Chapter 2 : Result
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The Tower of Stars
Brienne Christie was sweating.
The searing British heat had seemed to crush upon London come the end of July, as did the low hanging clouds that seemed to grumble with warmth and crackle with thunder. As Brienne reclined in her living room, the doors to the garden thrown open in the hopes of a breeze passing through, she felt a drop of sweat roll down her neck.
“Like a drink, darling?” called her father from the kitchen.
The clattering of a cupboard and the spraying of the tap issued forth, shortly followed by the sound of a smashing glass.
She thought that perhaps the seething mass above her may be the only danger she could avoid nowadays.
Because Brienne Christie was not safe.
She was not safe from the swishes of cloaks she glimpsed in split-second glances, nor the flickering shadows that withdrew as she approached street corners. She was not safe from the owls that delivered newspapers or memos. She was not safe walking alone out of her front door.
She was not safe from the endless questions, or the brief and disappointing answers. She was not even safe, apparently, in her own kitchen. And, according to those who knew these things, Brienne was certainly not safe from the person or people who had swept upon her home the year before and snuffed out the life of one Zéphyrine Auvray-Christie, her mother.
Ever since she had left school the previous month she had been cooped up at home in Marylebone. She had watched the repetition of bright sun, thick black clouds and torrential showers from the windows, and had only ventured out when she insisted she go with her father to get groceries, or for a visit to Diagon Alley.
She shifted on her lounge chair and adjusted her shirt on her sweaty torso, then wiped the back of her hand over her damp forehead. She hated summer beyond all reasoning; the first day of heat was welcomed after the months of chill, to be swiftly followed with a grumpiness that rivalled the humidity of the air. Deciding that it might be safer if she got the drink herself, Brienne pulled herself up and strode to the kitchen where Douglas Christie was dabbing something on his hand.
Brienne froze, spotting the blood that had dripped onto the floor. “Dad! What have you done now?”
“Never mind, never mind. I smashed a glass against the tap,” he replied with an abashed expression, gesturing with the other hand to the newly-fixed glass on the counter. “Just an accident, no worry.”
But she had already seized some tissue and crouched down to wipe it up. “There’s not a disaster-free day in this house,” she muttered irritably, restraining herself from using one of Fred’s favourite swear words.
If being holed up at home wasn’t enough of an annoyance, then missing her friends was another. Fred Weasley would have been able to say a single sentence and she would look at this situation in a whole different light. As would Angelina Johnson, who was strong and beautiful and bright, the confidant to her every crisis. Paisley Hamilton could make even the most boring of lessons bearable. Brienne wished she had even one of them with her- not that her father wasn’t good company, but his innate ungainliness didn’t help her feel less vulnerable.
And, of course, there was George. Brienne wasn’t sure if thinking about him calmed her stress or just increased it. After being in an odd state midway between platonic and romantic affection for him for several months during her first year at Hogwarts, Brienne had struggled to reciprocate the awkwardly demonstrated feelings that George seemed to have for her. Until, of course, the last day of term, when Brienne had given in and kissed him for the first time. Just thinking about that moment made her heart quiver in her chest; she didn’t know how she ever had the nerve. George had merely laughed cheerily as they ventured down to Hogsmeade Station, and neither said a word about it to their friends as they travelled back to London on the Hogwarts Express. She had not heard from the twins save for a brief note that she had received two weeks after finishing school:
Just writing to let you know that our business is A GO: Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes (I like Wheezes, but George thinks that sounds rubbish but he’s wrong, so there). We are developing some bits and pieces to get started when we get back to school.
One more thing, our Dad has got some tickets for the Quidditch World Cup Final; we would have invited Angie (you hate Quidditch so don’t be jealous) but Ron’s already invited Harry and Hermione. It’s next month, but don’t nag if we don’t reply to any owls. We reckon Mum will bind us to the walls up with the ghoul in the attic when we get our results.
See you at school.
Brienne had been part relieved and part maddened when there was no mention of her dalliance with George. Of course, she had dashed off two letters to Angelina and Paisley the minute she got home from the station. She needed their opinions and reactions: Had she done the right thing? Should she have done it differently? And, most importantly, what exactly did that mean for her relationship with George, now? As those thoughts fluttered through her mind, Brienne’s eyes drifted to the window as she disposed of the bloody napkins and washed her hands, hoping to will Nyx into arriving back with their responses.
As Brienne turned away from the kitchen window to return to her couch in the living room, her father exclaimed loudly, making her slosh her glass of water over herself. Thinking he had hurt himself again, she wheeled around to see that he had dashed into the garden through the back door, where an entirely different owl landed onto his arm. She scowled; owls came every day delivering the Daily Prophet and messages from the Ministry for her father, but he behaved like every letter was an explosive Howler, waiting to go off. She understood in part why he did this, but after the first few instances decided not to inwardly tolerate it.
Her backside had just touched the chair when she heard Douglas exclaim again.
“It’s your exam results!”
Brienne could not remember running to the kitchen, but the next thing she knew she was beside her father and had ripped the thick envelope from his hands. Her heart sped faster as she saw the Hogwarts crest set in the emerald green sealing wax. Her O.W.L results had been yet another source of stress over the last weeks- Brienne had alternated between being desperate for them to arrive and wishing that they would never come at all.
“Merlin’s beard,” Douglas said, wiping a napkin across his damp forehead. “I didn’t think these would be coming for another couple of weeks. You should let me open it though, in case it’s-“
But Brienne had already prised open the envelope flap and had pulled out the sheet of parchment within.
ORDINARY WIZARDING LEVEL RESULTS
Exceeds Expectations Dreadful
BRIENNE MARTHA CHRISTIE HAS ACHIEVED:
Defence Against the Dark Arts: E
History of Magic: A
Professor Griselda Marchbanks
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
“Papa! Oh, it’s alright!”
“Give it over!”
She thrust the letter at her father and then clapped her hands to her face. Seven O.W.Ls, and only one fail – and Outstanding in her two favourite subjects! Her father lowered the letter from his gaze, beaming.
Brienne let out a relieved sound not unlike a tearless sob, and they hugged.
“Seven O.W.Ls! That’s excellent, Petal.”
“I failed Divination. I knew I shouldn’t have told the examiner that his fate was to be a judge at morris dancing.”
Douglas chuckled and pushed his blond, curly hair out of his eyes. “Oh, never mind that, you don’t need it. You’ve got Astronomy- and two Outstandings. Now, we’ll need to discuss which subjects you’ll take into your N.E.W.Ts...”
Brienne puffed out another relieved lungful of air as they both sat down at the kitchen table. She remembered having a careers advice meeting with Professor McGonagall back at school a few months before, to help ease her into her N.E.W.T decisions; as Charms and Potions were her two favourite subjects, and evidently her best subjects as well, both had agreed a course into Healing or possibly even teaching would be suitable.
“You could perhaps even own your own business- making and selling potions and the like,” McGonagall had muttered, looking down her long nose at the parchment bearing Brienne’s most recent marks on her desk. “Alternately you could combine your skills in Charms and Transfiguration and I daresay make a business of whatever you liked. A little more application in my lessons, Christie, and - figuratively of course - the world could be your Billywig.”
But the world of work and having a career seemed so far into the future that, compared with her current worries, it seemed rather unimportant, then and now. What seemed more important was choosing the subjects that wouldn’t bore her half to death for the next two years.
Brienne and her father debated for forty-five minutes over the practicalities of taking Defence against the Dark Arts and Herbology instead of Astronomy or Transfiguration.
“Herbology is perfect with Potions, and Defence is the most useful subject anybody could do! You never know when you’ll have to defend yourself against a werewolf, or a hungry vampire!” her father insisted. The Hogwarts owl squawked impatiently from the window ledge.
Brienne rolled her eyes. “But McGonagall said that Transfiguration is the best thing to go with Charms, and Herbology is so uninteresting.”
“Well you’ll need to do it in any case if you want a job in Potions.”
Brienne sighed. “Fine.”
In the end they sent a letter back to Hogwarts confirming that Brienne would be taking N.E.W.Ts in Potions, Charms, Transfiguration and Herbology, and half-courses in Defence and Astronomy. By the time the Hogwarts barn owl had faded into the distance, the sun was setting, that particular section of the cloudy sky orange and glowing. Finally, finally, a breeze wafted through the open living room doors, and both Brienne and her father gave little groans as the cool air fanned over them.
Douglas stood up, bustling over to her on the other side of the kitchen table, and briefly wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “I am so proud of you, Petal. Seven O.W.Ls,” he said again and cupped her face in his hands. “Your mother would have been ecstatic.”
“Dad, you don’t have to...” Brienne replied in a low voice.
“No, she would have been. You know she would.”
Brienne gave a little smile and a word of thanks, but even after all of this time it was unpleasant to talk of her mother in the past tense, to say what she would have loved or cared for. It caused a thrumming ache in her chest, like a massive hollow bell that had been pounded by a hammer.
“I’ve got to send a letter to Stanley; Paul will have got his results today as well.” Douglas strode from the kitchen, patting his trouser pocket to check his wand was still there, and trod up the steps to the attic.
Brienne rested her elbows on the table and propped her chin in her hand. Her results continued to sink in, and with every passing second her heart felt lighter. After a few moments she heard Serge, her father’s owl, flapping out from the attic. Her eyes drifted to the window as the orange sky gradually darkened to purple and blue. She stood and stretched as her father came slowly down the stairs, and they moved into the dim living room. Douglas walked over to his bookcase and switched on the radio.
“I’ll bet you anything Stanley’s getting an owl out to us as we speak,” he said as he slumped into his chair.
“I bet Paul did really well,” Brienne replied. “He looks a real brain box. And he’s a Ravenclaw.”
“He’s a bright boy.”
‘He probably got all O’s,’ Brienne thought, and cringed at herself immediately. She’d done well, no need to be jealous.
As Douglas hauled himself from his armchair – muttering about making dinner - they heard a fluttering noise from the kitchen and turned their heads to see Nyx soaring into the room. Black and stormy grey, he dropped two envelopes onto Brienne’s lap and landed on the arm of her chair, where he hopped and shivered. Douglas seized the letters from her lap and feverishly waved his wand over them, muttering under his breath before giving them back to her.
“Hello boy.” She beamed, and scratched behind his ears. He gave a loud hoot in greeting, and she only then realised how much she had missed him. Owls were not fond of hugs, so she rooted in her pocket and fed him a handful of treats instead. “Go on, go up and get some sleep.”
Nyx hooted again, and with a click of his black beak he flapped his wings and swooped out of the room.
The familiar noises of pans clattering, cupboards slamming and things boiling on the stove began to rise, and Brienne grabbed the two letters enthusiastically, crossing her legs on the armchair and redoing her hair bun to tie back the unruly hairs that had escaped. The first one was merely addressed ‘Brienne Christie, London,’ on comforting yellow parchment and written with a curly, rounded hand in dark blue ink. She pulled it open and unfolded the letter within.
First of all, I can’t BELIEVE you didn’t tell us on the way home what happened! I would be so angry with you if I wasn’t so bloody relieved.
YOU DID IT.
You did it, but you gave no details. Where did he hold you? Did he touch your hair? Or was it too quick for that?
This is so exciting. Are you going out now? Did you organise anything for Hogsmeade next year, or maybe meeting at Diagon Alley?
Speaking of, when will you be at the Alley to get your things? We should be getting our book lists soon. Don’t even mention the dreaded ‘R’ word; my parents won’t shut up about it and I can’t bear it. I should be in London the first week of August, so if you are going to be there then be sure to let me know.
Write me back!
Brienne chuckled nervously at Angelina’s excitement and set the letter aside. The second one was in a standard Muggle envelope, the letter written on lined white paper and Brienne’s name in black ink with Paisley’s familiar slanting scrawl.
I hope you’re having a good holiday so far! Our O.W.L results shouldn’t be too far away, and I’m still breaking out in cold sweats just thinking about it- at this point I would prefer all T’s to waiting a moment longer.
I’m glad you’ve finally gotten it together with George. He’s cute, whichever one of those twins he is. Are you two boyfriend and girlfriend now?
I’ll be in London doing my school shopping sometime in August, don’t know when yet. Hope to see you soon!
Lots of love,
Brienne felt a tugging in her chest as she read the letters; she wanted nothing more in that moment than to sit with her friends and talk properly. She decided to wait until the morning to send Nyx and Serge off with her responses, to give him a rest. She folded up the letters and slid them into her pocket, just as the smell and sound of cooking onions wafted in.
Douglas and Brienne ate at the table in the kitchen, leaning back in their chairs and letting the scant breeze softly drift over them from the thrown-open back door, before going to bed in their humid, stuffy bedrooms.
The next day was substantially cooler. The dense clouds had finally dispersed into a downpour in the night, and Brienne awoke to a somewhat damp and grey-skied day. The ground was still patchy from the rain, and water still dripped from the trees overhead. Brienne and her father had a quiet day, during which he enlarged and framed the letter bearing her results and hung it on the facing wall of the living room, now the first thing anybody would see if they walked in. Douglas had stood back to admire his handiwork and wrapped an arm around the shoulder of his daughter, who cringed at the sight of it, but smiled as he glanced at her.
Brienne had written replies to Angelina and Paisley the first thing in the morning and had attached them to Nyx and Serge respectfully, letting Serge take the longer journey to Edinburgh to give Nyx a break from his recent trek to Yorkshire and Scotland and then back to London.
In the late afternoon, they dressed for the dinner for the Meadowes’, and departed from their home with the grey sky dull and the air stagnant and heavy. By the time they arrived at the Meadowes’ home in Piccadilly, via a short walk and a spot of Side-Along Apparition, Brienne’s short-sleeved cotton t-shirt was sticking to her back with sweat.
The house was two floors tall and slim, all chestnut-brown bricks and Victorian bay windows, and attached to two identical houses on either side. Douglas and Brienne approached down the long street and picked down the tiny, unkempt front path. He grabbed the shiny steel knocker in the shape of a raven, and rapped it hard against the door. They waited for a few moments, and Brienne straightened her dark green top.
The door flew open and the doorframe was full of Stanley Meadowes. Dark, broad shouldered and slight, Stanley beckoned the two of them in with a booming “Hello!” and slapped Douglas on the back as they passed.
The house seemed to be very reflective inside of what it looked like outside. The walls were painted deep brown, and the entrance hallway opened up immediately to a narrow staircase on the right, and the doorway to the living room straight ahead, which Brienne and her father immediately filed through. Like the hallway, the living room was decorated with dark colours, but instead of being imposing it felt warm, inviting and very male.
The back corner of the room was, in fact, the kitchen, and Brienne could see Paul standing at one of the counters with his back to them, mixing something vigorously in a large bowl with a wooden spoon. She could smell something fruity (which she was pretty sure Paul was stirring), the sharp tomato scent of whatever was cooking in the oven, and the musky aroma of old linen.
“Welcome to our humble abode,” Stanley said, following them in from the hallway. He gestured to one of the simple squishy sofas arranged near the counter that separated the living space from the kitchen. “Brienne, do take a seat, make yourself at home. Have a Butterbeer. Dougie, let me take your cloak.”
He swished his wand, and two frosted bottles of Butterbeer flew from one of the kitchen cabinets to hover in the air in front of Brienne and Douglas. Brienne grabbed hers, gulped from it thirstily and then nodded in thanks. She strolled over to one of the couches and slumped onto it.
Douglas followed, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. “You’ve tidied up then, Stan.”
“Don’t look at me. Take away my son’s wand and he becomes a productive little thing. Reminded me why I never got a House Elf.”
“If you gave me my wand I could do things a lot quicker,” Paul muttered, looking over his shoulder from his work and flashing the three of them a joking smile. Brienne felt an increase in respect for the Ravenclaw boy, for she hated not doing magic outside of school, too.
“No son of mine is being flayed by the Improper Use of Magic Office,” Stanley replied with a light-hearted tone, but Brienne sensed that this was well-trodden ground.
The four of them settled into the evening, Stanley telling Paul to sit down before taking over with various flicks and twirls of his wand; Brienne wasn’t sure what he was doing but it sounded productive. Paul slid on the sofa next to Douglas, brushing back his curly dark hair from his pale green eyes. He looked no different from when Brienne had seen him on the last day of term; a more well-kept, smoothed-down miniature of his father.
“So, how were your O.W.L results, Paul?” asked Brienne’s father, “Brienne’s were fantastic...”
“Papa, they really weren’t that fantastic.”
“Yes they were, don’t undersell yourself darling.”
Douglas continued with nonspecific descriptions of how perfect Brienne’s results apparently were, Paul listening courteously. Brienne crossed her arms and sank further into the couch, thinking that she wasn’t hoping to sell herself in any respect.
As she anticipated, Paul had several Outstandings, but to her surprise had also failed in one subject.
“Ancient Runes,” he said, turning his head to Brienne and raising his thick eyebrows in mock horror. “The bane of my life.”
Brienne opened her mouth to talk about Divination, but Douglas was already talking. “Ah, well Brienne got a P in Divination, the only one she didn’t pass, but apparently the teacher at Hogwarts now is rather incompetent.”
“She is quite odd,” Paul said politely, and he turned to Brienne again. “I only got an E. I’m not continuing it.”
And despite his besting of her, Brienne felt better.
An hour later the four of them sat down to dinner at a table that Stanley conjured when they had the need for it. The dinner was, as Brienne suspected, shepherd’s pie, full of cooked tomatoes and topped with sharp melted cheese.
“Oh, before we start.” Stanley stood at the head of the table, and rooted in his pocket before sitting down. “Your necklace, Brienne.”
Brienne felt the air rush into her lungs but she didn’t think anybody heard it. She had received a necklace on her birthday the month before, as a gift from her mother. It had been her mother’s necklace, a long silver chain with an oval shaped pendant, engraved with a dozen thin rings, and just the sight of it made Brienne short of breath.
That was because her mother had died a year before, and the necklace had mysteriously arrived bearing nothing but Brienne’s name written in her mother’s hand. It was because there had been no trace of it for an entire year. It was because she had had the necklace confiscated by Stanley and his fellow Aurors an hour after she arrived back in London after finishing school.
It was the gift that may not have been a gift at all.
But here it was, Stanley handing it over to her by the chain, the pendant swinging innocently as Brienne reached over to grip the cool metal in her hand.
At Douglas’ questioning look, Stanley raised an eyebrow and explained, “There was nothing on it, Dougie. No spells, no enchantments, no curses, nothing.”
“Thank you,” Brienne muttered under her breath, pulling the long chain over her head and pulling the pendant into place. It bumped onto her stomach as she moved.
“Still doesn’t explain where it came fro...” Douglas started, but both Stanley and Brienne cleared their throats to cut him off from continuing. Paul was sitting with his gaze respectfully fixed on his plate of food, which he courteously hadn’t yet touched. She felt another rush of gratitude for the Meadowes’ son, and their fathers changed the subject as they ate.
As the two older men were such close friends, neither Brienne nor Paul had the cause or opportunity to talk much, either as part of the conversation or to each other. They both muttered a few words when the inevitable subjects of N.E.W.Ts and future careers came up; Brienne shrugging and repeating what she and her father had discussed, Paul shortly explaining that he had relatively open options. They occasionally made eye contact from the other side of the table, grinned awkwardly before averting their eyes and carrying on with their meals.
“What’s for pudding?” Douglas asked enthusiastically as Stanley levitated their largely emptied plates over to the sink.
“I was making it as you came in,” Paul supplied, and he got up to join his father at the counter. “Muggles call it Mess.”
Mess turned out to be mashed up strawberries, raspberries, thick cream and crushed biscuits. Unlike with her main course, Brienne finished her bowl, thoroughly approving.
The meal done, the cutlery cleared and extra boxes filled with Mess, Brienne and Douglas left, saying their thanks and promising to do it again during the summer holidays. Stanley and Paul waved them off from the front door.
When Brienne and Douglas arrived home, the sky had finally cleared, the city sky dark blue and speckled with a handful of stars. The moon stood out from the darkness, bright and round. They put away their jackets and cloaks, the boxes were put away, and shoes were toed off by sweaty feet. Both agreed that it had been a nice dinner, a nice evening. Paul was a nice boy, yes he was, and what classes did Brienne share with him again?
They pottered around for a little while, before both decided it was bedtime. Brienne dashed into the bathroom before her father had the chance to, and when she was brushed and washed she shut her bedroom door behind her.
She was disappointed.
She was beyond gleeful that she had got her mother’s necklace back. There was nothing wrong with it. It wasn’t cursed. That meant it hadn’t come from the killer.
Being honest, Brienne had expected an update on the investigation, her last one being a few days before she finished school. Obviously with Paul there it would have been difficult to discuss it, and she certainly didn’t want this boy she barely knew to be privy to the most important and secret aspect of her life.
Brienne went to her bedside cabinet and pulled out her mother’s wand. She pulled off the necklace and laid it next to the wand on top of her dresser before staring at them there for a moment. She leant against the dresser with both hands, thinking. Both of the items were so distinctive to her mother, so representative, that seeing them there together made it almost raw to think that she was no longer there. It had been such a long time. But not nearly as long as it would be.
She knelt, leant her head on the edge of the dresser, and started to cry. She had wanted a particular result that day. That evening. It had nothing to do with her exams. She’d wanted this result for a year, every minute of every day. She knew it would be a feverish, furious need until she got it. She wanted to know how much longer she would be expected to bear it.
Brienne needed to know who had done this. Why.
No matter what came afterward, Brienne promised to herself that she wouldn’t rest, wouldn’t settle down with a nice little career, wouldn’t, couldn’t, move on. Not until she had found the person that had killed Zéphyrine Christie-Auvray.
In one more year she would get her wish.