Chapter 2 : Cold Toes, Warm Heart
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Wren woke with something warm and soft nestled into the top of her head. It took her a minute to realize exactly what it was. She was sure she had put the little rabbit in his hutch last night, but when she opened her groggy eyes and sat up, there he was, asleep on her pillow.
She watched the little rabbit curl into the dent where her head had left the pillow. Wren stroked him gently and then got up to put fresh water and pellets in his hutch. "There you go, little bunny," she said, smoothing back his forehead as she returned him to the hutch.
When she first started helping Gran care for injured animals, she never dreamed of having a pet of her own. Gran always believed that animals belonged in the wild, that too much cuddling would spoil their natural instincts. They'd cared for all sorts of small critters: birds, squirrels, and rabbits too. Letting them go after a healed fracture or a mended wing had always been the hardest part. This time, Wren wouldn't have to.
She examined the bunny gently as he nibbled at the alfalfa hay, noting with a keen eye the alignment of his hip bones and the healthy pink skin. It was impossible, but everything about him seemed familiar. The snow white fur and dark beady eyes looked very similar to the rabbit she’d helped to heal that summer. He would have grown to about this size too.
Wren grabbed her camera off the writing desk and shot a few pictures of her little bunny in his new home. She smiled, imagining taking him out on the green outside of Hogwarts castle. He'd enjoy sunning himself in the afternoons, and creeping through the tall grasses to nibble on clover.
The rabbit blinked, and Wren felt a strange prickling behind her eyes. She suddenly had a picture of vast meadows of the Highland hills and lonely paths through deserted villages. Her mind fogged up and the visions swirled and then faded away. Wren managed to shake herself out of it. Soon she was taking more pictures of the little rabbit - soft fur, little feet, twitching nose... she stopped when the camera made a dull clicking sound.
Wren pouted and popped the spent cartridge out of the camera. She threw it on her bed to rummage around in her closet for the box of photography supplies. Her pout turned into a frown.
"That was the last roll of film," she said to the little bunny. "What am I going to do now?"
Shuffling feet and low muttering in the hallway pulled her out of her thoughts.
She closed the rabbit hutch and hurried down the hall to see if Gran needed anything. Her father's soothing voice was already ahead of her.
“Good morning, Wren.” Neville Longbottom was already sitting on the couch with Gran. "Happy birthday."
"Oh!" Wren stopped dead at the end of the hall. Her birthday? Had it really been over a month since she'd seen her friends? She hadn't seen them since the move, and yesterday, Bunny had taken up so much of her attention that she'd completely forgotten what day it was.
Wren smiled. Thinking about Bunny made her insides warm and fuzzy. He was the best birthday present, ever.
"Thanks, Dad." She smiled at her great-grandmother. "Morning, Gran." Wren waited for a response, but Gran continued to stare blankly into the center of the room. Disappointed, Wren went downstairs for a cup of tea.
"Wren, is that you?" A tall, willowy girl in a floral apron squeezed herself through the kitchen door with a balanced tray of empty coffee mugs on her shoulder. She tapped the faucet twice, watching the sink expand to hold the full load of mugs. Then she tapped her wand on Wren's kettle, which began to steam and whistle instantly.
"Thanks, Nellie." Wren gave her a grateful smile and poured the hot water into her mug.
"Don’t you have the day off?” Nellie tucked a flyaway hair back into her tightly braided plait and leaned back to watch the mugs scrub and rinse themselves. She was two years out of Hogwarts, working morning shifts at the Inn, and afternoons drafting patterns and making alterations at Madam Malkin's Robes down the road.
Over the summer, Nellie had been a godsend to Wren's mum, allowing her time to rest after the long evening shifts.
"I was awake anyway," Wren said, rubbing her face with the back of her hand.
"Yes and no." She picked up a dish towel to dry the mugs, but Nellie stopped her.
“Let me do it.” Nellie did a complex swish of her wand at the row of wet mugs and a blast of hot air dried them instantly. "Next year, you'll be able to do this part," she said with a smile.
Wren scrunched up her face. "Next year, I hope I'm doing something more exciting than washing dishes."
"Probably taking pictures of famous people with that camera of yours," Nellie said smiling. "They'll be here soon." She looked Wren up and down. "Is that what you're wearing for your party?"
Wren flicked a soap bubble with her fingers. "It's my birthday. I can wear what I want, right?" Famous or not, the Potter brothers and the Weasley clan were her closest friends. They weren't going to judge her based on her clothes. "This is my last week before school. It'll be nothing but uniforms until Christmas break. Besides, Rose promised to keep it small. Our roommate Callie, James and Albus, and a few others..."
"You're going to wear that for Albus?"
"No," Wren said, turning pink. "I'm wearing it because it's comfortable." She liked her faded jeans and loose-fitting olive green t-shirt, and was quite sure that Albus Potter wasn't going to care what she wore. Ever since she'd confided in Nellie about her crush, the girl wouldn't stop teasing her about it.
In Wren's mind, it wasn't even a remote possibility. Most times, when she'd gone anywhere with James and Albus Potter (not so much with Rose, though), she'd have to fight the urge to run and hide. Being shorter helped. When photographers showed up, she got cut off at the forehead or managed to duck behind someone before the flash went off. Most other girls loved being in front of the camera. Wren preferred to be behind it.
Nellie gave her a knowing look. "At least let me get your hair straight. Accio brush!"
A hairbrush flew into Nellie's outstretched hand, and Wren let Nellie's dishpan hands fuss over her for a few minutes. "This looks nicer than the pixie cut you usually have."
Wren's usual cropped look was now grown out to just above her shoulders. "That's what happens to hair when you forget about it."
She liked not having to mess with it in the morning. It never got tangled up her camera strap... wouldn’t get in the way of her cuddling with Bunny… was that what she was going to call him? She had a sudden flash of the woods behind the bungalow, a yearning to go back there…
Nellie was telling her something and Wren was jolted out of her head. “Sorry, what?”
“I was saying how you should have gone to visit your friends, instead of being locked up in the Inn all summer. They could have at least come to visit you.”
Wren shrugged. Maybe she should have invited her friends to come round. Rose had showed up once, the week after the move, but Wren was still brooding and hadn't been such good company. She'd declined their offers to visit them, including James' repeated bribes of their mum's toffee pudding. Albus' invitations had made her laugh, listing all the things they'd do together - underwater macramé, tree hopping... even a half-cocked idea of meeting her in London for lunch and then taking in a museum that he'd never been to. At least Wren thought he'd been making up that last bit.
No one told her she had to stay, but Wren felt like she couldn't abandon Gran, just in case. Wren didn't have anything to offer her friends except the depressing news of her great grandmother’s non-progress.
They all had such exciting, event-filled lives. Why would they want to come out and watch her help out at the Inn or care for Gran?
"You could use some rouge," Nellie commented.
"No thanks," Wren said firmly.
Nellie threw her brush up into the air where it vanished with a pop. “Well, that was easy.” They both heard the sparks go off in the other room, signaling that someone was about to arrive through the floo. In spite of her declaration that no one would care, Wren smoothed down her shirt and gave Nellie a nervous glance.
"You look nice," Nellie told Wren. "At least your hair does," she dug in. Wren stuck out her tongue. "Have a happy birthday!"
When she came out of the kitchen, she didn't recognize the tall, lanky form sitting with their back to the fireplace. She shrugged it off as the fireplace flashed green and a girl in a cloak with long fiery hair came tumbling out. Wren watched her sort herself out and throw silvery dust back into the flames, signaling the floo network was clear for the next traveler. Then the girl caught sight of Wren from across the tavern.
"Wren!" Rose called out and rushed over to her. "I missed you!"
Wren gave her friend a half-nervous squeeze as the fireplace flashed again. She craned her neck to see the taller of the two Potter brothers step out of the fireplace.
Rose beckoned to her cousin. "James! She's over here!"
He shook the soot and floo powder off and then tossed his robe onto the back of a chair, revealing jeans and a t-shirt underneath. "Hello, birthday girl!"
Wren let out a little "oof" as James squeezed her tight and lifted her off the floor. “Lily would have been here, but she’s at league practice. Thinks she’s going to be the next Quidditch star like Mum.” His grin faded as he looked around the tavern. "Where are all the balloons and streamers?"
"We've been busy," Wren said.
"I'll fix that!" James brandished his wand, but Rose grabbed his arm.
"You'd better ask first. This isn't like being at their house."
"But they own it now, don't they?" James looked to Wren for confirmation. The bungalow flashed inside her mind, but Wren shoved the image away. She opened her mouth to reply, but another stronger flash of the bungalow came to her. Wren fought for control inside her head. She didn't need to be reminded of what she'd given up.
James cocked his head and gave her a quizzical look. "Yeah, you're right, never mind." He ambled over to Wren's mum who was coming down the stairs to relieve Nellie. "Mrs. L, I got a question for you."
Wren blinked a few times when Nellie came over to hug her goodbye, as James trailed behind her mum like a lanky ogre, gesturing with his wand arm about the lack of decorations. Wren wasn't sure what had just happened. She missed her old home, but she'd never felt it pulling at her like this.
Her mum patted James on the shoulder to lower his wand as they exchanged words. He bounded back over to the girls and pointed up to the balcony overlooking the dining room.
"Mrs. L says I can decorate up there, but after the lunch crowd clears out. So we'll have ourselves an afternoon party, yeah?" His eagerness made Wren bubbly until he ruffled her hair, which she'd always hated. She was sure that she'd reached the age limit for hair ruffling and cheek pinching by now.
“Where’s Albus?” she asked, ducking away from him as he tried another swipe at her head.
James snorted. "He's over there, too embarrassed about his pants or something." He picked up a stray fork from the cutlery tray that Wren's mum set on the bar. “Watch this!” Rose groaned as James commenced a balancing act with the fork on his forehead.
Wren looked around for Albus, half-expecting him to sneak up behind her and crack a joke.
She spotted the unknown figure, still sitting by the floo and went over, intent on asking if he'd seen a short, wiry dark-haired boy come in when she wasn't looking. "Excuse me," she said as he turned around.
Wren's eyes widened as Albus stood up, a half head taller than her. He rubbed at a strange glow coming from under his shirt sleeves and shuffled something in his hands. "Happy birthday."
She felt silly having to look up at him and urged her brain to form a thought, but the stuff between her ears had temporarily shut down. Wren floundered. "You're not supposed to be taller than me."
"You let your hair grow," he said with a quirky smile.
Wren reached a hand up to her hair and dropped her eyes quickly. Then she saw what James had been talking about. Albus' ankles were bare between his socks and the cuffs of his pants. "Your pants are too short." She looked back at his face and squinted. Her words were finally coming back, thank goodness. "Last time I saw you, I didn't have to look up."
"Last time you saw me was six weeks ago. I shouldn't have listened to Rose. I wanted to come and see how you were. Your letters didn't sound like you."
Wren's stomach knotted up. "I wouldn't have been any fun."
"You wouldn't have been alone." Their eyes held for an awkward moment, and Wren finally blinked it away. Albus had always been a good friend, and just because he was taller now, didn't mean that things were any different between them. She mentally berated Nellie for making her second guess her choice of a drab t-shirt. If Wren wore anything dressier, and with him being so tall now... Wren took a step back. Even if she'd had a reason to show anything off, would she really have wanted him to look at her like that?
He shrugged his comment away before Wren could think of anything else to make things weird between them. "Mum says I have to pick out new clothes while I'm here or she's threatened to go shopping for me. Oh, and this is for you." He pressed a small package into her hands.
Wren immediately noticed the little tag that had her name on it in the shape of a leaf. She had to look up again to thank him. “Uh, thanks.”
Albus was still smiling, but it wasn't the comfortable smile that used to be eye level with her. That had definitely changed. But something else about him was different. It was his whole... everything. Not just the long arms and legs.
A clatter of cutlery made her jump. James laughed, spilling another fork onto the floor. "Two minutes, that's a new personal juggling record!" He scooped up the utensils and dumped them on the nearest table. "I know! Give me your camera, Wren. I'll take a group photo."
"You can't," Wren said.
"What do you mean, we can't?" Albus asked. "You're always taking pictures. It's what you do."
"I ran out of film," she breathed.
Albus' smile changed to disbelief and he eyed the small box in Wren's hands. "You never run out of film."
Wren remembered that her last frame was spent on the little rabbit. She was never without her camera either. What happened? Bunny. A fog settled inside her head and an image of the little rabbit popped up. Long ears. Beady eyes. She shook herself out of the sudden daze and Albus was in front of her, looking at her funny.
"That's brilliant!" Rose exclaimed. "I meant, not that you ran out of film, because that's a tragedy."
Two more flashes in the fireplace and soon, Wren's roommate Callie joined them, along with Albus' roommate, Scorpius Malfoy.
Callie rushed over and gave her a tight squeeze, her wavy hair brushing against Wren's cheek. "Happy birthday, Wren!" Then she hurried over to do the same to Rose.
The tall, blonde boy raised his hands at her. “Air hug,” he said, passing her by without contact.
“Thanks,” Wren said, distractedly watching Albus' friend shake the soot out of his hair.
Wren was finding it difficult to concentrate on the conversation around her. She replayed parts of it back to herself; they'd been talking about the summer.
She'd always relied on Albus to keep her from feeling like the shortest person in the room, but now as he stood next to Scorpius, dark and light hair towered above her. She watched the two boys exchange greetings as a pressure built behind her eyes. She should have written back, or visited. Or something. Distraction pulled at her again, this time with a rushing in her ears.
Had it really been six whole weeks?
Wren stood motionless as the room threatened to spin. Images came rushing at her out of nowhere, a grassy hill, and clouds above her moving at an accelerated pace. She involuntarily ducked as glasses clinked together across the room. She tried to slow her breathing, concentrate on where she was, but she was overwhelmed with a detached floating sensation, like she was somehow separated from the things happening around her. She tried to focus on the people in the room, hoping that whatever it was would go away.
Off to her right, Rose was whispering to Callie and James, while Scorpius pretended to listen in.
Albus ignored the group behind him. "Birthday hug?” He blew the hair out of his eyes.
Wren swallowed the strange feeling in her gut and nodded. She squeezed her eyes shut and buried her head in his chest, trying to block out the strange visions as Albus' arms wrapped all the way around her.
Panic welled up inside, and she had this sudden urge to flee, to run for cover. A fluttery heartbeat. Danger. Heat pricked at the edge of her eyes. Wren tensed up and tried to blink back the unshed tears that threatened to fall for no reason.
She didn’t know what was happening to her. Wren pushed herself away from the hug and felt the panic subside. Albus frowned at her.
"Hey," he said, looking at Wren critically. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Wren said, plastering a smile onto her face. But then it was back, stronger this time. She felt short of breath, the pressure behind her eyes to the point of pain. Something was very wrong. Her eyes darted to the stairs. "I'm sorry," she said. "I... I have to... I’ll be right back."
She bolted up the stairs and ran through the living suite past her dad. Wren ducked under pillows hurling through the air and opened her bedroom door. Her eyes darted around until they found Bunny clamoring at the hutch door. She discarded Albus' box on her bed and scooped up Bunny into a hug. Outside her room, she heard her dad's soothing voice and the plops of pillows falling to the floor as Gran calmed down. Her eyes watered as the pressure finally let up and her beating pulse slowed back to normal.
"You're alright, little Bunny," she whispered to the quivering ball of fur. "I won't let anything bad happen to you. Everything is going to be alright."
[Edited 19 January 2014]
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