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Once Defied by pennyardelle
Chapter 29 : A Nastily Exhausting Week
 
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Chapter Twenty-Nine
A Nastily Exhausting Week




Exams had a way of making everything else seem less important. While Lily was on some level highly distressed about the rift that had now existed between herself and Mary, it was not something she could afford to let take over her life. She had to study for five different (and difficult) subjects and survive on very little sleep, and so she simply had to force herself to put everything else out of her mind for the time being. When exams were done, and if there was any point at all, she would allow herself to get properly up in arms about the entire situation.

She was not the only one distracted as the last night before exams fell over the castle, which suited her just fine. James, it seemed, had finally resigned himself to studying. Of course, he was not exactly in a panic, since Transfiguration and Defence Against the Dark Arts were to be their first two exams, but it had seemed to hit him rather suddenly that he really needed to study. He had actually gone to the library to take advantage of the quiet, and Lily thought she ought to stay in Gryffindor Tower so as not to distract him.

She and Anna were revising together; where Mary was, Lily wasn’t sure. She hoped that Mary didn’t come join them in the common room, though she thought it was unlikely: Mary seemed to be determined to avoid acknowledging Lily’s existence. Anna had practically been wearing her textbooks as blinders for the past week, and if she had noticed the silence between her two friends, she certainly hadn’t brought it up.

“Do you know what a—cross-counter Transmorgrification is?” Anna asked, sounding slightly horrified.

“Does that exist?” Lily replied, though it was a silly question. Of course something so complicated existed within the world of Transfiguration. Anna sighed exasperatedly and flipped to the back of the book.

“Bloody glossary,” she said savagely, after a moment’s perusing. “What’s the point of even having it if it’s useless? Like we need to know what cross-species means...”

She moved on to the index rather violently. Lily ignored her diatribe, since they occurred so often. She glanced around the common room and saw some fifth-years huddled in one of the corners. Their behaviour, unlike Anna’s, looked much too suspicious to be ignored.

As with every year around exam time, there had been an outbreak of underhanded selling of intelligence-enhancing potions and substances. This year, though, after the poisonings in February, the teachers were on high-alert—and so was Lily. She knew who had been the perpetrators behind that first incident, and she wouldn’t put it past them to try it again. In other circumstances, she might have hoped that Severus would refuse, but he had already proved himself at least a partly-willing member of their gang. She usually didn’t like telling people off, but she was willing to if it meant keeping them from spending their exam period in the Hospital Wing.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” she said to Anna, extricating herself from beneath layers of books and notes.

Sure enough, as she crossed the common room, some of the fifth-years scattered, and the ones who remained plastered looks of dubious innocence on their faces. After some denial on their part and insistence (and a well-placed Summoning Charm) on Lily’s, she walked back to her seat with a small box of what looked like dried-up peas inside. In fact, Lily was pretty sure that they were dried peas, though no doubt someone had sold them to the fifth-years for a hefty price, pretending they were Jobberknoll parts, or something equally ridiculous.

“Why don’t we just use them for Transfiguration practice?” Anna asked.

“The peas?”

“No, the fifth-years,” Anna replied. “By the way, do you know what’s wrong with Mary?”

Well, so much for not bringing it up, Lily thought to herself.

“Erm...I don’t know. We sort of had a row the other night, so she might still be upset about that,” she explained.

“I’m glad it wasn’t just me, then,” Anna grumbled. Lily hoped she would leave it there, but a few moments later, she asked, “What did you argue about?”

“I...I mentioned something about Remus,” Lily said quietly, being intentionally vague. Anna was cleverer than Mary, and drawing attention to the coincidence of Remus’ disappearances would be a bad idea. “She got really offended.”

Anna looked mildly surprised. “That’s all? She’s been walking around like you’re some kind of saint lately; I’d have thought she’d forgive you anything.”

Lily felt a twinge of guilt, and tried to search for a better explanation.

“She—she went into all of this stuff about Snape, and—”she broke off, not sure if it was the best subject to bring up. Anna had always been a more vocal critic of Lily’s association with Snape when they had all been younger.

There was a pause.

“That makes more sense,” Anna said. “She’s been holding that back for a long time.”

“Apparently,” Lily said. “I don’t think she’s interested in talking to me anymore.”

“I’m not really surprised,” Anna said. “If I’d been in her position...”

Lily waited for her to finish, and when she did not, said, “What?”

Anna finally looked up and shrugged. “I’d be mad too. I think she has a right to be.”

Lily really didn’t have the energy to argue with Anna as well, but she had a sinking feeling in her stomach—were both of her friends about to turn their backs on her? She knew more than anyone that hanging around with Snape for so long had been a colossal mistake, but it felt unfair to be punished for it so long after the fact.

“Of course, I also would have said something to you about it two years ago,” Anna added, smirking slightly.

“I think you might have,” Lily replied, feeling a wave of relief.

“Did I?” Anna asked wryly. “Well, anyway, I still don’t know what this Transmorgrification rubbish is...”

The next morning was one of those strange instances where the events of the day ahead caused Lily to snap into full consciousness the moment she awoke. She was nervous and anxious, and would have preferred to skip breakfast altogether and just get straight to the exam, but probably very few of her classmates would have agreed. Many of them looked long-faced and on the verge of nodding off at their house tables, while others were frantically flipping through books and notes, trying to cram every last detail into their minds that they could. Lily was not among them; she had always been adamant about not studying right before exams, because she was afraid it would drive everything else she had learned from her head.

“Top of the morning,” James said when she sat down next to him. “Juice?”

“You know you’re not Irish, don’t you?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, filling her glass, “but I thought since you’re pretending to be a dark cloud this morning, I might as well join in on the game.”

Lily did the mature thing and stuck her tongue out at him.

It seemed to take hours for breakfast to end. The seventh-years left, most with an air of walking to their executions, walking past the fifth-years who were waiting to be called in for their first exam in the Great Hall. Lily sincerely hoped she had not looked quite so petrified before her own O.W.L.s, and felt a little like passing out chocolate to all of them.

The Transfiguration exam took place on the third floor, and their class waited outside as everyone was called in one at a time. Sirius and James started a pre-exam competition of who could conjure the most comfortable chair. It didn’t last long, though, since Sirius was one of the first to be called in, but they still manage to succeed in making everyone even grumpier about the looming exam.

Lily was called in not too long afterward. James gave her a thumbs-up and a wide smile as she walked in, which was encouraging, but as she walked through the door, it finally hit her that she was about to do her Transfiguration N.E.W.T. It was then she started to get really nervous. How on earth had she managed to keep such composure up until now? This was going to decide the rest of her life, and she should have studied much more; there was no way she was prepared enough, especially because she was pretty sure she had forgotten the proper wand movement for a Switching Spell—

The atmosphere inside the room made her feel like she was about to be put on trial, and the wizard leading the exam, Professor Waffling, was even stricter than Professor McGonagall. Of course, the very first thing he asked her to do was a Switching Spell, and her hands were visibly shaking as she lifted her wand.

When she left the room (through another door, so she wouldn’t walk by all those who had yet to complete their exam), she leaned against the stone wall for a few moments to calm down. Once the initial shock had worn off, she almost laughed with relief—it had been okay. She hadn’t really Transfigured the table into a tree very well, but that was mostly out of nerves, and one of the elderly witches observing the exam had even nodded happily after her Inanimatus Conjurus! She could be certain that she had passed, and perhaps even that she had passed well.

There still remained the written portion, scheduled for the afternoon. All the seventh-years were finished by lunchtime, and there were more than a few people who had to manoeuvre their food around their books as they tried to cram in some last-minute revision. O.W.L.s had been like this too: nerve-wracking mornings and afternoons broken up by meals, evenings filled with last-minute revision and little sleep. It was a routine that everyone seemed to automatically fall into.

They returned to the same classroom, which was now filled with rows of desks topped by exam booklets. Lily was not as nervous this time, but there was still a fair amount of anxiety bubbling in the pit of her stomach. She had done all right on the practical, but if she made a mess of the written, it could drag her grade down.

“You may begin,” Professor Dearborn said, and there was a fluttering as everyone flipped over their exams.

Lily looked down at the first question: Explain the distinction between Self-Transfiguration and Self-Charming in the context of Animagus transformations.

She could practically hear James laughing as she read it, and sure enough, when she glanced up, he was exchanging a very pleased smirk with Sirius a few rows over. It seemed distinctly unfair that the very first question should essentially throw marks at the students who were already going to ace the exam, but she supposed the Wizarding Examinations Authority couldn’t have known that. She sighed and set her quill to the page.

Two hours later, they were told to put down their quills—some people already had, others threw them down with looks of resigned misery. Anna kept writing until Professor McGonagall came and snatched it from her hand mid-sentence, which earned a few giggles (although not from Anna, who looked more than a little miffed).

Lily had not finished her last essay properly, and a few of her answers had been complete loads of waffle, but hopefully it would not count against her too harshly.

And so, it was one day down, only four more to go. Of course, there was very little sense of relief, especially with Defence Against the Dark Arts up next. No one felt that Dearborn had really taught them much that was useful, which left them with most of the responsibility to prepare for the exam.

Defence Against the Dark Arts was an exam that Lily was looking forward to, even if it was not her best subject. She wanted to get an idea of whether she was making much progress at learning how to defend herself—something that she knew all too well was important in a way that superseded grades or exams. She wanted to know whether she could do counter-curses and Disarm people properly, and an exam seemed like a fairly objective measure.

The written exam came first the next day, and it was difficult.

“Who cares about fights between giants and Aurors a hundred years ago?” James asked as they headed outdoors with the crowds of other students.

“We did learn a lot about it,” Lily pointed out.

“Yeah, well, that was a waste of time as well,” he replied.

“At least if someone gets cornered by a Death Eater, they can tell them all about Grogan Stump and the giants before they drop dead,” Sirius interjected.

The weather was so nice that Lily couldn’t help but feel more cheerful, even with their practical exam still to come. Some fifth-years were at the edge of the lake laughing as they sent jets of water at each other, and some even younger girls were sticking their feet in the water, shrieking when one of the giant squid’s tentacles undulated across the surface.

Lily started to glance around for Mary and Anna before she remembered that she and Mary were no longer speaking, and that Anna had put her loyalties on display quite clearly. Lily shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, Mary and Anna had been best friends ever since their first year. But she had thought that maybe Anna had seen things her way, and agreed with her...part of her had been hoping, even though it was not very nice, that Anna would take her side, and that Mary would be the one left out instead.

All she could really do was sigh and remind herself that she had dealt with losing friends before, and it hadn’t killed her. At least this time she only had to suffer through it for a couple weeks, rather than years.

She was lost in her own thoughts as she strolled over to the beech tree next to the lake with James and the rest of the boys. Soon after they sat down, a group of sixth-years had started up the old game involving the Whomping Willow—they were lucky there weren’t any teachers nearby, since it was an instant week’s worth of detention ever since Davey Gudgeon had nearly been blinded years ago. Lily was just beginning to muster up the energy to go and tell them to stop when James jumped to his feet.

“Idiots,” he muttered. “I’ll be right back.”

She watched him go over and yell at them all to clear off, surprised by how quick he had been to respond, especially given how he had been breaking rules left and right recently.

“You know, it’s too bad that you’re just getting the hang of this at the end of the year,” Lily teased him when he returned.

“Yeah, think of all the detentions you didn’t get to give out,” Sirius said sarcastically. “Thrill of a lifetime, that’d be.”

“Well, I didn’t want them to get killed,” James said. “They’re sixth years, after all, and it’s not really fair if they don’t have to go through the same pain we are right now.”

“You’re so kind,” Lily said, while the others chuckled.

James put his arm around her shoulders. “And you wouldn’t want me any other way.”

He was right, of course, and Lily was comforted by the realization that no matter how many friends she lost, she had also gained one who more than made up for it.



..........




Slowly, painfully, the week was nearing an end. They had Herbology on Wednesday, by far the easiest of all their subjects (in James’ mind). It was Thursday, and they only had Potions and Charms left—no small feat, in James’ mind. Charms, he could handle, as it was not too much different from Transfiguration or Defence Against the Dark Arts, but Potions was another story. There were too many little details about counter-clockwise stirs and simmering and intervals, and James was simply not a “little details” person. He could manage that sort of magic when motivated—like becoming an Animagus—but with Potions, it seemed pointless.

Charms, as he had predicted, went well, at least for the most part. He had accidentally cast a Supersensory Charm on himself, and walked out of the classroom with extremely sensitive hearing, but had at least managed to conceal his problem from the examiner. Others weren’t so lucky. One of the Slytherins had accidentally set a cabinet on fire, which interrupted the exams for at least twenty minutes. Filch had made a big fuss about being allowed to stand guard with a pail of water: an unnecessary measure, since all of the examiners had wands.

Finally, it was the last day: the last day of exams, the last real day of his school career, the last chance to get a good enough mark that would serve as some kind of insurance for his future. He was exhausted from late nights of revision, and not at all in the mood to suffer through Potions.

James felt a thudding sense of dread with every step he took towards the dungeons after breakfast.

“You’ll do fine,” Lily said, squeezing his hand.

“We’ll see,” James replied.

The exam turned out to be just as much of a nightmare as he had expected, with their assignment to brew an Elixir to Induce Euphoria. When they were given the instructions, there was more than one sigh of disgust heard around the room, though not everyone was so disappointed. Lily set to the task so cheerily that she seemed about to break into song, while Snape was moving so fast that you'd have thought they only had five minutes to complete the exam.

At least there was not the dead-quiet that accompanied most other exams, and all of them were in it together. James hated written exams, because the only audible noises were things like the scratching of quills, or people tapping their feet on the floor. Here the background noise was more natural: it could have been any Potions class where everyone was being especially quiet. It was just quiet enough and just loud enough for him to concentrate, and it was also nice not to be interrupted by Slughorn every five minutes because he wanted to name-drop former students or invite him to a dinner party.

About halfway through, he surreptitiously glanced around at everyone else’s progress. His classmates all seemed to be living up to their usual standards, with the exception of Peter. But he wasn’t doing badly—far from it. His potion actually resembled both Lily’s and Snivellus’, which didn’t make any sense at all. Peter had never done very well in Potions before, not in seven full years of school. He had always been average at best, and had experienced even more trouble when they got to N.E.W.T.-level. It probably would have been better for Peter to drop the subject after O.W.L.s, but he had been insistent on sticking with his friends.

James continued to look over at Peter from time to time when the examiner wasn’t looking, trying to figure out what he was doing right. He seemed to be simply adding ingredients, at least the first few times that James looked. Could it be that Peter had actually worked hard enough that he got it all right when it came to the exam? Lily had helped him revise a few times; perhaps that had made a big difference.

Professor Tofty, their examiner, passed by James’ cauldron, and while his back was turned, James took another glance—this time, though, Peter was not looking at his own cauldron, but staring back at Lily. He and James locked eyes briefly; Peter went red and went back to his own potion immediately. James thought he understood what was going on, and it made his stomach feel very lead-like.

When the examiner told them to finish up, James had at least managed to make the potion some shade of yellow.

“That wasn’t bad at all,” Lily said cheerfully on their way out.

“You did great,” James said, smiling at her. He knew how much she must have looked forward to Potions, and she had put up with his gloating earlier in the week, after all.

“Not just me, though,” Lily replied. “Peter, you did so well. You should be really proud of yourself.”

Peter mumbled a thanks, and James had to bite his tongue. At least Peter would not be able to cheat off of Lily in their written exam. After a gruelling few hours hunched over an exam booklet in the afternoon, it was all over.

The entire castle seemed to be sighing with relief, and the seventh-years were in high spirits. In stark contrast to previous weeks, everyone was laughing and practically skipping wherever they went. Back in Gryffindor tower, even students who had not finished exams were getting caught up in the spirit, and there were calls for Butterbeer and éclairs from the kitchens, though no one seemed to want to get them; Peter was met with more than a few cheers when he finally stepped in and said he would go.

James offered to go with Peter, thinking that it was as good a time as any to confront him about what had happened earlier in the day. While they were waiting for the house elves to prepare the food, James sat down on a stool next to one of the large tables.

“Congratulations on the exam, by the way,” he said. “I didn’t know you had that in you.”

“Yeah, neither did I,” Peter replied, evading eye contact. “It was a miracle, that’s for sure.”

James couldn’t help but agree. “You must have studied loads, then.”

Peter nodded. “But it was more...I dunno, I just knew how to do it when we got in there.”

“Wish that could have happened to me,” James said. He was trying to gauge Peter’s reaction and give him a chance to explain of his own volition, but his friend simply continued to tap his hand on the table gleefully.

“Wormtail, no offence,” James continued, “but it does look a little suspicious, you suddenly becoming a brilliant potionmaker.”

Peter shrugged, but this time looked a little more nervous.

“You didn’t...I mean, when you were looking at Lily...?” James asked. Peter’s tapping stopped.

“It was bad timing,” he said. “I was looking at the examiner, and then as I was turning back, you looked at me, and I happened to be glancing at Lily. That’s all.”

“Are you sure?”

“Prongs, do you really think I would cheat?” Peter asked.

“You do remember that I was there when we thought up the answer-with-a-question strategy, right?” James asked, laughing a little—he didn’t know why, since the situation wasn’t exactly funny.

“I’m not—” Peter stopped, looking flustered. “Listen...I know I shouldn’t have...”

“Pete,” James groaned. “Why on Merlin’s green earth would you do that?”

“Because—well, it was N.E.W.T.s!” Peter said miserably. “I’m half-rubbish at every other subject, anyway—”

“That’s not true; you’re really good at Transfiguration,” James pointed out. Peter rolled his eyes slightly.

“Yeah, well, not so much as you and Padfoot,” he said. “I just didn’t want to end up with a ‘T’ on my N.E.W.T. results.”

“I thought you said that Lily helped you work out most of the problems,” James said.

“Well...she did, I suppose, in a sense,” Peter replied unhappily.

James exhaled, frustrated. “I can’t believe you managed to sneak looks at what she was doing the entire time without getting caught.”

In fact, though, it was not as far-fetched as it seemed. Peter had always been good at sneaking around, after all. He seemed to evade people’s notice, like he existed outside the reach of peripheral vision. If someone wasn’t looking right at him, he disappeared entirely.

Don’t tell Lily,” Peter said, and James laughed again.

Tell her? Are you mad? I’m halfway to Obliviating both myself and you just so this information never gets out,” James said, feeling profoundly disappointed as he looked at his friend. “Pete, I know you were worried, but I’m not exactly a Potions genius, and you don’t see me doing anything dishonest. Padfoot and Moony didn’t, either.”

Peter looked even more miserable now. “It’s just—I know I shouldn’t have, but it’s not—it’s not the same for me. You three’ll probably get ‘Outstanding’ in every other subject—”

“Wormtail, let’s not forget the events of this week. Moony turned a table into a tree with four legs still attached in Transfiguration, and I didn’t exactly ace Potions,” James said. “You can’t just give up and take the easy way out.”

“I didn’t! I—I wish I could take it back,” Peter replied. “Really, I do. I never thought anyone would notice.”

James sighed, wishing he’d never brought up the subject and instead continued on in blissful ignorance.

After a few moments of heavy silence, Peter continued, “It’s like I said before...I panicked, because it was N.E.W.T.s. And I...well, I wanted to have one exam that I could really be proud of.”

“But—” James began, but stopped and sighed. He had been about to point out the contradiction of being proud of an exam that hadn’t really been your own work, but it didn’t feel like there was any point. They couldn’t go back and change the past, at least not without breaking some more laws along the way. And in a few months’ time, this would all probably seem so petty and unimportant. He would probably laugh about getting so worked up about cheating on an exam.

There was pity, too. James couldn’t help but feel bad for Peter, for it had to be said that he had never excelled at a subject. Peter might have been one of the top Transfiguration students had it not been for Sirius and James (well, actually, he probably wouldn’t have been without their help), but instead he was accorded second-rate status. James couldn’t help but feel a little bad for doing that, however unintentionally, to his friend.

He managed to muster the ability to say, “Ah, well, it’s done now. Probably not your best idea, but since we’re finished exams, it’s not like I should worry about you doing it again.”

Peter seemed infinitely relieved by this, and it was then their food was brought to them.

“Just, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone else,” James advised, taking one of the heavy trays. “We don’t need anyone else knowing.”

“Yeah, I don’t want it getting back to the teachers,” Peter mumbled. James had been thinking more along the lines of Lily, but Peter’s point was true as well.

He kept that concern to himself as well. It was pointless to worry about something weeks in the future when they had so much to look forward to in the immediate future—returning to the common room celebrations, graduating in the following week. And quite besides that, James could not conscionably judge Peter, not when so much of their time at Hogwarts had been spent in the pursuit of breaking rules and even laws. Peter certainly wasn’t the only one of them who had made a very large mistake at some point or another.

As Dearborn had told James, there was a fine line between right and wrong. He knew his friends well enough to be sure that, even if they made some questionable choices on occasion, they would always stand solidly on the right side of that line.




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