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‘Welcome back to potions.’ Snape’s drawl penetrated the gloom of the dungeons better than the absent daylight, the smell of lead, or even the sharpest knife.
Harry repressed the urge to sigh. No doubt Professor Positivity will be continuing his best efforts to make this class miserable for each and everyone of us, and especially me.
Snape’s dark eyes flashed and his lips twisted into a sneer. ‘This is the year before OWLs and thus the year in which those who truly have the talent for potions begin to separate themselves from those too lazy to apply themselves to such a delicate art.’
Where does he even get his impression of me from? Harry felt Snape’s eyes come to rest on him. Presumably he just has severe personal issues. All the time in the dark and the constant exposure to toxic ingredients can’t be good for anyone’s health, mental or otherwise.
‘The instructions are on the board.’ Snape flourished his wand at the blackboard and a long list of cramped white writing appeared. ‘Begin.’
At least I know a bit more about what I’m doing this year. Harry sighed and reached for his new, expensive, silver-plated knife. All the high-quality, inert metal equipment’s so pricey it’s no wonder it’s only the Malfoys of the world who can afford to do well.
Ron slaved over his cauldron on the closest bench with all the delicacy of a confunded troll. His neatly diced toad liver went into the frothing mess in misshapen chunks and twice as much sneezewort as necessary had followed it.
It might be a good idea to finish before that explodes.
He poked his leeches with the tip of his knife and tried to recall some of his summer reading. Easily contaminated and quick to dissolve. The size and shape is really important. Harry spared a glance at Malfoy who was attempting to cut his leeches in mid-air while poor Pansy Parkinson flinched away from his ornately-engraved knife. I heard a rumour their parents want them to marry, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about ruining her looks with that knife. I guess Madam Pomfrey can probably heal it.
Harry sliced his leeches using his old knife as a chopping board, trying his best to avoid letting any of the slimy creatures touch the desk — or anything else. He flicked the neat squares in and to his delight the potion shifted toward the described shimmering turquoise.
That actually went okay.
He snuck a peek at Hermione’s as she prepared a vial. The exact shade of turquoise described by Snape shone in her small cauldron, but he fancied his potion had more of the right kind of shimmer to it.
And I’m among the first to finish, so Snape can’t come and linger over me. Harry hid a smile. That ought to ruin his morning.
Snape gave a dismissive sneer as he placed his vial in the rack, but Harry felt his eyes tracking him all the way back to his desk. He turned around and found Snape had moved to lurk over Neville.
Neville’s potion turned from a passable deep blue to a shade of yellow so sickly and bright it attracted the attention of most of the class.
‘Longbottom.’ Snape tutted. ‘It was going passably well, but your utterly inescapable ineptitude has proven itself… again.’ He swept back past Harry to his gloom-shrouded desk, passing an eye over his attempt to leave his cauldron clean.
Hermione finished, then Malfoy, and soon most of the class were making some half-hearted attempt to clean their cauldrons while Neville tried to rescue whatever concoction he’d produced this time.
Harry studied the bright, lime-green liquid from a safe distance as it started to make a strange, high-pitched keening noise like an attention-starved dog. It looks the same colour as the basilisk’s scales. A faint urge to compare the snake to not just Neville’s potion, but his spell from the World Cup seized him. I wonder if it’s all still there, or if it’s rotted away a lot.
‘If that is everyone, you may leave,’ Snape drawled from a dark corner at the back of the classroom.
How did he get back there without anyone noticing? Harry pictured Snape sneaking along the line of heavy, black curtains beneath his cloak and suppressed a snort of humour. He’s really not helping himself with those vampire rumours.
‘I won’t bother assessing your work, Longbottom.’ Snape vanished the contents of Neville’s cauldron. ‘The blank mark you get for not turning up would look better than what I’d give you for… that.’
Harry winced as he made his way towards the door. Neville seems to have been my substitute today, poor guy.
‘Potter, if you’d be so kind as to remain behind,’ Snape drawled.
He sighed under his breath. I knew it was too good to be true.
Snape loomed over the rack of vials on his desk and tapped Harry’s with the end of his wand. ‘What do you think this is, Potter?’
Harry struggled to quell his surge of good humour. ‘My inevitably ungradable attempt at potions making?’
Snape’s stare remained calm. ‘This is a passable attempt. Not the standard I expect from students looking to continue after OWLs, but close enough I might begin to hope of keeping the school’s most prominent celebrity a little longer.’
Wow. That sounded almost like a backhanded compliment.
‘Thank you, sir.’
Snape sneered. ‘You finally deciding to apply what I’ve been fruitlessly filling your head with is promising, but no less than the wizarding world demands from someone of your elated stature. Do not slip back into your previous levels of mediocrity.’
‘I’ll try my best, sir.’ Harry edged toward the door.
‘See that you do.’ Snape disappeared into his office in a swirl of cloak and robes.
Professor McGonagall shot him a tight-lipped glance as he slipped into the back row of desks. A cage of guinea fowl clucked atop her desk, bobbing their heads about like chickens.
‘Today, we will be transfiguring guinea fowl into guinea pigs.’ Their stern professor flicked her wand and the cages floated across to deposit themselves in front of each student. ‘This type of transformation is as complex as any we will attempt this year, but the helpful association of the name makes it a good starting point for us all.’
The level of clucking escalated as the class fell to wand waving and quiet cursing.
Harry eyed his bird. I wonder if they get the animals from the kitchens. Maybe I should avoid poultry for the next few days in case I end up eating Neville’s.
‘Very good, Miss Granger, take ten points.’ Professor McGonagall’s voice rang out from the head of the class.
Harry raised an eyebrow in the general direction of Hermione’s sparsely feathered guinea pig and its talons. Generous for McGonagall. She must be happy to be back at school.
Hermione glowed with pride.
He cast a look around the room. Seamus’ fowl’s feathers were turning green and Ron’s had plucked itself.
Ron’s probably thinking about lunch.
‘Harry.’ Hermione nudged his elbow. ‘Aren’t you even going to try? It’s not that hard, you know.’
He swallowed a flicker of irritation. Time to put my summer of study to use. Harry pictured the bird changing into a guinea pig, imagining feathers shrinking back to short fur, wings shifting into legs, and a beak shivering into a small, dark nose. He tapped the guinea fowl on the head, earning a disgruntled squawk.
Hermione let out a sharp sigh. ‘That’s not the proper wand action, Harry. You have to—’
The guinea fowl morphed into a perfect guinea pig and Harry shot her a beatific smile.
‘But — but… That was your first try.’ Hermione poked his guinea pig with her wand. ‘It took me almost five.’
‘Five!’ Harry plastered an expression of shock over his broad grin. ‘It’s not that hard, you know.’
Hermione huffed and turned to watch Ron, whose guinea fowl was beginning to look more and more like it had been roasted.
He’s starting to make me hungry now, too.
‘Well done, Mr Potter.’ Professor McGonagall appeared over his shoulder and Harry flinched. ‘Twenty points to Gryffindor for a perfect species-switch transfiguration. I daresay you might have inherited your father’s talent for my subject — as well as his tendency to overlook the rules.’
Hermione crossed her arms and jabbed her wand at her guinea pig until the last few feathers had vanished and its feet lost their bird-like aspect. ‘I can’t believe you did that on your first try, Harry. That’s really lucky. Still, twenty points for Gryffindor is good!’
Lucky? Really? He rolled his eyes. I suppose I’ve not demonstrated much consistent success before.
A loud bang echoed from the row behind. Neville’s guinea fowl cage rolled along the floor, sending Seamus’ bottle of water flying.
Professor McGonagall levitated the cage back onto the desk. ‘Focus on the outcome you desire, Mr Longbottom. Don’t just wave your wand about like a baby’s rattle.’
Harry watched the water stream toward Hermione’s bag and pile of books. A disaster in the making. If it gets wet, we’ll lose half the school library.
Hermione scrambled to save her things as Harry vanished the liquid with his wand tucked under his arm. ‘Thank you, professor,’ she exclaimed.
‘Pardon me, Miss Granger?’ Professor McGonagall lowered the stack of paper in her hands.
‘Nothing, professor.’ Hermione frowned. ‘Vanishing is an advanced fifth year spell,’ she muttered. ‘I can’t do a vanishing spell yet. If I could, I’d use it on Ron’s stupid quidditch posters.’
Harry laughed and tucked his wand back into his sleeve. Best not let her realise it was me after I already did the guinea pig spell so well.
Hermione pulled out a thick book and a small piece of parchment. She poked it with the tip of her wand, whispering the vanishing spell’s incantation over and over.
Harry studied the edges of the torn fragment as they started to fade. It’s not taking her long to get the hang of it. Hopefully she’s not going to insist on trying all day, though.
He packed his things away as Professor McGonagall dismissed them and hurried to the Great Hall for lunch.
Ron groaned. ‘No chicken.’
Harry snorted. ‘I did think your guinea fowl was starting to look like you were hoping to have it for lunch.’
I wonder if he was imagining how it would taste when he was trying to transfigure it. That might explain what happened.
‘Mum does do a mean bird roast.’ Ron sighed and hacked off a huge piece of ham. ‘Oh well, gammon’s not so bad.’
‘What did Snape want, Harry?’ Neville asked between bites of a fist-thick sandwich.
‘Told me my work was finally passable and that I shouldn’t slide back into mediocrity.’ Harry watched several slices of radish escape Neville’s lunch and make a bid for freedom across the table.
They rolled only as far as Ron, who speared them on his fork and gulped them down in between bites of gammon.
‘That was awfully nice of him.’ Ron sniggered. ‘Did he deduct points to compensate as well?’
‘No. He didn’t take any points off me today actually. Maybe he’s ill.’
‘Odd, normally at least ten are gone in our first potions lesson, maybe he was happy about something and forgot,’ Seamus said.
‘What would Snape be happy about?’ Ron asked.
‘He’s probably anticipating failing us for all our OWL exams.’ Neville stared down into his sandwich like it was Professor Trelawney’s crystal ball. ‘My gran will kill me if I don’t get at least 6 OWLs like my father did.’
‘It’s two years away, Nev,’ Ron said. ‘Harry has to go through two near-death experiences first, you’ve got a huge advantage.’
The table laughed. Hermione glanced up at the sound, jabbing her wand at the piece of parchment and picking pieces of salad off her place with her free hand.
‘I’ve had my near-death experience for this year, thanks,’ Harry said.
‘It doesn’t count, mate,’ Ron replied. ‘The Bulgarian cheerleader cancels it out.’
The guys nodded.
‘She wasn’t that gorgeous, Ron,’ Harry replied. ‘And all she did was carry me while I was unconscious. Hardly anything to be proud of.’
‘She was a veela, Harry,’ Dean said. ‘Those legends about the sirens in the Odyssey are supposed to be based on veela. You’ve outdone Odysseus.’
Seamus, Ron, and Neville shot him blank looks.
‘It’s a really famous story!’ Dean waved his hands in the air. ‘How could you have not heard of it? Harry, Hermione, back me up. Everyone knows about the Odyssey.’
Hermione jabbed her wand at the piece of parchment again.
She’s really not taking it well. I suppose I should come clean.
Harry leant over Hermione’s shoulder and tapped his wand against the small fragment of parchment. It faded away like smoke into the breeze.
Hermione whirled around like a viper. ‘How did you do that?’ she hissed. ‘I’ve been trying since transfiguration.’
‘It’s not too tricky, you just have to visualise what you want to happen and really focus when you perform the spell. The better idea you have of it, the easier you pick it up.’ The corner of his mouth twitched. ‘I found imagining things disappearing came to me pretty naturally.’
She huffed and reached for another piece of parchment.
Harry caught her hand. ‘It’s an advanced OWL year spell, Hermione. You’ve got plenty of time to practise it. Can’t have you starving first. And someone needs to help Dean and I defend the Odyssey.’
‘See,’ Ron crowed. ‘Hermione doesn’t know about it and that means virtually nobody does.’
Hermione shook her head. ‘I know about the Odyssey, Ron. It’s one of the most famous stories ever written and it’s over two thousand years old, but I have no idea why you’re all talking about it.’
Seamus gulped. ‘Er… Dean said there’re veela in it.’
‘Are attractive, part-human women all you boys ever think about?’ Her flush faded to a frown. ‘I assume he was referring to the sirens that Odysseus encounters.’
‘He’s probably right,’ she said. ‘But you can’t still be thinking about the Bulgarian cheerleaders! Their charm only works when you’re actually looking at them.’
Ron adopted a dreamy expression. ‘They were goddesses.’
Hermione crossed her arms and sighed. ‘Boys.’
Ron, Seamus, and Dean began to whisper about veela.
Hermione slid the jug of pumpkin juice in between Harry and their conversation. ‘How did you get so good at transfiguration so quickly?’
Ah, so she’s realised it wasn’t just luck after all.
‘I spent the summer reading up on all the theory. I never bothered before because I’d just picture what I wanted to happen and with a bit of practice I’d get the hang of it. It worked alright for me in most subjects, but now I actually know the details about what I’m doing, I’d imagine transfiguration will be one of my best. It’s quite visual, which suits me. My dad was supposed to be really good at it, too.’
‘Oh.’ Hermione chewed her lip. ‘I’m sorry, Harry. I didn’t know he was so good at transfiguration.’
Harry laughed. ‘He and his friends were animagi during their mid-school years. You realise that even basic human transfiguration isn’t covered until our last two years, let alone full animagus transformations.’
‘That does make sense.’ Hermione’s lips twisted and contorted into a smile. ‘It’s good you’ve started studying seriously, Harry. I hope you keep doing so well.’
‘Time for charms.’ Ron threw a long look at the food, dragging his bag out from under the table and hauled himself to his feet.
Flitwick perched on a stack of books at the front of his classroom. ‘Repairing, summoning, and banishing charms,’ he squeaked as they entered.
Harry frowned. Hermione’s going to be cross with me again. I know two of these already.
‘We’ll be starting with the mending charm and moving on to the others after Christmas.’ Flitwick waved his wand at the year plan on the board. ‘Theory first, I’m afraid.’
Ron groaned. ‘Not a theory lesson.’
Quills scratched over parchment as the class resigned themselves to taking notes. Harry flicked a little further through the textbook to the banishing charm. Hermione opened her book to the same page.
Harry smiled and skipped the history of the charm, scanning the paragraphs on its specific theory. Summoning, but in reverse. Let’s give it a try.
He whispered the incantation and aimed it at the ink pot of Zacharias Smith, a rather pretentious Hufflepuff. A soft ripple of air crossed the class, fading out before it reached his target. Harry tried again. The pot slid across the desk, spilling ink across Zacharias’ notes.
Harry returned his wand to his sleeve as the Hufflepuff student glared around the room. Apart from the essays, I should do pretty well this year at Charms.
‘Sir! Sir!’ Zacharias waved parchment spattered with poisonous green ink in the direction of Professor Flitwick. ‘Someone ruined my work, sir!’
‘Ok, that’ll do for this lesson.’ Flitwick waved his wand and the door to the classroom creaked open. ‘I’ll see you all next time.’
Hermione stacked her books back into her bag. ‘Did you flick any further through the book, Harry?’
‘Not really,’ he said. ‘I skimmed some bits. The summoning and banishing charm both looked quite useful.’
Hermione beamed. ‘They do. Summoning is a very useful charm, it will save everyone so much time at the library.’
‘Madam Pince will murder you if she catches you summoning her books, Hermione,’ Harry replied, grinning.
‘What she doesn’t know won’t upset her.’ Hermione bounced along the corridor. ‘It’s not actually against the rules, anyway. I checked.’
Ron stumbled after them, rubbing his eyes and yawning. ‘Of course you checked the rules,’ he muttered. ‘If I wrote a fancy looking list that said all girls have to sit on the floor in the common room, you’d be cross-legged by the fire before I could blink.’
Hermione shot him a glare. ‘Harry, you said you found you were good at the visual bits, so in return for lending my notes for essays, would you give me some pointers for casting the spells themselves?’
‘Of course. You don’t really need them, but if you want to, that’s fine.’
She bobbed her head. ‘I understand all the theory, of course, but my spells never work the first time. I thought it might be worth trying how you visualise them and seeing if it works quicker for me.’
‘I learnt a good way of focusing,’ Harry said. ‘I’ve some mind-clearing exercises I found over the summer. Muggle stuff, but I doubt the magical versions are much different. I can teach you the muggle ones, but it turns out all the mind magic stuff is in the restricted section.’
‘Good idea,’ Hermione said. ‘Ron needs those, too. All he does is think about how long is left until the next meal.’
Ron threw her a mutinous look.
Harry laughed. ‘She’s not entirely wrong, mate.’
‘She didn’t have to say it like that,’ Ron groused.
‘I’m going to the library,’ Hermione announced. ‘I want to get the essay out of the way before all the other professors give their first homework as well. Come on, Ron. If you want me to help you, it’s now or never.’ She skipped past the portrait entrance to the tower, trailed by a crestfallen Ron.
Harry murmured the password and slipped in through passage to a chair close to the fire. The other students flooded upstairs to the dormitories.
‘Last chance for casual quidditch!’ Katie shouted from somewhere in the huddle. ‘Observers are welcome, but will still get judged for not playing!’
The common room emptied.
Harry stared into the fire.
The glowing ash and smoke brought back images of the smouldering, burning camp at the World Cup. A soft little whisper of need coiled in his breast. I wonder if I can do it again. He pictured the serpent he’d conjured from the ash and slashed his wand at the fire.
The flames rippled and settled back into the grate.
‘Maybe I need to be more detailed.’ Harry imagined the basilisk forming from fire, picturing the red-tongues of flame curling into the shape of a serpent and striking.
A flaming basilisk lunged from the fireplace, fangs agape.
He threw himself backward out of his chair and the heat washed past his face, singeing his cheeks.
‘Idiot.’ He pushed himself back to his feet, swearing under his breath and brushing ash and dust off his robes. His heart pounded like a hammer against his ribs. ‘You nearly set fire to yourself.’
Harry glanced at the flames and back around the empty common room. No. It’s a bad idea. He stuffed his wand back up his sleeve and let himself sink into the circle of blank ink on parchment until the temptation faded. I can try again later. Somewhere quieter. Somewhere safer.