Chapter 22 : Holding On, Letting Go
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The Joker and Her
Holding On, Letting Go
Brienne held a necklace in her hands. She steadied her feet, nudging the paper that she had hurriedly pulled away and dropped to the floor. On the bed was the thin cardboard box that had been wrapped in it. The air whooshed in and puffed out in increasing degrees of rapidity.
It was her mother’s necklace.
Brienne gripped the fine chain in her hands, her eyes never leaving the swinging pendant that she hadn’t seen in fourteen months, since she finished her Easter holidays and went back to Beauxbatons to finish her fourth year. She remembered her last, long, tight hug with her mother, breathed in that one last gulp of her Mama smell, and withdrew to see this necklace, this very same one, hanging around her mother’s slender neck.
This necklace brought with it thousands of her mother’s smiles, hundreds of times they had sat in the lounge together listening to the radio, dozens of glints of light that had flashed whenever she had walked through the sunlight. Brienne gripped it so tightly, not looking away, not even daring to blink, until her eyes were watering. It was the most wonderful, most impossible gift she had never considered. Brienne could only think of one thing that could be better.
She loosened her grip on the chain one finger at a time and laid it down before stroking one finger over the pendant. Inch-thick silver, oval, large as a galleon, engraved circles graduating towards the centre.
Why would her mother send her this? It was her handwriting on the package—
Brienne dropped to the floor and snatched up the paper that she had so carelessly thrown aside. She picked it up and smoothed it out on the wooden top of her bedside table. The words ‘Miss Brienne Christie’ were intact with the swirl and swoop she knew so well. Brienne’s mind worked to understand all of it, but after the endless studying and the exams of the last couple of days, she was tired. Her mind was boggled.
“Angelinaaaa!” she shouted as loud as her lungs would allow, and hoped that her friend hadn’t gone down to dinner yet.
“Coming...” She heard Angelina call from the Common Room, her voice light and happy, not in keeping with the urgency of the situation.
By the time Angelina reached the dormitory, Brienne was scribbling on a piece of parchment.
“What’s the matter?” Angelina swept some hair over her shoulder absently, slowly taking in the scene before her as she approached.
“Look,” Brienne said simply, pointing at the necklace sitting on the bed covers.
Angelina sank onto the bed and crossed her legs before taking the necklace in her hands gently. “Oh, it’s lovely,” she said, “Did it just come now?”
“Yes. It’s my mother’s.”
She looked over, a fitting appreciation forming on her face. “Really? Who sent it?”
Brienne gulped. “My mother.”
She held up the brown paper that held the words. “It’s her handwriting. She wrote this, and she sent it.”
“How is that...” Angelina tried to hide a wince as she continued “...possible?”
Brienne sighed. “I don’t know. She might have sent it before she died, but it’s just a year late?”
There was the obvious question in Angelina’s eyes, and Brienne swallowed until her throat felt less thick before she answered it.
“She...didn’t send it recently. She’s not alive. I saw them bury her. I watched them until she was gone. And...now that I remember it, she wasn’t wearing this. I remember being irritated about it, I thought that the Ministry were using it for evidence, or that it was stolen, or...”
The thickness in her throat returned and she was unable to continue.
“You never thought you’d see this again,” Angelina supplied, looking sadly at the silver pendant which she held in her fingers. “Who are you writing to?”
“Auror Meadowes and my father,” Brienne said. “I don’t know if they will want it for any reason, but they should know my mother managed to send this to me before she -- went. Until then...” she trailed off, held her hand out for the necklace and pulled the long, fine chain over her head. She pulled the pendant into place; it bumped against the receded swell of her stomach.
“It was as if she knew,” Angelina uttered.
The next morning, Brienne attached both of her letters to Nyx’s leg and sent him off to London before plunging back into exams. After her birthday, she experienced a feeling of anticlimax: acing her Herbology exams, all of her wonderful gifts from her friends and family, receiving her mother’s necklace, gorging herself at dinner -- all of it gave Brienne a welcomed break from the stresses that she had become used to.
Over the last weeks of intensive study, Brienne’s weight had dropped down to almost her pre-Christmas weight from rushing small portions at mealtimes, skipping lunches and marching around the castle between lessons in a near-constant state of anxiety in order to get more revision done. She still had a bit to go, and she was almost positive that it would rise back up as soon as the exams were over, so she was happy to settle as she was.
On the day after Brienne’s birthday, the fifth-years had their written and practical Defence Against the Dark Arts exams. They were required to arrive at the Great Hall an hour after breakfast ended for their theory test and an hour after lunch for their practice.
The group had no idea what spells would be required for the practical exam. Just like their Charms and Transfiguration tests, they pored over the most prominent and difficult spells they had been taught and practised them as much as they could within the school rules.
Exactly one hour after lunch finished, the fifth years were pushed into four rows in the Entrance Hall by Filch and Professor Sinistra, and one student from each house was called into the Great Hall at a time to be assigned an examiner. When it was Brienne’s turn, she waited with interest as–just like that morning--Filch passed a Secrecy Sensor over her necklace with no reaction.
Swallowing mixed feelings of relief and disappointment, Brienne walked into the Great Hall where the house tables had been replaced with four small desks and each was presided over by an examiner. With a nervous grin, she walked over to the only unaccompanied examiner, sat in the far right corner of the hall, and watched as the examiner shuffled papers before looking up at her approach.
“Good afternoon, dear,” greeted the grey-haired woman with thin spectacles balanced on her nose. “Brienne Christie, is it? Well, there’s no need to be nervous, no need at all. This should all go swimmingly.”
Brienne got out her wand and rubbed the handle anxiously between her fingers as the assessor leaned back in her chair. A fluffy feather quill twitched in her hand, poised over a clipboard. The sounds of spells from the other students began to quietly ring out, and Brienne took a deep breath.
“Now, why don’t we start with a Stinging Hex?”
Forty-five minutes later--and slightly wobbly from a backfiring Jelly-Legs Jinx--Brienne left the Great Hall with one more exam over. She saw Fred and George waiting, standing three students apart in the Gryffindor line before being shepherded away down another corridor.
As soon as she was out of view from the remaining students, Brienne stopped to try to brace her spongy knees and stretch her back. She let out a big breath of relief; other than the Jelly-Legs Jinx, she had remembered and performed every spell as best she could, hitting the targets and, for the most part, making the correct wand movements. It was the best she could have hoped for with Defence Against the Dark Arts.
Brienne walked back up to the Common Room, her stomach rumbling, her limbs aching, and as she trod down the corridor towards the Fat Lady, her chest began to drop as she anticipated the next exam. Only Potions, History of Magic and Divination to go.
The day after their Defence Against the Dark Arts exam, while sitting in the dormitory, Brienne received a reply from Stanley Meadowes about her mother’s necklace.
What I want you to do is wrap the necklace back in whatever wrappings it came in. I want you to try and remember exactly what the owl that brought it looked like and as close to the exact time it arrived that you can.
Do not wear the necklace. If you’re wearing it already, take it off, no matter what you feel or believe about it. I hope I don’t need to tell an O.W.L student the kind of dangers that could be inflicted upon you by a cursed object. It may not be cursed or enchanted in any way, but you must take caution.
Please keep it in a safe place until you get back to London where I can personally check its safety and previous whereabouts.
Belated birthday wishes,
Stanley Meadowes, HA, OoMSC
Brienne tried to be mature about it, but she could feel nothing more than natural resentment as she pulled the necklace off, warm from her skin, and folded the brown paper wrappings back around it. She sent Stanley’s owl back and sighed before plunging back into the mind-numbing History of Magic revision.
On Monday, after working tirelessly to remember and list (in order) all of the ingredients for the Polyjuice Potion in her Potions theory O.W.L, she buckled down in the practical exam to create the best Invigoration Draught she had ever managed.
Brienne had a break from exams on Tuesday as Fred, George and Angelina went down to the grounds for their Care of Magical Creatures O.W.L. Since Brienne didn’t take that lesson–there were no spaces left in the course when she enrolled, and she was far too uninterested and uncomfortable around animals to be that worried about it–she relaxed, reading Paisley’s birthday present until they returned.
Wednesday was their Divination exam. Brienne, Fred, George and Paisley sat with their classmates in the corridor below their Divination classroom, waiting to be called in to be tested by the inspector. While the twins bickered over the result in a recent Quidditch game between England and Australia, Paisley and Brienne quietly discussed their strategies, for they had no idea what awaited them.
When Brienne was called into the classroom for her assessment, she looked around to find the windows thrown open to the warm sunshine. The fire was out, and the air was clear, and she had never seen her Divination classroom so airy and bright. The male examiner sat on one side of a small square table, holding the familiar clipboard and quill.
All in all, she felt the exam went well. When asked what she could see in a crystal ball, she narrowly avoided describing the birds flying past the window when reflected in the pearly surface. Reading the examiner’s palm, Brienne predicted he’d have a long life–judging by the man’s leathery wrinkled skin and sparse grey hair; she thought she couldn’t go wrong. When Brienne stepped back down the trapdoor ladder thirty minutes later, she breathed a sigh of relief. Mostly, she was glad she didn’t have to do any tarot readings.
On Thursday, finally, they sat through their two-hour History of Magic exam; Brienne in a near-constant state of ennui, wrote down the details of goblin wars or the troll royal family as best as she could remember them. She had one golden moment of excitement as she remembered the exact wording of a question from one of her textbooks and wrote down the answer with giddiness. In total bliss, Brienne filed out of the Great Hall and waited with constrained glee for her friends. The moment that the twins, Paisley and Angelina came into view Brienne jumped up and down.
“It’s over! Over! No more exams! No more studying!”
Fred burst out laughing and grabbed Brienne around the waist. He hoisted her over his shoulder and spun, both of them yelling in delight. Angelina slumped down to her knees and raised her arms in celebration.
“Oi! You lot shut up or I’ll give you detention.” Filch shuffled over from the other end of the Entrance Hall as more students spilled out of the Great Hall, muttering and discussing the exam.
“He can’t give us detention...wait, can he?”
“Are you joking? We wouldn’t be out of it if he could!”
They practically skipped back to the Common Room to collapse onto the comfiest armchairs by the fire, their heads lolling back in pure relief.
“Thank Merlin that’s over,” Lee Jordan muttered, having entered the Common Room a few minutes after them and slumped to the floor in front of Fred’s armchair.
The group relaxed with a release that the rest of the fifth-years clearly shared. They exchanged muttered conversation for the rest of the day and couldn’t be bothered to go down to dinner; when the fireplace was the dominant lighting in the room, Brienne fell asleep with a kind of relief that felt like a massive weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She awoke in the middle of the night to find that George and Angelina were also asleep in their armchairs; Lee was curled up on the rug by the dying embers of the fire. Fred was evidently the only one to make it upstairs to bed.
As she pulled herself up to go to the dormitory, she took a deep breath and resigned herself to the fact she would be awake for the rest of the night. There was a clutch of guilt in her chest, which along with her mental and physical fatigue felt like it was dragging her diaphragm down towards the floor.
Tomorrow–or today, as it may have been–was the first anniversary of her mother’s death. That information alone seemed to strike her in the chest whenever she had thought of it in the last few weeks.
Brienne slumped down onto her bed, the room dark and silent but for the breathing of her fellow classmates. She sank into the covers, closed her eyes and considered. Had it really been that long since her mother died? But, then again, it felt like such a long time ago since she found out. Such a long time it had been since she had been pulled out of class and...who had told her again? She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember the words “your mother has died” being spoken to her, or whatever variation of them that there was. Was it a teacher, or a classmate? Was it her older cousin Bernadette, who may have heard of it first because of her age? Brienne was too tired to think of it. She was sure she didn’t want to remember anyway.
One year. If that length of time seemed far too long without her mother, then what about the span of years to come? The expanse and stretch of them in the future? It was a long and cold sweep of sand to trek across. But, she thought as Angelina trudged up the steps to collapse onto her own bed, she didn’t have to trek it alone. That cold sweep of sand didn’t have to be so cold.
The last day of term. Today they would board the Hogwarts Express and travel back to London for the summer holidays. Brienne’s bags were packed, trunk tidy. The red-and-gold patchwork quilt of her bed was folded. The dormitory was empty except for her and Angelina, who were lolling on her bed, their heads turned towards the closest window. The trees of the Forbidden Forest were wafting in the summer breeze. Sunlight shafted through the window, illuminating the dust swirling in the air. Brienne breathed in and wondered just how much she would miss this dormitory.
Angelina flipped over onto her stomach and propped her head onto a hand. “I can’t believe summer’s here.”
“Yeah, finally.” Angelina turned her head to look at Brienne. “Are you OK about today?”
Brienne heaved a sigh and ran her hands over her stomach. “I don’t really have a choice about whether to be OK or not. Today will always be this day, for the rest of my life, no matter what way I look at it. It will always be the day my mother died.”
She sat up, and Angelina pushed herself up to sling an arm around Brienne’s shoulder.
“I want to give you something,” said Angelina.
Brienne turned her head, eyebrows raised. “Really?”
“My birthday was only last week.”
“Yeah, I know, but this is for a different reason.”
Angelina pulled her long braided hair up into a bun, and unclipped one of the many necklaces strung around her slender neck. She dropped it in a pool of fine chain in her hand and handed it over.
“What’s this for?”
Angelina brushed some more hair back behind her eyes. “I noticed you seemed a bit sad that you’re not allowed to wear your Mum’s necklace anymore so I thought I’d give you this to wear instead.”
Brienne blinked in bewilderment, touched. “Oh, you don’t have to, I mean—“
“Don’t be silly.”
“—but it’s yours.”
“And now it’s yours. Besides, now you have something to remind you of us.”
A loud crash sounded from the Common Room, and they could hear Fred cursing loudly and George laughing uproariously.
“Like I could forget. But thank you, it’s beautiful.” Brienne smirked in thanks and pulled the necklace over her head, holding up the pendant to look at more closely. It was small, spherical filigree mock-gold, a tiny amethyst ball rolling around in the middle. The metal wound in strands to meet in swirling coils.
Brienne grinned, dropped the pendant and leaned over to hug Angelina around the neck. Her friend hugged her back.
“I’ll really miss you over the summer,” Angelina said, as if she hadn’t quite realised it until then.
An hour later, Brienne wandered out to the grounds. She usually hated the heat of summer, but it wasn’t so bad in England. At least there was a passing breeze, and the promise that it would definitely rain at least once a week.
The grounds really were amazing. In front of her the tall, thick, fir trees of the Forbidden Forest swayed gently with the breeze, striking and bold. To her right, the Black Lake and greenhouses, the smooth surface of the water reflecting the cloudless sky. And behind her, the castle. Brienne had decided long ago that Hogwarts would probably always be one of those places that never ceased to impress and stun with its dignified beauty.
She squinted her eyes from the sunlight and retreated back to the shade of the courtyard. It was as she stepped under the roof of the walkway around the courtyard that she saw the student standing there, staring out at the grounds just as she had been.
Brienne blinked at him in his full uniform, sure she knew him from somewhere. She stood there wondering for a moment, and had just turned to leave when he spoke.
“So how did your O.W.L.’s go?” he said, straightening up and turning towards her, hands in pockets. His neatly knotted tie was striped with blue and bronze.
Brienne turned back, startled. “They went well, I think. Mostly. And you?”
The boy’s mouth turned up on one side, and he removed a hand from his pocket, moving it up and down in a gesture of uncertainty. “Yes, I think so too.”
She finally recognised him as being in her Charms and Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons, and then her brain clicked.
“Oh, you’re Auror Meadowes’ son. Um...”
“Paul,” he supplied obligingly.
“That’s it. I’m sorry, your father knows mine. We used to play together, allegedly.”
Paul’s smile widened, and his pale green eyes flashed. “You know, I thought I recognised you from somewhere. It’s why I spoke to you. Long time, then.”
Paul spoke rather differently than anybody else Brienne knew. It sounded like he enunciated every word carefully, but reeled off the sentence smoothly and without pause. From the manner in which he held himself--hands in pockets and leaning his shoulders in ever so slightly–to the way he unabashedly had his shirt tucked in, and the fact that his default facial expression seemed to be an easy, peaceful grin. He was dapper. Brienne felt enveloped in his presence, despite the fact that for over a decade they had not spoken.
“Yes, long time.”
“Perhaps I’ll see you over the summer.” He raised an eyebrow, saying it like a statement instead of a question.
“I think our fathers will see to it.”
Brienne gave a smile and a small wave as she turned. “I’ll see you, then.”
“Bye,” he said cheerfully, already wandering out to the grounds, turning his face towards the sunlight.
The Owlery. The stinking owl droppings and splattered surfaces, sickening stench and slightly dusky light. Hundreds of birds bristled and flapped as Brienne walked in. The tall windows were bright, but covered in a forgotten layer of grime. The light made the room look more cheerful than it was.
Almost immediately her black owl separated from the flocks and swooped down to her, landing gently on the closest stone ledge. Brienne smiled and walked over to where he hooted and hopped. She stroked his feathers, which he had managed to keep clean and glossy. He had grown a bit in the past months, now the size of most of the other owls around him instead of the head-sized baby he had been.
As he preened and trilled, Brienne heard the footsteps tapping on the stone floor in approach. She knew who it was before she turned.
George stood a few metres away in his Muggle clothes, hands in the pockets of his jeans, dressed in one of his ‘G’ jumpers knitted by his mother. His hair was slightly darkened from the shower he must have had earlier that morning.
“Hi,” Brienne said simply, one hand still in Nyx’s feathers.
“Hi,” he said before clearing his throat.
His gaze drifted to the floor, and Brienne inwardly groaned. She had hated this silence between them over the last weeks. She couldn’t bear it. She didn’t want to bear it. But she knew that he must have gone there for a reason. Brienne turned her head back to Nyx and waited.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said after a few silent moments.
Well, she hadn’t expected that. “What? What for?”
“For...” he gestured between the two of them “...this. It’s just been so annoying. I never meant for things to get so awkward. If anything, I meant for things to get less awkward. I mean...I should probably stop.”
Brienne knew she couldn’t help it, but her heart squeezed and she felt herself soften at how adorably uncomfortable he looked, nervously grinning and shoulders hunched up.
“I’m sorry too. It’s my fault, really. I mean, it was you that...” she didn’t know how to finish the sentence. He lifted his head hopefully.
“It was you that tried to kiss me. But, you know, it was me who...it was my fault that...” Brienne shook her head as if to try and organise her thoughts.
George threw back his head and laughed, eyes shining. “I don’t think either of us are good at this.”
I want to be good at this, she thought, but I’m just not. She ran a hand through her hair, then thought that it was a good sign that he had laughed.
“So. I’m, uh, just gonna say it.” He thrust out his hands, palms-out. “I’m sorry for everything that I did, or almost did. I get that you probably weren’t ready for it, or aren’t, or whatever. Um, or you just don’t...yeah. So, that’s it.”
He straightened up as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. His more natural smile came back, and Brienne relaxed.
Except for one thing. Did he not think she liked him? As she stepped a little closer, she saw that through his calm exterior his eyes looked crestfallen, and his hands were fists at his sides, his body too wooden. Her mind reeled: she’d thought she’d been hugely obvious. Embarrassingly obvious. Couldn’t he see that she had made a massive fool of herself that she had failed in kissing him twice now? He may have tried to initiate it, but ultimately, the reasons the attempts failed was because of her. Because of her tendency to freeze, clam up, and her face to show nothing but horror at what was happening. How stupid she had been. Why couldn’t she have just relaxed? They would have kissed at Christmas, and then everything would have been better than it is now.
Did he really think that her shock at all of this was a manifestation of repulsion, or disgust? Or that she was just repelled at the idea of closeness? Did he think he was unattractive, or that she thought he was unattractive? How could he think such a thing when he was so...her mind scrambled at how so he was.
Yes, Brienne thought, looking up at him. He was so so so so.
He just...warmed her. He made everything just better, like turning up the blinds on something blindingly bright, like making blissful quiet after deafening sound, like delicious respite after an age of restless fatigue. Like warm mince pies after a Dementor attack.
How was it that he didn’t know that?
Brienne walked in close, reached up and placed her hands on George’s cheeks. His eyes widened slightly, and then went back to normal as Brienne stood up on her tiptoes. Slowly, she leaned in and pressed her lips to his. His pressed back, his hands resting lightly on the back of her ribcage.
Her hands slid down to his shoulders, and she stepped away. George’s face was bloodless, the tips of his ears as red as his hair.
And for the first time in a year, Brienne felt a natural smile grow on her face, without laughter, without feeling forced. She smiled because this was something that she didn’t have to be afraid of.
Yes, there were many things she should be afraid of in the world. People in particular. There were reasons for her to weep, reasons for her to hide. Reasons for her to hate and disdain. Her mother was gone, and that whirred in her mind constantly, even a year later.
My mother is dead my mother is dead my mother is dead
But there were also reasons for her to smile, or laugh. Blood Sweets in the Slytherin’s lunch. Snowballs in the face. Pyjamas in classrooms. Bright red earlobes. Reasons to file away the bad things, for now, while she could.
She was happy.
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