At lunch time my attention was diverted from my beef casserole by my date for that evening, Bernie Carmichael, stumbling into the Great Hall suffering, yet again, from a jinx of some sort. I groaned.
“Looks like Bernie’s been in the wars again,” I muttered to Mary.
She giggled. “Wha’ is it this time?”
“Jelly-Legs, by the looks of it. Or something similar.”
To be honest, I was starting to have second thoughts about going to the ball with him at all, as this sort of thing appeared to be business as usual as far as he was concerned. I didn’t know him all that well and hadn’t really paid him much attention in the past few years, but from what I had noticed (admittedly, I’m ashamed to say, only dating from the time he had asked me to the ball) he did seem to be a regular target for practical jokes and errant hexes. One day he had wandered into the Great Hall at lunch time quite obviously suffering from a misplaced Hair-Thickening Charm. Another time he’d had to leave Charms early after he found himself in the path of a wayward spell that made him grow feathers, and on yet another occasion he was sent to the hospital wing after being hit with a Babbling Curse which meant that he was unable to stop talking, something that didn’t go down very well with Professor McGonagall in that day’s Transfiguration class.
After we watched him very gingerly try to climb over the bench to take a seat at the Ravenclaw table, I turned to Mary again. “Has he always been the butt of everyone’s jokes, or does he just have really bad luck with being in the wrong place at the wrong time? And, in either case, how on earth did he end up a prefect?”
“I dinna ken,” she said dismissively, reaching for some steak and kidney pie. “Bu’ it prob’ly doesna matter much, anyway. Ye just need t’ dance wi’ him a couple o’ times an’ then ye can fin’ someone better t’ talk t’.”
“So long as he’s not jinxed in the meantime,” I said grimly. “Really, it looks like the sort of boy I attract hasn’t improved in the slightest. Rather than a decent date for tonight, I’ve been landed with an eternal patsy. With my luck he’ll miss the ball entirely because he’s stuck in the hospital wing after being hit with yet another hex, and I’ll be sitting there on my own all night.”
“Aye, good poin’,” she conceded. “Ah, well, maybe ye’ll be in luck an’ he’ll mak’ it t’ the ball i’ one piece.”
I nodded. “Yeah, fingers crossed.”
Fortunately Bernie opted not to join the throng of students having a snowball fight after lunch on the lawns, probably figuring he’d be likely to break a leg or something. Mary and I, however, had no such qualms, and were having a lovely time hurling snowballs at whoever happened to be in our way at the time. Or (in my case) whoever was near Sirius, because it gave me a good excuse to look in his general direction. Sad, I know, but it was as good as I was ever going to get so I allowed myself this one indulgence.
James, as a Chaser for and captain of the Quidditch team, was an excellent throw and was busy showing off to younger students, demonstrating both range and accuracy to wide acclaim. He was making a show of hitting each one in turn smack on the chest just below where the collarbones met, not too hard but enough to leave a damp spot on their cloaks, which they all laughed at until it was their turn to get hit. Lily stood off to one side, smiling indulgently but occasionally shaking her head as she watched him, and way off by the castle Severus Snape watching from a distance, fury and resentment leaching out of him as their relationship showed itself to be even more established and pronounced.
So far I had managed to avoid getting hit by a snowball myself – as well as being a pretty accurate throw I was also, as Mary had pointed out at the beginning of term, rather good at dodging things, a throwback from a childhood spent getting out of the way of whatever spells Bea shot at me. Then suddenly I was cleaned up from behind by a large snowball, and turned to see a grinning Peter.
“That was a cheap shot,” I said, picking myself up, “hitting me when my back was turned.”
“I’d never have got you otherwise,” he pointed out. “You’re dodging them too well.”
“Right you are,” I grinned, sending a snowball his way and catching him square on the nose, which to be fair was reasonably long and therefore easier to hit.
“Oi,” said Sirius’ voice from one side, “no hitting my friends.”
“He hit me first,” I protested, glad to have another excuse to look at him. “And from behind, no less. I was just defending myself.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said loftily. “Do you have permission to throw snowballs at us?”
That was a bit rich, pretending that I needed his permission to take part in the fight. And taking exception to my hitting Peter, of all people, when I suspected he had been about to take aim at him himself. Man of my dreams or not, he wasn’t going to get away with that.
“Well, Your Highness, I didn’t realise that I needed permission to engage in a snowball fight,” I said archly, rolling up another ball and throwing it at him. He moved to avoid it too late and it glanced off his right temple. You know, for someone who was so good at dodging spells in a duel, he was surprisingly slow in a snowball fight. Anyway, he retaliated by throwing one back at me, but it was off target and I evaded it easily. I sent one back quickly and hit him on the chest. Admittedly I might as well have been pulling his hair in the primary school playground, but it was still distinctly satisfying.
James had stopped pelting fifth-years and was watching us, laughing. “I think she’s got you beat, Padfoot,” he said.
Sirius pouted. “It’s not fair. She’s cheating,” he complained.
I laughed too. “Sirius Black, there is probably only one thing in the world that I am better than you at, and it’s throwing rolled up bits of frozen water at people. It’s not much to brag about. Can’t you at least give me this?”
“I guess,” he conceded, trying unsuccessfully not to smile. “But just this, mind, and don’t go telling too many people. We can’t have you getting delusions of grandeur.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, damn, I was going to put it in my CV,” I said, starting to write in the air with an imaginary quill. “Can beat Sirius Black in a snowball fight. That’ll help me get a job, won’t it?”
He retaliated by sending another snowball my way, and the fight was back on in earnest, only ending when I hit him in the nose and it started bleeding. Oops. Sometimes my aim was too good.
“Oh, Merlin, I’m sorry!” I exclaimed, hurrying over to him. He was holding a handkerchief up to his face to try to stem the blood flow, but unfortunately it had been a good shot with a very compacted snowball and his nose looked broken. I pulled off my gloves and got my wand out.
“Episkey!” I commanded, and the nose realigned itself. Thank goodness, I didn’t want to be responsible for him looking less than perfect on the night of the ball. Even if it was for Anne Mockridge, or whoever it was that he wanted so badly he didn’t have the courage to tell them. (I kept reminding myself of that, to make sure I didn’t get too carried away with my daydreams.) I ran my finger lightly down his nose, looking for any breaks, trying to make sure it was definitely fixed. It appeared to be so I moved on to cleaning off his face. “Tergeo,” I continued, siphoning most of the blood off with my wand.
He was looking at me strangely as I fussed over him, an odd look in his eyes that I couldn’t place. I took his bloody handkerchief and cleaned that off as well (noticing in the process that it was monogrammed – just in case I needed reminding of how far out of my league he was), and then looked critically at his face, which aside from a bit of blood was just as flawless and handsome as it had been before he’d been hit. “I’ve missed a bit,” I said, reaching up with the now clean handkerchief to wipe a few drops of blood off his cheek. Suddenly I realised how close we were – I had one hand on his face and the other on his shoulder – and I tensed up again, hoping I would be able to pull this off without making a fool of myself. Our faces were only inches apart and he was staring at me, his grey eyes inscrutable, and one of his hands had come up to my face and was gently wiping my hair away from my mouth. It was one of the most surreal things I’d ever experienced.
Then, as abruptly as it had started, the moment ended. He had apparently realised what it looked like and pulled away, taking his handkerchief back from me in the process and shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Laura,” he muttered as he hurried away. I was left standing there, flustered, trying not to notice the death looks Elvira and her cronies were sending me.
(Quivering Wreck 965; Laura 5. Or that was how it felt, at least.)
Mary dodged a few snowballs on her way over to me. “Wha’ was tha’ all aboot?” she asked as she guided me to safety, away from the fight.
“I have no idea,” I said, feeling absolutely confused. It had felt for all the world like he was about to kiss me, but obviously that couldn’t be right. In any case he had come to his senses before he’d embarrassed himself in front of half the school. “I broke his nose with a snowball, but then I fixed it, and I was trying to get the rest of the blood off him …”
“I can tell ye wha’ it looked lik’,” she said, “bu’ ye prob’ly know tha’ anyway. Actually …” Her voice trailed off and she looked rather thoughtful as she glanced over her shoulder at the boys. Before I could quiz her about what she was thinking, though, we had reached the rest of our dorm-mates, who looked like they were about to ask exactly the same thing Mary had. Thankfully she silenced them with a look – I didn’t have a clue what had just happened and needed to work that out myself before I could tell them. I was disquieted a bit by Lily’s expression, though: Martha and Charlotte were clearly agog with curiosity, but Lily just smiled to herself, as though she knew exactly what was going on. I made a mental note to ask her once we were safely out of the way, meaning away from the boys, so she could enlighten me as well.
“Oh, look at the time,” Lily said suddenly, her voice somewhat louder and higher than usual. “We’d better get upstairs and start getting ready!” It was only four o’clock but I was grateful to her for making our excuses. Looking around to wave our goodbyes, I saw that most of the students had red spots on their faces and arms from where they’d been hit and Charlotte, clearly wanting to make small talk until we were out of earshot, made a comment that without bruise-healing creams, most of the people at the ball would be looking decidedly the worse for wear. Relieved to be able to follow her lead, we spent much of the journey up to Gryffindor Tower speculating on who would look the most black-and-blue if they let nature take its course on their skin.
We spent a leisurely four hours preparing for the ball, trading jewellery depending on what matched our dress robes best, experimenting with makeup styles and colours, and checking out each other’s perfumes to find what we liked best. Lily was steadfastly refusing to share her theories of the snowball incident that afternoon, so in the end I gave up and was content to let her try several different hairstyles on me to work out which one suited me the most.
By the time we were ready to head downstairs, I thought Lily looked the best of all of us. In robes of ivory with a gold and emerald-green trim, and with her thick auburn hair up in a French knot, she was absolutely stunning, and sure to send James into a frenzy when he saw her. She had accessorised with quite minimalist gold and emerald jewellery which set off her eyes just right, and with the help of one of Mary’s lipsticks she exuded a glow I was sure she hadn’t had before she’d finally gotten together with James.
Martha had opted for pale apricot-coloured robes with a revealing neckline and a bit of a frill around the base of the skirt. She had left her hair down but had opted to turn her usually straight hair into round waves which rolled down her back in a golden cascade, and she wore one bold necklace on that complemented her neckline nicely. It was a look I would never have chosen personally, but she pulled it off brilliantly and was bound to send Davey into a spin.
Charlotte had, as usual, chosen bolder colours and wore robes of scarlet which fit her figure like they were sewn on. Her normally braided hair she had let out and tied it partially off her face with a golden scarf, giving her skin a glowing appearance. Of course, this might also have had something to do with the fact she was going with Remus, but I was happy to attribute it to her choice of colours if she insisted. Her tan-coloured skin was highlighted with light makeup and golden earrings and she would have stopped traffic in any metropolis you could care to name.
Mary also went for bold colours and had selected robes of a deep violet, with a deeper neckline than I had expected and a flowing skirt. She again pulled out the silver bangle her father had given her before he died, and we found her a silver pendant with a stone that matched the colour of the robes perfectly, and for her hair she too opted for a French knot. The overall effect was very impressive, and Mary hardly recognised herself when she looked in the mirror. “Amazing,” she breathed. “I look almos’ bonny.”
I had decided on blue robes, kind of a muted royal blue, with a neckline so wide we had to do some fancy wandwork to keep my bra straps out of sight. Lily and Martha had worked wonders with my mousy brown hair and managed to make it look rather stylish in a half-up-half-down hairdo, despite the fact it emphasised rather than camouflaged the annoying curl my hair refused to abandon, and I accessorised with the daffodil clasp I’d got for my birthday and some gold earrings Charlotte had found at the bottom of her trunk. On the whole I was very pleased with the outcome and, like Mary, wasn’t convinced it was me looking out of the mirror. Lily clearly agreed, as she beamed at me once we had all finished and promised, “You’ll knock his socks off.”
Finally it was almost eight o’clock, so we headed out of the dorm and into the common room. Lily and Charlotte met their dates there, and the looks on the boys’ faces was worth bottling as they took in the visions who would be accompanying them. James, in very stylish dress robes of dark green, seemed unable to speak for a full minute, while Remus, in robes very similar to the navy blue ones he’d worn two years previously, was doing his best impersonation of a fish, his mouth opening and closing silently as he took in Charlotte’s appearance. Even Sirius, looking incredible in extremely tasteful black robes with a grey trim and about to climb through the portrait hole, did a decided double take when he saw us, and opted to wait for us to join him before he headed downstairs to meet his date. Peter, it appeared, had already taken off with his cousin Fortuna.
And so Mary, Martha, Sirius and I all headed down the stairs together to meet our dates, we girls walking more slowly than usual to make sure we didn’t trip over our robes or take a tumble down the stairs due to our heels. Sirius laughed at us for declining the short-cut staircase from the fourth floor to the second, but with the trick step halfway down none of us trusted ourselves to keep our footing. Our timing was spot on anyway: it was pretty much right on eight o’clock when we arrived in the Entrance Hall.
Mary and I found Bernie and Sebastian fairly quickly – Bernie’s red hair always was very distinctive, and fortunately he didn’t appear to be suffering the effects of any wayward jinxes. He actually stared blatantly when he saw me, smiling broadly.
“Wow, Laura, you look unbelievable,” he said, offering me his arm.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at him. “You look pretty good too.” It was true. He’d managed to find some navy blue dress robes that complemented rather than clashed with his hair, and without the heavy bag of school books I always saw him with he was distinctly taller. Which was probably a good thing, as with my heels on there wasn’t much of a height difference.
“I still can’t believe you’re coming to this with me,” he chattered as the four of us made our way into the Great Hall. “I was so sure that – that someone else would have asked you.” It almost sounded like he had someone particular in mind, though for the life of me I couldn’t think who.
“Well,” I said, grinning, “they didn’t. I’m clearly not as popular as rumour makes out.” It was said as a joke but he took me seriously.
“Oh, don’t think that. You’re one of the belles of the ball here tonight.” We found a table with room for four people and prepared to settle in for the night.
The food was excellent and the company just as good: Bernie and I were getting along very well, though there was a slight awkwardness to the conversation even despite the fact that the punch had the distinctive aftertaste of Firewhisky, an indication it had been spiked by someone or other. However, I did my best to appear interested in Bernie’s chatter, using all my willpower to focus on that and ignore Sirius and Anne, who were with Peter and Fortuna at a table not far from the one Lily, James, Charlotte, Remus and the other prefects from fifth year up – and their dates – were sharing at the front of the room. They were pretty much right in my line of sight and it was very difficult not to look at them, but I really didn’t want to know what they might be up to. After all, he might have decided to gorge on the punch and use her as a way taking his mind off whoever it was he was after.
After the meal Lily and James came over to have a chat – well, Lily did, and I didn’t think James was game to let go of her hand in case she escaped – and I used the conversation as another excuse to not look at where Sirius was. I even pulled it off: I had to admit, my self-discipline was getting better. (Another point against Quivering Wreck! Yes!) Eventually the band got underway and we all got up to dance.
Bernie and I danced to several songs, then took a break while he went off to find some Ravenclaw pals. He’d been a perfect gentleman but it didn’t really feel like a date – more like I was a precious thing he was scared of breaking, or something out of his reach he didn’t dare get too close to. It was a bit baffling and distinctly unsatisfying, so I found Mary, who was at the bar with her date getting a drink, and we sat down at an empty table to talk it over while Sebastian tactfully went over to join Bernie and the other Ravenclaws.
“It does seem odd,” she agreed. “So there’s naethin’ there? Nae sexual tension, nae hands goin’ where they shouldna, nae flirtin’?” Mary always was one to get straight to the point.
“No, nothing like that. It’s not that he’s not perfectly charming and he doesn’t say all the right things, it’s just …” I paused, looking for the right words. “It’s just that while he keeps saying how great I look and how amazed he is that I came with him, he’s – distant.” Still not quite the right word, but probably as close as I was going to get at the moment. “Oh, I don’t know how to explain it really. Let’s talk about your night. Having fun?” I asked, grinning at her.
“Fantastic,” she replied, letting the change of subject pass without comment. “I dinna ken why I e’er considered nae comin’ wi’ Seb. We’ve bin gettin’ along lik’ a cauldron on fire.”
“So you don’t mind the concept of seeing him after tonight?” I asked, referring obliquely to the ball in fifth year after which she had tried to ditch Gerry Stebbins.
“Definitely nae,” she said, licking her lips. “I think thi’ one coul’ las’ a while.” She grinned wickedly and I groaned and pretended to avert my eyes.
Bernie and Sebastian were still at the bar with their friends so we sat and watched the dancers for a bit. Lily and James, holding each other closely, made such a cute couple, even if they were invariably tailed – at a distance – by an increasingly jealous Snape. Charlotte and Remus were dancing together, closely but somewhat awkwardly, but that could have been due to the fact that Irving Mulciber and Scylla Pritchard kept intentionally bumping into them, trying to knock them over. Our silent reverie was interrupted by Sirius, smiling that devastating smile and looking incredibly striking in those dress robes.
“My turn now?” he asked easily, offering me his hand.
“Sure,” I grinned, standing up and trying not to let on that my knees felt a bit like jelly. Based on Bernie’s behaviour and the fact that I couldn’t see him anywhere, he wouldn’t be too cut up if I danced with someone else for a spell, and there was no way known I would have ever been able to say no to Sirius. With that smile, if he’d asked me to jump off a cliff with him, I would most probably have agreed.
Not counting Bernie, who’d barely touched me really, and Gwendolyn’s wedding, where I was doing a job, the last time I’d been this close to a boy, face to face, was with Bertram. Fortunately, I reflected, being held by Sirius was nothing like being held by Bertram. For a start Sirius was rather taller, probably by about four or five inches. Luckily I had two-inch heels on which made the height difference more manageable, though usually it probably wasn’t too bad. (In flat shoes I was about eye level with his shoulders.) They were also quite different shapes – Bertram was stocky and rather burly from his years of playing as a Beater, whereas Sirius, while he had broad shoulders and wasn’t what you would call small by any stretch, had a leaner, more wiry build. And while Bertram would never have danced like this without a suggestive hand moving either up or down from the small of my back, Sirius as nothing more than a friend was never going to try anything improper. Even without my obsession with him, I had to admit that dancing with him felt nice – comfortable but not too intimidating.
We danced in silence for a while, enjoying the companionship and moving seamlessly in time with the music, though perhaps he was holding me a little closer than I would have expected. Whether I’d had too much of the punch or what it was, I didn’t know, but for whatever reason once we had started I felt absolutely comfortable in his arms. No tension, no panic, just comfortable. Maybe, if I closed my eyes and let my mind wander a bit, I could even convince myself that, just for those few minutes, we actually were a couple.
Eventually, realising I should do something before I got too immersed in that idea and potentially did something embarrassing, I decided to break the silence, pulling back a bit and looking him in the face. “Do you remember the last time we danced together like this? Back in fifth year?”
“Don’t remind me,” he shuddered. “Bloody Prongs, handing out dares left right and centre. I felt so ashamed of myself.” He paused. “Things have changed a bit since then, haven’t they?”
It sounded like a rhetorical question, but I decided to answer it anyway. “Well, I guess I’m not the least likely candidate any more,” I said, stating the obvious.
“It’s hard to believe you ever were,” he said quietly. “And this time you actually know how to dance.”
I smiled. “Yeah, I was pretty ordinary back then, wasn’t I?”
“I would never call you ordinary,” he replied, his eyes twinkling a little. “But yes, maybe not the world’s best dancer.”
I giggled a little at the memory – it was a bit unpleasant, but I had to admit it was funny. “Frankly, I was surprised you even knew my name back then.”
He looked scandalised. “How could you even think that? I’d been calling you by name for years!”
“I meant my first name. I’m not sure that you’d ever used that before.”
He was quiet for a bit, evidently contemplating what I’d just said. I rested my chin on his shoulder, feeling his heart beat rather quickly through the robes.
“You know,” he said a minute or so later, “I was going to ask you to this ball myself.”
I looked back up at him, surprised. “Really? But I thought …” I trailed off, thinking furiously. Was he saying what I thought he was saying? I mean, if Lily’s theory had been right … no, that couldn’t be me, I had to have misunderstood. I thought I’d better bite the bullet and just ask. “Are you sure you didn’t want to ask someone else and just didn’t get around to it?”
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked, a surprised look on his face. “What on earth gave you that idea?”
“Oh … nothing.” I wasn’t about to put Lily’s name out there. Hoping it wouldn’t matter, I rested my chin back on his shoulder and we danced the song out in companionable silence.
When the music stopped, however, he didn’t let go of me. I had intended to go and find Bernie again – after all, he was my date – but Sirius held fast. “I don’t think so,” he said quietly into my ear.
“What do you mean?” There was no point trying to force my way out – firstly he was much stronger than me, and secondly I was actually quite enjoying being held by him. “I really should be getting back to Bernie.”
“The thing is,” he said, still quietly and almost nervously, “now that I’ve got you, I have absolutely no intention of letting you go.”
I looked at him, somewhat dazed. “What do you mean?” I said again, aware I was sounding like a broken record.
“And definitely not with you looking like that,” he continued. “You look incredible. I’ve hardly been able to take my eyes off you all night. In fact, Anne ditched me half an hour ago because I wasn’t paying her any attention, I was watching you too much.”
The next song had started by now, so he gently steered me across the floor again. I needed all my self-control to keep going and not just collapse in a heap on the floor. Was he really saying what I thought he was saying? This was the stuff of dreams, it didn’t really happen, and definitely not to me. Surely not?
Suddenly he stopped moving, and I realised we were close to the door into the Entrance Hall. “Come on,” he said, gripping my hand firmly, “let’s get out of here.”
Author’s note: Sorry for the cliffhanger-ish ending there, but I just couldn’t resist the temptation to make you all wait just that little bit longer. *grins evilly* Feel free to pelt me with whatever rotting fruit and vegetables you have handy. :)
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