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Chapter 12 : OWLs
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Fortunately Hagrid came to the rescue one day at lunch time and managed to distract us, though even that was only fleeting. We were all at the Gryffindor table trying to down our food as quickly as possible so we could get back to the library, and some students even now had their noses in various textbooks or rolls of parchment, but we were all diverted by the opening of the heavy doors into the Entrance Hall.
Turning our heads, we saw Hagrid enter the Great Hall, carrying the most dazzling bird I had ever seen on his arm. With plumage of scarlet and gold, it seemed as though it was drawing all the light in the room, as everything else dulled in comparison. Just about every head in the Great Hall turned to look at it, lunch temporarily forgotten. Hagrid, apparently oblivious to the distraction he was causing, peered down the length of the hall to the staff table.
“Where would yeh like him, Professor Dumbledore?” he asked in what I’m sure he thought was a quiet voice. “Here, or up in yer office?”
I poked Mary in the ribs. “That must be Dumbledore’s phoenix,” I muttered, unable to tear my eyes from the almost luminous bird. “Remus was right, they are bright.”
“Amazin’, isna it?” Mary breathed. “We ne’er go’ t’ see anythin’ lik’ that i’ Care o’ Magical Creatures.”
“Probably a bit rare, I dare say,” I acknowledged, almost missing Dumbledore’s response to Hagrid’s question.
“My office, if you please, Hagrid,” said Dumbledore’s voice, which as always carried effortlessly across the Great Hall. He appeared to be trying to suppress a smile, as though recognising the humour in Hagrid choosing this time to return his bird.
“Right yeh are, sir,” Hagrid said with a grin, then caught the eyes of the boys from our year. He winked at them significantly. “Wing’s fixed now, boys! How d’yeh like him?”
James beamed at him and gave him the thumbs up, which Hagrid seemed to appreciate as he smiled even more broadly and made his way back out of the hall, most probably to wherever Dumbledore’s office was.
Like I said, just a minor distraction, one which barely took a minute but was still appreciated. And then everything was back to how it had been beforehand. That week was a jumble of nervous students frantically finishing assignments and trying to reconfigure the hours of the day so they could get enough revision in. Even some of the smarter Ravenclaws, like Greta Catchlove and Sebastian Quirke, could be found at all hours in the library or sitting in the Great Hall at mealtimes with thick textbooks propped open on the table in front of them. Of all the fifth-years only James and Sirius didn’t seem to be too worried and were conspicuous by their lack of study, but as they were probably the smartest kids in school I guessed they didn’t need to. For that one week, I hated them.
There was also a roaring black market trade going on in various devices designed to improve your memory, or at least that was what the people selling them were claiming. Mostly sixth-years, they were peddling an assortment of powders, potions, amulets and even a lucky rabbit’s foot or two, claiming these items were solely responsible for the number of OWLs they had achieved the previous year. Lily as a prefect was kept very busy trying to prevent the sale of these items, telling anyone who would listen that they didn’t do the job that was attributed to them and the fifth-years’ time would be better spent actually studying rather than relying on anything external that most probably didn’t work anyway.
“Why people are even bothering with old potions is beyond me,” Martha grumbled one day as she pushed aside an eager sixth-year who was trying to sell a bottle of something that if nothing else smelled dodgy. “That one smelled like something had died in there and was slowly decomposing.”
Charlotte grinned. “Do you have a better idea?”
“Of course,” said Martha, flashing a wicked smile. “All we need is for someone to break into the Ministry and steal a few time-turners. We’ll all have plenty of time for revision then.”
“I almost wish we hadn’t stuffed up our Memory Potions when we were doing them,” I said. “Fun as that dragon liver fight was, it would most probably have been a better idea for us to actually learn to make something that improves memory capacity.”
“But Memory Potions are easy,” said Lily, her eyes flicking up to us from over The Standard Book of Spells Grade Four, which she was re-reading to try to jog her memory from the previous years’ work. “You just get some Jobberknoll feathers –”
“Yes, Lils,” Martha interrupted rather loudly. “We all know you’re brilliant at Potions. But not all of us can just do it in our sleep like you seem to be able to.”
“Yes, right, whatever,” Lily retorted, sounding a little put out. “I was only trying to help.”
“We know,” Mary said comfortingly. “Bu’ Laura wasna bein’ serious aboot wantin’ a Memory Potion an’ all, ye know. She jus’ wants t’ mak’ sure she can remember everythin’ she needs t’.”
“Oh, right.” Lily looked at her and I could see her gaze sharpen. “Sorry, I wasn’t really paying attention. Did you realise that you don’t actually have to be completely specific when you cast a Summoning Charm? Apparently so long as you’ve got a vague idea of what you want, if it’s close enough it’ll come to you, even if you just say Accio without specifying anything. I hadn’t realised that.”
Martha laughed. “Oh, Lily, you’re going to ace Charms anyway. Why are you even bothering to read up on all that stuff?”
“But it’s the sort of thing we need to know,” Lily protested. For someone who was so smart, she really was stressing about these exams. “Really, I don’t know that I’ll ace it at all, there’s so much to remember and what if I’ve forgotten something over the past three years? It’s easier for you lot, you’ve got wizarding families and grew up with all this stuff. For me it’s all brand new.”
“I’m not all that fussed how I go this year,” I said honestly. “The only reason I’m doing OWLs is to get into my NEWT subjects, so as long as I’ve got what I need to go on with something I’m not worried. Which means I’m not trying to get an O in anything, just Es in the ones I want continue. And even then it doesn’t matter if it’s a low E, so long as it’s an E.”
“Ye dinna wan’ it t’ be too low an E, though,” Mary pointed out. “’Cause then it micht end up bein’ an A, an’ ye won’ ge’ through.”
“And that’s what I’m worried about,” said Lily. “What if I freeze up in the exam, or panic, and I don’t get the E I need? So that’s why I’m revising so hard, Martha, just in case.”
Charlotte was shaking her head. “I’m with Martha, Lils,” she said. “You’re going to ace Charms, and even without you reading that book until three in the morning you’ll do that. So just try to relax a bit, you’re more likely to freeze up if you’re tense in the first place.”
My own revision was going along rather well, though undoubtedly some subjects were more important than others. I had already decided to drop History of Magic as a NEWT subject, as the concept of never having to listen to Professor Binns again was far too enticing to ignore. Also I wasn’t planning on continuing with Care of Magical Creatures or Astronomy, the former because while I enjoyed the outdoor classes I didn’t particularly want to be a dragon handler or anything roughly equivalent, the latter because I was sick of the late night classes interrupting my routine. (Not to mention Canis Majoris, as there were no guarantees the boys wouldn’t be taking it.) So my revision focused more on Transfiguration and Potions, as McGonagall had recommended, as well as Defence Against the Dark Arts and Ancient Runes. I was good enough at Charms and Herbology to be able to get away with less revision with those, figuring that I would get the E necessary to progress to NEWT level without too much difficulty.
Or so I had thought. The Charms exam, which was the first we had, was harder than I’d anticipated and there were a few questions I wasn’t able to answer fully. The practical that afternoon was fortunately a little better, even if I did momentarily forget the incantation for Cheering Charms. At least I wasn’t as bad as Caradoc Dearborn, the Hufflepuff prefect, who somehow managed to confuse a Growth Charm with a Severing Charm, and instead of cutting his piece of fabric in two managed to swell it up until it was a good thirty yards wide, completely covering both him and his examiner.
Herbology was rather better – I was more relaxed going into it and had little difficulty with either the theory or practical portions of the examination, aside from successfully scaring off my Screechsnap by accidentally dropping a bucketload of dragon dung onto it, which forced me to retrieve it from underneath Greta Catchlove’s table where it had escaped to seek shelter. Astronomy was also less taxing than I had anticipated, though the fact that the exam took place at midnight on top of the Astronomy Tower meant that I was definitely not at my best for the Care of Magical Creatures exam the following morning. At least I wasn’t too worried if I passed that one or not – I had no idea how I would have coped if, for example, Potions had been scheduled for that day.
Once I had completed my Ancient Runes examination on Friday morning, I felt rather more relaxed. The first week was out of the way and I hadn’t needed a single Calming Draught, unlike Gilbert Vaisey from Slytherin who had apparently had something of a nervous breakdown halfway through his Herbology practical after he botched his identification of a couple of self-fertilising shrubs. Heading outside with Martha after the exam, we found Lily, Charlotte and Mary plonked on the lawns not far from the Whomping Willow, enjoying the June sunshine.
“Well, one week down, one to go,” Martha grinned as she flung her bag onto the grass and then sat down herself. “And you know, I haven’t wanted to hex a single examiner yet.”
“Dinna coun’ yer Diricawls,” Mary warned with a smile. “We havna ha’ Potions or Transfiguration ye’, ye micht wan’ t’ hex someone i’ tha’.”
Charlotte groaned. “You had to remind me, didn’t you Mary?” she asked. “And here I was just thinking how nice it was to have a few days off.”
“What do you still have, Charlotte?” I asked. Her timetable was a bit different from mine so I wasn’t sure just what the schedule was.”
She counted off on her fingers. “Well, Potions, obviously, then History of Magic, then Defence, then Transfiguration, like you lot all have. But I’ve also got Divination after Transfiguration, which is a bit like the calm after the storm.”
“That’s not so bad,” Lily acknowledged. “I’ve run the gamut of my electives now, all I’ve got is Potions, History, Defence and Transfiguration. Nice of them to keep the easy ones till last, wasn’t it?”
“Well,” said Mary, “I sugges’ we tak’ this afternoon off entirely an’ then ge’ stuck int’ revision on th’ weekend an’ all. I thin’ we deserve some time t’ ourselves.”
Martha beamed at her. “Never were truer words spoken,” she said. “Right, then. Who wants to go for a swim in the lake after lunch?” She looked around at us, a mischievous smile on her face. “Last one in has to snog the giant squid!!”
That weekend we could be found sitting around our favourite table by the window in the Gryffindor common room, trying to fill our minds with as much information about Potions as would fit. Needless to say, most of us could think of a more enjoyable way to be spending our time, regardless of how productive it would (or wouldn’t) be.
“This sucks,” Martha said grumpily, looking wistfully out the window where a full moon was illuminating the grounds of the castle. “It’s Saturday night, we should be having a night off having fun, not stuck in here up to our ears in revision!”
“Well, go for it,” Charlotte said evenly, not taking her eyes from the textbook in front of her. “Though don’t blame us when you fail your Potions exam on Monday.”
Martha scowled at her. “And who would I be out having fun with when you lot are all back here?”
Mary grinned. “Oh, I’m sure ye ca’ fin’ someone,” she said. “There mus’ be a’ leas’ three or four lads who ye havna gone oot wi’ ye’.”
Lily smiled too. “Actually, I think there are three just in Gryffindor she hasn’t gone out with yet,” she pointed out. “Maybe they’ll be up for a night out.”
Martha shook her head. “I think I’d rather stay here, if that’s the only other option,” she decided. “I spent a good three months on the outskirts of their company which was quite enough, thank you.”
“Good,” said Lily, closing her textbook and putting it on the table in front of her. “Then maybe you can test me on the uses of moonstone in potion making.”
Our study was interrupted by a couple of the boys in question, Sirius and Peter, who almost tripped over Charlotte’s chair as they hurried through the common room. “Hurry up, Prongs,” Sirius shouted over his shoulder. “You’re going to miss all the fun!”
“Give me a minute, Padfoot,” came James’ voice from somewhere up the boys’ staircase. “I can’t get the Cloak out. And you can’t deny we need that.”
“Well make it snappy,” said Sirius, who was now standing by the portrait hole looking impatient. “He’ll already be there, we’re late!” And he stood there tapping his foot, his arms folded, Peter standing with him looking a little nervous, until James appeared on the stairs. “About bloody time,” Sirius went on irritably.
“Yeah, yeah,” said James, his head turning abruptly as he realised Lily was nearby. “I’m coming.” And when he reached the portrait hole all three of them climbed through and disappeared somewhere into the castle.
Martha looked at us. “What was that all about?” she asked. “Late for what?”
I shrugged. “Beats me. And I didn’t see any evidence of whatever it is James was looking for.”
“Well, they won’t be out too long,” Charlotte said reasonably. “It’s well after curfew, they’re bound to get caught.” She paused. “Maybe that’s why Remus wasn’t with them, he didn’t want to be part of whatever it is they’re doing.”
Mary shook her head. “Nae, he wen’ hame fer th’ weekend,” she told us. “Summit t’ dae wi’ tha’ rabbit o’ his. I hear’ James an’ Sirius gabbin’ aboot it afore th’ Muggle Studies exam.” Remus apparently had a pet rabbit that for whatever reason couldn’t be controlled by his parents, and three or four times a year or so he had to go home to deal with it. We had all found it a little odd to begin with but after five years no one even commented on it any more. The rabbit did however have a rather nasty reputation and an apparently fierce temper, and James, Sirius and Peter even referred to it as Remus’ ‘furry little problem’ as though, like Voldemort, using its proper name would unleash its wrath upon us all.
Lily shook her head. “Bad timing, right in the middle of OWLs like that,” she said. “He won’t be too impressed having his revision interrupted.”
Charlotte grinned. “Though at least he’s missing out on whatever they’ve got planned for tonight. Maybe they did that deliberately, waiting till he was away so he wouldn’t try to stop them.”
Martha giggled. “I dread to think what they’re up to,” she said. “Though I suppose we’ll know all about it soon enough.”
I nodded. “Yeah, us and the rest of the school. Let’s face it, they’re not exactly subtle with their pranks, are they?”
“Or mature,” Mary agreed.
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Lily. “And speaking of maturity – or lack of it – what are those nicknames?” Her voice was heavy with exaggerated exasperation and I had the impression she’d been dying to bring this up for weeks.
Charlotte nodded. “And which one belongs to who?”
“James is Prongs,” Lily said promptly, then she paused. “I think.”
Martha laughed, her blue eyes twinkling. “Well, I think we can guess where that one came from.”
“Mind out of the gutter, if you please,” Lily said sternly, though she was smiling.
“Is it that high?” asked Charlotte with a giggle. “I thought it was in the sewer.”
“Oh, come on,” said Martha. “Think of who we’re talking about. What in the name of Merlin makes you think that their thought processes are any cleaner than mine?”
Mary laughed. “While ye hae a poin’, Martha,” she said, “think aboot it. Prongs.” She emphasised the ‘s’ sound. “Exac’ly hoo many dae ye think he has?”
“Doesn’t say much for Peter, though, does it?” I giggled. “They’re calling him Wormtail, right?”
“Can’t say I’m surprised, though,” said Martha through the general laughter. “He doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in his masculinity, does he?” She waved her little finger in the air mischievously and Lily laughed so hard she almost fell off her chair.
“Wha’ are th’ ither two?” asked Mary. “Moody, is tha’ richt?”
“Moony,” corrected Charlotte, colouring a little. “That’s Remus. And something foot is Sirius.”
“Padfoot,” said Lily, who had recovered herself somewhat, though her cheeks were still rather pink. “I’ve got no idea where that comes from. I wouldn’t necessarily call him light on his feet.”
Martha shook her head. “Nup, even I can’t come up with a dirty or perverted interpretation of that. Though you’d think Moony would be a better name for Sirius than for Remus, with the whole being-named-after-a-star thing.”
“Nae, he’d rather be a star than a moon,” Mary pointed out with a grin. “Defini’ly thinks he’s star material, tha’ one.”
Lily laughed. “I can’t argue with that, Mary,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “Ego somewhere out there in the stratosphere, its borders last seen a few hundred light years from Alpha Centauri.”
“Or Canis Majoris,” added Charlotte. “Remember, he is an ‘object of wonder and veneration’.” She grinned while the rest of us groaned at the reference to our Astronomy class.
“Has anyone told Elvira that?” asked Martha. “If you think our class was bad when Dobbs brought that up, imagine what the Ravenclaw one would’ve been like.”
I shook my head. “I dread to think. Though perhaps theirs would have been a little quieter. I’m surprised we didn’t wake up everyone in Ravenclaw Tower, they were that noisy.”
Mary smiled. “Maybe we di’,” she said. “I can jus’ imagine Elvira sittin’ by th’ window, tryin’ t’ listen i’ on wha’ goes on i’ our classes an’ all.”
Lily laughed along with the rest of us but soon recovered herself. “While I don’t want to stop you having your fun, ladies,” she said with a mock stern look on her face, “we do have our Potions exam in just over a day and I think it would probably be a good idea if we spent some of that time studying.” And she opened her copy of Magical Draughts and Potions and made a show of continuing her revision.
“You’re right, Lils, as always.” Martha sounded a little disappointed, but she too opened her textbook and started reading, and soon we all followed her example, trying to make sure we were on top of everything we needed to remember.
We all got through the Potions exam fine, Lily probably the best of all, and were soon buckled down studying for our final three exams – History of Magic, Defence Against the Dark Arts, and Transfiguration. The first one was the only of the final three that consisted of just a written exam, while the others had both theory and practical components, so we were busy making sure our spellwork was up to scratch as well as understanding why things worked the way they did.
History of Magic, as I have already stated the world’s most boring class, was also the most boring exam, as all our revision seemed to feature the droning voice of Professor Binns running through our minds, meaning it was all we could do to keep ourselves awake as we read through our notes. Fortunately it was over by midday so we could spend the afternoon getting ready for Defence the next day. The weather was warm and we made the most of the sunshine by taking our books outside and sitting on the lawn by the lake as we practiced spells and tested each other on various dark creatures and counter-curses.
Just after breakfast the next morning, before our Defence Against the Dark Arts theory paper, all the fifth-years were herded into a couple of empty classrooms on the ground floor while the Great Hall was cleared and set up for the exam. Like most of the others in there, I had decided to use that time to get a bit of last minute revision in, but kept having my train of thought interrupted by Sirius whining about how hard his life was and how tough it was being a Black who wasn’t into blood purity. Again.
I looked up at Mary and rolled my eyes, and she groaned and nodded. In the background you could hear Sirius’ voice rambling on. “And just because of that, she wouldn’t talk to me, said my people had caused enough trouble and if I just went back to my ‘mansion’ and never came out again I’d be doing everyone a favour.” We’d all heard this story a million times before and it was getting old.
“Oh, give it a rest,” I said quietly, not meaning for him to hear me. Unfortunately, he was taking a breath at the time and my voice carried in the quiet room.
The front legs of his chair hit the floor with a crash as he spun his head around to look at me, shocked. “What?”
“I said, give it a rest,” I repeated more loudly, steeling myself as I turned and looked him in the eye. I’d gotten into this by accident, but I decided to hold firm. “It’s old, it’s tired, and it’s not even true anymore. So how about you just get over yourself, Black.” I emphasised the name to make my point.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Sirius snarled, instinctively reaching for his wand and walking towards me. I stood up to face him. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he went on. “You don’t know what it’s like, coming here and everyone thinking they know all about you just because of your name. And you having to fight every step of the way to prove them wrong! Don’t try to pretend you know what that feels like! So shut up about what you don’t understand!” He was losing his temper and stood over me, using his height to gain full intimidatory advantage, his wand pointing at me threateningly.
Everyone was watching us now, wondering how it would end up and, most probably, what I would look like once he had finished with me. Although a little uneasy (okay, I admit it, I was in fact trembling a little – as I’d noticed earlier in the term he could be rather frightening) I wasn’t actually all that worried: even if this did make me an enemy of Sirius Black, thanks to Bea I knew enough hexes and the like to be able to give as good as I got, and now I had every intention of following through. And, frankly, he’d just handed me my counter-argument on a platter, though I doubted he realised it.
“Actually,” I said coldly, hopefully doing a rather good job at pretending I wasn’t intimidated and trying to remain expressionless as I looked from his wand to his face, “I know exactly what that feels like. I had exactly the same thing coming here, having to fight against what people thought I’d be like because of my family. Their expectations of me might have been a bit different from their expectations of you, but that doesn’t make my experiences any less valid. And in any case, you’ve succeeded. I doubt you could name three people at this school who still care that you’re a Black.”
As if on cue, as if she had come by deliberately at that exact moment just to illustrate my point, Beatrice and her friend Cynthia walked past the open doorway. Sirius looked at her, then at me, and after a few seconds lowered his wand. He looked chastened.
“Okay,” he said quietly. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” In the background I could see Remus smiling at me, while James and Peter just looked gobsmacked.
I smiled wanly. “Apology accepted. Now can I get back to my revision please?”
He nodded mutely, went back to his table and sat down again, his back to the rest of the class.
Sitting back down, I picked up a spare bit of parchment and wrote a short note to Mary. I think I’ve just committed social suicide.
Mary read the note and nodded sympathetically. Worth it, though, she wrote back. It’s a fair effort putting him in his place like that. I smiled grimly and picked up my textbook again, trying to find where I’d been before the interruption.
“Fifth-years,” came McGonagall’s voice suddenly, cutting across the quiet room. “Kindly make your way to the Great Hall, please.”
We packed our things away, got up and moved towards the door. Having just humbled the class hero, I wasn’t really expecting anyone other than Mary to talk to me as we made our way out of the spare classroom and headed to the Great Hall for the exam. I was therefore a little surprised when Lily, Martha and Charlotte pushed through the crowd to find us.
“Bravo, Laura,” said Lily, grinning. “That was fantastic!”
“You think?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” agreed Charlotte. “You’re pretty much the only person in our year who could have set him straight like that. And that was worth bottling, the look on his face when he realised you were right!”
“Yeah, I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of that again,” Martha said dryly. “He won’t let it happen, he can’t be brought down like that in front of the whole year. His ego won’t allow it.”
Lily gave her a friendly punch on the arm. “And this from the girl who six months ago was going out with him,” she grinned.
Martha laughed. “Yep, that’s right. If you recall, I was under no illusions about him then and I’m under even less now.”
“Seriously, though, Laura,” Lily went on, “we’re really proud of you, standing up for yourself like that.” And with a smile and a wink, she turned around and sailed through the now open door into the Great Hall, where Professor Flitwick was waiting for us.
Author’s note: I really enjoyed writing this chapter, though parts of it took shape at different times. The conversation about nicknames was written fairly early on and the argument with Sirius not long afterwards, but the OWLs revision with Martha grumbling about dodgy potions was quite recent. Fortunately it all came together quite nicely and I think it flows reasonably well. :)
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