The Sugar Quill
Author: Suburban House Elf (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Harry Potter and the Brotherhood of the Besotted  Chapter: Chapter 2: It's Just Like a Cooking Class, Really
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Chapter 2: It’s Just Like a Cooking Class, Really

 Chapter 2:  It’s Just Like a Cooking Class, Really

If anybody had asked him, Ron Weasley thought as he hurtled down the staircase from Gryffindor’s tower, the positively last thing he would have wanted was to be late for Potions class today.  Not that he ever looked forward to getting there, especially now that he seemed to have a double dose of Professor Snape every day.  Just this morning, the good Professor had spent an hour cursing him, literally, in his Defence Against the Dark Arts Class.  However, this afternoon’s Potions class marked the official beginning of his O.W.L.s and Ron knew that from now on Hogwarts was going to be an entirely more serious place.  He remembered his mum’s fury at Fred and George’s dismal exam results.  He didn’t ever want to be on the receiving end of that.

So, Ron hadn’t been overly impressed when the handle of his pestle had crumbled yesterday afternoon.  Like everything else he owned, his mortar and pestle had been handed down to him from an older Weasley.  He wasn’t even sure whose it had been, perhaps Charlie’s.  It had certainly seen a lot of action, the mortar contained innumerable cracks, which trapped any finely ground ingredients, and now the pestle was useless too. “Why is everything I own rubbish?” Ron had sighed, holding the broken pieces in his hands after Thursday’s class.

“You’ll need to fix it by tomorrow,” Hermione had instructed. “A simple binding charm should do the trick, but you’d better mend it right away, because those charms take twenty hours to set thoroughly.”

Of course Ron had intended to do just that.  But Gryffindor team had scheduled their Quidditch practice for Thursday afternoon, and Ron had gone to watch Harry for a while.  Then had come dinner.  Next, Ron’s little sister, Ginny, had challenged him to a game of wizard chess in the common room.  She’s getting pretty good, Ron had conceded to himself, as her king escaped check for the seventh time.  Eventually, late on Thursday night, a prefect had told them it was time for bed.  So that was how, at eleven o’clock on the night before his Potions Practical Assessment Task, Ron reached into his pocket and found his broken pestle.

“Bugger!” he had exclaimed to a snoring Neville Longbottom, as he fumbled around in the dark for his Charms textbook and had tried to quickly mutter what he hoped was the correct incantation.  “Bugger,” he had repeated to Harry Potter after lunch the next day, as they examined the strange, jelly-like handle that was slowly forming on the pestle.  “Bugger, bugger, BUGGER!” he panted under his breath, as he ran desperately, his oversize feet pounding the flag stones like thunder claps, from his dormitory to the dungeons on Friday afternoon.  A still spongy but, he hoped, functional pestle bounced in the pocket of his robes.

Ron suspected, quite rightly, that his flailing legs and arms made him look like a stampeding giraffe.  But luckily, what his running lacked in grace was more than made up for in speed.  He arrived at the classroom with five minutes to spare.  The door to the dungeons was closed, and the Gryffindors formed a huddle closest to the doorway.  A knot of Slytherins skulked further down the corridor and, to Ron’s surprise, the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws were there as well.  He took a little while to recover from his run, his breaths coming out quickly in icy clouds, then asked Hermione Granger, “What’s all this crowd doing here?”

“Have you forgotten today is our Practical Assessment Task?” she replied. “Obviously, we all need to take any tasks for the O.W.L.s as one group.”

Forgotten? thought Ron, She’s bloody mental.  How could I forget, when she’s only been drawing up our study timetables and setting revision exercises since September?  Hermione appeared to have made it her mission that year to ensure that all the fifth year Gryffindors, and Harry and Ron in particular, passed every single one of their exams.  She had been universally mocked for her zeal in the autumn, but as winter deepened her housemates became increasingly grateful for the study groups she conducted in the common room.  They had also appreciated the draughts of Percepto-Brite she brewed for them, to clear their heads whenever their homework tasks proved too difficult.  Now they gathered around her, waiting expectantly for some final words of wisdom before the dungeon door opened.

“What we all have to keep firmly in mind,” Hermione lectured, her bushy hair blowing over her face as a frosty draught swept down the hall, “is that it’s just like a cooking class really.”

“Oh good, I’m starved,” quipped Seamus.  Hermione glanced at him scornfully and continued.  “A practical assessment task should be just that, practical.  They don’t want to know what you know about a potion, its history, its effect, dosage or side-affects.  All they want to know is that you can follow a recipe.”

“I wonder if they’ll give us a Polyjuice Potion to do?” Parvati asked nervously.

“Well, Polyjuice takes a very long time to brew,” Hermione started, then stopped to reflect.  The only Polyjuice she had made was concocted illegally in a disused bathroom, she didn’t think it was wise to let Parvati know just how much she knew on that topic. “It’s more likely they’ll give us something with a shorter brewing time, but which takes full effect over a number of days.  That would account for our Hogsmeade privileges being withdrawn this weekend.  Skele-Gro’s a possibility, but they covered that the year before last.  And Sleeping Draught was last year.  In any case, it simply doesn’t matter.  They don’t tell you what the potion is in advance because they don’t want you fudging the results with a jinx or a charm, but in the end one potion is just as good as another.  We need to stick to the recipe, check our ingredients, measure carefully, follow the method to the letter and it will all be as easy as pie.”

Hermione had become so engrossed in her discourse that she didn’t notice the dungeon door swing silently open.  The tall, black clad, sepulchral figure of Severus Snape stood close behind her.  “If Miss Granger has finished bestowing her misguided arrogance upon us, I think we may be able to start,” he drawled derisively.   From slightly down the corridor, the Slytherins snickered, then joined the line to file in.

Ron noticed Harry for the first time, and got in line behind him.  “You’ve been pretty quiet, mate,” Ron said.

“Well, it’s not as though it’s my favourite class, is it?” Harry replied.  In fact, the O.W.Ls in general, and the Potions assessment and exams in particular, had been filling him with dread.  These were the first standardised exams he had ever taken; the results would be published in the Daily Prophet and read throughout the wizarding world.  Harry wasn’t looking forward to the whole wizarding world finding out that their hero, the “Boy Who Lived,” didn’t know his wormwood from his wolfsbane.

“Still, at least you won’t be relying on this to get you by,” Ron said with a grin, as he pulled the rubbery pestle from his pocket.  He gave the handle a squeeze and it emitted a sound not unlike a tiny whoopee cushion.  Harry chuckled for the first time that afternoon as he passed through the dungeon door.

Once inside, the initial reaction of each student was one of disorientation.  The dungeon had been set up very differently to the norm, with several walls and pillars having been moved to accommodate the extra numbers.  Instead of  benches, where the students normally worked in groups, there were single desks and chairs.  The back of each chair glowed with a student name, and Harry was relieved to see that he would be sitting close to the back of the room, in a row with Padma and Parvati Patil.  He pitied poor Hermione, sitting closer to the front and rubbing shoulders with Gregory Goyle. Ron was out of Harry’s line of sight, in the very back row.  In a way, Harry counted this a blessing, because Ron had always been his chief source of distraction in Potions class.

On Harry’s desk stood a large scroll and a rack of ingredients.  He thought he recognized most of them, although he wasn’t sure what he would be doing with the dead lunar moth spread out at the front of the rack.  The scroll was tied with a black ribbon, but on the outer edge it read, “Do not open until instructed by the examiner.  An impedient curse will be imposed on any student who opens this scroll earlier than the appointed time.”  From his cauldron Harry took out his scales, measuring spoons, mortar and pestle and placed them on the desk before sitting down.

Professor Snape stood on a small dais at the front of the dungeon, surveying his apprehensive charges.  Harry couldn’t put his finger on it, but he thought the Potions Master looked a little different.  Harry examined Snape’s features, his hooked nose, sallow complexion and hawk-like dark eyes, but nothing had changed. Maybe he’d trimmed his hair.  Outwardly, Snape seemed to be smugly disregarding the mounting level of fear among the students as the commencement time drew near.  Inwardly, his terror was greater even than Neville Longbottom’s, who had dropped the entire contents of his cauldron and was now crawling under Draco Malfoy’s desk looking for a quarter-ounce measuring spoon.  A grandfather clock at the front of the room chimed and Snape intoned, in a bored voice,  “You have ten minutes reading time, commencing now.”

Hermione enthusiastically ripped the ribbon from her scroll and began to mentally check off the ingredients required.  Within seconds, her hand whipped up into the air.  Snape snarled at her. “Miss Granger, while I do not doubt that we will soon be missing your petty and pointless interruptions, might I remind you that this class is to be conducted under examination conditions.  I am not here to answer your annoying interrogatories.”

“It’s just that, sir,” sputtered Hermione, “I don’t seem to have all the ingredients.  Neither does Goyle and neither does Seamus.  We’re missing the twenty-third ingredient on the list, sir, which I think you will find is a Particle of an Objective d’Couer.”  Hermione was grateful that her French was good enough to properly pronounce the ingredient’s name, although in truth she had no idea what it was.

“It is customary in an examination, Miss Granger, to confine your eyes to work on your own desk, not those around you,” replied Snape.  At this, Draco Malfoy laughed quietly.  After a pause to allow all his Slytherin charges to enjoy Hermione’s discomfort, the Potions Master continued. “The ingredient you mention needs to be rationed carefully.  I am carrying it on my person, a fact that I fully intended to explain at the close of reading time.  When you reach the point, which you believe calls for the ingredient to be added, you may each raise your hand.   I will come to you and provide you with an adequate supply of Particle of Objective d’Couer to complete the potion.”  Baring his crooked teeth in a mirthless smile, Professor Snape added sarcastically, “Your classmates will have an opportunity to thank you for wasting their valuable reading time in listening to this unnecessary query after the assessment task, which commences now.”  With these words, the grandfather clock struck again.

Soon the main sounds in the room were the rustling of parchment and the tinkle of weights on scales.  Harry’s O.W.L.s had finally started.  He tried to keep his mind firmly on the developing brew in front of him, ignoring to the best of his ability the muffled blurting coming from Ron’s mortar and pestle grinding away in the back row.  However, his concentration was shaken when Padma’s potion exploded in a cloud of ash half an hour into the exam.  Harry hurriedly waved his wand to diminish the flames under his own cauldron, hoping that this would be enough to prevent it erupting.  He then set about dissecting his lunar moth, and wondered which tiny squirmy bit inside it might be its liver.

Two hours into the exam, Hermione’s potion turned a very pleasing shade of vermillion.  Her hand once again shot up into the air.  Harry’s potion was boiling very slowly since he had turned down his fire, and with nothing else to do but wait for it to boil, he craned his neck in curiosity to catch a glimpse of the mystery ingredient that Snape was now bringing to his friend.  Upon reaching Hermione’s desk, Snape reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded handkerchief.  He handed something black and tiny to Hermione, who placed it in her potion.  Harry felt a little nauseated as he contemplated the possibility that he would soon be drinking a potion containing Professor Snape’s bogeys.  Steam suddenly surged out of Hermione’s cauldron, then it surged back in just as suddenly.  Snape took a crystal from his other pocket, waved it over the potion to measure the concentration of the brew, and recorded this detail on a form provided by the Magical Educational Standards Board. “You may cease working Miss Granger,” he calmly stated.  “Remain seated until I dismiss you.”

It was now Hermione’s turn to sit and wait.  She wondered why the final ingredient, a single lock of greasy black hair, could have caused such an extreme reaction to her potion.  After Snape’s earlier admonition, she hesitated to look around the room too much.  Yet she couldn’t help noticing when Snape brought the final ingredient to Goyle. The hair Goyle received, which was wiry and iron grey, did not come from a folded handkerchief, but from an envelope with a Hogwarts crest on the front.  She began to panic, thinking that maybe Professor Snape had sabotaged her potion.  Her panic subsided when Lavender Brown and Millicent Bulstrode, in the row in front of her, also received black locks of hair from the handkerchief.

Harry was on the verge of panic too.  His fire was too cold, and his potion very watery.  He waited and waited, willing it to gain sufficient heat to change colour.  One by one his classmates obtained their final ingredients from Snape, and even Neville seemed to have finished the task.  Less than two minutes remained in the allotted time.  Padma Patil, who had started all over again after the explosion, raised her hand with a minute left on the clock.  Harry drummed his fingers on his desk in desperation, then nearly jumped out of his seat as, with thirty seconds to go, his diluted potion changed to an insipid orange.  Snape obliged him with a curly dark hair from the envelope in his pocket, but snorted disdainfully when he recorded the mark for Harry’s brew.  The grandfather clock chimed and Professor Snape announced, “Your time is up, cease work please.”

Snape walked slowly from Harry’s desk to the dais at the front of the room.  He read from the form in his hand, “Students are to consume the entire quantity of potion at the examiner’s command.  The Magical Educational Standards Board advises that the immediate effect of consuming the potion will be extreme drowsiness, but that this should subside after fourteen hours. The potion is effective for a period of up to forty-eight hours.  The Board recommends assessment of the potion’s effect by spiritual and metabolic examination no earlier than forty and no later than forty five hours after the potion is consumed.”  The professor then lowered the parchment and continued. “The school has asked me to make the following additional announcements.  Upon consuming the potion, all students are to proceed to their house common rooms where a light supper will be served.  As previously announced, no fifth year student is to leave the school grounds this weekend.  Students are to report to the hospital wing for a medical examination and aura reading on Sunday afternoon, in accordance with the timetables to be posted in their common rooms.”

Snape hesitated and for a moment Harry thought he saw fear flicker in the Potions Master’s eyes.  Clearing his throat, the Professor continued. “I also would like to offer the following warning of my own.  The potion you are about to drink will have significant impact on your ability to reason and on your moral judgment. The school dispensary has obtained stocks of antidote that it will provide to those of you who choose not to proceed with the assessment task at any time during the next two days.  Students who consume antidote prior to the completion of the assessment will have their marks reduced accordingly.” Here he stopped, as though he had just remembered something highly unpleasant, and then continued gravely, “I urge you to consider taking the antidote, should your participation in the task result in any behaviour which is unbecoming for a student of this school.  Now, as my initial readings indicate that none of you have managed to manufacture a deadly poison here today, you may drink your potions.”

The students sipped in silence.  Ron was pleasantly surprised to discover that his brew tasted like watermelon, but Harry found that his was quite bitter.  On Snape’s order, everybody collected up their possessions in silence and walked back to their common rooms.

“You know, that didn’t taste half bad,” Ron said.

Harry merely grimaced, but Hermione snapped back, “Not half bad?  How can you say that when you have no idea what that stuff was?”

“Yes, well, I just assumed you were going to tell us.  Surely it’s something you’ve read about in a book somewhere?”  Ron asked nonchalantly.

Hermione shook her head and looked very concerned. “No, never.  I don’t think a potion like that has ever been brewed at this school.  And why was Snape so keen to make us take an antidote, does he really want us all to fail?  I must get to the library first thing tomorrow and find out what all this means.”  She yawned as they reached the top of the Gryffindor staircase, and sleepily said “Barley Water” to the portrait of the Fat Lady.  Climbing through the portrait hole, she bid goodnight to her friends and, skipping supper, went straight to the girls’ dormitory to sleep.

Sitting at the front desk in the deserted dungeon, Severus Snape re-checked the marks he had recorded.  To his dismay, every one of his pupils had successfully brewed the potion, even Potter and Longbottom.  Hermione Granger’s potion had been stronger than any of the sample brews previously recorded by the Board.  The situation couldn’t possibly be worse.

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