Chapter 12 : Was It?
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The Joker and Her
The next day -- the first day of the Christmas holiday -- Brienne awoke peaceful and cheery for the first time in months. It was that day that she would be reunited with her father after months of separation. Although she felt like she had become accustomed to Hogwarts and all of its quirks- and she loved the company of her friends, and appreciated the peaceful preoccupation that came with studying for her OWLS- Brienne felt like she deserved a break, and she could think of no other place to spend it than her father’s home in London. She partly grew up there, having spent every other Christmas and summer with her father for as long as she could remember.
The day was fresh and bitingly cold. A clean blanket of snow had fallen overnight, and there was an air of excitement as students completed last minute packing and present-wrapping.
Brienne sat on her soft bed, fully clothed in her robes and cloak, her hair in a loose ponytail. Her bags and trunk were packed and ready. With her wand, she was lazily levitating her friends’ Christmas presents in the air, Angelina’s gift wrapped in red paper that she had bought at Hogsmeade, and George’s Ever-Bashing Boomerang wrapped in blue paper. All around her witches were bustling, bouncing on beds with their friends, getting dressed and venturing down to breakfast. With a sigh, Brienne pushed the gifts into her bag and followed, giving her dormitory one last sweeping look before going down to the Great Hall.
The Hall was decorated with massive Christmas trees that Hagrid had brought from the Forbidden Forest. Baubles hung in the air, and the ceiling was bright blue and cloudless, to contrast the snowy, cold weather outside. Every seat was occupied, and gifts were being exchanged between those who were to go home for Christmas. Brienne was sitting alongside Angelina, Fred and George, and was savouring the last Hogwarts food that she would eat for a while.
“Fred, you know you won’t have any dinner later if you have all that,” George protested, helping himself to a mere bowl of cereal as Fred devoured a full English breakfast. George added to the girls; “Mum always makes enough to feed a thousand.”
“My father’s an all right cook.” Brienne had already eaten a bowl of honey porridge and was now eating a bacon roll. “Even better with magic. But I fully intend to ransack the trolley on the train.”
Angelina was slumped on the table over the copy of the Daily Prophet that her owl had just delivered. “I can’t believe you’ve got me up this early to see you off. Couldn’t you just send me an owl when you get home?”
Brienne and George both stared at her blankly.
“You wouldn’t want Errol staring over at you when you wake up,” George stated, “actually, he’d probably fall on your head.”
“Serge is quite vicious,” Brienne agreed, “and I’ve already sent him to London so I don’t have to bring him on the train.”
“Serge is a lovely owl,” Angelina disagreed, “I was feeding him yesterday in the dorm. He didn’t scratch me once.”
Brienne frowned. “Well, I repel animals, apparently.”
“Because you’re so disgusting.” George grinned, and got up. “I’m going to find Lee. See you later.”
Brienne grinned back, deliberately avoiding Angelina’s gaze as George walked up the Gryffindor table to Lee. Fred emerged from his breakfast, a thin line of yellow egg yolk running down his chin.
“Whe’ are you two go’ a snog?” He swallowed. “We’re all waiting for it.”
“Hmm?” Brienne pulled her bag onto her shoulder. “What was that, Fred? I didn’t hear over the bacon rolling around in your mouth.”
Fred shot her a sarcastic frown as Brienne stood and hugged Angelina’s shoulders.
“I’ll speak to you later, Chuck,” Angelina said tiredly, squeezing Brienne briefly around the waist.
“Bye, have a Merry Christmas.”
Angelina’s response was distorted from a yawn, “Maaaaay Kissmas. Bye.”
- - -
As much as Brienne would have traded her new life for her old one, one component from each she would always prefer; from her old life, her mother, and from her new, Hogwarts and everybody in it.
It was less than half an hour before the Hogwarts Express was to leave Hogsmeade Station, and Brienne was standing in the courtyard that opened up to the Grounds. She was wrapped up warmly, and was just watching the Whomping Willow swaying gently, before gruffly shaking off the snow that had settled on its branches. The Lake was frozen, the black ice glassy, reflecting the castle in its depths; and the Forbidden Forest was feathery, jade, and festive. It was all so beautiful that she was astonished she was the only person there, savouring it all, before she had to say goodbye to it.
Brienne sighed, and was about to pick up her bag before George’s voice almost shocked her into slipping on the ice.
“What are you doing out here? It’s bloody freezing.”
Brienne caught herself on a stone pillar before replying. “Just...nothing.”
George raised an eyebrow. “Are you all right?”
He didn’t look convinced, frowning. Brienne felt a tug in her chest, his concern reminding her how she could tell the difference between the Twins: George was a shade more contained, collected, and sensitive than his brother. He was always concerned about the welfare of others when perhaps Fred was a little callous with his jokes. In this situation, Fred would drag Brienne inside against her will, though probably at her best interests in being warm; George would leave her to her devices.
“So, you’ll sit on the train with us?” George muttered. “Lee, and us?”
Brienne blinked, surprised. “Yes?” To her, there was no question about it.
“Right.” George scuffed his shoes on the ground, and unexpectedly the atmosphere became awkward.
Brienne sucked in some ice-cold air, and her eyes wandered. The conversation had never struck out so quickly between them. There were a few moments of silence in which the two of them stared across the grounds, admiring the view, before George huffed, and then grinned. Brienne grinned back, and George stepped forward.
Brienne had never known George to initiate a hug. The closest level of intimacy that she had seen him partake in was him squeezing someone’s shoulders; that was the closest that he had come to hugging Brienne, other than her overwhelmed crying jag in the Owlery, months before. So, it was safe to say that she hadn’t expected George’s arms to suddenly encircle her. Which was exactly why she hadn’t moved her head; and which was exactly why when George’s lips abruptly and softly brushed over hers, both parties gasped and stepped away from one another, wide eyed from the unexpected contact.
Within seconds, both George and Brienne giggled nervously, and Brienne removed her hand from her mouth, revealing pink cheeks. The tips of George’s ears had turned red, and she suspected it wasn’t from the cold.
“I didn’t mean to--“
“--I was trying to hug you.”
They laughed again, before Brienne picked up her bag, and the two went inside.
- - -
At last it was midday, and time for the train to depart from Hogsmeade Station. All of the luggage had been packed on board, and the platform was almost full of students, making sure they had everything and saying goodbye to friends that had bothered to accompany them to the station.
Brienne, Fred, George and Lee had found a compartment and were getting settled in; the four of them were heavily wrapped in fabric as the Twins had stolen their dormitory duvets and were sharing one whilst Brienne and Lee shared the other. Slicked shoes were kicked off, the window was shut, and the deck of Exploding Snap cards was being dealt. They played until they could feel the train moving and could see Hogsmeade Station slide from view. They all paused for a moment to watch Hogwarts disappear as they turned a corner, before continuing in tired silence.
Brienne’s mind was still reeling from the accidental kiss. She hadn’t been able to enlighten Angelina about the incident, and so was burning to unleash some sort of emotion. It was difficult to determine if George had let on to his brother or Lee about it, as they were all maddeningly acting as if nothing had happened. Brienne pressed her toes to the jar containing blue flames which was on the floor, acting as a radiator to the four shivering Gryffindors.
As the journey wore on, she came to the conclusion that George must not have told; Fred and Lee would have surely been teasing to help laugh the situation off. As it was, George acted completely normally; he didn’t look at Brienne if they weren’t talking directly to one another, and no matter how hard she tried she simply couldn’t face bringing it up in conversation.
So for some of the ride back to London, Brienne window-gazed, removed her outer layers of clothing which were wet from the snow, and absent-mindedly twirled her wand between her fingers.
“Brienne, are you sure you aren’t angry at someone?” Lee asked, as for the third time her wand had accidentally shot out red sparks or even fire that the three boys had had to bat off.
Brienne stuttered, “I-I’m not, I don’t know why it’s doing it.” She gripped her wand in her hand, glaring at it as if it had betrayed her on purpose.
Lee smirked flirtatiously. “What have you been thinking about, young lady?” He slung an arm around her shoulder. “Passionate thoughts?”
“No-thing.” She glowered, as Lee cocked an eyebrow sardonically.
Fred and George were both watching from the other side of the compartment, arms folded. Brienne shot a furious look at them, her disinterest at Lee not apparent to the latter.
“Give over, mate.” Fred sniggered. “I don’t think she’s floating in your direction.”
“I just wanted to cheer her up,” Lee objected. “She could do with a bit of cheering up,” he added in an exasperated undertone.
Fred’s expression faded, as his brother darkly muttered, “That’s not here nor there, mate,” at the same time as Brienne snorted, folded her arms and indignantly growled, “And what makes you think that you could cheer me up?”
George and Brienne glanced toward each other before the latter continued, “And what makes you think that I need cheering up anyway? Because I haven’t snogged you? Well, I can assure you I will never want to!”
Lee sat back, brushing his dreadlocks back, “Uh, uh...” he stuttered, stunned.
“It’s just a laugh, Bree,” Fred addressed softly. “He didn’t mean any harm.”
“Because it’s all just one big joke, isn’t it? The fact that I’m miserable and nothing’s changing?” Brienne paused to take a breath and swallow the angry tears that were surfacing. “‘Bree’s grieving, let’s take the Mickey! Let’s turn it all into a joke!’”
“Brienne, I didn’t mean--” Lee hastened.
“No, you never mean, but you still say it!” Brienne yelled, before she reigned herself in. She hadn’t particularly enjoyed her education at Beauxbatons, but if she had been taught one thing there it was composure. Keeping up the composure was something that she had unwillingly given up over time. Her lower lip trembling, Brienne blinked her tears away, gathered her things and stormed out of the compartment, leaving three staggered and silent teenage boys in her wake.
Brienne stalked through the carriages of the train, peeking in compartments in search of Paisley. She felt her heart hammering, and determinedly tried to control her breathing and calm down. She hadn’t meant to become so angry. What had happened to her day? To her cheerfulness?
Eventually, after walking through two carriages, she found Paisley, who was sitting in a compartment with her younger sister, Amy. Both Hufflepuffs looked up from their game of chess, startled at Brienne’s rushed entrance.
“Bree?” Paisley asked, puzzled, as Brienne shot into the room and slammed the sliding door shut behind her.
Brienne held up a finger to her lips, signalling silence, as she quickly peeked out of the compartment to see if anybody had followed her. Sliding the door shut again, Brienne huffed and sat beside Paisley, who peered at her quizzically. Amy, a second year with piercing green eyes that matched her sisters’, noticed that her game of chess was over and pulled the days’ edition of The Daily Prophet out of her bag.
“What’s going on then?” Paisley asked with a smile as Amy became absorbed with her newspaper.
Brienne groaned, and related the whole story to her Scottish friend, including the accidental kiss, George’s nonchalance, and Lee’s outright rudeness. As she related her day, she felt her pulse slow and her breathing calm, and Paisley soothingly ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ and scowled in all of the right places.
When she had finished relating her day, Paisley sat back, her arm resting on the back of the bench.
“So you don’t really like Lee, then?”
The frankness of the question and the obviousness of the answer made Brienne laugh brusquely. “No, I don’t.”
“Have you ever fancied Lee?”
Brienne raised her eyebrows in surprise and then frowned, and shook her head. “No, definitely not.”
A gratified smile played upon Paisley’s lips. “You fancy George then.”
“Uh, nuh...uh, no. It’s not a case of that.”
“You wanted the Twins to protect you.”
“Not protect, that’s a little bit dramatic, but...I don’t know, control their friend.”
“Especially seeing as George kissed you this morning and didn’t seem to mind that his friend made a rude comment.” Paisley noted.
“Yes. No! Um, the kiss was accidental, so...I don’t know!” Brienne cried, confused with the situation.
Paisley grinned knowingly, a twinkle in her eye. “Was it?”
Brienne was about to object, before there was a swift knocking on the door. All three girls -- for Amy had been listening furtively -- stilled and looked at the door, which slid open to reveal Fred, George and Lee all standing with their hands on their hearts and staring into space.
Paisley and Brienne exchanged a look as Lee entered the compartment and dramatically dropped to his knees in front of them. The offending boy threw back his head and recited theatrically, “I - Lee Jordan - apologise to you –Brienne ‘Bloody Gorgeous’ Christie – for being a bit too forthright with your blondeness, and frankly, a bit of a prat. Do you forgive me, the dreadlocked one, for my insolence and inability to resist your Frenchness?”
Brienne paused, sighed, and then nodded. Lee stood, and bowed ceremoniously. As he bowed, the train lurched slightly on the tracks and Lee flew into the seat between Brienne and Paisley, his head on Paisley’s lap. Everybody laughed, as both Lee and Paisley turned bright red and sat up straight.
“I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Lee Jordan,” Lee spluttered, his cool exterior shattered.
“I know, and we have actually met,” Paisley replied coolly, her arms folded. She was clearly uncomfortable and was openly determined to appear unfazed.
Brienne felt somebody slip into the seat on her other side, and turned to see Fred, crying with laughter at Lee. George perched next to Amy on the other side of the compartment, looking uncomfortable but smiling along with his brother.
They spent the rest of their journey in that compartment; after Paisley used a nifty Extension Charm on Fred’s bag so it could contain their duvets inconspicuously. Amy left to find some friends, and Lee spent the remainder of the train ride with his arm wrapped casually around Paisley’s shoulders; the latter of which remained cool and composed with the close proximity she had to an ‘actual boy.’ The Twins and Brienne sat in a relatively tense, uncomfortable silence with each other, only occasionally making eye contact and smiling awkwardly.
A quarter of an hour before the Express was due to arrive at Kings Cross Station, all of the occupants of the carriage stood and gathered their belongings; whatever Wizarding outer layers of clothing they used to keep themselves warm were changed and replaced with less conspicuous Muggle coats and hats.
As the fumble settled down, and everybody sat back down, Brienne felt somebody reach over and squeeze her knee. Before she could see who it was, they let go; Brienne saw George’s hand withdraw from her direction, and they fleetingly held eye contact as Brienne pursed her lips in a friendly smile. George winked from where he sat, and the two swiftly rejoined the conversation.
- - -
“Remember to write me, although your owl might have to rest at my place for a few days.” Paisley tightened her scarf slightly.
“I’ll send you your Christmas present.” Brienne grinned. “Have a nice holiday.”
She patted Paisley’s shoulder; the Scottish girl snorted and threw her arms around her friend’s shoulders.
Brienne grinned. “Bye.”
As Paisley blended into the throng at Platform 9 ¾, dragging her sister along by the hand, Brienne scanned the crowd in search of her father. She spun around when she felt a tap on her shoulder, and guiltily tried to suppress her hasty feeling of disappointment as she saw the Twins.
“Don’t you bugger off just yet,” Fred said as he picked Brienne up in a squeezing hug. “We’re not finished with you yet.”
“Prepare to be our testing rat this Christmas,” George stated. “We’re sending you some of the developmental prototypes of our products.”
“If we can sneak them past Mum.” Fred put Brienne down, and then tapped the side of his nose as she gave him a quizzical look.
“I’m going to miss you two.”
“Shut up.” George grimaced, and then exchanged a look with his brother. “Come ‘ere.”
Then George hugged Brienne again, for the briefest of seconds, before letting go. They shared a relieved look that acknowledged their mishap that morning, and George gently tucked a few escaped strands of her hair behind her ear. Brienne sighed, glad that they were on equal footing again. They parted, ‘bye’ing, and waving in the wake of a rather formidable looking, short woman who could only be their mother, whom they hugged and followed to the passageway to King’s Cross.
Again, Brienne scanned the rapidly thinning crowd, to no avail. For a moment, Brienne remained on the platform, her things at her feet, and reflected on her day and how quickly everything had changed. Six months before, she never would have thought that she would have spent her day fixating on an accidental kiss with a boy. She felt a clutch of guilt, and for a moment a layer of gloom passed over her. Brienne took a deep breath, and felt the pressure lift. Perhaps she was getting better.
She heard a scuffle of feet on the platform, a relieved sigh, and then a voice calling, “Brienne!”
Brienne spun around so fast she almost toppled over, and this time it was who she was looking for. And for a moment, words escaped her.
“Dad,” she croaked, a smile splitting her face in half.
They reached each other within an instant, and Brienne burrowed her face into her father’s neck, and inhaled the scent of dust and his tweed suit.
“I missed you, Petal,” her father exulted, speaking as though Brienne had gone away on purpose.
Brienne laughed, and in that instant -- hearing her father’s pet name for her -- nothing hurt at all.
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