Chapter 20 : Information
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The Joker and Her
They all spoke at once.
“What in the name of Merlin’s pink knickers are you talking about?!” Fred exclaimed.
“Just because they took a photo doesn’t mean...!” Angelina spluttered.
“Die? What do you mean, die?” George asked, his eyebrows furrowed. He sounded as if he had never even heard of the concept.
Fred straightened up from his crouch and began to pace around the room, his face screwed up in confusion. Angelina was staring, eyes wide, a finger resting on her lip thoughtfully. George’s gaze drifted to the floor before raising right back up, looking perplexed.
Brienne had her head in her hands, stunned. She couldn’t believe what she had just blurted to her friends. Her breathing was still uneven, and she could feel the beginnings of tears trickling from the corners of her blue, bloodshot eyes. What on Earth had she been thinking? Her body felt deflated from the release of pent-up pressure. And then the truth of what she had said hit her again, and she suddenly felt very weak.
“Brienne, y-you don’t have to think that way. It could be a coincidence,” Angelina muttered quietly.
“Nobody’s going to kill you. What good would you be to anyone dead?” Fred yelled to the room in general, “I mean—I didn’t mean that, I meant...why would anyone want to kill you?”
Brienne removed her hands from her face and watched her friends with bleary eyes as they spoke to each other. They were muttering together now, trying to deconstruct what she had said and negating it. She wasn’t sure if they were doing it for her benefit or for theirs.
“Let’s just forget this now, let’s just forget it.” George turned to Brienne, looking her in the eye with an honesty that surprised her. “Are you OK?”
She raised her eyebrows, and opened her mouth to speak. Brienne was determined to say something brave, but what emerged was merely a croaking noise from her dry throat.
George immediately shuffled forward on his knees and pulled Brienne against his chest. She heard Angelina give a wistful “Oh,” and Brienne closed her eyes.
“You don’t have to be scared -- there’s no point at all,” he whispered in her ear. The warmth of his breath made her want to push herself closer to him. “Whatever happens, happens.”
Brienne screwed her eyes up tightly, commanding herself to calm down. Her hands were fists on his back.
Angelina turned to Fred, one hand resting on her mouth, concerned. “Sh-should we take her to see McGonagall? Or Dumbledore?”
Her heart hammered. “No, it’s OK,” she rasped. Brienne knew they must be aware of the situation already.
George drew away and held her at arm’s length. “Are you sure?”
Brienne nodded. She knew her friends needed more of an explanation, but she couldn’t face it. She wasn’t sure her throat was up to it. George braced her as they stood.
Fred stepped forward and slung an arm around her shoulder. “OK, well, you can sleep on it. You look knackered. Probably not best to drag her around the castle after what’s happened tonight, anyway,” he added to Angelina in an undertone.
They walked toward the dormitory staircases and bade each other goodnight, both twins looking stressed and concerned. Brienne knew it wasn’t just for her; their brother was obviously the more pressing concern, having actually had an attempt against his life.
Angelina and Brienne stepped back to their dorm quietly, the patting of their feet on the stone steps all they could hear. Brienne felt floppy, the ghost of her cold thrumming through her veins. It felt like years ago that she’d been sitting in her bed and doing her homework.
They reached their dorm, some of the lamps still on. The other fifth years were all lying in their beds, wrapped tightly in their sheets, eyes open, but none of their curtains draped across. None of them hiding the fact that nobody would sleep that night. Brienne saw Angelina purse her lips as they reached their neighbouring beds; she knew Angelina would want to talk, to reassure her, but with their classmates awake and listening, it was no longer an option.
She climbed into her bed and collapsed on her pillows, turning away from Angelina’s bed as she shut her eyes tightly. Throughout her she felt like a rubber hose, floppy and empty, emotionally wasted. Steadily, gradually, Brienne felt her body relax, and as she heard the sounds of a creature howling in the woods, her buzzing brain stilled, and she fell into sleep.
The day broke, and with it brought tentative sunshine streaking through thin clouds. A fresh blanket of snow had fallen overnight, and the dim sunlight reflected the snow brightly. Brienne awoke at daybreak and stretched. She lay on her bed for a moment, arms splayed out, before she sighed and groaned as she sat up, supposing she had to get up sometime.
The rest of the dormitory was empty, most of the other girls having left their beds unmade. Brienne knew it wasn’t the end of speculation and worrying about what had happened the night before to Ron, and that the atmosphere in the boy’s dormitory must have been much worse. She felt a rush of guilt for her outburst, especially for Fred and George. As much as she was scared for herself, it was nothing compared to how they must now feel, trapped between being anxious for their brother and concerned about her.
After having a wash, she dressed in a thick grey jumper and some soft turquoise shorts and slouched downstairs, her hands shoved in the pockets of her jumper.
The Common Room was fuller than she expected, almost as full as it was in the evenings after dinner. The debris from the party the night before had been cleared away, but all of the tables were spread with fresh snacks and bottles of drinks. As she walked across the room towards Angelina by the fire, she felt a chill run down her spine; conversation between the Gryffindors was a very low hum, some people silent and staring into their laps.
“Good morning,” Brienne greeted quietly, slipping into the armchair next to Angelina’s.
Her friend turned her head and grinned before her eyes returned to the essay on her lap. She ate from a bowl of cereal she held in her hands, her dark hair in curtains around her face.
“Where are the boys?” Brienne asked.
Angelina swallowed. “They went down to breakfast with Ron and Harry. I s’pose they want to make him feel better. But as soon as they get back here, he’ll be shaking in his little third-year shoes again.” She gestured towards the room behind them, and Brienne nodded in agreement. The way things were, this atmosphere would not help anything.
“And also, we’ve all got a curfew now,” Angelina went on, “Have to be back in the dorm practically as we swallow our dinner.”
Brienne knew she was putting off the inevitable conversation. She sat back as Angelina returned to her homework, her stomach churning, waiting for it to come.
Fred and George arrived back from breakfast before it did. The portrait hole opened, and the twins entered along with Lee and Ron, the latter moving off to another part of the Common Room with his friends.
“Well, Ron’s better,” Fred announced as he collapsed into one of the armchairs, “He’s loving all the attention he’s getting, surviving an attack by a blood-thirsty killer.”
“If we knew that, we would have attacked him a long time ago.” George dropped his bag onto the rug in front of the fire and slumped down beside it. He pulled out some rolls of parchment and a textbook and sighed. “No rest for the wicked.”
Brienne waited tensely as Fred started some homework as well. An errant thought flitted through her mind that they must be feeling awkward about the situation if Fred and George were doing homework under their own steam.
Lee slumped into the last armchair and began to chatter on about the Quidditch match the day before and the following party, leaving out the more worrying events following afterward. Though Brienne knew he was a master at covering up difficult atmospheres, she also knew there was no way he could know about her own personal problems, and she felt a flush of gratitude that nobody had told him. She was mortified enough that she had let anybody in on her own crisis; she didn’t want anybody else getting involved.
After a few minutes Brienne heaved a quiet sigh and went to retrieve her bag from the dormitory. If you can’t beat them, join them. Even considering her anxious state, she finished all of her homework before the others did. She knew that they had practised very hard for their Quidditch game and hadn’t had as much spare time as Brienne to work. By lunchtime, she had gone through all of her essays and worksheets a couple of times, correcting and changing as she went. It was boring work, but it never distracted her from the elephant in the room.
At twelve fifteen, Fred stuffed his books back into his bag and stretched his arms, groaning loudly. “I hate homework. I’ll be happy when the OWLs are over.”
“Then we have NEWTs,” Angelina mumbled.
“Oh, we won’t bother with NEWTs,” George said. “You don’t need them to open a sweets shop.”
“I thought you wanted to open a joke shop!” Angelina asked.
“A jokey sweet shop. Sweets to make you puke, sweets to make you pass out...” Fred replied, an excited grin on his face.
“Good luck with getting that approved, guys.”
Brienne fought the effort to shake her head in disbelief. Weren’t they going to mention it at all? Did they just think that she had imagined or over-dramatised her own, very real problems?
“Let’s go outside,” Lee suggested, “I want a snowball fight.”
“You’re looking for a world of hurt,” Fred exclaimed, bursting out of his armchair as George also climbed up from the floor.
Angelina and Brienne exchanged a sarcastic glance and rolled their eyes before they stood. They climbed the staircase to the dormitory quietly, as they had almost twelve hours before, to change. Brienne pulled on some Muggle jeans and tugged up her knee-high socks. They wrapped scarves and pulled on gloves.
“I’m really not in the mood for this,” Brienne said, breaking her silence.
Angelina looked over at her, eyebrows slightly furrowed. “I know, I don’t think I am either. But it might cheer you up.”
She didn’t want to be cheered up, Brienne thought, she wanted to feel reassured. But that was something nobody could give her. Her spirits lifted slightly as they spotted the twins by the portrait hole wrapped in thick coats, and their bobbled knitted hats. Sometimes they passed the realm of ridiculous into being adorable, and they didn’t care.
They passed through the portrait hole and skittered away from the protective trolls that were stationed on either side of the newly reinstated Fat Lady, who looked shaken and unimpressed as they jogged away.
The five of them burst out of the front doors into the grounds; the pure white snow largely untouched due to the surprising lack of students taking advantage of their Sunday afternoon, save for a group of Slytherins who were kicking snow at each other closer to the greenhouses. Immediately, Lee crouched down and scooped up a handful of snow, moulding it with his gloved hands.
“Excellent, these are perfect snow war conditions,” he muttered with glee, and he raised his arm, aimed, and then threw the snowball in an arc over the twins heads to crash precisely onto Angelina’s forehead.
“Ahh, you git!” Angelina cried, shaking her head free of the white slush. Lee let out a howl of laughter, and the two raced off, Angelina cursing loudly.
The twins laughed, and George bent to gather some snow in his hands.
“No!” Fred yelled, and sped away after Angelina and Lee.
George raised his arm to throw the snow at Fred, but his brother was fast, and before he could aim he was out of range. Brienne stood with her feet planted in the ground, and frowned as George turned to her.
She lifted a finger to point at him. “Don’t you even think about it.”
“Right.” George let the snow fall from his fingers, and they began to trudge forward in the direction of everyone else.
On impulse she wound her arm around his as they walked. She thought normally he would balk at such contact, but he was probably feeling just as cold as her. Or he was just in a good mood. Or, Brienne thought, maybe he just didn’t mind that she wanted to be close to him. So many thoughts whirred through her mind as they spotted their friends in the distance, standing on the outskirts of the Quidditch stadium, in the throes of a full-out snow war.
George sniffed. “Why do you smell like almonds?” He leaned over a little to sniff in her direction. “How can anyone smell like almonds?”
“It’s my hair conditioner. And you smell like coffee.” She looked and him and frowned. “Have a bad night?”
“You smell nice, like a bakewell tart. Who didn’t have a bad night?”
“On that note, how are you today? Still think someone will burst out of the bushes and smite you where you stand?”
“Don’t make fun of me, George. Everything I said was true.”
He paused. “Are you sure? How do you know?”
She sighed, and related the story of Stanley Meadowes’ visit over Christmas, with some amendments, leaving out some of the finer details of the murder investigation. It was as she was finishing the story that she realised it was the first time she had told anybody the true nature of her Christmas holiday.
George sighed, his breath coming out in puffs of steam, “But it’s like you said, they could have taken the photograph for any reason. Why would they want to attack you? What have you done?” He looked at her, a sarcastic and suspicious expression on his face. “Do you have some sort of criminal alter-ego we don’t know about? The terror of the high seas! The Tiny French Girl! Nobody is safe!”
Brienne pursed her lips, trying not to laugh. “I’m not tiny. I’ve eaten my weight in chocolate over the last few weeks, no thanks to you and your brother.”
“We aim to please.”
“It was a great present, though.”
“Was it the best present you got?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, it was.” She thought it best not to mention her mother’s wand; Brienne wanted to keep that information to herself. Her eyes drifted to the ground as they came within range of the Stadium. They could hear the cries and shouts and laughter from within.
“I don’t know why they’re after me, but if an Auror thinks so, I have no reason not to believe him. Listen,” she added softly as George opened his mouth to speak, “I’d really appreciate it if you kept it to yourself. Tell Fred if you must, but I’d really rather not have everyone know just yet. I’ll tell them something, just not everything. OK?”
He frowned, and they stopped to face each other. “You know they all care, don’t you?”
“I don’t want everyone worrying about me.”
“Because I’m worrying enough for everyone.”
George shook his head. “That’s just silly. We’re your friends.”
She couldn’t think of a response, so she shrugged and looked at the ground.
He sighed again. “You silly billy. Well, I stand by what I said last night. You don’t need to be scared.”
Brienne looked up at him, just in time for some icy wind to blow hair in her face. He reached over with one hand and tucked it behind her ears again. She smiled gratefully, and was glad that she had the cold as an excuse for why her cheeks were red. The wind slowed to a chilly breeze, but she was the warmest she’d felt all day. Brienne felt a stirring of longing mixed with motivation, but her nerves beat it down a notch. So all she did was step forward and wrap her arms around his neck in a hug, which he returned, briefly.
“Come on then,” he said breezily, “Time to show them who-“
They looked up in time to see a large snowball flying in the air towards them. Quick as a flash, Brienne flicked her wand towards it.
The jet of clear water melted the snow before it could reach them.
“Curse you!” Lee yelled theatrically as he ran into view, closely followed by Fred and Angelina. All three were dripping wet and crusted with snow.
George ran forward, a large boulder of snow in his hands, “I say curse you, old boy!” he shouted, and the snowball fight resumed.
“I. Am. Exhausted,” Angelina moaned as they re-entered the Common Room a few hours later, “And starving.”
“Yes, let’s go and eat,” Fred replied, his red hair darkened and plastered to his face.
Brienne shuddered as she came within range of the fire. She knelt down and crawled as close as she could safely get to the glorious warmth. “That feels amazing. Bring me food, I can’t leave.”
“They might have crème brulee,” Lee drew out the last word teasingly.
“I’ll take my chances. Warm. Mmmmm.”
“I’m going to get out of these frozen clothes,” Angelina said, “Brienne, you come too, or you’ll get another cold.”
“Coming. Soon. Maybe.”
“Bree, isn’t this your owl?” Fred asked from a table near the window.
Brienne looked up. “Nyx.”
Nyx was perched on the back of a chair, seeming to enjoy the attention he was getting from Fred. He hooted loudly as Brienne walked over and flapped his black wings once in excitement.
“Hi, Nyx. What have you got there?”
The baby owl – which had grown a little since she had first gotten him – had an envelope attached to one of his legs, which he stuck out proudly. Brienne scratched his head gently as she detached the envelope with her other hand. It was an official looking parchment, pale and glossy, with her name and ‘Gryffindor Tower, Hogwarts School’ written in black ink with a swooping hand.
“Thank you, Nyx. Good boy. Fred, play with him for a bit while I read this.” She turned, and, catching George’s eye, took the letter up to the dormitory, where Angelina was drying off her hair with a towel. She was already changed.
“No idea,” she lied. “Go downstairs, it’s OK. I’ll be down in a minute.”
She looked at her worriedly and sighed. “OK.”
Brienne waited until she could hear Angelina’s footsteps fade before she took out the letter to read, her heart pounding. The handwriting was messy and rushed.
Happy New Year! I hope you all got back to Hogwarts safely. It was lovely seeing you over the Christmas break, and I hope that you meant what you said about wanting to receive these reports.
I do have to say that most of these are going to be rather disappointing for you. Since this is officially a foreign investigation, there is little jurisdiction that we have, and I want to prepare you for that.
However, I do have some news. Since your mother’s death we’ve been looking into possible suspects and have decided to investigate whether there are any presumed missing or dead Death Eaters that your mother may have encountered during the War or if there have been any releases from Azkaban with the same link to your mother. So far we have little results, but of course I will let you and your father know if we have any promising leads.
I hope to be able to write to you with some more news soon. I’ve also written to Paul, and he says he’ll look you up if he sees you. It would be good to see you two friends again.
Until next time,
Stanley Meadowes, HA, OoMSC
Brienne gulped as she refolded the letter and slid it back into the envelope. So, not much change, then. But progress, in any case. Any information was better than no information. She felt a clutch in her heart for her mother, and she rested her head in her hand for a moment. Brienne wrote off a quick letter of thanks in response, changed her clothes, and ventured back downstairs.
“Here, Nyx. Off you go, good boy.” Brienne fed him an owl treat and attached the new letter, before releasing him back into the wintry afternoon. She turned to Fred, George and Angelina, who were all watching her anxiously.
“Was that a report?” Angelina asked in an undertone; Brienne had, of course, already told them about the impending reports before any of the developments over Christmas.
She shrugged. “Not really. They’re looking into possible suspects. Nothing I didn’t know already.”
“Oh.” Angelina looked sad for her for a moment, then stepped forward for a hug. “It’s still better than nothing.”
“Shall we go down to dinner, then?” Fred asked. “Don’t want to miss the curfew,” he added in a mocking tone, before exchanging a grin with his brother. “Ha, curfew. How stupid.”
Brienne pursed her lips in a small smile until they turned away towards the portrait hole, and she sighed. Yes, any information was good information.
Until it wasn’t.
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