Whenever Professor Snape walked into his classroom, the students immediately fell silent, from the most jaded seventh year down to the most timid first year. Snape expected it, even demanded it, and the students knew it. Those who failed to comply were likely to find themselves scrubbing the dungeon floors armed with nothing but a toothbrush and a bit of soap. Today was no different. Snape paused a minute in the doorway, relishing the tension and fear emanating in waves from the students. Deliberately, he strode to the front, where he stood before the demonstration table and swept the entire room with an appraising eye. Just before the students snapped under the strain, he uttered a single phrase.
Collectively, the entire seventh year Potions class exhaled, as if they had each been holding their breath in anticipation. They remained silent, however, save for one indeterminate squeak originating near the back of the room, likely attributable to Lavender Brown.
"Your entire mid-term examination grade will be dependent upon your success, or failure, at brewing a single potion. Topics will be assigned by lottery. Each topic is designated a specific examination appointment. Students who are tardy in keeping their appointments will earn a zero." Without further comment, Professor Snape lifted a cauldron from his desk and approached Lavender, who withdrew a slip of paper with a trembling hand. Upon glancing at it, she paled, then folded the slip and tucked it into her rucksack. One by one each student followed suit, until Professor Snape reached Harry Potter.
Harry closed his eyes and crossed his fingers, then reached inside the cauldron. The slip of paper almost tingled in his hand, as if it were sentient enough to know that Harry's future as an Auror depended upon passing this exam. When Harry opened his eyes again, he glanced up to see Professor Snape smirking slightly as he moved on to the next student.
Git, Harry thought. In the six-and-a-half years Harry had been at Hogwarts, Snape had never treated him with anything less than contempt, even though Harry's Potions work had improved significantly during the past two years. At the beginning of his sixth year, he had been ecstatic to learn that he'd achieved an O on his Potions O.W.L. Snape had been forced to accept him into his N.E.W.T. level Potions class, which meant nothing stood to prevent Harry from pursuing his goal of qualifying for the Auror program upon leaving Hogwarts. So far, Harry's marks had been just good enough to keep Snape from drumming him out of the class. That could change, however, depending upon the outcome of this exam.
Harry took a deep breath and unfolded the slip of paper he had withdrawn from the cauldron. Then he felt his heart plummet into the pit of his stomach as he read the words inscribed there in Snape's precise handwriting:
Imitor Ardoris - Wednesday, seven o'clock p.m.
There had to be some mistake. Imitor Ardoris was a love potion. Professor Snape had lectured at length upon the dangers of love potions. They were complicated to brew, the effects were unpredictable, and the potions remained stable for only a short amount of time. On top of that, Snape had voiced his opinion countless times that love potions were frivolous and a complete waste of time. On this point, Harry strongly agreed.
Next to him, Hermione was nearly thrumming with excitement. She leaned over to him and whispered, "Oh, I can't wait. This is going to be a snap. What did you get, Harry?"
As Harry started to answer, Snape's icy voice cut through the chatter that had begun increasing throughout the room. "Silence! There are several additional stipulations you are required to follow in order to achieve a passing grade on your exams. First, you will not reveal to any other person your assigned topic, nor will you solicit help from your peers in any form. Should you attempt to subvert this rule, you will find that the slip of paper you have drawn has been charmed to prevent you from discussing your subject with anyone but me until your examination is completed.
"Secondly," he continued, "you will conduct your exam at the appointed time in solitude. You will be required to bring your own supplies, so be certain you have gathered everything you need beforehand. The storeroom will be securely locked during your examinations."
I wonder if I could switch with Lavender or Parvati? Harry thought.
Lavender and Parvati were taking N.E.W.T level Potions because they planned to open a beauty salon and spa in Diagon Alley after leaving Hogwarts. "Don't look down your nose at us, Harry Potter," Lavender had said when they'd announced their intentions after the career fair. "People have to play to their skills, and this is what Parvati and I are good at. Besides, in these times, we believe it's our duty to create a little sacred space where witches and wizards can come to relax their bodies and restore their spirit. Look us up this summer. You probably need our services more than anyone," she said, though not unkindly.
"Thanks. I'll do that," Harry had promised.
I bet either of them would jump at the chance to brew a love potion for a grade, Harry thought. He was certain they'd already had loads of experience.
Professor Snape gave him a start when he announced, "Just in case any of you are wondering, you may not swap assignments. Again, the charms prevent you from doing so. Now, as the examinations will commence this evening after classes, you may have the rest of the class to prepare. Report to the library and remain there until the bell rings."
Harry waited until the other students had exited the dungeons before he approached Snape, who had taken a seat at his desk and appeared to be marking essays.
"What do you want, Potter?" the professor asked without bothering to look up from his work.
"I, um, I drew the Imitor Ardoris potion," Harry mumbled.
"And your point?" Snape asked, looking up from the essays to sneer at Harry in his usual fashion.
"I, um, I was just wondering why. Aren't love potions dangerous? And pretty much useless?"
"All potions have the potential to be dangerous, Mr. Potter. One misstep and even the most innocuous headache remedy can become a highly lethal poison. As far as usefulness goes, the Imitor Ardoris has its applications. For instance, let us suppose you manage to overcome your intellectual limitations, cheat death, and make it all the way through the rigorous Auror training curriculum. You're having dinner one evening with a lovely young woman whose only flaw is that she is a suspected Death Eater. What do you do?"
"Immobilize her and take her back to headquarters to be interrogated," Harry replied automatically.
Snape shook his head in disgust. "Potter, have you absolutely no imagination? No sense of finesse? Subjects under the influence of Veritaserum are only forced to reveal precisely what the interrogator asks for, no more no less. For instance, if you ask a subject 'where are the Death Eater headquarters,' he doesn't have to get any more specific than 'London,' or even 'England' or even "Europe.' Interrogations are difficult to conduct when you are forced to constantly refine your questions in order to arrive at the information you desire."
"How is Imitor Ardoris any different?"
"The subject temporarily sees the administrator of the potion as an individual for whom they have great affection and for whom they would do anything. The effect imitates that of an intoxicant, but is much more subtle."
"Oh." This was new information to Harry. "Then why.... "
"Potter, the last thing I need is a gaggle of silly school girls running about the castle brewing love potions; consequently, I do not conduct a practical lesson on the subject. However, there are few potions which test the skills of the brewer as well as a love potion. They are notoriously difficult to brew successfully; all of the midterm assignments are. Now, if you are done sniveling about your topic, get out of my sight. I have more important things to do than listen to you whinge about your assignment."
Resigned, Harry followed the rest of the class to the library. Hermione had saved him a seat next to hers at one of the tables near the back.
"What took you so long, Harry?" she asked.
"I stopped to speak to Professor Snape on the way out," Harry replied. He dropped his rucksack on the table with a resounding thud, earning him a "Shush!" accompanied by a nasty look from Madame Pince.
"Something about the assignment?" Hermione pressed.
"Yeah. I, um, I asked if I could swap appointments. Mine is tomorrow evening, and we're supposed to have Quidditch practise then." Harry knew Hermione would frown upon his having attempted to switch assignments. Besides, he really did have Quidditch practise scheduled for tomorrow, he remembered. "He said no, of course. I'll have to get Ron to cover for me."
"Cover for you? Whatever for?" a new voice inquired.
Harry turned to find Ginny standing behind him, her arms loaded with a stack of books almost as tall as she was. He immediately grabbed as many as he could and carried them to the other side of the table, then pulled up a chair for Ginny next to his.
"Thanks, Harry," Ginny said, flashing him a warm smile as she sat.
"You're welcome," he replied, pleased she had joined them. "What brings you here, anyway? We never see you anymore."
Ginny made a sound of amused exasperation. "Don't be silly, Harry. You see me every day at breakfast," she reminded him.
"That doesn't count. You can't carry on a decent conversation when you're chewing."
"Well what about Quidditch? Oh, wait, you're too busy barking out orders to be social then," she ribbed. "You know, if you and Ron weren't consistently late to meals, we might have more time to talk. Besides, you're so busy with N.E.W.T.’s and...other things, I haven't wanted to bother you."
Noticing that Hermione had been watching the exchange with acute interest, Harry looked down and began rifling through one of the books she had plunked onto the table. "Exercises in Enchantment; Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered; and Indelible Incantations. What are you up to?"
Ginny lightly swatted Harry's arm. "I finished my Charms work early today, so Professor Flitwick gave me a library pass. I wanted to get started on my term-parchment. What about you two?"
"Potions mid-term examinations," Harry and Hermione said in unison.
A look of understanding crossed Ginny's face immediately. "Oh," she said. "Good luck with that, then. Now, what were you saying about Ron covering for you, Harry?"
"My exam is scheduled for tomorrow evening," Harry explained. "I won't be able to make it to Quidditch practice. I was going to ask Ron to cover for me."
"Uh-oh..." Ginny said, sounding dismayed. "I ran into Ron on the way here. I don't think he'll be able to help you out, Harry."
"What is it?" Hermione broke in, sounding worried. "Has something happened to Ron?"
"He was on his way to the hospital wing. He looked positively green, so I walked with him to make sure he didn't pass out before he could get there."
"What happened?" Hermione asked. "He was fine when we left Care of Magical Creatures this morning."
"You're studying Streelers this week, aren't you?" Ginny asked.
"Yes," Hermione confirmed, nodding, "but we were wearing gloves."
"He must have come into contact with some venom somehow. He said he started feeling woozy during Divination. Trelawney thought he was finally getting in touch with his inner eye, but Madame Pomfrey said Ron had the classic signs of Streeler venom poisoning. She's given him an antidote and ordered him to remain in the infirmary until Thursday."
"Great," Harry said. "Guess I'll have to cancel practise, then. And we've got the Ravenclaw game coming up Saturday, too. Unless..." he trailed off and looked at Ginny.
"Unless what?" she asked warily.
"Ginny, could you manage practice for me tomorrow night? It's not like you'd have to do much. I can give you the playbook so you'll know which maneuvers to run. All you have to do is call the plays and just kind of keep everyone in line. It'll be great practice for when you're captain next year."
"Harry, really!" Ginny said, laughing. "You don't know that I'll make captain next year."
"Well who else would it be? Anyway, say you'll do it, please?" Harry knew he was beginning to sound desperate, but this close to a game he couldn't afford to have his team slacking off at practice.
"Oh, all right," Ginny relented. "I'll do it."
"Thanks, Gin. I knew I could count on you. " The bell rang and Harry glanced up. "I'm going to the infirmary to check on Ron. You want to keep me company?"
"I'll come with you, Harry," Hermione said. She began to gather her books together, but Ginny remained seated.
"Come on, Gin," Harry cajoled. "Classes are over for the day. Take a break."
Ginny shook her head. "Colin's supposed to meet me here; the research parchment for Flitwick is a group project. In fact," she paused and waving towards the door with a smile, "there he is now." Ginny stepped away from the table to greet her friend.
Harry looked over his shoulder to see Colin Creevey return Ginny's wave as he approached her.
Not such a pipsqueak anymore, but still annoying, Harry thought unkindly.
Colin now stood a couple of inches taller than Harry, though not quite as tall as Ron. He was a nice enough bloke, but Harry couldn't help but think that he was a bit too friendly...especially with Ginny. Harry only hoped that he wouldn't soon find her mooning about over the other boy's "honey blond hair" and "sparkly blue eyes" as most of the other Gryffindor girls seemed wont to do.
Nah, Ginny's much too sensible for that, Harry thought. Besides, the last bloke I remember her "mooning" over was....
"Harry, aren't you coming?" Hermione asked, interrupting his train of thought. "There are a few books I want to reserve first."
Harry nodded, then retrieved his rucksack and walked with Hermione to the desk where Madame Pince sat. Harry waited patiently while Hermione checked out a mountain of books that made Ginny's stack seem pitifully small in comparison. Fortunately, Hermione had charmed her rucksack so that it would hold them all and still be almost weightless. When they were finally ready to leave, Harry turned back to wave at Ginny, but she was engaged in conversation with Colin and didn't notice. Harry shrugged off his annoyance and followed Hermione out the door.