If the weeks leading up to Harry’s birthday had been busy, the days leading up to the exams were pandemonium. Lessons doubled, not only the time spent, but also the intensity and amount of magic covered. Starting now before dawn, the professors and other instructors came at all hours of the day and night, the last not leaving sometimes until after midnight. To Harry and Ron, it seemed as though someone had installed a revolving door at Grimmauld Place, one that never stopped spinning from the steady flow of people preparing them for their N.E.W.T.’s.
Harry spent every waking moment making himself ready for the exams. He had not seen Ginny since his birthday party, but he had no time to think about how he might repair his relationship with her. To avoid getting behind, he pushed all thoughts except for those concerned with magic from his mind and at the end of each day he felt as though he had swallowed a double Draught of Living Death, often collapsing in his bed fully clothed. Even at night, he dreamed of incantations and potion instructions, robbing him of even a few hours respite from the incessant demands of learning.
As bad as the weeks were for Harry, though, they were hellish for Ron. Already behind by Harry’s birthday, he sank even faster in the accelerated schedule that preceded the exams. He struggled to remember incantations, forgot potion ingredients, and, on one occasion, could not even recall Hermione’s name.
“It starts with ‘H’,” Ron muttered one evening after the last lesson of the day, slumped over the dining room table, his head resting on his forearms. “Definitely an ‘H’.” A moment later, he was snoring.
Helpless, Harry watched as Ron fell further behind. Having all he could handle with his own studying, he still asked if he could help, perhaps staying up later to work on the things Ron was finding most difficult.
“It’s no use,” Ron answered, shaking his head. “If we get any less sleep, they’ll put us in St. Mungo’s instead of letting us take the exams. I’ll just take the damn tests and see what happens. At this point, I don’t care any more.”
The night before they were scheduled to take the exams, Professor McGonagall was the last to arrive. She looked nearly as weary as Harry and Ron felt, great dark shadows occupying the space between her eyes. She spent an hour going over the testing procedures, then conducted a comprehensive review of what they had learned, asking them both to perform the complex spells they would be required to know to pass their Transfiguration test.
Harry, when asked, successfully performed a Disillusionment Charm on himself, disappearing completely on the first try. Ron, on the other hand, only managed to turn himself an opaque, smoky color that Professor McGonagall had to fix.
“Mr. Weasley,” she said, collapsing into a kitchen chair. “You’ve made considerable progress over the past few weeks, but you will need to Disillusion yourself to achieve the necessary marks to be an Auror.”
“I know, Professor,” Ron said. He sounded defeated, already seeing his low marks.
McGonagall stood, retrieved her cloak, and made her way to the door.
“All I ask of each of you is to do your best,” she said, her words softened by her extreme weariness. “Regardless of what happens tomorrow, I will see you on the first for your Order of Merlin ceremony.”
“Thank you, Professor,” Harry said, opening the door for her. “Thank you for everything. You don’t know how much we appreciate what you and the others have done for us.”
Professor McGonagall waved off his thanks. “Don’t worry about it, Potter. Just pass your exams tomorrow. That will be thanks enough for all of us.”
Harry started to shut the door behind her, but another figure appeared on the doorstep before he could. Hermione, her bushy hair sticking up in all directions and dark circles beneath her eyes matching McGonagall’s, entered as Harry opened the door for her.
“How’s Ron?” she asked, her concern obvious in her voice.
“Go see for yourself.”
He followed her to the kitchen and found Ron staring into the fire. She sat in the floor at his feet, her troubled gaze fixed on his.
“I can’t do it,” Ron whispered, never taking his eyes off the fire. “I’m going to fail.”
Hermione took his hand in both of hers, the gesture making Harry think of Ginny for the first time since the birthday party. “No, you’re not,” she said. Her voice trembled as though she was on the verge of tears. “You’re going to do fine.”
“I think I’ll do okay,” Ron said. “Just not good enough to be an Auror.”
“Then, that’s okay. I don’t care if you’re an Auror.”
Ron turned and looked at Harry, his already bloodshot eyes rimmed with tears. “It’s what we wanted. Aurors. Together.”
“I know,” Harry said. He couldn’t think of anything else that would help the situation , so he said nothing.
Harry slept better than he expected to that night, due in large part to the exhaustion he was feeling from the near-constant lessons. He rose before dawn, however, feeling an unexpected calm now that the day of reckoning was upon him. He dressed quickly and went downstairs, hoping Kreacher would have breakfast ready early. To his delight, he smelled bacon and coffee and heard the light rattling of pans from the kitchen.
Making his way downstairs, he heard snoring from the drawing room and found Ron asleep on the sofa, his head resting in Hermione’s lap. Also asleep, she lay with her head back and mouth open, her right hand lost in Ron’s red mane. A copy of Advanced Defensive Magic rested on the floor beside her bare feet, having slid from her lap at some point during the night. Harry smiled and, again, allowed himself to think of Ginny. The image of her sent an uncomfortable pang to his stomach that competed with his hunger. Thinking of his own hand weaving through her red hair, he entered the kitchen.
Expecting to find Kreacher preparing breakfast, Harry was surprised to find Mrs. Weasley standing at the stove, flipping strips of bacon with slight movements of her wand.
“Good morning, Harry, dear,” she said as he entered and sat down. “I asked Kreacher to go out for some pastries. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry said, unable to stifle a yawn. “But what are you doing here?”
“It’s a big day for you,” she said. “Taking your N.E.W.T.’s. Your future as an Auror depends on what you do today, so you should have a good breakfast before you set out.”
Harry, repeating Mrs. Weasley’s words in his head, suddenly felt much less hungry than before. Watching her back as she tended to the bacon, he thought of Ginny again and, for a moment, envisioned her standing there instead of her and Ron’s mother.
“How’s Ginny?” he heard himself ask. His voice sounded as though it came from some other part of the room as though he was practicing ventriloquism.
Mrs. Weasley removed the sizzling pan from the stove and removed the bacon to a towel-covered plate to cool. Then, taking a seat across the table from Harry, she forced a smile.
“She’s fine,” she said. “The first couple of weeks were the hardest, but she’s almost back to her old self again.”
“Couple of weeks?” Harry asked.
Mrs. Weasley sighed. “Sometimes we hurt those around us more by what we don’t say than what we do.”
“I–it was only a moment of hesitation,” Harry protested, feeling as though he was shrinking in his chair. “It just took my be surprise.”
“What took you by surprise? That she told you she loved you or realizing that you love her?”
Mrs. Weasley’s question, put so directly, rendered him speechless for a long time while he considered.
“Both, I suppose,” he answered finally. “I’ve never had anyone to say it to before and–“
“I understand,” Mrs. Weasley said. “Those are powerful words if you’ve never used them before. It’s like trying an advanced spell that you’ve only read about in a textbook. Sometimes it takes practice, but when the time is right, it will come out on its own.”
Harry thought back to his third year at Hogwarts. Standing at the edge of the lake, watching Dementors swarming around himself and Sirius, he had conjured a Patronus for the first time, using a spell far beyond most students that age, one that he had attempted and failed at many times before. The Patronus had risen from him out of necessity. Would his feelings for Ginny do the same thing? Would he have an opportunity to find out?
“I’m sorry,” he said to her. “For upsetting Ginny. I never–“
Mrs. Weasley waved him off. “You can only do what your capable of, Harry. The time wasn’t right for you to tell her how you feel . . . and I know how you feel about her. You look at her the same way Arthur looked at me when we first fell in love.”
Harry felt a bit awkward discussing his feelings for Ginny with her mother and was thankful when Ron entered the kitchen, Hermione in tow. His red hair stuck out from his head where her hand had rested through the night.
“What are you doing here?” Ron asked, his voice hoarse.
Mrs. Weasley ignored her son’s rude tone and stood up. “I thought I would set you lot off with breakfast before your exams. You’ll need all the strength you can get.”
Hermione brushed past Ron, scowling at him as she did, and hugged his mother. Then, collapsing in the chair Mrs. Weasley had vacated, she loaded a plate with hot bacon and buttered toast.
Ron looked at Harry and rolled his eyes. Then, leaning over to compensate for his considerable height advantage, hugged his mother, as well.
“Thanks, Mum,” he said. “I’m starving.” He took the chair next to Hermione and, copying her, fixed a plate of his own.
“You three be sure to come by after the exams,” Mrs. Weasley said, moving toward the kitchen door. “And don’t forget, Ron, that tomorrow is Ginny’s birthday.”
Mrs. Weasley spoke to her son, but looked at Harry as she said the words, giving him an almost imperceptible nod. There’s your chance, she seemed to be saying to him.
“I won’t,” Ron said, his mouth full of food.
Mrs. Weasley left, leaving the three of them in the kitchen, silent except for the sounds of forks on plates and chewing.
Hermione reached into the chair beside her and pulled out the morning’s copy of the Daily Prophet. Unfolding it, she stared at the front page and gasped.
“There’s been another bombing,” she said.
Harry, lost in contemplation over Ginny, bolted upright in his chair. “What? Where? When?”
“Yesterday,” she answered, her eyes darting back and forth as she scanned the print. “A Muggle market in Cardiff. Seven people killed.” She handed the paper over to Harry, who scanned the article himself, then flipped it to search for any more information relevant to the bombing.
“Here’s an interview with Dawlish,” he said. A picture showing the Head Auror talking to reporters, his silently moving mouth drawn up into a mild sneer as he spoke, took up a good deal of space on the front page. “He says the Aurors are doing everything within their power to find those responsible for the killings.”
“Yeah,” growled Ron. “I bet he is.”
Harry agreed with Ron’s sarcasm, but did not answer. “Dawlish says the bombers are enchanting ordinary Muggle items and setting them to explode after a certain amount of time,” he said, still reading. “They could see someone leaving an umbrella at the Muggle shop that exploded a few weeks ago, right before it blew up and killed four people. Video cameras.”
Ron gave Hermione a puzzled look.
“Muggle devices that . . . oh, never mind,” she said, waving her hand. She turned back to Harry. “They must be using some sort of delayed form of Expulso or Confrigo, only more powerful. It’s something that would take a very skilled wizard to perform properly.”
“Speaking of very skilled wizards,” Ron said, looking at his watch. “We better hurry or we’ll miss our exams.”
Harry checked his watch as though he doubted the accuracy of Ron’s. “Yeah, if we’re late and miss the exams, Dawlish wins.”
When they arrived at the Ministry, painted signs, their words flashing in different eye-catching colors, directed the three of them to the area of the building where the exams were being conducted. The corridor leading to the testing facility had a musty, unused smell to it that matched the uncommonly dim lighting. Harry got the sense that few people passed this way and those that did came rarely.
They came to a small table with a solitary, young wizard sitting sullenly behind it. Holding a copy of the Quibbler in his hands, he did not even look up at the three people approaching. Before him lay an open registration book and a trio of nametags.
“Sign in and find your nametag. Then proceed through the doors for your examination,” he said, his voice a bored monotone.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione did as they were instructed and entered through a pair of double doors behind the wizard. The hall beyond was set up much like the Great Hall at Hogwarts had been for their O.W.L. exams, except that this room was slightly smaller and had no windows, giving it, despite its considerable size, a cramped feeling. The only illumination in the room was provided by amorphous balls of light suspended above the rows of tables along the stone floor.
“Very good,” said a familiar voice as they entered. Griselda Marchbanks, the head of the Wizarding Examinations Authority, tottered up to them. “Potter, Weasley, and Granger. Please follow me.”
They followed Professor Marchbanks to the center of the room where another dozen students stood gathered around a central table. Harry recognized a few of them from Hogwarts, including Dean Thomas, their fellow Gryffindor who had missed most of his seventh year, as well.
Ron started to greet Dean, but Marchbanks cleared her throat and, except for the thumping hearts of those about to take the exams, brought absolute silence to the room.
“Now,” Professor Marchbanks began, her voice echoing in the dim chamber. “all of you have passed your O.W.L. examinations and the process for the N.E.W.T. is very similar. You will have two exams for each subject except for those subjects like History of Magic where one will suffice to determine your grasp of the content. As there are sixteen of you here, you will be rotated in groups of two from station to station, first completing the written exam, then the practical exam, until you have completed all the exams you have registered for. Again, any attempt at cheating will result in automatic failure of all your exams We will take an hour-long break for lunch at noon before returning here to complete the exams. Any questions?”
No one had any questions or if they did, they were too close to vomiting to ask. Satisfied, Professor Marchbanks set about dividing the test-takers into pairs according to which exams they were taking and sent them off to begin.
Harry was paired with a pretty, dark-haired young witch and sent to a table in the far corner to begin his Potions examination. He could feel the eyes of the witch upon him as he sat down and, though he was used to being stared at, found her steady gaze unsettling. Still, he blocked out all else except his lessons with Professor Slughorn and, at a word from the examiner, turned his booklet over and read the first question.
The morning passed in a haze of bubbling cauldrons, difficult questions, and complex spells. From Potions, Harry went to Charms and from there to Transfiguration. Having only his examinations to worry about instead of the constant threat of Lord Voldemort or, as during his O.W.L.’s, Dolores Umbridge, Harry grew more confident as the day wore on, performing most of his attempted spells with a precision that surprised even him. Even those he felt less sure about, those he felt he had to pry from his exhausted memory, performed adequately well to at least keep him from being disgraced in front of his attractive partner.
At noon, the exams halted for lunch. Professor Marchbanks made picnic tables appear out of thin air in the middle of the spacious room and the test takers collapsed onto the benches for a brief reprieve from their strenuous schedules. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were joined by Dean at one table as plates full of sandwiches materialized between them.
“I thought I might see you three here,” Dean said, taking one of the sandwiches from the pile. “You spent about as much time at Hogwarts last year as I did.”
Ron pulled a sandwich onto his own plate, stared at it, and sighed. “I think I should have gone back.”
“Don’t be absurd, Ron,” Hermione said, her voice buoyant. Hermione had already taken two more tests than the rest of them and Harry could tell she felt she was doing well. He had seen her racing back and forth across the room all morning, sitting down and writing furiously on the written exams, and flashing her wand with blurry precision for the practical tests. “I’m sure you’re doing fine.”
Ron picked up his sandwich, stared harder at it, sighed again, and put it back down. To Harry, this served as a bad omen–he had rarely seen Ron turn down an opportunity to eat.
“Who’s that girl you’re testing with?” Dean asked Harry, leaning forward and lowering his voice so they would not be overheard. “Did you get her name?”
Harry turned involuntarily and found the dark-haired witch staring at him. She sat with a few other students, but slightly apart, it seemed, so that she could better see Harry.
“She’s staring at you, Harry,” Dean added, following Harry’s gaze. “Maybe you should go over and talk with her.”
“Maybe he shouldn’t,” Hermione said, her voice carrying almost as much venom as the glare she gave Harry. “He’s still dating Ginny.”
“Yeah, well,” Dean said, sitting back, “good luck with that. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great girl and all,” he said, nodding to Ron, who took no notice, “but she has quite a temper on her.”
“Yeah, I–” Harry began.
“He knows first hand,” Hermione said, her narrowed eyes still fixed on him. “But she only shows her temper when someone really deserves it, right Harry?”
Harry felt himself blushing and turned his attention to his own sandwich. He tried to focus on Ginny, to take advantage of his few moments of exam-free time to consider the error he had made on his birthday, but he could feel the eyes of the dark-haired witch upon him from behind and had to force himself not to turn around to look at her.
Dean turned the conversation once again, this time to Quidditch. “Ron, did you hear that the Cannons have a new seeker.”
At this, Ron showed the first signs of life in days. “Really?” he asked, his mouth half-full of ham and cheese. “They replaced Warren?”
“They did,” Dean confirmed, “but they won’t say who they’ve signed to replace him. They say it’s a big secret, but word has it they might be contenders for the Cup this year.”
Ron snorted. “They have about as much chance of winning the Cup as I have of gaining an Outstanding on all these exams.”
“Oh, Ron,” Hermione sighed, her glare at Harry fading into exasperation as she turned to Ron.
Ron opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by Professor Marchbanks. “All right, everyone. Please finish so we can begin the second half of your examinations.”
Slowly, the students all stood, stretching and yawning from their meals. Ron took a final look at his half-eaten sandwich, and set it down on his plate just as the plate and sandwich both disappeared. Closing his eyes and grimacing, he stood up from the bench, pulled out his wand, and joined the others.
Harry watched Ron shuffle off toward the station for Charms, wishing he could do more to help his friend. The main difference between Ron achieving the necessary scores and not, he knew, lay more with his confidence than with his ability. Sighing, he made his way over to the testing station for Herbology and found the dark-haired girl waiting for him.
“You’re Harry Potter.” Her words, spoken in a melodious Irish accent, formed a statement rather than a question, but Harry felt compelled to answer.
“That’s right.” He peeled his eyes off her and tried to clear his mind to focus on the upcoming test. The Herbology examiner stood a few feet away amidst a forest of exotic plants, some waving menacing, barbed fronds perilously close to the old wizard’s hat.
He expected the young witch to say more, but she did not and, for that, Harry was relieved. The examiner turned to the two of them and smiled, waving his hand in a beckoning motion toward two desks before him. Harry sat down, giving Ron a glance over his shoulder as he did. He saw the red head leaned down over hunched shoulders and the top of a quill bobbing furiously as Ron answered questions.
Herbology proved, for Harry, to be the most difficult subject of the day. He felt the written test went well, but when the time came for the practical exam, his confidence sank. In the process of repotting a sapling Whomping Willow, he took a nasty uppercut to the chin and was nearly knocked unconscious. Still, he managed to perform all of the necessary tasks with some level of success and received a hardy handshake from the examiner at the conclusion of the test.
Finally, Harry moved to the station for Defense Against the Dark Arts. Waiting for him, he saw, was Professor Tofty, the aged wizard who had performed his O.W.L exam in the same subject. He reached out with his knotted hand and shook Harry’s.
“I realize this is just a formality, Mr. Potter,” Professor Tofty said in his high voice, “but we must follow protocol.”
Harry had waited the entire day for this exam and was glad that he was taking it at the end of the day. He felt as though his brain had turned to bubotuber pus and taking the Defense Against the Dark Arts exams were comfortable, like meeting an old friend. He answered every question on the written part with such strong, concise responses that he thought Hermione would have been impressed. During the practical exam, he thought of Dawlish’s expression as he denied his and Ron’s entry into the ministry, and performed all his spells with an exactness that impressed even the venerable Professor Tofty.
“Well, I see that your Patronus from two years ago was not a fluke,” he said, smiling at Harry. Harry had again cast forth his stag Patronus to canter around the room, this time as part of the exam instead of as an added bonus.
Relieved that the exams were over, Harry sat off to the side as the dark-haired witch followed him with her practical test and he was surprised to see how she struggled with some of the spells. In her previous tests, she had performed as well as Harry or better, but now she had difficulties performing the counterjinxes and defensive spells necessary to pass. In particular, her attempts at producing a Patronus proved ineffective, producing only a thin, white mist.
Looking about the room, Harry found Ron across the room finishing his Transfiguration exams. He looked ill, even from such a distance, and Harry could tell by the slow wand movements and poor posture that test was not going well. When it ended, Ron shook hands with Professor Marchbanks and walked over to where Harry sat waiting.
“You think anyone would notice if I through myself off the building?” Ron asked, collapsing into a chair beside him.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Harry said, hearing a trace of Hermione in his voice.
Ron apparently heard it as well, looking up to see the bushy brown mane of hair stirring rapidly at the Potions station. With a flourish, she removed her wooden spoon, checked her results, and slid the result toward the examiner, who smiled and nodded. Hermione jumped up and down in place, then spun around looking for Ron.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, gasping for breath in her excitement. She sat down next to Ron. “I never managed to get that one to work in practice. I guess I just needed the pressure of N.E.W.T.’s to inspire me.”
Ron sighed and studied his lap.
“Ron, I–” Hermione began, but could not finish before she looked up and saw Professor Tofty beckoning for her. She leaned forward and kissed Ron’s cheek, drawing no response whatever from him. “Wait for me.” She hurried off for her Defense Against the Dark Arts test.
“Wait for her?” Ron asked without looking up. “Does she want to jump off the building with me?”
It was early evening before Hermione finished, arriving in the waiting area outside out of breath, but jubilant. She wrapped her arms around Ron and kissed him on the cheek again. “I’m sure you did fine.”
Ron shrugged and said nothing, but the look on his face told Harry that he was sure of the opposite.
They turned to leave, but someone called out Harry’s name. When he turned, he saw the dark-haired witch hurrying toward him. He stopped and waited for her to approach.
“Harry?” Hermione whispered, her voice thick with warning. “Think about Ginny.”
Harry tried to think about Ginny, but as he looked into the almost-black eyes of this strange girl, he felt himself drawn into them, as though they were expanding to fill every bit of his vision.
“I’m Cecelia,” she said, sounding as though Harry had asked. “I saw your Patronus and . . . was . . . hoping you might show me how to do one sometime.” She held a folded slip of paper and placed it in Harry’s hand, never taking her luminous eyes off his. Then, she slipped away, breaking the connection between them, and went back into the exam room.
Harry stood limp for a minute, then shook his head as though waking from a Stunning Spell. He looked at the paper in his hand and stuck it in his pocket.
“I know you are not keeping that,” Hermione hissed at him.
“What?” Harry asked, falling back from Hermione’s anger. “No!” He reached back in his pocket and found the folded paper amidst a few pages of notes he had brought with the intention of studying during lunch. Instead of retrieving it, though, he grabbed a page of his notes, folded it inside his pocket, and pulled it out.
“See?” he said, flashing it before Hermione. “Going into the trash.”
Hermione studied him for a moment, then turned back toward Ron. “If another girl ever hits on you, you better do the same thing.”
Ron looked at Harry, his eyes widening as he recognized the deceit. Instead of the explosion of rage he expected, a tiny grin curled the corner of his mouth.
“Don’t worry,” he said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders, “I’d do exactly what Harry just did.”