Chapter 1 : Thorns of Time
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It had only been five years since Penelope Clearwater last stepped foot in London, but it might as well have been decades.
As she stared out the misted glass window of the train, memories of the past consumed her. Conflicting sensations of longing and fear clouded her mind, the emotions swarming her like bees. A part of her felt glad, almost relieved, to be back in the place she once called home, to reunite with her loved ones and continue on with life as though the past five years had never happened.
Yet another part of her, an overwhelming part, was panicking, questioning why she had ever decided to return to this place, the city and the people she had tried so hard to forget.
How could she possibly come back? How could she attempt to make amends with the people she had severed contact with? All that time ago, she had collected her belongings and fled on a whim, leaving vague letters for the ones who cared for her. She’d gotten on a train and never looked back.
But now, she had returned. This was the place where she had only been known as the golden girl of Hogwarts, the responsible prefect, the girlfriend of ambitious Head Boy Percy Weasley who had a bright future in the Ministry. Her professors loved her, her family bragged of her accomplishments. She was Penelope Clearwater, logical and dependable, and never anything more.
That was, until the day of her Hogwarts graduation, when she had finally grown tired of being known as merely responsible. She began to view her reputation with contempt. She didn’t want to be the mundane, uninteresting girl she’d always known. She had wanted to be passionate, spontaneous, and vibrant – the qualities she’d always wanted to possess, but had never known how.
So she’d done something revolutionary. Withdrawing her application from St. Mungo’s, where she’d planned to enter training to be a Healer, she’d packed a trunk, thrown away her various awards and badges, and scribbled out some letters. Once sending them off, she got on a train and didn’t look back. She’d instructed her parents, her friends, and Percy to not bother to look for her. She had needed a change, a new life, and she needed to do it on her own.
And for the past five years, she’d done just that. She’s taken on a new identity – Delaney Smith - for the purpose of booking rooms, getting jobs, and meeting new people. She’d toured the world, engaging herself in magical adventures. She’d experimented with alchemy in the Ukraine, studied wandlore in China, and even delved into dragon taming in Russia.
Her life had been transient, exhilarating, and full of adventures – and yet, it was empty. She was alone, without a family, never staying in one place long enough to form real relationships. There was the occasional warm body who kept her company in her quiet inn rooms, but they’d only ever stayed the night, a week at the most. And then, she was gone, on to the next destination, on to new experiences.
And while it wasn’t too difficult to distract herself from the abyss of solitude for a while, it had eventually consumed her thoughts. She missed her life. She missed her parents, who she’d always been close with. She missed her friends, who had always been able to put a smile on her face in hard times. And she missed Percy, dear Percy, who had loved her so, and had promised her the world.
But she had grown afraid. What would they say? She’d treated them with such negligence, selfishly leaving them alone with hundreds of unanswered questions, deserting them without a good-bye. It had been something they never would have expected from predictable Penelope Clearwater, who always put others before herself. They must have been heartbroken at her departure. Had they moved on? They must have, it had been years in which she hadn’t bothered to update them, or even checked in to see if they were still alive and well.
The Second Wizarding War had kept her at bay even longer. She escaped to the United States for a short time, keeping up with newspapers and frantically scanning the lists of the deceased to make sure her loved ones were alright. She wrote letters, yet always got cold feet at the last moment and never sent them, crumpling them up and tossing them into the trashcan of whichever room she was residing in at the moment.
When the war ended, she had still not managed to muster up the courage to return. She’d noted in a newspaper following the Battle of Hogwarts that one of Percy’s brothers had died, and more than anything, longed to be there for him, to comfort him in the time of tragedy, and yet once again grew fearful. She convinced herself that she was probably the last face he would want to see.
Another two years passed, and Penelope flitted around the globe again, busying herself with studying magical creatures in Brazil and even teaching Transfiguration for a year at a new school in Nigeria. At the end of the year, she’d quit, booking herself a Portkey to Madagascar, where she could study the origins of the Disarming Charm.
But once her bag was packed, she found herself sitting on the floor of her current room, dreading going to yet another place where nobody knew her name, or even cared about her story. Finally succumbing to her craving for familiarity, she instead boarded a Muggle plane to England, and hopped on a train back to the city where she was born.
Gripping the handle of her bag, Penelope took a deep breath. So much had changed – her lifestyle, her hopes and dreams, her experiences, even her name – yet as she stared at the platform of King’s Cross station, she felt Penelope Clearwater slowly coming back. Delaney Smith, cultivated world traveler with a mysterious past, was gradually disappearing, and she was returning to her old self, finding her way back home.
The train jerked to a halt, and Penelope stood, finding her way to the exit and walking a few blocks to the red telephone booth. Percy had taught her how to find her way into the Ministry years ago so that she could visit him at work, and she still somehow remembered his instructions. She planned to find Percy, who probably had his own office in the Ministry by now, no doubt achieving the success he had always dreamed of.
Hand hovering above the numbers, she willed herself to dial the password that would allow her to descend into the Headquarters – but instead, she felt her instincts causing her to turn, to glance out onto the street, where she was greeted with a sight which couldn’t completely absorb initially.
Percy Weasley was grinning, walking down the sidewalk, looking more relaxed and satisfied than she had ever seen him. Her heart lifted, fluttering faster as her gaze found the man she loved, curly hair longer than she remembered and stubble lining his jaw.
But he wasn’t alone. Her eyes flitted to his left hand, which was clasped tightly with another. A dark-haired woman walked beside him, her brown eyes sparkling, her stomach bulging with what could only be a baby. She glanced at their right hands, both boasting rings which glimmered despite the dark clouds blocking the sunlight. They grinned at each other, looking completely content just to be together in that moment.
Penelope felt her heart sink. Her smile fell from her face, and she tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear, turning away from the scene, unable to take it any longer.
Of course he had moved on. What else had she expected? She had abandoned him, and she was foolish to even believe that he would wait around for her for five years.
Yet she couldn’t help but think back. To stolen moments in abandoned classrooms, where all that mattered was Percy’s lips pressed against her own, his hands tangled in her hair. To walks along the shore of the lake, when it was her hand clasped in his, her smile coaxing out his infectious grin. To whispered promises of their future, both of them imagining their own wedding, their own children, their own successes, which they would experience together.
All of those memories were no longer hers. Percy was living them in the present, but now he had another woman to experience them with, one who hadn’t left him with only a rushed letter saying her goodbyes, one who hadn’t severed contact with him and broken his heart – a gorgeous, smiling woman who wasn’t her.
Sliding out of the telephone booth, she turned in the opposite direction, keeping her head tucked down, and making her way back to King’s Cross, barely managing to restrain herself from breaking into a dead sprint.
Arriving at the ticket booth, she peered inside, forcing a smile to the Muggle worker. “I’d like a ticket, please. I don’t care where, I’d just like to be on the next train out of here,” she said, pulling her wallet from her bag.
It had been a mistake to return to her old life, and it was time to accept the decision she had made all those years ago. This time, she wasn’t going to long for old memories. They were in the past, never to be revisited. She wasn’t going to falter. She was going to be Delaney Smith until she was on her deathbed, in whichever country that may be.
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Penelope Clearwater was gone forever, and she wasn’t coming back.
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