Author's note: This is the last chapter for this story. I'd like to thank everyone who has read this far for persevering, because I know it's a very long story, and I'm very sorry for not having had time to respond to reviews. Needless to say I have appreciated each and every one of them and am very very thankful for the support I've received in the time I've been posting this fic. Thanks again.
Three months later
The Healer went into the fourth floor waiting room of St Mungo's. It was a Friday morning in mid September and the sun was shining brightly through the eastern windows. "Mr Black?" she asked, looking around. Two dark haired boys looked up, along with a pretty auburn haired girl who was holding hands with one of them. The other one got to his feet.
"Healer Kirke? I came as soon as I got your message."
She flicked through her notes, slightly flustered, and then looked at the young man standing in front of her. He was tall – over six feet – and looked just like the picture they'd found: very good looking, though with a somewhat arrogant air. "It took a long time to find you, we've been trying to get hold of you for days," she said. "Your family didn't know where you were …" The boy's face hardened slightly, and she indicated he should follow her. The couple who were with him got up as well, so she nodded to them.
She decided not to go into detail about her correspondence with the boy's family. How she had just the name, Sirius Black, to go on, and so had written to the Black family in London looking for him. They were all named after stars or constellations, he had to be related. How she had received a response from Walburga Black, spewing vitriol and denying knowledge of any such person. How an hour or so later another owl had arrived, this time from the boy's brother, explaining that Sirius did exist but had been disowned by his family for 'conduct unbecoming of the family name'. Well, she knew enough about the Blacks to guess what that meant: she would wager anything the girl wasn't a pure-blood. She didn't mention any of this, though – if this boy had written the letter they'd found in the girl's pocket, he would be going through enough in a minute or so without her bringing a family feud into the mix.
She continued her narrative as though she hadn't seen his reaction. "So we just sent off an owl with your name attached, hoping it would find you. Fortunately it looks like it did." She smiled grimly. She hated this part of the job, and it was happening more and more often these days. And they were so young! The girl's records said she was only eighteen, and if this boy was any older than that, it wasn't by much.
The young couple were following at a short distance behind them, obviously wanting to be near their friend but trying not to intrude on whatever was going to happen here.
"It's about Miss Cauldwell," she said after a pause, flicking back through her papers again. "Laura Cauldwell," she clarified, having found the page. The boy had stopped dead at the name, his face pale but unreadable.
"What's happened to her?" he asked sharply, clearly forcing himself to go on.
"Well, that's the problem," she said. "We don't exactly know. We do know that she was with her sister, and they were attacked by – by Death Eaters. Possibly targeted, I don't know." She entered a ward and stopped outside a pulled curtain. "She was hit by a curse … well, you'd better see for yourself, I think."
She pulled open the curtain, trying to ignore the shock and confusion now obvious on the boy's face. He saw the motionless figure inside and stopped. "She's not … she's not …" He couldn't finish the sentence, couldn't say the word.
"No, she's not dead," she said quietly. "Not in body, anyway. You can see where the curse hit her" – indicating a large bruise that went from the girl's forehead to her chin, skirting around the right side of her face – "but we don't know which curse it was. Or curses, there could have been more than one. She was already like this by the time the Aurors got there." She paused. "It seems she Stunned a couple of Death Eaters before she got hit, if it's any consolation. Took them out, cast a Shield Charm over her sister, then got hit herself." The boy nodded silently, his grey eyes on the ugly bruise on the girl's face. "We've had all sorts of curse specialists through," she added, "but no one has been able to match the bruising with the other symptoms."
She had moved over to let the three young people in, the other boy and the girl still hanging back a little to give their friend space.
"What other symptoms?" The boy looked a little hopeful that there was more to it. She hated to crush him like that.
"We – we can't find any evidence of brain activity," she said quietly, not wanting to look at him as she said it. "I'm so sorry."
"No." The boy's voice was pained. "No …"
She wanted to leave them to their grief but had to say one more thing. "Her family have been here, that's how we got your name. They've – they've decided to withdraw treatment. There's nothing we can do for her anyway, and physically she's had some major trauma. But they wanted us to find you first … you meant a lot to her … but the girl you knew, well, I'm sorry, but she's not in there any more." Her voice sounded loud in the otherwise quiet room. "I'll leave you with her for a while."
The handsome face was frozen, blocked off. He nodded, not taking his eyes from the motionless girl on the bed. She left.
Sirius felt unable to move. He stared at the figure on the bed, still breathing but, according to the Healer, nothing else. Somewhere in the distance he heard James' voice … "Oh, mate, I am so sorry …" … and then Lily's … "Sirius – we'll leave you to it for a bit." They sounded a million miles away. He felt someone squeeze his shoulder sympathetically, and then, back to silence.
He sat down in the solitary chair, still looking at Laura's motionless form. She looked just like she did when she slept, except for the ugly, yellowing bruise that framed the right side of her face. Automatically he moved a few stray strands of hair away from her nose and mouth.
He couldn't believe it. Laura couldn't be gone, she had to be in there somewhere, no matter what the Healer had said. She had to be wrong, there had to have been a mistake. Maybe what was in front of him was a Boggart, rather than it really being Laura. This was certainly his greatest fear, that something would happen to her. It had to be a horrible trick, because the alternative was too awful to contemplate.
He fished inside his robes for his wand, muttering the charm more from false hope than anything else. "Riddikulus." If this was a Boggart, that should defeat it, even if he didn't feel remotely like laughing. But no, nothing changed – the girl on the bed didn't alter at all.
Sirius tried to talk, to call her back from wherever she was, but the words wouldn't come. Eventually he managed her name, calling frantically, waiting for her eyes to open and that smile to cross her face.
"Laura," he said, hoping desperately that her eyes would open, that she would move, that anything would happen. "Laura, wake up. I know you're in there, you have to be in there …" He put his arms around her, pulling her up towards him, waiting for her to stir. "Laura, answer me, wake up! Laura, it's me, I'm here now, answer me …"
His voice trailed off – she still didn't move. He tried again. "Laura, come back, you have to come back! Please, Laura, it's me, it's Sirius, I came back for you …"
It was the same thing over and over and again as he did everything he could think of to rouse her, but nothing worked. Even when he leaned in to kiss her, there was no movement, no response. Desperately he said her name one last time, his voice now pleading, heartbroken.
"Please wake up, Laura … please …"
His shoulders shaking, he held her to him again, grateful he was alone with her so no one would witness his tears.
Deep down, he knew it was hopeless – the fact that she wasn't responding to him proved that. Even in her deepest sleep there was always some reaction to his touch, whether it was a twitch of the facial muscles, a brief smile, or a sigh as she changed position. But this time there was nothing, not even when he shook her and spoke in her ear. That told him more than anything that the girl he loved wasn't coming back.
Nothing in the world could be worse than this, nothing had prepared him for it. He had poured his heart and soul into loving her and now it felt like they had been ripped from him, torn in two and discarded. The pain was overwhelming. She had been his reason for coming home, his beacon in what was becoming an increasingly dark world. But that was all over now, there would be no more. No more stumbling through his front door, alone and exhausted, to find she'd arrived a day early and was making a pot of coffee in the tiny kitchen. No more losing himself in her eyes and her arms when what he had seen was almost enough to take away his faith in humanity. No more waking up to the scent of her hair and the warmth of her body next to his. No more of anything that made it all worthwhile.
There was no doubt in his mind that he was responsible for what had happened to her. It was his fault, he should never have stayed away for so long. He should have been there, he could have saved her. He'd made the promise to protect her, and he had failed in the worst possible way.
Tears rolling silently down his face, he dropped to his knees to embrace her one last time, staying there until he could no longer bear her perfect stillness, her lack of reaction to her increasingly wet face and pillow.
As he pulled away, his elbow knocked a box sitting on the floor by the bedside cabinet. Looking inside, he saw her personal belongings – those items that she'd had on her when she'd been brought in. Her wand, money pouch, the jewellery he had given her, a small sachet of Floo powder, a handful of owl treats, some odd bits of parchment. He fingered them absent-mindedly – receipts from Madam Malkin's and Honeydukes, a note from her mum reminding her to pick up some robes she'd had altered, a slightly crumpled photo of him and Laura together. He paused at this, looking at their happy smiling faces, their arms around each other. He had a vague recollection of James taking the picture at the party following their graduation. She must have carried it around with her since. He put it in his pocket, just then needing a memory of those happier times, when she was whole.
The last piece of parchment was bigger than the others, folded over several times. Straightening it out, he saw his own handwriting staring back at him. The last letter he had ever written – or would ever write – to her, dated last Monday. Just before this happened to her … no wonder she hadn't responded. Gulping slightly, he started to read, desperate for another good memory of what they'd had.
11 September '78
Thanks for your letters, they've made the past few days easier after hearing from you. I'm not used to us being apart for so long, and frankly I'm finding it much harder than I'd anticipated. Roll on next Saturday when our schedules finally match and I can see you again!
The guys and I are all okay so far in doing our errands for Dumbledore. Only a few days now until we can sign up for the Order officially so we can actually do something constructive about all the awful things that have been going on. (Order Marauders! Prongs and I like the sound of it, but Lily keeps groaning.) Now you've got this job I can't tell you how relieved I am that you've agreed to be Dumbledore's eyes and ears at the Ministry rather than coming out and fighting with us – while I miss you, you're so much safer there and it means I can sleep soundly at night knowing you'll be there when I come home.
All of that brings me to this – I'm worried about you. Still. They can't use my family to get to me but they could use you, and no one wants a repeat of what they did to Mary. I can't imagine the rest of my life without you in it, and if you were hurt I'd never forgive myself. (And then I would find whoever did it and personally tear them limb from limb.) So we really need to talk about this, the best ways to protect you. Dumbledore has some ideas so I'll talk you through them, but you might come up with something too. Think about it between now and the weekend and we'll work it out together.
Like I said, we should be done by Saturday morning - well, probably Friday evening, but that's a full moon - so I'll be with you as soon as I can, bearing gifts and anything else you may be after. I hate being away from you but you know what Dumbledore's like, the greater good and all that. And it's not like you haven't been busy yourself, you probably wouldn't have much had much time to see me even if I had been around.
Until Saturday then!
All my love,
He gave a small smile despite himself. James, who had seen the letter as he was writing it, had expressed concern that the line 'I can't imagine the rest of my life without you in it' might sound a bit like a proposal. Sirius had left it there, not completely sure that his subconscious hadn't intended that in the first place. Maybe she had read it like that. It didn't matter now anyway.
He looked at Laura's motionless body once again. Dumbledore had told them to take time to think it through, warning about the potential dangers to friends and family, but he wanted a decision about the Order on the weekend. There had only ever really been one answer, and now there were no other factors to take into account. Sirius leaned in and kissed her again, a steely resolve taking hold of him. He would fight. He would fight to stop this horrible thing happening to anyone else. It was the only way he would get through this now. He had nothing left to lose.