.  “But it’s an interesting hypothetical question.”

Davey was looking rather flummoxed.  “I’d like to say that I wouldn’t treat him any differently, sir,” he said quietly, “but I’m not sure that’s true.  I don’t know how I’d react.”

“And that is precisely the problem,” said Viridian with a smile.  “This prejudice is ingrained into us as children.  People have good intentions about being open minded about such things, but their actions do not always mirror their words.  And so some employers, albeit subconsciously perhaps, will not employ werewolves.  They perceive a danger to their other staff, to their customers, to themselves.”

He waved his wand and a pile of books appeared on his desk.  “This book was released a year or two ago,” he said.  “It’s called Hairy Snout, Human Heart, and it’s anonymous.  The author, a werewolf, doesn’t wish to be identified due to the very prejudices I have just mentioned.”  He flicked his wand again and the books soared across the room, one landing on each desk.  “I want you to read it and write a two-foot summary, to be handed in to me next Friday.”

****

We caught up with Charlotte in the morning break.  “Lily’s staying in the hospital wing for a bit,” she explained.  “She doesn’t have any more classes today so Madam Pomfrey thought it was best if she just stays there until she feels up to leaving.  She’s had a Calming Draught so that’ll help.”

“Probably a good idea,” I said.  “It can’t be nice, having a shock like that.  I guess it was lucky in a sense that it was a day she doesn’t have much on.”

“That reminds me,” said Charlotte, “what did I miss in Defence?”

Martha handed her a copy of Hairy Snout, Human Heart.  “He talked to us about how werewolves are people too, who have just – what was it? – been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Homework is to read the book and hand in a summary next Friday.”

Charlotte groaned.  “Read the whole book?  How long is that going to take?”

Mary shrugged.  “I suppose tha’ depends on hoo fas’ ye read,” she pointed out.  “Bu’ it’s nae tha’ long a book, ye shoul’ be able t’ ge’ a chunk read by tonicht, even.”

Charlotte shook her head.  “I’ve got Divination this afternoon.  I guess I could get a start on it now, though … though I had planned to get to work on that Potions essay Slughorn wants by Monday.”  She paused.  “How long is the Defence essay supposed to be?”

Martha looked at her notes.  “Two feet.  So that’s not too bad.  Almost short, compared to everything else we’ve got.”  She looked at us questioningly.  “Shall I take Lily’s copy of the book up to her, or do you think I should wait until she’s out of the hospital wing?”

“Tak’ it t’ her nou,” advised Mary.  “It’ll give her summit else t’ think aboot.”

“Good idea,” I agreed.  “And who knows?  It might even be a decent read.”

And a decent read it indeed turned out to be.  Once I started reading the book, that night in the common room, I had trouble putting it down.  It was heartbreaking, the way society treated this person just because they’d had the misfortune to encounter a werewolf during the full moon.  In a way it reminded me of the whole blood purity thing, where people were judged on something which again they had no power over – who their parents were – and reinstated my conviction that any assessment made about someone based on something they couldn’t control wasn’t an assessment worth taking any notice of.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, either.  By Sunday night all the girls in my dorm had finished the book and were talking it over as we got ready for bed.

“I can’t get over it,” Charlotte said as she unbraided her hair.  “I mean, I knew about werewolves – who doesn’t – but I’d never thought of what it would be like to actually be one.  That’s horrible!”

Lily grinned: she had been in a much better state since her stay in the hospital wing and was almost back to her old self again.  “I must say,” she said, “being Muggle-born I didn’t have the prejudices that most of you seem to have grown up with.  We knew about werewolves, of course, but only in the context of horror stories – I don’t think any Muggles realise they’re real.”  She paused, looking at Charlotte.  “So to me this book is more sad than anything else – sad that someone would have to put up with that, even though what happened to them isn’t their fault.”

I nodded.  “I had both the Muggle horror stories and the wizard prejudice, and they don’t exactly cancel each other out.  But my dad always said to not credit every bad thing you read, and that there’s always more than one side to a story.  So I guess this just confirms that.”

Martha nodded her agreement.  “It was certainly an eye-opener, wasn’t it?  I’ll admit it was something I’d never even thought about.  Much like you, Charlotte.”

Mary was looking at the cover of her book, her brow furrowed.  “I wonder if there’s a book lik’ it bu’ aboot vampires?” she asked.  “If we’re t’ read aboot one of th’ dark creatures lik’ tha’, why nae th’ ithers?”

“Well, there’d have to have been a book written about that for us to read,” Charlotte pointed out.

Lily giggled suddenly.  “Or we could just ask that Slytherin boy,” she said.  “The one in second year who’s supposed to have a vampire grandfather or something.  What’s his name again?”

“Death, wasn’t it?” said Martha, also giggling.  “Something really appropriate like that.”

“That’s it,” agreed Charlotte.  “Lorcan d’Eath.  He’s in the Slug Club, solely because of the vampire thing, and Slughorn absolutely fawns over him.  Poor kid – it must be bad enough going through life with a name like that, without being part vampire as well.”

Mary laughed.  “Goo’ thing there are no werewolves i’ th’ school, then,” she said.  “Slughorn’d be fawnin’ over them lik’ nobody’s business.”

Lily looked almost uncomfortable for a moment before her face broke into a grin.  “Definitely a good thing,” she agreed.  “If that book’s anything to go by they’d have a hard enough time of it without having to deal with Slughorn on top of everything else.”

“You’re right, Lils,” Charlotte said heavily, looking at the book’s cover again.  “I had no idea it was that horrible.  Makes me thank my lucky stars I’ve never been bitten, let me tell you.”

****

In late January notices went up on the common room boards stating that sixth-years who would be seventeen by August thirty-first were eligible to take Apparition lessons.  You couldn’t get an Apparition licence until you were of age, but obviously the Ministry thought it a good idea to start teaching people the basics beforehand, particularly in the current climate when it could literally mean the difference between life and death if the Death Eaters got hold of you.

The lessons were due to begin in early February and would go for twelve weeks, so we all put the dates in our diaries and prepared to sacrifice both six Galleons, and our Saturday mornings for three months, for the greater good.

For the first class, the sixth-years gathered nervously in the Entrance Hall, waiting for direction from one of the Heads of House as to where the lessons would be.  We understood that they were generally held on the lawns outside the castle, but if the weather was unsuitable then the Great Hall might be used.  That first morning it was clear but cold and it was decided that the grounds would be used, despite the covering of snow that still blanketed the landscape.

Professor McGonagall introduced a very short wizard from the Ministry of Magic called Wilkie Twycross, who would be instructing us in the art of Apparition for the duration of the course.  After the usual warnings (“the ban on Apparating at Hogwarts has been lifted, just for an hour and for this patch of ground only, so don’t try this anywhere else”), we were asked to arrange ourselves so that we had a clear five feet of space in front of us.

Obediently we put ourselves into orderly lines and rows, me immediately behind Mary, with Martha on my right, Charlotte in front of her and Lily behind her.  Looking to my left I saw Remus Lupin, who smiled nervously, and I noticed Gerry Stebbins on Mary’s left, a hopeful look on his face.  Hoops appeared in the spaces in front of us.

The small Ministry wizard was talking.  “Apparition,” he said, “is mastery of the witch or wizard of the three Ds: Destination, Determination and Deliberation.”

We all looked at each other, confused – it may as well have been Chinese for all the sense I made of it.

“Destination,” went on the dry voice of Wilkie Twycross, “is the first step.  Focus your mind clearly on your desired destination.  In this case, your hoop.”

We all looked dutifully at the hoops on the snow in front of us, hoping we were focusing enough.

“The second step,” continued the little wizard, “is Determination.  Focus your determination to occupy that spot you are visualising.  This is the most important place you could possibly be!  Make yourself yearn to be in that hoop!”

We all felt a little awkward now and nervously looked around to see if everyone else was doing what the Ministry wizard was telling us.  After we all caught more eyes than we were comfortable with, we looked again at our hoops, trying to feel a yearning for that small enclosed patch of ground.

“Deliberation is the third step,” said Wilkie Twycross.  “When I give the command – and only when I give the command – turn on the spot, feeling your way into nothingness, moving with deliberation!”  I was sure the rest of the students there were just as baffled by this as I was, but focused on the hoop nonetheless.  I could hear Twycross somewhere at the front of the class saying, “On my command, now.  One.  Two.  THREE!!”

What?  Were we supposed to be trying to Apparate already?  I looked around to see the alarmed face of Remus on my left, who looked positively terrified at the thought.  Martha, on the other hand, was focusing with uncommon determination on her hoop, and then very awkwardly fell forwards onto her face as she tried to Apparate.

Right, Laura, focus, I thought, trying to remember the order of the three Ds.  Screwing up my face in concentration, I tried to move with deliberation into my hoop, and opened my eyes to find I hadn’t moved an inch.

Fortunately, neither had anyone else, except for a few variations on what had happened to Martha.  Caradoc Dearborn appeared to have toppled forward as well, while Charon Avery actually jumped into the air, did a full three hundred and sixty degree turn, and landed back in his original spot.  The Ministry wizard looked completely unperturbed at his class’ lack of success and simply marshalled us into another attempt.

By the end of the hour-long lesson, the closest anyone had come to Apparating was Greta Catchlove from Ravenclaw, who had a couple of fingernails make it to her hoop without her.  The Heads of House were with her in a jiffy and quickly reattached the fingernails, but Greta looked distinctly unimpressed.  Which was how the rest of us felt about Wilkie Twycross and his Three Ds, we were sick to death of them and thought there had to be a better way of teaching the difficult process of Apparition.

Once the lesson was over I discovered Remus wanted to talk to me.  “Hey, Laura?”

I looked at him.  “How’s tricks, Remus?”

“Pretty good, pretty good,” he said, smiling as he fell into step beside me on our way back to the castle.  “Look, the guys and I were wondering …”  He trailed off, apparently unsure how to proceed.

“Yes?” I prompted.

“Well, do you remember how our birthdays are only three or four days apart?” he said.

“That’s right,” I agreed, remembering the conversation back before Christmas.

“Well,” he said again, “we’re both turning seventeen this year, and the guys wanted to throw me a party and I figured, since it’s your birthday at the same time, did you want to make it a joint party?”

I considered that.  I hadn’t even thought about my birthday yet, let alone whether to throw a party or not.  This was certainly a better offer than any others I might receive.  “That’d be great,” I said, smiling again.  “Thanks.”

“No problem.”  He looked pleased.  “They’re talking about the Saturday night the weekend following, which I think is the twelfth.  The idea is to wait until we actually are of age, so that if we get caught drinking it’s less of an issue.”

That was logical.  “Fair enough.  Just let me know what you want me to do for it,” I said, wanting to pull my weight.

“Ah, don’t worry about that,” he said.  “The guys are old pros at throwing parties now, they’ll have it all in hand.  Just make sure you bring the rest of the girls.”

I laughed.  “Let me guess.  James’ orders?”

“How did you know?” he asked.  “Yes, Prongs wanted to be sure I’d ask you that.  Something to do with a certain redhead, I believe.”

“No worries,” I said.  “I’ll make sure Lily’s there.”

Remus grinned again and, turning around to look at the group following us, gave James, Sirius and Peter the thumbs up.  James beamed at me.  “Thanks, Cauldwell,” I heard him call out.

As I turned back I spied some early daffodils and made a quick detour to pick one.  Unfortunately this meant I was late getting back inside, and managed to walk almost headfirst into an irate Argus Filch, who glowered at my snow-covered boots.

“What’s this?” he asked nastily.  “Tracking snow through the castle!  I’ve got a mind to give you a detention for this!”

I looked at him in surprise – I hadn’t realised that wet footprints were a punishable offence.  Unfortunately at that point I also spotted Sirius appearing from the direction of the dungeons , and he obviously thought that Filch was a good subject for parody.  As Filch remonstrated about my apparently deplorable behaviour, Sirius stood behind him and made faces based on what he was saying – rolling his eyes at one statement, waving a derisive finger around his ear at another.  Eventually I cracked: Sirius was just too funny and I couldn’t concentrate on Filch at all, and I stood there shaking with silent laughter as the caretaker finished his vent and eventually decided I needn’t be formally punished, before ducking into a nearby classroom and laughing out loud.

Sirius joined me in the dusty room.  “What’s up?” he asked innocently, as though he’d had nothing to do with my behaviour.

“You’re what’s up,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to be stern.  “You making those faces – how was I supposed to concentrate with you doing that over his shoulder?”

“Well, with that tripe he was spouting, what was I supposed to do?” he asked indignantly as we checked Filch had in fact disappeared before heading back into the castle proper.  “Getting in trouble for a bit of snow on your boots?  I’d hate to see his face when James comes back from Quidditch practice sometimes.  Actually, strike that, I’d love to see his face when James comes back from Quidditch practice, it’d be priceless.”

I had the giggles by now and couldn’t stop laughing even if I wanted to.  “How on earth does he deal with Peeves?” I managed to get out.  “I saw him dropping Dungbombs on some unsuspecting first-years the other day.”

“He doesn’t,” Sirius said.  “Only the Bloody Baron can control Peeves.”

“But the Bloody Baron doesn’t clean up after him,” I pointed out.  “Maybe we should just add Peeves’ name to that list on Filch’s door of things that are banned in the castle – that should do the trick, shouldn’t it?  I mean, it works so well for everything else.”

He laughed.  “I like that idea.  Though for good measure we should probably put James and I down as well, don’t you think?”

I laughed again.  “You said it, not me.  I won’t be held responsible for anything to do with you lot.”

****

The first Hogsmeade visit of 1977 was scheduled for February nineteenth, as we were duly informed when the notices went up the next day.  Most of the sixth-years were looking forward to it immensely, whether to just get out of the castle for a spell, or to stock up on whatever supplies they were running low on, be they from Zonko’s, Honeydukes or Gladrags.  My expectations for the day, however, changed significantly in the library on the Saturday afternoon a week beforehand.

I was sitting quietly on my own at one of the tables out of direct sight of Madam Pince, the librarian.  Not that I was up to anything untoward, but she was so protective of the library books that if I breathed on them the wrong way she might come up and try to confiscate them from me. Hence a more secluded table.  On it I had my Ancient Runes homework, an inkwell and some quills, three or four piles of textbooks, and my Rune Dictionary.

Suddenly I was aware of another person at my table.  Scowling slightly and ruing the loss of my personal space, I looked up and saw Bertram Aubrey, seventh-year Hufflepuff.

“Mind if I sit down?” he asked politely.

“Go for it,” I said, gathering my books more tightly around me so he would have more room.  I looked through them and found my copy of Advanced Rune Translation.

He sat down but didn’t pull out any homework or books, just sat watching me for a little while.  It was distinctly unnerving.  Finally I gave in and looked him straight in the face.

“Can I help you?”  It probably sounded somewhat rude but I didn’t know what else to say.

He hesitated, rocking from side to side on his chair.  Finally he spoke.  “It’s Laura Cauldwell, right?”

“That’s right,” I said, trying to keep my voice friendly while I assessed him.  He was a nice looking boy without being stunning.  Average height, so two or three inches taller than me, short dark hair, dark eyes, slightly uneven teeth and a few freckles, bit of a stocky build, but overall a decent package.

“Right,” he said.  “This is awkward … I’m Bertram Aubrey,” he continued, extending a hand for me to shake.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, although I knew precisely who he was.  Like most schools, you tended to know the kids in the years above you much better than those in the years below, and Bertram had also been a Beater on the Hufflepuff Quidditch team a couple of years previously.  Which would account for the stocky build, now I thought about it.

“Right,” he said again, clearly uneasy.  “Um, Laura, would you like to go to Hogsmeade with me in a couple of weeks?”

My jaw dropped open in shock.  Was Bertram Aubrey asking me out?  Me?  When someone like Lily Evans was single?  Fortunately I recovered before I caught any flies in my mouth.

“Thanks, Bertram, that would be lovely,” I said, forcing a smile onto my face.

He looked so relieved it was almost funny.  “Great,” he beamed.  “I’ll come and see you next week to work out the details.”  And with that he stood up and virtually danced out of the library, leaving me feeling an interesting combination of confused and rather pleased. 





Author’s note:  Yep, Laura finally gets a love life – I thought it would be cruel to deny her for too much longer. :)  As for werewolves, well once I realised that JKR had said that book was published in 1975, it fit in far too well not to use.

Chapter 21: The effects of Hogsmeade
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Mary was delighted when I sought her out to tell her what had happened.  “Finally,” she said, beaming at me.  “Aboot time ye go’ yerself a man an’ all.”

“I’ve had boyfriends before,” I protested.  “How about Cadmus in fourth year?”

“Man, I said,” she corrected, “nae boy.  Cadmus, a’ leas’ i’ fourth year, was definitely a boy.”

She had me there.  There was a big difference between Cadmus Branstone as a fourth-year and Bertram Aubrey as a seventh-year.

“Fair point,” I conceded.  “And you don’t mind me abandoning you for Hogsmeade like that?”

“Nae a’ all,” she said lightly.  “So long as ye’ve go’ some decen’ gossip t’ tell me once ye ge’ back.  I wan’ all th’ gruesome details.”

She didn’t even have to wait that long.  The following Monday was Valentines Day, and Bertram surprised me at breakfast with a bouquet of roses and a box of Honeydukes’ finest.  Not totally original, I know, but I appreciated the gesture.  And it was years since I’d received anything at all on Valentines Day, so I intended to make the most of it.

Bertram, it turned out, was a bit of a romantic.  He had clearly decided that for Valentines Day he was going to woo me (for want of a better word), and he pulled out all the stops.  Not only was it the bouquet and chocolates at breakfast time, but at lunch he insisted on taking me out on a broom ride around the grounds with him, culminating in a private party on top of the Astronomy Tower, where he had earlier hidden some butterbeer, treacle tart and, for decoration, some everlasting icicles.

“This is amazing,” I whispered, awestruck that someone would go to that much trouble for little old me.

“You’re worth it,” he whispered back, his face inches from mine.

“But you hardly know me,” I reasoned, not quite sure why I seemed to be trying to ruin the moment.

“We’ll have to fix that then,” he responded, inching closer.  And with that, he kissed me.

Wow.  Mary had been right.  There was a huge difference between fourteen year old Cadmus and eighteen year old Bertram.  This was spot on, this was amazing, this was surely not happening to me?  I put my arms around his neck and pulled him in closer.

It was definitely a shame to have to go to double Charms that afternoon, but go I did, missing Bertram with every fibre of my being.  Which was quite an achievement, considering I’d barely known him that morning when I went down to breakfast.  However, true to form, he was waiting for me in the Entrance Hall as soon as classes were over, and whisked me into a disused classroom not far from the Great Hall, where we picked up where we had left off in the lunch break.

When we made it in to supper, both probably looking rather dishevelled as we headed towards the Gryffindor table, I couldn’t help but notice that not everyone had had as good a Valentines Day as I had.  Mary had sat down with Lily as the only two single girls in our year, and they appeared to be the only sixth-years (aside from me) who were happy with their situation.

Charlotte, sitting with the Ravenclaws with Hector, was looking over at the Gryffindor table where Remus sat – clearly she was still keen on him and he was either ignoring it or completely ignorant of it.  Martha, with Al at the Hufflepuff table, was looking distracted and playing randomly with her hair, a sure sign she was getting restless.  James was gazing at Lily, pretending not to notice that the necklace he had sent her still lay unwanted on the table where she had tossed it aside that morning.  Sirius, with Clio at the Gryffindor table, had a decidedly sour look on his face and was scowling at the roast beef when Bertram and I sat down.  Remus was concentrating steadfastly on the shepherd’s pie on his plate, which made me suspect he did know about Charlotte and was trying to pretend he didn’t.  And Peter was gazing wistfully at the Hufflepuff table where the current object of his affections, Leda Madley (who ironically was a member of the Sirius Black fan club), was making a point of ignoring him.

However, I was far too distracted to give any of this much thought.  My week got better and better as Bertram continued to shower me with attention and affection, though again even I couldn’t help but notice that not everyone was as happy as I was.  This was exemplified the following Friday when we were grouped outside the Ancient Runes classroom waiting for the door to open: Clio Zeller was raving to Veronica Smethley, who I had defended from Maggie Flint a couple of months previously.

“I swear, he’s driving me crazy,” she said hotly.  “He’s been in a foul mood for days, and I’ve got no idea what I’ve done to make him like this.  Or if it’s anything I’ve done at all.  I’m not sure if I even want to spend the day with him tomorrow.”

She was obviously talking about Sirius. It was almost impossible not to notice his bad mood: he’d been glowering at people all week, his temper on a very short fuse, and even James had been heard wondering out loud what the matter was.  Even I was aware of it and had noticed his increasing tendency to hex people for no apparent good reason – with more than one student ending up with antennae or something similar – and it was putting it mildly to say I’d been rather preoccupied, what with my new boyfriend and all.  I had also become vaguely aware that he was going back to his old behaviour towards me: that is, barely acknowledging I existed.  The special treatment of the past month, it seemed, had been an aberration.

“If he’s that bad, tell him,” said Veronica.  “It might give him a kick up the bum.  Half the boys in this school would kill to be going out with you, and if he doesn’t appreciate it then you might be better off rid of him.”

Personally I thought that was stretching it – Clio was a pretty girl, but I wouldn’t have put her on the same level as Lily, Martha or Charlotte, and I was pretty sure Sirius didn’t count himself lucky to have her.  As Martha had pointed out, it just seemed to be something to do when he got bored, as far as he was concerned at least.  However, it wasn’t my place to say anything, so I stayed quiet.  Remus, the only other Gryffindor to be studying Ancient Runes at NEWT level, gave me half a smile and raised an eyebrow as I caught his eye and I grinned, feeling rather conspiratorial all of a sudden.

****

On the morning of the Hogsmeade visit I camped out in front of the mirror in a vain attempt to make my hair go straight.  No matter what I tried, though, the obstinate kink refused to disappear, meaning that I just couldn’t get it to look how I wanted it to.

Martha had noticed.  She of course had perfect hair, hair just like I wanted, and didn’t even have to think about it.  However, she also had a good heart.  “Have you tried this stuff?” she asked, producing a bottle of something called Sleekeazy's Hair Potion.

I took the bottle and looked at it.  “I’ve never seen this before,” I admitted.

She smiled.  “You probably wouldn’t have, it’s only been out a few weeks,” she said.  “Try it out, it might work.”

She helped me slather liberal amounts of the potion on my mousy brown hair to try to straighten it out.  Only when we had used what felt like half the bottle, to no avail, did she concede defeat.  “Tell you what, Laura, that hair of yours sure is stubborn,” she said.  “This is the strongest stuff on the market that I know about, it should work on anything.”

I made a face.  “Typical.  Anything but my hair. I’m doomed to be kinky.”  Then I giggled, realising how that had sounded.

Martha shot me a wicked grin.  “You never know, maybe Bertram likes them kinky.”

Accepting my hair for the lost cause it was, I finished getting ready and joined the rest of the girls as they headed downstairs.

The Hogsmeade visit coincided with an Apparition lesson, which were going remarkably well really.  In fact, by the time we’d had three or four classes many of the students were beginning to get the hang of it.  To no one’s surprise James and Sirius were the first to master it, successfully Apparating into their hoops by the end of the second lesson, most likely a by-product of being the smartest in the year.  (Why were they not in Ravenclaw?  That made no sense.)  The most dramatic occurrence this particular day was Thalia Strout Splinching herself, which meant that not all of her body went to the ‘desired destination’ – this had also happened to Greta Catchlove in the first lesson but to a much lesser degree, with Thalia managing to detach both an arm and a leg from the rest of her.  There was a huge amount of blood and she was surrounded by the Heads of House and Madam Pomfrey, who put her back together within seconds, but she was rather pale after that and took no further part in the session.  Despite that distraction, however, we were all starting to feel more confident about the task at hand and with any luck would actually pass the test when it was time to sit it.

Anyway, Bertram waited patiently for the lesson to finish so he could escort me into the village. And that was what it felt like, being escorted.  Ever the romantic, he offered me his arm as I exited the Great Hall after the lesson, and all the way down the main drive I held it like I was going to a dance or something.

The surreal feeling I got from it extended when I asked what he had in mind for the day.  While I didn’t mind being romanced, I did like having some idea of what was happening.  Bertram, however, had other ideas.  “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that,” he said.  “I’ve got a grand day planned out.”

Well.  That could mean anything.  I didn’t like the sound of the ‘pretty little head’ comment, though, it felt almost like I was being treated as a lesser being or something.  Bertram clearly didn’t understand me very well at all, and I was a little worried about what he thought I would enjoy.

My worst fears were confirmed when he steered me into a little teashop just off the main street of Hogsmeade.  Called Madam Puddifoot’s, it was the most revolting place I had ever been in in my entire life.  It was crammed full of little round two-person tables, with frilly tablecloths and lace doilies covering them, and the floral décor was almost overwhelming.  It also had a really stuffy feel to it, like the windows were never opened.  A Celestina Warbeck song, which to me sounded rather like a cat being strangled, was playing in the background.

The place seemed to be a haunt for courting couples, though I was guessing most of the boys in there had been dragged in by their girlfriends, going by the looks on their faces.  As an example, one of the tables held Sirius and Clio, and judging from his expression he definitely wasn’t in there by choice.  I made a mental note to thank Cadmus one day, as not once during our little dalliance in fourth year had he even suggested we set foot inside.

Bertram found us a table near a window, which was a saving grace as it meant at least I could look outside – the closeness of everything inside was making me feel a little claustrophobic.  As it was now getting towards the end of February the snow had disappeared and a grey wetness had replaced it so the view from the window wasn’t outstanding but, as I said, it beat looking around inside.

Bertram ordered two coffees, and it occurred to me that it was fortunate that I liked coffee because he hadn’t actually asked me what I wanted.  Not a good sign, I reflected uneasily.

“Have you been here before?” he asked, taking my hand from his seat across the little round table.  It was so small that his knees were knocking against mine, though I suspected that might have been deliberate on his part.

“No, I haven’t,” I said truthfully, choosing not to add, ‘and I hope to never come here again’.  He might be offended if I said that.

A waitress brought our drinks, served in delicate china cups, complete with saucers, with roses painted on them.  They looked like something my grandmother would have.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it,” he said enthusiastically, holding up the vase on the table for me to sniff the roses contained therein.  “Such a great place for couples,” he went on.

“It’s very – pretty,” I said, again being truthful, though my meaning wasn’t apparent in my choice of words.  I usually didn’t like pretty things very much, my taste was much simpler.

“You’re very pretty,” he said.  “You’re beautiful.”

I felt rather awkward, having considered myself rather ordinary for so long that I was having trouble getting my head around someone thinking I was beautiful, but fortunately my mum had taught me how to take compliments even if I didn’t believe them.  “Thanks,” I said, smiling, and hoping he wouldn’t mind if I took my hand out of his so I could drink my coffee.

“I’ve fancied you for ages,” he went on, “but I didn’t know how to talk to you.  You always seemed so aloof.”

My surprise got the better of me.  “Really? I didn’t realise I was aloof.”

“You’re probably not, but you looked it sometimes,” he explained.  “Probably something to do with those high cheekbones.  You look almost regal.”

Regal was not a word I would ever have thought of to describe myself, but if he wanted to see me like that then I wasn’t going to argue.  “Thank you,” I said again. This was definitely good for the ego.  Maybe he really did think I was beautiful.  I managed to extricate my hand from his and wrapped both hands around my china cup, feeling its warmth penetrate me.  The stuffiness of the room made me feel almost hot but I ignored it, concentrating on my drink.

“I knew that if I didn’t ask you out now, I never would,” Bertram said after a pause, grabbing my hand again and kissing it.  “I’m leaving here in a few months, I might never see you again.”

I hadn’t thought of it like that, hadn’t thought of where the seventh-years would go once June was over.  “That’s true,” I agreed.  “You’d know where I was, but I wouldn’t have a clue where you were.  Damn age gaps!”

He smiled, which made his face light up and his brown eyes sparkle.  “Good thing I got the guts up, then, isn’t it?” he asked, stroking my palm in a rather seductive way.  I’m almost ashamed to say I gave a little moan – this was more like it.

Our reverie was interrupted by a couple knocking our table on their way out.  There wasn’t much space in between the tables so we didn’t really mind, but it gave us a shock and pulled us out of our romantic haze.  The couple in question, Sirius and Clio, seemed to be having a bit of a row.

“I don’t know what it is that I’ve done, the least you could do is tell me,” Clio snapped.

Sirius was scowling again, his bad mood obviously not improved.  “I’ve told you, I don’t know,” he said sharply.  “It might not even be about you.  And if you’d just leave me alone for a bit I might work it out.  But no, you keep on harping and harping, you’re making it worse.”

Bertram raised his eyebrows at me as they filed out the door.  “Trouble in paradise?” he asked, probably expecting me to know as I was in their year.

“Beats me,” I said, shrugging.  “He’s been in a shocking mood for days.  Makes classes quieter ’cause he’s not acting up as much.  But she’s in your House, you might know more than I do.”

“No idea,” he said, then frowned suddenly.  “Didn’t you have a thing with him at some stage?”

I laughed.  “Don’t tell me you actually believed that,” I said.  “We did a detention together and then all of a sudden word was out we were having this sordid affair.  I thought it was hilarious.”

“So it didn’t happen?”  He looked a little anxious.

“Definitely not,” I reassured him.  “That’s the sort of thing I think I would have remembered.”

He smiled.  “Truly?  I must say I’m relieved.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re too good for him,” he said, kissing my hand.  “But you’ve spilled your coffee!” he added, noticing the small puddle in my saucer.  It must have spilled when the table was knocked.  “Let me get you another one,” he went on, looking for the waitress to summon her over.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “Really, I’d almost finished, it doesn’t matter.”  Actually I’d barely started, but I wasn’t keen to stay there any longer than was absolutely necessary.  Bertram hadn’t managed to distract me enough to block out Celestina Warbeck’s incessant warbling, and it was so stuffy inside I was starting to feel like I couldn’t breathe.  Outside our window I could see Sirius and Clio continuing their spat, which appeared to end when Clio went storming off in the rain towards Gladrags and Sirius, hands deep in his pockets and a filthy look on his face, shuffled off in the other direction.

Bertram eventually cottoned on and we left Madam Puddifoot’s soon afterwards, him casting an Impervius Charm on me to keep the rain off.  Our next stop was Honeydukes, where he bought me a large supply of coffee fudge, sugar quills and peppermint toads.  I felt a little awkward about him paying for everything – after all, I did have some gold of my own – but he insisted that on a proper date, the man should buy everything.  Oh well, if he was going to be so insistent, who was I to argue?

I was so distracted by Bertram that I barely noticed the shabby stalls holding shonky amulets and the like that were appearing throughout Hogsmeade just as they were in Diagon Alley, though one stall-holder tried to talk Bertram into buying me a talisman that would apparently ward off werewolves.  Yeah, right, I’d credit that when I saw it actually happening.  The stone itself was pretty, amber-coloured and oddly luminous, but I thought it was probably glass rather than anything more valuable.  Needless to say, there was no sale.

After a good lunch and a few butterbeers at the Three Broomsticks, Bertram led me to a secluded corner just beyond the owl office.  The rain had stopped and puddles had formed all along the high street, but he had managed to find a spot that the rain hadn’t got to, and so was still dry and well out of the wind.  “If we could just stop here for a bit,” he whispered to me, his mouth going from my ear to brush over my jawbone before kissing my neck.  I got tingles all over and pulled him closer, losing myself in the moment.

We stayed there for a length of time that could have been five minutes or five hours, we were so preoccupied.  Eventually we realised that it was past the time we should have been heading back to school, so reluctantly we re-arranged ourselves and walked back, arm in arm, to the Hogwarts gates.

****

Mary was in the common room talking to a boy who looked vaguely familiar when I finally got back to Gryffindor Tower, Bertram and I having taken a side trip to a deserted corridor after we’d been inspected for banned objects and ticked off Filch’s list as having returned.  She got my attention as soon as I climbed through the portrait hole and, waving briefly at the boy, dragged me upstairs to the dorm.

“Th’ girls all wan’ th’ goss,” she said on the way up.  “An’ then we’ve go’ goss t’ share wi’ ye.”

Obediently I allowed myself to be led into the dorm where the other girls were indeed waiting.  “So?” said Lily immediately as I entered the room.  “How was your day?”

“Pretty good,” I smiled, remembering.  Then I frowned. “Aside from the start, though.  That was disastrous.  I thought the rest of the day could be awful.”

“What happened?” asked Charlotte.

“Have you ever been to a place called Madam Puddifoot’s?” I asked.

Mary screamed with laughter.  “He took ye t’ Madam Puddifoot’s??” she exclaimed.  “Merlin’s beard, I though’ th’ lad had ye worked oot a’ leas’ a wee bit!”

The other three were also laughing.  “Yeah,” said Martha, “if anyone is absolutely NOT someone who would like that place, it’s you.”

“Far too girly,” Lily agreed.  “Oh Laura, I can just see you in lace and frills and bows and florals!”

“Not to mention good old Celestina being piped through,” I added, shuddering.  “Fortunately he got the hint fairly early on.  My coffee got spilled when Clio and Sirius stormed out, they were having a fight and one of them knocked our table on the way past, and I talked him into not getting me another one, so we left instead.  And then it got distinctly better from then on.”

“Go on,” prompted Charlotte.

“We went to Honeydukes,” I went on, “where he spent a tidy sum on a lot of things which are bound to expand my waistline.  Lunch at the Three Broomsticks, that was nice.  And then he found a secluded corner near the owl office, out of the rain, where we just kinda whiled away the afternoon.”

Mary looked at me astutely.  “Meanin’, ye came up fer air approximately three times i’ as many hours?”

I grinned.  “Something like that,” I agreed.  “And then we realised it was time to come back to school.  So we came back and Filch poked and prodded us and signed us off, having a whinge in the process because we were late, and then we hid in the Transfiguration corridor for a bit, you know, to finish off what we were doing before we came back, and then I came up here.”  I could feel my cheeks burning so much, I was probably looking rather like a Quaffle by now.

“Your clothes look intact,” said Martha, scrutinising me.  “You covered that up well.”

“Goodness, Martha, we didn’t get that far!” I protested, not sure if I should be insulted at the suggestion or not.  “We kept it all very proper, all stuff I wouldn’t mind writing home about.  Well – maybe not all of it, but most of it.”

Mary was still looking at me shrewdly, and Charlotte was grinning.

“Well, Mary had a good day,” said Lily suddenly, changing the subject.  I looked at Mary, surprised – she’d hidden it well.  Unless it had something to do with the boy I’d seen her talking to downstairs?

“Ye know Marcus Ogden?” she asked slyly.  Yep, that was him – hearing the name brought it back to me.  He was a burly seventh-year who was Keeper on the Gryffindor Quidditch team.  “Well, we sor’ o’ ran into each ither a’ th’ Three Broomsticks, an’, er, we ended up gettin’ t’ know each ither pretty well an’ all.”

Lily was smiling broadly.  “Of course, she left me in the lurch, she couldn’t run off with him fast enough,” she said.  “Oh, don’t worry,” she went on, addressing Mary who had started to apologise, “I don’t blame you in the slightest.  I would have done exactly the same thing.”

“You mean if it was Marcus, or if it was James?” asked Charlotte, trying without success to suppress a smile.  Lily blushed furiously and refused to answer.

“No one saw Mary or Marcus for the rest of the afternoon,” added Martha, grinning wickedly.  “Poor old Gerry Stebbins looked heartbroken.”  Mary smiled and even looked a little sadistic, and I wondered if the concept of annoying Gerry had any bearing on her decision to go off with Marcus in the first place.  “Nor did we see Charlotte or Hector,” Martha continued, winking at Charlotte.

“We were around,” Charlotte said defensively, taking her glasses off and polishing them with her shirt.  “You just can’t have looked very hard.”

“Oh, I looked hard enough,” Martha retorted.  “Al and I had a huge fight, I think we might have broken up, so I was definitely looking for you.”

“It’s all right, she found me,” Lily told Charlotte; she had found her voice again.  “Martha seemed okay with it, didn’t you Martha?”  We all looked at Martha, who definitely did not look heartbroken, and if anything seemed relieved.

“I’m fine,” she said airily.  “To be honest I’d been looking to get out for a while now.  He was starting to bore me.”

“Again?” asked Lily with an affectionate smile.  “Sometimes I worry about you, Martha, you never give them long enough to grow on you.”

Martha shuddered dramatically.  “Grow on me?  Isn’t that something you go to Madam Pomfrey to get fixed?”

“All right, all right,” said Charlotte, shaking her head.  “Anyway, Sirius is single again,” she went on with a grin, “so you could always go back to that old port.”

“Wha’?” asked Mary, her blue eyes wide.  “I hadna hear’ tha’!”

“That’s because you were off ‘getting to know’ Marcus,” explained Lily, using her fingers as inverted commas for the ‘getting to know’ bit.  “Apparently Sirius and Clio had the row to end all rows this morning and she stormed off to find solace with someone else.”

“Yeah, Sebastian Quirke,” Martha said contemptuously.  “Didn’t take her long to move on.”

“That must have been the fight I saw at Madam Puddifoot’s,” I said slowly.  “Whatever it was about, they continued it outside for a good five minutes and then took off in different directions.  Both drenched to the skin.  It was pretty funny, actually.”

“It was probably because she took him to Madam Puddifoot’s,” Martha laughed.  “I can’t see Sirius there any more than I can see you there, Laura.”

“From the looks of most of the boys in there, they didn’t want to be there any more than I did,” I said fairly.  “And they didn’t break up with whoever they were with over it.”

“She thought that filthy mood he’s been in was her fault,” said Lily, who was now stroking Mary’s cat.  “I heard her complaining about it in the toilets the other day.”

“Yeah, she was saying that in Ancient Runes,” I agreed.  “And come to think of it, she did yell something of the sort to him this morning.”

“What did he say?” asked Charlotte.  “Last I heard, no one knew why he was so pissed off, not even James.”

I paused, thinking. I hadn’t paid much attention to it, actually – from memory Bertram had chosen that moment to start trying to seduce me.  “I think he said he didn’t know what it was,” I said after a spell.  “That if she let him be for a bit he would work it out, but she kept on at him all the time and it was making it worse.  I wasn’t really paying that much notice, though,” I added apologetically.

“Too busy concentratin’ o’ ither things?” asked Mary slyly.

“That sounds about right,” I agreed, returning her smile.

“So, Martha,” Lily said playfully, “what do you think?  Will you and Sirius pick up where you left off?”

Martha laughed.  “I don’t think so, Lils,” she said.  “I’d have to deal with good old Elvira and the fan club again, and I feel like I’m getting too old for that sort of crap.  Besides, there’s plenty of talent at this school who don’t have their own fan clubs, just waiting for me to find them.”  She smiled mischievously at us.

“Uh oh,” said Charlotte ominously.  “Martha Hornby’s on the prowl again.  Lock up your brothers!”

“At this point,” Martha said loftily, “I’m thinking that any bloke who’s halfway decent looking, is taller than me, and is mature enough not to refer to me as ‘Martha Horny’, will fit the bill.”  We laughed; we’d all heard that particular nickname of Martha’s, which was bestowed not because of her reputation, which was actually rather good, but because teenaged boys liked any excuse to make dirty jokes and her surname was unfortunately made for it.  When that had started was one of the few times I was actually glad I was a Cauldwell.

“Mature?” asked Lily with a grin.  “Well, I guess that definitely rules out Sirius, then.”

“I’m sure Avery will tak’ ye on,” Mary smirked.

Martha shuddered.  “Remember the rule, no Slytherins,” she said, smiling grimly.  “Anyway, there’s your party coming up, Laura, I might just see who looks willing there.” 






Author’s note:  Ah, boyfriends.  They can drive you batty but you just can’t stay away.  And of course poor Laura needed a little bit of experience as far as relationships go, she’s not had much luck with that to date.  Overall I’m rather pleased with this chapter, the banter between the girls in the dorm makes me smile even now after I’ve read it however many times it is since I wrote it.

Chapter 22: Coming of age
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The next two weeks went by in a blur of classes, homework and Bertram.  I was blissfully happy and far too preoccupied to pay much attention to anything else that may have been happening around me, barely even noticing for example that Lily went home for a weekend (with Dumbledore’s permission) to see her mum – I’d found someone who thought I was beautiful and was treating me like a queen, and what more could any girl want?  I was even only vaguely aware that March was upon us and that therefore I would soon have a birthday to think about – until the day itself, of course.

The morning in question revealed a larger pile of gifts at the end of my bed than I had expected.  This probably had something to do with the fact it was my seventeenth birthday and I had therefore officially come of age, but it was still a pleasant surprise.

First up was a letter from my parents, which included the very welcome news – courtesy of Mum, of course – that Wales had defeated England the previous day in a rugby international, though Lily (the only English person present who even knew what rugby was) was less than pleased by this information.  Anyway, that was the least of my concerns, because since I was coming of age, my parents also informed me that the owl that delivered the letter was in fact their gift to me.  She was a lovely brown screech owl, and it took a tidy spell for me to find an appropriate spot for her cage.  She would of course live in the school owlery, but I liked to think she could come and visit me in the dorm.  After a lively debate with the other girls I decided to call her Cerridwyn.

After the excitement of Cerridwyn, I started going through the rest of the pile of gifts, gratified as I noticed that Dad’s family had sent me a few things to mark my seventeenth birthday.  (Mum’s family, being Muggles, wouldn’t recognise my coming of age until I turned eighteen.)  There were a few bottles of elderflower wine from my cousin Rhys, which thought I might donate to the party the following weekend, some perfume from my aunt and uncle, photo frames from my grandparents, and a gorgeous paisley shirt from my cousin Gwendolyn.  Bea, who didn’t usually remember birthdays, had sent me a box of owl treats for Cerridwyn.

Mary, Lily, Martha and Charlotte had gotten together and bought me a selection of lacy lingerie, which they insinuated would be useful in the coming months with Bertram.  James, Sirius, Remus and Peter surprised me by giving me a box of Honeydukes chocolates, probably only because I was sharing a party with Remus, which meant I would have to get him something too.  As for Bertram, he outdid himself by giving me a full length cloak, red velvet and embroidered with phoenixes and other fabulous birds, with semiprecious stones dotted throughout.  It was undoubtedly expensive and quite possibly a one-off, but it was also rather gaudy and ostentatious and I didn’t actually like it very much, which gave me a bit of a sinking feeling – he clearly liked me a lot, but he equally clearly didn’t understand me particularly well.

Finally there was one parcel left, which was small and delicately wrapped, and had no note.  Part of me hesitated at this – in this day and age, packages with no card were potentially dangerous – so I asked the other girls what they thought I should do.

“Maybe it’s from Bertram,” suggested Charlotte, ever the romantic.

“I don’t think so,” I said.  “This one was Bertram’s, look.” I pointed out the cloak he had bought me.  “I wouldn’t think he could afford something else as well.”

Lily was looking at the parcel, her brow furrowed.  “It’s probably okay,” she said, “but we might try this just in case.  Specialis revelio,” she commanded, tapping it with her wand.  Nothing happened.  “Well,” she said, “that should have shown us if there are any spells on it.  Do you want to try opening it?”

Trusting Lily’s judgement, I eagerly unwrapped the package.  It contained a small box, which contained a golden clasp, elegantly engraved with daffodils.  Looking at the workmanship, it had to be goblin-made, and was therefore probably expensive.

There were gasps from all around the room.  “It’s beautiful!” exclaimed Martha, leaning over me to get a closer look.  “Who’d give you that?”

“No idea,” I said, as baffled as the rest of them.

“Daffodils,” noted Mary, smiling.  “Whoever it is knows ye.”

Lily looked confused.  “Daffodils are th’ national floo’er o’ Wales,” Mary explained.  “Laura loves them – as well she shoul’, bein’ Welsh.”  Mary was a fine one to talk: she had never been overly fond of the thistle, Scotland’s floral emblem.

I turned it over, admiring it.  Engraved in tiny writing were the words, Dear Laura, Congratulations on your coming of age, with a strange symbol below that I didn’t recognise.  Probably it was the goblin mark, but I wasn’t sure as I’d never had anything goblin-made before.

After we had all admired the clasp, Charlotte took over.  “Well, it’s all very nice,” she said, trying to wrest it from my grip, “but we should make doubly sure it isn’t jinxed.  We’d best give it to McGonagall, just to be on the safe side.  After all,” she went on, looking at me, “you are a half-blood, and your dad definitely meets the definition of a blood traitor, so you could be a target.”

I knew she was right and released the clasp reluctantly.  It truly was beautiful, and I hoped sincerely that I could get it back soon as it would look perfect on my school robes.  Or my winter cloak.  Or the cloak Bertram had just given me (if I ever wore it).  Or my dress robes … you get the idea.  And I also hoped sincerely that whoever had bought it would one day let me know so I could thank them.

We took the clasp to Professor McGonagall at breakfast, explaining that it had arrived anonymously.  I wasn’t sure if I was pleased or disappointed when she agreed that it should be examined – I was torn between wanting to keep it and wanting to feel verified in my concerns about it.  She put it in her pocket and advised me that she would let me know once all testing had been completed.

****

Bertram made a big show of wanting to take me out for my birthday, but as we weren’t allowed to leave the school grounds he was somewhat impeded in his efforts.  In the end he just sat with me at the Gryffindor table at dinner time, and took me up to the Astronomy Tower for a moonlight picnic.  There were a couple of close calls with Flich’s cat (which was rather oddly named Mrs Clay and seemed to have a psychic connection with him) and with Peeves the poltergeist on the way there, but we managed to make it to the tower without getting caught.

In keeping with the spirit of the day I wore my new perfume and the fancy cloak he’d bought me – see, I did wear it! – and donated some of my Honeydukes chocolates and elderflower wine to the picnic hamper, which went very well with the supply of sandwiches and puddings he had managed to procure from the kitchens.  I intended to ask how to get into the kitchens – I understood they weren’t far from the Hufflepuff common room – but before I could form the words he leaned over and kissed me, deeply, gently, passionately.

“Happy birthday, Laura,” he whispered, his hands reaching underneath my shirt and inching upwards.

“Thank you,” I responded as he started kissing my neck.  This really was a most agreeable way to spend a birthday, I decided.

We snogged for a while, but eventually came to the conclusion that oxygen might be a good idea and broke apart, opting instead to sit together under the stars with a glass of wine and some treacle tart, my new cloak wrapped around both of us to keep the wind out.

“It’s been a lovely birthday, Bertram,” I said as he poured me another drink.

“A lovely day for a lovely girl,” he responded.  “I did the best I could.”

“And I appreciate that,” I said with a smile.  “But I’m a bit worried that if we don’t go soon we’ll fall asleep up here.”

He gave me a squeeze.  “And that’s a bad thing? I think I’d like to wake up and have your face the first thing I see.”

I laughed.  “Not if I’ve slept in my makeup, you won’t,” I pointed out.  “Panda eyes aren’t much of a look on anyone.  Besides, the floor up here isn’t really all that comfortable.”

“I can’t argue with that,” he admitted, changing position slightly and thereby illustrating my point.  Beneath us, I could hear the Bloody Baron clunking away as he often did in the Astronomy Tower, so in any case it seemed we would most probably have to stay on the battlements for a little while longer at least.

“Besides,” I went on, shivering as I pulled the cloak closer around us, “it’s freezing up here, and it’s not going to get any warmer.”

He accepted defeat.  “All right, my lady, can I escort you downstairs?”

“Once the Bloody Baron shuts up,” I said with a smile as I kissed his cheek.  “Thanks, Bertram, I’d appreciate that.”

About twenty minutes later all sounds that might have been caused by the Baron seemed to have stopped, so we packed up our things and Bertram led me down to the seventh floor, my new cloak securely fastened around me.

It was so late that Fat Lady scolded me for waking her up and the common room looked deserted when I got inside.  I almost didn’t see the lone figure on the couch in front of the fire, and it was only when he spoke that I realised he was there at all.

“Nice cloak,” he said with undisguised sarcasm.  “Who are you supposed to be, Cliodna or Morgana?”

Going by the birds on the cloak – which of course I was only wearing to humour Bertram – this was clearly a reference to two well-known bird Animagi: Morgana, King Arthur’s half-sister, was a dark witch who used her powers for evil, whereas Cliodna had three fabulous birds she used to heal the sick.  So the question was really, was I good or evil?

I turned to look at him, though I had recognised the voice immediately.  “Oh, hi Sirius,” I said wearily, stifling a yawn.  “I think at the moment I’m Morgana, because if you try to stop me going to bed I’m going to hex you into oblivion.”

“Why out so late, then?” he asked easily, putting down the magazine he was reading.  Well, it looked like he was talking to me again, but then again his bad mood had (eventually) settled down as well so there was most probably a connection between the two.

I yawned again.  “Bertram wanted to take me out for my birthday.”

“Oh, right, that was today wasn’t it?” he said, his gaze seeming to sharpen a little.  “Happy birthday.”

I smiled unenthusiastically.  “Thanks.”  I was about to turn towards the girls’ stairs again when he spoke yet again.

“That’s why you’re wearing that hideous cloak, isn’t it?  Because he gave it to you?”

That was a bit perceptive for someone like him, but I wasn’t about to reward him by admitting it was true.  “It’s not hideous,” I said defensively, wrapping it more closely around myself.  “But yes, he did give it to me.”

He just raised an eyebrow.  “No, not hideous at all,” he said.  “You just keep telling yourself that.”

I turned again and tried to head for the stairs, but missed my footing and stumbled on my high heels.  Sirius started laughing.

“Merlin’s beard, you’ve been drinking!” he said triumphantly.

I got all defensive again.  “So what if I have?” I asked petulantly, leaning against a nearby armchair.  “It’s my birthday, I’m allowed to.”

He kept chuckling.  “I never thought I’d catch you, of all people, stumbling in here after curfew, drunk.”

“Well, if you went to bed at a normal time like a normal person, you’d never have seen it,” I pointed out.  “Why are you up so late anyway, sitting here by yourself?”

“Waiting for James,” he said.  “We had separate detentions tonight and he’s not back from his yet.  Penrose can keep you pretty late sometimes.”

“Right.”  I tried to collect my thoughts.  “What was this one for?”

He grinned again.  “Being out after curfew.  Last night.  And we weren’t even drinking.  Let that be a lesson to you.”

“What a surprise,” I said dully.  “You two out on a Saturday night.”  Then I thought of something and it was my turn to feel a little triumphant.  “But I didn’t get caught.”

He held up a finger.  “This time.”

I yawned again.  “Remember what I said about hexing you to oblivion if you stopped me from going to bed?  I haven’t forgotten that.”  And I pulled out my wand just in case, wondering what jinx I should use on him.  How would he look with cow horns and a matching bell?

He laughed again, and it occurred to me that he was being way too chipper for that time of night.  “You’re trying to work out what you should do to me, aren’t you?  I liked that one where you gave Snivellus a peacock’s tail just after Christmas.  You can always do that.”

I shook my head.  “Too pretty.  It’d just be reinforcing stereotypes.  I’d need to do something that makes you ugly.  Warthog horns, perhaps.”

He grinned.  “Not a bad idea,” he acknowledged.  “Or tentacles, that’d do the same job.”

“Spider’s legs,” I suggested.

“Antlers,” he threw back.

I groaned.  “This is getting to be too much like hard work.  It’s too late and I’m too tired.  So I think I’ll just turn you into a teapot and be done with it.”

“Can it at least be a red and gold teapot?  For Gryffindor, that is?”  He looked at me hopefully.

I just shook my head.  I was too sleepy for this sort of thing and my brain wasn’t really functioning.  “You’re a nightmare, you know that?”

“Why, thank you,” he grinned.  I raised my eyebrows.  “Well, that was supposed to be a compliment, wasn’t it?”

I gave up.  “I’ve had enough.  I’m leaving.  And just this once, because I’m stuffed and my bed is calling me, I’ll leave you in one piece.  But if you push me again …”

He raised his hand in mock salute.  “Yes, ma’am. I’ll remember that.”

I shook my head again in resignation and wandered up the stairs to our dorm, throwing the cloak into the bottom of my trunk and collapsing onto my bed, not even bothering with brushing my teeth or washing my face. T hat was what mornings were for, I thought exhaustedly, and promptly fell asleep.

****

Mary came running into the dorm late one night later that week almost bursting with laughter.  “Oh, lasses, ye will ne’er believe this,” she giggled, collapsing onto her bed.

Lily looked at her.  “What is it?”

“Well,” began Mary, starting to giggle again, “I was jus’ up i’ Marcus’ dorm –” she paused significantly, making sure she didn’t need to explain why – “an’ when I came back doon, I saw th’ sixth-year boys’ dorm door open.  Nae much, jus’ a crack. Well, I stopped an’ had a peer through, bu’ nae lamps were on an’ they were clearly nae i’ there.  So I though’ I’d, well, check it oot a bi’.  I’m guessing tha’ wherever they are, they lef’ in a wee hurry – when I closed th’ door behin’ me after I’d done it squelched lik’ it’d bin Colloportused, so I’d say they hadna meant t’ leave it open.”

Lily grinned maniacally, and Charlotte came in from the bathroom so quickly she tripped over her shoes, which were lying next to her trunk.  This was big – even Martha, when she’d gone out with Sirius in fifth year, had never been inside their dorm, with Sirius always finding one excuse or another for why it wasn’t appropriate.  The revelation that they locked their door as a matter of course didn’t surprise us at all.

“Well?” Lily demanded.  “What’s it like?”

“Mostly th’ usual gunk,” said Mary.  “Ye know, clothes all o’er th’ floor, a couple o’ Gryffindor Quidditch flags on th’ wall, a handful o’ Quidditch posters, some pictures o’ bikini babes, some pictures from a Muggle magazine o’ those – wha’ dae ye call them, things wi’ two wheels tha’ go really fas’?”

“Motorbikes?” I suggested.

“Aye, tha’s it, motorbikes,” Mary agreed.  “I thin’ those are Sirius’, bu’ I’m nae sure.  No family photos by tha’ bed so I canna be certain, an’ th’ trunk wa’ closed so I couldna tell by th’ clothes, though it seems more lik’ him than Peter.  There’s a bi’ o’ a shrine t’ ye, Lily, by wha’ mus’ be James’ bed –”

Martha guffawed very inelegantly.  “What sort of shrine?” she finally got out.

“A few pictures, I thin’ he mus’ hae taken them wi’oot ye knowing, ye’re nae lookin’ a’ th’ camera,” Mary explained, directing this at Lily.  “I didna check under his pillow, though – maybe I shoul’ hae.”  She grinned mischievously and Lily looked rather embarrassed.  “An’ he’s copied doon yer class schedule an’ written tha’ next t’ his own.  It’s kind o’ cute, really.  Oh, an’ there’s tha’ stupid Snitch he used t’ play wi’, tha’s stuck behin’ a wad o’ netting so it canna escape.”

Lily rolled her eyes.  “Good old James, always predictable,” she said, though her cheeks had gone rather pink and her mouth was twitching, trying to stop a smile.

“What else?” asked Charlotte.

“Nae much by Remus’ bed,” Mary said, winking at her, “jus’ wha’ looks lik' a family photo – him an’ wha’ I’m assuming are his parents – th’ book he’s reading, an ol’ lunascope an’ some ither junk.  He’s pretty nea’ bu’ some o' his ol’ robes were lying on top o’ his trunk an’ they’ve go’ huge tears i’ them, ye coul’ notice tha’ i’ jus’ a secon’ or two.”  Mary paused.  “By wha’ I’m assuming wa’ Peter’s bed, nae much a’ all.  A few schoolbooks, a broken quill or two, tha’ sort o’ thing.  He wa' pretty messy, his trunk was open an’ his school robes were spilling oot th’ top.  Actually, there were so many clothes on th’ floor in all, I’m surprised they can work oot whose are whose.”

“Anything else?” I asked, knowing her well enough to guess she was saving the best till last.

Mary grinned broadly.  “This was th’ best bi’,” she said, starting to laugh again.  “There’s this huge banner on th’ wall, positioned so ye canna see it from th’ stairwell, bu’ absolutely ruddy enormous.  An’ it says ‘Th’ Marauders’ Den’.  ‘Th’ Marauders’.  Can ye believe it?  They call themselves th’ bloody Marauders!!!”

Martha actually whooped with laughter.  Mary, Lily and Charlotte were laughing so hard they had tears coming out of their eyes, and I had almost fallen off my bed.

“‘The Marauders’,” gasped Lily.  “Only they would come up with that.  What are they, plundering the castle or something?”

“Raiding it for contraband,” I giggled.

“I thought they were the contraband,” Martha retorted.

“Well,” said Charlotte, trying to take control but not succeeding very well, “do we tell them we know, or not?”

“I say tell them,” I said, recovering my composure.  “Not outright, though.  Just let it slip one day.”

Martha was grinning wickedly.  “I’m sure we can manage that,” she said.  “Just wait for the best time.  But whoever does it,” she added, looking pointedly at all of us in turn, “has to do it when we’re all there, so we can see the reaction.”

“Deal,” said Lily, sticking out her hand for Martha to shake it.  We all followed suit and went back to bed, laughing quietly to ourselves.

****

Saturday March twelfth was a cold, clear day, with the grey clouds we’d been subjected to all week dissipating and the sun coming out, making it look lovely outside.  Some brave souls thought it actually was and wandered out during the afternoon but they soon came back inside, teeth chattering, arms wrapped around themselves in an attempt to warm up – they hadn’t taken the blistering March wind into account.  We stayed indoors and tried to put our efforts into helping get the common room ready for the party that night.

Of course Remus had been right, and the boys didn’t need our help at all.  James and Sirius disappeared for a spell and came back with several cases of butterbeer and a few bottles of Firewhisky, along with copious supplies from Honeydukes.  None of us could work out how they had managed to smuggle them back from Hogsmeade when we were there a couple of weeks previously, with Filch’s Secrecy Sensors and the like looking for illicit goods, but we were pleased they’d done so all the same.  Peter also disappeared and returned with a huge basket of food from the kitchens, mostly pudding items but also some things like chicken legs and sandwiches, which should be able to get a large number of revellers through the night.

Since we weren’t needed in Gryffindor Tower, and no one was in the mood to do any homework, Mary and I elected to spend the afternoon with our respective beaus.  I found Bertram at lunch time and suggested a lazy afternoon in a secluded corner somewhere, and I suspected Mary and Marcus were doing the same thing.  I can’t say we achieved much but it was certainly a very pleasant way of whiling away the hours.

When we emerged for supper we found James, Sirius, Remus and Peter already in the Great Hall, wolfing down pork chops and chicken legs and talking over what other arrangements still needed to be made for that evening.  They looked up and waved cheerfully at me as we sat down at the adjacent Hufflepuff table.

Bertram eyed them doubtfully.  “I don’t know, Laura, they’ve got a bit of a bad reputation,” he said.  “Are you sure you want to be on the same bill as one of them for your party tonight?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” I asked in surprise.  “It’s only because Remus and I were born four days apart, it seemed stupid to hold two separate parties.”

“Yeah, but Potter and Black?  I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them,” he muttered into his beef casserole.  “Particularly Black, with that harem of his.”

I was rather taken aback by this – I hadn’t realised he disliked them so much.  And if he did, why hadn’t he raised any objections before?  “I trust them,” I said staunchly.  “James was incredible last year after Mary got attacked, and while Sirius is a bit of a berk sometimes I don’t have any reason not to trust him.  And as for his harem, as you call it, if you knew anything about him you’d know what he thinks of them.”

Bertram looked unconvinced.  “Let’s just say I’m glad I’ll be there to protect you,” he said.  I raised my eyebrows – I needed protecting from them?  That was news to me.  “I’ve heard what their parties can be like,” he went on, “and I don’t want either of them getting their grubby mitts on you.”

This time I laughed.  “You’re joking, aren’t you?” I asked.  “For one thing, there’s no way known James Potter would come near me considering, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, I’m not Lily Evans.  And really, Sirius Black?  And me?  Stupid rumours aside, like that would ever happen in a million years.”

“Why not?  You’re beautiful.  If he can’t see that he needs his eyes checked.”  Whatever else he was, Bertram was certainly loyal.  And, unless I was mistaken, just a little bit jealous of people he had no need to be jealous of.  I looked at him fondly.

“Then he needs his eyes checked,” I said.  “Maybe you should be grateful.”  I tried to look solemn, failing a little as an image of Sirius and me came unbidden into my mind.  And I liked it.  No, Laura, focus, I thought to myself.  Boyfriend, remember?  Right next to you?  With some difficulty I forced the image out of my head.  Maybe he was right to be jealous after all.

“What about that Lupin?” Bertram was asking.  “I doubt he’s any better.”

“Then you don’t know him,” I responded, grateful for the excuse to push any remaining thoughts of Sirius to the back of my mind where they belonged.  “I don’t think Remus Lupin has had a girlfriend in the whole time he’s been here, and that’s not from lack of opportunity.  He’s the least likely out of the lot of them to get wandering hands when he’s drunk.”  I smiled briefly as I thought of Charlotte and what she would say if she heard Bertram’s insinuations about Remus.

“I’m still glad I’ll be there,” he insisted, and it crossed my mind, not for the first time, how everyone just seemed to disregard Peter.  Something which, if I was completely honest with myself, I was sometimes guilty of as well.  Bertram was continuing.  “Remind me how to get to the tower again?”  And he listened intently while I gave explicit directions of the route from the Entrance Hall to Gryffindor Tower, promising to wait by the Fat Lady until I came to get him.

****

The party was due to start at eight, and as one of the guests of honour I dressed with great care, selecting some of the clothes I’d received for my birthday and borrowing a necklace from Lily to complete the outfit.  At eight on the dot I went down the staircase into the common room, smiling at Remus and crossing to the portrait hole to let Bertram in.

He looked around curiously as he entered – it seemed he’d not been in any other House common rooms before. I’d spent so much of my first five years going in and out of Ravenclaw Tower that I hadn’t even thought about it, but I supposed that it was a bit different.  After a short time to get his bearings, he squared his shoulders and moved towards Remus.

“Hi, I’m Bertram Aubrey,” he said politely.

“Nice to meet you. Remus Lupin,” replied Remus, looking a little surprised.  Of course he knew who Bertram was, and had told me to invite him, but he went along with something Bertram had obviously felt was necessary.

Bertram didn’t introduce himself to anyone else, and threw a bit of a dirty look at James and Sirius as we joined Mary and Marcus.  James kept his expression neutral, but I noticed that Sirius’ eyes had narrowed slightly and followed Bertram as he crossed the common room.  Maybe the dislike was mutual.  I resolved to try to be more observant about these things in future.

The boys all seemed to have roles for the party, something I’d never paid enough attention to to notice before.  James was the host who brought people together, introduced everyone and got things moving.  Remus was the conversation starter, the one who went from group to group and if there was a bit of an awkward silence he was able to fill it with his pleasant and inoffensive chatter to get things going again.  Sirius was responsible for keeping the bar supplied with food and drink and regularly spiked the drinks of unsuspecting younger students, and Peter was charged with ensuring the gramophone kept playing, changing records whenever one finished.  They had obviously done this many times before and were well versed in it.

Aside from the initial awkwardness, the night was a success.  James thought I was wonderful because I made sure Lily attended, though that hadn’t exactly been a challenge since it was my party as well.  Bertram insisted on waiting on me hand and foot which, while it took a bit of getting used to, was very flattering and quite nice, really.  The music played all night and the food and drink flowed easily, and by two in the morning the nine sixth-years and Bertram and Marcus were all happily gathered in a circle finishing off the remaining food, Hector having left a couple of hours previously.  Sirius was measuring out Firewhisky shots and handing them around.

“Here you go, Ogden,” he said easily, giving Marcus a shot glass.  “One for the family.” Marcus, whose great-grandfather had started the company that made the Firewhisky, just smiled.  Mary reached out automatically for the next glass in Sirius’ hand but he held up a finger warningly.

“Uh uh uh, you’re still under age,” he said, clearly suppressing a smile.  He was obviously playing with her as he’d been unashamedly spiking people’s drinks all night, regardless of how old they were.

Mary just raised her eyebrows and pointed at James, who wouldn’t be seventeen for another fortnight and was downing his shot in one gulp.  “So’s he.”

Sirius pretended to think about that.  “Yep, okay, fair point,” he conceded.  “Only remember, if anyone finds out, I didn’t give it to you.”  He smiled broadly, all attempts at suppression failing miserably.  Mary smiled conspiratorially and nodded her agreement, taking the glass.

The next one came to me.  “You ever had this before, Laura?” he asked, handing the subsequent glass to Bertram.

“You tell me,” I said, looking up at him half-accusingly as I too tried not to smile.  “Have I?”

He grinned.  “No, I haven’t put this in any of yours tonight.”

“Then no,” I admitted.  “Only elderflower wine, like we drank earlier, and some mead at Christmas.”

“Be careful, then,” he said, pouring shots for Charlotte and Peter.  “It can get to your head pretty quickly, this stuff.”  I grinned and downed it quickly, before I could pull a face at the taste.  The strange fiery aftertaste had faded before I realised he’d called me Laura instead of Cauldwell.

Three shots and half an hour later Bertram was getting tired.  “I think I’d better head back downstairs now,” he said to me, his arm around me.  “Don’t want to get caught out of bed too late.  Unless you wanted me to stay?”  He looked at me almost expectantly.

My mouth dropped open in shock.  We’d been going out for less than four weeks – really we’d known each other for less than four weeks – and he was suggesting spending the night?  I mean, I might have been tipsy but I certainly wasn’t that drunk.  “I don’t think so,” I said as firmly as I could manage.  “Besides, boys can’t get up the girls’ stairs, they turn into slides, so you couldn’t get up there anyway.”  Meaning, don’t get any ideas that it’ll happen in the future, either. A nd with as much strength as I could muster, I helped him to his feet and escorted him back to the portrait hole.

I could hear Sirius’ voice carrying across the almost deserted room.  “Is it just me or was that just a tad presumptuous?”

“No, not just you,” Lily agreed, and I didn’t need to be able to see her face imagine its expression.

“I thought that too,” said Remus, before quickly turning the conversation to something else as I returned to the circle.

I pretended I hadn’t heard them, but privately I agreed.  To get my mind off it I downed another shot of Firewhisky, swishing it around in my mouth to get the fiery sensation before swallowing it.

“Where’d you get the whisky anyway?” asked Martha with a rather wicked grin on her face.  “You haven’t been marauding for it, have you?”  She caught my eye and winked, then went on to look at each of the other girls in turn.

James turned a little pale.  “What did you say?” he asked, seeming much more sober all of a sudden.

“You heard me,” Martha said tartly, trying to suppress a giggle.  The rest of us were similarly unsuccessful in our attempts not to laugh.

“How’d you find out?” asked Sirius.  He too appeared to have sobered up significantly in about a millisecond, and abstractedly I wondered if they’d just had a shot of Sobering Solution instead of Firewhisky.

“Tha’ wa’ me,” admitted Mary.  “I saw yer banner.”

“How?” Peter asked suspiciously, and I remembered that Mary had said that the banner was placed so that you couldn’t see it from the stairs.

“Snuck in one day,” she said cheerfully, her boldness most probably due to the alcohol.  Marcus put a protective arm around her.  “Ye’d lef’ th’ door ajar, so I though’ I’d take a wee peek.”

“That was private,” said Sirius, almost angrily.  “What else did you see?”

“Nae much o’ note,” said Mary.  “I dinna ken why it’s such a secret anyway, it’s nae tha’ big a deal.”

“Looks like the game’s up, boys,” James said heavily.  “Look, that was a nickname we came up with in second year.  Ages ago.  We just never took the banner down, it was one of those things that only we knew, and it’s kind of nice having something about us that the rest of the school’s not aware of.”

He was looking at Lily as he said it, as though praying she wouldn’t think worse of him because of something he’d thought was cool when he was twelve.  Behind him, however, I noticed Peter, Sirius and Remus were all struggling to keep a straight face.  There was obviously a joke in there somewhere that I didn’t get.

Lily nodded. “I can understand that,” she said, and James’ face relaxed.  “We won’t tell anyone, will we girls?”  We all hastily agreed, not wanting to have the boys any angrier at us.

“The bigger issue,” Remus said gravely, “is you sneaking into our dorm.  That’s not fair.  We should be able to see yours now.”

Charlotte raised her eyebrows.  “And how do you propose doing that?  Seeing as if you put a foot on the staircase it will, as Laura pointed out earlier, turn into a slide.”

“Don’t think we haven’t tried to work out a way around that,” said Sirius, smiling mischievously.

“Why does that not surprise me?” Martha said dryly.  “But you haven’t come up with anything yet, have you?”

“That’s what you think,” smiled James.  And no matter how much we prodded and begged, none of them would say anything further than that, leaving us wondering if they actually had got up the stairs and, if so, how they could possibly have managed it.




Author’s note: Okay, a few things to cover here.  First of all yes, I know, the anonymous gift is completely cliché but I wanted to do it, so I did.  After all, it is my story. :D
Secondly, I’m conscious that this chapter is somewhat longer than usual, but I wanted to keep the all birthday and Marauder stuff together so that’s how it turned out.  It occurred to me that the Marauder nickname has only ever come up in canon on the Map, so maybe the whole school didn’t call them that.  Just a thought.
Thirdly, I hope I didn’t disappoint anyone with the party scene – I hadn’t expected it to get as much buildup as it did, and then when it did inspire that anticipation I didn’t know how to make it more dramatic without forcing a complete re-write of what’s to come, so I just left it as it was.  I hope you think it turned out okay!
And finally, I know I wrote it but I just love that conversation with Sirius in the middle of the night on Laura’s birthday: as so often happens, I had a vague idea of what I wanted but once I started typing my fingers just went off on their own.  I must remember to thank them.  Manicure, do you think?

Chapter 23: Making new friends
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The following Wednesday, halfway through a particularly trying double Potions lesson, I was disturbed by something hitting me on the back of the neck.  Turning around, I saw Sirius grin at me while pointing at the floor next to my stool, where a scrunched up bit of parchment was lying.  It occurred to me that it was probably a bit dumb, throwing notes around during Potions where they could easily land on a fire or in someone’s cauldron, but then again Sirius wasn’t exactly known for his forethought.

I looked quickly at Professor Slughorn, who appeared to have not noticed anything untoward.  Surreptitiously I leaned over and picked up the parchment.

It was a note in what I assumed was Sirius’ handwriting.  What’s that spell your sister did that made Nigel Ackerley breathe purple bubbles?

Lily looked at me quizzically and I showed her the note.  She glanced over her shoulder at the boys and I smiled to myself:  it looked like the girls were right when they speculated that he’d want me to teach him Bea’s hexes.  Well, whether I chose to or not would depend …

Depends who you want to use it on, I scrawled back, throwing it over my shoulder and hearing it land on the table he was sharing with James, Remus and Charlotte.  Another swift look at Professor Slughorn showed he still hadn’t noticed anything – he was leaning over Snape’s cauldron with an appreciative look on his face.

Snivellus, of course, was the response, which came back after just a few seconds, this time flying over my shoulder and landing on the table in front of me.  Either his aim was getting better, or James had thrown it.

I considered it while I cast an eye over Severus.  While I hadn’t noticed him doing anything in particular lately, even Lily had admitted to his general creepiness and he’d probably look better with the bubbles coming out of his nose and mouth.  They might even help clean the grease from his hair off his face, because Merlin only knew he needed that.  I mean, I knew he didn’t have much in the way of gold, but surely he could spring for some shampoo just once in a while?

Lily, reading the note, looked at me and nodded firmly, indicating her approval for the use of such a hex on the person who had once been her friend.  That was the clincher: if Lily approved then I should feel no guilt about it whatsoever.  Ignoring Leda Madley who was trying to read the note upside down (undoubtedly just because Sirius had written it), I decided to share the spell.

Puniceus ebullio, I wrote.  Similar wand movement to the Levitation Charm – can show you later if you like. I  scrunched up the parchment and flicked it back to him, looking over my shoulder as I did so.

He read the note, saw me watching and gave me the thumbs up, smiling broadly.  Great, I thought, in two days the whole school will know that spell and it will all be my fault.

Sirius caught up with me after class as we trudged upstairs out of the dungeon, followed by Leda and Greta Catchlove who I had the impression thought they were being subtle.  “So, Laura, when are you going to teach me that hex?”

“Whenever’s easiest,” I said unconcernedly.

“Actually,” he went on, watching my face, “the guys were wondering if you wouldn’t mind teaching us a few of those jinxes you know.”

“Who are you planning on using them on?” I asked, though I thought I already knew the answer.

“Just Slytherins,” he grinned, confirming my theory.  “And anyone else who really gets our goat.  Filch, for example.  And maybe a giggler or two.”  His eyes flicked to where Greta and Leda were still trying to eavesdrop on our conversation and he winked at me.

“All right,” I said, suspecting it was a lost cause.  With that smile of his, I had the feeling that I’d have trouble refusing Sirius anything for very long.  I understood now just how he got away with so much – it was easy to stay immune to his charm when he wasn’t using it on you, but when he did it was a completely different story.  To tell the truth, I was almost ashamed of myself for turning out to be just like everyone else, recognising much too late for it to be of any use that he really was a first-class flirt.  “When did you have in mind?”

“Night would be good,” he said, considering, the flirty smile thankfully disappearing which meant that I could breathe properly again.  “After supper.  That way it doesn’t matter how long it takes us to learn them.  If we used a free period we might run out of time, especially if Peter’s there too.  That’s if we could even find a free period when we are all free, of course.”

“Sirius, just how many jinxes do you think I’m willing to teach you?” I asked with mock indignation as we reached the ground floor.  “Oh, okay,” I went on, smiling at the slightly panicked look on his face.  “Let me know a night when all four of you aren’t in detention and we’ll work it from there.”

“Thanks, Laura,” he said, smiling that brilliant smile, and took off in another direction.  And, as though to compound my feeling of shame, I actually had to stop myself from watching him go.  Yep, his years of practice in putting on the charm had certainly made him very good at it, and I was finding myself to be far more susceptible than I’d ever realised.  No, Laura, focus, I thought.  You’re being ridiculous.  Besides, you already have a boyfriend, remember?  And, shaking my head a little at my own behaviour, I took off upstairs towards the library, which had been my original destination.

Anyway, so it happened that one cold March evening I was sitting with the boys in front of the fire in the common room, teaching them a selection of Beatrice’s hexes and the appropriate counter-jinxes.  It took several hours in total as they practiced on each other, but finally even Peter had mastered the final spell and was sitting back, admiring the daisies he had caused to grow on Remus’ arms.

“Well,” I said, “that’s enough for tonight.  Time for bed, I think.”  I tried to get up from my chair and failed miserably, while James lazily Vanished Remus’ bouquet.

“What’s wrong?” asked Remus, watching my discomfort as his arms returned to view.

“I’ve been sitting still too long,” I explained, collapsing back down into the chair.  “My legs have gone to sleep.”

James looked at me with mock concern.  “Well, you’d better wake them up,” he deadpanned, “’cause otherwise they’ll be up all night and you’ll never get to sleep.”

Sirius and Peter guffawed with laughter and even Remus smiled indulgently.  I managed a wry grin as I tried again to put some weight onto my legs.

Sirius instantly transformed into his helpful mode, which I was learning could show its face occasionally.  “Here, let me give you a hand,” he said sincerely and without a trace of humour.  You could always tell when he was being genuine – the haughty and arrogant look that usually adorned his face disappeared entirely, leaving it looking friendly and even a little vulnerable.  He hoisted my arm around his shoulder and took on most of my weight as we made our way to the bottom of the girls’ stairs.

“You okay?” he asked as we paused just before the first step.  “I can’t go any further than this.”

I looked up at him gratefully, testing my weight on my still-tingling legs, and noticing that the rest of me was tingling a bit too, though I had a rather nasty suspicion that that had nothing to do with sitting on my legs all night.  Definitely way too susceptible, I decided, especially seeing that now they all knew Bea’s spells he wasn’t likely to seek my company any more.  “Yeah, I should be fine,” was what I said out loud.  “Thanks.”  And, reminding myself fiercely that I had a boyfriend and therefore shouldn’t be reacting this way, I grabbed the handrail and used it to pull myself up to the dormitory.

****

I wasn’t neglecting Bertram, however, no matter how much time I spent chatting to the boys or teaching them spells.  In fact, our relationship was progressing rather well and one Saturday, sick of being caught in broom cupboards or abandoned classrooms by teachers, other students, or Filch, I agreed to his suggestion that we head to his dormitory for a bit of time alone.

He took me downstairs from the Great Hall after lunch and along a lengthy corridor before we stopped at a still-life, to which he gave the password.  The picture morphed into a round door and he led me inside to what would have been my common room if I’d followed the family tradition and been Sorted into Hufflepuff.  This was the first time I’d been in there, as my relationship with Cadmus in fourth year hadn’t been serious enough to warrant anything more than a few snogs and the odd grope in a broom cupboard.

It was an eye-opener, to say the least.  My mother, like all good Muggles, had a copy of The Lord of the Rings on her bookshelf which I’d read in its entirety in the summer between fourth and fifth years, and I must say that my first impression was that I’d walked into a person-sized hobbit hole.  Although we were obviously underground (the no-windows thing was a bit of a giveaway) the room was round and bright and cheerful, probably due in no small part to the several yellow wall hangings which gave the whole place a warm, welcoming glow.  There were a couple of round yellow doors with handles in the middle of them which I supposed led off to the dormitories, and a lot of large squashy armchairs that looked much more comfortable than anything we had in Gryffindor Tower.

After I’d looked around a bit and got my bearings, and greeted some of Bertram’s friends who grinned rather knowingly at me, Bertram led me through one of the round yellow doors and along a winding stone passageway towards the seventh-year boys’ dorm.  Again, it was rather different from what we had in Gryffindor.  While I’d never been in the boys’ dorms in Gryffindor Tower I assumed they were set up much like ours were, and I knew the girls’ dorm in Ravenclaw Tower was almost identical to ours, but this was different again.  It was still a circular room with five beds spaced evenly around it, but the lack of windows made much more of an impact than I would have thought.  The bed hangings were all yellow and there were a lot of torches to provide light, and it felt rather warmer than our dorm did, but I just felt that there was something missing.  (Or maybe that was just the array of fragrant soaps and potions that Martha kept in our bathroom that permeated the whole room.)

Bertram led me to one of the beds and parted the hangings so I could get inside. Fortunately the room was empty aside from us – I hadn’t been sure that would be the case, as Bertram didn’t seem to feel the same need for privacy as I did with some things.  Anyway once we were both safely ensconced behind the yellow hangings he turned to me and, hand on the back of my head underneath my hair, pulled me towards him and kissed me gently, passionately.

This was lovely.  I didn’t even mind when my t-shirt ended up on the pillow and my bra soon followed it, because he was making a show of letting things go at a pace I was happy with.  However, eventually this fell by the wayside and when I felt him unbuttoning my jeans and trying to pull them down over my hips I was less than impressed.

“No.”

He stopped, but only briefly.  “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.  No.”

“But isn’t that why you came in here in the first place?” he asked, a confused look on his face.

“No, it’s not,” I said irritably.  “I was just sick of being walked in on all the time.”

“But it’s not that much more of a step,” he insisted.  “Come on, you’ll love it.”

“No.  I’m not ready for that.”

He only then stopped his attempt and indicated his bulging pants.  “Well, what am I supposed to do with this then?”

I just looked at him.  How was I supposed to know?  It wasn’t like I had any experience with this sort of thing.  “Whatever you like.  Just don’t expect me to help.”

“Oh, Laura, you don’t mean that,” he whispered into my ear in what I’m sure he hoped was a seductive manner.  “Come on, just try it …”

I pushed him away and sat up, reaching for my abandoned clothes.  “I said, no.  What part of that do you not get?”

Finally he cottoned on.  “You really mean that, don’t you?” he said with obvious disappointment.  “I thought …”

I cut him off, fixing him with a stern look as I dressed myself.  “You thought what, exactly?”

“Well, most girls say no but they really mean yes, they just want you to beg a bit more,” he explained.

I raised my eyebrows.  “Well then, they must have different meanings of words in Nottingham,” I said icily.  “Where I come from, no always means no.  And I’m leaving now.”

As I walked quickly back towards the round yellow common room and then into the castle proper, ignoring the surprised looks Bertram’s friends wore as they saw me storming out of their hobbit hole, I wondered what I’d just done.  Were we going to break up?  If we were that would disappoint me, but I wasn’t about to turn back and agree to what he’d wanted just on that basis.  I was sure I was in the right there – no should definitely mean no.  Fortunately my musings were interrupted by the boy himself, who had also hurried to get dressed and followed me.

“Laura!”  I turned when I heard his voice, just as I was about to head up the marble staircase that led from the Entrance Hall to the upper floors.

“Bertram.”  I probably said it more coolly than I meant to, but I was still annoyed with him.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said.  “That was completely out of line, what I did.  I should have listened to you.”

“Yes, you should have,” I said unnecessarily.

“And I never meant to pressure you,” he went on.

That almost made me laugh.  He pressured me regularly about that.  But maybe, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he didn’t realise he was doing it.  “I’m sure you didn’t,” was what I said, rather charitably I thought.

“Will you forgive me?  Please?”  He was rather close now and looked at me in his most endearing way, his brown eyes fixing me with a very hopeful expression.

“Not right now, no.”  I still had some cooling down to do, he had me pretty aggravated.

“Oh, come on, Laura,” he said in his most persuasive voice, putting an arm around me.  “I know you don’t want to cause a scene in the middle of the Entrance Hall …”

I pulled away.  Did he really think it was as simple as that?  After making those sorts of assumptions?  “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Bertram,” I said coldly, “but I’m not all that happy with you right at the moment.  And I’d appreciate it if you left me alone for a little while.”  And I turned away from him and walked purposefully up the marble staircase towards Gryffindor Tower.

As I reached the top of the stairs I was joined unexpectedly by Sirius, who had apparently seen our little display in the Entrance Hall.  “Boyfriend troubles?” he asked easily.  I was glad of the company – not necessarily because I wanted to talk to anyone, but because Bertram disliked Sirius so much it meant he was unlikely to follow me.

“You could say that,” I muttered crossly.  “We had a minor disagreement over a definition.”

“Ah,” he said with a knowing smile, “those ones can get tricky.  What’s the word?  ‘Relationship’?  Or ‘truth’, that was always a sticking point.”

“Neither,” I said, shaking my head.  “It’s ‘no’.”  I wasn’t sure exactly why I was telling him this, but then again I reasoned that he’d probably had his fair share of similar discussions over the years.  On the other side, of course.

“Oh.  That one.”  A flash of what looked almost like anger crossed his face, and part of me wondered what memory had sparked that.  Or, more specifically, whose memory.

“Yes, that one,” I said.  “So I thought I’d just let him stew a bit while I calm down.  You know, remind him that if he does get the dictionary out it’ll support my version of what it means and not his.”

“Right.”  He flashed me a smile, which I thought was almost inappropriate given what we were talking about.  “Then I guess it’s a bad time to ask you how to reverse that jinx that gives you a flamingo neck.”

I laughed despite myself:  I was discovering that Sirius had a remarkable talent for taking my mind off things.  “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that one already,” I said.  “I only taught you last week.”

“Ah, well, yes,” he admitted, looking somewhat uncomfortable as we stepped over the trick stair on the short-cut staircase, “but we must be getting the pronunciation wrong or something.  It’s not working.”

“Okay, who’s been jinxed?” I asked.

“Pron- James,” he said, making me smile a little at the assumption that I wouldn’t know who ‘Prongs’ was.  I thought the whole school probably knew that by now.  “Snivellus got him again.”

I looked at him sympathetically.  “Again?  What is it between those two?”

He cocked an eyebrow.  “You actually have to ask that?”

“Right.  Lily.”

“Yes, I believe so,” he agreed.  “I have no idea why, of course, it’s not like she even talks to either of them.”

“Well you’d know better than I would the way a boy’s mind works,” I pointed out with a grin.  “Okay, I’ll fix it.  Where is he?”

“Common room,” he said, which would explain why he hadn’t tried to make me take a detour on the way upstairs.  Sure enough, once we got into Gryffindor Tower James was rather conspicuous by his extended neck, which had a rather attractive curve to it and a covering of pink feathers.

Pluma gutter subsisto,” I murmured, giving my wand a flick in James’ direction.  Almost immediately he started looking more like a human being and less like a cross-breed gone horribly wrong, and within a minute he was back to his usual self.

“Thanks, Cauldwell,” he said gratefully.  “I couldn’t talk properly with that neck, and the guys couldn’t get the counter-jinx right.”

“What were you doing?” I asked, looking at Sirius, Remus and Peter.  After they showed me, I immediately realised their error.  “You’ve got the word wrong,” I told them.  “It’s pluma, not plumo.  You were trying to take away his quill.”

“That would explain this,” Peter said ruefully, holding up what obviously used to be a long-feathered quill but now had only the skeleton remaining.  “Brand new, too.  I’m going to have to write to Mum for another one now.”

I looked at him sympathetically.  “Ugh.  Sorry about that, Peter, if I’d known this could happen I’d have warned you last week.”

“No worries,” said Remus, trying again.  “So it’s Pluma gutter subsisto.  We should be able to remember that.”

I looked at them, practicing so earnestly.  It was almost funny.  “How did Snivellus find out that jinx anyway?” I asked.

James looked somewhat embarrassed.  “We, er, might have used it on Regulus …”

“And then taught it to him afterwards,” Sirius admitted a little shamefacedly.

I groaned.  “Say no more.”  Merlin only knew what was going to happen now, if people like Snape knew Bea’s spells.  Maybe teaching them to the boys in the first place had been a significant mistake.

Anyway, whether it was because I’d helped James out of his fix or what it was, I didn’t know, but the boys surprised me by continuing to talk to us even after they’d raided my version of Beatrice’s spell-book.  In fact, it was a gradual thing, but by the end of the month the rest of the girls and I felt we could almost call them our friends.  Except Lily with James, of course, where the girl-of-his-dreams thing got in the way a few times, though even then he was remarkably restrained.  For James, that is.  But they started including us in on some of their jokes, would chat with us occasionally over meals, and even swap notes with us for homework assignments and the like.  Which was rather useful, really, considering how smart James and Sirius were, and how conscientious Remus was – the former would offer brilliant insights into various things, while the latter could produce copious notes and take us through things step by step.  Things which to James and Sirius were so obvious they didn’t see the need to identify any steps at all.  With all this to draw on, I could almost feel my grades improving on the spot.

The added bonus we got with being friendly with the boys was that they started looking out for us.  They began doing things like stepping in when they felt we might be uncomfortable, and forming a protective barrier between us and, say, some of the nastier Slytherins.  I couldn’t help but think it was a shame we hadn’t cultivated this relationship earlier, at least to before Mary’s unfortunate encounter with Mulciber, though I did recognise that in the nine or so months that had passed since then we had all grown up a little and probably wouldn’t have got along nearly so well then as we did now.  In any case we had begun to realise they could be powerful friends and, conversely, dangerous enemies.

Bertram, on the other hand, was less than pleased I was getting closer to James, Sirius, Remus and Peter.  I had of course forgiven him his little indiscretion after I’d calmed down a bit – after all, he was only human and had all sorts of hormones running wild, so I supposed I couldn’t blame him for trying.  And at least he’d stopped when I asked him to, eventually if not immediately.  Anyway, he still didn’t trust the boys for whatever reason and insisted on trying to keep me away from them, a bit of a lost cause considering I had all of my classes with at least one of them.  In fact, Remus was in every single one of my classes, and James and Sirius all but Ancient Runes.  (Peter had quite a different timetable and only shared Transfiguration and Defence with the rest of us.)  Combine that with the fact that we shared a common room and therefore a homework space, and I couldn’t have avoided them even if I wanted to.  And like I said, I was beginning to be rather pleased with that fact, instead of dismayed as Bertram seemed to be.

Bertram’s attitude made me a little disquieted as I couldn’t see any reason not to spend time with the boys, and in fact the more I got to know them the better I liked them, so his dislike and mistrust seemed more and more unreasonable.  And it wasn’t as though I was about to leave him for any of them – as if any of them would have been interested in me anyway – so it couldn’t have been jealousy.  So I was walking a fine line, on the one hand trying to keep my boyfriend happy, and on the other forging a friendship with people I had a lot of time for and would be continuing school with after Bertram had left.

Having said that, Bertram was still making me feel cherished and appreciated.  He kept telling me how beautiful I was and how lucky he was to have me, and insisted on doing everything for me.  However, despite all that, if I was honest with myself I had to admit that there were all sorts of cracks appearing in the relationship, no matter how hard I tried to ignore them.

The main one seemed to be that during the time he had fancied me before we actually got together (however long that had been – he’d never actually said) he seemed to have built up an idea of what I was like, and was treating me according to that.  Really, after the best part of two months, I would have hoped he might have looked past any image he’d created of me and got to know the person I actually was, but he didn’t seem to have realised that there was rather a significant difference.  Let’s face it, his imaginary Laura actually liked places like Madam Puddifoot’s.

And, well, there was the sex thing.  He kept trying for it and I kept pushing him away, not feeling ready to take that next step just yet, but no matter how many times I said “No” he still didn’t seem to get it.  Maybe that was connected with what I said earlier, about him having an idea of what I was like and treating me according to that – imaginary Laura was probably jumping at the idea.  But the real Laura wasn’t, and I was getting more and more uncomfortable every time he pushed it.  Of course, he was also making an art form of not understanding that I was the sort of person who was more likely to dig my heels in the more I was pressured, so he’d be better off dropping the subject entirely until I was ready for it.

Was all this worth putting up with just to have a boyfriend?  To be frank, most of the time, yes.  I had always considered myself very ordinary in just about every way so it was nice to have that contradicted for once, and when he was showering me with affection I loved the way he made me feel.  So I weighed it up and made my decision.  Overall, he made me happy more than he made me uncomfortable, so I concluded that the relationship was definitely worth continuing.




Author's note: It probably goes without saying, but I do not own The Lord of the Rings or anything related to it (hobbits, their dwellings etc).  These are of course the property of JRR Tolkien and I claim them in no way whatsoever.  Thanks!


Chapter 24: Gryffindor vs Hufflepuff
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A week before the Easter holidays Gryffindor was playing Hufflepuff in one of the final Quidditch matches of the year.  Gryffindor had a good team that year and were one of the favourites, along with Slytherin, for the Quidditch Cup.  Fortunately Ravenclaw had hammered Slytherin in the previous game, and if we beat Hufflepuff by more than a hundred and ninety points we would take Slytherin’s spot on top of the table.

I went down to breakfast with the other girls, all bedecked in our red and gold mufflers with matching woolly hats and gloves in hand.  While the weather had warmed up significantly, it could still get rather cold up in the grandstands where you were a good two hundred feet above ground level.

The boys were already at the table, helping James through a dose of nerves.  It amused me that he was always so nervous before a game, seeing that he was so confident in other things and was also largely responsible for most of the Gryffindor victories over the past four years.

“Steady, Prongs,” Remus was saying in that wonderful calm way he had.  “You’re used to this by now, remember?”

James downed a mugful of black coffee in one gulp and was clearly steeling himself.  “Right.  It’s only Hufflepuff, after all.  I’ve faced worse.”

I stole a glance at the Hufflepuff table where Bertram, dressed in his House yellow, was trying to brace their Keeper for the match.  And brace was probably the right word – James, Anna Vector and Clarrie Trimble sent the Quaffle through the hoops so quickly you could rarely see it.  Gryffindor House had a running joke that if you wanted to kill someone, then a Quaffle hurled by James Potter would probably be quicker and more accurate than an Avada Kedavra.

“What, not going for Hufflepuff?” said a voice in my ear.  I turned to see Sirius had planted himself next to me and was finishing the dregs of his tea.

“Why would I be going for Hufflepuff?” I asked, surprised.

“Because lover-boy used to play for them, of course,” he said as though it was obvious.

I was mildly astonished he would even think that might make a difference.  “So?”

He shook his head, though he was smiling and his eyes were sparkling.  “I don’t know, Laura, picking your House over your boyfriend.  Some blokes might not take too kindly to that.”

“But I was in Gryffindor long before he came along,” I pointed out.  “I might have always had a soft spot for Hufflepuff but the Sorting Hat had other ideas, so I’ve adapted myself.  Just as well, too – Gryffindor’s got a much better team.”  I grinned.

He looked confused.  “But wasn’t your sister in Ravenclaw?”

“Yeah, why?”  Now it was my turn to be confused – what did Bea have to do with anything?

“Then why would you have a soft spot for Hufflepuff?”

I laughed.  Everyone knew his family history, no one knew mine.  “Because, Sirius, prior to Bea, all my family were in Hufflepuff,” I explained.  “She broke the trend and I broke it even further.  Dad didn’t know what to do with us, he’d drummed Hufflepuff in our heads all our lives and then neither of us was Sorted there.”  I paused, looking at him.  “Imagine you got along with your family, you might have a soft spot for Slytherin.”

He grinned.  “Nup, I can’t imagine that.  It’s beyond the realms of possibility.  But I think I know what you mean.”

“Anyway,” I continued, my eyes on the Hufflepuff table again, “Bertram knows that I won’t go against my House.  Not even for Hufflepuff.”  I didn’t mention it had been a cause of tension between us, that he had automatically expected I would swap my team for his.  I’d been rather annoyed by that – Quidditch didn’t work that way and I had no intention of ditching the team I’d supported all through school on the basis of a few snogs.  Maybe in the end he’d appreciated my standing up for what I believed in.  I certainly hoped so.

Sirius was saying something innocuous, and I realised I’d not been paying attention to him.  Oops.  Some friend I was.  I pretended I’d been listening by smiling at him as I poured myself a drink, and I suspected it worked because he smiled back, got up and said, “See you at the game, then.”

After breakfast I went down to the Quidditch pitch like the rest of the school.  Bertram sought me out and I smiled as I defiantly pulled my red and gold Gryffindor scarf closer around my neck.  I would have supported Hufflepuff against Ravenclaw or Slytherin, but not against my own House.

“Not changing your mind, then?” he asked, and his tone was easy but he was obviously still disappointed.

“Sorry, no,” I said.  “Gryffindor by at least two hundred, thank you very much.”

His arm snaked around me.  “And what would you be saying if I was still on the team?”

I looked at him.  “I’d be hoping you had a great game and that Gryffindor won by at least two hundred.”

He shook his head affectionately.  “You’re like the Rock of Gibraltar, aren’t you?” he said, tousling my hair.  “Won’t budge for anything.”

“I’ve told you, you don’t just swap Quidditch teams on a whim,” I said.  “You know that, you used to play.  How can you expect me to be any less loyal?”

“You do realise this means we can’t sit together,” he said somewhat sternly.  “Not if we’re supporting different teams.”

“Fine with me,” I replied.  “It’s only an hour or two anyway, I’m sure we’ll survive.”  I’d intended to sit with Mary anyway, as this was the first game she’d been to since getting together with Marcus and she’d asked me to provide moral support, so where Bertram wanted to sit wasn’t high on my list of priorities.

We stopped just short of the pitch and he pulled me aside.  “Do I at least get a kiss goodbye?”

“Of course,” I smiled, reaching up and pulling his face towards mine.  “A kiss goodbye, but not for good luck.”  And before he could respond our lips were together – I’d always intended to have the last word.

After a little while we parted and I hurried up to the Gryffindor seating area where Mary and the other girls had saved me a spot.  “That’s the trouble with going out with someone from another House,” I grumbled as I pushed past Martha to the empty seat.  “Always want you to go against your own team just ’cause they asked you to.”

Mary laughed.  “He wanted ye t’ support Hufflepuff?  Fa’ chance o’ tha’!”

“Exactly what I told him,” I agreed.  “Gryffindor by at least two hundred.  Even if he was still playing, I’d still be saying Gryffindor by at least two hundred.”  I paused, taking in the view from the stand.  “Oi, Remus,” I said a bit louder, seeing him between Sirius and Peter a couple of rows in front of us.  He turned around.

“Yes?”

“Does James think we’re going to get the points?  Enough, I mean, to get to the top of the table?”  It was always good to get a perspective from one of the participants, and now I knew the boys well enough to ask for one.

“Probably,” Remus said.  “Depends on whether their Beaters have a good day or not.”

I nodded.  “That sounds reasonable.”  The Hufflepuff Beaters were very good and as sixth- and seventh-years were a bit stronger than ours, who were both in fifth year.  A rogue Bludger or two could do a tidy bit of damage if they had their eyes in.

We were interrupted by the starting whistle, and Mary was instantly an interesting but messy combination of nerves and pride.  Every time Hufflepuff scored, against Marcus of course, she took it as a personal injury, but each throw he blocked was the pinnacle of success.  Lily and I, on either side of her, would occasionally exchange a giggle when she wasn’t gripping our arms like her life depended on it.

The game had been going for about forty-five minutes when the Snitch appeared.  The score was two hundred and seventy to two hundred and fifty, Gryffindor leading, but without another couple of goals it was too early for us to win by the required margin.  The Hufflepuff Beaters had indeed played at their best, sending Bludgers at our Chasers at the worst possible times.  Naturally, the Hufflepuff Seeker didn’t see the Snitch’s arrival as a problem and took off like lightning towards it but our Seeker, Persephone Alderton, appeared undecided as to whether she should pursue him or not.  In the end she did, succeeding only in putting him off enough to make him miss the take.  The Snitch, reprieved, took off underneath the grandstands, and I didn’t see it again until a couple of minutes later when Persephone rose triumphantly in front of the stand with it clutched in her hand.

Of course, we hadn’t won by enough to knock Slytherin off the top of the Quidditch table.  The final score was four hundred and thirty to two hundred and fifty, meaning we were a lousy twenty points short.  We would have to rely on other results if we were to get to the top of the table before the final game of the year, in which we would be playing Slytherin.  No one wanted the championship to come down to that game so it would be a little nerve-wracking for a few weeks.

I found Bertram after the game.  “Not quite what you were hoping for, was it?” he asked as he put an arm around me and we headed back to the castle.

“Not quite,” I admitted, “but still pretty close.  And at least we won.”

He grimaced.  “I knew I didn’t like that Potter for a reason.”

I laughed at him.  James had scored a hundred and twenty of our points, with the remaining hundred and sixty not due to the Snitch shared between Clarrie Trimble and Anna Vector.  “Don’t you dare say a bad word about James Potter,” I scolded lightly.  “Otherwise I’ll just think you’re jealous he’s not on your team.”

“I wonder if we can take him out before he plays us again …” he mused.  “Break a leg or something.”

“It’d take more than that to stop James playing Quidditch,” I said.  “You’d have to kill him.  Which I’m not recommending, by the way – I’ve seen him duel.”

Bertram scowled.  “Is there anything that bloke can’t do?”

“Of course there is,” I said, smiling as we made our way through the front doors of the castle.  “He can’t get Lily to go out with him.”

His expression cleared.  “Remind me to congratulate her next time I see her,” he said lightly.  We stopped near the foot of the main stairs, his arms around me.  “Laura, I’ve got a mountain of homework,” he went on.  “Can we meet up at supper instead of this afternoon?”

I considered it.  “That should be fine,” I said.  “I’ve got a Potions essay to finish anyway, it’s due on Monday and I’ve barely done any of it.”

He kissed me gently.  “Thanks.  See you later on.  I’ll save you a spot at our table.”  His hands had found their way under my jumper and were running up my back.

I smiled and kissed him again.  “That’d be great, thanks.”  And, a rather warm hug later, I waved as I went up the stairs and he disappeared towards the Hufflepuff common room.

****

Even though the Easter holidays only went for two weeks, and there was a four-day weekend smack bang in the middle of them, my mother was keen that I go for my provisional drivers’ licence.  As a police officer she wanted Bea and I to have a good understanding of the Highway Code and believed it would be very useful if we both learned to drive.  She’d not had much luck with Bea, who showed little interest in getting her licence, but I was a much more willing participant and she spent many hours with me in the car, showing me the basics and supervising my driving when I did make it onto the road.  Towards the end of the holidays she even persuaded one of her colleagues, who worked in driver testing, to take me out a few times to make sure I had a proper understanding of everything I would be examined on when I went for my licence.

In between driving excursions I was inundated with owls from Bertram, who was eager to see me before school started again and professed to be just as eager to meet my family.  Unlike me he could easily Apparate over long distances (and, as a minor point, also had his licence) and made it to Bristol from his home on the outskirts of Nottingham without difficulty.

I introduced him to my parents – and to Bea, who was still living at home and even still had the same job – with a certain amount of hesitancy and trepidation.  The problems even I was seeing in the relationship were frankly a bit of a sticking point: I wasn’t sure that it would be a long one and so didn’t see the need to bring parents into the mix.  But he was showering me with kisses and compliments at the time he suggested it, so I was feeling more indulgent towards him than I sometimes was during my more introspective moments.  Needless to say I was having second, third and fourth thoughts about his visit by the time he actually appeared on my doorstep.

The ‘meet the parents’ thing fortunately went off better than I had anticipated.  Bertram was the very model of good manners and social niceties, and Mum even invited him to stay for dinner.  However, there was something in the air that wasn’t quite right.  I couldn’t put my finger on it but it put me on my guard, and as a result I wasn’t quite my usual self that evening.  Fortunately I didn’t think anyone noticed, and I made a point of contributing as much to the conversation as usual, but I was never really comfortable.  Finally, near midnight, Bertram took his leave without having made one inappropriate suggestion or gesture, and I breathed a sigh of relief that it was over.

When the time came to go back to school, I found Mary on Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters before Bertram found me.  “I probably don’t have much time,” I told her, “but I need to talk to you.  It’s been, well, an interesting break.”

Mary raised her eyebrows as she hauled her small suitcase onto the train – only going home for two weeks, we didn’t need much luggage.  “Bertram?”

“Came over to meet my folks, believe it or not,” I explained.  “Fortunately it went okay, but …”

“Say no more,” she said, smiling.  “An’ here he comes.  We’ll talk tonicht, okay?”  And she clambered onto the train and promptly disappeared, probably in search of Marcus.

I turned around to see Bertram, who was beaming as he walked towards me.  “How’s my favourite girl?” he asked, kissing me.

“Great,” I smiled.  “I take it you got home okay on Thursday night?”

“Piece of cake,” he answered, his hand stroking just behind my ear in an affectionate way.  “Shall we find a compartment?  Somewhere private,” he added much more quietly, his other hand tracing my spine and pausing when it reached the base.

I grinned again, thinking that so long as he knew when to stop this would be a most enjoyable train ride, and leaned up to kiss his cheek.

Over his shoulder I watched the procession of students who were making their farewells to their families and boarding the train.  Clio Zeller was there, still with Sebastian Quirke, who she had apparently hooked up with in Hogsmeade back in February.  Gertie Cresswell and her little brother Dirk were there, alone – I remembered they were Muggle-born and therefore their parents may have preferred not to enter the platform.  Lily was looking tearful as she gave her mum an extended hug before climbing aboard the prefects’ carriage.  Maggie Flint was farewelling what looked like her parents and older brothers.  Gerry Stebbins was looking around keenly, probably for Mary and probably in the hope she and Marcus had broken up.  Anna Vector, the Gryffindor Quidditch captain, was surrounded by friends further up the train.  James and Sirius were picking their way through the crowds with what must have been James’ parents, though they looked a little older than I would have thought.  I noticed Elvira hovering brazenly behind the boys, eyeing them hopefully, and I suspected Sirius was aware of this as he was scowling as he made his way down the platform.  Not wanting to be on the receiving end of his temper, I grabbed Bertram and we climbed onto the train.

Of course we didn’t spend the whole train ride joined at the mouth, or even at the hip.  Bertram had brought the Sunday Prophet along and we picked our way through it, looking for names we recognised among the lists of people who had died or disappeared in the previous week.

“Oh look,” he said, pointing to Ruby Hopkirk’s name among the dead.  “Do you think she’s related to Nestor?”

“Maybe,” I said, looking around as if I expected to see Nestor walking past our compartment at that precise moment so I could ask him.  “How about that one?  Could be related to Fin.”  The name Niall Quigley had caught my eye; Finbar Quigley was in the year below me at Gryffindor, and a Beater on the Quidditch team.

“Oh, that’s awful,” I went on, my eyes transfixed.  “Frederick Strout.  I know that’s Thalia’s dad.”  Thalia was a Hufflepuff in my year, and her father had apparently disappeared without a trace the previous Wednesday.  “I wonder if she’s even come back this term, if that’s happened.”

“And look at that one,” Bertram said a little later.  “Genevieve Keitch.  I’m pretty sure she’s David Keitch’s mum.  Looks like she’s been tortured.”  David Keitch had been in Bea’s year, in Hufflepuff, so Bertram probably knew him.

“What for, though?” I asked rhetorically.  “It’s not like she would have information they wanted, would she?”

It was a horrible side effect of the time we lived in that we could blithely go through a list of dead and missing as though it was the weekend’s Quidditch results.  It was all due to Voldemort, of course – it was him and his minions who were responsible for the deaths and disappearances of the loved ones of our schoolmates.  Even Muggle Britain wasn’t immune, with explosions and building collapses that the Muggle authorities described as freak accidents, but were actually random Muggle killings initiated by the Death Eaters.

By the time we reached Hogsmeade we were feeling rather sombre and serious, having heard more stories on the train about people’s parents, cousins, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, who had been on the receiving end of the Death Eaters’ wands.  Bertram kept me in a close embrace, which I appreciated as it was more comforting than romantic.  We clambered onto the horseless carriages at the station with heavy hearts and a sense of dread as to what the coming years would bring.

The feast that night was again a sober affair.  Professor Dumbledore drew our attention to the large numbers of casualties from the war, reminding us that success lay in sticking together to fight this evil.  United we stand, divided we fall.  I was absolutely in agreement with him but I’d heard it all before and to be honest my attention started wandering before he reached the end of his speech.  The food was on the table before I’d realised he’d stopped talking.

“So, wha’s up?” asked Mary, spooning a couple of jacket potatoes onto her plate.  “Ye wanted t’ talk?”

“I think it can wait,” I said, indicating Fin Quigley down the table.  It appeared that Niall Quigley was indeed a cousin of his who had been killed during the week.  After all the bad news, having my whinge to Mary about Bertram suddenly seemed much less important.

Fortunately Mary understood my reluctance and went back to pouring gravy over her roast chicken.  “Fair enough.  Though it micht be a nice change, talkin’ aboot boys again fer a while!”

****

My week improved that Tuesday when Professor McGonagall called me back after Transfiguration finished.  “Miss Cauldwell?” she said as we gathered our books and stuffed them in our bags.  “A word, please.”

I looked resignedly at the other girls and approached her desk with trepidation.  Was my last homework assignment really that bad?  I had the hang of Transfiguration now, my marks were pretty good and I was proud of what I’d been able to achieve.  After all, just that day I had successfully Transfigured my hand into a cauliflower and back again.

She smiled when I reached the desk.  “Miss Cauldwell, here is your clasp back,” she said, handing me the stunning piece of jewellery I’d been given anonymously for my birthday.

“Oh,” I said, momentarily lost for words.  She’d had it so long I’d almost forgotten about it.

“Professor Flitwick, Professor Viridian and I have checked it for every jinx, hex and curse we can think of,” she continued.  “It appears to be clean.  Maybe the card just got lost.”

“Thanks, Professor,” I said, holding the clasp tightly as I found my voice again.  “I don’t think it did, but you might be right.”

“Well, Miss Cauldwell, that is all,” she went on.  “And might I say how pleased I have been with your progress this year.  You are showing a new aptitude for the subject.”  There was a note of finality to her voice as she smiled again, and I had clearly been dismissed.

“Thanks, Professor,” I said again and, hoisting my bag over my shoulder, left the classroom.

I didn’t care if I was late for Herbology.  I stopped outside the Transfiguration classroom then and there to attach the clasp to my school robes.  And then, not sure it was sitting right, I went to the nearest toilets and checked it in the mirror.  A couple of adjustments later and I was on my way, beaming at everyone I saw, even the Slytherins.  The clasp was clean, it wasn’t jinxed, and it was the most stunning thing I owned, so I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to show it off to everyone.

I got to Herbology just as Professor Sprout was directing us into Greenhouse Four.  On the way inside, Lily looked at me questioningly as if to ask what Professor McGonagall had wanted, and in response I pointed at the clasp now attached firmly to my robes.

She beamed at me and directed Mary’s attention to it.  “You got it back!” she whispered, clearly thrilled for me.  “I knew it was going to be okay!”

Our attention was diverted by Sprout, who had started lecturing us about the correct way to prune a Devil’s Snare.  The trick apparently was to do it little by little, inch by inch, so that it didn’t notice it was being pruned; if you took off too much at once it would immediately recognise you as a threat and try to strangle you.  Pulling on our dragon-hide gloves, we prepared to spend a pleasant but careful hour pruning the plants.

“So it’s clean, then?” asked Mary as the three of us gathered around a Devil’s Snare.

“Seems so,” I said, looking around for some secateurs.  There were none so I wandered up to where Professor Sprout was to pick up some more.  However, I was so pleased with getting the clasp back that I wasn’t fully concentrating on where I was going (never a smart move in the greenhouses, where one of the plants might attack you), and realised too late that I was about to walk into someone.  Looking up, I saw Sirius who apparently was also missing secateurs, and had just reached for the last pair.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, turning around once he realised I was there.  “Yours, I think.”  And he handed them to me without hesitation.

“No,” I said.  “You were here first, you should take them.”

“I insist,” he said, smiling, and I found myself pleasantly distracted by the change it made in him, the way his face lit up.  Yep, I thought, definitely way too susceptible.  “Ladies first.”

“You’re assuming that I’m a lady,” I said, having located my voice.  I noticed that Sirius’ expression had changed slightly too, and he looked a mixture of pleased and confused.  However, at my words he started visibly, and shook his head.

“I don’t assume, I know,” he said, pushing his hair out of his eyes.  “Seriously.  Take them.  I’m sure Sprout’s got some more somewhere.”  And if anyone could charm some more secateurs out of Professor Sprout’s supply sheds, I reasoned to myself, it would be him.

I conceded defeat and took the secateurs graciously.  “Thank you,” I said, and made my way back to the girls and our unpruned Devil’s Snare, my mind full of that smile.

No, Laura, concentrate, I thought to myself.  You have a boyfriend.  Stop daydreaming about someone you’ll never have and who most probably doesn’t even realise he’s flirting with you.  And I shook my head and made an effort to join in Lily and Mary’s conversation.

The lesson ended with us being given a sizeable assignment where we had to compare the propagation techniques for the Mimbulus Mimbletonia and Bubotuber plants and suggest ways of improving growth rates, which was somewhat surprising as it had nothing to do with the lesson we’d just had.  However, we had been studying Mimbulus the previous term (though not actually working on it – the plant was so rare that even Hogwarts only had one of them) so perhaps it was a throwback to that to refresh our memories before exams. In any case, it was hefty assignment.

In fact, this side of the Easter holidays we definitely noticed an increase in our workloads as exams loomed ever nearer.  Every new lesson seemed to provide another three-foot essay, new project or practical item to be practiced, and every teacher seemed to think that we had endless hours in which to complete said assignments, when in fact it felt like every spare hour was already more than full.

However, if I was having trouble in sixth year it was nothing compared to Bertram’s experiences as a seventh-year.  I hardly saw him, so busy was he with study for his upcoming NEWTs.  We were lucky if we could find two or three hours a week together with our combined workloads, something even Martha noticed.

“Have you and Bertram broken up?” she asked in the common room after supper.

“No,” I said.  “He’s just really busy with study at the moment.  They’ve piled on the homework with NEWTs coming up and he’s having trouble keeping up to date with it all.”

She looked at me shrewdly.  “How much of him are you seeing these days?”

I considered.  “A couple of times a week if we’re lucky.  Plus mealtimes, though they’re getting more rushed too.  It’s better than nothing, though.”

She smiled suddenly.  “Oh well.  Like you said, better than nothing.  Just don’t forget what he tastes like, okay?”

Trust Martha to say something like that to get me thinking.  She really did have a way with words sometimes.

To get my mind off it I pulled out my Herbology textbook to get a start on Professor Sprout’s essay. Mary and Lily were doing likewise, the theory being that if we all worked on it at the same time we could bounce ideas off each other.  Martha and Charlotte were doing some reading for their Arithmancy paper.  I noticed the boys at a nearby table, having a whispered conversation with a large bit of parchment spread out in front of them.

Suddenly Remus frowned and peered at it more closely.  “That can’t be right,” he said out loud, elbowing Sirius in the ribs and pointing to a spot on the parchment.

Sirius leaned in as well.  “Mother of Merlin,” he said, his gaze flicking to our table.  He caught me watching them and quickly looked back at the parchment.  “Wormtail, can you go check what they’re doing?”

“I think I can guess what they’re doing,” Peter said slowly, staring at the page.

“They can’t be,” said Sirius, his eyes still fixated on whatever it was.

“The map never lies, Padfoot,” Remus said seriously.

James was looking very solemn.  “Go on, Wormtail,” he encouraged.  “You know where it is.  You can get past the tapestry and not get noticed.  We’ll need proof before we can do anything.”

“Right,” said Peter, nodding.  He looked over at our table quickly and then scurried out of the common room.

James had taken control of the crisis, whatever it was.  “Right, guys, we need a strategy for this.  As Moony said, the map never lies.”  Like the others, his eyes were transfixed on the parchment on their table.

“We have to say something,” Sirius said immediately.  “If it was me, I’d want to know.”  James looked up and glanced at him with half a smile on his face.

“Shh,” warned Remus, indicating our table, where there had been a conspicuous lack of quills moving across parchment since we had all stopped to listen.  Chastened, we hurriedly turned to our homework again, feeling rather embarrassed.  The boys went back to whispering among themselves.

About five minutes later Peter came back through the portrait hole, looking very serious.  He glanced at our table again and nodded significantly at his friends.

“That lying, cheating bastard,” growled Sirius, his fist clenching.  “I’ll kill him.”

“Settle, Padfoot,” James said warningly.  “If it happens again, we’ll say something.  And then you can do what you want.”  And he glanced at our table and put a finger to his lips to remind them to keep it down.

Lily put down her Encyclopaedia of Magical and Mundane Plants and quickly Muffliato’d the nearest groups of students.  “Well,” she said, looking intently at us, “what was that all about?”




Author's note:  If anyone is thinking of leaving a review for this chapter, I'd just like to request that you don't quote Sirius' line in there about the "lying, cheating bastard".  I have no problem with the language (obviously - I wrote it) but it's not 12+ and I've had some reviews deleted because it was in there.  I appreciate each and every review and I think it's a real shame if they have to be deleted due to inappropriate language.  Thanks!

Chapter 25: Exposing the lies
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On Friday I had lunch with Betram, who had a free period afterwards which we decided to spend together before I went upstairs to get set into homework before the weekend started in earnest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has she ever said anything about you?”

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

James looked puzzled.  “Conspicuous?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that is?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Chapter 26: Bertram's end
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Bertram.

Bertram and a girl.

Bertram and a girl who wasn’t me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, guys,” I said weakly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re saying this has happened before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked up at him.  “Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are ye okay?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, they left,” I said hoarsely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martha looked around critically.  “Anything missing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” asked Charlotte.

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

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

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

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

“Definitely not,” Charlotte agreed somewhat nervously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

“Why not?” asked Lily, sounding surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

Dear Laura

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of love,
Mum. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Remus?” she suggested with a grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So how do you play it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Driving?  You mean Muggle driving?”

“Yeah, why?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“First time and all,” I added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

Dear Laura

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

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

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

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

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

Love,
Lily 


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martha looked most surprised.  “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martha giggled.  “This should be interesting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bu’ why him?” asked Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He was in the way,” Peter explained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sirius groaned.  “I knew we shouldn’t have left it unattended,” he muttered, shaking his head, though I caught his eye and it was twinkling.  “What are they doing this time, trying on my clothes or planting love potions?”  Even though he was smiling I got the distinct impression he was only half joking.

James grinned.  “Both, probably.  And I think that some of them have even had a go at my trunk, just for good measure.  Now come on and leave these girls in peace, will you?”

Lily stepped back outside while Peter and Sirius left, then came in and plonked herself down with a smile.  “This could be a rather interesting year,” she admitted.

“We heard James was Head Boy,” Charlotte said with a grin.  “And you’ll have to be working closely with him all year …”  She let her voice trail off.

Lily nodded.  “And, you know, a year or two ago that would have been a nightmare.  Always watching me or propositioning me and making lewd suggestions and goodness only knows what else.  But he was most restrained today, not a hand out of place, not one inappropriate comment or even a leer.  I think he’s growing up.”  She looked rather pleased with the situation.

Martha was smiling.  “So are we taking bets?  How long before he jumps you?  Or do you think he might even have grown up enough to not even try without getting permission first?”

Lily looked rather pink.  “How about we leave the betting for now,” she suggested, colouring even more.  “I’ll let you know in another week or so.”

Mary had a rather wicked look in her eye.  “I thin’ we’d be better off takin’ bets on who jumps who firs’,” she said with a grin.  “If James is this restrained it micht jus’ be Lily here who caves i’ afore he does.”

Martha grinned at her.  “Mary, you’re a girl after my own heart,” she said fondly.  “I think you might be spot on.”

Lily was shaking her head furiously.  “I don’t know what you mean,” she said, though it was clear she was trying harder to convince herself than anyone else.  “But, in other news,” she went on, looking at us with a sly grin, “I couldn’t say this when we went to Diagon Alley ’cause Dad was there, but guess what?  Petunia’s got a boyfriend!”

I’d heard about Petunia, Lily’s older sister, who was apparently jealous of her for being magical and therefore tried to distance herself from Lily as much as possible.  Lily had always been a bit touchy about this as they had been close as children and she missed her sister’s company.

“Petunia??”  Martha’s voice couldn’t contain her surprise.  She and Charlotte had met Petunia whereas Mary and I hadn’t, though we understood that the older Evans girl wasn’t much like Lily at all and was in fact rather plain and bossy.  “Really?  Petunia, a boyfriend?”

“What’s he like?” asked Charlotte eagerly.  She was always up for a love story, even if it was Petunia’s.

Lily smiled, then made a face.  “His name’s Vernon,” she said, “and he’s appalling.  The sort who knows everything and will tell you so himself.  And he’s revolting-looking too – huge, with a round face and piggy eyes and a moustache, of all things.”  She paused for dramatic effect.  “Honestly, I think he looks like a walrus.  Kind of like a younger version of Slughorn.”

We all giggled at the thought – Lily’s description, while short, was undeniably eloquent, and we all had a mental picture of the unknown Vernon.  Which was less than attractive, I might add.

Martha grinned broadly.  “I’d pay to see that,” she said.  “Horsey Petunia and Walrus Vernon.  They could start their own zoo!” S he then clapped her hand over her mouth, realising she’d insulted Petunia.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Lils,” she went on hastily.  “I didn’t really mean that, I was just having some fun.  Petunia doesn’t really look like a horse.”  She gave Lily a hug in a show of contrition, though she did look at Mary and me over her shoulder and mouth, ‘Yes, she does!’  And Charlotte, witnessing the whole thing, nodded significantly at us in obvious agreement.

Mary chose to change the subject to get Martha off the hook.  “Hoo’s yer ma going, Lily?  Copin’ wi’ th’ treatmen’ all richt?”

Lily looked up and Martha gratefully dropped the bear hug.  “She’s in remission at the moment,” Lily said, her face brightening.  “She was pretty ill at the end of last term, apparently, but Dad said my being home perked her up a bit. I almost felt guilty to be coming back.”

“Oh, don’t beat yourself up,” I said with feeling.  “You can’t help having to come back to school.  At least you were able to give her a couple of months, and you’ll be going home at Christmas.”

She smiled appreciatively at me.  “I know.  And she was loads better, almost like the old times before she was ill.”  And we fell deep into discussion about various family members and, immersed in gossip, didn’t notice the time until the train was slowing down.

To my combined disappointment and relief we didn’t see the boys again until the train had pulled into Hogsmeade station.  We ran into them on the platform as we milled around looking for the horseless carriages, and shared a giggle at their faces when they saw us.

“Oh,” said Peter, looking rather disappointed.  “You’ve changed into your robes.”

“Funny aboot tha’,” said Mary.  “Considering we’re a’ school nou an’ we hae t’ wear them.”

“Colder here, too,” Charlotte pointed out, struggling to contain a smile.  “It being much further north, and night.”

Sirius was also looking disappointed.  “I guess,” he said, holding out a hand for Charlotte’s owl as she struggled to hang onto it in the bustle.  It had been complaining towards the end of the train journey so she’d let it out of its cage in an attempt to shut it up for a while.  “Though maybe it’ll stay hot till the weekend.”  He looked at us hopefully.

Martha shot him a look.  “And what if it does?”

“Calm down, Padfoot,” came Remus’ measured voice from behind us.  “You’ve had all summer to eye off girls, how about you let these ones be for a while.”

I froze involuntarily: I hadn’t even thought of that.  I suddenly had all sorts of mental pictures of what he’d been up to over the summer, and to my dismay I was feeling rather jealous of all the unknown girls he’d found attractive and possibly hooked up with.  I even started looking surreptitiously at him to see whether I could see any telltale signs, such as love bites or even lipstick marks.  Stupid, I know, especially considering most of the relevant parts would be covered by either his robes or his hair, but then again I didn’t always exactly see reason where he was concerned.  To my ever-increasing horror I was discovering that I was becoming more like Elvira every day, so to take my mind off it I busied myself with letting Cerridwyn out of her cage so she could fly up to the owlery, and putting the empty cage with a nearby pile of trunks which would be collected and transported to the school later.

Sirius for his part looked like he had been about to say something but caught himself in time, settling instead for shrugging as Charlotte’s owl perched on his shoulder, above the heads of younger students, clearly not wanting to make its own way to the owlery just yet.

In the jumble to get into the carriages we found ourselves muddled up a bit with the other students, and as a result no one ended up sitting with who they had thought they would, though I noticed that James was already pulling rank to get him and Lily in the same carriage (“Sorry, folks, but the Head Boy and Girl have to arrive together”).  However, I lost Mary and Charlotte in the crowd and ended up in a carriage with Martha, Remus and Sirius, who was still carrying Charlotte’s owl, which seemed to have taken a liking to him.  Of course he’d be in my carriage.  I couldn’t avoid him even when I was trying to.

“How’s that hand going, Laura?” Sirius asked almost immediately once we sat down, fixing me with a look of concern as he pushed his hair out of his eyes.

“Right as rain, thanks,” I said, somewhat surprised he’d remembered it was even hurt.  To demonstrate I moved it around and flexed it a few ways and only winced once.  “I’ll be juggling Bludgers again in no time.”

A smile crossed his face briefly but was quickly replaced by the look of concern he’d worn earlier.  “You should still get it looked at,” he said seriously.  “I’ll take you up to see Madam Pomfrey when we get there.  Once I’ve given this back to Charlotte.”  He gestured at the bird on his shoulder.

That was the last thing I needed.  Time alone with Sirius.  Merlin only knew what I might do without supervision, and I really didn’t want to embarrass myself.  Or him, for that matter.  “That’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

He shook his head.  “You shouldn’t be wandering around the castle alone after dark,” he said, still without a hint of humour.  “Dumbledore stressed that to James in his letter, to make sure everyone’s extra careful.”

Uh oh.  It looked like he’d meant it, he was really going to insist on accompanying me.  Fortunately something occurred to me that meant I could avoid the trip to the hospital wing.  “It’s fine,” I said.  “And Madam Pomfrey will be at the feast anyway, I’ll just go and see her before we get started and she’ll have it fixed like a shot.”

His expression cleared and I breathed an inward sigh of relief.  “Right, that should be okay,” he acknowledged.  “We’ll save you a seat.”  And he looked pointedly at Martha and Remus who hurriedly agreed.

To my relief Martha changed the subject.  “So, how was your trunk?” she asked Sirius, a mischievous smile on her face.  “Elvira nick any of your underwear?”

Ah, the benefits of being an ex, I thought.  I would never have had the guts to ask him about his underwear, be it in jest or otherwise.

He and Remus both laughed.  “Not that I know of,” Sirius said with a grin.  “I think we caught them just in time.”  His eyes were sparkling and I wasn’t sure just how serious he was being.

Remus joined in.  “Though I did see Elvira stuffing something down the front of her robes,” he said, his eyes dancing.

Sirius looked surprised.  “You did?  What was it?”

“Probably anything with your home address on it,” Remus said lightly.  “Or possibly that blow-up doll you carry around.  I couldn’t be sure.”

Sirius looked mortified until he realised Remus was joking, which wasn’t until Martha and I had joined in the laughter.  Which I admit was probably due as much to the look on his face as it was what Remus had said.  I wasn’t sure whether he actually had a blow-up doll and was annoyed with Remus for letting it slip, or whether Remus had made it up and he was worried we might have believed it, but for once I found I didn’t really care.  I mean, if he did, then maybe he’d stay on the market for longer and I might have a chance.  (Yeah, right. I know, pie in the sky.  But a girl can dream.)

Once we got to the castle and filed into the Great Hall I marched straight up to Madam Pomfrey at the staff table to have my hand looked at.  I wouldn’t have bothered usually except I didn’t want Sirius bugging me about it ad infinitum and possibly taking matters into his own hands.  Fortunately Madam Pomfrey, excellent at her job, had a quick look at it and fixed it in no time at all, and I was back at the Gryffindor table, ready for whatever the new school year would hold, well before the first-years came in for their Sorting. 


Chapter 33: It's all about James
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The school year started the following day pretty much without incident.  We received our timetables from Professor McGonagall (oddly enough, exactly the same as we’d had the previous year) and shuffled around to different classrooms listening to different teachers give us the same spiel about how important NEWTs were and how much we would have to study and improve on last year in order to pass.  It was all a rather familiar routine by now and, while the classes were definitely getting harder, it wasn’t any worse than we had expected, though we had yet another Defence curriculum to work to due to the person teaching it changing yet again – Professor Viridian had for some reason left the post and been replaced by a rather young witch by the name of Perkins.

Early in the second week of term, Mary and I had our breakfast unexpectedly interrupted when James and Sirius, followed closely by Remus and Peter, sat themselves down next to us at the Gryffindor table.  I was surprised, especially since Lily was sitting on the other side of us and there were spare seats nearby, but it appeared James for once had something else on his mind.

“Morning, ladies,” he said airily from his spot next to me, reaching for a pile of plates and doling them out to his friends.  “Quidditch trials are on this Friday,” he added casually, looking at me.  “You coming?”

“Why would I do that?” I asked, pouring myself some orange juice.

“Come on,” said Sirius from opposite him, pushing his hair out of his eyes.  “I saw how well you throw.  You’d be a cinch for the spare Chaser’s spot.”

“She dodges darn well, too,” Mary put in, helping herself to more kippers.  “Ye shoul’ see her i’ a snowball ficht.”

I glared at her.  I had no intention of trying out for the House Quidditch team, I knew I’d be useless and I wasn’t particularly interested in humiliating myself in front of the whole school.  Or, more importantly, Sirius.

“Sounds great,” James said with a grin.  “You know I’m captain this year?  What with Anna graduating and all.  We could definitely do with someone with a good arm on the team.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said.  “I’m really not the sporting type.”

“You don’t like Quidditch?” asked James, looking shocked.

Mary almost choked on her kippers.  “Tha’s nae wha’ she said,” she pointed out.  James looked confused.

“I love Quidditch!” I clarified, wondering that no one had mentioned to him that I’d been to all the games the previous year.  And every other year, for that matter.  “Didn’t have much choice, with my childhood.  My dad’s a mad Quidditch fan.  I think he was disappointed he had two girls and no boys, but he took us to games all over when we were kids.  Still does, occasionally, when he has time, but not so much lately ’cause he thinks the games might be targeted.  We all went to the last World Cup, though.  I just can’t actually play.”

There I was again, talking too much because I was nervous.  Sirius often had that effect on me these days.  Thank goodness he was on the opposite side of the table, it was reassuring having that physical barrier between us to stop me doing anything I may later regret.

James was grinning, having obviously decided to test me on my Quidditch knowledge.  “Who’s your team then?” he asked, pouring himself a drink.

“Caerphilly Catapults,” I said immediately.  “We are Welsh, after all.”

Sirius was smiling too.  “’Dangerous’ Dai Llewellyn,” he said . “Too bad they’ve been in a bit of a funk since he got eaten.”

Peter laughed from his spot on the other side of James.  “Yeah, like twenty years ago!”  It was true: since the Catapults had won the European Championship in 1956 – four years before I was even born – they had gone downhill and stayed there.

I smiled grimly.  “I can’t help it if my team’s going through a bad – er – generation.  At least we’re not as bad as the Cannons.”  The Chudley Cannons had changed their motto about five years previously to ‘Let’s just cross our fingers and hope for the best’.  It didn’t seem to have worked yet.

“Why not the Harpies?” asked Remus.  “If you’re from Wales, you could have picked either.  And they’re in better form.”

I shook my head.  “Holyhead’s way up north,” I explained, “in Anglesey.  I’m from just outside Cardiff.  Caerphilly’s only five or ten miles from where I grew up.  And there’s a big difference between south Wales and north Wales.”  I recognised the irony of talking about Holyhead as being ‘way up north’ when I was currently in Scotland, but I was sure they knew what I meant.

He nodded.  “Right.  I must admit, Welsh geography isn’t one of my strong points.”

“Nor anyone else’s, who’s not from there,” I agreed with a smile.  I had noticed that a lot since moving to England – English people as a whole didn’t seem all that interested in the other parts of the British Isles.

“So why don’t you play?” asked James, never one to give up.  Just ask Lily.

Peter clearly agreed.  “Yeah, you can throw, you can dodge, what more do you need?”

“Well, yes, but I can’t do either of them very well if I’m on a broomstick,” I said wryly, pouring myself a cup of coffee.

James nodded.  “Right.  I can’t say I’ve seen you fly, but I won’t argue with you,” he said.  “I’ll let you off, just this once.”

“Besides, my broom’s still in pieces in the bottom of my trunk,” I went on, realising I was talking too much again.  I’d have to have a word to Mary about stopping me when I was doing that.  “I haven’t had a chance to reassemble it since we got back to school, and I don’t know that I’d have time before Friday.  Not if I’m going to do it properly.”

They all looked dumbstruck, and Mary giggled to herself across the table at their reaction.  “I didn’t know you were a broomstick whiz,” Sirius said eventually, looking impressed.  “That is to say, not many people can just take their broom apart and put it back together again.”

James was nodding.  “Even I have trouble with that sometimes,” he acknowledged, helping himself to more toast and fried eggs.  “It never seems to fly so well afterwards.”

“I imagine there’s a lo’ ye dinna know aboot us,”  Mary said with a broad smile.  I suspected she was thoroughly enjoying the conversation going on around her, including any discomfort I might have been feeling, and it crossed my mind that I really should talk to her about that sadistic streak.  She went on, still smiling.  “Laura here’s nae jus’ a pretty face.”

Well, that was asking for a response.  “Not even a pretty face, you mean,” I said, grinning at her, throwing back the line we always used with each other.  “Anyway,” I continued, turning to James before anyone could comment on what I’d said, “you are putting the tail back on before you re-do the flying charm, and not after?”

“Does it make a difference?”

“Of course it does,” I said, a little surprised he of all people didn’t realise that.  “If you do the charm first, the broom adjusts to what its features are at that time.  You need to reattach the tail first and clip it down and all that, and then re-do your charm so that it applies to the whole thing.  That should probably sort out any problems you’re having.”

James was looking flabbergasted.  “Are you sure you don’t want to join the Quidditch team?” he asked.  “Your broom knowledge alone could get you a spot I’d think.”

I laughed.  “Not a hope, sorry, James.  Couldn’t play anyway,” I went on.  “Dad’s really keen for me to do as well as possible during NEWTs, so he doesn’t want me distracted by anything.  Meaning, no extra-curricular stuff.  Bea had the same rule.”

“Adviser, then,” he suggested.  “Come and give us tips.”

“I’ll think about it.  But only if it doesn’t interfere with NEWTs.”  I grinned.  “Can’t go against darling daddy’s rulings!”

“By the way,” Remus said, changing the subject, “we hear you’re going out with Caradoc Dearborn.  Were you ever planning on telling us?”

“Am I?” I asked, baffled.  This was the first I’d heard of it.  “That’s weird, you’d think I would have noticed.”  I suddenly realised what Remus had said.  “And why would I tell you something like that anyway?”

“Because we’re your friends,” James said easily, raising an eyebrow at Sirius across the table.  “But do we take you to mean you’re not seeing Dearborn?”

“Not that I know of,” I said carelessly, having some more coffee.  “Where’d you hear that one?”

“Not telling,” said Sirius, pretending to lock his lips and throw away the key.  “But that makes things easier.”  He looked a little relieved, truth be told.