Chapter 3 : 3. Cold Toes, Warm Heart
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Wren woke with something warm and soft nestled into the top of her head. 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, cuddling into the dent where her head had left the pillow.
She stroked him gently and then got up to put fresh water and pellets in his bowls. "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, mending wings and healing fractures. 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.
This time, Wren wouldn't have to let him go.
She 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.
A light tapping drew her to her window. A tawny owl with a small envelope in his claws pecked insistently until she let him in.
"Hello, Earl!" Albus' owl hooted and flew off as soon as she detached the letter.
Wren felt a strange prickling behind her eyes. Suddenly a picture popped into her head of vast meadows, 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 and returned her attention to the little rabbit. She absently set Albus' letter on her desk, knocking over a thick stack of unopened mail.
Maybe she should get a trim down the street, and then...
Bunny yawned and Wren's heart melted. "Oh, look how cute!" 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. I guess I need to get more."
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, handing Gran a cup of tea. His long legs (something Wren hadn't gotten from him) bent over the couch cushions, and his deep brown eyes (something they shared) gazed at her kindly. "Happy birthday."
"That's not till the end of summer, Dad."
Her dad smiled sadly. "It always goes so fast, doesn't it? We tried to keep you from wasting your whole vacation indoors, but it was all you wanted to do."
"Waste? Helping Gran get better wasn't wasting my time!"
"You never met up with Rose, did you?"
"But I'm going to owl her, and we were going to..." It suddenly hit her. That was supposed to be two weeks ago when her mum had said something about Rose not coming.
Because Wren had never sent the owl.
Gran and Bunny had taken up so much of her attention that she'd completely lost track of the days.
"She's going to be so mad," Wren said, thinking out loud. "But I have a good excuse. Gran needed me."
Bunny needed her too. Wren smiled. Thinking about Bunny made her insides warm and fuzzy. He'd made Gran smile too, or at least that was Wren's impression.
"Morning, Gran." Wren waited for a response, but Gran continued to stare blankly into the center of the room. Disappointed, Wren went downstairs for breakfast.
"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 whistle instantly.
"Thanks, Nellie." Wren gave her a grateful smile and poured steaming 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.
"I was awake anyway."
"Yes and no." Wren rubbed her face with the back of her hand and picked up a dish towel.
“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."
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."
"Oh, I almost forgot. This came yesterday." She handed an envelope to Wren with big block letters that read 'READ ME' on the front.
"Uh oh." Wren tore it open and read the note from Rose. "She says I've been hiding for long enough and to be ready by ten. What time is it?"
"Half past nine." Nellie looked Wren up and down. "Is that what you're wearing for your party?"
Wren flicked a soap bubble with her fingers. "It's not really a party." At least she didn't think it was. She tried to remember her last conversation with Rose. "Anyway, 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. She vaguely rememberd Rose making a guest list. "Besides, Rose promised to keep it small. Our roommate Callie, James and Albus, and a few others..."
"Ahh," Nellie said with a glint in her eye. "Still crushing on Albus?"
Wren turned pink. "I never said that."
"You didn't have to. You've been coming down here, telling your pet rabbit all about getting his letters every week, and I just happened to eavesdrop."
"I think it's cute. What does he say in those letters?"
"I... err..." It occurred to Wren that she hadn't opened the one from this morning, or any of them. How long had that been going on?
Nellie wasn't going to leave it alone. "You're going to wear that for Albus?"
"No," Wren said, turning a deeper shade of embarrassment over Nellie's teasing. "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.
Most times, when she went anywhere with James and Albus Potter, she dressed like this. When photographers showed up, she made sure to duck behind someone before the flash went off. There were usually plenty of fangirls around to use for cover. Those girls loved being in front of the camera. Wren preferred to be behind it.
"At least let me do your hair."
Nellie gave her a knowing look. "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."
When it was all smoothed out, Wren's hair settled to just above her shoulders. "That's what happens to hair when you forget about it, I guess."
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 cottage, 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. No one told her she had to stay, but Wren felt like she couldn't abandon Gran, just in case. Besides, who would take care of Bunny?
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, I just want to look normal," 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.
"They're here already?"
"You look nice," Nellie told Wren. "At least your hair does." Wren stuck out her tongue as Nellie called out, "Have a happy birthday!"
Wren came out of the kitchen, expecting to see familiar faces, but she didn't recognize the tall, lanky form sitting with his 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. "You never wrote me back. I missed you!"
She squeezed Wren tightly 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 lamely. She hadn't even thought of decorations.
"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 the whole place, don't they?" James looked to Wren for confirmation. The cottage flashed inside her mind, but Wren shoved the image away.
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." He trailed behind her mum like a lanky ogre, gesturing with his wand arm around the room. Her mum patted James on the shoulder as they exchanged words. He bounded back over to the girls and pointed up to the balcony.
"Mrs. L says I can decorate up there, but after the lunch crowd clears out. We'll have an afternoon party, yeah?" His eagerness was catching until he ruffled her hair. She was sure that sixteen was the age limit for hair ruffling and cheek pinching.
“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 snatched a stray fork from the cutlery tray on the bar. “Watch this!” Rose groaned as James commenced a balancing act with the fork on his forehead.
Wren half-expected Albus to sneak up behind her and crack a joke. She went to the unknown figure still sitting by the floo to ask if a short, wiry dark-haired boy had 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. You never wrote back."
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. Just because he was taller now, didn't mean that things had to be any different. 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's last frame was spent on the little rabbit. She was supposed to get more, and then... What happened? 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.
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 as he shook the soot out of his hair.
As Albus exchanged greetings with Scorpius, dark and light hair towered above her. Wren felt small and inconsequential all of a sudden. She should have written back, or visited. Or something. The conversation buzzed around her as they talked about the summer she had missed out on completely.
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 this 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]
[Revised 12 July 2015]
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