Sirius was a surprisingly good dancer, which was useful because I wasn’t. As he led me expertly around the room, I took a deep breath and looked up at him firmly.
“So, was it a bet or a dare?”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, shiftily enough to tell me my guess had been right. When his eyes drifted to where James was sitting by the far wall, I grinned.
“Don’t play dumb. We both know that you’d never ask me to dance in a million years. Not with ninety-five percent of the girls here gagging for it, and, well, I’m not.” I was right about the ninety-five percent, or at least it felt like it. Death looks seemed to be emanating from all corners of the room, and I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d be lucky if I got out of this without being hexed by Elvira or someone like that. “Besides, Potter just gave you the thumbs up.”
He groaned. “Are we really that obvious? Okay, yes, it was a dare.” I grinned triumphantly, though part of me was slightly disappointed. It would have been nice to be asked because he actually wanted to dance with me. “I’m sorry,” he continued, putting on the ‘ashamed’ look that he used for teachers when caught breaking the rules. “Do you hate me for it?”
I considered that. “Not really. At least this way it’s clear where we stand. I’m guessing you’d prefer I didn’t join that fan club of yours as a result of this – which for all you know I would have done if I’d thought it was genuine.”
He looked surprised. “You wouldn’t do that!”
“How do you know?” I countered. “We don’t know each other well enough for you to say that with any certainty.”
He paused. “I guess not,” he said eventually. “Would you?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I admitted. We danced in silence for a while.
“Anyway,” I said a bit later, “why would Potter pick me for your dare?”
He looked a little uncomfortable. “Do I have to answer that?”
“No,” I conceded. “I was just curious.”
“It killed that cat, you know,” he said airily. I raised an eyebrow. “Oh, okay,” he said. “I feel pretty bad about this now anyway. It was something about the most unlikely …” He trailed off, looking suitably ashamed. Not just the ‘ashamed’ look, but actually ashamed. I hadn’t realised he could do that.
Once I got over this mild distraction, I thought about what he’d said. Was I really the last person he’d ever willingly dance with? “But surely he could have come up with a better candidate,” I said. “I’m sure Scylla Pritchard would be dying to dance with you.”
He made a face. “No Slytherins. It’s an unwritten rule. James has at least some honour.”
Well, with the Slytherins ruled out, I knew why it was me. Beatrice. Anyone related to her would definitely be in the least likely list. And speaking of her …
“Oh, for goodness sake,” I muttered in frustration, looking over Sirius’ shoulder. “Sirius, would James count your dare as being done if I ditch you before the song’s over?” Oops. I’d used their first names. We never addressed the boys by their first names, except possibly Remus. This had to count as a slip-up of some sort.
He ignored the slip-up and considered my question. “I’d say so, I asked and you agreed to it and followed through. Why?”
“Because it looks like I’ve got a fire or two to put out,” I said, pointing.
He looked around. Beatrice, who had been dancing with Otto Bagman from Hufflepuff, had obviously got upset about something and was in the beginnings of a tantrum, turning Otto’s dress robes inch by inch into pink crepe paper.
“Yes, you’d better go,” Sirius said, letting go of me. I started to move towards Bea. “Oh, and Laura?”
I paused and looked over my shoulder at him, mildly surprised that he actually knew my first name.
“Thanks for being such a good sport about this.”
I smiled briefly and headed over to where my sister was making a spectacle of herself, in a futile attempt to put a hold on her reputation before it got any worse. One of the teachers had already started reversing the charm when I got there, so I bundled Bea out of the room as quickly and quietly as possible.
“Bea, you know better than that. What did you bring your wand to the ball for anyway?” I asked as we headed towards Ravenclaw Tower.
She pouted stubbornly. “He insulted me. Said I was a freak and should just get out of school so everyone else can have a good time.”
“While he was dancing with you?” I asked incredulously. “Why’d he ask you to dance if he was going to say things like that to you?”
She hiccoughed uncomfortably. “I don’t even know any more. I just – just – I didn’t know what to say, I was really hurt, so I wanted to hurt him. And I knew he was vain, so the pink paper seemed like a good idea …”
I grinned despite myself. “Bea, Bea, what are we going to do with you? How many times have I told you, just ignore them. Walk away, count backwards from twenty, whatever works for you, but don’t respond. They’re not worth it. You know they only say things like that to get a rise out of you. If you don’t react, they’ll stop doing it.”
“I know, I know,” Beatrice moaned. “Stop giving me lectures. I’m older than you, ergo, I should be right and you should be wrong.” She smiled at her twisted logic, then paused at the entry to Ravenclaw Tower. “Will you come in with me? I need someone to help me calm down …”
“Of course,” I nodded, as she gave the correct answer to the eagle-shaped doorknocker’s question. When she was ready for bed, I just sat with her in the dorm, holding her hand till she drifted off to sleep.
When I got back to Gryffindor Tower, the ball was obviously over as the common room was packed with revellers who were not yet ready to go to bed, and several second- and third-years who wanted to know any new and interesting gossip. Mary beckoned at me furiously from her table.
“Wha’ happened?” she demanded, grinning.
“Took Bea to bed. She got a bit riled up. Did you see what she –”
“Nae tha’,” she interrupted, looking over my shoulder to make sure no one could hear us. “SIRIUS! Why did he dance wi’ ye? What’s goin’ on tha’ I dinna ken aboot?”
“Oh, that,” I said. I’d forgotten all about it. “Nothing. James dared him to ask me.”
Her face fell. “Ye’re joking! An’ he tol’ ye tha’?”
“I beat it out of him,” I said. “To his credit, he did seem a bit embarrassed about it. Who knew that Sirius Black had a conscience?” I said it lightly, wanting to drop the subject, but Mary persisted.
“Hoo dae ye feel aboot it, though?” she asked, clearly hoping I wasn’t too cut up that the only reason someone like Sirius Black would ever dance with me was on a dare.
“Not great,” I acknowledged finally. “I think I was a bit disappointed when he admitted it. But I’d rather know,” I continued, “rather than sitting here with you coming up with all sorts of conjectures and maybe getting my hopes up.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Dae I detec’ a wee crush on Sirius Black, Laura?”
I thought about that. “I don’t think so,” I said. “He’s nice to look at but he’s a bit too much of a jerk. Besides, to get a crush on someone, don’t you need to be able to imagine getting together with them?” I paused. “I can’t imagine myself with him. We’re from different worlds. He’s destined for someone like Martha or Charlotte. Or Lily, but I think James would kill him.” I paused, thinking about it. “At least, though, now I can tell my grandchildren that I danced with Sirius Black.” I giggled. “And then ditched him halfway through!”
“Nou there’s a poin’,” said Mary, grinning. “Ye’re prob’ly richt. A shame, though,” she continued, looking over my shoulder at where the boys were entertaining the crowd, still in their dress robes. “They are verra goo’ looking …”
The following morning, suitcases in tow, Mary and I rather surprisingly found ourselves joined by Martha and Charlotte in the horseless carriage due to take us to Hogsmeade station.
“Not with Lily?” I asked, looking at them.
“Nah, she’s had a better offer,” said Martha with a grin. “You wouldn’t have seen this ’cause you’d taken off already with your sister, Laura, but last night she got together with Lance Savage from sixth year. He chatted her up while they were at the bar waiting to be served. Poor old Snivellus was livid.”
“Yeah,” agreed Charlotte, grinning from ear to ear. “We reckon he’d thought it was an actual date. She’d never even considered that.”
“She wouldna hae,” Mary agreed. “She’s i’ a state o’ constan’ denial o’er wha’ he thinks o’ her. Why aren’t ye wi’ Nestor?” This was aimed at Martha, who smiled briefly.
“He’s staying at school over Christmas,” she said. “We might see each other after the holidays. Or we might not. It was left up in the air a bit.”
“Does that mean that you’ll hook up if neither of you get a better offer in the meantime?” I asked with a smile.
“Pretty much,” she agreed, grinning. “Why aren’t you with Gerry, Mary?”
Mary groaned. “It wa’ a wee struggle t’ ge’ rid o’ him this morn an’ all,” she admitted. “He seems a lo’ keener on me than I am on him.”
Charlotte laughed. “Isn’t that always the way?” she said with a grin, and I had the feeling she was thinking of Remus.
“And Laura,” said Martha with a bit of a glint in her eyes, “what’s with you and Sirius?”
“What, that dance thing last night?” I asked. “James dared him to do it, that’s all. Nothing to it.”
She nodded, still smiling. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought it might have been something like that. He’s never spoken two words to you before.”
“I was surprised he knew my name,” I agreed, nodding. “First name and everything. It was a bit of a shock.”
It appeared that my little dance with Sirius was a big source of gossip, not least because I’d appeared to storm off in the middle of it and left him in the lurch. People seemed to think there was a lot more to it than there actually was, which was demonstrated shortly afterwards when Elvira Vablatsky came through the train looking for me.
“Laura,” she began, walking brazenly into the compartment that the four of us had settled in and sitting down without introduction, “why was Sirius dancing with you last night?” She ignored Mary, Charlotte and Martha, obviously thinking they couldn’t be of any use to her. A couple of other members of the fan club were hovering just outside the door, possibly to offer support and possibly just to try to listen in.
I looked at Mary, thinking I should have known that Elvira wasn’t going to let something like that slide. “He asked me to,” I said, not sure just how much of the conversation I wanted to tell her.
“He asked you?” she repeated, her eyebrows going further and further up her forehead. “You? I don’t believe it.”
“Well dinna, then,” Mary said shortly. “Bu’ I was there, I hear’ him ask. He called her by name an’ everythin’.” She gave me a quick wink and we both tried to ignore Martha and Charlotte, who were trying rather blatantly not to laugh.
Elvira was gaping. “It’s not fair, you being in Gryffindor,” she pouted. “He doesn’t even know my name.”
I was sure he did, since he spent so much time trying to get away from her, but I wasn’t about to say that. “I can’t help where the Sorting Hat put me,” I pointed out instead.
“But why did he ask you?” she went on, getting noticeably worked up. “Is there something going on between you? Why didn’t you tell me?”
I suppressed a giggle and steadfastly refused to look anyone in the eye. Even if there had been something going on between me and Sirius, preposterous as that idea was, Elvira was the last person I would have told. We got along reasonably well on a general basis, but this whole Sirius Black thing she had going was simply ridiculous and I wasn’t about to encourage it. In the end, however, thinking that I’d rather not go through what Martha had suffered at the hands of Elvira and the rest of the fan club, I decided to tell all.
“There’s nothing going on,” I said. “If you must know, he danced with me because he was dared to.”
Elvira stopped hyperventilating. “It was a dare?”
“Of course it was a bloody dare, why else would he ask me?” I shot back.
She looked visibly relieved. “Oh, thank Merlin, I was thinking he’d gotten a new girlfriend or something. At least he’s still single. More chance for me then!”
Mary was looking at her, eyebrows raised. “Hae ye bin pesterin’ Fortuna Robins aboot this as well?” she asked icily.
“Just a bit, before the ball,” she admitted. “But it was pretty obvious last night that it wasn’t a real date so we weren’t that worried.”
I started laughing. “Who did you go with last night, Elvira? Davey Gudgeon, wasn’t it? How did he like you fawning over another boy all night?”
She had the grace to look a little embarrassed . “I don’t think he was all that worried,” she said. “He was too busy drooling over Lily Evans. As most of the boys were. I think he was a bit peeved when Lance Savage got lucky with her, actually. But I was trying not to be too obvious, just in case he did get upset.”
Martha, Charlotte, Mary and I exchanged a grin at the thought of what Elvira would consider ‘not too obvious’. My guess was that it would include following someone around all night but would not include going so far as to deliberately spill a drink on their date, but I wasn’t about to say that out loud.
Anyway, I suspected Elvira was getting the (correct) impression that we wanted her to leave. I for one had no intention of spending the entire seven hour train journey back to London talking about Sirius Black, which is what would have happened if she’d stayed in our compartment. In any case she got up as abruptly as she had sat down and made her way to the door.
“Well, if there’s nothing to hear, I’ll be off,” she said airily as she stepped into the corridor, joining the other girls from the fan club who were still hovering outside our door. “See ya!” And she waved to us as she wandered back down the train, probably looking for Sirius so she could start bothering him.
The four of us just looked at each other and laughed. “She is the living end,” said Martha, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Seriously, she’s in Ravenclaw. How can someone so smart be so dumb??”
“I don’t envy you, Martha,” Charlotte giggled. “Having to put up with that tosh all the time. No wonder you dumped him.”
Martha snorted. “That was an easy one,” she said. “No wands out or anything. I was expecting you to at least be glowing purple by now, Laura.”
I shrugged. “I don’t think she exactly sees me as a threat. And for some reason she’s decided that I’m the one to give her personal information on him. Not that I can, considering I know diddly squat about him, but apparently being in Gryffindor makes me an instant expert.”
“Only because tha’s wha’ she’d be if she were i’ Gryffindor,” Mary pointed out with a giggle. “Ne’er one t’ waste an opportunity, tha’ one. Prob’ly canna understan’ why ye dinna see things th’ same way she does.”
“Did you see her though? Looked like she was going to have a heart attack before you let out it was a dare. Absolutely hysterical.” Martha was still laughing. “Laura, if anything like that ever happens again, make sure I’m around when Elvira confronts you and then string it out for as long as you can. I’d pay to watch that.”
“It’s a deal,” I agreed, smiling and putting out a hand for Martha to shake. “Because of course it’ll be happening weekly from now on, now we’ve broken the ice.” And I just about managed to keep a straight face when I said it.
Charlotte laughed. “Do you know, for a second there I almost thought you meant that!”
I giggled. “I’m getting better at it, aren’t I? Anyway, in all seriousness, I think I can pretty much guarantee that nothing like that will ever happen again.”
Martha smiled. “Probably not. But never say never. And if it does, make sure I’m there!”
My maternal grandparents were visiting when Bea and I got back home that evening. They’d been to the rugby the previous night and had wanted us to share their experience.
“If only that school of yours could have let you go a day early,” my grandfather enthused. “You would have loved it, Laura. We played Australia last night in Cardiff, and hammered them twenty-eight to three!”
I smiled as I sat down in the kitchen. “That would have been great,” I said, not even needing to fake my enthusiasm. “Who got all the tries?”
As they waxed lyrical about Wales’ performance the previous night and pointed my attention to the newspaper reports about the win, I tried not to get too jealous. I definitely felt they had the better end of the stick, as it would certainly have been better than being used as part of a dare at the Yule Ball. To tell the truth, I’d not particularly enjoyed the ball, and it was years since I’d been to a rugby international as they never seemed to coincide with school holidays.
Aside from that, the Christmas holidays passed pretty much without incident. It was great seeing my parents again but as usual they were preoccupied with Beatrice, who was taking her NEWTs and feeling the stress of it. Dad even went to Bobbin’s Apothecary for a Calming Draught after she lost her temper at the dog and streams of different coloured water started coming out of its nose.
As the quiet one, the one who didn’t cause trouble, I was left pretty much to myself. Not ignored, and there was certainly no malice in it, but Bea always took up a tidy bit of my parents’ attention, so I watched a bit of Doctor Who and some old movies on the television and busied myself in front of the fire with a good book or three. I had received a good collection for Christmas – Mary had given me a selection of Fifi LaFolle romances, and Mum a number of Muggle mystery novels – so I was well set for a bit of escapism. In summer I liked to spend a lot of my time outside but with the snow some four inches deep on the ground a bit of fireside reading sounded like a much better idea.
“You’re not going out much these holidays,” Mum said one day when she found me in the living room with my nose in a book. “Aren’t you going to catch up with Sarah and Mandy? Go shopping, or to the movies, or something?”
I shook my head. “I don’t really have that much in common with them any more,” I admitted. Sarah and Mandy had been my closest friends in primary school, but as they were Muggles and I spent so much of my time immersed in the magical world I found we had very little in common these days.
“That’s sad,” Mum said. “But what about those magazines and records I’ve been getting you? Don’t those help with that?”
“They help,” I said, “but they’re not enough. Their lives are just so different from mine now that I don’t know what to talk to them about. I mean, I’ve seen photos of the film stars they’ve got crushes on, but I haven’t seen the films so I can’t talk about those, and there’s no way known I could catch up with it all in the few weeks I’m back here each year.”
She nodded. “I was afraid this would happen,” she said, sitting down next to me on the couch. “I’ve been trying to keep you involved, but there’s only so much I can do, isn’t there?”
I nodded sadly. “Yeah, I think there is. So really, all I’ve got now is Mary. And Bea, but quite frankly I’m not always proud of that.”
“I wish you had more friends,” Mum said. “I feel like you’re missing out on something. I don’t really know what, but I wish that even those other girls in your dorm would talk to you more.”
I smiled. “Same as with Sarah and Mandy, though in a different way. Not much in common. And, well, I often have to spend a lot of time running around after Bea.”
“She can be difficult,” Mum admitted. “And you’re very different from each other. Well, I’m sorry that you’re losing touch, Sarah and Mandy were nice girls. But I can understand how it’s happened.” She sighed, leaning back against the cushions. “It just worries me, Laura. You’re going to get more and more involved with your father’s world, and I’m going to lose you. We’re eventually going to end up like you and Sarah and Mandy, aren’t we, and run out of things to talk about?”
I leaned over and gave her a hug. “I’m sure we’ll always be able to find something to talk about. Even if it’s just what Bea’s been up to lately.”
She laughed. “Well, yes, there is always that.” She turned to me suddenly. “She makes things hard for you, doesn’t she?”
You don’t know the half of it, I thought. I was humiliated at the school ball because of the simple fact that I was her sister. But Mum didn’t need to know that, it would only upset her, so in the end I just shrugged. “Well, there are some people at school who wouldn’t want to visit me here because she’s here too,” I said. “But they’re probably not worth worrying about anyway, not if they’re that shallow.”
It sounded good, I thought. It sounded nice and mature and exactly the sort of thing I should say, and I should think. The trouble was, it wasn’t entirely true. I wanted to be popular. I even wanted those people to like me, even if I didn’t like them all that much. After all, no one wants to be ignored. However, it just wasn’t my lot in life, and I had learned to accept that.
Just before New Years, Bea came looking for me. This happened at least once each holidays, when she had settled back into herself and was feeling lonely, and always ended in her teaching me all the spells she and her friends had invented that term. So far I had learned, among other things, how to turn someone’s fingers into asparagus spears, make their neck extend like a flamingo’s, make them honk like a goose, speak in Spanish (or French, or Arabic) for an hour, give them cow’s horns and a matching bell, join their knees together, grow wheels on their feet, or make any dog they encountered follow them around for three days. I could also bewitch a book to fall open at its most embarrassing or compromising pages (useful when planted in front of someone), set a radio so that it wouldn’t change its station no matter what you did to it, make goblets close over when you tried to drink from them, bewitch a parchment so that your essay always looks six inches too short no matter how much you write, blow up a quill on time delay, or jinx someone’s photos frames so that the subjects never go into them.
This year it was no different. Beatrice, halfway through her seventh year, was bristling with information from her NEWTs and how she and her friends had adapted some of the spells they had learned. I knew that a tidy bit of it was showing off but I had nothing better to do and, even if I never used half the jinxes she taught me, it was nice to daydream about Scylla Pritchard with earthworms instead of hair.
Before I knew it the holidays were over and it was time to go back to school again. Bea started to get mildly hysterical again with the pressure of her upcoming exams and had to be subdued with another Calming Draught, and I reflected that I was about to sit my OWLs, which were from all reports just as nerve-wracking as NEWTs were, and hadn’t needed a single dose. Not that anyone had noticed that. Anyway, in what seemed like no time we were packed up again and put on the train back to school, ready for whatever would be sent our way in the next term.
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