Chapter 14 : Fourteen
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“This project the three of you have been conducting in my spare classroom… one couldn’t help but recognise the scent of Dalmore reagent, most commonly used in the fermentation of spirit grains…” Slughorn smoothed his moustache nervously. “One assumes it is all entirely experimental?”
“Of course.” James replied.
“Entirely.” Fred added.
“All academic, as I thought.” Slughorn nodded, “Naturally, you will all be wanting to notify me when your experiment has reached its… conclusion… for some professional assessment, shall we say?”
“Naturally,” Lucy nodded.
“Excellent.” Slughorn smiled, satisfied. “Wasn’t here. Didn’t see it. Couldn’t have stopped you.”
He swung his cloak around his shoulders and swept from the dungeon, bustling along to his office.
“Did… did our potions teacher just tell us it was all okay, so long as we save him a bottle?” Lucy asked her two favourite cousins, not quite trusting her own eyes as reliable witnesses. “Did that just happen?”
Fred blinked, “You know, Lu, I think it did.”
Once out in the corridor, Kelly, who had been waiting for them, asked, “What was that about?”
“We’ve been outed.” Fred said, still in something of a daze. “Sort of.”
Kelly’s eyes got huge. Saucer huge. “What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”
“He… He doesn’t care.” Lucy replied in the same fashion, “I think he was actually impressed.”
“So is this a good thing? Or a bad thing?” Kelly questioned. She looked at James, “Are these two high or something?”
“I’m not sure.” Lucy shook her head. “I’ll get back to you on that.”
Kelly wasn’t sure which question Lucy was giving an answer to, but it wasn’t important, James asked the only question that mattered.
“You know what this means, though, don’t you?” James raised his eyebrows. “We need Nick now more than ever.”
“And that is why one should always harvest the fruits in September before the f…”
Professor Longbottom trailed off as he realised his words were falling on deaf ears. The only student writing anything down was Lucy, (and she was drafting a letter to her pen-pal in Norway, Sven Henriksen, a Herbologist with whom she communicated solely in Ancient Nordic Runes). The rest were either sleeping or trying to, some were merely sitting with their heads in their hands trying to stop the world from spinning all around them.
“Raise your hand if you are hungover.”
Though everyone was, nobody copped to it.
Professor Longbottom sighed. “Anyone who admits this to me now will be docked a single point from their house, and will be given a dose of pepper-up potion.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Anyone who doesn’t will be docked fifty if I find out… Now, a show of hands if you are hungover?”
Everyone except Lucy raised their hand.
Longbottom, though a kind man, didn’t like to be trifled with. He raised his sandy eyebrows, “Miss Weasley?”
“I’m not hungover. I had pepper-up at breakfast. I’m fine.”
He folded his arms, not quite convinced. “So you’ll be able to tell me the advantages of fanged geraniums being geophytes?”
Lucy rolled her eyes and rattled off, “So they can survive the harsh desert like conditions of their native country’s summer — South Africa — by storing carbohydrates and water in an organ underground. Obviously.”
“Obviously… And an advantage of the storage organ being positioned underground?”
“So that herbivores are less likely to eat it.”
“Very good, Miss Weasley.” He turned to the rest of his students to tot up the points her had promised to dock, “So, that’s twelve points from Hufflepuff, seven points from Slytherin, ten from Gryffindor, and eleven from Ravenclaw... Who wants pepper-up potion?”
Forty hands shot into the air once more.
“See, why can’t I see this sort of enthusiasm on a regular basis? It would make classes much more enjoyable.”
Toby and Kelly found Nick whilst the others were in Herbology. He was in the Library, sitting at a table behind a stack of books and an endless roll of parchment, he looked just as exhausted as Kelly had this morning before she had morphed into her more usual self, two indigo thumb prints pressed into his eye sockets, light brown hair sticking up every which was due to running his hands through it so many times. His tie was crooked and his top button undone, he looked nothing like the usually suave Nick Croaker that graced the halls of Hogwarts. He looked like a boy.
“What are you working on?” Toby asked quietly, dropping into one of the chairs at his table.
“I missed two weeks of classes. I was unconscious for one of them. The other I had to teach my hand to work again. I’ve got to catch it all up.”
He had furious handwriting. Kelly peered at it for a moment and deciphered the title to be last week’s Defence Against The Dark Arts essay on Werewolves.
“I can give you my essays for History that Binns has marked and returned, if you want.” Toby offered. “The notes, too, if that would help?”
“And I’ll get my stuff for Runes and Arithmancy,” Kelly nodded. “You can copy up the content and I’ll help with the translations and equation homework’s.”
“And we can both help you with the rest. We share the rest of your classes, right?”
“I’m fine, I just need to focus.” He gestured firmly at his essay. “I can get this done.”
“Yeah,” Kelly murmured, “But classwork isn’t the only thing you’re behind on.”
Nick furrowed his brow, his quill pausing on the parchment, “What d’you mean?”
Kelly glanced around for eavesdroppers, Toby cast a few muffliato charms to be safe.
She leaned forward on her arms and whispered softly, “Slughorn knows.”
“What?” Nick hissed.
“He knows what we’re doing. He says he’s going to keep quiet — in exchange for a bottle of our finished product — but, Nick, if one teacher can figure it out…”
Nick was already nodding. “Another can too.” He started to push his chair back, “I’ll get right on it.”
“Woah, woah, woah.” Kelly grabbed hold of his forearm with a surprising amount of strength. “You’ve got ten essays to write and four new spells to perfect before Thursday. School work comes first. Sit down.”
“Nicholas Croaker, sit your stubborn ass down right now, or I will glue you to the chair.”
Toby cocked his head to the left, “Have you been up here since History?”
Kelly mimicked Toby’s gesture.
“See, stressed, sleep deprived, and starving, you’re no good to us, you can’t even lie convincingly. I’m going to go and get you some food from the kitchens, Kelly is going to help you with Arithmancy, Ancient Runes and Transfiguration. When I get back, I’ll write the introductory paragraphs for your History essays, and help you with the new Charms we’re doing. That leaves Defence, but I think you have that covered on your own.” Toby nodded firmly and swept out of the library.
“I take it this is why he’s the one who pitches the stuff they’re selling? Because you can’t say no to him?”
“Yep.” Kelly smirked, before becoming solemn once more. “Now, Transfiguration…”
Nick’s deception started up again that very night after the Slytherin team quidditch practice. He was taking a post-practice shower, when he overhead his beaters, Warrington and Selwyn’s, conversation.
“I heard they were growing hinkypunk weed.” Selwyn said. “In the dungeons.”
“Potter and Weasley? Come off it, they’re shrivelfig smokers if anything.”
“Yeah, but which one is more lucrative? They’re all about the money. It’s hinkypunk weed, I promise.”
“Who told you that?” Nick called over the cubicle wall.
There was a pause as the two of them debated whether or not to fess up to their gossiping. “Gretel Goyle.”
Nick laughed, “And you believed her?”
“Why wouldn’t we?”
“Because Goyle would struggle to pour piss out of a boot with instructions on the heel, that’s why.”
Selwyn and Warrington snorted at this.
“And besides, you can’t grow hinkypunk weed — or shrivelfig — in the dungeons. That stuff gets imported from abroad — illegally, I might add — because you can’t grow it here.”
“No way. It’s not possible. I’d say ask Longbottom, but I think he’d have a few questions for you in return, if you did — and I’d rather not have the entire team drug tested, chaps.”
“Right, yeah.” Warrington agreed.
“What do you think they’re up to?”
“Potter and Weasley?”
“James and Fred.”
“Could be anything. Probably something for Weasley’s dad’s shop — he’s always making stuff for that. We’ll probably have first hand advertisement of it soon, knowing them.”
“You’re probably right.” Warrington concurred again. “Anyway, night, Croaker.”
“Night. Good practice, lads.”
Nick waited until he heard the door swing shut again before he slumped back against the tiles of the shower cubicle, his knuckles white as he gripped the water pipes for support. He had managed to convince Madam Longbottom that he had recovered from his concussion, which had resulted from his fall to the ground; his head had been aching all day, and he had thrown up before practice. He couldn’t miss anymore classes. Anymore practices. He was team captain, he needed that edge in his applications. He needed top grades for the Unspeakables Programme. He needed Hopscotch for the financial independence from his parents when he left school. He couldn’t quit now. He needed this to work. He needed this to work. He needed this to work.
He leaned his head back, letting the water pour over his face. He would have it together by February. He’d have to.
“You know she still likes you, right?”
“Can you pass me the Rune Dictionary, please?” Nick held out his hand, palm up.
Kelly held it hostage. “Not until you answer my question.”
“School work comes first, Kelly.” Nick gave her his most patronising glare, throwing her own words back at her.
Kelly slapped the dictionary into his open palm. “Now tell me.”
“No — you don’t know? Or, no — you won’t tell me?”
It was Wednesday morning, Nick and Kelly were camped out in the library again, doing their best to catch Nick up with his work and stay on top of the new assignments they had been set. The two of them had gravitated together over the past year during free periods, when their friends Zen Haneda and Grace Belby were off in an abandoned classroom or a broom cupboard snogging each other senseless. It was only this last three months they had crossed the barrier from friend-of-friend to partners-in-crime, and were leaning towards the realm of real friendship sooner or later.
“Of course I know she still likes me. She was at my bedside more than Zen and Grace were.” Nick paused, looking something up in the dictionary, “I liked your messages, by the way, the ones you left in the window. Thanks for that.”
“How d’you know it was me?” Kelly narrowed her eyes.
He tilting his head, wrinkling his brow at her. “Who else knows about those passageways? And writes their i’s like that? And steals my jelly and leaves an apology note in the glass?”
“Yeah, alright, you caught me… It was nice jelly.”
“Really?” He gave her a quizzical look. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Sorry. But this still doesn’t change the fact that Roxanne likes you. So what are you going to do about it? Other than kiss random people at parties.”
“That was one person. And that was payment.”
“So prostitution has become a viable option for getting a girl to stop fancying you — wow, I hadn’t realised we were there yet.”
“Shut up. Britt was out bet in the round and she had no more chips, so instead of pawning her bracelet or whatever, we said she could bet kisses, to whoever’s hand was greater than hers. I was the only one with a better hand, so we split the pot and she kissed me. It didn’t mean anything.”
“But, does Roxanne mean anything to you? Because it’s not fair to let her keep caring about you this way if she doesn’t.”
“It didn’t work out too well the last time we were together.”
“Yeah, why was that?”
Nick shrugged, pushing back in his chair to balance on two legs. “We got competitive, and we got mean, and then we broke up.”
“Competitive about what?”
“Quidditch, believe it or not. Some dickheads started spreading stuff around that I was only seeing her to get inside information on the Gryffindor team — which was not true, if you were wondering—”
“I wasn’t.” Kelly crossed her arms.
“—anyway, Roxie confronted me about it. I denied all of it. But I don’t think she was convinced. I hadn’t been the most upfront with her about… other stuff — stuff I don’t tell anyone, ever — and I think she thought I was lying to her again. So, she started probing more, and I closed off more every time. I didn’t want to talk about it. But the other rumour that got started was the flip-side of the argument; that Roxanne was only on the Gryffindor team because she was seeing me, and could spy on my house’s team. So we got distant, the competitions started, trying to prove we were good enough without the other to be on our teams, and then, a week before the last match of the season, she gave up, because I wouldn’t give in. And we were over.”
Kelly puffed out her cheeks and exhaled a long breath. “Well, that sucks.”
Nick smirked. “What? No wise-and-worldly advice as a woman? Aren’t you supposed to convince me to earn her forgiveness and win her heart back?”
“Although that sounds awfully romantic and all, I don’t know how much, if any, of your feelings for her are left. So, it’s your decision really, do you think it’s worth it?”
“I have no idea… I mean, it’s different now, with us both being captains, no one is questioning our position on the pitch… but as for the other stuff… I still don’t think I could tell her. Not yet. And I think that’s going to hold us back.”
Kelly pursed her lips for a moment. “I’d still get her forgiveness, though, whatever you decide. For her sake as well as yours. Just… get it off your conscience.”
“You talk a lot of sense, sometimes, Kel.”
“Moments.” Kelly agreed, going back to her notes. “I have moments.”
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