Chapter 17 : Back Again
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The Joker and Her
The rest of Brienne’s Christmas holiday passed quickly and without major incident. After that inauspicious evening, Stanley had not returned to the house, but owls came every few days bearing letters for Douglas. He would read them with a blank expression before either crumpling them in his pocket or burning them in the fireplace.
This was one of the few very subtle changes in his behaviour. For one, Brienne noticed that he had begun to tap his pocket habitually to make sure that his wand was there. The somewhat nearby sound of the London traffic had quietened slightly, which made Brienne suspect that Douglas may have performed some kind of protective charm around the house. He now did not leave Brienne alone in the house at all, and he duplicated food supplies before they ran out so they didn’t have to venture to the nearest Muggle supermarket.
Other than this, however, Douglas was cheerful and festive. He never betrayed any fear or stress over what had happened; in fact, he acted as if Stanley had never come over at all. He created delicious and hearty meals every day, and he talked and joked as his confused and sombre daughter wondered whether or not to play along. Her weight rose, and he performed enlargement charms on her clothes so that they would fit.
New Year’s Eve went by uneventfully with the two eating, pulling crackers and listening to other people celebrating on the radio. Brienne went to bed before midnight, kissing her father on the cheek and brushing a paper crown off of her head. They still hadn’t spoken about what had been revealed five days before, what Brienne had been supposed to hear or not.
Her own behaviour changed dramatically. She had still not come to terms with what she had learned and had pushed the terrified thoughts to the back of her mind whenever they threatened to surface. Her breathing would become shallow, her heart would pound and her hands would shake, so she tried to forget about it. She felt incredibly foolish because of this; her mother hadn’t sacrificed her life so that Brienne could panic whenever she saw somebody pass their house, so that she could shudder at the thought of going outside unprotected. This wasn’t like her; she wasn’t the bravest of people, but she had never been a coward. But whenever she tried to fight the fear, the magnitude of everything overcame her and she just felt tired. It was all too much. She was too young for this. She wanted to be tucked into her bed and told that everything was going to be all right.
The one beacon that she looked forward to in the future was returning to Hogwarts, as she associated the place with a state of being completely unlike the way she was now: happy, laughing, occupied. With friends who didn’t know anything about this. When she thought about Angelina and Fred’s flirtatious and joyful banter, of George’s wide smile that always looked taken aback, of Paisley and her sure and soft words, she could not help but feel her heart slow and her breathing even out. Surely, when she went back, things would change. She would stop needing to think about this. This idea was what warmed Brienne at night and allowed her to sleep; that and the strange comfort that the touch of her mother’s wand brought her at her most stressed.
On the morning that she was due to return to Hogwarts, Douglas woke Brienne with a cup of tea and a tray of crumpets. She was sprawled over the bed with her left arm hanging over the side. At the sound of Douglas pushing the door shut behind him with his foot, Brienne stirred and sat up, slotting her mother’s wand back into her bedside cabinet discreetly.
“Good morning,” she said groggily.
Douglas smiled, his eyes crinkling up as he did so. “Morning, my little girl.”
She cringed as he set the tray on her lap and set the tea down. He always reverted to little-girl treatment on their last morning together; she used to like it, but now felt like it was a little too much. A little hypocritical. She picked up the first buttery, jammy crumpet and took a bite.
“Are you ready to go?” Douglas asked, casting his eye over the room. He strode over to the window and opened the curtains; new, fresh light spilled into the room.
“Does it look like I am?” Brienne replied, squinting up at her father as he looked around.
“Ah, it’s not that bad.” He heaved her trunk from underneath her bed and opened it.
Most of its contents were still in there, but some items of clothing and books had been pulled unceremoniously out. Brienne watched in silence as her father flicked his wand a few times and some of her belongings flew from under her bed or from elsewhere in the house to land in her trunk.
Brienne gave a small smile as she got out of bed and stretched.
“Well, we’d better get our skates on; the train leaves...oh, in about an hour and a half,” Douglas added.
“Okay, I’ll get ready.”
Douglas picked up the tray and exited the room, still holding his wand in one hand, rubbing it between his fingers absentmindedly. At the click of her door, she slumped back on the bed for a moment, raking her fingers through her hair. Time to face the music. She was going back to Hogwarts.
Brienne wandered around the room, straightening the curtains and dusting the surfaces of cabinets with her hand. She looked out of the window; the sun was softly falling, delicate against the days-old snow. The sky was cloudless. She heard her father clattering about downstairs, and she felt a pang of sadness. She felt cheerless about leaving, despite having looked forward to this morning for over a week.
As they prepared to leave, Brienne shuffled down the stairs, her hair and teeth brushed, face washed, and dressed for the cold weather. She wore a crisp white blouse and black trousers underneath her cloak, with both her wand and her mother’s wand stuck in separate pockets about her person. Nyx was excitedly shuddering in his cage, Serge apparently pleased he didn’t have to go back to Hogwarts any time soon. Her trunk and shoulder bag sat at the foot of the stairs, and Douglas stood ready in the living room, staring sadly at the Christmas tree in the corner.
“We’d better go now, Dad. It’s not long, now,” Brienne said quietly, for some reason not wanting to jar her father from his thoughts.
He looked over at her, blinking. He straightened his tartan tweed suit and put his hands in his pockets -- making sure his wand was there -- and then he strode across the room to gather his daughter in his arms. She wrapped her arms around his chest and smelled his clothes. Dust, tweed, crumpets. He rested his chin on her blonde head and closed his eyes. What was said in that hug had been brewing for days.
The distant sound of a car horn stirred them, and they separated. Douglas sniffed and Brienne turned to dab at her damp eyes. They both sighed simultaneously, and Douglas gripped Brienne’s shoulder.
“Brienne, don’t be worried. I know we both learned a lot about what’s happened. But don’t think for a second that you’re not safe, or that both Stanley and I wouldn’t go to the ends of the Earth to make sure that whoever did this is faced with justice.”
Brienne raised her eyebrows; for a moment, it seemed like Douglas was referring to the more dangerous news, the news that she wasn’t supposed to know. But she knew her father; he was covering all viewpoints, making sure that she didn’t have to worry about a thing. He was placing all worry and responsibility on himself.
“I’m not,” she lied, her gaze flickering to the floor, “What is there to worry about?”
Douglas pursed his lips. “Nothing, nothing at all.”
They stood in silence for a short moment before bustling out into the hall, where Douglas cast a charm on the trunk so that it was lighter to carry. Brienne hitched her bag onto her shoulder and swept her gaze around the house. She’d miss the burgundy walls, the messy kitchen and the old feel of the place. Douglas lifted the trunk and braced it against his torso, now half the weight it was, and opened the front door. She put on a thick coat to cover her cloak, picked up Nyx’s cage and followed her father out of the door.
They Side-Along Apparated to Kings Cross from a small alleyway down the road from the house; they slipped a little on the ice as they appeared at one of the more popular Apparition points a few hundred yards from the station. There were many other families and groups popping out of thin air at sparing intervals, sporting trunks or just stuffed bags or suitcases. Brienne and her father made sure they had their belongings and casually stepped out of the dark alleyway and onto the street. The air was dim because of the thick, dark clouds overhead and Londoners magical and Muggle alike were shivering and pulling scarves and coats tightly around themselves.
Douglas gripped Brienne’s wrist tightly and cast his eye through the crowd; hundreds of people commuting, shopping and going about their lives. Brienne didn’t quite know where to look, and she felt awfully exposed as they carefully manoeuvred around the ice on the ground. Was somebody watching them? It felt like it. Douglas’ face took on that same blank expression, and their steps spontaneously picked up. Her heart pounded as they entered the station.
They piled Brienne’s luggage onto a trolley and made their way to Platform 9 ¾. Nyx was hooting loudly, trying to convey his alarm and surprise at the new surroundings. Brienne began to feel calmer being indoors, with a smaller crowd and Nyx’s endearing hoots. She looked through the throng to see if she could see any of her friends, such as the twins, or Paisley. She could see a blur of red hair, but it was long and frizzy.
“This way,” Douglas muttered, guiding her to Platforms nine and ten. Brienne knew very well where they were going, but it helped for her father to diffuse the tension.
They eventually came to the stone wall between the platforms, and they steadied their trolley. A clock overhead displayed that they had fifteen minutes before the train would leave. Douglas released her wrist to wrap his arm around her shoulders, bracing her, as they ran forward just after another couple. A couple of seconds later, they stepped out onto the platform.
The scarlet train stood majestically on the tracks, steam billowing up to their knees. There were many parents and family members surging in and out of the platform giving damp goodbyes to their children, most of whom were young. Students, some of which were already wearing their Hogwarts robes, were heaving their luggage onto the train and finding their friends through the horde. Nyx began to squeak loudly as his cage became obscured through the steam.
“I’m here, Nyx!” Brienne hoisted his cage up and soothed her owl, his black feathers standing on edge a little from fear. He squeaked as if in indignation and relief, and Douglas laughed.
“You’ll have your hands full with him,” he called over the horn of the train and the bustle of the throng.
“It’s all right, baby,” Brienne cooed, as they pushed through the thinning crowd to get to one of the doors.
She placed Nyx and heaved her trunk onto the small entrance passageway, and placed one foot on the train so that the door wouldn’t swing shut. She turned to her father. He stood, steam swirling around him, his hands in his pockets, smiling at her. Suddenly tears burned her eyes, and she didn’t want to leave. They would both be so worried without the other, wondering if the other was safe.
“I love you, Daddy,” she blurted out, unable to restrain herself from adding the more childish name.
“I love you too, Petal. Goodbye for now.”
And they were in each other’s arms again, briefly, unrestrainedly. She heard her father inhale deeply, and she got one last squeeze before the train conductor blew his whistle, signalling the impending departure of the Express. They released each other and Brienne quickly got onto the train and shut the door behind her. She stood at the door and waved goodbye, as she saw that a few other students were doing up and down the train; the Express slowly slid down the platform. She hung from the door window, catching the last glimpses of her father as he watched the train pick up speed. She waved and withdrew from the window as the train turned a corner.
It felt strangely nostalgic as she walked down the train; it felt like several years ago that she first was travelling to Hogwarts, instead of several months. She felt somewhat the same, if she replaced the feeling of depression with fear. It was almost as if she were going to enter a compartment and sit with Luna Lovegood. A few minutes after she began searching for a compartment, she heard a familiar Scottish voice calling from behind.
She turned, and saw Paisley Hamilton waving from a booth a small distance away. Her chocolate-coloured hair had been curled over the Christmas period, and was wearing some trendy Muggle clothing that no doubt had been presents. Glamorous emerald studs were in her ears. Brienne rushed over, finding herself beaming. They hugged, and stuffed Brienne’s trunk in the overhead rack. Amy was sitting by the window, her auburn head as equally curly as her sister’s. Brienne smiled at both of them as they slumped onto the seats.
“How was your Christmas?” Paisley exclaimed, patting her arm.
“Good, good,” Brienne replied quietly, averting her eyes for a moment. “What about you?”
“Great!” Paisley said, as if she had been waiting to say it. “Mum and Dad got me some curlers and- oh, right. Um, they’re like round brushes to curl your hair with.”
Most of what she had said had gone over Brienne’s head, but politely listened as Paisley continued, “And loads of clothes, and we went for this lovely meal at this place in the city.”
“That sounds nice!”
“Well, my parents can’t cook to save their lives. Except for haggis, which, I’m sorry, I was not having. There’s nothing like roast turkey and brussels.”
“Oh, I know. My dad cooked all day.”
“What did you get?”
A death threat. “Oh, some books. I loved the one you sent me.”
“That was great. And thank you for the dress robes! I had to explain to Mum and Dad what they were. They look really nice on me, actually.”
They talked for a long while about the various gifts they had received and what they had done over the holidays; Paisley cried with laughter when Brienne showed her George’s Christmas letter, and Amy gave an unexpected monologue about how her group of three other girlfriends pitched in together to buy her a new broomstick for Christmas, and how she was planning on building up her Quidditch skills before she would try out for the Hufflepuff team in her third year.
“Not a very expensive one, but it’s still my first ever broom!”
“Oh, listen to this,” Paisley gushed when Amy returned to her new book, “Guess who sent me a box of chocolates for Christmas?”
“The twins? They sent me some.” At remembering this, Brienne rooted in her bag for the Replenishing Chocolate Box, which she had barely put down in the last few days.
“No, but close. Lee!”
“The dreadlocked one! He sent me this heart-shaped box of little chocolates. He said it was because he lives near Diagon Alley so he could grab them on a whim. But I’m not stupid -- I remember reading about love potions in the library, and these chocolates smelled like lavender and cinnamon, so I didn’t eat them.”
“When did you have to read about love potions?” Amy asked sceptically.
“Your favourite smell is lavender?” Brienne asked, wrinkling her nose.
“They could have been cinnamon flavoured chocolates, I suppose,” Paisley shrugged, “But I’m not falling for that cheap trick. I know there’s some place in Knockturn Alley where you can get old love potions and food filled with it.”
“But Lee Jordan sent you a Love Potion!”
“I know! He wants me to love him then, apparently.”
The conversation lifted Brienne’s mood far higher than she could have expected. She felt thrust back into the world of school and gossip, and being a teenager; it reminded her not to try and be more grown up than she actually was. It also reminded her that she would soon see George and Fred again for the first time in weeks. The first time since George’s disastrous letter, since his acknowledgement of his possibly romantic intentions. They both were, in fact, on the train at the moment. They might even be looking for her. A strange swirl of nerves and excitement whirled through her, and even still she couldn’t wait to be back in school, to forget about the calamity of things that she had learned.
They nattered for the next couple of hours, during which they released Nyx from his cage and he took a very odd dislike to Amy, odd being because he had seemed almost unable to dislike anything. They talked about, in turn, Brienne getting her mother’s wand for Christmas, the difficulties of Paisley’s parents being Muggles and not being able to do things in a more efficient, magical way, and Amy’s internal debate about which Quidditch position she would most prefer to play in. The lunch trolley passed and they bought handfuls of chocolate and salty snacks so as to not exhaust Brienne’s box further.
As the day wore on, the Weasley twins did not find them if they had looked; Brienne imagined them strangely opening and shutting compartment doors wordlessly in search of her, purposefully puzzling the students within. Lee did walk past once, causing all three girls to go silent, but he apparently did not see them (if his second passing without noticing them was to be believed).
When the sky outside began to get dark and it wasn’t long until they arrived, Paisley and Amy closed the open screen to their compartment and changed into their Hogwarts robes, yellow ties and all. Brienne, already wearing her robes mostly, put on her Gryffindor tie and brushed her hair again. She put Nyx back into his cage and made sure she had everything.
“I’m glad I don’t have to go over the lake in this weather,” Brienne quipped as it began to sleet.
“It was a disaster when Amy started,” Paisley muttered, righting her hair. “She almost fell out of her boat and got her whole sleeve wet. She was half dripping through her Sorting.”
“Something pulled me in!”
They gathered the immediate belongings that they could carry and made a head start to the nearest door. As the Hogwarts Express pulled into Hogsmeade Station, they could feel several other students jostling around them excitedly, their owls and cats squawking loudly. The train came to a definite stop, and the three girls spilled out onto the platform. The ground was slightly icy, and Amy slipped, her arms flailing wildly.
Brienne beamed and turned to see the school. Hogwarts loomed over them, large and stately and warm-looking, with some orange lights flickering in the towers. She felt an unmistakeable sense of safety.
And then she heard them.
“Come on you lot, it’s only ice, it’s only frozen water. Look, whoosh! I’m skating!”
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
Fred and George, shouting and terrifying the first years, just as she remembered them. For a quick moment, she forgot everything that she had been worrying about. She was, well, not home. But the closest thing she had to it. She may not be completely safe, she may not be completely happy, but she was content. And it was the best that she could have ever hoped for.
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