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Chapter 4: December 15th, 1994 – Fifth Year
‘Is it me, or is this Yule Ball idea nothing more than torment inflicted on us by that decrepit old fossil? Is he trying to give us scars of mortification and humiliation to leave us shattered husks of adults, haunted by our teen-aged embarrassments?’ Tobias’ voice was a low, urgent hiss as he and Cal descended the stairs into the Slytherin common room.
The crowds were similarly abuzz, students holding frantic conferences or eyeballing each other like pieces of meat or potential threats. Already Tobias could sense eyes upon him. Ever since becoming a prefect, he had stopped his efforts to be overlooked; an underestimated prefect was not a prefect who could establish order. Tanith had warned him he’d live to regret this choice, and he was starting to suspect she was right.
Except the thought of Tanith in the context of the Yule Ball was enough to send a fresh jolt through his gut that only amplified his anxiety.
‘He just wants to hurt us, boyo. The old bastard takes too much pleasure in the suffering of kids.’ Cal sidestepped some third-years who were eyeing him up and down. ‘I say we give the whole thing a miss.’
‘You can’t skip it, you bloody cowards!’ Heads turned as Gabriel Doyle’s voice broke the hubbub of the common room, though the boy himself was draped artfully across an armchair, as unconcerned by the turmoil around him as the eye of the storm.
‘Why the hell not?’ Tobias asked, walking over to flop on the sofa. Cal collapsed beside him with a grunt. ‘Where are we supposed to find partners? My dress robes are ridiculous. I can dance, but what if she can’t? Am I supposed to teach her beforehand? I don’t even have a “she!”’
Gabriel arched an eyebrow. ‘Finding partners is easy. Just look around you. See the wonders of Slytherin House.’ A languid hand gestured to the room, and Tobias wondered if he was taking something to designate all of the girls around him as ‘wonders.’
Silence met his invitation until Cal drew a deep breath. ‘Gabe,’ he said. ‘Slytherin House has the worst ratio of boys to girls in the whole of Hogwarts.’
‘And even worse if you take into account the number of girls who’re built like battleships and about half as pretty. At this rate, Cal and I will have to go together.’
Gabriel gave a short laugh. ‘Before you lovebirds jump at the opportunity to declare your affection, take into account the size and intellect of half the men of Slytherin House. Remember, the Sorting Hat seems to think, “stupid, cruel and thuggish,” were part of Salazar Slytherin’s wishes.’
‘Bastard hat,’ Cal mumbled.
‘So what you’re saying, Gabe, is that Slytherin House is our oyster?’ Tobias relaxed a little as he leaned back, pulling off his glasses to polish them on his sleeve as he took in the crowds.
‘I don’t think oysters are on the menu for the Ball,’ said Gabriel, blank-faced. ‘There’s turkey, it’s a Yule party, what did you expect?’
Cal sighed. ‘He means, do you really think there are that many prospects out there? Decent girls who haven’t already been taken?’
‘Of course! Plenty are left, I’m sure. I mean, I asked Melanie a few minutes ago, but there are always plenty left,’ said Gabriel, encouraging them even as he confirmed one of their three female fifth-year contemporaries were taken.
‘Great - I’ll go find Ariane,’ said Cal, going to stand. Ariane Drake and Melanie Larkin were amiable enough so long as one didn’t draw their ire, and they tended to save that judgement for the rest of the school. Tobias doubted either was Cal’s first choice, though he knew Gabriel and Melanie had been indulging in something on-and-off and entirely without definition or, in Tobias’ opinion, future prospects. He didn’t want to ask for further details.
‘Miles got there first,’ said Gabriel, shattering Cal’s plans without apology.
Cal sat with a scowl. ‘And like that, you build up our hopes only to dash them again.’ Gabriel looked unconcerned, and Cal’s gaze turned to Tobias. ‘We’re screwed.’
But then Gabriel’s dark-eyed gaze landed on Tobias with an unsettlingly piercing air. ‘Tobias isn’t. Because Tobias has remembered Secret Option Three, which is only available to him.’
Tobias narrowed his eyes. ‘What do you think you know?’
‘I think I’ve paid attention for the last forever.’ Gabriel blew his fringe out of his eyes, like his observation of the outside world was the most casual and easy thing ever, even when he’d seen through every single one of his friends’ masks.
‘To what?’ Cal sounded lost. ‘What’s been forever?’
‘Caldwyn, my friend, you put the “b” in “subtle”,’ said Gabriel, not unkindly, before his attention returned to Tobias. ‘So, you’ll talk to Tanith?’
Cal clicked his fingers. ‘Damn it, yes, Tanith! That would make life so much easier. She wouldn’t care what colour my dress robes were and we’d probably have a blast all evening without worrying about…’ His voice trailed off as he caught the firm look from Gabriel. Then he looked to Tobias who sat, brow furrowed, deep in thought. ‘Oh, damn,’ he concluded.
‘Accurate assessment,’ murmured Tobias.
‘This has been your plan since Snape told us two hours ago, hasn’t it,’ said Cal, crestfallen.
‘It’s been his plan for the last six months at least,’ said Gabriel, lounging back as if his friends’ romantic entanglements were of no more interest to him than abandoned balls of twine to a lazy cat. He would play with them, flick them about, and then look to something else.
Tobias scowled. ‘Alright. I’ve thought about it a bit. I’m doomed, aren’t I?’
‘Not if you pull it off right.’ Gabriel looked at his watch. ‘Though you might want to move fast; last I saw Tanith, that Radimir fellow from Durmstrang was making a move -’
Papers and cushions went flying as Tobias kicked himself into the air and fair flew towards the door to the common room - only to almost bowl directly into Tanith as she stepped in. He had to skid to a halt, smooth his hair, straighten his robes, and so hadn’t summoned a conversation opener before she quirked an eyebrow at him.
‘Where’re you off to in such a hurry?’
‘I was - to talk to -’ Tobias pointed at the door, grateful for the small mercy that Cal and Gabriel couldn’t hear him from here. He sagged. ‘Never mind. How was Care of Magical Creatures?’ Somehow, that was the only question which sprang to mind.
‘Ugh.’ Distracting Tanith was always as easy as getting her onto a topic she could rant about. ‘That lump Hagrid’s as useless as ever, but at least my Blast-Ended Skrewt isn’t a harm to life or limb any more. Except its own life, I suppose, as it’s dead. It will not be missed.’
Tobias grinned a nervous grin, and then all he could say was, ‘You spoke to Radimir?’ Smooth.
‘Yeah. Gabe mentioned. Chatting. Couple minutes ago.’
‘Uh, just some Ancient Runes stuff.’ Now she was looking suspicious. ‘Why?’
‘No reason,’ he said, but she took him at face value, nodding and going to head further into the common room. He side-stepped to block her path. ‘I mean, it’s just this Yule Ball stuff. Ariane and Melanie are going with Miles and Gabe. I was just thinking.’ Another pause, and now she looked like she’d hex him if he didn’t skip to the point. ‘I mean, you’re the only girl left in our year.’
She snorted. ‘Oh, that’s the romantic invitation of the year, Grey. “Go with me, you’re the only girl left.”’
Something bubbled in his heart as he flapped his hands. ‘I didn’t mean - I don’t -’
To his surprise, she smiled. ‘Relax! It’s a good idea.’
‘Yeah. Less painful than hunting down some eligible bloke. It’ll be more of a laugh if it’s you and me.’
No! Don’t say it’s a laugh! Tobias’ internal critique turned to internal panic. Say it sounds wonderful! Say you’d be delighted to go to the Yule Ball with me! Say you know it’ll be a magical evening!
‘I know, right?’ he said instead. His laugh was a traitor in his throat. ‘I figured, why get stressed out finding a girl when there’s a friend right here?’ It was like he could see the window of opportunity for clarifying his intentions sail right by him, and all he could do was wave.
‘I’ll be sure to tell you what I’m wearing so you can colour coordinate appropriately. Have to be fashionable, after all.’ She stuck her nose in the air with a mock-haughty demeanour - fashion was always the least of her concerns - before the smirk returned. ‘Anyway, I’m going to go shower, because I’ve been stuck with a dead Skrewt all afternoon, but good thinking, Grey. This is why you’re the brains.’ She patted him on the shoulder in a way which was entirely companionable but still made his stomach lurch, then sauntered for the dormitories.
Tobias’ feet were numb as they carried him back to Cal and Gabriel. ‘So,’ he said, in a voice which didn’t sound like his own. ‘We’re going together.’
‘You told her you’d go as friends, didn’t you.’ Gabriel barely needed to look at him to reach this conclusion. ‘You’re useless, Grey.’
Cal looked between them both, brow furrowed. ‘I thought you were - I thought it wasn’t just friends…?’
‘I didn’t say - she assumed,’ Tobias stuttered, but then his words shifted to come in a free-flow of panic. ‘And maybe I didn’t phrase it right but she assumed and then I didn’t correct her… and now we’re just a pair of friends going as friends because it’s easier and I don’t like dancing! I mean, I can dance, but I don’t want to!’
‘You’re going to need to nip this in the bud,’ Gabriel said.
‘Oh!’ Cal jumped up. ‘Christmas present! You can give it beforehand, and that’s a really good way to say “I’m being more than just a friend”!’
Gabriel snapped his fingers. ‘Words of wisdom. What did you get her?’
Tobias sat up, heart surging with hope. ‘She’ll love it; it’s the memoirs of Barnabus Rourke, an Auror hero from the Grindelwald… what?’
They were groaning, and Gabriel shook his head. ‘A book? That’s a friend present, Grey. Get her jewellery. Get her expensive chocolates. Get her something subtle which she’d love but didn’t even realise she wanted, and you worked it out from paying careful attention all these years, just to demonstrate you do have emotions and are perfect for her.’
Tobias stared at him. ‘Like what?’
They sat in silence for a long moment. Then Cal drew a deep breath. ‘Get her jewellery,’ he said, and Gabriel nodded firmly.
‘I’ll have to owl-order something… but I don’t have much choice, do I? It’s only ten days -’
‘You can use Gawain,’ said Cal, and Tobias felt a rush of gratitude towards his best friend. ‘He’s faster than most owls.’
‘Express delivery is going to cost a bomb,’ Tobias muttered, ‘but I’ll spend every last bloody knut if I have to.’
‘That’s the spirit!’ Gabriel encouraged. ‘Self-sacrifice. Women love that.’
And he and Cal subsided as if this entire matter was resolved, leaving Tobias to sink into silence of rumination and deep, gut-wrenching apprehension. One thing was certain: this Yule Ball was not going to be the jolly diversion Dumbledore obviously thought it to be.
‘Cal, will you put that away? I didn’t get you it so you could unleash it on me.’ Tobias looked away from the mirror, abandoning fussing over his cravat to glare at his friend.
‘You said this was so I could record history.’ Cal sat on his bed in their dormitory, brandishing the Recording Orb that had been his Christmas present. ‘I know you expected me to rush out and record matters of deep and heavy importance which will make it in the history books, but I don’t know what will be in the history books, as we’re not in history yet. So I decided, instead, to record something we can look back on in ten years and laugh at.’ He waggled the Orb. It was a simple form of magic, and only worked on a small scale, but could record several hours of sights and sounds and give a hazy reproduction with a simple charm. Fun, Tobias had thought when he’d bought it. Now he was regretting it.
‘You never know,’ Cal continued. ‘You might be famous some day and I can sell your embarrassing Yule Ball for millions.’
‘Posterity is the word,’ said Gabriel as he emerged from the bathroom. He was already in his flowing emerald dress robes, but his hair was damp from the shower, no doubt to remain the careless, flopping mess it usually was. ‘Then again, Cal, what’s to say it won’t be you who’ll be famous in the future?’
‘I am the narrator. I am the storyteller. I am not the story,’ intoned Cal in a needlessly deep voice, but he still turned the Recording Orb on himself. The deep voice continued as he spoke into it. ‘So, here we are. The opening act of the Yule Ball, as the handsomest hunks of Slytherin House get ready for the gorgeous beauties they wish to entertain. Who knows what romantic possibilities will emerge by the end of the night?’
‘I have a few ideas,’ called Miles Bletchley from the other end of the dorm. He had been fighting with his flamboyant, mahogany robes, but finally his head stuck out the top. The Orb was turned in his direction. ‘A few little plans for Miss Ariane Drake - who shall have the pleasurable company tonight of the wonder that is me!’
‘It’ll end in tears before bed-time,’ said Tobias, frowning at his cravat. He didn’t usually take Bletchley’s posturing so hard; their housemate wasn’t the worst Slytherin had to offer, and he’d been rather self-deprecating, but Tobias’ patience looked low. ‘Though I dare say you’ll have a better bloody shot at romance tonight than me…’
‘You think my intentions are romance, Grey?’ Bletchley buttoned up his collar. ‘Don’t underestimate me.’
Tobias muttered something which sounded venomous and included the word ‘overestimate,’ which made Cal sure it would be more prelude to war than witty comeback, so he turned on Gabriel with the Orb. ‘So, Mister Doyle, what happened to your delightful partner? Tell us again, because it’s funny.’
Gabriel raised a bored eyebrow at him. ‘Charms accident. She’s still in the Hospital Wing, so I’m flying solo.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s fine. Means I don’t have to dance. I hate dancing.’
Cal brightened. ‘We can be my partner-in-crime with the Orb.’
‘I’m glad you continued the sentence after, “partner,” Brynmor,’ said Bletchley as he slotted on his cuff-links. ‘Always wondered about you two. Anyway, I’m done. You ladies take your time; I’m going to go wait five hours for Ariane to be ready, but I’ve got to be there when she comes out. Rules of the world.’ He sauntered for the door, snapping his fingers at Tobias en route. ‘I’d stop there, Grey. You’re looking as good as you’re going to look. And you don’t want to be late, either.’
Tobias looked balefully at his reflection, then drew a slow, calming breath. ‘Tanith will have my head if I keep her waiting,’ he conceded.
Bletchley laughed, and clapped him on the back to steer him towards the door. ‘Don’t you worry, Grey. Tanith’s not as scary as she makes out. She’s a great girl.’
Cal and Gabriel exchanged looks. The Recording Orb was lowered and they tried to camouflage themselves amongst the drapes as Tobias’ eyes narrowed at Bletchley.
‘I’m her best friend, Miles.’ His smile wouldn’t melt butter. ‘I think I know her better than you might with your five-minute relationship last year.’
‘Don’t underestimate the intensity of that relationship. Why, the things I could tell you…’
A muscle twitched in the corner of Tobias’ jaw as he was steered towards the door. ‘Don’t. Really. Besides, Tanith does talk to me, you know. About all sorts.’
That did shut Bletchley up, or at least long enough for them to both disappear out the door. Cal emerged from his cover and looked at Gabriel, who was blowing his fringe out of his face. ‘There could be some really nasty surprises in store for them both tonight. Where the hell are Ed and Adrian, anyway?’
‘Down there already. Montague found himself some Sixth Year, and Pucey got one of Parkinson’s little friends to go with him. He’s an idiot, but he’s a Quidditch star, so…’
Cal lowered the Orb, watching Gabriel as he adjusted his sleeve. ‘Hey, Gabe - can I ask you something?’ An eyebrow was raised at him. ‘You never did explain why you were late to school this year. Just sauntered in on day two without an explanation. I mean, I get it if you don’t want to talk…’
‘It’s nothing important.’ Something tense shifted in Gabriel’s expression, and he drew a slow breath before he looked up from his robes. ‘Switch the Orb off. And erase those last few seconds.’
Cal frowned, but obliged. ‘Of course. Done.’
There was a long pause where Gabriel seemed to think his cuff-links were the most important thing in the world. When he spoke, his voice was light, casual. ‘I wasn’t lying when I said I couldn’t get to King’s Cross in time. My father had an important meeting to go to. And I wanted to wait until it was done, so I knew how it went.’
‘Something that important happened in the Department of Magical Transportation?’
‘Something that important happened at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.’ He looked to the mirror. ‘It was the World Cup. Those Death Eaters. The Wizengamot have been going through lists. Old suspect lists.’
‘Had links, yes. And no, he’s not a Death Eater, and wasn’t, and didn’t have anything to do with what went down at the World Cup.’ Gabriel’s voice gained tense momentum as the sentence went on, ending in a fierce snap that challenged Cal to make comment.
Cal did not; such a display was beyond unusual for Gabriel and he wasn’t going to push. ‘The Wizengamot cleared him, then, right?’
‘Yes.’ Gabriel snapped his cuff-link shut. ‘It’s ancient history.’
Cal turned the dead Orb over in his hands. ‘What did he do?’
‘He worked in the Department of Mysteries for a while. And passed information over to You-Know-Who. That’d be why Will looked like he wanted to hex him when we got off the train last year. He probably sees him as a traitor - but that was fifteen years ago. A lot’s changed. People have changed.’
‘Times have changed.’ Cal nodded.
Then Gabriel had turned to him, and for once Cal was reminded that his friend was tall, almost as tall as him, and when he squared his shoulders and fixed his disconcertingly dark eyes on you, he could command a room’s attention. ‘I don’t care what people think about me. But don’t tell anyone. I don’t need my family being questioned, and I don’t need the approval of people like Montague and Malfoy.’
Cal lifted a hand. ‘I won’t tell anyone. And you think I’m going to judge you on this? With my parents?’
Gabriel didn’t often smile. He smirked, all superiority or wry sarcasm or something else demeaning. His lips looked awkward at a genuine smile, like they were trying on a pair of ill-fitting shoes. ‘Thanks, Caldwyn,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I knew you wouldn’t press it. I know Tanith’s got her ancient history and Tobias steers clear…’
‘Hey, I’m here to help, mate.’ Cal brandished the Recording Orb. ‘Can I turn this on? I want to go taunt Toby and talk to Tanith. Nothing else you want to say that won’t be recorded for posterity?’
Gabriel looked at him for a long moment, and then the smirk took over his face again. ‘Let’s torment everyone with that tonight. We’ll go all Daily Prophet on them. You handle the Orb, and I’ll interrogate people in embarrassing ways.’
‘Yeah. I’ll start on Toby, but you head down when you’re done grooming yourself, okay?’
Cal headed out of the dormitory, reactivating the Orb as he entered the common room. Tobias and Bletchley stood with the crowd of forlorn Slytherin boys, all waiting with varying degrees of patience. Bletchley looked at ease, casual and certain, but Tobias looked like he might be about to have a fit from nerves. Baiting him seemed cruel, so Cal simply waved at them as he crossed the room for the stairs to the girls’ dormitories.
Tobias had told him something he’d read about, some other Houses not letting boys even get up the stairs before various charms would stop them. Slytherin House was different; Cal needed an express invitation from someone inside, but he could stop by the girls’ rooms if he needed to. This rule did, he presumed, give the Slytherin House heads more headaches with older students than their colleagues might suffer.
He knocked on the door to the fifth year girls’ dormitory. ‘You ladies aren’t indecent, are you? It’s Cal.’
‘Come in,’ came Ariane’s voice, and he waltzed in to see them both already dressed - not that they’d have let him in otherwise - and, he had to admit it, looking rather nice in their dress robes. Cal couldn’t talk about cuts or fashions or nuances of colours beyond ‘green’ and ‘blue,’ but he knew what looked good, and they were it. For the first time, he felt a pang about going alone. Sure, he and Gabe would have a good time, but even Montague had found someone.
‘You ladies are looking gorgeous tonight,’ he said loftily. It was easier to charm when you had nothing at stake, and he distracted himself by looking to Tanith, who was doing up the clasp on her necklace. ‘Hey, isn’t that the thing Tobias got you?’
Ariane always had a nose for gossip and a story. She turned like a thunderstorm towards Tanith, who looked frozen between bashfulness and contemplation of where she’d hide Cal’s body. ‘Grey got you that?’ Ariane stabbed an accusing finger. ‘You said you two were going as friends.’
Tanith settled on rolling her eyes. Wry indifference and irritation at the world would always be her weapon of choice. ‘We are. It’s a necklace, Ariane, don’t lose your shit. We’re just going to the Ball together to save fussing about with romantic partners.’ She said the word ‘romantic’ like a curse.
‘Ah-ha.’ The laugh was hollow, mocking. ‘I’m sure. You have fun tonight, Tanith, you hear me?’ She swept for the door, pausing to put a hand on Tanith’s shoulder in a well-meaning manner. ‘Grey might be awkward, but he’s a sweetheart really. You shouldn’t toy with him.’
‘I don’t -’ Tanith spluttered, looking at Cal for support. Cal had none to give.
No retort received, Ariane dismissed this issue and swanned over to Cal by the door. ‘Looking dashing, Mister Brynmor. Understated navy; I like the look, though not very Yuletide.’
‘I’m an untraditional sort of guy,’ Cal agreed. ‘I’m rocking the boat. Fighting the system. Uncoordinating the fashion.’
‘That you are.’ Ariane was easy to joke with if you found the right jokes. She was obviously in a good mood tonight if she was making jests about his clothes which were well-meaning, not cutting. ‘If Miles breaks his leg on the way down, come find me by the punch bowl.’
‘Does it count if I arrange that?’ Cal lifted his wand, grinning.
Ariane laughed as she left, but Tanith glared daggers at the door when it was shut. ‘That girl needs it drilling into her skull about friendships between girls and boys. Tobias is a friend. You’re a friend. Doyle is a friend. Why does it have to be more complicated than that?’
‘You and Toby look more photogenic together?’ Cal hesitated. Interference was possibly a betrayal of Tobias, but at the same time, he could smell the explosion on the horizon if obliviousness endured. ‘I don’t know, she does have a bit of a point. Toby spent ages agonising over that necklace.’
Tanith’s expression pinched. ‘That’s what Grey does. Spends ages agonising over emotional things. He wanted to be nice. Not just give me a book. It’s hard for him.’ She toyed with the pendant. ‘He means well, but he can be hopeless.’
‘Yeah. Hopeless. Is that a diamond?’
She met his gaze, and something flickered there. ‘Apparently.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Silence dragged between them for long moments, though Tanith stubbornly didn’t speak. He grimaced. ‘Haven’t you been paying attention the last… some months? The way he’s been uncomfortable around you more than usual? The way he glowers at Dimitri Radimir? Diamond necklace? You’re an Aries. That’s your star-stone, you know.’ He tapped his chest. ‘Divination student here.’
Tanith made a small noise of protest, and turned to the dressing table. ‘Oh, bloody hell. Thank you, Brynmor. Thank you very bloody much.’
She buried her face in her hands. ‘I was happily living in denial but now you’ve gone and dug it up…’
‘Of course I knew! I am not stupid and he is not subtle! He’s the detached and unemotional one, not me. Thinks that if it can’t be figured out with a book, it’s not worth bothering with.’ She muttered something under her breath. ‘Of course I’ve seen him in a twist lately, I’ve just been trying to work out how to deter him.’
‘So you don’t… feel the same way?’ This situation was escalating quicker than Cal knew how to deal with.
Tanith looked in the mirror for her reflection to meet his gaze, her face a mask of regret. ‘Cal… Toby is my friend, and he’s a very dear friend. But that’s it. And he’s not - he’s just in this stage of infatuations where he’s trying to figure out what he wants and because he’s pretty emotionally incompetent and I’m the girl he spends the most time with, he’s decided it’s me. That’s why I’m trying to let him down gently.’
‘By… agreeing to go to the Ball with him?’
‘I’m going to talk to him! I just didn’t want to disappoint him or hurt him. I lied when I said Dimitri hadn’t asked me to the Ball. He did. I just said no, because I knew it would upset Tobias…’ She straightened, smoothing her dress. ‘I’ll talk to him tonight. Clear it all up.’
‘You’re just as bad as him!’ Cal stabbed an accusing, frantic finger. ‘You don’t have to fancy him, but you’re just as inept as he is! You couldn’t have done this sooner? And, you know, gone with someone you like?’
‘I like Tobias! But not like that! I was going to sort it out, but then this bloody Ball came up!’ She tossed her hands in the air. ‘I’ll find a way. And he’ll get over it. He’s the detached and unemotional one, remember?’
‘I think you’re selling him short,’ said Cal stubbornly. ‘I’ve seen him the last few days. Just… let him down gently, okay?’ He looked down at the Recording Orb in his hand sadly, then lifted it. ‘Now, I’m going to act like I’ve just come in, and you’re going to play up for the Orb and act all pre-Ball-y, and we’re going to pretend we didn’t have this conversation, either.’
‘Ah! Mister O’Neal and Miss Fielding! Good to see there are such good relations with the Hufflepuff Quidditch team!’ Gabriel gushed more than Cal thought necessary as Connor O’Neal and Beatrix Fielding approached the punch bowl, which had become the hunting ground of Team Recording Orb (they couldn’t agree on a better name - Gabriel wanted Team Chimera, Cal wanted Hogwarts Now!).
‘Drop dead, Doyle.’ Normally, snipes like that at Gabriel were absolutely sincere, but O’Neal looked in too good a mood. He poured a pair of glasses of punch, and eyed the Recording Orb. ‘What is that?’
‘Recording for posterity, Connor.’ Cal lifted it. ‘We’ll have a memory of the night, look back on it in ten years, have a right giggle. Don’t worry, it’s not for mocking. It’d be Bletchley who’d do that, and he’s too busy trying to seduce Drake.’ He jerked a thumb at the dance floor.
O’Neal actually grinned. ‘That’s a cool idea.’
‘It is,’ Fielding agreed. ‘I think it’s sweet, Caldwyn. We’ll have something to remember all this by.’
Cal flinched at the use of his full name, but Beatrix Fielding was too distracted by leaning up to kiss O’Neal on the cheek in what he was pretty sure was a show for the Orb. ‘I am nice. I’m the nice Slytherin. Though I’m still a Slytherin, so I have to have something sneaky in mind. When you, Connor, are a world-famous Quidditch star and you, Beatrix, are the greatest Obliviator of all time, I will be made rich off this.’
‘He means by selling this to the press,’ said Gabe. ‘I’ll just blackmail you if you do something you’ll regret later. Or you could pay us now to destroy it?’
O’Neal gave him another dismissive look, then drained the punch. ‘You didn’t put anything in this, did you?’ Gabriel shook his head.
‘Huh, pity,’ Fielding muttered, and the pair left.
Gabriel turned to Cal, indignant. ‘I thought we decided I could present them and ask them what a lovely evening they were having, just to confuse them when I was nice? They only wanted to talk to you!’
‘You talked about blackmailing them. This is why I’m the friendly one. No offence, Gabe, but they don’t like you. Most non-Slytherins don’t.’
‘And Slytherins, for that matter.’ He gave an indifferent smirk, and stuck out his hand. ‘Fine, give me the Orb. You can be the charming one. But I want my share in the blackmailing money.’
‘I was kidding about that.’
‘Not when I have the Orb, you’re not.’
So they lurked by the drinks table, feeling a little stupid in their dress robes without a partner in sight, and ploughed their way through the punch bowl. There was nobody to dance with in the rolling revelry of the Yule Ball, so they lunged at anyone who came their way and demanded five minutes of their time. Sometimes, students were keen to get a snippet of the night recorded. Others, less so. Some were just unhappy once the speaking started.
‘So,’ chirped up Cal as he’d cornered Nick Wilson and Jen Riley of Gryffindor. ‘Wilson, how much did you charm Riley here into going out with you?’
Wilson looked suspicious. ‘I asked her -’
‘I mean, was it a Confounding Charm or something more powerful?’
‘If it’s something more hefty, are there words we should avoid? If I say “longitude” or “parsley” is she going to snap out of it and start screaming?’
By then, Gabriel was laughing so hard he couldn’t hold the Recording Orb straight, and Wilson left in a huff with a Jen Riley on his heels Cal would swear blind was fighting a smile. They might be the nicer Slytherins, but sometimes their peace accord with the Gryffindors could be more like a cold war.
They were better behaved with others. They interrogated Cedric Diggory and Cho Chang, and Gabriel leered at the latter while Cal tried to get the former to admit that he wanted someone to ‘dispose’ of Viktor Krum. All in the name of Hogwarts’ honour, of course. Krum stood with a very pretty girl that Cal didn’t recognise, but Diggory swore blind she was one of Potter’s friends. As she wasn’t the Weasley, she had to be the mad-haired bookish one, though this seemed unlikely. It struck Cal as cruel of Diggory to make such jokes about his competitors’ friends, mocking them like that when they blatantly couldn’t end up looking that good.
Once Diggory and Chang were gone, Cal peered across the dance floor. ‘Do you really think that’s what’s-her-face? What is her name?’
‘Granger. And, I dunno, mate.’ Gabriel squinted over his shoulder. ‘Talk about coming out of your shell. I should have baked a cake.’
Cal was too bewildered to realise Gabriel was using a Muggle reference he’d likely imprinted on him before. ‘Damn straight. She’s looking… I don’t know.’
‘The word you’re looking for, my friend,’ said Gabriel, leering in the direction of Possibly-Granger, ‘is hot, or maybe… hell, what’s Tobias doing?’
‘That’s four words…’ Cal turned to where Gabriel was now looking. Tobias and Tanith had been dancing for the last few songs, Tobias demonstrating his mother’s lessons once upon a time had been put to good use. Tanith looked like she was actually having a good time. But now he was dragging her off the floor to a corner which had ‘Quiet Word’ written all over it.
‘Did you talk to Tanith?’ Gabriel bit his lip, and anxiety squirmed in Cal’s gut. Gabriel was always confident about everything. If a horde of Death Eaters suddenly charged into the Great Hall and started spraying spells, he would probably stand at the periphery with a tall drink and critique their technique.
‘Yeah.’ Cal sipped his punch, brow furrowing. ‘She said she had it in hand. And that we should give her more credit, that she’s not as blind as we thought. Then again, I didn’t know until the other week.’
‘Yes, but Tanith has paid attention to matters other than how to sabotage Durmstrang in the Tournament. She’s not dumb. I guess we should have figured she’d notice what Tobias is thinking when it’s about her. He’s not exactly subtle when it comes to his feelings. What does she think?’
‘She said she doesn’t feel the same way about him. That he’s just a friend, like you or me.’
Gabriel raised an eyebrow. ‘Let’s not kid ourselves. Even without him fancying the hell out of her, he’s not a friend to her like you or me. Those two have always had their thing going. Bonding over marauding basilisks. Prefect duties. Actually giving a damn about wider issues. They’re not like us mere mortals, Caldwyn. They’re the idealists throwing themselves into impossible situations.’
‘And Tobias definitely is, if Tanith doesn’t feel that way about him.’
‘So why did she say yes to the ball invite? Why didn’t she go with Radimir? Girls love him, and he’s been chasing Tanith since he got here.’ Gabriel snorted. ‘And she’s been giving him attention back! That’s why Tobias has been having a fit every time he’s seen the bugger.’
‘There’s attention, and then there’s being drooled on. She can like him without liking him that much. But she said she turned Radimir down to not hurt Toby’s feelings.’
‘So.’ Gabriel blew his fringe out of his eyes. ‘She knows he likes her. She doesn’t feel the same way. She said yes to an invitation to the romantic event of our Hogwarts life. And Tobias is supposed to take this as discouragement?’
Cal hesitated. The situation was starting to fizz in his head, make his thoughts sluggish, and he’d been leaning on the table for the last while. ‘She… said she’d let him down gently?’
‘Gently? This is Cole! Grey will be throwing himself off the Astronomy Tower by midnight!’ Gabriel rounded on him. ‘Why did you let her? We should be taking Tobias aside, explaining the situation, and then let them both pretend that nothing happened! Now it’ll be a horrible confrontation scarring him for life and rendering Tanith so guilt-ridden she can’t look him in the eye!’ The panic was now hitting Gabriel, which only augmented the tension in Cal’s gut. Never before had he seen something which could make the unflappable Gabriel Doyle flap.
‘That would make more sense, wouldn’t it.’ Cal smacked him on the arm. ‘Why didn’t you tell me to do that?’
‘I thought Tanith liked him! I’m a bloke! I’m not meant to tell these things! But Tobias had a huge sign on his chest saying, “I love Tanith Cole,” and I figured she’d read it too, and the reason she hadn’t hexed him into oblivion was because she felt the same way!’
‘Shit.’ Cal looked at the Quiet Word Corner. ‘We gotta stop that.’ They had deliberated for a while, but Cal knew Tobias. There was no way he could jump to a point like a confession of his feelings without dancing about the topic. Hope still sprang in his chest as he and Gabriel burst into action, lunging away from the table.
Except his legs were wobbly, and then he was falling, and had to clutch at Gabriel to keep his feet. Only Gabriel swayed, too, and wasn’t strong enough to keep up a burly Quidditch player. The two of them flew across the dance floor before collapsing into a heap, sending dancers scattering, and ending up in a pile of tangled limbs and dazed thoughts.
Cal groaned as he rose onto his elbows, looking down at Gabriel. ‘Sorry,’ he croaked. Slowly the two began to clamber to their feet, leaning on each other for support, limbs unresponsive and unhelpful. ‘Oh, my head’s spinning.’
‘Yeah.’ Gabriel seemed better off, but he had to keep Cal upright, and so the two were a swaying mass as they staggered away from the dance floor, mumbling apologies, until they made it to the chairs next to the punch bowl, their mission forgotten.
Cal refilled their abandoned glasses. ‘It’s just hot in here. That’s what it is. It’s making us light-headed. We’ll sit for a second, relax, and we’ll be okay. Have a drink.’ He passed a beaker.
Gabriel lifted it to its lips - then stopped, eyeing the liquid. ‘Caldwyn. You sure this isn’t spiked?’
‘Um.’ Cal looked into his glass. ‘Oh.’ It wasn’t that he didn’t know what being drunk felt like. But he’d not known he’d been having booze, so he’d not thought about feeling light-headed, not expected his limbs to react sluggishly. Now he stopped and thought about it, he probably wasn’t just stressed and overheated.
‘Should we interrogate the Weasley twins?’ Gabe wondered.
‘I don’t know. Where are they? Can we stand enough to go find them? Can we interrogate them without throwing up on them? I bet there’s a charm on this as well as a drink. Maybe instead of a drink.’
‘You think you’re going to throw up?’ Gabriel sounded concerned, and Cal was surprised until he saw his friend draw the hem of his dress robes back, his priorities then clear.
‘No, I’m okay. I think.’ Cal pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘What were we doing before this?’
‘Apparently, throwing fuel on the fire of the rumours that we’re gay,’ sighed Gabriel.
‘What?’ Cal went to rise, but fell down heavily once again. He felt heat rise to his cheeks as gazes turned in their direction, and he leaned in to hiss at Gabriel. ‘…what?’
‘Yeah, people think we’re gay,’ said Gabriel, looking supremely unconcerned. ‘No partner, hanging with each other all night, and we’re always the two together when Cole and Grey are doing their thing.’
‘Nobody says this about Montague and Pucey.’
‘Yeah, but they have partners tonight. And I think people see all that horrible tension with Cole and Grey and so assume the two of us have to have our share of tension, too.’
Cal sagged, and reached for his beaker again, taking a hefty swig. ‘Come on. Let’s go save Tanith and Tobias from themselves. Either by stopping him, or by convincing her he’s the sexiest man alive and she wants his nerdy body.’
But the moment the mission statement was out of his mouth, he spotted Tobias weaving his way through the crowd, moving around the outskirts of the dance floor, alone. He slouched to the chairs next to them and slumped down. ‘…hey, guys.’
‘Crashed and burned?’ Gabriel’s voice was far too chirpy.
Cal stomped on his foot. ‘What happened?’ He passed Tobias a beaker of spiked punch. He looked like he needed it.
Tobias just clutched the cup, not drinking it, staring into the crowd. ‘Sat her down. Made some mumbling, eloquent declaration of how I’d started to see her in a new light since the end of last year?’
‘That recently?’ said Gabriel, and got his foot stomped on again.
‘…and then I was stupid enough to take her silence as… I don’t know. No news is good news, right?’ Tobias pressed on like he’d not heard Gabriel, and his voice dropped an octave, hollow and mortified. ‘That was when I tried to kiss her.’
‘Oh, no,’ Cal groaned.
‘Yep.’ Tobias’ voice remained flat, emotionless. ‘She jumped up, said I was just her friend, only her friend, she valued me as a friend and nothing more. Then she said she’d come to the Ball with me because she felt sorry to me.’ Now he drank, draining the beaker in one, and seemed unperturbed by the flavour. ‘She went back to the common room.’
‘Sorry for you?’ Cal echoed. That sounded like the worst possible interpretation of what Tanith had told him earlier; or possibly she’d just expressed herself that badly. He put down his beaker. ‘I feel - you know, I feel rotten. Think I might go to bed, too. Or my head’s going to explode.’
‘I don’t think I can sleep,’ droned Tobias, somehow making a monotone melodramatic. ‘I just - I really thought this was - and now I’ve ruined everything.’
‘It’ll be alright,’ said Gabriel, finally speaking without earning himself a foot-stomping. ‘You just both need to agree to act like tonight never happened. And then you can forget about it all. And get over her. Plenty more fish in the sea.’
‘I don’t want those fish.’ Tobias stared at his empty beaker, but sighed, shoulders slumping. ‘Yeah. You’re right. I mean, if she doesn’t like me back, there’s not much I can do, is there? I just have to get over her.’ He lifted his gaze blearily. ‘What did you two smuggle in here? I heard you fall over from across the room.’
‘Oh,’ said Cal. ‘There’s something in the punch. I don’t think it’s just booze, I think it’s charmed, too.’
‘And you gave it to me?’
‘You looked like you needed it,’ said Gabriel, indifferent.
‘Bastards,’ said Tobias, sounding more like his old self. He gave the beaker, and its contents, an inquisitive glance and sniff. ‘Could be a mild Confundus charm. It can replicate the light-headed sensation of alcohol. With a little booze, it could augment the effects…’
‘Weasley twins,’ Gabriel cursed. ‘Can you give them detention?’
‘Sure, if you feel like fishing me out of the lake after.’ Tobias got to his feet with a groan. ‘Come on. Sod tonight, let’s go back. I’ll work on an apology to Tanith and we can take it from there. Forget this ever happened.’ His brow knotted. ‘Radimir better stay away from her, though.’
Cal didn’t have a good answer to that. He suspected that Tanith would keep Dimitri Radimir, charming Durmstrang student, at bay. If only because she wouldn’t want to hurt Tobias, but there was no way of telling him that without offending his fractured pride even more. Or possibly letting on that he’d anticipated him crashing and burning and done nothing to stop it, despite his best efforts.
So they slumped to Common Room, slow but steady. The lower years had gone to bed, and almost everyone else was still in the Great Hall enjoying the Ball, so it was with a forlorn, miserable sense of failure that the three slumped past the dimmed sconces and empty armchairs and headed for the dormitory. Cal waved the other two on. ‘I’ll be up in a minute.’
They all knew he meant to talk to Tanith, so didn’t stop him as he took the other door. Apprehension twisted and rose like the stairwell as he climbed for the right room, and not apprehension for what would happen between her and Tobias. He was Tanith’s friend, yes, but it was an easy friendship, of Quidditch and Gryffindor baiting and complaining about homework. Deeper, more emotional matters had always been between her and Tobias, not him. But now Tobias was the emotional matter, and Gabriel would be no use to anyone on such a topic.
So it fell to him, and he had no idea what he was going to do. He knocked on the door.
‘Who is it?’ Tanith’s voice was more muffled than it should have been.
‘S’me.’ There was a mumble he took for summons, so he tried the door and it opened. And stopped dead in the doorway when he saw Tanith curled up on her bed, eyes puffy and red.
His throat tightened. Tanith had been crying. Tanith, who didn’t bat an eyelid at anything, who had seemed only disconcerted at a Dark Mark rising to the sky again. Her solidity of spirit wasn’t the same as Gabriel’s - he seemed to simply not care, while she was resilient, but it was equally distressing to see her in distress.
‘You alright?’ he asked, voice feeling awkward, gruff, stupid. But his feet dragged him from the door to the bed, and he pulled up a stool next to her. Sitting on the bed sounded an awful lot like an intrusion.
She straightened, drawing her legs up to wrap her arms around them and rest her chin on her knees. Her robes were a crinkled mess, and the diamond necklace had been put on the bedside table. ‘No.’
‘Tobias is - he’s not happy.’ Cal shifted his weight. ‘But you know him. He’ll pull through.’
‘You didn’t see the look in his eyes. He looked like I’d just kicked him in the stomach and called him a worthless half-breed I never wanted to see again. Worse. It was like I’d extinguished that little flame of excitement he always seems to have.’ She closed her eyes. ‘I never wanted to hurt him.’
For one terrifying moment he thought she was going to cry again. He stared at his hands. ‘Of course you didn’t. You’re not that horrid. But this was inevitable, nobody was going to get through this free and easily, and it’s done. He knows. It might not be nice, but he knows, and it’s better this way.’
‘But I’ve ruined everything!’ A sob finally caught her voice, and some instinct Cal hadn’t realised he had made him shift onto the bed next to her, though he didn’t move further. ‘I don’t know if he’ll be able to even look at me in the morning! And I don’t like him that way, but he’s my friend, and I need him as my friend…’
Cal bit his lip and forced himself to lift his arm, put it around her shoulder. The gesture felt forced, awkward, and there was a flicker in Tanith’s expression as she felt his hand on her - but then she relaxed, leaned against him, and what had been an uncertain display became more comfortable, genuine reassurance. That wasn’t too hard, now, was it? He drew a deep breath. ‘You know what he’s like; he bounces back. So you’re going to get up in the morning, smile at him, and talk about normal things. Pretend nothing happened. He’ll thank you for it.’
‘I do want to forget it ever happened,’ Tanith mumbled against his side.
‘So does he. So you don’t let it ruin anything. He’ll sort himself out. You two just keep being yourselves and be friends. No romance is worth the price of friendship.’ He squeezed her shoulder.
‘You read that in a book somewhere.’
He smiled. If she was being sardonic at him, she had to be feeling better. ‘It’s true. Are you going to be okay here?’
‘Yeah.’ She pulled away, scrubbed her face one last time, smearing the makeup she’d probably had Ariane’s help putting on. He hadn’t noticed it before now, with the streaks at her eyes. ‘Thanks, Cal. You’re a good friend, too - you all are. I don’t tell you that enough.’
His smile turned sheepish. ‘Okay, go back to being haughty Tanith, because this is freaking me out.’
She laughed, and he felt warmer for causing that, then patted him on the arm. It was a reassurance and a dismissal all at once. ‘Alright, get out, you great oaf. I don’t want you leering at me for the rest of the night.’
‘That’s more like it.’ He got to his feet, grinning, and headed for the door. But he hesitated when she stood and he watched her a moment, dress crumpled, hair tangled, makeup smeared. He rubbed the back of his neck. ‘You know - you’ve looked great tonight. I didn’t say that just to be silly. I’m sorry you didn’t get to go with someone you like-like.’
Tanith’s expression grew tight at the edges, like the mask was being tugged. ‘Thanks, Cal,’ she said, and though her voice was low he suspected this was still a dismissal, still a hiding of her true feelings, and with a wince and a nod he ducked out the room and shut the door behind him.
It wasn’t over. He’d helped, he knew he’d helped, but they still all needed to forget it had happened, lick the wounds to their feelings and pride, and move on.
And Cal had to find who’d spiked the punch.