Chapter 21 : Birthdays
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The Joker and Her
Turning sixteen wasn’t generally the cause for a big celebration to those with largely magical descent. Since it would only be a year before their seventeenth birthdays, and the day they would come of age, their sixteenth usually slipped by like any other celebration.
When Muggleborn Paisley Hamilton turned sixteen in March, it was an entirely different affair. As she hastened to tell Brienne in their last Divination lesson before the day itself, “A girl’s sweet sixteen is their first big birthday before they’re, like, not allowed to have fun anymore – the first milestone.”
Brienne didn’t see how sixteen years was any special milestone. As Paisley was a witch, she wasn’t legal for anything -- marriage, getting a job, having the Trace lifted – until she was seventeen. But since Brienne had already bought a gift, she didn’t suppose she needed any extra preparations.
When the twentieth rolled around, Brienne and Angelina walked into the Great Hall for breakfast to have their eyes immediately drawn to a bunch of shiny gold balloons swaying in the air over the Hufflepuff table, and one student in particular. They exchanged a glance, and Brienne felt relieved that she had brought Paisley’s things down in her bag.
They approached the Hufflepuff table, Paisley’s hysterical laughter guiding them to where she sat. Amy was sitting beside her sister, sipping from a glass of pumpkin juice, clearly bored out of her mind at the conversations of her sister’s friends. Angelina began to rifle through her bag just as Brienne tapped Paisley on the shoulder.
Paisley had a yellow paper crown on her head and a silver necklace swinging from her neck, clearly a new present. Brienne passed over her card and wrapped gift, and Angelina reached around her to pass a card. The Hufflepuff ripped the present open first.
“‘How Muggleborns Are Clearly Cleverer and Downright Devilish.’ That’s brilliant! Thanks.”
“Brilliant, and true,” Amy muttered, resting her head on a propped elbow.
Paisley tucked her cards and her new book into her bag and adjusted her large “16 Today!” badge pinned to her robes, which flashed in the light.
“I’ll see you in Divination later.”
Brienne waved as she and Angelina walked over to the Gryffindor table, where Fred, George and Lee were chomping on their cereal.
When Divination rolled around at the end of the day, Brienne and Paisley were consulting their dream diaries and talking through possible meanings in preparation for their O.W.L exam. Both girls were feeling incredibly sleepy due to the heavily perfumed air and dim light from the recent sunset.
“I had a dream I was in this classroom and I finally had the guts to fall asleep and see if Her Royal Inner Eye would do anything,” Paisley muttered before yawning. The Muggle balloons that her parents had sent for her to blow up herself were deflating already, only hovering at desk-height.
“Did she?” Brienne mumbled, her eyes staying on her textbook lest Trelawney look over at their table.
“I don’t know, I went to sleep. And then I woke up, and I was in my bed.”
“That’s generally what happens.”
“You!” Trelawney swept over to their desk, her taloned finger pointed dramatically at Paisley. “My girl, today you celebrate! My Inner Eye tells me you, why, today you become a year older!”
Both girls stared at her blankly. Paisley’s luminous birthday balloons bumped against the desk. “Thank you, Professor. That’s exactly right,” Paisley replied in a monotone.
Trelawney puffed her chest out, a smug smile playing on her lips, completely oblivious to Paisley’s sarcasm, and glided over to the next table.
The girls remained in silence as they watched her go. Brienne turned her head to Paisley and said, “You didn’t tell me it was your birthday?”
Paisley cackled with laughter.
As the weeks passed, the fifth year students began to panic at the proximity of their O.W.Ls. They were coming. Many fifth years (and seventh years preparing for their N.E.W.T.s) were admitted to the Hospital Wing to be treated for stress or anxiety attacks. Lessons began to recap the last five years of magical education, teachers trying their utmost to imprint their knowledge into the brains of their pupils. It came to a point where students would spend half an hour to write barely a paragraph of their essays and would demand a break; such was their apprehension of the tests.
April Fools’ Day was the day that Fred and George turned sixteen. As the fifth years began to quake under the pressure of exam preparations, they took a much-welcomed day off from pre-breakfast homework in order to celebrate. Fred and George bounded down the spiral staircase that morning in their dressing gowns and slippers, and refused to change before they went down to breakfast. Random classmates they rarely spoke to would approach the group at the Gryffindor table and stand there awkwardly for a few minutes to distract themselves from the inevitable. Brienne and Angelina, watching the twins lap up this extra attention, were warily curious as to how exactly they were going to use their free time.
As Brienne looked around the Great Hall that morning – the enchanted ceiling a bright, cloudless sky blue – she realised that she was actually feeling very well that day. Content, even happy. Happy, she thought to herself, was something that she had not been for a very long time.
She spotted Paisley pouring tea for herself and her sister over at the Hufflepuff table. Fred and George were rowdy, louder than anyone else in the immediate vicinity. Eating from each others’ plates. Fred mixed tea with coffee and drank it for his own amusement. George spilled pumpkin juice down his front because he was still tired.
Angelina was sitting beside her, eating a sticky bun and gazing at the two of them, eyebrow raised. She was solid, strong, faithful. Brienne was so grateful for them.
“Right, these are the plans,” Fred announced, slapping one hand down on the table. “Ow. We’re having a party.”
“Another party?” Angelina asked with trepidation.
“Obviously! It’s our birthday. It’s a Friday night, so it can go on all night! And since we’re older than all of you, you will comply under our demands.”
“Actually, my birthday was in October, if you remember. And I’m taller than you. So I’m in charge.”
George paused. “Fair enough, maiden, but you know you’d never miss the chance to make yourself look pretty.”
Angelina opened her mouth to speak, but Fred cut across her. “She always looks pretty, you dimwit.” He said it with a wink at Angelina, but there was an audible wince from George as Fred kicked his brother under the table.
The twins turned towards Brienne, who had been purposefully silent. “Your birthday is in June,” Fred muttered, a grin spreading on his face.
“So you’ve got to do what we say.”
“So you’ll do anything we say?” Fred asked.
Fred and George groaned and exchanged a roll of the eyes. “Within reason,” George muttered, “Reason’s such a weak word.”
As the bell rang for the first lesson of the day, there was an audible but hushed groan that rippled through the Hall. Fred and George dug their ties from their bags and put them on over their birthday jumpers that had arrived in the post from their mother. They stood as Brienne hurriedly finished her cup of tea.
“We’ll see you in Trans.”
“You’re not going to get changed?” Angelina asked.
George giggled childishly. “No! Why should we wear sweaty robes all day? It’s our birthday!”
Throughout the morning, Fred and George did indeed stay in their identical pyjamas, the red and gold striped shirts and trousers, crimson slippers and brown jumpers, each emblazoned with a yellow F or G. They swapped the jumpers between lessons to try and confuse the girls, but they were both so used to them that the ruse was mostly unsuccessful; it did, however, amuse Professors Sprout and Flitwick to no end. Professor McGonagall arched an eyebrow and pursed her lips, but did not say a word. The boys seemed rather pleased that they hadn’t been reprimanded.
As the bell rang for lunch, the students spilled out of their Charms classroom and towards the Great Hall. Brienne reached behind her to pull her hair into a bun, and she felt a tap on her shoulder.
“We’ve decided what we want you to do,” George muttered close to her ear as Fred and Angelina strolled away.
Brienne rolled her eyes and internally sighed. “OK, let’s have it.”
He stood over her with his hands behind his back, an innocent smile contrasting with the evil glint in his eye. The corridor was empty, but the sounds of travelling students still rang around them.
“You have to go upstairs and dress like us.”
“In my pyjamas,” she stated in a monotone.
“In your pyjamas.”
Brienne let her head roll back and she closed her eyes. “We have History of Magic next, so it’ll be harder not to fall asleep. Anything else?”
“I’ll let you know. Are you gonna do it?”
She looked back at him and narrowed her eyes. “The things I do for you two.”
“Thank you!” George picked her up and swung her around until she squealed. “Go now. I’ll save you a seat in the Hall.”
When George was out of earshot, Brienne let out a long groan, but she steeled herself and began to trudge to the Common Room. Fifteen minutes later, dressed in her dark red dressing gown, dark blue nightshirt and trousers, she took her seat in the Great Hall, silently furious from the puzzled looks she had received on the way from the dormitory. Fred, George and Lee applauded as she had approached the table, Angelina bursting out laughing.
As she sat, she could hear a smattering of jeering laughter from the Slytherin table, but she wasn’t sure it was directed at her. Brienne glared at the twins.
“You had better do a lot to make this up for me. Peeves chased me through the second floor!”
“I saved you this.” Fred passed over a plate of food, and a cup of pumpkin juice.
“It’s a start. Thank you.” She was glad they had abided by her new diet, which she hadn’t actually mentioned to them but had resolved to start that day.
Forty minutes later, the bell rang for afternoon lessons. Fred, George and Angelina stood, and Brienne sighed before she followed.
“Ha! That just shows how slow Gryffindors are – it’s lunch, not breakfast,” a fifth-year Slytherin taunted as they left the Hall. “Of course, we already know how slow you two Weasleys are. Probably can’t afford anything better than those twigs you call brooms!”
Before the twins could turn, Brienne swivelled and walked over to the Slytherin, peering with her most ferocious expression into his dark brown eyes until his face dropped slightly. She was in no mood to suffer fools, especially not on the twins’ birthday, and she was less than intimidated by jeers. She felt Angelina’s hand on her arm.
She turned back to the twins, both of whom had their wands in their hands, and led them from the Hall towards their History of Magic classroom.
“Pathetic snakes, the lot of them,” Fred muttered darkly.
“They’re not worth thinking about,” Brienne said breezily. They passed a large framed mirror hanging on a wall in the Entrance Hall. “We do look like idiots, though.”
“Just the way we like it.”
After dinner that night, just as promised, the twins threw a party in the Gryffindor Common Room. It wasn’t as euphoric as the parties usually thrown after Quidditch games, but it was exciting all the same. Everybody knew Fred and George one way or the other, so first years right up to seventh years took a welcome break from their studies to dance around maniacally, some joining in with the night-time dress code. Brienne still felt the drag of knowledge that her bag, sitting on her bed, was full of homework awaiting completion. Despite this, she decided to stay at the party as long as was expected of her before going up to release some of the homework-related tension.
The radio blasted music, alternating between ballads and crashing anthems. Angelina jumped about in the middle of the dancing throng, taller than most other students, her head bobbing higher than the rest. Fred and George jumped on the armchairs by the fire, Lee Jordan slipping spectacularly from a chair and landing on a rug to rapturous laughter. Peeves zoomed through the room several times, picking up random items and throwing them around the room, cackling.
After a couple of hours of the chaos, Brienne pushed through the Portrait Hole to the corridor outside. The Fat Lady swung closed behind her, sealing away the floor-shaking noise. She breathed a sigh of relief and stretched her back as she walked a few paces away. She’d been wearing her pyjamas since lunch, and now she was beginning to feel uncomfortable. Brienne pulled off her dressing gown and draped it over a banister, and straightened her nightshirt. She heard the Fat Lady open.
“Hello, you teeny tiny fifteen-year-old.”
George stumbled toward her, his slippers flopping onto the carpeted corridor floor. Brienne grinned.
“Hello, you big scary sixteen-year-old.”
“I’m tired. Are you tired?”
“Yes.” I’m always tired, she thought.
“It doesn’t change, turning sixteen,” George said, his eyes drooping. She thought he was much more tired than he wanted to let on.
He shrugged, and they both leant on the banister, staring at the moving staircases above and below.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to make Fred and me do on your birthday?”
She blinked. “No. You don’t need to do anything.”
He looked over at her, smiling. “That’s very kind of you.”
Brienne smiled back. “I know. This won’t be a permanent fashion choice, though.”
“Fair enough,” he said softly. “Want to do something else for me?”
“Not freak out.”
He reached over and laid a hand on the side of her neck. Her heart stopped, the blood rushed from her face, and she made a conscious effort to stop her jaw from going slack. George’s face came inches and inches closer. Just as their noses were about to touch, his face veered to the side and he rested his head on her shoulder, laughing. She stared at the opposite wall, frozen.
“I’m- I’m sorry. You looked like you were about to pass out.” His breath heaved with laughter.
Brienne was still in shock, so she didn’t speak. George straightened up, wiping a hand over his face, which was bright red and exultant in delight.
“I’m sure it wouldn’t be that terrible if I kissed you for real. You don’t have to look so scared.”
“You...you just sprung! How was I supposed to react?”
“I don’t know! Less hilariously. More...” And he dissolved into hysterics yet again, bending down to lean his hands on his knees.
“I don’t see what’s so funny about this. You just tried to kiss me! Again!”
George took several deep breaths until his speech was normal. “I know! And both times it failed spectacularly. It’s just so-so...” He clapped a hand over his mouth before he could start giggling again.
Brienne stared up at him. She wasn’t at all sure what to think. Did he just try to kiss her because it was his birthday and he thought she’d let him? Disgust rolled in her stomach; no, he would never do that. Did he just do it on impulse? Yes, she thought so. But did that mean anything at all, about this time or the last?
These thoughts whirled through her mind as she peered at George. She wouldn’t broach the broader subject now, whatever his intention.
“I’m gonna go back inside. I’m probably going to go to bed, actually,” Brienne said, her voice a lot clearer and calmer than the one in her mind.
His face dropped, and his brow knitted together in concern. “I hope I haven’t made you mad, I...” But he didn’t continue.
“No, you haven’t. Honestly, you haven’t, it’s just the wrong time. OK? Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” George looked a little placated.
She was about to step away, but stopped, took a deep breath. Her voice was soft. “Happy Birthday.”
Brienne stood motionless for a few more seconds before she relaxed and wrapped her arms around George’s neck for a brief moment. “Goodnight.”
She turned away and walked back to the dormitory.
Fifteen days after Fred and George’s birthday, the Gryffindor Quidditch team faced Slytherin in the Hogwarts Quidditch Final. The Quidditch team played bravely despite the Slytherins’ multiple acts of foul play, and eventually they succeeded in beating the Slytherin team by seconds. The Quidditch team threw a party in the Common Room much like the several that had taken place before, for this victory was the last of the year; after this, there was nothing to prepare for but the O.W.L’s.
As the high from the victory wound down over the following seven weeks, studying picked up a notch, and the fifth years gave up trying to save time for leisure; meal times were now the only free time the group had to relax. They stayed up until almost midnight most nights in order to complete their homework.
After the birthday party, and George’s unsuccessful attempt to kiss Brienne, relations between the two of them were not the same. The closeness that the two of them had developed over the last months gradually dissipated, and they could no longer comfortably sit together at dinner, let alone hold a conversation. Any effort made either by themselves or their friends to bring them together failed miserably; one evening Angelina, Fred and Lee sat at a crowded end of the Gryffindor Table, leaving Brienne and George to sit in a tense silence as they rushed to finish their meals.
Brienne was in turmoil. Being the quietest member of the group, the fact that she and George no longer spoke didn’t really make that much of a difference to group dynamics, but she missed him terribly. She felt he understood her in a way only Angelina rarely did. She tried a few times to ask him questions on homework, but he would only reply in the quickest way possible.
“He’s just being a silly boy, he’ll come around,” Paisley had said when Brienne asked her advice as they sat in a Divination lesson, the one class where all work and revision was completed in anticipation of the exam.
After having an excited fit that George had tried to kiss Brienne again, Angelina had said, “He’s probably embarrassed, he practically lunged at you. He’ll get over it eventually, just act normal.”
Brienne considered asking Fred his advice, but didn’t for fear that it would get back to George.
Other than the issue with George, and her impending exams, Brienne felt the familiar sense of unease about her mother's murder growing within her chest whenever she had time to consider it. She hadn't heard from Stanley Meadowes in weeks, and she thought about whether it was because there was nothing new to report, or that any leads had dried up. Had something happened but it was deemed not important enough, or too important, to let Brienne know about it? It had been so long...she wasn't sure she could take much longer. Lying in bed every night she felt her body seize with stress and worry, and resisted marching over to the Owlery to have a letter delivered to Meadowes enquiring about the status of the investigation.
In the middle of May, the group was taking a well-earned break from work, lounging by the lake and lazily chatting. The cold from winter had finally disappeared, the bright sun returning with a welcome breeze. Brienne sat closest to the water, wearing a hooded jumper with her knees pulled up to her chin, watching Fred splash Angelina when she wasn’t looking.
“It was the giant squid, I swear!”
“Stop splashing me, you moronic Hippogriff, or you’re going in that lake!”
George’s voice jerked Brienne back to earth. “There’s an owl coming.”
They looked up, and indeed a tawny owl was flapping towards them, a bound scroll tied to her leg. Brienne leapt up in time for the owl to swoop over and land on her arm. She took the scroll and pulled it open. Her heart stopped and then relaxed in utter relief as she recognised the handwriting.
I hope you’ve been keeping well, and had a good Easter.
Following on from my last letter, I can confirm that three prisoners have since been released from Azkaban after their arrest at the hands of your mother. Two of them were arrested solely by your mother, the other by both of your parents before you were born.
All of these prisoners were prosecuted for the use of Dark Magic, therefore investigation is underway as to their current whereabouts, and their whereabouts at the time of your mother’s murder.
I cannot say any more in this letter, but I hope to learn more before I can visit you and your father in summertime.
Until next time,
Stanley Meadowes, HA, OoMSC
As she finished the letter, Brienne gulped and wordlessly passed the letter to Angelina. It was only after the others had read it and it had been passed back to her before any of them spoke.
“It’s good news. They’re getting somewhere,” Angelina said. “Any of those three criminals could have been the one who...”
She didn’t finish the sentence, and for that Brienne was grateful; she had had particular trouble reading the word ‘murder,’ even after almost a year. Brienne folded the letter into quarters, before dashing out a cursory message of thanks and sending it back to Stanley with his owl.
Exams started on the eighth of June. Almost every subject had two exams each-- a written exam and a practical exam, in which students were required to demonstrate their magical learning rather than write about it. After each exam was completed the fifth years’ experienced a feeling of utter relief; Fred and George would both do a jig as they left the Great Hall after each written exam.
On the tenth of June, after finishing her Herbology exams, Brienne trudged up to the Common Room, dreaming of a hot bath to get the dirt from underneath her fingernails and to wipe away the layer of sweaty grime that has settled on her skin and hair after her successful re-potting of a Mandrake family. She stretched her back as she pushed through the Portrait Hole, where a gaggle of fifth and seventh years were relaxing by the sun-drenched windows.
She took the steps to the dormitory two at a time, and breathed a sigh of relief as she pushed the door open.
Brienne stopped in her tracks, before bursting into laughter. Angelina, Fred and George were standing around her bed, all wearing different coloured paper hats. There was a small banner hanging around her headboard emblazoned with the words ‘Happy Birthday,’ ever-changing in colour. A small pile of gifts sat in the middle of her bed, most of which Brienne recognised as the ones her father had sent the night before. Other than those, there were a handful of unfamiliar additions.
“What is this?!” Brienne stepped towards them, her thoughts of a hot bath disappearing as she did. “How on Earth did you two get up here?”
“We flew,” Fred replied, indicating their Cleansweeps propped against a wall. “I know we said it to you this morning, but we knew you wouldn’t want to actually act like it’s your birthday until the exam was over. You boffin.”
Her face broke out into a smile. “Aw, thank you so much, all of you.” She hugged Fred and Angelina, before turning to George.
“It’s no problem,” he said as she wrapped her arms around his neck. He squeezed her tightly around the waist; the first true contact the two had had in weeks.
Brienne turned to hide her blush, and knelt next to the small pile of presents. Before she reached for one, she looked self-consciously at her friends.
“Oh, just go for it,” Fred said, grinning with his arms crossed. “Or I’ll help you.”
She picked up a rectangular present, heavy and wrapped with gold paper. It was distinctly book-shaped.
“Let me guess, this is from Paisley,” Brienne mused aloud.
“Correct.” Angelina jumped onto the foot of the bed and crossed her legs.
“‘Ways and Means of Comprehending Divination for the Enlightened and Pragmatic Young Witch’.”
“It’s a bit late for that, the exam’s tomorrow,” George muttered in an undertone to his brother.
“She’s done it again.” Brienne wiped a tear from her eye in laughter.
Brienne opened the rest of her gifts: another Everlasting Chocolate Box from Fred and George, the last one having not been exactly everlasting, dress robes in deep purple from Angelina, and a box of suspiciously nice-smelling sweets from Lee Jordan. Additionally, there were some standard gifts from her father – a bottle of perfume and a fine chain bracelet -- and an empty jewellery box from her French relatives.
As she sat in the piles of wrapping paper, Brienne looked over at her pals, each of which were looking at one of her gifts.
“I can hardly believe I’ve already been here for almost a year.”
They looked up at that, and smiled.
“It feels like you’ve been here a lot longer,” said Fred, “You big bore!”
He laughed to indicate it had been a joke, but she knew him so well she didn’t need him to.
As the evening wore on, and the group began to go downstairs for dinner, Brienne lingered in the dormitory; she still wanted that bath. She picked up the book from Paisley to read while she was in it.
As Brienne reached the bathroom door, she turned to look back at her birthday presents. So much could change in a year. The year before, her mother had been alive. In her last birthday, she had received gifts in her dormitory at Beauxbatons, one including a note written in her mother’s hand. She would never receive such a gift ever again.
As she thought this, there was a tapping on the window. The Sun was still setting despite the late hour, and she could see the black owl clearly as she approached. Brienne let it in, picked up the package it bore to see who it was intended for.
She stumbled back, gripping the thin, square, hard package tightly in her hands. Her jaw dropped, and she could hear the rush of blood whirring around her head.
The address said merely ‘Miss Brienne Christie.’
And it was written in the hand of her dead mother.
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