The morning sunshine heralded a surprisingly cheerful November day outside, but as usual, the Potions dungeon was dark and cold. The air was thick with gray smoke, the result of a botched Delirium Draught attempted by one of the Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw fifth-years from the previous lesson. Now, thirty more fifth-year students sat in three rows facing Professor Slughorn, Gryffindors on the left and Slytherins a comfortable distance away on the right. It would have been interesting for an observer to watch the variety of expressions on the students’ faces as Slughorn made his way through his carefully rehearsed introductory speech on the purposes and ingredients of the draught. Sirius Black sat in the back corner, resisting the urge to put his feet up on the table and doze off for the duration of the lesson. Remus Lupin, seated next to him, quietly took notes while keeping one eye on Sirius in case Slughorn noticed him in the midst of a nap. Severus Snape, who had chosen the furthest possible back row seat from Sirius and Remus, occasionally scribbled something in the margins of his textbook but mostly relaxed in his seat with an air of mild curiosity. Lily Evans sat in the front row, paying rapt attention to Slughorn whilst trying to pretend she couldn’t feel James Potter’s eyes boring straight into her back. Next to her, past the invisible house border on the Slytherin side, sat her best friend Lucy Malfoy, whose face was most interesting of all, not only because it was beautiful but also because her expression betrayed a different emotion altogether: true, honest-to-God worry.
You see, Lucy was in danger of failing Potions.
She tried to blame it on Sirius; well, Sirius and her parents. She and Sirius had been dating on and off for three years already, and her parents were starting to drop hints over dinner that she needed to give him a little push or two if that was what he needed to go on and propose to her. True, he wasn’t the most upstanding pureblood wizard who had expressed interest in her, but the Malfoys and Blacks were very close thanks to the impending union of her brother Lucius with Narcissa Black, and her parents weren’t particularly picky when it came to the future of their unwanted second child, at least as long as her mate satisfied the basic requirements. Lucy felt certain that Sirius loved her, but he was about as immature as they come, and she knew it would start a fight if she made a serious attempt to steer their conversations toward settling down. All of this made for a cumbersome burden for a fifteen-year-old girl, so of course her Potions coursework had suffered slightly in the process.
Not that she was actually kidding anyone. Sure, trying to tame Sirius Black was a little stressful, but the truth of the matter was that she was too grossed out by Potions to try to do well in the subject. She found it hard to appreciate the “quiet elegance” of a brewing potion, as Slughorn put it, when she had to cut up rattails and pound stinkbug larva into liquid form in order to achieve the final effect. She could barely understand how people could consider this to be magic, let alone wrap her mind around the finer details of becoming proficient in such an area. As a result, she had passed only half of the year’s lessons so far, and she had barely scraped by on most of those. Her only salvation had been Lily’s occasional hints, whispered urgently to her from the Gryffindor side. As she stared at the complex list of ingredients and procedures detailed on the page before her, she glanced at her best friend, hoping she could bail her out once again.
Slughorn completed his lecture at last and set the class to work. Lucy arranged the cauldron before her and checked the list for the first step. Slice wings of monarch butterfly into long, thin pieces. She completed the traditional opening ritual of potion making, dropping several cups of water into the bottom of the heavy, black cauldron and setting it to simmer, and drew her knife as she turned to the dead butterfly sitting before her on the table. She cut the wings up into near-perfect splinters and dropped them into the cauldron, where they contentedly drifted down to the bottom of the cauldron. Lucy glanced back to the list. Add four frog legs and stir. Wrinkling her nose at the thought of handling dead frog parts, she dropped the legs neatly into the brew and gave it a quick stir, anxiously waiting for the liquid to turn purple as instructed by the book.
Instead, however, she was greeted with a curtain of white smoke rising off the top of the liquid. Panicking, she tried stirring more, but it only made the effect worse. Lucy glanced around the room, noting that she was the only one having trouble with the draught. Even Peter Pettigrew had figured it out, though his success could probably have been attributed to Remus’s vigilant eye. She looked over at Lily, who was now watching Lucy’s cauldron with concern but offered no solution for her friend.
Sighing, Lucy tried to ignore Slughorn, who was watching her with an air of disappointment, and looked at her textbook again to make sure she hadn’t made a mistake. Slice up butterfly wings, add frog legs, stir. Wait. Just there, between steps one and two: Allow potion to simmer until wings have dissolved and water appears iridescent. Oops. But it was such a small step; how could it have affected the results so profoundly? Lucy looked up again, noticing that the group next to her was already on step four.
Lucy started, glancing behind her, where Professor Slughorn stood with his arms crossed.
“Yes, sir?” She answered timidly.
“Your Delirium Draught seems to have run into a few complications.” The professor attempted to look firm, but it was difficult to recognize criticism when it issued from an otherwise polite demeanor. “In fact, as I recall, you seem to have been performing consistently below standards for much of the class so far. I’m afraid I’ve become slightly discouraged with regard to your future in Potions.”
Lucy tried very hard not to smirk. A future in Potions? I’ll pass, thanks.
“As it is, I have to be honest with you, Miss Malfoy. If your grades don’t improve, I simply can’t recommend that you be allowed to sit for your O.W.L.s in this subject. I suggest you put more time into your studies. As for now, please clean up your area and share with Miss Evans.”
Lucy begrudgingly did as he asked, scrubbing the now sludgy mess out of her heavy black cauldron, and took the empty seat next to Lily. “What am I going to do?” She said dejectedly. “If I don’t take my O.W.L., I won’t be allowed to move to move to sixth-year Potions. And you need Potions in order to do basically anything.”
“You could be a bored housewife.” Lily suggested.
“Very funny.” Lucy glared at her. “Seriously, Lil, can’t you help me?”
“I don’t have any time, Lucy, not with Prefect duties and the Slug Club.” Lily sighed, dropping coriander leaves into her draught and looking down at her friend. “You know, though, now that I think about it, I do know someone who might be able to help you.”
“If you’re talking about Remus, I think he’s got his hands full with Sirius and Peter.”
“No, not him.” Lily glanced behind her to the Slytherin side of the room. In the back corner, working quietly amongst the chatter of his housemates, Severus had just completed a perfect Delirium Draught with ten minutes to spare until the end of the period. Satisfied, he scooped a small portion of it into a vial to show Professor Slughorn and calmly began to pack up his things.
“You’re joking.” Lucy bit her lip. “Lil, I know he’s kind of your friend, but I can’t have word going around that I’m spending my evenings with him, even if it is for purely academic purposes. It’d be social suicide.”
“You not making it to sixth-year Potions would also be social suicide.” Lily replied with a terse smile, which quickly softened. “Besides, he’s probably available on weekends as well.”
Lucy glanced back at Severus. If it’ll wipe that look of pity off Slughorn’s face, so be it.