Chapter 30 : Exams
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Like all girls with what was – to my horror – developing into an increasingly ridiculous obsession, I welcomed this time as it meant I barely had a spare moment to think about Sirius. That is, I saw him, of course, it would be impossible not to when we had almost all the same classes and shared the common room as a homework and revision space, but if I wanted to pass sixth year then I really couldn’t waste time watching him over my Potions textbook or pretending to stare absently at the fire (okay, read that as staring at someone who was usually in close vicinity to the fire) when I was trying to remember a spell. It worked as an occasional distraction – especially since he’d stopped avoiding me, with me none the wiser as to what that had been about in the first place – but getting my revision done was important enough to give me quite enough to be getting on with.
Finally the exams themselves began. First up was Ancient Runes, which was made more difficult when I made a right hash of my first attempt at Runes translation. Fortunately I realised my error and was able to undo most of the damage, though it did leave me feeling more than a little flustered and it meant I didn’t do as well for the rest of the exam as I might have hoped. I was pretty sure I hadn’t botched it badly enough to make me repeat sixth-year Runes, but it was still not the result I was looking for. Why did Fehu and Ansuz have to look so similar anyway?
“Don’t worry about it,” Remus said as I fretted to him as we left the large classroom being utilised for sixth year exams after it had finished. “If that’s the worst thing you’ve done today, you’ll get through fine.”
“But it changed the whole meaning of the text,” I pointed out. “I had it talking about money instead of communication. I pretty much had to re-write my whole analysis.”
“Well, it was only one essay out of four,” Remus said placatingly. “It could have been worse. You could have confused Eihwaz and Inguz, those are opposites so you would have been in all sorts of trouble.”
“Thank goodness we don’t have anything this afternoon,” I muttered, more worked up about it all than I wanted to admit. “I think I need a stiff drink before I get on with anything else.”
Remus grinned. “If you’re sure about that, I’m sure the guys can come up with something for you,” he said airily. “What would you prefer, Firewhisky, redcurrant rum or elderflower wine? Or I’m sure Padfoot could lay his hands on some mead, if you’d rather that.”
I cracked a smile for the first time since leaving the exam, and it wasn’t just from hearing Sirius’ nickname. “Hmm … well I did say a stiff drink, didn’t I? So that’d be Firewhisky or rum. You know, I might just take you up on that.”
I was only half joking. A stiff drink would also serve to make me more relaxed around Sirius, who I was bound to see sometime during the afternoon considering we both had it off and it was becoming more and more common for the sixth-year Gryffindors to converge in the same place on these occasions. And Remus made sure of it at the lunch table, when he cocked an eyebrow at James, Sirius and Peter when they arrived and seated themselves opposite us.
“How did the exam go?” Sirius asked carelessly as he found a plate and piled it high with roast chicken and vegetables.
I just rolled my eyes and let Remus respond, which in hindsight was probably a mistake. “Not too bad, but Laura had a bit of a shocker.”
“Mistranslation,” I explained when they all looked at me quizzically. “Two runes that look similar but mean completely different things. I had to re-write my whole essay.”
“Not fun in an exam,” Peter said sympathetically. I looked at him and smiled – for someone who had been pretty much terrified of girls for the past six years, he was getting more and more self-confident. He might even find himself a girlfriend before seventh year was out.
“She got a bit worked up about it,” Remus went on, ignoring the fact that I was starting to get increasingly embarrassed, probably due more to who was sitting directly opposite me than anything else. “Said something about needing a stiff drink before she gets on with anything this afternoon.” And I could have sworn I saw him wink across the table as he said it.
“Really?” asked James, looking at me in surprise. “You? Well, not what I was expecting, but –”
Sirius cut him off. “No, she can be a bit of a wild one, Laura can. I caught her months ago sneaking into the common room at two in the morning after a night on the piss.”
I threw him a look – he may have been gorgeous but I wasn’t about to let him get away with that. “That’s rather an exaggeration, don’t you think? I had a few glasses because it was my birthday, that’s all.”
“And could barely walk up the stairs afterwards,” Sirius pointed out, a broad smile on his face. “I heard someone had to break into Sluggy’s stores the next morning and steal some Sobering Solution so you could make it to class.”
That shut me up: I had no intention of getting Lily into trouble. Besides, I suspected James would probably find that story a bit of a turn-on (I’d noticed that Lily breaking the rules usually got him a little bit – er – enthusiastic), and I figured that he already fancied her enough without me adding any ammunition to his fantasies.
“So, do you still need that drink?” James asked easily, also ignoring my increasing discomfort. “We’ve got a few things stashed away if you want something. Whisky, rum, wine …”
I shook my head. “No, I’ve calmed down now. Besides, I don’t think that alcohol would be a good idea when I’m supposed to be revising for Transfiguration. That human Transfiguration stuff is difficult enough even when I’ve got full control of my facilities.”
James looked at me doubtfully. “Sounds to me like you’re making excuses,” he said. “You know we’d be happy to help you out if you need a hand, too.” He turned towards Sirius. “You don’t have anything on this afternoon, do you, Padfoot?”
I froze momentarily. An afternoon alone with Sirius while he tutored me in Transfiguration? While I couldn’t deny I would most probably enjoy it immensely, there was always the very real possibility that I’d do something that would let on how I felt about him and that was the last thing I wanted. And I’d be likely to be so distracted that I wouldn’t learn anything anyway. Especially with the way he looked that day, which had to be more striking than usual? Or maybe I was just noticing it more. As a result, even while Sirius was confirming James’ offer of help, I was coming up with excuses as to why it wouldn’t be necessary.
“No, thanks anyway, but I’ll be fine,” I said, hopefully sounding more sure of myself than I felt.
Sirius looked surprised and even a little disappointed, as though he had been looking forward to showing off how much he knew to a lesser mortal such as me. “I thought you were having trouble?”
“I’m fine,” I repeated. “Right as rain. Really.”
“If you’re sure,” James said doubtfully, looking shrewdly at me in a way I rather didn’t like. “Well, drink, then?”
It was almost like he was making up reasons for me to spend the afternoon with them, and I wasn’t sure that would be a good idea. And I definitely didn’t know why Remus seemed to be finding the whole thing so amusing, but he definitely was – I could feel the bench we shared shaking a little as he tried not to laugh. In any case, I shook my head once more. “I just remembered, I have to meet Mary this afternoon,” I invented quickly. “But thanks anyway.”
“If you’re sure,” James said again, his eyebrows hovering somewhere near his hairline. “Though I don’t know why you’re making excuses, it’s not like we’re going to force it down your throat if you don’t want any. Forced consumption of anything isn’t something Dumbledore takes lightly.”
“And we’ve got a fairly good idea of what he takes lightly and what he doesn’t,” Sirius added, stating the obvious, though it occurred to me that it mustn’t have clicked with him yet that spiking people’s drinks at parties probably fell into that category. “If not, we probably wouldn’t have made it to the end of sixth year.”
Peter looked surprised. “What do you mean, Padfoot?” he asked, confusion all over his face as he gnawed at a chicken wing.
Sirius grinned conspiratorially at me and rolled his eyes. Great, that helped my mental state enormously. What was I saying about him turning me into a quivering wreck? Fortunately I was saved from actually speaking by Remus, who took it upon himself to (once again) break off a potential argument.
“He meant we haven’t been kicked out yet,” he said gently, throwing a warning look at Sirius in the process. “We know where to draw the line.”
“But you went right over that line last year,” Peter said earnestly, his eyes on Sirius. “Even Dumbledore said he couldn’t believe you would risk Moo-”
“So, Laura, you definitely don’t want that drink?” James asked loudly, cutting Peter off and giving him a surprisingly dirty look as he did so. “It might settle you down a bit for that revision if you’re still worked up about this morning.”
I had no idea what Peter had said that had made James feel the need to shut him up like that, but I couldn’t deny that the vibe at the table had become considerably more uncomfortable since he’d said it. In an attempt to lighten things up again, I decided to agree with James.
“Yeah, why not,” I said. “Just let me finish my lunch first so it’s not on an empty stomach.”
James looked relieved. The mood hadn’t lightened enough for me to dare glance at any of the others just yet, but it was clear that the change of subject was welcomed by everyone. Except perhaps Peter, who had brought up whatever it was in the first place and in all likelihood, like me, wasn’t entirely sure why what he’d said had been so controversial.
Despite turning down Sirius’ offer of instruction in Transfiguration, I made it through the exam with less difficulty as I had imagined, even the theory component which was so full of complicated rules and theories that I was sure even the boys would have had trouble getting their heads around it all. In any case I was pretty sure I’d done enough to pass and was feeling much more confident in my own abilities.
That night, as Mary studied for the Herbology exam on Wednesday, I was sitting by myself in the common room playing a few rounds of Muggle Patience with a deck of Self-Shuffling Playing Cards. Lily was out on patrol with Remus, Martha was in a broom cupboard somewhere with Duncan, Charlotte was reading her Divination textbook, and Mary was at our favourite table by the window, still up to her ears in what were essentially gardening texts. I’d finished revising and found that the solitary game helped clear my head, especially when it was too late for me to take a quick ride around the Quidditch pitch.
“Stuck again,” I muttered to myself, packing up the cards into one pile where they dutifully re-shuffled themselves. I had started on a new game when a shadow came between me and the light. I looked up to see James hovering by my table.
“Laura, have you seen – oh, what’s that you’re doing?” he asked, clearly distracted by the cards set out on the table in front of me.
“Muggle Patience,” I said. “It helps calm me down before exams.”
“Ooh, would Lily know that game?” I had to smile at his enthusiasm. James even took NEWT-level Muggle Studies in an effort to learn more about the world Lily had come from.
“I’d say so, most Muggles know it. Whether they bother with it or not is another matter,” I said lightly.
“So how do you play it?”
I sighed. “How about I show you another time,” I suggested, missing my quiet time. “Anyway, that’s not why you came over here, is it?”
His face dropped. “Oh yeah. Have you seen Padfoot?”
Just who I wanted to talk about. Sirius. It would be a test to discuss him with James of all people without making a fool of myself, so I just said the first thing that came into my head, which ended up being rather flippant. “Have you looked down the back of the couch? I often find lost things down there. You know, odd socks, stray Sickles, missing best friends …”
James laughed. “And that of course is why,” he said with a grin. I looked at him, confused – what on earth did that mean? James went on, ignoring my quizzical expression and clearly deciding to play along. “Yeah, I did try there, but there wasn’t much room once we pulled Wormtail out from underneath a cushion.”
“Well, I haven’t seen him for a while,” I said, just wanting to get back to my Patience. After all, I played it to calm down and settle my nerves and talking about Sirius was rather counterproductive there. I also thought I might get this game out, it had started well, but I decided that I really should be polite. “Should I have?”
“I don’t know where he’s gone,” he said, not answering my question. “And he’s got the map. Normally he’s easy to find, you just look for –” He stopped, checking himself, but I could finish that sentence myself – ‘the crowd of girls’ – and I wasn’t really in the mood to play along with boosting their egos. Particularly when it concerned Sirius and the extent of my competition, which I really didn’t like thinking about.
“Look, James,” I said with a touch of exasperation, “just because I’m female doesn’t mean I automatically know where Sirius is. Not every girl is so hung up on him that they keep tabs on his whereabouts.” While technically true it wasn’t the case with me, of course, but I’d never tell James that. I had seen a breathless fourth-year passing a note to Sirius earlier in the night, and he’d read it and disappeared out the portrait hole without a word to anyone.
James’ face was a combination of confusion and surprise. “But that wasn’t what I meant,” he said. “I just thought … oh, forget it.” He turned and traipsed back to the armchairs by the fire where the other boys were perched.
His question was answered a minute or two later, however, when the portrait hole opened and Sirius climbed in, his face blank with that closed look that he got when something was bothering him.
“Padfoot!” came the cry from the fireside. “Where have you been, mate?”
I watched with interest over my cards as Sirius joined the throng by the fire. “Went to see McGonagall,” he said noncommittally, looking absently around the room. He caught my eye and I looked back at my cards, embarrassed to have been sprung listening in on their conversation.
“Not another detention?” came Peter’s voice, easy to recognise as it was somewhat higher and squeakier than those of the other three.
“No, no, nothing like that,” Sirius answered wearily. I wondered why his friends were pushing it when he so obviously didn’t want to discuss whatever it was. “I think I’ll go to bed,” he said finally, ignoring the silence around him.
Through my hair I saw him glance my way again as he made his way through the common room to the boys’ stairs, and I shuddered involuntarily. There were all sorts of things he could have read into my little display of eavesdropping, not all of them incorrect, and I hoped sincerely that I hadn’t just killed off what fledgling friendship we might have had.
We had our practical exam in the morning, with the theory to follow that afternoon. I thought that I got through the practical part pretty well, having (among other things) successfully identified an Alihotsy and pruned a Devil’s Snare without being strangled. Feeling confident, I was guided with Greta Catchlove out of the exam room and into a small classroom nearby where we were to wait until everyone had finished, where inside waited several other students who had also completed the morning’s tasks.
Most of them were sitting around in groups testing each other for that afternoon’s theory exam, and I heard Hector Bole reciting the list of flesh-eating trees to himself. Sitting in the corner looking bored – but handsome – was Sirius. I realised that it would look suspicious if I ignored him so, taking a deep breath to get my nerve up, I went to join him.
“How’d you go?” I asked as I sat down next to him, leaning back against the wall so I didn’t have to look directly at him. After all, there was less chance I would embarrass myself that way.
“Brilliant, of course,” he said unconcernedly, raking his fingers through his hair. “How about you?”
“Definitely a pass,” I replied. “Probably an E, hopefully an O, though it depends on this afternoon, obviously.” I paused for a minute, wondering if I should say anything about the previous evening.
“Look, about last night in the common room,” I said finally. “I didn’t mean to listen in or anything. James was just being pretty loud.”
He looked surprised, clearly racking his brain to work out what I was on about. “Don’t worry about it,” he said after a moment. “Everyone hears everything in the common room, I didn’t think you were eavesdropping or anything.” I sighed inwardly, immensely relieved. He continued. “I’d just had a bit of bad news, that’s all.”
I let that sit for a spell as Gertie Cresswell and Caradoc Dearborn came into the room, their exams obviously over as well. “Well, if you want to talk about it, I’m here,” I said quietly. “If you don’t, that’s fine too.” I noticed his eyes had narrowed so I wasn’t expecting him to talk, but since we were supposed to be friends I felt honour-bound to offer him the option.
He hesitated, looking at me out of the corner of his eye and apparently pondering the idea. “My uncle died,” he said eventually. “One of the only people in my family I actually liked. And no one bothered to tell me.”
Normally I would have asked whether it was connected with the Death Eaters but with the Blacks I suspected that was unlikely. In any case it wasn’t pleasant news. I looked at him sympathetically and had a strong urge to grab his hand and squeeze it. “That’s awful,” I said, successfully mastering the impulse. “Was it sudden?”
He laughed bitterly, his grey eyes steely. “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen him since I left two Christmases ago.” He paused again. “They told Reg, he went to the funeral and everything, and they didn’t tell me. And Reg didn’t tell me either, the git.”
“You’re joking,” I said. I knew Sirius had a mixed relationship with his brother, but not telling him about a death in the family seemed a little low even for Regulus.
“Following orders, I don’t doubt,” Sirius spat. “Anyway, I only found out because apparently he left me some gold. That would have gone down well,” he added cynically, “aiding the prodigal son. Good thing he’s already dead or they would have disowned him, too.”
“So that’s why you had to see McGonagall?” I guessed. “To sort out what’s in his will?”
“Yep, that’s right,” he said, suddenly more business-like. “That’s the only good thing to come out of it. I can afford to get a place of my own now.” He smiled wryly.
“I thought you were living with James,” I said. “That not working out?”
“Well, that’s not really the point,” he said. “Prodigal son or not, whoever heard of a Black living off charity? I appreciate it and everything, but I’m not exactly comfortable with it.”
“Ah, the Black family pride,” I said airily, trying to cover my surprise that he was even discussing this sort of thing with me in the first place. “I thought I’d heard a rumour about that at some point.”
He looked at me and smiled suddenly, his good humour seemingly restored. “Something like that.” He paused for a moment, watching me. “Thanks, Laura,” he said finally, smiling again. “I do feel better.”
I was saved from responding by the door to the Great Hall opening again, revealing Lily along with Maggie Flint from Slytherin. Lily beamed at us and came over to join us, the conversation turning to more mundane matters.
The next day was a day off for pretty much all of sixth year – for some reason the History of Magic exam had been scheduled for the afternoon and nothing at all in the morning. As practically no one was still taking History of Magic, we all saw it as a time to prep ourselves for the Defence exams the following day. At least, most of us did, though we did decide to make the most of the June sunshine by doing our revision outside on the banks of the black lake.
Even though it was a weekday, the fact that we had no exams at all meant that we felt no compulsion to wear our school robes, and instead the girls and I wandered down to the lawn in jeans and t-shirts, which as always were far more comfortable. It was a decidedly agreeable way to spend the afternoon, lying on my stomach underneath the beech tree, a quill tucked behind my ear and my Defence textbook open in front of me as the girls and I tested each other on curses and counter-curses and practiced our Patronuses.
The boys weren’t far away, dressed pretty much as we were and throwing a Quaffle they had obviously procured from the school supplies somehow to each other, James regularly looking furtively over his shoulder to see if Lily had seen his latest pass or catch. He was obviously the best of the four which was hardly surprising considering his years on the House Quidditch team, but Sirius and Remus were also holding their own rather nicely, Remus in particular impressing me with a couple of spectacular takes that I wouldn’t have thought him capable of. Only Peter, as usual sorely lacking in talents the others had in spades, regularly dropped catches or missed the Quaffle entirely, and his throws generally went rather wide of the person he was aiming at.
We were well into the afternoon when Charlotte suddenly stopped mid-sentence while she was trying to recite the difference between a curse and a hex, and we all followed her gaze to the boys’ game. “Look at that, would you,” she muttered underneath her breath.
We didn’t need telling twice. The sun had come out and, obviously feeling the heat, the boys started taking their shirts off, so all thoughts of Defence revision disappeared abruptly as we enjoyed the spectacle. Though soon enough Mary had torn her eyes from James, Sirius and Remus (particularly James, I suspected) and was struggling to suppress a giggle.
“Poor lad,” she said quietly, her eyes on Peter. “Hoo can he hope t’ live up t’ th’ ithers? Dae ye think he’d be too offended if we asked him nicely t’ put th’ shirt back on?”
She was right: Peter looked much better covered up. The other three, however, were another matter entirely – even Remus, though he did have some scars across his abdomen that I was surprised Madam Pomfrey hadn’t been able to remove – and I was sure they were enjoying the attention they were getting from just about everyone in the vicinity.
“Do you think we should get a petition organised?” Lily asked mischievously, her eyes darting to Peter only briefly before they returned to James, who from the grin on his face had to be fully aware he had her almost undivided attention.
“Brilliant idea, Lils,” Martha agreed. “Here, give me your quill, will you, I’ll be the first name on it.”
By this point I was only vaguely taking their conversation in. Study? What study? I was too busy drooling (unfortunately I mean that literally) to concentrate on anything as complicated as Defence, and Mary kicked me more than once as I faltered when trying to recite various definitions and counter-curses. To tell the truth, when Sirius had taken his shirt off in the first place my mouth had dropped open in awe – some things looked so good they just shouldn’t be shown. It was far too much of a tease, flaunting it like that, particularly when I knew he was beyond my reach.
In fact, the only thing that stopped me from giving up my revision entirely and just watching them was the fact that soon enough my eyes had caught Sirius’ enough times for me to realise it must have been blatantly obvious that I was checking him out, and I was sure he’d be convinced that I was just like Elvira. And this, while true it its own way, was definitely not an impression I wanted to propagate. Then again, just about the entire female population of Hogwarts was watching either him or James or Remus by then, no matter what year or House they were from, so perhaps I wasn’t as bad as I thought, and in any case I didn’t think I was being as obvious as Lily. Despite that, however, I was terrified that my secret might get out so I forced myself to change my position so that I couldn’t see them any more. It was a sacrifice and much harder to actually do than I had anticipated, but it was also the only way I was guaranteed not to make a fool of myself.
Needless to say we all got significantly less revision done that afternoon than we had hoped, and it was with a twinge of guilt that we settled into the common room after supper to try once again to get our heads around everything we needed to know. After all, not all of us had the brains of a James or a Sirius, both of whom seemed to be able to do anything that came up in Defence with both hands tied behind their backs and without a wand, and with the exam the next day we really did need to be on top of it all. Fortunately this time the boys didn’t distract us with a strip show (or whatever you wanted to call their display that afternoon – they probably were hot and wanted to cool down, but Martha kept insisting that for James, at least, it had been for Lily’s benefit) and, by mostly keeping our backs to them in the common room, we did manage to almost completely concentrate on the task at hand.
Fortunately there were no further diversions, and by the time we felt the need to pack up and go to bed we’d all got through enough to be feeling relatively confident about the following day’s exams. And we all got through them relatively unscathed, even Peter who this year hadn’t made a mess of anything or Vanished anything or anyone he wasn’t supposed to. That left for the second week just Charms, Potions, and a couple of electives – Mary and Martha had Astronomy, Mary had Muggle Studies and Charlotte had Divination, with Care of Magical Creatures and Arithmancy having already taken place.
Potions, first up the following Monday, as always was a bit of a trial. Let’s face it, making something as complicated as Polyjuice Potion is difficult enough at the best of times, let alone under exam conditions. I didn’t even have Lily at my table to help out and to tell the truth I missed her significantly, even without the distraction of Al Jorkins melting his cauldron halfway through and needing a replacement. However, I persevered and it was with great relief that I realised the sample I handed up at the end of the exam looked more or less like it was supposed to.
The theory paper that afternoon was less difficult than I had thought it would be, which kind of made up for the practical that morning. And Charms a couple of days later was comparatively a breeze – I was even smiling as I successfully cast a Refilling Charm, an Imperturbable Charm and a Confundus Charm (among others) for my elderly examiner. And then it was over: sixth year, as far as I was concerned, had officially finished. Naturally Lily, Charlotte and I waited on Mary and Martha, who still needed to do their Astronomy exam, before we started celebrating, but celebrate we definitely did. It was over, it hadn’t been as bad as we thought, and we only had one more year before we were done, dusted, and qualified.
Author's note: I've had a few reviews about this so I thought I'd better qualify the Potions exam. I know that Polyjuice Potion takes a full month to make properly - you have to pick the fluxweed at the full moon and stew the lacewing flies for a month or something (I don't have the book with me to check, sorry). My thought for this exam, though, was that the students would have all those ingredients provided - fluxweed picked at the right time, pre-stewed flies and the like - and have to put them together, along with a part of the examiner also provided, under exam conditions. That would still be hard, right? After all, it's supposed to be an incredibly complicated potion. So yeah, I know that they wouldn't be able to make it from scratch, but that was what I had in mind for this exam. Thanks!
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