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Introduction:

fanfiction
****

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.
16
Leaving the library a week or two later, I looked up from my books to see Elvira Vablatsky at the other end of a long corridor. Not in the mood to humour her, I darted down a nearby passage to try to make sure she didn’t see me, as I couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t want even more advice on how she could get Sirius Black to notice her. (Yeah, because I was such an expert on that topic. Did she really think he ever noticed me?) Fortunately it worked, but only after I’d gone far enough to round a corner or two so I was well out of sight. Unfortunately I had no idea where the corridor led, and after a couple of twists and me even going down a flight of stairs I’d not seen in all the time I’d been at Hogwarts, I was definitely lost.

Starting to get a little worried, I soon heard voices up ahead. Good, I thought, someone I could ask for directions. It’s a bit embarrassing having to ask where you are when you’ve been living in a building for the best part of five and a half years, but there’s times that it’s best to swallow your pride and just do it. Unfortunately, the closer I got, the more familiar one of the voices sounded, and if it was who I thought it was I was very reluctant to ask him for help. He’d humiliated me enough already for one lifetime.

Before I reached them I thought I’d better take a peek to see if my guess was right. Peering around a corner of the passageway, I saw two figures standing quietly in the shadows by an old tapestry, and they looked very much like they didn’t want to be disturbed. One of them was saying, “I wrote to Mum, but nothing doing.”

“Thought as much,” said the other one, the one who sounded familiar. That is, he sounded like Sirius, though he was speaking too low for me to be completely sure. And to think I’d been avoiding Elvira so I wouldn’t have to talk about him – the irony of the situation didn’t escape me.

“It’s okay,” said the first one reassuringly. “Did you get my parcel? I was running late at breakfast …”

“Yes, thanks,” replied the other, laughing. It was Sirius – no one else had that bark-like laugh that I had noticed earlier in the term. “I did appreciate that. I just thought …”

“I know,” said the first person. “I just wanted you to know that I did try.”

I peered around the corner again, wondering where exactly we were and when they might disappear so I could go on. The two were embracing awkwardly, then, without warning, the shorter and slighter of the two broke away and headed off down the corridor, away from me. I froze. The other person – Sirius – was bound to come in my direction. I racked my brain trying to think of an excuse for being there, listening to what was obviously a private conversation. “Lost,” despite being the truth, didn’t really seem to cut it.

I was let off, however, lucky this one time – Sirius turned around and slipped behind the tapestry, leaving no sign he’d ever been there. I breathed out. There must be a secret passage behind there. Idly I wondered where it went but, lost as I was, I wasn’t going to risk making matters even worse. Instead, undeniably curious, I made a mental note to tell Mary and check it out ourselves one day.

To be frank, someone like Sirius knowing where Hogwarts’ secret passages were could not have been less surprising. He needed all the nous he could get to successfully avoid the fan club which, though it had diminished the previous Christmas due to his disinheritance, had swelled rather significantly once term began as it became obvious he’d shot up a bit over the summer. Now at least two inches taller than James, he had grown into his already elegant and aristocratic looks even more than he had previously, so a few who had dropped out were re-joining and there were even some new faces in the mix. They had to be completely exasperating so I felt it would be cruel to deny him the small pleasure of being able to disappear whenever possible.

Anyway, once the coast was clear I continued down my mystery corridor, following its twists and turns and eventually finding myself outside the toilets that no one ever used, the ones with a ghost living in one of the cubicles. Her name was Myrtle and she was rather contrary and depressing, so had been nicknamed ‘Moaning Myrtle’. Which wasn’t very nice, I admit, but it was accurate. In any case, seeing Myrtle’s bathroom meant that I now knew where I was, and I was able to find the staircase that would lead me to the Great Hall in time for lunch without further difficulty.

****

That night we were treated to the sight of James Potter standing on a table in the middle of the common room, its spindly legs creaking ominously under his weight. After all, three and a bit years on the House Quidditch team had meant that he wasn’t exactly a pixie. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he boomed, failing to miss Peter snorting into his Firewhisky, probably at the term ‘gentlemen’. “Ladies and gentlemen,” James repeated, looking furiously at Peter, “you are now looking at the first Gryffindor sixth-year to officially come of age!!” He turned around dramatically to reveal Sirius Black who bowed extravagantly, beaming at the crowd and dressed ostentatiously in a Muggle tuxedo. To be wearing that, I guessed, he’d probably lost a bet again.

“Rubbish,” said Charlotte calmly from our table, where we had all turned to watch the proceedings. “I turned seventeen two months ago.”

Sirius’ face dropped as he turned towards us. “Can’t I be the first at anything?” he asked plaintively. “Aside from schoolwork, of course,” he added, grinning. “Oh, and getting girls …” He trailed off, looking sickeningly pleased with himself.

Peter piped up. “You said you didn’t want the girls!” He looked almost accusingly at his friend.

Sirius looked confused, then his expression cleared. “Not those girls,” he clarified, and we knew he was referring to the fan club. “But normal ones, yes.” He cast an appraising eye around the common room at the gathered students, his eyes lingering on a few different girls who were watching him, and grinned triumphantly.

“You can be the first of us to seventeen, mate,” said James, who was now back on the floor, leaving the limelight to his tuxedo-clad friend. “Just ’cause I’m being generous, mind.”

Peter scoffed, his uncharacteristic boldness probably due to the Firewhisky he’d been drinking. “Blimey, Prongs, like you can talk. Even Moony and I will get there before you do!”

“True,” agreed Remus. “He has you there.”

Lily lifted an eyebrow. “You’ve got to love the irony,” she said quietly to Charlotte.

James, however, had heard her. “What irony?” I could tell he was bursting for an insight into the way Lily Evans’ mind worked.

“The leader of the pack, and he’s the youngest of them all,” she explained, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a smile. Everyone started laughing.

“Yeah, but I’m not the youngest in the year,” he countered. Lily raised the other eyebrow. “Surely not?” he added, now looking worried. “When’s your birthday, Trimble?”

“September, you dolt, remember, I just said,” Charlotte said acidly.

“Oh yeah.” He had the grace to look somewhat abashed. “Hornby?”

“Week before Christmas,” said Martha.

“Oh.” He did look worried now. “Cauldwell?”

“March,” I said.

His face lit up. “When in March?”

“The sixth,” I told him.

His face fell again. “Damn! I’m the twenty-seventh.”

Remus was looking at me curiously. “You’re the sixth of March?” I nodded. “I’m the tenth!” he grinned.

“Well there you are, then,” I said, smiling. “Almost twins!”

James came over to physically stand between us, breaking off the conversation. “Only one left,” he said, looking at Mary.

“An’ ye’re in luck,” said Mary calmly, though she was probably bursting inside – James hardly ever spoke to her. “My birthday’s nae till June.”

James grinned maniacally and began high-fiving his friends, chanting, “I’m not the youngest, I’m not the youngest.” He hadn’t asked Lily when her birthday was – which was late January – but I suspected he already knew it: he seemed to know just about everything else about her.

Sirius stopped him mid-chant. “You finished, Prongs? ’Cause it’s my birthday, now, remember?”

“Oh yeah,” James said sheepishly. “Sorry. I did hear something about that. And I’m sure I heard a rumour of a party of some sort, too …” His voice picked up significantly as he looked around the room. “This Saturday night, folks! In here, eight o’clock. There's no excuse not to come!”

The boys from our year were getting justifiably famous for their parties. I was never sure how they did it but they always managed to provide copious supplies from not only the Hogwarts kitchens but also from Hogsmeade, both the sweet shop and the pub. And at least one of them must have had a substantial music collection because the gramophone generally went all night, thankfully without a bar of Celestina Warbeck’s grating ballads to be heard. The parties were held in the common room so everyone in Gryffindor House was invited, and if one of the boys was going out with someone from another House they were welcome too, though obviously they had to be physically let through the portrait hole as they didn’t know our password.

Having said that, however, Sirius was the only one of the four who seemed to do much dating. He was very sought-after, of course, so that all he had to do to get a girlfriend was pretty much snap his fingers, but even he didn’t do that as much as he could have. I didn’t think he’d gone out with anyone since Dione Turpin, and they’d broken up the previous May – though there were occasional rumours, usually spread by the girl concerned and so of doubtful legitimacy, of the odd snog here and there. Maybe he enjoyed seeing Elvira and the others thinking they might have a chance, maybe the girls at Hogwarts weren’t up to his lofty standards, or maybe he just wasn’t much inclined, I really didn’t know (or care, for that matter).

James, totally hung up on Lily, had had a couple of girlfriends since about third year but no one for more than a few weeks as they got more and more fed up with him gushing about another girl. Remus to my knowledge had never had a girlfriend in the whole time he’d been at Hogwarts, though that wasn’t from lack of offers. Maybe he just didn’t want to, maybe he was even gay – though I had never mentioned that possibility in Charlotte’s hearing. And Peter, who would take anything he could get, was sadly lacking in opportunity, and I got the feeling he would happily have accepted the castoffs of any of the other three boys just to get a bit of experience and maybe even some credibility among his friends.

****

Meanwhile, lessons were going on much as they always did, and in between them we had to deal with Peeves, Dione, Elvira and various Slytherins, all of whom made life difficult in their own little ways. This was exemplified one Tuesday as I reached Viridian’s classroom for double Defence Against the Dark Arts, along with the rest of the class who like me had just come from lunch in the Great Hall, when I was cleaned up by Severus Snape, who had come in from another corridor without watching and barrelled into me.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he spat through his curtain of greasy black hair, pulling his robes tighter around him as he saw James and Sirius eyeing him slyly.

“I’m sorry, Snivellus,” I said coldly, having regained my balance. “I didn’t realise that you not looking where you were going was suddenly my fault.”

He started to reach for his wand but obviously thought better of it, with pretty much half of sixth-year Defence Against the Dark Arts watching. Scowling, he slipped off down a nearby passageway.

Remus, standing opposite, grinned at me. “You know, Laura, you’ve really come out of your shell this year.”

“Probably,” I shrugged. “There’s a theory that it may have coincided with my sister’s graduation.”

He was quiet for a spell, apparently thinking. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said eventually. “Was she really that much of an influence?”

I was looking at my robes where Snape had hit me, searching for any grease marks I might have to clean off, and his question took me by surprise.

“There were times that it felt like it,” I said, lifting my head. “Can you see any stains on here?” Okay, Remus probably wasn’t the person to ask a question like that, but he was the easiest as we were already talking. I n any case it didn’t matter because I quickly answered my own question. “Ah, there’s one. Tergeo.” I siphoned off the mark with my wand.

“He really needs t’ dae summit aboot tha’ hair,” Mary commented.

“Definitely,” I agreed. “I feel like hexing him so that the grease glows in the dark, that way you’d always be able to find where it’s got to.”

Apparently this was a rather humorous idea as half the class started laughing, only to be disrupted by Professor Viridian opening the classroom door to let us in. Settling down with remarkable speed, we all wandered in and found our usual desks.

Viridian as usual silenced the class with no apparent effort, and announced that he was going to teach us the Patronus Charm. While you might think this was something that was more likely to come up in Charms, it was in fact the spell used to repel Dementors, and so definitely came under the definition of Defence against the Dark Arts. In fact, Viridian explained that while this was something that was usually taught in seventh year if at all, the recent spate of Dementor attacks – including the one we had witnessed in Diagon Alley back in August – meant he and Dumbledore had agreed to teach it to us now.

The charm itself was easy enough to remember – Expecto patronum – but it wasn’t just a matter of saying the words and flicking your wand with this one, apparently. The trick was that you had to think of something that made you happy. The happier the thought, the stronger the effect of the spell, known as a Patronus, would be.

A Patronus was a silvery being, generally an animal, that would erupt from your wand and, if strong enough, charge down and scatter the Dementor it was aimed at, as we had seen in Diagon Alley the previous summer. Which was all well and good in theory, but it was much harder to do than it sounded. Apparently, none of my thoughts or memories were happy enough.

By halfway through the double period all most of the class had been able to achieve was a thin silvery whisp of smoke from the end of their wands. Most of the class, that is. I probably don’t need to mention that James and Sirius had well and truly mastered the charm by that point and were treating us to their Patronuses, which if they stayed still for long enough looked like a deer of some sort and a large dog, doing laps of the classroom. That galvanised the rest of us into trying harder and, half an hour later, I was thrilled to see something that almost had a definite shape appearing from my wand tip.

“Mary, did you see that?” I asked excitedly. “That was definitely something!”

“Aye,” she agreed. “Almos’ had a shape an’ all.”

I cast the charm again eagerly, trying my hardest to think of the happiest memory I could. First kiss? No, that was a bit of a dud, really (sorry Cadmus!). Beating Bea in Charms? Good memory but compromised by the jinxes she sent my way as a result. Finding out I was in Gryffindor rather than Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff? No, I was more confused by that than anything else. Getting an O for Herbology in my OWLs? Possibly, but it didn’t really feel like what I was looking for. In the end I decided on a particularly memorable stay at Mary’s in between fourth and fifth years – most probably not the type of memory the charm inventor had in mind, but my life had been uninteresting enough to not provide me with much else.

However, try as I might, I couldn’t get past the vague wispy shape that I’d already achieved, and even then I couldn’t work out what animal it was. Something medium-sized with four legs, but beyond that I wasn’t sure. Mary didn’t even get that, having to be satisfied with the silvery whisp that was the first step to a real Patronus.

“A good start, people,” Viridian said as he closed the class. “Mr Potter, Mr Black, take twenty points each – those were excellent Patronuses for a first try. The rest of you, keep practicing, and we’ll try again on Friday.”

Mary, still hung up on James, was awestruck by his ability in Defence. “Did ye see tha’?” she breathed as we headed up to Gryffindor Tower to drop our bags off before supper. “Mastered it i’ half an hour. An’ such a bonny animal, too …”

I looked at her, using all my self-control not to laugh at the dreamy look on her face. Love does do silly things to us. “Which one was his? I couldn’t tell.”

“He ha’ th’ stag,” she said softly. “So bonny …”

I laughed despite my best intentions not to. “Mary, you’re impossible,” I said. “Yes, he’s bloody good at Defence. And he can do a good Patronus. But seriously,” I went on, remembering something, “don’t get your hopes up, okay? It was a lovely stag but it went straight to Lily before it started doing laps. And I don’t want you to get hurt because of this.”

She sighed. “I ken,” she admitted. “An ye’re richt t’ stop me gettin’ too carried away. Bu’ he’s jus’ so … so …”

“So James,” I finished for her. “I know. But if nothing else, remember, Lily saw him first. And he saw Lily. I’m sorry, Mary, but some things are just meant to be.” And I gave her a quick comforting hug as we climbed the last staircase towards the tower.

We did practice before the next Defence class, as often as we could, and by the time we got back to Viridian’s classroom on Friday morning Mary had progressed to the almost-solid-looking shape that I had. They were still hard to recognise as particular animals, though Mary was convinced hers was a golden eagle, which was one of Scotland’s national icons. Which set me off a bit as the Welsh equivalent was the dragon, and that my Patronus very definitely was not.

Fortunately, under the tutelage of Professor Viridian we both managed to produce a proper Patronus by the end of Friday’s lesson. Not as strong or forceful as the ones James and Sirius had created earlier that week, but certainly enough to make us feel like we’d achieved something. Mary was right, hers was a golden eagle, which she was thrilled with as it proclaimed her as a true Scot. Like her accent didn’t do that anyway, I thought, but she had never really been particularly pleased with moving to England so it was to her a validation of her Scottishness. My Patronus, on the other hand, wasn’t anywhere near as exciting – a medium to large dog, maybe a Labrador, though it wouldn’t stay still for long enough for me to be absolutely sure. In any case we were both feeling pretty pleased with ourselves and didn’t even mind the two-foot essay Viridian set us at the end of class – which I suppose has to be saying something. Like I said, his lessons really were surprisingly good, and I had absolutely no objection to getting better at something like Defence.

****

Elvira came and sat next to me in Ancient Runes later that day. “Laura, I’ve got a problem,” she said as she sat down, putting her books on the desk.

“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?” Although pretty sure I knew, I thought I’d give her the opportunity to surprise me. After all, you never know your luck.

“Sirius,” she said, confirming my theory and going into broken record mode again. “You’re in Gryffindor. You know him.”

“Being in Gryffindor doesn’t mean I know him.” I’d said that before but it never seemed to sink in. She didn’t look convinced so I gave up, taking the path of least resistance. “All right, what’s he done now?”

“He still doesn’t know me from a bottle of Doxycide,” she muttered. “But that’s not the problem. The problem is HER.” She pointed rather viciously at Clio Zeller, a pretty black-haired Hufflepuff who also took Ancient Runes.

“Muffliato,” I muttered, pointing my wand in Clio’s direction. “All right, Elvira, what’s Clio got to do with Sirius?”

“They’re going out,” she hissed, glaring across the room. “I saw them snogging in the Transfiguration corridor during break.”

I looked at Clio, somewhat surprised that Elvira hadn’t hexed her then and there. “They may not be going out,” I pointed out, I must say doing a remarkably good impersonation of someone who actually did give a toss. “It might have just been a snog. And anyway, he’s a grown man. Legally of age and everything. He’s entitled to snog her if he wants to.”

“He’s of age?” she asked, distracted. “When did that happen?”

I shrugged. “Week or two ago, I think. There was a party in the common room, but I don’t really remember when it was.”

Elvira smiled to herself, but then caught sight of Clio again and remembered why she was talking to me in the first place. “But why her?” she asked petulantly. “I’m prettier than she is! I’m smarter! What’s she got that I haven’t?”

The obvious answer to that was “Sirius”, but I thought it would be more tactful not to say that. And of course Clio hadn’t been throwing herself at him every week for the past two or three years, but while that very likely had something to do with his decision I decided not to mention that either – I still hadn’t forgotten Elvira’s reaction the last time I’d said something along those lines. Instead I took the diplomatic route. “I’m sure he’s got his reasons, but he’s not been very forthcoming with that sort of thing with me of late.” Or ever, for that matter. “So I’m sorry, Elvira, but I don’t really have any more idea than you do.”

“You’re in Gryffindor,” she pouted. “You can find out all sorts of things.”

“Can, but don’t,” I said sternly. “It’s none of my business. And I hate to be the one to point it out, but it’s none of yours, either.”

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Remus had been listening in on the conversation, half a smile on his face. Oops, perhaps I should have Muffliato’d him as well. Though, thinking about it, I hadn’t said anything I regretted so it probably wasn’t too much of a disaster.

Elvira was saved from responding to my edict by Professor Babbling, who started the class. Afterwards, she hung back a little watching Clio, and Remus took the opportunity to catch up with me.

“Nice dealing with Elvira,” he said quietly, making sure the subject of our conversation wasn’t anywhere within hearing.

“Thanks,” I said. “I was right, wasn’t I? It really is none of her business.”

“It’s not,” he agreed, “but she wants it to be. I’ve never come across anyone quite so persistent.”

“Clio will need to watch her back,” I said. “Assuming they are going out, that is. Merlin only knows what they’ll do to her for daring to go out with him.”

Remus shrugged. “I’m sure she can look after herself,” he said unconcernedly. “She knows what she’s getting into.”

“But still,” I said, thinking of Elvira. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all. “How’s her Patronus?”

Remus laughed. “I can’t say I know, but I’m sure it’s fine. But I don’t think Elvira is quite as dangerous as a Dementor, do you?”

I giggled a little. “I don’t know. I’d say being kissed by her would be just as dangerous as being kissed by a Dementor. But maybe I’m reading too much into it.”

He laughed again. “You know, you might just have a point there.”

The conversation ended abruptly as we reached the Great Hall for lunch and Remus headed to where James, Sirius and Peter were already sitting, and I found the girls. At the Hufflepuff table not long afterwards, Clio’s ordinarily silky black hair suddenly became bright green and rather slimy-looking, and I drew the girls’ attention to it, explaining Elvira’s ‘problem’ as the likely cause. And then, after the requisite rolling of eyes and groans, we promptly forgot all about it and got on with having our lunch.

________________________________________


Author’s note: I was pretty pleased when I wrote the scene in the common room, which was one of the first I wrote for this story – originally I had Laura’s birthday as the sixth of March and Remus’ as the eighth (just because that seemed about right for him), and then I looked it up and realised the date I had picked almost arbitrarily was only two days off the birthday JKR had given him. You have to love it when fate hands you a coincidence like that.

________________________________________

17
We were greeted one Friday morning in early December by the Slytherins arriving in the Great Hall with filthy looks on their faces and rather striking-looking hair, and word soon went around that they had woken up to discover that several Gryffindor banners and even a portrait of Godric Gryffindor himself had been affixed to the walls of their common room with Permanent Sticking Charms, and anyone who tried to remove them ended up with red and gold stripy locks.

“That would have gone down well,” I laughed to Mary as I heaped bacon and tomatoes onto my plate. “Who do you think did it?”

Mary snorted derisively. “Ye really need t’ ask?” she asked, an incredulous look on her face. “Who dae ye think?”

“Yeah, okay, fair point.” Not far away from us were the boys from our year, laughing maniacally and high-fiving each other across the breakfast table. “I haven’t had my coffee yet, all right?”

She grinned. “Richt, I’d fergotten tha’,” she admitted, her eyes flicking more than once to James. “Ye’re fergiven.”

“How could they have got in there, though?” I asked rhetorically once I’d had some coffee and my brain started functioning properly. “Not only do you need to know where their common room is, but you’d have to know the password as well.”

“I think I can answer tha’,” said Mary, looking across the room to the Slytherin table, where the students’ hair was slowly returning to normal. “Regulus Black.”

Of course. Sirius’ little brother. He was in fifth year and was as unlike Sirius in character as he was like him in appearance. Probably the best way to describe him was like Sirius but less so – less handsome, less intelligent, less tall, less elegant, less popular, and definitely less common sense. Which, come to think of it, was probably saying something. Possibly Regulus had more sporting ability as he was on the Slytherin Quidditch team, but then again for all I knew Sirius was better at that as well and had just chosen not to do it. I knew they still spoke to each other despite the fact Sirius had been disinherited – after all, I’d seen them talking in the corridor a couple of weeks earlier when I’d got lost trying to avoid Elvira – so Regulus had most probably let the password slip at some stage and his brother had decided to make the most of it.

Lily was glaring down the table in James’ direction. “Is that more points you’ve just lost for Gryffindor, Potter?”

“Well, no,” said James, sounding like he couldn’t work out whether he should use his ‘Lily voice’ or not, though his hand still automatically went to his hair. “You see, Evans, we haven’t been punished for this one yet, so technically I haven’t lost any points for Gryffindor …”

Lily rolled her eyes. “I’m sick of us being at the bottom of the House points just because you got bored,” she snapped. “Can’t you use that brain of yours for something useful for once?” And with that she stood up and stormed out of the Great Hall.

Remus let out a low whistle. “You’re moving up, Prongs.”

James, who had been watching Lily’s departure, spun around to look at him. “You reckon? She hates me!”

Remus shook his head. “I think that might be the first time she’s admitted in public that you actually have a brain. That can only be a good sign.”

James looked so hopeful it was rather endearing. “Really?”

Sirius was looking at them both shrewdly. “You know, I think Moony might have a point,” he said slowly. “You may even be in with a shot.” He smirked suddenly. “About bloody time too, I might add, this has been going on so long it’s ridiculous.”

“But don’t ask her out just yet,” warned Remus. “Give her a bit of time. You don’t want to scare her off again.”

James nodded. “And I do that pretty well, generally. I think I could write a book on it.”

Sirius grinned. “Well done, mate! You’ve worked that out! Only took, what, five and a half years?” He clapped James on the shoulder.

Remus cut him off with a look. “Lay off him, Padfoot. He’s suffered enough already.”

“Yeah, I have,” said James miserably. “And she’s just perfect. I think I’ll die if she turns me down again.”

Mary, Charlotte, Martha and I were watching the whole conversation, dumbstruck, though by this point Martha had to turn her head away to hide the fact she was struggling not to laugh. If nothing else it was astonishing that the boys had said so much about the matter with us in full earshot, and I didn’t think I’d ever seen James looking quite so vulnerable. Both Mary and the James Potter fan club, if the latter were anywhere near, would have drooling fodder for weeks.

Martha had managed to calm herself down a little. “I think I have to go, girls,” she whispered as she stood up and walked out the hall, shaking slightly as she went. We quickly finished what we were eating and followed her.

She didn’t even make it as far as the marble staircase, instead ducking into a nearby classroom and dissolving into giggles. “Geez, did you hear that?” she spluttered as we joined her and closed the door.

Charlotte joined in. “We’ve got to tell her,” she said with a broad smile. “Can you imagine Lily’s face when she hears that one?”

“She’ll be horrified tha’ she e’en le’ slip tha’ much an’ all,” agreed Mary, who was doing a remarkable impersonation of someone who didn’t fancy James. I was quite proud of her. “He micht e’en work oot she likes him a’ this rate.”

“And they were so earnest about it all,” I added with a giggle. “Who knew they had that in them?”

Martha corrected me. “No, James and Remus were earnest,” she pointed out. “I don’t think Sirius has an earnest bone in his body.”

“I don’t know,” said Charlotte thoughtfully. “He did seem to actually consider Remus’ point about what Lils said about brains. So he might be developing earnestness.” She giggled again. “Is that even a word or did I just make it up?”

“I’m not sure, actually,” I grinned, “but I know what you mean.”

“Richt,” said Mary, smiling broadly, which I was still rather impressed by. “Where dae ye think Lily’s got t’? An’ who wants t’ tell her which bi’?”

Martha laughed. “Dibs on ‘I’ll die if she turns me down again’.”

Charlotte scowled. “Damn. I wanted that one. Okay, I’ll take ‘I could write a book on scaring her off.’” And once all parts of the conversation had been divvied up among us, we left the empty classroom and headed upstairs in search of where Lily might have ended up. If nothing else we knew she would turn up on the first floor at nine o’clock for Defence, which was our first (and her only) class for the day. However, talking during those classes was generally impossible, even with Muffliato, so if possible we were keen to fill her in before the bell rang.

In the end we caught up with her as she came back inside – she’d been out in the courtyard in an attempt to clear her head, especially as we had Defence first up – and told her what had eventuated at the breakfast table. Lily didn’t disappoint and was an entertaining mixture of horror, amusement and discomfort, unsure how she would be able to face James in class that morning.

As it turned out it didn’t really matter whether Lily could think of anything to say to James before we all went into Defence, as we had only just got to the classroom before our full attention was required by Professor Viridian. Really, our unexpectedly good Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons were progressing very well. Viridian’s speciality was curses and counter-curses, so we had spent a lot of time going through various dark curses, including Unforgivables, and the best methods of repelling them. Those that could be repelled, that is – for all the claims of the Diagon Alley stall-holders, Avada Kedavra still didn’t have any known defence.

Anyway, that morning he appeared convinced that we had learned enough about defensive charms, hex deflections and counter-curses to have a go at duelling each other. The desks were Banished to the walls and we were told to find a partner and a spare bit of floor and do our worst.

Mary and I automatically gravitated towards each other, our apprehension no doubt evident on our faces. I’d never duelled anyone before, not properly, and while I was pretty sure I could do okay in the first instance, I wasn’t so sure I could maintain it for any length of time. Mary, who didn’t have my background of fighting off various hexes from Beatrice during school holidays, was even less confident. Tentatively we cast an assortment of jinxes at each other and tried to shatter the other’s Shield Charms.

Very quickly, however, our attention, along with that of the rest of the class, was diverted by James and Sirius, who had partnered each other. I’d known that they were good at Defence (their Patronuses were a case in point) and had heard they could do a decent duel, but I had never fully realised before just how extraordinarily good they really were. Their wands were moving so fast they were just blurs of light, and they were dodging each other’s spells just as quickly and apparently effortlessly. Watching them, I had a sudden very clear understanding that these were not people I would want to cross, clearer even than it had been the previous year when Mary was Imperiused. Even Lily looked impressed.

After a five minute exhibition, Viridian called a halt to the spectacular duel – awarding the boys ten points each in the process – and asked them to partner other people so that the rest of us could get some practice in without them as a distraction. The change in their behaviour was palpable – without each other to duel against, they were much more tentative as they were less sure of their partners’ abilities. James ended up with Remus, who put up a much better fight that I had anticipated, but it was nowhere near the earlier demonstration. Sirius, on the other hand, was snatched up by Clio Zeller, which I suspected was to his detriment as, because they were going out, he seemed hesitant to curse or jinx her at all, instead deflecting anything she cast at him with apparent ease and even boredom.

Turning to Mary again, I smiled apologetically at her as we resumed our own duel. After what we had just witnessed, anything we could do felt paltry and juvenile. I’d thought I was pretty good at Defence, even scoring an E for it in my OWLs, but there was no way known I was anywhere near a patch on that. Inwardly I resolved to try to improve my ability somehow, and it was with renewed vigour that I cast one of Beatrice’s favourite hexes at Mary, shattering her Shield Charm and causing her to bark like a dog for half a minute or so. Giggling, I had just cast the counter-jinx when she was hit by a falling Peter Pettigrew, who was partnered with Carol Jones from Hufflepuff and appeared to have been flattened within the first minute of active duelling.

Looking around the room, everyone seemed to have a new determination to improve their duelling skills. Even Martha and Al Jorkins from Hufflepuff, who had got together just a couple of weeks previously and were therefore still joined at the hip, were throwing actual hexes at each other rather than just going through the motions, as Sirius was doing with Clio.

Mary was also intent on bettering herself, and once she had stopped barking and extricated herself from Peter we put on a much better display than we had at the start of the class. Who would have thought that people like James Potter and Sirius Black could actually be inspiring? Whatever I thought of that concept, inspiring they undeniably were, and the whole class was trying extra hard in the second half of the lesson. Professor Viridian appeared very pleased with everyone’s progress and awarded several bonus points to both Houses at the end of the class.

Heading back upstairs for our free period afterwards, Mary pulled me aside. “Ye know, I think I’ve come t’ my senses a’ las’,” she said as we settled ourselves in an empty classroom.

“In what way?” I asked lightly. “I’d thought you lost most of those years ago.”

“Aye, I ken,” she agreed with a grin. “Bu’ this is differen’. I go’ through tha’ whole Defence lesson wi’oot once droolin’ o’er James.”

I stared at her. “Really?”

She nodded. “Aye. I’m as surprised as ye are.”

I got up and gave her a hug. “Mary! You’ve done it! You cracked it!”

She wriggled away from me. “Aye. An’ aboot time, too, I think.”

“So what brought it on?” I asked.

She scrunched up her face a bit as she considered. “I think it wa’ a combination o’ wha’ he said this morn an’ hoo he fough’ i’ Defence jus’ then,” she said eventually.

I thought about that. “Yeah, that’s probably fair enough,” I conceded. If nothing else, during that Defence class he’d probably been too intimidating to drool over.

“It wa’ nice while it lasted,” Mary went on, a bit of a reminiscent smile on her face. “He’s a goo’ lad t’ daydream aboot. Bu’ I always knew it woul’ never happen so there wa’ always tha’ i’ th’ back o’ my min’. Ye jus’ hae t’ see him looking a’ Lily t’ know tha’.”

I nodded. “Well, Mary, I’m proud of you,” I said, giving her another hug. “Now we just need to find another boy to take your mind off him entirely – Gerry Stebbins, perhaps?”

She wrested herself away from me and pretended to aim her Defence textbook at my head. “Nae funny, Laura Caul’well.”

I pretended to be chastened. “Right, not him. Okay, how about … well, there’s always Sirius, that thing with Clio probably won’t last forever …” This time she did let go of the book, though I had plenty of time to duck before it hit a desk several feet behind me. “Okay, not Sirius either,” I conceded. “Gee you’re particular! Ummm – Severus Snape?”

Walking over to pick up her textbook, Mary burst out laughing. “Ah, Laura, ye’re nae goin’ t’ give up on this, are ye? Hoo aboot we leave it fer nou an’ when I find a lad I dinna min’, I’ll le’ ye know.”

I grinned. “You’ve got yourself a deal.” And we headed back to Gryffindor Tower to get our books for our next classes, throwing names at each other all the way up to the seventh floor.

****

The following Monday night the five Gryffindor girls were gathered around a table in the common room, finishing off stray bits of homework. The room was unusually quiet; the boys in our year weren’t around, probably serving detentions for their stunt in the Slytherin common room the previous week. I was working on my Transfiguration essay, Mary was flicking through her notes on carnivorous trees for Herbology, and Martha was doing some extra reading for Arithmancy. Lily and Charlotte had their Potions paper spread out in front of them but they weren’t really doing anything about it – in fact Charlotte was doodling idly on her parchment, and Lily seemed to be staring vacantly out the window, where in a cloudless sky a full moon was giving the grounds an eerie glow.

Suddenly, without warning and seemingly to nobody in particular, Charlotte spoke. “Maybe he actually will, though,” she mused, as though continuing a conversation she had been having earlier with someone.

“What?” asked Lily, confused.

“James. Die if you say no to him again,” Charlotte explained.

Lily laughed. “We can but dream.”

I grinned at her. “Back to denial, are we, Lily?”

She shook her head furiously. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said stubbornly. “But it’s nice to have a bit of a break every now and then.”

“If he did die, he’d prob’ly turn int’ a ghos’ an’ haunt ye ferever though,” said Mary, giggling at the thought.

Martha looked at them from over the top of New Theory of Numerology. “He can’t,” she said flatly, licking her finger and turning the page.

“Why not?” asked Lily, looking surprised. “I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“It happened to an aunt of mine,” Martha said matter-of-factly, putting the book down and losing her page in the process. Unperturbed, she went on. “She got haunted by this girl she used to know at school who’d died, so she went to the Ministry about it and they put an order or something on the ghost, so she couldn’t go near my aunt any more.” She picked up the book again and began thumbing through it, looking for the page she had been on.

“Now there’s a thought,” mused Lily, feigning a groan though her eyes were dancing. “Do you think they could put an order on James while he’s still alive?”

The rest of us burst into uncontrollable giggles.

****

That Friday, I was heading to the Great Hall for lunch after a particularly dull Ancient Runes lesson when someone, most probably Elvira, tried to hex Clio Zeller and missed, hitting me instead. Unsure exactly what the damage was, I slipped into the nearest toilets to check my reflection in the mirror and do whatever was necessary to fix it.

“Imaginative, Elvira,” I muttered to myself, looking at the boils on my face. The Furnunculus Curse wasn’t going to break Sirius and Clio up. I pulled out my wand and muttered the counter-curse, watching with satisfaction as the boils disappeared one by one. Who needed Madam Pomfrey when I had Beatrice?

I was distracted by Veronica Smethley, friend of Clio’s and also in Ancient Runes, coming out of a cubicle and fussing with soap and water to wash her hands. She looked up at me. “Got rid of the boils, then?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Not exactly inventive, was it?”

“Not really,” she agreed. “Though Clio was pretty pleased it missed her – she and Sirius have something planned after lunch, apparently.” I wondered vaguely whether Veronica still had a dormant crush on the guy, as I had suspected the previous year, but decided that even if she did she wasn’t going to ruin things for her best friend.

“Good thing then,” I grinned. “I’m just going to meet Mary. Doesn’t really compare, does it?”

“It’s about as good as I’ve got,” she said with a smile as she reached for the hand towel. “Thalia’s keeping a spot for me,” she went on by way of explanation, referring to another of her Hufflepuff dorm-mates.

We were interrupted by the entrance of Maggie Flint, Slytherin and all-round vicious piece of work, who generally looked like she was ready to lord it over anyone she saw. Her face twisted into an evil grin when she saw Veronica who, I suddenly remembered, was Muggle-born.

“Oh, look, it’s Smethley,” she breathed fiercely. “A filthy Mudblood polluting our hallowed halls.”

Veronica, a good six inches shorter than Maggie, looked intimidated but tried to stand her ground. “Mudblood or not, I’ve got as much right as anyone else to be here,” she said, sounding somewhat feeble but clearly steeling herself.

“No you haven’t,” said Flint, now sounding a little bored. “Mudbloods have no right to be anywhere near here. Why don’t you go back to Muggleland where you belong?”

“I belong here,” Veronica whispered. Her wand was still in her bag and she was casting furtive glances to where it lay on the ground, obviously wondering whether she should risk searching for it.

Maggie, on the other hand, had her wand out. “Listen, Mudblood,” she drawled, “you don’t say who belongs here and who doesn’t. That’s the job of the elite. The pure-bloods. Who, I’m afraid to say, you will never have the honour of even cleaning their shoes.” (Who needed correct grammar when they were picking a fight?) Her wand was poised at Veronica’s nose and I was sure she was about to utter a nasty curse.

I’d been standing there the whole time, completely ignored by Flint and probably forgotten by Veronica. However, I’d not forgotten that I had my wand out and ready, as opposed to Veronica’s which was still in her bag. So before Maggie could say anything else, I gave it a flick and muttered a few choice words that Bea had taught me, and in less than a second Maggie’s nose began growing. It became longer and longer, and greyer and greyer, until it obscured her face and was reaching close to her knees. Veronica soon recovered her composure and looked at me.

“How did you do that? It’s an elephant’s trunk, isn’t it?”

“Yep,” I said, smiling broadly. “There’s times that that sister of mine can be very useful.”

My hex had distracted Flint enough to stop her from cursing Veronica, but she was still making an inordinate amount of noise as she tried in vain to stop its effects. Veronica and I were preparing to leave and make our way down to lunch when the door opened once again and Professor McGonagall entered the room.

Uh oh, I thought. This can only end in tears. McGonagall, who was strict but fair, looked from Flint to me, still with my wand out, to Veronica, whose hands were empty. “Miss Cauldwell,” she began, “what is the meaning of this?”

Veronica tried to make excuses for me. “Flint was about to curse me, Professor,” she said hurriedly, “and Laura just got in first to stop her.”

“Is this true?” she asked me, her eyebrows raised.

“Yes, Professor,” I agreed. “Flint was threatening Veronica and being quite rude to her, frankly, so I tried to stop her.”

“And a Shield Charm wouldn’t have sufficed?” she asked icily.

“I didn’t think of that,” I admitted. “This was the first thing I thought of. And I didn’t have much time, she was going to curse Veronica any second.”

“Miss Flint?” McGonagall looked at Maggie. “What is your version of events?”

Flint gave what was probably her most winning smile, though we couldn’t see it very well, what with the elephant’s trunk protruding from the middle of her face. “It’s all lies, Professor. I just came in to use the loo and suddenly Cauldwell hexed me for no reason.”

Professor McGonagall looked at her shrewdly. “Then why do you have your wand out, Miss Flint? I take it you don’t usually need that for your ablutions?”

Maggie went a little pink, which I must say almost suited her. Behind the trunk, of course. “Self defence, Professor,” she lied. “I’d only just got it out when you arrived.”

McGonagall’s lips went very thin and I could tell she was sceptical of Flint’s tale. However, in the absence of any proof either way she did the only thing she really could do.

“I think a detention will be in order, Miss Cauldwell,” she said. “And ten points from Gryffindor. Next time something like this happens, kindly notify a teacher before taking matters into your own hands. You will be informed later as to the nature of your punishment.”

“Yes, Professor,” I said obediently, putting my wand away.

“Miss Flint, you will need to go to the hospital wing to have your trunk removed,” McGonagall continued, looking at Maggie.

Her voice sounded slightly muffled due to the trunk that covered the bottom part of her face. “But, Professor, my bag’s still in the Great Hall, I’ll need someone to get it for me.”

McGonagall smiled the smallest smile I’d ever seen. “No, Miss Flint, if you need your bag you can fetch it yourself. I will be happy to escort you to the Hall.” And she and Maggie exited the toilets and headed off downstairs.

Veronica and I grinned at each other. The whole school was going to see my handiwork, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer girl.

****

The following night Slughorn held his Christmas party once again, and Charlotte and Lily were as usual expected to attend. There were usually some good stories from these parties so Mary, Martha and I decided to stay up until they got back so we could hear all about it.

Unfortunately this party appeared to have been less colourful than the one the previous year, most probably because none of the guests were quite as outrageous as Hambledon Quince had been. This year’s assortment had included Ambrosius Flume, best known for starting up Honeydukes, author Blenheim Stalk, and Devlin Whitehorn, founder of the Quidditch Racing Broom Company, who, while they were doubtlessly interesting enough in their own right, were never going to provide entertainment of the sort Quince had.

“It was almost dull, really,” Lily said as she fished in her trunk for some clean pyjamas. “You had the usual Quidditch crowd fawning over Whitehorn, and Ambrosius Flume brought some of the new fudges they’ve been developing, but it really wasn’t up to the standard of the usual Christmas do.”

“Which reminds me,” put in Charlotte, “we brought you back some of that fudge. Try the cherry one, here –” she handed Martha, Mary and me some samples – “it’s really good.”

“An’ hoo was Slughorn?” asked Mary through a mouthful of cherry fudge. “Ye’re richt, Charlotte, this really is verra goo’,” she added, grinning across the room.

Lily shrugged. “Much the same as usual,” she said. “Overindulging in the mulled mead and crystallised pineapple – what a surprise. Raving on about Marcus Ogden, who must be the current Student of the Week. And he told me again that I should have been in Slytherin,” she added almost as an afterthought. This was a regular comment of Slughorn’s, who was a little peeved that his favourite student hadn’t been Sorted into his House. Lily being Lily generally came up with rather amusing responses.

Martha grinned. “And what did you say this time?”

Lily shrugged again but Charlotte was smiling broadly. “That she was flattered he’d think so but that sharing a dorm with Alecto Carrow would be enough to drive anyone to jump off the Astronomy Tower.”

“No one can argue with that,” I said, shuddering as I imagined what it would be like to have to live in the same dorm as Alecto. “Imagine walking in on her in the shower.”

Martha made a face. “If she ever took one, that is.”

Mary laughed. “Ye know, I dinna e’en think any o’ the lads woul’ want t’ see tha’,” she agreed, reaching for some more fudge. “Some things are much better lef’ covered up.”

“Oh, and you’ll be pleased with this, Laura,” Charlotte went on. “Someone actually did hex old Snivellus so that the grease in his hair glows in the dark. That was your idea, wasn’t it?”

I nodded, a grin starting to form on my face. “Wasn’t me who did it though.”

Lily smiled. “Well, no, we didn’t think you did, but you did announce the idea in front of the whole Defence class, so there are two Houses who could have got to him to do it. It was a good idea, after all.”

Mary laughed. “Sure it wasna ye, Lily?”

Lily shook her head, an expression of distaste coming on to her face. “No, but don’t think it didn’t occur to me. He came up to me again tonight trying to apologise and I had to use a Repelling Charm to shake him off.” Really, since she’d made the decision six months earlier to abandon her long friendship with Snape, she had developed a surprisingly strong dislike for him, though that probably wasn’t helped by the fact that he appeared unable to take ‘no’ for an answer. “If he’d hassled me one more time I might well have done it,” she went on, smiling mischievously.

“So how does it look?” I asked.

Charlotte giggled. “Much as you’d expect, though I did hope Slughorn would turn off the lamps so we could tell for sure. Poor Snivellus didn’t look too impressed though.”

“Mmm, poor diddums,” Martha said lightly. “My heart breaks for him. So aside from that little diversion, what you girls are saying is, no talent there this year. I’m disappointed.”

Charlotte winked. “Except James, of course.”

Lily rolled her eyes. “Yes, look-at-me-I’m-brilliant-James-Potter-who-won-the-Quidditch-Cup-single-handedly. The one who followed Devlin Whitehorn around all night like a lovesick puppy and barely even looked at me.”

I grinned. “You sound disappointed. Something you’re not telling us, Lily?”

She went a little pink around the cheeks, which I was sure had nothing to do with any alcohol she may have consumed. “Not at all. Just an observation, that’s all.”

Charlotte smiled maliciously. “No, she’s not put out in the slightest. Though I will admit it was unusual behaviour from him.”

Mary looked at Lily, who had her head in her trunk pretending to look for something. “I’m guessin’ tha’ ye’ve go’ used t’ him behavin’ i’ a certain way, so when he doesna dae tha’ then ye miss it.”

Lily looked up. “You know, Mary, that’s probably it. I don’t like him drooling over me all the time like that, but when it went away I did miss it. Maybe he’s growing on me.”

Martha grinned. “Maybe? I thought we confirmed that months ago.”

Lily’s face was now very definitely red. “Oh, all right. I was looking for the ego trip and I didn’t get it. Happy now?”

Martha and Charlotte high-fived each other triumphantly. “Oh, yes, Lils,” Martha said merrily, “we’re very happy.”

________________________________________


Author’s note: Sorry there isn’t much of the boys in this chapter. Next one is a biggie though – I can promise lots more interaction in that chapter so please bear with me. You may also have noticed that I’m starting to give my heroine more action now so it will soon be more a Laura story (dare I say even showing potential to become a Sirius/Laura story) and less a James/Lily story – though of course the J/L thing will continue as a subplot.

________________________________________

18
Fortuna Robins from fifth year came up to me in the Great Hall at lunch time on Monday with a note from Professor McGonagall, advising that my detention for hexing Maggie Flint would take place at seven o’clock that evening in Greenhouse Three, and I was to take my dragon-hide gloves. Mary read the note over my shoulder.

“Well,” she said, “a’ leas’ it’s nae doing th’ bedpans i’ th’ hospital wing.”

“Actually, it’s not bad,” I agreed with a smile. “I quite like gardening. And Greenhouse Three is always rather interesting – who knows, I might get bitten by a Venomous Tentacula after five minutes and have to go to said hospital wing. Where some other poor unfortunate soul might be cleaning out the bedpans.”

“Aye, ye ne’er know yer luck,” she said. “Shouldna be too ghastly i’ any case. An’ if it is, ye can always hae a whinge t’ us i’ th’ dorm afterwards.”

At ten to seven that night I dutifully left the common room and made my way down to Greenhouse Three. To my surprise I soon discovered I wasn’t the only one serving detention that night: also waiting outside were two girls wearing Hufflepuff colours who were in maybe fourth or fifth year, a burly Slytherin boy who by the size of him had to be in seventh year, and Sirius.

Shortly afterwards Professor Sprout emerged from the greenhouse and looked us over. “Good,” she said, “you’re all here. Come in, then.” We obediently followed her inside.

I had never been in the greenhouses after dark before and looked around with interest. Lanterns were suspended in mid-air about two feet from the ceiling, spaced so as to avoid contact with the huge umbrella-like flowers that were hanging there, and anything else that might have grown that high. The greenish-yellowish glow they emitted was scattered by the various thicknesses of foliage throughout the greenhouse, giving a speckled effect and making the overall result rather pretty though a little eerie.

“Gloves on, people,” said Sprout briskly, shattering the ghostly atmosphere with almost surprising speed. “We’ll be fertilising the pots tonight. We have recently procured a new supply of mooncalf dung, which is here,” she went on, indicating a large pile of manure near the door. “Buckets are here –” a flick of her wand produced a pile of red buckets – “get to it. Try not to disturb the soil too much around the Mandrakes. Oh, and mind the Fanged Geranium and the Venomous Tentacula, and try not to burst any of the Bubotubers!”

I smiled to myself as I tied my hair into a ponytail to stop it getting in the way. Once you got past the smell of the mooncalf dung, it wasn’t too bad a detention. As I had said to Mary, I quite liked gardening, and even fertilising could be good when you wanted to do something a bit mindless.

Not far from where I stood Sirius was surveying the other three students distastefully, and I realised suddenly that the two Hufflepuff girls were members of the Sirius Black fan club. And the only other person there was a Slytherin. For want of a better option for someone to talk to, he sidled over to where I was by the Mandrakes. I didn’t mind – yes he was a bit of a prat, but I was immune to his good looks and he never bothered to put on the charm for people like me, so it would be just like talking to anyone else. Besides, it was always nice to have company during a detention.

“I don’t normally see you in detention, Cauldwell,” he said lightly. “What are you here for?”

“The usual,” I said carelessly, pulling on my gloves. “Hexing Slytherins. Maggie Flint, to be precise,” I added with a grin, for some reason wanting him to be impressed. “Did you see her elephant trunk?”

He laughed. “That was you?” he asked, looking incredulous.

I heard giggling from the other side of the Mandrakes and, looking through the foliage, noticed the two Hufflepuff girls huddled among the Bubotubers, failing abysmally in their efforts to be subtle while they gazed adoringly at Sirius.

“Yeah, well, she’s an ignorant troll and she had it coming,” I said, deciding to ignore the girls and grabbing a handful of dung. “Only problem was that I got caught.”

“Do I take it that you do that sort of thing often and don’t get caught?” he asked, picking up his bucket and dropping its entire contents over a single plant. I had to admire how good he was at ignoring the whispering and giggling coming from the next row, but then again he’d had years of practice with that sort of thing.

“Sometimes,” I said noncommittally, taking care not to disturb the soil around my Mandrake. “But only if they deserve it.”

“And what did Maggie Flint do to deserve it?”

“She was having a go at Veronica Smethley in the toilets,” I said with a shrug. “For being Muggle-born and all that. Well, Veronica didn’t have her wand handy at the time and I did, so I jinxed her. Not much to it, really – except that McGonagall chose that moment to walk in to see who was making all the noise.”

He was grinning. “More to you than meets the eye, isn’t there, Cauldwell?”

“There’s times that it pays to be a nobody,” I replied unconcernedly, moving on to another Mandrake. “I don’t think Maggie even realised I was there. Then again, she doesn’t acknowledge half-bloods anyway, so that might not say much. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t think I had it in me.”

“Most people wouldn’t think you had it in you,” he said.

“Yeah, well,” I said, looking at him sternly, “what you people need to understand is that, with my sister, I know every jinx and hex she and her friends ever invented.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” he admitted, Summoning another bucketful of fertiliser and unceremoniously dumping it all on another Mandrake. “But I thought you didn’t want to be thought of as her sister?”

I shook my head, rather surprised that he’d remembered that. Maybe he paid more attention to other people than I’d previously given him credit for. “I can’t change that, so think what you like. What I don’t want is to be judged based on her behaviour, or treated as though I’m just like she is. Because I’m not.”

He paused as though considering what I’d said. “Yes, that’s fair,” he agreed eventually. “Right, I’ll try to remember that.”

More whispering and giggling came from among the Bubotubers and I threw the girls a filthy look. I could understand why Sirius found it so annoying – I’d experienced it for only five minutes and already I was ready to throttle them.

I indicated them with my thumb. “What would they be, fourth year? Do you think they’ve studied Bubotubers yet?” I asked quietly.

He caught my eye and grinned, probably guessing what I was thinking. “Not sure, it’d have to be touch and go.”

“Well then,” I said slowly, “one way to find out.” I glanced at the girls again, one of whom was looking curiously at the plant next to her. Going by the fact she hadn’t put her gloves on yet, I was guessing she didn’t know what they were. “Going back to my sister, Black,” I said more loudly, looking sideways at Sirius, “one thing that everyone did get right is that if I’m provoked enough, occasionally I can be just as petty as she can.” And I picked up a wad of mooncalf dung and flicked it at the Bubotubers in the girls’ midst, hitting one of the swellings square on. It burst and the yellow pus hit the other girl on the arm just above her glove, flooding the air with its strong petrol-like aroma. Screaming, she ran to where the patched hat and flyaway hair of Professor Sprout could just be seen behind the Puffapods.

“Oh dear, you’ll have to go to the hospital wing,” I could hear Sprout saying to the girl. “I told you to be careful.” I smiled in satisfaction as we listened to the poor girl protesting as she was led out of the greenhouse.

Sirius was clearly trying not to laugh. “Nice shot! With an aim like that, you should be on the Quidditch team.”

I snorted. “And who do you think should give up their spot for me?” I asked, noticing that the other Hufflepuff girl, deprived of her safety in numbers, had moved to a spot much further away but which still offered her a view of Sirius. “You think James would be happy to? Or maybe Clarrie Trimble?” Charlotte’s little brother was the find of the season so far, scoring two hundred and fifty points in just two games. “Or Anna Vector?” I went on, naming the team captain.

“Fair point,” he conceded. “But you should at least have tried out for it, you could be a reserve or something.”

“Nah, not my thing,” I said, Summoning another bucket of mooncalf dung and Banishing the empty one back to the pile. “I’m no good at Quidditch.”

Suddenly I heard another voice, almost muffled, saying, “Padfoot? Padfoot?” I looked up and saw Sirius pull off a glove and surreptitiously pull what looked like a square hand-mirror out of his pocket. He walked a short distance away from me and glanced quickly around the greenhouse, noting that Professor Sprout wasn’t back yet from the hospital wing, before looking into it.

“Prongs, mate, how are you?” he grinned. “And more to the point, where are you?”

“Cleaning up the third floor corridor for Filch,” came what sounded remarkably like James’ voice. Then again, I reasoned to myself, who else was known as ‘Prongs’? “Without magic,” James went on. “Seems he was getting sick of being followed around by Halley’s Comet all afternoon. How about you?”

“Fertilising plants in Greenhouse Three,” Sirius told the mirror, pulling off the other glove with his teeth and dropping it on the floor next to him. “I’m not alone, though, so I can’t really talk.”

“Lucky you,” James’ voice said dryly. “Anyone interesting there?”

“Not particularly,” Sirius replied, sounding like he was a little disappointed by that fact. Let’s face it, he could have been talking to someone much more interesting than I was. “Cauldwell’s here, she gave Flint that elephant’s trunk last week. Rosier from Slytherin. And a couple of gigglers, though one’s had to go to the hospital wing already.” Hmmm, they obviously referred to the fan club as ‘gigglers’. Not a bad nickname.

James laughed. “What did you do to her?”

“Wasn’t me, mate,” said Sirius, pretending to be shocked by the very suggestion. “That Cauldwell, we’ll have to keep an eye on her. She did a great look-away pass with a handful of mooncalf dung and burst open a Bubotuber right next to the giggler so that it splattered her. You couldn’t have aimed better yourself.” He looked up over the mirror and grinned at me.

“We’ll have to remember that one,” said James’ voice, chuckling appreciatively. “Oh, rats, it’s Filch, I’d better go. Catch you later, eh, Padfoot?”

Sirius nodded and put the mirror away, just in time as Sprout came bustling back in. She headed towards us. “Less talking, more fertilising,” she said briskly, then noticed Sirius’ bare hands. “Put your gloves back on, Mr Black, you could lose a finger if you’re not careful,” she added, looking pointedly at the Chinese Chomping Cabbages next to him before moving to a spot a couple of aisles away where Rosier was wrestling with a Fanged Geranium.

I looked at him curiously. “Was that a two-way mirror?” I asked quietly, trying to make sure we weren’t overheard. I’d heard about the mirrors, which allowed conversation over long distances, but hadn’t actually seen one before.

“Maybe.” He looked a bit shifty as he put his gloves back on. “Viridian thought it would be a good idea to separate James and I on our detentions tonight.”

I nodded, moving down the aisle to the Chomping Cabbages. “This is for the model solar system you guys set up on the third floor today?”

“Yep. For some reason he thought we might egg each other on to do something else if we were in detention together. Can’t think why.” He moved around to my other side and selected a cabbage of his own to work on.

“No,” I deadpanned, “that sounds completely out of character.”

“Well, yes, we’re both such good boys,” he said, also straight-faced. “After all, you’re clearly the troublemaker here. I wasn’t the one throwing mooncalf dung around and dumping Bubotuber pus on other students.”

“I didn’t do that,” I protested. “That was completely accidental. I knocked my elbow as I was trying to get my arm around the other side of the Mandrake. Where the dung landed was pure chance.” It made a good story, if nothing else, and was what I had planned to tell Professor Sprout if she asked me about it.

“Surely you can do better than that,” he said, a grin starting to form on his face. “How about, a Venomous Tentacula nipped you right at the critical moment and, as a reflex action, your arm shot back and you let go of it.”

“I got surprised by a leaping toadstool and everything I was holding went everywhere,” I countered.

“You slipped on a pile of fertiliser I had dropped and were just trying to get your balance back,” he suggested.

“I was tripped by an errant Screechsnap,” I invented, grinning as I Summoned another bucket.

“A Snargaluff bit you on the leg, you tripped and your bucket went everywhere,” he offered, his grey eyes sparkling. It was like playing Swivenhodge with excuses, hitting them back and forth, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

The rest of the detention passed in similarly pleasant fashion, and when Professor Sprout called an end to it at nine o’clock I was surprised by how quickly the time had gone. She walked the four of us back to the castle, and Sirius and I headed upstairs after the Slytherin and Hufflepuff students took their leave of us on the ground floor.

“Ah, the delightful smell of mooncalf excrement,” I sighed, smelling my hands as we climbed the many staircases to Gryffindor Tower. The smell was so pervasive it had even got through the thick dragon-hide gloves we’d been wearing. “They really should bottle it, you know.”

“Yep,” he agreed, making a face. “They could call it ‘perfume for Slytherins’.”

“‘Essence of Mulciber’,” I said dryly, pulling my hair out of its ponytail and stowing the elastic in my pocket. “Scylla Pritchard would love it.”

“How about ‘Eau de Snape’?” he suggested. “Though really it would have to be ‘Eau de Snivellus’.”

“Now with bonus extra grease,” I added, imitating a bad wireless advertisement. “Or maybe ‘Avery’s Unction, the thickest you’ll find’.” We turned automatically on the second floor to slip behind a tapestry, taking a well-known short-cut to the fourth floor.

“‘Flint’s Fragrance’,” he offered, taking a large step over the trick stair partway up.

“‘Spirit of Slughorn’,” I shot back, “‘with the goodness of slugs’.”

“‘Scylla’s Elixir’,” he countered.

“Nice one,” I admitted, thinking that could actually be the name of a legitimate perfume. Provided Scylla Pritchard’s face wasn’t part of the marketing campaign, that is. “All right, how about ‘Baddock’s Bouquet, now with added Bulbadox’?” I grinned as we reached the top of the staircase and emerged onto the fourth floor.

Sirius was laughing. “Have you always been this funny?” he asked, looking at me sideways with a bit of an odd expression on his face.

I shrugged. “Well, you know what they say. You have to watch the quiet ones.”

He muttered something under his breath that sounded like “Clearly.”

I didn’t reply. Even though we’d been talking easily all evening, I still hadn’t forgotten who I was talking to and knew it would stop the minute we reached the common room where there were more interesting people around. Sure enough, once through the portrait hole, Sirius smiled briefly at me and headed straight to the fireside where his dorm-mates were waiting, James clearly back from his own detention.

I went upstairs to put my gloves away and wash my hands, then grabbed my bag and went back to the common room to join Mary, Lily and Charlotte. The absent Martha, I guessed, was probably off in a broom cupboard somewhere with Al.

“Hoo wa’ detention?” asked Mary, her Charms notes on the table in front of her.

“Fertilising the plants,” I said, also pulling out my Charms homework. “Which should explain why I went upstairs to wash my hands, rather than joining you lot straight away. Mooncalf dung doesn’t smell very nice.”

Charlotte looked a little confused. “Sirius was there too?” She had obviously seen us come in.

“Uh huh. Apparently Viridian thought he and James should serve their detentions separately. Beats me why,” I said, grinning.

“So it was just you two?” Charlotte prodded.

“Now, now, Charlotte, don’t get any ideas,” I said, flattening a roll of parchment on the table so I could start my essay. “There were a couple of Hufflepuffs and a Slytherin there too. Just as well, too, otherwise we’d still be there. The Chomping Cabbages were in fine form.”

“Slytherin?” Mary asked sharply. “It wasna Avery, was it?”

I shook my head. “Some seventh-year. Sirius knew who he was but I forget the name.”

“Richt.” Mary looked rather solemn. “’Cause I hear’ Avery’s go’ anither detention – apparen’ly it wa’ him who replaced th’ everlastin’ candles i’ th’ suits of armour on th’ fifth floor wi’ poisonous ones.” Christmas trimmings had just gone up, only for Dumbledore to discover rather promptly that the fifth floor wasn’t safe for that very reason. Needless to say the candles had been removed immediately.

“He is a charmer, isn’t he,” I mused. “Just the type you’d take home to meet Mother. I almost wish he was there, I could have drenched him in mooncalf dung.” I grinned. “That sort of thing is always good for stress relief.”

Lily leaned over and sniffed me delicately. “Well, it looks like you managed to get it all off okay,” she said. “I’m not sure I’d want to be sitting next to you if you hadn’t.” She smiled. “Looks like the boys have no such qualms though.”

By the fireside, James and Peter were taking turns smelling Sirius’ hands and making farting noises, guffawing loudly while Remus rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything. After a spell, clearly annoyed, Sirius cast a Scouring Charm on his hands to shut them up. Chastised, they set to work on whatever they had been doing before we got back.

The prevalent sound in the common room for a while was the scratching of quills on parchment and the turning of pages, most of the younger students unwilling to make much noise if the boys from our year weren’t doing so as well. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Sirius glance at our table several times throughout the evening, each time looking as though something was bothering him.

****

If I’d thought that was the end of it, I learned otherwise at breakfast the next morning. As I walked between the Hufflepuff and Gryffindor tables towards my seat I suddenly noticed that my school bag had been turned into a toadstool. Shaking my head, I turned around and saw the two fourth-year girls from the previous night’s detention looking daggers at me.

“Come on, girls, you don’t honestly think I’m a threat, do you?” I asked them, pulling my wand out of my robes and changing the bag back without fanfare.

“He spent all last night talking to you,” the girl who had stayed in detention for the full two hours said accusingly. “There must be something going on.”

I rolled my eyes. “You really think that? Look, we’re in the same House, the same year, and most of the same classes. He knows me. That’s all.”

“It’s not fair,” muttered the other girl, glaring at me with obvious jealousy, and I noticed without a trace of guilt that she still had bandages on her arm where the Bubotuber pus had splattered her the previous evening.

I laughed. This was too ridiculous for words. “Just get over it,” I said. “You can’t start jinxing every single girl he talks to. And besides, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but he already has a girlfriend and it’s definitely not me.”

Moving on, I found the other girls from my dorm further down the Gryffindor table and sat down. Lily looked at me curiously. “A toadstool? What was that about?”

“They were in our detention last night,” I explained. “Them, me, Sirius and some bloke from Slytherin. And now they’re jealous of me because Sirius chose my company over theirs.”

Lily nodded, satisfied. “Funny about that, if they were the alternative.” She smiled and turned back to her porridge, stirring a dollop of honey into it.

Sirius, sitting with the boys across the table and down a bit, looked at me quizzically, plainly not having heard what I’d told Lily. “What was that all about, Cauldwell?”

“Apparently you and I are having some sort of raging affair,” I explained, grabbing a plate and helping myself to some toast and marmalade. The idea was so ludicrous I didn’t feel the least bit awkward discussing it as a concept. “They felt the need to put me in my place.”

Martha and Lily started laughing; Mary and Charlotte, both with a mouthful of food, just smiled. Obviously my opinion of the likelihood of what I had just said was a common one.

Sirius was laughing too. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Yes, I can’t work out how they found out about us,” I deadpanned, feeling surprisingly chipper for someone who hadn’t had her morning coffee yet. “We were being so careful!”

His face assumed its most serious expression. “You’re right, that’s terrible,” he agreed, ignoring James, who was struggling to keep a straight face, next to him. “Do you think it might have been that night up the Astronomy Tower that they saw us?”

I pretended to consider it. “It could’ve been,” I said. “Whatever should we do?”

“This isn’t good,” he said, still with a straight face, though the corners of his mouth were twitching slightly. “They might tell Clio, and then where would we be?”

“We’ll have to end it,” I said, my mouth also twitching as I struggled not to laugh. To hide my expression and recompose myself I poured myself a coffee. “I can’t have the whole school thinking of me as the ‘other woman’. My reputation may never recover.” Considering that as far as I was aware I didn’t have a reputation to begin with, aside from ‘Bea’s sister’, I didn’t have much to lose.

Sirius’ self-control had evaporated and he was laughing again, joining pretty much everyone else from our year. I joined in as soon as I’d swallowed my coffee.

James soon managed to calm down a little. “I think they’ve told Clio,” he said to Sirius. “She doesn’t seem too worried.”

I turned around to look at the Hufflepuff table, where sure enough the two fourth-years had found Clio and were talking to her, pointing extensively at me. Clio’s eyebrows were raised but she was obviously trying to suppress a giggle, with limited success. James was right, she didn’t look at all worried.

“They prob’ly though’ she’d dump ye o’ th’ spo’,” said Mary, looking at Sirius. “Which woul’ make ye single again, which woul’ mean they’d be i’ wi’ a chance.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, of course they would,” he said wearily, pouring tomato sauce onto his scrambled eggs and turning them over listlessly with his fork. “For some reason they all seem to think that.”

“Loosen up, Padfoot,” said Peter. “Some of us would love to have your problem.”

“Help yourself,” said Sirius, still sounding rather weary. “Please. Be my guest.”

Peter’s eyes darted over his shoulder to the Hufflepuff girls, a rather unpleasant smile on his face.

“Give it up, Wormtail,” Remus said evenly. “You don’t want Sirius’ castoffs.”

The rest of the boys’ discussion was lost among the general commotion of the hall, but I noticed Peter still watching the fourth-year girls with what could only be described as a greedy look. Frankly it made me a bit uncomfortable, so I busied myself with finishing breakfast and concentrating on the girls’ conversation next to me.

________________________________________


Author’s note: Hopefully this will, for the time being at least, satisfy everyone who’s been asking for more Sirius - bet you weren’t expecting a whole chapter! :) This is another of the very first scenes I wrote for this story. It’s had a few adjustments since then but in essentials it’s the same as it was the first time I put pen to paper when the idea came to my head.
19
The Christmas holidays were much the same as they had been the previous year, though without the distraction of Beatrice stressing about her NEWTs. I wondered if I should start doing that just so Dad had something to do, but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of going out to Bobbin’s when I didn’t need a Calming Draught at all. After all, the snow had come and it was quite nasty outside, so heading out into it when there was no real need seemed a bit pointless.

Bea was still living at home – and would be, I suspected, until she was kicked out – but had managed to find a job doing research for the Committee on Experimental Charms. We all agreed it was the perfect job for her, but knowing Bea she would botch it completely and end up unemployed before another twelvemonth was out.

Christmas Day itself was a palaver of running around to different family events. Because Mum was a Muggle, most of her family had absolutely no idea that the magical world existed and so we had to go through a Muggle Christmas as well as a wizarding one. This meant at least two different Christmas functions, which were usually on the same day. Fortunately this year neither of them were at our house which made things a little easier, as all we had to do was show up with the right pile of gifts and make sure we took Mum’s car to her parents’ place in Bath rather than going by any magical methods. Which was easier said than done because a thick layer of snow coated the ground and the roads had iced up, making driving a little more difficult.

The remainder of the holiday was spent, as the previous year’s had been, doing the homework I’d been set over the break, watching old movies and various other things on the telly, and sitting in front of the fire with a good book. I didn’t get many as gifts that year so I had to scour our bookcases for something I hadn’t yet read, ending up with a sizeable pile which I worked my way through with care and attention. By the time I needed to start thinking about getting packed up and ready for school again there were only two books left in the pile, which Mum agreed I could take back to Hogwarts with me to read there. If I ever got a spare moment to read, that is, as I knew our mountains of homework would only get bigger as the year progressed.

The weather hadn’t improved much since the snowstorms had arrived and despite being wrapped up as warmly as possible we were all feeling rather cold and windswept when we arrived at Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters in early January, ready for the journey back to school. It didn’t take long to find the other girls on the platform, bundled up in heavy coats though we were, and I noticed both Mary’s cat and Charlotte’s owl were huddled in the corners of their cages, shivering and looking for all the world like they would like some heavy coats too. My parents greeted everyone cheerfully and I stood back to talk to them before it was time to climb aboard the train.

“All set, sweetheart?” Dad asked fondly as I fumbled with the fastener of my suitcase.

“I think so,” I replied, successfully opening the case and pulling out my woollen Gryffindor scarf. “Good, I’ll need this,” I went on, wrapping it around my neck. “If we think it’s cold here, it’ll be that much worse in Scotland.”

Mum nodded. “Look after yourself, won’t you?” she said. “And don’t get in too much trouble – four owls last term to tell us about detentions, that’s as many as you normally have in a year!”

“I’ll try,” I said with a smile. “There’s times that I just lose my temper when people start going on about all the blood purity rubbish. But I’ll do my best.”

Dad smiled indulgently. “Still got a bit of the Welsh spirit in you, haven’t you?” he said. “Fair enough then. But only hex people if they really do deserve it.” He winked at me.

“Okay,” I agreed, still smiling. “Only if they really do deserve it.”

“Take care when you go to Hogsmeade,” Mum went on, “and don’t do anything too risky. We want you to come home in one piece if it’s at all possible.”

“Yes, Mum.” This was becoming a bit of a lecture now.

“And above all, enjoy yourself,” she said, smiling again. “Remember, you’re only young once.”

Just how I was supposed to be enjoying myself when I was staying out of trouble and not doing anything risky was a bit beyond me, but I smiled all the same. “Thanks, Mum. But I’ve got to go, it’s almost time to get onto the train.”

A couple of bear hugs later and I finally extricated myself from my parents and found a compartment with the rest of the girls, levitating our suitcases onto the luggage rack and settling down for the long journey.

“All set? Finally got rid of the olds?” Martha grinned at me, taking off her thick coat as she sat down. The train was significantly warmer than the platform outside to our immense relief, so much so that Charlotte’s glasses misted up a bit.

“Hey, what can I say, they miss me,” I replied carelessly, making myself comfortable in my spot by the door. “Though if the alternative is Beatrice, I can’t say I’m surprised.” I grinned at her.

“Getting a big head in your old age, aren’t you, Laura?” she laughed.

I shrugged. “Had to happen sometime, didn’t it? Anyway,” I went on, more seriously this time, “I finally managed to finish that Transfiguration essay – how much of a nightmare was that?”

Charlotte, sitting next to me, nodded. “You’re telling me. Who could possibly get three and a half feet out of the principles of rematerialisation?”

Mary, who on the platform had been almost unrecognisable underneath a thick woollen hat and muffler, just laughed. “I knew there wa’ a reason I didna tak’ Transfiguration this year,” she said cheerfully, shaking her head to get rid of her ‘hat hair’. “I jus’ had t’ start on a paper fer Muggle Studies tha’ explains hoo a mechanical objec’ works.”

Lily looked at her with interest over the thick Gryffindor scarf she was still wearing, which blended surprisingly well with her hair. “What did you choose?”

“Television,” replied Mary. “Can be a bi’ tricky, I know, bu’ I’m doin’ it wi’ Clio Zeller an’ she’s go’ some good ideas.”

“Well let me know if you need a hand,” Lily offered. “Not that I know much myself, but I can always ask Dad for information if you’re stuck.” As a Muggle-born, Lily didn’t need to do Muggle Studies but was always a little curious as to what was taught there.

The remainder of the train journey was spent comparing stories of the different family Christmases we had had, and also comparing presents. Despite the dark way our world was heading, we still managed to do the usual teenaged girl thing and giggled our way back to Hogwarts as well as anyone could, knowing that we would be reminded of the war soon enough and trying to enjoy the brief respite we were giving ourselves.

This turned out to be just as well, as the return feast that evening was a rather sober affair. Death Eater and dark creature attacks had been on the rise for a while and Professor Dumbledore highlighted the human costs of the war and the need to stick together to fight the evil that was Voldemort. Several of the Slytherins, I noticed, were looking at him with open derision, and people like Severus Snape and Irving Mulciber were blatantly talking over his speech as though it wasn’t worth even paying attention to. Whether Dumbledore noticed this I couldn’t have said, but if he did he continued nonetheless. His point was highlighted by the fact that Rosamund Croaker, a seventh-year Ravenclaw, hadn’t returned after the break as her mother had been killed on Boxing Day, and we were all feeling rather sombre by the time the speech had finished.

The mood didn’t improve as the term progressed, either – not so much from the news of various Death Eater attacks but from the weather, which was if possible getting worse and would have depressed even the heartiest of souls. January was proving to be rather a trial, with snow storms and winds of almost hurricane force peppering the castle. Due to the inclement weather students were allowed to make use of selected empty classrooms during breaks, and on a Tuesday before lunch four of the Gryffindor girls were settled in a disused room on the ground floor, Charlotte being in Divination.

“Oh, look,” said Mary, looking out the window, where it had stopped snowing and miraculously the sun had even come out. “Sirius an’ Clio are gettin’ cosy. Hope they dinna ge’ blown away oot there!”

It was true – they looked decidedly cosy as they snogged underneath the beech tree by the lake. Lily looked sharply at Martha to see if this caused any concern for her, but she was completely nonplussed. They had broken up over a year ago, after all. “Good luck to them,” she said vaguely, pulling a quill and ink bottle out of her bag.

“Wha’s tha’ bin nou – two, three months?” asked Mary, still watching the figures by the lake. “They micht be gettin’ serious.”

“Sirius, serious?” Martha snorted, aware of the play on words. “Please tell me you’re joking. He’s not going to fall for anyone just yet.”

I giggled. “Not even Dione?”

She laughed. “Oh, please. True love? Merlin only knows what potions she had to have been on to come up with that one.”

“No different from normal then,” Lily muttered darkly.

Martha turned and briefly looked out the window. “I wonder what James is doing,” she said almost abstractedly, facing the room again. “Must be in detention or something.”

“Why would you say that?” I asked.

Martha shrugged. “Well, that’s the only time he’d be seeking her out,” she said dispassionately. “When James isn’t around. Which kind of shows what his priorities are.”

Mary looked at Martha curiously. “It wasna tha’ bad, was it?”

Martha snorted again. “You bet it was,” she said. “Really, I had the feeling it was just something to do when he got bored. If you’re competing with James for his attention, James will always win. Remus and Peter not so much, but James, definitely. And he’ll let you tag along with whatever they’re doing, but you are just tagging along, you might as well not be there at all for all the attention he pays you.”

Lily looked thoughtful. “Is that why you said he’s not going to fall for anyone?” she asked. “Because he just doesn’t care?”

“Something like that,” Martha agreed, turning again to look out the window at the couple standing in the snow. “Looking at him with Clio, well they’re not much different to how him and me were,” she said, turning back to us. “Or him and Dione, for that matter. He doesn’t hang out with her much on weekends, he eats at our table, he doesn’t pay her much attention when they’re in classes together. They weren’t even sitting together on the train, come to think of it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them talk much. So it’s just like, have a great snog and a bit of a feel, and then go on your way. And it is a great snog, I can tell you,” she added, smiling reminiscently.

“Ye’re prob’ly richt,” said Mary. “I guess it wa’ jus’ th’ constant snoggin’ tha’ had us thinkin’ it.”

“Don’t let that fool you,” said Martha archly. “It doesn’t mean anything.” She paused, her mind obviously going back over her own relationship with Sirius. “You know that revoltingly annoying thing he says, ‘once you go Black you’ll never go back’?” she asked after a bit, rolling her eyes dramatically. We nodded – he would occasionally spout that when he was feeling particularly pleased with himself, and I’d heard he’d even used it as a (really bad) pick-up line. “What’s even more annoying is, he’s right. No one else compares, he really is that good. And that makes it so darn irritating!” She shook her head in frustration while we groaned in agreement. After all, he already had everything else, why could he not be rubbish at something?

“It’s all that practice he gets,” Lily said with a grin. “Had to pay off somehow.”

Martha grinned as well. “Probably. Although,” she continued, almost as an afterthought, “I have a suspicion that if he does fall for someone, he’ll fall hard. That is, through the floor hard. The girl involved won’t know what hit her. Which should be very funny to watch.” She winked mischievously at us.

I looked at her thoughtfully. I mean, I barely knew the boy but there was something in her theory that made sense. “You know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was true.”

Lily was nodding. “Me neither. And you’re right, Martha, when that happens, it will be hilarious.”

****

The following Sunday found us poring over the Sunday Prophet having a look through the list of that week’s casualties from the war. “A good week this week,” I said with a bit of a wry smile. “You can count everyone in each list using just your fingers. How’s this, Julius Mordaunt, Pearl Fawcett and Roland McKinnon were all victims of Avada Kedavra.”

“Tha’s all?” Mary, sitting opposite, sounded incredulous.

“Oh, and families,” I clarified. “Fawcett had three kids with her, apparently, they were taken out as well. All under the age of eight, so they’re clearly high on the list of threats to You-Know-Who. Same with Mordaunt, two kids with him.”

“Bu’ still,” said Mary, looking rather serious, “tha’s nae many fer a full week.”

“Maybe something happened,” said Martha. “You know, a bank holiday for Death Eaters or something, and they all took the day off.”

We all giggled and I went back to reading out the names. “Okay, Barbara McLaggen, Edith Hobday, Glen Deverill, Herb Murray and Beryl Prod were tortured.”

Charlotte, sitting next to me, took up the narrative. “Disappeared without a trace were Cyril Twonk, Valerie Jenkins, Kevin Pinkstone. Hey, do you think he’s related to, what’s her name, Carlotta Pinkstone?” Carlotta was a rather well-known character whose purpose in life was to lift the Statute of Secrecy and have Muggles find out about the magical world. Last I’d heard she was in Azkaban for her latest effort in breaking the Statute.

“Prob’ly, it’s nae a verra common name,” Mary pointed out. “Does it say hoo old he was?”

Charlotte looked more closely at the paper. “Uh, yeah, he’s forty-eight, so he could be a brother or something. She’s about that age, isn’t she?”

Martha nodded. “Something like that, I think,” she agreed.

“Right,” Charlotte went on, her eyes going back to the newspaper. “Okay, disappeared list has Cyril Twonk, Valerie Jenkins, Kevin Pinkstone-brother-of-Carlotta-the-nutter, Phyllis Tremlett, Geoffrey Fancourt and Harold Cattermole.”

“Ugh,” said Lily, wrinkling up her nose. “Isn’t there a Cattermole in fourth year or something?”

“I think you might be right,” I said, nodding. “Hufflepuff, I think. Wonder if they’re related.”

“Again,” said Mary, “prob’ly, it’s nae a verra common name.”

“I hate this war,” Lily said suddenly. “It’s all so pointless. No one can help what they were born or who their parents are, so why should anyone be persecuted because of it?”

“We all hate the war, Lily,” I said quietly. “Everyone does. Or, I should say, everyone except the Death Eaters and their Slytherin trainees.”

“Hear hear,” agreed Charlotte.

“And they’re picking on Ministry employees now, too,” I continued, suddenly remembering something. “I got a letter from Dad yesterday and he said that they reckon Robards from the Aurors’ Office is under the Imperius Curse.” I paused. “Though, how could you prove it? I mean, if the Death Eaters are casting that, they’d have to do a better job than Mulciber, wouldn’t they?” I stole a glance at Mary in the hope she wasn’t too concerned by me bringing that up again, but she just nodded and looked resolute.

“You’d hope they could do a better job than a fifth-year who hadn’t even sat his OWLs yet,” Martha pointed out.

“He’s not the only one, either,” said Charlotte. “I heard over the break that they’ve targeted a few people for Imperiusing. Mostly from the Ministry like you said, Laura, but there are some others. I even think Hambledon Quince was one!!”

That broke the sombre mood that had overtaken our area of the breakfast table. Lily started giggling and before long we’d all joined in.

“Hambledon Quince?” Lily choked, unable to stop laughing. “Really? But how could you possibly tell? He’s nutso enough as it is without anyone making him more so.”

Martha was looking rather thoughtful. “That could be why, though,” she said.

The giggles stopped abruptly. “Why would you say that, Martha?” I asked.

“Well, if he’s got a reputation for being a nutter, like he does,” Martha said slowly, “then no one’s going to question him if he does anything strange. For him, there is no behaving out of character, unless he suddenly starts doing normal stuff.”

“Ye know, ye’ve go’ a poin’,” said Mary. “He coul’ well be one o’ their bes’ recruits if he doesna raise any suspicions.”

Charlotte glanced at the ceiling, which was dark with storm clouds and occasional lightning bolts. “I’m going to the library,” she said, changing the subject. “That Defence essay isn’t going to write itself and I’d like to get a head start on it before we get back into classes tomorrow.”

Lily nodded. “Good idea, Charlotte,” she said. “Wait up, will you, I’ll come with you.”

Not that that went entirely as planned, either. Lily came back to the common room later that afternoon with her essay completed, but without Charlotte.

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing much of Charlotte for a while,” she said with a grin, her green eyes sparkling.

“Uh oh.” Martha had clearly seen this look on Lily’s face before. “Who is he?”

“Hector Bole,” Lily told her.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Charlotte’s got together with Hector?” As in, Hector who I went to the Yule Ball with? Somehow it didn’t seem right.

Martha just shook her head. “I knew she shouldn’t have drunk that old vitamin potion yesterday,” she mused. “Bound to be dodgy and now look, it’s clouded her judgement.”

Lily laughed. “A bit unfair, I think, Martha. Though I was surprised too,” she admitted. “But I caught them snogging in the Astronomy section, you know the spot, just behind where Madam Pince keeps the Charms journals. Needless to say she didn’t come back to our table after that. Though I will say he’s not much like Remus.”

Martha gasped dramatically. “Are you saying that Charlotte likes Remus?” she asked with fake astonishment. “I had no idea!”

“Does she seem happy?” I asked.

Lily nodded. “Yes, I think so,” she said. “Not my taste, of course, but then again the world would be a very boring place if everyone found the same things attractive in people.” And Hector looked nothing like James, I noted privately.

Mary grinned. “So ye were lef’ alone fer long enough t’ finish yer own essay,” she reasoned.

“Spot on, Mary,” Lily smiled. “Let’s just say that I had no desire to watch them snogging all afternoon, and that was the easiest way to take my mind off it. It was why I was in there, after all. And fortunately they stayed well clear of the Defence section so I could do the essay in peace.” Her eyes sparkled again and she grinned mischievously.

“Ah, well,” Martha mused, “must say I didn’t see it coming, but if that’s what she wants …”

****

A couple of days later I was surprised to be joined by Sirius at the lunch table. “Got a question for you, Cauldwell,” he said as he sat down, turfing out a couple of what looked like second-years in the process. “Pr- James has just been hit with a hex that’s stuck his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Madam Pomfrey hasn’t seen it before – is that one of your sister’s?”

Swallowing my surprise that someone like him was actually seeking my company – and not as the result of a dare – I thought about it. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I don’t remember her ever doing that one, and I think she would have fairly often if she knew it. Shutting someone up is the sort of thing she’d really like doing.” I paused, looking at him. “Why?”

He looked disappointed. “Damn. I thought you might know the counter-jinx, no one’s been able to fix it yet.”

I shook my head. “Sorry, but no. Although …” I paused again.

He caught on. “What?”

I hesitated, then decided to plough on with what I’d been about to ask . “If you do find out what the spell is, and the counter-spell, could you let me know? That’d be a good one.”

He chuckled. “I can’t disagree, but it’s not likely that we’ll ever find out. It came from Snivellus, and we’re the last ones he’d share something like that with.”

“Bugger.” Then something occurred to me. “Hang on, you said that was a Snape spell?” He nodded and I looked two seats down the table. “Oi, Lily!”

Lily, like the other girls, had been listening in on the whole conversation with interest, but now pretended she’d not been paying attention. “Yes?”

“Did Snape ever teach you a spell that – what was it, Black?”

Sirius obligingly filled her in. “Sticks your tongue to the roof of your mouth.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that.”

She thought about it for a bit. “Langlock,” she said eventually.

“What?” Sirius looked like he was trying to commit it to memory.

“Langlock,” Lily repeated, a smile starting to appear around the corners of her mouth. “Laura’s right, it’s a Severus spell.”

Sirius looked confused. “Do you mean he invented it?”

Lily nodded. “Yes, that’s right. He’s invented a lot of spells, but not all of them are very nice or even particularly funny.” She grimaced slightly.

“Right.” Sirius looked like he wasn’t really sure what to make of that information. “Do you know the counter-jinx at all?”

“No, sorry,” said Lily, shaking her head. “Though if I know Severus, I’d guess that Finite incantatem wouldn’t work.”

Sirius shook his head too. “Nope, that was the first thing we thought of.” He stood up. “Well, I did try. Thanks anyway.”

“No worries,” I said vaguely, turning back to my pork chops. Lily made an equally vague gesture of farewell before she too concentrated on finishing her lunch.

Martha was all curiosity. “Since when has Sirius begun asking you things like that, Laura?”

I shrugged. “Since we did that detention together before Christmas, I think. I let slip that Bea taught me all those hexes she invented. Though in hindsight that might have been a dumb move.”

Mary giggled. “I shoul’ think so,” she agreed. “Ye’ll ne’er see the back o’ him nou, he’ll be wantin’ ye t’ teach him.”

“Oh no,” I shuddered. “I never even thought of that. It seemed harmless enough saying it at the time, it’s not like he ever spoke to me before.”

“Heavens,” said Lily, “those four knowing your sister’s spells. The school won’t know what’s hit it.”

“And you’re a fine one to talk,” I pointed out with a grin. “The person who unleashed Levicorpus on Hogwarts.”

She smiled. “Well, yes, but that was to make a point.”

Martha giggled. “What, that you fancy the pants off James?” she asked. “I dunno, Lils, there are probably more subtle ways of getting to see him half-naked. You could just ask, you know, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind, and he might even choose somewhere more private than the Transfiguration -”

“You know that wasn’t what I meant,” Lily interrupted, blushing furiously as Martha dissolved into laughter.

“Are ye sure?” asked Mary, smiling wickedly and winking in Martha’s direction. “Ye dinna soond as though ye believe tha’ yerself, le’ alone tryin’ t’ convince us.”

Lily tried to take control by changing the subject. “So, Laura, what are you going to do? Teach the boys your sister’s spells, or try to get out of it somehow?”

I decided to placate her, thinking she’d probably suffered enough. “I could always refuse,” I said. “I don’t know, something like Bea asked me not to share them until they get Ministry-approved.”

Martha laughed again, accepting the change of subject to what I was sure was Lily’s great relief. “Well, if anyone could pull that off, it’d be you. How you manage to keep a straight face with some of those things you say is beyond me.”

I grinned mischievously. “When you’ve got a sister like Bea, you get good at all sorts of things,” I said. “It’s called self-preservation. Your survival instinct just kicks in.”

We eventually left the Great Hall and headed up to the first floor for our afternoon Defence lesson, collecting Charlotte from Hector’s side at the Ravenclaw table as we went. I was somewhat surprised when we neared Viridian’s classroom to see all four boys were already there, waiting outside.

“He must hae ha’ th’ hex removed,” Mary said quietly, looking at James.

“What?” Charlotte looked confused.

“Apparently Snivellus hit James with a jinx that glued his tongue to the roof of his mouth,” Martha explained. “Last we heard they’d not been able to fix it.”

“Well it’s certainly fixed now,” Lily said as James’ laugh echoed in the stone corridor.

I wanted to know how they’d reversed the hex but wasn’t really game to go up to someone like James Potter or Sirius Black, especially as part of a group like that, to ask. Fortunately Sirius noticed the quizzical look my face must have worn and volunteered the information.

“Dumbledore,” he explained, taking a couple of steps in our direction as we approached. “Once we knew the incantation he could work out the counter-jinx. The man’s a genius.” He grinned broadly. “So thanks for that, Evans.”

James spun around to face us. “Evans? Was it you who helped out?” As always, his hand went automatically to his hair when he realised she was nearby, though at least he’d abandoned that stupid ‘Lily voice’ he’d previously put on for her benefit, having possibly worked out that all she did was laugh at it.

Lily blushed and got rather defensive, something I’d noticed she did sometimes when she was worried that she might let slip something that indicated she did in fact fancy James. “Only because Laura asked me, Potter,” she said icily, recovering her composure. “If I’d known it was for you I’d never have volunteered the information.”

I suppressed a smile. Since no one had actually said directly to her that it was James who’d been hexed, either just now or in the Great Hall earlier, she’d just admitted that she had in fact known all along. I wondered if James realised that.

“Well thank you, milady,” James said with mock politeness. “Though if you’d rather think of it like this, you’ve done the school a favour. If old Snivelly casts that one at anyone again, at least Madam Pomfrey now knows how to reverse it.”

“Absolutely,” Sirius agreed. “If you’re not careful, doing things like that too often might even see you made Head Girl.” He paused, a cocky grin on his face. “Then again, Evans, you might just be enough of a goody-two-shoes to actually want that job …”

Lily shook her head in frustration. “I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer,” she said, turning her back on the boys and facing us.

“But you just did,” Peter piped up gleefully, turning around with a hopeful hand up in case any of the boys decided to high-five him. (Only Remus did, and that was half-heartedly at best, as though he felt sorry for him.)

We all groaned. “Ignore him,” Charlotte muttered. “How we ended up in the same House as those four …”

Unfortunately James heard her. “Don’t say that, Trimble,” he said cheerfully. “You know you love us, really.” He winked at us, smiling broadly.

“Ignore them all,” said Martha, not caring who heard. And we were fortunately saved from further conversation by the door opening and Viridian letting us into the classroom.

The funny thing was, as it turned out the conversation in the Great Hall that day wasn’t an isolated incident. Sirius started being almost friendly towards me, saying hello when our paths crossed and occasionally even initiating a conversation. Only when the other boys weren’t around, of course, but it was still rather odd and decidedly unexpected. Eventually, after extensive conversations in the dorm late at night, we came to the conclusion that he probably did want to learn Bea’s spells and was just buttering me up before he asked me to teach him. I wasn’t really sure how to take it but it was only polite to respond in kind, and eventually I found myself actually looking forward to these little encounters. Like we had discovered about James the previous year, he seemed to be perfectly rational on a one-to-one basis and even, sometimes, a rather nice person. Unbelievable I know but, then again, stranger things have happened.

20
On Friday morning Lily was surprised to receive a letter when the post owls showed up, since her parents were Muggles and didn’t often utilise wizarding communication methods. When she read it, however, her face dropped and she looked like she was trying not to cry.

Charlotte was closest to her. “Lils, what’s wrong? Bad news?”

Lily nodded silently and started to hand Charlotte the letter, then stopped herself. “No, Laura should read it,” she said. “You’ll understand.” And ignoring the other girls’ baffled expressions, she reached across the table and gave the letter to me, then collapsed onto the table, sobbing into her arms.

I understood pretty quickly why she had wanted me to read it. As Charlotte had guessed it definitely contained bad news but the other three, as pure-bloods, may not have understood why. Her mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer and the expectation was she had less than three years to live.

Cancer had managed to evade the wizarding world for some reason. That is, it did crop up occasionally, but very rarely and its impact wasn’t widely known. And so I needed to find a way I could explain to the other girls what the problem was.

“Lily’s mum’s ill,” I said. “She’s got a Muggle disease which basically eats the healthy cells inside her. They’ve only just found out and the prognosis isn’t good.” Simplistic, I know, but they understood.

Lily was promptly inundated with hugs from those around her and declarations of sympathy. Mary caught my eye over the general commotion.

“Wha’s th’ disease?” she asked quietly.

“Cancer,” I replied.

She nodded. “I wondered,” she said. “We learned aboot Muggle illnesses las’ year i’ Muggle Studies. It soonds pretty ba’.”

“Yes, it’s not the best,” I agreed, giving Lily a hug across the table. She was still crying but seemed to be feeling a bit better.

Charlotte was watching her friend sympathetically. “Did you want to go see Madam Pomfrey?” she asked quietly. “She can give you something for the shock. You probably don’t want to go to Defence like this.”

Lily considered. “Yes, I think that might be a good idea,” she agreed. “Can you make my apologies to Viridian?” This was directed to the rest of us, as Charlotte had already started helping her stand up.

“Of course,” Martha said immediately. “You get yourself looked after. We’ll fill you in on anything you miss.”

Naturally Lily’s predicament was noticed by James Potter, who confronted Martha, Mary and I as we headed out of the Great Hall on our way to Defence.

“What’s wrong with Evans?” he asked, his face full of concern as he fell into step with us.

“Her mum’s ill,” I said, not sure how much Lily would want James to know. “She only just found out.”

“You mean, really ill?” His hazel eyes raked over each of us as though that would give him more information.

“Cancer,” Mary said, looking him in the eye. Of course, he was in her Muggle Studies class. He would know what the word ‘cancer’ meant to Muggles.

He looked horrified. “But that’s awful,” he said. “Is it very bad?”

“It doesn’t look good,” I said. “A few years, maybe, but that’s most probably it. Lily’s pretty upset.”

“That’s right,” Martha added defensively, “and she doesn’t need you stepping in and making things worse.”

He blanched at the implied insult but soon recovered himself and nodded. “I’ll be good as gold,” he promised. “But do me one favour?” We looked at him curiously. “Let me know if there is anything I can do for her? I mean, anything at all.”

I found myself nodding in agreement. James was actually quite a nice person underneath the rich-good-looking-and-arrogant façade, as I had discovered the previous year when Mary had been attacked, so this seemed only fair to agree to. To my vague surprise I noticed Martha and Mary doing the same thing.

“We can prob’ly manage tha’, Potter,” Mary said. “I’ll keep ye posted i’ Muggle Studies, okay?”

He flashed her a relieved smile and hastened his step so he could join Sirius, Remus and Peter, who were a few yards ahead of us.

Martha made Lily and Charlotte’s apologies to Professor Viridian as we ploughed into his classroom and found our regular seats. Unsure whether Charlotte would be joining us in the lesson at all, we decided to take copious notes so that we could fill them both in later on.

Viridian silenced the class with ease, as he always did. Again I was struck with the juxtaposition between his almost imbecilic appearance and his very shrewd mind and behaviour, and, my wand out, I waited with the rest of the class for him to begin.

“Wands away, please,” he said in that quiet voice of his which still for some reason managed to carry throughout the classroom with ease. We all put our wands away with mutters of disappointment. We had had very few Defence lessons without using our wands that were remotely interesting.

“Now, then, sixth-years,” he went on, “today we are going to discuss werewolves.” He ignored the general murmur that resonated through the room as we all tried to look interested. “I know you studied them extensively last year,” he went on, “and were tested on them in your OWL exams. However, I have looked at Professor Dingle’s curriculum and I believe that some aspects of his teaching were less than adequate. I have discussed this matter with Professor Dumbledore and he has agreed to allow me to take one lesson for each class from third year and above to attempt to rectify this.”

There was a sudden movement behind me and I turned to see James and Sirius had not put their wands away and were now clutching them angrily, their narrowed eyes fixed on Viridian. Remus was making warning sounds at them and Peter just looked intimidated, as he often did when they were in full flight.

Professor Viridian elected to ignore this little show. “Werewolves,” he said clearly, “are people. They are simply people who have been bitten by another werewolf, generally through no fault of their own. This is a key point that I want you to remember at all times when you are studying, reading about or discussing werewolves.”

He paused briefly, his gaze resting on James and Sirius, who I noticed had now put their wands down and seemed to have relaxed a little. In fact, they looked almost interested in what Professor Viridian was going to say, which was a marked contrast to their normal behaviour during his class. Viridian went on. “I am not claiming that werewolves are not monsters who can maim and kill. However, it is very important to remember that they only do these things when there is a full moon, that is, one night in every twenty-eight. For that one night they are not in control of their actions. For that one night, yes, they are monsters.

“However, for the other twenty-seven nights, and at all times during daylight, they are, like I said, people. They are not a danger to you or to anyone else during those times, unless they are not very nice people, in which case they’re as much a danger as any other wizard can be. But here I refer to character rather than anything physiological. For during the time they are not transformed, they are just like you or me in the physiological sense.

“Now, in the current war, some werewolves have openly proclaimed their allegiances to Lord Voldemort.” Several students gasped at his use of the name, myself probably included, but Viridian ignored it. “This is because Voldemort has promised to give them full acceptance. You can understand how that would be enticing for them. However, as I mentioned before, this is part of a person’s character, whether they would be likely to be convinced by that proposal, not a by-product of their condition. Not all werewolves have joined Voldemort, and not all of them will.”

Carol Jones’ hand was up. “But Professor,” she said, “surely you don’t mean to put us off our guard? Werewolves are still extremely dangerous.” Her eyes flicked to Remus and I remembered the absurd theory Snape had spouted the previous year – maybe Carol had believed it. Remus, in turn, was ignoring her and looking stonily ahead.

“I don’t disagree with you, Miss Jones,” said Viridian. “One night out of twenty-eight, when the moon is full, they are extremely dangerous. And you would all do well to remember to stay indoors during that time to minimise the chances of an attack. So I have no intention of putting you off your guard, for that one night. But what I am also trying to do is address the prejudice that exists around werewolves.” He was walking back and forth at the front of the class, but he paused and looked us all over.

“I know a werewolf,” he said eventually. “She’s a good woman. She has friends and a loving family and a job. Many of the people she knows don’t realise she’s a werewolf. And that’s because she could lose her job, her friends could abandon her and her family, who support her, could be ostracised by the rest of society. All because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was a teenager.”

“But why would she lose her job, sir?” asked Davey Gudgeon.

Professor Viridian stopped pacing again and turned to face him. “Mr Gudgeon, if you learned that one of your classmates was a werewolf, what would you think?”

Davey started visibly. “I’d, er, um, I’d, um … I’d be shocked,” he admitted, his face scarlet.

“And would you treat that person the same way as you had previously?” asked Viridian. “Say it’s your best friend. If Mr Dearborn here was a werewolf, and you found out, what would you do? Not that I’m suggesting Mr Dearborn is a werewolf,” he went on. “But it’s an interesting hypothetical question.”

Davey was looking rather flummoxed. “I’d like to say that I wouldn’t treat him any differently, sir,” he said quietly, “but I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t know how I’d react.”

“And that is precisely the problem,” said Viridian with a smile. “This prejudice is ingrained into us as children. People have good intentions about being open minded about such things, but their actions do not always mirror their words. And so some employers, albeit subconsciously perhaps, will not employ werewolves. They perceive a danger to their other staff, to their customers, to themselves.”

He waved his wand and a pile of books appeared on his desk. “This book was released a year or two ago,” he said. “It’s called Hairy Snout, Human Heart, and it’s anonymous. The author, a werewolf, doesn’t wish to be identified due to the very prejudices I have just mentioned.” He flicked his wand again and the books soared across the room, one landing on each desk. “I want you to read it and write a two-foot summary, to be handed in to me next Friday.”

****

We caught up with Charlotte in the morning break. “Lily’s staying in the hospital wing for a bit,” she explained. “She doesn’t have any more classes today so Madam Pomfrey thought it was best if she just stays there until she feels up to leaving. She’s had a Calming Draught so that’ll help.”

“Probably a good idea,” I said. “It can’t be nice, having a shock like that. I guess it was lucky in a sense that it was a day she doesn’t have much on.”

“That reminds me,” said Charlotte, “what did I miss in Defence?”

Martha handed her a copy of Hairy Snout, Human Heart. “He talked to us about how werewolves are people too, who have just – what was it? – been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Homework is to read the book and hand in a summary next Friday.”

Charlotte groaned. “Read the whole book? How long is that going to take?”

Mary shrugged. “I suppose tha’ depends on hoo fas’ ye read,” she pointed out. “Bu’ it’s nae tha’ long a book, ye shoul’ be able t’ ge’ a chunk read by tonicht, even.”

Charlotte shook her head. “I’ve got Divination this afternoon. I guess I could get a start on it now, though … though I had planned to get to work on that Potions essay Slughorn wants by Monday.” She paused. “How long is the Defence essay supposed to be?”

Martha looked at her notes. “Two feet. So that’s not too bad. Almost short, compared to everything else we’ve got.” She looked at us questioningly. “Shall I take Lily’s copy of the book up to her, or do you think I should wait until she’s out of the hospital wing?”

“Tak’ it t’ her nou,” advised Mary. “It’ll give her summit else t’ think aboot.”

“Good idea,” I agreed. “And who knows? It might even be a decent read.”

And a decent read it indeed turned out to be. Once I started reading the book, that night in the common room, I had trouble putting it down. It was heartbreaking, the way society treated this person just because they’d had the misfortune to encounter a werewolf during the full moon. In a way it reminded me of the whole blood purity thing, where people were judged on something which again they had no power over – who their parents were – and reinstated my conviction that any assessment made about someone based on something they couldn’t control wasn’t an assessment worth taking any notice of.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, either. By Sunday night all the girls in my dorm had finished the book and were talking it over as we got ready for bed.

“I can’t get over it,” Charlotte said as she unbraided her hair. “I mean, I knew about werewolves – who doesn’t – but I’d never thought of what it would be like to actually be one. That’s horrible!”

Lily grinned: she had been in a much better state since her stay in the hospital wing and was almost back to her old self again. “I must say,” she said, “being Muggle-born I didn’t have the prejudices that most of you seem to have grown up with. We knew about werewolves, of course, but only in the context of horror stories – I don’t think any Muggles realise they’re real.” She paused, looking at Charlotte. “So to me this book is more sad than anything else – sad that someone would have to put up with that, even though what happened to them isn’t their fault.”

I nodded. “I had both the Muggle horror stories and the wizard prejudice, and they don’t exactly cancel each other out. But my dad always said to not credit every bad thing you read, and that there’s always more than one side to a story. So I guess this just confirms that.”

Martha nodded her agreement. “It was certainly an eye-opener, wasn’t it? I’ll admit it was something I’d never even thought about. Much like you, Charlotte.”

Mary was looking at the cover of her book, her brow furrowed. “I wonder if there’s a book lik’ it bu’ aboot vampires?” she asked. “If we’re t’ read aboot one of th’ dark creatures lik’ tha’, why nae th’ ithers?”

“Well, there’d have to have been a book written about that for us to read,” Charlotte pointed out.

Lily giggled suddenly. “Or we could just ask that Slytherin boy,” she said. “The one in second year who’s supposed to have a vampire grandfather or something. What’s his name again?”

“Death, wasn’t it?” said Martha, also giggling. “Something really appropriate like that.”

“That’s it,” agreed Charlotte. “Lorcan d’Eath. He’s in the Slug Club, solely because of the vampire thing, and Slughorn absolutely fawns over him. Poor kid – it must be bad enough going through life with a name like that, without being part vampire as well.”

Mary laughed. “Goo’ thing there are no werewolves i’ th’ school, then,” she said. “Slughorn’d be fawnin’ over them lik’ nobody’s business.”

Lily looked almost uncomfortable for a moment before her face broke into a grin. “Definitely a good thing,” she agreed. “If that book’s anything to go by they’d have a hard enough time of it without having to deal with Slughorn on top of everything else.”

“You’re right, Lils,” Charlotte said heavily, looking at the book’s cover again. “I had no idea it was that horrible. Makes me thank my lucky stars I’ve never been bitten, let me tell you.”

****

In late January notices went up on the common room boards stating that sixth-years who would be seventeen by August thirty-first were eligible to take Apparition lessons. You couldn’t get an Apparition licence until you were of age, but obviously the Ministry thought it a good idea to start teaching people the basics beforehand, particularly in the current climate when it could literally mean the difference between life and death if the Death Eaters got hold of you.

The lessons were due to begin in early February and would go for twelve weeks, so we all put the dates in our diaries and prepared to sacrifice both six Galleons, and our Saturday mornings for three months, for the greater good.

For the first class, the sixth-years gathered nervously in the Entrance Hall, waiting for direction from one of the Heads of House as to where the lessons would be. We understood that they were generally held on the lawns outside the castle, but if the weather was unsuitable then the Great Hall might be used. That first morning it was clear but cold and it was decided that the grounds would be used, despite the covering of snow that still blanketed the landscape.

Professor McGonagall introduced a very short wizard from the Ministry of Magic called Wilkie Twycross, who would be instructing us in the art of Apparition for the duration of the course. After the usual warnings (“the ban on Apparating at Hogwarts has been lifted, just for an hour and for this patch of ground only, so don’t try this anywhere else”), we were asked to arrange ourselves so that we had a clear five feet of space in front of us.

Obediently we put ourselves into orderly lines and rows, me immediately behind Mary, with Martha on my right, Charlotte in front of her and Lily behind her. Looking to my left I saw Remus Lupin, who smiled nervously, and I noticed Gerry Stebbins on Mary’s left, a hopeful look on his face. Hoops appeared in the spaces in front of us.

The small Ministry wizard was talking. “Apparition,” he said, “is mastery of the witch or wizard of the three Ds: Destination, Determination and Deliberation.”

We all looked at each other, confused – it may as well have been Chinese for all the sense I made of it.

“Destination,” went on the dry voice of Wilkie Twycross, “is the first step. Focus your mind clearly on your desired destination. In this case, your hoop.”

We all looked dutifully at the hoops on the snow in front of us, hoping we were focusing enough.

“The second step,” continued the little wizard, “is Determination. Focus your determination to occupy that spot you are visualising. This is the most important place you could possibly be! Make yourself yearn to be in that hoop!”

We all felt a little awkward now and nervously looked around to see if everyone else was doing what the Ministry wizard was telling us. After we all caught more eyes than we were comfortable with, we looked again at our hoops, trying to feel a yearning for that small enclosed patch of ground.

“Deliberation is the third step,” said Wilkie Twycross. “When I give the command – and only when I give the command – turn on the spot, feeling your way into nothingness, moving with deliberation!” I was sure the rest of the students there were just as baffled by this as I was, but focused on the hoop nonetheless. I could hear Twycross somewhere at the front of the class saying, “On my command, now. One. Two. THREE!!”

What? Were we supposed to be trying to Apparate already? I looked around to see the alarmed face of Remus on my left, who looked positively terrified at the thought. Martha, on the other hand, was focusing with uncommon determination on her hoop, and then very awkwardly fell forwards onto her face as she tried to Apparate.

Right, Laura, focus, I thought, trying to remember the order of the three Ds. Screwing up my face in concentration, I tried to move with deliberation into my hoop, and opened my eyes to find I hadn’t moved an inch.

Fortunately, neither had anyone else, except for a few variations on what had happened to Martha. Caradoc Dearborn appeared to have toppled forward as well, while Charon Avery actually jumped into the air, did a full three hundred and sixty degree turn, and landed back in his original spot. The Ministry wizard looked completely unperturbed at his class’ lack of success and simply marshalled us into another attempt.

By the end of the hour-long lesson, the closest anyone had come to Apparating was Greta Catchlove from Ravenclaw, who had a couple of fingernails make it to her hoop without her. The Heads of House were with her in a jiffy and quickly reattached the fingernails, but Greta looked distinctly unimpressed. Which was how the rest of us felt about Wilkie Twycross and his Three Ds, we were sick to death of them and thought there had to be a better way of teaching the difficult process of Apparition.

Once the lesson was over I discovered Remus wanted to talk to me. “Hey, Laura?”

I looked at him. “How’s tricks, Remus?”

“Pretty good, pretty good,” he said, smiling as he fell into step beside me on our way back to the castle. “Look, the guys and I were wondering …” He trailed off, apparently unsure how to proceed.

“Yes?” I prompted.

“Well, do you remember how our birthdays are only three or four days apart?” he said.

“That’s right,” I agreed, remembering the conversation back before Christmas.

“Well,” he said again, “we’re both turning seventeen this year, and the guys wanted to throw me a party and I figured, since it’s your birthday at the same time, did you want to make it a joint party?”

I considered that. I hadn’t even thought about my birthday yet, let alone whether to throw a party or not. This was certainly a better offer than any others I might receive. “That’d be great,” I said, smiling again. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He looked pleased. “They’re talking about the Saturday night the weekend following, which I think is the twelfth. The idea is to wait until we actually are of age, so that if we get caught drinking it’s less of an issue.”

That was logical. “Fair enough. Just let me know what you want me to do for it,” I said, wanting to pull my weight.

“Ah, don’t worry about that,” he said. “The guys are old pros at throwing parties now, they’ll have it all in hand. Just make sure you bring the rest of the girls.”

I laughed. “Let me guess. James’ orders?”

“How did you know?” he asked. “Yes, Prongs wanted to be sure I’d ask you that. Something to do with a certain redhead, I believe.”

“No worries,” I said. “I’ll make sure Lily’s there.”

Remus grinned again and, turning around to look at the group following us, gave James, Sirius and Peter the thumbs up. James beamed at me. “Thanks, Cauldwell,” I heard him call out.

As I turned back I spied some early daffodils and made a quick detour to pick one. Unfortunately this meant I was late getting back inside, and managed to walk almost headfirst into an irate Argus Filch, who glowered at my snow-covered boots.

“What’s this?” he asked nastily. “Tracking snow through the castle! I’ve got a mind to give you a detention for this!”

I looked at him in surprise – I hadn’t realised that wet footprints were a punishable offence. Unfortunately at that point I also spotted Sirius appearing from the direction of the dungeons , and he obviously thought that Filch was a good subject for parody. As Filch remonstrated about my apparently deplorable behaviour, Sirius stood behind him and made faces based on what he was saying – rolling his eyes at one statement, waving a derisive finger around his ear at another. Eventually I cracked: Sirius was just too funny and I couldn’t concentrate on Filch at all, and I stood there shaking with silent laughter as the caretaker finished his vent and eventually decided I needn’t be formally punished, before ducking into a nearby classroom and laughing out loud.

Sirius joined me in the dusty room. “What’s up?” he asked innocently, as though he’d had nothing to do with my behaviour.

“You’re what’s up,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to be stern. “You making those faces – how was I supposed to concentrate with you doing that over his shoulder?”

“Well, with that tripe he was spouting, what was I supposed to do?” he asked indignantly as we checked Filch had in fact disappeared before heading back into the castle proper. “Getting in trouble for a bit of snow on your boots? I’d hate to see his face when James comes back from Quidditch practice sometimes. Actually, strike that, I’d love to see his face when James comes back from Quidditch practice, it’d be priceless.”

I had the giggles by now and couldn’t stop laughing even if I wanted to. “How on earth does he deal with Peeves?” I managed to get out. “I saw him dropping Dungbombs on some unsuspecting first-years the other day.”

“He doesn’t,” Sirius said. “Only the Bloody Baron can control Peeves.”

“But the Bloody Baron doesn’t clean up after him,” I pointed out. “Maybe we should just add Peeves’ name to that list on Filch’s door of things that are banned in the castle – that should do the trick, shouldn’t it? I mean, it works so well for everything else.”

He laughed. “I like that idea. Though for good measure we should probably put James and I down as well, don’t you think?”

I laughed again. “You said it, not me. I won’t be held responsible for anything to do with you lot.”

****

The first Hogsmeade visit of 1977 was scheduled for February nineteenth, as we were duly informed when the notices went up the next day. Most of the sixth-years were looking forward to it immensely, whether to just get out of the castle for a spell, or to stock up on whatever supplies they were running low on, be they from Zonko’s, Honeydukes or Gladrags. My expectations for the day, however, changed significantly in the library on the Saturday afternoon a week beforehand.

I was sitting quietly on my own at one of the tables out of direct sight of Madam Pince, the librarian. Not that I was up to anything untoward, but she was so protective of the library books that if I breathed on them the wrong way she might come up and try to confiscate them from me. Hence a more secluded table. On it I had my Ancient Runes homework, an inkwell and some quills, three or four piles of textbooks, and my Rune Dictionary.

Suddenly I was aware of another person at my table. Scowling slightly and ruing the loss of my personal space, I looked up and saw Bertram Aubrey, seventh-year Hufflepuff.

“Mind if I sit down?” he asked politely.

“Go for it,” I said, gathering my books more tightly around me so he would have more room. I looked through them and found my copy of Advanced Rune Translation.

He sat down but didn’t pull out any homework or books, just sat watching me for a little while. It was distinctly unnerving. Finally I gave in and looked him straight in the face.

“Can I help you?” It probably sounded somewhat rude but I didn’t know what else to say.

He hesitated, rocking from side to side on his chair. Finally he spoke. “It’s Laura Cauldwell, right?”

“That’s right,” I said, trying to keep my voice friendly while I assessed him. He was a nice looking boy without being stunning. Average height, so two or three inches taller than me, short dark hair, dark eyes, slightly uneven teeth and a few freckles, bit of a stocky build, but overall a decent package.

“Right,” he said. “This is awkward … I’m Bertram Aubrey,” he continued, extending a hand for me to shake.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, although I knew precisely who he was. Like most schools, you tended to know the kids in the years above you much better than those in the years below, and Bertram had also been a Beater on the Hufflepuff Quidditch team a couple of years previously. Which would account for the stocky build, now I thought about it.

“Right,” he said again, clearly uneasy. “Um, Laura, would you like to go to Hogsmeade with me in a couple of weeks?”

My jaw dropped open in shock. Was Bertram Aubrey asking me out? Me? When someone like Lily Evans was single? Fortunately I recovered before I caught any flies in my mouth.

“Thanks, Bertram, that would be lovely,” I said, forcing a smile onto my face.

He looked so relieved it was almost funny. “Great,” he beamed. “I’ll come and see you next week to work out the details.” And with that he stood up and virtually danced out of the library, leaving me feeling an interesting combination of confused and rather pleased.

________________________________________


Author’s note: Yep, Laura finally gets a love life – I thought it would be cruel to deny her for too much longer. :) As for werewolves, well once I realised that JKR had said that book was published in 1975, it fit in far too well not to use.

21
Mary was delighted when I sought her out to tell her what had happened. “Finally,” she said, beaming at me. “Aboot time ye go’ yerself a man an’ all.”

“I’ve had boyfriends before,” I protested. “How about Cadmus in fourth year?”

“Man, I said,” she corrected, “nae boy. Cadmus, a’ leas’ i’ fourth year, was definitely a boy.”

She had me there. There was a big difference between Cadmus Branstone as a fourth-year and Bertram Aubrey as a seventh-year.

“Fair point,” I conceded. “And you don’t mind me abandoning you for Hogsmeade like that?”

“Nae a’ all,” she said lightly. “So long as ye’ve go’ some decen’ gossip t’ tell me once ye ge’ back. I wan’ all th’ gruesome details.”

She didn’t even have to wait that long. The following Monday was Valentines Day, and Bertram surprised me at breakfast with a bouquet of roses and a box of Honeydukes’ finest. Not totally original, I know, but I appreciated the gesture. And it was years since I’d received anything at all on Valentines Day, so I intended to make the most of it.

Bertram, it turned out, was a bit of a romantic. He had clearly decided that for Valentines Day he was going to woo me (for want of a better word), and he pulled out all the stops. Not only was it the bouquet and chocolates at breakfast time, but at lunch he insisted on taking me out on a broom ride around the grounds with him, culminating in a private party on top of the Astronomy Tower, where he had earlier hidden some butterbeer, treacle tart and, for decoration, some everlasting icicles.

“This is amazing,” I whispered, awestruck that someone would go to that much trouble for little old me.

“You’re worth it,” he whispered back, his face inches from mine.

“But you hardly know me,” I reasoned, not quite sure why I seemed to be trying to ruin the moment.

“We’ll have to fix that then,” he responded, inching closer. And with that, he kissed me.

Wow. Mary had been right. There was a huge difference between fourteen year old Cadmus and eighteen year old Bertram. This was spot on, this was amazing, this was surely not happening to me? I put my arms around his neck and pulled him in closer.

It was definitely a shame to have to go to double Charms that afternoon, but go I did, missing Bertram with every fibre of my being. Which was quite an achievement, considering I’d barely known him that morning when I went down to breakfast. However, true to form, he was waiting for me in the Entrance Hall as soon as classes were over, and whisked me into a disused classroom not far from the Great Hall, where we picked up where we had left off in the lunch break.

When we made it in to supper, both probably looking rather dishevelled as we headed towards the Gryffindor table, I couldn’t help but notice that not everyone had had as good a Valentines Day as I had. Mary had sat down with Lily as the only two single girls in our year, and they appeared to be the only sixth-years (aside from me) who were happy with their situation.

Charlotte, sitting with the Ravenclaws with Hector, was looking over at the Gryffindor table where Remus sat – clearly she was still keen on him and he was either ignoring it or completely ignorant of it. Martha, with Al at the Hufflepuff table, was looking distracted and playing randomly with her hair, a sure sign she was getting restless. James was gazing at Lily, pretending not to notice that the necklace he had sent her still lay unwanted on the table where she had tossed it aside that morning. Sirius, with Clio at the Gryffindor table, had a decidedly sour look on his face and was scowling at the roast beef when Bertram and I sat down. Remus was concentrating steadfastly on the shepherd’s pie on his plate, which made me suspect he did know about Charlotte and was trying to pretend he didn’t. And Peter was gazing wistfully at the Hufflepuff table where the current object of his affections, Leda Madley (who ironically was a member of the Sirius Black fan club), was making a point of ignoring him.

However, I was far too distracted to give any of this much thought. My week got better and better as Bertram continued to shower me with attention and affection, though again even I couldn’t help but notice that not everyone was as happy as I was. This was exemplified the following Friday when we were grouped outside the Ancient Runes classroom waiting for the door to open: Clio Zeller was raving to Veronica Smethley, who I had defended from Maggie Flint a couple of months previously.

“I swear, he’s driving me crazy,” she said hotly. “He’s been in a foul mood for days, and I’ve got no idea what I’ve done to make him like this. Or if it’s anything I’ve done at all. I’m not sure if I even want to spend the day with him tomorrow.”

She was obviously talking about Sirius. It was almost impossible not to notice his bad mood: he’d been glowering at people all week, his temper on a very short fuse, and even James had been heard wondering out loud what the matter was. Even I was aware of it and had noticed his increasing tendency to hex people for no apparent good reason – with more than one student ending up with antennae or something similar – and it was putting it mildly to say I’d been rather preoccupied, what with my new boyfriend and all. I had also become vaguely aware that he was going back to his old behaviour towards me: that is, barely acknowledging I existed. The special treatment of the past month, it seemed, had been an aberration.

“If he’s that bad, tell him,” said Veronica. “It might give him a kick up the bum. Half the boys in this school would kill to be going out with you, and if he doesn’t appreciate it then you might be better off rid of him.”

Personally I thought that was stretching it – Clio was a pretty girl, but I wouldn’t have put her on the same level as Lily, Martha or Charlotte, and I was pretty sure Sirius didn’t count himself lucky to have her. As Martha had pointed out, it just seemed to be something to do when he got bored, as far as he was concerned at least. However, it wasn’t my place to say anything, so I stayed quiet. Remus, the only other Gryffindor to be studying Ancient Runes at NEWT level, gave me half a smile and raised an eyebrow as I caught his eye and I grinned, feeling rather conspiratorial all of a sudden.

****

On the morning of the Hogsmeade visit I camped out in front of the mirror in a vain attempt to make my hair go straight. No matter what I tried, though, the obstinate kink refused to disappear, meaning that I just couldn’t get it to look how I wanted it to.

Martha had noticed. She of course had perfect hair, hair just like I wanted, and didn’t even have to think about it. However, she also had a good heart. “Have you tried this stuff?” she asked, producing a bottle of something called Sleekeazy's Hair Potion.

I took the bottle and looked at it. “I’ve never seen this before,” I admitted.

She smiled. “You probably wouldn’t have, it’s only been out a few weeks,” she said. “Try it out, it might work.”

She helped me slather liberal amounts of the potion on my mousy brown hair to try to straighten it out. Only when we had used what felt like half the bottle, to no avail, did she concede defeat. “Tell you what, Laura, that hair of yours sure is stubborn,” she said. “This is the strongest stuff on the market that I know about, it should work on anything.”

I made a face. “Typical. Anything but my hair. I’m doomed to be kinky.” Then I giggled, realising how that had sounded.

Martha shot me a wicked grin. “You never know, maybe Bertram likes them kinky.”

Accepting my hair for the lost cause it was, I finished getting ready and joined the rest of the girls as they headed downstairs.

The Hogsmeade visit coincided with an Apparition lesson, which were going remarkably well really. In fact, by the time we’d had three or four classes many of the students were beginning to get the hang of it. To no one’s surprise James and Sirius were the first to master it, successfully Apparating into their hoops by the end of the second lesson, most likely a by-product of being the smartest in the year. (Why were they not in Ravenclaw? That made no sense.) The most dramatic occurrence this particular day was Thalia Strout Splinching herself, which meant that not all of her body went to the ‘desired destination’ – this had also happened to Greta Catchlove in the first lesson but to a much lesser degree, with Thalia managing to detach both an arm and a leg from the rest of her. There was a huge amount of blood and she was surrounded by the Heads of House and Madam Pomfrey, who put her back together within seconds, but she was rather pale after that and took no further part in the session. Despite that distraction, however, we were all starting to feel more confident about the task at hand and with any luck would actually pass the test when it was time to sit it.

Anyway, Bertram waited patiently for the lesson to finish so he could escort me into the village. And that was what it felt like, being escorted. Ever the romantic, he offered me his arm as I exited the Great Hall after the lesson, and all the way down the main drive I held it like I was going to a dance or something.

The surreal feeling I got from it extended when I asked what he had in mind for the day. While I didn’t mind being romanced, I did like having some idea of what was happening. Bertram, however, had other ideas. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that,” he said. “I’ve got a grand day planned out.”

Well. That could mean anything. I didn’t like the sound of the ‘pretty little head’ comment, though, it felt almost like I was being treated as a lesser being or something. Bertram clearly didn’t understand me very well at all, and I was a little worried about what he thought I would enjoy.

My worst fears were confirmed when he steered me into a little teashop just off the main street of Hogsmeade. Called Madam Puddifoot’s, it was the most revolting place I had ever been in in my entire life. It was crammed full of little round two-person tables, with frilly tablecloths and lace doilies covering them, and the floral décor was almost overwhelming. It also had a really stuffy feel to it, like the windows were never opened. A Celestina Warbeck song, which to me sounded rather like a cat being strangled, was playing in the background.

The place seemed to be a haunt for courting couples, though I was guessing most of the boys in there had been dragged in by their girlfriends, going by the looks on their faces. As an example, one of the tables held Sirius and Clio, and judging from his expression he definitely wasn’t in there by choice. I made a mental note to thank Cadmus one day, as not once during our little dalliance in fourth year had he even suggested we set foot inside.

Bertram found us a table near a window, which was a saving grace as it meant at least I could look outside – the closeness of everything inside was making me feel a little claustrophobic. As it was now getting towards the end of February the snow had disappeared and a grey wetness had replaced it so the view from the window wasn’t outstanding but, as I said, it beat looking around inside.

Bertram ordered two coffees, and it occurred to me that it was fortunate that I liked coffee because he hadn’t actually asked me what I wanted. Not a good sign, I reflected uneasily.

“Have you been here before?” he asked, taking my hand from his seat across the little round table. It was so small that his knees were knocking against mine, though I suspected that might have been deliberate on his part.

“No, I haven’t,” I said truthfully, choosing not to add, ‘and I hope to never come here again’. He might be offended if I said that.

A waitress brought our drinks, served in delicate china cups, complete with saucers, with roses painted on them. They looked like something my grandmother would have.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it,” he said enthusiastically, holding up the vase on the table for me to sniff the roses contained therein. “Such a great place for couples,” he went on.

“It’s very – pretty,” I said, again being truthful, though my meaning wasn’t apparent in my choice of words. I usually didn’t like pretty things very much, my taste was much simpler.

“You’re very pretty,” he said. “You’re beautiful.”

I felt rather awkward, having considered myself rather ordinary for so long that I was having trouble getting my head around someone thinking I was beautiful, but fortunately my mum had taught me how to take compliments even if I didn’t believe them. “Thanks,” I said, smiling, and hoping he wouldn’t mind if I took my hand out of his so I could drink my coffee.

“I’ve fancied you for ages,” he went on, “but I didn’t know how to talk to you. You always seemed so aloof.”

My surprise got the better of me. “Really? I didn’t realise I was aloof.”

“You’re probably not, but you looked it sometimes,” he explained. “Probably something to do with those high cheekbones. You look almost regal.”

Regal was not a word I would ever have thought of to describe myself, but if he wanted to see me like that then I wasn’t going to argue. “Thank you,” I said again. This was definitely good for the ego. Maybe he really did think I was beautiful. I managed to extricate my hand from his and wrapped both hands around my china cup, feeling its warmth penetrate me. The stuffiness of the room made me feel almost hot but I ignored it, concentrating on my drink.

“I knew that if I didn’t ask you out now, I never would,” Bertram said after a pause, grabbing my hand again and kissing it. “I’m leaving here in a few months, I might never see you again.”

I hadn’t thought of it like that, hadn’t thought of where the seventh-years would go once June was over. “That’s true,” I agreed. “You’d know where I was, but I wouldn’t have a clue where you were. Damn age gaps!”

He smiled, which made his face light up and his brown eyes sparkle. “Good thing I got the guts up, then, isn’t it?” he asked, stroking my palm in a rather seductive way. I’m almost ashamed to say I gave a little moan – this was more like it.

Our reverie was interrupted by a couple knocking our table on their way out. There wasn’t much space in between the tables so we didn’t really mind, but it gave us a shock and pulled us out of our romantic haze. The couple in question, Sirius and Clio, seemed to be having a bit of a row.

“I don’t know what it is that I’ve done, the least you could do is tell me,” Clio snapped.

Sirius was scowling again, his bad mood obviously not improved. “I’ve told you, I don’t know,” he said sharply. “It might not even be about you. And if you’d just leave me alone for a bit I might work it out. But no, you keep on harping and harping, you’re making it worse.”

Bertram raised his eyebrows at me as they filed out the door. “Trouble in paradise?” he asked, probably expecting me to know as I was in their year.

“Beats me,” I said, shrugging. “He’s been in a shocking mood for days. Makes classes quieter ’cause he’s not acting up as much. But she’s in your House, you might know more than I do.”

“No idea,” he said, then frowned suddenly. “Didn’t you have a thing with him at some stage?”

I laughed. “Don’t tell me you actually believed that,” I said. “We did a detention together and then all of a sudden word was out we were having this sordid affair. I thought it was hilarious.”

“So it didn’t happen?” He looked a little anxious.

“Definitely not,” I reassured him. “That’s the sort of thing I think I would have remembered.”

He smiled. “Truly? I must say I’m relieved.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re too good for him,” he said, kissing my hand. “But you’ve spilled your coffee!” he added, noticing the small puddle in my saucer. It must have spilled when the table was knocked. “Let me get you another one,” he went on, looking for the waitress to summon her over.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Really, I’d almost finished, it doesn’t matter.” Actually I’d barely started, but I wasn’t keen to stay there any longer than was absolutely necessary. Bertram hadn’t managed to distract me enough to block out Celestina Warbeck’s incessant warbling, and it was so stuffy inside I was starting to feel like I couldn’t breathe. Outside our window I could see Sirius and Clio continuing their spat, which appeared to end when Clio went storming off in the rain towards Gladrags and Sirius, hands deep in his pockets and a filthy look on his face, shuffled off in the other direction.

Bertram eventually cottoned on and we left Madam Puddifoot’s soon afterwards, him casting an Impervius Charm on me to keep the rain off. Our next stop was Honeydukes, where he bought me a large supply of coffee fudge, sugar quills and peppermint toads. I felt a little awkward about him paying for everything – after all, I did have some gold of my own – but he insisted that on a proper date, the man should buy everything. Oh well, if he was going to be so insistent, who was I to argue?

I was so distracted by Bertram that I barely noticed the shabby stalls holding shonky amulets and the like that were appearing throughout Hogsmeade just as they were in Diagon Alley, though one stall-holder tried to talk Bertram into buying me a talisman that would apparently ward off werewolves. Yeah, right, I’d credit that when I saw it actually happening. The stone itself was pretty, amber-coloured and oddly luminous, but I thought it was probably glass rather than anything more valuable. Needless to say, there was no sale.

After a good lunch and a few butterbeers at the Three Broomsticks, Bertram led me to a secluded corner just beyond the owl office. The rain had stopped and puddles had formed all along the high street, but he had managed to find a spot that the rain hadn’t got to, and so was still dry and well out of the wind. “If we could just stop here for a bit,” he whispered to me, his mouth going from my ear to brush over my jawbone before kissing my neck. I got tingles all over and pulled him closer, losing myself in the moment.

We stayed there for a length of time that could have been five minutes or five hours, we were so preoccupied. Eventually we realised that it was past the time we should have been heading back to school, so reluctantly we re-arranged ourselves and walked back, arm in arm, to the Hogwarts gates.

****

Mary was in the common room talking to a boy who looked vaguely familiar when I finally got back to Gryffindor Tower, Bertram and I having taken a side trip to a deserted corridor after we’d been inspected for banned objects and ticked off Filch’s list as having returned. She got my attention as soon as I climbed through the portrait hole and, waving briefly at the boy, dragged me upstairs to the dorm.

“Th’ girls all wan’ th’ goss,” she said on the way up. “An’ then we’ve go’ goss t’ share wi’ ye.”

Obediently I allowed myself to be led into the dorm where the other girls were indeed waiting. “So?” said Lily immediately as I entered the room. “How was your day?”

“Pretty good,” I smiled, remembering. Then I frowned. “Aside from the start, though. That was disastrous. I thought the rest of the day could be awful.”

“What happened?” asked Charlotte.

“Have you ever been to a place called Madam Puddifoot’s?” I asked.

Mary screamed with laughter. “He took ye t’ Madam Puddifoot’s??” she exclaimed. “Merlin’s beard, I though’ th’ lad had ye worked oot a’ leas’ a wee bit!”

The other three were also laughing. “Yeah,” said Martha, “if anyone is absolutely NOT someone who would like that place, it’s you.”

“Far too girly,” Lily agreed. “Oh Laura, I can just see you in lace and frills and bows and florals!”

“Not to mention good old Celestina being piped through,” I added, shuddering. “Fortunately he got the hint fairly early on. My coffee got spilled when Clio and Sirius stormed out, they were having a fight and one of them knocked our table on the way past, and I talked him into not getting me another one, so we left instead. And then it got distinctly better from then on.”

“Go on,” prompted Charlotte.

“We went to Honeydukes,” I went on, “where he spent a tidy sum on a lot of things which are bound to expand my waistline. Lunch at the Three Broomsticks, that was nice. And then he found a secluded corner near the owl office, out of the rain, where we just kinda whiled away the afternoon.”

Mary looked at me astutely. “Meanin’, ye came up fer air approximately three times i’ as many hours?”

I grinned. “Something like that,” I agreed. “And then we realised it was time to come back to school. So we came back and Filch poked and prodded us and signed us off, having a whinge in the process because we were late, and then we hid in the Transfiguration corridor for a bit, you know, to finish off what we were doing before we came back, and then I came up here.” I could feel my cheeks burning so much, I was probably looking rather like a Quaffle by now.

“Your clothes look intact,” said Martha, scrutinising me. “You covered that up well.”

“Goodness, Martha, we didn’t get that far!” I protested, not sure if I should be insulted at the suggestion or not. “We kept it all very proper, all stuff I wouldn’t mind writing home about. Well – maybe not all of it, but most of it.”

Mary was still looking at me shrewdly, and Charlotte was grinning.

“Well, Mary had a good day,” said Lily suddenly, changing the subject. I looked at Mary, surprised – she’d hidden it well. Unless it had something to do with the boy I’d seen her talking to downstairs?

“Ye know Marcus Ogden?” she asked slyly. Yep, that was him – hearing the name brought it back to me. He was a burly seventh-year who was Keeper on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. “Well, we sor’ o’ ran into each ither a’ th’ Three Broomsticks, an’, er, we ended up gettin’ t’ know each ither pretty well an’ all.”

Lily was smiling broadly. “Of course, she left me in the lurch, she couldn’t run off with him fast enough,” she said. “Oh, don’t worry,” she went on, addressing Mary who had started to apologise, “I don’t blame you in the slightest. I would have done exactly the same thing.”

“You mean if it was Marcus, or if it was James?” asked Charlotte, trying without success to suppress a smile. Lily blushed furiously and refused to answer.

“No one saw Mary or Marcus for the rest of the afternoon,” added Martha, grinning wickedly. “Poor old Gerry Stebbins looked heartbroken.” Mary smiled and even looked a little sadistic, and I wondered if the concept of annoying Gerry had any bearing on her decision to go off with Marcus in the first place. “Nor did we see Charlotte or Hector,” Martha continued, winking at Charlotte.

“We were around,” Charlotte said defensively, taking her glasses off and polishing them with her shirt. “You just can’t have looked very hard.”

“Oh, I looked hard enough,” Martha retorted. “Al and I had a huge fight, I think we might have broken up, so I was definitely looking for you.”

“It’s all right, she found me,” Lily told Charlotte; she had found her voice again. “Martha seemed okay with it, didn’t you Martha?” We all looked at Martha, who definitely did not look heartbroken, and if anything seemed relieved.

“I’m fine,” she said airily. “To be honest I’d been looking to get out for a while now. He was starting to bore me.”

“Again?” asked Lily with an affectionate smile. “Sometimes I worry about you, Martha, you never give them long enough to grow on you.”

Martha shuddered dramatically. “Grow on me? Isn’t that something you go to Madam Pomfrey to get fixed?”

“All right, all right,” said Charlotte, shaking her head. “Anyway, Sirius is single again,” she went on with a grin, “so you could always go back to that old port.”

“Wha’?” asked Mary, her blue eyes wide. “I hadna hear’ tha’!”

“That’s because you were off ‘getting to know’ Marcus,” explained Lily, using her fingers as inverted commas for the ‘getting to know’ bit. “Apparently Sirius and Clio had the row to end all rows this morning and she stormed off to find solace with someone else.”

“Yeah, Sebastian Quirke,” Martha said contemptuously. “Didn’t take her long to move on.”

“That must have been the fight I saw at Madam Puddifoot’s,” I said slowly. “Whatever it was about, they continued it outside for a good five minutes and then took off in different directions. Both drenched to the skin. It was pretty funny, actually.”

“It was probably because she took him to Madam Puddifoot’s,” Martha laughed. “I can’t see Sirius there any more than I can see you there, Laura.”

“From the looks of most of the boys in there, they didn’t want to be there any more than I did,” I said fairly. “And they didn’t break up with whoever they were with over it.”

“She thought that filthy mood he’s been in was her fault,” said Lily, who was now stroking Mary’s cat. “I heard her complaining about it in the toilets the other day.”

“Yeah, she was saying that in Ancient Runes,” I agreed. “And come to think of it, she did yell something of the sort to him this morning.”

“What did he say?” asked Charlotte. “Last I heard, no one knew why he was so pissed off, not even James.”

I paused, thinking. I hadn’t paid much attention to it, actually – from memory Bertram had chosen that moment to start trying to seduce me. “I think he said he didn’t know what it was,” I said after a spell. “That if she let him be for a bit he would work it out, but she kept on at him all the time and it was making it worse. I wasn’t really paying that much notice, though,” I added apologetically.

“Too busy concentratin’ o’ ither things?” asked Mary slyly.

“That sounds about right,” I agreed, returning her smile.

“So, Martha,” Lily said playfully, “what do you think? Will you and Sirius pick up where you left off?”

Martha laughed. “I don’t think so, Lils,” she said. “I’d have to deal with good old Elvira and the fan club again, and I feel like I’m getting too old for that sort of crap. Besides, there’s plenty of talent at this school who don’t have their own fan clubs, just waiting for me to find them.” She smiled mischievously at us.

“Uh oh,” said Charlotte ominously. “Martha Hornby’s on the prowl again. Lock up your brothers!”

“At this point,” Martha said loftily, “I’m thinking that any bloke who’s halfway decent looking, is taller than me, and is mature enough not to refer to me as ‘Martha Horny’, will fit the bill.” We laughed; we’d all heard that particular nickname of Martha’s, which was bestowed not because of her reputation, which was actually rather good, but because teenaged boys liked any excuse to make dirty jokes and her surname was unfortunately made for it. When that had started was one of the few times I was actually glad I was a Cauldwell.

“Mature?” asked Lily with a grin. “Well, I guess that definitely rules out Sirius, then.”

“I’m sure Avery will tak’ ye on,” Mary smirked.

Martha shuddered. “Remember the rule, no Slytherins,” she said, smiling grimly. “Anyway, there’s your party coming up, Laura, I might just see who looks willing there.”


________________________________________


Author’s note: Ah, boyfriends. They can drive you batty but you just can’t stay away. And of course poor Laura needed a little bit of experience as far as relationships go, she’s not had much luck with that to date. Overall I’m rather pleased with this chapter, the banter between the girls in the dorm makes me smile even now after I’ve read it however many times it is since I wrote it.

22
The next two weeks went by in a blur of classes, homework and Bertram. I was blissfully happy and far too preoccupied to pay much attention to anything else that may have been happening around me, barely even noticing for example that Lily went home for a weekend (with Dumbledore’s permission) to see her mum – I’d found someone who thought I was beautiful and was treating me like a queen, and what more could any girl want? I was even only vaguely aware that March was upon us and that therefore I would soon have a birthday to think about – until the day itself, of course.

The morning in question revealed a larger pile of gifts at the end of my bed than I had expected. This probably had something to do with the fact it was my seventeenth birthday and I had therefore officially come of age, but it was still a pleasant surprise.

First up was a letter from my parents, which included the very welcome news – courtesy of Mum, of course – that Wales had defeated England the previous day in a rugby international, though Lily (the only English person present who even knew what rugby was) was less than pleased by this information. Anyway, that was the least of my concerns, because since I was coming of age, my parents also informed me that the owl that delivered the letter was in fact their gift to me. She was a lovely brown screech owl, and it took a tidy spell for me to find an appropriate spot for her cage. She would of course live in the school owlery, but I liked to think she could come and visit me in the dorm. After a lively debate with the other girls I decided to call her Cerridwyn.

After the excitement of Cerridwyn, I started going through the rest of the pile of gifts, gratified as I noticed that Dad’s family had sent me a few things to mark my seventeenth birthday. (Mum’s family, being Muggles, wouldn’t recognise my coming of age until I turned eighteen.) There were a few bottles of elderflower wine from my cousin Rhys, which thought I might donate to the party the following weekend, some perfume from my aunt and uncle, photo frames from my grandparents, and a gorgeous paisley shirt from my cousin Gwendolyn. Bea, who didn’t usually remember birthdays, had sent me a box of owl treats for Cerridwyn.

Mary, Lily, Martha and Charlotte had gotten together and bought me a selection of lacy lingerie, which they insinuated would be useful in the coming months with Bertram. James, Sirius, Remus and Peter surprised me by giving me a box of Honeydukes chocolates, probably only because I was sharing a party with Remus, which meant I would have to get him something too. As for Bertram, he outdid himself by giving me a full length cloak, red velvet and embroidered with phoenixes and other fabulous birds, with semiprecious stones dotted throughout. It was undoubtedly expensive and quite possibly a one-off, but it was also rather gaudy and ostentatious and I didn’t actually like it very much, which gave me a bit of a sinking feeling – he clearly liked me a lot, but he equally clearly didn’t understand me particularly well.

Finally there was one parcel left, which was small and delicately wrapped, and had no note. Part of me hesitated at this – in this day and age, packages with no card were potentially dangerous – so I asked the other girls what they thought I should do.

“Maybe it’s from Bertram,” suggested Charlotte, ever the romantic.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “This one was Bertram’s, look.” I pointed out the cloak he had bought me. “I wouldn’t think he could afford something else as well.”

Lily was looking at the parcel, her brow furrowed. “It’s probably okay,” she said, “but we might try this just in case. Specialis revelio,” she commanded, tapping it with her wand. Nothing happened. “Well,” she said, “that should have shown us if there are any spells on it. Do you want to try opening it?”

Trusting Lily’s judgement, I eagerly unwrapped the package. It contained a small box, which contained a golden clasp, elegantly engraved with daffodils. Looking at the workmanship, it had to be goblin-made, and was therefore probably expensive.

There were gasps from all around the room. “It’s beautiful!” exclaimed Martha, leaning over me to get a closer look. “Who’d give you that?”

“No idea,” I said, as baffled as the rest of them.

“Daffodils,” noted Mary, smiling. “Whoever it is knows ye.”

Lily looked confused. “Daffodils are th’ national floo’er o’ Wales,” Mary explained. “Laura loves them – as well she shoul’, bein’ Welsh.” Mary was a fine one to talk: she had never been overly fond of the thistle, Scotland’s floral emblem.

I turned it over, admiring it. Engraved in tiny writing were the words, Dear Laura, Congratulations on your coming of age, with a strange symbol below that I didn’t recognise. Probably it was the goblin mark, but I wasn’t sure as I’d never had anything goblin-made before.

After we had all admired the clasp, Charlotte took over. “Well, it’s all very nice,” she said, trying to wrest it from my grip, “but we should make doubly sure it isn’t jinxed. We’d best give it to McGonagall, just to be on the safe side. After all,” she went on, looking at me, “you are a half-blood, and your dad definitely meets the definition of a blood traitor, so you could be a target.”

I knew she was right and released the clasp reluctantly. It truly was beautiful, and I hoped sincerely that I could get it back soon as it would look perfect on my school robes. Or my winter cloak. Or the cloak Bertram had just given me (if I ever wore it). Or my dress robes … you get the idea. And I also hoped sincerely that whoever had bought it would one day let me know so I could thank them.

We took the clasp to Professor McGonagall at breakfast, explaining that it had arrived anonymously. I wasn’t sure if I was pleased or disappointed when she agreed that it should be examined – I was torn between wanting to keep it and wanting to feel verified in my concerns about it. She put it in her pocket and advised me that she would let me know once all testing had been completed.

****

Bertram made a big show of wanting to take me out for my birthday, but as we weren’t allowed to leave the school grounds he was somewhat impeded in his efforts. In the end he just sat with me at the Gryffindor table at dinner time, and took me up to the Astronomy Tower for a moonlight picnic. There were a couple of close calls with Flich’s cat (which was rather oddly named Mrs Clay and seemed to have a psychic connection with him) and with Peeves the poltergeist on the way there, but we managed to make it to the tower without getting caught.

In keeping with the spirit of the day I wore my new perfume and the fancy cloak he’d bought me – see, I did wear it! – and donated some of my Honeydukes chocolates and elderflower wine to the picnic hamper, which went very well with the supply of sandwiches and puddings he had managed to procure from the kitchens. I intended to ask how to get into the kitchens – I understood they weren’t far from the Hufflepuff common room – but before I could form the words he leaned over and kissed me, deeply, gently, passionately.

“Happy birthday, Laura,” he whispered, his hands reaching underneath my shirt and inching upwards.

“Thank you,” I responded as he started kissing my neck. This really was a most agreeable way to spend a birthday, I decided.

We snogged for a while, but eventually came to the conclusion that oxygen might be a good idea and broke apart, opting instead to sit together under the stars with a glass of wine and some treacle tart, my new cloak wrapped around both of us to keep the wind out.

“It’s been a lovely birthday, Bertram,” I said as he poured me another drink.

“A lovely day for a lovely girl,” he responded. “I did the best I could.”

“And I appreciate that,” I said with a smile. “But I’m a bit worried that if we don’t go soon we’ll fall asleep up here.”

He gave me a squeeze. “And that’s a bad thing? I think I’d like to wake up and have your face the first thing I see.”

I laughed. “Not if I’ve slept in my makeup, you won’t,” I pointed out. “Panda eyes aren’t much of a look on anyone. Besides, the floor up here isn’t really all that comfortable.”

“I can’t argue with that,” he admitted, changing position slightly and thereby illustrating my point. Beneath us, I could hear the Bloody Baron clunking away as he often did in the Astronomy Tower, so in any case it seemed we would most probably have to stay on the battlements for a little while longer at least.

“Besides,” I went on, shivering as I pulled the cloak closer around us, “it’s freezing up here, and it’s not going to get any warmer.”

He accepted defeat. “All right, my lady, can I escort you downstairs?”

“Once the Bloody Baron shuts up,” I said with a smile as I kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Bertram, I’d appreciate that.”

About twenty minutes later all sounds that might have been caused by the Baron seemed to have stopped, so we packed up our things and Bertram led me down to the seventh floor, my new cloak securely fastened around me.

It was so late that Fat Lady scolded me for waking her up and the common room looked deserted when I got inside. I almost didn’t see the lone figure on the couch in front of the fire, and it was only when he spoke that I realised he was there at all.

“Nice cloak,” he said with undisguised sarcasm. “Who are you supposed to be, Cliodna or Morgana?”

Going by the birds on the cloak – which of course I was only wearing to humour Bertram – this was clearly a reference to two well-known bird Animagi: Morgana, King Arthur’s half-sister, was a dark witch who used her powers for evil, whereas Cliodna had three fabulous birds she used to heal the sick. So the question was really, was I good or evil?

I turned to look at him, though I had recognised the voice immediately. “Oh, hi Sirius,” I said wearily, stifling a yawn. “I think at the moment I’m Morgana, because if you try to stop me going to bed I’m going to hex you into oblivion.”

“Why out so late, then?” he asked easily, putting down the magazine he was reading. Well, it looked like he was talking to me again, but then again his bad mood had (eventually) settled down as well so there was most probably a connection between the two.

I yawned again. “Bertram wanted to take me out for my birthday.”

“Oh, right, that was today wasn’t it?” he said, his gaze seeming to sharpen a little. “Happy birthday.”

I smiled unenthusiastically. “Thanks.” I was about to turn towards the girls’ stairs again when he spoke yet again.

“That’s why you’re wearing that hideous cloak, isn’t it? Because he gave it to you?”

That was a bit perceptive for someone like him, but I wasn’t about to reward him by admitting it was true. “It’s not hideous,” I said defensively, wrapping it more closely around myself. “But yes, he did give it to me.”

He just raised an eyebrow. “No, not hideous at all,” he said. “You just keep telling yourself that.”

I turned again and tried to head for the stairs, but missed my footing and stumbled on my high heels. Sirius started laughing.

“Merlin’s beard, you’ve been drinking!” he said triumphantly.

I got all defensive again. “So what if I have?” I asked petulantly, leaning against a nearby armchair. “It’s my birthday, I’m allowed to.”

He kept chuckling. “I never thought I’d catch you, of all people, stumbling in here after curfew, drunk.”

“Well, if you went to bed at a normal time like a normal person, you’d never have seen it,” I pointed out. “Why are you up so late anyway, sitting here by yourself?”

“Waiting for James,” he said. “We had separate detentions tonight and he’s not back from his yet. Penrose can keep you pretty late sometimes.”

“Right.” I tried to collect my thoughts. “What was this one for?”

He grinned again. “Being out after curfew. Last night. And we weren’t even drinking. Let that be a lesson to you.”

“What a surprise,” I said dully. “You two out on a Saturday night.” Then I thought of something and it was my turn to feel a little triumphant. “But I didn’t get caught.”

He held up a finger. “This time.”

I yawned again. “Remember what I said about hexing you to oblivion if you stopped me from going to bed? I haven’t forgotten that.” And I pulled out my wand just in case, wondering what jinx I should use on him. How would he look with cow horns and a matching bell?

He laughed again, and it occurred to me that he was being way too chipper for that time of night. “You’re trying to work out what you should do to me, aren’t you? I liked that one where you gave Snivellus a peacock’s tail just after Christmas. You can always do that.”

I shook my head. “Too pretty. It’d just be reinforcing stereotypes. I’d need to do something that makes you ugly. Warthog horns, perhaps.”

He grinned. “Not a bad idea,” he acknowledged. “Or tentacles, that’d do the same job.”

“Spider’s legs,” I suggested.

“Antlers,” he threw back.

I groaned. “This is getting to be too much like hard work. It’s too late and I’m too tired. So I think I’ll just turn you into a teapot and be done with it.”

“Can it at least be a red and gold teapot? For Gryffindor, that is?” He looked at me hopefully.

I just shook my head. I was too sleepy for this sort of thing and my brain wasn’t really functioning. “You’re a nightmare, you know that?”

“Why, thank you,” he grinned. I raised my eyebrows. “Well, that was supposed to be a compliment, wasn’t it?”

I gave up. “I’ve had enough. I’m leaving. And just this once, because I’m stuffed and my bed is calling me, I’ll leave you in one piece. But if you push me again …”

He raised his hand in mock salute. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll remember that.”

I shook my head again in resignation and wandered up the stairs to our dorm, throwing the cloak into the bottom of my trunk and collapsing onto my bed, not even bothering with brushing my teeth or washing my face. T hat was what mornings were for, I thought exhaustedly, and promptly fell asleep.

****

Mary came running into the dorm late one night later that week almost bursting with laughter. “Oh, lasses, ye will ne’er believe this,” she giggled, collapsing onto her bed.

Lily looked at her. “What is it?”

“Well,” began Mary, starting to giggle again, “I was jus’ up i’ Marcus’ dorm –” she paused significantly, making sure she didn’t need to explain why – “an’ when I came back doon, I saw th’ sixth-year boys’ dorm door open. Nae much, jus’ a crack. Well, I stopped an’ had a peer through, bu’ nae lamps were on an’ they were clearly nae i’ there. So I though’ I’d, well, check it oot a bi’. I’m guessing tha’ wherever they are, they lef’ in a wee hurry – when I closed th’ door behin’ me after I’d done it squelched lik’ it’d bin Colloportused, so I’d say they hadna meant t’ leave it open.”

Lily grinned maniacally, and Charlotte came in from the bathroom so quickly she tripped over her shoes, which were lying next to her trunk. This was big – even Martha, when she’d gone out with Sirius in fifth year, had never been inside their dorm, with Sirius always finding one excuse or another for why it wasn’t appropriate. The revelation that they locked their door as a matter of course didn’t surprise us at all.

“Well?” Lily demanded. “What’s it like?”

“Mostly th’ usual gunk,” said Mary. “Ye know, clothes all o’er th’ floor, a couple o’ Gryffindor Quidditch flags on th’ wall, a handful o’ Quidditch posters, some pictures o’ bikini babes, some pictures from a Muggle magazine o’ those – wha’ dae ye call them, things wi’ two wheels tha’ go really fas’?”

“Motorbikes?” I suggested.

“Aye, tha’s it, motorbikes,” Mary agreed. “I thin’ those are Sirius’, bu’ I’m nae sure. No family photos by tha’ bed so I canna be certain, an’ th’ trunk wa’ closed so I couldna tell by th’ clothes, though it seems more lik’ him than Peter. There’s a bi’ o’ a shrine t’ ye, Lily, by wha’ mus’ be James’ bed –”

Martha guffawed very inelegantly. “What sort of shrine?” she finally got out.

“A few pictures, I thin’ he mus’ hae taken them wi’oot ye knowing, ye’re nae lookin’ a’ th’ camera,” Mary explained, directing this at Lily. “I didna check under his pillow, though – maybe I shoul’ hae.” She grinned mischievously and Lily looked rather embarrassed. “An’ he’s copied doon yer class schedule an’ written tha’ next t’ his own. It’s kind o’ cute, really. Oh, an’ there’s tha’ stupid Snitch he used t’ play wi’, tha’s stuck behin’ a wad o’ netting so it canna escape.”

Lily rolled her eyes. “Good old James, always predictable,” she said, though her cheeks had gone rather pink and her mouth was twitching, trying to stop a smile.

“What else?” asked Charlotte.

“Nae much by Remus’ bed,” Mary said, winking at her, “jus’ wha’ looks lik' a family photo – him an’ wha’ I’m assuming are his parents – th’ book he’s reading, an ol’ lunascope an’ some ither junk. He’s pretty nea’ bu’ some o' his ol’ robes were lying on top o’ his trunk an’ they’ve go’ huge tears i’ them, ye coul’ notice tha’ i’ jus’ a secon’ or two.” Mary paused. “By wha’ I’m assuming wa’ Peter’s bed, nae much a’ all. A few schoolbooks, a broken quill or two, tha’ sort o’ thing. He wa' pretty messy, his trunk was open an’ his school robes were spilling oot th’ top. Actually, there were so many clothes on th’ floor in all, I’m surprised they can work oot whose are whose.”

“Anything else?” I asked, knowing her well enough to guess she was saving the best till last.

Mary grinned broadly. “This was th’ best bi’,” she said, starting to laugh again. “There’s this huge banner on th’ wall, positioned so ye canna see it from th’ stairwell, bu’ absolutely ruddy enormous. An’ it says ‘Th’ Marauders’ Den’. ‘Th’ Marauders’. Can ye believe it? They call themselves th’ bloody Marauders!!!”

Martha actually whooped with laughter. Mary, Lily and Charlotte were laughing so hard they had tears coming out of their eyes, and I had almost fallen off my bed.

“‘The Marauders’,” gasped Lily. “Only they would come up with that. What are they, plundering the castle or something?”

“Raiding it for contraband,” I giggled.

“I thought they were the contraband,” Martha retorted.

“Well,” said Charlotte, trying to take control but not succeeding very well, “do we tell them we know, or not?”

“I say tell them,” I said, recovering my composure. “Not outright, though. Just let it slip one day.”

Martha was grinning wickedly. “I’m sure we can manage that,” she said. “Just wait for the best time. But whoever does it,” she added, looking pointedly at all of us in turn, “has to do it when we’re all there, so we can see the reaction.”

“Deal,” said Lily, sticking out her hand for Martha to shake it. We all followed suit and went back to bed, laughing quietly to ourselves.

****

Saturday March twelfth was a cold, clear day, with the grey clouds we’d been subjected to all week dissipating and the sun coming out, making it look lovely outside. Some brave souls thought it actually was and wandered out during the afternoon but they soon came back inside, teeth chattering, arms wrapped around themselves in an attempt to warm up – they hadn’t taken the blistering March wind into account. We stayed indoors and tried to put our efforts into helping get the common room ready for the party that night.

Of course Remus had been right, and the boys didn’t need our help at all. James and Sirius disappeared for a spell and came back with several cases of butterbeer and a few bottles of Firewhisky, along with copious supplies from Honeydukes. None of us could work out how they had managed to smuggle them back from Hogsmeade when we were there a couple of weeks previously, with Filch’s Secrecy Sensors and the like looking for illicit goods, but we were pleased they’d done so all the same. Peter also disappeared and returned with a huge basket of food from the kitchens, mostly pudding items but also some things like chicken legs and sandwiches, which should be able to get a large number of revellers through the night.

Since we weren’t needed in Gryffindor Tower, and no one was in the mood to do any homework, Mary and I elected to spend the afternoon with our respective beaus. I found Bertram at lunch time and suggested a lazy afternoon in a secluded corner somewhere, and I suspected Mary and Marcus were doing the same thing. I can’t say we achieved much but it was certainly a very pleasant way of whiling away the hours.

When we emerged for supper we found James, Sirius, Remus and Peter already in the Great Hall, wolfing down pork chops and chicken legs and talking over what other arrangements still needed to be made for that evening. They looked up and waved cheerfully at me as we sat down at the adjacent Hufflepuff table.

Bertram eyed them doubtfully. “I don’t know, Laura, they’ve got a bit of a bad reputation,” he said. “Are you sure you want to be on the same bill as one of them for your party tonight?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” I asked in surprise. “It’s only because Remus and I were born four days apart, it seemed stupid to hold two separate parties.”

“Yeah, but Potter and Black? I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them,” he muttered into his beef casserole. “Particularly Black, with that harem of his.”

I was rather taken aback by this – I hadn’t realised he disliked them so much. And if he did, why hadn’t he raised any objections before? “I trust them,” I said staunchly. “James was incredible last year after Mary got attacked, and while Sirius is a bit of a berk sometimes I don’t have any reason not to trust him. And as for his harem, as you call it, if you knew anything about him you’d know what he thinks of them.”

Bertram looked unconvinced. “Let’s just say I’m glad I’ll be there to protect you,” he said. I raised my eyebrows – I needed protecting from them? That was news to me. “I’ve heard what their parties can be like,” he went on, “and I don’t want either of them getting their grubby mitts on you.”

This time I laughed. “You’re joking, aren’t you?” I asked. “For one thing, there’s no way known James Potter would come near me considering, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, I’m not Lily Evans. And really, Sirius Black? And me? Stupid rumours aside, like that would ever happen in a million years.”

“Why not? You’re beautiful. If he can’t see that he needs his eyes checked.” Whatever else he was, Bertram was certainly loyal. And, unless I was mistaken, just a little bit jealous of people he had no need to be jealous of. I looked at him fondly.

“Then he needs his eyes checked,” I said. “Maybe you should be grateful.” I tried to look solemn, failing a little as an image of Sirius and me came unbidden into my mind. And I liked it. No, Laura, focus, I thought to myself. Boyfriend, remember? Right next to you? With some difficulty I forced the image out of my head. Maybe he was right to be jealous after all.

“What about that Lupin?” Bertram was asking. “I doubt he’s any better.”

“Then you don’t know him,” I responded, grateful for the excuse to push any remaining thoughts of Sirius to the back of my mind where they belonged. “I don’t think Remus Lupin has had a girlfriend in the whole time he’s been here, and that’s not from lack of opportunity. He’s the least likely out of the lot of them to get wandering hands when he’s drunk.” I smiled briefly as I thought of Charlotte and what she would say if she heard Bertram’s insinuations about Remus.

“I’m still glad I’ll be there,” he insisted, and it crossed my mind, not for the first time, how everyone just seemed to disregard Peter. Something which, if I was completely honest with myself, I was sometimes guilty of as well. Bertram was continuing. “Remind me how to get to the tower again?” And he listened intently while I gave explicit directions of the route from the Entrance Hall to Gryffindor Tower, promising to wait by the Fat Lady until I came to get him.

****

The party was due to start at eight, and as one of the guests of honour I dressed with great care, selecting some of the clothes I’d received for my birthday and borrowing a necklace from Lily to complete the outfit. At eight on the dot I went down the staircase into the common room, smiling at Remus and crossing to the portrait hole to let Bertram in.

He looked around curiously as he entered – it seemed he’d not been in any other House common rooms before. I’d spent so much of my first five years going in and out of Ravenclaw Tower that I hadn’t even thought about it, but I supposed that it was a bit different. After a short time to get his bearings, he squared his shoulders and moved towards Remus.

“Hi, I’m Bertram Aubrey,” he said politely.

“Nice to meet you. Remus Lupin,” replied Remus, looking a little surprised. Of course he knew who Bertram was, and had told me to invite him, but he went along with something Bertram had obviously felt was necessary.

Bertram didn’t introduce himself to anyone else, and threw a bit of a dirty look at James and Sirius as we joined Mary and Marcus. James kept his expression neutral, but I noticed that Sirius’ eyes had narrowed slightly and followed Bertram as he crossed the common room. Maybe the dislike was mutual. I resolved to try to be more observant about these things in future.

The boys all seemed to have roles for the party, something I’d never paid enough attention to to notice before. James was the host who brought people together, introduced everyone and got things moving. Remus was the conversation starter, the one who went from group to group and if there was a bit of an awkward silence he was able to fill it with his pleasant and inoffensive chatter to get things going again. Sirius was responsible for keeping the bar supplied with food and drink and regularly spiked the drinks of unsuspecting younger students, and Peter was charged with ensuring the gramophone kept playing, changing records whenever one finished. They had obviously done this many times before and were well versed in it.

Aside from the initial awkwardness, the night was a success. James thought I was wonderful because I made sure Lily attended, though that hadn’t exactly been a challenge since it was my party as well. Bertram insisted on waiting on me hand and foot which, while it took a bit of getting used to, was very flattering and quite nice, really. The music played all night and the food and drink flowed easily, and by two in the morning the nine sixth-years and Bertram and Marcus were all happily gathered in a circle finishing off the remaining food, Hector having left a couple of hours previously. Sirius was measuring out Firewhisky shots and handing them around.

“Here you go, Ogden,” he said easily, giving Marcus a shot glass. “One for the family.” Marcus, whose great-grandfather had started the company that made the Firewhisky, just smiled. Mary reached out automatically for the next glass in Sirius’ hand but he held up a finger warningly.

“Uh uh uh, you’re still under age,” he said, clearly suppressing a smile. He was obviously playing with her as he’d been unashamedly spiking people’s drinks all night, regardless of how old they were.

Mary just raised her eyebrows and pointed at James, who wouldn’t be seventeen for another fortnight and was downing his shot in one gulp. “So’s he.”

Sirius pretended to think about that. “Yep, okay, fair point,” he conceded. “Only remember, if anyone finds out, I didn’t give it to you.” He smiled broadly, all attempts at suppression failing miserably. Mary smiled conspiratorially and nodded her agreement, taking the glass.

The next one came to me. “You ever had this before, Laura?” he asked, handing the subsequent glass to Bertram.

“You tell me,” I said, looking up at him half-accusingly as I too tried not to smile. “Have I?”

He grinned. “No, I haven’t put this in any of yours tonight.”

“Then no,” I admitted. “Only elderflower wine, like we drank earlier, and some mead at Christmas.”

“Be careful, then,” he said, pouring shots for Charlotte and Peter. “It can get to your head pretty quickly, this stuff.” I grinned and downed it quickly, before I could pull a face at the taste. The strange fiery aftertaste had faded before I realised he’d called me Laura instead of Cauldwell.

Three shots and half an hour later Bertram was getting tired. “I think I’d better head back downstairs now,” he said to me, his arm around me. “Don’t want to get caught out of bed too late. Unless you wanted me to stay?” He looked at me almost expectantly.

My mouth dropped open in shock. We’d been going out for less than four weeks – really we’d known each other for less than four weeks – and he was suggesting spending the night? I mean, I might have been tipsy but I certainly wasn’t that drunk. “I don’t think so,” I said as firmly as I could manage. “Besides, boys can’t get up the girls’ stairs, they turn into slides, so you couldn’t get up there anyway.” Meaning, don’t get any ideas that it’ll happen in the future, either. A nd with as much strength as I could muster, I helped him to his feet and escorted him back to the portrait hole.

I could hear Sirius’ voice carrying across the almost deserted room. “Is it just me or was that just a tad presumptuous?”

“No, not just you,” Lily agreed, and I didn’t need to be able to see her face imagine its expression.

“I thought that too,” said Remus, before quickly turning the conversation to something else as I returned to the circle.

I pretended I hadn’t heard them, but privately I agreed. To get my mind off it I downed another shot of Firewhisky, swishing it around in my mouth to get the fiery sensation before swallowing it.

“Where’d you get the whisky anyway?” asked Martha with a rather wicked grin on her face. “You haven’t been marauding for it, have you?” She caught my eye and winked, then went on to look at each of the other girls in turn.

James turned a little pale. “What did you say?” he asked, seeming much more sober all of a sudden.

“You heard me,” Martha said tartly, trying to suppress a giggle. The rest of us were similarly unsuccessful in our attempts not to laugh.

“How’d you find out?” asked Sirius. He too appeared to have sobered up significantly in about a millisecond, and abstractedly I wondered if they’d just had a shot of Sobering Solution instead of Firewhisky.

“Tha’ wa’ me,” admitted Mary. “I saw yer banner.”

“How?” Peter asked suspiciously, and I remembered that Mary had said that the banner was placed so that you couldn’t see it from the stairs.

“Snuck in one day,” she said cheerfully, her boldness most probably due to the alcohol. Marcus put a protective arm around her. “Ye’d lef’ th’ door ajar, so I though’ I’d take a wee peek.”

“That was private,” said Sirius, almost angrily. “What else did you see?”

“Nae much o’ note,” said Mary. “I dinna ken why it’s such a secret anyway, it’s nae tha’ big a deal.”

“Looks like the game’s up, boys,” James said heavily. “Look, that was a nickname we came up with in second year. Ages ago. We just never took the banner down, it was one of those things that only we knew, and it’s kind of nice having something about us that the rest of the school’s not aware of.”

He was looking at Lily as he said it, as though praying she wouldn’t think worse of him because of something he’d thought was cool when he was twelve. Behind him, however, I noticed Peter, Sirius and Remus were all struggling to keep a straight face. There was obviously a joke in there somewhere that I didn’t get.

Lily nodded. “I can understand that,” she said, and James’ face relaxed. “We won’t tell anyone, will we girls?” We all hastily agreed, not wanting to have the boys any angrier at us.

“The bigger issue,” Remus said gravely, “is you sneaking into our dorm. That’s not fair. We should be able to see yours now.”

Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “And how do you propose doing that? Seeing as if you put a foot on the staircase it will, as Laura pointed out earlier, turn into a slide.”

“Don’t think we haven’t tried to work out a way around that,” said Sirius, smiling mischievously.

“Why does that not surprise me?” Martha said dryly. “But you haven’t come up with anything yet, have you?”

“That’s what you think,” smiled James. And no matter how much we prodded and begged, none of them would say anything further than that, leaving us wondering if they actually had got up the stairs and, if so, how they could possibly have managed it.
________________________________________


Author’s note: Okay, a few things to cover here. First of all yes, I know, the anonymous gift is completely cliché but I wanted to do it, so I did. After all, it is my story. :D
Secondly, I’m conscious that this chapter is somewhat longer than usual, but I wanted to keep the all birthday and Marauder stuff together so that’s how it turned out. It occurred to me that the Marauder nickname has only ever come up in canon on the Map, so maybe the whole school didn’t call them that. Just a thought.
Thirdly, I hope I didn’t disappoint anyone with the party scene – I hadn’t expected it to get as much buildup as it did, and then when it did inspire that anticipation I didn’t know how to make it more dramatic without forcing a complete re-write of what’s to come, so I just left it as it was. I hope you think it turned out okay!
And finally, I know I wrote it but I just love that conversation with Sirius in the middle of the night on Laura’s birthday: as so often happens, I had a vague idea of what I wanted but once I started typing my fingers just went off on their own. I must remember to thank them. Manicure, do you think?

________________________________________

23
The following Wednesday, halfway through a particularly trying double Potions lesson, I was disturbed by something hitting me on the back of the neck. Turning around, I saw Sirius grin at me while pointing at the floor next to my stool, where a scrunched up bit of parchment was lying. It occurred to me that it was probably a bit dumb, throwing notes around during Potions where they could easily land on a fire or in someone’s cauldron, but then again Sirius wasn’t exactly known for his forethought.

I looked quickly at Professor Slughorn, who appeared to have not noticed anything untoward. Surreptitiously I leaned over and picked up the parchment.

It was a note in what I assumed was Sirius’ handwriting. What’s that spell your sister did that made Nigel Ackerley breathe purple bubbles?

Lily looked at me quizzically and I showed her the note. She glanced over her shoulder at the boys and I smiled to myself: it looked like the girls were right when they speculated that he’d want me to teach him Bea’s hexes. Well, whether I chose to or not would depend …

Depends who you want to use it on, I scrawled back, throwing it over my shoulder and hearing it land on the table he was sharing with James, Remus and Charlotte. Another swift look at Professor Slughorn showed he still hadn’t noticed anything – he was leaning over Snape’s cauldron with an appreciative look on his face.

Snivellus, of course, was the response, which came back after just a few seconds, this time flying over my shoulder and landing on the table in front of me. Either his aim was getting better, or James had thrown it.

I considered it while I cast an eye over Severus. While I hadn’t noticed him doing anything in particular lately, even Lily had admitted to his general creepiness and he’d probably look better with the bubbles coming out of his nose and mouth. They might even help clean the grease from his hair off his face, because Merlin only knew he needed that. I mean, I knew he didn’t have much in the way of gold, but surely he could spring for some shampoo just once in a while?

Lily, reading the note, looked at me and nodded firmly, indicating her approval for the use of such a hex on the person who had once been her friend. That was the clincher: if Lily approved then I should feel no guilt about it whatsoever. Ignoring Leda Madley who was trying to read the note upside down (undoubtedly just because Sirius had written it), I decided to share the spell.

Puniceus ebullio, I wrote. Similar wand movement to the Levitation Charm – can show you later if you like. I scrunched up the parchment and flicked it back to him, looking over my shoulder as I did so.

He read the note, saw me watching and gave me the thumbs up, smiling broadly. Great, I thought, in two days the whole school will know that spell and it will all be my fault.

Sirius caught up with me after class as we trudged upstairs out of the dungeon, followed by Leda and Greta Catchlove who I had the impression thought they were being subtle. “So, Laura, when are you going to teach me that hex?”

“Whenever’s easiest,” I said unconcernedly.

“Actually,” he went on, watching my face, “the guys were wondering if you wouldn’t mind teaching us a few of those jinxes you know.”

“Who are you planning on using them on?” I asked, though I thought I already knew the answer.

“Just Slytherins,” he grinned, confirming my theory. “And anyone else who really gets our goat. Filch, for example. And maybe a giggler or two.” His eyes flicked to where Greta and Leda were still trying to eavesdrop on our conversation and he winked at me.

“All right,” I said, suspecting it was a lost cause. With that smile of his, I had the feeling that I’d have trouble refusing Sirius anything for very long. I understood now just how he got away with so much – it was easy to stay immune to his charm when he wasn’t using it on you, but when he did it was a completely different story. To tell the truth, I was almost ashamed of myself for turning out to be just like everyone else, recognising much too late for it to be of any use that he really was a first-class flirt. “When did you have in mind?”

“Night would be good,” he said, considering, the flirty smile thankfully disappearing which meant that I could breathe properly again. “After supper. That way it doesn’t matter how long it takes us to learn them. If we used a free period we might run out of time, especially if Peter’s there too. That’s if we could even find a free period when we are all free, of course.”

“Sirius, just how many jinxes do you think I’m willing to teach you?” I asked with mock indignation as we reached the ground floor. “Oh, okay,” I went on, smiling at the slightly panicked look on his face. “Let me know a night when all four of you aren’t in detention and we’ll work it from there.”

“Thanks, Laura,” he said, smiling that brilliant smile, and took off in another direction. And, as though to compound my feeling of shame, I actually had to stop myself from watching him go. Yep, his years of practice in putting on the charm had certainly made him very good at it, and I was finding myself to be far more susceptible than I’d ever realised. No, Laura, focus, I thought. You’re being ridiculous. Besides, you already have a boyfriend, remember? And, shaking my head a little at my own behaviour, I took off upstairs towards the library, which had been my original destination.

Anyway, so it happened that one cold March evening I was sitting with the boys in front of the fire in the common room, teaching them a selection of Beatrice’s hexes and the appropriate counter-jinxes. It took several hours in total as they practiced on each other, but finally even Peter had mastered the final spell and was sitting back, admiring the daisies he had caused to grow on Remus’ arms.

“Well,” I said, “that’s enough for tonight. Time for bed, I think.” I tried to get up from my chair and failed miserably, while James lazily Vanished Remus’ bouquet.

“What’s wrong?” asked Remus, watching my discomfort as his arms returned to view.

“I’ve been sitting still too long,” I explained, collapsing back down into the chair. “My legs have gone to sleep.”

James looked at me with mock concern. “Well, you’d better wake them up,” he deadpanned, “’cause otherwise they’ll be up all night and you’ll never get to sleep.”

Sirius and Peter guffawed with laughter and even Remus smiled indulgently. I managed a wry grin as I tried again to put some weight onto my legs.

Sirius instantly transformed into his helpful mode, which I was learning could show its face occasionally. “Here, let me give you a hand,” he said sincerely and without a trace of humour. You could always tell when he was being genuine – the haughty and arrogant look that usually adorned his face disappeared entirely, leaving it looking friendly and even a little vulnerable. He hoisted my arm around his shoulder and took on most of my weight as we made our way to the bottom of the girls’ stairs.

“You okay?” he asked as we paused just before the first step. “I can’t go any further than this.”

I looked up at him gratefully, testing my weight on my still-tingling legs, and noticing that the rest of me was tingling a bit too, though I had a rather nasty suspicion that that had nothing to do with sitting on my legs all night. Definitely way too susceptible, I decided, especially seeing that now they all knew Bea’s spells he wasn’t likely to seek my company any more. “Yeah, I should be fine,” was what I said out loud. “Thanks.” And, reminding myself fiercely that I had a boyfriend and therefore shouldn’t be reacting this way, I grabbed the handrail and used it to pull myself up to the dormitory.

****

I wasn’t neglecting Bertram, however, no matter how much time I spent chatting to the boys or teaching them spells. In fact, our relationship was progressing rather well and one Saturday, sick of being caught in broom cupboards or abandoned classrooms by teachers, other students, or Filch, I agreed to his suggestion that we head to his dormitory for a bit of time alone.

He took me downstairs from the Great Hall after lunch and along a lengthy corridor before we stopped at a still-life, to which he gave the password. The picture morphed into a round door and he led me inside to what would have been my common room if I’d followed the family tradition and been Sorted into Hufflepuff. This was the first time I’d been in there, as my relationship with Cadmus in fourth year hadn’t been serious enough to warrant anything more than a few snogs and the odd grope in a broom cupboard.

It was an eye-opener, to say the least. My mother, like all good Muggles, had a copy of The Lord of the Rings on her bookshelf which I’d read in its entirety in the summer between fourth and fifth years, and I must say that my first impression was that I’d walked into a person-sized hobbit hole. Although we were obviously underground (the no-windows thing was a bit of a giveaway) the room was round and bright and cheerful, probably due in no small part to the several yellow wall hangings which gave the whole place a warm, welcoming glow. There were a couple of round yellow doors with handles in the middle of them which I supposed led off to the dormitories, and a lot of large squashy armchairs that looked much more comfortable than anything we had in Gryffindor Tower.

After I’d looked around a bit and got my bearings, and greeted some of Bertram’s friends who grinned rather knowingly at me, Bertram led me through one of the round yellow doors and along a winding stone passageway towards the seventh-year boys’ dorm. Again, it was rather different from what we had in Gryffindor. While I’d never been in the boys’ dorms in Gryffindor Tower I assumed they were set up much like ours were, and I knew the girls’ dorm in Ravenclaw Tower was almost identical to ours, but this was different again. It was still a circular room with five beds spaced evenly around it, but the lack of windows made much more of an impact than I would have thought. The bed hangings were all yellow and there were a lot of torches to provide light, and it felt rather warmer than our dorm did, but I just felt that there was something missing. (Or maybe that was just the array of fragrant soaps and potions that Martha kept in our bathroom that permeated the whole room.)

Bertram led me to one of the beds and parted the hangings so I could get inside. Fortunately the room was empty aside from us – I hadn’t been sure that would be the case, as Bertram didn’t seem to feel the same need for privacy as I did with some things. Anyway once we were both safely ensconced behind the yellow hangings he turned to me and, hand on the back of my head underneath my hair, pulled me towards him and kissed me gently, passionately.

This was lovely. I didn’t even mind when my t-shirt ended up on the pillow and my bra soon followed it, because he was making a show of letting things go at a pace I was happy with. However, eventually this fell by the wayside and when I felt him unbuttoning my jeans and trying to pull them down over my hips I was less than impressed.

“No.”

He stopped, but only briefly. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. No.”

“But isn’t that why you came in here in the first place?” he asked, a confused look on his face.

“No, it’s not,” I said irritably. “I was just sick of being walked in on all the time.”

“But it’s not that much more of a step,” he insisted. “Come on, you’ll love it.”

“No. I’m not ready for that.”

He only then stopped his attempt and indicated his bulging pants. “Well, what am I supposed to do with this then?”

I just looked at him. How was I supposed to know? It wasn’t like I had any experience with this sort of thing. “Whatever you like. Just don’t expect me to help.”

“Oh, Laura, you don’t mean that,” he whispered into my ear in what I’m sure he hoped was a seductive manner. “Come on, just try it …”

I pushed him away and sat up, reaching for my abandoned clothes. “I said, no. What part of that do you not get?”

Finally he cottoned on. “You really mean that, don’t you?” he said with obvious disappointment. “I thought …”

I cut him off, fixing him with a stern look as I dressed myself. “You thought what, exactly?”

“Well, most girls say no but they really mean yes, they just want you to beg a bit more,” he explained.

I raised my eyebrows. “Well then, they must have different meanings of words in Nottingham,” I said icily. “Where I come from, no always means no. And I’m leaving now.”

As I walked quickly back towards the round yellow common room and then into the castle proper, ignoring the surprised looks Bertram’s friends wore as they saw me storming out of their hobbit hole, I wondered what I’d just done. Were we going to break up? If we were that would disappoint me, but I wasn’t about to turn back and agree to what he’d wanted just on that basis. I was sure I was in the right there – no should definitely mean no. Fortunately my musings were interrupted by the boy himself, who had also hurried to get dressed and followed me.

“Laura!” I turned when I heard his voice, just as I was about to head up the marble staircase that led from the Entrance Hall to the upper floors.

“Bertram.” I probably said it more coolly than I meant to, but I was still annoyed with him.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “That was completely out of line, what I did. I should have listened to you.”

“Yes, you should have,” I said unnecessarily.

“And I never meant to pressure you,” he went on.

That almost made me laugh. He pressured me regularly about that. But maybe, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he didn’t realise he was doing it. “I’m sure you didn’t,” was what I said, rather charitably I thought.

“Will you forgive me? Please?” He was rather close now and looked at me in his most endearing way, his brown eyes fixing me with a very hopeful expression.

“Not right now, no.” I still had some cooling down to do, he had me pretty aggravated.

“Oh, come on, Laura,” he said in his most persuasive voice, putting an arm around me. “I know you don’t want to cause a scene in the middle of the Entrance Hall …”

I pulled away. Did he really think it was as simple as that? After making those sorts of assumptions? “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Bertram,” I said coldly, “but I’m not all that happy with you right at the moment. And I’d appreciate it if you left me alone for a little while.” And I turned away from him and walked purposefully up the marble staircase towards Gryffindor Tower.

As I reached the top of the stairs I was joined unexpectedly by Sirius, who had apparently seen our little display in the Entrance Hall. “Boyfriend troubles?” he asked easily. I was glad of the company – not necessarily because I wanted to talk to anyone, but because Bertram disliked Sirius so much it meant he was unlikely to follow me.

“You could say that,” I muttered crossly. “We had a minor disagreement over a definition.”

“Ah,” he said with a knowing smile, “those ones can get tricky. What’s the word? ‘Relationship’? Or ‘truth’, that was always a sticking point.”

“Neither,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s ‘no’.” I wasn’t sure exactly why I was telling him this, but then again I reasoned that he’d probably had his fair share of similar discussions over the years. On the other side, of course.

“Oh. That one.” A flash of what looked almost like anger crossed his face, and part of me wondered what memory had sparked that. Or, more specifically, whose memory.

“Yes, that one,” I said. “So I thought I’d just let him stew a bit while I calm down. You know, remind him that if he does get the dictionary out it’ll support my version of what it means and not his.”

“Right.” He flashed me a smile, which I thought was almost inappropriate given what we were talking about. “Then I guess it’s a bad time to ask you how to reverse that jinx that gives you a flamingo neck.”

I laughed despite myself: I was discovering that Sirius had a remarkable talent for taking my mind off things. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that one already,” I said. “I only taught you last week.”

“Ah, well, yes,” he admitted, looking somewhat uncomfortable as we stepped over the trick stair on the short-cut staircase, “but we must be getting the pronunciation wrong or something. It’s not working.”

“Okay, who’s been jinxed?” I asked.

“Pron- James,” he said, making me smile a little at the assumption that I wouldn’t know who ‘Prongs’ was. I thought the whole school probably knew that by now. “Snivellus got him again.”

I looked at him sympathetically. “Again? What is it between those two?”

He cocked an eyebrow. “You actually have to ask that?”

“Right. Lily.”

“Yes, I believe so,” he agreed. “I have no idea why, of course, it’s not like she even talks to either of them.”

“Well you’d know better than I would the way a boy’s mind works,” I pointed out with a grin. “Okay, I’ll fix it. Where is he?”

“Common room,” he said, which would explain why he hadn’t tried to make me take a detour on the way upstairs. Sure enough, once we got into Gryffindor Tower James was rather conspicuous by his extended neck, which had a rather attractive curve to it and a covering of pink feathers.

“Pluma gutter subsisto,” I murmured, giving my wand a flick in James’ direction. Almost immediately he started looking more like a human being and less like a cross-breed gone horribly wrong, and within a minute he was back to his usual self.

“Thanks, Cauldwell,” he said gratefully. “I couldn’t talk properly with that neck, and the guys couldn’t get the counter-jinx right.”

“What were you doing?” I asked, looking at Sirius, Remus and Peter. After they showed me, I immediately realised their error. “You’ve got the word wrong,” I told them. “It’s pluma, not plumo. You were trying to take away his quill.”

“That would explain this,” Peter said ruefully, holding up what obviously used to be a long-feathered quill but now had only the skeleton remaining. “Brand new, too. I’m going to have to write to Mum for another one now.”

I looked at him sympathetically. “Ugh. Sorry about that, Peter, if I’d known this could happen I’d have warned you last week.”

“No worries,” said Remus, trying again. “So it’s Pluma gutter subsisto. We should be able to remember that.”

I looked at them, practicing so earnestly. It was almost funny. “How did Snivellus find out that jinx anyway?” I asked.

James looked somewhat embarrassed. “We, er, might have used it on Regulus …”

“And then taught it to him afterwards,” Sirius admitted a little shamefacedly.

I groaned. “Say no more.” Merlin only knew what was going to happen now, if people like Snape knew Bea’s spells. Maybe teaching them to the boys in the first place had been a significant mistake.

Anyway, whether it was because I’d helped James out of his fix or what it was, I didn’t know, but the boys surprised me by continuing to talk to us even after they’d raided my version of Beatrice’s spell-book. In fact, it was a gradual thing, but by the end of the month the rest of the girls and I felt we could almost call them our friends. Except Lily with James, of course, where the girl-of-his-dreams thing got in the way a few times, though even then he was remarkably restrained. For James, that is. But they started including us in on some of their jokes, would chat with us occasionally over meals, and even swap notes with us for homework assignments and the like. Which was rather useful, really, considering how smart James and Sirius were, and how conscientious Remus was – the former would offer brilliant insights into various things, while the latter could produce copious notes and take us through things step by step. Things which to James and Sirius were so obvious they didn’t see the need to identify any steps at all. With all this to draw on, I could almost feel my grades improving on the spot.

The added bonus we got with being friendly with the boys was that they started looking out for us. They began doing things like stepping in when they felt we might be uncomfortable, and forming a protective barrier between us and, say, some of the nastier Slytherins. I couldn’t help but think it was a shame we hadn’t cultivated this relationship earlier, at least to before Mary’s unfortunate encounter with Mulciber, though I did recognise that in the nine or so months that had passed since then we had all grown up a little and probably wouldn’t have got along nearly so well then as we did now. In any case we had begun to realise they could be powerful friends and, conversely, dangerous enemies.

Bertram, on the other hand, was less than pleased I was getting closer to James, Sirius, Remus and Peter. I had of course forgiven him his little indiscretion after I’d calmed down a bit – after all, he was only human and had all sorts of hormones running wild, so I supposed I couldn’t blame him for trying. And at least he’d stopped when I asked him to, eventually if not immediately. Anyway, he still didn’t trust the boys for whatever reason and insisted on trying to keep me away from them, a bit of a lost cause considering I had all of my classes with at least one of them. In fact, Remus was in every single one of my classes, and James and Sirius all but Ancient Runes. (Peter had quite a different timetable and only shared Transfiguration and Defence with the rest of us.) Combine that with the fact that we shared a common room and therefore a homework space, and I couldn’t have avoided them even if I wanted to. And like I said, I was beginning to be rather pleased with that fact, instead of dismayed as Bertram seemed to be.

Bertram’s attitude made me a little disquieted as I couldn’t see any reason not to spend time with the boys, and in fact the more I got to know them the better I liked them, so his dislike and mistrust seemed more and more unreasonable. And it wasn’t as though I was about to leave him for any of them – as if any of them would have been interested in me anyway – so it couldn’t have been jealousy. So I was walking a fine line, on the one hand trying to keep my boyfriend happy, and on the other forging a friendship with people I had a lot of time for and would be continuing school with after Bertram had left.

Having said that, Bertram was still making me feel cherished and appreciated. He kept telling me how beautiful I was and how lucky he was to have me, and insisted on doing everything for me. However, despite all that, if I was honest with myself I had to admit that there were all sorts of cracks appearing in the relationship, no matter how hard I tried to ignore them.

The main one seemed to be that during the time he had fancied me before we actually got together (however long that had been – he’d never actually said) he seemed to have built up an idea of what I was like, and was treating me according to that. Really, after the best part of two months, I would have hoped he might have looked past any image he’d created of me and got to know the person I actually was, but he didn’t seem to have realised that there was rather a significant difference. Let’s face it, his imaginary Laura actually liked places like Madam Puddifoot’s.

And, well, there was the sex thing. He kept trying for it and I kept pushing him away, not feeling ready to take that next step just yet, but no matter how many times I said “No” he still didn’t seem to get it. Maybe that was connected with what I said earlier, about him having an idea of what I was like and treating me according to that – imaginary Laura was probably jumping at the idea. But the real Laura wasn’t, and I was getting more and more uncomfortable every time he pushed it. Of course, he was also making an art form of not understanding that I was the sort of person who was more likely to dig my heels in the more I was pressured, so he’d be better off dropping the subject entirely until I was ready for it.

Was all this worth putting up with just to have a boyfriend? To be frank, most of the time, yes. I had always considered myself very ordinary in just about every way so it was nice to have that contradicted for once, and when he was showering me with affection I loved the way he made me feel. So I weighed it up and made my decision. Overall, he made me happy more than he made me uncomfortable, so I concluded that the relationship was definitely worth continuing.
________________________________________


Author's note: It probably goes without saying, but I do not own The Lord of the Rings or anything related to it (hobbits, their dwellings etc). These are of course the property of JRR Tolkien and I claim them in no way whatsoever. Thanks!

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24
A week before the Easter holidays Gryffindor was playing Hufflepuff in one of the final Quidditch matches of the year. Gryffindor had a good team that year and were one of the favourites, along with Slytherin, for the Quidditch Cup. Fortunately Ravenclaw had hammered Slytherin in the previous game, and if we beat Hufflepuff by more than a hundred and ninety points we would take Slytherin’s spot on top of the table.

I went down to breakfast with the other girls, all bedecked in our red and gold mufflers with matching woolly hats and gloves in hand. While the weather had warmed up significantly, it could still get rather cold up in the grandstands where you were a good two hundred feet above ground level.

The boys were already at the table, helping James through a dose of nerves. It amused me that he was always so nervous before a game, seeing that he was so confident in other things and was also largely responsible for most of the Gryffindor victories over the past four years.

“Steady, Prongs,” Remus was saying in that wonderful calm way he had. “You’re used to this by now, remember?”

James downed a mugful of black coffee in one gulp and was clearly steeling himself. “Right. It’s only Hufflepuff, after all. I’ve faced worse.”

I stole a glance at the Hufflepuff table where Bertram, dressed in his House yellow, was trying to brace their Keeper for the match. And brace was probably the right word – James, Anna Vector and Clarrie Trimble sent the Quaffle through the hoops so quickly you could rarely see it. Gryffindor House had a running joke that if you wanted to kill someone, then a Quaffle hurled by James Potter would probably be quicker and more accurate than an Avada Kedavra.

“What, not going for Hufflepuff?” said a voice in my ear. I turned to see Sirius had planted himself next to me and was finishing the dregs of his tea.

“Why would I be going for Hufflepuff?” I asked, surprised.

“Because lover-boy used to play for them, of course,” he said as though it was obvious.

I was mildly astonished he would even think that might make a difference. “So?”

He shook his head, though he was smiling and his eyes were sparkling. “I don’t know, Laura, picking your House over your boyfriend. Some blokes might not take too kindly to that.”

“But I was in Gryffindor long before he came along,” I pointed out. “I might have always had a soft spot for Hufflepuff but the Sorting Hat had other ideas, so I’ve adapted myself. Just as well, too – Gryffindor’s got a much better team.” I grinned.

He looked confused. “But wasn’t your sister in Ravenclaw?”

“Yeah, why?” Now it was my turn to be confused – what did Bea have to do with anything?

“Then why would you have a soft spot for Hufflepuff?”

I laughed. Everyone knew his family history, no one knew mine. “Because, Sirius, prior to Bea, all my family were in Hufflepuff,” I explained. “She broke the trend and I broke it even further. Dad didn’t know what to do with us, he’d drummed Hufflepuff in our heads all our lives and then neither of us was Sorted there.” I paused, looking at him. “Imagine you got along with your family, you might have a soft spot for Slytherin.”

He grinned. “Nup, I can’t imagine that. It’s beyond the realms of possibility. But I think I know what you mean.”

“Anyway,” I continued, my eyes on the Hufflepuff table again, “Bertram knows that I won’t go against my House. Not even for Hufflepuff.” I didn’t mention it had been a cause of tension between us, that he had automatically expected I would swap my team for his. I’d been rather annoyed by that – Quidditch didn’t work that way and I had no intention of ditching the team I’d supported all through school on the basis of a few snogs. Maybe in the end he’d appreciated my standing up for what I believed in. I certainly hoped so.

Sirius was saying something innocuous, and I realised I’d not been paying attention to him. Oops. Some friend I was. I pretended I’d been listening by smiling at him as I poured myself a drink, and I suspected it worked because he smiled back, got up and said, “See you at the game, then.”

After breakfast I went down to the Quidditch pitch like the rest of the school. Bertram sought me out and I smiled as I defiantly pulled my red and gold Gryffindor scarf closer around my neck. I would have supported Hufflepuff against Ravenclaw or Slytherin, but not against my own House.

“Not changing your mind, then?” he asked, and his tone was easy but he was obviously still disappointed.

“Sorry, no,” I said. “Gryffindor by at least two hundred, thank you very much.”

His arm snaked around me. “And what would you be saying if I was still on the team?”

I looked at him. “I’d be hoping you had a great game and that Gryffindor won by at least two hundred.”

He shook his head affectionately. “You’re like the Rock of Gibraltar, aren’t you?” he said, tousling my hair. “Won’t budge for anything.”

“I’ve told you, you don’t just swap Quidditch teams on a whim,” I said. “You know that, you used to play. How can you expect me to be any less loyal?”

“You do realise this means we can’t sit together,” he said somewhat sternly. “Not if we’re supporting different teams.”

“Fine with me,” I replied. “It’s only an hour or two anyway, I’m sure we’ll survive.” I’d intended to sit with Mary anyway, as this was the first game she’d been to since getting together with Marcus and she’d asked me to provide moral support, so where Bertram wanted to sit wasn’t high on my list of priorities.

We stopped just short of the pitch and he pulled me aside. “Do I at least get a kiss goodbye?”

“Of course,” I smiled, reaching up and pulling his face towards mine. “A kiss goodbye, but not for good luck.” And before he could respond our lips were together – I’d always intended to have the last word.

After a little while we parted and I hurried up to the Gryffindor seating area where Mary and the other girls had saved me a spot. “That’s the trouble with going out with someone from another House,” I grumbled as I pushed past Martha to the empty seat. “Always want you to go against your own team just ’cause they asked you to.”

Mary laughed. “He wanted ye t’ support Hufflepuff? Fa’ chance o’ tha’!”

“Exactly what I told him,” I agreed. “Gryffindor by at least two hundred. Even if he was still playing, I’d still be saying Gryffindor by at least two hundred.” I paused, taking in the view from the stand. “Oi, Remus,” I said a bit louder, seeing him between Sirius and Peter a couple of rows in front of us. He turned around.

“Yes?”

“Does James think we’re going to get the points? Enough, I mean, to get to the top of the table?” It was always good to get a perspective from one of the participants, and now I knew the boys well enough to ask for one.

“Probably,” Remus said. “Depends on whether their Beaters have a good day or not.”

I nodded. “That sounds reasonable.” The Hufflepuff Beaters were very good and as sixth- and seventh-years were a bit stronger than ours, who were both in fifth year. A rogue Bludger or two could do a tidy bit of damage if they had their eyes in.

We were interrupted by the starting whistle, and Mary was instantly an interesting but messy combination of nerves and pride. Every time Hufflepuff scored, against Marcus of course, she took it as a personal injury, but each throw he blocked was the pinnacle of success. Lily and I, on either side of her, would occasionally exchange a giggle when she wasn’t gripping our arms like her life depended on it.

The game had been going for about forty-five minutes when the Snitch appeared. The score was two hundred and seventy to two hundred and fifty, Gryffindor leading, but without another couple of goals it was too early for us to win by the required margin. The Hufflepuff Beaters had indeed played at their best, sending Bludgers at our Chasers at the worst possible times. Naturally, the Hufflepuff Seeker didn’t see the Snitch’s arrival as a problem and took off like lightning towards it but our Seeker, Persephone Alderton, appeared undecided as to whether she should pursue him or not. In the end she did, succeeding only in putting him off enough to make him miss the take. The Snitch, reprieved, took off underneath the grandstands, and I didn’t see it again until a couple of minutes later when Persephone rose triumphantly in front of the stand with it clutched in her hand.

Of course, we hadn’t won by enough to knock Slytherin off the top of the Quidditch table. The final score was four hundred and thirty to two hundred and fifty, meaning we were a lousy twenty points short. We would have to rely on other results if we were to get to the top of the table before the final game of the year, in which we would be playing Slytherin. No one wanted the championship to come down to that game so it would be a little nerve-wracking for a few weeks.

I found Bertram after the game. “Not quite what you were hoping for, was it?” he asked as he put an arm around me and we headed back to the castle.

“Not quite,” I admitted, “but still pretty close. And at least we won.”

He grimaced. “I knew I didn’t like that Potter for a reason.”

I laughed at him. James had scored a hundred and twenty of our points, with the remaining hundred and sixty not due to the Snitch shared between Clarrie Trimble and Anna Vector. “Don’t you dare say a bad word about James Potter,” I scolded lightly. “Otherwise I’ll just think you’re jealous he’s not on your team.”

“I wonder if we can take him out before he plays us again …” he mused. “Break a leg or something.”

“It’d take more than that to stop James playing Quidditch,” I said. “You’d have to kill him. Which I’m not recommending, by the way – I’ve seen him duel.”

Bertram scowled. “Is there anything that bloke can’t do?”

“Of course there is,” I said, smiling as we made our way through the front doors of the castle. “He can’t get Lily to go out with him.”

His expression cleared. “Remind me to congratulate her next time I see her,” he said lightly. We stopped near the foot of the main stairs, his arms around me. “Laura, I’ve got a mountain of homework,” he went on. “Can we meet up at supper instead of this afternoon?”

I considered it. “That should be fine,” I said. “I’ve got a Potions essay to finish anyway, it’s due on Monday and I’ve barely done any of it.”

He kissed me gently. “Thanks. See you later on. I’ll save you a spot at our table.” His hands had found their way under my jumper and were running up my back.

I smiled and kissed him again. “That’d be great, thanks.” And, a rather warm hug later, I waved as I went up the stairs and he disappeared towards the Hufflepuff common room.

****

Even though the Easter holidays only went for two weeks, and there was a four-day weekend smack bang in the middle of them, my mother was keen that I go for my provisional drivers’ licence. As a police officer she wanted Bea and I to have a good understanding of the Highway Code and believed it would be very useful if we both learned to drive. She’d not had much luck with Bea, who showed little interest in getting her licence, but I was a much more willing participant and she spent many hours with me in the car, showing me the basics and supervising my driving when I did make it onto the road. Towards the end of the holidays she even persuaded one of her colleagues, who worked in driver testing, to take me out a few times to make sure I had a proper understanding of everything I would be examined on when I went for my licence.

In between driving excursions I was inundated with owls from Bertram, who was eager to see me before school started again and professed to be just as eager to meet my family. Unlike me he could easily Apparate over long distances (and, as a minor point, also had his licence) and made it to Bristol from his home on the outskirts of Nottingham without difficulty.

I introduced him to my parents – and to Bea, who was still living at home and even still had the same job – with a certain amount of hesitancy and trepidation. The problems even I was seeing in the relationship were frankly a bit of a sticking point: I wasn’t sure that it would be a long one and so didn’t see the need to bring parents into the mix. But he was showering me with kisses and compliments at the time he suggested it, so I was feeling more indulgent towards him than I sometimes was during my more introspective moments. Needless to say I was having second, third and fourth thoughts about his visit by the time he actually appeared on my doorstep.

The ‘meet the parents’ thing fortunately went off better than I had anticipated. Bertram was the very model of good manners and social niceties, and Mum even invited him to stay for dinner. However, there was something in the air that wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on it but it put me on my guard, and as a result I wasn’t quite my usual self that evening. Fortunately I didn’t think anyone noticed, and I made a point of contributing as much to the conversation as usual, but I was never really comfortable. Finally, near midnight, Bertram took his leave without having made one inappropriate suggestion or gesture, and I breathed a sigh of relief that it was over.

When the time came to go back to school, I found Mary on Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters before Bertram found me. “I probably don’t have much time,” I told her, “but I need to talk to you. It’s been, well, an interesting break.”

Mary raised her eyebrows as she hauled her small suitcase onto the train – only going home for two weeks, we didn’t need much luggage. “Bertram?”

“Came over to meet my folks, believe it or not,” I explained. “Fortunately it went okay, but …”

“Say no more,” she said, smiling. “An’ here he comes. We’ll talk tonicht, okay?” And she clambered onto the train and promptly disappeared, probably in search of Marcus.

I turned around to see Bertram, who was beaming as he walked towards me. “How’s my favourite girl?” he asked, kissing me.

“Great,” I smiled. “I take it you got home okay on Thursday night?”

“Piece of cake,” he answered, his hand stroking just behind my ear in an affectionate way. “Shall we find a compartment? Somewhere private,” he added much more quietly, his other hand tracing my spine and pausing when it reached the base.

I grinned again, thinking that so long as he knew when to stop this would be a most enjoyable train ride, and leaned up to kiss his cheek.

Over his shoulder I watched the procession of students who were making their farewells to their families and boarding the train. Clio Zeller was there, still with Sebastian Quirke, who she had apparently hooked up with in Hogsmeade back in February. Gertie Cresswell and her little brother Dirk were there, alone – I remembered they were Muggle-born and therefore their parents may have preferred not to enter the platform. Lily was looking tearful as she gave her mum an extended hug before climbing aboard the prefects’ carriage. Maggie Flint was farewelling what looked like her parents and older brothers. Gerry Stebbins was looking around keenly, probably for Mary and probably in the hope she and Marcus had broken up. Anna Vector, the Gryffindor Quidditch captain, was surrounded by friends further up the train. James and Sirius were picking their way through the crowds with what must have been James’ parents, though they looked a little older than I would have thought. I noticed Elvira hovering brazenly behind the boys, eyeing them hopefully, and I suspected Sirius was aware of this as he was scowling as he made his way down the platform. Not wanting to be on the receiving end of his temper, I grabbed Bertram and we climbed onto the train.

Of course we didn’t spend the whole train ride joined at the mouth, or even at the hip. Bertram had brought the Sunday Prophet along and we picked our way through it, looking for names we recognised among the lists of people who had died or disappeared in the previous week.

“Oh look,” he said, pointing to Ruby Hopkirk’s name among the dead. “Do you think she’s related to Nestor?”

“Maybe,” I said, looking around as if I expected to see Nestor walking past our compartment at that precise moment so I could ask him. “How about that one? Could be related to Fin.” The name Niall Quigley had caught my eye; Finbar Quigley was in the year below me at Gryffindor, and a Beater on the Quidditch team.

“Oh, that’s awful,” I went on, my eyes transfixed. “Frederick Strout. I know that’s Thalia’s dad.” Thalia was a Hufflepuff in my year, and her father had apparently disappeared without a trace the previous Wednesday. “I wonder if she’s even come back this term, if that’s happened.”

“And look at that one,” Bertram said a little later. “Genevieve Keitch. I’m pretty sure she’s David Keitch’s mum. Looks like she’s been tortured.” David Keitch had been in Bea’s year, in Hufflepuff, so Bertram probably knew him.

“What for, though?” I asked rhetorically. “It’s not like she would have information they wanted, would she?”

It was a horrible side effect of the time we lived in that we could blithely go through a list of dead and missing as though it was the weekend’s Quidditch results. It was all due to Voldemort, of course – it was him and his minions who were responsible for the deaths and disappearances of the loved ones of our schoolmates. Even Muggle Britain wasn’t immune, with explosions and building collapses that the Muggle authorities described as freak accidents, but were actually random Muggle killings initiated by the Death Eaters.

By the time we reached Hogsmeade we were feeling rather sombre and serious, having heard more stories on the train about people’s parents, cousins, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, who had been on the receiving end of the Death Eaters’ wands. Bertram kept me in a close embrace, which I appreciated as it was more comforting than romantic. We clambered onto the horseless carriages at the station with heavy hearts and a sense of dread as to what the coming years would bring.

The feast that night was again a sober affair. Professor Dumbledore drew our attention to the large numbers of casualties from the war, reminding us that success lay in sticking together to fight this evil. United we stand, divided we fall. I was absolutely in agreement with him but I’d heard it all before and to be honest my attention started wandering before he reached the end of his speech. The food was on the table before I’d realised he’d stopped talking.

“So, wha’s up?” asked Mary, spooning a couple of jacket potatoes onto her plate. “Ye wanted t’ talk?”

“I think it can wait,” I said, indicating Fin Quigley down the table. It appeared that Niall Quigley was indeed a cousin of his who had been killed during the week. After all the bad news, having my whinge to Mary about Bertram suddenly seemed much less important.

Fortunately Mary understood my reluctance and went back to pouring gravy over her roast chicken. “Fair enough. Though it micht be a nice change, talkin’ aboot boys again fer a while!”

****

My week improved that Tuesday when Professor McGonagall called me back after Transfiguration finished. “Miss Cauldwell?” she said as we gathered our books and stuffed them in our bags. “A word, please.”

I looked resignedly at the other girls and approached her desk with trepidation. Was my last homework assignment really that bad? I had the hang of Transfiguration now, my marks were pretty good and I was proud of what I’d been able to achieve. After all, just that day I had successfully Transfigured my hand into a cauliflower and back again.

She smiled when I reached the desk. “Miss Cauldwell, here is your clasp back,” she said, handing me the stunning piece of jewellery I’d been given anonymously for my birthday.

“Oh,” I said, momentarily lost for words. She’d had it so long I’d almost forgotten about it.

“Professor Flitwick, Professor Viridian and I have checked it for every jinx, hex and curse we can think of,” she continued. “It appears to be clean. Maybe the card just got lost.”

“Thanks, Professor,” I said, holding the clasp tightly as I found my voice again. “I don’t think it did, but you might be right.”

“Well, Miss Cauldwell, that is all,” she went on. “And might I say how pleased I have been with your progress this year. You are showing a new aptitude for the subject.” There was a note of finality to her voice as she smiled again, and I had clearly been dismissed.

“Thanks, Professor,” I said again and, hoisting my bag over my shoulder, left the classroom.

I didn’t care if I was late for Herbology. I stopped outside the Transfiguration classroom then and there to attach the clasp to my school robes. And then, not sure it was sitting right, I went to the nearest toilets and checked it in the mirror. A couple of adjustments later and I was on my way, beaming at everyone I saw, even the Slytherins. The clasp was clean, it wasn’t jinxed, and it was the most stunning thing I owned, so I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to show it off to everyone.

I got to Herbology just as Professor Sprout was directing us into Greenhouse Four. On the way inside, Lily looked at me questioningly as if to ask what Professor McGonagall had wanted, and in response I pointed at the clasp now attached firmly to my robes.

She beamed at me and directed Mary’s attention to it. “You got it back!” she whispered, clearly thrilled for me. “I knew it was going to be okay!”

Our attention was diverted by Sprout, who had started lecturing us about the correct way to prune a Devil’s Snare. The trick apparently was to do it little by little, inch by inch, so that it didn’t notice it was being pruned; if you took off too much at once it would immediately recognise you as a threat and try to strangle you. Pulling on our dragon-hide gloves, we prepared to spend a pleasant but careful hour pruning the plants.

“So it’s clean, then?” asked Mary as the three of us gathered around a Devil’s Snare.

“Seems so,” I said, looking around for some secateurs. There were none so I wandered up to where Professor Sprout was to pick up some more. However, I was so pleased with getting the clasp back that I wasn’t fully concentrating on where I was going (never a smart move in the greenhouses, where one of the plants might attack you), and realised too late that I was about to walk into someone. Looking up, I saw Sirius who apparently was also missing secateurs, and had just reached for the last pair.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, turning around once he realised I was there. “Yours, I think.” And he handed them to me without hesitation.

“No,” I said. “You were here first, you should take them.”

“I insist,” he said, smiling, and I found myself pleasantly distracted by the change it made in him, the way his face lit up. Yep, I thought, definitely way too susceptible. “Ladies first.”

“You’re assuming that I’m a lady,” I said, having located my voice. I noticed that Sirius’ expression had changed slightly too, and he looked a mixture of pleased and confused. However, at my words he started visibly, and shook his head.

“I don’t assume, I know,” he said, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “Seriously. Take them. I’m sure Sprout’s got some more somewhere.” And if anyone could charm some more secateurs out of Professor Sprout’s supply sheds, I reasoned to myself, it would be him.

I conceded defeat and took the secateurs graciously. “Thank you,” I said, and made my way back to the girls and our unpruned Devil’s Snare, my mind full of that smile.

No, Laura, concentrate, I thought to myself. You have a boyfriend. Stop daydreaming about someone you’ll never have and who most probably doesn’t even realise he’s flirting with you. And I shook my head and made an effort to join in Lily and Mary’s conversation.

The lesson ended with us being given a sizeable assignment where we had to compare the propagation techniques for the Mimbulus Mimbletonia and Bubotuber plants and suggest ways of improving growth rates, which was somewhat surprising as it had nothing to do with the lesson we’d just had. However, we had been studying Mimbulus the previous term (though not actually working on it – the plant was so rare that even Hogwarts only had one of them) so perhaps it was a throwback to that to refresh our memories before exams. In any case, it was hefty assignment.

In fact, this side of the Easter holidays we definitely noticed an increase in our workloads as exams loomed ever nearer. Every new lesson seemed to provide another three-foot essay, new project or practical item to be practiced, and every teacher seemed to think that we had endless hours in which to complete said assignments, when in fact it felt like every spare hour was already more than full.

However, if I was having trouble in sixth year it was nothing compared to Bertram’s experiences as a seventh-year. I hardly saw him, so busy was he with study for his upcoming NEWTs. We were lucky if we could find two or three hours a week together with our combined workloads, something even Martha noticed.

“Have you and Bertram broken up?” she asked in the common room after supper.

“No,” I said. “He’s just really busy with study at the moment. They’ve piled on the homework with NEWTs coming up and he’s having trouble keeping up to date with it all.”

She looked at me shrewdly. “How much of him are you seeing these days?”

I considered. “A couple of times a week if we’re lucky. Plus mealtimes, though they’re getting more rushed too. It’s better than nothing, though.”

She smiled suddenly. “Oh well. Like you said, better than nothing. Just don’t forget what he tastes like, okay?”

Trust Martha to say something like that to get me thinking. She really did have a way with words sometimes.

To get my mind off it I pulled out my Herbology textbook to get a start on Professor Sprout’s essay. Mary and Lily were doing likewise, the theory being that if we all worked on it at the same time we could bounce ideas off each other. Martha and Charlotte were doing some reading for their Arithmancy paper. I noticed the boys at a nearby table, having a whispered conversation with a large bit of parchment spread out in front of them.

Suddenly Remus frowned and peered at it more closely. “That can’t be right,” he said out loud, elbowing Sirius in the ribs and pointing to a spot on the parchment.

Sirius leaned in as well. “Mother of Merlin,” he said, his gaze flicking to our table. He caught me watching them and quickly looked back at the parchment. “Wormtail, can you go check what they’re doing?”

“I think I can guess what they’re doing,” Peter said slowly, staring at the page.

“They can’t be,” said Sirius, his eyes still fixated on whatever it was.

“The map never lies, Padfoot,” Remus said seriously.

James was looking very solemn. “Go on, Wormtail,” he encouraged. “You know where it is. You can get past the tapestry and not get noticed. We’ll need proof before we can do anything.”

“Right,” said Peter, nodding. He looked over at our table quickly and then scurried out of the common room.

James had taken control of the crisis, whatever it was. “Right, guys, we need a strategy for this. As Moony said, the map never lies.” Like the others, his eyes were transfixed on the parchment on their table.

“We have to say something,” Sirius said immediately. “If it was me, I’d want to know.” James looked up and glanced at him with half a smile on his face.

“Shh,” warned Remus, indicating our table, where there had been a conspicuous lack of quills moving across parchment since we had all stopped to listen. Chastened, we hurriedly turned to our homework again, feeling rather embarrassed. The boys went back to whispering among themselves.

About five minutes later Peter came back through the portrait hole, looking very serious. He glanced at our table again and nodded significantly at his friends.

“That lying, cheating bastard,” growled Sirius, his fist clenching. “I’ll kill him.”

“Settle, Padfoot,” James said warningly. “If it happens again, we’ll say something. And then you can do what you want.” And he glanced at our table and put a finger to his lips to remind them to keep it down.

Lily put down her Encyclopaedia of Magical and Mundane Plants and quickly Muffliato’d the nearest groups of students. “Well,” she said, looking intently at us, “what was that all about?”
________________________________________


Author's note: If anyone is thinking of leaving a review for this chapter, I'd just like to request that you don't quote Sirius' line in there about the "lying, cheating bastard". I have no problem with the language (obviously - I wrote it) but it's not 12+ and I've had some reviews deleted because it was in there. I appreciate each and every review and I think it's a real shame if they have to be deleted due to inappropriate language. Thanks!

Næst er Kafli 25.
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