I looked at Sirius in shock, not really believing my own ears. Did he just say what I thought he’d said? Or were my ears playing tricks on me, making his words sound like something I wanted so desperately to hear?
“What was that?”
“I love you,” he said again. Right, that was definitely what he’d said. I couldn’t mis-hear twice, could I?
I dropped my overnight bag and went to him, focusing my attention on unbuttoning his shirt all the way down and resting my hands on his chest before I could trust myself to look at his face. His heart was beating so fast I was surprised it hadn’t burst out of his ribcage. Reaching up, I kissed him softly, just a light one, no tongue, and then gave his lower lip a gentle bite for good measure.
“I love you too,” I whispered, not really believing that it had actually come to this.
He wrapped his arms around me tightly, looking relieved. “So,” he whispered in my ear, “will you stay?”
How could I not, after something like that? “Yes, I’ll stay,” I said, pulling back from him only far enough to ease his shirt off his shoulders and drop it to the floor behind him. “Screw Dad.”
“Well, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind,” he teased. “Nice as I’m sure your father is, he isn’t really my type.”
“You know what I mean,” I said, smiling as I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him towards me.
He smiled too as he pulled my t-shirt off over my head, then walked me backwards until my legs hit the bed, and pushed me down onto it. “Now this,” he murmured, “is much more like it.”
It was different than usual, more real, like the airing of those words made everything more intense. I wouldn’t have believed that it could make that much of a difference, but every touch was electric, every caress surging, every kiss extended. If this was what love was really about, I could understand why people would try to move mountains for it. At that moment, I thought I might try to do that, too.
“It’s funny,” Sirius said later as we lay there, arms around each other, “that was much easier to say than I’d thought it would be.”
“What, I love you?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yep. I was terrified, you know. It’s not something I’ve ever had to say to anyone before.”
I looked at him, surprised. “Not even your parents?”
He shook his head. “Put it this way, Laura, displays of affection aren’t exactly encouraged in my family. This has all been a pretty steep learning curve for me.”
I shook my head too. “And to think I was frightened to say anything in case it scared you off,” I said. “I didn’t want to lose you.”
“You know, it might have,” he admitted. “Scared me, that is. Dione said it once and I pretty much ran out the door.” He smiled ruefully. “But I don’t think you would have lost me. I would have just needed some time to get my head around it.”
“But you’re okay with it now?” I asked.
He paused. “I must be,” he said, frowning slightly. “The thing is, it’s been like this for ages,” he went on slowly, like he was trying to find the right words. “I just didn’t realise what it meant. It’s like – you fill in the gaps where I’m missing things. I’m a better person because of you … I think about things more, about consequences and things. You complete me. And I don’t ever want to lose that.”
I snuggled in closer. “Well I’m not planning on going anywhere,” I said. “And you’d better not, either, I don’t think I could live without you.”
“Nah, you’re stuck with me now,” he said, smiling. “Whether you like it or not. I have no intention of letting you go.”
I giggled suddenly. “You do realise we can never get married, though.”
He looked surprised. “Why not?”
“We’ve killed off all the criteria for someone to marry into the House of Black,” I explained with a grin. “I don’t pass a single one of them. In Slytherin – no. Pure-blood – no. One of the oldest wizarding families – no,” I went on, counting the conditions on my fingers as I ticked them off. “No Muggles or Squibs in the family – no. No interest in you beyond surname and Gringotts vault – big no. And obedient and virginal – no. That’s it, I’ve ruled myself out entirely.”
He laughed and pulled me towards him again. “You’re right, I don’t think you’d survive the vetting process,” he agreed. “My dear mother would probably have a heart attack if you were even suggested. That’s if she actually had a heart, of course.” He paused and kissed my forehead lightly. “I knew there was a reason I escaped.”
Suddenly I sat bolt upright. “Oh no. I never replied to Mary!”
Sirius looked at me gravely. “What are you going to tell her?”
“Just to tell Dad that I’m not there,” I said with a shrug. “I’ll wear it. Like you said, short of pulling me out of school, which is pretty unlikely, there’s not actually all that much they can do to me.”
He made a bit of a face. “I wish my family was like that,” he muttered.
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.
“Not getting wands out when they don’t like what you’ve been doing,” he explained. “My folks were pretty strong on – er – discipline.”
I stared at him, horrified. “They attacked you?”
“You could say that,” he said dryly. “How do you think I first learned to fight?”
“So that’s what James’ dad meant,” I said quietly. “When he said you showed up on Christmas Day covered in cuts and bruises.”
Sirius shrugged. “They all healed,” he said. “It wasn’t much worse than any other time.”
“Well, thank goodness you got out,” I said, wrapping my arms around him protectively. “I don’t want anything to happen to you. You’re mine now.”
He smiled and allowed me to kiss him, but then pushed me away again. “Weren’t you going to talk to Mary?”
My hand went to my mouth – with everything else, it had once again slipped my mind. “Right. Of course. I kinda forgot.”
“I noticed,” he said. “Now, what were you going to do? Letter or Floo?”
“Floo’s probably better,” I acknowledged. “Quicker, you know?”
“Then you’d better put some clothes on,” he pointed out. “Not that I encourage that, of course, but you probably don’t want to stick your head in the fireplace with nothing on. I don’t want any sparks getting you.”
Recognising the truth in this, I hurriedly found some clothes and made my way over to the fireplace. Sprinkling in the Floo powder and calling out Mary’s address, I soon found myself face to face with her and her mother.
Mrs Macdonald immediately pointed her wand at me. “Middle name?”
I grinned. “Elizabeth.”
“Nickname you give haggis?”
“What,” I asked, “rotting sheep gut? That’s not a nickname, that’s the truth.”
She finally lowered her wand and smiled. “Okay, Laura, I’m convinced,” she said. “Sorry, but we just can’t be too careful at the moment.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I understand,” I said. “I was there yesterday, remember?”
“Anyway, I’m pleased to see you,” she went on, her expression changing from friendly to warning. “Your father’s been asking questions. We can only cover for you for so long, you know.”
“I know,” I said. “Sorry about that. I didn’t expect him to be this persistent, he’s been that busy at work lately that I thought we could get away with it.” I took a breath. “If he comes back, tell him I’m not there. Tell him I’m staying with someone else, that you didn’t want to let me but I went off anyway, but I’ll be back tomorrow at four o’clock like we arranged. That way you don’t get in trouble. I’ll cop whatever’s coming to me.”
Mary looked concerned. “Are ye sure?” she asked, picking a bit of silver streamer off her shoe. “Wha’ will ye tell them?”
“The same thing,” I said resolutely. “That I was staying with someone else. They don’t need to know who.” I looked her in the eye and gave her the same argument Sirius had used on me. “Look, I’m of age, I’m almost qualified, they’ve got very little say in what I do any more. I’ll wear the consequences.”
“Well, if that’s what you want to do,” said Mrs Macdonald, looking a little doubtful. “Are you going to them yourself now?”
I nodded. “I think I’d better. Wish me luck!”
Pausing only to rub my knees a bit where I’d been kneeling on the hearth, I sprinkled some more Floo powder into the fire and called out my own address. When the living room materialised, Bea was sitting on the couch, immersed in a book. “Laura!” she said with surprise as she looked up. “What are you doing here?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” I said wryly. “You’re not usually back from work this early, are you?” With the war the way it was, both Bea and Dad were not often home much before eight o’clock. It drove Mum round the twist when it came to working out when dinner time would be.
She shrugged. “Felt a bit off this morning, thought I’d take a sick day.”
That’d be right. Typical Bea. She didn’t look ill in the slightest. Swallowing my immediate reaction, which was to figuratively beat her about the head a bit, I changed the subject. “Mum or Dad home?”
She nodded. “Mum is, on call as usual though. Dad’s working late - again. Laura, where are you? You’re in so much trouble. Dad’s been going spare.”
“I’m safe,” I said. “And that’s all you need to know. Can you get Mum, please?”
“Sure,” she said, rolling her eyes a bit and putting her book down with the page marked. “Back in a mo.”
Seconds later my mother arrived in front of the fireplace, her face a combination of concern and anger. “Where have you been, young lady?” she demanded. “We’ve been worried sick. Never at Mary’s, and then Gina said she’d seen you miles from the Macdonalds’ house with the biggest dog she’d ever seen. What’s going on?”
“I left Mary’s,” I said. “They didn’t want me to, but I did. I’m staying somewhere else for tonight. But I’m safe, and I’m happy, and I’ll be back tomorrow at four o’clock like we arranged.”
She came over and tried to pull me through the Floo, but I evaded her grip. “Don’t even try it,” I warned. “If you try that again I’ll disappear. I’m not risking this being traced.”
Her face fell – even as a Muggle, she knew that the Floo tracking system only worked when it was used for an actual journey rather than just a communication like this. Giving up, she sat back down again, looking resigned.
“I had things I wanted to do,” I told her. “And I couldn’t do them at Mary’s house.”
“So why didn’t Mary’s mother let us know you’d gone?” she asked.
I shrugged, forgetting she wouldn’t have been able to see that. “I asked her not to,” I said simply.
She eyed me beadily. “Have you and Mary fought?”
I shook my head. “No, we haven’t. This has nothing to do with Mary, really.”
“Is it about a boy, then?” she asked. Typical Mum, always getting to the bottom of things. Sometimes I really wished she wasn’t so perceptive. In any case, I made my face as blank as I could.
“Why would you think that?” I said innocently. “I’m not allowed to have anything to do with boys this year, remember? It might put me off my NEWTs.”
An expression of worry was coming back to Mum’s face, no matter how hard she tried to hide it. “Well, these people you’re staying with, whoever they are,” she said, “are they trustworthy?”
I nodded. “Yes. Absolutely.”
She didn’t look convinced. “Are you sure? Can you even be sure? You’ve heard your father talking about it, at the Ministry no one can tell who’s on what side, who’s been Imperiused, who might have been recruited. They all SAY they’re working against the Death Eaters, but if the Ministry doesn’t know who to believe … I don’t know, Laura, I was confident about the Macdonalds, but I can’t be confident about anyone I don’t know, no matter what you think about them.”
“I can understand that,” I admitted. “But I’d stake my life on it. The person – the people I’m with, they’re completely one hundred per cent on our side.” I looked at her. “Just try to trust my judgement on this, okay?”
She looked doubtful. “I don’t know, Laura,” she said again.
“I’m safe,” I insisted. “I promise.”
“I’m amazed Bev Macdonald let you go,” she went on, shaking her head a bit. “With all the precautions they’re taking with Andrew’s wedding, letting you go off with strangers like this seems irresponsible. It’s not like her.”
The ghost of a smile danced around my lips – this offered me another argument. “Well, maybe she thought I’d be safer where I was going, than with them. She clearly thought thatwhere I was going was safe. Maybe you should be willing to trust both of our judgements.”
Mum frowned. Clearly still not convinced, she tried another tack. “Are you still in London?”
“Yes, I’m in London,” I admitted. “Why?”
She just shook her head. “If you don’t start giving me some information I can use, I’ll get the force over there to look for you,” she warned.
“Right,” I said. “You do that. Look,” I went on, “I’ve got to go.” I wasn’t kidding, either – my knees were killing me. “I’m safe, I’m secure, and I’ll be back tomorrow at four. Bye!”
While I’d been in the fire Sirius had got dressed and pulled a couple of bottles of Butterbeer out of the cupboard, and was in the process of putting a Cooling Charm on them. “How did it go?”
“Not really sure,” I admitted, pulling the top off my bottle and having a drink. “I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.”
“But no wands drawn?” he asked as I joined him on the couch.
I shook my head, trying to suppress a smile. “Would have been funny if there were considering it was Mum I spoke to. I don’t think she’d even know which end to hold.”
He just sat there for a little while, watching me. “Look, you’re not regretting this, are you? I know I put a lot of pressure on you.”
I pretended to think about that. “Hmm, going home and being grounded for the rest of the holidays versus being here with you. Not that hard a decision, really.” I grinned at him and picked up the Daily Prophet that we had discarded earlier, finding the page with the crossword again. “Now, where were we up to?”
I woke up the next morning to find Sirius kissing the back of my shoulders. Smiling, I rolled over and looked at him through bleary eyes.
“Ah, she awakes,” he said, putting his arms around me.
“Hard not to with you doing that,” I said sleepily, stifling a yawn and returning the embrace.
“I was just enjoying you being here,” he said. “I could get used to this very easily, waking up next to you every morning.”
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” I agreed with a smile. “But we shouldn’t get too used to it,” I went on, tracing his spine with my finger. “I’m going home this afternoon to goodness only knows what punishments, and then we’re going back to school, so it will be back to sneaking around empty classrooms and behind tapestries again.”
“You had to remind me,” he said, pouting. “I guess we’d better make the most of this morning, then.” He kissed me seductively and I smiled again, running my fingers down his back in anticipation.
An hour or so later we emerged and I settled down with the previous evening’s paper while he set about making breakfast. I’d discovered that generally he wasn’t much of a cook but he did have breakfast down pat, so I let him fuss over eggs and bacon and toast and tea to his heart’s content.
“Oh, that’s nice,” I said, my eyes roaming the wedding notices. “Frank Longbottom married Alice Bradley. Do you remember him?”
Sirius looked up and grinned. “Of course I remember Longbottom, he was a riot,” he said. “What was he, three, four years ahead of us?”
“Two years ahead of Bea,” I said, thinking back. “So that would make him four years ahead of us. Alice, if she’s that Ravenclaw girl I’m thinking of, was in the year below.”
“I heard he’s an Auror now, or in training to be one if he hasn’t finished it,” Sirius went on. “Alice Bradley, was it?” He frowned. “I think she might be too.”
“Well they’ll never be out of work then, will they?” I said with a bit of a sour smile, turning the page. “Ugh. Speaking of which.” I had seen a report of an attack a couple of days earlier on a Muggle village. “Dementors swarmed a village in Kent. Seventeen people Kissed, including a ten year old boy. Dad will just love that.”
His face got very serious. “I heard about that,” he said grimly, pointing his wand at the bacon to make it turn over in the pan. “No wizards around, of course, so no one could cast a Patronus in time. Just Muggle baiting. It makes me sick.”
“Me too,” I said. “Ooh, looks like an Avery’s been arrested,” I went on. “Not for the Dementors, this is for something else. Tartarus Avery, suspected of being connected with the torture and murder of Ian Crockford. That could well be Charon’s dad, don’t you think?”
“Very likely,” he agreed. “We all know what Charon’s capable of. Just ask Lenny Dodderidge.”
“And here’s a Muggle family who got attacked, the Dark Mark was over their house and everything,” I went on, my attention caught by another article. “Seems their son had married a witch. That’s the sort of thing Mrs Macdonald was talking about, I guess – targeting intermarriages. No wonder they’ve got all that security organised. And no wonder Mum was worried, she’ll be thinking it’ll be her and Dad next.” I paused, my eyes roaming the text as I tried to avoid thinking about an attack on my family. “It doesn’t actually say if the son of this family was a wizard or not, but I think it’s implied.”
“Who was it?” he asked.
“Clearwater’s the surname,” I said. “The son’s name isn’t mentioned but there wouldn’t be too many of those around, would there?”
“Probably not,” he agreed, carrying two plates of food to the dining table. I got up to join him. “I think there might have been a Clearwater in one of the upper years when we were just starting at Hogwarts,” he continued, frowning slightly as we sat down. “I could be wrong, though.” He paused, looking at me. “You’re worried about your folks, aren’t you.” It wasn’t even a question, more just a statement that wanted confirmation.
I nodded. “If they’re targeting intermarriages,” I began, letting my voice trail off. He knew what I meant.
He looked very serious. “Yep, I’ve heard that too,” he admitted. “Though it seems they’re focussing on the new marriages, not the older ones that already have children. You know, send a warning that this sort of behaviour isn’t acceptable, try to stop anyone else doing it.”
I breathed out, not having realised till then that I’d been holding it in. That did make me feel just a little better, though another concern soon struck me. “What about Lily and James?”
He shrugged, though his face was still rather grave. “It’s an issue, but I suspect that by the time they get to that point the focus will have moved to something else. I can’t see them targeting intermarriages for years on end, not really. And Prongs and Lily are years away from getting married I would have thought.” I nodded, wondering if he was trying to convince me about this, or himself.
In any case I felt a little appeased, and turned back to my breakfast. “How long do you think this will all go on for?” I asked, piling scrambled eggs onto my fork.
“Until someone takes Voldemort out for good,” he said somewhat viciously. “And if I can help that to happen …”
“Just don’t get yourself killed in the process,” I warned, knowing that nothing I said would convince him not to fight. And I wasn’t sure that I wanted him not to fight, in any case – his abhorrence of what Voldemort stood for and his determination to do something about it was part of who he was and what I loved about him. Besides, as the daughter of a police officer I was used to living with a little uncertainty. “I don’t want to have to live without you.”
“No fear of that,” he said, leaning back on the rear legs of his chair and smiling suddenly at me. “They’d have to catch me first.”
“There’s nothing I can do, is there?” I asked a little tentatively as I nibbled on a piece of toast. “To protect Mum and Dad, if they are targeted?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think there is,” he said gravely, the front legs of his chair hitting the floor again. “If there’s a real threat, the Ministry will do what needs to be done, I’m sure of it. The best thing you can do, aside from following any security protocols that get set up, is to keep yourself safe at all times.” He paused. “And you can always come here, use it as a safe house if you need to. Oh, that reminds me,” he went on, “give me your wand.” Abandoning the rest of his breakfast, he stood up and held his hand out expectantly.
Another sudden change of subject, and one that took me completely unawares. “What?”
“Give me your wand,” he repeated. “I have to set it up for the locks here.”
My jaw dropped. He was giving me wand access to his flat? That was a big step, the equivalent of handing over a key to the front door, even if it was only because he was offering it as a safe house. However, I wasn’t about to argue. Hastily swallowing my eggs, I fished in my pocket and handed it over. “Here you go.”
He gave it a bit of a twirl. “Nice,” he said, looking like he was weighing it in his hand. “What is it?”
“Cherry and unicorn hair,” I replied. “Ten inches, from memory.”
“Right,” he said. “Mine’s twelve and three-quarter inches, this feels a bit short for me. Suits you though.” And, opening the door, he tapped the lock first with his wand and then with mine, and did a couple of very complicated-looking movements before hitting the lock again, first with my wand this time and then with his. “That should do it. I’ll lock up and we’ll try it out. Tap it twice,” he went on. “The spell’s just Alohomora, but it has to be done with your wand, and most of these flats are Muggle so you should probably do it non-verbally.”
We went into the corridor where he got his own wand out and locked the door. I followed his instructions and sure enough, the door unlocked for me.
Sirius looked pleased. “Excellent,” he said, smiling. “Now it’s your place as well.”
I was still taking this in when we were interrupted by the frantic knocking of an owl on one of the windows that opened onto the balcony, and as we let it in I realised it was Cerridwyn.
Taking the letter from her leg, I opened it, a sinking feeling in my chest as I realised it could only really be from one person. One look at the handwriting told me I was right. “Oh, crap. It’s from Dad. Now I’m really for it.”
Sirius tensed. “What does he say?”
I shrugged. “Probably outlining what punishments I’ve got waiting for me once four o’clock comes around.” I scanned the letter, wondering what was in store.
He said something else but I didn’t hear him – everything was drowned out by what Dad had written. Wordlessly, I dropped the parchment to the floor and clutched at Sirius, feeling the blood draining from my face. “Oh Merlin,” I whispered, beginning to shake uncontrollably. “It’s Mary …”
He somehow picked up the letter while still holding onto me – there was no way known I was going to let go of him anytime soon – and sat both of us down on the couch. “Laura, what’s going on?” he read aloud. “I don’t know where you’re staying but if you’re not with the Macdonalds you may not have heard. I’ve just been at the their house after word came in at work that someone had seen a Dark Mark above it …” His voice trailed off. “The Dark Mark? Above Mary’s house? But that must mean …”
I nodded, still clutching at him. "It can't be true," I managed to get out. "It just can't."
Sirius swallowed and looked back at the letter. “A Dark Mark was reported above it, and Bev, Mary and Andrew are there – who’re Bev and Andrew?” he asked, clearly a little sidetracked.
“Her mum and her brother,” I whispered, hiccoughing uncomfortably.
“Right. I met her on Tuesday, didn’t I?” I nodded dumbly, my breath uneven, and he went back to the letter in his hand, his voice breaking a little. “Bev, Mary and Andrew are there … I’m sorry, Laura, they’re all dead. Do you know anything about what happened? Is this why you wouldn’t stay with them? Are you even still alive?” Sirius dropped the letter to the floor and swallowed again, and when he spoke once more his voice was tense and shaking, not like his usual voice at all. “I can’t believe it,” he said finally, his face pale as a ghost’s and his arms wrapping around me tightly. “They’ve killed Mary.”