The Joker and Her
Christmas Day passed in a flurry, and too quickly, it was over. Brienne awoke on Boxing Day to the salty smell of frying bacon. She lay in bed for a moment, staring up at the high speckled-white ceiling, thinking that twelve hours later she would be lying there again, only that time with answers.
She sat up, and her vision was abruptly obscured by black feathers. Nyx had flown through her bedroom window in the night and had evidently made himself at home; there were a couple of owl droppings and some feathers littered on the floor, and Nyx himself nuzzled his owner’s face enthusiastically before sitting himself on her headboard.
“Nyx!” Brienne got up and pointed at one of the droppings. “What’s this?”
Nyx shivered, not with fear or guilt, but with utmost excitement at the attention that he was receiving. He gave a soft but high-pitched hoot before flapping over to Brienne and sitting on her shoulder. She grinned, unable to maintain any anger at her new pet, and quickly took him up to the attic where she fed him.
Returning to her room, she picked up her wand and attempted to Vanish the feathers and owl droppings; they had been learning how to in Transfiguration in preparation for their O.W.L’s, and she spent the next ten minutes waking up her brain and concentrating. When she had successfully cleaned up and gotten dressed, she went down to the kitchen, where her father was eating an egg and bacon sandwich, the yolk running down his chin and into his blond stubble. Brienne thought of Fred and smiled.
“Mornin’,” he greeted, his voice muffled from the food in his mouth.
Brienne, who had picked up a sandwich from the tray on the counter, bit into it and replied in the same way.
They ate quietly, working their way through all of the sandwiches on the tray between them, standing, leaning on the counter. The day felt tense and formal, and Brienne was relishing it. They could have a proper Boxing Day tomorrow; for today was when she would get what she wanted. What she needed.
The hours passed swiftly; Brienne occupied her time by reading her new books and training Nyx. The small owl was tested by seeing if he could deliver small objects across the room to Douglas; he did it easily, though would quickly snatch the objects back and give them back to Brienne and would then quiver with anticipation as if waiting for praise. Brienne kept him at it until he eventually would wait until Douglas allowed him to return to her.
“How about you send him on an errand?” Douglas asked, groaning as he got up from the floor, Nyx excitedly picking up random objects from all over the room and dropping them at Brienne’s knees. “He seems to have gotten the hang of it.”
“I don’t have anything I need to se -- no, Nyx!” Brienne leapt up from the floor and swiped the wandmakers box from Nyx’s grip. Thankfully, the box that contained her mother’s wand wasn’t damaged, but Nyx perched himself on the sofa headboard, his large ochre eyes full of sadness and trepidation.
Brienne pursed her lips and stroked her owl’s glossy feathers. It was getting to the point where she could deny him nothing, her motherly instincts strongly taking her back to Beauxbatons, where she was constantly being protective over her cousin, Bernadette, who was older by eighteen months but was younger in almost every other aspect. She reminisced for a moment before gingerly taking her mother’s wand up to her room where she slid it safely into her bedside cabinet.
She then buckled down to her studies. She hadn’t been initially planning on tackling her homework until slightly later in the holidays, but the alarming volume of what she had to do coupled with her nerves about Stanley Meadowes propelled her into starting her more difficult tasks. After practising the spells she had been learning in Charms and Transfiguration, she turned to Potions. She had had particular difficulty in making a Confusing and Befuddlement Draught in their last Potions lesson of the term and was determined to perfect it, as Professor Snape had insisted that the effects, ingredients and method of the potion were all going to be in their O.W.L exam. Since Potions was Brienne’s favourite subject, she was determined to perfect her technique and to get an ‘Outstanding’ in her results.
She was halfway through the potion-making process, sprinkling some lovage leaves into her cauldron when her father entered, holding a teacup and saucer. He set it down onto the dining room table, which was spread with Brienne’s copper cauldron and small bags of scurvy-grass, sneezewort and the hairs of an albino squirrel, along with a pestle and mortar.
“Are you all right about today?” Douglas asked quietly, watching as Brienne stirred her grass green concoction.
She paused, testing the texture of the potion (which was bubbly and smooth, as it was supposed to be) as an excuse not to answer straightaway. “Yes, I’m fine.”
“Stanley will be here in about an hour for dinner,” Douglas stated. “It’s just the leftovers from yesterday and some gammon sandwiches.”
Brienne smiled in response; she was in deep concentration, heating her cauldron to exactly the right temperature. She knew he was trying to simultaneously soothe her and get her to finish up her potion by the time that his friend arrived; the atmosphere would not be helped if the dining table was splattered with salamander blood.
Forty minutes later, Brienne filled a flask with her completed Confusing and Befuddlement Draught, infinitely happier with it than she was on her last attempt. She corked the flask and ventured up to the attic, where both Serge and Nyx were lazily perched. Who to send? Nyx woke up, and gave another high-pitched hoot in greeting. Brienne couldn’t help but grin. She attached a scroll of parchment to the flask, giving her name and the potion, and offered her arm to Nyx, who gladly hopped onto her arm and stuck out his leg.
“Take this to Hogwarts
, OK?” Brienne said clearly, “Give it to Professor Snape.”
Nyx strained his leg, as if reaffirming his ability to complete the request. Brienne attached the package, fighting off the unexpected and irrational emotion that flooded through her; her Nyx was going on his first
Moments later, after she had set Nyx free to fly into the seasonably darkening sky, she turned to Serge, who had opened his eyes halfway to watch over the proceedings.
“You had better go with him and make sure he isn’t ambushed by any hawks.”
But Serge was already in flight by the time that Brienne finished speaking. It was apparent that she wasn’t the only one that was protective of their new companion. She stood in the attic for a moment, listening to her father clang around in the kitchen, before she shivered in the cold of the attic and went to get changed. Once she had meticulously scraped out the remnants of sneezewort from underneath her fingernails and changed out of her potion-splattered grey jumper into a deep red one, someone had knocked on the door.
She heard her harsh intake of breath and walked silently to the top of the stairs where she could see her father approach the door, wiping his hands on his apron. Brienne descended the steps and jumped as she heard the roar of jovial laughter from the men on either side of the door as it swung open. Douglas swept the visitor into a manly hug, setting him down as Brienne joined them. Her father thrust an arm around her shoulder and drew her forwards as Stanley Meadowes shut the door behind him.
He was as tall as Douglas but was thinner, had thick arms and his robes were on him snugly enough to display his lithe and lean figure. He had short and curly dark hair which fell over his eyebrows and ears, framing his face. He had prominent features, an easy smile and sharp brown eyes, and his face was fraught with frown lines, crows’ feet and dimples. Stanley had his hands casually in his pockets as he smiled at Brienne, and suddenly she had the faintest feeling that she had met him before.
“Nice to meet you again, Brienne!” His voice didn’t quite match his rugged appearance -- it was light, airy and cheery, and it confirmed her suspicion.
Brienne smiled back. “You too,” she said quietly.
“Come along to the living room, you two.” Douglas walked jovially to the lounge.
Stanley followed immediately, Brienne noticing that he had taken his shoes off to reveal thick grey socks. He seemed comfortable in the house straight away, and it occurred to Brienne that he must visit often during term time.
As they entered the living room, Brienne almost laughed at the effort that her father had gone to. The dining table that had been recently spread with Brienne’s potion ingredients was now heaving with plates of freshly made sandwiches, which were filled with gammon and mustard, gravy-soaked turkey and cranberry sauce, warmed-up potatoes, and some with the cheese that had not been finished after their cheese board at lunchtime. Jars of pickles and chutneys were squeezed into whatever spots were available. Stanley and Douglas were chattering away as they piled their plates high and sat at the dining table.
Brienne was slightly taken aback by this. She had expected this man to be foreboding, battle-worn, perhaps slightly older and more grizzled, certainly less friendly. He was a Head Auror, after all. Douglas had even told her that Stanley’s childhood sweetheart, Dorcas, the mother of his son, was struck down during the First Wizarding War by You-Know-Who himself, and that he had never remarried. She expected him to be grim and gruff. But the only impression that came from Stanley Meadowes was one of calm and confident insight. Brienne didn’t know if this information put her off, or at ease.
After she had piled her plate high (forgetting that she had had difficulty pulling on her trousers that morning) and sat down, she occupied herself with a cheese sandwich as Stanley filled Douglas in on the goings on at the Ministry.
“Paul chose to stay at Hogwarts for Christmas -- course, he normally does come home but he knows how busy the Department has been looking for Black...awful business, Dougie, the Minister’s at his wits’ end.”
“You weren’t on your own
yesterday, Stan?” Douglas looked incredulous. “Surely the Minister allows Christmas leave?”
Stanley grinned, his eyes twinkling. “Ah, things are so much simpler in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Most of us were called out up North yesterday anyway; apparently there was a sighting of a skinny, hairy bloke sneaking into a cave in North Yorkshire. Rushed up there -- it was only a tramp, not Black.”
“Do you know if it was really him who snuck into Hogwarts on Halloween?” Douglas asked, glancing at Brienne.
Stanley caught this look, and answered the silent question, “If it wasn’t Black, we don’t know who it was. No Dementors sensed any entry into the grounds, obviously. It could just be one of the students playing a prank.” He shrugged.
There was a moment of silence as Stanley drank from his bottle of Butterbeer and Douglas finished his last mouthful of sandwich. Brienne shivered slightly; she did not like this talk of Sirius Black, as it was a little too close to home. The idea of a murderer at Hogwarts was almost too frightening to comprehend.
Stanley set down his bottle and stuffed a hand in his pocket. He drew out a small pouch made of what appeared to be the skin of an animal.
“Do you remember my son, Brienne?” Stanley asked brightly, sinking his arm, elbow deep, into the pouch; Brienne thought he must have cast an Undetectable Extension Charm on it. She shrugged in response -- she knew his face from somewhere...
Stanley took out a brick-sized wooden box, not unlike a jewellery box, and opened it to reveal a stack of photographs. He rifled through them, stopping at one about halfway through the stack. He grinned, looking at the photo for a moment, and handed it to Brienne.
It was a photograph of two young children of around the age of five. One of them was a young girl with long, messy blonde hair cascading down her back, chocolate smeared around her beaming mouth, crumpling wrapping paper in her excited hands; it was undoubtedly Brienne. The boy that she had been sitting with had the same curly dark hair as his father and had eager green eyes; the children were sitting in that same living room, in front of that same Christmas tree that Brienne unwrapped her gifts under the day before. At seeing the child, Brienne felt a vague stirring of recognition, and her mind flashed to Hogwarts, where she assumed she must have seen this face also, without realising their history.
Stanley must have seen her eyes widen in recollection, as he supplied more information, “He’s at Hogwarts as well. Ravenclaw. The same year as you, I think.”
Brienne thought back. She had lessons with Ravenclaws in Defence Against the Dark Arts and Charms. She tried to match this boy’s face with anybody she may have seen in those lessons, but she supposed that she had been either too preoccupied or absent-minded to ever notice.
She handed back the photograph, and Stanley tucked it carefully back into his box, which he then drummed his hands on. Brienne noticed wedding and engagement rings on his ring finger; she wondered why he was wearing them if he had never remarried, and then she realised he must have never taken them off.
As if he had read her mind or followed her eyes, Stanley cleared his throat and said, “My son is in the same position as you. Except, well -- he knows what happened. My wife was strong, resolute, and extremely brave. She was killed by Voldemort himself, and she took six Death Eaters along with her.”
Both Brienne and Douglas gasped at Stanley’s use of the name. He seemed completely unfazed, though there was a shade of sadness in his brown eyes. His eyes flickered between Brienne and her father, before he continued.
“I knew your mother very well.” He grinned at Douglas before returning his gaze to Brienne. “And she was best friends with Dorcas. I want to assure you that I will do everything in my power to find out what happened to her, and why.”
“You mean you don’t know already who did this to her?” Brienne felt a swooping sensation of disappointment in her stomach, and her shoulders slumped.
“We have a few ideas, but they’re vague,” Stanley muttered. “The Muggle neighbours were walking past and they said they heard a loud sound that they thought was a gunshot. Oh -- a gun is a Muggle instrument that they use to shoot metal into each other -- it makes a loud noise. Yeah, they thought they heard a gun go off, so they called the Muggle police before the French Ministry could get there. Of course it wasn’t a gunshot; there wasn’t a mark on your Mother, and the loud noise was undoubtedly the killer Disapparating.”
Brienne was breathing extremely slowly and quietly -- she didn’t want noises of any kind to drown out what Stanley was saying.
“So what are your few ideas?” she asked breathlessly.
Stanley shrugged. “The French Aurors said that they noticed a young boy who was standing outside the crime scene along with the Muggles from the neighbourhood as the Muggle police left. He was described to be tall, six feet at least, about sixteen. He looked terrified, apparently. They couldn’t question him before he scarpered; there was no evidence that he’s even a wizard.”
Brienne tried not to let the disappointment show on her face, but then Stanley grinned cheekily and added, “Until.
“He was then spotted over a hundred miles away, in a Southern town. Only a couple of hours later, by the same Auror who was following up a lead on a different case. There was no way that he could have gotten there so quickly unless—“
“Unless he Disapparated!” Brienne interrupted.
“No, unless he Side-Along
Apparated. He would be too young to know how to Apparate alone. We checked the Muggle plane flights; there were none he could have boarded in order to be there at that specific time. So there’s no doubt.”
“So there were two wizards there...”
“So did you question him? The boy?” Brienne was becoming even more breathless through her greed for information.
Stanley shook his head. “No. We’ve thought it through a lot, and we don’t think that it was him.”
“How? It was a Muggle village, and two wizards were there on the same day as Zéphyrine was!” Douglas exclaimed, but he stopped the second before Stanley waved him down, still addressing Brienne.
“If you look at the crime scene evidence, everything -- and I mean everything -- indicates that your mother had anticipated the attack and that it was from somebody that she knew.”
“What crime scene evidence?”
“Her last spells were offensive against the attacker. She did try to defend herself before but -- Oh, I am sorry,” he said, as Brienne closed her eyes in pain, “The place was a tip, too, they had quite a fight. We think that she anticipated the attack, because--”
“Because she had her stuff ready to go, I know that,” Brienne said curtly.
“Yes and...Well, it was clear she wanted to protect you as well, Brienne.”
“She had all but welded your bedroom door shut. Nothing could be done to open it, only the most powerful blasting spells administered by trained wizards. She didn’t want the killer to know about you; there was no trace of you at all, no photographs around the house, which were found in her suitcase. It was pretty obvious that she didn’t think either of you would ever return to that house, whatever the outcome of the duel.”
“Someone she knew,” Douglas stated weakly, in disbelief.
This information waved over Brienne; so her mother had been betrayed. She had tried to protect her. She had
protected her in her last act. Brienne tried to prevent any tears from emerging, as waves of love for her mother washed over her. Douglas opened his mouth as if to protest, but made a sound of understanding in its place.
“Not someone she knew, but someone she...?”
“Someone she knew
,” Stanley completed the sentence, “Someone that she had encountered in her career as an Auror for the French Ministry. Probably someone who she had arrested.”
He looked between the father and daughter, who exchanged a glance of shock. Stanley cleared his throat again.
“We think -- and it’s really the only possibility there is -- that the person who killed your mother either Disapparated away separately from within the house, or--“
“Or was the person that took the boy back to his village,” Douglas supplied, resting his chin on his clasped hands.
Brienne let out a large breath. “What are you doing to find out which it is?” She thought she was being slightly rude to her father’s closest friend, but she was not sorry for it. Stanley and Douglas both seemed to completely understand in any case.
“Well, we’re not legally allowed to interrogate the boy anyway, until he comes of age.”
“He’s only sixteen, and both of his guardians stress that he didn’t leave his home that day. It’s our word against theirs. It’s in the hands of the French Ministry to decide what to do when the boy turns seventeen.”
Brienne felt her whole body tighten. “But you don’t think it’s him anyway.”
“No. And guess what?”
Stanley grinned, looking younger than he must have been. “We are
allowed to find out who did. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Brienne felt herself relax and smile for the first time. Stanley gave off a general feeling of experience and confidence, and took a bite of a sandwich that had been previously forgotten. Brienne looked down at her plate -- she had only eaten one of the four sandwiches. She no longer felt hungry. She felt exhilarated, like she had taken a hot shower after becoming filthy.
“I think I’m going to go to bed.” Brienne stood, fighting the urge to bow to Stanley like she had always been taught at her old school. “Thank you. Really -- thank you.
” Now she fought the urge to hug him. “Goodnight.”
“Take some sandwiches with you,” Douglas said softly. He stood and hugged his daughter gently. “Goodnight, sweetheart.”
“Goodnight, Brienne. I’m glad I have been of some help.” Stanley stayed sitting, his eyes glinting with some sort of emotion.
Brienne trod up the stairs, entering her bedroom to see Nyx quivering on her headboard as he had done twelve hours previously, returned from his trip. She beamed, shakily stroking her owl affectionately. She stood there for a moment, the lamps still on, now not tired in the slightest. She considered going back downstairs, and then she turned to go to the bathroom.
As she crossed the landing, she heard hushed voices downstairs, the old friends still chatting. A curious sensation came over her, and before she could comprehend why she was doing it she had quietly gone halfway down the stairs, within earshot of the men.
“-- don’t think I shared the whole story,” Stanley was saying.
“Doesn’t matter, Stan. I don’t mind if you want to leave out the more gruesome details. She’s only fifteen.”
“No -- I mean -- it’s important. I need to tell you.”
There was a pause. “Go on, then,” Douglas prompted cautiously. Brienne froze, noticing her breathing slow in a similar way that it had earlier.
Stanley cleared his throat for the third time. “Well, you know I mentioned that Zéphyrine had put all of Brienne’s photographs and such in her suitcase, ready to leave?”
“Well, when we got to the scene...the Muggle police didn’t touch it; it was found that way...”
“What?” Douglas asked, although he sounded like he already knew where he was going with it.
“They counted five shapes of dust on the tables and the walls where she had taken off the photo frames.”
“The suitcase was open, Dougie. And...there were only four photos in there, mate. One was gone.”
“They took one.” Douglas was breathless now, raspy in horror.
Brienne wished she hadn’t gone back downstairs.