Chapter 18 : The Wind and the Warm
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The Joker and Her
The Wind and the Warm
If Brienne had ever been worried about finding a distraction after returning to Hogwarts, she found one in the study leading up to her OWLs. Having not expected to take exams for at least another year at Beauxbatons, Brienne found herself searching her brain through the fog of recent events for everything that she had learned in the last four years that could aide her in her studies. The rate of homework and the difficulty of lessons mounted, and the effort she needed to exert every evening to finish that day’s load of homework left her exhausted to the point where she would fall asleep almost instantly when she went to bed. She had never worked so hard in her life.
The same could be said for her companions. She didn’t see Paisley for a week after they returned to Hogwarts, except for Divination lessons, during which they spent the entire lesson pouring over books in order to translate the contents of their new dream diaries into anything noteworthy. Angelina now went to bed even later than Brienne after tirelessly working through Quidditch strategies with Oliver Wood after all of her own homework was finished. As for Fred and George, the girls were surprised to see that even they concentrated a little more in lessons; that their homework was almost never late and was almost always to the standard that was needed. It took an entire week for them to properly relate their Christmas holiday stories to each other; or in Brienne’s case, an abridged version.
Regardless of the added strain, Brienne relished being back. Despite the lack of time she had spent with her friends since arriving back at Hogwarts, she had still had more time with them then of late. They were all stressed with their studies, but that hadn’t changed them; they brought the same release and joy to Brienne that they had a month before. This, coupled with the concentration on her work, was the welcome distraction that she had been hoping for.
A couple of Saturdays after they had returned to school, Brienne, the twins and Angelina had stayed in the Great Hall after lunchtime with their books. Most of the other students were either keeping warm in their dormitories or were braving the cold for a snowball fight out in the grounds.
“I don’t know why they can’t give us a break, just for the weekends,” Fred muttered bitterly. He put his quill down and flexed his hand before picking up his sheet of parchment, “Snape doesn’t read our homework anyway, just gives us all P’s because of what House we’re from.”
“That’s not true,” Brienne said, her eyes still on her essay, “I generally get Exceeds Expectations or Acceptable in Potions.”
“Not all of us have pretty faces, Frenchy,” George grumbled, his voice quiet from lack of use.
“Except for Angelina.” Brienne flashed a grin.
Angelina looked up from her Transfiguration homework, her eyes cloudy, apparently not having followed the conversation. “What?”
“We were just talking about how gorgeous you were,” Brienne said breezily, dipping her quill in an inkpot, “And why, according to Fred and George, that is what matters when Professor Snape is marking our work.”
“He’s an eyes man, I reckon,” Fred piped up, “he’s a sucker for your navy blues.”
Angelina looked between the two of them, bags underneath her own deep brown eyes. “It’s fascinating the discussions that can arise from sleep deprivation. The correct phrase is ‘baby blues.’ ”
“She’s been spending too much time using big words,” George said, having lost interest in his homework and was stretching his arms.
This brought the atmosphere of a break to the group, who all put their quills down. As they gathered their books and papers, four silver goblets of pumpkin juice materialised in front of them. As they put away their homework for later, they settled back into catch-up chatting.
As Angelina revealed how Harry Potter, their star player, who had lost his broom the term before, had received a Firebolt as a Christmas present, Brienne watched them all as she relaxed her brain. She thought about how strange it was that so much could change in one aspect of her life and, yet, so little could in another. Fred and George looked the same as they did on the day they had departed from Hogwarts; well-built, wide shouldered, cheeky grins, dimples in the cheeks, bright hazel-green eyes, freckles. They were wearing matching jumpers, which were made by their mother. Fred’s eyes flickered towards Angelina far more often than was normal, and George only looked at Brienne when he was talking to her. They were both excitedly jumping up and down in their seats in joy at the news of their Seeker’s new broom.
Angelina, who had not gone home for the holidays, had barely changed either. Long, glossy black locks, rich coffee coloured skin. She was tall, svelte, but sturdy and strong, with a heart-shaped face, big, shining brown eyes and full lips. She was sharing an easy smile with the three of them as they chattered.
As she mostly preferred to do, Brienne leaned her crossed arms on the table and listened to them.
“How on Earth did Lee manage to even get those?” Angelina asked, staring at Fred with disbelief.
“Merlin knows. All he said to me was that it was a place in Knockturn Alley and he got them for a good price,” Fred gushed, his head on one of his hands.
“Oh, well, that explains it. You’d never be able to buy Love Potions anywhere else at the age of sixteen.”
“Or send them by owl-order.”
“Paisley was stunned,” Brienne said for the fifth time, “She’d never have eaten them. I don’t know why Lee would go so far as to think she would.”
“It might have been like a flirty joke,” Angelina proffered, “Like ‘I fancy you, I’m willing to go to great lengths—‘”
“No.” George shook his head, and Brienne made a face.
Fred gave a short laugh, “I don’t doubt that he fancies her... but then again, Lee fancied Bree on the train back to London, didn’t he?”
Brienne froze, and George frowned as if he had only just remembered the catastrophic scene that had led to her blowing up on the train ride. Angelina shot a gaze between the three of them, “He what?”
“He didn’t fancy me, he was just being himself,” Brienne spoke in the quietest voice she could manage, “He was only flirting.”
This brought on an awkward pause in the conversation, with Angelina looking at each of them in turn, waiting for them to finish the story. Brienne glanced at George, who gulped down his pumpkin juice, and Fred began to twirl his wand between his fingers. Brienne mouthed “I’ll tell you later” to Angelina as a bowl of crisps appeared between them on the table, which the boys seized by the handful.
“I can’t believe they’re making us do this much work and expect us to play well,” Fred returned to his original train of thought, “We have a game with Ravenclaw a couple of weeks from today. That’s Snape’s tactic: wear us all out so we lose against those swots.”
Brienne rolled her eyes and returned to her essay as the other three began to discuss Quidditch. She was, in fact, relishing the amount of work she had to do; it meant that she was occupied. She couldn’t understand her friends’ exasperation; they, at least, had something to look forward to. They didn’t understand that to her, there was far more to life than Quidditch. They had that thing in their lives where they could escape the world for a couple of short hours. What could she do in her own time while they were doing that?
Plan essays. Write essays. Eat. Cry. Think. Cry. She always tried to distract herself before she got further than the third step, despite her growing size, with the knowledge that distraction came easily whenever she cared to look into her book bag.
But nothing could distract her from the thoughts and memories that weighed her down in moments of calm; the journeying from one lesson to the next, the waiting for her friends to come back from Quidditch practice after finishing her homework, the first few minutes of dinner in which everyone served themselves. They were all quiet moments when panic seized her, when she heard a little voice in her head tell her that she wasn’t quite safe anymore.
She tried to suppress these irrational thoughts; of course she was safe at Hogwarts, nobody was going to smite her in her bed, drag her into the Common Room to make her friends watch while they cruelly challenged an underage witch. She wasn’t going to die; she had her father and Stanley on her side. There was a good chance that nobody was ever going to find her, if they were even looking.
Even if they weren’t waiting.
At times like those, the walls of Hogwarts -- magical and stone, invisible and tangible -- seemed thinner and as delicate as a sheet of ice. Over the weeks that passed, Brienne tried to ignore the growing emotions and fatigue that seemed to battle within her and power through it. It is what her mother must have and would have done.
“What are you thinking about, Brienne?” Angelina asked lazily, her head resting against her knees, quill brushing over her parchment absently.
Brienne looked up from her own page from where she had paused in a sentence ten minutes before. She couldn’t think of a straight answer.
It was the evening before Gryffindor’s Quidditch game against Ravenclaw. An hour before, Angelina, Fred and George had arrived back from their last practice session before the game, all seeming satisfied with their strategies and that this game would perhaps be less catastrophic than their last. The five of them, including Lee, were sitting around the fire, finishing that day’s batch of work; Angelina was sitting on the floor, leaning on Fred’s knees, and George and Lee had been peeking at one another’s Herbology essay from where they sat in front of Brienne.
“I’m fine,” Brienne’s voice croaked, her throat sticky from being silent for most of the evening.
George turned to face her from the floor and nudged her leg with his shoulder, “Are you fine enough to finish my homework? Pretty please?”
She raised an eyebrow and stared at him. He had a wide smile on his face, the glow from the fire lighting up his hair to a deep shade of gold. She couldn’t help but grin back.
“Ah, but what shall you give her in return?” Lee asked, his voice naturally louder and more demanding than the others.
“And snog supply.”
“I’m going for a walk outside,” Brienne muttered and stood as they all laughed, “See you in a while.”
“A walk? It’s bloody freezing outside!” Fred called as she climbed out of the portrait hole, her bag and homework left on the armchair that George quickly occupied.
So Lee knew about the kiss. And if he knew, Fred certainly did. She herself had told an excitable Angelina by letter over the Christmas holidays. That meant that everyone knew. Did it really mean so little to him that he’d tell his brother and friend, so that they could laugh about it? Humiliation simmered in her stomach and made her feel sick. How could he?
As she descended the steps into the Entrance Hall, Brienne told herself to calm down. Of course he had told Lee and Fred, they were his friends, just as Angelina and Paisley were hers. Of course Lee would bring it up and try to make it easier for everyone to deal with -- that was just him -- despite how insensitive and awkward he could be about it. It hadn’t even been a real kiss, it had been accidental! Even as she told herself this, her heart hammered as she pushed open the doors to the grounds and stepped outside.
Not only was it freezing, there were powerful winds and rumbling skies. The sky was a blanket of thick dark clouds, the orange rays of the setting sun barely shining through. The Whomping Willow thrashed, partly from the wind and partly from its own fury. The trees of the Forbidden Forest seemed to be straining to stay upright. She could distantly see Hagrid pulling the drying line for his massive clothes into his Hut as they threatened to fly away.
Brienne felt a fleeting wish that she had brought a jacket with her, as her thick uniform jumper didn’t do much to deter the icy winds. Before long, she was standing by the Lake, the usually still surface rippling with the gusts. She stood precariously on the roots of a nearby beech tree, which she leaned on with one hand.
She closed her eyes and breathed in the wonderful fresh scent of the trees as the wind picked up in speed and intensity. It was strangely therapeutic, as if the world knew how she was feeling and was showing its understanding. As if it were saying she was completely justified. As the Heavens opened and sleet joined the wind in its message, Brienne contributed her tears to the water running down her face and sighed and shivered as she let the weather whip her.
By the time she had opened her eyes, the sun had set and the clouds were now a dim grey-blue. Most of the lights had come on in the castle, and the smell of damp gravel and mud joined that of the Forest. The wind had died down slightly, and the rain had slowed to a quiet trickle. She took a deep sigh, refreshed and calm.
She felt something warm slip over her bitterly cold shoulders and a pressure on her hand.
“Come on, you.”
Brienne turned her head to see George, standing a couple of feet away, his hand holding hers. She looked down to see that he had tucked a cloak over her shoulders, and that Angelina was stood a couple of feet closer to the castle, her arms wrapped around herself, her hair being whipped about slightly. They both looked at her with worry in their eyes.
Opening her mouth, she felt as if she owed them an explanation, but no words would come. She became aware that she must have some evidence of tears on her face, and didn’t know how to explain them. Her emotions came back in a wave, and her breath hitched in her throat as George stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. She leaned on him and into his warmth and his familiar, comforting scent: apples and cinnamon, and the friendly smell of his knitted jumper. He was not as tall as her father, but she could still bury her face in his shoulder and hold him tightly around the waist until her breathing evened out.
As George pulled back, Angelina joined them and wound an arm around her waist, smiling. They guided her forward, George holding her hand gently. Brienne tried to find the energy to feel stupid, to say she wasn’t a child that could be babied by her parents, but couldn’t.
“I’m fine, I’m--” her throat locked up again.
“We know you are,” Angelina said breezily.
A word of thanks bubbled in the back of her throat but still wouldn’t come, and for a moment she felt overwhelmed with gratitude.
Nature wasn’t the only thing to understand her.
The warmth of the castle soothed her as they mounted the stairs, Angelina’s arm slipping from her waist. It was as they almost reached the Common Room that Brienne realised she was walking freely through the halls of Hogwarts, hand-in-hand with George Weasley. The thought flickered in her mind that it was a feeling that she could get used to.
By the time that they walked through the portrait hole and into the Common Room, Fred and Lee had finished their homework and were chatting animatedly about something on the floor in front of the fire. The Room was now mostly full of Gryffindors back from dinner, tables occupied and full of sounds of laughter and chatter. George dropped Brienne’s hand and joined them. She stopped as if she had been hit by a brick wall, but Angelina wound her arm around her waist again and steered her to her chair.
“We thought we’d send them to get you when it started hailing,” Fred said; the two of them turned to face her as she sat. “You’re going to die of frostbite now. You all right?”
“George didn’t need any persuading-”
She pursed her lips and spread them in a smile. “I’m fine.”
“Good.” Fred’s gaze lingered on her for a moment before he returned to his conversation, “Yeah, anyway, Chang’s pretty good, but now that Harry’s got a Firebolt, nobody’s got a chance!”
“I’d like to believe you, but their Beaters are bloody good.”
Tuning their Quidditch talk out, Brienne took a deep breath and pulled her abandoned Charms essay onto her lap. She stared at the page for a moment before dipping her quill in ink and continuing as best she could.
It was an hour later when she finished and packed her stuff away in her bag for the following day.
She stood, waved in goodnight, and weaved her way around the armchairs in front of the fire toward the dormitory staircase. As she passed the back of George’s chair, he looked over his shoulder and halted her with words that made her blood run cold.
“Are you ready to tell us what’s happened yet?”
She turned to him and was surprised to find his face deadly serious in expression. Angelina was leaning on the arm of her own chair, resting her head on her crossed arms, watching them.
Her throat was still sticky. She would not lie. Brienne blinked, shook her head, and headed for the dormitory before they could call her back.
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