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Chapter 20 : O.W.L.s
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O.W.L. revision officially began in the second week of May. From that point forward, the fifth years spent their lessons reviewing everything significant they had learned during the whole of their five years at Hogwarts. Each class that week began with a lecture about academic honesty, and lists of banned items, charms, and substances were outlined repeatedly for the fifth years. Penelope Clearwater was on a warpath to keep the Ravenclaw common room perfectly silent, so Isobel and Laurel took again to studying in Cadogan’s Corridor. Their friendship with Emily rekindled, the three spent most of their evenings on the seventh floor near the portrait of the little night, reviewing thick stacks of notes, and chain-smoking.
Laurel was lying on her back, reciting everything she knew about wand legislation to herself, and periodically glancing at her notes to check a date or a name. Isobel was pacing the length of the corridor, drawing runes in the air with her wand, and muttering their translations. Emily was sitting cross-legged, hunched rocking back and forth over a list of potion ingredients and properties, and trying desperately not to join her friends in a fag . O.W.L. revision had turned out to be a terrible time to quit smoking.
Tristan, who had committed himself to his exile, was poring over five years of Defense Against the Dark Arts notes in the library, periodically closing his eyes to commit some fact to memory. He’d taken his independent study during his suspension seriously, and had managed to stay mostly up to date with his lessons, but he had yet to devise any successful system for studying alone. Three times he mixed up Kappas and Kelpies, and dropped his forehead onto the table in frustration.
After giving up and returning to the Slytherin dungeon, Tristan plugged in his headphone jack and fast-forwarded ahead to the last song on the first album that he and Emily had ever shared.
He cracked his knuckles and dragged his fag in time with the lyrics, feeling exquisitely alone.
“Gillyweed?” Isobel asked Emily as they marched with Laurel up to History of Magic from the grounds.
“Native to the Mediterranean, active material in root system, transfigurative properties include the formation and gills and digital webbing for underwater survival and navigation. Effects last an hour in fresh water, arguably longer in salt,” Emily recited.
“Honking Daffodil,” Isobel continued down the list.
“Functionally similar to mundane cousins, but they honk. Banned for cultivation in or around muggle communities, what with the honking,” Emily replied, slightly out of breath, as they continued to climb the steps.
“You’ve got it all down, Em, give it a rest,” Isobel sighed.
“No come on, keep going,” Emily insisted. “And I think you skipped geranium-comma-fanged.”
“See, you know it by heart!” Isobel cried.
LAUREL felt like their revision time sped by lightning-fast, and before she knew it, she was filing into the Great Hall with the other fifth years to sit her first O.W.L. The examiners had arrived during supper the previous night, causing a hush to fall upon every student in her year. Isobel’s mother knew Griselda Marchbanks, and Laurel wondered whether that relationship might be a leg up for Isobel. Then again, once she saw the stern old examiner, Laurel doubted it very much.
Too soon for comfort, it was time to turn over her test paper for her Theory of Charms exam, and Laurel wasted a few seconds closing her eyes and breathing deeply. This was it. She’d spent the last several months catching up and preparing, and now it was finally upon her. Without meaning to, Laurel had entered a perverse pact with herself: if she failed her O.W.L.s, she might as well give up everything and go back to the hexing—it would be all she had left.
The sound of fervent scribbling erupted around, so Laurel swallowed hard and read the first test question:
a) Give the incantation and
b) Describe the wand movement (if applicable) to impart a sense of cheerfulness.
Laurel rolled her eyes, and loaded her quill with ink.
After lunch, Laurel and the other fifth years waited in the chamber off the Great Hall to be called in groups for their practical exam. Isobel was nervously practicing color-change charms on her bootlaces, switching them rapidly through the rainbow. Laurel reached over and grasped Isobel’s free hand, causing Isobel to flinch before squeezing back—Laurel was too nervous to do anything else. She glanced at Tristan across the room, trying to catch his eye to offer an encouraging smile, but his head refused to leave his hands. Emily, who was levitating her hair to an interesting effect, had situated herself with her back to him. Finally, Laurel’s name was called.
“Braithewaite, Laurel—Bryce, Tristan—Cauldwell, Gwendolyn—Clearwater, Penelope,” professor Flitwick read from his scroll.
Laurel’s head shot up, tetchy from adreneline, before she retrieved her wand from Isobel.
“Good luck,” Laurel’s friends chorused as she joined the students clustered around the door.
“Alright Tristan,” Laurel said in a low voice, and he too flinched.
“Alright,” he replied after finding his composure.
“Professor Marchbanks is free,” Flitwick informed Laurel, and directed her over to the severe looking old witch.
“Miss Braithewaite?” she read as Laurel approached, and Laurel observed how professor Marchbanks’ eyes narrowed—could she have heard about Laurel’s trouble with Charms from the Mostafas?
“Yeah—yes. Miss. Professor,” Laurel stammered, but Professor Marchbanks had resumed her business-like manner.
“If you please, cast the appropriate charm to cause this wine glass to levitate,” Professor Marchbanks directed.
Laurel did as requested, and was pleased when she managed to set the wine glass down again gently, without it toppling over as Gwen Cauldwell had done a few spaces down. Ever since Laurel had surrendered her wand to Isobel, she found that it was working for her again.
Tristan seemed to be having a rougher time of it—he managed everything, but in his nervousness, cast each spell a bit too hard. His egg-cup managed a cartwheel display so enthusiastic that it shattered; the rat whose color he was to change became such a fierce shade of yellow that it began to glow; his wine glass shot up with such force that it smashed into the ceiling. Laurel willed herself not to be distracted and complete her own tasks, but she worried for him nonetheless.
Isobel and Emily came out of their practical exam together, and just as soon, the three were back up in the corridor studying for Transfiguration the following day. Emily was having a difficult time with vanishing spells, and her subjects tended to become translucent, rather than disappear entirely.
“It’s because you’re creeped out,” Laurel suggested. “It’s keeping you from casting the spell properly.”
“I can’t help it,” Emily moaned. “Where do the vanished objects go? What if they make me vanish an animal? It’s cruel!”
Sure enough, the following afternoon Laurel found herself vanishing an iguana—all but the very tip of the tail, which was disappointing. Her only other mistake was that the ferret she was meant to transform into a parrot became a cockatiel instead, but she hoped she might get at least partial credit for managing a bird at all. Other students were having a rougher time of it, to be sure. Penelope ended up breaking down in tears after her rat became a mug instead of a teacup, and had to be ushered out of the Great Hall to calm down. At least, Laurel was glad to see, Tristan’s mastery of Aguamenti seemed to impress his examiner.
Herbology on Wednesday went well enough, Laurel figured, but during the written exam she managed to forget everything she’d ever learned about Venomous Tentaculas. But Laurel’s main concern was Defense Against the Dark Arts the following day.
She and Isobel, and later Emily, had staged a sort of boycott of Squirrel’s classes, and they were hardly surprised when the professor neglected to mention their repeated absence to anyone in the faculty.
ISOBEL did fantastically, she thought, on the written portion of her Defense exam. After all, it had been her favorite class until recently. The trouble came when she was waiting to be called for her practical exam. Half of the students had already left the chamber off the Great Hall, and Isobel kept catching herself glaring furiously at the back of Squirrel’s turban. Eventually she and Emily were called, and Isobel experienced a disgusted shiver when she heard the words “Mostafa, Isobel” come out of the Defense professor’s mouth. Emily went so far as to shoot him a look of deep loathing. Isobel simply passed him into the Great Hall as quickly as she could, firmly avoiding any eye contact.
She had a harder time with her practical exam than she had had with the written one.
“Protego,” Isobel shouted, and thrashed her wand through the air so ferociously that poor, ancient Professor Tofty fell backwards in his chair.
“Better too strong than too weak, eh,” the bald little wizard said kindly as he righted himself again.
Isobel and Laurel only had Runes on Friday, which required no practical exam, leaving their schedules free from lunch on. They met up with Emily, who had been studying out by the lake (the weather had become unjustly beautiful just as exams began). Laurel produced a napkin-wrapped bundle of sandwiches that she’d taken out from the Great Hall, and divided them amongst the trio. Isobel was still absorbed in her test paper.
“I definitely, got the transliterations right, but I’m so confused about ac and æsc,” she complained. “Which one’s æsc?”
“Straight line with the two slanty down bits at the top,” Laurel said through a mouthful of sandwich.
“So what’s ac, then?” Isobel asked, brows furrowed in bewilderment.
“Nearly identical, ‘cept the topmost slanty down bit has a slanty up bit as well,” Laurel traced it with her finger in the air.
“What's the translation?” asked Isobel.
“Oak tree,” Laurel said.
“Ash tree,” Laurel responded. All three witches broke down laughing—their days of pent up anxiety finally giving way.
“I bloody hate runes,” Isobel wheezed.
TRISTAN had Muggle Studies, the only exam he particularly cared about, after lunch on Friday. His biggest issue was time management: he tended to spend too long, writing well over the minimum, on every essay question. What was supposed to be a simple paragraph on electricity extended into a lengthy treatise on the history of alternating and direct current, including a great deal of unnecessary biographical information about Nikola Tesla.
The practical portion of the exam was embedded within the same time block, and Tristan was deeply annoyed that the Wizarding Examination Authority found it acceptable for the Muggle Studies exam to be carried out less formally than the others.
The examiners roamed among the tables while the handful of students scribbled their answers, asking them to complete tasks like identifying the correct size of batteries, and inserting them properly into a remote control.
Professor Burbage reminded the students of the remaining time—fifteen minutes—and Tristan rushed to finish his detailed history of the British Parliament. In the remaining seconds left for the exam, Tristan sped through his identifications and demonstrations of various muggle instruments.
“Matches,” he struck one against the strip on the back of the book. “Makes fire.”
“Ballpoint pen,” he scribbled on his test paper to demonstrate. “Like a quill, but less annoying.”
“Casette tape,” he jammed it into the portable stereo and pressed play. “Would play music under different circumstances.”
Professor Tofty seemed impressed by Tristan’s knowledge, however terse, and Tristan suspected the examiner was simply taking his word for it. After Professor Burbage called time, Tristan absconded to the grounds to review his test paper.
To his horror, a little knot of Slytherins were relaxing by the lake, and Tristan made a wide berth of them. One of the big ones, either Vince or Greg—Tristan couldn’t tell them apart and didn’t care to—was throwing stones with the apparent intention of hitting the giant squid’s tentacle while it lolled on the surface of the lake.
“Father will make certain that I’m on the team next year,” the nearly albino first year bragged in a carrying drawl. “Nimbus has a new model coming out, and we’ve got connections with the manufacturer. I should be getting one before it reaches the public even.”
After several failed attempts, a particularly sharp rock made contact with one of the squid’s suckers. Tristan was surprised to see the great cephalopod shrink back as a result.
“Oi,” Tristan called, making a beeline for the three first years. “You knock it off.”
“Or what, Bryce?” young Malfoy asked casually, but his mammoth goons jumped to their feet and adopted their most menacing stances.
“Look,” Tristan rolled his eyes. “You can’t bully me, so don’t embarrass yourself by trying.”
“We could take you,” one of the gorillas bleated.
“No,” Tristan shook his head slowly. He took several steps toward the juvenile wizards until their faces were close, and the full advantage of Tristan’s height was revealed. “You can’t,” he continued in a dangerous whisper. “Because I’m older than you, I’m smarter than you, I’m crazier than you,” Tristan set his glare on Malfoy, who was still on the ground. “And I will fuck. You. Up.”
Tristan punctuated his sentence by jabbing the end of his Ebony Wand into one of the gorillas’ chest, singing a cigarette-like burn in the fabric of his school robes. The boy took a step back, and all three of the other Slytherins looked nervous.
“Now piss off while you can,” Tristan hissed, and the young students scrambled away from him.
EMILY’s most important O.W.L., potions, fell on Monday—which was ideal as it gave her the whole of the weekend to prepare. She only had Care of Magical Creatures, Astronomy, Divination, and History after, and being the least important, she decided she wouldn’t bother with any of them until the night before.
Her written exam for potions went superbly, and Emily was certain she’d managed at least a perfect score. When asked to name at least four uses for dragon’s blood, Emily listed all twelve. When Emily wrote about Polyjuice, she described not only the ingredients and effects, but detailed every point of the process, including which types of cauldrons required different brewing times during the fourth step of part one.
Emily’s practical exam went at least as well. She’d never worked on a potion alone, and she found that when she wasn’t explaining the process, or correcting the mistakes of a partner, she entered a nearly trancelike state. Emily started responding to the subtlest changes of the surface of her simmering brew, and improvised adjustments to her concoctions as if they were speaking to her in some private language.
When her syrup of Hellebore seemed too sticky, she raised the temperature under her cauldron to compensate for the viscosity. Emily also realized that the ingredients for her Draught of Peace were highly flammable, and so alternated clockwise and anti-clockwise stirs to prevent combustion at the higher heat. It worked, and her potion quickly adopted the perfect shade of turquoise and began issuing a silvery vapour.
Emily corked her last sample with time to spare. Her trance state broken, she became aware of the low level of chaos bubbling within the Great Hall. Oliver Wood’s cauldron was issuing disturbing plumes of grey smoke, but Archie Peasegood had it worse; his potion had adopted the consistency of cement. Even Penelope Clearwater and Percy Weasley, who had managed the next best potions, were fretting over stubbornly orange brews. A sulfur smell was coming from somewhere in the room, and just as Emily deposited her sample with the examiners, Tristan’s potion exploded, catching his robes on fire. Emily was sad for Tristan, but smiled to herself anyway; Snape would have no choice but to accept her as a N.E.W.T. student in the Fall.
Tuesday’s Care of Magical Creatures exam was a joke. Emily was totally unprepared to determine the proper diet for a sick unicorn, and sustained several painful jabs from a bowtruckle. At one point Emily was directed to a cage that appeared to contain several hedgehogs, and merely laughed.
“I’m sorry,” Emily gasped to the examiner. “What’s the question?”
It wasn’t all Emily’s fault, she reasoned. Kettleburn’s lessons were disorganized and his lectures were nearly impossible to follow. Further down along the forest’s edge Emily saw that Tristan had given up completely. He sat alone in a paddock with about twenty humming puffskeins, absentmindedly running his hands through their fur and gazing at the lake. Emily wished for a painful second that she could just join him, but pressed on demonstrating her abysmal Care of Magical Creatures skills for the examiner. Then again, she thought, none of the creatures had actually died in her care, so surely she couldn’t have fared too poorly.
Divination was equally daft. Emily’s written exam was perfectly acceptable, and she correctly matched most tea leaf shapes to their interpretations, but her practical was a load of bollocks. Emily concentrated on the crystal ball, the gentle rippling within refusing to do anything but ripple gently. She rattled off a load of nonsense about ‘a placid surface over teeming waters,’ and ‘secrets submerged’, certain that her examiner could tell she was making it all up.
Tristan didn’t even bother showing up for the History of Magic exam on Thursday morning. Emily was surprised by how intensely he’d followed through on not being arsed about the class. She pushed the thought out of her mind, and scribbled a brief overview on the Warlocks of Liechtenstein. It wasn’t until after the exam that they found Tristan in the lake.
The general consensus was that he’d fallen in.
Emily knew better.
When they found him washed up on the bank, pushed there, probably, by the giant squid, he was dressed in full muggle fashion. His favorite Joy Division t-shirt, his favorite blazer. He’d lost one of his wing-tip shoes to the waters. Tristan was barely breathing when they got him to the hospital wing, deeply sedated, and Madame Pomfrey almost couldn’t revive him.
Emily edged against the castle wall alongside the high cliff-face on the northern edge of Black Lake until she found the spot where he’d fallen. A flask, now emptied of the stolen potion, several cigarette butts, and his repaired stereo. These were the residue that distinguished the precise location where Tristan had sat, probably for some time, before surrendering to the water below. Emily pressed play on the stereo, and found the place where Tristan had paused the song. With it, a point in sonic time:
Oh no, love, you’re not alone, no matter what or who you’ve been. No matter when or where you've seen...
“Rock and Roll Suicide”--the last song on the first album she’d ever shared with Tristan.
All those months ago, Emily had taken a potion. She’d seen the fractal of time, how some moments pressed against others. Through the membrane, she’d sent him this song. This message: You're not alone.
But the message was a lie, and she'd broken that promise.
Isobel and Laurel were already sitting, somber, at Tristan’s bedside when Emily arrived. Even Siouxsie was there, lightly nipping at the unconscious boy’s finger with her beak. The three girls began crying, and pressed themselves together in a desperate embrace. There was too much to say, so instead, they said nothing.
“That owl must leave at once,” Madame Pomfrey insisted a quarter hour later. “This is the hospital wing, and no place for animals.”
“Just one second, I need to write a letter,” Emily begged.
“You can write it another time,” answered Madame Pomfrey, resolute.
“It’s to his mum!” Emily cried.
“The school has already informed the Bryces of the accident,” the matron sniffed.
Emily grabbed some parchment and scribbled as quickly as she could before Madame Pomfrey could stop her.
Come at once. Tristan didn’t fall.
A/N: I AM SO SORRY. I really hadn't intended things to go this way, but it sort of happened by itself. I realized that Tristan was showing all of the warning signs, and that it couldn't be avoided. And that I'd done all this subconscious lake foreshadowing! I CANNOT CONTROL THESE CHARACTERS.
1. “Rock and Roll Suicide” is a track off David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album.
2. Laurel’s experience with her Theory of Charms exam parallels Harry’s in OotP, and some of the language was loosely adapted from Harry's own exam—but none of it word-perfect (all rights to JKR anyway).
3. Of course, we know from Prof. McGonagall that vanished “objects go into nonbeing, which is to say, everything” (Deathly Hallows).
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