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Introduction:

fanfiction
4
****

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.
5
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.
6
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.
7
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.
8
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.
9
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.

10
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.
11
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.
12
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. :)

________________________________________

13
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.
14
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. :)

15
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.
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