The first morning of exams dawned bright and clear, but the lovely weather passed unnoticed by the seventh and fifth-year students. An air of feverish panic hung over the Great Hall at breakfast, while students tried to get in some last-minute revising over their breakfasts.
Arthur had Muggle Studies in the morning and Transfiguration in the afternoon, and had his notes for both classes spread all over the table as he tried to eat and read at the same time. His stomach felt like it was filled with flobberworms, writhing around.
“Shove over, old boy, you're hogging the table,” Reid said, shifting some of Arthur's notes aside to make room for his own huge stack of parchment. Reid had been up since dawn, and there were dark smudges under his eyes. He'd told Arthur that he had three exams to sit today in the same space of time that Arthur would be sitting two. The very thought of three N.E.W.T.s in one day – and eleven total over the week – made Arthur devoutly thankful he was only taking five classes.
Cecilia had been watching her boyfriend closely since she'd sat down, and finally burst out, apparently unable to hold it in, “Did you sleep at all last night?”
“An hour or two,” he said absently, shuffling some papers.
“You idiot.” Cecilia scowled at him.
“I tried to stay up all night preparing for the exams, but unfortunately, I actually do need to sleep now and then,” said Reid. “Unless I can sneak some chemical assistance, that is.”
Cecilia and Hattie both gave him a disapproving look at this remark.
“I had a source on some powdered dragon horn,” Reid went on, “but I didn't have the blunt to pay for it. You wouldn't have five Galleons you can spare, would you Arthur? Maybe I can still get some.”
“Sorry mate,” Arthur said, rolling his eyes. Even if he'd had the money, he wouldn't have given it to Reid. Any substances made from dragons could be very addicting, and the thought of Reid hooked on something was a little more than he thought he could stand.
“I would confiscate it from you anyway, you know, even if you got the gold,” Cecilia told Reid.
“Merlin's beard,” he muttered. “You would, you horrible woman. You never let me have any fun.”
Cecilia grinned smugly.
“I saw the examiners coming into the castle last night,” Molly said anxiously. She had barely touched her breakfast, and was clutching her best quill as if it were a good luck charm. “It's the same ones from when we did O.W.L.s, I think.”
“Some of them were quite friendly,” Hattie said, her voice quavering a bit, then added, “I could hardly sleep last night, I'm so nervous. I just want the exams to be over. It's so much worse this year than O.W.L.s, don't you think?”
“They're not joking about the 'Nastily Exhausting', are they?” Arthur agreed.
A scream rent the air, and a hush fell over the Great Hall as the students looked around to see where it was coming from. Half of the Ravenclaw table suddenly got up and ran toward the entrance hall, and students from the other House tables began to follow them. Arthur scrambled to his feet, rushing after them to see what was going on. Molly was right behind him, holding onto his arm with one hand.
Twyla Carpenter, a seventh-year Ravenclaw and one of their House's prefects, stood in the hall between Professor Dumbledore and Professor Flitwick. She was screaming and batting the teachers away, and the expression on her face was one Arthur had never seen before on anyone. It was far beyond a broken heart. It was as if someone had just destroyed her very soul. There was a man in severe black robes next to them who Arthur rather thought was a Ministry official.
“Oh my goodness,” Molly murmured, her hands covering her mouth. “What happened?”
“Poor Twyla,” said Hattie. She looked stricken.
Eventually Twyla's screams turned to broken-hearted sobbing, and a few Ravenclaws stepped forward from the crowd to go to her. People were starting to whisper now, the gossip growing a little louder, and Cecilia made her way over to them from the cluster of prefects she'd been talking to.
“Her parents were murdered. They were found dead in their home this morning, with that horrible green skull set over the house. Virgil Kemp overheard them telling her.”
The Dark Mark, Arthur thought with a jolt as Cecilia darted off to where Reid was standing a few yards away with Dunstan and Petula to pass the news on to them. Another violent death, chalked up to the followers of Voldemort.
“But Twyla's parents aren't Muggleborn, are they?” Hattie said in a whisper.
Professor Dumbledore gave them all a significant look, and the crowd in the entrance hall dispersed. Arthur followed the flow of the other students back into the Great Hall and pushed the food around on his plate, knowing he should eat but unable to do so, while the sounds of Twyla's anguish continued. There was a heavy silence around the table. No one else seemed able to finish eating. Molly was staring at her plate, chewing on her thumbnail, when Arthur looked over at her. He reached over to take her hand, and she scooted closer to him to rest her head against his shoulder.
Finally the sounds of sobbing faded, and Twyla was gone from the entrance hall when Arthur left the Great Hall with Molly and Hattie at his side. They took up a spot next to the staircase that led down to the kitchens, waiting for the examinations to begin.
“Poor Twyla,” Molly said sadly, dropping her bookbag at her feet. “Can you imagine?”
“What will happen to her?” Hattie's brows were knitted with concern. “Who will she live with?”
“Twyla's of age. She could live on her own.”
“I'm sure she has some family she can go to,” Arthur said, hoping this was true. He had never interacted much with Twyla, but she was nice enough, and no one deserved to have that happen to them. He shared several classes with Twyla, and she was in N.E.W.T.-level Charms and Transfiguration with him. He rather regretted not getting to know her better.
More students were joining the small crowd in the entrance hall, the fifth and seventh years who would sit their examinations that morning, while the rest of the school went off down the corridors toward their regular classes. Arthur rather envied them. He wished he were just going to sit through a boring History of Magic lecture rather than take his final exams as a student.
Cecilia was hurrying toward them, having just split off from the little knot of seventh-year Ravenclaws who were clustered in the middle of the hall. They had not rejoined the rest of the student body for breakfast after Twyla's breakdown, but had stayed in the hall. Arthur supposed they were taking what comfort they could from each other and didn't want to be around the rest of the school. He could understand that. He was a little surprised to see them being friendly with Cecilia, though. She hadn't gotten along well with most of the Ravenclaws since the article about her father had been in the newspaper. The murder of Twyla's parents must have hit home for them.
“She's not going to take the exams,” Cecilia said without preamble as she joined them.
“What?” Molly said, shocked. “She can't miss her N.E.W.T.s.”
“I doubt she cares about them right now,” Cecilia said, her dark eyes sad. “Dorothy Sharpe says Flitwick and Dumbledore are arranging for her to take them later, after she's had some time...”
“Why didn't they take her to the headmaster's office to break the news?” Hattie shook her head. “How awful to have everyone see your grief like that.”
“Dorothy said they tried, but she refused to go until they told her what was wrong. She knew it was something terrible, and with the Ministry here, well, she must have had an inkling.” Cecilia shrugged. “I think people watching her was the last thing on her mind.”
“Were her parents Muggleborn, do you know?” Molly asked in a low voice.
Cecilia's face turned very serious. “Her mother was, but her father was half-blood.”
Arthur started a bit with surprise, staring at Cecilia. So far, the only magical folk murdered had been Muggleborn. Twyla's father was the first half-blood killed that he had heard about. He could hear the three girls talking about Twyla still, but his brain was churning now.
The Carpenters hadn't been anyone well-known in the wizarding world. They weren't particularly famous or important, they were simply a family with a daughter at school. Arthur had never heard mention of Twyla's family before, in fact. He couldn't think what could possibly have gotten them killed. But then, all the murders had been of people who were not prominent wizards or witches, and seemed to be almost for sport. The utter randomness of it was horrible to Arthur. They were being killed merely because they were not purebloods. It was simply incomprehensible that anyone would do that.
He couldn't think on this for too long, however, because the exams were beginning. He was quite terror-stricken as he sat down at the desk for the first N.E.W.T. exam. Muggle Studies was a long series of questions, but once he started reading over them, he felt much more confident. It wasn't as bad as he'd thought it would be. He was quite familiar with the answers, and set about writing the short essays with a small grin.
Petula, next to him, was scratching away at her own exam, writing franticly. The other two Muggle Studies N.E.W.T. students, Jasper Mussa and Mary Nevard, were filling out their own exams, and Arthur wondered briefly if they would all pass. It was such a small class that they were all quite invested in each other's grades.
Finally the examiner announced the end of the exam, and Arthur set aside his quill. He wasn't sure he'd gotten an Outstanding, but he was reasonably confident he'd gotten at least an Exceeds Expectations.
He met up with the other seventh-years in the entrance hall. Many of them looked pale and shaky after their first exam. Molly had just done Arithmancy with the other Gryffindor girls and Reid, and all of them looked very relieved to have it over with.
Cecilia and Hattie were obsessively discussing their answers, and Molly immediately set on Arthur and Petula.
“How was Muggle Studies?”
“Horrible,” Petula said before Arthur could answer. He didn't want to disagree with her, so he just shrugged at Molly. “Was Arithmancy awful?” Petula asked.
“I don't want to talk about it,” said Molly, a little feebly. Arthur folded her into his arms and she hugged him back gratefully. He was sure she'd done better than she thought. Molly was often a pessimist about school, always putting in more work than he thought really needed to be done.
After Muggle Studies, he was feeling fairly chipper about the afternoon's exam, and was able to eat a decent lunch. McGonagall was so tough all year long that the idea of taking a Transfiguration N.E.W.T. exam seemed far less scary. Molly didn't seem to share this outlook, as she didn't even put a morsel on her plate, only reading her notes all through the lunch break.
Siobhan had joined them for lunch and was sitting next to Cecilia, reading Cecilia's Transfiguration notes over her shoulder while eating a bacon sandwich. Siobhan always took exams in stride. Arthur remembered during fifth year when everyone was panicking over their O.W.L.s, Siobhan had only strolled into the hall and sat her exams without batting an eyelash. She never did terribly well on them, but she passed, and that seemed good enough to her. Arthur supposed the lack of parental pressure took some of the terror out of exams. Siobhan's father was a Muggle, and paid little attention to her, so her performance on the tests didn't seem to matter to him. Arthur didn't have that kind of luck: Everyone in his family would find out what his grades were, and they would all have something to say about it. The ball of flobberworms was back in his stomach after that thought.
Transfiguration was about what he'd expected, from what he remembered of the O.W.L. exam in that subject. He hoped Professor McGonagall would be pleased with his results, or that she wouldn't hear about it if he failed. He hated to disappoint his Head of House.
The exam week seemed to fly past, hardly giving a moment to breathe or sleep or think of anything but N.E.W.T.s. He studied with Reid before History of Magic, and that seemed to help with the exam. Reid was far better organised than Arthur was in his note-taking and revising habits, which was probably part of why he'd always done better in the history class. In Charms and Defence Against the Dark Arts, Arthur felt he'd acquitted himself well enough.
By the time the week was over, Arthur was rather overwhelmed by a combination of exhaustion from the mentally taxing week, and exhilaration that it was now all over and he never had to take another exam again. The approaching end of school seemed quite a relief now.
The Gryffindor seventh-years gathered outside on the lawn near the lake the Saturday after N.E.W.T.s, enjoying the warm weather and recovering from the exams. Hattie had brought a hamper of food, procured from the friendly kitchen house-elves, and conjured up a large purple blanket for them all to sit on.
“Devil of a week,” Dunstan said as Hattie unpacked the food with Molly's assistance. “It's nice to have exams over, isn't it? I thought they'd do me in. Charms was horrible.”
“It was easy,” said Reid airily. He was stretched out on the blanket with his head in Cecilia's lap. “I didn't have any trouble at all on my exams. Flying colours, and all that rot.”
“No trouble?” Cecilia arched an eyebrow at him. “You were sick the night before your Ancient Runes exam.”
Reid gave her a dirty look, and Arthur coughed to cover his chuckles. Dunstan and Petula were grinning at Reid from their corner of the blanket, and Arthur could see Molly and Hattie trying not to smile, too. Siobhan was staring off over the lake as if she hadn't heard anything.
Reid apparently decided to pretend Cecilia hadn't just told everyone about his moment of weakness, and went on in his airy tones, “Anyway, it's all over now but the shouting, so quit your worrying, Dunstan. Rehashing the exams won't change whether or not you failed.”
“And on that cheerful note, let's not talk about N.E.W.T.s any more, shall we?” Arthur said determinedly, wanting to avoid an argument. “It's a beautiful day, isn't it?”
Molly began passing out pastries to everyone. Arthur took a strawberry tart and bit into it, closing his eyes as he chewed and listening to his friends chatting. It was almost easy to forget everything, sitting there on the soft blanket, feeling the sun's rays on his face. He would probably have a sunburn tomorrow on his nose, but he couldn't quite bring himself to care.
Dunstan brought up the recent match between the Caerphilly Catapults and the Wigtown Wanderers then, and the next half hour was filled with a dissection of the game, and of England's chances of making it to the World Cup. Molly and Hattie looked quite bored by the Quidditch talk, and Arthur wasn't surprised when Molly changed the subject.
“Petula, where's Thomas? Didn't you say he was coming to our picnic?”
“He said he would,” Petula answered, taking another éclair. “The Hufflepuffs are having a bit of a celebration in their common room today, but he did say he would come by. Then I'm supposed to go to their party with him.”
“So are you really going to marry him, then?” Reid asked.
“How do you not know about Petula's engagement by now?” Cecilia frowned down at him.
“I try to avoid being involved with anyone but myself.”
Petula was frowning at Reid as well. “Yes, I am going to marry him.” She held out her left hand and wiggled her fingers: There was a very small diamond on a gold band on her ring finger.
“Very nice,” Reid said approvingly, though from his glance up at Cecilia after he said it, Arthur didn't think he really meant it and was just trying to stay on her good side.
“The banns will be in the Prophet as soon as school is over. My mum says I have to have my sisters as bridesmaids,” Petula added, directing this at Molly and Hattie. “It isn't fair. They've never been nice to me, why should I have to have them in my wedding party?”
“Because they're your sisters,” Hattie said sternly. “Weren't you in both of their weddings?”
“Yes,” Petula admitted. She didn't look happy about it.
“Petula,” Dunstan said in long-suffering tones. “If I have to be subjected to any more wedding talk-”
“Reid started it,”she told him, giving a haughty sniff. “Besides, I listened to you going on and on about whether or not you ought to marry Gemma-”
“Shhh,” Dunstan hushed her, his eyes bugging slightly. “That was personal!”
“Oh please, we all know you're afraid of commitment,” Reid said, his eyes closed.
“It's a well-known fact,” Arthur agreed, just to get a rise out of Dunstan.
Reid adjusted his position on Cecilia's lap, drawling, “Yes. Dunstan won't commit, Arthur is obsessed with Muggles, I'm self-centered-”
“I believe the word you're looking for is egomaniacal,” Cecilia murmured.
“I'm an egomaniac,” Reid said magnanimously, nodding to acknowledge her, and then went on, “Roddy is crap with women, and Thad cares more about Quidditch than anything else. That's just how we all are. You should accept it. You'd be a much happier person if you embrace your own idiocy.”
Molly glanced uneasily over at Siobhan at the mention of Roddy, but when Arthur looked over at her, Siobhan's expression had not changed. Either she hadn't heard Reid's remark, or she was doing a very good job of faking it.
“Shut up, Reid.” Dunstan elbowed Petula in the ribs then. “There he is.”
Petula followed his gaze and perked up immediately. Thomas Ockham was jogging toward them, dressed in Muggle clothes, his hair a little rumpled. Petula waved to him as he approached, calling a greeting to them. Arthur waved back. He rather liked the fellow, from what he knew of him. Petula seemed happy with him, too.
Thomas dropped onto the blanket next to Petula and kissed her cheek, then picked up a pastry from the tray in the centre of the blanket.
“Sorry I'm late,” he said, smiling at them all. “I would've been here quite some time ago, but I ran into Dorothy Sharpe in the corridor, and we got to talking.”
“Dorothy's a terrible gossip,” said Molly sternly. She leaned forward. “What did she say?”
Thomas's expression sobered. “Twyla's left school already. She went to her grandmother's, she's going to be living with her for a while. Dorothy said Twyla's going to do her N.E.W.T.s at the end of the summer. She thinks she'll be feeling up to it by then.”
“Poor Twyla,” Petula murmured.
Hattie sighed, shaking her head. “I'm glad she has some family to go to. It must be so awful for her.”
“The Ravenclaws are all pretty shaken up,” Thomas said. “Half of them are afraid to go home now. Dorothy says the younger students are all sure they'll be killed over the summer. My House is scared too. The Owusu twins are moving back to Ghana after the leaving, and that sixth-year, Amos Diggory, he says his parents are talking about moving to an all-wizard village for safety. It seems like everyone who's been killed so far lived in a Muggle town.”
Arthur looked around at the other Gryffindors. Siobhan, the only Muggleborn there, had not reacted to anything Thomas had said. She was ignoring him, staring out at the lake again. Petula looked nervous; she'd been steadily pretending not to have Muggle relatives for months now, and Arthur wondered if they were even to be invited to her wedding. Since her father had forbidden her to contact them or even talk about them, he rather doubted it. Dunstan looked rather worried as well – he was a half-blood, but Gemma's parents were both Muggleborn.
Molly and Hattie looked upset, but the air of panic that had been over Hattie whenever anyone brought up blood status recently seemed to be gone. Arthur thought she must have come to terms with her mother's marriage, and smiled, feeling very fond of Hattie just then. She was a good egg, really, as Reid had said.
“Well, thank you for sharing your tea with me, but I promised to bring Petula back with me to the Hufflepuff party.” Thomas got to his feet and held out a hand to help Petula up.
“I'll come too,” Dunstan said, jumping up behind her.
They set off toward the castle, and Arthur watched them go, thinking about Twyla's parents and all the other murders of anyone with a bit of Muggle blood. It wasn't surprising that what had happened to the Carpenters had frightened all the Ravenclaws. It was the first big blow delivered to their House by the brewing war, and Twyla was very well-liked. The Hufflepuffs were scared now, too, he remembered. He supposed a lot of Gryffindors and Slytherins were as well, and that he ought to be. Mostly what he felt was anger, though.
It wasn't right that these things were happening. It wasn't right that Twyla had to bury her parents before she turned nineteen. It wasn't right that Petula couldn't even invite her relatives to her wedding. It was all so very wrong that all he could feel about it was anger. He wanted to put a stop to it. To do something to make things better.
“I'm off to meet Michael,” Siobhan said then, getting to her feet.
“Michael?” Hattie echoed in surprise. “Michael O'Toole, who went out with Petula?”
Siobhan waved her hand, dismissing this. “That was a long time ago. She said she didn't mind. I hope he's not too frightened to leave Ravenclaw Tower,” she added derisively as she walked away, rolling her eyes.
Molly and Hattie exchanged a disapproving look, and Cecilia said in a low voice, “Don't mind her, she says cruel things when she's scared.”
Arthur watched Siobhan walking up to the castle, her rusty curls glinting an almost Weasley-red in the sunlight, his thoughts still dwelling on murdered Muggleborns and half-bloods. Siobhan might very well be next, or someone else he knew well. It was a horrible thought.
“I suppose the picnic tea is over,” Hattie said with a sigh. “It wasn't very successful, was it?”
“We were all together for a little while,” said Molly loyally, patting her hand. “That's the important thing.”
“We may as well go back to Gryffindor Tower.” Hattie began packing up the food with Molly's assistance.
Cecilia pushed Reid's head off her lap and stood, adjusting her shirt, then reached down to pull Reid to his feet. Arthur got up as well, and as he watched Hattie Vanish the conjured blanket, he made a decision.
“Cecilia, could I have a quick word?”
She looked surprised, but agreed. Molly glanced from Arthur to Cecilia, seeming to realize what he wanted to ask her. She looped her arm through Hattie's, and they set off for the castle with Reid trailing along behind them, glancing over his shoulder at Arthur and Cecilia.
“What is it, Arthur?” Cecilia asked once the others were out of earshot.
“Do you think your dad would give me a job?” he asked in a rush, before he could lose his nerve. “All these things that are going on, I want to do something to help stop them, and your dad is doing, well, exactly what I've always wanted to do, and I really need a job once school is over-”
“Arthur,” she interrupted, smiling at him. “My father will hire you.”
“I know I don't have any particularly impressive N.E.W.T.s,” Arthur said, a little uncomfortably.
“But you're passionate about helping Muggles,” Cecilia said firmly. “Just like he is. I'm sure he would love to have you on his staff. I'll talk to him about it, but I know he'll give you a job.”
Arthur smiled in relief. “D'you really think so?”
“Of course. I'll go owl him right now and ask. I was going to owl him anyway, I want to tell him about Twyla's parents, and about the exams,” she added. “You'll probably have to interview with him, but he's already told me he's adding three people to his staff this summer. He's very busy right now, with the new laws he's writing. I'll tell him all about you, and he'll want to hire you straight away.”
Bolstered by her confidence, Arthur straightened his glasses, standing a bit taller. “Thanks, Cecilia.”
“He's already said he's going to hire me, so we'll be working together.” She started walking slowly toward the castle, and he fell into step beside her.
“That'll be brilliant.” He was glad she'd be there, a spot of familiarity in a very new environment. He'd not been in the Ministry much, and never in the Department of Magical Law. Her father was quite an important man, and working for him would be a huge leg up into the Ministry for Arthur. With this as his start, he could really make a difference.
The day seemed brighter, the sunshine more cheerful, and now the future seemed filled with exciting prospects. Not least of which was that having a job would allow him to propose to Molly.
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