Chapter Three – Artificial Sweetener

"I'm only sure that I'm not sure...redo, undo, I'm stuck on this page." - "Artificial Sweetener", No Doubt

Harry immediately raced back to bed once he'd sufficiently waited for Malfoy to be safely away. Quickly returning to Gryffindor Tower without hinder, he sat lying underneath his bedsheets still wide-awake, his mind a puzzle of conflicting thoughts. Not only did Harry suffer wondering the totally bamboozling possibility that he'd been sexually attracted to his very worst enemy, either. For once at hand, the troublesome topic shortly afterward caused him to simmer right back to his, err, well "memorable" conversation with Ginny before leaving for King's Cross. The memory was a mouthful to swallow, to say the least, as his highly intense-proved encounter earlier today had definitely not been a highlight 'start-of-day' for him.

First off, Ginny had instantly gone in ready to throw punches. "Harry, I want you to know that it's no secret to any one of us here, least of all me, how you left me in the dark for a whole entire year! Blimey, you must've forgotten that your petrified-worried girlfriend, who you CLAIM to love, even existed! Then you just come stomping back all oblivious-acting, like I'm supposed to totally forget all the awful things you did!" And at this even angrier, she then pointed an uncontrollably shaky, accusing finger right at him, and then before he could blink one second longer she was already viciously adding, "Well, Harry James Potter, if you think you can just go ahead and treat me like that, well, well then you've bloody lost your mind, I'll tell you!" And just like that had the entire conversation continued; meaninglessly, really, for that matter, as Ginny all but disregarded Harry's every calm, apologetic response with her every latest malicious interruption, with more absolutely infuriated words.

In any case, the next morning when Harry entered his first Transfiguration lesson at nine-thirty sharp, he felt so unbelievably tired. It'd obviously been a heavily sleepless night all things considered, and it definitely didn't help that the Slytherins would be joining them today, for that definitely included Malfoy. Pressing on his mind as the matter was after all, it became so much so that he'd sat down but a moment and was already sweating profusely on his forehead. At this rate Harry hoped he wouldn't just die of embarrassment the moment his all-time foe stalked right in...

Strutting unmistakably through the threshold of Professor McGonagall's so far only half-filled classroom, forever-infamous Draco Malfoy looked extra-smug today. Alas...It was about ten 'till at this point. Harry, feeling his roughening knuckles tremble and harden, first turned away a little bit sharp, accidentally acting too quickly. Luckily, however, Ron and Hermione, even Malfoy for that matter, did not much notice, it seemed. Nevertheless, standing perfectly straight up, ego-drunken Malfoy vaunted his shoulders up and down a rather noticeable bit (probably on purpose; it was Malfoy after all), nose straight up in the air, and boasted his pompous way to a far-off seat with Pansy Parkinson. The mean Slytherin foe seemed, Harry rather thought, to intently evade his eye, almost as though desperate to show his own personal make-way would not at all be swayed by the bothersome memory of their untimely meeting the night before. But Harry himself actually suspected his rival's eternal ill-bidding tried much too hard to overcompensate itself today. And for a most splintered of seconds, this humorous notion actually made Harry grin meekly to himself.

Then suddenly came crying out a taunting scoff from straight behind him. Zoning not without calamitous purpose, it deafened in its arrival, right into the perfect range of Harry's earshot exactly. "All right there, Potter? Not so much the golden boy anymore, eh? The only thing to remark about you being ''chosen" now is how they've CHOSEN to send your arse right back to school with the rest of us, right slimy half-blood? Haha..." Malfoy seemed to seethe at Harry stronger than usual, much so as a matter of fact; yes...for sure the drawling acidity always inflected in his tone regardless was today unreal in its severity. And such came of course without coincidence (this none could doubt, obviously).

Pansy mindlessly burst into laughter, of course would have no matter what her beloved Draco had said. But before even Harry could himself react, Ron had already stormed right up from his seat, raising a furiously-summoned (and hence simply UNPREVENTABLE) fist so very fast curled into a tight knot, straight at Malfoy, threatening as ever. Harry, who too was to say the least flustered, got halfway up, and, not wanting his best mate to find himself in big trouble, he held out a warning hand at Ron. "Don't bother with them, Ron, he's not worth it. Sometimes a git will always be the same ruddy tired git. THAT Malfoy's been living proof of for a long time already...Has he not, Ron?" he assured loudly, smirking at the reward of an unhappy-looking Malfoy.

Hermione, meanwhile, looked up with grave concern, hopping nervously in her seat as she urgently told Ron, "Yes, Ronald, please just ignore him."

Ron stared Malfoy down, an invigorated stare of pure hatred which his slithery foe no doubt returned him. Then, still glaring, Ron spat out a large dose of some self-righteous poison from (evidently) deep buried within him. "Piss off, Malfoy. Go entertain your ruddy brainless girlfriend over there, I reckon why don't you," he seethed, pointing over at Pansy in the process.

Leaning his upper-body a stretch of an inch or two back, Malfoy - conveying perfectly an astounding perhaps relaxation with the scene before him, somehow - braggingly returned Ron's extreme surliness with but a bright smile that, seemingly innocent, was wide and pure of actual conceit. Ron felt his cheeks uncontrollably contort to a sharp pinch. (Not to mention, of course, that this uncannily ill-intended smile left the trio glaring STILL, but at just one of countless many other equally writhen gestures tied exclusively to the infamous sarcastic wit of none other but Draco Malfoy.) Indeed grinning menacingly forward, Malfoy, dead straight-shooter specifically for Weasley in this everlasting rivaled moment, then folded his arms delicately at his chest before, chin proudly raised, saying, "Ha. You entertain me Weasley, you and your pathetic attempts at intimidation tact, that is. Come now, Pansy; let's leave Weasley alone before he squeals from embarrassing himself too much." And huffing with boisterous laughter Malfoy arrogantly strode off in the opposite direction, Parkinson of course sycophantically mimicking his lead.

Shaking his head in unresolved anger, a rather reluctant Ron slowly fell back into his seat. His shoulders fell and descended in their tenseness only after a moment of long sigh in which Ron fought (half-unwillingly, no less) to bug off his own unavoidable frustration. Harry, though touched by his friend's loyalness, disliked its clear alteration on his best mate's mood. Smiling appreciatively at Ron, he gestured a dismissive wave of hand. "Don't fret, Ron. I reckon Malfoy'll for sure be brought down once he realizes how drastically unimportant his existence now is 'round these parts." And with a twinkling flash of Harry's vivid green eyes, an affectionate gesture saved just for his best mate, Ron seemed somewhat reassured.

Hermione nodded agreeably, placidly adding, "And plus he'll have nothing much to gloat about when everyone else shines the spotlight on all THREE of us for a change, eh, boys? That is how it'll surely pan out, after all, given our newfound, exalted celebrity, hmm. Heaven knows..." Finishing in a whisper, Hermione surveyed the boys' attending gazes and winked both their ways insinuatingly.

Right then Professor McGonagall came strolling half-rushed beyond the threshold, closing the classroom's door behind her with a firm shut. The chatter that had increasingly amounted across the room as they'd awaited their professor at once ceased without question. The vicinity had now become immediately soundless needless a hinter; the entire room all the sudden Professor McGonagall's ideal audience, they humbled to her mighty intimidating presence. Each one among the dozen pupils present knew too well the authority which McGonagall's custody commanded, now and permanently (as was made EXTRA-specific and extra-obvious since day one and all, notably). Thus, every one of their glances refocused undividedly on her, their most stern just-arrived professor. Turning 'front-and-center' in dead face of them, McGonagall furrowed two sleek eyebrows in careful spectacle of her newest unit of Senior-Advanced Transfiguration students; it was as if she meant to form a decided first impression, a preliminary evaluation so to speak on their overall rating. All her students jumped a second in their seat once notice of this became more obvious.

Nevertheless, intimidating or not, Professor McGonagall did finally speak. First clearing her throat cleanly before saying anything, with a 'matter-of-fact' grace melting in her tone, only then McGonagall at last proceeded to say (following yet another startled jump in each of her students' seats, by the way!), "Hmm...Very well, then. It's nice to see so many of the promising faces who I knew with certainty contained the potential to adequately reach this advance level of study, if, that is, they were so determined." And yet, by the time she was finished speaking, Professor McGonagall was sporting an actual genuine smile. She nodded approvingly and made the rest of her way to her desk, where she took a stack of neat-looking handouts (surely their syllabus, they could easily presume) in her hand.

The trio exchanged apprehensive glances at McGonagall's words, each equably unsure of what to expect next from their evidently well-energized professor today. She seemed to smile somewhat sensitively at them though, rather unusual as it was, and as if only to reassure their chalk-white, apprehended faces at that. Raising her voice appropriately to the full reach of the room, McGonagall, ever-stern, began saying, "Good, very good. Students, I will not withhold from you the truth at the heart of the matter regarding Senior-Advanced Transfiguration. It is NOT easy going forward - Not at all actually, my friends. It will take the absolute full engine of your deepest dedication to learning the art unbound the curse of outside interference or personal reservation. Avid study, endless practice, those are your precious vital keys to master if you are to succeed at this level. Your N.E.W.T.s exam will be far more difficult than your O.W.L.s one, believe me. Therefore, upon reaching this exact venture in time, I ask that you exercise your stirring minds for a moment and decide whether pursuing this disdain-filled academic ardor, sad as it is, is truly your heart's wish. Otherwise here, I freely offer you this single opportunity to part ways now without judgment or question."

McGonagall's firmly-laid, studious eye on them did not deter for a second the whole time that she spoke her emphatic words at peace. Unsurprisingly, thus, all her students looked instantaneously captivated in the ultimatum of her words; a few made exasperated bracing glances, some gasped unintentionally out, others jolted a half-centimeter (but in a beyond noticeable way so they felt, in their embarrassment) in their seats. It was pure amazement...But no one left, nor did even one among them make the inclined look or gesture to speak. Only silence, great, imperishable and all-unseeing, remained to last, elongating amidst an already pervaded atmosphere -

And without a trace ended with Professor McGonagall's due continuation, orderly directing their attentions, "Very well then, students. I want to begin our course today by first dividing you all into pairs. Whomsoever you are randomly grouped with will be your assigned study partner for the rest of term. In order to best simplify the tricky curriculum of Senior-Advanced Transfiguration for each of you, this way you will at least have a study buddy to practice with. Now, let's see." Professor McGonagall scanned two fully-alert eyes from one side of her body of pupils to the other, deciding, and said promptly, "Very good. There appears to be thirteen of us, including myself that is. Therefore, one-by-one I think I'll assign each of you a number between one and six, and then you'll each convene to the pupil whose number is the same as yours."

Thereupon McGonagall began on the left side of the room, pointing one-by-one at each of them before reciting, as stated, an assigned number for the every consecutive pupil that followed (1, 2, 3, 4...). Harry, uninterested, dully heard her say "3!"' after his name before moving straight on to Ron, who sat to the right of him ("4!"). While he remained holding up his head with a lazy fist propped underneath his chin, in his disengaged state Harry started at the sound of sudden alarm in McGonagall's tone a quiet couple moments later. "All right then, students? No need to putter I assure you; please rise and convene into your selected pair!" A silent, suspenseful pause of total inaction from all of them seemed to have become quickly apparent to their purposeful professor. Since no one had stood up to find their appropriate partner, Professor McGonagall then, impatiently half-scolding them, gestured both her hands up in serious indication that they got moving. As if bolstered to livelihood upon the immensity of the stern cue, it took but the time for their professor's eyelids to blink open once more that her students there acted; indeed, by given wide survey, it appeared definite her roll of students this hour had instantaneously caught the hint, because they were all now rising up and immediately performing appropriately. (Thankfully, they as a collective still knew way better than to test McGonagall's patience, no doubt about THAT!)

Harry, underwhelmed with McGonagall's new teaching style, reluctantly rose slowly out of his seat, stared around, and found most everyone had already assembled into two's. Confused for a moment in being unsure where his "study buddy" was, he almost fell paralyzed to the bone when he heard a disgustingly unmistakable voice call irritably out, "Mates, which one of you is also '3'?"

Harry was partnered with Draco effing Malfoy. Yes, to his beyond wholehearted doom he was made to partner with his biggest foe for the entire term. Harry's face instantly sunk, that in simultaneity to becoming cold with tremulous-like Goosebumps, and it took him what felt like an incredibly prolonged second before he could force himself to turn around and look dreadfully at Malfoy. Harry glanced off for Ron and Hermione, practically begging for sympathy with his devastated face, only to see that they, on the other hand, were happily interacting in their groups. Hermione was with Terry Boot, Ron with Parvati Patil. 'Lucky them,' he thought sorely to himself, before alas returning to face Malfoy with great reluctance.

At this exact juncture, Draco Malfoy's face lit up in flinching shock. His eyes bulged and his mouth gaped open, eyebrows raised sharply; he couldn't help it from showing, apparently too hard-hit by realization of this pulverizing fact immediately problematic before him. Shaking his head in revulsion a weak bit, Malfoy returned a whispering utterance himself, "No, no. It can't be, not you, Potter, nooooo..."

It nonetheless was loud enough for Professor McGonagall and the whole class to hear, whom Harry and Malfoy now noticed were all seated and watching them, some more curiously than others. Intolerant of any smallest hint whatsoever of conflict being provoked within the walls of her classroom, Professor McGonagall pointed a dead-firm, serious finger at them both. Then, lips thinning as they always did when students made her angry, in a stern tone of voice McGonagall ordered, "NONE OF IT, you two! Mr. Potter, Mr. Malfoy, you put one toe out of line and I'll have you both crossed off the roster - NOW SEAT YOURSELVES."

They did not need to be told twice. Visibly disgruntled, in spite the two unwilling boys took two empty seats side-by-side in the back row. Each sitting unhappily with their arms folded stiffly at chest, they gestured their heads respectfully up at McGonagall and put their full focus back on her. They looked miserable as ever nonetheless.

Their hawk-eyed professor nodded acceptingly either way, though. Then, first clearing her throat, McGonagall ascended from her seat before once again taking stance in front of them, the stack of presumed-to-be syllabuses held in her hand. "Ready then, class? All right. Here, I'm going to pass out your syllabus for this semester." She proceeded to file through three rows of students, handing out one syllabus each. Harry definitely didn't like the fazed, daunted look on his peers as they held it before them and started reading the text in length. Professor McGonagall at last reached the two of them. Further warning them with a disapproving disciplinary glance, much less politely she merely hung two syllabuses in front of them that they had to independently reach to grasp.

Harry, slightly taken aback and suffice to say rather intimidated, now felt definitively 'in line with' (so to speak), as well as fearful of, the order of Minerva McGonagall. When she had at last returned to the front of the room to regain their attention, to a bit of surprise rather, Professor McGonagall merely clapped her hands together and then very simply said, "All right then, class - review, review, review! Review the content of the syllabus together in your groups, and scrupulously too I recommend, for at the end of class today you will be quizzed on it."

All of her students looked equally surprised, never ever having taken a "syllabus quiz" before (nor had most of them even had a clue such a thing existed). Everyone exchanged puzzled glances all across the room before embarrassedly returning to look at their own partners; each of them had individually suspected right away that they were the only one totally oblivious to the completely unusual concept (at least by Hogwarts standards anyway) of being quizzed on their syllabus of all things! Harry shuddered, in realization that his first day in Senior-Advanced Transfiguration, courtesy McGonagall of course, was proving more obscure, more surreal, and (needless to say) more unpromising every second...

Both with the face of someone at the last ends of their deathbed, Potter and Malfoy miserably took the syllabus and silently began perusing its content. The two looked positively intent on avoiding the other's eye for the greatest amount of time possible, it seemed sure. Hearing one another change pages twice, at last the two had no choice but to look up and face each other eye-to-eye. First to initiate (yet still reluctant as can be nonetheless) was Malfoy technically, who sufficed to grunt his partner's attention, and when that didn't work he cleared his throat loudly and indicatively. "So."

An uncomfortable few seconds passed by. "So, what?" Harry retorted uneagerly, in a tone sour with annoyance. Feeling guilt, Harry wondered whether he could've perhaps started off on a better foot than that. "What, then? What do you reckon'll be on the quiz, Malfoy?" he finished in a better attempt to sound at least half patient.

"I dunno, Potter. I guess we better go through it again and make highlights on the most important parts," replied Malfoy dryly.

Harry blew out some steam, exhaling unhappily in overall discontentment with this setup. "Fine then. Why don't you work on the first half while I do the second? It'll be quickest that way," Harry suggested diplomatically.

Again looking opposite of each other, the boys took out a quill and began their dull busywork. Draco and Harry each underlined and circled what they hoped were the details they'd likely be quizzed on. Harry finished first, and when he looked up he was surprised to see how studious Malfoy looked as he, too, finished up.

When Malfoy looked up and saw Harry glancing at him, he frowned, shrugged, and said irritably, "What?"

Harry scowled, and then just rolled his eyes. "Nothing," he retorted, sighing before he could even add, "Here, I reckon we should look over each other's outlines."

"Okay," a very clearly bored Draco mumbled.

And so they did. When Harry took his first look at Malfoy's outline, he felt embarrassed that his rival was holding his. Demonstrating great organization, Malfoy had underlined key points and circled seemingly every one of the important dates listed. Come to think, Harry wasn't really sure what kind of student Malfoy was. He'd never paid it much thought, other than when Malfoy was busy throwing the blind favoritism he received from Snape in everyone's faces. Paranoid now, Harry snuck a glance over at Malfoy when he wasn't looking to see the expression on his face as looked over his admittedly inferior outline. Not surprisingly, it was just a moment or two later, and just as Harry had dreaded -

Malfoy looked back up at Harry with what, at kindest, was a visibly underwhelmed, overall lacking expression. Clearly delighted, though, to see Harry's reddening face in response, Malfoy smirked at him. "So what do you think, Potter? Good?"

Harry half-glanced sideways, nodding uncomfortably. "Yes, looks good."

Instantly Draco beamed, "Why thank you, Harry!" before resuming the infamous devilish identity that could only be that of Draco Malfoy, slyly adding on, "I just thought I'd give you a few pointers on yours, though, because as you can see-"

But the booming sound of McGonagall's stern voice flew right over him. "All right, students, time check! Ten more minutes of study time, then we're going to go ahead with the test! Understood?"

The whole class mumbled out sudden alerted gasps, automatically stricken by the sudden forewarning. Draco himself started in his seat. Looking stead-on, Draco swiftly turned back at Potter, alarmed, and said, "I'd hurry up then, Potter! Looky here! Looks like my notes then, Gryffindor, remain highly suggested-if you intend on passing that is." Draco figured that he himself might receive grief from McGonagall if they didn't both garner success from their as-instructed cooperation effort; so, sufficiently paranoid as can be, he felt the urge to ensure his enemy passed nonetheless. Potter, fallen prideless, succumbed and moved his eyes over to Malfoy's superior list of notes, obviously knowing that, whether he liked it or not, they could be his single-possible lifesaver today.

Draco not surprisingly smirked-a paining arrogant storm to look at, just as a note-upon immediate sight of this. 'Hehe...Puny little Potter all embarrassed. Just look at him there.' The usual never-nice thoughts ran fleetly over him, making him smile evilly. As always the mental array served fulfilling his ever-yet unscrupulous mind's twisted desire for "mean", sometimes even borderline "demented"; and yet, always, somehow, this unscrupulous desire turned into an UNguilty pleasure for him.

"And TIME!" McGonagall announced loudly. "Put your notes away, students. NOW, please, yes, that's the ticket."

Harry came to a start at the sound of his professor's deafening voice. At least to Harry it'd felt deafening, anyway, wrapped up in his last-minute studying and all. Raising his head back up in a painful flinch, Harry's dreading eyes met his professor's, and watched as she returned to her desk, opened a filing cabinet, and removed a neat stack of what were surely copies of their imminent quiz. His eyes watered. The supportive fist underneath his chin which allowed his head's upwards gazing, trembled troublesomely. Actually, in fact, for a dramatic moment anyway, Harry couldn't think of a single occasion where he'd felt this unprepared for an exam...

Harry's fingers trembled pendulously on his desk as McGonagall placed the quiz flat in front of him and moved on. He didn't even want to look, knowing he was doomed for sure. Once he finally did, before Harry's eyes was but one page of parchment listed by twelve consecutive questions. Needless to say it was a big relief for Harry that McGonagall had been surprisingly merciful, and that the questions were multiple-choice answers. Taking a deep sigh of breath, Harry aligned the tip of his quill on the first question, "Which statement is NOT Accurate of Senior Advance Transfiguration's Exclusive Readjusted Grading Scale?" His eyes bulged with surprise when he realized that he actually knew the answer! Scanning each of the choices, yes unbelievably, Harry knew immediately that the answer was 'B'. Question 2. Again Harry was amazed - he knew this one, too. 'A', obviously, he didn't even have to look at the other choices.

He couldn't believe it: all he was doing was taking a deep breath from question to question, and it was working! He finished the test in what felt like no time, and felt good about it, too. Looking up, Harry figured everyone else would similarly be finishing up, but the glances everywhere across the room told a different story: excluding himself, Malfoy, and Hermione (obviously), the people all around him wore frustrated, stressed-out looks. They, apparently, were not as eased by it as Harry was.

'Blimey, I really thought it wasn't too bad...' Harry thought about it to himself, somewhat mystified. But then it clicked-Malfoy's notes. Malfoy's notes had saved him. Thinking back to his own scribbles and scratch-outs, he knew he would've been doomed without Malfoy's help. His own admission of this fact, even just to himself, was like a harsh kick in the stomach. Harry hated that, unintentionally or not, he'd fallen somehow dependent on Draco effing Malfoy for something (no matter what it was). It repulsed him, the sheer idea did. Nonetheless, McGonagall noted him gesture that he was finished, and waved her hand as to indicate he sat patiently and waited. Half-nodding absently, Harry sighed, and propped his elbow underneath his chin for support. He was certainly still tired as ever, that was for sure. He fought to keep his eyes halfway open, dozing off...

And then something utterly different and unorthodox crossed him. Shrugging off his directionless musings, sitting more easily in his seat Harry thought guiltily to himself, 'I reckon being partnered with Malfoy may not be so bad after all.' The illegal thought dwelled and haunted over him, his now reconsidering mind. But as uncomfortable as Harry felt about the whole thing, nonetheless, deep down inside he could not help but feel an uncanny sense of appreciation for Malfoy's helping hand. Then he thought about the night before, how beautiful he'd found Malfoy no matter how much he hated himself for it; how the crypticness, the leftover cliffhanger of that unresolved encounter, made him disappointed, but in a way not familiar before; how, right now without meaning to, his unforgettable green eyes had locked entrancedly on his greatest rival (but now world's greatest study buddy candidate just as well) without his better notice.


Author's Endnote: Stay tuned-Chapter Four will take WAY less time to post. Promise :).