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Latet Anguis in Herba by Slide
Format: Short story collection
Chapter 5: September 1st, 1993 – Fourth Year
‘…and you’ve remembered all the books you’ll need?’
‘Even that old Arithmancy one I saw sticking out from under your bed? Did you get it?’
‘And Tibs? You have all of his food?’
‘Mum, it’s not like they don’t provide pet food at Hogwarts.’ Tobias rolled his eyes as he and his mother came to a halt on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, dragging their way through the storm of chaos and crowds around them. It was twenty to eleven and there was no need to rush; they both knew this routine.
Melissa Hart looked at her only son. ‘It’s just as well, because you’d forget to feed him otherwise.’ She reached for the cage atop Tobias’ trolley to scratch the yowling grey-and-black tabby cat behind the ears.
‘That’s not true!’
‘No? So how is it he always lurks around me during the holidays?’
‘He’s melodramatic! He always acts like he’ll die if you don’t immediately give him attention or food! And you give him milk and I don’t,’ Tobias grumbled. ‘It’s bad for him, all the cat books say that.’
‘He’s a cat. Cats like milk.’
‘Yes, but what one “likes” isn’t always what one should get,’ Tobias mused, looking up and down the platform, studying the crowd for familiar faces.
‘My son has grown up a cynic,’ she sighed. ‘You’ll be careful, though, you hear me? Sirius Black on the loose, Dementors looking for him…’
‘Oh, I’ll be at Hogwarts. It’s safe. It’s you I’m worried about!’ The fourteen year-old boy turned to his mother, brow furrowing.
‘I will be at Gringotts. If anywhere’s safer, it’s there. But it’s my job to fuss. Maybe Sirius Black won’t be a problem, but I know last year was difficult. You had detentions, Toby, you never had detentions before. For hexing people.’
Tobias kicked the concrete. ‘They deserved it,’ he muttered. He wasn’t going to point out that magically tying Ed Montague’s bootlaces together was technically a charm, not a hex. He’d paid for it at the hands of more than Snape.
‘You can’t rise to their words.’ She reached for his arm. ‘I know it’s difficult. A part of me wishes you’d been a Ravenclaw. It would have been easier. But I’m proud of you, and you are doing so well at school. The best way to prove them wrong is to ignore them and keep on doing well, you understand?’
‘They won’t care if I do well. But… I get it, Mum.’ Tobias shrugged. ‘I want a prefect badge, so I’ve got to make sure I behave. No more run-ins with Gryffindors or Slytherins. I promise.’
‘Good. Not that I don’t approve of the old inter-House warfare traditions being observed, but I do not want you in any more trouble. So if you honestly can’t help yourself, and if you have to make trouble with the Gryffindors, for Merlin’s sake don’t get caught!’
‘Is that the Hart family motto?’ Tobias’ lips twisted. ‘If you can’t help yourself, don’t get caught?’
‘I couldn’t possibly comment. But I suggest you get a move on, or the Hufflepuffs will steal all the compartments. I remember what they’re like, too.’ She gave the train a contemplative glance.
They hugged, and Tobias was reminded that he was, by now, taller than his mother. In his mind he never was; in his mind she was the looming figure of authority and comfort, but there’d been growth spurt over the last year and now he had a couple of inches on her.
Going away always made him feel guilty. She had her work and her friends and a busy life, but he knew that he was leaving her to an empty home in a Muggle town. And he knew that was for him. For him, she’d made sure he got a good education in a good Muggle primary school; for him, she’d made sure he grew up with a foot in both cultures, and this had been the only way. She was a pureblood, she had not the knowledge or experience to give him any understanding of the Muggle world that had been his father’s.
He’d concluded he belonged only in the magical world, not in the Muggle one where his ways and beliefs and the things he took for granted were considered “strange,” but lessons had been learnt, an understanding he couldn’t forget. And more and more had he understood what his mother sacrificed for him, what she sacrificed to marry his father, and what she’d lost when he’d died. For years it had been just him and her against both worlds. Hogwarts changed that.
When he pulled back, she wore that too-broad smile he knew meant she was trying to not cry. Aware they’d both prefer to avoid such an emotional parting, he broke away to pick up his trunk and Tiberius’ cage, stepped back. ‘I’ll write by the end of the week.’
Melissa nodded, her expression settling into one of more genuine control. ‘I’ll reply with Vesna, so you don’t have to use the school owls all the time. You really could bring her if you wanted…’
‘She’d never get on with Tibs. It’s fine, she hangs around the Owlery for a few days, so I’ll have time to write. She’s happy to spend time with either of us.’ They had several family owls, with his mother’s regular and extensive correspondence with work.
They finished their farewells and he headed for the train, though he didn’t get to the nearest door before he was intercepted by a familiar, keen shape. ‘Grey! Freedom is upon us!’
Gabriel wasn’t usually this cheerful about anything, not even the start of a new year, and Tobias gave him a suspicious look. He was already in uniform, carrying his tidy, smart trunk which put Tobias’ ragged luggage to shame, spotless and presentable save his dire need of a haircut.
‘Oh, yes,’ drawled Tobias. ‘Liberty, except for teachers, Filch, social expectations.’
‘You make it sound so difficult to evade.’
‘Sure, it’s easy. If you can turn invisible.’
Gabriel gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes as he hauled his trunk onto the train. ‘Compared to my parents, this is an improvement. They’d see me even if I did have an invisibility cloak. Which I don’t. Do you?’
‘I’d have mentioned that by now…’
‘Figured I’d ask. You’re the mysterious one, remember?’ And then he was on the train and trundling down the corridors before Tobias could answer.
‘I thought that was you,’ Tobias muttered as he wrestled his own luggage up behind him. Another glance at the platform confirmed what he’d thought; there was no sign of Gabriel’s parents. He’d never even met his mother, and his father had been a stern shape at the platform the previous two years, berating Gabriel for daring to seem enthusiastic about getting away - and no wonder he’d been so enthusiastic under such a severe gaze.
‘Are you going to help me with this?’ A sharp voice cut through his search and contemplation, dry and familiar. ‘Or just stand and stare gormlessly?’
He blinked down at Tanith, stood at the foot of the steps with her own luggage. ‘So you’re in a good mood. Hi, Tanith, lovely to see you, I had a great summer.’ Despite himself he reached for her trunk and helped wrangle it onto the train, though not without a grunt at the effort. What she put in here to make it weigh that much, he’d never know.
Tanith smirked as she hopped up after him. ‘I’m sure it wasn’t. I’m sure you’ve been here waiting for me to come along and brighten your life.’
‘Actually, Gabe was here a moment ago and… vanished. This way.’ He grabbed the trunk and Tibs’ cage, then led her down the corridors after wherever Gabriel had gone. The train wasn’t that full yet, most people still bidding their farewells on the platform. There weren’t too many people to push by, not too many feet trying to trip them or wands itching for a hex at a passing Slytherin. It made for an unusually quiet trip.
Until Nick Wilson stepped out from a compartment, joined by his trusty shadow Cormac McLaggen, to block Tobias’ path. ‘Grey. So good to see you.’
He’d appeared so suddenly that Tobias almost walked into him. Wilson, unlike McLaggen, wasn’t bigger than him, but he’d always been the brighter of the two. Less aggressive, but he knew when to pick his battles. Tobias groaned. ‘Wilson, I’m just trying to get to a compartment -’
‘Yeah, we saw Doyle and Brynmor down the way.’ Wilson jerked his thumb over his shoulder, but Tobias couldn’t see either of them. ‘A good way down. Guess that puts you on your own.’
Tanith looked down and poked herself. ‘Merlin, I’m invisible.’
‘No smart-mouth Doyle to take the lead, no big man Brynmor to provide muscle,’ Wilson continued. ‘So it’s weird to see you like this, face to face. Normally you’re just leaning from behind them, going “yeah,” like a coward.’
Tobias raised an eyebrow. ‘You mean, like McLaggen’s doing right now?’
‘I swear, I’m still here,’ Tanith muttered, ‘but if I’m wrong, two guys squaring off against one shouldn’t throw around comments of cowardice.’
He really, really wished Tanith wasn’t here. She didn’t understand these altercations. Boys weren’t like girls, who sniped with words and trickery and politics. Boys were in your face, ready to throw a punch, ready to slam him into a door, and Tobias was under no illusions that Wilson alone could take him. With McLaggen’s help, he’d be lucky if he didn’t end up stuck in a luggage rack for the whole journey.
Of course, he could go for his wand, even if it was still two-on-one, but that just Wasn’t Done. If the confrontation started physically, it ended physically, or you were a coward who couldn’t stick up for himself; and worse, you made it more likely prefects and teachers would come down on everyone’s heads. McLaggen and Wilson were judicious in this confrontation; they had about ten minutes before the train would fill up, and most of the prefects would be in their carriage, not out here.
‘Cole,’ said Wilson, not looking at her, ‘Piss off, or go fetch help if you really want. We don’t need much time.’ There was no wait for a reply before he grabbed Tobias by the shoulder and slammed him into the wall.
Tobias grunted as the wind was knocked from his lungs, glasses askew at the impact, and the world shattered into random blurs and pockets of clarity. ‘Hey -’
The worst thing was that he couldn’t say for sure what had caused this. Opportunity, surely, but there had been so many offences, back and forth, that he couldn’t recall which had been the last altercation, if they’d won, what they’d done. It really should have been Ed Montague, Miles Bletchley, Adrian Pucey, all of them Slytherin fourth years happy to deride Wilson’s Muggle-born heritage, who were their targets. But once upon a time some uppity Slytherin had said something to an uppity Gryffindor and now here he was, pinned against a wall by a boy stronger than him, being loomed over by another way bigger than him.
If he were Cal, he’d have knocked Wilson’s arm away, squared off against them both and given them a run for their money before he was taken down. If he were Gabriel, he’d have some cutting comment to make which wouldn’t change the outcome, but would make it a Pyhrric victory (even if they didn’t know what that was). But he wasn’t either of them, and so all he could do was grab Nick’s wrist, struggle impotently, and brace himself for what came next.
‘I’m warning you -’ But anything Tanith had to say was lost when Wilson planted his fist in Tobias’ gut.
He doubled over, his glasses falling off, pain and breathlessness flashing through him, and so he was only dimly aware of Wilson stepping back, of McLaggen looming over him for his turn - of more yelling, of Tiberius, still in his cage, yowling away -
And then a definite yelp.
Oh, good, he thought as he clutched at his gut and fought to keep his feet. Cal and Gabe -
‘That’s not fair!’ There was, of all things, a whine to McLaggen’s voice, and as clarity slowly crept back into Tobias’ awareness, he realised the yelp had come from Wilson, and that McLaggen wasn’t facing the way they’d been headed, after all, but Tanith. He scrabbled for his glasses.
‘I don’t give a shit if it’s fair, I warned you.’ Tanith’s wand was in her hand, levelled at McLaggen’s chest. ‘Sorry to bust your bubble, but I’m not Drake or Riley - I don’t step back when you boys fight, and I don’t go running for the teachers.’
Tobias shoved his glasses on, and only then could he see Wilson. He was on his knees, clutching his face, and on the backs of his hands and beneath his fingers he could see boils sprouting up, hairy and deeply unpleasant. He had no idea where Tanith had learnt that hex.
So much for my promise to Mum. Five minutes is a new record.
‘You can’t -’
‘I bloody can, and I did,’ Tanith said, cutting off McLaggen again. ‘This stops, you hear me? Your stupid childish vendetta.’
‘I’m going to tell everyone that Grey needed saving by spells -’
Tobias groaned. That was the last thing his reputation needed.
‘Sure, go ahead. And I’ll tell everyone that Wilson got taken out in a flat second by a girl half his size, and I’ll add you to the roster if you keep pushing it. Or nobody needs to know, and I’ll even give you the counter-curse so he stops crying.’
‘Cormac!’ That was Wilson, voice mangled. It had to be unpleasant, whatever he was going through, though Tobias was mostly sure Tanith wouldn’t unleash something truly dangerous.
‘Fine! Fine! Bitch. Piss off, take him with you.’ McLaggen gestured curtly at Tobias, before he hauled Wilson half to his feet and into the compartment.
‘Bitch who beat you both,’ said Tanith, nose tilting into the air as she tucked her wand away with a flourish. ‘The counter-curse is Abscedo. Do try to pronounce it right, I’d hate to do Wilson serious harm.’
Tobias didn’t object when Tanith took him by the arm and led him down the corridor. A quick charm on their luggage had it trundling after them; a prefect would probably go spare as this was a great way to run someone over, but at this point a prefect’s intervention was already going to get them into hot water. He limped along beside her, still clutching his gut. ‘You think he’ll keep his trap shut?’
‘I think it’ll spread around school,’ said Tanith, ‘because I’m going to spread it, because people are going to be way more tickled by the story of “Nick Wilson was beaten up by small girl” than “Tobias Grey isn’t a manly man”.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ he croaked.
‘I know I’m right. You’re not a manly man. And you’re welcome, by the way.’
He gave a wan smile. ‘Thanks. I guess I just accept those two ganging up on me as the price of the Sorting.’
‘They’re idiots. They should be going after Ed or Adrian; they act like they’re lashing out against arsehole Slytherins, but the hell were they doing last year, with the Chamber of Secrets making everyone a bloody bigot or a freedom fighter, and still going for you guys?’ Tanith shook her head. ‘At least we got away with it.’
‘We did.’ Tobias nodded. Guess I didn’t break that promise to Mum after all.
The train filled up and pulled away by the time they finally reached the compartment at the end of the carriage which Cal and Gabe had claimed, the two of them lounged on the benches. Gabriel raised a languid eyebrow and said, ‘What took you so long?’ but the moment Cal’s eyes fell on him, he lunged to his feet.
‘Wilson. McLaggen. I got stupidity in stereo,’ Tobias groaned, sinking onto the bench. For once Tanith handled her own luggage, and even his, into the overhead racks. He hauled Tiberius’ cage to him and stuck his fingers through the bars, trying to calm the rattled cat down before he could let him out.
Cal’s gaze turned thunderous. ‘I saw them down the way. C’mon, Gabe -’
Tobias lifted a hand, and Tiberius bit his finger instead of being calmed. ‘It’s fine -’
‘It is not, those bastards think they can jump you when you’re alone -’
Tanith paused, heavy trunk braced on her shoulder, expression indignant. ‘Honest to Merlin, I’m right here.’
Cal looked at her, an angry teenaged boy on his high horse about complicated boy politics a girl could never understand. ‘I don’t mean that, but you don’t count -’
‘She hexed Wilson into the ground.’
Gabriel, who didn’t care a lot about pride or unspoken rules and was the first of them to get off a sneaky hex in these confrontations, had been pretty slow to get to his feet at Cal’s summons. He beamed. Cal looked indignant. ‘You can’t -’
‘Can,’ grunted Tanith, still struggling with the luggage. ‘Did. Heavy. Help.’
Cal reached out with one arm and, like he was lifting foam, shoved her trunk into the overhead rack before he reached for Tobias’. He didn’t seem aware of what he was doing, helpful nature kicking into action once prompted by Tanith, who collapsed onto the bench next to Tobias. ‘They’re going to go spare,’ he said. ‘They’re going to make a joke of him.’
‘They won’t,’ said Tanith, leaning back and closing her eyes. ‘I’m going to make a laughing stock of them. Ariane and Melanie will love the story of Wilson downed by a girl a foot shorter than him, and those two are obnoxious enough to the Ravenclaw boys that the likes of Edgecombe will also love that story, and basically they’re going to wind up looking a whole lot worse.’
Gabriel laughed, rocking back and clapping his hands. ‘I love it. Never wrangle with the girls, Caldwyn. They play dirty.’
Cal looked trapped, indignant, every rule he adhered to broken and yet obviously too pleased by the outcome to protest too much. Finally, he threw his hands in the air and sat next to Gabriel. ‘Fine. Serves them right. You okay, mate?’ He raised his eyebrows at Tobias.
Tobias nodded, the ache in his gut subsiding to dull persistence. At last he opened the cage to release Tibs, who jumped onto his lap, sank his claws into his knee in the traditional fashion, and hissed at a rather startled Cal. ‘I’ll be fine. It was just the one punch. You should see Wilson.’
‘There’ll be retaliation,’ said Gabriel, looking more like he was planning than like he was worried.
‘Not from the girls. Riley won’t do a damn thing, Barker and MacKenzie do what she tells them,’ said Tanith. ‘The only one with the spine to act is Bell, but her allies are the Quidditch team, and we’re not targets to them.’
Cal eyeballed Tiberius. ‘He doesn’t like me.’
‘He doesn’t like Gawain,’ said Tobias. At his name, Cal’s overly large hawk-owl, perched on the luggage rack above his owner, opened one sleepy, superior eye for a sweeping gaze of judgement before returning to his snoozing. ‘Or, he likes him a lot, and wants to eat him, and you don’t let him.’
But Tibs settled down, as did they all. Letters had been exchanged over summer, but this was the first time they’d seen each other in weeks, so there was plenty of need to catch up, to fill in the blanks and reminisce and go through what was already a ritual in only their third reunion.
Three hours in, the sun was high in the sky and shining right through their window as the Hogwarts Express weaved its way across the country. The blinds were down but it was still summer, and so the compartment heated up at a rate to make both Cal and Gabriel drift off, lounged back on their bench.
Tobias had long ago fished out a book to read. He’d been going through his father’s old collection over the summer, and while he’d decided he didn’t care much for the works of the Muggle Hemingway, there were others to try. Tanith had dragged out her sketchbook, which usually meant she subsided as much as she ever did into an introspective world of her own, so he was surprised when she was the one to speak up.
‘What’re you reading?’
He glanced up to see her dark eyes glimmering with curiosity over the sketchbook. ‘Why?’
‘So I can judge you.’ She sighed. ‘I’m curious. You don’t usually read, er - what do you call them. The soft Muggle books.’
‘The cover, it’s card.’
‘Oh. Paperbacks.’ Tobias blinked. He’d not considered before that wizards had every book bound as a thick hardbacked volume. ‘It’s a Muggle book, yeah. To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t get much chance to casually read at school, so I thought I’d make the most of it, it’s only short.’
‘And it’s about… killing… birds?’ She frowned. ‘Muggles are weird.’
‘It’s not, it’s a metaphor. It’s about, er, lots of things, but it’s also about prejudice in the USA. You should read it.’
‘Not my style.’
‘Because it’s Muggle?’
Tanith paused, pencil hovering over paper. ‘Yes. But I don’t get Muggle stuff. The way they do things. The things they don’t do. I’m not - this isn’t about being judgemental. It’s like I don’t read books about 14th century wizarding Japan written by a writer who assumes the reader knows what’s going on. I don’t know what’s going on.’
He smothered a smile at her defensive tone. Once, she wouldn’t have cared how she sounded. ‘I take your point. This isn’t so bad, though. And it’s a pretty good reminder, really, about how all people can be screwed up and prejudiced. Muggles and wizards. You should try some Muggle books.’
‘You don’t read them much.’ Her gaze returned to the paper.
‘Like I said, I don’t have time -’
‘Yes, you do.’ She didn’t look up. ‘You just like to read in the common room and you don’t want to read a Muggle book in case someone reacts.’
Tobias blinked. He hadn’t thought about that, and the worst thing was that he suspected she was right. Even if he was doing it subconsciously, he’d stopped himself from doing something he enjoyed because he didn’t want to put up with the confrontation it would cause. With a sigh, he closed the book. ‘What’re you drawing?’
‘Them.’ Tanith’s gaze flickered across the compartment to where Cal and Gabriel were still lounged out, dead to the world. ‘It was this, or read the crappy magazine of my sister’s I accidentally packed.’
‘They’re not moving. Surely that’s boring for a wizarding picture.’ He was provoking her intentionally, so the colour rising to her cheeks surprised him.
She bit her lip. ‘Sometimes the Muggles have the right idea with static pictures - don’t you start,’ she said at his smirk. ‘Wizarding pictures are all flash, style over substance. They’re about depicting something absolutely accurately. Art isn’t just about getting a precise image. Sometimes it’s about a feeling, about a moment, and the right static picture can grasp the emotion in a single heartbeat, while a wizarding picture will be all five seconds. And sometimes - sometimes you only want that heartbeat. Sometimes, when you get five seconds, you get so much in one go you get nothing.’
‘My. That’s poetic. And unusual.’
‘It’s only unusual if you never studied any wizarding art. I, however, have a classical education.’ Her voice was wry, self-effacing. ‘Muggles are limited because they don’t have the choice. They can only grab the heartbeat, not the five seconds. But wizards are limited because they ignore the choice, and always pick the flashier, more magical solution.’ She was still drawing as he spoke, and so long seconds passed before she had to feel his gaze on her. Her eyes narrowed as she looked up. ‘I’m blaming you for this.’
‘If I’m making you think,’ he said, ‘I’m not sorry.’
‘I think, Grey,’ she said, attention returning to her drawing. ‘And I think you’re sometimes a smug pillock.’
Tobias just grinned, shook his head, and returned to his book.
‘This is stupid.’ Cal folded his arms across his chest, glaring across the compartment at Tanith. ‘Alright. Next question, if you must.’
‘I must. I’m bored,’ said Tanith, and turned a page in the magazine she’d allegedly only accidentally packed. ‘But don’t worry, this is the last question: “The only thing in your wardrobe is a slinky red dress that shows off all your assets. When you get to dinner, your date can’t keep his eyes off you - he’s practically drooling.”’
‘Charming,’ Gabriel drawled, leaning against the window and watching the darkness continue to rattle past the train.
‘“Do you, A: Accept the interest gladly. Dresses like this are all you own, so this is all according to plan. B: Act uncomfortable throughout the evening. You only wore this because you felt daring, but you’ve lost your nerve now he’s staring. Or, C: Make an excuse to go to the bathroom, and try to make some last-minute adjustments to save your modesty. This really was the last thing left in your otherwise-sensible wardrobe and you didn’t have a choice.”’
Cal scowled. ‘I tell him my eyes are up here, buddy, and hex him if he doesn’t listen.’
‘That’s not one of the options,’ said Tanith.
‘It’s new, Secret Option D.’
‘You’ve chosen that every time,’ Gabriel pointed out. ‘I don’t think there’s a “Mainly Secret Option D” result.’
‘Fine. A. If I’m going to be put in this position, I might as well be the one in control. It’s my body, damn it, and if he don’t like it, he can shove it,’ declared Cal Brynmor, blossoming feminist.
‘You do scare me, Cal,’ Gabriel muttered.
‘Better than being ignored. What’s my result?’
‘I’m adding up your points,’ said Tanith. ‘Don’t be so impatient.’
Tobias flipped down the top of the newspaper he’d been hiding behind. ‘Sure, because we’re all dying to know what kind of date Cal is.’
Tanith ignored him. ‘Alright! Thirty-two points. “You sure are one confident girl, and no bloke’s going to forget a date with you. You’re proud of what you got, you’re fun to talk to, and you always know exactly what you want out of an evening. But beware: your strident manner and predatory sexuality might scare some men off.”’
‘So,’ said Cal, eyebrow raised. ‘I’m a terror to men.’
‘And women,’ mused Gabriel, ‘and everyone. So what else is new?’
‘Are we done?’ asked Tobias, voice arch.
‘Sorry, Grey.’ Tanith rolled her eyes. ‘We’ve still got an hour left, and we’re bored and daring to entertain ourselves.’
‘You mean, you were entertaining yourself at my expense,’ said Cal.
Gabriel raised a hand. ‘I was entertained.’
Tanith huffed. ‘I’m sure the Daily Prophet is fascinating, Grey.’
‘Yeah.’ Cal chuckled. ‘Just how hysterical are they getting about Black?’
‘I don’t read the Prophet,’ Tobias sneered, as if they hadn’t had this conversation a dozen times over, as if they weren’t consciously trying to provoke him. This was why they did it, Cal knew. He always rose to the bait. ‘I don’t touch that piece of Ministry-controlled propaganda.’
Gabriel groaned. ‘Don’t get him started. I don’t want to hear more about that Muggle-loving, monster-right-demanding, House-Elf-liberating lefty crap he reads.’
‘The Clarion,’ said Tobias, chin raising defiantly, ‘is an alternative paper for the wizard who thinks outside of the box and doesn’t swallow everything the establishment tells him to. Fudge is an idiot and the Ministry are controlled by old, reactionary families who want to maintain the status quo rather than do what’s best for wizardkind.’
‘Huh,’ said Cal, assuming a deep, thoughtful frown. ‘I thought Status Quo were a band.’
Tobias’ eyes flashed and Cal beamed as his provocation hit home. Then the lights went out.
‘What the -’
Cal tried to stand, bounced right into Tobias who’d done the same - Tanith cursed in the corner and there was a moment of them all knocking into each other, jostling and shoving and yelping with surprise until they bounced back down. And then they heard the screeching of the brakes, felt the train slow down.
‘We’re stopping,’ said Gabriel, who’d remained pressed against the window.
‘I could tell,’ came Tanith’s arch voice in the darkness, and long seconds passed as the train came to a full halt.
‘Sure,’ said Gabriel after a few heartbeats, his voice forcibly light. ‘But I bet you couldn’t tell someone’s coming on board.’
‘Lumos.’ That was Tobias, and worry was etched even deeper into his angular face by the sharp shadows cast by wand-light. ‘It’ll be fine, guys.’
Tanith looked at him, eyebrow raising. ‘So why’re the lights out?’
‘To make us panic?’ Cal wondered, heart in his throat, hand on his wand.
‘There’ll just be something wrong with the train,’ said Tobias, voice forcibly flat. ‘You probably saw the driver getting out to sort it. It’ll be fine.’ He lifted his paper, wand pointed at the print to return to his reading.
A shiver ran up Cal’s spine, and he snatched the paper from Tobias’ grip. ‘Then why haven’t they sent a message explaining -’
‘Shh!’ That was Tanith, who was on her feet, wand in hand. ‘Did you hear that?’
Cal felt another shiver, and this time he knew it wasn’t nerves as he saw his breath mist in front of him. ‘Footsteps -’
‘I’ve had enough.’ Gabriel got to his feet. ‘I’m going to go ask -’ He’d stepped past Tanith to get to the door, but when he yanked it open it came with a wave of cold enough to sink into Cal’s bones and, in the looming darkness of the corridor beyond, the shimmering impression of billowing black cloth.
Cal couldn’t see everything. Starlight from the window suggested the silhouette of something tall, the rushing of cold air came with the the noise of a rattling breath that sounded like it had been dragged along a washboard, and now it wasn’t just the chill that made him quiver. He knew what this was.
Not that he’d ever seen a Dementor before. But he’d heard stories, and he knew fear.
A door slamming shut. Footsteps pounding above. Utter darkness, the thud of the door at the top of the cellar steps being thrown open, the flash of light, magic, the sounds of combat -
He’d been three years old when surviving Death Eaters on the run had come for him. Or, more specifically, for his foster-father, because Will Rayner had been impudent enough to not just slay his Death Eater mother and send his Death Eater father to Azkaban, but then take him in, the orphaned child. The MLE had responded quick enough that Idaeus Robb and his remaining cronies hadn’t killed anyone, hadn’t snatched away their old friend’s young son to raise him somewhere else, somewhere proper, somewhere that wasn’t in the hands of a Muggle-born murderer of their allies. Robb was now in a cell in Azkaban, probably right next to Thanatos Brynmor, for whom he’d acted, and nothing ill had come of it.
But he still remembered being three years old and terrified in the dark.
‘Caldwyn! Hey!’ Gabriel’s hand was at his shoulder, and when the lights sprung on he could see his friend’s face, shrouded in more concern and worry than he’d ever seen. ‘You with us?’
Cal blinked, feeling heat rushing back into him, the muggy darkness fading from his thoughts. ‘Bloody hell. What happened?’
‘They’re gone.’ That was Tobias, stood in the doorway, looking up and down the corridor. Colour had drained from his face, giving him a ghoulish, sickly appearance, but Cal didn’t think he’d have the nerve to get up and do the checking.
‘We’re moving again,’ mumbled the bundle in the corner that was Tanith under Tobias’ cloak. Her dark eyes glimmered over the edge, but Cal could see her wand was in her hand with an iron, white-knuckled grip.
‘Why…’ Cal swallowed as his voice came out grating. ‘Why, why are there Dementors on board?’ There was hubbub in the corner by now, Tobias in conversation with Jacob Van Roden, a Slytherin seventh-year prefects. He seemed to be doing the rounds, making sure everyone was in one piece.
‘I don’t know,’ said Gabriel, who hadn’t moved away. ‘But are you alright? You went a bit stiff -’
‘I’m fine,’ Cal said roughly, and Gabriel dropped it, sitting again. He wasn’t fine, could feel the quaver in his chest, in his gut, but there was no judgement in the gazes of the others. Nobody was going to be unruffled by the influence of a Dementor.
Tobias stepped back in and closed the compartment door. ‘They’re after Sirius Black,’ he said, voice rather bland. ‘No bloody clue why they think he’s on a train full of children.’ He turned to them, forcing a smile so transparent it made Cal feel worse. ‘We’re okay, though? Van Roden said someone fainted.’
‘Don’t blame them,’ Cal groaned. ‘Let’s just make sure that doesn’t happen again, huh?’
There were nods of assent, but they all knew, as the train trundled along on the final leg of the journey to Hogwarts, that avoiding future run-ins with Dementors, if they thought it likely Black was around Hogwarts, was entirely beyond the power of anyone.
‘Why does Snape want to see us. Snape never wants to see us.’ Tobias’ pace was so swift that Tanith struggled to keep up with him. He only noticed at every corridor junction, forced himself to slow so she could catch up, and then was off again at a break-neck speed.
‘If I knew the answer,’ she huffed, ‘we wouldn’t have to go, now, would we? I’d be psychic and we’d know all of Snape’s secrets and I’d ace that Divination OWL -’
‘You don’t take Divination.’
‘If I were psychic, I wouldn’t need lessons, would I?’
‘This isn’t helping,’ he muttered, turning down the stairway and taking the steps two at a time. Their lunch had been interrupted by a frantic Slytherin first-year dispatched to summon them. Cal humming the death march as they left had not been helpful, and Tobias didn’t feel like Tanith was taking this as seriously as she should. ‘It’s alright for you, Snape likes you.’
‘Snape doesn’t like anyone. He’s like a cat, there are people he despises, there are people he stares at with constant judgement, and then there are people he ignores. I just happen to be in the third category.’
‘He praises your work,’ he muttered. ‘More than he praises mine.’
He could almost hear her roll her eyes. ‘Maybe he’s noticed I work twice as hard to get half as good grades as you. Maybe he wants to encourage me.’
‘This is Snape!’
‘Shh!’ She swatted his arm as they rounded the corner, the Potions classroom looming at the end of the gloomy corridor. All other pupils had evacuated the depths of the dungeons for lunch, and so their footsteps rang out with the grisly echo of a funeral procession as they pressed on. ‘He’ll hear you.’
Tobias’ lips remained firmly pressed together. He wouldn’t say he liked Snape, but he didn’t dislike him, and he certainly respected him. Or feared him. It was hard to tell which. But either way, civility when summoned was of the utmost importance.
The door to Snape’s office was open as they approached, and he gestured them closer like Death welcoming them into the afterlife. ‘Mister Grey. Miss Cole. Come in. Sit.’
They entered. They sat. Tobias looked to Tanith out of the corner of his eyes and saw her gaze was fixed adamantly on a point just above Snape’s head. He swallowed. ‘What can we do for you, Professor?’
‘The two of you are more notable Slytherins in your year,’ said Snape, steepling his fingers, beady dark eyes flickering between them. ‘Superior grades. Respected amongst your peers. Outspoken advocates of your House’s pride.’
Tobias thought it was a bit much to say he was respected, but he wasn’t about to disagree. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘So you can imagine I was… concerned to hear rumours of an altercation between the two of you and a pair of Gryffindors on the Hogwarts Express.’
Tobias again glanced to Tanith. So she had put those rumours about. Neither of them had considered the possibility it would get back to the teachers - or, at least, that they’d care - but her expression remained cool, impassive. ‘There are always rumours, sir,’ she said. ‘Gryffindors thrive on them.’
‘These are particularly vicious ones. On the one hand, they suggest crude and unprovoked violence from Cormac McLaggen and Nicholas Wilson. On the other, they speak of disproportionate magical retribution from yourself, Miss Cole.’
Tanith raised an eyebrow. ‘Disproportionate?’ she said innocently. ‘That doesn’t sound like me, sir.’
Tobias held his breath. Don’t push it. ‘Nothing happened on the Hogwarts Express, sir. We’d have reported something like that.’
‘Mn. I hope so. I will not have members of my House be targeted by Gryffindors thinking themselves on a righteous crusade, you hear me?’ Snape looked between them, and they both nodded. ‘But I am glad to hear there is nothing of substance to these reports. Even if they had started such a confrontation, even if they had been violent, I can imagine Professor McGonagall would somehow find the deployment of advanced hexes an unacceptable means of self-defence. Even if McLaggen alone is probably bigger than both of you put together.’
He knows, Christ. Tobias bit his lip. ‘The rumours are just that, sir. Rumours.’
‘Good.’ Snape leaned back in his chair. ‘I would have hated to discipline the pair of you for something like that. You are, as I said, both promising members of Slytherin House, and this time next year I will need to allocate prefect badges.’ There was a surge in Tobias’ chest, glee at the prospect Snape was dangling in front of him - then a cold, searing caution. Before he could consider this, the teacher continued. ‘I should let you leave. You have your first Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson next, yes?’
Tanith nodded, halfway to her feet. ‘Yes, sir. With Professor Lupin.’
Tobias would have sworn a muscle at the corner of Snape’s eye twitched. ‘Hm. Well. Do try to learn something. But be careful; my experience with the man has demonstrated him to be a most unacceptable teacher. He’ll be all reassurance and comfort, and impart nothing of value. Don’t be deceived by his manner; keep a close eye on him. As I said, your compatriots look to you both. Make sure you set a fine example and let Professor Lupin know he will have to provide more than his usual trite, folksy wisdom to competently educate Slytherin House.’
‘Uh, yes, sir.’ Tobias swallowed, bewildered, and he and Tanith almost ran out of the office when Snape waved a dismissing hand. They hurried away in silence, and it was only when they were at the stairs, confidently out of Snape’s earshot, that Tobias spoke. ‘What the hell was that about?’
‘He doesn’t like Lupin. Didn’t you see him at the Feast? And I heard some of the sixth-years talking about it,’ said Tanith, grimacing. ‘He doesn’t like Lupin and he wants us to make sure he’s given a hard time. Honestly, Grey, don’t you get Snape’s Deniability Code?’
‘No - he doesn’t usually send me to do his dirty work.’
‘Well.’ Her frown deepened. ‘Looks like we got promoted. Not to mention blackmailed.’
‘He knows we fought McLaggen and Wilson in the train, and I think he’ll take a more serious look at the rumours if we don’t do what he asked. Oh, don’t look like that, Grey, have you seen Lupin? He looks like a tramp. It’s not going to be hard to give him hell in his lessons.’
Tobias rubbed the back of his neck. ‘I don’t like the idea of being bribed.’
‘With the prospect of the prefect’s badge? Be flattered you’re up for consideration. I thought he’d look to Miles, for sure.’
‘Miles? You thought Miles was a better candidate than me?’
Tanith shrugged. ‘It’s just political, Tobias.’
‘You mean Miles comes from a better family than me.’ His lips thinned, and he dropped his voice as they reached the corridors now brimming with students finishing up their lunch and getting ready for afternoon classes. ‘Or was he regaling you with his talents in all those letters you’ve been exchanging over summer?’
Heat rose to Tanith’s cheeks, and Tobias almost fell over. Tanith didn’t blush, and yet here she was, bashful now he was trying to pin her down on this topic. ‘It was just one or two letters.’
‘Except you never used to write to him. And I’ve seen you in the common room. With all those looks.’
‘Who’s doing looks?’ That was the sweeping shapes of Cal and Gabriel, appearing as if from nowhere to join them in the corridor. Cal was grinning. ‘Snape? Snape gave you gooey looks over his desk?’
‘Don’t even joke,’ sighed Tanith. ‘And nobody’s looking at anyone.’
‘I was just pointing out she’s written a lot to Miles over summer,’ grumbled Tobias, looking to Cal for validation.
It was Gabriel who answered, smacking his forehead. ‘Oh, yeah, Tanith. He was going on in the bathrooms yesterday about you being fit. Asked me if you were seeing anyone.’
Cal looked scandalised. ‘Gabe!’
‘What? Did I break the fucking sanctity of the boys’ bathroom?’
‘I really don’t care,’ said Tanith, nose in the air, but Tobias could see the smile hovering about her lips, and he shoved his hands into his pockets as they tromped towards the Defence classroom. ‘Oh, and we’re all supposed to hate Lupin. Snape’s orders.’
Cal and Gabe exchanged nonplussed glances. ‘That’ll be easy,’ said Gabriel. ‘On account of how he’s a tramp.’
‘I know, right?’ Tanith gave Tobias a pointed look, but he didn’t return it as they climbed the stairs to their lesson. Nor did he return Cal’s fraught glance, punctuated by a tug on a threadbare sleeve on his robes.
Neither Tobias nor Cal were from poor families. Melissa Hart was a Gringotts accounts manager; Will Rayner an Unspeakable in the Department of Mysteries. But they were both single parents, and they didn’t ooze the wealth of the Doyles or especially the Coles. Under normal circumstances, judging Lupin because of his wealth and attire would have stuck in Tobias’ throat through principle. But today he was in a foul enough mood that permission to act out with a teacher sounded glorious.
The chatter of the others washed over him as they turned the corner for the Defence classroom, finding the rest of their House lined up by the door as they waited. He saw Miles Bletchley give Tanith a grin, and elbowed to the front to loudly ask, ‘So, Lupin’s late for his first lesson?’
‘We’ve still got five minutes,’ said Cal flatly. ‘Relax.’
‘You’re that eager for class, Grey?’ Bletchley leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest.
‘I have an actual desire to sharpen my mind, Bletchley, yes. Some of us care for our grades.’
Bletchley exchanged an amused glance with Montague and Pucey. ‘And some of us aren’t proud of being swots.’
Tobias arched an eyebrow. ‘You were a humble swot? You’ve hidden that very well, Miles.’
Bletchley’s grin disappeared. ‘You’re implying I’m dumb -’
‘No, implication would suggest subtlety. I’m calling you dumb.’
The interruption came not from Tanith, snarking them down, or Cal, offering jovial words to break the tension, but Ariane Drake, sweeping up between them and running a hand down Tobias’ arm. ‘Boys, boys. Let’s not fight. We’ve been doing so well sticking together after last year, no?’
If by ‘sticking together’, you mean I kept my trap shut while Miles ranted about Muggle-borns… Had Tobias been in a better mood, he might have remembered that it was Ed Montague, not Miles Bletchley, who was the true champion of old-fashioned Slytherin values in their year. Bletchley was indifferent, as a rule - but easily led and keen for the approval of boys more vicious and vindictive than him.
‘And, more importantly,’ said Tanith, finally chirping up, ‘Grey and I just spoke with Professor Snape, and he had some things to say -’
‘Messages,’ came a tired, but commanding voice from down the corridor, and they all turned to see the Professor Lupin approach, ‘can wait until after the lesson. Even if they’re from Professor Snape. I will require your attention and your patience today. Now, if you’ll follow me.’
Tanith raised an eyebrow as he carried on down the corridor and gestured for them to follow. ‘Er, Professor, this is our classroom.’
‘Well noticed, Tanith. We will not be beginning our lesson here. An opportunity’s come up I’m eager for you to make the most of.’
She grumbled as she slunk back next to Tobias in the procession of following Slytherins. ‘Ooh, listen to me,’ she cooed under her breath, mocking tone not at all sounding like Lupin’s warm drawl. ‘I make sure to learn the names of all of my students before class.’
‘Yeah.’ Tobias couldn’t keep the sarcasm from his voice. ‘What a prick.’
She glared at him. ‘You heard Snape. I was going to brief the others, but what where you doing, taunting Miles?’
Once upon a time he’d have remained Bletchley to her, like Montague and Pucey. Even he was ‘Grey’, more often than not. He shrugged. ‘He started it. Unless you want to side with him over me.’
‘It’s not about sides,’ said Tanith, sticking her nose in the air and stepping up to join Cal and Gabe, body language blatantly discouraging him from following.
Tobias had barely glared at her back before he was flanked by Ariane Drake and Melanie Larkin, both grinning like Cheshire Cats. ‘Toby,’ Drake cooed. ‘Poor, poor Toby -’
‘What are you going on about?’
‘She likes him, you know,’ said Larkin, much more to-the-point, and he didn’t like the way she studied his face as she delivered the news. ‘Tries to hide it, ‘cos she’s Cole, but she does.’
‘Yeah? So?’ He ground his teeth together.
‘You shouldn’t let it bother you,’ said Drake.
‘It doesn’t bother me,’ Tobias lied. ‘I just think she can do better. Miles is a lout. I’m looking out for her.’
‘And I can see,’ said Larkin, ‘that she appreciates that.’
Melanie Larkin was too sardonic for her own good, he decided, but before he could summon a response they were climbing the steps to the staffroom, and Tobias was stunned into silence. The room was empty, though littered with the teacups and sandwiches left by teachers retiring to their sanctum over lunchtime, and he couldn’t help but step to the front. ‘Why are we here, sir?’
Lupin turned and gave him a warm smile. It wasn’t like Snape’s forced grimaces, unpleasant and demanding loyalty regardless. ‘I’m aware that last year, under the tuition of Professor Lockhart, your curriculum was curses and counter-curses. I’m also aware that there may be gaps in your knowledge as a result of… sub-standard teaching. You may have perfected glamour charms under his attentive care, but these will not protect you in real danger.’
Despite himself, Tobias chuckled. Tanith, edging next to him, elbowed him in the ribs.
‘We’ll be spending a few weeks filling in those gaps and developing what you know,’ Lupin continued, ‘and I know you did a lot on dark creatures with Professor Quirrell. But hands-on experience is difficult to come by. That sort of practice, I have found, is the most valuable of all.’ He stepped back and, with a flourish, gestured to the wardrobe stood in the corner of the staffroom.
‘Oh no!’ Gabriel somehow managed to deadpan in a gasp. ‘It’s an evil wardrobe.’
Lupin smiled. ‘While it might be a bit frightful, Gabriel, we’re more interested in what’s inside: namely, a Boggart. I asked for it to be left here when it was found; it’s too good a teaching opportunity to pass up. I’m assuming, from the looks on your faces, that you know the spell you need?’
‘Riddikulus,’ sighed Tanith. ‘Professor Quirrell did cover this with us, sir.’
‘Indeed, but have you put that knowledge to the test? It’s one thing to read in a textbook. Another entirely to find the right frame of mind, the right concentration, to cast in earnest, in need.’
‘It’s been two years; how hard can it be?’ she pointed out.
‘Wonderful,’ said Lupin. ‘Your keenness to volunteer, Tanith, holds you in good stead. The first step in defeating your fears comes from being willing to confront them.’
Tobias smothered a smirk as Tanith’s chin flinched up an inch. She hadn’t expected that. But within a heartbeat she had reassumed the mask of indifference, and she stepped forward with a shrug. ‘It’s only a Boggart. Can’t be that bad,’ she said, drawing her wand, and Tobias saw the whiteness of her knuckles.
Lupin’s smile kept about his lips as he stepped next to the wardrobe, grasping the door. ‘Ready, Tanith?’ he asked politely, and when she replied with no more than a sharp jerk of her head, he yanked the door open.
All there was at first was the sensation of movement, of something emerging from the dark and seemingly empty wardrobe, and Tanith’s wand rose in readiness. Hardly a second passed before the indeterminate had shifted with the clanging of metal, the rattling of chains, and then there it was, falling towards her, a large, square metal cage. The door swung open, the lock clicked forebodingly, and while Tobias felt more confused than afraid, he couldn’t mistake the particularly set tension to Tanith’s face.
‘Riddikulus,’ she snapped, voice clear and firm, and then it wasn’t a tight, containing cage tumbling towards her at all - but a solid wooden, colourful crate, a Jack-in-the-Box bursting forth. The room burst into laughter, even Tanith, though Tobias could see hers was a tight, superior chuckle rather than full-on hilarity. Still, she stepped back and gave Professor Lupin a deep, mocking bow.
Lupin just grinned, and gestured to the crowd. Montague was first, and Tobias unkindly wondered if he was too dumb to realise he was supposed to be afraid. But even he could deal with the Chimera that manifested with ease, the different parts of different animals mixing up more and more until it had the head of a chicken, the hind of a goat, and looked foolish instead of foreboding. Thus it continued - Pucey with the skeleton he made dance, Larkin with the tall, austere figure in Healer’s robes who suddenly was decked out like a member of the Weird Sisters, and so forth. Gabriel was confronted with a giant mannequin doing a jerky dance he found a good deal funnier after its feet was on fire.
And then Tobias was pushed forward, and his heart sank as he watched the Boggart contract. Oh, no, it’s not going to be - yes, yes, it is.
The flaming mannequin shifted, and there, in the middle of the staffroom, a large snake raised its head and hissed at him.
Great. In front of all of his Slytherin classmates, he’d declared this to be his worst fear. Tobias had even less desire to waste time, even as the snake slithered forwards in its disconcertingly smooth fashion. Absently, a part of him wondered if last year’s roaming basilisk had made this worse, but he didn’t think about it much as he whipped out his wand. ‘Riddikulus.’ At first, nothing happened - then the snake unwound and burst into the air, not with a strike, but with a sudden gust of upward motion. His spell had worked, and he wasn’t confronted with a serpent at all, but an over-sized balloon, bobbing back to the ground before it burst.
His laugh was a good deal more victorious than Tanith’s had been.
She tugged at his sleeve when he rejoined the crowd. ‘Your Boggart’s a snake?’ she hissed. ‘You do know you’re a Slytherin, right? Are you trying to be ironic?’
‘I’m only trying to explain I don’t like snakes.’ Tobias scowled. ‘And what’s up with a bloody cage, anyway -’ But he felt her tense, and he looked up to see it was Cal’s turn.
Cal’s broad shoulders were taut, the wand too steady in his hand, and Tobias’ brow furrowed. Grip like that, he’d never cast anything easily. And yet, the Boggart had already changed, and it wasn’t that impressive at a glance; just a white mask on the floor. Tanith’s breath caught before his, and only then did he realise what it was. A Death Eater mask.
He was a little curious about his own Boggart. Did it just mean he hated snakes, or was there some complicated sense of self-loathing here? Was Tanith afraid of literal confinement, or was there something more meaningful? Even if they considered that Cal’s Death Eater mask was a sensible, legitimate fear of what had once been a genuine threat to life and limb, Tobias had to look at his best friend’s back, think of what he knew about his family, and wonder.
‘Riddikulus.’ It felt like Cal took much longer than anyone else to cast, but likely he was just as fast as everyone. The Boggart burst into a carnival mask, bright and colourful and animated like wizard theatre props, pulling a silly face. Lupin gave a swish of the wand, sent the mask flying back into the wardrobe, and slammed it shut, the whole class tested.
It was Cal who spoke first, jaw tight. ‘See, Professor? We’re a year or two ahead of this. Can we get back to curses and counter-curses, now?’ To most, he sounded haughty and indifferent, though Tobias knew better. Cal wanted, keenly, to move on.
Tobias looked from Professor Lupin to the row of Slytherin fourth-years, indignant at a lesson which had thrown all their inner demons into the public eye, and sighed. He didn’t think he was going to have a hard time turning them against Snape’s least-favourite member of staff.
At least it meant he could spend more time reminding Tanith that Miles Bletchley was a pillock.
A/N: This chapter has probably been the most edited of any of them, which is odd as it was one of the latest to be written (unsurprisingly prompted by the release of the Prisoner of Azkaban movie, and if that doesn’t tell you how long ago I wrote this story, I can’t help you). It’s odd, as it’s got meat to it. Dementors! Boggarts!
And yet for the first half, nothing happened. The characters had rambling conversations about their holidays, about the state of inter-House politics which were for the umpteenth time talked about but not shown. So it was the perfect time to add something, and other chapters and Shade to Shade mention the time Tanith hexed Wilson into the ground with boils. It seemed appropriate to actually add a fight between Wilson/McLaggen and the guys, because their antagonism is mentioned but never appeared on-screen in Latet, and so that was the natural contender.
The Dementor scene’s been streamlined. Cal’s flashback was too much like Harry’s, and that’s not cricket. Harry gets the lion’s share of trauma. Cal’s just rattled.