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Chapter 6: December 31st, 1995 – Sixth Year
Neither darkness nor silence were absolute in the Slytherin Common Room, even at this time of year. The sconces were dead, but the enchanted windows streamed an eerie green glow as if light was poured through the depths of the lake, bathing everything in shimmering emerald. As for the silence, a figure emerging from the dormitory stairway to hiss, ‘What time is it?’ broke that.
‘It’s nine. If you want to go, you’d best be off. Even though I’ve made my opinion perfectly clear.’ Tobias spoke from an armchair near the windows, reading his book by the shimmering green glow.
‘Yeah.’ Cal pulled his coat on. ‘Before everyone gets back.’
‘They won’t be back for at least an hour. And there’s, what, six of them? Everyone else in Slytherin had the sense to go home for Christmas.’ Tobias gave a melodramatic sigh. ‘Leaving us languishing on our own in the cold, gloomy depths for weeks to come -’
‘Days, Grey. Relax.’ That was Tanith, coming from the girls’ dorms. ‘Did you honestly want Montague underfoot at Christmas? That’d really ruin the festive cheer.’
Tobias looked sheepish. ‘I guess we’re fortunate our families’ occupied Christmases landed on the same year.’
‘Yeah, fortunate,’ muttered Cal. ‘Because our Christmas together last year went so well.’ But silence returned with a vengeance at that, no longer overwhelming but certainly awkward, and he glared at the dead sconces on the wall as if they were responsible for his faux pas.
Tanith shrugged. ‘With Altair away and Evadne with her boyfriend’s family, I’d rather be here than stuck in the house with just my parents. It’s not like they care.’
That didn’t make this less awkward. Tobias cleared his throat. ‘Like I said, if you want to go, go now.’
Cal and Tanith exchanged glances. ‘You’re really not coming?’
‘What if we get caught? Sneaking out of grounds late at night? Umbridge will have us expelled. We’ll be accused of heading out to… I don’t know, subvert the Ministry or something!’
‘So we won’t get caught,’ said Cal, and before Tobias could object he’d been hauled out of his chair, Tanith on his other arm, and was being frog-marched towards the door. ‘Come on, Perfect Prefect. You can keep an eye on us, make sure we behave.’
‘Tanith’s a prefect, too! You’re not mocking her!’
‘I have survival instincts.’
‘And I’m not the Future Head Boy wannabe. Or Head Girl,’ Tanith pointed out as they emerged in the gloomy corridors of late-night Hogwarts, empty in the holidays. ‘Which way did Van Roden say the passage was?’
‘Left,’ sighed Tobias, and he was let go so he could lead on. ‘And I won’t be Head Boy. Dumbledore isn’t going to pick a Slytherin.’
‘Yeah, but you don’t have to compete with his Gryffindor bias,’ Tanith said. ‘Riley will make Head Girl, no doubt, but putting Everard above you…’
‘It won’t be Tom. It’ll be O’Neal, to appease the Hufflepuffs. And I’m fine with that.’
‘So you got nothing to lose by sneaking out with us.’ Cal elbowed him.
‘Umbridge will have our heads! Snape won’t save us!’
‘Will you relax?’ Cal said. ‘Umbridge is down in the Main Hall for the feast. Stop being a pansy and get us to the door; the Hogsmeade Festival’s going to be in full swing now, so we can slip in with the crowds.’ He was tapping the walls with his wand by now, as if he’d stumble upon the promised passageway.
‘Oh, so I’m a pansy for not wanting my entire future to be ruined? We don’t know Umbridge is in the Hall. She’s scary and paranoid and expects people to pull stunts like this. She could be anywhere; she could be around the next corner -’
Then a shape did come around the next turn. Tobias felt a flash of vindication when he saw Tanith and Cal jump out of their skins, even if he’d wound them up in the first place, but it was short lived as he, too, clutched at Cal in panic. Then they realised the figure was too tall to be Umbridge, and for a second Tobias was even more terrified it was Snape, until sanity kicked in enough to recognise the shape.
‘Gabriel, you git!’ Cal burst out. ‘You scared the hell out of us! Tobias had us convinced you were Umbridge on an expelling spree.’
Gabriel gave Tobias a sidelong look. ‘You got me confused with an overgrown toad?’
‘There is a small chance I might have overreacted.’
Tanith flipped her hair back like she hadn’t clutched his arm hard enough to risk bruising. ‘Doyle, you said you’d meet us down there. Why are you here?’
‘The other route didn’t work. Filch is on watch. But everyone else is up at the Great Hall, so we should be okay. The passage is this way.’
Tanith squinted at him. ‘How do you know about these passageways?’
‘My brother told me. How do you think I’ve been slipping past prefects and teachers for walks all these years?’
‘Let’s just go,’ said Tobias. ‘I’ll feel better when we’re out of here.’
‘I hate to say it, but he’s right,’ said Tanith, and they followed Gabriel down the corridor, a more tight clump on high alert after the false alarm. ‘Forget expelling, Dad would kill me if we were found wandering.’
Tobias glanced at her as they turned down a small side-corridor. ‘I thought he ignores you so long as you don’t bother him?’
‘This would bother him,’ she said dryly. ‘It’s too much for him to pay attention to my career choices, but if I embarrass him by getting in serious trouble, there’ll be hell. Worse, I think he’s not convinced that Potter’s just mad, I think he thinks that there really is danger out there.’
‘The thing about fear,’ said Tobias, ‘is that it’s a great excuse for controlling people. For their own good.’
Gabriel stopped at a suit of armour which only came up to his chest and which Tobias assumed was only for show, brow furrowed. ‘I think this is it.’
‘I hope the passageway’s taller,’ said Cal wryly.
Gabriel ignored him and pulled the short pike down. There was a scraping of stone on stone, then the wall swung open, even though there had been no sign of a seam. ‘Ta-da -’ The declaration died in his throat at the sight beyond - or the lack thereof. He hadn’t led them wrong; there was a passageway, but it sank into darkness so deep that they couldn’t see more than the first few feet of paving stones before pitch blackness.
‘You know what I said when I agreed to come with you?’ Tobias’ voice went up a pitch. ‘I said, “hey, horrible murder down a dark passageway. That’s for me.”’
‘Are you sure this is it?’ Cal squinted, hand on his wand.
‘Mostly,’ said Gabriel.
Tanith huffed. ‘What’s wrong with you? It’s a dark corridor. Scary.’ She pushed past them, light already sparking from her wand as she drew it, and the brightness was enough to push the shadows of the passageway back as she advanced. Not to be out-done by the smallest of them, the three boys exchanged glances before slinking in her wake, all of them sparking Lumos spells from their wands, but they hadn’t gone more than ten feet down the passageway before the scraping sound came again, and the masonry slid back shut behind them.
‘Gabe, if that doesn’t open on our way back, I will kill you,’ Tobias muttered.
Gabriel snorted, at ease more quickly in the darkness. ‘Don’t you trust me?’ There was a pause. ‘Fine, don’t answer, you ungrateful bastards.’
The passageway was less foreboding by wand-light. The stonework looked as old and worn as anywhere else in the depths of Hogwarts, and as Slytherins with a common room in the dungeons, they knew the bowels of the castle better than most students. And, though none of the boys would admit it, Tanith leading the way - the unspoken best of them at hexes and shields - made them feel a whole lot better about forging onward.
‘So how the hell,’ Tobias said to her, trying to fill the silence, ‘does your Dad think Potter’s not mental?’
She sighed. ‘I don’t know. And I might be wrong. But I know he’s upped security around the house, around the horses -’
Cal laughed. ‘Yeah. The return of You-Know-Who will be heralded by horse-rustling.’
‘It’s stupid, you don’t have to tell me. Dad’s just looking for trouble.’
‘You don’t think,’ said Tobias, ‘he knows something we don’t?’
She gave him a look over her shoulder. ‘He’s a horse breeder, Grey. Even if there was some secret return of You-Know-Who, the Autumn 1995 Aethonan Show is not where he’d learn about it.’
‘Never underestimate the underground information exchanged by horse breeders,’ Cal giggled.
Tobias shrugged. ‘Dumbledore believes Potter.’
‘So he says, else Dumbledore needs to admit he screwed up security on the Tri-Wizard Tournament,’ she pointed out. ‘And then people might look into that, and Dementors almost Kissing Potter, and how a basilisk was roaming around the school for months and he couldn’t do bugger all. Oh, and Lupin.’
Tobias winced. ‘Lupin was alright -’
‘Yeah, but he was still a werewolf teaching kids. A werewolf who did get loose.’
‘He didn’t hurt anyone -’
‘He could have. And we don’t even know what did happen that night, because Dumbledore bloody well covered it up!’
Silence fell at that, a satisfied sort of silence because if there was one thing they could all agree on, it was that they didn’t trust Albus Dumbledore.
‘I hate to interrupt this argument, especially when it’s about Tobias being a naive idealist again and so my mind is, you know, blown,’ drawled Gabriel, ‘but we’re here.’
Indeed, the darkness ahead was breaking for the pinpricks of starlight and the streaming brightness of the moon. They picked up the pace, soon to push past bushes and branches blocking the passageway and emerge into the brisk, cool air of the night beyond Hogwarts grounds. Gabriel checked the stars, looked about the clump of trees they stood in, then turned to a nearby rise and said, ‘That way.’
They followed as they had before, and when they crested the hill were rewarded with the sight of Hogsmeade village spilling out before them, alive with light and sound even on this cold winter’s night. With grins they descended the slope, and the scene only grew before them.
Twinkling lights of a kaleidoscope of colours, dangling from gutters and lampposts. Music blaring from the band set up at a stand in the village square, dozens of witches and wizards filling the streets in their best, most outrageous partying regalia, warming charms keeping everyone comfortable. As the only fully magical settlement in Britain, Hogsmeade was always the home to the more elaborate magic celebrations. The Yule gathering was the most famous, and the summer fetes were well-known, but the New Year’s festival had a reputation all of its own. It was only half-nine, there was already street dancing, and the outside tables and bar of the Three Broomsticks were full enough that it was clear the celebrations had been in full swing for a while.
Tobias looked on as a man to his left juggled ten sparkling wands, their tips casting illusions into the air when they peaked. Mythological beasts sprung forth in a myriad of colours, each illusion more splendorous than the last, and begrudging parents tossed coins into his hat as their children clapped and cheered. Tobias had no doubt he could copy each illusion individually, but the idea of casting ten in sequence, when the wands were out of his hand, while juggling, was baffling. On his right, a witch stood at a long table covered in cutlery, flicking her wand to make the knives and forks shift into different metallic animals which did dances, some together, some individually, all in time with the music spilling from the town square. The music itself was of the traditional British wizarding sort, and as they reached the square they could see the band: a singer accompanied by a fiddler and his three fiddles hovering around his head, drumsticks thudding a beat of their own accord, a piper playing a multi-stemmed pipe with ease.
The four students turned to each other, grinning broadly. Regrets and fears were left far behind in dark corridors of Hogwarts.
‘Let’s get a table,’ said Cal, rubbing his hands together. ‘It’ll be murder if we wait.’
None of them argued, even though one of the Three Broomsticks’ serving girls was conjuring up tables as quickly as people arrived. It was one of these they grabbed, Cal throwing the girl a wink, and Gabriel headed for the bar to get the first round. Tobias had originally promised himself he wouldn’t drink, his compromise to himself when he’d given in to sneaking out. Now he was here, he couldn’t bring himself to stop Gabriel and tell him to just get a Butterbeer.
‘See?’ said Tanith, grinning when she realised. ‘You can relax. We’re away from the risks.’
‘Realistically, it takes one teacher coming to the party and spotting us and we’ll be in a world of trouble. I’m not going to assume we’re home-free yet.’
‘Right little ray of sunshine, isn’t he?’ Cal sighed.
‘Unwind, Grey.’ She swatted him on the arm. ‘I wouldn’t even think about doing this if it weren’t for Umbridge, but if we spent another night stuck inside the castle I was going to go mental.’
‘Yeah,’ said Cal. ‘Don’t tell Gabe I said this, but less of Dumbledore isn’t a good thing. Everyone’s on edge. No wonder hardly anyone’s stayed for the Christmas holidays.’
‘This is definitely an improvement on home,’ said Tanith.
‘You used to get on with your parents.’ Tobias glanced at her. ‘What happened?’
‘I blame you two,’ she said with a wry curl of the lips. ‘Making me do all that independent thinking.’
He grimaced. ‘I’m only a little sorry.’
‘Don’t be.’ She waved a hand. ‘Just, why do you think I’ve found somewhere else to be the last few summers?’
Cal leaned in. ‘Speaking of, you guys want to come to mine for a bit in August? Will won’t mind. We won’t be bothering him. We can check the pubs, and do a spot of hiking, it’ll be great.’
‘Sounds good,’ said Tobias. ‘Mum keeps getting contracts in France, and - well, I don’t want her to have to stick around on my account. It’s good money. She likes it.’
Gabriel returned, bearing a small tray. ‘Stop looking months ahead! We’re here to party! Right now!’ he declared, and started dishing out drinks. They each had a sturdy tankard of something he’d made a judicious guess on them liking - Tobias peered into an ale, while he could smell something more fruity in front of Tanith - and then shot glasses. They were red. And on fire. Tobias’ was a double.
‘What the hell is this?’
‘El Cuetlaxochitl, which is a really long name for a shot. But it’s Mexican. And festive. And on fire,’ said Gabriel with a manic glint in his eye.
‘I can see it’s on fire; why’s mine bigger?’
‘Because you,’ said Gabriel, plopping down and grabbing his shot glass, ‘need to relax twice as much as everyone else. Bottoms up!’
He, Cal and Tanith downed theirs without hesitation. Tobias faltered for a heartbeat, knew he’d never get over the ribbing if he balked, and poured the drink down his throat. The flames weren’t real, just a magical part of the illusion, but warmth still rushed through him from head to toe the moment the liquid touched his tongue. Then it raced down with upsetting ease, and he had to gasp as it hit his gut with a fizz. ‘Jesus Christ!’
Gabriel and Tanith laughed, but Cal was thudding his chest, steam billowing out of his nose, and that made all of them laugh harder.
‘It went down wrong!’ Cal croaked once he could talk. ‘Fucking hell, I think my nostrils are burning.’
‘Come on, Cal, you can’t be out-done by Grey.’ Tanith elbowed him in the ribs. ‘Not at drinking. I thought you had the constitution of an ox?’
‘I’m not fire-proof!’
Tobias grinned as he tilted his tankard to his friend. ‘I’m happy for round two when you are.’ A drinking competition with Cal Brynmor was destined to end with him sleeping in the bathroom, head in a toilet, if he was lucky. But Hogsmeade Festival was as intoxicating as the drinks, and he couldn’t help himself.
‘When I’ve finished this,’ said Cal, hefting his own tankard, ‘you’re on.’
‘Tobias Grey gets into a drinking competition while still technically under Hogwarts’ care,’ sighed Gabriel. ‘Hell hath frozen over.’
Tanith laughed, then saw something down the street over their shoulders, and her laugh died. ‘I’d agree with you,’ she said, as everyone’s hearts lunged into their throats with the fear of an oncoming teacher, ‘but I see a different sign of the apocalypse.’
Cal twisted in his chair, then gave a bark of laughter and lifted his tankard. ‘What’s this? Jennifer Riley breaking the rules? Bad future Head Girl! Very bad!’ he crowed at the pack of Hogwarts students who’d clearly had the same idea as them.
‘I’d say the same about Grey!’ Nick Wilson called back, and the mob of five newcomers stopped at the Slytherins’ table. There was a long, taut silence as they eyeballed each other. It had been years since anyone had crossed wands or fists, but a cease fire didn’t mean a peace treaty, and Slytherins were not the best-liked House by the rest of the school under Umbridge’s command.
It helped that they weren’t Pucey, or Montague, or Bletchley. But Gabe and Tanith often gave as good as they got, by habit if nothing else by now, and so Tobias was astonished when she was the one to get to her feet first and stick a hand out. ‘We’re going to need more seats,’ she said, and waved her wand to bring another freshly-conjured table sweeping across the cobbles to join them.
Tobias watched as her gaze met Wilson’s. Her expression, of course, was impassive. His was more surprised and uncertain, but then he shrugged, sat down, and like that the spell was broken for all of them. ‘Nice one,’ he declared. ‘So what drove you reprobates to rule-breaking?’
‘Like we haven’t done it before,’ scoffed Cal. ‘Riley must have told you it’s dead and creepy in Hogwarts right now.’
‘I did,’ said Jen Riley, pulling up a stool next to Wilson. ‘And then he suggested I break out and meet him here. Because he’s mad.’
They all laughed, and Tobias hid his expression behind a gulp of ale as he saw the soppy looks exchanged between Riley and Wilson. He set down his tankard. ‘So let me sleuth a moment. Wilson had the idea for you to break out, Jen. Jen, you grabbed poor Aurora here and saved her from a life of riddles and books in dreary Ravenclaw Tower.’ He nodded to Aurora Jameson, not normally one of Jen Riley’s close friends, but they were the only other sixth years in Hogwarts over Christmas, and when one didn’t want to hang out with Slytherins, it made for a natural alliance.
‘Then I recruited Mac, and George here was good enough to give them a lift.’ Wilson gestured to Annie MacKenzie, Riley’s best friend, and gave George Summerby, Hufflepuff Seeker, a clap on the back. Summerby didn’t look thrilled by this. He wasn’t part of their usual social circle either, and Tobias had the sneaking suspicion he’d been conscripted as one of the few members of their year who’d already got his Apparition license.
‘I’ll get drinks,’ said Summerby with a sigh.
‘It’s packed, you might be waiting,’ Gabriel warned him. Then he fished out his coinpurse. ‘Get us another three ales and a Mystic Magpie, would you?’ There was a pause as all eyes turned on him at his casual, commanding tone. He grinned. ‘And, er, get everyone a round of that flaming red stuff. They’ll know what I mean. On me.’ Tobias rolled his eyes at the tactic of using money and booze to overcome a social faux pas, but it worked, Summerby heading off with a good-natured grumble, and then Annie MacKenzie was leaning across the table towards the four Slytherins.
‘So how long did you guys have this planned?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Cal grunted. ‘Maybe since Christmas? It was dire, so we thought we’d make a break for it.’
‘You were talking about the festival last month,’ Tanith said, and sipped her drink. ‘You said we should go some day.’
‘Yeah, but “some day” didn’t mean “this year”,’ Gabriel pointed out.
Tobias sighed and turned to MacKenzie. ‘In short, it was a last minute thing. I did try to discourage them, but they seem intent on getting all of us expelled.’
‘Not that that’d be much of a loss,’ said Annie dryly, ‘with Umbridge all but running the place.’
‘It’d get in the way of my plans.’
The other three Slytherins groaned theatrically. ‘Don’t encourage him, Mac,’ Cal sighed. ‘He’ll talk your ears off for the rest of the night about outrageous dreams of becoming an Ambassador of Magic, working in some embassy in some God-forsaken country, spreading the good British word.’
MacKenzie gave Tobias an appraising look. ‘Department of International Magical Cooperation? Sounds cool.’
Tanith leaned in. ‘Let’s not talk career. Or studies. We’re here to forget about school. It’s not that important anyway.’
‘Not that important, says Miss Auror Wannabe, who needs a bag of top NEWTs to even be looked at by the interview board,’ he pointed out.
George Summerby returned, setting the tray down. ‘You want to be an Auror? I thought only the best of the best make it.’
Tobias arched an eyebrow at him. ‘Then you’re just encouraging her. She is the best.’
Cal smacked his hands on the table. ‘Drinks!’ he declared, nodding to the array of shots. ‘Drink up, chin chin, Merry Christmas and may Umbridge be impaled on the wings of an angel.’
‘Christmas has been and gone,’ Wilson pointed out, reaching for glasses for him and Riley.
‘Then our dreams are shattered and we’d best drink.’
Riley sniffed the glass. ‘What the hell is this.’
‘It’s flaming,’ said Gabriel, ‘and red. You drink it.’
She arched an eyebrow at him. ‘Really. I would never have imagined.’
‘Deduction skills like that, no wonder you’re a top student.’ Gabriel smirked an obnoxious smirk. People who knew him might tell he was teasing. Riley just looked put-out.
‘Bottoms up!’ Cal shouted to break the tension, and Tobias had to scramble for another glass, poured it down his throat without thinking. This time it tried to go up his nose, and he clutched his throat and chest, coughing and sputtering, smoke billowing from his mouth and nostrils.
He collapsed against the table, gasping and laughing at once, and could only give MacKenzie a grateful smile when she conjured a glass filled with water for him. Conjured water would dissipate from his stomach within minutes, providing no hydration, no nutrients, nothing of value. But it did wash down the Flaming Red (he wasn’t going to try to remember its actual name) and bring some cooling relief.
‘Thank you,’ he croaked.
‘This dancing,’ said Wilson, eyeing the square, ‘is sedate. We should show them how it’s done at Hogwarts.’
‘With stepping on toes and terrible dress robes?’ said MacKenzie, grinning. ‘Great demonstration, Nick.’
‘Let’s not wear a sign saying “Hogwarts Truants Right Here,”’ groaned Riley.
‘We’ll be fine,’ said Wilson, hopping to his feet and grabbing her hand, and she could barely protest before he’d whisked her off her seat and into the crowd of dancers.
Tobias rubbed his throat and glanced to Tanith next to him, his own memories of the Yule Ball rising and tasting far, far worse than any burning from the shots. He turned to MacKenzie instead. ‘Fancy joining them? I’m not a bad dancer, and I almost never step on toes.’
Tanith muttered, ‘How do the girls turn you down, Grey,’ but he ignored her as Annie MacKenzie grinned at him and stood.
‘Sounds good. Nick can’t dance worth a damn, so someone does have to show them how it’s done,’ she said, taking his outstretched hand, and followed him into the crowd.
Behind him he was aware of Summerby turning to Tanith, but before he could say a word, Cal had swept in and dragged her into the street, too. That came with a sense of relief, one not improved by Cal’s discreet, reassuring wink as they passed. Tobias gritted his teeth. He wasn’t supposed to be feeling like this.
He drew a deep breath and turned to Annie as the next song started up, and told himself that with a pretty girl agreeing to dance with him, he should absolutely not be thinking about anything or anyone else, especially not in the unrequited feelings department. ‘So, can you dance, or should I take it easy?’
‘Hey, just because I’m a Muggle-born doesn’t mean that I can’t keep up with that triple-fluted pipe thing. I took ballet lessons, I’ll have you know.’
‘Where they flit around to prissy music wearing tutus?’
She smirked. ‘Alright. You dance however you like, and I’ll show you just how prissy it is.’
So he did. His mother had insisted on dance lessons from a young age, back when she’d been under the impression they might mingle again with upper pureblooded society. They hadn’t, but the lessons had stuck. His was not a great natural talent, but he could hit the beat, hit the floor, and improvise beyond formal steps into this more folksy, fast-paced music. At least it was traditionally wizarding, even with a speedy Celtic lilt, and that was what he’d been taught.
And she could more than keep up.
‘So how’d you guys get down here?’ she asked once they’d found their tempo, not missing a step even as she talked. ‘Jen had to fake a prefect patrol with Aurora and sneak off halfway through.’
‘That was ballsy of her,’ Tobias had to concede. He didn’t know Riley had that streak of daring in her - but then, she was a Gryffindor. ‘We got a hidden passageway, down from out of the dungeons. I can’t tell you all the secrets, though; I need a certain amount of mystery.’
‘Ha, Slytherin ambiguity. You think it makes you all austere and superior just because nobody knows what goes on behind the doors to your common room.’
The music meant he had to step in a little closer, and he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial stage whisper. ‘The same thing that happens everywhere else, just with more smug preening.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I live with Nick and Cormac.’
He had to laugh. ‘They must be charming. I heard how they pelted you last year with dungbombs right before the Yule Ball,’ he said, and wondered why he was reminding the girl he was dancing with of a time she’d stunk of crap right before the biggest social event in their Hogwarts lives.
‘I’m amazed you even heard of it, you Slytherins being all isolated,’ she retorted, not missing a beat either way.
‘We’re being sociable tonight,’ he pointed out, and this time when the music made him step closer, he didn’t step back. It meant he had to move twice as fast, and so did she - but she tilted her head up to meet his gaze, and didn’t so much as blink at the challenge.
‘Tonight, sure. In general?’ She leaned into the next twirl, forcing him to hold her a little tighter. ‘You guys are the outsiders.’
‘Considering most of my housemates, I think that’s doing the rest of the school a kindness.’
Her smile faded for sympathy. ‘It can’t be easy to have those guys in your House. I mean, I know how the rest of the school paints you all. Nick’s only being nice because Jen told him to when we spotted your table. But you’re not like the rest.’
‘Not much of a compliment, considering Montague’s a right brute and Bletchley can be an utter wanker -’
‘I meant you, not the other three. Doyle can be a bastard. I know he’s your friend, and I’m sorry, but he can.’
Tobias wrinkled his nose. ‘I know. He’s better than he used to be, is all I can say.’
‘And Brynmor’s alright, but I’ve seen him stood with Montague and Pucey when they’re being arses. Friends with everyone, even if that “everyone” is a right piece of work.’ She shook her head as the song came to an end, and stepped away.
A part of him insisted he defend Cal, but the words didn’t come. ‘Cal’s like a brother to me. He’s a good friend. But it doesn’t blind me to his faults. And I have my own faults, I know; my ego’s not too big to blind me to that.’
‘A healthy ego’s sometimes a good thing.’
And maybe I should exercise it, Tobias thought. He glanced to the band, heard the first notes of the next song creep in, something altogether slower, softer, and met her gaze. ‘Shall we keep dancing?’
She paused, also taking in the music for a heartbeat. Then smiled. ‘Sounds good.’
He stepped in, dimly aware of the rest of their table returning for drinks and conversation and revelry, but then his arms were around her, her hands at his shoulders, and he had to give a nervous smile. ‘What about Tanith?’ he asked, and almost stumbled when he realised how that might sound. ‘I mean, what makes her not-so-different from the rest?’
She returned the smile, reassuring enough to dissipate some of his nerves. ‘You tell me,’ she said. ‘You say you can see their flaws.’
Tobias was abruptly aware this might be a test. He didn’t know if Annie knew enough to really test him, nor was he sure how to pass it, and so decided to do something very foolish: tell the truth. ‘She’s better than she was, like Gabriel, but she can be cruel. I know she thinks she’s being honest, and I don’t think she realises she’s doing it, but it’s there. And she falls into very “us versus them” mentalities, which don’t make things easier with… purebloods versus Muggle-borns, or Slytherins versus everyone else.’
Annie nodded. ‘You went to the Yule Ball with her,’ she said as they twirled. It wasn’t a question, and yet it really, blatantly was.
‘And it ended terribly,’ said Tobias, quick to reassure though he didn’t know why. ‘I mean, I thought we might become more than friends, but she made it clear it wasn’t going to happen. One good thing about her honesty is that she doesn’t leave you uncertain.’ He couldn’t help but grimace.
Her gaze remained sympathetic, but he could see her eyes searching his face, reading his every tone of voice, every flicker of expression. ‘That sucks,’ she said, ‘feeling like that about your best friend when she’s not interested.’
He met her gaze, and now he was worried about what she thought, the irritation at Summerby almost asking Tanith to dance easily forgotten. And why shouldn’t he forget it? ‘I’ve dealt with it. Just an infatuation,’ he said, grinning, and his voice went mock-serious, mock-haughty. ‘I’m a man in the wizarding world now, I think I’m entitled to dismiss my vague attractions of the past and move on.’
She returned his too-serious nod, playing along. ‘That sounds very sensible, Tobias Grey. What were you thinking of moving onto?’
‘Something better,’ he said, and he wasn’t sure why he was saying it, nor why he was saying it to her, but he did know why she was smiling at him like that. And then he was smiling, too, and the moment clicked with the right time, the right place, the right person.
He kissed her, and it wasn’t a fumbled mess like his attempted kiss of Tanith last year, because Annie clearly wanted it too, and kissed him back. And even though she was someone he’d known for six years but had only paid the slightest amount of attention to in Potions, and he didn’t know her much better after an evening of flirting and dancing, that didn’t matter, because they both knew it was just a kiss. And though a kiss could lead to possibly more kisses, and to an unknown territory beyond, right then it was just a kiss, neither of them caring that they were in the middle of a crowded street in Hogsmeade - because on New Year’s Eve, what was one more couple in each others’ arms under the stars?
‘Just as well Tobias has been paying more attention to his bloody Gryffindor than anything else.’ Tanith emptied the last of a bottle of Firewhiskey into her glass and slammed it back in one go. She felt fuzzy, and really not drunk enough, despite all efforts. Cal and Gabe had happily helped her with the bottle; the moment Tobias had begun snogging MacKenzie without a care for the rest of the world, the two of them had miraculously manifested the bottle. ‘Or this wouldn’t have been close to enough for four us.’
Sure, she’d finished the last quarter by herself. But it was one in the morning, she was tipsy, she was tired, and she was sick of the revelry everyone else was enjoying. Gabriel and Cal had gone into one of their buddy-buddy moods, much more physical in their interactions, and Tanith didn’t want to intrude in case one of Cal’s ‘friendly’ punches knocked her off her stool. Summerby had given up on her as a lost cause, chatting with Aurora Jameson.
Then there were the couples. Nauseating, the lot of them, and Tanith didn’t want to look over at where Tobias and MacKenzie kept flirting like they hadn’t spent half the night lip-locked, or where Riley was by now entangled on Wilson’s lap like nobody else was there. Not that she cared, normally. But tonight was not normal, and she was pissed off.
She stood, grabbing Cal by the shoulder as she did so. ‘I think we should head back,’ she slurred. ‘It’ll be stupidly suspicious if we stagger into the Great Hall at six in the morning, sleepless and drunk.’
There was some grumbling, but Gabriel got up too, after a heartbeat of catching on. ‘Yeah, and Snape will kick us out of bed if we try to lie-in too long.’
Tobias stared at the three of them. ‘You had to drag me out tonight, and now you’re the ones trying to turn in this early?’
‘Yeah, well, I’m done, you can do whatever,’ Tanith snapped. And he just grinned at her.
‘Alright. It is a bit late, and I’d rather not have a mad Snape after me.’ He turned to MacKenzie, who was still grinning in that knowing way which made Tanith want to hex her. He supposed Tobias would have never gone for some blank blonde bimbo, but there was something too aware about her gaze. It made Tanith suspect she was doing a lot of this to annoy others. Her in particular.
‘Riley and Jameson can find their own way back,’ Tanith said loudly, and dragged off Cal, whom she had to lean on to walk in a reliably straight line. Gabriel followed as they headed down the main road, and that was all the farewell she was prepared to give. She certainly didn’t look back. She didn’t want to see the inevitable goodbye snog.
When he caught up with them, after a good while, they were just exiting the village, heading for the hill where their passageway lurked. The foursome found themselves slipping into their usual routine, and although Tanith wanted Cal’s comforting presence, she still found herself by habit walking unsteadily next to Tobias as Cal and Gabe meandered on ahead.
‘Well. Did you have fun?’ She forced levity into her voice, which she considered a victory while she was trying to not trip over her own two feet.
‘I did. Remind me to not question you when you tell me to unwind,’ he said, grinning a grin she hadn’t seen from him before. It was soft, happy, untroubled; three words she didn’t usually associate with him.
‘I’m always right,’ she mumbled, and wished she were wrong. She glanced up. ‘So. MacKenzie. A Gryffindor.’
His smile broadened. ‘It’s not how it seems,’ he said, the grin lying. ‘We talked and decided that, well, tonight was nice. But it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be spending Valentine’s Hogsmeade together or anything. We had a good time. That’s all, for now.’
‘Tobias Grey has a one-off fling. Never thought I’d see the day.’ She tossed her hair over her shoulder like it was a practised gesture. ‘Just as well. You know I’d go nuts if you ever paired off with a Gryffindor.’
‘It’s not like there are many options in Slytherin,’ he pointed out, and their feet crunched on icy grass in the silence that followed. ‘Look, there are other reasons I’m feeling good. I’ve had a weight lifted off my mind.’
‘Wha-?’ Tanith stumbled on a rock, and his hand shot out automatically to steady her. He gave her a wry smile, and for the first time in a year there was no awkwardness there.
‘You,’ he said, not yet letting go. ‘Despite what I said last year, I hadn’t quite… I’d accepted that you didn’t feel the same way about me. I wasn’t over it. It still bugged me. I just tried to ignore it.’
‘I know,’ she said, voice dropping. ‘I’m not blind.’
‘I think, if nothing else, tonight cured me of that. Pointed out it was just a, an infatuation. You’re my friend, Tanith, and that means a thousand times more to me than you being my girlfriend would.’
They had reached the bottom of the hill, and ahead Gabriel and Cal were disappearing into the darkness of the passage back to Hogwarts. Tanith stopped, and he did, too, blinking at her as she turned. ‘You’re a good friend, Tobias,’ she said, and kissed him on the cheek. He gave his stupid grin, pleased she was pleased, and that wouldn’t do at all, for reasons other than the twist in her gut. So she continued. ‘But if you ever go out with a Gryffindor, I will kill you.’
He laughed and threw his arm around her shoulder, a move to shepherd her to the passageway as much as it was a gesture of affection. ‘That’s the Tanith I know and love, right there. Don’t change. I need you to keep me grounded.’
‘And I’m just glad,’ lied Tanith, ‘that you’re happy.’
A/N: Structurally, this chapter is identical, but I threw out almost all of the prose for brand-new content and new dialogue. I also ditched a conversation in the passageway where the gang talked about Lupin and Tobias was quite anti-werewolf. I know what I was getting at at the time, but in hindsight it seems incongruous, and no story was made of him changing his mind. Instead, there’s a more pertinent discussion of Umbridge vs Dumbledore.
The only other thing changed is the presence of the Team Not Slytherin coming to the festival. I’m already stretching credulity that my Foursome would be at Hogwarts over Xmas for the second year in a row (why didn’t I write this with them meeting up over the holidays? I must have had a reason but this did not get changed); that five other sixth years would also be in Hogwarts was unlikely. So I trimmed that down to Jen Riley and Jameson, and had the others visiting them, which seems more likely.
I also have a problem with inventing magic booze. I enjoy it too much.